A motorized carriage trundled down the street, splashing dingy water and filth onto the crowd. Avery waited until it had passed before crossing the street, leaping over puddles and maneuvering around people. A man stuck his hand out and Avery denied the entry to his inner jacket pocket with a twitch of his wrist before slipping down the alleyway created by two leaning buildings. Water dribbled down the eaves and wet his face while two youths exchanging goods and money looked up quickly and scurried out the other mouth of the alley.
“Don’t ignore me!” Davis hissed as he caught up, hands stuffed into the pockets of his trim, red waistcoat. “You can’t just tell me they’re going to hang Caelie and then walk away! Are you really just going to just let them do it? You two practically grew up together.”
“I’m not going to let them do anything.” Avery plucked a hat from the head of a sleeping street dweller, settling it onto his head as he moved down the alley. “I imagine they won’t consult my opinion at all. Of course, if they did, I would be happy to speak on her behalf.”
“I’m sure the thought keeps her warm at night.”
“Why do you care so much? You know how it was between us.” Avery paused at the mouth of the alley, fishing in his coat pocket for his pair of binoculars. Spying across the way, he could see the broken glass of a window at the top of an apartment building; the wind and rain let in to shake the damp curtains; their destination. No shadows inside, no light, no occupants. The police had already given it up. He folded up his binoculars. “We rarely lasted more than two days without property damage and we hated each other at least half of the time that we were around one another. Tell me, would you risk your neck for that?”
“Damn it, yes! Half the time is about as good as a person as volatile as you is likely to get,” Davis said, forced to shout as they crossed the busy intersection and grunting as he pushed past the people and dodged the rare motorcar. “Show me the woman who can put up with you for more than half of the time and I will gift you a unicorn for your next birthday.”
“Oh, don’t tease me, Davis. You know how badly I want a unicorn.” Avery fished the parchment from his pocket, unfurling it as he looked up from the stairwell of the building. “Room two-two-one, should be a straight flight up. Best be quiet now, better that no one know why we’re here.” Avery pushed open the door, leaning in.
“Do you have to be so cavalier?” Davis dragged him back a pace onto the stoop, staring. “Sometimes I think she was the only thing in the world keeping you human. At least when she was around you were always busy.”
“Busy hunting her down, you mean. Busy being berated for losing track of her again.”
“Oh, spare me. The only thing you care about is your ego and the fact that she just might be smarter than you.”
“Well, she wasn’t smart enough this time, was she? Honestly, caught stealing from the king.”
“I shudder to think what you would do if it were me in that prison cell.”
“At this juncture, I’m not disagreeable to the notion of an entirely paper-based correspondence.” Avery pulled his hat lower and entered the building, not looking back. “Stay outside if you’re going to be difficult. We’re here to solve a murder. Try to keep your mind on the king’s business. Honestly.”
“That’s rich, coming from you,” Davis grumbled and shut the door behind him.
Despite their relative quiet, faces still appeared in doorways and watched with increasing interest as they climbed the rickety stairs to the second floor. A man with a thick mustache pulled a scarf up around his neck while a woman across the hall rubbed her bleary eyes to better see. Avery pushed open the doors to rooms 220 and 222, peering in to ensure that they were, indeed, empty; there was no sign of anything out of place in either of the rooms. A cat, however, made an appearance from room 222 and, looking as though it hadn’t been fed since its owner vacated, began to follow after them. Avery toed the cat out of his way as he opened the door to room 221.
“Poor thing,” Davis said, clicking his tongue in his cheek and passing down a bit of cracker to the orange tabby.
“Don’t feed it,” Avery said, belatedly, and sighed. “Now I have two of you to look after.”
“Pardon me, but I thought you brought me for your protection.” Davis rolled his eyes.
The lady Antoinette lay sprawled across her living room floor, her lips turned blue and her skin more pallid than the makeup powder on her dresser could account for. Avery knelt by her body, fallen just beneath the broken window, and raised her arm.
“Hm,” Avery said, turning her hand left and right before dropping her arm. He leaned in and touched her cheek, smelled her hair. “Do you see the burns here on her wrist, and here on her neck?”
“Well enough,” Davis said. “Consistent with the constable’s report of the fire, but several other things could be the cause of a reaction like this. Asphes root, when ingested, leaves traces of hives that look similar to burns, or—”
“I don’t think the lady was drinking tea laced with an astringent, Davis. Think sensibly.”
