Later the same morning, court lasted less than a candlemark. My new protégé, Justice Yanaba, banged the hilt of her sword to end the day’s session. For the last week, I’d observed her demeanor and knowledge. I’d also acted as her truthspeller in my own court to give poor, overworked Brother Jeremy a break.
Port trade and petty crime usually picked up at the end of winter once it was safe to cross the Peaceful Sea. But even with the Sea Peoples fleet still in port thanks to another series of storms, the city of Orrin’s mood remained subdued. With the recent murders of a priest and priestess plus fourteen wardens, no one wanted to break the brittle peace. Not even the foreign sailors looking to spend their bonuses.
The unease was part grief and part fear. The murders were unprecedented. Add in the fact that during the course of our investigation and rescue of Luc, Brother Jeremy had killed a demon in the ancient escape tunnels dug beneath the city walls, and everyone was jumping at shadows.
Lately, the docket had been very light, mainly consisting of the settlement of the estates of the dead and the city peacekeepers caught taking bribes in the midst of the recent chaos. Over the last several nights, I would stare at my bedchamber ceiling and wonder if Balance was simply allowing me to catch my breath before a worse crisis occurred.
My chief warden Little Bear approached my chair to the side of the podium as people filed quietly out of the temple courtroom. “Chief Justice?”
He rarely hesitated, and even more rarely used my full formal title, which forced my undivided attention. “Yes?”
“I’m about to have a meeting with the rest of the Balance wardens.”
I waited, trying to swallow my impatience.
“We request your presence, Chief Justice.”
His words made my clerks Donella and Leilani hesitate as they gathered the day’s paperwork. Even Yanaba tilted her head in my direction. To say Little Bear’s request was unusual would be like saying I loved Jing black tea.
From the stiff posture of Warden Tyra by the court’s double doors, something had crawled up the temple guards’ collective asses, and they weren’t happy confronting me about it.
I faced Little Bear again. “May I ask why?”
His face shifted to deep orange. “I’d rather not say in a public space, Chief Justice.”
Serious enough to warrant a very private conference. With the recent spate of murders, the corruption of Love, and the imposter priest caught within Light, I’d normally be far more cautious. But if one of my wardens belonged to the renegades and wanted to slit my throat, they could have done that when I bunked with them over the week the Reverend Mother of Balance reviewed my investigation of the problems at Love.
The old biddy had co-opted my quarters out of spite rather than share the guest rooms on the second floor with her entourage. Privately, I thought she kicked me out of my own bed out sheer laziness rather than climb the stairs herself.
I nodded to Little Bear. “Very well then.” I followed him to the temple’s main receiving room. Tyra brought up the rear. Inside, the other ten wardens waited, standing.
Along with Orrin’s magistrate, Malven DiCook. He and I hadn’t gotten along when I was first assigned here, but over the last month, we had come to respect each other’s abilities.
I cocked my head. “Since when do you need trickery to visit during the midday meal, Magistrate?”
“I wish your Deborah’s wonderful cooking was the reason for my presence.” He hooked his thumbs in his belt, which meant he was disturbed by something. “I didn’t think it was wise to announce this in public.”
A chill crawled up my spine. “Announce what?”
“One of my peacekeepers was found dead in his home when he didn’t appear for his shift this morning. His wife and children were dead as well. We have reason to believe they were poisoned. I came to ask for your insight into the matter.”
I didn’t need to read his thoughts to know what he feared. The Assassins Guild members sometimes used poison on their victims.
Or on themselves when they were caught.
Worse, I was technically in charge of any murder investigation, but this was one of his people.
I nodded and turned to Little Bear. “Was this the only matter to be discussed?”
“No, Lady Justice.” My chief warden’s countenance was grim. “But it has taken priority for this hour.” As if to mark his words, the stones beneath my feet thrummed as the temple bells rang First Afternoon.
I met the eyes of two of the junior wardens. “Noko, Daniel, you’re with me.” I faced DiCook again. “How far is the home?”
“Two side streets from Government Gate.”
Government Gate was the main entrance into Orrin from the National Road. In other words, not far from Government House, which hosted the bureaucracy that kept the city running, including the magistrate’s office.
In other words, far too close to the peacekeeper’s main facility for Malven’s comfort.
“May I bring Justice Yanaba with me?”
