“You paint a fair picture of yourself, Delex,” Nusa said to me, a lowly prisoner in the Dargon jail. “You work as a prostitute for Eliza Tillipanary at the Lucky Lady. You have women pay you to do disgusting things and you take pleasure in it. You are charged with murdering a man and with attempted rape. The picture that others have painted is a far different one than yours.”
“Will you not try to find the truth?” I asked. “Otherwise, why are you here?”
“I came here only because … well, let me fill in parts of your story that you do not know …”
There was a thundering sound, and Nusa Abarris started from her bed, heart beating almost as loudly as the noise that had awakened her. Again it sounded, and she realized that someone was almost beating the door down. She could tell that it was still early, for the single window that she had left open still let in the darkness of night rather than light of day.
“I’m coming,” she called, standing up and straightening her tunic before going to the door. She was a tall woman, still shapely despite her age, and a member of the Town Guard.
When she opened the door, a young man was standing outside, hand raised to knock again. He looked disheveled and shock and fear were clearly writ upon his face. He was good looking, with big blue eyes and blonde hair.
“You!” Disgust dripped from her voice. It was her younger brother, Masian. There was a striking similarity between them. Yet she was not the prettier of the two, for where his hair was golden, hers was just the color of straw; where his eyes were the brightest of blues, hers were but pale and watery. They had become estranged about three years past when he had decided to go to work at the Lucky Lady, a hostelry that was well known for its people of pleasure, or, in more stringent terms, prostitutes.
The night Masian had told her of his decision had been a nightmare for her, a devout Stevenic. Of all the professions open to him, he had chosen one which she could never accept. That was the night she had disowned him, when she had told him outright that she had no brother. For her, it had been more bitter than when their mother had died, leaving the young boy to her guardianship. Masian had been more son than brother to her.
She made as if to shut the door, but he was too quick for her. He stepped inside, crowding her, and she instinctively stepped back inside the large, single room that was her home. “Masian, get away from me. I can and I will hurt you.”
“Nusa, please. Listen to me. I need your help.” There was a quaver in his voice, and it tugged at her heart.
She had to quash the old instinct of running to his aid. He was a grown man and he had made his choice. “I cannot help you,” she said harshly. “Begone!”
“I won’t go. Nusa, you’re my sister, and nothing can ever change that. I need your help now, so don’t send me away. Besides, it isn’t even for me!”
That stopped Nusa, and she swallowed the angry words unsaid.
Her silence was enough for Masian, and he poured out his story. “My friend Delex — they’re saying he killed a man, and he would never do that. You have to help, Nusa, please. He’s such a good man, so kind. He’s always helpful. Please, Nusa.”
“Masian …” She knew when he said “friend” whom he meant; she was sure it was that bald-headed man who always accompanied Masian when she happened to run into them on the streets that she patrolled. The friend was another of those wretched men of the night. There was no way that she would ever lift a finger to help one like that.
“No,” Masian shook his head. “I won’t let you say no. You always told me to help other people, to do the right thing. Well, you’re not doing the right thing here. Delex is innocent, and you won’t even listen to me just because you don’t approve of my job. Is that what the good Stevene would have wanted?”
His question hung in the sudden silence between them, and Nusa was forced to ponder it. She had always hated his job, still hated it, but …
“You’re assuming that Delex did it just because you disapprove of what he does for a living.” Masian threw another verbal bolt at her.
Was he right? Was she assuming that the man, whoever he was, was guilty simply because he did something that was sinful for a living?
Masian continued his assault. “Nusa, you can’t punish sins; only God can. Besides, remember that the Stevene said, ‘Judge a man not, for God is the final justiciar’.”
Nusa turned away, her mind in turmoil. She didn’t know what to do. Masian was silent, as if he sensed that he was about to get his way. She knew that she had to listen to his story, even though her every instinct screamed at her to avoid it; yet a tiny voice within her spoke of justice at all costs, of doing the right thing for its own sake, and she listened to that voice that was both so small and so strong.
“Tell me what happened.”
