Authors: Tom Lloyd
Myken began to play out the rope as soft cries began to emerge from the sling at her chest. Her grunts of effort swiftly became tinged with pain as she stood side on to the window and took Kine’s full weight. Kine began to descend in the dark night and the cold of winter surrounded her.
Before long Kine found her feet touching the ground. Only when she was half-lying on the icy gravel path did she take in her surroundings and recognise the jungle-like garden to the rear of the palazzo. She stifled a cry as a guard, musket slung over one shoulder, hurried over and without speaking untied the rope from around Kine’s shoulders.
She let it happen as though this was all a dream, the absence of respect and genuflection from the liveried man just another aspect of this surreal night. The garden was dark and still, the light of the Gods casting deep shadows as they edged the tallest trees in silver. At this time of year the garden was barely used and no lanterns were lit there, as the palazzo’s windows were shut up against the cold. She lay in the dark, dazed and shivering, for less than a minute before Myken scampered down the rope and stood over her.
‘Thank you,’ she said to the guard, who ducked his head in response.
Kine saw he was a young man when he tilted his head back up and caught the starlight.
A lover, or a love-struck youth? Is that the turn of a coin which decides whether I live or die?
‘Myken, go,’ Kine whispered. ‘I don’t have the strength. Take Dov and leave me here.’
‘My oath is to you,’ Myken said with a shake of the head. ‘If I have to carry you, you are coming.’ She slipped a pistol from its sheath and spun it in her hand. ‘Ready?’ she asked the young guard.
He nodded and Myken wasted no time. She struck him a crisp blow on the side of the head and he staggered. Against his dark skin, Kine just made out a thin trail of blood running down his cheek as the guard sank to his hands and knees. Myken helped him to the floor but didn’t stop to check his wound, slipping an arm under Kine’s shoulder and helping her up.
‘My baby?’ Kine gasped.
Myken opened the fold of the sling enough to expose Dov’s tiny wrinkled face to the cold night air. She opened her mouth to bawl and Myken quickly slipped a finger in to try and stave off the cry. It worked well enough and the two women stumbled together towards the street door, finding it unlocked. The cobbled street beyond was empty and only a cold wind howled up to greet them.
Myken hissed with irritation, but didn’t speak as she helped Kine across and into the shadows of a neighbouring building. From there they cut through to another shadow and crossed a small square. On the far side of that was an archway decorated with snarling wyverns, the extent of House Wyvern’s nominal corner of Dragon District. Beyond that was a bigger street and a handful of people walking hunched and hurried through the chilly night air. Just as Kine’s legs were ready to fold beneath her, Myken brought her to a handcart station where two carts stood waiting under a sloped roof.
A pair of men broke away from the fire burning to one side and hurried to help them into a cart, the sight of Myken’s ornate pistol-sheath enough demonstration of her rank that they complied without question. Kine was gently lifted up into the seat and Myken squeezed in beside her, peeking at Dov while the labourers, both black-skinned Dragons, were occupied with manoeuvring the handcart out into the street.
‘Coldcliffs,’ Myken ordered, picking a location that took them in the right direction without announcing the destination. ‘Go fast and I’ll pay double.’
This time she did get a raised eyebrow, Coldcliffs being no fitting destination for a high caste, even if it had been summer, but Myken’s expression showed she wasn’t to be questioned. After that moment’s hesitation they set off down the empty street and the night swallowed them. When shouts rang out around the palazzo and lantern-wielding guards raced out into the street beyond, they were clear of it all.
‘Lawbringer Narin. Just the man I was looking for.’
Narin didn’t move, lost in his own thoughts as he stared out across the rooftops. Ahead of him the morning mist slowly faded to reveal the southern districts of the Imperial City, but there was only one small part he noticed. East of the sharp towers in Dragon District lay the streets given over to House Wyvern.
Caught in that nest of vipers were the woman he loved and the child she carried. So close to term now. He would not have dared leave her there for so long, were it not for her husband’s warrior retinue, which had only recently left with him for the Wyvern homeland.
‘Lawbringer,’ repeated the voice, right in his ear.
