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It started with a knock at his door in the middle of the night, then someone urgently whispering his name through the keyhole, a voice he didn’t recognize.
In his still dream-like state, the words seemed to float toward him like a ghost of sound.
What was going on?
He was in bed with his wife, Marysa, spending his eighth full night in Villiren. Jeryd had only just become used to the late-night noises of the city, the constant hubbub, and people walking by his window at all hours—sounds that played on his mind even when his eyes were closing. Sleep was a precious business, and being in a different bed was like living in a different context. His life felt full of disorder—which was ironic, really, considering that it had now been stripped down to the bare minimum.
He rubbed his hand over his paunch, and absentmindedly swished his tail back and forth at the tip. Too damn late in the evening for such a disturbance. Over a hundred and something years to reflect on, and he couldn’t remember the last time his life seemed like this, so constantly up in the air. Until recently his work had always been his life. He had felt safe when representing the Inquisition of Villjamur. He knew what the routines were, what was expected of him. He had substance, a knowledge of where he did and did not fit in, and now without his regular routine, the confidence of his many years was undermined.
The only calibrator of his previous existence was his wife, Marysa. Marriages had their ups and downs, didn’t they, but recently they had both rediscovered their love for each other, and that made his existence just fine. In fact, their separation from their home city had brought them even closer together. He couldn’t want much else. He glanced instinctively toward Marysa whose white hair, such a contrast with her tough, black skin, now attracted the glare of one of the moons as it slanted through the shutters in strips. Her own tail wafting gently beneath the sheets, the presence of her sleeping form was deeply comforting.
Again came that whisper: “Investigator Rumex Jeryd!”
“Oh, hang on!”
Now he was more annoyed at his sleep being disturbed than curious as to the reason someone wanted to speak to him. For a moment he lay there thinking, If someone calls on you in the middle of the night it’s seldom to tell you anything nice. Should I bother seeing who it is?
Embers were still glowing in the grate, and the dust that had accumulated over the years in the room was pungent. This was only temporary accommodation because, with a war predicted, he didn’t know how long he’d stick around here.
“Please, open up.” The voice was calm and firm, one clearly used to issuing orders.
He flipped himself out of bed, hanging his legs over the end. Already wrapped up in thick layers, he was wearing outside them an outrageous pair of red night breeches with hundreds of tiny gold stars stitched into the fabric. Marysa had bought them for him on their way out of Villjamur. She claimed he was too grumpy, that he needed cheering up, that he should smile more often. Vaguely ashamed, the ability to smile almost forgotten, he tiptoed across the room, his heels creaking on the floorboards.
A spider scurried across the floor, then under the cupboard, and he froze. This was Jeryd’s secret shame: He feared and hated the creatures, always had since he was a child. They infested him with paralysis and brought him out in a cold sweat. The bulbous shape, their skittering movements—such disgusting creatures.
Shuddering, but now very much awake, he crouched to look through the keyhole, but could only see blackness beyond . . .
Then an almost-red eye appeared on the other side and stared back at him.
Jeryd jumped back and said, “Just a moment.” He opened the door.
An albino was standing there, his pale skin glowing white even in this light, so you might easily think him a ghost. A Jamur star was pinned to his breast, conspicuous against the black fabric of his uniform. “Sele of Jamur, Investigator Jeryd. I’m Commander Lathraea.”
Jeryd recognized the softly spoken officer, one he had known from Villjamur but never met. He was a tall man, with narrow cheeks, a thin nose, and there was the faint whiff of aristocracy about him. But Jeryd had heard he possessed a little grit and know-how, qualities to be admired, attributes he could rely on. He’d also heard stories about how good this man was with a sword, how logical his mind was on a battlefield, how unusually compassionate he was as a leader.
“Sele of Jamur, commander,” he mumbled in response, rubbing his eyes. “What can I do for you?”
The commander moved aside as Jeryd stepped out into the corridor, pulling the door shut to allow Marysa some quiet. For a moment, the officer eyed Jeryd’s breeches with fascination. Why couldn’t she have bought him a pair in black or brown, a color that would blend with the night? Red with gold stars, indeed.
