A Death for the Ageless

Issue #134

I sent the sparrow two minutes after my first look at the body. Some might say that this was intellectual cowardice, but I knew my limits, and I knew when to call in aid.

“It’s not supposed to happen,” Fries said again as I inspected the wounds. He stayed close to the edge of the flat roof, as if distance would shield him. “It can’t happen.”

“So I guess we’re not here, then?” I turned back the corpse’s eyelids, first one then the other. Silver veins spread out from the wide irises. I let go and stood, my feet crunching on the tar paper. “We’re not here, no one called us, and the Ageless Elariel here—he isn’t dead.”

Fries shut his mouth over another not supposed to happen. Elariel of the Ageless, once high in the courts of Poma-mèl, had been taller than most human men, with the harsh and elegant bone structure common to all Ageless, his expression now distant and tranquil. Shame about the multiple stab wounds; there was nothing tranquil about that ruin of a chest.

Those of us who’d managed to come back from the war in Poma-mél had seen what happened when an Ageless was cut: the wound sealed up, the blood dissolved into smoke, and usually the formerly wounded Ageless just looked annoyed. Even now, when they were in exile, their healing powers were known through the City. Fries was right: this wasn’t supposed to happen. 

The ladder leading to the rooftop shook as Crighton ponderously climbed up, taking Fries’s hand to steady himself as he reached the top. “Judas,” he muttered. “This is a mess.”

“That’s what I’ve been saying, sir!” Fries bleated. Fries was Patrol, not Inspector, and I often had to remind myself that he wasn’t representative of Patrol. 

“Knife wounds, by the look of it,” I said, stepping aside to give him a better view. “There’s also a contusion on the back of the head, but I think that happened after death. Probably when he fell.”

“Fell?” Crighton squinted at the body.

“Placement of the limbs is consistent with a fall from a significant height. He wasn’t killed here, though; there’s no other sign of a fight, no blood or ash. And we got the call because someone two floors down heard the thump around tenth bell.” 

“And they didn’t call it in till first bell. Lovely.” Crighton circled Elariel’s body. “Swift, send a sparrow to the lady Avrin. She’s going to want to know her husband’s dead.”

I hesitated, one hand going to my belt where the brass bird usually rested. “I—must have left without it—”

Fries started to splutter, but Crighton just glared at me. “Swift, you milksop. You called in that little goblin, didn’t you?”

“Kobold!” We all looked up at the high, piping voice; none of us had heard the ladder rattle. Mieni hopped over the edge of the roof, adjusting the lines of her suit. Many koboldim wore children’s clothes, but Mieni had made a point of wearing a ladies’ suit tailored to her diminutive frame. If anything, it made her look like a child playing dress-up. “Kobold, not goblin. I do insist on the distinction. And yes, I was called. I am always happy to lend my poor brain to the aid of good Mr. Swift.”

Fries snickered, while Crighton just looked as if he’d stepped in something. The koboldim had caught the worst of public opinion in the wake of the war. Most other refugee populations were too small to bother with; the draugar were too unnerving, the devourers—well, those were another matter—and as for the Ageless, you couldn’t hate them. Ageless were tragic exiles; koboldim were rats fleeing a ship. But they were under the Ageless’ protection, so they were grudgingly accepted by most, as we’d accepted other changes the Ageless brought. Myself, I’d met Mieni during the war, when she occupied a position parallel to my own current role as Inspector. I’d never known a puzzle she couldn’t solve.

I gestured to the body. “You see the problem, Mieni.”

She paused, hairy red fingers twitching. “Indeed. Indeed. May I?” I glanced at Crighton, but he’d turned away to fiddle with his sparrow. Mieni returned my own sparrow as she trotted past. “Indeed,” she said again, her voice lowering to a croon. She pulled a lens from one of the pockets on her vest. “See, how the blows struck through muscle and bone here, but not here? Most curious.”

“Would the depth of cuts make a difference?” I asked, crouching next to her. It was difficult; Mieni was about two and a half feet tall, and so trying to see from the same angle from my six-foot-three was more than a little difficult. 

