A Celebration of Lesser Evils 3.2

Walking through the poor quarters of Kallin felt more and more like an eerie mirror. Ana could feel Tyeka’s lifeblood running through these foreign veins, the same kinds of people and the same kinds of trades in over different streets and buildings. She felt a malignant nostalgia in it. She hated those days, poor, hungry, starving, almost as much as being in an orphanage, but the sharp freedoms that it offered were undeniable. For the first time in a long time, she found herself looking at people and being interested in them. 

Here, a porter, about her age, sat shirtless in the sun, bright sweat on his handsome back. A little pudge sat on his belly, between the muscle and the skin, shifting as he leaned and chewed on a piece of bread. There, a fishwife, bored at her work and slumped with a pretty fringe of hair coming free from her bonnet. And there, Korel, still frazzled and wild-haired from his bout with Seonya, and interrupting her view of the city.

He was a witch. That was the fact of the matter. She had to avoid calling it a case in her head. She couldn’t be thinking of it like an investigation. Still, all the standard thoughts came to mind – when it started, why he felt so compelled to make such a deal. What the devil looked like, what it called itself. 

That part interested her particularly. She had tried to study the way that devils made themselves appealing to their witches. It was, by all her research, a mish-mash of strategies. Some appeared terrifying or monstrous, and then explained that they would bring that terror onto their enemies. Others were more subtly powerful, taking the appearance of kings and rulers and so on. More still were strange like Tros was, mystifying.

Another question occurred to her. 

Did he start talking to birds before or after he made the deal with the devil? 

She immediately dismissed it as stupid. It was almost certainly after. Almost. 

Motives for helping her also came to mind. She was split down the middle between him genuinely doing it at Shosef’s behest, or doing it out of jealousy. Maybe it was both. 

The streets grew narrow as they reached high noon. Many of the tenements had been built ramshackle, or not completed at all; some were built far too close to other buildings. Sol seemed to know the twisting alleyways well enough to lead them, but it still felt uncannily like a cavern in the earth had swallowed them up at some indeterminate point in the journey. He took them down an alley so thin only a single person could go through at a time. Useless shuttered windows stared into the opposing wall. Ana wondered how many buildings were once separated by alleys like these until it became more convenient to do away with the pretense and merge the two halves into a whole.

She went over the suspects in her head as she carefully stepped over a fearless, beady-eyed pigeon. It wasn’t a case either, but she started to think of it like one. There was her, obviously. That was going to be the talk of the town. She had the motive, the means, and perhaps the opportunity if she couldn’t find a good alibi. Then there was Seonya, but Ana could discount her. She knew her. 

Ana corrected herself. She had known Mikhel. Mikhel was a mild-mannered, bookish teenager who had kept to himself more than anything. It was wholly possible that Seonya had changed more than she thought in those few years. Ana had turned her entire life around, after all. The traditional view of things was that congenial sins like crossdressing were a gateway to further issue. That didn’t seem to be the case with Seonya, though. She was a poor prostitute who had never shown any aptitude for sorcery. If Temari and Korel were to be believed, that discounted her as a suspect. She could have hired an assassin but that only further complicated the question of where she would get the money for that.

Korel came to mind next. Jealousy was an uncommon motive, but he was involving himself in the investigation. It was a very standard way of trying to dispel any suspicion. Witches in positions of power in particular liked to do it; she had read a case where an investigation into a witch went nowhere for months until the inquisitors started looking into the ever-helpful mayor. 

Helping her with the competition was circumstantial to this case. It was unsettling, though. 

That left the other competitors, and Sol. The crowd seemed to like Shosef well enough, but not Surraen. Jealousy again could be a motive, and Surraen was the kind of fellow to pick a fight, but Ana had known that kind of man before. Something in her doubted he actually had the guts to kill a man. Especially a man as adept at defending himself as Shosef was. The pagan, Manguyaat, was a wild card. In theory, she’d have more to gain from the fight going through than anyone else. 

Something wasn’t adding up. She could feel it.

They arrived in a small courtyard. A lonely, out-of-place tree had grown in the patch of bare earth, and beneath it a small garden was growing. It was a surprisingly pretty sight in an ugly part of town. Off to one side, there was a disused, rusted iron gate which separated out a larger place for people to enter. It seemed to less be a security measure and more a vague idea of a deterrent. It was short enough that one could climb over, although judging by its state one would probably risk catching lockjaw in doing so.  

