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Echoes of the Fey: The Prophet's Arm

Echoes of the Fey: The Prophet’s Arm

 

Published by Malcolm Pierce at Shakespir

Copyright 2016

 

For more Echoes of the Fey, go to http://www.woodsy-studio.com/echoes

 

Sofya Rykov was supposed to be dead, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at her. She had bright, piercing eyes—one blue, one green—that peered out from beneath a swoop of dark hair. Her skin was pale but full of life, blushing at the first sign of anger or the second drink of the night. She had narrow shoulders that helped her conceal her well-toned arms under a worn, cropped leather jacket. Her teeth gleamed white, brighter than the smiles of most inhabitants of the border town of Vodotsk, betraying her noble birth.

In fact, the only sign of the injuries that should have killed Sofya was a single scar. It was a thin crease that ran from the her forehead down to a point just above her nostrils, cutting across her left eye and betraying that her striking heterochromia might not be natural but the result of an awful trauma.

Of all Sofya’s scars, it was the only one she couldn’t figure out how to hide.

“Have you considered makeup?” Heremon ir-Caldy asked as Sofya stared at herself in the mirror. “I believe that applying some sort of cosmetic concealer would be the simplest solution.”

“No,” Sofya said. “Because that wouldn’t solve anything.”

“It would make the scar invisible.”

“I would still be able to see it.”

Heremon grunted. “So you’re going to stay in here until you can get the incantation to work?”

“You’re usually curious about my magic. Don’t you want to know why it can hide my burns, but can’t touch this one stubborn little mark?”

“I’m not curious about a question when I already know the answer,” Heremon said. “The spell won’t work because you won’t let yourself forget.”

Heremon ir-Caldy had a tall, thin frame and smooth, chestnut-colored skin. His golden hair was bound into thin, intricate ropes, which he subsequently tied into a neat ponytail. He had a narrow face with a dimpled chin. Unlike many of his people who remained in Vodotsk after the war, he made no attempt to conceal his long, pointed ears. He wore his Leshin heritage proudly.

Like all of his people, Heremon was ageless. His skin did not wrinkle or sag, he remained perpetually youthful. He could have been thirty years old or three hundred. Sofya often wondered how old he was, but even she wasn’t sure how to broach the subject. He knew all of her secrets, but she still couldn’t bring herself to ask for just one.

“You know it would be safer if you didn’t use any concealing magic at all,” Heremon said. “If it ever wears off in public, it will raise questions. No human your age has even managed to perform the simplest of glamours. It’s not worth the risk.”

“Sometimes I forget you’re not human,” Sofya replied. “But often you find a way to remind me.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Sofya laughed. “Vanity, Heremon.”

“Leshin can be vain.”

“It’s not the same,” Sofya said. “You care about presentation—about showing how much effort you put into your appearance. But humans want our appearance to be effortless. We want to look naturally beautiful.”

Heremon furrowed his brow. “Everything is naturally beautiful,” he said.

“Yes, that is exactly what every girl wants to hear,” Sofya replied. “You’re as equally pretty as everyone else.”

Before Heremon could respond, the soft chime of a bell drifted up from the first floor. “We have a customer,” Heremon said, allowing just a hint of excitement to enter his voice. “I hope you’re feeling presentable.”

Sofya looked at herself once more. “It will have to do.”

~

A sharp, pungent odor stung Sofya’s nose as soon as she descended to the first floor. She recognized the scent immediately. Leshin perfumes were especially strong and, to humans, possessed a noxious edge that resembled heating fuel.

Even though the Leshin occupation of Vodotsk was over, Sofya wasn’t surprised to have a Leshin visitor. Hundreds of them remained in the city. When the war ended, the Leshin of Vodotsk were allowed to remain under certain conditions: they had to renounce the ir-Dyeun and register with the County government. Most chose to leave, if only to avoid living side-by-side with the people they had spent a decade fighting. But a few remained, refusing to give up their home.

“Welcome to Rykov Private Investigations,” Sofya said as she descended the staircase into the lobby of her modest office. “How can I be of service?”

The Leshin man standing in the doorway looked up at her. He was impeccably dressed in a light green tunic and perfectly tailored leather pants—a demonstration of the vanity that Heremon had just described. He had bright red hair and a dazzling white smile, but that was not the first feature that drew Sofya’s eye. Arching up from his back were two shimmering wings. They were thin, almost translucent, as if made purely of light. They shined through small slits cut in his jacket and fluttered in the breeze from the door. Winged Leshin were rarely seen near the border, as they hailed from far west beyond the Great Forest that divided the continent. He had come a long way to Vodotsk, which made it especially strange that he would find his way to Sofya’s door.

“Private investigations?” the Leshin man said. “What does that mean?”

“We’re like mercenaries,” Sofya replied. “But we try to avoid fighting. We find information. Cheating spouses, mostly, but we’re more than open to any sort of work you might want.”

“Good. That… That sounds like what I want. They told me to come here, so I was hoping you would be able to help me.”

Sofya looked back towards the stairs. “Did you hear that, Heremon? We’re getting referrals.”

“Yes, but who is giving them?” Heremon asked. He stood halfway up the stairs, eyeing the Leshin visitor with suspicion.

The redheaded man considered this question. “It was the man who polices the city. The Imperial Inspector. I believe his name was–”

“Luka?” Sofya interrupted. “He told you to visit me?”

“That is correct.”

“Now that’s a surprise,” Sofya said. “Here I was, thinking that he hated me…”

Heremon sighed. “You have not heard what this man wants,” he said. “Perhaps Luka sent him here to torment you.”

“No!” the redheaded Leshin exclaimed. “Nothing of the sort!”

Sofya shrugged. Rent was due in a few days for the office, which meant that she didn’t much care how work was sent her way. “So, that brings me to my original question: What can I do for you?”

“My name is Braden ir-Alba, and I am… Hmmm… I am the curator of the Alban Museum of History.”

“You’re a long way from home,” Heremon muttered. “Especially for a historian.”

“Yes, yes, I understand. Are you from Alba as well?”

Heremon shook his head. “Caldy. Still west of the forest, but I’ve never been as far as Alba. So if you’re here…”

“It is very important,” Braden said. “But no one here is willing to help me. I suppose I understand why, but that does not make it all the more frustrating. You may be my last hope, unless you plan to refer me off to another intelligence agency?”

“Don’t worry,” Sofya replied. “We’d love to have your business.”

“We don’t even know what he wants,” Heremon said. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Braden, tell us why you’re here.”

Braden fidgeted with his hands as he sat down in the chair across from Sofya’s desk. “It is about a historical artifact,” he said. “An item of great importance to our people that has been lost. It was here in Vodotsk during the occupation and has gone missing since.”

“What is it?”

“An arm.”

Sofya raised an eyebrow as she looked at the nervous Leshin man. “An arm?”

“Yes. Well, a prosthetic arm. It belonged to Cathal ir-Dyeun, the messenger and recorder of Dyeun’s Will. During the war, the ir-Dyeun believed it had magical properties and thus brought it to Vodotsk during the occupation. They wanted it close to the front lines. But after the war ended, and the Alliance of Free Cities imprisoned the ir-Dyeun radicals and Vodotsk was returned to the humans, the Arm disappeared.”

“Disappeared how?” Sofya asked.

“When the peace was agreed to, I sent a messenger to Vodotsk asking the AFC to ensure that the Arm was brought to Alba for our museum. It seemed like the proper place for it, as Alba was the birthplace of the prophet. But in the chaos of the transition, it was stolen.”

Heremon grunted. “Stolen by whom? Humans or free ir-Dyeun radicals?”

“I don’t know,” Braden said. “That is what I want you to find out. I admit that both possibilities are quite likely, and I have no active leads. But the museum has authorized me to provide up to eighty gold pieces for information leading to the recovery of the Arm.”

“For the recovery of a magic artifact?” Sofya asked. “I suppose that sounds fair. Plus any expenses that we incur.”

“Yes, yes, if you agree to help I suppose I could also use discretionary funds from the museum for minor expenses. But you must find the arm.”

Heremon approached Braden, arching an eyebrow as he examined the other Leshin man. “What do you intend to do once you have it?”

“I’m going to place it in our museum, of course. What else would I do with it?”

“Well, for one thing, I’m sure that there are ir-Dyeun out there who would pay a lot more than eighty gold pieces for an item that genuinely belonged to the prophet Cathal.”

Braden’s eyes went wide. “You would threaten to give the Prophet’s Arm to the ir-Dyeun just to get more money out of me?”

“Nothing of the sort,” Heremon replied. “The arrangement you propose is fair and even if we were mad enough to collaborate with ir-Dyeun, contacting them would be difficult for us. But it would not be difficult for someone with connections west of the Great Forest. My fear, in fact, is that you would pass the Arm along to ir-Dyeun radicals to turn a tidy profit.”

“I am a historian!” Braden exclaimed. “I have no interest in selling the Arm to anyone.”

Sofya reached out and put her hand on Braden’s shoulder. “Don’t worry,” she said. “My business partner is just very cautious about the kinds of cases we take. I’m still interested in helping you, we just–”

“Wait a minute,” Heremon said. “Sofya, can I talk to you alone?”

“Don’t be rude.”

“This is important.”

Sofya returned her attention to Braden. “I’m so sorry. This will be just a moment.” Before Braden could even respond, she hurried back upstairs with Heremon right behind her.

Heremon closed the door leading to the staircase and whispered, “What are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking that this is easy gold,” Sofya replied. “I can sense the presence of Fey-enchanted objects. It’s one of the few powers I have that consistently works. This is the perfect job for us. The Arm is probably sitting in some junk shop somewhere and the owner doesn’t know what he has. I just need to go around to the right places, ask the right questions and–”

“This isn’t just any enchanted object, it’s a sacred ir-Dyeun artifact. It’s the arm of their first prophet. Do you know what kind of trouble we’ll get in if the Empire gets wind of what we’re doing? Or even the county guard?”

Sofya shrugged. “Why would they care? We’re not going to give the arm back to the ir-Dyeun.”

“You’re giving them too much credit. We’re giving it back to the Leshin people. Most humans—and especially the humans who could get us in trouble—don’t know the difference between a museum and an ir-Dyeun temple.”

“Then they’re dumb. The ir-Dyeun were overthrown. The Alliance of Free Cities controls the Leshin lands now. They’ve cooperated with humans in ending the war and the occupation here in Vodotsk. People know the difference between the two.”

Heremon shook his head. “No they don’t. Trust me on this. We’re all just primitive, untrustworthy Elves to most of your people. I don’t know whether Braden ir-Alba can be trusted to put the Arm in a museum or if he’s going to turn around and sell it back to the ir-Dyeun. But either way, it doesn’t matter. Taking this case is going to draw attention to you. And aren’t you here in Vodotsk to avoid that?”

“C’mon, take some risks,” Sofya said. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

“The Empire decides that the Arm is a weapon and puts us in prison for attempting to return it to the ir-Dyeun. Or the county decides the same thing and kills us outright.”

“It’s just a fake limb,” Sofya replied. “How could they call it a weapon?”

“Listen, the ir-Dyeun didn’t keep it in Vodotsk during the occupation because it was a safe place for a historical artifact. I don’t know what they think it did for them, but they must have though it gave them an advantage.”

This just made Sofya even more intrigued. “Did it?” she asked. “If the Arm has anything to do with the Leshin’s connection to the Fey, we might be able to use it to help us understand my own situation.”

“It’s baseless superstition,” Heremon replied. “The only thing that a false arm would be enchanted with is a spell to give it movement. Simple telekinesis that almost any Leshin mage could apply. Perhaps, since the Prophet was a particularly powerful mage, it was especially well articulated. Maybe he could move all the fingers independently, like a real hand. But that’s it.”

“All the more reason to give it to Leshin moderates, so they can reveal the lies of the ir-Dyeun.”

“You’re just going to find a reason to look for the Arm no matter what I say, aren’t you?” Heremon asked.

Sofya smiled.

~

“We talked it over and we’ll take the job,” Sofya said.

Braden ir-Alba’s face lit up. “Thank you. You have no idea how much this means to me, to the museum, perhaps even to all my people. The teachings of Calath ir-Dyeun led us down a dark path, but the Prophet himself cannot be blamed for how we came to twist those teachings. And we cannot deny that they are part of our history. I am glad there is at least one human who understands this.”

“No, we understand the value of gold,” Heremon said. “Let me be clear that I do not particularly care about the legacy of Calath ir-Dyeun.”

“Then we will agree to disagree,” Braden replied. “And I will instead be thankful for your pragmatism in the face of a hostile world.”

“You’ll want to get used to that hostile world,” Heremon told the historian, “if you want to remain on this side of the forest for more than a few hours.”

Braden hesitated, as if he was considering whether he should escalate the conversation. It was clear that Heremon had touched a nerve in the Leshin historian. Fortunately, Braden stood down. “I will try to take that advice to heart,” he said.

Sofya gave Braden a quick smile, relieved that he chose not to pick a fight. It was hard enough to convince Heremon that the case was worth taking as it was.

“What does the Arm look like?” Sofya asked.

“It was made of steel, with mechanical joints on the fingers that the Prophet could control with magic,” Braden said. “The stories say that he was as adept with it as his natural hand, but you know the ir-Dyeun tales are hardly reliable.”

“That’s the best you can do?” Heremon said. “Let me guess: you’ve never even seen it, have you?”

Braden was suddenly quiet. If the Arm had been on the front line throughout the entire war, it was entirely possible that a Leshin from far west of the forest had never laid eyes upon it.

“What about leads?” Sofya asked. “Anyone in town who might know something about the Arm?”

“We hired a human courier to bring various artifacts from the temple to the edge of the border shortly after the end of the occupation,” Braden said. “The arm was supposed to be among them. Our agents at the forest border took possession of everything the courier brought and did not notice anything missing. Of course we did not check the contents of every box until delivery in Alba, and the arm had been hidden inside an urn to hide it from potential ir-Dyeun sympathizers who might have inspected the cargo once it was back in Leshin hands.”

Heremon grunted. “You’re telling us that the Arm could have disappeared during transport in the forest as easily as it could have disappeared here in Vodotsk?’

“My agents received the cargo and brought it to Alba without a single inspection along the way. And I trust my agents,” Braden replied. “They are all historians like me, and not an ir-Dyeun among them. Our organization has been secular for years and sees no value but historical significance for an item like the Arm.”

“Nevertheless, please check to see if any agents with access to the Arm have outstanding debts or have made recent extravagant purchases,” Heremon said. “Just to be sure. You may trust them, but trust can be misplaced. You can never be perfectly sure about anyone.”

Braden reached into his tunic and pulled out a small, clasped notebook. He scribbled hastily with a stylus. His wings shuddered with the violence of his writing. “Debts or purchases. Fine. I’ll look into it. You’re right. If there’s any chance the Arm disappeared on our end then I don’t want to waste my money or your time.”

“Thanks,” Sofya said, trying to remain cheerful despite Heremon’s attempts to sabotage the job. “We’re just making sure every possibility is covered. As for the courier, we should be the ones to talk to him. Your instincts were right—much better for a human to lead this investigation in Vodotsk than a Leshin.”

“I will give you the name of the courier and the address where we wrote to him.” Braden flipped through the pages on his notebook and scribbled a few words. He tore out the page and handed it to Sofya with a visibly trembling hand. “And as for any possible trouble on my end, I will immediately investigate.”

“How can we contact you?” Heremon grumbled.

Braden quickly wrote a second address on another sheet of paper. “I am staying in Edun. It’s a little village on the other side of the forest border and–”

“I know where Edun is,” Heremon said, snapping the paper from his hands. “We will be in contact when we find something. And deposit the promised payment in the Central Vodotsk Bank under our client account. Half for the retainer, nonrefundable. Half on delivery of the Arm.”

“Yes, yes… Will do. Please let me know what you find. I will go to the bank right now and arrange the transfer of funds.”

Without saying anything more, Braden slipped out of the office. Sofya was surprised by how easily he agreed to provide half of the payment up front, especially when Heremon raised doubts about the Arm being on the human side of the forest at all.

“Please stop trying to scare off easy gold,” Sofya said.

Heremon shook his head. “If there is one thing I refuse to tolerate, it is the ignorance of those who did not fight in the war.”

“You’d think that you were the one who nearly died in the Immolation,” Sofya replied. “You don’t have to be angry on behalf of us humans, Heremon. Plenty of us take up that cause already.”

“I know. If anything, I was trying to help him. If he speaks so openly and ignorantly while in Vodotsk, he’s going to get himself killed by a survivor who is not as… forgiving as you.”

Sofya glared at Heremon. “I’m not forgiving,” she replied. “I just know who to blame. If Braden was an ir-Dyen trying to reclaim the Arm for his temple, this meeting would have gone very differently.”

“I’m sure, between the both of us,” Heremon said. “Though it is amazing that you are comfortable taking this job at all.”

“We have to keep moving forward. And, besides, we need the money.”

~

As Sofya and Heremon walked towards the Vodotsk Fey Reactor district, Sofya took a moment to appreciate the reconstruction that was happening around them. Just five months ago, when the Alliance of Free Cities officially withdrew from Vodotsk, the streets were in ruins. Over a decade of Leshin control had destroyed most of the technological infrastructure. The reactor had been mostly disassembled, the pipes that carried its energy across the city were a decaying patchwork, and most of the streetlamps had been scrapped.

The Leshin had even allowed the city water and sewage system to fall into disrepair, though that was mostly an unintended consequence of their rule. Without Fey-powered lamps, fixing most parts of the underground tunnels was impossible. The Leshin could have done it using their own natural magic to create light, but they preferred the use of wells and outhouses so they were slow to respond to plumbing failures.

This wasn’t the only side effect of the Leshin prohibition on technology. Holes were carved out of buildings to allow more natural light, exposing them to the harsh storms of the border region. Trash piled up outside homes and Leshin-bred animals were introduced to the city and encouraged to scavenge the streets. In theory this would reduce waste, but Vodotsk was not built like a Leshin town and quickly found itself dirtier for the influx of western wildlife.

Despite years of neglect, Vodotsk was already on its way back to shades of its former self. After the hand-off, there was no ruling house controlling the region. A county government was established by nearby houses and a handful of refugees who had lived in the city during the occupation. They acted quickly to begin the reconstruction and stave off Imperial agents who wanted to subsume the region under the direct control of House Lapidus. Many other occupied counties had given in to the Empire immediately; Vodotsk and its surrounding lands were ready for a fight.

In the end, both Vodotsk County and the Empire contributed to the rebuilding effort. They waged their war for control over the region not with guns and swords, but with hammers, nails, and fey-powered cranes. The reactor was back up and running within a month. Water and sewage had been restored to over half the city. Buildings were repaired and the streets re-paved.

Not everything was perfect—Leshin gnil-beasts could still be seen scurrying about in the alleyways—but the progress was remarkable. Even from the Reactor District, Sofya could see the new capitol building under construction. It would be the tallest structure in the region—eleven stories tall, with a view that would reach the border of the Great Forest. The only question is who would eventually occupy it—the Vodotsk council or a governor appointed by the Emperor.

“They’re re-opening the heated baths near our offices,” Sofya said as she scanned the street signs for their destination, the offices of Utkin Continental Transportation. “You should really give them a try.”

Heremon scoffed. “You know, Leshin also can warm water with Fey energy. We just don’t need to pipe it in from a contained rift miles away. We do it ourselves.”

“I bet it’s not the same,” Sofya replied. “The baths have some kind of metal embedded in them which makes the heat completely uniform. It never gets too cold or too hot, and requires no effort on your part. You can just relax.”

“You know I am very liberal,” Heremon said. “But even I feel a bit of discomfort about warming myself with Fey energy sucked out of a rift.”

“Really? Interesting…” Sofya was silent for a moment, then worked up the confidence to follow up with a question. “I know this is a sensitive subject, but where do you draw the line? What’s a proper use of Fey energy and what isn’t?”

“A sensitive subject?” Heremon chuckled. “That is, perhaps, the greatest understatement of our time. A sensitive subject leads to an argument, not a thirty-year war.”

“Fair enough, but I wanted your line. And given everything you know about me, it’s only fair that I have some war-starting material on you.”

Heremon considered this request. Sofya could tell that he was very reluctant to answer. “I was raised religious,” he finally said. “My father wasn’t an ir-Dyeun, but he believed their teachings and tried to pass them along to me. I don’t necessarily think that Fey energy is sacred, but I believe that it is not given to us unconditionally. I don’t hold it against you that you enjoy a heated bath, but I would not use it for a luxury resource.”

“But you just said that Leshin have heated baths as well.”

“It’s different when you draw the energy from yourself and when you draw it from a rift you opened.”

“How?”

“It just–” Heremon stopped. He realized he had raised his voice and quickly calmed himself. “It just is, for me. And I don’t even think I can articulate why. I can just say it was how I was taught and what I believe. Is that enough?”

Sofya nodded. It was the best answer she was going to get and it was better than any answer she’d heard from a Leshin. “We should have taken a carriage,” she said, changing the subject.

“Just be patient. We’re almost there.”

“How do you know?”

“The address is right across the street.”

Utkin Continental Transportation was a small, one-story building in the Vodotsk Fey Reactor District. It didn’t look like much. The dirt-paved lot behind the building was occupied by three ramshackle carriages and an assortment of horses that grazed on withering grass nearby.

“I don’t know if I would trust these people to move my personal belongings, let alone a priceless historical artifact,” Sofya said, wrinkling her nose as they approached.

“The museum likely didn’t have much choice,” Heremon replied. “Months after the end of the war and most businesses in Vodotsk still refuse to serve Leshin. Imagine how it was in the first few weeks. If they already had a business established, they probably lived here and worked under the occupation. ”

“Wonder why these folks took the job…”

“I’m guessing it is the same reason that we are here.”

Sofya approached one of the carriages. The front wheel closest to the road was split from the axle and was barely holding up the body of the vehicle. Closing her eyes, Sofya tried to sense whether a magical artifact had ever been placed in the carriage.

This was one of Sofya’s easiest spells. Along with the glamours hiding her scars and low-level ice sorcery, this sensory magic was the only kind of magic she could reliably control. Everything else was volatile—it came and went in fits and starts.

“Something was here,” Sofya muttered. “It was quite a while ago. I can barely feel anything. I can’t even be sure it was the Arm but–”

“Hey!” a voice shouted, pulling Sofya out of her concentration. “What are you doing? Get away from there!”

Sofya’s eyes flew open and she turned to see a squat, bearded man approaching them. Her mind raced as she struggled to come up with a cover story that would allow her to continue inspecting the carriages.

“Greetings, sir, are you the owner of these vehicles?”

“Yes. What does it matter to you? Who are you?”

“Well,” Sofya said. “I’m a traveling machinist and I happened to notice that your carriages are in an awful state of disrepair. If you’d like, I could offer–”

The bearded man scoffed. “You’re no machinist,” he exclaimed. “Look at your hands! Ten fingers. No callouses. Who are you trying to fool? Explain why you’re here.”

“It was a good try,” Heremon said. “But it seems we may just want to be straightforward with this man.”

Sofya looked back to the bearded fellow. His scowl was even more intense than before. She immediately regretted the ruse. “Okay, I’ll come clean. I’m a private investigator hired by the Alban Museum of History. I’m looking for a particular item of theirs that may have been in the possession of one of your couriers four months ago.”

“Why were you poking at my carriages then? I wouldn’t be a very good courier if this item of theirs was still sitting in one of ’em for so long.”

While it would make the investigation much easier, Sofya couldn’t explain her magical sensitivity. Magic came naturally to the Leshin, but for humans took decades of learning and practice. Even then, most ancient human magicians had only a fraction of the various abilities Sofya had demonstrated since her power began to manifest. There was no telling what humans—or Leshin—would do to her if her magical skill was discovered, so she had to stay quiet.

“Well, I still think I could probably fix this wheel in exchange for some information,” Sofya replied. “Though you should be more than happy to help, since otherwise it might look like the item we’re looking for disappeared on your watch.”

The bearded man considered this for a second. Sofya had both threatened him and offered him a deal and he clearly wasn’t sure which to respond to. He settled with simply introducing himself. “It seems we started ourselves off on the wrong foot,” he said. “I’m Nikolai Utkin, owner and manager of Utkin Continental Transportation. How can I help you?”

“How long have you been in Vodotsk?” Sofya asked.

“Me or the company? It’s my father’s business. I took over some, say, sixteen years ago. But he started it at least twenty years before that so–”

“You were here during the occupation?”

Nikolai hesitated. His eyes darted to Sofya’s jacket—it had once been an Imperial army issued long coat, now tailored to a more fashionable cut. “Well, I was never called to war on account of my bad shoulder. Childhood injury. Couldn’t swing a sword or keep a gun stable if I had to. So I stayed here and ran the business. When the Elves—I’m sorry, the Leshin—when they invaded I didn’t have time to pack up and run.”

“Can’t imagine there was much business for a human courier when the city was occupied,” Heremon said. “If I recall, there were blockades on both sides.”

“Well, I… You know, I did what I had to do to survive.”

Sofya crossed her arms. “Did you run courier service for the Leshin? We’re not going to judge you. I was kicked out of the army for collaboration myself. Wasn’t true. Not really, but I’m hardly in a place to throw blame around.”

“What did you do?”

Heremon put his hand on Sofya’s shoulder, as if cautioning her to be careful with her words. The reasons for her discharge from the army and the emergence of her magical powers were closely intertwined. While one was public record, the other was a dangerous secret.

“I was stationed at Onigrad during the Immolation,” Sofya said. Nikolai’s eyes went wide. “We knew that the attack on the Fey reactor was done by a bunch of radicals. When it became obvious the reactor would overload, I freed our Leshin prisoners so they could escape. They had nothing to do with it, they didn’t deserve to die. But you can imagine how that looked to army brass in the immediate aftermath.”

Nikolai shook his head. “They weren’t there. They want to second guess you.”

“During the Leshin withdrawal, you were contracted by the Alban History Museum to transport certain items from the ir-Dyeun temple established here in Vodotsk. Do you remember that?”

“The withdrawal was a crazy time,” Nikolai replied. “Thousands of Leshin needed help moving out of the city. We refused to deal with the ir-Dyeun and only took on contracts from civilians. Even then, our carriages were going between the city and the forest almost non-stop.”

Heremon pulled out the piece of paper Sofya received from their client and gave it to Nikolai. “The man you dealt with was named Braden ir-Alba. Here’s his handwriting, if that helps.”

“His… handwriting?”

“He won’t remember it, Heremon,” Sofya said. “We don’t recall that sort of thing.”

“Oh.” Heremon reclaimed the piece of paper. “I still don’t understand how you trust written communication if you can’t recognize the distinctions of handwriting. Anyone could impersonate anyone else over letters.”

“We know when it doesn’t look right, but we don’t remember people by their–” Sofya groaned. It wasn’t worth it. “Never mind. I’ll go over it later.”

Nikolai stood in silent contemplation for a moment. He looked back at his office. “I think I remember the contract. Not much of one. But, like I said, I wanted to make sure I was only taking on jobs for Leshin who recanted the ir-Dyeun. A secular museum seemed safe enough.”

“The item we’re looking for is an artificial arm,” Heremon explained. “The Prophet’s Arm.”

“An… arm?”

Sofya gave Nikolai the description she received from Braden. The Prophet’s Arm wasn’t just a standard human replacement. It was engineered and articulated to allow Cathal ir-Dyeun the same range of motion as his real hand. Whether or not he had been able to control it was matter of Leshin folk tales. The prophet had died hundreds of years ago. There were none, even among the ageless Leshin, who had lived alongside him and could remember the truth behind the legacy.

“I never saw anything like that,” Nikolai said. “I would remember that. A steel arm? That would stick with me, especially if it was some kind of ir-Dyeun magical charm.”

“I highly doubt it truly has the power the ir-Dyeun attribute to it,” Heremon said. “If it belonged to the Prophet, and he used it as the tales say, then it would have some lingering Fey energy. But it is, at best, a historical curiosity.”

“Still, I don’t remember anything like it. And I probably inventoried the shipment myself.”

“Speaking to our client, it sounds like the arm may have been hidden in another item,” Sofya replied. “An urn. The museum was afraid of raiding parties and searches once it passed into the Great Forest. They knew that the ir-Dyeun would want to take it and stuffed it inside something else.”

Nikolai glared at Sofya. “Then how am I supposed to remember anything about it? Listen, if our customers don’t let us properly inventory their shipments, how can we be held responsible when something goes missing?”

“The museum isn’t trying to hold you liable,” Heremon said. “They just want to find the Arm. Could you, by any chance, bring us the paperwork related to this job? It would have been approximately four months ago.”

“Of course. I will be right back.”

As soon as Nikolai disappeared into the office, Sofya returned her attention to the carriage. “We should have opened with that,” she said. “I really doubt he’s going to be able to remember anything. And the records? Likely just as useless. I’m going to have to do this all by myself.”

Sofya placed her hand on the broken wheel. She closed her eyes and focused on the glimmer of magic energy she had perceived before being interrupted. It was faint, barely enough to feel. At first, she couldn’t be sure if it was the Arm. Nikolai had been running a courier service for the occupying Leshin for years. Undoubtedly, he transported magical items on several occasions. But none of them would be old or strong enough to leave an echo like this.

“The Arm was here,” Sofya said. “Or something like it. Something ancient and unusual. Are you sure it doesn’t still have some magical function?”

“After all these years, it would have to be enchanted on a level unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” Heremon replied. “The Fey energy remains, becomes more ingrained in our world. But its utility decays over time. Most magic weapons need to be re-focused every few years. The Arm was enchanted centuries ago.”

Sofya opened her eyes. “What if someone was re-focusing the Arm? Keeping it ready to be used?”

“Used for what?”

“I guess that’s a question we’ll have to ask when we find it,” Sofya replied. “It wasn’t in this carriage long. It was removed after just a few hours. Not long enough to get to the forest.”

Heremon sighed. “So the Arm was lost before it reached the Leshin border?”

“Are you disappointed? Now we can earn our full payment.”

Across the lot, Nikolai emerged from his office. He hurried over to Sofya and Heremon, a bundle of papers in his hands. “Here you go,” he said. “All the paperwork for the Alban museum job. The inventory we were able to do, the courier’s report, and all our receipts.”

Heremon took the papers and turned immediately to the courier’s report. “This says that the courier was stopped at an outpost just outside the city,” he said. “What can you tell me about that outpost?”

“When the occupation ended, most Leshin left the city,” Nikolai said. “Under the terms of the surrender, each Leshin was only permitted to take two pounds of gold currency. I don’t know why; that’s way over my head. But, of course, some Elves–” Heremon prickled but didn’t interrupt. “–tried to get around the rules. Emperor Lapidus set up checkpoints on most of the roads to the Forest to check for gold smuggling.”

“How extensive are the searches?” Heremon asked. “Do they go through everything?”

“Depends on the person performing the inspection,” Nikolai replied. “Sometimes they wouldn’t even search the cargo. They trusted that a human wouldn’t help the Leshin plunder gold on the way out.”

Sofya took the courier’s report from Heremon. “This is, what, about a half hour west of the city?” Sofya said. “This is it. This is where the Arm was lost.”

“How do you know that?” Nikolai asked. “Are you saying this was my fault?”

Ignoring him, Sofya continued to page through the documents. “We need to head to this outpost. If it’s still active, we can talk to the people there. If not…” She didn’t finish her thought—not in front of Nikolai—but Heremon knew what she was proposing. The Arm had a very strong Fey signature and would have left its mark on the outpost if it had been stored there for more than a few minutes.

“It’s not your fault,” Heremon said. “Someone with the Empire found the Arm during the inspection. Maybe they knew what it was, which means we’ll never get it back. But you weren’t put in prison for smuggling it out of Vodotsk, so I suspect it was taken for another reason.”

“Another reason?” Nikolai asked. “What is this thing? What does it do? Is it dangerous?”

“We don’t know,” Sofya said. “But don’t worry. Before we hand it over to the Leshin, we’re going to find out.”

~

Sofya was not surprised to find the that the Imperial checkpoint was abandoned. Emperor Lapidus had set various temporary encampments on the roads leading into the Great Forest to prevent the Leshin from removing gold and other valuable minerals from human lands during the transition, but now there was no reason to maintain them. In fact, Imperial troops in the borderlands had been reduced to the minimum, because the locals resented their presence. Very few of the western houses were pledged to Emperor Lapidus and he personally controlled no lands beyond the Great Plains. Even though the Empire had liberated them from the Leshin, the people, especially outside of the cities, saw Lapidus and his allies as new invaders rather than defenders of the Human realm.

As the hired carriage pulled up to the abandoned site, Sofya surveyed the area. They were not far from the forest, but most of the nearby trees had been cut down to construct a small guard cabin along the road. Even from a distance, Sofya could tell that the cabin, hastily constructed to give the guards a warm place to sleep, was already falling apart. The road itself branched off into a dirt-paved lot where, months ago, carriages departing human territory would be searched for contraband.

“This really the place?” the driver asked. “Doesn’t seem like there’s much out here.”

“You should probably stick around,” Sofya replied. “Hopefully this won’t take long.”

“You’ll pay the idling rates?”

“Fine. Whatever.”

Sofya hopped out of the carriage and immediately headed towards the dirt lot. Heremon paid the driver and hurried behind her. “Do you believe you’ll be able to find anything here?”

“I could feel the energy from that carriage back in Vodotsk,” she replied. “I have to think there’s also a trace of it here.”

With only a few months of experience, Sofya still didn’t know how to fully control her magic. Her enchantments were unstable. She never knew which elements she would be able to summon. And the soft, intangible threads of Fey energy she could use to track and detect magic were often elusive.

“You know, if an Imperial soldier took the arm, it could be anywhere in the East by now,” Heremon said. “Probably thought it would make a nice trophy.”

“If it is actually the arm of the ir-Dyeun prophet, the soldier’s right. That’s a hell of a keepsake.”

Sofya knelt down in the lot where the carriages were inspected. She placed her hand on the ground and closed her eyes. “The arm was here. Briefly. I’m sure of it.”

“Where does that leave us? Either it made it to the border and it is lost somewhere in Leshin territory or it didn’t and it is somewhere in the East. There were dozens of soldiers who came through this checkpoint. Any one of them could have taken it.”

“Why are you always so pessimistic?” Sofya asked. “I’m not even done looking around.”

While she outwardly tried to remain cheerful, Sofya knew that Heremon was likely right. Finding a list of all the soldiers stationed at the checkpoint wouldn’t be difficult, but by now they were scattered to the winds. The Empire generally preferred to station soldiers away from their home, as an assurance that they would be loyal to the Emperor rather than local houses. Unless they had a reason to stay in the Vodotsk region after the war, a soldier who took the arm would be hundreds of miles away by now.

“What are you looking for now?” Heremon asked.

Sofya stood up and headed for the empty guard cabin. “So, let’s say a soldier steals the arm. He doesn’t know what it is but he knows the Leshin were trying to sneak it past the checkpoint, so it’s valuable. He probably stashes it in his bunk for a while, right?”

“Fair point.”

“And the arm probably stays in his bunk at least a day. Maybe more. That’s longer than it would have ever been in the carriage lot. So if I can feel its history there… I should be able to feel it in the cabin, too.”

As Sofya approached the cabin, she realized that it was in worse shape than she assumed. What initially looked like weather damage and general disrepair from a distance turned out to be clear intentional destruction. The door had been broken open. The windows were shattered. What remained of the roof was burnt and blackened by fire.

“Guess we’re not the first people to rifle through this place,” Sofya said.

Stepping through the doorway, Sofya surveyed the cabin. The beds were torn apart. One of them was stained with a streak of dried blood.

“What in Dyeun’s name happened here?” Heremon asked. “I don’t think this place was abandoned. It looks like it was attacked.”

“I better be able to sense something in here, because anything of use is long gone.”

“I… I wouldn’t be so sure,” Heremon muttered. “Take a look at some of these markings.”

Sofya glanced around the cabin. “What, like this one of a man pissing on the Lapidus sigil? Surprising detail on the anatomy. Whoever drew this should probably be an artist instead of a hooligan.”

“IKV?” Heremon asked, examining the far wall. “What does that mean? There are a lot of inscriptions with those letters.”

“That would be the Independent Kingdom of Vodotsk,” Sofya replied. “A bunch of locals and soldiers from surrounding areas who tried to kick out the Empire just after they liberated the county from the Leshin.”

“Are they still around?”

Sofya laughed. “I suspect they were crushed. The Empire held back the Leshin for years. What could a bunch of rebels and mercenaries do? Then again, Vodotsk is still technically independent, isn’t it? So who knows? Maybe they won after all.”

Heremon raised an eyebrow. “They did manage to take this outpost.”

“So we have a lead!” Sofya exclaimed. “And one that might mean the arm is still within reach. If this outpost fell while the arm was still here—either officially in the Empire’s custody or being squirreled away by a soldier—then it was probably taken by the IKV.”

“This seems like a stretch, Sofya. See if you can sense anything here. That way we’ll know that the Arm was at least taken out of the carriage and didn’t make it to Leshin territory.”

Sofya found the single chair in the room that hadn’t been torn to pieces and sat down. She held out her hands and tried to find a remnant of the magical energy stored in the arm. “Hmm… It’s almost–”

Before she could finish her sentence, a blinding pain shot through Sofya’s head. She closed her eyes but that wasn’t enough to give her relief. The darkness of her vision was flooded with images of flashing steel and fresh blood, dripping down the walls of the shack.

“Something… Something definitely happened here. The guards were massacred. Cut down in their beds as they slept. I don’t know if I can sense anything through that.”

“What do you see?”

“I’m not sure. Masked men with swords. Blood. It all happened so fast. Then they tore the place apart. They were looking for something.”

Heremon leaned in and put his hands on Sofya’s shoulders. He could tell she was in pain but he didn’t dare use healing magic to dull it. Not yet. That would interfere with her vision and she’d never ask him to do that. “What was it? Were they looking for the arm?”

“No. Maybe. I can’t tell. What would they want with a Leshin relic?”

“We know it’s worth a lot to a museum. And even more to the ir-Dyeun. Are you sure that the attackers were Human? Could they be Leshin radicals?”

“Their ears are covered but they aren’t using magic,” Sofya replied. “I think they’re Human. I’m pretty sure of it.”

Sofya tensed up. The vision was fading but the pain was getting worse. “Is there anything else you see?” Heremon asked. “Especially about the arm. Did they take the arm?”

“They took everything. Gold, clothes, weapons, anything they could carry. If the Arm was here, they took it.”

“That’s what we needed to know. I’m pulling you out now.”

Heremon took a deep breath. His hands grew warm on Sofya’s shoulders as he channeled a simple pain relief spell. Sofya felt her back begin to numb, then her neck, and finally the pain in her head subsided. With it, the vision disappeared. Sofya opened her eyes and Heremon removed his hands from her shoulders.

“Thank you,” Sofya said. “But I still can’t be sure the arm was even here to begin with.”

“I think we can be fairly certain that it was,” Heremon replied. “That attack happened months ago. Unless there was a powerful magical energy present, the trauma experienced in this room would have surely faded by now. Your vision wouldn’t have been possible. But the pain and fear of the attack was anchored here and tied to the room by a concentration of Fey energy.”

“So we’re on the right track?” Sofya asked. She stood up and her head began to swim, still affected by the vision, Heremon’s spell, or both.

“Yes. We just need to figure out who attacked this outpost.”

~

The end of the Leshin occupation brought freedom to Vodotsk and the surrounding lands, but also threw them into chaos. No one knew who owned the lands that had long been held by the enemy. Records had been destroyed, family lines severed, and tenants displaced. In the decade-and-a-half that the city proper had been occupied, even the memories of the survivors faded.

At the moment, the lands were held in trust by the Vodotsk County Council but, in time, proper owners would be decided and the region would return to normalcy. The Council hoped that whoever controlled Vodotsk County would remain independent, while the Empire hoped they would pledge allegiance to House Lapidus and become Imperial vassals.

To further their cause, the Empire had established a branch of the Imperial Inspector’s Office in Vodotsk. The Inspector was supposed to keep the peace for the people of Vodotsk, though he often competed with the County Guard for that particular duty. He was also charged with enforcing Imperial laws, which still applied to citizens of the Empire living in the city and on any land owned by House Lapidus and its pledges.

The Imperial Inspector’s Office was the only place in the region that might have information on the ransacked border outpost where the Prophet’s Arm disappeared. Unfortunately for Sofya, she and the head officer weren’t on the best of terms after her last few cases.

Luka Artemovich Teteriv scowled at Sofya as he listened to her request, though he always seemed to be scowling. He was a stocky man, very clearly a soldier who had recently found himself in a much more sedentary position. His brown hair was neatly trimmed and he made no attempt to hide his receding hairline, as if he hoped age would merely add distinction to his features. He wore an Imperial officer’s coat of dark burgundy, the color of Emperor Lapidus’s newly-minted domestic security division. Sofya didn’t know how many of these coats Luka owned, but they were always cleaner and better kept than anything in her wardrobe.

“You want to know about the IKV?” Luka growled. “Why, so you can defect and throw the whole city into chaos?”

“Defect? Artemovich! Why would I ever do that? House Rykov is one of the Emperor’s most loyal–”

“You’re not exactly part of House Rykov anymore, are you?”

“Wow, that’s a low blow!” Sofya stood up dramatically, feigning offense. It was hardly the first time the Imperial Inspector had reminded her of her family situation. And it certainly wouldn’t be the last. “When have I ever been anything but a loyal citizen?”

Luka rolled his eyes. “I don’t know where to start. How about when we first met? I caught you stealing evidence from a crime scene.”

“I was not stealing that glove. I was borrowing it so I could collect evidence of my own. And you never would have caught that robber if I hadn’t been retained by the family to help you out.”

“You got lucky,” Luka grumbled. “You get lucky a lot. It’s the only reason you aren’t behind bars. Like you said, you’re an Imperial citizen. And unlike most of these people, I have full jurisdiction over you.”

“I like hearing that,” Sofya replied. “You know, ‘I have full jurisdiction over you.’ Could you try that again, just lower your voice a little more. I want you to sound more like–”

Luka slammed his hand on his desk. “Just be quiet, Rykov. And tell me why you need to know about the IKV.”

“All I’m asking for is public records about them and the Imperial checkpoint I told you about. If the records are public, I don’t need to tell you why I need them.”

“That doesn’t mean I’m going to give them to you. What are you going to do if I don’t? Write the Emperor?”

Sofya crossed her arms and smirked. “Maybe I will. You know that as a kid, I used to play at his house?”

“No, you don’t remind me of that every time I threaten to lock you up. And I still don’t think it means anything now. Fifteen years ago, you were friends with his children. So what? That was before you freed a bunch of Leshin and lost your name.”

While it pained her, Sofya had to admit that Luka was right. Maybe she could have pulled this card on an Imperial Inspector a year ago. But now she was no one. Trying to contact House Lapidus was just as likely to infuriate them as anything. She was a thorn in their side, a traitor who couldn’t be punished for political reasons. Any affection that the Emperor might have had for her when she was a child was long gone now.

“Fine,” Sofya said. “I’m trying to tie the IKV to an attack on the outpost in question. There were certain items being held by the guards there that I think were stolen in the attack. Someone wants to pay me to find those items and I want to get paid.”

“What kind of items are we talking about? If you tell me, I can be on the lookout at the usual fences.”

“Items of a… personal nature,” Sofya replied. She certainly wasn’t going to tell the Imperial Inspector that she was searching for a Leshin artifact. He distrusted her enough as it was.

“That’s not very specific.”

“I’m not supposed to talk about it, but rest assured that it is nothing you’d be able to find at the usual fences. Let’s just say there are certain secrets at play that would be personally devastating but completely meaningless to you or me.”

Luka smiled. “Illicit love letters, eh?” Sofya had no idea why that was his initial thought, but she wasn’t about to dispute it. “I suppose that’s the sort of thing you wouldn’t want getting out, especially into the hands of separatist scum like the IKV.”

“So, what happened to the outpost? Clearly there was a fight, and clearly the Empire didn’t even bother to clean it up. The place is tagged with IKV graffiti, so I figured they’re the ones who took it down. Were there any arrests?”

“The case is…” Luka sighed. “The case is still open in our file. It looks like the attack happened a few weeks before I arrived in Vodotsk. The office wasn’t up and running just yet, so the army itself investigated. And they had their arms full so they didn’t gather much evidence. It looks like I had one of my officers follow up a couple months later, but the trail went cold.”

Luka handed her a thin folder. Sofya opened it up and looked it over. There weren’t even pictocharms of the crime scene, just a written report from a trader who discovered the destroyed cabin the next day. The army hadn’t even sent soldiers to re-secure the outpost. It was nearly ending its usefulness, so it was decommissioned and the guards listed as combat fatalities.

“The army just…ignored it.”

“That means you’re probably right. It was the IKV. Back then, the army didn’t even want to acknowledge that they were a threat. The Empire made a conscious decision to portray their withdrawal as deference to the local government rather than admit that they took any losses from separatists.”

Sofya could hardly believe it. “But what about the dead guards? What about their families? Surely someone must have thought it was strange to lose four soldiers to the Leshin weeks after the war ended.”

“Do you remember what it was like during the hand-over?” Luka asked. Sofya didn’t. She spent the first month after the end of the war in a hut in the wilderness, recovering from her injuries and trying to learn to control her magic. “It was chaos. I’m sure they believed whatever the army told them.”

“And this is all the investigation that was done?”

“We had nothing to go on, Rykov. The attackers were long gone. They didn’t leave anything behind. By the time we got the case, the damned cabin had been vandalized so many times that–”

“I wasn’t blaming you,” Sofya interrupted. “Not this time, at least. You tried to re-open the case and it went nowhere, which is hardly surprising. But the army should have done more. Not only would it make my case easier, but these victims deserve some kind of justice.”

Luka scowled and grabbed the folder out of Sofya’s hand. “Don’t tell me you’re going to try and find them yourself. Even if you could, even if the trail didn’t go cold, tracking down a gang of murderers is way out of your league.”

“Listen, Artemovich, I’ve got a job to do,” Sofya replied. “There’s something I need to find. If I can find these killers in the process, all the better. After all, I do like beating you at your own game.”

“I thought this was about justice, not some rivalry you think we have.”

Sofya laughed. “Can’t it be both?”

“Where will you even start? Three months ago there was no evidence and certainly no witnesses.”

“Don’t worry. When it comes to Vodotsk separatists, there’s only one place to go. And I hope that they’ll be much more willing to talk to me than the Empire.”

~

While there were dozens of nobles in the borderlands who wanted the Empire out of the Vodotsk region, very few people stood to gain as much from independence as Alma Melinkov.

In the very early years of the war, when the Humans were taking massive losses at the original border, wealthy citizens of Vodotsk and surrounding regions fled the area in droves. Correctly realizing that the Leshin would eventually conquer the land immediately adjacent to the Great Forest, many divested their interest in the region at whatever price they could get. And Alma Melinkov was more than willing to buy.

As the Leshin marched forward into Human territory, she purchased dozens of tracts of land at rock-bottom prices. Their owners saw the deeds as worthless. Invading Leshin did not respect Human laws or contracts. Owning land controlled by them meant nothing. Alma Melinkov saw a much bigger picture. She trusted that the Humans would win. And she held onto those deeds for over a decade and a half, knowing that one day her efforts would bear fruit.

After all, Alma was nothing if not a savvy businesswoman. When she took over as leader of her family, they owned nothing but a small brewery in the western tip of the Open Plains. By the time of the war, the Melinkovs had amassed three vassal houses and significant influence in border politics. Now, a generation later, she was poised to make House Melinkov one of the great houses of Oraz once the Vodotsk County Council finished sorting out the deeds. The last thing she wanted was to turn around and hand over that power to an Emperor in the east.

Once Sofya was certain that the IKV was involved in the theft of the Prophet’s arm, she headed straightaway for the Great Plains. It was an hour ride from Vodotsk, but she knew it would be fruitful. The Melinkovs had never been directly implicated in funding the separatist movement, but everyone knew that they would do anything to keep the Vodotsk region independent. Almost all of Alma’s purchases were in the county surrounding Vodotsk. Alma’s eldest son served on the Vodotsk County Council and they’ had been moving assets to the city ever since the end of the Occupation. If anyone was behind the IKV, it was the Melinkovs.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Heremon asked as the carriage approached Melinkremlin, the massive fortress that served as the home of House Melinkov. Unlike most castles in the west, it was recent construct, assembled with reinforced stone and painted glass. Melinkremlin sat in the center of Volgrad, the original home of the the Melinkov brewery, and stood out among the crumbling buildings of the ancient city. “You’re an Imperial citizen. You’re not going to get a warm welcome.”

“The Melinkovs aren’t stupid,” Sofya replied. “I’m sure they already know that a Rykov is living in the region and they know I’ve been disowned by my family. I’m not a threat to them.”

Heremon scoffed. “You are going to accuse them of funding an attack on the Empire.”

“No, I’m going to politely ask them if they know anything about an attack on a single Imperial checkpoint. They’re already on record as opposing the way the Empire controls the border.”

“Opposing border control is different from killing a group of soldiers assigned to watch the border.”

“I’m just saying I don’t think they’re going to be surprised or put off. That’s all.”

“We’ll see…”

The carriage came to a stop outside of the gates of Melinkremlin. The driver dismounted and spoke to the guard on the gate. After a few seconds, the guard returned to his post and called into the keep on the local communications wire. He was checking to see whether they should be allowed inside the fortress.

Sofya knew that there was a chance the Melinkovs would turn her away, but she hoped that their curiosity would win out. After all, a disgraced Rykov daughter could be useful in their resistance effort.

Almost immediately, the gates began to lower. The driver returned to the carriage and guided it beyond the walls, towards the keep at the center of the fortress. Once they arrived, Sofya stepped outside and looked up at the entrance to the keep. She had to stifle a laugh.

Traditionally, the great houses of the east would hang banners on the walls of their castle, displaying their house sign. Sometimes, such as in the case of House Rykov, they would also display the sigil of prominent allied house. For years, her home hung both the Rykov and Lapidus banner.

The Melinkovs, however, opted for a more modern display. Bright red neon signs were mounted on either side of the door. They were shaped like the Melinkov sigil, the winged hare. They flickered and buzzed with the sound of the electricity flowing through them. It was incredibly gaudy and Sofya could hear her mother’s voice in her head, tearing down the Melinkovs as unsophisticated nouveau riche pretenders.

Inside the keep, Sofya saw even more strange, modern design. Very few castles had been constructed since the era of the Fey reactors, so most of them were crudely re-fitted with wires to provide light and heat. Melinkremlin Keep, however, was built years after the Volgrad reactor went into service. The pipes that carried the electricity were embedded in the walls, allowing for much greater freedom in interior design. Every hallway was lit with a deep, red neon glow that made Sofya rather uncomfortable. The ambiance felt more appropriate for a brothel than for the home of a noble house of Oraz.

Sofya was led through the winding, crimson hall to a spacious lounge near the back of the keep, under the grand staircase up to the private quarters of the Melinkovs. This room was more tactfully lit, thanks to a massive window in the rear of the lounge that opened up onto the castle grounds. Natural light poured into the room, revealing a young woman lounging on the couch near a full bar. The room was otherwise unlit, though Sofya could see the neon tubes scattered on the walls. She could only imagine how ugly the room looked at night.

The woman who waited to greet Sofya looked to be barely twenty years old, but she was clearly a member of the Melinkov family. She was tall and thin, with chocolate-colored skin and bright green eyes. Her curly dark hair was cut short, adding to her youthful appearance. Just above her, mounted on the wall, was a detailed portrait of Alma Melinkov, the matriarch of the House and the person Sofya had hoped to meet. The resemblance between the two women was uncanny, thought Sofya felt a little put-off that her visit merited only one of Alma’s younger grand-daughters.

“Lady Rykov, please come in,” the young woman said, rising from the couch as Sofya approached. Her eyes darted over to Heremon, who remained by Sofya’s side. Sofya detected a slight curl in the woman’s lip. Perhaps it was because she saw his pointed ears. Sofya resisted the urge to lash out at the young woman. Many Humans still hated Leshin. They would just have to learn better.

“I’m sorry,” Sofya said. “I seem to be at a disadvantage. I asked to meet with Alma Melinkov and–”

“I apologize,” the young woman replied. “My name is Nadezhda Abramych Melinkov. I was personally instructed to meet with you by Lady Melinkov—my grandmother. She is quite busy.”

“Too busy for a few questions? Too busy to see the cast-off firstborn from House Rykov? I thought I might rate a little higher around here.”

Nadezhda looked away for a moment, clearly embarrassed. “She is also a bit under the weather, if I must tell the truth,” she said. “And my older brother Nikolai is away from the estate.”

“He’s in Vodotsk,” Sofya said. “On the county council there. I know. That’s where I come from.”

“Oh! Is this about county business? I could have saved you the trip and referred you to–”

“This isn’t about Vodotsk. Well, not directly. It’s about the whole border region.”

Nadezhda smiled. “Then I will see how I can help you, Lady Rykov. Before we begin, can I offer you a drink?” She motioned to a large wet bar near the back window.

“Always,” Sofya replied. Heremon gave her a dirty look but said nothing.

Nadezhda stood up and glided over to the bar. She didn’t ask what Sofya wanted, but instead began to pour a glass of straw-colored ale from the nearest tap.

“This is one of our newest brews,” Nadezhda said. “You can’t get it anywhere but Volgrad. At least not yet. If we have our way, it should be in every pub in Vodotsk by summer. Just in case you get hooked.”

Sofya took the glass and lifted it to her lips. “Wait, you’re not going to offer any to my friend?” She asked.

Nadezhda looked towards Heremon. “Your kind doesn’t like beer, right?”

“I wouldn’t say that,” Heremon replied. “But I’m not in the mood right.”

“Your loss,” Sofya said and finally took a sip. “That’s… That’s very sweet. It doesn’t really taste like beer. More like peaches.”

“That’s what the people want,” Nadezhda said. “Our fruit beers are very popular, easily our best sellers.”

Sofya sighed. She rarely encountered a beer she didn’t like, but this one was close. “Maybe that’s true here out near the forest. But in the east, we like–”

“You’re not in the east,” Nadezhda reminded her.

“It’s… It’s delicious,” Sofya lied. “Just not what I expected.”

Nadezhda gave a polite smile, poured a glass for herself, and returned to the couch. She pulled up her legs and reclined across the lounge as she took her first sip. “So, what brings the exiled Rykov into our home?”

A month ago, Sofya would have bristled at being called an exile. Now she was used to it and took it in stride. It was certainly a better word than what the eastern nobles were fond of calling her. “I’m sure you know that I’ve been working as a private investigator in Vodotsk. I’m merely here to see if you have any information on some documents I’m trying to track down.”

“Documents?” Nadezhda asked, her voice tinged with well-deserved skepticism.

Ever since meeting with Inspector Teteriv, Sofya and Heremon had decided to stick to the story that they were searching for private papers lost at the Imperial checkpoint. If word started to get out, that tale would draw considerably less attention than the truth.

“Personal letters and pictocharm impressions,” Sofya said. “They were lost at a checkpoint near the Leshin border. Specifically the road between Vodotsk and the Earlywood region of the Great Forest. We believe that the documents were lost when the checkpoint was taken down by an IKV attack.”

Nadezhda’s face fell and she put down her beer glass. “You think my family had something to do with this so-called attack?”

“I just hoped you might have some idea where property seized from the Empire during that time might have ended up.”

“And why would we know anything about that?”

“C’mon, Naz,” Sofya said. “Can I call you Naz?”

Nadezhda frowned. “No.”

“Fine. Are we really going to play this game? I’m not an Imperial agent. You’re not going to tell me anything that can hurt you or your family. I couldn’t care less who you want controlling the Vodotsk region or how you try and influence that decision. And I’m sure that if you weren’t funding the IKV, you know who was.”

Silence. Nadezhda stared at Sofya for a moment, trying to read her, before finally speaking. “Tell me, Lady Rykov… What did it feel like when your parents turned over your inheritance to House Lapidus?”

“What?”

“I know you were young when it happened, but you were old enough to know what was happening. You were the first born and your legacy was taken from you. I am not so lucky to inherit a house leadership, but even I would rage at the indignity of it all.”

“Not that any of it matters anymore, but nothing was taken from me. House Rykov did not become a vassal. Our land still belongs to my mother. It was an alliance. We merely pledged coin and troops towards a common good. And I would hope you’d agree with our cause: after all, the Empire stopped the Leshin forces just miles outside Volgrad. Without us, this castle would have–”

Nadezhda had heard enough. “House Melinkov fought just as hard as anyone to protect this city! We deployed our own armies alongside the Emperor’s forces. You act as if we could not have done it without Lapidus. Well, I say he could not have done it without us.”

“Yes,” Sofya replied. “You are describing an alliance.”

“There was no need to make it permanent.”

Sofya took a deep breath. The last thing she wanted was to get into a full-throated defense of her mother and the Empire. Sofya didn’t even necessarily disagree with Nadezhda. The decision to pledge House Rykov had given her family a lot of influence in the Empire, but Sofya had no way of knowing whether that was better or worse than the independence they had before. However, the discussion was a distraction and entirely meaningless almost fifteen years after the fact.

“I’m probably less welcome at the Imperial palace than you,” Sofya said. “So let’s just get back to the subject at hand. I’m not here to debate you on Human consolidation or the end of small kingdoms. I just want to know about the border checkpoint.”

Nadezhda groaned and finished her beer in a large gulp. “You want to talk about border checkpoints? Let’s talk about them. They were set up to prevent Leshin from taking any more than a pound of gold out of Human territory. But why did the occupiers get to take anything? They surrendered. And what happened when they tried to take more? The Empire seized it and shipped it back east. The whole system was institutionalized robbery of the occupied territory from both sides.”

“So you admit that you had reason to support the attacks on the checkpoints?”

“Of course. And if the IKV was as noble as they claimed, they would have distributed anything that they seized among the people of Vodotsk—the people who suffered under Leshin occupation for over a decade.”

“And what about something with no apparent value?”

“These documents you’re looking for? They were probably burned.”

Heremon’s eyes went wide. “Burned? That’s terrible. Think of the historical records that could have been lost.” Sofya had to stifle a laugh. The idea of destroying books—even fake ones Sofya invented to cover up their real objective—distressed Heremon to the core.

“Why would the IKV keep anything around that would tie them to attacking an Imperial outpost? They didn’t want to start a war.”

Sofya crossed her arms. “Then they shouldn’t have attacked fellow Humans. They’re lucky the Empire merely covered up the destruction of the outpost rather than invading Vodotsk.”

“They did invade Vodotsk,” Nadezhda sneered. “There are Imperial troops on the forest border and performing military exercises just outside of the city as we speak.”

“That’s for protection.”

“Don’t be a fool, Lady Rykov.” Nadezhda stood up with a flourish. “If that’s what you believe, we are done here. I realize you do not work for the Empire, but you certainly continue to carry water for them, just like your mother.”

“I don’t–”

“If you ever want to repay them for how they treated you, we could always use more mercenaries. Now, please, take your leave.”

Nadezhda quickly exited the room before Sofya could get another word in edgewise. She was almost immediately replaced by two guards wearing the tan and red colors of House Melinkov. They led Sofya and Heremon out of the castle in silence.

Once they were outside, the guards stood at the door until Sofya and Heremon entered their carriage.

“Well, that was a waste of time,” Heremon said. “Though I suppose we know that they probably sold the arm.”

“We know more than that,” Sofya replied. “I felt it. The arm was in there.”

Heremon gasped. “What?”

“The Melinkovs have the Prophet’s Arm.”

“I suppose that’s the end of that, unless we can convince them to sell it to us.”

Sofya shook her head. “No, they’d never do that. They might not know what they have, but if they know I want it… Let’s just say we’re not going to be able to negotiate with them.”

“So the case is over?”

“Of course not. We’re going to tell our client where the arm is. And then we’re going to steal it.”

~

“This is one of the worst ideas you’ve ever had,” Heremon muttered as he knelt down below a window near the service entrance to the Melinkov keep. “I can’t believe that you convinced me to go along with it.”

“Come on,” Sofya replied. She was crouched beside him, her hand on the windowsill. “I saw the looks you were giving that woman. You are more excited about this than I am.”

“She was quite rude, but that doesn’t justify theft.”

“The AFC stole the Arm from the ir-Dyeun. The Empire stole it from the AFC. And then the Melinkovs stole it form the Empire. We’re well beyond justified at this point.”

Heremon frowned. “I don’t think that’s how it works.” Ever since Sofya had suggested breaking into Melinkremlin to take the arm, Heremon had voiced his concerns. But she knew the truth. Heremon was beside her for a reason. He wanted to take the Arm from the Melinkovs as much as she did.

The plan to retrieve the Prophet’s Arm was relatively simple. Because the Melinkremlin keep was built after the Fey reactors, the entire structure was dependent on Fey-powered electric lights. There were no fireplaces, no torches, and surprisingly few windows. At night, the only thing that could illuminate the corridors were the neon lights that lined the walls.

Very few would-be burglars would be able to take advantage of this particular design feature. Disabling Fey power to the building would require destroying or disabling multiple transformers across Volgrad, some of which were as heavily guarded as the keep itself. Sofya, however, had an advantage.

“Any luck?” Heremon asked.

“There’s a pipe in the wall a few feet from here,” Sofya replied. She pulled her hand down from the windowsill and began to creep towards where she felt the Fey energy pulsing through the wall. All magic—even magic pulled from a rift to power gaudy lights in a human castle—left a signature that Sofya could sense if she concentrated. And sensing it wasn’t the only thing she could do.

“And you’re sure this is going to work?” Heremon asked. “Do you know what happens to most humans when they break a Fey energy pipe?”

“I survived an entire reactor exploding. Trust me.”

“Maybe I trust you. But I don’t trust your magic. Just because you keep living through things that should kill you doesn’t mean they’re safe.”

“Using my glamours should kill me. Sensing the arm should kill me. After long enough, it starts to sound like a hollow threat, especially when this keep is full of people who might actually do the job if we get caught.”

Heremon’s eyes went wide. Before he could reconsider the plan, Sofya pressed her hand against the wall where she felt the Fey energy pipe. Her fingertips went cold. Frost began to spread across the wall as she focused her magic down into the center of the wall.

The pipes used to carry Fey energy through Human cities varied in quality, but they were all generally sturdy enough to withstand the elements. Fortunately, Sofya didn’t need to break the pipe. That’s just what she’d told Heremon so that he would go along with the plan. But that wasn’t enough to cut power to the keep, with all the redundancies throughout the building. He would have never agreed to let Sofya do what she really intended. She needed to reach inside. She needed to connect with the energy inside. Once she did that…

A surge of adrenaline rushed through her body as Sofya’s ice sorcery began to mingle with the pure Fey magic in the pipe. It was stronger than she expected. It didn’t just connect her with the lights and heating elements in the keep. The magical energy stretched back, through the transformers, all the way to the Volgrad Fey rift. And for just a second, it found something similar in Sofya.

She could feel the Fey pouring into her, like it had a mind of its own. It was as if it was trying to form a circuit, with her body as one part of a loop that had to be closed. She thought it should hurt, but instead if just felt warm. It felt welcoming.

“Sofya, what are you doing?” Heremon asked, panic edging into his voice. He was beginning to realize her true plan. “Tell me when we need to run.”

“It’s not going to explode.”

Before Heremon could respond, the lights inside the keep went dark. Then the lamps illuminating the courtyard were extinguished. And finally the spotlights along the wall flickered out. The entire castle was enveloped in darkness.

“What in Dyeun’s name–”

“I’ve done it before,” Sofya interrupted. “Don’t worry about it.”

“Done what before?”

“I overloaded the transformers in this part of the city.” Sofya said. She removed her hand from the wall. Her skin no longer tingled. She couldn’t feel the Fey energy flowing through the pipes any more. “Now, come on. They’ll reset soon. We only have ten minutes or so.”

Sofya could tell he wanted her to elaborate, but there was nothing more to be said. She understood her power even less than he did. At least he was raised around magic, learning to use it from a young age. The only things Sofya knew were what she’d managed to discover through experimentation.

The guards patrolling the Melinkremlin keep were now in complete darkness, but so were Sofya and Heremon. Fortunately, Leshin could see exceptionally well in the dark. As soon as they crawled into the service entrance window, he took Sofya’s hand and began leading her through the hallways.

Heremon served as Sofya’s eyes, but Sofya was the one who knew where the Arm was being held. She pressed her finger into his palm and pointed him in the direction where she sensed the artifact. This was a system they’d devised shortly after they met, when they were in hiding from the Empire and the Leshin while Sofya recovered from her injuries. For the first few weeks, she was almost completely blind and Heremon had to lead her everywhere.

The first few hallways were easy. The only people in the back of the castle were the servants and they were too distracted by the power outage to notice anything. But as they approached the foyer and the stairs leading to the second floor, Sofya could hear the sound of the Melinkov’s guards trying to secure the building. In the center of the keep, where there weren’t even windows to provide ambient moonlight, the guards were completely blind. They stumbled towards the edges of the building, where they could find at least some dim light, leading them away from Heremon and Sofya’s objective. A few of them tried to illuminate the space in front of them with the soft glow from their pistols, but it fortunately wasn’t enough for them to see Sofya or Heremon as they slipped into the foyer.

Going up the stairs proved even more difficult. Heremon carefully guided Sofya upwards, but she kept hitting her feet against the stairs as they ascended. The sound was mostly indistinguishable from the keep’s inhabitants stumbling around blind, but each bit of noise made her heart jump in her chest.

Sofya hadn’t really thought through what she would do if they were caught. Heremon would never approve, but a cloud of ice crystals could potentially provide an escape. That was the closest thing she had to a plan, since even if it failed he could take responsibility for the magic. Most Humans didn’t know how specialized Leshin mages tended to be, and no one would ever be able to prove Heremon was unable to create an ice spell.

When they reached the second floor, Sofya guided Heremon to a hallway to the east. As soon as they approached, Sofya saw the soft green glow of a pistol raised in front of a guard’s face. He couldn’t see them. Not yet. But he was getting closer. She clenched Heremon’s hand and they ducked into a closet on the left.

“Is anyone there?” the guard growled. Sofya held her breath. She and Heremon were wedged in a space that barely had room enough for one of them. The guard stopped briefly outside the closet. Sofya had never been more relieved that Heremon stopped wearing Leshin perfume. If the smell didn’t give them away, her coughing would have.

After the briefest moment of hesitation, the guard moved along. Heremon slowly opened the door and they stepped outside. Sofya pushed her finger up against his palm, directing him towards a door on the far end of the hall.

As they approached, Sofya could feel the magical energy from the Arm even more acutely. It was strong and distinctive in a way that Sofya had never quite sensed before. Even though Heremon said it could no longer possess any real power, Sofya couldn’t help but wonder.

Sofya reached out and touched the door. It was locked but it didn’t feel particularly secure. The Melinkovs weren’t keeping the arm in a vault. This seemed like more of a bedroom or office. Fortunately, breaking open a locked door was one of the easiest things for Sofya to do with ice magic. She placed her hand on the doorknob and chilled the lock until it was brittle.

Just as the lock was about to snap open, Sofya heard the hum of the neon spotlights outside. The Fey transformers had been reset and power was returning to the keep. They had to hurry.

Twisting her wrist, Sofya popped open the lock. She and Heremon quickly stepped inside just as the lights in the keep flickered on. The hard part was over, or so she figured. Getting into the second floor of the mansion was harder than getting out, especially when she and Heremon could both use magic to soften the fall from a window. There was just one complication that she didn’t account for.

When Sofya turned around, she gasped. The first thing she saw was the Prophet’s Arm—a spindly steel limb held together by a flexible metal pipe that spiraled around it from the shoulder. But that was expected. What wasn’t expected was the man it was attached to.

Wearing the Prophet’s Arm was a tall, blond Leshin man. His hair was slicked back and he was dressed in an embroidered green tunic that looked quite expensive, though it had seen much better days. There were dark circles under his eyes, though otherwise his face seemed quite calm for a man who was clearly a prisoner.

“Well, look at you,” the Leshin man said. “I suppose you are the rescue party.”

~

“What in Dyeun’s name is going on?” Heremon muttered. “Who are you and what are you doing here?”

The one-armed Leshin man looked from Heremon to Sofya, then back again. “So you’re not here to free me?”

“Answer our questions!” Heremon growled. He was generally a mild-tempered man, but would often lose his cool when plans like this went so awry.

“I am Simion ir-Sheaf. I am a merchant and banker and currently a prisoner being kept unjustly for doing merely what I believed was right.”

Sofya rubbed her temples. Even she was rattled by the strange turn the case had taken. “Okay, Simion ir-Sheaf, where did you get the Arm?”

“The Arm?”

“The one you’re wearing. The false arm. You know what I’m talking about!”

Now it was Simion’s turn to be puzzled. “My arm? Why… Why is that important? I bought it a month ago from some humans who were looking to make a few gold pieces off something they scavenged.”

Heremon crossed his arms and looked at the Leshin man skeptically. “You bought it?”

“Listen, I don’t know where they got it. And I don’t particularly care. Do you know how hard it is to find Leshin craftsmanship this delicate on this side of the forest? I’d been using a wooden arm for years and those humans had no idea how much something of this quality is worth. Did I take advantage of them? Yes, perhaps.” He hesitated. “Wait, is that what this is all about? Is this all because those soldiers realized how much I cheated them?”

Sofya sighed. “You have no idea what that Arm is, do you?”

Simion’s eyes went wide. “Wait a minute… You’re not here about me at all! You just want–”

Heremon stepped forward. “Listen, I think we all got off on the wrong foot. You surprised us, Simion. We weren’t expecting to find anyone here. Let’s start over. You tell us why you’re here and we’ll tell you why we’re here. Then all three of us are going to find a way out.”

“Like I explained before,” Simion said. “I am a merchant and banker from the city of Vodotsk. I have lived there and performed these perfectly legal services for years. I chose to remain after the occupation because I believed that other Leshin who remained would be denied those services by humans and I wanted to help. Well, I wanted to help and I saw an opportunity.”

“Get to the point,” Hremon muttered. “Why is House Melinkov keeping you prisoner?”

“Well, as you may know, Leshin who chose to leave Vodotsk and return to our lands often had their property seized by the Empire.”

“That’s how you ended up with that arm,” Sofya said. “But we’ll get to that later.”

Simion gave her another puzzled look, but continued with his story. “Similarly, Leshin who remained in Vodotsk would have their property seized by the Vodotsk County government. It was all quite shady—claims that taxes weren’t paid, land taken and rented back to the Leshin at exorbitant rates compared to human neighbors—nothing explicitly illegal but still quite oppressive. I assisted certain Leshin clients in hiding assets and attracted the ire of the county government.”

“So you were committing a crime?” Heremon asked.

“The county was committing a crime. Their practices are clearly in violation of the treaty between our people. As is my imprisonment here!”

Sofya looked at Heremon. “I don’t know the exact terms of the treaty but I’m pretty sure Leshin criminals in formerly occupied territory can’t be locked up without cause.”

“Their soldiers barged into my shop and dragged me away!”

“That’s definitely not legal,” Sofya said. “But, unfortunately, we aren’t here legally either so…”

“So rescuing you is still going to be difficult,” Heremon continued. “But don’t worry. Now that we know you’re here, we can’t just ignore the situation.” He looked around at the room where Simion was being kept. It was well furnished, though covered in the Melinkov’s gaudy colors. A pile of trays near the door demonstrated the Leshin was well-fed. “Though admittedly there are far worse places you could be imprisoned.”

Simion narrowed his eyes. “I don’t want to be imprisoned anywhere. And what about you? Why are you here?”

Sofya considered her answer for a moment. They had already revealed that the reason they broke into the mansion was related to the prosthetic arm Simion now wore. She didn’t want to tell him the full story, but it seemed like there was no other option. “The men who sold you that arm weren’t soldiers, but separatist rebels. And it’s not just any arm, it’s also a historical artifact. It once belonged to the prophet Cathal ir-Dyeun. We were hired to find it by a Leshin museum.”

Shocked, Simion looked over at his metal arm. He gaped at it. Such a silence fell over the room that Sofya could hear the Melinkov guards scrambling in the halls. At least two of them were headed upstairs, meaning they didn’t have enough time for Simion to fully process what he’d just learned.

“Forget the Arm for now, Simion. What kind of magic can you use?”

“Magic? I… I actually don’t use magic.”

Sofya rolled her eyes. Of course the Leshin they happened to run into would have no useful spells, when his very presence made Sofya unable to use her own magic. “That’s just wonderful,” she muttered. “Do you have any ideas of how we’ll escape?”

“If I knew how to escape, I wouldn’t still be here. How were you planning on getting out?”

“There’s a window further down the hallway. We were going to jump.” Noticing the skeptical look on Simion’s face, Sofya further elaborated. “Heremon is a healing mage. He can temper his fall, then catch me when I jump.”

“Y-yes,” Heremon stuttered. “I was going to catch Sofya. I don’t believe that plan will work with you, Simion.”

Simion smiled. He was strangely calm. “Ah, so you’re Heremon and Sofya. Finally I get your names out of you. It took you long enough.”

“Our…names?” Heremon asked.

Before she could say any more, there was a loud bang! against the door. Sofya’s pulse spiked as she looked around the room. There was no way out. They were trapped and, with the lock broken, it wouldn’t be long before the door came down.

“Well,” Sofya said. “At least we know they treat their prisoners well.”

~

Unfortunately for Sofya, the dungeon beneath Melinkremlin Keep was nowhere near as comfortable as the bedroom where Simion ir-Sheaf had been kept prisoner. The floors and walls were solid rock, slick with accumulated moisture from the humid western plains. The only source of light was a flickering neon tube above the cell. There was a bed and a toilet, but it seemed like she was expected to share it with Heremon and Simion, who had been removed from his luxurious cell for trying to escape.

“While I appreciate the rescue attempt, it seems you have drastically worsened my situation,” Simion muttered. “I’m not even sure we’ll get fed down here. At this point, it might be easier to let us die. No one will come looking for two Leshin and a mercenary.”

Sofya shook her head. “They won’t let us die. I’m not just a mercenary. They wouldn’t risk getting my blood on their hands. And even if they are so foolish, trust me. I’ll get us out of here before we die of starvation.”

“Who, exactly, are you?” Simion asked.

“That is a very long story.”

“It appears we have plenty of time.”

Heremon cleared his throat, as if to remind Sofya to be careful. While they shared a common jailer, there was no way to know if Simion could be trusted. At best, he was a criminal with good intentions. At worst, he was as much an enemy as the Melinkovs.

“I’m the firstborn daughter of one of the wealthiest families in Oraz,” Sofya said. “Sure, I’m disowned. And maybe my family would prefer it if I was dead.”

“This isn’t encouraging,” Simion replied.

“Just trust me.”

Simion nodded. “Now it all makes sense. You were never really afraid of being caught, because you don’t think they will hurt you. Your Leshin friend, however… You risked his life.”

“I go where Sofya goes,” Heremon snapped. “Even if she has stupid ideas.”

“You’re a loyal man,” Simion said. “That’s good to know.”

“She saved my life.”

Before Simion could ask Heremon to elaborate, the sound of footsteps echoed through the hall outside the jail cell. Sofya sat up, alert, expecting to see the Melinkov matriarch. Sofya had never met Alma Melinkov, but had heard plenty of frightful things about her temper. Surely, Sofya thought, a break-in at the family’s central keep would warrant her attention. She was wrong.

Once again, it was the young grand-daughter, Nadezhda, who was dispatched to deal with Sofya. Nadezhda was alone, not even accompanied by the guards who had protected her earlier. She was clad in a long, dark red coat that was tightly buttoned over her chest. A small patch of silken fabric, likely a nightgown, poked up through the lapels near her neck. She’d come straight from her bed to confront Sofya, which raised even more questions about what was going on at Melinkremlin Keep. Sofya had her theories, but she let Nadezhda take the lead in the questioning. At least for now.

“Personal papers?” Nadezhda sneered. “The IKV? An investigation? What a joke. You just came in here to rob us. I knew you were in a bad place, but this is just–”

“Rob you?” Sofya exclaimed, cutting her off. “You know exactly why we were here. We came to find the Leshin you had imprisoned, in violation of our treaty with the AFC. And look at this, we found him.”

Sofya didn’t know much about Simion, but she assumed he wasn’t stupid enough to undermine her story. There was a way for all three of them to get out of this unharmed and it absolutely required Nadezhda to believe that Sofya and Heremon broke in to rescue him.

“I told you,” Simion said. “I told you they would come to find me.”

Nadezhda huffed. “First of all,” she said. “We didn’t sign any treaty. The Empire signed a treaty. The Vodotsk county government signed a treaty. But Volgrad wasn’t involved. House Melinkov was never even consulted.”

“Your brother is on the Vodotsk county council,” Sofya replied. “Surely that counts for something.”

“Leshin in Vodotsk are required to register with the county,” Heremon continued. “In exchange, they are given the protection of county law.”

“The Melinkovs don’t own Vodotsk,” Sofya said. “Not yet.”

Nadezhda started to pace. Sofya could tell that she was getting under the young Melinkov’s skin. “All of this is beside the point. You broke into my home. You interfered with the Fey power system, which is a crime greater than whatever it is that you’re accusing me of.”

“False imprisonment,” Sofya replied.

“Whatever. You have nothing on me. Not compared to what I have on you. And unlike this one-armed Elf, your crimes were actually committed in Volgrad. You are right where you belong.”

Sofya crossed her arms. “So, you’re just going to hold us here indefinitely? No trial? Because if you have a trial, people are going to find out about your friend Simion.”

“Well…” Nadezhda hesitated. “Yes. Yes we will. I don’t see why not. Unlike your family, we don’t have to answer to an Emperor. This is our sovereign territory and we will do as we please.”

“I’d like to speak to your grandmother,” Sofya said. “Because you’re right, but only half right. You aren’t the sovereign here. She is.”

Nadezhda’s face twisted into a scowl. “I act with her full authority while she is away!” she exclaimed.

“Oh, she’s away,” Sofya replied. “I thought she was under the weather.”

Something in Nadezhda snapped. She turned away from the prison cell and began to march back towards the staircase. This wasn’t what Sofya wanted. She thought she understood why Nadezhda was handling this situation, but there was a piece of the puzzle she still didn’t have. There was something about the situation that still didn’t make sense.

Despite this, Sofya wasn’t ready for Nadezhda to walk away. She was still certain that the Melinkovs weren’t going to keep them indefinitely or starve them, but she wasn’t prepared to spend the night—or however long Nadezhda decided to sweat them out—in an uncomfortable jail cell. Sofya wanted a drink. She wanted a good meal and an attempt at a few hours asleep by herself before sunrise.

Nadezhda thought she was in control. But Sofya could sense her insecurity. She was young. She wasn’t used to having this sort of responsibility. She was in over her head. And Sofya had to play off of that.

She closed her eyes and thought of her mother. No one terrified Sofya like Irina Rykov, and it had nothing to do with her position of power. It didn’t matter that she was Duchess of Archaleretsk, or even leader of House Rykov. She could have ruled over nothing more than a patch of land and her voice would have struck fear in Sofya’s heart. Sofya tried to imagine what she would say in this situation and how she would gain control over the situation. She’d seen Irina bully young, naive nobles into submission. Surely, Sofya could do the same.

“I have a proposal for you,” Sofya said, just loud enough that Nadezhda would hear her halfway to the stairwell.

Nadezhda turned and chuckled. “Oh, you have a proposal for me?”

“Let us go and you won’t have to explain to your grandmother why there are Imperial troops surrounding Volgrad.”

“Are you joking?” Nadezhda replied, but she wasn’t laughing anymore. And she wasn’t walking away. She returned to the jail cell and stared daggers at Sofya through the bars. “You’re a nobody. Your name means nothing. Your family won’t look for you, let alone the Empire.”

Sofya took a deep breath and suppressed her anger. She remembered that her mother never yelled. She never raised her voice. And she never let it crack. “Even though its wings may be clipped, a hawk still has talons,” she said. “Do you have talons, Lady Melinkov?”

“What are you talking about?”
“I lost my inheritance. I lost my home. But I didn’t lose my name. I’m still a Rykov and that still means something.” Before Nadezhda could argue, Sofya continued. “The Emperor might not care about me, but he cares about the Melinkovs. You refuse to submit to him. He would love nothing more than a reason to turn his army on you. But he can’t. He has to respect your sovereignty. At least until he finds out there is a Rykov in your dungeons. Now? Now he will crush you. Not because he wants to save me, but because he wants to wipe your family off the map and take this gaudy excuse for a castle for himself.”

Nadezhda’s eyes went wide. Sofya didn’t know if what she said was true, but that didn’t matter. Nadezhda knew even less. “But… But you broke into our castle.”

“To rescue a Leshin held illegally. Which means as soon as you try to justify my imprisonment, you’ll make all new enemies. The Leshin will call for Melinkov blood.”

“Well–”

“And maybe this is all a well-thought out plan to win over the people of Vodotsk,” Sofya continued. “But I suspect that your grandmother doesn’t know about Simion. She certainly doesn’t know about me. She’s not here. Where is she? Is it Melinkov controlled land? You said she was under the weather. Seeking medical treatment? If I had to guess, she’s in Eszthernetsk for the best Krovakyn-trained doctors. Land controlled by the Empire. I could think of some awful ways she finds out about all of this.”

Nadezhda was silent, which confirmed many of Sofya’s assumptions. It was strange enough when a younger grand-daughter was the representative to greet her earlier in the day. But sending her down to discipline prisoners caught snooping in the keep was nigh-unbelievable, unless she was the ranking Melkinkov on the property.

“You thought I would make quite the present to your family,” Simion said. “A Leshin smuggler is quite the treat. But now I believe the treat has gone sour. I have attracted flies. And those flies will bring vodyans and marowits and other horrid creatures that will tear you apart.”

Sofya stood up and approached the bars of the jail cell. Her hands were shaking, so she clasped them behind her back to hide her uncertainty. “Let us go and we forget any of this ever happened. You never abducted Simion from his shop. You never kept him prisoner. We never met. I never broke into the castle. And you never foolishly risked angering the hawks of the east.”

If Sofya was nervous, Nadezhda was terrified. Sofya could see it all over her face. Her eyes twitched around the room. Her cheeks were flushed, even under her dark skin. “You… You are no different from the rest of them.”

“Now you get it,” Sofya replied.

“You think you can just take what you want from us. Overload the Volgrad power grid. Steal into our homes. Interfere in our business. What gives you the right?”

“You do,” Sofya said. “And in exchange, you get to survive.”

~

The next morning, Sofya, Heremon, and Simion were escorted from the Melinkov dungeons to the walls of Volgrad. A carriage was waiting for them to take them back to Vodotsk. Nadezhda made them wait out the night, which was more than Sofya expected, but in the end wordlessly caved to Sofya’s demands. She did not visit them again, and did not give Sofya the satisfaction of seeing her defeated. Instead, two guards carried out the task. They did not speak a word, which was fine by Sofya. She was leaving the Melinkov keep with the Prophet’s Arm.

“I must say, Sofya, I am impressed,” Simion said as soon as the carriage started moving and they were safely on their way from Volgrad. “I did not expect to be rescued without bloodshed.”

“Remember, we weren’t there to rescue you,” Sofya replied. “That was just a very convenient story.”

Simion smiled. “You rescued me nonetheless.”

Sofya tapped the front wall of the carriage, getting the driver’s attention. “That reminds me, we should head for Edun instead of Vodotsk. Our client will want to, hm, negotiate with you over your arm.”

The driver grunted in acknowledgment.

“Don’t tell me you’re going to make a prisoner out of me as well,” Simion replied.

“We’ll be back in Vodotsk by the afternoon,” Sofya said. “I just figured you would want to work something out with out client. I’m sure he’d be happy to provide a new arm, just as good, from Alba or wherever else. Or we could just take the arm as payment for rescuing you.”

Simion smiled. “Let’s meet your client.”

On a mostly empty road, the drive from Volgrad to the Leshin border took less than two hours. Sofya and Heremon sat mostly in silence, listening to the steady hum of the carriage’s fey engine. There wasn’t much they felt comfortable talking about in front of Simion, who was still a mystery to them. It seemed almost unbelievable that a Leshin who lived in Vodotsk during the occupation didn’t recognize the Prophet’s Arm. And he seemed rather reluctant to talk about himself, aside from his business as a banker, trader, and pawn broker for the Leshin remaining in Human territory.

When the carriage arrived at the forest’s edge, it stopped so an Imperial soldier and Leshin border guard could take a quick inventory of the inhabitants. These small checkpoints—barely manned roads into the forest—had replaced the larger camps like the one raided by the IKV.

Sofya, Heremon, and Simion all provided names and seals to the guards and told them they would only be in the forest for a few hours. Fey-powered carriages were only permitted in Leshin territory for passenger drop-off at the nearest city, in this case Edun. If Sofya wanted to go any further into Leshin territory, they would have to hire a horse-driven vehicle there. Fortunately, there was no need for the extra expense.

Once the border paperwork was complete, the carriage advanced forward, where a thick canopy of trees nearly blocked out the sun. The Great Forest that marked the original border between Humans and Leshin was thickest at the edges, where powerful nature magic maintained dense tree growth. Traveling further into Leshin territory, the plant growth thinned and there were even large, empty plots of land where sprawling cities were built within the forest. But Edun was only a small town, with wooden buildings and huts crammed between the trees.

Most people in Edun lived in what Sofya would call treehouses, carefully constructed rooms perched in the high branches of the dense forest. Nestled in the thick trees of the Leshin/Human border, these homes were as sturdy as anything on land, and allowed the ground below to be used for roads and public buildings, as well as the many animals of Edun.

Other wildlife roamed the town with impunity, untamed and generally undisturbed by the Leshin. Some were tame, such as the horses and trash-devouring gnilbeasts. Others were bonded pets, wild animals that individual Leshin had domesticated with magic. But most of the creatures were completely wild, living on their own among the people of the town without an interference.

The Leshin claimed it was their way of living in harmony with nature. Sofya wasn’t sure that harmony was possible. She liked animals, but found the proximity Leshin tended to keep with them rather unsettling. Their tolerance for snakes was especially concerning.

Wildlife, however, was not Sofya’s primary concern as her carriage approached the Edun tavern where Braden ir-Alba was staying. Instead, it was the large number of horses tied outside the building. Six large stallions were reigned to the thick trees surrounding the tavern. The horses wore leather armor on their heads and sported thick saddles with holsters for both sword and bow. These were military steeds, and it was strange to see so many at a single tavern in one of the smallest towns in the forest.

“It does not appear that we will be meeting with your client discretely,” Simion said, peering out of the carriage.

“The AFC might be here on completely unrelated business,” Sofya replied, though she didn’t entirely believe it.

“Let us hope that this is the AFC,” Simion said. “For you may have pushed all the ir-Dyeun out of your lands, human, but they still roam the forest and the western plains. Many think that this is still their land and they may yet take it back.”

The carriage stopped before the end of the road leading to the tavern. “Did I hear that right?” the driver asked. “You think there might be ir-Dyeun here?”

Simion smiled. “Perhaps I should not have said it aloud. I seem to have spooked your driver.”

“This is as far as I go,” the driver barked. “You can get a horse-drawn carriage back. I’m not sticking around.”

Sofya didn’t argue. She paid the driver and let him leave. It wasn’t fair to get anyone else involved. To be honest, she had considered turning around and returning to Vodotsk herself. But they’d come this far. She’d been willing to break into Melinkremlin Keep to steal the arm. She wasn’t about to back off just because of a few scary-looking horses.

“To be honest,” Sofya said. “I’m glad I have two Leshin with me this time instead of just one.”

“You so sure that I’m on your side?” Simion asked, smirking.

“If there are ir-Dyeun in there, they will want to rip your arm off and take it on a crusade. So, yes, I assume that you’re on our side.”

“Fair enough. Let us see what this place holds for us.”

~

The second Sofya stepped into the pub, every eye in the room was on her. There were a dozen Leshin seated throughout the surprisingly spacious tavern and every one was curious why a Human would dare to join them.

Normally, Sofya felt rather comfortable around Leshin. Spending so much time with Heremon over the last few months helped with that. But she’d rarely visited their side of the border, and mostly interacted with them as minority in post-occupation Vodotsk. This was different. Now, she was the only Human in the room.

“Do you see any soldiers around?” Sofya asked quietly.

“No one dressed as such,” Heremon replied.

“Good. I don’t see Braden here and I need a drink.” Sofya headed for the bar but Heremon grabbed her arm.

“We need to be careful. There could be an ambush.”

“They tied up their horses out front. Not a very good ambush, if you ask me.”

Despite her joke, Sofya still chose a spot at the bar where her back would be to the wall and she could see the entire room. Was it enough to prevent the ambush Heremon feared? Likely not. Sofya, Heremon, and Simion had been bested by a few Melinkov guards just a day ago. Leshin soldiers would be even more of a challenge.

Hoping to calm her nerves, Sofya ordered a vodka. As soon as it was delivered, Sofya gulped it down. Like all Leshin spirits, it tasted a bit like wood. Somehow, they couldn’t even get vodka right. Nevertheless, Sofya asked for another.

“It’s not even noon,” Heremon muttered, settling in next to her. “And we’re meeting with a client.”

“We also might be taken prisoner for the second time in as many days, so I might not be able to get a drink tonight.”

“That’s terrible reasoning,” Heremon said, though he didn’t try to stop her when she ordered a third vodka.

After spending a few minutes surveying the room, Simion joined them at the bar. “Where is this client of yours? I’m starting to get nervous.”

“Do you think anyone here recognizes the arm?” Sofya asked.

“If they did, they’re going to keep quiet about it,” Simion replied. “Only an ir-Dyeun would recognize it. I trade in all sorts of goods and even I didn’t know what it was.”

“Does look awfully nice for something that’s hundreds of years old,” Sofya said. “They must have taken very good care of it.”

Heremon leaned in and looked at the arm, which seemed to make Simion a bit uncomfortable. “It is a remarkable piece of articulation,” Heremon said. “Almost mechanical, to the point where it almost resembles a modern Human machine rather than an ancient Leshin artifact.”

“The Leshin of Cathal ir-Dyeun’s time were actually quite different than the Leshin of today,” Simion replied. “As much as we all hate to admit it, his teachings changed the very fabric of what we are. It’s not surprising that a false arm from his time looks so strange.”

Sofya crossed her arms. “Then why didn’t you know something was up with it when you bought it?”

“I knew it was an oddity,” Simion replied. “Not a religious artifact.”

“Do you feel strange wearing it now that you do know?” Sofya asked.

Simion shrugged. “I never much believed the ir-Dyeun stories anyway.”

Sofya had her doubts. Even now, after three drinks, she could feel a powerful magic weaved into the Prophet’s Arm. She was surprised that Simion didn’t notice it. Neither did Heremon or the other Leshin in the bar, but they didn’t have it attached to their body. Sofya couldn’t imagine how Simion managed to ignore it.

Before she could ask any more questions, the door to the pub swung open and Braden ir-Alba stepped inside. Just like Sofya and her companions, he must have noticed the horses tied outside because he cautiously surveyed the room before heading over to join them.

As soon as Braden saw Simion and the Arm, his eyes lit up and he seemed to forget all his worries. “You found it!” he exclaimed, a little too loud for Sofya’s taste. Braden hurried towards Simion, though he completely ignored the Leshin man wearing the Arm. Instead, he was enthralled by the false limb itself. “My word, it’s more beautiful than I imagined.”

“Yes, well, I bought it fair and square,” Simion muttered. “So we might have a problem.”

Braden finally tore his gaze away from the Arm and looked up at Simion. “Who are you?”

“Simion ir-Sheaf. Banker, trader, lender… Supporter of Leshin who choose to remain in Human territory. Also the man who found the Arm you were looking for.”

“And we found Simion,” Sofya interjected. “So we did do the job you hired us for. Long and short of it is that the Empire took the Arm from your shipment. Then they lost it to separatists, who sold the Arm to Simion.”

“Who was then taken prisoner by some rather unpleasant brewers,” Simion said.

Braden looked at Sofya and Heremon. “Brewers?”

“That’s a bit of a simplification,” Sofya said.

“The entire building smelled of rotten grain,” Simion explained. “It was disgusting.”

“Never mind that,” Braden said. “You’re free now. And all three of you have brought the Arm to me. I cannot thank you enough.”

“Yes you can,” Heremon replied. “You can pay us what we’re owed. And you can work out whatever deal it is that you have to with this man. And we can all go along on our way.”

Braden nodded vigorously. “I’ll have the money in your account by the end of the day. Don’t worry.” He turned his attention to Simion. “As for you…”

“What do you intend to do with the Arm?” Simion asked.

“Well, I am the curator of the Alban Museum of History,” Braden replied. “And no matter what you think of Cathal ir-Dyeun’s teachings, he was clearly an important historical figure for all of Leshin society.”

Simion smiled. “I was just telling these two the same thing.”

“Something owned and worn by the Prophet is of clear value for our museum. In some ways, you could say that the Arm was a part of him… at least when he was writing some of his most famous works.”

“I believe some Leshin would tell you we should destroy it,” Simion said. “Considering what the Prophet led us to do. Considering how his teachings took us astray. He enchanted this arm with magic. As much as it was a part of him… what if he is still a part of it?”

Despite herself, Sofya suddenly felt nervous about handing the Arm over to the Leshin. Even if it was going to stay behind glass in a museum, returning something that held any part of the ir-Dyeun prophet seemed like a mistake.

“What does it do?” Sofya asked. “Do either of you know? Why were the Leshin keeping it in Vodotsk?”

“How would I know?” Simion asked. “I only discovered what it was last night, when you rescued me.”

“But you’ve heard stories, right? About what the Arm is supposed to be able to do? Its magical powers?”

Heremon sighed. “Sofya, we’ve been over this. The Arm was enchanted so the prophet could move it with magic. Nothing more.”

Simion smiled. “Actually, there is an instructive story on this matter, now that you mention it. Cathal ir-Dyeun is known among our people primarily as a philosopher and visionary. He lived long enough to see the fruits of his teaching spring into conflict between our people. He was also a military leader who inspired his own followers to spread his message between the cities.”

“What does that have to do with the–”

Before Sofya could finish her question, she saw movement out of the corner of her eye. The curtain leading to the room behind the bar shifted, and a tall, wiry Leshin woman emerged. The moment she stepped outside, several of the other Leshin in the room stood up, almost in unison.

“Uh oh,” Sofya said. “About that ambush, Heremon?”

“Stay calm,” Heremon replied.

The tall Leshin walked to the end of the bar and motioned for the bartender to leave. The other Leshin in the pub slowly walked towards Sofya and her companions.

“What is going on?” Heremon asked them, trying to stay calm. “We don’t want any trouble. We are just here to discuss a business transaction and–”

“Which one of you is Simion ir-Sheaf?”

Simion nervously raised his hand. “That would be me,” he said. “Who sent you? Surprised they didn’t give you a fairly easy description of me. There aren’t many one-armed Leshin.”

The woman behind the bar looked at the other Leshin, who now surrounded Sofya’s group. “Not that one. And not the healing mage.”

Before any of them could react, the Leshin in the pub descended upon Braden ir-Alba.They grabbed his arms and pulled him away, towards the door.

“Hey!” Sofya yelled. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? That’s my client!”

“Get your hand off me!” Braden shouted. “Who do you think I am? I’m no criminal. I’m–”

The Leshin woman stepped out from behind the bar and stood between Sofya and the Leshin holding Braden. “The AFC has been informed that you are attempting to procure ir-Dyeun artifacts and promote the veneration of Cathal ir-Dyeun.”

“Wait,” Heremon said. “You are AFC soldiers?”

The woman turned towards Heremon, Sofya, and Simion. “Yes. I am Ranger Cecilia ir-Corhal, Alliance Guard. We received a report that an ir-Dyeun extremist had tricked a trader by the name of Simion ir-Sheaf into procuring religious artifacts of some sort. Citizen ir-Sheaf, is this true?”

Simion hesitated, but answered honestly. “Well, yes, I suppose it is. This man apparently believes my arm belonged to the Prophet.”

Cecilia looked at Simion’s arm and laughed. “That thing?” she said. “There’s no way it’s hundreds of years old.”

“No!” Braden shouted. “That’s it! That’s the Prophet’s Arm!”

“I’m sure that’s what you want us all to believe,” Cecilia said. “You and your other extremists. You thought a piece of the prophet might re-inspire us, might turn us against our better nature. Quite a plan. I’m sure you were going to pay these people enough that no one would doubt your claim.”

Panic flickered across Braden’s face. “Ir-Dyeun? Inspiration? You have the wrong idea! I’m a museum curator. This is all wrong!”

Sofya held her head. “I’m so confused. What’s going on?”

Cecilia sighed. “I’m sorry, but it sounds like you and your friends were tricked.”

“Tricked into what?” Sofya replied. “The Arm isn’t fake. It–” She stopped herself before she could explain any further. She was the only Human in the room. There was no way she’d be able to explain how she felt magic inside of it that none of the Leshin could sense.

“Oh, it appears to be quite well crafted,” Cecilia said. “But there is no way it ever belonged to Cathal ir-Dyeun. It’s just like all the other artifacts the ir-Dyeun pass off as sacred. They are nothing more than trinkets, manufactured with elaborate stories to give the illusion of authenticity.”

“What is going on?” Braden yelled. “None of this is true!”

Sofya felt paralyzed. She knew that Cecilia was wrong. She had tracked the Arm from Vodotsk to the border checkpoint, to the Melinkov’s keep. But there was no way she could explain it. She had followed the magic embedded in the arm. There was no other connective tissue between Braden’s story and the particular fake limb she’d found. That was the only way she knew the arm on Simion’s shoulder was the same one given to the courier in Vodotsk.

“Listen, are you sure about this?” Sofya asked. “Because… because I don’t think he was lying to us. The arm Simion is wearing is–”

“I’m sure he told you quite the story,” Cecilia said. “That’s how these people draw others in. They play on your expectations. They make you believers.” She looked at Heremon. “You know what I mean, don’t you? I bet we were both believers, once.”

Heremon sighed and looked away. “Yes, I suppose that is the ir-Dyeun’s standard strategy. But I don’t believe that this man is ir-Dyeun.”

“Yes, well, either way he is attempting to gather ir-Dyeun artifacts. Fake or real. It doesn’t matter, it is still in violation of the AFC charter. Ir-Dyeun artifacts are to be reported to the AFC and destroyed. You and your friends should be glad you were tricked, otherwise you might be liable as well.”

Sofya frowned. “But I’m a Human. I’m not subject to your charter.”

“True,” Cecilia said, then motioned to Heremon and Simion. “But they are.”

This was enough to silence Sofya. Heremon had encouraged her not to take this case. He didn’t want to provide the Arm to the Leshin, even if they seemed safe and secular. Now, the case potentially threatened his freedom. Materially assisting the ir-Dyeun in any way was a crime under the charter of the Alliance of Free Cities. The AFC knew their power was newfound and fragile; there were plenty of Leshin willing to fall back in line under the ir-Dyeun. From what Sofya knew, they acted to suppress these ir-Dyeun reactionaries without mercy.

Even if Braden ir-Alba had been telling Sofya and Heremon truth about everything, an argument could be made that returning the Arm to the Leshin was an act of assistance to the ir-Dyeun. Especially if it was for real.

“Lady Rykov!” Braden shouted again as the AFC soldiers pulled him out of the bar. “You know it’s not fake! You know I’m telling the truth. I only wanted to preserve a part of our history.”

Sofya didn’t respond. She let the AFC drag Braden from the pub, as much as it pained her to do so. She owed everything to Heremon and wouldn’t endanger him just to protect her client. Especially when she wasn’t entirely sure she believed him about his intentions for the Arm.

As soon as Braden was custody in a carriage outside, the AFC soldiers began to file out of the pub. Sofya thought that they would just ignore her, Simion, and Heremon. They had what they wanted. But Cecilia was the last to leave. She stuck around until all the other AFC troops were gone. And then she approached Sofya.

“So, are we done here?” Sofya asked.

Cecilia smiled. “I’m also supposed to give you a message.”

“What?”

“Nadezhda Melinkov hopes that you enjoyed your time at her estate.”

~

Sofya stared at the empty whiskey glass on her desk and considered pouring herself another, even though she was almost halfway through the bottle. She’d been back in Vodotsk only a few hours and her tiny office was already feeling oppressively cramped. She considered going for a walk, but the rest of the city didn’t feel much better. Besides, here she had Heremon, the only person who shared her disappointment in the day’s events.

“I can’t believe that woman,” she muttered. “Ratted us out to the Leshin just to spite us.”

Heremon shrugged. He sat in the chair on the other side of Sofya’s desk, nursing his first—and usually only—glass of wine for the night. “I believe it. You threatened her and she had a way to retaliate. Why would you expect anything different?”

“Human solidarity?”

“Human solidarity doesn’t seem to go very far, Sofya. Honestly, you should know that better than anyone.”

“We shouldn’t have taken the carriage the Melinkovs ordered for us. The driver was surely in on it.” Sofya poured another shot of whiskey, though she told herself she’d try to sip this one slowly. “At least we learned something. Don’t trust anybody.”

Heremon placed his glass of wine down on the desk and rubbed his temples. “The one thing I don’t understand is how did the Melinkovs know about Braden and what we were going to do with the Arm? They clearly didn’t know what they had when they took Simion prisoner, or they would have confiscated the Arm then.”

“Maybe they were monitoring Simeon’s room?” Sofya asked. “Some kind of listening device or charm? Though that would be strange, considering he was being held by himself. I’m trying to think of what we talked to Simeon about in the jail cell, but it’s all running together right now.”

“How much have you had to drink?” Heremon asked.

Sofya grunted in reply.

“The good news is that we got half our payment up front, and the AFC didn’t say anything about confiscating the money Braden already gave us.”

“We spent a lot on carriages I would have liked to expense,” Sofya replied. “Maybe we need to stop taking cases that make us leave Vodotsk more than a couple times.”

Heremon crossed his arms. “Maybe you should start listening to me when I tell you not to get involved with matters that could get us in trouble.”

“Then we’d never have enough work to make rent.”

Heremon chuckled, though Sofya wasn’t joking. Sofya gulped down her drink, breaking her promise to herself. Then she resumed staring at the empty glass.

“I feel bad for Braden” Sofya finally said. “I mean, if he was telling us the truth. The Melinkovs only got involved in this incidentally, so his arrest was through no fault of his own. He couldn’t have ever known he’d stir up the ire of some Humans willing to report him.”

“But he didn’t tell us the truth,” Heremon replied. “Not all of it, at least. He should have mentioned that he had not even informed the AFC of his attempts to find the Arm. That he was operating without their approval was an important part of the job he neglected to mention. By not saying anything either way, he implied that he had permission. And that behavior raises all sorts of questions about his actual intent.”

Sofya shook her head. “I don’t know… If he was doing exactly what he said he was doing—trying to find a real artifact and transport it to a museum—then why would he think he needed permission from the AFC? Preserving history isn’t in any way assisting the ir-Dyeun. The only reason he was arrested was because the Melinkovs planted the idea that he was trying to fabricate an artifact, which could definitely be seen as promoting ir-Dyeun stories, at least.”

Heremon took a sip of his wine. “There’s no way to be sure. But I merely wanted to make you feel better. Braden did bring this upon himself, at least to some extent. He failed to protect himself from the AFC with the simplest of precautions. He could have let them know what he was up to. Given how the AFC has been cracking down on the ir-Dyeun, it would have been the smart thing to do.”
“I don’t even know what to think anymore.”

Before Sofya could pour herself another drink, there was a loud knock on the door. Startled, Sofya nearly jumped out of her chair. It was far too late for any customers, and there was no reason for anyone to travel to the city limits where their office and apartment was located.

“Who the hell is that?” Sofya asked. “Should we answer it?” Before Heremon could answer, Sofya felt something strange beyond the door. It was magical energy, a signature she’d come to recognize quite well. “Wait, I think it’s Simeon. I can feel the Arm.”

“What’s he doing here?” Heremon asked. Before returning to the office, Sofya and Heremon returned Simeon to his shop on the other side of town. He remarked that he had a lot of mail and overdue paperwork and bid them farewell. The last thing they expected was for him to pay them a visit later at night.

Sofya stood up and headed for the front of the office. She guarded herself, worried that this might be some strange trap that she didn’t understand, but when she opened the door, it was just Simeon standing there. He’d changed out of his dirty clothes into an elegant, immaculate green tunic with a long, sweeping cloak. The cloak hid most of the elaborate mechanical arm attached to his right shoulder, but Sofya could still feel it there, pulsing with energy.

“Simeon! What brings you here?”

“When I returned to my shop, I got to thinking. And I realized that I had done you two a disservice. Intended or not, you rescued me from my captivity.”

Sofya smiled. “We only really wanted the Arm, but it felt rude to take it and leave you.”

“And now, because I was so foolish as to be captured in the first place, you are out the payment you were promised for finding the Arm.”

“That is true.”

Simeon stepped into the office and greeted Heremon with a slight wave. “Simeon,” Heremon said. “I suppose you are already settled back in to the city?”

“I have some very angry customers,” he replied. “But they will understand. We have all faced hostility and discrimination since the end of the war, though I suppose forceful imprisonment is an extreme case.”

Sofya bit her tongue and kept herself from reminding Simeon that the Leshin occupied Vodotsk for over a decade. It didn’t seem productive.

“Do you need our services for anything?” Sofya asked. “We’re kind of mourning our last case right now and it’s late…”

“Yes, I can tell you’ve been drinking,” Simeon said. There was no hiding the smell of alcohol on her breath from Leshin. Sofya had already learned that lesson from Heremon. “But that’s not why I’m here. I’m here to pay you what you’re owed.” Simeon reached into his cloak and withdrew a small pouch full of gold. “Forty gold pieces, correct?”

“That’s right,” Sofya said. “But we also had about ten pieces worth of carriage expenses and–”

“You don’t have to pay us anything,” Heremon interrupted. “That’s ridiculous. You didn’t hire us. We’ve accepted that we took a bad case and we lost. There’s no need for this.”

“So, fifty gold?” Simeon asked Sofya, then turned his attention to Heremon. “Or are you going to turn down money that you earned just to teach your friend a lesson?”

“Of course we’re not going to do that,” Sofya said.

Heremon glared at her. “Sofya, he doesn’t owe us anything.”

“You rescued me,” Simeon said. “I would have paid four times this much to be free. Making you whole is the least I could do.”

“What’s the problem, Heremon?”

“I… I just don’t want to be in this man’s debt.”

Simion placed the small pouch of gold on Sofya’s desk, then drew ten more pieces from a similar pouch on his belt. He handed this to Sofya. “You owe me no debt. You are even allowing me to keep the Arm, which would be an amazing story to tell my friends and customers if it wouldn’t likely get me killed.”

Sofya took the ten pieces of gold and added them to the pouch on the table. “You’re going to keep wearing it? Even knowing what it is?”

“What do I keep saying? You don’t find craftsmanship like this anywhere but the largest Leshin cities and its design is unique. Besides, I suppose it serves as something of an ir-Dyeun detector.”

“Huh?”

“Even I did not recognize the Arm. You said that the ir-Dyeun kept it secreted away in their temple here, out of view of the public. Anyone who recognizes it, thus, should be regarded with the greatest of suspicion.”

Sofya hadn’t considered that before. Now that Simion said it, she wished she could keep the Arm and put it above her desk to serve the same purpose.

“Still, I can’t imagine wearing such a powerful magic artifact,” Sofya said.

Simion raised an eyebrow. “Powerful?” he asked. “What would make you say that?” Sofya hesitated. Before she could come up with a lie, Simion continued. “Trust me, this is just a simple mechanical arm. Yes, it is very old. But powerful? We cannot even be sure it actually belonged to the Prophet, let alone was given any sort of power.”

Sofya didn’t argue with him. There was no way to explain what she felt, especially when it seemed invisible to the Leshin.

“Thank you for fulfilling Braden ir-Alba’s responsibility,” Heremon said. “After thinking it over, we will accept your payment.”

“Of course you will,” Simion said with a smile. “And please, now that you know where my shop is, feel free to stop by.”

“I don’t plan on needing to pawn anything,” Heremon replied. “And certainly not take out a loan, not with the interest rates I’m sure you offer.”

Simion chuckled. “I would surely cut you a better deal,” he said. “But that is not what I meant. In my line of work, I tend to come across quite a bit of information. And that is your business. I may have something to offer you. You never know.”

“Thanks,” Sofya replied. “I guess you’re a good person to know.”
“You have no idea,” Simion said. With a slight bow, he turned and headed for the door. “See you around, Lady Rykov.”

~

Three days after Nadezhda Melinkov reluctantly allowed Sofya, Heremon, and Simeon from her family’s keep, she was still worried. Sofya’s threats haunted her, and she worried that further repercussions might be on the way. How reliable was her information that Sofya hadn’t seen her family for over a month? Were they estranged? Nadezhda couldn’t believe how foolish she had been to take a Rykov prisoner without consulting her grandmother or older brothers. The Leshin was one thing. That was a good idea, but Nadezhda should have cut her losses when Sofya showed up looking for them. She should have let them all go and moved on to other things.

Now, even if no other reprisal came down from Sofya Rykov or her allies, Nadezhda was still in hot water. She trusted her personal guard to an extent, but eventually they would talk to the other soldiers and details of the events would reach her brothers or, Eszther help her, grandmother Alma.

At best, Nadezhda would be barred from ever managing the estate again. Alma would find a distant cousin to take her place as head of household before handing the reins over to Nadezhda. She didn’t even know what the worst case scenario was. One of her uncles was dispatched every summer to dried-up, drought-stricken plains towns for some offense against the family that happened before she was even born. Would she be forced to join him?

To limit the potential vectors for information to reach her grandmother, Nadezhda had taken to receiving all deliveries and couriers herself, so the staff wouldn’t have a chance to read anything to Melinkremlin before passing it along.

The first two days were uneventful, but on day three Nadezhda was handed a crumpled enveloped addressed to her directly from Vodotsk. There was no wax seal, but the author had scribbled the Rykov Crest—a hawk’s wing—on the back where the seal would normally be. Nadezhda knew who it was from.

With trembling fingers, Nadezhda opened the letter. She wondered if it would contain a threat or a declaration of war. The crudely sketched faux seal should have assured her that Sofya didn’t have the weight of her family name behind her, but two days of anxiety weighed upon her. She tore open the envelope and pulled out a single piece of paper. As she read the missive, her expression turned from fear to confusion. Sofya had clearly been quite intoxicated when penning the letter—the abysmal state of her handwriting attested to that—but it wasn’t the form of the message that confused Nadezhda, but the contents.

Nadezhda rushed towards the guards’ quarters and found Andrey, the captain of her personal guard. He was napping to prepare for a night shift, but that didn’t stop Nadezhda from waking him with her concerns. He was one of the few people to know the full extent of what happened with Sofya and the Leshin prisoner. That made him the only person who could answer her questions.

“Andrey, we need to talk. You didn’t do anything reckless to retaliate against the Rykov woman, did you?”

“Uh…” Andrey rubbed his head as he sat up from his cot. “Not that I am aware of.”

“She believes that we sold her out to the elves. She thinks we sent them some sort of message. Something about the prosthetic arm that elf prisoner had. Do you know anything about this?”

Andrey shrugged. “She is crazy. You are speaking nonsense. It sounds like she is speaking nonsense.”

“Yes, I certainly didn’t accuse her client of collaborating with the ir-Dyeun. And if you didn’t…”

Nadezhda threw the letter on the ground. “Did you know she wasn’t even here for the elf? She just wanted his arm. We could have saved ourselves so much trouble if we just took it from him and gave it to her.”

“She wanted his arm?”

“It seems that way.”

Andrey rubbed his temples. “I was concerned about that elf. He was never afraid. It was like he knew someone was coming to rescue him.”

“Someone tricked into it?”

“I don’t know. But I know we didn’t send a message to the ir-Dyeun to have Sofya Rykov’s client arrested. And if she thinks that, she’s certainly being tricked by someone.”

 

For more Echoes of the Fey, go to http://www.woodsy-studio.com/echoes


Echoes of the Fey: The Prophet's Arm

Magic meets mystery in Echoes of the Fey, a series of detective stories set in the high fantasy world of Oraz. Sofya Rykov is a private investigator with a secret of her own: unstable magic powers that she uses to solve her cases. This stand-alone novella ties in to the stories told in the Echoes of the Fey PC games. In The Prophet's Arm, Sofya is hired to track down a precious religious relic: the mechanical arm of the ancient Leshin prophet Cathal ir-Dyeun. The arm was lost in the long war between Humans and Leshin--a war prompted by the teachings of ir-Dyeun. To preserve the unstable peace between the two peoples, everything associated with the prophet has become taboo in the new Leshin government. But Sofya Rykov has never cared for taboos, so when a historian needs a detective to find the relic, she's the perfect woman for the job.

  • Author: Malcolm Pierce
  • Published: 2016-12-07 18:35:10
  • Words: 23202
Echoes of the Fey: The Prophet's Arm Echoes of the Fey: The Prophet's Arm