This ballad was shared at the 51st Conclave of Bards by Ned Trilling, Amalcross harbor historian.
The black water of the strait heaved far below, sucking and lapping around the algae-slicked pylons of the bridge. Byron Kove stared down at it. He gripped the cold iron railing tight, tighter still, until his knuckles turned white. Cold, misty rain mingled with the fog bank rolling in from the ocean. It wrapped Amalcross in a blanket of chill. He let his long leather riding coat hang open, whipping around him as the harsh wind pricked his skin. He grabbed the sheaf of papers from the inner pocket of his coat and flung them out, watching as they floated down to the water, far below, where they became water-logged and sunk beneath the surface.
He imagined it: The air, whipping past, cool and wet across his cheek. The refreshing pull of gravity as the Long Bridge receded above him. No choices to be made. No decisions. No more failures to wake up to in the morning. Nothing to lose when all was already lost.
Then, the water, cold, beyond cold, practically an ice flow, would smack into him, carve his legs out from under him as he crumpled into its embrace with a splash.
Undertow would pull him down. The foggy glow of the city and the bridge’s lamps would disappear above him, and all would go dark.
He took a deep breath.
“What are you doing?” A woman’s voice.
The bridge was deserted. The guards were hiding in the warmth of their shack at the far end. No one was about at three in the morning on an unseasonably cold night in spring.
“I said, what are you doing?”
He loosened his grip on the railing. Turned and scanned the bridge, eyes narrowed. Water dripped from the end of Byron’s thrice-broken nose. There was nobody there. Not a soul. He turned back to the business at hand, gripped the railing. Took a deep breath. In a minute, he wouldn’t have a care in the world.
“You have unfinished business.”
“What do you know about it?” He whipped around wildly, arms up, ready to fight. Still there was no one there.
“I’ve been watching you for years, and I don’t like having my time wasted.”
His eyes narrowed. He was very careful. No one — no one — could have surveilled him without him knowing it.
“By the gods above,” he said, “reveal yourself.”
The wind howled mournfully over the bridge. The rain hissed. He squinted through sopping bangs.
Then, there, right there, the faintest shadow, a shadow of a shadow, like a person beneath one of the tower lamps. He hadn’t noticed it at first; probably mistook it for the dark silhouette of one of the statues of Amalcross’s finest citizens that stood eternally watching the Long Bridge. Without thinking he placed his hand on his gun, felt its reassuring weight in his hand.
The shadow detached itself from its perch beneath the lamp. It moved, slick and oily through the rain and the mist. Closer. Closer. Why was he holding his gun? If this person — this shadow — was malevolent, wasn’t that what he was looking for anyway? Why defend yourself when it was time to end it all?
Nevertheless, he kept his hand on his gun, praying to steel-shrewd Quatha and all the gods above and below that the powder was still dry. He cursed himself silently for not taking care with his coat.
The shadow drew near, bringing with it a smell of rosemary, oranges, and bitter decay.
“You can’t kill yourself yet.”
“Why not?” His voice was hoarse, trapped in his throat. He could barely whisper.
“Because you just threw away the case notes to my murder, and I demand justice before your hurl yourself after them.”
The garret Byron called home was cold, damp, and just as rude, ill-furnished, and ugly as he had left it. A far cry from his former abode in Amalweave. No servants here, either. He hadn’t expected to return, and the coals in the stove had burned away hours before. His fingers stiffly struggled with the tinder box. A spark. Then, he pumped away uselessly with the hand bellows, long after the spark had dissipated. He labored away, refusing to look over his shoulder where the dark eminence loomed in the corner.
“Too bad you don’t have any paper,” it said.
Byron dropped the bellows angrily and whipped around. He opened his mouth to speak, then stopped. Perhaps this wasn’t real. He’d finally cracked, really cracked. He hadn’t simply lost the will to live, he’d also manifested his own spiritual tormenter into existence.
“There’s some oil in the lamp. Why don’t you splash a little of that on the coals?”
