Humans and elves, dwarves and gnomes, wizards and warriors all live and do business in the thriving, overcrowded port city of Cliff’s End, to say nothing of the tourists and travellers who arrive by land and sea, passing through the metropolis on matters of business or pleasure—or on quests. The hard-working, under-appreciated officers of the Cliff’s End Castle Guard work day and night to maintain law and order as best they can.
Gan Brightblade is one of the world’s greatest heroes and a personal friend of the Lord and Lady of Cliff’s End. So when he’s brutally murdered in grubby lodgings in Dragon Precinct, on the eve of a great quest, the Captain of the Guard puts his two best investigators on the case. The half-elf Danthres Tresyllione and ex-soldier Torin ban Wyvald soon discover that the crime scene is empty of any forensic evidence—physical or magickal. They have no clues, and heat is on.
The Lord and Lady want their friend’s murder solved—now. The populace is mourning the loss of a great hero. The ever-unhelpful Brotherhood of Wizards could take over the case at any minute. And then another member of Brightblade’s party turns up dead….
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By Keith R. A. DeCandido
Pocket Star BooksCopyright © 2004 Keith R. A. DeCandido
All right reserved.
"What are you doing here?"
Lieutenant Danthres Tresyllione of the Cliff's End Castle Guard asked the question of her partner, Lieutenant Torin ban Wyvald. She was being confronted by a sight she'd never seen in their ten years of partnership: Torin arriving in the office before her. The only times he'd ever even gotten in at the same time as her was when they came together. Otherwise, he was always late for their twelve-hour shift.
"I work here," Torin said in reply, the white teeth of his wide grin shining through his thick red beard. The beard obscured most of Torin's face, as did his mane of red hair, which extended past his shoulders. All Danthres could truly see were his long, aquiline nose and his twinkling green eyes. Early on in their partnership, she had realized that, no matter what Torin's mood might have been, his eyes always had an amused look, as if he knew a joke that he wasn't quite ready to share with the rest of the world.
"That is the rumor, yes."
As Danthres spoke, a seven-peal chime rang all around them in the air, marking the time as seven in the morning, and the official start of the day shift, which would last until nineteen. The Brotherhood of Wizards had set up the timekeeping system, as well as the spell that rang out each hour with what everyone referred to as the "time-chimes." Danthres had never understood why they codified it so that the day began in the middle of the night -- sunup made much more sense to her, especially since their shifts were concurrent with the rise and fall of the sun. She had added that to the ever-growing list of things that annoyed her about the practice of magic.
While the chimes rang, the other four detectives in their shift entered from either the west-wall door, which connected the squad room to the rest of the castle, or from the pantry. Danthres gave Lieutenants Dru, Hawk, and Iaian a nod each. She didn't bother to acknowledge Iaian's partner, Amilar Grovis, as doing so might lead to actual conversation with the young lieutenant, something that was guaranteed to turn her stomach.
Torin said, "I had to deal with a domestic."
Danthres frowned. "You got a call? Why wasn't I -- ?"
"I didn't say I got a call, I said I had to deal with a domestic. The couple downstairs have taken their arguments to a new level -- and a new time frame. I was woken out of a sound sleep three hours before sunup by their fighting, which involved both screaming and the throwing of breakable objects."
Smiling, Danthres asked, "Did you bring them in?"
"No, but I made several threats along those lines should they ever wake me up again."
"Given what you're like first thing in the morning, that probably included a great deal of growling."
"Indeed." Torin's grin returned. "Let's hope it works."
"You know, you could just move in with me and be done with it. I certainly have the space." As she spoke, Danthres removed her brown cloak and hung it on a peg between the one holding Torin's own cloak and the empty one that Hawk never used, preferring to drape his cloak on his chair. The earth color symbolized their rank, with the gryphon crest of Lord Albin and Lady Meerka showing that they were assigned to the headquarters of the Guard, located in the eastern wing of the castle at the outskirts of Cliff's End, the city-state that constituted the Lord and Lady's demesne. Danthres liked the color, as it held dirt well.
"Danthres, we see each other at least twelve hours a day. I like the idea of having a place of my own."
"Well, at least come home with me tonight, spare yourself the bickering neighbors."
Torin laughed his hearty laugh. "I think I've sufficiently intimidated them into quiet for a few days, at least. But I may still take you up on that offer." He stood up from the large wooden desk that the partners shared, gathering up a dozen or so scrolls. "In any event, I thought I would take advantage of the opportunity to finish off some paperwork."
Danthres took her own seat, which was on the opposite side of the desk from Torin's. She watched as he walked past the other two desks in the squad room, one occupied by Dru and Hawk, the other by Iaian and Grovis, to the window that took up most of the north wall.
"The Marvilk case." In response to Torin's words, the window shimmered and twisted, changing from a view of the Forest of Nimvale that Danthres had long since grown bored with to that of a bearded male face. This was Ep, the imp in charge of the extradimensional storage area where all the Guard's files were stored, and Danthres's least favorite Guard employee.
"You know, you really don't need to tell me where the files are supposed to go," Ep said in his reedy voice. "Just send the scrolls through, I'll figure out which file to put them in by reading them."
