Touching the Dead

GlovesThe colonel, Shironne decided, must be one of those clever people, the kind who liked to fix things. She could sense him waiting for them there in his office, his curiosity held at bay, but only just.

Her mother took her hand and laid it on the tall back of a chair. Shironne ran her gloved fingers along the wood, straightened her petticoats and sat down. She pulled her braid over her shoulder, well aware that she presented a ragged picture— the blind girl in a child’s tunic. More than two years old now, it was too short in the sleeve. Even so, she’d grown accustomed to the feel of it against her over-sensitive skin, and that made the old blue wool tolerable. Her worn attire, though, would look even worse when contrasted with her mother’s effortless elegance. The tiny bells on her mother’s bracelet tinkled as she settled in a second chair.

“Madam Anjir, Miss Anjir,” the colonel said in a deep, sincere voice. “I’m honored to have you here.”

Shironne smiled in response, returning his goodwill without thinking. He stood and approached them, his boots crossing a hard floor, only a few steps. She guessed he must be quite tall.

“I’m sorry to trouble you, Colonel . . .” her mother began, sounding official, as a politician’s wife should.

“Cerradine,” he supplied.

“. . . Colonel Cerradine. This is the Investigations Office, isn’t it? We’ve come to inquire about the death of an army gentleman, a Sergeant Merha. The hospital sent us here to talk to you.”

“And why would you be making inquiries into this man’s death, Madam?”

He didn’t walk away, but Shironne thought she heard the movement of his clothes, as if he’d sat down, perhaps on the edge of his desk. She could smell him from there: wool and leather and the oily black smell of a gun. She caught a faint whiff of cologne or soap, something exotic and manly. She didn’t recognize it, but liked it much better than the cloying musk her father favored.

“It’s me, not her,” Shironne told him.

The colonel’s attention turned on her then. His interest didn’t fall all over her like an exuberant puppy but sat back and observed her like a cat, distant and willing to wait for its prize. “And why would you do that, Miss Anjir?”

“Because I promised my maid Benia I would find out what happened to him,” she admitted, knowing it sounded like a childish whim. “I . . . um, she was upset and she kept asking why someone would kill him, and I promised without thinking, sir.”

“It’s never a good idea to make rash promises, Miss Anjir,” he said with laughter in his tone.

Harder than he knew. With Benia’s distress falling all about her like an enveloping wave of water, she’d been carried away. The woman’s emotions had overridden her own, stealing her judgment. “I do realize that, sir.”

“Hmmm,” he said. “Unfortunately, I can’t give you that answer yet, ladies. We’ve only begun to investigate his death. I will, however, send word around to your residence as soon as I do have information.” His feet moved away toward the other side of the room.

He felt regretful, Shironne decided, because he couldn’t help them. “You misunderstand me, sir. I thought I could help you. Figure out who killed him, I mean.”

He didn’t dismiss her idea immediately. Instead, the emotions in his mind locked away as calculation took over. A moment passed in silence. “Madam Anjir,” he asked then, “do you intend to permit this if I agree?”

Her mother radiated surprise, but quickly tamped it down. She’d expected the colonel to refuse. “I gave my promise, sir,” she said, “but I must ask that this be handled with the utmost discretion. My husband wouldn’t wish it known we came here.”

“No, I expect not,” he said.

Shironne sensed animosity in the colonel’s thoughts and wondered if he already knew her father.

“My people will be perfectly discreet, Madam,” he said. “Now how did you think to help me, Miss Anjir?”

“I wondered if I might touch the body, sir.”

 

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The colonel walked with her across the level lawn of the Army Square. Her mother had described the square to her when they alighted from their carriage, but Shironne hadn’t been able to fix anything in her mind save the location of the army’s administration building on one side of the green and the hospital on the other.

She’d heard men calling out in the distance, a drill or a parade. Their voices drew forth a childhood memory of seeing military men in their sharp blue and brown uniforms, parading along the streets of Noikinos with their long rifles on their shoulders. It was an old memory, and she couldn’t remember if their trousers were blue with a brown stripe down the side, or the other way around. Perhaps they didn’t have a stripe at all. The men were gone now, their drill finished, and only the normal sounds of horses and carriages came from the square.

The colonel led her through the entry doors of the hospital. Shironne knew the scents well, having spent more time in the company of doctors in the last few years than she cared to. They traversed a flight of stairs leading down to the army’s morgue.

She tried not to smell the un-circulated air, pressing a gloved finger under her nostrils. The cool room stank of ripeness and chemicals, of bowels emptied and strong soaps, one scent layering over another. Someone should throw open a few windows and let the wind sweep through, she thought, and then wondered if the place had any windows to open. Shironne tightened her other hand on the colonel’s sleeve, queasiness welling in her stomach.

Male voices protested her presence, and the colonel went to speak with the men, leaving her standing alone. An older-sounding man argued the appropriateness of a young girl seeing such things, which made Shironne want to laugh. The colonel prevailed in the end, and Shironne felt the men’s protests, both mental and vocal, fading into the distance, past closing doors.

“There are people who specialize in investigating these things, Miss Anjir,” the colonel said from several feet away. “If you want to back out now, I can send for one of them.”

“No, sir. I promised.” She sensed his concern. He felt curious, but worried for her sake as well. “I . . . um, don’t know where the body is.”

“Directly ahead of you, a foot or so.”

She heard cloth sliding over an unmoving surface. A sudden surge of unpleasant scents accompanied the sound. It was the smell of old blood, like meat gone stale in the summer heat, coppery and —to her confused mind— green.

The colonel stepped away, carefully folding up his worry and training his mind back to observation.

Shironne removed one of her gloves and tucked it into a pocket in the side seam of her tunic. With the other hand, she reached out and located the edge of the table. Wood, she thought. Her cotton gloves never completely blocked her impressions. She touched a bare finger to the table, sensing things that had crossed it in the last few days, the fluids a body made. There were tiny bits of skin from many people ground into the table’s surface, and harsh chemicals. She recognized carbolic acid, long since faded past usefulness. Other things she didn’t recognize, or recognized but didn’t have names for.

