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TITLE: Knots & Anchors
GENRE: science fantasy
WORD COUNT: 92,324
SUMMARY: It's a race against time as a cartographer and a fortune teller struggle to find the secret of the tethered cities before a great darkness breaks them.
“Knot finders are like the undead. You can't kill them unless you take off the head.”
The official inquisitor of the Hall of Justice squinted at Wray. “There's no such thing as the undead, Your Honor.” He shook the square bottle in his right hand and the remaining poison sloshed around the glass like liquid emeralds . The other half had been poured down the throat of the inquisitor's latest subject, a woman strapped to a rack a few feet away. She was barefoot. The rest of her clothing were rags. And her head hung down with dark tangled hair obscuring her features. Her body twitched for a moment before relaxing. She raised her head revealing strange brown-gold eyes. Something wrong skittered behind her gaze.
Wray gave the inquisitor a stingy smile. “Any more of that and she will be of no use.”
“I'm just trying to do my job, Your Honor.” The inquisitor smiled back revealing black teeth. “Justice wanted a confession so I'm going to give 'em one.”
“The truth serum works best in smaller doses.”
“Well, what will you have me do? The git won't say anything no matter what I do.”
“I have a better idea.” Wray folded his arms until they disappeared under the folds of his gray-green judicial robes. A joke, he thought, on him. He was no judge. But unlike others who fell into the thankless job and never got out again, he was going to do something about it. And the wretch on the rack was his ticket to it. “Extracting a confession and capital punishment are mere formalities under the law. The evidence is quite clear on the matter. And the victim has no friends or family, in this jurisdiction at least, who could plead otherwise. I've spoken with Calner. The knot finder will be of more use to us alive than dead.”
“Oh? What sort of use?”
“For traversing broken tethers.”
The woman on the rack screeched. “No! Just kill me now. That's suicide!”
The inquisitor set the bottle of poison down on a nearby table and scratched his head. “Well, if that's the case, I'd say the use would be worse than the punishment. Broken tethers are supposedly impossible unless you're a legendary Ancient. Are you sure you don't want me to continue to extract a confession?”
The woman screamed. “You bastard! You don't know what the hell you're asking, you privileged toad. There are things on the tethers you don't know about. And if you knew about them, you'd think twice about traversing the tethers, even to see dear old grandma. There are things out there. Things that if you saw, you'd want to gouge your eyes out.” She began thrashing around on the rack, but the leather ropes held and all she succeeded in doing was tangling her hair further.
“The git is mad,” said the inquisitor as he rolled his eyes. “There's no rhyme or reason to her fits. You say something, it could be anything, and she goes off. Nearly skewered one of my assistants earlier when he decided to question her about her family.”
“Mad or not, knot finders are hard to come by,” said Wray. “Even harder to come by are any knot finders who will traverse a broken tether. Or in this case, unwillingly.”
“Good luck with that. It's going to be difficult to have her come along with you with the git in this state. Do you want me to use the tranquilizer?”
“Have you used the tranquilizer on her before?”
“No. But there's always a first time for everything.”
Wray half expected for the tranquilizer to fail. After all, the truth serum that the inquisitor had forced into her had not worked. But after the inquisitor topped off a syringe with a clear liquid he obtained from a thin blue bottle sitting next to the truth serum and jabbed it into the woman's flailing arm, she suddenly went still as if an invisible wind had sucked out all of her energy.
As a judge specializing in small claims, he rarely ever ventured down into the interrogation rooms in the basement of the Hall of Justice. But when he did, he often privately objected to the brutal methods that the inquisitors used to extract confessions and mete out punishments. This wasn't anything different. Even if the woman was a murderess and even if she was a knot finder, part of a breed engineered by the Ancients to be resistant to nearly every substance known to man, he thought the torture too messy and time consuming. Why waste all your efforts on all of this when a quick beheading would solve everyone's problems?
But in this case, he had the inquisitor to thank for whatever bureaucratic delays he had instigated before the inevitable. It had given him enough time to discover that a knot finder was in the Hall's custody and to convince Calner, the presiding judge of the murder trial, to give her to him for use in a “personal research project” that could substitute as a punishment under certain arcane laws. Of course, his personal research project wasn't research at all. It didn't matter to him if the woman lived or died. She was just a tool for something much bigger than finding a broken tether.
