Their search, led by Lady Marike’s honed, gods-tuned instincts, brought them at last to the Tender Loin, their third tavern of the evening. It was a rough, rowdy place, a bar largely appropriated by a small mercenary group that operated out of this town. The soldiers and the women who followed them were loud and rude but also generally happy, and mostly ignored the cleric and her acolyte.
Lady Marike had been sober ever since the infamous Kaleedish djinn incident, three years prior, so Ernst handled the drinking for both of them. Her ale, purchased purely for appearances, sat on the table beside her sheathed sword. He nursed his second. He’d had four at the previous taverns and though he was a stout man, or at least stoutly mannish, it took all of his concentration to keep the room from spinning.
Lady Marike’s pale eyes, bright blue points that contrasted startlingly with her nearly black skin, roamed the busy tavern and studied its occupants. She was, as usual, composed and dignified in her hauberk. From under the chain, folded crisply, rose the collar of her station, intricately detailed with the runes of the goddess Mojca, patron of truthsayers and pessimists. The sides of her undercut mohawk had accumulated a bit more dark fuzz than she usually liked on their journey from the capital.
Someone or something was stalking this village, the name of which escaped Ernst at the moment. At least half a dozen young ladies had vanished in the past few months. The local constables, at their wits end since they normally had little to do aside from break up bar fights and chase off bandits, had pleaded for help from the Order. They were no closer to tracking the villain down than when they had first ridden into this town on exhausted, mud-spattered horses under the dawning sun. His armor itched, his beard itched. Ernst was weary, and hot, and at this point didn’t give a shit if they did find the culprit.
The Lady tapped her fingers on the simple wooden crossguard of her sword, gently calling his attention and abruptly ending an hour of silence. “He is here,” she said.
Ernst squinted at the crowd jostling around them. “How can you know?”
“He is stalking this place.” She jerked her chin, and a harried barmaid swept to a stop against their table. Ernst noted how the woman’s eyes flickered over Marike’s fine cheekbones, perhaps trying to ascertain how much flirtation would help her earn a better tip from a customer who wasn’t really even drinking.
Marike leaned forward, holding the barmaid with her eyes. “Is there a man here all in black, with black hair, pale skin. Likely drinking wine, seducing very pale, dark-haired women?”
Ernst grimaced and mumbled, “Offensive stereotype, m’lady.”
The barmaid nodded. “There’s the charmer back in the corner,” she said, pointing a thumb, “Been here every night for a month or so. Takes home a couple ladies a week, seems like. Can’t say I get it. Not my type.”
“My thanks,” Marike said, and she offered a coin, which the barmaid accepted with a smile and a wink. She swayed her hips as she pushed away through the crowd, casting another look over her shoulder at Marike as she went.
“How is it that always happens?” Ernst said with a wave of his hand. “She wouldn’t talk to me with five gold in my fist.”
“To business, Ernst,” Marike said, sliding her sword off the table as she stood. “Try not to grab any ass on the way.”
They pushed their way through the crowd and found themselves in the northwest corner of the common room. The furthest spot from the bar, the crowd was thin and the light dimmer here, the noise subdued. The tables were full of cloaked figures with hidden faces and darkened weapons.
One table stood out, however. A pale young man draped in black sat between a pair of giggling young women, laughing and gesturing wildly, in the midst of some tale. His angular face and narrow eyes swept over Ernst and Marike without losing the stride of his conversation with his guests. A nearly empty bottle of cheap wine sat on the table.
Ernst cleared his throat and said quietly, for his Lady only, “See, hair’s more of a midnight blue, m’lady.”
“Duly noted, Ernst,” she said. Marike rapped the pommel of her sword on the table, startling the women. They cried out and clung to the pale man. Ernst straightened and tried to look imposing, though he felt a bit wobbly on his feet.
The pale man was unmoved by the intrusion. He seemed unconcerned by the visitors, and in fact appeared to appreciate the way the young women pressed against him in fear. “Would you like to join us?” he asked, his voice smoother and deeper than Ernst expected.
“I am Marike, a Lady of Mojca,” Marike said. “I am here as a constable under the authority of the people of this great land to investigate a series of murders plaguing this village.”
The pale man did not wither the way suspects who’d earned Marike’s attention generally did. His smile was fixed as he carefully extracted himself from his companions and leaned forward, placing his hands on the table.
“That’s very dramatic, Marike, Lady of Mojca,” the pale man said. “I imagine if I knew anything about these…murders…I would be quite terrified of you.” Marike held his gaze.
Ernst focused on the man’s words, to let the truth or untruth of them be revealed. He’d been under Marike’s tutelage for almost five years, honing the instincts granted by their patron. He could generally tell, for example, when someone was cheating at cards, or giving a false identity. He sensed nothing out of place here, so either the man was an exceptionally good liar or Marike was wrong – something Ernst had never before witnessed. Ernst also considered the possibility that he was too drunk to properly exercise his training. In any event, he wasn’t too drunk or befuddled to see subtle cues in Marike’s body language, or the tension in her shoulders. She was convinced they’d found their beast.