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The Five Noble Elements
by Darrell Whitney

AUTHOR'S NOTE: As always, all words of native Dezolian used herein are the creation of Mike Ripplinger and used with his permission!


"Beastly night," Daji muttered, listening to the wind howling outside.

"Up here in the mountains, I suppose you get more of those than not."

The hunter nodded vigorously, then took another swig of wine.

"I'll say! Not that days are any better. You should have seen the weather when Fero, Nagise, and I took down five eletusks. A regular mid-day blizzard, that's what!"

The heat of the spiced wine warmed Daji's mood, and nothing seemed more reasonable but that he would tell his guest the rest of the tale. The next ten minutes were caught up in the ever-more-improbable story of the three hunters and their quarry but just as he was reaching the climax of a battle apparently as epic as any Feudal Age crusade, he abruptly stopped.

Daji's guest drew an ornate knife from a side sheath, enjoying as he did the wide, staring eyes of the hunter. Daji seemed unable to move in defense as his guest struck out across the table and cut the hunter's throat.

* * * * *

"Health and long life to our Prelate!"

"Hear, hear!" chorused the other guests at Simkal's luncheon table, raising their glasses and making Prelate Arjan of Vassha squirm with embarrassment. Although he had held his high office for well over a year and was becoming more comfortable with the tasks involved, the social role still was a difficult fit for the young scholar.

Arjan's calling to the priesthood had been a passive one, directing him to the cloistered life as a theologian and student seeking enlightenment, greater communion with the sacred Way of Heaven. However, when the destruction of the Palman race's Mother Brain computer network had brought down the pai'tekkan's civil government, the Church had stepped forward to resume its ancient tradition of theocratic rule over the green-skinned natives of Dezolis. Priests like Arjan had been pressed into service, removed from the cloister and sent out into the world as part of the administrative bureaucracy.

Thus, the diffident young man found himself a local personage, an honored guest at the table with Vassha's wealthiest and most influential business leaders. His host was Simkal, who was second only to Arjan's fellow-guest Ulani in the local fur trade. To Arjan's left was Teran, the apothecary-dealer, and to his right the importer Chovik, both of whom had many investment deals in other towns besides Vassha.

The Prelate took a polite sip of his wine. He was not much of a drinker, and the cold, clear danoom Simkal had served after the meal was especially potent.

"Thank you for your kindness," he replied, "and may Heaven bless your worthy affairs with success."

"Hear, hear!"

Fortunately, no one proposed a third toast. To return the first was necessary etiquette, but going beyond that was strictly optional. At a wedding banquet the toasts could last until half the guests were under the table! The traders were a more sedate group, though, taking their lead from Arjan and from their host, who was a staunch traditionalist. Teran had been late in arriving and it had quite unnerved Simkal, for without him they would not have been the customary five at table.

"So far Heaven has blessed me," Ulani said, "though it has less to do with divine intervention and more to do with the Church's. This last year had been my best in a decade, Your Grace." She smiled, lighting up her age-lined but still handsome face.

"That's quite true," declared Teran. "An enterprising fellow can make quick profits out of chaos, but steady success requires a stable environment—law and order! You and your colleagues in other districts have given us that for the first time in quite a while. Who knows but we might see some real prosperity come to this village at last."

"Quite so," Simkal agreed, "especially if friend Chovik can really get his family mine re-opened."

Chovik nodded and rubbed his hands together.

"I have high hopes," he agreed.

"I'd thought the mines in this district were played out, at least to the extent that one would need Palman robotics to extract ore profitably," Arjan said.

"We all thought that, too," said Teran, "but Chovik has proven us wrong."

"Well, not yet," the importer cautioned. "The geologist did say it was possible there was accessible laconia ore, although more likely only suitable for low-grade silver. I only wish that I hadn't had to bring in workers from out of town to make the initial excavations."

"Yes," Arjan agreed, "it would be better if these new jobs went to Vasshan villagers. Still, I suppose it's hard to find skilled miners here."

"Impossible, more like," Simkal noted. "No one's worked a mine in Vassha for fifty years; all the old experts moved away and of course no one has taken up the trade since."

Chovik turned his wine-cup gently with his fingers but did not pick it up. At a formal gathering the after-meal cup was used only for toasts; it would be gravely rude to simply drink by one's self.

"That should change soon, though. If there is ore, I'll need to hire a large crew. Then I can hire locally, with the Vasshans as apprentices to the out-of-town skilled laborers." He added to Arjan, "That should ease Your Grace's concerns."

"I didn't mean to criticize," the Prelate said quickly.

"We know that, Your Grace," Chovik hastened to reassure him. "You're concerned with the welfare of all Vassha, not just a small part the way we are."

Arjan began to make some polite remarks on the value of a thriving economy to the town's well-being, then managed to stop himself just in time from delivering an impromptu sermon on the balance between economic commercialism and the need for the charitable support of society as a whole. It had thus far been a convivial gathering, helping to build friendly ties between the Church government and the district's notables, and preaching was not called for!