"I thought I'd save you the trouble," Torin said politely. "After all, you're a busy imp." He placed the scrolls in the imp's beard, which also served as the gateway to the file room.
Ep sighed, an odd action coming from a face-shaped window. "I do appreciate the consideration, I suppose. At least you're nice about it, unlike your partner."
"I heard that," Danthres said.
"You were meant to."
Before Danthres could reply, the face reshaped itself back into an ordinary window. She shook her head. "Little bastard. He'll probably put them in with the triple murder."
Torin shrugged. "Probably, but at least I made the effort."
He crossed the room to the south wall, which was free of interdimensional portals, sticking with more mundane doors that Danthres, and the other detectives, had far greater use for: the three interrogation rooms and the pantry.
The latter room was Torin's destination. "I'm going to see if any good pastries are left." Sergeant Jonas's wife always baked for the day shift, but usually only the soggiest fare was left by the time Torin arrived, so Danthres couldn't blame him for wanting to take advantage of this rare opportunity. "Want any?"
"No thanks. I passed Corin's stand on the way in, and he's still grateful to us for catching that thief, so I'm laden with biscuits." She grinned. "Consider it another incentive to come home with me tonight."
Laughing, Torin continued to the pantry.
"It's disgusting, you know," said a nasal voice from behind her.
Scowling, Danthres turned to look at Grovis, who was walking over from the desk he shared with Iaian. His goggle-eyed face framed by mousy brown hair, Grovis looked even stupider than usual by virtue of the pastry crumbs around his mouth.
Danthres snarled. "What is?"
"You two associating -- fornicating like that. That sort of behavior is an affront to Ghandurha." He made several hand gestures that Ghandurha-worshipers used to ward off evil. "Especially a human with an elf -- disgusting."
"I'll have to find some way to live with your god's disappointment, Grovis." Danthres turned her attention to the piles of parchment on her half of the desk. Torin's actions this morning reminded her of how far behind she herself was on her own paperwork. The alternative was to remind Grovis that her very existence was due to a liaison between an elven man and a human woman. I'd rather drive a wooden stake through my tongue than talk to him any more than necessary.
Before Grovis could continue his own thoughts on the subject of Ghandurha's views on sex, Sergeant Jonas entered the room from the west-wall door. Grovis sat back down at his desk.
Jonas shuffled half a dozen parchments, his green cloak billowing behind him. The gray-haired veteran always seemed to be moving about one and a half times as fast as everyone else. Dru once speculated that he'd purchased a Speed Spell from the Brotherhood of Wizards, but Hawk pointed out that he could never afford such a spell on a sergeant's salary.
The sergeant surveyed the three desks and six chairs, noting that one of the latter was empty. "I see everyone's here except ban Wyvald, as usual."
"Wrong, I'm afraid." Torin reentered from the pantry as he spoke those words, powdered sugar adding white to the red of his beard.
"This is why you're not a detective, Jonas," Grovis said archly. "Never come to conclusions without all the facts."
Danthres noticed Iaian, sitting across from Grovis, rolling his rheumy eyes to the heavens, as he often did when his young partner opened his mouth.
Not even sparing Grovis a glance, Jonas turned to Dru and Hawk. "Any luck with our rapist?"
Hawk shook his head, causing his waist-length dreadlocks to bounce. "Boneen give us a better description this time, and we give it to all'a sergeants at all'a precincts, but ain't nothin' yet."
Torin asked, "Why was this one better?"
"Gettin' overconfident -- didn't wear a mask this time."
"That was foolish."
Angrily, Danthres said, "He's gotten away with six rapes."
Scratching his pale cheek, Dru said, "Well, c'mon, I mean, being able to walk through walls makes him real hard to capture."
Hawk added, "We lookin' into the local shops, seein' if anyone's sellin' Walk Through Walls Spells. Nothin' so far."
Jonas dipped his quill in the inkwell on Dru and Hawk's desk and made a note on his parchment. "What about the Brotherhood?" he asked, which prompted several snorts of derision.
Holding up a piece of parchment from his desk, Dru read from it. "'The Brotherhood of Wizards has sold no such spells within the period requested.' Like that means a damn thing."
Earnestly, Grovis said, "The Brotherhood is a noble and august organization that has regulated the use of magic since the days of Chalmraik the Foul. They deserve our respect."
Dru made a noise that was halfway between a laugh and a snort. "If they were really so shit-hot at regulating, our caseload'd be cut in half. It's harder to find a good whore in this town than black-market magic."
Primly, Grovis said, "I'm sure that you're wrong about that."
"Speaking of black-market magic," Jonas said to Grovis before Dru could reply, "where are we on our fake-glamour ring?"
"We're on the cusp of an arrest, I'm sure of it," Grovis said with a confidence that didn't extend to the expression on Iaian's face.
The older lieutenant said, "We've got some leads, nothing solid."
Jonas pursed his lips. "Captain's getting pressure from the Brotherhood on this one. It should've been put down days ago."
Iaian shrugged. "They're better than we thought. If the Brotherhood has a problem, let them deal with it. They're supposed to be the ones who regulate the use of magic, after all," he added with a withering gaze at his partner.
Ignoring the jab, Grovis said, "We will close the case, Sergeant, and I'll thank you not to take such a tone."