Narin jumped and whirled around to see the stern face of the Lawbringer Rhe – his mentor and now his colleague. They both wore the white trousers and jacket of the Lawbringers, the Emperor’s sun and sword device on their breasts currently hidden by heavy white coats that reached their knees. They would have matched perfectly but for the fact that Narin wore a sword on his hip and Rhe had a nobleman’s pistol-sheath across his stomach. The black leather was subtly stitched to combine the emblems of House Brightlance and Rhe’s noble family – a forest eagle grasping a leaf-blade spear.
‘Lawbringer Rhe, my apologies,’ Narin exclaimed, awkwardly bowing. ‘I was miles away.’
The renowned Lawbringer was a tall man who stood a good few inches above Narin. More heavily built than most of the pale rangy warriors of Brightlance, the characteristic blue-grey tint to his pale complexion gave him a cold air that was enhanced by his high-born reserve. Compared to Narin’s tanned skin and dark hair Rhe would have looked permanently ill, but for the calm strength he exuded. Narin had often wondered if, in return, he looked oddly twitchy and nervous to everyone he met in Rhe’s company.
‘I noticed as much. It seems to happen more and more these days – has the Emperor’s blessing gone to your head so much?’
Please let that be a joke.
‘No, I … I’m sorry – I’m just tired and distracted.’
It was true he had been mentioned at court after the goshe scandal and rewarded with elevation to the rank of Lawbringer, but these days Narin was more wary than most about any sort of patronage. The day he’d earned the favour of a certain House Wyvern nobleman had been the turning point in his life, but the price attached had thrown his life into turmoil.
Narin had spent roughly a decade as an Investigator now, apprenticed to various Lawbringers as was custom. Rhe had been the last of those; just a few years older than Narin but the shining star of the Lawbringers, and as much a final test as teacher for the sheltered local boy.
‘Distracted and anxious, I would say,’ Rhe said after a moment’s scrutiny of his protégé. ‘But still you will not tell me why.’
Narin ducked his head. ‘It would be a burden on your honour,’ he said honestly, ‘and you already keep enough secrets on my behalf.’
‘The secrets I keep are not yours,’ Rhe pointed out. ‘Yet I would have thought doing so had earned me a little more trust from you.’
‘This is, ah, different. I … I’ve done something I think’ll soon come back to haunt me. I wouldn’t want you tainted by scandal any more than I’d want to put you in a difficult position.’
‘You believe I would condemn you?’
Narin winced and his eyes lowered to the pistol-sheath at Rhe’s stomach. He carried only a sword himself because he was craftsman caste, and gunpowder was prohibited to the lower castes – landowner, merchant, craftsman, servant and peasant. Ownership of a gun would mean a death sentence for Narin, Lawbringer or not, but for Rhe it was also a symbol of a specific code instilled into every high caste.
Would I trust our half-friendship over your sense of honour?
‘You’d disapprove of my foolishness. I prefer not to test how greatly.’
Rhe’s expression was typically inscrutable, but at last the taller man nodded. ‘As you wish – come, there is a crime we’ve been called to.’
Without realising it, Narin grimaced. His reputation within the Lawbringers was a strange one after the goshe affair and apparently everything unnatural was his purview now. Thus far that mostly amounted to inspecting the chewed-on corpses of drunks to verify if demons had killed them or if there had been a murder committed by a human.
‘No need for that face,’ Rhe said, ‘you will not be fishing the Crescent for human remains today. There is something else requiring your expertise.’
‘Expertise?’ Narin sighed, instinctively checking around to ensure there was no one to overhear them. The room was busy enough, being a large communal office used by two-dozen Lawbringers. No one paid them any attention, but still he lowered his voice.
‘You know I’ve no real expertise. Unless you can persuade Enchei or Irato to become an Investigator, I know as little as any novice. If it’s a real crime, we’re doing the victim a disservice by claiming otherwise.’
‘You have greater experience of the unnatural than any other Lawbringer I know,’ Rhe countered. ‘Any scrap of familiarity means you will see past any horror better than the rest – and you have your friends as a resource. That is as good as the Lawbringers currently have and so the crimes are ours to investigate. This is your calling; accept it and serve the Emperor to the best of your ability.’
