By the Will of the Gods
Chapter 1 of 2 · All · First · Last

An Invisible Knife To The Back (Part 1 of 2)

By Charles Q. Choi
Feb 18, 2021 · 6,277 words · 23 minutes


From the author: An orphan adopted by a temple devoted to foretelling the future has to solve the mystery behind his mentor’s death.


The funeral began when the temple clock tolled at sunset, crimson and lavender and gold clouds against a violet sky. It was an artificial version of nightfall -- day changing to night on the video screens tiling the walls and ceiling of the giant cavern that cocooned the city of Nightingale.

At the funeral, the foretellers donned the swan feather cloaks and black robes of mourning. As they chanted, they danced in stately circles in the temple courtyard, swinging their arms out with wide sweeping motions like symbolic wings. A ritual performed in the hope that, in spite of what happened, Harrow's soul could find rest amongst the stars.

Harrow was killed by an invisible knife to his back. He was the last person in all the worlds who still cared whether I was dead or alive.

The funeral was small -- just the foretellers, and myself and the other wards of the temple, and a few old men I saw Harrow gripe and joke with over the years. I stood behind everyone else due to my cursed status. They likely only let me attend because they knew there was little chance they could keep me away.

If Harrow could have seen the funeral, he would have grumbled about the cut-rate rotgut the foretellers offered the gods in his name. Ornery fossil.

Harrow was the groundskeeper at the Temple of the Third Eye, the Church of Foresight's outpost in Nightingale. He had a habit of swatting me with a bamboo switch whenever I made a mistake. He disappeared for days on a time on mysterious errands. He taught me everything important I know and was the closest thing I had left to family.

My parents died in space. I was told a stray meteoroid destroyed their spaceship. At their funeral, they and the other victims didn't receive any ceremonies from foretellers to shepherd them to the afterlife. The way they died meant they, and I, were "starcrossed" -- struck down by divine wrath.

At the end of the funeral, the foretellers took prayers the other wards and I wrote and burned them in large bronze braziers to send them to the next world. As I watched the smoke rise and disappear, I thought about how nothing really tied me to Nightingale anymore. I could go to see what life was like elsewhere in the galaxy, where my people had encountered our distant kin. Perhaps the Duchy of Helium and its floating cities, or the giant moon Halidam-Sidereal and its dizzying menagerie of Chimerics. Worlds where I wasn't thought of as better off dead.

But too much about Harrow's death, and his life, remained a mystery to me. The police were so certain they had answers about Harrow's death that they had stopped bothering to look for any others, but all the questions I had left kept me up at night.

It would have been easy for me to do nothing about Harrow's death.

It would have been impossible for me to do nothing about Harrow's death.

My parents died when I was ten. The only thing I have left of them is their astromantic watch, a clockwork version of the worlds around our home star designed for the extraordinary task of helping one predict the future. It was the kind of gift any parent might wish for their child -- it suggested a future one could look forward to.

Closest to the watch's central gold disc, which symbolized our sun, circled a half-pearl, half-obsidian bead for tiny Scrithel. Past that, a blue-green turquoise for our homeworld Pell, and two ivory dots for its moons. After that, a black tourmaline for dark tarry Atred, a red banded agate for giant ringed Overest, gold-speckled lapis lazuli for stormy Procellous, and a grey moonstone for icy Requietory. Underneath all this spun gold clock hands resembling shafts of sunlight, with rings on the rim of the watch's dial marking away the moments, days, months and astrological houses.

Arcs of silver on the watch's face marked the orbits of the three dozen or so meteoroid swarms that regularly strike Pell. Outworlders call our homeworld Fallingstar for the many shooting stars that bombard it. Myths called them volleys of flaming arrows that gods launched at Pell as tests of their mettle, honing their skills to better combat the monsters of the dark. Rains of fire largely taken for granted on a world where I've never been.

I was told my parents were killed by a speck of rock too small to show on the astromantic watch. We lived in one of the few dozen spinworlds near Pell. My mother and father helped build glittering solar-powered orbital laser arrays that steered asteroids and propelled lightjammers across the void. Their passenger flight was destroyed on the way back from work, the spacecraft's countless pieces scattered throughout space. A hundred or so other people died also.

