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I knew something was wrong the moment I stepped out of the car.
The summer air hung dead and limp upon my shoulders like a heavy blanket as I made my way up to the temple at the top of the cliff. Gravel crunched loudly under my feet. The leafy trees around me stood motionless in the thick, still air, festooned with luckless windsocks, downed kites, immobile pinwheels, and other offerings left by desperate worshippers.
Something bad had happened at the Temple of Wind. It was my job to find out just how bad.
A hand-lettered sign taped to the gates indicated the temple was closed for a private ceremony. That in itself was a bad sign—Aestros was never big on privacy, not for Himself, nor His priesthood.
I pushed the intercom button, glancing up at the security camera perched on top of the entrance. The voice that crackled through the speakers managed to sound both bored and anxious at the same time. “Please read the sign. The High Temple of Aestros Windtamer is closed to public worship today.”
“My name is Iris Tharro. I serve at the whim of Themia, the Huntress of Justice,” I said. I eased Themia’s blessed oak branch, which marked me as a Justix, out of its belt loop and waved it in front of the camera.
“Know how many times I’ve heard that one today? Take your offerings and go home.” I noticed there was no blinking red light on that camera. Interesting.
“Look, you and I both know Themia doesn’t look kindly on those who bandy Her name about. Send someone down here and I’ll show them my credentials.”
A hiss of sound. Another pause. Then some more white noise. “Wait just a minute.”
I heard the crunch of footsteps behind me. My hand tightened around the handle of my oak. I could do quite a bit of damage with the goddess-blessed wood. Themia was practical in regards to arming Her servants.
“If you can’t trust a priestess of the Goddess of Justice, who can you trust?”
My hand relaxed, marginally. “Andy Eriki. Wonders never cease.” I turned around. “Wait. Are you wearing a suit?”
“Like it?” The demigod tugged at the lapels. It was a nice cut, in a soft grey that set off the darkness of his skin, as well as the iridescent scales on his cheekbones and the turquoise sheen in his hair that gave away his Pantheonic heritage. But Andy didn’t do suits. Hells, he didn’t do shirts if he could help it. “Figured it would make me look more responsible.”
“Why do you suddenly care about looking responsible?”
“I’m just here to ask questions. Same as you.”
“Themia anointed me to this case two hours ago.” The oil on my eyelids had barely dried. “How in hells do you have questions?”
He shrugged. “Word travels fast in the Pantheon. You let me into the temple as your partner, maybe I’ll be nice and share what I know.”
“Oh, I’m sure Themia would just love that.”
Justixes didn’t typically work with criminal informants, but Andy existed in a diplomatic grey area. One of the benefits of being the consequence of a turbulent cruise-ship tryst between a lounge singer and the Seamother. Demigods are a mixed bunch—some have powers, some can’t tie their shoes. Some are stable, some are barely housetrained. Any deity who sleeps around without protection is rolling the dice, and legislating demis is a whole other can of worms. A demi who remains on his immortal parent’s good side can get away with just about anything. Andy had toed the thinning line of the Seamother’s patience for years.
But this was a particular case. The smell of Themia’s incense clung to my clothes, and I could still feel the overpowering rush of the goddess’ regard, of Her trust, from when She had emphasized the importance of discretion when dispensing justice. Discretion and a delicate touch.
Andy, charming and useful as he could occasionally be, was about as subtle as an airhorn.
And yet, if I left him out here unsupervised, he would just find some other way to cause trouble. When a barefoot priestess in light blue robes finally came up to the gates to check for my blessed oak, I fought back my misgivings and waved toward Andy. “He’s with me.” As the gates opened, I nudged him. “Provided you behave.”
Aestros’ temple was designed to be bright and open-concept—few walls, light materials, that sort of thing. On a normal day, the temple seemed like a living thing. Banners and ribbons snapping and unfurling, wind chimes tinkling, priests in flapping robes floating in and out like helpful birds.
Today, in the stark, immobile air, the temple looked like an abandoned skeleton picked apart by scavengers, the flaccid rugs and banners dripping down like shreds of dead skin.
The priestess who welcomed us looked to be just shy of forty, with a few flecks of grey at her temples. Her brown hair was pulled back into a mass of braids, each one adorned with a bell. In the absence of wind, her braids swished and thumped against her back with every step like a cat o’nine tails. “Greetings, Justixes. I am the high priestess of this temple. You may call me Mother Daphne. I take it you’re here to examine the crime scene.”
