Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Sword of Justice - Chapter 3

The extraordinary wait for the chief healer was due to his insistence on bringing an apprentice plus his team of horses and his wagon. Therefore, my cloak and robes were dry and my toes quite toasty by the time he arrived.

And I didn’t have to send Little Bear back to the Temple of Death for additional transportation.

“Nice that one of us could get out of the cold,” Luc muttered in my ear as I joined the men and Lady Alessa in the courtyard.

“It was necessary,” I murmured. “Lady Katarina didn’t need to be on her feet. Would you and Brother Kam be available for dinner tonight?”

Her information was that good? his voice whispered in my mind.

I didn’t look at him as we followed the chief healer down to the wine cellar once more, but Luc’s grunt indicated he caught my slight nod.

Orrin’s chief healer, a man named Aaron, pushed back his hood and crouched next to the corpse. Despite the red pulsing in his knuckles and garrulous quality of his voice, he acted like a man closer to my age of thirty summers than a grandfather.

He flipped back the sheet Lady Alessa had brought to cover the murdered priestess. His apprentice whirled and ran out through the doorway. Everyone politely ignored the sounds of the poor youth retching onto the sawdust in the hallway.

“I believe you called me a little too late, Justice,” Aaron said dryly.

It took all my will not to laugh at his black humor. “I wanted your opinion on her wounds, Master Aaron.”

He stroked his mustache and short beard that had become popular with men in Issura over the last few years. His countenance shifted from yellow to orange as he regarded the corpse. Good to know even he wasn’t immune to the brutality perpetrated on the priestess.

“The stab wounds to her birth canal wouldn’t have been sufficient to kill her.” He pointed to her neck. “I agree with Brother Luc that whoever strangled her caused the actual death.”

Master Aaron glanced at DiCook who stood fuming on the opposite side of the cellar. As far away from Luc as he could get while still part of the conversation. However, Aaron’s question was addressed to me. “I have a new healer in my employ. Would you mind if we take the body back to my estate and allow him a look before we deliver it to the Temple of Death?”

“Hasn’t the poor woman been through enough?” the magistrate snapped.< br/>
I waved a hand toward the late priestess. “I thought you were concerned about finding whoever did this to her.”

“I am. But there is decency and tradition to be observed.” His tone was a bit more deflated.

“Are you saying there is something I have not done according to tradition?” My voice was as cold as the steel at my shoulder.

“No, Justice.” He forced the words between his clenched jaws.

Time to change tactics with DiCook. I gave him a gracious smile. At least, I hoped it appeared gracious. “Thank you for your assistance, Magistrate, but there’s nothing more either of us can do here to assist Brother Luc in questioning the rest of Duke Marco’s household.”

“If you don’t mind, Justice, I’d like to leave my peacekeepers here to help your wardens make sure everyone is questioned.” Amazing how he could turn my title into an insult.

I shrugged. “That is Brother Luc’s discretion, not mine.”

Thanks, came Luc’s sarcastic reply.

I ignored him. “In the meantime, I will escort Sister Gretchen’s body to Healer Aaron’s for his colleagues’ opinion, then to the Temple of Death.”

“What about informing Sister Gerd?”

I should have known DiCook wouldn’t let this go, not that I was looking forward to dealing with my mother. “I think this type of news would best come from another priestess, don’t you think?” I tilted my head to include Luc in my next statement. “My clerk will have copies of everyone’s statements to both of you within two days.”

“Thank you, Justice.” Luc smiled.

The magistrate said nothing. I didn’t need to read his thoughts to know he was plotting some kind of mischief.

I pulled Little Bear and Tyra aside. “I need one of you to stay as an escort for the clerk. The other one will accompany me.”

The two wardens looked at each other. I detected a distinctive aura of confusion.

Little Bear cleared his throat. “M’lady, your authority is paramount here.”

I sighed. “Neither are going to be pleasant jobs, so I don’t want either of you thinking the other got the better assignment. This is me delegating my authority.”

They looked at each other. Tyra shrugged. “Rocks and sticks?”

Little Bear nodded.

Somehow, it seemed appropriate that my wardens would use a children’s game to decide.

Once we loaded the corpse onto the wagon, Little Bear and I escorted the healer’s wagon down the bluffs back into the city proper. The drizzle hadn’t stopped since we’d left the temple this morning. I couldn’t even tell what hour it might be, though my stomach insisted it was first afternoon.

“Justice Anthea, if I may?” Little Bear’s voice could barely be heard over the wet clopping of the horses’ hooves and the rattle of the wagon wheels.


