Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Chapter 6: The Maid

     Ayrst was a large city by any standard. As the capital of Palonias it was home to the Royal Residence at Ayrst castle as well as the Cathedral of the Invincible Light. It also housed the headquarters of all the Palonian armed forces and the Wizards College of Sol. It was built at the mouth of the River Ayrst, which also made it the de facto center of trade for much of the region. Due to its large population, the city had to be maintained with steadfast efficiency, or hundreds of thousands of people would starve. This meant there were myriad city services available to meet the needs of the citizenry: from alehouses and brothels, to educational facilities. Just about every industry one could name had a home here, as well: fishing, leather working, blacksmithing and shipbuilding. The people's religious needs were met primarily by the Temple of Invincible Light, which, aside from the Catheral of Light near the city's center contained many smaller temples scattered throughout the city. There were also numerous smaller churches which honored the Aspects (or, as the people commonly called them – no matter how persistently the Temple frowned on the practice – the Old Gods). 

     Hambelton Frayg winded his way through the crowds down Lyons' Wist and the High Street towards the Cathedral Square. The Great Cathedral itself was much closer to the Carter's Rest, but only the nobility had their Arrangements for Passing made there, and as the victim's identity was unknown, he would be offered no such honor.
     Frayg had spent most of his day making arrangements to have the body collected from the Carter's Rest and brought to the smaller temple. He then spent some time arguing with the local priest about how the body should be handled. The priest wanted to see to it that the corpse was properly prepared for its Sleep, so the young man's soul could Pass into The Dream. Frayg wanted the body chilled so that decay would slow down. The only thing keeping the priests from doing their job was the anonymity of the victim. There were ceremonies for honoring the anonymous dead, of course, but the Temple preferred to know who was being given into The Dream if at all possible. He had convinced the priest to give him a couple of days to try to ascertain an identity before he would begin, though it clearly bothered him to have to make such a compromise.
     Captain Frayg had fueled himself with nothing but tobacco and kaffea, so he was looking forward to returning to the Rest. He didn't eat there often, but Ena Welman was known as one of the better cooks in the Wall Street district.
     It seemed some news of the murder had spread, but few details. The general talk in the streets was that someone had been found robbed and murdered in a room at the Carter's Rest Inn. He'd convinced Commander Brylle to try to keep the gruesome nature of the crime quiet. There was no sense in starting idle speculation as to why the murderer would have chosen to take the boy's eyes, much less his brain. To what dark purpose might someone put a pair of eyes and a brain? Was it some form of witchcraft, or for a heretical ceremony? He didn't like to dwell on it, but he knew he had to think of every possibility if he was going to find the culprit.
     Just as he was about to enter the Inn, he heard a voice utter the words took his brain from the crowd. He quickly turned to survey the street. It was so crowded with people about their business – buying, selling, trading, gossiping – that it was impossible for him to tell who might have said it. He stood silently for several minutes: watching and listening. That's not a phrase one hears every day, he thought. Surely the details couldn't be out already! He sighed deeply, and turned around again, facing the Carter's Rest. He steeled himself and entered the inn's common room.

     The inn was warm and dark. There was a slightly smoky smell about it, as well as the smell of freshly-baked bread. He couldn't remember the place ever smelling so good. His mouth watered as he sat himself at the bar across from where Jaik was sweeping behind it. At the other end sat two older men mumbling to one another between sips from their mugs. Otherwise the place was empty as far as he could tell.
     "You must be preparing for a feast, Jaik!"
     "No more than usual. Ena thought it would do to bake up some extra loaves and scatter them about the inn. To cover the smell from earlier, y'see. I also let closed the fireplaces for a bit to keep some hickory smoke inside."
     "Well, it seems to have worked wonders. I've never felt so hungry in all my Waking Life!"
     "It only helps so much, of course. We've left the windows in room nineteen open, but you can still smell it when you get too close. Still, I don't expect we'll lose too much business, what with the Festival comin' up and all."
     "You're not worried that rumors of what happened might drive away business?"
     "Not really, no. Matter of fact, it seems the rumors have got us some attention. Today's was the busiest lunch we've had in a long time, and every other person what came in was askin' about what went on upstairs! This city's got a morbid streak, I tell ya. Especially the young people."
     Seeing the look of concern that passed over Frayg's face, Jaik immediately reassured him, "No worries, Ham. I didn't pass on any details. By all the hells, I'm not sure I even know all the details."
     "You don't, Jaik. And believe you me, that's just how you want it." He continued, "So, is the girl here?"
     "That she is. She's working the kitchen tonight, though I don't expect she'll get much done. Her mum said we ought to keep her busy – keep her mind off what she saw, you know – but I don't know if anything will wipe away such a sight from the poor girl's mind."
     Jaik tapped the bar in front of him before changing topics. "But from the look of you, I think we need to put something good in your belly before you talk to her. You're like to work yourself to death if you don't stop and eat on occasion."
     Frayg offered a sheepish grin. "I suppose you're right about that. Won't you bring me a loaf of that bread you've been baking, and some of whatever's roasting back there. Oh! And a mug of bitter, too. I'm as thirsty as I am hungry."
