29 Storis, 1138
Time refused to behave. Committing murder probably took moments of clock time, but part of me would never leave those few seconds. I can’t make myself live from one second to the next when time itself won’t cooperate. Hundreds of thoughts wanted my immediate attention. My skin itched where the blood dried.
My heart started to pound — the panic always comes after — and amazingly, my mind helped. You should apologize to Danna Grenlin.
That distracted me just long enough to avert the panic. Her case was my first before the High Judicatura, when I was still a junior Advocate. A Senior Advocate defended her in the murder trial and won. Mistress Grenlin had been declared innocent by reason of justifiable homicide, which created its own precedent — a woman could now legally kill in defense of her child’s virtue. My case never should have gone past a mediator; I was just supposed to redeem her marriage settlement and assets from her late husband’s brother. But he fought, and we’d ended up refighting her criminal trial.
Nobody argued that Rennar Grenlin was stabbed while he slept. And nobody argued that Danna mer Grenlin had, six hours earlier, arrived home unexpectedly to find Master Grenlin tumbling Mistress Grenlin’s daughter from her first marriage.
The point of contention had always been Mistress Grenlin’s memory, or more precisely, lack thereof. She claimed to remember nothing from the moment she walked away from her husband and her adult daughter in her marriage bed until the next morning, when she found herself in that same chamber, sitting across from a very dead man.
Her Advocate in the murder trial had worked tirelessly on her behalf, finding independent Perceptives to read her mind and offer testimony, constructing a case that hinged upon Mistress Grenlin’s belief that her daughter had been entirely innocent and her husband committing incestous rape. The prosecution tried to claim jealousy, and a failing marriage, and the delay constituted premeditation. Her Advocate argued that any delay was because Mistress Grenlin’s size compared to her late husband’s made an immediate and direct assault tantamount to suicide, but her missing hours hindered her defense. The fact that the daughter’s testimony and memories made her the aggressor in the affair, and mother and daughter were then battling over the daughter’s inheritance didn’t help. Mistress Grenlin had been ruled innocent by the full High Judicatura — a rare case — but the decision had been seven to six and many people believed she had somehow fooled the best mind-readers in the country.
I was one of those people. I didn’t believe she’d lied, but thought perhaps she was an untrained minor Perceptive, able to wall off memories, using a similar technique to an Advocate’s. Even reading the defense Advocate’s notes and the Perceptive testimony never entirely convinced me that Mistress Grenlin didn’t know what she’d done and what her daughter had apparently done with not just her marriage father but many of the townsmen.
Now I understand, I thought as time seemed to grind its gears. Murder’s like throwing sand in a clock. Nothing ever works exactly right again. The numbers kept overwhelming me. Forty-six guards. Sixty-seven unknowns. Avah. Da. And the one I killed.
I retreated deeper into my memory, where thought returned with the sharp clarity of broken glass. I could even look at the bloody mess I’d made of the murderer without feeling much. Whoever he was, nobody would ever identify him now. His face was gone, stomped into gore. The rest of him had fared no better; if that body contained an unbroken bone, it wasn’t because I hadn’t tried.
The solution to my dilemma of what next? came in a ghastly flash with the clarity. One of my colleagues, Ragin’s friend Paval, the Justiciar Advocate, often complained about Galantier’s insistence on cremation. Spagnians let bodies rot, but a rotten body, however horrific for the soul and those forced to examine it, bears evidence for a long time.
But this building… nothing inside will survive if it burns. It’s old and shingled, and even soaked by a tenday of rain and ice, shingles are just wood. Almost everything inside is wood, paper, reed or oil. The siphon tank holds hundreds of gallons and it’s full for winter.
The storm will slow the fire brigade; if a cart of books would stall, the tank-wagon will be mired to the axles. This place will be engulfed long before they control it. None of my neighbors could see the office from their residences behind their buildings; now, they’d all be closed in their warmest rooms behind winter drapery. The Treasury office next door is closed for the night, and the grain factor on the other side is gone until the harvest auctions begin. The fire brigade won’t bother trying to save the office, most likely. Their job is not to put out the fire — it dies when it falls into the cellar — but to ensure it doesn’t light the neighbors, and succor the survivors.
