Bedloomtown. Some called it Bedlamtown. Bedlam for short. You’ve never seen anything like it. South End had buildings wide and tall and short and thin and all other sizes, which lay strewn all around with blatant, almost rude disregard for proper positioning and accommodation for streets. Quite rude. Totally improper. The streets, overrun with whores, hagglers, horses and homeless, were ankle deep with foul excrement. The houses were huddled together, as if they possessed the same mentality as their owners that there was safety in numbers.
And there was the odor. Hosts! there was always the odor of something burning in Bedlam, and there was never any real reason for this. It was just the way of it.
There were an unusual number of trees within town limits, and many said that the removal of these trees were all that stood in the town’s way of becoming every bit as big as Bigtown, its huge neighbor that lumbered away just beyond the horizon, a good day’s ride. It was from these trees that the town got its name; the trees being bedlooms and all. Bedloom trees were not beautiful, they were not big and green and lush—heavens no, bedloom trees were thick, twisted, pointy things that some held to be wicked in nature. Anita, the local wisewoman, said the trees were gifts from the earth, citing their large branches as shade from the hot summers in this region. But even her words could not allay people’s fears, for all of them had seen at least a dozen hanging corpses from a bedloom tree in their lifetime.
It was a wretched old tradition, that of hanging. But it happened, and often, and not always in accordance with the law. Sometimes a fresh corpse was hanging from a tree on the outskirts of town, or in the middle of Town Square, where Old Rasp, a bedloom tree that Anita said was the oldest in the region, and possibly the world, stood tall and with the most jagged limbs.
Hundreds of people had died hanging from Old Rasp. Some had been executed legally, while others appeared to be victims of vigilante justice, and others were suicides, and still others were never known.
Bedlam was a duplicitous town at its core—quiet homes and businesses on North End, raucous casinos and taverns on South End. There was hardly ever a death on North End that was unnatural, and there was hardly ever a death on South End that wasn’t.
The history of North End was short, for it had been mainly an extension of the South, built up in the days of clean-up after the War. Even at this time, so recent after the uprising and its quelling, many folk on that end of Bedlam regarded the War as if it had been a dream. Farming went on in some places on the outskirts, but mostly North End was a town all to its own, segregating the upper-class citizens from the lower-class: the dividing line was Town Square, just on the other side of Old Rasp. In North End, there were lovely gardens and trimmed hedges, fences around houses but none higher than waist level. People were mainly cordial and there was civil law that the local constabulary governed.
As well, North End had been built up nicely during the War. The foundries in North End, after all, had been responsible for a great deal of weapons and armor feeding into the War. So much money had poured into this end that three banks had opened branches. Very soon, a wall was built up around all of Bedlam, and Imperial Guardsmen stationed to protect the investment at all cost.
Bedlam was fast becoming a city, and no doubt. One could see this in the ongoing construction projects happening all about town—the loud noise from the foundries, weaponsmiths, and armorsmiths, coupled with the ceaseless hammering of industry, had invited the recent nickname. All over North End, progress marched forward.
South End, however…its nature was black. It was mostly a rookery, a slum. In the alleys between buildings on South End, there were discarded corpses of starved homeless and vagrants, as well as abandoned children—most of whom wound up joining the Bunch. There were few houses, mostly turned to inns, and none of them you would want to sleep in. There were few cordial encounters with folk in the streets of South End, for they by and large kept to themselves, knowing that trouble could brew from any encounter. And the local constabulary, nearly fifty in all, never went down there. It was beyond their control and they knew it.
It was here that the Bunch was first born, that ragtag group of abandoned children. It was here they said the Monster, that slasher of men, women, and children that the crushers still hadn’t caught, got his start. It was here that the illegal whiskey-makers had made their home, moving their stills from one shack to another. It was here that the Collegium had started its largest opium distribution center.
There were few folk who could travel freely from one End to the other, but one was doing so on this bright morning. A woman, dressed all in black, desperate with agony and closing in on death.
Her foot caught on her skirt as she ran, tearing it up the front. She tripped and fell to the ground, into the filthy water. She hit her knee, winced, and struggled back to her feet, hands clutching her stomach. The pain was spreading, like her intestines were trying to digest glass shards. Her bowels had already turned to water once, and were running down both her legs. There was a dull throbbing at the back of her skull, fighting its way forward.
Turning down an alley, she hoped to find some help…Gods, I went the wrong way. It wasn’t the path she had thought she was on. She turned around, looking at where she had come from, and not understanding how she’d gotten here. Where had she…?
