She came to me in a tavern full of pirates, brigands and murderers. Her demeanor and dressing suggested otherwise, but she was quickly taken to be of that trade, and so she was showered with jeers, taunts and offers. To these her weary face maintained stoic dignity, and without averting her gaze, she handed the invitation to me. Then she stood still, eyes beckoning, her composure the demand for me to start reading. She remained deaf to the din that continued to echo around us. I must admit was impressed.
“Bourma Estate,” I said, after fingering the seal on the invitation. “I have no business with his lordship.”
“The mistress requests your presence.”
“Oh?” I exaggerated my surprise and broke the seal. The invitation was simply worded. Written in elegant, decorative script. As the wench said, the Lady Bourma “requests” my presence for a banquet two night later in honour of esteem guests. I was to be at Bourma Castle at sundown. There were no instructions on declination of attendance.
“Most curious, is it not?” I said slowly, eyes still on the parchment. “Her ladyship deems my presence desirable amongst her esteemed guests.”
She said nothing.
“Are you awaiting the tip for your efforts?”
This broke her. Her eyes shone with revulsion and twice, her hands balled into fists. “The mistress requests your presence,” was all she was able to hiss after long. “You should be honoured. The likes of you.”
“The likes of me.” I repeated as I fingered my chin. Taking care, to at the same time, to give her an eyeing of my signet. “The likes of me is precisely the reason for my bafflement towards this invitation. I am under the impression that her ladyship, or for that matter Lord Bourma himself, wishes me no lesser than thirty feet dead and rotting in the ground.”
Before she could react, I stood and bowed. “Nonetheless, as you implored, I am deeply honoured by this invitation. I will be at Castle Bourma at the stated time. Thank you for your efforts. This is for you.”
I thought she was going to slap, the way rage overwhelmed her. But cowardice was a frequent trait of her kind and so in the end, she did no more than storm out of the tavern, leaving behind a ruckus of boos and whistles. Retrieving the coins she flung to the floor, I hollered for another mead and watched as Luten waltzed over. He examined the invitation several times before he spoke. There was heavy disapproval in his tone.
“Maybe she expects a formal apology from you.”
“Maybe she expects my head as the main course.”
“Do you still not agree that what you wrote about her was unnecessary?” Luton sat down and waved for more mead. “Unnecessary and malicious. I’m surprised you haven’t been assassinated. Or driven out of the county.”
“They can’t afford it, even if they wanted to.”
His eyes narrowed. “Please don’t tell me you are going.”
“Why shouldn’t I? It’s a banquet. Free food.”
“Madness. No, arrogance. You still think you can get away with it. You refuse to accept that the real reason you’re still here getting drunk is because they are smarter than what you take them for. They wouldn’t risk another scandal by openly killing you. They’d take you down in another way.”
“Indeed. But my friend, they are hardly the only nobles in Agavoth county that want me dead. As you have noted, I am still here getting drunk.”
He would have protested further. That was his character. But I had retrieved paper and quill from my satchel and so for the next few minutes, he tolerated the sight of me scribbling the request. “This wouldn’t make it to Erikus in time,” he said after I shoved the parchment to him. “I need at least three days to reach the capital. Even with Wizard’s Wind.”
“I didn’t say there was any rush.”
This made him frown. His fingers shrank away from the parchment.
“Get this to Erikus. That’s all that matters. At the same time,” I leaned forward and lowered my voice. “Pay for a group to do a delivery. Say, that bunch over there. They’re from Narrownight. I’ve used their services before.”
“Delivery? Of what?”
“A chest of coins in my room. But tell them to depart two nights later. On the evening of the banquet.” I winked at Luton, and my grin finally assured him I wasn’t entirely hubris and impudence. “Remove your dues from the chest before handling it to them. And oh, if I might suggest, it’s probably a good idea to transact with Narrownight felons while carrying some armaments.”
Castle Bourma was neither the grandest nor oldest estate in Agavoth county. It was merely one of the many crumbling summer residences left over from the wars, its days of glory and magnificence long lost and departed. For the owning family, this aged heritage was an undying curse, in the form of endless upkeep and repairs expenditure. So it was rumoured, the current Lord Bourma, the seventh one, was mired in debts to tens of other nobles simply because of this. Personally, I found this to be very silly. The man should have sold the wretched pile of stones and moved to somewhere smaller, say a quaint hillside manor. The cleaner air would have done his frail constitution a world of good too.
