The guild had rearranged the furniture in the member’s lounge for the hearing. The couches and arm chairs had been pushed back against the walls, and there were now four rows of chairs in the center of the room. The refreshments table hadn’t been moved, though. It was still off to the side, covered with pastries, deep fried meatballs, chicken legs, sausages, and other snacks befitting the professional assassin.
“This food is great,” Matilda whispered to Ellison. They were both in the back row, with just over a dozen assassins sitting ahead of them. More assassins were sprawled on the couches. Matilda had one of the guild’s silver serving trays in her lap, piled high with meat. “Do you think the meatballs are made with elephant meat?”
Before Ellison could answer — not that he was going to — the chancellor tapped at the podium at the front of the room and called the hearing to order.
“Today we’re going to hear some witnesses testify about the tragic event that took place the night before last. Our very own and much esteemed Duke Warrenus Oudinnet was viciously stabbed in the back until he died.”
Everyone turned to look at the Duke, who sat stoically in in an upholstered chair in the front row. He looked exactly like his corpse, minus the stab wound in the back. Personally, if he’d been the Duke, and had been assassinated and had to pick a new avatar before returning to Krim, Ellison would have taken the opportunity to upgrade his appearance. Maybe slimmed down by a few pounds. Now that the Duke was sitting up, rather than sprawled across the floor of a large office, it was obvious that he was an extremely large man. And the Henry the Eighth-style outfit he was wearing made him look even wider than he was. With his legs in stockings, if he stood up sideways, he’d look like a giant lollypop.
“Your grace, have you recovered any additional memories of that night’s events?
The duke shook his head, then waved his hand, indicating that the hearing continue.
The chancellor shuffled some papers, then looked up at the audience. “Our first witness is Nimble Wind.”
The guard stood up from her seat at the end of the first row of chairs and nodded at the chancellor, then at the duke, and squared her shoulders.
“Please describe what happened.”
“Around five, everyone except Duke Oudinnet and Darkflow Ghost went out to celebrate the retirement of our esteemed deputy guildmaster, Bonefist the Hurricane. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing, and, as it turned out, I was left as the only guard at the gate.”
“We have the records of who entered and who left,” the chancellor confirmed, and tapped the stack of papers in front of him.
“Around nine, everyone came back. Neither the Duke nor the Ghost left that night.”
“Did you remain at the gate the entire time?”
“Of course.” She raised her chin proudly. “I’m dedicated to the Paladins. I would never betray my guild and abandon my post.”
“She’s lying,” Matilda whispered. “I bet she walked away and doesn’t want to admit it.” She licked her fingers. Her tray was empty.
The guard sat down.
“Do you, Darkflow Ghost, have any questions for the witness?” The chancellor looked at Gus, who stood up.
“I do.” He turned towards Nimble, who pulled herself back up again. “Are you certain you never left your post at all? Not even for a second? When I walked past, I didn’t see you anywhere near there. It would have been around seven or so.”
She shook her head defiantly. “Nope. Never happened.”
Gus threw up his hands. “If I didn’t walk out, then how did I leave?”
“I don’t know,” she replied. “Maybe you threw yourself down the loo.”
The other assassins tittered.
“I would never!” Gus took a step back, a shocked expression on his face. He looked around for support, but nobody said anything.
“Maybe you couldn’t squeeze down most of them,” Nimble said, giving Gus an expert appraisal. Gus was muscular. He definitely wouldn’t fit through a typical toilet seat. “But the Duke has a private loo just off his office. Built to a more… accommodating scale. You could fit in there. Or maybe you just went down to the basement and threw yourself down the trash disposal chute.”
“With the kitchen trash? And the dead bodies?” Gus sounded horrified.
“Why not?” said Nimble. “It’s an easy way to go.”
That was true. Ellison knew several people who’d been thrown down trash chutes. If you weren’t afraid of falling, it wasn’t too bad as long as you avoided bouncing against the sides. A few seconds in the darkness and then your Krim body disintegrated and you started over at the grid’s welcome area where you could pick a new avatar and head back in.
Gus’s face reddened. “This is preposterous,” he sputtered.
The chancellor tapped on his podium. “Let’s move on. Darkflow Ghost, do you have any witnesses to call?”
“Yes,” he said. He leaned over and offered an arm to the woman sitting next to him. Ellison craned his head around to see her, and groaned internally.
As the woman stood up and walked to the center of the room, Matilda leaned over to Ellison again. “That’s Lady Ismena,” she said.
