The High Lord Excerpt

Chapter One: The Message

In ancient Kyralian poetry the moon is known as the Eye. When the Eye is wide open, its watchful presence deters evil — or encourages madness in those who do wrong under its gaze. Closed, with only a sliver of white to mark its sleeping presence, the Eye allows hidden deeds of both good or ill to remain unnoticed.

Looking up at the moon, Cery smiled wryly. This phase of the Eye, a narrow slit, was the one preferred by secret lovers, but he was not hurrying through the shadows of the city to such a rendezvous. His purpose was of a darker kind.

Whether his deeds were good or ill, however, was difficult for him to know. The men he hunted deserved their fate, but Cery suspected there was a deeper purpose to the work he’d been commissioned to do than just reducing the murders that had plagued the city for the last few years. He did not know everything about the whole nasty business — of that he was sure — but he probably knew more than anyone else in the city.

As he walked, he considered what he did know. He had learned that these murders were not carried out by one man, but by a succession of them. He had also noted that these men were of the same race: Sachakan. Most importantly, however, he knew they were magicians.

As far as Cery knew, there were no Sachakans in the Guild.

If the Thieves were aware of any of this, they were keeping their knowledge well hidden. He thought back to a meeting of Thieves he had attended two years ago. The leaders of the loosely allied underworld groups had been amused by Cery’s offer to find and stop the killer. Those who asked slyly why Cery hadn’t succeeded after so long might be assuming there was only one murderer, or they might want him to think that was all they knew.

Each time Cery dealt with one of the murderers, another began his grisly work. Unfortunately, this made it appear to the Thieves that Cery was failing at his task. All he could do was shrug off their questions, and hope his success in other underworld activities made up for it.

From the dark square of a doorway the shape of a large man emerged. Distant lamplight revealed a grim, familiar face. Gol nodded once, then fell into step beside Cery.

Reaching an intersection of five roads, they approached a wedge-shaped building. As they stepped through the open doors, Cery savoured the heavy odour of sweat, bol and cooking. It was early evening and the bolhouse was full. He moved to a seat at the counter, where Gol ordered two mugs of bol and a dish of salted crots.

Gol munched his way through half of the beans before he spoke.

‘At the back. Flash ring. What you say, son?’

Cery and Gol often pretended to be father and son when they did not want their true identities known — which was most of the time they spent in public these days. Cery was only a few years younger than Gol but, with his small stature and boyish face, he was often mistaken for a youth. He waited a few minutes, then let his gaze shift to the back of the bolhouse.

Though the room was crowded, it was easy to locate the man Gol had pointed out. His distinctive wide, brown Sachakan face stood out among the pale Kyralian ones and he was watching the crowd carefully. Glancing at the man’s fingers, Cery noted a glint of red in the dull silver of a ring. He looked away.

‘What you think?’ Gol murmured.

Cery picked up his mug and pretended to gulp a mouthful of bol. ‘Too much rub for us, da. Leave him for another.’

Grunting in answer, Gol drained his mug and set it down. Cery followed him outside. A few streets from the bolhouse, he reached into his coat, pulled out three copper coins and pressed them into Gol’s large hand. The big man sighed and walked away.

Cery smiled wryly, then stooped and opened a grille set into a nearby wall. To any stranger, Gol appeared to be completely unperturbed by any situation. Yet Cery knew that sigh. Gol was scared — and he had good reason to be. Every man, woman and child in the slums was in danger while these murderers were about.

Cery slipped behind the grille into the passage below. The three coins he’d given Gol would pay three street urchins to deliver a message — three urchins in case the message was lost or delayed. The recipients were crafters of one kind or another, who would pass on the message via city guard or delivery boy or trained animal. Each man or woman along the path of the message knew nothing of the meaning behind the objects or passwords they were given. Only the man at the final destination would understand their significance.

When he did, the hunt would begin again.

Leaving the classroom, Sonea slowly made her way down the crowded, noisy main corridor of the University. She usually paid little attention to the antics of the other novices, but today was different.

A year today since the Challenge, she thought. A whole year since I fought Regin in the Arena, and so much has changed.