She gritted her teeth and stretched out a hand. It contacted something cool— skin chilled to the temperature of the room. The body remained calm, unmoving despite the seething life that went on inside the dead shell. Shironne grimaced.

The colonel’s hands touched her sleeves then, drawing her away.

“No,” she insisted, and his hands relented. His worry wrapped around her like a fog and just as quickly fled, hidden back in some corner of his mind.

Shironne laid her palm where her finger had touched—an arm, the muscles exhausted as if the man had recently fought. She ran her fingertips along it, feeling for the hand at its end.

“His hands have been cleaned,” she said, sensing soap on the man’s skin.

“The mortuary service would have washed the body.”

She felt the fingers, finding faint traces of ink, of food, of other things, under the film of the soap. “If he had a gun, sir, I don’t think he fired it.”

“Why not?” The colonel’s mind didn’t reflect doubt, only curiosity.

“There’s no . . . um, evidence of the gun being fired. There’s something left when someone does that, but I don’t know what to call it, though.” She’d only ever touched a gun once before, and had no names for those things beyond gun and bullet.

The colonel’s fascination grew. “We haven’t found his pistol, I believe.”

Shironne ran her fingers back up the arm and touched the dead man’s chest. She found the edge of a wound and forced her senses deeper. A knife, tearing through the skin and into the heart, ruining its rhythm— a knife killed him. She could almost picture the blade in her mind. “Do you have the knife?”

“No, the killer took it. We hope he still has it.”

“It should be long and narrow. If you find it, I can tell you if it’s the one, I think.”

“By touching it?”

“Yes, sir. It would have his blood on it, and I would recognize his blood now, sir.” She had no words to explain that either.

“If I’d stabbed someone, I’d clean the knife,” he pointed out.

“But it’s hard to get everything off, sir. There might be little bits of blood left, maybe so small you can’t see them, but I would be able to feel them.”

Shironne touched her hand to the sergeant’s cold, unshaven jaw, sensing the first stages of bruising there. She’d felt it on her mother’s skin before, when a bruise hadn’t yet had a chance to swell, the blood vessels all broken and angry under the skin. She suspected the colonel had seen the mark on the man’s face.

She took a deep breath and forced herself to feel past the flesh. Memories lingered in the dead man’s mind, not fluttering about crying for attention as a living person’s would but lying about like leaves scattered in the fall. They were rotting, gone skeletal. She remembered holding a moldered leaf as a little girl and gazing at its delicate framework, back in the days before her eyes had gone sightless.

She dug into the sergeant’s tattered memories. His mind held on to brief images: childhood recollections, scattered smells. There were faint snatches of her maid, Benia, in that chaos, different from what Shironne knew of the woman: the smell of her skin, the turn of her ankle, the curve of her back as her hair fell black against it.

Startled by the strange perspective, Shironne shook her head, trying to clear it. She lifted her hand from the body’s chilly brow, keeping it well away from her clothes. “I don’t think I’ll find out anything else, sir. Is there someplace I can wash?”

The colonel turned her about, hands on her shoulders. “Straight ahead about ten feet there’s a sink. Can you find that?”

She put her gloved hand out in front of her and stepped off the distance. She found the edge of the sink and ran her fingers around it. Then she stripped off her second glove, located a lump of lye soap and turned on the tap. The soap’s slick feel made her want to grind her teeth, but she bore it. Once convinced her hands were sufficiently clean, she worked her gloves back on.

The colonel thought curiosity at her. “How long have you been blind?”

Shironne turned toward the sound of his voice. “About a year and a half, sir. Since I was thirteen.”

“I’ve never known anyone blind before,” the colonel said. “You seem quite self-sufficient.”

“My mother is very insistent.” Her father would want her out of the house the moment she came of age at seventeen. Legally, her mother had no means to forestall her expulsion.

“You also seem quite determined to carry on with this investigation, Miss Anjir, despite your mother’s . . . lack of enthusiasm.”

Lack of enthusiasm didn’t begin to describe her mother’s sentiments. Mama had been brought up very properly, taught that a girl should learn to manage her husband’s household, bear his children, and follow his commands in all things. Shironne, on the other hand, knew she wouldn’t catch a husband —not now— so none of those imperatives mattered for her any more. “She’s very reserved, Colonel,” Shironne said, “but Mama says that I’m, um . . . the interfering sort.”

She sensed his amusement. He let her feel it, as if he held it out on a platter for her mind to see. “You’re very good at controlling your emotions, sir.”

“I was well trained,” the colonel answered. “You must be very sensitive.”

“Yes, sir, far more so than my mother.” At first, her skin had felt so raw that every breath, every touch, every morsel of food had all been agony in the overwhelming flood of sensation sweeping through her. Her father’s very presence had been a torment, his ever-present anger rousing in her a screaming fury of her own. He still made her teeth hurt, even now.

“So your mother’s a sensitive as well,” the colonel said. “I should have expected that.”

Shironne frowned. She’d revealed a secret her mother wouldn’t want exposed. “She . . . no one . . .”

“I know who your mother is, Miss Anjir. I would never say or do anything to harm her.”

He meant his words sincerely. Shironne sensed it.

“Why don’t I take you back to the office now?” He put a hand under her elbow, guiding her toward the stairs.

“What do you mean, you know who my mother is?” She tried to judge his mind through the muted contact of his hand on her sleeve.

“Hmm. An alderman’s wife,” he stated correctly.

But his original words had nothing to do with her father, she could tell. “No, you meant something else.”

His mind turned quickly, making inferences from her words, tying them back to what he’d seen in the morgue. His hand slipped away from her elbow, taking with it her tie to his thoughts, leaving her access to his emotions alone.

“Amazing,” the colonel said, with no hint of offense. “You don’t actually have to be touching my skin.”

