Gil Hadrian stood over the body of Lord Mikael Faridar and examined the grisly scene in the bright light of morning. He might have thought wild animals had gotten in if it weren’t for the bloody footprints that led away from the victim to a window. Someone tore the Merchant Lord to pieces, and their feet were small enough that they could be a child.
The rest of the bedchamber was clean, the bed unslept in. The room was a study in opulence. Two large windows looked out at Ashford’s prominent Hightower District. One was open, or the smell in the room would have been worse.
“So, what do you think?” the gravelly voice of Captain Simmons came through the talkstone in Hadrian’s pocket. “How bad is this gonna be?”
Hadrian pulled the smooth, rune-marked stone out of his pocket and squeezed. “Pretty bad, sir. Someone didn’t just want Lord Faridar dead, they wanted to send a message. I’m not sure if the Leech’s office will even be able to put him back together to do a full post-mortem.”
“Okay. Well, do what you can. Talk to the staff at the manor and accompany the body back. This guy was on the rise. Just brought the first Zameeni merchant across the sea. We need to make sure this investigation is done right.”
“You got it captain.” Hadrian dropped the talkstone back into his pocket as he made his way out of the room and down the stairs to a foyer bigger than his whole apartment. Two uniformed constables, one a middle-aged man with thinning hair and a thick waist, and the other a young woman with cropped brown hair, talked with a chambermaid. At a nod from Hadrian they left her and approached.
“You two responded to the messenger?”
“Yeah,” the woman said. Her uniform identified her as Constable Rainer. “Boy came in and said there was some kind of trouble. We were first on the scene. It looked like this, and we sent for a Questioner. Above our pay grade.”
“Thanks.” Hadrian ran his hands through his dark hair. “Where was the maid when you got here?”
“She answered the door. Pretty shaken up.”
“Okay. She have anything else to say that we don’t know?”
“Not really,” the older officer, a Constable Main, cut in. “She woke at her normal time and went to the vic’s chamber to clean it, but the door was locked. She used her key to let herself in, found this, and fainted. When she woke up, she ran back downstairs to summon the messenger. Hasn’t gone back upstairs since.”
“Okay. Thanks. Finish up with her and send your notes to the twenty-third. Make sure the body goes to the Leech there.”
Hadrian pulled the talkstone back out of his pocket and turned to the door. “Rozz?”
“Can you patch me in to the Captain?”
“You got it, doll.”
There was a moment’s pause, then, “Yeah Hadrian? You got something for me?”
“Not yet, but the body is getting sent over, and so are the notes from Ranier and Main. I’m going to see Ferrin. Maybe he’ll have some idea of what’s going on.”
The Leech’s office was always cool, no matter the weather. The Leeches all insisted that it should be colder, used to be colder, but the enchantments on the walls were wearing off and there was no room in the Constabulary’s budget to have them ensorcelled again. Hadrian moved quickly down the hallway of offices to the exam room in the back. He opened the door to the mixed smell of human remains, lavender, and camphor.
At the center of the room sat a table with a metal surface. Atop it lay the now pale and bloodless body of Lord Faridar. A tall figure in a black, hooded, waxed-leather coat stood behind the table. There was a long-beaked bird mask where the face should be.
“Hey Gil,” the bird-man said in a bright and happy tone. “Good to see ya. How’re you doing?”
“Not bad, Carl. Better when this is said and done. What do you have for me?”
Carl Ferrin, the head Leech of the twenty-third precinct pulled down his hood and removed the bird mask, revealing a youthful face with a sparse red beard and moustache. “Okay Gil. It won’t take long, there isn’t all that much to report. I’ve got the body put back together as best as I could. I can tell you that nothing is missing, so we can probably rule out cults and rituals. The actual wounds are irregular but very straight, so it definitely wasn’t some kind of animal attack. I would bet something not very sharp, but with some force behind it.”
“Okay. What about magic?”
“I haven’t checked that yet, but I did find some skin under Lord Faridar’s fingernails, so it looks like he was fighting back. I scraped some out.” He held up a small glass vial with some tiny scrapings in it. “Maybe try a scrying if you’re coming up empty.”
“Okay, thanks.” Hadrian couldn’t help but think that if there wasn’t budget to cool the Leeches’ exam room, there probably wasn’t money for scrying.
