They were half-way through lunch when Al asked, “Are we going?”
“To what, Wizard?”
Raulin patted his lips with a napkin, sensing there was a discussion at hand. “Why?”
“Well, most people aboard are going, right? It’s the fashionable thing to do. And I’ve never seen one before. I’m interested in what happens during a duel.”
“Let me illuminate you on what will happen. They’ll be some posturing by the two noblemen. If they don’t back down, they’ll shove their fighters into the ring and the official will tell them to start. Lots of clangs, lots of grunts, lots of blood. Eventually, one of them will land a blow that will be too much for the other and he will sink to the ground in defeat. There will be applause and crumpets on the deck. People will congratulate the nobleman who backed the winner and the duelist will be a bit of a celebrity for a day or two. The other man, already forgotten, may or may not die from his injury that day or in the next week. His noble backer might help that in a fit of anger.
“Everyone thinks it’s a positively wonderful way to solve a dispute, as if the skill and luck of a fighter determines whether someone else was right or wrong. Fighting with swords, killing men who have nothing to do with it, cowardly nobles hiding behind the skills of another. I’ll pass, myself.”
Al sat on that for a few moments. “Well, maybe neither will die? Isn’t it ‘til first touch?”
“I’ve found most nobles have no qualms risking someone else’s life, especially when it’s not another noble. In cases of feuds such as the one I almost entangled myself in, I’m sure the directive will be ‘take out the others best duelist’.”
“But, they might not…”
“Wizard, I’m not going to judge you if you go and watch this farce of justice. I’d have to judge a lot of people on this boat in that case. You asked if we were going and this part of ‘we’ will not be attending.”
Both Tel and Anla did accompany Al to the deck where a huge portion of the ship had gathered. Some people had ever brought chairs from inside to sit. Everyone was arranged in a circle around Dombray and Brashef, their seconds, and the captain of the ship, who was required to oversee duels.
It went about as Raulin had said it would. Dombray’s second, who wore a blue shirt, squared off against Brashef’s second, who had somehow managed to find a gray doublet to wear. Both were formidable swordsmen, evenly matched but not excellent in form. It all came down to a wound to the chest that no one had caught, not even Brashef’s second, until his spittle came out red when he wheezed to catch his breath, sinking to his knees as the captain called the match.
The crowd clapped and dispersed quickly, a few straggling to pat Dombray on the shoulder. Al was left feeling all the disgust Raulin had tried to convey in his diatribe, wondering what was going to happen to the man in the gray doublet. He approached him, already abandoned by Brashef and his coterie, wondering if there was anything left to do for him.
His breathing came in wet and gurgling inhalations. Al held his hand and got close to his face to get his attention. “Is there someone you want me to write to?”
The man breathed four or five times before a single tear ran from the corner of his eye into his ear. “Adiana,” he whispered.
“Adiana. Is she your sister? Beau?”
“Okay, I’ll do that for you. Tell me where to write to and what to say and I’ll do it.”
The man began to speak haltingly, first in single words, then with a few strung together, and finally in full sentences. As he spoke of her, his color returned. The phlegm Al wiped from the man’s mouth cleared. The crackles in his airway ceased. After a half-hour or so, he was well enough to sit propped against one of the chairs.
Al looked up and saw that Anla and Tel were sitting at a table, talking but with one eye on what Al was doing. “Anla!” he called to her. “Fetch the ship’s doctor.”
She walked over. “He’s doing well?”
“Yes! I think his injury wasn’t as bad as everyone thought. He’s stable, but he’s going to need medical attention.”
When she left, he turned back to the man. “Does this mean you have to fight again?”
“No. I’ve done my part.”
“I hope you were at least paid well.”
He stared off for a few moments, then pressed his lips together before shaking his head. “I thought Brashef was going to help push me up in society, introduce me to the right people. He did, but he always kept me around him, paid my passage, paid for my meals and clothes, never really trying to help me make money or a name for myself. I thought he had taken a shining to me, but now I’m starting to realize I was just his sword for when this happened.”
“What are you going to do?” Al asked.
The man shrugged and didn’t talk any more about it. To kill time, Al talked about some of the highlights of the last year, like eating at Vedroir and meeting the Count of Carvek. The man didn’t appear to be listening, but he did thank Al for helping him and staying with him until the doctor arrived with two sailors and a litter.
