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08:16 pm: The Hounds of Spring, first part (for <lj user
This is the first part of the novelette I’m writing for [info]megmurry. There will be two other parts coming, probably every few days, until it’s finished. Thank you to everyone so far who’s donated and contributed links to the writers/artists post!



Anyway, I was thinking of a religious order in a world that largely
believes in reincarnation and a modified version of karma. This small
group of priests and priestesses are in charge of sensing people who
will do horrible damage to their "karma" if they stay alive, and so
killing them before they can. (I'd imagine this would include
suicides, people who are going to turn mass-murderous, stuff like
that.) Usually they wait as long as possible, to give the person a
chance to turn from that path, but lately they've been overtaxed and
are starting to miss people. And then someone who appears to be a
member of the order begins killing children on the grounds that it
will save them.


You got it.





The Hounds of Spring

When the hounds of spring are on winter’s traces…”
-Algernon Charles Swinburne, Atalanta in Calydon.

I. Under Rock, Under Wave

“So, you see,” the benighted fool continued, “I have found out what you are.”

Reimaran rubbed his face with one hand and made an effort to conjure a polite smile. Only an effort, of course, because the benighted fool who was shortly going to die deserved no more. “Have you really?”

“Of course,” said the benighted fool who was plucking on Reimaran’s nerves like a bard trying to sing the Hymns while drunk. “Your little order of priests that serves the Everlasting Wave? A cover. You are assassins, truly.” He sat back on the cushioned chair that Reimaran had provided him under the impression that this was an ordinary business meeting and nodded his head in satisfaction. “And if I were to tell the Cormatoriat, you would be arrested fast enough to make your knees hit your head.”

Someone didn’t train him well enough in metaphors, Reimaran thought. “What would you like us to do?” he asked. They had bribed people who pierced their shallow and simple cover before. Those who found their way to the second layer of deception were not dangerous. It was those who might penetrate to the third who needed to be watched. This benighted fool who would be ending his life in just a few moments was not one of them, truly.

But he had about him the smell that most offended Reimaran’s nostrils: the smell of rotting food, the smell of a life wasted. That was the reason he was going to die. Reimaran suspected that he was about to find out what caused the smell.

Sure enough, the benighted fool leaned forward and said, “I want you to kill my wife for me.”

Reimaran sat back behind his desk. That brought his hands out to the sides. It looked like a slumped and helpless posture to the benighted fool, no doubt. If he saw the quick, flickering motion that Reimaran made with his right hand and wrist, he no doubt took it for a gesture of surrender. “Why?” he asked.

“She is committing adultery,” said the exquisite fool. He looked behind him, briefly, but Reimaran knew he could not have seen what was coming for him, even though he might have felt a brief, chill wind. “I know she is. She no longer laughs for me. She quarrels with me. She will not agree to send our son to his proper place in the Cormatoriat school, insisting that he should spend his days learning to play music and twitter like a bird instead.” He snorted. “I know what bards make, and it isn’t much.”

“Do you have proof that your wife is committing adultery?” Reimaran asked.

“I don’t have to,” said the exquisite fool. “I know she is.”

Reimaran sighed and inclined his head. This could not be the extent of the man’s crimes, not with a smell like that, but the Everlasting Wave knew, they were overburdened of late. This crime would do. The scent alone would do, in fact, but Reimaran liked to follow the procedures when he could.

“I am afraid that we must refuse,” he said.

The exquisite fool stared at him for a moment, as though not believing that he would say that, and then stood. “I am on my way to the Cormatoriat, then,” he said. His face was carved in hard lines. Just as he believed his wife must be in the wrong, Reimaran thought, he would believe that he was in the right, and no effort that the order he knew as the Sea-singers could make would stop him. “You will have your permission to operate taken before morning.”

He turned.

The hounds were there, glittering cold and brilliant, white patterned with silver on the backs of their heads and their ears, eyes wide and white and blank. Their teeth hung from the outsides of their jaws like icicles. The fool could see them in the moment before his death, as all the fools could, and he gaped at them—like, Reimaran thought with a certain vicious satisfaction, the fool he indeed was.

