Sweet Death

Issue #161

In the usual course of activities—in as much as murder can be considered usual—I am the one to call my friend Mieni for assistance. This time around, though, she was the one who had contacted me (by pelting my window with detritus, rather than sending a brass sparrow as was my preference). Despite Mieni’s opinion that my own investigative faculties are adequate though untrained, I knew very well that I had not been asked in that capacity.

It was an ugly scene. The alley was a narrow one in the refugee districts, so cramped that two grown men could not easily stand abreast. The owner of the property abutting the alley, a kobold so young her claws were still gray, stood unwilling to look at the Patrol officer who was questioning her in a hectoring tone. Between us slumped a huge, shaggy form that a careless glance could have mistaken for a human in a heavy coat. But the size, the fur, and most of all the head smashed by a heavy clay pot told me that this was a worse situation than I’d expected. A low drone permeated the entire scene, setting my teeth on edge, and the smell of the pot’s contents mixed with the trace of cold blood to create a heavy, sweet stink.

Mieni beckoned to me from where she stood by the corpse. “You see my difficulty, Mr. Swift,” she said quietly. Her breath clouded and hung in the air, lingering after mine had dissipated. Koboldim body temperature is considerably higher than humans’, and her skin fairly steamed, though that might have been from consternation. “Zio found the body this morning, but because she came to me and not to Patrol, it is not looking good for her.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” I answered softly, crouching next to her so that we were at the same height. “But this is a hell of a problem, Mieni.”

“I am very aware of it. Look.” She stepped back, pointing at the ground. The damp earth had frozen overnight, and while Patrol’s clumsy feet had eroded some of the evidence, I could see only the heavy, clawed prints of the victim. Blood and honey from the shattered pot merged in florid swirls. “You see? And the pot bears the mark of Zio’s family. Beekeepers,” she said as I glanced at her. “Here, as they were back in Poma-mél.”

“Seems simple enough to me.” The Patrol officer on duty, Fries, tramped up over the frozen prints. “Bear gets into the goblin’s honey, goblin drops a pot on ‘im.”

Mieni shook her head. “We are koboldim, not goblins. And Zio’s family attests her presence among them till this morning.”

Fries’ eyes narrowed.

“That’s not a bear,” I said to draw his attention.

“Looks like a bear,” said Fries, a City boy who’d probably only seen a bear in storybooks.

I scratched my chin—unshaven, because Mieni had woken me before my morning ablutions—and sighed. “You weren’t in the war, were you?”

He hunched a little under my gaze. “Cried off to take care of my mum.”

“It’s an Ursa Davala,” I interrupted, not caring what his reasons were. There were a lot of good reasons to have stayed out of the war, starting with common sense. Which I had lacked, then and now.

Few enough of us had returned from the war, and few of those had experience of the Ursa Davala, so his reaction was not unusual. The varied races of Poma-mél had taken sides in the conflict, and we humans were simply unlucky that the greatest warriors of that land had allied with the Usurper. They were among the most feared denizens of Poma-mél, and I have a number of dents in my ribcage that attest to the prowess of even one lone Davala.

Though the war was over, our City was still very clearly in opposition to the Usurper, its refugee population and all, and the Davala were known for their loyalty to clan and Usurper both. I would have sooner expected to see a palug prowling through the river district than an Ursa Davala outside the boundaries of Poma-mél.

“So?” Fries said, interrupting my thoughts. “Still looks bearish enough.” I drew breath to point out the differences—the shortened snout, the narrower torso—but Fries sniggered. “Got its head in the honeypot, too. Or the honeypot in its head.”

“Fries—” I stopped and sighed. “Have you ever actually had honey from Poma-mél?”

His mustache lifted in something like a sneer. “I take my tea clear, me.”

“It’s... different.” The honey had been a delicacy since long before the war, with its taste almost like distant music, the closest that most humans could come to the magic that permeated Poma-mél. I sometimes wondered if my sweet-tooth since childhood had been part of what had drawn me to fight in Poma-mél. “There’s a reason that their land is named half after honey. A Davala wouldn’t seek City honey; it’d be several steps down in quality.”

