Unfortunately, A Modicum of Truth isn't out today as I'd planned. I'm down with a nasty cold right now. The book will definitely be my focus next week.
Per usual, people on the streets stopped and stared as I left the Temple of Balance. When they thought I was safely out of hearing range, the whispers started.
The gossip had been bad after I’d been sentenced to Orrin’s Balance seat as opposed to assigned, even though I’d been Orrin’s acting justice since Chief Justice Penelope’s death over a year ago. It didn’t matter that I had stopped a member of the royal family from seizing the throne through demons. But then, a demon had been discovered inside the Jing Embassy, and Brother Jeremy of Light had killed another one in the tunnel system beneath the city. All of this happened in less than a year, two of the occurrences within the city walls. And I was involved in every single incident.
After the shock of the renegade infiltration of Love and Light had worn off and the initial grief of the murders started to dissipate, the rumors shifted to blaming the Red Justice for bringing demons back to Issura.
Part of me wanted to scream at the civilians for their complacent and lackadaisical attitude. As long as someone else solved their problems, they acted like spoiled, ungrateful children. It almost made me want to summon a demon horde since they were already accusing me of it.
I shivered at the awful thought and shoved it back into a dark hole at the back of my mind. Demons would simply eat me if I did summon them. After they found a more complacent pawn in order to remain in our dimension, that was.
But my experience actually handling a demon grimoire scared the piss out of me. I’d lose far more than my life if I’d given in to the temptations the evil tome had murmured in my head when I touched it.
Noko marched at my side, Daniel at my back, as we followed DiCook and Yanaba. A little envy rose in my heart while th
e magistrate and the justice walked arm in arm.
Before I was condemned to Orrin, I often walked about the city by myself after it had been added to my circuit after Penelope’s death. After two attempts on my life by the Assassins Guild in the span of a week, well, three if one counted the attempted stabbing that killed my grandfather Kam, neither the peacekeepers nor the other temples, much less my own wardens, would let me attend the privy by myself. Forget strolling up Bakers Street for a treat.
Once we passed Government House, DiCook turned right onto a quiet side street. He guided Yanaba through a left turn. The tiny avenue held small, but well-appointed, two-story buildings, the kind that held a storefront at street level and the family quarters above.
DiCook stopped at a shop and knocked on the door. It opened and he led Yanaba inside. He didn’t want an obvious guard outside the storefront. That would have invited speculation from the neighbors, which meant he was far more worried than he let on at the temple.
However, the appearance of Yanaba and me at the shop would elicit the same questions.
“What kind of establishment is this?” I whispered to Noko as we approached.
“The sign says the proprietor is a seamstress,” my warden whispered back.
Noko shifted so she was in front of me. The door opened and a peacekeeper opened the door just wide enough for us to slip through.
He bobbed his head. “Warden Noko, Lady Justice, Warden Daniel.”
I was impressed he knew everyone’s names. His politeness was another reminder of my poor behavior over the last year.
“I must apologize, Peacekeeper. What is your name again?”
“Jaime, m’lady.” His head bobbed again because he didn’t have enough room to execute the proper bow he obviously intended.
“This way, Justices,” DiCook called for my benefit.
I steeled myself as I followed him and Yanaba. The sickly sweet smell of death and bitter almonds tainted the air. Two corpses sat slumped over a table, cups in front of each of them. A man and a woman. They were the same blue-green color, which meant they’d been dead for some time. A pair of live peacekeepers stood guard over the bodies.
“The children?” I asked.
“Upstairs in their bed,” DiCook said.
“What was his name?” Yanaba asked.
“Dante,” DiCook said.
My body jerked at the name. “Dante?”
“You know him?” my protégé asked.
DiCook shot a look at me. “He was one of the peacekeepers I brought with me when the duke’s staff found Sister Gretchen’s body in one of his keep’s wine barrels.”
“Chief Justice, if I may?” Yanaba said.
I smiled even though she couldn’t see my expression. “The point of this exercise is to cultivate your experience,
She released her hold of the magistrate’s arm and was quiet for a moment, no doubt gathering her thoughts before she started her questioning. “What are the positions of the adults?”
