He climbed back to the roof before leaving and pulled up his makeshift canvas cable, taking it with him and leaving it in the sewer line below the cellar. There’d be little doubt in Tolvaj’s mind who’d cold cocked Abney, but he preferred to leave no obvious evidence that it had been him. The rope and the descent from the roof might encourage them to look harder for the escape shaft, and he’d rather it be kept secret if possible. He’d put everything else in the room back as it was, hiding his dirty clothes under the bed. Hopefully they wouldn’t notice the broken window catch.
Minutes later he was back on Eb Way, walking west into the Warrens. One stupid thing accomplished. Now on to number two.
The line between the west end of Ebsea and the east end of the Warrens was blurry, not bright. Thijis waited until he’d crossed well into the latter, and stopped at one of the little corner shops Warreners called potheks. One of the many peculiarities of the most infamous of Oridos’ boroughs was that it had something of its own language. The dialect ranged from small differences like pothek to veritable second tongues, like the barter language the fences spoke at the bottom of the Gash. He’d heard alternative explanations for the persistence of pothek, ranging from a bastardized form of the Old Elimannen word for “shop” to a simple shortening of “apothecary,” an allusion to the chemical concoctions, both medicinal and recreational, available at all of them. Either way the potheks were little dens of vice at the corners of larger blocks of sin, and purveyed all manner of questionable merchandise. Including milk, papers, black powder, and holdout pistols. Not to mention a nobleman’s ransom in sauma.
What Thijis really needed right now was a message sent and a stiff drink, which the scowling, mustachioed fellow behind the counter at the pothek was more than happy to provide. Well, maybe not happy.
“Dram of whiskey,” he said, taking a sheet of paper from his field notebook and borrowing a pencil from the clerk’s cup.
“This ain’t a bar,” said the clerk.
“And yet,” said Thijis, finishing his note and folding up the paper, “a dram of whiskey.” The clerk grunted and fished behind his counter, finally uncorking a small bottle and pouring into a tin cup.
Thijis took it in one hit and handed the man his note. “I need to get this to Undersheriff Krizner, Kammerend Precinct. And that was terrible. I’ll have another.”
The clerk made no motion to take the paper, managing to look not only unpleasant but insulted.
“Do I look like a spend a lot of time in Kammerend?” he snapped.
“No,” said Thijis. He held out the paper for a moment, then sighed. A crown slid across the counter between them, and suddenly the clerk’s disposition changed. He only looked like he’d ignore Irik if he saw him being murdered now, rather than joining in. “Get it there quick like, and don’t tell anyone where it came from, and I won’t need any change. Deal?”
After a moment, the clerk nodded.
“No peeking now,” said Thijis, “just because I don’t have a proper seal on me.” It didn’t matter if he read it or not, but appearances must be maintained. “Where’s my second cup?”
He poured again, Thijis slammed it back, and threw another crown on the counter. “Next time, friend, turn that frown upside down. It wouldn’t hurt you to be nice. Mother likes us to play friendly, like.” He smiled, tipped his hat, and walked out.
The mention of Mother would ensure the note got where it was going. You could never stop gossip, but if he hadn’t wanted everybody to know he was sending notes to Krizner, he wouldn’t have done so through a sour little pothekman.
His boots scuffing the rounded cobbles of Eb Way, he walked deeper in the Warrens before cutting left through a series of apartment buildings, making his way out of the criminal garden of Oridos toward a far deadlier doorstep.
* * *
The door opened before his knuckles hit wood.
“Well,” said Dalia. “Look at you.”
Her face, narrow and full-lipped, looked out at him like an apparition hiding beneath a cloak of ebony hair. Even narrowed, her eyes hit him like winter pools, icy cold yet somehow inviting.
“I…” His voice cracked. She raised an eyebrow and turned away, leaving the door open behind her. Thijis swallowed and followed her inside.
Dalia’s small, tidy house enveloped him. The essence of the place, that ineffable Dalianess that did not exist anywhere else in this world, hung like a scent in the warm air. And there was a scent: a pleasant mingling of lavender and bread and tea, with a hint of something sharp and herbal in the background. It floated in the beams of sunslight coming through the mullioned windows into the sitting room near the door, making the few scant motes of dust dance above the armchairs and their neatly stitched throw pillows. He saw it gleaming in the polished wood of the bookcases and in the worn, clean floors; he felt it in the way the front hall managed to say welcome while also seeming like an intensely private place. The totality of it set off warning bells in his brain that, in turn, inflated a lump in his throat and set his hands shaking nervously.
