Read The Inquisitives [4] The Darkwood Mask Online

Authors: Jeff LaSala

Tags: #Eberron

The Inquisitives [4] The Darkwood Mask (4 page)

“If I may ask, Miss Otänsin, have you ever had to kill anyone in your work?”

Soneste cocked her head. “You
are
intrusive, aren’t you?”

“I won’t quote you, if you’d rather. But I’m curious. Have you—”

A shadow flashed through Soneste’s mind.

She turned her head sharply, just in time to see something dark and winged fly past the window. She heard the driver shout and felt the coach lurch to a stop. A heartbeat later, the entire conveyance shook as something solid and heavy landed atop it. Scarla gasped, dropping her book in favor of keeping her seat.

There was no room for Soneste to employ her rapier in the tight confines of the coach, so her long knife had to do. Soneste slipped the crysteel dagger from her boot and held it up, feeling the sleight hum of its power in her mind. Scarla’s eyes widened as a reflection of the rising sun appeared to shine through the violet-tinged blade.

“Just sit still,” Soneste said, then kicked the coach door open.

With her feet braced against the floor, she was half-crouched and ready to spring out. She pointed the blade forward when she saw leaden talons grip the open doorframe from above. The
Inquisitive
reporter sucked in her breath, stifling another gasp.

“Sonnnesste!”

It took her a moment to realize the assailant had spoken her name. The voice was harsh, like the scrape of metal against stone. Soneste saw the shadow of leathery wings flap as the creature lifted into the air again. The coach rattling as the weight lifted.

Soneste took the opportunity to step out the door and off to one side, keeping her back against the side of the coach. The monstrous figure dropped to the ground directly in front of her. The creature’s body was as large as a tall man’s, though his stooped posture brought his smoldering red eyes to her level. Gray skin the texture of roughly hewn stone, folding bat-like wings, and a pair of prodigious,
curving horns made the creature’s presence unsettling.

Soneste presented the dagger before her, its gleaming tip stopping only inches from the gargoyle’s diabolic face.

“What do you want?” she demanded, heart racing with anticipation.

She’d only seen these things from a distance before, perched on tower eaves or winging through the night. His torso was wrapped tightly in a black leather harness, clasped at the front with a House Vadalis brooch. The gargoyle was a courier, yet Soneste saw no note or package in its claws, which flexed even now as if eager to rend flesh.

Most pedestrians gave the creature a wide berth. A few bolder ones stopped to watch.

“To Warden Towersss,” the gargoyle said in a forced whisper, as if knowing the full volume of his voice was unwelcome. “You are bidden!”

“Who sent you?” Soneste asked. Gargoyle couriers were not cheap, and they were usually sent to a single destination. This one had been instructed to
find
her.

Scarla poked her head out of the coach. The coachman approached as well, his face soured by the unexpected messenger. The way he hefted the mace in his hand suggested he’d seen some action in the war and knew how to wield it.

“Vvvelderan, d’Tharassshk,” the gargoyle rasped. His crowned head swiveled to face the armed coachman. A claw pointed to him in warning, and the gargoyle issued a guttural hiss that sounded like steel drawn across a whetstone. When the coachman stopped, the creature looked back to Soneste. “You will go, yess?”

“Yes, I will go,” she replied. “What is your name, courier?”

“Zzar.”

“Thank you, Zzar, for your obvious expedience.” Soneste dropped a sovereign into one clawed hand.

The gargoyle bowed his head, his duty fulfilled, then turned and leapt from the bridge. His wings snapped loudly as they
caught the air, carrying the demonic shape swiftly out of sight.

She looked to Scarla, who had stepped out of the coach and was scratching furiously in her book.

“My life isn’t really
this
exciting, you know,” Soneste said.

“Sure, sure.” The girl laughed. “This will look great in print. Gargoyles usually just deliver packages.”

Soneste nodded. “Can we finish this some other time?”

Indeed, maybe her life
would
be this exciting from now on. Despite the emergency the creature’s presence implied, a smile crept onto her face.

