It took her five long days to reach the shrine at Tshalagrod. The first was spent getting her bearings and finding her way back to the village, and smoothing things over with the yeoman and getting all of the required paperwork. He wrote a brief corroboration of her account, alongside a certificate of death for Gema. Sure enough, the woman who they couldn’t identify immediately had been Weomil. She pushed on, out of the rolling hills of the countryside and towards the lowlands, the old road giving way to more paved and well-worn passages, and thick trees giving way to farmland. The weather opened to clear skies, the last bits of spring dying and drying out in the sun. On the third day, she arrived in Yeori, where she spent time recuperating and resupplying, and the rest was a blur of greenery and riding. Dot was an anxious horse, and he seemed just as eager as her to get back home.
A bit past Yeori, Ana took her note to Edam out of her notebook and used it as kindling. She felt embarrassed to have even written it. She was already in enough trouble as it stood. No need to add to her problems. A faint sense of relief washed over her as it went up in flames, the parchment crinkling and turning black in her makeshift firepit. In the morning, it was nothing but cold ash.
Tshalagrod was not a large city. It was a riverside town, at the beginning of where the River Teper began to run wide and languid in the summer heat. The little wooden cottages grew into businesses and townhouses as she passed the old stone wall. People and animals roamed the streets en masse, children, women, men, and even the stray dogs parting before her and Dot. The permanent population of the town was not that large in the grand scheme of things. Most were transient rivermen and traders, with vagabonds, street musicians and itinerant playwrights and poets equally interspersed into the crowds. She left Dot at the stable towards the far outskirts and passed a coin to the stableboy that she hadn’t quite learned the name of. She made the rest of the way on her aching feet and thighs.
The church where Ana was stationed was on the seaward side of the city, further down the Teper, and was distinctively more private than the shrine upriver where most went to their weekly service. It was smaller, black-brown wood distinguishing it from the neighboring townhouses. It still bore two stories, and significantly dwarfed the other buildings around it, its steeple rising high above the rest of the town. The interior was dim, cool and quiet compared to the bustle of the outside world. She hesitated before opening the double doors.
Something was off.
There were seven stone pillars in the church, for seven saints and seven virtues. Vigilance, charity, inspiration, righteousness, patience, justice and at the center, piety. Each had four carved faces, representing their revelation, their ministry, a parable and their martyrdom. The martyred saints watched inwards, larger than life; a reminder of what was sacrificed so that the Church could live. Gelon looked down on her with marble eyes, her lower jaw was removed, and her body emaciated and thin with starvation. One hand held scales; the other, a weight. Her expression was serene in spite of her injuries. There was no anguish or pain. Just acceptance.
What a coward I am, thought Ana, I don’t deserve to say that I’m devoted to her.
The priest had left for the day, presumably out on errands. His student – a mute girl named Tarnye – was still waiting at the front, sitting at the right of the steps before the pulpit. She was a short, somewhat chubby woman, dotted with freckles and wearing the plain black uniform typical of her profession.
“Hello,” said Ana, tipping her hat, “Sorry for being late from my business. Has Edam arrived back?”
She shook her head.
“No,” she signed, “She hasn’t come back. What’s with the-”
She made a sign that Ana didn’t recognize.
“Sorry, not sure what you mean.”
She pointed at Ana’s neck, where the bruise rose over her collar. She couldn’t see much of it, but she had a strong suspicion that it had turned an ugly yellow-green as it healed.
“Oh. Nothing to worry about. Had a bit of an accident, tripped over my own two feet.”
Tarnye squinted and made a face. She wasn’t buying it.
“Okay, fine, I got in a fight. I’m sending a report to command now to smooth things over. It was bad, but the person I fought had it coming.”
Tarnye nodded, appreciating the truth that she gave. ‘Had it coming’ didn’t encapsulate it. Gema needed to die at that moment; Ana was certain of that, for everyone’s sake. Still, she couldn’t shake the feeling that it didn’t need to have happened like that – that if someone had the foresight to check on the poor girl before she had made the pact, ten people would still be alive.
Ana left Tarnye, and ascended the stairs to the left of the pews, followed by the second staircase up to the aviary. It stank of birdshit and dried-up grain. Half a dozen pigeons were cooped up in a cage, cooing and staring with beady eyes as she approached. She sat herself at the table, produced a quill and ink, and began to write a request for an inspector to be sent to the city to investigate the execution of a witch without a partner being present for the matter. When she was finished, she tied it to a speckled grey-white pigeon with twine, and set it free. It lingered for a moment on the windowsill before bursting off into the distance, up towards the High Command.
She sighed, and cursed her foolishness again before returning downstairs, through the wooden halls, to the private prayer room. She pulled the key from its holder by the door and gently opened it before closing it behind her.
