By Alex Doiron
Ragged steps rang out on a moonlit street in the city of Cyrene. Short brick buildings stood mute testimony as a woman stumbled through the near darkness. Her sandaled feet pounded along the packed dirt as she staggered out of an alleyway. She was injured, afraid — blood dripped down her leg from a knife wound in her thigh.
She fell to the ground, scuffing her knees on the hard packed dirt. With shaking limbs she struggled to get back on her feet, staggering into a wall in the process. Gritting her teeth she started running again but maintaining balance proved harder with each faltering step. She stumbled and weaved down the uneven street until she finally fell face first on the ground. With shaking arms she tried to push herself up and failed.
The sound of her breathing echoed off of the buildings around her, harsh and shallow. Not the heavy breathing of someone who had been running, but the desperate breathing of someone who couldn’t get enough air. In the feeble light of the moon the woman’s lips began taking on a bluish tinge.
A shape stepped out of the darkness, walking the same path that the woman had stumbled down moments before. A man, wrapped in a cloak, a knife in his hand, the blade wet with blood. He walked slowly. The woman flopped on the ground, struggling to breathe. He didn’t need to hurry.
The midday sun glinted off of the calm sea as a small galley slowly worked its way across the harbor. Standing on the dock, Magnus waited impatiently as the ship approached. He really hated this kind of job. The wonders of his position, senior enough that he wasn’t allowed to wear armor but junior enough that he could be ordered off to perform trivial duties like this one.
Pacing back and forth, Magnus watched while the ship’s crew took its time maneuvering the vessel into position. While they fussed about, a man on board stepped up to the railing and scanned the dockyards. Of average height, he wore a bronze breastplate and matching helmet. Belted at his side was a short bladed sword, the hilt worn and faded with use.
“Hail dockside,” the man called out. “Are you here to greet us?” A cautious approach, not overly surprising considering the sword belted at Magnus’s waist. Magnus pulled his badge of office out from under his tunic.
“If you’re with the Lady Chara then the answer is yes,” Magnus replied. Hidden behind his back, he brought the ring on his left hand into position. The man on the ship was armed. If things turned ugly then Magnus wanted the ring ready to go.
With a bump and the grinding sound of wood against wood the ship slipped into position. Crewmembers jumped off the vessel and busied themselves with ropes. The man in the bronze armor took the opportunity to vault over the railing onto the dock. “Greetings,” he said, “I am Gaius, the Lady Chara’s bodyguard.”
“Welcome to the city of Cyrene, Gaius. I am Captain Magnus of the city guard. I’ve been ordered to escort the Lady Chara to the palace.”
Gaius looked at him for a moment, taking the time to examine his chain of office. Eventually he seemed to reach some sort of decision and nodded, extending his hand. The tension between them eased as they shook hands.
A voice echoed strangely from the ship. Magnus looked up to see a woman standing at the railing. She was short with dark hair that fell casually across a white tunic and long gray skirts. In her hands she held a ball of what looked like blown glass. She spoke, but the words she used weren’t meant for human ears; they slid across Magnus’s mind like oil, heard but impossible to understand. Magnus instantly recognized the woman’s use of magic, her prayer to summon divine power. The orb in her hands started to glow.
“Tell me Captain Magnus,” she said. “Is it true that I won’t be persecuted for my religion?”
It wasn’t the first time he had been asked that particular question. Granted it was the first time someone had asked while peering at him through a ball of magic, but that didn’t change his answer. “That’s correct ma’am. Visitors and citizens alike may worship whichever gods they choose in our city.”
There were many religions on the Middle Sea and it could mean a death sentence to worship the wrong god in the wrong place. Not in the city of Cyrene though. By royal decree there was no religious persecution in Cyrene. As long as people followed the king’s laws then no one cared who they prayed to.
“You’re telling the truth,” the woman said, a note of surprise in her voice.
“Yes ma’am,” Magnus replied.
With a flick of her wrist the light from the orb dissipated. It had been a truth spell of some sort, one she used to test the veracity of Magnus’ replies. Apparently he had passed the test. She carefully put the orb in a pouch hanging from her belt.
“Are you the Lady Chara?” he asked.
“That is correct, Captain,” she said stepping off the ship. “However I am also an initiate of Athena. I was sent here by my father on a diplomatic mission.”