The hounds leaped.

They passed through him, changing to patterns of frost as they did so. Of course, the fool also changed to a pattern of frost, fogged, and was gone. The hounds landed with a sound like ice cracking, and then the one that had taken the brunt of the blow opened its mouth and waited. The other padded over and gravely cleaned a gray film from the sides of its fangs.

Both stared at the ceiling for a moment, watching the passage of the fool on his way to the next life, a sight invisible to Reimaran. Then they turned and glanced at him, tongues like blue worms between their teeth. Reimaran nodded, and smiled as he watched them grow smaller and smaller, changing inevitably to light that gleamed and faded.

He let his smile fade, too, soon enough. That had been pleasant, a straightforward case. The days were too difficult for the Hounds of Winter now, though, to let him rejoice in it for long. Such clean, simple kills, calm freeings of souls so that they would not damage their chances in the next life irreparably, were becoming a rarity.

He stood and moved slowly around the bare office, letting one hand glide along the walls of carved stone. Ice had formed on them from the hounds’ brief visit, which was as it should be, and one reason they were left without adornment. The rough desk, likewise, was more than enough for one Hound to sit behind and treat with those who needed the Wave’s attention.

But there was a time when the other rooms in their temple had not looked like this, when they had room and time and domoni to spare for the tapestries and statues they’d had to sell now.

Reimaran sighed, laid the temptation to pray to the Wave and ask why this had happened to them away, and then opened the door that the benighted fool had come through for his last meeting. A bellpull hung near the door. Reimaran tugged it, listening to the clapper resound briefly, then fade away into silence.

Weishoron answered the call before the echoes had died. She was clad in a robe the color of the hounds’ coats, woven of deep-ice flesh and dyed paler with the Wave’s help. Her arms stayed folded around each other, caught in the robe’s sleeves, and her eyes had turned pale blue with the bright ecstasy of her service. Reimaran shivered just looking at her. He was as dedicated as any Hound, but the mere thought of abandoning his comfortably thick clothes…

“You called me from a prayer, brother.” Weishoron’s voice was not reproachful, because she would never have dreamed of giving anyone else a reproach, but it had frost in it. “What did you wish of me?”

Reimaran smoothed his hands down his arms to soothe the creeping flesh that came when he thought of her praying a few steps down the corridor. “Lord Tinderain will not be returning home.”

“Ah.” Weishoron parted her lips around the word. Reimaran could see her breath. “What was his crime, brother?”

“He wanted to hire us to kill his wife,” said Reimaran. “And doubtless there were other things, but I had the hounds send him on to the next life before I could discover what they were.” He felt a brief surge of vindictive satisfaction.

“We must never neglect our duty,” said Weishoron. “We must always remember that without us, these poor souls would bear the wrath of the Wave in their next life, as well as making others around them miserable in this one. Let us bear the weight of ice and the Wave’s anger. We have shoulders broad enough to carry it.”

Reimaran nodded and waited the requisite three heartbeats to see if the Wave would answer that declaration. It chose not to.

“Do you know where Tinderain lived?” he asked. Of course Weishoron would; she made it her point to know everything about everyone in the city, Reimaran sometimes thought, knowledge that the Wave seemed to whisper into her ears. But he was still supposed to treat her as a sister, not a walking record service.

Weishoron’s eyes rolled back into her skull, leaving the whites to look at him. Given the pallor of her skin and clothing, and the white, white hair that hung around her head, it made her look a corpse. Reimaran shivered again, and then rubbed at his arms. Wave-damned gooseflesh.

“Rainsinger’s Way,” said Weishoron abruptly. “With his wife, the Lady Sirieil. And his son, the future Lord Trisdain.”

Reimaran nodded. “Thank you.” He thought of sending her to the house with the usual message of condolence, then sighed. She had been on enough such errands lately. “I will bear her the news.”

“Blessed are you, brother,” said Weishoron, bringing her blue eyes back into focus and nodding to him. “Blessed are you.”

The trouble with her, Reimaran decided, as he hesitated a moment and then took the tunnel to the right, is that she makes it a fact, and not a greeting.

