It took me a second to recover, and I cleared my throat to banish the awkward silence. “All right then, miss, please state your name for the record.” I sat down at the table, laid a clean sheet of paper in front of me, opened the inkwell, and dipped my pen in it while I waited for her to speak. Her voice sounded like honey mixed with some cayenne, sweet with some spice and heat to it. There was a certain part of me that was reacting to how she looked and how she spoke, and I prayed to whatever God was listening that sitting here would help hide it.
To be fair, it’s not my fault that the certain part of me was reacting that way. The half-Orc was wearing a buttoned up gray blouse, undone enough to show off a generous expanse of cleavage. Just like the older woman, she too was wearing a floor length skirt, but this one was white and the way she was standing now, the light in the room made it appear sheer and see-through. Dark snakeskin boots laced up most of her calf, and the matching belt only accentuated her delicious curves. So you see, totally not my fault that I practically started drooling over her.
“It’s Ivana Ruustrok, do you need me to spell my surname out?” she asked, voice as sweet as can be. I waved my hand at her while I dipped the pen into the well and wrote it out. While I may not have spoken my mother’s language much in the last few years, I still remembered most of it, including the spelling. “Oh, and one more thing before I go wasting my time giving you my statement. Do you really care, Detective? Do you honestly give two shits about what happened to a bunch of Ronan?” There was the cayenne, and glancing up at her I could see her nostrils flaring and her eyes wide with self-righteousness and fury.
Normally, I would either ignore an outburst like that (people always assume that if the investigation is taking a long time, it’s because we don’t care about it) or I would treat the witness as hostile and respond accordingly (like grabbing their head and slamming it down against the table), but I knew neither response would be appropriate. Instead, I simply finished writing out her name and put the pen down on the table before giving her my full attention. “And why would you say that, Miss Ruustrok?” I said, calm as could be.
That took her aback. “Because you people think we are trash, thieves!”
“Really? And by ‘you people’ are you referring to the police, the residents of Aerendor, males, half-Orcs? Just what exactly do you mean?” I knew she was trying to get me to unleash my temper, but I was as cool as a cucumber. That would just be giving her what she wanted, and I wasn’t about to do that. A small part of me whispered that there was something I really wanted to give her. I stomped on that voice until it went back into hiding. Not the time nor place.
She was getting flustered, which meant I had her off-balance. One of the keys to diffusing a hostile situation is to get the people the angriest off-balance, so they are easier to calm down and manipulate. “I meant the police, AND the city of Aerendor. I have nothing against men, and why would I hate my own kind?” That small part of me hoped that she wasn’t a lesbian; I could almost feel it rubbing its hands together gleefully. This time, I threw it into a dark room and locked the door and threw away the key…as it were.
“You wouldn’t be the first person I’d seen who hated their own people. It happens more often than you’d think. Just didn’t want to assume anything. After all, when you assume, you make an ass out of you and me, and I rather not be an ass.” That really lit her up, and I could see her temper chomping at the bit, ready to be unbound. She took a deep breath and opened up her mouth to speak, probably about to give me a major tongue-leashing. Both the small part of me and I chortled at the image that conjured up in my head.
“Enough, Ivana. Let the Detective do his job.” The older woman spoke up, softly but firmly, laying her hand on Ivana’s arm in a placating gesture. “Come, please sit down next to me. Keep an old woman company.”
“Yes, mother,” Ivana answered meekly, going around the table and taking the empty seat next to the older woman. I could have been knocked over with a feather at that point.
“Are you her…?” I started to ask the older woman, and she interrupted me with a small chuckle.
“It’s more of a term of respect, a spiritual title if you will, Detective,” she said with a wide smile. I had met people who smoked too many cigars, and her voice had that same rasp, though her teeth weren’t stained yellow from excessive tobacco so it must have been natural. “My name is Madam Darya, or if you like you may call me ‘mother’ as well. I will not be offended.” Her eyes twinkled when she smiled.
