“Where did you learn to play?” Kent ‘the Bard’ Wheelock asked the old woman sitting across from him.
She looked up slyly, a slight smile slipping along her lips. “One does not become Archeireus et Celatrix Ministrae without learning a number of strategy games.”
“Don’t become the Bard without it neither,” he muttered.
Sizing him up, her grin faded, “oh, I do say.” She nodded sympathetically as she pushed her queen-side bishop into play.
“A little premature, no?” he asked as he threatened the bishop with a pawn.
“Always test your opponents defensive positions,” she withdrew the bishop diagonally one square.
“Why waste time? When you just back off?” Kent asked.
“‘Sometimes you must take two steps back in order to take a single step forward,’ to quote a mentor.”
His mouth dropped, and a disbelieving chuckle shook his upper body, “that doesn’t make any sense. You always take two steps back for one step forward, you go backwards.”
Wisely, Celatrix Verna met Kent’s gaze and nodded. She slowly blinked her eyes as her smile quickly grew, and then disappeared. Removing his knight from the board with her bishop, she asked, “always?” as she basked in the glory of his confusion.
Unable to fully look her in the eyes, he caught glimpses of her between long moments of studying the chess board. He tentatively reached toward a pawn, changed the angle of his view, and then withdrew his hand. Shaking his head, he grabbed his other knight and relocated it away from her other bishop.
Digging around in his bag, the Inquisitor removed a slender black protective case. Unzipping it, he took out a needle and a light brown bottle. Jougs and Vorant stood on either side of him, watching as he methodically unscrewed the cap, slid the needle through the thin plastic membrane, and then half-filled the barrel with a clear liquid. He set the bottle on the table. After tapping the needle, he stepped around Jougs, saying, “this will not hurt.” When the security guard realized he was coming to her, she began struggling in her chair. The Inquisitor stepped in front of her, ordering, “stop.” At the sound of his voice, she froze before involuntarily shuddering and shrinking into the cold metal chair. He pulled her arm up, practically dislocating her elbow. She whimpered. He smiled. She ground her teeth at the sudden jab. “Goodnight,” he whispered as he dropped her elbow. Caressing her shoulder, he added, “sleep tight.”
Eyes agape, Jougs watched the exchange. To Vorant, he mouthed, “who is this broad?” Vorant raised an eyebrow and quickly dropped it.
Silently observing the woman drift off, the Inquisitor still had his back to Jougs. He slammed his left elbow into Jougs’ chin while spinning around to grab him by the back of the head which was then promptly shoved into the table. Taking a quick step backwards, the Inquisitor bent over Jougs’ ear, and growled, “as you can plainly see, she is my prisoner.”
Going completely loose as the double impact rolled through his already tender jaw, Jougs threw up his hands, and with his face all smashed into the table, he mumbled, “okay, Boss. Okay.”
Supplying a bit more pressure, the Inquisitor grunted, before releasing Jougs. He walked around to the opposite side of the table, power staring at the die-hard murderer who refused to look at him. In disappointment, he shook his head. Tapping the map, the Inquisitor said, “these three walls. No problem. This one,” he moved his finger further into the tunnel system, “absolute quiet.” The duumviri stared at the small line indicating the tunnel opening. “40 yards. Give or take. Up a ladder-well, into the laundry room, and then down this corridor. As you can see, the ground we have to cover is inconsequential. Need I mention Baroport?” He paused a moment, gauging the duo, then he added, “from here, caution and direct action. We get in, them, out, and gone.”
“Won’t he be under additional guard?” Vorant asked.
“That is the assumption.”
“Oh. Okay,” Vorant replied.
“What?” the Inquisitor asked.
“Three of us against, the guards of Raven’s Drop?”
“Do you think three is too many?”
Jougs instantly stepped back from the table, “they’ll never have a chance, Boss.”
The fork scraped across the bottom of the cast iron skillet, churning roots as does the plow. The Chief Justice set the fork on a saucer, grabbed a shaker of her dried garden herbs and salt, and heavily sprinkled it over the skillet. She then changed spice for spatula and vigorously chopped at the chunks. The dried garlic and onion began their tantalizing race out of the skillet and throughout the kitchen. In the threshold between the kitchen and the dining room, Ensign Osborn leaned against a cabinet wall and listened to her excitedly explain, “the garlic has to turn a light brown, just enough to know the edges have been seared. Then, add the butter and onions. Turn up the heat, stir, and brown the onions. Ooh! So good. Really seasons the pan, too. I’ll pour it all into another dish, let it sit, marinating in its own juices as I do up the ‘tatoes.” She stopped chattering for a moment, turning away from the stove, “you got quiet.”
“All the tantalizing aromas,” Osborne assured her.
“Ah,” she nodded knowingly, before returning her attention to the skillet. “On the days when I’m not feeling like plain old country potatoes, I add some boiling hot water and cook it down to make it a little saucy,” she giggled. “As a child, I fancied myself a wizard with a magic wand,” she gave the spatula a slight wave over the pan, “I pronounce you, ‘Dinner.’” Dishing up two plates, Moira carried her victory meal to Osborne, ordering, “set these on the table.”
