Chronicles of Ghadid Trilogy, Short Story

Short Story: Cause of Death

Happy autumn!! To celebrate the fact that The Impossible Contract comes out in less than two months, here’s a short story about another of Amastan’s cousins, Menna – saver of souls by day, taker of lives by night.

Ao3 Tags: Capable priest is too good at her job, denial is not just a river in Egypt, non-consensual murder, oh noes, sinnamon rolls, one good apple unspoils the bunch, not quite relationship goals, disaster lesbians, surprise corpse, workaholics anonymous

CW: Death, violence, murder, teensy bit of gore

8000 words

Cause of death: asphyxia as a result of constriction of the neck from strangulation.

Menna was never absolutely certain if the bodies and jaan she tended came to her through natural, unsuspicious circumstances or by the hand of one of her cousins. But she could guess, and if she were Azulay, she’d place a bet. Unlike him, she’d even win.

The signs were easy enough to gather. If Dihya or Azulay had been missing lately, if Amastan had been more introspective than his usual, if Ziri had been avoiding her…

They’d promised she’d always be a cousin, but they sure didn’t treat her like one anymore.

This one had been strangled. Bruises darker than wine circled the body’s neck like a charm tied too tight. Menna pulled their tagel back up, concealing the mess her cousin had made, just as footsteps tracked nearer outside the small, stuffy room.

Dihya’s work, probably. She was always a little… enthusiastic. Not because she enjoyed killing—a cousin who sought out death wouldn’t be a cousin for long—but because she always had something to prove. That she was capable, that she was strong, that she was qualified. Menna couldn’t decide if Dihya was trying to convince herself or them.

Dihya could have at least tried. Instead, it was like she knew Menna would be the one dealing with the body, covering up her mess. Which really wasn’t fair if Dihya wasn’t going to share her baats.

But sharing baats from a contract would be admitting there had been a contract, would be admitting who had been assigned to it and when and, well. That wouldn’t do.

Still, at this rate they should give her a monthly stipend.

“Heart attack,” announced Menna to the elder that had just entered the room.

She pulled a rolled sheet of vellum from her bag and spread it across the mark’s—no, the deceased’s—chest. Whatever they’d done to warrant a contract was in G-d’s hands now. But their jaani was in Menna’s and, unlike her cousins, she took her job very seriously.

She had to. It was all she had left.

Cause of death: asphyxia as a result of constriction of neck from strangulation. Heart attack.

***

THREE MONTHS EARLIER

Cause of death: sudden cardiac arrest, immediate cause unknown

The woman lay in her bed, arms folded across her chest, eyes closed and blanket pulled up to her chin as if she were asleep. The window had been opened, letting in air still heavy with remembered rain, but the scent of death—or rather, loosened bowels—still permeated every corner of the small room. That, coupled with the headache trying to pound its way out of Menna’s skull, made her stomach roil with nausea.

Okay, maybe the nausea could be blamed on the non-insignificant amount of date wine she’d had last night.

Menna closed her eyes against the dawn’s glare, which cut through the room without any spare thought for those who’d had a rough night and a rougher morning. As she edged her way half-squinting toward the window and its curtain, she was only physically in the room. The rest of her was still back home, rehashing everything she’d said to Thiyya as if she could change those words now. She’d started out feeling so correct about it all, but now the details were like broken glass, impossible to piece back together again. All she could remember through the haze of hangover was Thiyya’s disappointment.

But it wasn’t Menna’s fault. Thiyya was just as busy with her healer work as Menna was with bodies. Just because Menna couldn’t explain that some of the time, her work was less about quieting jaan and more about quieting people, well. Thiyya just needed to trust her.

It didn’t help that, actually, Menna hadn’t even been doing that. After the slightest of mishaps on a contract—it’d been messier than it should have been, but the mark was still dead—Kaseem had been avoiding her. Probation is what he’d called it. But how could she prove she’d learned her lesson if he never gave her the chance?

Really, it was his fault Menna was wound up like a spring, spending all of her spare time out training just to release that energy. She’d be fine as soon as Kaseem gave her another contract. If only she could tell Thiyya that.

In the meantime: another day, another body, another jaani to quiet.

“What do you think, ma?”

An elder stood to one side, the first at the scene. Edas was a younger elder, only a few years beyond Menna. He looked dreadfully bored, as if he’d seen a hundred similar scenes just this week. Maybe he had; post-Season always had a glut of bodies. But since Menna wasn’t yet an elder herself, he had to be here.

“They said she passed calmly sometime last night,” said Menna, trying to focus. “She’d been complaining about pains and fevers the past few months, but the healers couldn’t find anything wrong. So they made her comfortable.”

“She was a merchant, right?” mused Edas. “Probably a jealous rival or heir.”

“Not for us to determine, sa.” Menna closed her eyes, trying to concentrate, but her hands were shaking from the hangover and Edas was breathing too loudly. “Can you step out for a minute, sa? I think they waited as long as they could to call us and this could be… delicate.”

