A Murder in the Park
“Fie and vexation!” Minerva swore, pinching the bridge of her nose in an attempt to stave off the sudden wave of nausea. “How long has she been dead?” The form of a young girl lay on the grass, hidden in a small copse of trees in one of the city’s few remaining parks.
Gregor looked up at her - his spectacles magnifying his intense gaze. “Three days by our best estimate... Miss,” he said. “Tell me, what can you ascertain by these injuries.”
She could feel the weight of his continued harsh judgement of her capabilities as Chief Investigator and Inquisitor. He made it clear from their first meeting that he was unhappy with being replaced - and even less pleased with it being by a woman and one less than half his age. The injuries to the young woman he knelt over were severe. The flesh of her back was blacked around a section of missing flesh that exposed viscera, and the cloth of her dress was tattered.
“Magic,” she replied as she brought her box of smelling salts to her nose. Under normal circumstances she would hate to look like swooning lady, but even her fellow inquisitors were looking more than a little pale.
“Indeed, and what brings you to this assumption,” he continued. He began making several notes in his leather bound journal and did not bother to look at her.
“The flesh appears to be burnt, but the fabric is only torn,” Minerva said, “furthermore, I can feel that she was murdered, it was no accident.”
“You feel it?” Gregor replied chidingly as he scrubbed an ink stained hand through his thin hair white hair. “You can’t hang a man on a feeling.”
“I can,” Minerva said defiantly, “and that is why I am now chief Investigator, though I did not ask for it.” She brushed her dark hair back under her hat and sat on the grass. Her frustration with him was nearing enough to mask her queasy stomach, though she slowed her breathing to calm her mind. He was testing her and she knew it, he wanted to see how far he could go before she broke, and she would not give him that satisfaction. “It is strange, however. I cannot sense her spirit, it is as if she were carved of stone,” she said. “But she did leave an… impression, for lack of a better word. It was very intense fear, it radiates off of her body stronger than the stench.” There were different sources of spirit that kept the body animated, which kept the flesh aware, what dwelt in the mind, and heart - the core. It was all three layers that were gone like dust swept from the floor.
Gregor grimaced for a moment before his mouth twitched into a smile. “No way invoke her spirit, eh?” he said. “No parlor trick to save the day? Guess I’m not useless after all.” He adjusted his glasses with a flourish.
“No one said you were useless,” Minerva replied softly. “But I fail to find levity in a situation where someone was slain by magical means. This implies a sorcerer - but who holds magic that is not beholden to the Emperor’s service. There is no one who would have this level of training that didn’t -”
Gregor silenced her with a discreet hand gesture and shot a furtive glance to their colleagues. “You can’t just talk about them like that. It’s treason,” he hissed. “If the Exemplars catch wind, you’ll be lucky to be hanged.”
Minerva nodded and pursed her lips. Back in her old home of Fernhaven, no one gave a spit about complaining about empires doing. But in the capital city of Iondra, a misheard conversation could cost one’s life. The uncertainty of how much they valued her skill and gift over her compliance loomed over her like a distant thunderstorm at times.
“We’re going to have to cover this up,” Gregor continued quietly. “I know, I know. I’m none too pleased about it either, but you’ll have to learn that if an Exemplar kills someone that is was for our own good, too.”
“She’s little more than a child, clearly a threat to empire’s security,” Minerva replied, but he grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her down to his level. His features faded from anger to pleading.
“Don’t be a fool,” he said with all the weight he could muster.
She pulled away and stepped back, shaking her head. “So be it,” she said. “I will return to the Hall of Inquisitors and draw up the paperwork we need for this… unfortunate accident.” Her mouth twisted with the last words as she turned to leave them to their work. It pained her that for whatever reason she could not call upon the spirit, for if she could glean the identity of the man who killed her, she could at least take comfort. Or, perhaps, share their name along the unsavory currents and have a sudden and unfortunate accident happen.
No, that wasn’t proper, nor did she know any such characters to perpetrate it. But she couldn’t deny that it would please her to some degree.