“That’s what I’m here for. Okay, let’s get the aura check done and I can get my report written up.” Ferrin went over to a cabinet and opened the upper doors. He reached for a two-foot long, y-shaped branch carved with detailed runes over its surface. The runes shimmered rainbow colours at certain angles. It was an Augur, and Hadrian remembered well the first time he saw one used. The whole body had begun to glow yellow.
“Alrighty,” Ferrin said, holding the Augur. “Inveniet.” He waved the Augur over the body. Nothing happened. “There you have it. No magic on the body. Whoever did this used mundane methods.”
“You’re sure the Augur is working?”
“Had it checked out just last week, It’s in fine shape. Won’t need to be replaced for a good long while yet.”
“Okay. So, someone got into his locked bedroom, cut him to pieces with a dull weapon, left through a third storey window without leaving any marks on the ground below, and walked away with only a scratch from the victim?”
“Sounds open and shut to me, Gil.” Ferrin’s eyes sparkled, and his lips turned up at the corners.
“Go to the Abyss, Carl.” Hadrian said as he started to leave. “You still on for Papam on Friday?”
“You know it. You owe me from the last game. Three silvers, right?”
“The Abyss, Carl. See you later.” Hadrian said with a wry smile, and headed back to the precinct’s main building.
The next morning, Hadrian approached the Merchants’ Guild and examined the building. It was five storeys of rough-hewn limestone bricks imported from the other side of the Ortian continent. The construction was simple, but each brick fit precisely. A huge circular stained-glass window dominated the front of the building, though what it depicted could not be seen from the outside. It reminded Hadrian more of a temple than a place for merchants to conduct business. He approached the oversized double-doors and entered.
He was in a hall that stood most of the height of the building, the large stained-glass window clearly depicting a merchant weighing a pile of gold coins on a scale, barrels and crates behind him. A double staircase led up either side of the huge space. Here the limestone had been smoothed and polished. The floors were large marble tiles.
A man approached in the long white shirt of a professionally trained manservant and said, “Hello. I am Tiernan, the Guild’s butler. Do you have business with one of the Guildmasters?”
“Yes. I’m here to discuss the murder of a member of the guild. I’m a Questioner with the constabulary. Gil Hadrian.” He extended his hand.
The butler’s eyes widened. “Please wait here.” The man turned and headed up the stairs and through a door.
Ten minutes later, another man approached. He wore a suit of fine blue silk, the coat tied with a wide sash. Ruffles of lace peeked out at the sleeves and the collar. His grey hair was worn tied back in a horsetail. The badge of office on his chest indicated that he was the Chief Merchant.
“Good day Questioner Hadrian. I’m Dominic Roy. What’s this business about a murder?” The man’s voice was slick, reminding Hadrian of some of the pawnbrokers he’d had dealings with in the Shambles.
“Good morning Chief Roy. I’m here to discuss the death of Lord Faridar. He was killed last night in his bedchamber.”
The surprise on the Chief Merchant’s face seemed genuine. “What? Mikael is dead?” Roy reached out for the arm of a nearby chair, and sat down.
“I understand this can come as a shock sir, but there are some questions that I need to ask.”
“Of course, yes.” The man’s voice shook slightly. “I’ll help in any way I can. Do you know who did it?”
“Not yet. Maybe you can tell me a little bit about Lord Faridar. Is there anyone that you can think of that would want him dead?”
“Want him dead? No, I can’t think of anyone. He was pretty well-liked, kept to himself mostly. When he was in town. He travelled a lot.”
“Okay, has he made any big deals lately, anything that would bring attention?”
“Well, yes. He went to Zameenar not long ago, and actually gained entrance to one of their cities. He even returned with an envoy.”
“Who is this envoy?”
“His name is Dhruv Hupat, and he prefers the honorific Sri. All communication goes through his Dubash, however.”
“Yes, it’s a kind of translator, though my understanding is that he does all business and political dealings through her. She accompanies him everywhere and serves as an intermediary in all conversation.”
“What’s her name?”
“She doesn’t have one. Apparently, they give up all personal ties when they take up the role.”
Hadrian’s forehead creased. “So, you’re saying that she has no name, no life, no personality beyond her role as Dubash?”