Most novices had gathered into groups of two or more and were walking toward the rear staircase and the Foodhall. A few girls lingered by a classroom door, talking in conspiratorial murmurs. At the far end of the corridor a teacher emerged from a classroom, followed by two novices carrying large boxes.

Sonea watched the faces of the few novices who noticed her. None glared or looked down their noses. Some of the first years stared at the incal on her sleeve — the symbol that declared her the favourite novice of the High Lord — then quickly looked away.

Reaching the end of the corridor, she started down the delicate, magically-fashioned staircase of the Entrance Hall. Her boots made a soft, bell-like sound on the treads. The hall echoed as more ringing steps joined hers. Looking up, she saw that three novices were ascending toward her, and she felt a chill run down her back.

The novice at the centre of the trio was Regin. His two closest friends, Kano and Alend, were by his side. Keeping her expression neutral, she continued her descent. As Regin noticed her, his smile vanished. His gaze met hers, then moved away again as they passed each other.

She glanced back and let out a small sigh of relief. Every encounter since the Challenge had been like this. Regin had adopted the demeanour of a gracious and dignified loser, and she let him. Rubbing in his defeat would have been satisfying, but she was sure he would come up with anonymous and subtle ways of getting his revenge if she did. Better they ignored each other.

Beating Regin in a public fight had done more than stop his harassment of her, though. It appeared to have won her the respect of other novices and most of the teachers. She wasn’t just the slum girl now, whose powers had first manifested in an attack on the Guild during the yearly Purge of vagrants and miscreants from the city. Remembering that day, she smiled ruefully. I was just as surprised that I had used magic as they were.

Nor was she remembered for being the ‘rogue’ who had evaded capture by making a deal with the Thieves. It seemed like a good idea at the time, she thought. I believed the Guild wanted to kill me. After all, they have never trained anyone outside the Houses before. It didn’t do the Thieves any good, though. I was never able to control my powers well enough to be of use.

Though some still resented it, she was no longer thought of as the outsider who brought about Lord Fergun’s downfall, either. Well, he shouldn’t have locked Cery up and threatened to kill him to force me into co-operating with his schemes. He wanted to convince the Guild that lower class people couldn’t be trusted with magic, but instead he proved that some magicians can’t be.

Thinking back to the novices in the corridor, Sonea smiled. From their wary curiosity she guessed the first thing they remembered about her was how easily she had won the Challenge. They wondered just how powerful she was going to become. She suspected that even some of the teachers were a little frightened of her.

At the bottom of the stairs Sonea crossed the Entrance Hall to the open University doors. Standing on the threshold, she looked at the grey, two-storey building at the edge of the garden and felt her smile fade.

A year since the Challenge, but some things haven’t changed.

Despite winning the novices’ respect, she still had no close friends. It wasn’t that they were all intimidated by her — or her guardian. Several novices had made an effort to include her in their conversations since the Challenge. But while she was happy to talk to them during lessons or midbreak, she always refused invitations to join them outside class.

She sighed and started down the University steps. Every friend she made was another tool the High Lord could use against her. If she ever found the opportunity to reveal his crimes to the Guild, everyone she cared about would be in danger. There was no sense in giving Akkarin a larger selection of victims to choose from.

Sonea thought back to the night, now over two and a half years ago, when she had slipped into the Guild with her friend Cery. Though she had believed the Guild wanted her dead, the risk seemed worth taking. She had not been able to control her powers, making her useless to the Thieves, and Cery had hoped that she might learn how to do so by watching magicians.

Late that night, after seeing much that fascinated her, she had approached a grey building set apart from the rest. Peering through a ventilation grille into an underground room, she had witnessed a black-robed magician performing strange magic …

The magician took the glittering dagger and looked up at the servant.

‘The fight has weakened me. I need your strength.’

The servant dropped to one knee and offered his arm. The magician ran the blade over the man’s skin, then placed a hand over the wound …

… then she felt a strange sensation, like a fluttering of insects in her ears.

