The Mind’s Armor – Chapter 7

There are times when people make innocent, harmless mistakes which nonetheless cost them their lives. Trying to appear at Dae’s side in a nonchalant manner was nearly such an error in judgement on Teo’s part. Dae released a long slow breath, grateful for the warning Kirios had provided her. Without that she would have acted on reflex, and an unthinking response from a Pact Warrior could have lethal consequences.

“Hello Teo,” she said, keeping her voice neutral. “Why are you here?”

The continued to walk forward, passing through the crowded streets without drawing much interest from the people of Nath who scurried around them to errands and chores and the business of everyday life. In Dae’s case that was because her cloak covered all of the Dawn March heraldry she wore. As far as anyone in the crowds was concerned she was just another brown figure in a sea of brown and grey and green cloaks. Perhaps noticeably shorter than most humans and nearly a halfling when compared to the elves around her, but that made her even less of a concern to them.

Teo would have stood out more. He was tall and lean and handsome. And also a vampire. In particular point of fact, a starving vampire, so that his skin was drawn in and his eyes were solid red pools with throbbing lines of blood radiating from them like a spider web mask. People didn’t pay others much attention in Nath, but hungry predators garner interest no matter where they might be. Unless, of course, their features are concealed behind the sort of half-mask which nobles tend to employ when they need to venture out in the morning sunlight while bearing a terrible hangover. The wide brimmed hat Teo wore, to further shield himself from the day’s bright and clear rays, also served the dual purposes of practicality and camouflage. Beyond disguising him and reducing his exposure, it allowed him to blend in with the crowd easily as the look had caught on in Nath after His Grace the Duke Telli was seen favoring the broad and shady head coverings following his return from a trip to Paxmer and Inchesso.

“You’ve been to the castle,” Teo said. “Have a nice chat with the Duke?”

“No,” Dae said and stepped out into the road to move around a group of customers at a sidewalk sweets stall. The aroma of freshly ground monberry tugged at her, but her steps didn’t waver. The hot beverage smelled so delicious and yet tasted like rat vomit to her. People swore by its effects but the vile black goop held no allure for her beyond its damnable scent.

“That’s a shame,” Teo said. “I’m sure he found it stimulating.”

“Why were you following me Teo?” Dae asked. They were still a significant distance from the barracks. That complicated Dae’s desire to drag the vampire into a holding cell by his ears and shake him until he gave her the straight answers he clearly possessed.

“I wasn’t,” Teo said. For the day being a bright and sunny one, he was still moving well and able to keep up with her, despite Dae quickening her pace. “I was following the man who was following you.”

Dae felt her blood warm and the ghost of an old smile dance along her lips. She hadn’t expected the players to start moving so quickly, but then they’d already claimed their first victim, so the game was well along and it seemed she was the one who running slow still.

“And why were you following him?” Dae asked. She checked with Kirios but her spirit offered no sense of someone else observing them. Dae knew her Pact’s limitations though. She was not a bloodhound or a spy. Kirios could alert her to potential dangers, sometimes, but he was not infallible or preternaturally observant.

“Because I don’t trust him,” Teo said. “Or the company which he travels with.”

“And you’re telling me this because?” Dae asked. The crowds were denser along Riverman’s Road, which offered a chance to shake off anyone who was following her, but Dae held to the main thoroughfare. The Riverman’s Road was a terrible place for a battle, and Dae held a faint hope that Teo’s pursuer might prove to be both real and stupid enough to attack her before she reached the Dawn March barracks. She could learn so very much from someone who made that sort of mistake.

“Because no one followed you into the castle but someone followed you out, and they weren’t watching for me or anyone else who was following you,” Teo said.

Meaning the person who followed her from the castle wasn’t a guard or an unseen wingman.

“Where did you lose sight of them?” Dae asked.

“On top of the Chapel of the Green Mother,” Teo said.

“Were you both traveling by rooftop?” Dae asked.

“Yes,” Teo answered and split away from her to allow a mule and the wagon behind it to pass in the opposite direction. Dae kept her attention focused forward but she felt a pang that Teo wouldn’t rejoin her at the other side of the train of mule carts. If someone was working against her, they couldn’t afford to allow her any access to information and taking Teo out immediately would be the smartest play they could make.

Paranoia sounded could make her think things like that, but Dae felt a sense of calm that didn’t normally co-exist with with unreasoning fear. She’d been absorbing details and information since Javan dragged her out of her apartment and in the back of her mind small pieces were falling into place. It wasn’t accurate to say that gave her a picture of what was going on, more that she could see the outlines of the board the events were occurring on.

She walked forward, letting her awareness drift outwards and taking in as much as she could while one heavily laden cart after another passed her by, heading back towards the castle to restock the party deleted larders therein.

By her side Lorenzo Lialarus walked, if not in body or ectoplasmic ghostly form, then as a quieter sort of spirit. Through the small elements of his life and death, Dae felt the Inchesso prince speaking to her, helping her unravel the mystery that his passing left behind.

Hours in the water does hideous things to a body. So do knife wounds to the throat. More importantly though, Lorenzo said, neither was the result of impetuous action.

If the boy had angered someone enough to kill him in a fit of rage he would bear one or more stab wounds. That’s what people with sharp weapons did when their blood was boiling. The Dawn March chirurgeon would be able to tell her for certain, but Dae hadn’t seen signs of puncture wounds on Lorenzo’s body when castle workers pulled it from the moat.

