Authors: Tim Stead
The Lawkeeper of Samara
© Tim Stead 2015
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any written, electronic, recording, or photocopying form without written permission of the author.
Yet again I would like to thank all those who helped to make this book happen, all the patient readers whose comments, praise and criticism made this better than it otherwise might have been.
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Also by Tim Stead
The Sparrow and the Wolf
The Seventh Friend
The Bloodstained God
The Pity Stone
The Fourth Age of Shanakan
The body lay in the mud below the dock, naked and white against the brown ooze. Sam could see it was a boy, no more than ten years old. He was splayed out, half on one side, one arm flung out as if reaching for the dock, the other trapped beneath him. Sam crouched on the bleached wood and looked down. There were no footprints around the body, no sign that anyone had been near it.
“Tide’s coming in.”
He looked round. A small crowd had gathered on the dock. A body wasn’t that unusual in Gulltown, but the spectacle of someone taking an interest in it was rare. The Gulltowners, he suspected, had come to watch him, to see what he would do. The two guardsmen Sam had brought with him kept them away from the edge. It was one of the guardsmen, a man called Donnal, who had spoken.
Sam looked at the water. It swirled by a few feet lower than the corpse, but in an hour it would be under the dock and the body would be washed away. His eyes drifted up, across the turbid current. On the other side of the river, two hundred yards away, the fine houses of the old town stretched up from the water’s edge to the mansions of Morningside, dark under the morning sun. There was a faint rotten smell.
“We’ll have to fetch the body up,” he said.
“Why? He’s dead for sure.”
Sam looked down at the body again. It lay twenty feet below him. He understood the guardsman’s attitude. There had been no law in Gulltown for hundreds of years other than what the Faer Karan wished, but the Faer Karan were gone, driven out, and now they had a king, a city council, and law. Sam was the law.
“I want to find out how he died,” Sam said. “If somebody killed him.”
He looked side to side. A ladder reached down to the mud about fifty yards along the dock. He stood and walked over to it. It didn’t inspire confidence. The wood looked rotten and the nails rusted, but it was the only way down. He stepped onto it and tested his weight on one of the rungs, making sure he had a good grip on the sides in case it broke. The rung held.
He climbed down, careful to put a lot of his weight on the ladder’s uprights, and stepped onto the mud. It was firmer than he’d expected. The smell of decayed matter was stronger down here, but it had nothing to do with the corpse. That was fresh. It had to be. Unless the tide had brought it up last night. The last high tide was less than ten hours past. He walked to the body and crouched beside it.
He studied the corpse for a moment before he touched it. Sam could see no obvious cause of death, no cuts or stab wounds, no sign of his having been beaten. It was likely that the boy had drowned, yet there was no sign that he had ever been in the water.
Sam reached out and turned him over. He saw a red mark, a line clearly visible across the throat. Strangled then? That would make it murder. He looked at the boy’s hands and saw that the fingernails were broken, a couple of them almost torn away. He had no idea what that meant, but it meant something. There was a red mark on one wrist. He couldn’t see anything else. He detected a scent like roses, but different. Sam couldn’t place it – almost as if the boy had been bathed in scented water before he was killed – or after.
He looked up at the dock. Donnal was standing just where the killer must have stood to throw the body.
“Have we got a rope?” he asked.
Sam sighed. That meant he’d have to carry the boy back up the ladder, and Sam wasn’t a big man. He lifted the body and bent down, shifting it so that it lay over his shoulder, bent at the waist. It made him heavier, and his feet sank a little further into the mud. He walked across to the ladder, pausing between each step, careful not to slip and fall. He stopped at the foot of the ladder and looked up. It had borne his weight well enough on the way down, but with the boy?
He started to climb. It was difficult. He had to turn slightly sideways and between steps he had to let go with his left hand and snatch at the next rung because his right hand was busy pinning the boy’s legs against his side. He moved up the ladder slowly. His shoulder ached and his wrist felt weak when he snatched at the rungs.