The private room was even quieter than the rest of the church, well lit by the glass window that faced the sun. At one end was the altar, with a heptagram hanging above it and a set of drawers for supplies. She pulled a cone of frankincense, a match and the little brazier for it, centering it beneath the heptagram before lighting it and putting out the match once more. The heady scent filled the air and cleared Ana’s mind, and she closed her eyes to begin praying.
There was a loud thunking sound.
She opened her eyes again, and the Heptagram had fallen from the place where it hung onto the altar.
Damn this, thought Ana, I don’t care about the deal, or whatever she brings on me.
She put the Heptagram back into its place, and began to pray again.
“O Saint Gelon, you that are just. You know my soul,” she began.
Her wound itched under her bandages.
“I have trespassed against you and the Church,” she continued.
The itch turned to pain – a burning, throbbing pain. She began to stutter over the words.
“Show me mercy as I labor to-”
She halted, unable to continue. Something wet dribbled across her wrist. She stripped off her coat and removed her bandages to find that the once-scabbed-over wound was open and bleeding, the skin around it dry and flaky. A droplet of blood fell to the floor. She grimaced at the wound, poking at it, and the muscle trembled.
No. Not the muscle. Something else under her skin was trembling – worming its way out bit by bit. She covered her own mouth, aghast, as the beady eyes and glossy wings of a locust emerged from the open wound, followed by two more of its siblings. They supped on the blood before spreading their soaked wings, buzzing into the air and fleeing from her to the far corners of the room.
Evils, she thought, remembering what little she knew of Veleda in a shocked haze, A swarm of locusts is called ēpolo. An evil.
She stared at the floor, still clutching her arm.
Unwanted tears came to her eyes. She wiped them away. A stream of blood stained her white linen.
She fixed her cuff, but kept her jacket off. The heat was getting to be too much for her. She felt herself sweating through her shirt. She knelt again, and begrudgingly began to pray, in whisper.
“Tros, fiend that you are – I give you this prayer. Your wrath has been demonstrated to me. I pray that you do not show me such harm again.”
Nothing answered. Light filtered in through the glass. Something in her felt more right – the itching subsided even though the wound and pain remained.
Very quietly, she recited the rest of her prayer to Gelon without issue. She sighed, and prepared to go downstairs and bandage herself up once more.
It was two days after that when Edam arrived back at the church from her so-called sick leave. Ana was waiting in their bedroom when she opened the door. She had spent the morning quietly reading and the sound of the door creaking open made her nearly leap from her bed. As much as she dreaded it, seeing Edam again filled Ana’s heart back up with joy.
She was beautiful, of course – more finely formed than any statue or painting that Ana had ever seen. Her nose and soft lips were pert and contorted into a tight expression, not letting on any feeling show, her olive skin bearing a slight sheen of sweat from the heat. She always wore long sleeves even when it was hot out. Today, she had chosen a grey dress. It was modest, but accentuated her beauty well.
Her brown eyes punctured Ana’s heart again and made it turn back to dread. She already had an inkling of what had gone on.
“You got into a fight, didn’t you?” She asked as she walked into the room.
“No,” said Ana, “I went to Erezus.”
Better to get it over with now.
She couldn’t tell her the whole truth, about her dream, and Tros and the deal. Still, she owed her the truth.
“What? What do you mean you-”
“I went there, and killed the witch. It was a witch, for the record, not a crocuta. I executed her.”
Edam’s face turned from harshness to shock to anger.
“Ana, I’m going to need to report this.”
“I already reported myself,” said Ana, as calmly as she could, “An inspector should arrive any day now. Probably tomorrow, or the day after that, by my reckoning. I will take full responsibility.”
Edam looked away to the window.
“This could set your career back for a long time. Maybe years.”
“I know, and I’m okay with that. What I did was stupid, and I know that it’s my fault for-”
Ana didn’t know where to start with the blame. She clutched the bed beneath her. She had let herself fall for Edam. She had let Edam kiss her. She had taken that kiss far enough that Edam needed to take time away.
“It’s my fault for all of this. I’m sorry.”
Edam sat on her bed, opposite to Ana.
“Thank you for taking responsibility. Did you arrive on schedule?”
Ana shook her head.
“I mistimed it. When I arrived there were three more dead, plus one that went missing a month back and one whose body she hid. Her own father.”
Edam made a sign of blessing, and circled it over her chest.
“Godhead be merciful on them.”
“Aye,” said Ana, avoiding praying. She wouldn’t take chances in front of Edam.
“I- she took me captive. She nearly killed me. She was eating her victims.”
Edam was quiet. She looked to the window, to the blue sky above, the dust filtering through rays of light. Finally, she looked back at Ana, her expression softened.
“Are you fine?”
“I’m still alive.”
“Are you fine, Ana? Your neck looks awful, and you’re about to be interrogated over your conduct in a day or two. You were taken captive by a witch who clearly beat you to hell and back, and you look like you haven’t slept in days.”
She had slept. Not well, but she had slept.
