My feet raced nearly as fast as my mind as I followed Falla’s directions to where she’d seen Nilma, in a drainage ditch in the wheat fields on the other side of Vaina, between the town and the witch’s cottage. I’d thought that Magaréil had lied when it had posed as Orren’s ghost and accused the bride-to-be, but now I could not be so sure. How else might she know where to find his body?
I wondered also whose help she might have had in the murder; I still felt her incapable of the deed on her own, though I couldn’t exactly articulate why.
Daedys had recovered his senses enough to trail behind me, and a second train of thought wondered how I’d keep him from exacting some revenge before we discovered the full truth of things.
Certainly, he was not averse to violence when it suited him. With the binding of Magaréil, a long-comfortable aspect of his life in Vaina had suddenly been pulled out from under him, and I couldn’t help but think that such instability would not prove helpful to rational thought. I’d no desire to fight him, much less to kill him. That itself seemed strange to me after I’d killed three of his lackeys. I reasoned that I’d done that in self defense, that being the difference, and had nothing to defend myself from with him, at least not at present.
We didn’t speak as we traveled. For what reason would we? He knew what had happened to his men if I’d showed up at the wedding—the details didn’t particularly matter. And I knew enough about his involvement in, and then resistance of, Magaréil’s cult for my investigation. We may have been momentarily united in purpose, but there was no trust between us, and we at least had the courtesy not to force one another to lie.
Falla did not accompany us, though I’d no idea what other, more pressing, matter she had to attend to. Still, I couldn’t be in more than one place at a time, so I had to prioritize. My investigation took precedence.
We moved in zig-zag patterns, skirting the perimeters of the square fields of wheat, barley, and other grains, following the edges of enclosures for cattle or sheep. The farmers looked up from their work, briefly, nodding respectfully to their constable, making the sign of the Tree at me. It mattered not; I’d grown a bit accustomed to the gesture now, and it seemed to mark those who felt too powerless to take any real action against me. Ironic that I found a symbol of my own safety in such a gesture when had first proved so intimidating.
After nearly an hour of travel, the suns beating down upon us with the heat of the late afternoon, we finally came across a ditch next to one of the fields where Nilma sat, cradling Orren’s rotting cadaver and sobbing.
Daedys began to move in front of me, but I held him back, throwing a glance over my shoulder that conveyed the intensity of purpose I now felt. He stopped where he was and let me move closer without him.
I stopped at the edge of the ditch and knelt down, hoping it would make me less daunting to an already-distraught young woman. It didn’t.
Nilma looked up at me, eyes blurred with tears, still cradling the putrid remains of Orren’s half-buried corpse. When she realized who I was, she spat. Even from the distance I stood, the stench rankled and nauseated me. I tried to fight back any reaction, lest it worsen a delicate situation.
I decided not to speak first. Instead, while I waited for the uncomfortable silence to spur her to conversation, I gathered what details I could about Orren’s resting place.
A layer of brown sludge covered the ditch’s trough, making it a quagmire of water retained after recent rains. Orren’s body remained half concealed under the muck his tattered and worm-eaten shirt clinging to his body like some bloody flag fallen on a battlefield. But there was no blood, the clods of mud stuck haphazardly to his torso and face having a decidedly lighter hue. Of course, sitting in wet avar, rotting and bloating, would make any determination of the body’s original state before its deposition speculative at best.
The likely cause of death, though, was obvious; the boy’s throat had been slit from under one ear to the other, the wound deep and ragged, exposing the glint of dirty spine underneath. From that orifice, the water and mud would have entered the body, quickening deterioration under the hot suns, leaving us less to discover from the corpse than I’d hoped for. At a minimum, the appearance of the wound made clear that the attack had not been made in the heat of passion. It may have been quick, a surprise ambush, but it would have had to have been planned, premeditated. The killer would have either had to hold the boy down or stood behind him to get such a thorough cut through the neck. I bet on behind, where the arterial spray would have been less likely to cover the killer and inhibit an escape.
The location also made clear that the murder had not occurred here. This field lay at the edges of the farmers’ fields ringing Vaina, the ditch on the outward-facing edge of the field, where the farmer would be unlikely to pay much attention until harvest time—barring some unforeseen event in the interim, at least.