Yes, that was a good idea. De minimis, the apparition could be helpful. Byron poured a little of the oil from the fluted glass lamp onto the goals, struck another spark, and watched the flame dance. He placed the lamp back onto the table and lit it. Warm light, and the first inklings of heat, entered the garret. The floorboards were still full of splinters and the plaster was still pealing, but at least it would warm up a little. That smell — rosemary, oranges, dankness — was still in the air, but he found it didn’t bother him.
“You should probably eat something. It’s been two days.”
He grunted but acquiesced. If you’re going to imagine a tormenting spirit, don’t fight it on the small things. He went to the cupboard and scrounged a block of cheese with just a little mold on it and a hard roll. Good enough. Crossing to the window, he reached out onto the little ledge, where he’d tied a basket. The jug of ale was still there, the bottle cool and slick with damp. So much for spring.
He sat and ate, glaring all the while at the apparition. He swigged the beer. He ate and glared some more. It didn’t seem to care. Eventually, Byron started to get annoyed. It gnawed at him. How dare this hallucination disrupt his peaceful death, force him to warm up and eat, and then leave him to his own devices.
“Well. How do I make you go away?”
The apparition inclined its head — the part of its shadowy form where a head would be, at least — and spoke. “You can’t.”
“You’re in my godsdamned head, and it’s my head, so get out of it!” He jabbed a finger at the shade.
It sighed, long and low. “I’m not in your head. I’m here in the corner.”
He glanced at the label on the bottle of ale. Cogstone Brewery. Rilk’back Lager. Same as he always drank. He looked back at the spirit. “You’re real?”
“For fuck’s sake.”
“Are you… some Uncanny Being? A little godling?” His eyes lit up. “My mama used to tell stories about river demons that’d haunt you if you got too close. Always thought it was an old wives’ tale—”
“I am not a demon and not an Uncanny, at least not the way you mean. I’m Cecilia ‘ja Auric.”
Cecilia shrugged her ghostly shoulders. “Exactly. That’s why I said my unfinished business is your unfinished business. You were hired to solve my murder and then you never did? Remember? Are you brain damaged from all the drinking?”
Byron stood and tossed a few more lumps of coal into the stove. “Even if you are a ghost—” He darted his eyes at Cecilia, who didn’t seem bothered by the word. “—your father stopped paying me over a year ago. Along with my other clients. I am — unfortunately — in a state of retirement.”
“You were once in quite high demand. You lived in a townhouse in Amalweave. A nice one. You discreetly solved so many of our city’s most-estimable citizens’ most-pressing problems.”
“I was also known to assist the police and those creeps at the Imperial Catechism,” Byron said. He felt a fleeting swell of long-forgotten pride in his chest.
“Before you let yourself go, that is,” the ghost that called itself Cecilia said.
Something caught in Byron’s throat. He swallowed, spoke thickly. “I couldn’t— there were no leads. You can only fail for so long before no one will hire you. When your father stopped paying me, word got around. I’d lost my edge.” He paused, chewed the inside of his lip. “At least this conversation conclusively ends the rumors that the corpse was a double and you had eloped with that sailor.”
Some flame kindled deep within Byron as this realization sunk in, and he stirred himself. He went to his desk and rooted around until he found a quill. Back at the window, he peered out to his left, leaned, and rapped on the window of the neighboring apartment.
“Bianca!” he called. Nothing. He banged louder. “Bianca! Paper!”
He took a deep breath and bellowed, “BIANCA!” as the window slammed open.
“What? Godsdamn it, you wino. What? Shit yourself again?” She poked her head out under the eaves, holding her tawny hair back to keep it from the rainwater overflowing the gutter.
“Just give me some paper.”
“You woke me up for this?”
“You still owe me five drams.”
Byron held his hand out, waving it testily. Bianca wrinkled her nose and disappeared for a moment. She returned, shoving a wrinkled copy of the Amalcross Times into his hand.
She glared at him and then slammed her window once more. Byron shut his own window, then sat at the desk and began to scribble, jotting quick notes from memory.