DiCook glanced at me, and I nodded for him to answer. “Dante’s face and upper body are flat against the table top. His left arm lays beside his head, bent at the elbow. His right hangs at his side. His wife Barbora—” Malven’s voice caught, and a wave of grief flowed from him before he could regain control. He must have been close to the couple.
“She’s slumped against the back of the chair,” the magistrate continued. “Her head is canted over the top slat. Blood-flecked foam is at the corner of her mouth. Both of her arms are straight down at her sides. She is dressed in her night clothes. He is wearing his uniform.”
“Are there any items on the table?” Yanaba asked.
The magistrate cleared his throat. “A tea cup sits before each body. There’s a pot next to Dante’s head.” He reached for the pale blue metal. “It’s cold.”
Yanaba folded her arms and slipped her hands into the opposing sleeves. The first week she was in my court, I’d deduced her gesture came when she was about to reach a conclusion in her reasoning. I prayed she didn’t gamble. Her body language was far too open and obvious.
“Have you had any problems with Dante’s performance of his duties?” she asked.
“None.” His single word matched the scowl on his face.
“If he was not one of the peacekeepers taking bribes, he had undiagnosed melancholia. No doubt it was a severe enough infliction that he felt the need to relieve his wife and their children of their lives as well.”
I swallowed the urge to sigh. Gina had pointed out my own habit occurred whenever I felt as if another person’s intellect was not equal to my own. And I was rather disappointed in Justice Yanaba at the moment.
“If I may point out something, Justice?”
She stiffened. I didn’t blame her. I still resented the Reverend Mother’s constant dressing-downs in public.
“You read my reports on the incidents in Orrin over the last month, didn’t you?”
She tilted her head to the side. “Yes, m’lady, but Dante’s admitted indiscretion at the Temple of Love was minor. How does that relate to his death?”
“It may or it may not. However, you have not asked Wardens Noko or Daniel for their impressions of the scene,” I said.
“You don’t.” A certain sullenness lay under her words.
Balance help me, had I been this arrogant when I was a freshly minted Justice?
Yes, Luc would have said silently if he were here.
“I can see,” I said.
She seemed to shrink inside her robes at my rebuke.
“Also, there is the matter that both Magistrate DiCook and I provided you two important clues, which you instantly disregarded.”
“Do both you and the magistrate believe it is murder?”
I looked at DiCook.
He sighed for me. “With all due respect, Justice, I wouldn’t have gone to the temple to fetch you and the Chief Justice if I suspected otherwise.” Maybe the magistrate had received the same lecture about decorum as I had from High Brother Luc.
“M’lady, I don’t know if I can perform two reviews of the past in such a short period,” Yanaba’s choked whisper said volumes about what she truly feared.
“I’ll take the children,” I said softly.
* * *
DiCook sent one of his peacekeepers to fetch someone from Light. We didn’t have to wait long for the priest to arrive, but I was surprised Luc came himself, along with one of his own wardens.
When I said as much, Luc nudged me in the ribs. “I can’t let Balance have all the fun.”
“But Jeremy or Shi Hua—”
“I needed to get out of the temple for a bit. Istaqa is driving me mad.” Silently, Luke added, I’m not putting the junior priests in the middle of this quagmire if I can help it.
Unfortunately, the small shop and home quickly became too crowded with all these people. DiCook released all the peacekeepers back to their patrol routes, except the one he sent to collect Master Davin of the Healers Guild. Daniel accompanied me up the stairs to the three-room apartment over the shop. The odor left no question of which room was the children’s bedchamber. My heart broke at the two tiny dark blue-green figures huddled on the straw mattress. Did they know what had been done to them, or had they slipped into Death’s arms in their sleep?
“This is wrong,” my warden murmured as he opened the shutters for a breath of fresher air. “There was no reason to poison the children.” He scuffed his boot against the wooden floor. “Are you sure wouldn’t rather wait for the high brother, m’lady?”
I shook my head. “First of all, it will be difficult for him to navigate those narrow stairs. I don’t relish telling the Reverend Father of Light I got another member of his order killed should High Brother Luc tumble down the steps and break his neck.”
