SHADOWS OVER LORNWATER
continued from yesterday...
King Saurosen’s witch, Nostor Vata was a contradiction in many ways, Welde Dep believed. For someone of fifty summers, she possessed the complexion of an adolescent, with piercing blue-grey eyes; perhaps her looks could be attributed to her inscrutable powers. She welcomed him graciously enough into her chamber, her tall shapely figure gliding over the patterned floor tiles on rope-soled sandals. Her long black hair draped over her shoulders; the left shoulder was bare, as was that breast, which appeared scarred. Her gown was a deep ochre colour, tied with a black leather belt at her waist. Gold armbands and bangles jangled at her wrists. “I am flattered that you should wish to consult with me, Watchman Welde.” Her voice was like surf sifting over sand.
He bowed slightly. She was a powerful woman in her own right, even if she hadn’t had the king as her patron. Her friends were rich and influential, not least the Nemond family. “In matters of the unknowable, Nostor Vata, you are matchless. I seek your guidance on a troubling matter.”
She gestured to a seat.
He sat and she lowered herself into a sofa opposite. “This would be the manner of Pro-dem Hom’s murder?”
“You are well informed,” he replied with a fleeting smile.
She didn’t return his smile but tapped her forehead – a narrow vertical crease above the bridge of her long straight nose. “The third eye has its uses.”
“I don’t suppose it has seen who the murderer is, by any chance?”
She smiled now. “A fine jest, Watchman. If my power were that great, you can be assured I would have informed you at once.”
“Can you explain the meaning of this, please? A female assassin was found with her face cut off and her right eye in her left hand, her nose in her right hand. I believe it’s ritual magic of some kind.”
She leaned forward. “Intriguing. But what has this to do with my king’s speechwriter?”
“Pro-dem Hom’s left eye was put in his right hand, and his tongue in his left.”
“Balance in all things,” she mused, fingering a curved knife at her belt. “You’re not familiar with our manderon magic, are you?”
“How did you know?”
“You hark from Tarakanda, originally, I believe, though few know this.”
Dep shifted in his seat. “I would rather maintain that secret.”
“It will not go beyond these walls, Watchman.” She withdrew her knife, flicked the blade at her bare breast. It was only a small nick in the flesh and drew blood; small droplets fell onto the marble tile at her feet. The blood spots spattered slightly. She sheathed the knife and her right hand absently dabbed at the little cut while she studied the bloody pattern. “I see,” she whispered, licking her lips. “Yes, this is troublesome.”
“In what way?”
“The transposition of those organs in this manner is part of a forbidden ritual. This ritual can conjure up a melog…”
“But that’s pure myth, surely?”
“So some say. I am not aware of anyone who has been successful with this ritual. Often, it just results in several dead bodies and displaced organs – a messy business…”
Dep shuddered. “Thank you, Nostor Vata.”
At that moment, King Saurosen entered. “Vata, I was not aware you had company.” His deep almond coloured eyes glanced at the blood spatter. “Who are you to consult with my muse?” he demanded of Dep. His eyes narrowed and he gazed with suspicion at his witch.
Rising to his feet, Dep bowed. “I am Watchman Welde Dep, working for…”
“Zen-il, yes, of course! What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be in the city tracking down the assassin? Even now, my assassination could be plotted already!”
“There are special factors that…”
“Never mind, man. Be gone!”
Bowing again, Dep made for the door. “Thank you, Nostor Vata!” he called and left. Before Dep moved away from the door, he heard the king remonstrate, “I’m disappointed in you, Vata. Can’t I trust anyone now?”
Ulran left his inn and walked the streets of the city, moving from the House of Velvet to the dye factory, asking questions of the people along the way. He knocked on doors of houses that overlooked the roadways and alleys and slowly he constructed an image. A most unusual picture emerged.
Pro-dem Hom was a well-known figure in the area. Many had glimpsed him walking rather awkwardly. Some felt he was deep in his cups. Others wondered if he were ill. Almost everybody who saw the writer felt confused because his entire body seemed bathed in a freakish gray miasma. There was no other description. A grey mist enveloped Pro-dem Hom as he walked.
