The Words of the Dead
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Part 2 appears in this issue.
“When you are spurned by your family...” But the whistling had stopped. The dead eyes had closed.
I put the head back near its body. Arianrhod came up to me. “Not a very helpful interrogation.”
“It's better than nothing, I suppose.” It was totally blinking confusing is what it was. If the key was whether your family spurns you, then Lord Caswallon was a suspect, but then so was Lord Carodoc, who hadn't come to Branwen's rescue, and for that matter, as absurd as it was, Heveydd could be indicted by the talking head, even though he was back in New Fairy. He had given me a death sword, but I had thought he had spurned me. For that matter, the head could have been talking about its own miserable life, as most women come to the life through being spurned by their family. I asked Arianrhod whether her readings were at all enlightening.
“I got nothing from them and I've about had it, Rhiannon.”
“I don't like being around dead things, I don't like necromancy, and I don't see the point in trying to find a whore's killer.”
I crossed my arms below my breasts. “I know you could care less about whores, Arianrhod, but Shasta was noble born.”
She snorted. “She chose a low life.”
“As did I.”
“There is no comparison, Rhiannon. And you are letting your feelings get the better of it. You haven't been a whore in many moons, you will never be mistaken as a whore...”
“I'm mistaken as a whore all the time, Arianrhod. Try being naked for all to see, and you will understand that.”
I could tell she didn't believe me. “No one who counts makes that mistake. This is what I mean. You let the fact of your curse cloud your judgment. It really doesn't matter who killed this little strumpet. It really doesn't, Rhiannon. And it has nothing to do with your curse or how you think you are being treated.”
“You are quitting on me, then?”
She sighed. “I will continue my help to you on this matter for a couple of days, Rhiannon. But if you haven't come to your senses by then, then yes, I am quitting on you. I want to enjoy my stay in New Dyved.”
“I guess that's fair, Arianrhod. Thank you.” I turned to leave.
“Yes, Arianrhod.” Now what? I poised on the stairs and waited for her to say what she wanted to say.
“I really do love you like a sister. In spite of your foolishness in getting yourself cursed, and the choices you thought you had to make because of the curse. You are naked and you were a whore, but you are, and always will be Rhiannon of New Fairy. Don't ever forget that.”
“Thanks, Arianrhod. I think.”
Audiences. They are tedious. I had to stretch my eyebrows almost to my scalp to keep from falling asleep in front of the petitioner. Audiences. They involve talking to unctuous, slimy people. I don't know how many times I was complemented on my beauty and intelligence. Audiences. As the Terrans would say, they just plain suck.
I remembered throwing temper tantrums when my fiancé Ferrell would take on an audience rather than pay attention to me. Now that I have taken his place, I know what the man was going through. I really now regret killing him; if I could take the bloody deed back, I would condemn him instead to endless audiences.
So when the last burgher, the one who wanted new oil lamps by his shops, left, I was so completely relieved, I was crying.
So you can imagine how I felt when Luned, Carodoc's secretary, came into the audience room, just as I was stepping down from the throne, rubbing my sore butt, only to announce that there was a group of women who wished to meet with my royal self.
Luned is a prim little thing, skinny, flat chested, who wears a pink cotton gown almost daily. She had spectacles on her nose and a knowing, thin smile on her lips. Her hand went to her heart at the expletive I screeched. “Tell them to go away.” I suggested several anatomical impossibilities for them to do on the way.
“Oh, I think you will want to see these women,” Luned said recovering from the blast. She had the kind of amused smirk on her face that makes me want to snap necks. Any necks, as long as they are in snapping distance. But especially the necks of prim, skinny, bespectacled secretaries.
“What makes you think I will want to see these women, prithee?”
“Oh, you'll see.” Smirk. Smirk.
“Oh, very well; they them they have leave to see me.” I waved her dismissal. She was replaced by a half a dozen women, all dressed in low cut cotton gowns, slit up the thighs. They only differed one from the other in that some were blue, others were pink, and a couple were beige. I recognized the outfits. Rosalyn would wear an identical outfit to entertain lords, only her's was red. Missionaries give such gowns out to the girls, especially the naked ones. It was a whore's equivalent of dressing up.
I also recognized the woman they had obviously chosen to speak for them. She was the one who had tried to burn me. After they curtsied, she spoke to me. The first thing she did was to apologize.
“I understand completely,” I said. “I used to be on that corner. I was hazed as the new girl and would haze new girls. You have to do such things to protect your territory and your livelihood.”
“Then it is true,” the spokeswoman, whose name was Lorelei, said. “You were a whore.”
“Yes,” I said, shutting my eyes, “I was a whore.”
