A Mention of Death

(Chronologically, this is the earliest story from the Dreaming Death world.)

Somewhere, someone was dead.

Mikael Lee slid into awareness, an ache in his side reminding him that death had visited his dreams again. Groaning, he reached back and probed the tender spot left behind by the slide of an unreal knife between his ribs.

“About time,” Deborah said from somewhere near the door.

“I’m all right, ma’am,” Mikael said. He licked his lips and opened one eye hesitantly. She had opened the curtains, and eastern light filled Mikael’s tiny quarters on the second floor of the palace. A stab of pain seared through his head. Flinching, Mikael squeezed his eyes shut again.

“You’d best get dressed and report in,” Deborah said in her brisk voice. In her capacity as one of the Lucas Family’s infirmarians, she had watched over him every time he had one of his dreams. She laid one hand against his forehead, a worried expression visible on her face when he opened one eye a slit. “I want you to come down to the Infirmary and check in with me later this afternoon.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he promised rashly. He would have to endure dozens of questions later, but right now he wanted her to go away. She had, after a fashion, adopted him when he’d come to the capital a few months before, so he hated to disappoint her. A second later Mikael heard the door shut.

Left alone, he waited a moment for the throbbing in his head to recede. Then he rose from the bed and dragged the curtain shut. Glancing down, Mikael discovered he still wore his black uniform from the day before. They must have dumped him on his bunk that way. He undressed and laid his rumpled uniform out for the laundry to clean and press later.

He opened the chest at the foot of his bed, took down his shaving mirror, and pulled the curtain back enough to let in a sliver of light. With his left hand, he held the mirror at an awkward angle to see the wound on his back—a livid mark almost two inches long, swollen with blood. It showed purple against his fair skin. A puncture wound, he decided. The knife must have gone straight to the heart.

He definitely didn’t want Deborah to see that mark on his back. He didn’t want to worry her further. It ached, but it would fade away over the course of the morning, leaving only a faint bruise.

Somewhere, someone else was dead. Mikael was still alive, and had work to do.

leaf_dingbat

Mikael found what he was looking for in the section for public notices of the Seychas Weekly—a mention of death.

Inserted at the bottom of the column, the letters weren’t spaced properly, as if the typesetters had rushed to get the slugs in place during the last moments before going to print. No details, just the bare facts: two soldiers—neither named on the page—found dead in the early hours of the morning. An accident while sparring, the paper claimed.

Mikael frowned down at it, surprised. It was the right death. Somehow he always recognized the death from his dream when he stumbled across it. Even so, he had only dreamed one death in the night…not two.

He never remembered much from his death dreams. They faded in those first minutes after waking, like any other dream. He only retained a few vague memories: emotions, impressions of a specific place or an unknown person. The real details—the ones that told him who and where and why—those eluded him. He usually didn’t even know the name of the victim. The manner of death, though, that he always knew, revealed by the wounds echoed in his own flesh.

His job at the palace included investigating murders within the Family, the private army attached to the Royal House by treaty. The death of army personnel would be under the jurisdiction of their own investigations office. Even so, Mikael had worked with them before on a couple of army deaths. His odd talent gave him some useful insights. His superior—the king’s brother, Dahar—allowed it since the two offices frequently had cause to work together. Keeping relations friendly, Mikael decided, made his going down there reasonable.

He stared at the notice a moment longer, then dug a pair of scissors out of his desk and cut it out. He stuffed it a pocket of his uniform jacket, smoothed his jacket and sash, and wrote a note for Dahar. He ducked out of the office before Dahar’s son returned and tried to talk him out of interfering.

After a brisk walk down from the palace atop its hill overlooking the city, Mikael crossed Army Square and headed back to the hallway marked Office for Investigations and Intelligence.

Ensign Aldassa, a tall, lean man a couple of years older than Mikael, occupied one of four desks in the anteroom of the colonel’s bustling office. Similar to Mikael’s own junior position up at the palace, Aldassa’s primary job was to simply do whatever the Colonel Cerradine wanted.

“Colonel’s out,” Aldassa said as soon as he saw Mikael. “Your boss send you?”

“No,” Mikael admitted.

Aldassa put down the pistol he was cleaning and raised his eyebrows. “Well?”

“I had a dream last night,” Mikael began.

Aldassa held up a hand. “Again? I don’t think I want to know. What do you need?”

