Muddy water and putrefaction pooled around Orren’s corpse on the iron slab where it had been placed in the center of Endan’s infimary. Glassy eyed, rotting face frozen in an expression of surprise and fear, the young man—what had been the young man—lay on its back, staring upward at nothing.
Examining it through a pair of glasses fixed with additional rotating lenses of various magnifying powers, occasionally shifting between them, the doctor mumbled to himself. At regular intervals, he shifted to the lit lectern set nearby and scrawled a line or two of notes.
I watched silently, hoping that his observations might supplement my own and not wanting to skew his conclusions with my own thoughts. Most doctors would have had little useful knowledge in ascertaining details of death from a corpse. There purview was to save the living, of course, and except for the occasional dissection of cadavers for purposes of physiological speculation, few had anything to do with a body once the spirit had left it. But Endan had been a barber-surgeon as much as a doctor, a military medic who’d no doubt seen as much death as life. I imagined that he’d often been forced into that worst of triages: determining who might still be saved and leaving those beyond help to the business of dying. Beyond that, I expected that he’d walked many battlefields after the fact, his medical knowledge allowing insights into the observed processes of decay and decomposition that his fellows from the university had never experienced.
“Lord thaumaturge,” he said, looking up from a bout of his notes.
“Iaren’s fine, doctor,” I told him.
“Yes. My lord has informed me that we are not to believe the outcry of the errant spirit that appeared o’er the amn Esto wedding and to discount Nilma as the killer. I’m not sure I received all of the details, but Lord Aryden seemed to indicate that the spirit meant to exact an unrelated vengeance in making such a claim. He said that you’d want as thorough an inspection of the body as possible in hopes of finding the true killer, since our victim seems not to be so forthcoming. I’m told he was pulled out of a ditch in the far fields.”
“And when you encountered him, he was exposed? His body, I mean.”
“Partially. From about the waist up.”
“He’d been fully buried originally. Not deeply, mind you. But someone had taken the time to hide the body.”
“How do you know?” I asked.
With the edge of a small knife, he pointed to a yellowed, waxy patch of flesh exposed in the young man’s torso. “See that?” he asked. “Corpse wax, it’s called. You see it when a body is submerged. Swamps and the like. When it isn’t exposed to the air, otherwise—” he pointed to the less stable viscera nearby the preserved spot, which seemed to be slowly flowing even now, “you get that kind of liquefying rot. He didn’t stay buried long. That’s no surprise in one of those ditches running between fields, where the rains will make mud of the earth and then the suns will dry it back out until it cracks and powders. A body remains buoyant for some time after death, so each of those rains typically pushes it back to the surface, bit by bit. One of many reasons we don’t bury our dead.”
“Hmm,” I responded. “So whoever buried him there either didn’t know better or wanted the body to be found.”
“I agree,” Endan said, marking the observation amongst his notes. “A sign of remorse, perhaps? The killer needed time to distance himself—or herself—from suspicion but hoped that the body would ultimately receive its last rites? Perhaps the killer feared that he would become a restless spirit without them? Who does that remind us of?”
“That could be anyone, Endan. Ask any person in Vaina and I bet they can tell you a story about restless spirits and vengeful ghosts. Besides, I expect that whoever did this had some experience with violence, perhaps a history of military service.”
Endan paused a moment to think about it. “Perhaps. The depth and width of the slice to poor Orren’s throat indicates strength if not skill. The cut is clean at the edges; there was no hesitation in making it. One fell sweep of the hand. Our killer either had experience in such an act or had determined the action well before-hand. This would have been a bloody-handed thing, though its time in the ditch has washed the body somewhat, so an experienced—or clever—killer would have stood behind when it happened.” He waved the knife over the boy’s neck in mimicry of the action.
“I had the same thought.”
“I’d say at first that it reminds me of a scout silencing a sentry, but there’s something of the butcher’s trade in it, too,” the doctor added.
“The boy’s head was jerked hard enough to dislocate the vertebrae. This is unlikely to have happened on its own, but with such a deep cut destroying much of the supportive tissue around it, the act would require violence of execution but not too much in the way of strength. It suggests that the killer pulled Orren’s head back to expose the throat but pushed it forward after finishing the slice. Like a butcher holds a goat’s or a pig’s head if it hasn’t been strung up, to let the blood flow freely and away from the butcher himself. To exsanguinate the creature. A soldier acting on habit would have let the body fall, moved on to the next task at hand, more likely.”
“But the boy was exsanguinated?”
“Most definitely. If he’d not been soon after the attack, some of the blood would have congealed in the body, but I’ve found none. The movement of the blood through the severed arteries would have accomplished bleeding him out at first, but at some point the boy may have needed to be hoisted by the legs to let gravity do the rest.”
“The killer knew he’d be transporting the body somewhere and didn’t want to leave a trail behind him.”
“Yes,” Endan nodded. “I believe so.”
“Then either multiple people had to have been involved or everything in the ambush had to be perfectly arranged beforehand.”
“With this much decay, it’s difficult to tell, but I’m not sure I see any signs of struggle. He was a calf to the slaughter. Quick and nothing to be done once the knife had struck. At least, that’s how it looks.”
“Then the boy definitely knew the killer, had some comfort around him or her. Had his guard down.”
“Or the killer used the Art on him,” Endan said, again writing the thought into the leather-bound notebook resting on his lectern. “Would you be able to detect that, lord thaumaturge?”
“This far after the fact? No. Every working leaves a lingering presence, one that can be read like a signature for those with the skill and enough knowledge of the practitioner. But they fade, some quicker than others. Only the most powerful linger more than a few days or weeks.”
“Too bad,” Endan mused. “Between you and I, we speak freely. But officially, the witch Falla did this, my lord says. I had hoped that the official and the unofficial might be one and the same.”
“They are not, I’m afraid,” I told him.
“I see. Well then, I hope you find justice for the boy, since I cannot.”
I wanted to tell him that I wasn’t there for that. But it didn’t matter.