Though the streets were crowded, an invisible bubble formed around Minerva. It was little to do with personal grooming or any uncouth odors - it was her bright imperial blue garb that marked her as an inquisitor and arbiter of the law. Not all inquisitors held her lofty demeanor. Some enjoyed the usage of their power to force their will upon others.
Even being seen conversing with an inquisitor could set tongues wagging and unleash all manner of scandalous gossip. She adjusted her hat and cast a wary gaze at those around her. As expected, they looked down at their feet when they stepped past.
Perhaps it wasn’t just the imperial blue of her bustled dress. Perhaps it was that it is the dress. She was not simply just the only woman to be taken into the Hall of Inquisitors, she was the necromancer. Being able to hold audience with the dead was an awful lot of trouble.
She stepped into a small bakery, taking in the sweet smell of the frosted and glazed specimens of pure delight that tempted her from their glass display cases. There were fruit and sweet cream, baked goods, and even a few chocolates from faraway Anumeria. She reached her hand towards a pastry folded with strawberry jam, but she froze when the otherwise silent baker finally spoke up.
“Did you find the killer yet, witch,” he said, nearly imperceptible bitterness glazing his tone.
Minerva turned her dark eyes to meet his stony gaze, and he did not flinch. He was either a fool, or had more courage than any man she had met. Most likely a fool, however. “No, I have not,” she said coolly. “And as it were, if I had any such information, you would be the last to know of it.” She brought the pastry to the counter, and noticed that his coldness culminated in a mist upon his eyes, that threatened to trail down his cheeks.
Minerva opened her mouth, unsure of what to say, but the baker pushed the pastry forward towards her.
“She was a regular here… Sarah,” he said, and Minerva knew that his tone was wrought in his held back emotions. “I fancied her, truly. She was so kind, and came in to wish me a good morning and buy her bread every day. I believe she was in service of Lord and Lady Camrille.”
She reached forward and placed her gloved hand gently over his. “I promise you, I will do everything I can to find the murderer. We are all very hard at work.” It was a lie, but it would comfort him, and salve his heart for the time being. “What was your name, good sir?”
“Bartie, Miss… er, Lady,” he said clumsily placing his hand over his heart and giving her a slight bow, and leaving a white flour handprint upon his frock coat.
She nodded her head and placed the pastry in her bag. “Thank you for this information,” she said and exited the shop. The streets were still filled with dull murmuring as she traveled the roads. Word had already begun to spread along the island about the murder, faster than she would have hoped. It agonized her that the killing was destined to be swept under the rug, but if people were to take to the streets in uproar it would only end with their blood in the gutters.
She arrived at the Hall of Inquisitors, an imposing structure of ivy coated bricks, set into a fountained plaza, surrounded by a spiked iron fence. The few people who trickled into the plaza did so furtively, their eyes cast down. They wanted nothing more than to pay their taxes and dues - as their office fulfilled such menial work as well.
The statue’s eyes seemed to follow her, its head turned up as it knelt to empty out its ever-flowing pitcher into the basin. She did not doubt that is was some enchantment placed upon it by the craftsman, at the behest of the commissioner. The tall doors of black lacquered oak barely budged as she pushed against them, and her shoes slid against the polished stone, causing her to fall through the now open door. The light pierced the gloom within and one of the desk clerks eyed with thinly veiled disdain. Her bag jammed itself in the door, stubbornly refusing to follow without a firm tug. Her boots clicked against the ornate tiles as she made her way to her offices. Gas lamps in emerald green glass lined the halls, hissing gently and lighting the dark wood walls.
She ascended a wide stairway that led to the private offices, away from the meeting halls, tax-counters, and public servants of the empire. Her own office was tucked away in the farthest corner - as she much liked it, except for the commotion of the printing press that could be heard from the floor below. The lock was deceptive, appearing simple but requiring a series of twists to open without setting off a silent alarm.
