Lillitha of Darkhaven, the Maestra of Mistery, put her hands on her hips and sighed. Spread-eagled on a lumpy mattress before her lay the ravaged body of what had been, relatively recently, Prince Nonpareil, barbarian king-to-be of the Western Wilds. On either side of her were ranged her compatriots in evil – Mistress Mori, wife of the spreading dark; Eveanizae, Hetaera of Hell; Bal-Shebal, the ruiner of realms; Lady Derisive, green-skinned and grumpy; and Aethelreada ‘the always-ready’ of Azizar. In a corner sniveled a pimple-faced lad of about thirteen – the recently deceased’s stable boy. It was he who’d found the body and raised the alarm.
* * *
Strangely, despite the superb reputation and supposed popularity of the Starving Stag, most of the neighboring tables that evening had been empty. Lillitha was reasonably confident that the unfilled chairs had something to do with the fact that she and her friends had descended unexpectedly upon the little tavern earlier in the day, and spent several raucous hours bemoaning the state of the omniverse over bottles of pestilential wine. In any event, they’d seen the stable boy – Burp or Fart or whatever absurd name he’d been assigned by Prince Nonpy – scuttle by earlier carrying a tray heaped with food and a foaming jug. Mori had recognized him instantly, admitting after a little prodding that she’d seduced Nonpy a few months before as the second phase in her scheme to open a portal to the seventh daemon dimension in Farkar, capital city of the Western Wilds.
“It didn’t even work,” Mori had wailed. “He wasn’t even the right king-to-be!”
Several hours, and many more bottles of wine later, the stable boy had reappeared, pale beneath his adolescent blebs, and screeched in a cracking voice that Nonpy was dead. He’d then burst into tears and collapsed before the fire. Eveanizae, she of the raven-black tresses, marched over to the lad’s shaking body, pulled him upright by his greasy thatch of hair and shook him until his teeth rattled before recalling that she hadn’t yet demanded he explain himself.
“In… upstairs!” the child croaked. “We was just taking a nice day off between killing the obsidian dragon of Dramomar—“
“What?!” screeched Lady Derisive, who bred obsidian dragons as a hobby.
“—an’ heading back to Farkar! The prince was fagged out, so I said a nice restish-like break was what was wanted, an’, an’, an’ the barkeep gave the prince his own room because it was the best in town, an’ I just brung up some supper before heading to the stable to eat me gruel, an’ I come back to clear the dishes away an’, an’, an’ he was dead! Please, ma’am, can you stop shaking me now?”
Eveanizae dropped the lad and muttered a quick incantation to clean the boy-scum from her hand.
“Are you certain he’s perished?” asked Mistress Mori, kneeling beside the boy. “He sleeps very heavily.”
“Sure as Bal-Shebal’s teeth got teeth, ma’am!” he wept. Bal-Shebal, who’d gotten up to join the group around the sobbing stable boy, grinned her shark’s grin. All three rows of her teeth glinted in the firelight. The boy, who’d peered through his hands to catch the effect of his oath, wailed in terror.
Lillitha shoved Bal and Evie aside and picked the boy up by the fraying collar of his shapeless, rough-spun tunic. “Take us to the body, boy, and no harm will come to you.” Bal coughed. “Yet,” Lill amended.
The lad wet himself, making Aethelreada laugh, wrenched himself out of Lill’s grip, and scurried up the stairs. “After you,” Lill bowed to her cohorts, and followed as they swept, skittered, slid, slunk and slimed their way up to the first floor of the Starving Stag.
* * *
“Well,” began Lill, “here’s the problem. Nonpy’s definitely dead, and I’m pretty sure he didn’t die from natural causes.”
“What clued you in, Lill?” giggled Bal. “The blood-scourge octopus attached to his face or the fact that his rib-cage is stapled to the wall?”
“Native detective ability,” Lill responded airly. “Something doesn’t smell right.”
