“Will she be a problem?” hissed Victor.

Martin beamed back at Victor. “Eat your stew, Victor.”

Victor was stabbing his stew with the hardtack biscuit again. Victor LaPaix hated hardtack. He hated sailing. As near as Martin could tell, Victor LaPaix hated anything that didn’t involve being at a workbench working with something mechanical.

“She beat me to the graveyard,” Daniel said unhappily. “That Detective threw that ward down hard. One of the strongest I’ve ever seen.”

Martin sighed inwardly. Neither man in his company had ever dealt with real politics, nor conspiracies before. They assumed the walls had no ears. “Gentlemen,” he said, with a weary smile. “Let’s mind ourselves, hm? In silence, we find security.”

Victor shot Martin a sour look, and then turned to the youngest man, “Is it an issue you can resolve?”

“Sure, one of two ways,” said Daniel, gathering his red cloak around himself. “There’s the fast and unsubtle way: getting a team to overpower the ward all at once. Dangerous, in a city that big. It would call a lot of attention, and a swift response. Then there’s the slow, subtle way. Wear the wardings and runes down, a little at a time, day after day.”

“How long, for a problem of that size?” said Martin.

“About two months,” Daniel admitted. “It was a strong working. I think it’s personal, for her.”

“Probably is, in her line of work,” allowed Martin. “Two months is a long time to go without getting caught, taking daily action on a church ward. Well. Academic, at any rate. If there’s a cell in Landesdowne, we’d never know it.”

“It won’t be academic soon enough. What about Frostmoor’s graveyards?” snapped Victor.

“Victor, Victor, be easy. Lower your voice,” said Martin. “Keep your patience. We’re not all your precious automatons.”

Daniel looked between Martin and Victor before answering. With a conciliatory glance to Victor, he lowered his voice:  “Reports are they don’t do much burial, there. The ground is all rock, and there’s next to no soil. So it’s rock cairns, mostly. Easier to access. Out in the tundra, there’s no graveyards. I guess they just cover them where they fall. The natives don’t even lay runes on the stones. The plan doesn’t call for any need for the town cemetery.”

Martin spread his hands and smiled. “There, you see, Victor? You worry for nothing. If all goes according to plan, we’ll have everything accomplished within a handful of days. It will all be won before anyone knows there was a contest.”

“Easy for you to say,” said Victor. “You two will be gone again, long before they come hunting.”

“Or we’ll all hang long before it comes to that,” said Martin with a cheerful smile. “And all our problems will be over.”

***

The further the Longeau sailed north, the humbler the port-towns and chapels became. Most stops were brief, just long enough to pick up the barrels of food bound for the hungry miners and soldiers at her destination. The crew kept to themselves. If they heard Heather scream in her sleep, or if they heard her sob when she woke, they didn’t let on.

It was a long journey; six weeks of the hull growing steadily colder. The thick wool of her cloak and saddle-blanket were scant help against the creeping arctic chill.

On the third week of her voyage, Heather watched as the last shore of the Montaigne Empire sank beneath the horizon. And now there was only the chill ocean ahead, and at its end, Frostmoor Bay.

She killed time reading, and even tried once to pen a letter back home to her mother, to tell her she’d left Bastia.  But unable to think of anything remotely comforting, she crumpled up the paper and threw it aside, unmarked.

The fur traders in the red cloaks eventually stopped grating on her nerves. Victor plainly didn’t like her, or anyone. But Daniel and Martin would occasionally make polite, if dull conversation. Twice, on days of gentler weather, she joined a few curious sailors in watching Martin paint. His watercolors did a noble job of capturing the sunrise they’d seen that morning, rendering it in pale hues. His brush left beautiful hues of pink, magenta, and gold, over a green-gray sea.

The first cry of “Land ho!” brought crew and passengers alike to the bow, and all eyes locked onto the first glimpse of land they’d seen in weeks. It was a small, rocky island, barren but for the sickly yellow of the summer lichens and the dull green-gray of a few scrub trees. Heather stared as the little island slipped by, grateful to finally see anything that wasn’t more ocean waves.

“Is it always so barren in Frostmoor?” she asked Jerome.

“Oh no,” said Jerome, shaking his head. “It’s far more barren, there. That’s practically a forest, by northern standards.”

“Great,” said Heather.

