Murder Goes Hungry

Issue #182

The trouble at St. Thecla’s began shortly after I visited my old division-mate Halliwell, or so the official record states. My friend Mieni, who is a good deal more perceptive than I and certainly more so than the recordkeepers of the Quarter, would say that it began months prior. A draugar would say that it had always begun, had never begun, and would never reach an end, but draugar are noted for their poor grasp of time.

I have long acquaintance with the staff of St. Thecla’s and so did not have to enter via the relic-cluttered main lobby but could instead go straight to the new veterans’ wing. The wing had only just begun construction when I had been in hospital, but time and attrition had eased some of the need for it, and now the space seemed cavernous to me.

It did not to Halliwell. “It’s a cell,” he complained, slumping in the armchair by the window. “A prison. Same faces every damn day. I’d almost prefer it if we were crammed in like sardines; I wouldn’t get all these pitying looks when I complain. Yes, that look,” he added, and I did my best to change my expression. “Exactly that. Don’t you tell me I’m overreacting, Swifty.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” I said. “Never did in the div, did I?”

Halliwell glanced sharply at me, then slumped further. “No,” he admitted. “No, you didn’t.” The light picked out the lines of his face, shadows under his eyes and hollows in his cheeks. With his dark hair swept back, it gave his once-rakish appearance a more spectral cast than the one he’d used to such good effect on most of the farmers’ daughters the year we went off to war.

Still, were he not confined to St. Thecla’s, I suspected he could cut a swath in the City. Those who could re-integrate into society were much celebrated, and Halliwell was good at that. Many of us were less skilled at hiding the strange scars left by a war in which most of our opponents, and half our allies, were entities that could only be described as magical.

It seemed a shame that Halliwell, who was in the habit of ignoring matters he no longer deemed relevant—like the aforementioned farmers’ daughters—should be stuck with an effect that lingered so. “Sorry, Swifty,” he said. “It’s just—the new treatment failed, and I’m stuck here with the likes of Parker.”

He gestured to a balding, broad-shouldered man completing a crossword at the far table, who called an expletive to Halliwell without looking up. The sister attending him gave him a reproachful look, then glanced over her shoulder at Halliwell and grinned.

“New treatment?” I asked.

“Didn’t want to mention it. Not after it crashed pretty spectacularly.” He held up his hands: his nails were bitten down to stubs and past, one or two practically torn off. “It’s all right,” he said as I drew a sharp breath. “The fingers themselves are safe; it’s just the nails. Technically fingernails are dead tissue, so I guess I was still making that much of a distinction.”

“Judas, Halliwell. I can’t even imagine.”

“Well, you never did have much of an imagination.” He put one hand over his face. “Damn me, Swifty, I didn’t mean that. Maybe you’d better come by another time; I’m in a royally bad mood.”

I was somewhat familiar with Halliwell’s moods, and I could well believe that this sort of inaction grated on him. He’d always been happiest with something to brag about; without conquests of one sort or another, he got twitchy. “Should I bring you mittens, then?” I said finally.

Halliwell jerked upright as if to challenge me, then relaxed, chuckling. “Couldn’t hurt. Couldn’t hurt at all. Maybe some of those little knitted ones that the, what was it, the Concerned Mothers used to send to the front? Remember how useless those were?”

“Useless to you. I kept my No. 5s in them. Turns out pink wool with a duck pattern keeps powder nicely dry until impact.”

“Judas, I bet that surprised a few spooks. All of a sudden a pink duck lands in the middle of them, and they’ve got enough time to say ‘what’ before it explodes.” He chuckled, but any mirth faded quickly. “Seriously, Swifty, I can’t take it here. I might be all right, if it weren’t for them.”

He pointed past me, and I turned to look—and shivered. Not all veterans were human, and St. Thecla’s, unlike most other City establishments, had from the beginning opened their doors to all. At the far end of the ward, far from the desiccating sunlight, two draugar whispered damply to each other. Their hair hung in long, weed-festooned coils, and their faces were paler and more hollow than even Halliwell’s. They looked like what they had been named for: the spirits of drowned warriors, and even though I knew these were living beings, still they gave me a chill.

“It’s a big ward,” I said at last, turning my chair to face Halliwell more fully. “And you don’t have to talk to them.”

“Talking’s not the issue. Although—hey, drownie! Tell me, is this gonna kill me?”

One of the draugar turned to face him. “You are already dead,” he whispered, in that loud, bone-wrapping whisper that is the draugars’ usual speech. “You have always been dead.”

