While the noble family connected to a castle might differ from other families, there were similar patterns that played out in the day to day running of any such fortress which Dae found comforting. In the wake of the Royal Celebration, the staff of Castle Nath was working at a rapid pace, cleaning up and restocking to return things to a semblance of their normal mode of operation.
Years, or a lifetime ago, Dae had loved the lazy, slow day the aftermath of a grand feast brought. With the excitement of the feast passed, the nobility could enjoy a brief serenity after days of hussle and bussle. The staff did not have that luxury though. The meals still needed to be made, the rooms still needed to be cleaned, and so cooks chopped and skinned and sliced and cleaners swept and washed and dusted.
With their near ubiquitous presence, any of the castle’s personnel might have been able to recognize the dead boy, and a large fraction of those could probably put a name to his face as well. The number who would admit that however was much smaller. Officially, the staff had no presence or interaction with the nobles or their guests outside of a few very specific roles the staff could play. To question them directly about one of the guests would be to pull them into a dangerous arena where anyone who was unhappy with their testimony was likely to be able to silence them without any real effort.
Being unable, or at least unwilling, to question the staff however did not mean Dae couldn’t observe them as she walked through the castle. The chamberlain had bid her to meet him at his office, an area she had yet to visit in her previous trips to the castle. While the chamberlain had provided clear directions, Dae found it enlightening to delay her arrival and get a bit lost inside the noble environs. With her Dawn March heraldry clearly visible, all she needed to do was walk as though heading somewhere purposefully and no one questioned her passing.
In her travels through the grand structure of Castle Nath, she observed a pensive air that hung around everyone from the groundskeepers to the candle tenders to the laundry women. People were quieter than they should have been. The feast would certainly have left everyone exhausted but in Dae’s experience that didn’t breed silence so much as grumbling and grousing.
Mulling it over, Dae didn’t think that even the murder would explain the behavior in question. Whoever found the body was likely horrified but for the rest of the castle, the dead boy wasn’t someone they would have had a deep personal connection with. Secrets lurked in Castle Nath, but then that was true of all castles. The question on Dae’s mind was whether she needed to care about those secrets, or whether she could leave the castle and its inhabitants to resolve them on their own.
She entered the chamberlain’s office with that thought occupying her attention only to discover that the chamberlain wasn’t the one waiting for her. In his place, Duke Telli, the lord of the castle, sat reading through the ledgers on the chamberlain’s desk. He looked up when she entered and favored her with a nod of acceptance as to her presence in the room. Dae offered the nobleman a smile return, though it was a grin driven by the thought of how mad Javan would be to learn that she was speaking to the Duke more than any genuine pleasure at seeing the man himself.
“Welcome, Officer Kor is it?” Duke Telli asked.
“Yes, Your Grace,” Dae answered and bowed as befitted a Pact Warrior addressing a lord of the realm.
“I hear there was some excitement in the castle last night?” Duke Telli asked.
“Yes,” Dae said. “And potentially a murder as well.”
“Potentially a murder?” the Duke said. “I was led to believe that there was a body in my moat?”
“There was,” Dae said. “The corpse is being taken to the Dawn March barracks for inspection, with no eyewitnesses to the murder however we can’t say if the killer committed the crime within the castle or not.”
“I see, and what have you ascertained so far about the killing?” the Duke asked.
“Very little,” Dae said. “I had hoped to meet with the chamberlain to see if anyone could identify the body. Once we know the victim’s identity, answering the question of who might want to kill them and why will become easier.”
“Was it one of my guests?” the Duke asked. “I thought they all left safely last night?”
“I won’t be able to say until the body is identified Your Grace,” Dae said.
“I will send for Kenal then,” the Duke said. He didn’t rise, but instead rang a small bell that rested on the chamberlain’s desk. Out in the hall, Dae heard someone, a page most likely, scamper off at the sound of the bell to fetch Kenal, the absent chamberlain.
“If I may ask Your Grace,” Dae said. “You appear to be in traveling clothes. Were you intent on leaving the city today?”