Afterward, I stayed at an orphanage the astronautics guilds set up. They sold nearly all my family's belongings. They used my inheritance funds to pay for my upbringing and lure in potential foster parents.

But no one came to adopt me. Nobody wanted to take a bandy-legged starcrossed boy into their homes to tempt fate. I became adrift and alone, a wandering star myself. Just another piece of debris from the aftermath of my parents’ deaths.

As the years passed, my inheritance dwindled away -- to pay for meals, for water, for a roof, for a bed, for clothes, for teachers, for doctors, for the air that we and everybody else breathed in the spinning hollowed-out asteroid where the orphanage was housed. Until I was adopted when I was 13 to begin my apprenticeship at a temple devoted to seeing the future.

Harrow was whom the temple sent to pick me up from the orphanage. He showed up in a faded jumpsuit I later found he wore all the time both on and off work, the long sleeves of which covered his old tattoos.

"You're Hap, right?" He eyed me up and down, unimpressed. "Look like any other dumb kid."

He looked at the bag I slung over my shoulder. "That all you have?"

He didn't say anything else to me for the rest of the journey sunward to the city of Nightingale, which lay buried within Scrithel.

Scrithel, the planet closest to our star, was our portal to other stars. Long ago, unknown parties converted Scrithel into a kind of giant machine called a Labyrinth, deep in the heart of which are gates leading to other worlds. The gates were an incredible discovery in and of themselves, but what lay beyond them was even more extraordinary.

Countless worlds across the galaxy are home to branches of the human family tree, with each lineage diverging from the others its own unique way. On one, everyone might be born with an identical twin; on another, everyone might be born immortal.

The innermost world of each star that hosts a branch of humanity was usually converted into a Labyrinth whose gates linked all these lineages together. Interstellar travelers and goods from dozens of worlds now regularly wend their way to us. Masked seers from Nocturne. Chrysaline missionaries in virtually perfect artificial bodies preaching Rebirth. Scantily clad photosynthetic Viridians. Channelers with electronic ghosts riding them from the Thanatocracy. Even anthrobots and much less humanoid machines from the mechanocracies.

The greatest mystery of the age is why humanity was scattered across the stars. But I generally don't give too much thought to all those other worlds, where life might have turned out different. I try not to. My lot was to come from a world falling stars hit far more than the others. Its nature left my parents dead and me alone to face all the perils that came my way. I didn't really get a chance to see visitors from other worlds anyhow when I got to Nightingale; my life was mostly spent within the temple.

The temple was one of the first buildings constructed in Nightingale, using cedar and pine imported from Pell and stones quarried from asteroids and moons. Its gable roofs, angled to withstand rain and snow, are purely decorative in Nightingale, which sees neither rainstorms nor snowfall. Like all of Scrithel’s cities, Nightingale is located in a vast cavern called a Hollow to avoid the scorching-hot neverending day or freezing-cold everlasting night on the tidally locked planet’s surface, and has no weather to speak of. The creators of the Labyrinths covered the daysides of each of these mechanocosms with solar cells to generate an extraordinary amount of power for the kinesis and other exotic fields used to keep their gates stable. Nightingale and its sister cities siphon off a fraction of this electricity for life support.

The temple’s neighborhood is a bit rundown, even seedy these days, not a place where one would want to stay if one could help it. Still, many in Nightingale are devout, and the temple always has visitors.

The people of Pell are among the most superstitious folk to ever take to space. Every morning the foretellers don their feather cloaks, roll consecrated dice and inspect the flights of doves set loose from the temple roosts, all to consult the gods about the coming day. Templegoers ask foretellers for good and bad dates for weddings, funerals and travel, or lucky numbers for gambling and stockbroking. Supplicants come with sacrifices to appease the heavens, for charms to protect them from evil, for good fortune with money or their health, for pardoning of their sins.

