Sunday, July 13, 2014

A Question of Balance - Chapter 8

I know it's been a while since I posted anything. I haven't gotten much writing done so far this year. Murphy's Law has been in full effect. Keep your fingers crossed for me that the drama will end soon!

* * *

I threw up an arm to block the blow. Fire sliced my skin as the steel pierced my glove. Far better then the main artery in my neck. If I stayed on the ground though, I was definitely dead.

My boot shot toward his crotch. He shifted to block the blow, and the momentum allowed me to shove him while I rolled the other way.

Directly into the path of the oncoming horses.

I curled into a tight ball, arms over my head to protect me from the multitude of sharp hooves. My head rang from the vibrations and pain of my injuries.

As suddenly as they appeared the multitude of riders and steeds were gone. I leapt to my feet, right hand already drawing the sword at my back.

I whirled around to find wardens pouring from both the temples of Light and Balance. Little Bear must have standing at the doors, watching for my return. My attacker, though, was gone.

“Anthea!” Luc’s familiar scent washed over me. He beat the wardens to me by a couple of paces.

He caught himself. “Are you all right, Lady Justice?” He reached for the blood on my face, but I shoved his hand away.

“No. Don’t.” A vicious smile twisted my lips. “We spilt each other’s blood.”

Luc’s answer was just as feral. “We have him.”

* * *
Or so we thought. But like everything else in this damnable day, the gods seemed to be laughing at our efforts including the two we were personally sworn to.

We left our team of wardens to watch the possible exits at a decrepit inn near the docks. The tracking spell failed as we reached the door it indicated. Inside was my attacker’s still warm body, bloody nose and all, in a tiny, third-story room. The scent of bitter almonds told us what type of poison he used. A quick search gave no clue of his identity, which in itself spoke of his origins.

Luc raked his hands through his hair. “There hasn’t been an attempt in Issura by the Assassins Guild since—”

“The reign of the Twin Queens before the last demon war.” I blew out an exasperated breath. “The question becomes why me?”

“Because you would administer Gretchen’s estate?”

“That makes no sense. We have no reason to believe my attempted assassination is connected with Sister Gretchen’s death.”

Luc snorted, his disgust evident. “I don’t believe in coincidences.”

I sheathed my sword. “Whichever priest of Light witnessed the opening would know her last wishes also.”

“Which is why I assigned a warden to watch Kam.”

I stared at Luc. “Let’s assume for a moment you are correct, and there’s connection. Who knew the contents of Gretchen’s declaration? She deliberately filed it with the Temple of Death so Gerd wouldn’t know.”

Luc shrugged. “Everyone at Death?”

“If one of their members is involved, why not switch scrolls? For that matter, why not lose it?”

Luc grunted. “Too many safeguards. The entire temple would have to be involved in the conspiracy.” He crouched next to the body and lifted its hand. “What did Master Devin say about a man with small hands?”

I knelt and held my gloved hand against the corpse’s. “I suppose it’s possible, but no assassin is going to waste precious escape time to mutilate their target.”

“Unless whoever hired him gave him specific instructions.”

I climbed to my feet. “Now we’ve officially jumped into wild hare territory.”

Luc rose as well. “I haven’t had a chance to research a separation and tracking spell for the scrapings Master Devin provided you. Do you want me to do that while you have a talk with Lady Alessa?”

I shook my head. “No, I want her truthspelled during this little interview, and longer we wait, the more likely something else will go wrong in this investigation. The tracking spell can wait.” I stared at the rapidly cooling body. “If this is Gretchen’s killer, your spell won’t work anyway, and we’re no closer to understanding why.”

As we exited the room, we found Magistrate DiCook and a handful of peacekeepers pounding up the staircase of the inn.

“What the names of the Twelve is going on here?” When I didn’t answer, his attention switched to Luc. “One of you had better answer me!”

“A member of the Assassins Guild tried to murder me,” I said.

“On the steps of the Lord of Light’s home,” Luc added.

“When?” the magistrate demanded.

“Less than a candlemark ago.” I pushed past him, and he grabbed my left arm. I couldn’t stop the hiss of pain. When I refused to waste time waiting for a healer, Little Bear and Tyra had threatened to hold me down while one of the brothers bandaged the ugly cut from the assassin’s knife.

“Why wasn’t I notified?” DiCook’s lip curled into his familiar sneer.

I yanked my arm out of his grasp. “Because we were trying to catch him before he escaped.”

“You let him get away?”

I wasn’t sure if DiCook was more pleased that the assassin escaped or that I failed. If I gambled, I would have bet on the latter. “You could say that.” I gestured toward the wide open door. “If you can get more out of his belongings than I, let me know.”

I continued painfully down the stairs, Luc right behind me. My hip would stiffen from the bruising if I rested now, not that I could afford the time.

The exclamations from the peacekeepers and DiCook’s curse when they discovered the body beat us to the first floor.