“See? How am I supposed to get better with them telling me I’m already dead?” He sank back and raised one shaky hand. “I tell you, Swifty—” he began, and swallowed.

I didn’t like that swallow, nor the little, hungry cough he gave. “Sister?” I called.

“Coming,” she called back, bustling over.

Halliwell ignored us both. “I tell you,” he repeated, “if that lot has to be in here with decent people, then I might as well off myself, because damned if I’m going to listen—” The tremors intensified, and he turned his hand over, staring at the stubs of nails.

“Sister—”

“Right here.” The sister pulled Halliwell’s hand away from his face and pressed a hunk of bread into his palm. “Here you are, Mr. Halliwell, bread and salt as usual.”

Halliwell said something that could have been an imprecation against all bread and salt, but it was hard to tell as he crammed the bread into his mouth and followed it with a fistful of salt.

I looked away, obscurely ashamed of seeing him like this. The trouble with fighting a war in a magical land—as Poma-mel had been and was now—is that even the land can be turned into a weapon. In the last days of the war, streams turned to blood as we tried to drink, trees pelted us with unripe fruit, and even the morning mist turned to poison. But worst of all was the hungry grass, patches of which would instill a hideous hunger in any who crossed them. I had seen my fellows choke themselves trying to eat their own kit, pull up handfuls of dirt and shovel them into their mouths, starve as they chewed on stones. The one mercy was that people afflicted by the hungry grass did not see living flesh as food, or else our casualties would have doubled. Our Ageless commanders could provide a treatment, but not a cure.

This was why Halliwell could not leave. He could only survive so long as every three hours he had his bread and salt, but to stray from that by even a minute would mean the hunger would sink claws into him once more. At St. Thecla’s they could provide that around the clock; where else would that be possible?

Halliwell’s breathing slowed, and I looked back just as he licked the last of the salt from the back of his hand and smiled at the sister. “Of course, there are some nice bits about being here,” he said, his voice considerably more controlled. “Sister Brontia here is my saving angel, aren’t you?”

“Oh, hush,” said Sister Brontia with a blush.

Halliwell gave one of those satisfied grins that reminded me why we were less friends than division-mates. 

“Where’s Callie?” I asked to chase away that cat-with-the-cream expression. “Sister Caliga, I mean. I thought she had charge of this ward.”

“That wisp of a thing? She’s moved up in the world – now she’s in charge of the whole wing.” Halliwell leaned back, but not before both of us noticed how Sister Brontia stiffened at him discussing another woman. Halliwell looked smug and waited till Sister Brontia had moved on to Parker. “Works fine by me, frankly. She always was a bit of a cold fish.”

Only Halliwell could call Caliga that. I let it slide. “Which gives you more of a free hand with Brontia.”

“If you can call it that.” He sighed. “You see what I’m good for these days, Swifty. Charming nurses. Maybe I’ll have enough spark for a game of cards next time, if you bring the cards. Parker shredded the deck after our last game.” He glanced over at the big man. “He’s a bit of a sore loser,” he added, raising his voice.

Parker turned and got to his feet, heavy brows lowering. Sister Brontia scurried in front of him, speaking quietly, and he sat back down with a sound very like a growl. Halliwell grinned wickedly and drew breath again.

“I’ll bring cards,” I said to distract him. He waved me away, but the moment—and the fun of needling Parker—had passed.

The hospital’s layout had changed considerably since my own time there, and I’m embarrassed to say that I got thoroughly lost on my way out. It wasn’t until I heard a glad cry behind me that I had any sense of where I was.

“Mr. Swift!” Mieni waved to me from the end of the hall, trotting up on legs much shorter than mine. “I am so glad to see you, if puzzled why you have come! What brings you to maternity?”

“A poor sense of direction,” I said and bowed to her. “I take it congratulations are in order?”

“Indeed, Mr. Swift, indeed! My youngest granddaughter has just had her third child!” She gestured back down the hall, and indeed I could hear the faint cheeps of newborns, human and koboldim alike. “Truly,” she went on, her voice dropping, “it was a harrowing time. But she is out of danger now, thanks to this good Saint Thecla and her sisters.”

“Was it bad?” I glanced down at Mieni. While her navy dress was as neat as ever, the white tufts of koboldim hair over her eyebrows and ears were stringy with the remnants of sweat, and the long nails of her brick-red hands were worn down at the ends—not from biting, but from repeated clicking against something hard, a gesture that Mieni had when she was truly nervous.