As host, Simkal stepped into the breach and relieved a grateful Arjan by changing the subject. He and Ulani each shared an anecdote about the misadventures of the monster-hunters they dealt with, quickly restoring the mood.

"And then he says that he deserves a bonus for the gerotlux, plus the original fee for the helex, since he'd technically delivered it as requested—even though it was inside the 'lux frog at the time!" Ulani finished up, sending the others into gales of laughter.

"Pardon me," a quiet voice intruded, "but there is a...person here to see Prelate Arjan. He gave his name as Colce and said that it was urgent." It was Simkal's majordomo, a man even more stiffly traditional than his employer.

"What rotten timing," Chovik said, disappointed.

"Isn't Colce your assistant, Your Grace?" Simkal asked.

"Yes, he is. Please accept my apologies for disrupting your luncheon, but if he says the matter is urgent than I am sure that it is."

"We understand, Your Grace. Duty before pleasure, and your duty is more pressing than most. Avi, please show Prelate Arjan and his assistant to the reception room."

"Of course, sir." The majordomo nodded deeply to his master. He waited for Arjan to rise, then led the Prelate to a comfortably-outfitted sitting room at the front of the house.

It was easy to see why Avi had been unflattering in his estimation of Colce. Although Arjan had made his assistant the head of the shrine staff and co-equal with the headman of the police-wardens, Colce's blue jacket and trousers were well-worn and devoid of insignia, and his kem'pallah hat which could justly have been as high and fancy as the ones worn by the merchants at the lunch-table was barely more than a laborer's cap. A decade and a half older than Arjan, Colce was short for a Dezolian at just under six feet but broad-shouldered and powerfully built.

"Hey, boss. I thought the old stick was going to throw me out on my ear... or at least try."

Avi sniffed from the doorway, but declined to get into a vulgar argument and so left his master's guests to their own business. Once he'd gone, Colce's face lost its teasing grin at once.

"I'm sorry to cut in on your luncheon, boss."

"No, you're quite right. What has happened?"

His lieutenant's face was grim.

"Murder," Colce said quietly. "A pretty bad one."

* * * * *

'"I know that you trust us to handle the routine duties of police-work," Colce stated as they walked through the village center, "but I thought you'd like to give this your personal attention."

Arjan nodded solemnly. Under Dezolis's theocratic government, as Prelate of Vassha he was not only the head of the local clergy but a combination of village elder and magistrate as well. All functions of local government eventually rested under his authority. While his personal lieutenant and the town police-wardens could handle routine investigations, murder was not so common in Vassha that it could yet be called routine.

"Thank you; you're quite right."

"Of course I am," Colce said with a quick grin. "That's what you pay me for."

The easy familiarity between Church official and servant came partly from their ages and partly from Colce's long years in the Prelate's employment, but mostly from Colce's much greater experience with practical reality than the scholarly priest. Arjan did not see Colce as a servant, but more like a favorite (if slightly disreputable) uncle.

"The dead man has been identified as a hunter named Daji. That's his house, where he was found; he lived alone, without family." Colce pointed out the small but sturdy cottage they were approaching. "He was found at nine-thirty this morning by a fellow hunter named Kagire. She claims they'd planned to set out on an expedition and had arranged to meet. We found a packed field-kit set out along with weapons, so it looks like she was telling the truth about that, at least."

Arjan wondered if the killer had not known that, anticipating that the murder would go undetected for some time. Or was it the other way around, that the killer had known and had struck before the victim left town?

"Dr. Senj is on his way," Colce continued, "to have a look at the body, but the autopsy will be more of a matter of form. Daji's throat was sliced ear to ear! A neat job of it, too; one clean cut. The murderer knew how to handle a knife."

"I would think so, especially if he killed a hunter in battle."

"Yeah," Colce muttered. "The place looked like a real war had gone down."

"I'm a bit worried," Arjan confessed. "Vassha is a frontier town, of course, but lately it seems that crime is on the rise. Petty brawls between drunken hunters and tavern loafers are one thing, but serious crimes like that report of caravan thefts, and now this case of murder..."

Colce snorted derisively.

"Don't take this the wrong way, boss, but that Prelate R'Min has been spending too much time praying."

"His letter was very clear. A ring of bandits led by a man with a partially-paralyzed face has been attacking merchants and caravans near his district of Tukam. His investigations strongly indicate that the stolen goods are being brought here."

"That doesn't make any sense. I won't say that there aren't a few people willing to fence stolen property, but according to your colleague's report it wasn't valuables stolen, but trade goods—bulk commodities like sacks of vonde, crates of housewares, and medicinal herbs. The only industries we have here are furs and other products from hunting, unless Chovik gets that mine of his running again. You can't dispose of bulk goods in Vassha because we're too small to hide the sales, and you can't ship them out of Vassha because it would be too obvious. Those bandits couldn't make any money off what they were stealing if they were based here!"