“You really need to stop antagonizing the man, Anthea.”

I smiled up at him. “When the Lord of Light’s domain freezes over.”

* * *
Duke Marco’s face froze, the air of disappointment and despair obvious when Luc and I showed up at his gate and asked to speak with his sister. Lady Katarina graciously allowed us to use her reception room, but the fire couldn’t warm me as it did yesterday.

Lady Alessa held her composure until her brother and sister-in-law left the room. Hot shame tinted her cheeks. “You know.”

“Know what?” I said.

She sank into a chair. “Don’t play with me, Justice. Please, don’t. You have no idea how h-hard…” Pale blue tears ran down her cheeks.

Luc cursed under his breath. I knew at once he hadn’t asked the right questions during his originally interview of her. He hadn’t conceived of the two women having a secret affair.

“You could have pulled one of us aside yesterday,” I said gently. “We would have listened.”

She stared at the painfully bright grate. “I couldn’t. Things have been so difficult for my brother. There’s been so much scandal. He tried, he really did, to find me an appropriate match. I thought if he did, I could suppress my desires…”

“Alessa, I need Luc to truthspell you.”

She nodded though her attention never wavered from the fire.

The moment the pale nimbus of magic surround her, I said, “Tell me about the counterspell Gretchen taught you.”

Her head jerked, and she stared at me, eyes wide as she realized her mistake. She reached for her neck, and I seized her arms. It wasn’t much of a physical struggle despite my injuries.

But around us, objects shivered. I knew damn well it wasn’t Luc or me losing control of our power.

Luc removed the chain hidden beneath the collar of her dress. Dangling from the links was a carved ruby heart. A thin line of energy surrounded the jewel. A talisman.

Alessa’s face crumpled and her sobs came loud and fierce. Her terrible grief overrode the agony of the truthspell. For once, I was the one patiently stroking the distraught witness’s hair while Luc paced behind her chair.

Underneath the noblewoman’s emotion, I could feel the stones of the keep moan in sympathetic agony.

When she weeping faded to hiccups, I released her. “Don’t make me ask you again, Alessa. Otherwise, the truthspell will force you to answer me, and it will be painful.”

She nodded. “Gretchen gave me the heart a year ago. When we first started…” Her blood pulsed as she acknowledged their affair. “She laid the spell and taught me the words and gestures to activate and deactivate the magic.”

Alessa’s pulse slowed, her voice turned numb, as she stared at me. “She didn’t mean any harm. She was protecting me as best she could when…when Mother would have one of her hired sorcerers truthspell us.”

My own blood ran cold. I didn’t want to know the answer to the next question, but duty forced me to ask anyway. “Us? You mean you, Marco and Isabella?”

Behind Alessa, Luc froze. “That’s how your mother found out Marco was courting Katarina, isn’t it?”

“Yes.” Her head bowed once more. “Ironically, Mother sending our baby sister to the capital protected her from the worst of her predations. Isabella loves the university, and now she can focus on her studies without Mother breathing down her neck about seducing some lordling.”

Time to get the questioning back on track. “Alessa, did you kill Sister Gretchen of the Temple of Love?”

“No.” Anger threaded through her single word. There was a hint of power behind it.

“Do you know who killed Sister Gretchen?”

“No.” The fire flared, and I couldn’t stop my wince at the brilliant heat. Thankfully, Alessa couldn’t see my reaction with my hood in place.

“Do you know who put Sister Gretchen’s body into the barrel she was found in?”


“When was the last time you saw her alive?”

“Five mornings ago. I had snuck out of the manor and met her at a hunting cabin on our lands about an hour's ride north. We spent the night together.” Once again, her pulse jumped at revealing such intimate secrets. “We parted two candlemarks before dawn in order to return to our beds without arousing suspicion.”

I glanced at Luc, his frown matching my own. Alessa’s testimony narrowed the window for Gretchen’s murder.

Turning my attention back to the noblewoman, I asked, “Why didn’t your parents have you tested for magical talent?”

Her gaze met mine again. “They did. The priest of Light who supervised said I was a passive.”

A passive talent could activate a spell created by an active talent, but they couldn’t cast one on their own. Therefore, they weren’t required to register with the temples.

Luc finally stopped pacing. He crossed to the chair on the other side of Alessa and sat. “I know you are still dealing with your lover’s death, m’lady, but I would like you to come see me, in say, two weeks from today for retesting.” So I wasn’t the only one who sensed her flashes of power.

I could feel her mounting panic. “You are not in trouble, Alessa. Either you were too young to fully manifest your talent yet, or the brother was incompetent.”

“Excuse me?” Luc exclaimed in mock outrage.

Our teasing lightened Alessa’s mood, and she made a burbling half giggle-half hiccup sound.

Luc held up the necklace. “I am going to take this for now. We need to figure out how to deal with this counter spell in order to discover Gretchen’s murderer. I’ll return it when you come to see me in two weeks.”

