I cursed and leaned back in my chair. The demon voices whispered excitedly in the back of my head. However, I ignored them and focused on the magistrate. “How many and how long have they been there?”
“Three to four days,” he said. “I’ve already sent for Master Healer Bly.”
I didn’t have to ask why he needed me. I rose, donned my formal robes and buckled on my sword harness.
“Have you sent a messenger to Light?” I asked.
“Jaime will meet us on the street with a priest.”
I didn’t want to ask, but I did anyway. “He’s been drinking again?”
DiCook sighed. He didn’t ask who I meant. “According to Brother Garbhan, the high brother stops long enough to piss and pass out.”
I frowned. “What do you mean ‘according to Brother Garbhan’?”
“I’ve been added to the list of people banned from the Temple of Light.” The magistrate shrugged. Unfortunately, it was within Luc’s purview at the head of Orrin’s Temple of Light to ban anyone who disrupted the Temple’s daily business.
“What about Jeremy and Shi Hua?” I asked. “What do they say?”
“Jeremy says nothing to me. His loyalty to Luc is absolute.” DiCook followed me out of my office. “And I can’t speak to Shi Hua. Chief Healer Aaron has put her on bedrest, so she hasn’t left the Temple lately.”
I jerked to halt. “Bed rest? Is there something wrong—”
DiCook raised his right palm. “It’s a precaution. Mistress Yin Li mentioned some issues Shi Hua’s mother had experienced in her pregnancies. When Shi Hua exhibited similar symptoms, Aaron erred on the side of caution since she’s definitely carrying a Light child.”
I continued walking toward the courtroom. “He’s certain her babe is Light?”
“Says so.” DiCook chuckled. “It’s not like I have any blessed talent to confirm a Twelve-damned thing.”
We entered the sanctuary/courtroom of Balance as he finished his comment. Two of my wardens waited with a peacekeeper.
Warden Noko scowled at DiCook. “Language, Magistrate. Just because the chief justice has no sense of decorum, it doesn’t mean you should follow in her footsteps.”
I glared at the normally quiet woman. However, Warden Gina and the peacekeeper snickered. As usual, the basalt statue of Balance said nothing.
“Forgive me, Lady Warden.” DiCook bowed to Noko. “I shall endeavor to keep the chief justice’s poor manners from influencing my own. In the meantime, can we deal with the possible crimes discovered by a poor shopkeeper this morning?”
The magistrate, myself, and our bodyguards exited the Temple of Balance. It was a shame DiCook and I as city leaders could no longer walk through the streets of Orrin without an escort. Between demon attacks and human renegades, no one took chances this days.
I could no longer even walk to Bakers Street on the days we didn’t have court. It was the people watching I missed as much as the delicious puff pastries. Now, I had to look at nearly every citizen as a potential assassin.
Brother Garbhan and Warden Yar waited for us at the bottom of the steps leading up to my Temple. They both nodded politely and greeted us, but as I got closer to the men, the acidic smell of vomit met my nose. I looked up at Yar. He merely gave a slight shake of his head, his expression begging me not to say anything.
Truly, there was nothing to say. Luc was by no means a short man, but Yar was a giant by comparison. And if my love was a dead weight from passing out drunk, it would take someone of the warden’s size to wrestle him into bed.
Nor was this the first time the staff of Light had to deal with a drink-addicted chief priest.
Were Luc and I doomed to repeat my maternal grandparents’ mistakes?
Luckily, the deceased seamstress’s shop was a short walk from the Temple District. Along with two peacekeepers securing the building, several women were gathered around the entrance to the storefront. One in particular leaned against the stone wall of the first story. Her eyes were closed, and a pained expression etched lines across her delicate features.
The women’s murmuring stop as we walked up to the shop. One of them leaned close to the leaning woman and said, “The chief justice is here, Jaci.”
Her eyes popped open, and she straightened and bowed. “Chief Justice, Brother. Thank you for coming.”
She spoke with a bit of an accent that I couldn’t quite place.
“When did you get possession of the keys to this shop, Mistress Jaci?” I asked.
“First Day of last week. I paid the magistrate’s clerk after the auction, and she gave me the keys.”
I turned to DiCook.
“I already confirmed the account with my clerk, Chief Justice.” DiCook scowled, but I had the impression he was more disturbed by his memories of Dante and what we’d found here last winter. “She’s available for whenever you need to truthspell her.”
“Truthspell?” The woman who brought Jaci’s attention to my presence shook, but from the red of her exposed skin, it was anger, not fear that provoked her. She also had the same unrecognizable accent. “We’re the aggrieved parties!”
“Calm, Maiara,” Jaci said sternly. “The chief justice is the reason you and my nieces are alive.”
“You don’t have a Tandoran or Cantan accent.” I cocked my head. “Were you in Tandor during the demon siege?”
