The Dawn March barracks were as abuzz with activity as a beehive would have been at the bottom of a lake of cheap wine. The major distinction between the two was that the cheap wine was on the inside of the various March officers who bothered to turn up that day. The general level of sapience was otherwise about the same though.
That didn’t bother Dae. It was typical behavior for the March after a major celebration. Except for her diversion with the vampire and Half-Cut Joe diluting his cheap whiskey to the point where it was indistinguishable from the Low Quarter’s general sewage, Dae would have been in the same state as the rest of the Dawn March officers. Instead she was conscious and alert and without any pounding internal headaches, which meant a lot of external ones were going to seek her out.
The one island of sobriety in the sea of half-asleep, drunken louts was the Dawn March’s commander, Sendrick Ketel. That boded poorly for Dae. Sendrick was as prone to excess as any of the personnel who served under him. If he was still clear headed it meant real trouble was brewing.
“The hell have you been Kor?” Sendrick asked, addressing Dae by her surname as she opened the door to his office.
“Derelict and absent from duty,” she said, sliding into one of the seats in front of Sendrick’s desk. Javan slid into the other chair and leaned it back. Like the rest of the office, and the barracks as a whole, the chair had seen better days. The padded leather cushions that were once meant to look posh and high quality were betrayed by the ravages of time which revealed the poor workmanship that went into their construction. Dae knew the kind of money the Dawn March collected from the royal treasury and knew the kind of furnishings the office should have boasted. Whoever was pocketing the difference was supplementing their income generously.
The same was true with whoever pocketed the difference in what was allocated for the Dawn March officers’ payroll and what the average officer actually received. Graft, bribery and general corruption did a reasonable job making up the difference, though there were always the holdouts like Dae who either didn’t care enough to sell out or had such low expenses that they didn’t see the need to.
Javan, Dae’s theoretical mentor, had worked for a few years to convince her to follow the natural order of things and find a family to put her “on retainer”. He never quite gave up on that, but Dae’s dull and disinterested lack of a response to his suggestions made it a difficult matter to pursue.
“Do you know why you’re here?” Sendrick asked.
“You sent your errand boy here to demand my presence,” Dae said.
“I sent your partner to bring you in,” Sendrick said. “And do you know why I did that?”
“I’m sure you’re going to tell me,” Dae said.
“Well you’re wrong,” Sendrick said. “Kael, explore to Officer Kor why she is here.”
“The commander was concerned for your safety,” Javan said.
“That was nice of him,” Dae said. “Clearly he is dedicated to helping each and every one of us.”
“It was bring you here or turn you over to the Watch’s custody,” Javan said.
“What does the Watch want with me?” Dae asked, fishing to discover what the Watch had told the March.
“There were multiple assaults on watch personnel by a Pact Warrior bearing the March’s heraldry,” Javan said.
“That sound just tragic,” Dae said. “I hope they catch the guy who was masquerading as one of us. Sounds like he’s really dangerous.”
“I’m glad we see things the same,” Sendrick said. “Supposedly the assaults happened within the vicinity of one of your favorite haunts. Don’t suppose you saw anything?”
“I’ve seen lots of things,” Dae said. “Last night I remember seeing the bottom of a very cheap bottle of whiskey, and some truly unpleasant whiskey dreams. If the Watch wants more than that you would probably need to bill them for my time as an investigator right?”
“Hey now, we have a good understanding with the Watch,” Sendrick said. “Professional courtesy between organizations. Normally that’d means we’d help them out however was required.”
By which Dae heard him saying that normally he’d turn her over to them unless she made him a better offer. Something wasn’t normal today though, in fact it was abnormal enough that her commander was willing to forego a chance at a cheap payoff. That captured her full attention.
“Professional courtesy only goes so far though right?” Dae asked.
“Today anyways,” Javan said.
“What’s special about today?” Dae asked.
“Today we’re being called to the castle,” Sendrick said.
“Called to the Castle?” Dae asked. “Didn’t know we worked for the Duke.”
