Why the Sea is Boiling Hot

Reading Time: 21 minutes


Six people sit at the table. Dinner is the prelude. The real business will come after the dessert: murder.

My neighbor on the right raises his glass. “May your thoughts take wind, young lady.” The smile on his cadaverous face fails to reach his sunken eyes. The hand holding the glass trembles, the amber liquid swirling like a troubled sea.

Pater Biell, a priest of the Fire God, that’s all the file said. Market gossip filled the chasms: entered priesthood at twenty after the death of his lover; helps waifs and strays. In a room of silks and brocades, his homespun robe stands out. Simplicity is his charm, his power.

I raise my own glass. “And may yours reach the sun.” It’s a popular greeting in the city-state of Sheebatiya. I’ve heard it often during my fortnight here.

My neighbor on the left murmurs, “You aren’t eating, Allii.” Bruno, merchant and politician. He brought me the file.

“I have a sore throat,” I reply. A good one, as excuses go.

The desultory buzz around me ceases. Prince Pollin smiles at me, bejeweled fingers caressing the gold-tinted goatee. “Unpleasant malady, that. Makes you feel like death, eh?” He is Sheebatiya’s hereditary-ruler and tonight’s host.

There are polite murmurs about the undesirability of sore throats. Politeness is the common creed here.

Kllementina, Sheebatiya’s premier witch, turns to me, her face gaunter than yesterday, more lined. “Take sand orange extract with hot water.”  Schooling the young and healing the sick is witch-business.

(Image by kalhh from Pixabay)

Her neighbor nods his egg-shaped head. Tigerius, arch-priest of the Fire God, Biell’s boss, though I doubt whether Biell heeds anything except his conscience. “You’ve rented a place by the river. Mistake. Damp, you know, damp.”

“But cheap.” Klementina’s voice, unlike my rented cottage, is dry.

The conversation returns to familiar grooves, house prices, harvests, flooding, trade… They are all friends here.

Sheebatiya is an open city, but these people, its ruling clique, remind me of a locked room. Familiarity forms its walls; its door is politeness; keys of overlapping interests secure it. I need to find a way into that room to reveal the identity of a killer and expose a plan that goes way beyond simple murder.


It began when Bruno arrived at the doorstep of my rented cottage two days ago.

Spooky, my fellow investigator, friend, and daemon-dog, was busy with some family matters. I had decided to use his absence to catch some rest. Sheebatiya had seemed a good place for hibernation. As a trading-hub, strangers were the norm there. Many of its citizens, with their coppery hair and skin, looked like versions of me. Its three arboreta and the Museum of Herbs were added attractions.

That morning I was sitting on the porch, reading a book on equatorial plants when a short compact figure opened the dilapidated gate and ambled up the permanently muddy path. Bruno greeted me by name, introduced himself, and complemented me on my success as an itinerant investigator. I could sense him taking stock of me, from my short hair and the scar on my face to my clean albeit old trousers and blouse. I returned the scrutiny, allowing my eyes to roam from his hairless head and pudgy face to the expensive sandals on his strangely small feet.

Suddenly he smiled, which gave his face a childlike quality and disposed his bulk on the rickety chair with surprising grace, and got down to business.


“Four deaths in nine days.” He produced a file from inside his voluminous robe. “These are copies of the investigative reports.”

I raised an eyebrow. “You have an efficient investigative force, Master Bruno. Why involve a stranger?” Sheebatiya’s Prefects, who kept peace and investigated crimes, were renowned across the world of Pegala for their efficacy and honesty.

“I’m seeking your involvement precisely because you are a stranger.”

I stared at him, waiting for more. He stared back, looking like a kindly stone idol.

I shrugged and opened the file. The first page contained a summary.