“May you be blessed to receive Themia’s justice,” I replied, as was the custom. “I apologize in advance for my assistant.”
“Hey!” said Andy.
“I hope your Patron goddess conveyed to you the delicacy of this matter,” Mother Daphne said. Her voice quavered. “It’s been a very great shock to all of us within the Windtamer’s halls. Would you like to see the body?”
“Lead the way,” I said. Andy, for once, said nothing. He merely tugged uncomfortably at his tie.
The priestess led us through the eerily quiet temple to the high altar, reserved for all major public services. Carved out of a single piece of blue-veined white marble, and surrounded by four statues representing the four winds, it was installed at the cliff’s highest point, within an airy pagoda that overlooked the ocean. A lone seagull squatted on the north-facing statue and quarrrked at my approach.
There was still a sacrifice on the altar. I recognized the black-spotted plumage of a kestrel, a bird particularly favored by Aestros. It was lying beak up, its wings extended, its chest cut open. Grooves in the stone directed the animal’s dried blood down into a ceremonial basin beneath the altar. An ashen-faced novice who didn’t look older than eighteen stood guard beside it, twisting the folds of his robe in his hands.
“I thought you said there was a body,” Andy said.
“You’re looking at it.” The high priestess stepped forward and placed a comforting hand on the novice’s shoulder. “Brother Abe, show the representatives of justice what you showed me.”
With a jerky nod, the novice turned the kestrel onto its back. “It was my turn to clean the altars in the morning, but when I showed up, the bird . . . I mean the body was already there. When I tried to collect it . . . I noticed . . . I n-noticed . . .”
I eased closer as he gently pulled back some of the feathers on the bird’s left shoulder, revealing a glimpse of a black-and-purple design etched onto the skin. “May I?”
The boy nodded, limp with relief, and let me take over. Beneath the plumage, the design was stretched, distorted, but still recognizable: an elaborate P made up of flowers, gems, and vines. “I’m not the world’s greatest expert on raptors, but I’m pretty sure they’re not huge fans of personalized tattoos. You recognize the design?”
The boy nodded again, weaving a bit on his feet. I couldn’t blame him. This was new territory, even for me. “Pippa showed it to me once, when she first arrived. Said she planned on adding more onto it once her classes were over.”
“Oh sh . . .” Andy swallowed the rest of his expletive. It sounded like he had to swallow something else back as well. “You’re telling me that bird used to be a person?”
Mother Daphne sighed. “So it seems. She also has an appendectomy scar on her abdomen, and she’s missing the last toe on her right foreleg. Pippa lost hers to infection when her parents first immigrated here.”
“You examined the body?” I asked.
The priestess tensed. “I had to be sure of what we were dealing with. This isn’t something that happens every day.”
Andy leaned forward and placed his hand over hers, oozing sympathy out of every handsome pore. “No judgment. In your shoes I would have done the same thing.”
“So who was she?” I asked.
The high priestess took a photograph out of her pocket and gave it to me. A small, slight Outlander woman with pale blue eyes and wheat-colored hair stared out at me. “Her name was Phillipa Marwol. ‘Pippa’ for short. She lived here at the temple.”
“She served Aestros.” The high priestess’ eyes flickered toward the blessed oak at my hip. The oak only detected outright lies, not omissions or half-truths, but the priestess’ reaction was indication enough.
“Out with it.”
“She was a student down at the university. For the last eight months she boarded with us due to her particular—affiliation with Aestros.”
“Affiliation?” An unpleasantly familiar, prickling heat crawled over my skin. “You mean Favored?”
She grimaced. “We prefer the term affiliated. We’re not in the dark ages anymore. He didn’t swoop down and carry her off to His lair. She presented a scientific paper at some seminar or other, He was the keynote deity, they established a connection.”
“How romantic,” I drawled.
“She wasn’t some damsel in distress.”
“You’re right, she is most definitely beyond distress.” I swept my gaze over her mutilated, transformed corpse. The seagull squawked from its perch, as if in agreement.
Mother Daphne’s face flushed with angry color. “We want this solved as much as you do. The Windtamer is devastated.”
“Then where is He?” I asked.
She clammed up, the fire of her anger snuffing out as quickly as a blown candle. “I don’t know.”
“The gods don’t exist for our convenience. He’s probably in mourning.” The priestess stared at me as if I’d gone crazy.
Heat washed over my skin. Maybe I was crazy. But the gods didn’t always respect human laws. Not if those laws interfered with Their desires. “He wasn’t exactly known for His restraint—didn’t He tear off His own right arm to prove He could wrestle the sun god one-handed?”
