Never underestimate the techniques of controlling a conversation. Criminals always slip up, you just have to get them to throw out enough lies they can’t remember the truth.
— Flaws of the Criminal Mind
It didn’t take long before Linsan was being driven back home. Kamel and the rest of the guards didn’t have mechanical vehicles, so she sat in the passenger side of a small carriage pulled by a single horse.
Sitting next to Kamel felt more like sitting outside the headmaster’s room at school. Whenever that happened, she was always on the receiving end of whatever punishment was doled out. Too many times, it was Brook that she had been fighting with. At least until Brook and her sisters left for the fancy school across town.
At the thought of Brook, Linsan’s mood darkened. The words she had said before they went their separate ways still stung. Linsan had tried to join into the fight, but what could she do without an instrument? With the guilt rising, she decided she needed to always have her violin with her. Just in case.
Kamel sighed as he snapped the reins on the horse. Ever since she had mentioned the fire at the workshop, he seemed to be on edge. His eyes would snap back and forth and he occasionally made a grunt.
She wondered if she had said the wrong thing. She couldn’t imagine what it was, she had told the truth and didn’t embellish it. However, he seemed to have responded with a sharpness that worried her.
Kamel stopped the wagon across the street from her house. He looked around for a moment until she gestured to her front door. With a muttered thanks, he got out tied the horse to a nearby tether. “Come on. I have some questions for you and your parents.”
She followed him up the walk. The cracked paving stones shifted slightly under their weight and she noticed a few places that she had forgotten to weed. She glanced up at him, hating the feeling of dread that hung over her.
Before they got halfway, the front door was yanked open and her mother rushed out. She was wearing one of her lighter dresses and cleaning gloves that matched the color. Her auburn hair had been pulled back behind a scarf. “Lin!? What’s wrong?”
Kamel stepped briskly to the side as Tisin rushed past him.
Seeing her mother, Linsan realized she had to tell her parents about Duncan. A cry rose up in her throat. “Mommy!”
Then, as she fell into Tisin’s embrace, the cries turned into a wail. “I’m so sorry! I tried! I swear!”
“What’s wrong, Baby?” Tisin was sobbing as she stroked Linsan’s hair. “What’s wrong? What happened?”
Linsan struggled to explain what had happened. Every time she opened her mouth, a storm of memories and guilt crashed into her. She looked helplessly at her mother, struggling to find the way of explaining what had happened.
“Oh, Baby. It’s okay, I swear. Just take a deep breath.” Her voice was wavering. But when Linsan looked into her eyes, there wasn’t even a hint of sorrow or fear. With a start, Linsan realized her mother was only playing a role.
Kamel cleared his throat. “Sire Sian Sterlig?”
“What happened?” asked Linsan’s father as he approached.
“There was a fire at the Kabisal Bank this morning.”
Tisin’s arms tightened around Linsan. There was a moment that the gaze cracked with emotions. She turned sharply to the fire inspector. “Duncan? Is he okay?”
Kamel cleared his throat. “There was a fatality. We are still identifying the body—”
“But you think it is Duncan,” Sian said in a low, broken tone. He shook his head as tear glittered in his eyes. “Damn the Couple. He was a good man.”
Her mother stood up sharply. “What happened?”
Kamel pulled out a notepad. “Actually, I have—”
“What happened?” she repeated. Her voice seemed to take on a different quality. It echoed despite them being out in the front yard. The sound resonated like a finely-tuned instrument, hanging in the air just a second too long.
Kamel groaned. He tightened his grip on his notepad. Sweat prickled on his brow as he shook his head. “I might remind you, it is illegal to use emotional and mental manipulation against guards on duty.” His voice was strained and broken. It wavered and cracked.
Tisin’s posture deflated. She stepped back as she wrapped her arms over her chest. “Sorry,” she said in her normal voice.
Kamel gulped and let out a long groan of relief. “Damn. That was unexpected. You have a beautiful voice.”
