Posted by Darth Krzysztof
26 Planting, 595 CY
Liberty was finally starting to relax when one of the Midnight Salute’s second story windows exploded in a ball of fire. She knew at once what had happened, knew whose burning body had fallen into the Vein. She knew that nobody could have survived.
But she ran to her sister’s side all the same.
Liberty pulled her magical cloak from her shoulders and threw it over Constance’s smoldering body to extinguish the flames – and to give her sister the smallest measure of dignity. Maybe the fire could break the cloak’s enchantment; she was beyond caring.
Constance’s upraised hand twitched once, and Liberty grabbed it with both of hers. Someone, probably Mom, tried to save her with a spell, but to no avail. It’s too late, Liberty thought. She’s dead. Your sister’s dead, Libby, because you weren’t here for her.
“I’m here now,” she half-said, fighting back tears. “I’m here, Connie.”
Something in Constance’s hand glittered in the firelight – the necklace Liberty had bought for her in the Free City curio shop. The residual glow of a rune of power shone briefly in the necklace’s stone before fading from sight completely – explosive runes, or more properly, a powerful modification of that spell. Such magic was beyond Liberty’s powers. Filge’s, too, if his spellbook was any indication. Unless Khellek was back in town, she knew of no one in Diamond Lake who could have done this. Allustan had the skill, of course, but he was no murderer.
Murder. My sister was murdered.
This was what Constance had been afraid of, what she couldn’t tell Liberty three weeks ago. Why didn’t she listen to me? I could have helped, could have saved her! What in the Hells was so important that she couldn’t walk away from it? What was worth dying for?
She tried to tell herself that, at least, Constance’s suffering was done, but the time for lies was over. An eerie calmness came over her as she vowed to find the person who’d done this, and exact a fiery vengeance so great and terrible that St. Cuthbert himself would quake to hear of it.
She remained like that for a minute, or an hour, or an eternity, until she felt the strength of Mom’s hand on her shoulder. “The Green Lady’s people are here, Liberty,” the half-orc said. “They’ve come to take her.”
“No,” Liberty said coolly, still holding her sister’s hand. “Not yet.”
“You have to let them take her.”
“She should be cremated. I could do that, no problem.”
Mom gently turned Liberty’s head away from Constance to face him. She saw kindness in his eyes, but heard steel in his voice. “She wanted to be buried next to your father in the Boneyard, remember? You need to respect her wishes.”
“I know. You’re right. But not yet.” The singed thing under the cloak bore no semblance to Constance Grace any more, but it was all that was left of her, and Liberty just wasn’t ready to let go of it.
With a resigned grunt, Mom took hold of Liberty’s waist and lifted her up and away from the corpse with gentle insistence. The sorcerer went limp until the cultists came to take Constance away – then she squirmed in Mom’s arms like a trapped animal, begging them to bring her back, pleading with the half-orc to release her. Finally she turned and threw her arms around Mom, raining tears down on his grimy, mailed chest as he held her.
By the time Liberty returned to herself, the townsfolk had extinguished the fire. Someone had shaken her cloak off and returned it to her shoulders. Over a dozen whores had gathered in front of the smoking building, their evening’s work at a premature end. Purple Prose stood among them, her elven eyes on Liberty. I’ve got to talk to her, the sorcerer thought. She has to know something about what happened here.
Purple Prose had always intimidated Liberty. The Midnight Salute’s madam had never cared for Liberty’s objection to Constance’s line of work – and she was easily the most beautiful woman Liberty had ever seen, providing her with something to fixate upon all throughout her adolescence. I’m sure it’s why I’m hung up on elves, Liberty thought. Because of the one I blamed for Connie’s profession, but always wanted to bed anyway.
“You can let me go now, Charles,” Liberty told Mom. It was rare for her (or anyone else) to use Mom’s real name, but this was that kind of day.
He released her. “Are you all right?”
“No,” she said at once. “But I will be. Thank you.”
Mom nodded with a grunt as Liberty walked off toward Purple Prose. As she got closer, she realized that she still held Constance’s necklace. Unable to find any more magic on it, she slid it into her jacket’s pocket.
“Was anyone else hurt?” Liberty asked when she was close enough to be heard.
“Nothing serious, thank the gods.” Purple Prose shifted her weight from one leg to the other. “Did you see it happen?” When Liberty nodded, the elf led her away from the group to ask, “Was it magic?”
“Yes. Someone put a spell-trap on her necklace… was she working tonight? Did anyone go into her room when she wasn’t there?”
“No.” Purple Prose crossed her arms. “She was… have you talked to her since you gave her the necklace?”
Gods, that was the last time I talked to her. The last time I’ll ever talk to her… “No. Why?”
“Constance left my employ, Liberty. She took a job offer from Balabar Smenk. She was here to get the rest of her things.”
“Really?” This was news to Liberty, though her encounter with Smenk here at the Salute made a lot more sense now. “I, um… I’m sure you hated to lose your top earner.” Oh, please don’t think I meant that you were upset enough to want her dead…!
But Purple Prose understood. “I was disappointed, of course. But business has improved all-around since your sister came here. And I had to respect her decision… she was moving on, moving up.” Purple Prose’s heartsick tone made Liberty wonder just how close they’d been, and whether the madam was one of the women Constance ‘fucked for pleasure.’ “She was a beautiful soul, and she loved you very much, Liberty. I weep for your loss.”
“Thanks,” the sorcerer said with a sniff. This is the most we’ve ever talked, Purple Prose. Why did it take Connie’s death to make this happen? “I.. could I… would you mind saying it in Elven?”
