“Another mage corpse. Give it to the priests and get on with guard duty.”
Bellus’ ears pricked up. Was that another one? With a quick check to make sure that the quarter-master wasn’t watching he slipped out the armoury line and made his way across the room to the captain. “Another one captain?”
“What- Oh gods no. No Bellus. Don’t you have other work to do?”
“But sir-” It wasn’t the first time they’d had this conversation, but that was never going to put Bellus off. He pulled out the sketch that he had on him. “I can figure it out. Look- all of them were killed in the same way, a single knife stab to the chest-”
“What the- why do you have sketches of dead mages?”
“So we can compare them to the other bodies…”
“Look, Bellus.” Oh man, he knew that sigh. That was the sigh that meant he was going to get dropped on palace guard duty for the next week, just to stop him asking awkward questions about dead mages. “Mages kill other mages all the time. It’s not for the likes of us to get involved.”
“I don’t think this was other mages though sir.” This was the closest Bellus had gotten to explaining his theory to anyone, and he was damned if he was going to pass up the opportunity. “Look- all of them were killed from a single stab wound, all about the same location and about the same angle-”
“How can you tell that?” The captain was giving him a suspicious look.
“By looking? The shape of the wound, the way the cut goes into the body…” Surely that was all so obvious to everyone else, right? He couldn’t be the only one thinking about this? It didn’t make him a necromancer or anything.
The guard captain was looking at him out of the corner of his eyes now, and Bellus couldn’t tell if it was a good sign or a bad sign. After a few minutes the captain finally spoke. “You’re not going to let this drop are you?”
The first body had come in five weeks ago, and this was the fourth one since then. Each time Bellus had spent an hour or so carefully drawing any details he’d noticed- the fatal injuries, what clothing they’d been wearing, any possessions they’d had on them. And then he’d dogged the steps of each of his commanders, pestering them until they’d listen and let him investigate. None of them had so far. “No sir. I won’t sir.” And he would wait for the next body, and keep going until he was given the time to go and ask questions, and work out who was killing these mages.
“Fine. Do it. Try and work it out.”
After so long of hitting his head against a stone wall it took Bellus a second to realise what had been said. “Do you mean it sir?” It was bad form to get excited about dead people, but he couldn’t help himself. If he sorted this, maybe the guards would start actually solving crimes, rather than just cleaning up after them. It would make the whole city safer.
“Yes. Get on with it before I change my mind. Hey, you-” He clicked his finger at a guard going past. “Hayes, come here. Got a job for you.” The captain had an evil grin now, and Bellus could see why.
Hayes was one of the old guard, literally. He’d been in the city guard for longer than Bellus had been alive, and the pressure was telling. What hair he had left was turning grey and his eyes were sunken. There was an unspoken pact in the office about not mentioning the flask he’d started wearing on his hip either. “What?” Hayes said, not even looking at Bellus.
“Need you to help with an investigation.”
“Yeah. I don’t know- just follow Bellus about, do what he asks.” That was all the captain was committing to, and before either of them could argue or ask anything else he was gone, off to find something to do, something that didn’t involve thinking.
The pair of them stood next to each for a while. The excitement that Bellus had felt was well and truly mellowed now. Hayes was one of the men that the younger recruits tended to avoid, just in case. There were a handful of them, all known for being… over-eager at ‘educating’ the younger guards. There were only so many times a guard could be beaten senseless in a back-alley by his own comrades.
“What are we doing?” Hayes asked, his fingers fingering his flask.
“I- Um, we- we are looking at the mage deaths. I think they’re all by the same person and-”
“Whatever. Just as long as I don’t have to do palace duty for a while.” Hayes led the way out the office, leaving Bellus to stagger after him, only to double back and grab the rest of his notes from his cupboard.
The first place they called at was the temple. As soon as the priest on duty saw Bellus he opened the door and showed them down, although he rolled his eyes as well.
“More corpse watching?” the priest asked.
“It’s an investigation,” Bellus replied, a smug hint of pride in his voice.
“Seriously?” the priest asked, although he was looking at Hayes.
“Apparently,” the older guard shrugged.
