Chapter 1

In the dark hours of a frostbitten morning, someone is digging. He is alone, unobserved, the sounds of his toil smothered by the mist that clings like a death shroud to the headstones. An icicle moon hangs in the sky, its cold light partially obscured by the naked branches of oak trees. Below, veins of shadow thicken and throb over the uneven ground. It is here that he attacks, plunging the point of the spade into the breast of the earth, twisting, steam leaking from the wound as he gouges his way deeper.

He mutters to himself as he digs. He resents being here, surrounded by cold and damp and death. He cannot fathom why he has been asked to do this, to unearth what has already been buried, to revisit what has already been decided. He shudders as he thinks on it. It is truly sickening, what he has been sent here to do. Exhuming the body of a child is gruesome enough to disturb even him, a man who has known more of death than of life. But he keeps digging all the same. He has been well paid, and besides, he is not the sort of man who believes in Judgment. He cannot imagine what it means to be damned.

•   •   •

Sergeant Bran Kody blew into his hands, rubbing them briskly together in the morning chill. He should’ve brought gloves. It was always damp in this bloody swamp. Surrounded by marshlands and bisected by the Charan River, Brackensvale suffered from a perpetual plague of mist, especially on a late-autumn day like this. The fog had nowhere to go, trapped within the close dark wood that encroached on the town, choking out light and suffocating sound. Through the haze, it was just possible to make out tiny dwellings of soggy timber that hunched between the trees, their sagging rooftops furred with moss and freckled with mildew. So disfigured, they practically disappeared into the surrounding forest, misshapen heaps of brown and sickly yellow that seemed to hide among the trees as though ashamed to be seen. The eye refused to linger on these decaying shacks, instead passing quickly over them, as over a cripple in the street. The air smelled of rotting leaves, wood smoke, and the subtly cloying odor of the swamp. Not for the first time, Kody wondered why anyone lived here.

“Nothing like this has ever happened before,” the priest was saying, his breath blooming in the cold. “This village is a quiet place. We are pious people. I cannot believe that anyone in Brackensvale would commit such an evil as this.”

Kody didn’t have to glance at his superior; he knew well enough the expression that would be on Lenoir’s face. A sardonic smile twisting the thin lips, smug eyes narrowing above the long nose. Kody had seen it dozens of times before. At every crime scene, there was always someone—usually a priest—who insisted that the perpetrator couldn’t possibly be from the local area. The truth almost always proved otherwise, the vast majority of crimes being committed by someone known to the victim. But civilians couldn’t be expected to know that, and besides, these people were in a state of shock. They deserved a little indulgence, in Kody’s opinion. Inspector Lenoir, though, rarely bothered to mask his contempt.

“Oh no?” said Lenoir lightly. “We should not bother to question anyone in the village, then?” His throaty accent somehow heightened the sarcasm.

The priest flushed slightly. “I only meant that none of my parishioners would have disturbed the child’s rest. Why, the entire village attended his burial!”

The inspector ignored that. Turning to the father, he said, “Do you have enemies, sir? Anyone who would want to hurt you?”

The father shook his head stiffly. His hands were on his wife’s shoulders, steadying her. The woman had stopped weeping, but she still looked as though she might swoon. Kody studied her carefully, searching for . . . What, exactly, Sergeant? he chided himself inwardly. The parents have no reason to lie. If they’d wanted their kid’s body dug up, they needn’t have done it in secret. Besides, the woman’s anguish was obviously genuine: her face was pale, drawn tightly over high cheekbones and a sharp nose, and her eyes were faded and dull.

“Maybe it was a mistake?” ventured the priest. “Some kind of accident?”

Lenoir snorted softly. Lowering himself to his haunches, he asked, “When was the grave dug?” He eyed the shallow pit, then braced his palm against the edge and dropped down inside. The earth sounded with a dull thud, like a single heartbeat.

“Two days ago,” the priest said. “The child had only just passed.”

“He will have started to decompose,” said Lenoir, “but it is probably too soon for him to be giving off much of an odor.”

The mother choked out a sob, and the father’s knuckles went white as he gripped her shoulders more tightly. Kody fired his superior a withering look. Sometimes he wondered whether Nicolas Lenoir had an ounce of human feeling at all.

“These wagon ruts are fresh, Inspector,” Kody said, more to banish the silence than anything else. “Maybe they’ll tell us—”

“That the perpetrator drove a wagon?” Lenoir said blandly.

“Yes, sir, and also maybe where he went.”

The inspector shrugged. “By all means, Sergeant, if you wish to follow the wagon ruts you may do so, but it will not get you anywhere.” He hauled himself up out of the grave, a graceless maneuver that left the front of his coat covered in mud. Kody didn’t offer a hand. If the man chose to let himself go like that, then he deserved to deal with the consequences on his own.

Once he had righted himself, Lenoir continued. “Even if the thief was foolish enough to have left so obvious a trail, the only way to pass through these trees with a wagon is to take the path to the west of the village where it meets the road to Kennian. A dozen or more horses and wagons will have passed down that road since yesterday, including our own. You will lose the trail before you have even begun.”

