Heather Blackthorne woke screaming in the dark. A sob ripped from her guts, and she threw her terror into the darkness, casting out a bright blue ball of light that revealed her empty room. Nothing but bare stone walls and empty furniture greeted her wild eyes.
The Major and Ooluk were there, this time. Beside Stephen and Anthony. The bastard in his crimson cloak wouldn’t shut up about the quality of their bones. All I could hear was his voice, and his whispering knives.
She hugged her knees into her body, lay her forehead down upon them, and sobbed. It’s like my mind gets bored with the same nightmare, but it never lets it go.
Heather forced her hands to clench shut, and then opened them, flexing them until she was sure she was in control once again. She pictured the man in the crimson cloak as she remembered him, faceless and cowled in red. I can take some satisfaction, at least: Twenty-seven bodies your kind can’t have, you motherless bastard. Twenty-seven good people in consecrated graves. Their families never left wondering, never worrying, that someone they loved has been turned into a weapon. The Major’s bones are ash and dust under stone, now. Maybe you took him from us, but we kept him from you.
It would have to be enough.
She looked up at her hands, lit in the cool blue light of her fading terror, and flexed them. Her father’s voice welled up in her memory: Come on, pumpkin. If your hands still work, get up and get back on that horse. There’s still work to do.
She got up, washed, dressed, scrubbed her teeth with salt, and decided to ignore the frosted tips of her black hair. The bleaching from the flashes of her magic would snip right out with scissors. Her lower arms itched from elbows to wrists, the skin red and irritated after her last use of magic.
Just hurts a little, Heather thought. These days, the flash burns hurt more and more, and take longer to heal. Guess I’m not as young as I used to be.
The church bell rang six times, calling the time, but the sun had been up for hours. Heather stepped out of the barracks and walked across the practice yard to the kitchen.
Ramdas was at the dining table, asleep. His head jerked up off his chest at the sound of Heather’s entry, and he blinked away sleep from his eyes. Blearily, Ramdas nodded her way, and then he hastily folded and rolled up some papers. They were sealed and runed, and Heather could sense the wardings on the wax as she stepped past. Nasty, that. Fire, Shadow, Air, Water… pity the poor bastard that opened that seal without the proper flow-key. Probably boil the blood right in their veins. Good money that’s the Lieutenant Matthewson’s dossier, or the Major’s.
“Good morning, Lieutenant,” she said, as she stepped up to the hearth, and fed a few chunks of coal into the fire grate.
The centaur looked out towards the window, saw the morning light, and sighed. “Good morning, Caballero. It would seem I slept after all,” he said, as he gathered up the papers and returned them to a warded document box. His hand hesitated over a folio, and Heather’s eye caught her last name written on the corner.
“Heavy reading will do that to the best of us,” said Heather. Please, not again. He has to know to do his job, but I don’t ever want to talk about it, I don’t want to think about it, I spend every night dreaming it over and over. Please, Lieutenant.
Heather kept herself facing towards the hearth-pot so Ramdas wouldn’t see her expression. She dropped coffee beans by the handful into the kettle, and set the lid on. After the coffee came oatmeal, the kettle set over the fire, oats and water stirred with a stout wooden spoon.
The centaur’s voice dropped lower. “Blackthorne, I wanted to say-” he began.
Heather’s spine stiffened, and she slapped her wooden spoon against the counter.
“Lieutenant? Don’t say it. I don’t want your sympathy, or your condolences, and especially not your damned pity. This is why the Major didn’t want us talking about why we washed up here. Now maybe Helga got sent here for stupid reasons, but I didn’t!” she said.
Heather’s fist hammered the countertop. “I couldn’t protect the faithful, and I couldn’t protect my family! So I’m here, and I’m trying to do better. Because this is all I have left! So don’t talk to me about what you read in there. You’d just be ripping open old wounds.”
At some point her words had turned into a tirade, and Heather realized she had been shouting. Her face was red, and she was dizzy from her own grief and fury. Motes of fire clustered around her head and hands, and she waved them away, her embarrassment snuffing them out.
I just shouted at my commanding officer, that part of her mind noted, as if in a daze. Eight hundred pounds of angry centaur, remember?
And Ramdas was angry. Every furious breath he exhaled released a long curlicue of smoke with it. Fiery motes, like bits of broken cinders, burst from him constantly in every direction, sending a shower of sparks bouncing across the table. With visible effort, he set both of his hands down palms flat on the table, and stared at her. Smoke rose from where his palms touched the wood. He fit her with a measuring, uncomfortable stare. It lasted until Heather’s hands clenched into fists and she looked away.
He’s holding his hands that way so he won’t act on instinct and hit me, she realized. That’s how far I’ve just pushed him.
