The next morning, I left my chambers early, before the suns had risen, before Lord Aryden could catch me for another scolding. Until daylight broke, I paced the Old Town, hoping to chance across Errys but finding no familiar faces amongst the guardsmen I encountered. Then I remembered.
As soon as the gates to the New Town had opened, I made my way to the home of the constable. The building sprawled; I might have expected it to be a large tavern or inn in Ilessa’s Lower City had I not known better. It had about the same appearance, too, humble, perhaps ramshackle in some places, an agglutination of expansions and modifications as need demanded and coin allowed made clear by tell-tale differences in the gathered mildew and general patina of the various portions.
No personal retainers stood at the gate like those manses of the wealthy merchants that occupied the Old Town, but a gaggle of guardsmen waiting for instructions, smoking cigarillos and telling each other dirty jokes, leaned against the outer wall next to the gate.
I passed through the cloud of smoke they’d generated—thick as if they’d fired a volley of arquebuses—and puffed out air as I did, hoping to avoid inhaling the stuff. I’d never picked up the habit, thankfully (I have too many expensive habits as it is), and tolerated the stench of their indulgence with some distaste.
One of the men, a mustachioed would-be bravo in a dark-stained munition-grade breastplate with an acutely-pointed thrusting sword slung rakishly at his side, called out at me as I put my hand on the bar to the gate. “Who the fuck are you, and what do you think you’re doing at this time in the morning?”
“Same as you, I suppose. Just looking for some friends to share some filthy humor with before I start the day’s work.”
The duelist looked back to his compatriots with a cocky smile. “He’s kinda funny, ain’t he boys? I’ve got a joke for you. D’ja hear the one about the man with four holes?” He rested his sword hand on the hilt of his blade to make the point.
Too many people pick up a weapon and suddenly think they’re dangerous. They get unrealistic expectations of their own prowess and the nature of combat itself, don’t understand that it’s blood and guts and terror, not the kind of sport you find in the schools of defense, the drill field or the private tutor’s studio. All the best fighters I’ve known tried to avoid fighting as best they could. They’d give hell, and endure it when they had to, but it was never their first choice. Familiarity breeds contempt, and the necessary evil that is violence deserves that contempt. But, it only takes one person’s will for two to come to blows, and this man lacked the familiarity with death that might give him pause to come asking for it.
“No longer was he as full of shit as you?” I asked.
I couldn’t help myself, to be honest. The sarcasm just sprung forth from me, and I’d seen the man pulling his sword on me as too inevitable to bother to stop myself.
Sure enough, he obliged, though I worked a minor sorcery as he drew the blade and it flew from his hand as if unsheathed too roughly with too delicate a grip, the steel landing dully in the muddy street outside the constable’s gate. Before he could recover from the shock, I was upon him, gripping his clothes about his throat with my right hand and kicking his legs out from under him with my foot. This put him down hard, knocking the breath out of him, and I had the point of my dagger an inch from his neck by the time he recovered his senses.
His fellow guardsmen just stood there laughing at the mustached man’s misfortune, puffing on their cigarillos and waiting to see what happened next. Admittedly, I hadn’t thought too hard about what they’d do once I made my move—one problem at a time, you see—and breathed a little easier that they proved unwilling to intervene. Whether it was fear or laziness, I wasn’t sure, and didn’t much care.
“I’m the thaumaturge Lord Aryden hired,” I growled into the supine man’s face. That’s what the fuck I’m doing. How about you? Is disturbing the peace somewhere in the orders for watchmen? I’m sure the constable will be interested to hear about your behavior when I speak to him.”
There was no shock in the man’s eyes, no fear of reprisal. He knew who I was. Which meant that Daedys had said or done something, whether explicit or implicit, to give the man the idea that he should try to bully me. I slid my dagger back into the sheath behind my back, dropped the man’s head into the dirt as I released the grip with my right hand.
As I stood again, I noticed that the door to the constable’s house had opened; an inquisitive servant, an older man, standing in the doorway. He motioned to me and I quickly passed through the gate to meet him.
He had the care-worn face of the diligent servant, if possessed of independent and personal desires, they’d been sunk deep beyond the reaches of his countenance. The wrinkles around his eyes and brows indicated suspicion, but he otherwise held himself in the expectant grace of welcoming. “You are the lord thaumaturge?” the man asked.
He moved sideways, making room in the doorway for me to pass by him. “I’d been told to expect you, but we did not anticipate your arrival at such an…odd hour.”
I entered into the manor’s entryway and turned back to the servant, though not before noticing the incongruity of the inside of the home with the outside. While the building may have lacked the opulence of design and layout of the merchant manors of the Old Town, the same materials decorated the interior. Marble-tiled floors topped by rugs woven from rich and colorful—if now mudstained—threads, oil paintings on those walls not directly painted with fresco, brass fixtures to hold the candles, intricate cornicework at the joints of walls to ceiling. Daedys’ family had done well for itself in its management of forestry and farming for the amn Vainas.
