Thijis trudged up the steps to his flat feeling tired and hunted. It was late afternoon. The walk home from the Warrens had soaked his shirt with sweat and eradicated the pleasant floating sensation he’d acquired from two Eberan Whiskey Slings. He hadn’t been drunk enough to waste money on a hackney cab.

Thijis lived in Ebsea, a small neighborhood wedged in between the newer construction of the University district and the eastern end of the Warrens. Too expensive for Warreners and too poor for people of substance, it fit his needs well. He could afford an entire floor of an ancient building that he thought had originally been a chapter house for a military order of some sort—what remained of the engraving over the front gate had a spear in it and the graffiti in the cracked, dry cellar baths seemed to suggest as much.

The owner was an aging socialite who had made several questionable investments in real estate in his middle age, and had mostly left them to rot; he rented the top floor to Thijis at a reduced rate and, in exchange, Irik never bothered him about the rats in the cellar and kept the place free of squatters and sauma fiends who might damage it beyond future sale. The only other tenant at the moment was an old midwife who lived on the first floor with her daughter, both of whom thought Thijis entirely ignorant of the fact that they were practicing medicine without a license or the proper set of genitals.

He unlocked the front door and entered the cool front hall with a sigh, nodding to the short queue of waiting patients outside the women’s door before climbing the main staircase. He tore his jacket off as soon as he reached his flat, rolled up his sleeves and poured himself a glass of water from the warm pitcher near the wood stove in the small kitchen. He’d had a couple of builders who owed him a favor knock down several walls when he moved in, creating a large open space defined only by what it held within it. His bed was in one corner, under the high windows, his worktables and desk in the opposite corner; a variety of chairs, bookshelves, and a small dining table in between. In a cabinet beneath a window, he kept a well stocked bar.

Thijis poured himself a drink, pear brandy with soda from a siphon. He wished he had thought to buy some ice to put in it, one of the big heavy blocks the grocer around the corner sold for a quarter crown. But, much like the cab, he hadn’t been drunk enough to spend the chits. His living was a good one, when it was flowing: looking at the four case files on his desk, he sighed. Nothing seemed like too small an excuse to keep him out of that chair right now. He gave up trying to find one and simply admitted he had no interest in working, then climbed the steps to the roof and sat under the palm trees that grew in the overgrown corner garden, somehow still thriving in the massive pots that may well have been as old as the house for all Thijis knew.

It felt like home. Like his home, without Dalia. She hadn’t lived here for long before she’d left. She didn’t like it, preferred their little walk-up at Marketend. She had liked the cherry trees, their blossoms in the spring the prettiest in the city, or so Marketenders claimed. Thijis had liked it because Dalia did, but the space was small and not ideal, and when he’d left the Prosecutors Office and gone into private practice he’d told her they had to move. That wasn’t why she had left, he didn’t think, but it hadn’t helped.

Irik sipped at his brandy and soda and watched the suns set over the western horizon, Oridos spread before him like a hilly blanket. The spires of the University captured Palo, the larger sun, as it followed its little brother Alon into the dark of night beneath the sphere of the world. Or, rather, as the sphere of the world rotates away from it. You’re thinking like a bloody monk now.

On a small table beside his chair sat a brown leather case. Taking out his pipe along with his lighter, he put them next to the case and unbuckled the top, revealing the shiny brass horn and cylinder of his recorder. Cranking it several times, he lit a fresh pipe and sat back as the first strains of Agne’s Second Symphony rose through the evening air.

There were no perfect moments in life, Thijis had learned, no divinely structured motifs or refrains. Tempo and melody were random; theme came from within or not at all. There was the chaos of reality, and the human intent that tried in vain to shape it. Inhaling deeply, he looked out as the last of the day fled and thought that his own symphony had started to sound atonal, of late. Or perhaps for longer. But every movement had its end. It was only a matter of playing it out.

* * *

He woke the next morning in his bed, half-clothed, twisted in clinging sheets damp with sweat. He dimly remembered coming down from the roof and pouring another drink, then sitting at his desk and opening a file folder. Running his hands through his hair, which was brushing his shoulders and in need of a wash, Thijis was contemplating making coffee with equal parts enthusiasm and trepidation when he heard a knock on the door.

The sound came again just as he got to the door, three sharp raps. He heard a man clear his throat politely behind the door.

He must have presented quite the picture, opening the door as he did: he was shirtless, barefoot, his trousers wrinkled near the hem from where he’d stuffed them into his boots in Helg’s cellar, and he was fairly sure he smelled of booze and rot. The pinch-nosed man who stood before him wore formal morning dress, and Thijis was fairly sure he’d be able to see his reflection in his gleaming, perfectly parted hair. Not that he wanted to at the moment.

“Yes?”

The man was obviously a lord’s servant of some sort. His clothing was fine but subdued, the deep grey of the suit at sharp odds with the bright, fussy attire currently in vogue among the nobility. Too young to be a head butler, but a senior underbutler, perhaps…yes, more likely. What any lord wanted with Irik Thijis, Irik Thijis could not, at that moment, begin to imagine.