“That’s what we understand. They’ve only been here two days, so I could be wrong.”
“Are they here?” Hadrian asked, looking up the stairs to the rooms beyond.
“Yes, I’ll get them. I’ll have Tiernan see you up.”
The butler appeared from under one of the staircases and gestured for Hadrian to follow him. A short walk led to a cozy meeting room clearly intended for small, informal meetings. Hadrian sat in one of the leather couches that lined the walls and waited.
A few minutes later, Chief Roy returned with two more people. One was a rotund man with deep brown skin. He wore a wrapping of white silk that draped snug in the middle, but had loose, flowing sleeves and legs. His long hair was braided and draped over one shoulder.
A slight woman entered behind him. She stood at least three hands shorter than Hadrian, and had rich caramel brown skin. The left side of her head was completely shaved, the right side styled in long, tight braids. She wore a rich green robe with voluminous sleeves tied shut with a wide, saffron belt. She stepped in front of the man as Hadrian rose.
“Introducing Sri Hupat and his Dubash,” Chief Roy said.
The merchant muttered softly and the woman said, “It is not customary to introduce the Dubash, Sri Roy. Sri Hadrian, you should speak to me as though the Dubash is not here.” The woman had an unfamiliar accent, and it made her sound exotic.
“My apologies, Sri Hupat,” Roy bowed slightly at the waist. “I’ll leave you here if that is amenable.”
“Thanks,” Hadrian said.
“Thank you, Questioner.” Roy left the room, closing the door behind him.
“Please sit,” the Dubash said as the merchant gestured to the couches.
“Thank-you, Sri Hupat. I just have a few questions for you and your Dubash.”
“I will be happy to answer any questions you have, but the Dubash only speaks as my voice. You cannot question her directly.”
Hadrian struggled to maintain eye contact with the merchant. Tell me what brings you to the city of Ashford?”
“We have come to learn more about this system you use of exchanging bits of metal for goods. It is not something we do in Zameenar.”
“You don’t use money of any kind?”
“We do not. All things are exchanged for other things. Our system is based entirely on trade. Need determines value. I am a merchant of agriculture. This means that my goods are highly valued, so I am in a ruling position in my community.”
“I see. And you heard about our monetary system, and wanted to know more?”
“Yes. It was your Sri Faridar that told me of it. He came with many bags of coins and gemstones, and was surprised when they had little value in trade for us. It was this that made me curious.” The man continued to mutter under his breath and the woman continued to interpret, though he looked at Hadrian as if he was speaking.
“How was your relationship with Mikael Faridar?”
“Fine. He planned to show us your way of life here before his unfortunate death.” The woman’s mouth twitched down as she said this, but she quickly recovered.
“In your time here, have you seen anyone who may have had a problem with Lord Faridar?”
“No, but we have seen little so far. Outside of this lavish merchant hall.”
“Thank you for your time, Sri Hupat. If I have more questions, can I find you here?”
“Yes, Sri Hadrian. We plan on maintaining our travel schedule. We will not be leaving for three more days.”
“Enjoy your stay, Sri Hupat.”
Hadrian turned, opening the door and leaving the meeting room.
Walking home from the precinct that night, he saw motion from the corner of his eye. When he turned, there was nothing there. When he turned back a slight figure stood twenty paces in front of him, wrapped tightly in black cloth from chest to ankles. Their head was hooded, and face hidden, but the snugness of the clothes made it clear this was a woman. Hadrian’s eyes widened when he saw the flicker of rainbow-hued runes through the thin fabric wrapping the figure’s arms and shoulders. Had someone ensorcelled this person? They were clearly aggressive, and Hadrian took up a defensive posture.
She moved so quickly that Hadrian could barely follow her with his eyes. A fist shot out at him, and he tried to dodge. It still caught him across the right shoulder, and Hadrian heard something pop as he spun around. Pain flashed red behind his eyes. The runes must be increasing her speed and strength, he thought. Hadrian awkwardly drew his cudgel with his left hand and squared back off with his attacker.
She ran at him again, her hand extended like a spear, but Hadrian was ready this time. He was already raising his cudgel to block the attack of the assailant and it caught the blow fully.
The cudgel snapped in half with a loud crack and the woman cried out in pain. She stilled, holding her hand gingerly.