The wound to the neck was singular and deep. The kind of cut that someone makes when they are very sure of what they are doing. A skilled fencer could manage a slice like that in certain circumstances, but the most likely explanation was that Lorenzo’s murderer had been able to get into position near the boy either via stealth or because the Inchesso prince had lacked any reason to suspect an attack.

A hand over the mouth, a blade drawn rapidly across an exposed neck, and Lorenzo could have been dead before he was even aware he was in danger. Dae hoped that was the case. Better that he perish at the hands of an expert than to endure the pain and terror of a fumbling attempt on his life which ultimately succeeded.

It would be impossible to know how quickly the work was done, only Lorenzo’s ghost and the one who held the blade could tell that tale, but there was another part to the story that might still be revealed; where the murder had taken place.

Lorenzo would have had no reason to venture outside into the storm wracked castle grounds. Not on a night of lively dancing and music. Even a brief trip out into the tempest would have left his clothes unsuitable for further merriment. By the same token however, he must have left the party at some point as, drunk though they might have been, the revelers would have noticed a sudden arterial spray in the midst.

If all had gone according to a usual festival plan, the boy would have departed the castle with the entourage he arrived with, the Denarius Consortium. They might tell any number of stories as to the boy’s fate. As his sponsors for the event there were only a few that might excuse them from responsibility for the prince’s demise.

Dae assumed they would try for a story that the boy had not left with them at all but had been beguiled by a Gallagrin noble woman and had left in her company instead. The request of a Gallagrin noble would be outside the scope of a foreign merchant company to refuse or contest and many judges would have sympathy for the lurid subtext of sending a young boy off with an experienced woman.

Whatever story the Denarius Consortium told though, their connection to Lorenzo was a thread to tease and pull on until the truth was revealed. Dae didn’t know if the Consortium held the boy’s murderer but she was certain they were connected to the matter somehow. What she needed was as many threads of information as she could find to help trip them up in the little lies they would feel compelled to tell.

“My apologies,” Teo said, rejoining her as the last of the mule carts passed. “There are so many about this morning that unimpeded traffic is difficult.”

“But you didn’t fly away,” Dae said  glancing over and catching his gaze. “That’s good.”

Teo’s eyes widened and his stride took him an extra inch or two away from her, the sort of positioning one might adopt if running away seemed unexpectedly called for but might also provoke a dangerous creature into giving chase.

“There is an unkindness in your eyes,” Teo said, looking resolutely ahead.

“That’s because I’m thinking unkind thoughts,” Dae said. She didn’t need to scare Teo, but she hoped her honesty might shake him out of his need to be cryptic and mysterious.

“Having seen what you’re unkindness can do, I find myself unsettled,” Teo said.

“Last night I was in a forgiving mood,” Dae said. “You haven’t seen me be unkind yet.”

“Perhaps that will be called for before this is over,” Teo said. “I merely hope that your ire will be well focused when directed at those who are deserving of it.”

“That’s a nice thing to hope for,” Dae said and changed course, leading them down a narrow alley which ran perpendicular to the road towards the barracks.

“I’m not sure this is safe,” Teo said. “I lost the man who was following you, but I cannot say that he was alone.”

“I hope he wasn’t,” Dae said. “But it’s looking like I might be disappointed.”

“Disappointed in what?” Teo asked.

“In you? In the person following me? Who’s to say,” Dae stopped and blocked Teo’s progress in the alley.

“What are we doing here?” Teo asked.

“We need somewhere to talk and before we do that, I need to know how you’re connected to all this,” Dae said.

“And so you chose this place to question me?” Teo asked.

“Look at the walls here,” Dae said. “What do you notice?”

“They are brick,” Teo said.

“Yes, and what don’t they have?” Dae asked.

“Oh, I see,” Teo said. “No windows, so no one can listen to us easily.”

“Also the roofs are high enough that someone perched above won’t hear us over the din of the street traffic,” Dae said.

“How do you know?” Teo asked.

“Because I’ve trailed people to this alley before and tried to eavesdrop on them and it was miserable,” Dae said. “But that’s not important. What I need to know is why were you in the Low Quarter last night?”

“I was searching for some men,” Teo said.

“And you found some, but not the ones you were looking for,” Dae said.

“This is true,” Teo said. “The ones I was looking for were foreigners from Inchesso. Dressed as merchants, but they were not.”

“And why were you looking for them?” Dae asked.

“Because they were dangerous and they seemed intent on bringing that danger to the Duke’s court,” Teo said.

Dae considered that for a long moment. Did she have any specific reason to trust the vampire aside from her instincts? Maybe. The beating he’d taken had been real and he still bore the signs of it. Of all the people in the city, he was the one person who couldn’t have killed Lorenzo.

“Why didn’t you warn the Duke of them directly?” Dae asked. “Or speak to the guard captain at least.”

“I am known to the Duke,” Lorenzo said, looking away from her. “He bears no love for me, though that is due to my own folly.”

“How did you offend His Grace?” Dae asked.

“Rendolan, his second son,” the words were slow to come, as though they had to cross a vast divide to reach Teo’s lips.

“I hadn’t heard of any trouble with Duke’s children?” Dae asked.

“Trouble comes in many forms,” Teo said. “Ren is my…was my…I am bound to him.”

“Bound to him?” Dae asked. Her lessons in vampires were sketchy enough that she couldn’t be certain that she knew exactly what he meant, and with magicked creatures it was never wise to be anything less than perfectly clear with meanings.

“When you offered to let me take your blood,” Teo said. “I couldn’t. I can only share in his life.”

The vampire looks up and though his eyes were the pure crimson lakes, Dae saw not hunger but fear and hope mingled there.

“So long as he keeps my heart.”

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