The breasts were rather perky.
As soon as the thought occurred, I regretted it. It was a tasteless thought, considering the owner of the breasts lay dead in an alley in one of the worst parts of town, half covered in mud and rubbish. I comforted myself with the thought that at least this time I hadn’t said anything out loud and given Elanore cause for reproachful looks, or worse, a chance to let rip with her rather caustic tongue. I glanced sideways at her and found her watching me with arched eyebrows. A difficult feat, you might think, considering I was perched on her shoulder. Luckily her shoulders are five feet wide, and since I’m only six inches tall, it’s not an issue.
“What?” I knew I sounded whiny, and flicked my wings in discomfort, feeling as though I had been caught out in some terrible act.
My partner, Corporal Elanore Fursk, a Troll who thought she was an Elf, is prone to making me feel that way. I’m known as Gurt. A son of a clan of Eleniu aristocracy, I have other names. I’ve left them in the past, and until a time comes when the Court comes calling, I’ll leave them there, thank you very much. Even so, despite all my family background and the training provided by the Royal Magic Academy, Elanore still has a way of making me feel like the uneducated monster.
“I didn’t say anything,” I said defensively.
“No, but you were thinking it.” Disapproval dripped from her every syllable.
How does she do that? I wondered. “Last time I checked, Trolls, even those as unusual as yourself, aren’t mind readers.”
“I do not need to be a mind reader to know what you are thinking,” she said, her coarse black eyebrows moving up and down expressively.
I took off from her shoulder and flitted down to hover just above the stiff’s face. It’s always easier to think of them like that, I find. The only illumination originated from the small crystalline light globe I’d levitated just above the dead girl’s head. The stiff was a Human, with gray-blue eyes that were still open, and magenta hair. She was pretty, or had been in life. Death robs the skin of its natural glow and makes it pallid in a way that makes everyone unattractive.
Death really is the great leveler, I thought, not for the first time.
“Well then?” Elanore asked impatiently.
Taking a breath, I sniffed. With my eyes closed, I let the air disturbed by my wings waft across the dead girl’s face and hair. “She doesn’t smell of drugs or alcohol. So poison or drunkenness didn’t kill her,” I said.
I sniffed again. “The only magic I can smell is residual cosmetic and healing. It’s in her hair and body, but not the face. So no magic was used to killed her, either.”
I flicked down to look at her neck. “I would say she was…” Edging closer, I could see in the dim light abrasions ringing her neck.
“She was strangled, by a cord of some sort. Probably with a red scarf,” Elanore said.
“What?” I flitted back up to her level, a good eight feet above where the stiff lay in the mud.
“How can you tell from up there?” I looked around, and then peered down at the body. “I can’t see anything from here.” I was whining again. Damn, corpses in alleys always make me edgy.
Elanore calmly reached into an enclosure at least eight feet up the side of the building and hidden in shadow. She pulled a long, thin red scarf—silk, I thought—from the darkness.
“It is damp,” she said. “Whoever did this must have tried to wash the scarf. Which makes me wonder why they left it here, and then tried to hide it.”
“Good spotting,” I muttered, only a little miffed.
She held it up to me. I sniffed and then sneezed. “It’s been doused in some sort of cheap booze.
I won’t be able to get anything from it now.” Not only are Eleniu exceptional magic users, but we are superb bloodhounds. I was better at smelling than spells, which meant I was exceptional at both. I can hold my own, thank you very much.
I returned to my inspection of the body, flittering down to hover over her breasts. This was my least favorite part of the job. I prefer nice robberies to murders, or hobbling pickpockets in the market. Inevitably, a killing meant hovering over a cooling corpse stinking of death. Even so, if I’m to investigate a murder, I preferred to do it at the scene. At least then the smell is not so intense, and dissipates in the breeze. Back in the cold room of the Guard House, the smell of old corpses lingered in every crevice.
The stiff was nude, which was not overly unusual. What was unusual was that for a Human, she had no body hair. Which is weird. She also had this amazing tattoo. It snaked up her right side from her groin, a spiral that wound in a series of tight circles. Every time the spiral crossed itself there lay a gemstone, a sapphire, emerald, ruby or diamond. All of the gems looked to be of some value. The tattoo itself ended with a curve marked by a diamond that rested in the crevice between her breasts.