The commander continued, “I put the word about for an investigator, and was told you’d come up recently from Jokull. I’d rather put my trust in someone from any other island than this one.”
Jeryd liked that because it confirmed two suspicions right away. One, the commander was a man who operated on loyalty; and two, Jeryd wasn’t the only one to assume this city was full of scumbags.
He replied, “Well, I’m as paranoid as any man can become these days, so your secrets are safe with me, commander. Though you could also say I’m not exactly welcome back there . . .”
“What did you do to end up here?”
Only piss off the Chancellor—now Emperor—by uncovering corruption at the heart of the Empire. Then went on the run from those who might call me in. Came to the only city in the Empire that takes the law into its own hands, and whose Inquisition is independent of the Villjamur—though it’s not meant to be. Therefore found somewhere I could use my official medallion and connections to get work, and not starve during this ice age. All without any questions being asked. These were the things he wanted to say, just to tell anyone, to get it off his chest.
Instead he muttered, “They never liked the fact that I didn’t complete my paperwork on time. It turns out that this benighted hole of a city is the best place for me.”
The commander frowned, gave a discreet nod. “Fair enough.”
“What about you, commander? Not the prettiest town about for you, either.”
“No, but it still needs defending. This city faces military threats, and we’re here to oversee the defense operation.”
“You surely don’t want me to help with that, do you?”
“No. But one of our soldiers has gone missing, a Night Guard named Private Haust. He was tall, thin, blond, blue eyes—typical of the southwest islanders. He’d only been in our unit for a couple of months, and was incredibly proud to be serving here. There’s no reason for him to simply leave his post, especially with duties still to be carried out. He’d be thrown out of the army for ignoring them, yet he’s been missing for six days now.”
“What took you so long to come here then?”
“We conducted our own searches for the first couple of days, but our resources are limited—and the local Inquisition claimed they were too busy, then someone mentioned an officer from Jokull in the city, without many cases to deal with. I applied gentle military pressure until we got your name and address.”
For a moment Jeryd wondered how easy it would be for his present location to be given away to some clever sod from Villjamur. If they would even bother to come looking for him, of course.
“And I’ve heard about other people who have gone missing, too—not just Haust. A surprisingly large number, in fact.”
“They could just be getting the hell out of here because of the Freeze,” Jeryd suggested, while considering his options.
“Not that many without leaving some hint,” the commander argued.
“Most people in this city seem preoccupied with just getting through each day as it comes, rather than trying to escape the ice—or even the threat of war. Besides, where else would they go? No, from all that I’ve heard, they’ve simply vanished from their homes.”
Jeryd asked him for the usual details about the missing Private Haust, seeking minor clues that might help out immediately. To his mind, every detail mattered. From what the commander said, it sounded as if this could have been a murder, yet there was not a lot Jeryd could do in a city as unruly as this, with so little to go on. People went missing all the time. From his experience, such disappearances were an all-too-common mystery.
“This would usually be the sort of thing I’d send some of my men out to investigate,” the commander explained, “but what with events in the north, and events anticipated in the future, we’re all too busy planning and training. I need someone else to trust on this.”
“You’re a very suspicious man, I see,” Jeryd said, approvingly.
“I’ve reason to be. I don’t even trust our Chancellor—who’s Emperor now, of course. Apologies, I’m still not used to the overthrow of the Jamur lineage.”
“We’ve something in common there, commander.”
Jeryd remembered all too clearly the events that transpired in Villjamur. The information he himself had uncovered. The replacement of the Jamur family line with a new ruler. The conspiracies of the religious cults. How Urtica had moved from Chancellor to Emperor overnight, by cunningly manipulating facts and words, money and people.
The albino smiled at him and nodded, confirming a shared opinion. Jeryd then decided that they had an agreement; that he would look into this matter first thing in the morning.
As the lithe commander strolled off down the corridor, Jeryd shuffled back to bed in his controversial breeches, put his arm around Marysa, his curves molding closer into hers, and began to contemplate just how the hell he was going to navigate his way around a city about which he still knew next to nothing.