“I think you should write that letter,” Al said and the man gave him a lopsided smile.
* * *
It took a week for the ship to reach the first port au call, Vetifre in Genale. The most dangerous part of the trip was over; from here on out the journey would be closer to river boating then sailing. There were so many islands in the Great Gheny Bay that the waters were never really severe. A hurricane would have to blow directly over the mainland of Genale and up through the bay for any serious flooding to occur, and hurricanes never formed at this time of the year.
Vetifre was a modest-sized city where Al was able to sell a few of the paperbacks he carried, save the one Lady Amirelsa gave him for solving her case. They had another three weeks before they reached Acripla and he had already scoured the ship’s library for any reading that interested him. He needed a fresh supply, but came up short.
It took them about four days, after a full day in port, to reach Kabi Raki, the last major city before the long journey to Acripla. Here he found the books he wanted and wasn’t forced to read that editor’s copy again.
He was going to find a deck chair to recline upon while devouring his new novels, but it had begun to rain the day they left port. And so he curled up into an armchair inside, wrinkling his nose at the cigarette and pipe smoke, and dealt with it as he read his newest Aubin-lead alley novel.
It was almost dinner when he was pulled from his novel by a loud murmuring from the crowd, just as Aubin was due to emerge from the alley and meet Melidet, too. He was a little curious by what was going on, but what prompted him to dog-ear his book was the word “trirec” being spoken over and over again by people congregating near the deck.
He pushed his way through as the crowd parted to let Raulin and two sailors through. His hands were behind his back and he made no resistance. He saw Al standing there and said, “Talk to Anla. Good luck,” before being led to the stairwell in the center of the ship.
“What happened?” he asked the person next to him.
“I heard the trirec killed someone,” the man said.
“He killed Earl Brashef,” someone else said.
“No, no,” someone corrected, “he killed Viscount Dombray.”
Where would Anla be? He ducked outside onto the deck, where it was less crowded, and took the stairwell down. They almost missed each other as she was running up, looking for him.
“Al,” she said. “Raulin’s been arrested.”
“I saw. What for?”
“Someone was killed and Raulin just so happened to be nearby when they found the body.”
He gently led her to their cabin and closed the door behind them. “Did he do it?”
“No!” she said angrily.
“I was just seeing if we needed to figure out who really did it or plan an escape.”
“Oh,” she said, sitting on the bed. “I’m sorry. What do we need to do?”
“First, we need to gather all the information we can. Who was killed? Who found the body? Kriskin malor, I need to go see the crime scene before someone mucks it up!”
The two raced through the ship, stopping only to ask people questions. The consensus was the murder had occurred in the library. Thankfully, Al knew exactly where that was and he led Anla by the wrist down the stairs and through one of the decks until they found a crowd milling around outside the doorway.
Al sucked in his breath through his teeth. “There’s no way we’re getting through that mess.”
“Then stand back and let’s see what we can see,” she said.
There was about ten minutes where curious passengers clogged the hallway, swaying with the ship and trying to figure out what had happened for their own sick delight. (Al realized a fair number of them might have been disappointed that they hadn’t seen a dead body at the duel a few weeks prior.) They got their wish when the body was carried from the room, the crowd parting to let the two sailors carrying the corpse of Viscount Dombray through.
“Anla, stay with them. Try to get any clues about how he was killed.”
“I don’t know what to look for,” she whispered.
“Remember what I needed to look for from the clues with Tel’s trial. Time of death, weapon, angle, things like that. Go.”
She took off after the ghastly procession as Al slipped into the library. A few officers and a couple of gentlemen were standing around discussing the situation. Another sailor in a smart white uniform was speaking to a man who was sitting at one of the tables.
“Sir, we need you to leave,” the first mate said once he noticed Al. “There’s been a crime here.”
“Oh, I know,” Al responded. He pretended, just in his mind, that he was holding his ax, which gave him an air of confidence he normally lacked. “I’m here to offer my services. I regret that I don’t have any of my cards on me,” he said, patting his pockets, “but my name is Fiar Auslen and I’m an investigator with Corter and Afrishi in New Wextif. We specialize in theft, but work with other crimes as well. I’d like to offer my services.”
Everyone paused for one moment. When the first mate didn’t bat an eyelash, the rest went in step. He approached Al and asked, “How much for your services?”
