She hadn’t wanted to do this.
Ana drew up the candle in the empty room like it was a loaded gun. It was almost certainly more dangerous than one. She took a thin sheet of paper and drew the sigil in black ink. Like she had been told, it was mostly an unnatural and disordered muscle-memory. Her hand seemed to jerk itself across the white page and spill the ink in a wild frenzy, scarcely in control of itself. She then encircled it with a shaky ring, and wrote out the name in blocky letters.
T. R. O. S.
She took a long match, lit the candle in the empty bathroom in the dead of night, and set it on the dread sign.
The summer wind whistled through the window, and the candle flickered, once, twice, thrice before going out. Ana reached out, thinking that she had failed.
The moment her hand touched the candle in the dark, it reignited of its own accord. Instead of kneeling, she was standing before Tros in all her glory, her robe lying limp about her waist, a blood-red wax candle firmly in Ana’s grip. Tros’ chest was as empty as it was when she first saw it, a carved wooden hollow that contained but a single branch. In place of the fruit she had once eaten was a beating, glowing heart that pulsed with life. Ana startled away, looking around to reassess the situation. The scene had changed subtly. The details of the washroom were still present in the eerie devil-light, but when Ana looked to the window there was naught but a blank void where a courtyard ought to have been. Surreally, the well was preserved from this total, dreamlike annihilation. It stood like an impossible pillar from the empty starless space, reaching down onto infinity. When she looked up, the ceiling and door too had been replaced with thick tangles of thorns, roots and wax. Little glowing candles reached up and down like stalactites with red and white wax mixing together to make them.
Some of the wax fell on Ana’s bare arm. It should have burned, but instead it felt as if she was only being lightly touched.
“Ana,” said Tros, “You have come for my counsel once more.”
“Yes,” said Ana resentfully, “Could I first clarify how all this works?”
She hadn’t wanted to do this, but Tros had helped her the previous time. There was no reason to ignore good information.
“You may ask one question, and one question alone. I may tell of things to come as well as things that are or things that have passed, but in this counsel I know you have come to learn of things to come,” said Tros. Her heart seemed to pulse with some alien emotion – perhaps excitement, or desire.
“I see,” said Ana, “You were able to tell me where Sol was, and that helped me greatly. I suppose I have to thank you for that.”
“Your thanks is appreciated.”
Praise from a devil, thought Ana, It still feels dirty.
Ana thought for a moment back to the conversation she shared with Dzhate.
“If you really know the future, why don’t you tell me the answer to what I’m going to ask anyways?”
“Well,” said Tros, “That wouldn’t be very fun, for one. For two, you wouldn’t have context for my answer without asking a certain question.”
Ana shrugged and sighed.
She thought. She could have asked if her little raid on the jail would kill her, or whether it had a chance of succeeding in the first place. She considered it for a moment, and decided that if she was going to ask, she would ask it in a way that she’d learn what she needed to know and what she wanted to know.
“If I break into the jail in Kallin, will Edam join me again in a new life, away from the Church?”
Tros cocked her head, and smiled.
“She will not say no.”
“That’s a troubling answer.”
“It’s what I’m telling you. You should be happy. She still loves you, you know. She’s dreaming of you right now, in fact.”
“You can lie,” said Ana.
“And you want to believe me,” said Tros, “You want to believe that the confession is the truth. You want to believe that good fortune will come from this raid of yours. Believe it, and you will have all you desire.”
“That’s bullshit, and you know it.”
Tros waved her hand lightly.
“True, true. But the part about your dearest one is no lie. Do try not to do anything foolish and get yourself killed. I’ve been having such fun watching you.”
Ana felt herself suddenly lifted upwards as if by an invisible hand, and when she blinked she awoke from a cold sweat on Sol’s couch. Her shirt was soaked through and her throat was dry, and tightly clasped in her fingers as the same piece of paper she had drawn the sigil on.
“Dammnit,” she swore to the open air, “Damn you.”
That’s redundant, she chided herself, Tros is definitionally already damned.
Ana groaned as she got up and picked the wax from between her knuckles. At least she knew that Edam would still want her. That felt like assurance that it wasn’t a ruse gave her a little courage. The rest would have to be supplied by her friends and her skill. The only question was whether they could cover that gap.
“You’re going to get yourself killed,” said Sol, “I don’t care how beautiful she is. She’s not worth dying over.”
“I’m leaving to case the place with Korel in a few hours. You don’t need to worry your head anyway. My… friend from downtown assured me that things were coming up my way.”