He was silent, as if reconsidering whatever he wanted to ask.

“Spit it out, Warden. It’s too damn miserable and wet for me to even want to whip you for impertinence.”

“My lady, we need some guidance at times. Your method of commanding is…”

“Unorthodox?” I offered.

“Quite different than Justice Penelope, Balance rest her soul.”

“Are my methods that disturbing?”

“No, m’lady, it’s only…”

I waited for a heartbeat. Two. A glance over my shoulder showed Healer Aaron in a deep discussion with his apprentice. “Why didn’t any of you notify the Reverend Mother that Penelope’s mental faculties were questionable at best near the end?”

He blew out a deep lungful of air. For a moment, his face was obscured in a yellowish-green cloud. The temperature was dropping quickly if I could see his breath. “We did. How did you know?”

“The change in her records over the last year, as if someone was mimicking her style, but there were certain words used differently. What was the response from the Reverend Mother?”

“We never received one.” His voice was tight, strained.

Rage simmered in my blood. Not at Little Bear and the rest of our brothers and sisters at the temple. The bitch had known there were problems long before she forced me into Orrin’s justice seat. What kind of demon-spawned game was she playing at?

Thanks to my own crime, I was forbidden from leaving the city, else I would tear up the National Road to the main temple in the capital and demand answers. Any letter I sent regarding Penelope would be ignored as surely as the staff’s had been.

For the love of the Mother, Sivan, Little Bear and the rest had been running temple business for well over a year. It’s a wonder they didn’t resent me. Actually, it was a wonder they didn’t hate me.

I swallowed the acid at the back of my throat. “Let me think on the matter. I’ve ridden circuit for a decade. I’m rather used to doing everything myself. My apologies for not taking your feelings and experience into account. I didn’t realize...”

“May I speak freely, Justice?”

I nodded, not trusting my voice.

“We don’t blame you.” A soft burr vibrated under his words, and what I could see of his face under hood glowed a fierce scarlet. I wasn’t the only one furious with the home temple’s games. “We simply want to understand your needs. Justice Penelope never allowed us the amount of…autonomy that you have.”

“Until she became senile, you mean.”

“Yes, m’lady.”

I nodded to myself. “Very well, Warden. Here’s the first rule for my regime. I want honesty at all times. Discretely when the situation calls for it. I believe you and the rest of staff have discretion mastered.”

He turned and stared at me. “Thank you, Justice.”

* * *
Journeymen and women poured out into the rain to help us carry the late Sister Gretchen inside. On Chief Healer Aaron’s estate, the living quarters were in a separate building than his treatment and training rooms. Once inside, I could immediately understand why. No amount of lemon oil soap or herbs could totally disguise the odors of infection, illness and death.

Apprentices lit a multitude of lamps around the room. Between the heat from the burning wicks and the sheer amount of bodies, I soon had to squint. I pulled my hood tight around my face, but it didn’t help much as the room grew warmer.

Five master healers entered. There was quite a bit of tension due to the presence of Little Bear and me, but their curiosity overwhelmed whatever reticence they had over a priestess and her warden observing.

The healers had fought for their independence from the Temples after the Demon War. They’d formed their own guild as any other craft would. After a century, there were still those in Temples who thought allowing any magic of such power outside of priestly control was a mistake.

The people in this room would never believe me if I told them I envied their freedom.

“Where’s Davin?” Aaron shouted over the general hubbub.

“Here. Now what’s the fuss about?” The man who entered stood a head shorter than the chief healer. His accent was one of the eastern kingdoms, but indistinct enough I couldn’t name which one. The metallic thread in the embroidery at his shoulders indicated he was also a master healer, but his attitude was irreverent compared to every guild master I’d ever met.

I immediately liked him.

Davin’s attention was drawn to the white-shrouded figure on the table. “How’s you manage to get a hold of a corpse before those vultures at the Temple?”

One of the journeymen nudged him with an elbow. Davin finally noticed Little Bear and me in the corner. “My apologies, Justice.”

He didn’t sound very apologetic.

I stepped to the table and the two journeywomen made room for me, and not from politeness. “Master Aaron says you may have insights concerning my murder victim.”

“Murder victim?” Devin grunted and pushed two of the other masters out of the way. He uncovered the corpse. “She looks like someone soaked her in a wine vat.”

“She was found in a wine barrel when the servants tapped it,” Aaron explained.

“Ruined a barrel of decent Pana red,” I added.