“We can discuss that at a later point. Right now I need everyone out who isn’t pertinent, which I’m guessing is everyone. I would like someone who remembers how the victim fell and who can recreate that for me.”
“Do you need to see the body?”
“My assistant is looking at that.”
He turned to look at the pool of blood, a stain on an Oriental carpet that showed red on the white and crimson on the red. “Sir, did you want to interview the witness?”
“Witness?” He whipped his head back to the captain. “If there’s a witness, why hasn’t an arrest been made?”
“He refuses to talk about it. I’m not sure if you’ll get anything out of him.”
Al walked across the room to where a younger man with thinning blond hair sat, rocking slightly forward and backward. “Hello, sir,” Al began, “I hear you witnessed the crime?”
He shook his head and continued to rock.
Al looked up at the first mate. “He was here, sir, when the, uh, situation occurred.”
“I’d say that makes him our prime suspect, then.”
“In his state?” Al had said it to goad the man to speak, but the first mate didn’t catch on to his tactic. “He also doesn’t have a drop of blood on him. And he’s also of noble blood.”
Al was about to ask what the last statement had to do with the crime, but then he remembered the discussion he’d had with Raulin a week prior. Nobles couldn’t hurt nobles. They couldn’t even have fair sparring matches when learning fencing. And they most certainly couldn’t kill each other. This man couldn’t have killed the Viscount, then. Neither could Earl Brashef, who would’ve have been the next suspect.
He needed this man to help. “Could you tell me your name?”
The man stared ahead but mumbled, “Eri-Earl Jeurd Cavrige of Mount Blakesly.”
“Mount Blakesly…where is that?”
“Ekitol. It’s in the Breadbasket and has over seventy-five thousand souls living in it’s streets. We just had the library to Cyurinin redone with our sundry,” he said, though it sounded more like a recitation.
This gave Al an idea. “You like to read?”
“Yes,” he said, making eye contact briefly. “I love Berothian poetry.”
Al’s class schedule had included a class on poetry with a heavy emphasis on Berothian. “Epic or romantic? I prefer the first myself.”
Lord Cavrige scoffed and rolled his eyes. “Epic Berothian is for any idiot who wants to look like they know what they’re talking about. They read a little Muscafit or Temi of Beshkala and ta da! They’re an expert. A real expert in Berothian won’t even bother with those hacks. Go read The Eyes Over the Desert Sea by Kentiflax and then we can talk about real poetry.”
A few months prior and he might have gotten into an argument with this man. Maybe he should have, anyway, to wag his tongue. But, he found himself a bit stunned. There was something about the way the man emphasized and stressed his words that reminded him of himself. Hadn’t he had discussions with Raulin over Caudet and alley novels in this exact tone?
Had he really been that annoying?
“You know what, maybe I will,” he said. “I’ve read it once or twice, but it’s been a few years. Is there a copy here?”
“Sadly, no. Just the usual night soil and rancid oil. I suppose you could read Fair Easterly Winds by Garashno, Kin Tiah but it’s not the best you’re going to find.” He stood, retrieved the book, and handed it to Al.
“Thank you.” He slid the book over to his side. “Were you reading Berothian poetry when the attack happened?”
“No,” he said quietly. “I was…” He trailed off before a man came charging into the room.
“M’lord, I just heard about the terrible tragedy. Perhaps we should go somewhere that’s quieter?”
“Yes,” Jeurd said, perking up, “I think we should.”
“Goodman, I am conducting an investigation,” Al said, trying to stop the two men from leaving. “I need a witness statement from Eri-Earl Cavrige about what he saw during the murder.”
“I didn’t see anything,” Cavrige said before being ushered out by his attendant.
Al gritted his teeth, then turned to the stain on the carpet, hoping to get something from that.
* * *
Al’s next course of action was to visit Raulin in the brig, then find out what Anla discovered. It was a nice bit of luck that she was visiting him at the same time.
“Hi, Wizard. Find out anything?” Raulin asked. The first mate locked the door behind them, the brig being a secure room in the holding instead of a barred cell.
“Not really. There is a witness, but he’s not talking. Seems a bit fuddled by the whole ordeal.”
“Who is it?”
“Uh, his name is…Lord Cavrige.”
Both Anla and Raulin sucked in air through their teeth. “Wonderful,” he said.
