SHADOWS OVER LORNWATER
First Durinma of Juvous
At about the same time that Dep’s men returned to report that only one person on their list couldn’t be located, a man of letters called Pro-dem Hom, a message arrived from his chief, Prime Watchman Zen-il. A man identified as Pro-dem Hom had been found drowned in a vat of red ink in the dye processing factory in sector five in the Second City.
Prime Watchman Zen-il met him at the factory. He was tall, thick-set with piercing slate-grey eyes and wrinkled features. His uniform was the usual plaid, tight-fitting; he wore knee-high black leather boots.
The dead man was unclothed and had been deprived of one eye and his tongue; which were clutched in the right and left fists respectively. ‘S1’ had been burned into his forehead.
Staff who found the wordsmith had recognised him as Pro-dem Hom immediately since he often visited for writing supplies.
“Welde, I want this murderer caught soon,” said Zen-il, his voice grating. He gazed at the morticians who removed the corpse, splashing the floor in ink, making crazy patterns.
“As do I, sir.” He bagged the eye and tongue in a separate leather pouch, tied it to his belt, alongside the other evidence bag. “It’s not going to be easy, though.”
“Your cases are not meant to be easy, Welde. That’s why they’re special investigations.”
“Indeed, sir.” Dep shook his head. “Nobody saw anything. The place was full of shadows, according to the night-watchman when he found the body floating face-down.”
“Chasing shadows is not within our remit. Give me a flesh-and-blood killer. Soon. Before he strikes again!”
“Or she, sir?”
Zen-il growled, spun on his heel and stomped away, flinging over his shoulder, “Yes, ‘or she’!”
She didn’t appear too distressed at being made a new widow, Dep mused, sitting opposite Pro-dem Zimera. Maybe it was her upbringing, a reluctance to show emotion to strangers, especially if on official business? Good breeding, perhaps; she was the daughter of Xarop, one of the oldest nobles in the city. Her upturned nose twitched; maybe she’d caught a whiff of the contents of the evidence bags at his belt?
Wealthy just didn’t describe Zimera and her family. They lived here in the Doltra Complex, which was perched upon huge stone-block pylons and, on his approach, he felt it looked obscenely bright and clean in comparison to the dark and sullied earth surrounds beneath it. Nobody walked near the foundations, where lay the caved-in remains of an older city, which had collapsed in 1823; city and King Kculicide had perished, falling into flooded mines and into the dread hands of the Underpeople.
“I’m sorry to ask you at a time like this,” Dep said, his tone soft, caring, “but have you any idea where your husband might have been last night?”
Her grey-green eyes flickered away from his face, but only for a moment and then she returned his gaze steadily. “He frequented the Red Tellar…” Her hands fidgeted in her lap. She was withholding some information, he felt sure.
Zimera nodded. “I know that was his favourite place. He was a close friend of the innman, Ulran, I believe.”
“I find it strange that Pro-dem Hom was a target for assassination,” Ulran said, running a hand over his short black hair. The innman was tall and commanding, even in the simple attire of a green silk shirt and loose-fitting cotton trousers. He stood at the window of his tenth storey office, gazing down at the inn’s roof-gardens.
Established some 570 years ago on the occasion of the First Festival of Brilansor, the Red Tellar Inn was situated in Marron Square in the Three Cities that comprised Lornwater. The renowned Red Tellar was the only inn in all Floreskand equipped with duelling rooms. Its ten-storey height alone would draw attention, only overshadowed in Lornwater by the two minars and the Eyrie above the Old City’s palace. There were many specialised chambers, among them music and shrine rooms, hotel rooms, staff residences, private duelling rooms, the beer-hall and the Long Gymnasium.
Ulran turned, faced Dep. “He was a man of words, and posed no threat to anybody.”
“Pro-dem Hom was rich and had the ear of the king,” Dep replied from his chair. “A powerful man, by all accounts.”
“True.” Ulran’s brown eyes narrowed. “And powerful men have enemies.”