“No,” the Duke said. “I have just returned. Though we hosted a celebration here, I was called on to attend the principal festival in Highcrest.”
At the mention of Highcrest, Dae glimpsed the memory of a broad avenue leading up to the iridescent walls of the Royal Palace. Her first visit to Highcrest had been a tumultuous time, but despite all the pain that followed, that initial glimpse of the Gallagrin Royal Castle had left a deep and abiding impression of awe in her.
“You traveled by sky carriage?” Dae asked. Castle Nath wasn’t far from the Royal Castle as far as provinces and politics went but for to travel there and back in so short a time would have been difficult for even a noble’s ground carriage.
“Yes, fortunately we were blessed with clear skies on the trip out,” the Duke said. “The storm delayed our return till the morning which may be a kindness as well.”
“You traveled with your family?” Dae asked.
“Only my daughter,” the Duke said. “She is not one for loud parties, but I am pleased she remained at the palace. To return home to discover a murder had occurred on our very doorstep would trouble her greatly.”
Dae’s response was interrupted by the arrival of the chamberlain.
“Your Grace!” Kenal said. “My apologies, I was putting together a full briefing for you. I did not have word that you had returned yet.”
Dae frowned at that but held her disbelief off her face. If anyone would be alerted to the arrival of the Duke, especially via sky carriage, it would be his chamberlain.
“Hello chamberlain,” Dae said, in place of the impolitic questions she wanted to ask him.
“Officer Kor,” Kenal said. “I have questioned my staff as you requested, we believe we know the identity of the boy found in moat this morning.”
Dae hide her shock and amazement by feeling none whatsoever. Of course the staff knew who he was. That was why they’d dragged the Dawn March into the mess.
“Your Grace, I’m afraid that Prince Lorenzo Lialarus, one of the Queen’s pages, has been the victim of a heinous crime,” the chamberlain said.
Lialarus was a foreign name. From Inchesso if Dae remembered her lessons properly. Which made the dead boy a Queen’s Page and the prince of a wealthy and powerful foreign family.
“You are smiling Officer,” the Duke said. “Did you know the boy?”
“No Your Grace, I did not.” Dae said. “I merely find myself on familiar terrain.”
“I suppose investigating murders becomes routine for someone in your order,” the Duke said.
“Each one presents its own challenges,” Dae said.
In most cases those challenges involved simply finding the killer who had fled the scene of the crime. Usually people killed those they knew. It took a certain amount of familiarity to breed the kind of bone deep rage and hatred that led to taking another’s life. Unless of course money was involved. Chasing down highwaymen and bandits was not part of the Dawn March’s writ however so Dae had little cause to concern herself with that form of misery.
Lorenzo presented other challenges though. No one killed a Queen’s Page and a Prince over something trivial. The blood price for his murder would bankrupt anyone short of a lord of the realm. Which meant either someone very stupid had done in the poor prince or someone was playing a very specific sort of game. Dae often found cause to bet on stupidity in cases like that but the timing and the placement of Lorenzo’s body was particular enough to lead her to favor malice as the primary motivation for a change.
“The Queen will not be pleased with this,” the Duke said.
“I imagine she’ll be eager to find out who was responsible for the killing,” Dae said.
She left unvoiced that Queen Alari would likely be quite willing to authorize a great deal more killing in the pursuit of that information. She had come by her monicker as the Bloody Handed Queen in the most literal and direct way possible after all.
“Was Prince Lialarus particularly beloved by the Queen?” Chamberlain Kenal asked.
“The Queen loves all of those who serve under her,” the Duke said, repeating the statement as though reading it out of a textbook.
Dae knew the rhetoric the nobility used to keep the populace believing pretty lies so that they would stay docile enough to rule. She knew that few of the words which escaped their lips could be trusted. But she also knew the Queen. Alari did love her people. Through fire and pain and madness and blood, the one thing Dae knew down to the core of her soul was the passion the Queen felt for the people of her realm.
“We need to know who Prince Lialarus was here with and why he was in Nath rather than in Highcrest,” Dae said.
