So the things we have learned this past day are obvious, mainly to always ensure one’s alarm is set when living a new, non-standard sleep schedule. I did warn that some posts might be coming later, but I don’t think a whole day later is covered by that. For this, I apologize profusely.
To make up for that, let’s do something a bit more substantial than the usual weekly ramble. How about we put up a little smidge of my next novel (still untitled, yo!), a fantasy mystery romance post-magical-apocalypse film noire tale with some cyberpunk influences. Remember, this is still first draft stuff but I hope you enjoy all the same!
ACT I – A Most Pleasurable Way to Die
From The Formation of a New Age by Elan Corvyn, ratiri historian:
Pre-Collapse, the world was dominated by what we now call the Olden Folk, then known as Hyu-Man. The exact nature of the Collapse is unknown, other than it was fueled by research into previously forbidden forms of the arcane arts. What we do know is that the vast transmutative energies unleashed led to the creation of the modern Folk, mergers of Olden and non-sentient beasts of the land. The Aard came of canines, the Myan from felines, the Wass from the oceans, the Hive flew on insectile wings, the Winds cut from avian cloth, the Daj blind as their mole-kin, and the Ratiri scurry on rodent legs.
From The Walled City: A Divine Prominence by the 87th Lord-High Mayor Testria:
Sometime shortly after the Collapse come the first written records of the existence of the Walled City. Common tales cite that the City was raised by the divine hand of Inam Wallmaker, the god of cities and the first Lord-High Mayor of the City. However, continued research leads us to believe that, while Inam did found the City, he did not do so with a wave of a divine hand. It is now considered historical fact that it was the act of raising the City from a simple trading outpost to the massive structure, extending over one hundred feet into the sky and spreading over the entire Great River delta, that led to Inam’s ascension into Godhood.
The Mermaid’s Scale is renowned for two things: its hoppy brews and its vibrant nightlife. To my delight, the Scale was living up to its reputation this past evening. I had a frothy mug in front of me, a sleek-furred aard man whose flirtations had not gone unnoticed seated to my right, and a clear view of the swaying hips and multi-colored scales of the wass serving maid coming towards me. This night, my only free one for a week on-duty, was draped in endless possibilities. To better enhance those possibilities, I used a subtle gesture to loosen the lace of my blouse, exposing a bit more of my brown-and-white-furred cleavage.
The man, just out of boyhood most likely, was named Jaquabi and wasn’t holding his beer well. “I’ve never shared a drink with a Watchwoman before,” he slurred, a grin spreading across his muzzle. “What’s it like?”
“Well, my handsome boy, I’m technically an Inspector,” I corrected,” but it all ends up the same way for us. Danger, intrigue, and the Law, it’s the life we lead in the service of the Walled City.” As I finished, I took up my mug and nodded to Jaquabi to do the same.
He followed suite, though his thick fingers seemed unsteady. Unfortunately, if he was doing so badly with just beer, he likely wouldn’t be able to keep up for the evening and I was not going to take advantage of such a blossoming flower.
The barmaid, on the other hand, looked a bit more worldly, flashing a smirk on her wide lips as she settled a platter of grilled eels on the table. “Here you go, Inspector. Best eel in the entire Second Ward!”
“I’ll add it to the wonders of the Scale, my dear, and please, call me Vela.” I flashed my best smile. “Perhaps you could join us after your work is done.”
“Methinks it’ll just be you. Your other hound-friend is about to fall out.” The fish Folk always have an underlying echo to their voice, something this fine prize of a girl showed off as she laughed.
“If that’s what the Gods deem fit, so be it.” Seizing the initiative, I took the lovely scarlet-and-white scaled hand hanging at the girl’s side and kissed it gently. “I would be most honored to have your company alone then.”
I could see the blush about the barmaid’s gills as she raised her free hand to her mouth, but the flirtatious giggle that followed was drowned out by a shrill cry from above.