At first I thought the gems were glued onto the skin, and I wondered why the murderer hadn’t taken them. On closer inspection, I found that they were embedded into the skin itself. The faint smell of old spells lingered on the gems.
“Hmm.” I drew back from the body.
“What is it?” Elanore asked. “Did you find something?”
“There’s some impressive magic here. These gems are embedded into the skin. I’ve never seen the like.”
“So you would have to cut them out, then?” She crouched down to get a better look.
“Yes. And there’s no indication that the killer attempted to do that.” I gestured at the gems.
“See? No sign of anyone even trying to pull them off. They look completely undisturbed.”
“Hmmm.” She stood up and looked around the alley. “Interesting. There is no sign of a struggle around here. No indication of robbery. I would say she was killed somewhere else.”
“How long ago do you think?”
I gently touched the stiff’s neck just below the ear and silently cast one of my most useful spells.
“Not long, I’d say. Less than half a bell.” I flew back up to Elanore’s level and settled back on the outside edge of her shoulder.
“That is not long ago,” she said.
“Not long at all. Say, have you heard about tattoos and gems like that?” I gestured down at the body.
“Well, Gurt,” she said in that tone that told me she was about to lecture me. “If you paid more attention to our beat, you would know that not far from here, amid the bordellos of Red Alley, a new establishment opened about a month ago called the Spiral Tattoo. Further, you would know that all employees are tattooed just like this, with corresponding precious gemstones. There has been some speculation as to how they were affixed, and I think this will settle a bet I made with Sergeant Houng.”
I sighed. I knew where this was going.
“You know, if you spent less time in the honey pot or gambling at your cousin Lily’s club, or indeed kept your ears and eyes open when we are walking on patrol, then you might actually already know this.” I heard the touch of weariness in her voice, as this was an old argument.
I rolled my eyes. “Yes, Elanore. Of course, Elanore. Whatever you say, Elanore.” I grinned to myself. I knew that would get under her skin, but I also knew that she would have to smile. It was an ugly smile, full of fangs and tusks, and you had to know her to appreciate it. She tended to smile with only those who knew her, or if she wanted to frighten a scud.
She laughed. It was a soft, gentle laugh, completely unexpected from a eight-foot-two, greenskinned, tusked Troll. “You are incorrigible, you know,” she said, shaking her head in exasperation.
“Encourageble, you mean,” I said with a grin.
“There is no such word, as you well know.” She laughed again, her tusks glinting in the dim light while framing the white fangs that sat in a row behind thin scaly lips. She shook her head in mock despair, the gentle teasing tone soothing the edge left by the familiar lecture.
I laughed, too. “Well, you may have something there. So where are her clothes? Was she snatched from the club? Robbery gone wrong? As far as I can tell, she wasn’t interfered with.”
“Those are the questions we will need to answer.” She stepped back into the middle of the alley and looked up and down. It was a typical back alley, dirty and dark. No lamps either magical or mundane lit the walls. Rubbish filled the corners, and all the doors looked heavily barred. The only overt movement or sound came from the rats grubbing around in the refuse.
She reached out and grabbed the light orb I’d set floating just above the body. Its light disappeared as she put it in her pocket, plunging the alley back into darkness. We stood in the gloom, thinking.
I glanced at her, making out her shape against the night. She was right and I didn’t want to admit it.
Elanore and I have been partners for nearly five years, walking the streets of the fair city of Delvenport as members of the City Guards. She had joined the Guards in an effort to gain some respectability. She’s unique for a Troll. Somehow her brain made connections no others had.
She’d learned to read, not only Common, but several other languages. Where and how, she won’t say, and I don’t need to know. We all have our own secrets. I’ll keep mine and she can keep hers.
