A Spy's Judgment

Murder mystery novel or action RPG? I'm still not quite sure ...

This is a follow-up and expansion of my previous idea, A Spy of Two Cities. Don’t bother reading that post if you haven’t already though; the concept has changed a lot in three years!

The year is 1463 in a world somewhat unlike our own. Cassara is a city-state on the shores of modern-day Croatia, and a key trading post for the Venetian Republic. It’s highly multicultural with native Croatians, rich Venetian traders and (more recently) a large population of Hungarian refugees fleeing the expansion of the Ottoman Empire.

Six months ago Pascal Cardona was stabbed in the rain on the wrong side of town. The death of a well-known Crafter of magical tools caused quite a stir, but there was no motive except the usual jealousy of non-Crafters and no suspects except, well, all the non-Crafters in the city. Nevertheless, the head of the Cardona family enlisted the aid of several judges and their assistants to investigate his death, including a young woman called Lena Valeriev.

As head of the city’s secret service, Akos Mutamid kept an eye on the investigations, but lost interest when the threat of war between the Ottoman Empire and Venice sent shockwaves through the Republic. Lena, however, never gave up. Condescension from her peers made her increasingly determined to find a lead, and intuitively it still didn’t feel like a random gang killing to her.

A few days ago, Akos was shocked to discover one of his agents dead, with his face locked in a grotesque scream as if he’d died of fear. Apparently “some rich bugger” had gone behind Akos’ back and commissioned the agent privately to kill Lena. Fearing he was losing control of his organization and suspecting the Cardona case might be more important than it appeared, Akos resolved to do some investigation of his own …

Characters

Akos Mutamid

An ageing North African soldier turned spymaster, Akos is paid by both the local aristocracy and the Council of Ten in Venice to keep the peace in Capra-Jano by any means necessary. He has spent the past few years growing plump and dreaming about retirement, but he is still a huge and intimidating man with uncanny intuition and a knack for getting answers out of people. He likes to shroud himself in mystery and paint himself as a shadowy figure behind the scenes, but doesn’t realise it’s making him increasingly lonely and paranoid.

Lena Valeriev

Brought up to respect both the church and the law, Lena has always been passionate about bringing restorative justice to anyone of any status. She jumped at the chance to be an assistant to one of the Capra-Jano’s prestigious Judges, but ended up being picked on by her peers as the only Hungarian in the overwhelmingly Italian judicial system. This harassment got her into drinking and gambling, so she rarely practices what she preaches any more. Lena is also a powerful Channeler who can use magic to create illusions and manipulate people’s minds. She tries to hide those powers, but occasionally uses them unconsciously to win at gambling.

Vittore Cardona

Pascal’s cousin and the head of the Cardona family calls himself a self-made man, although he mostly made himself on the back of Pascal’s hard work. Through the presence of a Crafter in the family, Vittore managed to catapult them from small-time merchants and smugglers to one of the richest families in the city. Unfortunately the wealth didn’t buy Vittore any happiness or grace, and he’s still the sour and stingy man he’s always been. Akos has wondered several times whether he was resentful enough of his happy-go-lucky cousin to get rid of him as soon as he felt his position was secure.

Katalin Roka

Kat is a Crafter who specialises in creating magical bandages and medicines, and an old friend of Akos. Anyone rich enough - or desperate enough - will seek her out in an emergency. She’s well aware of the limits of what she can produce and hardened by decades of sob stories, so she’s short-tempered and quick to rudely reject anyone who can’t pay. Kat acted as a mentor to Pascal for a number of years and they were seen together several times leading up to his death, so she was repeatedly questioned by Lena on suspicion of having some involvement.

King of Gutters

No one knows the name of the man behind the city’s largest group of gangs, and many suspect he doesn’t exist at all. After all, what self-respecting Venetian would believe that within ten years a foreign urchin would become the most powerful man in the city? Akos knows he exists but is quite happy to keep that to himself. After all, King has helped him dismantle much of the city’s underworld of sex trafficking and drug smuggling over the years, giving him evidence against people who the law could prosecute and dishing out another kind of justice to those above the law. On the other hand, King’s recent actions seem to be tipping the fragile balance of the city towards chaos, and Pascal was murdered on a street his gangs are known to control.