“Depth? No. Disembowelment would not stop them; depth of cuts would do nothing.”

Nothing could stop an Ageless, or so it had seemed. Nothing but political treachery. Elariel had been the one most outspoken since; a voice for the expatriate Ageless while the Usurper held the throne in Poma-mél. If this had been a political crime—and at the moment that looked as likely as anything else—then the City was sorely unprepared for any repercussions. “Has this ever happened before?” I asked quietly.

Mieni shook her head. “There are stories of murdered cent-ans—of Ageless, as you say—but there are always stories. No, my friend, this is a first for me as well.” She leaned over and sniffed at the wounds; her wide flat nostrils twitching. 

“You’re just going to let that—that goblin snuffle at him?” Fries snapped finally.

“Kobold,” Mieni corrected. “Mr. Swift, you see? This incision here, and this, over the heart, were partly healed but did not close. While these here were made through bloodless skin—already the death had taken hold.” She sniffed again at the wounds, probing at the gaping edges. “It was neither the first nor the last strike that killed him.”

I peered closer. “So what did?” There was a faint scent to the wounds, something like burnt lavender.

She rocked back onto her heels. “I think the question is rather why.”

A gold spark lanced across the far side of the rooftop, splitting the air in two. Crighton stepped back with a very satisfied smile as an Ageless woman stepped out from the broken air, sealing it behind her with a wave of one long, glimmering hand. The split-step, one hallmark of Ageless magic. I jumped to my feet. “Crighton—”

Crighton glared at me. “Standard procedure in any case involving Ageless is to contact their liaison.”

“And standard procedure in a murder case is another thing entirely! Your pardon, lady Avrin,” I added as she turned to face me. “But I don’t think you should see this.”

Avrin was tall as her husband had been, her own skin faintly gold to his silver, and a crown of magnificent auburn hair spilled down her back, held in place by chains so fine they could have been silk. All Ageless were beautiful, but Avrin was more than that; she had a quiet grace that balanced her husband’s fiery conviction and a dignity that human monarchs could only ape. The two of them, married shortly after they arrived in our city, had made a name for the Ageless expatriates. The elegant line of her mouth turned down. “I do not care what you think. I will see this.”

Her eyes widened. I turned to see Mieni squatting by Elariel’s head, opening his mouth and inspecting his teeth. “Lady, I am sorry, but this is the scene of a crime, and we cannot—”

“So he is dead,” she murmured, and I stopped. You didn’t interrupt Ageless. “I felt it—I could no longer feel him on what we share, and I thought at first he must have withdrawn from me. But he is truly dead.”

“You—felt it?”

“We are bonded, he and I. Were bonded.” She shivered and turned to Crighton. “I ask that the body be returned to our lodgings. We will entomb him here, as he would have wished.”

“Of course,” Crighton said, just as I shook my head. Crighton glared at me. “Standard Ageless procedure, Swift.”

“We haven’t even examined the scene properly! We have to at least find out how he died—”

“That is exactly why we do not want you to do it,” Avrin said sharply. “If you find out how he was killed, what then? Do you think we want every fool with a grudge to know exactly how we can be killed? Will you take responsibility once that information makes its way through the Usurper’s spies? No. We will take the body.”

“But—” Legally, I didn’t have a leg to stand on; City laws had been changed in the wake of the war and were extremely favorable to Ageless. As were most other human dealings with them. “Don’t you want to know who killed him?”

Avrin’s face contorted, and both Crighton and Fries caught their breath in muffled sobs. I felt my own eyes prickle from the sight; grief, on an Ageless face, is frightening and powerful, not to mention contagious. “What good would it do him now?” she whispered.

“You heard the woman,” Crighton said in a choked voice. “Swift, get the goblin out of here.”

I turned away. Mieni had moved on to the dead man’s hands, lifting them much as I had done and examining the nails. “I’m sorry, Mieni,” I muttered. “Time to go.”