She smiled but the expression never reached her eyes.
Kamel turned toward Sian. He looked over his shoulder at Linsan and Tisin. “Could we move this inside? I have some questions and some of them are intimate.”
Sian turned and gestured toward the house. “Please? Come inside, Captain…?”
“Thank you. I’m Mage-Captain Kamel da Kasin. Captain would be sufficient since I’m here during an investigation.” He turned and headed toward the house.
Inside, they settled down around the dining room table. Tisin dragged her chair around the table to sit between to her husband and Linsan. Linsan set next to both of them, feeling scared and nervous.
Kamel pulled his chair across from them. He sighed and tapped his notebook. “This is always the hardest part of the job but I need to ask some questions.”
“Was it Duncan?” asked her mother.
A nod. “You knew him?”
Sian shook his head and wiped his eyes. “He was my best friend. We had known each other since he, Marin, and I were in the army. That was about twenty-five or six years now.”
Linsan perked up with curiosity. She didn’t know that her father was in the army. Actually, she didn’t know much about either of her parents.
“119th Infantry. I never made rank, I wasn’t that impressive. Mandatory military service, nothing more.” Her father’s eyes were shimmering with tears. He wiped them with the back of his head.
Kamel’s eyes shifted to Tisin. “You?”
She shrugged. “2nd Entertainment Company, Sargent.”
“How did you meet your husband?”
“Who is Marin?”
Sian’s eyes darkened. “She was my best friend. We went through training together. When we were assigned to the same company, I thought I was the luckiest man in the world. She was beautiful, smart, and funny. Of course, Duncan was also in love with her.”
Kamel wrote something down. “What happened?”
Sian shook his head and chuckled. “We were both idiots. I got so focused on fighting with Duncan over her affections, we never realized that we had pushed her away. Or, she never was interested in either of us. It was hard to tell then.”
Tisin rested her hand on her husband’s.
He smiled and patted her hand with his free hand. “She found someone else who loved her more than I ever could.”
Kamel scribbled furiously on his notepad. He seemed to have a grim look. “Duncan?”
“No, my wife.”
Kamel’s head snapped up. “W-What?”
Tisin smiled and leaned against him. “I wasn’t his wife at the time. Marin would be my first spouse.”
“I… see. How did Duncan handle this?” The point of his pen hovered over the notebook.
“He was my best man,” Tisin said. She nodded to her husband. “Sian’s was Marin’s. We were all close after our service. When our tours finished, we all decided to move here and help Sian with the family business.”
The pen dipped slightly. “You were friends? True friends?”
Linsan stared at him. He looked almost disappointed but the look quickly faded. He had at least some of the same skills her mother hand, at least at hiding his emotions. Her mother was better though.
Leaning over, Tisin stroked her husband’s hand. “Oh yes. It was just the four of us for a long time. Then Marin and I began to drift apart. She wanted more adventures but I was happy here. We separated as friends.”
“Did anything between you and Duncan happen then?”
“No, he was already married and had just had his first daughter. Duncan and I stayed working with Sian on the business because we found that we worked well together.”
She smiled softly as her eyes grew softer. “He had a talent at knowing everyone. He kept everything flowing, making sales and getting customers to pay the bills.”
Then her eyes grew harder and she squeezed Sian’s hand.
Sian spoke up. “After the fire, he helped us as much as he could but we lost everything including our names. There was only so much you can do when you lose everything. Most of the Sterlig sound came from the trees in our valley. When everything burned, I couldn’t make any more instruments.”
Linsan’s father sighed. “He had a family. There were bills. He couldn’t dedicate his life to me. I was ruined and he needed to move on.”
“She married Junith about six years ago in Stone Over Moon Waters. We couldn’t make it, so we sent Palisis as a gift.”
“Have you talked to her recently?” Kamel asked, writing down.
“She died of cancer two months after they got married,” came the sharp reply from Linsan’s mother.