We've figured out how to blast off to orbit and colonize our planetary system, but we still cast lots to divine the will of the gods. Past techniques for predicting the future.

The temple adopts orphans to help maintain it. Life there was a monotonous series of chores. Sweeping the flower and herb gardens clean. Draping necklaces of flowers on the gilt multi-armed statues of the gods. Arranging pyramids of fruit on the altars. Emptying incense ash from the censers. Polishing every ornately carved nook and cranny of the temple from top to bottom.

In addition to accepting orphans, the temple also takes in volunteers from devout families, or those wanting to seem devout. One of those seasonal wards was Chase, a scion of a clan that made a fortune off selling laser technology to outworlders. His family now wanted to seem pious, probably to set the stage for future public roles in politics. As such, we had to endure Chase during the summers.

It's wrong to call Chase a volunteer, because he clearly hated exile at the temple, but he never let that feeling cross his blandly attractive face in front of the foretellers. He didn't do any heavy lifting or dirty work, since he could always find a lackey to do it for him.

But Chase wasn't used to a life with limitations, with constant frustrations and disappointments, a life where he wasn't able to do whatever he wanted to do. With nothing to do, he got extremely bored. He decided to pass the time with cruelty, with me, the ugly little boy, as a favorite target.

I was good at climbing, so I was the one who usually clambered up the walls to replace and light the candles in the niches of each of the idols of the thousand sages. During those times, without fail, Chase would say, "Hey, look, it's Hap, the monkeyboy," and he and his gang of flunkies would start hooting and howling and laughing.

I'd stay quiet and keep a stoic face to not give them any ammunition. But they could tell they were getting to me by the way my cheeks reddened when he said, "Watch out for any shit he might throw at us!" By the way I tensed like a clenched fist when he said, "He's so ugly, the gods killed his parents out of mercy!"

I tried as often as possible to find respite by hiding on the temple roof, lying down looking up at the sky. It was an electronic illusion, of course, and occasionally it would run an ad or a message from state media. Still, I had never looked up at a real sky, so even a virtual one held an exotic appeal for me, and the sky was always perfect in Nightingale. It was a relief to lose myself in the drifting clouds above, if only for a little while.

I never responded to Chase and his gang. I never even bothered looking at them. I think that more than anything else spurred Chase to try and break me.

I wore my watch on me nearly all the time. One day, as the other wards and I were changing out of work clothes after a day of chores, Chase saw my watch and decided to have a little fun. Snatching it, he and his flunkies tossed it back and forth between them, keeping it away from me. Then it slipped from his fingers, clattering to pieces on the floor, my only keepsake from my parents shattered.

Chase just laughed. I launched myself right at him.

All summer, Chase had called me monkeyboy, which wasn't just unkind but wrong. It would likely be more proper to call me apeboy. The spliced chimp genes I inherited from my spacer parents gave me long arms and bow legs and a short height and a powerful grip, all useful for life in space. They're what made me good at climbing. They also made me stronger than I look, which is something Chase and his minions were surprised to learn.

After the foretellers broke up the fight, they dragged me into a storage room. One of the junior foretellers then punished me with a dozen lashes from a rattan cane. I knew a flogging was coming -- I'm pretty sure I broke Chase's nose, and I gave two of my other assailants black eyes. The beating seemed perfunctory -- the priest didn't really put his body into each strike, so for that I could be thankful. Each blow still felt like I got struck by a white-hot poker.

When it was over, they left, and I cradled my head in my arms, imagining my back blossoming red and yellow and pink like a sunset. After a while, Harrow entered with a jug of water and a cup. He poured some water in the cup and put the jug and the cup on the floor beside me.

"Supposed to take you to the nurse," he said. "But take your time."

I drained the cup and Harrow poured me some more water, and then he pulled a chair over for himself. This was the first time he had spoken directly with me since he picked me up from the orphanage.

As temple groundskeeper, Harrow typically assigned chores in the morning. But it often seemed as if he barely did anything most days except sit on a stoop and growl about the news of the day in clothes that smelled of booze. At times he vanished for hours or even days without anyone knowing where he went or what he was doing, the junior foretellers handing out chores in his stead without noting he was missing. When he did reappear, no questions were asked.

