Murder and the ensuing chase—Thurie knew the two well, knew them as a pair that went hand in hand, never deviating from that order. And he hated it, hated that he couldn’t peer through a window into the future and prevent the killing instead. Sometimes he wondered if a donation at one of Jopha’s shrines would allow him to do just that; there was a reason why the goddess of dream’s priests never lacked for funds. Yet though some people talked of receiving Jopha-sent visions, something told him it was all pig swill. Why would a goddess, on high in some mystical, unknown place, deign to guide the dreams of the local butcher or baker or retired guard’s mute son?
So here they were again, running toward the screams. Maybe the city guard would catch the killer; maybe it would even be Thurie’s drawing that led to his capture. The murderer would be clamped in shackles and given a proper death torturous enough to satisfy all of Hygot’s fury.
But Thurie knew it wouldn’t do anything to bring back those slain dancers.
He clutched tight to his father’s coat as Dunna fought his way through the roiling, fleeing sea of people. Was it simply his father’s old, ingrained gut reaction to catastrophe? Was it a need to show the men who had come calling that night long ago that he was still relevant, still fighting?
But it didn’t really matter what the reason was. Dunna continued his slow, adamant progress through the panicked crowd, and Thurie’s only choice was to follow in his father’s slipstream, much as he longed to run in the opposite direction. They were a team, him and his father, and he would not leave him.
They had watched the dance and subsequent massacre from the back of the square, so by the time they arrived at the stage it was near-deserted, save for a few stragglers: a dancer vomiting in front of the stage while a friend held her hair, and a handful of gawking courtiers, too high-ranking to be sent away by the guards who’d swarmed the scene.
Thurie’s attention jumped back to the sick dancer and her friend. He blinked. It was Tia Inkman and… her sister, by the look of it. She must be Pelas-blessed; that was the second close call with death she’d avoided.
Her fellow dancers had not been so lucky. Bodies littered the stage. A blackened corpse sprawled at the front was still smoking—the dancer who had caught her dress on fire and tripped off the stage in her panic. A scrap of blue silk, charred at the edges, flapped on a nail head; she’d torn her dress when she’d fallen off. Had she died when the flames raced over her body? Or had she still been alive when the bombs detonated, killed by a piece of shrapnel?
“Gery!” his father called, his booming voice drawing everyone’s attention.
“Dunna,” replied the captain, sighing as he stood up from his squat over one of the bodies on stage. He jumped down and closed the distance between them. “It’s not the right time. We’ll send for you. I have a manhunt going on throughout the city, a furious king and queen—both unhurt, praise the gods.”
“Nonsense—we won’t get in anyone’s way. Just have a witness or two meet us in the station. The time to get this done is right now, while the bastard’s face is fresh in everyone’s memory.”
The captain drew in a long breath, held it a second. “There’s something to that reasoning.” He drew closer, voice dropping to a murmur. “Gods willing, we’ll catch him soon and have no use for the sketch. I shouldn’t be telling you this… but I’m sure the news will be on everyone’s lips before long. They found the killer’s dagger at the scene. Both that and the knife he threw look like they’re of Corimian make.”
Thurie shuddered, though it wasn’t from the cold. He huddled in closer to his father’s cloak.
“Corimian?! A sympathizer? A spy?”
“Gods only know. We’re living in strange times.” The captain spat on the ground.
Dunna jerked his head toward the lingering courtiers, who were talking animatedly amongst themselves despite the corpses not twenty paces away. “They must have been close to the stage. Could they sit down with us for a chat?”
The captain gave Thurie’s father a sardonic bow. “Be my guest—I’m happy to be rid of them. Gods-damned misery watchers. I’ll have a few of them meet you at the station in half an hour.” It was just enough time to make a stop at the apartment to grab the oilcloth pouch and rush to the guard station.
Half an hour later, Dunna pushed through the station door, Thurie following close as a shadow. Thurie wasn’t used to the station being so quiet; every guard was out looking for the killer, leaving only the bushy-faced secretary behind the front desk to man the station. He waved them towards the same side room where they’d made the first initial sketch of the Firefly Hollow Killer months ago.
Just before they entered the room, Thurie’s father bent down to his level for a moment. “Clear your head and take this one slow. You heard what the captain said, but don’t make any assumptions. Make the sketch the same way you always do.”
He gave his father a solemn nod, though he didn’t quite know what he meant. Did his father already suspect the killer’s identity? Dunna pushed open the door before he could puzzle it out.
Inside, two courtiers, a man and a woman, sat waiting on the rough, wooden station chairs. Outfitted in richly hued velvets, they glowed like polished jewels amongst the grubby setting of the station.
“My apologies we’ve kept you waiting,” Dunna said as Thurie began fishing supplies out of the oilcloth pouch.
“Let’s get on with it, then,” the man drawled, looking supremely bored despite having just been witness to a massacre. His female companion looked a bit more disturbed. She perched on the edge of her chair as if she might fly out of the room at any moment.
Thurie finished setting up and gave his father another nod. All set. The man eyed Thurie, his pencil at the ready, and scoffed. “The secretary said your methods were unconventional, but this boggles the mind.”
Thurie stared resolutely at the paper before him. It was nothing he hadn’t heard before, and he took some special pride in how most people shut their mouths once he actually put pencil to paper.