“Time always runs short for me,” I said, “so I cannot always spare the niceties to which one of your master’s station are entitled.”
“Of course, my lord.”
“Iaren is fine. Your name?”
“Mosan, sir. If you’ll follow me.”
He led me from the impressive entryway into an even more impressive parlor, one containing all of the finery I’d previously observed with the addition of wooden furniture,a few bookshelves and a writing desk, elaborately carved out of some dark wood I did not recognize, and a collection of couches and chairs, each thickly upholstered in brocaded and embroidered blue cloth, the stitching the color of gold or silver. Mosan motioned for a place for me to sit, but I kept my feet. He waited as long as could be interpreted to be polite, then, nodding gently, said, “I’ll wake the family for you,” and left.
Mosan couldn’t have but cleared the hallway when Daedys stormed in, a blue robe that almost matched the furniture covering his nightclothes. His movement stopped him short just out of arms reach, where he put his hands on his hips, feet spread the width of his shoulders, as if attempting to block some door through which I’d intended to walk. “I’d appreciate it if you did not wear your weapons in my home,” he said by way of introduction, flicking a pointing finger at my belt.
I waited a moment so as not to acquiesce too quickly—he was trying to disarm me more than literally, after all—and obliged him, unbuckling the belt that held my sword and dagger, wand, and pouches of useful arcane gewgaws. I leaned the sword against the far corner of the room, gently letting the belt hang in a way that permitted nothing to fall free from pouch or sheath or to scratch annoyingly against the plastered and painted walls.
By the time I returned to my original position, Daedys’ family trailed in, dressed similarly to the patriarch, rubbing eyes and stifling yawns. A woman, dour and wild-haired entered first, whom Daedys introduced as his wife, Ymelda. Two men younger than Daedys followed, two of Daedys’ three brothers, Orren’s father, Alayn, having been lost to the Crimson Close. These he named Ormas and Evor. Another woman, younger, stricken with the temporary madness of deep mourning, came last. Daedys introduced her as Inera, mother of Orren and widow of Alayn. The four arranged themselves on the furniture behind Daedys, who, like me, continued to stand. The left an ornate, high-backed chair empty, presumably the seat of Poltor, the former patriarch of the family who, like his son Alayn, had been claimed by the Maw.
Cold-faced, Daedys waited for me to speak, his family behind him, faces slightly lower but similar in expression.
“I believe that Orren is, in fact, dead. I believe that it is his spirit that afflicts the amn Vaini,” I began, a sob bursting forth from Inera, Ormas placing a too-familiar hand on her shoulder in comfort.
Daedys looked to his feet for a moment. “Putting Kalvor to rest didn’t work?” he asked, already knowing the answer.
“Another attack from the specter last night,” I replied. “And since you know of no other recent deaths in the town…”
“I understand,” he said, looking up, a light of defiance within his eyes. I didn’t understand the source of the sentiment, but its presence nonetheless alerted me to there being more at stake than I originally surmised. “What do you need from us?”
“I need to know anything you can tell me about Orren. Everything you can tell me. The smallest detail might lead me to discover his killer and bring him justice and peace.”
The widow looked up from her sobbing, her eyes daggers piercing through the veil of tears she’d accumulated. “You’re not interested in Orren for his sake, so don’t lie to us like you are! Your loyalty is to the amn Vaini; all you care about is fixing their problem and taking your coin. You’ll leave us damned if it suits you!”
Like a child parroting its parents’ secret comments, I took her outburst as an indication of Daedys’ thoughts about me, expressed in the relative safety of his own home. The constable held his hand behind him, a subtle cue for her to control herself, which she did, falling backwards against the support of the couch and continuing to sob.
“Perhaps, mistress Inera might be excused from us,” I offered, “I do not mean to cause her pain.”
Daedys raised the same hand with which he’d silenced her to point at me. “She deserves more than any of us to know what you have to say.”
“Fine,” I said. “In front of your lord you played ignorant of Orren’s misadventures among the townsfolk, and while he remained only one of many possibilities for the amn Vaini’s haunting I had no reason to delve deeper. Now, I’m afraid, I must.”
“Again with these slanders!” the man burst forth, hands dropping exasperatedly to his sides.
“The girl, Nilma, has confirmed both that the boy pursued many lovers amongst the daughters of Vaina and had crossed many of the merchants as well,” I told him, turning away to look at the art on the walls.
“The im Valladyni? They have no love for us; I’m sure the girl will say anything to make Orren look the scoundrel.”
“Then perhaps I should spend time talking to the town’s fathers? To the servant girls of the castle? To the merchants? To your deputies?”
Daedys stepped forward, his finger now an inch from my chest. “Perhaps my deputies would like to talk to you, as well. I have a nice private place for such a conversation.”