Her large desk seemed to dominate the room, and she couldn’t deny that that when she sat in its high backed chair she felt powerful. It was a pity that people seldom had to sit across from her so that she could practice looming ominously, as people seem to expect a Necromancer would. She dropped into the seat and unlocked the lowest drawer, withdrawing a thin, leather notebook. She rifled through it to find a blank page and began scribing her notes about the dead girl in the park. She wrote of the injuries and residual magic that clung to her, like the smell of hot metal and ink. When she came to write of the suspects, she jotted ‘Bartie the baker’ who mysteriously lacked an apron, and ‘Lord and Lady Camrille’. She then began to write ‘Exemplars’, but quickly scratched it out. It was unlike the baker possessed a magical talent, and any noble with a magical talent was sent for proper education in the arts and into service.
She set the book out to dry and reached into her pocket, looking at the small lock of hair she discreetly took from Sarah’s corpse. A ritual might bring some semblance of memory back in the form a spirit’s echo, but there was no certainty in what she could find. After all, rituals only served to empower and create a concentration of power, both within and around the performer. From another drawer she withdrew a stack of worn-down candles and a few specimens of bones, and lastly a small urn filled with grave earth.
The candles burned intensely, and she focused her thoughts into grim domains, uttering a calling to the spirits as she clutched the hair tight in her hand. “Spirits beyond reach, near and far, reach and crawl. From the grave, we do call,” she whispered, her eyes half lidded. Pale shapes began to fill the room, flashing and vanishing to leave images burnt into her mind. None of them were the girl, and so they did not connect with the hair and linger to speak.
Eventually, the energy faded from the room and she was left painfully alone in deafening silence. It was unusual for her to be unable to draw upon the memories of one so recently dead, but it was not that she had much to compare it to. She was the first necromancer in service to the empire in over a hundred years, and magical knowledge was held in a tight grip and only those who were chosen for their devotion had the opportunity to learn generalized magic, while those born with a special talent were trained to use their power in service to the empire. Hexes that crippled the body, or calling upon fire were taught to those who served and protected the divine emperor. But the specialists were put into roles that they could serve best. Some, however, were more desirable positions than others.
She stood and picked up her notebook, its ink now dry and placed it in her bag. There was one who might know more about damages wrought by magic, and would know what it was that killed her. It was not like fire, for it would have had to be too hot and concentrated on a specific point to leave such a wound and not damage the clothing. Navigating the warrens of the Hall, she found herself before a door with a frosted glass window, and a bronze placard reading “Connor Smithson, Artificer” in a bold font.
After knocking twice, Minerva was about to turn around, then the door opened just a crack to reveal an eye holding her in momentary suspicion before the door was thrown open.
“Miss Minerva,” Connor said excitedly. “A pleasure to see you on this fine day.” He welcomed her into his large office and sat her at a chair across from his desk. The shelves were lined with oddities and curiosities. Some silver contraptions that held either dials or moving parts, and others miniatures of steam engines and tools for construction and manufacturing.
His magic was not as bold as calling upon the dead, or as blunt calling up flame and ruination. Artificers wove their spells into their wild contraptions, driving their purpose and building an understanding that no other could meet. Steel bent and shaped itself to their touch, and with their great skill the empire developed grand tools of war and wonders of the modern age. It was mused by her lecturers that while there was little in the ways of necromantic knowledge, no mind other than that of their fellows could understand how an artificer thinks.
“Would you care for a cup of tea?” he asked, smiling broadly which made his curled moustache wiggle slightly.
“That would be lovely,” Minerva said as she placed her bag on her lap and opened it. She placed the leather book on the table - only after brushing it free of crumbs of her tragically decimated pastry. Between getting caught in the door and smashed against her book, there was little left of its former glory and she would find due time to mourn its loss. “I fear, however, I come calling in the name of business, not pleasure.”
“Oh, but it is a pleasure nonetheless when you visit,” he said gingerly placing a steaming cup of dark tea. Its herbal spice seemed to fill the air - far from her simple tastes - but she placed her sugar and regarded him somberly.
She flipped open the book to the page detailing her notes of the recent murder. “I was hoping you could assist me with finding what could be behind this,” she said. “After all, you know a thing or two of the workings of energy.”