The female courtier gave the man a light smack on the arm, then offered Dunna and Thurie a shaky half-smile. “Anything to find th-the killer.”
They got to work. Seated just two rows back from the stage, the courtiers had had a clear view of the slaughter, so the man’s image swiftly emerged from the blank page. Thurie fell into a near-trance as his father quizzed the couple. He loved this feeling, like his pencil was guiding his hand, rather than the other way around.
Dunna’s thank you to the courtiers for their cooperation brought him back to the present. He looked down at the sketch and balked. The interview had been fruitful, and the man’s portrait looked complete enough. Yet somewhere in the course of the interview, something must have gone terribly wrong.
The man’s face looked… almost familiar. Thurie brought his face closer to the sketch. It couldn’t be… but the similarity was too striking to be coincidental.
The almost-visage of the Firefly Hollow Killer stared back at him.
His brother, perhaps?
And then there was a whole separate issue: this man was supposed to be Corimian? The dark hair and square jaw fit the popular image of the people of the Carved Kingdom, but somehow Thurie had always pictured Corimians looking a bit more… un-Hygotian than this man. As described by the neighboring Mirish, the Corimians were a people with squatter faces, thick and unruly eyebrows, chiseled jaws, and dark eyes.
He looked away from the man’s portrait, suddenly feeling a bit queasy.
The courtiers swept from the room, not giving the sketch more than a cursory glance, and Thurie made to pack up the oilcloth pouch, but his father shook his head.
“Get more paper. We need to talk.” Dunna waved a gloved hand at the drawing. “You must have noticed our man-at-large looks… off.”
Thurie took up his pencil, writing in his quick, spidery scrawl. Like the Firefly Hollow Killer. But not.
“Yes. You see why I told you not to make assumptions. I didn’t expect this. But I did wonder if we might find something unexpected.”
He shot his father a questioning look.
“Think,” his father said, fixing Thurie with a probing gaze. “Did you notice anything odd about the attack?”
Thurie frowned, thinking hard.
Why leave his dagger? He would want it for self defense.
“It’s a fair point. But if the killer didn’t leave the dagger, it might not be obvious he had ties to Corim.”
He wanted to make a statement.
“Yes. But isn’t there something strange about it all?”
Thurie twirled his pencil, thinking.
If the knife was Corimian, it should have had special powers. It was the characteristic whorls and strange, jutting angles of Corimian craftsmanship that allowed the savage eastern kingdom to shape magic to its will. Even in Hygot, it was said magic was all around—hiding deep in the earth and swirling in unseen eddies through the air. The only difference was that Hygotians knew no means to tap that power.
“Precisely. Our killer was surely skilled with a blade, but that display was not necessarily aided by magic.”
The knife isn’t Corimian? A fake?
“Perhaps. I’m certainly not one who understands magic-craft. It might be a true Corimian knife only shows its powers when coaxed by someone with an understanding of such things. It will be anyone’s guess whether the blade is of genuine Corimian make.”
Thurie tapped his pencil on the page as his thoughts spiraled out in every direction. A knife Corimian in appearance, with a wielder of distinctly unmagical ability. And if the killer were Corimian, then…
Doesn’t make sense. He’s either a Corimian who can’t do magic or—
Dunna leaned forward. “Yes, you see now.”
Thurie’s hand shook as he wrote his reply. He’s Hygotian.
Dunna bowed his head. “I fear so. A Corimian sympathizer he may be, but this man is Hygotian-born.”
A fury began to pulse through Thurie’s veins. How could someone come to hate Hygot so much they slaughtered the innocent? Those dancers had trained for years, dedicated their lives to their art, and for what? All so someone could murder them before the whole kingdom.
But he knew it was possible to become so warped. The sound of three, insistent knocks at a door sounded distantly in his head. Yes, he knew too well the measures some people would take to make a point.
Every time Thurie helped his father fasten the straps on his hands, he’d come to expect the unbidden voice in his head, repeating its one choice sentence over and over again.
There are some things worse than death. There are some things worse than death.
He heard the rasping voice again now and couldn’t help feeling like there was some crucial clue he had failed to recognize, dancing just outside his awareness. He drummed his fingers on the desk, running through the day’s horrors over and over again in his mind.
Meanwhile, Dunna sat in his chair, staring at the picture with narrowed, unblinking eyes. After a while, he spoke in a halting voice, a change from his usual, authoritative gravitas. “This man… strikes me as familiar. Not just because he bears a marked resemblance to the Firefly Hollow Killer. Something about him…”
Thurie clutched his pencil, but didn’t know what to ask.
His father let out a huff of air and looked away. “Just a nagging feeling.” He coughed. “Pack up.”
As they walked home, the baritone intonations of a priest tore Thurie from his thoughts. They were passing a shrine dedicated to Jopha.
He slipped his hand from his father’s and fished around in his pocket until he drew forth a grubby copper. Tossing it in the donation bin, he made his prayer.
Who is he? Please, show me who he is and where to find him.
Would it work? But even if Jopha graced his dreams with her presence tonight, it would still only be bittersweet. Those dancers were in the hands of Death now, and no donations or dreams or prayers were going to change that.