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Murder In Shusoran

Part I


There was a light in the window of the Windward Inn in Shusoran. The man inside had paid the extra fee for a private room, and he was staying up late.

Hate burned inside the man's heart, throbbed in his brain. It was a poison that lurked within his soul but came out in his writing as his pen scratched across the page. Each tainted word spewed onto the paper, an intense expiation of violence that could not be contained. At last he was done; he replaced his pen in its case and capped the inkwell, then blew out the lamp.

Before retiring, he crossed the darkened room to the window. As always when he was through writing, he was actually trembling with emotion. The man slid open the window and breathed in deeply, letting the night air soothe his nerves and calm him. He knew his work was important, but that did not mean he should lose control. That only cheapened what he did, cheapened the cause.

He smiled, taking another deep breath. Everything would begin in the morning, after all. The man had to be ready.

The thrust of the knife blade sliced into his thoughts, cutting them off abruptly with a spike of icy pain. Death came quickly; his body collapsed to the floor, sightless eyes still fixed on the future.

He had been right. Everything would begin in the morning.

He just wouldn't be there to see it.

* * * * *

"A single knife wound. Neat, simple, no frills," summed up the doctor. Her neatly pressed white uniform was a stark contrast to the brutality of murder, cleanliness and control next to the blood and the stench of violence unleashed.

"Thrown through the window?" asked Sergeant Dayne Rathman, the Shusoran guard officer assigned to investigate.

The doctor tugged on her green braid, a habit she affected when she was trying to think something through.

"No, Dayne, I don't think so."

Dayne blinked.

"I don't understand."

"Well, when you throw a knife," Dr. Nyla Le Malisk explained, "it spins in flight. When it strikes a target, that spinning is stopped by whatever it hits. That extra rotational force tears open a slightly wider wound than this one. No, this was a straight thrust, driving up under the ribs and into the heart."

The guard scowled.

"Thanks a lot, Nyla. Let's see, the door was locked, but this is a ground-floor room. So, presuming that the body hasn't been moved..."

"I don't see any sign that it has."

"...then whomever stabbed him could have walked right up to the window, stuck the knife in, and walked away."

He crouched down next to the doctor.

"Mind if I get a look at the knife?"

"Go ahead."

He picked it up gingerly. There didn't appear to be any clues, no threads clinging to the hilt, no distinctively-colored hairs caught in a chink in the blade. It was a common steel-bladed utility knife, not even a hunting knife or steel combat knife. The kind of knife used for slicing open letters, cutting rope, even eating with when one was on a journey.

"Orakians favor knives in battle, don't they?" Dayne pondered.

"Soldiers with combat knives, yes. This blade could have been anyone's. It's not like we Layans never need to cut anything."

Dayne rose slowly to his feet.

"This wasn't used as a tool. It was used in battle, to kill another living human. Layans don't use knives to fight their enemies."

"Are you saying that because you believe it, or because you want to believe it?"

Nyla got up as well. There was nothing for her to do, not for the victim.

"Honestly? I don't know. Laya's Law has been broken. I don't like to think it was one of us."

"The Orakians have a law against killing, too; they call it Orakio's Law."

Those twin laws, Dayne knew, were why the Orakians and Layans of the world of Aquatica hadn't slaughtered each other long before. The Orakian cyborgs, machines designed for battle, and Layan monsters born and bred for combat had fought many times since the end of the great Devastation War of a thousand years ago, determining control over natural resources, but human warriors never entered battle against one another.

Holding back from killing, though, was not the same as tolerance. The two races detested one another; trade and commerce had been unthinkable. Peace had been a resting period between battles.

Until Rhys.

Sometimes, change comes from a wellspring of public opinion, forcing governments to yield. In Aquatica, though, change had come from above, thrust upon the people by their royal houses. Maia, only child of the King of Cille, a Layan land to the north of Shusoran, had gone and married an Orakian. Rhys, Prince of Landen, was from an entirely different world, and his quest to win his bride had been an epic, the kind of story that could be--and was--set to music and played in the common rooms of inns like this one. The heir to Shusoran's own crown, Prince Lyle, had aided Rhys on that quest, being a key part of his success.

Most of the people of Cille and Shusoran had gone along with it grudgingly. Peace was a valuable commodity, and trusting to Orakio's Law had always been a nervous matter. The Orakians of Agoe and Rysel had gone along, too, for much the same reasons. Old hatreds died hard, though, and it was difficult for people to accept that a thousand years of enmity had been washed away by the simple pledge between husband and wife.