“Yes, Mr. Swift.” She let out a long breath and smiled up at me, fangs bared in exhaustion. “It was very bad, but I am happy to say all is well. Human medicine is excellent, though, much beyond what we could conjure even in our home.”

I thought of Halliwell, hollow-eyed and hungry by the window. “Some things it can’t help,” I murmured.

“No?” She peered closely at me, then nodded. “No, indeed. Still. Let us celebrate what it can, and celebrate another great-grandchild. I have blackberry wine to raise; you will drink a glass with me, yes?”

“Certainly, Mieni.” I let her lead me away, trying to put aside thoughts of Halliwell.  

Mieni’s blackberry wine meant that I did briefly forget about Halliwell, as well as anything else. The next day I had to send a sparrow to the Quarter pleading illness just so I could put my head back together. I did use the time to pack up a bag of playing cards and books the next afternoon, though I knew Halliwell would probably scorn the latter.

The next morning—two mornings after my visit to Halliwell—I’d only just arrived at the Quarter when a sparrow found me, its brass feathers green with age. I’d only had time to note the St. Thecla’s insignia stamped on its underside before it began to chirp its message.

“Mr. Swift, please! This is Sister Brontia, and she’s saying he killed him—please, you’ve got to make her believe me, Mr. Halliwell didn’t kill any—” The words cut off; Brontia must have been unused to sending message by sparrow, or she would have been more careful with her time. I picked up my coat again and hurried out.

Only someone who had spent a good deal of time in St. Thecla’s would have noticed the change at the veterans’ wing: the bustle and traffic was much the same as before, but there was a certain silence that hung over it, like heavy clouds over the fields of Poma-mel. A woman in white stood at the closed doors of the wing, as I approached, as if guarding them, but her martial stance relaxed as I got closer. “Arthur. Oh, I’m glad it’s you.”

“Hello, Callie.” I bent a little to take Sister Caliga’s hand. The scarring down one side of her face—the result of a vicious case of witch-pox in her youth—gave all of her admittedly rare smiles a twisted, wry look that probably contributed to Halliwell’s opinion of her as a cold fish. But I was fortunate enough to know better. “What’s happened?”

She pulled back a little, the smile evaporating. “The Quarter didn’t brief you?”

“The Quarter didn’t send me. I got a sparrow from Sister Brontia.” I opened my hand to reveal the tarnished brass bird.

“Brontia. Of course.” She sighed, then took half a step back so that she could look up into my face more fully. “I really shouldn’t... but I’d much rather have someone who knows St. Thecla’s on this, rather than some blundering Patrol.”

“Well, you have that so long as I’m here, Callie,” I said. “But I’m not even sure what’s happened; her message wasn’t exactly clear.”

“One of our veterans is dead,” she said, unlocking the doors and letting us in. “I think half the reason Brontia is so upset is Halliwell himself,” she went on, leading me up the stairs to the ward I’d visited only days before. “If he could just explain—”

“Why can’t he? And who is dead? Callie, I didn’t get much of anything from the message.”

“Bane-of-Five-Shouts,” she said, then seeing my expression, clarified. “One of our draugar veterans. He was—well, I found him this morning.”

We’d reached a small treatment room at the end of Halliwell’s ward, and Caliga paused to unlock the door for me. “I’m not sure I see what this has to do with Halliwell,” I said.

Caliga didn’t answer. Instead she turned back the sheet from the dead draugar. The hollow, gray face was untouched and only a little less animated than when I’d seen it before. This was the one who’d told Halliwell that he had always been dead. The hair lay in heavy, drying coils, weeds already drying up and cracking, but that wasn’t the most obvious sign of death. That was the torn throat, the mutilated arms, all with chunks of flesh torn off—bitten off, as if by an animal.

“Oh,” I said, or tried to. Instead I sat down heavily, staring at the bites, remembering Halliwell’s hands.

“You see our problem,” Callie said quietly. “Arthur—I don’t have any right to ask this, but if you could do anything with the Quarter—”

“You contacted them already?”

“I sent a sparrow to the Quarter, and got back a response that they’d send an Inspector at fifth bell.”

“That gives us one bell before they arrive.” I swallowed and got to my feet. “Callie, I’m sorry. I can’t—can’t be objective about this. But I know someone who can.”