"Those are good points," Arjan admitted. Colce's checkered past from before entering the Prelate's service included a number of illegal activities, Arjan was sure. His knowledge had been invaluable more than once, especially now that Arjan was in authority over Vassha's law enforcement. If he believed the thefts would be unprofitable if based in Vassha, then he was probably right. Still and all, R'Min's police-wardens had caught a spy in Tukam who'd been sending messages to the bandits about potential targets, and his testimony plus other evidence pointed directly to Vassha. It was a puzzle that would bear more investigation.

"Well, here we are," Colce announced, and Arjan realized that he'd been so lost in thought they'd walked right up to Daji's cottage without him being aware of it.

The front door opened into a large open area that took up the right-hand half of the cottage. At the back was the kitchen; there was only a single table with four chairs, the corpse lying sprawled next to one. Doors along the left wall led to a bedroom and bathroom. One police-warden was searching the room, while another was questioning a tall woman who wore hunter's gear. Her voice was holding steady, but her features were tense.

"Do you have everything you need from Miss Kagire, Ryn?" Arjan asked.

"Yes, Your Grace," the warden replied. "I was just filling in a few details."

"Then perhaps we'd better let her go home, unless there is some reason to keep her."

"Thank you, Your Grace," the hunter said, obviously relieved.

"You're welcome. I expect you to stay in town and give your evidence at the tribunal, however."

Kagire nodded quickly.

"Of course, Your Grace."

She left at once, clearly not wanting to be in the room with the corpse any longer than she had to. Arjan felt he could understand; it made his skin creep and he had not even known the dead man. Only dimly he heard Colce ordering the two police-wardens out to check the surrounding area for tracks or other evidence; the body firmly held his attention. Though his head sagged back, Daji still wore his kem'pallah snugged down just above his staring eyes. The empty, hollow look in them was nearly as chilling as the gory cut in the green flesh beneath his chin that had spilled scarlet down onto the white fur edging of his collar. The latter was just the destruction of flesh, but the eyes told of the end of the human mind. The milky film that clouded them in death made the blank stare even more disquieting.

Remember that the soul is eternal, the Prelate told himself sternly. Death is only that. A human hand can only end life; a soul is the creation of Heaven.

He took a breath as irrational fear began to yield to faith; Arjan hadn't even realized he'd been holding it in until fresh oxygen filled his lungs. Steadier now, Arjan took another look at the dead man, and realized that his eerie gaze reminded him of something.

Still, a bit unnerved, he glanced down at the table. A porcelain wine-cup sat before where he presumed Daji had been sitting, decorated with symbols in bright blue and red. There was no wine-flask but a warmer had been set out; though he wasn't fond of spirits himself the Prelate knew that deKal, the common amber wine, was generally served hot and spiced. Luckily it hadn't been knocked off the table during the fight or the hot coals could have spilled and started a fire instead of harmlessly going to ash. On the floor were the remains of a clay flask, shattered among pools of spilled wine. The Prelate estimated it would have held two quarts if full, though it looked like considerably less had been spilled, even allowing for evaporation. The bottom piece of the flask, he saw, was stamped with the name of a local tavern, the Dancing Mammoth. Returning it intact would have been worth a couple of coppers so the flask could be re-used.

Daji, he observed, had not had a weapon. Here in his own home, the hunter hadn't even worn a belt knife with which to defend himself. Still and all, Arjan thought he saw why Colce had stopped to think.

"Colce, do you..."

"Your Grace!" He was interrupted by the opening door and Ryn's enthusiastic shout. "Gart found this in the snow, tossed about twenty feet off the path!" He held up a razor-sharp knife, single-edged with an ornately crafted blade and hilt. The curves and patterns were so stylized that they made the weapon look like a predatory animal, a fanged beast. The length of the edge was stained with smeared blood.

"We're dealing with an idiot," Colce marveled. "Anyone with any sense would know we'd find that. He might as well have just left it here. Doesn't look like much of a knife, either."

"Really?" Arjan asked. "It looks quite fearsome."

"That's because you aren't a knife-fighter, boss. Sure, it looks scary, but the balance is off, the curves in the blade foul up the cutting stroke, and those holes punched in the steel just weaken the blade, though they do look nice. It's meant to look good on a collector's wall, I'd stake."

Arjan tapped his fingertips together, nodding.

"I see. Thank you, Colce." The Prelate had no skill at battle and barely any knowledge of it, so he relied heavily on Colce and the rest of his staff in that area. "You'd best make the rounds of the curio-traders, then."

Colce nodded.

"I'm sure anyone selling a knife like this would remember it, but it doesn't seem likely we'll find anything. That would be beyond stupid, to buy an incredibly distinctive knife locally, then use it for murder."

"That is so, and it would be even more unlikely since the knife was deliberately left as a false clue for us to find."