  1. Tawna, weaver: knifed. Milo, a priest of the Fire God was arrested and released as he had an alibi.
  2. Lootu, potter: found hung inside his house. Initially regarded as suicide. But the suicide note was a forgery.
  3. Billie, a mechanist: died in his sleep. Initially regarded as a natural death. But his half empty vial of heart medication contained traces of bandik, a poison inducing heart failure.
  4. Browenna, a scribe: died in a house-fire. Initially regarded as an accident. But tracers of drachen, fire-igniting crystals, were found among the charred remains.

I looked up. “The last incident was three days ago. I trust no more have happened.”

Bruno shook his head. “No, not yet.”

I checked the first entry. “The only suspect in Tawna’s murder was released because he had an alibi. Alibis can be faked.”

“Not this one. Milo was with another priest named Biell. He is a bit of a legend for his honesty.”

I nodded. I’ve heard plenty about Biell’s honesty in my short stay here.

The chair creaked in protest as Bruno’s bulk shifted. “The victim’s companion is being watched. Her name is Sharu. She is a witch; teaches at the College of Higher Learning.” Bruno splayed his hands. “Neighbors had heard frequent arguments…”

I checked the file. “The second death. Lootu. What was wrong with the suicide note?”

“Lootu’s right hand suffered from tremors. The note was in his handwriting, but with each letter perfectly executed. Neighbors confirmed that he was a right-hander.”

“What about the suicide knot?”

Bruno stared. “Suicide knot?”

“The knot on the rope. A man with an unsteady hand would find it a hard task.”

Bruno’s smile was bitter. “The neighbors untied him the first thing, in the hope of reviving him.”

They would. “Any suspects?”

The chair groaned, as Bruno squirmed. “Witches can replicate the handwriting of anyone. The use of that power is banned by the Coda that governs Sheebatiya, but it does happen occasionally.”

“So a witch is implicated?”

“As you might know, we have a hereditary ruler, but he is guided by an advisory council called the Conclave. The Conclave has five members, representatives of the Associations of Scholars, Traders and Mechanists, the arch-priest of the Fire God and the premier-witch.” The chair howled as Bruno’s bulk seesawed. “Mistress Kllementina is the current premier-witch. Lootu was once her student.”

Suddenly Bruno’s presence in my house made sense. I glanced at the list of names and hazarded a guess. “Was the third victim, Billie, a patient of Kllementina’s by any chance?”

“Took treatment from her Healing House for his heart ailment.”

I raised an eyebrow. “And witches use drachen in their experiments to create a controllable fire. Drachen also leaves a distinctive smell.”

Bruno nodded.

“So the word witch is written across every murder?”

Bruno’s eyes caught mine. “We’ve tried to keep things under wraps, but rumors are afloat. Witches have been a part of the city since its inception. We depend on them, and dislike that dependence, almost in equal measure.”

I frowned, as the first twinges of worry pricked me.

Bruno sighed. “The first rule of magic is the taboo on harming humans. If rumors of a killer witch gain traction, Sheebatiya might explode in anger. We’d have mobs controlling the city, and streets running with blood.”

Politicians love hyperbole, but Bruno’s fears were no exaggeration. That was what happened last year in Libbet, a kingdom close to Pegala’s northern-pole. Rumors raged about that mages were abducting and sacrificing babies. Facts belied the tales but proof was of no matter. Mobs never cared about evidence, or asked questions.

Bruno fetched a paper from an inner pocket. “This appeared three days ago…”

It was a crudely printed pamphlet, bearing an image of an old woman with a crooked nose and beady eyes, her toothless mouth opened in a feral grin. There was power in that image.

“Grab a witch by her throat,

Evil hag, make her croak,

Kill her first or she’ll kill you,

And sup upon your lifeblood too.”

I looked up from the words, and read the message on Bruno’s face.

“Most of our prefects were taught by witches. Anything they uncover can therefore be suspect. We need someone with no involvement in city politics, no stake in any outcome.” He coughed. “You will be compensated, of course, according to your own terms.”

So much for hibernation.

“I’d like to meet the prefect in charge.”

