Warning: contains references to child sacrifice.
Book 1 Chapter XVIII: Abihira and Haliran
And when the Patrician was unhappy, he became very democratic. He found intricate and painful ways of spreading that unhappiness as far as possible. – Terry Pratchett, Guards! Guards!
So far nothing had gone horribly wrong. In fact everything had gone much better than expected. Truth be told Abi had not been nearly as certain as she pretended to be about the existence of ghosts lingering around the person responsible for their death. Yes, legend spoke of such creatures. One of the five great ghost stories revolved around them. The trouble was that legends tended to be a grain of truth wrapped in a great deal of fiction. Anyone who believed all legends were absolutely true was setting themselves up for a tremendous disappointment.
And yet. Now that she knew what she was looking for, she found Haliran's house was indeed haunted.
It was hard to put her finger on just how she knew. There were no disembodied voices. Nothing moved around or fell over on its own. She didn't see any ghostly shapes or feel any sudden drops in temperature. Yet she knew the house was haunted with the unshakable certainty as she knew the sun would rise and set every day.
She never knew how she ever got through the conversation with Haliran. Later it was just a blur in her memory. Of course, that tended to happen when someone was trying to carry on two conversations at once.
It started as a simple experiment. Abi chose a corner of the room where she was almost sure a ghost was standing. Of course it had nothing to do with the fact the corner in question was directly opposite her and right behind Haliran, and therefore she could look at it without attracting attention. That was just a happy coincidence. Or so she told herself. Talking to ghosts was at least fifty percent pretence, and another thirty percent pretending to yourself. The real danger with dark magic was that gradually you stopped understanding what was real and what was just in your head.
Anyway, Abi selected a place where there was possibly a ghost. Then she did the telepathic equivalent of grabbing a loudspeaker and yelling in the ear of someone standing right next to her.
HELLO? IS ANYONE THERE? CAN YOU HEAR ME?
She did take the precaution of blocking out Haliran and all other living people in the house. She wasn't absolutely stupid, no matter what some people thought.
Unknown to Abihira, she only blocked out all the living people in the house whose telepathy was on the same metaphorical wavelength as her own. Snake spirits – including those who were only half snake spirit – used a very similar form of telepathy, but one that needed to be blocked out in a different way.
Shizuki was dozing on the rooftop. Unfortunately for him he was lying directly above the living room.
Abi's ear-splitting yell almost scared him out of his skin.
Inside the house Abi had no idea of the fright she'd just given one unfortunate immortal. She pretended to listen to Haliran's babble while waiting for some reply from a ghost.
She waited a long time. Well, it felt like a long time when Haliran wouldn't shut up about how much someone's wedding had cost. Finally she got an answer.
It was less an answer and more a barrage of conflicting emotions. Hate. Rage. Grief. Confusion. Fear. Despair. So many more that she couldn't even distinguish between them. They all struck Abi with the force of a freight train. It was a minor miracle that she didn't fall out of her chair.
Haliran did not seem to be the most observant person around. But even she couldn't help noticing when her visitor slumped back in her chair with a gobsmacked expression.
"Your Highness? Are you quite all right?"
Abi blinked until the room came back into focus. "I... Yes. Just a bad headache."
"Shall I get you a headache tablet?"
Haliran sounded perfectly helpful and concerned. Abi agreed without thinking. It was only after Haliran sent a servant to bring her a tablet that Abi remembered what Ilaran had said about her host's fondness for drugging people.
She watched with wide eyes as the servant returned with the tablet and a glass of water. Could she possibly pretend to take the tablet then spit it out? Should she claim her headache had miraculously disappeared?
No. There was no way out of this hole she'd dug for herself except to take the tablet and hope for the best.
Abi tried to reassure herself with, Surely not even Haliran would dare to drug a member of the royal family. It was not as comforting as she hoped.
The tablet tasted just as bitter and unpleasant as painkillers usually did. She grimaced and quickly drank the glass's entire contents.
"Thank you," she said, pasting on a polite smile and praying she hadn't walked right into a trap. Drugs work quickly, don't they? I'll know the truth soon enough.
Five minutes later she was still fully conscious and felt perfectly well. Haliran had gone back to talking about something or other. Abi occasionally "hmm"ed just to make sure her host thought she was still listening. She gave the rest of her attention to trying to communicate with the ghost again.
What is your name?
A dozen voices screamed conflicting answers all at once. This time Abi kept her expression under control. She didn't grimace even when the voices became far too loud.
One at a time, please! she shouted at the ghosts. Why are you still lingering here?
Faintly she heard a few grumbles, as if the ghosts did not appreciate a mere immortal telling them what to do. Too bad for them. She didn't want to end up with a real headache, thank you very much.
A single, rather reedy voice piped up. It sounded like it was right beside her. Abi only just stopped herself jumping away.
I am buried under the door, the voice said. It was a very young voice. Unless she was mistaken it was a small child's. That made her shudder more than anything else.
Indistinct mutters and whispers came from the other ghosts. Abi couldn't catch everything they said. From what she did hear it sounded like the one beside her was the only ghost actually buried here.
–poisoned me– She burnt my will– Murderer! –betrayed us, left us there– Get us out of here! Amidst the angry accusations and pleas she heard someone lament, I'm stuck here and there isn't a drop of good wine in the place.
A high-pitched wail pierced through the commotion. It came from directly behind Abi. She grabbed the arms of the chair to stop herself jumping away from it. When the initial shock wore off she realised what it was.
The cry of a newborn baby.
Líusal was waiting to ambush her when Abi returned to the palace.