“You see this, Mr. Swift? Look at the nails; two are broken, one torn. I do not know any cent-ans who grow them long enough to tear. Perhaps he had begun to try koboldim fashions, hm?” She got to her feet, gazing at the body. “You have brought me quite the puzzle. Thank you.” 

“The kobold should move,” Avrin said icily.

“The kobold will move, indeed,” Mieni said, and turned to face Avrin. “As we move when the cent-ans ask, hm?” Slitted yellow eyes regarded luminous silver ones, and for a moment I had the odd sensation that Avrin was not contemptuous of Mieni so much as frightened. Little could frighten an Ageless, though, and at length Mieni nodded. “My sorrow for your grief, cent-ans. I heard nothing ill of this man, and I think I shall not now.”

“You will not,” Avrin snapped. “Gentlemen?”

“We’re leaving,” I said before Crighton could order me away.

Mieni scuttled down the ladder ahead of me and waited at the street, “I’m sorry, Mieni,” I said. “I thought we might have a little more time to work.”

“Time is not the question, Mr. Swift. Have I not told you as much over the years? The question is what is here.” She tapped her forehead, hard enough that I could hear the sound. “What we see quickly can be as important as what we then learn. It is all in how we consider it.” 

“So you’ve said, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to do so.” Mieni snorted. A kobold snort can be particularly eloquent, and I knew this one from past arguments; Mieni was not a fan of self-deprecation. “What do you think of the situation?” I asked, to stave off a new lecture.

Mieni’s eyes lowered, and she began to walk at a good clip. “I think.... Walk with me, Mr. Swift. You are expected back?”

“Not soon.” Undoubtedly Crighton’s report would reach the Quarter well before me. 

“Good. Yes, I am curious. But I am not yet sure it is a good curiosity.” She shook her head again, ears rattling, and turned toward the river district. 

The walk to the river district starts off pleasant and then progressively becomes seedier, going into the slums that have not yet been reclaimed by koboldim, then out by the docks and the traders who don’t want their presence officially known. There have been half-hearted attempts to quash smuggling from Poma-mèl, but no Inspector will take on such a colossal job. Besides, I personally have found it useful to know what comes into the city, and enough of the smugglers are veterans that we stay in touch.

Mieni paused at some of the stalls, investigating new brass sparrows and greenglass lenses. “Poor work, lately; the draugar standards have not been kept up. Ah! Oranges.” She handed the stallkeeper a few coins and held up the fruit. “Straight from Poma-mèl. You can tell by the gleam.” I couldn’t, not in this light, but I’d take her word for it. “You are well, Mr. Swift? You are eating enough?”

Mieni was a great-grandmother, as the white tufts over her ears attested, and if I ever forgot that fact, her attitude toward me was a constant reminder. “Do I look like I’ve missed any meals?”

She squinted up at me. “It is hard to say from down here. Perhaps you have shrunk, and I would not notice. Take care of yourself, Mr. Swift; the mind is held by the body, and a weakening body hurts a thinking mind.”

“Even such a mind as mine,” I agreed.

Mieni made a spitting noise. A cluster of whispering draugar started at the sound and huddled farther away from her, their hair still dripping ghost-water. “You noticed the scent on the body, Mr. Swift?” she asked softly, so that I had to stoop to hear.

“I did. Lavender and ashes, I thought.”

“The ashes are no matter; that is simply the residue of blood-smoke. No, my friend, there was more to that scent. Oil of bergamot, for a start, and white crescent, and I am not certain of the last but I suspect false-stellate.”

I shrugged; no lead there. “All of which are common in the city.”

“Common by necessity. Think, Mr. Swift.”

It took no great leap of logic to know the source of such a scent: antivenom, the Ageless’ boon against another group of refugees. The devourers were much less of a problem than they could have been, thanks to the antivenom. Many people, myself included, carried antivenom-treated weapons in case they ran into a hungry devourer, and rare was the household that did not keep a supply on hand. “You don’t think he was killed by a devourer? That’s impossible; those were knife marks, and I’ve never known a devourer to use a weapon.” I’d also never known a devourer to leave a corpse without a few bites, but that seemed in poor taste just now.

