First off, this will NOT be the title I use when this book is published. Frankly, it sucks, but I need a title while I work to make it feel like a real story to me.
Also, what you're seeing is the raw first draft of my 2013 NaNoWriMo project. No doubt things will change as it goes through editing.
This novel picks up six months after the end of the short story "Justice" from Sword and Sorceress 28. It's essentially a S&S version of CSI.
I am rather curious to hear what y'all think. I hope you'll leave a comment or two.
I was still in my bedclothes and breaking my fast when Duke Marco’s messenger arrived. Setting aside the rich cinnamon bread, I glared at both the nervous young man and my personal assistant Sivan. “Tell me, is there a chance His Grace, his lady wife or his retainers might let me finish one morning meal in peace?”
“When the stars fall from the skies, Justice?” Humor edged Sivan’s response.
My displeasure settled on the messenger. His bright scarlet face and hands quivered.
I smiled sweetly, but the boy wasn’t comforted by my demeanor. My appearance discomfited nearly everyone the first time they saw me, my lover being the sole exception. “What is so important that your master could not wait for a reasonable hour?”
“He respectfully requests your presence, L-Lady Justice. A-a body was found in one of the keep’s wine barrels.” His voice cracked on the last syllable.
Orrin was the third largest city in Issura and had the largest seaport. While crime wasn’t rampant, the city’s largest problem was disorderly conduct from sailors on shore leave. Or it was until I was assigned as the resident justice last summer. Even then, it wasn’t normal offenses like theft or smuggling. It was things like this.
I shoved my plate away, wiped my mouth with my napkin and stood. “Thank you so very much for destroying my appetite.”
The boy whimpered. Surely from his voice and his manner, he was the highest ranking page available. No matter if he had heard the rumors many times over, my red eyes had made more than a few grown men wet their smallclothes.
“Run across the street, and request a truth-speller to accompany me.”
“Y-yes, ma’am.” He fled as if I’d summon demons to eat his scrawny hide.
Sivan didn’t bother to hide her laughter any longer.
“You did that on purpose,” I accused.
“He said he was instructed to only deliver the message to you, m’lady. Far be it for me to interfere with his duty.”
I stalked over to the wardrobe in the corner of my private chamber. Inside were several sets of formal cloaks. To any one else, they looked identical, the black of the Temple of Balance from hood to ankle. But for me, I could still see the blood stains on all of them.
The laundress’s best efforts not withstanding.
Out of some sense of perversity, I chose the set that still carried the mark of the sorcerer Samael, a distant member of the royal family whom I’d illegally executed to save Duke Marco.
And the world.
Once I’d donned leggings, boots and a silk undershirt, I added my sword to the ensemble. In the half year since Marco’s parents had been found guilty of treason, little incidents had been occurring. Small challenges to his authority. Carefully crafted insults.
So far, the young man had been holding his own. But a body found on his estate would only escalate the problems even if the young lord and his retinue were innocent. Nothing like a good scandal to stir the masses.
I reached the stables to find Brother Luc, head priest of Orrin’s Temple of Truth, already mounted, waiting for me with two of his wardens. Cold raindrops trickled dark purple tracks down his cloak.
I had to hide my delight that he came. “Brother, please don’t bother on such an ugly day. Either of your junior priests would do in this circumstance. Surely as the head of your temple, you have more important duties.”
“Considering where the body was found, it seemed that our best truth-speller should accompany you, Justice.” Amusement flavored his tone. Now that we were permanently assigned to Orrin, we went through this dance of words every time we met in public since we could not often meet privately without arousing suspicions.
By the Twelve, I missed sleeping with him.
I inclined my head. “Thank you for your assistance, Brother.”
Little Bear, one of my own wardens, moved to assist me on my horse. I glared at him, my foul mood spilling over once again. Luc muffled his laugh, and the warden had the grace to say sheepishly, “My apologies, Justice. I forgot.”
Reigning in my temper, I said, “I understand, but this behavior must stop.”
“Before she knocks someone’s teeth out,” Luc added. Like Sivan earlier, he didn’t bother hiding his laughter.
“Yes, m’lady.” Little Bear bowed and turned to his own horse. It was habit on the warden’s part, I knew. Every priestess in my order was blind.
Every single one except me.
The wardens and clerks acted as the justice’s eyes. None of the staff at Orrin knew what to do with a sighted justice. Not that I saw the world as they saw it, but enough that I wasn’t helpless by any means.
I climbed on my precious Nassa and patted her neck. “Shall we discover what’s troubling Duke DiMara today?”
Luc snorted. “I’d say it was his ruined wine.”
I couldn’t be angry with the page for spreading unnecessary gossip. Luc could charm the knowledge out of anyone without the need of a spell.
