“I just don’t see how anyone could find you innocent, Delex,” Nusa told the prisoner. “You had the dead man in your arms, you had his blood on you, and the knife in your hands. Jande looked as if someone tried to rip her clothes off.”
“I work as a prostitute at the Lucky Lady,” Delex said. “I have women paying me willingly for sex. I’ve never hurt anyone before. Jande killed that man, not me.”
“Let’s go over things one more time,” Nusa said. “Tell me again what happened.”
“I was returning from the bath house about the seventh bell of the day, when I met Vennie — Vennie is the runner of my long-time client, Grana Baugar.” He glanced at her as he said the word “client” but Nusa concentrated on maintaining a neutral expression on her face and motioned him to continue.
“Grana is a merchant. I’ve never been to her house because, for the longest time, Eliza Tillipanary, the owner of the Lucky Lady, would not allow her workers to visit clients’ homes.
“Vennie told me that Grana wanted to see me. In the past, she had always visited me at least once a sennight, but of late, she hadn’t come for about a month. In fact, she had stopped visiting me right about the time she brought and introduced her friend, a woman named Jande Tes. Her husband is a gem merchant — was a gem merchant, I should say. Grana brought Jande to see me because she had recently been widowed. Anyway, when Vennie told me Grana wanted to see me, I went with him. He took me to a house, and a young man opened the door, invited me inside, and left me to wait in a room. Jande came to see me. I –”
Nusa interrupted, “Jande? I thought you said Grana’s runner took you to her house.”
Delex nodded. “That’s what I thought too. I still don’t know whose house it is. Jande came into the room and asked me if I would quit the game of pleasure. When I refused, she asked me to wait a moment and stepped out of the room. When she came back, she was pushing the young man who had opened the door to me in front of her; he was desperately wounded and there was blood everywhere. She shoved him at me, and the next thing I knew, she had torn her clothes and was screaming.
“Grana came in, and sent off her runner to call the guard. When they came, they arrested me and brought me here.”
There was silence while Nusa thought through his story. It certainly sounded implausible, but he told the story twice and both times were the same. Her instinct that had been honed through years of being a guard came alive, making her wonder why anyone would make up a story with so many holes. Reluctantly she came to the conclusion she would have to speak with the others in this little drama, the two women and the runner, before she could make up her mind to believe or disbelieve.
She turned to leave.
She faced him again, and she was close enough to see the minute tremble in the knuckles that clutched the bars of the small window in the door to his cell.
“Nusa, do you believe me?” To his credit, his voice was the same neutral tone as before.
She sighed. She could not lie; she would not lie, even if she thought he was a despicable creature. “I came prepared to believe your guilt,” she said thoughtfully. “Now I am willing to consider other options. I have work to do.” She turned and went upstairs.
Later that day, Nusa went to the house of Jande Tes, accompanied by Lieutenant Caisy. He had been waiting for her after she had interviewed Delexand, and Nusa had recounted all relevant details of the murder. When she had announced her intention of speaking with both women, he had agreed to go with her.
They approached the house, which was not very big. It did have two glass windows on the top floor. The front door was an affair in dark oak, with a knocker that shone with polish. A rather pale young woman with dark bags under her eyes answered their knock. She was neatly dressed, but was obviously poor, for her dress was faded and patched, and her hair was pulled back and tied with a piece of dirty string.
“Yes, what do you want?” she asked in a pleasant voice.
“We’re from the town guard and we want to see Jande Tes,” Caisy answered.
The girl’s face paled even more when she heard the word “guard” but she said with some hard-won composure, “Please to come in and wait.” She led them into a room that had doors that were open to the back yard. The afternoon sun lit up the room with a brilliant orange glow.
The inside door clacked, and both Nusa and Caisy turned to face the newcomer. She was relatively tall, with colorful, arresting blue-green eyes. Her pale hair was pulled back but fell unconfined to her shoulders, and she wore a plain, dark gown that was buttoned all the way to her neck. “May I help you?”
Caisy went through his introduction again, and the woman, Jande Tes, invited them to sit.
“Could you tell us what happened?”
Jande sighed, and her face took on a patently sad expression. “My friend Grana took me to the Lucky Lady. I’ve never been to a place like that, but my husband had died, and I was so lonely. I just … I knew it was wrong, but I didn’t want to offend Grana. And then afterwards … Delex was so nice to me, so kind. I never thought that he would do this to me.” She dropped her face to her hands and began to weep.
Caisy motioned Nusa with his eyes, and she moved to the other woman. “Don’t cry, madam. We don’t mean to distress you, but we need to know, if he is to be punished appropriately.”
Caisy nodded and added, “Indeed, madam. You must be brave if he is to get his due.”