     Jaik Welman disappeared into the kitchens for a few minutes before he came back with a loaf of fresh bread and creamy butter. He placed it before Frayg and then pulled him a pint from one of the taps on the wall behind the bar.
     "You'll have to tell me what you think of this new bitter. Came straight in from Kraycia this morning." He handed the mug to Frayg, who had already begun attacking the loaf with gusto, and them watched as his friend took a long drink.
     "Ah! That really does hit the spot!"
     "Good to know. Gonna place another order for it next week. Depending on how it does tonight, I may double it!"
     Ena Welman came through the kitchen door bearing a large tray on which sat a small roast chicken with potatoes, carrots and leeks. "There he is! How're you doin' Ham? Jaik tells me you're not takin' time to eat."
     "Well, Ena, it's not often I get to eat so well, you know, so I don't normally have the right motivation." He grinned.
     "You've no excuse for that! You know you're always welcome here," she scolded, wagging a finger at him. She returned his smile with one of her own, before lowering her voice and turning a bit more serious. "I hear you've questions for us, and for poor Tania. Once you've done eating, come on back. We can talk in the storeroom."
     "Thanks, Ena."
     With that, she left the two old friends to talk of ales and politics.

     Jaik Welman and Captain Frayg entered the small storeroom off the kitchen in the back of the Carter's Rest. It was a dry, clean room, full of crates and kegs. There was a small desk in one corner where the Welmans kept their financial ledgers and books. Ena sat in the chair behind the desk, Tania in the one on the opposite side. Jaik closed the door behind them and stood with his back to it.
     Captain Frayg sat on the corner of a nearby crate. He reached out and took Tania's hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze.
     "Hello, Tania. I'm Captain Hambelton Frayg of the City Watch. You can just call me Ham, though – most of my friends do."
     Tania smiled at Frayg through red-rimmed eyes. She was a pretty blonde girl of slender frame. Frayg put her age at about sixteen or seventeen. In her other hand she held a damp handkerchief, with which she'd been dabbing at the tears on her cheeks.
     "Hello, Cap- er, Ham." She smiled briefly at his silly name. "Pleased to meet you. Or well, I would be. I mean to say-"
     "Calm down, girl," said Ena from behind the desk. "Ham here knows what you mean."
     Frayg smiled and squeezed Tania's hand again. "Quite right. I'm pleased to meet you, Tania, though I, too, wish it were under more pleasant circumstances." Tania nodded.
     "Now, I understand you've had a very rough day," he continued. "Something very bad happened upstairs, and there's nothing we can do about that. But what we can do – and maybe you can help me with this – is find the people responsible and see to it that they never do anything like that again. And all I need you to do is answer a few questions. All of you, actually, so you're not in this alone, Tania. Do you understand me?"
     She nodded again, and he gave her a warm smile. "Good."
     "Now, Jaik here tells me you were the one to discover the young man's remains. You were going upstairs to clean the room, is that right?"
     "Yes, sir."
     "Good. I know this is going to be difficult for you, but would you please describe for me, in as much detail as you can remember, what happened this morning?"
     "Well, I was helping Mistress Welman with clearing up the kitchen from last night – we had a really busy night last night, you see – and she asked if I'd look at the rooms on the third floor. She told me we'd had a couple of guests stay over up there, and she needed me to see to checking whether they'd be wanting breakfast, or cleaning up, if they were leaving. I thought it was unusual, as we don't normally get many guests in the good rooms except during festivals."
     "How many rooms had you let last night?"
     "I don't rightly know, sir. Mistress Ena?" She trailed off.
     Jaik jumped in. "Only three, Ham. One was to the young man in nineteen. Room twenty was to a merchant and room twenty-two was to an older couple from out in the country. They say they're here a bit early for the Changeling Festival. There were other guests, too – in the communal rooms on the second floor – but those three were the only rooms we let on the third."
     "I suppose the merchant is gone by now?"
     "Oh yes. He was gone very early. Must have been up before Sol."
     "And his room? Twenty? It's right next to nineteen, yes?"
     "And they share a common balcony?"
     "Well, not as such, but it wouldn't be hard for someone to climb from one to the other, if that's what you're thinking."
     "That's precisely what I'm thinking. Gah!  Why didn't I think to check that this morning? I'll need to go up and have another look after this."
     "Not a problem."
     "And the older couple – they're booked for the next week, I expect?"
     "Good. I'd like to speak with them later, as well."
     Jaik nodded. "They're out now, but I expect they'll be back for dinner."
     Frayg turned his attention back to Tania. "Please continue."
     "Well, I took a bucket of water up with me, in case any of the guests wanted to wash. Nineteen was the first room I came to, so I knocked on the door. There was no answer, so I figured the guest must have been out already, but the door was locked. I had the key with me, though, so I put the bucket down and opened the door." Her eyes began to well with tears again.
     "It's all right, Tania. Take your time. But remember, the details are important. I know his is hard, but your help may help me save someone's life."