Caliga’s directions took me to the nursery of the maternity wing, filled with little baskets holding pink and brown bundles sleeping or squalling, plus the occasional flame-red bundle of a kobold baby no bigger than my hand yet no less loud than the others. I scanned the room and spotted Mieni on a bench by the far wall, determinedly trying to read.

She glanced up. “Ah, Mr. Swift! You are not back for more blackberry wine, are you?”

I couldn’t quite repress a shudder. “No. But I wonder if you have time to come with me, though. There’s been a death in the veterans’ wing.”

Mieni hopped up from the bench, leaving the book face down. “An excuse! I will gladly go with you.”

“Are you sure?” I said, but she was already moving and I had to hurry to catch up with her. “I mean—your granddaughter, your great-grandchild—”

“They are fine, and will be fine. Besides, Mr. Swift, when it comes down to it I am not overly fond of babies.”

I stopped short, my feet skidding a little on the tile, and again had to catch up. “But you have—what, four children?”

“Six! But all were much more interesting once they could talk. As I expect this one will be.” She grinned at me, and I shook my head.

I explained the circumstances as we walked, and Mieni nodded along. “This sór Brontia—she and Halliwell had an understanding?”

“I doubt it, knowing Halliwell.”

Mieni cast a sidelong glance at me as she heard my tone. “I had not taken you for a prude, Mr. Swift.”

“It’s not—” I sighed as we reached the doors of the veterans’ wing. “It was a cruel thing for him to do. She has her vows, and too many of us veterans are too scarred to be any sort of decent companion.”

Mieni hummed. “It seems he did not think so.”

Before I could answer, she pushed open the doors. Caliga was waiting on the far side. “Ah, sór Caliga! My friend Mr. Swift has mentioned you before—it is good to see you in the flesh, if in poor circumstances. Come; show me what I need to see.” Caliga looked at me over Mieni’s head, but I nodded, and she led on.

Even Mieni seemed taken aback by the sight of the dead draugar. At last she shook herself, ears rattling, and trotted up to the body. She raised one gnawed hand, avoiding the spots where bone could be seen, and let it drop again. “Sang,” she murmured. “Blood, Mr. Swift, around the bites. Where is Mr. Halliwell?”

“We can’t seem to wake him,” Caliga said. “And we have—well—I ordered him strapped down.”

“There may be no need. Draugar flesh has certain effects on koboldim—do not ask how I know this, please—and if it may be the same for humans, he will not wake for some time. Hence why any of Bane-of-Five-Shouts remains undevoured.” She sniffed gingerly at the wounds, then gestured to me. “Mr. Swift, your hand, please.”

I helped her up alongside the body, and she bent over the ravaged throat, inspecting the wounds. “How long has he been dead?” I managed.

“Sister Brontia does her rounds at first bell, and he was fine then. I do mine halfway between second and third, but I’ve been starting a bit early lately to make sure Halliwell is all right. His treatments have gone so poorly that the intervals between have been shrinking. Which is why I...” She hesitated, then shook her head. “Why I immediately assumed it was him. Bane-of-Five-Shouts was drying out when I arrived, so it must have been between first and second bell.”

“Closer to first, I think,” Mieni murmured, “if he was already drying.” She laid one long red finger on the dead draugar’s forehead, claw pressing against the skin, then withdrew it and watched how the flesh undimpled. “Yes. Much closer to first bell. Where is Sister Brontia?” 

“Having hysterics in the staff room. I gave her a glass, but she wouldn’t take it. I think she’ll rest a bit after she’s panicked herself out.”

Mieni smiled. “No sympathy for panic, have you?”

The scarred side of Caliga’s face twisted into a half-smile. “It doesn’t do much good here, no.”  

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen Callie panic,” I said. “Something you share with her, Mieni.”

The two women, old and young, kobold and human, exchanged a look that very firmly put me on the outside.

“I think I have examined enough of Bane-of-Five-Shouts,” Mieni said at last. “May we see Mr. Halliwell?”

Sister Caliga led us to the next door down, another of the separate rooms set off from the ward. “The other patients are out in the sunroom. I didn’t think it would be a good idea to keep them in with him.”

Halliwell looked worse than when I’d seen him—hair lank, closed eyes sunken, the unnatural stillness lending him the air of a corpse. I leaned over him, then drew back with a curse. There were a few brownish streaks by his lips, as if he’d been careless with his napkin, and the collar of his pajamas showed similar blots. “Look,” I said. “Blood.”