“Still don’t explain—”

“Send a sparrow to the Quarter, Fries. I want a proper wagon-team for the body, and they’re to do it with respect, mind. Mieni,” I added, turning as Fries muttered away into his sparrow, “can you translate for me if I ask Zio some questions?”

“I fear it would do no good,” she said, turning to look at the smaller kobold. Zio’s young age was apparent from the lack of tufted white hair that Mieni, a grandmother several times over, bore in abundance. In contrast to Mieni’s smart if diminutive suit, she wore a human child’s clothes, several owners away from new. She stared at the body as if afraid it would get up and attack her. “Zio has told me nothing, and would tell you even less.”

“I thought the other koboldim in the City told you everything.”

“I hear what I hear—but truly, Mr. Swift, do you tell your own grandmother everything? I would be surprised if you did, though no less so than she, I suspect.” She sighed and jerked her head towards the scrubbed-stone wall. “And Zio has refused to let your Patrol search her yard.”

Now I could hear koboldim voices on the other side of the wall, muffled further by the heavy drone of bees. “Mieni, this really isn’t good. I can’t prove she didn’t do it.”

That struck a rare anger from Mieni, and her eyes actually flared a brighter gold as she looked up at me. “I can, Mr. Swift, and if you would use your faculties, you too—”

“I can’t prove it to a judge’s satisfaction,” I interrupted. “Not a human judge.”

Mieni closed her mouth so sharply I feared her fangs would cut her lips. “Just so, Mr. Swift,” she muttered, looking away, then frowned. A lone bee, moving drowsily in the cold, crawled out from under the shattered honeypot and stood on the Davala’s broken eyesocket, waving its antennae as if lost. It turned a half-circle, then stopped, wings twitching. “Odd,” she said. “Very odd.”

“Seeking the honey, maybe?”

“A lone bee? I do not think so. You impute more initiative to them than they truly have.” She shook her head, then bent to scrape a little of the bloody honey into a glass jar.

“Mieni!”

“Evidence,” she said, rising to her feet. “Had I all the information... no, there is something I am missing, and Zio will not tell me.”

A new Patrol officer hurried up. “Inspector Swift,” he began, then stopped, staring at the body.

“That was quick,” I said.

“What?” He dragged his gaze back to meet mine. “No, sir. The Quarter sent me—Crighton asked for you specific, and your downstairs neighbor said you’d been called out to the gobl—the kobold streets.”

“My shift doesn’t start till ten. What does Crighton want with me?”

“He said you’d be best prepared to deal with our visitor. It’s—” The Patrol glanced behind me again and swallowed. “It’s an Ursa Davala.”

The first misconception that many people make when meeting an Ursa Davala is to assume that because they are somewhat bearish in appearance, they carry some of the same traits that we assign to bears: slow, taciturn, graceless in movement and manner. These are all false; the Davala are large and strong, but they move quickly, often pinpointing an opponent’s weak spot before the fight has begun. Few humans have the chance to correct that impression. I am very fortunate to be one.

Crighton met me at the gates of the Quarter. “Took you long enough,” he muttered as I fell into step behind him. “And what the hell is that doing here?”

Mieni gave him her usual sunny, flat smile. “Your pardon, good Inspector, but I overheard the summons for my good friend Mr. Swift and thought I could be of some use. I, too, have some knowledge of the Davala.”

Crighton snorted.

“She has at least as much experience as I, sir,” I said quietly as we crossed the yard and ascended to the upper cloister. “And it couldn’t hurt to get another opinion from Poma-mél.”

“Right now we’ve got a surplus of Poma-mél opinions. With ambassadors’ immunity, no less—and why the council saw fit to grant that, I’ve no idea.” Crighton yanked a door open and stomped into the hall, not waiting for either of us to catch up.

“Sir?” I quickened my steps. “What are Poma-mél citizens doing in the City?”

That got him to turn around. “Read the damned papers once in a while, Swift. The Usurper’s trying to make nice with the council, now that we’re on the outs with the Ageless.”