Ryn's eyes widened in surprise. Colce's just narrowed; either he'd had his own suspicions or he was just more used to Arjan's mind jumping ahead at odd points.

A knock on the door prevented immediate explanation. Ryn opened it, and a thin man leaning heavily on a cane stalked in. The green skin of Dr. Senj's face was lined and wrinkled by over a century of life, but despite that age he was one of the most energetic people Arjan knew. The old physician's theory was that in a decade or so, he'd be getting all the rest he'd ever need, so he'd might as well stay busy while he still could.

"So, Your Grace, you're here already," he said by way of greeting. "I hear there's been a killing. Is that the weapon there? Ugly piece."

"It's probably the weapon that cut the victim's throat," Arjan said, "but I have a feeling that it wasn't the murder weapon."

"After a fight like this?" said the coroner, stepping around a broken chair.

Arjan pointed to the spilled wine. "I'm sure that flask was at least half-empty when it fell. That looks like he was sharing it with someone."

"More fun to drink with two," Colce agreed. "When you get a good drinking-bout going with yourself, you always lose. Besides, he was going out hunting today. Though there's nothing to say it didn't turn ugly after a cup or two."

Dr. Senj looked thoughtfully at the Prelate.

"So what do you think happened?" Arjan ignored the omitted "Your Grace," which Senj used barely more often than Colce did.

"I think he was poisoned. Do you remember Colonel Juued's murder?" That case, a little over a year ago, had been Arjan's first encounter with murder. He wished it had been the last. "You told me that one of the symptoms of death by mistralgec venom was a milky film in the eyes, with irregular specks. I know I'm only a layman, medically speaking, but Daji's eyes do have a film like that. Too, there are no defensive wounds on his hands or arms as you'd might expect on an unarmed hunter fighting off a knife attack."

"Do they? Let me see."

Dr. Senj limped over past the table and peered into Daji's eyes. He showed none of the discomfort that Arjan had felt, but only gave a little grunt, then opened his black bag and took out a small metal rod. With this probe he opened the dead man's mouth and examined inside.

"Yes, Your Grace, I think you have it," he concluded. "There are the telltale spots and broken blood vessels inside the mouth and on the tongue, though not strongly pronounced. I'd suspect a small dose, barely enough to cause death. The throat wound has bled profusely, though, so I would suggest it was made at the moment of death or immediately after. The autopsy will establish things for certain."

"Please let me know your findings."

"I'll test the wine flask and the cup as well. There might be some residue in the cup, though I doubt it; it's empty. That would probably be the easiest way, by the way, to paint the distilled venom in liquid form on the inside of the cup beforehand. It would melt in the hot wine, and saves all the sleight of hand of slipping it in while pouring, especially because the venom is thick like syrup and doesn't pour well. Luckily there's a little wine caught in some of the flask pieces, so I can test that for samples."

"It's as I thought, then." Arjan picked up the cup. It was white in color, with a broad red band painted to look like wickerwork. The blue symbols on the red band were actually ancient Dezolian ideographs, dating from before the current phonetic alphabet came into use. "Fire, ice, stone, wind, and light," he read aloud.

"Sounds like a wolraa hand," Colce said.

"It's the Five Noble Elements, a relatively common motif in art. They date from before the founding of the Church, and were a simple way of representing the make-up of the natural order. Fire for active... kinetic... energy, Ice for potential energy, Stone for order and stability, Wind for chaos and change, and Light for the 'spark of life' in living things. Science and religion have ebbed away the penTat leKTmoo as a philosophical guide, but we still see them in art, superstition, and yes," he added with a nod towards his lieutenant, "as the five suits of gambling tiles." Thinking of the luncheon banquet he'd just attended, he said, "The custom of sitting down to a formal meal with a multiple of five at table stems from the Five Noble Elements."

Arjan suddenly realized that he'd gone and delivered a short lecture on what was likely an irrelevant point. Sometimes his scholar's mindset got ahead of itself, heading off on tangents.

"In any case," he continued a bit sheepishly, "this is what I want you to check for at the shops and curio-traders. Look for the knife as well, in case there is a clue there after all, but mostly this cup. If it was prepared in advance, then the killer must have brought it with him or her."

"I get it. He offers it as a gift, and what could be more natural than they christen the new wine-cup with a flask or two?" Colce said. "Then when Daji dies, the murderer cuts his throat, fakes the signs of a struggle, and tosses the knife where we'll be sure to find it. That way, it looks to the hapless minions of the law like someone just came in and attacked him. Right, boss?"

"I...think so." A moment ago, he'd felt almost smug about his deductions. Now he was plagued with self-doubts. How could he be sure the struggle had been staged? Wouldn't a clever killer have taken away the poisoned cup and put out one of Daji's own, to make the murder weapon untraceable? He shook his head. They could only act on what they knew, not second-guess themselves to death. "I suppose we shall find out one way or the other. Let me know what you learn."

