Supper was better. At Marceline’s insistence, Roland and Neela had joined them. Some fast talking and firm horse-trading with the kitchens saw a station turned over to them for an hour. Just long enough for Heather to lose herself gratefully in the rhythm of cooking with her mother.
She mashed cheese into potatoes, and her mother sauteed onions and mushrooms alongside. Roland and Neela were more use to Heather airing the wine and supervising, and so they stayed nearby, making pleasant conversation with them. Pleasantries about the day and the First Saint holidays coming in the summer passed between them all.
Heather’s forehead and forearms still burned from the long day in the spring sun. She’d spent more time next to her family’s gravestone than under the tree, but Roland and Neela had once again been right: I am glad I took a lunch there, Heather thought.
I want to go back already, and have a picnic alongside my family again. Even if it means crying. Even if it means losing them was real.
She felt lighter, even though her skin felt tight and hot from the sun, and her throat and eyes ached from crying. Before she’d even realized that tears were running down her face again, Neela was there with a lightly perfumed handkerchief.
“Thank you, Neela. I’m okay, I’m okay, I just…” and she heaved a long breath, and smiled weakly at all three of them. “It’s been a big day.”
“It certainly has,” Neela said.
“Feeling a little better?” Roland enquired.
Heather bit her lip. “Much. Can I go again tomorrow?”
“You may go as many times as you want and need, Heather,” Roland replied. “You decide how long you’re with us, and when. We’re here for you, as long as you need.”
Heather pressed her spoon to the oven, not trusting the flush of gratitude to stay in her control after the emotional exhaustion of her day. Fire bloomed in the heart of the oven, the sausages inside giving up a sizzling crackle at the wash of heat.
Marceline gave Heather a tender look. “You’ll come home soon, then?”
Heather looked away. “I’ll come visit soon, Ma. When I’m ready, and this case is done. It might be a while, but I promise. When it’s done, I’ll come stay a while.”
Her mother gave her a satisfied nod. “Well then if you’re done blackening my sausages, let’s go eat.”
Once she’d fortified herself with a glass of wine with her supper, Heather broached the next topic she’d been dreading: “Mama, you were at their Guiding. Roland, Neela, were you there?”
“I was there, that day,” Roland said, touching his napkin to his lips.
“It was Brother Roland that made sure I got there,” Marceline said.
“Can you tell me about it?” Heather asked.
“Well,” Marceline said. “It was anticlimactic. Nothing like your father’s Guiding. There was some of your husband’s friends. Renny Simons was there, of course. Some of the men came down from the ranch. Just a small group.”
Steven didn’t have any family to attend, Heather thought, frowning. Just friends to see him away. Traded up a foundling’s name for ours, when we married. Steven Stefan, buried Steven Blackthorne. He was always so proud that he’d found a family name for his own.
“How was it?” Heather asked.
“Beautiful, in a funny way,” Marceline replied. “The Walker, she conjured up these leaping waters, in these patterns, while she dropped dye into them. All these colored waters jumping and flying from point to point, like a leaping snake, but more like a ribbon? I thought we might see their souls depart us, but nothing happened. The Walker said, when souls are at peace, they can find their own way back to the Divine. She said it was a good omen.”
So not a moment spent as ghasts and suffering even after death, Heather thought, and smiled down at her food. “I haven’t had many of those, Ma,” she said. “That’s nice to hear.”
Roland touched Neela’s hand. “I think that calls for some more wine,” he said.
Neela beamed at him. “Yes. To family and friends at peaceful rest, safe in the walls of Alektos, comforted in the arms of the Saints, and bathed in light of the Divine. Never forgotten.”
Marceline dabbed at her eyes, and smiled. “I’ll drink to that.”
“So will I,” Heather said, and held out her glass.
Martin swirled the brush around on his palette, gathering the black paint on the tip of the bristles. With slow care, he drew another stripe across the equine flank on his canvas, doing his best to imitate the striping of the centaur seen only from a healthy distance.
Behind him, a squire sat bound by stout rope in a chair, convulsing against the ropes. Behind him stood Cristo, the brass automaton. The machine was bent down, scratching a rune into the squire’s exposed neckbones that sat revealed under torn skin.
The young man’s arms corded against the ropes. A noise more akin to a piteous animal than anything a human voice should have made leaked out around his gag.
“Hush now,” Martin said, his smile a merry, avuncular thing as he turned to gently scold the man. “No sense in complaining. You’re a good little soldier, and good little soldiers lay down their lives against rebellions. Revolutions don’t really begin until people die, isn’t that so?”