The fact was that there was a small but vocal minority who insisted upon clinging to the old ways, people who despised each other's race and would allow nothing to disturb the purity of their hate. Their message tugged at more hearts than people were willing to admit, hearts that while not wholly infected with prejudice still found it hard to trust their former foes.

Hearts like Dayne's.

He had to admit it to himself; he wanted an Orakian to be guilty. It was much easier to believe that an outsider could be guilty, a stranger with odd cultural peculiarities, than that one of his own would violate Laya's Law. Murder was not an unknown crime in Shusoran, but it was very rare; the last had been nearly seven years ago.

Murder like this was the worst thing Dayne could imagine. Not a killing done in the heat of battle or a fit of temper. No, this had been cold-blooded. Step up to the window. Thrust the knife home. Leave the blade behind so as not to be seen with a bloody knife. Walk calmly into the night. A chilling and brutal crime, and yet so simple.

Nyla was looking down at the room's writing table, a frown taking shape on her pretty and girlish face.

"I don't think an Orakian did this," she said.

"Oh?"

Mutely, she tapped the pile of stacked pages. They were not piled neatly, but in a rough heap, as if the writer had been in a hurry, or in the grip of strong emotions, flinging one page aside in his rush to get to the next.

"Listen to this," the doctor said, reading. "'We must not let ourselves be led astray by the carnal urges of a debased prince.' And here: 'A true follower of Orakio would never permit contamination by the Layan plague.' Or this: 'The peril of losing our souls has grown beyond even what Orakio foresaw. It may be necessary to abandon Orakio's Law in order to purge our fair land of the Layan cancer that seeks to overwhelm us.'"

"He wrote that?" Dayne pointed to the corpse.

Nyla took out the pen and wrote a few words on a blank page.

"The ink's the same, at least."

"We ought to give a medal to whomever killed this filth."

Nyla glared at him.

"Is that what you really believe, Dayne?"

The guardsman sighed.

"No, I suppose not. If Laya's Law has been broken, then the killer is no better than that worm."

He glanced down at the body.

"And I guess," he admitted grudgingly, "that if we don't do our utmost to catch that killer, then neither are we."

Sounds of a commotion from outside caught the guard and the doctor's attention.

"You can't go in there, sir!" protested the innkeeper.

"Don't tell me what I can and cannot do, Layan!" There was a scuffle, short and quick, the innkeeper no doubt being shoved out of the way, and then the door burst open. "Abel, what are these--"

He broke off as he caught sight of the body laying on the floor. Dayne smoothly moved over to cut the newcomer off from coming further into the room.

"I'm sorry, Sergeant; he just forced his way by," apologized the innkeeper from behind the new arrival.

"So I see," Dayne said.

The stranger's momentary silence was broken as he apparently found his tongue, rounding on the uniformed guard sergeant.

"What have you done to Abel, you Layan dog?"

Dayne's eyes narrowed.

"I have 'done' nothing. Someone killed this man last night."

"What?" Shock filled the newcomer's face. He was not unhandsome, though a bit on the thin side, and there was zealotry burning in his eyes. He tried to run to the body, but Dayne blocked the man's way, his strong right arm pulling him back.

"This is a crime scene," he said. "I'm making an investigation. If you care about seeing justice done, you'll understand that we can't have you tracking into the room and upsetting possible evidence."

"Justice?" he sneered. "I don't see justice here. I see a Layan pig who destroyed a good and loyal Orakian covering up the true reason for his death on behalf of your master. Abel Godley is the first martyr to the cause of a true Orakian civilization, and all your lies will not be able to wash his blood from Layan hands!"

He tried to rush forward again, but Dayne steered him out of the door with greater size and strength.

"What I see is a little man who ought to know better," the guard said flatly. "Our most sacred law has been broken. Supposedly it's yours as well, though to judge by your friend's writings some Orakians don't hold it in very high esteem. Do you share his belief that the time has come to set aside Orakio's Law?"

The man's thin face grew red.

"Are you accusing me of this? Oh, you're sly, Layan, but you won't get away with it. The true inheritors of Orakio's way are here, and they shall not allow your lies to pass unchallenged!"

Dayne snorted derisively.

"Rant to someone who cares. I take it that you dent that this crime is your handiwork?"