“No, I do not... but still.” She tapped her throat thoughtfully. “Mr. Swift, could you bring me to a devourer?”

I stopped in my tracks. A barge on the canal passed us, a few of the human pilgrims—illegal, now that the Usurper was on the throne—gazing listlessly at us as they went by. “Mieni, you’re not serious.”

“You know me when I am not serious, Mr. Swift. Am I so now?” She blinked up at me, and while one corner of her fanged mouth had pulled up, it wasn’t in any sort of real smile. After a moment she sighed and began to peel one of the oranges. “No trouble, then. I can find one in the catacombs; surely our couriers know where they can be found.”

“No!” I shook myself. “No. If you’re that set on it, then better if you come with me.” Koboldim could fight, but they were best in numbers, and the catacombs were no place for that sort of skirmish. And call me a fool, but I do still have some misguided notions of chivalry.

We went down a side street, and when I was sure we weren’t watched, I wrenched open a manhole cover. Normally, Patrol handled devourer problems, but I’d been bumped to Patrol so many times that I knew my way around the catacombs. I glanced at Mieni as I started down the ladder. “Stay close to me, and stay in the light if you can.”

“I do have some vision in darkness, Mr. Swift.”

“I don’t, and I’ll need to see where you are.” I began my descent, trying not to look longingly at the sunlight vanishing above.

For all the bad press koboldim got, the devourers were truly the worst of the refugees. At least we assumed they were refugees; they appeared not long after the others, though not via any road we’d monitored. We in the City may not like draugar or koboldim or even Ageless, but we can at least talk to them; devourers are nothing but mindless hunger. And they are contagious; within a few weeks of the first of them turning up, we discovered that anyone who died from their poisonous bites eventually rose again as a lesser devourer, with the same bite but less speed and strength. Things could have gotten very bad in the city, had not the Ageless stepped forward with the antivenom. The concoction burned the devourers, split their skin, and prevented the ill effects of their bite.

Elariel himself had been the one to offer the antivenom, I remembered, not long after several of his fellow Ageless had returned to Poma-mèl. Would a devourer make that connection and seek vengeance? Unlikely; they were cunning, not reasoning. Though that could have been just such an assumption as the ones Mieni was constantly ordering me to put from my mind.

I dropped from the ladder onto the damp floor of the catacombs and drew my service blade, peering ahead to the little squares of light from the street above. Many of Patrol carry firearms, but one too many mornings in the war cured me of that—mornings when I wouldn’t know whether pistol or rifle would even work in the uncanny land of Poma-mél. A blade was less secure but more reliable.

Mieni hopped down beside me, sniffed the air, and trotted off to our left, away from the river. “Should they not be here already?”

“It’s daylight,” I said, blade held at the ready. “Give them time. If I had raw meat, maybe the smell would bring them....”

Mieni shrugged and continued to peel her orange. A noise like half a dozen rats startled from sleep echoed down the closest tunnel, and I turned to see two white eyes staring out from the darkness. “Back,” I whispered, dropping to guard. “They never come from the first direction.”

Indeed, after a second the eyes winked out. More skittering started up, from the left this time, and I turned in place, trying to keep Mieni at my back. 

Devourers may be mindless, but they still have some hunters’ instincts. The thing jumped at us just as I turned, bowling Mieni over and scattering her oranges. The half-peeled one mashed up against the wall, and the devourer wheeled on it as if it were a rat. For a second it gnawed at the destroyed pulp, juice gleaming in little gold trails, then turned to the closer source of food: us. 

Long clawed hands slashed at my face. I brought my blade up, but this was no contagion-driven shambler but a greater devourer, lean and uncannily quick. The thing moved fast, darting first to the wall and then uncoiling like a cut spring, this time lunging for Mieni.

