The carriage bounced and creaked in response to the stone road underneath, as Adair watched the scenery pass by the window. To the east, rolling meadows stretched from the road to the mountains, the land rising sharply as it drew close to the foothills. Occasionally, a tall row of trees would divide the land, designating a property boundary. To the west, the cobblestone road gave way to patches of grass, clinging stubbornly to the shoulder, which ended abruptly at a steep cliff. The ocean, which was hundreds of feet below only minutes ago, was getting closer now as the carriage descended into a valley. After a few minutes, the road ended at a sandy beach and the carriage came to a halt. Adair quickly opened the door and stepped out, happy to be rid of his method of transportation. He preferred to ride a horse, but because of his position, was expected to do otherwise for safety reasons.
A hundred yards away, at the opposite side of the beach was a wooden guard tower clinging to the side of the cliff like a vine in one of the surrounding vineyards. It reached from the beach floor, all the way to a lookout perched fifty feet above the top of the cliff. Two of the four soldiers that had been accompanying Adair rode up and began to dismount, intending to follow him inside.
“I’ll return shortly,” he said to them.
They each glanced at the other and then back to Adair, conceding with a nod. Adair turned away and walked toward the guard tower, leaving the men to keep charge of the carriage.
It took him several minutes to reach the lower entry. Two guards on either side of the door tipped their spears in salute. They were otherwise motionless, staring straight ahead without making eye contact. Adair never ceased to be impressed at the discipline of his soldiers, especially those who were stationed at posts far away from the scrutiny of the Governor. It was a small sign, but it confirmed his success at ruling the city. He smiled as he walked past the soldiers and through the stone archway. This room was one of many rooms making up the lower level, serving only as an entrance to the enormous staircase carved into the rock. Around the other side of the building, facing the ocean, were other rooms of supplies and stables for the mounted patrolmen who rode up and down the coast at scheduled intervals, but this one was completely empty. Adair waited for a few seconds, looking around at the construction of the room. He had been here many times, but had never paid much attention to the place beyond its practical uses. He glanced up to the ceiling and observed thick wooden beams that extended twenty feet over his head from their anchor point in the rock cliff, to where they were supported by slightly larger vertical beams buried in the sand. The room itself was nearly forty feet wide, but only half as deep.
To his left, a door opened and another soldier walked through. As soon as he noticed Adair, his casual demeanor disappeared. “Colonel, it is a pleasure to have your company.” The man bowed his head in respect. “How may I be of assistance?”
“I am here to see your Lieutenant.”
The soldier motioned to the stairs. “He is up above in the observatory; I will go fetch him for you.”
“No; that won’t be necessary. I don’t wish to keep him from his work; just take me to him.”
“Certainly,” the man bowed. “Please follow me.”
He led Adair up the stairs, which switched back and forth across the cliff face. The soldier climbed slowly out of courtesy for his superior. After five floors they reached the observatory, which stood even with the top of the cliff. The stairs ended at a spacious room with a balcony overlooking the ocean. From here, a ladder extended through the ceiling, leading to the upper lookout. The Lieutenant was standing at the railing of the balcony, looking north along the beach. He was dressed much the same as Adair, with a hammered metal cuirass and a short red cloak gathered at one shoulder by a silver torc. Though he was younger than Adair, he looked ten years older. His sand colored hair was starting to thin on the top and his weathered skin had seen too many years of sun. Adair walked up behind him, but the Lieutenant was deep in thought and didn’t notice.
“Lieutenant,” Adair said softly.
The man turned his head, startled. It took him only a second to realize who was standing before him and he quickly bowed. “My lord…what brings you from the city?” he asked, unable to hide his nervousness.
“I came to inquire about the man that you found on the beach yesterday.”
“Yes, my lord,” he replied.
“Tell me everything you know.”
“Well,” the man started, “I don’t know who he is, but I can show you where we found him.
“Please,” Adair said, his curiosity peaked.
The Lieutenant motioned for Adair to come farther out onto the balcony and pointed to a sandy finger of land to the north that jutted out from the rocks into the ocean. Adair judged it to be just over five miles away.
