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The Red Hand
by Darrell Whitney

AUTHOR'S NOTE: As always for these stories, kudos go to Mike Ripplinger for use of his Dezorian language and for adding several new words to suit the needs of the story. Credit also goes to Joel Fagin for the word "inkstick."


Senj, the best physician in the Dezolian frontier town of Vassha as well as its coroner, was an irascible old man, as he would freely admit to himself. His philosophy for life in his elder years was to use his limited time to the fullest. It was one reason why he kept up his professions, because they brought in interesting work that kept him amused. He rarely bothered to leave his house except for temple services and business, partly because he needed a cane to get around on account of his weak legs but mostly because he wasn't a sociable man and saw no reason to waste his time in the company of irritants. He did enjoy good food, though, so now and again he found himself of an evening at Vassha's only eating-house worth the name, the Pine Grove.

He was sitting at his customary table by the wall, alone, when he saw a familiar face enter. Not that there was such a thing as an unfamiliar face in Vassha, except for traveling peddlers and vagabonds; otherwise Dr. Senj knew them all. This face, though, was different, the face of a man he'd call a friend.

"Jovas!" he called, waving his cane to catch the man's eye. "Come and join me."

Jovas the trader accepted the invitation; he said something to the waitress who'd been showing him to a table and instead crossed to join Dr. Senj.

"Have a seat," the doctor invited. "Drinks are on me. Life's too short to waste an opportunity to dine with a friend."

A shudder ran through the trader's body at Senj's words, and the doctor observed that Jovas's green skin had the pale, mottled look of a person whose nerves were on edge.

"Jovas, are you all right?"

The waitress brought a flagon of hot, spiced deKal, Dezolis's common amber wine, and the trader drank it off in one gulp, then gave the wine-cup back for a refill.

"No," he said when the woman had gone. "No, I'm not. I'd hoped that a good meal would relax me, help me think things through, but..."

"Why not tell me about it? Two heads, and all that."

Another shudder ran through him.

"There's no help for it," Jovas said with a despairing groan, and leapt to his feet. "Thinking won't save me. Talking won't save me. I'm a dead man, even as I'm here drinking wine!"

His words had attracted the attention of several nearby diners, and he realized this with a sudden look of embarrassment. Dr. Senj, though, felt no concern for how he seemed before others so long as he stood foursquare with his own conscience; as he put it, he had only a few years left before the judgment of people meant nothing and the judgment of Heaven would mean everything, so he was more concerned with the latter than the former.

"Jovas, dern it, at least tell me what's wrong. What's put you in such a state?"

Jovas plunged his hand into his pocket, then took out a folded piece of paper and threw it onto the table. Dr. Senj reached for it as the trader spun on his heel and dashed out of the Pine Grove. He unfolded it swiftly.

There was only one word on the paper, the name Jovas written in formal Dezolian characters rather than the Palman alphabet more commonly used over the past two hundred years.

Beneath it, though, was something that made the breath hiss from between the doctor's clenched teeth, then had him calling for his bill without finishing his supper. He saw on the paper the imprint, in red paint the color of fresh blood, of a long-fingered Dezolian hand.

* * * * *

Prelate Arjan was only in his early thirties, barely one-third the doctor's age, but he found himself having to hurry, almost running, to catch up with the coroner, who hobbled along with a brisk energy even greater than his usual pace.

"Dr. Senj," the cleric said, "you've proven your sound judgment time and again in the year I've been Prelate here. If you say that Jovas is in danger, I believe you, but will you please tell me what this business of the red hand is about?"

In the theocratic government of Dezolis that had recently reasserted itself after two decades of chaos incited by the Palmans' Great Collapse, the Prelate served as the village elder, the magistrate, and the senior priest at the shrine. It was a role which the young scholar had been thrust into by the lack of experienced administrators in the Church's ranks, and he still found it difficult and challenging.

Dr. Senj looked up at him in surprise.

"You don't know?" He squinted at Arjan, then said, "No, I suppose a young pup like you wouldn't. Before your time, I guess."

Arjan smiled inwardly. A number of priests he knew, particularly those who held high rank or who were on the staff of someone who did, had a very formal and stuffy attitude towards protocol. They insisted on proper means of address and titles of respect from their subordinates and the common people. The Prelate, though, preferred to remember the words of Bishop Ngangbius, who had written, "The Church is as a wise parent; it guides with a firm but loving hand." Insisting on being addressed as "Your Grace" over and over in private conversation would have made Arjan look like a pompous fool, and cost him real respect to extort the appearance of it.

It was different, of course, when he presided over the tribunal or otherwise carried out his formal duties. Then the formality was for the sake of the office, not himself, and Arjan would be cheapening it if he allowed matters to get out of hand. There was a distinct line between official duties and private life, though, and he tried as best he could to keep Arjan-the-man and Arjan-the-Prelate from interfering with each other's roles.

"No doubt it was, so tell me everything you can. I don't want to walk in blind."

"Have you heard of the Evilheads?"

"I've read about them. Weren't they a terrorist group from a thousand years ago? They were rabidly anti-Palman, opposed to the creation of Palman colonies and to all diplomacy between races. They committed acts of violence against Palmans and occasionally against Dezolians whom they considered 'collaborators.' Their most significant act was the assassination of King Marek Landale in the mid-third century AW."

Dr. Senj looked at Arjan and shook his head.

"That's useful information, Prelate, but not to the point. There was a revival of the Evilhead movement after the destruction of Palm, when colony ships brought a number of Palman refugees here. There could easily have been a race war, but cooler heads prevailed, thank Heaven."

Arjan knew some of the history of this conflict; it had been the inability of the pai'tekkan's civil government to deal with these issues which had led to its collapse and the restoration of theocratic rule to Dezolis. He'd been too young to appreciate or understand the beginnings, though, and later had been a cloistered initiate and scholar, so that the details, the difficult truths, rarely touched him.

If he was to be entirely honest with himself, Arjan realized, he had hidden from those details, building an illusion of peace around himself in his ivory-tower world of theological study. In those days, he hadn't wanted to know the truth of chaos, of racial strife, of fear and hate and bigotry on both sides. Now, as a Prelate, he could not afford such ignorance, interacting as he did with the lives of ordinary people, their concerns and cares, every day.

"Thank Heaven," Arjan agreed wholeheartedly.

"They never spread much beyond the cities. You churchfolk did a good job keeping most people from getting out of hand, even the ones who believed the Evilheads were right in principle. Mostly it was disgruntled military and civil-government officials and a bunch of intellectuals who'd gotten hot under the collar about that gigantic hole the Palmans put into the planet in Skure. They did some damage, but nothing like what it could have been. Mostly, they got killed or arrested when the Church was reestablishing control."

"So how does this tie in with the red hand?"

"The Evilheads liked red. They'd wear red clothing and hats while making an attack on someone. It was supposed to symbolize the blood of Dezolians shed by Palmans or something like that. The red hand, slipped in a person's pocket, tacked up on a door, sent in a letter or whatever, was a death threat they'd send to Dezolians they considered to be race traitors."

"It seems very melodramatic," Arjan said dubiously.

Dr. Senj shook his head.

"No, not quite. Sure, there's some pretty fanciful play-acting there, I know, which appeals to the sort of mind that joins up with secret societies and their ilk, but there's more to it on a practical level. First, it lets them claim the 'credit' for the assassination, which would be done by stealth unlike their operations against Palmans, but in a way that doesn't implicate them in terms of legal proof."