The pain caused her whole body to seize, and she staggered sideways, put out a hand to a merchanter’s table, got an earful from the boy attending it, calling her a drunken whore. “The eye,” she hissed. “They’re everywhere. Please…the eye.”
“Go on! Get!” the boy spat at her, waving her off like she was an alley cat that had snuck into the refuse.
The dull throbbing at the back of her head had now come forward and was pressing against the backs of her eyes. Someone has to know. Someone has to tell them. “The eye…” she began.
“Get!” The boy suddenly grew tall in her mind, and she shrunk away. A second later, she blinked and saw that it wasn’t so.
An illusion, one made all the stronger by the sweltering heat—she had always suffered migraines, and the heat only made things worse. Such humidity! She reached up and pulled the kerchief off of her head, wiped her neck and brow.
She turned away from the boy, clutching at her face. The pain…it grew inside her belly, ready to give birth. She reached out for some scaffolding, atop which a few men were working on the new theater, and she held on to the scaffold’s supports for a few seconds, grinding her teeth against the pain. She knew she must look like a beast with such a feral grin. She clawed at her belly, finally tearing the cloth and reaching inside to her corset. She wanted to yank it out of her, and be done with it all.
The pain…it encompassed all, and now her shoulders felt heavy. So very heavy, like a small child was hanging from them, pulling her down.
“Oy, you all righ’, luv?” said one of the shirtless, shoeless workers up on the scaffold.
“The eye,” she whispered, reaching out to a phantom that had appeared in front of her, and then disappeared. “They’re everywhere. You have to…nnnnnn…you have to tell the other ealdormen, and the high-reeves…and tell the thanes…”
“Luv, you ain’t makin’ any sense.” A hand reached out to her, touched her elbow. “Here, lemme help y—”
She tore the hands away. “Get off me!”
“Bloody ’ell, I was only tryin’ ter ’elp.”
She ran on.
The street ahead was long and sodden, with a river of fresh mud flowing down it. The construction meant that fresh dirt was always being plowed out of the lots, always plenty of digging for foundations or basements, and rain over the last few days had turned the sloped street leading up from the marketplace into a sloppy mess. Children danced and played in it, even flung some at her as she went past. A naked girl ran in front of her, dancing and screaming and holding up fistfuls of mud. “Please,” she said to the little one. “Please…tell them…nnnnnn!” The little girl frowned, and went off to play with her friends.
Beads of sweat ran down her face, into her eyes. Again she tripped on her skirt, and spilled sideways into a porcelain-maker’s stand. Someone essayed a laugh. She paid no mind as the porcelain-maker shouted, “Oy! You payin’ for that? Oy, lass! Where you goin’?” She never looked back. She couldn’t.
“Tell them…” she tried to say to those who passed by. She stepped down one alley after the other. Both cobbled and uncobbled paths twisted this way and that. Passed a paike and her john, his trousers around his ankles, conducting business underneath a dark archway. The stone walls all around bore posters of the coming Union Workers strike, as well as the graffiti of the Bunch, that group of scamps that never seemed to age. It was the graffiti that alerted her. She knew then that she had made a mistake, because somehow in her attempt to get up to North End she had wound up back in South End, back in the rookery.
“The eye,” she said to the paike. Both the paike and her john stopped kissing for a moment and sneered at her. “They’re…they’re everywhere…please tell them…please…please tell the crushers…”
“Oy, you look out of sorts,” said the whore.
“A little drunk off yer arse, m’lady?” said the man. Both he and his paike tittered, then went back to their entertainment.
She turned, and was just about to run along again when she tripped over something else and almost fell. Tossing a glance over her shoulder, she spotted a man lying on his side, dressed in filthy white garb, hood, and cloak. He had been resting his head on a lute before she hit him, and he looked up at her, one eye looking out from his hood. Not angry, only questioning.
“The eye…they’re everywhere,” she rasped. “They’re…they’re…everywhere…” She swallowed hard. Her throat felt dry and sore. “The eye. You have to…to tell…”
It became difficult to swallow, or even breathe. Her throat…it felt like it was swelling. The pain in her gut intensified, and she turned and searched for a way out. She saw now that there was no chance of getting to North End, to a reliable apothecary or bonesman. This was it. This was the end of her life. She wandered on a bit more before she found herself in a random alley, no one else around, just her and the pain.
Then, she was sapped. No energy left to go on, nothing left in her knees or lungs. Her throat…constricting…swelling…
In a moment of desperation and madness, she kicked over a burlap bag someone had left in the alley, and out spilled a bucket of red greasepaint. When she saw it, inspiration struck her. She dipped her fingers in it, started to write a message, then realized she wouldn’t have enough time. Death was upon her. So, she made it short and simple.