“Secondly—” I softened my tone. “This is a prime example of why the high brother is training you and the rest of the Balance wardens in the non-magickal aspects of his duties. We’re losing Light priests faster than we’re gaining justices. And these renegades have no care or thought as to who gets hurt.”
“I meant no complaint or disrespect, m’lady.”
I patted his shoulder. “I understand. This won’t be easy on either of us.” He stepped back to the corner of the room between the window and the door, the better to view everything.
Unfortunately, the room held no stone. The clay and brass brazier at the foot of the bed had cooled. Without anything else still alive in the room, it was the best I had to work my spell. I lifted the brazier from its stand, and placed it on the plank floor. At a minimum, I wouldn’t have to worry about setting the building on fire.
The room chilled as the cold air blew through the open window. I shivered as I sat cross-legged next to the brazier. Hopefully, Seamstress Barbora had prepared the container for the last two nights before putting the children to bed. Otherwise this whole exercise would be for naught.
Placing my hands on the metal and baked earthenware, I concentrated. Even though I had a semblance of vision, the figures and images were fleeting shadows when I rewound time. Therefore, I still had to rely on a partner to interpret them. Next to Little Bear, Daniel and Noko performed the task to my exacting specifications when a Light priest was otherwise engaged. And it made far more sense to have someone with Luc’s experience assisting Justice Yanaba.
I still missed him acting as my eyes, though I’d never say so to Brother Jeremy or my wardens. After ten years of riding circuit together, he knew exactly what to look for without adding unnecessary description.
To be thorough, I yanked the threads of time back a little over a day thanks to the seamstress’s concern for the children’s well-being, then let the threads slide forward. Shadows hovered over the bed before they darted to the pegs on the wall.
“The children awake,” Daniel said, his voice gruff. “They change from their shifts into their day clothes. The boy runs from the room, but the girl walks more sedately.”
I gritted my teeth against the strain of the time threads. While it would be easier to skip to the evening since I was fairly certain the children would not return to their room until bedtime, I couldn’t take the chance of missing a pertinent clue.
“The girl has returned to the room.” Daniel went silent, but confusion laced his tone when he continued. “She has something in her hand.” He shifted to his left. “She’s hiding it under this floorboard. Stop!”
My breath hissed between my teeth as he crouched next to the window. “Daniel…”
“It looks like a coin, but her hand covers it.”
“Daniel, I can’t hold the lines forever,” I snapped.
“Continue,” he murmured, but his attention was on the shadowy figure of the girl.
I let the threads slide forward once again.
“She’s left the room.” His attention was on the floorboard though.
“Warden! Witness me!” Despite my promise to improve my behavior, my fraying temper and the strain of the spell got the better of me.
“My apologies, Chief Justice.” He rose to his full height and resumed watching the room.
The review of yesterday passed without anyone returning until Daniel said, “The seamstress enters the room and takes the brazier. Nothing, nothing. She returns. From her stance and the pads she uses, the brazier is full and hot. She sets it on the stand and leaves. Now, both children have entered the room. They are changing into their nightshifts and climbing into the bed.”
His voice hitched. “Peacekeeper Dante comes in with cups in his hands. He gives them to the children. They drink whatever is in the cups and hand them back to their father. He sits the cups on the floor and tucks in the children. He kisses them on their foreheads. He gathers the empty cups and leaves.”
“They fall asleep.” My warden stepped closer to the bed, and his voice choked. “They have stopped breathing.”
He continued to stare at the bed where the ghosts of the past have merged with the corpses of the present. Before I could reprimand him about his duty again, he shook himself and stepped back.
Once the timelines slide into synchronicity, I blinked the sweat from my eyes, released the cold brazier, and shook the feeling back into my hands. “Anyone else enter the room after Dante left?”
“No, Chief Justice. May I check beneath the floorboard now?”
I nodded. As I climbed to my feet, Daniel knelt and pried up the wood. His gestures reminded me too much of High Sister Dragonfly’s method of hiding evidence and valuables from my mother and her Assassins Guild cronies at the Temple of Love.
