Black Gate Online Fiction: “A Phoenix in Darkness” — Part I

Black Gate Online Fiction: “A Phoenix in Darkness” — Part I

By Donald S. Crankshaw

This is a complete work of fiction presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of Donald S. Crankshaw and New Epoch Press, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2012 by New Epoch Press.

Chapter I: The Murder

Quian’s serf village spilled out of the city’s grim walls like rotten apples from an overturned basket. The city gate, an iron-bound door barely wide enough to accommodate a cart, opened up to a snarl of muddy pathways through the weather-worn hovels. These paths converged on the far side of the village to form a road, which dead-ended at a manor house a few miles later. Though the king owned the manor, the village, and the fields surrounding them, he rarely visited, and left it to his steward to oversee them. The steward was very efficient when it came to numbers, but took little interest in the people whose work those numbers represented. Thus the serfs were mostly left to themselves in their small, forgotten part of Manuel’s capital. Important people with important business generally avoided village and manor house both.

Someone important was visiting the village that day, a man wrapped head to foot in a black robe. A pocket of emptiness traveled with him as roughly-dressed serfs scrambled to keep their distance, their eyes carefully averted. A leper might have caused the same reaction. Only one person watched the Dominus with any interest.

Seth was a large young man, with a square face topped by a shock of sandy blond hair. He leaned against the gray wood of one of the serf’s homes, his arms crossed as he looked on. The white tabard he wore over a long shirt of chain armor was emblazoned with a crimson hawk with outstretched wings, marking him as one of the City Guard. The longsword across his back was enough to warn off most of those who would test the armor. He was a proficient swordsman and ready to use his weapon if needed, but it would do little good against the man he watched. Seth had followed the black-robed man here expecting that he meant to cause mischief, as Domini always did. His superiors would have told him to mind his own business, but Seth had not asked them. He did not expect to be able to stop the Dominus, but he hoped to expose some of the mystery in which the Order cloaked itself. For the most part, the Domini kept to themselves, hiding in their towers and rarely speaking to anyone when they came out. While rumor told of myriad misfortunes they caused with their strange powers, no one had ever caught them in the act. Seth’s ambition to catch this Dominus in some misdeed had faltered when he lost him in the village this morning, and only now, well past noon and on his way back, had he found him again. What had he been up to all day?

A worn woman wearing a bonnet and a dark brown skirt stepped inside the emptiness around the man in black, approaching him from behind. The Dominus continued toward the gate, walking neither fast nor slow, oblivious to the woman’s hurried approach even when she produced a dagger from within the folds of her skirt. She held the dagger with expert ease, positioned for an upward thrust. It was no carving knife, but a narrow, sturdy weapon with a needle-sharp point, a stiletto such as an assassin might use. Seth pushed himself away from the wall he leaned against, shouting “Stop!” The Dominus paused and turned his head in the direction of the cry, but Seth’s concern was for the clearly suicidal woman rather than the Dominus.

She didn’t seem to notice Seth, who had closed half the distance at a dead run while she positioned her knife behind the Dominus’s head. At the same moment, the Dominus lifted his arm, his deep sleeve falling back to reveal a shadowy hand pointing in Seth’s direction, and Seth knew he was going to die by some arcane magic. He opened his mouth to yell “Wait!” even though he was certain he’d be dead before he could offer an explanation, but he never got the word out. The Dominus went rigid, his outstretched hand — more distorted darkness than flesh — splaying open, and then he collapsed without a sound, pulling free of the dagger which the woman had driven into the back of his neck. In his surprise, Seth stumbled and went sprawling in the mud, his wind leaving him in a great burst.