In the long hours since she’d awoke, the air had grown rarified with her excitement. She’d rolled the exact wording around so many times in her head that it seemed like a prayer, or a logic puzzle. Edam wouldn’t say no to her – that alone had filled her up with so much to think about, so much raw potential that she wanted to rush the mighty doors of the court and simply run to her. Of course, it couldn’t be that easy, but the idea – the simple, raw idea that there was some predestination, some providence to her and Edam being together gave her more faith than she had felt in weeks.
“I see,” said Sol, responding to the euphemism with a quick sip of his drink, “And your friend from downtown has been so helpful to you before?”
“She brought me to you.”
He rubbed his head in consternation as she listened to the viellest drone on in the bar. It was relatively quiet as far as bars went in this part of the city; if there had been any fist-fights or strictly illegal dealings, they’d had the courtesy to take them outside or keep them discreet. The air inside was warm compared to the gloomy conditions without.
“That still doesn’t make it a good idea. When was the last time you heard of someone successfully breaking in or out to a jail like this?”
He kept his voice low even though they were in a stall. Ana appreciated Sol’s dedication to privacy, but she seriously doubted anyone was paying attention.
“I’ve got Dzhate on my side as well to provide materiel. I’ve planned it out. All I need now is a boat, which is where Terete comes in.”
He seemed ready to protest the addition of anything to do with a boat before Terete literally entered into the room in plain clothes. Her dress was workwoman-like, with a broad apron and many pockets. Without the bravado of the crowd or the bluster of violence, she seemed more or less like any other patron of this sort of establishment. Worn down around the edges, with soft rings of tiredness around her eyes and a need to get a good bit of drinking in before the night was over. She walked over casually and joined them in the stall. She swiftly ordered a beer and started drinking it before addressing her.
“Merya,” she said, “I never got a chance to properly thank you for that little thing with Mr. Allatsha and our problems there.”
“It was my pleasure to clear my own name,” said Ana, shaking her hand to greet her, “But I need some help from you. I’m calling in whatever debt you owe to me for that little… misunderstanding with the placement of blame.”
“You’ve got contacts with some sailors and ferrymen, no?”
“Certainly, I do,” said Terete, “What are you trying to ferry?”
Ana smiled broadly.
“Two or three people, plus maybe some small effects and a book. I assume that’s not over any weight limits your people have – as longs as it can carry those, I’ll be fine. My problem is the timing. I’m going to need him present late into the night, around… midnight? Midnight to three in the morning or so, if he can keep track of that.”
Terete leaned back, grabbed her beer, and finished it in a single go before looking at Ana again.
“You’re stealing something, aren’t you?”
Ana looked around quickly to make sure again that no one was paying attention.
“Yes. I’m casing the place tonight. It happens about six days from now. I need someone who can ferry me over the river discreetly.”
Ana produced the map, and pointed to the area that she and Korel had agreed was best.
“Right here. Think you have anyone who can do that?”
“I do owe you a little. I accused you a bit too hastily, let you take the fall because you were the newcomer, and you worked hard to clear yourself of the wrongdoing. I can provide a ferrywoman, Shtikh, at Twenty-Two Spona Lane.”
Terete reached into a coin purse, and swiftly divided up seven rubles.
“Tell her that she can consider this an evening-out of all our debts from last year,” said Terete, “A way of letting bygones be bygones. Are you planning on doing this sort of thing often?”
“No,” said Ana, “This is something personal. Someone across the river has taken something very dear to me. I also want a man who could provide a distraction right here. Nothing incriminating, very low risk. He’d just point anyone chasing in the wrong direction. He could join us on the boat if we aren’t chased, otherwise he’d just be left to his own devices to disappear into the night.”
“I’ll do it,” said Sol, suddenly.
Ana looked at him. He had a sort of soft smile on his face, like something profound had just occurred to him.
“Really? You don’t have to-”
“Agh, call me a sap, I like you. I think you deserve a little help. And trust me, you’re not going to find anyone else to do it. And you can’t pay me rent from prison.”
Ana laughed a little, still feeling somewhat giddy at Tros’ pronouncement that Edam would join her.
“Alright Sol. You’re in. I’ll see your ferrywoman tomorrow, Terete. Sol, come with me to the other side of the river. We’ll be meeting our, uh, friend there.”