Arjan glanced again at the body. Light, he felt, was not a bad name for life. Daji's life had been taken, and as implied by the Five Noble Elements, those left behind were in darkness.

* * * * *

Sometimes, Colce reflected, it didn't pay to get out of bed. He'd been questioning what seemed like every trader and shopkeeper in town for hours without success. At least it was only the wine-cup with the design of the Five Noble Elements he was seeking. Ryn had an even worse duty, to ask about the knife which the Prelate believed to be a false clue!

As he walked up to one of the larger pawnbroker's shops, Colce's stomach reminded him that he'd missed lunch. The scents wafting from the noodle shop next door made his mouth water, and he decided that after asking about the empty wine cup he might stop in and help himself to one or two full ones over an early supper. Colce used the scraper on the stoop to kick the crusted snow from his overboots and went inside.

A bell rang as the door opened and the clerk behind the counter looked up. Colce's spirits brightened as he recognized the man, a young pup named Rasos.

"Well now, and here I thought you were going to leave Vassha!"

"We were," he replied a bit sheepishly, recognizing Colce, "but my wife's family and I were able to settle most of our differences, thanks largely to Priest Reza's good advice. My father-in-law has even taken me on as a junior partner."

Colce grinned and clapped the young man on the shoulder.

"As long as he's stuck with you, he might as well help you make something of yourself, hey?"

"Something like that. Please thank His Grace the Prelate for me... for all of us, really. His intervention was what saved us all from serious trouble."

"I'll tell him; the boss likes to hear how his decisions turn out, especially when they come out well. But maybe you can do a good turn for him. I'm looking for a man who may have recently bought a porcelain wine-cup decorated with the characters of the Five Noble Elements, the design in red and blue."

"Hm," the young man said thoughtfully. "I don't recall selling a piece like that, but I can check the book."

He opened the shop's ledger, in which were recorded the dates and details of all transactions. He ran one long finger up the page, his eyes quickly skimming each entry, until he stopped around halfway up.

"Here it is! Although it was a set of two, sold for one hundred meseta. Were they stolen property? I can look up when they were pledged, if you like."

"No thanks; it's the one who bought them from you I'm looking for. You don't remember the buyer?"

"This entry is in Lika's handwriting. She was minding the store yesterday afternoon for a couple of hours."

"Better get her, then. She may end up being an important witness!"

"She's at home, now; that's two streets away."

"Then I'll just have to pay her a visit. Thanks for the help." He waved a jaunty goodbye. Things were, after all, looking up! He was on the trail of the criminal at last, and Colce always enjoyed the company of a pretty girl, even one who had the poor taste to be in love with someone else. He bought a paper cup of noodles with vegetables and sliced pork and gobbled them down on the way over; the wine would just have to wait.

Lika answered the door on the second knock; as he remembered she was a pretty young woman just into adulthood. Unlike when she'd appeared in court, her expression was open and smiling instead of being creased with worry.

"Sorry to disturb you at home," Colce said, "but I'm on official business for the tribunal."

"Oh, I'm glad to help. Come in; can I get you a cup of tea?"

"That's more His Grace's taste, but thanks for the offer. I'm here about a set of two wine-cups sold yesterday. Rasos said you were working then?"

"Yes, I was. I remember it, too... he was a nasty-looking man! I assumed it was just his face, though... you know how someone with a scar or injury can look threatening even when they're not in any way, because they look differently than you expect?"

"Sure. It's only natural... though I'm sure the boss would have some quote about how natural isn't what Heaven expects of us." He paused, then marveled, "Listen to me, Lika; I've worked for a priest so long, now I'm starting to give sermons. Anyway, so it looks like maybe that scar wasn't the real reason he was giving you the creeps?"

"Well, he was armed, but I'd just assumed he was a hunter. He had an ordinary light jacket and a heavy cloak."

Hunters generally did not wear heavy clothing for going outdoors, instead favoring thick hooded cloaks. It was a practical matter, as they could throw off the cloak and keep freedom of movement for battle, and simultaneously keep their vital protection against the cold free and clear of slashing talons, rending fangs, acid spittle, or any of the other natural threats posed by the native wildlife.

Since the victim had also been a hunter, there might be some kind of connection there.

"And by the way, it wasn't a scar," Lika continued. "The man's face was partially paralyzed, so the right side sagged limply and didn't move when he talked."

"He--what did you say?"

Lika repeated her description of the man's face.

"Looks like I owe Prelate R'Min an apology," Colce muttered.

"Pardon me?"

"Nothing. Just reflecting on the weirdness of life. What else can you tell me about the man? Did he give a name or a place of residence?"

She shook her head.

"No, nothing. He didn't talk much, only asked the price and paid cash. I'd never seen him before."

"Well, describe him as best you can."

"I'm afraid I didn't notice much, other than his face. His jacket and trousers were blue and his boots white, but so are most everyone's. His kem'pallah was of medium height, about what you'd expect from a hunter."

