When the ruins of breakfast had been scraped away, Helga led Heather to the nook in the barracks that passed for an armory. There wasn’t much there, only a few spare hammers, maces, swords, and a couple of crossbows.

“No shortage of chainmail, here,” said Heather, gesturing to the hanging racks of woven steel.

“Fits well in between layers of furs,” said Helga. “Not a fan myself. Prefer plate, for this climate.”

“Why for the climate?”

“Plate’s fine for winter, the snow’s going to slow any spot of trouble down to a crawl anyway. So you might as well wear the heavy plate,” reasoned Helga. “Cold’s the biggest killer. Plate keeps the wind and snow out, but you’ll want thick furs underneath.”

Heather shrugged on her breastplate. “Hope you don’t patrol the docks often in that,” she said. “You’d sink like an anchor.”

The dwarf laughed. “Harbor’s naught but ice for all but two months of the year, dearie. I’ll take my chances.”

Helga checked Heather’s armor with care, and endured the same. The dwarf’s heavy plate mail clam-shell surrounded her from neck to hips, its collar and edges gilded in protective runes. Weight relief, serious bleeding, emergency healing, drying, Heather inventoried, as her thumb ran along the runes. She touched each one, confirmed their charge, and poured her concern into any she found lacking.

“Expecting trouble, dearie?” asked Helga.

Heather shook her head. “No. But I don’t want to let anyone down.”

“Aye, good on you,” said the dwarf, smiling up at her. Helga repeated the process for Heather’s armor, ensuring she was as well protected as her breastplate and gauntlets allowed.

Stephen used to check the runes on my armor, on the mornings we had together, when our shifts lined up… Heather closed her eyes. We used to make love. Put on our armor. Put our feelings into each other’s runes. We’d feel safe all day long, like I had his back, and he had mine, no matter where we went.

Helga’s gentle pat at her arm brought Heather out of her reverie. “Come on, dearie. It’s time to walk and see the sights.”

There was a wry, good-humored note in Helga’s voice, and it did its part to shake off a bit of  Heather’s gloom. They marched out the barracks and into the shabby little yard.

The morning weather was pleasant enough. The sky was a cloudy gray broken by blue, and the breeze was stiff and fresh. Shorebirds wheeled and cried around the bay.

The dockside below them bustled with activity around the Longeau. A long convoy of brass automatons was approaching the town from the fortress. Each one was pulling a small cart with stout axles down the road. A great many soldiers surrounded it on all sides, clad in heavily runed adamant armor, alert and tense.

Helga pointed. “The last adamant shipment of the year,” she said. “We’ll stay well clear until they’re loaded. They’re a mean lot, that squad. No nonsense.”

“They take the Empire’s adamant seriously, I suppose,” said Heather.

“That they do,” said Helga. “They have the run of the town here, but the only time they’ll be involved is if adamant or army is. As far as their officers are concerned, the town is just a necessary evil. A place to turn the soldiers loose on when they’re bored.”

Heather grunted. “Sounds like everywhere I’ve been in the Empire.”

“More so than anywhere I’ve seen. Much more so. Come winter, we’ll be to and from that fortress every week, whenever the next bar fight breaks out. Walk up, lodge the grievance, get told it will be seen to, and that’s as far as we’ll get,” muttered Helga.  She opened the broken wooden gate that led into the lane.

Dwarf and detective stepped into the lane, and Helga steered her uphill, away from the port. They picked their path along the muddy, rocky lane that passed for a road along the hill. Heather ran a thumb across her nose. “Been in that situation once or twice. Just have to trust the soldiers and the officers will do what’s right. Tough to get them in custody without a clear-cut case, and plenty of witnesses.”

Helga shrugged. “We don’t have a jail here. Drunks get the potato cellar for the night and some warm furs. Anyone else we turn over to the fortress for safekeeping, theoretically. Haven’t had cause to jail anyone yet. Major’s more of a fines-and-pillory man, prefers a clean bit of corporal punishment to the fuss of a jail. Half-day in the rain on the pillory post makes anyone want to behave.”

Heather cast her eyes out to the little pillory post in the yard, near the lane. “Good. A little public discipline goes a lot further than a jail cell, I think.”

“Aye, but that depends on the magnitude of the public discipline,” said Helga, grimacing.

“Right, you’re from Kamzal province.”

“Aye, dearie,” said the dwarf. “They like their public and private floggings, there. Right to the bone. Jail’s a mercy compared to the things I’ve seen ordered there by priests and zealots.”

Helga frowned, before continuing. “It’s nice to be somewhere quiet. Talking down the drunks, catching the occasional market thief. But it’s only a small town, dearie. Just a few hundred people in the town proper. Most of the real trouble is going to be Pramath’s.”

“Oh?” asked Heather. “Not because he’s a centaur, there can’t be many around here.”

“No, no,” said Helga. “They’d never live somewhere so dreadful cold, not if they had a choice about it. No, the most common problem we’ve got is traders trying to get into duels with the northern native folks. They’re a meek, gentle people, kind with others and fair in trading. So people try to push them around sometimes. Last year we had three different traders pull knives or guns on some poor soul who just wanted to trade his furs. Major’s said he wants to see an example made, this year.”

Their steps were unhurried in the pleasant sunlight. Helga and Heather politely weaved around what little foot traffic there was, mostly traders bearing heavy piles of furs on their backs. Helga received kind nods from everyone she passed, and returned most of them. Heather caught a few curious gazes from people on the street.

Marking the new church girl. Probably just like Captain Amila, waiting to find out if I’m going to be trouble, Heather thought, as she fought to keep her face from turning sour.

“So the town needs a Duellist pretty badly then,” said Heather.

“Oh, aye, Blackthorne. They had a backlog waiting for him when he arrived. He’s had two already this week, and he’s yet got two more I think.”

“Wow. That’s a busy schedule for any duellist. Did he do well?”

Helga nodded. “Fast and bloodless. The second one couldn’t find his nerve to even swing after Pramath shouted and scolded him. So Pramath just took the hammer right out of his hand and sent him on home.”

They both couldn’t help but crack a grin at that. “Like a boy caught making mischief. All that’s missing is a stout paddling across the ass,” said Heather.

Helga stopped as they reached the top of the hill. She gestured to the two facing gates what passed for fine homes in Frostmoor. To the left, liveried guards in blue stood at attention before wrought-iron gates. Their uniforms had the silhouettes of white songbirds sewn into their breasts.

To the right, liveried guards stood across the lane, their livery burgundy with yellow sleeves. Their gate was also decorative wrought iron, but looked a little more sturdy. The two guards before it had two golden bars sewn horizontally across their breast, one over the other.

“House Oiselle, House Goldbrace,” said Helga, indicating the homes. “House Oiselle handles real estate here, and a great deal of the services for the fortress.”

The guards at the gates ignored her, beyond a polite glance and nod.

“How many people in their compounds?” asked Heather, as they walked by.

“About one hundred, including staff, servants, and guards, for each. I guess they struck a little treaty a few years ago after things got out of hand, to keep the peace between them. Equal numbers keeps them both from threatening each other. So long as I’ve been here, their squabbles have been words, and not murders.”

“Well, that’s a relief. Back in Bastia, some weeks you couldn’t go a day without some poor liveried bastard washing up under a dock.”

“There’s next to none of that here, thank the saints,” Helga said.

They continued down the next slope, where the road turned into an even humbler residential lane.  It was lined with tiny stone houses that looked like bunkers to Heather’s eyes.

“Are the noble houses pious?” inquired Heather. Always good to know how warm they’ll be in dealing with us, she thought.

“House Oiselle is. Or at least, the Lady of their house, Laurette Oiselle, she certainly is. She’s in to pray every day or two. Takes a few bodyguards along with her everywhere, scary lot. As for house Goldbrace? Ah, they show up now and then, usually just for the holy days. They’re not usually problematic, I’m told. Both houses tithe well.”

“Sounds reasonably supportive.”

“Well, everyone would rather we deal with problems than arse themselves into handling it. And nobody wants the military involved. So, on the whole, they’re not terrible to deal with. The Lady Oiselle can be a bit much, but she seldom deigns to talk to anyone but the Major or Father Keza.”

Heather gestured down the slope towards the town plaza. “How’s the merchants guild and mages school here?”

“Decent. Haven’t had any dealings with either one of them,” said Helga. “Both run quiet and tight. The Sending circle doesn’t run up more than a few times a day, mostly for the richer fur traders. Supplies come in, furs go out. Business as usual. Town doctor’s office is down there too, doubles as the apothecary and alchemist.”

Heather cast a glance back towards the church. “Is the graveyard regularly consecrated?”

“Yes. Only six graves in the yard. Major does it himself.”

They passed a loose knot of the natives. It was a mixed group of six elves and humans. All were more or less identical, their thick furs reducing them to androgynous anonymity. “What about the locals? Are they ever any trouble? They seem peaceful enough.”

“You might have the rare one that gets drunk and angry, but that’s really rare. Most of them are meek and kind as lambs. Very touchy about the treating of children, though. They don’t like to see a child take a cuff or a slap, doesn’t matter if it’s one of theirs or not. Major’s fond of the natives, I think, so handle with care.”

“And the bars here, Stengrav? Trouble?”

“Not often. But if there’s trouble to be had, it will start there, at the Serpent & Bishop,” Helga replied. She pointed to a ramshackle building on the dock-side. “Only bar in town. Fantastic breaded halibut and fried potatoes, if you don’t mind paying too much. Once in a while, trouble there, never serious.”

“Any trouble with the shops?” Please, throw me a tidbit. Why did they want a Detective here so badly if nothing ever happens? The Major said they’d been begging for a Detective for a while, Heather thought.

“No, not much trouble. You’ll want to get some serious winter furs soon, but they’re far cheaper here than they’d be anywhere else,” said Helga. “Good tailors here, exporting fine furs. The rest are just sundry shops, and only a few of them.”

“Is there much smuggling going on?” asked Heather.

Helga jerked a thumb towards the fortress on the horizon. “Not adamant, that would mean swinging by a rope. But fortress full of winter-bored soldiers would turn a blind eye to anything illicit that made its way in. Major’s always managed to keep himself in his drink.”

Heather grimaced. “Yeah, I noticed that. Is he ever a problem, that way?”

“No, dearie. He’s a good officer. He drinks until he stares, and then he keeps drinking until whatever he’s staring at past the walls goes away. And then he goes to bed.”

Guilt slithered around in Heather’s gut. If I had much taste for liquor, I’d probably know exactly what that feels like, she realized. Whatever makes you numb becomes a blessing.

The dwarf at her side walked on, sneaking a concerned glance up at Heather when she was sure the other woman wasn’t looking.

Their feet took them down the hillside, and into the little plaza in the center of town. The merchant guild’s Sending circle was a prickly mass of runes and wards that Heather steered well clear of. Like every bank and trade-house she’d passed back in Bastia, the guild buildings here were heavily warded.

As bad as Ouestin’s walls, she thought. But they trade up power for numbers. Must be at least six runes a brick on those walls. The Sending circle was nearly unbearable for Heather’s nerves. The guild jealously defended their monopoly on magical transport. Just being near it feels like being covered in gnats. All those runes like tiny, crawling bugs eager for the excuse to sting.

Heather gestured towards the merchant’s guild building. “You ever have to deal with them, Stengrav?”

“No, dearie. I think I’d sooner marry a boar, or fight a dragon with a spoon,” she said. “Have you?”

“Only a very little,” Heather said. She ran a thumb across her mace. “It wasn’t pleasant. Up in Bastia, they’re as untouchable as a nobleman, or royalty. Fortunately, they police their own far better.”

“It’s about the same here, I’d imagine. Never heard of them making any trouble.”

As they walked, Heather took the time to study the people of the little town. Most were out and about on account of the good weather, with plenty of faces upturned to the dazzle of sunlight. There were even a few children rolling hoops around with stick or magic.

“Stengrav, how many folks living in town are native to these lands? One out of ten?” asked Heather.

“Probably closer to two. Most of the natives are up north hunting caribou right now, making sure they have enough food to last the winter. Feeds most of the town, too. Fish and caribou, you’ll eat plenty of both. Another week or two, they’ll all be back with sleds piled high.”

“How many that I’m seeing are in town just to trade furs, then?”

“About half, I’d reckon. You’ll get to tell the locals from the visitors soon enough. Time enough to meet everyone in the long winter.”

They walked a slow circuit through the town. By the time they reached the docks, the adamant caravan was on board the Longeau, and the ship was underway.

“Last ship we’ll see until early summer,” sighed Helga.

Back up the hill they walked.  As they approached the gate of the little chapel, Heather noted a small group gathering in the practice yard. Ramdas had his rapier out, offering it for inspection to what appeared to be a duellist’s assistant.

“Looks like Pramath’s got another one,” said Heather.

“Oh, this should be briefly entertaining,” remarked Helga. She followed Heather towards the gathering.

Persephone was glaring at the proceedings from ten feet away, leaning on her spear with her lips pursed tight. Major Weathers was inspecting the sword of a fierce-looking man. The man was clad in armor that looked as if it had seen better decades. Rust and dust pitted the armor, but the man wore it comfortably.

Heather scanned the scene. The armored man’s an old soldier. His armor’s borrowed, judging by the fit, but his body remembers how to bear the weight. Broadsword is his, military issue, exactly as long as it should be for his arms. Runes are discharged, as they should be for a duel.

And over here we’ve got a mortally embarrassed native man practically hiding behind Pramath. He’s as far as he can get from the violence, and looking at Pramath and the old soldier as if they’re both crazy. Gold dust glitter on the fur of his left sleeve; so he’s a merchant or a trader. Not a rich one I think, but that’s hard to tell. Don’t know enough about the clothes they favor here. No jewelry on him, but then I haven’t seen any jewelry yet on any of the natives.

The Major’s hands were moving too sharply as he checked the sword, and he shared a nasty smile with the centaur.

Major Weathers isn’t happy, Heather thought. Doesn’t like that old soldier. I suspect he rather wants to see the man get drubbed hard. Pramath’s rapier has no runes on it, suppose that makes sense if it’s to be a duelling weapon. Hollow tip on the blade, like a tube. That’s odd. Must be to make his point and keep the battle bloodless?

Heather and Helga walked up to join Persephone. Folks along the lane gathered, with shouts of “Duel! Duel happening!”

“Guess this passes for excitement in town,” Heather murmured.

“That it does, dearie,” said Helga. She turned her head towards the church, leaning forward on the balls of her feet.

Major Weather’s raised his voice so he could be heard by the witnesses gathering around him: “A challenge of honor has been issued. William Juillard challenges Uuzook of the Four Snows Creche. He claims a grievance with the exchanging of gold dust for merchandise, and that Uuzook short-changed him,” the Major explained.

“Uuzook has stated the exchange was fair. The Merchant Guild has declined to rule on the matter, citing inconsistent testimony on each party’s behalf. As such, settling of grievance, by duel, is permitted.”said Weathers.

The Major’s glare and twist of his mouth suggested there was a silent ‘If stupid.’ appended in his mind.

Weathers continued: “Terms of the duel agreed upon are to one fall or yield, or third blood. No magic or mischief is permitted for this duel. Uuzook of the Four Snows names Ramdas Sachetan Pramath as his champion.”

Ramdas gave a deep bow. It was a stately, graceful gesture, followed by a flourish of his rapier.  The fluttering of lace around his cuff made the motion all the more fanciful. A few cheers around the lane followed his display.

“Fighters, raise your blades when you are ready,” said the Major.

Centaur and man both raised their swords immediately. Heather returned her attention to the fighters, opening her senses and focusing on the act of observing.

Old soldier knows his blade well enough. Hasn’t lifted it in a few years. His calluses are all gone, but his form is good. Arm’s not as strong as it used to be; he’s having to work a little harder than expected to lift the broadsword. Pramath’s blade is light, he could hold that pose all day. I think he likes having an audience.

“At your leisure, gentlemen,” drawled the Major.

William advanced, each step swift and sure. Ramdas kept the point of his rapier pointed at the man, his arm poised like a heron’s beak. The centaur’s smile showed bared teeth under a fierce, direct gaze, as he danced nimbly on the tips of his hooves. Ramdas swung into a dressage-style wheeling trot to keep facing William while the man tried to circle him.

You’re not fast enough to flank him, William. And Pramath’s got the reach advantage. That rapier only looks small compared to his body length, and Pramath holds it deceptively tight to his body. Between a lunge of his arms and a stretch of his waist, he can probably add another four paces to his thrusting distance. If the Lieutenant was cocky, maybe he could be baited in, but the Lieutenant’s not making any mistakes.

Hope those boys were betting on the centaur, Heather thought.

Heather had expected Ramdas to toy with the man, judging by the centaur’s delight at having an audience. But on William’s first swing, Ramdas’s rapier jabbed forward, faster than her eye could follow. But she could follow where it landed.

William gave a cry of pain, as the centaur’s foil punched a neat hole through his glove and hand. The blade stuck into the lacquered wood of the sword handle. Like a fisherman setting the hook, Ramdas lifted his sword, bringing the man’s impaled hand and weapon high in the air. As the man screamed in pain and dismay, his knees tried to buckle, but Ramdas’s sword bowed only slightly, and kept the man from falling to his knees.

“Now, Senor, you face a terrible dilemma,” said Ramdas, still smiling fiercely. “The terms of the duel, they are to three bloods, first fall, or to yield, si? And if you cannot fall, and you are not bloodied thrice over-” the centaur pursed his lips in mock concern. “- and you cannot claim to be yielding with your weapon still in your hand, non?”

Ramdas waggled his sword, forcing the man to wave with his sword-hand to the gathering crowd. Screaming, the man was forced to comply, unable to pull his hand off of the sword impaling him. His gauntlet dripped a little bright red blood.

“I yeee- ah ah AH AAHH! I YEEE -” the man screamed.

Every time the man tried to form the words to yield, Ramdas gave his sword another shake, causing the man to shriek. A few of the onlookers in the street began to frown, but most laughed uproariously to see a bully so treated.

Non, Senor, you do not yield. You still have your weapon in hand. Vien, come, I will show your witnesses,” said Ramdas. He broke into a sprightly, bouncing trot, propelling the poor man forward. He forced the man to run a circuit in front of the fence, tears running down his face as the little crowd clapped and laughed.

Heather cracked a grin. Serves a bully right, willing to duel over a pinch of gold. Now this is entertainment.

When the little circuit was done, Ramdas trotted up to Uuzook. The little native man looked mortified, wide-eyed at the sight of William’s blood. Ramdas loomed low, his strong sword-arm keeping the injured man at bay, ignoring his kicking and crying. He turned his gaze down to the native man.

Pramath’s voice boomed out, “Ten grams of gold dust. In your shop, senor, she is worth how many furs?”

Uuzook’s look of embarrassment turned to mortified confusion. He looked to the Major for help. The Major fixed Uuzook with his own hard stare. Put on the spot, the native man backed up involuntarily. “Ah? Five. Five furs.”

“Five furs,” said Ramdas with a grave nod. “And how many grams of gold dust did Senor Juillard here provide you?”

The centaur gave William’s wounded hand another shake, prompting him for an answer: “AH! AAAH! Eel- eleven!” he shouted, as tears ran helplessly down his face.

Gracia, Senor Juillard,” said Ramdas. “Very cooperative, now. And you would like very much also to be cooperative, would you not, Senor Uuzook?”

The native man nodded as quick as he dared.

“For eleven grams of gold dust, you supplied Senor Juillard with five furs, si? Tell me, Uuzook, is an extra gram of gold worth this man’s blood?” Ramdas gave William’s hand another shake on the end of his sword, prompting another shrieking scream from the man. “Is it worth his tears, and his pain, and his humiliation? You buy a man’s pride for cheap, and sell his dignity?”

Uuzook flushed a mortified shade, and shrank into his coat. “No, no, no,” he repeated, backing away, holding up his hands in supplication.

Ramdas lifted his head from Uuzook, and turned to study William. His screams had once more settled into hard, pained breathing. “And you, Senor, you insisted on another fur, a prime fur, instead of a trade for a small fur, or something less prime, yes?”

William gave the centaur a reluctant nod, shame painted on his tongue. “Yes.”

“And when you found no satisfaction, you did not ask for a fair bargain, or simply ask for your gold back. Instead, you chose to challenge to a duel a merchant of thin margin. One you knew quite well could afford no professional to fight for him, against a man who has had the training of a soldier. Si?” A shake of the sword punctuated the centaur’s accusation.

The man impaled on Ramdas’s blade gave a shriek of desperate agreement. “Yes! I did! I’m sorry! Please stop. Please!”

Major Weathers crossed his arms across his chest, watching. He looked like he was trying hard not to let a smile show.

Ramdas’ anger fell away from his face. He brought his sword down, and pinned William’s palm and blade to the ground. He then set a large hoof atop the flat of the broadsword, ensuring it would remain in place.

“Now, Senor, I don’t want to have to draw your blood two more times. If you promise that you will seek fair and just restitution on the outstanding transaction between you and Senor Uuzok, I will accept your yielding now.”

“I promise! I promise!” William shouted. “I yield!”

Gracia.”

The Lieutenant gave a sharp tug of his blade, and it pulled free of William’s hand. The man fell back on his ass, clutching his hand and grimacing in pain. Ramdas gave the hilt of the man’s sword a graceful kick of a front hoof, knocking it up into the air. He caught it neatly in his left hand.

Ramdas trotted over and handed the sword to Uuzok. “Return this to him tomorrow, Senor, after the transaction is settled.”

“Yes, yes, I will!” Uuzok babbled. He almost dropped the sword in his haste to simultaneously accept the trophy offering and escape his shame.

Helga stepped over to the wounded man, and helped him up to his feet. “Come on, dearie, let’s see you down to the doctor’s office, and see that hand looked after. Squire DuChamp over here will walk you down.”

The crowd dispersed, and Ramdas turned his attention to cleaning the tip of his foil with care. A satisfied smile rested on the centaur’s lips. Heather had almost forgotten what a grin felt like on her cheeks. Even the Major let a little smirk show as he looked Pramath’s way.

“That’s good community policing, Lieutenant,” Weathers said. “You missed all his tendons?”

Si, of course, Major,” replied the centaur. “It would not do to maim him. The lesson is learned, and will be remembered, and word will spread.”

“Good. Well done,” said Weathers. He turned towards the door. “Blackthorne, you finish your rounds?”

“Yes sir,” said Heather. “Stengrav showed me around.”

“Good. Come see me after supper.”

***

Supper under Heather’s supervision was caribou steaks seared with a reduction from half a mug of oatmeal stout beer. Baked potatoes accompanied the meat, along with copious amounts of black pepper and rosemary gone too long ignored in the pantry. The smell of a meal prepared by some other means than just boiling was enough to bring most of the church staff in for supper that night. Between the good weather of the day, the entertainment of the duel, and now a good supper, the church kitchen was noisy with comfortable chatter.

It means more dishes for the novices and squires, but nobody looks like they’re complaining, thought Heather. Stephen would have loved this meal. He always liked game meats, when we could get them.

She closed her eyes over her plate, trying to focus on listening to the sounds of happy conversation around her. The tale of Ramdas’ victory was being retold by an excited novice to the table.

When she opened her eyes again, Major Weathers was staring at her from across the room, between bites of his food.

Damn it. I don’t want to have this conversation.

Heather finished her plate, and left it for the novices to clear, making her way out the door as soon as she could. She accepted compliments on her cooking with a smile she hoped looked passably authentic. A sense of sick dread circled in her guts. The outburst she’d had with her previous commanding officer had been bad, and she wasn’t sure she was ready to risk another.

Major Weathers didn’t keep her waiting long. He strode through the door leading into the kitchen, and joined her at the threshold to his office. He unlocked the door with a complex and warded key, and sat down at his desk. His entire office stank of booze.

“Have a seat, Blackthorne. Thank you for the good supper. Shut the door.”

“You’re welcome, sir. I have some outstanding penance. Priests back home say I should cook for others. It’s just good to feel useful, sir,” she said. Heather shut the door and took a seat before him.

The Major lifted her file from a basket, still sealed, and set it back down. “Is there any immediate reason I need to open this, Detective?”

Heather swallowed, and shook her head. She took a deep breath, steeling herself to say the words.

“No, sir. In a nutshell? My husband and son were butchered in front of me. Necromancer.”

Major Weathers fixed her with a look. Her voice had tried for an unfeeling monotone, but had cracked like crystal halfway through.

He opened a drawer on his desk and drew out a bottle, and two glasses. He poured, and pushed one Heather’s way without asking. She picked it up. The whiskey smelled like caramel and grief, and tasted like it too.

“Go on,” Weathers said.

“Haven’t been doing a very good job since” Heather said, when she could form words again. “Sloppy work. An arrest went bad. I threw a perp into a crate. Broke some pricey pottery. Guess they’d had enough of me by then.”

Weathers swirled the contents of his glass around, letting her answer hang in the silence between them. But his eyes were on her, expecting more.

Major likes to make other people talk, thought Heather. Sweat them out. Dammit. What more is there to say?

She changed tack. “You mentioned before that you’d been asking for a Detective for a while. Can’t really imagine that, sir. Town seems so quiet. Unless you’ve got a rash of unsolved burglaries and murders, or ghouls roaming the streets at night? I can’t really fathom why I’d be wanted here.”

“Blackthorne, I’ve got some good officers here, and I don’t think any of them are a slouch between the ears either. But none of them are detectives. They don’t have your training, and they don’t have your habits. I need someone who watches, who observes, who catches the things we’re missing. And I think there’s things we’re missing.”

“Like what?” Heather asked.

“If I knew that, I wouldn’t need you, now would I? One day we’re going to need a detective, much more than we’re going to need another strong arm.”

“Another thing, sir. A major and two lieutenants, all for only two knights and two squires?”

Weathers cracked a little smile over his glass. “A little too top-heavy for your tastes, Blackthorne? It’s one reason I try to keep the salutes down. We’ve all got better things to do, after a while.”

Heather took another sip of her whiskey. She fixed him with a stare, and this time let the silence yawn in her favor. Let’s see how you like it, she thought.

Weather’s smile widened, when a few beats followed and she hadn’t said anything. “You’ll figure it all out soon enough. Give your mind a bone to chew on. As for what I really need a detective here for? I need someone who doesn’t just observe, but can follow their hunches. The things that don’t feel right, the little nagging bits. I’ve been at this post a long time, and I need fresh eyes, and a fresh mind. You’re going to be that.”

“Yes, sir.”

He drained his whiskey, and Heather followed suit, sensing the dismissal. Her gut tightened a little, thinking back to the three men on the ship, and their cloaks. I don’t think I want to raise them to the Major. There’s no sense in chasing those herrings, and sacking any credibility before I can build it up. They’re just traders, dammit.

She rose, and the Major turned his attention to some mail on his desk. Heather saw herself out, listening to the noises bleeding through the door to the kitchen. Happy voices, content voices. All sharing in a feeling she felt like she barely remembered.

At least my cooking’s doing some good, she thought.

***

“The general will see you now.”

Victor LaPaix rose to his feet. For the first time since that damnable detective had spooked him to his soles, Victor was finally feeling in control. Daniel DuCroix rose with him. He might be nervous, but if so, he was channeling that energy into acting the part of the wide-eyed assistant. His guileless face was one of a young man determined to be silent but goggling at everything, just pleased to be there.

The guards at the door ushered them in. Daniel’s eyes darted around the room, exactly like a man who’d never seen a General’s office before. His gaze lingered on the brass fixtures and walnut paneling installed to hide the stone underneath. Never staring for long, finding each new feature of the room delightful and fascinating.

As they sat down before the General’s desk, Daniel’s fingertip tapped the armrest twice, their signal for go. Victor had no idea who the informant was, but their information had been good. Every rune in the office had been accounted for. They were exactly where expected. His count included the eight hidden ones cunningly built into the spaces within other runes in the room. With every rune accounted for, they would proceed.

Victor broke into a rare smile. He’d sat in a few offices like this before, in his line of work. This, finally was his element.

“General Montvenue. I’m Victor LaPaix, and this is my junior assistant, Daniel DuCroix. Thanks for making the time to see us.”

General Montvenue gave Victor an obliging nod. He was a stout man, with a thick jaw and blond hair thinning to white around his temples. He was a spitting image of a career soldier thirty years past his prime. “The mine foreman assured me your name is well-respected in your field. I can spare a few minutes.”

The timing of the plan had relied on that. With the last ore ship of the season having left, there was nothing left for the mine to do but carry on. Business as usual, with a warehouses full of supplies. With adamant stores low, and ice due to close in, it was the time of least activity and alert for the fortress. No state or army would ever bother to besiege through a hard northern winter, and the plunder of adamant would be too low to justify the tremendous cost of the assault.

“Your time is valuable, General. If you’ll allow me to get right to the point?” Victor asked, as he hefted a book of bound blueprints.

“Of course, Mister LaPaix.”

Victor opened the book, to the page he’d carefully bookmarked hours ago. The General and his assistant froze in place, eyes riveted to the paper.

Alarms should have sounded, terrible magics should have unleashed hell, and protective wards should have flared around the General. Every soldier in the fortress should have come running.

None of that occurred. Victor and Daniel’s weaves struck out at the eight critical priming runes. Each were linked to four more runes, like fuses on a mixed assortment of mortal peril. They had trained for weeks before their journey, in the mock-up built to exactly match the office and its defenses. All for this one moment: Disarm the trigger runes fast, and with the least amount of magic needed to do the job.

Not a rune had time to trigger.

General Montvenue and his assistant didn’t even have time to twitch. The general remained settled in his chair, his eyes locked on the page that Martin had so carefully painted from Daniel’s and Victor’s direction. The complex geometry of the rune holding their minds prisoner could be glimpsed in the reflection of the General’s reading glasses. Both of the men in their crimson cloaks were careful to avert their eyes from the reflection.

Adept as they had been, his secretary outside the door must have sensed one of the flows. She raised her voice from her desk: “General?”

A ninth rune came to life on the General’s wedding ring. Daniel cast a glance at the ring, and a quick flow of Earth snapped through the gold, breaking the last rune.

Victor’s mouth tightened. That one hadn’t been in their preparations. The informant was not the secretary, then. The General was a known widow, and hadn’t had cause to be too discreet about his relationship with her. If she’d been the source, she’d have had ample time to inspect his wedding ring. Good. He didn’t want to accidentally sacrifice an ally.

“Assure her, General, that all is normal,” murmured Victor, his voice calm and steady. “Do not look away from the page. Make sure she closes the door.”

The general cleared his throat. “It’s fine, Bernice. Little chirp on the runes, didn’t like the look of the blueprints, that’s all.”

Bernice appeared at the door, sticking her head in with a suspicious frown. “Yes, General. Ah, did you want a bottle of the Cabernet Montaigne sent up with your lunch?”

“No,” replied General Montvenue, waving his hand absently as he studied the page. “A bottle of the Dureza is fine. Shut the door on your way out, please.”

“Yes General.” Bernice excused herself, relief showing in her eyes. She shut the door behind her.

Victor and Daniel shared glances, and they both let out a slow breath. The pass phrases changed regularly. That was military protocol, and so there was no use trying to find out what the pass phrase would be on a given day. Victor hadn’t been sure that the command of ‘assure her’ would suffice to guarantee the proper security response, but the General was evidently a man of creative and active mind.

Daniel rose smoothly to his feet once more. The dead-drop waiting on their arrival had been well stocked, despite being a few years old. He drew the obsidian blade he’d plucked from the cache. Careful not to glance at the open book, Daniel stepped around behind the General’s assistant. He slipped the knife into the back of the man’s neck, at the base of the skull. The man died with a soft sigh, his eyes on the page to the very end.

Daniel let the man’s body slump over the top of the desk, and then withdrew his knife. Victor watched in detached interest as Daniel turned his attention next to the general. As the young man’s obsidian knife made an incision along the back of the general’s neck, Daniel joined in Victor’s smile. Dealing with the General was Victor’s element. But this, this was all his.

As General Montvenue began to die, Victor leaned forward in his chair, and told the General everything he would do.

***

Click here to read Chapter 2.1 — Examination