Bruno got up. “Chief Patzie. Would this afternoon be convenient?”

I nodded. “Please understand that I will reveal the truth as I find it, irrespective of consequences. If any witch is involved, so be it.”

He bowed. “We expect nothing less.”


Chief Patzie was squarely built and middle-aged. Her sky-grey eyes lingered an extra second on my scar, a diagonal slash of dull red, puckering my skin and making one eye seem smaller than the other.

“A poisoned knife,” I said. That scar that spanned my left cheek was the first thing people looked at. Generally I ignored the stares. But with this woman, I wanted to establish a connection.

Her smile was grim, but not humorless. “I’ve a few too, though not so visible. This is that kind of business.” She took a packet of cinnamon sticks from her pocket and offered me one. “Bruno said you’d have some questions.”

“What was your first impression on visiting each of the crime scenes?”

Patzie nibbled at her cinnamon stick. “That there was something staged. No evidence; just a feeling. You learn to smell phony in this line of work.”

“All of them felt staged?”

Patzie’s eyes narrowed. “No, I didn’t get that sense at the first crime scene.”

“That would be Tawna. Was the murder weapon found?”

Patzie bit into the cinnamon stick. “No. We are still searching for the knife, but I doubt we’ll succeed.”

I glanced at my notes. “From the file, I inferred that other than the first victim, Tawna, all other victims lived alone.”

“No close relatives; nothing much in terms of material possessions. They weren’t killed for their money for sure. If the handwriting discrepancy hadn’t been noticed, Lootu’s death would have passed as suicide.”

“Who noticed the discrepancy?”

“Pater Biell. Once we started looking there was plenty of evidence to prove that Lootu had a tremor; neighbors’ statements, treatment records.” She frowned. “Billie’s death too would have passed as normal. Fortunately a neighbor noticed the changed color in the vial. She used to buy the medicine for him occasionally. We tested the medicine and found the poison. With Browenna, the reek of drachen was unmistakable.”

“So the stage-setter trying to pass off murder as natural death or suicide had done a bad job there?”

“May not have had the time to clean up.” Patzie’s voice was hesitant, uncertain.

“Can a rogue witch be responsible for the deaths? There are rogue witches, I presume?”

Patzie chomped on the cinnamon stick. “Rogue witches, yes. Killer witches, never.”

“There’s always a first time.”

“I guess.” Patzie swallowed the last bit of the cinnamon stick and stood up.  “If you are ready, I’ll take you to meet Sharu, Tawna’s companion. Pater Biell, who provided Milo with his unshakeable alibi, promised to drop by. That way you can finish two meetings in one go. Biell also agreed to take you to see where the other victims lived.”


Chief Patzie made the introductions and left.

Sharu, a slim woman with delicate features, sat across me, pouring a frothy confection of hot cinnamon and cream into two cups without spilling a drop. She offered me a cup and drank hers in a couple of gulps.

I sipped mine, using the time to study my surrounding. A painting of a flowery valley done in painfully bright pinks, blues and greens hung above an austere worktable of dull brown; a glazed pottery vase in gold and red sat upon a tall bookcase with neatly bound volumes… Taken separately nothing fitted; but considered as a whole, the effect was somehow pleasing.

Two clashing personalities had found a way of coexistence here.

“I want Tawna’s killer brought to justice,” Sharu said. “Ask anything of me.” Her voice was steady. On her lap, almost hidden in the folds of her green mourning robe, one beautifully formed hand clenched and unclenched slowly.

“Thank you. Tell me where you were when the murder happened.” I knew the answer from the file. But there was nothing like listening to the words, watching the emotions. Even the most comprehensive written report could miss something of relevance.

“I had gone out for a walk.”

“In the middle of the day?”

The hand clenched into a tight ball, though the face remained blank. “We had words. I needed to clear my head.”

“Words about what?”

“Nothing important.”

I leaned forward. “I know this is hard for you. But when trying to uncover a murder, everything is important.”