Mieni never even flinched. She never defended herself either, instead ducking inside the devourer’s grip. To my horrified amazement, she scrambled up the devourer, using its bony body as a ladder, and grabbed its face, prying the jaws apart. The devourer snarled at her, but she simply inspected the sharp teeth, nodded to herself, and jumped away. 

I met the devourer blade-to-claw as it dove for her again, and managed to first knock it back then slice it across the face. The antivenom hissed and smoked, peeling the edges of the wound back, and the devourer gave a keening cry, reeling just long enough for me to make the two swift stabs to kill it. Throat then heart, within the space of three breaths; that’s how they taught us in Patrol, and it’s a more difficult task that you’d expect when a cut throat doesn’t even slow a devourer. This one, though, slid off my blade in a heap.

I stood over the body, panting. If there were more, I hadn’t heard them yet. Mieni lifted one of the devourer’s clawed hands, examined it, and let it drop again. “Not good,” she murmured. “Not good at all. Some things, I do not like knowing... Mr. Swift! Mar de sang, you are cut!”

I raised one hand to my forehead, where a trickle of blood had started. “It’s a slash, not a bite.” 

“Caution, caution, that must be our byword when dealing with things such as these.” She picked up one of her scattered oranges—still gleaming faintly, even in the dim light—regarded it thoughtfully for a moment, and tucked it back into her bag. “Come; my home is not far, and I have copious supplies of antivenom. You will have dinner, yes?”

Mieni bundled me off to her flat, and I sent my sparrow to let the disposal unit know that there was a greater devourer dead in the River District catacombs. Whether they’d do anything about it was another matter. 

Mieni lived in one of the old tenement buildings that koboldim had taken over and subdivided the floors so that the number of rooms was doubled. Mieni’s flat, however, differed in one major way from most: the foyer was human-sized enough that I could stand, though not without some claustrophobia. The far wall opened onto the subdivided space of the rest: a kitchen below, a library above, and a little wooden staircase connecting the two. Some years ago, I had asked about the unusual accommodations. Mieni had only smiled and said that I was not the only one of my stature to seek her aid.

She insisted I apply a full dose of the antivenom to my forehead, then began work on a salad (washing the orange thoroughly, I noted with some relief). I perched in the armchair with a kobold-sized cup of tea, similar to what my niece might use in a tea party, and watched her bustle about. It reminded me a little of when I’d had to hide in a kobold enclave during the war, though the setting was much changed. In a city so depleted by the war, though, we did need them. That might have been why so many resented their presence.

I sat back in the chair gingerly, as if it were made for koboldim rather than humans. “I think I’ve figured out how Elariel ended up on that rooftop.”

“On, on.” Mieni gestured at me to continue while she checked the flame under a pot. She nodded, then scurried up the stairs to the library. 

“Ageless use the split-step to travel quickly, like Avrin did this morning. Elariel knew that he was being targeted by the Usurper; he must have had a delayed-action magic set to whisk him away if he were in danger. Only it didn’t kick in in time.”

“And by the time it does, his magic is fading with his death, so it fizzles and drops him on a roof.” Mieni produced an egg from one of the bookshelves—what it was doing there, I had no idea—and nodded to me as she descended. “Excellent guess, Mr. Swift. You are learning.”

I shrugged. Mieni’s not-undeserved arrogance could be a little wearying at times. “It doesn’t solve anything, though; it just means the murder scene could be anywhere. And I don’t think a devourer could have done it; those were knife wounds, not claw and bite.” I drank the rest of my tea and grimaced at the taste. “Was there a point to our detour today?”

“Oh yes.” She split a garlic clove and rubbed it on the inside of a wooden bowl. “If nothing else, it served to teach me humility.”

Now it was my turn to snort. Nothing in this world or any other would ever teach Mieni humility.

“I am very sorry to have gotten you wounded,” she added. 

“I wouldn’t mind if I knew why we went there. Why did we need to see a devourer, Mieni? What did you learn?”