“You’ll remove the spell from the jewel, won’t you?” she whispered.

“We have to,” I said. “Technically, it’s illegal.” I held up my hands when the chair I sat on trembled. “I’m not charging you. You received it in good faith from another priestess.” I cleared my throat. “I do need to ask you a few more questions.”

She sagged in her own seat and nodded.

“Did anyone know that you and Gretchen were having an affair?”

“Not that I know of. As I said, we were very careful because of my mother.”

“Did you receive any notes or messages that insinuated a person knew about your affair?”


“Any oblique reference about you personally involved in a sapphic affair?”

“Not to me.” She paused for a moment, but she wasn’t fighting the spell. “Some lords have made derogatory comments about me to Marco, but as far as I know it was for the purpose of insult, not because they truly believed I prefer the bed of a woman.”

“Do you know who Gretchen named as her heir in her declaration of last wishes?”



“Me. She told me our last night together. That she wanted to make sure I had resources if something happen to her, and my family discovered our relationship.” Alessa’s smile was small and sad. “She kept trying to talk me into running away with her. Cant, or the Mecas, or even the Sea Peoples’ islands. I just couldn’t leave Marco and especially Isabella without any explanation.”

“Did she ever indicate there was another reason she wanted to escape from Orrin?”

“I’d like to believe it was only our love, but I know there were problems between her and Sister Gerd and Sister Dragonfly.”

“What kind of problems?”

Alessa took a deep breath and released it. “Gerd was always accusing her of trying to usurp her authority. Dragonfly was simply jealous when Gretchen stopped sleeping with her.”

I exchange looks with Luc. Now we were getting somewhere, but neither of us said anything.

Instead, I took her hands in mine. “Your pain is mine.”

Her face scrunched again at the ritual words of sympathy for the death of a loved one, but she forced back her tears. “Thank you,” she whispered.

At my signal, Luc murmured the words to release his truthspell.

I squeezed Alessa’s hands. “Gretchen was also Katarina’s friend. She would share your grief.”

“A-are you going to tell them? Marco and Katarina?”

“No,” I said softly. “Sharing that knowledge is not my right, but I think you are underestimating your family. About Gretchen’s declaration…” I sucked in a deep breath. “Brother Kam and I have opened and confirmed it—”

I held up one hand at her little gasp. “I don’t want to cause you any embarrassment, but I have the duty to insure Gretchen’s wishes are followed. Sister Gerd believes that no declaration exists. I’m going to have to make the public post soon to prevent her from illegally seizing your property.”

“I-I don’t know if I want it,” Alessa murmured.

I clasped her hands again. “You have the right of refusal, of course, but right now, your grief is overriding your common sense. I would suggest confiding to your brother. Get his counsel before you make any decision.”

“But the public post will cause even more scandal.”

“Considering the gold equivalent of Gretchen’s holdings, it will garner more noble suitors than you know what to do with,” Luc said, dryly.

“Not to mention, Marco has already broken with tradition. There’s no reason you cannot follow in his footsteps,” I added.

Alessa nodded. “I will take your wisdom into consideration, Justice, Brother.”

“If you remember anything else, come straight to us,” I said. “No pages or other messengers if you want to avoid the gossip.”

She nodded, but tears had started trickling down her cheeks again. Luc deactivated his wards, and we left the reception room.

Marco stood in the hallway, by his expression obviously expecting the worst.

I stopped before him. “Your sister isn’t involved in the murder.”

He sagged against the stone wall. “Thank the Twelve.”

I laid right hand on his shoulder and squeezed in support. After all the struggle and tension with Alessa, the slice on my left was throbbing.

As I continued past him, he called, “Lady Justice—”

“I can’t say anything more, Your Grace.” Before I spilled all of his sister’s secrets, I turned and marched down the hallway.

Luc and I were nearly to the entryway when a figure stepped from behind a statue. “She didn’t do it.”

I remembered the voice from yesterday. “You are Bartholomew, correct?”

“Yes, m’lady.” He bobbed his head. “Lady Alessa, she didn’t kill that priestess.”

Behind me, Luc’s irritation rippled through my psyche. “Yesterday, you told me you didn’t know who killed Sister Gretchen.”

“Ah don’t!” Between Bartholomew and Luc’s emotional turmoil, I felt as if my eyes would erupt from my head.

“Do you have an additional statement you wish to make, Bartholomew?” I said, trying to inject some calm into the situation.

“Ah just told ya. Lady Alessa didn’t kill that priestess.”

I wanted to believe he was a loyal DiMara retainer, but maybe he was too loyal. “And how do you know this?” I asked.

If the heat of his face hadn’t given him away, the shuffling of his feet did. “Ah-ah just know, that’s all.”

“If you still want a place in this household, you’d better answer the justice’s question.” Lady Katarina’s cold steel voice came from behind Luc and me.

Unfortunately, the moment we glanced at her was the same moment Bartholomew decided to run.