Edanu and Barro both waited in the hallway outside Endan’s laboratory. On reflex, I almost shoved the priest, now returned to his liturgical vestments, against the wall and choked him for what he’d done to Falla. But, with the House Meradhvor representative present, I had to restrain myself.
“Have you completed your investigation?” Barro asked. “Don’t you think it’s been quite long enough that the boy had gone without his rites, his spirit restless.”
“You’ll have to ask Endan,” I said. “I’ve gleaned what I can, but Endan’s the expert in this field. He didn’t seem to be finished entirely.” I didn’t share my suspicion that the doctor’s examination had turned from specific investigation to general medical curiosity.
“Why spend all this time on a corpse anyway?” Edanu smiled, as if he already knew the answer. “Once the rites are finished we’re done with the spirit, right? Ought to get that done before nightfall.”
“Which is fast approaching,” Barro added.
I pushed past him and continued on my way. Edanu drew up next to me, following along. “I know, my lord, that my House has not extended you much in the way of favor or courtesy,” he began.
I scoffed. Couldn’t help it.
He remained undeterred. “But we—I—would be very much indebted to you for your assistance.”
I stopped and checked down the hallway in both directions. We were alone. “With what?” I demanded, my voice sharp.
He grinned. “What the hell exactly is going on here?”
“You don’t already know?” I asked, suspicious.
“Unfortunately not. I’ve heard something about a second spirit, but that only raises more questions while answering none. You know why I’m here—”
“To make sure Lord amn Vaina’s daughter appraises at the value offered—or at least that everything that comes with her does.”
“Uh—if you must be so crass about it, yes.”
“I don’t have anything to do with that,” I told him. “Nor do I want to.”
“Look, my lord, I don’t have a whole lot of sway here, nor much to offer you at present, but you know the influence Meradhvor wields in Ilessa and the rest of the Sisters. You’re clearly both a skilled practitioner and investigator. Imagine getting jobs from us, and everything that entails.”
“I can, and I have. I’m no shadowman. There are already plenty who will do your dirty work for you in the Sisters.”
“Nor would you be treated as such, my lord. You’ve worked for the Council of Coin, could we really be so much worse?”
“The Council of Coin may be criminals, but they’re an honester sort than the Houses. They don’t smile at you while they twist the knife in your back.”
He stared blankly for a moment. Not because I’d offended or taken him aback; he was only searching his mind for some pathway that might lead him to be successful in his efforts to persuade. “I’m sure we can find some other arrangement, then, so that you may avoid any longterm entanglements with us. Surely a man in your position could make good use of valuable Artifice. You’ve seen the wonders our House can provide in the gifts we’ve made to Lady Vesonna and Lord Aryden.”
“What is it, exactly, that you’re after, Edanu?”
“We have intelligence that there is a Place of Power somewhere in these parts. Something has been obfuscating its precise location. I assume that this was that ‘second spirit’ that I’ve heard about—that would be the most sensible explanation. If you’ve indeed had dealings with this spirit, then you must know the location of this place.”
At the most basic, Artifice is a combination of alchemy, enchantment and engineering. It needs a power source—the Power, really, to function continuously. Since gemstones may store the Power, these are used as an animating source for the engines of Artifice. The Artifice itself is worth a great price, but the need to keep it functioning makes for a longer-term client—not unlike the hornroot peddlers in Ilessa’s Lower City. A client who needs you continuously makes for a more lucrative trade than one that does not.
All of that meant that the Houses needed to supply the fuel for their machines as well as the machines themselves. They employ a small army of minor practitioners with skill enough to channel the Power into gemstones to fuel their House’s creations but too little skill in the Art to achieve much more. More drudges in their servitude, like the poor folk who work their factories. The labor is cheap, considering; it’s the need for access to prolific sources of the Power to charge their little baubles that proves rarer and dearer.
That explained the Meradhvor interest in Vaina. The town’s access to raw materials proved a bonus, not the primary draw. They wanted something they figured even Aryden knew nothing about—and need know little about until the marriage was sealed. The family that claimed the lands, and their people, would see plenty of benefits from the arrangement without any reference to the Place of Power. Once they started to enjoy those benefits, what would it matter what some Meradhvor servants were doing out in the woods?
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I told him.
Again, he smiled. “You should learn to lie better,” he said. “You have more pressing matters to attend to, I understand. But let’s you and I revisit this conversation very soon.”
“Hmph,” I said, leaving him behind. Everyone seems to think I’m for sale, I thought to myself. But the thought of locations gave me an idea—one I was a little embarrassed not to have thought of before. I turned around and went back to Endan’s infirmary.
