Hungers of Their Iniquity 1.6

When Ana awoke, Edam had somehow wrested out of her grasp again while she was asleep, having silently rolled onto her belly in the middle of the night. Ana cracked her knuckles, rolled the sleep from her eyes, and tried to make things out through the dark early morning hours. The sky was just beginning to lighten to a pale blue color. Edam looked quite peaceful in her sleep. She brushed Edam’s curls with her hand for a second before feeling satisfied that she was safe and sound. Ana stretched, massaged her bruised neck for a second and rose up from her bed. 

Fortunately for her, Imera was incessant as a puppy. Just as soon as she had bathed in the cool water from the well, eaten breakfast and put on some fresh half-garb, she was ambushed in the main hall by Imera. He had kept his coat, the temperature having finally returned to a more seasonable level. 

“Ana!” He said, as soon as he burst in through the door, smiling like seeing her was a pleasant surprise, “How are you today?”

“Well enough. Going to start on another focus today. I assume you’ll want to tag along?”

“Yes, I would,” he said,  “Making a blood weight?”

“Mm, perhaps. We’ve got a few extras in the workshop, but they’re shipped in from Dzhemor. Foreign to me.” 

He nodded, and the two left the church. They followed the main road up to the Teper and the lots where the various carpenters and blacksmiths worked in tandem. Of the thousand or so that lived in the city, it was a quite large proportion that made their living on the riverside, whether by fishing, crafting, begging or trading. Here, ore and lumber taken from higher up the river was refined into every kind of tool and furniture and even architecture as the continual fires of industry spat black smoke into the blue sky, and wood and metal refuse onto the cobbled streets. While she couldn’t see it over the buildings, the harbor was almost always near full; small boats would often bring themselves aground near to the city to rest and recuperate. With a turn around an alley, she came to the smithy she preferred, a small cobbled building with a forge that laid empty and cold in the morning air. Ana walked in first.

Awaiting her was a familiar, if unexpected face. Demi was a short child, even for a ten-year old, who grinned at Ana’s arrival. She was missing a front tooth, with willowy blonde hair streaming down her face. The shop was in a relative state of order still, with every variety of metal tool that one could imagine neatly hanging from the ceiling or placed in one of the many bins. The girl kicked her feet back and forth at the stool, straightening her dress. 

“Hi, Miss Metremte!” She yelped out before looking at Imera, “Who’s that guy?”

“Oh, that’s one of my comrades, Imera,” she said, introducing him, “Are your parents around, Demi?”

“No. They went out, and left me in charge. Dad says it’s just for the morning.”

Ana nodded.

“Good to know. Say, would you mind me taking a peek in the back? I need some stuff for a new focus.”

The girl nodded and pulled a key from its place on a hook, before walking to a door in the back. Ana followed her through the door, to the workshop behind it. Inside was the real stock – alongside unfinished tools and ornaments were spearheads and knife-blades, and the various components of full swords. Their fresh steel gleamed dully against the light.

“Are you looking for something specific? I’ve been learning our inventory so I think I can find it, if you need,” she said, bouncing on her heels proudly. Ana tried her best to not make her smile seem condescending.

“Oh, no Demi, that’ll be fine. I’ll get what I need, and then come back to you.”
The girl nodded, and wandered back to the front of the smithy. As she left, Imera leaned in close and lowered his voice.

“Is this place licensed to be selling weapons? You could arm a small platoon if you put all these together.”

“If it isn’t, that’s not my jurisdiction,” said Ana, “The riverboats and traders are always looking for young folks looking to take spears and muskets for them. The Shperis are simply meeting a demand. And besides, they give good prices to the Church. I know them. They go to a weekly service.”

She shuffled through, to the blades that hadn’t been sharpened yet – the ones that had not even been given a hilt. 

“I thought you were looking to replace a weight,” said Imera.

“A weight, and a knife. But I think I’ve come a bit further than that. I used to use a backsword and did some proper fencing before I decided to go more incognito, to save myself the look of a military type. I’ll take the middle ground, so to speak. Take a rapier and make it a focus.”

“Clever,” commented Imera as he fiddled with an unfinished spearhead, “You’ll look like a student, though. And it’s unwieldy with the weights.”

“Mm,” grunted Ana. She had been considering that. She’d have to work out a solution later.