But he didn’t move, of course. Family pride and all that. He also didn’t do much to improve his predicament, other than lame efforts to levy heavier taxes on the peasants, and so over the last year, more and more servants were dismissed by the Bourma household, more and more furniture were sold, and there was that ugly evening when half of Bourma’s personal guards were sighted departing quite unhappily from the estate. Nearer to the capital, the lord’s woes might have been easily resolved. There were plenty of other capital nobles keen on new alliances, or the making of minions, and the Crown itself had a vested interest in preserving the dignity of the aristocracy. But this was Agavoth. Borderlands. A half day’s walk from the brigand infested marshes of Narrownight and Servalia. Bourma should consider himself incredibly fortunate that his crumbling castle was not already raided by a populace that never had any much regard for the law, or for that matter, even the capital. The poor lord’s misery worsens by the minute. Honestly, the first thought I had at the sight of the banquet invitation, was how he could possibly afford it.
Bourma looked as awful as his estate nowadays, by the way. Distresses such as his have profound effects on a man. They dwindle. They sap away sensibility. A man in that situation becomes constantly distracted, constantly disagreeable. In many cases, they make him paranoid too, intolerant of too many things.
Terribly unhealthy conditions for any man. Particularly those with demanding wives. Wives who were once been the gems of their own families, now reduced to no more than irritation.
That’s where I entered the story.
I didn’t do it because I disliked the Bourmas. Neither was it because I found their treatment of their servants or peasants disagreeable; I couldn’t care less. I wrote the feature for the Wyvern’s Tongue because there was nothing else worth writing about in Agavoth. Besides, it wasn’t as if it was any secret. She was visiting the farms three nights a week, with bodyguards and flaming torches and everything. The farm hands I spoke to were also more than eager to talk, a good number of them actually in the belief that the lady wanted her infidelities to be known, for whatever absurd reason. This led me to speculate that perhaps she had some sort of twisted intention. For example, a reason for her husband to throw her out, thus sparing her further destitute. What I’m saying is, when that edition of the Tongue was published, I genuinely believed I did her a favour. I half expected her to send me some sort of reward.
Well, I was dead wrong. She was outraged. She sent bodyguards after me. Then she sent sellswords. Each time, I managed to keep the encounters bloodless by heading straight to the Imperial Sentry. Twice, I had to stay till the next afternoon before it was safe to leave.
All these I shared with the other guests at the banquet. The whole story from start to end. As expected, their reaction was cautious interest. Then, they questioned the integrity of my sources.
“Would the words of farm hands truly be reliable?” One of them asked twice. A baroness, from two, no, three counties away.
“Why not? There is no reason for them to lie. Besides, they have only the best to say about her ladyship.”
“What you wrote about Lady Bourma seems positive on the surface.” This was by a grossly ample merchant from Rifton, the provincial capital of Agavoth. “But if one were to read deeper … were you not implying something else?”
“Marthus!” The baroness flinched. “Surely you are not saying …”
“I report only what is popularly known amongst the peasants,” I injected. “Which is that the Lady Bourma is a most charitable soul who cares deeply for her people. She also takes a keen interest in the young and spirited. Often, she offers mentorship and wisdom to any who asks for it.”
I was much tempted to add, “in the dead of the night,” but of course I didn’t. Besides, it was time to feast. And a proper feast it was, to my delighted surprise! With plenty of roasts and stews, and five barrels of mead specially brought in from Rifton. A half hour into this spread, the Bourmas made their entrance. Him looking sickly and gaunt, as usual, and while she did all the talking . She began by apologising for their late appearance and inhospitality. Then she explained that her lord was unfortunately taken ill after lunch, and so would not be joining us for the evening. Thereafter, Lord Bourma retired while she sat in his stead. For the rest of the banquet, she maintained herself impeccably, eating little, spending most of the time in restrained conversations with the guests nearest to her. Not once did she glance at me. From what I could pick up, she also made no mention of me or the Tongue.
