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Dubric Byerly, Castellan of Faldorrah, sat alone at a small table in the castle kitchen, his mangled breakfast congealing before him. He sipped his tea and frowned as he poked a chunk of sausage with his fork. Having spent the past half bell toying with the food on his plate, he worried he had wasted too much time pretending to eat. The beginning of an inquiry always seemed disjointed to him. Finding the first clue, the first mistake, the first hint of guilt.
Responsible for the safety and well-being of Lord Brushgar's demesne, Dubric tried to make his presence felt on a regular basis in all areas of the castle. But as he glanced up from his plate, he wondered if he had eaten too many breakfasts alone in the kitchen. The staff gave him a wide and respectful berth as they hurried through their labors, but none gave him a second glance. Could they be too used to him? Was that the problem? Maybe so, but he had to start somewhere.
Dubric contemplated the uneaten food on his plate, he watched the kitchen staff, and he glanced out the window at the blossoming dawn. He looked anywhere but at the ghost that stared at him, silently wailing.
He had woken before dawn to find the slashed horror of a scullery maid's corpse standing beside his bed. Her gaping spirit still stood before him in a uniform drenched and dripping with blood. He could not recall her name and had no idea where her body might be. He only knew that she had been murdered, in his castle, and that he would see her pained and tortured apparition until he put the matter to rest. Cursed by the Goddess Malanna after his wife's murder forty-three summers before, Dubric had long struggled to ignore the horrid images of wrongful death.
The ghosts came to him in the darkest part of night, in the brightest days of high summer, whenever they happened to die. The ghosts would stare at him, their glazed eyes pleading, knowing he alone saw them, saw their torment, and would do his best to avenge them. A praying man would thank the Goddess that he saw only those murdered within the range of his responsibility and no others. But Dubric had denounced religion the day Oriana died and had never looked back.
The scullery maid was his fourteenth ghost, and he had ultimately solved all of their deaths, except one. He thought of his one failure for a moment, then pushed the guilt away. She had been dead for so long, more than thirty summers, and her ghost would likely walk the castle halls for all eternity.
Dubric sighed and toyed with his eggs, the fork clutched in his burn-scarred hand. In his sixty-eight summers he had found most murders to be violent yet simple affairs. Drunken fights gone awry. Spouses who erred in judgment. Lapses of reason while in the throes of extreme anger. Revenge. Uncomplicated crimes of passion, hate, or greed. Hundreds of people lived in and around the castle and occasional bloodshed was to be expected. He had solved the murders quickly, brought the killers to face justice, and continued with happier aspects of his work. But he hated the ghosts. He often wondered if he solved their murders to find justice for their deaths, or merely to get the spirits out of his sight. He hoped it was for justice, insisted in his heart it was for justice, but on this blustery morning in late winter he was far from certain.
He watched the kitchen bustle with activity as scores of folks scurried through their work. A butcher lugged in the third freshly slaughtered ewe of the morning. The herbmonger from the village argued over the price of his spices. Servitors grabbed breakfast trays and dashed away in their hurry to feed their masters. Cooks stirred, fried, and chopped. Scullery maids scrubbed. Bakers baked. Dubric watched them all for signs of stress, of nervousness, of someone stealing glances his way. None did. All seemed as oblivious to him and the scullery maid's demise as they were to her ghost.
He glanced at the ghost and wondered what to try next. She had been murdered, that much was obvious, but was not missing. Yet. He did not want to appear crazy, paranoid, or-King forbid-guilty, so ordering a castlewide search was out of the question until someone noticed her absence. Besides, for all he knew, her body had been dumped in a privy or destroyed. She was a scullery maid, he was certain of that, and logically his search should begin in the kitchen. If no one from the kitchen was to blame, then who?
The thought died in an instant and he paused, his fork poised over mangled eggs, as a sharp, cold pain behind his eyes signaled the arrival of a new responsibility. Another ghost, this one a milkmaid, flickered into view beside the scullery maid. Both screamed at him in silent terror. Oh no, not two. He swallowed and tightened his fist around the fork to keep it from trembling as he looked at the new arrival. The second ghost was Elli Cunliffe, an orphan who had been left on the stoop fifteen summers before.
