Eldis waited for me just inside the doors to the Vaina keep, his face creased in worry, his stance indicating impatience. “My lord is looking for you,” he said without pretense of decorum. “Where have you been?” The accusation in his voice had been passed to him from Aryden, I was sure—he didn’t strike me as the type to act often without respect for others. Besides, the hour had grown late to a time where few indeed have any patience at all; certainly not I.
He turned away without waiting for my answer and I followed as we ventured up the stairs and into the lord’s office, where Aryden sat, staring into an empty goblet, fatigue causing his mind to wonder, undoubtedly. As the door opened, he snapped to, his eyes focusing on me with the heat and anger that I imagined kept his vassals and servants well in line. “What the fuck have you been doing outside the castle at night?” he bellowed before I had fully entered.
“Investigating,” I said bluntly.
“Investigating, what, exactly? The spirit was here, tormenting us again, and you were not! Not that your presence did much good the last time!” He yelled enough to wake everyone within the keep, I thought, but doubted that he cared. If his anger had been purposeful, calculated to make me malleable to him, it didn’t work. I’d come across many hotheads and blowhards in Ilessa, and while some of them were competent at making good on the threats they screamed, emotion tended to make them sloppy in the execution. No, it was those folk of cold control over themselves, who explained their threats matter-of-factly and with an air of detachment that told you they didn’t really care which way things went that unnerved me. A Coin Lord who speaks in such a voice has already plotted out whatever’s threatened, to be delivered at a time and place of their choosing, when you’ve finally relaxed that such punishment might be coming.
Aryden, loud and demanding as he was, did not unsettle me like the spirit I’d encountered earlier that evening. Hell, maybe I was just too tired to be scared of him.
“May I see Lady Aevale?” I asked in response. My voice came out monotone, devoid of expression, for I had neither care nor strength for the subtleties of communication.
“What?” he said, incredulous, before overcoming the initial shock of the non-sequitur.
“No,” he said, voice replete with annoyedness that I’d even ask.
“Then how do you expect me to complete my investigation if you continue to keep her from me?”
He returned question for question. “What the hell were you investigating rolling around in the dirt?”
I opened my mouth but stopped myself before any words spilled forth. Despite my fatigue, I had to move carefully here. I’d promised Falla I’d not betray the existence of the cult and, without any definite evidence that it had been involved in Orren’s death or his manifestation within the castle, I had nothing to gain by breaking my promise anyway.
“Veil is thinner at night, remember? I went looking for any signs of Orren’s resting place.”
“How’d you end up looking like that?”
“Took a fall. Spirit’s gone again?”
“After taking its time in tormenting us, yes, it seems to have vanished for the time being.”
Eldis interjected. “I think it was looking for you, my lord.”
“For me?” I asked.
“It appeared to be searching for something. When it could not find that thing, it left. I presume the thing was you, because that’s what’s different from the last manifestation,” the seneschal offered.
“That’s not a good sign,” I said, as much to myself as to those present with me.
“None of this is good,” Aryden exclaimed, banging a fist on his desk. “Thank The One that the amn Esti were not here to share the experience! Now, account for yourself. What have you been doing all the damned day and night that you still have nothing to show for it?”
“Asking after the boy. I spoke with Daedys and his family, with the painter, Ovaelo, checked on the witch Falla again—and confirmed she is not involved in this—searched for the body in the wilderness outside of town.”
“I’ve confirmed that your trust in the boy was misplaced.”
“Hmph,” came the lord’s response.
“You no doubt are aware of his philandering.”
“So? Boys will do what boys will do,” Aryden responded, smiling to himself.
“Most boys don’t use sex as a ladder.”
Aryden looked uncomfortable for the briefest of moments, as if the thought so breached decorum or his ideas about honor and manhood as to be inconsiderable. “Explain.”
“Orren seems not to have been chasing girls simply for the passion of it—nor only boys. By all accounts, his choice of lovers was always calculated as to bring some form of advancement or material gain.”
The lord laughed, “Well, he never tried to sleep with me! How’s that for your theory?”
“He had an affair with the painter in an attempt to secure an apprenticeship that would take him out of town and to the city.”
“If he wanted to go to the Sisters so badly, why not just leave? Why take a position in my court in the first place?”
“He was too smart to leave for Ilessa or one of the other Sisters without anything to show for himself. He’d seen or heard what happened to most young folk who took that path—the factories, the mercenary companies or the brothels. Evidently he didn’t fancy those options.”