"I see," Arjan said, thinking it over. "A known Evilhead member could argue that a victim's personal enemies sent the red hand to frame the society as a scapegoat. Since the trademark was well-known, that could be true, unless there were specific facts to tie them to the threat."

"Exactly. Second, there's the psychological factor. When a person knows they're being stalked, most would panic and make mistakes. A few wouldn't, of course; they'd increase their own vigilance or get competent bodyguards to be vigilant for them, but most wouldn't. Scared and not thinking clearly, they would become easy pickings."

Arjan took a deep breath. His exhalation sent a puff of white vapor into the air. Though it was a mild evening by Vassha's standards, with no wind, wisps of steam still rose from the two men's lips and nostrils.

"It sounds like it's working that way for Jovas."

Dr. Senj's face was grave.

"Yes, it does. He is a successful trader; he could have hired a few bravos to guard himself against physical assault, or sought help from the tribunal. You've solved a few puzzling crimes since taking over here, Your Grace, and it's given you a good reputation--though some conservatives still see you as too lenient. Still! You could well ferret out the assassin, and order a couple of police-wardens on guard. But instead he wanders the streets in a mental fog."

"It certainly seems unusual."

"It seems worse than that! That's why I went to you, and why we're hurrying to Jovas's house now."

"How long has it been since he left you at the eating-house?"

"Just nearly an hour--too long, if you ask me. If I was an Evilhead assassin and I saw Jovas in such a state, I'd strike at once before he got his wits about him."

That, the Prelate reflected, was a very real possibility. Unless the assassin meant to torture his or her victim with the threat of death, it would make sense to strike quickly.

They arrived at Jovas's home a few moments later. It was built like most Dezolian houses, with a single story plus an attic under a steeply angled roof. The latter helped to shed snow instead of letting it pile up as it would on a flat roof, and the attic space acted as an insulator to prevent heat from escaping. Jovas's house was fairly large, a reflection of his successful business. Arjan knocked on the door; it was opened almost at once.

"Yes?" answered the majordomo, who then blushed in surprise at Arjan's tall, flat-topped kem'pallah and medallion bearing the seal of his office. "Why, Your Grace, how did you come to be here? We have not even sent for the police as yet."

"The police?" Arjan said, a sinking feeling giving him redwings in his stomach in nervous agitation. "Why do you need the police?"

"It's the master, Your Grace. He's been murdered!"

"Too dern late!" Dr. Senj swore, and added a couple of choice oaths. "The Evilheads move fast."

"If it was them." To the majordomo, Arjan said, "We'll start the investigation at once. This is Dr. Senj, the coroner. No one is to leave the house except at my orders." The two men stooped to remove their snow-crusted overboots and set them on the drying rack. "Who is in the house right now?"

"There is Master Jovas's daughter, Miss Caria. My wife Torine is the housekeeper, and we have a twelve-year-old son, D'Zan, who acts as a page and footboy."

"And what's your name?"

"Liros, Your Grace."

"Did you come inside within the last few hours?" Arjan asked.

"Me, Your Grace? No, I have been inside the house all evening."

"Then who belongs to the extra pair of men's overboots here on the rack? One is obviously Jovas's, but there was a second person who came in within the last hour or two. There is still water on the second pair from melted snow that hasn't yet evaporated."

Liros shuffled his feet.

"I apologize, Your Grace. A gentleman called on Master Jovas perhaps an hour and a half ago. His visiting-card named him as Edlis, a merchant from Zosa. I did not mention him because we do not know where he is! Since he indicated that he would wait for Master Jovas to return, I showed him to the sitting-room. When we found the body, though, he was nowhere to be seen."

"Zosa," Dr. Senj said pointedly, "was always a hotbed of Evilhead activity."

"Describe this man Edlis."

Liros looked flustered, as well he might.

"I--I can't say that I noticed him particularly. He was a good-looking fellow, about the master's age, wearing a blue jacket and kem'pallah appropriate to the station of a successful merchant."

Arjan nodded, accepting the statement.

"What about your master? When did he return home?"

This question brought the majordomo back to firmer ground.

"About half an hour ago. He was in a terrible state, and I asked if he was not too upset to meet with Edlis. Master Jovas grew even more excited and demanded to know who this Edlis was. I showed him the visiting-card and he all but snatched it from my hand! Then he took off his overboots and cloak and stormed into the sitting-room without another word."

"Who discovered the body?"

"My wife did. We heard her scream ten minutes ago, and rushed to the sitting-room. Miss Caria felt ill, and who could blame her? She and Torine are together now. I brewed them a pot of kej first, to help calm their nerves, and was going to send for the police-wardens now that they are somewhat settled. Only, you arrived before I could do so."

"Where is the body now?"

"In the sitting-room."

Where, Arjan reflected, the mysterious Edlis was last seen. There was an obvious chain of thought extending from that. He took out the paper Dr. Senj had given him and showed it to the majordomo.

"Have you ever seen this before, Liros?"

The majordomo let out a gasp.

"The red hand! I've never seen it, Your Grace, but I had heard of such things when Master Jovas lived in Zosa. No wonder he was so agitated, if he had received this!" His mind soon followed the same path as Arjan's. "Do you mean, Your Grace, that Edlis was not a merchant, but an assassin?"

"Perhaps," Arjan said. "We'll need to investigate to determine the precise facts. Is your son a responsible young man?"

"Of course, Your Grace," Liros replied with a father's pride.

"Then send him to the shrine. Have him ask for either Tem, the headman of police, or my assistant Colce. Whomever he speaks to should send two police-wardens here."

"Yes, Your Grace."

"Good. Show us to the body."

The majordomo led Arjan and Dr. Senj through the foyer and down the front hall, then through a side door into a spacious, comfortable-looking room. Soft chairs and a sofa ringed the room, broken up by a bookcase and two small tables. Two windows looked out onto the snow; the other walls featured decorative scroll-paintings of landscape scenes and an ornately framed mirror. Wineglasses stood out on one table; one was empty while the other full of a bright purple liqueur, dakaaruu. The carpet looked expensive and featured a zarion-blossom motif common to traditional Aukban weaving.

The corpse lay on its chest in the center of the room. There was no sign of a weapon, but a red stain on the jacket in the small of the back suggested a cause of death.

"Is this Jovas?"

Dr. Senj knelt slowly next to the body, the effort clearly costing his weak legs a harsh price in pain. The head was turned to the side, the slack face's dull open eyes looked out into the room.

"Yes; it's him." He opened his bag, withdrew a probe, and began to examine the wound.

"I'm sorry," Arjan said, then realized how inadequate that must have sounded. "I wish we could have come here faster."

The coroner shook his head.

"No; you can't blame yourself. If Jovas had come to you, had taken precautions, he might have saved himself. And the real blame lies with whomever stuck a knife in his back. We can't blame ourselves."

Arjan wondered whether the old man was trying to convince himself of that, to shake off any irrational guilt feelings he might have had.

"The wound was inflicted by a long, thin-bladed weapon with a slight curve to the tip," Dr. Senj concluded after his examination. "I'd assume a knife, but there's no reason why it couldn't be an antique saber or a hook-pointed spear. Well, probably not a spear; most have broad points, but still..."