I grimaced. The Ageless were the reason we’d gotten into the war, and though we’d failed to liberate their lands from the Usurper, they had settled here in exile. Only recently had that become a problem, and I’d had something to do with it. Mieni nodded. “It is like the masca, to jump on such a chance—but why here?”

“You tell me.” Crighton sighed. “This damn visit is the last thing I need.”

A Patrol officer hurried around the corner, then skidded to a stop as she saw me. I noted Fries’ sparrow in her hand. “Actually, sir, I think this message is the last thing you need.” Crighton shot me an irritated and puzzled look. “Exactly what do you want me to say?”

“Just find out what the hell they’re doing here.” He waved over the Patrol, then stopped and turned back, leveling a thick finger at Mieni. “And that goblin stays out of the conversation. You can eavesdrop like the rest of us.”

Mieni curtseyed as if she’d received an actual compliment. “I would be honored to do so.”

The Quarter receiving-room barely deserved the name, being mostly where we stowed visitors until they could be shunted in the right direction. It did, however, have a decent tea service. The Ursa Davala at the far end of the room turned, a delicate cup held carefully between thumb and foreclaw. Seen close and in life, the resemblance to a bear was passing, less important than the piercing green gaze, the expression like a smile on a snout blunted for speech, and the posture that did nothing to diminish height and bulk.

“Ah,” it rumbled. “Arthur Swift. I am called Isto of the Three Claws, first of my ranking and clan. I understand you stood challenge to another of the Three Claws; therefore I may speak on equal footing with you, without my colleague as go-between.”

“Equal may be an overstatement,” I said, and gestured to the largest of the chairs. “After all, I did lose.”

It ignored my offer and settled instead on one of the benches, elbows propped on knees. It wore three blue sashes wrapped crossways round its—her—torso, indicating both gender and rank, and the loosest of these sagged as she sat forward. “Lose, win. You are alive. That puts you ahead of most who face the Davala. I know few enough names in your City who may speak on such footing.”

I nodded and settled onto a chair, aware of the wall behind me that was mostly paper and lath. It allowed eavesdroppers to hear much of what was said in this room, and undoubtedly Mieni and shortly Crighton would be behind it. “What brings you here?”

Isto took a lingering sip of tea, vapor condensing on her bristles. “Opportunity alone. The White Queen thinks that reconciliation may be possible between your City and our lands.”

“I doubt it.” From behind the wall I thought I heard Crighton curse. “However, I didn’t mean the City so much as the Quarter. Why visit us, specifically?”

She bared her teeth a moment, an unsettling sight even though I knew it was meant as a smile. “Personal curiosity. My co-envoy does not much care for your methods of keeping the peace, but I find the Quarter’s honor-pattern intriguing.” Porcelain rang as she set down her teacup and reached into her sash. “Here. In recognition of the knowledge I seek—and the position I have put you in—I offer mead of our making.” She brought out a small clay flask, then frowned.

I hesitated—the mead-offering was a gesture of respect, but I wasn’t sure whether I merited it. “Have I offended?”

“No, this...” She raised the flask, stamped with the Three Claws’ sigil. “My brother Ayio gave this to me at the border, as his new endeavor. If I gave approval, he would produce it for the rest of our clan. I would have done you the honor of the first taste, had it been unopened. But—” She turned it around and showed the broken wax. “Odd.”

That was all we needed, for someone to mess with a Davala’s mead. “I know clan leaders carry many flasks,” I said hesitantly. “Is it possible that you—”

Isto whuffed a laugh. “You think I would not know my brother’s mead? For all the trouble Ayio has given me, it is a temptation. But no, my co-envoy and I shared another flask last night but did not open this one.”

“If your co-envoy is a Davala,” I said slowly, “perhaps he partook of it?” I had no gift for subtlety, but that seemed a fair way of inquiring whether she was the only Ursa Davala in the City.

Isto’s snout lifted in a laugh. “Ah, no. No, two Davala on a mission? The honor-patterns would be impossible to untangle. Why do you ask?”

I cursed inwardly. “No reason.”

