The Corpse Thieves
Malykant Mysteries #5
Konrad Savast is the Malykant: foremost and most secret servant of the God of Death. His job? To track down the foulest of murderers and bring them to The Malykt’s Justice. No mercy. No quarter.
Danil Dubin is a murderer. He knows this because he’s been told — by the many witnesses to his crime.
Only, he has no memory of it himself.
It’s part of a spate of similar killings, and Konrad must act. But how can he deliver The Malykt’s justice to a man with no reason to kill, and no knowledge of his crime?
Master, said Ootapi one rainy afternoon. You have been too long idle, and it sours your temper. You require an occupation.
‘Quite,’ said Konrad, with a curl of his lip. ‘Not nearly enough people are being murdered. It is highly inconvenient of everybody to keep breathing in this detestably ceaseless fashion.’
Eetapi drifted closer, her chill, incorporeal presence causing the hairs on the back of Konrad’s neck to rise. Her voice whispered in his mind, in the mournful tones of funeral bells: Shall I kill someone for you, Master?
Konrad closed his newspaper with a snap. ‘A commendable thought, dear serpent, but you overlook one or two important details. One being that, if I am informed ahead of time as to the identity of the culprit, the search will not occupy me for very long. Two, since you are possessed of neither a body nor, strictly speaking, a soul, my customary response to the crime would not be required. I am afraid the idea, meritorious as it is, will not suit our purposes today.’
Eetapi vibrated with disappointment and slunk away, coiling her ethereal serpentine body into a sulky spiral in the corner of the study. To Konrad’s annoyance, he experienced a flicker of guilt.
Ootapi was in no hurry to relinquish the idea. I will hire someone, he decided.
‘Excellent thought,’ Konrad agreed.
Without telling you, Ootapi added.
‘Alas, it is too late for that.’
Ootapi lapsed into silent thought, an interlude which Konrad spent in looking out of the window. The sky was full of the brooding, murderous type of clouds which threatened a dramatic flourish of snow every moment, yet succeeded in producing only a feeble drizzle of rain. The conditions reflected Konrad’s mood and predicament nicely, for not only was he insufficiently productive, he felt as grey as a winter morn and twice as cold at heart.
Who would you like to die? Ootapi queried.
Konrad’s lips quirked. ‘Oh, who hasn’t wished a speedy and painless demise upon one’s fellow creatures, at one point or another? Sometimes without the painless part, even.’ His thoughts flitted to Danil Dubin, the acknowledged admirer of his closest friend, Irinanda Falenia. The young man was harmless, for all his occupation as a trader of poisons. Mild-mannered, rather meek, a little on the feeble side. Why he should irritate Konrad so much remained firmly in question, but nonetheless: if anybody of his acquaintance were to meet a swift and untimely death, it had better be Mr. Dubin.
So lost was he in these pleasant, if guilty, reflections, it took him some time to notice that Ootapi had fallen silent, and offered no further enquiries. So uncharacteristic was this of his servant’s usual persistence that he was bemused, and for a moment, concerned. Had he uttered his shameful wishes aloud?
‘Ootapi?’ he called.
It was inconvenient, sometimes, having invisible ghosts for assistants. ‘Do not kill anyone on my behalf, if you please.’
‘I think you mean No, Master.’
Was that, though, a double negative? Did they cancel each other out, and result at last in a positive? Konrad grappled with the problem for thirty seconds, and then abandoned the question in exasperation.
‘You are right, serpents. I need an occupation. Perhaps I will take up a hobby.’
Ice fishing, suggested Ootapi.
‘Too cold. And dull.’
Gambling! offered Eetapi, apparently recovered from her sulks.
Embroidery? said Ootapi.
Konrad thought of embroidering Dubin’s name in blood red silk, the letters dripping in gore, and struck through with a shiny silver knife.
‘I need a hobby,’ he said again with a sigh.
Drinking! Ootapi enthused.
‘You have the best ideas, Ootapi.’
