The just slept the sleep of the righteous, pure, sweet, and untroubled. With no sins to expiate, they bore no tormenting dreams to disturb the rest that refreshed and prepared them for the day to come.

The wicked slept the sleep of the damned. Worn down by the weight of their own evil, their souls writhed by night. Some, unfettered by the illusions of the conscious mind, felt the red-hot blades of conscience flay them. Others felt their own insatiable desires beckon to them with visions of power, of wealth, of the objects of their cravings, visions that left them with the taste of ashes upon waking for they lacked those things in life.

The truly evil did not sleep at all, for they knew there was power in darkness, for those willing to pay its price.

Well, sometimes the just don't sleep either, thought the old man a bit crankily, because we're too busy.

He wondered what had brought the old litany to mind. He hadn't heard it in years, not since his mother had made him recite it as part of a childhood punishment. Something to do with sneaking out after dark, probably. The old man wondered if his mother had ever had to deal with this much book-work. Probably not, he decided. Things had been simpler in her day.

He took a gulp of cold tea for fortification, adjusted the wick on his lamp to give better light, then reached for his quill with a sigh. Complaining wouldn't get the job done. For the next several minutes there was no sound in the old man's room besides the scratch of pen-tip on paper marking tallies and calculations. Then he stopped again and rubbed his bleary eyes. He hated working at night.

Blasted lamp's burning down, too. The room was growing dimmer, so he again adjusted the wick. The catch must have been slipping, since there was still plenty of oil. He'd have to tinker with it the next morning. Grumbling under his breath, he went back to his writing. This time it only took five minutes before the darkness began to creep in again. He tried to ignore it as best he could, but it became harder and harder to make out the figures.

With a curse, he angrily threw down the quill and reached for the lamp. A quarter-turn caused the flame to leap up brightly, and he picked up the pen, hoping that he hadn't splattered any ink in his fit of pique. As he began to examine the paper, the old man realized that he couldn't see it any better than before. He reached for the lamp again; this just would not do! He'd have to go fetch another lamp or perhaps a few candles.

Only then did he realize that the lamp's flame had not dwindled. On the contrary, it was flaring up three full inches high. It hadn't been slipping at all; and in adjusting it twice he'd set the fire dangerously high. Yet despite that, the room was still dim and shadowy. In fact, it was growing dimmer by the moment, the darkness creeping in from the edges. Beyond a foot or so from the table, the room was in complete blackness.

The shadows closed in. The old man flinched away, looking left and right in sudden fear. What was happening? He jumped to his feet, the back of his legs striking his chair and knocking it over, where it was swallowed by the darkness.

Then the shadows reached for him. He flinched back in terror, and the shadows hesitated, but only for a moment. A light flared up, searingly bright, and the darkness surged forward once again.

-X X X-

The hunter did not so much seat himself as sprawled into the visitors' chair. Dolan Brent eyed the man dubiously, surprised at his apparent ease. His outfit looked the part: leggings and boots of sandworm-hide leather dyed black, a carbon-fiber shirt, and a sleeveless, waist-length tunic of linked titanium mail. The latter was expensive, since titanium-refining was a secret of the native Motavian race; that the hunter could afford it spoke well for his skill. His sword was worn at his right hip and two small daggers at his left.

His face was squarish, with regular features and a strong chin, very typical for a hunter, but the eyes didn't match. They were a very pale green, almost colorless, and they seemed vaguely unfocused. Distant, Brent thought, as if he wasn't actually looking at you but at something a few feet in front of your face. The hair didn't match, either, being pure sea-foam white and long, past shoulder length. A red bandanna held it off his face, the only splash of bright color in his ensemble. Brent noted that the bangs were ragged, suggesting that the length was due to neglected grooming rather than some kind of fashion choice.

