Logartha pounded up the steps to the watch house and slid to a stop in the hard-packed dust of the practice ground.
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"Merrick," he gasped. "Come with...quick..."
"Krin! Logartha, what is it?"
The palace guards were already in place when Merrick ascended the steps to the Common Doors.
"No one gets in."
A pair of pikes barred his way.
"I'm captain of the City Watch," Merrick said. "Move aside."
They didn't move. Their burnished armor gleamed in the light of the hot sun. Merrick felt sweat gathering at his temples. Summer had come.
"No one gets in," the guard said again. "City Watch can go back to the city."
"The purpose of the City Watch is to investigate crimes committed in the city. The palace is part of the city. Move aside."
"The purpose of the City Watch is to appease the need of the peddlers, the paupers, and the sum to have one of their own catching their thieves and murderers." The man's teeth were very white. "And as far as I'm concerned you can stay with them."
"You don't follow the laws of the city you live in? Is that what you are saying to me?"
The man snorted. "Laws are for folk too stupid to think for themselves. That's why we have you. Now bugger off."
Merrick stepped forward. "I need you to understand something." He took another step. "I am entering this building." He took a third step. They were eye to eye now, or would have been if Merrick had been half a head taller. "And I am entering it now. One way or another."
The man grinned. The muscles of his arms bulged as he flexed his fists. "Old man, I could break you just by thinking about it."
"Then by all means-"
The guard turned to follow Merrick's gaze, and caught sight of Auristen and Coraleus coming up the passage behind him.
"What is this?" Coraleus's eyes were blazing. "What are you doing?"
"Sir. I, uh, that was-"
Auristen folded his arms. "I know this man. He has made his feelings about me and the people I protect clear on numerous occasions."
The mage scowled. "Am I to understand, guard, that you were standing in the way of an official of the city?"
"Sir, I was attempting to preserve the integrity of the situation..."
"And how, pray tell, did you believe standing in the way of the Captain of the Guard was going to achieve this?"
"Sir, I've never seen this man before-"
"You mean to say you were NOT at your post when he was recognized by the Council?"
"I...sir, I simply wanted to keep unwanted persons away. Had I known you wished this man to be present at the scene of the murder-"
"You would have allowed him to pass, yes." Coraleus sighed. "All you care about is your standing with the nobility, and good luck to you with it. But stay out of my way, young man. I have no patience for idiots and wastrels."
The man stood aside.
Coraleus looked Merrick up and down. "Well, old man, I'd hazard that you haven't changed a bit."
Merrick grinned lopsided. "And neither have you, old wizard."
They clapped each other on the shoulder.
Auristen looked at Merrick, surprised. "You and the Senior Magus know each other."
"Old friends," said Merrick. "I knew Coraleus when he was a student."
Coraleus crossed his arms under his robes. "And you were old and grim even then."
Auristen turned to Merrick. "How old ARE you?"
Merrick and Coraleus exchanged a glance.
"May I see the body?" Merrick said.
"Of course. Of course. Follow me."
Auristen and Coraleus led the way into the Council room, pushing their way through a crowd of fancy-dressed onlookers. The palace guards had barred entry to anyone without leave or from the lower city, but the audience members who had been present when the murder took place were still there, looking at the body with avid, greedy eyes.
"Not often they get to view a murder here," Auristen said. "Most exciting thing to happen all year."
Merrick shouldered his way roughly through. “It makes me sick.”
Coraleus nodded. “Love humanity, hate people.”
They came to an open ring, held back by brawny guards, The men made a small gap for them to squeeze through.
And on the floor before them was Lord Danster. He was very dead, The hilt of a small knife protruded from his throat.
“How could this possibly have happened?” Merrick looked up at his companions. “How, with all of the guards, and the watch, and all the people in the room, and YOU, Coraleus? You could have torn any flesh-and-blood assassin to pieces in the blink of an eye. What happened?”
Color came into the mage’s cheeks. It took a minute for Merrick to realize he was blushing.
“The assassin was...very fast.”
Coraleus met his eyes. “Very fast.”
“We were holding after-luncheon hearings as normal. We were in the midst of a long treatise from the dockmen’s association on fish prices when someone in the audience gasped. I turned to look up, and saw a black-clad figure leap down from the rafters and do someting- gesture in some way. Danster fell back, clutching his neck. By the time I raised my hand to do something, the shape was gone. It moved faster than any living human I have ever seen. I cannot believe it was human.”
Auristen shook his head. “Council members slain in their own rooms. These are strange days.”
“They’re like as not to get a lot stranger.”
"Quit this world, quit the next world, quit quitting!" -Sufi proverb.