"Well?" she demanded. "Have you got the pottery?"
The events of the last few hours had not had a very good effect on Abi's temper. She glared at her sister. "Do you never think of anything but your damn collection?"
She swept past, leaving Líusal to gape and splutter behind her. One of the doors creaked open and Kiriyuki popped her head out.
"If you're looking for your darling fiancé, he's gone to the opera," she began. She stopped, looked more closely at Abi's unnatural pallor and how tense she was, and realised they were all on very thin ice. "Your mother wants to talk to you about your dress for the festival. I'll tell her you don't feel well."
"Thank you," Abi forced herself to say. The words stuck in her throat and came out sounding far more sarcastic than she meant. "I'm going to bed. I have a headache."
Even the most absurd opera could provide a welcome distraction from grim reality. For over three hours Irímé managed to forget necromancy, murders, and plans to communicate with the dead. He focused on the opera's comical story of a misplaced letter, a case of mistaken identity, and a thoroughly unwelcome visitor as if it was the most interesting thing he'd ever seen. When the performance was over he felt less as if life was a vale of tears, and more ready to face whatever Abihira had discovered during her visit.
Unfortunately his mother was lying in wait when he left the theatre. She pounced before he could get into the carriage.
"There you are!" she exclaimed. "I've been looking everywhere for you. Come along! We're going shopping. It's time you had a suitable outfit for the festival."
Irímé found himself dragged off before he could protest.
Oh well, he thought with forced optimism. I don't expect Abi will have heard anything really important.
Hours passed. Thank the gods, everyone left Abi alone. Of course she knew it couldn't last. But while it did the peace and quiet was more than welcome. In the silence of her room she lay on top of her bed and replayed the events of the afternoon. She focused especially on the clearest voice she'd heard.
"I am buried under the door."
The child hadn't specified which door. Abi suspected it was probably the front one. Many thousands of years ago there had been a cruel custom. When a house was newly-built it was believed that evil spirits would get in unless there was a guardian at the door to keep them out. Only someone with a pure, untainted heart could be the guardian. And so the house's owner found a young child. Sometimes it was their own child. Sometimes parents outright sold their children to gain money and respect. Sometimes they kidnapped a rival's child. However it happened, they brought the child to the house, killed them, and buried them under the door.
Empress Merelyin outlawed the practice more than a hundred thousand years ago. It still lingered in some places, kept quiet and never openly spoken of. Abi had never heard of an actual case before. Yet she couldn't think of any other likely explanation.
Now she had to find out who had built Haliran's manor. If Haliran herself had built it, she was probably the murderess. If someone else had, Haliran couldn't be implicated in it without solid evidence.
I can't just ask Grandmother to dig up the front step without a reason, Abi thought. Maybe Ilaran knows something more about it.
The clatter of approaching footsteps jarred her out of her thoughts and warned her that peace and quiet was about to vanish.
Hartanna threw the door open without bothering to knock. "Abihira! Come and choose which of these dresses you'll wear."
Abi got up with a sigh. Necromancy and murder investigations would just have to wait. Even if Hartanna had known about them, festival clothes would always take precedence.
The chessboard in Ilaran's room had changed once again. He'd run out of knights, so instead he added a king and queen to the group arrayed against the rook. It was a sight that would have reduced any chess enthusiast to tears of rage at all the broken rules and the complete lack of logic. Ilaran, who had never been able to understand chess no matter how hard he tried, saw nothing wrong with how he used it to make his plans. It was both easy visual shorthand and a riddle that only he and those closest to him could solve.
He stared at it thoughtfully, debating whether or not to move the pawns representing Haliran's allies closer to the rook representing her. When he looked up he found a snake opposite him. It stared at the board with the horrified expression of someone who did understand chess but couldn't make heads or tails out of this mess.
"Hello, Shizuki," Ilaran said.
Shizuki changed back into his immortal form. He waved a hand at the board. "What is this?"
From his tone anyone would have thought he'd just witnessed something appalling.
"A code I invented. It's a good thing you're here. I've something very important to tell you. We have two new allies."
Ilaran expected questions on who they were and why he thought he could trust them. Shizuki only frowned.
"Today one shouts loud?" he asked. That made as much sense as Kivoduin's philosophical ramblings after too many drinks. He grimaced, willed away his fangs, and tried again. "The princess visited Haliran again today. I don't know what on earth happened, but she woke me up with her yelling. Then I heard her talking to herself."
For a minute Ilaran worried about Abihira's mental health. Then he remembered this was the woman who had successfully raised the dead. She was practically required to be... eccentric.
"Yes, Princess Abihira is one. Her fiancé is the other."
He gave a brief explanation of how he met them. Shizuki's eyes grew wider and wider as the story continued.
"A necromancer?" he screeched. "A necromancer?"
"She can help us get information from the people Haliran's killed," Ilaran said, ignoring his own doubts on that score.
Shizuki still didn't look convinced. "But she's a necromancer! That's very dark magic!"
Clearly this was an argument he wouldn't win.
"She's helping us," Ilaran said firmly. "I've seen her raise the dead. She can control them, however she does it."
Perhaps that was stretching the truth a little. But at least it silenced Shizuki's objections.
Abi believed she had un-reanimated the corpse she raised. Irímé and Ilaran also had no doubts that the girl they helped rebury had not been conscious. None of them gave any thought to the grave or its occupant. None of them thought to check on the body.
Under the heavy weight of earth, safely secured in her coffin, the dead girl lay silent and motionless.
Her reawakened heart still beat steadily.