By John T. Clark
In all my years as a royal inquisitor, I had never been so stumped by a case. I had questioned the witnesses ten times each, taken samples to the alchemist for testing, even retained four different court wizards to scry for clues and evidence, one of which was the former King’s own wizard, Hurley. I was losing sleep and wasting time, and time was one thing I had very little of, especially with the coronation on hold and the factious dukes massing troops.
The only thing I knew for sure was that murder did happen. The prince’s body was found cut nearly in half at the middle, his entrails spilled across his own bedchamber as if he were stumbling around for a good minute after the attack. Outside his chamber his personal guards heard nothing. His manservant, Pluthe was the unfortunate soul who found the body, and was quickly beheaded by the Chief of Police who had determined that without at least one immediate execution, the people of Quatha would riot like rats on a plague ship.
Unfortunately for Pluthe, the Chief was right, so I didn’t interfere, but everyone above the rank of squire knew the real killer was still on the loose.
“If ya ask me, yer excellence,” the portly Chief said while stroking his greasy beard, “the prince’s brother, the young prince, do be the real killer here.”
I smiled politely, my gaze taking in the blood-spattered bedchamber for the hundredth time. “The most obvious suspect, of course, is young Elkinod. He has the most to gain, but somehow it is difficult to believe a five year old capable of such intrigue or malice.”
“Aye, you’d be surprised how quickly them royals learn their trade,” he said with a laugh that made his chins jiggle.
“Your observations are keen, my good Chief, but I must work quickly and find the true culprit.” I shot him a hard look. He stopped stroking his beard. “You know what’s at stake here.”
The chief nodded, “Aye, if young Elkinod turns out to be the killer, the dukes can legally replace him. Way it looks to me, they’ll have their own man on the throne afor long.”
I turned aside to avoid blasting the Chief with my contemptuous glare, but I could not hide the acid in my voice. “Before long, my good Chief, we will be embroiled in a civil war that will last half a century. The dukes will fight each other until only one remains, in the meantime Ultharia, our merry neighbors to the north, will most certainly take the opportunity to invade. Quatha will be devastated, we will be dead, and there will still be no king.”
The chief stared at me as if I had just told him the wine cellars had run dry.
“Put simply, my good Chief, the fate of the entire kingdom rests upon the outcome of my investigation.”
It was a full day before I found my first clue, and it was slim. Upon the table where the prince regularly took his breakfast was a plate of fruit. There were grapes from the southern provinces, apples and pears from the north, cherries from local trees, and a large, half-eaten melon, probably grown in the royal gardens. I had ordered the fruit tested for poison, and had ordered the room sealed to all but myself and my assistant, Hogwere. Hogwere, however, I had sent away on a long errand that would be sure to keep him gone for a good two weeks. He was a decent man, with a plump happy wife, and three round, rosy children, and this particular job could easily have made them fatherless. I have no wife, no children, no kin. Only a constant stream of lovely concubines to remind me I am human.
But I digress from my story.
The clue. Upon that plate, refreshed daily with carefully selected new ripe fruit, I noticed that the melon had gone brown and overripe. I immediately sent to the kitchen for the morning chef, who arrived in an angry huff; breakfast in the castle was in full swing. When he saw me, his manner cooled somewhat; after all I did have a reputation for executing law-breakers.
“Yer eminence,” he said with purple worm lips, “what ya requiring of me?”
“It is I, chef, who will ask the questions here,” I said in an icy tone. He swallowed hard, then glanced around. I mused for a moment on pinning the crime on the chef. None would doubt me. That is the power of reputation. But I immediately cast such thoughts to the hells. It is truth and justice I serve above all.
“Come with me,” I commanded. The chef followed until we stood beside the table with the fruit plate. “Who is in charge of the prince’s morning fruit?”
The chef looked at me as if I had gone mad, “The fruit--?“
“Answer my question.”
“Yes, yes, Traine. Traine Meagermond.”
“Where is this Traine, now?”
“Why he’s gone, your eminence.”
I had expected as much, but I feigned surprise, “Gone? Where?”
“Last week, your worship. Went to stay with his mum in Davinsholt for a few days. Said she were sick.”
“And who has taken his place, chef?” I darkened my tone for effect.
The chef began to shake, “I-I’ve been having several ‘o my assistants--“
“Who delivered the fruit on the morning of the prince’s death?”
The chef was about to collapse in hysterics. To a less sensitive investigator, such a response would have been as much as an admission of guilt, but as I said before, my reputation...
“It were, it were... I. But I didn’t do it, my lord!” He fell to his knees, spit dribbling from his mouth, “I swear to ya, I didn’t have nothing to do--“
“Silence!” I said with a bit of fire. I thought the man’s heart might just stop. “When does Traine return?”
