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twisted in my stomach and not from the gruesome discovery in Duke Marco’s wine
“She was dead
before she was put in the barrel,” Luc said. He shifted closer. “There’s
bruising along her neck.” He reached out, his hands matching to contusions I
could not see, but the rest did. “She was strangled.”
Now that the dead
priestess was out of the wine, slight temperature variances registered with my
odd sight. My attention was drawn to the area between her legs.
Like all of the
priestesses of Love, her body hair was shorn, but that wasn’t what concerned
He examined the
slashes in the flesh. His voice was grim when he said, “That was not caused by
I inclined my head
in the magistrate’s direction.
Luc rose to his feet.
“Let’s get the official questioning of everyone present out of the way. If you
don’t mind, Magistrate…”
“You can start
with whoever on earth you wish,” DiCook snapped.
“I mean, I will
question you first.” Luc grinned.
“Me? You have the
“You were the one
who said she was murdered, Magistrate.” I glared at the idiot. Part of me hoped
he was involved. “In front of witnesses, I might add, before the brother and I
pulled her body from the barrel. You have the right to decline questioning, but
I suggest you allow Brother Luc to clear you now, if you are innocent.”
“How do I know
you’re not incriminating me to remove me from my position?” A barely controlled
tremor shook his voice.
I climbed to my
feet. “I have no reason to, and in case your brilliant powers of deduction have
missed the obvious, both the crown and the temples are keeping a very close eye
on events in Orrin after last summer.”
“You should have
been executed for what you did last summer,” he spat.
“Yes, I should
have been,” I said dryly. “Again, if you have a dispute with the Reverend
Mother of Balance, I suggest you take it up with her.”
His face turned a
red so dark it bordered on purple. At least, he understood his position was as
precarious as my own. He turned to Luc. “Very well. Ask your questions.”
“Thank you for
your cooperation, Magistrate.” That was Luc, ever the epitome of tact. “Is
there another room I may use, Your Grace?”
“The granary is on
the other side of the ramp. It will be more comfortable than the cold rooms.”
Marco’s voice as smooth, but I had a feeling he’d just as soon shove DiCook
into one of the meat or vegetable lockers.
As Luc’s warden
followed him and the magistrate, I turned to the female Balance warden who had
accompanied us. One day I was going to get all their names straight.
“Go upstairs. Have
Little Bear ride to the Temple
of Balance. I’m going to
need a clerk to record statements. Then have him collect the Master Healer. I
want him here to examine the corpse.”
“Yes, m’lady.” The
woman saluted before she pivoted smartly on her heels and marched out the door.
I faced the duke’s
party for the next order of business. “Lady Alessa, may I impose on you for a
bedsheet to cover our unfortunate sister?”
Justice.” She curtsied before scurrying out the door.
The three city
peacekeepers stared at me, unsure of what to do with their leader not so
obliquely accused of knowledge of a murder and me issuing orders.
“Have any of you
three dealt with Sister Gretchen?”
chorused, but the one on my far right blushed bright orange.
I sighed. “You do
realize that if you lie to me now, then admit to knowing her under Brother
Luc’s truth spell, things will not go well with you.”
peacekeeper sounded like he was choking on a harvest ham. “I have, m’lady. At
the Spring Rituals three years ago.”
I crossed my arms
over my chest and stared at him.
“And a few times
since then,” he mumbled.
I sighed again.
“Your wife doesn’t know about the other times.”
He bowed his head.
The Spring Rituals
were one of the many reasons I had preferred being a circuit justice as opposed
to a permanent position in a temple. Not because the three-day orgy of food,
drink and sex itself disgusted me.
Because I wanted
to be a part of it.
On the other hand,
a priestess of Love was required to service any man or woman who came to their
temple for succor. I wasn’t sure if my mother doomed me or saved me when she
sold me to the Temple
of Balance as a toddler.
But the unspoken
rule was that the priestesses only provided sexual release for those who were
not in committed relationships. The Spring Rituals were the one exception.
I crossed to the
peacekeeper. He flinched and the other two eased away from him. It almost made
me feel sorry for the man.
“When was the last
time you visited Sister Gretchen?”
“I-I tried to four
night ago, but I was told she was indisposed. Th-the head sister offered to
entertain me herself, but I went home instead.” And Sister Gretchen had been
dead since the barrel was unloaded in the cellar three days ago.
“So you didn’t see
her at all when you went to the Temple
“No.” He shook his
“When was the last
time you saw her alive?”