Mieni was silent a moment, gazing into the boiling water. “I am not sure. No—I wish not to know. That is different. And you, Mr. Swift, I think you would see the connection were you not so enthralled by the cent-ans. Though I do not blame you; it is easy to set aside one’s instincts when dealing with them. It is how they are, even in the home country.” 

“They should never have been exiled.”

“It is a voluntary exile. Had not Elariel stated as much in his protests? And for the cent-ans, exile is much more weighty a decision than for koboldim or draugar.” She regarded the egg, turning it between her fingers. “For you or for me, leaving a home is a simple thing. It may hurt in the head, it may fuss in the preparation, and we may be abandoning much that we love.” She sighed. “Much. But it is still simpler for us. The cent-ans, they are part of their home, and it is part of them. To be separated is to leave behind their true selves.” 

I glanced sidelong at her. “You have a guess how it was done.”

“A guess, no more. And enough that I have my doubts whether to speak it.” She bared her teeth, then gently lowered the egg into the water barehanded, shaking boiling drops off her fingers as if they were nothing. “Do not distract me, please. If we are to have a proper coddled dressing then I must time this.”

I sighed and set my teacup on the floor. “At least they had each other. Even if exile was harsh, Elariel and Avrin were closer than any human couple could be.”

“...twenty-eight, twenty-nine, how so, Mr. Swift? Thirty-one....”

“They were bonded. She even felt him die.” I shook my head. “I can’t imagine being that close to a person and then having that taken away.”

Sang!” The salad bowl tumbled off the table, and I turned to see Mieni staring at me. “They were bonded? You have proof of that?”

I sat up “What—on the roof, while you were examining the body. She said she could no longer feel him on what they shared.” 

Mieni put both hands to her ears, tugging at them. “Why did I not think of this? Of course, he was so much older than any other cent-ans, and she his bonded partner, it would make perfect sense!” She ran to the back of the kitchen, opened the window, and shrieked a string of kobold words into the street. “Mr. Swift, we must go. I hope you are agile enough to hang on to a railcart.”

“I—yes, but what—”

Mieni shut off the flame and muttered darkly at the now-overcooked egg. “Salad another time, Mr. Swift. Now, it is a matter of preventing another death.” She hurried to the door, then turned back to me. “And bring that orange!”

The railcarts used by koboldim are one of the reasons that their presence in the city has caused friction: narrow carts balanced on a single wheel, made so that as long as the load is in balance, they can be steered with a single light touch. Useful, yes, but they tend to be handled recklessly, and this was no different. A team of kobold youths charged after this one, driving it along the streets faster than a horse could gallop, and even though Mieni and three other kobolds clung to the other side, I still had to hang on and shift with it to keep my weight from throwing us all into the gutter.

“You are a fair inspector, Mr. Swift,” Mieni said as we careened through the streets, as casually as if we were still in her flat. “But you have the same blind spot for the cent-ans that all humans have. You assume that because they look like you, they are you. Their exile is not your homesickness; their bonding is not your marriage.”

We bounced off a corner, and I snatched my fingers back in time to avoid getting them crushed. “How so?” I managed.

“It blends their lives, Mr. Swift. Not in the sense of your metaphors; in truth. And Avrin is young—and Elariel was old, as even cent-ans count it. Very old.”

“I don’t see what that—”

Mieni shook her ears at me. “How many older cent-ans came with him into exile? How many are still in this City?”

That stopped me cold, mainly because it seemed irrelevant. But Mieni was right; of the Ageless who had fled to the City, few of the elders remained. Even my old commander had left the city within months of arriving, and he had never been one to compromise with the Usurper. He hadn’t even announced it, just up and vanished one day, like Elariel’s elder kin, and Whitebreath the strategist, and the Lord and Lady Modian....

A horrible suspicion began to bloom in my mind, borne of Mieni’s questions and the devourer—and the wounds in Elariel’s throat and chest. Before it could solidify, though, we lurched to a stop at the high arched doors of Elariel’s home. The other koboldim scattered, leaving Mieni and me to face the two silver-faced guards alone. “No admittance,” one said with a sneer, and I couldn’t tell which of us the latter was meant for.