“I’d say cheer up,” said Jerome with a wry, sympathetic smile. “But I’m not sure what there is to cheer about. We all go to Frostmoor to leave. As soon as the ore’s in the hold, we get out as fast as we can. As it is we’re probably going to be the last ship of the season. Water’s liable to be clear of ice for only a week now. In two weeks it’ll likely freeze solid again.”

Heather shook her head. It’s a wonder they’d ever build anything up here in the first place, she thought. You can be sure they’d never have bothered, if not for the adamant.

“How long until we make port?” Heather asked.

“Probably a little while after sunset, tomorrow,” said Jerome. “And we’ll be back on the water not long after that, with our belly heavy in the water.”

“How long until you come back?” asked Heather.

“About eight months, weather permitting. On a warm year we’ll manage two circuits between Ouestin and Frostmoor. Most years, though, it’s only one. Already counting the days until you can leave, too?” he asked.

Heather blew out a breath. “Not really,” she admitted. Just counting the days since my life ended. It isn’t as if I deserve to be anywhere else now, does it?

***

Heather woke from her nap to the sound of ice squealing against wood. The busy shouts of sailors filtered through the hull. The hull bumped rhythmically against the pilings of the docks. By the time she had her boots on, mooring lines were secured.

She made her way topside, her belongings over one shoulder. She knocked on Martin’s cabin door on the way by.

He opened the door with a smile. “Yes? Oh, hello, Detective,” he said. “How can I help you?”

Heather handed him the stack of books. “Thanks again for the books,” she said. “You’re sure I don’t owe you anything?”

Martin took a quick glance at the books, inspecting the corners. “No, they’re all looking in good order. I wouldn’t dream of it, Detective.”

“Alright. Good luck with your fur trading.”

“Thank you. I hope Frostmoor’s hospitable for you, Blackthorne. Saints smile on you.”

Heather inclined her head, and made her way topside. The deck was a busy place; sailors scurrying to open the holds. Great crates of winter supplies were being swiftly unloaded. At a glance, it was clear that this wasn’t the time or place for long goodbyes. So Heather lifted her hand towards Jerome and Amila in passing as she made for the gangplank. They each called a quick, courteous goodbye. But moments later, their attention returned to the ship’s business around them.

The cool wind cut through Heather’s cloak, but stopped at the steel of her armor underneath. After weeks without wearing her armor, it felt good to feel the heavy embrace of metal around her torso. The sun was down, but the sky was still bright enough to read by. Orange twilight reflected off the ice around the bay.

The fine weather was about all that there was to recommend the view, though. Heather’s boots hit the dock with a disgusted thump, and her eyes slid up to the shanty town surrounding the harbour.

Looks even more bleak than I expected, Heather thought. Perfect place for the washed up and discarded. I’ll fit right in.

She trudged up the pier. The chapel wasn’t hard to find on the horizon; the humble steeple barely poking up out of the town, as if embarrassed to be seen in such shabby surroundings. It was one of only a handful of buildings in the town that dared to rise further than a story from the ground. The rest were inns that occupied the harbour, and the local guild chapters.

The houses around the bay were little more than log shacks and stone cottages, and all were built as small as a woodshed might be back in Bastia.

Two kilometers to the west of the town, Fort Frostmoor perched atop a short cliff, guarding the mine head. The fortress flew pennants over the walls, their bright colors whipped hard by the breeze.

Heather passed a few dwarven miners on her trudge to the church, their beards gray and white with adamantine dust. At their hips, the diamond tips on their pickaxes sparkled.

Frostmoor Bay might be the midden pile for the Church, thought Heather. But I would bet only the best miners get invited to work the Imperial adamant mine. Ore feeds the Empire’s war machine, and they’d be well paid for their work.

The miner’s wealth was plainly apparent. Few had fingers devoid of gold rings and gemstones. Her passing barely merited a nod; their conversation centered on the wars in the western lands, and what it meant for adamant prices that season.

As Heather walked up the muddy lane from harbor to steeple, four elves passed by in a group. They were garbed in heavy, rough furs, with great piles of animal skins laid across their backs. Their cargo was destined south, to the harbor and the markets beyond.

It was their skin that held Heather’s attention. Their complexions were ruddy and weathered, scoured by bitter winters. She had never seen an elf look so weather-beaten before. They returned her stare with polite smiles, never breaking stride for the harbor behind her. Heather shook her head in wonder, and continued on.

She rounded a curve in the road, and laid eyes on the church compound. The chapel itself was an eyesore, with paint peeling from the steps and exterior walls. A few of the windows were cracked, and a hole in a stained glass window was plugged with a rag that flapped in the breeze.