“A couple of men died last night. I wanted to look at the bodies, if they’re in your morgue.”

“Interesting,” Aldassa said. “I heard. No reason for you not to look at them, so far as I know. Sure the doctor down there will be thrilled to see you.”

Mikael grimaced and took his leave, crossing the square again to the hospital.

The elderly surgeon who acted as the hospital’s coroner groaned when he saw Mikael, but agreed to let him view the bodies. He drew back the sheets covering the two corpses, the faint scent of stale blood rising as he did so.

Mikael stared at the two men he revealed, trying to puzzle out why two bodies lay there, not just one. Both men were in their twenties, one a couple of years older than the other: brown eyes, brown hair, brown skin, average height. Much like any of a thousand Larossan men in the city.

“It happens sometimes, Mr. Lee,” the surgeon explained, as if to a child. “A misstep on the sparring floor or a lost temper.”

But people don’t usually die.  He’d been a melee fighter himself up to a year ago. Then he’d killed someone and lost his love for the melee. It had been a just death; the man had murdered his father, hoping to inherit, and threatened to shoot his own mother.  Mikael had saved her life, but in doing so he’d become a killer.

It hadn’t been anything showy, not like the fighting one used in a melee, meant to be seen by an arena full of spectators. He’d been unarmed. He’d only come to ask questions, following up one of his death dream, but the man had seen Mikael’s uniform and threatened to kill his mother if Mikael didn’t let him go.

He hadn’t used a sword or his knife or a pistol. He’d used a chair, forcing the man out a second floor window of the Vandriyen Palace. It had been quick and brutal.

Death was easier than it looked. That was how men ended up on tables like this.

Mikael sighed and surveyed the body of the younger man. “Could you turn him so I can see the wound?”

Sighing, the surgeon complied. The corpse had stiffened in its repose, like a board. “I don’t know what you’re after, son.”

Mikael tilted his head to get a better view. The wound looked like a narrow mouth, its lips pulled back. Its placement matched the tender purplish mark on Mikael’s own back.

“Very neat,” the surgeon noted. “These melee fighters—when they do get into a serious fight, they know exactly how to kill. I’ll bet he didn’t even have a chance to scream.”

No, I didn’t. It had been fast and unexpected. Mikael’s memory of his death was hazy, but he hadn’t feared for his life. It had been a friendly bout, like any other evening.

Staring at himself lying there on the table, stiff and dead, Mikael broke out in a cold sweat. His knees slammed into the hard floor, and chills chased through his body. He spewed up his breakfast on the morgue’s tiles.

A hand fisted into the back of his jacket and yanked him to his feet. Mikael stood shivering, pulse fluttering as he felt again the knife slicing in, interrupting his heart in its rhythm.

“Can’t you control that?” The surgeon shoved a towel into Mikael’s hand and strode away, his annoyance obvious in his brusque manner. “I’ll get an orderly to clean that up.”

Mikael threw up every time he saw one of his dead bodies. It seemed too personal. He was the victim, at least in his dream, and since he’d started down this strange path, he’d died more times than he wanted to contemplate. He wiped at his mouth with the towel, swallowing with a grimace. “How did the other one die?”

The surgeon frowned. “I thought you always knew. They weren’t found until this morning, but this one died slow—stabbed in the liver is my guess. The knife lodged in the wound, so he didn’t bleed out right away. He bled internally, though. That’s the reason for the bloating.”

This body didn’t bother Mikael in the same way; he’d not been tangled in this man’s mind when he died. He examined the wound, a long shallow slice. The tip of the knife might have just reached the organ, most likely fatal in itself. A sloppy attack, unlike the efficient thrust that killed the other man.

“Did you know either of them?” the surgeon asked.

When Mikael shook his head, the surgeon supplied names, Varma and Laljidine, both unfamiliar. “Any idea why you dreamed about them?”

Mikael shook his head. This didn’t fit the pattern of his dreams, but eventually the murder always seemed to find him. “You said they were melee fighters?”

“Yes.”

“Were they on the same team?”

“Don’t know. You could ask the colonel’s aide, Ensign Aldassa. He’d know.”

Mikael rolled his eyes. “I’ll go back and talk to him. Thank you.”

“Next time, bring a bucket,” the old man responded in an irritated voice and then headed back to his duties among the living.