"Is that the death wound?"

"I can't say for sure. I can say that it was made while he was alive, owing to the amount of bleeding, and that it would have been fatal. It cut up into the heart from beneath." He withdrew the probe from the wound. "May I turn the body?"

"Go ahead. There don't appear to be footprints or other physical traces." Here was an area where Arjan regretted the loss of Palman science. Thirty years ago, police-wardens would have had access to microscopic tests, advanced chemicals, special lights, and Heaven knew what else to aid in tracking down clues which were undetectable by the naked eye.

Of course, in those days the police had been corrupt beyond redemption. More than likely, they would use their advanced techniques to acquire information to use as blackmail fodder--if they hadn't been bribed off the case in advance. At least, Arjan thought, justice was honest now even if it did not have the most advanced tools.

He helped Dr. Senj roll the corpse over onto its back. There was no sign of another wound. The coroner examined the dead man's eyes and the interior of his mouth.

"Nothing more," he announced tersely. "There aren't any obvious signs he was drugged or poisoned before being stabbed, and there's only the one wound." Dr. Senj lifted one of Jovas's hands. "His hands aren't cut or bruised, so it's unlikely that he fought for his life."

"Which is consistent with a stab in the back, and there being no signs of struggle. Whatever happened, Jovas didn't have a chance to defend himself against it. He wasn't running away, either."

"How do you know that?"

"He's facing away from the room's only door. Even a scared man doesn't turn and run towards a blank wall. He'd keep his back to the wall and try to get by his killer to the door, if he was really running away."

Dr. Senj gave him an approving look.

"That's sound thinking, Your Grace."

He replaced his instruments, then pushed himself to his feet with some effort, bracing himself on his cane.

"When the police-wardens got here, I'll take the body to the morgue and perform the autopsy. I doubt, however, if I'll find anything that contradicts my initial findings. A simple case, really. He was warned, and we acted too late to protect him."

A deep frown of worry crossed Arjan's face. He could not accept this! A terrorist assassination was more than a cowardly attack on a single target; it was an assault on all of Dezolis. How could the Church claim to be ruling with honor and justice if it permitted political extremists and secret societies to pursue their causes with bloodshed instead of words? The Evilheads had to be taught that if they carried out the threat of the red hand, they would meet with swift, sure reprisals. Likewise, the people needed to see that the Church could take effective action, so they would turn to the law in the face of threats.

Truly it was written, he thought, that justice was not a thing that could be won, but always a goal eternally pursued.

"The merchant Edlis, it seems, is the key. He can't have left Vassha, not in these short minutes and with night falling. Not unless he used a telepipe or the Ryuka technique. Techniques and ocarina pipes are Palman inventions, though. Would the Evilheads use the tools of their enemy?"

Dr. Senj sniffed contemptuously.

"Don't credit those dirty orangs with logic or consistency. They'd do whatever took their fancy."

"You're probably right. Still, Ryuka is very uncommon, and telepipes equally so. Stores in the larger cities used to sell ones left behind when the Palmans initially left in 1281, but there was no new source of supply, and the Palmans themselves haven't had the time to work on obscure goods like those. So there's still a good chance we'll find Edlis if we look hard en--ah, Tem!"

The headman of police, who also served as the bailiff in the tribunal, was a tall man who seemed to be made of whipcord. As appropriate for his position he wore tough leather and carried a stout wooden truncheon at his belt. At some time in his life he'd lost an eye, and the black patch gave him an even fiercer appearance than his dour, unsmiling face would have ordinarily.

"I took the liberty of questioning the boy on the way here, but he said he was in the servants' quarters the past few hours and knew nothing beyond what he'd been told. This is a case of murder, Your Grace?" he asked, nodding towards the body.

"It is, but there may be more to it than that." He showed Tem the red hand.

"Is that some kind of death threat?" In a strange way, Arjan was gratified that Tem, too, hadn't recognized the red hand at once. The headman was a lifelong resident of Vassha, and as Dr. Senj had pointed out, the Evilhead movement had been centered in urban areas.

"It is. Dr. Senj recognized it as one used by the secret society we call the Evilheads." They had, he remembered, some name of their own, but no one ever used that except historians (in footnotes) and, no doubt, the actual members. Everyone else called them the "Evilheads," and the Prelate thought it well-suited to these people who were so obsessed by their own bad thoughts.

"Scum," Tem summed up his feelings with his usual economy of speech. "If there's any of those g'grats in this town we'd better clean them out." He looked as if he wanted to spit and was restraining himself only because he was in a nice home.

"That's exactly what I need from you. The men you brought with you should assist Dr. Senj, then return here in case I need them. You should roust out as much of your force as you can and search the town for a man named Edlis. He claimed to be a merchant; ask the majordomo for a description. You're better at that kind of questioning, so you'll probably get more out of him. If you find Edlis, arrest and jail him at once, then send word to me."

"As you say, Your Grace."

Tem left the room. While they waited for the police-wardens, Arjan and Dr. Senj gave the room a cursory examination and soon noticed something. There was a hook mounted in the wall above one of the chairs, as if for hanging some kind of ornament, but it was bare. The hook was too large and sturdy to be used for a cloth painting.

"I wonder what hung here," Arjan mused. "Perhaps the murder weapon?"

"You'll have to ask, but I doubt an assassin would have come without some method of murder on hand."

"True. Though, perhaps, he seized a weapon of opportunity. Using the victim's own weapon would at least make it untraceable. But then, why take it with him? And come to think of it, how did he escape at all? He certainly didn't have the majordomo let him out the front door, and as for these windows, not only are they hard to get to, but he'd leave clear tracks in the snow." Arjan went over and looked out both windows. "No, there are no marks." He wondered if teleportation was involved, after all. A telepipe wasn't likely--someone surely would have heard it being played, with the daughter and three servants in the house--but Ryuka would have only taken a few seconds to use.

It was too bad that there wasn't some technique or magical charm that would detect recent teleportation, Arjan thought, but that wishing was of no help to him now.

"Why don't you wait here for the police, while I go interview the daughter and housekeeper?" he suggested.

"The zeal of youth," Dr. Senj said, teasingly, then added, "Please let me know if you find anything, Your Grace. Jovas was a friend of mine, and as I get older I don't have many of those left. Keep outliving them, you see."

"All right. I'll let you know when I stop by the morgue for the autopsy report."

"Thank you."

Arjan left the sitting-room to try and locate the other inhabitants of the house. He recalled Liros saying that they were together, but not where. He'd have to ask the majordomo--presuming that he was any easier to find than the others! Then, his attention was diverted by a door just down the hall, one built with the sturdy construction of a door leading outside. He opened it, and was greeted with a blast of cold air. The door led to a fenced back garden.

This could explain Edlis's disappearance, the Prelate mused. This was only a few quick steps from the sitting-room; there would be much less chance of being seen than trying to get to the front door. A flagged path, shoveled out and swept, led in a loop from the door through a sculpted setting of three-foot miniature pines and around an artistically frozen pond. Ice-gardens were more common in the cities; there were only two or three in Vassha, but Jovas had been from Zosa originally. In the garden's far corner was a small hut, a shed for the gardening tools no doubt. It could have been the domain of the servants, or the hobby of the houseowner, but Arjan was more concerned with it as a possible hiding place.