“Indeed.” Mieni climbed up beside him and gently pulled back his lower lip. For a moment I had the urge to snatch her away—if his hunger had extended so far, it could not be safe to draw near his mouth, but Halliwell slept on. She sniffed his breath and recoiled. “Yes. Draugar flesh.”

“When I came in,” Caliga said, “Sister Brontia was wiping the worst of it away from his mouth. I think she couldn’t bear—”

“He didn’t do it!” A shrill, angry voice cut through the heavy quiet. I turned to see Sister Brontia in the doorway. “He didn’t! Mr. Swift, please, you have to make them believe—”

“I’m not sure I can, Sister,” I said. “He’s my friend too, but this—”

She put her hands over her face. “No. No. No.”

“Brontia, please!” Caliga snapped.  

Sór Brontia.” Mieni took her hand, and she jerked away, staring at Mieni as if she were a rabid dog. “Mr. Halliwell will wake, I promise you. In time. But he would not want to see you like this—please, your patience, your serenity. Return these, so that his sleep is undisturbed.”

I glanced at Caliga, but she was watching Mieni curiously. Brontia nodded and let herself be led away.

Once we’d gotten her away from Halliwell, she managed to calm down, and we interviewed her in the little half-kitchen the staff used to prepare meals and tea. Caliga brought us cups of the harsh familiar brew as Mieni and I tried to convince Brontia to answer our questions. “He didn’t do it,” she kept whispering. “Mr. Halliwell didn’t. He’s a good man, a good man.”

I held my tongue at that. Halliwell might be a friend of sorts (friendship takes different meanings after one has served in the divisions), but it was a stretch to call him good.

Mieni laid her hand over Brontia’s. “I believe you.” I glanced at Mieni, but I’ve never been good at detecting when a kobold lies. Humans are easier in that regard. Brontia looked up, relief and terror chasing across her features. “But you must understand,” Mieni continued, “we need to know what happened, sòr Brontia. Did you begin your rounds at the usual time?”

She drew a shaky breath. “Yes. First bell exactly—I can hear the chime from this room.”

“That is good. Yes. And all was well with Bane-of-Five-Shouts?”

“Yes.” She folded her hands in her lap and addressed them. “I’d given him his treatment at nightfall. He and the other dr—Current-Catches-the-Leg were both fine.”

“They have damp lung,” Caliga interjected. “Both of them. It doesn’t seem to be getting better, but so long as he can—could breathe, we simply kept an eye on his condition.”

“Damp lung?” I turned to face her. “But they’re draugar. They practically live in water.”

“In Poma-mel they do.” She raised her shoulders in a shrug. “You know how strange the afflictions were for humans; it’s no different for other veterans.”

“I gave Mr. Parker his smoke,” Brontia continued, without looking up, “and then Mr. Halliwell.” She managed a little smile, sad and fond. “He almost never wakes up fully to eat. I gave him his bread and salt—” she nodded to the cupboard “—and he curled up like a little boy. He was smiling in his sleep,” she added, and burst into tears again.

Caliga gave a little sigh and knelt next to her, offering a handkerchief.

“And Bane-of-Five-Shouts was alive then? You are sure?” Mieni pressed.

“Of course I’m sure!” she wailed into the handkerchief.

Mieni began to speak, paused, then shook her head. “Come, Mr. Swift. There are others who would have noticed Mr. Halliwell getting up.”

We found Parker in a foul mood, slouched in a chair in the sunroom. “I didn’t see a damn thing,” he told us, not looking up from his paper. A battered metal tank stood beside him, and I remembered seeing it two days prior, under the table. “Didn’t hear a damn thing, either.”

“You were awake for your smoke, though,” Mieni pointed out. “Could you say when you fell asleep?”

He shot her a look out of the corner of his eye but shook his head. “Stupid question. Can you tell me when you fell asleep last night? No, of course you can’t, because you fell asleep. It’s part of the damned definition.”

“Then make a guess,” I said. “Was Halliwell still in his bed when you fell asleep?”

“Halliwell,” he snorted. “That bastard. He ate my watercolors one night, can you believe that? Got up at second bell, walked up to my bed, and scarfed down the whole set before I could do a damn thing. I hope he choked on the drownie.” He chuckled.

My temper was already frayed, and Parker’s attitude was not helping. I stood and loomed over him—I am not above using my height and bulk to intimidate. “Answer the question.”

Parker threw down his newspaper and got to his feet, and I realized that he was not much shorter than me, and certainly broader. “I don’t have to answer you, ‘Swifty.’ I don’t have to make you feel better about your friend. And I sure as hell don’t have to listen to a goblin needling me.”