The barracks looked serviceable. They had been built like the rest of the town; squat stone structures built to withstand cold. The clack of wooden weapons on shields echoed from the barracks yard.

The rough wooden gate to the chapel grounds lay ajar off its hinges. Heather stifled her outrage as she surveyed the fence. With lumber so far away, someone’s done the best they could, Heather thought, as her eyes swept over planks that hung crooked, cracked and sagging from winter wear. The fence is more formality than defense.

Heather pushed open the door of the chapel, and stepped into the cool gloom. Her eyes took a moment to adjust. The interior of the chapel didn’t inspire much confidence. It was a rough wooden room, with perhaps pews enough for fifty. Even the holy icons of the Pope and Alektos looked tarnished.

A sullen-looking acolyte swept the floor, eyes fixed on the wood. She cleared her throat, and the young man bowed his head and moved out of her way, but said not a word. Affronted, she rounded on him.

“Oi,” she barked. “Is this how everyone who comes to Chapel gets their hello?”

No answer came, and after a few moments of watching the acolyte sweep, it became clear that none would be forthcoming. Either a lack-wit or a penitent, she thought. Most likely the latter.

The acolyte bent to his work as though silence itself was a shield against her displeasure.

“Ignore him,” drawled a sleepy voice to her left.

Heather turned, and an indignant reply died on her lips. The man’s collar bore the ornate double sunburst of a Knight Major.

“Boy’s been on penance so long, he’s got nothing to say to anyone anymore,“ the man explained.

She snapped to attention and saluted. “Knight Blackthorne, sir.”

The major had the look of a man who ate too little and drank too much. His face was pale and gaunt, with a florid nose and cheeks spider-webbed with red in the way of a career drunk. He was sober now, though, and sour from the look of it. A tightness hovered around the corners of his eyes, suggesting a headache. He returned her salute lazily, and then let both hands rest atop the holsters of his pistols.

“At ease, Blackthorne,” he said. “So you’re the next bushel of the summer’s crop.  How’d you manage to get yourself assigned to our little frozen mud-hole?”

Heather’s eyes darted toward the acolyte, who was hovering around the conversation with the feigned indifference of a career gossip.  “It’s in the papers, sir,” she said. Heather reached into her belt-pouch and produced her transfer orders.

The major followed her glance to the penitent. “Son, don’t you have pots to scrub?”

The acolyte made a sound in his throat that verged on insubordinate, and exited through a door behind the altar.

The Major waited until the man was gone. “I’m Major Weathers. You can drop the papers on my desk later, but I’d rather hear it from you first. Why were you assigned here?”

She opened her mouth, and closed it again. Even in her fog of grief and despair, the blunders she’d made over the last year shouldn’t have happened. Wouldn’t have happened, if she’d paid them more attention. The way she’d been acting was eventually going to get someone hurt, possibly killed.

“Been slipping for a while now, sir,” she said, her voice soft.  “Guess the Captain just finally had enough.”

The Major grunted. “Barracks are out the east door. Pick any empty cell you want, there’s a few spares. Full introductions will be at breakfast tomorrow.”

The major met Heather’s eyes with a direct stare. “I’ll read it over, in the meanwhile. I’ll make it clear, Knight Blackthorne; this isn’t anybody’s idea of a good post. But it’s a quiet one, and I like it to stay quiet. Don’t go picking fights with the locals, and don’t go picking fights around here. Either way, you’ll lose.”

“Understood, sir.”

“Make the best of your time here. Saints know we’ll have more of it than we’ll know what to do with. Dismissed,” he said. He gestured her towards the east door of the chapel.

The east door opened out into the training yard and barracks. It was deserted but for one bored-looking squire hammering together a training shield. At least this time, Heather merited a nod, which she returned.

The barracks were in no better repair than the chapel. The doors were scuffed with hoof marks near the base. The inside of the barracks explained the marks; there was a row of shut doors with cells for each knight, and stables at the far end of the broad hallway. A puzzled frown creased Heather’s brow.

Of course they wouldn’t bother with the horses in a barn, Heather thought. Not this far north. With so little to graze on, it’s a surprise they’d even bother with mounts here.

Some of the doors she passed had names and ranks chalked on them: Lieutenant Persephone Matthewson, Knight Helga Stengrav, Squire Daniel Norris, Squire Michael DuChamp. Down the hallway, one of the stables appeared to have boards hammered together into a makeshift wall. The wide, crude door upon it bore a chalked name: Lieutenant Ramdas Pramath.