"What weapons did he carry?"

"I saw a sword and knife on his belt. That was a bit odd; usually hunters have some kind of long-range weapon as well, don't they? Although maybe he'd left it at home, since he'd hardly need it while shopping."

"That all depends on where you want to shop. Thanks for the help, Lika."

"It was my pleasure."

He couldn't resist giving her a flirtatious grin.

"Spending time with a beautiful woman is always nice, even if it does have to be on official business." Colce added a saucy wink and had the satisfaction of watching her cheeks flush a darker green. Lucky boy, Rasos.

Colce's mind, however, was not on romance when he left the young couple's house. It couldn't possibly be a coincidence that bandits led by a man with a paralyzed face had been traced to Vassha, and then such a man should surface in connection with a murder. Daji's death had to tie in somehow. He still couldn't see the point, though. There were ways to bring stolen goods to Vassha—the frontier town did import a wide variety of goods, especially craftworks and luxury items—but Colce just could not understand how bulk commodities could be dumped onto the local market for shipped out again without coming to the attention of the town's police-wardens. It wasn't only Colce's own vigilance, but that of a competent and bright staff. The one-eyed headman, Tem, was for example exactly the kind of law officer Colce wouldn't have wanted to meet in his old less than honest days.

"The only way this is going to make any sense is if we catch that murderer and he explains it to us," he muttered aloud, causing one passer-by to look up in surprise.

Colce flagged down the first warden he passed, a young man named Pask, and told him what he'd learned from Lika.

"Spread the word to all the police-wardens," he said. "Everyone needs to be on the lookout for this man; he's the key to two major cases."

"Yes, sir!" Pask said enthusiastically, making Colce grin. The young warden was no older than Lika.

"He was dressed as a hunter, so he may have left town. Make sure to ask if anyone's been seen leaving." He was afraid that was a distinct possibility. Vassha did not have a stockade wall, so anyone could easily come or go unseen.

* * * * *

"Nothing," Colce growled angrily. "We've been turning this town on its ear for three hours, and nothing. We've checked every inn and boardinghouse, questioned the hunters in town as well as the loafers and ne'er-do-wells. Tem and Ryn even rousted the vagabonds out at the old barracks, but they didn't know anything about the killer or about the smuggling. I think he's made himself scarce, boss."

Arjan thoughtfully considered his lieutenant's report. It seemed like Colce had covered all the bases. More than likely, the bandit had left Vassha, escaping justice at least for now. He looked up at the library walls, at the shelves filled with books and scroll-cases. This was his natural milieu, not dealing with complex human problems. Every serious criminal case left him feeling the same way, out of his depth. Would he ever truly feel comfortable in the role Heaven had decreed for him?

"Blast it!" he cried in frustration and struck his fist on the table. "It doesn't make any sense!"

Colce flinched, startled. Arjan almost never lost his temper.

"What is it boss? The robberies, you mean?"

"No. Well, yes, that too." The Prelate massaged his temples with the heels of his hands. "But I cannot believe that the killer has left Vassha."

"All the evidence points that way."

"Not all the evidence; it's only that we can't find him. But he has to be here. Else, why make the elaborate charade of poisoning Daji, then cutting his throat and leaving the knife? He wants us chasing false trails, so we don't interfere with his scheme—a scheme that we haven't been able to figure out, yet! That fact alone speaks of careful planning and forethought. I can't believe that until the plan has been carried out the killer would leave town. Both the murder and the method of murder were done to give him a free hand with his operations."

Colce picked at his teeth with the nail of his little finger.

"So you think the bandit's in town somewhere?"

"I do, but not in the places we've looked. Since he undoubtedly has a way of getting rid of the goods, he won't have any reason to interact with our 'underworld.'"

"I should have thought of that. Besides, these are serious and organized crooks. All we have locally are petty thieves, loafers, and vagabonds. The really hard-boiled types either cleared out when they saw you were serious about keeping the peace or have gotten themselves convicted of something. The only real criminals left in this town are the traders—at least to judge by their prices."

That sally drew a wan smile from the Prelate, but suddenly inspiration flared. He couldn't be sure, but he thought he had the answer, and it fit both crimes. He seized a sheet of paper and an inkstick, then quickly wrote out an arrest warrant, impressing his seal at the end below his signature.

"Take this," he told Colce. "This is a large operation and formal authority will be necessary to keep the people from complaining—and rightfully so—about the tribunal's high-handed methods. Get Tem and as many police-wardens as you think necessary, probably a half-dozen or so but you're better at these judgments than I am. Go there and arrest everyone, but be careful. These people are killers and sure to be armed." He wished he could go along to help, but he had virtually no knowledge of fighting and the mystic techniques and magic he knew were largely useful in dealing with spirits and supernatural evil forces, factors not relevant in this purely flesh-and-blood affair.

