Authors: Mark Gelineau,Joe King
A Messy Little Murder
The slow lapping of the Prion River mingled with the
creaking wood symphony of the water wheel beside the dock. Moonlight tinted the
heavy fog as the last hours of night became the first hours of morning. The
heavy mist lay upon the woman’s corpse, fat drops of dew sitting on the blood
and making it shine.
Alys bent over the body, her hands on her hips as she
studied the dead woman’s face. Young. Roughed up. She may have been pretty
once, but it was impossible to tell now. Old bruises and new mixed with dried
blood to create a mask over the girl’s features.
Alys turned to the man standing against the wooden wall of
the pier and shrugged. “What do you want me to say?”
The man finished speaking to a pair of city guards and
waited until the two men clanked away in their armored breastplates and shiny
helms. His light hair, always cropped close and crisply perfect, shone briefly
in the glow from the torches the guards carried. Alys caught just a glimpse of
those familiar blue eyes before the light from the torches faded away.
He pulled his long coat closer about him against the chill
of the morning. The black fabric and gray striping of a royal magistrate made
him stand out.
She corrected her thoughts.
Stand out even more.
“I want you to tell me what happened,” he said.
She laughed, adjusting the large-bladed scythe that she
carried across her back. “What happened? Someone killed her, Magistrate
Inspector Daxton Ellis,” Alys said, punctuating every syllable of the man’s
title with a clipped enunciation.
He gave her a long, hard stare. “Nothing is ever easy with
you, is it, Alys?”
“It’s part of my charm,” she said, moving over to the wall
beside him. As she drew closer, she studied his face – the subtle play of
muscles around his eyes, the set of his mouth. He was always easy to read. “You
know who she is.” It was not a question.
He hesitated at first, then said, “She’s Lydia Ashdown.”
“Old name,” she said.
Alys shrugged. “Doesn’t mean much down here in Lowside.
You’re sure it’s her?”
The inspector gave her a slow nod. “She’s been missing for
three months now. The parents held out hope that she had just had a rebellious
jaunt out to the marches to visit friends or relatives.” He shook his head.
“Still, the magistrates were given her description. We knew there was a chance we’d
find her like this, but there was always hope. At least until tonight.”
Alys flicked her tongue against her teeth in silent
annoyance. “That doesn’t answer my question, Dax. How do you know this is her?”
“When she was younger, she was playing and fell into the
hearth,” he said. “It left her with a burn scar between her…” He cleared his
throat. “Over her heart area.”
Alys laughed. “So you tore open this poor girl’s bodice for
your salacious gaze? Why Dax, you cad!”
“The mark is distinctive. It looks like a sparrow.”
“A sparrow?” Alys said in disbelief, kneeling down and
opening up the corpse’s shirt. Underneath the clothing, on the stiff, waxy
flesh was a brownish red mark. It sat between her breasts, just over her heart.
To Alys’s surprise, it actually did look quite a bit like a sparrow in flight.
“Amazing. Highside even has prettier scars than we do.”
“This is hardly a laughing matter, Alys. The Ashdowns are
true blooded. They have a direct line to the First Ascended. And their daughter
is dead. In Lowside.”
“Ah,” Alys said. “And there it is. I was wondering what had
prompted the chief magistrate to assign you here, dear Dax. Now, I know. You
true bloods stick together, right? They brought you in to tidy things up and
make sure the Ashdown family is confident that a person of the correct breeding
and background is investigating the death of their poor child.”
His eyes narrowed. “I thought we weren’t making this
personal?” he remarked, an edge in his voice. “Wasn’t that one of the rules?”
He paused and shook his head. “I’m not here to tidy anything up. I am here for
justice. To find who is responsible. It does not matter to me in the slightest
how true hers or anyone’s blood may be. You should know that most of all.” He
looked at her and in his eyes was that familiar look of resolution, but also a
bit of challenge as well.
That was new.