Interesting, Brent thought. The hunter's mail-shirt was polished to a high gloss, and the leather of his blade-sheaths almost reflected the light as did their metal fittings. His weapons and armor were lovingly cared for, while his person was...not. Whatever the hunter's personal issues were--and there clearly were some, even if it was merely a lack of the social graces--they had not crept into his professional competence.

Yet.

This situation would bear watching over time, but Brent wasn't interested in time. He was interested in now, and for now Janyn Carlyle would do.

"So, do I pass the test?" Janyn sighed.

Well, a competent hunter would hardly have missed that.

"You do," Brent replied.

"Good. I've have hated to come all the way out here for nothing."

"I assure you, this isn't 'nothing.'"

Brent could not repress a shudder.

"Actually, it's a matter of murder."

"Am I supposed to catch the killer, or protect you?"

"The former." Brent was glad the hunter had identified the issue quickly.

"Good. I'm not a bodyguard. Who am I supposed to hunt down? Do you have any leads where he or she is hiding?"

Brent shook his head.

"I don't know."

The hunter's eyes narrowed.

"I'm not sure I understand you. You want me to catch a killer, but you don't know who it is?" Janyn crossed his arms across his chest. "I assume you have a town guard, constables, or whatever you call them here?"

"Of course, but--"

"Then go to them. That's what they're for."

He wouldn't meet Brent's eyes when he said it, but he still got up out of the chair.

"Wait; you don't understand!"

"I understand that I'm not a crime-solver."

"It's not that simple. I can't ask the guard; I'm afraid they are going to accuse me!"

Janyn paused with his hand on the doorframe.

"They--" he began, then stopped. A curious motion made what seemed like a ripple pass across his shoulders, like a sudden tensing and releasing of his back muscles.

Strange.

But he had stopped. He was waiting.

"They think you're the murderer?"

"The victim and I...we'd quarreled, and we were business rivals."

Janyn turned his head and looked back over his shoulder.

"That's not all. It can't be. At least, it shouldn't."

This time his eyes did meet Brent's. The client licked his lips.

"Y-you'll take the job?"

"I will."

As if those words were a detonation tearing down a dam, Brent's control broke and the emotions he'd been holding back throughout the interview burst out in a sudden torrent.

"I hated the bastard!" he shouted, crashing his fist against the arm of his carved wooden chair. "I'm glad he's dead! I'd like to pin a medal on the killer if I could!"

"And yet you want me to bring him or her to justice?"

"It's better than taking credit for the good work myself." He snorted angrily. "That would be Victor Tyrell's final revenge against me, wouldn't it? Making me hang for his murder?"

"Victor Tyrell being the deceased's name?" Janyn said somewhat dryly.

"Victor Tyrell being a walking obscenity! His dirty tricks in business have cost me thousands, he's slandered my name and reputation throughout town, his thugs have assaulted my employees..." His hands were flexing with rage, Brent realized, with the urge to lock around Tyrell's throat and squeeze until the bastard's eyes popped.

But Tyrell was dead now. He couldn't do anything to Brent any more. And Brent would never have the chance to do anything to him. Part of himself was sorry to have lost that opportunity.

He took a few deep breaths to control himself, aware of the hunter's eyes on him the whole time.

"Look. Tyrell and I were in the same business. Merchants, traders who imported goods from Kadary, Aiedo, Zema, wherever, to sell locally and in the outlying villages. Morova is the second-largest town in the Kadary basin, so we can do a fair amount of trade, but the markets are small compared to someone based, say, in Kadary itself. That means the profit margins are thin and every meseta could be the difference between thriving and failure. Tyrell would use any low trick he could think of to get ahead, from spreading lying rumors to tipping off bandits to attack my carters. He was the offal of a diseased dog, and I'm glad he's dead. For eight years he's been a thorn in my side, and now that he's gone I mean to enjoy life, not give mine up because the law can't do its job right. Find the murderer, Janyn, or at least enough evidence to prove that there is another murderer. I'm going to be honest with you, here; frankly, I'd almost prefer that the killer got away. Justice for Victor Tyrell isn't on my list of priorities! But it's my skin on the line, and that does matter. Your ultimate goal is to keep me safe; do you understand?"

