Dae left Commander Ketel’s office glad to be rid of the stench of the assassin she’d dragged back from the ambush site. It had been long and unpleasant work to carry the body that far. Without her Dawn March heraldry on display the Nath Watch probably wouldn’t have let her in the gates, but rank did have its privileges.
The barracks were sparsely populated, which wasn’t an uncommon scenario in Nath. With the “close connections” between Duke Telli and the commander there wasn’t much call for the Dawn March to fulfill its primary duty of regular reviews of the watch and the Duke’s personal forces. Instead the officers were assigned various cases as though they were backup members of the Watch.
Anything the city guards couldn’t handle, or didn’t want to, filtered up to the Dawn March and then, under normal circumstances, into one of the many fireplaces in the barracks where the case amounted to a few moments of warmth and little more.
The casefile on Lorenzo’s murder wouldn’t hit the hearthfires though. It fell into the “someone sufficiently important cares about this” category. That didn’t mean that it would actually be investigated however. A real investigation would have some slight chance of turning up the real culprits and, given that the killers were well connected enough to know when, where and how Teo was being transported out of the city, it was a safe bet that the person behind them was powerful enough to send the investigation down all the wrong tracks.
Since she had been officially removed from the case, Dae had no further stake in seeing the problem averted though. According to the Dawn March by-laws she was to stay as clear and uninvolved with the ongoing investigation as a regular civilian would be. Generally this struck her as a good operating principal. If an officer was removed from a case, it was usually for incompetence and the last thing the investigation needed was for them to muddy the waters further with their blundering. A poorly run investigation didn’t just allow the guilty party to escape, it confused things to the point where guilt and innocence were impossible to determine for anyone involved, including the investigators themselves.
Thanks to her general attitude, Dae was used to being removed from cases. Most of the time in fact her attitude was due to having no interest in working on whatever “important case” was assigned to her. She might discover that a flour merchant was cutting his wares with sawdust and the commander wouldn’t let her choke him to death with his own product? She might as well get kicked off the case and let someone else deal with the guy, as far as she could see.
“You do not look like a woman who has been giving the rest of the day off,” Javan Kael said as Dae strode out of barrack’s main offices.
“I’m off the case,” Dae said.
“Good then, that makes two of us,” Kael said.
“How much did it cost you?” Dae asked. “I had to pay an arm and a leg.”
“I saw the body you brought in here Kor. There was more left than an arm and a leg.” Kael fell into step with Dae, following her out of the barracks HQ and into the bustling streets of Nath.
“Yeah, but the rest was all white meat,” Dae said. “Can’t stand the stuff myself.”
Kael drew back a half step.
“That’s disgusting Kor,” he said, letting her merge into the crowds. “I’d be proud, but coming from you that just doesn’t sound right at all.”
“Maybe I’m not myself?” she said, pushing further into the later afternoon bustle that swamped the city’s narrow streets.
Kael used a combination of his larger form, his Dawn March heraldry, and lifetime of skill at navigating crowded mobs to push himself through the throng and catch up to Dae.
“What’s got you so worked up about this one?” Kael asked.
“I’m not worked up,” Dae said. “I’m focused.”
“Yeah and the last time I saw you focused like this is never, so what’s special now?” Kael asked.
“Who says anything’s special now?” Dae asked.
“You do,” Kael said. “Normally when you get an afternoon free you spend a few hours brooding at you desk and then you go and get plastered at whatever dive will have you.”
“And you just skip the brooding,” Dae said.
“This isn’t about me,” Kael said.
“That’s probably the first time I’ve heard you utter those words,” Dae said. “I’d almost think you mean them except well, this is you talking.”
“I notice you’re not heading to the Low Quarter either,” Kael said. “Which tells me you’re not drinking either.”
“The night’s much too young to say that,” Dae said.
“It’s afternoon,” Kael said.
“Plenty of time then right?” Dae said.
“What worries me is what you’re going to do between then and now,” Kael said.
“Probably get myself killed,” Dae said.
“Dammit Kor, it’s not a joke when you’re serious about it,” Kael said.
“And you would care why exactly?” Dae asked.
“Because I’ve got an inkling about who you’re going to get to kill you, and I don’t need the Duke killing me too for being associated with you,” Kael said.
“Seems funny that you’re walking beside me then,” Dae said.
“Pretty hard to strangle you if I let you get out of arm’s reach,” Kael said.
“Anytime you’d like to try…’ Dae said.
“Seriously, why are you going to bother the Duke,” Kael said. “Or are you going to pretend that we’re not walking directly towards the castle now?
“I’m not pretending anything,” Dae said. “I’ve just got a few questions for his Grace.”
“You’re off the case Kor. Those aren’t questions you’re allowed to ask anymore.”
“Didn’t say they were questions about this case,” Dae said.
“So you’re just trotting up to the castle to ask the Duke what exactly? How he like his eggs in the morning?”
“Road safety,” Dae said. “The roads out of Nath have some serious ruts in them.”
“And you’re going to ask the Duke about that?”
“It’s his job to maintain all the bridges, tunnels and roads in Nath,” Dae said. “It’s why he collects all those taxes right?”