When she fell against the wall and slid down to her seat, the woman had a brief moment of peace. The agony was such that she had almost been entirely numbed to it. In fact, all of her was becoming numb; her face, her fingers…
Boneless, she collapsed onto the cobbled path, and none lamented. Indeed, many walked past her. Three boys happened to be walking by. Members of the Bunch. They checked her for coin, lifted up her skirt and laughed at the liquid excrement pouring out of her. One of the boys shook her wrist, saw no response, and so he immediately started removing all of the expensive bits. A single ring on her left hand, but it was bejeweled, and there was a golden amulet draped about her neck, as well as a pair of pearl earrings that looked to be straight from the jeweler’s house.
They pocketed the jewels quickly, darting looks up and down the alley. Then, one of the boys, the brightest one, bent down to put a hand in front of her face. He felt no breath. “She’s a goner,” he whispered. He looked to the other boys. Smiled. “Let’s hurry, before someone else finds her an’ tells the crushers. If that happens, they might get the reward instead.”
“You really think we’ll get a reward?” asked another.
“I think so, yeah. A half-crown tip, at least.”
Another of the boys shook his head. “I dunno, mates. What if Wyne’s on duty today?”
“Oh, shut up, stop bein’ such a coward. Now c’mon, before some town crier gets wind o’ this.”
After the mention of crowns, the boys showed little reluctance. Nobody ever accused the Bunch of lacking industry.
As it turned out, the dying woman had been wrong. She hadn’t actually wound up back in South End, although she nearly had. Rather, she was in Midtown, where the march of progress clashed with the dregs’ tendency towards neglect and decay. Here, a stray finger of proper civilization had reached out from the main marketplace, as if to tease the downtrodden with a taste of the good life they would never know—which was probably why, in her delirious state, she had been so easily confused.
This was important because, though every death in a city had to have a death investigator sent out to determine exactly the cause of the passing, here there was a whole team at work. Whereas no great deal would’ve been made had the body been found in South End, two things brought Chief Inspector Donal Wyne and his deputies down with the death investigators. The first was the body’s position in Midtown, putting it on the border between chaos and order. Bedlam’s thane, Dorin Tome, had been under some pressure by the region’s ealdormen to ensure that no more Southender dregs encroached on North End. There would be no more tolerating the dregs. There would be no more regressing, only marching forward.
The second thing that brought them all down, and had them drawing a crowd, was the manner of the woman’s dress. She appeared stately and fine, a raven-haired beauty, with a black skirt to go with that dark hair. The skirt and the hair also matched in a different manner: both were in terrible disarray. The blouse was a deep navy blue, although its harmony was upset by the tearing at the midsection, which revealed a white underbust corset beneath with a black busk and blue stripes. The fingernails had been filed exactly, as had the toenails—one of the shoes had come off when she fell. The shoes, incidentally, were high-class platform heels.
She looks out of place, Inspector Wyne thought despairingly as he approached. A man with a hawk’s mistrustful face, bushy and inquisitive eyebrows, and the red-blonde beard of a lion, he loomed imposingly tall over most of the people in his acquaintance.
He sniffed the air. It smelled like stinking offal, but the closer one got to South End they could expect that odor regularly. Still, the recent heat, coupled with three days’ rain, brought about a severe humidity. It was getting on summer, and South End in summer was like a dead badger cooking in an oven.
The walls of the alley were peppered with graffiti, and some few posters declaring UNION WORKERS STRIKE, SPEAK FOR YOUR RIGHTS.
Wyne took out his handkerchief to wipe his brow of sweat. The three boys that had found the woman were being detained, along with a few others, by First Deputy Jared Karno. Some of the lookie-loos standing beyond the cordoned area were shouting, “Is it the sickness, Chief Inspector? Sir, can you tell us if it’s the sweating sickness? Do we have plague, sir? Is plague again upon us?”
He didn’t answer them.
When the boys turned and saw Wyne coming, they bowed their heads slightly and stood to one side of the alley. The Bunch knew him well, and he knew each of their faces. The band of youthful scallywags had a rueful alliance with him at times, favors and information being occasionally traded for scant coins, but should they lie to the inspector, or mislead him in any way, he was likely to toss them into a jail cell, or hand them over to an orphanage three towns away.
“Boys,” he said, standing in front of them and casting a shadow over all three. “What did you see?”