"You're welcome," Jonas said dryly. He turned to Torin and Danthres. "You two are up next, right?"
Danthres nodded. "Unless the magistrate needs more for that triple murder."
"Good." Jonas shuffled through his parchments. "We got a note from Dragon Precinct. One of their informants said that two halflings, a barbarian, a priest, and three warrior types -- one human, one elven, one dwarven -- all took rooms in the Dog and Duck and had dinner together."
Danthres leaned back in her wooden chair and groaned. "Lord and Lady, not another heroic quest."
"I'm afraid so," Jonas said gravely. "Dragon's been told to keep a special eye on them. Those types always get into brawls."
"Or worse," Iaian said. "I remember that group that wiped out the Boar's Head Inn."
"I don't know that inn," Grovis said.
"You wouldn't, boy." Iaian chuckled. "Even if someone like you would be caught dead in a place like that, it got burned to the ground before you were born."
Jonas said, "Last thing we want is a repeat of last year."
"What happened last year?" Grovis asked.
Patiently, Iaian explained. "Someone started a rumor about a dragon in the cliffs. We had a run of men with boiling blood and shit for brains coming through Cliff's End, each thinking he'd be the one to take it down." Iaian let loose with a rare, gap-toothed smile. "I think we set a record for assault calls that year."
Torin grinned, and he looked at Danthres. "Two coppers says that our next call is from the Dog and Duck."
"No bet," Danthres said. "But three coppers says it's a bar brawl."
Almost as if on cue, a guard ran in. He wore no cloak, but he was clad in the same leather armor emblazoned with the gryphon crest as the rest of them. "We got a body."
Jonas looked at Danthres and Torin. "All yours."
"Joy of joys," Torin said as he got up and moved toward the pegs that held his and Danthres's cloaks.
Danthres asked the guard, "Where?"
"Dog and Duck, ma'am. One of the guests."
With a look at Torin, she asked, "Bar brawl?"
The guard shook his head. "Not according to the informant, ma'am. Said the cleaning lady found a dead body in a room."
Torin was grinning again as he handed Danthres her brown cloak. "That'll be three coppers."
Ignoring him, she said, "Let's go."
Danthres and Torin traveled on foot to the Dog and Duck, located in the heart of Dragon Precinct, the business district and middle-class region of town. Danthres, who had never gotten along with any horse she'd attempted to ride, had no problem with this. There really wasn't any other way to traverse the city-state, particularly once you got out of the mansion-laden portions of Unicorn Precinct. Horse-drawn supply wagons did come through, but at a slug's pace.
The previous Guard captain, an idiot named Brisban, did have a problem with it, unlike Danthres. Then again, he also had a problem with Danthres, but that solved itself when the captain died of a lung infection. Before his death, he had tried having the patrol guards do so on horseback so they could, as Brisban put it, "pursue malefactors more efficiently." However, the horses were only able to move as fast as the slowest pedestrians without the risk of trampling, which pretty much defeated the whole point of the exercise. Walking had remained the primary mode of travel within the Cliff's End city limits. Besides Danthres, this state of affairs also pleased the owners of the dozens of stables on the outskirts of the city-state.
Danthres had last been to the Dog and Duck three years ago, when a suspect in a murder was staying there. Since then, it had been refurbished -- at least, that was how it seemed as she looked through the large crowd that had gathered around the outside, barely held in check by three guards wearing the Dragon crest on their leather armor. If nothing else, the wooden sign that hung from a small pole over the front door was newer and fancier. Where it used to be a crude painting of the two animals for which the inn was named, now much more sophisticated renderings of a canine and a waterfowl were carved directly into the wood.
Another guard was standing at the perimeter of the crowd, and walked briskly over to meet Danthres and Torin. After a moment, Danthres recognized him as Jared, one of the brighter guards assigned to Dragon -- which meant that he could occasionally, if absolutely necessary, form a complex sentence.
"Mornin', Lieutenants. C'mon, I'll get you two inside."
"What've we got?" Torin asked as the guard started pushing the gawkers aside to clear a path so the two lieutenants could actually reach the front door.
"Y'ever hear of a guy named Gan Brightblade?"
"Who hasn't?" Torin said, sounding impressed.
"Me," Danthres said, totally unimpressed. "Who is he?"
Sparing Danthres an incredulous look as he pushed two tall men aside, Jared said, "He's one'a the greatest heroes of our time, ma'am."
"I think Captain Osric served under him once, in the old days," Torin added, referring to the current Guard captain, who had replaced Brisban. "He's dead?"
Remembering the report, Danthres asked, "But not in a bar brawl?"
"You're not getting out of those three coppers, Danthres," Torin said.
Most of the crowd's utterings were white noise to Danthres. Years of living in the cacophony of Cliff's End trained her to ignore most background noise for her sanity's sake, as the elven half of her heritage gave her above-average hearing. But she did catch comments here and there: "Gan Brightblade's dead!" "I hear tell 'twas those damned elves!" "Nah, it was Chalmraik the Foul! I heard 'em talkin' about 'im!" "Chalmraik's dead!" "Guard'll take care'a it." "Guard's a buncha shitbrains!" "You're a shitbrain!" And so on.
