Thurie walked hand in hand with his father down the street. They had left the oilcloth pouch of art supplies at home this time—a good thing, because it meant nobody else had been hurt.
It was an unforgivingly cold morning, the weak sun peeking through an overhanging canvas of clouds. Thurie didn’t mind the cold—liked it, actually. As a rule, he wasn’t a fan of crowds, and the cold kept people a few minutes longer in their beds, so the streets were near deserted. Still, he couldn’t shake the habit of peering into every window and down every alley as they walked.
Dunna Jore’s deep, rumbling voice broke the silence as he shot another furtive look behind them. “Always so careful… Like father, like son.” Thurie twisted back around and gazed up toward his father, his mouth curving up into a small, closed smile. It faded when he registered the melancholy in his father’s eyes.
They crossed the street to the guard station. Thurie held open the door for his father, and they slipped from the cold stillness of the city into the bustling cacophony within. The scene was a familiar one, complete with the usual cast of unsavory characters sitting on wooden benches at the front of the station: a woman with a split lip and clothes too tight and colorful, a short man in a lumpy gray overcoat murmuring something inaudible, a boy several years younger than Thurie, his face smeared with dirt and grime. He didn’t mind this group much, unsavory though they were. He’d been in enough guard stations to know the sorts of people who formed the regular crowd.
Meanwhile, a group of guards formed a cluster in the center of the room, listening as a man at the front of the crowd rattled off assignments and orders for the day. The man giving instructions was the station’s guard captain, a tall man with a barrel chest and grizzled hair cropped short. The captain consulted every so often with the secretary sitting behind the front desk, a man with ruddy cheeks and an impressively bushy, straw-colored beard. As Dunna and Thurie waited for the captain to finish up, several runners bringing messages from other stations burst through the door behind them and swarmed the secretary. He swatted at them as if they were little more than flies and snapped at them to form a line.
Only when the guard captain finished giving his last instructions did he register Dunna’s presence, nodding his head upward as he caught Dunna’s eye over the crowd. The guards dispersed and the captain strode over, the barest hint of a smile lurking behind his stern expression.
“If it isn’t my favorite former guard himself.”
“Hello, Gery,” Thurie’s father said.
The captain looked down at Thurie and now cracked a true smile. “And son in tow! Give it a few years and you’ll be heading out into the city with the rest of them.” He reached out and ruffled his hair. Thurie reddened. Sometime in the last few years he’d grown so accustomed to his father’s lifeless, wooden hands that a warm touch was unexpected.
The guard captain cast a surveying gaze over father and son. “Now Dunna, it’s been a good amount of time since you graced our humble station with your presence. What brings you here on this fine, fine morning?”
“I’ve been thinking about our favorite killer. It occurred to me that when we interviewed the dancer she was with two of her friends. Three girls, two beds.”
The captain stilled, though his eyes flicked downwards toward Dunna’s hands. “They sure did their best to drive you out of the guard—but some things can’t be forced, I suppose.”
“It’s not likely to lead to anything, I know. I’m just hoping you’ll indulge a retired guard’s curiosity.”
“Of course. Let’s go now, before I get sucked into the pending disaster that today’s promising to become.”
The captain rattled off a few instructions to the secretary, and then all three of them set off. Dunna and the captain were a merry pair as they strode down the street. Thurie’s mood lightened as they walked, seeing a spark return to his father’s eyes as he settled into the back-and-forth banter of the city guard.
“Did you know,” the captain said after a few minutes, “King Orrus has requested there be a change of venue for the Queen’s Fair dance? We only found out two hours ago. He wants the performance open to the public, on a stage beside the merchant tents. The whole city will turn up. It’ll be a gods-damned pickpocket’s paradise.”
Thurie’s ears perked up. Everyone knew the story of Queen Osanne, but he’d never expected to actually have the opportunity to watch the dance.
“Why would he open the performance to the whole city?” Dunna asked. “And so late.”
“It’s got to be some drivel of ‘to bring Hygotians together.’ Who knows how those royals think?”