Nusa wondered what Caisy really thought of the whole affair. She felt so sorry for Jande; at least the woman knew what was right and what was wrong.
Jande lifted her face from her hands and wiped her eyes. “I will never go back to such a place again,” she vowed. “I was well served for doing something so …”
“Tell us what happened that day,” Caisy encouraged when Jande paused.
“Actually, it was what happened before that,” Jande said with tears in her voice. “See, I went to the Lucky Lady more than once. Oh, my God forgive me. I went to a man of pleasure.”
Nusa thought she saw Caisy roll his eyes, but wasn’t sure. She said, “Madam, please. We understand how upset this makes you, but you must tell us what happened so that we can take the right action.”
This time, Jande straightened her shoulders and began to speak. “I’d gone to see Delex before that at the Lady, and the first few times, he was nice to me. Then he started being mean to me. I didn’t know what to do, so I told Grana about it. She wouldn’t believe me!”
She said the last sentence with such a tone of injured surprise that for the first time, doubt rose in Nusa’s mind. She had believed Jande so far, but for some reason, the dismay in her voice seemed overdone.
Jande continued, “She said she’d known Delex a long time, longer than she’d known me, and she simply couldn’t believe that Delex would hurt a woman. So I told her I’d prove it to her.” There was a hard tone in her voice as she spoke the last sentence.
For Nusa, that little, first doubt grew a little as she recognized hostility among the nameless negative emotions in that voice.
“I borrowed Vennie from Grana and sent him to invite Delex here. I knew that when he saw me away from the Lady, he wouldn’t be able to stop himself from trying to hurt me. I took precautions, of course. I had my husband’s assistant watch everything from just outside this room. When Delex came and he saw me, he tried to molest me. And when my assistant came in and tried to help me, Delex killed him!”
Again, the horror in Jande’s voice seemed forced, and tinged with something stronger. Nusa focused on it for a moment, and it sounded very much like satisfaction to her. She wanted to hear the other woman speak about the events again, so that Nusa could hear those emotions again, but it seemed Jande had finished. So Nusa asked, “Then what happened?”
Jande said softly, “I was all hurt, and my dress was torn. I screamed and screamed, and then Grana came in. Then she sent for the guard and they took Delex away.”
After a few moments of silence, Caisy asked, “Tell us about your husband’s assistant, madam. Did you know him well?”
“Yes,” she said carelessly. “He was my husband’s nephew. His parents died in the Beinison War. He always spent most of his time here, and after the war, he moved into our house.”
“I see. What was his name?” Caisy, it seemed, was very interested in the victim.
“Boling Tes?” Caisy asked again.
“Yes, yes. And Delex killed him. Delex hurt me.” Jande began to weep. “He will be punished, won’t he?”
Caisy motioned to Nusa again, and she soothed the other woman. “There, there, madam, don’t worry. He will be punished.”
With that, the two of them took their leave. Once they were on the streets, Caisy said, as if they were still continuing the same conversation from inside the house, “Don’t you mean: he will be punished if he’s guilty?”
Nusa frowned. “Don’t you believe her?”
He glanced at her and did not answer. The chatter of the passersby seemed unusually loud to her. The late afternoon sun felt pleasantly hot against her neck. “We should speak with Grana Baugar also,” she said slowly.
Caisy laughed. “There.” He pointed to a house close by. They walked to the next street and knocked on the door.
The interview went differently. For one thing, the two women were as unalike in appearance as they seemed to be in disposition. Everything about Grana was brown: her dress, her hair, and her eyes. Grana’s eyes were as arresting in their own way as Jande’s had been. Grana’s were large and wide with long eyelashes. Her pupils were dark with rings of honey that resembled nothing so much as a stone thrown into a pond. Despite her lack of height, she had a presence that Jande, for all her beauty, had lacked.
Grana, voice dry and businesslike, confirmed every aspect of Jande’s story. The only time when that aloof voice wavered was when it first spoke of Jande’s accusations. “I couldn’t believe what she was saying.” Grana paused as if reliving that conversation, a sad expression in those beautiful eyes. “I told her that I’d known Delex for a long time, and I wouldn’t believe her without proof. So she asked me to her house and sent off a runner to get him.”
Nusa frowned. She remembered Delexand’s words about the runner, so she asked, “Whose runner did she send?”
“Mine. She doesn’t have a runner; she uses any runner in the city.”
“What happened after that?” Caisy asked.
Grana continued, “He must have come, for the knocker sounded. I was waiting in the dining room, and the boy Boling was waiting in the little alcove outside her drawing room where Delex was. I heard screaming and when I ran into the drawing room, I found Boling dead in Delex’s arms. Jande’s dress was torn and she was bleeding. She was screaming so loudly I thought it would bring back her husband from the dead. I slapped her and she stopped. Then I sent Vennie — that’s my runner — to get the guard.”