“I wasn’t, Lady Justice.” A wan smile crossed Jaci’s face. “My sister Maiara and her family were. Her husband and her eldest daughter’s wife were lost during the defense of the city. As for our accents, our parents were part of the Tupi Forest Guardians. They immigrated to Issura based on their High Sister of Vintner’s recommendation to assist the Duke of Tandor with his medicinal garden.”
“The Valley of the Lost is very different from the Southern Long Continent’s Great Forest,” I said.
“Mother said that stark contrast is one of the reasons they stayed in Tandor. However—” Jaci gestured at the door. “We hoped to reopen the seamstress shop to give Maiara and her daughters an occupation and an income. Our youngest sister Moema and her daughters came down from Redwood Grove to help us clean, organize, and inventory the shop.”
“Inventory?” I asked.
“The duke ordered me to include all of Barbora’s fabrics, thread tools, and so on,” DiCook offered. “Part of the sale money will go back to Mistress Jaci and her family to complete the orders Barbora never finished.”
Of course, Duke Marco would. He had been trying very hard to be equitable to his people since he inherited the duchy. The sudden influx of refugees from our sister city of Tandor had made his position a delicate balancing act.
One that hadn’t been helped by the year’s spate of murders.
“Has there been any reports of missing people in the city?” I asked.
“No.” DiCook grinned. “After your little tantrum a few months ago, even the folks in the South Side are talking to a few of the peacekeepers. Closest we came was a young couple who tried to talk High Mother Leocadia into marrying them.”
I tried not to think about that day. Tensions had spilled over between the unusual heat and the massive number of Tandoran refugees. Somehow, I produced lightning. It was not a typical Balance talent, and I hadn’t been able to replicate it, but maybe that was a good thing.
“Underage?” I asked.
“Underage,” DiCook said amically.
“Magistrate, when was the last time any of your people entered the shop?” I couldn’t bring myself to say Dante or Barbora’s names. It was bad enough the voices in my head crooned over the loss of the eggs implanted in theirs and their children’s bodies.
He stroked his beard. “Peacekeeper Jaime and his team did the official inventory for the magistrate’s sale a week and a half ago.”
“I’m assuming they made no mention of any bodies.”
“No, Chief Justice.”
Brother Garbhan hadn’t said a word so far. Times like these were when I missed Luc the most. I’d come to depend on his calm demeanor and his strength.
“I’ll need to question them as well.”
“Of course, Chief Justice.”
“And if you would be so kind, collect the names of all of Mistress Jaci’s family members present and where they are staying.” I turned my attention to the group of women and pushed back my hood. Their shudders and gestures to ward bad luck meant my red eyes had their desired effect. “I don’t think I need to say you are not to leave Orrin until I speak to you. As the magistrate and Brother Garbhan can attest, I am rarely in a generous mood, and I am even less so when I don’t have the chance to drink my morning tea.”
All of the women murmured their agreement, except Jaci who smiled and nodded.
I turned to the door. The key was still sitting in the locking mechanism. I drew one of my smaller knives and slid the steel between the door and the jamb. The door was still unlocked, which attested to the women’s haste in leaving the shop.
Under different circumstances, I could retrieve residual skin or hair from the door latch. It may be a moot point with Jaci and her family touching the metal, but I would stick to my established procedures.
With my elbow, I pushed the wood as I used my knife to raise the lever. The door creaked open. The smell slapped me so hard I gagged. Behind me Brother Garbhan coughed and choked. Then came the splash of his first meal of the day on the cobblestones.
“You might want to let the building air out, Lady Justice,” one of the peacekeepers volunteered.
“We’re going to need a wind talent with more power than a Peaceful Sea fall storm to clear out this smell,” I muttered. The voices in the back of my mind relished the odor of death, which only made my stomach roil more. It was a good thing I’d eaten earlier than normal. Otherwise, I’d be joining Garbhan by expelling Deborah’s excellent bread onto the street.
There was nothing but materials and forms in the front of the shop. I touched the corner of a work counter. Everything was as it had been since the last time I was in here, other than a thick layer of dust, which tickled the inside of my nose.
I followed the Balance-awful scent to the back the living quarters. Hot yellow maggots slithered through the body parts piled on what had been Barbora’s dining table. Flies and other scavenging insect took flight at our entrance, causing streaks of red light in my odd vision, before quickly settling down to their feast.
“What in Light’s infinite names—” Garbhan’s voice was muffled. I peered over my right shoulder. He had place a fold of his cloak over his mouth and nose. I couldn’t blame him. This was far beyond his usual duties as an aide to the Reverend Father of Light in Standora.
“Is it just my peculiar sight, or is that a pile of limbs with no torsos or heads?” I asked.
“It’s not you—” The poor priest twisted to his right and proceeded to lose whatever was left in his stomach onto the dusty wooden floorboards.