“It could just be the lad,” Mori suggested. “I don’t think warrior-princes place too much of a premium on clean stable boys.”
Lill used her Staff of Samarthia to prod the body. Something popped wetly deep inside it, and a jet of purple smoke puffed out of the gaping hole where Nonpy’s heart had once beaten. “Perhaps,” Lill said, “or perhaps it’s the flesh-eating bacteria someone appears to have introduced into his bloodstream.” She wafted the purple smoke toward herself and sniffed appreciatively. “E-fangoria does produce that characteristic bouquet, y’know. Cloves and honey and… mmm. Festerslug topnotes. Oh! Someone immunize the kid, would you?”
Lady Derisive rolled her eyes and tossed a vial of something at the stable boy, who was tearing at his throat and making little strangling sounds in the corner. The vial exploded upon impact, obscuring the boy in a haze of green mist. He coughed, and the strangling sounds ceased. “Please, ma’am,” he gasped, as the mist cleared. “Please. Just let me go an’ I swear I won’t never tell no one you killed the prince.”
Bal slithered over to the boy and wrapped a tentacle around his neck. “And which of us, exactly, are you accusing of murder, child?”
The boy gurgled.
“Bal, honey,” Aethelreada sighed, “you have to let him take a breath first.”
Bal looked over her shoulder and smiled. “I’m just having a little fun with him.” She returned her blazing red gaze to the boy’s face and gave another little squeeze. Two of his zits popped. “So, kid. Pick a villain. Any villain.”
Lill gave Bal a little whack on the shoulder with her staff. “Leave off, Bal. I think the answer’s pretty clear.” Bal-Shebal released the boy and gave his chin an affectionate chuck before standing up. The stable boy fainted.
“All right, Detective Inspector Evil,” Lady Derisive said, “who done it?”
Lill poked the body again. “Now, ladies. I don’t have to remind you that we each have the means to, erm, rather shorten a man’s lifespan. So let’s just take it as read that we each of us could have, shall we say, sent him down the brimstone path.”
“Yes, but when?” burst out Aethelreada. “We were all sat around the same table together all night!”
Lill continued, unperturbed. “It’s equally undeniable that we also each had opportunity to toddle up here and put the prince out to pasture. We’ve had the first rule of adventuring parties burned into our brains since we were in the egg: where go the stable lads, so go the warrior-princes. Mori pointed the kid out hours ago. So we knew Nonpy was somewhere about the premises. And we’d all been drinking rather a lot, and we all left the table, by ourselves, at least once between the time Mori saw the boy and, well, now.”
“Yes, but we all went outside,” Eveanizae pointed out.
“Which of us doesn’t have the ability to fly, teleport, render ourselves invisible or cast doubling spells?”
Eight feet and one pair of cloven hooves shuffled uncomfortably.
“So you must admit, it’s beyond question that each of us had the opportunity to get up here unseen and wreak a little havoc.”
The boy in the corner had come to at some point during the conversation. “But why,” he croaked. “Prince Nonpareil was so good! The best… the best of all of us.”
“Well, you’ve kind of answered that question for yourself, haven’t you?” Mori murmured kindly. “We’re villains, child. We eat good for supper.”
“Literally, in Bal’s case,” Eveanizae added.
“The kid brings up a good point, though,” Lill continued. “Who among us as a motive for offing Nonpy? Mori, you’re the obvious answer: you and he had a thing going a while ago. You admitted as much earlier this evening. And the rib-cage thing – you did something similar to Doctor Bloodbane last year.”
Mori scowled. “Maybe. But flesh-eating bacteria? That’s Aethelreada’s signature move.” She kicked the bed, jolting the body and releasing another puff of purple smoke. “Plus, Aethy is deep in some scheme to usurp the throne of the Western Wilds. You can’t deny it, Aeth.”