“Of course.” Isto pulled the broken seal away and sniffed at the clay. “Smells just like yesterday’s plain mead. Ayio’s estimate of his skill has gone downstream. Too poor to share, I am afraid.” She put it away with a disgusted snort. “May I speak frankly?”

“If you don’t mind being overheard.” I nodded to the wall. From behind it came a noise very much like Crighton strangling himself and Mieni stifling one of her belly laughs. I ignored them; there are a few things that go along with having survived single combat with the Davala, and one is respect enough to tell the truth.

“If I did, I would not have come here in the first place.” She leaned forward, lacing the claws of her hands together in a gesture more human than ursine. “My co-envoy believes that the current state of affairs harms both our societies. The green land misses those who left. This is a city of men; it is not meant to hold so much of the green land.”

There were those who agreed, certainly. But those same who deplored the presence of koboldim would often in the next breath lament the lack of able-bodied men to perform the jobs that our new refugee populations had taken. “I think you underestimate our City.”

A shrug on a Davala is something to see, very much like a furry ripple from nape to waist. She rose in the same motion, all nine feet towering over me. “I reserve judgment, myself.”

I rose as well, moving close to Isto, closer than I would stand with most humans—a challenge, if not a spoken one. “Are you truly the only Davala in the City?”

“You have seen more?” she said, quickly and quietly. Her gaze shifted to over my shoulder, and she stepped back. “No, I think you are mistaking rainclouds for bears.”

I started to speak, then paused, aware that someone else had joined us. A young man, delicate-featured and handsome if not for his scowl, stomped into the room, or would have stomped had he more weight. “Where have you been?” he demanded of Isto. “Do you realize I had to talk to their representatives to find you? And not even the council—their servants, of all people. I can’t believe you’d willingly spend more time with these fanga—”

“I had conversation,” Isto said calmly. “With my honor-mate, Arthur Swift.”

I bowed, unsure what gesture of respect to make to this envoy. “Of the City Inspectors—”

The youth flapped one hand at me as if I were only a fly. Something on his back blurred, and I realized that the shimmery blue mantle that I’d mistaken for a jacket was a carapace, covering wings like those of a beetle. With the realization came a visceral chill and the knowledge that this was no child.

When the war began and City men like me volunteered, this young man was what we’d expected to face—angies, what the vulgar call “flower-fairies.” We did so, but to our sorrow; they were many, and they were vicious. Even a Davala might yield to one, and as for me, it took a effort of will not to check that my pistol was in place.

Luckily, the angie took little notice of me. “You think I like having to wander all over this sham of a city, this jumped-up parody of the green land?” he snapped at Isto. “We have work to do in this sterile ground, and I can’t do my job if you’re off playing honor-games.”

This last came out with such contempt that I thought surely Isto would call challenge—but the angie’s rank must have been considerably higher than hers. Instead she simply folded her hands. “Your pardon. I was seized with curiosity as to how order is kept here, in this as you say sham.” She inclined her head to me. “Good cover to you, Arthur Swift.”

The angie’s eyes narrowed at my name, and he turned a scornful glance on me as Isto strode out. “The White Queen may see some value in speaking to the likes of you,” he hissed, “but only because she’s never seen how stunted this place is. A blight on you and your City, ironblood.”

I said nothing, only drew myself up, imitating Isto. I had two feet and at least a hundred pounds on the angie, although that would mean very little if it came to it. The angie spat—not at me, or I would have lost my resolve and flinched—but on the floor. The wood sizzled faintly as he glided out, the sound merging with the drone of his wings as he glided out. I exhaled slowly.

Crighton was already out from behind the listening-wall. “Of all the—What was the purpose of that, Swift?”

“To be honest, I have no idea.” I picked up one of the napkins and mopped up the spittle, careful not to touch it. “If she wanted someone who faced the Davala before, there are many more respectable candidates.”

“Respectability was not the question.” Mieni emerged, hands clasped before her as if she were a professor. “The Usurper’s ambassadors have no real reason to visit the Inspectors. So the Davala must have hoped to glean some information from you that only Inspectors would have, and out of her companion la flor’s hearing.”