Mikael made his way back to the colonel’s office, wishing Aldassa would learn to be more forthcoming. He dragged a chair over to Aldassa’s desk and sat down. “Did you know them?”

“In passing, that’s all. Both older than me.” Aldassa shifted back in his chair and steepled his fingers together. His dark eyebrows drew together. “Thought you only dreamed when someone was murdered.”

Mikael nodded and shrugged. “Always so far.”

“Which one did you dream about?” Aldassa asked.

“The younger one. Laljidine. Have you seen the bodies?”

“No need for me to. Coroner ruled it an accident, not murder. No investigation.” Aldassa’s dark eyes narrowed. “Why not dream about Varma?”

“I have no idea. Would anyone want to murder Laljidine?”

“Other than his wife?”

Mikael could never tell whether the man was serious. “Is that a joke?”

He held out his hands. “Hard worker, no enemies from what I know. According to my wife, though, Laljidine spent every moment of his spare time on the sparring floor. With the summer fair’s melee next week…”

Mikael blinked, not having considered the melee as a motive before. “Was he a particularly good fighter?”

“Decent. Had a few weak points. Family trained, so better than most Army.”

Aldassa had been raised by the Lucas Family as well, and only moved to the Army once he’d completed his mandatory three years of service to the Family. As such, he’d trained from childhood to fight, an advantage average Larossans didn’t have. Laljidine would have been the same, then—well-trained. Mikael scratched his cheek absently. “Could he have been murdered for money? Some sort of betting on one of the teams, I mean?”

“Army doesn’t allow betting,” Aldassa said with a perfectly straight face.

Mikael suspected that might be a joke.

“Goes on with fair regularity, though,” Aldassa added. “I’ll ask around, see if anyone knows what’s being bet.”

“Thanks. Were they on the same team?”

“Believe so. I’ll double check.” Aldassa put his feet down and sat up. “You going to fight this year? Maybe fill in for one of the Lucas teams? Your chance to get back at the little girl?”

Mikael tried not to cringe. The joke had worn thin. When he was a seventeen, Mikael had come up from Lee province to participate in the winter fair melee. His team had made it to the third and final round, only to be knocked out when Mikael was killed. A spectator fell out of the stands and landed right atop him—a little girl. Other fighters took every opportunity to remind him of that humiliating end. “I’m staying away from that arena.”

“Probably wise. She might be there again.” Aldassa rose, an unsubtle hint that it was time for Mikael to leave. “I’ll ask around. Check back with this afternoon. About six, I think.”

That was the best he was going to get from Aldassa. He certainly had no evidence to prove that the death had been anything other than tempers out of control, and no real pull at the army headquarters. If any betting irregularities existed, though, he could count on Aldassa to root them out. The man was a meticulous investigator.

The morning dragged, his heart fluttering every time it recalled it had been stabbed. Despite the fact that the coroner had labeled the deaths an accident, the pain served as a reminder that Mikael couldn’t just call it an accident and file it away.

leaf_dingbat

Mikael checked his pocket watch, wondering if he’d mistaken the time. Aldassa wasn’t at his desk, nor were most of the others who usually filled the investigations office. He walked back up to the front desk, where a young-looking soldier manned the desk.

“Is Aldassa around? He asked me to meet him here at six.”

The soldier shook his head. “He’s probably out at the field house. Do you know where that is, sir?”

Mikael nodded. The field house would be down at the end of the square, a gymnasium of sorts where the soldiers trained for hand-to-hand fighting. He thanked the young man and headed that way. The evening air had cooled a bit, and a much as he would like to take off his black uniform jacket, doing so outside the palace grounds would get him censured. His heart, at least, seemed to have decided it was still alive, the tremors past now.

The field house felt cool and humid, and the smell of perspiration filled the air. Mikael moved to one side, where benches ran along the edge of the wall. He counted a dozen army personnel moving about each other on the floor. Practice for the upcoming melee, most likely.

Originally intended to display the Family’s martial prowess, the melee had evolved into a sport, complete with a convoluted set of rules, field judges and, for the spectators, betting. The army had only begun to field teams for the melee in the last few decades, and even then, comparatively few of them. The Lucas Family hadn’t discouraged it, but neither had they encouraged it.

The soldiers in the field house were practicing for the third and final round, the hand-to-hand round. As Mikael watched, he tried to see if he recognized any of the faces. Most were indeed from the colonel’s office, where Family-raised officers like Aldassa seemed to end up. The colonel actively recruited them.