Sonea shivered as she remembered. She hadn’t understood what she’d seen that night, and so much happened afterwards, she had tried to forget. Her powers had grown so dangerous that the Thieves had turned her over to the Guild and she discovered that the magicians did not want to kill her; they decided she could join them. Then Lord Fergun had captured Cery and blackmailed her into co-operating with him. The Warrior’s plans had failed, however, when Cery was found imprisoned under the University, and Sonea consented to a truth-read by Administrator Lorlen to prove that Fergun had manipulated her. It was only during this mind-reading that her memory of the black-robed magician in that underground room had returned in full.

Lorlen had recognised the magician as his friend Akkarin, the High Lord of the Guild. He had also recognised the forbidden ritual of black magic.

From Lorlen’s mind, Sonea had gleaned an understanding of what a black magician was capable of. By using the forbidden art, Akkarin would have gained strength beyond his natural limit. The High Lord was known to be unusually powerful as it was, but as a black magician he would be so powerful that Lorlen did not think even the combined strength of the Guild could defeat him.

Lorlen had therefore decided that a confrontation with the High Lord was out of the question. The crime must remain a secret until a way to deal with Akkarin safely was found. Only Rothen, the magician who was to be Sonea’s guardian, was allowed to know the truth — in the course of teaching her he was likely to see her memory of Akkarin and learn the truth for himself anyway.

At the thought of Rothen she felt a pang of sadness, followed by a dull anger. Rothen had been more than a guardian and teacher; he had been like a father. She was not sure she could have endured Regin’s harrassment without Rothen’s support and help. For his trouble, he had endured the effects of the malicious rumours that Regin had started suggesting that Rothen’s guardianship was gained in exchange for bedroom favours.

And then, just as it seemed the gossip and suspicion had passed, everything had changed. Akkarin had come to Rothen’s room to tell them that he had discovered that they knew of his secret. He had read Lorlen’s mind, and wanted to read theirs. Knowing that Akkarin was too powerful to fight, they dared not refuse. Afterwards, she remembered, Akkarin had paced the room.

‘You would both expose me if you could,’ he said. ‘I will claim Sonea’s guardianship. She will ensure your silence. You will never cause anyone to know that I practise black magic while she is mine.’ His eyes shifted to Sonea’s. ‘And Rothen’s wellbeing will be my guarantee that you will co-operate.’

Sonea set her feet on the path to the High Lord’s Residence. That confrontation had taken place so long ago, it felt as if it had happened to someone else, or to a character in a story she had heard. She had been Akkarin’s favourite for a year and a half now and it was not as bad as she’d feared. He hadn’t used her as a source of extra power, or tried to involve her in his evil practices. Aside from the sumptuous dinners she attended with him every Firstday evening, she rarely saw him at all. When they did speak, it was only of her training in the University.

Except for that one night, she thought.

She slowed as she remembered. Many months ago, returning after classes, she had heard loud noises and shouting from below the residence. Descending the stairs to the underground room, she had witnessed Akkarin kill a man with black magic. He had claimed the man was a Sachakan assassin, sent to murder him.

‘Why did you kill him?’ she asked. ‘Why not hand him over to the Guild?’

‘Because, as you’ve no doubt guessed, he and his kind know things about me that I’d rather the Guild did not. You must be wondering who these people are, and why they want me dead. I can tell you only this: the Sachakans still hate the Guild, but they also fear us. From time to time they send one of these, to test me.’

Sonea knew as much about Kyralia’s neighbour as any other third-year novice. All novices studied the war between the Sachakan Empire and the Kyralian magicians. They were taught that the Kyralians had won the war by forming the Guild and sharing magical knowledge. Seven centuries later, the Sachakan Empire was all but gone and much of Sachaka remained a wasteland.

When she thought about it, it was not hard to believe that the Sachakans still hated the Guild. This was probably the reason, too, why Sachaka was not a member of the Allied Lands. Unlike Kyralia, Elyne, Vin, Lonmar and Lan, Sachaka was not bound to the agreement that all magicians must be taught and watched over by the Guild. It was possible magicians existed in Sachaka, though she doubted they were well trained.

If they were a threat, surely the Guild knew about it. Sonea frowned. Perhaps some magicians did know. Perhaps it was a secret only the Higher Magicians and the King were allowed to know. The King would not want ordinary people worrying about the existence of Sachakan magicians — unless the Sachakans became a serious threat, of course.