Narin’s shoulder’s sagged.
Guess I deserved that.
‘You’re right, of course. I’m a Lawbringer and I serve wherever I can. So, where are we going?’
The where for Narin and Rhe turned out to be an unimpressive tavern in the Harbour Warranty, tucked into an unlovely corner at the eastern end of the district. It was a run-down area of semi-derelict warehouses and slum houses where the cold of night still reigned. The shadow of Coldcliffs loomed large over this part of the city, a huge structure older than recorded history and made of the same unnatural white material as the Imperial Palace.
Narin suppressed a shiver when they found themselves in the shadow of that cliff-born slum; less affected by the frost hidden from a pale morning sun than the memory of trying to shake off the pursuit of goshe assassins there. Staying back to buy others time to escape, he’d been captured and tortured by the goshe’s elite. Months later he still found the unearthly presence of that place reawakened old hurts.
‘The Lost Feathers,’ Rhe read as they turned into a side-street and saw the tavern at the far end.
‘Heard of it before?’
Rhe shook his head as he paused and looked around before entering the street. The cobbles were poorly maintained, with furrows gouged in the ground and torn-up cobbles scattered down the street. The walls bore the marks of water damage and age, while directly opposite the side-street stood a broad soot-stain of some type of fire damage.
A handful of people stood outside the tavern, half a dozen locals fresh from their beds, and a single Lawbringer called Olsir. She was a striking woman from the far south, long plaits of grey hair declaring her to be House Iron or some country within its hegemony. Narin felt a knot in his stomach as he recognised relief in her face at their approach.
She’s not one to hand over a case gladly,
he realised glumly.
Don’t think I’m going to like what we find here.
‘Lawbringers,’ she called out, ‘either of you eaten yet?’
The onlookers parted readily and retreated to a respectful distance as Narin and Rhe reached her. The tavern door was slightly open, the interior dark, but the stink of loosed bowels was enough to tell Narin what lay inside. To one side was a freshly-broken shutter, swinging loose with the wood around its latch burst and splintered.
‘Who reported it?’ Rhe asked.
‘The maid,’ Olsir said, pointing towards a young girl almost entirely hidden by a thick blanket draped around her. Her face was white with cold and terror, her hands jerking and twitching as they gripped the blanket. ‘She heard the commotion from her attic room. Claims there was something pacing beneath the hatch after it went quiet again, some demon sniffing after her, but the ladder was pulled up and it couldn’t get to her.’
‘Do we believe the story?’
Olsir scowled. ‘She didn’t kill the landlord or his wife, that’s for sure. Yes, I believe her.’
‘A demon broke in through a window, making a neat job of it too, and killed two people, but only the maid heard?’ Rhe asked, pointing at the damaged shutter.
‘That was a neighbour. Once the sun came up the maid screamed for help and they broke the shutter to get in – both doors were still bolted from the inside and the maid wouldn’t go downstairs.’
‘That’s why you believe the demon part of her story?’ Narin asked, almost not wanting to know the answer.
Olsir shook her head. ‘Gives it some credence, but …’ She pointed inside the tavern. ‘Go see for yourself and tell me if a maid did this.’
Narin grimaced as Rhe did just that, pushing open the door and heading inside. He had two fingers perched on a pistol butt as he did so, but Narin had learned that was not nerves. The pose was something of an affectation by noblemen from House Eagle’s lands – an ingrained habit of readiness taught to young men and women trained for battle.
Following Rhe in, Narin resisted the urge to slide his hands around the grip of his sword. The air had a greasy foetid feel to it that went beyond the stink of spilled guts. He couldn’t see much at first, his eyes adjusting slowly to the gloom, but the scattered tables and chairs told him there’d been a sizeable struggle.
Rhe stopped short and looked down just three paces inside the door. Narin instinctively moved to the side and felt a chill of foreboding as he heard the squelch of something underfoot. Rhe didn’t look back; his attention was on the ground at his feet as he spoke.