She could converse on the various philosophical debates with insight and, most alarmingly, humor. She also enjoyed live theater, which was, quite frankly, bizarre. How anyone could like theater, I don’t know. No wonder when she arrived in civilization she balked at the offered job opportunities. Being a hired thug just didn’t fit. Her acceptance into the City Guard a decade ago was something of a legend now. In one of those weird dichotomies, I joined to escape respectability. I wonder if that’s why Captain Barraud set us up as partners? I come from a family of high Eleniu with a proud history of acting as mages and courtiers. I’d done my duty by attending the Royal Magic Academy, and having gained my staff—a rod that others would call a toothpick—I promptly moved from the family estate and went slumming in the Guards. I’d had my fill of court, and the politics were getting complicated.
Since then I have forged my own reputation, some good, some bad. I’ve been cursed every possible way under the three moons by the high and the low. I will say now, though, that if you call me a fairy I will curse every pore of your body to break into a pus-ridden mess for a hundred years.
We stood there in silence, lost in our thoughts, waiting for the body cart to arrive. We didn’t have that long to wait, no more than a few minutes, before the cart arrived with a couple of rookie Guards pulling it into the alley.
“Corporal Fursk? Is that you?” one of them asked nervously, holding up a torch that flared in the slight breeze. They had every right to be nervous. Entering the alley, all they would have seen is the unmistakable silhouette of a Troll outlined against the darker shadows of the alley. I stretched my wings and launched myself from Elanore’s shoulder.
“Well, I wouldn’t want to be intruding on a Troll, in the middle of the night, in a dark alley with a body, if it wasn’t her, would I?” I said as they started at my sudden movement.
Their silhouettes relaxed a bit and their hands fell from their truncheons. They laughed, although it was still tinged with apprehension. “Ain’t that the truth, Guardsman Gurt,” said the taller of the two.
“It is just Gurt and Elanore,” Elanore said, moving up to them. She put the scarf into her pocket.
“The body is down there.” She gestured back toward where we had been standing. “We have finished here. When you get her back to the Guard House, tell the captain she appears to have been a worker at the new brothel, the Spiral Tattoo, and we will be headed there next.”
We moved out into the slightly better light of the street. The three moons, hanging across the city, kept hiding behind clouds and did little to chase away the darkness. Along this part of Merchants Way, a broad avenue that runs in great zigzags down from the palace gates to the docks, there are no light globes. Instead, the spluttering torches, as well as a few small fires in braziers sitting outside houses, cast odd flickering lights and shadows. We stopped to watch the flow of the crowd, still thick despite the late hour, moving between the markets and docks, oblivious to the death lying not far from them.
The city of Delvenport lined the flanks of Mount Delvk. It encompassed a valley formed between two vast spurs of rock known as Delvk’s Fingers, that thrust their way down the mountainside and out into the sea at its foot. The harbor formed by the spurs cutting into the sea was one of the deepest and calmest in the known world.
The spurs also had vast veins of precious metals running deep into them. There may have been richer single mines out there, but no other city had a concentration and variety like Delvenport. It meant that Delvenport had grown into a mighty city fueled by commerce. Sure, there had been conquests and wars over the years, and its wealth and might had waxed and waned, but there had always been a port here. For the last few hundred years, this part of the world had been relatively peaceful, and Delvenport had grown mostly unmolested.
“It is a shame that whoever found her decided to just send a runner to the Guard House, and not hang around to answer a few questions.” Elanore watched the crowd, eyeing the comings and goings. For myself, I sat down on her shoulder and stretched. Elanore usually spotted anything that needed spotting long before me.
“Yes,” I said. “But nothing unusual there.”
“No.” She sighed. “Nothing unusual there. I wonder what they were doing in there. Whoever it was must have practically tripped over the killer to have sent word to us in time to get here that soon.”
“Unless it was the killer?” I said, a question almost not a question. “I’d lay even odds that was the case.”
She nodded. “That thought had crossed my mind as well. But why?” We stood there, letting the ebb of the city wash around us. Elanore seemed lost in thought, which meant I was quickly getting bored. I amused myself by watching the strangers to the city. They were easy to spot, as they all did a double-take when they realized that the Troll standing calmly to one side of the street was dressed in the livery of the City Guard.