Sol kept moving as they reached the back stoop of one of the tenements. He knocked, once, twice, and the door flung open. She was a girl, well-tanned and lean. Ana had never been a good judge of ages, but she couldn’t have been much older than fifteen. Her face was red. She had been crying.

Sol’s expression softened. Korel looked away.  

“It seems you’ve already been told the news.”

The girl murmured a vague agreement. Her voice was shot; it cracked even when she was only speaking in a whisper. She looked them up and down suspiciously.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know your name. I’m Sol. I know your mother, Maya. This is Merya, and this is Korel. Would it be fine if we spoke with her?”

Her face twitched at the mention of Sol. She didn’t smile, but she her shoulders lowered, and she moved her hand away from her pocket. Something was in there, but it wasn’t large enough to be a gun.

“Can we talk inside?” She asked, “Your friends can come in. I just don’t feel safe out here.”

Ana looked around. The courtyard was empty except for them. Sol nodded to the girl and she let them in. It was a small home, but it was a very complete one. The furniture was all old and well-worn, but none of it was broken. If anything, the scuff marks and dents in the old wood and the aging soot in the fireplace made it feel well-loved. A little cloth divider separated one bed from another.

A room for two. Mother and daughter, but no sign of a husband, noted Ana.

The dishes were piled up in a washbasin. She had been alone for a while, or perhaps she didn’t have the time to clean them. 

She drew them to the kitchen, and she sat opposite them. The girl anxiously tapped her fingers on the edge of the table. She was in the room with them, but her mind was clearly somewhere else.

“Ishka, right?” Asked Sol, “I know we haven’t been properly introduced.” 

“Yes, I’m Ishka. Is my mother in trouble?”

Ana shook her head. Sol immediately began to reassure her.

“No, no. Not at all. I know she’s a trustworthy woman. She actually helped me once while I was doing my job. Why would she be in trouble?”

“She was supposed to come back from her work just yesterday. And then my uncle-”

She cut herself off. Ana wanted to extend a hand, but thought better of it. It could make things worse.

Sol leaned back. 

“I know Allatsha’s running that masquerade as an attraction for his party this year. It’s a big thing, has his staff on overtime. Are you sure that she isn’t just working a day longer?”


Ishka looked around again for some kind of invisible enemy. Ana followed her gaze slightly to the door.

“I made a mistake. I’m afraid that we might be paying for it.”

“We’re not here to hurt you,” said Korel, “I’m certainly not. I knew your uncle was a good man.”

Korel said it with difficulty. Ana could tell. He seemed residually drunk, though most of it had worn off of his cheeks. There was conviction behind the words. Ishka quieted her tapping.

“I’m not stupid,” Ishka said, “I know my uncle wasn’t exactly making all of his money legally. Carpenters make good money, but they don’t make that much money.”

She exhaled as if she had been bearing a heavy burden.

“My mother and I saw – we didn’t get a lot of it, he had his own dues to pay, but he did help us. But word gets around, and people talk. A few weeks back I was on the outskirts of Blackwood and they jumped me. I think they thought I had money on me. Hit me on the head.”

She pulled back her brown hair to reveal a thin scar on the side of her head. 

“I was confused. Talked to a city watchman. He got me to a doctor before I got back home, and I told him what had happened.”

Sol sighed openly. Korel stayed steely-faced and Ana did her best to stay the same. Talking to anyone who might bring the city watch in was bad news for all involved. Ana had seen it in Tyeka. Someone talks, someone gets beat up. Killing someone’s entire family over it seemed unlikely, but she had heard of stranger and more violent cases for pettier reasons.

“Please- I’m afraid. I’m really afraid,” said Ishka, “If they have my mom-”

“No,” said Sol, “I know why you’re scared. It’s reasonable. How about this – me and my friends here will go out to Mr. Allatsha’s house, we’ll find her, tell her that you’re worried, and we will figure it all out for you. Because the odds are, she hasn’t been kidnapped, she’s just been very busy.” 

“Agreed,” said Ana, “Your mother is probably fine, but you’re right to be concerned. We’ll go find her. You haven’t told anyone else about this?”

She shook her head.

“No. I guess I’ve been paranoid. After I heard the news about my uncle, I’ve been staying here all day.”

Sol thought for a while. Ana kept her eyes on the poor girl.