‘I believe you’ve just trodden on the evidence, Lawbringer.’
Narin blinked as the room came into focus, recoiling with disgust as he saw the dark smear of insides under his feet.
‘Jester’s folly! It’s—’ he exclaimed before bile rose in his throat and he had to swallow hard. ‘It’s everywhere,’ Narin continued in a subdued voice.
‘He,’ Rhe corrected, pointing to the centre of the room. ‘He’s everywhere. Lady Pity, comfort his soul.’
It took an immense effort for Narin not to spew his guts up as he followed Rhe’s finger. Amid a pile of torn flesh and dark stains of blood, there was most of a head – almost untouched except for a torn cheek, and damage to the eyes. The unreal distortion of brutal death meant Narin didn’t quite recognise it for what it was at first, but then he saw stubble on one fleshy cheek and short hair matted with blood.
‘Stars in heaven,’ Narin breathed as he composed himself and looked past the head.
There were pieces of flesh scattered across the bar, dark sprays of blood on the ceiling and fireplace, more down the corridor leading away from the barroom. Most of the gruesome remains were unidentifiable, just shapeless lumps of meat sheathed in tattered scraps of clothing, but at Rhe’s feet was a four-fingered hand. A boot with gristle trailing from the top rested at a tilt against the bar.
Rhe looked back at Narin, his expression as unreadable as ever, then the Lawbringer picked his way across the room to the nearest unbroken window and opened the latch. Narin did the same with a second and the weak morning light of winter spread over the horrific scene. It only worsened with the addition of colour and detail, but Narin forced himself to focus on the details rather than think about the brutality of the landlord’s death. A small voice at the back of his mind howled at the horror, but the Lawbringer in him overruled it.
‘He was dragged from the corridor?’ Narin asked in a choked voice, pointing towards the blood-sprayed corridor on the far side.
Rhe shook his head and pointed to the fireplace. ‘This is the spray of a killing blow,’ he said, indicating the path of blood up the brickwork, ‘as is that in the corridor.’
‘So he was killed here, his wife came to investigate the noise,’ Narin concluded, moving to the boot at the bar and crouching to look at it. ‘But this was no cut,’ he said, looking at the ruin of flesh from which a jagged stump of bone protruded like some awful maggot.
‘No, no sword did this. Look at the floor.’
Narin did so, for a moment seeing nothing but half-dry patches of blood and gristle. ‘Grooves in the floorboards,’ he said at last, ‘fresh ones mostly, but there’s blood in some.’
‘Claw marks, perhaps a meat hook or some monstrous weapon,’ Rhe said, ‘but then there is the hearth stone.’
Across the front of the open fireplace were four large flagstones, worn and soot-stained through years of use. At one end however there was another mark – a blackened smear that Narin could all too easily imagine was a footprint of some hound, except it looked as big as his own hand with fingers splayed. With a sense of dread he checked it to confirm that and realised his estimate had been very close.
He licked a finger and glanced up at Rhe who nodded to him. Rubbing his finger down one side, Narin confirmed it was not just a random soot-stain but something more permanent on the stone.
‘Claw-marks, stones scorched underfoot, no obvious point of entry.’
Rhe straightened. ‘I will go and confirm it is the same with the wife. You tell Olsir to let no one in and then question the neighbours, find out what sort of man the landlord was.’
‘You think this was deliberate? Hard to imagine a landlord would have the sort of enemies that might be able to set, ah … to set hellhounds on him.’ Narin hesitated. ‘That
what you’re thinking, right?’
Rhe nodded, his expression stony. ‘It may be this was random, but from what little I know of such folklore, hellhounds come as supernatural punishment or are bound to service by some mage. Neither seems likely, but perhaps a line of investigation will suggest itself. More likely, this was staged in some way and he was involved in something else entirely.’
‘So where do you want me?’
‘We have to allow for the possibility this is exactly what it seems – or it has been staged by persons with the means to enter locked rooms.’ Rhe gave him a cold smile, made more chilling by the rarity of such an expression on the man’s face. ‘In either case, you must go and see a man about a hound.’