He looked up, spitting dirt, to see the woman holding a dagger now smeared with blood. Without a trace of hesitation, she lifted the dagger to her neck and pressed the hard edge against the side of her throat. In one fluid motion she pulled it down and across. The dagger cut the artery cleanly, and blood spewed out in a spray, followed by another, and another, as her heart continued to pump. She stood wobbling on her feet for a few moments, the knife still gripped tightly in her hand, which had dropped to her side. Then, even as Seth pulled himself to his feet against the drag of his chain armor, the woman’s legs folded and she went to her knees. A moment later, as blood turned her once white bodice an ugly shade of crimson, she tumbled over into Seth’s outstretched arms. By this time the blood had begun to slow, the supply depleted, and Seth just knelt in the red mud as he helplessly held the dying woman. He thought she might have been attractive once, although hard times had worn much of the flesh from her face. The strands of light brown hair which had escaped the bonnet were still untouched by gray, although the tips of the longest strands were dipped in red. Seth watched her as she died, her eyelids drooping closed over blank eyes and a last breath sighing from her lips. He gently laid her down in the mud and stood up, barely sparing a glance for his stained surcoat, where the red hawk’s tail now merged with a larger red splotch. Seth left ruddy hand-shaped smears on the clean upper part of his surcoat as he tried to wipe the blood off while fighting to control his rising gorge. The stunning manner of the woman’s death made him feel nauseous. His heart continued to race, uncertain that the horrible incident was over.

He had paid no attention to the Dominus, aside from noticing that he still lay on the ground. He looked at him now, at his back, at the hole in the neck of his robe where blood dribbled off the black fabric and onto the ground. Seth knew what he was seeing, but he still had to convince himself that it was less likely for a Dominus to lie face-down in the mud than that he really was dead from a simple knife to the back of the neck. Seth had assumed that the Dominus had forced the woman to cut her own artery, but staring at the dead creature, Seth realized that he would have had to seek revenge from beyond the grave. Eän help me, maybe he did.

He glared around the mostly empty streets, where a few of the bolder serfs were creeping back into view. First came the children unmonitored by any adult who could hold them back. Some of those stared wide-eyed at the bodies before them, while a few cried openly, others turn and ran, and still others lost interest and simply wandered off. Any kid living here had seen death before, Seth figured. Usually not as bloody and spectacular, but who could say this was worse than the slow and merciless work of disease and hunger? Some adults appeared next, women and old men. They had much the same reaction as the children, although most had too much dignity to turn and run without making a show of disinterest first.

He called to them, “I’m a guardsman!” His bloody surcoat should tell them that much. “Someone needs to go to the gatehouse and get help.” Most of them averted their eyes; a few attempted to make a quick escape.

“You!” He pointed to a middle-aged woman who had not only stood her ground but boldly met his eyes.

“Yes… sir?” she said. Her simple gray dress was unremarkable, although Seth thought the material looked finer than what most of the other serfs wore. Her long dark hair, marred with strands of white, framed a face whose skin was so pale that it was almost translucent. Seth wondered whether she had some illness.

“Go to the gatehouse and tell them what happened. Have them find the captain; he needs to come himself.” Seth figured the guardsmen would be more likely to believe her than any of the children, while she’d move faster than any of the old men. “Wait!” he said as she turned to go. “First… do you know this woman?”

She looked at the dead woman and shook her head; her hard eyes did not soften. “I’ve never seen her before.” She turned her back on Seth as she headed for the gate.

One of the old men stumbled forward, just managing to catch himself on his cane. He turned his head to glare at the man who had been standing behind him, who was now shuffling behind a small gaggle of women.

“Did you know her, sir?” Seth asked.

The old man beamed at the respectful address, showing his few remaining teeth, then stood as straight as his bent back would allow. Seth supposed it was the first time he had been called “sir” by a guardsman. Clearing his throat, he said, “Aye… aye I did, Sir Guardsman. We all did.” His glance included all those standing close by, who nodded and murmured in agreement.

“You all did? What about that woman?” Seth nodded his head in the direction his messenger had gone.

The old man rolled his shoulders uncomfortably, his wrinkled face twisting into a frown. “This is a small place here, y’see. We all know one another, sure enough. But while I know — knew — Lilah here, I have no idea who that other woman was.”

Seth frowned. The pale woman’s clothes had seemed off, and she hadn’t acted like a serf at all. He’d have to question her when she got back.

“Tell me about Lilah,” Seth said.

“What is there to tell? She has a husband — working out in the king’s fields right now — and kids. There’s only a son and a daughter these days.”

“What happened to the others?”

“They’re dead.” The old man said it so casually that it struck Seth just how common dying kids were around here. “One was a little lass, a couple of years old, when she was lost, and Lilah had a boy who died only a few days after his birth. Just last year, she lost another lad when the Domini took him.”