“Murder! Treachery! Someone, call the Watch!” It had started with one voice, but redoubled as others took up the alarm.
I could curse fluently in three languages, but I held them all in as I reluctantly dropped the wass girl’s hand. To be a Watchperson in the Walled City, the greatest city in all Aardsland or perhaps the world, was a duty that did not end when your shift closed. The Scale’s common room turned into disarray and panic as I grabbed my watchcoat from my chair and raised my badge above my head as I stood.
“Make way! Inspector coming through!”
The crowd, as diverse with Folk as any other in the City, parted before me. Even the most salty of seamen or the grittiest of thugs understood and respected the sanctity of the Watch, even if I didn’t also have my truncheon gripped tight in my right hand. As I mounted the stairs in swift steps, I could already guess where the crime had been committed from the gawkers grouped around an open door. The Scale has several private rooms on the second floor for private parties and other such things, and it was one of those rooms where something undoubtedly unintended had happened.
What was strange was that I hadn’t picked up a scent of anything normally affiliated with murder. My sharp aard nose was filled with sweat, alcohol, smoke, and other unsavory things, but no blood, gore, or other tell-tale signs of violence. I put that aside as I reached the door, giving the railing of the walkway we all stood upon a few sharp whacks with my truncheon.
The ringing blows grabbed the attention of the curious mob, turning to see me with my silver badge raised high. I settled into my most authoritative bark, possibly ruined by the beer on my breath and my bountiful cleavage, and announced, “Junior Inspector Vela Redmane, Second Ward Watch! If you didn’t see the crime or find the body, clear off!”
Whether it was my appearance or my reputation at fault, it mattered little as the onlookers only parted to make way instead of dispersing. At least I was fortunate that no one seemed to have trodden over the scene of the crime itself. By the wide-open door was a shivering ratiri woman, a full two heads shorter than I with a plump, matronly build. I recognized her as one of the serving staff, something backed up by the spilled tray of meat and wine just inside the room itself.
As for that room, it was a cozy, if plain, affair. I was intimately familiar with rooms like this myself and I catalogued it swiftly. The bed was immediately to the right, headboard against the wall to allow for a view out over the Second Ward’s docks, the mixture of true moonlight and the rays cast by the City’s Celestial Stone dance across the waters of the Orb Sea. A small fireplace provided the only lighting in the room, the two oil lamps in the room dark. A once-fine oak desk and chair sat up against the far wall, under the window, seemingly undisturbed.
The only things out of place was the one shattered window pane, shards of glass scattered on the desk, and the dead body. Sprawled across the bed face-up, he was a tawny-furred myan, his slitted green eyes still open and staring glassily at the ceiling. Dressed in remarkable finery for a patron of the Mermaid’s Scale, there was no obvious cause of death, save for the growing smell of the corpse’s evacuating bowels. As I covered my sensitive muzzle with a lace handkerchief, I couldn’t shake the final oddity of the dead man: the expression of carnal pleasure on his lips.
The gossip was already flowing down through the crowd as I turned my eyes on the waitress, her whiskers and nose still twitching with fear. “You, ma’am, you found the body?”
She nodded twice quickly, shiny eyes focusing on me. “Aye, my lord had left an order downstairs for dinner at nine bells and I brought it up. When I opened the door, I saw him dead and -”
I raised a hand. “The door wasn’t locked? This is one of the private rooms.”
Perhaps it was the fear of suspicion that made her shivers grow in intensity as she shook her head. “I didn’t do nothing wrong of any sort! The door wasn’t locked so I only guessed my lord was expecting his meal.”
“Calm down, ma’am, I am casting no accusations, only looking for the truth.” I put on what I hoped was a comforting smile. If the circumstances were different, I’d no doubt be flirting with the woman, who certainly looked more comely once you took away the dark effect of fear upon her. “I take it then you dropped the tray in shock and let forth that cry of fear?”