There won’t be survivors. Just two bodies, charred and shriveled beyond recognition at worst, more likely reduced to ash.
Now all the oil makes sense. He intended to burn the office once we were dead.
We’d die in just the sort of tragic accident that’s so predictable in the Uplands, where they don’t build out of sensible stone and brick. All that inflammable wood. Someone knocked over a candle or an oil stove malfunctioned. How horrible.
If I light the fire, there will still be two bodies, and everyone will assume… I’ll be publicly dead, but dead, I can escape. Where? Can I reach a port? From there, take passage on whatever ship is headed… wherever. I need a few tendays to be certain I’m believed dead, but if I’m quiet, hide, I can reach… where?
That, decide later. You’ve allies in the world. The bigger question is can I hide for six tendays?
No, I decided. Not alone. Avah got me here, but I know so little about daily life. How to rent a room in an inn, or buy passage in a public carriage. I can barely order a meal in a cook-shop. With help, though…
I’ve no help. I can’t reach Ragin and he can’t help anyway. Oh, goddesses and gods. Ragin. If I’m dead, he’ll be destroyed.
That’s good. He’ll have to believe it. If he does, so will everyone else.
Except the assassin’s employer. He’d expect a report. Would he? Obviously, if my office burnt, the job’s complete. Most likely, Mathes sent him, but my uncle wouldn’t speak to an assassin himself. Had he, I could have prosecuted him years ago. He worked through at least two confederates, and I couldn’t be certain, but who keeps an assassin around? One contracts for specific jobs, one doesn’t give him a salary. After all, what would he do if he grew bored? Even my uncle didn’t have so many enemies that he could keep an assassin occupied.
This one had killed scores. Sixty-seven buttons made sense. He assassinated Da and his guards, then he killed whoever could talk. Ragin believed it would take dozens to ambush Da. He’s right. How long did they live after Da was killed? Tendays? Longer? It took time to kill men capable of murdering a Monarch. They’d have gone to ground. Most of a year, probably, to get them all. Criminals, even clever ones, aren’t known for their ties to the community, and would be less likely to be missed, but sixty-seven deaths should have caught some Investigator’s eye.
Or not. My death will be a fire. A drowning here, poison there, a bar fight in Julianasport, a highway accident… Sixty-seven deaths over thirty tendays wouldn’t connect if nobody ever noticed each was missing a button.
That’s the question — does Mathes expect his assassin to check in after I’m dead?
I took off my shirt and waistcoat and left them on the floor; they would have to burn, but the Belleview lacked fireplaces or oil stoves. I’d have to go there and not be seen. I pondered Mathes’ expectations while I scrubbed my face and hands at the pantry sink. On the whole, probably not, considering the body count. He would have as little contact as possible with his hired murderer. If each button represents a life, that man was trusted. He practically was given a salary, but he had to be given his head, too, because someone like that can’t be controlled. Who was he?
I didn’t worry that nobody would believe Avah and I hadn’t escaped; structure fires kill fast, of smoke, not flames, and a faulty oil stove would burn fast. I’d break both of ours just the way the arsonist in my Cimenaran neighborhood’s fire had, by breaking the siphon valve. If Da knew what I learned as a Justiciar, he never would have approved. I judged murders, fiscal malfeasance, assault, theft… and arson. Had I wanted to follow my uncle’s path, I’d probably equal him as a criminal mastermind. As criminals go, if their cases reach the High Judicatura, they’re not entirely stupid.
The water only turned sickly pink rather than the hideous brown I’d feared. I wasn’t as blood-covered as I thought, or my clothing protected me. With my coat buttoned from neck to hem, and my hood pulled up, I won’t look like I’ve just survived a bloodbath, for tonight, in the dark, but I need to get into my rooms. Can I slip in through the staff door? My corridor key opens it, and if I use my ingeniae to identify where people are… Maybe.
Perhaps I should go to Archilavast for tonight, I started.
