Konrad went back to the city. He returned to his house discreetly, entering through a rear door that nobody else was permitted to use. He went straight to his dressing room and began the transformation from the Malykant, unkempt and smelling of the marsh, back into Konrad Savast, gentleman of Ekamet.
He bathed, taking care to scrub all of the blood and mud from his olive skin. He washed and styled his black hair, and anointed it with scent. He donned a fine linen shirt, a dark green silk waistcoat and black trousers. His best black coat went over the top, and lastly he covered his head with a tall top hat.
When his carriage came round to his door, no sign remained that Mr Konrad Savast had done anything with his day save enjoy the privileges of the wealthy.
A servant handed him his favourite silver-headed cane as he left the house. He found that it gave him an air of refinement and authority, and so he carried it with him everywhere, at least when he was in the city. Nobody had ever asked why the top was wrought into the shape of a serpent’s head.
‘To Rostikov House,’ he directed his coachman as he got in.
The carriage drew up a short time later in front of a large, detached mansion, somewhat over decorated according to Konrad’s taste, but he knew it was the fashion at present. As he had hoped, the house appeared quiet. Nobody yet knew of its mistress’s fate. He stepped up to the front door and rapped smartly on it with his silver-headed cane.
‘Her Ladyship is not at home,’ said the butler on opening the door.
‘That’s all right,’ he replied gravely. ‘I’ll wait.’
‘Her Ladyship left strict instructions that no callers are to be admitted.’ The butler started to close the door, but Konrad inserted his cane into the opening.
‘I said I’ll wait,’ he repeated, and he allowed a little of the chill of the Bone Forest to enter his voice. He pushed his way into the house, shed his coat and handed it to the manservant.
‘If you’d please to follow me, sir, I’ll conduct you to the drawing-room,’ said the butler, his tone frigid with disapproval.
‘I prefer the study.’ Konrad made his way there without awaiting a response. He’d attended enough parties at the Rostikov House to be able to find it himself.
‘Shall you require any refreshment, sir?’
Konrad waved a hand in dismissal. ‘Nothing, thank you. Just peace and quiet.’
The butler withdrew, his back stiff with offence. Konrad stood in the centre of the room and surveyed Navdina Rostikova’s private study.
He knew that her husband had been a reading man, but apparently Navdina didn’t share that interest, for very few books graced the shelves. Instead they were crammed with ornaments and trinkets, many of them expensive but most in poor taste. It was a wasted room, all space given over to the frivolous and vulgar instead of intellectual pursuits or business.
The desk, though, that was a more interesting prospect. The top was well-dusted and completely empty, but what of the contents? Konrad claimed the chair that sat before it and began opening drawers, quietly so as not to attract the notice of the servants whose footsteps he occasionally heard passing the door. Most contained nothing of interest: bills for household goods and invitations to parties. In one he found a stack of personal correspondence, and he devoted some minutes to perusing these, but found them useless; most were mere vapid notes discussing gossip and fashion and new gowns.
The bottom drawer was locked. Unconcerned, he touched icy fingers to the keyhole. Metal twisted and turned and the lock slid open. In a matter of seconds he had the drawer open and was browsing the contents.
In it lay a single note, worked in handwriting that matched none of the other letters he had found.
There is but one way to settle this matter to my satisfaction. On new moon night, meet me at the South Gate at the tenth hour of the night. Do not think to bring an escort, for you will not need one.
Konrad turned the note about in his hands, thinking. It bore no address or direction, so presumably it had been delivered by hand. Had Navdina been the intended recipient, or had she intercepted this note and entangled herself in someone else’s business? Either possibility may have led to her demise.
He pocketed the note, closed the drawer and stood up. A search of the rest of the room revealed nothing of any further interest, only more tasteless, gilded ornaments. He waited until the hallway outside the study was quiet, then slipped out of the room.
His coat hung on the coat rack near the front door. He retrieved it, shrugged it on and left the house, quietly closing the front door behind him.
‘Home, Aktso,’ he said to his driver.
Once there, he went straight to his desk and composed a note of his own. He used plain block letters rather than his own handwriting, and he did not sign it. He wrote a single name on the front: Nuritov.
This note was marked URGENT and dispatched with all due haste to Ekamet’s police office.
Konrad received the day’s papers in bed the next morning, as was his custom. He read them at a leisurely pace, revelling in the comfort and luxury of a real bed after his three days and nights out in the Bone Forest. With his head cushioned by several pillows and a tray of hot chocolate and pastries at his elbow, he perused the primary headline of the day with considerable interest.
A Mysterious Death
The popular society hostess Lady Rostikova was found dead last night. Her body was discovered more than a mile from the south gate, inside the treacherous marsh-ground of the Bone Forest. It is not known why her ladyship so far departed from her usual habits as to travel out into the Bones, a place wisely avoided by most good citizens of Ekamet.
The cause of death is reported to be a knife wound in her ladyship’s torso. Her torso was also split open and a bone taken, a known sign that the mysterious figure known only as the Malykant has already attended the scene. The murderer or murderers had better look to themselves, for the justice of The Malykt is swift and absolute…
Konrad was not surprised that the police investigation had missed the signs of poisoning, or missed their significance. But it was this element that most interested him. Properly positioned, the knife alone would have been sufficient to kill the victim; why use poison as well? And why choose such an agonising one? The method had been chosen to inflict a slower, painful death upon the Lady Rostikova. And that suggested that the crime was personal in nature.
But had Navdina been the intended victim, or had she taken the poison meant for someone else? He needed more information.
He glanced regretfully at his breakfast, only partially finished. He would like to enjoy his morning a little more thoroughly before he went out again, but The Malykt was an impatient master. Swift and absolute, indeed. Konrad would certainly ensure that the murderer’s punishment was absolute, but the swiftness required a little more effort.
With a sigh, he folded up the paper, laid it aside, and threw back the covers.