Valeriana, Cloria had decided, had not changed. She was still quick to laughter and kind with strangers, judging by how she moved through the city, holding herself with countenance but giving way to people passing by, carrying beams or repairing pipelines. Though she did wear her mask throughout (but that could be excused as a personal defense, so close to the Old Country), she was so different from Verna’s scornful attitude.
Still, she kept reminding herself that she couldn’t believe how much of a monster the former High Seer had become, in secret.
But Valeriana refused to set off even the smallest alarm bell. She insisted to pay for lunch and they sat at one of the few taverns that still offered full lunches, for an exorbitant amount of money, which the Vestal was more than happy to deliver.
For a couple hours, eating with her old and new friends felt like moving forward to summer, to normal, human life. Leaving behind her all the fighting, all the killing, all the burning.
Sure, some of that was exciting stuff.
But watching Sadja eat from her plate while she kept self-consciously pat her ears and the Hunter smiling at her melted her heart a little. Saving the girl had meant the world to her.
Maybe she was the one who had changed.
For the better? That was yet to see.
“I appreciate the company,” the Hunter said at the end while they shared the first dessert they had in months, a dried and pasty raisin cake that was half-frozen (and Cloria suspected half-mold). “And the generosity. It has been a harsh winter, as you might have seen. How are things in Venexia?”
Valeriana drew in a long breath. She pushed away her empty plate and seemed lost in thought for a long while.
“Less good than you might think. Hunter. That’s correct, isn’t it? Just Hunter?”
“Just Hunter,” he replied with a quick nod of his head. Sadja looked up at him, pensive.
“Very well. I believe I can speak more freely about our matters. You are friends with the High Seer, after all. You must know a thing or two about it.”
A cold spell pass through Sadja and she was taken out of her reverie. The Hunter held her close.
“Go on,” Cloria stepped in, tapping with her fork on the plate. “You always trip on your words. Get to the point.”
“That would have gotten you scolded,” she replied with a grin, “but I suppose we’re long past that, aren’t we. I’ll get to the point: our High Seer has been missing for weeks, we have no idea where she might be, and the Council’s shared mind-scaped had been assaulted by the Old Country. We are not safe anymore.”
“The Queen of Thorns has been restless,” the Hunter interjected.
“Do you mind?” Cloria hissed, clutching at her necklace of bones. “I told you to refer to her by a moniker.”
“Did it ever do any good? You have seen Her there, Cloria. Can we drop superstitions and rituals? There is no amount of holy water or…” he shifted his eyes to Sadja and set a hand on her shoulder, “… any other thing that can hold Her back. It’s just part of life.”
“The High Seer saw it differently,” Valeriana mouthed. She raised a hand immediately, as if she had foreseen the Hunter’s reply. “But she was still a minority in the Council in that regard. We still believe the forest can be held at bay with the right amount of preventive measures. There’s a difference.”
“Whatever lets you sleep at night,” the Hunter scoffed.
“Would you call the floating city and the commonwealth of towns that still manage to live on land a failure, Hunter?”
“Not a failure. But you have to understand we’re fleas living on the back of a bear. All it will take it’s for the bear to scratch his back on a tree.” He rapped his fingers on the table. “And this winter the bear is quite itchy.”
“I have seen a bear,” Sadja interjected, looking at her fingers. “In pictures. Can we talk about something else?”
“Do you want to leave?” The Hunter asked her. The wolf-girl pursed her lips but shook her head in the end. “I still want to stay. I won’t be able to help, though.”
“Whatever the merit of the Order,” Cloria said, “and I’m sure there are… many, you are here to look for someone we haven’t seen in a long, long time. We have no idea where Verna is. I hope this wasn’t the only reason you came here.”
“The chief reason,” Valeriana replied, her hand reaching for her mask, but falling back at the last moment. “But I have others… if you’ll let me explain.”
“Maybe just between the two of us,” Cloria whispered. “And by actual words. I get a headache every time I mind-speak, lately.”
“We all do. The Wicked Fae is on the move. This is why we need our High Seer back. Only she has shown resolve enough to face the Tide, for the past ten years. Could you know where she is?”
The Hunter and Sadja shared a look.
“Was this that Vestal person you told me about? The blonde?” Sadja asked.
“Do you think I can do anything to help finding her?”
“Your nose is only keen enough for sweets,” the Hunter replied patting her head. The girl leaned onto it.
“How did you find her?” Valeriana pondered. “Is she Fae-touched? Another strange tiding, for the townspeople to allow her in.”
“She has proven her worth,” Cloria replied before Sadja could. “As I did. I have a flamethrower now, would you believe it? Now, the Hunter hasn’t seen Mastra Verna in a long while and I have neither. If she went into the forest, she’s as good as dead. And maybe it’s the better of the fates she could ask for.”
“The High Seer has powers you can’t even begin to comprehend…”
“Please, can you think out of the box you call an Order, Valeriana?” Cloria stood up, pointing at her. “It’s always the same lines, rehearsed time and time again until they lose all meaning. You live your cozy life in Venexia, surrounded by kilometers of salty ocean and thick clouds. Have you even seen an Eerie? Do you know what they can do? Have you ever smelled their charred corpses? Because I do. I do every day. And I know that your entire Order could take a stroll ten meters out of that wall” she pointed at the city outskirts, “and not one in ten would return. One in twenty, this winter. If Verna went into the Old Country, you have to let her go.” She sat down again, fuming. “Is there anything else you would like to talk about?”
Silence tightened as a humming rope.
“Yes,” Valeriana said in the end. “I would like you to escort me to the Temple. We can talk along the way.”
Pic by Tr!KzZ