“I’m just tired. And I-”
“I missed you.”
“I missed you as well,” she said.
There was a pause. Ana knew that she shouldn’t push the subject of the kiss, as pleasant and awful as remembering it was. All the same, she wanted to run to her arms, to fall into her and hold her and never let go.
Ana continued to sit on her bed instead. The least she could do was save Edam some more trouble.
“I’ll make dinner tonight,” said Ana.
“No,” replied Edam curtly, “I’ll do it. You get your rest, clear your head.”
“Don’t,” said Edam, “I’m doing this because I feel sorry that I made you want to do all this. And I think you did do something right. You killed that witch because there was no other way, right?”
No other way besides torturing someone with starvation.
She shook her head. Edam rose, and walked to Ana. She hesitated for a moment before touching Ana’s cheek with her hand, then the still-tender flesh of her neck.
“Then you may have stopped the count from being thirteen, or fifteen, or twenty. You took the situation you were in, and tried to help people, as wrong as it was. Put that notch on your belt, peron. You were clearly distressed by me being sick, and meant the best. I’ll make you dinner, and when the inspector comes, I’ll speak to them too. You deserve someone on your side.”
Ana didn’t know enough of Agoran to know what peron meant, but Edam called her that a lot, and she liked it. She smiled, relishing the warmth of her fingers even as Edam drew herself away.
And Edam left, and Ana was alone again. She hated lying to her – even by omission. They ate in silence that night, eating their soup without another word shared between them. Ana watched intently as she transported meat and broth to her mouth, using a finger to play with her curls when she was idle. Normally this was the point where Edam would bring up some obscure bit of theology and they’d talk about it over dinner. Now, after their indiscretion, it felt impossible to jump into some casual conversation. Instead she drank up her soup and tried not to stare. She could barely swallow it. How in the world was she even going to breach the subject of the kiss and their chastity and their friendship? She couldn’t just say it outright. It felt wrong.
When night came, they went to each of their beds, the familiar softness of her mattress giving her little comfort. The waxing moonlight outlined Edam as she slept, and Ana watched her twist and turn in the night. Edam was a restless sleeper. Ana had learned that about her early.
She turned her gaze from her lying figure, and breathed in and out in the most measured way that she could. Edam was right, of course. Get rest tonight; go into the interrogation with a fresh face and full preparation. She had her paperwork, a good motive and they had no reason to believe that she was involved in anything treasonous, or that she had anything to do with a deal with the devil.
She was going to be fine. Six months, and she would be just fine, and everything would be normal again.
She let that comfort take her to sleep as she closed her eyes.
Ana put on a dress for the occasion. Edam always chided her for being in half- or full-garb. She always said it was unladylike and made her seem paranoid. She hated dresses – they somehow always managed to make her skin itch, or be proportioned wrong – but Edam was right. If she wanted to present a good face to the inspector, she’d wear a dress. She wore a plain, long skirt with a few pockets in it, and a grey blouse. Nothing fancy; modesty would do her well.
Ana looked in the mirror in the washroom while putting her hair up into a braid. She couldn’t help but feel deeply anxious. Her imperfections seemed all too clear when looking at her reflection. Her nose was too large, her hair too long and awkward in the way it stuck up to be presentable. Her shoulders and arms felt overly-broad and gawky. She braced herself against the chair as finished the braid. They were there to judge her character, not her appearance.
The day passed mostly uneventfully at first. Edam had run errands for the day, picking up the mail while Ana continued to wait at the church, and even after dinner no one came. The day cooled from a rather intense heat to the chill of night as Ana picked through an old copy of Tetsa’s Commentaries. She was thankful that there weren’t any locusts emerging from under her skin from just reading about the Scriptures. It was when the sun came low, when Ana and Tarnye had been setting the candles for the night, that the knock came at the door. Edam sat in the pews, roused from her quiet meditation.
The door swung open without a further knock, and three emerged from the heat of afternoon. At the head was a man who was clearly the inspector. His badge sat proudly upon his chest, a shiny bronze mark of his station. He wore a coat in spite of the warm weather – a dark navy thing over his white shirt and dark pants. Dark blues were for the higher ranks of the Order of Tattered Skin. His face was marred by a long, deep gouge that spread from the corner of his lip to his ear, but otherwise he was a quite handsome man. He was no older than thirty, most certainly, with dark brown hair and eyes, and a thick stubble that suggested he had not shaved recently.
He looked about the room with a wide glance, and his face suddenly took on a pall of shock.
When Ana looked to Edam, she was frozen in place, equally shocked at the arrival of this apparent relation. Then, she put on a broad smile. She rose from her pew, and the inspector walked over to embrace her briefly before the two pulled away.
“You didn’t use your full name on the records! Why in the world would you do such a thing?”
“Oh,” said Edam, “I wanted to save them the ink. Always so unwieldy.”