The inquisitor poked at the woman's arm to see if she was still responsive. When he was satisfied that she was completely sedated, he finally signed off on a form that Wray had produced from a pocket. He untied the leather rope and shoved her body into Wray's arms. “There you go. If you lose control of her, it's going to be your head that's going to be on the chopping block, not mine.”
“That's fine.” Wray was expecting her to be heavy, but she was actually smaller than she seemed on the rack. They must have been starving her, he mused. She seemed like nothing but skin and bones. He didn't find it too hard to haul her over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. “You can take this up with Judge Calner if you want an official word.”
The inquisitor snorted as he went back to organizing his bottles and implements of dangerous substances. “If anything, you taking the git off my hands will just give me more time tonight to go to the tavern. This stuff is hard work, you know.”
“Hm,” he said noncommittally as he moved back to the entrance. With his free hand, he opened that scarred door that separated the interrogation chamber from the rest of the basement. He let the door slam behind him as he climbed the stairs up to the first floor of the Hall of Justice.
It was just after work hours and most of the workers in the Hall had gone home after an entire day of working on various cases that came through the place. Most of the cases were similar to what Wray worked on most of his time, small claims involving businesses and organizations, bureaucratic tape involving everything from new residents buying property in the city to business financial records. Large cases involving murder and theft were usually handled by the crimes division. But as things were in Despina, even that division was swamped with paperwork of all kinds. Wray merely took advantage of the situation to get what he wanted.
The Hall of Justice was located off one of the main streets sprouting south from the city hub. Nearby were other city buildings, City Hall, the Guard House, the Commerce Guild. Once Wray was out of the Hall of Justice, he climbed down a flight of stairs from the building down to the near empty street. No one who was out and about looked at him twice or asked him why he was carrying a person on his shoulder. In any case, the gray-green robes that he wore gave him a certain authority that made anyone think twice about possibly questioning him.
Wray did not live far from his place of work. It was only two blocks from the Hall of Justice that he turned down a thin, winding residential road lined with three story town houses. His own home stood at the corner, a dark blue shadow in the dimming light. It was a property that he had inherited after his father died. The only property that he still held after he decided on a certain course for vengeance.
By the time he made it inside the foyer, the woman on his shoulder started to wake up. He headed to the guest room on the first floor and dumped her on the sofa near the window. He winced when he realized that the woman was still filthy from her imprisonment. His housekeeper was going to be livid when she realized that the sofa would have to be cleaned.
The woman moaned and then her eyes opened. She opened her mouth, but he covered it with his palm before she could scream.
“Be quiet,” he said.
In response, she bit his hand. Wray cursed and jumped back. He looked at his hand. She had managed to draw blood.
“Bastard,” she hissed. She tried to get up, but she fell back onto the sofa as her legs gave way, still too weak from the tranquilizer that the inquisitor had given her. “Who the hell do you think you are, taking me to this death trap?”
“This is no death trap,” he replied. “This is my home. And you'd best remember that you're a guest here until I have no more use of you.”
She glared at him. “What did you do to me? I can't even stand up.”
“I had the inquisitor tranquilize you so you could be easier to transport.”
“Tell me something I don't know,” he retorted. “For the time being, you should be glad that you're not getting poisoned back in the dungeon in the Hall of Justice. You're going to be weak for a little while yet from the affects of the tranquilizer. I suggest you get some sleep. In the morning, I'll tell you what your duties are.”
The woman screamed, then. But since she couldn't get up and have at him, he retreated and shut the door to the guest room, muffling the sound somewhat. But that didn't prevent the rustle of footsteps in the hallway and the appearance of the housekeeper, an old woman who had worked for his family for decades, even before he had been born.
“What on earth is that?” Gerhild exclaimed. Her night cap bobbed as she tried to strain past him to see what was going on in the guest room. “It sounds like you have a girl in there.” She turned back to give Wray a glare. “You may be a judge, my boy, but that doesn't give you leave to kidnap helpless girls for your pleasure. Release her at once.”
“You have no idea what you're asking, Gerhild,” Wray replied. “That isn't just some girl. You could say that I rescued her from certain death. She just doesn't know it yet. As a knot finder, she's critical to my plans.”
The old woman sniffed. “I don't approve of your plans, boy. And neither would your parents, were they still here, rest their souls.”
“But since they're not here, that doesn't matter, does it?” The woman had stopped screaming. Good, he thought. To the housekeeper, he said, “She's just a bit overwrought from all the things that have happened to her today. Tomorrow morning, give her a bath and feed her breakfast before sending her to my work rooms. I need her well rested before I use her.”