Consider maize. The cereal grain, that is. A humble enough plant, whose simplicity is transformed into something approaching nobility when one considers the numerous varietals, the dozens of uses, the hundreds of dishes one can prepare using a few cups of corn as a base. For centuries after the Fulkawer, the great race war, when holy Oridos was sacked and held in the infernal clutches of the Pale East—or so the Church tells it—the cultivation of maize was lost. A primeval staple in Westalen, the great western continent of this world, maize nonetheless required a certain method of fertilization and breeding in order to truly thrive. Explain to your average Oridosi, be he a dockworker on the Inner Sea or be she a governess in Kammerend, that there are such things as male and female ears of corn and they may well douse you with holy water and beg God to bless your simplicity.
But farmers know—farmers know a great many things, if only one is wise enough to ask them—that corn, like humankind, bears a gender, and further, farmers know where that knowledge came from. It was the northern tribes that began it, sometime in the misty past, when the Khorye Pass was still open, before the ancient Elimannen settled on a new continent of their God’s design and found it, surprisingly, already inhabited by a people perfectly content to continue living their lives as they had since the beginning of time. But being a reasonable people, these northern peoples, who called themselves the Eberai, shared their agricultural gifts with these newcomers, giving them the gift of maize and the secret of its horticulture. We paid them for it in blood. But that is beside the present point.
One secret the Eberai did not share with their newfound neighbors to the south was the secret of making from that humble grain a spirit of a potency and flavor previously unknown to the Elimannen, a deep amber liquor that burned like fire and seemed to hold in its thousand subtle flavors the very secrets of the universe. The Elimannen were familiar with brandy and a variety of other spirits, but this was something different: less refined in some ways, more nuanced in others.
Over the centuries since, Oridosi vintners and distillers have tried their best to replicate the secret of the drink that the Eberai refuse to name, and the Elimannen of Oridos call simply whiskey, from wisca, which is simply the Old Elimannen world for water.
It has been said that the end of the Fulkawer and the closing of the Khorye Pass was tragic not only for its division of two great, old peoples, but also for the irreparable harm it did to the art and science of Oridosi distillation.
* * *
There are dives, and then there are dives, Thijis thought, his boot soles slapping noisily on dirty cobblestones. The Fourth Tribe was the latter. Situated dead at the bottom of Garshen Row, a street better known by residents and non-residents alike as the Gash, the Tribe was a block wide and three stories tall. The building was an ancient, heavy thing that squatted like a sooty, hunching toad between the rest of the Warrens and the city’s northwestern wall. The city wall was three times the height of the Tribe, and the adjacent apartment building was almost as high as the wall. The result was that the tavern sat in perpetual twilight, an undeniably attractive quality in a house of ill repute. Given that the gas lamps were only lit at night (if they were lit at all in the Warrens), daytime was often darker than nighttime at this end of the Gash.
The Warrens didn’t presume to the heights of the great civic buildings in Oridos’ center or the stately homes of Kammerend, but the ramshackle way it had grown up over the centuries made its streets far deeper and darker than the broad avenues of better neighborhoods. The rows of the Warrens were narrow and concave, their cobbles perpetually coated with a scum of coal smoke and lamp oil and the diverse ichor dredged up from the Undercity and the questionably legal establishments that lined the back lanes. The buildings were old and unmaintained, many of them leaning over the street below like elderly forge men. Thijis had seen eaves touching in places, entirely as a result of decades and centuries of entropy. Kissing eaves, Warreners called them.
In other streets residents and gangs and whoremongers had long ago constructed bridges, most of them rusty or rotten, between opposite buildings. One could quite easily walk across the entire neighborhood of the Warrens by roof without having to do more than hop slightly on occasion. That is, if one were stupid enough to take to the rooftops of the one part of the city entirely controlled by organized crime.
It was noonday, and but for the thin sliver of sunslight that made its way through the high, narrow mouth of the Gash, Thijis might not have known it. Garshen Row was dark and quiet. Midday was twilight in the Warrens in more ways than one. Working men and women had made their way to sweat in the factories and smelting pits of the Forge district long hours before, and it was far too early for the desperate people who came into the Gash, seeking, and the sharks that preyed on them.