“What could you see from the dining room?” Caisy asked.
Grana frowned, her brows drawing together in an expression that combined surprise with puzzlement. “I had the door ajar so that I could hear, but I couldn’t see into the drawing room.”
Nusa had caught on to what Caisy was after, and she asked the next question. “Could you see the alcove?”
Grana shook her head, still frowning. “Why are you asking?” She paused briefly.
“We’ll be in touch, madam,” Caisy stood without answering Grana.
Three days later, the knocker sounded loudly at Jande Tes’ house. It was mid-afternoon and she was alone for the moment. After her husband’s nephew, Boling, had been murdered, she had not employed a replacement. The cook was not yet returned from the marketplace, and the parlor maid was gone to the seamstress, Leana Mudge, to pick up a dress that Jande had commissioned.
She rose from the armchair in her drawing room where she had been trying in vain to total some receipts, glad of the interruption. She had never been good with numbers, and she knew that she needed to find an assistant who was. Her husband had been a gem merchant, and if she were to maintain her present standard of living, she needed to make sure that the business stayed successful; her own lack of understanding of both gems and currency precluded doing that on her own.
The knocker sounded again, and she raised her voice, “I’m coming; I’m coming.”
She flung open the door. There was only one person outside, a man probably in his thirties, well-built, tall, maybe a hand taller than her. He wore the ordinary breeches and tunic of a dock worker. He was a good-looking man with a bald pate, narrow face, pointed chin, muscled forearms, and slender hips. His hazel eyes bored into her, and as she gasped in utter shock, he smiled. It was not a pleasant one.
“Well, hello, Jande. Aren’t you pleased to see me?” His voice was deep and low, just the way she remembered. It was his voice that she had first fallen in love with.
“Invite me in,” he said, and put his hands on her waist and pushed her back gently. Then he stepped inside and kissed her bruisingly. She responded with equal force, and only when she tasted salt did he release her. There was red on his lips and she leaned forward to lick it off.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, staring up at him, knowing that he could see the hunger in her eyes. How could he not recognize it? It was his job, after all.
He smiled down at her, and for the first time since she had met him, there was something in his face. No, she corrected herself; something had gone from his smile. The gentleness with which he had always regarded her was missing. A thrill of fear ran through her and she shuddered. His eyes narrowed, the only recognition he gave of her trembling, and he continued to smile that ugly smile as he turned her around and pushed her toward the drawing room.
She obediently walked to the room, but turned to face him once she was inside. He moved his hands to her waist and began caressing her body a little roughly. She did not stop him.
“What are you doing here?” she asked again, a little breathlessly this time. His actions were very distracting, for he had untied the bonds that kept her dress up.
“I am here to do what you want,” he murmured, his eyes glittering.
By this time, Jande could barely think. He knew all the secret places of her body, what she liked, what she loved. “What I want,” she said between harsh breaths, “is for you to leave the Lady and be with me forever, to do this …” Her voice was suspended as she drowned in sensation, all coherent thoughts lost.
“Is that what you really want?” he asked, still watching her with that unnervingly bright gaze.
Her breath still came harshly, but she could open her eyes now and maybe think a thought or two. “Yes,” she said, between slowing pants. “I always ask you that, and you always say ‘no’. I need you beside me, Delex. I need what my husband couldn’t give me. What he went elsewhere for. Tell me you love me and I’ll tell the guard to let you go.”
“The young man is dead,” he reminded her, his hands caressing her gently now. The air in the room was cool against her bare skin, despite the sun shining through the open doors, and his palms were warm.
“Ah, don’t worry,” she muttered, throwing her head back, enjoying the sensation of his fingers gliding all over every bit of exposed skin. “I will tell them that it was an accident. I will even have the parlor maid say that you are innocent, that she saw the whole thing.”
He bent to kiss her, and this time it was gentle, sensuous. “Did she see everything?” he asked between gentle nips at her lips.
“No, but she will say what I tell her to.” Jande opened her eyes, looking into his with a smile. “They will all say what I tell them to. Or they will feel the pain. That stupid husband of mine never understood the way that you do. Will you come to live by my side?”
“Only if you tell the guard the truth will they release me,” he said. Then he ran his gaze down her mostly unclad body. “You are so beautiful, Jande. So … very … beautiful.” He punctuated his last sentence with a kiss on her lips, then one on each breast. “I will live with you if you promise to tell me the truth. Always.”
She shuddered. “Truth. I promise to tell you the truth.”
He kissed her lips again, and his hands wandered, searching to incite her passions once more. She caught and held his wrists and said, “Do you know how much I love you? You give me everything that my husband didn’t. What a small thing you ask of me!”