Strange that they would convert a horse stall, Heather thought. It looks like most of the cells have never been occupied.

Heather pushed open a door she hoped was vacant. A tiny window near the ceiling let scant light into a crude, dim cell. The bed was made and piled high with a depressing number of down filled blankets, and a saddle blanket atop it. Judging by the dust, the room hadn’t seen use for some time.

Sleep ambushed her. After six weeks of ship and hammock, the novelty of a bed that was stationary and the softness of the blankets caught her off guard. Heather barely had time to shed her boots.

***

Heather Blackthorne awoke as she did every morning, her scream echoing off the stone walls of her cell. Her hands reached out in the dark, to close the eyelids of loved ones that weren’t there. Awareness followed, and her scream faded to hoarse, raspy sobbing. She forced herself to cut off her sobbing, and drew in a shaky breath.

She shook off the moment , and swung her feet to the floor. Work to do, Blackthorne, she reminded herself.

Heather scrubbed her teeth with salt, and then combed her fingers through her pepper-black hair. A few tugs at the bottom of her tunic took the worst of the wrinkles out, and with a sigh she pulled open the door to her cell.

“Good morning, dearie,” came a rough, yet feminine voice from her left. “Bad dreams?”

Heather’s eyes swept over a squat, dusky-skinned dwarf woman. She had a barrel chest, and muscle-corded arms that looked thicker than Heather’s thighs. A large hammer hung from her left hip, and the sun upon her collar marked her as a fellow Knight.

Heather tried to smile, but it faltered as she searched for the words to answer the dwarf’s question. “Worse than you’d care to know,” she said, and stepped aside to let the dwarf to pass by.

Instead, the dwarf gave her a sympathetic nod, and clapped her on her shoulder. “Well, dearie, I hope they get better for ye. My name’s Stengrav. You can call me Helga.” Her voice carried a Kamzite accent, from the central mountain provinces of the Montaigne Empire, and her brogue was thick as boiled oatmeal.

“Heather Blackthorne,” she replied.

Heather turned for the door to the yard, and the dwarf fell into step alongside her.

“It’s nice to meet you, dearie,” Helga said, as she followed along. “Did you ride much circuit back home?”

Heather nodded. “Some. Half of my time in Bastia, half of it patrolling the farm roads. And my mother owns a ranch, so I grew up riding. How about you?”

“I hardly ever left Kamzal, except when I was on a deployment,” replied the dwarf. “The little fjord ponies they keep here fit me better, anyway.”

The ice broken, Heather allowed herself a smile as she pushed open the door to the yard.

“What’s your pony’s name?” Heather asked.

“Bjorn. He’s a sweet boy. Never lets the snow stop him, and sure footed on the ice. I think you’ll probably be riding his sister, Njorn.”

It felt good to smile as they stepped out into the yard. For a fleeting moment, the thought of there being horses to ride here made her feel hopeful. It would be a little, tenuous link back home.

And then Heather remembered she hadn’t spoken with her mother since before the funeral, and her smile died on her lips. With high summer back home, the foals would be playing in the fields back at her mother’s ranch. Heather felt an abrupt pang of distance and separation, and hunched her shoulders.

Helga noticed, and just patted her arm gently. “It’s peaceful here, dearie,” she said, gesturing to the empty practice yard as they passed. “Biggest excitement around here are the boats coming in and out.”

Heather ran a hand through her hair. “I’m not sure how I feel about that yet,” she admitted.

“Oh? A Detective with a taste for the hunt?” teased Helga, her tone kind. “Can’t say that’s surprising, I suppose. You said you were stationed in Bastia, before?”

“Bastia,” Heather confirmed.

“Busy there, for a detective?”

“Busy as it gets.”

The dwarf nodded. “Well, you’ll get used to it, here. Kitchen’s here, dearie,” she said, indicating a thick, wide door.

Heather pushed open the door into the back of the chapel. The scent of uninspired cooking wafted through the air. The mess hall was little more than a large table, with chairs scattered haphazardly around it. The table was already occupied.

Major Weathers was seated alongside a tall blonde woman. She had a tension about her, like a bowstring waiting to be plucked. Her spine was ramrod straight, and she wore a disapproving frown. Her eyes seemed glued to the table before her.

