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The fair elaine a kethem.., p.1

The Fair Elaine: A Kethem Novel, page 1


The Fair Elaine: A Kethem Novel

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The Fair Elaine: A Kethem Novel

  The Fair Elaine

  By David Dickie

  This book is dedicated to my wife Alison for suggesting a hard-boiled detective novel set in a fantasy world, my daughter Brie for getting me into the creative writing game in the first place, and Bill Garber, who’s been asking me to write a book for about as long as I’ve known him.

  Chapter One

  I’ve always liked the dockyards in Bythe. There’s an honest energy to it, an order that emerges from the chaos if you watch carefully. It looks haphazard. There are fishing vessels that range from something only slightly larger than a rowboat to sloops that can sail out to the shoals dozens of miles off shore with their rigging and massive nets. There are the military ships, the big square riggers of the Kethem heavies and the smaller but more vicious looking frigates. There are the merchants that range in size between the two extremes, mostly Kethem based, but some of the clumsy, boxy looking things from the Pranan City-States flying the colors of the lord or king or whatever the current ruler of the coastal city wanted to call themselves. There were a few of the Stangri triremes, unusual at this time of year. There was even one Elvish vessel, sleek and gracefully non-human, large as a frigate but without mast or sail, its propulsion just one more secret of that fey race. How the port authority decided who docked where was a mystery to me, but each ship was always greeted by the appropriate party. Horses and wagons met the merchants, a contingent of Kethem Navy Guardsmen waited for the warships, and groups of fishmongers clustered around the wriggling masses of silvery fish coming off the trawlers, ready to start a furious bidding war. And, of course, the Holder taxmen everywhere, recording it all.

  It was also a convenient place to do something about the guy shadowing me.

  I’d spotted the tail a couple of days ago. He wasn’t particularly good, and I was pretty sure I’d noticed him not long after he started following me. In my line of work, I’m usually doing the tailing. I couldn’t think of a reason why someone would be tracking me. My current job was nothing that would generate any kind of interest. There were grudges, of course, an occupational hazard, but nothing new and no reason for the old ones to flare up. I could have done something immediately, but there wasn’t any point rushing it and sometimes you learn more if you let these things play out. But after two days, I had nothing new to explain it and I was becoming impatient. The docks were as good a place as any to find an opportunity to have a chat with the man about how people are supposed to behave in a polite society.

  That was slightly harder than normal because of all the extra guardsmen on the docks, a response to some incident where a Kethem light merchant had been attacked coming into port a few evenings earlier. Piracy near any of Kethem’s ports in this day and age was unheard of, and the docks were buzzing with gossip. It was mostly conjecture and the wild tales that come from a story being told again and again over too much beer, getting incrementally more farfetched with each retelling. But the guardsmen were proof something had happened. They also made it hard to find a place where you could have a quiet word with someone that might or might not include a certain amount of physical contact.

  I finally found a spot with a few small shops clustered in a tight little group. They provided enough cover to prevent curious eyes on the docks from observing anything. The few windows they sported were small enough not to allow much of a view, a result of the high cost of artisan enchanter created glass. The crowds were light and there were no guardsmen around I could see.

  I stepped up my pace and walked past a merchant stall selling rope and other ship supplies to break my follower’s line of sight, then moved quickly to the low stone wall separating the edge of the city from the wooden docks where the ships moored, broken in spots by the tethered wooden ramps that could move up or down to accommodate the changing level of water as the tide came and went. I made a great pretense of watching a heavy merchant pulling in, two Storm Bull priests barely discernible on the forecastle, dark blue robes and electric yellow trim marking them as much as their raised arms channeling the power of their god to fill the sails with an artificial wind. Even one priest of that temple would require a substantial tithe to the order. Two marked this as a priority cargo, something worth the cost to move it faster than the consistent but gentle breeze the Lanotalis Sea would provide most of the time. Probably a shipment of steel from Cidan, the miracle metal from one of the Pranan City-States that had put a bit of a dent in Kethem’s assumed superiority in all things over their neighbors. Their human neighbors. No one sane felt superior to the elves.