     Tania sniffed and dabbed at her eyes with the handkerchief. She took a deep breath and soldiered on: "The first thing I remember was the smell. It was awful. Then I saw the blood on the wall behind the bed, and when I ... when I looked at the bed itself ... Oh! It was so awful!"
     "Did you look any further?"
     "Yes. At first, I didn't understand what I was seeing ... I've never seen a ... a person who's Passed before. At least not before the Temple ... you know. Someone's body ... just lying there ... with them not in it any more ..." She began crying.
     Frayg patted her shoulder. "Did you notice anything peculiar about him? Did you recognize him?"
     She inhaled again. "No, just ... just the blood on his face. And his eyes were dark and pitted. I didn't go any closer, because I screamed and ran out of the room. I nearly tripped down the stairs ... I just had to get away from that room."
     "I understand. You say the eyes were pitted. What do you mean by that?"
     "I mean, they were half-closed, but they eyelids ... they sank in funny. And it looked like the eyes had gone ... all black? I only looked for a moment before I ran. Even with the window open, the smell was more than my stomach could handle. As soon as I got back down I ran out the kitchen door and puked in the alley."
     "I see. And let me ask you this" are you sure he even had eyes?"
     All the color drained from Tania's face. "By the gods ... that ... oh. That's why they looked ..." She swallowed. "Someone took his eyes, didn't they?" She put the kerchief over her face as though to block out the vision and the smell from inside her own thoughts.
     Jaik and Ena looked at each other, their eyes open wide, mouths agape.
     "That's why I didn't want anyone to go into the room after I left, Jaik," said Frayg. "I didn't want anyone to know the details. It's worse even that that. But I'll tell you more after the ladies have gone."
     Addressing all of them, he said, "Do any of you remember seeing him the night before? Do you have any idea who he was?"
     Ena said, "I was the one who let the room. I didn't pay him all that much mind. I made sure he had the coin to pay and gave him the key. I sent someone up with him ... it was you, wasn't it, Tania?"
     "Yes, it was," Tania replied. "I took them up to the room."
     "Them?" asked Frayg. "He was with someone?
     "Yes, there was a woman with him. She was very pretty – too pretty to be a working lady, if you take my meaning. And too well dressed. It was on account of her that I really didn't pay him much mind. But I didn't ask either of their names. It seemed improper."
     "Would you recognize the girl, if you ever saw her again?"
     "Oh yes, I would."
     "Would you describe her for me?"
     "Yes ... she had very dark hair and very dark eyes – dark like kaffea. She was thin and also short."
     "How old would you say she was?"
     "At first I thought she was a girl – maybe fifteen or sixteen – on account of her being so short. After I talked to them, I had a better look. I think she was probably quite older than me. Probably in her late twenties?"
     "And you say she was dressed well?"
     "Oh yes! She had on a beautiful green corset and a white blouse with lace at the neck and sleeves. Her skirt was a different, lighter green, but with stitching that matched the corset. I do remember thinking how I wished I could dress in something so nice."
     "Anything else? Any other details?"
     "No, sir."
     "Ena, did you see the woman with him?"
     "No, I did not. I run a respectable inn here. If I'd known he was taking a woman upstairs with who knows what intentions, I wouldn't have let him the room!"
     "Whatever his intentions were, you'll have to agree that it's quite possible the woman's intentions were far worse."
     Ena flushed. "You can't mean to say you think the young woman did such a thing ..."
     "I can't say I think she did, but you'll have to admit, as she was most likely the last person to see the victim in Waking, and as she was nowhere to be found this morning, she bears examination."
     Ena was scandalized at the very thought. "I've never heard of such a thing!"
     "I'm glad for you that you haven't," replied Frayg. "But trust me, I've met women who could behave every bit as brutally as any man. I think the difference is that when a woman does something violent, she tries to hide it. A man's as likely as not to brag about it later."
     "Men are fools."
     "We're all fools, Ena – some are just bigger fools than others. I expect this poor boy was a fool who was lured in by  a pretty face. Of course, until I can find the woman, it's unlikely we'll know whether she had any part to play in this tragedy. Are you all sure you'd never seen her before? Jaik, you would have been in the common room most of the night."
     "I was at that," said the burly innkeeper. "But we had music last night and the place was full to the gills of people drinking and dancing. I don't think I'd have picked anyone out of the crowd. Though ... come to think of it, there was an odd young man who asked for two glasses of wine. Most were drinking ale, so that stood out. I didn't see if he was with a woman though."
     "Would you recognize him?"
     "I might be able to."
     "Do you have time to come down to the temple with me? The one over on the Wall Street?"
     "That's a fair walk, and I have a lot to do here before to-night ..."
     "I'll hire us a wagon. It may be a waste of time, but if you could identify him, that might help."
     "All right, then. Let's make this quick."
     "Thanks Jaik. Ladies, I think that's all I need from you. I'll talk to the older couple after we get back. Thank you both for your time. Tania - I know what you've seen his difficult to deal with, and I know once the shock has worn off, you'll be wanting to talk about what you saw. Until I say different, please try to keep this under your aprons. We don't need idle talk causing a panic."
     The women both nodded, and Jaik opened the door. "I'll return Jaik to you as soon as possible."