Menna didn’t need to specify; Edas knew well enough what failure meant in their work. Wild jaan haunted the sands below, reminders of what happened if a marabi didn’t perform the necessary rites in time. The likelihood that Menna might fuck up so badly that a jaani untethered here in this room, though, was so low as to be impossible. Still, she needed the space, if only for her pounding head.

Elder Edas grunted noncommittally, but a moment later the door opened and closed. Then: a silence so deep that Menna could have been standing on a bridge between platforms, the air a mid-Season stillness around her so calm that she could feel her own pulse in her fingertips and in her soles.

And beneath that silence, an absence as if the room had been left undisturbed for years. It felt like the hollow clock of bone hitting bone, echoing through a room that shouldn’t have been empty. Unlike Amastan, Menna didn’t have a problem with being around bodies. But now, alone in the room with this one, unease prickled across her skin, goosebumps rising in its wake.

Just the nausea, she told herself.

But as one part of her mind guided her hand through writing the prayers—she had them all memorized, mighty G-d this and that, just be sure you never finished writing G-d’s name, lest you call G-d down, the height of hubris and the end of a very short life—the other part picked at the room and its occupant.

The woman had definitely been poisoned. But that wasn’t Menna’s problem. She wasn’t a watchman and she wasn’t here to determine guilt. And she wasn’t a healer; she couldn’t mend what was rent. All she could do was offer the dead a little respect, a single grain of modesty. So what about this particular death was bothering her so much?

Prayers written, Menna unhooked her water skin from her belt. She dampened a cloth, then wiped the ink off the vellum. She squeezed the cloth over the deceased’s face and dribbled gray water between parted lips. She took a deep breath to center herself and to stop wondering if Kaseem were back at her room above the baker’s, his patience wearing through. This would be over soon enough.

The last drop of prayer-stained water hit the deceased’s face, rolling down her cheek to the floor. Without thinking, Menna daubed at the drop with the cloth. Her fingers brushed across cool skin, which wasn’t a surprise.

What was a surprise was the sensation of emptiness that jolted up her fingertip, through her hand, and across her heart. It was as if she’d stepped onto a bridge and her foot had found a missing slate. There was a moment of expectation, then a moment of confusion, and then several skipped heartbeats and gasped breaths as she overcompensated for the loss and tried so very hard not to fall.

She didn’t fall. She jerked back, staring at the corpse as if it’d just tried to bite her.

No jaani. Impossible. The corpse wasn’t even room temperature yet. There’d been no mention of an angry spirit, no possibility of tampering. But the absence was as obvious as a candle just blown out.

“Everything all right, ma?”

Menna started. Elder Edas had returned, silent as a snake. Menna pressed her hands against her thighs to hide their shake as she stood and turned. “It’s done. Everything’s fine.”

But everything was definitely not fine.

Cause of death: sudden cardiac arrest, immediate cause unknown Murder

***

They came together like a dropped dish against the floor, all sudden and inevitable and inescapable. Menna hardly registered the impact, just the aftermath of their bodies pressed close and inseparable, the dry breeze from her open window enough to cool their fevered limbs. Menna breathed in Thiyya’s tangled hair, relishing the smell of soft spices, of water, of dust, of sex. Their last argument felt seasons away.

In truth, it’d only been a week. But they hadn’t seen each other in the between, each taken up with their duties. Thiyya, caring for those who’d put off healing until after season’s end. Menna, caring for those who’d put off healing just a little too long. It’d been a busy week full of excuses.

And Kaseem still hadn’t come.

“Ten,” muttered Menna, fingers twining in Thiyya’s hair.

“Ten what?” asked Thiyya.

“New salas,” said Menna. “Since last time I saw you. You’ve saved a lot of people.”

“Or maybe it’s just been too long.” A pause, then Thiyya shifted beside her, somehow shaping more of her skin against Menna. “I want to see more of you.”

“Mm.” But the heaviness that had kept Menna in place was gone in an instant, her nerves lighting up at Thiyya’s words as if they were a knife.

“Why don’t you come by some evening, have dinner with my dad and aunts?”

And Amastan, Menna added silently. She could see her cousin-through-blood sitting at the same table as the rest of Thiyya’s family, trying oh-so-politely to make casual conversation and not rub it in her face that he was getting more contracts than her, getting any at all. Amastan, who had wanted nothing to do with contracts when they’d finished training. Amastan, who Kaseem seemed especially keen to employ. Amastan, who would leave his own family table to give her space if he only knew how jealous she was.

He couldn’t know. Which meant no family dinners, even though Thiyya had been asking for months now. This wasn’t what had sparked their last argument, but it was close enough to put Menna on edge.

When Menna didn’t answer, Thiyya turned in her arms to face her. “I don’t want to keep doing this.”

“We’ll both have more time soon.”

But Thiyya’s frown only deepened, solidified into a parallel of brows and lips. “Soon has been years, Menna. I thought it’d get better as we figured out our lives, but it’s only gotten worse. I don’t even know what you do most days.”

Menna slid her arm beneath Thiyya’s head. “Think of you.”