I guess Harrow had nothing better to do that afternoon but to talk with the starcrossed boy.

"They say you do what you're told. The tutors say you're bright. You're quiet, keep to yourself. Cause no trouble, generally speaking," Harrow said. "Why'd you do it?"

I kept my head bowed. Harrow grunted.

"The other boys say you attacked them," he said. "You're enhanced. They didn't really stand a chance. Didn't know you had a mean streak."

I snarled a scornful laugh. Harrow nodded.

"You're saying you didn't pick a fight with five boys," he said. "So what do you have to say for yourself?"

"What's the point?" I spat.

"Because I asked."

I let out a deep sigh.

"I don't look for trouble," I said, biting down on each word. "I do everything I can to avoid trouble. I can't help it when trouble finds me. When it does, I do my best to see it doesn't want to find me again."

Harrow crossed his arms.

"A lot of words from the quiet boy," he said, weary. "It might sound like a smart thing to say. It looks like a damn stupid way to act. Beating up a boy whose clan makes more money in a day than you or I will likely see in a hundred lifetimes, that's your way of staying out of trouble?"

Harrow cocked an eyebrow at me.

"The best way to solve a problem usually doesn't involve creating more, worse problems for yourself," he added. "You live in a temple devoted to seeing the future. You might think about learning how to plan ahead."

So I had to solve problems I didn't cause. Do everything right even though I was the victim, while those who were guilty had to do nothing.

"Always 'do the right thing?'" I asked. Everything tasted bitter.

Harrow leaned back in his chair, mulling what I said.

"I find it easier to avoid the question of what's right or wrong by not getting caught," he said after a pause.

I crossed my arms, sullen. "Thanks for the advice, but I can take care of myself," I said, my tone a little more defensive than I wanted.

He sighed and stood up. He then cocked an eyebrow. "The watch still appears to run fine, by the way -- it looks like only the case got damaged," he said, and the welts on my back seemed to throb a bit less. "I know people who can put it back together and double-check if its machinery needs any repair."

Turning to leave, Harrow stopped and looked at me from the corner of his eye.

"This fight looks good for no one, so the High Foreteller will likely try and make this all go away. In the meantime, try not to make any other poor life choices."

I looked him in the eye.

"Was getting gangland tattoos on your arms a wise life choice?"

Harrow barked a laugh.

"You're lucky summer is ending soon. You won't have to deal with Chase." He then gave me a mirthless little smile. "But you will have me to deal with."

And so began months of hell. Most of it seemed like meaningless extra drudgery. Going on scavenger hunts where I had a day to find every picture of a lotus in the temple or some other nonsense. Asking me to close my eyes and recall as many details as possible about some random temple visitor who just passed by. It all seemed designed to earn a smack or two from Harrow's bamboo switch over trivial mistakes.

The worst of the extra duties were likely the ceremonial plays in which I had to perform during temple services. While the other wards chanted and shook rattles and banged on drums, I pranced around during little skits in front of the main hall portraying moments from the holy epics. Unforgettable roles included the Swamp Demon and the Brazen Strumpet.

Smearing on makeup and dressing in ridiculous costumes that smelled of years of sweat weren't enough, of course. No, I had to put on a good show as well. That meant hours of torture every day learning the tumbling and mock fights needed to make the shows exciting.

There were countless push ups, pull ups, sit ups, jumps, lunges, squats, handstands, somersaults, rolls, cartwheels and sprints. All that just to tire me out before I practiced routine after routine for the shows. Punches, kicks, joint locks, throws, elbow strikes, knee strikes, parries, dodges, grabs, holds, chokes, pins, reversals. Swinging at me with a stick, striking my hands and head over and over again. Pushing me back, pulling me forward, knocking me down.