“And that is why you still appear as one, to remember that time and honor us.”
“No!” I didn't want to go into why I had to still be naked to these women. I just wanted my bath. Rosalyn, by now, was probably picking out the ointments and perfumes for my after bath massage. “What is it you want of me?”
“You are after the killer of the whore Shasta. We simply want you to know that she wasn't the only one.”
“What are you saying?” I sat back down on the throne, ignoring my rear end's protests.
“That once, every other moon, a girl is killed by such woundings, and we have seen her in the company of the same man, each time. And this has been going on for years. The women we replaced said it, as we will say it to those who come after us.”
“Then who is this man?” This was alarming but interesting news. I didn't bother asking why they didn't bring this to the attention of the authorities. Until now, no one in power would care.
“We don't know, your majesty.”
“Then how do you know he is the same one?”
“By the way he whistles. It is not always the same chant, m'lady, but it is always the same whistle. Always the same hideous one!”
There was only one way to proceed now. Rosalyn, Zusanna and Arianrhod were appalled. “You can't be serious, Rhiannon. That is crazy! Looney. Stupid.” Rosalyn was livid.
“And you Arianrhod, you agree with Rosalyn?”
“I wouldn't put it as vulgarly as she, but yes, I do agree.”
Zusanna growled her agreement.
“Why can't you get someone else to do this thing?” Rosalyn asked.
“And who would that be? I can ask no woman other than you or me to do this deed, and it mustn't be you.”
“Rhiannon!” she wailed.
“The matter is decided, though. I am going to do this. I just want to know if you will help me and protect me when I do it.”
“You know we will, Rhiannon. We have no choice in that,” Arianrhod said. The others nodded in accord.
“Good, then it is settled.”
It was still scary being back out on the streets, even with Zusanna stalking in the shadows, Arianrhod on the nearest roof using her witch's eyes to spot danger, and Rosalyn across the street, within running distance, crossbow notched, if I were attacked. There is a vulnerable feeling knowing that if a man meets your price, he can dominate you completely for as long as he wishes and do anything he wants with you. Girls had come back from these encounters bruised, maimed, mutilated. Rosalyn was almost beaten to death when she came to me; I was one of the few lucky ones to get out while I still had my limbs, eyes and beauty.
The first night no one came near me, which was deflating to my pride. But the second night took care of that issue. There were many potential customers. I sent them to a hotel room we had rented for the night. There, soldiers would meet them and they would be detained until my quarry was mine. If lords, they would be placed under a house arrest for the time being and released to hunt on a more auspicious evening. If commoners, they would be returned to their wives and girlfriends for whatever justice they wished to dispense. If honestly unattached, they would be detained in the jail.
By the fifth night, I was discouraged. Then it happened. Lorelei came up to me as I was dragging myself to my carriage and my bed. “It has been done, your highness! It has been done.”
“What has happened, Lorelei?”
“Another girl has been killed!”
She was only fifteen, had been tossed out by her father for sleeping with her brother. The other whores told me that the brother had repeatedly raped her and she had protested, only to suffer the fate of women who protest what their men wish of them. Arianrhod went to do the reading, as Rosalyn, Zusanna and I sorted out the situation.
“What I can't understand is why he didn't pick you, Rhiannon?” We had arranged that I was the only woman on the streets those nights. The others were holed up at the court barracks, being well paid for their absence. A man who wanted action would have to take it from me. But he held his desires until he spotted the one girl, who had decided to take to the streets anyway in spite of my precautions. And a man who kills as compulsively as this one, and as regularly, is not prone to hold his desires in check.
“One of two possibilities present themselves,” I said. “Either I'm not his type...” Rosalyn snorted at that. She knew that any woman who walked the streets was any man's type. “Or he knew about our plan.”
“And that can only mean he knows you, Rhiannon. Naked you look like any other woman...”
“Thanks, Rosalyn. I'll remember those kind words.”
“You know what I mean. You yourself know that this is true, otherwise you couldn't be bait. He didn't take the bait, so he must have had a reason. And that has to be that he knew you.”
“Or what we were up to,” I said.
“But we were all careful. I didn't say; you didn't say; and you know Arianrhod and Zusanna wouldn't say.”
“And the soldiers were men I had known from the war. They would die rather than betray me.”
“So somebody knew you personally.”
“And that would mean just about anyone at court.”
She shook her head. “Did people recognize you on the streets when Ferrell tossed you out?”
“No, they didn't.” Except for Alcippe, who I have always suspected was behind Ferrell's decision to toss me out.
“Exactly. It would have to be someone who you have met who has spent some time with you and would recognize you, even naked and on the streets. And that narrows it quite a bit.”
