This is an unedited version of my upcoming release, A Twist of Love.
I swallowed hard as well. “Gina, do you recognize who is in the bath?”
“From the bald head, it may be Gregorios,” my warden whispered. “I can’t really tell with all the blood in the bathwater and the corpse face down. And I can see a stab wound on the back from here. At least the jasmine covers the scent of the blood.”
My heart sank. Gregorios was Dragonfly’s head of household as well as her personal assistant, just Sivan was mine. They were probably in the process of drawing Dragonfly’s bath when they were attacked. However, the stab wound and the message meant this was more than an accidental slip and fall.
“Do you want Dezba and me to remove the corpse from the bath?” Gina asked.
A shiver ran through me. As much as I wanted to believe a current member of the sisterhood or staff within Orrin’s Temple of Love had committed this atrocity, I knew better.
“No, the corpse may have a spell on it like Yellow Fin last month,” I murmured. The things that had been done to the orphan street urchin were far worse than anything I’d encountered before. However, Gerd’s ally, the former seat of Mother in Orrin had laid a trap spell on the child’s corpse with the intent to kill me and whichever member of Light accompanied me in the investigation. How close her plan came to succeeding made me decision easier. “We wait for assistance.”
I strode from the bathing area back to the main door to the high sister’s quarters. Sister Shada and Warden Jocasta waited outside in the corridor as I suspected they would. I ordered Shada to send for a Light priest, Master Healer Devin and High Brother Xander of Death. She didn’t question me though technically, I had no authority in her Temple. She trotted down the hallway with Jocasta in tow. With the murder inside their own walls, the wardens would be following their priestesses closer than their own shadows.
I headed back into the sleeping room of Dragonfly’s chambers. Twelve help me, I didn’t want to interrogate her while in the throes of grief, but I had no choice in the matter.
Dragonfly’s weeping had settled to an occasional hiccup when I round the chest at the foot of the platform frame and sat next to her on her bed. She pulled herself from Claudia’s comforting hold and straightened.
“D-do what you need to do, Anthea.” She gulped.
“Not until someone from Light arrives,” I said gently as I took her left hand in both of mine. “Right now, I’m here as a friend.”
“I-It had to be Gerd.” Dragonfly’s voice still quavered though her tone grew stronger. The berda was number two on my birth mother’s list of people she wished dead. Dragonfly had been Gerd’s second, and she’d only gone along with Gerd’s excesses in an effort to protect the other priestesses at the Temple of Love.
“What make you say that?” I said.
“No one else could have entered my quarters without Citana or one of the other wardens seeing them.”
We both looked at the block of spelled marble guarding the entrance to Orrin’s tunnel system. It rested between Dragonfly’s vanity table and the first of three wardrobes in the room. My heart tried to climb out of my chest and choke me.
“Chief Justice?” Gina murmured.
I nodded, and my warden dashed out of Dragonfly’s chambers. So much had gone wrong in the few months I’d been in my position as Orrin’s seat of Balance. So much so, my own wardens knew what I would order next without even the need for silent speech. Gina would gather another warden and check on those guarding the tunnel entrances that lay outside of Orrin’s walls while Dezba stayed at my side.
And Dragonfly was correct. Only another member of the clergy could have opened the tunnel entrances. I was damn lucky I’d added extra alarm spells to the tunnel entrance in my own bedchambers. Otherwise, my throat would have been slit as well while I lay sleeping.
“Why weren’t you in your bedchambers this morning?” I asked.
“That was my fault,” Claudia murmured. “The baby woke me before First Morning.”
“He’s moving?” I said, trying my best to keep the bitterness from my voice.
Claudia nodded. “It was the first time. I wanted to share it with someone.”
“Dragonfly, you’re the only sister I’ve seen in Love in their formal robes.” I rubbed her hand. “Why were you still up?”
“Gregorios and I were counting the evening’s donations and filling out the ledgers.” Of course, she had been. Gerd’s theft from her own Temple was one of her minor crimes. Dragonfly, as the first berda to hold a seat in any of the Issuran Temples, had become quite obsessive with following her Temple’s procedures.