“Nothin’, sir,” said the biggest. His name was Tommy, and Wyne had known him for five years. The boy was getting very old now, almost fifteen. In only a couple more years he wouldn’t be of much use to the Bunch anymore. The Bunch worked as small-time pickpockets and snakesmen—that is, they squeezed in through tight places, such as windows or chimneys, to get at the desired valuables of an inn, restaurant, or household. Very soon now, Tommy would be too big to play with the runts, another loner on South End, latching on to the first big-timer in the rookery, perhaps working as a thug for the lenders, hunting down those who failed to pay and cracking the knees of defaulters. The natural progression for life in this kind of wilderness.
“You saw nothing,” said the inspector, wiping his brow again. “Nothing at all.”
“Just the dead lady, sir. We tol’ him you call Karno, but he won’t listen.”
“What else did you see besides the dead lady? Anyone suspicious?” The three boys shook their filthy heads. “No? Nothing at all? No one chasing this woman or hurting her?” Three more shaking heads. “You do know that if I catch you lot lying to me, I’ll have the lot of you in shackles.”
“Yes, sir,” they said in unison.
“Perhaps even on the rack, pulled by rope around your wrists and ankles, pulled apart until you snap in twain.”
They all nodded. The littlest one, Egg, he swallowed. “Yes, sir,” they said in unison. The middle-sized one, Hurley, he glanced up at Wyne, then quickly averted his gaze.
Wyne looked at First Deputy Karno and nodded, indicating that he should keep an eye on them, don’t let them go anywhere. Wyne passed by Jules and Tagga, the primary death investigators on duty that morning. They both had out their pads, and were walking around the alley, dipping quills into ink bottles hanging from their necks and assiduously taking notes. Bedloomtown was growing, as was its reputation. To maintain that boomtown status, they had to ensure the streets were clean, and that better records were kept of all major events. “Morning, boyos.”
“Chief Inspector,” they each said in turn.
“Tagga, how’s that wife of yours doing? Still pregnant?”
“She never was pregnant, sir.”
“Poor girl. If she’s going to look it, she might as well be it. Perhaps you can do something about that?”
“There’s a lad.” Wyne stepped over to the body, still lying face down. He wiped his neck of sweat, knelt, looked about at the pool of urine and liquid feces, wrinkled his nose at the odor and the flies gathered about it, then lifted the skirt enough to examine the legs. Garreth, his Second Deputy, was approaching from the other side of the body, where he’d been speaking with a small group of people, possible witnesses: a woman holding the hand of her daughter; a short, bald man in a tattered roughspun wool tunic carrying a pail of something in each hand; a white-cloaked man with a lute strapped across his back, his hood pulled back; and a woman, dressed in false fine garb, with a corset pressing her breasts up higher than propriety ought allow—A mother, a laborer, a bard, and a paike, Wyne assessed.
“I checked the neck good, sir,” said Garreth, grunting as he squatted next to his boss. He was a large man, growing larger each month. “No sign o’ ligature marks. She ain’t been strangled.”
Wyne lifted the woman’s hair all the same, examining the neck for himself before giving a nod of confirmation. Then he leaned forward and looked at the woman’s throat. “Looks a bit swollen.” Garreth gave a nod that he saw that, too. Down from the neck, Wyne spotted a bruise on her chest, just above the right breast line, between shoulder and collarbone. “She must’ve fallen hard here, maybe collided with something?”
“A few people we spoke to back at the marketplace said they saw her. Said she was staggering, slamming into things.”
Down further, to her corset, following the centerline busk, looking over the lacing. Something of note: Half of each lace looks worn, but the other half of each lace looks new. Recently gained weight?
The inspector pulled the hair fully away from her face. It was angelic in life, perhaps, but the ordeal of dying had distorted it. “Face is blue, going purple. Nobody strangled her, but she still choked.” Garreth nodded. Wyne felt down along the throat. “Nothing in her throat. Nothing substantial, anyway. And the bowel leakage…” He sighed. “I’d say the sweating sickness has returned, but I see no bleeding from nose or ears.” Another nod from Garreth. Again, something he’d already thought of. Then, Wyne spotted the paint on her callused fingers. He looked up, saw the large number painted on the wall, and asked, “Does that mean anything to you, Second Deputy?”
Garreth looked up at the icon on the wall, which apparently the woman had painted herself: it was the number 4. “No sir, Chief Inspector.”
Wyne looked around the alley. “We’re in Collegium territory. I’m surprised they haven’t stripped her of everything and left her naked.”
“Well, they may be an organized syndicate, but they’re not really scavengers, not like Riptide.”