Thijis hauled the heavy, arched door into the Fourth Tribe’s common room open by himself. There was no one on the door this early. These hours were for serious patrons, men and women of business. People who didn’t shit where they ate. Whether your business was drinking or whoring or any of the plethora of criminal opportunities up for the taking in the Warrens, the Tribe was home to all. A safe place. A neutral zone. The tavern’s owners were diverse, and diversely frightening, and all of them had a vested interest in keeping things quiet.
Arven was wiping down the long, crescent shaped oaken bar at the right hand side of the common room when Irik came in. The place was remarkably clean for its location, but that wasn’t terribly surprising given its ownership. Arven Mallick was the kind of man who swept his own floors and dirtied his own hands to wipe sour beer off the bar top, but those that underestimated him for this condescension always lived to regret it in one way or another. He was a shareholder in the Tribe and an information broker in his own right, though few knew the latter. To most he was simply the face of the management, and someone not to be crossed, lest you lose more than your bar privileges.
“Thijis,” Arven said, without looking up.
“Arven,” said Irik, choosing a stool and settling onto it. The scene in the common room was quiet even for a business day, lacking the usual knots of smugglers and hired men and crew leaders in for lunch, liquid or otherwise.
“Slow day?” Thijis asked, pulling his watch from his waistcoat by the chain and popping it open. Half past midday. A complication in the face showed the smaller of the two suns already past its meridian, its larger brother just now at its peak.
“Three ships in at the docks,” explained Arven, bringing out a clean glass and setting it in front of him. “All from the South. Two from Cor, one from Brytman Kar.”
Thijis whistled softly. “A veritable feast day,” he said. Arven nodded. It wasn’t often trade ships passed the great seawalls and entered the Inner Sea. A yearly visit by a merchantman from that far south could be expected no more than once a year. Three of them showing up at the same time was…
“Almost unprecedented,” said Arven, finishing Irik’s thought for him.
“Mmm,” he said. Indeed, other than a group of three solicitors sharing a cold meal in a corner booth—they wore shoes rather than boots, and their suiting was the shade of drab gray that lawyers seemed to consider a uniform—the Tribe was empty. Or the common room was, anyway. One could never be sure who had rented an upstairs room or for what purpose, or what questionable or even nefarious activities might be going on at any moment in the Tribe’s infamous cellars. His recent experience in a cellar still fresh in his mind, Thijis preferred to keep his imagination above ground for the moment.
“What’ll it be?” Arven asked.
“Barman’s choice,” said Thijis, fishing his pipe and his crab pouch out of his thin summer coat. Arven grunted and began selecting bottles from the shelves that climbed the wall behind him. Thijis lit his pipe and thought, for what seemed like the hundredth time that day, about Keynish Helg and his gruesome collection of human wine bottles. For that’s what they were, he had realized: vessels for something that Helg wanted. He had stolen them, used them for his own grisly ends, and disposed of them in the most convenient way possible. Poured the life out of them like wine from a bottle. And what did you get out of it, Doktor? There’s more to this than just research.
He’d met physicians and scientists who seemed to value data over human life, and heard the stories about the experiments the University sanctioned, but none, even in the retelling, had equaled Helg’s crimes.
“Damn it,” Thijis swore, clunking his pipe on the bar in frustration.
“Tough morning?” asked Arven, who was pouring something into a metal tumbler—the third bottle he’d seen him pick up, if he’d counted correctly.
“You could say that.” It’s starting to eat at you, Thijis. It’s starting to come alive in your mind.
By rights, he should be back at his office now, reviewing the several open cases on his desk and deciding whether they were ready to be closed. Business had been slow, lately, and if he was honest with himself he’d have to admit that he was keeping the cases he did have open longer than absolutely necessary to squeeze every last billable hour out of the city of Oridos. Best not to be honest with yourself then, Irik. The truth was he was bored, rudderless. He’d been at this for—what, eight years now?—and while he’d made a good living, he had also seen the work begin to dwindle. In happier moments he consoled himself with the thought that his assistance had resulted in the more effective prosecution of crime in Oridos—and there was some evidence to support that this was the case—but on days like today he wondered if he hadn’t done it to himself.