We guided our mounts through the postern gate, down the alley that separated my goddess’s temple from that of the Mother, and up the main thoroughfare of the city. The business district gave way to small shops and eateries. Orrin was rich enough that the streets were cobblestoned, but the winter rains kept most of the citizens indoors despite the absence of mud.
Small homes appeared between the merchant buildings. Gradually the shops disappeared, and the houses grew larger as we climbed the bluffs on the north side.
The DiMara estate overlooked the city and harbor, an imposing stone building that still bore signs of its originally purpose as a fortress. A guardsman swung open the ornate wrought iron gate, a show of the family’s wealth, as we approached. The duke controlled most of the harbor trade, and those ships they didn’t own out right, they had invested in over the years.
Two stableboys took our horses while the guardsman led us on foot to a warehouse on the left. The dry interior was welcome after our short, wet ride.
Magistrate Malven DiCook was not.
“‘Bout time his lordship’s pet priestess got here.” He coughed and spat on the floor, close enough to me to be thoroughly disgusting but intentionally missing my boot. Duke Marco wasn’t the only one dealing with insults, but the ones aimed at me weren’t so carefully crafted.
If I had the evidence that Malven was involved in the former lord and lady’s treason, I’d behead the bastard without blinking. But I didn’t, which meant I had to tread lightly around the duly elected city magistrate.
And tolerate the scent of the damn licorice-scented dye he used to disguise the effects of age in his hair and beard.
He hooked his thumbs in his belt and rocked back on his heels. “His lordship wouldn’t let me examine the body until you arrived.”
I brushed back the hood of my cloak and stepped closer. Being a tall woman was handy at times. I met the magistrate’s glare before he turned his attention toward the floor. Sometimes, my idiotic attempt to give myself sight came in handy for unnerving my antagonist.
He muttered the Cantish word for “freak.”
“No,” I answered in the same language. “I was chosen by the Goddess. If you have an issue with her selection, I’m sure the Reverend Mother could arrange an audience for you.” I didn’t add my personal opinion of his hygiene habits.
He jerked and shuffled a step backward. I didn’t know whether it was due to my knowledge of Cantish or my not-so-subtle threat. Nor did I wish to probe his thoughts to find out. Mucking out Duke Marco’s horse stalls would be a far more pleasant task.
Luc’s amusement at the magistrate’s reaction tickled my mind, but he said nothing.
“This way m’lady.” The guardsman beckoned us to follow. He marched for the opening that yawned in the floor of the storage room. Luc faced our wardens. “Two up. Two down with us.” Without a word, one of his and one of mine moved to a position where they could watch both the main door and the passage to the underground storage rooms.
Marco’s guardsman lit an oil lamp and led our retinue and the magistrate down a wide wooden ramp. The air was terribly dry for such a miserable, wet day. Small bowls sat in alcoves along the wall. The calcium in them absorbed the moisture in the air to prevent mold and rot.
At the bottom of the ramp, my desiccated airways itched from the sawdust coating the floor. Despite the sweet scent of mountain pine, another sickly smell met me. The guardsman gestured to the wide double doorway to our right.
I strode past the guardsmen to find Duke Marco, his wife and sister, his steward and another household servant on one side. Facing them were three of the city’s peacekeepers. A wine barrel stood upright between the two sets of observers. The tension in the wine room was more suffocating than the odor of death.
“You and your household seem rather intent on disturbing my morning meals, Your Grace.” I nodded to the women. “Lady Katarina, Lady Alessa.”
“Truly, I would prefer not to.” Marco’s grim humor matched mine. “However, the circumstances warranted your curious mind.”
“Would it make you more comfortable if I provided you a knife to threaten someone with, Justice Anthea?” Lady Katarina offered with the same amusement as her husband. She rested a bright red hand over her prominent stomach.
Sometimes, the odd eyesight I’d given myself let me see things that others couldn’t. Like the rise in the lady’s body temperature. Knowing she was with child before she did had been entertaining.
An odd sort of friendship had sprung between the noblewoman and myself over the last six months. Probably because we were both products of the Temple of Love’s Spring Rituals. Definitely because I had saved her and her husband’s lives from his deranged mother and the demons her pet sorcerer had summoned.
“That will be unnecessary, m’lady,” I replied and brushed the pommel of my sword at my shoulder. “I’ve learned to carry bigger weapons when you two are involved.”
“If you’re going to do nothing but joke with His Grace, maybe you should leave.” The magistrate’s irritation felt like steel scraped across slate.
I turned my gaze on DiCook. “I didn’t realize you had been named the Reverend Mother of Balance.”
“Your predecessor had a sense of decorum in these matters,” he shot back.
Sometimes, I wondered of the elderly sister who held the temple seat here was willfully, as well as literally blind. But that wasn’t fair of me. None of the priest or priestesses of the eleven other temples detected so much as a whiff of trouble with Marco’s parents before it was too late.