It was not yet late enough in the afternoon to make drinking respectable, but the members of Konrad’s favourite gentlemen’s club were resistant to such mundane considerations as that. He collected his hat, his stick and his coat and went out into the rain, reflecting with pleasant anticipation upon the state of blissful, untroubled inebriation he would soon enjoy.
The clouds got their act together halfway there and produced snow, in quantity.
For several years, Konrad had felt nothing at all, near enough. His Master, The Malykt, had judged Konrad’s tumultuous emotions obstructive to his duties as the Malykant, and had accordingly stifled them. Konrad had enjoyed — or suffered — only the barest flickers of feeling, easily missed and soon gone.
He had never fully decided whether he welcomed the interference, or lamented the loss. His role was the bringer of justice, and a harsh justice it was: The Malykt meted out only death, to those who took a life, and it was the Malykant’s duty to administer that punishment. A lack of feeling permitted him to conduct the role more easily, perhaps; he was not plagued with the guilt, the horror, the fear or the revulsion that had often afflicted him before. But he ceased to feel hope or joy or love either, and the price had often seemed a high one.
Now that had all changed.
Irinanda had turned out to be a trusted servant of The Shandrigal, a being who presided over life and the living in the same way that The Malykt ruled over the dead. And by her Mistress’s intervention, Konrad and his emotions had been, at long last, reunited.
It was hard, he thought bitterly, that when at last he became reacquainted with the business of feeling he should overwhelmingly experience those of a negative character. For every flicker of hope, he suffered a crushing weight of despair, self-reproach and terror. Well, terror at least was still familiar; his Master had, so kindly, permitted him to feel plenty of that, on the rare occasions He chose to show Himself. But to live with it day in, day out, was new, and when it came attendant with so many other terrible, soul-destroying feelings, Konrad frequently wondered whether he would not rather return to the blissful, relatively unfeeling state he had existed in before.
Nanda was his best recourse. The Shandrigal had sent her, he had recently learned, to keep Konrad sane. Malykants had gone mad before, their sanity and peace eroded by the horror of their daily job until their minds could take no more. Without Nanda, Konrad felt that he, too, might already have succumbed.
But she was absent from the city of Ekamet, had been for a week. She had gone with Danil Dubin to her home in Marja, a neighbouring realm, and thus was Konrad deprived of the only person he could turn to in need.
He tried not to resent her absence, for she had gone to visit her family, and he did not begrudge her the time. He tried not to resent her choice of travelling companion, either, though in that he failed. Why Dubin! Just because he, Konrad, was not likely to be given The Malykt’s leave to travel — people could not be prevented from being murdered, after all, just because the Malykant was away — that did not mean she had to choose Dubin instead. Dubin! What was the man’s appeal? That he was meek and dull and passive? Who wanted that in a friend?
To drink, then, he turned, knowing all the while that it was the poorest of responses but unable to think of a better. If he had descended so far into misery that he was wishing actual death upon Dubin — an unoffending soul, after all, even if Konrad despised him — then he was sorely in need of something. Whiskey would suffice.
When he arrived at the club, he found Nuritov already there. Inspector Alexander Nuritov was a chief detective with Ekamet’s police force, and as such he was not, technically speaking, a gentleman. Such a man would not ordinarily be granted admittance to a club like Zima’s, but his status with the police and his likeable personality had won him an exception. He was a popular member, friends with most of the rest. Konrad had originally met him over a glass or two of whiskey and a card game at Zima’s, and the friendship had served him well since.
Nuritov did not know that the man he thought of as Konrad Savast, idle gentleman of Ekamet, was secretly the Malykant. He thought of his friend as an amateur detective with an interest in the thornier cases that cropped up around the city. If he had noticed that Mr. Savast’s interest tended exclusively towards murder cases, he had never commented on it, and his manner was always congenial.
Konrad sometimes wondered what Nuritov really thought of him.