Devin chuckled before he peered closely at her neck. “Strangled, but you already knew that, didn’t you, Justice? Possibly a small man or a woman.”

“A woman?”

He looked up at me. “Yes, those of you who have been trained in fighting, a tumbler, anyone with sufficient strength in the arms. The fairer sex is just as capable of murder. You’re usually more subtle about it.”

Interesting observation. I was even more curious about his history.

Devin shifted and checked the wrists of the corpse. “She wasn’t restrained.” He lifted the hands. “As you can see, there’s quite of bit of debris under the nails.”

“No, I can’t.” I smiled to take the sting from my words.

“Forgive me, Justice. I forgot that you were sightless.”

“Oh, I can see.” I flipped back my hood, though the brightness bordered on painful. “Just not the way everybody else can.”

“Oh.” The confident Devin seemed to search for words. “I don’t suppose you would let me examine you.”

“Not right now, Master Healer.” I waved at the body. “I have a more pressing matter. Could the material under her nails be skin? If someone was choking the life out of me, I would be fighting back.”

“I surmise so.”

Excitement trilled along my skin. “Could you collect it? Master Aaron, if I may impose on you for a bottle and a stopper.” Luc make not be able to trace Sister Gretchen’s path, but if her assailant was still alive…

“Of course, Justice,” Aaron answered. In moments, I had the bottle secreted in my pocket.

“Justice, if you are tracking the culprit.” Davin’s tone turned deadly serious. “The dagger wounds to this woman’s birth canal…”

“I don’t need a healer to tell me I’m dealing with someone insane.”

“Yes.” He hesitated before he said, “With your permission, I wish to confirm that strangulation was the cause of her death.”

“I don’t understand, Master Healer.” I pointed at the neck of the corpse. You said that the bruising—”

“Her attacker may have choked her until she lost consciousness in order to stab her with the dagger.” He ran his palms along the corpse’s inner thighs. “No other cuts. No other marks on her. Also, notice there are no cuts on her arms or hands.”

“So you’re saying she was unconscious or dead when that was done to her.”

“As you pointed out, Justice, I wouldn’t meekly let someone chop off my manhood.”

“Do what you need to, Master Healer. You won’t mind if I watch?”

He stiffened and for the first time, his cheeks and ears flared crimson. “So you can report me back to your Reverend Mother?”

“No, because your reasoning and methods fascinate me.”

“I apologize, Justice. I’ve become quite used to the Temple of Death questioning everything I do.”

I grinned. “The Healers Guild is just pissing everyone off, aren’t they?”

He laughed. “Even so.”

“You have nothing to fear from me, Master Healer. If anything, I am in your debt for your assistance in helping my track the bastard who did this to Sister Gretchen.”

* * *
A little over a candlemark later, Little Bear and I escorted the healer’s wagon down the boulevard to the Temple of Death. Almost as if the gods knew our purpose, the skies opened up, and we were thoroughly drenched upon our arrival.

I explained the situation to the records clerk, who nodded and scribbled things on his parchment I couldn’t read. What the frigid rain didn’t soak, the air chilled. For me, the world blurred into a morass of blue, purple and gray with occasional spots of brightness. It was one of the things I hated about winter.

“Did Sister Gretchen DiLove file a statement of last wishes?” I asked.

The clerk finally looked at me. “I would have to research our library, but most of the priesthood keep copies with their own temples.”

I frowned. “That is not protocol established by the reverend mothers and fathers.”

He shrugged “Procedure has been rather…lax with your predecessor, Justice.”

“I see.” My voice was as cold as the nasty weather. “I suppose I need to rectify certain matters during the equinox meeting.” The temples dealt with formal matters the week before the Spring Rituals, clearing the slates before the new year. This year’s meeting would be entertaining to say the least.

“If we have the declaration, I’m sure Sister Bertrice will have it sent to you.”

“My thanks.” I nodded to the clerk. I had no illusions I would be seeing the head priestess of the Temple of Death sooner rather than later once her people saw Sister Gretchen remains.

I pivoted and stalked out of the black marble receiving room, Little Bear on my heels.

“Home, m’lady?”

“Unfortunately, no. I have one more stop to make.”

His exhalation mirrored my own feelings. In fact, I’d rather suffer the lash again than what I had to do next.

The twelve temples lined the south end of Orrin’s main thoroughfare, six on one side and their counterpart facing them. The ride from Death to Love was far too short.

The torches in the courtyard flared and sizzled under the downpour. Laughter and music hummed past the expensive glass panes inset in the temples windows.