“He was found lying face-down in the sand on the other side of that point. It was yesterday morning,” he quickly added, getting ahead of himself. “When we came upon him, he was already unconscious. His tunic was torn in many places and he was badly burned by the sun.” The Captain looked out at the ocean as he remembered. “His hands and feet were cut and bruised all over. It happens when fishermen get tangled up with the reef. He also had a large wound, high up on his left leg. When he was first brought to me, I thought he was dead, but his breath could be felt under his nose. I had one of my men wash him and temporarily dress his wounds. But we were unable to get him to wake up for food or water, so I sent him to the city to be cared for.” The soldier stopped with a puzzled look on his face. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know he was important or I would have contacted you immediately.”
Adair dismissed the man’s comments, not wanting to get sidetracked by instructing the Lieutenant about how everyone was important in one way or another. “Did he speak at all when you had him in your custody?” Adair asked instead.
“No, my lord, he didn’t even move,” the Lieutenant answered.
Adair only nodded in reply.
The silence was clearly uncomfortable for the Lieutenant. “With all of the activity around here lately, my men have been volunteering to make patrols rather than waiting for me to order them,” he said, trying to make conversation.
“What do you mean?” Adair said in a stern voice, his gaze now leveled at the man.
“Oh, I beg your pardon, my lord. I didn’t mean to make light of his unfortunate circumstances,” the Captain quickly replied.
“No,” Adair clarified, waving his hand to the side. “What do you mean by all of the activity?”
“Oh!” the Lieutenant exclaimed, a look of relief washing over his face. “I just meant that you are the second person to come asking about the man today.”
Adair’s pulse quickened. “Who else have you talked to?” he asked, not bothering to hide his look of worry.
The Lieutenant, who was looking more nervous by the second, put his hand on his forehead as he tried to recall the details. “Some of my patrolmen came across a young man, maybe thirty years old, walking along the beach early this morning. He said he was looking for his brother…and that their boat had gone down. I told him where we sent the man and offered to have one of my men escort him, but he refused and ran away.”
“I need a horse,” Adair blurted out.
“I’m sorry…” the Lieutenant replied, not understanding what was happening.
“Quickly, I need a horse,” Adair repeated, much louder this time.
“You can take mine; he’s outside that door,” said the Lieutenant, pointing to a door by the stairs.
“Have someone notify my men down on the beach that I’ve gone back to the city.” Adair barely got the words out of his mouth before he reached the door. He threw all his weight at it and it flung open, revealing the rolling hills at the top of the cliff. Squinting at the bright sunlight, he found the horse only a few steps away and ran to it, leaping into the saddle in one swift movement. He pulled hard on the reins, turning the horse around and kicked his heels, causing the beast to leap into motion.
“I’m sorry, my lord,” the Lieutenant shouted, leaning out of the doorway. “I should have taken him myself.”
Adair’s heart was pounding as he raced southward along a narrow path which followed the top of the cliff. One specific part of the Lieutenant’s story worried him the most. Adair made it a point to know everything about his informants. He knew that Bahari had a wife, but was positive that he didn’t have any other relatives.
Adair’s horse was running at a steady pace, despite the winding path. It was obviously used to the terrain from being part of a patrol unit. The path eventually curved to the west and descended steeply, connecting with the western road on which Adair had just traveled by carriage only half an hour ago. It was wider and paved with flat stones, being the main thoroughfare along the west coast. The pavestones which kept the sand from eroding into the ocean made travel by carriage easier, but slowed the progress of a horse. Adair steered the animal to the inside shoulder of the road, where its hooves would find traction in the bare sand. The horse was able to gain speed on the unobstructed road and within minutes he reached the outskirts of the city. Whereas the trip by carriage took him all morning, already he was riding past the vineyards and farmland that surrounded Bastul. Slowly, the rural environment gave way to the urban, as houses and structures of various kinds became more frequent. Just before reaching the Market District, the road forked and Adair veered to the right, taking the road that paralleled the water and ran out to the peninsula, encircling the city.
The organization of the Market District, with its large buildings and regulated structure ended abruptly at the Housing District, which had fewer regulations and resulted in a haphazard look of odd sized and shaped dwellings, housing the bulk of the population of Bastul. Adair counted streets as he passed them, turning left at the sixth one, heading across the peninsula toward the bay.
