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
“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.
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.
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,
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 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
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
“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
“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
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
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.”
Justice.” Luc smiled.
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.
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?”
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.
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
“My lady, we need
some guidance at times. Your method of commanding is…”
than Justice Penelope, Balance rest her soul.”
“Are my methods
“No, m’lady, it’s
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
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
“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
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.”
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.”
* * *
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.
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.
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
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
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.”
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.
before he peered closely at her neck. “Strangled, but you already knew that,
didn’t you, Justice? Possibly a small man or 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.”
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.
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.”
confident Devin seemed to search for words. “I don’t suppose you would let me
“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.”
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
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.”
hesitated before he said, “With your permission, I wish to confirm that
strangulation was the cause of her death.”
understand, Master Healer.” I pointed at the neck of the corpse. You said that
“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.”
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
“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.
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.
no. I have one more stop to make.”
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.”
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.
whispered back. “They hated each other’s guts.”
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,
“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.”
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.
eunuch’s skin remained the same yellow with nervous splotches of orange. “I’ll
see if she’s available, m’lady.”
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?”
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
“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.
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.
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.
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
Now, I recognized
it for the posturing it was. “I apologize for the need for my visit. It’s about
“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.”
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.”
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
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
“I didn’t ask
about every priestess in your temple. I specifically asked about Dragonfly
reporting Gretchen’s absence,” I said.
remember.” Her pulse jumped. I really hadn’t expected otherwise.
“I’m sure you
“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
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.”
father was one of her regulars.”
countenance gossip, but I had to ask. “What priests or priestesses from the
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
I muttered a few
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