  I heard the rapid tapping of the man’s boots as he rushed around the corner, concerned about losing me in the jumble of stalls along the quay. When he realized I was only a few feet from him, he stopped, and I knew without looking he was desperately searching for something that would make his presence there plausible, the worst thing he could have done. Like I said, an amateur.

  I turned around casually, hand in my pocket holding the lightning stone, ready to pull it if it seemed necessary. It was a compromise weapon, albeit an expensive one, big and heavy enough to show as a lump in my pocket. Yimmy was my artificer, a bit of an idiot savant, brilliant enough to hold the cantrips needed to channel sorcery in his head long enough to burn mana pools and spell triggers into things but not smart enough to leverage it into real money. The stone was a three shot lightning weapon, mana pool a little larger than normal so I didn’t have to recharge it more than every couple of months to replace mana that leeched away over time. I would have preferred something a little smaller, but the price point went up exponentially as the size of the enchanted object decreased, some limitation on how much sorcery you could jam in a space, making smaller harder. But three shots was the minimum I was comfortable with. I didn’t really want to use it. Recharging it was pricey. That, and it was noisy and lead invariably to a lot of questions that I usually preferred not to be asked.

  Keeping my expression neutral, I glanced over the man casually. He avoided my eyes - another amateur mistake - but he wasn’t looking at anything in particular. He was five ten, compact, dressed in a leather jerkin, white wool shirt and plain blue cotton pants with a simple brown leather belt. There was a short dagger hanging from the belt, looking like a standard workman’s utility knife in its sheath but with a textured handle and guard that looked more like a combat knife. He had black leather boots that were a little out of place, nicer than his outfit. He had short brown hair, a thin mustache, pale blue eyes, and a holier than thou attitude radiating off of him he probably wasn’t aware of. A member of a house, not a commoner like me, dressed in what would have been a completely nondescript outfit except it didn’t really fit the dock area. Too clean, not a dock worker’s outfit, and not dressed like someone who supervised dock activities either. Kind of like what I was wearing, actually, your basic traveling around town clothes. Nothing with a Hold’s glyph, traveling incognito, an unusual thing for Hold members to do. I was sure he was on his own. Given his lack of expertise, he would have looked for his partner if he had one, an instinctive reaction for people hunting in packs unless they’ve had training and practiced those lessons many times.

  I walked by him, just a guy on a stroll, taking my hand out of my pocket and sliding it inside my vest, having decided the lightning stone wasn’t necessary. I saw him tense up. That was a bad sign. People who know what to look for when individuals around them are drawing weapons usually have some expertise in that area themselves. I didn’t give him a chance to act on his instincts, moving suddenly into him and pushing him up against the stall with my forearm against his throat. I had four inches and eighty pounds on him and he hit the wooden wall with a jarring thud. The merchant in the stall was probably c
urious about the noise, but that’s another thing I like about the docks; everyone has a very strong sense of self preservation.

  His lack of expertise in trailing people was not indicative of his expertise in combat. He’d hit the wall hard but it didn’t slow him down for a second, his hand reaching for the dagger at his belt. It stopped when I poked his neck a bit with the stiletto I’d drawn from my vest, a thin blade with a sharp point that was designed for one purpose, killing people quickly and quietly. I backed off a bit, taking my forearm off his throat, but leaving the point of the stiletto in my left hand against his skin. He spread his arms, hands open, a gesture of surrender, but his eyes were hard and his expression angry.