I took my warrant scrip from my breast pocket. “Arthur Swift, City Inspector, following—”

Cent-ans,” Mieni said, her shrill voice cutting through mine. The next words she said were neither koboldim nor any human language; I thought they sounded like phrases I’d heard in the war. Both of the Ageless paled and stepped aside. “I dislike calling in favors,” Mieni muttered as we passed through the door. “Not only do I have few resources, but the sensation of obligation is unpleasant in the extreme.”

We hurried up through the halls to the highest room, where Elariel had held meetings of his expatriate council. The door was locked, and Mieni nodded to me. “Swift, City Inspector!” I called, and set my shoulder against it. 

“Go away,” said a weak voice. Avrin’s. 

I may not be as strong as I was during the war, but I will never be called weak, and the Ageless prefer delicacy over sturdiness in their surroundings. The lock splintered after the second kick, and Mieni and I burst into the room.

It was high and arched, a breath of openness in the cramped City, and almost empty. Avrin huddled at the far end, curled on her husband’s council chair, her auburn hair a waterfall hiding her face. Before her stood a table with two long blades suspended point-out on a rack, as if primed for something to be impaled upon them. Beside them stood a crucible just coming to the boil, smelling of lavender and bergamot and white crescent. “Antivenom?” I asked without thinking. “Is this—”

Mieni hurried ahead of me, both hands held out. “Cent-ans, bon cent-ans, you do not have to do this. There are other ways.”

“So my husband said,” she whispered, and never have I heard an Ageless sound more miserable. “Said it for years, while refusing the one way we knew would help. But he was wrong.”

She looked up, the fall of her hair sliding away from her face, and I caught my breath. She was still the same beauty that I’d seen that morning, but something had changed in the planes of her face in the hours since, something more than just the ravages of grief. Her teeth were less even, more pointed, and the nails of the trembling hand that she raised to her face had grown out coarse and cruel. And behind the ever-luminous silver eyes there was now a faint gleam, the pale light of devourers’ eyes in darkness.

“Judas,” I whispered. No wonder we’d never been able to find out how the devourers got into the city. They were already here. They’d been welcomed in.

“You are changing,” Mieni said, and I think only she could make it sound compassionate rather than an accusation. “As Elariel changed. As all cent-ans change, do they not, when they are far too old and severed from their home.”

Avrin curled farther into herself. “He became a devourer,” I said, and she flinched. Mieni made a harsh, silencing gesture, but too late; I went on anyway. “And you killed him.” With the antivenom, and two strikes to the heart and throat, the same that would have killed a devourer who’d completed the change. And the multiple knife wounds after, to hide the two fatal wounds, to hide how an Ageless—even a decayed and changed Ageless—could be killed....

She nodded, her head heavy on her slender neck. “He was dying, and worse than dying. He would have become what we have feared since arriving in this city. Since we came here, and those who were older than he began to change, away from the green earth of Poma-mèl.”

Mieni shut off the flame under the crucible, and Avrin winced, her nearly-clawed hand stretching out to it. I started to wince in sympathy, driven as always by the intensity of Ageless emotions, but I clung to the memory of the devourer instead. “I thought,” she whispered, “I thought because I was here, because we had bonded after realizing what might happen, that maybe it wouldn’t happen. But it did. And because my life fed his, now I—” She lowered her hand and turned her face to the high empty dome of the chamber. “And I am so hungry,” she wailed.

Mieni nudged me. “Mr. Swift, the orange.” 

I started, remembering the orange from Poma-mèl, and held it out to Avrin. She stared at me, and for a moment I thought she might forego the orange altogether and simply devour my hand. But instead she seized the orange and tore into it, peel, pith, and all, shredding it in great, inelegant bites. And when she looked up from her juice-stained fingers, there was a little more—not humanity, but something like it—in her eyes than before. “I must die, too,” she whispered. “Please—I cannot become one of those things.”