“Do you have the list of the invited guests?” the Duke asked his chamberlain.
“Of course lord,” Kenal said and produced a tome from the pile on his desk. After a few minutes of searching he added, “I do not see the Prince’s name on the invitation roster.”
Which wasn’t surprising. Royal Pages, though in some senses high in station, especially when they were foreign princes, were not typically recognized as entities in their own right. Even Dae in her capacity as an officer of the Dawn March would have merited the attention of an invitation to a noble event before a page like Lorenzo. In his role as Prince Lialarus, Lorenzo might have have been extended an invitation but the fact that he was serving as a page meant that he was young enough to be considered little more than an appendage of his family. If House Lialarus had a reason to be present at the festivities, or needed an representative, Lorenzo might have been included but even that wasn’t a certainty.
“And in the registry of guests?” the Duke asked.
Chamberlain Kenal searched on one of the following pages of the tome he held for another minute before he located what he was looking for.
“Yes my lord,” Kenal said. “He is here. He is listed as appearing within your court under the invitation extended to the Denarius Consortium.”
“The Inchesso merchants?” the Duke asked.
“Yes, they brought a sizeable party last night, as requested by Your Grace,” the chamberlain said.
“We have the first link in the chain then,” Dae said. “I will speak with the Watch about bringing the people in their party in for questioning.”
“Agreed,” the Duke said. “But they will brought here.”
“I believe it would be in Your Grace’s best interest to allow the Dawn March to handle this,” Dae said.
“The Queen will expect more from me than to turn it over to another’s hands,” Duke Telli said. “If I am to carry news to her of a murder this foul then I aim to carry the culprit with me as well.”
Dae refrained from commenting on how Lorenzo’s murder was no more foul than any other, and quite a bit less so than some. The question of what value to place on spilled noble blood had been long since resolved for her after she’d seen it mixed together with the blood of commoners with no differences visible between the two.
“Once the consortium members are collected, one or more will need to be sent to the Dawn March barracks to identify the body,” Dae said. “Before formal accusations are made we should confirm that the boy wearing the prince’s clothes is indeed the prince.”
“That is prudent,” Duke Telli said. “I will also order the checkpoints closed until tomorrow. I do not want our murderer slipping away while we are struggling to find the trail to him.”
Dae offered no comment on that. With the murder having been committed the previous evening and the body not being discovered until after dawn, plus the time it took to get Javan and herself there, the killer had been given plenty of time flee the city already. The only reason he would still be within Nath’s borders was if he could be certain he would not be discovered.
“I need to get back to the barracks and inform Commander Kekel what we’ve discovered,” Dae said. She also wanted to check on what, if anything, the investigation into the corpse had turned up.
“I will send word to the Commander when we have the Consortium members rounded up,” Duke Telli said.
Dae took her leave of the Duke and his chamberlain and headed back to the Dawn March barracks on foot. In part it was to give herself time to think and in part because she had little desire to deal with either Kekel or Javan.
An Inchesso trading consortium might have reasons to move against an Inchesso prince that didn’t involve Gallagrin, the Queen or anything Dae cared about. It was just possible that her instincts had been wrong and the murder was part of a feud that didn’t touch on her at all. Questions nagged at her though. If it was an internal Inchesso feud, why make the body so obvious. There were dozens of better places to hide a body in Nath. Leaving the corpse in the moat had been designed to attract attention without making a specific statement. It was the kind of action that would turn both Inchesso and Gallagrin against whatever party was responsible. Dae knew most of the major political players in the Blessed Realms and none of them seemed like they would benefit from picking a fight with Inchesso and Gallagrin. That argued that some other plan was at work, but chew on it though she might, Dae couldn’t make a guess at what that plan might be.
Her pondering was disturbed by an awareness from Kirios, her pact spirit. Clearing the distractions from her mind she pinpointed the feeling that had called her back to the present.
Someone was following her.
“You return from the belly of the beast,” Teo, the vampire said, stepping up beside her casually as she walked down the street. “But do you return with true treasures or with delicately spun lies?”