In theory, the Dawn March reported to a royal overseer. In practice, each of the central barracks was given a wide autonomy in how it managed its affairs and that generally meant that the commanders were effectively employees of the Dukes whose territories they served in.
“You don’t seem to work for anyone,” Sendrick said. “But you know how to curtsy, so you get to head up to the castle and see what the fuss is all about.”
“Aren’t you lucky?” Javan asked.
“You’re going with her,” Sendrick said. “We’ve got a nice understanding with the Castle Guards too. I don’t want to have to extend them any Professional Courtesy, if I make myself clear?”
“Yeah,” Dae said. “If we have to assault the Castle Guards, we’ll be sure to be professional about it.”
Without waiting for a dismissal, Dae rose and left Sendrick’s office. As a Pacted officer, Dae warranted an oversized carrel where her desk and the paperwork that she was ostensibly responsible for waited. Since most of the paperwork on the desk had been there six years prior when she joined the Dawn March, she saw little need disturb it unless she needed writing space and that happened only rarely.
Most of the “work” of a Dawn March officer involved the implicit threat their presence in a city represented. People knew that if they stepped outside the rules they would have to pay for it. Of course the Dawn March’s rates were pretty reasonable so long as the rule being broken wasn’t one which would cause mass rioting, or one which a wealthier power wished to have enforced.
“You’ve got a talent for landing in trouble don’t you?” Javan asked as he caught up with her.
“Maybe trouble’s got a talent for finding me,” Dae said.
“Could be,” Javan said. “Either or, you’re a miserable specimen to hang around.”
“Never said I needed a partner,” Dae said.
“Try proving that to the commander,” Javan said. “He still seems to think you need a babysitter.”
“He’s not worried about me,” Dae said.
“Of course not,” Javan said. “He’s worried about next week’s gratuity from Duke Telli. If you screw that up there’s going to be nine hells to pay.”
“That would be a terrible shame,” Dae said, digging her official Dawn Watch paraphernalia out of her desk. “What’s the deal with the Castle though? If we’re going to pay for nine hells, I’d at least like to know if we’re walking into one of them.”
“Sounds like they’ve got a dead body they want us to check out,” Javan said as he strapped on a shoulder guard with the Dawn Watch logo emblazoned on the side.
“Sounds delightful,” Dae said. “Anything special about this dead body?”
There was something special about every dead body of course, but Dae blocked those thoughts from her mind with practiced ease. She had too many memories that were “special” in that precise manner to allow herself to dwell on the “special” things a corpse gave testimony to.
“That’s why they want us there I imagine,” Javan said.
“Bet you next week’s wage they want us there because someone’s head is going to roll and they’d rather it be ours than theirs,” Dae said, securing her shoulder guard in place. Neither she nor Javan needed the shoulder guards for armor. The ceremonial swords they wore on their hip which boasted beautiful filigree and glass-steel blades were similarly unnecessary from a tactical perspective.
Their use was meant for outside of combat though. Pact armor and weapons were surpassingly powerful, but not even the greatest Pact binders could hold the transformation indefinitely. Not without losing memory, mind and personality at least.
Instead, the Dawn March relied on their heraldry and symbols. The logos and recognizable blades reminded the people the March interacted with of the officer’s considerable power. The physical reminder was surprising effective too. Intellectually, someone might know that the person before them was gifted with vast and terrible abilities, but the message was more viscerally understood when that someone had a sword inches away from their throat, even if the sword was more ornamental than practical.
“That’s not a bet,” Javan said.
“And yet we’re going to head there anyways, aren’t we?” Dae asked.
“You got anything better to do this morning?” Javan asked.
“Nothing and no one,” Dae said, kicking the lowest drawer of her desk closed. It closed with a too familiar hollow thump. Dae frowned. She wasn’t a desk.
She spent the trip to Castle Tel working on that frown, layering ever more unpleasant thoughts on top of each other.