I held my ground, but there was an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. I’d seen something similar to what was flaring at the back of Parker’s eyes—that need for an excuse to lash out, that hunger. It would come to me in a minute, but right now if I so much as blinked Parker would attack, and might well win.

Sister Caliga saved me, not for the first time. “Mr. Parker,” she said quietly. “Your smoke.”

He turned his face away in a snarl, but snatched up the mask and took a deep breath from the battered tank beside it. Almost immediately the belligerent look faded, and he settled in his chair again. “I didn’t see a damn thing,” he repeated sullenly. “Halliwell was asleep when I was awake, and I was awake for a good long while after first bell.”

I frowned—that didn’t match what Mieni had said about the body—but Mieni seemed satisfied. She hopped up from the ottoman, made a quick bow to Parker (received with a grunt), and turned away.

“What’s wrong with him?” I murmured to Caliga as we passed.

“Usurper’s Fury,” she said. “We keep it in check with a number of calming infusions, including the smoke. But it doesn’t improve his temper.”

It wouldn’t; the rage-magic that some of the Usurper’s troops had unleashed on us was indiscriminate and nasty. I was amazed he’d made it as far as the City without tearing himself to pieces; perhaps he had reserves of self-control that were not currently in evidence.

The surviving draugar veteran had made a little nest for herself in the corner farthest from the windows, arranging chairs and ottomans into a circle as if the furniture were a fort to keep her fellow’s fate at bay. Mieni skipped a siege by climbing over the wall and settling in next to her. “Honor flow with you, aiga-morir. My sorrow for your fellow.”

Current-Catches-the-Leg raised her head, but it was to stare at me, not Mieni. “Swift,” she whispered, the harshness of it like paper drawn over skin. “Swift flow the currents, swift the water through the well. Swift the water in our veins, no more, no more.”

“My name is Arthur Swift, yes,” I said. “City Inspector. And I, too, offer my condolences.”

She shrugged, a movement like a small wave on a lake. The smell coming off her was of bog-water, not running water, and the weeds rooted in her hair sagged and stank. “He is my fellow. He fights beside. He is done, and dead, and will be so.”

“Can you think of any reason—” Her drowned gaze met mine, and I swallowed. “Last night, before you went to bed, was Bane-of-Five-Shouts well?”

“He was dead,” she said, and my stomach went cold. “He has always been dead,” she went on, and I relaxed a little. Asking timeframe questions of a draugar was more than useless. “I am dead, and so is your fellow who fights beside, and so is the fire-in-flesh.”

“As am I, I expect,” I muttered.

Her eyes widened, and she turned her head to one side, considering me. “No,” she said at last.

Aiga-morir,” Mieni said, a little irritated that I’d monopolized the conversation, “of currents speak, and the running to the sea. Was this of Bane-of-Five-Shouts’ wish?”

“Of the running to the sea, yes. As it is mine. In the sea all currents fade.” She stretched, long arms seeming to extend then contract. “Of the feasting, no. None would wish to be the feast. Nor having feasted, would one wish it again.” She smiled, and her teeth were all the same length and shape, square within a curved mouth.

“We will see how it affects him,” Mieni said, “should he wake. But it was not his wishing, I am certain.” She imitated the stretch, and Current-Catches-the-Leg laughed, a sound like a drain unclogging. “Would currents flow by day and night?”

“For some,” she whispered in response. “For the hungry, the fire, the ministering.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.

Mieni glanced at me. “We know from Mr. Parker that Mr. Halliwell sleepwalked. This is how I can ask who else was awake at first bell: Mr. Parker, and of course the sisters.”

“We know this already,” I began, but was interrupted by the clatter of a tray beside me.

Sister Brontia dropped a tray on the ottoman, soup spilling over the side of the bowl. “Broth,” she said shortly, and turned away.

She really shouldn’t have been still working, I thought; not with such a burden on her mind. I turned back to see Current-Catches-the-Leg gazing after her. “It is hard to bear the hate of another,” she said conversationally.

Mieni hissed agreement. “I see. Thank you, aiga-morir. May the sea keep your channel clear.”

I helped Mieni up and over the circle of furniture, only to freeze as a cold hand caught my wrist. Current-Catches-the-Leg stared up at me, that fishbelly face intent. “It is also hard to bear the love of another,” she whispered, and let go.