To the point, where she had a seat from one of the other Temples double-check her counts and sums. Usually, it was me.
She swallowed hard to keep from weeping again. “We had just finished when Ichik fetched me to Claudia’s quarters. She worried her assistant unnecessarily.” Dragonfly glanced at Claudia and squeezed the other priestess’s hand with her right one.
“Wh-when I returned to my quarters, I smelled the bath oils.” Dragonfly continued. “I called for Gregorios to assist me with combing out my hair. When he didn’t answer, I walked into my bathing room and-and found him.” Though she struggled to keep her composure, fresh tears coursed down her cheeks.
I looked up at Citana. “Chief Warden, may I speak to you privately?”
She hesitated for a moment, obviously loath to leave her two priestess alone after such a horrendous murder occurred in the next room.
Thankfully, Dezba spoke up. “I swear by the Twelve I’ll guard High Sister Dragonfly and Sister Claudia with my life. Just as I know you’ll do the same while speaking with Chief Justice Anthea.”
Citana nodded curtly. “Very well then.”
After a final pat of Dragonfly’s hand, I rose from the bed. Citana followed me to the high sister’s sitting room and closed the door behind her. She stood at attention, as if she feared I would lash her then and there.
I circled the sitting room, warding it from anyone overhearing our conversation.
“At ease, Chief Warden. I don’t blame you for the murder,” I said. “I merely wish to establish a timeline.”
“Yes, m’lady.” She cleared her throat. “However, given the actions of the previous chief warden of Mother, it would be best if you truthspelled me.”
“Oh, I will truthspell you, but only when someone from Light arrives.” I gestured at one of the cushioned chairs. “For now, can we please speak plainly as civilized adults?”
She nodded more slowly this time. Whatever she expected from me, I wasn’t delivering. She sat gingerly on the chair I indicated while I sat across from her.
“What were you doing prior to the high sister retiring to her chambers?”
Her chin lifted. “I was in the worshippers receiving room, guarding the high sister.” Citana frowned. “The only odd thing during the evening or night was no one requested personal worship with the high sister.”
“Why was this unusual?” I asked.
A rueful smile tilted her mouth. “There’s always a handful who believe direct worship with our Temple seat will bring them closer to the Twelve.”
“Were activities what you would call normal over the last few days?”
“Yes.” This time, Citana chuckled. “I expect a few heat related fights between worshippers. Tempers are often short between the Solstice and the Vintner’s Festival.”
I cocked my head. “There haven’t been any reports of brawling or arrests at your Temple.”
She shrugged. “My trainer at the Academy said it’s not unusual for rutting behavior to occur at Love. Worshippers sometimes forget they aren’t competing for the sisters’ attention. A couple of knocks get their attention along with the threat of banning them from the Temple. We learn when it’s just stupidity and when there’s a real problem with a worshipper.”
“Did the Temple end worship at the usually time?”
“Third Evening bells on the last chime,” Citana said. “The sisters wind things down with their worshippers before then. It makes my people’s job much easier.”
“And after the worshippers were cleared from the Temple?” I prompted.
“I escorted the high sister and her assistant to her chambers with the cash box.” Citana sagged a bit in her chair. “I stood guard in the corridor. Ichik rushed to me, saying Sister Claudia needed the high sister right away.”
“Did Ichik enter the high sister’s bedchambers with his message?”
“No.” Citana shook her head vigorously. “I made them wait in the corridor. Both I and my wardens have been following the guidelines the chief wardens devised after the assassination attempts on the seats this spring.”
“That’s good,” I murmured. “I take it you relayed the message?”
Citana nodded. “When I entered this room, the high sister was at her desk.” The chief warden gestured toward the corner where a familiar ledger rested on a small, ornate maple desk. Dragonfly’s workspace was always far neater than my own.
“I gave the high sister the message,” Citana continued. “Then I escorted her to Sister Claudia’s quarters.”
“What about Gregorios?” I asked.
