“What do you mean, you’ve arrested Falla?” I asked, incredulous, as I walked alongside Aryden’s horse back to the castle.
“We came across Barro as we were searching for Nilma. He told us that she was responsible for summoning the spirit that attacked the wedding, posing as Orren, so I sent Gamven, Edanu, and some of my other men to seize her and take her to the castle as well.”
I almost laughed at the paradox I’d fallen into. To have much chance at saving Falla, I’d have to reveal the existence of the cult—and I’d promised the witch I wouldn’t do that. I hoped I could be persuasive.
We trudged along the narrow ridges at the edge of the network of ditches and fields that splayed outward from Vaina. The mounted retinue moved slowly so that I could keep up. Nilma had been tied at the hands and placed in the saddle in front of one of Aryden’s riders, so she had the luxury, at least, of not slogging through the mud. I doubt she much appreciated it.
“Lord Aryden, that’s simply not true. Falla’s appearance saved Barro, Daedys and I from the spirit, allowed me to bind it so that it will trouble you no further. She sang an ancient song that blunted the spirit’s power, turned away the assaults of its minions. The very forest seemed to be at its command.”
“Isn’t that just evidence that she had power and command over the spirit in the first place?” he asked.
“No, not with a song of that kind of Power.”
“A song? Hah, you’re basing this on the fact that she sings a lovely tune?”
“Aryden,” I began, my tone perhaps a little condescending, which I blamed on weariness more than exasperation with the situation at hand. “Songs like that are rare indeed, most of them lost, and, of those that remain, few know how to sing them so that they have the intended effect. These were songs created by ancient magi, the Aenyr themselves or the first practitioners after the fall of their kingdom, the most capable magi of Cantos or Gwaenthyr.”
“Then how does a hedge witch have such knowledge, eh?”
“I don’t have an answer to that.”
“Well, something else we can ask her when we put her to the question.”
“My lord!” I pleaded. “She is innocent.”
“No one is innocent, lord thaumaturge. You of all people should know that.”
All too well, I thought. “Perhaps, but she is innocent in this.”
“But not innocent,” Aryden accentuated. “I should have been rid of her long ago anyway. She is a corrupter of the people of Vaina.”
That was the spirit, I wanted to say, but if I did, Barro would only have more for his pyres. “Then send her away. Let her go to the Sisters where she’ll trouble you no more.”
The Lord amn Vaina waved for his retinue to go on without us; they entered into a trot that carried threw up little clods of mud behind, making distance from us quickly.
“Are you sure that Nilma is innocent?” the lord asked me.
“Of Orren’s murder? Yes.”
“Good. But if she is innocent, someone else must be guilty. The amn Esti must have an explanation for today’s events that satisfies them, puts them at ease, and allows the wedding to continue. We will give them one.”
“So you’ll kill an innocent person to preserve your plans?” I asked, foolishly.
He looked at me with hard eyes. Only then did I truly understand that Lord Aryden amn Vaina was no mere entitled lordling used to getting his way. He was a nobleman of the old kind: ruthless, dedicated to his family, willing to do anything to preserve or expand the ancestral power. “Would you rather it be you, Iaren amn Ennoc? Perhaps under other circumstances, your title would protect you, but you have no family for a vendetta, and I don’t suspect that many would question your guilt in the first place. You haven’t made many friends here, have you?”
His hand had moved close to where he’d tucked the wheelock pistol into his belt, not resting upon it, but close enough that he’d have it quick to hand if need be.
“You need the amn Esto wedding to secure Vesonna’s wedding to Meradhvor, don’t you?” I asked.
“I do,” he said, matter-of-fact.
“Why so fixed on Meradhvor?”
“The Artificer Houses are the future, Iaren. Surely you know that.”
“And they want your lands. Why?”
“What does it matter, why? They can’t own them, but allying with our family is just as good. They’ll have a supply of good timber and stone, foodstuffs. We’ll have ready buyers. The commoner folk will be able to put more in their pockets, more on their tables. Maybe that will help stop their grumbling.”
“But the merchants will get richer still, won’t they? They’ll carry Meradhvor goods to market, avoid the taxes the Council has put on the Artificer Houses themselves. Everyone profits.” Except Falla, I thought to myself.
“Yes.” He paused for a moment and we continued in silence until he began again. “Once we burn Orren’s body, his ghost will depart, yes?”
“What do you mean, ‘it should?’ I thought you said—”
“I made no promises that that would be the end of things, Lord Aryden. It’s obvious that he was murdered, so we may need to bring him some semblance of justice to allay his spirit.”
Aryden frowned. “Dammit. Well, we’ll have Barro give him his rites, and you’ll tell the amn Esti and Edanu that Falla was responsible for his death and raising his spirit. She made Orren’s spirit attack the wedding—we can leave this second spirit out of it entirely. We’ll keep the amn Esti out of the keep and, if necessary, you can continue to work quietly on getting rid of him once and for all.”
“I won’t,” I protested.
“You won’t what?” Aryden said, voice sharp.
“I won’t lie for you. I won’t let you kill Falla for convenience. I’m your investigator, but I’m not your lackey to be ordered about.”
“You ‘won’t let?’ You have no say in how I run my demesne, Iaren, nor how I govern—or protect—my people. Do not forget your place.”
“I’ll not lie for you.”
“As long as you don’t contradict me, and you work quietly, I can live with that,” he conceded. Practical, pragmatic, political.
“I’ll need to talk to Falla and Nilma,” I said.
“Fine,” Aryden agreed.
“And I’ll want to examine the body before it is burnt.”
“It will be with Endan while Barro prepares. He’ll assist you.”
“And if Orren’s spirit does not leave after he receives his rites, I need to see your wife.”
Now Aryden glared. But I could see the trepidation creeping in at the edges of his face, undercutting his well-practiced hardness of visage. “If the spirit does not depart, we will discuss it.”
With a squeeze of his legs, amn Vaina spurred his horse into a canter, leaving me to journey alone to the town and its castle.