Sascha Mercel stared into the tiny cup. Her reflection, black and shimmering in two days’ wages worth of coffee, stared back helplessly. It had no more idea what she was doing there than she did, and she wasn’t ready to try asking someone else yet.
Two days wages, she thought again, and took a small sip. It tasted like a tannery fire.
It wasn’t as though a day’s wage was a concern of hers, anymore, which was the real point. As of this morning, the Inquisition paid her bills, saw to her food and clothing and shelter, and paid her a small monthly stipend on top of that, as if she knew what to do with cash to spare. This, apparently.
This, and whatever else they wanted, because the Inquisition was the hand of the Church and it spent what it pleased. They deserved it; they were the best of the best, hand-picked to protect the Citadels from their most insidious, most extreme threats. The reflection in the coffee scowling up at her was not a picture of the best of the best in repose. It was a beat cop who stuck out like an ulcerating thumb in both the warm din of the coffeeshop and the ranks of Premech’s Finest.
Her tablemate obviously didn’t share her worries, although she doubted the Shepherd (Taddat?) had ever worried about wages or rank to begin with. Things were harsher outside the Walls, and it seemed he was happy enough to be somewhere warm, let alone comfortable. He kept grinning at her, was doing it now, but he did it to everyone in varying degrees, and she was only sure he wasn’t stuck that way because it had briefly given over to confusion when they had first come inside.
Somehow, out of everyone there, he was the most approachable, which was why she was at his table holding eye contact with herself in a cup instead of getting to know her new teammates elsewhere. He didn’t seem to mind it. Or much.
The guy buying, Connacht, was a chuckleheaded blue-blood who’d rubbed her the wrong way for months. The de Mier girl had a tendency to steer conversations towards vivisection, which was off-putting. The other Shepherd, with the bird, was pretty much indecipherable on the rare occasions he spoke up. And then there was Zed. Zed, who didn’t smile or frown, who drank coffee with the same not-expression she’d seen him beat sparring partners with. When she had seen him in training, which didn’t seem nearly often enough even given their relative isolation.
The company helped, a bit. Watching them in public calmed her misgivings that she was in way over her head. Everyone else seemed to be, too. Maybe this was the new normal.
She dared another small sip, inhaling to cool it in her mouth as she let it linger. It still tasted like burning shoes, but at least it smelled nice. The whole place smelled nice. This whole excursion might be worth it just for that.
The bell over the door dinged, and she jumped. A couple of the others did too, which was encouraging. She turned to see who was coming in.
“Oh, shit,” she hissed, spinning back and slouching down into her seat. “Arsekiss.”
“Come again?” the Shepherd across from her said, raising both thick eyebrows.
“Arkiss Vandrell. Worked the beat with him. He’s-”
“Well, well, well” sneered Vandrell in the background, his hand-picked goon squad following him through the door, conversations quieting as patrons turned to look. “The Inquisition’s newest recruits, at a coffeehouse. How nice.”
“Right,” said Taddat sympathetically. She nodded and slid still lower in the booth.
The worst thing about Arsekiss was that his nickname didn’t actually suit him. Arrogant, condescending, petty, sure, but he wasn’t a suckup and he was good at his job. His job as he saw it was mostly to hassle civilians about their tithe permits and their piety, but he was still an excellent shot and when he tackled perps they stayed down. He’d led the pack on evals for six years, now, and everyone who hated his guts had to grudgingly admit it was because he put in the time. Revivalist Arvoreeni families like the Vandrells took civic service seriously. They also found heresy under every rock, mostly to signal their own virtue, and Arkis was his family’s son both ways. The top scores, the right connections, the shining public service record, all made him the obvious choice for promotion to the Inquisition.
But she’d been in the right place at the right time while he was off browbeating a shop tender somewhere, and the brand ended up on her shoulders, not his.
“It’s so good to see the hard work of the Temple of Sheela Pehr celebrated and appreciated like this,” Arkiss went on in syrupy sweet tones. The other Shepherd spluttered in outrage, his bird puffing its feathers to match. “After all, it is such important work, growing coffee!” Her reflection in the cup winced as the situation officially slid from bad to worse.