‘Savast,’ said Nuritov, as Konrad approached his table. He had settled into a deep, wing-back armchair with a stack of newspapers and a pot of coffee, and readily invited Konrad to take the other chair. He made no comment when Konrad ordered whiskey, either, which was gratifying. ‘What do you make of this Sokol business?’
Konrad chugged whiskey, and tried to remember whether he had heard the name Sokol recently. ‘Who, or what, is that?’
Nuritov tossed him a page from his newspaper. ‘Silk trader. Went mad yesterday, tried to kill a rival fabric merchant. Most out of character, by all accounts.’
Konrad scanned the report, though it had little to share beyond Nuritov’s abbreviated version of the tale. Kazimir Sokol, a merchant importing silks from Kayesir, had attempted to decapitate Radinka Nartovich, a rival trader whose wares were, by some, considered superior. Nothing in the man’s character or his life prior to the event had given any hint that he was of unsound mind, etc, and happily the attempt had been unsuccessful.
‘Pressure can affect people in strange ways,’ Konrad commented, returning the paper.
‘Undoubtedly, but still, this is an unusual response to it. Ordinarily, there is some kind of hint beforehand, some sign that there is the potential for madness. It comes down to a question of time: not will the person snap but when, and what will prove to be the trigger? This unsuspected variety is odd.’
‘Have you talked to him?’ Konrad downed more whiskey, wondering vaguely why Nuritov brought the matter to his attention at all, but already feeling too mellow to care very much.
‘Yes.’ Nuritov put down the paper. ‘Sokol claims to have no memory of the event at all. He would not believe the charges brought against him, not until we had presented him with several eye witnesses. Even now, he refuses to acknowledge responsibility and seems entirely without explanation.’
This was a little more interesting. ‘Do you believe him?’ Konrad asked.
Nuritov took a moment to think. ‘I do,’ he finally decided. ‘He struck me as sincere. And distraught. He has a wife, children, whom he is genuinely anxious about, and I find it hard to believe that he would lightly risk their future over a moment’s homicidal whim — if that’s what it was. Furthermore, when he was told who he had tried to kill, he was utterly taken aback. As was Miss Nartovich, of course. It seems theirs has always been a friendly enough rivalry — no lasting ill-feeling reported on either side, whatever the papers might be implying.’
‘So no motive, no prior history suggesting capability, and no memory.’ Konrad set aside his glass, all thought of drink forgotten. ‘A strange case, to be sure. What do you propose to do?’
Nuritov shook his head sadly. ‘Alas, the fact of Sokol’s attempt stands too far beyond doubt to give me much leeway. He took out a sword — an actual sword, Savast, not merely a long knife or some such blade — and went for Miss Nartovich with clear intent to destroy her. The fact that he had such a weapon with him strongly suggests prior intent, whatever he says to the contrary, and he was observed by half a dozen people. I have to prosecute him for attempted murder.’
The inspector’s regret was clear, and Konrad could well understand his predicament. The case made no sense whatsoever. How could the police comfortably prosecute such a man for such a crime, under such strange circumstances? But how could they let it slide, either, considering that a woman had only narrowly escaped death?
‘I sympathise,’ Konrad murmured. ‘Poor man. Poor woman, too.’
Nuritov nodded his agreement. The quality of his ensuing silence struck Konrad as too casual by half; it bristled with significance.
‘What is it?’ Konrad enquired. ‘I take it you had a reason for mentioning the matter to me.’
‘I did. I wondered if you might be disposed to assist.’
Konrad, half-slouched in his comfortable chair, sat up at this surprising response. Nuritov had been forthcoming enough before, in a few cases that Konrad had (secretly) handled, but he had always done so unofficially. And he was not in the habit of entreating Konrad’s assistance. How could he be? He was the police, while Mr. Savast of Bakar House was a mere dabbler. ‘What would you wish me to do?’
Konrad received in response an appraising look, and Nuritov hesitated before replying. ‘I understand you might be in possession of some… unusual abilities?’ he said at last. ‘And perhaps some useful allies with, um, other unusual abilities.’