“I wanted to say, Blackthorne,” continued the centaur stallion, his words slow and measured. They rumbled like distant, angry storm clouds, an impression not much helped by the deep furrow of his brows and the tightness of his lips. “That I would like you to ask Senor Ooluk to sit in on this morning’s briefing. Seeing as he was involved in the start of this venture, and you have seen fit to brief him.”
Guilt flooded Heather, and she stared down at the floor. “Yes sir,” said Heather, willing some meekness into her voice.
I just assumed he’d do the insensitive thing. Because it’s what I’ve been doing. And everyone in earshot knows, now. That I’m screaming at my commanding officer, and why I’m really here.
Because it hurts so much it’s all I can really think about.
Ramdas slowly straightened up. “As for your outburst, Caballero, we are all here for our failures. And we are all expected to do better, in the name of the Saints and the people we serve. We are counted upon by them, now. So we must rise to the occasion.”
Heather jerkily nodded. Anger radiated off of the centaur, at odds with the forced calm he was laying over his voice.
Ramdas tucked the scrolls and papers away into a large, vellum envelope. “You are a detective, Caballero. We will have need of your mind and reason, now more than ever. Leave the outbursts of emotion to those better qualified.”
“Yes, sir. I’m sorry,” Heather whispered. She bit her lip, hot, white glowing tears of shame brimming at her eyelashes.
“After breakfast, Caballero, muck out the stalls until you find your mind and reason once again.”
“Aye, sir,” said Heather.
So that’s how the Major did it. Same as the Lieutenant just did with me. Nothing to take the wind out of your sails like being in the wrong, Heather thought as she wiped her face.
Ramdas scrubbed a hand through his hair, and rose to exit the kitchen. “I have more reading yet to do. Call me when breakfast is set.”
An hour later, Heather found Ooluk asleep under a pew in the main room of the chapel. The little wood elf was curled up under a lustrous bear pelt cover he’d wrapped around himself. She woke him with a gentle touch of his shoulder.
“Ooluk, Lieutenant Pramath asks that you join us for the morning briefing. And breakfast is ready.”
Ooluk gave a sleepy nod, and scooted out from under the pew. He sat up and yawned. “Okay. I will join,” he murmured.
“You always sleep here, Ooluk?” asked Heather.
“Yes,” he replied.
Heather frowned. “You’re homeless?”
“I have walked the snows, so I am dead. Gaiman or not, the dead should not take foor or the fire from the living.”
“How’s that square with us, then?”
“You southlanders don’t know any better,” he said, flashing her a smile.
Heather barked a little laugh. “Well come on, then. Don’t let breakfast get cold.”
Between the absence of Major Weathers, and the screaming match early that morning, breakfast started as a silent, strained affair. Even Sisters Tanya and Susanne were quiet, glancing at the empty spot that was once where the Major had sat. Father Keza kept glancing nervously at Ramdas, unsure of how to deal with the situation. While the Knights, the Circle, and the Priesthood of the church were organizationally distinct, in a chapel this small all three worked together. Father Keza, it was clear, wasn’t sure how to make the transition smoothly.
Helga and Persephone sat together, though Persephone’s body language was once more that facade of ice. Her face was impassive, and her eating as mechanical as ever. But the eggs and bacon and oatmeal Heather had put together were all good, and the coffee better still. Eyes around the table kept straying out the window, out towards the gloomy, overcast skies, but more often towards the village square where the Sending gates lay ruined.
There wasn’t much discussion, over their meals. A murmur of one acolyte to another about the promise of frost in the next two weeks, quickly hushed by a glance from Persephone. Winter isn’t a popular topic at the best of times around here, thought Heather.
Ramdas tapped a hoof on the floor, and cleared his throat, the table falling silent. “Caballeros, Padre, Madres,” he said, calling their attention in turn. “Padre Keza has informed me there is a spirit-summoner in town, at the mage guildhall. He has agreed to join us. The Guiding of Major Weathers will be performed in three days time, at eight bells in the evening, with music to follow.”
The centaur drew a breath, and continued. “I rode to the gates of the fortress yesterday, and was rudely turned away without explanation, or so much as laying an eye on a sentry. Townsfolk report the sentries are turning away every miner and visitor. No reports or explanations as to why. The gates are opening for no-one.”
He shot a significant glance around the room. “Officially, at present, no parties claim responsibility for the destruction of the Sending gate, and we have cause to believe the event was not an accident. Lieutenant Matthewson, I would ask that you escort and support Blackthorne in her investigation into this matter, today.”
Persephone looked Heather’s way. Heather nodded back. “We’re on it, sir,” replied Persephone.
The centaur looked then to Helga. “Stengrav. Take DuChamp with you, and ride perimeter around the town. If you find any of the abominations arisen, send DuChamp back with a report before engaging. Try to await support before engagement, if possible.”
The centaur then turned his head to address Keza, and the Circle girls. “The circumstances of Major Weather’s death is to remain, for now, internal to the church and those I brief. I do not anticipate we will be keeping it secret very long. We’ll be briefing the powers that be in the town in the next few days. Sound planning trumps panic, in this situation. Undead have risen in the northlands. The necromancy was performed by one or more suspects. Major Weathers fell in battle, in a serious engagement.”
Mother Tanya gasped, and Mother Susanne paled, her fingers going white as she pressed them down into the table. Keza didn’t react. Already briefed, but he didn’t pass it on to the Mothers? Guess he likes bad news to come from others. Or he just wanted to put off their panic, thought Heather.
Ramdas continued. “We struck a strong victory for the faithful, but at an unacceptably high cost. We have tracked the return of some undead to Frostmoor Bay. As it stands, we believe there are an unknown number of the monstrosities in the hills around the town, hiding, waiting to strike. It is possible they intend to strike the barracks, but the more likely target is the town.”
Silence reigned around the table, uncomfortable glances exchanged, forks put down by the novices around the dining tables.
Ramdas blew out a breath. “My heart says there is no coincidence, between the shutting of the fortress, the explosion of the Sending Gate, and the assault we must prepare to endure. But I cannot speculate. I must have facts, and I must know the number that we face. I will be meeting with noble houses Oiselle and Goldbrace in a few days time, along with the Merchant Guild representatives. For this meeting, Padre Keza, I would like you there.”
Keza inclined his head cooperatively. “Of course.”
Ramdas turned towards Ooluk. “Gaiman Ooluk, the reports of Major Weathers say that you could sense his coming by kilometres. That you claimed to feel each footstep upon the earth further than the eye can see. This is true?”
“Of course it’s true!” he replied, his tone offended and haughty. The effect was ruined by the piping-high voice of the young man, cracking once.
“Then I would ask of you, Gaiman Ooluk, to use your ways of the earth to assist us. If there is motion, if you feel the tread of bony, dead feet upon the ground, you can tell us?”
Ooluk frowned. “It doesn’t work that way,” he said. “I have to know what the footsteps feel like, how fast they are, how they step, walk, move. I know you, Pramath, anywhere for many miles. You step differently from any horse. I knew Weathers step, and that of his horse, both when he rode on it and not.”
Probably a good thing Ooluk can’t see the Lieutenant’s face. Comparing him to a horse looks like a good way to get your head kicked off, thought Heather. Ramdas was clenching his jaw together so hard she could hear the bones creak.
Helga jumped in, to spare the brewing outburst. “Could you feel rocks being moved around? If undead dug themselves into gravel or rock, you’d feel them move when they came out? Could you tell us how many if they all moved at once?”
Ooluk laughed in pride. “Yes. I can count the feet in rabbit dens by their touch of the earth. I can count the change the merchants drop in the dirt when they trade. If they move, I will know it.”
Heather scratched her chin. “But you’ve got to be listening, feeling for it, at the time it happens, don’t you?” she asked.
Ooluk oriented vaguely towards Heather. “Yes, what of it?”
Ramdas had regained the better part of his composure. “Then we must accept the best of Gaiman Ooluk’s help,” he said firmly. “And we will simply have to fend for ourselves in the times he must sleep and rest. Ooluk, can you give us any insight into what transpires in the fortress and mine?”
The grubby elf rubbed his left ear. “When I am outside, touching the earth, I will try.”
The centaur laced his fingers together. “Then we ask this of the Gaimen, that he hear the Earth for our village,” said Ramdas, his voice formal.
Ooluk bowed fractionally at the shoulder, without hesitation. He replied in a tone as formal as Ramdas’: “I will hear the Earth and wrestle it, Knight Ramdas, and guide the village safely.”
This isn’t unusual for Ooluk, observed Heather. Weathers has asked Ooluk’s help before, then.
Ramdas kept his fingers laced together, and regarded the table. “Thank you. Padre Keza. Madres. That is all I have to share for now. I ask that if you should hear anything more about these events, be it rumour, gossip, or testimony, that you report to me as soon as you are able. I take my leave of you now, may the Saints light your path.”
He walked to the back door, leading out into the training yard. “Caballeros. Fall in with me. There is more.”
They followed him out into the gloom of the overcast morning, what little wet green grass there was crushing fragrantly under hoofs and boots. The stallion trotted out towards the center of the yard, then turned to face them. He ran a hand through his mane awkwardly, his face troubled and discomfited.
“Caballeros. Major Weathers made it his policy not to discuss the reasons we were sent to the north. I rescind his order, and you may discuss among each other if and as you see fit, or you may keep your own counsel as you wish. However.”
He paused, and curled a hand over his breast. “I am… uncomfortable with the knowledge of these matters being held in my hands. And after some recent discussions, I know now my discomfort with this unequal personal footing is shared.”
Heather colored, biting her tongue, keeping her eyes straight ahead. Nobody stared at her, but Heather imagined she could feel their eyes drawn her way, and she fought the instinct to hunch her shoulders.
The centaur walked slowly in front of them, a hand gently outstretched. “As your acting commander, I must be prepared to risk your lives. But as a matter of honor, I stand ashamed to hold such personal confidences of those I would fight and die beside, and offer none of my own. So I ask, and I offer. Are there any here who would wish to know, why I was sent here?”
“I think I would, dearie,” said Helga evenly. “If I’m to follow you, I would know who I’m raising my shield for.”
Ramdas nodded, and began to unlace his fine shirt. “I was sent here, Caballeros, because in a fit of anger I struck and trampled a comrade. He was and remains a good man, but it took the work of seven healers and a month to restore his face and body. The matter for which I struck him over, I remain ashamed to admit, merely a difference of opinion of a piece of music. It was a sour day, and my temper was shorter than usual. But I make no excuse for my failing.
“If you are wondering why a centaur serves in the Church? I am a foundling, my father defeated in the wars, my mother captured when her clan set out to raid. She was wounded, more died, and only the mercy of a Padre spared my mother long enough that she could die birthing me.”
The centaur began to pull off his shirt as he spoke. Once removed, from the front and taken from the waist up, he was a beautiful man. His Venician bronze skin had not yet paled from a few short weeks in the northern climes. He had strong, graceful hands and arms, toned and shaped by fencing and the violin. Unlike the knights and squires in front of him, he had leaner muscle, less bulky in his torso than most fighting men.
“I was raised by the village chapel in Coañi. Deeply rural Venicia. Hatred and war with my kind ran old and deep in that part of the country, and the Padre made it his business to whip the sin from my soul, often daily.” He turned, then, twisting his back enough to reveal the mass of scars and ruin that ran from the back of his neck to the curve where spine met the equine fore shoulder.
Metal-ended scourge did that, thought Heather, grimacing.
There were too many scars to count. Some were badly puckered and warped where infection had ravaged them. Looks like they only cured it when it threatened your life, Pramath, and not before. Only way it could have been worse is if you’d been born a Kamzite too, Heather thought, frowning.
Ramdas turned back towards them. “The truth, Stengrav, is I am grateful to the Padre who saw fit to whip me. Grateful. To my kind, blood runs hot, and violence swift and brutal. To my homeland, Venicia, matters of honor and family are absolute. It was his scourge that checked me from trampling the first man who spat at me, and it was his scourge that checked me from killing the first man who cursed my mother’s name.”
He looked down at the dirt, face reddening. This time, not in anger.
Shame runs as deep as anger in him. It’s been cut right into his bones, thought Heather. She glanced surreptitiously at Persephone, who was listening intently. You too. Maybe all of us.
Helga spoke up. “My concern, sir, is that there’s due to be a lot of short tempers soon enough, and getting shorter. If you’re liable to kick my head in because you’re having a bad day, I’d sooner take my chances with the skeletons, dearie.”
Ramdas spread his hands, looking uncomfortable, but unshaken. “I live with the shame of my failing every day. I deserve this place and this post, and I will bear it. That is the penance I owe the Church by whose mercy I was saved and raised. It was called into question in my court martial if I was angry to the Church and faithful for my treatment in my youth. No. I am angry despite it. But I would turn my anger upon the enemies of the righteous and faithful. And I sooner yet would prefer to preach than draw my blade. Words are beautiful and fine, in a way violence can never be.”
He swallowed, and then raised his head to meet their eyes. “If my wrath is undue towards you all, then I ask that you would speak it, that I may moderate myself appropriately.”
Rather preach than draw blade. So he means to rise to Paladin, one day? Pretty lofty goal. They don’t let many Knights take on double duty like that. To be a preacher and a warrior of the faithful, that’s a lot of responsibility, Heather thought. Makes more sense for a Duellist, I suppose. But he’s stuck with us career warriors until this mess is over. Or until we die.
Helga rested her hammer on the ground, leaning on the haft with her hands. “Why are you still a Lieutenant, if you hurt that man so badly, sir? The court didn’t bust you down ranks for that?”
Ramdas inclined his head. “It was a matter of honor, Stengrav. We declared it a matter of duel, so I cannot even claim it was a passion in the heat of the moment. We agreed upon three bloods. The three were my hooves upon him. The sentencing, technically, was not for the wounds I put upon him, but for duelling a fellow comrade at all, and duelling improperly at that. We were fortunate we fell under the jurisdiction of the Church. Had it been a civil duel, it would have meant years in prison for us both, for improper duelling without license from the Guild.”
“They’ve got a guild for duelling in Venicia?” said Persephone, eyebrows climbing in surprise.
Ramdas favored her with a look that said of course, barbarian. He drew his shirt back on. “Si. Yes. Venicia is a civilized country. Duels are an important affair. We cannot have men and women murdering each other in the streets.”
“Fair enough,” said Persephone.
“I wished to preach in my service, and was exhorted by my Padre to do so. But a Paladin, he spoke favorably to me once, and said if ever I wished to rise to Paragon, that to be a Duellist would allow me to be of best service to the faithful.”
Helga shook her head, her tone concerned. “Paragon? There’s only, what, four living Paragons today, Lieutenant? Handful in a generation given that honor. I thought you might be a proud man, Pramath, but I didn’t think you were a glory-chaser.”
Ramdas paused in lacing up his shirt, and pointed a finger at her. The tone he used then wasn’t quite angry, but it was heated, frustration and humility both in his voice. “Not glory, Stengrav! Service!”
He threw his hands in the air. “I owe the church and the kind faithful everything in this earth. They fed me, clothed me, raised me, taught me. They endured my rages, and my wrath, at a time when others of my kind were still murdering their family and friends in coward’s raids and petty tribal warfare. I wake every morning, every morning, and I ask myself what more I can do to repay their mercy. And if there is more, I do it.”
He was sincere. Furiously, ravingly sincere. As his emotion built, the magic had leaked into his voice, reverberating in the air. Ringing true. He wears his heart on his sleeve, Heather thought.
The three before him fell silent. Helga’s leaning on her hammer had melted from tension into a comfort. Her nod came cautiously, but approving. Beside her, Persephone was vibrating. Not shaking, but drawing steel from the words, blinking rapidly as if a realization was dawning on her, and inspiring her.
It wasn’t until her hand began to ache, that Heather realized she had taken hold of the handle of her father’s mace and squeezed. Her grip was tight enough to make the leather wrapping creak in protest. In Ramdas’ words, she found a sympathetic echo, a bone-deep faith in the rightness of her duty laid bare.
When I open up my heart, it’s all my pain and grief. When he opens his, it’s all his anger and humility.
I could follow this man, she thought. I will.
Helga coughed. “Well, Lieutenant,” she said, “I guess all I can say to that is, if you can walk what you talk? It’ll be an honor to serve, however this mess ends up.”
Ramdas looked between the three of them. A glance confirmed Helga had spoken what each were thinking. He read their faces, drew himself up to attention, and saluted them. “You all have your orders, then. Be back here at eleven bells for the briefing, and reports at supper, or sooner if anything critical arises. Dismissed.”
They each snapped to attention to return the salute. “Sir!”
“So you go shouting at your commanding officer, and he makes you spend an hour mucking the stables,” Persephone muttered. She followed Heather’s path as they walked the perimeter of the Sending circle’s yard.
Heather was diligently obeying the staked borders of the Merchant Guild’s land, peering in and around at the ruins of the Sending circle’s stones. Sienna had come out to stare at her from the doorstep of the Guild building, but Heather had waved and gestured to the line of the property, and that had satisfied the Consul. She might not be happy with the investigation around their grounds, but the Knights were staying off the guild property.
“Yes, Lieutenant. I was out of line.”
“Speaking of lines,” Persephone gestured to the property line Heather was obeying. “I don’t understand. It’s a damned emergency. We’re cut off and the Consul wants to keep us off her land? As if we would ever wish to spy on their secrets.”
Heather favored her with an amused glance. “Us personally? Maybe not. Don’t think for a second that the Church wouldn’t break the Guild’s monopoly on Sending Gates if they could. Every group, guild, nation, and petty merchant would give their next of kin for a taste of those secrets.”
Persephone made a face, and Heather nodded. “I’ve been called to a couple ‘accident’ sites before, Lieutenant. In Bastia. People are always trying to figure it out. There’s always a dead body, always some plausibly deniable malfunction. Always a fire that conveniently destroyed all equipment and notes.”
Persephone lidded her eyes. “Kamzal would never tolerate murder in the name of commerce,” she grunted. “Nor should we.”
Heather made a sour face, as she crouched down to stare at the rubble of a Sending stone from a different angle. Pockmarks in the stone, blast marks. Scorch spreads there, there, there, like leopard spots. There’s dozens of them.
“You’d be surprised, Lieutenant, what a nation or a church will tolerate when the alternative is every missive and message taking weeks or months to arrive. Montaigne Empire, Venicia, and Hanshu out east? Nations and empires can’t exist without communication,” Heather explained. “It’s the reason the western land is called The Thousand Kingdoms. They keep the Guild mostly out, so they can’t get messengers around fast enough to consolidate and grow.”
“You’re talking murder and arson in the name of coin, Blackthorne.”
“I’m talking politics and reality,” grunted Heather, dividing her attention between conversation and investigation. No chance explosives got through a Sending, right? Nobody’s ever managed in, what, centuries? Or if they did, the Guild kept it quiet very, very well.
“Lieutenant, I’m not saying it’s right. It’s not,” Heather continued, “but the Merchant Guild takes care of their own. A couple years ago back in Bastia, a group of knights I knew caught a Consul dabbling with monsters, trying to breed them, train them, sell them. They shut him down right quick.”
“I should hope so!” exclaimed Persephone.
“Yeah, but the Knights had him in custody less than a half hour. Four other Consuls swept into the Cathedral, walked right into the Pope’s hall. Guards didn’t even challenge them, just announced them. They came out ten minutes later with a writ of release to their custody for the man. End of the day? The Consul they nicked was found guilty and sentenced to four years. Except he served every minute of it in a Guild prison.”
“And the church trusted them to actually hold the prisoner?” said Persephone, eyes widening in outrage. She irritably jabbed the butt end of her spear at some blast-torn scraps of paper that still littered the square. On impulse, Heather scooped up two big handfuls of the paper bits, and put them into a bag to examine later. She rubbed a bit between her fingers, and hid her dismay. That’s a familiar texture. Watercolor paper, almost certainly from from my report the Squire was carrying.
“Yeah, the Church did. The guildhall allowed the knights to do surprise inspections, any day they wanted. There’s no question he served every minute he was sentenced. But in a Guild prison, where he couldn’t breathe a word about what he knew. Church went along with it because the Guild’s good to their word, and because without access to Sending Gates, every messenger we have would be taking boats and horses.
“And you name the ship, it’s probably got some sort of charter now and then with the Guild. Airships, it’s a certainty. If the Guild ever blacklisted the Church, Lieutenant, you might as well call it the end of a unified Church of the Saints.”
Persephone gave up a sour grunt. It was clear the perspective was a new one to her. I guess a Kamzite knight would do well to put zeal before politics, thought Heather. But we’ve got to do our job in the real world.
Heather pointed to some rubble that had landed near to the border of the land. There were pock-marks blasted into each piece. “Look at these. Looks like bullet holes, just wider. Blasts of some kind, lots of them, little ones. Get enough in one place at one time, it’ll do the job. Notice how it’s on everything around here? Every stone from the Sending Gate I can see, it’s got a few of these, on all sides.”
Lieutenant Matthewson paused in her steps, and took a second, long look. “On all sides. It can’t be just one central explosion then.”
Heather’s knees ached as she rose from her squat-walk, and she grimaced as she stood. “Exactly. Come on. Let’s go see Alfonse.”
They crossed the square, and walked up to the merchant guild’s building. It was a squat adamantine-stone building, built much like the rest of the homes and businesses in Frostmoor, looking equal parts bunker and guildhall. Heavy wooden eaves capped off the solid, gray stone, and Sienna’s face was in the tiny window of the door before they’d even made it up the steps.
She opened the door with a perfunctory: “Alfonse is recovering. Welcome, Lieutenant Matthewson.”
“Consul Sienna, thank you for seeing us. This is Knight Blackthorne, she’s our detective. Seems she’s had some experience working with the merchant guild before in criminal affairs.”
Sienna turned Heather’s way. “Then I trust you’ll understand, Knight, the constraints under which I must ask you to abide by while on our grounds. I’m sure you’re familiar with them in general, already, if you’ve worked alongside the Guild in the past?”
“Of course, Consul,” said Heather. Gotta play nice. Big fish, and this pond just got a lot smaller. We need all the friends we can get. “And I’m glad to hear Alfonse is recovering.”
“Well, the mages and doctors did good work, but it’ll be weeks before he works again, you understand. You’re welcome to see him, but I will ask you not to attempt to enter into any other rooms, and you will be under my escort at all times. Please do not inspect or attempt to interfere with our wards throughout the building. Most have unpleasant countermeasures to prevent tampering,” said the Consul, rattling off the rules with a wry cheerfulness. She beckoned them in through the door, and shut it behind them.
“Thank you, Consul. We’ll try to keep our visit brief. I need to ask Alfonse about the nature of the explosion yesterday,” said Heather.
Sienna touched a heavy metal door, and held her hand there patiently for the span of a few heartbeats. The door slid open, revealing a stone hallway, set with a comfortably elegant carpet and tapestries along the walls. Just as well-appointed here as any Merchant hall I’ve seen. I guess they don’t skimp on a place this rich for them.
The Consul knocked on the third door they passed, a solid, walnut and brass affair that would have looked at home in a noble’s manor back in the mainland empire. After a few seconds silence, Sienna opened the door, and ushered them in.
Alfonse was asleep upon a fine bed, the wan summer sunlight filtering in through yet another tiny window. Lose too much heat in the winter for larger windows than that, Heather thought. Guess it beats lying in pain in the dark.
Sienna gently touched Alfonse’s shoulder, causing him to stir. “Alfonse? Wake up, Consul. You have visitors from the church.”
The man on the bed was scarcely recognizable from the vital, intense mage who’d been wrestling the tear in the sky closed. He looked as if he had lost fifty or sixty pounds, little of it weight he could spare. He had gaunt, sunken eyes, and there was loose skin everywhere Heather looked.
That’s what magic healing gets you. All that energy has to come from somewhere. They burned all your fat and some of your muscle just to fix you up, didn’t they? thought Heather. She was no stranger to that hollow hunger. Her work had risks, and she’d ended up under those healing spells more than once in her life, too. The hunger lingered for weeks, animal and ravenous, punctuated by unshakable cravings for certain foods.
Alfonse blinked rheumy eyes open, and weakly lifted a hand towards Persephone. “Forgive me if I don’t rise,” he said. “How nice to see you both again.”
Heather took a careful seat on the side of the bed. “Glad to see you made it, Consul. You saved the town. You’re a hero.”
The Consul tried to wave the words away, but he wasn’t strong enough. His hand gently flopped in the air, trembling slightly. “Never should have happened. Emergency shutdown of a Sending takes a fraction of a second. But it all happened so fast.”
Heather gently took his hand. “Can you tell me who went through the Sending circle that day? Anyone unusual coming or going, before the explosion?”
Consul Sienna grimaced. Talking about who had used Sending gates, and especially their destinations, was usually a stonewall topic for a detective. But to Heather’s surprise, she nodded grudging permission over to Alfonse. She’s cut off, same as all of us. Guess that’ll lend anyone a little more flexibility. Better not push it, though.
Alfonse swallowed around a dry throat. “I’m sorry about your squire, Knights. The explosion interrupted the Sending. I’m not sure if he made it there, or somewhere else, or, ah, multiple places,” he said. “I had to make the decision to close the tear. The only other fellows through that morning was two fur merchants.”
“Anything unusual about them?”
Alfonse swallowed again, and Heather poured a cup of water from the pitcher at the bedside for him, and held it to his lips for him to sip. When Alfonse had his fill, he let his head slip back onto the pillow.
“Nothing too notable, Knight. It didn’t seem like they had done very well in trading. Or maybe they saw the land and grew discouraged?”
“How do you mean, Alfonse?”
“Well, they were looking pretty grim, and they left empty-handed. Usually a trader arrives here, makes their trades for furs, and sends the furs by boat to port. Sometimes they pay the tariff rates for Sending their cargo instead. But they didn’t arrange either with us. They just left, empty-handed. Still a better fate than the rest of us. At least they’re getting home.”
Heather grunted. “What did they look like?”
Alfonse shook his head. “Venician traders, or at least wore their fashions. Pretty thin for the weather here, but you see it all the time. Usually they’ll buy any furs they need to stay warm while they’re here anyway. The two I Sent that morning? I remember the biggest of the lot, he was very tall. Nice fellow, very conversational. Beard, couple inches long. Dressed well, like most of the fur merchants that come through. Big brown boots, nice red cloak, good silk coat, tasteful.”
A red cloak. Just a coincidence. Just a coincidence. Heather could feel the room subtly spinning around her, and forced herself to take a breath, smile, and continue on. Just another interview. Just data. Clues. Probably doesn’t mean anything. Observation. Deduction. Facts.
“And the other one?” Heather asked.
Alfonse shook his head. “I can’t really remember. He was a younger man, I think, but I was preoccupied with the Sending preparations.”
Sienna frowned, a gesture Heather caught out of the corner of her eye. It’s not like a Sending gate operator here deals with so many people in a day, to easily forget a face. Consul Sienna doesn’t look impressed. But he’s on his sickbed, so I can’t expect better.
“By any chance, the cloaks they were wearing. Were they both red, or just the one?” asked Heather.
Alfonse looked vague, and shook his head. “I honestly don’t remember, I’m sorry, Knight. They could have. Red’s a common enough color for a cloak anywhere. Fur merchants this time of year all fit the same mold, wealthy southern importers. Silks and finery, but with good walking boots.”
Heather forbade herself from sighing. Don’t lead the answers you want, came the memories from her training. Trust your instincts, but verify them for bias. Just the facts. No conjecture.
“No other unusual patterns in coming and going through the Sending gate in the last few days?”
“No, Knight, nothing remarkable. Traders coming and going. Messages and messengers through the noble houses, barracks, all that. Pretty routine.”
Heather looked up to Persephone. The Lieutenant stood ramrod straight, watching the interplay with that cold, neutral expression she’d adopted. Sienna, likewise, was as poker-faced as Persephone. Side by side they looked like sisters, separated by twenty years. Sienna looked poised to jump in the moment the questioning went too far, or took a turn for the sensitive to the Guild’s interests. Heather turned her eyes back to Alfonse.
“Alfonse, what can you tell me about the explosion?”
Alfonse reached weakly for the cup of water by his bed. Heather took hold of it before Sienna could, and gently held it to his lips once more so he could take another drink and formulate his answer. Sienna cast Heather a glance, which she pretended not to notice. I’m playing nice, Consul. As long as he’s giving me answers, it doesn’t hurt if I lift a few fingers on his behalf, right?
The gaunt man swallowed twice, and closed his eyes in focus. “I was deep in the Sending at the time, so to be honest, I didn’t entirely notice what had happened until it was already over. The magic involved is complex, and we’re trained to focus to the exclusion of nearly all else on the work we’re doing.”
“Do you remember seeing anything, or hearing something just before it happened? Any unusual smells?” Heather asked.
“I remember hearing a funny, loud rustling. Little flapping sounds? A shorebird flying by, or maybe some paper in the breeze. I didn’t think it was important, so I ignored it. Your squire was in the Sending already, and I was holding the matrix while he crossed. And the next thing I knew, I’m on the ground, my ears were ringing, and the tear was spreading across the sky.”
“I noticed a lot of paper bits laying around the sending site,” said Heather. “Was there books or scrolls, or some other source of paper that could account for all that mess?”
Alfonse tried to shake his head, but it was clear his energy was fading. “No,” he whispered. “Your man was carrying some paper?”
Heather nodded thoughtfully. “Some. One last question, if you’ll permit, Consul.” she said to Sienna. “Is it possible, at all, that the explosives arrived in the circle via a Sending?”
Sienna stiffened, but it was a gamble Heather had held onto for last for this reason. The Consul cleared her throat. “Without going into detail, Knight Blackthorne, no, it isn’t. We ward against that possibility, heavily. Even if a Sending operator wanted to send explosives through the Circle, they would not be able to, not even under duress.”
Heather nodded. “Thank you, that matches with my observations of the blast site. Whoever attacked the Sending circle, I believe they attacked it from this end. All I have left to figure out is whether or not they’re still here.”
Consul Sienna gestured to Alfonse, who had fallen asleep once again, his breathing shallow and slow. She then beckoned the Knights out into the hallway, and Persephone and Heather followed. Sienna shut the door.
The Consul began to walk back towards the reception area, speaking low and quiet. “You’ve been informed about the button-up at the barracks? If they suspect this was a state-sponsored attack, or something like it, they’re not going to open those gates before spring reinforcements arrive. The adamant ore is too valuable to the empire’s armies to allow it to fall to anything else. Why are you investigating this event, Lieutenant, Knight?”
Persephone pursed her lips tightly. “We’re not yet free to discuss that, Consul.”
Heather shot Sienna an apologetic glance, coupled by a grimace that she hoped conveyed the worst. There’s really were only two reasons the Church would investigate this, and no doubt Sienna’s not the only mind in the village that can put that together, Heather thought. Either the blast was a matter for the Holy Engineers Corps, of which we’re not part of. Or it concerned the undead.
Sienna looked like she was going to snap at Persephone’s response for a second, and responded with a cool: “Then good day to you both.”
As the Consul shut the door behind them, her only indication that she’d even seen Heather’s gesture was a fractional eye-widening her way.
Persephone and Heather stepped out into the square, and they hunched their shoulders against a fresh drizzle of cold rain. Cool as a glacier, that Consul Sienna. If she wasn’t a Consul, I’d think she was military, Heather thought.
“Why did you ask about the cloaks?” asked Persephone. Heather nearly tripped on a flagstone.
“I just thought it might be important,” said Heather, as if the matter was inconsequential.
Just because the Lieutenant isn’t talking much, doesn’t mean she isn’t listening, thought Heather. The sick feeling twisting was back in her gut. Lots of people wear red cloaks. Doesn’t mean anything.
The walk back to the church meant watching the rain land in puddles of dried blood all over again. Here and there in the streets a stream ran pink. Heather and Persephone both took pains to avoid walking through the blood-tinged waters.
Townsfolk cried out to them as they passed, asking what justice would be wrought, what answers would be given? Would the church make arrests? Who was to blame?
Head down, eyes forward, stiff-legged walk, Heather thought. I’ve got no answers to give. Probably none to ever be had. Not unless I do my job.