He stepped away from the canvas, and circled the room, staring at it from every angle. “Those stripes of his are tricky. Little birds don’t have fine eyes. Squire, be a good lad, will you answer my questions?”
The automaton’s scratching of brass on bone ceased abruptly. The bound man convulsed again, and then relaxed, boneless. Blood trickled down his shoulders and onto the leather sheets laid out around him. Determined, he shook his head.
“Good to know!” Martin exclaimed cheerfully. He drew another paintbrush out of his brush-jar, and dipped it in the pooling blood, drawing out long, looping whorls. The lines of paint intersected, looping and tangling in ways that made Martin’s head hurt if he thought about them too hard. “I hope you don’t mind a bit of artistic license, m’boy. My partner behind you is only creative when he wants to shirk his work.”
Martin crouched down in front of the bleeding, convulsing man. “Now don’t you fret. You’re going to die a good soldier’s death. I’m sure they’ll bury you somewhere nice, where all your useful bones will go to boring waste. Can you imagine, they don’t even decorate those clay balls they bake you all into?” He clapped the squire on the cheek twice, and Cristo’s hand skipped on bone before returning to the rhythm of the scratching.
Though his eyes were dull from blood loss and the tendrils of Martin’s magic painted into the pattern around him, the squire had some fight left in him. He tried to lunge at Martin, but earned nothing more than a small creak of the ropes that held him fast.
Martin poured himself a glass of wine, and stood contemplating the scene; a sweating, convulsing soldier, a brass automaton at work, and paint and blood decorating the floor around the man.
“Now there’s a lovely sight,” Martin said, as black smoke began to rise from the drying blood, long curlicues of smoke rising into the air as serene as kelp fronds in the river. Up the bound man’s nose the smoke curled, inky tendrils reaching into him. The squire began to gag and choke, and his eyes rolled into the back of his head.
“Cristo, stop. Return to your station,” Martin said, and the brass automaton complied.
Martin flicked his paintbrush against the side of the man’s face, the trail of blood causing the man’s skin to blister and smoke. The rope holding the gag in his jaw corroded away in seconds. The man didn’t react. Martin drew the gag out of the squire’s mouth.
“All that fuss and fight, for just a few simple questions,” Martin tutted. “Squire, in which part of this church here would a little bird find Captain Ramdas Pramath. You know, the zentauro?”
A robed and hooded figure stood in the doorway of Ramdas’s office, accompanied by a puzzled squire. The figure wore the heavy ashen robe of a penitent, hands and face obscured in the thick woolens fringed with fur. His garb was unseasonably warm for any season Venicia had to offer.
Ramdas looked up from the files in his hands. Three squires missing in the last week, and strangers at my door, the centaur thought, shutting the report. “One moment, Squire. Signor, lift your hood please.”
Slowly, the man did so, just enough to allow Ramdas to see his face.
Ramdas’s expression froze somewhere between a smile and panic. He smoothed his features into a stern frown, and locked eyes on the squire. “Squire Gibaldi, I’ve been expecting this penitent. Shut the door, please, and post yourself outside. I’m not to be disturbed.”
The squire snapped a sharp salute, and ushered the silent, robed man inside, before shutting the door. Ramdas held up a hand towards the robed man to indicate silence, as the buttons on Ramdas’s jacket cuffs lit on fire. Blue and green and yellow flames jetted out, an inch long, like a smith’s torch.
“Not a word yet, please,” Ramdas said. “New protocols, just like the old, but more so.”
Repository recognized. Maximum privacy ward, instructed his jacket, that precise, clipped, inhuman tone in his ear setting the centaur’s hand to motion. With a whistle and a tap of Ramdas’s fingertips along the desk, a series of runes all to Greyson’s specification flashed to life. The windows of his office, already frosted, grew opaque as brick. Next, the floors, walls, and ceilings all came to life in a pale blue glow.
The smell of pineapples and burnt hair hung faintly around them, and a dull, buzzing hum rattled out of every board in the room.
Only when the room was secured to the very limits of the Church of the Saint’s ability, Ramdas let his hand drop, the flames from his buttons on his cuffs sputtering out.
The silent penitent throw open his robe with a groan. “I should not have kept that damned robe,” the man said, breaking into a grin. “But I’ll take the heat over Frostmoor.”
Ramdas allowed himself a laugh, coming around the desk to embrace the man, and give his back a firm slap. “You should not have kept that robe, Paolo. You’re a long way from scrubbing pots for Blackthorne, and it calls attention here.”