Colce looked down at the writ, curious to see whom the Prelate had fastened upon. When he read the named location, his eyes widened in surprise.

"That's the bandit gang?"

"I believe so. Hopefully, they'll confirm it by their actions and the evidence."

"I just hope I'm going to get to hear how you figured this out sometime before the trial."

* * * * *

The building looked like a thieves' den ought, low and ramshackle. Even the high-peaked roof with its steep slopes to shed snow sagged in the center.

"Hopefully they're all there and not out drinking and carousing," muttered Tem. The headman of police was at least six inches taller than Colce and wiry, tough like a strip of rawhide.

"They're supposed to be at work, now. I'm assuming they're laying low. Raise too many questions in town if they were having fun while they ought to be sweating."

Tem nodded. Luckily, the building was well outside of the village, so there was no risk of a pitched battle in the streets. The police-wardens disbursed, moving out to surround the place, using what cover there was in the hilly ground. Instead of just their usual truncheons, each carried either a sword or longknife, and several had bow-guns as well. People had been killed in the caravan robberies, and they were taking no chances.

Colce was among those who went around to the side. He could see a couple of figures seated at a table, neither of whom seemed to be looking out their window. He crept closer, taking the risk of bolting across open ground to the cover of a lone pine. Luck was with him, though, and he soon reached the wall without being seen. In a moment, he heard the loud knocking of Tem's sword-hilt on the door.

"What is it?" someone shouted from inside the building.

"Open up, you! I've got a message from the boss!" Tem barked back

The bolts grated in the lock, and Colce made his move. He grabbed the base of the window and shoved upwards. It wasn't latched, and he pulled himself up and through even as the two men inside were turning to face him.

"Police!" Tem was shouting, no doubt in the face of the doorman. "Give yourselves up!"

"That's right, boys," Colce said. "We've got this place surrounded. Better come quietly, now."

The bandits weren't of a mind to listen to good advice, though. One, who was standing, fumbled for his belt knife, while his friend sprang from his rough wooden chair and snatched up a sword from the table beside him. Colce cursed mentally but wasted no time giving voice to his feelings. Taking a quick step, he slashed the edge of his hand down on the swordsman's wrist, jarring the blade loose before he could bring it into a ready position. Using his shorter size to his advantage, Colce then snapped his head forward in a vicious head-butt that sent his opponent reeling away. The bandit's legs connected with the chair and he fell over backwards, his skull cracking hard against the bare floorboards.

Colce's free hand was already pulling out his own knife, its silver blade considerably brighter than the bandit's steel. A few quick passes were enough for both men to gauge each other as expert knife-fighters; Colce was the stronger man but the bandit had the advantage of reach. The bandit snarled grimly and Colce's spirits rose when he realized that only half the man's face moved.

"Well, well, so I've found the hunter's murderer after all. My boss knew right where you were."

The killer didn't reply to Colce's taunts, but lashed out with increased fury. Now that he knew what the stakes were, he was wasting no time in trying to get past the tribunal's agent towards escape.

"Why not make it easy on yourself?" Colce suggested while parrying. "Give evidence against your boss and I'm sure the Prelate will reduce your sentence."

"You think I'll kowtow to some sanctimonious high-hat to get off easy?" the murderer barked while aiming a flurry of cuts at Colce's abdomen. He then struck up at the throat, but Colce was ready for the move and had his guard up and ready, then counterstruck with a blow that slashed his opponent's jacket across the chest but did not cut flesh.

The answer was typical of a certain type of criminal, the kind who took a perverse pride in being on the wrong side of the law. Colce didn't understand it, himself... even in his own lawless days it had been a desire for money and a lack of respect for those who had it which motivated him. It certainly hadn't been because of some ethical decision!

Less thinking, more fighting! he told himself sternly as his enemy's blade slashed his sleeve, just grazing Colce's forearm. Luckily it wasn't his weapon-hand, but it was a sharp lesson. No police-wardens had come bursting in to help him yet, so they must have had their hands full with the rest of the gang. Colce had to take care of business here.

A series of quick feints and cuts by both men, though, showed that to be a more difficult task than it sounded. Indeed, the match looked like a stalemate, and Colce began to worry about whether the second bandit would be able to shake off his injuries and come to his leader's aid.

Finally, it turned out to be equipment rather than skill that settled the matter. Low-grade laconia won out over steel, with Colce's blade cutting a solid quarter-inch into the edge of the killer's on a particularly hard clash. Instantly Colce acted, twisting down and away to pull the knife free, using the notch as a grip to disarm the bandit. His enemy fought back, but Colce's strength was just too much for him to confront, and the knife was pulled right out of his hand. A flick of Colce's wrist freed the locked blade and sent it clattering off the floorboards.