He’d grown more selective over the last two years, taking more serious cases and billing highly for them, but ignoring the bread and butter work. Inspection was strapped; they wanted help with a multitude of cases, large and small, and were willing to pay out for them. Thijis just couldn’t drum up the energy for most of them, lately. He took the murders and the rapes and the upper-class abductions, and kept the gas burning, but left the burglaries and confidence men to Krizner and his inspectors. Business was good for burlglars and confidence men.
Thijis called it a lack of ambition. He knew he was intelligent, and when passion struck he knew how to work hard, but he’d never thought of himself as ambitious. Dalia had disagreed. She’d called it selective obsession, and she’d finally moved out when, in her words, that selective obsession had never focused on her. He missed her every single night.
Arven thunked a large drink down in front of him.
“So what’s this?” Thijis asked, bending his neck to look through the thick glass. It was a dark red color, and there was something floating in it.
“Eberan whiskey sling,” said Arven, using his faithful rag to wipe a wet ring out from under the tumbler he’d mixed it in.
“Eberan whiskey? Not sure I’ve got the crowns for liquid gold today, innkeeper.” Real Eberan whiskey was either hundreds of years old, pre-Fulkawer, or smuggled in fast sloops down the northern coast, by pirates who risked their lives to trade with the remaining Eberai tribes. Either way, it was damned expensive.
“It’s on the house. It’s an experiment. And you look like you’re having a hard day. Plus, I’m bored.”
Thijis sipped it. The muscles in his face had been tighter than he’d known, and they relaxed as one with the first sip.
“This is good,” he said. Arven snorted and walked to the end of the bar to arrange bottles. Thijis took another drink, rolling the liquid around on his tongue. It was sharp and sweet and dry all at the same time.
This is the last thing you need. Gebbing wants you gone, fast. You fucked up on this one. Didn’t pay enough attention and someone fleeced you. You’ll be lucky if they don’t find you face down in the Inner Sea within the week. Stay out of it this one fucking time.
If there was one thing Irik Thijis wasn’t any good at, it was staying out of it.
“What’s in this, Arven?” he asked.
“The whiskey, cherry sugar syrup, a few dashes of bitters of my own making,” Arven called out.
“What’s this floating in it?”
“A blood cherry. I’ve got a line on them, fellow down in Emmerline,” the bartender said.
Helg’s case was like an octopus, it had arms in all directions, all of them ready to suck him in. But he had to start somewhere. If he was going to start.
“Who’s got a line on glowcoal, Arven? Who’s moving it?” Thijis asked, his eyes on the back of the bar. There was an inscription there, that might have proven helpful in the coming weeks, had he paid attention to it:
Here may the wolf lie down with the lamb,
Here may the snake take the mouse as his brother,
For Lord Justice may rule over the land,
But in the Tribe we all answer to Mother.
The verse was carved well, but not professionally: some enterprising bartender, perhaps? A saucy regular? Arven had told him once that it’d been there longer than he had, and some said it was as old as the Fourth Tribe itself.
“Elekstone?” Arven asked, walking back down the curve of the bar toward Irik. “Why?” Arven rarely asked him why, and when he did it was for a reason. He traded information; it wasn’t good business to interrogate your clients.
“Just a lead I’m running down,” said Thijis.
“Might want to leave that one alone then, mate,” said Arven. Irik looked up at him sharply. “Mom’s got a line on it, and she don’t like questions.”
* * *
Krizner sighed, wondering whether he had time for another cigarette. He hated to admit it, even in the privacy of his own mind, but he felt more confident when he had Thijis around to use as a sounding board. What had started as a potential missing person had gone sideways in record time. Why did you ever buy that shit in the first place? Missing person? As if the “maid” wouldn’t look in the fucking laboratory. There was some solace in the fact that Irik had been hoodwinked by their mysterious tipper as completely as he had been. Not that that would help him if, as he suspected, Gebbing decided Oskar Krizner was the man responsible for shedding light on something the Chief Inspector wanted kept dark.