“This new club, then?” I asked finally. When she gave no answer, I stood and took to the air to hover in front of her face. “Well? Are we going to stand here all night? I’m getting a little bored and cold.”
Evidently not, as she started off down the street, leaving me hanging in midair, both literally and figuratively.
“Hey!” I took off after her. With her long legs she could move with speed, and it took all my effort to keep up, which is why I like to ride on her shoulder. And no, it’s not laziness, no matter what some of the other Guards say.
“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” I muttered as I landed on her shoulder and took a grip on the tab she had sewn there.
“It keeps you on your toes,” she said. “Or maybe on your wings.”
“Yeah, and your mother, too,” I said, and chuckled.
Elanore strode up the street until we came to another alley, this one wider and lit with a dull red glow from large light globes suspended by chains down the middle of its length. The iron bands encasing them set odd shadows dancing on the walls and pavement as the chains swayed in the breeze.
Despite its location at the seedier end of Merchants Way, Red Alley was where the more discerning, or moneyed, people came to pursue their vices. Here one went to purchase affection, something I didn’t need to do, and even if I had, I found the whole thought distasteful. Despite my disreputable reputation, which is completely undeserved, I didn’t come here unless on official business, and even then I disliked it.
Merchants Way ran in a great zigzag up the city. Every time it doubled back on itself it ended in a market, some large, some small. Each zigzag had its own name ending with Arch. At the bottom they were simply numbered; at the top they had fancy names. Nearly every other street or alley had at least one entrance onto Merchants Way. It meant that you could go from the top of the city to the bottom without leaving it, and in doing so you would pass through every section. There were quicker paths, but that was the main route. Red Alley ran from First Arch to Second Arch at the midpoint on both. We were on First Arch, so we were heading up the city.
The Guard Houses were mostly on Merchants Way, often at the entrances to the markets. The exception was Scuds Row, a section of slums by the port. Our Guard House sat on the edge of the Row. Not in, you understand. If you knew anything about Scuds Row, you would know why.
We moved up the alley. People parted for Elanore like grain before a horse. This was the busiest time for the Alley, so a lot of bodies hurried to and fro, some trying to be discreet, others boldly walking, daring anyone to make an issue of them being there. No other Trolls mind you, or Eleniu; instead, mainly Elves and Humans moved through the shadows between lights. Of the six peoples, Elves and Humans were the most likely to have the money to spend here, and the desire to do so. About halfway up the alley we found the place we were looking for.
A newly painted sign marked the establishment, bearing the same tattoo that had adorned the stiff. It served as a border to the words The Spiral Tattoo, all in black on white. Well, I thought it was white. The red glow made it a little hard to tell, but it seemed the most likely color. A large Human bouncer, six-foot-three by six-foot-three and all muscle, I would have said, stood just outside the doorway, watching the people coming and going. Used to being the largest and meanest on the street, he glared at us as we approached.
We started to enter, and I smirked to myself, as I knew what would be coming. He looked new to the city, and dumb enough as well, not to have made the connection that no one else was paying us any notice. He stepped forward, trying to make himself look bigger by puffing out his chest.
“We don’t serve your kind.” His attempt to look large and intimidating was, quite frankly, ridiculous considering the size of Elanore. I couldn’t help it; I started laughing, having to hold onto Elanore’s shoulder or else fall off.
He started as if he hadn’t noticed me before that. Big, dumb and not very observant. What were the people who ran this club thinking? It made all my “this is hinky” senses tingle. Elanore smiled down at him, which probably didn’t help much, as it only showed off her large tusks—pristine white ivory tusks which reflected the red from the light globes. She kept them immaculately clean, and I think that most scuds found that more unsettling than if they’d been the usual broken, encrusted yellow of other Trolls. The bouncer shied backward before catching himself and squaring his shoulders.
In her quiet, gentle voice, she said, “We have a rather urgent need of discussing a matter of importance with the proprietor of this establishment.”
“What?” He looked taken aback. People often had that reaction. I mean, Trolls have a justified reputation for being big, stupid and mean. When you stand over eight feet, have green, scaly skin, large tusks and are prone to eating anything without cooking it, including other people, what else are people going to think?