Shironne wondered what he used for reference. “Should I?”

“Do you not know what you are?” Wonder floated through his emotions, not hidden this time.

“A freak,” she whispered. “Witch-blood.” They told stories of people like her kept caged in a foreign palace— a menagerie, only not filled with beasts. She had read such stories with appalling relish as a little girl, never suspecting then she might someday belong in one of those cages herself.

The colonel laughed. “Ah, no. Come with me, Miss Anjir. Your mother and I need to have a discussion.”

He returned his hand to her elbow, guiding her up the last steps and out of the hospital. The cool fall breeze felt clean after the fetid air of the morgue, even if it did brush her cheeks with a touch of factory smoke.

Her mother waited in the colonel’s office, anxiety spinning about her in a tight skein. “Are you all right, sweetheart?” she asked as they came through the door.

Shironne wished she could put her arms around her and be held for a moment, but Mama was a politician’s wife and had to keep up her cultured image. “I’m fine, Mama. It was . . . unpleasant, but I’m fine.”

Her mother tucked away her fretfulness. She reached out and plucked a stray bit of hair away from Shironne’s face, the sound of her bracelet warning Shironne first. Unlike her mother’s, Shironne’s hair was curly, constantly going astray despite her braid. “Did you find out what you needed?”

“No. I . . .” Shironne turned in the colonel’s direction, a sudden inspiration electrifying her. “Can you take me to where he lived?”

“Sweetheart,” her mother protested, discomfited. “I’m certain the colonel has other . . .”

“I promised, Mama. I told Benia I would find out why.”

“Madam Anjir,” the colonel said in a grave voice, “I’m willing to take her there. I am curious.”

Her mother flinched at his last word. Shironne felt it both through Mama’s tight grasp on her hand and in her sudden air of anger. “My daughter is not a circus freak, Colonel Cerradine. She didn’t come here to entertain you.”

“No, Madam, she came to fulfill a promise, and I intend to help her do so.” The colonel radiated honesty, so clearly that Shironne wondered if he practiced at home.

“Colonel, my husband doesn’t want her seen . . .”

“Is he the one who first used the word ‘freak,’ Madam?” the colonel asked in an irritated voice. “The proper term is touch-sensitive.”

Silence reigned for a moment.

Shironne felt fear tumbling through her mother’s heart. The emotion reflected through her own body, sending goose bumps shivering along her arms. A trickle of perspiration ran down her back. Shironne fought the response, trying to keep it from taking over her own thoughts. “What do you mean, Colonel?”

“If I’m not mistaken, Miss Anjir, you are a rare form of sensitive, much more acute than most. The talent does run in certain families.”

The colonel waited for her mother to admit something. When he got no response, he continued. “I was raised at the Fortress, Madam, as were many of my staff. We don’t view such things as most people do. We’re a little more open-minded.”

Beneath the palace that housed the king and his household lay the Fortress, home to the Lucas Family—the king’s protectors who were known to possess the ability to sense others’ intentions. Through its relationship with the Lucas Family, it was often claimed that the king’s relatives possessed those same “talents.”

Her mother didn’t respond to the colonel’s statement.

“The prince is one of my closest friends,” he tried again. “I would never harm a member of his family.”

Shironne decided he’d approached the topic so obliquely because he feared Mama had never admitted it to her. He didn’t wish to expose Mama’s secret.

“I . . . um,” her mother faltered, “. . . my husband . . .”

“Doesn’t want anyone to know,” the colonel finished. “I understand. I can see he asks you to keep many secrets.” A distinct flash of anger accompanied those words.

Clearly, the cosmetics Mama used to hide the new bruise hadn’t fooled him. Shironne sensed her mother’s fleeting humiliation.

She knew the expression Mama would be wearing now. She’d seen it often as a little girl. Savelle Anjir was tall, beautiful and elegant, always cloaked in the mantle of the serene politician’s wife. Only after her odd sensitivity developed had Shironne begun to understand that her mother’s cool tranquility was a facade.

“He is my husband, Colonel,” Mama insisted with a quaver in her voice. “He may ask what he wills.”

“Why not go to your brothers for protection?”

Officially, her mother had no brothers. “That is not your concern, Colonel,” she said more firmly.

Shironne sensed his frustration, but her mother would never give in to his gentle and well-intentioned suggestions. It would cause a scandal. Shironne spoke into the stretching silence. “Colonel, do you think I might go to his apartments?”

“I will accompany you there shortly,” the colonel answered, “if your mother permits.”

“Her father . . .”

“Would not want her seen. I recall, Madam. Let me go talk to Lieutenant Kassannan. I’ll see if she can’t come up with something and accompany us there.” He walked out of the room, leaving the two of them alone.

Being exposed as the old king’s bastard had always been Mama’s greatest fear. While the king and the prince might be her half-brothers, she had never met them even though she sometimes half-wished for it.

“He won’t say anything, Mama. I can tell,” Shironne assured her.

Her mother sighed. “We need to get home, sweetheart. We don’t have the time to go visit this man’s rooms.”

The butler always snitched to Father if Mama left the house for too long. Father paid him well. “You could go back, Mama.”

“And leave you here alone?” Her voice sounded incredulous.

“I’ll be safe with the colonel. I can tell. If you go back, the butler probably won’t even notice I didn’t come in. He never notices me. I’ll come back as soon as I’m done and I’ll make certain he doesn’t see me. Cook won’t say anything.” Her mother still didn’t like the idea— Shironne could sense her worry. “I gave my word, Mama. I must.”

Her mother understood duty all too well. She sighed again and finally agreed to the plan, unhappily so.

The colonel returned then, seeming pleased with himself. His step even sounded lighter. “Why don’t you put this on, Miss Anjir?”

He handed her something. Shironne turned it about in her gloved hands, determining she held a woman’s hat. She righted it and placed it on her head.

“There’s a veil.” He folded it down over her face.