I did my best not to rub my wrist as I stepped back, unsure whether that had been some obscure declaration of interest. Draugar were hard enough to understand in battle, when an allusion could mean a plan of attack. Outside of battle, they were damn near opaque.

Mieni was at the door to the hall, tapping her fingers against her palm. She drew a deep breath, then paused, her nostrils flaring. “I believe, Mr. Swift, that I could use a cup of tea. Will you come with me?”

I followed her to the little kitchen and poured two cups from the urn balanced above the little coal-fired oven. “Tea isn’t going to help, Mieni. Even if Halliwell didn’t mean to do it—”

“Meaning is irrelevant right now, Mr. Swift. Unless you mean motive, for which we now have more.”

“You’re treating this as if it’s a murder, Mieni. But as far as I can see the answer is clear.” I leaned against the counter, elbowing aside the remnants of breakfast: rolls going stale and browning apple slices, forgotten by Brontia in her grief. “It’s like you always said: the simplest explanation is the most likely answer.”

Mieni cocked her head to one side. “Simplest? Perhaps you will tell me what you consider simplest, then.”

I sighed. “Halliwell said his recent treatments hadn’t been going well, to the point where he’d gnawed off his own fingernails. So it seems obvious that his treatment deteriorated further, and he—well—he got hungry.”

Mieni gazed at me for a long moment, then clambered up the cabinet so that she could sit on the counter. “Mr. Swift, someday I would very much like to understand how you think. I know you do think, for all that you profess otherwise. But truly, it is not only bad deduction but bad for your head to confuse simplest with what you fear most.” She began rattling the breakfast trays. “Attend. I would have you take a bite of something.”

I glanced at the rolls and reached for the closest, a still-whole one flecked with chives. It was smaller but seemed made with more care than the others.

“Not that.” Mieni’s tone was sharp enough that my hand dropped without my volition. “Here. This will, I think, suffice.”

She handed me a plain roll, and I took a small bite. “If you’re thinking to compare tooth marks, I don’t think it’ll do much good. After all, Halliwell had blood on his mouth.”

“I am thinking no such thing. But note: a simple bite in the roll, yes?” She took the roll from me and handed me another, equally stale. “Again, please. After all, you do not eat enough, Mr. Swift, and this will serve a dual purpose of nourishment and explanation.”

I shrugged and put the roll to my mouth. But no sooner had I bit into it that Mieni leapt up and seized the roll, worrying it back and forth until I’d spat it out. “Mieni, what on earth—”

“See?” She held up both rolls, one with a clear bite, the other with a ragged wad of half-chewed bread hanging off it. “A bite is not necessarily a bite, Mr. Swift, and even though a draugar may seek an end, even he would struggle. There was no struggle on Bane-of-Five-Shouts; only the plain, neat bites. So clear, so careful, as if he were a roll that had held still until Mr. Halliwell’s hunger faded.”

I stared. “You mean—”

“I mean, Mr. Swift, that what is simplest is this: Mr. Halliwell perceived Bane-of-Five-Shouts as dead flesh and therefore food because Bane-of-Five-Shouts was already dead. No horror needed, beyond what is in front of us. Your imagination runs too freely, Mr. Swift.”

“Halliwell would argue with you there,” I muttered, then paused. “Wait. If he was already dead, then who? Parker might have, if the fury took him—”

“Indeed. And Current-Catches-the-Leg had reason enough to end her fellow’s suffering. But I think, instead, we must look for a different motive, and a different kind of treatment gone wrong.” She hopped down and propped the door open, then pitched her voice to carry. “Indeed, Mr. Swift, it has been a long morning already. Would you hand me Mr. Halliwell’s bread and salt? I do not think he will be needing it today.”

Confused, I looked among the plates, but Mieni pointed to the chive-flecked one and made pulling motions. I picked up the bread and tore it in half just as Sister Brontia reached the door, stumbling in her haste. She reached out to stop me, then halted, an expression of dread surfacing under her panic.

“Is there a reason Mr. Swift should not eat that bread, sòr Brontia?” Mieni’s tone could have cut skin. “Some reason that Mr. Halliwell’s bread might not be good for him?”