Along with this came a seemingly endless litany of scolding and swatting with Harrow's bamboo switch. Keep your back straight. Chin up. Bend that front knee. No, bend it more. Eyes up. Jump higher. Lunge further. Squat in a wide stance. Lower. No, lower. Punch like you're striking through the target, not just at it. Don't hold your breath. Wait until I commit to move, otherwise I'll just track you. Stop flinching, you won't see the attack coming. How could you not see me telegraphing that blow? Either make sure you don't get struck or learn how to take a hit. Keep your chin up, I said.

That went on for nine long months. Then summer returned, and so did Chase. I was mildly disappointed to see that his nose looked fine.

Chase's first day back, he and his friends coolly ignored me, but I knew that wasn't going to last. That night, as I walked toward the dorms, he and his friends came around, all swaggering and smiling, all with wooden staves in hand.

"Hey, monkeyboy," Chase said.

I was resigned to the fight. Chase probably wouldn't kill me, I reasoned; he might not be able to get away with it if he did. He probably wouldn't even cripple me; it'd raise too many questions. He'd probably be happy with him and his crew just beating the living daylights out of me. If I was lucky, they wouldn't beat me every night for the next few months.

"Just get on with it," I said.

The first swing from Chase was so telegraphed I thought it was a ruse. I dodged his staff without thinking, stepping back the instant he committed to the attack. He cursed and then wildly swung twice, which I avoided by ducking under each swing, instead of going backward. Chase then roared, charged and slashed down at my head, which I just sidestepped.

The sound of a shoe scraping the ground behind me led me to spin and drop into a fighting crouch. The assailant who tried sneaking up on me flinched and lifted his staff to swing. To stop his attack, I stepped close to him, grabbing the pole before it could come down on my head. I yanked on it in the hope of perhaps throwing him. Unexpectedly, his grip was so weak, I pulled the staff right out of his hands.

I turned to face my opponents, bringing up my staff. All of them stepped back except Chase. Snarling, Chase swung at me as hard as he could. I deflected the blow and held my staff at his throat, my body shaking with adrenaline.

As I gasped, my mind was honestly blank as to what to do next. During all my training with Harrow, I never managed to land a blow on him. I just stared as Chase, studying him. His face was contorted with anger, sure, but also confusion, and a little fear.

Any interest in fighting any further drained away from me as clarity hit. "This is stupid," I said, tossing the staff to the ground and walking away.

"You're a coward!" Chase shouted at my back, but he didn't matter.

My lessons with Harrow were still challenging, but I stopped resenting them. Harrow noticed, and while he never made anything easier for me, he explained what he was doing more, as often as not pointing out my mistakes as matters I could improve instead of just as personal failings.

Harrow started dispatching me on errands around Nightingale. He'd have me deliver or collect letters or packages around the city, and time me, and berate me if I came back late, and interrogate me as to which route I took, and chide me for the path I'd chosen when anyone with half a brain would have, say, picked the shortcut through the fish market. At times Harrow didn't know exactly where a person or location or item was, so I had to ask around, talk with all different sorts of folks, upright and unsavory, figure out who the best people to go to might be, and work out the right questions to pose and the most useful ways to ask them.

In this way I grew to learn the twisty alleys and secret thoroughfares and rickety footbridges of Nightingale, the rhythms and noises and melodies of the city at every time of day, the shops and denizens of its neighborhoods, the best places to get something you wanted, the worst places to wander alone. Away from the temple, I could even pass as relatively normal; walking down the street, no one would guess I was starcrossed, and that was a freedom I hadn't felt, a burden I didn't have to carry, for a long time.

On nights when Harrow was in an especially good mood, he would have me hitch a passenger carriage to one of the temple bicycles so I could pedal him to the night market. The temple subsidized air purifier stacks in its district because of the smoke from the incense and burned prayers that poured every day from it. Given this support, outdoor grills that could never open elsewhere in an enclosed city such as Nightingale could set up shop in our district.