“Well, yes,” Crighton said, running a hand through his thinning hair. “That’s obvious.”

“It is?” I asked.

Both ignored me, though Mieni smiled very slightly. Crighton continued. “The only problem is that I don’t see what Swift here could have told him, aside from how crap he is at diplomacy.”

“It is not clear? Perhaps my grasp of your tongue is not as strong as I thought.” Mieni grinned, and I knew she meant “command of language,” but something about her grin made Crighton put a hand to his mouth. “First, she determined that the war goes unforgotten—small news there, to be sure. Second, she determined the limits of our—of Mr. Swift’s knowledge, and therefore that of the Quarter. And last, she knows there is another Davala in the City. Though I think she knew that before.”

“Then why ask?” I said. Crighton, to my surprise, nodded instead of telling her to go away.

“Because by waiting for you to ask, she found that you—the Inspectors—had cause to know of the other Davala. And where you have cause, there is often trouble. I wonder...” She walked to the far door, the one opening out onto the gallery and the Yard. “Mr. Swift, I think we had better return to the alley. There is more here than I quite understand—”

She stopped, staring out the window into the yard, gold eyes widening. Crighton and I followed her gaze to see two Patrol escorting a small, wilted figure. “Mieni—” I began.

Too late. In true kobold fashion, she discarded the stairs in favor of the window, prying the latter open and jumping down to the ground. “Quite the goblin you have there,” Crighton said.

“Kobold,” I corrected, and hurried out.

Mieni was in full force when I reached her, explaining in great detail why the Davala could not have been killed by a kobold and certainly not by poor Zio. Zio drooped listlessly between the two officers, and I realized that she hadn’t expected any other outcome.

“Stands to reason, ma’am,” the Patrolman said with an inflection that turned “ma’am” into something just short of ‘goblin.’ “She got the bear with the honey jar. Simple as that.”

“Simple? There is nothing simple—” Mieni said hotly.

“I’ve been on scene,” I said, raising my voice. “It’s unlikely that Zio could have thrown that pot with such accuracy.” Unlikely, but not impossible—but someone had to speak for her, and they’d listen to me before they listened to Mieni.

Not that that would stop Mieni. “That is not even the first of the reasons! The prints, the wound, the time of the death—do you no longer even bother to look at the evidence?”

I turned to Crighton, who had finally made his way down to the yard. “Sir, there has been a mistake. You know we can’t just sweep this onto her.” I gestured to Zio, who flinched reflexively.

“I don’t know anything of the sort, Swift.” But he stood with arms crossed a moment, gazing not at Zio but at Mieni. “There’s one too many damn bears around this City, and I’d like to find out why it’s not two too many. You think you can get something I can give the council without it blowing up in our faces?”

I hesitated. “I can get something,” I said finally.

Crighton snorted, but he was still watching Mieni. “Egg on you, then, if it falls. You, Patrol: Take this—kobold—back where she came from. Put a watch on the whole block.”

“A watch will not be necessary,” Mieni said quietly. I glanced at her; it was the kind of quiet that often preceded trouble. “With Patrol like this on the street, we koboldim will be staying indoors.”

Crighton shrugged and turned away, and the Patrol took Zio back the way they’d come. Mieni remained, hands closed tight into fists. I hesitated, then knelt next to her. “It might be best if we took a moment away,” I said quietly. “Patrol will be at the scene for a good while longer; we’ll go back to investigate after.”

“After,” Mieni agreed, or simply repeated.

There are a few tea-houses that cater to the Quarter, though there are more pubs and smoke-houses. None of the latter establishments look kindly on our city’s refugee population, and so I brought Mieni to the Yellow Bell, an tea-house of such mediocrity that no one could be bothered to care what the clientele was like.

To my surprise, Mieni headed straight to the back, claiming a table and a stool so that she could sit close to my height. “Two of the kitchen staff here are koboldim,” she said at my raised eyebrow. “If they know I am here, we shall have better food.”

“I was thinking just a cup of tea.” I nodded to a server. “Zio looked—well, she looked like she’d lost hope.”