“She said we need to talk to the boss quickly, dimwit,” I snapped. “If you don’t know who we are then you’d better learn quick.”
“What? Look here,” he growled, looking at me and then back up at Elanore before drawing himself up to try and manhandle Elanore. Or Trollhandle, as the case may be.
“I wouldn’t do that if I was you, Dorn,” a beautiful voice said behind us.
“Hello, Mac.” Elanore turned her head and smiled at the Elf who had come up beside us. Mac was, as always, elegantly dressed, and looked even more out of place here than we did, despite being a bouncer for one of the more established clubs in Red Alley, the Tiger Lily. I didn’t get what the two of them saw in each other, but Elanore and Mac often shared a meal or a drink when they were both off-duty. They even caught a show once in a while. There’s no accounting for taste, as they say.
“Hello there, Elanore,” he said with a smile, before turning to Dorn, who was blinking in a most confused manner. “Just let them through, Dorn. It’s simpler that way.”
“You know these two fools, Mac?” Dorn asked, obviously fighting an urge to launch straight into us. It impressed me that he could even string that sentence together and have the restraint not to do something stupid. And people say bouncers are dim.
“Guardsman Gurt and Corporal Fursk—” Mac smiled as he emphasized the names. “—are known to many on the Alley.”
“Gurt and Fursk?” The dimwit blanched, the light of recognition beginning to flicker in his eyes.
“You must have heard of us,” I said, flashing him a grin as I flittered in front of him. Dorn backed up and moved out of the way.
“Sure, Guardsmen, come in. It’s all been a misunderstanding.” He didn’t even garble that, so someone had been spending time training him. Maybe there was hope for the dolt after all.
“We could have handled this, Mac,” Elanore said with an edge to her voice. The one thing sure to make her angry was someone trying to help her when she felt she didn’t need help. What is really interesting is the fact that if she did need help, she was more than happy to ask.
Mac laughed. “Of course you could, but I didn’t think Dorn deserved a visit to the horse doctor. And he’s just green enough to try you.”
“I suppose,” Elanore allowed, examining the bouncer as though he were a stubborn piece of dirt on a white shirt that couldn’t be removed. Dorn bristled again. “It probably would have been an unnecessary incident which would necessitate extra paperwork. I guess I may thank you. Besides which, I will take extra pleasure beating you at chess later and putting you back in your place.”
Mac bowed. “The satisfaction will be all mine. See you later, then? At the usual place?”
“If this business does not take a difficult turn, then yes, that will be fine,” Elanore said. Brushing past the still edgy bouncer, we entered the club.
The club had been newly put together, as there were no stains or scuffs marring the pristine surfaces. A bar ran along one side of the long common room, with a stairway climbing the other side to a balcony overlooking the room. Outside the closed door at the end of the balcony another bouncer leaned against the wall, his well-oiled skin glistening in the lights.
Nearly every surface had been mirrored: ceiling, walls, floor, even the tables scattered around the room. The exceptions were private booths nestled under the stairs and in the corners. Hovering light globes lit the place, some large that floated up near the ceiling, others small and centered just above the tables. Many had slightly different hues, some blue, some green, although most shed a pure white light.
I caught sight of us in one of the mirrors, and had to pause to take stock of the full effect.
Elanore looked her usual brutish self, her braided black hair falling down her back, tusks arching up along her green scaly cheeks. The Guards’ uniform of black leather, a single stripe of white on one shoulder marking her as a corporal, and its soft brown cloak edged in purple, clung to her huge but still feminine frame. The massive truncheon hanging from her belt was smooth and oiled, its ends shod in iron. Black, lively, eyes watched the world with intense scrutiny.
Myself, I was the picture of sartorial elegance, as usual. I straightened my shoulders so I stood my full height of six and a half inches. My golden hair was also braided and lay shining between my wings. My Guard uniform was made of a finer silk than necessary; all that leather would have made it difficult to fly. My truncheon, which hung from a fine black belt, was small and toy-like, more a badge of office than a tool of the trade. The translucent colors of my wings emerging from the special slits in my cloak set off my green eyes. As always, the effect of the
varied colors moving as the wings fanned themselves captured me.