Mikael spotted Aldassa then, circling with another soldier. Aldassa feinted with one hand, then caught the other man and threw him over his shoulder. Another soldier approached, and Aldassa engaged the woman. Mikael tried to decide which fighters were Aldassa’s team members, finally locating a large man and a smallish woman, identifiable by the numbers pinned to their practice jackets. He’d seen the woman before in the office, recalling her pretty face easily, but hadn’t met the man. As others circled, the large man was forced back toward the woman and ending up knocking her down by backing into her. The fighter designated as the field judge for the practice session marked her as dead. Looking displeased, she got up and walked off the square to the sidelines.

It had been one of Mikael’s favorite things as a boy, practicing to fight in the melee. His dreams had changed that. He could never tell when a dream would leave him with a weak heart or achy lungs, unable to withstand the rigors of the melee, and therefore an unreliable team member. He had more reason to sit out the melee than just the threat of a little girl. And if the truth was told, his heart was no longer in it.

The woman spotted him sitting on the bench. She pulled off her leather helmet and came over to where he waited. “Mr. Lee?”

“I’m sorry. I don’t recall your name.” As one of only a handful of Family personnel who ever entered the army square, Mikael expected most people in the colonel’s office would know him. Unfortunately, he hadn’t had the chance to work with many of them.

“Hanna.” She shook his hand and then wiped her brow. “Aldassa said you might come by.”

“You were knocked out by one of your own team members,” Mikael said, reckoning she hadn’t seen who stumbled into her.

“Big fellow, no brains?” She loosened her dark hair from its braid, shaking it out to dry off some of the sweat.

“Uh, I suppose so,” Mikael said, distracted. He’d developed a penchant for dark hair recently.

She rolled her eyes. “My husband.”

“So sorry.” Mikael turned his gaze back toward the fighters. The field judges had called an end to the fighting and were breaking things up. Aldassa stopped to give the big man a hand up, and together they came in Mikael’s direction.

After tugging off his helmet, Aldassa ruffled his fingers through his hair, leaving it in sweaty spikes. “Take it you’ve met Hanna?”

“Uh, yes,” Mikael said. “Was this where I was supposed to come?”

“Thought it was the best place to ask around. This is Lieutenant Aron Kassannan, by the way.”

Mikael shook the big man’s hand. Mikael guessed he must be several years older than Aldassa or his wife. “Mikael Lee.”

“The one who has dreams?”

“That would be me,” Mikael said.

The big man turned to Aldassa. “Ask around about what?”

Aldassa gave the other man a dry look. “The bodies in the morgue. He doesn’t think it was accidental.”

Lieutenant Kassannan gave Mikael a sharp look. “The coroner was wrong?”

Mikael shrugged. “I can’t prove anything.”

Kassannan puffed out his cheeks, irritation plain on his face. “Lazy bastard. Sooner they get rid of him the better.”

Mikael didn’t think he should comment on that.

“Aron’s a field surgeon,” Aldassa said instead.

Mikael wondered how the man’s wife could consider that no brains. “Ah. Did you turn up anything on the betting?”

“Nothing,” Aldassa said. “Wasn’t that. I asked around, no one heard of much betting on that team. Probably weren’t even going to qualify for the melee, you ask me.”

“So what does that leave us with?” Mikael asked.

“Don’t know.” Aldassa looked at the surgeon. “Can we get in to see the bodies again?”

Kassannan shrugged. “The mortuary service might have already taken them.”

“Because the coroner didn’t think it was murder?” Mikael asked just as Aldassa asked, “Can you get us in?”

“I can try,” the surgeon answered.

Kassannan got them into the army’s hospital without difficulty. He picked up a key from the soldier manning the front desk. Then they all proceeded down to the morgue, hidden away in the basement of the hospital. The bodies still lay under their sheets.

“Which one is your victim?” Kassannan asked.

Mikael hoped he didn’t cast up his dinner this time. “Um, the younger one—Laljidine.”

Kassannan gave Mikael a measuring look. “I hear you’re prone to being sick all over the floors in here.”

“I’ll try not to,” Mikael promised.

Kassannan pulled back the sheet and rolled the body over when Mikael asked. It turned easily in his hands, the rigor past now. The man’s back had gone livid, mottled and dark, but the knife wound still gaped. Mikael closed his eyes and stepped away, holding back the nausea.

