“Next time I have a paternity,” Rani muttered, hopping off the station platform and into the streets of Rimbor, “I grill Windbrain about it first.”
She stopped up short, blinking. Garal was waiting for her on the sidewalk, holding his traveling cloak tightly around himself. “Oh, no,” she said, getting a load of the look on his face. “Who were you dreaming about this time?”
“No one,” whispered the halfling. He looked terrible, like he’d been crying all night. “I want to hire you.”
“Hire me?” Rani frowned. “Hire me for what? What’s going on?”
“It’s Keri,” said Garal. “She’s dead.”
“Oh, man.” The Mistral tapped his translucent fingers against the cocoon enveloping Brett, a soft clink of crystal on crystal. “Where did you find this mother?”
“In the citadel of a villain named Slade,” Sashami supplied helpfully. “He said she was in some sort of stasis.”
“Villains are great for stating the obvious, aren’t they? You should have heard Diaidh when she’d get going.” The magical construct cracked his fingers. “Well, you came to the right place. This thing’s demonic all right.”
“You will open?” Aithne demanded.
“Yeah, yeah. Keep your panties on, boss.” He slid his fingers into the rose crystal, his face glowing slightly with the effort.
“Is he speaking something disrespectful to me again?” Aithne whispered to Jack, her eyebrows knitted in cute irritation.
“I think that’s, uh, sort of his personality,” Jack said, not wanting to have to translate. “Do you know what this Slade wanted with Brett, anyway?”
“From what we overheard he was holding her for a more powerful villain named Beliath,” said Chloe. “Justin knew more about it, I think, but he mysteriously disappeared right before our meeting with you.” She rolled her eyes in resigned aggravation.
“Beliath?” Jack frowned. “That sounds familiar... wasn’t he one of the villains chasing Tucson’s soul around back in Rimbor City?”
“I do not remember,” Aithne admitted. “That is my first adventure, and I did not understand very much. Probably, we should ask Khyrisse.”
“He’s one of the Slioghan,” said the Mistral, glancing up. “The Aspects. One of the Thirds, I think, or maybe a Second?”
Aithne shrugged and looked at Jack. “Aspects?” asked Thalia.
“Aspects of Immortality. They’re envoys of the Sidhe. He’s either one of the turn-to-the-dark-side incarnations or one of the failed-redemption ones. I can never keep those guys straight. They were Maeve and Bunny, back when I was created.”
“Bunny?” Alderon said incredulously. “You have a demigod named Bunny?”
“Sometimes. Not everyone out there’s as self-important as you mortal heroes, you know.”
“The Slioghan do not usually take such direct an action with human people,” said Aithne, frowning. “What do you think, Jack?”
“Uh, me?” Jack looked at his friend floating in her silent sleep. “Well, I think we should get Brett out first, I guess... maybe she knows more about what’s going on.”
“That would be my cue,” the Mistral said, and cracked the cocoon lengthwise with a wrench of his imbedded crystalline hands.
Brett’s eyes flew open with a gasp as the quasi-demonic stasis broke abruptly off; tried reflexively to sit bolt upright, but banged her head instead on the only partially split shell of the sarcophagus. “Take it easy,” counselled Alderon, offering her his hand chivalrously through the crack in the crystal. “We’re heroes... we’ve come to rescue you.”
“Jack?” murmured Brett, passing the back of her other hand over her very dilated eyes as she sat up. “Is that you?”
“Don’t everyone thank me all at once or anything,” the Mistral said to nobody in particular as the two men helped the woozy bard from her broken cocoon.
“I remember... a man in black armor... what happened to me?”
“You were kidnapped from New Trade by villains named Slade and Beliath,” Sashami explained. “And now we have proved ourselves by saving you from them!”
“Beliath?” Brett came to in a hurry. “What day is it, Jack?”
“August 17th,” Jack said, frowning. “Tuesday. What’s this about, Brett?”
“August... 17th.” She looked relieved. “Then there’s still time.” She gave Jack a little kiss on the forehead; Aithne watched her warily, but didn’t say anything. “Dear Jack, I’m... afraid I can’t tell you what I’m up to, quite, but you’ll have to trust me that you’ll be glad of the results. My thanks to the rest of you,” she added, with a gracious little smile for Alderon, who hadn’t let go of her hand yet. “You may have done more for us than you know.”
Rani tapped her gloved index fingers on the rim of the bistro table, waiting for their drinks to get there. “Garal,” she said as gently as she could, “look, I know you’re upset about Keri, but I don’t think I’m your woman for this one.”
“I know it’s dangerous,” he said, biting his lip. “But you’re the only detective I know.”
“I don’t think this is a job for a detective, Garal.”
“Well, who do you suggest I go to, the Cynystran police?”
Rani sighed. “Garal... these things happen in politics. The Little Folk declared their independence, and one of their leaders turned up dead. What am I supposed to do about that? If you want to take on the Emperor of Cynystra, you’re going to need political firepower, not a private eye. Why don’t you talk to Asinus Paris? His people might be able to turn some screws.”