“Ah, that’s fair enough,” said the inspector, “What providence this is! Two Miazas in the same place.”
Ana didn’t know Edam’s full name – she knew that Edam was a nickname, but not much else. She didn’t speak of her family – Ana didn’t have a family to speak of, and breaching the subject always felt awkward to her unless someone else brought it up. Edam never did bring it up.
The inspector’s two companions followed close behind. The first was another hunter in half-garb, with a small backpack weighing her down. She was blonde and of a middling height, with a freckled face and a pistol shining on her belt. By her side, there was a woman in a white robe – marked as a thaumaturge. She was very pale, with dark eyes that darted back and forth. Her robes looked too large for her.
The thaumaturge was unsettling to say the least. She had heard that some of them could detect witches by scent alone. She met the woman’s gaze, and she seemed to show no suspicion or special attention. She stared instead at the stone pillars, giving Ana very little mind.
The inspector turned on his heels to Ana.
“Ah, sorry. Forgive my manners. I presume that you’re Ana Metremte, no?”
He extended his hand to meet hers as she nodded. She took it.
“Inspector I-Merach-Lluar Miaza. I’m charmed to meet you, and I wish we could have met under less adversarial circumstances. You may call me Imera for short. This is my second, Danza,” he said, gesturing to the other hunter, “And the thaumaturge, Verat.”
“Pleased to meet you as well, Imera. Would you take the interrogation here or-”
“No, no, no need to rush. We’ll be in town for a few days, getting things in order. I presume you have a dining room where you can take us.”
She nodded, and she and Edam led them to the dining room that sat behind the main hall. Thin streamers of orange sunlight poured in through the window. Ana lit several candles in preparation for the coming sunset, and sat. The inspector sat opposite to her, his second sitting opposite to Edam, with the thaumaturge last in line. Imera rolled his shoulders. Danza pulled out a sheet of paper, a goose-feather pen, and a bottle of ink, readying herself to transcribe whatever was said.
“Could you state your name, rank, accomplishments, all of that? Just for the record,” said the inspector rather casually.
“Ana Metremte of Tyeka, Inquisitor of the Order of the Severed Jaw, devoted to Saint Gelon the Just. Seven arrests, two re-arrests, ten successful interviews, three executions over the course of one and three-quarters years of service.”
“Very good. Quite a record. Now, what you’ve done – killed a witch without your partner present during the hunt – isn’t to be taken lightly. I don’t think I need to remind you why.”
He didn’t. The case law was extremely clear. A second witness of the hunt served a half-dozen purposes. It caught more evidence, and more mistakes, it gave additional testimony. It prevented personal vendettas from entering into the picture, and pushed for more accountability. Breaches of the policy could undermine trust in the Church’s project. Not to mention the fact that it prevented things like the Iochin Affair.
“No, you don’t,” said Ana, a genuine pit of shame filling her stomach.
“Could you then explain your reasoning for doing this anyways?”
“The witch killed very regularly, every new moon,” said Ana, “I suspected it had to do with the greatest extent of her deal. I figured I could make it in time to protect the village.”
Imera nodded heavily.
“Yes. Erezus, like you mentioned in your letter. How many killings?”
“Three reported to us, plus three more when I arrived too late, two more missings who could safely be assumed to be her doing. The witch’s name was Gema, incidentally.”
“Blessings be upon them, and Torment to the witch,” he said, as the constant scratching of Danza’s pen filled the air. Ana reached into her pocket and produced the yeoman’s report and her description of Gema.
“It’s all here in this statement,” said Ana. He took it, and studied it briefly.
“Ah, very good. Edamosfa, you were on sick-leave?”
Edam nodded, backing Ana up.
“I’m sorry to hear that. I presume you two were already planning on this excursion, then?”
“Yes,” said Ana, “We were going to arrive before the new moon, so that we could provide some defense to those that were there.”
“Erezus is… a day away? I’m very sorry, I’m not as familiar with Kolet geography as I could be.”
He gave a surprisingly jovial smile, genuinely confused regarding how far it was. He was Agoran, of course – his accent gave that much away – it followed that he wouldn’t have a good grasp of the area.
“Only as the crow flies,” said Ana, “The mountains make road-building hard. It’s closer to a four-day trip even with a good horse.”
“Ah, I see, I see. The Agoran highlands are much the same. So, your partner was sick, and you decided to go anyway, am I correct in all of that?”
“Yes,” said Ana, “I thought I could resolve things more quickly instead of waiting another month. We didn’t come at first because it could have been a particularly aggressive crocuta judging by the reports alone. However, when I arrived, it was clearly the doing of a witch.”
“That’s very noble of you. I’ll certainly take that into account,” said Imera, “Oh, but – a point of formality – why did you diverge from your plan?”
“Well, you said you planned to go to Erezus before the new moon, but then you arrived after, and three more were dead. Why wait?”
The question threw her. She had waited because she was feeling melancholy while Edam was on leave. She needed to come up with an excuse now.
“Uh, well – I was initially concerned with my partner’s health, and that delayed me, and I had thought about the severity of what I was going to do, if it was for the best if I were to go alone. And that delayed me by a day.”
“That’s unfortunate,” said Imera, “Another point of formality, do excuse it – what exactly was Edam sick with?”
“Faintness of heart,” said Edam, “And fever. I was well enough to travel to a neighboring town where they had an apothecary, but not prepared for an investigation. Frankly, I’m still a little ill, but I doubt it’s anything too severe.”
“Very sorry to hear that, cousin. Now, it says here that you assembled a posse and deputized a woman named Ivya, but that the witch lead the group away with a ruse, and you gave chase to the witch.”
“Yes, it does say that,” said Ana.
“And you fought and killed the witch?”
“And when did you learn the witch’s name?”
Another tricky question. Being captured would certainly make her lose face, even if it wasn’t a true offense. She already had admitted it to Edam. If she lied now, Edam would call her on it, here or in private.
“I was captured, for a single night. The witch, Gema, was stricken with a ravenous hunger. She intended to eat me piece by piece. She did, in fact get a piece of me.”
She rolled up her sleeve to reveal her bandages. The wound had closed up, thankfully uninfected.
“She was sloppy with her knots. I slipped the bindings that were on me, and executed her.”
Ana wanted to add more – that she was a victim too. She knew that showing too much sympathy could arouse suspicion, and it would make her look like she was unprepared for more field work.
“Why not take her in?”
“The whole reason she captured me was because of a faulty carving on my weight, and her strength. She had made a deal that made her immensely strong. She resisted a full blood weight for nearly half a minute by my reckoning.”
“By the Saints,” he said, seeming impressed, “And taking her in would have been a hassle, then?”
No, she thought, It wasn’t a hassle. It was a mercy to not take her in. No one deserves to starve.
There was a lull. Danza’s incessant scratching came to a halt.
“I’m sorry, this isn’t directly related – Metremte. I’ve seen that name a few times in my travels here in Koletya. Us Agorans, we put a lot of stock in names. Is there a meaning to it?”
This man doesn’t seem to know much. What an awkward question.
Danza seemed to agree. She scowled at the question, annoyed with the diversion. She knew all too well what the name meant.
“I don’t see the relevance to the investigation, but it’s an old name, from when the pagans ruled here. It’s for children who were abandoned without a last name, or those stripped of a last name.”
“Ah, so it means that you’re an orphan. That must have been very difficult for you. Forgive my indelicacy – were you a bastard?”
His joviality disappeared in an instant, and suddenly Ana made the connection. She had seen Edam do the exact same sort of thing before when interviewing someone. She’d start with an unassuming question before chasing it with a difficult one. He had even made the same little curl with his lips when he shifted out of the more open attitude.
Ana shrugged him off.
“As far as I know, I was born in wedlock. Really, I don’t care whether I was or not. I don’t give much thought to it. The Church saved my life, and I’ve been indebted to it; this whole witch-hunting affair is something of a repayment.”
Imera nodded, and leaned back in his chair. He ran a finger along his scar. Edam smiled again. Something was off. She wouldn’t normally smile in the middle of an interrogation.
“You mentioned your blood weight was off. How long did you train for?”
“I didn’t, sir,” she replied, “I’m a savant. After I developed when I was eighteen or so, I signed myself up to be trained right away, and my apprenticeship was a year. I have less than a normal amount of experience with foci, I admit. It’s a weakness that I’ve been working on.”
A half-truth. The real answer was more complicated than simple lack of experience. The workshop was directly adjacent to the washroom. She couldn’t help but get distracted when she heard Edam taking a bath, and that almost certainly would have spoiled the focus. She sang while she bathed, some old Agoran tune, and it made Ana’s heart flutter every time she heard it.
“That makes sense. Well, Ana Metremte, from everything I’ve heard here, you’re an upstanding, intelligent young hunter. However, your conduct is troubling. I do think I’ll observe you for a little while more, and then make a judgement. Get more on your background, interview your priest, that sort of thing. And I’d love to catch up with you, Edamosfa.”
“Of course, cousin,” said Edam, “I would love it too.”
Edam pulled at one of the curls in her hair.
“If you wouldn’t mind, I’m still feeling a little ill. I think I’ll excuse myself for the night.”
The inspector quirked his head and looked her up and down.
“Śanonit badh śasa ghe?” He asked in Agoran.
Something crossed Edam’s face – Ana could only place it as fear. In an instant, it returned to a smile.
“Sa. Emanzot sa. Edanoniś onrudh. Echuon śecas, edach ianova.”
Edam rose very suddenly, and walked out of the dining room. The sun had fully set, and only candlelight remained. Danza put away the quill, huffing slightly.
“What was that about?”