“Now Daedys,” Ymelda said in an even tone. “I apologize Master Iaren, but my husband is taking to his duty to protect our family—reputation included—very seriously since his father’s death. I’m sure he forgets himself and does not mean to threaten.”
I wasn’t so sure. “You may address me as Lord amn Ennoc,” I told her. Daedys turned to me with hard eyes at that, eyes that understood the implications and didn’t like them very much. “But I’m sure you’re right. If the distress of the Maw and the loss of your family members were not enough, he and I have had a stressful set of days together. I’m willing to overlook a certain amount of insolence on his part. A certain amount.”
Withdrawing a pace and lowering his jousting finger, Daedys changed his tone, his voice apologetic—forcedly so, but apologetic all the same. “Forgive my behavior, Lord amn Ennoc. But you believe that Orren is dead, correct?”
“Then please refrain from treating him as the criminal when he is the victim,” the constable said flatly.
“Perhaps some fathers complained about my boy’s dalliances with their daughters, but I defy you to find one of their daughters who’d complain more than to say they had hurt feelings when he turned his attentions elsewhere,” Inera added. “Besides, it was the Lady Vesonna who treated him ill; not him mistreating the castle’s servant girls,” she said.
“You mistake me, mistress. There is no judgment in my descriptions or questions, only a need to understand the truth of things. Young men are often wild by nature; I’ll not be the hypocrite who pretends that I did not have my scoundrel days as well.” I thought about it as I spoke, wondered to myself whether I could fairly say that my youth was possessed of “scoundrel days.” Probably. “I need to know where to look if I am to bring him justice, which is what I believe will lay his spirit. I cannot do that without an accurate view of him and his life.”
“He had his amorous adventures, and plenty of them,” Ormas offered. “A bright boy, and athletic; how could he have helped it? But I doubt that you’ll find a killer in his love-life.”
“Why is that?” I asked.
“You don’t murder the nephew of the town’s constable,” he returned. “That’d be stupidity at its finest.”
“Plenty of people in this world are stupid,” I told him. “Especially when emotion is involved. A father happening upon Orren with his daughter might not calculate the consequences before he acts.”
“But it was Barro who said that he had received the complaints about Orren, not our lord,” Daedys interjected.
“True,” I agreed.
“Doesn’t that seem to indicate those who believe that they have little recourse against the nephew of the constable and a member of a family favored by the amn Vaini?”
“It does,” I conceded, “but that might as easily cause someone to take justice—as he perceives it—into his own hands. Mistress Inera, you said something of the Lady Vesonna mistreating Orren. Can you elaborate?”
The woman stopped her sobbing for a moment, face hard and icy. “She heaped scorn upon him every chance she got, got him in trouble with his masters when she could, made sure he received the difficult and unpleasant tasks whenever possible. He complained about it nearly every time I saw him.”
“Did he say why?”
“Jealousy, I think. He’d rebuffed her advances—too smart to get involved with the daughter of his lord, that boy—and her admiration turned to contempt.”
“Hmm.” I said, pondering the implications were her statement true. “I’ll keep that in mind, but had someone in the amn Vaina family been responsible for Orren’s death and they knew that the spirit appeared just after, I don’t suspect that Lord Aryden would have summoned me.”
“Then you should talk to Ovaelo,” Inera offered.
“The painter? Why?”
“Orren had been spending a lot of time with him before his disappearance. A man like that is surely a corrupting influence.”
“Because he’s a painter?”
“He does not work for a living—not in an honest profession at least. Painters are liars by nature—they depict things that are not true as truth. They’re always talking about ‘beauty and truth,’ aren’t they? Dishonest. He brings all of the corruptions of the Sisters with him, with their decadence and temptation. Um, no offense intended, my lord,” the woman continued.
Offense taken, of course, but it was perhaps the best lead on the boy I’d had so far. Provided his affairs with his lovers had been mutual matters, I tended to agree with Ormas that his romantic life was not the likeliest source of his death, though my time as a finder in Ilessa had cautioned me to remain skeptical. “How much time were they spending together?”
“Far too much,” she said. “Practically all the free time he had; he rarely came home to visit the past few weeks. At first I thought it a matter of his father’s…passing; we all have our various ways of grieving. But the way he spoke of Ovaelo, he’d fallen into a passion over the man, calling him a genius and a ‘soul of depth and wit’ and other nonsense I might expect from the layabouts of the Sisters but not the hardworking and level-headed men of Vaina.”
“You think they’d become lovers?” I asked. “The way Ovaelo tells it, they’d become drinking companions chasing women together.”
“Then why did they always leave the tavern together and not with these women they reportedly chased?”
“Had Orren had many men as lovers?”
“None others, that I’m aware of. But young men will go as their passion takes them, will they not? And a foreign artist might prove an enticing paramour to a young man who has not yet got his wits about him enough to know what artists really are!”
“But what interest would Ovaelo in Orren?”
“The pleasures of young and comely flesh, of course,” she added. “Old men are fools as much as young, I suppose, and in much the same ways.”