I had gotten lucky, and I knew it. Otherwise, we’d be neck-deep in another demon war now.
“Really, Sir Magistrate? In reviewing her records, I did not come across any accounts of bodies in wine barrels. Care to enlighten me?”
He muttered another obscenity under his breath, but otherwise remained silent.
The duke and his party wisely said nothing as well while I crossed to the source of the odor and peered inside. I couldn’t distinguish much in the deep green mass because the body had cooled to the same temperature as liquid she floated in, so I inhaled deeply.
I looked up at Luc who had joined me. “He or she didn’t loose their bowels in there.”
“She,” he corrected. At my quizzical expression, he added, “Too much hair floating at the top of the barrel.”
“Could be Pagonian.” I shrugged. Both men and women of Issura’s neighbor to the north only cut their locks during a period of family grieving.
“Hair’s too pale even soaked in dark red wine.”
I sighed. “I suppose I should examine the timeline before we pull whoever it is out of the barrel.”
Luc grunted and looked over his shoulder. “Duke Marco, when was this barrel brought onto your estate?”
The nobleman’s sister Alessa was the one who answered. “Three days ago, Brother.”
Luc turned back to me. “If she was dead when she was brought into the estate, I won’t be able to track her.”
I grinned at him. “Afraid the Wilding priest will show you up?”
DiCook stomped over to the barrel. “If you two are finished making light of someone’s murder, maybe you’ll get around to finding the culprit.”
“Murder? Who said anything about murder?” I couldn’t resist needling the magistrate.
“So this poor woman decided to take a swim in a barrel of his lordship’s wine?” His face turned a brilliant scarlet.
“We cannot assume anything at this point.” My Luc, ever the voice of reason. “What do you need, Anthea?” His question was for the benefit of everyone else in the room.
“Just some quiet,” I murmured. I pulled off my gloves and settled cross-legged on the cold flagstone floor. With one hand on the barrel and one on a shard of decorative onyx embedded next to the slate, I concentrated.
The stone quivered beneath my palm, eager to tell its story. It paid more attention to the vagaries of the mobile beings than its slate brothers.
I tugged the strings of time with the stone’s assistance, unwinding back to four days ago. Luc and the rest would see transparent figures moving faster than usual. I could only see gray ghosts drifting around and through the colored figures of the living in the storage room. Two men rolled a barrel out of the room.
“Hold.” Luc’s bass rumbled through the air.
I paused the release of the time thread.
“Names,” he demanded.
“That’s William and me,” squeaked the retainer standing with the steward.
“Name,” Luc snapped.
“Bartholomew, m’lord,” the retainer squeaked again.
“I told them to bring up a barrel of the local rose for dinner the night before the delivery,” the steward offered.
“Luc,” I said through gritted teeth.
“My apologies. Continue.” At least he actually sounded sorry, but I don’t think he truly understood the strain of what I was doing. I let the string of time the onyx showed me slide forward. Several men rolled barrels down the ramp.
Luc folded his arms. “Where did the shipment come from?”
“The Pana Valley,” Lady Alessa and the steward answered at the same time.
“Lord Aleister DiVinter’s estate,” the lady added.
Luc’s concern matched my own. If this turned out to be a power play within the nobility, things could turn very ugly very fast. I let the rest of the timeline slid through my grip. But once the barrel in question was stored, it remained in place until Bartholomew and the man he named as William tapped it this morning.
“Well, that wasn’t a damn bit helpful,” Luc murmured.
I thanked the onyx before I shook the feeling back into my fingers and rose to my feet. “Let’s drain the barrel and get her out.”
“Shame about the wine.” Luc stepped out of the way.
I could hear DiCook’s teeth grind, but he kept silent.
The steward and Bartholomew set buckets under the tap to drain the ruined red while the guardsman went off to fetch an old blanket. Once a sufficient amount had been removed that we wouldn’t flood the cellar, Luc and I peered in the barrel once more.
I pulled on my gloves. “Ready?”
“We can do it if her ladyship can’t.”
I didn’t have to look at DiCook to hear the sneer in his voice. “My thanks, Magistrate, but I can’t have you or your men vomit on the body and contaminate it.” I hooked my arm under the corpse’s shoulder. “Ready”
Together, Luc and I lifted the deceased out of the barrel. She was heavier than she should have been, having absorbed a great deal of wine. We carefully settled the nude body on the blanket.
I brushed the soaked locks away from the face. A sharp gasp came from Lady Katarina. I looked at noblewoman. “You recognize her?”
She gave a sharp nod. “Sister Gretchen from the Temple of Love. She was my playmate when we were children.”
I could feel Luc watching me, which was understandable. For the six months since my assignment to Orrin, I’d managed to avoid the chief priestess of the Temple of Love, but I couldn’t any longer. With one of her people dead, I was going to have to face my mother.