“Burns, then, as the constable concluded. The kitchen is burned nearly to the beams and the official report says she died just as she’d broken the window to get out. Why would the king send us out here if that’s all that it was? More importantly, why would you bother coming if that’s all that it was? The king said you specifically requested this case. Something must have caught your eye. The constable has already given it up, and I needn’t mention what a fuss you caused by demanding they leave the body here. No doubt the tenants are none too happy, either.”
“A fire is a likely enough story, and so one might assume, but where are the burns on her dress? The smell of smoke?” Avery leapt to his feet, startling the cat who jumped into Davis’ arms. Walking into the kitchen, Avery dragged his finger across the wall and wiped a clean spot through the oily soot. “The rafters are untouched,” he said, waving his hands up at them and returning to Antoinette. He toed a shard of glass beside her body. “And the fire does not follow her. The window is broken, but the glass shards are inside. Someone broke it from the outside. Furthermore,” Avery paused, grunting once as he moved Antoinette, rolling her onto her side and exposing the vent beneath her body.
“Vents here and there,” Avery said and thumbed back towards the doorway where Davis stood. “Meant to carry air up through the building, but not all air rises. When cooking with certain volatile substances, the smoke sinks. Did you notice the man and woman directly below these apartments? The man wore a scarf at this time of year, indoors. Most likely hiding rashes, weeping rashes caused by the smoke, and the woman—”
“Then there’s only one explanation, with the fire this controlled. No scent, no scorch marks, descending smoke presenting with rashes,” Davis said quickly, wetting his lips. “Dragon blood magic.”
“Why else would I bring a dragon’s blood mage with me?”
“But there’s no way you could have known before we got here.”
“I assumed as much and there have been rumors. The king documents his magi quite scrupulously, as I’m sure you can attest to, but I’m given to understand that not everyone is so pleased with the situation. We can assume that if this was murder, the magi in question will not be in the king’s records. There’s a cluster in town.”
“Attacking a cluster of angry, unlicensed magi isn’t something we’re equipped to deal with. Which means this case is officially beyond us.”
“Which means we head to the tavern, my dear Davis,” Avery said, sparing a last glance for the lady Antoinette, whose eyes held a yellowish tint and whose fingers, when touching them again, were thick around the knuckle. “You’ll find the lady Antoinette had a regular table there, perhaps even a drink named after her. I have an errand to run, first. I’ll meet you there. I believe there was a shady tavern just down the road called the Fickle Pig, perfect for our purposes. You can’t miss it.” Avery swept past him, calling back over his shoulder, “Bring the cat.”
“What do you expect me to do?” Davis called out into the hall, cradling the cat in his arms.
“Go on, go and drink!” Avery popped back in, startling Davis back. “Have a chat, socialize, and commiserate with the barkeep that was undoubtedly unhappy to lose such a well-paying customer. We’ll find her killer there, but first we need an assurance.” Avery turned about on his heels to leave. “If you miss the first shot, the pigeons all scatter to the wind.”
Avery grabbed Davis by the collar of his coat and dragged him out of his seat; the beer sloshed out of Davis’ tankard and onto the table, the cat meowed and went with them through the bar and out into the alley behind the Fickle Pig. Davis turned around, fire in his eyes and a fist cocked back, only looking slightly less intimidating for the orange tabby that sat on his shoulder, licking his paw.
“Damn it, Avery. What was all that about? I was ready to punch your head off!”
“Not yet, we might still need it.” Avery wagged a finger at him and reached into his coat, producing a slender copper syringe with an amber liquid sloshing in its vial. “I had to make a stop to pick up a gift for you.”
“Dragon’s blood. How did you get it? You aren’t a licensed magi.” Davis plucked the syringe from his hand, turning it in front of his eyes. He squirted a little of the blood into his palm and sniffed it, making a sour face. “Cheap shit, Avery. Isn’t the king paying you well? No thank you, either way.”
“’Fraid it’s not a request, old friend. As for the license, I told them that I knew a magi who knew a magi, and well, things got moving. The cluster must be growing powerful in town, the black market is growing and the seller didn’t even bat an eye to take my money. The police here seem to have developed a tendency to be absent.”
“Well, on closer inspection, I doubt they care if this is what they’re selling as dragon’s blood. This is hardly anything the king needs to be worried about. It smells like dog piss.” Davis wiped his hand clean with a linen handkerchief. “Must’ve been a rather pitiful little dragon.”
“I can’t speak to that, but the man did tell me the dragon had the animal speech, which is what we need and why you’ll take it.” Avery gestured to him with a flick of the wrist. “Do you need me to hold you down? We need to hurry, Davis, before the cluster catches on to us. We can still take care of this whole matter quickly, quietly.”
