Jendeas H’nendwan, captain of the Lamington Watch, slammed a fist into the dining table, causing it to shake. The table was of woodhost; it was thick and grainy but very light, and it had one unbalanced leg, causing it to rock violently. The three others at the table barely reacted—they were used to this kind of thing—and looked about casually, smiling at no one in particular. Many in the room had turned toward the noise. Most quickly returned to their studies or conversations as they noted the source.
Jendeas didn’t especially mind the scowles he was getting. His reputation wouldn’t matter anyway unless he found this criminal. And as things were, it wasn’t looking good.
The city guard had been on the hunt for seven days, and it was already the most deadly and frustrating case of his career. Seven days, and each day a new slaughter, a new case, a new problem, a new grave dug because he wasn’t smart enough. The man he was chasing was quick, cunning, and decisive. He didn’t leave trails and he didn’t have connections. And that was assuming it was a man. There was still so much he didn’t know.
Strangest of all, the murderer didn’t steal from his victims. He seemed to just kill for the sport of it. One new murder, every day. It was getting out of hand. Soon the effects would be noticeable in other provinces, and they would send higher operatives… As the thought entered his mind for the hundredth time, Jendeas started to hear his heart racing. Lungs heaving. The rest of the room began to blur and turn to spirals.
No! He picked up a serrated dining knife, then slammed it blade first into the table, inches away from his half-empty plate. It remained splitting the wood as he removed his hand, and a serving maid yelped and almost dropped a platter of something steaming nearby. She caught herself, scurrying back to the kitchen. Jendeas blinked furiously, dismissing the spirals. His companions looked uncomfortable but maintained their silence. They had finished their meals quietly some time ago, and their plates were stacked opposite his. An unnerving quiet seemed to emanate from that knife, filling the room slowly like a jar.
Jendeas was prone to these outbursts. He had been since childhood, as far as he remembered, even since before he had accidentally killed his brother’s best hound with a pitchfork. The fact that he was assigned the second-most important job in the province by birthwright certainly didn’t help. And the most stressful position, at that. People died every day, and who did the town blame? Not Nhemdore. Not the Sun or the Creator. Him.
Nhemdore H’nendwan, his brother, was the fourth Prazzedor of the Lamington Province. Lamington—a pair of towns encased in 920 acres of cherrybomb and honey orchards—was larger than most city-states, and Nhemdore was a fairly important man. That made Jendeas important by heritage, though the bond between them had never been one of love. Yet thinking of Nhemdore seemed to calm his mind. He focused on that thought, casting away the anger, lifting his hand from the knife.
Jendeas glanced around the room, suddenly self-conscious. It might not kill his reputation to make a tantrum on the case, but it certainly wouldn’t help. He began to take deep breaths. A large fire crackled on stones in the center of the room, inside a brick pillar. It was a new design, apparently made to better light the room and provide an even heat. Jendeas felt no heat whatsoever, though he was glad to be inside. Pepperfrost clouded the windows, securing the restaurant’s interior from passerby glances. Jendeas liked it here, liked it as it was now, in midwinter… usually.
The Altheno Diner was located broadly in the center of East Town, the richer and better established of the two. So far, all the murders had been in West Town. No one was sure how long that would hold. People were fleeing there quickly, coming to the East or seeking refuge in Jasmadin, the stone village just outside Lamington’s walls.
He did love this place. It wasn’t terribly expensive, a place to warm one’s soul and think. He just needed to speak again with his chief watchers, who sat across the table, patiently expecting his command. He could see them now. They were waiting for him, weren’t they? They were so loyal. He just needed to convince them. He just needed more time…
“To be enjoying your meals, I do hope?”
Jendeas’s head snapped up to greet the voice, eyes bulging and angry at being disrupted. His heart began to race again. The man who stood before them at the table’s end—Jendeas vaguely knew him as the chef’s Hand—was short but muscled, and his suit was of an ivy green, with twelve bronze buttons on each side. The man paled visibly as he saw Jendeas’s expression. “Oh… Apology, my lord…” He bowed clumsily, then began to back away. “I will just—”
Suddenly the large door in the middle of the western wall was forced open, and a gust of chilled air swept into the room, stirring the fire. The chef’s Hand leaped into the air, eyes on the entry. Several people stepped through, lifting hoods. The former was a tall man with short black hair and an intimidating demeanor, his face seemingly bare of expression, eyes forward. Behind him walked a woman with freckles and red hair that was cut almost equally short. The last figure, a man…
Jendeas cursed internally. Nhemdore. His brother.
Several of those in the room hastily rose and made deep bows, the deepest of which belonged to the Hand. The man fingered the buttons on his shirt as he rose; Nhemdore ignored him.
“Ah, brother.” The Prazzedor’s eyes locked on Jendeas. He strode across the room and took a seat without invitation at Jendeas’s table, directly across from him. Several of the others at the table shifted uncomfortably. They remained seated, however, while Nhemdore’s retinue of two remained standing, straight-backed, faces to the central fire. Nhemdore smiled naturally at Jendeas, face lit now by the grey light of winter behind and the crackling flames ahead.
He had a kindly face, greying hair swept back into a single stroke across an otherwise bald head. Jendeas was seven years his senior—the primer brother was always the ruler—and while Nhemdore wasn’t as tall when compared, his improved posture compensated greatly. The man seemed to take complete command over his seat, and his back didn’t rely on the chair’s. He sat forward, hands clasped, intent on Jendeas’s eyes. Jendeas didn’t flinch.
“You see, brother…” Nhemdore’s voice was smooth, trained to a perfect medium. “It appears we have a bit of a problem on our hands. You see… Ah. How best to explain this? People have been dropping like flies this past week. And they’re blaming us you see, now we really must get about this…”
Jendeas breathed out slowly. How infuriating it was when his brother used “we” like that. What he meant was you. You, Jed. It’s your problem. I’ve got better things on my hands: real things, politics and dinner parties, wine tastings.
His brother used different words. “One death every day now, and they blame us. Have you missed the weekly Quill, or…”
“I’ve read the damn Quill, brother.” Jendeas didn’t have time for this. He grabbed the knife, yanking it out from the table, leaving a mark. Nhemdore raised an eyebrow. “I know about the deaths. I’ve been trying. Believe me, I have. It’s just…” He paused, leaning back, shoving the plate across the table. Nhemdore raised a hand in denial. Jendeas waved to a serving maid; the Hand had disappeared since his brother’s arrival. He continued to talk as she took the remaining plates. “He doesn’t leave anything, brother. Nothing we can use as clues, no hints as to when he’s been there… It’s the same thing every time. A dead man or woman, only one for each house, no blood, just a broken window here, an unlocked door there…”
His brother frowned, furrowing a single brow. It was an act, Jendeas new, to make it seem as if the Prazzedor was pondering the situation. Jendeas doubted his brother had the slightest notion of criminology; he had barely seen a sliver of intellect from that man’s brain since they were children. Oh, he always seemed so superior to Jendeas with that walk, that voice. But Jendeas knew how to deal with criminals. Most criminals, he reminded himself. Not this one.