He bowed his head
and played with the edges of his cloak, plucking at the embroidery. “Winter
Solstice, m’lady,” he murmured.
“And?” I prompted.
“She was alive and
asleep when I left her bedchambers.”
“Does your wife
know about your other visits to the temple?”
“No—” He stopped
himself. While I couldn’t truth-spell worth a copper, my unusual sight could
detect the change in body heat when most people lied. The peacekeeper realized
how much trouble he could be in after my little confrontation with his boss. “I
don’t believe she does. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings.”
If you didn’t want to hurt her feelings, you
should have gone home and made love to her instead of going to the
goddess-damned temple. But I didn’t give voice to that thought.
Instead, I said,
“Thank you for your cooperation, Peacekeeper…”
Dante.” I glared at the other two. “Anything you gentlemen care to add?”
chorused. Their skin remained yellow with flickers of orange. Nervous because
of me, but not obviously hiding anything.
I circled around
the body and approached the duke and his party. The acid of the wine had kept
the smell and decay to a minimum. But now, the odor was starting to overpower
the little room. The corpse would need to be disposed of very soon.
“How well did you
know Sister Gretchen?” I said, focusing on Lady Katarina.
“We were fast
friends until our thirteenth summer.” Wistfulness coated her voice. “She
decided to formally join the temple.”
“While your mother
encouraged you to find an apprenticeship,” I added. Katarina’s healing gift had
saved my life. Part of me was grateful, but another part cursed her. I had
prayed that death from my demon-inflicted injuries would free me from the Temple of Balance<.
But I never had
such luck any other time I tried to escape. I don’t know why I thought the
goddess would release me during that night when she kept her grip tight on me
every other time.
her swollen belly. “Yes.”
“Did you ever hear
of problems between her and any of the other priestesses?”
gave a sad laugh. “Only the usual manure. Backbiting and currying the head
“Same thing. There were always fights between the sisters over the richer
patrons, but I never heard of a problem between her and a patron.”
My muscles tightened.
Once a priestess of Love lost her looks, she was demoted to handmaid. Oh, she
could request a transfer to another temple, but few thought ahead enough to acquire
skills that might be useful, and it still resulted in a demotion of sorts.
The smart priestesses
enticed jewelry, gold and other material favors from their supplicants,
hoarding their wealth so they may retire in the luxury to which they had become
flicked to the peacekeepers and back. “If you wish a formal statement, Lady
Justice, may we please do this inside? Standing for such a long period is not
good for the baby.”
“Of course.” I
inclined my head. “Perhaps in your audience chamber, then? I do not wish to put
any more strain on the duke’s heir than necessary.” I smiled at Marco. “If you
will inform Brother Luc of my whereabouts?”
“I would be happy
to, Justice Anthea.” He was having trouble containing his laughter at his
wife’s subterfuge. “And my apologies for interrupting your morning meal.”
“Please try not to
do it again, Your Grace.” The peacekeepers took my mocking for real anger from
the way the three of them jumped.
I held out my
elbow for Katarina. She seemed relieved as we left the wine cellar. At the top
of the ramp, the female warden stood vigil with the warden from Truth. She fell
in step with me, but I held up my free hand.
“Stay here. No one is to leave without Bother Luc’s
authorization. I’m escorting the lady to her audience chamber. Should the
Master Healer arrive before I return, come fetch me.”
She saluted again.
I blew out an
annoyed breath. “What’s your name again?”
“Tyra, my lady.”
No need for an origin name. We all adopted DiBalance when we entered our
“I’m sorry for
forgetting again, Tyra.”
“Things have been rather chaotic since you arrived.”
I leaned close the
warden. In a conspiratorial fake whisper, I said, “I blame Lady Katarina for
The warden froze
until the noblewoman started laughing.
my shoulder. “Really, Anthea. You are incorrigible.” Behind us the Truth warden
snorted as he tried to stifle his own humor.
We left the
startled Tyra behind and headed through the gray drizzle for the great house.
* * *
Once we shed our
damp cloaks, our feet were propped in front of the fireplace, and we had been
served hot tea and biscuits, Katarina dismissed the maid. She sipped her tea
for a moment before she said, “Could you please ward the room?”
request spoke volumes.