This brought Konrad up short. Away went his fond imaginings that Nuritov was wholly unaware of his secret life. ‘I do not know what you mean,’ he said at once, more by instinct than upon consideration. He was used to hiding his service to The Malykt, aware that not everyone would applaud him for it. There were those who felt that the Malykant was no better than the murderers he killed, and would not rest until he had been dispatched in similar fashion. Nuritov might never have given Konrad cause for alarm, but the prospect that he might have learned — or guessed at — Konrad’s other identity sent a spasm of icy terror slicing through his guts.
‘Forgive me, if I have spoken out of turn.’ Nuritov sat back and took up his paper again, a picture of innocuous comfort as he sipped coffee and scanned the remaining reports. He did not look as though he were preparing to remove Konrad from this earth, and the fear lessened a little.
‘Upon what information do you speak?’ Konrad asked, when he had composed himself.
Nuritov glanced at Konrad, and a faint flush rose in his cheeks. ‘You will believe me, I hope, when I tell you I had no intention of, um, spying upon your doings.’
Konrad raised an eyebrow.
‘I have a new recruit,’ Nuritov continued, looking more embarrassed than ever. ‘An apprentice, of sorts, though of an unusual kind. She is a young person, only fourteen winters I believe. Um, her enthusiasm rather exceeded my expectations and she was… intrigued by you.’
‘She has been following me?’ Konrad’s breath left him in shock, and he did not remember to breathe for half a minute.
Nuritov nodded. ‘I have only just learned of this side project of hers, and of course I asked her to stop at once, but she had already uncovered too many details about your habits and, um, relayed them to me.’
‘Let us be clear at once. What have you been told?’
‘Sometimes you go abroad in different guise,’ Nuritov said, glancing meaningfully at the fine, gentleman’s suit Konrad currently wore. ‘You go out into the Bones, gather poisons. You have a hut there to which you sometimes retreat. You have a close association with Miss Irinanda Falenia, a known servant of The Shandrigal. And of course, I know myself that your interest in murder cases is more acute than might be considered ordinary for a gentleman of your position. I thought you merely interested in the puzzle, in a distant way, but you investigate much more actively than I previously realised.’
Konrad heard all this in growing dismay. How sloppy had he been! That some snippet of a girl had been tailing him about for, seemingly, weeks without his knowledge, had observed so much! It was small comfort to him that she had not, apparently, witnessed him actually carrying out his Master’s justice, but small matter that. Nuritov was more than bright enough to put such pieces together as he had received.
He noted in passing the curious point that Nanda’s association with The Shandrigal’s Order was considered known. Konrad had not known it, not until recently, for Nanda had been very secretive. If Nuritov knew, then Konrad had been blind as well as sloppy, and for years. And he had just learned that he could develop murderous feelings towards unoffending people, too.
Today was not shaping up well.
‘This apprentice,’ he said, trying to ignore the sinking feeling in his stomach. ‘Tell me about her.’ Because the girl had not only evaded Konrad’s notice; the serpents had failed to spot her, too. Watching Konrad’s back was a large part of their job, and they were good at it.
But Nuritov had little light to shed. ‘Her name is Tasha, no known family name. Orphan since early childhood. We took her in recently.’
If there was more to this Tasha than met the eye — and there had to be, Konrad was sure of that — then Nuritov knew nothing of it. ‘I would like to meet her,’ Konrad said.
Nuritov nodded. ‘Ah… are my surmises correct?’ he said, diffident but by no means willing to be put off.
Konrad was grateful that the club was so empty, and that Nuritov had chosen to sit in a secluded corner, out of earshot of the few other members in residence. Nonetheless, to admit to being the Malykant at all did not come easily to him. To do so in public went sorely against the grain.
‘You understand that I cannot confirm any such surmise,’ he said.
‘Do you deny it?’
Konrad felt torn. Ordinarily, his policy was always one of complete secrecy. The only exception he had made was in Nanda’s case, and he had lately discovered that she had known all along; indeed, his status as the Malykant was why she had entered his life at all. So in effect, he had never entrusted anybody with that secret, never thrown his fate into the hands of another person, never learned whether he could do so in safety.