Were these assassins threat enough? She shook her head. The occasional assassin sent to kill the High Lord wasn’t a serious matter if he could fend them off easily enough.

She checked her stride. Perhaps the only reason Akkarin could fend them off was because he strengthened himself with black magic. Her heart skipped a beat. That would mean the assassins were frighteningly strong. Akkarin had suggested that they knew he used black magic. They would not attack him without making sure they had a chance of killing him. Did this mean they, too, used black magic?

She shivered. And each night I sleep in the same house as the man they’re trying to kill.

Perhaps this was why Lorlen hadn’t come up with a way to get rid of Akkarin yet. Perhaps he knew Akkarin had a good reason for using black magic. Perhaps he didn’t intend to oust Akkarin at all.

No, she thought. If Akkarin’s reasons were honourable, I would not be his hostage. If he’d been able to prove his motives were good, he would have tried to, rather than have two magicians and a novice constantly searching for a way to defeat him.

And if he was at all concerned for my wellbeing, why keep me in the residence, where the assassins are likely to strike?

She was sure Lorlen was concerned for her wellbeing. He would tell her, if he knew Akkarin’s motives were honourable. He wouldn’t want her to believe she was in a worse situation than she really was.

Abruptly, she remembered the ring on Lorlen’s finger. For more than a year, rumours had been circulating in the city about a killer who wore a silver ring with a red gemstone. Just like the one Lorlen wore.

But this had to be a coincidence. She knew a little of Lorlen’s mind and she could not imagine Lorlen murdering anyone.

Reaching the door of the residence, Sonea stopped and took a deep breath. What if the man Akkarin had killed hadn’t been an assassin? What if he had been a Sachakan diplomat who’d discovered Akkarin’s crime, and Akkarin had lured him to the residence to kill him . . . and then discovered the man was a magician?

Stop! Enough!

She shook her head as if that would clear it of this fruitless speculation. For months she had considered these possibilities, going over and over what she had seen and been told. Every week she looked at Akkarin over the dinner table and wished she had the courage to ask him why he had learned black magic, but stayed silent. If she could not be sure that the answers were truthful, why bother asking the questions?

Reaching out, she brushed the handle of the door with her fingers. As always, it swung inward at the lightest touch. She stepped inside.

His tall, dark figure rose from one of the guestroom chairs. She felt a familiar twinge of fear and pushed it aside. A single globe light hovered above his head, casting his eyes into shadow. His lips curled upward at one side as if he was mildly amused.

‘Good evening, Sonea.’

She bowed. ‘High Lord.’

His pale hand gestured to the stairway entrance. Putting her case of books and notes down, Sonea entered the stairway and started climbing. Akkarin’s globe light floated up the centre of the stairwell as he followed. Reaching the second level, she walked down the corridor and entered a room furnished with a large table and several chairs. A delicious smell filled the air and set her stomach rumbling quietly.

Akkarin’s servant, Takan, bowed to her as she sat down, then left.

‘What did you study today, Sonea?’ Akkarin asked.

‘Architecture,’ she replied. ‘Construction methods.’

One eyebrow rose slightly. ‘Shaping stone with magic?’


He looked thoughtful. Takan returned to the room carrying a large platter, from which he transferred several small bowls to the table, then strode away. Sonea waited until Akkarin began to select from the bowls, before loading her own plate with food.

‘Did you find it difficult, or easy?’

Sonea hesitated. ‘Difficult at first, then easier. It’s . . . not unlike Healing.’

His gaze sharpened. ‘Indeed. And how is it different?’

She considered. ‘Stone does not have the natural barrier of resistance that the body has. It has no skin.’

‘That’s true, but something like a barrier can be created if . . .’

His voice trailed off. She looked up to find him frowning, his gaze fixed on the wall behind her. His eyes shifted to hers, then he relaxed and looked down at the table.

‘I have a meeting to attend tonight,’ he said, pushing back his chair. ‘Enjoy the rest of the meal, Sonea.’

Surprised, she watched him stride to the door, then looked at his half-eaten meal. Occasionally she arrived for the weekly dinner to find Takan waiting in the guestroom with the good news that the High Lord would not be attending. But only twice before had Akkarin left the meal early. She shrugged and continued eating.