Delex smiled as he rotated his wrists gently. He was holding her hands rather than the other way around. Then he bent and his mouth created sensations that made her feel as if she were about to climb out of her own skin. “Tell me the truth,” he growled, lifting his head to meet her gaze.
Jande opened her eyes, her breath coming fast. “The truth is that I love you. I love you so much that I would do anything to keep you. I first came to you because I wanted to get back at my husband for his visits to another house. Even though he’s dead, I wanted that taste of revenge. He stopped sleeping in my bed. But you, you liked everything we did. I needed you and you wouldn’t leave that stupid house,” she screamed. Her eyes were afire and it was as if another woman had taken her place. Her face twisted in hatred. “I killed Boling for you and tore my own clothes so that you would understand what I could do, what pain you would feel without me!”
He straightened, more out of fear than anything else, all traces of passion gone from his face and eyes. Then he pulled up her gown, and she frowned. “What are you doing?” She was back to the loving woman, pleading with him.
Suddenly the room filled with people, and Jande shrank back, holding her gown to her bosom. Delex stepped behind her and began lacing up the ties.
Jande looked around, eyes wild, and she saw Grana Baugar. Behind Grana were the Town Guard. “What are you doing here?”
“I left the door open so that they could enter behind us,” Delex offered. “You’re not the only one who believes in truth, Jande; the guard does too. So they released me to help you speak the truth.”
“We heard you say that you did it all yourself,” Grana sounded shocked.
“Delexand, you are free to go,” one of the guards said in a formal tone. Then he turned to face Jande and said, “By your own admission, you killed Boling Tes. You will have to come with us, madam.”
“Grana,” Jande wailed. “Delex, stop them. I only did it because I love you. You have to stop them.”
The female guard — Jande remembered her name was Nusa — moved closer, saying, “Don’t cry, madam. You have to come with us now.” She began pushing Jande to the door.
Jande wept loudly as she was led out of the house.
I began to follow them out when someone put a hand on my arm. It was Grana.
“I’m sorry, Delex,” she said, looking up at me. Her eyes were sad and she looked like I’d felt when she had first refused to believe me: betrayed.
“It’s fine, Grana,” I didn’t bother to hide the bored tone in my voice. I couldn’t forgive her for her lack of faith in me. Granted, we had been seller and buyer in the past, but we had known each other for a long time, and I had been her friend and confidant. She knew me very well indeed, and her lack of faith in me, her easy belief that I was capable of doing something so base as violating a woman, had hurt me beyond measure.
She sighed and turned her eyes away. “I should have trusted you. I’m sorry I didn’t. It’s just that Jande told me that she would prove it. You should have heard her –”
“How could you believe that I would do something like that?” I asked, unable to stop the bitterness within me. “You’ve known me for a very long time, Grana. I almost thought you were my friend.”
Grana barely waited for my sentence to be completed. “I am your friend. Why do you think I am here? The first day when those two guards came by to talk to me, I guessed that they were suspicious of her, or at least Lieutenant Caisy was. Who do you think convinced them to agree to this trap? The guard may believe in the truth, but do you think they would have released you to come here if I hadn’t come up with this plan? I spoke to Jande and I became suspicious myself, so I spoke to the guard. I made them agree to let you come here.”
“You did nothing,” I yelled. “It was Nusa Abarris, Masian’s sister, who arranged the whole thing. If it hadn’t been for her, I would be in a cell, waiting for the noose. I was dependent on the good nature of a bleeding Stevenic who thought I was less than a bug for my choice of profession. Tell me, Grana, would you have found it so easy to believe Jande if I’d been a merchant, if I’d been anything other than a toy?”
She came to me and put both hands on my face, cupping my cheeks. “I’m sorry, Delex.” Her eyes were swimming in tears. “We are friends, and I did what I could to help you. You can believe it or not, your choice.” She raised herself on her tiptoes and pressed a kiss against my lips and then retreated from the room.
I went out after her and pulled the door behind me absently. My mind was full of relief on the one hand and turmoil on the other. I knew that it behooved me to go back to the Lucky Lady where my friends would be waiting for me, but I needed some solitude to calm the whirligig in my mind.
A few menes later, I walked down the Street of Travellers. As I passed the business district, Masian waved a hand at me. When another hand waved, I noticed Nusa standing next to him. I waved back. Then they turned together. But the small joy of seeing brother and sister together didn’t find its way into me. I continued onward until I made my way to the port area and set my face out to sea. I’d chosen my profession for stupid reasons, but I’d stayed in it because I’d enjoyed giving joy to women, seeing the start of pleasure in their eyes.
I felt betrayed not only by Grana, someone whom I’d begun to think of as a friend, but also by my profession.