The Spirit of Solstice
Malykant Mysteries #6
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.
Solstice Eve, and Konrad is dragged from his bed to investigate the murder of a local wine merchant. The man’s as dead as they come, but his spirit seems oddly unperturbed by his passing.
More victims are swift to emerge, all killed in the same brutal style – and all with strange, unheard-of reactions to the news of their own demise. Is it just the Solstice spirit, or is there something else afoot? Something stranger, darker and far more dangerous…
The eve before Winter Solstice arrived; heralded, as ever, by a flurry of snow and a bone-aching chill. Konrad welcomed the joys of the season by going to bed straight after dinner — alone. He took a book, three hot bricks and a glass (or two) of brandy with him, a combination which seemed to him to encompass all a gentleman could possibly wish for on such a night.
So deliciously comfortable was he in his four-poster bed, nightcap firmly warding off those errant wisps of draught which found their way around his heavy bed curtains, that he was not best pleased to be disturbed by a frigid whisper shivering through his mind like a sudden, icy wind.
If he ignored it, would it go away? Konrad tightened his grip upon his book, slithered fractionally further beneath his blankets, and read on.
‘Begone, foul fiend,’ he muttered, without hope.
Konrad sighed gustily, and closed his book. Yes, what is it?
We have a gift for you!
The serpents materialised before him. There were two of them, a brother and a sister (or so they had been in life): Ootapi and Eetapi, his personal plagues. Assistants, actually, bestowed upon him by The Malykt Himself. Their appointed duty was to help him with his task of delivering justice to the killers of the city of Ekamet, but they seemed to take their unofficial duty every bit as seriously — that being, to make constant nuisances of themselves.
A gift, how lovely. Konrad tried to sound as though he meant it. Really, Winter Solstice was such a trying time. Everyone expected such a total change of attitude! Cheer must abound! There must be love, joy and happiness wherever one ventured! And really, it was such an unnatural state of being. Konrad did not know anybody who managed to maintain the Solstice Spirit for the whole of the season.
Personally, he did not trouble himself to maintain it for more than a day or two. Today not being one of them.
You will love it. Eetapi’s melodic, mournful voice carried a hint of smugness.
Konrad tried, briefly, to imagine what a pair of long-dead ghost snakes might decide to present him with for Solstice, but soon abandoned the effort with a shudder. Nothing he would love, he was fairly sure.
What has inspired this sudden fit of largesse? I do not recall your ever giving me gifts before.
Serendipity! proclaimed Ootapi.
A fortunate accident. That sounded… worse. Konrad braced himself. You’d better tell me.
It is a surprise! Eetapi carolled.
That was another thing about Solstice. Surprises. Who liked surprises, truly? Most of them were unpleasant. No surprises, just tell me!
Eetapi drifted closer to his face, until her ice-white, translucent manifestation was all that he could see. Her eyes blinked slowly. Will you come with us, or shall we persuade you?
That did not bode well. One of his serpents’ more useful (and chilling) talents was the ability to bind the souls of others, for a time. If the person in question still lived, it had the effect of immobilising them until the serpents were pleased to release them — or until they fought their way out, which sometimes happened.
They had done it to Konrad in the past, the little dears. Once or twice, they had used it to good effect — when Konrad was about to do something oblivious and foolish, for example. Usually, though, they did it to torment him. The experience was appalling: it was like being wrapped in chains and then immersed in a frozen lake. He was not about to volunteer himself for a dose of that tonight.
It is only Solstice Eve, he tried. Can it not wait for tomorrow?
It will not wait, and neither will we!
Stifling a groan, he threw back his blankets and left the warmth and comfort of his bed. The cold bit into his shivering limbs as he stepped beyond the protection of the bed curtains, and his mood soured a little more. Damn the serpents. Could they not see that permitting Konrad to rest comfortably abed made for a far better Solstice gift than anything else?
How far are we going?
Not far, said Ootapi.
Probably not as far as the Bone Forest, then, in which case he would not need his most robust attire. He chose heavy black trousers and a thick cotton shirt, a woollen waistcoat to put over it, and his favourite crimson-lined winter coat. Fine black boots, a long cloak and his top hat completed the ensemble, and he was ready to depart.
Lead on, he said briefly, not troubling to disguise his lack of enthusiasm.
The serpents sailed away, and Konrad fell into step behind them. He paused only to snatch up a pair of black wool gloves on his way out of the house, and then they were away into the streets of Ekamet, exposed to all the delights of a dark night enlivened by a persistent snowfall.