“Family matters. Just reminding her of an old remedy for fever.”
Edam hadn’t been sick in the first place. She wouldn’t push it with him, but they’d need to talk later.
“Well, since we’re off the record – Tyeka. You’re quite far from home.”
Ana thought of Tyeka. The winding streets and back-alleys of the new capital almost would have been nostalgic if it hadn’t been for the abject poverty. She had been knocked between half a dozen poor-houses and orphanages before coming to the one that the Church had funded, the one that she stuck with. The whole time, she lived off of boiled lobster, mashed gruel and whatever else she and the other urchins could find. Unbidden, she remembered a time after she had run from the poorhouse on Gebel Lane. She fell in with a group of other urchins. The oldest, Bekhed, had caught and butchered a poor stray, and fried it with old onions, tallow and stolen spices. At first, she had hated the idea of eating it; eating insects was one thing, but dogs were another.
Hunger pangs won out in the end. She could still faintly taste the unctuous, heady mix. She had plucked a heart from the bunch, chewy and tough as she swallowed it down. She prayed for the dog’s soul after, and for her own. Even then she knew that she had to keep a sense of morals.
“I am,” she replied, shaking herself from the thought, “Can’t say that I miss it.”
“Aye. I can’t stand civil politics either.”
She feigned a laugh and nodded.
“Yeah, they’re a real pain.”
Ana had never met a real politician in her life. Not the kind that lived in Tyeka, anyways. Still, she had no choice but to make small talk.
“So, you’re Edam’s cousin. She doesn’t talk about you much. I know she spent a lot of time with you as a kid.”
“Hm,” he said, scratching at his stubble, “I suppose she wouldn’t want to talk about her upbringing, no. I take it she hasn’t filled you in on her past?”
“Her past? I mean, she grew up near the border, she was apprenticed out here in Koletya, and she’s good with her studies in ecclesiastics.”
He nodded, his second-in-command still eerily silent and observing. Meanwhile, the thaumaturge stared out the window to the starry night and the sliver of a waxing moon.
“Is Edamosfa sick often?”
Ana shook her head. Edam was, in the past ten months that Ana had known her, healthy as a horse. Her unfortunate fever would be a notable but explainable outlier.
“That’s interesting,” said Imera.
He looked away, as if he had more to say but needed her to ask. Her dress itched. She felt thoroughly unprepared for all of this, even with all she had gone over it in her head.
“Well, when Edamosfa was younger she was quite a troublemaker, and a bit of a layabout. She’d use the excuse of sickness towards certain duties she had when she was growing up. Her mother was a bit of an embarrassment, black sheep and all that. She didn’t raise her daughter the best, and eventually she was sent to live with me and my father for a more proper upbringing.”
“I find that hard to believe,” said Ana.
“She’s upstanding,” said Ana, “She’s a better witch hunter than I am. More pious than I am, more devoted to our rules. You must have raised her right.”
With one noted failure.
He smiled widely.
“That’s quite good to hear! I’m glad that she isn’t lying. Excuse me again for being indelicate with my questions, it’s just that I worry about her sometimes.”
The sun was fully down now – not even a single sliver of light remained, inky black swallowing up the room save for their candles.
“Oh, it’s late,” added Imera, “I ought to be going. And thank you again for reporting yourself. It’s always so unfortunate when we have hunters who aren’t willing to take that kind of responsibility. We’ll find some lodging and wrap this up tomorrow and the day after. Is that all fine?”
Ana nodded, and he stretched his hand again, shook it, and stood with Danza and the thaumaturge, before leaving without so much as a goodbye. The darkened doorway swallowed them into the night, leaving Ana alone at the table. She exhaled heavily. It was over for now.
She blew out the candles she had lit until only one remained, and carried it out into the hall and back to her quarters. The crickets and floorboards groaned in unison. When she arrived back in her room Edam was sitting on the bed. She stared into the far wall, boring through it to the horizon behind it.
“Edam,” said Ana.
She roused from the thoughts, and turned to Ana.
“Is my cousin gone?”
“Yes,” said Ana, “He said he’ll be staying for another two days.”
Ana walked to the long bedside table that they shared, and set the candle down beside Edam’s. It had run quite long, hot wax dripping onto the brass plate, black wick burning away slowly.
“According to him, everything’s going to be fine. That’s the impression I got from him,” she added.
“That’s good,” said Edam listlessly.
“It’s nice to know your full name. Edamozvo Miaza.”
“Edamosfa,” she corrected, “It’s pronounced Edamosfa. Could you-”
She hesitated, lingering on the question that she was about to ask.
“Could you sit by me?”
Ana quietly thought, before sitting a comfortable length away from Edam, meeting her gaze. Her smile was gone; her frown, too; instead a strange tranquility had come over Edam, a quiet uncomfortable unreadability.
“Why didn’t you use your full name? I think it’s very nice.”
“It’s not my full name,” said Edam, “Just a part of it. My full name is a mouthful. I don’t like bothering with it.”
“I don’t mean to pry, but what he said in Agoran-”
“It’s just family business.”
She looked away from Ana. Ana touched her hand. She was cold, her fingers resting on an old, faint scar that ran from her palm up her wrist.
“You seemed scared, Edam.”
She shook her head.
Her voice shook with it, and she stopped speaking. She turned her head again, and she was crying – hot, angry tears on a stern face that tried not to reveal the rest of the emotion.
“Have you ever felt like the Godhead is punishing you for your sins you’ve done?” Edam asked.
Ana held her gaze on Edam while she tried to find the answer.
“I’ve been beat for doing awful things, if that’s what you mean. But that’s not what you’re asking, are you? I don’t think that the Godhead is that direct in our affairs, no. Even if they did, I don’t think you’ve done much that’s worth punishing. Sin is self-defeating, after all.”
Ana wiped her tears away with her cuff. Edam sniffled.
“But you haven’t committed all that much sin. I admire you for it. For your integrity.”
“Thank you,” she said, leaning in suddenly, “I’m sorry. I need this. Please hold me.”
Edam put her arms around her, and Ana pulled herself away lightly.
“Edam, we’re under oath.”
“I don’t care about the damn oath. The inspector’s away, right? Please just hold me, Ana.”
Her heart thumped in her chest as Edam drew her smaller form up close to her, arms embracing her back. Her head fell to Ana’s chest, and the two reclined backwards onto Edam’s bed. Her breath was hot even through Ana’s blouse – unbearably, beautifully warm as Ana’s hands found their way to Edam’s head. It struck her how small and slight Edam was in comparison. Ana knew herself to be a taller woman, and Edam was quite average, but in comparison it felt as if she was holding something impossibly precious and small in her hand. An exotic hummingbird that had come from a distant place, now using her as a flower to rest upon.
“I feel like a lotus-eater,” said Edam, “I know I’m going to have to wean myself from you sooner or later.”
Ana knew, too. If they wanted to stay out of jail and alive, they’d need to stop.
She had given up her soul to not stop holding Edam. To get a chance to simply speak with her again, and now here she was with the girl in arms and needing to stop.
“Are you afraid of your cousin?”
“I don’t know. A little, maybe. Did he try to- to get me in any trouble? To make me seem bad?”
“I think he might have tried. He mentioned that you got in trouble a lot as a kid. I don’t believe it for a second.”
Edam made a little chuckle, or maybe a sob, shuddering in Ana’s arms.
“Uh, no,” she said, “I was a troublemaker before the Inquisitors and the Church straightened me out.”
“Really,” she said, with a tinge of sadness, “I ran away from my duties a lot. My family – they aren’t perfect, but they tried to help by sending me to my uncle and cousins. I needed the discipline they gave me, but it still makes me uncomfortable to see them. It was a worse time for myself, and I don’t like remembering it.”
She stroked Edam’s hair gently.
“If I may ask-”
Edam looked up, meeting Ana’s eyes.
“Don’t interrogate me.”
“I didn’t mean to.”
“I know. Don’t. I don’t like speaking on this. I thought I was free from it, but sin always catches up, doesn’t it?”
“Sooner or later. But I don’t think anything’s catching up with you.”
“Maybe,” she said, “Maybe you’re right.”
“At any rate, you seem sad about Imera. I can lead him away for a while. Run a few errands so that he’s far from you much of the day.”
“I’d like that,” said Edam, “Thank you. You’re very kind for even offering that.”
Their faces were close now – so close that Ana could feel breath on her lips.
“I want to-”
“I know,” said Edam, “I want to kiss you too.”
She lowered her head to Ana’s chest again.
“Saints, I’m not going to get any sleep tonight.”
“Mm,” said Ana, “I’ll watch over you. No need to worry.”
Temptation took her. She put her lips to Edam’s head, kissing her. She tasted salt and skin and sweat. Edam shifted in place, not violently or unkindly, but with surprise.
“You shouldn’t have.”
“Nothing unusual about a kiss between friends.”
“Nothing unusual? So you’ll be kissing Tarnye and our priest next, I take it?”
Ana stuttered, trying to get a word out.
“You’re always so confident until I call you on it,” said Edam, “Aren’t you?”
“Yeah,” said Ana, rolling her head back, “I guess I am.”
“Tarnye is a pretty little thing. If I wasn’t…”
Edam trailed off. A question itched at Ana.
“Do you regret it?”
“Becoming a witch hunter.”
Edam was quiet again.
“No,” said Edam, “I don’t. I struggle with this, I suppose, but I don’t doubt my convictions to the Church or my Order, if that’s what you’re asking. I find you difficult.”
“Yes. Because you’re better than me.”
“I’m not,” said Ana.
Edam squeezed her tightly.
“You are. At the very least, you’re better at not being tempted to leave chastity than me.”
Ana wanted to burst out laughing. It was so absurd – she had given her soul up to set this right, and now she was being complimented for being better at resisting temptation while her comrade nuzzled herself into Ana’s embrace.
“I think you’d be surprised at how much I want you,” ventured Ana.
“Oh, I know. But I’m the one who came on to you, in the end, am I not?”
Ana nodded in agreement, and her more tightly likewise. The taut muscles in the small of Edam’s back shifted under her fingers, tightening and loosening with each subtle movement until she came to stillness again. It was a glorious stillness, the faint flickering of the candle setting Edam’s features in dark contrast. A deep sense of longing came over Ana, even when she was so close to her. She raised her hand, past Edam’s waist to the ties that kept her dress on. She gently pulled at one. Anxiety and trepidation leapt through her fingers.
Edam reached back, lowered the hand in kind, and looked up at Ana.
“Please don’t. I- I want it too. I know I shouldn’t, but I do want it. I just can’t. It’s wrong.”
Edam pulled from Ana’s embrace, and positioned herself under her own blankets, softly tucking herself in. She returned her hand to Ana’s, still tenderly holding on.
“I know. I really can’t either.”
Edam looked her in the eye, and fiddled with one of her curls with her other hand.
“Are you okay? I know I asked a few days ago, but since you came back, you’ve been different, peron. I know you’re holding something back from me. Besides the usual.”
Ana looked away in shame. Edam sidled closer to her.
“You can tell me, Ana. I can’t imagine what it was like, but you can tell me.”
“It’s just that she was eighteen. Gema, the witch. She was alone, she was treated like an animal by her own father, and she lived under the threat of death every day,” said Ana, “And I went and found her, hunted her down like an animal. She brought me back to her den, and when she…”
She gathered the courage to meet Edam’s gaze again.
“She asked me to kill her. Two times now, I’ve helped someone commit suicide because I had no other way of helping them. And what am I in all of this? I go from orphan to savant to Inquisitor, and then I meet these people who I could have been, were it not for the grace of the Godhead. For providence.”
She slumped against the headrest of the bed. Edam reached up and gently cradled her head in her hands. She brushed a stray hair away from her cheek.
“I guess I can’t help but feel that I’m like them, on some level. But how can I claim to know the Godhead’s plan for me, or them?”
She groaned. Tros’ voice echoed in her head. She was like them. That much was undeniable.
“I don’t even know if I’m making any sense anymore. I’m exhausted.”
“You really aren’t like that,” said Edam, “And the fact that you care that much says to me that you aren’t.”
Ana nodded slowly.
“Maybe. I will say, you’re doing a lot to make me feel better. I just feel terrible for getting you caught up in all of my foolishness,” she half-whispered.
“It’s really not that bad. I’m not precisely happy to see my cousin again, but that’s life, I suppose.”
“But I still want to set things right with you. If you need to be weaned of me, can we be weaned back to good friends? To compatriots?”
“Yes,” said Edam, “I’d like that very much. You make for good company. You should, uh, get out of my bed, though.”
“Really?” Asked Ana. She didn’t want to leave her for a second.
“If people found us-”
“I just want to make good on that promise. Keeping watch over you. You’re quite a restless sleeper, you know that?”
“No, I didn’t,” said Edam, “No one’s ever told me that. It’s very kind of you, but you don’t have to comfort me.”
Ana put a hand on Edam’s shoulder.
“Maybe it isn’t in the bounds of chastity, but I do feel that I should comfort you. That it’s good for both of us – that it improves our virtues as good members of the Church, to show each other kindness. Would you let me be so kind to you?”
Edam nodded without a word, and Ana left the bed ever so briefly, grabbing the key from its place on the ring, and locking the door to their room. She returned to the bed, and blew out the candle, nestling against Edam in the dark. Their limbs tangled briefly, completely, skin and fabric brushing against one another. Eventually, Edam was on top, her head tucked into the bruised flesh of Ana’s neck. The moon played witness to untold hours before Edam fell into the throes of sleep. Caught in her dreams, she twisted in Ana’s arms until she suddenly stopped, as if in a total calm. She was warm; graciously, totally warm, and easy on Ana’s aching joints. Her quiet breath seemed to call to faint words that Ana could not recognize. They were half-mumbled thoughts in a language neither of them knew.
Ana stared at the stars through the window.
Only two more days of inspection. There was no need to panic. Imera was a sharp man, but he didn’t suspect her impiety or Edam’s unchasteness. She reassured herself once more, and let sleep take her again, desperately hoping that no devils would visit her in her dreams.
One thought on “Hungers of Their Iniquity 1.5”
“I mistimed it. When I arrived there were three more dead, plus one that went missing a month back and one whose body she hid. Her own father.”
Edam made a sign of blessing, and circled it over her chest.
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