Connor sat and pulled the book towards himself and began reading. With each sentence his eyebrows raised and his moustache almost seemed to droop in disgust. “Excoriations with no bruising, trauma to fabric but no burning, burning of the flesh” he muttered. “I would have thought lightning but we’ve had nary a storm, and the only registered stormcaller is of the undead. She would have found the girl’s blood an irresistible feast, not just leave her to rot.”
“You know this stormcaller?” Minerva asked over her teacup.
Connor glanced at her and returned his eyes to the book, growing steadily more grim. “Of course,” he muttered. “I wanted to use her gifts for an experiment. She threatened to drown me in the sea… She’s not the most pleasant person.”
Minerva hummed in agreement and placed the cup back down. It was almost amusing for her to watch him think. Even the smallest motions and gestures felt to be carefully articulated and thought out. “And what was her name?” Minerva asked innocuously.
“Lady Evangeline,” Connor said, his brow crashing down into a furrow. “Not that you have anything to be concerned of, I assure you.”
She could hardly suppress her smirk. “Oh?” she said, “it’s not as if I have any concerns of what women you cavort with, it’s not as if we are courting.”
Connor’s features turned red and he hid his face with the book, muttering something intelligible. “I fear I do not know what the cause of this was,” he said after several moments, allowing his face to cool. “It is certainly some manner of energy, and magic in nature as you sensed, but I am not sure who would be able to do such a thing.”
“Not electricity, are you sure?” Minerva asked. “Not one of your odd inventions, or anything of the like?”
Connor shook his head. “I doubt it was something electric in nature,” he said, “Not that I’ve had any means of examining one who has been struck by lightning, nor any invention that could produce enough of it. It is strange, a very promising discovery to harness with no practical use.”
“I’m sure someone will find a use for it eventually,” Minerva said, lying boldly.
He returned the book to her, and offered a strained smile. “I’m sorry I wasn’t of more help for you,” he said sheepishly, “Though I’ll admit that I’m honored you thought of me.”
“Of course,” Minerva said. “Emperor’s grace illumine you.”
Connor bowed his head in response and watched her as she left.
“Greetings,” Minerva said cheerfully. “I’d like to request the records from the shadow archives, regarding a one ‘Lady’ Evangeline, storm caller.”
The clerk stared back at her blankly for a moment, and thumbed his chin. “Pulling records on the Night Watch,” he mumbled. “That’s never a good idea, they always find out.”
She drew herself up and glared down her nose at him. “I do not need you questioning the actions of an Inquisitor,” she said cooly.
“Very well,” the clerk replied, dipping his pen into the ink. “Wait here and we will have the records within the hour.”
Minerva leaned forward against the desk, her face mere inches from the thin iron bars that separated them. “You’ll deliver it to my offices within the hour,” she replied, then promptly turned and stormed away. Her fine boots clicked against the wooden floors all along the way back to her office.
As she sat in waiting, she opened her notebook again and began writing in what little information she had of Evangeline. Vampires were a troublesome lot, thinking themselves above the law for their service to the empire and their preternatural talents.
The Blood Accord was signed seven hundred years ago, and was held as a matter of fact that criminals and traitors were granted as cattle to vampires in exchange for their services. The threat of losing their one legal food supply kept them in check and was a billet of their service, but it did little in the face of corruption and greed. For even among their immortal kind, there was a pettiness and fierce competition between the prestigious bloodlines.
Her eyes began to droop slightly as the sound of the printing presses and their eternal, infernal, clickety clack and rickety tack began to drift up from the floor below. Her head was filled with visions grim, of shadows and monsters that stole away spirits. However, soon a knock came upon her door that saved her from the internal haunting. She rose from her desk and shook her head free of the foolish idlings. A young man stood on the other side, his eyes wide as he silently thrust the stack of documents forward. He gave her a hurried bow and spoke, “Will there be anything else, miss, er, lady, miss.”