This was the reason he rarely came here. He doffed his hat belatedly and stood, clutching it, trying to control his breathing. It was a long moment before he realized she had called to him from another room.
“What?” he called back, taking a few steps down the hall.
“I said, would you like tea?”
He heard the soft clatter of porcelain, then a match as she lit the stove. Willing his traitorous hands to stillness, he swallowed again and walked back to the small kitchen, leaving his hat on the bench just outside it.
“You can take off that coat, while you’re at it,” said Dalia. “It barely fits in here.”
Thijis took his coat off with half a mind, draping it on the bench near his hat. After a moment he picked it up again and folded it more neatly, giving it a small pat before stepping into the kitchen.
His eyes sucked in the room as if he were examining a crime scene, one corner of his mind digesting each detail with a fervor that embarrassed the rest of him. The old iron kettle, sitting atop the grate of a gas burner; the pretty blue curtains framing the small window that looked out onto Dalia’s small kitchen garden. The room wasn’t small, in truth, only smaller than a family might need: a corner room at the back of the house where a back door led out into the back and side yards. A small circular table sat in the corner, with four simple chairs around it. Clay pots lined the bench beneath the window sill, each with a label pasted to the front of it, each label neatly written in Dalia’s curling hand.
On the short counter top the copper sink was beaded with water from when she’d filled the kettle.
“You’ve gotten a gas stove,” he said, watching her take down tea cups and a pot from the cupboard.
“Two years gone,” she said, looking at him sidelong. “You’ve been here since.”
“Ah,” he said. “Must have slipped my mind.” In truth he’d forgotten, the addition of the stove a fresh revelation to his overworked, Dalia-addled brain. Each time he came here it was the same: the focus on detail, the surprise at rediscovering something he should have already known. He supposed it was because the Dalia that lived in his head was the one who’d lived with him—and loved him; she loved him still, he hoped—in Ebsea and before, when he’d been a scantily paid Prosecutor who could afford no more than a one-room flat in one of the less murderous parts of the Warrens.
She made a noise, half soothing, half sarcasm.
“Honestly I’d prefer wine, if you have it.” Wine suddenly seemed like an incredibly intelligent idea.
“The kettle’s already on,” she said. “We’ll have tea.”
Thijis nodded, realized she wasn’t even looking at him, and, for lack of anything better to do, sat down abruptly in one of the chairs to wait.
The kettle steamed and bubbled, Dalia poured water—just shy of boiling—over the leaves in the bottom of the pot and stirred it with a wooden spoon. A moment later she set a modest tea service down on her kitchen table and sat down, tucking her skirt neatly under herself as she did so. Everything about Dalia was neat, intentional, and logical, though never boring. She lived life to a rhythm all her own.
“Do you still take sugar?” she asked, more for the sake of politeness than out of any belief his preferences might have changed, he knew. He nodded, and she spooned out two brown lumps of the stuff from its crock into his cup. The tea came next, poured through a little sieve, mahogany red and steaming hot. She offered him the tiny pitcher of milk, next, which he took with a confident, masculine, very much not shaking hand.
Thijis had come to see his wife with a firm, practiced speech in mind, words which had now completely vanished from his mind, along with all thought of directing their conversation. As always. And so he waited, again, for Dalia to speak first.
“It seems you’ve been busy,” she said, blowing softly on her tea. Thijis forced himself to stop looking at her lips.
“That’s one way to put it,” he said. “But not, perhaps, the most accurate way. What have you heard?”
“Only what they’re saying in the market at Kammerend,” said Dalia, “and what little I’ve heard from Iverna.” Iverna Barden, widow of Jakob Barden. He’d known they still talked, but like so many other things on the subject of Dalia Thijis, nee Dalia Hast, the name by which she was now once again known, Thijis had determined not to actively remember.
“She, um…still hears about the goings-on at court?”
“Lord Wyting’s wife visits her,” Dalia said. “She feels sorry for the poor thing, I think. She’s lonely, these days. Still, I should say. You should visit her, Irik.”
“Mmm,” said Thijis, filling his mouth with tea and nodding. Dalia narrowed her eyes over her own teacup, as if she could read his thoughts. Which she probably can, Thijis thought. The woman had an uncanny sense of the world, particularly where the world concerned the opinions and private thoughts of Irik Thijis. Or maybe you’re just a lot easier to read than you think you are. This thought did not sit well with him. He cleared his throat.
