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Murder In Shusoran

Part II


News of the so-called secret trade conference was definitely out. Not one but two groups of angry protestors huddled in front of the castle gates, shouting curses at each other, at the castle walls, and at the rows of guards who held them back. Most of the time, they respected the ranks of steel-armored soldiers, but every so often they would surge forward and have to be forced back with the long staffs the guards carried. Dayne passed between the ranks and under the raised gate bearing the sign of Laya, entering the castle of Shusoran.

Commander Brenton of the royal guard was in the throne room, according to the first servant Dayne collared. That was good; this murder probably needed the attention of the crown, anyway.

The throne guards were on duty outside the closed doors, stern-faced in their formal armor.

"Is the Commander in there?" Dayne asked.

"He is."

"Is the conference in session yet?"

The throne guard shook his head.

"No; it's set to open at ten-thirty."

"Good, then I won't be interrupting," Dayne said, and before either of the guards could make a move, pushed the door open and strode in.

The rakishly handsome Prince Lyle sat on his father's throne; he was the King of Shusoran's nominated representative at the trade talks and the King had left on a hunting trip in order that no one could try to undercut Lyle's authority by consulting him. A massive hardwood table had been set up in the center of the room, surrounded by high-backed chairs with cushioned seats. King Rhys and Queen Maia of Cille already sat at the table. Burly Commander Brenton was talking with a red-haired woman wearing a scarlet unitard and white boots and gloves. In the background stood a black-haired man who appeared to be wearing heavy steel armor from neck to toe.

"What is the meaning of this, Sergeant Rathman?" Brenton barked, seeing his subordinate enter unbidden. "You are interrupting an important planning session for the conference."

"I have important news that Prince Lyle should hear as well." Dayne bowed to the prince as he spoke Lyle's name.

"That is my decision to make," the Commander said. "We have a chain of command."

"Let him talk," Lyle said. "This interests me, and besides, he's already here."

"Thank you, your Highness. As you're probably aware, there are Layans and Orakians both protesting this conference and the peace between races right outside the castle gates right now."

"Yes, I am aware of that."

"We all are," snapped Brenton. "It's why we have special guard arrangements in place, to keep the delegates safe."

"Well, someone isn't safe," Dayne said. "This morning, I was called to the Windward Inn because the innkeeper found one of her guests dead, by which I mean murdered."

That one caught everyone's attention. The commander's huffiness vanished at once; he at once became the professional military man. Lyle leaned forward on his throne, while Maia flinched and shuddered.

"The dead man's name was Abel Godley; he was one of the reactionary Orakians," Dayne continued. "His pals are outside the gate now, and will probably start hollering about the killing sometime soon. He was killed by a single knife thrust, so there's no chance of it being a natural death." He gave a short summary of the doctor's findings.

"Do you have any prime suspects?" asked the Commander.

"It could be a Layan fanatic, but I don't have any proof of that."

Lyle glanced at Rhys.

"We have to act fast," he decided. "The reactionaries could use the opportunity to discredit our honor, suggesting that Shusoran is letting the killer get away because of whom the victim was. They'll make this Godley a martyr to their cause." Lyle's deductions followed nearly the same lines as the sergeant's had. "We have to find the murderer, and quickly."

"Lyle," Rhys interrupted, "there's one other point. What if the killer turns out to be Orakian?"

The prince's handsome face twisted in a snarl.

"You're right, Rhys. That opens up some nasty trains of thought."

Rhys nodded.

"We won't change the minds of the fanatics, not with logic, not even with undisputable proof. To them it's an article of faith that Layans are evil. The ordinary people, though...they'll see an Orakian zealot murdered and a Layan government accusing another Orakian of the crime. It wouldn't look good. A lot of people would be suspicious that you engineered a frame."

"I can see why," Lyle said. "The idea of an Orakian killer is as illogical that I didn't even think of it. It wouldn't matter how fair we were or how much proof was available. Some people would still be sure we were up to something."

"What you need," Maia suggested in a soft, lilting voice, "is an investigation by Orakians and Layans both."

Lyle nodded.

"You're right, cousin. That wouldn't convince the zealots; like Rhys said, nothing could. It would keep them from adding to their ranks with their twisted conspiracy theories, though." He paused, clenching his fist in frustration. "I just can't give police powers to guards from Agoe, though. My own people would resent it--our own reactionaries would see it as letting the enemies loose in our camp."

"Why not a cyborg?" Rhys suggested.

"Wren or Mieu, you mean?"

The new king of Cille nodded.

"That's right. No cyborg is susceptible to Layan influence; the people of Agoe trust them. Frankly, they trust them more than they trust me. It would almost be like Orakio himself siding with Layans as a betrayal--the fanatics could never sell it to the people."

"Whereas," Maia contributed, "the Layans know that Wren and Mieu serve Rhys, and are therefore our allies. They aren't from Agoe, which Shusoran has fought for centuries. There will not be quite so high a level of distrust."

Lyle grinned rakishly.

"I like it," he declared.

"If I may offer a suggestion," said the armored man in a monotone voice that made Dayne realize with a shock that he was the Wren cyborg they had discussed.

"Of course, Wren."

"I would advise that Mieu be the one assigned to this task."