“I-I left them alone,” Citana choked out. “Th-they weren’t even here when Gerd was Love’s seat. I’ve heard stories about her, but there was no reason…”
“Gregorios earned Dragonfly’s affection and respect,” I said. “In her twisted mind, that would be enough for Gerd. She couldn’t kill Dragonfly through the happenstance of Claudia’s son making his presence known. Therefore, the way to hurt Dragonfly would be to harm someone she cared about.”
“Logically, I know your words are true, Chief Justice.” A wan smile appeared on Citana’s face. “However, I trusted in magic too much to guard that one egress, and I allowed my high priestess’s wish for privacy to circumvent my better judgment. Both Little Bear and Sabine are right. It’s better to wound your seat’s pride than to find them dead.”
I blinked at her mention of mine and Thief’s chief wardens. It explained Little Bear’s grumbling about Luc refusing to use the front door when High Brother Xander did so in his visits with Yanaba. And Talbert’s chief warden had someone stationed in his bedchambers for months before the assassination attempts on me last winter.
Even when Talbert was elsewhere performing his duties.
No wonder Citana was cross with herself. If not for Claudia and Luc’s son, Dragonfly would have been the one floating face down in her bath.
“Were you the one who discovered the body, or was it Dragonfly?” I murmured.
“Dragonfly entered through the main door.” Citana gestured at the entrance to the high sister’s chambers. “I heard her scream, and I rushed in. She was kneeling at the entrance to her bath. A few moments later, Sister Claudia, Ichik, and Warden Jocasta entered the bedchamber as I tried to pull the high sister away from the sight. The warden said she heard the high sister cry out. Sister Claudia and Warden Jocasta assisted me in moving the high sister to her bed and ordered Ichik to fetch you.” The chief warden’s face heated at the last confession. It was probably mere embarrassment that a sister had the wherewithal to summon me.
“Thank you, Chief Warden,” I said. “I will have to truthspell you later, but thank you for helping me now.”
“I understand, m’lady.” A ghost of a smile flitted across her face. “And you’re welcome.”
There was a knock on the main door, and we both rose. I lowered my wards, and Chief Warden Citana crossed the room to answer the door. I automatically drew one of my daggers. When Citana opened the door, relief spread through me at the sight of High Brother Luc of Light and his chief warden Nicholas.
“Really, Chief Justice? Can’t I get through First Morning service once before you summon me?” Luc teased as he swung into Dragonfly’s bedchamber on his crutches. The little twinge of guilt I constantly felt over the loss of his left foot hit harder than usual. Especially since Gerd was ultimately responsible for his torture.
I shoved my guilt back into its hole. “It’s much worse than that,” I answered. “I haven’t had my morning tea, much less broken my fast yet.”
My dark sense of humor couldn’t hold up under the emotional strain. I looked at the door to Dragonfly’s bedroom and back at Luc. “We believe its the high sister’s personal assistant. I didn’t allow the wardens to touch the corpse in the bath, yet.”
“Dragonfly?” Luc cocked his head, a shocked expression on his handsome features.
“We’ll have to truthspell her to confirm it, but hers and Chief Warden Citana’s preliminary testimony says no,” I murmured.
Nicholas’s attention shifted to Citana. “How could anyone enter a seat’s quarters—”
But Luc’s countenance hardened, and his skin shifted to a deep red. “Gerd.”
“Gina is checking on the guards at each of the exits of the tunnel system,” I said.
Luc drew in a deep breath and released it. “Thank you for waiting for one of Light to arrive.”
I shrugged. “After the incident with Yellow Fin, I learned my lesson.”
Ironically, Luc’s second Jeremy had been with me that time. I discovered just how far my opponents would go after conventional assassination attempts against me repeatedly failed. It was a depth that chilled me to my core.
Luc looked at Nicholas. “No one enters of leaves High Sister Dragonfly’s chambers without mine of the chief justice’s permission.
“Understood, High Brother.” Nicholas’s thick blue moustache and beard wiggled with his acknowledgement. I never understood why so many men of Toscan and Briton descent bothered with facial hair when they kept the rest of the hair on their head so short.