Silently, she cursed him. As ever, he knew all the right
buttons to push. And he was right. Those were the rules. Keep it business. Alys
presented a charming smile to him. “A noble endeavor, Dax. And one I would be
glad to assist you with, but you know that nothing is free, Magistrate
Inspector. Especially down here in Lowside.”
“The city will pay for your assistance. Discretely, of
“I don’t need coin. I can steal whatever coin I want.” He
remained quiet at that, and she chuckled. “Oh come now, Daxton. Surely it
hasn’t been so long you can’t remember what a girl really wants?”
“I can’t do it. You know I can’t.” But even as he spoke,
Alys saw his eyes move back to the body before them.
The way his attention kept returning to the corpse, the way
his breath came a little faster as she was about to move away. This was a
serious case. A Highside victim, old family nobility, found in Prionside. Dax
was out of his element here and he knew it.
“What do you want to know?” he said at last.
Alys moved in closer and whispered in his ear. “The
appointment for Justicar of the Second District is coming. I want to know who’s
going to get the nod for that post and what leverage the appointers have on
Dax spun away. “You’re out of your damned mind.”
“Oh, unclench. You know I will be discreet, Dax. I always
“It hasn’t been fully decided yet,” Dax said through tight
Alys waggled a finger in front of him. “Stop trying to
avoid it. This is no small endeavor you are asking me to join you on. And
knowing who’s getting tapped should just about cover it. The Second District
Justicar is the law in Lowside.” She paused and smiled at him. “Well, the
king’s law, anyway.”
He did not smile back. If anything, his frown seemed to
intensify. “It’s not you that I don’t trust, Alys. It’s who you’ll sell the
“Believe me, Dax. They know the rules too,” she said. “This
is their world. One that they carved out for themselves and built with sweat
and blood. They’re not going to shit on all that.”
Alys met his gaze with her own dark eyes. She saw him break
first, unable to keep from looking at the corpse. Inside, she smiled.
“Fine. I will find out what you want, but I will want results
“Of course,” she said.
She pressed her hand against her heart and then held it out
to him. He did the same and they clasped forearms, sealing the deal.
“The Ashdowns will want someone to answer for this,” Dax
said. “They will look to the top and think that Blacktide Harry himself is
involved,” he said.
“No chance it’s Harry,” she said.
“He’s still boss in Prionside District, right? The
Stevedore Rats still answer to him?”
“Why Magistrate Inspector! It seems you have been keeping
an ear to the ground in regards to the goings on of the shade folk.”
“It’s his domain,” he said. “And he’s got the reputation
“Oh Harry’s as black-hearted a bastard as you’ll ever meet,
but he has no temper. Everything he does is cold. But even more, this,” she
said, pointing to the body of the young woman, “is bad for business. It’s
public. It shines a light on Prionside. The Blacktide would never do anything
to disrupt business on the docks. Never.”
“Well, then if he is so innocent, he shouldn’t mind the
inconvenience of a few questions, should he?” He fixed her with a look that
slowly evolved into a smile. “You can arrange a meeting, can’t you?”
“You’re wasting time,” Alys said, reaching back and
adjusting the large scythe in its harness, and checking the daggers at her
belt. “But I suppose, if you are set on it, it wouldn’t hurt to pay him a visit
anyway. If you really want to follow this, we’ll need the Blacktide’s blessing
if we’re going to be poking around Prionside.”
With that, she offered him her arm. “Come along, Magistrate
Inspector. It’s late at night, and the streets can be so very dangerous,” she
said, batting her eyes at him. “An escort is ever so important.”
Dax frowned again, but behind his eyes, Alys caught just
the barest hint of amusement. “Then I suppose it is good that I have one,” he
In the Court of the Blacktide
“Watch your head,” Alys warned.
Dax was so focused on poling the small, flat-bottomed
skiff along the canal that he had not noticed the low arch at the tunnel
entrance. He muttered a curse as he ducked down, avoiding smacking his head on
the mold-covered brick. The top of the pole scraped along the ceiling as
they entered the dark tunnel.
“You’re enjoying this aren’t you, Alys?”