As she finished the course, Takan reappeared. He stacked the bowls and plates onto the platter. Watching him, she noticed a tiny crease between his eyebrows.

He looks worried, she thought.

Remembering her earlier speculations, she felt a chill run up her spine. Was Takan afraid that another assassin might enter the residence looking for Akkarin?

Suddenly she wanted only to get back to the University. She stood up and looked at the servant. ‘Don’t worry about dessert, Takan.’

The man’s face changed subtly. Reading disappointment, she could not help feeling a pang of guilt. He might be Akkarin’s loyal servant, but he was also a gifted cook. Had he made a dish he was particularly proud of, and was dismayed that they were both leaving it uneaten?

‘Was it something that will . . . keep a few hours?’ she asked hesitantly.

He met her gaze briefly and, not for the first time, she caught a glimpse of a sharp intelligence there, not completely hidden behind his deferential manner.

‘It will, my lady. Shall I bring it to your room when you return?’

‘Yes,’ she nodded. ‘Thank you.’

Takan bowed.

Leaving the room, Sonea strode down the corridor and started down the stairs. She wondered again what part Takan played in Akkarin’s secrets. She had witnessed Akkarin taking strength from Takan, yet Takan obviously hadn’t been killed or harmed by it. And on the night of the assassination attempt, Akkarin had told her that Takan was from Sachaka. That brought up another question: if the Sachakans hated the Guild, why was one of them a servant of the High Lord?

And why did Takan sometimes call Akkarin ‘master’ instead of ‘my lord’?

Lorlen was dictating an order for building materials when a messenger arrived. Taking the slip of paper from the man, Lorlen read it, then nodded.

‘Tell the Stablemaster to prepare a carriage for me.’

‘Yes, my lord.’ The messenger bowed, then strode from the room.

‘Visiting Captain Barran again?’ Osen asked.

Lorlen smiled grimly at his assistant. ‘I’m afraid so.’ He looked at the pen Osen was holding, poised above a sheet of paper, and shook his head. ‘I’ve lost the direction of my thoughts,’ he added. ‘We’ll finish that tomorrow.’

Osen wiped the pen dry. ‘I hope Barran has found the killer this time.’ He followed Lorlen out of the office. ‘Good night, Administrator.’

‘Good night, Osen.’

As his assistant started down the University corridor toward the Magicians’ Quarters, Lorlen considered the young magician. Osen had noted Lorlen’s regular visits to the Guard House soon after they had begun. The young man was observant, and Lorlen knew better than to start making up complicated excuses. Sometimes giving the right amount of the truth was better than outright deceit.

He had explained to Osen that Akkarin had asked him to monitor the Guards’ efforts to find the murderer.

‘Why you?’ Osen had asked.

Lorlen had been expecting that. ‘Oh, I needed something to do in my spare time,’ he had joked. ‘Barran is a family friend. I was hearing about these murders from him anyway, so the communication between us has just become an official one. I could send someone else, but I don’t want to be receiving the latest news thirdhand.’

‘Can I ask if there’s a particular reason for the Guild to take an interest?’ Osen had probed.

‘You can ask,’ Lorlen had replied with a smile. ‘I may not answer. Do you think there’s a reason?’

‘I had heard that some people in the city believe magic is involved.’

‘Which is why the Guild must be seen to be keeping an eye on the situation. The people should feel we’re not ignoring their troubles. We must take care not to show too much interest, however, or they’ll think there is truth to the rumour.’

Osen had agreed to keep his knowledge of Lorlen’s visits to the Guard to himself. If the rest of the Guild heard that Lorlen was following Captain Barran’s progress they, too, would wonder if magic was involved.

Lorlen was still uncertain whether magic was involved. There had been one incident, over a year before, in which a dying witness had claimed the murderer had attacked him with magic. The burns on the witness had looked like those from a heatstrike, but since then Barran had found no other evidence to confirm that the murderer — or murderers — used magic.