She picked through a small group of blades and their components before she found one that was to her liking – mostly unsharpened, and a little wider than the rest. A wire-basket hilt and simple leather sheath sat beside it, ready to be fixed to the remainder of the weapon. It looked custom, and that would cost extra.

She shrugged, and took all three under her armpit. It was on the Church’s money, anyway. She stowed them under her shoulder, and walked to the door, placing her hand on the iron handle. 

There was a distinct clicking noise. In an instant, she knew what had happened. The damn girl had locked it again, and when Ana had touched it, the mechanism had undone itself. She froze for a moment, then played it off and opened the door fully. Imera made no comment, and she didn’t meet his eyes to see if he had noticed. 

She walked back out to the girl, and set the components onto the table. Demi picked some paper out from a drawer, quickly wrapping them up into a convenient package. 

“That should be seven rubles.”

Ana took out her coin purse, produced eight, and set them on the table. 

“Keep the extra,” said Ana, picking up the package and walking back out the door. Imera followed close behind.

“Why pay an additional ruble?”

“I dunno,” said Ana, “It was good work. It deserved recompense. Charity’s a virtue.”

“Fair enough,” said Imera.

She exhaled heavily at the close call. He hadn’t noticed.

The two made their way back to the church, and to the workshop proper. She took care to make sure that she unlocked it with the key. It was to always remain locked. It was one of the smaller rooms, on the first floor and like the rest of the adjunct hall of the church, it sat such that the sun came in through the window. Two benches sat opposite each other, Ana’s on the right, and Edam’s on the left; on top of each sat their cases, rectangular and somewhat bulky. She undid the buckles on top of hers, sat on the chair in front of the workbench, and opened it. 

One side of the box contained all of her foci: the remnants of her broken mancatcher, her ward, a half-finished blood weight, a blade of mercy, an old fire stave, an athame that she had left behind for her expedition to Erezus. In the other half were the tools; hand tools, for engraving and cutting, a portable vise, pliers and tongs, and the old tome that went at length into the creation of foci. Alongside it was a spare set of clothes, a compass, and few other basics for survival in a pinch. A heavy package, but light enough to travel with overall. She took the book, peeled apart the pages, and came down to the section on blades. 

“Anything in mind?” Asked Imera.

“Hm. Something adaptable. Dual purpose. I think I could get one of those purposes down today.”

She set down the blade, the hilt and the guard she had bought.

“Can you work while you’re watched?”

“I’d rather not. I have enough trouble concentrating as it is.”

“Well, before you start, I’d like to ask you something – would you and Edamosfa be interested in hosting a dinner for us tonight? If it’s not too much trouble, that is.”

Edam wouldn’t like that. Still, it would be worse to say no.

“Of course. I believe it’s our priest’s day to cook, which should be good. He might not join us for dinner, though.”

“Mm?” Intoned Imera.

Ana smiled, trying to keep up the good mood.

“His wife is pregnant. He’s been putting in time to take care of her, which leaves the rest of us putting in the work, and missing out on his good cooking.”

Quietly she envied Atper, the priest, even though she knew it wasn’t good for her. His wife was a pretty little thing, flaxen-haired and growing fat around her waist with a child. After his weekly service he’d almost always go and dote on her, let her lean on him in the church. Meanwhile, she and Edam would look on in quiet reverence, either praying or going about their duties. There were times where it was almost unbearable.

“Oh, good,” said Imera as he grinned, “Always good to have a nice, pious man out to help back us up, eh? Well, I’ll go and see if I can find Edamosfa.”

“Oh, I think she went out. No telling where she’s going. If you try to find her in the town, she’ll be back by the time that you’ve arrived wherever she was going. Though, I bet that the priest is still home. If you want you could visit him, get a corroboration of our account, maybe help out a little.”

Imera nodded.

“I can always catch up with her tomorrow. You know his address?”

She recited the directions to the place, making sure to emphasize that he shouldn’t go down the dead end off of main street, and let him leave. 

Ana sat at her stool, inhaled, and began her work.

The first step was the hilt – that would be the initial purpose, but to fit that purpose, she needed to change the guard. She twisted the intervening, thick wires away from the base where the hilt would be fitted, and the true flow of the piece began. The bustle of the town outside, the braying of the donkeys and beasts of burden, the yelling of the people in the street and the rolling of the carts all faded away. She was alone. What followed was close to a fugue as she consulted the tome, then made adjustments, then consulted again, each putting it towards a purpose. The woodcarving was next; she carefully chipped and whittled into that part of the hilt, enough that it would be engraved, but not be any weaker for it. The sigils would serve as the statement of her intent. A weapon that could move from sword to spear. She added more signs for control over length. 

The sun continued on its long track, shining as mid-day came, then afternoon. She paid it no mind, cutting away, wrapping the hilt in a strip of ray-skin from her kit, gluing it into place. She adjusted the guard again with pliers and was careful not to strain the metal too much. It covered, but wouldn’t restrain the hand when she guided it into a new form. She sharpened it on her whetstone; sharpened it again, and pulled a thin strand of thread over it, before pulling it taut and watching the thread split in two. The sun began to hang low again, and she felt something in her – in it – click. 

It had been shaped. It was a focus. 

Ana sheathed it, satisfied with her work. She could push for her other purposes later in the week. She stretched her legs and went on up to her quarters. She found Edam waiting for her, quietly writing into her diary. Her hand-writing was hardly legible. Even if Ana knew the language, she doubted that she could read Edam’s cursive. She put a hand on Edam’s shoulder, and she startled, pulling away.

“I’m sorry,” said Ana, “I didn’t need to scare you.”

“It’s fine,” said Edam, cocking her head, “You’re sweating like a dog. Come here.”

She drew Ana in, and pulled a cloth from her drawer, pulling it across her face.

“Did you drink any water at all? Eat?”

“I- well- I had breakfast.”

Edam sighed. She reached deeper into the drawer, and pulled a bottle of wine, a little thing – dark red liquid sloshing in the clear glass. She uncorked it, and offered it to Ana.

“Drink, peran,” she said.

“When did you get that?”

“Old gift from my uncle,” said Edam, “Drink. It’s cheap, but good.”

Ana took it, and drank down a small swallow, not wanting to get drunk. The bitter taste of alcohol burnt down her throat and into her belly, wetting her dry throat. Edam took it back from her and carefully took a sip. Then, she took another, drinking a little deeper, a drop of wine slipping from her lips, red and bright.

“Are you okay, Edam?”

“I’m fine. Managed to give Danza a bit of a run-around, but she said my cousin planned to come for dinner. And I’m-”

She put the wine bottle down.

“I’m scared. I just am, even though there’s nothing to be scared of.”

Ana put a hand to her face.

“Do you want to skip the dinner? I could make an excuse, try to make things easier for you.”

“No, that’ll make it worse. He’ll just want to see me more if I keep avoiding him. He’s annoying like that. He’s… concerned for me. Always has been. It’ll be fine.”

Ana took the cloth and leaned in as she wiped the wine away from Edam’s mouth. She looked sullen.

“Would holding you make it better than fine?”

“I don’t know,” said Edam, looking away, “Maybe. If it would please you, do it.”

Ana rose and put her arms around Edam’s frame. Edam rose to meet her, and they basked in the fading light. Edam spoke up. 

“I met with him today. He, Danza and the thaumaturge all went to the priest’s house,” she said as if admitting a horrible secret, “I nearly argued with him.”

“I’m sorry. I sent him there thinking you wouldn’t be going. I feel so stupid. But it’s okay that you argued with him. Sometimes families argue.”

“It isn’t. He’s difficult sometimes. I just made a joke about the fact that my uncle was a bit of a runt, and he was on me in an instant. Said he was disappointed that I would treat such a charitable man that way.”

Ana was silent.

“He was charitable. He opened his house to me. Took me from my mother. And if I joke about him every once and a while, is it that bad? But then again, I shouldn’t be ungrateful for what he did for me. How he set me straight.”

“I don’t think it’s that bad,” said Ana, “I’m not disappointed with you. How about this? I’ll try to make small talk at dinner and keep things off of family matters. Then after you can relax.” 

Edam looked at her, and something lit up in her eyes even though she didn’t smile. She leaned in, and they rocked together slightly, holding each other up. Ana stroked her neck. Edam’s muscles tensed and relaxed as she drew her fingers over her nape, into one of her curls. She sighed. 

“Thank you, peran, for being good to me. For not reporting me when I- I came on to you.”

Ana closed her eyes and breathed.

“You’re welcome. But aren’t you weaning yourself of me?”

“Soon,” said Edam, “Soon. But I need you now. And we aren’t kissing, so it’s closer to being friends, isn’t it?”

“Closer,” said Ana in agreement.

Edam whispered in Ana’s ear; the heat of her lips felt impossibly close.

“I rested better last night than I have in years. Thank you for that.”

Ana didn’t know what to say. There was too much and too little to say to that all at once.

Eventually, with great reluctance, they pulled away and Edam began packing up her diary once more, putting away her pen and paper. She left and waited for Imera to arrive back in the main hall with her. There wasn’t much to do in Tshalagrod besides wait around for reports, do chores and read anyways. Imera came with the priest, Danza and the thaumaturge, still mid-conversation.

“-and it’s so good to meet you, Priest Atper, really, a pleasure,” said Imera, “I’ve been told that you’re an excellent cook, but there’s no need for you to stay after dinner. I’d be glad to lend my assistance, and let you get back to that lovely wife of yours.”

Atper smiled – his missing incisor showing through his lips – and nodded along, happy to meet a higher-ranking member of the Church. Edam continued to read as the three approached. Atper carried a twine-wrapped paper package. 

“Thank you for your help, Inspector. We already have some potatoes, so I think it’ll be that and pork for us tonight.”

They walked on past, Imera tipping his hat to them as he went. Another half-hour passed, and the room was filled less with the smell of incense, and more with the smell of something boiling over the fireplace. Onions, herbs, and some meat.It eased Ana’s nerves. The dinner bell rung, and she walked in just as the priest walked out, carrying a small covered pot of the stuff.

Danza, Verat and Imera were waiting for them, two extra plates of pork and vegetables set out on the table, still steaming from the fire. Imera sat at the head, while the thaumaturge was closest to them, quietly poking at her food. Tarnye had already begun with the eating, slowly cutting through a piece of pork.

“Inquisitors,” said Imera, “Take a seat.”

He was not asking them. He was now commanding. 

Ana sat opposite Edam, and his eyes took a sudden intensity. She had seen something similar before, only a few times, when Edam was on the hunt. There it was somewhere between rage, joy and deep concentration. Here, it spoke to something else – a sort of deep fire that laid in the pit of his iris.

“Ana, do you know what the objective of an inquisitor is? What is their role?”

“To defend and uphold the Church, and to hunt its enemies, sir,” said Ana, on rote memorization.

“Yes,” said Imera, “When I say this, I do not say it lightly. Your actions in Erezus were dangerous and unsanctioned. I could easily give you several demerits, block your advancement, limit your potential as a ecclesiastic lawyer or judge, or any other number of punishments appropriate for what you have done.”

Ana held her breath. 

“However, your actions and conduct, whilst not in line with upholding the Church’s relation with the public, are valorous and impressive. Frankly, lesser hunters would have failed where you’ve succeeded. I might have failed where you succeeded, Ana, and I’ve had six years of experience in the field and three commendations.”

He gestured to himself vaguely.

“With all that into account, Danza and I have decided to waive any further investigation or punishment. What I’m asking for in return for this clemency is that you meet that bravery with common sense. Not to say that you shouldn’t be working to hunt witches and save lives, but I think that you have a lot of potential in you, just based on your conduct. It’d be a shame to see you die young, and I hope to be watching your career proceed smoothly in the future.”

He smiled broadly and Ana exhaled. Edam smiled at her, their eyes meeting briefly. They weren’t suspicious anymore. She returned the favor, letting herself grin.

“Thank you, Inspector. I won’t waste this opportunity. I don’t want a repeat of what happened.”

“Now, enjoy yourselves. Wouldn’t want your meal to go cold, would you?”

She was hungrier than she thought – the instant she tasted the meat, she had to restrain herself from trying to eat it all at once like an animal. It tasted excellent. To distract herself from that idea of briefly abandoning her table manners, she made small-talk.

“So, Danza,” started between sips, “You’re native Koletyan?”

She nodded.

“From Gyerma – you probably haven’t heard of it. It’s a little hamlet on the heaths in Perasef. I was always interested in hunting, and religion came naturally to me, so the two combined, I suppose. I trained with a local sorcerer – only one in town, mind, real cantankerous old fellow – then joined the Order of the Bloodied Head. It fits me.”

She nodded. Perasef was one of the broad floodplains that sat on the border with Barast and Darea. 

“You’re farther from home than me,” said Ana.

“Mm,” she said in a grunt of recognition, “It’s a good country. When I get older, I might send a request to get sent back there. See how my brothers have grown.”

“How many?” Asked Edam, seeming happy 

“Seven,” she said very plainly, “I’m the oldest.”

Ana snorted.

“Almost the exact opposite for me. There must have been two girls for every boy in the orphanage.”

She was exaggerating for effect. It was closer to one and a third of a girl, or maybe one and a half. They came and went.

“Not that we were siblings,” she added, “But there was a camaraderie there, being raised by the same people, sharing the same rooms. Did you have any siblings, Imera?”

She already knew that Ana had other cousins, just by them being incidentally mentioned, but she figured it was polite to ask.

“Three. Four if you count Edamosfa – I count her as a sibling, at least. We grew up together, didn’t we?”

“We did,” said Edam, acknowledging it, but not much more. She was clearly uncomfortable, slowly pushing a finger through one of her curls and pulling it taut.

Verat had finished her dinner in silence already. She tapped her foot nervously, staring from one person to the next, to Ana. Then she stared back at Imera, and started over until she reached Ana again. She pitied the poor thing. Most thaumaturges were witches at one point or another before the Church worked to repair them and set them on a better path. She seemed quite young, and not very experienced.

“Verat,” she said, “Where are you from?”

“Berus,” Verat replied, very quietly, slowing her tapping, “I am from Berus.”
She had been to Berus once before for her training.

“It’s a beautiful city,” she said.

“I did not like it very much,” Verat said. She stared off into the distance, and there was a long pause in the conversation.

“I’m native to Tshalagrod,” added Tarnye, trying to fill the space, “I want to travel though. See more of the world. I envy you hunters, but I never had the skills for fighting.”

Imera quirked his head.

“What is she doing?”

“Sign language,” said Ana, “She’s mute.”

“Oh, of course, how silly of me. Apologies, ma’am.” 

“Apology accepted,” signed Tarnye.

Imer gave a rather mischievous, toothy smile after he finished another bite of potatoes.

“I’m going to assume that wasn’t an insult,” he said. 

A brief circle of polite laughter emerged from the room, though Tarnye only managed a coarse, quiet noise and a smile. Verat did not laugh at all. Ana was starting to feel uncomfortable with how uncomfortable Verat clearly was. She wanted to break the tension – to be polite at this meeting before the inspectors left. She quickly finished her own meal, pork, potatoes and vegetables pouring down her throat, before trying another tact. 

“What were you before you were a thaumaturge?” Asked Ana.

“What was I?” She asked back absently, “I was a bookmaker, and a calligrapher. I worked commissions for wealthy people, for those that wanted certain things printed – biographies, family histories. Boring little things, mostly.”

Verat stopped herself. She seemed not to want to say more. Ana felt a little disheartened, but she doubted Imera would hold it against her. 

“Don’t bother with trying to pry too many answers out of her,” said Imera, “She doesn’t like talking.”

“How is that?” Asked Edam.

“Well, she made this wondrous little deal. You see, the false divinity within her has made it so that she can’t tell a lie. If she tries to, she chokes on her own words. She doesn’t like talking because she’s afraid she’ll accidentally tell a lie. It might have been the easiest confession I’ve ever gotten in my life,” he said, sounding quite proud. 

Ana nodded. As far as deals went, it didn’t seem that harsh as long as you were a very honest person.

“What’d she get in exchange?”

“Oh, lots,” he said, “She made a man disappear. Not even a trace of him. No body, no clothes, nothing. Vanished. No one else, though – that part of the deal was for one man and one man only. She herself admitted it.”
Ana was silent.

“And, as a sweetener, she gained one more thing. She’s quite valuable, you see.” 

“What do you mean?” Asked Ana.

“It’ll be more interesting just to demonstrate,” said Imera, making a dismissive gesture. He smiled again.

“Verat, how many people in this room have made deals with a devil?”

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