“She may be right to do so—but truly, if she only would speak to me!” She glared at the table while I ordered a pot of tea and biscuits. At last she shook her head. “She is trying to cover for her family, which is foolish because it is obvious what they have been doing.”

“It is?”

Mieni’s white brows furrowed as she looked up at me, then with a laugh she straightened up. “Ah, Mr. Swift, sometimes I think you are a flatterer. Why else would you entice me to speak of what must be clear to you? I know you have a brain, if only,” and here she leaned across the table and tapped my forehead with one clawed finger, “if only you would let yourself use it, Mr. Swift!”

“Thank you,” I said dryly. The server placed a pot of tea and two cups on our table and left without saying more. “But in truth, all I saw was an impossibility: one dead Davala, no footprints, no reason for him even to be in the City.”

“The last should be obvious, I think, from Zio’s reticence if nothing else.” The server brought a pair of honey-pots to the table, and Mieni gestured to them. “She and her family were smuggling honey to the Davala.”

“But—the quality—”

“Is irrelevant, Mr. Swift. Even the Davala occasionally seek novelty, and as a connoisseur of wines might sample a fine vinegar to taste what had once been, so a Davala might sample City honey.” She dragged a cup over to her and ran a claw around the edge. “But there is more strangeness here, and I cannot see a way to it. Perhaps what the Davala paid was more than money; perhaps there is espionage here...” She shook her head.

“It leaves a bad taste in my mouth,” I said at last. “It’s too close to the joke Fries made about bears and honey.”

“He also thought Zio guilty, and I believe—I know she is not. Pour, please? The cooks may be koboldim, but the teapot is not, and my hands are not proportioned to it.” I did so, and she took the cup between her hands. “But even all this does not explain the death. If I knew why, I would know who... perhaps if I knew the smuggling routes, as I did back in Poma-mél...” She moodily stared into her cup, lapsing into faint koboldim mutters.

I gazed at her a moment. Mieni, and all her kin and kith, were not just refugees but exiles, cast out for siding against the Usurper. We humans may not all have returned to the City, but those who did return had a home to return to. I pushed the little jars across the table. “Here. Have some of the Poma-mél honey. I’m paying, so don’t worry about the extra cost.” I smiled weakly. “I’d always assumed it was a surcharge for the special flowers.”

Mieni’s spoon clattered against her teacup, and I glanced up from my own tea to see her staring at the untouched jar. “Mar de sang! I am a fool three times over, Mr. Swift, a fool. What is it the Davala told you? Mistaking them for rainclouds?”

“I—yes,” I said. “It’s an expression, I think—”

“An entirely accurate one! Come!”

Mieni’s concept of an explanation is lacking in several regards, and I’m afraid I was no less in the dark as I stood in front of Zio’s home for a good forty minutes, waiting for an answer to my sparrow.

The street itself was quiet; the koboldim were staying inside, and the other inhabitants were scared off enough by the presence of a City Inspector. I shivered, wishing I’d had any of that tea.

The Davala move quietly, but they are more suited to wilderness than an urban setting. I saw Isto well before I heard her, a great shadow in the fading light, gliding soundlessly between the buildings. If I had been doing this properly, I would have stepped out into the street and announced both her name and mine; instead, I waited until she had reached Zio’s front door. “Isto of the Three Claws,” I said, and gave her the salute of soldier to opposing soldier.

“Arthur Swift,” she rumbled. “I tell you true, I did not expect this.” She opened one hand to reveal my brass sparrow balanced on her palm. “I understood that calling challenge within the City was forbidden.”

“It is,” I said. The back of my shirt was damp with sweat, despite the cold. “I could think of no other way to bring you here alone.”

The slow change of expression was very much like the shifting of snow on a steep hillside. “A false challenge is a stain on both our honors, Arthur Swift.”

“I’m well aware of that,” I said, hoping that Isto didn’t decide to treat it as a real challenge regardless. I retreated a few steps, not turning my back on her but leading her down the walk that separated Zio’s home from the next, toward the yard behind her home. “You know there is another Ursa Davala within the city.”