A eunuch ran up to take our reins. “Good tidings, sirs. Looking for warmth and care on this miserable winter day?”

“No,” I said as I dismounted. “Please inform High Sister Gerd that Chief Justice Anthea requests an audience on a matter of utmost importance.”

Stutters issued from the eunuch’s mouth before he called for a groom to take our horses. His deep bow was almost humorous. He raced through the main doors.

Little Bear looked at me and gave a sad shake of his head.

“I take it Penlope didn’t often call on Gerd,” I whispered.

“Never,” he whispered back. “They hated each other’s guts.”

Interesting. I would have to ask him why once we were safely ensconced back in out own abode with dry clothes and hot wine.

We entered the temple, and a priestess fluttered up, the bells of her robe tinkling. The lowest ranking priestess from her total lack of composure. “Forgive us, Justice. We hadn’t expected such an august presence on the day of rest.”

I crossed my arms, well aware of the stares from the worshippers and the servants in the reception area. “I don’t need my ass kissed by you or any other priestess of Love. I need to speak with Sister Gerd now.”

“She, um, she is, um…”

“If he’s fucking a worshipper, just say so.”

I couldn’t see her face because of her veil, but the junior priestess’ hands exploded with heat. “If you’re willing to wait, Justice?”

“Do I have a choice?” I growled. “You do understand that there are other things in life than spreading your legs, don’t you?”

She gave a little squeak of dismay before she whirled and raced off.

I turned to a different eunuch who was desperately trying to hide behind a pillar. “I don’t suppose you could fetch Sister Gretchen as an alternative.”

Little Bear’s dismay rolled across my psyche. “Um, Justice—”

I held up my hand to stop him. Thank Balance, he shut up. No doubt he feared for my sanity after dealing with a senile priestess for so long.

However, the eunuch’s skin remained the same yellow with nervous splotches of orange. “I’ll see if she’s available, m’lady.”

“Interesting,” I murmured. “And what does that tell us, Warden?”

His jaw shifted as he considered my question, then grinned as the pieces slid into place. The Temple of Love knew the whereabouts of its priestesses at all times. Little Bear wisely remained silent.

More bells as another priestess approached, but she was over a head taller than the previous girl. “If you’ll follow me, Justice. Sister Gerd will be with you momentarily.”

The deep voice. The height. Berda.

I dropped my arms. Now we were getting someplace. “And you are?”

“Sister Dragonfly.” She bowed. “I am Sister Gerd’s second. I apologize for the inexcusable rudeness you encountered here in our Goddess’ home.”

My mother having a berda as her second made sense in a warped sort of way. Even though the men who serviced both males and females were full priestesses and wore the accoutrements of such, they were never allowed to hold a city’s seat, much less become a reverend mother. Gerd would view Dragonfly as less of a threat to her power.

“It is I who should apologize, Sister Dragonfly. I would have sent a formal request for a meeting if the message I bring to her weren’t so important.”

“I assure you I would deliver any message you need to relay, Justice.”

“I do not disparage your abilities as second, Sister. The matter is best dealt with myself.”

“And yet, it is my understanding you requested Sister Gretchen.”

“Yes, I did.”

She regarded me for a moment. When I didn’t add anything, she pivoted and headed across the reception area. The door she led us to opened into the back hallway.

The receiving rooms.

Moans, grunts and laughter echoed against the wood paneled walls. The musk of lovemaking mixed with expensive perfumes and oils. If either Dragonfly or my mother expected to discomfit me, they needed something better than sex.

After a pack of demons, not too much else bothered me any more.

A quick glance showed Little Bear face had turned scarlet. I prayed he saved he desire for Sivan once we return to the temple. My support staff was not bound by my vows, thank the Goddess.

Dragonfly finally delivered us to an audience room. The fireplace was dark. No personal effects decorated the place. It was as heartless as the woman who ran this temple. Without a word, the berda closed the door behind her.

They let us stew in the cold for who knew how long since we had no sun and no candles to mark time. Little Bear maintained his silence. Good. No doubt the eunuchs or a priestess or two were watching us through spy holes.

But we were both pacing to keep warm when Sister Gerd deigned to join us.

“Justice Anthea, how nice of you to visit.” No bells tinkled as she entered the room, nor did she bother with the traditional veil. At least, she bothered to cover her body.

I swallowed a sigh. There was a time, eons ago, when that lyrical voice brought comfort to a small girl.