Using a piece of clean cloth from his pocket, my warden pulled a small round object from the space he’d uncovered. “Well, this doesn’t help. It’s not true silver.”
I crossed to him and examined the coin he held up for me. Unfortunately, my eyesight couldn’t detect detail, and I di
dn’t want to contaminate the metal by touching it. “What are its markings?”
“It has the markings of the Temple of Thief on one side though someone has scratched a cross through it. I don’t recognize the symbol on the other side.” He shook his head and carefully laid the cloth with the disk in my palm. “When has Thief ever minted coins?”
No sensation of magic from the metal pierced the weave. I frowned. “Never to the best of my knowledge. No nation would tag coins with a temple glyph, and all metalwork has been the province of Father until the Smiths Guild broke from them.”
However, a trick Luc once pulled flashed through my mind. “Perhaps the high brother can cast a tracking spell.”
I wrapped the coin careful in the cloth and placed in a pocket of my robes before I glanced at the dead children. Where had the girl gotten the coin? Why did she hide it? I didn’t realize I’d spoken aloud until Daniel answered me.
“It could have something to do with their death,” the warden said. “Perhaps Peacekeeper Dante needed the coin, and when he couldn’t find it, he knew his family was doomed and that’s when he poisoned—”
I held up my hand. “That’s merely speculation at this point. We need more facts. The only thing we know for certain was that Dante’s daughter hid a strange coin and the poison that killed her and her brother was most probably in whatever Dante brought his children to drink.”
His face glowed a brilliant red. “Yes, m’lady.”
Balance help me. I did it again. Treated a colleague as if he were a child. “Thank you for trying to look for solutions, Daniel.”
He fidgeted. “But I understand your point, m’lady. We have very little evidence at this time. I won’t presume to make any premature conclusions again.”
“Good.” I nodded. “Let’s see what trouble Justice Yanaba and High Brother Luc have found.”
I headed back down the stairs, perturbed. There was no reason for the children to be poisoned. None. Unless they weren’t innocent bystanders.
After chiding Daniel, I had no right to speculate either. My own emotions were getting in my way. It had been less than a month since I’d learned my own mother had tried to abort me using poisonous mushrooms and herbs during her pregnancy. There had been no real reason for her actions as a sister of Love either other than her vanity.
We reached the first floor to find Yanaba looking puzzled. On the other hand, Luc’s anger grated against my mind.
“What did you learn, Justice?” I asked my protégé.
She cocked her head in my direction. “I beg your forgiveness, Chief Justice, but I fear we have more questions than answers to the deaths in this house.”
“How so?” My attention flicked from her to Luc and back again.
The younger woman hesitated before she began her recital. “Events during yesterday played out as I expected. Barbora plied her trade with the children assisting her. After the day ended, the evening meal was consumed prior to Dante’s arrival. Barbora prepared two cups of milk and honey. Dante took them upstairs while Barbora set a kettle on and readied for bed. When he returned, they sat at the table and drank their tea.”
Horror squeezed my heart. “Did Dante and Barbora use the same jar of honey for their tea as they did for the children’s milk?”
Matching emotion flowed from Luc. “Yes.”
I crossed to the table, removed the lid from the jar and sniffed. A hint of almond mixed with the honey but I couldn’t be sure it were poison or if the bees had harvested the nectar of a large number of almond blossoms last spring. “Daniel, please go to the Wildling temple. Tell High Brother Jax I need the member of his order with the most accurate sense of smell.”
With a quick glance at Noko and her answering nod, he strode to the front room. I couldn’t miss the exchange. Noko would stay with me, regardless of Yanaba’s safety. All of the Balance wardens had taken the attempts on my life far too personally. Daniel exchanged a word with the Light warden before the hinges squealed as the door opened and closed.
Oblivious to the silent exchange, my protégé focused on the matter at hand. “But, Chief Justice, several customers were here and put honey from that same pot in their tea with no ill effects.”
“Did any of the patrons give something to the children?”
“Yes,” Luc said. “A noblewoman from her dress and bearing. She gave a coin to the girl.”
“Was she the last custom of the day?”
Magistrate DiCook spoke for the first time. “No, but she was here the longest, and she was the last to accept Barbora’s offer of refreshment.”