Maybe Edlis hadn't disappeared after all. Maybe, he was just hiding until the house was empty of police so he could leave.

Liros came by a moment later with the police-wardens Tem had brought with him. Arjan stopped them before they reached the sitting-room.

"Wait a moment. Before you assist Dr. Senj, check out the garden, there. Look for tracks, any sign that someone passed by. Also, check that shed, in case someone is hiding, but take care. This is a murder case, and we suspect that the killer may be a dangerous fanatic."

"Yes, Your Grace."

"Good. Liros, I would like to speak to your wife and to Jovas's daughter. Can you take me to them?"

"Of course, Your Grace. They're in the kitchen, just this way."

He led the Prelate through the dining room and into the large kitchen area, off of which Arjan could see through an arch the servants' room. There was a small table Liros and Torine doubtlessly ate their meals at, and two women were seated there. One, about fifty years of age, wore a simple jacket and trousers of coarse linen under a spotted apron. Her kem'pallah, like her husband's, was of modest height. The second woman, undoubtedly Caria, the daughter, was only a year or two over twenty and quite pretty; her jacket featured fancy, abstract embroidery, but her leggings and boots were of good, sturdy fabric and leather instead of being the dainty, flimsy garb of one who rarely went out. Both women's eyes were red-rimmed with tears, but they looked to have regained their composure.

"Miss Caria, Torine," Liros said, "this is Prelate Arjan. He has some questions to ask you about...Master Jovas's..." He seemed not to want to put the happening into words, and Caria spared him the need to by speaking up at once, directly to Arjan.

"Of course, Your Grace. We'll be glad to give you all the help we can in catching the one who did this."

It was times like this that Arjan wished he had the benefit of years working as a simple shrine underpriest, counseling and advising the people of the district. He was used to musty old records and the clean, crisp logic of theological papers. During his time as Prelate, he would pass judgment as a ruler or magistrate. He lacked familiarity with people in grief, with how to talk to a girl who'd just lost a father without causing undue hurt. Even as Arjan tried to formulate his questions, he could imagine their effect, and it hurt him.

The needs of justice were rarely kind.

"I know this is hard for you at a time like this," he began as best he could, "but if we are to catch your father's killer, I have to ask these questions."

"I understand," the girl said. "You can't let these monsters get away with their acts of terror."

Her phrasing took the Prelate by surprise.

"You said, 'these monsters.' Are you referring to...?"

"The Evilheads," the young woman said flatly.

"Then no doubt you have already seen this." He took out the notice from his pocket, glad that he didn't have to shock the girl by presenting it to her for the first time. When he spread it out on the table the housekeeper gasped in shock but Caria only nodded, tight-lipped, before answering.

"Pajo showed it to me two days ago," she said. "I'd asked him to play a game of chess with me, and he'd agreed, but asked me to wait until he'd had the chance to go through his mail. I was setting out the pieces when he opened the letter, and so I saw his reaction. Pajo didn't want to tell me at first, but I could see how frightened he was."

"Poor Master Jovas," Torine whimpered. "No wonder he's been out of sorts, with those devils after him. Why didn't he say anything to us?" She glanced up at her husband, but Liros had only a slight frown to offer her.

"Did he keep the envelope the letter came in?" Arjan asked. It might be a useful clue to the location of other members of the secret society besides this Edlis. Presuming that Edlis truly was an Evilhead assassin and not just an innocent man caught in the middle.

"I don't see why he would, but he'd only have tossed it into the waste-paper bin in the study. It might not have been burnt yet." Paper trash was rarely thrown out on Dezolis, but instead used for fire-starting.

"Did your father say anything about why the Evilheads might want him dead?"

"No, nothing. I pleaded with him to tell me, but he wouldn't say a thing." Her hand went to a gold chain around her throat and began to twist it between her fingers. "It was as if...as if Pajo had just retreated to a place in his mind no one else could share. He wouldn't tell me what had happened, and he wouldn't hear of going to the tribunal for help, though I begged him to."

Arjan was reminded of what Dr. Senj had said about the red hand's effect on its victims' psyche, how the threat would make them paralyzed with fear, irrational. The description certainly fit the physician's account of Jovas's actions at the Pine Grove.

"I gather that Jovas was originally from one of Dezolis's larger cities. Is that right?"

"Yes, we're from Zosa, all five of us. My father moved the household here three years ago, but we'd lived there all my life."

"Did he give a reason for the move?"

Caria shook her head.

"No, none at all, except for unspecified business reasons. Why, do you...oh, I see. You think, Your Grace, that he may have been fleeing the society then? That may be, but Pajo never made any attempt to conceal his identity, and he maintained contacts in many other towns--Aukba, Ryuon, Jut as well as Zosa, to name a few--in making our trading business thrive. I don't think that my father was hiding, at least not in any way that made sense."

Arjan found that he could not argue with that.

"You said 'our' trading business. Were you active in running it?"

"Oh, yes. After my mother died five years ago, Pajo knew I was all the family he'd have, so he started at once to teach me the business, since it would be mine someday. I learned about accounting, financial and commodities markets, shipping and logistics, business law, and everything else he had to teach me. He made sure that I was ready to step into his shoes."

She took a deep breath.

"I just never believed it would end up being so soon," she said in a very small voice, barely above a whisper. The housekeeper put a motherly arm around her shoulder and gave her a reassuring squeeze.

Arjan then questioned the three of them about their movements during the past two hours. It might have been better to talk to them separately, but they did not appear to be involved in any collusion, at least to judge from their statements. Caria had been working in the garden--this was her primary hobby, it seemed--until approximately the time of Jovas's meeting with Dr. Senj at the Pine Grove. She'd then come in on account of the settling darkness and gone to the study where she'd worked on a piece of business correspondence that Jovas had neglected. She hadn't so much as seen Edlis, nor had she seen her father until she'd found the corpse.

"I needed his signature on the letter, so I asked Liros if he'd come home. When Liros said he had, I checked the...the sitting-room first."

Arjan turned to Liros.

"You didn't mention the caller to her?"

"No, I didn't. I probably should have, but my thoughts were elsewhere, so I merely answered the question asked."

Liros, in turn, claimed to have seen Edlis and Jovas only when they'd entered the house, and Caria when she asked after her father. He'd been in his pantry next to the foyer when not answering the door, initially going over the household accounts and when that was done reading a historical novel.

"What about Torine? Did you see her?"

"Only when we rushed to Miss Caria's screams, Your Grace."

Arjan thought a moment, then asked another question.

"Could anyone have entered or left the house by way of the front door without you seeing them?"

"I doubt it," the majordomo said. "The hinges creak, Your Grace, and I've become quite attuned to the sound, for it generally means that either Master Jovas or Miss Caria is coming or going, and if they are arriving it often means a task or two for me. That still does leave the garden door, though, as well as any number of windows for an intruder to enter by or that Edlis to have left through."

"I never liked the look of that man," Torine said sharply. "I'm not surprised he's missing. I'm sure he's your killer, Your Grace, the assassin who sent the red hand to poor, innocent Master Jovas."

Arjan pounced on the new fact.

"You've seen Edlis?" he said at once.

"Yes, just the once. He rang for a pot of tea, with cups for two. I thought then he was setting up Master Jovas for some shady deal. I never dreamed he was a murderer, though."