He scratched his beard. “I suppose. I didn’t think I’d be dealing with my third justice during my term. I also didn’t think the Reverend Mother of Balance would reassign you so soon.”
“Reassign me? What the demon are you blathering about?”
He shrugged. “You made no secret you don’t want to be here during the funerals three weeks ago.”
I suppressed my wince. I’d been a little too honest during my eulogy of Warden Aglaia.
“I figured with the queen pardoning you, you’d request reassignment,” DiCook finished.
I blinked. “How did you find out about my pardon?”
DiCook shrugged. “Not too much is secret in Orrin these days.” He grinned. “Especially when a couple of temple seats are pissed at both you and the queen, and they want everyone in the duchy to know.”
I scanned the faces of my wardens. “Is my potential reassignment one of the items you wanted to discuss?”
“Yes, Chief Justice,” eleven of them chorused.
“And arrangements for your absence while you’re in Tandor, m’lady,” Little Bear added.
“I see.” From all the wardens’ expressions, Little Bear’s paranoia had spread through our temple since the two attempts on my life by the Assassins Guild in the last month. Three if one counted the demon their unknown employer unleashed. I nodded curtly. “I promise we will discuss these matters when we return from the magistrate’s excursion. Warden Noko, if you would gather Justice Yanaba for me.”
Little Bear appeared as if he would argue my choices, but Tyra nudged him with her elbow. Luc had been the one to originally lecture me about trusting my own wardens, instead treating him like one. It seemed my chief warden also had a problem with trust and letting go of old habits. Since he, the court clerks, and my personal attendant hid my predecessor’s senility and kept the temple running before my assignment here, I could understand his need for control.
But I couldn’t let his pride or mine act as a detriment to our respective duties.
“All right.” I clapped my hands together. “Everyone at the evening meal tonight in the common room. We’ll bar the gates and doors. Is that satisfactory?”
Little Bear looked askance at me. “You want all the staff involved, Chief Justice?”
“Might as well,” I said. “Considering Sivan and Nathan were poisoned the same time I was, it’d be best if all the staff were prepared for contingencies, not just the wardens. Don’t you think?”
We both knew I wasn’t really asking his opinion. When his ears heated, I wasn’t sure if it was due to me overriding him or how close he came to losing Sivan.
“Very well, Chief Justice,” he acknowledged stiffly.
Noko entered with Yanaba on her arm. “You requested my presence, Chief Justice,” my protégé said. Then she curtsied.
I crossed my arms. “You were one of those girls who sucked up to the teaching sisters in Standora, weren’t you?”
“At least, I’m not imitating the Reverend Mother’s lack of manners,” she said primly.
Warden Gina slapped a hand over mouth to stifle her giggles, and Little Bear looked skyward, no doubt praying for patience. The rest of the warden stiffened, waiting to see what my reaction would be.
However, DiCook laughed outright. “I amend my original concerns, Anthea. I think Justice Yanaba and I are going along very well while you’re gone.”
“As long as you realize she’s here to spy for the Reverend Mother,” I shot back.
Yanaba sniffed. “Yes, I am here to monitor Orrin for our blessed mother. That’s because I know better than to place a temple seat in the gaol without cause.”
DiCook laughed even louder. “I’d be pleased to escort you, Lady Justice.”
She inclined her head in his direction. “Very well, Magistrate.”
It took him a moment to realize he needed to go to her. Unlike me, she was totally blind.
As a proper justice should be, said a little voice in the back on my mind.
Yanaba and DiCook headed out the door. I started after them when Little Bear grabbed my arm.
“You do realize she wants the Balance seat here in Orrin,” he said under his breath.
I sighed as I watched her retreating robes. “If I had a choice in the matter, she could have it. But the Reverend Mother has made it quite clear that I’m not leaving the city anytime soon.” I crossed my arms and glared at the assembled wardens.
“Except to visit Tandor,” Tyra said, a sad look on her face.
“That’s a different matter,” I snapped.
Gina folded her arms to match my stance. “Which is why the Reverend Mother is concerned you will try to get yourself killed during your trip to Tandor.”
“I’m not—” The realization my warden baited me kicked me in the head, and I drop my defensiveness. “We will discuss this tonight over the evening meal,” I bit out as I dropped my arms to my sides. I pivoted on my heel and stalked out of the receiving room. After three steps, Noko and Daniel scurried to follow me.