She looked down at her clenched fist, though I doubted she saw it. “Tawna thought I was interested in another woman.”

“A witch?”

She nodded without looking up.

“So was Tawna right?”

Sharu’s head whipped up, her eyes flashing like angry stars. Then the fiery light bled out, leaving her eyes dead. When she spoke, I had to lean forward to catch her words. “She was my reason for living.”

I made a mental note. Boundless love could kill as readily as boundless hate.

Sharu poured some more cinnamon drink into her cup. She stopped and stared at the half-filled cup and the puddle of light brown liquid around it. She picked up the cup and put it back on the tray with a clutter.

“Tell me about the man initially suspected of the murder,” I said. “Milo, right?”

She stared at me, hands gripping the robe slowly. Then the fingers unclenched and she relaxed against the chair. “Milo is a priest of the Fire God. He preaches against everyone, says witches are immoral, politicians venal, his own priestly-colleagues frauds. He was forever at Tawna, demanding she leave me, saying it was a grave sin for two women to love each other. I used to tease Tawna that he was in love with her himself.”

“Could he have murdered her in a fit of fury?”

“He has an alibi.”

“Before that discovery was made, did you feel he could have done it?”

Sharu spoke after a long silence. “A neighbor claimed to have seen him running from the house in a state of agitation. That was why he was arrested. But I was surprised. Had I been the victim, he should have been the prime suspect. But Tawna?”

The knocker rang. Sharu got up, shaking the folds of her robe. “That’s probably Biell.”

Pater Biell was a middle-aged man, tall and sagging. His smile had a child-like simplicity and his voice a pleasing timbre.

“This is a bad business,” he said, once introductions were done. “Milo’s a born fool, but there’s no harm in him. That day I got him down for a talk. I shudder to think what would have happened, had I not done so. The young idiot might have been jailed for life for a crime he didn’t commit.”

“I’d like to meet Milo,” I said.

Biell nodded. “I’ll take you to his lodging. After this terrible incident, he rarely leaves it.” He turned to Sharu. “Forgive me, daughter, but I think in his own way he’s as devastated by Tawna’s murder as you are.”

Sharu laid a hand on his arm. “I believe that.”


Sheebatiya was a circular city, built on a grid pattern. The two outermost rings were where property was least unaffordable, and the poor and the powerless lived.

Alone, I’d have lost my way in that rabbit warren. But Biell was familiar with every lane and turn, every rut and pothole. He greeted everyone with an affectionate familiarity, calling them Son or Daughter, irrespective of age.

I’ve heard tell that he was once Prince Rukh’s tutor, and still his spiritual advisor. A man at home in all of Sheebatiya from the hovels of the poor to the palaces of the rich.

Biell was about to turn into a dark alley, when a figure emerged from it, almost knocking us over in his rush.

“Milo! My son!”

The figure stopped, looking from Biell to me with wild-beast eyes. Biell took his arm and talked in a soft voice, the way a man would to a frightened animal or child, words that had no meaning and meant everything.

The prose-lullaby had its effect. After a while, Milo was able to greet me politely. He was young, and might have been handsome had his eyes not been bloodshot, and his face blotched.

Biell placed an arm around Milo. “Mistress Allii wants to talk to you about Tawna.”

Milo started shivering again. “Tawna’s dead.”

“I know,” I said softly. “Tell me about her.”

For a second, his face cleared. “She was heaven and hell,” he said. Suddenly his eyes went blank. He howled, a sound more animal than human, and vanished into the gloom from which he had emerged.

Biell sighed. “I don’t think you’d get anything more out of him. I suggest we try again tomorrow. If you want to take a look at the homes of other victims, I can take you.”

“Shouldn’t we go after him? I think he needs help.”

Biell touched my elbow with a gentle hand. “Not now. If we go to him now, we will only make things worse.” His smile was one more crevice in a face that had turned into a landscape of pain. “Believe me, I speak from experience.”