“On the way to Allatsha’s house I’ll tell my friend Terete to help you out. She’s a doctor, old friend of your uncles. Maybe you know her?” 

She nodded.

“I’ve seen her once or twice, when I was sick. What’s she got to do with it?”

“She’ll just hang around out by the gate. Don’t your your pretty little head. She’s a good woman. I’m just telling you so you aren’t scared when you see her walking up.”

Ana nodded.

“You’re going to be alright. I’ve seen Terete fight before, and she’ll put you in good hands. Nothing’s getting past her. You just hang tight until then.”

Ishka slowly pulled her hand away from the table.

“Okay. I’d like you to leave now. I’m very afraid someone’s seen us.”
“You’re sure you can take care of yourself?” Asked Korel, “I know how this looks, us coming in right after you’ve got this terrible news. But if you want me to stay until Terete can come, I can do that.”

Sol nodded in agreement. Ana eyed him suspiciously. One missing, one dead. It wasn’t a pattern yet if what Sol said about her working was true, but it was something. If the girl wanted someone to stay with her, she’d have it be Sol or her. 

Ishka considered it for a while before shaking her head. 

“I have a knife on me. I can manage. I think I can.” 

They stood, said their goodbyes, and returned to the fresh air. Ana, for a moment, did not want to leave Ishka. She seemed terribly afraid. She scanned her surroundings. It didn’t seem that anyone was watching the small courtyard, but there were all sorts of ways of viewing that took advantage of sorcery.

“This doesn’t look good at all,” said Sol, “The Dzhima, maybe? Or the Ille?”

Ana racked her brain for a moment. The Dzhima were a criminal syndicate, she knew that much, mostly Dareans and northern Kolets who had fled from the Great Coup there. They mostly worked in port cities, but they were never really within their jurisdiction as inquisitors. Ille, on the other hand, she couldn’t place at all. He pronounced it like an Agoran name, though.

“You think he could get caught up in that? That they’d be so angry over something as small as snitching?”

“Some of their people have been encroaching more and more into Blackwood,” said Korel, “But it doesn’t feel like that. They’re not trusting of sorcerers, and keep them on a tighter leash than most of their kind.”

Ana nodded.

“Which brings the suspicion back towards one of the competitors.”

“Allatsha isn’t far?”

“No,” said Sol, “Let’s hope he’s receptive, for the girl’s sake.”

They moved in silence for a while. Ana kept her gaze from falling to Korel again. Even if she was suspicious of them, it wouldn’t do her any good to be throwing around accusations with evidence of her own shady behavior. Even if Shosef wanted to help her, it could’ve been seen as cheating.

So they strode out the way they came, over the same fearless pigeon that stood watch over the alleyway. The sun was a little lower as they came to the halfway point of their journey, where Blackwood began to bleed away into the richer parts of the city. The low hospital took in the poor and the rich alike, for treatment and donations. Terete came to greet them, and they gave a short, clipped summary of what had happened. She gladly agreed and hurried off to help the girl.

From there, they advanced over the old bridge, across the  stinking Teper, to the High Quarter. It was clean here – crisp. It didn’t even smell like trash. The streets were well-ordered and uncrooked. Watchmen were seemingly on almost every street, and Ana had not seen a single beggar since they crossed over. Probably because of the watchmen. 

And then they came to it.

At first, Ana didn’t quite believe that it was a single home. It was huge. The garden alone that took up its front had five, evenly spaced apple trees; a neat grove of bushes and flower-gardens took up the space between. Its palatial facade spoke to the old Koletya. Gleaming stone had been stained a little by the wind and rain and mud, but it still held all its old grandeur, carved into intricate whorls towards the bottom and fascinating grotesques at the top. Dragons and bulls featured most prominently; great stone serpents and bulls intertwined with each other, the serpents sometimes kissing the bulls and pushing a stony fluid into the bull’s open mouths.

Feeding Ia-Atshe, thought Ana, I suppose they didn’t change it during the revolution.

Slowly, they passed the gate, waved through by a well-dressed guard with a musket as soon as he saw Sol amongst him.

“You didn’t tell me this guy was rich,” said Ana, ”I feel underdressed.”

“You aren’t underdressed if you’re with me,” said Sol, “But mind your manners. He doesn’t like being interrupted.”