Harrow would order us skewers of grilled meat at the stalls and get some cheap liquor for himself and then argue and laugh loudly with some other old men. Workers who finished late hours elsewhere in Nightingale would come to loosen up after a long night, eat noodles or buns, complain about the day they had and the day to come, grow increasingly inebriated, gamble over games, and shout at video screens when their favorite teams were winning or losing. Performers of all kinds would busk for money -- jugglers, minstrels, acrobats, poets, clowns, dancers, storytellers, contortionists, magicians, puppeteers, unicyclists, snake charmers, martial artists, sketch artists, fire breathers, sword swallowers and more -- and Harrow might give me a few coins to pay them. Street theaters would entice you into comedies or tragedies. Boxing clubs would invite onlookers to matches for cash prizes; I thought about taking part, but I didn't really feel like fighting outside of temple plays if I didn't have to. It was a kaleidoscope of humanity, rich and poor, dull and fascinating. It's where I felt of Nightingale as my home for the first time.

Harrow and I would stay up until the wee hours of the morning. He tended to get liquor on his clothes and act drunk but keep sober, but after a while he or I would get tired and call it a night. He would doze off in the back of the rickshaw as I pedaled, with the sounds and fumes of the market fading in the distance behind us.

Even after years of knowing him, there was still much Harrow kept secret from me. He never took me on any of his own errands, but in some of the lessons he gave hints. What kind of tells people gave when they were lying. How to spot if someone had a pistol on their person.

None of the other wards got this kind of training. I had no idea what it was all for, but I couldn't help but feel it was all leading up to something. But Harrow didn't feel like telling me about that other part of his life, so I didn't feel like asking. Maybe he'd tell me when I got older, or maybe he would never tell me. It didn't matter to me -- neither of us was the kind who liked talking much unless there was something important to say.

What I remember most about Harrow was not what he did or didn't say, but how he helped me pay to take the annual spacesuit certification tests so I could stay qualified in their use, just like I was when I lived with my parents in our spinworld. It wasn't a lot of money, but I had none. He didn't need to do it -- getting certified didn't help me serve any duties for the temple. I just missed space.

For my last test, he even came with me. I think he noticed I took the tests on the anniversary of my parents' deaths. After the test was over, he stayed with me in silence as I just stood on the surface of the planet for a time, staring up trying to find something in the stars.

Two weeks later, Harrow was dead.

The other wards and I knew something was wrong when no one came to us with any orders that autumn morning. Instead, the foretellers paced around murmuring in low urgent tones with one another, their raven feather cloaks rustling over their dun robes as we sat apprehensive in the temple's courtyard. Finally, one of the senior foretellers told us that Harrow had died, and that we could go to our rooms for the rest of the day, and that we should all say prayers for Harrow to help guide his way to the heavens.

I didn't stay in my room. When I heard police rapping on the temple doors to enter, I slunk out of the dorms and into the shadows, and it was easy to avoid the notice of the foretellers given how distracted they were. Long hours cleaning every inch of the place high and low taught me good nooks to hide in for spying, and I sat up in the eaves outside High Foreteller Vervaine's parlor to listen to what Detective Bellows had to say.

"We think it occurred not too late in the evening, Your Excellency," Bellows huffed. He was a meaty, bull-necked man, with the build of an athlete gone to fat. He chatted with Harrow every now and again in the night market, when he usually took a few free drinks from the vendors. I suspected Harrow let him win at dice.

Vervaine looked over some crime scene photos laid out on her desk. She had shed the intricately embroidered vermillion robes and peacock feather cloak and sacred jewelry of her station and switched to her less formal grey cassock. She was just past middle age, and tended to ask questions more than she provided answers.

She let out a deep breath. "He was found in front of an alley?"

"At an intersection on Catfish Way, yes, where we think he was ambushed from behind. He was on his way to see an acquaintance of his from one of the city maintenance crews."

Catfish Way was a narrow backstreet Harrow taught me about. It was a good, fast shortcut from our temple through Goldentown, a Deltan ghetto.

"Were there any witnesses?"

"Well, no, you're not going to get any witnesses from those people. And there was no video footage -- no surveillance cameras in that location, not in that part of Goldentown." The unspoken implication seemed to be that it was a waste to spend money on cameras there just to watch one starcrossed beat or stab another one.