Judging by her mother’s smothered laughter, she must look ridiculous. The hat tilted, dipping down over her face. Its headband came into contact with her forehead, hinting at the woman who’d worn it before, an aged deposit of oils, dirt, and skin.

“It’s a little large,” the colonel observed.

Her mother tucked away her amusement, deciding to be firm again. “Colonel, I will let you take her, but I must return to my house. Could you possibly send her back there— with a suitable escort, of course?”

“Of course, Madam Anjir.”

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“Are you really in the Army?” Shironne asked the woman who led her down the steps of the administration building— Lieutenant Kassannan. Realizing she’d been rude, she put her hand over her mouth only to tangle her fingers in the veil of the over-large hat.

“Yes, miss,” the lieutenant said, not sounding the least offended. “The Investigations Office does take on female workers.”

Shironne wondered if she heard that question often. She’d known there were women who served in the Army, but had never thought to meet one. Clearly, the colonel considered women competent to do something other than run a household. “Do you enjoy it?” she asked.

“Yes, miss,” the lieutenant said. “It’s my calling, I think. I am good at what I do.”

The colonel joined them, his boots ringing on the steps. Shironne heard a carriage driving up, the horses’ hooves closer than she’d expected. Lieutenant Kassannan helped her up and then sat next to her, her mind as politely disciplined as the colonel’s.

“I knew about my mother’s birth,” Shironne told the colonel after they started on their way, “but she doesn’t like to talk about it.”

“I suspect your mother’s friends would be shocked if they learned of it,” he said guardedly.

The carriage had a smooth ride, far better than the aging one her family owned. “My mother doesn’t really have any friends,” Shironne said. “Father doesn’t like for her to meet people.”

That made the colonel angry. The lieutenant’s mind reflected suspicion as well.

“I mean, she meets people at political things,” Shironne amended, “just not on her own.” Father preferred to keep his beautiful and purportedly well-born wife close.

“Hmm,” the colonel said.

The carriage began slowing. They’d traveled only a short distance, so she knew they’d stayed in the same district of the city. The colonel straightened her hat’s veil. “Are you ready?”

“Do I look as ridiculous as my mother thought?” A heavy scarf might have worked better than this hat, but she supposed that he simply hadn’t had one close at hand.

“Yes,” the colonel answered. The lieutenant laughed and agreed as they rolled to a stop.

The colonel handed her down from the carriage onto a cobbled street. Other traffic passed by, but not much. The factories smelled nearer than before. Trees rustled in the faint breeze. The veil confused her, brushing into her face, startling her skin with the feel of silk lace and dye.

She heard the lieutenant jump down from the carriage, her booted feet striking the cobbles. From the sounds she made, Shironne deduced that Lieutenant Kassannan must wear trousers just as the colonel did, but no petticoats.

“Why don’t we go in?” the colonel asked. He took Shironne’s gloved hand and laid it on his sleeve, leading her up a few steps and into the entryway of a house.

Home-smells surrounded Shironne, and the taste of dirt. The owner didn’t keep it as clean as her house. “Is this his house?”

“It’s a boarding house,” the colonel explained. “He had a flat here. I sent a message ahead, to let the landlady know we were coming back.”

“Oh.” She should have realized that. A sergeant wouldn’t have the money to own a house. In fact, Benia claimed that as the reason they hadn’t married yet.

Voices echoed along hallways, distracting her. Late morning, and most of the residents should be at their work, Shironne guessed. Not all, it seemed. Two women argued somewhere above them, one angry, another pleading, their words indistinct at this distance.

“Upstairs, sir,” the lieutenant said.

The colonel drew Shironne toward the sounds of the voices and they mounted the stairs. Someone passed close by as they came out onto the second floor landing, causing the colonel to halt abruptly. She hummed a lullaby under her breath, a fog of vague despondency surrounding her.

“I beg your pardon, Madam,” the colonel said, even though she’d been the one to walk into him.

The woman’s attention focused on him, her sudden interest pronounced enough to make Shironne wonder for the first time if the colonel was a handsome man. Then the woman’s attention drifted away like smoke caught on the wind. Without even responding, she continued on up the stairs.

The landlady, identifiable by the keys jangling from her wrist, met them when they stopped at a doorway. She fawned over the officers in a subservient fashion and unlocked the door for them, curious and uneasy thoughts making a messy cloud around her in Shironne’s mind. The colonel thanked her and informed her they would send for her if they needed further assistance— a polite way of asking her to go away. She left them, taking her worry and noisy keys with her.

Shironne laid a gloved hand on the doorframe and stepped through onto a wood floor. “How is the room laid out?”

The colonel entered behind her, giving her a brief description. The sitting room possessed only a low table, two chairs and a tea service near the hearth.

“Could you take me to a chair?” Shironne asked.

He took her hand, curiosity in his mind again, and placed it on the back of a chair. She sat and removed her left boot. “Is there anything on the floor?”

“A braided rug in front of the hearth.”

Shironne stood and started away from the chair, feeling about with her bared foot. She couldn’t sense much from the wood itself, but wood kept things. She felt dirt trapped in the grain, bits of skin and hair, food and and spices and saliva, all ground together into dust, only faintly identifiable. The pine floors had recently been scrubbed with lye and water.

Shironne reached a spot near the middle of the room and stopped, her foot poised barely touching the floor. Blood had flowed there. “Did he die right here?”

“That was where they found the body this morning,” the lieutenant confirmed from just inside the doorway.

“There’s a lot of blood.”

“I don’t see anything,” the colonel said. “The landlady must have scrubbed it after they took the body.”

“But she didn’t get it all. You never get anything really clean, sir. I can feel the blood in the cracks between the boards, and in the grain of the wood.”

“Hmmm. Are your feet as sensitive as your hands?”

“No, sir, but more than . . . um, say, my elbow.”

“Interesting.”

Shironne moved her foot about, tapping spots on the bare wood. The blood had spread wide, which made her suspect the body laid there for some time. “How long before anyone found him, sir?”