“I wish I could say this was a social visit,” he said politely.
“No you don’t,” said Dalia. Thijis paused, cleared his throat again.
“Well,” he began, only to be interrupted.
“Allow me,” she said, setting her teacup down with a click and folding her hands. “The inimitable Irik Thijis, consulting detective extraordinaire, man of many faces and many names, wearer of strange hats and inappropriate coats, has once again gotten himself neck deep in a dangerous situation with a set of dangerous people he ought never to have gotten involved with in the first place.
And because said detective, being a chivalrous gentleman beyond compare, would never be so negligent as to allow his tragically less capable friends, acquaintances, lovers, and erstwhile wives to come to any harm on his account, he has arrived in style, dashing rogue that he is, to implore the latter to flee the city and save herself from his enemies’ retribution. Undoubtedly to some charming cottage in the countryside where he will join her in the event of his unlikely but somehow inevitable survival.
At which point all the sins of the past will be forgotten and forgiven, and they will live together in harmonious, conjugal bliss, picnicking in the sunshine over bottles of Deshiaran red. Is that about the long and the short of it?”
She sipped her tea, slurping the cooling liquid past the tortuous comeliness of her lips, and offered him a small, demonic smile.
“I always said you had an acid wit,” said Thijis.
“You never said that,” she retorted, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear. Watching her, Thijis found it almost impossible not to depict every aspect of her person in the worst type of purple language. In his head her lips were indeed comely, just as her hair was raven and gleaming, just as her ears were small and well formed. He could spend a lifetime in her eyes, an eternity resting his head innocently on her modest bosom, and eons appreciating the seductive rise of her hipbones from the warm velvet sculpture of her naked hips. He couldn’t help but smile.
“What are you grinning at?”
“I was just thinking I really ought to marry you,” he said without thinking. “But then I remembered I already had.”
Dalia set her teeth and looked at him flatly, but couldn’t hide the blush that rose to her cheeks. The times he could rattle her perfect calm with flattery were the best times, the times they each most cherished being together. Or so he liked to think. The feeling faded quickly, however, with Dalia looking down at her hands while Thijis quietly cursed himself for being a complete and utter ass.
“I’m sorry, I—” She pulled her hand away when he reached for it, but not, he thought, in a vindictive way. The movement felt defensive, even frightened—which made him feel a thousand times worse.
“Don’t apologize,” she said. She paused, running a fingertip around the rim of her cup. “I like this you. I always have. Don’t say you’re sorry just for letting him out.”
Thijis gave her a weak smile.
“Well you hit it right on the nose,” he said, happy to change the subject. “Couldn’t have described my own intentions better myself. I suppose I’m a bit of a pompous ass.”
“More than a bit. But that never bothered me.” He let the last comment slide without response, knowing it would only lead them down a path he didn’t want to tread.
“And your answer?”
“You know my answer. You knew it before you came here,” she said. “Even if I had someplace to go, which I don’t—not everyone has some aunt who lives in the country in case of a sudden need for convenient refuge—I wouldn’t. This is my home.” She laughed. “Besides, who would ever think to hurt you by hurting me?”
He sat back. “I can think of no better or easier way to hurt me.”
She didn’t respond, so he filled in the blanks in his head. I wouldn’t know it from the way you treat me. Have treated me. Do treat me. Who am I to you, Irik? The latter she had asked him before, and more than once. The answer was the easiest in the world to know—everything—just as it was the hardest to give.
He hadn’t expected to get anywhere with this. He hadn’t really expected to get as far as he had, to be honest. But as he watched her sitting just around the curve of the table from him, he realized that, more than anything, he had simply wanted to see her. He’d spent the better part of three days moving from grisly murder scene to the manse of a suddenly revealed master criminal to the very sewers of Oridos, and now, just before stretching his neck well and truly out on the block, he wanted to see his wife. The realization hit him like a coach-and-four.
It was epiphany in its truest form: he’d known on some level, on some plane of his mind, that coming here was more for him than her. That doing so would, more than likely, only endanger her further. But it hadn’t mattered. He’d wanted to see her face, smell the scent of her.
“What I’m about to do…may be one of the stupider things I’ve ever done.”
She smiled slightly. “That’s saying something.”
“It is indeed.”