*

Reimaran misremembered two turns on the path to Rainsinger’s Way. Consequently, by the time he eased out of a tiny alley that had led him in more directions than should have been possible for such a small thing, he was in a bad mood.

It only grew worse as he surveyed Rainsinger’s Way. The houses were as large as boulders, with space extravagantly wasted on jutting balconies that threatened the threads of permanent ice skating around the tunnel’s ceiling, dipping and rising in falling pale arcs that vanished at last where walls joined floor. What was there to see, in any case? The permanent lights burning on the tunnel’s walls, charged each day by sunlight funneled from the surface and deprived of its warmth, and the gray sameness of blended rock and ice did not make for the most exciting of views. Reimaran did envy them the soaring tunnel ceiling, though. After the cramped and squatting corridors the Hounds had retreated into, it felt like luxury to stand and stretch his shoulders.

He carefully scanned the houses until he found one with a sigil carved near the door—a reaching starfish—that matched the one Tinderain had shown him. He tugged the bellpull there and waited.

No one came for a long time, at least out of that house. Other neighbors ventured onto their balconies and stared down at him. Reimaran stared back, and most scurried inside. Those he couldn’t intimidate at least had the decency to pretend to watch something else.

At last, the door eased open. A small, pale woman whose head would barely reach his breastbone stepped around it with the same caution. She stared at him. Reimaran summoned a more sincere smile than he had managed for her husband. She wore layered clothing and had her dark hair bound across her ears. That marked her as a woman of good sense in his eyes.

“Greetings, under the Wave,” he said. “My name is Reimaran, of the Sea-singers, the temple beneath the Founding Stone. I have important news for you. May I enter?”

Sirieil peered past his shoulder, then inclined her head to him and stepped back to permit him entry. Reimaran ignored her silence. She doubtless had her reasons for it. It was somewhat refreshing after Weishoron’s endless chatter.

The house was typical, at least for someone such as Lord Tinderain had been. All the rooms were carved out of a single huge stone, and most of the inner tunnels ran straight and fine, sheering off into alcove-chambers. The stone left as walls, floor, and ceiling bore countless carvings, mostly of starfish in decidedly odd positions. As Sirieil escorted him out of the vaulted receiving hall and past a relief of starfish with intertwined arms, Reimaran wondered who had created the house, and what this family was like, living in such a place.

And not talking to each other at all, apparently.

He relaxed a little when Sirieil finally entered a smaller room. This had moss-lamps on the walls, of course, and they illuminated a great, wall-claiming design of the Wave Everlasting, ornamented with small chunks of ice woven almost flat to the stone. Reimaran saluted it with his hand on his brow, then sat down in the graceful honeycomb of cloth and stone that formed the room’s chair.

He stared at Sirieil, who had sat across from him. She stared back.

Reimaran shifted, then leaned forward and broke the silence. Enough was enough. Silence was to be expected on the streets, outside the homes or the temples, where each person in silence and in solitude contemplated the glory of the beauty of the Wave. But inside a house, where one might sit under mostly stone roofs, barring the invasion of ice, it was not appropriate.

“My lady,” he said quietly. “I want to give you the message I bear. Will you permit it?”

Sirieil stared a moment longer, then inclined her head in a bow so swift he almost missed it. Reimaran took the opportunity to sniff as her head passed his. He gave her a much more sincere smile when that was done. She smelled like flowers, rich and radiant, the scent of a life lived with the grim determination that led some flowers to break through the stone and blossom even here.

“Thank you,” he said. “My lady, your husband, the Lord Tinderain, is dead. He came to us troubled in heart, seeking the condolences of the Wave.” That was true enough, though he had not known that he should seek the Wave’s condolences and repent for his wrongs. “As we spoke, he collapsed. I knelt beside him, but he was gone. I hope that I was able to give him comfort before the end, and that even now he enters another life in brave peace.” Certainly, he is doing better than he would have done if we had not met, if he had ordered you killed.

He bowed his head and held it there. He was resolved not to look up until Sirieil spoke to him.

At last, her voice swimming up as if from underwater, she did. “Why did you come to tell me this?”