I set aside my cup
and rose. The spell was basic enough. Every priest and priestess, no matter the
temple, knew it.
nearly impenetrable wall, mine was fluid, elastic. It wouldn’t stop the maid
from barging into the room, but it would prevent her from hearing or harming
Which really made
no sense, considering our personalities. A spell reflected the traits of the
caster, and I would be the first to admit I was rather rigid when it came to
I hummed under my
breath as I shielded our conversation from the servants or anyone else. A
silvery shimmer surrounded us for an instant before the spell settled into the
walls, ceiling and floor of the reception room.
I sat back down,
enjoyed the delicious heat on my toes, and waited for Katarina to begin.
amassing a fortune as soon as she was confirmed by the Reverend Mother of
Love.” She sipped her tea.
“She’s your age,
correct?” At the noblewoman’s quiet affirmation, I added, “How much could she
have amassed in only three years?”
“That’s what the
chief priestess here in Orrin wanted to know.” Katarina blew out a sharp
breath. “When I refused to spy on Gretchen, the bitch spread the word I had spied on Gretchen.”
refused to speak to you after that.”
The sad part was I
knew how ambitious my birth mother was. I may have only been three summers, but
I understood the price she asked for me from the contingent of Balance when
they came to claim me. Mother had gotten the power she wanted, but had she
desired more than the temple seat here in Orrin?
And sadly, I
understood why Katarina had stayed even though my mother was making her life
miserable. It would have been around the time her mother contracted the wasting
“You had to have
known that you couldn’t heal your mother,” I murmured.
She swiped at her
cheek. “I had to try.”
I coughed to cover
my own discomfiture. I was alive; her mother wasn’t. The failure must sting her
soul. “Was there any significant patron in particular who she entertained?” I
reached for my cup.
an ugly, bitter thing. Six months ago, I wouldn’t have believed the sweet woman
could make such a sound. “Would you believe one of them was Samael DiRoy?”
I choked. My
mouthful of tea sprayed over my shirt and leggings. Once I could catch my
breath, I glared at her. “You did that on purpose.”
“Only to see the
imperturbable Justice Anthea spit all over herself.” Her humor quickly faded.
“If I had known then…”
Samael DiRoy. The
great nephew of a cousin of our current queen, which made him thirty-sixth, or
was that sixty-third, in line for the throne. Traitor. Demon summoner. The main
reason I had been condemned to the Justice seat in Orrin.
As the Reverend
Mother had surmised, being trapped in the city of my birth was a far worse
punishment for illegally executing the idiot prince than having my own head
give a whit that I had stopped a demon invasion in the process.
I took another
drink of tea that I actually managed to swallow. “Do you think she knew about
“I don’t know.”
Katarina pulled her shawl tight around her shoulders. “It would explain where
all of his money went.”
with Marco’s parents?”
“Not that I know
of. Lady DiMara thought the Spring Rituals were beneath her. She was—”
shrew with a thirst for power?” I offered.
“I keep forgetting that you met her.”
I snorted in
disgust. “Yes, the day we were both tried.” I shoved the thoughts of that dark
day aside. I had been sure I wouldn’t see the sunset. “Anyone else of rank that
she entertained on a regular basis?”
“The ambassador of
Jing. The crown prince of Cant. The youngest son of the king of the Sea
Peoples. An admiral of the Fire Islands. The chief priest
of Light from Tandor.”
I froze. “Please
tell me you are joking.”
“You did not learn
that last from me,” she countered.
The Temples of
Balance and Truth were the only two orders that required chastity of their
members. Luc and I would be executed in a heartbeat if anyone learned of our
But for a chief
priest of Truth to blatantly strut into any Temple of Love…
in Gretchen’s murder were piling up faster than fallen leaves in the winter
“Do you know what
she did with her tokens from these patrons?”
“The jewelry she
had replicas made before she sold it. According to the gossip mill, she
invested her gains. Mostly in trade ships. Some in the summer caravans heading
east. She owns a few of the businesses here in the city. A couple of farms on
I could feel my
eyebrows climb toward my scalp at Katarina’s recitation. This was not a typical
priestess planning for her retirement. Did my mother view her as political
rival? Had she learned something she shouldn’t have from one of her patrons?
Yet, the method of
Gretchen’s death and her horrible wounds, not to mention where she was found,
indicated something else entirely.
“Who would receive
her estate in the event of her death?”
“I have no idea. If she named someone, it would be in the temple records.”
We both knew if Gretchen hadn’t, her possessions would
go to her temple’s treasury. In other words, right into my mother’s lap.