And that explained it. Of all the misdeeds the Domini were suspected of, the worst was that they stole children. They were never caught in the act, but who could doubt it, when they showed up to examine boys when they came of age and many of them vanished that same night? The mother had lost her son, the latest in a long line of lost children, so when the opportunity had come for revenge, she had taken it, killing the Dominus and then herself.

“Did you think she might do something like this? When did you last talk to her?”

“I hadn’t spoken to her for a couple of weeks, y’see.” He shook his head vigorously enough to set his wild white hair whipping from side to side. “Perhaps ya should speak to her neighbor, Miriam.” He looked around. “I guess she’s not here. Can we bury poor Lilah?”

“Later,” Seth said. “After we’ve had a chance to examine the body.” He stood there, smelling of blood, as the awkward silence lengthened. The people just stared at the bodies and at him, while he stared only at the bodies. He had asked all the questions he could think of and small talk wasn’t appropriate. There was some muted discussion among the serfs, and a few of the women and children sobbed. So did some of the old men, although they fought harder to hide it. At least a quarter of an hour passed before three guardsmen arrived, one of them the captain. The pale woman wasn’t with them.

Captain Micah was taller than Seth, taller than any man there. He was slender and quick, a masterful swordsman and a quick wit whose sharp gray eyes could spot trouble with uncanny ease. He kept his red hair and beard in good order, but not too good, lest he seem a dandy. He knew he was the highest authority most folk would ever meet, and he did his best to represent the king’s laws. The captain wasted no time taking charge of the situation. He got a full report from Seth, then had the guardsmen move people away from the scene as he set about interrogating anyone who had seen what had happened, following their accounts of the murder with questions about Lilah and the Dominus’s activities. It embarrassed Seth that he had not asked what the Dominus had been doing, his original purpose in following him having been forgotten in the aftermath of the murder. It seemed like no one really knew anyway. The Dominus had spoken to a number of the serfs, but not only would no one admit to being one of those interviewed, they all pretended not to know with whom the Dominus had met. Micah was not pleased by this lack of cooperation.

As fascinating as Seth found his captain’s investigation, he was distracted by the arrival of four newcomers. One of these, a guardsman named Jacob, was practically dragging a Philosopher behind him. The Philosophers’ University was the greatest center of learning in the world, where only men and women who followed the Philosophy, rejecting all gods but knowledge, were privy to the highest level of education. Those so trained were willing to offer their skills to the uninitiated for a price, some portion of which no doubt went back to the University. Despite the distaste that the Manuelites had for the godless Philosophers, their skills were highly useful. This one was a physician, judging by his brown robe with its three black stripes at the hem and the cuffs of his sleeves, trained to diagnose injury, disease, and, in this case, cause of death. He was a distinguished-looking gentleman, his salt-and-pepper hair and beard neatly trimmed. He looked grim as he knelt to examine the woman, earning grudging respect from Seth for being willing to ruin his robe with the red muck. The other two newcomers were Domini. Their black robes hid all features, although one was a head taller than his companion, taller than Seth as well, though still shorter than the captain. While the Philosopher examined the fallen woman, they knelt beside the dead Dominus.

The serfs reacted to the Domini in an unusual manner. While some slipped away quietly and more kept their eyes averted, a few glared at the black-robed creatures. One woman even shouted, “Have ya come to kill us too?” For a moment it seemed that there would be more yelling as a muttering began to build, but one of the Domini lifted his head to gaze at the crowd from within his faceless hood, and they fell silent as if he had stolen their voices.

When the Domini were done examining their fallen brother, they moved over to Lilah’s body. The Philosopher, who was looking into Lilah’s empty eyes, said, “Don’t touch the body.” The taller Dominus responded, “We don’t need to.” They hadn’t touched the body of their comrade either. Instead, they knelt near the woman, just looking at her, before they leaned their heads together. Seth had drifted close enough that he could make out the words.

“Well?” said the short one.

“I can’t see anything. You?”

“I thought I saw, uh, something. But if it was there, it’s faded by now.”

When they came to their feet, Seth noticed that their robes were somehow clean of the red muck they had been kneeling in. They approached the captain, and those serfs nearby shrank back. So did Jacob and Seth.

“Tell us what happened,” the tall one said.

“Talk to Seth,” Captain Micah replied, nodding in his direction. “He saw everything.”