“If you have quite finished admiring yourself,” Elanore said, an amused drawl.
I shook myself and smiled at her. “Well, we do strike quite an image.”
Elanore snorted. “Do not pretend you were looking at both of us.”
I grinned and turned to look at the rest of the room.
At the far end stood a stage with a couple of poles in the middle and benches close to the edge.
The mirrors, coupled with the hovering light globes, made a confusing vision of lights and shadows and images that did more to disguise the visitors than the usual dark shadows preferred by such places. The Tattoo was quite full, with many of the tables occupied.
We took a moment to look around. I was curious to see if I recognized any of the clientele.
None of the usual scuds we dealt with were here. Instead most seemed to be well moneyed, slumming down-city. A group of younger Humans at one of the tables looked vaguely familiar but I couldn’t place them. At one table an old hunched Human sat next to an even older and grizzled Dwarf. I blinked and nudged Elanore, gesturing to them.
“This isn’t Shorty’s or Louser’s usual haunt,” I whispered. Louser was a bookie with a particularly bad reputation. Shorty, the Dwarf, was his number one guard. They usually hung out down in Scuds Row at a really bad hole called The Mermaid’s Jugs. Classy, huh?
“No, it is not,” Elanore said. “That is interesting.”
“You’ve already said that,” I murmured.
“What have I said?”
“Interesting. You’ve found several things interesting tonight.”
“Well, what is the problem?” Elanore asked. I’d obviously got her confused, which doesn’t happen often. “There can be more than one thing to be of interest in a night. Or a day, even.”
“True. But when you find several things interesting in a night, that usually means trouble.”
Elanore chuckled then. “You may be right there.”
A number of barmaids moved between the tables, both Humans and Elves. All were naked, each with the spiral tattoo winding up their right sides. Their bright, unnaturally-colored hair reflected the lights. A couple of musicians sat beside the stage; it was hard to tell from where we stood, but they, too, looked to be most likely unclothed as they played lutes, letting soft music fill the air.
The barman, whose torso was well oiled, also had a spiral tattoo like the stiff’s in the alley. It twined its way up his right side and ended in a curve that lined the muscles of his chest. He caught sight of us and frowned.
“Hey, you can’t…” he began, his voice carrying over the music. He saw Elanore’s Guard cloak, and me, as I took to the air, flying up and over to the bar, and stopped what he was saying.
“I guess you can,” he said and nodded to one of the girls, an Elf, who hurried over to the stairs.
“How can we help you, Guardsmen?”
As I landed on the bar I saw that his tattoo started low, very low. I don’t need to say any more, but I winced when I saw just where gems had been embedded. The things people will do.
Elanore came up to the bar. Seeing my expression, she twisted her lips around her tusks in a mockery of a smirk. “Not tempted to get one of those, then. I am thinking that they would be quite popular.”
The barman took a step back, startled by Elanore’s almost smile.
“We’ve had lots of queries,” he said nervously. “The tattoos are done in-house by Dweamor and she’s done a number for people. Not the general clientele, just a few special people. She may decide to do more, though, as we’re getting more queries all the time.”
“We need to talk to the owner of this establishment,” Elanore said. “I take it that is Dweamor?”
“Yes, I thought you might. Lorelorli has just gone to fetch her.” He sounded more sure of himself as he thrust his chin at the stair, where the Elf was just disappearing through the door at the end of the balcony. The bouncer closed it behind her.
“Would you care for a drink while you wait? Though she won’t be long.” The barman gestured toward the bar. “We have a good selection, including some particularly fine honey.” He smiled in my direction.
“No, thank you, not while we are working,” Elanore said before I could ask what sort of honey.
Honey is like a drug to us Eleniu, especially clover.
“Spoilsport,” I said.