Kassannan covered the body. “Looking at this wound, Mr. Lee, I don’t think it could have been an accident.”

“He died first, right? Do you think he struck first?” Mikael asked the surgeon.

“Have you seen the other one?”

“No. I don’t spend a lot of time in the morgue.” Kassannan turned to the other table, pulled back the sheet, and studied the body for a moment. He touched the edges of the wound and peered at it closely. “Now this could have been an accident. I don’t know why the coroner would have called both of these accidental,” he added, shaking his head. “The second one could be, but that first body—definitely intentional. I don’t know what he was thinking.”

“Didn’t want the bother,” Aldassa offered, confirming Kassannan’s earlier statement about the coroner.

Kassannan frowned. “Do you see the same problem I do, Mr. Lee?”

Mikael nodded. “I didn’t think about it until I was watching the fighting.”

“Our coroner hasn’t been in a fight in his life,” Kassannan commented and turned to Aldassa. “There’s no possibility they could have inflicted these wounds on each other, David.”

Aldassa raised an eyebrow. “Sure about that? Want to go against the coroner’s decision, Aron?”

“I don’t see that I have any choice,” Kassannan said with a sigh.

“Not even supposed to be here,” Aldassa noted.

What are they talking about? Mikael kept his mouth shut. They were helping him.

Kassannan frowned down at the floor, and then glanced at his wife.

She sat on a counter against the wall back by the door, fingering her knife. Without looking up, she said, “Aron, don’t disappoint me.”

He threw his hands up. “I have to be the one to get in trouble, don’t I? It’s just because I’m older than you two, isn’t it?”

“I’m just an ensign…and you are old,” his wife said with a wink.

Mikael estimated Kassannan must be nearing thirty. For a melee fighter, that was old, but he didn’t intend to point that out. “I don’t have any jurisdiction here,” Mikael reminded him instead.

Kassannan frowned at the two dead men, then called his wife over to where he stood. He positioned her facing him. “If we were sparring,” he asked her, “could you take me in the back while I caught you from the front?”

She considered him, eyes narrowed. “Where in the back? I wasn’t looking.”

“Squeamish?” he teased.

“You’ll just pay later, Aron,” she warned.

“Can we stay on track?” Aldassa asked, sounding exasperated. “I’d like to get home to my own wife.”

Kassannan showed his wife where to hit, and she stepped back, her brow furrowed. “Clean?” she asked.

“Very clean. The knife went in and out clean.”

“I have to do that from the back. If I try to reach around you, I’m going to drag on the way out. That’s assuming I get it in clean at all.”

Mikael walked up behind the surgeon, wrapped his right arm around the man’s throat, and with his left hand jabbed two fingers between his ribs. “This is the way it has to happen.”

“And from there?” Aldassa asked.

“I’m already dead,” Kassannan said. “Brain is still going, but the heart’s stopped. I think…” He twisted and shoved his right hand out, lightly catching her in the abdomen. “It could have been a reflex motion.”

“I’m not dead yet, though,” Hanna protested, her hands spread as she looked down at her abdomen. “Cut me there and I die in hospital later, but not now. Maybe I’ll even live.”

“Would you look at your hands?” Mikael asked.

“I would put my hands to the knife,” she agreed. “Shock. Then I look down and see the blood.”

“Dark blood, on your hands,” Mikael said. “What runs through your mind when you see me coming up behind him?”

She frowned, staring down at her unbloodied fingers.

“Are you going to stop choking me soon?” Kassannan asked politely, and Mikael let him go.

“It all depends on whether I’m in on it with you, doesn’t it?” Hanna answered finally.

“Does it matter?” Aldassa asked. “Got one murderer out there. Possible accomplice is dead. Can’t try him, can we?”

“It’s important to his widow,” Hanna reminded him.

“I don’t think he was in on it,” Mikael said.

“Why not?” she asked.

“The expression on his face,” Mikael explained. “It was the last thing I saw when I was dying. I saw his face. He was surprised, maybe a little afraid. The man’s reaction—I knew who the killer was just because of that.”

“You’re not making sense, boy,” Kassannan said.