Reimaran looked up again, and found her as grave and quiet as before. She had laid no emphasis on any word that would make the question have sense, not asked why he had come here or let her voice crack with grief. She looked as if she could not imagine that a priest of the Wave would do her such a service as coming to tell her that her husband had died.

“My lady,” said Reimaran, still gently, in case she was grieving under that tight, still surface, “Lord Tinderain died in our home, our temple, and as our guest. We thought it only right that you should know of his passing.” He stood and reached into the pouch at his waist, which contained several domoni. “And, of course, we wish to offer you these servants in token of our grief—“

“Do not.”

Reimaran froze, his fingers inches from the nearest domon. He had not known that Sirieil was capable of such animation as she showed now, rising and moving forward to stare at him. Her cheeks flushed, and her eyes blazed, and she looked like any ordinary woman walking about the marketplace or the dancers’ tunnels, as if she were not the pale statue he had pictured her as.

“We do not need the domoni,” she said. “You do. The priests of the Wave have our thanks and our gratitude, and I certainly will come to your temple, should I feel the need to cleanse my soul with prayer and with ice. Otherwise, it would be hypocritical of me to take your servants. I feel none of the grief that you so avidly profess.”

Reimaran blinked. He wondered if he could have been mistaken about the floral scent—but no, he never was, and he smelled it again as she moved past him and waited at the entrance to the room, shoulders back and head up as if to make what she could of her meager height. He stood where he was, however, despite the obvious invitation to leave, and studied her.

Sirieil still did not look on the verge of crying. She looked on the verge of screaming at him, perhaps striking him. Her arms were straight at her sides, her neck was straight, her face was straight—everything about her was painfully straight. And it was true that Reimaran and the temple could use the domoni. They smelled so much evil lately, sent so many souls back to the Wave before they could commit a crime, that the grief-payments were taking much out of their funds.

But what she had said about not sharing his grief…

Reimaran’s nostrils flared, but it was only a boy who slid into the room and stopped, staring up at him. He was about seven years old, and as with all children of that age, his scent was nearly blank, nearly the smell of pure ice and pure stone, unmarked as yet by any great deeds of good or evil. He had Tinderain’s eyes, but his mother’s face and stature, and he stepped close to her at once, adopting her straightness.

“Mother,” he said, in a voice older than it should be. “Did he come about Father? What’s Father done now?”

“Your father is dead,” said Sirieil.

Reimaran recoiled. It was not the way that he would have chosen to break the news to this child—who must be Trisdain—but the boy did not react except to lift his chin a little higher and stare into his mother’s face. Then he turned to Reimaran and put out a hand in a very adult gesture.

“I’ll escort you to the door,” he said.

Reimaran looked back at Sirieil, but the lady did not yield. She only nodded, and even smiled faintly, as if she expected that he would wish to speed his journey away from them. Then she turned and walked out of the room. By the time Reimaran made it to the hall, walking more slowly in deference to Trisdain’s shorter legs, she was more than halfway down it, gone in the direction of some other room. She did not look back at all, the way it seemed she should have been required to.

“Come with me,” said Trisdain. He still had his arm lifted, performing the gesture of escort, and Reimaran couldn’t refuse without insulting him. He turned his attention away from Sirieil. Perhaps he could get some sense of what had happened from the boy, who might be easier to persuade or trick. Reimaran did not like anything that had happened since he entered the house. What he guessed was that Tinderain had done numerous evil things to sour his scent before what would have been the ultimate evil. Reimaran had thought his primary foulness lay in intention.

Perhaps not.

If they were going to refuse the temple’s grief-payment—and, in truth, they did not look, from the state of their house, as if they needed it—he should at least find out the truth of what had happened here, and help them if he could. Perhaps Tinderain’s passage to the Wave had freed them. That did not mean they could heal cleanly and smoothly from whatever he had done to them in the past.

“Here is the door,” said Trisdain.

Reimaran started. He had forgotten that he and Sirieil had not come very far to begin with. Sure enough, they stood before the door now, and the young boy had dropped his arm. Reimaran could leave into Rainsinger’s Way, go to the market as he had planned, and buy more food than he would have just a short time before, perhaps enough to feed the temple for a few days. He could leave this house and not inquire into its mysteries again. Tinderain was gone. They were wealthy. They could do well enough.

