Tonel had been to the sight of many botched missions. He hated going to them. Things were always messy and it kindled a special kind of rage in his heart to see how incompetent his underlings were. For the case before him though he’d trekked out to a remote mountain inn to act as the Chief Inspector he’d once been.
Since Tonel’s promotion to the ranks of Elder of the Shadowfolk, he was no longer required to personally inspect the aftermath of the assignments he gave but with everything that had gone wrong with the simple scheme against Gallagrin’s senior princess, he wasn’t willing to trust anyone else to evaluate the outcome of the job correctly.
“The fire was recent sir,” Kongrave, Tonel’s principal assistant said.
Tonel gritted his teeth.
“Yes, that’s obvious.” He kicked a pile of still glowing wood that had fallen outside the inn, probably as part of the collapse that consumed the roof.
The walls of the Sunblossom Inn weren’t exactly standing anymore. There was enough left of them to do an impression of a set of building walls but few of them rose above shoulder height any longer. From what Tonel could see from the outside, the structure had been completely gutted and from the remaining heat it was clear that the flames had abated only recently, likely due to the rain storm that had swept over the mountain in the pre-dawn hours.
The stench of smoke had been spread far and wide by the mountain winds, but the still glowing embers made it clear that the devastation had been centered on the building and those within it.
“Have you found bodies yet?” Tonel spat the words out, trying to resist the urge to strangle Kongrave and the rest of the incompetents that he’d brought.
“Yes, or the remains of them,” Kongrave said. “With the fire there was a lot of damage done.”
“So you haven’t been able to identify who they were?” Tonel asked.
“Not yet sir, we’re being careful about disturbing them, or the site in general,” Kongrave said.
Tonel’s fists clutched hard enough to fade his knuckles to a pale powder blue. He couldn’t fault his minions for being careful. He had ordered them to take extreme care. Doing so at the expense of time was a luxury they didn’t have.
“Have you secured the site?” Tonel asked.
“We have Elder,” Kongrave said. “No on who was inside survived the fire.”
“And the outside perimeter?” Tonel asked.
“Swept clean. There are no living creatures within a bowshot of the inn,” Kongrave said.
That seemed wrong to Tonel but he dismissed it as irrelevant. The lack of witnesses made for the perfect scene, and it was time for at least one thing to go in their favor.
“Then I will inspect the bodies,” Tonel said and strode forward towards the remains of the Sunblossom Inn.
“The building’s structural stability has not been fully evaluated yet though Elder,” Kongrave said.
“Then evaluate it!” Tonel said, halting his steps. It wouldn’t do for him to be injured in any further collapse of the inn. That was what subordinates were for. “We have to make sure the scene is arranged properly with the right evidence displayed to make the reports our existence seem too far fetched to be believable.”
“There is a complication there Elder,” Kongrave said.
Tonel emitted a wheezing growl. Of course there was a complication. The Blessed Realms hated him, personally, and existed for no other reason than to act as his own private hell.
“What. Has. Gone. Wrong. Now.” Tonel wanted to incinerate Kongrave with his gaze but the assistant refused to play along and catch on fire.
“Koblani and Pergrez were caught in the building when it burned,” Kongrave said. “We believe we’ve found their corpses.”
“Those two fools,” Tonel said. “They couldn’t carry out a simple mission to kill one young girl? We’re well rid of them.”
“Our problems are deeper than the loss of two of our assassins,” Kongrave said. “They burned with the building, and their corpses are a part of the wreckage.”
“They didn’t retreat to the shadows? They died in the sunlight world?” Tonel asked.
It was an unthinkable breech of tactical doctrine. Even in situations where the trip to the dark worlds was definitely suicidal, every one of the Shadowfolk were expected to take their final leap there rather than dying where they could be discovered by one of the sunlight races.
“It seems so, Elder,” Kongrave said.
“How whole are they? Are their ashes mixed in with the others?” Tonel asked. It had never occurred to him that the mission could go this disastrously bad. Even Miaza and Shippo hadn’t bumbled things that to that extent. They’d had the sense to flee to the deep realms the moment they were discovered. One might never speak again and the other might be lost in the shadows but, like all good Shadowfolk, neither had left permanent evidence behind of their existence.
“They’re mostly intact, it’s how we were able to identify them so easily,” Kongrave said.
Kongrave and his team had been at work on the Inn for a half hour. Easy tasks should have taken thirty seconds or less, not thirty minutes.
“Move,” Tonel said as he broke into a run, casting aside the shadows that were concealing him.
They’d wasted thirty minutes on reviewing the scene. They had no more than another thirty before one of the sunlight people became aware of what occurred over the course of the night at the Inn. In that time, Tonel had to make certain that Princess Iana was one of the bodies present, arrange things to indicate that the assassins had been human and, somehow, remove any traces of two dead Shadowfolk who were currently returning to room temperature after being cooked in a giant burning oven for hours.
It wasn’t possible.
Tonel knew that. He’d “tidied” up botched murder scenes before. There was no chance that they could rid the Sunblossom Inn of all traces of the Shadowfolk’s presence in that little time.
For a lot of assassinations, perfect removal wouldn’t have been needed. People were remarkably eager to contaminate places where they discovered dead people. Also, even for noble murder victims, the survivors wouldn’t necessarily go to that much effort to determine who was responsible as long as they had a likely candidate to pin the blame on.