Barran had agreed to keep the possibility that the murderer might be a rogue magician to himself for now. If the news got out, Lorlen had explained, the King and the Houses would expect another hunt like the one that had been conducted for Sonea. They had learned from that experience that having magicians roaming all over the city would only send a rogue into hiding.

Lorlen strolled into the Entrance Hall. He watched as a carriage emerged from the stables and rolled down the road toward the University steps. As it pulled up, he descended to the vehicle, told the driver his destination and climbed aboard.

So what do we know? he asked himself.

For weeks, sometimes months, victims had been killed with the same, ritualised method — a method that occasionally resembled a black magic ritual. Then, for a few months, there were no deaths at all, until a new series of murders gained the Guard’s attention. These, too, would be ritualised murders, but using a slightly different method than previously.

Barran had sorted the possible reasons for the change of method into two main categories. Either the murderer was acting alone and kept changing his habits, or each series of murders was carried out by a different man. A single man might change his habits to avoid detection, or to perfect the ritual; a succession of murderers might indicate some kind of gang or cult which required killing as an initiation or test.

Lorlen looked down at the ring on his hand. A few witnesses lucky enough to see the murderer and survive had reported seeing a ring with a red gem on his hand. A ring like this? he wondered. Akkarin had created the gem out of glass and his own blood on the night he had discovered Lorlen, Sonea and Rothen knew he had learned and used black magic. It enabled him to see and hear everything Lorlen did, and to communicate by mind without other magicians hearing.

Whenever the murders resembled a black magic ritual, Lorlen was unable to avoid considering the possibility that Akkarin might be responsible. Akkarin did not wear a ring in public, yet he could be slipping one on when he left the Guild. Why would he, though? He didn’t need to keep track of himself.

What if the ring allows someone else to see what the murderer is doing?

Lorlen frowned. Why would Akkarin want another person to see what he was doing? Unless he was acting on the orders of another. Now that was a frightening possibility . . .

Lorlen sighed. Sometimes he found himself hoping he would never learn the truth. He knew that, if Akkarin was the murderer, he would feel partly responsible for the deaths of his victims. He ought to have dealt with Akkarin long ago, when he had first discovered from Sonea that the High Lord used black magic. But he had feared that the Guild could not defeat Akkarin in a fight.

So Lorlen had kept the High Lord’s crime a secret, persuading Sonea and Rothen to do the same. Then Akkarin had discovered that his crime was known, and had taken Sonea hostage to ensure Lorlen and Rothen remained silent. Now Lorlen could not move against Akkarin without risking her life.

But if I discovered that Akkarin was the murderer, and knew the Guild could defeat him, I would not hesitate. Not for our old friendship, or even Sonea’s wellbeing, would I allow him to continue.

And Akkarin, through the ring, must know that.

Of course, Akkarin might not be the murderer. He had told Lorlen to investigate the murders, but that proved nothing. He might simply want to know how close the Guard was to discovering his crimes …

The carriage stopped. Lorlen glanced out of the window and blinked in surprise when he saw the front of the Guard House outside. He had been so lost in thought, he had barely noticed the journey. The carriage rocked a little as the driver climbed down to open the door. Lorlen stepped out and strode across the pavement to the Guard House entrance. Captain Barran greeted him in the narrow hall inside.

‘Good evening, Administrator. Thank you for coming so quickly.’

Though Barran was still young, frown lines already marked his forehead. Those lines seemed deeper tonight.

‘Good evening, Captain.’

‘I have some interesting news, and something to show you. Come to my office.’

Lorlen followed the man down a corridor to a small room. The rest of the building was quiet, though a few guards were always present in the evenings. Barran ushered Lorlen to a seat, then closed the door.

‘Do you remember me saying that the Thieves might be looking for the killer?’


Barran smiled crookedly. ‘I have had confirmation of sorts. It was inevitable that, if the Guard and the Thieves were both investigating the murders, we’d cross paths. It turns out they have had spies here for months.’

‘Spies? In the Guard?’

‘Yes. Even an honourable man would be tempted to accept coin in exchange for information, when that information might lead to this murderer being found — particularly when the Guard aren’t getting anywhere.’ Barran shrugged. ‘I don’t know who all the spies are yet, but for now I’m happy to let them remain in place.’