Barro was inside now, anxiously tapping his foot while Endan ignored him and continued to examine the body. “Is this desecration really necessary?” the priest asked.
“Yes,” Endan and I said at once, my voice from behind causing Barro to jump slightly.
The doctor looked past Barro to me. “Is there something else you needed?”
“There is, in fact,” I responded. “I’m going to need a piece of the body. A small one.”
“What?” Barro turned full force, eyes aflame with righteous indignation. “How am I to give the body its last rites if I don’t have the whole body?”
My hands went to my hips and I cocked my head condescendingly. “Surely, this is not the first body to not be whole when given the rites. Besides, there’s plenty of him already missing.”
“It’s not the same when some natural process affects the body, but when you take a piece intentionally…”
“There are plenty of folk who die without proper rites at all, and few of them become restless spirits. The last rites are a ritual, the symbolism and intent of which are more important than the formalities,” I explained, already moving past him to the doctor.
“Says the thaumaturge, for whom absolute precision in ritual is such a concern, quipped the clergyman.
“That’s the difference between theurgy and theology, my friend.”
“And you wonder why the Temple views practitioners with such suspicion.”
“I don’t think about it much at all, actually,” I told him.
Endan cut a piece of the corpse wax from the body, wrapping it several times over in a piece of cloth before putting the bundle in an oiled and waxed drawstring pouch that sat nearby. He nonchalantly extended the package to me and I took it.
Without further ceremony, I pushed past Barro again, still aghast at my apostasy, and left the room. Finding that Edanu had left, I continued down the hallway, up the stairs and toward Aryden’s office, hoping to find him there.
Hearing voices from within, I stopped at the door to the office. After three brief raps of my hand against the wood, there came the voice of Lord amn Vaina: “Who’s there, dammit?”
“Fine, fine. Come in.”
The door swung easily aside to reveal Vitella amn Esto leaning casually against the room’s window sill, smoking a cigarello.
“What—” I started.
“Close the door!” Aryden commanded.
I did, and then repeated the question. “What’s she doing here?”
She smiled at me. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’m a co-conspirator.”
“I suspected something was wrong about what happened today, gathered some information to confirm those suspicions and then met with our lord here to find a way in which I could assist.”
“Damn gossips,” Aryden interjected. “But if everyone else has spies in our house, I won’t say ‘no’ to one in someone else’s.”
“Our family needs this marriage,” Vitella joined in. “And I’ll not let the fool that leads it throw that away because of a spirit or two. So, I’ll help sell the story about the witch—and help you resolve the real problem if I can—and we’ll preserve what we’ve all worked so hard to achieve in the first place.”
“And keep our arrangement with House Meradhvor in place,” Aryden added. “So, you can speak freely in front of Lady Vitella.”
I’d come hoping to convince Aryden to change his mind about his misuse of Falla, but his having expanded his conspiracy dashed those hopes. I’d have to find another way to do what I could for her.
“Did your people find the man who tried to kill me?” I asked.
“No,” Aryden said.
I looked to amn Esto. “It wasn’t us,” she said, face contorting to indicate the shock and offense that I’d even suggest the possibility. “As I said, the family needs the marriage—so we need you.”
“Daedys says some of his men have gone missing as well,” Aryden added. “I suspect assassins sent by the amn Ydelli, another effort to thwart the marriage and the alliance between amn Vaina and amn Esto that it represents.”
More politics between nobles. “Why would they care?” I asked, stoking the fire.
“You passed through their lands in the south, on your way to Vaina. How many times were you stopped my a roadwarden for taxes?”
I chuckled. “Thrice,” I told him.
“Exactly. That’s what happens every time our merchants send goods through their territory; they attempt to steal the profits of our honest folk. At present, the carts have to go around amn Ydella lands, and that hurts profits, too, though not so severely. The alliance between amn Vaina and amn Esto gives us easier roads to market as well as more leverage in negotiating an end to the amn Ydella robberies.”
“So they send someone to kill me, hoping that that keeps your haunting unresolved and upsets the marriage?”
“That’s our suspicion,” Vitella offered.
“How would they know enough to plan something like that?”
“As I said,” Aryden returned, “It seems everyone has spies in our house.”
Their paranoia benefited me, so I did nothing to change their mind.
“Well? What did you and Endan discover?” Aryden rejoined.
“Perhaps we should wait until Barro’s performed the rites on Orren’s body to worry about that,” I responded. I needed time, and any conversation that kept me here would eat that time away like so many hungry dogs.
“You didn’t seem to have much confidence that last rites would be sufficient to allay the spirit,” Aryden rebutted. “I don’t have time to waste in resolving the matter fully and finally, so let us proceed as if more will be necessary from you and, if not, that can be a happy development.”
