Coffee Break Read – Bodies in Barrels

The priestess poked disdainfully at the mangled tiara at her feet. In a quite ordinary voice she remarked to nobody in particular ‘Tiara of office, what in the name of all the seven hells is that about…’
One of the brown-clad monks spoke softly; ‘It was intended to symbolise the leather thong with which the holy Mahabaratma tied up her hair when she worked in the fields to grow food for the son of man, but I think its meaning got lost in translation’.
‘Indeed, brother Abram, you could certainly say that. But this is neither the time nor the place for theological discussion, we have a lot to do in ten short days. Take your brethren, and a detachment of burly soldiers and do your duty in the temples. There is to be no gold, nor silver, nor precious gems left in any temple in this city. No priest is to be dressed in silks or satins or cloth of gold; simple monkly habits and austere lifestyles are to be the order of the day. In order to achieve this, you will need to remove from office all those you deem to be greedy, or venal, or licentious, or otherwise unsuitable to serve our Holy Mother. If you cannot find sufficient simple pious men and women in the city – and it is my thought you will not – then you will need to bring in priests and priestesses to serve.’
Brother Abram bowed. ‘It shall be as my lady decrees.’
As the monks left the square accompanied by a detachment of husky soldiery, the priestess said something in a very low voice to the eagle who perched motionless on her shoulder. It lifted its head and gave a harsh cry before hopping to the ground and picking up the mangled tiara in its talons. As it lifted off from the cobbles the priestess said ‘fly well, Farsight, my friend’.
She turned to the general, who awaited her orders with no sign of impatience. ‘Shall we assay the palace then, my father?’
‘I suppose we must, although I’ll leave the Sergeant at Arms and half the army to maintain order in the streets. I hope your stomach is feeling strong, my dear, because unless somebody in there has done something about the bodies it is going to stink in there’.
As it happened somebody had done something about the bodies. The young commanding officer had put his faith in Sergeant Gandy and Corporal Bilwil, who put their heads together and set the palace guard to bring up some of the hundreds of barrels of brandy wine from the palace cellars. Each body had been carefully identified, and, when the exact cause of death had been determined by the military surgeon, placed in a labelled barrel to be preserved by the spirituous liquor therein. By the time the church soldiers sought admission, there had even been time for the palace guard, and those servants who had not run away, to scour the walls and floors of blood and other bodily fluids.
Thus the Priestess of the Sky and her entourage found themselves faced with some thirty barrels, each with a piece of parchment nailed to it. The priestess walked over to the first barrel and read aloud; ‘Prince Olof, aged four years and three months. Decapitated.’ She moved to the next; ‘Empress Anaya, aged fifty-two years. Tortured. Beaten. Raped. Hacked to death. Somebody didn’t like her majesty, although from what I hear that doesn’t narrow the field by much. Who is in charge here?’ The young commanding officer stepped forward. ‘Is this all of the bodies?’
‘Yes, my lady.’
‘And are all the minor members of the Imperial family here?’
‘No, my lady. The princess Ana isn’t among the bodies. An extensive search of the palace and the grounds has yielded no trace of her – and we used the bloodhounds when they returned to their kennels. We can only conclude that either she escaped, or the assassins took her.’
The general stepped forwards; ‘There are thirty-one barrels, and our information is there were thirty-one minor members of the Imperial family, and now you say we are missing a princess. So who is the thirty-first body?’
‘A young person who was believed to enjoy His Majesty’s sexual favours. He was marked with the traitor’s brand before having his throat slit. Which would seem to explain how the assassins found the secret tunnels.’
The priestess frowned. ‘How very tidy. But possible I suppose. Who was the young person?’
‘His name was Wei, and he was one of the C’hin, although his mother was born to the Schiapetti.’

From The Long Game by Jane Jago.

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