Cloria enjoyed being a Venatrix. She liked the looks, the whispers. People stared at her equipment, from her polished knives to her guns, her precious rifle, the tetraceramid plates peeking from beneath her clothes, everything that identified her as one of those people keeping the darkness back.
What she did not like was what followed those looks. Even now, getting ready for winter as she had her hired crew pick up her belonging and filling the boat with them, standing on deck, displaying her success and her wealth and the fruit of her labor, her keen ears caught a different kind of whispers.
Wonder who she stroked to get up there.
Sure, she might look tough, but…
I bet without all those guys she’d get snapped like a twig.
Cloria fumed, nervously passing her hands through her black locks.
“I’m going for a walk,” she said the main guy. “Make sure everything is set before I come back. We’re setting sail for Venexia before noon.”
He nodded and she gave him a quick wave of her hand – then she threw herself into the throng. Dressed as she was, with all her weapons on display, her nerves flaring, she was this close to aching for a good fight. At least this way they’d understand what they were dealing with. This tiny river-town didn’t even have proper guards, so she’d even have an easy time with them. A bait to the left, a feint, a strike to the right hip, turn, a trip and throw them to the floor using their own weight against them.
In the end, humans were only slightly different from beasts and Eerie. Usually they bore a little more metal and a little fewer horns. Big difference.
“What are you looking at?” She hissed at an old man who crossed her gaze. He started and proceeded down the river, carrying his wooden load over his back. She reached the shore and looked at her reflection in the water.
She’d been pissed ever since she met the Hunter all those days before. He caught her eye when he was talking to Arguta about his equipment, but he had entered her shop before she could walk up to him. Luckily he had stayed for the night, and could she pass over such an occasion to show off her new tools, how great her success had made her?
It boggled her mind someone like him could stay confined to this corner of the world – ever since she… left, she had travelled down to the Bittersea, made a name for herself in ever town from ever-restless Venexia to palm-filled Zug. Or so she believed it to be. After all, she had enough money to buy a crew everywhere, and people were bound to remember her, weren’t they?
She angrily kicked a pebble.
It did not make sense!
As she stood there, arms crossed and head low, fuming over something that she really couldn’t comprehend, the chatter behind her died down. She turned to see a group of four tall men, their faces covered by white veils leaving only a tiny strip for eyes, carrying a palanquin. Whoever was inside was hidden by white linen curtains, but there was little doubt.
“Uh…” Cloria recomposed herself. “How can I help this Augur?”
“No need to be so formal, dear,” said a smoky voice that seemed to lightly press against her temples.
Oh. It’s her.
“Please do come in. I would like to share some words with you, ere you depart.”
She could refuse. She had her money, her name, her crew. It wouldn’t be wise, but it was what she wanted, wasn’t it?
Cloria grit her teeth and walked to the right of the palanquin. She gripped its edge and pulled herself on in one go. The porters grunted at the sudden increase in weight, but she did not really care.
The inside had been fitted to her style, of course. Thin copper wires with dancing lights covered the roof and the columns, blinking in odd patterns. A burner released a strong incense that smelled like sandalwood. Plaques of silver and gold decorated the floor, reflecting and refracting the image of a tall blonde woman in a white robes, the upper half of her face covered by a metallic mask.
“Please get comfortable,” she said offering her a cup of spiced wine.
“Thanks.” Cloria took the drink, but she did not bring it to her lips yet again. Would she take offense? Was it just her way to mess with her from the get go?
Verna’s smile turned into her usual sharp grin, making an unpleasant shiver run down her spine.
Cloria tried to calm down. She had to focus on her breath, on the thrum of her inside organs. Close her mind and go back to a state of peace. This was what they had taught her and there had been a time when she used to be pretty good at it, though she had thrown much of her training away.
But even like that, she had heard the rumors.
Some she had seen herself, two years before, in Venexia, when a bomb had gone off and standing amidst the flaming crater, as the floating blocks shook with the force of the explosion, in a desert of charred corpses and towering whiffs of crimson smoke, the same grinning woman stood. Her clothes burnt and her mask cracked, but unharmed and unmatched.