Magnus suppressed a smile at her words, she was saying more than she realized. If her diplomatic mission had been important then a member of the royal family would have been at the docks greeting her. Yet, if it weren’t important then why would she be sent across the Middle Sea? The answer lay in the pendant hanging from her neck. Initiate was the title given to new members of the church of Athena. Her father had likely sent her on this so-called diplomatic mission in order to get her away from the virgin priestesses. It wouldn’t be the first time a high-born child was sent to Cyrene to save them from the clutches of a local church.
“Welcome to Cyrene lady Chara. Please allow me to escort you to the palace.”
Magnus led the way out of the dockyards. The route he had chosen would take them through the old city district, an area characterized by rough brick buildings separated by hard packed dirt streets.
“I don’t understand why so many people are attracted to this city,” Chara said pointing east toward a fishing settlement near the city walls.
“It’s the ban against religious persecution,” Magnus said. “There are some brutal religions on the Middle Sea and they victimize the poor. Many of the people moving here have lost family members to the sacrificial knives. It doesn’t take many …”
The shrill sound of a whistle interrupted him. The noise echoed over the city from a nearby street. Instinctually his hand went to his sword and he took a step toward the sound before remembering his companions. He looked up to see both Gaius and Chara watching him expectantly.
“What was that?” Gaius asked.
“City guard,” Magnus replied.
“Are you needed?”
“No, probably not. It’s likely just a young guard who’s caught a pick pocket.”
A second whistle started blowing, making him regret his words. The only reason two whistles would be blowing is if a second guard got to the scene and the two of them weren’t enough to handle it. Normally he would already be running toward the whistles, but he couldn’t right now; his orders were to escort the Lady Chara to the palace.
“If you are needed captain,” Chara said, “then we can take a quick detour.”
He didn’t need to be told twice. Magnus set off at a trot, just slow enough for Chara to keep up. By the time they arrived, there was already a small crowd gathered around the alley where the guards were blowing their whistles.
Closer up Magnus could see the cause of the commotion. There was someone on the ground, and through the crowd he could see bare flesh and blood. The senior guard spotted him and a hole was quickly formed through the crowd.
“Thank the gods you’re here, sir,” the senior guard said.
The guards stopped blowing their whistles and stepped back as a sudden silence descended. Behind them in the street lay the dead and naked body of a woman — her skin disfigured by dozens of cuts forming arcane symbols. There was a lot of blood, especially on the left leg near a deep wound in her thigh. A red flower had been placed in her mouth, its color a striking contrast to her pale dead flesh.
“Sweet goddess,” Chara muttered.
Damn it, he had forgotten about her. He was supposed to take her to the palace, not give her a tour of a murder scene. “I’m sorry ma’am. I shouldn’t have brought you …”
“Nonsense, Captain,” she interrupted. “I’m not some flower to be sheltered from the world. I am fine. We can wait until you are finished here.”
Despite her words she looked a little green. It was obvious that she wasn’t accustomed to seeing dead bodies. If she was going to play at being tough, though, that was fine with Magnus, he had a job to do.
“Anyone know her?” Magnus asked.
“Delpha,” the senior guard said. “She’s a street priestess.”
“Damn it!” Magnus said.
“What’s a street priestess?” Chara asked quietly.
“It’s a polite term for a prostitute,” Gaius replied.
“File leader,” Magnus said addressing the senior guard. “Go to the temple and give them the news.”
“Sir?” the man asked. There was fear in his eyes. The priestesses wouldn’t take the news well.
“There’s no need Captain. We already know,” said a feminine figure in a pale blue hooded robe standing in the crowd. With delicate fingers the woman reached up and lowered her hood, revealing soft features framed with golden blond hair. Her strikingly blue eyes scanned the crime scene for a moment before settling on Magnus. The hint of a smile tugged at her full lips.
The guards reacted as if a bear had suddenly appeared in the middle of the street. There were shocked sounds of alarm as they grabbed for the hilts of their weapons. With an act of will Magnus kept himself from activating the ring on his left hand. Rationally he knew she wouldn’t attack, but her sudden appearance had surprised him.
“Greetings, Yasmin,” Magnus said.