Every time he started feeling bad about not promising Thijis he’d keep him out of it, he remembered why he was standing on the steps of Keynish Helg’s mansion when he could have been eating lunch in his office. Undersheriff Tolvaj showing up at a scene was about as likely as Sheriff Orban arriving in person, and Krizner had a feeling he was about to get his balls dragged over the fire. Possibly literally. He’d have enough to deal with without having to worry about convincing Abney and the other constables that Irik Thijis was never here.
It was odd, really, Gebbing sending Tolvaj. It either didn’t square, or it squared too well. Tolvaj was Special Services, one of the eggheads Orban kept at headquarters to deal with complicated legal problems involving industry and power and rich people. Special Services were the ones that looked into problems with the city generators; the ones that guarded the glowcoal deliveries and, whether they wanted to admit it or not, acted as de facto private security for the steam magnates that ran the Forge district. Men whose mansions were all around him, here in Kammerend. Devilishly interesting stuff, really, that Krizner was far too savvy to take any interest in at all. If you wanted to advance in the Sheriff’s Office, you didn’t ask questions about Special Services.
Which was why this didn’t make any sense. Gebbing was an Undersheriff in his own right, and Chief Inspector to boot, but even he stepped carefully around Tolvaj. Tolvaj had Orban’s ear in a way even Gebbing never would. There was no shortage of tension between Inspection and Special Services, and whenever that tension escalated to outright rivalry, Special came out on top.
Abney’s message from Inspection had been clear: scene to be turned over to Special Services. Undersheriff Tolvaj to take command. For Gebbing to defer to the man that quickly…
The arrival of the man himself did nothing for the lump forming in Krizner’s throat. He found himself wishing he’d had time for that second—or was it third?—cigarette.
Undersheriff Tolvaj was a thin man of medium height, with the raven black hair and pale white skin of a fullblood Elimannen. Came from an ancient family, lots of honors, history on top of history. Like Thijis, now that he thought of it, only paler and higher and stranger. Thijis might be pale, but he had the hazel eyes of a laborer and the mouth of a north coast pirate. The aristo lines of Tolvaj’s face and his quietly confident manner made Krizner feel like a scrabbling brown oaf, not to mention nervous.
“Inspector Krizner?” Tolvaj asked, climbing the steps without glancing at the constables on guard. His boots gleamed like black glass in the morning sunslight. Krizner resisted the urge to inspect his own for scuffs.
“Yes sir,” said Krizner, extending his hand. Tolvaj took it briefly, and both ignored the fact that they’d met at least twice before.
“An unfortunate business, this morning, or so I hear,” Tolvaj said as Krizner led him into the mansion.
“Yes sir,” he said, unsure of whether the man was referring to the bodies in the basement or Krizner’s failure to conceal them.
“The site has been cleared,” Tolvaj said, his bright eyes taking in the front hall, the grand staircase, the archways leading into the front rooms. It wasn’t a question.
“Myself and the two constables you passed coming in are the last men on scene, sir,” Krizner said. He had sent Abney back to headquarters to report his acknowledgment more out of pity for the boy than necessity. Gebbing didn’t need confirmation his orders had been followed, but Abney needed not to be here more.
“And Doktor Helg?”
“Left as we found him, sir,” said Krizner. The double doors leading into the parlor that preceded Helg’s lab were closed, but Tolvaj opened them without hesitation and walking in the direction of the laboratory. Just like he’s been here before. But then, that’s your theory, isn’t it? That he already knew what you’d found? That it’s some sanctioned atrocity?
A few moments later the two of them stood looking down at the still-immobile form of Keynish Helg. The doktor’s waxen skin was unchanged from when Krizner had first laid eyes on it; he still looked dead. But every few minutes his lips would move, mumbling something.