“Because of this.” Garal handed her a scroll, closing his eyes.
Rani opened it. “Garal Tinderhook,” she read aloud from the neat, flourishing print. “No doubt you have little interest in pleasantries from me, so let me save the ink and cut to the chase. Cynystran military officers are being blamed for the death of Keri Cloverleaf. This letter is to inform you that should you find the responsible individuals and provide us with adequate proof, they will be dealt with. The matter may not be sufficiently important to the Cynystran Empire for us to devote resources to a serious investigation, but perhaps to you it will be, and your colleague’s murder and this insubordination against my command may be resolved simultaneously.” Rani looked up. “Lord Eric Tremontagne, Emperor of Cynystra.”
“I need a detective,” said Garal.
“You know he could be lying. Using you as a pawn to advance some agenda he’s got.”
“Then I need a really good detective.”
“He’s the most powerful illusionist on the planet, Garal. I don’t know if I’d be up to it if he was.”
Garal sighed. “If he’s the most powerful illusionist on the planet, then no one’s going to be able to magically scry through anything he puts up except for Arturian and maybe some lawful neutral extraplanars. None of whom I have any ins with right now. And as for psionics, he’s better-shielded than anyone outside of Diaria. Your psychometric readings are probably the best shot I’m going to have at figuring out what’s going on, Rani.”
She bowed her head, and accepted her beer from the waitress as she passed without looking up. “All right,” she finally said, and took a long pull. “I’ll take it.”
Petals For A Fallen Friend
“Oh, Garal!” Alora gave him a hug, her eyes tearing up anew. “Isn’t it awful? Poor Keri... and just when her dream was coming true!”
“What--happened, Alora?” whispered the planeblazer.
“It was right after she and Toby gave the speech declaring our independence... she was on her way home and a Cynystran soldier attacked her from behind.” The pretty redhead did her best imitation of a scowl. “The big folk can be such cowards!”
“Did you see what he looked like?” asked Rani, flipping open her casebook.
Alora gave her a look like she was intruding on a particularly private moment. “Who’s she?”
“Oh,” said Garal, “this is my, uh, friend, Rani... she’s going to help me get to the bottom of this. She’s a detective.”
“Oh,” said Alora. “Well, I wasn’t there when it happened. You should ask Inspector Elau. He’s handling things now that the Cynystran Authority’s gone.”
“What happened with the revolution?” said Garal. “I can’t believe this all happened so fast...”
“Cynystra didn’t really try to suppress it, I guess,” she said, and shrugged. “There were some riots downtown after Keri was murdered... some stores smashed and looted, and the CA tear-gassed a lot of people, but no one was killed, thank goodness. The next day, the Trade Federation accepted our membership application and Tremontagne recognized our independence, and that was that.”
“Keri’s death,” said Rani, jotting notes, “how will that affect things?” Alora frowned at her again. “Was there some reason the Cynystrans might have particularly wanted her dead?” the detective elaborated.
“Well...” Alora’s brow crinkled. “She was very popular, I guess. The Cloverleafs are one of the most respected families in the province. And everyone liked her. I guess the assassin was trying to scare us, see if we’d back down if we felt threatened. Or trying to destabilize the new government, maybe.”
“Was she going to be its president?”
“No, she was going to be prime minister,” said Alora. “Toby Salzar is the president. We’re forming a coalition government... president, prime minister, and a council of regional representatives.”
“Who leads the council?”
Alora gave Garal a guarded look. “Please,” he beseeched. “For Keri, Alora.”
“I just hope no one else turns up dead.” She ran her fingers through her curly hair. “Well, the council hasn’t voted on a chairman yet, but it’ll probably be Cornelius Evergreen, the representative from Samanal.”
“And has anyone stepped up to take Keri’s place as prime minister yet?”
“Yes, Leo Garbanzo,” said Alora. “The son of our last hereditary ruler.”
“Any reason Cynystra might prefer his foreign policy to hers?”
“Only if they’re stupid. Keri was a real cooperator--she’d already been talking with Cynystran envoys even before we declared independence. If anything Leo will take a much harder line with them, especially now that they’ve killed Keri.”
“Cynystra claims the soldier who killed her was acting against orders,” Garal offered.
“Yeah, well, they would, wouldn’t they?” Alora tossed her head. “Maybe it was some internal Cynystran thing. I have no idea. But if you ask me, they floated it to see if we’d get demoralized and give up and then lied and said it wasn’t their fault when it didn’t go that way. That’s very Cynystran.”
“This Cornelius Evergreen,” said Rani. “He hasn’t been elected yet. If the assassin’s still out there, he may not know he’s the likely candidate. Are his politics more like Keri’s, or more like Leo’s?”
“More... well, more like Keri’s, I guess... he’s a union man. Not as anti-Cynystran as Leo is, but then, neither is Toby, and no one’s tried to kill him yet. At least I hope not.” She looked worried now.