When he returned from the dining room, the ensign found Moira once again preoccupied with the top of the stove. “What are you cooking now?” he asked.
“What I should have cooked first,” she groaned. “The meat.”
“Mmm. What kind of meat?” he said half-peeking around her shoulders.
“Steak, young man. We’re celebrating,” she answered.
“And, will there be alcohol at this celebration?” a deep voice asked from behind Osborne who froze at the sound.
“None for me, thank you,” Moira chirped.
“A very sobering party it will be,” Colonel Gawain Dagon stated. “At ease, Ensign.”
Osborne’s shoulders dropped a fraction of an inch as he turned to look at the highest ranking officer in Mercury’s Elite Guard. I’m in so much trouble, he thought. Why is he smiling? It’s so creepy. Turning back to the Chief Justice, the ensign asked Dagon, “shall I leave?”
“Not necessary,” Moira assured them. She handed Osborne a two additional plates, “if this young man is to spy on me, he’ll do it from my elbow.”
For a moment, Ensign Osborne grinned. Three steaks and an extra plate. She’s good. Then, he remembered the Colonel.
“I prefer to think of it as protecting the realm,” Dagon answered.
“Oh. I see. A protector, then?” Moira actually laughed.
Dagon nodded. “Speaking of protectors,” he began, “as Chief Justice, you have a duty to protect the citizens of Poterit Don.”
“Oh, Gae. Please don’t presume to pump me up with speeches of duty, honor, commitment. I don’t rally. I’m not one of your,” she nodded at Osborne who missed the gesture, “soldiers.”
“Let me speak, Moira,” he urged. “We’ve been infiltrated. Adonis did not do this alone. He hired out the dirty work. He knows all the players. We need him alive for as long as it takes to milk him.”
“You want me to delay justice?”
“Yes,” Dagon answered.
“Justice be damned?”
Dagon shook his head, “no, Moira. Justice be thorough, patient, and proactive.”
“Yes,” he replied. “You must fill two vacancies. Postpone all cases until those vacancies are filled.”
“Do you have any idea of the backlog we’re already under?” she gasped.
“Yes,” he smiled, “and when the freeze is lifted, it will be necessary to see to those oldest cases first.”
Sitting down at her dinner table, Moira waved her nose across her plate, inhaling deeply. She whispered, “delicious,” looked up at Dagon, and said, “of course, it is always necessary to address cases in the order in which they were filed. Pass the coffee, Ensign.” She nodded to the tan thermal carafe in the center of the table.
“When did you make coffee,” Osborne asked.
“This is the best place in Ambrosia to watch the fog roll in,” 1st Lieutenant Juan Pedro Ramon Garcia Santos explained to the exceedingly tall woman sitting next to him on the highest roof ridge of the Templus de Ambros.
“And, then, what? Sit out here covered in fog?” she stood up, towering over him. “Perhaps, we get closer to the exit.”
He patted the roof, “sit. Trust me.”
Against her better judgment, she sat down.
“Two search lights will chase each other across the sky.” Staring out into the dim purple night, he lit up briefly, then pushed the memory away. “Bet me which will turn on first.”
“You’re crazy,” she asserted. “You want to sit on a roof in fog gambling over lights?”
“Well, when you put it that way,” he chuckled, “yeah.”
“Um. Okay,” she caved.
“What are my options?”
He grinned, answering, “left or right.”
She glared at him, “yes. I’m sure.”
“Okay,” he confirmed. Meeting her eyes for a split second, he nodded, and then returned to staring off the roof.
“You’re an odd little man,” she stated. They sat silently, each lost wandering their own paths through the grey-white wisps rolling off the mountains. “How long does it last?” she asked.
“Differs.” The moist tendrils wrapped themselves around the base of buildings, tickling the streets along the east-west axis. Though watching the process, one never saw the movement. It creeps. Building as it goes, Santos latched on to the thought. A powerful reminder that progress is made over time. Look at her, he chanced a glance, not two weeks ago...he squashed the laughter before it did more than simply twinkle in his eye. “I’ve seen it both fly through and linger.”
Opening the Interrogation Room door, Jougs stopped.“You’re all naked,” he blurted out.
“Master of the Obvious, eh?”
With a glee born of a man tired of holding back, Jougs laid into the nude man who flew into the opposite wall of the concrete hallway.
“Who?” the Inquisitor asked.
“I dunno. Dude, ain’t wearing clothes,” Jougs responded.
Commander Samuel Felis shook his head and pushed himself up from the cold concrete. “Bad idea,” Felis warned.
Grabbing him by an arm, Jougs yanked Felis up, and led him into the Interrogation Room. “Son of a bitch was in the hall,” he said as he shoved Felis toward the Inquisitor.
“Tie him up,” the Inquisitor ordered.
“Sleeping beauty?” Jougs asked.
Wrinkling his face, the Inquisitor answered, “dump her on the floor.” He pulled a small kit out of his bag, untied it, and chose a knife, saying, “I only have five questions for you. I don’t like to repeat myself.”