This week, Chuck Wendig posted an interesting flash fiction challenge on his blog,** in which writers could pick two sub genres using a 20-sided die and write a 1500-max word flash fiction piece therefrom. Being geek-challenged, I used a random number generator and got “Grim Dark/Whodunit.” I had to do some research re: what is grim dark, but I am familiar with the Whodunit. Thus, I give you, the Case of the Subgenre Tango.
**Try it, you may find it jogs the creative juices…
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Discretion was the better part of every one of our services that we offered strictly through word of mouth only to the most vetted of clients. We’d started out filling the niches left by others who carried larger, blunter objects. The people who hired us needed quiet, professional mercs who could swing more than swords, and were willing to look past my gender and the half-troll my partner had somewhere in his heritage.
“They’re gathered in the Great Hall.” The snooty elf of a butler looked down his very long nose and most of his torso at us. His betters might have hired us, but that didn’t mean the help approved. “You may go in.”
My partner belched and scratched his ass. “Thanks, Pointy.” Discretion was never any part of Kragen’s anything.
“You roll your eyes any farther back and they’re going to get stuck.” Wisdom from my mother, offered free of charge, as we breezed by and into the dreariest, draftiest old hall of the dreariest, oldest Elf Clan.
Count Drogan l’DonEl sat on the Copper Throne like his bony bottom had fallen asleep. He shifted side to side as we approached along the narrow green carpet, until his Consort, the Royal Princess l’DeremEl glared and stopped him mid-shift. We stopped at exactly the right distance and bowed to exactly the right bend of the waist, waiting and staring at the floor until given permission to stand at our ease. Kowtowing to royalty—just another of the services we provide.
Around the Count and Consort, spearheads bristled as the Count’s private armed escort fixed us with their beady eyes. With a half-troll in my back pocket, not much makes us nervous, but the seven-foot, necroanimated exoskeletoned carapaces that guarded the Copper Throne definitely made that list. The Count opened his mouth and I hastily cleared my throat and began.
“Good afternoon, Your Majesty.” I nodded to the Consort. “Your Highness.” I put my hand to my waist where the hilt of my sword customarily rested, finding only the empty scabbard. “As you know, we promised you that we would look into the tragic and untimely passing of your youngest sister’s husband, the Gray Prince Yugo.”
“And you are here today to let us know who has committed this heinous act against our family?” Princess l’DeremEl’s voice was a velvet scabbard over poisoned steel. Her own guard, the infamous Night Assassins, whispered close around her. It wasn’t the ones we could see that made our blood run cold.
“Yes, Your Highness.” I bowed again, straightened, and tried to casually move out of spear’s reach. “We started in the Gray Prince’s chambers, where he lay lifeless on the floor before his fireplace. At first glance, the death seemed straightforward—a quick blow with a blade from behind.”
Kragen broke in. “And that’s what the Court Magicians and High Priestess believe it was.”
I glared him into silence. Yes, the official story had him attacked from behind, bleeding to death in the privacy of his own chambers, but the lack of blood pooled underneath him told a different tale.
A hollow clanging echoed along the side of the Great Hall. The steel and bone automatons, sworn beyond death to the loyalty of the Court Magician Ne’Krall, shifted restlessly at mention of their Master. In answer, the reptilian forces of High Priestess Draeth gnashed their needle-sharp teeth and hissed a blanket of threat from across the Hall.
“While it is, of course, a reasonable conclusion,” I began politically, “such a wound, delivered while the heart still beat, would have resulted in much more of his life’s blood splattered around the room.”
Around the hall, nods of understanding. Everyone had pretty much seen dead bodies in various states of decay and disarray, and what we said made sense.
I continued. “Upon closer examination, we saw that the Prince’s mouth and tongue were tinged with a deep purple, and we found crusted remnants upon his lips, clearly indicating that he was poisoned.”
The Princess l’DeremEl frowned and waved her hand, dismissive. “What does it matter how we was killed—he is dead in any matter. We paid good Geldpieces for you to tell us who killed him.”
I bowed even more deeply. “Ah yes, Your Highness. However, once we determined the type of poison the Prince ingested, we realized that it was a specific type of blend made from the roots and berries of the Hellshade bush.”
More bristling, hissing, clanging, and whispering from the various factions arrayed around the room. Count l’DonEl raised his arm and the Great Hall subsided into silence. “I assume you will now tell us who administered this poison?”
“We tracked down the vintner responsible for that special taste.” Kragen belched. “Asked him nicely who bought it.”
“And?” The Count glared. “Are we going to pull this story out of you with a pair of hot pincers? Who bought it?”
“We weren’t able to determine that information.” I tripped over my words in my haste. “The proprietor … expired while we were talking to him.”
Kragen giggled. It was an odd sound coming from a half-troll. Even the Night Assassins appeared vaguely discomfited.
“Luckily,” I continued right along, “he kept records that led us to the kitchens of this very palace.”
We had indeed followed the trail back to the grounds of the palace, but once we had made it through the door, that very trail had gone cold. Even the special persuasive powers our partnership could bring to bear made not as much of an impression in cold stone walls that already held the fearsome ranks of the carapaced, the reptilian, the shadow, and the inanimate. Still, we had certain techniques for ferreting out the truth, and in the eyes of the woman at the end of the hall we saw its clear reflection.
“But, good Lady Sellsword, who has taken my treasure from me? Tell me, who?” The Count’s youngest sister, the pale, pretty Princess Win-d’Lel, beseeched us with her thin voice and deep, green eyes. She sat, hunched and vulnerable at the feet of her brother’s throne.
Behind me, Kragen uncrossed his arms, letting them hang loosely at his sides, ensuring a stance that was perfectly balanced and ready to move in hair’s instance. I mirrored his actions even as I bowed slightly.
“Good Princess, you already know the answer.” The hall erupted into a cacophony of accusations and threats. I shouted to be heard above the uproar. “It was you, good Princess Win-d’Lel, who killed your husband at your own, treacherous hand.”
In the ensuing tumult, Kragen and I fought-danced our way to the front of the hall. The snooty Elvish butler had disappeared somewhere into the depths of the melee. We snatched up our weapons from the unguarded rack and hastened our steps out the front and down the long, stone stairway.
Kragen tossed a look behind us. The roadway was clear, but we still ducked into an alley and took a most inconspicuous path back to the City Wall.
Neither of us breathed very easily until we were back on the open road, a day’s march from the Royal City and on our way to our next client. I’d had word from a contact who had sent a Raven enquiring as to our availability.
“Stone and corruptness of villains!” Kragen spat. “Never got the second part of what they owed us.”
I shrugged. We rarely did get to stick around long enough to the get the second part of our payment. It’s why we charged double and got half up front—all evened out in the end.
Kragen laughed. “You know, all through that pretty speech, I thought you were going to point finger at the Royal Consort.” He shook his head. “I sure didn’t think that pretty little princess had it in her.”
“Don’t be stupid, of course she didn’t.” In response to Kragen’s questioning belch, I shrugged. “What can I say, she’s the only one who didn’t bring a private army to the meeting.” I cast a nervous eye toward the horizon behind us, trying to figure out if the cloud of dust rising above the plain belonged to anyone of whom we should be concerned. “Let’s hurry our steps the hell out of here before they figure it out.”