“What happened upstairs?” Luc asked.
My recitation to my audience was very short. At the end, everyone looked at the jar of honey sitting on the table.
“This makes no sense,” Yanaba protested. “Why would a noblewoman want to poison a peacekeeper and his family?”
“You’re jumping to conclusions again, Justice,” DiCook said.
“I beg your pardon?” she said haughtily.
I grinned at him. “Do not take the magistrate’s rebuke personally, Justice. He has had to learn logic in public, rather than in the classroom.”
He inclined his head to me. “The Chief Justice and the High Brother of Light have been excellent teachers in investigative techniques. However, I do miss the days when Orrin’s biggest problems were tavern brawls and petty theft.”
“So, you don’t believe she may have slipped the poison in the honey?” Yanaba asked.
I couldn’t get a sense whether her confusion was over DiCook’s statement regarding conclusions or his sentiment over misdemeanor crime.
“Oh, I believe the woman managed to slip a poison into the honey.” He stroked his short beard as he considered the problem. “However, I do not believe the visitor was a local noblewoman.” He shrugged. “In fact, she may not be a noble, or even a woman at all.”
The young justice laughed. “In other words, your sight can be fooled, but—”
“Any sense can be fooled,” I corrected. “Never presume one sense is better than another.” I was harsh with her, but better here in a controlled environment than when we were in the middle of a battle for our lives.
“Comparing various sources of information will allow you to detect discrepancies, Justice,” Malven said, far more gently than I would have.
“You’re becoming soft in your old age, Magistrate,” I chided.
He chuckled and hooked his thumbs in his belt. “No, I simply would like one decent working relationship at the Temple of Balance.”
I grinned. “I seem to remember your voice was one of the loudest calling for my head after the Samael DiRoy incident.”
“And you spent nearly a year looking for a reason to take mine,” he replied jovially.
Everyone else in the room laughed except Yanaba. When the humor died, she bowed her head. “I shall take the words of both of you under advisement, Magistrate, Chief Justice.”
Maybe there was hope for the younger justice after all.
A loud series of knocks at the front door echoed through the small shop before I could answer her. Luc’s warden exchanged words with a familiar voice.
Master Healer Davin strode into the back room. He took a good look at the scene before he nodded to me. “Another one, eh? Once again, I’m afraid you’ve called me too late.”
I shrugged. “Unfortunately, I have need of your keen mind in helping us discover the culprit of these heinous crimes.”
He shook his head. “It would be a change if you would summon us for something as simple as a hangnail.”
“Admit it. You like the challenges I present you.” I smiled.
Davin circled the table before he knelt next to Barbora’s corpse. “I don’t think you need a healer’s expertise in this matter to know that they were poisoned, Chief Justice.” He looked up at me. “But I assume you would like us to examine them more thoroughly at the Healers Guild’s facilities.”
“It will be the same terms as before.”
Davin rose to his feet. “Understood. The guildmaster is considering permanently assigning a healer to assist the chief justice in these investigations.”
“I’m sure there one or two that would volunteer for such duties,” I answered.
“You know damn well that won’t be acceptable,” Davin muttered as he moved to examine Dante’s corpse.
In other words, I could expect to hear more complaints from High Sister Bertrice about how I allowed the desecration of remains, but it was more due to politics and appearances within her own order. As a former healer herself, she was more than sympathetic to me and the investigative techniques of her old guild. But thanks to those same internal politics, I’d become the intermediary between the Healers Guild and the Temple of Death in Orrin.
When the guilds had started breaking away from their respective temples after the last major demon invasion a century ago, the relationship between those who cared for the living and those that cared for dead had been especially contentious. Which meant either a member of her priesthood or I needed to observe the healers while they dealt with the dead.
Unfortunately, the healers preferred me.
I braced myself before telling Davin the rest. “Their children are upstairs, still in their bed.”
The wave of disbelief, quickly followed by anger and sadness, flowed from the master healer. When the tide of emotion disbursed, he bowed. “We will show them all due respect, m’lady. Is there anything my apprentices should know before they start?”
“Yes. Don’t eat the honey,” Luc quipped.