Soneste apologized to the coachman and hailed a skycoach instead. Her mind began to wander as she fished in her pocket for more silver. Why would Thuranne send for her so urgently?

Thuranne d’Velderan’s Investigative Services was always easy to find, situated at the corner of Glaive and Pike Streets. The district of Warden Towers was home to the Menthis Plateau’s Watch garrison, so residents and visitors alike were forced to walk through a veritable gauntlet of lawmen to reach their destination. “Keeps most of our clients legitimate,” Thuranne often said.

Soneste was greeted by her younger colleagues and tried hard to ignore the few poorly concealed scowls from the older agents. Old Roren, Thuranne’s senior inquisitive, glared at her openly. As much to get away from those looks as to find out what Thuranne needed, she hurried to the door at the back of the agency’s modest space.

When she stepped into Thuranne’s office, she felt a wave of relief at the smile upon her employer’s face. There couldn’t be
that
much of an emergency. The twist of her dragonmark was visible on one side of Thuranne’s neck, shades of indigo almost hidden against her brown-gray skin.

Sheaves of paper and leather-bound ledgers were stacked in great volume and perfect order, as always, upon her boss’s desk. Choice clippings from the
Sharn Inquisitive
and the
Korranberg Chronicle
were
tacked against one wall, while small painted portraits of Thuranne’s nieces and nephews adorned the opposite wall. The older woman’s workspace was, just like her, at once sedulous and intimate.

Soneste spoke first. “They called you ‘Lady’ in the
Inquisitive.”
She removed her coat and laid it over the back of a chair. It was always a little too hot in here. The ruffled, sleeveless white shirt she wore cooled her nicely.

“It gave me a good laugh too.” The half-orc’s smile dissolved. She looked down at a pair of scrolls in her hand, then back to Soneste. “Only two days, girl, and already I’m dragging you back to work.”

“You scared the life out of me,” Soneste said, unbuckling her rapier and propping it up against the desk before dropping into the chair. “Since when do you use Vadalis gargoyles?”

Thuranne snorted, small tusks peering up from beneath her lower lip. “I figured I haven’t offended my own house enough.”

Soneste smiled, studying the face of her mentor and friend. The older woman looked worried. “What’s happened?”

Thuranne sighed. “I need you to take a new case, Soneste, and it kills me to ask you now. If it were any other job, I’d find someone else. You’ve earned this time off, to say the least.”

Soneste’s heart sank, but only for a moment. She wanted to be taken seriously, after all. She didn’t meet Thuranne’s eyes yet, merely fidgeting with her latest acquisition—a serpent-shaped, gold armband with red garnet eyes.

“Why the urgency?” she asked, looking up.

“This,” Thuranne said, holding up one of the scrolls, “is a message from the Justice Ministry of Korth. It was forwarded to me by speaking stone. It’s about a murder that took place there last night.”

Soneste’s stomach clenched. Korth, capital city of Karrnath. A new case. Urgent. Here she was, sitting in Thuranne’s office, probably the only one to hear about this right now. Silently, she wondered if Thuranne had considered anyone else? Maybe Roren—and why not? He was the veteran inquisitive around here.

But more than Thuranne she had chosen Soneste, she was afraid
to ask how a crime in a faraway nation concerned Investigative Services, which by Thuranne’s own admission was just one of many agencies in Sharn and hardly the most prestigious. Why not involve House Tharashk itself? A far more powerful entity and one capable of employing magical divination.

Thuranne unrolled the second scroll. Sunlight from the window behind her made the parchment translucent. Soneste could see the seal of the Brelish crown, its authenticity notarized by House Sivis.

“This is a letter from the King’s Citadel, which came to me this morning, asking me to set someone on the Korth murder case. Now I could speculate why they sent this to me, but given the facts, I’d say the crown wants to avoid a messy political situation and they don’t want to involve the dragonmarked houses at all if they don’t have to. There are some members of the Citadel who know me, and they know that I seldom involve my own house.”

“Why not send Roren?” she asked.

