"I think this one is above my pay grade, Commander." Captain Frayg did not want to be the man to tell Lord Varyll Namadar, Duke of Borland, Master of Swords and Commander General of His Majesty's Army that his daughter had been murdered in a stable behind some run down tavern near the river.
"I know, Ham," said Commander Brylle. "But as you were the man at the scene, you should be present."
Frayg was pacing back and forth in front of Commander Brylle's desk. The office was small, so his pacing took on a frantic quality.
"All right, I'll be present. But someone way over my head – by all the hells, Nef, someone over your head – should be handling this."
"I've sent in a request to Chief Commander Lyons. I hope to hear back from him this afternoon."
"That's good to hear. This is going to be a very delicate situation, and I don't want caught up in the middle of it."
"I'm sure you do. And what about the Temple? Now that they're involved – and not just any old Templar, mind you, but the Grand High Exalted Inquisitor, or whatever in all the hells she is – things are only going to get worse."
"Calm down, man."
"Calm down? Are you joking? You know what those people can be like. Once they start smelling witches or Dark Magicks they don't let go. They keep searching until everyone is seeing witches under every bed."
"Careful, Ham. You never know who might be listening."
Frayg paused and looked at Commander Brylle. He sat in one of the two chairs across from him.
"You're right. I need to calm down. The Archpriestess is surely just interested because of the nature of the crimes, right?"
"Exactly. I'm sure once you find the person responsible, the Temple will take them in for questioning and that will be the last we hear from them."
"But you didn't see her, Nef. She wasn't just looking for witches, she was ... well, she planted that crystal, I'm sure of it!" He stood up and began pacing again.
"You must be mistaken, Ham. Why would she want to place false evidence?"
"That's what I'm asking myself: Why? Surely the Temple has enough witches without making some up. So she must have wanted in on this case to begin with, and just used the crystal to pull rank on us."
"Listen to me, Ham! You can't go around saying things like that! Even if what you say is true, and the Temple has some hidden motive, you don't want to go putting yourself in a bad way with them. If they hear you making such accusations you'll end up ... well, you know where you'll end up."
"Right, right." Frayg sat again. "So I guess I just go on as before, but make sure I send reports to Her Eminence. With any luck I can get to the bottom of this quickly – before she has a chance to make much more of it."
"You do that. Just don't let anyone hear any more of that kind of talk from you, all right?"
"Now, while we wait to hear from the Chief Commander, won't you tell me what you know so far. What about the woman? Have you come any closer to finding her?"
"Heh. You would think so. I've run into two women that match the description in as many days."
"And? And, nothing, that's what and. One was a student working in the library at the Wizards College and the other was the Arch bloody Priestess of Questioning Witches."
"Oh. Wait. You mean the Archpriestess matched the description of the woman who was seen with both victims?"
"An amazing coincidence. What about this student?"
"She's a bookworm. Knows a lot about history and Magicks, but I don't think she'd ever harm anyone. Besides, she was very helpful in my research."
"It didn't occur to you that she might be laying a false trail?"
"Of course it did. But how? By showing me ancient writings about this Teuthanurae?"
"Well, yes. Precisely that."
"But why? Why would she want me to suspect some legendary beast had returned to Palonias? To take suspicion off herself? There are better ways. That's just too odd – even for a bookworm of a student like her. Besides, she didn't bring me the information. I went to the library for help. She just happened to be there."
"I suppose so, but it's far less likely that a High Ranking Priestess would be involved."
"True. But I don't actually suspect either of them. I suspect the fact that they match the description is merely a coincidence."
"Both of them?"
"One of them must be. And if one, why not both?"
There was a sharp knock on the door.
One of the Watch House pages opened the door and entered the room. "I have a message here for you, sir. It's from Chef Commander Lyons." He handed the note to Commander Brylle, and left, closing the door behind him.
Brylle read the note thoughtfully.
"Well?" Frayg asked. "What does he have to say?"
"He's bringing Mayor Astra in on this."
Frayg let out a sigh of relief.
"Don't relax just yet, Ham. They're going to want you to come along to answer any questions Lord Namadar might have. A man such as him is going to require special attention."
"I knew it. They're going to use me as a shield."
"I won't let that happen."
"And you're going to stop them how?"
"First of all, I'll be there with you, and so will the Chief Commander."