It was very difficult to smile back. “With all due respect, Madam Darya, the only person I’ve ever called ‘mother’ died 8 Cycles ago, and I won’t dishonor her memory by using that title for anyone else.” I could see Ivana bristling, but the older woman laid her hand on her arm and she subsided…for the moment. If there was ever anyone that looked like they wanted to leap over the table and throttle me, it was the beautiful half-Orc that I seemed to offend by just being alive and breathing. Huh, that sounds like most of my ex-girlfriends and lovers, to be honest.
“That’s quite all right, Detective, no offense taken,” Madam Darya assured me. “Where would you like me to begin?”
Ivana leaned over and whispered into Darya’s ear, speaking Ronan. I didn’t let on that I understood every word she said. “This is a waste of time, mother. He’s not going to believe you, none of them do! We should just leave this Gods-forsaken place before anyone accuses our people of stealing their pocket watch or some such bullshit and has a mob come to lynch us!”
“Language, Ivana,” Darya admonished the younger woman. “And I know that someone here will believe us, and not only that, helps us out. The cards have told me so.”
Throwing her hands into the air, Ivana began talking quite rapidly. “The cards, the cards! That’s all I’ve heard about these last two days ever since you woke us all up with your prophetic dream! More like a nightmare if you ask me. We left most of the caravan behind to travel here, and for what? To tell our story to those who despise and ridicule us, like this dvor sitting down at this table?” She said this while gesturing to me like she was throwing something away. I don’t think anyone has ever called me a ‘piece of shit’ in Orcish before, and quite frankly I didn’t like it. But, since I wasn’t ready to reveal I could understand them just yet, I did my best to contain my irritation and to keep waiting ‘patiently’ for them to finish speaking Ronanese.
“I didn’t force you to believe me, child, you did that on your own. And, I heard a couple of the police talking; it seems that after we left the main caravan, they stopped in the village of Aerdale –even though I warned them not to- and they were slaughtered. All of them, every man, woman and child. Still mad that I ‘forced’ you to heed my warning?” Darya said drily, and I watched as something I wouldn’t have predicted happened: Ivana started to weep.
Now, I wouldn’t say that I’m even close to what is referred to as a ‘gentleman’ but even I can’t stand to see a woman cry. Pulling out my pocket handkerchief I handed it to her. Even though she looked like she wanted to refuse it out of spite, Ivana grudgingly took it from me and used it to wipe away her tears and to clear her nose. When she tried to hand it back to me, I smiled and gestured that she should keep it. Thankfully, you didn’t have to speak another language to know when someone is upset, so they still weren’t onto me.
“Gods above, I just wish that I could have convinced them to come with us! But you know…I mean, knew how Anya was, she was so damn stubborn! Always clashing with me, just to show that she wouldn’t let her half-sister push her around.” I suspected that, potentially, Natalya could be Ivana’s niece, which was a very interesting piece of news. As much as I loathed admitting it, even to myself, Chief Copperbeard was right. Holding onto news that one person survived –especially a close family member- was an ace up the sleeve, as it were.
“You should not speak ill of the dead, daughter. It behooves you to talk of them with respect; that way, on their journey back to the land of the living, they don’t encounter your negativity and have it affect what kind of life they will be born into.” This was the first I had heard of the Ronan’s spiritual practices, and the researcher in me was fascinated. “Instead, think of the love and the good times you shared together. Those memories will light their way to eventually return to us.”
“I will try, mother,” Ivana sniffed, holding back her tears.
“Good. Now, if you are finished being rude in front of the Detective, maybe we should switch back to speaking Common, so he doesn’t have to keep relying on a translation spell, if I’m not mistaken.” Madam Darya turned to me as she spoke this, and I gave a guilty start as if I had been caught being a peeping Tom. A flush infused my cheeks, but it was nothing compared to the flush that was creeping up over all of Ivana’s face. “You are a caster, correct?” Darya asked, still speaking Ronanese. I chose to answer her the same way.
“Yes, Madam Darya, I am. And I apologize for the deception, but my superiors felt it would be best to make sure that you all weren’t keeping anything back from us. All of the station members doing the interviews with the rest of your caravan are casters as well. They were using the translation spells to help your people feel more comfortable.”