The kingdom of the Golden Delta was said to be one of the most advanced ancient civilizations in the world, and one of the most decadent by those who hated it. A cosmic impact near its capital millennia ago scattered its people to the four winds, and since then all Deltans were seen as starcrossed like me, relegated to ghettoes at best, slave pens and mass graves at worst. Nowadays Deltans have won rights and protections, but many still live in slums like Goldentown working jobs that no one else wants.

"We do have the murder weapon," Bellows added. He snapped his fingers at a nearby officer, who brought over a clear plastic bag. Inside was what looked like a dull grey stone knife.

"The knife is made of pellucidium," Bellows said. "When the battery in the handle electrically charges the pellucidium, light warps around the knife. It becomes completely transparent to visible wavelengths of light. Nearly invisible in other wavelengths as well."

"A Pellucid Knife," Vervaine said, turning the blade around in her hands. I knew of such weapons, styled after the Pellucid Knife from the Deltan Song of the Silver Moon, used by the Blademaster of Eskers in her last, desperate strike against the Faceless King. It was one of the scenes I reenacted on the temple stage during the Deltan holiday of Sovenance.

"Definitely Deltan," Bellows said. "Harrow was stabbed with it a dozen times. You can see the chips and nicks on the blade where his killer hit ribs and vertebrae."

I suddenly recalled an afternoon spent outside the kitchen chopping up a shank of pygmy mammoth for an annual feast. The memories of the smell of the meat and the sound of the cleaver on the bone and the shock of each impact running up my arm led revulsion to rise up in me like a tide. Bellows was talking about how they had already rounded up two dozen Deltans from Goldentown as I scrambled down from the eaves as quickly and quietly as I could. I managed to make it out of the building before I vomited.

Harrow's funeral was held as soon as possible after his death, as was custom. Beforehand, I overheard the foretellers saying they were going to pack up all his things. I snuck into his room to see it before everything there went away.

The room was unadorned and unsentimental, like him. Bare walls. A simple pallet for a bed.

I just felt dull and flat and grey. The room's emptiness reminded me of how I now had virtually nothing left from my parents. Harrow left practically nothing behind either. After everything they did for me, almost nothing of them remained. There was nothing I had that wouldn't one day get taken away from me. I had nothing.

The top of Harrow's dresser was strewn with data cartridges. Maintenance records for all of Nightingale. Astronomical charts, which were a surprise, because I didn't think Harrow was religious. News reports from over the past decade, which brought back a memory of my parents' names among the list of the dead from their spacecraft's destruction. A flask of spirits of far higher quality than whatever swill I usually saw him order. A tablet computer whose password protection I couldn't get past.

The contents of his desk gave me pause. Its drawers were filled with data cartridges of police reports, arrest records, criminal profiles, court documents, city surveillance camera footage and dossiers of people throughout Nightingale and the planetary system. There were also access cards to sites all across the city, including many secure facilities one would never think would let in a simple temple groundskeeper.

All this was proof that Harrow had a secret life as I had long suspected, but it didn't solve the mystery of what that secret life was. I came into his room looking for answers, but I found myself with more questions than I had before. What did he do on his mysterious errands? Did the foretellers know about what them? Did these secrets of his get him murdered? Why didn't he tell me anything about his other life?

Now I had reason to think there was more to Harrow's murder than met the eye, but I had no idea what I could do about it. I held my own once against some punk kid and his toadies in a fight, but that was a far cry from dealing with a murderer. Whatever secrets got Harrow killed might just as easily get a penniless 16-year-old killed as well.

A note stuck on the calendar above Harrow's desk said to meet Rusty. Harrow mentioned Rusty was a buddy he drank with from time to time. Rusty worked as a repairman for the city. He might have been the last man to see Harrow alive.

If Harrow was there, he would have told me looking into his death was the act of a fool. He would have struck me with a bamboo switch and scolded me for even thinking about it. He wouldn't have wanted me to investigate his murder because he would have wanted to keep me safe. Because he was my friend, the only friend I had.

But he wasn't there. So I course I set out to find Rusty.

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