The noise died down as they crossed the threshold and Jared closed the large wooden door behind them. Danthres saw that the lobby remained more or less unchanged after three years, except perhaps that it was cleaner and there were a few more cushions against the wall. At present, the space was empty. Directly in front of her, parallel to the back wall of the room, was a large wooden desk, on which sat a fairly elaborate eagle quill that Danthres pegged as a total fake, a battered old ledger, an unnecessarily brightly polished bell, and an inkwell. Behind the desk was a pegboard, about half taken up with keys, and a doorway covered in a curtain, which Danthres assumed led to some kind of staff-only back room. To her left was the staircase leading up to the rooms on the second floor; to the right, the wide entrance to the bar/dining area. Danthres could only see partly into the latter -- along with the kitchen and storage area that serviced it, the dining area took up almost the entirety of the ground floor -- but what she saw were several people seated on the benches at the long wooden tables, who were more subdued than one would expect from patrons in a bar. Several guards from Dragon were visible around the perimeter of the room, as well.
"I assume," Danthres said, indicating the dining area, "that the patrons have all been gathered in there?"
Jared nodded. "Except for a few we let go back to their rooms, yes, ma'am."
Danthres put her head in her gloved hand. "Go upstairs -- take a couple of the bigger guards with you -- and get everyone out of their rooms. Assuming, of course, they haven't already jumped out the window and lost themselves in that mob out there. No one is allowed upstairs who isn't employed by the Guard, is that clear?"
Nodding so enthusiastically Danthres thought his head would fall off -- which would not noticeably depreciate his brain power, she thought -- Jared moved toward the staircase.
"After you do that," Torin called to him, "send someone back to Dragon -- Sergeant Grint's still running the day shift, yes?"
Jared smiled. "Unless the old bastard's choked on his own bile since roll call this morning, yes, sir."
Torin returned the smile. "Assuming that to be the case, have him send all his slowest and stupidest guards here, and reassign all the fast smart ones to double their foot patrols. Half the population of Dragon is gathered outside, and most of the remaining half will get it into their heads to take advantage of it."
"Will do, sir."
Danthres saw the sense in Torin's request, though not in his making it -- it wasn't their duty to do Dragon's job for them, after all -- and was about to say so when a deep voice came from behind the front desk.
"Ah, Lieutenants ban Wyvald and Tresyllione. It is well to be both of you seeing."
Turning, Danthres saw a short man with a large mustache: Olaf, the Dog and Duck's owner. Danthres had first met him fifteen years earlier, when she first showed up in Cliff's End.
Most people who came to the port city either had someplace else to go or nowhere else to go. Danthres had most assuredly been in the latter category, so when she arrived, she had stayed here until she secured a more permanent dwelling. The Dog and Duck had been the first lodgings she found in town that she could afford but did not smell like someone had died in them.
Olaf had changed very little in the intervening decade and a half. His head was still bereft of hair, save for the massive thatch between his nose and upper lip -- indeed, the only significant physical change from fifteen years ago was that the huge mustache had gone from black to white. As he came out from behind the desk, Danthres had to blink from the glare of the sun shining through the windows on the staircase and reflecting off his pate. His bald head combined with his narrow shoulders, protuberant belly, and skinny legs to give him the air of a small egg balanced on a large egg balanced on two sticks.
Olaf was a native of the islands to the east, and his grasp of Common hadn't improved in fifteen years either, though Danthres suspected that it was an affectation on his part and, if pressed, he could speak the language as well as anyone in the Lord and Lady's court.
"I'm surprised to see you in such a good mood," Torin said, "given the circumstances."
"The circumstances, she is wonderful," Olaf said, a grin trying to peek out from under his voluminous mustache. "Two years ago, I say to myself, 'Olaf,' I say, 'remodel, you need to do.' New mattresses, new curtains, new furnishings, better kitchen, new sign -- even I am hiring a musician to play bar nights. All is good, close inn for month in winter when nobody come anyhow. I think this will be good, come in droves, will the people. So I close, and three more inns, they open and my business they steal! Last year been awful, but now -- now it is good. 'Come to the Dog and Duck,' they will say, 'the final place resting of Gan Brightblade.' So you tell Olaf what to do, and do it, I will. I have gold mine here. Perhaps platinum mine, even."
"I'm thrilled for you," Danthres said with as little sincerity as she could muster. "What room is Brightblade in?"
"Room 12, right at stairs of the top."
"Good." She looked around for Jared, but he was probably still upstairs rousting patrons. Another guard stood at the entrance to the dining area. "You -- has someone called the M.E.?"
The guard blinked several times. "I think so, ma'am."
"Someone did," Olaf said. "Came by did one of those mage-birds with message that magical examiner would arrive in an hour and a half."
"When was this?" Torin asked.
"Half an hour ago." Olaf frowned. "Why so long does it take? He is wizard, yes?"
"Yes, but a Teleportation Spell takes a great deal out of him," Torin said, "and doesn't allow him the energy to do the peel-back."
"Still," Olaf said, "so long it should not take to be walking from castle, no."
Torin grinned. "How long it takes Boneen to arrive somewhere generally has little to do with travel time and more to do with his mood. Anything over an hour usually means we woke him from a nap."