“We don’t know for certain. They found the body early this morning and carried it to the morgue at about seven.”

She began making a wider circle, trying to determine what else the floor could tell her. “Someone barefoot was here, someone with small, dirty feet. They got some of the blood on them and probably left footprints.”

“Gone now. A child or a woman?”

“Female, but definitely not my maid. Benia never goes barefoot. Once I told her what was really on the floor,” Shironne almost laughed, remembering the woman’s unseen horror, “and now she can’t do it anymore.”

She continued feeling her way outward. She crossed a spot where many shod feet had passed, leaving dirt from the street outside. She came to a halt and pointed in the direction of the traffic. “What’s that way, sir?”

“Bedroom,” he said.

She followed the track the feet had walked.

“There’s a closed door about three feet in front of you,” the colonel warned her.

Shironne reached out a hand and located the door. She slid off one of her gloves and touched the porcelain doorknob. “The landlady cleaned this, too.”

“She’ll want to let these rooms again quickly.”

“That doesn’t help me much.”

“I don’t think she had you in mind.”

Shironne turned the knob and pulled the door open. The bedroom smelled stale, as if air didn’t pass through it. “Is there no window?”

“No,” the colonel replied from close behind her. “It’s a tiny room, only the bed and an armoire. Hardly space to turn around.”

She stepped into the room, unexpectedly cracking her shin on a metal bed frame on her first step. She hissed, tears starting in her useless eyes.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I should have warned you.”

“Not your fault, sir,” she said, regaining her equilibrium. She hated doing things like that— things people expected a blind girl to do.

She leaned down and touched the bedclothes, feeling wool, worn and coated with years of human use. They’d been washed recently, but soap never got rid of everything. “The landlady must have re-made the bed.”

Frustrated, she reached out her gloved hand and tugged back the blanket, exposing the sheets. She pulled back the upper one, hoping not to dislodge the lower sheet at the same time.

“I don’t believe your mother would approve of this,” the colonel said, his mind abruptly focused on her actions.

“She’s not here,” Shironne reminded him. She ran her bare hand lightly across the sheet, starting at the head of the bed. “The landlady may have made the bed,” she told the colonel, “but she didn’t change the sheets.”

The colonel radiated disgust.

“The sheets—they feel of him, the same man who bled on the floor.”

“How can you tell?”

“I . . . um, don’t know how, sir. I just know. Different people just feel different to me. I don’t have any words for it. I recognized his blood because I’d touched his body. I recognize the sheets for the same reason, but I can’t explain how.”

“The sheets?”

“Um . . . what’s on the sheets, sir. People leave bits of themselves behind; hair, skin, spit . . . other things.” She slid her hand farther down the sheets and stopped. “I can feel him here,” she said, “and . . . um, also my maid, Benia.”

Embarrassment bloomed around him. “I think perhaps we’ve seen enough.”

Shironne almost laughed at his sudden squeamishness. “Colonel, I’ve touched this sort of thing before. I’ve known for some time my maid had a lover. Perhaps you shouldn’t mention that to my mother, though.”

He packed away his worry and sighed. “You are a most unusual young lady.”

“Thank you, sir. It’s just . . . I mean, how can I miss that sort of thing?” The world never stopped for her too-sensitive skin. “The odd thing is, another woman had been in this bed. The barefoot one, I think, although I’m not certain. I didn’t really get much of a feel of her from the floor.”

“Ah. I’m sorry for your maid, then,” the colonel said with a hint of sympathy followed by a quick flare of suspicion.

“Benia wouldn’t do this, sir. She loved him.”

“People sometimes do irrational things when wounded.”

“But she couldn’t have lied to me about it, sir. People can’t fool me if I’m touching them.”

That revelation sparked another fit of cogitation on his part, so Shironne returned her attention to the sheets. “Sir, I don’t think the barefoot woman was his lover, or at least . . . um, not since these sheets were washed.”

“Hmm.” He worried again.

“I mean, I can feel a lot of him on the sheets, and a lot of Benia, but only hints of the other woman. I mean, if she was his lover too, there would be more . . .” She stopped, not certain how to explain it.

“There would be more,” he said firmly, sparing her.

“Yes, sir.”

“So another woman was here,” he said. “There could have been a fight over her.”

“And perhaps her husband killed the sergeant?”

“It would make sense,” the colonel said. “At least now we have a possible motive to follow up on.”

“I really don’t think he would have brought another woman here, sir. He loved Benia.”

“No, you know she loved him. Can you be certain he felt the same?”

Shironne dug back through her own memories, trying to recall everything Benia had ever said of her sergeant. “I just can’t believe it, sir.”

The colonel thought cynical thoughts. “You’re very young. You want to believe the best of others.”

“I’m fourteen,” she told him, wondering if he could possibly know the evil in others’ minds the way she did. “Is there anything else here I could feel, sir?”

She heard him move past her into the small room. He opened the armoire and then shut it. “The landlady has removed everything already. Lieutenant?” he called back to the main room.

“Yes, sir,” the woman replied promptly.

“Find out what the landlady did with the sergeant’s personal property.” The lieutenant agreed and left, her quiet presence fading away with her footsteps. “I think we know now why she looked nervous.”

Shironne followed her own trail back to the chair she’d sat in and felt around to retrieve her shoe. She finally located it and pulled on her sock. She was tying her shoe when the colonel came to tower over her.

“I believe we’re at a dead end for now,” the colonel said. He touched a hand to her shoulder. “I should get you back to your house before your father misses you.”

Anger flared through his thoughts again.

“He doesn’t watch me as close as Mama.”

He took his hand away. “Still, I suspect he might blame her if he knew you were missing, wouldn’t he?”

“Yes, sir.” She’d already chanced her father’s ire by being gone this long.

“Why don’t I take you back then?” he said. His tone didn’t indicate a question.

Shironne sighed and rose. “I need to know, though, when you find out who did it.”

“I’ll get you word. I promise.”