The woman walked towards Hadrian slowly, reaching into a pocket at the small of her back with her uninjured hand and pulled out a note. She dropped it at Hadrian’s feet and nodded, then ran off so fast that Hadrian didn’t bother giving chase.
He walked up to the nearest building and slammed his shoulder into the wall. A surge of pain went through him, but the shoulder didn’t pop in. He would need to get help from a Leech.
He picked up the note left by the attacker. It was on a thick piece of paper and read: Stop investigating. He pocketed it and began to walk towards Carl Ferrin’s place.
Ferrin’s large living room was well-furnished, and there was even art on the walls. It didn’t matter how many times he visited, he couldn’t quite get used to how much more Leeches made than Constables.
“How did you do this?” Ferrin asked as he inspected Hadrian’s dislocated shoulder.
“I got attacked. She doesn’t want me investigating Faridar’s murder anymore.”
“She?” Ferrin pulled at Hadrian’s arm and the Questioner winced. “This is going to hurt. On the count of three. One… Two…” Ferrin grunted as he tugged Hadrian’s arm. There was an audible pop.
“Gods damn! That wasn’t three.” Hadrian choked.
“Yeah. Most of the cops I do this for are less resistant if I surprise them.”
“Thanks.” Hadrian did a few arm circles. It cracked a little when he rotated it, but it worked. He could rest it after tomorrow. “Listen, I could use your help with one more thing.”
“Sure, Gil. Whatever you need.”
“I need you to get in touch with a friend of mine. She works with Aurora House.”
Ferrin’s looked puzzled. “Aurora House? Why them?”
“I know who killed Lord Faridar, and I think they’ll have a new tenant.”
The next afternoon, Hadrian approached the imposing doors of the Merchants’ Guild and knocked. He fingered the amulet of protection under his shirt, the dents and dings reminders of hard-won cases.
The butler opened the door. “Good afternoon, Constable. How may I be of service?”
“Hi Teirnan, I’m looking for Sri Hupat. I have more questions for him.”
“I believe he is having his midday meal with Chief Roy in the dining hall. Would you like to be seen in?”
“Yes, please.” Hadrian followed Tiernan into the foyer, through a door at the rear of the room. It opened onto a large dining room with round tables placed far enough apart for privacy.
It didn’t take long for Hadrian to spot Sri Hupat and his Dubash sitting at a table near the back of the room with Lord Roy. Hadrian began to walk towards the table when he felt a hand on his arm.
“I’m sorry, I can’t permit you to enter the dining room proper, sir.” The butler said. “It wouldn’t be appropriate.”
“I’m sorry,” Hadrian responded, freeing his arm. “But I’m a Questioner with a writ of entry. That makes it appropriate. He continued up to the table where conversation quickly stopped. “Good afternoon Lords. I had some more questions about the deal you were going to make with Lord Faridar. If you don’t mind Sri Hupat, I was hoping I could join you.”
“Certainly.” The voice of the Dubash covered the quiet muttering of the merchant. “I would be happy to break bread with you, officer. Please, sit.” The large man gestured to the remaining empty chair at the table. Hadrian sat.
“Why did you decide to come here?” Hadrian asked, “No Zameeni has ever come to Ortia.”
“Sri Faridar came to our home wanting to trade worthless metal for things of value. Food, tools, clothes, and the like. It made no sense and my curiosity was piqued.”
“I see.” Hadrian glanced briefly at the Dubash as he asked, “Is the social structure very different here?”
“Yes. I am a merchant of food. This makes me a ruler in Zameenar. Here your food-sellers are the lowest of merchants.”
“And there are deposits of gold, silver, and copper in Zameenar?”
“Yes, but the land is thought worthless, and goes mostly unmined.” Hupat was still smiling, but the Dubash’s voice was beginning to tighten.
“If your homeland adopted a currency-based system, what would happen to the social hierarchy?”
“Hmm,” Sri Hupat paused, his smile drooping. “If we did switch, then food merchants would not hold power anymore. It would be the merchants who controlled the– Pari!” The last word said not with the voice of the Dubash, but in Hupat’s own. He looked at her now with wide eyes. “What have you done?”
The woman shot out of her chair and launched herself at Hadrian. The magic of his amulet sprang into life, and her fist rebounded off a shimmering, translucent barrier around the Constable.