While Ivana glowered at me, Madam Darya just let out a throaty laugh. “Well, it’s my own fault. I should have expected they would send in a caster; I just didn’t recognize that you were one, dressed up as you were. Your tradition doesn’t seem that familiar to me, I can’t place what it is…” The older woman tapped her forefinger against her lips as she peered off into space, seemingly deep in thought.
“You are a coward, spying on a private conversation!” Ivana hissed at me. “You should be ashamed, but I can tell that what we Ronan know of the citizens of this ‘great city’ is true: you are all a bunch of liars, degenerates, and thieves!” She sniffed haughtily after saying that.
It was getting harder and harder to hold onto my temper. Ignoring Madam Darya for a moment, I leaned forward and practically growled at Ivana. “Listen, missy, you best watch your tone with me! I’m one of the ones who is arguing for your people, saying that those rumors about you aren’t true and that we have a moral obligation to help you out! But, by all means, let’s focus on my listening in on you instead of trying to figure out what killed those Ronan and how we can stop him in the future!”
She had edged back from me during my little tirade, but after I had finished I could see her winding herself up to unleash her fury on me. Normally, I respect a woman who has an iron backbone and takes no shit from anyone; right now, it was just making me madder. But, before Ivana could erupt, Madam Darya spoke up. “Oh, we don’t have time for your mating dance right now, children.”
“What?!” we both spoke up as we turned towards the older woman.
Winking at us both, she just smiled. “I can recognize passion and fire when I see it. Either you two will share a love that they will write epic poems about….or you will tear each other to pieces in a vicious display that will live in infamy. It could go either way.”
“Mother, you can’t be serious! He’s rude, sneaky, egotistical…” Ivana said.
“No offense to you, Madam Darya, but you couldn’t be more wrong about this bull-headed, opinionated, offensive…” I interjected at the same time.
Through it all, the older woman just sat there and smiled at both of us, until finally we both sputtered out and fell silent. “I’m glad to see that you are finally done protesting, since the more you protest the more it seems that I’m right.” That got both of us to press our lips tightly together and cross our arms over our chest. Madam Darya threw back her head and roared with laughter, which didn’t help either of us feel more comfortable. Of course, I’m sure the older woman knew that and probably didn’t care one bit.
Finally, after she had seemingly laughed herself hoarse, Madam Darya took one of her many scarves and dried her eyes. Still chuckling weakly to herself, she turned to face me. “Now, if we are all done with this foolishness, I think you need to tell me about the Ronan that you found killed up in Aerdale and the creature that the Chief said you fought off.”
“And what good would that do, Madam Darya?” I asked her, puzzled.
Giving me a bittersweet smile, she simply said, “Because I think I know what this ‘bad man’ that you listed in your report is after and why. Because I know that alone, the Ronan do not possess the skills necessary to defeat him. And lastly, because I believe I know why he’s doing all of this, Detective. So, would you like to fill in the gaps in my knowledge? The cards can only tell me so much, after all.”
Leaning back in my chair, I studied the older woman, trying to decide if I was being played for a fool or if I could trust her. She seemed to welcome my scrutiny, not withering under it like most criminals would do if they were running some kind of scam. Ultimately, it came down to my intuition, and my gut was telling me that I could at least trust her with this. Sighing, I spoke up. “You might as well get comfortable, ladies; this is quite a story to tell.”
And then, I launched into my tale, sparing no detail from any of it…except for the existence of the lone survivor, Natalya. Ladies though they might be, they had said they wanted to know what had happened to their kin, and so I told them everything. It’s what I would have wanted, and I respected them for it. Even Ivana, although that was begrudgingly. Throughout it all, even when they gasped out in shock or had to take a break because tears had started to fall from their eyes, they never asked me to cease.
After I was done, Madam Darya once more dried her eyes with one of her scarves before speaking up. “Thank you, Detective, for letting us know. And now, it is my turn to fill in the gaps of your missing knowledge. Maybe, it will do us all some good.”