“Of course,” she said, a bright flicker of amusement in her voice. “Honey is honey, mead is mead. Though that you asked told me that you had not caught him—perhaps that will be enough for me to convince him such trips to your City are too risky even for us—”

She paused as we reached the corner, and her snout lifted. Her lips drew back from teeth hard and yellowed. “I smell my family’s blood, Arthur Swift,” she growled. “I will break your sad human neck.”

“Indeed,” a piping voice answered before I could protest. I turned to see Mieni standing in the middle of the yard, an open glass jar in her hand. Around her stood hives—or the remnants of them. The boxes had been smashed, combs and honey strewn about, and even though Zio’s family had worked hard to salvage them, the damage was clear. A hum of spared bees now came from smaller hives in the corner, but most had been crushed beyond repair, as if by a giant’s hand.

“Indeed you could break Mr. Swift’s neck,” Mieni went on with more composure than I thought strictly necessary. “But you would not do so without giving your name in challenge, or without warning.”

Isto raised her snout. “No. I would not.”

“Not all are as honorable.” She held out the jar—the same into which she’d scraped honey and blood that morning, the latter of which had clearly caught Isto’s nose. “There were no footprints around your brother’s body, Isto of the Three Claws. He was alone, perhaps he saw a shadow, he looked up—” She tapped her head as if to imitate the blow. “You know what this means as well as I.”

I didn’t know myself, but there are times when it’s better not to interrupt.

Mieni made her way across the broken hives, the drone from the rescued ones seeming to hush as she did so. “He was killed by that which he sought to smuggle out, by the same honey.”

Isto’s eyes narrowed.

Mieni went on as she reached Isto, standing nearly toe-to-toe with her. “It was a blow he did not expect, since he was a trusting soul, and he had not yet gotten the honey he’d come for.” She held up the jar again. “This is your answer.”

“Honey?” I said before I could think. “The murder weapon was a honey-crock, but—”

“Honey from Zio’s hives,” Mieni said, never taking her eyes from Isto. “Honey made in the City. Honey that made the mead you would have tasted and approved—had someone not loathed what it was and stolen it, smashed where it came from, and then left to prevent any taste of it leaving this City of men.”

Isto was still a moment, then dug one claw into the jar, coming away with red-smeared honey. She put it to her mouth, and if I had thought she was still before, this was the stillness of a stormcloud before the thunderclap.

I risked sidling close to Mieni. “I don’t understand.”

“Taste for yourself. Or, if you are squeamish, taste from the hives themselves.”

Squeamish or no, there are limits. I cleared away a few of the dead bees from a shattered hive and got a drop on the edge of my pocketknife. I put it to my mouth, tasting raw sweetness—and more than that. The faint tingle of Poma-mél’s magic shivered through me, the echo of a land far from here, the note that could only translate itself in my head to a sweet wordless singing. And yet it was manifestly not Poma-mél honey but City honey, with the harsh tang that I’d known from boyhood. “This—the honey must be mixed—”

Mieni shook her head. “Unmixed. Or do you distrust your own abilities, Mr. Swift? Has someone mixed it between your hand and mouth?”

I stared at the gold smear on my knife. “The bees can’t be going so far as Poma-mél.”

Isto raised her head, snout questing at the air. ” No. They cannot.” She turned to face me, and I knew with a chill certainty that my false challenge would go unmet. There was something worse here now.

“Honey on its own, that is nothing special, is it?” Mieni’s gaze flicked briefly to me, then back to Isto. “But honey of the City, honey that has changed as we exiles have changed the City, honey that seems to echo something once thought exclusive to the green land—well, that is troubling. Particularly when a Davala plans to give mead of that honey to his clan. That is cause for Zio to remain silent. And that is cause, by some reckonings, for worse actions still.”

The bees’ hum suddenly intensified, with a new note on top of it: a different hum, of larger wings. I looked up in time to see the angie drop to the ground before Isto. “Running off again?” he demanded of her. “You can’t just drop everything when challenged—”

Wings, I realized. The angie had them—all angies did. The lack of footprints around the body was suddenly clear.

Bon flor, attend,” Mieni said softly. “Have you tried the honey here in our city? I think you would find it—interesting.”