The priest coughed politely to cover the embarrassment he presumed Kody was feeling. He needn’t have bothered. Kody was well accustomed to being humbled by Lenoir. Besides, the inspector had a point. That was the trouble with working alongside Nicolas Lenoir. The man was impossible: arrogant, apathetic, and with a sour disposition that suggested he would rather be doing just about anything other than police work. But he was also damn good—when he could be bothered.

“If you wanted to track something, Sergeant, you would get further with the boots,” Lenoir said, pointing at his feet.

Kody’s gaze dropped to the footprints dimpling the freshly turned earth. At least four sizes of them, he noted, maybe more. And two days’ worth of coming and going around the grave. How are we supposed to know which prints are the corpse thief’s?

Lenoir answered the unspoken question. “These are the ones we are looking for.” He squatted beside a print that had been partially covered by another and slowly traced his finger around the heel. “You see, Sergeant, how deep is the tread here. This is a man, large, and he is wearing heavy work boots, not everyday footwear like you or I.”

Kody waited for Lenoir to flesh out the thought. It was one thing to identify what type of boots the perpetrator had been wearing. It was quite another to find the owner of the boots.

“How many people live in Brackensvale, Sergeant?” Lenoir asked, seeing Kody’s skepticism.

Kody considered. “I don’t know, maybe two hundred?”

“At most. This is the smallest hamlet in the Five Villages. Two hundred, of which how many are women and children?”

The priest supplied the answer: “About two-thirds, Inspector.

“Perhaps seventy men,” concluded Lenoir, “and in a village of this size, no more than one or two shoemakers.”

“Just the one,” the priest confirmed.

“There we are. And do you suppose he could name which men in the village come to him for work boots of approximately this size?”

Kody felt the familiar flush of excitement as he realized Lenoir was right. It wasn’t much, but it was certainly a start, a way to narrow down the field of possible suspects to a manageable size. “Should we measure the boot print, Inspector, or bring the shoemaker here to see it for himself?” His limbs had already begun to tingle with the thrill of the hunt.

But no sooner had he picked up the scent than Lenoir hauled back on his lead. “There is no point, Sergeant,” the inspector said languidly, and he began to pull his gloves on, as though readying to leave.

Kody was momentarily too surprised to speak. The father, though, reacted immediately: he lurched forward, his hands balling into fists. “What do you mean, no point?” His voice trembled with anger, and Kody feared for a moment that he might hit the inspector.

But Lenoir faced him coolly, his expression without pity or shame. “Alas, sir, we cannot find the man who stole your son’s body. It is a fruitless endeavor.”

The father spoke through clenched teeth. “Didn’t you just say you would be able to track the boots?”

“I said you would get further tracking the boots. But not far enough, I am afraid. These boot prints are not of an unusual size, so at least a dozen or so men in the village might fit them. And that assumes that the thief even lives here, which your good priest has insisted is not possible.”

The mother started to weep again, half burying her face in her handkerchief. The father stood rooted before Lenoir, shaking with impotent rage. The priest, seemingly lost for what to do, just stared at the ground.

“But, sir,” said Kody, “maybe—”

“There is nothing we can do, Sergeant.” Lenoir’s eyes bored into him, demanding his silence, and Kody held his tongue. Anger smoldered inside him, but he didn’t dare let it show, not in front of others. That would be unprofessional.

Turning back to the father, Lenoir said, “I am truly sorry, sir, but unless you have some idea of why someone would want to steal the body of your child, we have no hope of finding out who did it. No hope at all.” To the priest, he said, “If you learn anything new, you know where to find me.”

With that, he walked past the still-shaking father and across the churchyard. Kody could do nothing but follow.

Their horses were tethered on the far side of the church, a good distance away from the graveyard. Satisfied that they could no longer be overheard, Kody dared a protest. “Inspector, I don’t feel right about just dropping the whole thing. Couldn’t we make some inquiries in the village?”

“It is a waste of time, as I have told you.” Lenoir tightened the cinch on his saddle; his horse exhaled sharply, expelling a frigid cloud.

“But, sir—”

Lenoir whipped around. “Enough, Sergeant! Use your head! What good is it to chase a dozen suspects without so much as a hint of motive? Would you have me engage the entire Metropolitan Police on the case? Assign one man to every suspect, trace their movements for weeks on end? Who will then patrol the streets of Kennian? You alone, perhaps?”

“Of course not. It’s just that—”

“It is just that you are using your emotions rather than your brain. Of course it is disturbing, what has happened. But it is also an insignificant crime. It is a theft, and a small one at that. It is upsetting to the parents, but what they truly grieve for is their child’s life, which we cannot restore. I will not waste the resources of the Metropolitan Police in what would almost certainly prove a futile effort to recover something that is fundamentally without value.”

So saying, he slung himself into the saddle and turned away, heedless of the cold glare Kody fixed against his back.