The corpse landed on Sendrick Ketel’s desk rousing him from what should have been a pleasant late afternoon nap. Flesh crashing onto cheap wood and the subsequent thud of papers and brick-a-brack on the floor was nowhere near as disturbing as the smell the seethed out from the rotting body. Ketel managed to get one eye open and have his worst fear confirmed. Officer Daelynne Kor had returned from the crazy hunt she’d gone on.
“You can tell the Duke I found one of his assassins”, she said.
Ketel was immeasurably pleased to see that she wasn’t still garbed in her Pact armor. Kor was a temperamental asset with unpredictable connections. As a hound, she was a useful mallet for solving otherwise intractable problems, but Ketel was never perfectly comfortable that she wouldn’t turn on her masters someday. Or that he could feel sure he knew who she thought her master really was.
“Careful how you say that Kor,” Ketel said. “Don’t want people to think you’re making an accusation against His Grace.”
“Right,” Dae said and let silence linger for half a breath too long. “Of course I mean the assassins the Duke is searching for with all possible vigor.”
Ketel had encouraged Dae to learn to play politics, but the closest she’d come was knowing when to shut up occasionally. Whenever she lost the sense to do she became one of the bigger pains in Ketel’s backside.
“When they hang you, make sure to look in the crowd,” Ketel said. “I’ll be selling popcorn.”
“I’m not going to hang commander,” Dae said. “They’ll never get me to the noose alive.”
Ketel looked at his subordinate and struggled to find a sign of human emotion there. If she had any, they were too well hidden for his sleep addled mind to make out. In the long run that was for the better he decided. The Duke had requested her specifically for this investigation and there was no hope that it was going to turn out pretty. That the Duke had known to ask for her in the first place told Ketel a wide variety of things that he had no reason or interest in reflecting on.
“Probably going to kill you myself before then,” Ketel said. “Now would you care to tell me why this pile of festering puss is on my desk and not down in the morgue where it belongs.”
“You worked in Inchesso for a while right?” Dae asked.
“Spent a summer in one of their blighted swamps,” Ketel said. “If I never see another fire tick it’ll be too soon.”
“Ever seen a poison like this one?” Dae asked, pointing at the corpse’s mouth.
Ketel had seen plenty of dead bodies in his line of work. A few had even been ones he hadn’t killed himself. Despite his experience though, he’d never seen a corpse quite like the one Dae had slammed onto his desk.
The assassin, assuming that Dae was telling the truth, had been a young male of Inchesso descent. His skin was darker than the wood of the desk he lay on but there were veins of white scar tissue that radiated down his body. Following them back up, Ketel saw they converged around the assassin’s mouth.
“This looks old,” Ketel said, poking at the assassin’s scar with the tip of his knife.
“They’re not,” Dae said. “He looked fine after I bet him.”
“What happened?” Ketel said. “And start from the beginning. I’m going to have to tell the Duke all about this.”
“Don’t know what the beginning was,” Dae said. “But you can tell the Duke that I’ll work it out.”
Ketel wondered if Dae was insane or suicidal. She’d been damaged goods when she first arrived and the years she’d spent on his payroll hadn’t done anything but make her more cynical. Taunting the Duke wasn’t part of her normal mode of operations, but Ketel knew that behind the cynicism and weariness, his hound had a sharp mind too. She couldn’t know exactly what the Duke was up to, Ketel was farther in the loop than she was and he had no idea what the Duke’s plan was (and no desire to find out either). Even the mystery of it though looked like it was enough to tell her something was wrong.
With a mental shrug, Ketel pushed those thoughts aside. So long as whatever mess Dae dropped herself into didn’t splash onto him, Ketel didn’t care how wrong things were or what the Duke or his underling did to each other.
“That’s very cute,” he said. “Now explain this body, or get out of my office.”
“Remember how I told you our vampire informant was going to be attacked?” Dae asked.
“Yes, and I told you no one was going to bother with a witness who’d already given their testimony,” Ketel said.
“I packed him up on a carriage to the Queen’s Guard,” Dae said.
“Which I did not authorize,” Ketel said. “We could have protected him here.”
“You didn’t protect one Inchesso prince, why would you think you could protect another?” Dae asked.
“Wait, the vampire was a prince?” Ketel said.
“Former,” Dae said. “His noble house was wiped out. Happened when he was a kid.”
“How’d he get away?” Ketel asked.
“He didn’t,” Dae said. “He was already in Gallagrin. Part of the same page-transfer program that Lorenzo was working under.”
“If he’s the heir though, why didn’t someone come and bump him off,” Ketel asked.
“He’s not the heir,” Dae said. “I looked in his history while we were grilling him. Before his family fell, his mother officially disowned him. Stripped him of name, rank, everything.”
“Isn’t that awful for him,” Ketel said. “We still could have protected him.”
“Sure,” Dae said.
The presence of a dead body on his desk helped Ketel keep his anger in check. He’d watched Dae train and from the scores she earned on the yearly tests he knew his Pact was widely more powerful than hers. Or at least that’s what the numbers said.
“Anyways, I rode with our witness,” Dae said.
“And I didn’t authorize that either,” Ketel said.
“Dock my pay,” Dae said.
“You’re getting billed for cleaning up my office too,” Ketel said.
“Can I burn it down then? Dae asked. “Always wanted to light this place up.”