“Tomorrow, my lord.”
“When he arrives, send him to me immediately. You may go.” He oozed away.
I stretched and yawned, this was tiring work, but I had my second suspect, and a missing person. I reached to my belt and depressed a small button (better safe than sorry), then I proceeded toward the kitchens.
I stopped by my quarters in the west wing of the castle to retrieve my sword and guild cloak. I refrained from wearing the assassin’s garb around more gentle folk, but something told me that it was time to be prepared. The cloak was more than mere cloth; it had a way of distorting my image and blending me into the shadows. It was also magiked to deflect weapons – sharp weapons in particular. It wouldn't stop a hammer blow, but it would repel a dirk or rapier. I loved the thing, and would have worn it everywhere if not for the terror it struck in people who managed to see me.
I soon arrived in the kitchens, still busy with breakfast, yet I managed to slip unnoticed through an entire isle of cooks before a runner boy slammed into me.
“Yaaaa!” He screamed with a mouth as big as a sewer pipe. He dropped his tray of pastries and fled the opposite direction hollering about a ghost. Of course, the two-dozen or so eyes in the near vicinity were so busy watching the boy run, they completely missed me.
I finally reached the deserted back of the kitchens, and my goal. This was where the fruit was delivered and stored before dispersion around the castle. All about me were barrels of apples, boxes of cherries, and baskets of grapes, peaches, and pears. There were no melons.
I turned to leave with a satisfied nod when my eye caught sight of a large empty box. Out of curiosity I peered inside and to my astonishment I found an assassin’s sword, nearly identical to my own blade, yet this one had traces of blood.
In less than an hour the court alchemist had confirmed the blood to be that of the prince. This sword was indeed the murder weapon, or so it seemed.
That presented another serious difficulty, because if the murder was committed by a guild assassin, then the one who hired the assassin could be very far away by now, so far away, that his capture and trial would be impossible to achieve before the Kingdom fell into civil war.
But had I really found the murder weapon? If so, then what was it doing in the kitchen? The only one who knew I was interested in the prince’s fruit was the chef. And there was still the melon. I decided to follow my next lead, though it diverged from the course presented by this supposed murder weapon. I visited the prince’s lover.
I found Glenda in her apartments tended by her three handmaidens. She was the daughter of the Grand Duke Gladimore, who was a cousin to the former king. Of course that made Glenda and her dead lover cousins as well, standard fare for these royals., no matter. What did matter was her blatant lack of grief at the prince’s demise. In fact, she had her seamstress sew little yellow flowers on her black dress, and lower the neck to show the tops of her breasts. When she finally admitted me to her inner chamber, she had a pleasant rosy glow about her.
“My lady,” I said with a slight curtsy.
“Inquisitor,” She returned a nod, “What is it I can help you with in this time of sorrow?” Her eyes sparkled.
“Have you had breakfast, my lady?” She seemed taken aback at the question.
“Why... no. I have not.”
“You do not enjoy the fruit?” I nodded at the plate of fruit, identical to the plate in the prince’s chambers, yet with no melon. She stared at the fruit as if for the first time.
“That is... not mine.”
“It is for my maidservants.”
“Is that so?”
“Is the fruit brought to here every morning?”
“Most mornings, yes. Why do you ask? It is but--“
“Do you now seek to question me?” I said. The color drained from her face. “Was a melon delivered with the fruit on the morning of your lover’s death?”
She chewed her lip once, “I-I do not remember.”
“Think.” I began to gouge her with my eyes.
“I-I don’t know, I cannot recall--“
“Recall,” I said with steel and fire in my voice. Sweat beaded on her powdered forehead, making white mud.
“No,” She said with a gasp, her breasts heaving. “No, they brought no melon.”
“Are you sure?”
She nodded, “The melons are few, sometimes only two a week are taken from the garden. They are given only to those... in good standing with the dead king.”
“The king did not approve of our... courtship.“
“You have been most helpful my lady, good day.” I stood and left quickly, hardly taking notice of the sound of Glenda fainting and collapsing to the floor behind me. Reputation.
My mind was buzzing, I needed to think with no distractions, so I returned to the prince’s bedchamber. It was as I had left it earlier in the day, yet now a faintly distinguishable smell of death lingered in the air. Once again my eyes found the half-eaten, overripe melon. I knew this was the link to the murderer, and I was now convinced the assassin’s sword was meant to be found by anyone who followed such a link. It was a distraction meant to throw an investigator off the trail. But I was no ordinary investigator.
My eyes began to trace the pattern of blood around the room. It was everywhere, even on the bedroom window. I approached the window, and noticed the latch was in the unlocked position. I pushed on the window and it gave way, swinging out on a top hinge. I released the window and it closed again under its own weight.