I looked down at the torn bread, smelling the herb now—not chives, but something sharper, more vicious. “Hungry grass,” I whispered, and dropped the bread, even though in its dried form it couldn’t hurt me by touch. “You were feeding him—”

“He would have left,” she whispered, and behind her I could see the rest of the ward, Parker and Current-Catches-the-Leg and Sister Caliga, her hands over her mouth in horror. “He would have left me, and he would have killed himself if that drownie had stayed around to tell him he was dead all the time. He said so. You heard him, Mr. Swift, he said so, he said the place was all right except for them. And I wanted it to be right for him, so he’d be happy.” She picked up the fallen bread, and for a moment I thought she would eat it and consign herself to a similar fate, but instead she clutched it so hard that crumbs began to sift through her fingers. “I never meant for him to look guilty!” she wailed. “I never meant—”

To my surprise Parker stomped forward and put his arms around Brontia, holding her as gently as one might an injured bird. “Shush,” he said. “Shush, now. You didn’t mean harm to him. I knew you never meant harm to any of us. It’s all right.”

“It is anything but,” Mieni said, but even she quieted when Parker glowered at her.

The Inspector from the Quarter (Borwitz, not a friend but a good Inspector regardless) arrived at the same time as one of the presiding physicians called in. The former took a quiet Sister Brontia into custody, shaking his head as she tried to confess to him and telling her to wait until she had counsel; the latter went to Halliwell’s bedside and began inspecting him and making copious notes.

“It was Current-Catches-the-Leg who made it clear,” Mieni said at last as we watched Borwitz lead Brontia away. “Mr. Halliwell hated the aiga-morir, and sòr Brontia took that hate on herself. It is, indeed, a hard thing to bear the hate of another, and worse to act on it.”

“I never realized,” Caliga said. “I knew she’d grown attached to Halliwell, but I didn’t know she was keeping him sick to keep him here. It goes against every principle of St. Thecla’s.”

Mieni glanced at me, then at her. “Indeed. But principles can bend under other forces. It is no less hard to bear the love of another.”

There was a pause in which I could feel Mieni’s gaze on my face and just as clearly Caliga’s refusal to look at me.

At last Caliga spoke up. “We try not to burden our patients here. With anything.”

I cleared my throat. “You know, I doubt Halliwell even noticed how much she cared for him. He didn’t exactly pay much attention to a girl once he’d gotten her to fall for him. So maybe she had cause to fear his leaving after all.”

Mieni shrugged. “He would have changed in any case. I do not know what it will mean that Mr. Halliwell has eaten draugar flesh. If he wakes, if they try the treatments again now that he is not being constantly poisoned, I suspect he will not be quite the same man that sòr Brontia loved.”

I ran my hands over my face, trying to clear away the events of the morning. “Nor the man I knew. Judas, Mieni, it’s enough to make a man despair.”

She thumped my leg with the knuckles of one hand. “Ah, Mr. Swift, it is not so bad. Love can make a number of wonderful things as well. Come back to the maternity ward with me, both of you; I will introduce you to one such, my newest great-grandson, and you may remember that we are in the midst of life.”

“All right.” I started down the hall after her, then glanced back at Caliga. “Coming?”

She shook her head, smiling. “It’s not my place. But thank you.”

I didn’t know quite what to say—anything I could have said would have been far too late and, as I had said to Mieni, cruel to both of us.

This time, Mieni saved me. “Then come another time, sòr Caliga. I will still be there, and if I am not, then you may come find me.” She smiled, long teeth friendly in her red face, and Caliga’s smile matched hers more than mine ever could.


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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.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“Sweet Death” by Margaret Ronald
“The Exile of the Eldest Son of the Family Ysanne” by Kendra Leigh Speedling

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5 Comments on “Murder Goes Hungry”

5 Responses to “Murder Goes Hungry”

  1. Wenonah Lyon says:

    Marvellous creation of a universe in a very limited space. Multiple aliens, each unique. The point of view is consistent – since the human whose point of view is used doesn’t understand completely the implications of some of the plot, I don’t either. The relationship alluded to at the end: not very clear.

    I liked this and will read more by the author.

  2. Wheelswithinwheels says:

    Ah, always a pleasure to read more in this world and to see it from new angles.

  3. Clark Omo says:

    Wow. For some reason, I felt like I was looking at this world through a pale window, with even paler light blanketing the view beyond. Well done, Miss Ronald. You painted this world very well, keeping everything distinct and consistent. As the above comment says, you packed it all into a confined room and made sure to keep the unique races different. The characterization was good too, especially with the draugar. Good job.

  4. […] “Murder Goes Hungry” by Margaret Ronald “It’s not—” I sighed as we reached the doors of the veterans’ wing. “It was a cruel thing for him to do. She has her vows, and too many of us veterans are too scarred to be any sort of decent companion.” […]

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