Thiyya sat up, leaving Menna’s arm cold. She abruptly turned away, casting her feet over the side of the bed, only a shove away from leaving entirely. Menna wanted to trace the ridge of that spine with her fingertips, but she kept her hands to herself.

“I need more than thoughts,” said Thiyya, a finality weighting her words like rocks.

Menna’s throat squeezed shut and her mouth went dry. The room sharpened and the scents she’d just found comfort in moments ago became unbearable. They’d argued about this before, sometimes in worried whispers, sometimes in anger that left them both regretful later, but never with this kind of heaviness.

Slowly, Menna sat up, too. “I can give you more.”

Thiyya didn’t turn. “Now? Tonight? You’ll come to dinner?”

Menna swallowed. “Soon.” As soon as Kaseem gave her a proper contract, as soon as she could earn her baats a whole bag at a time instead of parceled out in pieces for each corpse she quieted.

“I can’t wait for soon anymore.”

Thiyya slid off the bed. Menna grabbed for her, but her fingers only brushed Thiyya’s arm. That hesitation let Thiyya get to her wrap, tangled on the floor with Menna’s own.

“I can—we can see each other more. You just have to be patient. It’s temporary—”

A polite knock at the door cut her off. They exchanged a confused look. Then a firm cough from outside filled Menna with a fresh wave of buzzing nerves. She knew that cough. She’d been waiting for that cough.

But Thiyya was waiting, too, expectant on whatever Menna’s excuse was this time. Menna froze. Kaseem was right outside her door, probably with a contract in hand, her probation over but only if she answered. That meant her months of playing at two jobs, being too distracted to even think, to give Thiyya the attention she deserved, would be over soon.

If Thiyya could just wait.

Menna scrambled for the door. “I need to get this.”

It was only after she’d cracked open the door that she realized maybe, maybe, she should’ve taken the extra minute to dress. Then she caught Kaseem’s startled gaze.

“I’ll be right out,” she said before slamming the door shut in his face.

“Who’s that?” asked Thiyya, already knotting her own wrap, her braids tucked into a deep orange scarf, face carefully blank.

“Family friend.”

It wasn’t a lie, not quite. Menna wasn’t sure how her fingers stayed still long enough to finish tying the last knot, but suddenly she was dressed. Her mouth was dry, her pulse beating in her fingertips and ears, the scent of their recent occupation still heavy on the air despite the open window, their argument still ringing in her ears. Kaseem couldn’t have come at a worse time.

Thiyya would understand, had to understand, even if right now her lips were pursed in a stubborn line and she wasn’t moving from the bed.

“Um,” said Menna pointedly. When Thiyya still didn’t move—save to swing her legs under the bed’s edge—she added, “I need to talk to him. Alone.”

“Are you really doing this?”

“Thiyya. Please. It’s not like that.”

“It is.”

Thiyya’s features pinched with such sadness that Menna was torn between wanting to kiss the pout off those lips and cup that chin in her hand. She could do both. She should do both. But Thiyya was already standing, the sadness deepening into something edged with anger.

Kaseem’s cane scuffed impatiently at the floor outside.

Menna squeezed Thiyya’s hand. “I’ll see you later.”

“Come to dinner.”

“I’ll try.”

“Don’t try.” Then, some of that sadness cracked and Thiyya brushed her lips across Menna’s cheek, her breath an intoxication as overwhelming as the strongest date wine, pulling down her inhibitions just as easily, but Thiyya had already opened the door and slipped out, leaving Kaseem visible in its sliver of an opening, weathered hands atop his cane and the gaze atop his green tagel enough to sober anyone.

Mentally, Menna smoothed away all the pieces of her self that belonged to Thiyya. She straightened and hardened and became the assassin she’d been trained to be. Then she met Kaseem’s gaze.

“Come in, sa.”

***

Menna didn’t go to dinner.

After Thiyya left, Kaseem had leaned heavily on his cane in the middle of her room and said, “It’s on one of your own.”

Menna had gone cold all over; Kaseem couldn’t mean her cousins. “A marabi?”

Kaseem nodded. “I wouldn’t have brought something like this to you normally, but this is a delicate case. Discretion has been requested and I think a… familiar hand might make the work go more smoothly. Someone who is intimately acquainted with a marabi’s duties. Someone they might recognize as a friend.”

She’d taken it. Of course she had.

Kaseem had left her with a handful of baats securing her services, a tightly-rolled scroll, and a warning: all contracts were sworn to secrecy, but this one triply so. Kaseem had hoped that by hiring her, a marabi herself, they could contain the knowledge. The less who knew, the better.

“I’ll still have to bring on a second,” Menna had warned.

“Of course. But they don’t need to know the details.”

The details had been finely penned on the scroll, a list of crimes shorter than most. But their implications were disturbing.

Elder Tudarya was a kind woman. A quiet woman. Thoroughly dedicated to her work as a marabi, she’d never had time for a partner or children. A few years ago, when Menna had brought the problem of a wild jaani loose in Ghadid to the elders, Tudarya had been the most interested.

She’d been the one to first mention guul. The jaan that refused to fade away and instead grew stronger with more time, with more bodies. An impossibility in their city that had turned out to be too possible.

