Authors: J. Kirsch
Tags: #romance, #murder mystery, #magic, #political intrigue, #survival, #fantasy mystery, #assassination plot, #multicultural relationship, #queen detective, #scholar detective
"Actually that is what we are here about." I
took the canvas case from Linn's hands, carefully taking out the
unsent letter from Vizier al-Sham. "We have something for you. This
is a letter written to you by your husband. He never had the chance
to send it, and I felt that it was my place to deliver it to you
personally, especially because I also regret what has happened, and
that your family has been deprived of a father and husband." I
turned to Linn, who began to read the letter word for
As Linn spoke I looked intently at Fasima
al-Sham. When Linn had finished I rolled up the letter and retied
the ribbon before handing it to her. Even as I handed her the
parchment, my heart sank. It was exactly what I had
Fasima fingered the parchment in her hands,
looking at it for a long moment. I saw her face curl up in anger,
disappointment, regret, but there was one thing lacking. One thing
that told me that what Linn and I had feared about Fasima was
probably true. There was no genuine grief. Not a trace of
"I must thank you for this, Najika. Linn."
Fasima placed the parchment on the grass, and it was then that I
noticed more than thirty men approaching us from all sides. I
looked around, anxious as they formed a circle around our cluster
of benches. Boreth stepped between the men to stand beside Fasima
al-Sham in her finely-threaded cream gown.
"Fasima, what should we do with
The atmosphere had completely shifted. In the
next heartbeat Linn yanked down his blindfold, his bulbous eyes
blinking to readjust to the light. Two things suddenly
crystallized—Fasima's intentions were clearly not benevolent, and
somehow, for some reason, she seemed to regard me as a threat. Soon
enough I would discover that I wasn't so much a
her as an
"Good, so now everyone's intentions are clear.
I much prefer that to mucking about in the shadows." The librarian
Fasima's face darkened. "If you knew, then why
did you come? It is a strange breed of idiot who knowingly walks
into his enemy's home."
"We came because we were not sure," Linn
"Yes, and I would like to understand," I
added. "Why? I could have helped you willingly, if you had just
told me how I offended you. What did I do to earn your hatred that
you would try to have me killed?"
"Silly girl. Help me? You could have helped me
simply enough by dying. As for hatred, I have very little to spare
on you. I have it channeled more productively. You wouldn't
understand my cause or my people's."
"Don't be too quick to judge. We understand
more than you think," Linn countered. "Rummaging through the
Vizier's things for a second time, I found an interesting
correspondence tucked far away from all the rest. A
letter you sent to your husband, saying that you and the children
were being held hostage by extremists from the Mosques. In your
letter you told him that if he did not help in the plot to have
Najika murdered, his family would be killed. How are we doing so
far?" Linn and I both knew that we couldn't
written it, but given her reaction that guess was starting to make
an awful lot of sense.
Fasima's sharp features grew harsher as they
filled with contempt. "Please, keep going. I'm curious to see
whether two clueless foreigners fully realize what they've walked
I took up the narrative. "After Linn saw you
in Tajma, contrary to how any normal widow would act, we realized
that your connection to this case had to be crucial. It took Linn a
while to find your faked letter hidden among the Vizier's things.
We wouldn't have known it was secretly written by your hand without
comparing it to other letters from you which the Vizier had
Linn couldn't resist interrupting. "Yes, you
tried to mask your handwriting, and you did an excellent job of it.
But you left telltale signs, elusive enough to fool a distraught
husband but not someone looking for the right clues. Especially not
a librarian of my caliber accustomed to sniffing out forgeries." I
wrested back control of the conversation and body-slammed Linn's
ego with a well-placed glare.
"It took us even longer to figure out
you would blackmail your own husband into doing
something so awful."
"And what was your brilliant conclusion?"
Fasima said, contempt still dripping from every word.