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The butler believed Mama’s fabrication about locking Shironne in her room for the entire afternoon. When he found Shironne below stairs chatting with Cook in the kitchens, he roundly upbraided the woman for abetting her delinquency. The butler would prefer she be locked away permanently, Shironne knew. He feared her “oddness” might be catching.

She put a tearful Benia off with the assurance that the colonel would keep them informed, feeling horribly guilty the whole time.

“I hope he finds out who did it,” Shironne said that night while her mother brushed out her hair. Her father hadn’t returned home for some reason, the best possible end to any day. “Benia seems like she’ll never be happy again.”

“I know. I sense it too. Did he say he would let us know what he found?”

Trepidation accompanied her mother’s question, coupled with a hint of anticipation. Mama apparently had mixed feelings about the colonel and his inquisitive nature. “He said he would. I asked him to contact Cook, though, by way of the servant’s entrance.”

Her mother’s relief spread about her like a cool fog. “That should pass. Your father doesn’t like for us to have visitors.”

“I think the colonel understands, Mama, about Father, I mean.”

Mama sighed wistfully. “Good,” she said after a moment. “Do you suppose he’ll be able to find the person who killed the sergeant?”

Shironne bit her lip as the brush caught a snarl in her curly hair. “I don’t know, Mama. Something we looked at is just wrong.”

Her two younger sisters came into the bedroom to have their hair brushed, and their conversation came to an end.

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Shironne played with her cup of chocolate in the morning, still unable to place what she’d missed at the sergeant’s flat. It seemed to come close, only to slip away like a fish in a pond. The landlady had cleaned everything and told the lieutenant she’d donated his clothes and blankets to the poor, which left the colonel with very little to investigate.

The second housemaid slipped into her room to take her breakfast tray. “Miss,” she whispered conspiratorially, “there’s someone in the kitchen to see you.”

Shironne located her sturdiest slippers, put them on, and then hurried down the back stairs, avoiding the other servants on the way. She halted on the landing though, her mouth hanging open, when the missing idea came swimming within reach.

She found Lieutenant Kassannan waiting for her under Cook’s stern eye. “The colonel would like to speak with you again,” the lieutenant said when Shironne approached the servants’ table. “He has an idea.”

“I think I do, as well.”

Curiosity surged in the woman’s mind, quickly hidden away. “The colonel told me to get your mother’s permission first, miss. I left the carriage waiting on the next street over, and I’ve brought your hat.”

Shironne grinned. She owned the silly hat now. Her mother came down the servants’ stair a moment later, evidently fetched by the second housemaid as well.

“The colonel would like to borrow your daughter again, Madam,” the lieutenant told her. “If you’re willing.”

Shironne sensed her mother’s worry. “I’d like to go. I’ve figured something out, and I need to tell him. I’ll be careful, Mama. No one will see me.”

“Sweetheart, let the colonel take care of this. You’ve done what you promised.”

“Mama, please, I want to do this. I can be helpful.”

“The colonel said we should offer her a job,” the lieutenant added.

“Was he serious?” Shironne asked, her own curiosity echoed by her mother’s.

“Half-way to, miss. You’re young, but he would certainly be willing to take you on when you come of age.”

Awfully far away, Shironne thought. “Mama, do you think I could?”

Her mother sighed, her mind turning quickly. “I suppose you must, but I want you to promise me . . .”

In the end, there were about ten things she had to pledge. In addition to not being seen, heard, or injured, she promised to stay with the lieutenant or the colonel at all times. Shironne doubted she could stick to it. She had a talent for falling into trouble.

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“Miss Anjir,” the colonel said as she entered his office, “I spoke to our surgeon last night. We may have proceeded under a false assumption.”

“We assumed a man killed him.”

“Very good,” he said.

Shironne pictured in her mind the way the knife must have gone in and come out, angled sharply. She could only think of one way it had happened. “She used both hands to stab him, raised like this, above her head and then coming down, sir.”

“And what could you deduce from that?”

“Well, I don’t know how tall he was, sir.”

The colonel came nearer. “About six inches shorter than me,” he said. He held out a hand and raised her gloved fingers to it. “So the wound would have come about this high off the ground.”

She felt his hand, trying to fix the height in her mind. It was too high for her to stab at herself, not with any strength behind it. If she stood on her toes, it might make the difference. “A little taller than me, then?”

“Short of average,” the colonel agreed.

“Everyone thinks I’m a little girl because I’m short,” Shironne lamented.

“You’ve disabused us of that notion,” the colonel told her. “I was, however, severely castigated by the surgeon for involving you in this.”

“You didn’t involve me, sir. I involved myself.” She drew herself up, trying to look taller. “Well, I didn’t catch it yesterday, but I wonder if maybe the woman lives in the boarding house.”

“Excuse me?” the colonel said.

“She was barefoot and she walked straight out the door. No one goes out a door and then stops to put their shoes on— it would be remarked. I don’t think she ever went outside. She must live in the same building.”

“Might it be the landlady?” the lieutenant asked.

“I think she likely sold off his property,” the colonel answered, “enough to feel guilty about. She’s too tall anyway.”

“If I could go to there again, I might be able to find her,” Shironne said.

“How?”

“I think I might recognize her if I ran into her.”

“We don’t have any better lead, sir,” the lieutenant said. The colonel reluctantly agreed.

Once they reached the boarding house again, he helped Shironne down from the carriage, silly hat wobbling on her head. They made their way back up to the sergeant’s rooms.

Shironne stopped inside the doorway. She knelt, removing one glove to feel the threshold. Dozens of people had crossed through, boots dropping street dust and horse dung in tiny bits all about. Near the edge of the doorway, she found a trace remembrance of the woman’s bare, bloodstained foot. She told the colonel.

“Would you recognize her if you touched her?”

