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The priest whispered harshly at the undertaker, and I knew, even without looking, that Mother’s eyes were following me as I stalked away, but I didn’t care. I didn’t stop, didn’t look back – not until I’d reached the other side of the graveyard, hidden beyond one of the mausoleums.
Still, I wasn’t alone. A man stood at the gate with a cane at his side, wearing a black suit and a frown that seemed severe even by graveyard standards. As I slowed to a stop next to a granite headstone (Maeve Finche, beloved wife and mother, 1823-1862), the man nodded at me and tipped his hat. I could’ve sworn I’d never seen the man before – he didn’t look like any of the people in town, and my parents had never been too keen on visitors or friends, so it was unlikely that he knew them. As much as I tried to place him, he didn’t fit anywhere in my memory, yet…
There was something about him – about the way he stood, the way he moved, the fact that he’d tipped his hat at me – that held a threat of recognition.
He slipped into the cemetery, stepping through the boundary of the Graveward without even the smallest flinch of discomfort. He had to lean heavily on his cane as he crossed the cemetery, but he barely looked down: if he’d come to visit someone, he didn’t waste time looking for them among the graves. I marked his halting walk across the grounds, and just as he was about to turn the corner of the mausoleum, I made to follow him–
He shot a glare over his shoulder, and our eyes met, his severe frown as clear a warning as any. I froze. He shook his head, once – a small gesture, almost invisible – and the next moment, he’d continued on, to disappear among the stones.
I was left standing with Maeve Finche’s femurs somewhere below my feet, wondering if there was any point in trying to find out what was going on with Dad’s service.
Before I could convince myself that there was, William wandered over, picking his way carefully around the graves to avoid stepping on the dead. With a huff, I sank down into the grass sprouting above Maeve’s skull, and waited for my brother to join me.
‘Mum’s in a fit,’ said William. ‘The priest went to fetch an Inquisitor.’
‘Well, they have to report the missing spirit, don’t they?’ I said, trying to keep my voice light. But the truth was that Inquisitors were bad news. The Inquisitorial Order was the humourless group of men and women who made sure that everyone was suitably afraid of magic, which was supposed to prevent us from trying to hire magicians to Curse our enemies, or from studying to become magicians so we could Curse our enemies ourselves. Of course, if any of the Inquisitors’ scare tactics actually worked, they’d all have been out of a job, because really, their main purpose was to hunt down magicians and make a big show of burning them alive – or hanging them, though burnings tended to be more popular.
In their endless quest to stamp out magic, the Inquisitors were naturally interested in any spiritual anomalies, which apparently included botched Resting services.
‘The priest insisted,’ said William. ‘I bet they’ll pin it on the undertaker and arrest him for magic. I mean, who else could they blame?’
Part of me felt sorry for the undertaker. If the Inquisitors did decide to blame him for a stolen spirit, there’d be very little he could do besides burn for it. But I hadn’t gotten to Rest my dad, and there was another part of me that wanted someone to burn for that. ‘Would serve him right,’ I said.
William frowned. ‘What if Dad just managed to pass on without their help?’ he said.
‘He’s still gone.’
‘So you don’t think there’s a heaven?’ asked William.
‘No eternal life?’
‘He’s quite dead.’
‘So you think the spirit just… disappears, after everything?’
I gave him another look – his second one this morning. ‘I didn’t say that.’
He went silent for a minute, the way he does when he’s trying to sort out a math problem in his head. And then:
‘What’s it like to be dead then, I wonder?’
And because that was a question with no easy answer, I said: ‘Don’t ask stupid questions,’ and held out my hand so that he’d help me up from the grass.
We wandered back toward Dad’s grave as a light drizzle began to fall, to find Mother talking to an Inquisitor. His silver-trimmed cloak flapped in the breeze.
‘They’re quick,’ said William.
Too quick, I thought. I went to join Mother next to the grave.
‘…in any case,’ the Inquisitor was saying, ‘we would like to ask you some questions to get to the bottom of this regrettable incident. First things first: did your husband have any enemies, Mrs. Crowe?’
‘Enemies, Sir Inquisitor?’ echoed Mother, her face pinching into a frown. ‘Surely you aren’t suggesting–’
‘Murderers often find it useful to cover their steps with magic,’ said the Inquisitor with a shrug.
Mother’s voice was chilly as she informed the Inquisitor that, no, Dad didn’t have enemies, which was the single truest thing I’d heard today. There was absolutely no reason why anyone would’ve wanted to hurt Dad, much less kill him. He’d always kept to himself, more interested in plants and flowers than making trouble. The very thought of Dad having enemies was absurd, at best. And yet–
And yet, he’d dropped dead one night for no reason. There was no explanation for it that made sense.
A blotch of shadow shifted at the other side of the graveyard, and I looked away from the Inquisitor to find the stranger from the gate standing there, hat pulled low over his face, watching. He leaned against one of the gravestones and lit a pipe while the Inquisitor continued to ask questions:
‘Is it possible that he ran afoul of someone in town?’
‘Any neighbours who might have had a grudge?’
‘Could Lewis have been involved in any sort of magic himself?’
‘Sir Inquisitor,’ said Mother sharply. ‘I don’t know what you’re hoping to discover. I’ve already told you what everyone already knows, and if you honestly believe–’
‘My apologies, Mrs. Crowe,’ said the Inquisitor. He shifted, suddenly uncomfortable. Mother had a way of doing that to people. ‘I suppose that this must be a difficult situation for everyone involved, so I want to assure you, once more, that we will do our utmost to uncover the culprit.’ He coughed. ‘If there’s nothing else, I think I’m done here–’
‘But you haven’t told us when we’ll be able to Rest him,’ I said before the Inquisitor could make his easy exit. ‘You’re going to find out who took his spirit, and you’re going to get it back, right? That’s what you’re supposed to do.’
For the first time, the Inquisitor set his eyes on me. I refused to look away, scowling right back at him until he shook his head. ‘Unfortunately,’ he said, ‘in cases like these, it’s rare that a spirit is stolen intact. I’m sorry to say that, whether lost by accident or foul play, it’s unlikely we will be able to recover Mr. Crowe’s spirit.’ He gave one last nod to Mother, before walking away into the drizzle.
Mother let him. She wasn’t watching the Inquisitor; she was staring at the other side of the graveyard, where the stranger had been smoking while the Inquisitor talked. I looked to see if he’d seen her–
But the stranger was already gone.
We were alone.
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