She looked up at him and couldn’t stop a crooked smile. “That’s Lady Miss Lady to you,” she said as she scanned the stamp of the shadowed archive on the papers. “Thank you for bringing these. A tip.” She reached into her pocket and withdrew a bar of imperial tokens and handed it him, stunning him as she nodded him off and closed the door.
The docket held little of note. Her service to the empire - beyond serving as a Night Watch - consisted of spending the winter months in a palace outside the Wolf’s Maw valley. There she wove the weather, keeping the storms upon the mountains and the earth warm for the crops. It was innocent enough work, and less than assuming. However, it would not be the first time a member of the undying slipped from their gilded cage to partake in the pleasures of the hunt.
She took up her pen once more and wrote up a summons. Even if it meant staying in the Hall until the coming of night, she would speak to this vampire and see what she has to say on the matter. There was no apparent blood loss, but perhaps in a moment of clarity, she saw that it would implicate her, and did not feed upon her prey. The act of feeding was a supernatural and symbolic act - she had never investigated a corpse that has been feasted upon, perhaps there might an effect on the body’s retention of a soul. It was a reasonable assumption, in her own mind, and bore investigating. Perhaps she even desperately wished that it would be anyone other than an Exemplar, who would fall above her authority and face no penalty for their crimes.
Of course, she dare not bemoan their lofty titles aloud. ‘Take shelter in the shadow of the hand of the emperor, and no harm will ever see you’ said the royal pledge. But as every day passed, she saw the hand’s shadow deepen and saw the ghouls that dwelt in the shade. She shook the thoughts from her mind and began rifling through papers and books, and so spent the rest of the afternoon in a borderline frenetic state, pouring over notes and filing things where they ought to be. Anything - anything - to not let her mind dwell on treason; for if a seer were to taste her wavering faith, the punishment would be no small affair.
Long after the sun dipped beneath the horizon, a knock came upon the door and with it came a sense of dread that had been waiting to knot itself up in Minerva’s gut. She opened the door and was promptly swept away by a willowy, blonde figure. A figure gowned in so much silk and lace and golden chains that she seemed to carry the wealth of nobleman’s chateau upon her graceful figure. The woman slowly twirled in place, regarding every detail of the room with eyes like ice that reflected the lamplight in a lambent, predatory way. After she took in every aspect she finally turned her wicked gaze upon Minerva, the corner of her mouth twitching to hint at a disdainful frown.
“And may I ask why I have been summoned to a storage closet?” she asked, picking up a book from a pile of thing that Minerva meant to organize.
“You have been summoned on official writ,” Minerva said, drawing herself but, but she still fell only up to Evangeline’s chin. “You know what my purpose is. We are here to discuss a recent murder… if you will have a seat.” she gestured to the chair that sat before her desk.
Evangeline’s eyes grew wide, and she gasped with what could almost be considered mockery. She turned away and passed by the chair that Minerva beckoned to, and seated herself at the head of the desk.
Minerva set her jaw and sat in the guest’s seat, doing her best to not show her irritation. Among her first lessons of becoming an inquisitor were of tact, debate, and how to wrest control of conversations and plant images or sway thoughts in the minds of others. Some minds - especially those who have known centuries of conversation and power struggles - did not fall to such tactics easily. “I am calling you here today because of a recent murder,” she said. “This one murder standing out because of the unusual circumstances.” Fie and vexation, it truly was an intimidating seat with its wingback chair that seemed to loom like a threatening shadow. Or perhaps, it was Lady Evangeline’s very nature. “The victim was found dead in the park, just within the Brocade District.”
Evangeline’s face twisted in horror. “As if I would be caught dead in that slum,” she hissed, and then paused thoughtfully. “As if I would be caught alive in that slum.”
“There is evidence of energy damage to her skin,” Minerva continued, only growing colder as the woman mocked her station. “You are a storm caller, are you not?”
“You know that I am,” she replied bluntly. “Are you to believe that I conjured the silver swords of the heavens without a proper storm to call them from? And that I would just leave the fool girl lying there to rot?”