“Hello, Magnus,” she replied with a genuine smile, walking over to stand in front of him.
“This is a crime scene, priestess. I have only just arrived and we have not yet begun our investigations.”
“I understand,” she replied. “I am simply here to care for the soul of my sister in faith. I will not interfere.”
She was lying. He could see it in her eyes. She wouldn’t interfere but she certainly hadn’t come for the sake of Delpha’s soul. He couldn’t just turn her away, though. As long as she didn’t interfere with him or break any laws she had every right to be at the scene. He could force her to back off until he had taken a good look at the body, but there was little point. She could be discreet when she wanted to be and a second set of eyes would be helpful. With a quiet sigh Magnus gestured for Yasmin to join him in examining the corpse.
“Delpha, you poor dear, what did you get yourself involved in?” Yasmin asked. She then started to pray in a quiet voice. It wasn’t divine magic, or perhaps it was the most basic of divine magic; it was a prayer for the soul of the deceased woman. Despite everything that Yasmin could be accused of she was devout and truly cared about her faith.
As Yasmin prayed, Magnus reached into the mouth of the dead body and removed the flower. It was a pomegranate blossom, which helped to explain some of the sloppier symbols etched into the woman’s flesh. Producing a copper coin, Yasmin placed it in the dead woman’s mouth, an offering to the ferryman that would take Delpha’s soul into the underworld. Her fingers lingered on the dead body’s lips. She pulled on them gently, revealing a dark blue discoloration. Leaning forward she turned Delpha’s head and brushed her hair away from her ears. The tips of the ears were the same color.
Continuing to pray, Yasmin made eye contact with Magnus. He nodded that he understood. In return he pointed to the flesh around the hole in the woman’s thigh. It was puckered and swollen. He then traced his fingers down to one of the ritual cuts lower on the same leg. The skin around that cut showed no sign of swelling. Yasmin nodded in understanding, never pausing in her quiet prayer.
With a few final words over the body Yasmin stood up and stepped back. “You will keep the temple informed, Captain?”
“Absolutely, Priestess,” Magnus replied, “and if you learn anything you will tell the city guard?”
“Absolutely,” she replied in the same tone.
They were both lying. It was theatre for any listening ears. Yasmin of Aphrodite was running her own investigation.
Two guardsmen lifted the blanket-wrapped body and dropped it onto the waiting cart as Magnus pulled a coin from his pouch. He held it out to the cart’s owner. “Take her to the temple of Aphrodite. They’ll be expecting you.”
“Yes, sir,” the man replied taking the coin.
With that unpleasant task out of the way Magnus could finally try to catch up with Yasmin. As if to thwart his unspoken plans, Chara walked up with Gaius trailing behind her. Damn it, he had forgotten about her again.
“Shall we go to the palace now?” Chara asked.
“Yes, that’s a good idea,” he said before turning to the senior guard. “File leader, please escort the Lady Chara and her bodyguard to the palace.”
“Excuse me,” Chara said in a tone of indignation.
“What?” Magnus asked.
“I am struggling not to be insulted here. Surely escorting me to the palace takes precedence over any further investigation into the death of a prostitute.”
“Ma’am I mean you no insult,” he said. “Prostitutes in the city of Cyrene are under the protection of the church of Aphrodite and the church reacts violently to anyone who harms them. I need to find the killer before the situation escalates.”
“It’s a race to find the murderer?”
“Somewhat,” he replied.
“Then I’m going with you,” Chara said.
“What? This isn’t a game, Lady Chara. I can’t take you with me. It could be dangerous.”
“I am to be a shield maiden of Athena, Captain,” Chara said. “The goddess I worship is the goddess of truth and knowledge. I have studied investigative techniques. I can be an asset to you.”
“That wouldn’t be appropriate.”
“I’m not giving you a choice, Captain. You can either escort me to the palace yourself or include me in your investigation,” Chara said.
Magnus looked over at Gaius, silently pleading for him to talk some sense into her. The man was supposed to be Lady Chara’s bodyguard, keep her safe. All Magnus got was a shrug in response, the universal symbol of “nothing I can do.” This wasn’t good. He didn’t have time to escort her to the palace. Yasmin wouldn’t wait long before she started acting on her own. It didn’t look like he had much in the way of options.