Despite an initial flinch from my touch, the lady seemed calmed after a moment of my touch. “Yes, Inspector, but I swear I didn’t touch a thing. I was too scared to! It could be poison or a curse or … the Lurkers.” She put two long fingers to the middle of her brow, the sign of Nym, goddess of purity, at the mention of the black creatures that dwelt below the furthest reaches of the Walled City.
“It wasn’t Lurkers.” I let my voice raise loud enough for every gossip and rumormonger still pressing around us on the walkway to hear. The last thing I or anyone of the Watch needed was rumors of a Lurker attack, especially with no evidence of one. “You did the right thing though. Now what is your name?”
I favored Christabelle with another smile. “A lovely name. Do you know the lord’s name?” I didn’t expect that whatever name he had given would be his real name, considering where he was and what he appeared to be, but any clue could be important.
“Lord Chai, methinks.”
I nodded slowly. “Very well. If I have any more questions, I will come see you. For now, tell your master that I need his bouncers to clear out the rabble from getting underfoot. More of the Watch will be here soon, no doubt, and they won’t be as kindly as I.”
She straightened herself up and nodded. “Yes, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am!” With that, she scurried off into the crowd and down the stairs.
Free to investigate further, I took a step over the spilled food and purposefully closed the door in the faces of the gawkers. No more free show for them. It was time to go to work.
By the time a squad of Watchers had arrived on the scene, I had nearly finished my examination of the room and the body. There were things that would have to be left to the surgeons at the Watchtower, of course, but I had the sinking feeling they would only confirm what I had already found, clues that only presented questions with faint few answers.
As I had initially noted, the myan’s corpse had no injuries and no signs of poisoning. No needle marks, no discoloration of the flesh, or anything else. The only clue to his demise was the frozen expression of unmitigated lust on his face, something confirmed by the stains in the front of the man’s trousers. I could only surmise that this richly-dressed man had been taken by the Dealer through the failure of his heart under an extremity of pleasure.
It wasn’t impossible, certainly, but the problem with that theory was a lack of stimuli. While I supposed one could work oneself into such a frenzy simply through the power of thought or imagination, my mind moved quickly on to the other possible cause: magic.
A sufficiently powerful wizard was capable of all manner of mental manipulation. They had run roughshod over the politics of the Walled City for centuries, despite their hand in the Collapse, until the Seventeeth Lord High Mayor created the Sorcereum to train and observe wizardly practices within the City itself. The Sorcererum wasn’t a perfect answer, but it allowed the more civic-minded mages to get a handle on their more chaotic brethren.
For magic to have done the deed, it would have been ideal for the spell-caster to have been close to the victim … the close the target, the less mana needed to weave into the spell … or have some other sympathetic link either to the target or to the caster. A lock of the victim’s hair, for instance, or an enchanted icon to provide a conduit to the wizard, there were myriad possibilities. Pondering that, my eyes caught a glint of light from within the slowly dying fireplace.
Kneeling down, the source of the glittering was obvious. A small, purple crystal was slowly charring in the embers; its light starting to be concealed by a coating of ash. I swiftly grasped up the tongs hanging by the poker next to the fireplace and clutched the smoldering gem.
Holding it up to my eyes, I smiled. It wasn’t a literal smoking scroll, yes, but the flutter of magic still hung in the facets of the gem. Keeping the tongs clenched in one hand, I turned on my knees, my gaze cutting a line around the room before focusing on the window.
Normally, a broken pane in the Second Ward, one of the three wards of the destitute first layer of the Walled City, would mean little. That there was actual glass in the windows was a testament to the relative wealth of the Scale. However, if the window had been shattered in the past, the lingering glass shards would have been cleaned up long ago. No, that pane had been shattered recently and, importantly, had been broken from outside. Something hard, perhaps, slung with some strength could have shattered that window and landed right into the fireplace.
I picked the cooling crystal out of the tongs. This was the key to the mystery lord’s demise. I simply had to follow its trail.