Aethelreada of Azizar shrugged. “The thing is, I’m a long-game kind of girl. Strike down one warrior-prince with a designer bacteria and two more appear in his place. My plan is more about destabilizing the local currency and the flooding the market with cursed gold than taking out one barbarian at a time. Plus, there’s an octopus stuck to his face.”
“Octopuses really are more Bal’s thing,” Lill said. Bal, who’d been menacing the stable boy with her tentacles, whipped them behind her back and arranged her features into a sheepish expression. “And she’s perpetually pissed off that no one remembers she sank Atlantis,” Lill continued. “It’s not in any way unlikely that ol’ Nonpy here–” she unlatched the octopus from the prince’s ruined face; it came free with a little sucking noise, taking Nonpy’s check with it. Lill handed the little creature back to Bal. “–Ol’ Nonpy here probably credited Lord Fangrill or someone with the job, and Fangfrill boasted about it to Bal. We all know how Bal holds a grudge.”
“I laid waste to that bloody city three times,” Bal grumbled, setting the little octopus on her shoulder. “No one ever remembers.”
“And Eveanizae,” Lill soldiered on, “he’s covered in imp bite-marks. You’re the one who collects imps, I hardly have to remind everyone.”
Eveanizae shrugged. “Imp bites aren’t necessarily fatal. Anyway, why would I kill him? Which I didn’t.”
“He blew up half your castle last year,” Lill said. “You mentioned it not two hours ago.”
“Yeah, well, he’s also been going around slaying obsidian dragons, and we all know how weird Der is about obsidian dragons. I’ll bet you that rib-cage up there that if we dig around in that gaping wound a bit we’ll come up with an obsidian dragon’s tooth or two.” Eveanizae rolled up her sleeves and plunged her hands into the slick red mess where Nonpy’s stomach and large intestines had once resided. In the corner, the stable boy sounded as though he were trying to weep and vomit simultaneously.
“I’d just like to point out, apropos of nothing,” Der said, eyeing Eveanizae’s progress, “that obsidian dragons are really bloody hard to breed.”
Eveanizae, up to her elbows in viscera, grunted. “You have to admit, though – umph – that you’re – urk – a little weird about them. Ah hah!” She pulled her hands from the body and waved a pancreas under Lady Derisive’s nose. There was, indeed, a little black fang sticking out of it. “See? Tooth.”
Lady Derisive crossed her arms and frowned. “That doesn’t prove anything. That could belong to any species of black dragon.”
Bal-Shebal rolled her three eyes. “Right. What an amazing little coincidence, that the tooth of some species of black dragon appears in the entrails of a guy who made a name for himself killing some species of black dragon, in the same pub where a villain who famously breeds some species of black dragon is having a nice little drink.”
“Is that any more or less suspicious than the fact that he had a blood-scourge octopus stuck to his face a hundred and seventy-three miles from the nearest ocean?” Lady Derisive yelled.
“Now hang on just a minute, ladies.” Aethelreada stepped forward and put a hand on Der’s shoulder. “Lillitha has failed to make any mention of the fact that he’s also missing his heart. And who among us brews fell potions from the hearts of warriors?”
Lillitha smiled. “Patience, patience. I was getting there.” She rummaged inside her robes for a moment and produced an ebony box, inlaid with demonic patterns of gold and mother-of-pearl. She flipped it open with a little flourish and proffered the purplish lump inside to those assembled. “Now, yes, absolutely. This is his heart, and I took it. And, I admit, I slipped up here with the intention of ripping it from his breast. He lopped off my left little toe last time we fought, so I definitely had a motive for taking him out. I mean, above and beyond the fact that these things,” she shook the little box, “are really handy for potion-brewing. Did you know you get twice as much from a heart removed while still beating?
“My point is that I did have motive and means and opportunity. As did we all. But the fact of the matter is this: he was already dead when I got here. And he already looked like this.” She waved at the bloody pulp on the bed. “I took his heart because, well, why not? He was already dead, and I’d been planning on it anyway. Which, I conclude, is what happened with all of you, too.”
