Finding the pagan was less difficult than she initially expected. The city of Kallin had been largely opened up to her, its complex of streets both easy to navigate and feverishly complex in their sameness. She had heard that parts of the city had been planned ahead of any actual habitation, and that showed through here more than anywhere else she had seen in the city, with its evenly-spaced blocks and houses and shops having the same basic construction. Even if it confused her initially, she came to appreciate it shortly. There was a grand order to it all.
And then that thought came to disquiet her as she moved from the first safehouse to the second. The despots made the streets, set the paving stones with their immortal intentions. Was the orderliness of it all a scheme, a facade over the cruelty that was laid in the bricks? She recalled the shaping of a focus, how the intent laid in it shaped innocent tools to weapons, innocent clothes to arms, and there was nothing preventing buildings and streets from being haunted by that same cruelty. The Antipodes relied on that principle.
I’m catastrophizing, she thought, as she saw a child kick a little leather ball down the road, Everyone around me seems fine. And the builders, the workmen were the ones setting the stones, and they were the same people who built a revolution.
The first step to finding anyone anywhere was checking for traces. Some traces were physical, but the most common kind of trace anyone could leave behind were other people; those that had seen them, spoken with them¸ were their friends or allies. They had cased and interviewed the intervening alleys and byways that led between the safehouses, by pure coincidence a not-particularly-grueling walk. Edam looked over the half-familiar faces, the startled men and women who had stamped out the overgrown insects that had plagued the area since a week ago.
As she walked, she found herself more and more confused as to why she had been so emotional at the thought of Danza’s proposition – that they simply stop Imera the next time he tried something so awful. The thought of meeting his eye during that kind of cruelty seemed a horrible thought to her but she could not explain exactly why it felt so awful. It was just an awful idea, to see him and tell him to cease what he did, something that seemed to rot away in her gut and make her want to run from everything, or collapse on the spot. But the other part of her told her that it was necessary, that it was needed. Eventually she found the word for it.
Perversion, she thought.
It was a perversion, what he was doing, of the proper practice of bloodletting, of emulating the saints. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t done similar things in the past when he was punishing her, but then he was right to do it. Now, he was taking the matter out on the innocent, and that could not be tolerated any longer – she couldn’t tolerate it any longer. And Danza’s backing would make it easier, and if necessary they could bring it to his superiors, and appeal that the matter had gone on too long. That was a reassurance that she could live with, and then she chided herself. More than that soothing reassurance, she needed to take action the next time it happened.
She felt it. That would make him stop. That would make him see the error in what he was doing.
A few people tipped their hats as she passed, and eventually she found herself speaking to a harried washerwoman. It seemed as if the whole event had happened yesterday for her. She had a perpetually frazzled mouse-like look to her, a black curl spindling down from under her bonnet.
Edam removed her hat as she approached.
Tshiana looked up from her work, her slow and careful scrubbing of clothes with a bucket of water and washboard, and nodded before returning to it.
“Inquisitor,” she said, “Don’t suppose you’re coming around with good news.”
“No news,” said Edam, looking back to where they had cleaned the bloodstains away. The blood of vampires was only useful to them for a short while, and by the time they had gotten there it was far too much of a job to pursue them. Not that pursuing them would have gotten them so far – if they had, there was a great chance that they would have encountered Ana and her new friends. The thought of that mortified her almost more than the aftermath that might come of it. The questions, the accusations, and eventually either a great deal of remanding and punishment or execution.
“I’m actually looking for someone. You mentioned that there were four people who ended up in conflict with the fight that night. And you were the only one who witnessed…”
She gestured to where they had found a pile of discarded entrails. Most were too bizarre and shredded for them to tell them apart, but all of them knew enough anatomy to recognize a shredded caul and womb, the water therein mixed with blood and other organs.
“Aye, I saw three of them coming up real quick around the corner. It wasn’t long after that I ran to Dzhom’s – what of it?”
“The fourth one,” said Edam, “She came later. A tall woman, quite curly hair, darker skin – wearing a very intimidating mask. Might have joined in on the fight?”
