Thank the spirits, the inside of Verna’s cabin was warm. The heat did not come from a fire or an oven, it seemed to spread from the leaden pipes running all over the floor, a boon for his cold feet. While the shipmates took care of his clothes he’d been given a cotton vest and he passed his hands all over the cloth, marveling at its smooth texture. For the longest time they had only used wool. Was it still even possible to grow cotton anymore?
Maybe he could buy a few to ship over to Belacqua.
As he waited for Verna to come back inside he peered at her belongings. Weirdly enough, he’d never been in her quarters in all the years they’d known each other. Her fascination with everything that came from the buried past had not left her. With half a smile, her took note of all the little trinkets hanging from the walls, rusty wires and burnt boards looking more like failed paintings than pieces of tech, a row of cracked screen formed a lens, scattering the electrical light all over like an open carapace of some beast from the Old Country.
“I hope you’re decent,” said Verna’s voice, as she opened the door without knocking.
“As much as I can be,” he replied, covering up his chest.
She came in, dressed in the same white robes, lined black and gold as a Vestal her rank ought to have. It highlighted her blonde hair and her pale skin – she must be spending a lot of time inside, even for a priestess.
“I’ll take what I can get.” Her lips creased in a grin. She sat down before a shelf that he realized must have once been a desk, before it was covered in debris from Verna’s archaeological passion. “Fancy meeting you here, Hunter. I guess I’ll have to thank the spirits for their kindness. But seriously, selling pelts? A man of your quality?” She chuckled.
What did she expect?
“It’s been a tiresome year. I have heard the winter’s forecast is dire, but summer and spring were not any more generous.”
“So they say. Do you mind if I keep up with my work?”
“Not at all. In fact, I feel privileged.”
Her smile widened into a grin, showing a row of perfect teeth, another sign of her high rank.
“Such politeness. That’s also rare these days.”
Verna opened a valve half-covered by her pile of metallic novelties and filled a basin with it. She punctured her left middle finger with a nail and let her hand rest in the water as a tiny tendril of her crimson blood spread through it.
“May these water be blessed. May they be a shield against the darkness. May the Wicked Fae take heed of my gift and may Her gaze pass over us.”
She withdrew her hand and poured the bowl into a pipe. Water gurgled happily into the ship’s bowels. Then she repeated the process and the warding formula with another bowel.
He watched her, intent.
Thinking back to a simpler time, when he would steal a glance at another woman, with black hair and the most beautiful brown eyes, pricking her finger just like that, letting drops of her unsullied blood fall for the benefit of all. She woul-
“You are upset,” Verna brought him back from his daydream.
“I am not,” he lied.
“Your lies are made of glass, Hunter. But I’m at fault here. I did not think how this would impact you… here, let’s do something else and make better use of our time. In fact, don’t you think the spirits have worked together to make us meet here and now?”
“I don’t know much about spirits.”
“Not those of this side,” she indulged him. With the upper half of her face covered like that, he had always found it much easier to focus on Verna’s lips. They conveyed her emotions like would someone’s eyes, and now they curled in that weary amusement of hers.
“You said something about a job.”
“How much like the Hunter, to cut to the chase. There is indeed something. I have a hunch this will help you reach your goal, indeed.”
Now who could say she did not pretend to forget about his past when she kept working? Knowing how it would bring back memories?
“Just hear me out, old friend.” She produced a leather envelope from her desk and handed it over. It contained a few sketches of an area further north and to the west – and a drawing.
“I am a beast Hunter,” he said in a whisper. “I kill Eerie, I skin timberwolves. What is this?”
“Should I be the one to beg you to look past appearances?” She grinned pointing at her mask. “I would be quite thankful if you were to bring us back that particular specimen.”
“By ‘us’ you mean the Most Sacred Order of Vestals?”
Her grin was so wide.
He preferred to focus on the drawing. It depicted a girl of young age, her large eye drawn in a droopy, almost defeated expression. Her white hair fell around her rail-thin shoulders, but what drew his attention was the pair of triangular wolf-like ears standing atop her head.
“What is she? Some sort of hybrid, Fae-touched?”
“Something like that.”
“This is not what I usually do.”
“Times are not what they usually are. I must say that those forecast about a harsh winter will most likely come true, though. A woman like me does have fairly keen ears. And eyes.”
He put the sheets back into the folder.
“What do you propose?”
“This is quite the important quarry to me. Bring her back – unspoiled, if at all possible – and I will give you what you desire the most. What you’ve been chasing for the past few years.”
His hands curled up in fists.
He’d been saving up for so long. Material, gold, silver, and of course, most important of all: favors. But one of his position could only sway so much, especially when it came to Vestals.
Her dark-haired face flashed once again upon his mind.
Her smile, so much different from Verna’s own.
“Bring back the girl, Hunter. And I will allow Elissa herself to perform the Sere Rite.”
He grimaced. Spirits, she might as well pushing her hand right into his heart and squeeze it.
“Just tell me what you need, old friend. I can provide any and all materials, and of course, the permission.”
“Why wouldn’t you be the one to office the rite? If that’s you offer?”
It was a weak comeback and she shattered it with a click of her tongue.
She had right where she wanted him.
A true Vestal, through and through. He should have learned not to mingle with them long ago.
“Let’s not mince words here. Who spent the last six years begging Belacqua’s Augur for a chance? You surely did not crawl each winter back to me. And rest assured, Elissa is a far more skilled Augur than I could ever be. At such a young age! Isn’t she precious?”
He grit his teeth.
Hunting was supposed to be a simple job. Maybe not easy, but breaking the neck of a beast or skinning it or hunting down a hungry and bloated Eerie in the darkest spires of the forest, even as he tickled the very toes of the Wicked Fae, did not require this push-and-pull of his heart. It was a straightforward matter.
And yet… how many years would he have to toil for just a chance to have Elissa agree to it?
“I like this cloth,” he said passing his hands over the cotton. “If I bring you back the… quarry, make sure to deliver a hundred of these to Belacqua. Child-sized. You can cut up your spares, I’m sure you won’t miss them.”
“I’m sure that’s adequate.”
Her lips twitched and her empty gaze moved up to his chest. His scarred skin prickled at her appraisal.
“You were right. A bath was good for you.” She stood up and reached his chair, her left hand, the one she had bled with, rising to cup his cheek. “I can understand what she saw in you, my dear. I say this as a Vestal and as a woman.” She came closer, until her strangely-cold breath tickled his ear. “Bring me back my dog. Then we can think about giving you back the future you’ve been craving for so long.”
Pic by PeeKay on hiveworkshop.com