With a sigh, Reimaran opened the door, stepped out, and then turned around. Trisdain tried to shut it, but he wasn’t strong enough. When he looked up, Reimaran knelt down so that they were on the same level, though he still continued holding the door.

“What did your father do, Trisdain?” He kept his voice mild. He was not sure enough of the boy’s traits to know what he would think, what conclusions he would draw from the question. All he knew was the innocent scent, blank and clean, and the fact that he was too adult for a child his age.

He is an only son. Perhaps that accounts for it.

Perhaps not
, Reimaran thought, and knew neither he himself nor the Wave would forgive his walking away now. He waited.

Trisdain looked back calmly. His eyes had widened when Reimaran first asked the question, but they had narrowed so quickly that Reimaran thought he had had time to take it in. He reached up and patted Reimaran’s hand, in a gesture that he could, possibly, know, but which adults mostly used on children, not the other way around. Reimaran sniffed again.

Clean, still, but he smelled more of stone than ice, now that Reimaran was paying attention. Heavy stillness, dark innocence. Trisdain had witnessed trials that had melted away some of the icy parts of him, and left only the rock behind. Of course, that came no closer to telling Reimaran what the trials actually were.

“Don’t worry about it,” said Trisdain. “He’s dead now. You can’t help us, and you can’t help him. I know that most priests think they can help people, but you can’t.” He gently shut the door as Reimaran’s hand slid down it, limp and forgotten, and left him kneeling in the street.

Reimaran stood up after a long moment. He did not wish to draw the neighbors’ attention to the grieving household any longer. But he did feel as though someone had taken away his own ice and replaced it with stone.

He would go to the market for now. Then he would return to the temple with the food, and distribute it, and pray. The Wave had never deigned to speak to him as clearly as it spoke to Weishoron, but Reimaran hoped it would make an exception today. He needed help in order to help.

*

He reached the marketplace via a small tunnel that not many people knew about, a mere crack in the walls that could look like a shadow in the right light. No one paid much attention to him as he emerged from it, either. Most people in the marketplace had all the attention they could spare fixed on roof, merchants, or pool.

The roof was spectacular enough, a swelling dome of ice struck through with dazzling shafts of sunlight. Red patterns, and blue, and purple, and green, glittered in the air like falling dust, sometimes reaching the stone floor and sometimes not. Children made a game of grasping at the fragments, pretending to snatch them away from each other and hide them, or taste them on their tongues. The market was the brightest place in Isikitharan, and the only place where noise in the streets, including children’s laughter, was very common.

The merchants were mostly people who had already spent their domoni near the pool and earned more food and fuel than they could carry home, or had tapestries and other fine work that they were willing to part with in exchange for more servants. Reimaran licked his lips to get rid of an impolite amount of drool as he made his way past people selling several different kinds of seabirds, a draped seal, a dozen varieties of fish, and even walrus, always a rare and delicate treat. He was hungry, yes, but he would have his own meal in a short time. The drone of lowered voices and the click of domoni passing from one pouch to another should not inspire him to linger, but to hurry on to the pool so that he could earn his fair share of meat.

The pool had thick bars of ice-encrusted stone built over the top, to prevent anyone from slipping into the deep water, cold enough to kill in moments. Reimaran joined the neat line of citizens waiting for their chance to call out a servant, and managed, barely, to keep from touching the domoni he carried with him. Touching often enough would melt the deep ice the domoni were frozen from, and call out a smaller servant. He had to be patient.

He had nearly reached the front of the line when a rumbling sound, and several growls, caught his attention. He turned, teeth half-bared as he sniffed. He had never truly liked the smell of the Lords of the Cormatoriat.

The open-sided vehicle that the Lords used moved in a waddle across the stone, drawn by two tame white bears with red reins linked to the bits in their mouths. Their feet shuffled and clicked with the sound of dangerous claws, and they often growled at anyone not quick enough to get out of the way. Several servants rode with them, just for show, their smooth skin gleaming as they gave the Lords hot food that melted them the faster. The Lord themselves were laughing and talking, and Reimaran nearly drowned in the foulness of their smell.

