Read The Inquisitives [4] The Darkwood Mask Online

Authors: Jeff LaSala

Tags: #Eberron

The Inquisitives [4] The Darkwood Mask (8 page)

Korth sat on a series of natural bluffs around the dark waters of King’s Bay, a wide alcove in the Karrn River. Soneste imagined the city as a great cemetery on a sloping hill, cluttered with giant-sized stone slabs and mausoleums. Monuments, spires, and statues
rose amid the great structures. In sheer height, the buildings of Korth could not compare to the mile-high towers of Sharn, but the dark structures and their dramatic facades brought a sense of history and solemnity to the vast gray city. The gust of icy wind that lashed at her hair and coat did little to discourage this fancy. Breland was far away indeed.

One of Khorvaire’s oldest cities, Korth’s foundations were laid when humans were still newcomers to the continent. Karrn the Conqueror founded the kingdom of Karrnath three thousand years ago. The city conveyed that sense of age to Soneste now, and for a moment she stood in solemn silence. At last she caught Hyran’s eye, who offered a tight smile in turn. Perhaps he was accustomed to newcomers gawking at the ancient city.

At the base of the steps, a coach awaited. They climbed aboard, Laedro mounting a steed of his own. Soneste nearly balked when she saw the horse—clean white bones bereft of flesh beneath heavy barding. Empty black sockets stared out from its armored, equine skull. Composing herself, she settled herself into the coach’s velveteen interior as it started into motion. The knight trotted alongside them.

The ride across the city was pleasant but somber. Soneste gazed up at the buildings as they passed. Affixed to even the humblest of doorsteps were curling, wrought iron railings, while cold fire lanterns hung from stylized hooks. The Karrns went about their business just like the citizens of any Brelish city, but she observed more military personnel among the crowds. More weapons were buckled, harnessed, or carried openly. Uniform white tabards and shining breastplates denoted the White Lions of whom Hyran had spoken. They wore open-faced, white-plumed helms and carried axes and longbows, looking more like field soldiers than city watchmen.

As they passed a lightly wooded park, Soneste craned her head only sleightly—sensitive to Hyran’s presence—to glimpse a multi-tiered keep floating overhead. She’d only seen paintings of it before: the Tower of the Twelve. Funded by the dragonmarked houses
collectively, the Twelve was an institution for arcane advancement and the study of the mystic dragonmarks themselves. She’d never expected to see the famous tower with her own eyes.

Hyran stared out the window, his gaze lost in unreadable thought. Soneste was tempted to appraise his emotions directly, but the moment was too silent. Her powers came with a subtle display, easily unnoticed in a crowd but highly conspicuous in quiet company.

She wondered what he was thinking of her, or of Breland sending a civilian to investigate the death of one of its ambassadors. Did he welcome such help from abroad, or did he prefer delegating his own men according to strict Karrnathi protocol?

The coach wound steadily up through a maze of streets, passing from one district to another until at last they reached the highest tier of the city. A towering fortress—possibly the largest single structure she’d ever seen—rose to the south, constructed of pale stone between a pair of massive, rough-hewn spires of rock. Lantern-lit windows honeycombed the structure, while indigo flames crowned the battlements. Soneste could see the movement of scores of soldiers upon the wall and the glitter of arcane ballistae. The monolithic fortress dwarfed every other structure in the city.

“Crownhome,” the Minister said, though Soneste had guessed it herself. “The home of King Kaius III.”

“Beautiful,” she said, marveling at the palace. A mere two years ago, a Brelish passing so casually before the home of Karrnath’s king was unthinkable.

Soneste thought of Brokenblade Castle, the ancestral home of her own king in Breland’s capital of Wroat. She remembered sitting on her father’s shoulders as a girl, so she could look above the crowds at the massive, hexagonal keep from which King Boranel ruled the nation.

But while Brokenblade Castle was a stronghold of dark gray stone, bright banners, and courtly elegance, Crownhome looked like a fortress of bone, fully arrayed for war. The two strongholds couldn’t appear more different, yet both exuded the majesty of old Galifar.