I hesitated. I wanted to talk to Milo badly, but I wanted to talk to him alone. And it would make sense to check the homes of other victims while I had the chance.

As we made our way, I memorized as many landmarks as possible, a huge meeya tree, a shop selling magical cures, a small eatery… I’d get here early tomorrow morning, and catch Milo alone. The devastation I saw in his face was telling. He knew who murdered Tawna, and that knowledge was killing him.


Early next morning, I went looking for Milo.

The lane was thronged with people. Excited voices filled the air.

Then I saw Patzie striding through the crowd, and knew I had come too late.

Patzie’s eyes, red with sleeplessness, met mine with no sign of recognition. I walked back the way I came, turned into the first lane I encountered, and waited.

Not for long. Patzie came hurrying. “How did you hear about Milo?”

“I didn’t. I saw him last evening and felt that he knew who killed Tawna. I wanted to talk to him alone.”

Patzie fetched a cinnamon stick from a pocket and chewed slowly. “I wish you had told me about it.”

I could feel the scar throbbing. “I’m sorry, I never thought…” I swallowed a sudden constriction in my throat. Guilt was pricking at me. My wrong judgment had led to the loss of another life, a life I could have saved. “I’m sorry,” I muttered again.

She shook her head. “No, my fault. I should have noticed his state myself.”

“How did he die?”

“Same as Lootu. Suicide by hanging. No letter. Biell found him. He is beside himself.”

I felt a deep stab of pity. And more guilt.


We turned around. A young prefect in the distinctive blue tunic loped toward us. “They are attacking that shop selling magical cures…” he panted.

Patzie grabbed my forearm. “Go back home.”

“But I want to see the house…”

She brought her face close to mine. Her eyes were hard, like the fingers digging into my flesh. “You want to be caught by the mob?”

I stared. “But why?”

“Because you are a stranger. And mobs don’t like strangers. They are also good at smelling strangers, even ones who look rather like them.” She let go of my hand, her shoulders sagging. “I’ll come to your house with what information I have, when I can. Now go.”


I made my way home, so lost in thought that I almost didn’t notice the mechanical carriage outside my house. Or the man standing by it.

Bruno burst out, “Milo was killed.” A muscle twitched by his mouth.

“I know. I’m coming from there.”

He gave me a hard stare. “Some members of the Conclave have gathered at Mistress Kllementina’s. They’d like to talk to you.”

I bowed. “Of course.”

The mechanical carriage rode through a city that seemed to have undergone a subtle change. There was tension in the air, like the way pressure builds up before a thunderstorm.

Our destination was a yellow brick house in a tree-lined street. Bruno circled the front entrance and opened a side door. He ushered me through a corridor and up a staircase into a massive room filled with books.

The room contained three people. The tall thin woman with granite features and a beehive-hairdo, I guessed to be Kllementina. The two men in various stages of corpulence were introduced as Prince Rukh, the hereditary ruler, and Tigerius, Arch-Priest of the Fire God.

If Sheebatiya’s Big Three were meeting me, things had to be dire.

Rukh opened the conversation before I could sit. “Any ideas, Mistress Allii?” His voice was controlled; the stubby fingers combing his bright gold beard twitched.

I raised an eyebrow. “May I remind you, Prince, that I was given this case only yesterday?”

Rukh cast me a look that was both impatient and dismissive, and turned to Kllementina and Tigerius. “I’ve sent my people to bring Biell to the palace. I want to be there to receive him when he arrives. He must be in a terrible state, loved that boy like a son.”

No one said anything.

Rukh turned to me. “When can we expect some result from you?” His tone clearly indicated that he didn’t really expect any result from me.

I gripped my anger, resisting the urge to retort that I was only an investigator, not a miracle worker. “Give me another day.”

Kllementina tapped the table with a painted fingernail. “Tomorrow might be too late. Witches are being attacked already.”

Rukh’s eyes flashed. “I have ordered the guards out.”

