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Authors: Mercedes Lackey

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Four and Twenty Blackbirds

BOOK: Four and Twenty Blackbirds
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Four and Twenty Blackbirds
Mercedes Lackey

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 1997 by Mercedes Lackey
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.
A Baen Books Original
Baen Publishing Enterprises
P.O. Box 1403
Riverdale, NY 10471
ISBN: 0-671-87853-0
Cover art by Darrell K. Sweet
First printing, December 1997
Distributed by Simon & Schuster
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Lackey, Mercedes.

Four & twenty blackbirds / by Mercedes Lackey.
p. cm. — (Bardic voices ; bk. 4)
"A Baen books original"—T.p. verso
ISBN 0-671-87853-0
I. Title. II. Series: Lackey, Mercedes. Bardic voices ; bk. 4.

PS3562.A246F68 1997 97-29672
813'.54—dc21 CIP
Typeset by Windhaven Press, Auburn, NH
Printed in the United States of America

Chapter One

Rain, cold rain, as icy as only a midwinter night could make it, dripped despairingly into the dismal streets of the city of Haldene. It should have cleansed the pavements, but instead it left them looking slick and oily; glistening with a dubious sheen, but not clean. There was a single lamp burning outside a warehouse two doors down, but although the flame burned bravely, it did little to illuminate anything beyond the immediate area of the door it hung above. The rain soaked through everything; the piles of refuse waiting for the rag-picker beside each warehouse and tavern door, Tal Rufen's waxed cape and the woolen coat beneath it—

—the limp and lifeless body of the street-singer at his feet—

More wavering light from his storm-lantern moved uncertainly across her pale cheek and gave her a cheating semblance of life. She sprawled in a strange, contorted snarl of limbs and wet garments, lying half on her back and half on her side, with her arms outflung to the uncaring sky. Her own ragged cape, a garment of the poorest and shabbiest kind, threadbare and patched and heavy with rain, had been thrown partially to one side as she fell. It had not given her much protection from the cold and rain when she had been alive, nor had the thin chemise that served her as a blouse, now soaked and clinging to her thin torso, nor the coarse-woven skirt, torn and muddy about the hem. Her feet, though not bare, wore "poor-man's boots" of thick stockings clumsily made of scraps of yarn salvaged and reknitted, and soled with leather likewise salvaged from some other article too worn to save. Harness-leather, Tal thought, judging from the wear spots on it; her feet were slim enough that pieces cut from a worn saddle-girth would be just wide enough to serve her as soles. Such make-do foot-gear wouldn't serve to protect from rain and not much from snow, but they would have served to keep the feet out of direct contact with frigid cobblestones.

Her instrument, a tambour-drum, lay a little way from her hand, skin-down in a puddle on the street where it had landed when she fell. It was a very cheap drum, quickly made, undecorated. A drum was the usual instrument of the poorest musicians because drums were the most inexpensive of all forms of music-maker. The rim was already warped by the rain; one of the cross-braces had popped out, and even the skin would be ruined by now. No longer useful, it was another piece of flotsam for the rag-pickers and scavengers, who would soon be quarreling over the rest of the girl's meager possessions.

She had been faintly pretty—would have been quite attractive, if poverty and hunger hadn't already left their marks on her in the form of bad teeth, a sallow complexion, and lank hair. The witnesses said she had a pleasant enough voice, but made up for all deficiencies of face and voice with a sunny, outgoing disposition. Unlike some, apparently she had never supplemented her street-singing with other sources of income; she'd never, at least in the course of cursory questioning of those who knew her, ever been known to sell herself as well as her songs.
She was too proud,
said one of the local stall-keepers who'd come to identify her body, a man who sold hot drinks and fried fish in the nearby fish-market where she made her usual stand. He'd meant that in the best possible sense and as a compliment, for the thin body beneath the threadbare clothing would only have attracted the attention of someone mistaking her for a preadolescent.

The cause of her death was obvious enough, even without the witness to the murder. Despite the rain, blood the color of black rubies still stained the front of her chemise and soaked into her skirt in a dark blotch; not just a stab-wound, a blow like this one told Tal a tale of rage, rage against the victim that a simple thrust of the knife could not purge. Her murderer had practically disemboweled her with a single stroke.

And that simple fact just did not
fit.
 

The stall-keeper had seen her murderer accost her; he'd even overheard a little of the conversation. The man had offered a job, spoken of a gathering of friends in one of the more reliable dockside taverns who wanted a bit of lively music, and had even mentioned another musician who had agreed to come. So far as the stall-keeper knew, he was a stranger to this part of the docks; the girl had spent the last year or more at the corner in front of the stall-keeper's stand, and the fellow swore he'd never seen the man before today. Nor had the girl herself shown any sign of recognition when he'd spoken to her.

A piece that doesn't fit.
This murderer was a stranger, by the accounts, and bloody work of this level of savagery only came from the desperate power of a wounded animal, or the rage of someone formerly close to the victim. How could a stranger have built up such a terrible anger against the girl? That level of anger needed reasons, and a long and careful nurturing, both of which required previous acquaintance.

The stall-keeper was somewhat in shock and hadn't been able to throw any light of knowledge on this terrible situation.

Nor could the single witness to the murder itself, a boy of about nine who sat a few yards away, shivering in the shelter of his mother's tavern—the one to which the girl had allegedly been invited—so traumatized he was barely able to speak. He rocked back and forth slowly with his arms wrapped around his thin torso. The boy only knew what he'd already told Tal; that the girl had been walking alongside a man as the boy waited outside the tavern for the bread-baker to make his delivery. The man had stopped and pointed to something on the river; the girl had turned to look. While she was distracted, the man had taken his knife from a sheath at his belt.