“That’s a thin excuse Kor, real thin,” Kael said.
“Good, there seem to be a lot of thin excuses going around, I’d hate to miss out on my share” Dae said, dodging around a fruit cart that was being driven home for the evening by its owner.
“What I don’t get is what kind of connection you’ve got to this Inchesso kid that lit your fire up so high,” Kael said.
“It’s not the kid Kael,” Dae said. “But it probably should be, shouldn’t it?”
“Plenty of kids get themselves dead Kor,” Kael said. “There’s no point in bringing the Duke down us for one of them that’s a foreigner.”
“So you’d be more engaged if it was a local kid?” Dae asked. “Or maybe one of your kids?”
“I don’t have any kids Kor,” Kael said. “At least not any I gotta pay for.”
“You’re a gem Kael, a real gem,” Dae said.
“What I am is honest,” Kael said. “And that’s something you don’t seem capable of being.”
“What makes you think I’ve lied to you Kael,” Dae asked. “Everything I’ve said could be true.”
“Just because your words are true doesn’t mean you are,” Kael said. “You’ve been going around like you’re above the rest of us even if you never said it in so many words.”
“You sure that’s not a personal complex you’re wrestling with there Kael?” Dae asked.
“Don’t think so,” Kael said. “I’m not a complex person.”
“Your words, not mine,” Dae said.
“You’re not that complex either Kor,” Kael said. “You think you’re some kind of holy crusader, here to help all the little people, only you’re trying to be all humble about it and pure, not looking for fame and glory and money while you do it.”
“Yeah that’s me,” Dae said. “Helping out every orphan I can find at the bottom of a whiskey bottle.”
“That’s right,” Kael said. “Because you’re smart.” It was an accusation Kael spat out like a wad of acoustic contempt. Dae laughed, struck by how ridiculously off target the comment felt.
“If I’m so smart, why aren’t I living it up like you are?” Dae asked.
“Because smart doesn’t cut in this world,” Kael said. “Smart just lets you see how pointless it all is. You crawl into those bottles because you’re smart enough to see that if you cripple yourself you can’t be held responsible for all those poor old ladies and little toddlers that nobody can do anything for.”
“Doesn’t sound like a smart plan to me,” Dae said. “Eventually you sober up after all.”
“Can always reach for another bottle,” Kael said. “Or you can wake up.”
“And what do you think there is to wake up to?” Dae asked.
“You don’t need the bottles Kor,” Kael said. “They’re fun enough, don’t get me wrong, but all you really need is to figure out the trick to life.”
“And that would be?” Dae asked. They were still far off from the castle, and she wanted to make sure to keep him distracted for as long as possible. If Kael figured out that they were being followed, he could screw up her whole plan.
“The real trick to life is that you just can’t care about it,” Kael said. “All those sad sacks you spend your night’s killing yourself over? None of them matter. And none of them will care if you save them. Not the next day anyways, they’ll just ask what you’re going to do for them now. All they are is a big mess of problems and no matter how many you solve, there’s a dozen more that they’ll invent so that they can keep sucking away at you.”
“Sounds like a pretty miserable deal,” Dae said. “Let me let you in on a little secret though.”
“What?” Kael asked.
“All those kids and old ladies and sad sacks you think I’m bent on helping? You know how many I’ve drunk to forget?”
“No, and I’m betting you don’t either,” Kael said.
“None,” Dae said. “I never drank with even one of them in mind.”
Kael narrowed his eyes and searched Dae’s expression for a sign she was lying, but nothing more than an empty slate greeted him.
“The truth is, you don’t know me at all,” Dae said. “I’m not some noble paladin. We’re different from each other by maybe the thickness of a slice of paper.”
“That’s another one of your pretty little lies,” Kael said. “If you thought you were like me, you’d end it right then and there.”
“Sad thing to say Kael, although maybe that explains why you think I’m trying to kill myself right?” Dae maneuvered them into a side alley and spared a glance down at a puddle before stepping over it. The reflection in it showed her everything she needed to see.
“I think you’re trying to kill yourself because I’ve seen plenty of officers just like you,” Kael said. “Young things, fresh out of training, thinking they can change the world and save everyone in it. Can’t tell them anything and they keep thinking like that right up until they’re floating face down in the sewers somewhere.”
“I’m not a young thing anymore,” Dae said, counting her steps down the alley and estimating where the midpoint was.
“You’re young enough,” Kael said.
Ten more steps to the center of the alley.
“Young enough for what?” Dae asked. Eight more steps.
“To think you matter, to think you can change how the world works,” Kael said. “Except that never happens. The world’s too big for us and nobody gets to change it because too many people like it just how it is.”
Three more steps.
“Kael, I never wanted to change the world,” Dae said. “And I never wanted to save everyone. In the end there’s only one person I care about saving.”
Dae caught the first arrow half a foot away from her left eye and the second half an inch from Kael’s throat.
“The rest of you I save is just because it’s convenient,” she said and broke both of the arrows.
On the buildings around them, dozens of archers composed of shadow and thorn began to appear, drawing back their bows and releasing a flight of arrows down upon the two unarmored officers.