“There is another way,” Mieni repeated. She approached closer, closer than I dared, and laid one brick-colored hairy hand over Avrin’s slim, golden fingers. “You can go back—”

“I cannot go back,” Avrin said, a little of her composure returning. “Do you know what it would mean for the expatriates, that Elariel’s bonded wife returned to lands under the Usurper’s control? Even to set foot on them long enough to heal? He would not go back, and he—and I have tried to be true to him, even as I had to end him.”

“And if no one knew?”

Both of them turned to me, Mieni’s brows drawn together in consternation, Avrin’s in puzzlement. “If you isolated yourself in mourning for your murdered husband,” I continued, more slowly, “then your absence would be explained.”

“If I returned,” she whispered, and the longing in her voice hurt to hear. “You would—would do this for me?”

I nodded. “I know a few of the smugglers. They take pilgrims—they might take a leper, wrapped up from sight. Someone who has a need to get to Poma-mél unseen.”

She rose, still holding on to Mieni’s hand. “And you would keep it silent? That my husband was changing, that we change?”

I could not answer. So instead I bowed, as I had once bowed to my commander in the war (my commander who, I realized, must have become one of the greater devourers, perhaps even the one I’d slain today). I had forgotten that Avrin, too, had commanded human troops in the war, and when I straightened up, she too had taken on a martial posture, one hand out like a captain giving orders. “I will owe you, Arthur Swift,” she said, her voice ringing through the chamber much as her husband’s once had.

Mieni and I stood at the edge of the river docks, watching the barge make its way down past the locks—minus its cargo of smuggled oranges and sparrows, plus one veiled, cloaked figure. “They didn’t question the leper story,” I said after a moment. “Humboldt doesn’t question much, if he’s paid well.”

“That is the case all over the world,” Mieni said. She turned to face me, the same scowl on her brow as in Elariel’s council chamber. “So now, Mr. Swift. We keep her secret, I suppose, and prepare more antivenom against more devourers.”

I bowed my head. “I lied,” I said, unable to look at the figure in the boat as if she might hear me. “I have to tell Patrol, at least, and then.... Well. I don’t know what it’ll mean, politically, but they have to know where the greater devourers are coming from. So that we can be on our guard against the next, when another Ageless disappears. To keep the City safe.”

When I looked up, Mieni’s eyes were wide. She blinked at me several times, then chuckled and thumped me on the knee. “Well-lied, Mr. Swift. Well-lied indeed. Perhaps I was wrong about you and your approach to the cent-ans.” We stood a moment longer at the docks, and Mieni shook her head. “Still, the decision she made, to bond her life so tightly with another’s, that it put them both in danger of becoming monsters—”

“Devoted,” I said, watching the still figure at the prow of the barge, looking forward to when it might finally reach Poma-mèl. “A love for the ages.”

Mieni glanced at me out of the corner of her eyes. “Or perhaps I was right about you and cent-ans, after all,” she said sourly. “I was going to say incredibly foolish.” She thumped my knee a second time. “Come. I have procured fresh greens and an egg. Even if you say you are eating enough, I will not believe it till I have fed you.”


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Margaret Ronald's short fiction has appeared in such venues as Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Fantasy Magazine, and over ten times in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, including a series of stand-alone stories set in the same steampunk world that began with “A Serpent in the Gears” in BCS #34 and includes “Salvage” in BCS #77 and “The Governess and the Lobster” in BCS #95 along with four others, as well as a ongoing series of fantasy mysteries beginning with “A Death for the Ageless” in BCS #134 and continuing in "Sweet Death" in BCS #161 and "Murder Goes Hungry" in BCS #182. Soul Hunt, the third novel in her urban fantasy series and the sequel to Spiral Hunt and Wild Hunt, was released by Eos Books in 2011. Originally from rural Indiana, she now lives outside Boston. Visit her website at mronald.wordpress.com.

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4 Comments on “A Death for the Ageless”

4 Responses to “A Death for the Ageless”

  1. Marc says:

    Loved the story! Rich setting, interesting characters and loved the resolution.

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