“The body they found by the river was yours. I always knew it was, but your father never stopped hoping you’d turn up alive, and I used that to keep his money flowing. We’ll have to tell him at once that you are utterly, totally, conclusively dead.”
“You can’t do that.”
Byron’s head snapped up. “Why not?”
The specter whooshed towards him, enveloping him a shocking wave of cold, then alighted on the desk in a sort of dark, swirling pile. Cecilia extended a shadowy tendril towards the paper in his hand, pointing at a small item below the fold.
AMALCROSS SLASHER STRIKES AGAIN
BARON BASIL ‘JA AURIC SLAIN IN BED.
April 22, 449 Amal Era, Hightown
Baron Basil ‘ja Auric was found dismembered in his Highcross mansion late Tuesday night. While the Secretary of the Amalguard issued a simple statement confirming his death, ‘ja Auric’s housekeeper, one Sara Goring from Castle-Upon-Kine, indicated that the legendary spice merchant was found in his bedroom, and his remains arranged in the shape of an unknown glyph. Furthermore, Goring claims, his head was burned almost beyond recognition in the fireplace. Basil ‘ja Auric was the second member of the family to be killed in such a manner. A body that was presumed to be his eldest daughter, Cecilia ‘ja Auric, was recovered three years to the day near the confluence of the Boern River and the Amal Strait.
Magus Hellene Upsillion of the Magist Imperial University speculated that the purported binding glyph was not actually part of some spell, but rather a cunning distraction placed by the killer to draw attention to magical matters and away from a more parochial reason for the attack.
“This isn’t a real binding glyph,” Upsillion said. “It’s just a horrific, brutal mess intended to impugn the magical community in Amalcross.”
Basil ‘ja Auric is survived by his wife of thirty years, Sandrine ‘ja Auric, and his youngest daughter, Tabitha ‘ja Auric. Neither were available for comment, and the ‘ja Auric family indicated they were in seclusion in the family palace during a period of mourning. Imperial Catechism Chief Investigator Garvin… CON’T PAGE 3.
Byron read, mumbling to himself. How had me missed this? He’d worked Cecilia’s case for years. Basil had been a friend. Well, he’d been a deep-pocketed and highly motivated client. His most important client. When Basil had hired him, his inquiries shot up, and from a higher class of citizen. When he’d fired him… word travels quick among Amalcross’s elites.
Yet Byron still thought fondly of the time he’d spent in Basil’s drawing room, drinking his liquor and spinning yarns of his dogged pursuit of truth. They’d developed a rapport; Byron gave Basil hope, and Basil subsidized his life. Until he didn’t. But that wasn’t the old Baron’s fault. And now he was dead.
The story was three days old, and Byron hadn’t known his friend had died. He tried to remember three days before. He’d been drunk, he knew that. He’d emptied his wallet that night and drunk himself into a stupor at the thought of embarking on a new career as a beggar in the morning. He remembered slumping in a booth at the Deadman’s Arms, then being thrown out.
He rubbed his cheek, which throbbed at the memory of his landing on the cobblestones.
He read the article twice, then looked up at Cecilia when he finished.
“Don’t you know who killed you?” Byron asked. “Why wait three years to contact me? I could have saved your father from this.” He pounded the article on the table. The flash of anger felt good, like a moment of righteous respectability.
The specter reared up, swirling, into the vague silhouette of a woman once more. In that moment, Byron recognized her as Cecilia, just for an instance. The tilt of her head, the outline of her face. Then it dissolved into an angry swirl. Cecelia spoke, and now her voice was cold as ice.
“I did not see my attacker. There was just pain, and then death. I died. And in dying, I appeared at the Bone Gates. I turned my back on them and I wandered. I navigated the plains of death to return here. To my father. My mother. To our family’s legacy. To exact my revenge. I wandered for an endless time through the Meridian. I found I could watch you or my father, as if through a veil. Yet every time I tried to push through, it was as if some vicious creature struck me and pulled me back. Again and again.
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