It was cold in the church. Skeins of twilight splintered out from the windows and corners and hemmed Tarnye into her quarters, sitting in silent contemplation. It was strange, the absence. For a good few months, Edam and Ana had been in her life. They had done chores with her, helped her with parishioners at the shrine, had clumsily interpreted for her when someone didn’t know sign language. Some people looked down on her for her mutism, but they didn’t seem to; it was refreshing in a sense, to see someone put that much effort into treating her kindly. She could go back to Tshalagrod, and surely there’d still be a space for her there. Sermons needed editing and the common people needed spiritual advice everywhere, and rites to be performed and so on. It wouldn’t be the same without them.
She opened her eyes to the sound of heavy footsteps. A door down the hall opened and slammed shut. She sighed and got up from her seat. She was fairly certain about what was going to happen next, and she didn’t want to be around to hear it.
She put on her warmer socks and shoes, fixed her robe, and walked into the hall. Tarnye could recognize Imera’s routines, his pace when he was angry – and for the last few weeks he had been fuming on and off like a kettle. He spent days out, in war-rooms and in the field across the city, trying to put together enough to put his own cousin and her lover in the ground. She rarely met his eyes; she was not brave enough for that. When she did catch a glimpse of them, they shone dully in whatever light there was, searching, seeking. It was not her place to question such things – she knew the law of the Sepulcher as well as him, and he probably knew the law of the land even better – but still, his fervor disturbed her.
She got halfway down the hall before she cringed at the sound of a whip cracking. She knew that he was a Machevin, but she had never heard the rite of bloodletting before – not like that. That was it. The crack of the whip and then nothing. A pained, empty silence that filled up the late afternoon. She wasn’t certain what he had done to deserve that sort of repentance. She walked to the door and put a hand on it, feeling almost as if she was checking for a raging fire. It was her job to console the sinner, to redeem him, to talk to the troubled. She put her eye to the keyhole, and saw nothing but a red blur of flesh and light.
Another crack. Another silence. She drew away from the door.
She looked at her hands. He barely knew Kolet sign. It would be a fruitless endeavor. She considered reporting it to Danza, but she was still in the infirmary – apparently as a result of a fight with Ana herself. She knew Danza had no reason to lie and that Ana was a tenacious fighter who was well-acquainted with the way that Inquisitors fought, and still she couldn’t quite pair it with the image of a woman she knew. She didn’t talk often about where she was from, but once on a quiet day when everyone else was out on some errand or another they had gotten to talking. Tarnye had spent most of her life in Tshalagrod, though she was educated down-river at a school for the deaf and the mute. Ana quietly told her about how she had been born and raised in Tyeka as an orphan, how the Church had been terribly kind to her even in her darkest hours, and how she came to be an Inquisitor, and that was why she felt so obligated to give her time to the poor in particular. It was a kind, quiet determination – not fanaticism or speaking from the pulpit, but an honest assessment of where she had been and where she wanted to go.
She couldn’t square the circle. Another crack of the whip. Another silence. She was lonely, and tired without having done anything, and above everything else she needed something to drink. She walked through the nave and out to the street and the cooling wind of the city. She picked a direction and wandered aimlessly up and down the streets. A few people gave her mind – she was dressed as an acolyte, after all – but mostly, she was invisible to them. She got as close to the river and the coastline as she could without running into the marshaled guards. The salty air was harsh on the skin, but refreshing compared to throwing her nose into a book. At a street corner, she found a low alehouse where it seemed a small party was going on. In spite of the dire mood of the city, here there was merriment; people spilled out into the streets drunk and laughing and dancing to the fiddler that stood on a crate, intoning an uneven jig and stomping to create the rhythm. She flitted between the dancers and the collapsed or near-to-collapsed fools and into the bar. Some gave her a little heed as an acolyte; most did not. The door was open.
The damp chill of the weather was banished by warm insides of the tavern where even more people had packed themselves. They were drinking, laughing, men and women all. In one corner a crowd watched intently over a match of chess between a haughty-looking man and the tallest woman that Tarnye had ever seen. She looked Gveert, or maybe Sondi – all sorts of far-flung types came to Kallin but more than any extraction or origin she seemed a giantess, a woman writ large, her hands cradling the pieces as she moved them across the board with the care and precision of someone practiced with their own body. Tarnye didn’t know much about chess, but she certainly seemed to have the upper hand in this game. Another group was carousing with a red-haired man at the center, laughing wildly and singing something bawdy and out of tune and time with the fiddler outside. She made her way to the bar, where a gray-haired woman was tending, and waved her over.
“A beer,” she signed.
The woman looked at her, puzzled.
“A beer,” she repeated.
“I’m sorry, acolyte, I don’t know much sign language. Can you read lips?”
“I’m mute, not deaf,” signed Tarnye, “But thank you. I just want a-”
The bartender interrupted.
She mimed the sign for deaf back poorly.
“You’re deaf? Do you need directions?”
“I need a beer,” signed Tarnye in exasperation.
A young man came over from across the bar. He was a tall fellow, with tawny hair that he had cut quite short and choppy. He signed at her.
“Need some help interpreting?”
“It’d be appreciated,” replied Tarnye, “I really just want a beer.”
“A beer for the lady,” he said aloud, “And she’s mute. She can hear you just fine.”
“Well,” said the bartender awkwardly, “I apologize. I’ll get that for you.”
“Thank you,” signed Tarnye, “You’re a lifesaver.”
He sat down beside her.
“So, what brings a woman of the cloth out drinking?”
“I think I’d counter by asking what brings a party out in such a dire time?”
“Generosity,” said the man, “Some kind souls said they’d foot the bill for any of the drinks bought tonight. That’s enough reason to celebrate, isn’t it?”
“I suppose,” Tarnye signed, “I guess I owe you an answer. I think I’ve lost some friends.”
“Aww, haven’t we all?”
The bartender brought out her beer by the time the red-haired man had entered into the third verse about the fish-wives, and the men were laughing aloud like foxes in the wood. Tarnye couldn’t say that she was happy, not really, but seeing so many people in such good spirits made her feel a little more alive. She turned the foam-filled mug over in her hand, and chugged the thing as deeply as she could. She coughed and wheezed a little, feeling the slight tingle of the alcohol and bitter taste fall down her throat. She sighed.
“You think you know some people, and you come to enjoy their company, and then they turn out to be… two-faced. No, two-faced isn’t the right word.”
It really wasn’t. In retrospect, she could see a lot of it. Edam and Ana had been fast friends from the start. Ana always seemed to pay close attention to Edam, and vice versa. Tarnye had assumed that they simply were good friends, but Edam’s confession and diaries put an end to that theory. She couldn’t exactly blame either of them, too. Edam was quite a beauty, and Ana had a charm to her that was hard to describe. She was earnest, willing to put her best foot forward with people, and she was attractive in her own way. Her features felt refined, cutting; as if she was made by the Godhead’s own hand to make discerning faces or laugh in a sharp, hearty way. Edam always complained about it, but to Tarnye it seemed perfectly rational as to why she preferred her uniform to dresses. She was designed for the broad hat, the black coat, the white vest – all vestments of the inquisition merely waited for her to come of age and into her own so that she could take her rightful place in them. But that was then; now she had turned traitor and shot two of her own comrades. It was an ugly, sad thing.
She turned her mind from it. She needed more to distract her. Tarnye turned to the man.
“Who’d you lose?”
“As it turned out, my girl was fucking someone else. I mean, we’d only been going for a month, but still, she was pretty.”
“I’ll pray for you,” she signed jokingly.
“I’m going to need more than that,” he said, “Another drink for me. What’d your friends do?”
“It’s too much to get into over beer,” signed Tarnye, “More of a conversation you have after your eighth round of whiskey. I’m not to partake in such excess.”
“Shame,” said the man, “My name’s Belyan. You?”
“Tarnye,” she signed.
“Good name,” he said, “You’ve been in Kallin long?”
“Only a few weeks. It feels like it’s been a few years.”
“The city will do that to you,” he said, “Life moves faster out here.”
“I’d say life moves closer out here. It’s all tangled together and stretched out as much the world can manage. It’s like… in a small town, everyone is all connected by a single strand of twine. Here, there’s ten-thousand strands that have been thrown together, and there’s no undoing the knot they’ve made no matter what you do. You’d have to burn the city to the ground to get out a single strand.”
“Is that what they’re doing?”
“What?” She signed.
“The Inquisition – is that what they’re doing?” He intoned quietly.
Tarnye kept her hands down and drank some more.
“Alright,” he said, “Touchy subject, clearly. I didn’t mean anything by it.”
“It’s not your fault. City’s up in arms about it, and for good reason. Even if their intentions are pure it looks like tyranny. I’m not questioning my superiors but-”
“There’s reasons why Kolets would be concerned by Blackwood being put under martial law again. I don’t blame them for the barricades, the riot last night.”
“At least some of you show some sense.”
“So, who do I owe my beer to?”
Belyan looked around the room, and started to point them out, starting with the Gveert woman who was now up five pieces on her opponent. The red-haired man was next, who was now intently following along as another man drunkenly tried to recall a whaling trip. The third was another Gveert man with very short, curly hair and a scar above his right lip; across from his was the fourth, another woman with dark skin and wavy hair in a rather fine-looking dress. They didn’t seem particularly rich besides the fourth, but she was always a poor judge of that sort of thing.
“Did they say why?”
“According to them, their payday came in,” said Belyan, “And they said that they were in a charitable mood. I’m not complaining.”
“What do they do?”
“No clue,” said Belyan, “I’ve seen the red-haired one around for a few months now. I think they’re in with some merchants from the Gveert lands, probably selling sugar or tobacco. There’s always demand for more of that.”
“I suppose that makes sense,” signed Tarnye. She sighed heavily.
“I still need a husband,” she said.
“You’re not married?”
“Do you see a ring?”
“No,” he said, “I just supposed since you’re aiming to be a priestess and all…”
Marriage and children were part and parcel of the parochial duties of a priestess. An absence of children wasn’t a sin, but it was seen as a good thing for a priestess to have, and so getting a husband sometime before the time she was confirmed was on her to-do list. She nursed her drink and looked around the room quietly. The women and men yelled and swayed in various levels of drunkenness, and there were lovers between them. They clutched at each other with red faces and grasping hands and lips. Two sat slumped down in the corner on the verge of a drunken stupor with the girl’s shawl slightly ajar and revealing a single springy black curl. Her partner tried to keep his eyes open, maintaining a strong, tattooed arm around the girl, maintaining his slightly-less drunk vigil. She nudged him a little and mumbled something that Tarnye couldn’t make out over the noise of the crowded inn. He responded by putting a kiss on her forehead and hauling her up to her feet. He bidded some of his friends farewell, and the red-haired host nodded to him as he left. There was a sudden shift in the air as all of the hosts came to convene in the center of the room. Oddly, none of them seemed drunk. The red-haired one slammed his hands together with a loud clap, and spoke commandingly.
“Alright lads,” he said, “I’m sorry to announce that you’ll be paying for your own drinks from here on out.”
A roar of groans and cheers emerged from the crowd, half bemoaning the loss of the handout and the other half yelling for what they had got out of it. For her part, Tarnye raised her glass to their generosity.
“Don’t worry, don’t worry. We’ll still be gracing you with our presence for a little while longer. We just wanted to give you folks a warning before you start buying things you can’t afford.”
They carefully worked their way over to the bar, looking to the bartender. She smiled and slowly counted up the tab of a dozen or so bargoers, Tarnye included, and came to a total. The four looked between each other.
“I hope you actually have the money for all of this,” said the bartender, “Or else I’m going to have to make you stay and work until you make up the difference.”
The red-haired one scratched his head.
“Well, we are a little short on change,” he said.
The short woman pushed him a little.
“Don’t mess with her. She made us guests.”
“Fine, fine. Kiitan?”
The short woman swung around her back-pack, and the man took it.
“I hope you take things of equivalent value around here. Let’s see…”
One by one, he started removing valuables from the bag – a gold necklace and a little bracelet to start. The woman looked on incredulously.
“Ridiculous, what people are paying us with these days,” he said, “You’d think there was a famine on. I guess that’s my home country for you, huh?”
He fished around further in the backpack and took out a thin silver necklace adorned with pearls. He gingerly placed it on the table.
“Does that cover it?”
The bartender looked at him in shock. Tarnye wasn’t sure what to make of it either. They looked to be in too good of a condition to be old keep-sakes, and the gold looked as real as could be. She squinted and rubbed her eyes.
“Fine,” said the red-haired man. He pulled out three golden earrings from the bag and handed them over as well.
“We could give more, but I feel like that’s more than enough for yourself,” said the red-haired man, “What the boss doesn’t know won’t hurt him, am I right? We snuck stuff like this all the time back in the day.”
The giantess rumbled, and pointed a heavy finger at the silver necklace.
“That’s real pearl right there. You can upsell that to someone. Trust me.”
The bartender eyed the valuables before quickly pocketing them all and hiding them in her apron.
“Thank you, ladies, gentlemen. It’s appreciated.”
Tarnye waved at Belyan.
“Interpret for me, will you?” She signed. He followed lazily along with the signs and echoed her words aloud.
“I just wanted to thank you for your charity tonight. What providence brings your good fortune?”
“Ah, a woman of the cloth!” Said Kiitan, “I hardly noticed you. We trade for the rare valuables out of the fresh territories in the Gveert lands. Ivory, nacre, horn and bone, and other precious things.”
“Some of the haul is from the war,” admitted the Gveert man sheepishly.
“You fought?” Asked Tarnye.
“We all did,” said the red-haired one, “The moment I heard about it, I knew it was my holy duty to go down and aid the Gveert cause.”
She nodded vigorously.
“Saint’s blessings! What a hearty crew. I’m glad you’re able to find such fortune after the war – I hear that a lot of the soldiers didn’t fare so well.”
“Oh, you’d be surprised what rich folks around here are willing to pay for a little bit of elephant bone. Even biirtoet horn is going quite high right now,” said the giantess, “Of course, it’s a pain to hunt down.”
Tarnye gave her best quizzical look.
“It’s a kind of… I guess it would be a deer? That’s the closest thing that it looks like.”
“It is like an elk,” the giantess said sagely, “Larger than the ones here. Their horns grow straighter, though.”
“But the girls, the biirtet, they don’t have any horns,” clarified the red-haired one, “But the bone? Strong as steel and quite valuable to the right buyer. The hides are quite pretty too.”
“How fascinating. Can you eat them, like venison?”
They exchanged glances and all shrugged.
“Yes,” said the short woman, Kiitan. The Gveert man elbowed her.
“It’s not all that appetizing,” said the red-haired one, “Not worth it unless you’re a freak like her. She loves hunting them. I personally have no passion for it.”
“She loves butchering them,” corrected the giantess, “I love hunting them. She tried to make me eat one once.”
“They’re all exaggerating. I only ever ate one once, because I was curious, and it was fine. They’re not hard to catch,” said Kiitan, “You can get them by the head or the horns and force them down once you’ve caught up with them. Very weak necks.”
The Gveert man went oddly silent.
“I’ve a question for you,” said the Gveert man, “It’s been bothering me for a while. I think you could answer it as a woman of the cloth. Can a virtuous act truly make up for a sin?”
Tarnye thought for a moment.
“Well, certainly,” she signed, “If the act is commensurate and negates the sin, then in the eyes of the Godhead that may be seen as forgiveness for that sin. It would be best to talk with a priest, though, to make sure that what you do is truly in measure with and step with proper orthodoxy.”
“So even a murder could be made up for?”
She put her fingers together for a moment.
“Well…” Translated Belyan.
“It’s complicated. The killing of another human soul is always a tragedy-”
“Even if it’s for a good reason?”
“Well, I suppose, if the killing is well justified. Absolutely.”
The Gveert man nodded, seeming satisfied with her answer. The giantess sighed solemnly.
“Alright, we’ve had our fun. Paid our debt to society,” she said, “We’ve still got our arrangement tonight.”
The red-haired man rolled his shoulders.
“Alright, fair enough, we’ll be clearing out. Good evening to you all. Bones aren’t going to sell themselves.”
Tarnye made a sign of blessing for them as they left, and finished her drink on their accord. They seemed like good enough fellows. She turned back to Belyan.
“So, what do you do for work?”
“Idiots,” hissed Laat, muffled through the wicker-weave of her helmet, “Don’t play coy with civilians. We were there to pay our debt, not play word games.”
Kiitan clambered up onto the roof the join them. The night was on in full now, the lantern light spilling out over the city as people settled in for the night. The light below and the setting sun put her in eerie contrast. Of all of them, she loved her trophies most. She’d fashioned them from the masks of the dead and bundles of red string and tough resin, fashioned into little rattles; two strings down from her forearms, and another looped around her neck. The shattered masks were still intact enough to make out carved eyes, teeth, wooden visages of spirits from beyond. A three blades and two pistols marked her body up and down, and Gyan knew that she kept a half-dozen knives hidden in her jackboots and wherever else she could fit them. She tutted in agreement with Laat.
“You’re all so mean,” she said, “I only tried it once. I wanted to see if the superstition was true.”
Gyan shuddered. Of all of them, Kiitan was the only one that could faze him. Laat was intimidating by nature – taller than any other woman he had ever seen in his life, and muscled like a bear, her affect only became more terrifying when she donned her panopoly. In lieu of a normal helmet, she preferred a bee-keeper’s wicker garment, eyeless and faceless and muffled. She held her massive pike-stave upright against the earth and leaned on it like a walking stick. She chains in her armor clinked as she leaned from one side to the next.
“I was just riling them,” said Gyan, trying to appeal to Kiitan’s nostalgia, “And it was true, in a way. You remember! It’s just that you grabbed him by the hair, not the horns. It was quite a demonstration of… power. A charismatic display of thaumaturgy and sorcery in concert.”
The Sondi’s neck had been snapped so quickly that he was probably dead before he hit the ground. Gyan had no idea at the time what possessed her to rip off his mask and clothes and start chewing on his corpse. Apparently she had heard a rumor that eating the raw flesh of a dead foe could increase one’s reserves of mana. It was untrue, of course, but that didn’t stop her. It gave him quite the fright at the time. That was to say nothing of her stalking butler – of all the corpses and battlefields, of all the terrible things he has seen, that spidery devil had a hold on him. In the low light, he could see that it had a hold on her too. She had leaned back with her hands against her braided hair, only for a third, gore-soaked hand to have firmly planted itself on her shoulder; a fourth, on her hip; a fifth, staining the thin cobbled roof; and just a hint of a gleaming eye somewhere behind her. Her neck was just exposed enough to show the edges of her vast, inky tattoo. In her revels, when she was nude, he had seen it in full – a heptagram that spanned from her neck, across her breasts and down to her thighs, lined with verses from the scripture. It was her redemption, she had said; the thing that kept her from Torment.
Iirtu was quiet. He hunched like a hermit, staring out over the city through a spyglass. His thick cloak gave him the appearance of a beggar, but that was practical for him. He could move with it without alerting the authorities too much, and it was quite good for concealing his wands and a few other foci.
“They’re still swarming the bridge,” he said, ignoring the rest of the conversation.
“It’s no issue,” said Laat, “I don’t think we fight across. Gyan, thoughts?”
“No,” he sighed, “It’d be a pain. Too much heat, too early on.”
He thumbed his necklace that he had kept hidden all night. Fifty-six burnished teeth and two tanned ears to store mana in. It wasn’t as excessive as Kiitan’s, but it was far more concealable and portable. It had been an enormous pain to get the rest of their stuff through customs – it nearly bankrupted them before the girl had paid them off.
“I guess we’ll have to commandeer a boat,” he said, “I swam in the Teper once. I don’t plan to ever do it again.”