The list Menna held, the list she’d memorized, spoke of impiety, of sacrilege, of blasphemy. It spoke of a woman no one really knew, who used the privileges bestowed upon her by society to twist the natural order of the world to her whim. There were deaths attributed to her name, yes, but that wasn’t the worst of it. Murder alone wasn’t a good enough reason for a contract.

Messing with jaan, however.

That went beyond the watchmen and the drum chiefs. That went beyond the law.

Menna could see the pieces between the crimes, the reasons that had been written in spaces instead of words. To accuse Tudarya of blasphemy before the Circle would bring every marabi under scrutiny. After all, the line between quieting a jaani and bending one to your will was as thin as smoke.

Menna would put good money down that a marabi had been the one to take out this contract. An Elder, even. They liked things to stay quiet. A marabi who mishandled glass wasn’t a marabi for long. And one who mishandled jaan… well.

Long after Kaseem had left, a small pile of baats securing her services on the table, Menna sat staring at the coals in the hearth. She saw eyes burning bright as those coals. She saw madness burning through. She saw bodies, empty. Mourners who stood through funerals for a jaani no longer present, like performers in the streets, their words as dull as their blades.

***

Cause of death: asphyxiation and hemorrhage through compression of the neck

Ziri had been the obvious choice for her second. Azulay and Dihya were inseparable, Amastan had recently been tasked with babysitting Thana, and Hamma was too smart. Ziri was big and dull and obvious; Menna would be able to lead him on a leash. Plus, as one of the most recent graduates of the Serpent’s training program, he’d be eager to get his teeth into a real contract and wouldn’t ask any questions.

She knew that eagerness well; she’d been there herself once. Now it chafed as she tried to keep Ziri in check. She found herself echoing words Amastan had said to her not that long ago:

“Patience.”

“We have all the information from Kaseem,” said Ziri, his voice like rocks. “It’s simple enough. We could go tonight.”

“We could, but…” But she’s a marabi, Menna wanted to say. “We have to do this proper,” she said instead. “Which means we wait and we watch.”

“Are you going to talk to her?”

Menna stiffened. “Why ever would I do that?”

Ziri gestured vaguely. “It’s just that, well, you’re a marabi. She’s a marabi.”

“There are a lot of marab in Ghadid,” said Menna, as if speaking to a room full of novices. “Just because she’s a marabi doesn’t mean I know her.”

“Well, it was worth the toss.”

“I’m going to talk to her.”

Ziri nodded, as if he’d known she was going to do that all along. “And I’ll be there as back-up.”

“I don’t need back-up. I’m just going to talk.”

But Ziri had crossed his arms and refused to move—or talk, or straight up breathe—until Menna had relented.

Which was how Menna ended up with the late afternoon sun baking her back, trying not to pay any attention to the beggar making a spectacle of himself three doorways away. Ziri had gone all in with the threadbare and torn wrap, the caked dust on his hands and exposed features, his tagel barely tied over his mouth. He was shaking a metal bowl at a clump of passersby, muttering like the possessed. One of them tossed him a baat and he abruptly called out a cheerful, “thanks, sai!”

Whatever Ziri was doing, he was hoarding all the attention, which was all Menna had wanted. Menna knocked again. As she waited, she was tempted to lean her forehead against the side of the doorway and close her eyes and nap, just a little. It’d been an exhausting day already, and it wasn’t even over yet.

Still no answer. Ziri had the center enraptured with his latest antics, so Menna didn’t bother glancing around before she pushed aside the curtain and slipped inside. Compared to the unfiltered brightness without, the room was choking with gloom. But the windows were bare, their warm red hue the only think cutting their light, and a fire was alive in the hearth.

Overall, the room was cozy, if a bit sparse. A home easily big enough for an average-sized family was devoid of any sign of one; but for a few pillows kicked to one side, the living area was bare. No table, either, just a cabinet with a few spare plates and several woven baskets filled with undyed cloth.

So little, which made the body strewn across the middle of the floor all the more dramatic.

Menna had seen enough bodies to last a lifetime, and even created a few herself, but she’d rarely been surprised by one. Now a kind of calculating calm swept through her, heightening her senses at the same time it dulled any emotion. She could hear the living outside, laughing at Ziri’s antics. She could hear the crackle of flames in the hearth. She could hear the pounding of her own heart. She could hear the aching creak of warm stone.

She did not hear the whistle of a recently untethered jaani.

She knelt next to the body, careful fingers checking for a pulse and finding none. The body was still pretty warm, and when she lifted its arm to turn it over, it moved easily. So easily, in fact, that Menna half-expected the arm to jerk from her grasp and the body to sit up. But it didn’t; she rolled the corpse onto its back and stared into eyes glassy and lifeless.

It was Elder Tudarya all right. And she was only recently dead. An hour, maybe.

Maybe less.

A cold sweat prickled across Menna’s back and she licked dry lips. Distantly, she heard the groan of the crowd as Ziri did something ridiculous. She should leave. She should get up and walk away from this body and go collect her baats and just. Leave.

