The room was as silent as dust. Verat stared into space; her eyes were almost pitch-black, with sparks of orange-yellow sunset speckling in her iris. Her features were like a stone.
She was a covener, of course. That’s why she kept looking at Ana. It seemed so obvious to her in retrospect. She had known that she was a witch the whole time. And still, she didn’t say a word. Verat wasn’t going to sell her out.
Ana’s heart sank as Imera began to insist.
“Maybe you didn’t hear me properly. When I give a command, you are to answer, Verat. How many people in this room have made deals with a devil?”
He turned from her, and smiled at the rest of the group.
“The answer’s going to be one, by the way. She’s the only one here who’s done that,” he said
“Really, there’s no need-”
Imera cut Ana off mid-sentence.
“Oh, please allow me this. She needs to learn one way or another that this is how we do things. We have a chain of command, and if we don’t follow it, there’s a due punishment.”
He stood and walked to Verat’s side. With one swift motion, he pulled up her sleeve, revealing a knit of bandages up and down her arm.
“Now, I’m going to ask again, and this time I want you to answer me. How many people in this room have made such a deal?”
She looked up at him. Hatred filled her eyes. Her face contorted in an instant into something deeply angry, and she spat on his shoe in defiance. Ana stayed silent hoping – desperately hoping – that he would give up his line of questioning.
Imera sighed, and reached into his coat pocket, rummaging for something.
“Again, apologies for all of this, and the noise. It’s so unfortunate that she decided to throw a tantrum here.”
He produced a small metal rod from his pocket. It was about as large as a feather pen in length, and it ended in three small prongs – clearly some kind of focus. Deep, silvered engravings covered it. He roved it over her, above her bandages, scraping it along the skin before he reached her bare wrist. Azure mana sparked in his hand, and in an instant, the metal heated to a glowing, dull red.
He rubbed it in, and Verat’s skin began to smoke. It lasted forever. It seemed to take years for her lips to curl in pain; centuries for her eyes to burst into tears; eons for her to start to wail. It pierced the silence like a knife. He pulled the rod away, three points on her skin red-black and angry. Tarnye gasped. Edam stared on silently, seemingly frozen with shock. Ana was the first to try to intervene.
“What in the name of the Saints! You can’t do that!”
Imera looked up quizzically.
“How so? I very clearly just did.”
“How- How so?” She barked out, “Torture is not an accepted method of acquiring a confession, and it certainly is not an accepted as a way for you to spend time on party tricks. She has rights. Thaumaturges are our compatriots.”
“They are, but they are also sinners,” Imera replied, “That’s part of what they are. And we’re here to help them repent, and to do that they need discipline.”
Verat sobbed, covering her face with one hand. Her other was still firmly in Imera’s grasp.
“Discipline, yes,” said Ana, indignant, “Torture? No.”
“You’re very new to this job, relatively speaking. Do you know why we outlawed the use of torture?”
“Because it fails to collect good information,” said Ana.
“Exactly. She can’t lie. No reason not to use every means necessary to get what we need out of her,” he said.
“Danza, you can’t condone this,” said Ana, turning to the hunter.
She shook her head.
“I would have preferred a more subtle method, but the Antipode approved it when Imera floated the idea. I’m in no position to say that it isn’t a good idea or that she doesn’t need to learn to tell the truth when we ask her to. I’m not one to contradict my superiors.”
She leaned back in her chair as Imera nodded in agreement. Ana could hardly believe what she was seeing.
“It’s rare we get such a useful weapon against witches. You should know as much as anyone that our work and duties require some unseemly things. This is hardly the worst of it.”
This was the worst of it, though – she had seen hunters kill witches, kill animals, kill blackbloods, she had done all of that herself – but she had never seen torture by one of them. Even the poor conditions in the Antipodes or on a prison convoy didn’t compare. She felt sick. Like her mouth had been filled with ash.
How could he act like this? Treating her like less than a person – like cattle for his branding.
“Now, Verat. How many people here have made deals with the devil?”
“Cousin,” Edam began meekly. She didn’t meet Ana’s gaze, or Imera’s. Instead, she focused on Verat.