“No,” said the washerwoman, “But – oh. Oh no.”
“A woman was around earlier this week, after you came through. Asking if Inquisitor had come by, one that had dark curly hair and a-”
“Oh,” said Edam, “It’s fine if you said something. We have an arrangement and if I or anyone else was in danger for it, I wouldn’t have any reason to see you hurt. Did she say anything about me?”
“Just that she wanted to see you, that’s what Dzhom said she was on about.”
“And no clue as to where I could find her?”
Suddenly, the woman’s nervousness seemed to drop away as she smiled up at Edam.
“I feel like you might not be understanding things around here.”
“Mm? Is she making things harder? Threatening?”
Tshiana looked around for a moment, and set down her work before looking up at Edam rather seriously.
“Some people around Kallin don’t take kindly to people who speak to the authorities. Particularly folks from across the river. I’m not so afraid of them, and I do have an answer or two for you, but not everyone is going to be this friendly and more than a few might see it as a bad thing. Inquisitors get more of a pass, because you’re not military or with the watch or any of that business, but poking your nose in the wrong hole is asking for it to get bitten. Not that I’m threatening you, of course, but I just figured that you ought to know.”
Edam nodded down at Tshiana.
“Well, I knew about that. You don’t need to worry. I’m sensible enough to know where I’m not wanted.”
She had heard of such things. Fraimon was far from any such thing, but the Ille had men who were made for such a job. Snakes, they called them – men who were paid to take the fall for any number of crimes, with lopsided and false confessions before they slipped free of captivity under suspicious circumstances and fled to a different city. She had figured that some Kolet cities had similar issues. There were ways around it, though, and she was still gracious for what help she could get.
“I’m glad to hear it,” said the washerwoman, “Know you folks from the Church are here to help. She said she’d be on the street across from the broken house, and said that you’d know where that was.”
“I think I have an idea,” said Edam, before tipping her hat and taking her leave.
The broken house wasn’t all broken, of course – it was the other safehouse that they had been informed of, a decrepit two-story house with grimy windows and moldering gutters. It had gone into a long sort of disarray that had been punctuated by sudden and terrible violence; a shattered door frame, broken floorboards and gouges that were hard to describe as anything less than claw marks. Life went on in spite of the oddity, and most of the passersby didn’t even give the house a second look.
Not all, though. There in the crowd was a woman, standing far from the house so that she could get a better look at it. She was less formally dressed than she was last night, but no less pretty for it. There was a soft slyness to her face, to the shape of her cheeks, to her broad nose and her doe-eyes. Without a mask, she seemed not just unassuming but outright beautiful – far from the picture of a warrior or assassin.
“Manguyaat,” said Edam as she approached, hand extended, “A pleasure to meet again.”
“Yes, a pleasure,” she said as she rose, and shook Edam’s hand, “Though I seem to have forgotten your name. Or maybe you never told me? I may have had too much to drink that night.”
“Edamosfa-Iforfit Miaza. Inquisitor.”
“What a name,” said Manguyaat in Agoran, “Almost a Sondi name. When did you take it?”
“I didn’t take it,” replied Edam, “It was given. You took yours?”
“Many people back home do, only to return to a given name. I figured it was the same with Agorans.”
“Mm. You know Agoran, then?”
“Well enough,” said Manguyaat, “I picked up Agoran off of a crew of whalers who I sailed with through the Strait of The Two Snakes.”
“Dangerous waters,” said Edam, “I can’t say I’m not impressed.”
“True, but not for the whales. Water that might break a large ship is perfectly fine for the small whales there. Which meant we had good eating and good oil for the whole of the trip.”
Edam looked up at the gouges in the house. It was time to cut to the chase.
“So, you really did track them over the sea,” said Edam, “How’d you do it?”
She shrugged, and sighed.
“First it was the corpses, the slaves.”
“You get used to them,” said Edam, unthinkingly.
“I hate that I did.”
There was a long silence. She needed to be kind, to give her some kind of useful thought or bit of empathy.