But Tudarya’s neck—

The Elder was almost as pale as Menna, her skin a sandy brown, so the marks on her neck stood out more than they would on most. Lines of roughened and torn skin, red bleeding through even now. Menna knew what rope did to skin, especially necks. And this didn’t look right.

Menna checked Tudarya’s hands, holding the fingers up to the wane light. If someone had strangled the elder, she would have fought. She would have scratched and hit and struggled. But Tudarya’s fingernails were clean, neatly trimmed. No torn nails. No scraps of cloth or hair or skin.

The fact that the body was still so pliant also unsettled Menna. A person who fought while they were dying grew stiff faster, sometimes to the point where they were frozen mid-fight.

Elder Tudarya hadn’t fought. Which meant Elder Tudarya hadn’t died from strangulation.

And her lips were several shades bluer than normal.

Menna didn’t want to be in this room a second longer. She rolled the corpse face-down again, then stood, not even daring to breathe. Tudarya had been poisoned. The death had been staged. All while a contract had been taken out.

On her way out, she tripped over the corner of a wide rug. She caught herself, heart hammering as if she’d been attacked instead of clumsy. Tamella had a rug like this one, thick and slightly off-center from the rest of the living room. Menna had never paid it any mind until one day Tamella had pulled the rug back and then the bricks beneath.

But no. There was nothing here for her. Someone else had made sure of that and she should take that gift. She could still be in time for dinner, make it all up to Thiyya.

Cause of death: asphyxiation and hemorrhage through compression of the neck Murder

***

Cause of death: perforation of chest, sudden loss of blood

Ziri alerted the watchmen to the problem of the fresh corpse by accidentally knocking a passing woman over and through the thin curtain. Menna wasn’t sure which of them screamed louder. But in mere moments, the platform was swarming with watchmen and Menna was safely several platforms away, the path before her clearer than ever:

Tell Kaseem she’d completed the contract. Own Tudarya’s death. And then go to dinner tonight with Thiyya and Amastan and a myriad of other cousins. Amastan wouldn’t ask. None of them would ask. None of them ever had to know.

So why did that choice prickle uneasily in her stomach like meat just a day too old?

She tamped it down as she swung into her room, musty with the day’s cast-off heat. The day was winding down, however, and the city waking up. She still had time to dust off her wrap and hair and make it to Thiyya’s for dinner. A tuneless hum loosened her chest and spread through the room, warming its corners. She hurried through her preparations, then all but ran down the stairs and back out onto the street.

For the first time in too long, she couldn’t wait to see Amastan, to meet his searching gaze and answer it with her own smug, knowing smile. She wouldn’t say anything—of course she wouldn’t—but he’d know. They’d all know.

They’d all know she was a proper cousin.

Her foot caught on a crooked stone and Menna stumbled, catching herself just outside Thiyya’s door. Her hand raised to knock on the hot metal but it stayed there, her throat tight. Somebody grumbled and pushed past her but still Menna didn’t move.

She wasn’t a proper cousin. She hadn’t killed Tudarya. And whoever had—well, they were still out there, weren’t they?

Menna dropped her hand, worrying at her lip. She could still see the body. She could still see the empty shelves. She could still see the rug.

The rug.

It might not hide anything like Tamella’s, but Tudarya had been messing with jaan and somebody had wanted Tudarya dead. And that somebody had wanted the death to look like an assassination. The question was: why?

No, the question was: why not just take the money? All she had to do was knock and go inside and let this all be, and she could go back to taking contracts and loving Thiyya and everything that was supposed to be her normal. No one would ever know. No one but her.

And the murderer.

Menna growled her aggravation and hit her head against the door. It opened a second later, startling both her and Thiyya, who was on the other side.

“You came,” said Thiyya, breathless with surprise.

Menna met that surprise with her own. And in that moment, she knew what she was going to do. Tudarya had only been dead a short while; whatever she’d been hiding was probably still there, but for how long? Even as Thiyya reached for her, Menna stepped back, shaking her head.

“I can’t make it. Thiyya—I’m sorry.”

Everything about Thiyya crumpled. “That’s it, then.” She staggered back a step. “Go.”

Menna felt sick. She’d been so certain a moment ago. Why was it all clouded now? But if the murderer had known what Tudarya was up to, if they’d decided to cover it up instead of tangling with the watchmen, or even the elders—

Then what were they hiding?

Menna had seen firsthand what a wild jaani loose in Ghadid could do. She couldn’t let that happen again. If someone was messing with jaan, she had to stop them.

“Please,” she prayed. “I’ll see you tomorrow, okay? I’ll make it up to you then. But I have something important I have to do.”

Thiyya crossed her arms. “More important?”

“At the moment, yes.”

“Then you’ve already made your choice.”

Menna stared at her, felt the hollow where her heart had been. She had. It was true. If Thiyya was going to deal in absolutes, Menna had made her choice long ago.

Menna left.

Menna ran.

The night was full: of people, of noises, of conversations, of rich smells, of movement. It swallowed her whole and Menna drowned in it. She breathed and drank the night, crossing Ghadid’s many bridges and platforms until the city deposited her in front of that familiar doorway.