“But you can’t,” Tigerius cried. “It’s against the law. The Conclave must meet, discuss, take a decision. In any case, the prefects can handle the situation. Internal peace is their business.”

Rukh ignored him, his eyes on Kllementina. “No witch is going to be harmed while I’m in charge, Kllemmie.”

Kllementina stared back at him.

I glanced from the blustering prince to the inscrutable witch, sensing a new path. No not a path, just a breadcrumb of a clue…

What if I had been asking the wrong questions all along?


From Kllementina’s house, I headed to the marketplace to check on shops selling drachen. There were twenty-one.

The troops were out in force, stony faced, armed, ready. A kind of calm had returned to the city.

My next stop was the arboretum, a dense forest within a bustling city. I found a lonely corner under a later flowering kopi tree and settled down with my back to the smooth trunk. The feel of wood and grass calmed swirling currents in my mind.

I followed the new path I had sensed earlier, from one elusive clue to the next.


It was late afternoon when I made my way to the Prefecture.

Patzie was in her working-chamber, a poky little room with an excellent view of a small walled garden.

She greeted me with a humorless smile. “I was about to go in search of you.” She indicated the only other chair to me and offered me a cinnamon stick.

I sat down. “Any information?”

She ran a weary hand through her hair, disarraying it even more. “The same mode of death as Lootu; hanging from a wooden beam.”

“Could it be suicide?”

“Hard for a dead man to replace the chair he used in its original position.”

I caught her eyes. “Impossible for the dead. Easy for the living.”

Her eyes narrowed to arrow-sharp slits.

I leaned across the table, murmuring, “Can we talk here?”

She stared at me, and then got up pushing her chair back with extra force. “I need to stretch my legs. And maybe eat something.” Her voice was just a little louder than normal.

“Mind if I join you? I think I forgot to eat as well.”

She walked to the door and opened it. “Come then.”

We bought two bags of flat bread stuffed with pink cheese and mushrooms from a street vendor. Over the next half an hour, we walked in the city’s largest park. At first, I talked and she listened. Afterwards, she talked and I listened.

“I need to see reports of all deaths in Sheebatiya for the last one year,” I said when talking was over. “Would the records be available?”

“Yes, at the Records Office. I’ll accompany you. I need to check about Milo’s family.”


The dinner is over. The serving-staff are gone. Despite the coolness of the night, a thread of sweat trickles down my back.

Prince Rukh turns to me, polite host turned into the impatient master of this particular ceremony. “You have some conclusions to present to us. Perhaps now is the time.”

I down my glass and begin.

“In any murder case involving more than one victim the first step is to find a pattern. But in this case I couldn’t tease out a connection between the victims. When I heard about Milo’s death, I realized why I failed. I was asking the wrong questions. So I approached the problem from a different angle. What if the five deaths were totally unrelated?”

Bruno frowns. “You mean we are dealing with five different murderers?”

I hold out the piece of paper containing the result of the hours I spent in Sheebatiya’s record room. “Allow me to answer your question in a roundabout way. Yesterday, I checked on deaths by suicide, fire, and heart failure in the last one year. During that time, there had been nineteen suicides, eleven deaths from heart ailments, two from accidental fires. Of those thirty-two deaths twenty-four happened in the two outer rings of the city, including both fires.” I push the paper toward middle of the table. “The two outer-rings are where the poor live. There accidents are common and sickness and despair a norm.”

Kllementina pulls the paper towards her, but doesn’t look at it. “Perhaps if you get to the point?”

“Mirrors, Mistress; that is the point. The reflection in a mirror is both true and false, reality and illusion. It was the same with this case. There was only one murder. That of Tawna. Others were non-murders dressed up as murder.”

“Milo didn’t die of natural causes,” Biell’s voice was gravelly. “He was killed.”