A body at the Castle was likely to be one of two things; it belonged to a servant, in which case involving the Dawn March was unlikely, or it belonged to a member of the Telli family, in which case getting involved was exactly within the Dawn March’s wheelhouse and entirely outside of Dae’s interests.
She thought back to her interactions with the Tellis. They governed the province of Tel’Ap’Sai. Duke Telli had been in power even back when Dae was at the Royal castle so she’d seen him a number of times, though only from a distance. He was a weaselly sort of man in her estimation, shrewd and calculating (which weren’t necessarily bad qualities in a nobleman) and disrespectful towards any he considered his lesser (which wasn’t necessarily an uncommon in a nobleman).
If the corpse was his, Dae knew she would not have been assigned to the case. Sendrick would have handled the matter personally in order to ingratiate himself with the next ruler of the Telli family.
The Duchess Telli was also not a possibility, as Dae recalled, having died in birthing her third child.
One of the children then perhaps? Not the heir certainly. There’d be a true investigation if an heir was killed. So that ruled out the first born son.
The daughter, second born was a more plausible alternative. Dae didn’t recall much about her except that her debut at court had been delayed twice for “reasons of health”. That was over a decade ago however and while the daughter hadn’t married yet, it wasn’t uncommon for a nobleman like Telli to reserve an asset like that until a suitably strategic engagement could be made which would benefit the family.
The most likely option though was the third child, the younger son. Just important enough to demand an official investigation, just unnecessary and useless enough that a half-hearted effort would suffice for all involved.
Dae remembered meeting the boy, Ren, when she was at the Royal Castle. He was quiet and reserved, in every measure the opposite of his outspoken and entitled brother. Where his elder brother took after their father, Ren seemed to avoid that fate, to his own detriment.
Dae wondered if perhaps a worse fate had befallen him. And on the evening of the Royal Unification Gala. That didn’t bode well at all.
The carriage that Javan and Dae rode in reached Castle Telli minutes after they left from the Dawn March barracks. The High Quarter was situated close to the Castle for a variety of reasons, easy access to their paid enforcers being one of the many minor perks the nobles routinely overlooked.
When the two Dawn March officers arrived though they were not taken within the castle. Instead the chamberlain and a party of minor officials led them a quarter of the distance around the castle moat to where a crowd had gathered.
Floating in the water, face down was the body they had come in search of.
“We wanted to leave it as it was so that you could examine it for yourself,” the chamberlain said.
Dae praised the silent and hidden stars. It was exceedingly rare to find someone as sensible as the chamberlain in charge of a death scene.
Javan had the chamberlain clear away the crowd and together they spent a solid twenty minutes observing the body and recording the details of what they saw. It was the basic foundation work any sort of good investigation was built on and which most bad investigations would file and ignore forever.
Once they had spotted all that they could and made what measurements they could make, Dae called for the body to be lifted ashore. A group of burly workers from the crowd stepped forward to earn a copper coin each by pulling the body onto the banks. When they settled it onto the shore and turned it over Dae discovered several unsettling things.
First, the body did not belong to any of the nobles of the Telli family. He was a young boy, younger than the youngest Telli son and barely into the beginnings of his manhood, from the neighboring country of Inchesso if his bloated and swollen features were still enough of a clue as to his origin.
That meant he was someone special and outside the purview of Dae’s familiarity which left her in uncertain waters.
What wasn’t uncertain though was the thin line that ran across his neck. From where they found the body, the boy could have been killed by a fall into the moat from the castle parapets. Or drowned if he’d slipped in from ground level. However he entered the moat though, it was slash across the throat which claimed his life. No accident created the corpse that lay on the ground at Dae’s feet and suicide wasn’t a possibility either.
For as worrisome as that was though, a small flag on the shoulder of the boy’s uniform filled Dae with even greater dread.
The boy bore the heraldry of a Queen’s Page. Only the elite were allowed to become direct servants to the Queen, and for a foreigner to hold that position meant that he was someone very important in his home nation.
Dae stared down at the corpse and bit back each of the thousand curses she knew. No matter what they found, this wasn’t going to be a simple case.