Then with no warning at all, the man stabbed her viciously, ripping upward with such force that he lifted her off the ground, caught on the cross-guard of his blade. His fist drove all the air from her lungs in a great, choking gasp, leaving her unable to cry out. Not that it would have done her any good, for she bled her life away too quickly for help to arrive. The boy had been completely paralyzed with shock and terror, able only to shrink back into the shadows in hopes that he had not been noticed, and certain he was about to be murdered on his own doorstep. That instinctive reaction might indeed have saved his life.

The man had shaken the girl off the knife
as if he was shaking off a bit of fish-gut.
That was the analogy the boy used, and it looked apt judging by the way the girl had fallen. She hadn't been dead when she hit the pavement, but she was dying. She'd made a single abortive attempt to rise, one hand clutching the wound in her stomach, before she fell back again, and died in a gush of blood.

The man had ignored her, just as if he didn't realize he had just murdered someone. He had looked around, his face frozen in what the witness said was "a horrible look." Tal wished he knew just what that "horrible look" was; the expression might have given him more clues.

Then the man had dropped the knife casually beside the body, walked straight to the edge of the dock, and kept going, falling right into the Kanar River. The current was powerful here and the water cold and deep. Not even a strong swimmer would survive long, and Tal expected to hear that they'd pulled the murderer's body out of the shallows by morning.

That was the point at which the boy had run for his mother, who had sent the tavern's peace-keeper for the constables rather than going out and investigating herself. You didn't live long in the wharf-district by throwing yourself into the darkness after a murderer. She and her son had stayed safely in the tavern until the constables arrived.

The witness had been very clear on one thing that had Tal very puzzled: the murderer had dropped the knife beside the body. Between his cursory examination and the witness's description, Tal judged that it was a very unusual knife, three-sided, like an ice-pick or a stiletto, with a prominent hilt. And here was the last of the pieces that did not fit, for the knife was gone. If someone had rifled the body in the time it had taken the boy to run to his mother, and his mother to get the constables, then why was the clothing completely undisturbed and why was the girl's meager pouch of coins still on her belt? Why steal a knife, especially one that had been used in a murder?

That was the real question; for most people, even the most hardened dock-rat, the idea of merely touching such a weapon would be terrifying. There was a superstition about such knives; that a blade that had once tasted a life would hunger for more, driving the unfortunate owner to more murders or to suicide.

All of these things were small, but they added up to a disruption of the pattern that should have been there, familiar and inescapable. But there was a pattern this case
did
fit: a series of four similarly horrific murders that had taken place over the past six months. All of the victims were women, all were poor, all were street-entertainers, and all were murdered between midnight and dawn.

All had been killed with a similar, triangular-bladed knife, and presumably all had been murdered for some reason other than money. He could not be sure of that last, because this was the first such murder to have a witness.

Three of the cases had been marked as solved. Two of the murderers had committed suicide on the spot, even before their victims were actually dead, and one murder was attributed to a man who'd been picked up the next day, raving and covered with blood, and quite mad. All of the women had lived alone, without lovers, husbands or children, in small coffin-like basement or attic rooms in tenement houses, rooms too small for a normal-sized man to lie down in. They owned little more than the clothing they stood up in, a rude pallet to sleep on, and their instruments. They eked out a precarious existence, balancing rent against food in a desperate juggling act played out day after day without respite.

They were like hundreds, thousands of others in the city, yet in this they were different. They had not died of cold, disease, or starvation; someone had murdered them, and Tal was convinced that there was more to these murders than simple random violence. There was suspicion of sorcery and enchantment being involved—there always was such talk around murders, more from superstition than actual suspicion. While he had seen the evidence of magic often enough, from the legerdemain of street tricksters to the awe-inspiring, palpable auras of "high magic," he preferred to look for more conventional explanations than the supernatural. Tal believed that it was wisest to look for the answers that came from what normal people could devise, afford, and enact, and kept his deductive powers "clean" since it was all too convenient to chalk up uncomfortable mysteries to dark forces.

"Tal, it's time to go." The words, uttered, he now realized, for the third time, finally penetrated his consciousness. He looked up, to gaze into the weary and cynical eyes of Jeris Vane, the constable who shared night-duty in this district with him.

"You aren't going to learn anything we don't already know," Jeris said, as if explaining something to a brain-damaged child, "We have a murderer, and he's already taken his punishment into his own hands. The case is closed. Let's go back to the station, fill out our reports, and make it official."

Tal shook his head stubbornly, holding up his lantern to illuminate Jeris's face. "There's something about this that's just not right," he replied, and saw Jeris's mouth tighten into a thin, hard line. "I know it
looks
cut and dried—"

"That's because it is," Jeris snapped, water dripping off his hat brim as he spoke. "There's no reason to pursue this any further. We have what we need—one victim, one criminal, one witness, one suicide, end of question."

"But why would—"

Jeris interrupted him again.
"Why
is not your job, or mine, or any other constable's.
What
and w
ho,
maybe, but not w
hy.
We don't worry about the reasons people do things. We catch them, and after we do, we hand them over to the Justiciars, the gaolers, and the executioners. Worrying about things that are not part of your job will only bring you trouble. I'll be at the station when you decide to straggle in from meddling in things that aren't your business."

BOOK: Four and Twenty Blackbirds
12.91Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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