She re-adjusted her wrap, tightening knots and surreptitiously checking knives. She could only hope she wasn’t too late, that the murderer hadn’t had a chance to fully cover their tracks, not yet. She had to find what Tudarya had been killed for.

Without the body, the room was sparser than before, the rug more obvious. Menna pulled it back. Instead of the perfectly-placed bricks she’d been expecting, she found a door. Round and metal and heavy as a sigh, exactly like the doors that led down to the pumps beneath the platforms. But this was no pumphouse.

What was this door hiding?

To her credit, Menna put her ear to the cold metal before opening it. A tidy little ring in its center made it easy to grip and to haul back on. It was heavy and it did take her a moment of straining, breath held, to heave the door up and to the side. The clatter and thud of its landing eased her own simmering nerves; anything this loud couldn’t be that big of a secret. Elder Tudarya wasn’t frail, but she wasn’t Dihya, either, and she wouldn’t have made any less noise than Menna.

Beneath the lid was a neat round hole and a set of stairs leading down, down, down into darkness. She scooted across the floor to touch the first stair with her toes, her hand brushing across the metal lid. The metal rippled and bumped beneath her fingers, not nearly as smooth as it’d first looked. Menna peered closer, making out shallow indentations and marks.

It took a moment for the grooves to make any sense, but when they did, a chill spilled down her back like water fresh from the font. Prayers had been etched into the metal. The kind of prayers that were etched into the front doors of a crypt.

Menna swallowed, fingers tightening on the edge of the bricks as she reconsidered the darkness she was about to fall into. She could always come back, better prepared. But someone had murdered Tudarya and it hadn’t been a cousin. Someone had known about her misdeeds. Someone hadn’t bothered reporting her to the elders and letting them deal with it. Someone hadn’t wanted Tudarya to have a chance to talk, not even to a possible assassin.

Someone else was hiding something.

Menna slid into the darkness.

Her sight adjusted as the light from the fireplace receded. She could just see the smooth curve of the walls and the edges of the stairs as she descended. She trailed her fingers along the wall to keep steady. The stairs curled tight upon themselves, just as they did for the pumps. Just as they did for the crypts.

But there was no door to end these stairs. Light bloomed ahead, filling the space as the walls opened up and the floor leveled out. It wasn’t much: a single torch sputtering in its own oil. But it was enough to shape the narrow space, to stop her just short of running into the table at its center. Enough to cause the rows of small glass jars lined on a nearby shelf to glint, but not enough to diminish their glow.

Menna swallowed, or tried to, but her throat was suddenly sticky dry. She turned slowly, taking in the room’s meager, but unsettling, details. Larger glass jars in the cabinet across from her, full of fluid and shapes she didn’t want to peer too closely at. A cloth, once white, now blotched with brown stains, was laid out beneath an assortment of narrow, sharp knives. There was ink, too, jars of it, as well as rolls and rolls of vellum. Most were tied tight with string; already written on. Menna didn’t think the other scrolls were for prayers.

What bothered her the most was the table in the center, its metal buffed and polished but still scored with marks and nicks. It reminded her of the tables the healers had: narrow and just long enough for a body.

It was all very clean. The table had been wiped down recently and the cabinets scrubbed; even the floor was suspiciously absent of sand. Menna took a deep breath, opening her mouth enough to let the air brush the back of her throat. Only then did she smell the metallic, coppery scent of blood that she had been expecting.

She just couldn’t find any.

Last, she turned to the door on the opposite wall, the one she’d been ignoring. Considering how far beneath the platform the stairs had gone, she suspected she knew what would be on the other side. She just had to see. The door was locked, of course, but she always had picks. The door didn’t stay locked for long.

Beyond was a space far more familiar, if not comforting. Lit torches lined the curving wall of the crypt, their flames a soft persistent crackle. Aside from the occasional wet glug from the center of the room, where the pylon cut through, the room was silent. The many corpses laid flat within the wall didn’t have much to say for themselves.

Menna didn’t leave the doorway. She stared at the black holes where the corpses laid, feeling as if someone had just shoved her off a bridge. The sensation of falling threatened to overwhelm her. She stumbled backwards into the small room and shut the door, shutting out the crypt.

Tudarya hadn’t just been messing with the jaan of the recently deceased. That dead merchant hadn’t been the first to have their jaani ripped away. The only reason Tudarya lived in this too-big home that had direct access to the crypts was if she’d been messing with jaan for far longer—if she’d started in the crypts.

It made sense, in a specific, sick way. It was a marabi’s job to quiet jaan, but the only thing keeping them from doing more than that, from using jaan for their own purposes and becoming en-marab, was their word. Their teaching. The morals beaten into them day after day after day, until they were etched like prayers into their every action.

Menna stared at the small glass jars lining the shelves, each one a muddled red, and even though she’d never seen captured jaan before, she knew exactly what she was looking at. What better way to practice than on the dead in your care? Menna might not know what Tudarya’s ultimate aim had been—perhaps she’d just wanted to understand jaan better—but she could see the result.

