"Start at the beginning," ordered Augustus without breaking his stride.

"The first thing... I heard a shriek. A woman's shriek. I was working in the kitchen and didn't go, it's not my place to do that. A bit after that I heard Gomez shout for help so I stopped my work and ran to him." The boy spoke nervously and quickly. He swallowed his spit while moving his hands about himself unsure where to place them. "When I got there… Blood was everywhere. On the drapes, on the floor, the bed, the windows. On the floor was Castor's wife, unmoving and covered in blood too. I'm not sure if she's dead but she looked dead. I didn't see Castor. Once Gomez saw me, and what must have been the look on my face, he told me to find you and deliver that message. That Castor was attacked and is gravely wounded."

Augustus glanced at Heratio as he looked at the boy suspiciously. Augustus knew him or at least had seen him in passing before the expedition. Perhaps Heratio suspected this was a trap, Augustus thought. It would make sense to lure him to a secondary location for an ambush. After all, this didn't make sense. Why attack Castor? There’s so little to gain, the threat to Giovannus is Augustus. Although Castor is a competent agent, in the end, he is replaceable. To risk attacking Castor in the manse, under his mother's nose, to gain almost nothing didn't add up. The boy could have been bribed.

Augustus suddenly came to a halt. "Heratio, pull your sword." Heratio did as commanded without a hint of hesitation and immediately put it to the boy's throat. There was no time for the boy to react. He just froze in place. "Boy, now don't move an inch. Do you have any weapons on you?"

"None, sir."

The boy stayed still as he was patted down. His extremities shivered and sweat beaded down from his forehead. "He doesn't have anything," said Augustus, concluding the pat-down.

"That doesn't mean he's not lying," said Heratio as he studied the boy’s face.

“Listen to me, boy. I am a magistrate. Lying to me, especially in regards to a crime, has terrible consequences. Now, speak the truth!”

“It is exactly as I told you. I swear it to all the gods!” The boy’s eyes were watering and on the verge of crying. His lips trembled.

“If this is an ambush, it’s unlikely the boy is in on it.” Augustus looked around, searching for some watchers, but found nothing. “Let him go. Follow me, I’ll take a less worn path to the manse. Keep your sword drawn. Boy, you will walk between me and Heratio.”

Changing direction slightly, they briskly charged forward to meet up with a servant’s pathway. It was away from the main road on the estate and led to a servant’s residence building adjacent to the manse. They managed to remain unnoticed, walking around the residence until they came to the main building. There was no one along the way, which could be considered abnormal. Normally there would be landscapers working about, or servants walking up and down the path, and the area they passed through was usually used for leisure when the servants needed a break from working. Without incident, they reached a backdoor to the manse. It was locked. “Boy, open the door.”

The boy stepped forward, reaching into his pocket and pulling out the key, his shaky hand causing the key to clink against the lock before inserting it and turning. He opened the creaking door slowly until he could see the hallway clearly. A female wearing the servant attire was there, holding a jug.

“Master Augustus,” the lady said as she bowed. Placing the jug on the ground.

“We won’t check her for weapons,” said Augustus to Heratio. Checking her for weapons would leave them vulnerable, it would be better to just move forward carefully. If they were attacked the ruckus would hopefully alert his mother’s guards. “Girl, lead us to Castor’s chambers. Boy, you will walk behind her.”

Heratio followed them closely, his sword still drawn, and in the rear, Augustus habitually checking over his shoulder to see if someone followed. When they approached the room people started appearing, quickly walking up and down the halls. Whenever they noticed Augustus they would stop and bow waiting for Augustus to permit them to continue on their way. One of them had a big bowl of water with rags dyed a deep red emanating the red taint into the water.

Finally, they reached the room. The attendants parted to let Augustus through, and he saw it for himself. It was as the boy had said. There was blood everywhere and Castor’s wife was on the ground, dead. Augustus stepped into the room, not minding the blood staining his shoes. There was hardly a place to step that would have kept his shoes clean. He bent down to examine the corpse. The blood concentrated on her abdomen. Checking with his fingers he found the stab wounds, he felt puncture after puncture. He counted each he found, there were at least seven.

At the other end of the room, another concentration of blood, dripping down from the walls and forming a puddle. Streaks on the floor as if something had been dragged out of the room. “Where is Castor?”

“This way,” said the girl. She led them to a nearby room. On a bed with all its normal linens removed, replaced with simple white linens that were stained red, was Castor. His skin pale, his eyes looked ghastly, but his eyes moved and he blinked showing that he was still alive, although barely conscious. Around his neck linens were tightly bound with a strap holding them in place. Castor breathed quickly and heavily. Castor’s shirtlessness displayed the drastic rise and fall of his chest with muscles visibly flexing around the rib cage and collar bones whenever the chest began to fall.

Aside from Castor, the room had a few servants, Gomez, and a man who looked like a physician. Gomez’s normally respectable and clean uniform was doused in blood, covering his chest and his sleeves. He sat against a wall with the palms of his clean hands covering his face. The physician felt Castor’s ribs and was deep in concentration.