Alys smiled, reclining on the floor of the skiff, and
shrugged. “What more could a girl ask for than a lovely moonlight canal ride?”
she asked. “Of course, now that we’ve entered the Sumpworks, we can’t see the
moon. And the water smells like rotting fish and a week’s worth of shit. But
still…” She closed her eyes and waved a hand lazily in the air. “Lovely.”
“You’re the one who took us this route, remember?”
“That’s because I remember your fondness for slumming it,”
Alys replied. There was a slight edge to her voice, and Dax recognized the shot
for what it was.
There was a time he would have snapped back, railing
against her insinuation. But not tonight. He was here to do a job, and he
needed Alys for it, and the memories of the past, sweet and suffering alike,
would only complicate things. And Lydia Ashdown deserved more than that. The
girl was dead and he would be damned sure to find out who had done it and why.
And yet, he could not stop looking at Alys. She seemed more
beautiful, more alive than he could ever remember. She had changed her hair. It
was longer now, beads and ribbons woven into braids that writhed like serpents
when she moved. But those eyes, dark and full of secrets, were still the same
as they had always been, and they pulled him to her, just as they always had.
Since the moment she had walked onto the docks, he wanted to reach out and hold
her the way he once had.
But he didn’t.
Instead, he held his tongue and pushed them through the
shit and water and focused on the present.
She seemed to pick up on his quiet. “You sure you want to
“I’ve met the Blacktide before.”
She craned her neck back to look at him. “That was a long
time ago. Harry isn’t small time anymore. He’s the boss of all of Prionside
now. One of Pious Black’s Thirteen.”
At the name, Dax felt the blood drain from his face. “You
still answer to Pious Black?” he asked, his voice tight.
“You still answer to your father?” she shot back
And just like that, he felt sixteen again. Young, naive, unbearably
in love, and twice as ashamed. Dax tried to will himself to keep staring at
her, but ultimately, he turned his head away.
For a moment, there was only the sound of lapping water.
Then, he heard Alys sigh deeply. “Shit, Dax. Let’s not do this again.”
He gripped the pole tighter. “Believe me. I wouldn’t be
here if I had any other choice,” he said.
She gave a small laugh. “Nice,” she replied.
“Do you want the truth, Alys? Or would you prefer we keep
it all delicate and civil?” He could not keep the bitter edge from his voice.
She gave him a look, one eyebrow raised. “You’ve changed. I
like it, but if you are insisting on honesty, then yes, let’s be honest.” She
gestured with a finger, pointing back and forth between the two of them. “This
isn’t going to end well.”
Dax frowned. “Why not? We’ve been able to put aside the
past before. You helped me catch that piece of filth that was burning those
“That wasn’t what I meant. And anyway, that was a damn
sight different than this. That was a small-time gutter runner who liked
to watch the flames dance. This,” she said, gesturing ahead of them down the
darkened tunnel, “this is a Lowside boss, and you’re talking about stomping
around in his domain.”
“All the more reason he should cooperate then. If the ports
get shut down and Prionside closed off, it will look bad for him.”
“Those are big, bold words, Magistrate Inspector. And an
awfully serious road to walk for a random Highside girl. I don’t care how old
or true her name might be.” She scrutinized him for a long moment, her eyes
shining in the low light from the flickering torches lining the walls. “You
knew her,” she said.
He kept his eyes on the water and the dark shadows of the
tunnel. “I met her a few times when she was very little. I know her sister,
Kara. She was at the collegium the same time you and I were. A year below us. I
don’t think you would remember her, though.”
Alys settled back down into the bottom of the skiff. “I try
my very hardest to not remember those times,” she said with a smile.
“Me too,” he said honestly, “but Kara reached out to me
three months ago, when Lydia first disappeared. She said her sister had been
seeing someone the family did not approve of. Lower status.”
From her reclined position, Alys raised a hand twirled it
around. “Sounds like the intricacies of Highside romance.”
“That’s what I thought. I looked everywhere Highside.