The massive door had no locks on the outside – those were on the gate. The foyer was no less opulent than the outside. The floor was covered with an old mosaic. It was subtle, but the edges had been torn up, showing signs of a major renovation that replaced whatever had been there originally. Now, there was a massive, inscribed heptagram. Pillars and sweet scents surrounded it. Stairways led upwards to carpeted wooden floors, and there was a bustle in the air. Several servants rushed past them without a word. Decorations had been put up – all the preparations for a rather ostentatious party. Another maid saw Sol, and flagged him down.

“Are you here for Mr. Allatsha?”

“Yes, indeed,” said Sol. 

She gestured for them to follow up the stairs and down the hall. Ana felt a distinct sense of being in the wrong place. She passed finery, drapes worth more than she had ever made in her life, vases that looked so beautiful and delicate that it seemed like it would be an outright sin to even put something as crude as water in them. It was all a blur of pure and unadulterated wealth, and here she was, tracking her mud in, looking like a transvestite, and smelling like a pig. She hated it.

She felt like if she knocked something over, one of the maids would summarily execute her with a frying pan. 

Eventually, they came to a door. The maid knocked, and a high, nasally-voice replied.

“Come in.”

The maid opened the door and gestured them all in. The study was no less lavish, but it was more restrained in its appearance. The wood was fine, but it had clearly been refurbished to give it a more rustic, peasantish quality. It was simple and austere, but the wood looked shiny, foreign and expensive. To one side, a clock sat, ticking away as the pendulum swung back and forth. The light of day streamed in through the window, illuminating a globe. It had been covered with parchment and traced in various places, so notes could be made. The entirety of the Great Channel had been covered with one large sheet. Pins and red string had been arranged, all connecting them back to Kallin. 

All around were bookshelves. Most were histories, logbooks, diaries, judging by the titles on their spines. Others were more esoteric and academic. Studies on architecture; on managing finances; on anatomy; on sorcery. Altogether, they might have been more valuable than even the furniture.

The man behind the writing desk was exceedingly well-dressed as well. Again, there was a simple quality to the clothes, but the materials seemed expensive and fine. His shirt was a plain white, but he wore a vest over it; what looked to be golden thread was used for the seams. He was sharp-featured, with just the first signs of middle age appearing on his face. He scribbled away at a piece of paper. Dozens of notes sprawled out over the desk. 

Allatsha looked up from his work with watery brown eyes.

“Sol!” He said excitedly before looking at Ana and Korel, “And friends. What a pleasant surprise. What can I do for you, friend?”

Something about the way he said, ‘and friends’ made Ana feel like it wasn’t a pleasant surprise at all. 

“Well, I bear unpleasant news, unfortunately. The brother of your maid, Maya, has passed away. I wanted to bring the news. I’ve been told that she was at work.”

“Oh,” he said, “You must be mistaken. She’s done an incredible job organizing the party for this year, and I decided to give her an extra day off.”

They looked from eye to eye. Ana did not like the look of this man. His house was far too opulent for her liking, as pretty as it was. Sol seemed equally suspicious.

“The party, you say? You mean the annual gala?”

“Yes,” said Allatsha, “She’s been an enormous help. I’m sorry to hear about her brother.”

“I know you have certain important guests who come before the party to tour the facilities,” said Sol, “Would any have had close contact with Maya?”

He sighed.

“Are you making accusations, Mr. vzõ Duvã?” 

“No,” said Sol, “But you and I know Maya. She has a daughter, and I do not want to leave her parentless. You don’t want to tell me, that’s fine. I have my own methods.”

“Agreed,” said Ana, sensing his tack, “And it would be a shame if we had to get our hands any dirtier to get this kind of information.”

He stood. He was a little shorter than her.

“Is that a threat?”

“No, Mr. Allatsha,” said Sol, “Not at all. I apologize for my friend’s manners. By the way, how has your wife been? No more issues?”

Allatsha paled. 

“Don’t- not while other people are around.”

“Why not? We’re all friends here. We can speak openly about these minor indiscretions,” said Sol, with a sly tone to his voice. 

Ana hid her smile. That was a killing blow, no matter what Allatsha tried to pull out next. Whatever it was, it had him reeling. They just needed to follow through.

“You can’t-”

“I haven’t heard about this,” said Korel, “The famed Mr. Allatsha has been having… marital issues?”

“Yes,” added Ana, “I haven’t heard such talk either. But Sol has. I presume you’ve been keeping it secret.”

