“Seven.” Sister Mays’ voice is bleak. “Seven unburned bodies.”
I hope she is right; I hope we have found the last body. I carefully don’t say this out loud; everyone is worried enough. I watch as the volunteers plow row after row, slowly, hoping to turn over only dirt. So far, no bodies have been found that were not marked by the depressions Alan had pointed out. But we need to know, not just hope, that there are no more.
“Murdered.” Taver adds. “All garroted.”
We stand watching the fires below, seven pyres the last of which is still a hot fire, the first just glowing embers. At Sister Mays’ direction, bonfires are also lit in the now empty graves.
“And we can’t even give them names.” Somehow that makes it worse. Alan takes a step too many down the hillside and one of my guards goes to urge him back. “Alan,” I demand. He looks toward me and slowly comes back to stand by my side. “Your need-to-know is going to get you killed.”
“One of the priests is keeping a journal describing the clothing and anything else left with the bodies, so maybe we can identify them.” Taver tries to reassure me.
“Cleansing is more important,” Sister Mays rebukes him for even thinking about any other problem. “Why would anyone, even a murderer, bury a body.”
She looks at Alan in surprise, not having expected an answer.
“It is easier to bury a body without being noticed than it is to burn one. Burning produces smoke during the day, and light at night. Do you never have murders in Abalem?,” Alan asks at her look of disbelief.
“You underestimate our fear of the plague,” I try to explain. “Even murderers remember Kaskl.”
“They leave the bodies where they are sure to be found and burned,” Taver adds to my explanation.
“So the murderer is likely a foreigner.” Alan looks as if he is trying to put pieces together to form an answer. “Seven men, killed over a period of time.”
“And we don’t know who or why.” I am better at demons than murderers; a demon always looks like a demon, a murderer can look just like anyone else.
“There may be no ‘why’,” my Sword whispers. “Sometime the ‘why’ is simply that the murderer enjoys killing. My second Wielder hunted such a one.”
I wait, but my Sword has nothing else to say.
We watch the fires burn for two days; they will burn for one more. Sister Mays gives thanks that no other bodies are found, even though the clearing is plowed right up to the edges of the surrounding bushland. I have walked around the camp, feeling useless, seeking and failing to find anything to do so I go back to our camp center, a large tent with two tables and scattered chairs.
“They were killed in two different timeframes,” Alan says as greeting when I enter. He has been reading the notes from the senior priest in our group of volunteers who had carefully written all he saw when the graves were opened, then gone to the edge of the quarantine area and shouted his notes across to another priest to write on clean, uncontaminated paper.
“The first four graves held bodies which were mostly skeletonized. The last three are much fresher.”
“How long does it take a body to become a skeleton?”
“I have no idea.” And for once Alan doesn’t seem to mind not knowing something.
I pull a chair beside Alan and just stare through the open door at the blue sky and massive tree that owns the top of the small hill.
“Strange courtship,” Alan complains. “I should be writing you poetry, not summaries about dead bodies.”
“Why should we have a normal courtship? We aren’t normal people.” I take his hand, not sure if I want to look in his eyes or not—maybe I would see regret. So I keep staring out the tent door.
I am reassured when he laughs, “Do you think that our son or daughter might be the first ever Mage-Wielder?”
Then I look, and all I see is approval. “Don’t ever say that in front of father.”
He agrees and goes back to writing a summary of his opinions. I go back to staring until I hear movement in the camp, and go to see Jes making his daily visit both bringing and receiving news.
This time he has someone with him. Germins? I can’t imagine why he would be here, but there are other questions more important.
“How is mother?” I ask as Jes dismounts. Father had tried to keep knowledge of the buried body from her, and that had worked for about five minutes. She is trying to be strong, trying to hide how much she worries, how much she fears.
“Lady Ckel told me she slept last night, but mostly due to exhaustion. Your father is more concerned about her than the bodies.”
“Alan has some new information,” I lead both of them into the tent. “Do you know how long it takes a buried body to become a skeleton?” I ask Germins. He might know, Verkal still buries their dead.
“No,” Germins looks surprised, until Alan explains. I also explain why we think the murderer is a foreigner.
“Then someone who comes to Abalem periodically, like a trader?” Germins seems to be genuinely trying to help.
“Or someone who killed, was stopped by the snows, and then started killing again.”
Alan writes more on his summary as Jes is talking, recording every suggestion in case it might be useful later.
“I will sleep here tonight,” Germins, as usual, sounds as if he is granting us a favor. He sees that I do not understand. “Sometimes it works; mostly it doesn’t. But it won’t hurt to try. I will spend some time here, and see if it provokes a vision.”
“You might see who buried the bodies?” For a moment I am excited, but only as long as it takes Germins’ to shake his head ‘no’.
“Vision are future, not past. I might, very unlikely but might, see a vision somehow related. As I said, it rarely works…”
“It is good of you to try.” It really is, so I switch to Princess mode, and thank him formally. He seems gratified, and even offers to read the priest’s notes.
I leave Alan and Germins huddled over the papers and go with Jes as he walks about the camp. Jes is noting all of the details father will ask about, and I am waiting to hear any family gossip that is not to be shared.
“Mynar is still angry that he is being confined to the keep, when he remembers. But when Lej finds a new reference he forgets.”
I sigh at that; like father, I don’t want magic fixed.
“I don’t think they are pleased with what they are finding.” Jes doesn’t seem much interested. I don’t think he would care if magic was ‘fixed’ or if magic vanished entirely. “The city is quiet,” he continues, changing the subject. “Somber but calm. They are confident the danger will be dealt with; seem to believe if Kaskl could be cleansed then one body can be.”
“The news of the other graves hasn’t made it to the general public yet.”
“It will have to, if we are to identify the men.” And I’m not going to be happy at all if father has decided it is best to let their ashes remain unnamed.
“You father plans to wait until…” Jes doesn’t continue, but I know what he means, wait until we see if any of the volunteers die.
“We have to catch the murderer before he buries another body.” Father will understand this. Has to understand this. Jes just nods his agreement, and in silence we plod back to Alan and Germins. I am surprised to see them both smiling.
“Germins noticed something I missed, All of the victims were men, mostly based on clothes and possessions but still almost certainly men, and most were of average size. Two were fairly large. So the murderer has to be someone fairly powerful.”
“Or the murdered men were somehow incapacitated.” Germins sounds as interested in putting pieces together as Alan.
“Drunk,” Jes and I answer in unison.