“I’ll be trading it up today,” Paolo said. Then his eyebrows rose in interest. “Is Blackthorne here yet?”
Ramdas gave a sad shake of his head. “Not yet. I’m assured soon.”
“Damn,” Paolo said. He fished out a coin purse, and quirked an eyebrow Ramdas’s way. “You don’t mind if I put my own ward down?”
The centaur smiled. “Not at all. One more layer of security.”
Paolo fished out the coins, and began to carefully arrange them around on top of Ramdas’s desk, hexagons laid out in silver and copper. “Thank you, Captain. You know how the runes are. Sometimes I think they’re almost as paranoid as Greyson.”
“As well they should be,” Ramdas replied, watching the careful arrangement of coins begin. As Paolo worked, the coins began to move untouched, two or three of them responding when the man’s finger slid only one. “How’s it been up there? Was Blackthorne still fouling up your work half the time?”
“You have no idea,” laughed Paolo. “She’s very serious about her mis en place. I’d move the pepper shaker to reinforce the north ward, and it would be back in place ten minutes later. I can’t even count how many counter-sweeps I had to do, finding the last of those damned crystal earrings they left around the church.”
Ramdas nodded gravely. “Scrimshaw Spider was very clever. I wonder how much advantage they lost when they engineered our exile. We were speaking far more freely, back then.” He lifted a hand to indicate the powerful wards securing the room.
“Well, you were,” Paolo said, his smile tinged with asperity. He flicked five more coins out onto the desk, and when the last one was arranged in place to his liking, another ward cast its glow around him and his chair.
Ramdas leaned into the tighter bubble of magic. “So why did Greyson send you here, Paolo? I thought he liked you at the ends of the world.”
“Well the ends of the world haven’t felt very safe,” Paolo replied. “It’s a good place to play my part, but he decided the amount of traffic coming and going from the church when times are interesting was calling attention to itself. And things have been very interesting.” He bowed his head deeply, until his forehead came to rest on Ramdas’s desk. “When you’re ready.”
The centaur took a long breath, and then reached down to grasp Paolo’s curly brown hair, parting it to find the tattooed rune along the back of his skull. “Debrief, Scrimshaw Spider. Captain Ramdas Sachetan Pramath. Flowkey light west, fire east, shadow down, shadow down, shadow down, air clockwise…”
The flowkey lasted twenty incantations, carefully drilled and recited. When it ended, Paolo convulsed, hard, a choking, gurgling sound rising up from his throat, foaming spittle tinged with pink raining down on the floor. Ramdas’s grip on Paolo’s head held fast, pinning his forehead to the desk as the man’s body thrashed in his chair.
With a hoarse gasp, the fit ended, and Paolo moaned a low, animal sound of distress. Then a flat simulacrum of a voice spoke out of his throat, inflectionless and as inhuman as the voices woven in Ramdas’s coat: “Authorization recognized. Scrimshaw Spider confirmed clear. Beginning debrief in thirty seconds. Warning: Unauthorized access to this information is a criminal offense. Officers and service members of the Church and Saints must immediately present themselves for debrief if you have accessed this information without authorization.”
The warning trundled on, Paolo’s head rising as Ramdas released his grip. A thin trickle of blood from his bitten tongue ran from Paolo’s lips as he spoke. The man’s eyes were rolled back hard into his head, subtle tremors and convulsion occasionally running through his muscles, leaving him twitching in the chair. Despite that, his mouth moved in a slow, steady cadence, speaking each word precisely as he recited the report implanted by Greyson within him:
Scrimshaw Spider activity has compromised the support of all Church-partnered spirit-walkers and their attendant spirits, including Alektos.
Spirit-walkers report that while they may continue their military duties on behalf of the Church, their attendant spirits cannot. Demands for explanation are refused. Attempts at compelled statements and service were met with immediate and overwhelming resistance on the part of the Walker’s attendant spirits.
The Pope has made clear that no further attempts at compelled statements will be attempted, with Alektos personally promising to intervene.
At this time, we cannot rely on the support of spirit-walkers, up to and including the Pope and Alektos, in the struggle against Scrimshaw Spider. Intelligence reports confirm that Imperial army Walkers are likewise compromised. Independent spirit-walkers likewise confirm their unwillingness or inability to act against undead forces.
This crippling of our martial capabilities, and those of nations allied or friendly to the Empire, presents a clear and present danger to both the Church and the faithful we are tasked to guard.