It is cold, Konrad informed his detested servants, wishing that he had thought to pick up a scarf.
Try being dead, Ootapi suggested. We do not feel the cold at all!
A fantastic suggestion.
Ootapi, as impervious to the nuances of sarcasm as he was to the cold, rippled with pleasure.
I cannot help suspecting that our Master would be displeased, however, Konrad continued. A dead Malykant is of little use to anybody.
When you have finished being the Malykant, then, Ootapi amended.
We will kill you ourselves, if you like, Eetapi chimed in. It will not hurt at all!
If this is your idea of helping, I dread to imagine your notion of a gift.
You will love it, Eetapi promised again, and Konrad sighed.
You said it was not far? They had traversed several streets already — curiously bustling streets, considering the lateness of the hour and the season. Should not all these fine people be in somebody’s home, sitting by a roaring fire and indulging in too much food? Or tucked up in bed with a book and a glass of brandy…
The serpents swerved left without warning, so rapidly that Konrad almost overshot the turn. He hastily adjusted his direction, and found himself ducking under the lintel of a shop. A liquor shop, he soon observed, which seemed to add insult to injury, for had they truly dragged their poor master away from the fine brandy he had already been enjoying in order to acquire more?
So absorbed by his grievances was he, it took a moment for him to realise that it was far too late for the shop to be open, especially at Solstice. A second look revealed that the door had been forced open.
Then the serpents began to emit an eerie, pallid glow, lighting up the dark shop, and there stretched out upon the counter was a man.
He was a decade or so Konrad’s senior, as far as could be judged under such conditions: perhaps in his mid-forties, his cheeks mottled with the reddish hue of a regular drinker. He was plump and bald, dressed in a rather luxurious wine-red silk waistcoat, full-sleeved shirt and brown wool trousers.
He was also very dead, judging from the fact that half of his throat was missing.
When you spoke of a gift, Konrad said, I did not imagine that you meant another job. This is work!
Talk to him! Eetapi frisked about in the air over the man’s rigid corpse, gambolling like a delighted child. He is wonderful!
She did not wait for his response. She and Ootapi instantly caught up the unravelling shreds of the man’s sundered spirit and bound them back into his body. A shudder went through the corpse, and he blinked once.
Konrad stood over him, trying not to look too closely at the mess of the man’s torn-out throat. ‘Good evening,’ he said gravely.
The dead wine merchant smiled. The movement caused his broken throat to sag horribly, leaking blood, and Konrad hastily averted his eyes. ‘Evening! Come for a spot of toddy to warm up the night, have you? I’ve got everything you could want, sir, everything! You’ll probably want the best, I should think.’ The merchant folded his hands comfortably over his blood-soaked waistcoat and beamed at Konrad.
‘I haven’t come to make a purchase,’ said Konrad, mystified. Did the man not realise he had died?
‘Just as well,’ said the merchant, with unimpaired cheer. ‘I would have trouble assisting you like this, wouldn’t I? I’d better not get up. Ain’t proper to make your acquaintance like this — ought to stand up, oughtn’t I? But I’d hate to bleed on your cloak.’ The man touched a finger to his torn throat. ‘Has it stopped bleeding?’
‘Almost,’ murmured Konrad. The man was probably mad, he decided. Nobody reacted so cheerfully to their own death. ‘What is your name?’
Normally he had to compel the recently deceased to speak much; they were in too much shock to co-operate without interference. But the merchant said jovially: ‘Illya Vasily. Proprietor of fine wines, spirits, liquors of all kinds — the finest in Ekamet! Ask anybody!’
Konrad cleared his throat. ‘And, um, Mr. Vasily… how did you come to be deceased?’
‘There I can’t help you.’ Vasily drummed his fingers against his silk-clad belly, and hummed a few bars of a popular ditty. ‘Man came in earlier tonight, just as I was about to leave. All locked up and everything. Wanted to make a last-minute purchase, he said, for a Solstice gift, and who was I to refuse? It’s Solstice! So I made to get him a bottle of Kayesiri claret — that being what he’d asked for — and… now I’m as you see me.’
There were a few details missing from the story. Konrad began his questions. ‘What did this man look like?’
‘Couldn’t tell you. He was wrapped up even tighter than you, all bundled up against the cold. Red scarf around his neck, covered half his face. All dark clothing.’
‘What did he do to you?’