"There weren't any tea things in the sitting-room," Arjan said.

"Well, of course not. Didn't I go and take the tray back, Your Grace?"

"I don't know. Is that how it was?"

She flushed a bit at the implied rebuke. Further questioning brought out the fact that it had been forty-five minutes before Caria's finding of the body, and that Edlis had not been present in the room at the time.

"Of course I had no idea he was a killer, then. I thought he'd gone for a stroll in the garden, or that he had to visit the necessary."

"So his absence didn't upset you?"

"No, not then. It was only when we saw Master Jovas that I thought it was important."

"Did anyone drink any of the tea?"

"Well...no, come to think of it; the pot was full, though it had gone cold, so I had to dump it out."

"I see. And you didn't talk to Liros, Caria, or Jovas at all during that time period?"

"No, I didn't. I was quite busy with my own duties, you understand," she said almost apologetically. "I cleaned the dining room, then started in on preparing tonight's dinner." Arjan could see the beginnings of a meal laid out on the counter--foods and spices ready to be put into pans for cooking, and a number of half-finished dishes whose preparation had been interrupted. "I didn't leave the kitchen again until I heard poor Miss Caria scream."

There it was, then. Three people who had been in the house, but had seen nothing and heard nothing, and who could not even offer an alibi for each other. That at least negated the possibility of conspiracy to Arjan's mind; they'd have been sure to take their cues from each other and work one up now, even if they hadn't been wise enough to plan one beforehand. That did not necessarily eliminate the chance, though, that any one of them might have been associated with the Evilheads. The family came from Zosa, so one of the servants could have been a member--no, that didn't make sense, else why wait three years before eliminating Jovas?

Unless, he thought, whatever had offended the Evilheads had been something new. Come to think of it, it almost had to be that way, when one factored in Caria's earlier statements about Jovas's open, high-profile life. That would put things into perspective. Or Edlis might have bribed either Liros or Torine to help with his disappearance. The two of them presented a face to the world of classic archetypes, the haughty majordomo and the motherly housekeeper. Who knew what depths they possessed?

One thing was certain. Their testimony had not pointed the finger of guilt at anyone in particular. The Prelate would have to look elsewhere for clues.

"Thank you for your help," he told them. "Caria, I'm going to need to look through your father's correspondence and business papers."

Her head, which had drooped resignedly while the servants were being questioned, snapped back up.

"You can't do that! Those are private business records. If information about our contracts, network of dealers, and ongoing negotiations got out, it could cost us tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of meseta!"

"Caria, this is a murder investigation. I need to know if there are other motives for the crime, or if there is some specific act which led the Evilheads to issue their death threat. I'm certainly not going to publicly broadcast this information to persons who have no business knowing."

Her face cleared of its sudden anger.

"I know, Your Grace. I'm afraid that I'm just so off-balance that I am reacting without thinking." This seemed very likely to Arjan; her outburst had been more like a hysterical reflex than one born of genuine thought.

"Don't worry; I understand."

"You'll find everything you need in the study. Routine correspondence is kept in the filing cabinets, while record books and more sensitive matters are in the safe. I have keys to both, and so did my father."

Arjan pursed his lips thoughtfully. They'd found no keys on the body. Had Edlis taken them, perhaps to use later? Was that why the Evilhead's overboots were still on the drying-rack, because he'd remained close by and hidden, to gain access to records which, if not stolen, might implicate the secret society in specific crimes, or identify key members? Presuming, always, that Edlis was the Evilhead, and not just what he claimed.

"Thank you. I'll need your keys; we did not find your father's."

Caria reached into her pocket and took out a ring with four iron keys on it, which she handed to the Prelate.

"The other two keys are to the house doors, Your Grace," she said.

"Thank you. I shall be sure to return these. Can you direct me to the study?"

Liros told him how to get there, and he left the kitchen. On his way to the study, though, he was stopped by a police-warden.

"Your Grace, we've found something...in the shed."

"Evidence?"

"Yes, Your Grace. We think it's the missing man, only...he's dead."

The Prelate's eyes widened in surprise.

"Dead?"

"Yes, Your Grace. Dr. Senj is examining the body now."

"Good. Take me to it."

The police-warden led Arjan to the back door and through the garden. Caria, he reflected, had done excellent work. As he turned a corner of bank of shara-blossoms came into view, followed by a zarion shrub, evidently imported from the Ryuon region. These plants would require special care to endure Vassha's harsh weather, but they appeared to be healthy and thriving. The path was almost free of blown snow, he realized when his boot gritted on some for the first time; it must have been swept clean recently. In a well-kept garden this would be done often for aesthetic reasons, but given that there had been one murder and a second death, possibly also a slaying, it took on a more sinister connotation. Had the killer done the sweeping, in order to obscure any tracks?

The small shed looked sturdy and neat from the outside, so that it would not disturb the beauty of the garden. Through its single window, Arjan could see a lamp burning, and he went inside. Shelves studded all four walls, with bags of seed and fertilizer piled beneath. The neat row of bags along one side had been disturbed, though, and a body lay there, face-down.

"It was hidden behind the sacks," the coroner announced. "Pask, there, moved them for a routine search, and found the body."

"Good work," Arjan told the police-warden. "I'm glad you didn't just glance in, but took the time to do the job thoroughly and correctly."

The young man--even younger than the Prelate--beamed, then his face turned grim. "It was a good thing for me he was dead, though, or else he'd have gotten the jump on me with that big knife."

He pointed, and Arjan could see the foot-long blade, thin and curving gently to a point, grasped in the dead man's right hand. It was gored with smeared blood along much of its length.

"Is that..."

"The murder weapon? I'd say yes," Dr. Senj filled in both question and answer. "It matches the wound, so far as I can tell, and then there's the bloodstain. I can perform some chemical tests to narrow down the probabilities of whether that's Jovas's blood, and test the fit of knife to wound more properly, but I don't see any reason to doubt it."

"So, then, what's the scenario? He stabs Jovas, then comes out here, finds a place to hide, so he can wait until the law has given up on him, then slip out of town? He'd stay here while the town was being canvassed, then hide in town while we searched trails and the local wilderness, then leave Vassha after the hue and cry had begun to die down? Only, he...dies?"

The old man shrugged.

"I can't say as to what was in his mind, Your Grace."

"Can you say what killed him? I don't see any blood."

"I didn't find a wound, either. Nor are there ligature marks or bruising on the throat to indicate strangulation. But, do you see the bright spots in the cheeks?" He turned the dead man's head to give the Prelate a better view. The face was generally flushed, but high on the cheeks were spots of bright color. "Some of it is post-mortem lividity, of course. The body lays on its stomach, and blood settles to that side without the action of the heart. But the color in the cheeks is caused by bursting blood vessels, a symptom of this."

He held up a small vial about a quarter full of clear fluid, stoppered with a cork.

"I found this in his pocket when I was checking for a wound. Smell, but be careful not to taste any, Your Grace."

Dr. Senj withdrew the stopper and Arjan sniffed gently. The faint odor of smoke brushed his nostrils.

"Is this a poison?"

"No beating around the bush. Good! Yes, Your Grace, this appears to be a potent vegetable-based poison called ^aduumguraa. Natives of the Zosa region call it the Sleep of the Dragon. Death takes roughly fifteen minutes and is relatively painless. Carefully measured, it can be used as an anesthetic, but also it is a popular suicide poison because it gives an easy death."

