Saturday, November 29, 2008

Fiction: Observer's Sight

There was a corpse sprawled in the center of the courtyard, its skin pale with the dust of snow, its dark black hair tangled in a terrible mass underneath its head. Rivulets of red ran ragged from the corners of its eyes and mouth, long frozen into a dirty patch of blood beneath the body. Were it not for the lightless eyes, the exsanguinated skin, or the unlikelihood of the scene, Keldar would have thought that the victim merely wished to enjoy the splendors of winter.

"She's dead," Bruni observed.

Keldar knelt next to the body, his boots rasping against the new-fallen snow at his feet. "Really, now," he said. "How could you tell?"

It would have been a humored response under more pleasant circumstances, but these were rather far from pleasant circumstances. Here was a dead noblewoman — and not just any noblewoman, but a cousin of the crown prince — lying in the courtyard of the royal estate, staring up at the sky as though it gave some clue to her murderer.

Bruni pulled her robes a little tighter around herself. "Your sarcasm is lost upon me," she said.

"It was a mere trifle," Keldar said. The big man pulled a dagger from its oiled sheath, making a whistling sound as it cut through the air. He prodded the body once or twice on the shoulder, pressed the blade against the skin of the dead woman's neck, and then held its mirrored edge against the side of her nostrils. When he received no response, he stuck the weapon into the dirt beside him.

"She's dead," he concluded.

"I just said that, did I not?" Bruni asked.

"Yes, but now we're sure. You can't very well go fishing in people's heads if they haven't departed this mortal coil just yet."

She laid one surprisingly firm hand on his shoulder then, and he immediately got the message. Bruni was subtle that way; it was almost as though she was brushing him aside, and he dutifully moved out of the way.

Bruni knelt, not minding her robes as they brushed upon the snow, and gently placed both hands on the sides of the corpse's head. She shook her hair free of her white hood, and closed her eyes. There was a short pause, then a long pause, and then a strange celestial music that filled the air. Keldar could feel the hairs rising on the back of his neck.

Finally, she opened her eyes. She shook her head once, as though to free it from the mind of the woman who had so recently become deceased.

Keldar helped her stand up. "See anything interesting?" he asked.

"Not much," Bruni said. "She has not been dead long, perhaps an hour or less. I could not glean much from her eyes. She never saw her attacker, Keldar — I only saw the same courtyard of white that she saw, then felt the sharpest of pains across her back. Afterwards it seemed as though she simply lost the strength to stand, and fell forward onto the snow."

Keldar leaned over the body. "Which means that someone rolled her over," he said. "Probably to make sure she was dead."

The magistrate took hold of one cold arm, then heaved the unresponsive mass of flesh onto a face-down position. From there, the two investigators could clearly see the stab wounds on the back of her dress. As Bruni demurely stepped out of the way, Keldar counted four such entrance wounds.

"That explains all the blood," Keldar mused. "Whoever did this had a grudge, but not to the point where he was willing to keep hacking at a corpse. Most likely our lady here went down with far less stabs than was expected, after which the perpetrator had to check and see if she was really dead."

Bruni only pulled her hood back over her face. "Perhaps," she said.

Keldar raised an eyebrow. "It's called 'logic'," he said. "You might want to try that sometime."

"You are the magistrate, Keldar. I am merely a Searcher, one who tells you what the dead see."

Keldar sighed. "While I do appreciate what assistance the dead can give me, Bruni," he said, "there's a lot more to the task than just reading the situation."

"Then tell me, Keldar... what is next for us?"

"I'm told that the lady had a daughter," Keldar said, scratching the side of his head. "I'm sure that she would have some interesting information for us."


"I know nothing, Lord Keldar," she said.

Keldar frowned. Here she was, a girl of about seventeen or eighteen harvests, with long blonde hair that contrasted sharply against her mother's raven-black locks. He remembered the tangles of dark hair against the white blanket of snow in the courtyard, and tried to place her there.

"You didn't see or hear anything?" Keldar asked.

"No," the daughter said. "I was inside for the whole morning, dusting the bedchambers as she had ordered me to do."

Keldar glanced at Bruni, who hovered near the door. She looked peaceful there, with her long white gown and the hood that she drew up just short of her eyes. The daughter knew perfectly well that she was a Searcher, one of many who was assigned to the city magistrates, for he had mentioned it to her in no uncertain terms.

That was exactly why he found her suspicious. She was constantly looking over his shoulder and glancing at his white-clad companion, far more often than any other ordinary person would do.

The daughter was conducting herself remarkably well for a suspect under Keldar's scrutiny. She answered his questions in a calm and clear voice, she had a convenient reason to be somewhere else for the entire morning, and she was in a position where the servants were certain that she was at least somewhere within the manor house.

"I know that you can't do that," the daughter said.

Keldar turned his attention back to the girl. "Do what?" he asked.

"Get her to read my mind."