No. You can’t be seen, and if you are, that just compounds your apparent guilt. What would someone like you ask? Why didn’t you seek out the local guard immediately? Why burn your office? What are you hiding, Mistress Peregath?
I could go now — I’d done nothing incriminating but be in shock, weep, find evidence and clean myself. I’m known to be cool under pressure; of course I wouldn’t want anyone to witness my distress. Admitting my birth will complicate matters, but smooth them, too. Legally, I might be a private citizen, but Galantier spent twenty-five years thinking of me as Prazia and future Monarch. That habit would probably conquer the new rules, at least in terms of gentle treatment. Then I remembered the body, what was left of it. No, mutilating a corpse so comprehensively… that wasn’t the action of a sane woman.
I suddenly heard a voice like Ragin’s in my head. Fine, I understand what you’re doing, and how, but why, Rien? Running is stupid. Have you gone entirely witless?
That paused me as I pulled an armful of files to crumple for tinder. No. It only looks insane from outside. In here, in my skull, I’ve one choice — escape or go mad. I planned to die eventually, but I want to keep my mind. Six times in three years, somebody has tried to kill me successfully enough that someone else got hurt. They’ve killed my father and my closest friend, and more than a hundred others to get to me. They’re determined. Next time, I won’t be lucky. I cannot live for however long it takes always trying to watch my own back. I lack guards, I can’t depend on Ragin or Savrin to protect me. Ragin must keep his position for Galantier; Savrin’s either complicit or trying to kill me.
The last year has been too much. I barely sleep, half the time I can’t eat, my shoulders and my neck always ache. The panics aren’t improving. I need time and peace to plan a civil war. Da and Avah and those nameless souls depend on me, and a half-million Galantierans. I needed this year to let the last one settle, but it didn’t work. If I don’t go, there’s no point in living another day. I’ll either be assassinated, do the job myself, or lose my mind. I’m barely holding onto it now. I cannot live to rise again if I lose everything that is the sum of me.
The space between my ears was silent for ages before that voice said, Ayuh. It’s so crazy it might work. Go east, not west. No ports here.
True. The only ports on the southwest border were Naval, and a private citizen couldn’t get within ten milliae of a ship without clearance. The eastern coast had several small ports for the Gorthania trade across the Heldar Strait. From a Gorthanian port, I could go anywhere. I’ve enough money to reach Adelbahan or Tasleroi, if I can get into my rooms. Probably Adelbahan. I can convince Kelfan to assist us, though we’ll be in debt for several generations. That was a plan for later, once I was at sea.
I twisted strips of waxed linen from Avah’s waterproof into a star. I hope this works. I’d learned the basics of both Techlios and Bibliach with my other Ingeniae training, but I had little practice imbuing puissance and ingenia into objects and words. Perceptio lacks concrete applications and few written ones, but I plaited puissance and Incendas into the fabric through dusty unused diversion canals. When fire touches you, burn. Don’t stop until you’re ash. It couldn’t hurt, and if I didn’t see a glow or hear the bells by the time I was finished at the Belleview, I’d return and set the fire by direct Incendas from the end of the block. I’ll hurt, be defenseless afterwards and probably seeing triple, but I’ll manage. I’ve no choice. Between death and madness, I’ve no options.
Money, food, warmth, clothing. I have to get to them. Later. What next? Appearance. In the bathry mirror, I examined myself. My hair was matted and dark with blood. It would mostly be covered by hood and hat. In the candlelight, my fringe looked flat, unwashed. That fits winter in the Uplands. Most people lack a pump and heating water is expensive. Avah and I couldn’t have managed without an exceptional inn fitted for Cimenaran dandies.
Then the wound, scar now. He’d slashed me well, though I didn’t remember when. I never felt it. The silver scar wandered across my cheekbone, almost to my ear. Flat and narrow, it drew attention, unbalanced my long nose, emphasized my square jaw and wide, full mouth. It had obviously been Healed, but better that than the gaping wound. Both would distract people from seeing me, but open wounds bleed. An inch higher, and I’d be half-blind. I’m surprised it didn’t paralyze half my face. My jaw hung crookedly again, but not as badly as before Cel Healed it. I put my hands where hers had been and shoved. The flare of pain was worse this time, but the pop felt familiar. Dislocating a joint leaves it prone to future dislocation, but also makes it easier to fix. I’m never letting someone hit me in the face again.