As much as his spirit dropped at the dismissal Bellus kept his shoulders high as they headed down to the cold cellar. The mage’s body was laid out on the slab, ready for cleaning and last rites. Desperate to show that this wasn’t all a farce Bellus headed over and started working. “Just like the others. A single stab wound to the upper chest, with a downward angle on the blade.” He slid his fingers into the wound a little to check the angle.
“Dude. Gross.” Hayes was leaning against the far wall, still fiddling with his flask and heavily judging Bellus.
“We have to ascertain the details of his death-”
“Look, whatever. Just do your stuff so we can get out of here.” More fiddling, but so far Bellus hadn’t seen the man take a drink from the flask.
“He hasn’t defended himself,” Bellus continued as he turned back to the corpse, “at least, not physically.”
“He’s a mage. Mages kill mages all the time.”
Hayes shrugged. “Sure they get lazy as well. Makes people think it’s not a mage.”
“How does that work? Everyone still thinks it is a mage, despite the fact there’s no evidence of magic on the body?”
Hayes shrugged again, although for the first time the frown on his brow deepened a little. I’m getting through to him, Bellus thought. “Whatever. Now what?”
“I need to make a few sketches. Then we need to work out where he was found. If we can trace back to the last place he was seen we can narrow down the list of people who killed him.”
“By… checking all the people who would’ve been in the area? If someone wasn’t nearby they couldn’t have done it.”
That actually seemed to impress Hayes, as much as you could read any emotion other than sullenness on that haggard face. “Then we beat them up ‘til they tell us?”
“No! What, no. Then we work out who would want to kill him, and whether anyone can tell us where the suspects were when the mage was killed.”
Any respect Hayes might’ve been feeling was gone again. “Oh. That’s less fun.”
All the other times that Bellus had been down here he’d been alone, but now he had the weight of Hayes waiting for him to be done. There was no way he was going to get decent sketches under those conditions. Maybe I should come back later? He did the best he could to get as much information as he could, but it wasn’t long before Hayes was bored. The tapping of his foot was just about bearable, but then he started sighing as well.
“How much longer is this gonna take?” Hayes said at last.
“I can come back later. We just need to work out where he was found…”
With a ripple of his body Hayes pushed himself off the wall and staggered over, his hand resting on the flask like most soldiers kept their hands on their sword. With a worrying lurch he leant down and sniffed the body. “Moonshine. Not many places you can get that round here.”
Bellus wasn’t sure how to handle this unexpected source of help, but he couldn’t let it go. “Can you… can you point them out?”
“I guess. Ain’t got much else to do have I.” He turned and slouched off again, only looking back when he was starting up the stairs. “You coming?”
The third place they went to turned out to be the right one. “Yeah, I seen him,” the innkeeper said when they gave a description of the latest victim. “Mage type weren’t he? Yeah, he’s been about here.”
“Did you see him talking to anyone else? Did he know any other people at the inn?” Bellus asked. He was doing his best to sound official, but it was hard to keep the excitement out of his voice. A real investigation, and he was getting somewhere! It was also hard when everyone kept trying to talk to Hayes, but there was no further help from that front.
“Not really. Apart from the other mages.” Damn it, the innkeeper was starting to lose interest, just as he was getting to the good bit.
“Other mages? Do you mean these people?” After some rummaging, during which time to innkeeper starting straying away, Bellus pulled out the sketches he’d done of the other three victims.
“Yeah, that’s them. All hung out together.”
“Were there any others with them?” Another mage could be the next victim-
“No.” -or not.
“Did they talk to anyone else?”
The innkeeper just shrugged and carried his load of mugs back to bar. Bellus knew how this bit worked at least, though he hated it. He drew a coin and followed. “Did they talk to anyone else?” he asked again, now with a coin hovering in front of the innkeeper’s face.
“They went out with one of the courtesans,” the innkeeper replied, quick as lightning, his eyes never leaving the metal.
“Where are the courtesans now?”
“Thank you.” For a moment Bellus thought about keeping the coin- he certainly couldn’t afford bribes all the whole time- but that was likely to bite him later. If they needed to come back the innkeeper wouldn’t forgive him for holding out now. He flicked the coin over and headed outside, where the gloom of night was still heavy in the foggy streets.