Dep nodded. “Just so. Why did he come to your inn?”
“For the amenities it offers. He particularly liked visiting the storyteller rooms. He would write down their tales.”
“I suspect he wrote down other things. Would he be privy to improprieties here?”
“Hidden knowledge can be powerful, I admit. It’s possible he saw someone or something that might adversely affect a reputation, if you concern yourself with such matters.”
“But you have a reputation that goes before you, Ulran,” Dep countered.
“It is nothing that I foster or invite. It is the nature of a gossip-hungry public that they settle on certain individuals. I’m one of those individuals.” He shrugged. “It means nothing. Celebrity is base coin.”
“Do you know if Pro-dem Hom was working on a speech for the king?”
Ulran laughed. “He would need to write a fine speech for any of the king’s words to be praised, I assure you.” His face clouded, serious. “I do not talk sedition, it is just an observation. Our king is not widely liked by his subjects.”
Dep sucked in through his teeth. “Have you any idea why Pro-dem Hom was in the House of Velvet?”
Ulran arched an eyebrow. “It’s a pleasure house. I imagine he was seeking pleasure where he could find it, as it was no secret that his wife hadn’t provided him with any for several years…”
That would explain her lack of bereavement. “It’s puzzling. He went missing from the House of Velvet and turned up dead at the dye factory,” Dep mused. “The room assigned to him was where we found the dead assassin. If Pro-dem Hom eluded his female assassin, why didn’t he call out the watchman?”
“Yes, it is a mystery. Have you a name for the assassin yet?”
Dep shook his head. “Their gildmaster is my next call.”
“Strange, isn’t it?”
“What?” Dep asked.
“The assassin’s gild is illegal, yet it is allowed to flourish.”
Dep shrugged. “I’ve had a similar discussion with the Prime Watchman more than once. We consider that they will exist whether we proscribe them or not. Perhaps having a gild permits some kind of oversight.”
“Perhaps. The killer of the assassin might have taken Pro-dem Hom, kidnapped him?”
“It’s a slim possibility, innman. Surely they would have been seen by somebody. Yet none of those interviewed so far know anything.”
Ulran pursed his thick lips, frowned. “Drowning in ink suggests something premeditated and vicious. Despite the presence of the dead assassin, it seems that Pro-dem Hom was singled out for an unusual death. The colour of the ink might be significant too.”
Dep jotted down a note about checking on the colour red in magical rituals.
Ulran stroked his chin. “He was a good man with words, and I liked him. I’ll make my own enquiries, I think.”
“Have a care, Ulran, don’t tread on my toes.”
“I will tread so lightly you won’t know where I’ve been,” Ulran said.
Shifting ’tween supernal myth and every day,
They enjoy fearful images wondrously born.
And they thrive on these myriad feelings torn
By the dark deceit that suborns what is true.
Their world is unlike ours in every way.
It’s spectral in aspect, where dusk’s forever worn,
Always at the mercy of effulgent light shone,
Be they god-hewn or man-made in effulgent hue.
- A Life of Their Own, from The Collected Works of Nasalmn Feider (1216-1257)
First Sapin of Juvous
“Yes, this ring belonged to Aba-pet Fara,” explained Gildmaster Jentore, turning the pages of a thick tome. “Now, we have only six female assassins on our books.” His tone seemed to suggest that the woman’s death was an inconvenience to the gild bookkeeping, rather than a human tragedy. He stopped, pointed to an open page and an illustration. “See, these small chevrons intertwined with berries. The fruit stalks twine from the left, indicating the wearer is female.” He held the ring against the drawing; the images matched.
“Good,” Dep said. “At least we now have a name for the victim. Was she on gild business?”
“Yes.” Jentore indicated a column of dates and amounts of money below the illustration. “She registered two days ago, see... Of course, an assassin does not record who the target is, solely that there has been a commission, and the fee obtained, so that a percentage can be contributed to the gild’s coffers.”