“And He won, didn’t He?”
Andy cut in, stepping in front of me. “We all know how this looks.” His voice was soft and soothing, a cool glass of water after a blast of heat. “Believe me, Mother Daphne, it would be easy if it were Aestros. If He didn’t do this, it means someone else wants us to think He did, someone determined to drag the Windtamer’s name through the mud. That’s someone who should be stopped at all costs—wouldn’t you agree?”
“Of course.” Mother Daphne lapped up every last drop of that cool-water voice, straightening like a thirsty flower.
“You see why we need to know every detail. We need to clear Aestros’ name before this story gets out. And we know it will.” Andy sounded so reasonable, so responsible.
Damn. Wearing a suit did work.
The high priestess’ mouth snapped shut. “The Temple of Aestros is happy to cooperate with the representatives of justice. Why don’t we talk in my office?”
“You’re welcome,” Andy murmured as we followed the priestess down from the altar.
“I didn’t need your help.” Thankfully, my oak wasn’t blessed to respond to my own half-truths. Andy seemed to guess at my thoughts, because he laughed.
Okay, so he could be charming when he wanted to be, when he wasn’t having his ass pulled out of a self-started fire by yours truly. But why was he even involved in this case? Andy didn’t serve a higher calling. He served himself.
Mother Daphne’s office looked like the most structured room in the temple. Four sliding paper doors were arranged to form a private space, surrounding a low desk covered in—unsurprisingly—a fleet of paperweights. She gestured for us to sit upon the two floor cushions in front of the desk. Andy sat with his natural gods-given grace. I managed it a little more stiffly.
“Can you run us through the timeline?” I asked.
“Brother Abe found Pippa at around five-thirty. Normally one of us checks on the altars and shrines during the night to make sure the lamps are still lit, but we had a bit of a plumbing emergency yesterday. The new water heater burst and I spent the day supervising a lot of tired novices with buckets.” She pinched her mouth flat to stop it from trembling. “After that debacle, I didn’t have the heart to send anyone on the night rounds. It didn’t seem like a priority. I had no idea . . .”
“Of course,” Andy cut in soothingly. “You couldn’t have known. Is that when you contacted the Temple of Justice?”
“Abe made the call, actually. By rights, he should have woken me first, but as you can see, his instincts were correct. I found out around six.”
“What about the broken security camera at the gate?” I asked.
“That thing?” She flushed. “It was never working to begin with. We’ve had a few cases of vandalism in the last few months. Aestros was starting to take offense, and since I didn’t like the idea of some silly teenager having to spend a few years as a seagull, I had the camera installed up there to scare them off.”
“So what security do you have?”
“Aestros installed wind wards around the more important areas of the temple. Nothing lethal, you understand. Anyone trying to open a door they shouldn’t gets pushed back by a blast of wind, whether it’s one person, or thirty armored men in a van. And we’ve tested them—they’re all at full strength.”
“Why only certain areas?”
Mother Daphne shrugged. “We worship the God of Wind. The wind is free, swift, unencumbered, and our order strives to reflect that. We don’t lock doors. We don’t bolt windows. We don’t collect material possessions just for the sake of owning them. We have very few items worth stealing.”
“And what would those items be?” I asked.
The priestess cleared her throat. “In keeping with the Threemothers’ ruling on magical items, Aestros keeps His relics and artifacts of exceptional power under lock and key.”
I tried not to lean forward too obviously. Pippa Marwol had been transmogrified. There were only three things on earth that could perform magic like that: gods, certain demigods, and humans using relics—objects imbued with a god’s power. Centuries ago, Pantheon members used to empower relics by the dozens in order to arm and reward their human followers. But those items kept their destructive power long after their intended owners died and less worthy owners stepped up to take their place.
Eventually, it got bad enough that the Seamother, Skymother, and Earthmother brought playtime to an end and ordered Their children to pick up Their toys. What few exceptions remained—the lower-grade relics required for sacred duties, like my blessed oak—were ruthlessly regulated. Gods didn’t always adhere to human laws, but the word of the Threemothers was final.
The result: a thriving trade for bounty hunters returning relics to the gods who made them—and an equally powerful black market dedicated to keeping those items in human hands.
“So. All present and accounted for?” I pressed.
“I would be happy to provide you with an inventory,” Mother Daphne answered with an arched eyebrow.
“Yes, thank you.” Disappointing. That eliminated one pretty big motive. “Would we be able to see Pippa’s room?”