“Fine,” he said and then pointed at Gaius, “but her safety is your responsibility.”
“Of course, Captain,” Gaius replied.
“Let’s go,” Magnus said. He started walking north toward the edge of the city. A couple of moments passed before Chara caught up to him and started walking alongside.
“You have a problem,” she said, “the flower and sigils were the work of Hera worshippers.”
“What makes you say that?” Magnus interrupted.
“Well the flower you pulled from her mouth was a pomegranate blossom, holy to worshipers of Hera. The iconography carved into the girls flesh was symbols of Hera and worshippers of Hera hate prostitution. That killing was an act of religion.”
“No,” Magnus replied, “that’s what someone wants us to believe. The sigils were sloppy.”
“Tell me something, Initiate,” Magnus said using her religious title. “When you draw symbols of Athena are you careful about it or do you just slap them down as quickly as possible.”
Chara glanced back in the direction of the cart and the dead body it held with a look of confusion on her face.
“It was supposed to look like a ritual killing,” Magnus continued, “but the details were wrong. The cuts were sloppy and they were made after the woman’s death.”
“How could you tell?”
“The wound on her thigh was puckered and had bled significantly,” Magnus explained. “The ritual cuts, on the other hand, showed little sign of swelling or bleeding. Therefore the wound on her thigh was the only one that happened before her death.”
“But that wound wasn’t fatal,” Chara said.
“You’re right,” Magnus agreed. “She was poisoned.”
“Poison?” Chara asked. “Why do you say that?”
“There was a distinct color to her lips and the tips of her ears. I’ve only ever seen that in people who were exposed to a distillation of cherry laurels.”
As they got closer to the edge of the city the pedestrian traffic began dropping off and the quality of the homes decreased. Few people liked to live in the northern portion of Cyrene.
“Where are we going Captain?” Chara asked.
“There are only three people I know of who distil cherry laurels,” Magnus replied. “One of them lives nearby. I want to talk to him.”
The buildings on the northern edge of Cyrene were simple structures made of rough-hewn wood, stained by the elements. One of them was different though. It was a large compound surrounded by a fence. The home of a man named Korax.
A flash of color caught Magnus’s attention as they walked toward Korax’s compound. A feminine figure in a pale blue robe stepped out of an alleyway. She lowered her hood and approached with a mischievous smile.
“Fancy meeting you here, stranger,” Yasmin said.
“Hello, Priestess. Why are you here?” Magnus asked.
“Delpha used dryad hair charms to maintain her appearance. There are only two people in town who sell those. And yourself?”
“Cherry laurels,” he replied.
“Shall we go in then?” she asked.
Her smile had hardened, becoming less mischievous. She knew as well as he did what it meant for them both to be outside Korax’s home. The odds of it being a coincidence were low.
“Working for the city guard now are you?” Magnus asked.
“No, I just need you to distract his goons,” Yasmin replied.
“I’m not going—”
“Speaking of working for the city guard who are your companions?” she interrupted, gesturing to Chara.
“The Lady Chara and her bodyguard are diplomatic envoys from Athens,” Magnus explained.
A single raised eyebrow was her only response. Yasmin wanted to know why he had taken a diplomat to a suspected murderer’s home. He wasn’t entirely sure of the answer himself.
“Never mind,” he said, not wanting to explain.
“Okay,” she replied shrugging. “But I’ll bet you that Korax’s goons won’t let you in to talk to him. I on the other hand won’t have any difficulties.”
“I promise not to interfere,” she said.
That stopped him. Yasmin was usually true to her word. If she promised not to interfere then she probably wouldn’t. He was missing something; he had to be. Nevertheless he couldn’t see the harm. He had come to ask questions, not make an arrest, if letting Yasmin tag along kept her happy then it wasn’t necessarily the worst idea. It was best to be satisfied with her promise and then keep a close watch on her.
With a shrug, Magnus walked to the metal gate leading to Korax’s compound. The gate had gaps between the bars large enough to reveal a man in dark leather lounging on the other side.
“What do you want?” the man asked.
Reaching into his tunic Magnus pulled out his chain of office, showing it to the doorman. “I’m here to speak with Korax.”
“Korax doesn’t want to talk to you,” the man replied.