It was apparent that Masian had been waiting for just that invitation, for the words spilled out of him like a raging river. The story was quite simple. Her guess had been right: the friend was the bald man she had seen with Masian. Apparently, a client had sent a runner requesting his presence in her own home, and the man, Delexand, had gone. It turned out to be the house of the wrong woman. Here, the story got convoluted, but Nusa let Masian talk without interruption. At the house, the client’s male assistant had been murdered and the client had been molested. The client had been scratched in various places upon her body and her clothes had been torn. Two guards had arrested Delex and taken him away.
“How do you know he’s innocent?” Nusa raised a hand to stop Masian when he opened his mouth, and she continued, “She was his client. What if she changed her mind? What if he really did molest her? What if he really did kill the young man? How do you know he’s innocent?” she repeated.
“How do I know he’s innocent?” Masian parrotted back to her in an astonished voice. “Nusa, if someone told you I’d killed a man, would you believe him?”
Nusa didn’t answer, and Masian didn’t bother to wait for a response. “That’s how I know. I know him, Nusa, and he didn’t kill anyone. And I’m pretty sure he didn’t molest that woman either.”
Nusa nodded, and began to pace, thinking about what Masian had told her. The story had more holes than a torn blanket in an old orphanage. She asked slowly, “You said that a runner came to invite him to a client’s house.”
“Straight, then why did he go to someone else’s house?”
Masian frowned. “I don’t know, Oosa.”
The old nickname had slipped out, and Nusa felt her eyes tear. He had called her Oosa when he was younger and still learning to speak. He had been so cute and innocent then. She turned away, swallowing, and opened her eyes wide to prevent the tears from falling out, hoping he wouldn’t notice.
He didn’t. “Straight. If Grana Baugar’s runner came, then how come he was at Jande Tes’ house?” Grana Baugar was the client, and Jande Tes was the woman who had been molested and in whose house the murder had been committed.
Nusa composed herself and turned back to face him. “We have to go to see him. When was he taken away? Do you know where he is now?”
Masian nodded. “The runner came last night. Apparently he was taken away to the guardhouse around the first bell of night. I didn’t find out until this morning because …” His voice trailed away and he glanced at her before continuing, “Eliza told me.”
Nusa ignored the implication and said briskly, “We’ll go to the guardhouse now.” As if the good God and the Stevene were agreeing with her, she heard the first bell of the day.
Nusa and Masian entered the guardhouse where a page sat on a small stool. She was a little girl and was just waking from a nap. When she saw Nusa, she slid off the stool and smiled widely, revealing a gap between her front teeth.
“Hi Nusa,” she said in a high-pitched voice.
“Hello, Enid. Are any of the sergeants in?” Nusa asked.
“I dunno. I fell asleep,” the little girl said sheepily.
Nusa smiled, told Masian to wait for her, and went inside. On one side of the corridor was the stairwell that led upstairs to more offices, and the justiciar’s hall above, and downstairs to the dungeons. She went up to where the offices were: the captain’s at the far end, one room for the lieutenants, and a few for the sergeants. It was far too early in the day for either Captain Koren or Lietenant Darklen to be in, but some of the sergeants were present.
She poked her head into one of the big, roomy, shared offices. “Caisy, have you been here all night?” Although Caisy had been promoted to lieutenant, he’d continued to use the desk he’d had as a sergeant.
The man she addressed looked up from the ledger he’d been painstakingly studying. “Yes. You need something?”
Nusa entered and approached his desk. “It seems they brought in a man named Delexand on suspicion of killing somebody and attempted rape.”
Caisy nodded. “Yes. This guy works at the Lucky Lady.” He smiled. “Garay and Tarb were patrolling the streets there, and it seems the lady’s runner came out screaming something. When they went in, they found him with the body in his arms.”
Nusa frowned. “Are they here? I’d like to talk to them.”
“They went off duty about ha’bell ago. Any particular reason you’re interested?” Caisy’s voice took on an inquiring tone, but she knew he wanted an answer. He was her immediate supervisor, after all.
She shrugged. “The man’s best friend came to see me, convinced that the guy is innocent. I agreed to talk to him, that’s all.”
A quizzical look appeared on Caisy’s face. The two of them were not close friends, but Nusa got along with him well. He was scrupulously fair and had an acerbic wit that appeared at strange opportunities. Nusa liked him, for he was a kind man, although he kept that trait well hidden. Now he merely said in a dismissing tone of voice, “The guy is in a cell downstairs.”
