Echoes of the Fey – The Prophet’s Arm (Part 2)

This is part 2 of a multi-part short story detailing one of Sofya Rykov’s cases prior to The Fox’s Trail. Part 1 can be found here

Sofya was not surprised to find 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.”

LukaThe 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.”

melinkovsmWhile 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.”