They turned toward Seth, who for a moment just stared into their hoods wondering why he couldn’t see their faces. Their hoods weren’t that deep, yet somehow all he could see were shadows. He tried to tell them they should talk to the serfs, but the Domini just stared at him silently until he broke down and told them everything: what he had seen and what he had learned from the villagers. The Domini continued to look at him, even when he ran out of things to say and clamped his mouth shut. He glared back at them, ruining the effect by fidgeting a little.

The Philosopher saved him from further silent interrogation when he came to his feet and approached the body of the fallen Dominus. The short one heard his movement and turned his head just as the Philosopher knelt next to the corpse. “No!” the Dominus said. “We will deal with the body.”


“I said we would deal with it,” he repeated. The Philosopher frowned, but before he could say anything more, the body in front of him vanished.

The remaining crowd gave a collective gasp, punctuated by a few startled cries. Many took this as a sign that they had already stayed too long and fled. Seth felt his own mouth hanging open, while the Philosopher scrambled backwards, falling onto his rear, where he looked much less dignified. Looking at the ground where the body had lain, Seth thought that something was wrong, as if it were distorted somehow. The Domini moved to flank the spot.

“We will contact you should we need further information, Captain, Guardsman Seth,” the shorter one said. Then they started toward the city gate and their tower, walking slowly in single file. For just a moment, Seth thought he saw the air shimmer within the six feet separating them.

Moving a dead body unnoticed through the crowded streets of Quian was a challenging task, even for two Domini. Nathan and Aulus walked single file, six feet and Mowa’s body between them. Aulus kept the body floating a few feet above the ground while Nathan kept it hidden. The illusion was imperfect, however, and anyone who looked closely might notice a slight shimmering of the empty air between them. They had to trust to people’s natural fear of Domini to keep their feet and their eyes away. Even then, they moved slowly and carefully avoided those who lacked the usual fear their kind engendered, namely children and animals. Once a small girl, maybe four, nearly darted between them before her terrified mother, wide eyes on the two black-robed strangers, caught her by the collar and began giving her a scolding which set her crying. Nathan let his breath out in relief, then gave a low, grim chuckle when he realized that he was more afraid of the girl and the mischief she’d cause than she was of him.

When they reached the paved square near the center of the city, the traffic grew even heavier. To the north, vigilant sentries from the Palace Guard watched over gates leading through a limestone wall to the palace itself. The walled palace shared the square with the vaulted Manuelite Temple, the colonnaded and domed courthouse, the low, blocky barracks of the City Guard, and other public buildings. Right in the midst of those buildings, like a finger indecently raised, stood a slender dark tower which loomed over the surrounding structures. The Order’s intrusive presence could not be avoided, not in Quian’s main square. Nevertheless, the farmers and merchants who hawked their wares in the open-air market beneath its shadow paid it no mind, the matters of daily bread more important than what the Manuelite priests called a blight on their souls. Their simple wooden stands and carts, sometimes sheltered by bits of canvas, stood in meandering rows with little semblance of order. A cart full of cured meats abutted a display of cutlery, both competing with the farmer selling vegetables and the dyer with his motley cloths across the aisle. Only the laws passed two years ago kept live animals and their associated scents out of the market, much to the ire of a few farmers and the relief of many townspeople. The variety of the market’s products attracted a diverse assortment of customers, from paupers and serfs to well-to-do craftsmen and well-dressed servants of the nobility — who would not dream of coming themselves. They all rubbed shoulders as they hunted for the best prices on their desired goods. No person really ran the market, but the responsibility for enforcing the traditions that governed it fell to the City Guard.

All told, it took the Domini nearly half an hour to reach the tower. The soaring, unadorned spire had a style unlike the rest of the city, with its tall, sagging wooden shops and houses. Horn or linen windows let scarce light into those buildings unless swung open to the weather, but the tower had no windows at all, merely a solid wooden door opening to the square. The dark gray stone of its blocks was a stark counterpoint to the lively color of the painted facades common among the townhouses. Its conical peak, also of stone, matched the city’s preference for sharp points evident in everything from the temple’s ogival arches to the peaked roofs, but it loomed over them all. On the square, its oddity seemed less out-of-place among the eclectic public buildings, built over the years by monarchs who differed in taste and generosity. While most of those buildings kept their distance, a lone warehouse stood behind the tower.