“Well,” Dunna said, looking down at Thurie, “we’ll make sure to be there—and to keep our coins close. And if some master thief decides to rear his head at the fair, you know where to find me—though make sure you let me sleep off some of the merriment first.”
The captain chuckled. “You know, if I were a betting man, I’d wager you like a bit of chaos in the city.”
His father grinned in response, but the smile didn’t reach his eyes. “Of course not. You think I want to have to stalk around the Queen’s Fair looking for purse-snatchers? Never getting a day’s rest? No. I’ll leave the keeping of our fair city’s tranquility up to you lot, little good though you do.”
The captain’s voice rose in mock outrage. “And I’m going with you on this ridiculous errand why?”
“Because you foolish city guard are always hoping for some miracle to tie up a case neatly. Is this going to lead to nothing? Yes. But,” Dunna said, waggling a finger at the captain, “you’re hoping, Gery. And a hopeful fool is worlds better than a disillusioned fool.”
They continued in this way until they arrived at the academy. A chill ran through Thurie as they walked up the front drive, again imagining the killer observing them from some position with a good view.
The female teacher who they’d spoken with earlier met them in the foyer. Her face slackened when they explained they needed to view Miss Inkman’s room.
“Of course, I didn’t even think of it! She was in her friends’ room… Hasn’t been getting along well with her roommate, so she spends most of her free time there. She’s in class now, but I’ll let you in. Though it will look much like the other room.”
They followed her down the hallway. The faint strains of strings and piano-fortes filtered through a few of the doors along the way. Was it fun to be a dancer, Thurie wondered, or was it just the same as training for any other job?
The dance teacher steered them left, and then there they were, in the dormitory hallway Thurie had thought he’d never see again.
“It’s this one here,” the teacher said, drawing a key from her pocket. It rattled in the lock, and the door swung open, revealing a room near-identical to the other room. Except…
A window. A window that did not face a brick wall, like the other room had, but instead looked out over the academy gardens and the neighboring street. And the side of that street was lined with buildings, each one studded with neat rows of windows.
Thurie could tell his father was trying to keep a calm demeanor so as not to alarm the teacher. “Mistress…?”
“My apologies for not remembering. Mistress Oerfall, it seems to me you said Tia Inkman had recently come to the academy. That she’d made ‘great strides.’”
“Yes, that’s correct. But I fail to see—”
“That would therefore mean,” he continued, “that someone else was staying in this room before she came.” He nodded at the bunk beds.
“Why, yes,” she said. “Annalise—” Her mouth fell open; she looked like a fish out of water, gasping for air.
Dunna turned to the captain. “Well, Gery, are you as hopeful a fool as I am?”
Within a matter of minutes they were standing in front of a door marked Landlord. The captain had ripped one of Thurie’s sketches off a notice board on the street corner, and he clutched it in his hand. Dunna and the captain exchanged a long look before the captain reached up and rapped loudly on the door three times.
“It’s open!” cried a woman’s voice from inside.
The captain opened the door, and the three of them funneled into the cramped, dusty office. An older woman sat behind a messy desk at the back.
“Oh!” the woman exclaimed, taking in the captain’s wine red guard uniform. “Good morning, sirs. Forgive my assumption, but you three don’t look like you’re here to inquire about our rent prices.”
“Quite astute,” the captain replied. “Hopefully we won’t take but a moment of your time. All we need is to see if you recognize this man.” He held the sketch aloft.
“Goodness me, I didn’t expect such a visit this morning,” the woman said, fishing a pair of spectacles from her pocket and balancing them on her nose. “Though one never does, I suppose. Well, let me see now… Truth be told, I never look at these sketches.” She plucked the paper from the captain’s hand and came in close, her eyes squinted.
More than a moment elapsed, though, before she drew back. “That’s… Well, I have a tenant… Second floor… I’m not good with faces. But the scratches around his eye, though…”
“We’d be much obliged if you’d show us to his room,” the captain said. The landlady gave a quick, nervous nod, hustled around the desk, and beckoned them out of the room. They followed her down the hall and up a dim but clean staircase.
Once they reached the second floor landing she handed over a key and pointed at a room at the end. “On the left, second from the end,” she quavered.