“I don’t like it either,” said Edam, shaking her head, “Just a few weeks back, I saw one of their victims. The poor man. He looked so young. And I don’t-”
“It’s fine,” said Manguyaat, “Not your fault. It’s theirs, isn’t it, for being so cruel?”
Edam sighed quietly in agreement. Her smile had disappeared and the sunny day seemed a little dimmer just by bringing the subject up.
“Then, when they were up in Yejenesh, I managed to scavenge a letter from one of their old homes – an invitation to a party. Didn’t need to track them anymore, just get there, since their destination was obvious.”
“So they stopped thinking that you were following them in specific,” said Edam, “I see. How’d you get invited?”
“Invited? Well, I just showed up in my best clothes and said I was a sorcerer and advisor from nowhere, and they took a pile of cash as proof of it all.”
“I see. We just said he’d be in trouble if he didn’t let us come,” said Edam, “I wonder if he’ll write up my meal as a charitable expense to the Church.”
She scoffed, and started to smile again, and Edam smiled in kind.
“It was a very good dinner, excusing the guests. Though that new drink – what did they call it, an extract of wormwood? – awful. I could barely swallow half of what they gave me before I gave up on it. Kolet cuisine is passable so far, but the liquor?”
“You wait until you taste their whiskey. It’ll leave you moaning in a ditch if you drink too much of it.”
“They let you drink?”
“Not in excess,” she said a bit too hastily. She had drunk it once and narrowly avoided a hangover with a generous dose of water and bread. She never liked being drunk. It made her feel too fuzzy and uncontrolled for her tastes.
“Mmhmm. And they let you take bribes?”
“They let you take bribes,” said Manguyaat, matter-of-factly, “Why else would you ask to be with that girl, Merya, alone?”
Ah, thought Edam, She’s made a new name for herself. A good strategy, in the long term.
“I can’t say why in public,” said Edam, “Even considering the use of a different tongue.”
“Ah,” said Manguyaat, “A private matter. I understand. I’m staying in a place just over the river. Would you like to join me?”
Edam scratched the back of her neck and nodded. She felt the leverage that was being used here – the distrust in her eyes, that said more than just suspicion of corruption. The had a fox-like inquisitiveness that seemed to beckon, and she had been assigned to get her on side to help with tracking. She was their specialist in that sense, and they needed all the help that they could get. So, trust needed to be established.
“Alright. I’ll come, and maybe I’ll tell you some details. But you have to promise to help us with the matter of the blueblood.”
Manguyaat extended her hand, shook on it, and grinned.
“You won’t regret it.”
The apartment was nicer than Edam had expected. Indeed, it seemed like in whatever short time that Manguyaat had lived in this country she had adapted to it and come to thrive in it. The little apartment had a good view of a stinking, rotten river that Edam had been repeatedly assured was largely unconnected to the pipes that gave them water to drink and wash with. Outside, the world was cluttered and clambering with people, and here it was not much different. The apartment was taken up in one half by a workshop that Manguyaat had totally taken over, a workbench covered with spare parts, wood shavings, and metal rings. It wasn’t disorganized, either – Edam could appreciate that where there seemed to be chaos there was a sort of logic underneath. Some things were clearly out because they were part of an ongoing project. Others were far more carefully placed into little wooden bins. She fiddled with her hand as she watched Manguyaat pull a chair away from the kitchen to her, inviting her to sit as she did on her stool.
“So,” said Manguyaat, “In privacy. You seem to be involved with some kind of shady folks. They’re in with some pit fighters, out in Blackwood Quarter.”
Edam nodded quietly. She had suspected before that Ana would run for the Quarter. Not only did it have good access to ships moving in and out of the city, but it made for excellent cover against most authorities. Pit fighting, though – that didn’t seem like Ana. At least, it didn’t seem like the Ana she knew.
Perhaps she was drawn to the things she was barred from in her old life, mused Edam, Or maybe she simply needed the money and still had the tools?
Either seemed plausible.
“I wouldn’t know anything about that,” said Edam, “I knew, uh, Merya, for a long time, but I’ve only come here recently, following her.”
“A chase, then,” said Manguyaat, “The Inquisitor and… heretic?”