I pushed it open again and looked out. There was a sheer drop, straight down a hundred feet or more to a stone courtyard. No assassin could have escaped this way. No human assassin. Yet no assassin, human or otherwise could even enter this chamber, for it had always been heavily warded by spells ancient and impenetrable, and no living wizard knew the magik to disarming these wards.
I was drawing close to an answer. I only needed a few more pieces to make a case, and I had the feeling that one of the pieces would arrive with the morning fruit server, Train.
If he arrived.
The last thought sent me to action. I rushed from the room, heading for the stables, my assassin’s cloak fluttering around me like a dark cloud. When I arrived at the stables, I proceeded to the stall where my Mare, Knickers, was kept. The stable boy was missing, so I grabbed my own tack from the hanger, then stepped up to the stall to unlatch the door. Knickers fidgeted at the back wall facing away from me, her ears flicked backward, she was nervous. I drew my blade.
Suddenly the stall door flew open with a bang, and two men dressed in heavy black mail and dark gray hooded robes, fired their crossbows at my heart. I had only an instant to turn my body and swing my cloak in front of me. I felt the bolts strike with a painful thump that would leave bruises on my ribs, but my cloak stopped the points from penetrating. I turned back to the attackers who were advancing with heavy axes, crossbows dropped to the ground. Their eyes were fixed on me, sizing me up, measuring my movements, judging my skills. I feigned injury, holding my ribs where the bolt stuck, and moved to defend myself. Then I stumbled backward and assumed a beginning swordsman stance.
One of the men grinned. The other leapt at me, his axe aimed to strike my head off. I danced back, spun low and sliced the man’s foot cleanly off his right leg. He screamed like a vole as he hit the ground, blood spurting out of the stump all over his companion, who was no longer smiling. I was smiling however, and it was the kind of smile that freezes water at noon in the Summer.
The remaining man had courage, however, and stepped over his screaming companion with axe raised. I attacked this time, and in moments I held the man’s right forearm in my hand. He stood staring at it in disbelief, his face white with horror. Then he turned and fled out of the stables, leaving a thick trail of blood in the black dirt floor. The remaining attacker hollered curses at his fleeing companion, then slumped into unconsciousness.
I sheathed my sword and pulled a small aid kit from my belt pouch. I bound the man's wound tightly and poured a few drops of healing elixir on the stump. Immediately the bleeding stopped, and the stump began to close up with new pink skin. I used only enough to keep him from dying.
Less than three hours later I was dismounting an exhausted Knickers in the town of Davensholt before the cottage of the mother of Train the fruit server. I rapped hard on the small wooden door and waited. After a few moments, a young man I took to be Train answered the door, his face a mask of grief and sorrow.
“Master Train?” I said.
“Yessir.” He straightened somewhat but could not hide the obvious pain.
“Your mother. She is...”
“Dead sir. Just this morn.”
My journey back was with much less haste, having pushed Knickers too hard on the journey out, so I had time to think. I had taken a tissue sample from Train’s mother for the alchemist, but I already knew what he would find. An assassin’s work was obvious to another assassin. She had been slow-poisoned with Trikets Mushrooms, which emulate the symptoms of the wet lung, but from which there is no recovery. Death is fairly peaceful, but quite assured, and arrives exactly six days from the moment of ingestion.
All the clues led me to believe there was a guild assassin involved, but I was convinced someone, or something else did the actual murder of the prince. Somehow it all linked back to the presence of the overripe melon.
A suspicion began to form, and I needed a wizard with ancient knowledge to verify it. That thought stopped me in my tracks. If only a wizard had the knowledge I required, was it possible the killer was actually one of the wizards? But what would a wizard gain by disrupting the peace of a kingdom?
A shadow moved behind a tree off the road. I dove off Knickers and rolled across the dusty ground as a barrage of darts whistled through the air where I had been sitting. I leapt up and ran toward the trees from where the attack had come. A flash caught my eyes and I ducked and spun under a sword blade, then drew my own sword and somersaulted backward. I crouched ready, my attacker standing before me in the clouded blur of a guild assassin’s cloak.
“The worms will feast on your flesh,” She hissed.
“Not today, brother. What is your name?”
“I am Ducia, of the Black Tower,” she said.
“Well Ducia, you are free to breach contract, and live another day.”
“It is you who will die.”
I flicked my wrist and a tiny dart pricked Ducia’s hand. Her eyes widened in shocked disbelief. “No Ducia, it is you who will die, unless you tell me who you serve.”
She crumpled to her knees, the poison acting on the nerves first. “Never,” she spat.
“You do not know me?” I said. I could tell by her eyes she did not. She was young. “I am Ethlbane.”