Talked to everyone.” As he spoke, Dax felt his grip tighten on the wooden pole
until his fingers ached. “I was certain she’d turn up somewhere in Highside.”
The image of the body on the docks flashed through his mind. “I was wrong.”
He was glad she was facing away from him. She could read
him too well, and he did not want her to see that those last words were a lie.
Thoughts of Lydia in Lowside had not started this morning
with the body. He had felt it early on. Had known deep down that whoever Lydia
had fallen for wasn’t from Highside, but there had been no one he could contact
in Lowside. No one he could turn to.
No one except Alys.
And he hadn’t been able to do it. Hadn’t been able to open
that door again and face that kind of pain once more. Not on a hunch.
And because of his cowardice, Lydia Ashdown was dead.
Murdered on a Lowside dock.
“Well,” Alys replied, her voice cutting through his
thoughts. “That’s why we’re going to the Blacktide. If you want me to start
digging into every dark and seedy little corner of the district, I need his
permission to do it.” There was a brief pause before she spoke, and then a
slight edge of warning to her words. “Just try to keep that righteous passion
for justice on a leash. Your pretty gray stripes mean nothing down here. The
king’s protection means nothing. Down here, Blacktide Harry is king.”
“I’m not here to play games, Alys. I’m here to get this done.
Right and quickly.” He had to duck his tall head to avoid striking it on yet
another low hanging archway and the skiff rocked. “This is the only way in?” he
said, blowing out a frustrated breath.
“There are other ways in to the Sumpworks, but this way is
the front door,” she said. “Where guests come knocking. And if you haven’t been
summoned, you come announced as a guest. That’s a rule.”
Dax kept moving the skiff forward with the pole. “Announced?”
“Yes, announced. We were marked back on the docks, and as
soon as we started down the canal, they’ve been watching us.” Ahead of them,
the darkness of the tunnel ended in greasy yellow light. “Alright, Dax, besides
the sword at your side, the short blade at your belt, and that dagger in your
boot you think no one notices, what other weapons do you have on you?”
Dax glanced down toward his right boot with a grimace. “That’s
all I’m carrying.”
Alys clucked her tongue. “Much too light a load for night
work down Lowside, but maybe that’s for the best right now,” she said. “Keep
your hands on the pole and keep the pole in the water. Make no moves toward any
of your weapons. No matter what.”
Gesturing with his chin toward the large scythe strapped to
her back, he smirked. “Do you think that they will even be looking at me with
that horror you got back there?”
“Me and Aunty,” she said, reaching back to pat the scythe, “are
known quantities here. You, on the other hand, are a Royal Magistrate coming
armed to a boss’s den. Do not forget that.”
As they drew toward the light, Dax tried to keep his eyes
opened wide to force them to adjust more quickly. They drifted past the final
arch and into a huge space featuring wooden scaffolds in varying stages of rot,
laid over the brickwork of the walls.
The canal continued straight through the large room, but
small walkways spanned the canal. On each, rough-looking men and women
watched them. All had a crossbow close at hand.
“The fact that they aren’t leveled at us already is a very
auspicious sign for this meeting,” Alys whispered from the corner of her mouth,
her lips not fully moving.
At the far end of the space, the brick foundations jutted
out over the canal, and the water passed through a colossal grate. Upon that
brick platform, seated upon a towering throne constructed from wooden crates
and netting, was the Blacktide himself.
His dark hair was slicked back and looked wet, like living
amid the water of the Prion had changed him. Gotten into his blood. It gleamed
an oily black, as did the thick mustache he affected. His eyes were cold blue
amidst the weathered and wrinkled face, and they watched the skiff approach
“Hello, Uncle Harry,” Alys said, with her brightest smile.
She extended her hands to her sides and curtsied delicately.
“You were never short of sand, girl. I figured you would be
drifting in, with everything else washing up on my shores tonight.” His eyes
shifted past her to Dax, then his attention focused back to Alys. “Didn’t know
you two were sharing company again.”