As Nathan came to the entrance, he worked some simple magic to open the latch-less door from the outside. A few people, mostly children, stopped to watch the display of suspected magic, then hurried on as if they had not seen anything. Nathan stepped inside, and as soon as Aulus and the body came in behind him, he slammed the door shut. A short hallway led to a narrow spiral stairway going both up and down. Though the tower lacked windows, bright lanterns containing not flames but glowing glass balls provided enough illumination to cast shadows all about. Nathan dropped the illusion hiding the body as both he and Aulus tossed back their hoods and ended the Circuits that kept their hands and faces in shadow. They were both young men, junior members of the Order, and they had grown up as ordinarily as any young men of their social stations before the Order had taken them for training as Domini. How ordinary they still were was a matter of some debate among the Domini themselves, but there was nothing unusual about their appearance. Aulus looked like the Novar noble he was, with high cheekbones, a long nose, dark eyes, and dark curly hair. Nathan had less prominent features, his round face and light brown hair characteristic of his less distinguished origins right here in Manuel’s capital city. The Kingdom of Manuel was dwarfed by the Novar Empire to its east, but the ancient treaty, of which only the Domini knew the origin, had curbed the Empire’s expansionist ambitions as far as Manuel was concerned.

Nathan left Aulus to deal with the body after him as he sprinted to the door one level up. He opened it without knocking, which earned him a glare from Kulsin, the Head of the Quian Tower. The office held a dazzling array of items from every corner of the world — idols from the Sovereign Cities, bone carvings from Kairn, a bust from Novaro, a tapestry from Palo — all neatly positioned beside books and scrolls and notes from his own research. Kulsin was a Kairnin, which explained not only his dusky skin despite the often sunless existence of the Domini, but also his cultural proclivity for collecting. He was not quite middle-aged, no taller than Nathan, with thinning hair and bulging eyes that gave him the glare of a madman. Few, even among the senior Domini, could meet those eyes, and Nathan dropped his immediately.

“Kulsin… Kulsin, Mowa is dead!” Nathan gasped out the words, winding himself all over again.

Kulsin stared at him a moment longer. “Dead? How?”

“Some woman stabbed him.”

“What do you mean ‘some woman’? Who did this?”

“Some serf from the village to the northwest. She just, uh, walked up to him and stabbed him.”

Kulsin frowned, his eyes narrowing as he thought. “So Mowa was stabbed by some peasan’ woman? He was an idiot if he didn’ protect himself from that. How many people know about this?”

Aulus had come up behind Nathan, and spoke before Nathan could answer, “Don’t you even care that he’s dead? You really are a cold-hearted bastard.”

“Just answer the question, Principius!” Kulsin never called Aulus by his first name.

Aulus’s hand clenched at his side, but he answered just the same. “At least a dozen of the serfs must have seen it, along with one of the city guardsmen. There was quite a crowd of peasants and guardsmen when we left.”

“That fool! To be done in by some peasan’ is bad enough, but for half the world to witness it?”

“Don’t you want to know why she did it?” Nathan asked.

Kulsin gave him a wide-eyed glare, and Nathan did the smart thing and shut up. The senior Dominus turned back to Aulus, “I assume you killed her, at least.”

“She had, had already killed herself,” Nathan said, while Aulus shook his head.

“Damn! If Mowa weren’ already dead, I’d strangle him.” Nathan’s shock must have shown on his face, because Kulsin explained. “Don’ you see, you idiots? Now every fool with a grudge will be tryin’ to stab a Dominus. We could have avoided that if we had found a way to avenge his death, but this way she gets away with it. We need to find some way to show that we cannot be harmed without consequences. Does this woman have a family?”

Nathan said, “The guard said —”

“He said that she was a widow,” Aulus said. “Her only child had been taken by the Order.”

Nathan must have kept the surprise off his face this time, because Kulsin only grunted. “I’ll have to talk to the Senate,” he said. “We’ll repay this travesty somehow.”

“Kulsin,” Aulus said. “What was Mowa doing there?”

“I don’ know,” Kulsin said. “What does it matter?”

“Well, if it had anything to do with why he was killed, we should investigate.”

“Don’ be an idiot. You said the Order took the woman’s only son. What else could it be?”