“What’s gotten into you? You don’t even like me using the stuff and I can’t see how talking to a cat is going to help—”
“Necessity dictates the means. And you’d be a fool to think it won’t help. Cats see everything.” Avery stared at the tabby—it hissed back at him. “I hate the things.”
“Well, if you’re certain it’s going to help the case…” Davis said, leaning back against the wall. “I can handle myself well enough. Hold the cat.” The tabby recoiled from Avery’s touch, making Davis laugh. The ease with which he moved was enough to turn stomachs, slipping the needlepoint into the crevice at the corner of his eye. He pushed down on the plunger and his pupils dilated, the whites of his eyes going red.
A moment later he yanked the syringe out and threw it into a rubbish pile, doubling over and gripping his knees as he heaved in the alley.
“Not the most dignified way to go about things,” Avery murmured.
“Utter shit,” Davis said and spat. “I’m accustomed to a higher class, you know.”
“I’ll let the barkeep know to only fetch you blood of the highest caliber from now on. For now,” Avery said, holding the cat out between them; the tabby’s tail wavered and he meowed once, staring at Davis, “what does this cat say to you?”
“He hates you.”
“Well, I didn’t need you for that,” Avery said, jostling the cat. “Come on, cat, talk! What did you see that day?”
“Hold on, hold on, here we go,” Davis shushed Avery, flapping his hand to get him to stop as he leaned in closer to the cat. The tabby put a paw out on Davis’ nose and he stood unflinching, staring into the eyes of the cat.
“You look ridiculous.”
“Shh,” Davis said, his eyes flicking up to Avery for but a moment. “He says he saw a woman with black hair who smelled of strawberries and… sunshine? Really?” He stared blankly at the cat, shaking his head. “She had a blue flame painted on her shoulder.” Davis shot up, clapping his hands together. “I know her!”
“Good,” Avery said, dropping the cat in his excitement; the tabby yowled and landed on its feet, scurrying behind Davis. “Where to?”
“She was just inside the bar. She was drinking something with strawberry liqueur, sitting at a table with a bunch of other people. I—” Davis paused, doubling over again and seizing his head, eyes squeezed shut tightly. “Damn it, Avery, who did you buy that blood off of, some piss-poor wyrm farmer?”
“Maybe you should sleep it off.” Avery clasped him on the shoulder just as Davis’ knees went weak and he fell down, back against the wall. He looked up at Avery, his eyes glassy, lips moving, the words dying in his throat. “I’ll take care of everything. Best not worry. The cat will look after you.”
When Davis’ eyes fluttered shut, Avery fished inside his waistcoat and retrieved the leather bifold that carried his badge marking him as an official magi of the king. He left Davis and the cat curled up together on the alley floor and entered the Fickle Pig from the backdoor. A bartender filled a shot glass and set it in front of a customer; Avery grabbed it and downed it before the man could even raise a cry. He flashed Davis’ badge and the man settled back down.
The woman waited at a table in the back of the bar, her black hair pinned up behind her head, her eyes as blue as the tattoo of a flame that graced her bare left shoulder. The strapless dress in any other place would have been scandalous, a call for trouble, but it was clear she had a power over the room; no one else in the Fickle Pig went near her, aside from her entourage that milled about the table, drinking and laughing.
“What can I do for you?” The woman asked, smiling at him from around the lip of her shot glass. She tipped back her head, the red liqueur staining her lips and filling the space with the soft smell of strawberries.
“I have a special request.” Avery flipped back the leather bifold on the badge, revealing the five pointed iron crown. He threw it down in the middle of the table, knocking over glasses and bottles. The woman hissed even as she jumped from her seat, knocking back her chair; the others were slower, though equally incensed. Avery held his hands up. “Best not to make a fuss. I know who you are, now you know who I am. I suspect I’ve known my part a little longer, though. Long enough to make sure any dragon’s blood coming into this city has had an extra additive of my own working.”
“What do you mean?” One of the men at the table asked, his grip on the chair white-knuckled. He was a scrawny man, the kind most usually drawn to dragon’s blood—pale and sickly, nothing like Davis.
“I mean you’d be better off getting out of here. I’ve notified the constable already, but if you leave now I won’t drop the signal. I only want to talk to one of you. If you choose to stay, I assure you, you won’t like finding out exactly what I added to the dragon’s blood cocktails you’ve stuck yourself with.” He made a point to wince and leveled his eye on the black haired woman, who remained standing and ready to pounce. She hesitated, and as the faces turned towards her, nodded slowly.