Mikael tried to dig up the correct image in his mind. Random bits of is dreams would pop into his memory, often just when he needed them. And just as often, they wouldn’t. “I didn’t have to turn around and look,” he explained. “It was like that for the dead man. Without looking, he knew who’d stabbed him, just by the other man’s expression. So both of them knew the killer.”

Aldassa came forward, separating them. “I’ll talk to the colonel,” he said. “Aron, you and Hanna go home. I’ll make the report.”

Kassannan looked ready to argue, but his wife pulled on his arm. “I’m ready to go,” she insisted.

Kassannan capitulated, letting his wife lead him out of the morgue.

“Aron’s up for a promotion, so he’s going to give in just this once,” Aldassa noted. “He’s righteous for justice, you know. So who am I looking for, Mikael?”

“Someone they both knew. This is about the melee. The killer…maybe he wanted to take the victim off the team for some reason. The second death wasn’t planned, just an accident.”

“Became murder when he didn’t haul him to the hospital.” Aldassa wore an implacable expression. “Still, no evidence.”

“I’m not any good at evidence,” Mikael admitted. “I just know, but somehow the evidence always turns up. I think we need to talk to…”

“Third member of that team,” Aldassa said. “Hungry?”

Mikael stared at him.

“Know a good tavern, fighters go there evenings.”

“Should I go back to the palace and change uniforms?” Mikael asked as they walked.

Aldassa shook his head. “How do your dreams work?”

They’d worked together a few times now, but had never discussed this part. “I don’t remember much from them,” Mikael said, “but when I do need it, whatever’s important comes back to me.”

“Convenient. Can’t ditch you, then.”

Mikael nearly laughed at his disgusted tone. “No, you can’t. Why don’t I know about this place?”

“Outsider, Mr. Lee.”

“Of course.” His plague in this city—he was an outsider to everyone.

The tavern, deep in the Seychas district, had its main entry next to the offices of the Seychas Weekly. Small wonder then that the newspaper had been the only one to print a notice of those two early-morning deaths. The fighters favored the second floor of the tavern, Aldassa told him, where outsiders rarely went.

“So you’re Mikael Lee,” the tavern owner said in a worryingly amused tone. He surveyed Mikael’s bloody uniform, stained face, and rumpled blond hair. “I hear that little girls always fall for you.”

Mikael sighed. He’d been in Lucas Province for six months. He would have expected that joke to die out by now.

“Drink on the house,” the taverner offered jovially. “No one’s ever been killed by a little girl before. A great story for years to come.”

“I don’t ever want to come here again,” Mikael whispered to Aldassa under his breath. It didn’t matter that there was a good smelling curry cooking someone in the back.

“No, you don’t.” Aldassa took the glass of beer out of Mikael’s hand and took a swallow. “You owe me. Going to keep this.” Aldassa headed toward the back of the crowded room, stopping to speak to a few people on the way.

Mikael drew a few amused glances—with his blondish hair and black uniform, he clearly didn’t belong here—and two of the patrons teased him about his girlfriend. This is going to be an endless visit.

Aldassa finally worked his way to a table in the back of the room, occupied by a lone soldier with white ribbons tied to his uniform sleeve. He had to be the third member of the dead men’s team.

The man glanced up blearily as Aldassa settled on one of the other chairs. “David, didn’t think the wife let you come here,” he said.

Mikael didn’t comment on the notion of Aldassa being ordered around by his wife. He leaned against the wall instead, hoping to be inconspicuous.

“Liana will make an exception for this,” Aldassa said, unruffled. “Business. Came looking for you.”

“Why?”

Aldassa glanced across at Mikael expectantly. “Would anyone want to get rid of Tobias Laljidine?” Mikael asked then. “Maybe to keep your team from moving up in the rankings?”

The man closed his eyes. “We were hardly ranked at all. We weren’t that good.”

“Were you good friends?” Aldassa asked. “You and Tobias?”

“Not close. Tobias was younger than Dan and I.” He shrugged. “A good man, though.”

Tobias was, Mikael recalled now, the murdered man. Daniel Varma was the accidental death.

“Need you to think about this,” Aldassa said, leaning closer. “If Tobias had died, but not Dan, what would have happened?”

The man’s eyes narrowed and flicked to Mikael before turning back on Aldassa. “It wasn’t an accident.”

“Maybe not. What would have happened?”

The man lowered his head to the table.

“Give me an answer, Matias,” Aldassa said sternly.

