Chapter Three

3079 Words
Chapter Three What Konrad needed was informants. He hadn’t known Navdina well himself; he couldn’t hazard any guesses as to her close associates. But she had family. A second branch of Rostikovs resided within the city of Ekamet: Amrav Rostikov was cousin to Navdina, and quite newly married. Since the dead woman had no children, this cousin would now inherit the title. Konrad’s analytical brain lost no time in noting that point as a possible motive for the killing. Amrav Rostikov was not a secretive man, and Konrad had no difficulty gleaning all the relatively sparse information that was available about him. The new lord had already been wealthy before inheriting the Rostikov estate; that alone was interesting. If he had been involved in his cousin’s death, then, it had not been about money. Was he the sort to value the title itself highly enough to kill for it? Even if he was, that did not explain the peculiar note found in Navdina’s desk. Konrad frowned as he stepped from his carriage into the street outside the lesser Rostikov house, where Amrav still resided until after his cousin’s funeral. The matter was already too complex; a simple explanation would not suffice. He rapped on the door with his silver-headed cane. It was answered by a manservant, somewhat less grand than the Rostikov butler but hardly less exalted in attitude. ‘Lord Rostikov is not at home,’ the man informed him. Konrad sighed inwardly, disliking the sensation of repetition. ‘Where has his lordship gone?’ he enquired. ‘I am not at liberty to reveal that information,’ came the reply. ‘If you’d like to leave your card?’ Irksome, but very well. Konrad handed his visiting card to the officious manservant and walked away. At the end of the street he paused and closed his eyes. ‘Eetapi,’ he murmured. ‘Ootapi.’ On twin gusts of wind they came, leaving a pattern of frost on his skin as they twined about him. Yes, Malykant. The new Lord Rostikov, he said to them silently. Find him. He opened his eyes. The serpents, so vivid in his mind’s eye, were barely discernible in the light of the weak winter sun. Mere puffs of smoke they seemed as they streamed away, scattering themselves on the wind. He waited, drawing his coat closer around himself to keep the cold out. It would not take them long to locate their quarry. A summons wormed its way into his thoughts. Ootapi called him. He followed it on foot, ignoring the people he passed. His companions drew him to a small park a few streets away from the house, where several families were strolling the ornamental gardens or sitting on ironwork benches under the trees. Eetapi guided his consciousness to the right group: a tall man wearing a tall top hat, walking arm-in-arm with a woman expensively dressed in wide, impractical skirts. Konrad stood back for a moment, watching as the man tilted his head to listen to something his pretty wife was saying. Konrad approached slowly, swinging his cane, ostensibly taking a stroll himself. When he collided with the lady, it was of course an accident. ‘My apologies,’ he said with a low bow, picking up the gloves the lady had dropped. She and her husband were both pale and dark-haired. She wore a fur coat and matching hat; very expensive, he noted. They certainly had not been short of money. Konrad looked for a moment at the gentleman, then affected a double-take. ‘Mr Rostikov, is it not?’ He bowed. ‘Ah - pardon me, I do of course mean Lord Rostikov.’ The lady smiled at this amendment, but Rostikov’s face registered confusion. ‘Have we met?’ ‘Oh, once or twice I believe, at some gathering or other. Not for some time. My name is Konrad Savast.’ He bowed again. And waited, while understanding dawned in their eyes and their manner became suddenly more welcoming. ‘Naturally we know of you, Mr Savast,’ said the newly-elevated lord; and even though he was a lord, he bowed rather low to Konrad in return. Konrad flashed a brief smile. He was no social leader, but he had a reputation for riches far greater than he really deserved. The Order of The Malykt had seen to that. The only social advantage greater than aristocratic blood was obscene wealth, and his certainly opened doors for him. ‘May I condole with you on your loss?’ Konrad said politely. ‘Thank you, Mr Savast.’ Rostikov glanced down at his clothes uncomfortably. Konrad understood: they were not wearing mourning clothes. But then, they must have received the news only yesterday; there had not yet been time to assemble a wardrobe of suitably fashionable mourning attire. ‘And also I congratulate you on your good fortune,’ Konrad continued. The lady looked uncomfortable at this allusion, but her husband smiled. ‘Never thought it quite right, a woman holding the title like that. Not speaking ill of the dead, of course,’ he amended as his wife frowned at him. ‘Of course not,’ Konrad said blandly, watching the reactions of both. He often wished that the serpents were as sensitive to the thoughts of others as they were to his. It would never be possible, of course; his mind had been bound to those of his companions by The Malykt Himself, and he had been a consenting party to the business. He could hardly expect the Overlord to perform this task on request, upon any individual whom Konrad suspected of foul play. But it would make his task so much easier. Teeth nipped at his ankle, distracting him. He looked down to find a small but very pugnacious dog attached to his foot. ‘Oh, Pikat,’ sighed the lady, and bent gracefully to pick up the dog. It was an utterly repugnant creature but she petted it as if it was a thing of extraordinary beauty. ‘I am sorry,’ she remembered to add. Konrad fixed the dog with a cold stare, not gracing its mistress’s perfunctory apology with a reply. ‘Excuse me,’ he bowed as the dog began to whine. He left the park at a quick pace, his purpose accomplished. He had seen Amrav Rostikov and his wife; he had shown himself to them in friendship. When their next meeting came, he intended that it should be at their invitation. Konrad waited until the sun had set, and then he ventured out into the city on foot. He walked without hurry, his coat buttoned high on his throat against the chill of the night. Snowflakes drifted down out of the darkened skies, glowing eerily in the light of the gas lamps that illuminated the streets. Eetapi and Ootapi streamed along behind him, catching snowflakes in their insubstantial mouths and absorbing the frigid water. He was approaching the south gate, beyond which the Bone Forest spread. Lady Rostikova had met someone here, not three days ago, and that someone had lured her out into the heart of the wetlands. This element of the mystery intrigued him: why had it been necessary, or desirable, to conduct the killing so far outside the city? But now was not the time to investigate the killer’s probable path. He bypassed the city gate and directed his steps instead towards a small shop that nestled beneath the city wall in the south-east sector. The position of this establishment was no accident: its owner was an apothecary, a poison master and, on occasion, an alchemist. Like Konrad, she spent much of her time out in the wetlands. The shop was closed up at this hour, but Konrad was unfazed. He slipped around to the rear of the building and tapped on the door with his serpent-headed cane. No answer, but he could hear the apothecary muttering inside. He unlatched the door and went in. He took care to make at least a little noise, but still he remained unobserved; Irinanda was working. She stood over a workbench that rested in the centre of the floor, her clothes covered by a grubby coat and her exquisite pale blonde hair tied into a loose bun. ‘Snake blood powder,’ she muttered, and a chittering patch of golden fur streaked away to the shelves that lined the walls. It leaped again, back to the tall bench that dominated the room. The monkey offered a small glass jar to the apothecary, who grabbed it, wrenched off the lid and shook a quantity of dark red powder into a bubbling pot. She set the jar down and the tiny monkey picked it up, replaced the lid, and leapt energetically back to the shelves. ‘Ashleaf,’ she said next, and the monkey brought her a phial containing the pale white dust of the ashleaf plant. ‘Quiet now,’ said the apothecary, and the monkey sat down on the bench, tucking its long tail around itself. Irinanda took a small measuring spoon from a pocket and dipped it into the neck of the phial. ‘One,’ she counted, dumping in a spoonful. ‘Two.’ With each spoonful of dust the liquid in her mixing pot bubbled higher and harder, threatening to explode out of its confines. ‘Three.’ Konrad blinked. Three measures of ashleaf? This would be a volatile potion. ‘Fou…’ Irinanda’s head suddenly whipped round to stare at Konrad, who stood as still as he could in the shadow of the door. ‘Four,’ she repeated, returning her attention to the pot. ‘That’s five,’ Konrad corrected. ‘You added four already.’ He could hear the frown in Irinanda’s reply even though the apothecary stood with her back to him. ‘Four,’ she insisted, adding the fifth spoonful. She capped the phial and handed it off to the monkey. ‘Inkwort,’ she instructed. The pot bubbled and foamed and began to spit. Konrad waited. The apothecary swore. ‘Down, Weveroth!’ The monkey instantly leapt off the bench and took refuge beneath it. The apothecary was not so fortunate. The pot exploded and the contents spilled over the surface of her workstation and onto her coat. ‘Sorry,’ Konrad said. ‘I did try.’ Irinanda muttered something. She spent several minutes cleaning up the bench and the pot and the floor. Then she left the room. When she finally returned, she was wearing a clean coat and most of the annoyance had gone from her face. ‘You’re a liability, Konrad,’ she muttered. ‘Marsh spectre,’ he replied without preamble. Irinanda fixed her glorious but cold blue eyes on him. Her face was expressionless but he didn’t miss the gleam of avarice in her eyes. ‘Where?’ was all she said. ‘Already harvested,’ Konrad added. ‘Damn you.’ Konrad leaned his cane against the door and took off his hat. ‘Not by me, more is the pity. I think that an amateur was involved.’ He described the condition of the blossom, watching Irinanda’s reactions as he spoke. She hardly moved. ‘It wasn’t me,’ she said when Konrad had finished. ‘Of course it wasn’t you,’ Konrad replied coolly. ‘What I want to know is whether you’ve heard anything. Any new poisoners in the city? Any customers with too much interest in marsh spectre poison?’ Irinanda turned from him and began roaming around the room, briskly setting things to rights. ‘Not recently,’ she said. ‘Recently meaning?’ ‘Not in the last few weeks.’ She collected a bowl of nuts from a cupboard and began feeding them to the monkey. ‘All right,’ Konrad said, taking a seat on one of her uncomfortable high stools. ‘How about before that?’ ‘There was one man,’ Irinanda said, watching with rapt attention as the monkey devoured a walnut. ‘Six months ago or so. Turned up after hours asking for my inventory of virulent poisons. He wanted “the painful sort”.’ Konrad lifted his brows. ‘Did he mention marsh spectre?’ ‘No. I did. I told him it was the most suitable type for his requirements.’ ‘Did he buy some?’ ‘Would have if I’d had any at the time.’ ‘Maybe he went elsewhere.’ Irinanda shrugged. ‘He might have, but I doubt he would’ve had any better luck. Wrong season. And I doubt he had the right paperwork.’ Konrad nodded. Nanda’s business was legal, but she couldn’t sell virulent poisons to anyone without a permit to trade in them. ‘Did you tell him that?’ ‘Of course.’ ‘And you haven’t seen him since.’ ‘No. I wondered if he might come back when winter started, but he didn’t.’ So he’d either found someone else to supply him with the poison, or he had gone in search of it himself. Konrad suspected the latter. A few months was plenty of time for him to learn about marsh spectre - how to find it, how to identify it and how to harvest it. ‘You didn’t get a name, I suppose?’ Irinanda snorted. ‘He as good as told me he was planning to kill someone. You think he’d leave a name?’ Konrad grunted. ‘True. Damn him. Describe him for me.’ She turned back to Konrad at last and looked him full in the face. ‘Gypsy stock,’ she said. ‘Black hair and eyes, dark skin. A lot like you, in fact.’ Konrad mulled that over. His colouring wasn’t that rare; a number of people in Ekamet had a little bit of gypsy blood somewhere in their family tree. But it helped to narrow it down. ‘Any other unusual sorts coming in for marsh spectre?’ Irinanda shook her head. ‘I’ve some regulars but they know what time of year to call.’ Regulars. He knew the sorts of people she spoke of: he dealt with them himself on occasion. Most of them were traders, taking the poisons to far countries where the symptoms wouldn’t be so easily recognised, identified and traced back to the source. Using marsh spectre on a prominent target within Ekamet’s own wetlands was unwise: not something a professional was likely to do. He’d be willing to bet that this mysterious customer of Irinanda’s had something to do with the death of Lady Rostikova. ‘Thank you,’ he said, standing up and collecting his hat. He drew a pouch from the inside pocket of his coat and tossed it to the poison master by way of payment. Irinanda sniffed it and her eyes widened. ‘Ijgaroot,’ she murmured. ‘Generous.’ She tucked the pouch away quickly, as if fearing that he would change his mind. But when Konrad turned to leave, she spoke again. ‘Is this about the dead aristocrat?’ Konrad turned around again slowly, pondering his response. Why would she expect him to be investigating a murder? He’d wondered before whether Irinanda had guessed about his other identity. It wasn’t the first time that he had tapped her for information, and she was an intelligent woman. ‘Yes,’ he said simply, searching her face. She nodded. ‘Do you think it’s true? That the Malykant is after the killer?’ Konrad thought of the rib bone that rested inside his coat, cleaned and sharpened and ready for use. ‘It must be,’ he said slowly. ‘Unless someone else in this city has a penchant for collecting ribs.’ Irinanda looked him over, as if wondering where he kept the bones. Konrad stood still, enduring her scrutiny without expression. But all she said was, ‘Have you got any sunbane? I’m running low and I have an order to fill.’ ‘I can spare a little.’ He had some in his coat pocket, in fact; he always carried it when he had a case to solve. It would make things much easier when he found the killer. But he allowed Irinanda to take the little packet from him and empty out a little of the powder. When she handed back the packet, her fingers brushed his. It was the merest feather-light touch, but it felt, in a strange way, profound. Irinanda’s eyes closed for an instant; when she opened them again her gaze had become speculative. ‘Thanks,’ she said. Konrad blinked. Was that it? He’d expected something different, though he wasn’t sure what. Irinanda’s white teeth flashed in a sudden grin. Lifting a hand in farewell, she wandered out of the workroom. Her voice came floating back after she had passed beyond his sight. ‘Lock up, will you? I don’t want any more visitors tonight.’ Konrad left without replying, his mind busy. He had no notion what had just happened, but that Irinanda knew or suspected a few uncomfortable things about him was indubitable. That was an alarming thought, but then again this was Irinanda: his friend, or so he hoped. Would it be such a bad thing for her to know? The answer to that, he supposed, depended on what she planned to do with the information. Navdina’s funeral took place the next day. Konrad attended, placing himself at the rear of the temple where he could watch the behaviour of the other guests. The new Lord Rostikov and his lady sat in the first tier of seats. They were the only family Navdina had, but they did not choose to participate in the ceremony. Instead Navdina Rostikova was given into the hands of The Malykt by priests, their faces hidden behind the traditional spirit masks. Konrad bowed his head, murmuring the familiar words of devotion along with the congregation as Navdina’s pyre was lit. The smell of smoke mingled with the thick fragrance of incense, the combination quickly turning acrid. He lifted his eyes to the open roof, watching as the smoke sailed into the sky. The service passed without interruption. There was no sign of the dark-skinned man that Irinanda had mentioned; all those he saw with such colouring were people he recognised, people Irinanda would probably recognise too. Only one guest caught his attention: an elderly woman, her grey hair disordered and her dark mourning clothes hastily assembled. She showed far more emotion than anybody else in that gathering, stifling soft sobs in her handkerchief throughout the proceedings. He did not recognise her. He lingered afterwards as the surviving Rostikovs stationed themselves outside the temple doors. They received the condolences and thanks of the funeral guests with the utmost graciousness. Konrad shook the hands of his and her ladyship in his turn, watching their faces. They were both pale but composed, and perfectly courteous. His duty thus discharged, he retreated into the shadows cast by the setting winter sun. Concealed within the portico of the building opposite to The Malykt’s temple, he watched until every funeral guest had offered their condolences and departed. The grey-haired woman was not among them. That confirmed one of his suppositions: her shabby clothes proclaimed her to be a servant and this omission offered further evidence of her station. She did not emerge at all, in fact, and he guessed that she had been obliged to use the lesser entrance at the rear of the temple. It was unusual for servants to be permitted at the funeral of so high-ranking a person. Why had she been present? And who was she? Only when the Rostikovs had also departed did he move from his hiding place. He crossed to the now deserted temple and sat in the tall tiers at the back. He fixed his gaze on the faintly smouldering remains of Navdina’s pyre. He spent most of the night there, savouring the chilling presence of his master, The Malykt, and thinking.
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