“That’s right!” came a chorus of voices.
“I thought it was weird that he didn’t struggle more,” murmured Eveanizae meditatively.
“None of this,” Lill continued, again indicating the sticky corpse, “is half as messy as it should have been. I know all your work; you’re all consummate professionals. If any of us standing here had actually killed Nonpy, there’d be absolutely no question whatsoever which of us did it.”
“But,” Mistress Mori said, furrowing her brow, “that only leaves…”
Bal-Shebal wrapped a tentacle around the stable boy’s neck and lifted him to his feet. “That only leaves this.”
Lady Derisive had moved away from the group standing around the bed, and was peering into corners and under boxes. After a moment she uttered a triumphant exclamation and returned to Lill’s side, carrying what remained of Nonpy’s stomach. She handed it to Aethelreada. “You’re good at poisons and stuff, Aethy; any ideas?”
Aethelreada of Azizar sniffed the glistening mass in her hands. “Deadly nightshade. A classic. I noticed some growing around the stables as we came in this afternoon. And… hops. He must have ingested it in his beer. It would have killed him… well, not very quickly, and pretty painfully. Nice work.” She dropped the entrails onto the bed.
“So,” Lillitah of Darkhaven, Maestra of Misery, concluded, “Nonpy was already dead when we each tried to kill him. And the person who did kill him was no less than his loyal stable boy, who drugged his beer and then ran off long before any of us ever got to him.”
“Urk,” the stable boy said.
“Yes,” Mistress Mori addressed him, “but why? What about friendship and, uh, goodness and all that stuff you people are always going on about?”
“Der, clean him up a bit, will you?” Lill asked. Lady Derisive murmured a little spell and the filth, grease, vomit, urine and pimples vanished from the boy’s skin. Before them now stood a very promising specimen of virtuous manhood: young, blond, straight of back and sturdy of countenance, even with a tentacle wrapped around his neck.
“As I thought,” Lill shook her head. “Ladies, any guesses?”
“By the ever-burning hellfires, he looks just like Nonpy!” Eveanizae gasped. Bal dropped the boy as though he were contagious. He fell into a handsome little heap on the blood-soaked floor.
Lill knelt by his side and smoothed his hair from his face. He shuddered in horror and tried to bat her away. “Now, kid,” Lill said gently. “Why did you kill Prince Nonpareil?”
“He’s,” the boy squeaked, “he was my father!”
“Yes,” Bal said drily. “We gathered.”
“He never knew!”
Mori nodded. “They usually don’t.”
“He, he promised he’d make me mam a princess and then he, he, he left her, an’ then she had me!”
“Men,” Aethelreada sighed.
“An’ I never seen him until he come through town looking for a stable boy!”
“But you always knew you were special,” Eveanizae offered.
“Yes! The warty ol’ witch that lives down the swamp says I’m destined to be king and save the world! An’ then the prince come through town an’ mam seen him and says he’s yer da an’ then she died!”
“And the job was open because his previous stable boy had just discovered he was the son of somebody or other and left on his own quest, I presume,” Lill suggested.
“The only way I can fulfill me destiny an’ save the world is if I’m king! An’ he’d be king afore me!” The boy’s voice cracked and he peeked up at Lill through his fingers. “I want to be king now.”
Lill stood, leaving the princeling in a shuddering heap at her feet. “Well, ladies. We’ve solved the mystery of who killed Nonpareil, and why, and how. I say we leave the little love to himself for a few years. He should make a reasonably interesting opponent someday – if he ever recovers from the PTSD, anyway.”
Bal cheered. “C’mon, girls. Let’s get back downstairs. Next round’s on me!”
Archie Black lives and works in London. She is currently writing a book about Dorothy L. Sayers. Her short fiction can be found in The Lowest Heaven, World War Cthulhu and other volumes of similar erudition.