My hypothesis, not yet confirmed, is that after Scrimshaw Spider got wind of the Vitae incident in Frostmoor, they have developed a means of subverting undead Spirit-walkers and their bonds with Spirits. The mechanism for this is unknown, and spirit-walkers are flatly refusing to answer or speculate.
This is unprecedented, Pramath.
Aside from this, the paper mill you recently secured for us proves a direct link to Scrimshaw Spider. The paper type and grain matched exactly to samples Detective Blackthorne gathered of the bombs used to destroy the Sending Gate at Frostmoor. That transforms one suspicious paper factory into a weapons manufacturing facility, that operated for years without interruption. We have no way of knowing how many of those explosive runes they’ve had time to prepare, but it is certainly in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions.
The Merchant’s Guild has been informed of the link, but our requests for information to the chain of ownership on the factory have been utterly stonewalled. They’re playing the ‘officially neutral’ card on this. Don’t count on their help.
Under the circumstances, I release Paolo DiCosta to your command. All previously secured information stored within him has been erased. Use him for secure courier communications as needed. His status as a courier should be need-to-know, maintain the cover story of penitent where possible.
Finally, reports are beginning to arrive of major undead movements from both the Thousand Kingdoms, and Hanshu. Agent reports indicate numbers in the thousands, streaming into the sea. Navies for both the Thousand Kingdoms and Hanshu are mobilizing.
We anticipate war.
Captain Pramath, you are hereby ordered to use all resources necessary to locate, secure, and eliminate Scrimshaw Spider throughout Venicia, while defending the faithful to the best of your ability. You are hereby issued the code-phrase ‘Osedax’. All agents and officers in your region have been briefed to render all aid to authorized agents bearing this phrase. Disseminate it only to your direct agents.
Saints guide you, and Alektos guard you.
Paolo’s body sank down atop the desk with a hoarse gasp, a thin trickle of blood leaking out from under his left eyelid. This left Ramdas standing over him, a feeling of ice crawling up his spine, staring at the frosted windows and wishing he were anywhere else.
“Order received, and confirmed,” Ramdas said, staring off at the ward-frosted windows, wishing he were anywhere else.
Paolo gave a weak groan, and started to slide off of the desk in a boneless slump. Ramdas quickly grabbed the man by his shoulder and tipped him back carefully into the chair once more.
“Careful now, DiCosta,” the centaur said, frowning in concern. “Be at ease.”
The man’s eyes slowly came back into focus under the locks of his curly brown hair. He coughed hoarsely, and worked his jaw, before groaning out: “That felt like a long one, Ramdas.”
“It was,” Ramdas said, grimacing. “Do you remember any of it?”
Paolo shook his head. “Not a word. I never do.”
The perfect courier, Ramdas thought bitterly. Or as perfect as magic can make. No memory of the message, no way to know what it ever was in the first place. Only that it was important enough to put all our lives on the line for.
Ramdas helped Paolo sit up straight again, and held his shoulder until the man stopped wobbling. While he held Paolo upright, the centaur explained: “As of this moment, you are under my command until Greyson recalls you. I expect we’ll be sending you on quite a few journeys soon.”
The centaur paused, considering what the agent before him needed to know. “We anticipate open war with Scrimshaw Spider. We’re to locate, secure, and eliminate Scrimshaw Spider, while defending the faithful.”
Paolo grunted. “Well, we’d better get to work, hadn’t we?”
“You’re eager to face field-work, Paolo?”
The man wiped the last of his blood-tinged drool from his lip, and gave a sharp nod, locking eyes with Ramdas. “I spent years in silence, Ramdas, except for when I could afford to say something to you, or Major Weathers before you. I had to stand by while Scrimshaw Spider ran roughshod over Frostmoor and then, more years after, holding my tongue, taking the information passed to me, keeping it for the Church. Yeah, I’m through with that. I’m back home, and my Church and my homeland needs me.”
The centaur’s smile looked pained. “More than you’ll ever know, Paolo. Come. Let’s go find us a horse-drawn carriage.”
Adeeva drew open the padlock, and laughed as her boys hammered their hooves against the door. “Back, you silly beasts, back all of you, I’ve brought your oats. Manners, now,” she chided them, as she trotted into the courtyard, and began to hand out lunch to her children. Fluttering white motion and a rustling noise drew her attention along the top of the wall, and she watched a flock of small white birds wheel up into the sky.
“You see? You’ve startled the birds.”
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