The greatest gift to those who wanted to get away with murder was the willingness of people to accept convenient fictions as facts.
The problem Tonel faced was that he wasn’t dealing with a normal murder scene. Or fooling a normal investigation.
The queen wasn’t going to casually overlook any details that would point to the true culprits. Not when she already had the name “Shadowfolks” on her lips.
Tonel remembered Sathe, the Butcher King. The monarch who’d waged a personal vendetta against the Shadowfolk, to the point where he drove them closer to extinction than the Sleeping Gods had. His daughter sat on the throne, which meant his blood still ruled Gallagrin. The Shadowfolk would never forget that, and that was the perfect resource for retaining, in Tonel’s eyes. For all of the terrible things Sathe had done, Tonel had learned a lot from the Butcher King. Hate was the most seductive tool in a ruler’s arsenal, followed closely by ruthlessness.
“Fetch me the two slowest of your assistants,” Tonel said.
Wasting resources was disagreeable, but sometimes necessary. The scheme to sow chaos and strife in Gallagrin had been Tonel’s but it’s failure was in no sense attributable to him. At least in Tonel’s eyes. With the loss of Koblani and Pergrez, the Shadowfolk were down four, or possibly six of their trained operatives, if Wynni and Gendaw ere lost too. Wasting two more lives wasn’t going to bring the others back, but it might ensure that future losses were prevented. Most especially the future loss of Tonel’s place as one of the Elders.
“Hulnin and I are the two slowest inspectors, sir,” Kongrave said, calling one of the other inspectors over.
“Good. That will make this simple,” Tonel said.
And then he stabbed them both.
There was a glimmer of shocked betrayal that passed over Kongrave’s features as the life faded from his eyes, followed by a weary resignation, as though he had always known this would be his fate.
The fool should have done something about it, if he knew he was destined for this, Tonel thought, remorse entirely absent from his emotional landscape. The other inspector, Hulnin, had the grace to simply die instantly, a feat which insured that Tonel didn’t think about him at all.
“Elder?” Pilial, one of the other inspectors asked, apparently unable to form a more coherent question.
“This is price for poor performance. It’s what poor performance does. Not just to them, but to our entire race,” Tonel said, his words ringing with contempt for the fallen. “They weren’t performing. They just weren’t performing. So they had to go. But now we can move on.”
“What are we supposed to do, Elder?” Pilial asked.
“Burn them,” Tonel said. “Burn them to ash.”
“Why?” Pilial asked and Tonel wondered about the value of burning five Shadowfolk rather than just four.
“Because we can’t clear all trace of the first two who fell here, so we’re going to use these two to help obfuscate what occurred.”
“I don’t understand Elder,” Pilial said. “We were just cleaning up Wynni and Pergrez’s corpses. Should we stop doing that?”
“Yes,” Tonel’s rage hissed out of him. The plan was so simple. Why could these people see what he was asking and just make it happen. “Burn all of the bodies together in quickfire and the collect the ashes.”
“Understood, Elder,” Pilial said and scampered off to perform his task.
The Queen was going to come to the inn, or she would send her best staff. They would see what happened and want answers. Tonel had to make sure that they found the answers he needed them too and overlooked the clues towards what really happened as inexplicable oddities.
Burning the four Shadowfolk bodies would provide enough ash to spread a thin dusting of their remains all around the inn’s remaining structure, outer yard and the surrounding forest. Since that was not at all the pattern a dead body left, any traces of the Shadowfolk that were found in the building would be taken as more of the odd residue that covered the site.
Tonel wished he could do more to disguise their presence, but under the time constraints predicted by his tacticians, some sacrifices had to be made.
Simply throwing the trail away from the Shadowfolk wasn’t going to be enough though. The only thing that would get the queen to stop looking for them was if she had someone better to question. Someone she already had reason to suspect and someone who had the means and motive to attack the throne in such a roundabout fashion.
Gallagrin’s nobles were nothing if not accommodating in that regards.
Over a year after the last failed coup attempt, and the invasion of Gallagrin by forces from the Green Council, the nobles of Gallagin were still a contentious lot. Few spoke of rebelling anymore, and on the surface there appeared to be a growing peace between the disparate houses, but old tensions and hatreds ran deep.
Just because the world seemed to be improving didn’t mean it lacked the old animosities that Tonel could profit from exploiting.
It came down to little more than a handful of silver coins. That was all Tonel needed to cast the blame onto the right noble house to receive it. No grand notes spelling out their name, no deathbed confessions from the murders. Those made for great theater but were ultimately too dramatic for someone like the queen to be taken in by the lie.
A handful of silver though? Tonel needed no more than to wet a blade in still warm blood from the princess’s corpse and burn both the blade and the bag which contained the silver enough so they appeared to have been in the fire when it occurred. The queen would have to ask herself why a payment from one of her nobles was found near the remains of her adopted daughter, and from there all of the pieces for another civil war would fall into place on their own.
There would be more work to do, but once the war fever was stoked in the queen’s heart, the Shadowfolk would be forgotten and Gallagrin could get on with the business of destroying itself like it was supposed to.