There was something about Mastra Verna.
She had caught it since the first time she had seen the woman, back during her novitiate.
Even for one of her high rank, her powers of second sight, in all its declinations, were just too wide and deep. Someone said she managed to secure a link to some lost technology, maybe an all-seeing-eye in the sky, a wonder of the Erepeople. Other swore she had betrayed her order and made a deal with the Wretched Fae.
That much was a silly theory, of course. Verna’s hate for the Fae was a deep dark wound in her mind, something even Cloria’s passive, dull second sight skills picked immediately up. It pulsated from her like waves of ice from a glacier.
No deals would be made.
And she was still looking at her like some a dumbstruck fool, holding a fuming cup of wine.
“Sorry,” she said taking a drink, not sure about exactly what she was apologizing for. “To what do I owe the honor?”
“Nothing much, unless you’d prefer otherwise. An old shepherd likes to see how her lost sheep are doing, from time to time.”
“I am faring quite well, thank you.”
“I can see you rolling in the dust of the world,” she replied with a nod. “Ah, I apologize. That was uncouth of me.”
Cloria frowned. Belittling her, then pretending it never happened. This woman got on her nerves almost as much as the Hunter. Which was precisely what she wanted from her, didn’t she? Unless…
“What do you mean by: I’d prefer otherwise?”
“Oh, nothing much. I am currently trying to recover a lost thing. A minor worry of mine, my dear. Nothing you should worry about.”
Cloria sighed and took a sip. The wine was spiced just right and its fumes made her feel heady. She perceived nothing bad in the drink. She supposed her words were poisonous enough.
“Don’t play games with me, Mastra.” Cloria rebutted, giving her best glare. “Your rank means nothing here.”
“Regrettably so. And yet this might be a good chance for you. Especially if it allows you to settle scores with a certain other person.”
A half-bitted memory wriggled in her mind.
I gave all my money to Arguta today.
And he’d been going north…
All of a sudden, her chance meeting with the Hunter days prior seemed anything but.
And Verna kept smiling and waiting for her reply, like an old, white patient spider.
“Why are you asking me after giving the job to the Hunter?” She looked down onto the cup at her reflection. “He’s the best.”
“I did say it’s a minor worry, but I would sleep better without it. Can’t two Venators do the job better than one? Ah, and I would be in your debt.”
“It wouldn’t be against the rules.” Ah, she was painting a pretty picture indeed. She could see her getting a win over the Hunter. After he had told her to stay put right when they’d have the chance to show off in Trefiumi. One more place where they could recognize her. Where they could see she was made of sterner stuff. That she wasn’t just destined to look pretty in a white robe and shake her ass in the temple and purify some water.
“As I said, it’s just up to you, my dear. I have see you are getting ready to depart – a wise move, if you ask me. It’s going to be a harsh winter, and surely the one Venator who’d be able to brave the Tide and nip a precious thing right from the talons of the Wretched Fae would gather some interest. After all, we are going to have a lot of time, shut in our homes, to talk about such great deeds. Don’t you think?”
Cloria gulped. Going north… she’d have to double her rates. Check all her equipment, buy all sort of rations.
But now all she could see was her triumphant smile as she met with Verna in Venexia, right before the House of Lamentations, and she gave her back whatever she’d lost.
She’d be in her debt.
Mastra Verna, High Seer of the Order, would be in her debt.
And people would be calling her the Huntress.
“So, what do you say, my long-lost Novice? You can finish your cup and we don’t have to see each other until the rivers of fate kiss once more. Or you can take your chance.”
Cloria drank another sip.
Spirits, she knew she was making a mistake.
She came back to her boat that it was just past noon. She wasn’t even hungry. As she approached her crew, Habe, her second, stood up and pointed at the stacks of neatly-fitted provisions for the journey south.
“Everything is ready, Venator.”
“Ah, yes. You did a good job.” A pause. She looked at what she’d been playing with for the last hour or so. A simple tuft of white hair, held together by a red string. “All things considered, though… I think there’s been a change of plans. Would you like me to double your rate?”