“I might, sir.” Shironne laid her hand over the print, trying to get a feel for the woman. Her feet had been dirty, with that taste of blood on them, but Shironne separated out her sense of the skin and sweat from all the distractions. She rose awkwardly, the lieutenant’s hand coming under her elbow to help her rise. “Maybe I could touch all the doorknobs.”

The colonel thought amusement at her. “The landlady will think we’re insane. Lieutenant Kassannan, why don’t you go inform the woman we’re going to search the premises.”

The lieutenant hurried away.

“Can you do that, sir?” Shironne asked.

“On your say-so? Certainly. So, how do we proceed?”

“Perhaps if I feel each of the doorknobs, I might know if she touched one.”

“Well, then, let’s take one floor at a time.” He led her down the hallway, grasped her gloved hand and laid it against a doorframe.

She felt for the handle with her other hand and cringed. “Ew. He should wash before he eats.”

“I hope you realize the vast majority of people won’t wash enough to satisfy your tastes.”

Shironne laughed. “I suppose not, sir.”

They tried every door on that hallway. She found a great deal of filth, but nothing relevant to the murder.

The landlady returned with the lieutenant in time to witness Shironne’s confrontation with the last door. “You don’t have any right to do this,” she hissed, but scurried away when the colonel corrected that assumption.

“She doesn’t want us here,” Shironne noted.

“Don’t let it concern you.” He led her to the next floor, and she proceeded to touch all the doors, finding nothing.

The stairwell to the fourth floor narrowed, forcing the colonel to walk behind her. The pine railing under her bare fingers bore the taste of only a few different hands, oil and dirt and sweat worn into the wood. “She’s been here,” Shironne told the colonel.

His patience turned to anticipation. Shironne sensed the lieutenant tensing as well. She located the last step and stopped on the landing. “Is the ceiling low?” she asked.

“Yes,” the colonel answered.

Shironne suspected he must be stooping, given the pinched sound of his voice. “How far to the door?”

“The first is three feet ahead and two feet to your right.”

She followed his directions. The knob felt only of a man. “Not this one, sir.”

“Ten feet down the hallway,” he said.

She walked ahead, trailing her gloved hand against the wall. She felt at the knob once she’d located the door. “Um, she has touched this one, sir.”

“Kassannan, go ahead.” The colonel’s hand settled on Shironne’s shoulder, drawing her back behind him.

The lieutenant passed Shironne in the cramped hallway, and rapped on the door. “Army Investigations. Open up.”

Shironne heard no response.

“How certain are you about this?” the colonel asked.

“I know she touched the doorknob. That doesn’t mean she lives here, sir.”

“We’re at the end of a hall. Nowhere else to go.”

The lieutenant knocked again.

Shironne heard the sound of feet on the floor inside then. “I heard something, sir.”

“So did I,” he said. “Let me, Kassannan.”

The colonel pulled away from her. Shironne heard something strike the door and realized he must have kicked it. The sound came again. She heard a crash as the door gave, banging into the wall behind it.

“Army,” he called as he stepped into the room, away from the hallway. The lieutenant followed, leaving Shironne standing alone there.

Fear prickled through the hallway. Shironne fought it, uncertain whether it was her own. She did fear abandonment in unknown places.

She laid her gloved hand on the wall and felt along it, seeking the door again. Following would be better than being alone. She found the doorframe and stepped into the room. A garret apartment, she decided. The colonel must have had to bend down to get in through the low door.

The room smelled dirty, faint hints of soured milk and urine making her wrinkle her nose. She heard the colonel speaking to the lieutenant, their muffled voices indicating they’d passed into a different room.

Shironne took a step in that direction, but stopped when her foot touched something unexpected on the floor. She tried tapping about and discovered there were objects all about her, small things that would surely trip her should she try to run. Something large huddled on the floor to her left, fabric like a jacket or blanket. Fear welled again, causing her breath to go short.

“Not in the closet, sir,” the lieutenant called from far away.

“I found an access to the next apartment. Go back and get the girl.”

Shironne stood frozen, very aware of the unidentified things on the floor. Dread beat through her senses. A board creaked behind her, and she heard the whisper of bare feet. A hand tangled into her braid, yanking her close against a wiry body. Her oversized hat tumbled away.

“Sir,” the lieutenant called. “She’s in here.”

The woman held Shironne, trembling limbs pinning her. She wasn’t terribly large but she had the strength of desperation.

Her fear roiled through Shironne’s senses. Shironne fought to control her mind, counting silently to restore calm. She tried to breathe slowly. Something cool and metallic pressed against her cheek, shaking in the woman’s hand.

“Let her go, ma’am,” the lieutenant said.

The woman shifted her grip on Shironne’s braid, the back of her hand coming into contact with Shironne’s neck.

“Madam,” the colonel said in a reasonable tone. “The girl is not your enemy. Let her go.”

The woman shook Shironne by her braid. Her dirty hand brushed Shironne’s neck again.

Shironne forced herself to touch the woman’s mind. Her thoughts were strangely insistent and repetitive, impossibly chaotic and loud. They protested over and over that she didn’t know what she’d done wrong.

“Whatever did the sergeant do to you? Why did you kill him?” Shironne asked, hoping to direct the woman’s attention where she wanted it to go. Her questions sparked only uncomprehending fear.

The colonel continued to talk soothingly, as if to a child. The woman jerked Shironne farther away. Something small on the floor shifted under Shironne’s foot and only the woman’s painful grip on her hair kept her standing.

She focused on the circle pressed to her cheek, recognizing it for what it was. She extended her senses through the metal, feeling the touch of the sergeant’s hands on it. Metal was always easy.

“The gun . . .” Shironne began.

A shot sounded, deafening in the garret room. Blood, hot and personal, sprayed across Shironne’s face. The woman jerked away from her, dragging her down to the floor. Shironne yelped at a sudden flare of pain.

She felt the colonel’s hands on her shoulders then, steadying her. He wiped at her face with a piece of starched linen, smoothing away most of the blood splattered across her cheek. She could feel his worry crowding around her. “I’m so sorry, Miss Anjir,” he said. “I didn’t realize she had a way to get back around behind us.”