I pivoted and headed back into the main bedchamber, Luc and Citana on my heels. Dragonfly inclined her head to Luc, but it was Claudia’s sweet smile in his direction that set my teeth on edge. I tried to shove my jealousy into the same hole as my guilt but I was running out of room to store my emotions.
However, Dezba appeared very relieved at my return. No doubt Dragonfly’s grief made the reserved young warden uncomfortable.
“High Sister, Sister, could you please wait in the sitting room while we…deal with things in here?” I said.
“Of course,” Claudia murmured. Dragonfly merely nodded.
Once they were out of the room, Luc said silently, We should take Dragonfly to Mya.
I was thinking the same thing. After everything the sisters of Love had been through, High Sister Mya and the rest of the clergy of Child had more work ahead dealing with additional emotional damage to priestesses and staff of this Temple.
“Shall we pull the corpse out of the high sister’s bath?” Luc asked. “Or do you wish to do the rewind first?”
I examined the two rooms again, trying to calculate the best way to conduct a rewind. My own sisterhood needed three dimensions to anchor our senses while we manipulated the fourth dimension, time. The problem was a rewind acted the same way as a ward. It used the wall as a base and covered any windows or doors. I propped my right on my opposing forearm and tapped my right forefinger against my lips as I consider the problem.
“How hard would it be to remove the bathing room door?” I asked.
The two wardens looked at each other in confusion before Citana said, “We would need a clawed hammer to pry out the hinge pins.”
“You wouldn’t happen to have one available in Love, would you?” I asked.
Once she left the bedroom to fetch the tool, Luc frowned. “What the demon are you trying to do?”
“If we’re right and Gerd is behind the murder, both the bathing room and the bedchamber would be involved,” I said.
“And what?” Luc stared at as if he were questioning whether I needed care from the Temple of Child as well. “You’re too lazy to perform two rewinds?”
A little hiccupping sound came from Dezba.
“Don’t stab him for the insult just yet, Warden,” I teased. “I’m not sure if my idea would work yet.”
“But you did a rewind for several blocks during the investigation of Old Anne’s murder,” Dezba said. “This is only two rooms.”
“I also used Justice Yanaba and her bond with Orrin itself as the anchor for that spell,” I said. “This rewind needs to be fine-tuned, and I’m not risking her or her baby. I shouldn’t have done it the last time.”
“What exactly are you planning, Anthea?” From Luc’s expression, he’d made up his mind that I was mad after all.
“We take off the door, and in essence, make the two rooms as one.” I gestured at the open doorway to the bathing room. “I’ll position myself on the sill. One of you will be in the bathing room to witness, and the other out here in the bedchamber.”
“I don’t remember you ever trying anything like this before,” Luc said. “Are you sure it will work?”
“No.” I grinned at him. “But then, I wasn’t sure the stunt with Yanaba would work either. If it doesn’t, then yes, I’ll have to break down the rewinds, but this works we’ll have a solid chain of events in the high sister’s rooms.”
Chief Warden Citana returned with a claw hammer in her hand. “Bless his heart. Our maintenance man Dougal had one. I was worried I would have to borrow one from the Smiths Guild.”
We all chuckled. The Smiths Guild wasn’t known for their sharing, plus I’d made them look like selfish fools at the last city meeting. If Citana had to go to any smith and they’d known I was the one who requested it, there would have been a hefty price to pay, someway, somehow.
Luc and I stayed out of the two wardens’ way as they made quick work of the pins and carefully set them and the huge slab of heavily lacquered and sealed wood out of the way.
“Are you sure about this, Anthea?” he asked.
“But you’re going to do it anyway?” Luc looked at me askance.
I merely returned his gaze.
He made an exasperated sound. “Some day, I’ll learn not to ask ridiculous questions.”
Citana leaned close to Dezba. “Is this normal investigative behavior?”
“For them? Yes.” The corners of Dezba’s mouth quirked as she looked at Luc and me.
“You are all mad.” Citana shook her head.
“Oh, definitely,” Luc grumbled.