Lorlen chuckled. ‘If you want advice on negotiating with the Thieves I would send Lord Dannyl to you, but he is now a Guild Ambassador in Elyne.’

The Captain’s eyebrows rose. ‘That would have been interesting advice, even if I never had the opportunity to use it. I do not intend to negotiate for a co-operative effort with the Thieves, however. The Houses would never approve of it. I have made an arrangement with one of the spies that he pass on whatever he can safely divulge to me. None of his information has been useful yet, but it might lead to something that is.’ The creases between his brows deepened again. ‘Now, I have something to show you. You said you wanted to examine the next victim. One was discovered tonight, so I had the body brought here.’

A chill ran down Lorlen’s spine, as if a cold draught had found its way under the collar of his robes. Barran gestured to the door.

‘It’s in the basement. Would you like to see it now.’


He rose and followed Barran out into the corridor. The man remained silent as they descended a flight of stairs and continued down another corridor. The air grew distinctly colder. Stopping before a heavy wooden door, Barran unlocked and opened it.

A strong medicinal smell gusted into the corridor, not quite hiding a less pleasant odour. The room beyond was sparsely furnished. Bare stone walls surrounded three plain benches. On one was the naked corpse of a man. On another was a set of clothing, neatly folded.

Drawing closer, Lorlen studied the body reluctantly. As with all the recent killings, the victim had been stabbed through the heart, and a shallow cut ran down one side of the man’s neck. Despite this the man’s expression was unexpectedly peaceful.

As Barran began to describe the place where the victim was found, Lorlen considered a conversation he’d overheard during one of the regular Guild social gatherings in the Night Room. Lord Darlen, a young Healer, had been describing a patient to three of his friends.

‘He was dead when he arrived,’ Darlen had said, shaking his head, ‘but the wife wanted a performance so she would know we’d done all we could. So I checked.’

‘And found nothing?’

Darlen had grimaced. ‘There’s always plenty of life energy to detect afterwards, plenty of organisms that are active throughout decomposition, but his heart was still and his mind was silent. However, I detected another heartbeat. Small and slow, but definitely a heartbeat.’

‘How can that be? He had two hearts?’

‘No.’ Darlen’s voice was tortured. ‘He’d . . . he’d choked on a sevli.’

At once the two Healers had burst into laughter. The third friend, an Alchemist, looked puzzled. ‘What was he doing with a sevli in his throat? They’re poisonous. Did someone murder him?’

‘No.’ Darlen had sighed. ‘Their bite is poisonous, but their skin contains a substance that causes euphoria and visions. Some people like the effect. They suck on the reptiles.’

Suck on reptiles?’ The young Alchemist had been incredulous. ‘So what did you do?’

Darlen’s face had reddened. ‘The sevli was suffocating, so I fished it out. Seems the wife didn’t know about her husband’s habit. She became hysterical. Wouldn’t go home for fear her house was infested with them, and one crawled down her throat during the night.’

This had sent the two older Healers into new bouts of laughter. Lorlen almost smiled at the memory. Healers needed a sense of humour, though it was often a strange one. The conversation had given him an idea, however. A dead body was still full of life energy, but a body of someone who had been killed by black magic ought to have been drained of all energy. To confirm whether the murderer was using black magic, Lorlen only needed to examine a victim with his Healing senses.

As Barran finished his description of the scene, Lorlen stepped forward. Steeling himself, he placed a hand on the dead man’s arm, closed his eyes and sent his senses out into the body.

He was startled at how easy it was, until he remembered that the natural barrier in living things that resisted magical interference dissipated at the moment of death. Sending his mind outward, he searched the body and found only the faintest traces of life energy. The process of decomposition had been interrupted — delayed — because of the lack of anything alive within the body to start it.

Opening his eyes, Lorlen lifted his hand from the man’s arm. He stared at the shallow cut along the victim’s neck, sure now that this was the wound that had killed the man. The stab wound to the heart had probably been made later, to provide a more plausible cause of death. Looking down, he regarded the ring on his finger.

So it’s true, he thought. The killer uses black magic. But is this Akkarin’s victim, or do we have another black magician loose in the city?