A Messy Little Murder
The slow lapping of the Prion River mingled with the creaking wood symphony of the water wheel beside the dock. Moonlight tinted the heavy fog as the last hours of night became the first hours of morning. The heavy mist lay upon the woman’s corpse, fat drops of dew sitting on the blood and making it shine.
Alys bent over the body, her hands on her hips as she studied the dead woman’s face. Young. Roughed up. She may have been pretty once, but it was impossible to tell now. Old bruises and new mixed with dried blood to create a mask over the girl’s features.
Alys turned to the man standing against the wooden wall of the pier and shrugged. “What do you want me to say?”
The man finished speaking to a pair of city guards and waited until the two men clanked away in their armored breastplates and shiny helms. His light hair, always cropped close and crisply perfect, shone briefly in the glow from the torches the guards carried. Alys caught just a glimpse of those familiar blue eyes before the light from the torches faded away.
He pulled his long coat closer about him against the chill of the morning. The black fabric and gray striping of a royal magistrate made him stand out.
She corrected her thoughts. Stand out even more.
“I want you to tell me what happened,” he said.
She laughed, adjusting the large bladed scythe that she carried across her back. “What happened? Someone killed her, Magistrate Inspector Daxton Ellis,” Alys said, punctuating every syllable of the man’s title with a clipped enunciation.
He gave her a long, hard stare. “Nothing is ever easy with you, is it, Alys?”
“It’s part of my charm,” she said, moving over to the wall beside him. As she drew closer, she studied his face – the subtle play of muscles around his eyes, the set of his mouth. He was always easy to read. “You know who she is.” It was not a question.
He hesitated at first, then said, “She’s Lydia Ashdown.”
“Old name,” she said.
Alys shrugged. “Doesn’t mean much down here in Lowside. You’re sure it’s her?”
The inspector gave her a slow nod. “She’s been missing for three months now. The parents held out hope that she had just had a rebellious jaunt out to the marches to visit friends or relatives.” He shook his head. “Still, the magistrates were given her description. We knew there was a chance we’d find her like this, but there was always hope. At least until tonight.”
Alys flicked her tongue against her teeth in silent annoyance. “That doesn’t answer my question, Dax. How do you know this is her?”
“When she was younger, she was playing and fell into the hearth,” he said. “It left her with a burn scar between her…” He cleared his throat. “Over her heart area.”
Alys laughed. “So you tore open this poor girl’s bodice for your salacious gaze? Why Dax, you cad!”
“The mark is distinctive. It looks like a sparrow.”
“A sparrow?” Alys said in disbelief, kneeling down and opening up the corpse’s shirt. Underneath the clothing, on the stiff, waxy flesh was a brownish red mark. It sat between her breasts, just over her heart. To Alys’s surprise, it actually did look quite a bit like a sparrow in flight. “Amazing. Highside even has prettier scars than we do.”
“This is hardly a laughing matter, Alys. The Ashdowns are true blooded. They have a direct line to the First Ascended. And their daughter is dead. In Lowside.”
“Ah,” Alys said. “And there it is. I was wondering what had prompted the chief magistrate to assign you here, dear Dax. Now, I know. You true bloods stick together, right? They brought you in to tidy things up and make sure the Ashdown family is confident that a person of the correct breeding and background is investigating the death of their poor child.”
His eyes narrowed. “I thought we weren’t making this personal?” he remarked, an edge in his voice. “Wasn’t that one of the rules?” He paused and shook his head. “I’m not here to tidy anything up. I am here for justice. To find who is responsible. It does not matter to me in the slightest how true hers or anyone’s blood may be. You should know that most of all.” He looked at her and in his eyes was that familiar look of resolution, but also a bit of challenge as well.
That was new.
Silently, she cursed him. As ever, he knew all the right buttons to push. And he was right. Those were the rules. Keep it business. Alys presented a charming smile to him. “A noble endeavor, Dax. And one I would be glad to assist you with, but you know that nothing is free, Magistrate Inspector. Especially down here in Lowside.”
“The city will pay for your assistance. Discretely, of course.”
“I don’t need coin. I can steal whatever coin I want.” He remained quiet at that, and she chuckled. “Oh come now, Daxton. Surely it hasn’t been so long you can’t remember what a girl really wants?”
“I can’t do it. You know I can’t.” But even as he spoke, Alys saw his eyes move back to the body before them.
The way his attention kept returning to the corpse, the way his breath came a little faster as she was about to move away. This was a serious case. A Highside victim, old family nobility, found in Prionside. Dax was out of his element here and he knew it.
“What do you want to know?” he said at last.
Alys moved in closer and whispered in his ear. “The appointment for Justicar of the Second District is coming. I want to know who’s going to get the nod for that post and what leverage the appointers have on them.”
Dax spun away. “You’re out of your damned mind.”
“Oh, unclench. You know I will be discreet, Dax. I always am.”
“It hasn’t been fully decided yet,” Dax said through tight lips.
Alys waggled a finger in front of him. “Stop trying to avoid it. This is no small endeavor you are asking me to join you on. And knowing who’s getting tapped should just about cover it. The Second District Justicar is the law in Lowside.” She paused and smiled at him. “Well, the king’s law, anyway.”
He did not smile back. If anything, his frown seemed to intensify. “It’s not you that I don’t trust, Alys. It’s who you’ll sell the information to.”
“Believe me, Dax. They know the rules too,” she said. “This is their world. One that they carved out for themselves and built with sweat and blood. They’re not going to shit on all that.”
Alys met his gaze with her own dark eyes. She saw him break first, unable to keep from looking at the corpse. Inside, she smiled.
“Fine. I will find out what you want, but I will want results first.”
“Of course,” she said.
She pressed her hand against her heart and then held it out to him. He did the same and they clasped forearms, sealing the deal.
“The Ashdowns will want someone to answer for this,” Dax said. “They will look to the top and think that Blacktide Harry himself is involved,” he said.
“No chance it’s Harry,” she said.
“He’s still boss in Prionside District, right? The Stevedore Rats still answer to him?”
“Why Magistrate Inspector! It seems you have been keeping an ear to the ground in regards to the goings on of the shade folk.”
“It’s his domain,” he said. “And he’s got the reputation for violence.”
“Oh Harry’s as black hearted a bastard as you’ll ever meet, but he has no temper. Everything he does is cold. But even more, this,” she said, pointing to the body of the young woman, “is bad for business. It’s public. It shines a light on Prionside. The Blacktide would never do anything to disrupt business on the docks. Never.”
“Well, then if he is so innocent, he shouldn’t mind the inconvenience of a few questions, should he?” He fixed her with a look that slowly evolved into a smile. “You can arrange a meeting, can’t you?”
“You’re wasting time,” Alys said, reaching back and adjusting the large scythe in its harness, and checking the daggers at her belt. “But I suppose, if you are set on it, it wouldn’t hurt to pay him a visit anyway. If you really want to follow this, we’ll need the Blacktide’s blessing if we’re going to be poking around Prionside.”
With that, she offered him her arm. “Come along, Magistrate Inspector. It’s late at night, and the streets can be so very dangerous,” she said, batting her eyes at him. “An escort is ever so important.”
Dax frowned again, but behind his eyes, Alys caught just the barest hint of amusement. “Then I suppose it is good that I have one,” he said.
Release: November 15, 2015
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