"I could hardly miss it." His eyes unfocused for a second, as if he was no longer looking at Brent but somewhere inside himself, and he scowled. Was it at Brent's lack of respect for the law and Tyrell's life? At the hunter's own lack of respect--his sarcasm towards Brent? Abruptly his attention returned to the here and now and his expression became neutral once more. "I'll need to know everything you can tell me about the murder."

Brent nodded.

"It happened three days ago, or rather nights--today's the third day after the night of the murder. Tyrell was killed in his home. He had no family, only a housekeeper who slept in a different part of the house. The killer entered somehow, without traces of forced entry, and killed Tyrell in bed, using multiple slashes of a blade."

"What kind of weapon?"

"I don't know. You'd have to ask the undertaker or the guards."

"How did the killer get in?"

"I don't know that, either."

"There were no witnesses?"

"None, unless Sergeant Paul has them under wraps. But if he did have a secret witness, a suspect would be in custody, unless the sergeant wanted to collect a little blackmail instead."

"Is this Paul that kind of man? Is that why you don't trust the law to find the real killer?"

Brent opened his mouth, then shut it again. He'd known Trevor Paul all his life; both men were born and raised in Morova, within three years of each other's age. Brent wouldn't call the guard sergeant a friend, but he'd never seriously suspect Paul of corruption or dishonesty. He dragged his hand through his thinning brown hair.

Stress, that's what it was. The very real fear of very real consequences in turn giving rise to anger and doubt.

"No," he said, then repeated, "No. He isn't like that. If I'm arrested and tried, it'll be because he thinks I'm guilty. But I'm not! Tyrell had other enemies besides me. A man like that couldn't get through a day without making someone loathe him."

"Enemies like whom?" the hunter asked. "If it wasn't you, and it wasn't robbery, then it was probably one of them."

Brent sighed heavily. It was hard to sort out his own dislike of the dead man from a rational analysis of his failings. Who else hated Tyrell?

"There's Ned Crain," he decided at last. "He's a..."

What am I doing, accusing Crain? Brent had sudden second thoughts, but the shadow of the noose gave him courage.

"He's a crook, a thug. He runs the carters in this town, skims a percentage off the top of their pay. If a trader tries to make an end run around him, his cargo's apt to be 'lost' or his cart 'attacked by bandits,' if you know what I mean."

"I think I do," Janyn replied softly and, Brent thought, dangerously.

"Crain hangs out at a bar called the Red Dog. Watch it, though, if you look hard at him, because he had a gang of roughnecks to back him up."

Janyn nodded.

"I'm familiar with the type. Are there any other enemies?"

"Maybe. I'm not sure about servants, employees, mistresses, or offended husbands that might have wanted Tyrell dead, though I'm sure there's some of each. Oh, and probably Ovan Prentiss. The old sand-rat runs the biggest general store in town, and he's played Tyrell and I against each other for contracts for years. Though I'd expect it more likely Tyrell would have killed Prentiss, then the other way around."

"I see. I'll add him to the list, though."

Sounds of commotion began to reach them even through the closed door, raised voices, male and female. At first they were indistinct, but then Brent could hear the voice of his housekeeper protest, "I tell you, Sergeant, Mr. Brent is in a meeting and can't be disturbed!"

Sergeant! Brent felt the cold grip of fear on his heart. Were they here to arrest him? Would he be dragged off to a cell, and the gallows?

"The law takes precedence over business meetings," Paul's matter-of-fact voice could be heard, and a moment later the door was thrust open.

"Sergeant Paul," Brent challenged as the law officer entered, his thick, broad-shouldered body all but filling the arched doorway, "this is starting to resemble a persecution. I've told you all I know about Victor Tyrell's murder."

"Good enough. Now you can tell me all you know about Ovan Prentiss's murder."