I don’t know, sir. Can’t rightly remember.’
A shame, but not unusual. It was the mind’s way, sometimes, to erase from its records anything it found too shocking, too traumatic, too difficult to cope with. Violence resulting in death certainly qualified. ‘How did you come to be laid out upon the bar, like this?’
‘Can’t tell you that, either!’ Vasily smiled ruefully, and shrugged his meaty shoulders. ‘I wasn’t rightly aware of much until you woke me up. Good of you, by the way.’ He nodded to Konrad, and — more interestingly — to the serpents who floated above. Usually they terrified people, especially the newly dead, but Vasily was as cheerfully unconcerned by their eerie, frigid presence as he was by his own demise.
‘It was not done as a service to you,’ Konrad felt obliged to admit. ‘I am charged with finding your killer.’
‘The Malykant, is it?’ Vasily regarded Konrad with new interest. ‘Never thought I would meet you, that’s for sure! But pleasure, pleasure! Good to make your acquaintance! I hope you find him.’
‘I will,’ Konrad promised. Let him go, he ordered the serpents.
But Vasily seemed to sense that his brief revival was over, for he held up a plump hand. ‘May I make a request? Seeing as it’s Solstice.’
Konrad sighed inwardly. He probably wanted to be brought back to life, somehow; it wouldn’t be the first time a newly expired ghost had asked for that. And it was Solstice! Of course, he would be asked such a thing on such a day, when it was especially sad to have to refuse.
‘I couldn’t… stay, could I?’ said Vasily. ‘I shan’t mind being dead, but I’d rather not be parted from my shop, all the same.’
Konrad was too surprised to speak right away. Here was a new request. A ghost who wanted to remain a ghost? Who preferred to linger, sundered from his mortal body? Usually they were in a hurry to move on; to leave behind a world they could no longer share in, a world they were otherwise condemned to drift always upon the edges of, always cold, always alone.
‘You do not wish for justice?’ Konrad finally said.
‘Yes I do! Deliver that justice, by all means, and my thanks for it! Only don’t send me away!’
‘I… will see what I can do.’ Here was new territory; Konrad was not at all sure he could contrive to do both at once. But it was Solstice…
Illya Vasily beamed upon him. ‘Talk to my cousin,’ he recommended. ‘I don’t know why, but I feel she could probably tell you something about all of this.’
A vague and unlikely lead, but better than nothing. ‘What is your cousin’s name?’
‘Kristina Vasily. She owns a couple of warehouses by the docks. I use her premises all the time.’
Vasily. It occurred to Konrad, belatedly, that it was a name he was not unaware of. ‘Big merchant family, yours?’
‘Oh, yes! Quite the network! You’ll find out, I’m sure.’ Vasily winked at Konrad. ‘All right, I suppose my time is up, isn’t it? Solstice greetings to all of you! Enjoy your fires, your dinners and above all, your wines! Enjoy them double, for me!’
The serpents released Vasily’s soul, and his corpse went back to being just a corpse. Konrad regarded the inert body with regret.
Isn’t he wonderful? sighed Eetapi. No one is ever so cheerful about death!
How did you know? He said himself, he has been insensible since the moment of his death until now.
It’s the way his spirit resonates, Eetapi answered incomprehensibly. Such merry vibrations! Never have we seen the like!
Konrad judged it best not to enquire further. Eetapi, let Nuritov know about this, he instructed. Ootapi, with me. Inspector Nuritov would not be best pleased to be interrupted on such an evening, but somebody had to deal with poor Vasily’s corpse, and that was a job for the police.
His job was a little different. Steeling himself, for he had never before had to carve open the body of so friendly and chatty a ghost, Konrad applied his knives to Illya Vasily’s vacated corpse and extracted a single, thick rib bone. This he carefully wrapped, and stored inside his coat for later use.
Finding a way to dispatch Vasily’s killer without also dispatching Vasily’s ghost into the Malykt’s care would be impossible; the two had to occur together. But he had not had the heart to admit that to Vasily.
So your idea of a Solstice gift is an unusually challenging job, with next to no leads. Konrad made for the door, donning his gloves once more.
No! Eetapi sounded disgusted with him. A man who is not afraid of death! Who can greet his own demise with equanimity, and optimism! Is that not an example of true Solstice cheer?
The serpents could do with an education about Solstice, Konrad thought. Somehow, he did not feel that their interpretation of Solstice Spirit was likely to be much taken up.