“Good morning, sir,” said the slicked-up poof, producing an expensive looking envelope from inside his coat. “From the Margravine Hevrany. Good day, sir.” He took it. The man gave him a slight bow, clicked his boot heels, and without another word promptly returned down the hallway, where Thijis heard him descending the staircase at a pace that seemed to perfectly encapsulate the ideal of respectable, business-like promptness.

He slammed the door shut, slapped the letter down on his kitchen table, and went about the much more important business of arranging himself a cup of decent coffee.

Some time later, having fed himself on the steam from his siphon before even taking the first sip, Thijis sat down at his modest kitchen table to examine his first noble communication.

It was impressively heavy, a creamy square, his name written in perfect copperplate on the front, the pointed edge of the back flap left rough. Only one or two stationers in the city made paper so fine. At its point a seal was affixed in black wax: a stylized H in the old Elimannen script. Henravy. A very old house, if he remembered his history, though one fallen on hard times. Ancestral lands in the south, long absorbed by the tribal satraps who controlled Westalen south of the Great Wash. Tradition and a large amount of inherited wealth, invested conservatively, kept them afloat, while a sizable vote in the Derukammer—the old house of lords—and the still impressive title of margrave, or margravine in this case, kept them relevant politically. But in Oridos, old money was only relevant as long as it was in the room. Which wasn’t very often, in a city increasingly driven by the needs and whims of a growing industrial elite.

He broke the seal and removed the folded parchment within.

Mr. Thijis:

I would be honored if you would join me for dinner this evening.

My coachman will be pleased to collect you at your residence at seven o’clock.

Yours,

Lady Mariel Hevrany

“Since you ask so nicely,” Thijis murmured to himself. Oridosi bluebloods were hardly known for their condescension, but the Margravine’s invitation was brusque even for an aristo crone. The letter was scented, he noted, bringing it to his nose: jasmine and lemon peel. Quite tasteful, my lady.

Sipping the oily demitasse of coffee he’d prepared for himself, Thijis leaned back in his chair and considered which of his suits to wear to dinner, and which pistol to strap on underneath it.

* * *

At seven o’clock, dressed in his best suit, a midnight blue coat with a pinstriped waistcoat, breeches tucked into polished boots, Thijis awaited the Margravine Hevrany’s coachman just inside the gate of his residence.

He wanted a pipe, but smoking crab was seen by many as an unpleasant habit favored primarily by sea captains and dock workers, and it wouldn’t do to make a poor first impression. Are you actually nervous, Thijis? Some shriveled up blueblood matriarch invites you to dinner and all of a sudden you’re a boy with his first handful of thigh? He cleared his throat and waved to the midwife’s daughter, a slender, shy girl of sixteen who he was beginning to think might have a crush on him. She was going out to market, basket in hand, and looked as if she might stop to talk with him. As intriguing as such a proposition was, Thijis had seen the muscle on her mother’s arm and the glare in her eye when her daughter was about, and felt that this was a situation best left alone.

He was saved by the sudden arrival of a coach-and-four, black lacquer gleaming in the fading sunslight, the equally black horses snorting and chuffing as the driver reined them in. The footman had the door open and the steps down before the coach had come to a stop, and Thijis nodded to the girl—Mela? Melana?—before disappearing gratefully into its well appointed interior.

He half-expected to be greeted by some mysterious figure inside—a majordomo, or the Margravine herself, perhaps?—but such things were the stuff of penny dreadfuls hawked to milliners’ wives.

Thijis drew the curtains to look out the window as the coach pulled away. A wicker basket attached to the wall held a bottle of cool water and a cooler bottle of sparkling wine. The wine was tempting, but clear faculties at dinner more so. He watched Ebsea pass away and Kammerend begin, and in less than half an hour they were there.

The Hevrany mansion was in a part of Kammerend he was familiar with only by reputation. Lewsberg Court was a spacious, utterly private square at the crest of the Telamine Hill, and the pumping blue heart of all that was rich and old in Oridos. The ancient Oridosi houses all had their family homes there; houses with names like Kalan, Waudgern, and Timoleon. Houses whose lines dated back to the Kans of old—lords of the original Taking of the city from the Eberai horde.

Suffice it to say that Irik Thijis had never set foot in it, let alone been invited inside one of its manses. When the coach came to a halt he stepped out on his own, enjoying the flash of surprise on the footman’s face. Coming down the front walk was the same man who had brought him the letter that morning, as dapper as ever, though now in evening dress, of course. He was one of those fastidious men who made you feel shabby no matter how impeccable you looked. Thijis tipped his hat, a medium-brimmed, rather shapeless affair that he thought looked quite dashing.

“Sir,” said Thijis.

“Mr. Thijis,” said the underbutler, bowing. “I am Jantis.” He turned, apparently expecting Thijis to follow.

The front door of the house, which looked to have been carved out of bedrock by some ancient god, had more in common with a castle gate than the simple portal most men referred to when using the word. Doors, really: they opened at the hands of liveried servants upon Jantis’ approach, and then the house swallowed them up.

“May I take your hat, sir?” Jantis asked.