Augustus walked in. His fear and apprehensions were calmed by the realization that this was no trick, the boy had told the truth. Grief and anger instead took over his thoughts as he raced to make sense of why this would have happened. What did Giovannus gain? How did he do this?

“What happened here?” said Augustus, announcing his presence. Castor didn’t budge.

Gomez moved as if startled awake, then stood up and bowed. “Master Augustus, you’ve arrived. Your servant Castor is close to death.”

“Castor, can you speak?” Augustus stood beside the laying Castor. Castor’s eye moved to stare directly into his master’s eyes, but he didn’t speak. His mouth just produced a high-pitched sound as he gasped with each breath.

“He can’t speak,” said the physician. “His throat is cut, from one end to the other. He’s lost too much blood.”

“Will he live?”

“No. He has to work too hard just to breathe. Eventually, his body will just give up. He will be dead by nightfall.”

“Gomez, you were the first one to discover this right? What did you see when you arrived?”

“I responded to the lady’s shriek. The door was already open, I saw Castor holding his own throat. I grabbed a bedsheet and used it to put pressure on Castor’s neck. I called for help. The first servant to arrive I sent to alert the magistrates, the second to alert Lady Julianna, and the third I sent to the Pantelli estate, to alert you.”

Augustus looked over at the boy. He must have run to the Pantelli estate only to find out that Augustus was visiting Pascal, then ran there. Augustus knew he didn’t have much time, a Magistrate would be arriving, a praeto-magistrate or maybe even higher ranked, to begin the investigation. Once he arrived, Augustus’ own authority to investigate what happened would be nullified. “Gather everyone you can that was in the house at the time of the incident in the reception room. There is no need for anyone to change their clothes or bathe first. Just have them gathered. My mother included. I order this not just as a member of the Castellian family, but as a magistrate investigating a crime. Physician, is there anything you can do for Castor at this point?”

“No. This wound is outside of my abilities to heal.”

“Then go with Gomez to the reception room. I will need your expertise there.”

Everyone but Augustus, Castor, and Heratio evacuated the room. They pulled up two chairs next to the bed-ridden Castor and sat down. Augustus held Castor's hand and spoke while looking him in the eyes. "This doesn't make sense. Why would he attack you? Why would he take that risk?"

Castor came alive a bit, his eyes showing more focus than his almost comatose state before. He didn't respond though, his eyes just told of his desperation as he kept drawing his deep breaths. It reminded Augustus of when he watched Marcus Dayton being hanged, those desperate eyes, that frantic breathing and pale skin. Except this death process would take much longer, a prolonged struggle that lingered, slowly torturing Castor until he eventually died.

"Why didn't you see this coming?" said Heratio in a whisper. "You should have known."

"How could I have known?" said Augustus. "There's no sense to this. I can use this at dinner tomorrow to sway members of the family, it will lend credence to my argument that he killed our father. He must stand to gain something from this, something I don't see. Maybe Castor knew something that could be used against Giovannus? Maybe Castor held some sway in the family I didn't know about? No that can't be it, that would be all the more reason not to do this."

"It's much simpler than that! Can't you see it!" said Heratio with a harsh tone he had never used against his master before.

"Heratio, I know you two were friends," Augustus said calmly. "So I'll excuse that outburst, but you will calm yourself now or I will have you flogged for insubordination. I am just as distraught as you are. I'm just keeping my composure."

"If you were just as distraught as me you would know why this happened," Heratio spoke with the volume he would normally use in conversations, but the intensity of his stare showed he was anything but calm. "If you felt the anger I feel right now you would understand that this wasn't some move on a game board. This wasn't Giovannus maneuvering himself to obtain a greater advantage. This was revenge!"

"You think my brother was overcome by emotion? I've played my brother countless times, whether it be at stixis or cards, and I know that he can be cunning. Through those games, I never saw him as prone to emotional mistakes."

"Those are just games. It's easy to stay calm when all that's at stake is your pride. I have seen many men I thought were made of steel turn to idiots on the battlefield." Heratio then turned to Castor. "Goodbye, my friend. We will make sure you are avenged. Still, because we failed to keep this from happening, your blood will forever be on our hands. Augustus, let's end his misery."

Heratio stood up and drew his sabre, pointing it down at Castor's heart. Augustus hesitated, but Heratio used one hand to grab Augustus' and forced it onto the hilt. At first, he tried to pull away, but finally, he accepted his duty, grasping the hilt tightly of his own volition. Together, one hand each on the hilt, they forced the blade down. Augustus visibly shuddered at the increase in force necessary when the blade met the flesh and pierced the skin. The wound bled at first, then stopped as the blade went deeper.

Castor's face contorted as his breathing stopped. He was dead. His vacant open eyes stared into nothingness. They pulled out the blade, and blood pooled slowly out of the wound. Heratio wiped the blade off on the bedsheet and sheathed it, then grabbed Augustus' hands and forced them into the pool of blood they just created.

"Remember this blood on our hands. Let this image drive you to punish the other parties responsible for this."

Augustus stared at his blood-soaked hands, unsure how to feel about the sentiment Heratio was spouting.


Support "The Merchant Prince Book 1: Returning Home"

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