Which was sad. And Nanda’s point was true, and chilling: the isolation of the Malykant’s life, combined with its daily horrors, had sent past incumbents quite mad.
Konrad did not wish to become one of them.
‘I don’t deny it,’ he said, and it cost him much to speak those words. The consequences of uttering them came swiftly: a fever of doubt, the worst of premonitions, and vicious self-reproach.
But Nuritov merely nodded. ‘It does explain much.’ He sipped coffee, eyes wandering back to his newspaper, looking unaffected by the revelation.
Konrad sat feeling like a man awaiting his execution, but nothing came. No questions, no judgements, no reproaches. Nuritov said nothing, refraining from even looking Konrad’s way. His coffee and his paper absorbed him utterly.
But it was not the avoidance of distrust, or revulsion, or reproach. The silence was peaceful, and Nuritov was as relaxed as always as he read. Konrad realised that he understood some part of the feelings Konrad was now suffering under, and probably the fears, too. He was, with the utmost sensitivity, giving Konrad time to adjust and to recover his composure.
That realisation brought another with it: Nuritov was not just an acquaintance, not merely a colleague or a fellow member of the same club. He was a friend.
And Konrad felt a rush of warmer, kinder feelings than those he had lately experienced. Since they brought with them an unfortunate moistening of his eyes, he was half inclined to wish them away again.
He took a deep breath, and when he was certain he had himself under control, he spoke up. ‘In the matter of Sokol. You understand that my involvement in such cases only ever comes after someone has been… er, successful in such an endeavour. My particular arts may not be of use to you.’ He was adept at an odd array of things: communing with ghosts, coaxing recently-slain corpses to talk, unlocking doors at a touch. All useful, in the usual way of things, but of little probable assistance in an attempted murder case.
Nuritov absorbed this with unruffled composure. ‘Still, I would be glad if you would talk to him. I fear the truth behind Sokol’s actions will prove strange indeed, and I think we are out of our depth with him.’
By we he presumably meant the Ekamet Police. And he had a point. Konrad had encountered many oddities during his eight or nine years as the Malykant, many of which passed the ordinary citizen of Ekamet by entirely.
And then, of course, there was Nanda. She was a Reader, which meant that she could sometimes discern thoughts, feelings, memories and such of another person, if she touched them. Absent she may be, but the day of her probable return rapidly approached. Konrad would not admit that he was counting the days — or more honestly, the hours. Entreating her assistance with Nuritov’s case would give him an excuse to seek her out at his earliest opportunity, supposing he needed one.
And to extract her from Dubin’s company without a moment’s delay.
‘I will do what I can,’ Konrad promised.
He was rewarded with a smile of gratitude, and perhaps a touch of relief. ‘Thank you, Savast.’
Konrad wanted to thank Nuritov, too. For accepting his secret without condemnation, and for keeping it in the future, as he felt (reasonably) certain he would. For being a friend to him, whatever his reasons might be. But he was unused to uttering such heartfelt reflections and could not find the words.
‘Tasha,’ he said instead. ‘I would like to meet your spy.’ And find out two things: how she had come to evade the notice of his serpents, and whether she was likely to prove as trustworthy as Nuritov when it came to keeping his secrets.
‘I will send her to Bakar House this afternoon,’ Nuritov promised.
Konrad stood, and found himself a little unsteady on his feet. ‘Better make it tomorrow morning,’ he suggested, frowning in irritation at his empty whiskey glass as though his inebriated state was the glass’s fault.
‘Morning it is.’ Nuritov grinned as Konrad wandered off, and kindly made no comment upon the swaying character of his walk as he did so.
And so it was proved, that friends could be more soothing to the spirits than alcohol. How remarkable. Konrad reflected upon the merits of Nuritov and Nanda as he made his way home, and barely noticed the heavy snowfall, or the biting cold. For the first time in years, he felt warm at heart.