Now, I recognized it for the posturing it was. “I apologize for the need for my visit. It’s about Sister Gretchen.”

“So you decided you would tell me about her death. A half day after she had been discovered at that.” As she drifted past me, under the musk of her duties laid the scent of licorice.

“I pray that Magister DiCook is better in bed than he is an investigator.”

She sauntered over to Little Bear. “If your warden here is better than the magistrate, you’ll have my full cooperation, Justice.”

“Really, Mother, he has more taste than DiCook’s leftovers.”

She whirled so fast I automatically reached for my dagger concealed inside my robes. “Don’t call me that,” she hissed. “Don’t you dare call me that ever again.”

Little Bear’s cheeks flushed orange.

“So you do remember me. Good. I won’t tell everyone in the city your birth canal has been stretched as long as you answer my questions.”

Her chin lifted a notch. “You dare threaten me in my own temple?”

My temple, not my goddess’ temple. There a certain surety in the immutability of a corrupt human personality.

I pushed back my hood and met her glare.

Her gaze quickly dropped. “Ask your damn questions,” she said, her voice sullen.

I folded my arms over my chest once again. “How long has she been missing?”

“I’m not sure. Her handmaid only mentioned her bed hadn’t been slept in two nights ago.” No change in the pulse beating at her throat.

“I know she’s been missing at least four. Care to correct your answer?”

She flicked her hand in dismissal. “It’s not unusual for some of the women to share beds. Dragonfly deals with the daily duties.”

I didn’t believe for an instance that Dragonfly wouldn’t report every little happening and piece of gossip to her mistress. By the same token, I could definitely envision my mother hanging out the berda as her dupe. “Are you saying your second didn’t inform you that Sister Gretchen wasn’t reporting for her duties?”

“I don’t remember every little thing every priestess tells me.”

“I didn’t ask about every priestess in your temple. I specifically asked about Dragonfly reporting Gretchen’s absence,” I said.

“I don’t remember.” Her pulse jumped. I really hadn’t expected otherwise.

“I’m sure you don’t.”

“You can truthspell me if you’d like, Justice.” She spat out my title like a bad piece of fish.

Time to try another tack. “I would think you’d be worried about the drop in income to the temple. I hear Gretchen was one of your more popular priestesses.”

“Then it’s a good thing she didn’t have a declaration of last wishes.”

“Really?” I said dryly. “You’re sure about that, Sister?”

“Quite sure.” She couldn’t keep the purr of satisfaction.

“You do realize your admission makes you the most likely candidate for her murder, don’t you, Sister?” I drawled out her title.

“This interview is over,” she snapped.

“Fine, but you better pray to your goddess that the Temple of Death has a declaration on file. Otherwise, I will return.” I grinned. “And with a priest of Light.”

I waved at Little Bear, and he followed me out of the room. I could literally feel the psychic residue of my mother fuming behind me.

My warden didn’t say a word until we were mounted and past the Temple of the Vintner. At least, the rain had slowed back down to a drizzle. “I don’t mean to pry, Justice—”

“But you’re going to do it anyway.”

“Maybe we should have handle Sister Gerd more gently.”

“We,” not “you.” I faced him. “Are you saying you’d be willing to lay with her?”

“No! Balance, no.” He blew out a cleansing breath. “It’s that Justice Penelope didn’t take Sister Gerd’s influence seriously.”

“What influence?”

“Duke Marco’s father was one of her regulars.”

I didn’t countenance gossip, but I had to ask. “What priests or priestesses from the other temples?”

Little Bear’s laughter was choked. “It would be easier to give you a list of who didn’t frequent her bed.”

“Let me guess,” I said sourly. “Besides Penelope, Brother Kam?”

He nodded. “And Sister Bertrice.”

I muttered a few choice curses.

We were nearly to our own stables when he said, “I understand there’s bad blood between the two of you, and I can imagine why, but as Chief Justice of Orrin, you need to rein in your resentment, m’lady. This city hasn’t been balanced in a very long time, and it’s something we desperately need.”

“Do you presume to lecture me on my duties, Little Bear?”

He met my gaze squarely. “You said you wanted discretion and honesty, Justice.”

He was right. It didn’t make swallowing my pride any easier. “And you’ve acted appropriately as I wished, Warden. I’ll keep your wise words in mind.”

A deeper question bothered me. As much as I would have liked to blame my mother for Sister Gretchen’s murder, my gut said she was only taking advantage of her younger rival’s death. So who by the Twelve had a reason to throttle and mutilate a priestess?