“Well, you see, Mr. Allatsha’s wife had been making these strange purchases-”

“Fine,” relented Allatsha, “I get it. You want to talk, I’ll talk.”

“Good,” said Ana, “We’ll probably only need to hear about guests that were around in the last week or so. If anything untoward happened, it might have been a crime of opportunity.”

He sighed, sat back down and shuffled through his papers for a while before clearing his throat. 

“Several diplomats from Darea – none of them met Maya, though, I don’t think. Let’s see… a few Kolets who’s-who, but none of them stayed around for very long.”

Sol brought himself around the desk to leer at the names.

“Hm. Old family names there.”

Allatsha nodded.

“Respected men. I wouldn’t put murder or kidnapping on them, but feel free to look in to them.”

Sol’s face suddenly shifted with surprise.

“Sorry, who is this?” He asked as he pointed at a name. 

“Manguyaat? Oh, she’s an envoy from a Sondi city. Uh, I believe it was… Mishe? Nishe?”

Ana swallowed. That was suspicious. Unless there was some absolutely enormous coincidence, Manguyaat was now a prime suspect. Then again, it was an absolutely enormous coincidence that she had run into Seonya. Nonetheless, Manguyaat had the means of sorcery, and the opportunity in the visit. All that was left was a motive, and she could clear her name. 

Something still felt off, though. She was an apparent newcomer, and she had financial interest in not killing Shosef – so why do it? She had heard that old pagan Kolets practiced human sacrifice, but there was no such thing for the Sondi. 


“Yes, yes. She was a late comer, but she offered me some money to put her on the list, so I arranged it. She seemed a nice enough woman, and she was well dressed, and spoke like she was of nobility.”

“Did she leave any address?” Asked Ana. 

“No? I assumed any address she had would be very temporary.”

“Mm,” said Sol, “That’s interesting. I think me and my friends ought to be at this party.”

“Sol, the guest list-”

“Don’t argue,” said Ana, “We need to meet some of these people, and the party is the best place to do it.”

“Agreed,” said Korel, “Don’t worry. We’ll find some better clothes. And we won’t cause any trouble.”

Allatsha huffed and stared at the log of guests. 

“Fine,” he said, crossing three other names off the list, “But don’t think I won’t ask for a favor in return.” 

“Of course, Mr. Allatsha,” said Sol, “I always make good on my promises. We’ll be taking our leave.”

The three left the room, into the gleaming halls of the estate once more. 

“Fucking Saints names,” said Sol, “That man is an idiot.”

“How so?”

“Mishe is Sondi for ‘Nowhere.’”

He ran a hand through his hair and rolled his shoulders back. Ana put a hand to her mouth as she tried to connect the dots. 

“So, we’ve got a pagan woman with a war-name that means that she’s looking for vengeance, who’s come from nowhere, and potentially killed one person, and kidnapped or killed another.”

“We’re assuming that she’s the one who did it?” Asked Korel.

“Could be one of the other names on that list. Khatya Erkha, Nonya Erkha, Bena Domyat. All of them visited in the last three days,” said Sol, “Could have easily met Maya during that time and singled her out, but if what he said was true…” 

“They’ve got no reason to murder,” said Ana. 

“Agreed, but we need to at least keep an open mind. You never know what’s going on behind closed doors,” said Sol, “And if the Dzhima is involved, they’d be the prime suspects.” 

“A party, then? A masquerade?”

“Yes,” said Sol, “It’s a few days from now. We should prepare. It’ll be tough to figure out who’s who, but it’s not impossible. It’s our best chance.”

They began to walk back towards the entrance, to the summer afternoon. Forgotten faux-ancient statues stood overgrown in the bushes. Their faces were consumed by the greenery, hands reaching out from the thickets and thorns. She tried to memorize it, the shape of the house, the halls, for future reference. Four suspects masked and unknown; one more walking with her towards the gate; and one in her own boots. 

Ana touched the little necklace she had devoted to Tros that laid around her neck, then prayed silently for Ishka and Maya. And then, somewhere in her heart, she prayed for Seonya as well. And she prayed to Saint Gelon, under her breath. If she could not dole out justice as a witch-hunter, she’d do it her own way. 

“Bring swiftness to my blade, sharpness to my mind, and keep me humble,” whispered Ana as they returned to the streets, “And keep the innocent safe. Let me be your instrument for justice.”

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