He set his fork beside his plate and wiped his mouth with a fine linen napkin. What a mess.
"Leavin' already, m'lord?" Pitta, the herald's wife and morning kitchen master, looked at him with eyes as soft as her plump body.
He forced what he hoped was a calm smile. "That I am. I have much to do today."
She gathered up his mess and smiled as well. "You've never been one to shirk, sir. Hope you have a pleasant day."
"As do I," he said, knowing it was impossible. He took one last sip of his tea. The dairy barns were on the other side of the castle, outside the west tower. If he hurried, and had any luck at all, the other milkmaids would have overslept and Elli's killer might still be there with the scullery maid tucked under his arm.
Keep on dreaming, you old goat. About as much chance of that as the cows becoming excellent witnesses.
He set aside his tea, straightened his tunic, and tried not to appear to hurry across the kitchen.
He walked past the butcher, dodged a lackey carrying a sack of potatoes, and paused near the baker's ovens to allow a trio of scullery maids to hurry by with trays of dirty dishes. "Mornin', sir!" a voice called from beside him.
Dubric turned and hid the cringe he felt at the delay. Everyone knew the baker's assistant loved to chat while he kneaded bread. But he was a decent fellow. What could a greeting hurt? "Good morning, Bacstair. How are you this fine day?"
"Doing fine, sir," he said as he raised his forearm to wipe a sheen of sweat from his brow. The mound of dough flexed, stretched, and rolled under Bacstair's expert pounding. "Otlee tells me you've passed him in history and mathematics. He's hoping to make senior page soon."
Dubric's ghosts looked on as he replied. "He is a smart boy, but he is only twelve summers. He will be a senior page soon enough. Tell him to be patient. It will happen in its own time."
Bacstair massaged the dough with his fingers. "Tis what I tell him, sir, but he works so hard at his studies."
Dubric said, "His marks are excellent."
Bacstair smiled proudly and sifted a handful of flour over the dough. "Thank you, sir. The missus and I were talkin' about it just the other day. Neither of us had a lick of education past the primers. We can write our names, read the signs in the village, not much more . . ."
Dubric nodded despite his urge to hurry. Basic education was available, and encouraged, for the common folk of Faldorrah. Few continued past the primers, though; their families desired income more than knowledge. Even with the certain realization that wisdom had freed the people from the dark's oppression, children were rarely educated beyond their eighth or ninth summer.
". . . but Otlee, sir, he was always eager to learn." Bacstair chuckled and shook his head. " 'Scuse my blabberin', sir, but we know you had'ta stick your neck out to get Lord Brushgar to approve his posting. Us bein' commoners and all."
"It was no hardship, Bacstair. Really. He is a smart boy. That is all that mattered to me."
Bacstair lifted the dough and slammed it down. A billow of flour coughed into the air around him, dusting his arms and his apron. "You've given our boy a grand gift. In a summer or two he'll make senior page. When he's sixteen summers he can squire. At twenty he can be knighted, become a noble. Maybe he'll even be a lord someday. You've opened the world to him, sir." He flipped the dough over itself, pummeling it with his fists.
Dubric chuckled and shook his head as he remembered. The youngest knighting of a squire had happened nearly fifty summers ago. Tunkek Romlin, the man who would later become King, had led a group of squires and pages, including Dubric, to wrestle the land from the dark mages. All had returned to Waterford alive. If anyone had ever deserved to be knighted, Tunkek had. Dubric's hand fell to the hilt of his soldier's sword and his fingertips traced along the pommel. Despite the horror, his sharpest memories of the War of Shadows were good ones. They had been so young then. Seven friends, all squires or pages, on a noble quest to save the world. But after Tunkek's knighthood, after summers of slogging through blood and death and fire as if they were immune to it all, his friends had begun to die.
Dubric pulled his hand from his sword. Certainly they had been young. Young, idealistic, and stupid. But that was then, times had changed, and the world had moved on. Otlee might be young and idealistic, but he was far from stupid. His knighthood would reasonably wait until his midtwenties, or later. With luck, Otlee would never have to test his mettle in war or watch someone he loved die on a battlefield. "Twenty is a long way from twelve," Dubric said. "Tell him to enjoy where he is right now and not worry so much about the future."