“That was a very nasty feature that you wrote about Fayena,” the baroness from three counties away, Lady Olethin, whispered when late into the meal. She was seated beside me, and had till then visibly struggled to avoid the topic. “You caused great upheaval in her household.”
“What I did was to allay the rumours that were flying about. Now we have no doubts about what a truly charitable person Lady Bourma is.”
“Stop using that word,” she hid her snigger with her napkin. “You and I both know what you were up to.”
“Pray tell, what would that be?”
She didn’t reply. Below the table, her foot nudged mine. “My husband is a far less forgiving man. Our punishment for all offenses is usually flogging or hanging. My advice to you, crafty one, do not even consider venturing near us.”
“The Wyvern’s Tongue really does suffer a terrible reputation in some counties. Why are we so feared and detested? Do you fear us, Lady Olethin?”
Again she didn’t reply. And again her foot met mine. “I have heard many stories about you. And the ones you are partnered with,” she continued in a lowered tone, while her eyes strayed to a set of rusty armour nailed to the wall. “You value connections, do you not? Fayena is a shrewd woman. She has much to share, much to give, in charitable ways. But only if you approach her in the way she prefers.” She smiled. “Do you understand me?”
“I’m afraid I don’t?”
“A legendary rogue like yourself is not aware of such workings of the world?”
“I am no rogue, madam. Only an impoverished rascal.”
For a third time, her foot grazed mine. Then her hand came, brushing my knee just for a fleeting moment. I did not react. I kept my eyes on that rusty set of armour too.
I did not take Fayena Bourma to be a fool. But neither did I expect greatness from her too. For her to contrive such a proposal, well, impressive.
This was the deal. I was to write a follow-up to my feature, one that dismisses what I’ve previously wrote. I was also to promise never to do a similar exposé on Lady Olethin who happened to share the same nocturnal habits. In return, Olethin, who was far wealthier, would enrich me with coin. Whatever that coin was insufficient for, she would compensate with company. Her company.
Not too bad an offer. Olethin was no ravishing beauty. But she was a woman pampered and beautified since young. Did I mention she was also experienced? From the regular practice she had with her farm hands?
A fantastic deal, in other words. Except Lady Olethin ended up bloodied and dead beside me.
This was what happened. After confirmation of our contract, Lady Olethin strolled with me to the castle garden and took me into a gardener’s shack. What happened subsequently needs no elaborate mention, and all I would say is, my mistake at that point was to overestimate my resistance to poison. When the flush washed over me, I knew something was amiss and the sensible thing to do would be to leave immediately. I didn’t. Instead, I allowed Olethin to convince me that it was merely something to assist with the mood. Something she had slipped into my mead to “enhance” the magic. I had barely gotten her frock up when my limbs weakened and I fell. Amazingly, she kept on coming.
“I prefer to take the lead,” she said brazenly.
Whatever she meant by that, I never found out. When I came to, Olethin was dead and cold. Stabbed twice in the chest, with the murdering dagger grasped in my hand. Outside the shack, servants screamed for her, and I knew right away I had but seconds to act if I were to save myself. The abilities acquired from my previous vocation snapped into action. I executed the only thing I could do moments before the door was rammed open. Then I was surrounded, punched, yelled at, and carried away. I passed out a second time in the midst of that transportation.
“A masterful move. From a notorious rogue.” Fayena Bourma said coldly. We were in a guest bedchamber of her castle. Where I have been recuperating, under custody, over the two days. “But if you think you’re fooling anyone …”
“I do sincerely apologise for this situation, your ladyship. If only I haven’t neglected my defensive skills.”
“There was nothing to defend against. Because there was no intruder.” Her stare hardened. Over the last two days, I realised she wasn’t an unattractive woman. She could have been adored in another life, in another marriage. “I heard that in Shang, there are ways to cut a man a thousand times while still keeping him alive. Did you not spend many years in Shang during your career on a privateer?”
“We were merchants, your ladyship. Such gruesome tales also do not befit you.”
“You fool no one!” her voice rose. “You stabbed yourself. Just before we reached you. But the Imperial Inquisitor will soon determine the truth, and even you, or the rest of your friends from that wretched establishment of yours, would not be able to buy your way out of this. I would enjoy the sight of your head rolling from the guillotine.”
