Read The Inquisitives [4] The Darkwood Mask Online

Authors: Jeff LaSala

Tags: #Eberron

The Inquisitives [4] The Darkwood Mask (7 page)

When this present crisis had passed, he intended to make another generous and anonymous donation to the coffers of the Sovereign Host. Of course, he’d need to earn some more coin to do it. The Host knew, he would be handing over nearly everything he had left to Verdax. After two years of faithful, exclusive patronage, the cranky artificer still offered him only the slimmest of discounts.

When he took to the streets, Tallis marked the White Lions wherever he saw them. He could sense the tension within their ranks, the sleight deviations in their patrols and routines. For his vocation, Tallis had made a close study of the habits and patterns of the guards of each of the cities in which he was most active—Korth, Rekkenmark, and Atur.

Every White Lion of Korth would have been briefed at the start of their shift about last night’s massacre. Those who had known the three Lions slain at the Ebonspire now wore black and red brassards to commemorate their sacrifice.

But it was more than anger that disturbed the soldiers’ usual conduct. Pressure had been exerted on them from on high. Tallis could hear it in their terse conversations, could see the severity of their posture.

Three men had spotted Tallis at the Ebonspire, but he wasn’t sure if they could identify him. Those among the garrison who didn’t know his face already would have his description by now and would be looking for him.

Playing the part of the disabled veteran, Tallis shambled his way to the Ebonspire in the city’s topmost district, Highcourt Ward. The great tower was less formidable in the late afternoon light. It sure looked a lot more difficult to scale at night.

A squad of Lions stood at the base, steering pedestrians and coaches away from one side of the street. An abundance of dried blood could be seen amidst the cobbles between their formation. That must have been where Gamnon’s body had hit the street. Where had they moved the Brelish’s corpse? Surely not the Necropolis?

Tallis limped over to the closest Lion. “Someone die, son?” he asked gruffly.

“Business of the realm,” the soldier answered. “Move along, citizen.”

“Bloody shame,” he said, as if his ears were failing him. He looked up to the balconies that jutted from the tower. Thirty-four stories up lay a crime scene with his name no doubt stamped firmly upon it. Might as well be notarized by a Sivis clerk. “Another noble take his own life?”

The White Lion looked more seriously at him now, but there was no recognition in his eyes. The man’s voice was louder. “A foreign dignitary hammered the street, but it’s not my business or yours. Move along now, old man, or you’ll be arrested.”

“No need to yell,” Tallis said and turned away. As he made his way to Verdax’s shop, his mind raced.

Chapter
F
OUR

The City of Danger
Sul, the 8th of Sypheros, 998 YK

T
huranne accompanied Soneste to the House Orien enclave. Soneste watched the bustling cityscape in silence, the skycoaches, the endless parade of pedestrians across the streets and bridges. She felt homesick already.

Soneste had donned her shiftweave clothing, currently a coat of Brelish blue. She carried only a single haversack, her weapons, and a few other items on loan from the agency. Karrnath’s autumn was like midwinter in Breland, so she’d packed extra layers and a pair of thin gloves.

“Some say that a woman discovers herself when she comes to Sharn,” Thuranne said when they turned a corner and saw a tower emblazoned with Orien’s unicorn emblem. “But I’m of the mind that she discovers herself when she leaves it again. Sharn isn’t like the rest of the world, Soneste. Stay here too long and you’re not sure you’re even in Breland anymore. It’s a world unto itself.”

“But it’s Karrnath I’m going to,” Soneste said with a sigh.

“Wrong,” the half-orc replied. “You’re going to Korth. Every city has its own personality, its own secrets and dangers. You will need to adapt, of course, but don’t overlook the wonders or the history. That
city is quite possibly Khorvaire’s oldest. Who knows? You might miss these things when you come back to me.”

“Of course,” Soneste said, then fixed her boss with a stern expression. “I can’t help but feel you’re
trying
to get rid of me, Thura. Maybe there’s a bigger case brewing that you want me nowhere near.”