Well. Tudarya was dead. Menna plucked one of the jars off the shelf.

She registered the noise, but didn’t react in time to avoid the arm around her throat and the cloth smothering her face. She gasped, drawing in a breath of air that dripped with oily fumes, sharp like alcohol but undercut with something slightly sweeter. Her mind fuzzed as if she’d just been drinking. She fumbled at her attacker, dropping the jar as her fingernails scraped fabric, skin. But the cloth pressed harder, covering her mouth and nose completely.

The fumes from the rag made her eyes smart. She tried holding her breath, but her chest already ached for air. Her assailant pulled her head back, as if trying to drag her down, and Menna took another breath. The world blurred as if behind thick glass.

Menna stumbled, foot slipping across something slick. The jar. She caught it with her toes before it could roll away. Then she kicked it, hard as she could, at the wall.

The cloth dropped. “No!” Her assailant dove for the jar, catching it in outstretched hands before it could hit the wall and shatter.

Menna fumbled at her belt, trying to pull a knife free, but her fingers were clumsy, her body lagging behind her mind. Her assailant clutched the jar to their chest, then stood and carefully put it back on the shelf.

“You don’t know how dangerous those are,” they said, and Menna recognized that voice.

Young. Bright. Elder Edas.

The elder stooped, picking the cloth he’d dropped off the floor. He sighed when he saw Menna had freed a knife.

“You should put that away,” he said gently. “You might hurt someone.”

Then he lunged for her. Menna struck, but it was like moving through syrup. Edas easily dodged her attack, slipping the cloth over her mouth once more. But this time, Menna was ready for him. She twisted, catching fumes in her nose and mouth, and reached for the shelf full of jars. Full of jaan.

Her fingers grazed one before Edas jerked her back. He slammed her to the ground, pressing a knee into her back even as he scrambled to keep the cloth across her mouth. Her ears rang, her pulse beat like a drum, and blackness swarmed at the edge of her vision. Every breath was like a glass full of date wine to the head, without any of the pleasantness.

She wasn’t sure how much longer she could stay conscious, let alone whether she could escape.

Then her narrowing gaze caught on a glow of red across the floor. In their brief struggle, they’d knocked another jar down. Edas was preoccupied with pinning her in place; he couldn’t stop her from reaching out a hand and snatching up the glass jar. From lifting it up in anticipation of slamming it back down again.

“What did I say?” chastised Edas.

But he had to shift his weight and loosen his hold on her mouth to snatch the jar from her hand. Menna rolled and the world rolled with her. And somehow, miraculously, the jar was still in her hand when she stood.

Edas froze this time. Menna gripped the jar tight, felt the pulse of what was within swirling, alive.

“You don’t know what’s in there,” said Edas, gently.

“Jaani,” slurred Menna. She hefted it.

“No!” snapped Edas, then more carefully, “If you break that, you’ll loose the jaani on both of us. On the city.”

Menna shrugged, exaggerating the motion because she could barely feel her skin. “Been there.”

Edas squinted, his tagel slightly askew from their fight. “You—you’re the girl who helped stop the guul last time.” He snapped his fingers. “Menna! That was your name, right?”

Menna sucked in a deep, clearing breath of air. As the blackness faded from her vision, her fury ignited. “You didn’t even know my name?”

“Just… put the jar down,” said Edas, as if he were talking to a loose goat.

Menna spun the jar in her fingers, feeling returning to her limbs. “I’m willing to bet I can handle a wild jaani better than you can. But maybe I’ll wait—if you tell me why you killed Tudarya.”

Edas dropped his hands, but he stayed as tense as a rod. “The elders suspected.”

“Did they,” said Menna. “And what did they suspect?”

Edas hesitated and in the silence she heard him wet his lips as he worked out his answer. “That they had an en-marabi in their ranks.”

“And do they?”

Understanding shouldn’t be blasphemy,” snapped Edas. “They refuse to study jaan at all, despite having so many at hand. Its not like—I wasn’t trying to use them for anything. Tudarya was the only one who understood that. If we could just learn more about jaan and how they work, we could save more jaan.”

“In jars,” deadpanned Menna.

“Yes, at first, if need be,” said Edas. “But we’ll figure other ways to save them eventually. The elders refuse to see that, but they’ll learn.”

“And that’s why you took out a contract?”

“What?” Edas blinked, hand dropping to his side. “What contract?”

“That wasn’t you?”

“Someone took out a contract on Tudarya?” Edas narrowed his eyes. “How do you know that? Why are you here?”

“That’s a good question,” said Menna pleasantly. “Maybe I’ll just go—”

Edas lunged. Menna didn’t think: she brought up her hand in defense. The hand holding a knife. The blade bit into Edas’ chest like a prayer, sliding all the way to the hilt before either of them realized what had happened. Edas’ eyes tightened with pain, hands coming up to try and defend himself even though it was too late.

In that instant, Menna knew she only had one choice. She twisted the knife, then yanked it free and slid it across Edas’ throat.