"Why is that?" Rhys asked. "I'd have thought your technical skills would be useful in gathering evidence."

Had Wren been human, or equipped with emotions, he might have shaken his head or made some other sign of dissent, but Wren was not programmed to use human mannerisms.

"On the contrary," the cyborg stated, "I am not equipped for forensic analysis. Moreover, as the purpose of employing a cyborg investigator is to enhance public relations, it would be more efficient to utilize Mieu. Her personality, possessing an emotional capacity, is more sympathetic and attractive to the population, while not generating a drawback with respect to investigative capacity. In fact, she may be a more competent criminal investigator due to her enhanced understanding of human psychology and motivations."

"Thank you, Wren," said the red-haired woman with a shy smile.

"All right, then," Lyle decided. "Mieu, you will aid Sergeant Rathman in your investigations--unless, Commander, you would suggest another officer from our Guard?"

Brenton shook his head.

"Rathman's good at hunting criminals. That's why he's on the call list when there's trouble."

"Very well, Rathman it is. Sergeant, Mieu, you will report to King Rhys, Commander Brenton, and myself." He turned to Dayne and said, "Don't let me down, Sergeant. Peace between Shusoran and Agoe has been too long in coming as it is."

When a man's prince puts his trust in him...well, there was little one could say.

"I will, your Highness."

"Good."

Mieu walked forward towards Dayne, extending her white-gloved hand in greeting. The guard could see the recessed blades of her claws glinting in the back of her hand and imagined what kind of fearful damage they'd do to flesh and blood.

"Hello, my name is Mieu, as you've heard. It's a pleasure to be working with you."

Dayne hesitated for a moment, then extended his hand and took hers. Mieu's grip was firm, yet surprisingly soft, like a person with a strong grip rather than a machine, a piece of metal.

"It's good to meet you," he said, though he wasn't sure of that at all. Still, orders were orders, and he had a killer to catch.

"Thank you." She smiled. "Why don't you tell me what you've learned so far? That way you can get more used to working with a cyborg. I'm sure it's a new experience."

Dayne nodded.

"Yeah, you could say that. I mean, I've commanded monsters before, like the Orakians do their cyborgs, but you're nothing like those little robots."

"Yes, technically I am an android, not a robot, although the people of both Landen and Aquatica employ the term 'cyborg' for both types of machines."

The two of them left the throne room and headed through the twisting halls towards the front gate.

"What does 'android' mean?"

"A type of independent, self-willed machine crafted to appear human and possessing an artificial intelligence with full sentience." She broke off and chuckled merrily. "Oh, no, now I'm sounding like Wren. All I mean is that I look and act like a person."

"I can't deny that; I didn't realize you were a cyborg until Wren said that you were."

"I'm glad...to be honest, it gets, well...tiring always being thought of as different. Wren doesn't mind, with no emotions he can't feel frustration, rejection, or any of that, but..."

Dayne supposed it must be hard. Orakians and Layans each had many others of their own kind, and their opposite numbers were at least human. Mieu and Wren, though, were apparently the only two of their kind, and as the only one of the two who could feel emotions, Mieu was truly alone.

The guard sergeant found it extremely strange that he could feel pity for a machine. This apparently was a day destined to open his eyes to new ideas.

Mieu sighed.

"I'm sorry; I suppose that the idea of murder must be taking me off-stride. You wouldn't think a combat android would be bothered by death, but, oh, it's different somehow from killing in battle. Not for the dead, of course, but it is for the living."

For a moment, Dayne's gorge rose at the idea that Mieu would count herself among the "living," but he shoved the thought down into the pit it belonged.

"I agree. Laya may have given us Laya's Law to keep us from killing the Orakians, but murder is still a violation of it."

"Well, before there was Orakio's Law, murder was still a crime, so the intolerance for it is older than the ban on killing."

"Older than Orakio's Law?" Dayne gasped. "Mieu, how many years ago was that?"

"Orakio's Law was pronounced nine hundred and eighty-nine years ago."

He knew, of course, that the Laya-Orakio wars had been a thousand years ago, but to actually hear it discussed casually from the android's lips, it made his mind reel. He was actually talking to someone who had been alive (or perhaps "in existence" would have been more accurate) while Laya herself and her arch-enemy had.

"You look good for a thousand-year-old woman," he said flippantly to cover the awe.

"Oh, thank you. Everyone says I don't look a day over seven hundred."

Dayne grinned. No, Mieu was most certainly not what he had expected.

The humor vanished from both of their faces, though, when Dayne began giving the details of the killing. He described the crime scene, the doctor's findings, and his encounter with Ballard.

"The last thing I did was to check the ground outside Abel's window for footprints. The ground was fairly hard, and I couldn't find any."

"Perhaps I should take a look. My vision is superior to a human's and may be able to detect traces your eyes could not," Mieu offered.

"Yeah, that's a good idea."

As they neared the front gate, Dayne could hear the rumbles and shouts of the two opposing protestors.

"You know, Mieu, more than likely the killer is someone from one of those two packs of bigots."

"Zealotry," she agreed, "easily turns violent."

"Well, you're a combat cyborg; you're used to taking on your enemies face-to-face, and I'm that way too. Why don't we roust those fanatics and see what shakes out?"

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