“Just business, Uncle Harry,” she said. “He’s come down to
Prionside for a case. Fortunately, he was not required to bring any friends
with him. For now,” she said. “A single tourist is one thing, but a crowd of
them, well, that would be another thing entirely.”
The Blacktide settled back onto the wooden throne, pouring
himself a drink. “Your thoughts and mine, as was often the case, do seem to
move along a similar course,” he said before knocking back the drink.
“It’s a bad situation Uncle Harry,” she said. “High profile
trouble on the docks, and any answers you find will be deemed a bit too
convenient, would they not?”
“They would indeed. They would indeed,” the Blacktide said.
“Which is why I figured you’d be coming. You always smelled opportunity like it
was blood in the water.”
“I learned from the best.”
In response, the Blacktide raised his glass in salute and
drank once more. “A girl left on my docks, just a few feet from the water that
would have erased all trace of the body.” He settled back in his throne. “No
“She was a message then.”
“I assume as much. But it wasn’t meant for me.”
At that, Dax spoke up, “For whom, then?”
Blacktide Harry fixed him with an unblinking stare. “That
is none of my concern. Whoever it was, I am sure they have received it loud and
clear, and they will take the appropriate actions. Meanwhile, Magistrate
Inspector, you and your boys have cleaned up my docks. And so life moves ever
“Not yet, it doesn’t,” Dax said. “I mean to find justice
Blacktide Harry leaned forward in his throne of crates. “Nothing
in the rules about justice, Inspector. Your job here is to tidy things up.
Clean up the mess that someone made. Whoever that message was intended for? Let
them do their business.”
“That message was once a person, and finding out what
happened to her is exactly my job, Harry. And I do not intend to leave
Prionside till I have accomplished it.”
Blacktide Harry pursed his lips and looked Dax up and down
with cold, unblinking eyes. Despite his convictions, Dax wondered if he had
overstepped. But the Blacktide merely shook his head. “You’ve grown up a bit
from that lost little pup that used to chase our Alys around.”
“Yes, I suppose I have.” Dax took a step forward and the
skiff rocked a bit. “The girl was Lydia Ashdown.” He saw the recognition in
Blacktide Harry’s eyes. “I have no doubt that her family will be eternally
grateful to any who would bring justice to their daughter and their family
The Blacktide smirked, his teeth sharp and white beneath
the black of his mustache. “And here I thought you were a crusader, Inspector.
But clearly this would be quite a feather in your cap.”
“Not mine, Harry. Yours. If you give us free rein in
Prionside until this matter is done, I will be sure your name is brought to the
attention of Lord Ashdown himself. Discreetly, of course.”
There was a long, tension-filled silence, made all
the more profound given the amount of rough men and women who lined the walls
and walkways. Then, suddenly, the Blacktide began to laugh. The sound was rough
and barking. “You’ve been teaching him well,” he said through his laughter.
“Who thought he was actually listening?” Alys remarked.
The Blacktide chucked a few more times. “Blacktide Harry,
friend of the noble houses,” he said. “I find I do like the ring of that. Very
well, Inspector, you and my dear Alys have my permission to poke your nose
under every rock in this district. But I cannot guarantee what you might find
hiding under those rocks,” he added menacingly. “Since your success might even
benefit me now, I have something that might get you started.”
A scrawny, rough-looking man with the stylized hook
and rat tattoo of the Stevedore Rats on the side of his neck came down the
scaffold. “I’s seen the twist earlier,” he said with a vigorous nod. “Had a
black cloak on, skulking around like she up to no good.” He laughed at what Dax
assumed was his brilliantly ironic statement, and around the room, other harsh
laughter came back.
Alys put a hand up and gave Dax a sharp look indicating he
should let her do the talking. She stepped to the bow of the skiff. “Not
everyone can be as respectable as you, Master Hookworm,” Alys said with a
mocking bow, and the coarse crowd erupted in laughter once more. “But
thankfully your keen abilities for detection saw through her subterfuge, so why
don’t you tell me where you saw her?”