“Bah! Just name the bastard, then come back to me.” Thuranne smirked, the very picture of a proud employer. “You’ll do Breland—and more importantly,
my
agency—a great service. Now shut your mouth. We’re here.”

Soneste turned and looked upon the city one more time, basking in the warm sun. Not even a light rain today. Sure, this city could be hostile at times, corruption was rampant, and hypocrisy seeded every echelon of society, but Sharn was still beautiful and her years here had been among the best in her life.

They passed beneath the elaborate gate of the dragonmarked enclave.

Soneste’s mind drifted as Thuranne handled the details, showing their papers to the House Orien agents and paying for the service with a letter of credit sealed with the emblem of the Citadel.

“Listen to me, Soneste,” Thuranne said as the papers were processed. A uniformed man, his coat adorned with a silver brooch denoting him as a dragonmarked heir of House Orien, looked on with a polite and professional smile. “Keep yours senses sharp. You’ve got all the usual disadvantages of being human.” The half-orc winked. “But you’re still the most promising inquisitive I’ve got and we both know it. Just remember—”

“Watch myself,” Soneste cut in. “Thuranne, I know. Mostly, I just need to worry about solving this case right. I can’t take the chance of offending the wrong people.”

“That’s my girl,” Thuranne said. “Also, be careful of Karrnathi men. They’re gold for the eyes, but they’re aggressive and obtuse—Khyber take them all.” Thuranne gave her a quick, arm-crushing hug, then held one hand to Soneste’s shoulder in the custom of orcs. “Just come back to me alive, all right?”

“I will,
Mother,”
Soneste replied with a deliberate roll of her eyes.

Thuranne d’Velderan walked away, leaving only her matronly, toothy smile lingering in Soneste’s mind.

As she waited, Soneste busied herself with her travel pack, unwilling to let the Orien heir witness her anxiety. She swallowed then faced him again, her expression strictly professional. She’d adapted quickly enough to Sharn’s exorbitant heights when she’d first come here. It was magic, too, that kept the ancient towers from crumbling to the earth. Why did
this
terrify her? Childhood stories of teleportation mishaps came to mind.

The heir led her to an intricate, marbled mosaic upon the floor depicting the House Orien unicorn.

“We will arrive in another chamber, like this one,” the man explained. “You may find the sensation disorienting, Miss Otänsin, but it is painless and quite instantaneous.”

She nodded, just hoping to get it over with. If her career had been climbing, then this was the precipice she would have to overcome to reach the next great mountain. I can be home again in a matter of days, she thought. Thuranne had assured her that identifying the criminal was her only duty. The Justice Ministry would be responsible for the rest.

“Are you ready?” the Orien heir asked.

“I am,” she lied.

The man held her wrist firmly but gently, then she felt his palm grow hot as he tapped the power of his dragonmark, the great Mark of Passage whose curling design flowed out from his sleeve. Soneste tensed but kept her eyes open. She hadn’t expected to experience such magic in her life. It was a testament to the case behind her. Or the one before her.

There came a shift of light as the subtle shadows in the chamber’s stylized reliefs rearranged themselves in the blink of an eye. For a
moment, she felt perfectly still, then the world began to spin at an incredible speed. She took a step to right herself, but that only made the room pitch vertically.

“Assist her,” the heir called out.

A young girl in the house livery appeared before Soneste and caught her from falling even as the Orien heir helped to right her again. The attendant’s face was a blur, but it sharpened to perfect clarity within seconds. The world stilled, the dizzying sensation a mere memory.

“Are you well, Miss Otänsin?” the heir asked, releasing her wrist.

“I am, thank you,” Soneste said, flushed. A cool gust of wind swept in from the door across the hall, reminding her that she was quite clearly
somewhere else
. When the dragonmarked heir excused himself, she looked around.

The central hall of Orien’s enclave in Korth was more expansive than that of the Sharn enclave. Fewer people milled around, but many of them turned to stare at the new arrival. Anyone purchasing Orien teleportation magic was either very wealthy or sponsored by someone who was. The crowds were primarily human, though a small number of business-minded dwarves tarried here on errands of their own.