Nusa nodded and exited the room thoughtfully. She knew that Caisy would now keep an eye on this case, for he had been intrigued by her interest. It occurred to her that this case would be the focus of gossip and laughter in the guardhouse; for some reason, most people seemed to wink and smile when the topic of pleasure houses came up. For Nusa herself, while she disapproved of such houses, the thought of their inmates and their lifestyle had a much more personal and negative impact.
She reached the cell where the prisoner had been confined. It was a small room, bare of anything save a chamber pot in one corner. The corridor outside the cell had a narrow window high up that did duty as a skylight; occasionally the feet of passersby could be seen through it. This early in the morning, the rosy light of day crept through.
Through the cell door, the man sat on the floor, leaning against a wall with his feet outstretched, hands loosely clasped in his lap, and his eyes closed. He had removed his tunic, which lay neatly folded beside him; the reason was obvious from the bloody tear on top that she could see from outside the cell. His chest and upper arms were muscled without being overly so, and his trim hips were hidden beneath a pair of clean and shiny breeches. His bald pate accentuated his facial features: a narrow face with a pointed chin, a well-defined nose, and ears that lay flat against the side of his head. He looked to be a few years her junior.
He must have sensed her presence, for he opened his eyes. In the dim light, she could not make out their color. He said nothing but continued to watch her with an unnerving intensity.
For a moment, Nusa wondered what she was doing. She disapproved of pleasure houses for had not the Stevene said of physical pleasure, ‘Let that which is special to the marriage bed remain within’? And this man was not only a sinner but he was also a friend of Masian’s, probably encouraging him to remain within the profession. She would listen to him, but her promise was only to hear this man’s story, not to help him.
“You are Delexand,” she said.
“I am Nusa Abarris.”
His eyes widened at that and he rose and approached the bars that separated them. She saw that his eyes were brown, and his skin seemed to glow like copper in the golden light of the morning.
“Why are you here?” His voice was soft and deep, its pitch inquiring without any other overtones, while the expression on his face was neutral.
Nusa supposed rather bitterly that, given his profession, he must know how to act well. “Masian came to see me.”
He laughed softly, but it seemed to Nusa that it was humorless. “That, I realized the moment you introduced yourself. So, you have come to pass your own judgment on me before ever I get to the justice hall, happy to see one more sinner hung for his sins.”
“I am here to listen to your story.”
“Oho, are you now? Tell me the truth, Nusa. Are you willing to even face the possibility that I might be innocent? That my choice of professions does not automatically make me a killer?” He paused and looked at her.
She was frowning and had taken a step back as he spoke. Seeing her move, he nodded with a sarcastic smile and continued his tirade.
“I thought not. Tell me, Nusa, why *are* you here? You disapprove of my and Masian’s profession. You ignore him and snub him when you see him in church. If that is any indication of your affection for him, I do not see any reason for your presence here.” His voice had grown bitterer as he spoke.
Nusa felt the words come boiling up from within her as he spoke, the feelings his statements evoked too hot and angry for control. “And what do you know of affection, you who works as a man of the night, you who corrupts men and women without a thought for the moral questions behind your actions? You have no right to question me. I may disapprove of your profession, but I will not allow my own feelings to obscure what is right and what is wrong. If you really killed that young man, Delex, I will make sure that your trial takes you speedily to the noose. And if you did not, then I will be your advocate.” Her breath was coming harshly by the time she finished speaking, and then silence descended.
He did not reply, but stared at her with an intensity that she would have found unnerving had she not been so very angry. Finally he gave a curt nod. “So be it,” he said and his next words were measured and spaced out evenly. “I did not kill that young man.”
“Tell me what happened,” Nusa ordered.
“And I’ve given you all I know,” I said. “Will you help me?”
“It doesn’t sound right,” Nusa said. “Why did you go to her house? You’ve never done that before. Why did the man die in your arms with blood all over you and not her?”
My hopes crashed to the floor and despair hit me in the gut. I felt the noose around my neck. It was not long now, I knew.