“If anyone has a talent for reaping rewards from stupid decisions, it would be you, Irik.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“It was meant as one. Or, at least, as a compliment to your intelligence and its apparent ability to see you through these bouts of idiocy.”
“Well, like you’ve always said,” said Thijis, “intelligence and common sense have little to do with each other.”
Her face grew serious.
“Be safe, Irik,” she said. “If you’re dealing with who they’re saying…Mother isn’t someone to be taken lightly.”
“You have no idea,” he said. “And it’s more than just Mother, I’m afraid.”
“Gods,” she said. He smiled again. She’d always had a weakness for the old ways. “Now now, my dear. You’re supposed to be a monotheist.”
“Says the avowed atheist.”
“Indeed,” said Thijis, rising from his seat before the desire to sink into this cozy home grew too strong to leave, “avowed and sworn, in the chrism of science, before the almighty god of nothing. I’ve been quite faithful to my church, these many years.”
“You have,” she said, and rose with him. She took his hand, then, finally, and he squeezed it. She kissed him on the cheek, something she hadn’t done in ages, and he cleared his throat again.
“Well,” he said. “Well. I should be going. You be safe too, all right? If you won’t take my advice—and I never really believed you would—at least be on the lookout?”
She nodded indulgently, and led him to the door.
“Dalia,” he said, just before leaving, “if I should…if anything does happen—I mean to say, rather, that if anything doesn’t happen, if I make it, that is—”
“You’ve always known where to find me, Irik. You always will.”
Thijisnodded, put on his hat, and saw himself out into the rain, closing the doorbehind him.
* * *
Helg’s story writhed in his head like a kraken as he made his way into the city, different parts of it clicking and sparking like elekstone held up to a lightning sphere.
Sitting in that sewer, listening to Keynish Helg’s halting, whispered confessions, Thijis had felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise.
Most people thought of a life as a line, with a beginning and an end. One thing he had learned after years of combing the strata of society looking for answers to questions large and small was that a life was not a line but a web. It started as a point on another strand and grew, branching and spreading until it became the faded lace of a dead man’s history. And all webs were connected into a great tapestry that blanketed the world. You couldn’t escape it, not with a ship to sail across the impassable Abyd or by disappearing into the most desolate reaches of the wilderness. An ant affects an empress by walking on her slipper, whether she knows it or not.
Helg’s web was lopsided and strange, but shockingly expansive. The threads of the doctor’s life had burrowed themselves into the fabric of this city so deeply that to remove them would seem to make the whole thing unravel.
Skirting around the walls of the neighborhood-sized compound that was the University, he managed to slide into the Forge district without laying eyes on another waking soul. It was early yet, even by Forge standards. He’d known Dalia would be up.
Were all people, if one looked closely enough, so fundamental to the world? Did every woman’s life weave threads of influence and control, attraction and repulsion into the lives of the people around her? Or was Helg simply something special? Thijis didn’t much believe in coincidence. Coincidence was the enemy of logic. But he couldn’t account for the things he had heard from that old man. The things that had set him on his current path.
The suns were high enough in the sky now to light the streets in a blaze of post-dawn gold. It had occurred to him only as he sat in Dalia’s kitchen that he hadn’t slept in over a day. Which perhaps helped to explain the sparkling haze that had set over his mind when he saw her.
Nevertheless, he didn’t feel tired, only on edge. Ready. Certain, despite the gaps that still took up so much of his knowledge of this case. Case. It’s long since become a bit more than that, hasn’t it Irik?
His destination was a small, abandoned mill on the northern edge of the Forge, a tumbledown structure known to be a sauma den and a shelter for the least desirable of the neighborhood’s homeless.
Lost in thought, he almost walked past the grimy, broken entrance to the mill, off the beaten path behind a smeltery and the empty shell of a tea-stand, long closed. A filthy urchin with skin that might have been white, brown, or purple beneath the dirt sat to the right of the hole that looked to have once been a doorway.
“Farthing for a bit, penny for a dab,” the boy said, producing a coin-sized brown paper packet and making it dance across his knuckles.
“No, thank you,” said Thijis. “Never the touch the stuff. How’s the mood this morning?”
Smelters’ Row was narrow and deep, and the sunslight hadn’t lit up the street here yet. The boy squinted up at him, apparently considering, and after a moment got to his feet and looked Thijis up and down.
“Same old blighters and fiends, milord,” he said, eyeing the cartridges lining the leather of Thijis’ gun belt.