“No.” The inspector put his hands on his knees, pushed himself up. “All right, make a report. No foul play. Have the morgue prepare to burn another one, just in case it is the sickness.” He glanced back up the alley, at the twenty or so lookie-loos that two other deputies were keeping at bay.
Damned creatures. Half of them probably ignored her pleas for help as she died, but now that she’s dead she gets all their attention. Damn them.
Wyne despised the casual way that commonfolk allowed one another die, and how, after death, they appeared so interested. Like shoppers ogling at a dress in a window.
Garreth produced his own handkerchief, wiped his brow. “What’s that make? Thirteen this month, sir?”
“Fourteen. They found one last night on the east shore of Split River.” The river was called such because it split Bedloomtown almost perfectly in half, and most of North End got the benefit of the river because it ran between all their major housing and market areas, supplying the freshest water. Until last night, there had been no confirmed cases of sweating sickness in North End. Wyne cringed inwardly to think of the panic another epidemic could cause, one like in the days just after the War. He sighed and said, “If there’s nothing else, Second Deputy…”
“No, sir. Well, sir…er…”
“There’s the bard, sir.”
“Yes, sir. The minstrel there.” Garreth pointed to the tall man among the group a few steps away.
The man wore all white, though it had all been dirtied from lack of wash. He wore loose-fitting breeches, a white tunic with long, loose sleeves, and a ranger’s cape, also white and filthy. The cape was draped over his right shoulder, reaching almost to the ground and giving him a regal air that was almost comical if the man wasn’t standing so confidently in it. He was a dark-skinned man of well-groomed, sandy-blonde hair, with an aquiline nose. He was clean-shaven, creating a dichotomy of character when compared to the rest of his unkempt status. The lute and its leather strap looked surprisingly new. The instrument shimmered in the morning sunlight, giving off a rich dark-red glimmer, which told Wyne that the wood had been treated by tung oil. The minstrel kept his hands in his pockets, and was looking about the alley in a detached sort of way, yet still managed to look alert.
But what Chief Inspector Wyne found most interesting was the sword sheathed at the bard’s left hip. He’d known many bards to use real and fake swords in their magic shows or in their storytelling. It added flare whenever flare was needed. Here, both sword and sheath looked new, but perhaps used? There were subtle tells that spoke to this—a slight lack of gleam on the pommel and handle, a chip on the hand guard, and a few too many scrapes to the sheath itself. At once, Wyne thought, Stolen. “So, what about him?”
“Sir,” Garreth said, “he gave testimony that the woman tripped over him as she ran, and that she appeared in a panic, glancing over her shoulder and muttering something.”
“That would align with the sickness. All of those afflicted have reported hallucinations.”
“Yes, sir. But the bard, sir, he says that the woman was talking about an eye?” This caught Wyne’s curiosity. “He said she repeated it over and over again, talking about ‘they’re everywhere’ or some such.”
Chief Inspector Wyne raised an eyebrow. “Bring him here,” he said.
“Yes, sir.” The second deputy turned on his heels and marched directly over to the bard, touched him on the elbow, and nodded towards the chief inspector. The bard nodded courteously, even gave an amiable smile, like they were old friends. When the bard approached, he stuck his hand out and his smile widened. He was beaming, like he expected this to be the beginning of a long and beautiful friendship.
Bloody showmen, Wyne thought, glancing down at the hand and dismissing it outright. “You, sir. You saw the woman die?”
“Yes. Er…eh…well no, Chief Inspector,” said the bard, glancing down at his proffered hand. Then, ever so slowly, he curled his fingers inward and put his hand back in his pocket. “Not die, exactly.”
“Then what did you see?” Wyne wiped his brow again, and then noticed that the bard didn’t appear to be sweating at all, despite his get-up.
“She stepped on me, sir, and walked right on over me. Gave me a start, you see.” He glanced down at the woman, and the smile died a quick death. “Poor girl. Such a lovely thing.”
“You told my deputy here that you heard her say something?”
The bard jolted, as if brought back from a deep reverie. “Hm? Oh! Yes, of course. Yes. Well, Chief Inspector, I did hear the woman say something about an eye. She said it a number of times, and kept saying ‘they’re everywhere.’ That’s all I heard, really.” Then, strangely, the bard’s smile returned, and he tilted his head to one side, raising an eyebrow like some scamp about to tell a bawdy joke, wondering who was around who might overhear. He leaned forward, and Wyne unconsciously leaned back. “If you don’t mind my saying so, Chief Inspector, I overheard you saying to your second deputy that this is the fourteenth victim of the sickness.”