“Raulin, that sounded like sarcasm. It was sarcasm, wasn’t it?” Al sighed. “Out of curiosity, what is your honest opinion of Caudet?”
“If you want to drink the wine you love, Wizard, I’m not going to…”
“As I said, it’s the wine made from the inferior grapes in the harvest. They use it for stock and show, not really to drink. I’ve had it several times in poor taverns; gave me a bad aftertaste and a mild headache later every time. Why?”
“When I spoke to him about Berothian poetry, I had a feeling like I was wearing your shoes and he was talking like I did about Caudet.”
Anla gave a throaty laugh. “Now that you mention it, there are similarities between Jeurd and the old Al.”
“You know him?”
“Yes. It’s a long story, but I knew him a few years ago. It might be worthwhile for me to try to persuade him to shake his fruit.”
“I’ll give that one to you; I don’t think I have the finesse to get him to talk. What did you find out from the corpse?”
“He had multiple wounds. A shallow cut across the throat, a few cuts and stabs on his torso, and one deep one under the ribs into his heart.”
Raulin, sitting on his cot, crossed his leg and leaned forward to hear what Al was going to say.
Al walked himself through a mock fight, then said, “Sloppy, but not inexperienced in fighting. He snuck up on him and tried slitting his throat, but the cut wasn’t enough. The Viscount turned and tried fighting back, probably dodged as many attacks as he could. I didn’t see anything out of place in the library, which I’m guessing means he couldn’t find a weapon. He was unarmed until finally, the assassin ran in and got the fatal stab, under the ribs instead of over, which means he knew that was much more effective. He knows how to fight, but I doubt he’s killed many people. Not a professional, like Raulin. He would have slit his throat more efficiently.”
“I’ll take the compliment,” Raulin said, “and pay one back. That sounds solid. Also, I wouldn’t have killed the man in the library, of all places, and with a witness to boot.”
“I should ask why you were near there in the first place.”
“In hindsight, I realize I was played like a fiddle. Some men were saying some unkind things and I felt the need to threaten them a little. I ran after them before teaching one to be a sconce for a minute.” He mimed grabbing a fistful of shirt and slamming the invisible victim against a wall. “They went the other way, another man raised the alarm that the Viscount had been killed, and since I happened to be nearby…Doesn’t matter that I was walking towards the library. And I doubt those lickspittles are going to be acting in my defense.”
“What were they saying?”
Raulin met Al’s eyes and looked towards Anla. She sighed. “They were talking about me, Al.”
“Sorry,” Raulin said. “I know it was stupid of me.”
She raised her hand, then put it down quickly. “Could you identify those men?”
“If you got one of them to into the brig, sure. I think it might be easier to find the man aboard who has soiled britches.”
“My theory is that, since neither Earl Brashef nor any of his circle of friends could kill Vicount Dombrey, Brashef hired someone to kill Dombrey and pin it on you, Raulin,” Al said. “Maybe because he was done with the rivalry, maybe because he was angry that he lost the duel, maybe because he was angry that you didn’t help him with the duel. Doesn’t matter. He orchestrates this plan and as an added bonus gets you.”
“Yes, but you still need to find out who actually held the knife.”
“I know. I should go check on the body, see if there’s anything else I can pick up.”
He knocked on the door and the first mate let him out, sword drawn. “Not necessary,” Raulin called out from the room. “I don’t plan on escaping. Where would I go if I did?”
He passed by several other crew members, since the brig was close to where they quartered. Al stopped one walking past and asked him where the body of the Viscount was being held. The man turned and had a coughing fit. “Left side of the boat,” he said, before ducking away.
When Al arrived at the kitchen, he was directed back down to the crew quarters by a confused sous chef. By the time he had returned, the body had been moved to the morgue and the ship’s doctor was tending to a sprained ankle.
When he did get a chance to view the corpse, he didn’t find anything startlingly new. He noted there were no cuts on his arms or hands, meaning the Viscount had been surprised or had poor reflexes, or he had no time to react other than to jump back to avoid the worst damage. The slit across his throat was highest on the left side; the attacker was right-handed. There was a bump on the back of his head, which he likely received falling to the ground.
Al had some things to take care of before he could get a tight case. It was going to be a lot of work and he only had a few weeks to solve it before they landed in Acripla and his killer disappeared into the city streets. At least he didn’t have to read that alley novel again.