“Witch,” said Edam sadly. Even a few weeks later, it felt odd to say aloud, that Ana was a witch. Manguyaat whistled.
“And I take it you knew her before you knew she was a witch.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You told me all the same. Nobody looks at each other like that unless they’re friends, family, lovers or worst enemies.”
Manguyaat shrugged and looked at her honestly.
“That or you’re making some things up to hide corruption. And I am not the type to trust authorities in general, and corrupt ones in specific. I want your help in this mess as much as you want mine, but you have to understand that as a-”
She reached for the word for a moment.
“A pagan, as you say. I find myself in a vulnerable position in this country foreign to me. So dealing with you becomes, in turn, equally difficult.”
“You’re only subject to all the same laws as us,” said Edam quietly.
“And twice the scrutiny for a breach of them,” said Manguyaat, “I understand that I am a guest here, but a guest is checked twice for their manners and for their mannerisms, whether or not they are crimes.”
“Fine,” said Edam, “I won’t tell you her real name, in fear that it might disrupt ongoing investigations into her crimes. She was formerly a member of our Inquisition and a close friend of mine.”
Manguyaat smiled at her knowingly and Edam prepared herself for another verbal blow.
Edam didn’t give any more, keeping her face as steely as she could.
“What? You are. I know it. There’s more to it than just a lost friendship. You’re risking your own neck for her. But I’m satisfied for now.”
Edam sighed with relief.
“Alright. Tell me what you have besides just waiting for them to murder someone else. I can’t stand the idea of that.”
“I can’t either,” said Manguyaat, “So we need to dig. They’re coming back here for a reason – what I can’t say.”
“We interrogated one of them. Said it was a sort of homecoming.”
“And I thought that meant Kallin. But I’ve tried to do some digging into history books – things that I couldn’t find in Sondi. Old family means old records, and the Erkha family-”
“They’re from around here, aren’t they? They’re coming back home, to this place.”
“Exactly,” said Manguyaat, “Which means that they’d also be looking for their ancestral holds.”
She opened one of the drawers to reveal a rather weighty, thick book with vellum pages. The title read History of the Families of Downriver Koletya before the Republic. She flipped through to a bookmark, an annotated map of the area, a whole duchy set. The borders before they were reorganized, a faint blob with different lords assigned to different numbers. It was like a patchwork quilt, different territories marked by exclaves and extreme salients. Erkha owned several individual territories, but the modern borders of the county where Kallin was couldn’t be made out.
“Oh, damn it all,” said Edam, “They changed the borders. Which means that they could be headed to Dzolya or Mirkhit, or-”
The little town had two names, a Sepulcherite one and an older one, Beya Beyora.
“I see,” said Edam, “We need to send a missive out to all of them. But of the three, which do you think is most plausible?”
“I mean, if you were them, where’d you go first? You can think of it as an analogy. If I’m a wolf wanting to get away, I run back to my den, or I try to throw the dogs off my scent. If I’m a vampire, with the ability to fly, where do I go first?”
“…I wouldn’t know. I’m not them.”
“But you know them,” said Edam, “You’ve caught them before, menaced them even.”
The question seemed to get Manguyaat out of herself for a moment as she pondered it.
“The blueblood is well-experienced. She’s not afraid of a fight, but she’s not afraid of retreat either, and she’s calling the shots for them. She didn’t think I was a threat before. But now she has what, eight different authorities on her tail? She’ll put herself in a high ground, a place that’s both defensible and easy to flee from.”
She flipped through the book some more, then back.
“There’s still an old fort up by St. Merka’s. Any clue on who took it after the revolution?”
“I suppose we’ll find out. Still, we need a strategy for when we get there. You’re skilled in a fight, that much I can trust. But if we aren’t coordinated, it won’t mean much.”
“Like spearing a whale,” said Manguyaat, “If the whole crew doesn’t work together, it can slip the harpoon or break the boat from beneath it.”
Edam called on her memory of being tutored in group tactics and sorcery. It felt like dusting off an old tool, bringing it to use again and finding it still perfectly functional – it was familiar, and exciting and almost erased her worries of her cousin and Ana and everything else.