Then I checked my eyes, mostly to see if I could still meet them. It took effort. “You realize you’re gambling everything on this mad plan?” I asked myself. “If you’re caught, you look unimpeachably guilty. Nobody will believe you’re not sequestering your thoughts.”
I held my own gaze for a long moment, then nodded. “I’ll die fighting, one way or the other,” my reflection said. “Defiant to the last breath.”
I dressed for the weather — as well as I could, anyway. I buttoned my coat over my naked skin. I’d have to hope my overcoat, my canvas waterproof, scarves, hat and hood would disguise the fact that I’m not poor. How ironic would that be, to escape an assassin, but die in a common robbery? Especially since I’ll carry almost three pounds of gold and a pound or so of silver regals, bronze teanders and copper halflings. Waxed coats are common enough, and everyone will be wearing them. I’ll be on foot, so not an obvious target — can’t take a horse, it’ll be missed — and I’ll watch for people. That means puissance, but I must. Perhaps I should have let him kill me. This might be just as deadly, overusing an ingenia.
I wrote a list of what I’d want from my rooms — I couldn’t rely on my memory. Now for books. My documents case wouldn’t carry everything, but I had plenty of canvas to wrap the books I’d need when I found safety. A ruck only gets heavier. If the whole point of this exercise is to live long enough to wage civil war, I need at bare minimum, my Lex Galanteris and my Lex Martiale, a notebook, pen case and ink. Better to have Casiel’s Economics of Warfare, a tactical manual and a Galantieran history as an aid to memory. My atlas and the last census. I counted on my fingers — law, supply, finance, direction, inspiration, recruitment and the beginnings of intelligence. Oh, right. Weaponry. Don’t forget the sword. The books weren’t small, but they’d fit in my ruck and a valise. I couldn’t carry a blanket, but I wouldn’t camp or stop until… where?
I need a destination after the Belleview. At best, I can walk fifty milliae before my strength gives out. What’s fifty milliae east that I trust?
Nothing. Northern Silvalt, Tiwendar. Civilization barely touched that vast empty territory. Further north lay the Foreti, the Bay of Heldar and glaciers. I daren’t attempt the glacier. Nobody’d ever find my corpse.
Where? Silvalt’s possible. Trensen’s Reformist, but his sister isn’t. Linzara expected we’d need years to secure her son’s rights. I’ll probably need two or three years to convince the Adelbahani or the Tasleroyans to support me. If she’ll trade six tendays of shelter, news and safe passage for her son’s rights…
A gamble, but so was a Judicatura appeal. Civil war might be better for her. If Trensen’s still in favor when the case reaches the High Justiciars, Savrin will probably overturn the decision. Assuming it got that far. With my death, Mandar would take over, or assign another Senior Advocate, and the partnership rarely handled governmental matters. They’ll probably lose. Linzara has an interest in keeping me alive.
I’ll have to tell her who I was, lest she think I’m abandoning her. My notes will survive, and the first appeal should still work though the Judicatura. She’ll probably win that one, which buys her a couple years. She’ll have to refuse to let a Perceptive read her, lest the knowledge that I live escape… though that only need last a half-year. Once I reach Adelbahan, I’ll be secure enough.
Does the plan work, Ragin? I asked that voice.
Wish you’d tell me, but I’ll expect a letter in a quarter year or so.
Sooner, I decided. I’d ask Linzara to send a coded helio. I’ve time to work on that; he must believe through the funeral.
I set the fuse, using my letter opener to cut a candle down to wick, about two hours burn time down, and fitted the waxed strips into the gap. If I’d gotten the Ingenia right, when the candle burned down to the strips, they’d light, take the fires to the crumpled paper and light the room.