“What do you want?” she asked when the others had left, none of them too brave to resist scurrying out nearly hands over knees.
“You should have a seat,” Avery said, gesturing as he pulled out a chair for himself and filled a glass with the strawberry liqueur, mixing and matching with other bottles from the table and stirring it together with his pinky. “The king sent me here to investigate a murder. I’m sure I don’t need to illuminate further. Sloppy trail, leaving the cat.”
“Never mind. I was sent to get one person for murder, not to take down an entire cluster. I don’t give a damn about the magic or your people. All I want is answers.”
“You’re not really one of the king’s magi, are you?” She snatched away the glass he’d filled and drained it in a gulp before taking her seat. “What’s to stop me from killing you and leaving?”
“My name is Avery Croft,” he said, letting the words sink in as he leaned across the table and flashed a smile. “I’m sure you’ve heard of me. Do you really think I would waltz in here without a plan? So much as leave that door without my consent and you’ll be strung up so fast you’ll piss yourself.” Her face had turned suitably pale, enough that he could feel pleased with himself. He took the glass back from her hand, filled it, and drank. “Now, tell me about the girl. You burned her entire kitchen down, you left a sizable trail and I don’t imagine you would have bothered if you could have just made the body disappear.”
“It would have been too suspicious,” she said, folding her hands across the table. “You swear all I need to do is answer you?”
“I’m not making any promises.”
“Be that way,” she grunted and leaned back in her chair, drinking straight from the bottle. “The girl was a runner for us, bringing dragon’s blood back and forth across the border. She doctored it up for us, too, in that kitchen of hers. Made it better, more powerful, let us control everything.”
“Sounds like a valuable pawn to go and kill the way you did.”
“Wouldn’t have done it if I’d had a choice. She got nervous and started leaking information. We don’t know who she talked to, don’t care, it’ll get to the king eventually. She had been storing dragon’s blood at her place as evidence. Torching it was the only way to be sure we got it all.”
“You didn’t burn it all, though, did you?” Avery leaned across the table, clapping his hands. “I think you’re too clever for that. You took as much as you could before you burned the rest. I think you’re sitting on enough dragon’s blood to power half of the king’s army and then some.”
“I don’t see how this is relevant to the murder case. If you’re going to take me for murder, let’s just be done with this. I’m bored of answering your questions.” She slurped from the bottle, setting it between her legs and smacking her lips. “If you’re right, we’ll see how my men react when you take me prisoner.”
“I have something else in mind. There’s something I need.”
The Fickle Pig was burning in the distance, filling the sky with clouds of black smoke. The birds flew awkward paths around the city; the streets smelled of smoke, rum, and rain. Avery tossed the badge back to Davis as they walked down the road out of town, listing sideways to avoid the motorcars coming through.
“Shame the girl got away,” Davis said, flapping the badge in his hand. “But no one could blame you. You shouldn’t have gone in, Avery. Without me! What the hell were you thinking? A cluster of magi that powerful, you’re lucky the tavern is all they destroyed.”
“Everyone makes mistakes sometimes, Davis.” Avery stuffed his hands into his pockets. “At least you got a new friend.”
The cat meowed from Davis’ shoulder.
The castle bustled with activity. The king’s cooks were stuffed into tiny rooms preparing feasts for the masses; the guards were helping to keep the peace as the people assembled in the court. It was the end of the week and the day of sentencing. Everyone came out for the hanging; no one noticed Avery as he walked through the halls, down the stairs, and further into the belly of the castle than most people knew existed.
Caelie waited in a cell at the back of the prison, clipping her golden hair back from her face and humming quietly to herself. Avery had watched as they brought in her black dress, her hair clips, her finest pair of shoes; all of her things to die in. When the guards finally left, he slipped between the bars, let out the breath he’d been holding, and appeared in the corner of the cell.
“Ready to go, Caelie?” He smiled. “The world is boring with you below ground and I’m in no hurry to make the situation permanent.”
“That’s a nice trick. I was starting to think you weren’t going to show.” She tried to hide the surprise on her face, but failed; the little tears beaded in the corners of her eyes, but she blinked them away quickly. When he tossed a syringe towards her, she caught it with only a small amount of fumbling, and turned it towards the torch light to better see the amber liquid sloshing inside. “There’s no way you could have gotten this! Impossible! This is from the King’s own brood of dragons. You could go anywhere with this—do anything.”
“Nothing is impossible.” Avery spread his hands out in front of him. “You just have to play the right game.”
Zachary Tringali is a freelance writer and student living in Gainesville, Florida.