“Stay back,” Dunna said to the woman, then motioned at Thurie to do the same. Thurie swallowed as the captain quietly drew his sword and padded down the hallway, followed closely by his father. The captain was a competent fighter, he knew. One had to be to climb the ranks to his position. But the man on the other side of that door could very well be their murderer, a madman who might fight tooth and nail not to be arrested. And if the captain was somehow bested, a man with wooden hands being left to face down a dangerous killer was not ideal.
He held his breath as the captain slipped the key into the lock, then threw open the door, clearly hoping to catch the killer by surprise.
A second passed. Two seconds.
“No danger here,” came his father’s voice from down the hallway. Thurie and the landlady hesitantly made their way towards the apartment. His pulse pounded in his ears. The hallway was just as dim as the stairwell, and he imagined the killer materializing from every shadow and leaping out at them.
They reached the apartment, and he blinked. The landlady sucked in a breath. “But… I don’t understand! H-he was definitely here. I just did a walkthrough last week.”
The room was empty, save for a few clumps of dust in the corners. The landlady shuffled into the room and turned around in the middle of the floor.
“He was living here, I tell you! He was here!” Her disbelieving cry echoed about the empty room.
“No need for alarm,” Dunna said, crossing to the apartment’s one, grubby window. “We believe you.” He raised an arm and waved. Thurie’s eyes widened as he looked out and saw the figure of the dance teacher waving back at them weakly from Tia Inkman’s dormitory room, which lay almost directly opposite.
“Our man has good eyesight,” the captain said. It was true—Thurie could make out that the person across the way was female, but the dormitory window still lay a good distance away.
“Or, more likely, a quality spyglass,” Dunna said. He rubbed his foot on the floor in front of the window. “Look at these scratches. He had a chair here—sat here often, watching them.” Thurie eyed the scratches as his father and the captain quizzed the landlady about her disappeared tenant.
“His name was Conmer Blask. Never late on the rent and wasn’t the complaining type, so I didn’t hardly ever speak with him.”
“What were his habits? Did you ever see him with any friends? Women?”
“Not that I recall. He was a quiet fellow, kept to himself.”
Thurie slowly spun around in place. If the killer had been the more useful, creative sort, he might have marked up the walls—bad poetry or a manifesto or some drawings. But there was nothing, absolutely nothing.
“Did he work?”
“I don’t know anything about what he did. Like I said, he paid the rent on time so I didn’t worry about how he conducted his life.”
The captain huffed. “And we’re back to dead ends,” he said to Dunna, then handed the key back to the landlady. “We thank you for your time. Change the locks on the door, and tell a member of the city guard if you see him around.”
But the stamp of Thurie’s foot on the floor made them all jerk around.
“What is it, son?” the captain said.
Thurie lifted his foot and stomped down again. The sound rang hollow, and as he lifted his foot he revealed more scratches underneath, at the edge of one of the floorboards.
Dunna and the captain hurried towards him. They knelt on the floor around the scratches for a moment, before the captain drew his sword once more. Using the tip of the sword, he leveraged the floorboard up and cast it aside.
A hole, in which lay a tidy stack of five small envelopes.
The landlady gasped. “Oh, this is most certainly against policy! If Blask were here he’d be paying for this repair!” Thurie realized dimly that his father and the captain had neglected to tell the landlady that her missing tenant was not simply a wanted man, but a killer of five women.
The captain warily reached for the envelope on top and drew it out of the hole. He flicked the flap open with the tip of his finger, as if he didn’t even want to touch the paper, then squeezed both sides of the envelope so that it opened to reveal its contents.
A clipping of brown hair lay within, secured with a silky red ribbon.
Thurie lurched back from the hole, pulse racing, and the captain uttered a long streak of profanity before closing the flap once more and fishing out the remaining four envelopes.
Five envelopes, five murdered women.
Dunna and the captain exchanged another one of their meaningful glances, clearly not wanting to have a discussion with the landlady fretting beside them. Yet Thurie reckoned he knew precisely what they were thinking. What would possess the killer to take all his worldly possessions with him, but leave treasured mementos of his conquests behind?