“Milo killed himself because he couldn’t bear to live with Tawna’s killer. Himself.” The faces around me are no longer polite masks. They look shocked. Perhaps that too is a mask. “I don’t think Milo meant to kill Tawna. But he did kill her. Before he killed himself, I’m certain he wrote a letter to Pater Biell, explaining everything. I don’t think Pater Biell destroyed that letter. If you search him or his room, you might find it.”

Again there’s silence.

I turn to Biell. “When Milo realized what he did, he came to you, perhaps to confess, perhaps to escape punishment. You wanted to save him. So you lied on his behalf.”

Biell sits, shoulders hunched.

“Lootu and Milo killed themselves,” I continue. “Billie died of heart failure and Browenna of an accidental fire. That was the reality. Afterwards, the settings were tweaked to give the appearance of murder. That was the illusion.”

Bruno frowns. “This is ludicrous. How could anyone know in advance that a suicide, a fire, a heart attack will happen?”

“There was no need to know in advance. All that was needed was to get there before the prefects arrived. Easy for someone who not only lived in the outer rings, but knew the place intimately.”

There is an indrawn breath, sharp, gasping. I don’t bother to look. “Take Lootu. The conclusion that he was killed depended solely on the tremors in his right hand.” I turn to Kllementina. “He was your student for a while. Was he right-handed or left?”

Kllementina’s face is unreadable. “Ambidextrous.”

First throw in the dark has hit the mark. I try not to show my relief. “Exactly. He could write with both hands, so no reason to think the suicide note was a fake. Suppress that truth and suicide can be credibly depicted as murder. The same approach was used in the other cases. A doctored vial paints natural death as murder. Throw some drachen into a roaring fire and accident becomes premeditated killing. I checked in the market place. Drachen might be identified with witches but anyone can buy it.”

Tigerius leans forward. “Let’s assume for a moment that you are right, and someone tried to make three deaths look like murder. Who? Why?” His nostrils flare. “I’ll tell you this much. Milo was incapable of such subterfuge. He was a fool with too ready a tongue. If you are right, this was intelligent work.”

I smile at him. “Agreed. Milo killed, but he didn’t conspire.”

“Then who?” Bruno sounds as if he’s got a sore throat, for real.

I turn to Biell. “Your home is in the Outer Rings. You do your ministrations there. You knew all the victims.”

Tigerius bangs the table with a clenched fist. “This is nonsense. Why would Biell do something so preposterous?”

I keep my eyes on Biell. “To blame witches. To ignite mob violence.”

Kllementina’s eyes pierce me. “If you are right, then this is the work of a devious, twisted mind. That is not Biell. I’ve known him all his life. He is a gentle soul.”

I bow. “You are right, Mistress. He is a gentle soul. He was also a father.” Besides me, Biell makes a gurgling sound. I don’t look at him. I can’t. “Pater Biell is honest and gentle. For him to lend himself to such a horrendous conspiracy, something more than pity for a protégé was needed. The only time I met Milo, Pater Biell hailed him, “My son.” In the few hours we were together, he called everyone he met son or daughter, but he used the word ‘my’ as a prefix just that one time.”

Rukh shrugs. “These are surmises. In Sheebatiya we go by evidence.”

I say, “I have evidence,” hoping Patzie’s mission was successful and she’d get here on time. “Biell entered priesthood when his lover died. That is public knowledge. What’s forgotten is that his lover died in childbirth. Biell was devastated by his lover’s death. He couldn’t deal with the baby. He handed the baby to an orphan shelter. There was one person who remembered this past. That person also found out that Milo’s alibi was a lie, and used it to blackmail Pater Biell.” I turn to Prince Rukh. “Perhaps you can explain?”

He frowns. “How can I?”

I sigh, a bit theatrically. “A case of a titular ruler wanting to be a real one. You want absolute power. But you had no idea how to get about it. Then you found out, probably through your spies, that Biell had lied to save Milo. Or maybe he told you. You made a proposition to him. You will help him save Milo. In return he had to make a few natural deaths look like murder. So the illusion of a serial killer was born.”