Over the low buzz in the room I heard the door open and close above us. Glancing in the mirror behind the bar, I saw the young barmaid leading an older lady along the balcony and down the stairs. She was obviously in charge and cut a striking figure, as she was like everyone else, starkers, and tattooed, with long, iron-straight white hair. Her tattoo was something else. It ran in spirals up both sides of her body, and didn’t stop at the curve under the breast. It circled in a decreasing spiral around her breasts until it reached her nipples. Springing from the topmost
curve, two branches stretched up to her neck and her face, until two thin curves arched across her cheeks to finish at the corner of her eyes. Even more remarkable was the fact that every one of the gems embedded in the tattoo were power stones. She positively reeked of magic.
She smiled at us as she reached the bottom of the stairs. “Greetings, Guardsmen. You must be Corporal Fursk and Guardsman Gurt. Your reputation precedes you. I’m Dweamor of Glitterfields, the owner of this club. How can I help you?”
She smiled as she spoke, her voice a rich contralto that seemed to convey wisdom, age and a gracious care all in one package. It made one wonder why she owned an establishment like this.
Despite the lack of clothing she was plainly one classy lady. She gestured to a table not far from the bar, not in the middle of the room, but also not in a position to make anyone feel too cornered. “Would you care to take a seat?”
“Thank you,” Elanore said, sitting carefully in the offered chair. It wasn’t built for a Troll, and creaked ominously as she sat down. Dweamor took one across from her and I flew down to stand on the table. As usual, there wasn’t any seating for my kind.
“Are you missing any of your staff?” Elanore asked, looking around. “I know the night is yet young, but is everyone here who should be here?”
Lorelorli, who stood slightly behind Dweamor, leaned in close to whisper in her ear. A flash of worry and anger briefly crossed Dweamor’s face, and then disappeared behind a slight, gentle smile.
“I’ve just been told, rather late, mind you, that one of the girls, by the name of Sapphire, is late for her shift. She was supposed to start a quarter of a bell ago. Why, has something happened?”
She had clasped her hands in her lap, and I saw the fingers closing and opening.
“Did ‘Sapphire’—” You could almost hear the quotation marks around the name. “—have magenta-colored hair?” Elanore asked.
“Yes,” Dweamor said, and having noticed the nuanced inflection Elanore put on the name, added, “and that was her name. I’d thought of changing it, but she said she had such a suitable name, why bother? It was hard to disagree.”
Elanore nodded and flashed her fierce smile at Dweamor. It seemed to disconcert her, as she unclasped and re-clasped her hands again.
“Of course. Did Sapphire have any enemies or lovers that you knew of?” Elanore asked.
“No, not that I would know,” Dweamor said, frowning. “I try to keep out of my staff’s lives as much as possible. They may work for me but I don’t own them. So unless something comes to my attention at work, I try and pay no heed to what the staff are up to. Is something wrong? Is she all right?” Her concern seemed genuine.
“I am afraid to say she is dead,” Elanore said, not loudly, but clearly, watching for Dweamor’s reaction. The shock on both the Elf Lorelorli’s and Dweamor’s faces was too sudden and the whitening of the skin too natural to be faked. And trust me, I am too good a mage myself to be fooled by glamour.
“What? How?” For the first time Dweamor sounded shaken.
“She was found naked in an alley not far from here. She appears to have been strangled by this.”
Elanore placed the red silk scarf on the table. Lorelorli let loose a loud sob and fled from her station behind Dweamor, disappearing through a door by the side of the bar. The club fell silent as people looked first at the departing Elf and then at us. Dweamor gestured for one of the other barmaids to follow Lorelorli, and for the musicians to continue playing.
“That’s the tie to her robe,” she said, looking at the scarf. “The staff wear those when not in public.” She stared moodily at the piece of silk, thinking hard. Both Elanore and I let her sit, waiting. She was better at that than me, but sometimes I knew when to keep quiet.
I was about to put my foot in it and ask a question that had been bothering me since we sat down, when the music changed. Looking back toward the stage, I saw the curtains part. Two female Eleniu flew out. Both had twin spiral tattoos, mirrored on both sides of the body, which stopped under the line of the breasts. They flew around each other and the poles in a sensuous aerial dance. A number of the customers moved to the benches just below the stage as the light globes
around the room faded, leaving the dancers on the stage spotlighted.
A male Human and a female Elf with the same tattoos joined in the dance. The male’s tattoo was much like the barman’s with regard to where it started. The gemstone settings made me wince again. The lady Elf’s tattoos circled up around her breasts like Dweamor’s. As the show continued, it plainly seemed that the news of the dead girl hadn’t reached backstage, as the show was more than just a dance, and none of the performers seemed to be having any difficulty. Trust me, I’m no prude, but I had to look away, blushing. I’d never seen one of my people do
that to a large person before.
“Tell me,” I said, breaking the awkward silence, “what’s with the tattoos?”
Dweamor smiled. “When I decided to open this place I wanted it to be different, to stand out from the crowd. I thought no clothes would certainly make a point of difference. But I didn’t want everyone to be totally naked, hence the tattoos. The tattoos are all based on mine.” She gestured down her body. “My order of magic does these as a way of ensuring its students are never far from a source of energy. I have some vanity and I’m proud of them, so I wanted an opportunity to show them off. As I wouldn’t ask any of my staff to do what I wouldn’t, I go naked, too.” She shrugged.
“And the differences in the amount of tattooing?” Elanore asked.
“Different jobs. Floor staff have what I call the quarter spiral. A single spiral up the right side of the body. Clientele know that they are for looking and not touching. The musicians and dancers have the twin halves, ending under the breasts. They too are here for visual enjoyment only.”
“The Elf on the stage?” Elanore asked as Dweamor paused.
“She has the twin spirals. It means she’s available for further, more personal entertainment, upstairs.” She raised an eyebrow.
“I see,” Elanore said. “So Sapphire was a floor worker.”
“Yes, but she had approached me last week to get the twin spirals. I was considering it, but she was just a little young and naive, so I was going to tell her tonight that she could get the twin halves and join the dance troupe instead.” She paused again, frowning.
“I have to say,” Elanore said, “that I am finding it quite difficult to see why you would open an establishment like this. You do not seem the type.”
“What? Hard-nosed and seedy? Trust me, I can be hard enough if I want.” And there was a definite steel edge to her voice despite her smile. “It’s simple, really. The place where I spent many years learning the magic specializes in healing and glamour, both of which lend themselves to utilizing magic in an erotic way. I’d learned to celebrate those aspects of my training, and when I came here I realized I might make more money by opening this place than the more usual ways of my brothers and sisters.”
The conversation paused then, and I noticed that the rhythm of the music had taken a faster pace. Glancing at the stage, I blushed again. In a attempt to distract myself I fluttered up to Elanore’s shoulder.
“I have to ask. The lack of body hair. What’s with that? And the tattoos—are they permanent?”
It somewhat surprised me not to get a quelling look from Elanore. When we’re questioning folk she does most of the talking. The effect of being questioned by a large female Troll, with what has to be said are a lovely speaking voice and an educated accent, is very effective in getting past defences. Besides, I’m just too rude and impatient. Life’s too short, especially for an Eleniu, to bother with niceties.
Dweamor shrugged. “Like I said, my school is particularly good at glamour and healing. The lack of body hair gives everyone a nice clean line. I find it pleasing and can’t see why others wouldn’t. I can remove the tattoos and gems without any permanent marking, since they’re of a magical origin, not ink and needle. If anybody wants to leave later, they can keep them or decide to have them removed. I wouldn’t want to be responsible for having people resent me for my code of dress.”
“But what if anything happens to you?” I pressed. “Where does that leave them?”
She shrugged a little indifferently. “They’re removed by drinking a potion. I keep a supply in the office. All the staff know where the bottles are kept. All they need to do is drink it.”
“So, did Sapphire have any problems with other staff or customers?” Elanore asked, purposefully moving the conversation back to the reason we were there.
“No,” Dweamor said. “So far, we have been very lucky and nobody has had any troubles with clients. The staff all seem to get along. I discourage fraternization, of course, but the floor girls are close, so they may be able to tell you something.”
She stood and gestured for us to follow. “I will take you to them.”
We headed for the door through which the two barmaids had fled. On the stage the show had come to a climax. I had to wince. Just how comfortable was that?