Even after hours of staring at the Three Pillars, Tracey Vallorne wondered if perhaps she needed an attitude adjustment.
Tracey had never considered herself of a religious sort. She looked around at the congregation surrounding her, and wondered just what it was these people were feeling as they silently focused their attentions on the inanimate objects upon hill before them. She knew what she was feeling, and it wasn’t the holy spirit. Instead, she felt the sweat trickling down her back. The reddening of her fair skin in the cruel midday sun. The eyes of covetous men sneaking glances at her, momentarily safe from the reproving glares of their own wives. The mocking caws from a nearby cactus crow. The blinding glare reflecting from the viewing window of the nearby minster. For the life of her, Tracey couldn’t understand why a priest would voluntarily choose to hold such a long service outside, not two hundred feet away from the minster itself, exposed to the various elements and disruptions the desert was known for. Why even keep the building open if it wasn’t to be used? It seemed wasteful to her, perhaps even sacrilegious, considering the dearth of resources here in the wastes.
She sighed as the priest finally stood from his kneeling position and turned to address the gathering. Finally… The man stared out across the crowd, his one eye glittering in the sunlight. He had an eye patch covering his left eye, and even from this far back in the crowd Tracey could see the long ragged scar that traced that side of his face, an eerie echo to a similar disfigurement she possessed. Her mark wasn’t nearly as severe as the priest’s, though, as she still had the use of both eyes.
Eventually, the priest began to speak in a gravelly, booming voice that seemed as if it could carry for miles across the hardpan desolation. Tracey listened with half an ear as the man droned on about the fires that consumed much of Parthis the night before, and the people who’d had their souls stolen from them by these “flames of wicked genesis”. The man spoke with a definitive authority, one that the people responded to with quiet reverence. Eventually, he offered a final prayer to the Pillars, and sent the congregation their separate ways with his blessings. Most left, though a few lingered, seeking advice or some such from the priest as he stood at the foot of the hill. Tracey found her way to the edge of the small crowd around the priest. She waited with as much patience as she could muster as petty problem after petty problem was presented to the priest, each complaint dressed up in a cover of false piety. Tracey wondered how any of these people were able to function on their as adults. Were they all brought up needing their hands held through every point of strife? Finally, the last of them cleared off, leaving her alone with the priest. She stepped forward, drawing the priest’s singular gaze.
“Is there something you wish to ask of me, humble daughter?” He smiled thinly at her, the harsh lines on his face thrown in sharp relief by the unrelenting sunlight.
“Do you ever tire of having to listen to people’s endless problems?”
“They seek direction when they are lost. It is my duty and honor to provide them with any assistance I am able.”
“Truly?” She watched his face, looking for any indications of his true thoughts.
He looked away for a moment. A brief grimace touched his face. “There was a time when I was such as they. A man of many vices. As I was, I could have cared less for their troubles. A selfish life, devoid of virtue. One that offered no true satisfaction. Aside from my children, that is, lost to me now…”
She frowned. The report she’d been given hadn’t mentioned any children. She wondered how incomplete her information was… “Plague?”
“No. It makes no matter.” His eye returned to hers. “I digress. I see how frightened these people are, and I sympathize with them. I feel their fears as vividly as they. After all, I am only a man, however imperfectly I have lived my life.” His gaze hardened. “I wonder, does this bother you?”
She bristled. “Not in the least. But I’ve seen firsthand what fear does to people.”
He glanced at the scar on her cheek. “I believe you may have. But not everyone can be generalized so readily.” He paused. “Perhaps you simply need an attitude adjustment?”
“You have no idea.”
“I am sure I do not. So, what is it I can do for you? Surely, you haven’t come here simply to idly palaver over the motivations of lower humanity.”
She measured the distance between her and the priest before answering. “Not exactly. Though, it is lower humanity that brings me here. I’m here for you…” It was her turn to pause. “Malcolm.”
Tracey watched as the priest’s smile disappeared. His entire demeanor shifted, and she felt a twinge of apprehension at the malice she now felt emanating from the false priest. He seemed to grow in size, his single eye becoming a pale blue portal into a soul as scarred as the face that housed it. And then, as quickly as it was there, the threat was gone. The old man visibly sagged.
“I don’t know how you came to know that name, but it belongs to someone that no longer exists. I ask you to leave me in peace, please.”
Seeing the man standing before her, she doubted that Malcolm had ever truly gone away. Her hand inched down to her belt, ready to flip her coat to the side and pull on the priest if necessary. With her other hand she made an exaggerated gesture in the air as she answered him, hoping to distract his attention if it came down to violence, “I appreciate the offer. Allow me to make a counter offer: you come with me, nice and quiet-like, north a ways to Telujha.”
“Telujha? And who, may I ask, in Telujha have I offended in some past life enough for him to send a bounty killer after me?” He said ‘bounty killer’ with an air of disgust.
Tracey could have gone on at length about how hypocritical it was for a criminal, former or otherwise, to look down on her career choice. Bounty killing was sanctioned, or at least tolerated, by the various peoples of the Expanse. She chose to let his slight go. He was probably just trying to keep her off balance. “Not him. Her.”
His eyebrow arched and he chuckled. A brief flash of the old Malcolm returned. “Her, huh? So, Dal Magris finally made good on her threat. Took her long enough. Just like a woman to keep a guy waiting till his hair goes gray.”
“Perhaps she was simply waiting for you to drop your guard.”
“Crafty.” Malcolm’s hand was working its way behind his back.
Tracey’s revolver was in her hand, as if it had jumped there of its own accord. She tutted the old man, who froze in place. “Let’s not do anything ornery here, pal. Dal Magris never specified dead or alive.” Actually, Dal Magris specifically wanted him alive. Malcolm didn’t need to know this, however. “Hands up.”
The old man complied. “Knowing her reputation, I’m inclined to think you may be lying about that.”
“Are you willing to bet on that?” She hefted the revolver a bit, emphasizing her position on the subject.
“Do you really think this is the first time I’ve stared down the silver?”
She sneered, her scar cruelly twisting her face. “Do you really think this is the first time I’ve pointed the silver at someone?” She held his gaze, never blinking.
“How would it benefit me to come with you? Either I draw on you and die here, or Dal Magris has her way and I die in her possession. Neither choice is very appealing, you understand.”
“If you come with me, who knows, you may catch me off guard and make good with another escape.”
The old priest appeared to consider this. “I don’t want to die. Maybe I’ll hide a little further away, next time. Cirillian, perhaps.”
Tracey found it hard to picture this grizzled one-eyed man in a laid-back, tropical setting. She doubted the people of Cirillian would appreciate his presence, either. “I’ll take that as a tacit agreement to my terms. Drop whatever it was you were sidling your hand toward to the ground and step away. Now.”
“As you say.” A small container plunked to the ground and he stepped aside. She couldn’t make out its contents from where she stood. “Medicine. I take it when needed.”
“And you need it now, with a gun pointed at your head?”
She saw his hands trembling. He noticed it himself and smiled apologetically. “Stress tends to make it worse.”
Tracey couldn’t tell if he was being truthful or not. Either he was an old man with an affliction that required medicine, or he was nervously trying talk her into letting him poison himself. She decided to play it safe. She unhooked a pair of handcuffs from her belt and tossed them to the ground in front of Malcolm. “Put ‘em on. I’ll think about your medicine while we travel.”
“You are more merciful than your reputation led me to expect, miss Vallorne.”
She grinned humorlessly. With his background, she wasn’t surprised he had guessed who she was. “Then you don’t know me very well, at all.” She gestured with her drawn gun. “Now get walking.”