“That’s interesting,” Yasmin whispered.
She was right, interesting and suspicious. The city guard were representatives of the King’s authority in Cyrene. Nobody turned away the guard without a good reason. “Open the gate in the name of the city guard,” Magnus growled.
The man licked his lips nervously but didn’t obey.
“If you don’t open this gate I’ll come back with a squad of guards and we’ll break it down.”
“You do what you have to do,” the man replied. He looked nervous, really nervous. He was committing a crime by refusing to open the gate. He could be thrown in the stocks for it.
The doorman glanced past Magnus, focusing on something behind him. Honeyed words suddenly slipped through Magnus’s mind. They were words not meant for mortal ears, gliding through his thoughts without meaning, leaving behind only a sense of desire. The doorman’s eyes seemed to glow with an unnatural light in response to the words.
“Open the gate and walk away,” Yasmin said from directly behind Magnus.
Without a word the doorman opened the gate and stepped out of the compound. He pushed his way past Magnus and wandered aimlessly out into the street, his eyes glazed and unseeing.
“What?” she asked. “I’m not interfering, I’m helping.”
Magnus took a deep breath to calm his nerves. The doorman probably wouldn’t suffer any harm from the spell. Yasmin had magically scrambled his brains, but it would likely wear off in a few minutes. Nevertheless, he didn’t want any more of her help.
“I need you to go away,” he said.
“Of course Magnus,” she replied.
She began speaking, the words slipping through Magnus’s ears like oil and fading away without comprehension. Simultaneously with the words fading from his mind Yasmin faded from sight. One moment she was there and the next her robe flumped to the ground empty and discarded. Yasmin was nowhere to be seen, her magic making her invisible.
“Damn it, that’s not what I meant, Yasmin.”
Silvery laughter was her only reply, and the sound of it faded into the courtyard of Korax’s compound.
“What now?” Chara asked making Magnus jump.
He had forgotten she was there, again. Whether she liked it or not she was a born diplomat, able to fade into the background effortlessly. It was a good question though. It was tempting to walk away, but he knew he couldn’t. “I can’t let her go in there alone,” Magnus said. “You two wait here.”
With those words he stepped through the gate into Korax’s compound. The courtyard wasn’t large, just big enough to bring in a horse and wagon and turn it around again. At the far end of the courtyard was a brick house — luxurious for the neighborhood it was in, consisting of multiple rooms and sporting a thick wooden door.
“Lady Chara, wait,” Gaius whispered.
She ignored his order and followed Magnus into the compound. Before Gaius could reprimand her, the front door of the house opened and four men stepped out. Three of them were in black leather matching the doorman; the fourth was Korax. He was a short man with a darting look about him. All of them were armed with an assortment of knives. “What are you doing here?” Korax demanded.
“I am investigating the death of a woman named Delpha,” Magnus replied. “Your doorman let us in.”
“What? That’s impossible.” Korax advanced into the courtyard with a look of anger on his face. The anger turned to confusion though as his searching eyes failed to find his doorman.
Unfortunately there was also no sign of Yasmin either. Whatever magic she used was making her incredibly hard to find. Magnus needed to stall for time while he figured out how to get her out of the compound. “I’d like to ask you a few questions,” he said.
“I have no interest in your questions,” Korax replied.
“That’s too bad. I guess I’ll have to arrest you for refusing to cooperate with the city guard.”
A vicious glare was the only reply he received. Korax wasn’t the type to quietly allow himself to be arrested. On the other hand he wouldn’t attack a member of the city guard unless he felt he had no other choice. That left a small window that Magnus could use. “Do you know anything about the death of the street priestess Delpha?” he asked.
“No, I don’t,” Korax replied.
“He’s lying,” Chara said.
Looking back, Magnus could see that Chara was peering at Korax through a glowing glass sphere she cradled in her hands. He hadn’t heard her casting her spell but the sphere looked exactly as it had when she questioned Magnus in the dockyards.
“I am not,” Korax said.
“Yes you are. Did you kill her?” Chara asked.
The situation was spiraling out of control. This wasn’t the time or place for a magical interrogation. Magnus began backing up towards Chara, gesturing for her to be quiet while keeping his eyes on Korax.
“No,” Korax replied.