“Ah. Yes, of course,” said Thijis, doffing it and handing it over. “I expect it returned in the same condition in which it was given, now.” He winked for effect.

“Of course, sir,” Jantis said with a tolerant drawl.

The hall they stood in was worthy of the name, a great vaulted space centered on a spreading staircase. To either side were two large salons; the rest of the house ran backwards, behind the stairs, the half-paneled walls seemingly endless.

“If you’ll come with me, sir,” said Jantis, guiding him toward the right hand parlor.

A few minutes later, Thijis found himself seated in a tufted leather chair, a crystal goblet of Deschiara white in his hand. The bottle, freshly opened, cooled in a bucket of salted ice on a table beside him. His hesitation at drinking before meeting the Margravine vanished upon seeing the vintage year on the bottle: 67 T.E. Almost four hundred years old. White wine didn’t last that long, which meant it was stored in elekstone. Given that elekstone was currently valued at significantly more than gold, it gave some indication of the wealth of a person who would use the substance to store wine.

Sixty-seven years into the Third Era would make it one of the first vintages after the Rehabitation. The grapes that made the wine in this bottle likely came from the first vines planted after the Race War. It was worth more than his apartment. More than everything he owned. Does Margravine Hevrany extend such hospitality to all of her guests? Somehow he didn’t think so. He put his nose in the glass and smelled an age dead for centuries, took a sip and tasted the spicy honey-citrus notes of the first decades of peace following a war that made the world itself bleed.

His suspicion was confirmed a moment later, when one of Jantis’ young men brought out a cut crystal dish with a matching cover, which he removed with a flourish. Inside, scuttling sluggishly on a bed of fresh seaweed, were several orange crablings. The good ones, from the southern shores.

“Fuck me,” said Thijis.

“I beg your pardon, sir?” said the young man concernedly.

“It appears your mistress has done her homework.”

The underbutler quirked a small smile. “The Margravine is a formidable hostess, sir.”

“Indeed.” Thijis cleared his throat and sat back in the chair. “All the same, I think I must decline. It’s an unfortunate habit, and not one I wish to inflict upon her ladyship.” The boy nodded, covered the dish, and disappeared back out the small servants’ door from which he had entered.

He lost himself in the wine, savoring each sip independently, holding it in his mouth and rolling it around his tongue. Just as his mind began to open up, to give birth to the various tendrils of parallel thought that characterized his most deductive moments, Thijis realized he was being watched.

She wore a black gown that draped her alluringly, wrapped tight in all the right places with a cream colored, winding sash. She had the same blue-black Elimannen hair as he did, but hers shimmered like a becalmed nighttime sea. Her eyes were ice blue and shocking, her skin translucent ivory. He could see the blue veins at her throat and over the marble expanse of her shoulders, bared for evening. She was young, not more than 25, and painfully beautiful, and she was smiling at him.

He cleared his throat again and rose.

“My apologies,” he said. “I didn’t hear you come in.”

“I step quietly, Mr. Thijis.”

“You have me at a disadvantage, my lady.” He hadn’t heard that the Margravine had a daughter, but it wasn’t as if he spent a great deal of time following the ins and outs of high society.

“I prefer it that way,” she said, and flashed her teeth at him.

“As you already know my name, would you do me the honor of telling me yours? The Margravine’s invitation did not indicate that we would have such lovely company for dinner.”

“Perhaps the Margravine considered her own company lovely enough,” she said, gliding toward him. Lifting the bottle from its bucket, she raised her other hand behind her gracefully. Jantis appeared as if summoned from an oil lamp, producing another crystal goblet more quickly than she could have gotten one herself. “A marvelous year, is it not?”

“The best I’ve ever tasted, my lady. The Margravine is far too kind.” If Hevrany’s saucy daughter wanted to drink with him, he’d be happy to indulge her. The lady of the house appeared in no particular rush to honor her dinner invitation in any case.

“Not many would say so,” the girl said.

“Well, I do,” said Thijis, sipping his wine.

She poured for herself and drank, and the sight of her lips pursed around the edge of the goblet and her pale throat bobbing as she drank would have slain a lesser man on the spot. Thijis, reminding himself that he prided himself on his professionalism, swallowed and adjusted his stance slightly. He was beginning to understand why courtiers stood this way, one leg out in front of the other.

Several long moments of awkward silence passedbefore he cracked.

“Might I ask, my lady, when your lady mother will be joining us?” Thijis asked. Certainly this was the Margravine’s daughter, and he was beginning to feel more than a little uncomfortable. It wasn’t often that anyone had the better of him, particularly a woman young enough to be his own child.

“If it’s my mother you want,” she said, putting her glass down and looking out the window, “I’ll have to call for my wrap. The family crypt can be quite chilly, even at highsummer.”

What should have been obvious from the moment she walked in the door came crashing down all at once, and Thijis put his own glass down with a click.

“Some detective I am,” he said, a number of unfortunate conclusions beginning to coalesce in his brain.

“You were right about one thing, detective,” said Margravine Hevrany, turning her icy eyes on him again, “Someone has us both at a disadvantage. And I’m afraid that whether we like it or not, the tragedy of one very sick man may prove our very messy undoing.”

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