With her own nation in mind, a thought occurred to Soneste. “Is this where Prince Halix and Princess Borina now reside?”

“It is,” Hyran replied with a pleasant smile. “Princess Borina is often at court. Prince Halix enrolled at Rekkenmark Academy earlier this year. He returns to Korth periodically to visit his sister, and I understand he’ll be returning again soon. One of our nobles is hosting a Conqueror tournament in a couple of weeks and will be inviting competitors from across the Five Nations. I’m told the prince is an avid fan of the game.”

Soneste remembered with mixed feelings when the
Korranberg Chronicle
had announced the foreign exchange that Breland had established with Karrnath, Aundair, and Thrane as a gesture of peace between the Five Nations. Kaius III’s younger sister, Haydith, now lived in King Boranel’s court, while his brother Gaius had been sent to Thrane. In turn, Boranel’s youngest children had come to Karrnath to continue their education in Kaius’s court.

The murdered Brelish ambassador came swiftly to mind. As if guessing her thoughts, Hyran continued.

“They are safe, rest assured, and well guarded. I daresay the princess is very popular among our aristocracy. She has Korth’s finest attending to her at all times, as well as a fair number of misguided suitors. The prince spends most of his time among his fellow cadets at Rekkenmark. There is no safer place in Karrnath, Miss Otänsin. General Thauram, commander of the White Lions, is assembling his elite in the wake of this recent tragedy to guard them both.”

Soneste looked out at the gruesome knight riding alongside the coach. She wondered how many of the “elite” were actually alive. Surely they wouldn’t guard Brelish royals with Karrnathi undead.

Soon the coach pulled up before a massive tower of black stone. Hyran helped her from the coach with the grace of a well-bred noble.

“This is the Ebonspire,” he said, produced a leather folder and holding it out to her. “Within this you will find a description of
the scene and the death report. An agent from the Ministry of the Dead has employed preservative spells upon the suite so that you can examine the crime scene as it was found last night. Tomorrow afternoon the bodies will need to be removed, so please make whatever observations you can tonight.”

“In the morning you may call on me at the Justice Ministry.” Hyran pointed to the heavy doors of the tower behind her. “The concierge has been informed of your presence, and can give you directions to either the Ministry’s headquarters or the Seventh Watch Inn.”

“Thank you, Minister.” She didn’t know what else to say.

With a nod, Hyran climbed into the coach again. The conveyance rolled off down the street, and the grim knight gave her a final glare before disappearing.

Chapter
F
IVE

Reflections of Death
Sul, the 8th of Sypheros, 998 YK

W
hen bells rang to mark the middle of fifth watch, Tallis left the docks and joined the dwindling crowds in the Community Ward, eyeing the people as he took up the armless veteran’s pace again. The Lions had doubled their patrols, often stopping citizens to ask questions. Here and there, merchants bargained with customers, exchanging nervous rumors as well as coins. Tallis knew how to read crowds, could recognize paranoia flitting between Korth’s middle and lower classes.

He couldn’t blame them. There was a killer on the loose—so it was said—more deadly than most, and while most accepted the slayings that took place among the dregs of the Low District as an understandable hazard, this latest murder had reached into highest echelons of Korth society. Rumor was, the murderer was a veteran of the Last War taking revenge against all enemies of Karrnath.

Images from the slaughter assailed Tallis’s mind, but he pushed them away with a soldier’s resolve. When allies and enemies fell before his eyes during the War, Tallis had fought on, carrying out his missions to their end. Death on the battlefield had to be impersonal.

But this … this was different.

“Mourn another day,” an instructor at the Academy had once said, so Tallis would not bow to grief. Yes, he’d known Gamnon as a Brelish captain during the Last War—as part of a combined attack against Cyre—but had never called the man a friend. But no matter what kind of man Gamnon had been or had become, his family—his children—could
not
have deserved their fate.