“Get on with the story,” Ketel said. He pondered the value of a good fire. There were lots of documents in room that should never see the light of day. Some that he collected a nice weekly revenue from by keeping them secret and others that would land him in a noose alongside a bunch of important people. Since having leverage on important people was a key tactic in avoiding the hangman’s noose, Ketel decided against “blazing inferno” as a method of reclaiming his office space.
“We weren’t far outside of Nath when someone, this guy here probably, dropped a tree on us,” Dae said.
“That could just be your winning personality you know,” Ketel said. “Plenty of times I’ve wanted to drop a tree on you. Like now for example.”
“You wouldn’t use a tree,” Dae said. “Trees can miss. You’d use poison.”
“For you I’d consider doing both,” Ketel said. “You’re special like that after all.”
“Not as special as our witness then I guess,” Dae said.
“They did more than just drop a tree on you I take it?” Ketel asked.
“This guy had a bunch of local muscle with him,” Dae said.
“The locals still alive?” Ketel asked.
“They were when I left them,” Dae said. “But the woods aren’t exactly safe at night.”
Ketel closed his eyes and sighed. The murder investigation was supposed to be a simple matter. Send in the least fixed up person on his payroll, she’d identify the body, put two and two together that the Inchesso Prince’s friends were behind the murder and the Queen would be properly warned by someone she trusted. What wasn’t supposed to happen was Kor turning the incident into her own private war and stirring up trouble with the local leg breakers. That was going to cost Ketel money, and Sendrick Ketel hated anything that was going to deprive him of his expected and required cash flow.
“Lorban,” he shouted.
“I already sent him to tell the Slaughter Pigs to pick up their guys,” Dae said. “If they’re not all drunk already they might even get there before the wolves do.”
“Yeah, you’re definitely off this case,” Ketel said.
“Kael’s going to be heartbroken,” Dae said. “Or did he already come to an arrangement with you?”
“Your partner has the good sense to treat this case as it deserves to be treated,” Ketel said.
“He wants to drop it like it’s a lava rock,” Dae said.
“I stand by what I said. And I still want to know how this guy got like this!”
“Well, after they dropped the tree on us, we had a bit of a disagreement,” Dae said.
“A disagreement? Did he bring the wrong sort of tea and biscuits?” Ketel asked.
“No, just the wrong sort of weapons,” Dae said. “They were packing enchanted arrows.”
“Enchanted arrows?” Ketel said. “That’s out of the Slaughter Pig’s league. If they had that much coin they’d go bother some place nicer than here.”
“I figure it was special supplies for this job,” Dae said. “They were hunting a vampire after all.”
She reached in her back pocket and tossed a pair of broken arrows on top of the corpse.
“See anything interesting about those?” she asked.
Ketel didn’t want to see anything about them at all. Every little detail that he was forced to acknowledge was a thread in the noose he knew he’d someday hang from.
“Look like regular bird stickers to me,” Ketel said.
“Think so?” Dae said. She picked up one of the broken shafts and plunged the arrow into the corpse. White hot fire flared from the wound and a truly foul smoke poured out.
“Uh-hugh”, Ketel struggled to get to his window before he wretched. Dae made it as far as his waste basket, which was more considerate of her than he’d expected.
“Ok, that was not my best idea ever,” Dae said once she stopped heaving. “You see my point though.”
“I see that you’re a hellsborn menace is what I see,” Ketel said.
“Never claimed I wasn’t, but leaving that aside, magic arrows, right?” Dae asked.
“Fine, yes, the arrows were magic,” Ketel said. “What does that have to do with this guy?”
“He was the only one who wasn’t a local,” Dae said. “And he had Pact armor.”
“Pact armor? What is he?” Ketel asked.
“An Infiltrator? A Shadowform?” Dae said. “I don’t know. I never served in Inchesso, and they’re pretty secretive about their pacts there.”
“You beat him?” Ketel asked.
“His armor was pretty thin,” Dae said.
“You might be right then,” Ketel said. “Maybe an Infiltrator type. But those are rare. Why send one here? And for a worthless lump like that vampire?”
“I’ve been asking myself the same things,” Dae said. “Don’t think I like the answers I can come up with either.”
“I don’t like any of this,” Ketel said.
“This last part’s not any better,” Dae said. “After I had him down and broken out of his armor he managed to swallow a pill that did what you see here.”
“He killed himself like this?” Ketel asked. “That doesn’t make sense. They’ve got about three hundred poisons in Inchesso that kill you nice and peacefully. There’s one that literally kills you with happiness. Why would anyone take one that left them looking like this?”
“The white scars you see were just the aftermath too,” Dae said. “However that pill killed him, it hurt, a lot. Took maybe ten seconds to work and he was beyond screaming the entire time.”
“Surprised you didn’t kill him yourself then,” Ketel said.
“I probably should have,” Dae said. “It was bad enough though that I wasn’t sure I knew what I was seeing.”
“Well you don’t have to worry about seeing this at all anymore. Like I said, you’re off the case now. The Duke’s having the trading Consortium brought in and he’ll handle the questioning.”
“Right. That sounds like it’ll turn out well.” Dae said. “Guess I should just head back home then for a nice quiet evening.”
Dae smiled at him as she left and Ketel shook his head. Nothing good ever came of Dae smiling.
Ketel started to make a mental checklist. He needed someone to get the corpse off his desk, he needed someone to send word to the Duke about what had transpired and he needed someone to keep an eye on Dae who was very definitely not going home and very definitely not going to leave the case alone.