Helga’s arrival made the tall woman’s face soften just a touch, as the dwarf reached up well overhead to give her a pat on the shoulder.

“Oi, Perry. Meet the new lass. Heather, this is Persephone. Perry, Heather,” Helga said, gesturing between the two.

Persephone turned, her long blond hair falling in a narrow cascade down to her hips, and gave Heather a curt nod. Her collar bore three plain suns, the rank of a lieutenant. Quickly, Heather saluted. “Lieutenant.”

Persephone returned the salute, rising stiffly to do so. She had fine, aquiline features, that coupled with her height, might have made some mistake her for an elf. Her severe blue eyes shot back a hard stare at Heather.

Major Weathers looked annoyed at the salute, and he waved them towards the table. “Sit, all of you. Knight-Detective Heather Blackthorne, so nice of you to finally get out of bed for us. I see you’ve met Knight Helga Stengrav. The lieutenant here is Persephone Matthewson. Lieutenant Pramath hasn’t joined us yet. Squires, Duchamp, Norris.”

The two young men nodded cautiously over their breakfast gruel. Like squires everywhere, they were generally unused to being noticed, except to train or be given chores.

Persephone sat back down, and Heather took her cue to grab breakfast. The same sullen, silent looking acolyte from the prior day dropped a wooden bowl into Heather’s hand. He slopped two ladles of gruel into her bowl. The porridge was thick and gluey, and looked about as appetizing as seagull droppings.

“… kitchen in need of a hand, Major?” she asked, lip wrinkling.

“Taste it and tell me,” replied Major Weathers with a sour smile.

She did, and regretted it. Not that much could be said for oat gruel in the first place, but it had been both burnt and over-salted in the cauldron. Heather grimaced.

“I’d say I’ve eaten worse on the road, sir,” she said, after a struggle to swallow. “But I’m a terrible liar.”

This earned a laugh from the Major and Helga, though Persephone’s face didn’t change. Lieutenant Persephone Matthewson’s eyes were glued to her bowl. She mechanically scooped each bite into her mouth. Major Weathers followed Heather’s stare.

“Lieutenant Matthewson is going to be your partner, Blackthorne,” said Weathers. “She works with lance and spear, and ward magic. She’ll pair well.”

Heather nodded her agreement. The Major’s eyes were still on her, the set of his lips critical, expectant. He wants to know if I know my trade, she realized.

“All right, Detective, how about you show us what you can do.”

“You want the full analysis, sir?” asked Heather.

“The full analysis, Blackthorne,” confirmed Weathers. “We haven’t had a Detective here before, so I’d like the team to understand what it is you do. Start with explaining why you think you’ll pair well with the Lieutenant here.”

“Yes sir,” Heather began. “In a fight, my magic is more suited for assault, and my shield offers solid protection. I work my magic through my mace and shield when I can. So the Lieutenant’s lance or spear can work past me, over my shoulder or through the gaps. And her wards can keep us both protected. So I keep the worst of the lot off your back, Lieutenant, and you keep them off of mine. Also, I took a half-year in medical magic, so I can mend a wound here and there, for what slips through.”

Matthewson’s expression didn’t waver in the slightest as Heather offered her analysis.

“Go on. Stengrav next,” said the Major, eyes steady as stone on Heather. Not encouragement, but an order.

“Yes sir,” Heather said. She gestured to Helga. “On a breaching team, Stengrav would be on the left, and I’d be on the right. Helga hangs her hammer to the left. But her body and armor would make a cross-body reach and deployment awkward. The armor of her right arm has a patch along the forearm where the grit has been caught between the band of her shield and her armor. It’s taken some of the polish off.”

Helga gave a self-conscious glance at her armor, before shooting Squire Norris an accusatory look.

“So?” said the Major, eyes narrowing at Heather..

“So, Sir, Stengrav’s left-handed; we put her on the left side, shield low. Me on the right, shield high. That way Matthewson is protected on both sides.”

Major Weathers gave a satisfied nod. “Good. I’m relieved to see they’ve sent us someone competent. Lieutenant Matthewson. Brief Detective Blackthorne on your wards.”

Persephone gave a stiff nod. “My warding bubble extends five paces from me in all directions. No less and no more. My spear reaches three,” she said.

“Method of casting?” Heather inquired.

The Lieutenant smoothed her features carefully, before replying. “Emotive.”

Good for combat, bad for anything else, thought Heather, hiding her concern. Spellcasting like a child, easy to let her magic get away from her. No wonder she’s so frosty.