The dye factory was locked, the night-watchman vowed. He could not explain how Pro-dem Hom and his murderer could enter and drown him. “I did my rounds as usual and he certainly wasn’t in the ink vat when I left; when I returned, there he was. Such a shock, I can tell you…”
Ulran then checked the home of the murdered assassin, Aba-pet Fara. She lived alone, over a leather-goods shop. The smell of leather permeated everywhere. It was evident that Watchmen had searched the place, but it had been cursory. He soon found a secret cache under the floorboards beneath a sideboard. The hiding place contained money and a parchment notebook with figures and names scrawled, detailing her contacts, contracts and her fees. Some fees were clearly freelance, as she didn’t deduct gild dues, while others showed a proportion allocated to the gild. One name in the book leapt out at him and he smiled. Welde Dep would be pleased. Though, in fact, what charges could he muster? Since Aba-pet Fara did not assassinate Pro-dem Hom as planned.
First Sapinma of Juvous
Illasa completed her scrying and sat back, exhausted. She was concerned. The innman Ulran was nosing around, getting close. Ulran has too much influence among the common folk and would do all he could to prevent an uprising, and it was the defeat of Saurosen she craved. If she could get the king’s first cousin, Nemond Thand on the throne, she would wield the power, since dear Thand was susceptible to maladies of the mind. For the next two orms she waited impatiently. Finally, in answer to her secret summons, there was a knock on her door. She let Badol Melomar in, ensuring that nobody in the street had seen him.
“I trust this visit will be worth my while, witch,” he said, his voice thick and throaty. He was an unprepossessing specimen of manhood, with a face covered in pustules, rheumy eyes of tarnished coin and moist thick lips seemingly always turned up in a scowl.
“Oh, it is, Badol.” He was head and innman of the powerful Open House Combine and he’d had a running vendetta with the Red Tellar for an age. “I wish to finance an assassination. It would be to your benefit.”
“Go on. I’m listening.”
“Offer a hefty purse for the life of Ulran. I will pay.”
He stroked his forked beard that was reminiscent of a swallowtail and grinned, exposing a saw-toothed mouth. “I like it. But why?”
“You don’t need to know my reasons. Of course my involvement will remain secret.” She described an incantation in the air with her sharp fingernails. “Or you will regret being born.”
Badol hunched his burly body. “It will be arranged.” He held out his hand.
She dropped a pouch of coin into his palm. “You will receive half again when the deed is done.” She opened the door for him and he left.
She had been tempted to use her melog, but no, the conjuration was already complete, the runes cast, the names given, so the assassin would not directly kill anyone else – unless they got in his way, such as the unfortunate Aba-pet Fara. And she doubted if she could repeat the incantation successfully. It had taken much from her life source to accomplish. Anyway, Badol did not need to know about the shadow assassin, for conjuring a melog was blasphemous, and she doubted if the conniving man’s scruples could be entirely trusted.
Second Sabin of Juvous
Prime Watchman Zen-il paced in front of Dep. The exotic floor covering showed wear, as if his chief made a habit of pacing up and down. This was only the fourth time he’d been in his chief’s office housed here with the Royal Council in sector one of the Old City.
“Welde, I have been apprised of a rumour”
“Where from, sir?”
Zen-il pursed his lips then shrugged. “I was visiting – in an official capacity, I might add - the House of Velvet.”
“But I questioned all of them. They told me nothing.”
“Yes, but this is new – a fresh rumour.”
“You’re at pains to point out it’s only a rumour, sir.”
“Many of our watchmen rely on whispers for leads, Welde. You know that.”
“True, sir. So… What is this whisper you heard?”
“There’s a new assassin’s target. It’s supposed to be Ulran of the Red Tellar.”
The innman. “Really? Whispers, you say? Usually, it’s merely pillow-talk.”
“Have a care, Welde…”
“Just an observation from experience, sir.”
“I thought you should be aware of this… information.”
“But, sir, my job is to follow facts, not whispers…”
Zen-il nodded. “I know,” he responded with a grin. “Who’d be foolish enough to go up against the innman of the Red Tellar, eh?”