“Who made you the high brother of Child?” I said.
He ignored me and swung forward on his crutches. “I’ll take the bathing room, Warden.”
“But, High Brother.” Dezba took a step toward him. “I don’t want you to slip and fall into the bathing pool.”
Luc’s irritation spiked through my mind, and I had to bite the inside of my lower lip to keep from laughing aloud. He slowly pivoted to face Dezba. Her skin grew a brilliant red shade as she realized she’d overstepped propriety.
“My dear, Warden Dezba.” His smile wasn’t his usual charming one. “I am beginning to understand why the chief justice finds the entire Balance corps of wardens particularly vexing at times.” He twisted back toward his destination and stomped into the bathing room.
“Ignore him,” I said to Dezba. “He hasn’t broken his fast either, and you know how testy I am without tea and that first meal of the day.”
“Yes, m’lady.” She bobbed her head.
On the other hand, Citana appeared as if she were about to call for reinforcements.
I gestured for the women to back away from the tunnel entrance. “Chief Warden, if you would stand with Warden Dezba, we can get started.”
Dezba led Citana to the corner between Dragonfly’s bed and the door to her sitting room, the farthest they could be away from me and still observe everything. That didn’t account for the nervous ripples coming off Citana’s psyche.
“Chief Warden, have you ever observed a rewind spell?” I asked.
“Only during class at the academy, m’lady,” she murmured. “Even something as minor of seeing myself form the day before was unsettling.”
“Think of it as watching an athletic competition in a square on a field,” “Dezba reassured the older woman. “I will report what I see to the chief justice. However, if you noticed anything odd or unusual, please speak.”
Satisfied the chief warden understood, I folded back the rugs closest to the bathing room and exposed the bare marble before I settled myself on the sill. Thankfully, this would be a fairly short rewind. I didn’t think my buttocks could deal with straddling the narrow length of marble if I were pulling the timelines past First Night.
I ignored the hard edges digging into my thighs and calves, placed my palms on the slabs of floor marble on each side of the sill, and took a deep breath to still my mind. Whispering the words of the spell, I reached out and yanked the past toward me.
On this occasion, no trap spell or anything else came flying along the time lines to attack me. I pulled until First Night and let the time lines flow forward a little faster than normal between my fingers.
For a few moments, Luc and Dezba alternately called out, “Nothing.” Finally, Dezba shouted, “Slower.”
I gritted my teeth and slowed the velocity.
“Chief Warden Citana enters the room with an oil lamp,” Dezba recited. “She checks beneath the bed, inside the wardrobe, and enters the bathing room.”
Luc picked up the recitation, but his voice echoes oddly with the marble and water. “Citana enters and lights the lamp in the corner of the bathing room across from the door. She looks around. She seems satisfied no one is here and leaves.”
Dezba picked up the events. “The chief warden passes through the bedchamber again. She places the lamp on the stand next to the high sister’s bed, and she exits.”
I almost let the time lines speed up, but Dezba said, “High Sister Dragonfly enters her bedchamber. She heads straight for the bathing chamber.”
“Dragonfly walks in, and—really, Anthea? Must I tell you this?” Luc complained.
“Yes,” I hissed.
“The high sister relieves herself in a chamber and leaves,” Luc growled.
“The high sister passes through the bedchamber and goes to the sitting room,” Dezba said.
I let the time lines slip a little faster through my fingers. So far, the only thing Dragonfly left out of her statement earlier was her pause to take care of her personal needs.
Once again, Dezba shouted, “Slower!”
Perspiration that had nothing to do with the summer heat trickled down my back as my fingers tightened around the time lines.
“The stone guarding the passage to the tunnel system folds back,” Dezba said. “A cloaked and hooded figure enters the bedchamber. I cannot see their face. They glance in the direction of the bed before closing the tunnel entrance. She turns toward the bath chamber and crosses the room.”
Footsteps come toward me. Deep down, I know it was Dezba attempting to see the face of the assassin, but I can’t help raising my head.
My birth mother Gerd stared down at me, and she has a knife in her hand.