“It won’t hurt to look,” Aulus said, his voice under control despite the way his hand clenched and unclenched. He and Kulsin locked eyes for a moment. Aulus was one of the few Domini, and perhaps the only one who had been a Dominus for less than a decade, who could meet Kulsin stare for stare. Nathan wondered whether this was the reason Kulsin had taken an instant dislike to him. It was rumored that the enmity had begun when Aulus was still an Acolyte, however, and Nathan couldn’t imagine any Acolyte being that impertinent. Then again, this was Aulus.

“What do I care how you waste your time?” Kulsin relented. “Here, Principius.” He opened a drawer in his desk, fished out a key, and tossed it to Aulus. “Search his office all you wan’, just get out of mine.”

Aulus turned to leave, but Nathan lingered. “Uh, what should we do with the body?”

Seth trudged along behind Micah, wishing the captain would go faster. He couldn’t wait to wash off the blood: its scent filled his nostrils, his hands were sticky with it, and his tabard still damp from it. He could even taste the iron on his tongue. The citizens he passed in the street stared at him as he walked by, but no one asked questions. Seth was glad that the captain had not asked him to stay behind to gather more information, but it bothered him that Captain Micah hadn’t asked anyone else to look into the matter either.

“Sir,” he said when they were about halfway back to the barracks. “Who are you going to have look into this murder? Because if you don’t mind, I’d like to —”

“There’s nothing to look into,” Micah said, keeping his eyes locked forward.

“But —”

“You saw the whole thing, didn’t you? The woman killed the Dominus, then herself. We even know why.”

“But we don’t know what the Dominus was doing there in the first place! And I’m not so sure about the why. Even if her loss is reason enough for murder, why would she kill herself afterwards, when she still has a family? We should talk to her family —”

Micah looked at him now. “Seth, if you want to continue looking into this, fine, you can do so on your own time. I forbid you to talk to her family, however. Don’t make things worse for them than they already are. Now, why don’t you tell me what you were doing in the serf village? It’s a bit removed from where you were supposed to be doing your rounds.”

“Well… I spotted the Dominus heading that way.”

“And you decided on your own to follow him and see what he was doing?” Micah shook his head. “When are you going to learn that the Domini are not our business? You don’t have anything… personal against them, do you?”

“No, it’s just… They scare me, all right! I have a little brother who’s twelve now, and I want to know that he’ll be around when he’s fourteen, not taken by those monsters. I actually saw him talking to one of those black-robes not a month ago, and it frightened me!”

Micah clapped Seth on the back as they reached the main square, where they could see their barracks protruding from behind the courthouse. “Seth, I know this sounds harsh, but if the Domini have marked your brother, there’s nothing you can do. And if they haven’t, then there’s no reason to fear. I know, that won’t stop you from worrying, but don’t let it affect your judgment. Now, you really ought to get cleaned up.”

“Um, what are we looking for, anyway?” Nathan asked. They stood outside of Mowa’s office, which was on the floor above Kulsin’s, close enough that Nathan imagined he could still feel their superior’s wrath from here. Aulus fit the key into the lock on Mowa’s door. Common locks couldn’t stop a determined Dominus, but sometimes Domini protected their locks from magical tampering, making it safer to use the mundane key. Nathan didn’t see any Circuits, which was what the Domini called their magical constructs, protecting the lock, but wards required so little magic that they could be hard to spot sometimes.

“I don’t know,” Aulus said, pushing the door open. “Notes, a journal, a letter, anything.”

“Like a letter saying ‘If you’re reading this, I’m dead and here’s why they killed me…’”

Aulus’s smile lacked humor. “I’m glad you find death so amusing.”

Chastened, Nathan was silent as he followed him into the room. He hadn’t known Mowa well, but he had liked the large black man. He wasn’t sure whether he should be feeling anger or grief or anything aside from this numbness. Walking into his sanctuary made him feel like a grave robber, and he instinctively walked softly and lowered his head. In a way they were grave robbers, here to go through a dead man’s private things. Nathan couldn’t afford to get lost in such thoughts now; however macabre the task seemed, they were doing this for Mowa’s sake. He just hoped it was as necessary as Aulus thought it was.

