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.”
“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 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.”
“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.”
Echoes of the Fey: The Fox’s Trail is out now and available at woodsy-studio.itch.io!