Danthres shook her head. The M.E. was a mage on loan to the Guard from the Brotherhood of Wizards, and Danthres long suspected that the cantankerous old bastard got the assignment as much to get him off the Brotherhood's own hands as anything. "An hour and a half means he was in the middle of an especially nice dream. I see no good reason to wait for him. I want to check the room before we start questioning people. Olaf, if you could wait down here -- we'll want to talk to you after we've looked at the scene."
"Of course, Lieutenant Tresyllione. If you need anything, to Olaf you will come."
Shaking her head with amusement, Danthres headed upstairs. She noted that the stairs did not creak as much as they had when she'd been here before, a characteristic she attributed to Olaf's renovations. She could see why he would be irritated at the downturn in business following such extensive work, and why he would view the death of some grand hero as a good thing -- especially given the crowds outside. If nothing else, the bar would probably be the hot spot of Dragon's nightlife for at least a few months. Which means we're going to be looking into a lot of bar brawls here for the next year.
Another guard from Dragon stood outside the room, and gave the lieutenants a respectful bow before opening the door for them.
Olaf's renovations were especially obvious in the room. Three years ago, the mattresses had been no thicker than a wafer, with modest pillows; the curtains had been burlap; and both the water basin and the desk were cheap balsa. Now, though, the mattress was far fluffier, the curtains were linen, and the basin was metal. The desk, Danthres noted, was still balsa, but it had been varnished to look like oak, and she was willing to bet that someone with less acute eyesight than hers wouldn't be able to tell the difference.
Something about the room bothered her, though.
Lying on a patch of floor between the bed and the desk was the large body of a human, half-dressed -- a mail hauberk and cotton tunic lay on the bed in a heap, along with a very large sword. Armor, shirt, and weapon all looked to have been dropped on the bed by someone in the process of getting undressed. Danthres assumed the body to be that of Gan Brightblade.
"Have to admit," Torin said, "this was not how I expected Brightblade to go." He laughed. "This will play merry hell with bards across Flingaria. After all, people like Gan Brightblade don't die of broken necks in their lodgings, they die on the battlefield, valiantly saving the world from evil wizards or goblin hordes or the like."
"Goblins don't travel in hordes," Danthres said.
Torin shrugged, conceding the point. "But if they did, he'd be at the forefront of those trying to stop them."
Danthres looked over at the guard who let them in -- an older foot soldier with gray-and-white stubble. Standing a post unshaven was technically against regulations, but that sort of grooming nonsense was usually only seriously enforced in Unicorn, and in headquarters when Osric was in a bad mood. "The cleaning woman found him like this?"
"Aye, ma'am," the guard said. "She came in with her key, ma'am. She be down in the kitchen, ma'am. Shall I fetch her, ma'am?"
"No, not yet."
"If she came in with the key, it means the killer locked the door," Torin said.
"Not necessarily. She probably would have assumed the door to be locked and gone for the key without even trying the handle." Danthres peered around the room. "Maybe he fell down? Tripped?"
Torin snorted. "Gan Brightblade has been called many things, but clumsy isn't one of them."
Pointing at the top of the body's head -- specifically the gray hair at his temples -- Danthres said, "He's not as young as he was."
"Perhaps, but the angle's all wrong -- of both the body and the neck. For his head to have snapped that way, he'd have had to have fallen against something on his right, but the only thing on his right is empty air."
Danthres looked over at the desk. Balsa was still generally hard enough to break a neck, even as thick a one as Brightblade's. But Torin was right, in that he would never have fallen down to the floor from there into the position in which he now lay. Assuming the scene hadn't been disturbed, in any event.
Then, finally, what had been bothering her burbled to the surface. "The room smells wrong."
"He hasn't been dead long enough," Torin said.
Shaking her head, Danthres said, "Not that. It smells too -- too clean."
Torin laughed. "That's Brightblade. Any other soldier, you'd expect the smells of the earth, but Brightblade was famous for bathing and grooming almost daily. I seem to recall the captain complaining about it more than once -- it made the other soldiers look bad."
Danthres nodded absently. She smelled some kind of polish coming from the direction of the bed, and realized that it was from the armor that Brightblade had removed. He polished his mail. Amazing.
"Something's wrong here," Torin said.
"Something else, you mean," Danthres put in with a snort.
"Brightblade wasn't the type to go down without a fight. If he was killed, it was by someone who caught him completely unawares. Otherwise, he wouldn't be half-dressed with his sword on the bed. Which means it was probably someone he knew and trusted."
Danthres got down on her knees in order to get a better look at Brightblade's neck. "Look at that."
Torin did likewise on the other side of the body from her. "What am I looking at?"
Grinning, Torin said, "That much I determined on my own."
"No finger marks. His neck wasn't broken by hand."
"Which brings us back to him falling over -- which doesn't work. Unless, of course -- "
"Don't even think it." Danthres sighed and got back up. "I hate magic. And the last thing I want is the Brotherhood taking over the case. They'll make a complete troll's ear out of it, and then blame us when they can't solve it. That's the last thing we need right now."
Nodding sagely, Torin said, "Agreed. Brightblade had dinner at the castle with the Lord and Lady many times -- Osric was an old friend of his. They'll both want this one closed quickly and efficiently, and neither one will want the Brotherhood involved."