The struggle left him along with his life and blood. Edas fell to his knees, red pouring from his neck and splattering on the floor. He slumped forward into the growing puddle of blood, thrashed briefly, and was motionless.

Menna stood vigil until the feeling returned to her hands and face, until her thoughts were no longer muddied, until the smell of loosed bowels and blood drove her from the small, enclosed room.

***

“You’ve told no one?” asked Elder Dessin.

It’d only been an hour and yet Menna was back in the small room, hands clasped in front of her, the smell of death even stronger than before. Dessin had already quieted Edas’ jaani, making certain it wouldn’t untether and terrorize the city. It’d been the very first thing he’d done; he hadn’t even hesitated at the sight of the blood, the table, the rows of glowing jars.

Like he’d been expecting this.

“No one,” said Menna.

She hadn’t wanted to get the watchmen involved, not yet. She knew how quickly rumor could turn to fact, could spiral out of control. If even a hint of what Edas had been doing got out, the Circle would drag every marabi in for questioning. The resulting trials and chaos would shake their people’s faith in the marab, could result in stupid decisions leading to wild jaan.

Now as Elder Dessin rose from beside the corpse, she knew the watchmen and Circle would never be involved.

Menna’s fingers itched toward the knife at her belt. Dessin was old and slow, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t put up a fight. But the elder didn’t move toward her. He looked up at the jars.

“Thank you,” he said, and it was all sigh, as if he’d just set down a heavy burden. “I’d assumed the rot had only spread to Tudarya. I didn’t realize how deep it’d gone.”

Menna snatched a breath. “You took out the contract on her.”

Dessin leveled his gaze at her, but he didn’t ask how she knew. Menna realized she’d been reckless, but it wasn’t like it really mattered anymore. She’d killed someone outside of a contract. There was no going back.

Dessin nodded, wearily. “It seemed the wisest route. I never suspected Edas was a part of it, too.”

Menna didn’t relax, though. Not yet. “What do you want, sa?”

Dessin turned away, staring at the corpse on the floor. “We both have secrets, Menna. If this were to get out, do you really think the Circle would care about a lone assassin? I don’t think you realize the power you hold over us now.”

“I don’t want it,” she said, hollow.

“I’m glad to hear that,” said Dessin. “But it doesn’t change the facts.” He sighed, started for the door to the crypt. “We will always be a little on edge, now.”

“What will you do about the jaan?”

Dessin paused at the door, glanced at the rows of jars. “I don’t know. Leave them, I expect. It’s the safest thing.”

“Give them to me, sa,” said Menna suddenly, earnestly. “Let me find a way to help them pass over.”

Dessin considered her. “That’s dangerously close to what Edas and Tudarya were doing.”

“The difference is that the damage is already done, sa,” said Menna. “I can’t cause anymore harm.”

“You could release wild jaan on our city.”

Menna smiled at that, humorless and cold. “At least I have experience with that. Sa.”

Dessin was silent for a heartbeat, then another. After what felt like ages, he finally nodded. “They’re yours. By all that’s holy and whole, I pray you find a solution. Now – will you help me with this body?”

***

Cause of death: cardiac arrest from asphyxiation, through swelling of the throat caused by poison

Menna recognized Amastan’s handiwork as soon as she saw the corpse. He was always so terribly careful; too careful, if anyone ever asked her. Not a single thing was out of place or even the slightest bit suspicious, which was in itself suspicious. The corpse was tangled in the sheets as if they’d died in the night with no one around.

In the midst of an otherwise normal scene, no one ever noticed the broken glass. But that’s what gave Amastan away. It was absolutely conceivable that someone in their death throes might break the water glass next to their bed. But in reality, it never happened. Not unless someone else had been there, someone who wanted to alert the rest of the house’s occupants to a death.

The tinge of resentment had faded each time she’d found another of her cousins’ marks. It had been six months since she’d killed Edas, six months since she’d been a cousin herself. Six months since Thiyya had broken up with her. Six months since it’d felt like everything was over.

But somehow, the world had kept going. And so had she.

Thiyya was dating someone else, another healer by the name of Enass. Cute girl. Gentle, but firm, and exactly what Thiyya needed. Menna was glad for them both.

Menna was seeing someone, too. She’d spent too many late evenings drinking at Idir’s and she’d snagged the attention of a server there with bright eyes and an even brighter smile. Salla seemed to enjoy hearing about the grisly parts of Menna’s work. Tonight she was going to come to Menna’s for dinner—and maybe a little more.

Menna hadn’t figured out the jars of jaan yet, but she was making progress. She knew she’d find a way to usher them across, someday. She was very good at what she did. In the meantime, she’d kept her promise to Elder Dessin and hadn’t said a word to her cousins about what had happened, about why she’d stopped taking contracts. They came up with their own reasons, each only a shadow of the truth.

The truth was that Menna wasn’t a cousin anymore; she was something far more powerful.

She was free.

And that should scare everyone.

Cause of death: cardiac arrest from asphyxiation, through swelling of the throat caused by poison Old age

2 thoughts on “Short Story: Cause of Death”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s