I lifted my palms to the sky to pray. “Archilia, Goddess of my heart, Lady of Wisdom. You kept me alive. Please keep doing it. Please let this work. I am your instrument, heretical daughter though I am. I swear to you, in thanks for your assistance, I shall honor your principles each day of my life and uphold and extend them with my every breath. I seek your aid and wisdom, your blessing and your peace to endure these next days, to see this plan through, and your assistance if I’m not as competent as I believe. I beg the strength to endure, the wisdom to save myself and the virtue to never waver. Help me contain my fear and my guilt and give Galantier a chance. Help me believe that wisdom and grace will be born from this hell. I remain your devoted servant until the day this kingdom is redeemed or I breathe my last. Help me, I beg.”
I couldn’t promise Her Galantier; that would deny Her Wisdom and the rest of the Pantheon.
I needed all the help I could get. “Iolantha, help me save your fields. Renara, bless this fire and let it spark peace and justice. Fordea, reclaim this wood and shelter me in your forests. Sardan, shine upon me tomorrow so that I may not freeze. Cresaria, still the ice and help me wash away the malice and destruction that men visit upon my people. Teander, help me restore balance to this nation. Lunaga, in your light, let me share the moon’s love and in the dark, give me the heart of a warrior. Corsaria, help me be a good steward to Galantier, both now and afterwards. Cleatarn, let me be the lightning strike which burns away corruption. All of you, help me serve Galantier, give me humility to do your work and serve you. To you I swear, I shall not let Galantier fall. Praise shall always rise to you if you grant me your aid.”
It was the best I could do, the most aid I could request. I couldn’t call on Lethis. I’d bring enough death to satisfy him, but I wouldn’t dedicate those deaths to him.
I’m not terribly faithful, but when I lowered my hands and opened my eyes, my heart felt better. Not healed, but I could endure. I’ll redeem this kingdom or die trying. Too many who believed in me have died. I cannot waste their lives. This nation will be won. I might not see it — I might be casting myself away in favor of Ragin — but it would happen.
The stoves had safety catches to prevent oil from flooding the fire chamber, but they could be removed to drain the stoves for repair. They couldn’t be removed if the siphon valve was open, but if the valve was closed, they snapped right off, then the valve could be reopened. Second year at the Judicatura, useful again. Assuming the stoves survived, the tampering would be obvious, but they’d fall when the floors burned through. I broke both stoves and let oil overflow onto the floors while I set the wicks.
When I was ready to light the candle under my desk, I checked my pocket clock. I’d expected to have twelve hours some half-eternity ago, but midnight was still five hours away. The sun wouldn’t rise until about half-past sixth. All this work had taken perhaps an hour. It felt like centuries.
Just in case, I twisted paper and damped it with oil, then wrapped the twists around the candle. I watched for five minutes, to ensure the candle wouldn’t go out nor burn too fast, but I’d gotten luckier than I deserved. Once fire reached the rags and the oil started to burn, it would take everything else. Pray I haven’t used all my luck on the candle. Archilia knew I’d need more in the next few days.
I lacked time to linger, but I had to tell Avah goodbye. “Thank you,” I told her soul. “For everything. You’ve been so good to me for so little reason. I am so grateful to you and so sorry. One day, Morians will sing your praises at your asheria if I survive. If I don’t, I’ll tell every goddess and god who will listen that you were the best of friends, the staunchest of allies, the greatest of sisters. It’s almost over. Your soul will be tempered very soon. I pray your Afterworld gives all you ever wanted — someone to love, satisfying work, health, happiness and the baby you couldn’t have. If your heart is still generous despite what I’ve visited upon you, I beg you to occasionally look for me and speak to her Lady of Wisdom on my behalf. Rest well, beloved friend.”
I kissed her cold brow and left.
I locked the doors behind me, as we would had we been working late.
Nobody walked the street in the pouring ice. I shouldn’t, either. With my package on my back under my waxed coat, my case in my gloved hand, my hat pulled low and my scarf pulled high, I walked as fast as I could. East. Towards dawn.