The man raised his head, his expression angry. “Dan has…had a brother. He wanted to replace Tobias on our team.” He cursed under his breath. “He thought he was better.”

Aldassa sat back, looking weary. “What’s his name, and where do we find him?”

“Jan Varma,” the man said. “He might be here, for all I know. He often is. Try the third floor.”

“What’s up there?” Mikael asked.

“Sparring floor,” Aldassa answered. “Where the bodies were found.” He rose, placing a consoling hand on the other man’s shoulder. “We’re just trying to get to the bottom of the matter, Matias.”

The man nodded blearily and dropped his head back on the table. Aldassa walked off, and Mikael followed, heading back to the front of the tavern.

“There’s a sparring floor above a tavern?” Mikael asked incredulously, keeping his voice down. “Doesn’t that cause problems?”

“Colonel’s been trying to get the owner to shut it down,” Aldassa whispered back. “Drunks don’t fight fair.”

Particularly not when armed with knives and swords. “Now I know why your wife won’t let you come here.”

“My wife prefers that I don’t come here. I refrain from doing so to please her.” Aldassa gave Mikael a stern look, daring him to disagree. He grabbed the taverner’s sleeve. “Seen Jan Varma today?”

“You want to give your condolences? Damn shame, I’d say. He went up to three a little while ago.”

Aldassa sighed. He thanked the owner and drew Mikael away from the bar. “Stairwell,” he directed. He paused at the doorway of the tavern, looking toward the back of the room, a frown on his serious face.

Mikael went ahead of him, out of the tavern and up the stairs to the third floor where four doors led off the cramped landing. He opened the first door, looking out onto an empty room. It was a large room made from three or four flats with the dividing walls busted out. Gaslights burned, left turned up. Any sign of blood had been scrubbed from the wood floors.

Mikael walked in, feeling an eerie sense of recognition. “This is where I was,” Mikael whispered. “When I died, I was here.”

“Don’t do that,” Aldassa said, surveying the room. “It’s creepy. No one up here.”

“Where did he go then?” Mikael closed his eyes, trying to recall what fact from his dream needed remembering. He waited, but nothing presented itself—no memory of the victim’s, no vivid last thought. “There should be something,” he told Aldassa.

“Dead end, Mr. Lee. I’ll search his flat tomorrow.”

Mikael suddenly recalled going out onto the roof with his teammates, cooling off in the evening breeze after a good bout. “They used to go out on the roof.”

“Matias, too?” Aldassa asked.

“Yeah, all of them together.” Mikael glanced over at Aldassa, wondering if he’d noticed the same thing when they’d left the tavern.

“Better figure out how they got up there, then, or I think we’re going to have another murder on our hands.”

“You don’t know how?” Mikael asked.

“Never been up to three before. I’ll go talk to the owner, get him up here. You think.” Aldassa ran back to the stair.

Mikael walked the perimeter of the room, wondering how to get to the roof from here. He glanced out one of the windows, opening out onto the cluttered alleyway below. He couldn’t see any way they could access the roof.

He turned back and stared back at the doorway, remembering himself climbing up a narrow ladder to the roof. Mikael dashed back out into the hallway and ran to the fourth door. It opened when he yanked on it, revealing an access ladder to the roof, the paint on the metal rungs flaking with age.

He climbed, heart racing in anxiety. It recalled being stabbed. A trap door stood open at the top of the stair. Mikael levered himself out of the shaft, sitting on its edge.

Across the roof, two men stood in the wind, white ribbons blowing from their sleeves. Mikael stood up and walked slowly in their direction, uncertain of the flat roof’s strength. The two men stood near the back wall of the building, seemingly unaware of his approach.

Mikael recognized the man facing him. Not so much by any feature or uniform, but something about the very way he stood. He’d seen that man walking down the steps at the melee, leaving before the fighting even ended, his face distressed. He wore the same look now, as if he couldn’t bear to stand where he did.

“Get back,” Matias yelled, not turning to look at him.

He’d seen Jan Varma’s reaction, staring over his shoulder, and had known without turning what approached behind him.

“He’s going to kill me,” the other man yelled, sounding panicked.

From the man’s posture, Mikael guessed that Matias had a gun. “There’s no point to this, Matias. We’ll take him to the colonel. Let the army handle this properly.”

Mikael heard the safety click off.

“You killed your own brother,” Matias said.