He recognized it, though: the smell of sludge, of shit cast out from the body. What they did was natural evil, in the service of Isikitharan. He could not touch them, by the Wave’s decree, until they did something reprehensible and began to smell like wasted food. Reimaran watched the carriage roll on, scowling.

“Your turn,” the woman behind him said, and poked him in the back.

Reimaran turned, startled, to find that he was indeed in front of the pool. He took a deep breath, snatched the large domon he’d chosen from the pouch, and cast it down in front of him.

It cracked. The ice shards leaped into the air for a moment, then whirled back towards each other, drawn by the cold surges inside. The spirit of the deep ice emerged into its new, glimmering body, almost human, but slick and blue and utterly cold. It reached hard arms for him.

Reimaran had already set himself, and now he lashed his will around the servant’s own and tied it tight. The servant struggled with him—the spirits of the larger domoni were always wilder and therefore more dangerous—but he asserted himself. It trembled a bit against his restraint and then quieted.

“Fetch me a seal,” said Reimaran. “And moss for burning.” He thought for a moment, counting the number of domoni mentally in his pouch, and remembering the barrenness of the temple’s walls. “And spin me fine cloth from your own being.”

The servant bowed its featureless face, only a blank sheet of flat ice that turned craggy just above the arms. “What color of cloth?” it asked.

Reimaran could feel it struggling against his control. It had been long since this one was free, and the domon it inhabited had not been melted often, as was the common practice; the smaller ones brought back less food, but were easier to control. He decided he should not press his luck, since sweat was already starting on his brow. “Deep blue will do well enough,” he said, naming the color closest to the actual ice.

The servant turned and dived into the pool, cutting between the bars as a series of flying ice knives. It reassembled itself in the water and then sped away, sinking out of sight in a few moments.

Reimaran sagged back, panting. He could feel a part of his mind bunching and contracting itself, still gathered around the servant’s will, binding it as it swam, but he had done this for thirty years. He did not need to think about it often.

He moved over to the line of people waiting for servants to come back, and glanced idly at the market again. He would hire a few people to help him carry the seal home to the temple. The smaller domoni he carried would do nicely to pay them—

Abruptly, he straightened. Two hounds were trotting through the market, their white bodies gleaming, invisible to most of the people around them. They moved with purpose, their icicle fangs bared, but aimed for a place behind one of the merchants, a place Reimaran couldn’t see from this angle. In a moment, they moved behind the enormous body of the walrus he was hacking into pieces and vanished from sight.

Reimaran started to run forward. He had smelled no one foul enough to warrant calling the hounds in this market. It was possible that someone else had, of course, and that might mean a sibling of his needed help.

He smacked into a woman walking away from the walrus with her cut of the meat, and amid the apologies and explanations and reassurances that he wasn’t trying to steal her food, he lost track of the hounds. At last he edged around the walrus—the merchant and his customers giving him suspicious looks the while—and glanced about for them.

He saw them spring. Their victim was a child, perhaps slightly older than Trisdain, his ragged clothes and starveling frame marking him a child of lesser wealth. He had just time enough to turn, eyes widening, before the hounds passed through him and he became fog, then nothingness.

Reimaran shouted aloud and began to run. There must be some mistake. The Wave would not permit the hounds to be used against a child. There was nothing someone that young could have done that—

But the hounds vanished as he ran, and by the time he reached them, there was only a sign scratched in the rock, as though burned there. He knelt down beside it and stared, ignoring the snarls of people stepping past him.

It was the sigil of the Hounds of Winter, a dog’s head, the one they never displayed openly save for the very few who worshipped the true Wave in secret and silence. But instead of the icicle that the Hound clutched in its teeth in their usual sign, this one had a flower.

Reimaran felt the servant slip out of his mind and vanish into the water, rejoicing to be free. He did not care. He could hardly care, not when his finger continued to trace the dog’s head, over and over, and he was as certain as nightfall that he had just witnessed a murder.



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