"Four of us, eh? And one of us the mayor?"
"So it would seem."
"That's a lot of men just to deliver bad news. More targets, I suppose. The better to spread out the damage."
"That may be just what they're thinking. In any case, we had best be on our way. Mayor Astra will be wanting to get this over with. We're to meet him at the South Market."
"He's already on his way down there?"
They left the Watch House and grabbed a pair of liveried horses from the stable. They rode down the High Street through the Cathedral Square.
Frayg took a moment to examine the Cathedral of Invincible Light as they passed it. It was a most imposing building. Physically it was less dominating than Ayrst Castle or the Wizards College of Sol, or probably even the Mayor's Palace. But there was something about its design – and the unconscious knowledge of its purpose, perhaps – that weighed on the mind of the observer.
The cathedral was constructed all in white marble. It was a round building with a square façade entryway which held the enormous bronze doors. Over the entryway was a gilded sunburst, a motif which was repeated all over the building: on the doors, capitals and the domed roof. From the back a tower shot into the sky, two hundred feet in height. The top of the tower held a golden ball which could be seen from nearly anywhere in the city. It was the tallest structure in Ayrst. It gave off a sense of might that was different from that of a castle – it spoke of wealth and of power over men's destinies. Only the nobility attended the New Day services here each week. And only the highest officials of the Temple were ever allowed into the tower.
Once past the Cathedral Square, the main road became Mayrand Way. For most of its length it acted as the division between the Commons and the Royal District, past the great Arena until it met with Old Temple Street which held the main offices of the churches of the various Aspects of the One God. From there the Way led to the South Market square which stood before the Royal Gardens and Castle Ayrst itself.
They waited near the gates until a carriage flying the Lion banners of House Lyons arrived. It stopped before the gates and they were motioned by one of the liverymen to follow. They passed through the large outer gates of the castle and into the courtyard. Their procession continued on through the inner gates and into the drive which led to the very steps of Castle Ayrst.
Frayg had never been on the castle grounds. He had seen the outer walls many times, as well as some of the taller spires which rose up from behind them. The building was even more impressive close up. It was truly a defensive castle and not merely a palace. Here was a building which seemed to invoke a sense raw physical power – not like the Cathedral. This building was the place where great decisions were made: decisions of war and peace; decisions of policy for an entire kingdom. And it was built to withstand a siege by land or sea or both.
They stopped in front of the main doors of the Royal Keep. This was the centerpiece of the whole fortification, and though it was built in much the same manner as the rest of it, the keep had a slightly more inviting look. Here were hung banners and the soldiers about it wore finer livery, and there was a wide blue carpet that led up the stairs to the door.
The Chief Commander of the Watch and Mayor Jeremy Astra exited the coach as Frayg and Brylle dismounted their horses. A guard in polished plate armor opened the doors for them, as the footman went ahead. They were told to wait a moment in the atrium. Frayg watched as various men and women passed through, most carrying books or scrolls and all dressed in finery. They shuffled about their business taking almost no heed whatsoever of the men who stood waiting. After a few moments, the liveryman returned.
"His Lordship, Duke Namadar, will see you now."
They were led up a wide staircase to the left and to a hallway with wood-paneled walls. Then they were escorted through a large room with several enormous tables covered in maps with miniatures of soldiers and ships surrounded by various scribes. There was a gallery above, but it was empty. They were taken through a door on the far side of this room to a comfortably appointed office which contained two desks: one to the immediate left and a large, impressive one which sat on a dais in the middle of the room. Behind the large desk sat Lord Varyll Namadar.
He was a tall man with close-cropped blond hair that was turning white. He wore a somber black waistcoat and matching breeches. His eyes were light blue. He had a pair of long mustaches that reached to just below his chin. He wore an expression on his face that matched his dress. He whispered something to the servant that stood by his side. The servant marched stiffly out of the room and Lord Namadar stood.
"I expect you have some terrible news regarding Aliquah."
Frayg and the others stood silent, until the Mayor approached the dais, and with a low bow said, "I fear it is so, Your Lordship. I fear it is the worst news a man can hear."
"Out with it then." The Duke stiffened his stance and raised his gaze toward the top of the doorway through which the four men had come. "And say it plain. I deal in death, and will have no words minced in my presence."