"Not that they'll have a choice if he died by magical means." Danthres snarled.
Torin spoke in as grave a voice as Danthres had ever heard the usually jovial lieutenant use. "We need to take this one slowly and carefully. Even if there is no magic, Osric and the Lord and Lady will be breathing down our necks."
Danthres shook her head. "I've never even heard of this idiot before today, and he's already giving me a headache. Boneen'll handle the peel-back if he ever deigns to arrive and we can take it from there." One of the M.E.'s main functions -- and the main reason why Danthres was willing to put up with having to deal with a mage on a daily basis -- was to cast an Inanimate Residue Spell. Everyone called it a "peel-back" because it could, according to the explanation Boneen's predecessor had given Danthres when she first signed up for the Guard, "read the psychic resonances on inanimate objects." Translated into Common, it showed the spellcaster what happened to those objects in the recent past. This was handy when investigating a crime. "Meantime, let's talk to who we need to talk to." To the guard, she said, "Don't let anyone other than Lieutenant ban Wyvald, myself, or the M.E. in here, am I understood?"
Olaf gave them the use of a storage room in which to question witnesses. Danthres found it adequate, though not as well suited to the task as the interview rooms back at the castle. Too bad that transporting everyone they needed to talk to back there was impractical.
The first person they spoke to was the cleaning woman who found the body. Her cheeks were still puffy from crying, she broke into sobs every third sentence, and she would periodically ask what kind of world they lived in when great heroes like Gan Brightblade died, but eventually Danthres, with Torin's help, was able to get out of her that she went to Room 12 first in the hopes of getting a look at Brightblade, opened the locked door with her key -- yes, she was sure it was locked, the door clicked when she put in the skeleton key -- and entered to find the body on the floor. Torin asked if she knocked first, and, blushing, the woman admitted that she didn't, hoping to catch Brightblade in some kind of state of undress. That was followed by another sobbing jag and yet another query as to the kind of world they lived in. Once they got past that again, the woman said that she just stood in the threshold screaming for who-knew-how-long, until one of the other cleaning women took her down to the kitchen.
Another cleaning woman verified her account, saying that she didn't move from the threshold for almost a full minute, " 'fore I was able to be gettin' her ass down the stairs" while Olaf called the Guard. That cleaning woman also pointed out that Brightblade's corpse seemed to have more lines on his face and more gray hair than he had had the night before, though she allowed as how that might have simply been the difference between seeing him in sunlight, as opposed to the dimmer illumination of the previous evening.
Talking to Olaf confirmed Danthres's worst fears: Brightblade had checked in the previous morning alongside an elf, a dwarf, a human priest, a barbarian from the north ("I had to be giving him the room in the far corner so stink my inn he doesn't") and two halflings.
Torin looked at Danthres. "Our heroic quest."
Olaf shrugged. "I do not know if they are questing, but I do know that they acted like old friends. Dinner they had together, yes, and laugh a lot they did. They even handle gawkers with goodness. Ate and drank, they did, all the night long."
Danthres looked at Torin. "We're going to need to talk to them."
The time-chimes sounded ten, and Boneen still hadn't shown up, even though it was now two hours since he sent the mage-bird. ("It must have been a particularly good dream," Torin commented.) Torin suggested that they split the interviews with the rest of Brightblade's party. Olaf gave Torin use of the kitchen, leaving Danthres to remain in the storage room. Since elves tended to view half-breeds as inferiors beneath their notice, dwarves generally hated anyone with any elven blood, and Danthres had the more sensitive nose, Torin took the elf, dwarf, and barbarian, leaving Danthres with the priest and the two halflings.
She decided to take the priest first. The man who entered the storage room introduced himself in a soft voice as Brother Genero of Velessa. Having spent some time in Treemark, which had the highest concentration of Temisans in Flingaria, Danthres recognized Genero instantly as a priest of that goddess. He wore the trademark bright red robe, had grown the traditional long, braided chin-beard (but no mustache), and had shaved his head aside from one circle of hair on the crown, tied into a topknot. The robe was ankle-length, and quite battered. It looked to her like it hadn't been cleaned in over a month -- which tracked with the travel time from Velessa to Cliff's End on horseback. Under the robes, Danthres could see leather armor, which surprised her. She also noted that he walked with his hand angled at his left hip, as if he was expecting a scabbard to be there. This meant he often traveled armed and that he was right-handed.
An armed and armored priest. Interesting.
As he sat down on one of Olaf's wobbly wooden chairs, Genero offered the blessings of Temisa on
the Cliff's End Castle Guard, to which Danting spent some time in Treemark, which had the highest concentration of Temisans in Flingaria, Danthres recognized Genero instantly as a priest of that goddess. He wore the trademark bright red robe, had grown the traditional long, braided chin-beard (but no mustache), and had shaved his head aside from one circle of hair on the crown, tied into a topknot. The robe was ankle-length, and quite battered. It looked to her like it hadn't been cleaned in over a month -- which tracked with the travel time from Velessa to Cliff's End on horseback. Under the robes, Danthres could see leather armor, which surprised her. She also noted that he walked with his hand angled at his left hip, as if he was expecting a scabbard to be there. This meant he often traveled armed and that he was right-handed.