"Linn and I rifled through some of his
genealogy tomes on the Jafarri, a people who lived in the Gold
Kingdom before there even
a Gold Kingdom. We found some
interesting tidbits in those moldy books, believe it or not. Like
the fact that the Jafarri were the only people to continue
resisting the Knights of Arkor after everyone else had been
conquered. We also found out that the Jafarri's ancestral origins
are here in the eastern parts of the Kingdom, and that
lineage traces back all the way to one of the Jafarri
Fasima's eyes widened, and I could tell that
this revelation was something she hadn't expected us to know.
Copies of ancient genealogies were usually incomplete…but not
"Hmmm. A pity such knowledge of our people
remains in the hands of Tajmari dogs," she spat. I ignored
"That was when it started to make more sense
to me, why the Vizier wrote in his letter to you that you should
teach your children that
'the Tajmari way is not the only
.' He knew of your ancestry, didn't he? He loved you deeply
too, and approved of the Jafarri traditions where
ruled? Am I correct?"
Fasima gave me a little nod, impatiently
waving my words away with her hand. "Yes, yes. Go on. Finish what
you think you know. Let's end this little farce."
"So…he loved you and was willing to keep you
safely away from Tajma so that the children would not have to live
under the patriarchal customs of the Tajmari. But that wasn't
enough for you, was it?"
"It was not," Fasima said, a gleam in her
eyes. She didn't mind that we were unmasking her. She was proud of
it, proud of what she was trying to achieve, and apparently she
wanted to make sure that we knew it. "I knew the fool would do
anything for me. The besotted oaf. He was willing to see you
murdered if it meant my life spared, Najika. I knew him better than
he knew himself."
I nodded, trying to keep my growing dislike
for the woman from distracting my ability to get at the truth. "So
it seems. So you wrote the letter, got him to agree to have me
killed. But somewhere along the way things went sideways. I didn't
die, and the Vizier was shocked to learn that the enraged Amir was
about to launch a full-scale purge of the capitol, going after the
Mosques and the Verse-preachers in a major act of
Fasima shook her head. "And the fool should
have let the so-called 'Great Amir' do exactly that. It would have
"Yes, but the Vizier was not like you,
Fasima." Linn spoke now, and I quietly readied myself for our next
move. "He had no special love for the ways of Tajma, but he also
did not want to see its people persecuted and butchered by an angry
monarch looking for perpetrators. Stuck between a rock and a
sharpened spear, he did the only thing he felt he could. He falsely
confessed to the murder plot, contriving a story to implicate the
Red Queen, who had the poor luck to be in the city when it
happened. He knew that Drake and Najika might question the idea of
the Vizier acting alone, but by implicating himself with Lady
Agwen, the Red Queen who was so well known known for her
bloodthirsty hatred of Najika, he
that he would be
"Yes," I said. "He sacrificed himself and the
Red Queen for the sake of Tajma's people."
Linn rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Which
leads us to the final questions."
"Oh? And what would those be?" Fasima said.
Boreth's hand rested protectively on her shoulder, and part of me
wondered whether their relationship went beyond duty.
"What did you hope to gain and how did you
know the Amir would react so violently?"
Fasima smiled, sunlight gleaming on ice. "Oh?
Have you not been able to figure that part out yet?"
Linn's wizened face blossomed into a
counter-smile which was as sunny as Fasima's was frigid. "Oh, we
have enough pieces to put that together, I think. What do you say,
I nodded, my face grim. "It wasn't until I
questioned some of the older servants that the pieces started to
fit. The Great Amir has taken many mistresses over the years, even
from among the wives of his own officials. You and the children
visited the Vizier and stayed in the palace last year. During that
time some of the palace servants saw the two of you
Amir and his prejudices
against the Mosques all too well, and you calculated that by
killing me you would start a civil war. You knew that the Great
Amir would think that the extremists among the Mosques had killed
his new ally's beloved wife. Tajma would deteriorate into open
warfare when Amir tried to mete out his retribution on the Mosques.