The mayor faltered and turned to Commander Lyons. The commander sucked in a deep breath and blurted it out all at once: "Your daughter Aliquah is dead, my Lord."
"Thank you," Lord Varyll replied. He turned and took his seat again. "You may all sit."
Looking about them they saw there were only benches near the dais, and so they sat on them.
"Why does it take four men to bring such news?"
"Well," began Chief Commander Lyons, "we thought it fitting to bring the watchman in charge of the investigation, your Lordship, as well as his Commander. I came as a representative of all the Watch, and Mayor Ayrst came as the representative of the city government."
"I see. So you suspect there was foul play."
"Yes my Lord," the mayor added at this point. "Or so the Watch believes. I haven't yet been informed of the details, you see, so –"
"You," the Lord pointed to Frayg, interrupting the mayor. "You are the only man here who has seen … my daughter's ... body. Is that correct?"
"Yes, my Lord."
"Please approach my desk. The rest of you may leave." He waved them away dismissively.
This is just what I feared, thought Frayg. I am to bear the brunt of his grief and anger alone. He stood and climbed the dais, standing opposite where the Duke was seated. The others all stood, bowed and made their hasty exits.
Once the others were gone, the Duke's face softened slightly. He motioned to the chair behind the other desk in the room.
"Please bring that up here."
Frayg went to the chair and carried it up the dais. He sat across from the Duke.
"You know who I am," said Namadar. "Now, tell me ... who are you?"
"I'm Captain Hambelton Frayg of the City Watch of Ayrst, Your Lordship."
"Thank you, captain, for coming to me with this. Those others, they're good men in their own way, but they live apart from the world."
"Pardon my asking, my Lord, but don't you live the same?"
The Duke sighed. "Most times, yes. I live apart, here in this castle or in my town house or at my estates in Borland. But there are times that I live amongst the people. I try not to isolate myself from my men, for example. There are times when I must stand apart, when I must be seen as an unquestioned authority, but I try to live a real life as much as I can at other times. I like to see men for who they are. Those men see only a title or an office, or a seal."
"As you say, my Lord."
"I do say." He heaved a great sigh. "I have tried to teach my children to do the same."
"And that is why your daughter was at a crowded inn last night?"
"That may be. But more likely she was gadding about with some other young lordlings. It's the fashion these days for the young nobles to … slum it, is the term they use, I believe."
"Isn't that much the same thing?"
"No. Their purpose isn't to get to know life, theirs is to judge the lesser people, as they see them."
"And you do not see them as lesser?"
"I do not. I may command men in battle, but they are not less than me. Each man has only one life to give, the same as I do. It is my job to see that as few of them as possible are required to give it. But, unless one gets to know what life really is for most people, then the dearness of life is a lesson unlearned. I see you're surprised to hear this. I suppose very few noblemen hold such ideals, and even fewer citizens expect it of a nobleman."
"That is very true, my Lord."
"Now, tell me please, Captain Frayg – what are the particulars of Aliquah's Passing?"
"I believe it was very quick, my Lord. She probably didn't even realize what happened before she Passed into The Dream."
"I wish to know the truth, man – not the things you normally tell a grieving parent."
"This is the truth Your Lordship. She had a wound to the back of her head - the kind that usually … kills instantly."
"Very well. What else can you tell me? How close are you to finding the man responsible?"
"Well, Lord … we're not entirely sure it was a man. In fact, our primary suspect is a woman."
"A woman? Another woman … killed my Aliquah? But why?"
"We don't know, sir. We only know that she was last seen with a woman, and that the two of them left the Seabreeze Tavern together. We found her … her remains ... in the stable, along with an empty mead bottle and two broken glasses. We suspect the two of them left the tavern due to the crowds and decided to find a quieter place to have a drink."
"And you suspect the woman with whom she left of killing her?"
"Well, sir, two days ago we found the body of a young man at the Carter's Rest Inn. He was last seen with a woman matching the same description. And their remains were in a similar state."
"Both had the same wound to the back of the head?"
"No, my Lord." Frayg hesitated. "There were other … details. Details we'd rather not make public."
"So you refuse to tell me?"
"No, sir. I'll tell you. But I'd ask that you'd not discuss them with anyone. And I must warn you – they are unpleasant to contemplate."
"I've seen men disemboweled on the field of battle. I've seen men trampled by horses and run through with pikes. I doubt there is any description you can give me that I cannot top."