  He slowly reached for a small pocket in his tunic. I knew what was coming, and it put me in a bit of a quandary. The Malilatinus Contistes, the articles of law, would play in my favor if I killed him right now. Any competent Magistrate, and they were all pretty competent, would allow a carefully worded statement with a truthsayer verifying that I believed what I was saying was accurate. That a man with no markings was following me, that I had reason to believe that people might wish me harm, that when I confronted him he went for a weapon. Unless someone wanted to go out of their way to make it difficult for me that would be the end of it, per the rights granted every citizen of Kethem, even a commoner. To ask additional questions someone had to present reasonable evidence that there was more to the story. But If I let him do what he was about to do, it would make my story untenable. On the other hand, killing someone for following me seemed a bit extreme, so I let him pull the ring out of his pocket and fit it on his finger. It did beg the question of why I’d been so aggressive in the first place, but I’m as human as the next guy. Opportunities to man handle a Holder did not crop up very often.

  The ring was silver, not copper, which surprised me. This wasn’t a low level member of his house, he was an officer in the hierarchy, someone in a position of respect and power. The glyph of Grafton Hold on the ring, on the other hand, didn’t surprise me. Bythe’s consortium of Holds that owned the city included a couple of dozen houses, but there were only three Major Holds and one Great Hold, Grafton Hold. If a Silver Ring had been given responsibility for tracking my movements, there had to be something big going down, and involvement by the Great Hold would be as likely than not.

  I stuck the stiletto back in its sheath under my tunic, handle hanging down for a quick draw, stood back and bowed. “I’m sorry, my Lord, I was unaware you were a Holder. Please accept my apologies.” Attacking him now would not only be against the law, if I killed or even seriously injured him it would be a death sentence. Such was the lot of a commoner in our great nation of Kethem. The Malilatinus Contistes did, however, limit what he could do to me in turn. Although a hefty fine to be paid to my surviving kin if he killed me without cause was a little less of a hindrance than hanging.

  He grunted, rubbed his throat where the stiletto had left a small cut and surprised me by saying “My fault, citizen. There is no way you could have known.” I didn’t bother to tell him that I had known. You take these scraps where you can find them.

  I asked, “May I ask my Lord why he was following me?” Technically, you didn’t need to “my Lord” a Silver Ring, only the Gold Rings at the top of the Holder heap, but it never hurt to be more polite than necessary after you’ve had a dagger at someone’s throat.

  “You may not,” he replied, not even arrogant about it. Common citizens did not rate answers unless it was in the Hold’s interests to enlighten them. “However, I believe it will be revealed to you in time.” He reached for another pocket, nothing slow about it this time, sure the master-servant relationship was in place now that his ring was on his finger. “I have an invitation for you. Dinner this evening at the Temple of Sambhal.” The card he pulled out and handed to me was as nondescript as his clothing, with my name, a time, the name of the temple and the mark of Sambhal burned in with sorcery, verification that it was real. It was slightly tongue in cheek to call it an invitation. An invitation from a Holder to a commoner, unless it introduced unreasonable hardship, was really a command. But Sambhal was the god of pleasure, with a reputation of satisfying the most sophisticated appetites, food and otherwise. It might be a command, but I’d at least get a nice dinner out of it.

  Chapter Two

  I made it to the Temple of Sambhal half an hour ahead of time and stood on the other side of the road, down a bit from the entrance, leaning against the wall of a closed pottery shop. It was a little hot, partly because I was dressed in my finest, a thin grey cloak, a cotton shirt magicked up by the local Traveler’s temple so it looked more like silk, very thin leather pants from Kuseme using some process that hadn’t made it to Bythe yet to make them semi-elastic, and my best… meaning least scuffed up… leather boots. Dressed to impress, usually a good idea when you were meeting the next step up the food chain.

  There wasn’t much chance of seeing anything that mattered, but you never knew when the gods of the dice would suddenly send a little luck your way, and I had nothing better to do. It was almost sundown. The temple faced west on Aron’s Way, one of the main north-south thoroughfares that actually stretched from the docks to the far southern end of the city, very busy during the day and only slightly less so during the evening. Cobblestones had been melted together with some Elementalist’s trick, making a slightly lumpy but otherwise smooth path for the wagons. Directly across the street from the temple was a small grassy park, which I thought was probably something that had been arranged, although I had no idea why anyone would have cared. The white limestone face of the temple was lit in pink by the setting sun.