You would then be free to prepare for a Jafarri uprising. To throw
off the domination of both the pesky patriarchal Tajmari of the
the Great Amir, who you despise just as much
because his ancestors dethroned
I stood up, and the thirty-plus men loyal to
Fasima tensed all around me. "Does that sound about
Fasima cocked her head. "Whatever else can be
said of my late husband's weak mind, he was right about you. You
are an astonishing woman, Najika. You missed a few details here and
there. On the whole, yes. You are correct, and I am duly
impressed." She stood up and gestured to me. "When your corpse is
found branded with holy symbols from the Verses, the Great Amir
will naturally want to believe that the Mosques' extremists did
their vile work. He already despises them, and all I must do is
nudge him in the proper direction. Men have ruled this world long
enough. The Knights of Arkor be damned, Gold Kingdom, Black
Kingdom, pick a color, it doesn't matter—all deserve to fall in the
end. It is time for women to take their proper place at the
"Has the thought occurred to you that maybe
the choice isn't something starkly black and white?" I was nearly
shouting at her. I unwrapped my staff and tensed into a fighting
stance. "You could have used your influence and your husband's
connections to reform the Tajmari so that men and women could one
day share power. Instead you chose a path of violent revolution,
deciding that dead innocents could pave the way to your so-called
"Spoken like one who has never known what it
is like to have one's self-worth suffer under the subjugation of
men!" Fasima shouted back. She turned to Boreth. "Kill them. Kill
Way too much happened at once. I looked at
Linn, and he was already fumbling in his pocket, trying to put on
the amulet. The librarian cried out as he dropped it, and it fell
into a patch of tall grass.
Really, Linn? You choose now to
screw this up?
If we got out of this alive I might still have
to kill him. I did the only thing that I could do, knowing that our
secret weapon was not an option yet. I spun and whirled my staff in
a deadly arc, trying to form a protective circle around Linn as he
groped on his hands and knees in the dirt.
In any mundane world, my butt would have been
snuffed out like a candle by the thirty-plus men encircling me. But
I had Ironskin, and that was worth more than a footnote. I moved
with innate grace, enhanced by all that Drake and Sir Brel had
taught me. My staff cracked skulls, smashed into the sides of
heads, left welts and bruises, not to mention a slew of broken
bones in its wake. Boreth surged into the fray, his sword slicing
before I could bring up my guard. The sharp edge began to cut
through my shoulder, first parting the top layer of skin. I felt a
sting of pain, dimly aware of the blow that should have probably
severed my arm from the rest of my body.
Instead I glanced at Boreth in time to see the
stunned disbelief contort his face when his blade bounced
harmlessly off of my prone shoulder. I swiveled, swinging Ironskin
with a deadly swipe that swept Boreth off his feet. I heard a
sickening crunch as the back of his head landed on a loose chunk of
stone, and the man went limp as I turned back, lunging at the other
side of my rapidly-shrinking bubble, pressed on all sides by
Fasima's mob of men.
Linn was still puttering through the grass,
looking for the tiny sickle-shaped disc which was mate to the
amulet I wore.
Get a clue, damn it!
I was shouting at Linn
in my mind, screaming at him to find it and put the blessed thing
around his neck, which I now wanted to strangle. If he didn't get
that amulet on soon, and I mean within the next few heartbeats,
then Ironskin or not, I was going down.
A rangy, muscular man lunged at me, his sword
sliding right into my face. The blade parted that top layer of skin
and ricocheted away as if I were made of stone. Blood trickled from
the shallow cut, but I was otherwise unscathed as I launched a
brutal riposte that sent the man unconscious to the ground. I
whirled in time to block two more attackers, then hurled my weight
forward, sending both men sprawling. The hiss of another blade
caught my ear, and then I felt it slash right into my ear—yet
again, it managed only a superficial cut, bounding harmlessly off
of my body as if I was made of sterner stuff than the world around