"But this is your daughter, my Lord."
"As you wish, my Lord. But please bear in mind that we have strong reason to believe that both victims were dead before their bodies were … mutilated."
"Out with it!"
"Both their eyes were missing. And their brains."
The Duke's jaw slackened. He stood up and began pacing the floor behind his desk. "But, why?"
"We simply do not know, your Lordship."
"But you have some suspicions?"
"And what are they? I want them all – every possibility."
"I'm not sure I know them all, my Lord. I suspect that the Temple may have some ideas that they won't share with a simple Watchman."
"The Temple? How are they involved in this?"
"A Temple representative arrived on the scene this morning, Lord. In fact it was the Prime Examiner herself."
"Halissa MacMorgen? She examined my daughter's remains?"
"Not as such, Sir. Her Eminence simply came to the scene and began ordering us around." Frayg hadn't thought of the potential advantages of letting a Duke in on the investigations. With any luck the Duke and the Archpriestess will be so busy watching each other I might be able to continue this investigation properly.
"Did she give any indication as to why, though?"
"Only one thing, Lord. She seems to believe that there is some witchcraft involved."
"Of course she does. The Witch Finders always believe there are Dark Magicks afoot. Did she have any evidence for this?"
"Only the missing … parts, my Lord. She suspects they are being collected for some Dark Ritual. I suspect she may have other reasons to believe this, but she hasn't told me of them."
"And what are your suspicions, Captain Frayg?"
"To be honest, the thought of Dark Magicks had crossed my mind."
"Well, my Lord, this is going to sound strange, but have you ever heard of a creature called a Teuthanurae? Or an Eye Reaper?"
"The Eye Reaper? What nonsense is that? Nursery tales from the north. My nursemaid told me such stories as a child. 'Behave yourself, or the Eye Reaper will come and blind you for life,' that sort of thing."
"Yes, lord, as you say. Only … I did a little research."
"On the Eye Reaper? Are you joking?"
"I wish I were. I doubted myself for a moment, Lord. But the research was quite ... compelling."
"All right , then. I'll humor you. What did you find?"
Frayg described his trip to the library for the Duke. By the end of it, the Duke was astonished.
"I've heard of strange things, Captain. I've even fought against some strange things. But I've never heard of this Teuthanurae - at least not by that name. And you say it was known to … eat the brain as well as the eyes?"
"And the witch crystal gave it its power?"
"Not precisely, sir. It was said some of them could work Dark Magicks without the crystals, but that they used the crystals to enhance their power. And one other thing – the Archpriestess found a glowing crystal in the stall where your daughter's body was found."
"You didn't discover such an important clue yourself?"
Frayg took a deep breath. Time to put all my chips in.
"I would have, your Lordship, but I don't believe it was there before she arrived."
"Wait. You are accusing an Archpriestess of the Temple of the Invincible Sun of placing false evidence at the scene of a murder? You play a dangerous game, Captain."
"As you say, my Lord. But I am certain of it, or I wouldn't have said this to you. I haven't told anyone else this, either, but you are a man who deals in reality, and so I feel I can trust in your confidence."
"You may do so, Captain Frayg. I'll not breathe a word of your suspicion to anyone. Halissa MacMorgen bears watching, though. I've always believed she had designs above her place – in the Temple and in the Kingdom. If what you say is true, this may be the first time the woman has ever tipped her hand."
Frayg did his best to cover his surprise. Considering all the deference given the temple, he was surprised to hear such talk. He supposed that people with enough power treated others with power as equals, no matter the varying sources of their power.
The Duke reached across the table to Frayg and shook his hand.
"Thank you, again, Captain Frayg, for your forthrightness. It is a refreshing change from all the scurrying and toadying I see on a daily basis."
"Thank you, My Lord," replied Frayg. "I only wish we hadn't had to meet under such circumstances."
"Agreed. When you leave, tell my secretary that I wish to be alone for half an hour. I've kept my composure for your company, Captain Frayg, but I need some time to be alone with my grief."
"As you wish." Frayg bowed and replaced the chair behind the desk before leaving. Looking back, he saw the Duke sitting in his chair, back to his desk and facing the wall. He almost didn't believe it when he heard the sound of soft choking sobs coming from behind the chair.
I will find the person responsible for this, he vowed once again.