At a nearby desk, Soneste signed a transport ledger stating that she had suffered no adverse effects from the trip—absolving House Orien from all liability—then moved further into the great hall. Dim sunlight filtered down from a tremendous stained glass window that crowned the vaulted ceiling, casting the hall in a soft emerald light. Fading daylight shone through the main doors, which were propped open. The frigid air of Karrnath was already seeping into her.

She immediately noticed a distinguished, older gentleman who stood near the open door watching her closely. His gray and black uniform, along with the well-polished saber at his belt, suggested Karrnath military, but she could see no metals or emblems of rank. A civilian, then, sent to receive her.

Soneste wanted to stop and examine the veined marble of the floor and the columns rising high overhead, but she didn’t want to seem a wide-eyed sightseer. She was here to represent Breland—and Brelish justice. As much as she wanted this assignment to be over, or at least explore on her own, she would adhere to duty above all. She approached the envoy. The sooner in, the sooner out.

“Excuse me—”

She reached out her hand, then stopped abruptly as a figure she had
not
noticed emerged from a shadowed alcove to intercept her. The tall newcomer wore a grotesque suit of armor, a union of hard leather plates and human bones. Dark, impassive eyes scrutinized her from within the skull-faced visor. A faint, resinous odor rose from his body.

A chill ran through her as the war-time tales of Karrnath came to mind—legions of undead soldiers marching across the fields as black-robed necromancers animated their fallen to rise again. Karrnath, as evidenced by the knight before her, was as gruesome as she’d always imagined. Whose bones made up this fiend’s armor? A comrade’s? An enemy soldier’s?

“Apologies,” the envoy said. “Miss Otänsin, I presume?” He stepped around the knight and extended his hand.

“Yes,” Soneste answered him quietly, returning the knight’s glare before turning her full attention to the speaker.

“Hyran ir’Tennet,” the man said, introducing himself.

“Civic Minister?” Soneste asked, surprised. The head of the Korth’s Justice Ministry had waited to receive her personally? This was the man who’d sent word of the murder to the King’s Citadel and thereby to Thuranne. Her superior hadn’t lied. This case
was
important. Soneste was grateful the handshake was brief. The minister’s hands felt like ice.

“Thank you, Laedro,” Hyran said to the knight. “This is the inquisitive I have been expecting.”

Laedro nodded, stepping back. His warning eyes lingered on her a moment longer before turning his attention to the room at large. His presence drew stares from the scattered crowd, but
Soneste was surprised to see as much admiration as distaste from among them.

Hyran continued. “Welcome to Korth, Miss Otänsin. I apologize for the hastiness of the summons and appreciate your timely arrival. You have received our dispatch, then?”

“Yes, Minister. There are a few things I will need, and I’d like to be allowed to speak with the witnesses.”

Hyran nodded, gesturing to the door. “Of course. If you will accompany me, I can escort you to the Seventh Watch Inn, where you will be staying for the duration of your visit. Or, if you prefer, I can take you directly to the Ebonspire, where you will be given immediate access to the crime scene—should you choose to have a look
before
contending with the Ministry’s bureaucrats.”

Soneste chuckled nervously. Hyran seemed a true Karrn—cold, more than a little aloof—but she liked his candor. “If I could visit the scene first, I would appreciate it.”

“Then we will bring you there at once. Tomorrow morning you will be provided with whatever and whoever you require. The crown has instructed me—and the White Lions, our city’s fine garrison—to cooperate with your efforts.”

“Thank you, Minister. Are the bodies of the victims still at the scene?”

“They are, save for the ambassador’s. Out of necessity his remains have been moved to the Necropolis of the Valiant, our city’s morgue. You will be given access at any time.”

Together they exited the enclave, the knight Laedro shadowing them like a bodyguard. They came to a wide platform where steps led to the street below. Soneste saw a lightning rail station neighboring the enclave—how
most
foreigners arrived. Then she turned her head to face the rest of the city, which rose up before her in the coming twilight.

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