He didn’t get far before Hayes clapped him on the shoulder. “Let me do this bit of talking,” the older man said with a leer. “There’s a way to handling these women.”
I bet there is, Bellus thought bitterly as he watched the older man saunter forward towards the ladies. Not that Bellus was particularly upset at that; explaining about bodies and murder investigations to his mum was one thing, but if he mentioned that he had to talk to ‘ladies of the night’ he’d go bright red, and she would be suspicious of him for a week.
It took a while- far longer than Bellus thought it should- for Hayes to come back with the information. “All went with the same girl. She’s working the next street over now.” This seemed to be more to Hayes’ liking, and he led the way at speed.
Bellus was buzzing. He’d expected the investigation to take longer than one night, but he wasn’t going to complain. If he could bring this one home… maybe he’d be able to investigate all the murders in the city? I mean, about time. This city is a mess, and the idea that mages can just kill each other freely is ridiculous-
“That’s her.” Hayes' statement brought Bellus out of his thoughts. At the far end of street was the outline of a woman, scrawny even from this distance. “Arrest her?”
“We should ask her questions first…”
“I’m bored of that.” Before Bellus had registered the remark Hayes was running down the alley. There was a moment, a brief moment when the woman could have run, but then it was gone and Hayes had her slammed against the wall.
“Damn it!” Bellus charged after them, desperate to get the story, to know that he’d been on the right path. He needed the win.
“-and you won’t get hurt,” Hayes was saying as Bellus came up alongside. “Understand?”
“Wha’ you want?” the woman spat back, although she was holding back her outburst, having spotted their uniforms.
Hayes took a breath to carry on the questions, but Bellus got there first. “There was a group of mages, drank in the inn over there,” he panted. “They were seen… going with you.” He was glad the alley was dark, and neither of the other two could see him blush. “Do you remember them?”
“Why you asking?”
“Cos they’re all dead,” Hayes growled and twisted the woman’s arm up further. “Anything you want to say to that?”
Her response was a string of curses, until Hayes tweaked her arm again and she let out a strangled cry. Then, to the complete surprise of Bellus, she started crying. “Does it matter what I say? You gonna get me for the crime anyway.”
It took Bellus a moment to reply. “How do you know there’s a crime? Everyone else assumes that mages kill over mages, and we all let it happen. But you think we’re here to blame someone.” The crying stopped, for a second at least, and the woman froze. “Is there something you want to say, miss?”
“Do you care?” she spat. “Does anyone care what happens when mages are involved?”
“What do you mean?”
“They can get away with anything. But the second one of us plebs does something you come down on us like it’s the end of the world. When all we’re trying to do is live our own lives-” The woman broke down again, but this time they were angry heart-broken tears, starting in her stomach and welling up until they burst free. Hayes slowly let her go, and when she was free the woman started thumping on the wall.
“What happened?” Hayes asked when the woman had calmed. His voice was more off-putting to Bellus than the crying woman. All evening he’d had a gruff, ready-to-punch-someone tone, but now it was soft, caring almost.
“The mages got drunk. It’s what they do, innit? They rule the city, so why not get drunk as often as they want. Thought they’d practise their magic. Prove who was better. But they didn’t have control, and some of the spells went wild. You shouldn’t mix spells, everyone knows that.” She trailed off again, and for a time Bellus thought that was all they were getting.
“Who did the spells hit?” Hayes asked at last.
“My brother.” It was little more than a whisper. “He was only nine. Out playing, out late so he could sneak past dad.” She broke down into tears again.
The world opened up below Bellus. He’d done it, he’d solved the crime. But now… now he wasn’t so sure that he wanted to know. The woman was right. There was no way the mages would’ve been held responsible. There wasn’t anything else she could’ve done.
“Go home,” Hayes said. “Live a good life. For your brother’s sake.”
“Th-thank you sir.” The woman was gone before they could change their minds, but at the end of the alley she stopped and dropped something on the ground before she ran off. A knife. The murder weapon. Hurrah.
There was a tap on Bellus’ arm. Hayes was holding out the flask to him. “Sorry kid. That’s how the world works.”
“Yeah. I guess.” Bellus didn’t hesitate to take the flask.