The temple of Adussk was located at the other end of the district, just before the docks. It sat on a man-made island in the center of the Nescus River, with arched bridges connecting it to either shore. Adair received stares of wonder from the citizens of Bastul as he steered the horse through the western gate and over the bridge. The horse skidded to a halt in the graveled courtyard in front of the building and Adair leaped off, running as soon as his feet touched the ground. His knees were stiff from the ride and he stumbled at first, but ignored the pain and headed up the front steps for the door. He was in too much of a hurry to knock, so he pushed the door open as soon as it was within reach. There was no one to greet him at the entry and he turned right, retracing his steps from the previous night. As he rounded the corner, he almost collided with the old nurse.
“My lord!” she screamed in shock.
“Give me the key to his room,” he demanded, his voice sounding louder than he intended in the close quarters.
The lady struggled in her apron for the right key.
“Here’s the one,” she said as he snatched it from her hand and ran down the hallway.
Coming to the door of Bahari’s room, Adair jammed the key into the lock and twisted it, expecting to hear a click. When nothing happened, he pushed on the door, but it didn’t move. Without waiting for the woman, he jumped back a few steps and kicked at the door with all of his weight. The lock broke and the door swung on its hinges, crashing into the wall with a loud thud. There, on top of the bed, lay Bahari, unflinching.
Adair rushed over to him, but it was obvious that he was too late. Bahari’s skin was a pale blue beneath his sunburn. Adair bent down and put his ear to the man’s mouth, listening for breath.
“What is the ma…” the old lady began as she entered the room, but trailed off as she caught sight of Bahari’s dead body. “Oh my!” she exclaimed. “I just checked on him not more than twenty minutes ago.”
Adair stood up and looked at the woman. “Has anyone been in here?”
“No, my lord…only me!”
“Did you give your keys to anyone after you checked on him?” he asked, trying to calm himself down.
“No, my lord. I always keep the keys right here,” she replied with a pat to the front pocket of her apron.
Adair looked back to the body. As his mind raced to find a solution, something caught his eye. Other than being devoid of life, Bahari’s body looked strange and Adair stepped back, trying to figure out what was wrong. He realized, after a few seconds of inspection, that there was something wrong about the way his head looked in relation to his body.
“His neck is broken,” he said, more to himself than to the old woman. “That rules out death by natural causes.” One thing is sure—the people who caused Bahari to end up in this infirmary were dedicated enough to make sure that he didn’t come out alive. He looked back at the woman. “Someone was in here, and I want to know who.”
“I swear, my lord. I checked on him just a short time ago and he was breathing. His fever had broken, and I went to prepare some broth for him to drink.”
Adair tried to think his way through the problem, starting with the way in. He had to kick down the door, so she didn’t forget to lock it. He looked around the room and his gaze settled on the window, which was the only other way into the room. It was small, but the shutters were open. He walked over to it and looked out, seeing that the ground was only a short jump away. Someone would still be able to climb through if they were determined.
He briefly considered jumping out of the window and searching for the person, but they would be impossible to track once outside of the temple grounds. The city was too big and the population too large. If someone wanted to hide in this city, there were plenty of places to do it.
“I’ll need a moment alone with him,” he told the woman, who now had tears in her eyes.
“Certainly, my lord,” she replied with a sniffle and started to walk out.
“Oh, wait. I need to see the arrow that you pulled from his leg,” he added. It was the only clue that he had to go on.
“Yes, my lord. I will get it for you,” she said and left Adair alone with Bahari’s body.
He sat down on the bed and grasped Bahari’s cold hand. “The gods have not smiled on you today Bahari,” he said aloud. Pausing to find the words, he continued. “I will find the one who did this and I will make it right. You needn’t worry about your wife; she will be taken care of. I will see to that. May you find the peace in death that escaped you in life.”
After a few minutes the old woman returned and handed the arrow to Adair. He fingered the tip of the arrowhead as a matter of habit, before turning the weapon over in his hands. The construction of it showed skill, but nothing unusual caught his attention.
“Thank you,” he said to the woman, tucking the arrow in his belt.
“Shall I notify his family, my lord?”
“No, that won’t be necessary. I’ll take care of it,” replied Adair. He rose to his feet and excused himself, a feeling of defeat replacing his prior sense of urgency.
Copyright 2008-2010 by Jason Tesar
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