The Temples of Sheela Pehr and Arvoreen had been at each other’s throats since the walls went up, but the issue of coffee was pushing things a lot closer to the brink. Coffee took up entire conservatory wards to grow a handful of beans. It was the most overt luxury item the Citadels had seen since the cinnamon tree of Pirantos, it was taking the markets by storm, and it was making the Arvoreeni lose their minds with outrage. Arsekiss had obviously dropped in to “inspect the shop’s permits” and scare the clientele away. Him finding the Inquisition’s neophytes there was bad enough. If he found her there…
“It’s even nicer,” he continued, sauntering to the counter with toadies trailing behind and the crowd’s eyes following him. “-to see our noble Inquisition hard at work.” He stopped next to Zed, smiled up into the greyish man’s stone face. “Investigating the coffee for heresy, are we? Good man.”
Arkis’ lackeys sniggered. Zed blinked, once, slowly.
Then he reached out, caught a startled Vandrell by the back of the head, and slammed his face forward into the countertop. A plate of potato pancakes broke his descent, and shattered with a crack that silenced the entire room.
Sascha dropped her cup. 3 gold’s worth of coffee spilled across the tabletop. “Wha-”, she said.
All hell immediately broke loose.
Morrin dreampt of dragons.
They didn’t often visit the silvery world he wandered in his sleep. They would wing by in the distance, huge red silhouettes against the glow of the sky, and whatever island or ship or bit of debris he found himself on that day would bob in the ripples of their passing.
Today, though, there were two. They beat great, lazy circles around the stretch of shimmering green cobblestones he was walking down; they opened their mouths, and while no sound emerged, the silver sky buckled and warped under the force of their silent roars.
The timing was convenient. The ache between his shoulder blades followed him into the dream, reminded him that today wasn’t another long, vacant stretch in the cloister. Today, he was as close to free in the waking world as he would ever get.
But he was sure the dragons weren’t of his making. They visited his dreams from somewhere outside, and it was unlikely they were passing through today on his account.
Whatever they were, they were striking, and deserved commemorating. He reached out one hand with a steady was he could never manage while awake, and plucked a strand of the sky. It came away, trailing sticky silver filaments, and he balled it up between his hands and smoothed it flat. Under his brushing fingers the brightness of the new tablet darkened to matte black, beginning to take the rough outline of the dragons on the horizon.
Something shuddered through his left arm, and the entire world shook from the impact. He opened his eyes.
Abel’s frowning face was the first thing he saw. Behind it, a dozen others, looking worried or angry or afraid. He looked down at the tablet in his hands, the cobbles of Premech’s streets under his feet. With a frown, he waved the tablet away into a brief whorl of luminous smoke.
“Thought I was gonna hafta hit you again,” Abel said in a low tone, grabbing Morrin by his aching arm and steering him to the side of the street. “You gotta keep a better handle on that, man, you’re scaring the walnut gallery.”
“Dragons,” Morrin explained through a cottony mouth.
“Of course, buddy. Dragons. But do your… dragon… thing, later, alright? I don’t want us getting arrested.”
“Can’t,” said Morrin, looking down at the Inquisition sigil on the arm of his robe.
“Flatheads can’t, Morrin. We’re not flatheads. We’re dangerous cargo out here, remember?”
Morrin squinted. Flathead rubbed him the wrong way every time he heard it. Avelmark cloister slang for the uncursed, it’d caught on in Premech as well. It was aggressive, bordering on a slur. You only heard it in the mouths of Cursed who considered their condition more of a blessing. i.e., could get through a day without being hobbled by their deformity.
Abel’s Curse, far from slowing him down, had kept him ahead of the Witchseekers of Avelmark for over twenty years before they finally caught him. Abel considered the Curse a gift one of his many talents, and the hell with what the Speaker had to say about it. Abel represented a lot of things wrong with the Premech’s cloister’s ideals, these days.
But Abel had glued himself to Morrin’s side the first day they met in training. Abel stuck up for him even when the situation didn’t call for it. Abel steered his sleepwalking body through the halls. And Abel had locked himself in his cell for the entirety of one of their rare days off during training because someone had found out about the special diet his throat mutation called for and hadn’t come out until Morrin had woken up long enough to coax him with food.
So Morrin didn’t say anything about “flatheads”. Instead, he said, “Nero?”
“Yeah, yeah, got a leash on her too,” said Abel, pointing up the street to the woman frowning severely through the window of a hat shop.
“No you don’t.”
“No I don’t,” Abel agreed. “I’d be fine with losing her if I didn’t enjoy walking behind her so much.” He grinned and waggled his eyebrows, but he hadn’t dared say it above a murmur all the same.