She knew the name of course; all in guild knew the name, though I had long hidden it in my public life. “Y-you c-cannot be,” her speech was slurred now.
“I tell you again, you will live if you tell me who you serve. I have the power to resolve your contract.”
She hesitated, “Y-you l-lie!” Then her eyes rolled backward and she crumpled dead.
I sighed heavily. She had used the Mavra, the assassin’s word, and taken her own life. My poison, though painful, was not deadly.
I did gain the most valuable clue yet, however, and a clue that basically closed the case for me in my own mind; a gold coin from the kingdom of Helthalia, a land far to the south where few travelers have ever been. Yet there was one traveler in the kingdom who had made more than one journey to that distant place. I had found my murderer.
Within an hour I was back in the castle. I first called on Gorbin, one of the court wizards and had he and two other wizards activate the castle’s magikal wards, sealing it from escape. I then ordered every exit double-guarded for safety, and called the duke's envoys, the Chief of Police, the captain of the king’s guard, the young prince Elkinod, the court wizards, the morning chef and Lady Glenda to the room of the murder.
“Might we assume, yer excellence, that yer going to be solvin' this here murder?” the Chief said. Quiet fell.
“I know who the killer is.” Tension shot through the room. Such guilt from the innocent; every eye pleaded and cried, “It wasn’t me.” I suppressed a laugh, for now was no time for humor. Theatrics was a primary tool of an inquisitor after all.
“The killer was a dragon.” I said, and relief poured into their faces, but was quickly replaced with incredulity.
Golbor, one of the wizards, spoke, “We all know, sir, that no dragons exist in this part of the world.”
“This is absurd!” One of the envoys cried, “The killer stands right there, and we all know it true.” His skinny finger was pointing at Elkinod, who held his chin up in brave five-year-old defiance.
"Nuh uhh!" he said.
I cleared my throat. “It is unfortunate you feel that way about your future King, noble gentleman. You may find such an attitude... unhealthy, when I prove beyond a doubt Elkinod’s innocence.”
The envoy quickly lowered his finger and stepped back. The other envoys moved away from him instinctively.
“Yes, Golbor, we do know that no dragons exist in this part of the world. But what else do we know about dragons?”
Another wizard, Pellor, spoke. “They must be born from the belly of a... Prince.”
Ah, my final clue verified; for I had not been positive in my reasoning until that moment. “Indeed,” I said, casting my gaze around the room, “legend holds that dragons are born of a seed that must be swallowed by a prince. And when that dragon hatches, the prince dies a violent death.”
“Mere legends. Fairy tales!” This retort was offered by Hurley, the king’s wizard. “We all know such things cannot be true.”
“Do we?” I asked; my gaze locked on Hurley.
Silence. Only the guilty argue too strongly.
“I shall summarize the facts of this case.” I cleared my throat. “First, the prince dies a bloody death while his own guard stand outside his door, hearing nothing. Second, the prince’s apartments were heavily warded from any type of magikal attack. The wards are still in place. Third, there was a half-eaten melon found on the prince’s fruit plate, it was overripe, and thus had been served perhaps a few days after removal from the royal garden. And the man who regularly served the prince his fruit was away to help his sick mother, who was not sick, but had actually been poisoned by guild assassin. Fourth, the window in the prince’s bedchamber was unlocked and smeared with the prince’s blood. Fifth, I found this coin,” I held the Helthalia coin up high, “on the assassin who also tried to take my life just this afternoon.”
There were a few gasps, and all craned to see the coin.
"A coin of Helthalia?" said Pellor, leaning in.
“Indeed, and my friends, there is only one among you who has both been to Helthalia, and who has such arcane knowledge as to know about the birth of dragons.”
“But what of the sword you found?” It was Hurley who spoke. “He found an assassin's sword with the prince’s blood. The murder weapon for certain.”
“Ah,” I said, “none knew of that weapon save myself and the alchemist.”
Hurley became still, and all the eyes in the room turned his way. He began to back away, his finger frantically working a spell.
"My only question, my good wizard, is who--?"
Blackness came all at once.
“Noooooo!” I screamed, as I jerked my headset off.
“Billy!” My mom hollered, “You know you’re not supposed to be playing video games on a school night.” She was in the hallway by the circuit breaker box, where she had just switched off the power to my bedroom. “Unplug, take off the Sensorsuit, and do your homework young man.”
“Mom! I was so close!” I hadn't saved the stupid game since talking to the chef. I pounded my keyboard. “God, how could she do that?"
She stepped into the room, her image blurred by the holo-lenses coving my eyes. “Take it all off and do your homework.”
“I already finished my homework,” I wined, but she glared at me even harder.
It was the kind of glare that motivates even the world’s most feared assassin into action.