“I’m just trying to keep the bases covered,” said Rani, which was as reassuring as she got. There was a snap as she closed her casebook. “I’d recommend extra security for all three of them till we know what’s going on. Our next step is this Inspector Elau. Garal, after you.”
“Ebreth!” Khyrisse waved across the square at him where he sat outside the Silver Hammer, having a beer with Jack and Grayson. Asinus trotted along behind her, the handle of Lissa’s pram clamped in his tobacco-stained teeth. “Sorry to interrupt,” Khyrisse added a little sheepishly as she approached.
Grayson shrugged her apathy. Ebreth didn’t know why Khyrisse found her particularly threatening; even her friendship with him was a little guarded, almost pained. Ebreth couldn’t imagine her making a pass. He looped his arm around Khyrisse’s waist anyway. “What’s up?” he said. “Heard from Skitch yet?”
“No,” she said quietly. “Vas says he donated some bone marrow... we’ll hear if the operation was successful in another week or two, I guess.” She shook her head. “No, we were looking for Garal, actually... you don’t have any idea where he’s gotten to, do you?”
“Garal?” Ebreth said blankly, and looked at Jack. “I haven’t seen him lately, no...”
“He, uh, probably went home after his province declared its independence,” Jack offered.
“He told me he wasn’t planning to.” Khyrisse sighed in aggravation and raked her fingers through her hair. “Wouldn’t you know it, the one time we need a planeblazer is the one time he doesn’t tell me exactly where he is and how to reach him?”
“What do you need him for?” said Jack.
“I’m a planeblazer,” said Grayson.
“It’s Asinus... it sounds like this Judge of Heaven thing is coming to a head.”
“Damn planar showed up in the middle of the night and told me to get my butt up there or the flarkin’ world’s gonna end or something,” the donkey growled. “Pains in my ass, all of ‘em.”
“I’m a planeblazer,” Grayson repeated.
This time it caught Khyrisse’s attention. “You... are?”
Grayson made a little puff of a noise, turning her palms upward. “Seventh circle,” she said.
“Could you get us into Heaven?” Khyrisse asked hesitantly. “Garal said it was one of the hardest planes to gain entry to...”
“Well, if you wait on an official visa it is,” said Grayson, and finished her pilsner. “I can get you in no problem. How long you stay there depends on how long you can avoid getting apprehended by any angel patrols, I guess. They’re really hard-assed about illegals up there.”
“They seemed pretty occupied with trying to kill each other the time I was there,” Ebreth said.
“Really. Well, the place may have changed a little. I have been out of commission for forty years.” She shrugged haphazardly. “But I know some back channels. I can definitely get your donkeyboy in for you if he knows what to do once he gets there.”
“Ha,” muttered Asinus. “Drop me off at the part that has naked chicks lounging around on silver clouds. I know what to do in a Heaven like that.”
“Let’s not and say we did,” Khyrisse beseeched, putting her hand over her eyes.
Just The Facts, Ma’am
Inspector Elau frowned. “Listen, young man,” he stated, “I don’t have time for every amateur sleuth who wanders in here.”
Garal stood his ground. “Keri was my annia,” he said, switching to the halfling tongue. There was no equivalent for it in Dalen, where the only words for the one you cherished most had sexual implications.
Elau’s face softened a little. “My sympathies, then, lad,” he said. “But it doesn’t change anything. I can’t go releasing the names of witnesses to civilians, not even her own mother. This is a police matter.”
“Rani is a detective from Rimbor.” Garal left out the detail that she was a private detective. “She’s used to police matters.”
“And you think foreigners would naturally do a better job with this than my boys, right?” said Elau, frowning intently.
“The murderer was a foreigner,” Garal said. “We can get information from Cynystra. We can track him back there if need be. It--it doesn’t matter to the country, or to you, which soldier it was who did it. Not really.” Garal swallowed. “But it matters to me.”
There was a long pause. Elau took his hat off and rubbed his neck tiredly. “Well, I guess it couldn’t hurt,” he said. “There were four witnesses to the murder itself... all agreed the assassin was a brown-haired Cynystran with a mustache dressed in military uniform. None of them thought they’d seen him before.”
“Could I talk to some of them about it?”
“It’s really against our policy to give out civilian addresses, ma’am.”
“Rani has psionic powers,” Garal said stubbornly. “She may be able to get a mental image of the killer, if the witnesses agree.”
Elau sighed. “I’ll tell you what,” he said, “I’ll send one of the boys around to see if any of them are willing to meet you here at the station tomorrow. I want to see justice done here as much as anyone.”
Rani nodded. “What about the body, can I have a look at that?”
“No, she was cremated the next morning. I can get you a copy of the autopsy report, though.”
“Fekla,” she muttered. “Is that usual, Garal?”
“It’s traditional,” he said leadenly.
“Figures. All right, round up the eyeballs. And get me that report. If I have to do this second-hand, I will.” Garal gave her a grateful look, and she folded her arms against it. “I don’t leave cases,” Rani said. “And one way or another, we’re getting to the bottom of this one.”