“Really? I suppose it does. But our suspect list includes some incredible people, then, Rosalyn. It would include Matron Ceri, and even Carodoc and Cruerdilad.”
“Why are they incredible? Because they are nobles?” Rosalyn said with asperity. “You know how nobles treat whores. Take Lord Bethni.”
“I don't exempt nobles,” I said, hot at her accusation. But then a thought struck me, and I felt its weight. “There is one more thing that narrows it, too, Rosalyn.” The pain of this showed in my face. She came over, hugged and kissed me.
“I know, Rhiannon. It has to be someone who was here when you were here last. For you were almost his victim that night, long ago when I was too drunk to protect you.”
“And there is but one person who fits this. One person who recognized me immediately on the streets, in spite of my appearing no better than other women.”
“Yes, there is only one.” Rosalyn too had rivulets down her face. We would never forget his kindness to us and to countless others, even after I have him sent straight to Nifelheim.
He was whistling when the soldiers and I came to him. Lorelei was right, the whistling was distinct, but it was constant, and in his store, you really don't notice it. It blends in with the background. On the streets, I guess it is different. He saw me coming in and smiled really big. Wiped his hands on his apron.
“Rhiannon! Do you want your favorite? I'm afraid I'm a little short of brains, but we have squid guts marinated in the most wonderful spices. And mastodon's testicles I've told a fairy will die for.” He placed his fingers on his mouth and swung his body a little.
“Sounds sumptuous. But I'm not here for the food, Edern.”
He stiffened. “I know why you're here, Rhiannon.”
“Then you know why I have to hang you.”
“Rhiannon, you don't understand. I was doing those girls a favor.”
“A favor!? Like you tried to do me a favor?”
“I couldn't go through with that, Rhiannon. I knew you were special. Like all the girls I have helped. I know when girls are special.”
“And the other girls you killed? They weren't special?”
“They were all rejected by their fathers. Without their father's love, they couldn't be special.”
“I was without my father's love, Edern.”
“You thought you were. But you weren't.”
“You knew then?”
“I had heard one of Ferrell's soldiers laugh that your father's gift of love to you, the death sword, was in Ferrell's personal collection.”
“And you didn't tell me?” I was furious. I marched right up to him, in spite of Zusanna's warning growl, and got in his face.
He hadn't shown any regret for his actions before, but now he looked ashamed. “An act of cowardice and greed, Rhiannon. Alcippe paid me to make sure you'd never know about that. She wanted you to think you had no choice but to be a whore, so she could keep you in that condition. She knew Ferrell wouldn't take you back as a whore, and she wanted it that way. Oh, Rhiannon, I am sorry.” I knew Alcippe, who I can't believe I ever had thought of as a friend, had plotted to take my place as the fiancé of the king of New Dyved, but I had had no idea as to the extent of her campaign against me. Or that the shopkeeper who was like the brother or father you desperately wanted was in her pay.
“But you are not sorry for killing the other girls.”
He shook his head. “But I am for what I'm about to do.” He drew a butcher knife out from under the apron. He started to plunge it into my heart when Zusanna knocked him down, pinned him, and began ripping his throat out. She tore him from sternum to pelvis. There will be no hanging for Edern.
It was an airless night, and a hot one. Rosalyn was whimpering in her sleep. Zusanna was in woman form, on the floor. She hates being in woman form, she feels weak and powerless that way, but it was too hot a night for a fur coat. The smell of perspiring flesh from unclad bodies hung in the air like stale perfume.
We were back in New Fairy, much to my relief. I could never sleep, without tossing and turning, in my old room in New Dyved. Caer Seon was too full of horrible memories. I was glad my mission there was over.
But once I was awake, I had difficulty in getting back to sleep. So I got up and, like a thief in the night so I wouldn't wake the others up, I padded to the balcony. Where abruptly a hand came over my mouth.
“Shhh. Don't wake the others. Promise me that, and I will release you.” I nodded my agreement. I didn't recognize the voice, but I recognized the rasp. The person who held me was dead.
When I was released I turned to look at her. It was Shasta. “You still can't rest?” I asked her.
“No, I will go to my rest. And you bringing my killer to justice means I can rest in the Bright World itself.”
“I am glad of that. But why are you still earthbound?”
“To thank you. I'm in a place now where my father forgives me, for he grieves. I am more a part of my family now that I'm dead than I ever was in life. Thank you, Rhiannon. And not just for me, but for all the downtrodden, who look to your reign for hope and justice. Thank you.” My hand went to my mouth as she dissolved into dust before me.
The words of the dead are sometimes my only comfort.
Copyright © 2005 by Rachel Parsons