The Dubash looked down, her eyes beginning to water. “Dhruv, I was trying to protect you.”
“We are guests here!” Hupat was virtually shouting now, standing up at the table and pounding his fists. “You do not have the freedom to act here as you do at home. This was explained to you.”
“I’m sorry Dhruv.” The tiny woman bowed from the waist.
Hupat turned back towards Hadrian, and the Dubash’s voice came through clearly, though she looked at the floor. “I apologize for the actions of my Dubash. In Zameenar, it is common for Dubash to act as agents of their, naukar, I’m sorry you don’t have a word for it in your language. She would act freely to protect my interests as she saw fit. She was told not to do so here.” He turned back to her. “Utsarg dena.”
The woman, Hadrian assumed her name was Pari, squared her shoulders, and untied the wide saffron belt that held her robe closed. She let the robe slide off and underneath, her body was wrapped in tight-fitting black silk from her collarbone to her feet. Her arms and shoulders glinted with runes in the light of the dining room chandeliers. The middle finger of her right hand was clearly broken. She stood still, her face blushing pink, her eyes downcast. Seeing her standing docile like this, Hadrian though she looked like little more than a girl.
“Sri Hupat,” Hadrian said, stepping between the woman and the merchant. “Pari is accused of the murder of Lord Mikael Faridar. She is now in the custody of the Ashford Constabulary until tribunal.”
“No, Sri Hadrian, she is not.” Hupat’s voice sounded sad, though his eyes were hard. “In my homeland a Dubash is not a person. They cease to be when they become Dubash. All they are is their naukar. If they ever betray that, their life is forfeit.”
“You’re saying that Pari isn’t a person? That she is only an extension of you?”
Hadrian smiled “I see. Then everything she does is considered an action committed by you?”
“That is a simplistic way of looking at it, but not incorrect.” The merchant was beginning to look nervous.
“Then I’m sorry, but Dhruv Hupat, you’re accused of the murder of Lord Mikael Faridar and you are in the custody of the Ashford Constabulary until tribunal.” He reached out and took hold of Hupat’s arms, pulling his hands behind his back and binding them with a standard-issue shrinkrope.
“This is ridiculous. It was my Dubash, not me.” Hupat tried to struggle, but that only made the ring around his wrists grow tighter.
“No, you said that she isn’t a person, and is merely an extension of you. That makes her actions yours.” Hadrian reached into his pocket and pulled out his talkstone. Squeezing it, he said, “Okay Carl, send them in.”
From outside the dining room came two women. One, clearly past middle-age, looked like someone’s friendly greatmother. The other was younger and more worn-looking, but with friendly eyes. They approached Pari at Hadrian’s gesture.
“Hello,” the older one said. “I’m Helena. What’s your name?”
Pari said nothing, her eyes still downcast. Hadrian looked at her. “It’s okay. You can talk for yourself again. These women are here to help.” Turning to the women he said, “Her name is Pari. I don’t know her last name. She’ll need a place to stay, and it will probably be awhile before she understands we’re helping.”
“I see,” the older woman said. “Very well Pari. We are going to take you to Aurora House. It’s a special place for women like you, women who need someplace safe to stay while they figure out how they want to live their lives. Come with us. We’ll take good care of you.”
She tried unsuccessfully to get the girl to move. Pari’s eyes never left the floor, but there were tears forming at the corners.
Hupat looked at his Dubash and said, “Rihaee.” Then it was his eyes that went down to the floor.
Pari’s body drooped, and she cried in earnest and allowed herself to be led out of the dining room.
Hadrian led the Zameeni prisoner out of the Merchant’s Guild and into the street where the paddy wagon was waiting to take him away. Ferrin approached as soon as the prisoner was gone.
“Hey Gil, that was a good thing you did in there.”
“Thanks Carl. I’m going to head home and get ready for Papam tonight. You still in?”
“Sure Gil. I need that three silver you owe me.” Ferrin winked as Hadrian began walking away.
“Tell you what Carl.” Hadrian called over his shoulder. “I’ll give you two beers and we’ll call it even.”
BIO: Ben Nein writes from a cold, basement office in Winnipeg, Canada. Find out more about him, including other publications at neinwrites.weebly.com or follow him on Twitter @neinwrites.