He nodded. They waved at Terete as a way of saying goodbye, seeming satisfied with the idea of settling a few debts at once. It was nowhere near fall yet, but a low fog had filled the air this particular evening. The dark sky constantly threatened rain, and the wet mist wormed its way right through Ana’s jacket and made her skin feel slick and damp. It was cleansing, in its own way. The court sat in one of the higher districts further out than Allatsha’s house, where Kallin’s administrators and more-literate classes dwelled. The buildings swelled and ebbed in wave-like patterns, taller and shorter ones alternating – here, a bank, there a scribe’s house, here a trading company and there an ink-maker’s shop. Most people stayed inside. Those that did come out wore heavy jackets, petticoats and even umbrellas to protect them from the rain.
There, on the horizon, was the court. It was austere, blocky like many jails, prisons and houses of law established by the Church. At its apex, the stony mountain had a dozen or cells that jutted from the structure. The enormous stone facade beneath bore complex engravings of faceless saints banishing and destroying devils, who had been shaped into grotesques. Above the tall wooden doors, a towering and potent statue of St. Gelon loomed.
Edam wouldn’t be in the cells at the top unless she was unruly. That seemed unlikely to Ana, but she couldn’t rule it out. They dodged down a few blocks until they reached the side-alley where they had planned the rendevous. It was a few moments later that Ana saw Vella. She was dressed rather modestly, with a bark-brown petticoat and bonnet. She smiled on her approach, and Ana was suddenly caught by how genuinely avian she seemed, even when she wasn’t a crow. Between the dark bonnet, her hair and her slightly curved smile and nose, she had a broad atavism with her inhuman third.
“Vella,” said Ana.
“Ana. It’s good to see you. I’ve been doing a little reconnaissance already. They aren’t doing many patrols – it seems like many of them are indisposed elsewhere.”
“Makes sense,” said Ana, “Rumours of a blueblood should have them on high alert for that kind of threat. Plus, there might be any number of other threats that they might look out for.”
The thin, empty alley dampened their voices. Ana clenched her fist, and released it in anxiety.
“Before we start on this, I need to tell you something,” said Ana.
Sol looked at Ana.
“I’m a witch as well,” she said clearly.
There was an awkward moment of silence.
“And just so you know, if you turn me in, I’ll turn you in.”
“Okay,” said Vella, “I’m not going to do that.”
“I just felt that if you’re putting your neck out for me, I might as well be honest on that front with you. And I wanted to add that I got a good omen from my devil when I contacted her,” said Ana.
“I appreciate the gesture. I have to ask – who exactly am I looking for?”
“Uh, well,” she said, trying not to overshare, “Edam’s a bit under a head shorter than me. She had long hair when I last saw her, she used to tie it back sometimes, but if she was imprisoned she might not do that anymore. It’s very curly, black. She’s got darker skin, too, she’s an Agoran. And, she’s very pretty. Has a distinct set of scars on one of her arms, but I couldn’t tell you much else in terms of distinguishing marks. Oh, and she sometimes rolls her hair around her finger or else she-”
“Okay, okay,” said Vella, “I get the picture. She’s your bit of sugar.”
“She is not! She’s-”
Ana looked to Sol to back her up. He shrugged, seemingly helpless against the embarrassment.
“I’m going to try to find her, find the archives, find the book if I can.”
“If it comes to it, it might also be good to know where the armory is. They probably reclaimed her things there, and if it comes to fighting our way out – not that it will – it’d be good to know that.”
“I’ll be back before nightfall. If not… probably dead. Or got distracted. In which case, I’ll just wake you up at your place. Don’t wait for me is what I’m saying.”
There was a loud popping noise as she took on the crow-form, and with a fluttering of wings, she was gone. The air seemed to grow colder, and Ana clutched at herself for a moment. She thought of Edam for a while.
“So,” said Sol, “That agreement you had with her didn’t work out so well on her end, did it?”
Ana shook her head.
“She confessed. It fits in, and it fits in that some Church officials would use her as bait. So no, it didn’t work out well for her. I’m just…”
“I asked her to come with me twice, and now my devil tells me that she’s going to come with me this time.”
“Third time’s the charm,” said Sol, “But I take it you don’t trust this prophecy?”
“It was oddly worded. We all know about that sort of story,” said Ana, “A man ends up talking with a devil, and he asks to turn all he touches to gold, or to be warm for the rest of his life, or to never be thirsty again, and all of a sudden he’s dead or worse. You can’t fault me for feeling suspicious of the wording here, much less a devil outright lying to me.”
He nodded sagely.
“Well, it seems you have this very well planned out. And you do know the layout of this sort of facility well, I take it?”
“Well enough,” said Ana as she leaned back on the wall, “But each one is unique enough that it could lead to problems. That was one of the general design doctrines for that sort of building – similar enough that anyone trained could quickly learn to operate it, different enough that even someone who had vague familiarities would have a hard time breaking in or out. That’s the part that worries me – we’re going to see some variance here that could catch us off guard.”
“Makes sense. But you have a scout who can help you ahead of time,” said Sol.
“True. And resources from Dzhate. The devil – Tros – she also told me that I could do it if I had the belief in the endeavour, I’d have success in it. Part of me called bullshit in that immediately.”
“Sure,” said Sol, “That absolutely sounds like bullshit.”
\ “But what if that’s the riddle? What’s a plan but a belief in an endeavor, a belief that a certain course of action will add up and result in something better for you? What if she was just trying to reinforce the importance of planning?”
He nodded, and stroked his stubble as he leaned alongside her.
“Maybe,” he said, looking up at the sky, “Miserable weather, isn’t it?”
“I like the mist,” said Ana, “It feels good on your lungs. Makes the limbs feel a little more limber.”
“I’m pretty sure that’s the ague.”
“That’s not the ague. We aren’t even in ague country.”
“Are to0. You can get the ague from mist.”
He smiled slyly, clearly joking in his obstinance.
“Well, not much else to talk about. What makes Edam so special?”
“It’s not just that I care for her. That I… had a relationship with her. It’s the injustice of it. I take half the blame, but I got away with it. Now I’ll either take her out of there, and she’ll walk free, have a chance to walk away like I did, or I’ll meet a rightful end in it. She told me that she would have died for me. I guess I have to return that heroism in kind, that spirit. It’s only fair.”
It scared her a little, and she sighed and cut off the conversation there. Now she was seriously risking damnation with the potential of her death. At the same time, it felt important – too important – to not put her life on the line for. Sol seemed to sense her tenderness on the subject and likewise cut it off the discussion, waiting with her in silence. The sun shifted slowly beneath the clouds and eventually reached its orange-red end, slowly being swallowed by the horizon. It was around then that Vella returned around the corner, a frazzled look of consternation on her face. Ana perked up, adjusting her cap and looking to her expectantly.
“You could at least say hello,” said Vella, “Yes, the girl is alive. She was asleep when I found her room, in a cell built into the second floor. Those slits they use for windows are terrible to get through. I saw her. She was asleep when I came in, but she matched your description toe-to-tip. There’s no ruse in her being in the building, at least.”
Ana breathed a sigh of relief. She had considered the possibility that Edam not saying no to their escape might have meant something along the lines of her being a corpse when she found her, but that didn’t quite add up.
“They keep two guards on her. I’m pretty sure they think I’m a messenger bird of some kind, which is good for us.”
That was something Ana had expected. If a prisoner was skilled with sorcery, certain minimums of security would be needed even if they confessed and were otherwise compliant. They also would regularly change the guard from time to time, so that the guards would always be ready and alert.
“Then there’s the archives. They’d be on the way up from one of the potential entryways – a side-exit, well-hidden, that I saw an official use. Couldn’t find the exact book, but I did find a section on banned and restricted grimoires, so I know where to find it.”
“Book?” Asked Sol.
“Side-errand so we can get Dzhate’s help,” explained Vella, “A few more problems: both guards seem to be full Inquisitors, a guard on the side entrance, and then there’s going to be the problem of the heavy locks on both the entrance to her jail and on our point of entry.”
“Put them out of your mind. I’ve already got them handled.”
“If you say so,” she said, “I’m more worried about the foci they’ve set up in the building. It seems that they’ve got some sort of curse-foci built into several parts of the building that activates with certain malintent, which we’ll need some way of sabotaging. Also, I heard someone talking about watchers being set up on the perimeter for the execution, so you can presume that they at least have one of those in the building already. Also, about a half dozen mercury-powered eye-hexes. Pretty similar to the ones we saw at the party.”
Ana nodded. The hexes were probably Danza or Imera’s work. She would put them on Danza, based purely on her affiliation and Order. Watchers were tricky, but they were often simple in their programming. That put the curse-foci higher on her list of priorities.
“We’ll come back tomorrow. I want a detailed description of those curse-foci when you can get it. Then I can send in for Dzhate to help brainstorm a solution.”
“We’re really doing this, aren’t we?”
“You already shook on it,” said Ana, “No going back on the deal now.”