The angie glanced at her, fine features contorting in a frown—and then, as he saw the bloody honey, froze. It was not an admission of guilt, but it did not have to be.

The Davala move quickly when they want to. I did not see Isto move, but I heard the crack and thump, and I saw the angie hit the far wall, carapace shattered, one delicate wing torn in half. He blinked at the sky, stunned, then gave a slow, bubbling gasp as the pain hit. I knew that expression. I had worn it or one like it once. “Isto,” I began.

“I am not sure you are authorized to do anything, Mr. Swift,” Mieni said calmly. “Envoys are untouchable, after all. Such a carefully sought status, I am sure, not thinking it would therefore apply to them both.”

“I can’t just stand by!”

“Nor will I make you.” Isto moved to stand over the angie, then pulled him upright by one arm. The angie whimpered. “I believe I have recalled an urgent reason to return to Poma-mél,” Isto went on. “And I will have some news for my clan when I do.” I began to speak, but Isto held out her free hand. “Because we were on even footing, I am following the rules of your City, Arthur Swift. But do not presume more.”

The angie gave another whimper as she slung him across her back and walked off. I hesitated, one hand going to the whistle that would summon Patrol. But after a moment, I let my hand drop. “How did you know?” I said finally.

Mieni shivered, the first sign of cold I’d seen in her that day. “The bee, Mr. Swift. A lone bee does not go out in search of honey, not in this cold. Its presence spoke that the hives had been damaged, at the very least. And Zio would admit normally to smuggling, but the honey itself worried her—that was why she would not speak even to me. We are perhaps a little sensitive to traces of our home, we koboldim.” She shrugged, a single rise and fall of narrow shoulders. “Only la flor would find it so distressing that blossoms outside their jurisdiction could begin to carry the echo of Poma-mél.”

“Enough to kill over it?”

“More than enough.” She glanced sidelong at me. “You still do not quite understand how tied those of Poma-mél are to their natures, Mr. Swift. The Davala are bears in certain ways, the flor—” She shrugged. “The flor navigate by their own knowledge, by the flowers of the green land. You saw how angry he was at having to search rather than knowing where he was right away; with the City flowers changing, and the flowers of home a memory—perhaps he did not even realize we were in the same place as his rampage. They, too, are blossoms, and jealous ones.”

“Deadly ones.” I looked at the gold on my blade, thought of how the City’s long relation with Poma-mél had changed so precipitously in recent years, thought of the strange taste still on my tongue. “Do you really think the City flowers are changing so much?”

“Perhaps. One never can tell with bees.” She looked into the little pot of bloody honey, then ran a finger around the inside and sucked on it. “You and I never did have that tea, Mr. Swift. Come; I will tell the koboldim who work at the Bell to make you something comforting and warm. And, I think, more savory than sweet.”

I turned my knife again, then wiped the honey from it and licked it from my finger. The angie had been right in a way – this was a city of men, and not meant to hold as much magic as must come from Poma-mel. But, I thought, tasting the singing sweetness cut with murk of the City, that didn’t mean the changes were all bad. Mieni nodded as I put away my knife, and we walked on to the Bell.


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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:
“A Death for the Ageless” by Margaret Ronald
“After Compline, Silence Falls” by M. Bennardo

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6 Comments on “Sweet Death”

6 Responses to “Sweet Death”

  1. […] for something to read while the turkey cooks?  Why not a little murder mystery?  “Sweet Death” is up at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and it’s a little Poirot-pastiche set in a city I […]

  2. I liked the human/goblin detective team and the bear and the other characters. In spite of being the continuation of a series, this story holds up well on its own. The mystery was entertaining enough that I went back to read “A Death for the Ageless”, which I missed somehow. I like how BCS provides cross links to other stories and keeps them online.

    • Scott H. Andrews says:

      Thank you! Ms. Ronald has a third story forthcoming in BCS featuring the same detective team. Look for it next year!

  3. Ian says:

    Well done! I very much hope you will continue on with this setting and set of characters.

  4. John says:

    Loved this and Ageless, thanks! Please do more!

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