“Good afternoon, Count Tanessen,” Vannases Trex smiled business-like as she waited for the count to take a seat opposite her. “I hope you are well.”
“Well enough, duxotas,” the stoic lord replied. Gaunt and with a shaved head, Geoff Tanessen was one of the more powerful nobles of Kintargo, and one Vannases didn’t particularly like having in her office. As if his wealth and influence wasn’t enough, he was a powerful wizard in his own right.
Lieutenant Saulus poured two goblets of wine and offered them. The count casually grasped one and sipped at the dark wine. “I will cut to the chase, duxotas, I am here to find out how the investigation is proceeding.”
Vannases sipped her own wine, taking just long enough to ensure the count realised she was not intimidated by him. “The investigation is proceeding, perhaps slower than anticipated but we are making progress,” she replied tactfully.
“I wish to know who killed my son,” Tannesen replied firmly, slowly placing his goblet on the table. “It has been a number of weeks and I have heard no more than rumour and possibilities.”
Vannases noted the steely look in the noble’s eyes and knew it wasn’t the time to lie. “The Red Jills were likely framed,” she admitted. “But they have given the details of who was involved, and my men are moving in on them now.”
“Who was it? A rival family?” The man’s eyes smouldered.
“Of course not,” Vannases replied, and the count seemed to relax. “The time of noble intrigue and infighting has passed. The lord-mayor has ushered in a new period of stability and order.” The words spilled out like a mantra, ringing slightly hollow, but appearances were important. “There is a new gang in town, the Black Mantis. They’re little more than vagabonds and street urchins banded together for protection, but their numbers alone give them strength to rule the streets. Their leader is a Halfling by the name of Bug.”
“Why has he not be been arrested?”
“He’s not working alone. Lord Sigio was an able warrior, I sparred with him myself once – this Bug could not have taken him out alone. So for now we watch, and wait, and learn who his companions are.”
Tannesen shook his head slowly. “Noblemen murdered on the street, gangs running the city, corruption in our very own dottari. What is going on duxotas? For all your words of stability and order I see chaos and rot. My family has made numerous donations to Kintargo’s guards and defences, I will not stand by idly as the city fails from within.”
Vannases tried her most charming smile. “My lord, the Dark Prince watches over us and will guide us in these dark times. His arm of justice is long and his scales are balanced. Bug will pay for his crimes, along with his accomplices.”
- – -
The duxotas saw out the count, and turned straight to Saulus, who was already waiting with another goblet of wine. “How I dislike them,” she muttered.
Saulus knew she had no time for the nobles of the city. “At least it wasn’t Eldonna and that damn poodle of hers.”
Vannases chuckled and wandered over to the window, looking out across the river toward Bleakbridge in the distance. She absently watched a lone man rowing a boat across the river and wondered if someone had started their own ferry service to avoid the bridge toll.
“Anyway, Saulus, what is the latest on the case?”
“The Flying Halfling…” Vannases glanced sharply at him. “Ahem, Bug has left his job at Belor’s and has started pushing a dumpling cart, feeding the homeless. Apparently the dumplings are quite good.”
Vannases shot him another dark look, then frowned. “Are we certain this is the guy? Really, a dumpling cart?”
“Two of our men assigned to him have gone missing. They never reported back for duty, and Bug was being watched at the time we suspect they went missing.”
“So he’s not directly responsible, but we can’t rule out a companion?”
Saulus nodded, and picked his words carefully. “There is talk of this Nightswarm fellow…”
Vannases reached for a poster from her desk, one among a small pile. The scrawled words on the poster thanked the lord-mayor for his reward but suggested other ways he can spend it, and was signed Nightswarm on behalf of the Children of the Ash.
Saulus anticipated her next question. “I had the posters removed, but no doubt we couldn’t find all of them before the citizens read them. Word would have got out.”
“Why would he be protecting Bug, though?”
“There is something else, duxotas – our informants say Bug was hired by Belor’s former proprietor, a man named Titus. The only records we have of Titus was that he reported the death of his fiancée about 6 months ago, claimed it was part of that Slasher copy killings.”
“Killings which the Children recently put an end to,” Vannases muttered. “Officially those killings never occurred, did they?”
“Of course not, duxotas, Titus was drunk at the time of reporting and his fiancee’s case was filed as ‘accidental death’.”
Vannases chewed her lip. “Saulus, what did the Flying Halfling scream when he killed Nox? Wasn’t it ‘For Titus?’” Not waiting for confirmation, Vannases continued. “Check Nox’s description of the men she killed in the Many-Steps Monastery under the Fantasmagorium, see if any match this Titus.”
Vannases turned from the window and headed to her desk, suddenly joining the dots. “It has to be the same man! If the description matches, we have two pieces of evidence linking Bug to the Children of the Ash – Nightswarm and Titus.”
Saulus nodded, coming to the same conclusion as his boss.
“This could be the breakthrough we’ve been waiting for, Saulus. I’ll notify the lord-mayor. In the meantime keep watching Bug, see what else we can learn.”
- – -
If there was something worse than meeting with nobles, it was meeting with inquisitors. “What brings you to my office, Inquisitor Glackus?”
Glackus calmly walked across the room to the chair offered him, his cane tap-tapping rhythmically. Vannases absently thought she would have preferred him in his inquistor’s mask as opposed to the pale face peering at her. It looked like he had not seen the sun in years. His smooth but pale skin contrasted sharply with his black frock, the standard garb for an inquisitor of the church.
He slid into the chair like a python stalking its prey. “I’ve come to inform you that the church will be handling the Sigio case now.”
“Straight to the point,” Vannases replied. She didn’t bother asking on whose orders; Glackus would have been sent by the lord-mayor himself.
Glackus smiled a weak smile; smiling was not something he did often. “Your letter to the lord-mayor was most revealing. Your investigations corroborate our own. We noted those who took the rewards offered by the lord-mayor.”
A trap, Vannases realised, though she nodded as if she had known all along.
“We have linked these Children to a criminal network known as the Black Mantis, with Bug as their leader. Unlike your ‘wait and see’ approach, we have acted, arresting a number of rebels. It will be most unfortunate if they do not tell us who the other leaders are. For them,” he added as an afterthought.
“Case closed,” Vannases smiled back, resisting the urge to throw this contemptable excuse of a man out of her office. Saulus took half a step forward, though Vannases wasn’t sure if he planned on helping her or preventing her from making what would be a career- and ultimately life-ending decision.
Glackus himself leaned back, as if reading her thoughts. The man was perceptive, one didn’t rise that high in the inquisitors without skill. “Well, the lord-mayor thanks you for your assistance,” he said, rising. “Good day, duxotas,” he said, tap-tapping his way to the door.
Vannases waited for it to shut behind him before slamming her fist down on her desk. “Dark Lord take him!” she swore. “Just when things were getting interesting.”
Saulus poured another goblet of wine.