29 Storis, 1138
The room was black before I returned to it. I don’t know where my mind went after the man fell, but my face was wet and something distant hurt. My throat burned — tears or vomit. If I screamed, someone would have come. Night’s fallen. I sat in the dark, holding my companion’s body, her murderer on the floor beside us.
“I’m so sorry,” I muttered to Avah again and again. “I never meant this to happen. You never should have died in my place. You never should have come with me. I’m so sorry.”
I was sticky with blood, and somewhere in the darkness, something dripped with quiet little splats. Avah had turned as cold as the room. She didn’t bleed. Her blood had pooled around me, cold and gelatinous. It won’t drip.
The assassin lay face down. He won’t drip.
What’s dripping? I must make it stop before it drives me mad.
I put her down, still muttering apologies. Every muscle hurt in the cold and my mouth tasted like a copper spoon. I must have tasted the blood in the air or maybe it’s fear. Ragin always said blood and fear taste alike.
Something hot trickled down my face. A tear? My eyes felt swollen and hot, but not a tear. Tears aren’t sticky. My hands — and the rest of me — felt tacky and crusted. Enough blood for two bodies.
Splat. The drop collected on my chin and fell, replaced several heartbeats later. The world moves so slowly and so fast. This doesn’t make sense. Why kill Avah? Why kill me? I’m powerless, a nobody, a bastard.
Where is it? he’d said.
What did he want? Money? The sword? No, he’d seen that. Where is what? What could he want? We had nothing here worth murder.
Who was he? Who leads to what, and what to why.
The part of my mind not screaming, not gibbering in fear, remembered I’m a Justiciar and Advocate. I’d never served as attending Justiciar for a murder investigation, but I’d spent my free hours while I was an Advocate for beaten Courtesans, orphaned children and widows denied their due fortunes learning death investigation in preparation for the criminal bench.
Bottle it up, Rien, I told myself. You can’t help Avah, you don’t want to help that filth on the floor, but you’ll find justice if you think. If you don’t think, you’ve abdicated and will be responsible for whatever happens next. Another may follow. Think, and you might live long enough to mourn. The Advocate’s tranquility descended over me, taking everything with it.
First, you’re bleeding. Mend that.
I doubted I could summon enough puissance for Valenas, but it flooded from my hands into my face. A feeling like foaming frumentia burst over my skin. Once, twice, three times I sent puissance into myself, making the world blur and spin as puissance flowed into me from the outside and cycled within me from myself.
My face scarred. Later. What next?
Not now. Investigate.
The Justiciar took over. This wasn’t my office, the body wasn’t my friend and I wasn’t wearing a murderer’s blood. Just the scene of a crime.
First, the scene’s secure. Second, is it safe to be here? I inhaled.
Under the meaty, filthy stench, the room reeked of oil, thick, rich, rancid. Fusty and musty, sour.
My crusted, bloody hands disgusted me, but blood and oil don’t mix. I felt every coated, slick, sticky surface. As I brushed against the desk, I found the earthenware jug, the one from the pantry for filling lamps. I held it to my nose. Yes, fuel oil. A shake told me it was empty.
Fuel oil isn’t dangerous without a wick. It doesn’t explode or breathe killing vapors. I can risk a light if I keep it away from the pools. Don’t tip it.
I daren’t spark a flint. This office’s old, wood floor drank oil, as Avah and I had learned when the hallyer cleaned. In two days they turned dull again and regular polishings hadn’t damped its thirst at all.
That means more puissance, for Incendas. I’m a poor Incendiary, but I can light a candle. I whispered the Porsirian gabble my tutor had suggested to focus my mind and channel the puissance again. It came at once, far too easily. I must be anxious. I wonder why that would be, I thought dryly. I will survive this sight. I will endure. Investigate.
One candle barely pushed the darkness back. A draft made it gutter. Once it stood in a candlestick, I stepped over the wretch, stopped myself from kicking him, and turned the key in the lock on the conference room door. It opened, and the window in there stood full open, a puddle on the floor. That told me how the miscreant had got in. Closing the window against the draft trebled the stench. Back in the main room, the room turned ghastly orange as I filled the candlestick with lit tapers. I don’t want to see this.
First, Avah. Her head was hardly connected to her body. The knife bit deep, cutting not only her veins but her windpipe and throat. He must have been strong to cut so deeply and so cleanly. The wound’s only ragged at the end so she didn’t initially struggle. He was quick.
She wasn’t bruised and her wrists showed neither cuts nor scrapes. He didn’t restrain her. I checked her nails. No skin underneath. She didn’t fight. Her hair, coiled on the back of her head, hadn’t been bloodied. She came from the tooth Healer. Her coat? Yes, on the hook. Files, now bloodied, lay on her desk. She planned to get back to work. She still held her pen.
Reconstruct the scene. She came in the front door, saw I was gone, started to get back to work, probably grumbling about what a recalcitrant, stubborn jade I am. She didn’t notice him until he had already slashed her throat, so where was he standing? Avah wouldn’t miss so obvious a threat — I looked around. While a good quantity of her blood covered the desk and floor, had she been killed where she was when I first entered the room, the front door and wall behind it would be spattered, and they were clean, as was her framed portrait of her family. I picked up the candlestick. Yes, blood on the wall behind her, and on the window blind. So… she came in, and he was standing behind the door, the only place she wouldn’t immediately notice him. He grabbed her as she came in… The right side of the wound is jagged. He drew the knife from left to right — right-handed. He startled her. She wasn’t the target, just inconvenient.