The murderer, though, didn't quit. Instead, a palm-blade snapped up from the wrist of his now-empty weapon-hand and he cut at Colce's unprotected left side. There was no way to bring his knife back across his body in time to parry the unexpected attack, but he bought a hair's breadth of time by pivoting, pulling his left side back and swinging his right side forward so that he brought his knife up and slammed it into the killer's chest. The palm-blade's blow lost momentum, and the killer slumped forward to the floor in death.

"That's an easier end than you deserved, you dirty 'orang," Colce muttered. He spat on the floor. "I just hope the boss didn't need your testimony to put away the one giving you your orders."

* * * * *

"He gave you a written confession?" Colce marveled that evening.

Arjan gestured towards a chair.

"Sit down, Colce, and I'll explain. After all the hard work you did today to solve this case, you certainly shouldn't be standing around at attention."

"At attention?" the big man laughed. "I was just getting ready to head out. All the hard work I did today to solve this case calls for several cups of ice-wine and convivial company. The barmaid at the Dancing Mammoth likes me," he added with a wink.

Arjan sighed.

"One of these days, Colce, you'll realize that there is more to life than ephemeral pleasures."

"Hey, you've cured me of my illegal and genuinely immoral vices, boss. If you start in on my merely disreputable ones, my friends won't even recognize me."

The Prelate laughed. Colce was irrepressible.

"Perhaps, then, I should let you get started on the festivities?"

"Nothing doing!" Colce lifted the teapot from its padded basket and poured a cup of kej, which he slid across to Arjan. "It'll gnaw at the back of my head until I puzzle it out, and that'll interfere with serious drinking."

Arjan gratefully picked up the cup and sipped.

"I mean, I can see why Chovik confessed now that I think it over," Colce continued. "It was his hand-picked team of 'expert miners' who were the bandits, they'd been bringing the stolen goods to Vassha, and we found those goods dumped down a mine shaft. So like any good merchant, he tries to cut a deal by confessing quickly to running the banditry ring. Did he deny ordering Daji's murder?"

The Prelate nodded.

"He claimed that Daji was returning from a hunting trip when he saw two of the bandits carrying grain sacks to the mind. Phirac... the man you killed... decided to murder the hunter to cover their tracks, even though Daji didn't apparently realize the importance of what he'd seen."

"He's blowing snow in your eyes, if you ask me."

"Possibly. But in any case Chovik is certainly an accessory in the deaths caused during the bandit attacks, a fact I shall make plain when I hear the case in tomorrow's session of the tribunal."

Colce chuckled sardonically.

"Doubt he thought of that! But what I don't see is how you knew he was guilty in the first place. I still don't understand what his motive was in arranging the whole thing."

Arjan drank more kej.

"That was a puzzle," he admitted. "Like you, I could not understand how bulk goods in mercantile trade could be resold in Vassha in any useful way, or smuggled out again. Valuables like jewelry or art, yes... I'm not naive enough to believe we don't have fences in town, or those willing to buy items of dubious provenance, but not large shipments only valuable in the aggregate. While you were in town hunting for the murderer, I had been trying to figure it out."

"Which you did."

He shook his head.

"Not until you made your remark about the real criminals in Vassha being traders, to judge by their prices."

"How did... oh, wait a minute..." Colce was starting to get it. "Chovik didn't want to sell what he stole. He dumped it down the mine."

"Exactly. The motive for the thefts wasn't the value of what was stolen, but to increase the market-value of what wasn't stolen. If, say, one fifth of the vonde shipped to Jut was being stolen, then the price of vonde in Jut would rise by at least twenty percent, and probably more because of fear and uncertainty. Chovik had invested in several large caravans that would benefit from the rising prices. According to his confession, he expected that even after paying off his bandits he stood to improve his net profits by a thousand pieces of silver."

"One hundred thousand meseta!" Colce whistled. "No pocket-change there!"

"No, indeed."

Arjan finished off his tea and set down the empty cup.

"But what made you focus on Chovik? Lots of traders invest in out-of-town business opportunities."

"I admit that it was something of a hunch, but there were good reasons as well. The bandits needed some place where they could dispose of the goods... an old mine, on private property, would be perfect. They needed a way to bring bulk shipments into town, and Chovik had two ways to make it seem innocuous. Some small amounts could be slipped in with the goods he was genuinely importing, depending on how closely his clerks tracked his warehoused inventory. The majority, though, could be concealed as wagonloads of mining supplies!"

"So when he'd made his pile, he could 'regretfully' announce that the mine was played out, close it up again, and send his men back wherever they came from!"

Arjan nodded solemnly.

"That's it exactly, Colce."

The big man grinned broadly.

"Well, now I honestly can tell Misa"... Arjan presumed that was the barmaid... "that not only did I risk my neck fighting a vicious murderer, but that I gave you the idea that let you solve the case in the first place!"

"I'm surprised that it matters," Arjan teased.

"Boss!" Colce gave him a well-practiced look of shocked innocence. "I'm an upright defender of the Church! You wouldn't think I would lie to impress a girl, would you?"

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