"I see."

Zosa again.

Suicide, of course, would be completely consistent with the type of fanaticism that produced the Evilheads, but it did not make sense to Arjan under the circumstances. Having found Edlis dead, and his body concealed, upset all his assumptions. Or did it?

"Pask," he told the young police-warden, "go back to the house and fetch Liros and Torine. Bring them here and establish if this man is the Edlis they met tonight."

"At once, Your Grace." He bowed his head politely, then dashed off with the enthusiasm of one new to his job and eager to make a good impression. Arjan wished he himself possessed some of Pask's confidence and courage, for he tended to be hesitant in new situations, afraid of making a mistake.

"Now, let's see what else he had in his pockets."

He stooped next to the body, and the two men examined the corpse. They found a case with visiting-cards identifying the bearer as Edlis, with an address in Zosa, two rings of keys, a small paper packet containing blue powder, and four hundred and fifty-two meseta in a mix of silver pieces and copper cash.

"These look like the keys Caria gave me," Arjan noted, observing one of the key rings. "They must be Jovas's missing ones."

"The powder is a poison antidote," Dr. Senj reported. "You can buy it at any decent apothecary's. In this form, you just inhale the blue dust."

"Would it cure ^aduumguraa?"

"Certainly. Knowing these people's minds, Edlis probably had it in case he had to taste whatever he'd poisoned in order to reassure his victim."

"Only he didn't take the antidote, so he must have taken the poison on purpose. Unless...what if it was accidental? You said the death was easy; what are its specific effects?"

Dr. Senj frowned.

"Simple enough. Nothing for the first five minutes, then you get sleepy and lightheaded until you fall unconscious and die."

"Just like the nickname implies. So if Edlis accidentally drank the poison, then hid out here, he might not even realize it, because tiredness is a natural feeling, and would have the secondary effect of dulling his wits."

The coroner favored Arjan with a sour look.

"Do you honestly believe an assassin somehow managed to accidentally poison himself?"

"It's a thought. Only one glass of dakaaruu was drunk..." Arjan's voice trailed off thoughtfully, then he dismissed that train of thought and began again. "I need to examine Jovas's papers yet; perhaps that will help me put things in perspective."

"Maybe."

"Dr. Senj, forgive me if I sound like a naive fool, but is there a way to tell if someone is an Evilhead? A tattoo, a scar, a ring, something that they carry or wear so that they can identify themselves to other members of the secret society without anyone else supposed to know its significance?"

Dr. Senj chuckled gently, the only answer he needed to give.

"No, I'm afraid not."

"I suppose that for a group with such public activities, it would be too risky; the authorities might catch on and have an easy way to identify members. Well, it was worth asking."

"You don't doubt that Edlis was an Evilhead?"

Arjan shook his head.

"Not seriously, no, but it would be nice to establish it beyond any doubt. The red hand is the only actual evidence we have of Evilhead involvement in this case--and anyone can write a name and make a handprint in paint."

"That," Dr. Senj said, an assessing look in his eyes, "is a very twisty mind you have there, Your Grace."

"If evil was always open and obvious, then there would be no need for priests to show people the Way of Heaven," Arjan said seriously, though with a faint smile. The longer he spent as a Prelate, the more arrogant those bits of pithy wisdom sounded in his own ears, and yet they seemed so apropos he couldn't resist reciting them.

"Well, can't have that. You'd be out of a job."

Arjan smiled again, this time with genuine good humor.

"If the day ever comes when the people can guide themselves without the aid of the Church, I shall be the first one at the celebration." His smile vanished, and he added, "Please test the liqueur glasses on the sitting-room sideboard for poison."

"I'll take care of that first, since it won't take anywhere near as long as either autopsy."

"Thank you."

Arjan returned to the house, passing Pask and the servants along the way, and went to the study according to Liros's directions. This room appeared to be a combination office and den; it was clearly Jovas's private sanctum and the place where he'd felt most comfortable. A large roll-top desk was against one wall next to a hardwood filing cabinet set with a metal lock. Above the desk hung a large scroll-painting in traditional Dezolian style, showing in vivid colors a cityscape as seen from an overlooking mountainside. The Prelate was no student of art, but he recognized the brilliance of a classic master when he saw it. The painting was made even more dramatic with its vivid blues by the dark wood of the paneling and furniture and the deep gold-and-black pattern of the carpet. Arjan saw comfortable chairs, bookcases, and the chessboard Caria had mentioned.

The Prelate began by examining the bookshelves. He thought he'd established an explanation for Edlis's death and why the man was in the garden hut, but details still remained. He didn't understand Jovas's behavior after receiving the red hand, and hoped to come to know the man's mind through an examination of his effects. The bookshelf contained works on business methods and economics, a new almanac--useful for predicting weather conditions that might affect important shipments--and gazetteers of Dezolis, all ordinary enough to find in the home of a successful trader. There were two volumes of chess problems, suggesting that Jovas was not merely an amateur but a student of the game. Arjan also noted a number of historical novels, some clearly well-thumbed, with stories of the feudal age, set over fifteen centuries ago. Finally, there was a small collection of books of historical, sociological, political, and philosophical commentary, with names like Traditional Values in the Post-Mother Brain Era, Skure: The Planet's Wounding, and The Colonization of Dezolis: History and Myth.

Curious, he thought.

Arjan searched the wastepaper bin for the envelope the red hand had come in, but apparently it had already been burned. He then moved on to the business papers. A sturdy cabinet with double doors proved to be locked, so he tried the keys Caria had given him; the second one fit. Upon opening the cabinet he received a surprise; while it was covered by a thin wood veneer, the cabinet was actually a steel safe containing ledgers and account-books. He recalled Caria mentioning a safe; this clearly was it.

The file cabinet likewise had to be unlocked; it contained correspondence organized by date and destination, letters received as well as copies of Jovas's own messages as sent to others. There was a goodly volume of paper, covering Jovas's entire time in Vassha although apparently not the years before that. It was another point suggesting a hasty retreat from the city, but Arjan could still not make this most obvious scenario play out in his mind. A man who flees a city in terror does not continue a successful trading business with agents across Dezolis! It would attract attention from all quarters, the very thing he'd be trying to avoid.

With a rueful shake of his head, Arjan turned his attention to the books and letters. Although he was not a businessman, he was nonetheless in his element, poring over documentary evidence, looking for tiny clues, errors, inconsistencies. Interrogating witnesses and searching a crime scene required a different kind of skill, one he was inexpert in, but this was another matter entirely. After the first hour he had begun to discern hints of a pattern "between the lines." After the second hour, the pattern had taken shape, and the third hour was spent not searching for answers but for verification. What this did not do, however, was to explain the crime.

The Prelate stood and stretched, working the kinks out of his shoulders and back. It was nearly midnight, he realized. He thought of having Torine prepare a pot of kej for him; the strong, hot native Dezolian tea would be invigorating. He decided against it, though, not wanting to be high-handed in the home of another.

Instead he cleared a space and selected a blank sheet of paper from the desk, then took an inkstick from its holder. As was normal, the ink at its tip had dried after sitting unused for a day or so; so he rubbed it against the polished inkstone, crumbling off the dry dust. Say, he thought, that he and Dr. Senj had arrived at Jovas's house at eight. Arjan then began to list the sequence of events according to the testimony.