No, I supposed that the body had been moved here, dumped so that it was unlikely to be found. How then had Nilma come across it?
The young woman wiped a tear from her face, leaving a smudge of wet avar across her cheek. Her wedding dress had been torn and ruined by the absorption of the ditchwater and even more putrescent liquids. I stared at her now, hoping to glean some insight into her mind by her appearance and behavior. My mind dragged now after the confrontation with Magaréil and my overuse of the Art; had I wanted to use less conventional means to steal her thoughts from her, I still would have been unable to. And, as I said before, I had no desire to walk down that path of the Art, not for all the advantages it might have. The fruit it would bear would be poisoned, indeed.
Nilma’s expression indicated despair. Not despair at being discovered; it had neither resignation nor defiance of expected consequences. No, it carried the sorrow of memory, of tragedy relived in the mind but that could never be changed, never rewritten. I realized then that she had, for better or worse (and I supposed the latter), loved Orren, despite the treatment she’d received at his hands. I’m told that love is a many-splendored thing, the greatest of all possible relationships to be had by any spirit, anywhere. But my experience, of both reality and the ballads, is that love is more often tragic.
But in that moment, I knew that she had little to do with Orren’s death. I remained unwilling to say “nothing,” because I’d seen plenty of unintended consequences of act or omission lead to the injury of a loved one, and I expected the same to be likely here.
“Orren’s spirit lied!” she said, softly, still choking back tears.
“I know,” I told her in the gentlest voice I could manage.
She looked at me in disbelief. “How?”
“Because I have the Sight, and I saw that the spirit pretending to be Orren to spoil your wedding was an impostor.”
“Impostor? From where?”
“Never mind that now.”
Deadys stood far enough back that he couldn’t hear our conversation. “What are you doing over there…lord thaumaturge? Pull her out of that ditch so that I may arrest her and bring her to justice.”
I threw him a glance, more threatening than the first, that warned him against making further demands of me at such a time. His frustration caused him to pace as I continued my conversation with the young woman.
“How did Orren come to rest here?” I asked.
“I—I don’t know,” she replied.
“Then how did you come to find him here?”
“I didn’t believe them when they said he’d left town. So I looked for him. I spent all of my free time in the mornings and the evenings looking for him. One day, about a month after he left, I found him here.”
“And you’ve told no one that he was here?”
“Despite the fact that his spirit attacked you? Despite the fact that his spirit torments Lady Aevale even now?”
“I—I didn’t want to lose him.”
It was a fool’s answer, to be sure, but foolish enough that I believed it. Love does strange things to a person’s mind.
The sound of heavy footsteps interrupted our conversation. I turned, expecting to see Daedys advancing once again, but instead I saw only his back, turned against newcomers, his sword drawn. I stood and turned as well, but without pulling my blade before I understood the situation.
Dalen im Valladyn waddled closer, three of his lackeys pacing slowly before him, armed with halberds. They stopped far enough away that no blows could be exchanged. At their distance, none of them could see what was in the ditch behind us, but they knew all the same. They’d come looking for the woman in the first place, and someone had told them where to search.
“Nilma?” the father called.
“Father?” daughter responded.
At that, Dalen took a step forward, but Daedys brought his sword into a ready stance, stopping the fat man in his tracks.
“She’s under arrest,” Daedys said, voice cold and irrefutable.
“Now, now, Master Constable,” the merchant returned. “I’m sure we need not be so hasty as to take the ramblings of a mad spirit as evidence.”
“That accusing spirit was my nephew, what evidence more do you need?”
“But it wasn’t, Daedys. You know that,” I reminded him.
He responded to me without turning his gaze from the Valladyni intruders. “But she knew where to find the body. And she lied about it.”
“That doesn’t make her a murderer,” I told him.
“Yes, listen to the Lord Thaumaturge. He speaks reason,” im Valladyn interjected.
“Shut up,” Daedys and I said to him, almost in unison. The merchant stepped back at the affront, as if slapped. His men brought their halberds into readied positions.
“I’ve talked to her,” I pleaded. “She had feelings for your nephew—strong ones—but she didn’t kill him.”
“She’s lied to you before,” he protested. “There are better ways of putting her to the question.” That was the wrong thing for him to say.
