I slept deeply that night, the past days’ events had enervated me, though I expected worse in the time to come. By the time I’d been aroused from my slumber, washed up, eaten a small breakfast delivered to my room, dressed and descended to the great hall, a small group had convened to wait for me.
Aryden sat in his chair of judgment, a fine piece of caved wood with a high back and black-and-gold-striped cushions occupying the raised space where his dining table had been the night before. Arrayed below him stood Eldis, Barro and a third man I did not recognize—the constable.
This man had the wiry build of a yeoman farmer, better fed than the lowliest peasants, but still used to a life of labor. A short sword with a triangular blade, fat at the hilt and forming and isosceles to an acute point, hung at his left side, the kind of blade designed to comply with the laws about the lower classes carrying weapons while providing a solid defense against a sword of full length. A mace, likely his badge of office, hung over his right hip, suspended from a ring on his belt. He wore no armor, instead clothed in a well-made linen long jacket, tied closed under his belt and hanging to his knees in place of a jerkin and vest. His short boots had been polished clean; how he kept them that way on the hike from Outer Vaina to Inner, I had no idea. His black hair fell to his shoulders; he had trimmed his facial hair into a thin mustache and goatee that accentuated the thin line of his hard mouth, even now drawn tight.
“So good of you to join us,” Lord Aryden said at my approach. He delivered the statement so flatly that I could not discern either sarcasm or genuine appreciation; it set me ill at ease. “Lord Iaren, you already know Barro and Eldis. Our additional guest today is Daedys im Vardes, head of the im Vardes family, overseer of the timber mill, and constable of Vaina. Master Daedys, this is Lord Iaren amn Ennoc, thaumaturge of Ilessa.”
The constable bowed a curt bow; I nodded to him in return.
Lord Aryden continued, “The lord thaumaturge has identified our resident spirit as the unquiet soul of someone deceased, so we have convened to determine who has died in the past few months so that he can determine the identity of our ghost. Barro, what say the Temple records?”
He produced a small vellum scroll. He opened it to read, but collapsed it between his hands. “My lords, if I may. Lord thaumaturge, would you be able to recognize the deceased if you saw him?”
“No. The Sight revealed the nature of the spirit to me, but not its identity.”
“Then how do we know that the spirit is of one recently deceased?”
“We don’t,” I admitted, “but the odds are good. If it were not someone recently deceased, why appear only now?”
“I understand, my lord—”
“Yes. But perhaps if we are not entirely sure on that point, you ought to begin your investigation with the witch Falla?”
“Do you have reason to believe that she’s somehow involved?”
“She’s the only other practitioner in the area, and the townsfolk whisper of her consorting with spirits. Is it not possible that this ghost has only recently appeared because she has only recently summoned it?”
I frowned, not enjoying this interrogation of my authority on the subject. But Barro’s logic held; that could be the explanation for the spirit. “It’s a possibility, but—”
“Then start there,” Aryden said from on high, the tone of his voice brooking no argument.
Letting out a sigh, louder and more exasperated than I’d intended, I nodded in agreement. “I’ll still need to know the list of the recently deceased, in case this ‘Falla’ isn’t involved. Who died in the weeks before the spirit’s first appearance?”
Barro unfurled the scroll again, searching over it briefly before speaking. “An outbreak of the Red Maw took seventeen two months ago but was contained before spreading. The victims were barricaded in the Crimson Close as is our custom. By now, it is without doubt that the victims have succumbed to the disease and are deceased.”
Aryden looked to the constable, who nodded in assent. “The timberworkers reported one of their lot missing about six weeks ago.”
“That would be just before the spirit’s appearance?” I asked.
“A few days,” Daedys said. “It’s likely that the man fell prey to some predator while working. Wolves, a bear, something worse. No one had any definitive information to mount a serious search. The men have reported seeing something in the woods while they’re working, but there’ve been no other attacks.”
Aryden frowned. “Had you brought this to me, Master Daedys, I could have dispatched Savlo to search for the beast.”
“My lord, I did not want to trouble you with the matter.”
“What else?” I broke back in, not wanting to delay for the lord and his man to go back and forth on the matter.
Daedys turned to me. “Also a few days before the first appearance, one of the im Norren retainers killed one of the im Valladyn retainers in a street fight. The perpetrator was hung.”
“Both received proper rites,” Barro added. “Wouldn’t that make their spirits less likely to remain in the Avar?”
“Yes,” I said. “Anyone else?”
Barro looked over his scroll again. “Not in the weeks before the first appearance.”
“And the missing boy, Orren. Anyone else missing besides he and the timber worker?”
“What does Orren have to do with anything?” Daedys stabbed into the conversation.
“If he is dead, then his could be the spirit haunting the castle. He disappeared not long before the appearances, did he not?”
“He is not dead,” Daedys objected.
“How do you know?” I asked casually, looking to my fingernails as I did.
“He’s my nephew. I know,” Daedys growled.
“So you’ve seen him since he ‘disappeared?’”