Now, the evidence grows murky. If she was just inconvenient, why remove her coat, why pose her, why not drop her where… “I’m sorry, Avah,” I muttered. One must always speak to the soul still trapped in the body. When one seeks justice for the dead, one must sometimes add to the indignity already done. I reached between her legs and found the cold slick. That’s why she was bent over the desk. He raped her afterwards, when she couldn’t fight back and her trapped soul couldn’t protest. “I’m so sorry, my dear friend.” Why did he waste the time? Unless he knew where I was, and knew how long… How long has he been watching us?
That almost broke me. I wiped my hands on my already unspeakable breeches and carefully composed my friend on the floor, then covered her with her waterproof, tucking it under her chin. Her eyes were half-open, already dry and dusty, but so blue in her white face, the color of the sea after a storm.
“You’re done, my dear Avah. We’re almost done.”
Murdered and raped. The order sickened me as much as the deeds. Raped and murdered was horrible, terrible, but it’s somehow crueler when the soul is trapped, unable to resist or retaliate or even cry. Now, I didn’t want to kick him, I wanted to mutilate his corpse, leave it for the crows, make his soul walk the earth for eternity, untempered and deprived of every Afterworld.
Not that I would. Letting his shade haunt Galantier as a demon would be worse. Any soul untempered by fire carried sins, but murder… I might as well unleash every fiend from all seventy-seven hells. No god condoned murder for any reason but self-defense or the defense of another. Even Lethis didn’t permit murder and rape. For Lethis, death must be voluntary or Lethis’ will.
I patted my friend’s cold, stiffening body and knelt above the other. Something squished under my knee. I shuddered. Right. I disemboweled him. Things not to forget next time I’m fighting for my life. I shifted off the loop of gut and rolled the miscreant over.
In the light of six candles, I didn’t recognize him, but he was covered in blood and mottled. His face had rested on his arm, and his cheekbones, the tip of his nose and his chin had darkened as blood settled. The lividity told me I’d been… gone… at least an hour, as much as three. I’ve about twelve hours to sunrise.
He seemed familiar, but the dead don’t look like the living. The skin sags, pulls. The lips thin and blanch, the eyes sink or bulge and the sockets hollow. The living are never so still. One doesn’t notice the thousand tiny movements of breath and pulse and living… not until it’s gone.
Concentrate, dammit. The lividity in his face didn’t help, either. Eyes, hazel. Skin, light brown, turning grey. Hair… blood matted, I couldn’t tell. Light brown, I think. A little heavy, over-muscled for his frame. He probably spent hours in a weapons studio. Good coat, like a thousand others, either made for him or altered. I couldn’t tell without undressing him and I lacked time and strength. He outweighed me by at least half.
The coat wasn’t fashionably tight; he could move in it. I unfastened the upper buttons to get at his inner pockets, but a good assassin never carries anything that can identify him. If he’s caught, he won’t turn on his employer, and he doesn’t want his other crimes associated with him. The pockets were empty, not even an inn key.
Breeches pocket? I patted down his body. If nothing else, I might eventually identify the key, if I survive, if his potential partner isn’t coming while I waste time. Not today, not tomorrow, but someday, if I survive, I’ll assemble this evidence. No key. He hadn’t gone to an inn yet — sensible, the steam launch arrived at morning sixth and afternoon two. An hour to get here, that fit with the timing to kill Avah. He could have come from anywhere south of here.
How would he explain the blood? There wouldn’t have been much. Avah didn’t bleed on him. How would he have killed me if I’d been unarmed? Why leave the window open? A cold front office would have caught our notice, but perhaps he thought the cold would attract, not warn me. Had I come in the front door like usual, had Avah and I been together, had I not been suspicious already because of the sword, I might have blindly stumbled into him.
Something under my fingers wasn’t right. Small, hard lumps lay inside the coat hem… I turned it towards the light. The thread didn’t quite match the revers. Just a shade or two lighter, but enough. It had been opened and re-closed.
I used his knife to cut the hem off and open it. Scores of small buttons had been sewn inside, all attached to the inner fold. A tiny polished bone button, several ordinary corded knots, one each of glass, porcelain and shell, three of wood, two horn, one silver, dozens of identical wood, then scores of knots, chips, glass, brass and bone.
I know the silver button. I’ve seen that sigil every day of my life. Three strokes meeting at a common point, like a simple sketch of a tulip, with a horizontal line through the center. Da’s sigil.
Da would wear a coat until the patches held together with darns and spit unless Ethene kept him in trim. She’d commissioned the indigo coat with his sigil buttons when he left off mourning for Aunt Bella, because he’d spent that year constantly misplacing his sigil press, as if he couldn’t make decisions without her. The buttons had been a grim joke between them, a reminder to carry his press.
Da wore that coat everywhere, but he’d especially liked it in cold wind. Good Galantieran wool, he often said.
It wasn’t in his travel boxes. He died wearing that coat.
This man was there. I counted the identical buttons. Forty-six. These tiny, inner buttons fixed the blackened steel buttons on a Royal Guard’s coat. The same tailors who made Army coats made the Royal Guards’ coats. They must order buttons by the million. I counted the rest, in horn, wood, ivory, knotted stuff. Sixty-seven. This man was a monster, and he was proud of it.
I stared into his face, fixing him in memory. Someday, a Perceptive artist will read his face from my mind and sketch him. Someday, we’ll identify him. Someday, we’ll know.
If I survive long enough.
My control vanished and the Advocate’s tranquility evaporated. The world went dark and narrow as hundreds of bottles of grief and rage broke all at once.