A dead body makes for the sort of problem that doesn’t go away no matter how hard you wish it would. Dae knew that from repeated personal experience, but that knowledge didn’t stop her from closing her eyes, shaking her head and trying to will herself to be anywhere other than where she was. Denial wasn’t a luxury she could afford though, and Dae’s history with wishes was spotty at best.
“Looks like we caught a nice simple one this time, doesn’t it?” Javan asked, bending down to inspect the deep slice across the corpse’s throat. Dae clenched her jaw and fought back a wave of anger. Javan held two decades more experience in the March than Dae did. The March wasn’t a physically dangerous duty on most occasions, but it still took a fair degree of wit to survive in it for as long as Javan had. That ruled out the possibility that he was stupid enough to believe what he’d said.
“Have the body wrapped up and delivered, with care, to the Dawn March barracks,” Dae said, addressing the castle’s chamberlain.
“I will have to clear that with the Duke,” the chamberlain said, looking at Dae and then quickly away from her.
“This isn’t a matter for the Duke,” Dae said.
“The murder was committed in his castle!” the chamberlain said. “I’m sure the Duke will want to see the matter handled properly.”
“Then you’ll work with us here,” Dae said. “We don’t know where the murder was committed, only where the body was found. And this boy wasn’t one of the Duke’s subjects. Which is lucky for the Duke. Trust me, he doesn’t want any part of this.”
“How do you know the boy isn’t the Duke’s subject?” the chamberlain asked.
“Does anyone here recognize him?” Javan asked.
The chamberlain turned and searched the crowd that had gathered but no one stepped forward or volunteered any information.
“You called us here to do our job,” Dae said. “Let us do it and there’ll be less headaches for everyone.”
The chamberlain wavered, the fear of his master’s unknown desires in the matter written in the worry lines that creased his forehead.
“We need to have the official chirugeon’s conduct their examination,” Javan said. “If the Duke wants the body back after that, I’m sure he and our commander can work something out.”
The relationship between Duke Telli and the Dawn March commander was well known, and with the reminded of it, the chamberlain breathed easier.
“We shall follow the official protocol in this case then,” he said and called for a wagon and sheets to transport the body in. While he and the castle guards made their preparations, Javan pulled Dae aside. The small wooden shed didn’t block out the sound of the crowd that had gathered but was enough to let them talk without people watching them. Javan tried to pin Dae to the wall, presumably so he could cow her into submission. It had never worked on her before, but Javan enjoyed enough success with it on other people that he kept giving the maneuver another shot in his dealings with his “partner”.
Dae side-stepped away from the hut and turned to give the proceedings with the dead boy her attention.
“Why do you want that body?” he asked. “We could rule on this and be off the case by the time we get back to the barracks.”
“It’s not going to be that simple,” Dae said. “It was never going to be that simple.” A murder at any noble family’s castle required an investigation by the Dawn March but with the cozy relationship between Duke Telli and Commander Kekel, that could have occurred over a bottle of fine brandy on an evening when neither was busy, presuming the victim was someone without connections able to make demands that would need to be addressed.
That the castle had called in the Dawn March so early meant someone knew who the boy was, or at least who he was supposed to be, and, in either case, who he was connected to.
“Cut throat’s a pretty simple verdict from what I’m standing,” Javan said.
“Cut throat’s not a verdict, it’s a cause of death, and it might not even be the real one.” Dae said. “A verdict is what we get when we find out who did the deed and can prove why they did it.”
“That asking a lot in a case like this,” Javan said. “You know as well as I do, with the body in the water that long, the chirurgeons aren’t going find much apart from the obvious.”
“I don’t care what they can find,” Dae said. “We just can’t let this corpse disappear until someone’s been able to identify who it is.”
“Who the hell’s going to steal a corpse?” Javan asked.
“If we’re luck, whoever killed the boy or was responsible for having him killed,” Dae said.
“You’re seeing something here,” Javan said. “Something I think neither one of us should be looking at all that closely.”
“Don’t really have a choice,” Dae said. “You saw the insignia the kid had on him, didn’t you?”
“Couldn’t tell for sure,” Javan said. “The muck from the river had it covered up pretty well.”
The tension around his eyes pleaded with Dae to drop the matter. Playing dumb was more than an excuse for laziness, in some situations it was a survival technique. The Dawn March had a lot of authority on paper, but in practice there were levels of society where their ability to enforce the law was far more limited than it was meant to be. Officers who probed too deeply into the wrong areas tended to wind up as a casefile that other, smarter, officers ignored.
Dae knew that, but she thought back to another man who’d plead ignorance as a defense. The image of feet struggling in the wind and, ultimately, swinging limply back and forth sliced through her mind, lancing into a deeper cut than the one on the boy’s throat.
She didn’t play dumb. Ever.
“The symbol was clean enough for me to recognize it,” she said. “If we’re extremely lucky, the rightful owner of those clothes is off somewhere else, and the poor thing getting wrapped in blankets over there was dragged into this to provide the original a chance to get away from a horrible family life.”