The head baker rushed past, tapping Bacstair on the back of the head. "Bacstair, quit jabbering with his lordship! Ye've got work to do!"
Bacstair dropped his eyes, his exuberance gone like smoke on a bitter wind. He selected a long thin dough knife and sliced the mound of dough into sections, braving a glance at Dubric. "I will tell him that, sir. But thank you. Thank you for what you've done for my boy. For my family."
Dubric tilted his head in a friendly bow despite the dreadful stares from the pair of ghosts. "You are quite welcome. He is a good lad and does a fine job."
Bacstair rolled the sections into neat balls. "Thank you again, sir, but I'd best be gettin' back to work."
Dubric turned to go. His ghosts followed as he pushed through the crowded kitchen.
Moments later, a sharp-eyed, blond-haired senior page ran into the kitchen, scattering the workers like dandelion seeds. Dubric smiled at the sight of him. The son of a neighboring lord, Lars was a vital member of Dubric's personal staff, and the only page to ever achieve that questionable honor. Although jarring to the workflow in the kitchen, Lars's sudden arrival brought Dubric hope. Perhaps a body had been found.
Dubric brushed past a lackey dragging a sack of flour and hurried across the kitchen while his ghosts trailed behind him. Lars tilted his head toward the door and slipped out to the hall. Dubric followed a moment later.
The service hall was crowded with serving girls carrying trays of hot food to the great hall and scullery maids lugging dirty dishes back to the kitchen. They looked hot, sweaty, and tired. Their hair had plastered to their damp brows and their uniforms hung stained and limp from their sagging shoulders. Food-spattered lackeys dodged among them with other supplies and tools. Past the congestion of the kitchen staff, Lars waited in a side hall that led to the kitchen storage rooms. Dubric saw the pale shine of his hair in the torchlight and he pushed through to the relative quiet of the hall.
They walked a few steps away, out of earshot. A moon or two shy of fifteen summers, Lars had nearly reached Dubric's height and he leaned close as he delivered his news. "We've found a milkmaid, sir, outside of the west tower. Murdered."
Praise the King! Elli had been found. He had one fewer body to worry about this morning. Dubric smoothed his tunic and hid his relief behind the urgency in his voice. "Fetch my cloak and meet me there."
"Yes, sir!" Lars said, and hurried to the great hall. Dubric followed close behind as the kitchen workers tried to make room. Lars slipped between a pair of scullery maids and disappeared into the breakfast crowd milling in the great hall. Above them all, as if separate from the noise and rabble, flags of the Lands of Lagiern hung from the beams; their colors gleamed bright in the golden light of dawn. Faldorrah's flag, white sheep and golden grain on a field of rich, vivid green, shone brightest of all. Brighter even than the King's purple standard. Dubric looked to the flags and smiled despite himself.
Dubric closed his eyes for a moment. Murder had come to his castle. He would do everything within his power to bring justice back, ghosts be damned. He ignored the hungry crowd and turned to the left, toward the carved bulk of the main castle doors, and opened them to light snow and a beautiful sunrise. Both ghosts followed him.
The news of the murder drifted through the castle like a swirl of falling snow. Before Dubric arrived, at least fifteen people had touched the body or contaminated evidence, damaging his chance to track Elli's killer. He guessed the actual number of gawkers to be close to forty, if the crowd the pages held at bay was any indication, and fresh footprints ran hither and yon in the mud and snow. He stood beside the corpse, his heart thumping in his chest from his early morning run across the courtyard, and he wanted to scream. Elli had been rolled onto her back and her dress trampled into the mud until it tattered. Some caring, idiotic soul had wiped the worst of the muck from her face and had covered her body with a rough wool blanket, as if to protect her from the snow. Every likely clue had either been trodden into the mud or cleaned off the body. He was cold, wet, well on his way to infuriated, and had forgotten about his love of the Faldorrahn flag.
"Watch it, you fool!" someone in the crowd behind him yelled, and Dubric snapped his head back to glare at the complainer.
Lars shoved through the crowd, a heavy wool cloak in his hands, and the bellyacher, a groundskeeper named Ord, mumbled his apologies and stepped aside. Six more onlookers burst from the west tower as Lars ran to Dubric.