When we arrived at Aryden’s office, Daedys nudged me in, his face a sympathetic wish of good luck, and closed the door behind me, leaving Lord amn Vaina and I alone.
“Where the fuck have you been? God, man, you’re not even fully dressed,” he railed.
I looked down at my bandaged chest, beige linen flecked and stained with red against beige flesh. With the drink beginning to wear off, I noticed the considerable pain from where I’d stretched my wounds. The sharp pull of flesh indicated that the wounds underneath had been stitched together, which had limited the loss of blood from my active morning but ached fiercely where the stitches had strained against flesh. “I went for a drink,” I said petulantly.
“You went for a—” he stopped himself and drew in a breath before continuing in a more controlled voice, “We do not have time for such indulgences, lord thaumaturge. I need you to finish your investigation and be rid of this spirit before anyone realizes that the witch had little to do with it.”
“I’ve solved the murder,” I told him, bluntly.
Aryden leaned forward against his desk, steepling his fingers. “You have?”
“You murdered Orren im Varde, Aryden. And then you hired me to investigate the crime you’d committed.”
“I didn’t hire you to investigate a crime, foolish boy. I hired you to get rid of a spirit.”
“You don’t deny it?”
“That I killed the boy? No.”
“He was having an affair with your wife and you killed him for it.”
“What? No, Aevale is innocent in this.”
“Then why does Orren’s spirit afflict her?”
“I don’t know. Vengeance upon me, I imagine. A cruel reminder.” Aryden’s eyes began to water slightly before he wiped them with the back of his hands, drew in another slow breath, and hardened himself.
“A reminder of what?” I continued.
He looked at his desktop as he spoke, avoiding my eyes. “My wife did not have an affair with Orren,” he paused, and for a moment I thought he had finished his statement, but he continued, “I did. I’d never felt much attraction for men before, but I found myself besotted with him, uncontrollable in my passions. I broke my pledge to Aevala, may I be damned for it.
“But after the first few weeks of our tryst, the truth revealed itself. My passions waned and, realizing it, Orren sprang the trap he’d always intended. He told me that he’d reveal our secret if I did not give him what he wanted, ruin my relationship with Aevala, ruin my reputation, dash all of the plans I’ve so carefully been making all of these years—”
“So you killed him for it?”
“No. Not for that. Not that only, at least. I’d thought to give him what he wanted.”
“A great deal of money. Letters of introduction to our contacts in Ilessa. A betrothal to Vesonna—not to be completed, but enough to bring him some fame amongst the nobility and help him establish a reputation. He wanted me to make a gentleman of him, living free in the city at my expense. It was a setback to my own designs, to be sure, but one I could manage. And I was desperate.”
“Then why kill him?”
Now, Aryden looked up at me. “Because he told me how he’d done it. How he’d put me in such a position.”
Pieces fell into place within my mind. “A love potion,” I said.
He nodded. “One he said he’d gotten from Falla. The two of them schemed against me together.”
“I’m sorry, Aryden. They didn’t.”
“Nilma got the potion from Falla. To use on Orren. Only he stole it from her and used it on you.”
“The witch had nothing to do with it?”
“No. You burned her only for your appearances.”
Aryden swallowed hard at that. “Unfortunate. But necessary all the same,” he said, perhaps to himself as much as to me. “So where does that leave us in terms of getting rid of Orren? We’ve burnt the body. You know now how he died. What do we do?”
“I’ve been wondering about that myself,” I told him.
“Then what good are you?” his voice turned from vulnerability to accusation in a heartbeat.
“The murder isn’t the cause,” I said, the realization only coming to me as I spoke the words.
“Put your pride and ego aside, my lord,” I told him, the final two words unavoidably caustic. “This isn’t about you. You made it happen, in part, yes. But not fully. It’s about Aevala. Orren’s spirit has attached itself to her because of something she did. His revenge is on her. At least until she dies. I suspect you will be the next.”
“Something Aevala did set this in motion. She must have cursed Orren.”
“How could she—” the color drained from his face as realization crashed over him like a wave. “She knew,” he said, almost a whisper.
“She must have.”
“But how would she know how to curse the boy? The witch?” It was an idle hope, grasping at clearing his conscience more than providing an answer.
“No,” I told him.
“Then how?” color and cantankerousness returned to him as he asked.
“Theurgy does not require the Gift, necessarily. It helps, to be sure, but if she’d somehow had access to the right ritual, and been able to enact it precisely and faithfully, she could achieve such an end.”
“Who would she get such information from? And without anyone knowing?”
“That’s a good question, Aryden, but let’s confirm whether I’m right first, shall we?”
“You’re going to ask again to see her, aren’t you?”
“You are to say nothing of the details of our discussion just now, yes? And nothing about what you’ve come to know about Orren’s…death. I will of course compensate you for your loyalty. Handsomely.”
“Right,” I said, noncommittally.
“Iaren!” Aryden said, rising from his chair, a small hiss puffing from his Artificial leg. He put his hands flat on the desk and stared me in the eyes. “I will do anything to protect my family,” he said. “I don’t know whether that’s something you understand, but you’d be well-advised not to test me on this.”
He’d murdered before to protect his family—or at least to protect himself. I didn’t know how much he actually separated the two from one another. So I nodded again, slowly, though even I wasn’t sure how much I meant it.
“Have Endan take you up,” the lord amn Vaina said, nodding to the door to indicate that I should leave. “Whatever you find, you discuss it only with me.”
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