  Every temple has its set of unique and interesting differences, reflecting aspects of the god they were built to enshrine. The Temple of Sambhal was no exception. The thing everyone notices immediately is that it is not isolated from the buildings around it like every other temple in Bythe. Small shops abutted the north and south sides of the temple, and if you walked over to Bitther’s Road, one street east, you would find another row of shops nestled against the back as well, no alleyway or other degree of separation between holy ground and the vast unwashed masses. What many people didn’t know was that the temple actually filled the center of the block, fat in the middle, the shops up and down the street facades hiding the truth from prying eyes. It had taken me a long time to find that out. A long time, a certain amount of hard cash, and an unreasonable number of bruises. Most of the shops had well concealed back doors that lead into the temple, locked from the temple side, of course. Discovering that had taken more cash and bruises. The main point of this complex setup was that the temple, and those that visited it, liked to maintain the anonymity of the patrons. The temple prided itself on that secrecy.

  The main entrance followed the general design of most Sambhal temples. There were three entrances, one for men, one for women, and one for couples. The entryways to all three were open and airy, with short steps leading up to covered patios festooned with potted plants and tall, double doors carved from dark wood leading inside. Chiseled into the white limestone walls were images of women and men eating, drinking and dancing, minstrels playing instruments, grape vines; it looked like quite a party. That was another difference from the other temples, where some rendition of the temple’s god always sat in judgement of those passing by, sometimes abstract but always present. Sambhal temples might have avoided that because of the old argument about whether Sambhal was actually a demon or a god, a philosophical discussion that was a mainstay of drunken conversations in taverns frequented by people that had never visited a Sambhal temple. My philosophy has always been a bit more practical; if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably close enough that it would taste like a duck.

  Oddly enough, while a lot of my jobs had led here, wives or husbands suspicious that their spouse might be partaking of the many pleasures the temple offered, I’d only been inside once. That one time I’d been met at the door by a very
handsome, very friendly man who had escorted me directly back out without a word. How he knew that I wasn’t a patron, or at least a prospective patron, I hadn’t a clue, but on the “gods have motives unfathomable to common men” principle, I restricted myself to tracking people to and from the place after that and left what happened inside a mystery.

  The gods of the dice did not smile on me that evening, and after watching a number of men and a few women enter, none of any particular interest, I made my way across the street. I had a moment of idle curiosity; in the numerous times I had been hovering around the premises to catch sight of a quarry, I’d never seen the couple’s entrance used, despite the temple’s reputation for food that could not be matched anywhere else in Bythe. I went up the steps to the men’s entrance and approached the doors. They opened in front of me. That hadn’t been the case the one other time I’d taken this path.

  Inside was the same room I remembered, but this time without the smiling gentleman waiting just inside the door. It was a large room, a grand entryway, with a cathedral ceiling thirty feet tall at its peak, crystal chandeliers casting a soft yellow light throughout the room via some sorcerous light floating in the center. There were couches and comfortable looking chairs scattered around, none occupied. The walls were done in white and brown, with matching marble floors, mostly white with the brown marble inlaid in intricate patterns. At the far end stood two spiral staircases that curved down the wall until they faced each other, featuring broad white steps with black lacquered railings leading up to a second level. In the middle of the staircases stood a small reception desk with a solid walnut front. Two women stood behind it. One was a petite blond with her hair done back in a loose pony tail and a sheer blue silk dress cut very low across her breasts, just translucent enough to give a hint of the curves underneath it. The other was a brunette, taller, more stately, but no less attractive, wearing a similar outfit. As I walked over, the blond gave me a warm smile with dazzling white teeth and said, “Master Driktend, welcome to the temple of Sambhal. I’m Sariel, and if there’s anything I can do to make your visit more memorable, you have only to ask.”

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