Since waking only hours ago, he’d found ways to occupy his mind. Speaking with Lenrik, even briefly, always had a calming effect upon him. Bargaining with Verdax and pawning off some of his possessions helped too. But walking the streets, lacking a plan, Tallis found his mind wandering free again. Perhaps some food would help.

He found a meat vendor racing to close up his cart before nightfall. As the streets began to empty, Tallis made his way to the Commerce Ward, chewing the strips of salted pork he’d purchased. Today it might as well have been ashes. It did nothing to console him.

A child’s scream of pain shattered his attempted silence. He looked around, startled, then determined it wasn’t real. The scene from last night battered at his consciousness, demanding recollection. Tallis, helpless to stop it, picked up his pace as the events of the Ebonspire began to return to him in force. Not since the Last War and the depredations of Marshal Serror had he felt such disgust.

“Not
now,”
he breathed.

According to the plaque in the lobby, the Ebonspire was forty-five stories in height. There were four separate residences on each level arrayed around a central shaft, where a lift carried guests to any level they wished to go. The lift had been disabled during the attack, forcing the responding guards to take the stairs. Soneste had asked the attendant within what powered the lift, suspecting some artifice of House Cannith. Her understanding of such
mechanisms was limited to the towers of Sharn, most of which were built and accessed by Cannith ingenuity and augmented by an aerial manifest zone. As a resident of the City of Towers, it was difficult for Soneste to believe that any other dragonmarked house could be as powerful as House Cannith.

“Elemental,” the bored magewright had answered her, offering nothing more.

Soneste arrived at the thirty-fourth floor, where she found five White Lions guarding the door. They stood like statues, positioned evenly to view every entrance to the level. One of the soldiers was a dark-haired woman Soneste’s own age. Only her eyes turned to Soneste when she stepped off the lift. The city watch in Sharn never displayed this level of discipline, and Soneste felt certain the White Lions would not be as easily swayed with bribes or honeyed words.

Soneste produced her identification papers, but the other woman waved the document away. “Either you’re the killer come again—in which case there’s obviously little we could do to stop you entering—or you’re the inquisitive they sent in.”

“I … Yes.”

“Three good men lost their lives defending your precious ambassador, so do me a favor, Brelander. Just name the killer so we can do
our
job.”

“I aim to,” Soneste answered with a nod, deciding this was not the time to correct the name for her countrymen:
Brelish
. Korth’s garrison seemed as dour as its citizenry, but after dealing with silver-tongued Aundairians and self-righteous Thranes back home, Karrns were refreshingly incisive. They seemed to say precisely what they were thinking.

“If you need us,” the Lion said with a dismissive gesture, “just shout.”

The key the concierge had given her unlocked the door with a metallic
click
without her needing to turn it at all. It suppressed the magic wards that locked and guarded the door. The killer no doubt had the means to subvert such wards.

When Soneste pushed open the door, an unnatural cold washed over her from the dimness within. Even if every window within had been left open, it should not have been this frigid. Clearly this was the preservative magic of which Hyran spoke.

The coppery stench of blood tainted the air, muted only sleightly by the cold. She’d inspected too many murder scenes to be fazed by such unpleasantness, but the lingering threat of the unknown killer kept her senses sharp, despite the presence of the guards. Killers often returned to the scene of the crime, either to remove evidence or kill again.

Soneste shut the door behind her then drew out her crysteel dagger and a silvery headband. The latter was a watch lamp, created for the Sharn Watch, but the many favors owed to Thuranne had secured several for her agency’s use. Soneste slipped the mithral circlet around her head and with a thought summoned a globe of white light into the air. It floated just over her shoulder, illuminating the space around her as brightly as a torch.

The dwelling was a study in luxurious amenities. Easily five times larger than her own apartment back in Sharn, it was carpeted and filled with a variety of elegant furniture and magewrought conveniences. Beyond the foyer, she could see two bedrooms, a privy, and a dining room all connected by a lavish—though blood-spattered—common room.

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