"Yes, I deny it, for all the good it will go. You Layan pigs--"

"I said that I've heard enough of your ranting," Dayne cut him off. "All I want from you is your name and where you're staying in Shusoran--and believe me, if you lie about either one, things will go very badly for you when we find out."

The man returned his glare defiantly.

"Terence Ballard. I have a room at the Southgate Inn, together with my fellow Sons of Orakio."

"Good for you. I suggest you go there and join them and leave me to do my job. We don't need your friend's filthy blood staining our city any longer than it has to."

Ballard probably had several more insults to offer to Dayne personally and Layans generally, but the guard didn't bother to wait to hear them. He spun on his heel, strode back into the victim's inn-room, and locked the door behind him to keep the fanatic out.

"It's starting already," he told Nyla. "The late Abel, here, apparently has a number of his friends in town."

"Do you really think they're responsible?"

Dayne shook his head.

"No, I don't. It makes a nice, neat solution, one Orakian fanatic killed by another. It would help discredit their whole reactionary moment. I don't think that's what really happened, though. Frankly, I couldn't get that lucky."

"What scares me," the doctor said, "is the possibility that a Layan did this, one who feels about Laya's Law the way this man did about Orakio's Law."

"That's what I'm afraid of, too," Dayne replied, nodding agreement. "That would turn Godley into a martyr, give his friends all the more reason to detest Layans. It also draws support to his cause, makes ordinary Orakians who are willing to try peace but not sure they can trust us that much more ready to slip back into the old ways."

He hooked his thumbs into his belt. Having to listen to Ballard spew mindless insults made him ashamed of his own thoughts earlier. It was too easy to cross over that line from caution into bigotry, especially with a thousand years of hatred ready to back him up.

"Not much we can do if that's the case," he admitted.

"You can catch the killer," Nyla pointed out. "If the right person is punished for the crime, it will be much better than if no one is and suspicions are allowed to fester."

Dayne couldn't argue with that.

"By the way, why are so many Orakian reactionaries here in Shusoran?" Nyla asked. "One man I understand, but a whole group of them in a Layan town?"

"There's some kind of trade conference going on at the castle," Dayne said. "It was supposed to be kept quiet, but these things have a way of getting out. It starts this morning."

"So you think the Orakians are here to make trouble?"

"That would be my guess. Protests, rallies, a few riots, whatever they can do to stir things up and interfere with smooth negotiations between Cille, Shusoran, and Agoe. Our own fanatics are probably doing the same if they've heard about it too."

He scowled angrily, looking at the hate-filled manifesto lying on the desk.

"The wretch was probably writing his speech for whatever they had planned."

He made a cursory examination of the room for clues. About four hours' worth of oil had been burned in the oil lamp, which meant that the man had gone to bed at midnight and been killed sometime after. That presumed, of course, that the innkeeper, Sera, had filled the lamp full for her guest. When she'd summoned Dayne, she'd said that he had seen Godley going to his room after dinner at eight. Hopefully that was accurate; eyewitnesses could be mistaken and Dayne needed every bit of useful information he could get.

It probably was, though. Sera had struck Dayne as being competent and alert. Her business depended on taking care of her guests' needs, so she kept a good eye on the common room. If she said it was eight, then it probably was. The body had been found at seven, when the dead man had requested Sera to wake him up. That left a seven-hour window of opportunity.

The guard took a look at Abel's own knife just out of curiosity; it had been left, sheathed, on the nightstand. The design was similar to that of the murder weapon, cheap and utilitarian, with no ornamentation. The room key had been on the nightstand, too, before Dayne had relocked the door with it. That just added more confirmation to what the medical evidence showed, that death had occurred at the window and that had been how the murder got to his or her victim. Nothing else in the room caught his attention, so he turned his attention to the man's bag. Dayne found clothes and toiletries, mostly, but there was also a corked glass vial containing some sort of electric blue liquid.

"Too small for liquor," Dayne decided. "Nyla, why don't you take a look at this?"

The doctor took the vial, examined it, and sniffed the stopper.

"I don't know what it is," she said.

"Could you find out? I'd like to know if this is some noxious poison Abel was going to dump into a well or if it's just an Orakian shaving rinse."

"All right. I'll run a few tests."

"Thanks. I'm going to check the ground for footprints, and then I'll have to report back to the castle. The murder of an Orakian agitator just now is something the crown will probably want to deal with."

Death and politics, Dayne thought. That was one association left over from the Devastation War he could easily have done without.