“That’s a pretty wild and unlikely theory you’ve got there,” Javan said, raising his voice to where the crowd noticed the two officers talking.
“Yeah, that’s cause I don’t want to think about the real one,” Dae said, keeping her voice low enough that only Javan could hear it.
“Why?” he asked, leaning in but lowering his voice as he did.
“Because if what I really think is true, I’m going to wind up killing a whole lot of people,” Dae said.
“It’s just one dead boy, Kor,” Javan said, stepping back. They’d worked together long enough that he knew Dae didn’t make claims like that as a mere expression. “It was a horrible thing, a terrible tragedy sure, probably a hefty blood price to be paid too, but no need to start a war over it or anything.”
“I don’t start wars,” Dae said. In her mind’s eye, she glimpsed the memory of a border castle burning. She didn’t start wars, and she didn’t finish them. No matter how hard she’d fought to.
“You try to blow this up into something big and you’re gonna make it your funeral,” Javan said.
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.” Dae said, a smile reaching up to tug at the corners of her eyes.
“You pull me into your little death wish and I’ll make sure it’s a bad thing,” Javan said.
“You never did understand me Kael,” Dae said. “And anyways, stop whining. The commander wasn’t going to let this one rest with us saying it was murder, case closed.”
“That’s true, but it doesn’t mean he couldn’t put someone else on it,” Javan said. “I’ve got kickback money saved up just for an occasion like this.”
“Lucky you,” Dae said. “Maybe you can cut a deal once we get back to the back to the barracks.”
“You’re really not going to let this go?” Javan asked. “You know the commander wanted this to be simple.”
“I hope he gets his wish then,” Dae said. “It’s always possible I’m wrong about everything here right? I could just be jumping at shadows.”
“Yeah, sure,” Javan said. “All just shadows.”
They held each other’s gaze for a long moment, testing who would blink first. In the end it was Javan who rolled his eyes and sighed. If anyone was close enough to hear them, they might have mistaken the exchange for Dae giving in to Javan’s point. The mandate of the Dawn March however was to “chase away the shadows of corruption from the land of Gallagrin”. If shadows moved across the face of Gallagin and struck down one of the Queen’s pages, then it was the Dawn March’s job to stand against them, for the good of the realm.
Dae doubted the Dawn March had ever been quite so sterling an organization as to place the life of a page on par with the security of a nation, and she knew that most of the officers in the March’s ranks shared Javan’s opinion when it came to choosing between duty and personal prosperity. Even looking at herself, Dae held no illusions that a duty to Gallagrin called her to service. She’d tried to stand for her country, to be its shield against all enemies within and without and she’d broken. Shattered on the anvil of naivety and impossible dreams.
There was a life beyond those broken dreams though. For as bad as her worst day had been, the sun still came up the next morning.
“You want to play escort for the body?” Dae asked. “That’ll give you first shot at Kekel to ask about transferring off this case.”
“And what are you planning to do in that time?” Javan asked.
“If the boy was in the castle,” Dae said, leaving out ‘and we both know that he was’, “someone in there should be able to recognize him.”
“You’re going to interrogate the Duke? Alone?” Javan asked.
“I thought I might start with the chamberlain’s staff,” Dae said. “The Duke probably has no idea who was in attendance at the big party last night, but chamberlain’s people should know who the guests were.”
“Tell you what,” Javan said. “You promise me you’re not going to go hunt down the Duke and cause us a world of pain and I’ll take good care of the corpse until you get back to the barracks.”
“I’m going to talk to the chamberlain’s staff,” Dae said. “And if the corpse is missing or disfigured when I get there, I’ll know who to blame, won’t I?”
“Is that a threat?” Javan asked.
“Not technically,” Dae said. “I’d have to mention what I was planning to do about it for it to be a threat.”
“I’m older and smarter than you,” Javan said, “and my pact is a hell of a lot stronger than yours.”
“Then you’re probably safe, right?” Dae said. “But still, don’t let anything happen to the body.”
Javan rolled his eyes again and turned away. The commander wasn’t going to let him buy himself out of the assignment, but he might get kicked off it (and out of the Dawn March) for leaving Dae all by herself near the Duke’s castle. That didn’t especially trouble Dae, but she did start formulating the questions she would need to ask the chamberlain’s staff, rather than the one’s she’d assault the Duke with if the need arose. Dealing with (or, rather, upsetting) Duke Telli could wait until she had a clearer picture of what his involvement in the murder might be. If that worked out in Javan’s favor then so be it.
Turning the questions about what had occurred over in her mind. part of Dae prayed that the Duke would turn out to be a hapless victim of circumstance and that the killing had been enacted in his domain because of a rare alignment of schedules brought on by the royal celebration.
Duke Telli was shrewd though and there wasn’t much that went on his domain that he wasn’t aware of. If that were true, then it meant he was involved, and if he was involved then that said things about the relationship between the Tel family and the royal throne that Dae didn’t want to know but knew she had to discover.