“You know why. He’s getting on in years. I need someone younger, stronger.”

“What about Abraxis Wren? He loves going abroad.” Wren was a House Medani inquisitive she’d worked for when she’d first come to Sharn, a few years before joining Thuranne’s agency.

The half-orc rolled her eyes. “The Citadel came to me, not Wren or House Medani, and they asked for you, Soneste. You’ve really made a name for yourself now.” A ghost of a smile lit Thuranne’s face. “They know you’re not afraid to take on the political or the powerful.”

Soneste nodded, not amused, allowing the gravity of the half-orc’s words to settle in. “What do we know?” she said, resigned, but she already knew where this was going.

Things had finally begun to happen for her. Good things. Soneste had gone from the agency’s most promising inquisitive to its best, seemingly overnight. She’d earned this new case, of course, but going to grim Karrnath even if she left right that moment would take up valuable time, time that meant the difference
between solving the case and failing miserably. Even a one-way trip by lightning rail would take days.

“Do you know the name ir’Daresh?” Thuranne asked.

Soneste didn’t, but the prefix “ir” always indicated a family of noble blood. She shook her head.

“Gamnon ir’Daresh is—was—a Brelish ambassador. He was killed on Karrnathi soil in the very shadow of Crownhome. Hence the political posture. Of course, Breland has many ambassadors and things happen from time to time. Gamnon wasn’t so important that we risk the attention of King Boranel just yet. But he wasn’t so minor that the murder is inconsequential. The motive is key here.”

“So all we need to do is determine who the killer is and why he did it? That’s it?”

“Yes. That’s it,” Thuranne said, a smile returning in full and bringing her orcish features to the fore. “We need to know how deep this goes. If you perceive the case to be a larger threat against Breland, then you send word back to me. The Dark Lanterns may get involved at that point, but if it’s just some local lunatic, identify him and let the Karrns apprehend him. He will most likely face Karrnathi … 
punishment
. That will be decided between the Justice Ministry of Korth and the King’s Citadel.”

Even as Thuranne spoke, Soneste imagined a Brelish nobleman lying dead in a cold alley with fresh blood pooling between the cobbles, a dagger twisted into his gut by a passing assassin. Almost immediately, red and black-robed clerics flocked like vultures around the body in the imagined scene.

“Wait,” Soneste said. “This is Karrnath, we’re speaking of. Can’t their priests just … 
talk
to the ambassador? Or what’s left of him?

Thuranne sucked her teeth. “Not with his head missing.”

“I … see,” said Soneste. “It’s
that
kind of case.”

“Even if it weren’t, you’d be smart to avoid that sort of magic in Karrn,” Thuranne said. “The Blood of Vol doesn’t rule the kingdom, but they’ve got their followers in a good number of places. Like as not, it would be a Cult priest doing the speaking. You don’t want to mix yourself up with them if you can help it.”

The Blood of Vol—a cult of nefarious reputation and the former national religion of Karrnath until King Kaius severed all political ties with the Cult. The king had never been able to dissolve all connections with the Cult of Vol, but it still thrived more in Karrnath than anywhere on Eberron. The Cultists placed far too much value on blood, bloodlines, and allegedly even revered the undead.

Soneste straightening in her chair. “All right. What else do we know?”

“Very little. Only a few details were provided in the letter. The Civic Minister, Hyran ir’Tennet, will provide you the rest. He did say that there is already one suspect, spotted at the scene.”

“I don’t suppose that would be Gamnon’s wife? A bit of revenge for some past indiscretion?” Soneste wondered if it could be that simple, a crime of passion. These were the easiest to reveal.

“No,” Thuranne answered. “As the murderer also killed Gamnon’s wife, their two children, four servants, and three city guards.”

Two children
. Soneste felt cold. This was a slaughter, no simple murder. Her imagined crime scene relocated from a slum alley to a private room in some luxurious restaurant. If a professional killer was responsible, then he may have been hired by someone else. Assassins always complicated a case. Nothing was finished until you found the patron.

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