are probably right,” he said.
“Think about it,” I said. “Nobody has died recently. He executes me, and everyone is happy, and he remains popular. If the real killer starts up again later, all the better for Baranak—he can launch into action, bringing in another suspect. And those who remain will be cowed into obeying him, following his orders.” I met Malachek’s eyes again, feeling the old resentments building once more. “I do not much care for those who rule through fear and intimidation.”
“Of course not,” he replied. “You prefer the more subtle methods of bending your peers to your will.”
I smiled. “Touché.”
He puffed his pipe and regarded me silently for a time through the blue haze.
“So what can you tell me?” I finally asked.
“No doubt,” I said. “Any of them pertinent?”
His eyes narrowed briefly, then relaxed into a smile.
“I will let you be the judge of that,” he replied.
Leaning back in his chair, he gestured, conjuring a holographic representation of the central square of the City within the drifting smoke. At the heart of the image, the plume of the Fountain towered in all its glory.
“Very recently, as we judge time” he began, “the Fountain stopped flowing. Almost certainly, the murders—if murders they were—took place during that time. The only alternative would have been for the killer to drag seventy-two gods to the main square of Heaven and throw them into the Fountain, and I seriously doubt that could have been accomplished in so short a time, under Baranak’s watchful eye, and with no one else noticing.”
“Unless Baranak did it himself,” I suggested, sipping my brandy. “Of all the gods, he is the only one who could have overpowered each of the others one-on-one.”
Malachek considered this.
“I have never been particularly fond of Baranak,” he said. “You know this, or you would not have come here. But I cannot imagine him capable of such an act, nor do I see any reason why he might wish to do so. Likewise, while I do not care for his personality, I have never had cause to doubt his sense of honor. If he was prepared to execute you, he was convinced of your guilt.”
Reluctantly, I nodded.
“So he means well,” I said. “Fine. But he is wrong.”
Malachek’s expression was unreadable.
“Of course,” he said.
He gestured sharply, and the floating image vanished.
My mind searched quickly through all I’d seen and heard since returning to the City, and again I pondered our release from the dungeon, and my misgivings there.
“What do you know of Alaria?” I asked him.
“Alaria?” He frowned. “As much and as little as anyone, I suppose.”
I described for him the events of the past few hours.
He steepled his fingers before his lips and considered.
“It could be that she was genuinely concerned for you, or for the truth, or both. But then, how often do any of us have only one single, clear motive behind anything we do?”
He smiled warmly.
“Now, for example. I help you because it serves the interests of finding the truth and of preventing an injustice. But by the same token, it also serves me personally, should you emerge from these circumstances in better position than Baranak and his friends.”
I admitted to myself that I had not considered that part of the equation, and felt a measure of respect and even fondness in my heart for Malachek.
He stroked his chin absently, the way he always did when running up against a problem for which he did not have an immediate answer.
“You say Vorthan was with Baranak?” he asked. “Odd… It was always Rashtenn who stood at Baranak’s side—but I suppose now that would be impossible. No wonder the old warrior’s taking it all so hard.” Malachek shook his head. “Such a waste… Eternity seventy-two times over, gone in such a brief time.”
I bowed my head along with him for a moment, but then pressed on, anxious for more information and