“Still sleeping it off?” he asked. The boy nodded.
“Barely gone to sleep, milord.”
“Get lost, kid,” said Thijis, flipping him a shilling. The urchin’s eyes lit up, the whites standing out from his dirty face like cream on brown bread. He ran off, leaving the door unattended, and Thijis stepped in.
The building was split into three floors, with shafts cutting through at regular intervals, fixed with windlasses that had once been used to move whatever they’d manufactured in here between levels. Thijis made his way out of the corroded suite of rooms that made up the entrance to the mill proper and out onto the floor.
What had once been a massive open space had long since been divided and subdivided, the manufactory floor honeycombed with ramshackle shelters and huts and cubby holes built from broken brick and rubble and rotten wood, some stacked one atop the other and reached by ladder, all comprising a filthy nest that gave the worst parts of the Warrens a run for their money.
The low mutter of desperate humanity pervaded the place, a constant susurrus of grunting and coughing and gagging that sounded like nothing so much as a poorly tended kennel. The stink was tangible, the odor of unwashed bodies and shit and worse things wafting in a fog through the close, humid air. Thijis walked toward the back of the building through what passed for the place’s main thoroughfare, passing innumerable rag doors and bucket fires burning dried dung and scrap wood.
Through the thin fabric of one stained door flap he heard grunting and what sounded like crying. A slap cut through the air and the crying stopped. The grunting continued. Thijis gritted his teeth and moved on.
The more pathetic of them grabbed at his boots and the hem of his coat, begging for money or sauma or, once, the release of death. Others simply stared at him, flat-eyed, as they pushed dirty shunts into their arms to fill their veins with dabs of the black stuff.
The number of children present turned his stomach, all young, all malnourished, some with the desperate cast to their eyes that indicated sauma usage of their own. Smoking it curbed hunger, and so their parents, if you could call them that, fed them filth rather than work for bread. Because they couldn’t, of course, not by the time they found themselves here.
The Priory taught that after death those who had failed to honor God’s laws in life were sent to the endless, black pit of Hell, the darkest, lowest level of Deorkhem. Thijis wondered if the priests knew that Hell could be found on Smelters’ Row in the backend of the Forge.
The staircase he was angling for was a darker hole in the overall darkness of the first level of the mill, a greasy archway leading down a set of crumbling stone steps coated in God knew what kind of scum and effluence. A bundle of rags that he was fairly sure was a body sat piled in the corner on the first landing down. The smell grew from fresh and rank to old and rotten as he descended.
At the bottom of the last flight of stairs came out into a vaulted rectangular chamber not unlike Helg’s wine cellar, though it was if anything more nauseating.
A basic knowledge of Oridos’ Undercity was a requirement for anyone employed in the field of law enforcement or its ancillary professions. Thijis had long ago scouted out the basics of the subterranean enclave, and identified useful entrances and exits. Everyone who frequented the city below had their favorite ways in; they also each had their own favorite bolt hole to be used in the case of emergencies. It wasn’t difficult to find your way underground from the streets above—many of the older buildings and houses in the city had some kind of access, direct or indirect, to the places below.
But revealing one’s preferred entrance was a dangerous thing, particularly if that entrance led anywhere near your own home. Most families and business owners had long since sealed off their tunnels and shafts, to prevent the unscrupulous, inquisitive ones who lived beneath from finding their way into their parlors.
This one was one of the more unfortunate entryways that Thijis knew of, and he used it only in cases where the most extreme stealth was required.
At the far end of the room was a hearth—perhaps it had at one point been a small kitchen for the workers above, or simply a way to heat a belowground workshop. Thijis got down on one knee and felt around in the dusty ash, stopping when his fingers hit metal.
That the ash chute was large enough to admit a man was not unusual in a fireplace this large, and particularly since the demise of this particular manufactory, no one had had any good reason to go scraping around in the darkness beneath it. He levered up the lid, found the first rung of the iron ladder, and started down.
The ladder was short, perhaps ten feet down, which brought him into a lower, smaller room dominated by what looked more than anything like an old village well but was in fact the mouth of a great pipe burrowing deep into the ground. The walls of the lower chamber were bare rock. The pipe’s metal lid had been cast off years before and lay abandoned in a corner.
Checking to make sure both Helg’s key and his gun were where they should be, Thijis eased himself over the top and hung down.
After a long moment of hesitation, he let himself drop into the dark.