“How did you hear that? You were twenty steps away and I made sure to speak in low tones because of all the lookie-loos.”
The bard colored, and took on that scamp’s look again. But this all looked rather rehearsed to Wyne. “You’ve caught me, Chief Inspector. Indeed, I’m an eavesdropper. I can read lips. Sorry, bit of a bad habit of mine. My mum always told me it was rude because people need to keep some secrets.” He winked. “But, it has certainly had its advantages. Think of the time I’ve saved in guessing what a woman was thinking about me!” He suddenly burst into laughter, startling Wyne and the other investigators. The bard appeared to see their discomfort, then stopped laughing, cleared his throat, and looked at the corpse again. “Poor, poor girl.”
Wyne looked the man up and down, giving him a reappraisal. Then, he leaned in and said, in a voice just above a whisper, “What is your name, friend?”
The bard didn’t move for a moment. He became a statue. Then, slowly, he took a step backwards and finally removed his hands from his pockets. And to beat all else, he held out his left hand, touched his right hand to his chest, and took a soft bow. “Cael the Enchanter, at your service, Chief Inspector.”
Hosts, save me.
Behind Wyne, the two death investigators snorted. Beside him, Garreth himself was fighting to suppress a smile. “A real dandy, this one,” the second deputy muttered.
The bard looked up. “And what if I am?”
The chief inspector cleared his throat. “Well, Cael the Enchanter, may I ask what business is it of yours what number this poor girl is in the death count?”
The bard put his hands back into his pockets and rose back to his full stature, and when he did, he appeared a foot taller. It took a moment for Wyne to realize it was only because the man’s chest looked a bit…fuller. The shoulders more squared. The chin jutted out in a gentle but suggestive dare. A gallant pose. Doubtless, a pose rehearsed in front of countless mirrors and crowds.
“I can see that I’ve overstepped my bounds,” the bard said. “I’ve presumed too much. Of course, you are the chief inspector of this burgeoning jewel of a city, and I shouldn’t want to upset you. Neither should I be eavesdropping among professionals who do not like their eaves dropped. I prostrate myself before you and beg your forgiveness.”
Wyne rolled his eyes. “That won’t be necessary,” he said, turning and waving to Garreth to follow him out of the alley.
“Incidentally, sir, don’t you want to know who she is?” said the bard.
The chief inspector stopped dead in his tracks, spun. “What?”
“Her name. Don’t you want to know?”
“Do you know her?”
“No, I admit.”
“Then what business is it of yours what her name is?”
“It’s not, but it is your business,” the bard said helpfully.
“Make sense, Mister Cael. And speak plainly.”
The bard sighed, and then took on a more relaxed posture. His left hand rested on the pommel of his sword, and Wyne never missed it. He watched it carefully, giving the man another new appraisal. “The girl’s identity,” said the bard.
“Do you know it or not?”
“No, but I think I can find out.”
“You really don’t see it?”
“You saw it already,” said the bard enigmatically. “I read it on your lips—sorry, but I did. You made comment of the evidence to your second deputy here, but you misinterpreted that evidence. That is, I mean no offense, and you certainly seem to me to be a man of great, eh, perspicacity?” the bard hastened to add. “And it is obvious that you are an honorable and litigious man—”
“You use big words,” said Garreth.
“Is it a problem?”
“It is for me. I don’t like people who don’t speak plainly.”
“Blame my mother. A real stickler for vocabulary, she was. Always slapping me on the bottom for forgetting. Usually while I was naked. She was big on humiliation as a form of teaching. She once let the two girls next door watch because she knew I fancied both of them—”
“I’ll have her name now,” Wyne cut in.
“What, my mother’s? I don’t see what relevance—”
“The girl,” Wyne cut in, baring his teeth. “Her name.”
“Oh…right, well, as I said, I don’t know her name, but I can tell you she is—was—a capable violinist, probably well-versed over her life. She was left-handed and was born in upper-class society, a Northender all the way, though recently she’s been taking infrequent trips to South End,” the bard said, offering a friendly smile. “She’s most likely been seeing a male admirer from South End for no more than three months now, probably a man who gets into lots of trouble, likes to see her in fancy dress, and has already professed his love. She’s been an outcast all her life, most likely a prodigy, highly intelligent, yet still susceptible to the allure of a dangerous love. She recently gained a bit of weight, and she had just come from South End before she died, and that’s likely where she was poisoned.”
“Poisoned?” said Garreth.
“How can you possibly know all that?” said Wyne.
“Are you mad?” said Garreth.
“No,” said the bard. “No! No. No, no, no. A bit, yeah.” He smiled.
Wyne took a step towards him. “Who are you?”
The bard’s smile softened, became even more genuine, the sort you’d accept in lieu of a badge or a decent excuse if he wanted in your front door. The chief inspector’s mistrust grew by fathoms. “My full name is Cael Namold. Former inspector myself in the city of Lor Kar some years back, though I never had the pleasure to rise to such ranks as chief inspector.”
“You were a lawman?” said Garreth, incredulous. He made a face, looked the bard over. “But look at you, you’re a—”
“Man with enviable looks and overwhelming charm, yes, I know, it’s quite maddening sometimes. But it actually lends itself to being a bard. You cannot lack for clarity, charm, wit, and an extensive vocabulary—it would make for a most ineffectual bard. You’re not just a musician, you’re a storyteller, a dreamweaver. You’d be surprised what it takes to learn the various arts. I’ve come a long way from Lor Kar to grace this fair city with song and tale—”
“How?” said Wyne.
“How? How? The man asks how. Well, I can tell you, you don’t just join any old bards college you like! There’s private practices and mentoring that can take years before you can finally gain acceptance into a school for—”
“I meant, how do you know all that about the dead woman?” Wyne said, becoming impatient. The day was growing hotter, beads of sweat were pooling under his shirt, and he had little time for the bandying of words. The chief inspector took a step closer to the man. “Make no play with me, bard, for you tread on thin ice here. If you know something, say it. Otherwise, save your juvenile banter and foolishness for those at the tavern who fling coppers at you, probably more to silence you than anything else.”
Garreth snorted out a laugh, wiped his brow and shook the handkerchief, as if to wipe himself clean of the bard’s nonsense.
Wyne watched the man carefully. The bard, to his credit, never flinched. Indeed, he was the very definition of a statue. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. When he opened his eyes again, there was a clarity there that was hard to define. The smile was gone, as was all humor. It was now a man standing before Wyne, no more a punster, no longer playing the fool, but a shrewd-eyed hawk who now looked upon all he saw with near derision. Chief Inspector Wyne was made uncomfortable to see such transformation.
“The bruise you saw between her right shoulder and collarbone was no impact bruise,” the bard began. “If it were, it would be much darker, and with clearer definition. That vague or cloudy look it has demonstrates only that it was something that happened a considerable while before her death. Now, I’m a minstrel and so I happen to have some knowledge of that specific shape, and I witnessed the death of many musicians when I was an inspector, and that deep bruising is something that is left there from constant pressure over a lifetime, rarely ever surfacing until the soul finally slips loose its mortal coil.” He looked at Garreth, and clarified, “Death.”
The second deputy snarled. “Don’t talk down to me—”
“There were calluses on her right hand,” said Wyne. “I did notice those.”
The bard nodded. “Left there from holding the strings over years, then,” he said. “So, violinist is looking good. And a lifetime of putting the instrument against her body left the deep bruise, which only surfaced when she died. It’s on her right side, which means she was left-handed. Now, violinists play with their strong hand, almost always their right, while resting the left side of their jaw on the chinrest. But this girl’s different, a prodigy, like I said, and has always been an outcast. Left-handed people often have a difficult time of it—their parents and teachers are always trying to force them to be right-handed, and for reasons we still don’t understand, it almost always makes them behave abnormally—left-handed people develop stutters, stammers, difficulty reading—all of which of course has always ignited superstition that left-handed people are somehow possessed, but that’s beside the point. She was an outcast, that is the point.”
“You said she was seeing a troublemaker from South End—”
“Getting to that. Look at her manner of dress. Take in the fact that she can afford violin lessons. She’s obviously from North End or else she couldn’t afford such things, but, being an outcast, if any Northender was ever going to fall in love with a Southender it would be her. Look at the bottom of her skirt, the bottom of her shoes, both filthy. Her admirer likes her in fancy dress, and she’s obviously naïve to the world and has only made infrequent trips to South End, or else she would’ve learned by now how to blend in—by that I mean she wouldn’t be dressed like this, she would be dressed down.”
“And the recent weight gain?” said Chief Inspector Wyne, now unable to stop the grin from forming on his face. He believed he knew what was going on with this bard. “The laces?”
“Of course the laces, what else?”
“The laces?” asked Garreth.
“You’re very thick,” Cael the Enchanter said. “I can tell I wouldn’t like you under any circumstances. Yes, Second Deputy, the laces. Half of each lace looks new, while half of each lace looks worn. Meaning she used to wear it one size, and now she has to let it out a bit more. Meaning she recently gained weight, which incidentally only lends to the theory that she had a male suitor somewhere.”