“Please state your name and relationship to the accused,” the chancellor said.
Izzy introduced herself as Gus’s housemate.
“It’s more than that,” said Gus. “We’re practically engaged, aren’t we?”
“Idiot,” Matilda whispered. “He should be playing down the relationship. Who’s going to believe her as an alibi witness if they’re all lovey-dovey?”
“Could you tell us what happened on the night in question?” Gus continued when Izzy didn’t respond.
“I bought fish for dinner just before seven, and came straight home and cooked it. I was home all night after that.”
Ellison looked over at Matilda, who was biting her lip to keep from interrupting.
“Were you there when I came home?” Gus asked.
“Absolutely,” said Izzy.
“What time was that?”
“It was after nine.” Izzy took a deep breath and looked out over the other assassins. “You had blood on your clothes.”
There were audible gasps in the room.
“Why are you saying this?” Gus cried out. “I thought you loved me.” He looked around, panicked, then up at the chancellor. “She gave a signed statement yesterday that was completely different.”
The chancellor shuffled through the papers before him. “Ah, yes, I have it here.” He squinted down, then looked sternly at Ismena.
“What do you say for yourself, young lady?”
“I was scared when I wrote that,” she said, with a quiver in her voice. She glanced at Gus and looked down at the floor. “He can be a frightening man.”
“What!” Gus began turning red again.
“But I can’t lie to the Paladins. I’m sorry, Gus. I can’t do it. When you came home at nine and told me to lie for you, I thought I could. But I can’t go through with it.”
Gus spun around and looked back at Ellison.
“He wants us to do something.” Matilda elbowed Ellison in the side. “I think we’re up.”
But Ellison couldn’t do it. Not after he’d recognized Ismena as someone else they’d met the day before.
“You go up there. You’re the one who got her statement.”
Matilda’s face lit up and she bounced up from her seat. She squeezed around Ellison, pulling papers out from her jacket as she walked to the front of the room.
Gus looked surprised to see her come up instead of Ellison, but adapted quickly.
“If it please the court,” he said. “My investigator has a few questions to ask.”
The chancellor nodded his approval, Gus sat down, and Matilda took his place.
“You were home all night?” She asked Isabella.
“Yes,” the woman said.
“You never left the house?”
“No, of course not.”
“You didn’t, say, make Gus dinner, then, after he ate and fell asleep, full and satisfied, you didn’t go off to a date with your other boyfriend?”
Ismena flinched. “No, no.”
“You didn’t complain to a bartender at the King’s Armpit — and and two waiters — about the fact that the kitchen had just closed?”
Ismena shook her head wildly.
“Isn’t this your handwriting?”
Matilda unfolded the woman’s letter to Mike and showed it to her.
“Yes, but what?”
Izzy crossed her arms and squeezed her lips tight.
“Nothing to say?” Matilda waved the letter at the gathered assassins and then passed it to the chancellor.
“This letter came directly from her boyfriend, Mike. She made plans to meet with him that night at nine. Since she was at the King’s Armpit at around that time, she had to have left her house no later than 8:30, to have time to walk there. It would have been impossible for Gus… I mean, Darkflow Ghost, to kill the Duke, just minutes before everyone came back, somehow sneak out of the guild house, and walk home. Moreover…” Matilda passed two more pieces of paper to the chancellor. “Ellison and I went to the Armpit, and the bartender and two staffers confirmed that Ismena arrived just as the kitchen was closing and raised a fuss about it. She complained that Darkflow had eaten all the fish she’d cooked and there was none left for her, and she was hungry.”
She glared at Ismena. “Do you want us to bring them here to testify in person?”
“Fine.” Ismena stamped her foot. “I was cheating on Gus. Are you happy? I didn’t see him come home covered in blood. But he’s still a jerk and I wish he’d die.”
Gus stood up and stepped towards her, arms outstretched. “Izzy, I thought you loved me. We were so good together. I’d do anything for you.”
“Then you’re an idiot,” she spat, then turned away from him and stomped out of the room.
There was a stunned silence for a minute while everyone processed what just happened.
Matilda took the opportunity to walk back to her seat, taking the long way around, past the meatballs.
“Well,” the chancellor finally said. “I guess that clears that up. Darkflow, do you have anything to add?”
“Obviously, I’m very embarrassed,” said Gus. “I feel like such a fool.” He took a deep breath. “But I’ve heard rumors about another guild, the so-called Avatars of Doom.”
The other assassins grumbled.