While Kulsin’s office had looked neat even while crowded with a dazzling variety of odds and ends, Mowa’s office was sparse yet cluttered. The desk had papers, books, and wax tablets strewn across it, while mismatched books slumped on mostly empty shelves. There were no knickknacks or art pieces or anything that hinted at sentimentality.

“Do you really think there’s some conspiracy behind Mowa’s death?” Nathan asked. “It, it looks like it was a lone, grief-mad woman.”

“Maybe,” Aulus said. “But aside from the things we didn’t tell Kulsin, you were the one who noticed that Mowa was acting strangely. Even if it had nothing to do with his death, I want to find out why.” He crossed over to the desk and started rifling through the papers. “Now help me look.”

And we’re back to grave robbers. Nathan sighed, but he helped Aulus sort through the documents anyway. He had seen the same things that Aulus had. That blade had not been a common knife, and the killing thrust had been too perfect, severing the spinal column and killing Mowa, if not instantly, then very quickly. He’d have suspected a professional assassin, not a serf woman who had killed herself immediately afterwards. Besides, Mowa’s strange behavior could not be ignored. He and Aulus believed that the Order’s self-ordained role of defending humanity from magical threats was no longer necessary, as those threats had either vanished or become less serious over time, but the Order had trained them to not ignore any oddity. An oddity might indicate one of those threats had re-emerged, and any oddity that hinted that a Dominus might have been compromised was especially dangerous. Nathan doubted that was the case, but if they told Kulsin everything they had observed, there would be an Inquisition, and even innocence would not protect Mowa’s name. They owed him this much.

Nathan and Aulus spent the next hour trying to make sense of just those documents scattered across Mowa’s desk. Scattered turned out to be the appropriate word, as there was no hint of order to them. One wax tablet contained complex equations for some magical experiment which had Aulus shaking his head and muttering until Nathan tapped him on the shoulder and handed him another stack of papers. A scrap of parchment seemed to be a shopping list. “What would a Dominus need with two bolts of red cloth?” Nathan asked, to which Aulus replied, “Maybe it’s for the Acolytes.” Nathan just frowned. True, the first-year Acolytes did wear red robes, but they weren’t made of silk. They had almost given up on finding anything of interest when Nathan finally managed to focus his bleary eyes on a sheet of paper which he at first had taken for another shopping list. “Aulus, uh, what do you make of this?”

It seemed to be a list, but Nathan couldn’t figure out of what:

Abitha m 11

Miriam f 3

Lilah f 2

Sarah f 4

Deborah f 4

Aulus looked at it, his head tilting to one side, and frowned. “I don’t know. They appear to be women’s names. And yes, I do see Lilah’s name there, although it might not even be the same one. That ‘f’ afterwards could be female, although the ‘m’ at the top doesn’t make much sense that way. I don’t know about the numbers.”

Nathan took the list back. “The eleven at the top seems, um, out of place, considering that the others are two, three, and four. It might be worth looking into, not just Lilah but also the others, especially Abitha.” Nathan frowned, turning the paper over in the vain hope of finding more information. “These aren’t exactly uncommon names in Quian. There must be scores of women with these names.”

“That’s why we should start in the same place where Mowa was looking,” Aulus replied, leaning back in the dead man’s chair and folding his arms. “In the serf village… In fact, didn’t that guardsman mention someone named Miriam?”

“You’re right, he did. It was the name of Lilah’s neighbor. Do you think it’s the, ah, the same one?”

“Maybe that’s whom Mowa went to see,” Aulus said.

“If we’d done a better job of following him, we would know. How, how did he lose us, anyway?”

“We weren’t exactly subtle, following him. Domini make ripples wherever they go.”

“That explains how he spotted us,” Nathan replied. “It doesn’t explain how he lost us. He should be as easy to follow as we are to spot. If we hadn’t seen that, uh, commotion at the gatehouse, we’d still be searching the north part of town for him.”

“I’m not sure it matters,” Aulus said. “But I do have an idea of how we can be less conspicuous.”

Nathan looked at him sharply. Aulus had been tugging at the cuff of his robe’s black sleeve when he said that. “You mean…? Aulus, you can’t mean that. We’d need special permission to wander about town without our robes, and Kulsin would, would never give us that.”

“Maybe he doesn’t need to know.”

“Uh, Aulus…” Nathan began, feeling certain that he was going to lose this argument.

Continued in Chapter II