Keldar gave her a puzzled look, and then sighed after a while. It was a remarkably peasant superstition, the way they thought that the Searchers could do such things. Some of the people he had interviewed had assumed that Bruni could fly, grow claws, or do other things that only existed within the realms of the fantastic. Keldar was more than a little surprised to see this sort of opinion in the daughter of a noblewoman, least of all a niece of the crown prince.

"I assure you, good lady," Bruni said quietly, "that I will not do such a thing."

"Well, then, how do I know that you're not reading my thoughts right now?" the daughter asked, angrily pointing at her.

"Such an act requires a ritual," Bruni said. "And under these circumstances, the ritual is altogether against the teachings of my goddess."

Keldar groaned inside. He had been counting on the intimidation factor to pry a few more words out of the obstinate daughter. Now that plan had been torn to shreds by his partner's honesty.

"You swear?" the daughter asked.

"By my heart, my mind, and my soul," Bruni answered.

"Good," Keldar said, taking the girl's arm and pulling it aside. "Now I—"

He stopped all of a sudden, seeing the pained expression on her face.

"Are you all right?" he asked her.

"Yes," she hissed. "Yes," she said again, after a few moments.

Keldar gently took the girl's arm, then slowly pulled back the sleeve to reveal a short series of bruises there, most along the edges of her wrist. For another moment, nobody could speak.

"That's interesting," Keldar said. The short period of silence afterwards was punctuated by the sound of his sword being drawn.

The girl staggered back at the sight of the naked blade. "What?" she asked.

"My dear," Keldar said, "I am sorry to tell you that you are under arrest."

"Me? Why me?" the daughter asked.

"Because you killed your mother," Keldar said, as though that was the most obvious thing in the world. Behind him, Bruni cleared her throat calmly, and began walking around the room.

"But... you have no proof!"

"The bruises make for good motive," Keldar said. "You mother wasn't an overly nice woman, as I'm certain the servants will be able to tell. She was pulling you around, forcing you to do things that you didn't want to do. I'm not certain about the details there, but I'm certain that the story will check out."

"So?" the girl asked. "Everybody knew that my mother wasn't a good person! She was a saintly one whenever she went to the temple quarter, but she was a shrill witch in the privacy of our house! But that's no proof!"

"No," Keldar said, "although I find myself wondering how you could have been dusting the bedchambers with those bruises around your good hand."

And suddenly there was silence. By now, Bruni had crossed the room to remain behind the noblewoman's daughter, cutting off her escape there.

"I assumed that your mother collapsed from either the third or the fourth time that you stabbed her in the back," Keldar explained, "and that was why she bled herself dry in the courtyard outside. But then I realized that you could have just as easily stopped your assault once she was face-down in the snow, because your arm would have probably been hurting like the devil by then."

"You don't know that!" the daughter cried out.

"I expect that we will, eventually," Keldar said. "The murder weapon would be more than useful at this point, but I'm certain that you didn't have much time to hide it in the last hour. A careful search of the grounds should turn it up."

"You don't even know if I was outside!"

At that, Keldar pointed at the hem of the unfortunate girl's dress. It was of the long and folded sort, the kind which brushed against the floor as she moved... and it was wet.

"There's a lot of snow outside," Keldar said, in response to the horrified expression on her face.

The girl turned, expecting to find a convenient exit behind her, only to realize that Bruni was already there. The Searcher had one hand outstretched, palm splayed towards her, and the noblewoman's daughter almost comically walked into the surface of her pale skin.

There was a slight period of silence, a moment where the hairs on the back of Keldar's neck suddenly stood on end once again... and the daughter slumped unconscious to the floor of the room.

Keldar sheathed his sword, at which Bruni gave him a critical look.

"You did not have to use your weapon," she said.

"It worked, though," he admitted.

"And," Bruni added, "you did not have to be so dramatic."

"Look at it this way," Keldar said. "At least she now knows that not all of the things they say about you are mere superstition."


Keldar stepped out of the gates of the royal estates and sniffed at the air. It was going to snow again, he was sure, and it was going to happen within the next few hours or so.

Beside him, Bruni pulled her robes a little tighter around herself. Keldar glanced at her.

"Aren't you ever warm?" he asked.

"Are you never quiet?" she asked back.

He opened his mouth to answer her, snapped it shut, and then opened it again without saying anything. Then he laughed.

Bruni gave him a curious look. "Was that funny?" she asked.

"No, no... it was just..." Keldar laughed, and shook his head.

"I fear that I shall never understand you, Keldar. You may not serve the goddess as my sisters and I do, but you seem to have more than a few of her natural gifts."

"I just have a task to do, Bruni. It teaches me everything that I need to learn."

"And shall I learn these lessons as well?" Bruni asked.

Keldar smiled. "As long as you know how to observe, and how to listen well, then I can teach you what you learn."

They walked on for a bit. Suddenly Bruni laughed, and although it was a gleeful, honest laugh, it surprised the magistrate enough for his hair to stand on end even without benefit of magic.

"What was that for?" he asked.

"I thought I would try it out," Bruni said. "It is... quite exhilarating, is it not?"

Keldar smiled. "You learn fast," he said.

No comments: