The crisp spring wind off of Frostmoor Bay drove the clouds to blue distraction. Heather tugged at the front of her parka, and hunched her shoulders against the cold as she walked up the well-runed path to Frostmoor’s new Sending Gate.

Rubble from the old gate’s bombing had long since been cleared away. The replacement Gate thrummed with harmonious power, constrained, covered, and filled by a network of complex runes. To Heather’s arcane senses, approaching it felt as though she swam through a sea of sensations. The magic of the Gate’s runes prickled and scratched at her skin, and left her feeling stretched across the entirety of the Gate and town square.

It felt like having ghostly fingers ten meters long, running across the satin-wrapped barbed wire of a containment rune. Or painlessly stretching her tongue an impossible three meters overhead, to explore the texture of the fuzzy, hot alarm rune on one of the Gate’s arches.  

It wasn’t a wholly unpleasant sensation, to be surrounded by so much powerful magic, but it was overwhelming in its complexity. Heather tuned it out as best she could, and bent into the wind as she made for the gate. The operator at the gate hadn’t changed in years, and Heather smiled to him.

“Consul Alfonse.”

“Knight Blackthorne. Don’t tell me you’re finally taking a holiday?”

Heather hiked her duffel bag, and set it down on the stones between them to be weighed. “Not me,” she said. “Heading to Bastia. One way.”

Alfonse’s bushy, gray eyebrows climbed, and he beamed at her good fortune. “Well, the Pope and Alektos themselves must have sung your name in hymn!” he exclaimed. He extended his hand her way. “You enjoy yourself a proper summer, Knight.”

Heather shook hands with the man. “I will,” she said. “You be careful firing this gate up without me around, Consul.”

The old Consul laughed, and knuckled his brow. “I’ll have to be. Who’s going to save my life, next time?”

Smiling about it was hard. People had died that day, when Martin Andrews and his cohorts had bombed the Sending Gate. More had been maimed, in those terrible moments when space and time had shattered like glass. The cracks of Void that had spilled into the world had cut through everything they touched, even adamant, and into flesh beyond. It didn’t feel right to laugh too loudly, not when Heather passed people every day who’d lost limbs or family on that day.

But they’d survived, and Alfonse’s pained eyes behind his smile were a sobering reminder that their salvation had come at a high cost. But it had been salvation, and that was her only comfort to the memory of that day.

The silence turned awkward, and Heather turned and picked up her bag. “Martial fare’s authorized, Alfonse. Ready when you are.”

The man waved his hand through the air, and flung a net of magic around the great, runed stones of the gate–

— and Heather’s ears popped. She squinted into the bright morning sun, and fought the reflex to cover her ears against a cacophony of sound. After three years of Frostmoor’s sharp, clean, icy winds, the fetid stink of Bastia’s swamps and canals flung itself up her nose.

“Clear the gate, clear the gate!” called a bored Consul.

Heather took her bearings, and then jogged off the Sending Gate’s platform. Three years away from Bastia had refreshed its impact on her senses, it lifted her spirits as her eyes scanned the familiar skyline.

Buildings towered over her, spires from chapels and government buildings alike punching up into the sky. The Merchant Guild’s compound fell away behind her as she walked out into the street, and she shed her heavy fur coat as she walked. The prickle of her pores opening under the humid heat of the day excited her.

Crowds jostled around her, beggars reaching out to her, pickpockets veering away. She dropped a few coins in a bowl for a blind man, turned a corner, and climbed the stairs of an archway for a better view of the city. Roads stretched out around her, the great thoroughfares of Bastia and her grand bridges spanning all five rivers in their confluence.

Overhead, airships came and went in the sky. Large, enclosed airships sculled lazily through the clouds, while the smaller ships, open to the spring air, flew in aimless circles for the pleasure of their passengers or drivers. Along the rooftops, common couriers ran, their steps sped by magic, and held aloft on every leap by conjured gusts of winds.

To the northeast, the Montaigne palace cast minarets to the sky like eager arms. While to Heather’s immediate south, the grand Cathedral of the Saints and the compound around it shone in the spring sunlight. Closer to the ground, the rougher crags of the white marble walls harbored moss and flowering vines, their blooms a riot of color.

Heather began to turn her head towards the dockside neighborhood, where her once-home still stood, and then wrenched her eyes away. No, she thought, exhaling a short flame, blue with her sorrow. There’s nothing there for me now. I see it every night in my nightmares, anyway.

The walk to the grand Cathedral took twenty minutes. Along the way, she passed a prayer wall, where hands of passersby and pilgrims reached up to touch spotless white marble personally conjured by the spirit Alektos. Their hands sank into stone as if it were soft putty, leaving their handprint, proof of their tithe of magic to Alektos. Heather stepped up to press her own palm to the wall.

The white stone felt as soft as skin, and just as warm. She closed her eyes.

Alektos, thank you for your vigilance, she prayed. My captain put a rune of yours into my tongue, once upon a time, so I can never give evil men our secrets that preserve lives. Thank you for looking out for all of us.

She willed her turmoil, and then her gratitude, through her hand and into the stone. The magic sank in and vanished, consumed greedily by the spirit. When she withdrew her hand, the stone around her fingers clung for just a moment, like a friend returning a kindly squeeze. Then it released her, leaving her proud handprint on the wall. It would be gone by tomorrow, replaced by someone else’s hand and gift. The thought made her smile.

Stepping through the gates, she saluted the guard captain on duty, and was saluted in turn.

“Detective-Sergeant Blackthorne, reporting as ordered,” Heather said.

The guard captain took Heather’s proffered papers and scanned them. The woman tapped a gauntleted finger on the paper. “Welcome to Bastia, Detective. It says here you’re to rendezvous with a Sister Neela Nalee. Do you know where to find her?”

“I’ve no idea,” Heather said. “Just got the letter this morning. Never met her before.”

The guard captain opened her ledger, and scanned down the pages, conjuring reading glasses with a lick of her tongue and a line drawn across her eyes. “Circle. Inner Circle.” the guard captain raised her eyebrows.

The Circle? The thought brought Heather up short. What in the world could they want to see me for? I’m no whoremonger. And the Inner Circle?

Heather had only ever seen one Inner Circle member, and from a distance. She’d drawn guard duty for a gala once, in her first year as a knight. The woman had been as pale and beautiful as a swan, and she’d worn the archbishop’s arm on her own with the dignity and grace of a queen.

“I have no idea what this is about,” Heather said, eyes widening in bafflement. “You’re sure that’s where I’m supposed to go?”

“That what it says,” the guard captain said. She gestured down the westernmost wall of the Cathedral. “Main doors, left, and sit on the green bench. Someone will take you from there.”

“Alright. Thank you,” Heather said. She saluted, drew up her duffel bag, and followed the western wall to the main doors of the cathedral.

The runes inside the Cathedral felt like the childhood memory of being held by her mother and rocked in her rocking chair, comforting her through storms or childhood illness. The protective runes throughout the building made her feel swollen with contentment, as if limbs twenty meters away were being being stroked by soft velvet and kindly flannel. The well-tuned runes had long ago been crafted with care, to please every sense that took in the arcane. She sat down on the green bench, closed her eyes, and let her mind fill the space of her senses. To her senses, with so much magic about her, it felt as if her body grew and grew until it took in most of the front of the cathedral.

It feels like being pregnant with Anthony, she thought. The realization was a bittersweet acid scalding her heart. That whole-body contentment. Feeling like, for just once, everything can be alright. Saints, I’ve missed coming here. She wiped a small tear away from her cheek, and was very careful to pour the heat of her emotions out into the stone under her boots, just enough to be pleasantly warm for the next person who might rest their feet there.

In front of her ran a long, busy desk, with a staff of at least three dozen scribes and priests and couriers. Their workspace was in constant motion, with raised voices calling out as they dealt with the influx of messages, reports, and visitors.

There’s more people in this room than there is in all of Frostmoor, Heather thought, as she scanned the traffic around her. Knights came and went from the desk, missives and orders in hand. Priests and priestesses passed by, some caught in debates of orthodoxy, and others simply discussing the spring weather. Passersby carried news and gossip, from the latest report of a Hanshu fleet at sail, to the troubles of a neighborhood parish.

Civilization, Heather mused. I must look like a proper hayseed knight, dressed in furs a season too warm and staring around the room like I’ve never seen it before. Three years is too long to be away from this. This is where the action is. It’s nice to be home.

Except it isn’t home, anymore, is it? It used to be, with a nice little house in the suburbs, and a husband and a son. I’ll probably have to bunk here, now. Saints knows I don’t ever want to go back to that house.

Two fellow Detectives nodded to her as they passed by, both of their collars bearing the same eye-in-sun pins. Their faces were unfamiliar, and Heather found that reassuring. Three years is a long time in the big city. Hopefully people have forgotten about the pottery incident. Or how many months that I couldn’t write a report without thinking of Steven and Anthony, and crying all over it.

Suddenly, she was very glad she wasn’t meeting someone from the Investigatory bureau first.

It wasn’t long before a brightly smiling young girl flounced over to her. She couldn’t have been older than eight years old, and the brown ringlets of her hair bounced as she hopped from foot to foot in excitement.

“Pardon me?” the girl said, bouncing on her toes, and waited for Heather’s eyes to focus on her. “Are you Knight Heather Blackthorne? Sister Neela wants you to come see her, okay? She’s got a nice room for you!”

Heather couldn’t help but crack a weary, but sincere smile at the child’s enthusiasm. “Yeah, that’s me, kid. Nice to meet you.” She rose to her feet, and picked up her duffel bag, and followed the beckoning girl through a doorway and into a quiet hallway beyond.

“I’m Lisa, by the way!” the girl said. “It’s very nice to meet you too!”

Must be the first time this kid’s ever had to escort someone herself, before, Heather thought. The girl’s enthusiasm was infectious, and Heather found herself slowing her walk for the sake of speaking with the girl a little longer.

So, who’s this Sister Neela?” Heather asked. “Have you met her before?”

Lisa’s artless smile lit up her face, as she scampered ahead to tug open the doorway to the stairwell and ushered Heather through, as if the knight was an honored guest, too important to open her own doors. “Oh yes! She’s very nice, and very pretty! She’s Inner Circle, too! Like me!”

Heather couldn’t help being tugged along by the girl’s bubbly energy. “You’re an awfully young girl for such a big job, Lisa. But I’ll bet you make everyone smile, right?”

“I try!” Lisa replied, bouncing up the steps, leading Heather up six stories before opening a door to a quieter, well-appointed hallway.

Heather’s eyes widened, taking in the plush carpeting, and the rich walnut paneling interspersed between marble columns. Paintings hung on the walls, paintings fine enough even Heather could tell, at a glance, they were worth being stared at. Fresh flowers rested in vases.

This must be what the palace looks like, inside, Heather thought. Saints alive, this is fancy!

Heather quickly turned her attention back to the little girl, before the opulence of her surroundings could rattle her further. “Ain’t you a kick, Lisa. You study your scriptures, too? Learn all your prayers and saints?”

Lisa beamed and nodded. “Every day, Knight! The sisters and brothers make sure I learn well, and take the good Saint’s words to heart and soul.” She pushed open another tall oaken door and gestured to the room inside.

The room stunned Heather. A circular, blossoming window faced the western gardens, allowing Heather to see the rivers out past the rooftops. Spring sunlight flooded the room with yellow light.

The bed’s beautiful, Heather thought. Furniture’s all either teak or mahogany. This must be the sort of room they put noble guests in.

Heather tore her eyes away from scanning the room, and looked back at Lisa. “This sure is one fancy-looking room, Lisa.”

The girl bowed happily. “Glad you like it! Sister Neela will be with you shortly. What sort of tea would you like sent up?”

“Um, black’s fine. Are… are you sure this is my room?” Heather gestured helplessly around the suite, then at a lamp that looked like it was worth more than everything she had ever owned, combined. “I mean this is… well. I’m just a Sergeant.”

The little girl gave a kindly giggle, and bobbed her head in excitement. “It’s not yours to keep, but you get to stay here, and make yourself at home! What do you like with your tea? Cream, honey, lemon, vanilla?”

Heather held up an amused hand. “Just a little sugar will do. Nothing fancy.”

“Yes ma’am!” The girl shut the door.

Heather unslung her bag, and stripped off the last of her furs. Her eyes lingered on the heavy, northern parka.

No time to go getting self-conscious over it, Heather chided herself. They were perfectly good up north. But I’ll swelter and die if I’m in them for one more minute. She changed into the lightest clothing she still owned; heavy riding breeches and a flannel shirt that had once been her husband’s.

Changed and with her bag squared away, Heather answered a polite knock by another eager child, bearing a pot of tea.

You’re about as old as my boy would be, by now, Heather thought, and plastered on a polite smile as she thanked him, and saw him out.

With no idea when to expect her host, Heather settled in the sun-lit couch by the tall windows. Her eyes searched the western gardens for answers, and the river and far beyond. The first sip of her tea earned a grunt of pleased surprise from her. That’s truly damn good tea. And not a spot of stew floating in it. I like Ooluk and his people, but I’ll never touch a drop of their awful stew-tea again, if I have my way!

She was half-way through the pot of tea, and the tray of biscuits alongside, when a polite knock sounded at her door.

“Come in!” Heather called.

The woman who swept in was so beautiful, Heather’s first instinct was to feel for magic. Rich, vain women who could afford it often ensured their cosmetics were conjured, or permanently imbued. This one didn’t need it, green eyes clashing over a smile as warm as the sunbeam on Heather’s back, with crinkles around her eyes and laugh lines around her mouth, like scars left by joy.

She moves like a Venician dancer, Heather thought, rising automatically to her feet. And she’s smiling like she knows me. Once again, Heather polled her senses for magic, and found nothing untoward. If she was using magic, I’d feel it by now.

“Hello,” the woman said, gently extending a willowy hand Heather’s way. Her wrist bore a pair of thin white silk ribbons twined around one-another in a simple bracelet. “I’m Neela. And you must be Heather.”

The way the woman said her name, so full of artless sincerity and respect, once again took Heather’s internal balance away. She says it like I’m the one who just swept in here like something out of a bard’s song, Heather thought.

Heather searched the woman’s green eyes for sign of a jape, or some reason to distrust. As a Detective, staring into guarded eyes and sussing out guilt, suspicion, and bad intentions, had been her job from day one. But in those green eyes she found only openness; Neela met her scrutiny, allowing her to look in.

I’ve looked into the eyes of murderers and bastards of every stripe. It’s like the polar opposite, here. No hardness, no guarding, no hesitation. It’s all sympathy, without pity, Heather thought, swallowing down at something heavy climbing up her throat. What does it take to meet the world with eyes like that?

They were eyes Heather liked on the spot.

She set down her teacup on the table, and accepted the proffered hand, dipping her head unconsciously. “Yes, my Lady,” Heather said, fumbling for words and to shake the woman’s hand with any semblance of grace. “Uh, that’s… that’s me. Mind if I ask, uh… what’s the occasion?”

Neela’s smile came again, brilliant and calming, as natural to her face as the sun in the sky. “Please, call me Neela. I’m not a noblewoman, Heather. I’m just a sister of the church, like you. As for the occasion? You’re being given a furlough for a while. Roland will explain everything.”

It was Neela’s turn to show a touch of self-consciousness, in the way her voice faltered. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting you. It’s nice to finally meet the woman behind the reports.”

Heather looked down and away, scratching awkwardly behind her ear. Reports everywhere. By me, or about me? Or both? Is this about losing my family, or about the nightmare up north?

“Yeah, well. It’s not every day you ruin a royal gift from Venicia, to the Emperor,” Heather essayed, swallowing. “What else did those reports say, if you don’t mind my asking?”

The woman stepped forward, and laid two gentle fingers atop Heather’s wrist, and looked into Heather’s eyes. “They said you were a very good knight,” she said softly. “Who deserves a rest, for a while. I’ve asked Roland to be here for you, for as long as you need.”

Neela withdrew her hand, and touched her fingertips next to the silk-ribbon bracelet on her wrist. Then her eyes returned to Heather’s, and spoke in a confidence and faith that Heather had seldom heard, even from the best preachers. “He’s the best, Heather. I think he’ll really like you.”

At her words, another small knock sounded at Heather’s door, and Neela flashed Heather an encouraging smile. “You don’t mind if I introduce you two?”

Heather blinked, her brows drawing down as a puzzled frown tugged at the corners of her lips. “Go ahead.”

That timing is no coincidence, Heather thought, as she watched Neela head for the door. They’re furloughing me to the Circle’s care. Which means either someone has badly misjudged how interested I am in romance…

Another puzzle piece in Heather’s mind clicked into place. Something a Circle girl from Frostmoor had told her once about the town grocer, as they’d scrambled to feed a starving town: Remember, he’s got a heart, too.

Heather drew a sharp breath. … or someone in the Church thinks my heart is close to its breaking point. Four years too late for that.

The door opened to reveal a man as remarkable as Neela. He was dressed in a suit as fine as any noble Lord’s, adroitly tailored to suit his body. His soulful brown eyes flashed as he met Heather’s gaze, and the graying at his temples underneath his black hair was just enough to sit at that perfect point where once-youthful good looks slid into distinguished and handsome.

He’s using magic on me, some part of Heather’s mind noted. He’s a Gorgon. That spell felt like someone cupping my cheek, just before a kiss. He’s putting on a bit of glamour, drawing my attention to the positive. Cheeky!

Heather let her mind float above her emotions, as she’d been trained, and considered resisting the magic. It wasn’t a powerful spell, just the same sort of subtle bit of social tweaking she’d watched a few noble ladies and courtesans use. Easing tensions, drawing positive attention, no different than good cosmetics, or a lightly enchanted perfume. Tearing that spell apart would be rude. I’ll let this play out, she thought.

“Roland, please come in,” Neela said, taking him gently by a hand.

Roland paused to kiss the corner of Neela’s mouth in greeting. It was a kiss somewhere between the manner of a brother and a lover, or of old friends. They shared a welcoming smile between them, and then extended it to include her, as if to a private, treasured family event. Then Roland did a double-take, and startled in pleasure, as if he’d found an unexpected gift.

“Heather, this is Roland Rolente. Roland, this is Heather Blackthorne,” Neela said.

Roland bowed in a courtly way, and met Heather’s eyes again.

Heather had been about to laugh, ready to call out the little bit of play-acting she’d spotted in their entry. But Roland’s eyes stopped her. Not magic, this time.

He’s got those same eyes, she realized, her cynical laugh dying in her throat. Same as Neela. Sympathy, but no pity. He’s letting me look. All the doors wide open.

Oh, Saints. They’re not putting one over on me. They’re doing all this for me!

She wished for her mace, suddenly, wished for something to pour her irrational terror that the thought filled her with. Four years since my husband and son died, three years since we face down those bone-robbing bastards in Frostmoor. And now the church sends me here. Why?

“It’s an honor to finally meet you, Heather. Neela’s too kind to me,” Roland said. He had a voice like buckwheat honey poured through sunlight; dark and sweet, and no stranger to song.

He bent to kiss the back of Heather’s hand, and then from behind his back, he produced a bouquet of brilliant, red-purple flowers. They were three tall stalks of flowers, in outrageous bloom, a virulent pink-purple color so bright Heather had to check twice to confirm they weren’t enchanted. He presented them to her, and when his eyes flashed again over a genuine smile, Heather didn’t fight against the touch of magic behind his gaze.

His spell felt like the way her husband used to run his fingers through her hair, a gentle touch of affection. Heather drew a breath, and allowed herself a worried smile.

“Um, hi,” Heather croaked, the best her tired and anxious mind could produce. “It’s good to meet you, Roland. What’re the flowers for?” she asked, as she accepted them from his hand.

“They’re for you,” he said, with a warm, sweet intensity of a man proposing marriage.

Heather couldn’t help the blush that creeped up her cheeks, swaying a little under the sheer charisma of the man and the woman before her. It should have annoyed her, but there was an irrepressible sincerity in their eyes that Heather hadn’t seen since…

… since maybe Helga, in the best of her moments. When all she could talk about or think about was how much she loved Persephone.

And that’s what decided it, for Heather.

Magic or not, charm or not… she brought the flowers to her nose, smelled them. … this is the first time in four years I’ve even had a flower to smell. Nothing up north in Frostmoor ever bloomed, nothing more than those tiny, scentless flowers anyway. Nothing like these stalks of flowers. Such outrageous, obscene color, they almost hurt to look at!

Heather broke into a tentative smile, her work-callused hands carefully brushing along the petals. “Um. Thank you. Very much. What kind of flowers are these?”

Roland lifted a finger to touch another one of the petals, his eyes momentarily pained. “They’re a Venician fireweed. Every summer, in the dry season, fires rage there. Farms are burnt, houses lost, families torn apart.”

He smiled then, through the pain in his voice, and continued. “But these are always the first things to grow back. And a month after fire’s passed, when the first rains come again? These cover every hill and field, as far as the eye can see. And they give shelter to the precious growing seeds of a winter’s harvest, or a new growth of forest, or meadow.”

Heather flinched, and stared down at the bundle of flowers in her hands. “Oh,” she said softly.

I guess he did read the reports, she thought.

“Heather?” Neela said.

The gentle way Neela spoke her name snagged Heather’s full attention, more than any shout or bellow could have. Heather found herself blinking owlishly at the woman, her eyes itching, a heaviness in her jaw beginning to ache.

Neela reached out and laid two fingers across Heather’s forearm, a sisterly touch that was accompanied by a reassuring smile. “I’m going to leave you with Roland for a while, if that’s alright with you. If you need me, I’m two doors down the hall. My door is open for you, day or night, no matter what. But Roland’s also here to help you, for as long as you need. You and he decide, together, how long you need that to be.”

“Okay,” Heather whispered.

I don’t even know this man, or you, for that matter, she thought. But the thought held no urgency, or panic. I’ve spent my entire career sussing out bad folks from good ones. These two feel like good people.

Neela’s touch slipped away, but her eyes lingered on Heather’s, sincere in their warmth and smile. “You’ll be okay,” she whispered back, and let herself out.

Heather turned back from the door, and towards the man whose company she’d been left in.

Roland waited through two heartbeats of Heather’s awkward stare, and then reached up with a finger to poke himself in the cheek. “It’s okay,” he said, good humor crinkling the corners of his eyes. “We’re still just flesh and blood, too.”

Heather found her manners, around the same time she remembered to breathe, and pushed out an embarrassed laugh. “Thank you for the flowers, Roland. I’m sorry, I’m not usually like this…” she trailed off, unsure of what to say.

Actually, maybe I am, when I’m not angry or working. I’m not sure I even know who I am anymore, she thought.

He flashed her a warm, welcoming smile. “You’re doing fine. I know we’re a bit much, but that’s part of our job. First impressions matter. There’s a vase for your flowers there.” He gestured towards a vase resting empty, upon an end table by the chair she’d taken her tea in, where it sat opposite a white silk couch.

Of course, Heather thought. They knew they’d be presenting me with flowers, so they prepared. But it was hard not to feel a little impressed by the thoughtful touch. Heather ducked her head and set the flowers down in the vase. “Guess I’m not making much of a first impression here, am I?” she asked.

Roland took a seat on the couch, opposite the comfortable chair. “I promise you, Heather, it’s not you that owes us any sort of impression, good or otherwise. Neela brought your file to my attention four years ago. It’s the duty of the knights to guard the bodies of the faithful. It’s our duty to guard the hearts and minds. That’s why I’m here, and it’s why you’re here. Next question?”

Heather swallowed, and sank carefully into the chair. Reminds me of confessional, she thought. Sun on my back, high ceilings in the room, and all I can think about again is my family.

“I guess… why me?” Heather said. “I mean, I’m flattered and all, but. If this is about what I did in Frostmoor, I just did my job. Survived.”

Roland’s voice rose in intensity, though not volume, and he spoke with the faith of a man declaring the sun would rise in the east, and set in the west. “Because once upon a time, years ago, you took an oath. You promised your life to the Church, and the Pope and Alektos, in service. To put your brave arms and heart between the innocent and harm. You took that oath in faith, not just so that you would serve, but that the Church would be there for you, too.”

He drew a breath, and wetness sparkled under his eyes as he locked his gaze with her. “You were there, Heather, when the church needed you. That’s why.”

Heather let out a hollow croak, a bitter sound masquerading as a laugh. “Right. The Church that needed me so bad, it booted me up to the top of the world, and left me to the mercies of the same bastards who butchered my family.

It wasn’t right to see that hurt on his face, to see it writ large on such artless, sincere eyes. Heather wanted to turn away in shame, but found she couldn’t, found that those wounded eyes wouldn’t release her. Eyes that beautiful shouldn’t hurt like that, she thought. It wasn’t his fault.

But the warmth of his gaze didn’t fade, not a whit, even through the hurt. His next words were gentle and forgiving, tinged with genuine awe: “The faithful needed you then, Heather. And you answered. No matter how much it hurt, you never stopped. You never stopped. You’re the one that never gave up, out there. And Neela and I? We don’t want to give up on you either.”

Heather tore her eyes away, unable to face the pain in the older man’s eyes. Her shrug in response was a limp and listless thing. “Yeah, well. What else am I going to do, Roland? Sure, I took the oath. And I never planned on taking it back, just keep going until I drop. That’s all I want anymore, Roland. That’s all that’s left for me. To just keep the faith and the peace until it’s my time, and maybe take enough of the wicked with me when I go. Make it worth something!”

The anger in her voice caught her by surprise, and she hastily reached for the teapot, pouring the heat of her anger into flows of fire. The teapot warmed in her grip, until the leftover tea was steaming again.

Roland waited until she set the teapot down, and then reached over and poured himself a cup, doctored with a touch of lemon, cream, and honey. “I know that’s all you wanted. That’s why your command was transferred north, and it was a good thing they did. You would have found a way to die, otherwise. Wouldn’t you?”

Heather snorted. “There was plenty of chances up in Frostmoor, Roland. More than I thought any place could hold. And either I was too good or too saints-damned pathetic, but either way, I didn’t die, okay?”

“But you didn’t do much living either. Not at first,” Roland pointed out, and then spread his hands. “Neela and I asked for you to be transferred up north. We had no idea that any of that would happen, or that it would get so bad. If Neela or I had the first inkling, we’d never have let it happen. We’d have found you somewhere else to be. But we can’t see the future, Heather. We wanted you someplace boring and safe. And it eventually was that, after a few years. The way it should have been, from the start, for you.

“It was supposed to be a place to let that pain burn itself out for you. It was that, eventually. I’m sorry it took longer than it should have, and that you suffered so much at time that you didn’t deserve that sort of suffering.”

Heather’s face screwed up in grief, and she turned her away.  “No,” she whispered, her voice tight. “Maybe I didn’t deserve it. But, that never stopped bad things from happening before. Why stop now, right? You thought it was safe, and boring. But the only time it ever felt that way, was when the crisis was over, and everyone was still there. But then they left, Roland. One by one. The Captain. Then Helga and Persephone and Michaels. They did their time. And I got left behind.

“And it went back to almost nobody knowing me, or that my husband and son were dead. Oh, and this will tickle you, Roland. The only one that didn’t leave? Northern kid, Gaiman Ooluk. He’s the only one who stayed. Everyone else at the chapel up there, they all came in later, after it was all over. They hadn’t been through what we’d been through, the pain and the horror. They were just the dregs, same as ever, shipped up to some punishment post or another where nobody gave a damn about them.”

“You did,” Roland retorted. “And you made a family out of them. Every last misfit, reprobate, petty thief, insolent, indolent, oath-breaking one of them. You got up every morning. You cooked, for Church and charity. You cleaned. You didn’t ask for or expect a word of thanks. You baked cakes. You remembered their birthdays.” Roland spread his hands, in an earnest gesture of respect.

He drew a shaky breath, choking on the intensity of the gratitude and sadness in his voice. “When I charge for my services, Heather, I’m very expensive. There are Duchesses out there who cannot afford me. And I’m not telling you this to impress you. I’m telling you this because I want you to understand fully what I mean, when I say this: When Neela asked me to read your file, I knew you were worth my time.”

Roland reached across the gap between them, and laid two gentle fingers across her forearm, in the same kindly gesture Neela had used minutes before. His eyes lingered on hers, heavy with sorrow.

“Heather, it’s time someone stopped turning their back on you, and turned their arms towards you. And you know who else thinks that? The twenty-three people that have come and gone through that chapel in the last three years. I’ve interviewed most of them, Heather. Each and every one said you were the only good thing in Frostmoor.”

Heather’s head lowered, and she shut her eyes. She couldn’t find a response that mattered in the weight of his words, and his sincerity. Nervously, her hands began wringing against each other, knuckles white with the strength of her grip, flickers of flame and sparks darting out from between her hands as emotion overwhelmed her.

Slowly, Roland crouched in front of her, and cupped her fidgeting fingers in both of his hands, gently stilling them.

“I’m here for you. Day or night. For as long as you need. To talk to, to hold. To yell and scream and rage at if you need to, to hit me if you have to. Only you or the Pope can order me away, and she won’t,” he said.

Heather opened her eyes, and stared at Roland’s hands. “I’ve never hit someone who didn’t deserve it,” she said. “I’m not going to start now.”

“Well, I’m glad to hear that,” he replied, smiling. His hands slipped away from hers. “I’m going to let you get settled in. Then, if you’d like, I’d like to have supper with you in a few hours.”

She nodded. “Okay. We can do that.” She looked up, as another thought crossed her mind. “One thing, Roland? Do you know if Frostmoor’s chapel is going to get some proper personnel? I mean, I was the only one running the kitchens up there. All I ever had for regular help was a surly, silent penitent, and I don’t expect him to lift a hand without someone barking at him to do it. And…” she hesitated. “Maybe, if they had a good Captain up there again, like Weathers, or Pramath. It would do a world of good.”

Roland spread his hands helplessly. “I don’t know, but I do know that Neela will have someone good that needs that place just as badly as you once did. And if not Neela, then someone else in our order. Frostmoor was never a punishment post, Heather. If they weren’t worth saving, they’d just have been drummed out of service. It’s a place for saving valuable people. People like you, and those you served with.”

Heather swallowed. “Alright. I guess that’ll do. See you in a few hours, then.”

“Six bells,” Roland promised. “See you then.”

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Click here to read From Spring’s Storms, Chapter 4