Silence filled the dining room.
Kamel’s face grew slack. “When was the last time you saw Duncan?”
“It’s been years.” Sian bowed his head. “Except for the monthly checks, I really haven’t had any contact with him at all.”
Tisin patted Sian’s hand.
Linsan closed her eyes tightly. That was the entire reason she had gone to visit Duncan. Her great idea had gone up with flames and she found something new to worry about.
“He’s been sending us a thousand crowns every month.”
Startled, Linsan stared at them in shock. “A-A thousand? I-I thought it was three hundred.”
Sian shook his head. “It hasn’t been three hundred for years. He had been bumping it up every year on your birthday.”
Tisin gasped as she stood up. Pushing back her chair, she rushed out of the room. “The letter!”
“What letter?” asked Kamel and Linsan. Linsan looked at him and then back to her parents.
Her father gestured through the door that Tisin had exited. “We got a letter last week. Duncan had just set up a trust fund to make sure the checks would continue for the rest of Linsan’s life. It was going to be her birthday present.”
Linsan stared, her eyes tearing over and her chest hurting. All her plans were for naught? She had worked herself up for nothing? She let out a sob.
They looked at her.
“I-I was going into town to ask for him to keep the checks going. I figured I could earn it.”
“That’s why you weren’t at breakfast?” asked her father.
Kamel spoke up. “You never told her?”
Sian shook his head. “I didn’t think she remembered about the checks. She was a little girl then. Money has been tight for a while and that letter was a gift from the Couple.” He turned back to Linsan. “I should have told you, I’m sorry.”
Tisin came in and handed the guard the letter.
Kamel read it, shaking his head as he did. He set down the letter and wrote in his notebook. “May I keep this?”
When they agreed, he tucked it into his pocket. Then he flipped a page in his notebook. “Do you think the money is going to continue if he’s dead.”
Her father shook his head sadly. “Probably not. I don’t know.”
Linsan noticed another faint look of disappointment on Kamel’s face. He was looking for something but she didn’t know what. It felt as if he was trying to trap them.
Kamel wrote for a second.
As he did, Sian told Tisin about Linsan going into town. Her mother smiled at her with more pride that Linsan thought possible.
The minutes crawled by.
Linsan and her father squirmed. Tisin seemed to be perfectly at ease standing next to her husband. She was on stage again, though her expression had just a faintest expression of distrust from the guard.
“Did you have anything in the bank vault?”
Sian nodded. “Some old items, mementos mainly. Memories that we wanted to keep safe.” Then he let out a long sigh and seemed to age in a second. “The violin was destroyed, wasn’t it?”
The corner of Kamel’s lips tightened. It almost looked like a smile. His pen hovered over the page. “Was it worth a lot?”
Tisin said, “Yes and no.”
Kamel looked up. “What do you mean?” He looked frustrated and confused.
“It was Marin’s but she never played it.”
“An unsung instrument is worth a lot of money, isn’t it?” Linsan could hear his voice growing more excited. “As one of the last instruments that you’ve made, that would be worth a lot, wouldn’t it? Millions?”
Tisin looked at him coldly. “Are you suggesting we stole Palisis?”
That seemed to throw Kamel. He glanced at Linsan and she felt a cold shiver of fear racing along her spine. “Your daughter said that name. Aren’t the most precious of instruments named like that? Seems like a useful moniker for building up a reputation to boost a sale.”
“She named it. When she was six,” came Tisin’s sharp reply. “And instruments like that are only precious when they haven’t ever felt the touch of a musician. Palisis has and is only worth the memories and emotions inside that wood and metal.”
“Not according to the card I saw in the box.”
Sian held up his hand. “That was a lie.”
Kamel’s face froze.
“I’m fully aware that a fortune could be made if people believed it was unsung. There are only three people who knew that it had been touched by a bow. While my wife and I would never, ever consider selling that instrument while we lived, we had hoped that Lin would be able to sell it after we were gone and give herself a good life.”