“Like you tried to do to me?” I asked, anger surging. He’d made me kill men, and no amount of temporary camaraderie would assuage the blame I held him to for that.
“I—” he attempted.
“That is quite enough,” im Valladyn said, not in the voice of a warrior but in the voice of a father whose petulant child has driven him to exasperation. It wasn’t entirely inappropriate, I suppose. “You will turn over my daughter to me, or there will be blood.”
I pulled my staff, which I’d left lying at the edge of the ditch, to my hand with a minor sorcery. The polearmed retainers stepped back at that, expecting more. I had no more to give after confronting Magaréil, but they need not know that.
“Are you sure that’s what you want, Dalen im Valladyn?” I warned.
“Want? Want has nothing to do with it! You will give me my daughter!”
He was right, of course. No petty theatrics would dissuade him from his parental duties. I drew my sword, letting the point fall low toward the ground, and took a place at the constable’s side, forming a two-man wall between the interlopers and the ditch. “I’m sorry, Master Dalen, but this must be done the right way. And I do have more questions for your daughter before we are done, though I assure you that no harm will come to her.”
The halberdiers took another step forward, but Dalen raised his hand and called for them to halt. “Wait! Maybe there is another way that we can rectify this. You know I am a man of means. Perhaps we can come to an arrangement of some sort that benefits everyone more than violence?”
“Damn you, im Valladyn,” Daedys growled. “Thinking your wealth sets you above the rest of us. I’ll not let you subvert justice with your filthy lucre!”
I wasn’t sure that either of them had but the most tenuous grasp of justice at this point, but neither was justice my primary concern. Nilma might have more information that I could use; I’d not let that opportunity pass by.
Im Valldyn looked to me, eyebrow arched. What made him still think he could buy me defied belief and offended me to my core. “No, Master Dalen. This will not be about money.”
“Isn’t it, though?” He returned. “That’s why you’re here in the first place, isn’t it?”
He wasn’t wrong, but a man has to have a code. “I’m a professional, not a mercenary,” I told him. “I made an oath to Lord amn Vaina to see my investigation to the end, and I intend to do just that.”
The merchant drew in a deep breath of exasperation and resignation. “So be it,” he said. “Put them down, but try not to kill them,” he told his retainers.
The men moved forward cautiously, warily observing our stances as they approached, searching for some weakness of defense. Thinking he’d found one, the first of the halberdiers pulled his weapon back to strike at me. I moved sword and staff together to ward what would undoubtedly be a heavy blow.
It never came. Instead, a gunshot pierced the air. Too distant to have been fired by one of the combatants, but close enough to throw a shiver down every man’s spine. The sound of hooves followed the crack of the weapon, and we were soon surrounded by Lord Aryden and several of his guardsmen, arranging themselves in a semi-circle against the ditch.
The lord had shoved the arquebus he’d fired into a sheath on his saddle and now held one of his wheelock pistols. “Throw down your arms,” he said.
We did as we were told, all of us. What alternative was there?
From horseback, Aryden could see Nilma in the ditch, still holding onto Orren’s putrefying corpse. “Good God, girl!” he exclaimed. “What in all the hells are you doing down there in the mud clutching a dead boy?”
He looked to me, expecting some explanation. “Daedys and I found her here like this,” I said. “I don’t think that she’s responsible for Orren’s murder, but she did know that the body was here. Has for some time, it seems.”
“My lord, if I may—” Dalen began.
“You may not, Master im Valladyn. I’m sorry, but your daughter will be coming with me. She’ll be treated as a guest, of course, until we’ve got this all sorted out. Go home and wait for me to send for you.”
“Go home!” Aryden’s command was unquestionably final. Dalen’s retainers hesitated until their lord indicated that they could recover their weapons, at which point they picked them up and moved swiftly through the gap between horses that Aryden’s men allowed. Dalen waddled behind, muttering to himself.
“Lord thaumaturge, I believe you have a good deal to explain to me about what’s befallen us these past hours. Walk with me,” He turned to his own retainers. “Passyl, please escort Mistress Nilma to the castle and have Eldis prepare a room and fresh clothing for her. Sateros and Gallo, recover the body and bring it to Master Endan for examination.”