A rung snapped under his right foot. He twisted around and nearly lost his grip on the boy, but his left hand stayed anchored to the ladder and after a moment he managed to get his right foot up onto the rung above and put weight on it again. He stayed still for a moment, dragged air into his lungs.
“Are you all right?” Donnal asked, leaning over the top of the ladder.
“Fine,” Sam said. He shifted the body and began to climb again. The last few steps passed without further alarm and he tipped the body onto the dock and climbed up after it. He stood for a moment and looked out across the river, working the pain out of his shoulder, feeling the muscle in his left arm. He might have pulled it. There was a breeze coming up, blowing sea air into Gulltown, which would be an improvement.
Sam had grown up in Gulltown, but he had no love for the place. He’d lived here most of his life until the end of the Faer Karan. He’d been a fisherman, and then in the chaos that followed their fall he had somehow become an officer in the Gulltown citizen militia. When order had been restored – really only a few months ago – they’d asked him to do this job. Why? He didn’t know, but he’d lost his family, lost his boat, the militia had disbanded and it seemed a worthwhile thing to do, so he’d accepted.
So now he was Sam Hekman, Lawkeeper of Samara.
“Put the body on the wagon,” he said.
Donnal looked at the corpse. It was clear from his face that he didn’t want to touch it. He looked back at the other guard, but Findaran made himself busy facing the other way. Technically the guards didn’t work for Sam. They were on loan for a couple of weeks from the Ocean’s Gate guard. But they owed their duty to Sam, however temporary that might be.
Donnal scooped up the body. He was twice Sam’s size. He carried the boy easily over to the wagon and dumped him in the back. Dead bodies didn’t get much respect in Samara, and certainly not in Gulltown. The boy had probably been a street urchin, a nobody, an orphan. Nobody seemed to be looking for him.
Sam walked over to the crowd. He knew one or two of the faces.
“Anyone know the boy?” he asked.
He saw shrugs, shaking heads, but nobody spoke. He expected that. It was enough that they’d seen him and the guards take the body away. If anyone started looking for the boy they’d quickly discover what had happened here. A good story went round Gulltown quicker than fever.
He walked back to the wagon and climbed up onto the seat. The two guards were already on their horses, waiting. He looked round the dock one last time. The crowd had begun to disperse, drifting back into the shabby streets past the dilapidated warehouses and an old chandlery shop that had been boarded up ten years ago. One or two of the other buildings here had been burned out.
Bad times, but Gulltown knew no other kind. Never had. He flicked the reins and the horse dragged the wagon forwards, bumping over the uneven paving stones, back towards the bridge, back to the old city.
The law house was a big building. It was old and in need of paint. He had no idea what it had been before. It looked like a row of houses knocked together, but now it was empty, a maze of bare rooms on two stories with a big cellar. All but two of the rooms were empty. The hallway, hardly a room at all, had a scattering of chairs and Sam’s room, his office, he supposed, usually housed Sam. He’d never had an office before and couldn’t be sure what made it an office or what he was supposed to do there. He left the wagon in the yard out the back with the body in it and came through to the hall.
Gilan sat in the hall, his feet up on a desk, snoozing. He woke at the sound of a creaking floorboard and turned to look at Sam.
“Anything?” he asked.
“Dead boy,” Sam said. “Murder, I think.”
Gilan stared at him for a moment. “Well, good luck with that,” he said. Sam knew what he meant. Crimes in Gulltown were common, never witnessed, never reported. People looked after their own, or more often than not didn’t. He’d got the impression from the city council that they expected him to keep the law in the old city and Morningside, but that Gulltown would look after itself. It always had. He saw things differently. If he was the lawkeeper of Samara then he would be lawkeeper for all of Samara.
“I need someone to lay the body out,” he said.
“No problem.” Gilan went to the front door where Donnal and Findaran had resumed their customary slouching and sent one of them off to fetch a death man. He seemed to have more luck ordering the guards around. Perhaps it was because he’d been a guard officer once, before he came to work for Sam.