“You get it. When it comes to real combat, we tend to divide up roles into two broad kinds, the ones that restrain and the ones that threaten real force. I specialize in the former. Restrain, constrain and keep them down.”
Manguyaat nodded again.
“And you’re asking me to play the opposite role. Present a real physical threat that keeps them distracted while you restrain and bind them.”
“And vice versa.”
“Is there room for another?”
“Well, of course,” said Edam, “We’ll be working with Imera and Danza again, and we need to delay a bit since we’re waiting on a letter from a judge regarding a captive, but besides that-”
“No, no,” she said, “Let me demonstrate.”
She went to the stave that leaned against the wall, and carefully attached a metal ring from the table. She stood, and stamped it to the earth once, twice and then thrice as the metal rings atop it jangled in a strange harmony. Mana sparked on the end, but there was no apparent effect until the door to the closet burst open.
At first, Edam thought it was some form of man – it certainly had the vague outline of one, shrouded in black cloth. Where it became more clear was the legs, which were obviously mechanical, some strange mixture of clinking chain and wooden joint, the faintest glow of verdure mana shivering out of the crack. Its arms swung unnaturally low, chunky wooden fingers barely clearing the floor, and when it stood tall enough to reveal what should have been a face, there was merely a blank wooden thing, with a crude face carved therein.
“Meet Qeqem!” Proclaimed Manguyaat, “He broke down a long while ago, but I managed to keep a few bits and pieces of him and I’ve been rebuilding all last week.”
Edam grinned like an idiot.
“You weren’t lying about making servitors and watchers, were you?”
She shook her head and smiled back.
“No ma’am. Don’t know if he can fight as well as I’d like him to, but…”
She guided the stave down, and the servitor kneeled in kind, like a man being knighted. She removed the veil from its head, and the rest of it was revealed, a small box loosely bound down to whatever black metal made up its torso. She opened it, and the thing collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut. She looked down with disappointment.
“Well, I haven’t quite figured out how to make him balance before I put in new instructions. He’s a work in progress.”
She sighed and kneeled, and Edam kneeled with her to see her handiwork. Inside the faux head were little scrolls of paper, covered with a script that she couldn’t read. For any complex watcher, complex instructions were needed. The intent shaped into the commands could be made more precise with the use of direct script, where it could be a distraction that could make a work fail in other cases. It was very detailed and skilled work too. Even though she couldn’t read the words on the thin strip of paper, each one seemed carefully formed with a brush and ink, and this work was both dangerous and difficult. A failure could mean a servitor going out of control until it ran out of mana to fuel it.
“Look, here’s a scroll for simple commands, following me around, conserving mana,” she said excitedly, “And here’s a scroll to make it try to fight people I direct him towards is in one of those drawers. We give him a big stake or a spear or a sword, and then we have him as another wrinkle in whatever plans they have for us.”
“How long can he run?”
Carefully, she opened the fabric around his chest. Inside was less a real torso and more the kind of cage one would use for a pigeon or other bird. There was nothing living in it, though, only a strange metal cup that was sealed at the top and suspended in the cage by chains.
“See that box? I went back to the place I killed Bena, and found some ash.”
Edam wasn’t certain whether to be disgusted or delighted.
“They’re still human remains,” she said quietly but still smiling, “So they store mana better than just the cup alone.”
“It’s hard to tell, but I think at least six hours. A real watcher,” Manguyaat said, “I’m glad I could finally pull it off. Put that waste of space to some real use.”
Edam nodded as Manguyaat as she closed up the cloth around his torso once more.
“Alright. We’re agreed. St. Merka’s first, then the rest. I think we can work together on this. Imera is working on getting a specialist who’s good at grounding things that fly, and we’ve got a location. You’ll have your wanted men.”
Manguyaat seemed pleased with the deal, and Edam stood to leave.
“The church across the river, with the two steeples. You know it?”
“Then make your preparations. We leave four days from now. I’ll handle the rest of the matters on my end.”