“They’ve been trying to steal away our most promising recruits,” Gus continued. “They’ve failed so far, of course. But there’s some talk that one of their own might be responsible.”
Matilda sat back down next to Ellison and carefully balanced a serving bowl with the leftover meatballs on her lap. “I didn’t hear any rumors,” she whispered. “Did you?”
Ellison shook his head.
“We can’t let word get out that a rival guild was responsible for this,” said Gus.
“And what do you suggest?” asked the chancellor.
“First, we tighten up our security. My investigator has already suggested some potential avenues of incursion. We will need to close those off.”
“And about the rumors?”
“We spread some other rumors. We make it sound like every guild is taking credit for the assassination,” said Gus.
“That will help,” said the chancellor, and some of the other assassins nodded. “But I think we need more.”
“I have a solution.” One of the sitting assassins spoke up from where he was sitting in a stuffed chair against the wall.
“That’s Bonefist,” whispered Matilda. “He’s the one who’s retiring.”
“I confess. I am the one who killed our esteemed leader. I betrayed my best friend’s trust and let him down, and let down the whole guild.”
“Do you think people will buy it?” asked the chancellor.
“Why not? I’m retiring and leaving Krim. You could make an official announcement that I’m being expelled.”
“But we’ll still have the party,” said Gus. “To show that there are no hard feelings.”
“Warrenus?” The chancellor looked at the Duke. “What do you think?”
The Duke rubbed his chin and finally spoke, in an unexpectedly soft voice. “I think it would be an honor to have been assassinated by Bonefist. If anyone was able to kill me, I’m glad it was him, and not some jumped-up wannabe from a guild that didn’t even exist a month ago.”
“So I take it we’re not going to investigate the Avatars, then?” Matilda whispered. Ellison shook his head. Any investigation would be a sham, anyway.
“In that case, I call this hearing to a close. Barring other evidence yet to be discovered, I do hereby decide that Bonefist the Hurricane has committed the murder, and shall be expelled from the guild for his actions. After we go all-out on his retirement party, of course. And Darkflow Ghost is hereby cleared of all charges.”
He rapped on the podium and all the assassins stood up, to congratulate Gus on his innocence, to thank Bonefist for his service and for taking one for the team, and to eat up the remaining chicken legs and pastries.
Matilda left, to take another look at the elephant. Ellison walked to Darkflow’s office. The door was open. He walked in and sat down to wait.
Gus came in a few minutes later with a couple of other guild members.
“I’m going to want someone to move the couch, but the chairs can stay…” he said, then noticed Ellison.
“But we can talk about that tomorrow.” He ushered the other assassins out and closed the door behind them. “I guess you’re going to want your pay,” he said.
“Why did you kill him?” Ellison asked. “I can’t figure out your motive. You don’t seem to have any problems with Warrenus.”
“What makes you think I killed him?” said Gus, walking behind his desk.
“I recognized Lady Ismena. She was Mike. I guess the two of you figured that she wasn’t going to be worth much as an alibi witness. So you cooked up this little charade.”
“You didn’t say anything.”
“I don’t have any proof. And I don’t want to have the new head of the Paladins of Death as my enemy, do I?”
“No, you don’t.”
“So you’re going to launch an investigation for the real killer now?”
“Ah, I see where you’re going with this,” said Gus. “Yes, definitely, we’ll need an investigation. A very low-key one, so that nobody suspects that we’re still looking into the murder. It will probably take a very long time and be very expensive.”
“You should hire Matilda,” said Ellison. “She’s good. She knows all the players. And she’s already figured out how they used a siege tower to set up a zipline to break in. She’ll definitely help you beef up security.”
“Zipline, you say?”
“Sure. Or maybe the killer came in pretending to be a corpse. Not really dead, though. Then gets up when the coast is clear, and kills the Duke.”
“But all the corpses were accounted for.”
“Yes, because the assassin then went back into the morgue and killed himself.”
“Ah, yes, that could work. The assassin was just very lucky that everyone was out that night. Normally, there would be people throughout the building and someone would have noticed a stranger. Just sheer dumb luck that he picked the one night that everyone suddenly decided to go out for dinner.”
“Yes,” said Ellison. “Sheer luck. Otherwise, there would have been lots of potential suspects around. No reason to suspect you in particular.” Ellison sighed. “So why did you do it?”
“Oh, I didn’t,” said Gus. “I would never. But if I did, maybe it was because it was my turn to run the guild, and I was tired of waiting. It was nothing personal. Just business.”