6:30--Edlis arrives.
6:45--Torine brings tea to Edlis.
7:00--Caria leaves garden; goes to study.
7:15--Torine removes tea things; Edlis not in sitting-room.
7:30--Jovas returns home.
7:45--Caria discovers Jovas's body.

There wasn't much to go on, Arjan decided. He'd come up with a theory to explain the facts, and even the poisoning of Edlis, but it was not entirely satisfying, which was why he hadn't shared it with the coroner. He set the inkstick down, wondering if things were really as he'd seen them.

Then he picked the inkstick up again, and looked at it.

Now he understood.

Arjan replaced the papers and relocked the safe and file cabinet, then left the study. The young police-warden, Pask, was still on duty, although the coroner and the others had long ago left for the morgue, taking the corpses with them.

"Your Grace!" he snapped to attention at once.

Arjan smiled warmly.

"Don't worry, Pask; we're almost done here. Was the body in the garden hut Edlis, as we suspected?"

"Yes, both servants identified him. They also recognized the knife he was holding. It's an antique that used to hang in the sitting-room. Edlis must have snatched it up to kill Jovas. I searched the garden and found the sheath and the chain it hung from thrown under some shrubs."

"That was good work."

"Thank you, Your Grace! A message also came from Dr. Senj. He reported that the full glass contained only dakaaruu, but the dregs in the empty glass also showed traces of ^aduumguraa."

Arjan nodded.

"That confirms my expectations," he replied. "I'm glad the evidence bears out my deductions. Now, I want you to go check on one more thing for me, and then we can both be off to our beds. Do you know Kratest?"

"The carrier-hawk keeper? Yes, Your Grace."

"Good. Go to his place now--roust him out of bed if you have to--and find out whether Jovas sent a message by carrier-hawk to Zosa in the past three days. Then report the answer to me at the shrine and you can go off-duty. I'll need you rested to give your testimony in the tribunal tomorrow."

"Yes, Your Grace, and thank you."

Arjan couldn't help but smile as Pask rushed off. His youth and eagerness to please were almost comical, but at the same time the Prelate knew that the police of Dezolis needed more men and women like him. Corruption had doomed the previous government, and the Church needed honest people enforcing the law on a daily basis or else the best of good intentions at the top would not suffice. And, with groups like the Evilheads active, the common folk needed a government that would support the people, not use them for its own profits.

Hopefully, in the next morning's tribunal session, he could live up to that ideal.

* * * * *

As always, mixed emotions filled Arjan as he prepared to take his place at the start of the tribunal session. He sat behind the bench in his formal blue-and-white robes, in his high kem'pallah with its sigil of flame, before the scarlet banner with its image of golden fire, and quailed because justice had been placed in his hands. Decisions of right and wrong, guilt and innocence were his to make, and with them came the awful responsibility of shaping the fate of others' lives. Yet at the same time the burden was also an opportunity, a chance for Arjan to see that Vassha was governed honestly and well, instead of having to trust to others to insure it.

He bowed his head and silently thanked Heaven for giving him this opportunity, then prayed for the wisdom to see justice was done and the truth upheld. Only then did he take up the gavel and rap twice, signifying the start of the session.

"Ordinarily," he announced, "we would begin this session with old business and common administrative matters. However, there was a more serious affair which arose last night that needs to be disposed of first, namely the double murder of the trader Jovas and the merchant Edlis of Zosa." A surprised murmur ran through the crowd; apparently this piece of juicy gossip had not yet made the rounds. "Bailiff, are all the witnesses here in court?"

"They are, Your Grace," Tem said. Arjan had shared his plans with the bailiff, so that the police-wardens would not be caught off-guard at the critical moments. He wished his assistant Colce was there, but that worthy was off enjoying a well-deserved week's vacation. And, in any case, Tem was more than capable of handling anything that was likely to come up.

"Then the tribunal will first hear the testimony of the coroner, Dr. Senj."

The coroner was an old hand at this; he'd been giving medical testimony in one type of court or another since before Arjan had been born. He delivered his report in straightforward, concise terms, beginning with his encounter with Jovas at the Pine Grove, then the investigative steps he had taken with Arjan, his preliminary examination of the bodies--the conclusions he'd drawn having been borne out by the autopsies--and the results of the poison tests on the liqueur glasses. Arjan did not even have to draw him out further with questions; Dr. Senj's statement could stand on its own.

The members of Jovas's household were the next to be called, and each repeated their testimony from the night before with only minor embellishments and digressions, none of substance. Pask added his testimony about how he'd found Edlis's body in the garden shed and located the dagger sheath, also testifying that he'd discovered no tracks in the snow to indicate that an additional party could have crept up to a window or entered through the garden.

"Therefore, we are left with a number of questions," Arjan summed up. "If Edlis was an assassin of the Evilheads, why did he remain on Jovas's property after the crime? And how is it that he drank the poison, the vial of which was found in his own pocket? Why is it that Jovas, by all accounts frightened out of his wits, would have drunk with Edlis, and presented his back to the assassin?"

He hoped to prompt someone to speak up to answer these questions, and Liros took the bait.

"If I may, Your Grace? Perhaps Edlis poisoned himself through a mistake? He put the ^aduumguraa into a glass, but accidentally took it for himself, then gave the untainted glass to Master Jovas."

"Only..." Caria began. "Only, Pajo didn't drink what Edlis thought was the poison! He refused to drink, so Edlis stabbed him! Then, he stole the keys and hid in the garden shed, hoping to slip back into the house when things were quiet again, to steal some paper or document."

"And since he did not know that he'd drunk the poison, ^aduumguraa's effects being slow and subtle, he did not think to use the antidote he'd brought with him," Arjan completed the scenario. "I, too, believed this was the sequence of events. It explains much, the two deaths, their methods, and why the bodies were found as they were. But it does not explain all. It doesn't explain why Jovas would meet with a stranger, unguarded, when he was in mortal fear for his life." He turned to Tem. "Bailiff, bring forward the witness Kratest."

The carrier-hawk keeper was a middle-aged man; he'd donned his finest jacket and leggings in honor of his tribunal appearance, which made him look a bit stuffy and pompous, and he shifted nervously now that he was in front of all the assembles spectators and officers of the tribunal.

"Kratest, you run the carrier-hawk service here in Vassha, don't you?" Arjan began genially, trying to put him at his ease. "Why don't you tell me a bit about that, to establish some background for the record?"

Kratest glanced nervously at the table where the scribe sat, taking down the record of the court proceedings, then swallowed and began.

"When the electronic network supported by the Palmans' Mother Brain collapsed, it destroyed the ability of people to communicate quickly with those in other towns," he began stiffly, as if making a speech. "The Winged Sending Guild was formed to deliver short messages in a day or two instead of weeks of foot-travel. Our fast-flying hawks are trained, based upon their own natural homing instinct, to fly to a specific location., I keep hawks trained for most of the major districts of Dezolis. The only real limitations are the size of the message, and the fact that the birds have to be brought back by a person, since they will fly only one way. It's that latter problem, and the expense of breeding, that keeps the price at five silver pieces per message."

"But nonetheless, I'm sure that there are some messages that are easily worth that five hundred meseta to send?"

Kratest nodded vigorously.

