"I'm here investigating the murder of Glorianna Lester," said Captain Lachdanan.
Glorianna startled at the mention of her name and murder.
"Ah, Hector Heartbreaker Gorash," enthused Mr. Duke. "What a fine strappin' man he is." His accent made it sound a little like he had called Gorash a 'fawn-strappin man,' and Glorianna smiled. "Small wonder y'all sacrificed everything for him." That wiped the smile off her face.
"I see Captain Lachdanan is none the worse for wear after the little party favor I left in your corpse for him," noted Mr. Duke. "Ah well, we'll get him later."
Glorianna, immaterial and invisible, stood between Lachdanan and Gorash as they dueled and studied her former lover's face. Even his keen Ranger senses could not perceive her. His brown eyes had seemed bottomless, framed by the tiny crow's feet left there prematurely by the wind and sun. Then there was that annoying bushy mustache. How it had tickled. She had actually talked him into shaving it off, and then realized she missed it almost immediately. A sudden impulse to kiss him seized her. She pressed her face forward and slid though him as if he was nothing more than a cold water phantom.
Mr. Duke shook his head. "The time for that's long gone, sugar. Not to say that he couldn't have given y'all more when he had the chance."
"Do you have any suspects?" asked Gorash from very close on Lachdanan's flank. The Paladin whirled in time to block a shot with his shield.
"Yes," replied Lachdanan. "Farmer Lester, the two dancers she disappeared with after Caravan." The paused. "And you."
"Me?" Gorash used one of his medium-level Ranger skills and a cloud of blinding, choking yellow pollen surrounded the Paladin.
"Hector?" echoed Glorianna.
"Personally," gasped Lachdanan, "I know you didn't do it. But you all but threatened to kill her in front of a tavern full of people during Caravan. Plus, your affair with her was the talk of Tristram a few months back. I'd be lax in my duties if I didn't at least come talk to you."
"This is going to keep coming back and haunting me for the rest of my Zak-damned life," complained the Ranger. "What can I tell you that didn't already come out during the hearing?"
Mr. Duke applauded wildly and laughed, delighted by the minor blasphemy. Glorianna shot him an impatient look.
Deeply offended by Gorash's unwarranted language, Lachdanan recalled the case against Sir Gorash. "Late last winter, you rode out to the Lester farm in response to reports that bandits had been seen in the area. Farmer Lester was away in Lut Gholein on business, and you were met by the young and pretty Mrs. Glorianna Lester."
Gorash grimaced. "Except she didn't tell me she was his wife. She claimed to be his niece."
"And you told me it didn't matter!" interjected Glorianna.
"Deep down, you knew that not to be true. There are people in Tristram who thank Zakarum daily that Farmer Lester was an only child, so you knew he could not have had a niece. Likewise, it was common knowledge that Farmer Lester had taken a young bride in recent years." Lachdanan scored a touch. He continued: "Nonetheless, over the subsequent weeks and into the spring, you visited the Lester farm often. During that time, intimacies were exchanged..."
"Among other things, I'm sure," interjected Mr. Duke.
"...Inevitably, Farmer Lester returned, discovered the affair and promptly sued you for adultery," finished Lachdanan.
Gorash vanished in a rustling of leaves and shadows and renewed his assault from Lachdanan's flank. Thanks to the Paladin's Aura of Thorns, however, Gorash received the worst of his own offensive.
"It was your position during the hearing that Mrs. Lester deceived and seduced you," continued Lachdanan.
"She did!" insisted Gorash.
"Liar!" cried Glorianna. "If anyone was seduced, it was me! They don't call him 'Lock Up Your Daughters' Gorash for nothing!"
"Sadly for you, the judge did not find that a credible defense. Glorianna claimed that you took advantage of her youth and innocence," Lachdanan went on.
"That mad wench is about as innocent as a grinning succubus," snarled Gorash, dodging under Lachdanan's sword.
"You lying, sleazy son-of-a-troll!" gasped Glorianna. She mimicked him and strutted around him in an exaggerated swagger. "'I'm a big jacking Ranger. Gonna teach you the Fleshdance, girl.' You knew a lot more about Fleshdancing than I ever did!"
Mr. Duke applauded again.
"...ruled that you had 'engaged in activities, free from coercion by either party, that you found mutually acceptable at the times in question,'" concluded Lachdanan. He sidestepped to avoid one of the Ranger's increasingly clumsy attacks. "Throughout all this, Farmer Lester played the role of the wounded party, claiming anguish and financial damages due to the resulting loss of productivity of himself, Glorianna, his farmhands, and, incredibly, his cows."
And then there was Lester again. As bad as things had gone with Hector, Lester was always there to make it that much worse. Playing the victim in public and then beating her in private. Hector had to have known, but he never said a thing; never lifted a finger in her defense.
"The rest of the story," finished Lachdanan, "is a matter of public record."
Gorash sighed. "The judge found in favor of Farmer Lester and put a lien on my earnings, including spoils of adventuring, for the next five years. I also lost the rank of Captain, although my experience and other qualifications still permit me to remain as commander of the Khanduran Rangers."
