It's time for another snippet from Blackthorne. This time from Caius's point of view.
"That is not good," Cadet Warden Fortis Caius muttered. The stench of death assaulted his nose. His heart chilled, and his stomach seized into a tight leaden knot.
The tan brick walls lining the narrow alley off of Five Sisters Road were splashed with blood. The ground, comprised of dried piss, old shit, and assorted city grime pulverized by time into something resembling dirt, was black where the gore had pooled. Insects buzzed in the damp mud. His gaze kept skipping over the primly arranged body lying at the center of it all.
He didn't want to look too closely at her ruined, eyeless face.
How can one person have that much blood in them? he thought. Warden school, as rigorous as it was, hadn't prepared him for anything like this. He listened to the thudding of his heart while a metallic taste slimed the back of his tongue. His partner, Tavian, choked and turned away.
Caius swallowed an urge to be sick too. He took a long shuddering breath. Focus. Remember your training. Follow procedure, and you'll get through this. Show no weakness. Remember Tavian is watching.
Glancing at the hunched and retching Tavian, Caius reconsidered that last thought. Still, this was their first corpse in the field, and Caius was determined not to give Tavian any opportunities for advancement at his expense. Not like poor Severus.
Steeling himself, Caius resumed an air of professionalism. "This can't have been a malorum attack. There's too much blood." He scanned the ground for an assassin's token that might explain the body, but didn't find one. His gaze drifted over her eyeless face once again. Her lips formed a serene smile.
This is the work of a rogue.
His gut muscles knotted yet again. To combat the nausea, he checked the roofline for trouble. Lamps bolted to the alley's walls cast long shadows thinned by a full moon.
He told himself he was calm, and with the exception of his stomach, he discovered with a shock that it was true. Having only recently graduated from the Academy, he wasn't certain if he had training to thank or the unreality of the situation. He forced himself through the next steps, nonetheless. Making note of the time for the report, he checked his pocket watch.
The lid snapped shut with a precise click that seemed far too loud.
A quarter to eleven. Wiping palms slick with sweat on his uniform coat, he stepped closer to the corpse. He was sure it was a corpse. He wouldn't bother checking for her breath with a mirror.
No one can live through that much violence.
She seemed to have been laid out for her funeral. She lay on her back with her legs straight and together. Her stained and well-worn dress had been smoothed in a tidy arrangement around her. Her wounded left hand rested on her chest. Her right arm lay at her side, ending in a fresh stump at the wrist. Her severed right hand rested a foot or so away. The two shortest fingers ended in jagged wounds. A short distance from that, a tiny gold earring glittered in the lobe of an amputated ear. The ear was pointed.
It seemed odd to Caius that so much care would be taken in arranging the body but not those stray parts. It was as if they'd been discarded and forgotten once they were no longer attached to the whole. At last, he let his gaze travel up her bruised neck to her ravaged face. Not only were her eyes missing, but both ears had been removed as well.
He turned his attention back to the lone, severed ear. Why take one and not the other?
Malorum never take trophies. Neither do assassins.
At that moment, the race of the victim registered. An Eledorean slave. What was she doing out alone at night?
With a jolt he understood he'd been so intent on what he was seeing that he'd forgotten where he was. There may be malorum nearby. Check your partner. Your partner is all you have in the field. Those words began to make sense in ways that they hadn't before. "Tavian?"
"Just. Give me a moment. Please."
All right. What's next? Valarius, their supervisor, wouldn't be far. Caius set the hooded lantern he'd been carrying on the ground near the remains before wriggling out of his pack. "Tavian?"
Tavian spat and wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his coat. "What?"
Caius avoided gazing at Tavian's weakness. That could've been me, Caius thought. But it wasn't. "Do you have the spare lanterns?"
"Get them out." Caius waited for Tavian to protest. Tavian was of higher social rank, and it was his place to give orders, not Caius's.
To Caius's surprise, Tavian closed his eyes, swallowed, and nodded.
They worked together in silence as they unfolded, assembled, and arranged five camp lanterns in a half-circle near the body. The additional light would make the alley safer and would provide illumination for the investigation. With that done, Caius half-checked the small, barred windows above for witnesses. Anyone who hadn't lived in Novus Salernum for more than a week would wonder why the neighbors weren't awake. The Eledorian girl would have most certainly screamed for help, but Caius knew perfectly well why the windows had remained dark. No honest person would risk themselves and their family by indulging their curiosity. Anyone out after curfew was either a criminal or stupid, and therefore, deserved what they got.
We must finish before daylight. It was clear the alley was going to require a great deal of cleaning. We should start now.
Or should we wait for Valarius? Undecided, he thought to consult Tavian but hesitated.
Tavian's marks were the highest in the cadet class. Caius, himself, hadn't placed nearly as high. Maybe Tavian will get better with time? But Caius knew there was little chance that Tavian would have the luxury of time. If Caius knew it, Tavian certainly did.
Be careful. He'll turn on you. But looking into Tavian's eyes now, Caius understood otherwise, and in that instant, he knew he would forgive him.
Tavian's face was pale, and his uniform collar was unbuttoned. His expression bordered on panic. The unspoken question in his eyes was obvious. "Caius?"
Annoyed with himself, Caius already knew what he would do. How often have I longed for an advantage over Tavian? And now he that had one, and he wasn't going to act on it. I'm so sorry, Severus.
Out loud, Caius said, "Don't worry about it."
"But I was the one that reported---I'm the reason they reassigned Severus."
Caius blinked. Severus was---had been---Caius's closest friend. The news that Tavian had been the one to speak to the Director wasn't shocking. Caius had known that for more than a month. What was surprising was that Tavian was admitting it. Honesty had been the last thing Caius had expected from Tavian. That, along with the past month's assignment, altered Caius's perception of Tavian. Caius didn't like it.
And that's why the lieutenant inspector assigned him as my training partner, Caius thought. Mithras's blood. He hated feeling manipulated. "I know."
Tavian said, "But now you can--"
"I said, don't worry." Revenge won't bring Severus back. The thought reminded Caius of his father's lectures on ethics. Only Severus has that power now. And knowing Severus, that wasn't going to happen anytime soon. Caius said, "Just... forget it."