Linsan let out a long whimper. She remembered that brief moment when she felt Palisis in her hands.
Tisin looked at her with an apologetic look. “I’m sorry.”
Scribbling, Kamel frowned and shook his head. He wrote furious for a few seconds. “Still, the insurance would be—”
“There was no insurance,” Sian said.
The pen stopped.
Her father took a deep breath. “If people thought Palisis was unsung and it was truly worth the millions, how much do you think insurance would cost us? We are struggling to keep a roof over our house and food in our larder. A thousand crown check is the only thing that is keeping us from losing even that and now you tell us the man who giving it to us is dead.”
Kamel set down his pen. “Then why didn’t you sell the violin and—”
“No,” snapped both Sian and Tisin at the same time.
“I made that for Marin and only for Marin. As far as I’m concerned, what my daughter had done has honored her memory but I have no intent to sully either of them by selling Palisis. That instrument means nothing to me or my wife other than the memories of our dearest friend.”
Tisin leaned forward. “Palisis is her memorial. She meant everything to the two of us and I would rather starve—”
Linsan noticed that her mother’s voice was taking on the strange timbre again. It was ringing in her head and each word felt like it was directed directly at her with the force of a gale.
“—than throw it aside for nothing more than a sack of crowns!”
Kamel was sweating. Linsan didn’t remember seeing him moving but he was a foot away from the table with a surprised look on his face.
The air around them was tense and electric, like when Linsan used her magic while dancing.
Sian reached up and pressed his hand to his wife’s cheek. “Tis, take a deep breath.”
Tisin struggled for a moment. Then she straightened.
The presence that beat in the air disappeared in an instant.
Kamel gulped loudly. He slowly shifted his gaze to Linsan’s father. “Do you feel the same?”
“Less empathically, but yes.”
Kamel picked up his pen. “And your daughter? Are you going to let her starve?” His eyes focused directly on her parents.
Tisin’s jaw tightened.
“A lot of parents will do anything for their child,” the guard continued. “You knew she was struggling too, didn’t you? She’s coming out of school and about to have free reign in the world.”
Linsan sighed. She didn’t know what she was doing after school ended. In some ways, the fantasies of what job Duncan would insist on for the money was almost a fantasy for herself. It would give her purpose, at least until she figured out what to do herself.
Sian gave him a hard look. “Why are you asking these questions?”
“Because years ago, I was the lead investigator of the fire in Sterlig Valley. I saw a lot of things there, including signs of a magical accelerator used to ensure that valley burned completely.”
He turned to Linsan. “Someone used magic to start that fire.”
It took a moment for it to register. Linsan’s mouth opened in surprise. “You think that guy with the string…” She turned to her father. “Daddy, he had a string instrument like a violin or a fiddle but with a wide sound box with six strings…” It took her another minute to finish describing it.
“That sounds like a guitar,” he said looking up at the ceiling. “It’s an instrument that has been gaining popularity for the last few years. It came from south of Lankerni but produces a much different sound.”
Kamel tapped the table. “How do you know that?”
Sian turned and gestured to his office across the hallway. “I’ve been writing essays, papers, and columns about trends in the musical industry across three countries for six years. I know my instruments. If you need proof, I recommend you pick up any newspaper in this city for the last few years. If you want, I could give you the specific ones that I discuss the guitar—”
Kamel’s shoulders slumped. He held up his hand. “Every time,” he muttered.
Linsan leaned forward. “You think it was the same person?”
Kamel recovered and shook his head. “No, I know it was the same person. The resonance is identical. The flames had the same burn signature and temperature. The patterns of the burns on the ground and surfaces is the same. I’ve been investigating fires for close to thirty-five years. I know fire magic.”
He turned to look at Sian. “Whoever destroyed your valley is also the same person who had just killed Duncan and appears to have stolen your violin.”