An armed and armored priest. Interesting.
As he sat down on one of Olaf's wobbly wooden chairs, Genero offered the blessings of Temisa on
the Cliff's End Castle Guard, to which Danthres grunted indifferently. Although both sides of her heritage had numerous religious traditions, Danthres had not been raised in any of them during her childhood in Sorlin; that sort of thing didn't go on there, particularly when she was a girl. What she'd seen since departing that place -- both before and after getting involved with law enforcement in Cliff's End -- led her to think that the gods were capricious at best.
"It's such a tragic waste," Genero said, looking down at the floor. "I have to admit, I never thought that Gan would go on to greet the next life in this way. I expected him to die in a fight -- or failing that, as an old man in bed surrounded by beautiful women. Perhaps Temisa has rewarded him with that in the afterlife."
"Perhaps," Danthres said dryly, wondering if everyone was going to comment on the unexpectedness of Brightblade's mode of dying, "but I'm more concerned with how he got there."
Genero looked over at the wall. "I'm sure it was just an accident. He'd been drinking quite a bit, and he could be a very clumsy drunk."
"So you don't think he was murdered?"
"No, of course not." He peered up at the ceiling. "Gan was one of the great heroes of our time."
"They tend to be the ones with the longest list of enemies."
Now, finally, Genero looked at Danthres. "I can assure you, Lieutenant, that all of Gan's enemies are quite dead."
"Really?" Danthres asked dubiously. "How lucky for him." She leaned back in her own chair. "I'm told, Brother, that you and Mr. Brightblade arrived here along with five others. What was your business in Cliff's End?"
"We were on our way to hire a boat. In fact, Gan and I planned to go to the Docklands to begin the hiring process this morning." He smiled slightly, the first time his facial expression had truly changed since he walked in. "Obviously, that will have to be postponed."
"Obviously," Danthres said, making a mental note to send a message to Mermaid Precinct to have their foot patrols keep an eye out on the Docklands for the remaining six members of this little group. If any of them made any move to hire a boat, she and Torin needed to know about it. "Where were you headed?"
"No place in particular." Genero again looked at the wall. "We were simply looking to take a voyage onto the Garamin Sea and enjoy ourselves."
It was everything Danthres could do to keep from laughing out loud. "A 'voyage'?"
"Just to some random destination on the Garamin?"
Again, Genero looked at Danthres. "You seem to have trouble believing me."
You don't know the half of it. "Look at it from my perspective, Brother -- the idea that an elf and a dwarf would take a pleasure cruise together is a difficult one for me to wrap my mind around. Add in that they're taking it with three humans and two halflings, and I'm afraid I find it impossible to believe that it's just for pleasure."
Genero nodded. "I can see why you in particular would think that, given your background."
Danthres's mood soured even further. But then, her dual heritage was fairly obvious. Her face combined the worst elements of the two races: her mother's wide nose, large brown eyes, and shallow cheekbones did not go at all with her father's pointed ears, high forehead, or thin lips.
"I'm sorry," Genero said quickly, "I didn't mean to give offense."
Favoring the priest with her nastiest smile, Danthres said, "When you've given me offense, Brother, you won't have any trouble knowing it."
"No doubt. I assume, based on your age and accent, that your parents' union was not a happy one?"
Danthres's first rule of interrogation was that she asked all the questions; besides which, she had no interest in discussing her life with a murder suspect. "I don't see how that's relevant, Brother."
"My point is that you'd naturally be suspicious of an elf willingly traveling with a human and a dwarf. And understandably so. But we have been through much, the seven of us. Today, Lieutenant, you live in a Flingaria that is at peace. For decades, that was not the case -- human warred on human, elf warred on human, western elf warred on eastern elf, dwarf warred on elf, trolls warred on just about everyone -- not to mention crazed wizards like Chalmraik or Mitos. But now, the human lands are united, the western elves are no more, and the elves and dwarves have a treaty. The plague of megalomaniacal wizards has ended." He pointed to the doorway that led to the rest of the inn. "My comrades and I were at the forefront of much of that. It is in part through our efforts that there is such peace now. Through those hardships we have formed a bond, and we simply wish to enjoy the fruits of our labors."
It was a very pretty speech, both heartfelt and convincing. Genero gave it with all the conviction one would expect of a man who had dedicated his life to the service of one of the gods, and Danthres didn't believe a word of it.
She asked several more questions, most relating to where Genero was last night and this morning, but they were secondary. Her main question had been answered virtually the moment Genero had walked into the storage room.
Brother Genero of Velessa and his group had a very specific purpose in mind, and Danthres was fairly sure that the priest knew -- or at least thought he knew -- precisely who murdered Gan Brightblade.
The questioning of the two halflings -- twins named Mari and Nari -- went about as Danthres expected. They told the same sea-cruise lie as Genero, with just enough variations in their stories to sound convincingly unrehearsed, which made it all the more obvious that they'd gotten their stories straight ahead of time. Cliff's End had more than its share of grifters, and Danthres suspected that these two would fit right in on Jorbin's Way. Danthres patiently asked them most of the same questions she'd given the priest, and they responded with multiple digressions, numerous evasions, and a general refusal to give anything like a straight answer.