"Some protector," commented Mr. Duke. "Ah well, at least he protected himself. Guess that's the most important part. He still commands the Rangers and that set of cracked ribs Lester gave you healed soon enough, didn't they, sugar? Bet y'all can still taste the blood in your mouth. He hit pretty hard for such an old man."
"The last time you saw Glorianna was when she confronted you in the Tavern of the Rising Sun during Caravan," said Lachdanan. "What was going through your mind during that encounter?"
"She was the last person in the world that I wanted to see. I wanted to be left alone."
Glorianna listened carefully. Death had brought clarity to many issues haunting her, but much of the time between that evening and her murder remained a blur.
"What did she want from you?"
"Honestly?" replied the Ranger. "I have no idea. She'd been drinking. She made several suggestions."
Mr. Duke giggled. "I remember what y'all suggested."
"Shut up," snapped Glorianna.
The Duke of Hatred merely smiled and nodded tolerantly.
"Is it true you reached for your sword?"
"I did not, at any time, touch my sword or any other weapon," said Gorash in an even voice.
"Did you consider it?"
"Drawing my sword and hacking an unarmed woman to pieces in front of three dozen witnesses?" asked Gorash. "Don't be ridiculous."
"And if there hadn't been witnesses?"
"I am many things that you do not approve of, but I'm no murderer and you know it."
Lachdanan nodded and Glorianna did too. "Can we go now?" she asked Mr. Duke. "I don't see much point to staying..."
"Did you love her?" asked Lachdanan.
Glorianna froze, waiting for the answer.
Gorash actually stumbled. "I..."
"Well, did you?" Glorianna demanded.
Lachdanan scored a touch and another.
"Let me ask you this then," suggested Lachdanan. "Do you think she loved you?"
"I never asked."
"You shouldn't have had to ask!" ranted Glorianna. "What did I need to do? Hold up a sign? You didn't ask because you didn't care! All you wanted to do was Fleshdance!"
"I didn't ask if you asked," pressed the Paladin. "Do you think she loved you?"
"Does it matter now?" asked Gorash.
"Of course it matters!" snapped the Paladin. "Zakarum teaches us that Love Always Matters. Let me tell you what I saw during your hearing: I saw a man and a woman who could have come out of that mess a lot better than they did if they'd been willing to stand together instead of accusing each other..."
It suddenly occurred to Glorianna that she never had told Hector she loved him. Even when the judge had asked her point-blank during the hearing, she had side-stepped the issue. Instead, she had talked about the events that had led to the hearing and her feelings about being on the stand.
What she had really wanted was for him to declare his love for her. She had wanted him to stand up in front of the judge and Farmer Lester and vow that he'd protect her and always be with her. Maybe he'd even take her in his arms, fight his way past the bailiffs and ride off with her to some distant land.
"The judge," continued Lachdanan, "was a follower of the Lighted Path and, because Love Always Matters, he might not have weighed so heavily in Farmer Lester's favor if you or Glorianna had given any indication that Love was at stake. You'd probably still owe a lot of money, but you'd have your rank, and Glorianna would have had grounds to get out of her marriage contract to Farmer Lester. She might have been alive and with you today."
Gorash froze and slowly lowered his sword and shield.
Lachdanan regarded the Ranger thoughtfully. "Something to ponder over the nights to come." Then he said loudly enough for Tomas and Gorash's Rangers to hear: "You've dueled well, my friend. Today, I yield." He put down the wooden sword and bowed to the silent Sir Gorash.
Glorianna stood, staring into Hector Gorash's face. To someone not as familiar with his face as she was, his expression would have appeared blank. Glorianna knew better. The aura of self-assurance that surrounded him like a Paladin's Holy Aura was gone. Until now, while he might have had regrets, in his mind, her death had had nothing to do with him. But he had failed to protect her, not just once, but many times.
That night in the Tavern of the Rising Sun, she hadn't expected a declaration of his love, but one compassionate word or gesture might have kept her from running into the arms of those strange dancers. Maybe an "I'm sorry," or a "how can I help?" would have made the difference. Instead, he'd called her crazy and turned his back on her.
Despite that, even now, she felt an urge to reach out to him, to comfort him and tell him it hadn't been his fault he hadn't been able to read her mind.
"That's a load of what makes dandelions grow in a cow pasture," interjected Mr. Duke. He couldn't read her mind either, but he knew she'd been quiet long enough to be trying to excuse Gorash's actions. "If he had cared about anythin' besides Fleshdancin' and holdin' onto his command, he would have known. If he was standin' here lookin' into your face, he wouldn't be able to tell a tenth of what you can tell lookin' into his." With contempt in his voice he added, "I told you there was power in Hate, but wasted love is less than nothin'."
Glorianna looked over at Mr. Duke. He was as smooth and handsome as ever, down to the carnivorous gleam behind his eyes. He didn't care about her either, but then, she'd never expected him to.
E-mail: comments (at) theboojum.com