Plot

The story begins with Akos interviewing one of Lena’s coworkers, Eszter. She reveals that Lena hasn’t come to work since her attempted assassination, and that for a few days prior she was excited and on edge. During the interview, Eszter seems distracted and nervous, and suddenly Akos notices one of her bracelets is starting to glow and spark. Eszter is terrified by this and Akos tries to remove the bracelet, only for it to explode and blow up his office.

Having mysteriously survived the explosion, Akos staggers out of the ruins of his headquarters and seeks shelter at Kat’s house. She welcomes him in, though not exactly with open arms, and he admits that he also wanted to ask her about the bombing. Kat suspects the bracelet contained some kind of magical explosive and promises to ask the city’s other Crafters about it.

Convinced that the bombing must be related to the attempt on Lena’s life, Akos starts searching for her. Few people actually know what he looks like, so he hopes he can get away with being assumed dead for a few days. He finds Lena playing cards and drinking heavily, and tries to talk to her when she leaves the bar. Lena mistakes him for another assassin and shocks Akos into unconsciousness with a burst of magic.

Akos comes to in an old storage room in the courthouse, tied up and gagged by Lena. He learns that after sobering up and discovering that he’s unarmed, Lena felt bad and wondered if he was telling the truth. She also lets slip her relief that she didn’t accidentally kill someone again. In an attempt to prove his trust, Akos shows off how he survived the explosion: his skin is covered with Crafted tattoos that allow him to turn into living stone.

Finally satisfied that Akos isn’t out to kill her, Lena unties him and reveals what she discovered about Pascal’s murder … (to be continued 😁)

Background

Magic

There are two kinds of magic users in this world: Crafters and Channelers. Crafters are more common; there are typically a handful per city. Through intense concentration they can enter a kind of trance, during which they can “craft” symbols onto objects to give them magical properties. This is almost like simple programming: for example Kat can draw symbols on a bandage so that when it’s applied it tightens and helps to knit together and heal the skin underneath. Crafters are typically skilled at creating certain kinds of objects: Kat’s skill is with medicine and Pascal’s was with mechanisms. It can take anything from half an hour to several days to Craft an object, so they are priceless and only owned by extremely wealthy people. In the Venetian Republic, where merchants are exalted and coin is king, Crafters naturally have a high position in society.

Channelers are much rarer. In fact, only one is known for certain to be active in Europe at the present time. These are the true wizards from fantasy, who can “channel” magic straight into the world - casting spells, if you will. Just like Crafters, they are typically skilled at one particular kind of magic. Lena can create illusions and manipulate people’s perception, while the other known Channeler can control the weather and has been key to the Ottoman navy’s recent victories.

History and Geopolitics

Much of this is not particularly relevant to the story, but the current unrest is important to how people are feeling in Cassara right now.

Despite the presence of magic, world history has proceeded along roughly the same lines as ours. Crafters tend to be useful rather than massively influential, and Channelers are rare enough and human enough that they tend not to have a big impact on the world stage. One key difference is that Christianity (and religion in general) has a bit less power and influence than the same period in our reality. The perception that Jesus could have been just an unusually powerful Channeler is one that’s hard for Christians to get rid of, and there has been more splintering and fragmentation within the Church over whether each new Channeler is the second coming of Christ, a demon who must be exorcised, or not particularly important.

The powers Akos keeps an eye on are the Venetian Republic, the Ottoman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, and the small kingdoms between Cassara and the advancing Ottomans. A few months ago the Ottoman Empire blockaded the entrance to the Black Sea, cutting off the route the Venetians were using to trade with the East. The move was partly because of trade tariffs the Ottomans wanted to impose, and partly because having a Channeler is making the Ottoman navy much more self-confident and aggressive. At the same time, the Ottomans are expanding further into Europe and getting dangerously close to Cassara. The remaining nearby kingdoms are becoming agitated and alternately forming alliances and skirmishing with each other as a show of force. Finally, the Holy Roman Empire has been calling (as usual) for another crusade to stop the advancing Ottomans and unsuccessfully (as usual) attempting to rally support among the other European powers. Akos has reliable intelligence that the Pope has an oracle-type Channeler hidden in a monastery somewhere, and is using him to find ways to seize more power for the Catholic Church.

Posted on 12 January 2020
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