"Mostly traders and the like. It keeps a roof over my wife's and my heads and our cook-pot full."

"Now, to the business of this case. Did the trader Jovas send a message within the last four days?"

"Yes, Your Grace. It's like I told that police fella last night. Jovas came into my shop two nights ago yesterday, in a terrible state. He's got an urgent message to send, he says, and it's all written out. He stuffs it into the carrying-capsule that attaches to the band on the hawk's leg, and then he stays right there until I set the bird off, he's so fixed on seeing that the message goes."

Arjan nodded, accepting the information.

"Now, you did not see the message itself, for that was none of your concern, but you needed to know the town where it was sent, to choose the correct bird, and likewise the name of the addressee so your guild's messenger could deliver the message after the carrier-hawk arrived, is that not so?"

"Yes, Your Grace."

"And this message was sent to...?"

"Zosa, Your Grace, to a man named Edlis."

A surprised murmur ran through the crowd at this revelation. Why would, they asked each other, Jovas be sending urgent messages to his murderer?

"Thank you, Kratest; you may take your seat," Arjan said. "You may wonder," the Prelate addressed the crowd as a whole, "why I sent a police-warden to obtain Kratest's evidence. I did so after reviewing Jovas's business records and correspondence files. Although it is never explicitly stated, there are sufficient veiled allusions that it seemed quite probable that Jovas was himself a member of the Evilhead secret society."

Liros leapt to his feet from his place in the front row of witness's seats.

"That isn't true! How dare you slander Master Jovas like that?"

"Keep a civil tongue in your head!" barked a police-warden, gripping Liros by the shoulder and shoving him back in his chair.

"Don't be too harsh with him," Arjan said. He spared Dr. Senj a glance of sympathy; the old man had begun the investigation by trying to help a friend, and now was faced with the realization that that friend might secretly have been involved in vicious and brutal crimes. "His sentiments are laudable. Later the police will question Jovas's household closely to establish if those protests are in fact true or only deception, but I am inclined to think the former.

"Jovas's response to the red hand now becomes understandable. As a member of the society, he was well aware of their ruthless ways, and knew better than most to fear the red hand. Yet he did not come to this tribunal for protection. Instead, he sent an urgent message to Edlis, another Evilhead member. If he had transgressed the society's laws, why did he do this?"

There was only one answer that fit, and the thought depressed Arjan.

"The truth is that he did not break the laws of the Evilheads. When Jovas received the red hand, he was afraid, yes, but he was also confused. He'd done nothing that he was aware of to incur their wrath, so he sent an urgent message to Edlis, whom we can assume was either his superior or some sort of ally within the secret society. Edlis came at once to Vassha, obviously by means of teleportation, only to be murdered and framed for the subsequent murder of Jovas."

He fixed his gaze sternly upon the dead man's daughter.

"Caria, this tribunal accuses you of the double murder of Edlis of Zosa and of your own father."

"It's not true!" she protested, shock obvious on her face. Clearly, she hadn't expected Arjan to accuse her.

"Yes, it is. You approached Edlis in the sitting-room and shared a glass of dakaaruu with him. That's why he didn't take any tea, because he was drinking with you while he waited for Jovas! When the poison took effect, you dragged him out to the garden hut and concealed his body; the stone-flagged path would take no marks from his heels and regular travel over the interior of the house would soon obliterate any left on the carpets. Then, when your father returned home, you stabbed him. No matter how scared he was by the red hand you had sent him, he would not have feared his own daughter. Then, all you had to do was plant the knife, keys, poison, and antidote on Edlis and refill the glass you'd drunk from, then pretend to discover the body. On behalf of the police, I thank you for the compliment, by the way, in assuming that we could deduce from your faked clues what the supposed sequence of events was--but I'm sure you were ready to step in with helpful suggestions if need be!"

"None of this is true, Your Grace," she protested tearfully. "I loved my father. Why would I want to hurt him?"

"For money," the Prelate said flatly. "As Jovas's only heir, you would inherit one of the richest businesses in Vassha."

"It's not true!" Caria wailed. "I don't know why you're saying these things. I was writing a letter in the study during the time you say I was doing those awful deeds."

Judging from the dark looks of the spectators, the girl's manner was winning them over more than Arjan's theoretical case had. He'd hoped that, confronted by her guilt, she would break down and confess, but Caria had kept her composure, which threatened to give Arjan trouble. No doubt she knew as well as he did that while the Prelate alone was the arbiter of guilt and innocence, all felony convictions had to be approved by the High Priestess of the demesne before sentence could be carried out, as a check upon local tyranny. The High Priestess would not be impressed with a case file where a murder conviction was based upon theory alone, without evidence!

"You claim to have been writing a letter. Where is this letter?"

Caria blinked, then began to fish through her jacket pockets. It was the same jacket she'd worn the night before, and she found two crumpled pages in a pocket. She rose shakily and presented them to the Prelate. Arjan glanced through them.

"This letter would indeed have taken quite some time to write," he admitted, "especially if one had to pause and consider the correct phrasing to use. And you say you wrote this at your father's desk, in the study?"

"I did. You can compare the paper--we used it for all business correspondence. And the ink--Pajo always used the highest quality of inkstick on business letters to present a good appearance."

"So, if I have Dr. Senj chemically compare this ink to the inkstick in the desk holder, he will find it the same?"

"Yes, Your Grace. I swear to it!"

"And I am sure of it as well. Yet can you explain to me why, when I sat to write at that very desk, with that very inkstick last night, I found the stick's tip dry, when you claim to have been writing this letter with that same inkstick just four hours before?"

Her eyes widened. He'd surprised her again, and not in a way she was prepared to answer.

"And why," he added, "if you were aware of your father's peril, and so concerned for him, did you say nothing, not even reveal a hint of worry to your own servants for three days?"

Liros and Torine looked at one another, startled to realize what Arjan had seen from their statements--that while Jovas had clearly been upset and afraid, Caria had showed no such worry. She'd only begun her act after the killing, without properly laying the groundwork beforehand.

"Murderess!" someone shouted. "Parricide!" yelled another. The mob, ever fickle, had turned. Arjan hammered the gavel.

"Silence!" he ordered. "This is an orderly tribunal before the Light of Truth, not a wine-shop!" The police-wardens glared meaningfully, hands on the grips of their truncheons, and the spectators subsided.

"Do you have anything to say for yourself, Caria?"

"My father"--she'd given up the affectionate "Pajo"--"was one of the Evilheads, a terrorist who had collaborated in crimes of violence and murder. He left Zosa in order to escape a crackdown by the authorities that was beginning around that time. I'd just learned that, and so I...acted."

It was not a bad explanation, but Arjan did not believe it. This was just another lie the girl's agile mind had concocted.

"Were that true, your duty would have been to report that fact, not to sink to the Evilheads' own level. The rule of our society is to allow free debate of political ideals, but it is intolerable that some people allow those ideals to lead to violence. Remember that we, all of us, are answerable to Heaven first, and our theories about human society should always fit within that mandate."

It was an ideal, Arjan reflected, that he as Prelate needed to keep to as much as anyone else. Just rule was Dezolis's only hope for escaping the tragedy that had consumed the Palmans, that and a close attention to right and wrong.

Something that none of the principals in this case--not Jovas, nor Edlis, nor Caria--had been able to learn.

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