Vitella blew a ring of smoke into the air and smiled.
“Fine,” I said. “The boy’s throat was cut, ear to ear, and deep. Someone with strength and likely with some experience in warfare or murder—or both. He was bled out and then the body was moved and buried shallow where we found it.”
“Where Nilma found it, you mean,” the Lady amn Esto retorted.
“If you like.”
“Hmm,” Aryden said, contemplating. “So where was he killed?”
“I don’t know yet, but I have a method to find out.”
“So, once you find this killer, what happens then? You kill him?”
“I don’t think so. If Orren’s spirit had remained here simply to accuse his murderer, he would have done so by now. There’s something else, something more complex, binding him here than just his death. His spirit seems to want revenge, yes, but not by accusation.”
“We both know that Orren is killing your wife. Slowly, but inevitably, if he is not stopped.”
Aryden grimaced. “And?”
“And that either means that Orren believes she’s somehow responsible for his death or doesn’t know who is and is lashing out indiscriminately.”
“Then why does his murderer matter at all?” Vitella asked.
“It may be that the circumstances of his death, the motives and the meaning, are more important than the killer himself,” I explained. “But I need to understand the sympathies in play that transformed Orren into the powerful spirit that he is—a ghost, yes, but no mere phantom of the common variety, else he’d be banished and we’d been done with this already.”
“So, something out of the ordinary happened in relation to his murder?” the Lady continued.
“Do not say the phases of the moons,” Aryden warned.
I couldn’t help but smile a little at that. “No. I suspect the Art was at play here.”
“So Falla is responsible,” Aryden concluded.
“No. Perhaps the spirit that attacked the wedding is responsible for that aspect of Orren’s death, or the killer had some knowledge of the Art or Orren himself had some latent facility with the Art that had gone undetected.”
“So, what next?” Vitella asked.
“I keep investigating.”
She blew another ring of smoke in response.
“What about this other spirit. Barro said you bound it.” Aryden asked.
I produced the disk from my belt pouch and showed it to him. “It is imprisoned in this,” I said. “I’ll be able to interrogate it shortly and determine to what extent it had any involvement. It’s possible that it and Orren had developed a friendship of sorts and that the spirit had allied with him against you.”
“Against me?” Aryden asked. “Why?”
“It is an Orösave, a child of the Three Mothers. Ancient and bound to the Avar. The mind of such a being is not like the mind of one of mortal folk. Its designs are inscrutable to a great degree.”
“Then what use is interrogation?” Vitella pounced.
I hesitated a second, searching for an explanation that wouldn’t call into question the rest of the half-truths I’d spun to avoid mentioning the rest of the cult. “Motives, no. But facts and history, yes,” I said. “I don’t necessarily need to know why it was involved if I know how.”
“But I thought you said that motive was more important than identity,” Aryden added.
Fortunately, I’d moved into the mindset of dissembling now, and the response came quicker. “I’m simplifying things, of course. Depending upon how the spirit was involved, that may itself provide the remedy.”
“Why can’t you just bind Orren like you did this…Orösave,” Aryden asked.
“If it hadn’t been for Falla’s song, I wouldn’t have been able to,” I began. “And the comparison isn’t a good one. The Orösave is a natural spirit; Orren is a human soul, corrupted, yes, but still a human soul. The rules are different.”
“The…rules?” Vitella asked.
“Why would it surprise you that there are rules to the operation of the forces we call ‘supernatural’? What does that word even mean—the Orösave is as much a ‘natural’ part of this world as we are. People use that word to describe things that they don’t understand—the Art, spirits, Wyrgeas, the get of Sedhwé or Daea, and so on. But The One created all that is created, and They do not create without form and structure. Just look at the avar and you see this. That we don’t understand the ineffable laws by which these things operate does not mean that there are none.”
“Convenient,” Aryden muttered, ever cheerful.
“If there were not ‘rules’, structure and inescapable metaphysical laws by which Orren’s apparition operated, what good would I be to you? You might as well bring in every soothsayer in Ilessa’s lower city to advise you and try their recommendations. They’d be cheaper.”
“I know, damn you,” Aryden spat. “Why are we wasting time talking here when you could be about the business of it?”
I had to try before I left. “Falla may seem a mere hedge witch to you, but she has traveled and has learnt things many practitioners of the Art do not know. She could be very helpful to me if—”
“No,” Aryden said, his voice a slamming door. “You may talk to her in the dungeon, but that is all. If she is as you say, she’s even more dangerous to my people than I thought. That only further justifies my decision.”
“Fine,” I said, more petulant than I’d have liked. I closed the office door behind me as I left, leaving the two nobles to return to their scheming.