“This device has been tampered with,” Tolvaj announced, peering at the eye socket of Helg’s headpiece. The piece of glowcoal and the hardware Thijis had removed were next to Helg’s head on a rolling metal table. Tolvaj picked the glowcoal up and inspected it. He expressed no apparent surprise at the unusual tableau before him.
Forgive me, Irik. It still felt like betrayal, but there was no turning back now. Let’s hope we both get out of this in one piece. “Detective Thijis was here, sir. We called him in to consult soon after the missing person report came in.”
“You needed a consultant to help you with a missing persons case?” Tolvaj asked, putting the elekstone lump back on the table with a click.
“There are barely enough constables to keep the peace in my precinct, never mind inspectors to investigate crimes. We contract out what we can’t cover ourselves.”
“Yet you responded as well.”
“This was…I also thought that Detective Thijis’ expertise would come in—would be beneficial to this case sir. He’s more familiar with these matters than I am.”
“These matters?” Tolvaj had his eyes on Krizner now, blue and accusatory.
“Er…University matters sir. I was aware of Doktor Helg from the papers, knew he was an academic. I figured Irik—Detective Thijis—might be able to get to the bottom of it more quickly than I could.”
“Your humility is admirable, Inspector Krizner, but I’m afraid your adherence to procedure is extremely lacking. The report leading you to this address came from a man impersonating a constable, did it not?”
“Yes, sir, but I—”
“And you have access to the department rolls that are distributed regularly to every precinct, correct?”
“And did you ask the ‘constable’ in question for his number, as dictated by departmental policy when dealing with fellow officers whose identity you cannot personally confirm?”
“No, sir, but—”
“So you see, Inspector, that we have a problem.”
Krizner did indeed see a problem, and it had a lot to do with the sudden war going on inside his brain, in which his anxiety at his undoubtedly imminent firing or messy execution was failing to keep up with his fury at being spoken to like an ignorant cadet.
“If I may, Undersheriff—”
“The problem is that—”
“If I may, sir,” interjected Krizner. He felt a grim pleasure at the flash of surprise on Tolvaj’s arrogant face. “I’m well aware of department regulations. I made a mistake, yes. But given that the result of that mistake was the discovery of seventy-four murder victims, I’d have to say it was a fortuitous one, wouldn’t you? Shouldn’t our focus be on the bloody murderer lying in this chair?” He stabbed a thick brown finger at Helg.
Tolvaj looked like he’d swallowed a lemon. Krizner was taking deep breaths, trying to stop his heart from pounding out of his chest. The undersheriff had been operating under the correct presumption that Krizner knew he’d stepped on somebody’s toes at headquarters, and that the main concern for the both of them was whether or not Krizner would catch hell for doing so. He’d pulled the rug out from under him by focusing on the actual crimes they were supposed to be investigating.
“This investigation,” replied Tolvaj, after a long, quiet moment, “has only just begun. Special Services will determine whether or not any crimes have been committed here. As it is, the department will be looking into your error, Inspector Krizner, however fortuitous.”
Tolvaj turned back to Helg’s prone form, pinching his chin in thought. Krizner was left fuming, outrage and shock blossoming like a hot cloud in his brain. Determine whether any crimes have been committed? It was one thing to suspect nefarious activities were afoot, and another thing entirely to see a high-ranking undersheriff question reality to your face. The man hadn’t even seen the bodies yet, and he was already spinning it for public consumption. There were some things even Oskar Krizner couldn’t ignore. He realized with a start that he had also decided he was insulted by Tolvaj’s presumption that he would only be concerned about his own skin.
“Are you suggesting these people died of…of natural causes?” Krizner demanded. He could no longer hide his anger. “That’s the most ridiculous—”
“That will be all, Inspector Krizner. I believe Chief Inspector Gebbing desires you in his office. You are dismissed.”
He was left with the choice of doing as he was told or giving into the heat coloring his face and breaking Tolvaj’s jaw. Falling back on twenty-seven years of hidebound policing experience, Krizner turned on his heel and walked out.