“So the old dog Ovaelo wouldn’t give him what he wanted?”
“No. But Ovaelo wasn’t his only attempt. He pursued your daughter for a time—”
“What?” Aryden growled at the thought.
I waived my hand at him for calm. “She saw through his intentions. An astute young woman, your daughter. She had seen him trade his attentions for favors with the servants of your house enough to suspect his motives.”
He relaxed at that, but only a little. “So how does this help us?”
“This kind of behavior does not make friends of others in the long run. Jilted lovers and angry fathers have plenty of motive. I have a few suspects to start with.”
“Dalen im Valladyn to begin. Nilma and Orren had a…troubled…relationship at best, and I get the sense that Master im Valladyn is quite protective of his daughter.”
“Careful, Iaren,” amn Vaina warned. “It’s appropriate to be protective of one’s family, and I’ll not have you make accusations that ruin a wedding set for the day after tomorrow.”
“But what if Dalen im Valladyn did have Orren murdered?” I asked, already knowing the answer. Justice and law are wonderful things when they don’t interfere with business, but some things are better handled without the publicity—or so the Powers that Be often think.
“If you find evidence of that—hard, irrefutable evidence, you bring it to me. I will handle things and see that justice is done for Orren, my way. We will not endanger Nilma’s wellbeing for her family’s crimes—if that is the case at all.”
Well rationalized, I thought.
“But what about the connection with Lady Aevale?” Eldis asked.
I pointed to him, thankful that he’d raised the point. “This is why I need to see her. I don’t know the connection. Perhaps he had attempted his seductions upon her and his affliction of her is vengeance for her rejection of him. I can only speculate without seeing her, talking to her.”
“She suffers enough,” Lord Aryden said. “You work on casting out this spirit and she will recover.”
“My lord, I—”
“No. Only as a very last resort. Why aren’t your wards keeping the spirit out?”
“The spirit is more powerful than I’d anticipated.”
“What does that mean? I thought we were talking about the specter of a dead boy,” Aryden complained.
“I don’t know yet. It’s possible that he is strengthened by a curse—”
“You told Issano there was no curse,” Aryden objected, foolishly.
“You wanted me to tell Issano that! I have no idea yet. It’s certainly a possibility.”
Eldis attempted to bring the tension down somewhat. “What are the other possibilities, my lord?” he asked me, voice calm and even.
I scratched at my stubbled chin absently as I thought about an answer, one that stepped lightly enough but that answered as honestly as possible under the circumstances. “That some practitioner of the Art is involved and as of yet remains undetected,” I began.
“The witch?” Eldis offered noncommittally.
“No. I’ve spoken with her more than once now; I’d have detected it.”
“Someone unknown, then?” This from Aryden.
“Possibly. It could also be that his spirit has been able to draw Power from some natural source in the area. If so, he would have to be draining the source so completely—or it would have to be so subtle—as to prevent my noticing it. It’s also possible that the manner of his death was so violent or so filled with passion that it empowered him somehow—changed him into what he is now.”
“And how do you determine among the possibilities, my lord?” Eldis followed.
“Normally, I would do some research, but I’m afraid I did not bring a library.”
Lord Aryden looked up at that. “Barro has one. Extensive. History, theology, plants, all that stuff you scholars distract yourselves with. Use his.”
“I doubt that he’ll have the sort of texts I need, but it won’t hurt to look. I’ll go see him in the morning. If that’s all—”
“It is not,” Aryden said, keeping me from turning to leave. “There will be a masque tomorrow, and you will attend.”
“I don’t have anything to wear,” I demurred.
“I’ll take care of that,” the lord responded, dismissing my objection.
“My lord, you didn’t hire me to attend social functions and play nice with your guests.”
“My lord, I hired you to do a fucking job. So far, it isn’t done. The least you can do is make sure that my festivities aren’t disturbed by a spirit tomorrow evening.”
“I can’t guarantee—”
“I’ve heard enough of ‘I can’t fucking guarantee,’” he said, voice raising with each word. “You will do every damn thing you can to protect my family and get rid of that damned specter as soon as humanly possible. No, as soon as thaumaturgically possible!”
“If Eldis is right, that the spirit has decided to focus on me, that could invite a spectacle to your celebration as much as prevent one.”
“Then you’ll be the entertainment,” he said. “Maybe that will lend some credence that the spirit is only a nuisance and not an affliction upon my family. Now, that is all. Begone with you!”
I opened my mouth to speak again but thought the better of it. Besides, the bed was calling to me.