“What?” Bruno splutters.

I ignore him, my eyes on Rukh. “Your agents probably set the stage with rumors, pamphlets, gossip. Here’s how it’s supposed to go. Sheebatiya sinks into mob-violence. You use the opportunity to take control. Once the blood-letting is over, witches would be gone and everyone else too weak and confused to resist you.”

Rukh looks at me, ice in his eyes, and reaches for the bell. “I will not tolerate being insulted by a chit of a girl in my own palace.”

Kllementina raises one long finger.

Rukh’s hand hangs in air, frozen into immobility. He opens his mouth but no sound comes. Just a gurgle.

Kllementina smiles. “Only until Allii finishes her tale, Rukh.”

Rukh closes his mouth. Kllementina’s finger moves again. Rukh’s hand falls onto the table. He clenches the fingers swallowing.

The door slams open. Patzie walks in, holding up a piece of paper. “Milo’s birth-document. It was at the orphan shelter where he was raised. It says…”

“It says I’m the worthless father who abandoned his son.” Biell’s voice is hollow, yet it echoes in a suddenly silent room. “I meant no harm,” he says to no one in particular. “I meant no harm.”

The silence stretches until it begins to feel like death.

Kllementina breaks it. She turns to me, her face composed. “Thank you for your interesting talk, Mistress Allii. Chief Patzie will doubtless see you home and attend to all pecuniary details. Let me bid you a safe journey to your next destination.”

I say, “But…”

Kllementina has already turned away from me. “We will deal with this matter,” she says over her shoulder.

Patzie grips my arm. “Come, comrade.”


We make a quick visit to my rented cottage to get my things and exit the city through a side gate.

“There is an inn, about half-hour’s walk away,” Patzie tells me as we walk into a warm dark night. “I’ll take you there.”

“I can find my way.” My voice is stiff.

“The walk will do me good. I need to clear my head.”

We walk side by side, arms brushing, feet almost aligned, a gulf between us.

“What happens next?” I ask at last.

“Hopefully, Rukh will resign and make his daughter the ruler. Or they’ll get him out in a less pleasant way. Even a bloody palace-coup is better than the mob.”

“The guilty gets away if they are rich and powerful?” I can’t keep the bitterness out of my voice. I found the key of self-interest, opened the locked room, revealed the murderer, and exposed the author of the conspiracy.

Yet justice will be forever barred from that room.

“Not really.” Patzie’s voice is as calm as the night. “Rukh will definitely lose power, and perhaps life.”

“A comfortable retirement. An accidental death. Is that justice?”

Patzie shrugs. “Rukh loves power. He will never have it again. That will be a living death for him.” She touches my arm fleetingly. “I know you feel used. So do I. Still we’ve managed to save Sheebatiya from mob rule. In my book that counts for something.” She smiles into darkness. “If it’s any consolation, I feel used almost every day. But some jobs need to be done. I think of myself as a garbage-collector. Any city will collapse without them. But you don’t see statues erected in their honour, do you?”

“No,” I say. “No.”

We walk side by side, arms brushing, feet almost aligned, no gulf between us now.

“Where will you go from here?” Patzie asks.

“My partner reached out to me last night. He’s done his work and headed here. We’ll meet on the road.” I think of what Spooky’s reaction would be to the events and feel a sudden lightness in my being.

Patzie’s voice brings me back to the present. “Why are you smiling?”

“My partner once said he never realized how dangerous living among humans was even for humans.”

Patzie grins. “He must be a very wise man.”

I laugh.  “Actually he’s a very wise dog.”


This story previously appeared in A Room is Locked – Mystery anthology.
Edited by Marie Ginga


Sam Muller loves dogs and books. I will Paint the Night, a YA fantasy cum murder mystery, is her first novel. You can find it on Amazon.  You can find some of her published stories at these free links: Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, Apparition Literary MagazineTruancy Magazine, Critical Read, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores.