Disclaimers: There is sex between women in this one. Also, there is one scene with BDSM overtones.
That day the Judge had been scheduled to meet with Karpa, an old merchant and a jeweler who specialized in antique artifacts and rarities, with whom she had had past dealings. She had come to fairly trust the shrewd tradesman over the years or at least trust him as far as merchants can be trusted.
She saddled her mare; Preparing herself for a long journey east, she packed some provisions to sustain her for the duration of the ride ahead of her. With one foot in the stirrup, the gates of the Lodge's stables flung open and four soldiers wearing her colors, bands and banner marched in.
"My Lord," all greeted her, their bodies stretched as they bowed their heads respectfully.
She returned her foot to the ground and faced the servicemen, "Be at your ease, soldiers." she nodded at them, "I assume there's a purpose to your visit, so let's have it. I'm a bit pressed for time," she compelled them.
"The body of Penurius was found earlier today, my Lord." The highest-ranking officer was the one to give the briefing.
Of course she knew who Penurius was. He had made his fortune at sea and his wealth and prominence had earned him a place at her table when she had hosted various banquets and wassails soon after she had conquered her Realm. She had been pleasantly irritated by his countless and ceaseless attempts to manipulate her into reducing taxes and rig tenders for his benefit, she recalled. He had been under the misconception that she'd been a unprincipled, simpleton, muscle-pumped thug, whose sole existence had been swiving women in general, and deflowering virgins in particular. When he had gone missing many years ago, people had surmised he'd run off with a pretty itinerant strumpet. However, she'd believed his disappearance had more to do with the fact that he'd been under a cloud of suspicion for bilking her treasury rather than with a ludicrously romantic notion such as eloping with a hedge-trollop. Of course there had been other persistent scandalous tattles regarding Penurius and young boys. That had never been proven in a Court of Law. Penurius was wealthy enough to hush and pacify half the Realm, let alone a few children.
"Where was his body discovered, lieutenant?" She addressed the squad's commander, but the unvarnished boots of the corporal standing behind him and to his left caught her attention.
"In a secret chamber beneath his mansion, my Lord," the commander replied whilst she glared at the slovenly kept boots. The corporal was suddenly aware of her scrutiny and lifted up his eyes to meet hers in acknowledgment.
She returned her undivided attention back to the commander, "That leaves the 'who' and 'how'." She sounded a tad aggravated by the fact that she had to milk the information out of him.
"A team of masons and joiners who'd been hired by Penurius' widow to renovate the property found him. They were digging the plot and the ground beneath them caved in just as they were about to pour the cement on the rickety abutment. The Medical Examiner is already awaiting my Lord at the scene. He thought my Lord might have a special interest in this case."
And he had been right: the Judge had always found merrymaking with her soldiers and women commoners, with whom she'd been in her element, preferable to ‘mingling' with the so called ‘High Society, with its stuffy, greedy noblemen and frivolous, vain and prudish ladies. Her supposition has always been that the dowagers were the worst of the lot. That is why her advisors were constantly prompting her to cultivate her political ties with the aristocracy, crooning in her ear: it's essentially their riches that provide for the Realm and propel the economy. It was clear – this situation would require her personal touch.
She lifted her head skyward to assess time by the position of the daystar in the sky. Her businesses with Karpa would have to be postponed to a later date. "Let's move out then," she concluded less than exuberantly, since her transaction with Karpa was of some urgency and she hated leaving such matters to the very last minute.
As soon as the company reached the frontiers of the Realm, the Judge wheeled her horse to the sounds of bells chiming, a routine courtesy of the border patrols to inform of her presence throughout the land. She galloped at the head of the formation as they made their way through the rural outskirts. She kept her eyes on the path but out of the corner of her eye s , against the mainly agricultural scenery, she viewed her subjects who worked the fields genuflecting before her as she passed them by. Undoubtedly, they recognized their Ruler only by the echoing bell tolls, black robes and mauve satin ribbon across her broad muscled torso.
As the party progressed deeper towards the center of the Realm, the widespread green and golden-brown provinces were changing into stony gray streets and squares, and the dirt roads into graveled ones.
When they arrived at their destination the Justice was the first to alight from the snorting beast. Her eyes quickly scanned the perimeter, noticing several large carts loaded with construction waste, heavy machinery as well as smaller tools scattered around. Her entourage escorted her through the debris and dusty wreckage of Penurius's demolished edifice. The fringes of her wafting dark robes were gleaning white powder that seemed to be everywhere. She covered her nostrils with her sleeve to keep inhaling it to a minimum. Cautiously, she minded her steps as she was picking her way through the smashed ruins, occasionally kicking refuse away from her path, until she reached an extensive hole in the ground.
"My Lord," The officer guarding the premises to prevent any contamination of the apparent crime scene saluted her.
His address must have clued another of her presence for promptly after, she heard a familiar voice coming out from down the pit. "Mind your step M'Lord. We wouldn't want you to break your neck on the way down."
"Is that you, the ever-optimistic Doctor Mort?" She called out to the medical examiner as she peered down the dimly lit underground chamber.
"Indeed it is, M'Lord," wheezed the good doctor.
From her vantage point a story above, she saw the chubby somewhat pallid old man with snowy sparse hair and reddish cheeks wiping his hands and then customarily stretching a pair of white gloves on them. "Please use the ladder, M'Lord."
"Yes, thank you," she responded. She placed one foot after the other as she made her descent down the rungs, till she reached a stable ground. "How's the lovely missus?"
"Still with us, I'm afraid, young Master. Dare I ask whether…"
"Bite your tongue, Doctor. You should know better."
"Aye, a fool-proof women-resistant." His heavy melodic laughter rolled gracefully out of his thin lips.
"Never women… love-resistant, old boy," she corrected with a shady grin. She couldn't shake the troubling thought that if she had been tested by a lie detector surely she would have been caught telling an egregious lie.
Doctor Mort was old school. Straight as an arrow he was, and practiced his profession methodically and with an outstanding precision. He honored her, neither out of fear nor out of reverence for her office, but out of genuine respect for her conduct of governance. However, these weren't the primary reasons she liked him as much as she did. What drew the Lord's penchant most was his affability, his good and jolly spirit, not at all what one might expect from a person who slices up dead bodies for a living. Yet, she was in the belief that his chosen occupation was the very reason for his blithe, albeit macabre attitude.
Tilting back his head and rolling his eyes upwards, "Fetch a torch to your Lord!" the physician exclaimed to the guard standing on the level above him, and the guard expeditiously lowered down a beaming torch.
The Justice inched the illuminating torch towards the lifeless cadaver, which was keeled over a small tawdry-looking desk. The right side of Penurius' face was squashed against its wooden surface, and both his arms were slumped to the sides of his obese yet shriveled-skin frame. However, there were three things that were most visibly salient. The first of which was that there were no apparent signs of decomposition on the body, which the Justice had expected to find, the second was the extensive lacerations and the third was the hilt of a dagger, which was looming out of his back.
"Where is his shirt?" The Justice inquired.
"He hadn't been wearing it before he was stabbed, M'Lord. An officer found it over there on the floor beneath a couple of bricks. On the wall above there's a hook. It probably had been hanging there before the chamber's ceiling collapsed." the Doctor replied and pointed his finger to the exact area.
"He appears mummified." The Justice remarked in astonishment.
"Indeed, M'Lord. As M'Lord can observe, there are sacks brimming with salt everywhere down here," he said, tapping his heel against one, "Which effectively absorbed moisture in this small airtight space. This along with the limy walls as isolators worked remarkably to prevent the carcass from putrefying."
"Estimated time of death…?!"
"With the state in which the cadaver was found, it is hard to give a precise answer…" he took a short pause to contemplate, "Roughly, some time between ten years and the time he'd disappeared would be my best guess."
Looking at the multiple lacerations, the Justice kept inquiring "What have we here? A first-timer, or an overachiever?"
"I would have to conduct an autopsy, M'Lord. At first glance it would appear that the lacerations were made post-mortem, and not by a well-honed blade. There isn't any bruising and no recovering tissues either, you see," the Doctor replied as he took out a magnifying glass out of his bag and wiped the lens with his unremarkable handkerchief. He examined the body through the glass. "The collapse that led to the discovery of the body wasn't the first one. There had been another minor one shortly after his death that had caused all the various cuts, in my opinion."
The Justice surveyed the tiny chamber carefully, and let out a pondering 'hmmm' "Has his wife identified the body yet?" the Justice returned her gaze back to Doctor Mort, whilst still leaning over the body.
"She has, M'Lord," the physician answered and handed the Judge his extra pair of white gloves.
Whilst wearing the gloves, "I wager she's absolutely grief stricken," the Justice snidely mused, and the Doctor joined her with a snicker.
The robed Lord carefully pinched the dagger's golden hilt between her fingers. With the deceased's flesh dried and withered, it was easy enough to slide the blade out with neither friction nor hindrance.
"What do you make of it?" She brandished the weapon before the doctor's eyes.
"Daggers are well within M'Lord's area of expertise, scalpels are within mine," said the doctor. He called guards to carry the body from the crime scene to the morgue. Given the volume of the corpse and the fact that it had to be carried up a ladder, not less than five of them climbed down.
Under the glowing flames, the Justice ran inspecting eyes over the dagger. It was golden and encrusted with three sizable gems. "By the craftsmanship I can fairly deduce that the stones are genuine."
"M'Lord has always had a good eye for refined chattels," the Doctor said then returned his attention to the body, "There is nothing to suggest a struggle had taken place before the kill".
"Aye" the Judge agreed and for the first time she watched Penurius' lifeless face more intently, "By the position of the body, I can say with all probability that old Penurius didn't know what hit him. He was stabbed in the back while sitting at his desk. His killer came stealthily behind him, which suggests that the covert entrance ought to be somewhere behind him," she explained and swept an arm around in gesture to the rear wall, approximately four yards away from the desk. "This was an organized murder. The perpetrator entered this chamber with the sole intention of committing murder. It is safe to assume he wouldn't have relied on finding a weapon here."
"He brought a dagger with him," concluded Doctor Mort.
The Justice nodded, "This dagger was owned by our killer. There's no doubt about it."
The Justice raised the dagger to her eyes again for a closer inspection.
"Who is 'Emma', you reckon, M'Lord?"
"Please turn the dagger and see the word 'Emma' engraved over on the other side of the blade." He said dryly.
As often the case with death and morbid discussions thereof, the guards were now congregated by acute curiosity around the Justice and the medical examiner and paid close attention to the discourse between the two.
When the Justice's green orbs first landed on those four tiny letters inscribed in the gold, desperately trying to affirm her eyes had tricked her, her blood ran cold and fled her face in a rush. She considered that she must appear whiter than the wall she found herself briefly leaning against. She distinctly felt a shiver run down her spine and her palms broke icy sweat. These sensations of dread were a novelty to her.
Doctor Mort noticed those slight changes in the Justice's demeanor. "You don't look too well, M'Lord"
"Must be the dust not agreeing with me," the Justice was quick to shrug it off.
"Is M'Lord in need of a Doctor?" Doctor Mort further insisted.
The Justice composed herself in a blink of an eye, "Can you recommend one? You've been treating the dead for far too long…" She teased him, deflecting any hint of suspicion away from her.
The doctor had scoffed before focusing his concentration back on the dagger. "'Emma', the emblem of the craftsman who forged this blade, perhaps?!" The Doctor sneaked a glance to Penurius' grand behind perched atop the small stool, which was nearly concealed in its entirety by the corpulent departed. He had done so for the same reason a curiosity would capture the eye of a spectator in a carnival.
The crime scene was teeming with the foul play of an assassin. Lady Emma the Justice's thoughts raced, for she knew there could be only so many assassins named 'Emma' and a connoisseur of fine daggers. In her mind's eye she could foresee the chain of events that would inevitably proceed.
And sure enough, she felt the dagger being extracted from her hand. Doctor Mort put it into a bag and as he assigned it to one of the guards to store in the evidence room for further analysis, "It must be the perpetrator's name." He stated, not realizing the effect his words had on the Justice, whose eyes were following the back of the guard carrying the incriminating murder weapon away and further from her reach.
Her ability to master her focus was gravely compromised. With Doctor Mort and several trampling guards converged around her, she could not afford the lot discovering that fact. She turned and faced the wall behind the deceased. With it now adjacent to her person, she sailed her fingers in search for an arcane passage in and out of the chamber. A wee jut under a gaudy painting nailed to the wall stimulated the tip of the Justice's rugged finger to press down. As soon as she did, a complex mechanism was set in motion and a hidden gateway was opened.
As the gears squeaked, all heads turned in unison to where the Justice was standing. "There's a tunnel here," she cried and strained her eyes to descry its other end pass the murkiness. Having failed to see, she beckoned one of her guards to approach her. She reached and pulled an arrow by its fletching out of the sheath the guard was carrying on his back and set fire to the arrowhead. "Your bow," She ordered next and he obeyed.
She fired the burning arrow into the bleak burrow and tracked the flame as it flew. When she could no longer trail it, she turned back to Doctor Mort. "It's over a 150 yards long. The other end is probably somewhere in the orchards."
"Clever," said the pathologist with considerable amount of appreciation.
"You two," the Lord called out to her soldiers, "Canvas the tunnel."
The warriors took torches and commenced an exploration of the subterraneous canal, while the other warriors wrapped the body in evidence sheets, burdened it upon their persons and made their way up the ladder and to the morgue, leaving the Justice and the doctor behind.
After a few short moments and quick glances around, the Justice laid out her thoughts, "My theory of the crime is as follows. Penurius was sitting at his desk without his shirt on, when the perpetrator snuck in behind him through the secret entrance. Mind you, back then the gears must have been well oiled. Being that Penurius was an obese man, the perpetrator couldn't launch the dagger from a distance and was forced to make physical contact. As such, he stabbed his victim in the back. At that point he noticed that the roof was caving in. Out of fear of being buried alive, he scurried out leaving an expensive singular dagger deeply wedged in his victim."
"This dagger can identify its owner. How could he have risked that?"
"He had no choice. Besides, he must have known no one was aware of this chamber's existence, and calculated that it wouldn't be found,"
"And by the time it did, he would have been distant enough, indeed," muttered Doctor Mort and took off the white gloves. "What I still don't understand is…Why would Penurius go to all the trouble of quarrying a tunnel and a secret chamber only to stock salt?"
As an answer to his reasonable question, the Judge kicked one of the sacks containing salt. It tipped over and the spice came pouring out along with gold coins and fine stones. She knew Penurius had been rich, but not rich to that extent. "The bastard Jack-Tar had evaded paying his taxes. For a minute there I almost felt sorry for all the times I've wished him dead," she said with a guileful tone.
Before making her way to the Morgue, she ordered her second in command, whom she considered reliable on account of him caring even less about money than she did, to oversee the task of collecting the remaining evidences.
End of Part 1
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