“You’ve got possible recruits coming in this morning,” Gilan said when he came back in. He waved a piece of paper, a list of names.
“Fine,” Sam said. He didn’t feel like talking to people much, but he needed more recruits. He’d been given money for fifty and so far there was just Gilan. “How many?”
“There’s more tomorrow – another six.”
“When are they due?”
“This morning,” Gilan said. It wasn’t a helpful reply. “But there’s someone waiting for you in your room.”
Sam thought he detected the ghost of a smile on Gilan’s lips. He’d deliberately held the news back. Ella Saine was young, pretty, and disturbingly clever. She was the daughter of the city’s most prominent merchant, a friend of the king and a very good friend of the Do-Regana, the Princess Calaine. He hurried though the maze of the law house until he came to his office.
It wasn’t a big room. There was a desk, a couple of chairs, some boxes, and a window that looked out over the rooftops towards the river and Gulltown beyond it. Ella Saine was perched on one of the chairs, reading a book, but looked up when Sam came in. She smiled.
Ella wasn’t tall. Sam wasn’t much above five foot himself, and when they’d met before he’d noticed that they were more or less eye to eye. Her slight build and pale skin made her look even younger than she was, almost a child, and she tied her dark hair back with a simple unadorned band – again, more like a child than a woman grown, but he had never seen her wear it any other way. Ella liked to dress in modest browns and blacks. In someone else it might have been an affectation, but not Ella. It was browns this morning.
Sam liked Ella. If he’d had a daughter he’d want her to be like Ella. If he’d had a son he’d want him to marry her. She was open, honest, decent and fair minded which was surprising since she’d been raised rich and was rumoured to be friends with the Mage Lord Serhan as well as all the rest. You couldn’t get more connected than Ella Saine.
“Sam Hekman, how are you?”
“Well enough, Councillor Saine, how may we serve you?”
“Ella, Sam, call me Ella. Everyone does.”
Sam nodded and walked around behind his desk. He sat, feeling awkward. Ella was about eighteen, he guessed, but she was a major power in the city, and more or less his employer. “Ella,” he said. “What can we do for you?”
“Other way round,” she said. “We’ve voted you more money and Calaine agreed. You’ll get the stable block on Yarrow Street, too.” She grinned. It was something Sam had observed in her before. She delighted in delivering good news.
It was a surprise. She’d mentioned the stable block last time he’d seen her, but that had been two months ago and he hadn’t really hoped. “It’s people I need,” he said. “I think I need to pay them more.”
“Well, you can afford to now.”
“Gilan will be happy.”
“Not ‘till he gets out of this building,” Ella said. It was true. He’d hired Gilan to work the streets, to patrol, and he spent his days sitting in a chair. He had no idea how Ella knew this.
“I’ve got people coming in today,” he said. “Maybe we can find a clerk.”
Ella pulled something out from between the pages of her book and handed it to him. It was a single sheet of paper. He unfolded it to see a city council order, signed by Calaine. There was a sum of money written there and some words about the stable block. It was the sum of money that stopped him.
“That’s a lot of money,” he said.
“You can’t put too high a price on law and order,” Ella said. Sam wondered what he was going to spend it on, but he knew he would. There would be salaries, furniture, horses, wagons, weapons, food – the list was endless.
“Thank them for me,” Sam said. “This will make a difference.”
Ella smiled again. “I will,” she said. “You were out just now,” she said. “Something we should know about?”
“Hardly. Someone reported a body in Gulltown – a river man saw it from the water. I went and fetched it. A boy. Murder by the look of it, but we’ll never solve it.”
“No witnesses, no name. It would be a miracle if we found out who he was.”
“You’re just getting started.”
Ella stood up, so Sam did the same.
“I’ll leave you to get on,” she said. Sam followed her to the door of the law house. It seemed the polite thing to do. He felt embarrassed. He was beginning to wonder why he’d brought the body back at all. There was little or nothing he could do apart from have it laid out and properly buried, and that would be at the city’s expense.