“Why’s that necessarily so?”
“People unilaterally gain weight once they’ve entered into a relationship. A steady relationship. Which means he’s told her he loves her, or at least done enough to display such affections. Therefore, she’s been seeing him for no more than three months. Just enough time to start gaining some weight, but not enough time for her to be savvy to the notion of dressing down. Remember, she’s an oddball, left-handed and outcast, and most likely a prodigy, and what’s common sense for us is often missed by prodigies like her. Wide-eyed and innocent, she entered into South End not knowing what was waiting for her.” He shrugged. “However, the weight gain might also be due to pregnancy. If so, and if the woman was with child, it only makes the case stronger for a lover.”
Garreth shrugged. “She might’ve borrowed the corset from a skinnier sister.”
“A woman that wealthy? She’s never had to borrow anything in her entire life.”
Wyne couldn’t help it anymore. He grinned. “And the poison?”
“The clawing she did at her stomach. The sweating sickness eventually swells the throat, true, but why aren’t there claw marks around her neck? Why only at her stomach?” The bard shrugged. “There ought to be, if it came on her slowly, as they say the sweating sickness does. This swelling…” He mulled something over, then shook his head. “It happened fast. She was fighting at something inside her belly. An agony. Something she literally wanted to rip from her stomach. Ergo, poisoned. Whether intentionally or otherwise, now there’s a fine mystery. Knave that her admirer was, though, I wouldn’t be surprised.” The bard sighed heavily, and looked over at the corpse. “Gods, it must’ve felt like a raging boar was tearing through her stomach.” He shrugged. “But there are still two problems nagging at me—”
“This is nonsense,” said Garreth. “Chief Inspector, how can this man just say all o’ this and still be credible? You’re not actually listening to him, are you?”
“You’ve read A Treatise on Demonstrable Truth, haven’t you?” said Wyne.
“I have,” said Cael the Enchanter. “As well as Meditations in Logic and Reason, and The Book of Ratiocination, and The Mind Grounded in Reason, and many more of Grandmaster Parsana’s tomes on logic.”
Wyne nodded slowly. “One last thing. Just so I know I’m not being conned, you understand. Can you recite Parsana’s Oath?” The bard smiled. He leaned in, whispered in Wyne’s ear, then stepped back. “Well now, it’s a privilege to meet one of the few in our worthy Brotherhood.”
“Well, it’s good to know advances in detection are still being made the world over. For a time, I saw only such practices in Lor Kar, nowhere else.”
“We’re catching up,” the chief inspector permitted. “But we still lack any real inspectors or forensic men. We don’t even have a decent morgue. Though, I’ve been assured they’re building one up soon. We’ll see how that goes. We still need a decent mortician and autopsist—our senior mortician is one of those that was taken by the sweating sickness.”
The bard made a face. “Was he now?”
Wyne looked down at the bard’s pockets. “So, a scholar of the Grandmaster. That’s why you keep your hands in your pockets. Helps resist the temptation to touch things at a scene.”
“Another of Grandmaster Parsana’s instructions,” the bard confirmed.
Garreth shook his head. “But…but why didn’t you just say who you were? Why all o’ this bard business?”
The bard smiled. “Like the Grandmaster’s Method, the performance is a commitment. You don’t always just turn it on and off at will. Besides,” he added, stepping between them and walking to the other end of the alley, towards all the other lookie-loos, “it helps me to survive.”
The bard’s smile wavered, and he cast a brief glance at the dead girl. “The darkness,” he said. “You might also search the three lads more thoroughly, Chief Inspector. Judging by the indentations on the poor woman’s fingers, I have a feeling they’ve rooked her jewelry.”
“Hold on!” called Wyne, wiping his neck. “Where are you going? I’d like to talk to you some more. You know, compare notes? I may even want to offer you a job. You know, we are short-staffed. The city’s growth is outpacing our ability to police it—”
“I don’t think so, Chief Inspector. Though, if you ever want to talk, head to South End. I play every night at The Open Casket.”
“Are you any good?”
“Better than I ever was at inspecting.”
Chief Inspector Donal Wyne laughed, and started to turn back to the body when something else occurred to him. He hollered, “Oy! You said there’s still two problems nagging at you. What are they?”
The bard called back, “The eye, Chief Inspector. She said ‘they’re everywhere,’ as in plural. But she also said ‘eye,’ which is singular. It’s those kinds of things that vex me. That, and the number four.” He pointed to the painted message as he went by it, kept walking, disappeared around the next corner, and left them to it.