Minerva found that it was her turn to hide a smile, confident that she mentioned no details of the victim’s age or gender. “There is the marine layer that clouds the night sky, could you not have struck your prey that way?”
“The heart of the storm does not lie in such thin mist. As it is, I want you to understand - my prey is served to me,” she said in return, her tone turning to sweet and sultry. “Some delight in torment… Not I, fool, not I.” she slunk back into her seat and tented her fingers, eyeing Minerva curiously. “For me, it is all about pleasure, and not just that of the feast.”
Fie and vexation. That was one detail noted in the docket, and more than once.
“I am not some fledgeling, caught in the wonder of newfound power,” she continued. “I follow the edicts, I do not hunt. I do not desire to wound and harm. I do what I must because I must. I feed so that I may feed the empire in turn with my blessed gift.” Before Minerva could respond, she stood and walked towards the door, swaying gracefully. She stopped, her hand hovering over the doorknob. “A good evening to you, Miss,” she said, “Take comfort, for my kin watch the night so that you may walk home safely.”
Plumes of mist swirled up from the sewers, spun about by the same winds that whistled between the tall, narrow buildings of brick. Minerva cast her gaze over her shoulder and picked up her pace. It was another fifteen minutes until she passed through her garden gate, another fifteen minutes until she could cast off these dreadful clothes and bury herself among the blankets and forget the image of the body they had found.
A sudden clamor caused her to bite her tongue and she spun on point to face its source. She raised her hands, curling her middle and ring fingers into her palms while extending her pinky, index finger, and thumb into a triangle. With the hex-sign poised, she opened her mind and readied and incantation to disable.
From the shadows arose her would-be assailant. A slat-ribbed hound looked up at her with doleful eyes, his head held low.
Minerva sighed in relief and dropped her hands. “Vexation, friend,” she said softly as she knelt. The hound approached her, timidly sniffing the air before her proffered hand. In a moment of remembrance, she reached into her bag and scooped out the sad remnants of her earlier destroyed pastry. The hound hungrily lapped at the crumbs, consuming them in seconds, then began sniffing the ground until he found no more, and licked her face. Suddenly, the dog looked up towards the northern sky, where the Imperial palace perched atop a cliff. It loomed over the city like a gargoyle; it’s still lit windows shining not unlike the stars in the sky that pierced the gloom. The dog looked back to her and let out a whine before scampering back into the shadowed alley.
“Emperor watch over you,” Minerva whispered into the cold night air.
She continued her long trek home, vigilant of every sourceless sound. It felt as if Evangeline’s parting words were a threat, but perhaps they were just a simple reminder. Perhaps they were meant to only appear so. Fie and vexation, that woman was a bother.
She passed the garden gate and unlocked the door to her home. Warm embers crackled from within their cozy, charred logs and filled the parlor with a glow. A sudden snort gave her pause, and she noticed her Maidservant - Johanna - slumbering peacefully in the plush chair, embroidery hoop resting in her lap with a spool that rolled away, dangerously close to the fireplace.
Minerva cracked a smile as she picked up the embroidery and set it upon the table, plucking the needle from Johanna’s fingertips. She ascended the stairs and returned with a knit blanket - more of her handiwork - and draped it over her.
The stairs creaked gently as she returned to her own room, and spied the cloth covered tray. It was a stew and section of crusty bread with butter. It had long since cooled, but the kettle hanging over the embering fire was sufficient for her to wash her face. Soap that smelled of lavender and herbs was just one of the luxuries that her station afforded her. She paused for a moment to look over her large room, it’s silk curtains and large feather bed; running water and gas-lit walls. She would have never imagined having such luxury when she was a child - never mind that gas lamps were still a modern invention. Fernhaven never felt so far away - its forests and plains never more alien.
Trees replaced with hissing streetlights and the grass with cobblestones worn smooth by centuries of boots busily bustling back and forth. She wanted to feel the cool, dewy grass beneath her bare feet again. She wanted the crisp breezes rolling down from the mountains. But the empire would never allow her that comfort again. She was their property - their Necromancer.