The request clearly threw Purple Prose, but only for a moment. The Elven words soothed Liberty, but also thrilled her to her toes. Even in grief, the elf was ravishing. “You honor me,” the sorcerer replied in the language of elves, her voice strained to breaking. “I know what she meant to you, as well.”
The elf came forward to embrace her, a hug as strong and gentle as Mom’s hold had been. She threw her arms around Purple Prose, felt the elf’s tears on her own cheek, felt herself start to tremble. The madam’s breasts pressed against hers, making her wonder if Purple Prose ever took clients of her own, and what it would cost her to gain them both an evening of freedom from all this pain and death…
The cost wouldn’t be measured in coin, she told herself, finally disengaging from the elf. “I need to tell Boss Smenk,” she managed to say. “Right away. He’ll want to know.”
“Of course,” Purple Prose said, lacing even those two simple words with Elven Mystery. “There’s something I need to give you, first.” Before Liberty’s fevered brain could guess what that might be, Purple Prose pressed a packet of folded papers into the sorcerer’s hand. “Her desk survived the fire; Delia found these in a secret compartment. If this is why Constance was killed, and the Salute attacked, then I want nothing to do with it.”
“And it might also help me find out who did this to her. To us.”
Purple Prose nodded. “I truly hope that you do. And that you curse him for me before you burn him to ashes.”
“I will.” She managed a weak smile for the elf. “I can help pay for the damages, if you – “
“That’s kind of you, but there’s no need. Just avenge her.”
* * *
She was halfway there before she realized three things: that she hadn’t checked the necklace for any additional traps, that she was still soaked in blood and filth, and that she was going to Smenk’s residence by herself. The first two were just sloppy, no matter how distraught she was. The third was more proof that Liberty’s life had turned upside down, for such a thing would have been unthinkable a few weeks ago.
She stopped in her tracks, completed the spell she’d started earlier to clean herself up, then fished the necklace out to examine it again. The elf-wrought gold chain linked five golden triangles, the largest of which held one large, red spinel stone. The colors had been a perfect match for Constance’s hair and complexion… and would complement Liberty just as well.
She fastened the clasp behind her neck; the stone lay just beneath the notch at the base of her throat. Perfect, she thought. Let the murderer see me wearing it. It’s all I have left of her, anyway.
But that wasn’t quite true, either. Looking around to make sure she was alone, Liberty pulled the sheaf of documents from within her jacket to page through them. Constance had gathered salacious dirt on some of Diamond Lake’s wealthiest citizens… some of the mine managers were included, but she found nothing about Smenk or Dourstone.
Something in those pages would tell her why Constance was killed, but Liberty didn’t have time to read it all now. She thought about stashing the papers at the bakery, then remembered that even the abandoned mine office had been searched. No, these documents would be safest with her. She returned them to her coat, adjusted the angle of her top hat, and kept walking.
Even at the late hour, the thugs waved her in. She found Balabar Smenk in the same sitting room they’d met in before. “Ah, Miss Grace,” the mine boss said with a shark’s smile. “I trust your visit is of the utmost importance at this late hour.”
Liberty took one long, deep breath to calm herself down – and to avoid inhaling his perfume. “It is,” she said. “My sister’s been murdered.”
“Ah.” Smenk’s smile disappeared.
“I know she was coming to work for you, and I thought… I thought you’d want to know right away.”
He eased into one of the massive chairs with a sigh. “I appreciate it, Miss Grace. This is most unfortunate. Losing her means losing yet another competent agent.”
She thought of the head that had turned up in Smenk’s bed and wished she could remember the man’s name. And there was Kullen, and Filge… “Had she started working for you? Officially, I mean?”
“Not as such. I planned to send her out of Diamond Lake. Her position as Neff’s informant, and the Lord Mayor’s lack of discretion, made it too dangerous for her to stay. Obviously.”
Feeling her anger rising again, Liberty took a moment to throttle it before sitting opposite Smenk. “Someone cast an explosive spell on something in her room. Do you any idea who might have been behind it?”
“One of the men she had something on, no doubt. Or the women. No doubt all had the means to hire such an assassin, and each had motive.” Smenk looked nervous, again. He’s used to being the biggest fish in this little lake, and every day he can see that getting less and less true. And he’s lost another asset; that’s sure to upset him, no matter how recently he acquired it. “I fear that I can’t be much more help to you than that.”
Can’t? Or won’t? “It gives me somewhere to start. Thanks, Boss… Mister Smenk.” That’s what Father always called him. Old habits.
Smenk steepled his fingers. “It’s the least I can do for you in this difficult time. You have my sympathies, Miss Grace.”
His tone rang false, but at least he was trying – even this was more support than he’d offered when her father died. These were difficult times for Smenk, too. “Thank you. I’m going to find whoever did this.”
“I have no doubt of that.”
She tried to think of everyone wounded by Constance’s death, but it was all too much. Purple Prose’s command kept coming back to her: Curse him for me before you burn him to ashes. “Do you have a message for him, when I do?”
“For the gods’ sakes, leave my name well out of it, Miss Grace.” His eyes bulged, and he shifted his bulk around in his chair. “No doubt you are growing into your power, but consider the consequences, should you fail. I know I have no right to expect it from you after…everything, but… I would take it as a kindness all the same.”
That gave Liberty pause. She stood little chance against a mage with skills beyond her own, even with the help of her friends. Her best chance was to find the killer quickly, and catch him unaware… “I’m sure you’re right. I’ll be careful. I, um… I appreciate what you did for Constance. Or tried to do.” It hurt her to say, but the pain passed as soon as the words came out. “And I’d like to see you at the funeral.”
“Then I shall be there, Miss Grace.”