“With no disrespect, Lady Bourma, you are mistaken in your understanding of the workings of the Imperial Court of Justice. I have been trying to tell you this for the past two days. In such investigations, the crux is always about motive. I have no motive to murder Lady Olethin, bless her poor soul. I barely know her. On the other hand, the amount of jewellery she was wearing, and the gold I had on me … …”
“If it were bandits, why weren’t any jewellery missing?”
“Because I defended her. Unfortunately, I couldn’t …”
I could have gone on for hours, wrangling it in any way she preferred it to be. But I did not have to. Caiel, the Inquisitor for Agavoth, entered the bedchamber then. He was followed by the wench, the sullied-eye one who approached me at the tavern. Behind them, lumbering as if intoxicated, was Marthus, the merchant from Rifton. The obese one and the wench lingered at the door while Caiel came to the centre of the chamber. Fayena Bourma’s face went alive at the sight of him.
“I trust your investigations are complete, Lord Inquisitor?” She asked bitingly, making no effort to contain her glee.
“More or less,” Caiel replied, in the distant way Inquisitors tend to speak with. “This man, Remion Stathingove. He is free to leave your castle once he is able to. He is however to recuperate at his registered abode till further notice.”
I managed to conceal my grin with a cough. Fayena Bourma, on the other hand, snarled and looked quite the tigress denied its prey. “You are letting a murderer leave? A murderer who slaughtered one of my guests after defiling her virtue?”
Caiel didn’t appreciate that tone, but before he could respond, Marthus stumbled forward. Dishevelled and breathless, he retrieved something from his robes and passed it to Caiel. Who then calmly placed the object on my bed. My Wyvern’s Tongue signet. “I … discovered it in my chamber this morning,” Marthus blabbed, pleading with his eyes. “I have no idea how it ended up there! There were things missing from my chamber too. As in, as in, coin, yes! Coin! A pouch of mine is missing!”
“It appears that the perpetrator, or perpetrators, did not leave the castle immediately,” Caiel said. “Lady Bourma, isn’t it the case that you have only recently brought into employment six new servants from the adjacent counties? For the specific purpose of the banquet two evenings ago?”
“Y … yes. And … all of them are still here! As you instructed!”
“My men will speak further with them. As for this,” he pointed at my signet. “This was likely dropped by the perpetrator while searching Marthus’ room.”
As I said, Fayena Bourma wasn’t dim. You could tell from her face that she understood what happened. How, during the chaos of the discovery, I managed to slip the signet into Marthus’ coat. And how Marthus, who far from desired any further involvement in this sordid business, was embellishing his discovery of my signet to paint himself under a better light. Her game was lost, and she knew it. Every person in the chamber, including Caiel, wanted the robbery to remain a robbery. There was nothing at all she could do to turn things around.
“If you determined that to be so,” she said hoarsely. “I respect your judgement, of course, Lord Inquisitor.”
“The rest of your guests are free to leave. I conclude them to be above suspicion,” Caiel said coolly. “Incidentally, I was just informed that a band of notorious characters from the Narrownight region was seen departing town hastily last night. There is a chance they could be the real culprits. But given the evidence uncovered here … …”
“Best to investigate on all ends,” Marthus said eagerly. “If I might be so bold as to suggest, Lord Inquisitor.”
Caiel left, with Marthus, bless him, trotting after him like a dog. I was left with Fayena and her maid. Two wraiths deep in struggle not to strangle me there and then. The way their fingers kept flexing both amused and chilled me.
“My kind suggestion, Lady Bourma,” I said gently. “You might wish to arrange… matters, so that it remains unknown the amount of money you owe the Olethin household. Not that I’m suggesting that has anything to do with this gruesome tragedy, of course.”
“Why?” She wheezed. “What have I done to you? What do you gain from doing this?”
I didn’t answer immediately. I struggled out of bed, retrieved my belongings and was near the door before I turned back and smiled. “You were a good story,” I told her. “That was all. As for what’s happening now, it’s really because you tried to make yourself more than a story.”
Her maid spat. I staggered out of the bedchamber. A few seconds later, Fayena Bourma’s scream echoed throughout the keep.