“Mechanism of wards?” asked Heather.

The Lieutenant and the Major exchanged glances. It was the Major who spoke: “Classified. It will be easier to demonstrate in practice than to try to explain. Let’s move on. Stengrav.”

The major gestured to Helga next, the dwarf smiling sweetly as she introduced her role to Heather. “Skulls, shields, and doors. I breach the lines,” she said.

Heather nodded.  A dwarf’s built for heavy armor, and heavier weapons. Natural for a breaching and assault team.

“Me magic’s all about the earth, dearie. I can break a wall if I have to, or conjure one. Good for controlling the field.”

“And your style of arcane working?” asked Heather.

“Same as yours, dearie. Load it all up in the gear, where it’ll do the most good,” replied Helga, patting her hammer affectionately.

Heather’s eyes turned towards the Major, who raised both hands as if to ward away the inquiry.

“Major’s a gunner,” said Lieutenant Matthewson, evenly. “He doesn’t need anything else.”

Heather nodded slowly. “Understood, Lieutenant.”

The guns at his hips aren’t standard issue, Heather noted. No bandolier, so he’s conjuring his loads, sensible. Revolver. Six rounds each, although that might not be relevant if he just keeps dismissing and conjuring the bullets for it.  Odd to see a Knight packing guns. They’re more lethal of a weapon than most would like for common criminals. And not lethal enough on the undead. I suppose the sound of a gun being cocked has it’s worth in intimidating troublemakers.

“That’s good for now, Detective. Eat up,” said Major Weathers. “The rest should be joining us soon enough.”

As Heather reluctantly spooned the gruel into her mouth, the door between chapel and kitchen opened, admitting a young man in a blacksmith’s apron. Two young women followed in unseasonably light summer dresses, and all three found found places at the table.

“Knight-Detective Heather Blackthorne,” said Weathers, making introductions. “Our father Keza, our mother Tanya, and sister Susanne.”

Tanya and Susanne bore prominent silver hooped amulets, denoting their status as members of the Circle; church-shriven whores and companions.

A rough trade in a mining town, Heather thought, judging from the ragged-edge looks around their eyes. Or maybe they’re hung over.

The priest in the blacksmith’s apron took a seat beside Heather. “Knight Blackthorne. Welcome to our little temple in the north.”

Father Keza was a young man with a thin aquiline nose, dark circles around his eyes, and no older than mid-twenties at best. He had a smith’s arms, and he smelled of charcoal and iron.

Heather offered her hand, and shook politely with him, then gestured to his apron. “Father Keza. That’s quite a frock you’ve got. Double duty for you too?”

His smile eased from formality to warmth at her tone. “That’s right. Not enough hands around the church for every duty. And to be honest, the anvil is as much my calling as the holy life. You’ll let me know if you need repairs on your gear?”

“Of course Father,” replied Heather. Unease trickled down her spine, though Heather was careful to keep it out of her face and voice.

Never so much as met a priest who talked about any other calling, Heather thought. If Father Keza’s been sent to the northlands, it probably means someone above him considered that division of callings a problem.

Mother Tanya, in the meanwhile, was tittering softly and gossiping to her dull-eyed companion. Neither woman looked like much more than the escorts that they were. Each was allowed only to ply their trade for the Church’s coffers, while paying lip service to the higher duties of heart and soul. The Circle generally saw the military arm of the church as diametrically opposed to their philosophies. Heather was gratified that the two women hardly cast her a glance.

The sound of hooves tapping on wood from the chapel-room caught Heather’s attention. Heather frowned. “Don’t tell me they let the horses in the chapel too, Major?”

“Hold your tongue, Knight,” said the Major sternly, and glanced towards the door.

The door opened to reveal a centaur, with zebra stripes that ran along the lower half of his body. His upper half was that of a man with the dark bronze skin common to the southern Venician isles.

He was sporting a red silk shirt with polished brass buttons, and fine white lace ruffles around the wrists and collar. Black eyebrows hovered over eyes as brown as a sandstorm, and wavy hair like obsidian crowned his head.

He’s dressed like a Venician dandy, Heather thought. He’s even plucked his eyebrows!

Heather closed her horrified mouth with a click.

He caught her staring, and he extended a foreleg gracefully, like a dressage horse. The centaur then bowed low at the waist. It was an elegant, graceful bow.

I thought I was out of place here, Heather thought, as she wrestled down hysterical laughter. But a centaur in ruffled Venician silks, three suns on his collar, and a pretty little rapier on his… hip?  Fore-shoulders?

“Ramdas Sachetan Pramath,” he said by way of introduction. His voice carried the rich, accent of the Venician isles, a voice full of rolled r’s and soft consonants. “Rank of Lieutenant.”

“Detective Heather Blackthorne,” she replied, after an awkward pause.

What in every Saints name is he doing here, Heather wondered. And wearing three suns, no less. It’s been almost forty years since the last centaur war in Venicia. Every Venician I’ve ever met hated them. They still threaten their children with their stories: “If you’re bad, I’ll call a centaur to step on your head!”

Please, please let my face not slip at how weird this is, prayed Heather.

Helga rescued her, chiming in: “Ramdas joined us just two weeks ago, Heather. He’s our Duellist.”

Heather looked to Major Weathers, for a hint of the prank. Okay, this is how they break in the new girl, Heather thought. Now I know it’s a prank.

Her glance found straight faces and incurious gazes all around. She pursed her lips. Right, Heather thought. A centaur fighting polite, civil duels.  Dressed for the Centaur’s Ball, no doubt the social event of the season. And the Emperor himself comes around on Tuesdays for crumpets and tea.

“Duellist,” Heather said, unable to keep a laugh from spilling out. “Come on.  You’re having me on.  I know I’m the new girl and all, but really. I…”

She trailed off, as the looks of mounting horror on the faces of her fellow Knights registered.  Turning, she looked up into the eyes of a distinctly unamused, and very large centaur. He loomed, and his mouth twitched in an inhuman way, with a terrible anger barely reined in. Small orange sparks flew from his lips on his next breath.

Heather’s skin crawled with adrenaline, and a feeling like a static charge of a thunderstorm rolling in. Funny, she thought, as the realization of her insult dawned. You never really notice how tall someone is until they look ready to step on you.

“Yes. Duellist,” said the centaur, his voice straining to overlay courtesy over his anger. He patted the pommel of the rapier at his ‘hip’, as if daring her to question it.

He reminds me of the roosters they keep for cockfighting around the dockside bars back home, Heather thought. Strutting around in a cloud of tense, restrained violence. And I’ve gone and tugged his tailfeathers the first time I opened my mouth.

Major Weathers raised a hand, to forestall the storm brewing over Ramdas’ face. “And he has a temper, which is why he finds himself here,” said the Major. His cool tone instantly turned the centaur’s face to embarrassed contrition.

“But that’s not the worst quality to have, as a church duellist,” Weathers concluded.

Sensing an opportunity to dig her way out of the hole she found herself in, Heather hastily nodded. If you’re up to your neck in it girl, Heather thought, dig!

“I can’t imagine a more fitting and fierce champion. Any bully who’d pick a duel with someone too infirm to fight for themselves, deserves everything they’d get,” said Heather emphatically.

Si. And there are some who live here without the wealth to hire a professional duellist,” said the centaur. “It is a town of either great wealth or great poverty, with little in-between. I supply a reason for forbearance.”

And eight hundred pounds of angry centaur is eight hundred good reasons to settle a quarrel peacefully, Heather thought.

“Ramdas is a fine duellist,” Helga chimed in. “He’s already proven himself in local duels. And if the Major can ever convince him to come over to Cavalry, he’ll be fine in the field as well.”

The centaur’s attention shifted, and he bowed once again at the waist, this time towards Helga. “Pardon. I am asked, many times, to join the cavalry,” he replied in apology. “But I am a gentleman of Venicia. To my countrymen there are other arts than those of war, Caballero.”

Caballero. Knight. Heather knew that word, at least. “And I bet you do your country proud,” she said carefully.

The centaur looked as if he was trying to suss out another insult in her words, but the Major forestalled them both. “He does. Now get your chow, Ramdas, and I want all of you out in the yard in twenty minutes.”

The knights and squires around the room grumbled. Their faces all turned dour over their bowls of bitter, salty gruel.

That’s it, Heather thought, pushing away her half-eaten breakfast. This’ll be the last time I let good folks be fed this slop.

Heather cleared her throat. “Major?” she asked. “Seems like the kitchen’s in dire need of a cook who can boil the water without scorching it. Any objection if I take over the cooking-”

None,” interrupted the Major, to a chorus of relief and agreement around the room.

***

Click here to read Chapter 2.0 — Examination