When she was done with Nari, Danthres went back to the lobby, where Torin was already waiting. "Boneen finally put in his appearance about a quarter of an hour ago," he said. "The peel-back should be finished shortly." The spell took about half an hour and required that there be nothing living besides the spellcaster present.
"Good." Danthres peered up the stairs to see that the gray-and-white-stubbled guard was back to standing outside Room 12. Then she filled Torin in on her interviews. "What about yours?"
"The elf was Olthar lothSirhans."
Torin grunted. "Well, this particular war hero was close-mouthed, arrogant, and gave one-word answers. That interview took only a few minutes and he couldn't get out of the kitchen fast enough when I said we were done. Ubarlig, the dwarf, was considerably more voluble, especially once he found out we work for Osric. It turns out he and the captain met several years back. He acted very open and friendly -- but he didn't give me any more than lothSirhans."
"Let me guess -- we're all old friends going on a cruise through the Garamin."
Torin nodded. "Mind you, he was carrying his axe with him -- a Fjorm."
Danthres blinked. "He has a Fjorm?"
"Yes. One of only six left -- I even asked him about it, and he was more than happy to talk about how he got it and how many elves he killed with it, all without getting a scratch on the blade."
"It must be worth a fortune." Danthres snorted. "I'm amazed those two halflings haven't tried to steal it."
Torin grinned. "Perhaps they have." The grin fell. "In any event, one doesn't take such an item onto a pleasure cruise -- especially if one is a dwarven general of Ubarlig's reputation. If he's brought that axe, he intends to use it."
"So whatever heroic quest these idiots were going on, it's been derailed. We need to find out what it was."
"I spoke to a few of the patrons who were sitting next to our merry band last night. Apprently, Brightblade, Ubarlig, lothSirhans, and Bogg spent most of the night telling stories of their assorted campaigns, conquests, battles, and triumphs -- and," he added with a grin, "that was just their sexual exploits. Speaking of which, I can't imagine that any of Bogg's -- that's our barbarian -- were with a woman who had a nose. I'm quite sure his skin has never known the touch of soap, and I'd be willing to bet several silvers that it hasn't even encountered water that wasn't rain. He spent most of the interview talking about how he would cut off the head of whoever killed Brightblade and then eat it."
Before Danthres could respond to the visual image that provoked, she heard a door open from up the stairs. She looked up to see the squat form of Boneen exit the room. Dressed in a brown linen shirt that was about a size too small for him and matching pants that were a size too big, the magical examiner came down the stairs on his stubby legs, a scowl deepening his already heavily lined face. His oversized pants flapped as he came down. The pungent, spicy aroma of the spell ingredients preceded him, and Danthres could see the residue of same on his hands.
"What is it about you two?" he asked without preamble. "You always get the cases that give me heartburn."
Danthres felt her stomach flutter. "What do you mean? What did the spell tell you?"
"Not a damn thing! The victim was just standing in the room when his neck broke and he fell to the floor."
Torin blinked. "He can't possibly have broken his neck when he fell down. The angle -- "
"Please, ban Wyvald, pay attention when I'm talking to you," Boneen snapped. "His neck broke, then he fell to the floor."
Now Danthres's stomach went into a full-on grind. "Magic."
This time, Danthres blinked. "What do you mean, 'no'?"
Boneen raised his eyebrows. "I assume you know what the word means...."
"I can assure you that I could detect no magical forces at work at all anywhere in that room."
Danthres shook her head. "How can someone's neck just break like that without magic being involved?"
Folding his arms, Boneen said, "That, Tresyllione, is an excellent question. I, for one, am grateful that answering it is not my problem, but rather yours, since this is your case. Best of luck to you. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going back to the castle and finishing the nap that was so rudely interrupted for this exercise in futility."
With that, the M.E. turned and stalked out of the inn -- as much as a several-hundred-year-old wizard with short stubby legs wearing oversized pants could stalk.
When he opened the door, Danthres noted that the crowd had thinned out considerably, down to only a dozen or so stragglers.
"It could still be magic," Torin said. "Remember, some priests have a modicum of magical ability."
"A very small modicum," Danthres said. The Brotherhood, in their infinite generosity, permitted some priests to manipulate magic to a slight degree, a stipulation that Danthres chalked up to the political expediency of not pissing off people who had direct lines to the assorted pantheons of gods. Of course, as she had seen, Genero was hardly an ordinary priest, either. "Anyhow, I doubt Boneen would miss that. Even when he's being this peevish, he takes pride in his work."
"True." Torin sighed. "We've been proceeding on the assumption that Brightblade was killed by someone he knew. What if it was someone he knew who wasn't even in the room?"
Danthres rubbed the bridge of her nose between her index finger and thumb. "We've been at this all day. Let's have graybeard up there get a detail together to remove the body and let Olaf have his inn back." She looked up the stairs at the now-open door to Room 12. "This better not be magic. I hate magic."
Copyright © 2004 by Albe-Shiloh, Inc.
Excerpted from Dragon Precinct by Keith R. A. DeCandido Copyright © 2004 by Keith R. A. DeCandido. Excerpted by permission.
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