Ulran’s son, Ranell, betrayed concern in his brown eyes. He ran a hand through his dark wavy hair. “Begetter, there suddenly appear to be too many assassins for comfort,” he said, his voice husky.
Ulran grinned. “It is only gossip.”
The innman was slightly taller than his son but, Dep noted, they were both slim and powerfully muscled; doubtless formidable opponents. “Your son has a point, Ulran. I think you should be cautious. It’s quite possible that your enquiries have already stirred up something.”
“What will you do with that evidence?” Ulran asked, changing the subject.
Dep held up the notebook. “This will convict Pro-dem Hom’s wife of conspiracy to murder.” He made for the door. “Thanks for finding it. I’ll have words to say with my two men, be assured!” At the door, he added, “Listen to your son’s counsel, Ulran.”
After Watchman Welde had left, Ranell said, “Begetter, I insist that you must abide by the watchman’s warning. You must be accompanied at all times by two of our men.”
Ulran grinned. “At all times?”
“Yes. Wherever you go in the Three Cities.” Ulran raised an eyebrow. “I know you can handle yourself, Begetter, but these assassins are underhand people.”
“If the whispers are true,” Ulran countered.
“I’d feel happier,” Ranell said.
“This is most displeasing, Watchman,” said the gildmaster. “Your evidence shows that Aba-pet Fara’s fees did not always go through the gild.”
“This could be worse, couldn’t it?” Dep said. “Others might be doing the same…”
Jentore wailed. “We can’t have assassins freelancing. It will be anarchy!”
“It might be the death of your gild,” Dep suggested, hiding a smile. The gildmaster was going to have problems balancing his books.
Lornwater library was imposing, a tall austere gray building, its pillars and windowsills carved ornately with ancient symbols. The shelves were tier upon tier, some cloaked in cobwebs, others laden with dust. Only the books near the reception desk seemed to be dust-free. Dep wondered if reading might be a dying art. That would be sad, he reflected. Wisdom and knowledge resided in these countless tomes; just waiting for inquisitive minds to unlock their secrets.
He needed to read more about melogs. And brush up on manderon magic. The eye and nose in Aba-pet Fara’s hands, and the eye and tongue in Pro-dem Hom’s must mean something other than signifiers for a melog.
At the nearest broad table sat a young woman, leaning over a tome entitled Songs of the Overlord. At least she’d found what she was looking for; he gazed ruefully at the dusty shelves. Where to begin?
“The most secret books are those with the thickest dust layer,” the woman offered, glancing up from her book, her angular and thin face framed by long lank black hair. Her voice was soft, pleasant. To one side of her was a satchel with the letters CF engraved in the leather.
“How did you know I sought arcane knowledge?”
She shrugged, shifting her brown eyes away, seeming uncomfortable under his direct gaze. “I believe you seek knowledge of the seven senses, Watchman, though perhaps you do not yet know it.” She indicated the next shelf along, on his right. “You’ll find what you want in there – ‘The Forbidden Arcane’.”
“Seven senses?” He was not familiar with those beyond the normal five. He had heard of a sixth, and understood some folk could master it, though he thought it was fanciful myth. But seven?
The woman rose, her features abruptly pale, her forehead creased. “I’m sorry, I must leave. My head aches. I fear something is amiss… soon…” She grabbed her satchel and fled the library with her book under her arm.
“Amiss soon?” he wondered. When in fact, there was something very amiss right now.
It didn’t take him long to find the tome the woman alluded to. He used a sleeve to brush off the dust, sneezed and opened the reedpaper pages.
“Ancient teaching propounded that the soul of mankind contains seven properties which are under the influence of the seven planets,” he read. “Fire animates, earth gives the sense of feeling, water gives speech, air gives taste, mist gives sight, flowers give hearing, the ranmeron wind gives smelling.” He sat back, intrigued. “So,” he mused, “the seven senses are animation, feeling, speech, taste, sight, hearing and smelling?”By the time he left, he had gleaned some knowledge that might be of use; whether it was enough, only the gods would know.
To be concluded tomorrow...
This is a prequel to the fantasy quest epic WINGS OF THE OVERLORD published by Knox Robinson
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