Shironne calmed her breathing, easier now the woman’s beating panic had faded. “She’s insane, Colonel.”

“Was,” the lieutenant said flatly. “She’s dead.”

“Damn,” the colonel said.

Shironne took a deep breath. The colonel gave her the handkerchief and she began to scrub at her hand with it. “Um, the gun wasn’t loaded.”

Clicking metallic sounds followed. “She’s right, sir,” the lieutenant said.

“Well, the fact that she’s in possession of it indicates she had some involvement in the sergeant’s death.” The colonel sighed, irritation surrounding him. “What a mess. Now we’ll never know what happened.”

“Sir, I had to take the shot,” the lieutenant said.

“You’re not at fault, Kassannan. I should never have brought Miss Anjir up here in the first place.”

Shironne sensed his frustration. “Sir, I could find out what . . . I mean, why . . . if we don’t wait too long.”

His mind turned, weighing consequences and curiosity. “Are you willing to try?”

She nodded, suddenly aware that her scalp hurt. She touched her gloved hand to the sore spot.

“I’m afraid she ripped out a bit of your hair.”

The realization brought tears to her eyes, the pain sharpening. Her mother would be upset and would never let her work for the colonel again. “Is it bad enough my mother will notice?” she asked, blinking away the tears.

“I will tell her myself,” the colonel said sternly.

Pain washed through the room, sobbing accompanying it. “You killed her,” a voice cried— the landlady.

“Sit down on the floor, ma’am,” the lieutenant ordered. “We have questions for you.”

“You killed her,” the woman repeated.

“Yes,” the lieutenant said. “Now sit down before I do the same to you. You’ve abetted a crime.”

The landlady’s pain turned to anguish. She began sobbing noisily. “I tried. I tried. I tried so hard.”

“Come with me,” the colonel said to Shironne, ignoring the woman. He replaced Shironne’s hat, helped her stand, and walked her carefully through the room.

“What’s all over the floor?” she asked.

“Toys and wooden blocks. A baby blanket, I think.”

Shironne could smell the blood, strong and metallic, almost tasting it with her too-sensitive tongue. She reached out with her foot and contacted the body. Kneeling next to the dead woman, she felt for the woman’s face with her bare hand. The colonel put his hand on her sleeve and directed her away from the ruined part of the woman’s face.

“Don’t touch her!” the landlady cried.

The colonel’s anger flared, but he said nothing, compassion replacing it.

“Quiet,” the lieutenant said to the landlady.

Shironne pressed her hand to the dead woman’s skin. Warm and soft still, the blood no longer moved under the surface. Everything had halted, stopped in its path.

She reached deeper, searching for the scattered leaves of memory in the woman’s mind. They’d had no time to decay yet, each preserved clearly for her to see. Shironne touched one and then another, confirming what she’d suspected when the woman had still been alive. She wasn’t sane. She’d lost her child and then her mind.

Shironne found a distinct memory of Sergeant Merha speaking with the woman in the foyer of the boarding house. He’d been polite and kind. That simple act alone triggered her obsession with him. He was meant to give her another child, she’d believed, only he hadn’t wanted her. She waited in his bed, but he didn’t want to lie with her. In her desperation, she struck him.

“I don’t think she realized what she’d done, sir,” Shironne said, drawing away. “She knew she’d done something wrong, because her sister ordered her up here and wouldn’t let her come down again, but I don’t think she understood she killed him. Yesterday when you ran into her downstairs, she was waiting by his door for him to come back.”

“I won’t send her to a madhouse,” the landlady sobbed. “I’ll keep her safe. I promised.”

They found the sergeant’s army-issued knife in the landlady’s kitchen. Even under the film of soap, Shironne could still feel his blood on the blade. Together with the gun, the colonel claimed, they had evidence enough, and the landlady confessed it all.

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Her mother was furious— quietly, tearfully so, but furious.

The colonel had taken her back to the Army Square where she’d been able to clean her hands and face to her own satisfaction. Lieutenant Kassannan sponged the stains from her worn red tunic, and Shironne re-braided her hair, hoping the sticky and painful patch would heal quickly. The colonel was correct in believing she’d not be able to hide it.

Sitting at the servants’ table in their kitchen, he confessed everything. “Madam, I wouldn’t lie to you,” he finished.

“Because you know very well I would sense it if you did,” her mother said in a trembling voice. Her hand stroked Shironne’s hair, easing over the painful spot. “I shouldn’t have agreed to this.”

“Madam, I could sorely use someone with her talents. I would like her to work for me from time to time, if . . .”

“Colonel, I let her have her way this time because she gave her word. Not again.”

“Madam,” the colonel said in a serious tone. “Your child has a very rare talent. Is it not her duty to use it for the good of others?”

Shironne wondered how he knew what effect that word would have on her mother. Most people with gifts were expected to enter the priesthood, but that fate had never appealed to her. Working for the colonel might prove an excellent alternative. “Mama, I think I could be really good at this.”

“I will,” her mother said after a moment, “consider it.”

“That, Madam Anjir,” the colonel said softly, “is enough for today.” Shironne heard the rattle of paper. “I would like for you to memorize this. It’s my address.”

Her mother radiated a strange mixture of guilt and hope. “I can’t . . .”

“Any hour of the day or night, Madam, you or your daughters may go there. Should you need a safe haven, I mean. My servants will know your names.” He’d made sure Shironne memorized it in the carriage on the way back to the house. “After all, I did warn you that I’m one of the prince’s closest friends. That makes me almost family, Madam.”

Shironne heard him rise and move toward the servant’s door.

“You shouldn’t interfere, Colonel,” her mother said without any heat behind her words. “In any way.”

“Hmm. I’m just . . . the interfering sort, I suppose,” he said, and then was gone.
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Originally published in Jim Baen’s Universe, June 2007
Reprinted in The Best of Jim Baen’s Universe 2, July 2008