“Did one of your men?” Chara asked.
The body language from Korax and his men suddenly changed. Hands began reaching for weapons while they shifted their feet and transitioned into fighting stances. Behind his back, Magnus brought his ring into position.
“Lady Chara, please stop,” Gaius whispered.
“No, of course not,” Korax replied.
“You’re lying!” Chara declared.
At Korax’s gesture his men erupted into violence. The three of them started pulling out and throwing knives, the blades glittering as they flew through the air toward Magnus and his companions. Fortunately Magnus had been watching Korax and he was already speaking the activation word for his ring. In the blink of an eye the ring was gone and a large bronze shield appeared on Magnus’ arm. There was a pair of reverberating clangs as knives bounced off of the shield.
Behind him, Gaius reacted without hesitation. His sword whispered as he pulled it from its scabbard and batted a knife out of the air. Grabbing Chara by her tunic, Gaius shoved her behind Magnus as a second knife glanced off of his breastplate. Within moments he was crouched beside Chara, his body sheltering her where Magnus’s shield didn’t cover.
What in Hades had the fool woman been thinking? A quick glance at her face showed she was in a state of shock at the sudden violence. It was as if she had expected her actions to somehow turn out well. Another knife plinked off the shield, this one falling away at an odd angle. Korax’s men were circling to the sides, trying to get into position for a clean shot.
“We need to move,” Gaius growled.
“Wait for it,” Magnus replied drawing his sword.
“Wait for what? They’re going to flank us!”
“You idiots,” Korax yelled. “He can’t …”
Suddenly Korax made a liquid rasping sound as blood gushed from a gash across his throat. He fell to his knees, looking in bewilderment at the woman in tight leather who had appeared beside him, a knife wet with his blood in her hand.
“That,” Magnus said.
Throwing himself into a sprint, Magnus charged the knife throwers on the right while Gaius went left. Staring in shock at their dying leader, Korax’s men didn’t react fast enough to save themselves. The fight was quick and brutal and ended with two of them falling to Gaius’ blade while the third collapsed with Magnus’s sword in his chest.
A hush fell over the courtyard, broken only by the panicked breathing of Lady Chara. Four men lay dead on the ground. It was tempting to blame Chara for what had happened, but Magnus knew different. There was only one person responsible for what had just happened and justice had been served when Yasmin slit his throat.
Korax had made a stupid mistake. He had assumed that because Delpha worshipped Aphrodite she was an easy victim. After all, what was the danger in going after a prostitute? One look at Yasmin was enough to end that misperception. She was dressed for battle. Granted, her armor was skin-tight and more revealing than any warrior would wear, but it was war gear nonetheless. Aphrodite wasn’t just the goddess of lust she was also the god of war’s lover and the mother of his children, the personifications of dread and terror. Aphrodite was a destructive goddess, and Yasmin was her servant.
“I wasn’t here, Magnus,” Yasmin said walking to the front gate and picking up her robe.
“Of course not,” he replied.
“Wait, yes you were,” Chara said. “You killed that man. If …”
“No dear,” Yasmin interrupted. “I simply assisted a member of the city guard who was being attacked. And I wasn’t here because everyone knows that the church of Aphrodite and the city guard never work together.”
She put her robe back on, covering her leather armor. Then she walked away, pulling up her hood as she went. With the robe and hood she didn’t look dangerous, just another anonymous shape disappearing into the crowded city.
There was one last thing that needed to be done. Reaching into a pouch on his belt Magnus removed a small metal object. “Lady Chara,” he said, “I’m afraid we’re going to be delayed in getting you to the palace.”
Chara wasn’t listening to him though. She was leaning on Gaius, shaking with spent adrenaline. A look of nausea slowly creeping across her features as she stared at the dead bodies around them.
Magnus lifted the metal object to his mouth. The shrill sound of a whistle echoed over the city streets.
Alex Doiron lives deep in the frozen wilderness of Canada near a small settlement called Ottawa. On a daily basis he braves feral polar bears in order to bring food and firewood home to his three bedroom igloo. He is a chartered chemist and has multiple non-fiction publications on the exciting and dynamic topic of rust in journals such as Corrosion, Corrosion Reviews, Materials Performance, and Oil and Gas Journal.