“Tobias stabbed him,” the other man protested. “Not me. I never meant for anything to happen to him.”

“We’ve been friends since we were ten years old, did you know that, little boy? I was closer to him than you ever were.”

Varma spread his hands wide. “I was drunk. I didn’t mean for that to happen.”

“And you think that excuses killing two men?”

Mikael inched neared. Something underfoot creaked.

“Stop moving,” Matias yelled without glancing back. “Roof’s rotten.”

He’d been afraid of that. “Don’t shoot him, Matias.”

“Stay out of this, boy,” he answered.

Mikael calculated the distance—six feet still between him and the gun. The killer’s eyes flicked back in the direction Mikael had come. Aldassa had found the roof, Mikael decided.

He jumped then, wanting to deflect the gun before the grieving man became a killer himself. Mikael caught his arm, yanking it back. Matias fell toward him, his weight off-balance. He landed flat on his back on the roof, yanking Mikael to his knees next to him.

Mikael heard creaking beneath them. “Don’t move.”

Matias froze in place as Aldassa yelled the same words over their heads. Mikael wrestled the gun out of the man’s grip and tossed it in Aldassa’s direction.

“Jan Varma,” Aldassa yelled past him, “I’m arresting you for the murders of Tobias Laljidine and Daniel Varma.”

“I didn’t kill my brother,” Varma insisted.

“You left him to die,” Aldassa said. “That’s the same thing in my book.”

“I thought someone would find him.”

“Be still,” Mikael hissed at Matias, who’d renewed his struggle.

“He died slow,” Aldassa said in a cold voice. “Died here alone, in agony. That what you call being a good brother?”

“I panicked,” Varma said with a sobbing sniff. “What was I supposed to do?”

“The right thing,” Aldassa said, sounding closer.

A bit of Tobias Laljidine’s memory floated up into Mikael’s mind—a remembrance of him, Matias and Daniel sitting up here on the roof talking on a summer night. The wind had felt cool after their bout, and they talked about old days. Like he’d sat there himself, Mikael recalled noticing the weak space on the iron railing, intending to remind the owner to have it repaired. Then again, no one else came out on the roof but them, so no rush.

Aldassa walked closer, gun in his hands. Creaking sounded from the roof at every step.

“Watch the railing,” Mikael yelled as Varma stepped back, trying to put some distance between himself and Aldassa.

Varma half-turned as his leg made contact with the railing, his eyes going wide. Then the railing gave.

Aldassa jumped for him, but couldn’t get a hand on the man before he fell over the edge with a scream. Aldassa landed heavily on the roof. His added weight was all it took.

That portion of the roof collapsed, taking all three of them down with it. Mikael covered his face with his hands as he fell in a chaos of tiles and mildew and plaster, landing on the floor below atop Matias who screamed. Aldassa landed atop them, his elbow catching Mikael in the back. The gun went off close to Mikael’s ear.

For a moment, Mikael lay there, ears ringing, wondering if he was dead. Then he wondered if either of the others were, which meant he’d lived.

Aldassa confirmed his living state by cursing. “You have the worst luck, Mikael Lee.”

Mikael mentally checked with his fingers and feet and decided they all worked. “I’m still alive.”

“Get off me,” Matias ground out. “My leg is broken.”

Mikael scrambled away. Aldassa checked the other soldier, agreeing that the man’s leg had indeed fractured in the fall.

Mikael went over to the window of the now-naturally lit room. The owner came in, dismayed at the damage to his roof and cursing them all. Mikael kept his distance. He glanced out the window. Then he looked away.

leaf_dingbat

A doctor up at the army hospital had packed his nose. He’d accumulated several additional scrapes from the falling debris the night before, and had some painfully tender bruises in places he didn’t want to contemplate sharing with the doctor. No broken bones, though, other than the nose, and he slept well that night, with no dreams to trouble him.

It showed up that morning in the papers, a notice of the death. Terse as those things always were, it merely read that Jan Varma, army private, had died in a fall the previous evening.

Mikael closed his eyes again. He hadn’t been sick at the sight of this body. He hadn’t dreamed Jan’s death, so it wasn’t personal at all, even though he’d been there. He managed to keep a cool and unemotional distance, staring down at the corpse lying under the sheet.

Jan Varma had landed amidst the clutter of the alley on the broken pieces of railing that fell with him. One iron rail had driven through his liver. The other pierced his heart.