Dep nodded, quite aware of the process and not a little irritated by the gildmaster’s manner. It was not unusual, he knew. Most gildmasters felt they were above the king’s law. The best of them was old Fascar Dak, gildmaster of precious metals and the city’s Great Gildmaster; he was always gracious and honest in his dealings with the watchmen. More than could be said of Olelsang, the gildmaster of saddle-makers, who oozed corruption from every pore yet possessed an indefinable aura that drew allegiance to him like flies to manure. “Do you think Aba-pet was intent on a target when she went to the House of Velvet?”
“I would hope so. I mean, it would be demeaning for her to be there, otherwise. You know, I’m quite shocked to hear she was found there. Naked, you say?”
“Yes, Gildmaster. The mutilation goes beyond anything I’ve encountered.”
Gildmaster Jentore shook his head, and his long white hair whispered over his narrow shoulders. “I wish I could help, Watchman. I agree with you, the signs are not good. It is of dark significance. You have little choice, I fear. You must consult Nostor Vata.” As he spoke the witch’s name his mouth twisted as if in distaste. Witches had no gild; they were above all that: the gods endowed them with their arcane powers.
“Thank you for your time, Gildmaster.”
“I suppose you will have to report how Aba-pet Fara was found?”
“Yes, of course, I must.”
“I would hope you would have no need to besmirch the gild. Perhaps you could mention that she was fully clothed?”
“I don’t think so, Gildmaster Jentore. The facts are the facts and we cannot condone tampering with them.”
“No, of course not, I understand…”
“Believe me, the manner of her death and the whereabouts will be old news and soon forgotten. Your gild’s reputation won’t be sullied.”
“I trust not, Watchman Welde.”
Zen-il reported to the king about Pro-dem Hom’s assassination and stood patiently awaiting a response. Queen Jikkos sat on the adjacent throne, her gimlet sky-blue eyes glaring into his while she twirled a be-ringed finger round her long braids of blonde hair.
A nevus on Saurosen‘s left cheek, in the vague shape of a spider, grew inflamed. His almond-shaped eyes grew moist. “A dear friend and a wonderful speechwriter. He often knew what I wanted to say before I did.” His voice was more rasping than usual. He was tall, thin, and wiry with narrow stooped shoulders. He gestured dismissal with manicured hands. “Excuse us, Prime Watchman, so that we may mourn his tragic loss.”
“Sire, before I leave, I must point out that his killer is still at large.”
The king fingered a small tuft of brown hair under his lower lip. “I understand that. So what are you not telling me?”
“It is believed that your speechwriter’s death was invoked by magic. The assassin has killed twice already…”
King Saurosen’s reddish-brown complexion paled as he croaked, “Twice? I thought…”
“The other death need not concern you, sire. Save that it was caused by the same baleful hand.”
Saurosen turned to his queen.
Her alabaster features betrayed no emotion.
“Dearest,” he said, “I fear… I fear we need to take action, don’t you?”
She leaned toward him, the low neckline of her silver dress displaying a snow-white bosom separated by a gold necklace. “I agree, my dear.” Her voice was sensuous; her rosebud mouth curved. “Whatever keeps you safe.”
“Yes. Safe.” Saurosen stepped down and paced in front of the thrones, his gold sandals slapping. Then, abruptly he glanced at Zen-il. “I have it!”
“I will issue an edict. We must cancel the Kcarran carnival…”
“Excellent, my dear!” exclaimed his queen, clapping her hands, the rings on every finger clinking loudly.
He continued to tread to and fro, excited by his idea. “Yes, you must curtail free passage of strangers into the Three Cities – at least until the assassin is found…”
“But, sire, the carnival celebrates the crowning of Lornwater’s first king, Kcarran.
The people have enjoyed their carnival for 1062 years…”
“You are so precise that it is tedious, Prime Watchman Zen-il!” Saurosen railed. “It is precisely because they love their carnival that I will outlaw it! If they wish to harbour an assassin, then they will suffer!”
to be continued...
Prequel to Wings of the Overlord, now available from Knox Robinson and Amazon and other outlets.