She was too late. Verat sobbed, and eked out a sentence.
“Two. I’m sorry.”
Ana’s heart sunk deeper into her chest. If she could just deflect, maybe she could get out of this.
“Two,” said Imera, no trace of a smile left on him, “Two. Well, clearly, I’m mistaken about some of the people in this room. Thank you for being so forthcoming, Verat.”
He released her, and paced from his seat back to the head of the table, not sitting down.
“Cousin,” said Edam, “There must be some kind of mistake. What you’re doing isn’t right. Even if they accept this kind of evidence up at Dzhemor, you’re going to get her killed before she can be of any use to you.”
“I agree. We’re all people of faith,” added Ana, backing her up.
“I don’t think you’re following the gravity of what’s going on here. I have tested her time and again. She can’t lie anymore than a dog could speak. So, I’ve come to the point in my investigation where a new lead has opened up, and I must reconsider my suspects. Now, I must ask you to be quiet while I think aloud.”
He continued to pace around the table, to Ana’s side. She froze as he placed a hand on her shoulder. Verat continued to whimper.
“Now, I think Ana can be safely eliminated off the bat. All reports indicate she herself just killed a witch herself, and she seems quite zealous. My gut has lead me wrong before, of course, but I will eliminate you for now.”
“Good,” she said, “You can eliminate everyone else as well.”
“I don’t think I will, Metremte. It is my job as an inspector to be thorough with even the slightest of evidence, and so I will proceed.”
He spat out “will” like it was a curse. He walked to Tarnye next.
“You’re a meek girl, but you’re an acolyte, correct? You can nod to tell me yes.”
Tarnye nodded, fear in her eyes.
“Did you ever find yourself envious of those that can speak?”
She shook her head.
“Really?” Asked Imera, pulling at his stubble, “Never? Never had a man pass you over because of your throat? Never had people speak over you?”
She didn’t make a move. She didn’t buckle under the pressure either. She looked up defiantly and made a few signs that Ana didn’t recognize, before making the one for no, and shaking her head.
“Yyou don’t have anything to hide, do you? I can give you clemency if you are a witch, you know. Compliance will be taken into consideration.”
She shook her head again.
“This is absurd,” said Edam, “None of us are witches.”
“It seems otherwise,” said Danza. She fiddled with the holster for her pistol. Throughout all of this, she had seemed totally unfazed by Imera’s actions. She wasn’t trying to make it obvious, but she was ready to shoot at a moment’s notice.
Then, Imera turned to Edam.
“Edamosfa,” he said quietly, “How is it that you were able to travel, even though you were sick?”
“I- I was well enough-”
“But if you were well enough to travel, why would you not go with your partner to Erezus?”
She stuttered some more, before finding an answer. Edam looked at the floor. A furious, impatient look came over Imera’s face.
“I didn’t think I’d be in fighting shape.”
“Not in fighting shape? What an interesting statement. I think you’re lying to me. Do you know what else I think? I think you set your partner up.”
Edam shook her head, desperation in her eyes.
“Cousin, I’ve changed. You know that. Please.”
“I think you were in league with the witch in Erezus. You were never zealous enough. I think you hated Ana for being so certain in her faith, and I think you wanted her to go to Erezus and die at the hands of your real compatriot.”
Ana stood, her chair slamming back. She heard it roll on its legs before clattering to the ground. Enough was enough. Fuck her career. She wouldn’t stand for it. If they blocked her advancement for the next hundred years, it wouldn’t matter. She wouldn’t let Edam take the fall.
“I know her. She would never do such a thing!”
“You’d be surprised,” said Imera, “What people do. What some people are capable of behind closed doors. I hate to say it. I hate to think that my own blood would betray the Church. However, you are the one with the most checkered past out of anyone here. I have many reasons to suspect that you’re a witch, Edamosfa. I hereby place you under arrest for-”
He reached for his pocket. Ana felt her chest split in two with adrenaline. The punishment for high treason – for the utter blasphemy of an inquisitor becoming a witch – was death. If she did nothing, Edam would in all likelihood take the fall for her actions. If she did nothing, Edam would be executed. And if she said something, she’d be executed in the same way. Possibly by Edam herself.
She wouldn’t let any of that happen. It was her choice. She would take the blame.
“It’s me,” she blurted out. The room went silent again. Danza stared. Imera slowly turned his head from Edam to her. Even Verat went silent for a moment.
Edam looked at her, her mouth slightly agape. Her eyes shifted from confusion to betrayal. Ana’s heart thumped in her chest.
“I broke the oath. It’s me. I’m a witch.”
In that moment, something ancient awoke in her. Something older than the church she stood in, older than the oath she took, older than even the pagans who used to live in this land. She felt it in her bones and in her muscles and in her gut. There was no heart in it; there wasn’t even a coherent thought in it. She had felt it before when she was young, running through the streets, hiding. She was an animal, not a person with a soul, and three other animals had her surrounded. She was in their nest – a nest that once might have appeared inviting to her, but now was foreign and distinctly not her own territory.
That same instinct took her by force and urged her to run. She wasn’t going to die today. Not after fighting to get this far.
She turned, burst through the door and lept through the hallway to the workshop. She opened the door – no need to unlock it – the tramp of feet close behind as she slammed it shut once more, the lock returning to its original place of its own accord. She donned the scabbard, sheathed her new sword, and grabbed her case, hefting the weight in one hand. There was a kicking at the door, then a yelp from Imera.
She backed up, closer to the door, grabbing her coat from its place on the rack. She balled it up around her fist and used it to cover her face. Ana already knew she was going to regret this. She shut her eyes.
She made impact with the window at the same time that a gunshot rang out, the shattering lock mixing with the shattering glass. Some shard of wood knocked her on the elbow while glass cut up her arm. She fell hard onto the street below. When she opened her eyes, she caught glimpses of lamplight, leading out of the town. She ran over cobbled stone, passing the wooden town-houses and businesses. Her muscles burned with exertion. She wasn’t certain if anyone was behind her. She wasn’t willing to turn to check.
Soon, she heard yells, and more feet following her own. They were far away – perhaps out of sight of her – but not far enough for any kind of comfort.
“A witch! A witch! We’re looking for a witch! She went that way!”
The call spread from house to house. Candles and lamps lit up the windows of houses behind her, then in front of her as the word spread. She ducked into an alley, pooled water splashing beneath her boots, zig-zagging to the next street, and taking cover against the building. She peered around the corner. A mob of around five or so militiamen ran by, and she spied Danza among them. Most were carrying lamps and pistols and whatever other weaponry they could find. They had split up. That would make avoiding them all the harder. Her breath heaved against her chest. She steadied herself, and began to run again, towards the farmlands and fields that seemed so distant now. A deep cut on her arm stung.
She kept running. There were no feet behind her, though the calls for more watchmen, more people to join the mob continued, clamoring for someone to catch her. She strode between the islands of lamplight, muscles screaming with every new step. Townhouse gave way to smaller huts, to fields and barns and open ground. Stone walls criss-crossed the landscape to delineate the properties, scarcely visible in the black of night. It was only after she leapt over one and took cover behind it that she looked back.
The town was hard to make out in the dark. Little dots of torchlight fanned out over the landscape. Five, maybe six parties of people looking for her. Only the gloom was slowing their progress, and even then not by much. She tried to get her bearings, clutching at the darkening patch on her arm.
If she was where she thought she was, there would be an abandoned farmhouse that had been swallowed by some woodland near to the river. Most wouldn’t think to look there. She formulated a plan first, and began to stagger towards the Teper. She was bruised, exhausted, and very nearly broken, but it could provide shelter for the night.
There’s nothing left for me now but life itself, she thought, Even dying can’t save me.
The Teper gleamed in the night as she approached. The muddy water barely reflected the stars and moon, but it was enough to make out its shape and banks. She stepped towards the water, to wash herself clean of her own scent.
There was a rush, and a sparking in the grass in front of her. A thin ribbon of flame drew itself in front of her, not enough to start a real fire, but enough to say that she was not alone. It curved around her like a serpent before tracing itself back to its source. She turned.
It was Edam. Her face was obscured by a white half-mask. From the faint light behind her Ana could make out a carving that read ‘Balance,’ set into her forehead. Her right hand held a short stave; her left, a wooden ward, the points reaching through her clenched fist. Her dress flowed in the breeze.
Ana’s chest heaved in the moment of silence. She felt like she was gasping for air like a drowning man. Behind the mask Edam’s eyes were sharp and dark. She spoke first.
“Tell me you were lying back there. Please. Please tell me you were lying.”
Edam’s tone was soft. Like she was approaching a wild animal in a trap, trying to calm it. Ana had nothing to say in her defense.
“Please, just tell me it was a lie, and we can go back and explain the misunderstanding. I know you only did it to protect me. I know you get caught up acting before you-”
“I didn’t lie,” said Ana, “I’m sorry.”
Edam stared at her. Ana could no longer tell if she was trying to size her up for a fight, or determine if she was telling the truth. A desperate, deep part of her welled up.
“Edam,” she said, “Come with me. Leave the Church. We could- we could be happy-”
“And we could make it somewhere far from here, like Agora or maybe Daisya, and- and-”
“No, no, this isn’t happening,” interrupted Edam again, shaking her head, “You actually did it. You broke the oath.”
“We could! Do you really, actually want to spend the rest of your life like this? I know you aren’t happy like this.”
She paused. Edam looked away, muttering under her breath in Agoran.
“And yes, I did break the oath. I broke the oath with you, and that was going to happen from the day we met! Call it providence if you want, call it choice if you want, it happened. I wanted it to happen. And we broke it together. I just took another step because I had to survive.”
She had raised her voice now. She was nearly yelling.
“Shut up!” Yelled Edam, matching her voice, “Oh- Oh Godhead. Was this your plan all along? To test my faith? To seduce me away from the Church, Ana? How long have you been planning this?”
Ana was taken aback.
“I- I didn’t,” she stuttered, “I didn’t mean to make you leave. I didn’t plan on it.”
Edam stepped backwards, wavering against the heat.
“And yet you’re so certain on making me betray my faith. Just a moment ago. Now you’re just turning tail on it because I didn’t answer the way you wanted. I don’t know what to believe anymore. How can I know that you weren’t…”
Edam trailed off. She wavered in the summer wind. The water of the Teper rushed and trickled. She seemed more a specter than a human, the scarce moonlight and the fire casting her in an eerie glow.
“I know,” said Ana, ashamed, “I did lie to you. But I didn’t want this. I didn’t want any of this.”
“Drop the case,” said Edam, “Draw your sword.”
“We don’t have to do this.”
Edam shook her head again, and drew herself into a fighting stance. She held the stave high, ready to strike; her ward kept in an unassuming position that was still ready to deflect a blow.
“You don’t have to do this. You don’t have your responsibilities anymore. I do.”
“Your responsibility is to the law and the Church,” said Ana, “They won’t punish you for failing to catch difficult suspect.”
“Then do it. Be difficult. Don’t just stand there.”
Ana did nothing as Edam approached foot over foot. Each step was practiced, careful, and elegant. She had seen her take this approach before with others. Like walking up to an animal caught in a trap.
Ana did not move a muscle – not an inch towards her sword.
“I won’t fight you. You can take me in, but I won’t fight you, Edam.”
“Why?” She spat, “You’ve come this far, haven’t you? Seduced me. Made me chase after you. Made me need you. Why not quarrel with me now that I’ve denied what you desire? What your devil desires?”
Her voice quavered every word. She was quite close now – not more than a foot away.
“Come on! What are you waiting for! Reach for your sword! Strike me down! Do it! It’s not like you could do any worse than you’ve already done!”
“No,” she replied quietly, “I won’t. I can’t.”
“I still care about you.”
Her arms slumped at her sides. She nearly dropped her case with the force of the words.
Edam froze, then shut her eyes.
“Go,” she said.
“Go! Run! Run before I change my mind!”
Ana turned into the night, and fled further down the river. She looked back, and Edam was gone.