“Then you don’t know. I understand that it would be a tough thing to accept, but I can’t rule the possibility out at present. My Lord Aryden, the boy had been serving in your house before his disappearance?”
The lord shifted in his chair, apparently annoyed by this line of inquiry. “He was.”
“And he left no indication that he intended to leave?”
Aryden looked to Eldis, who’d been listening silently, for a response. “I had none, my lord,” the old man offered.
“No,” the lord confirmed.
“Had he made enemies in the town? Run into any trouble?”
“The im Valladyns and im Darqoses are always taunting the families of New Vaina,” Daedys spat. “But my nephew was involved in none of that. He’s not old enough to participate in the management of family affairs and he’s never been allowed to roam the streets with our servants, much less participate in brawls and civil unrest.”
“But there were complaints about him,” Barro said coyly.
“Lies and calumny,” Daedys returned, his finger held close and perpendicular to his chest as he stepped toward the priest.
“I mean no offense, Master Daedys,” the clergyman responded, hands up, palms facing his accuser. “But the lord thaumaturge should know every detail, and what matters is what people have said about the boy, not whether it is true. I make no indication of the veracity of the statements.”
“Good. Let him speak, Daedys,” Aryden commanded.
“Several of the fathers of the town came to me—not all at once, of course, none knew of the others’ complaints…”
“Came to you about what?” I followed.
“That the boy’d been with their daughters.”
Daedys grinned, “What’s the harm in that? Young men and women will do what men and women do. Did any of these fathers complaint that his daughter had become pregnant?”
“No,” Barro said.
“Then I see nothing to note here,” the constable returned, waiving a dismissive hand at the implication.
“The piety of some of the Vaina families causes them to guard the purity of their children before marriage, as you know, Master Daedys. That others cleave to the…less disciplined practices of Altaenin culture does not mean that those pious fathers will not take offense at the sullying of their daughters’ virtue.”
“Save your preaching for the continent, Barro,” Daedys returned.
“I am only stating facts. Concern yourself with morality or not, Master Daedys, but this is the sort of situation that creates enemies. Besides, several of the merchants also complained that he had cheated them.”
“Many were unclear, and I suspect that they meant in gambling but would not admit that they’d participated in such insalubrious activities. A few of them who described their complaints in greater detail had been tricked or fraudulently persuaded to part with coin.”
“Enough of this slander,” Daedys said, voice rising in volume.
“Enough dispute, Master Daedys,” Aryden boomed, causing everyone else to turn their heads down as schoolchildren scolded.
When the awkward silence that followed expired, Eldis spoke up. “For my part, I never experienced anything but honesty and good manners from the boy, so I would agree with Master Daedys that these complaints are likely unfounded, or the injured parties would have raised the issue before our lord and sought redress. I did, however, notice his fondness for the serving-girls.”
Before Daedys could react again, I clapped my hands together in sign of thanks to Eldis. “Thank you for your input. What of the boy’s desire to leave Vaina?”
“I don’t see why he’d want to,” Aryden answered. “We’d brought him into service here to attract a good match for his family, and he didn’t seem the type to shirk his duty.”
“Hmm,” I pondered.
Eldis spoke up again. “He did mention, once or twice, perhaps going to the City to seek his fortune. But most young men of the town say similar things at one time or another. Most of them never follow through.”
“And those who do?”
“They find work in Ilessa—on the docks or in the factories. Or else they join a mercenary company or the Coin Lords’ gangs,” Barro explained.
“Might he have done the same?”
“It’s my suspicion, pardon me, my lord,” Daedys added. “After the Maw caught his father, he lost his moorings a bit, thought perhaps there was nothing here for him anymore. I told him that he’d been given a high honor to be apprenticed to the lord’s steward, and he agreed, but I think he might be possessed of a wanderlust.”
“He did enjoy riding afield with Savlo and Varrel from time to time, and he was known to take long walks into the countryside when time allowed,” Eldis said.
“Your family has received no letter from him, Master Daedys?”
“Master Eldis had been teaching him to read and write, but I don’t think he was capable of writing a whole letter before he left. And the cost of a scrivener to write one for him would have been out of reach for one starting out in the City. But it’s possible we’ll receive one any day now.”
“You’ll let me know if you do?” I asked him.
“Yes, lord thaumaturge.”
“Please, you may call me Iaren.”
Daedys looked to Aryden at this; when his lord shrugged indifference, he spoke. “Thank you, Iaren.”
“I may call upon you if I have more questions about the town or the deceased,” I said.
“Of course, Iaren. When I am not training the militia or investigating some petty offense, I’m usually in my home in the new town.”
“Satisfied, then?” Aryden asked, his voice again that impenetrable tone.
“Yes, my lord,” I responded. “Thank you. I’ll start with this Falla and decide the next course of action based on what I find there.”
Barro caught me on the shoulder as I turned to go. Spinning me around, in a low voice he said, “Remember, my lord thaumaturge, it is no sin to defend yourself from evil. And it is a service to The One to dispatch a practitioner of maleficium.”
I shrugged his hand off of my shoulder. “Right,” I said.