Hollowcrest calmly steepled his fingers and tapped them against his chin, regarding the captain silently. The man stood in the peculiar stance somewhere between at-ease and attention that meant that he was expecting to be disciplined for something and the stretching silence was sure to draw it from him. In the mean time, he kept his gaze steady and bland while the officer sweated heavily and stared at a point on the wall.
Finally the silence worked its - ha - magic and Captain Hergcrest blurted, "Sir, the girl is gone."
She'd been gone some two weeks if his informants were correct, although they couldn't tell him how. One evening she was there and the next morning she was not. That irked Hollowcrest, and he was not a good person to irk.
"I believe, captain," he said, leaning back in his chair and never taking his eyes off the heavyset man, "that I put the girl in your care."
"Yes, sir," the other man replied.
"And that, captain, makes her disappearance your responsibility." His voice was even and almost friendly.
"Where did she go, captain?"
Hergcrest swallowed. "Unknown, sir. I have been making inquiries and-"
"Is that why it has taken you two weeks to report this to me?" He watched the terror double in Hergcrest's eyes and resisted the smile that tried to curve his mouth.
"Yes, sir," Hergcrest started. "I did not want to report the incident without information on what had happened." He was speaking rapidly now, as if he expected someone to step out of the shadows and drive a dagger into his heart.
Hollowcrest almost did smile then. What the captain feared wasn't far from the truth. Sicarius lurked nearby, ready to follow the captain and end his miserable incompetent life.
"And what were you able to find?" Hollowcrest quirked an eyebrow.
Hergcrest stood a little straighter, as if his next words had a chance to salvage the meeting. "One of my men was able to locate a woman from the kitchens. It took some, er, incentive but she was able to provide some information." The man paused, seemingly uncertain of his next words.
"Yes, captain?" Hollowcrest prompted.
"She informed my man that some weeks before the shaman girl's disappearance that wretched- er, boy Sicarius was seen in the kitchens. It seems the girl was observed, er, sleeping on him. She thinks he may have had something to do with the girl's disappearance."
Hollowcrest narrowed his eyes. That did not sound like something Sicarius would do. "And the woman? Is she reliable?"
"The woman stated there was one other who could corroborate her statements. The head cook, Goytha Bern."
Hollowcrest thinned his lips and the captain shifted nervously. "You are dismissed, captain."
Hergcrest looked startled, as if he was unsure he'd heard what was said and Hollowcrest snapped irritably. "Dismissed, captain!"
The other man turned smartly on his heel and left the office. Sicarius would deal with him shortly. And then Hollowcrest would deal with Sicarius.
He scrubbed his face tiredly. Since the boy's outright insubordination a few years ago, he'd wondered if he had as much control of Sicarius as he thought. Could it be this was another Starcrest incident? There was only one way to find out. Summoning one of the messenger boys, he sent for Goytha.
It wasn't long before she swept into his office bearing a tray of tea and a small selection of sweets, including the cookies only she could make. She'd changed a lot in the decades he'd known her, exchanging the smooth skin of youth for the wrinkles of old age, but the merry air about her had never altered. Goytha always appeared to be laughing to herself at something, and for a moment he felt as lighthearted as he had when they'd first met, he a fresh faced officer just starting his career and she already head cook of the Imperial Barracks.
She expertly moved some papers aside and settled the tray, fixing up the tea the way he preferred. "Well, Hollow?" she asked with a raised eyebrow and a sidelong glance as she added cream to her cup. "You send young Kerst after me as if all his angry ancestors were chasing him and now you have nothing to say?"
"I did no such thing, Goytha," he replied, accepting the cup she held out to him.
"Yes," she agreed, settling in a chair across from him with her own cup with an unreadable expression on her face. "The lads are all afraid of you, the mighty Commander of the Armies. Scared you'll sic young Sicarius on them if they don't scurry along fast as you please."
Hollowcrest sighed, already seeing where this was going. "He is not why I sent for you, Goytha."
Thunderclouds gathered in her eyes and she set her cup down on the desk with a bang. "I'll not see you and not bring him up, Hollow. That boy-"
He cut her off sharply. "Where did he take the girl, Goytha?"
He watched her face settle into the blank mask of an expert liar and she said evenly, "I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about."
"Is she still alive?" he persisted. "She is a valuable asset to the empire and-"
The woman threw up her hands. "I cannot believe you!" she shouted. "That is a child you are talking about and all you can think of is how you can use her to further your own schemes."
"Then she is still alive," he concluded, leaning back and watching her as she calmed herself, smoothing nonexistent wrinkles from her dress.
"She is none of your concern. Best you consider her out of your reach and leave it at that. And you know Sicarius had nothing to do with it, Hollow. Despite my best efforts, you've expertly ruined that lad. I'm not sure he has it in him to be so kind as to remove that girl from this wretched place, even if I asked him." She gave him a displeased look as he opened him mouth. "And no, I did not. I couldn't bring myself to ask him to do something I knew could get him killed." Her face hardened and he knew she was referring to the boy's punishment after the Starcrest fiasco. Or perhaps all the missions he was sent on.
Goytha shook her head sadly, and she suddenly looked much older. "I beg your leave, Commander," she said, standing up and collecting the dishes on the tray. "I have duties in the kitchen I must urgently attend to."
She looked at him expectantly holding the heavy tray and he realized she wanted him to dismiss her like a servant. He felt that like a kick to the ribs; Goytha had always been more friend than subordinate even when she was angry with him about Sicarius. He warred with himself a moment, and then nodded. "You are dismissed, Miss Bern, with my thanks."
She swept out of the room without another word, and she seemed to take some of the light with her. He sat in silence in the inexplicably gloomy office until he noticed Sicarius standing in the center of the room, arms clasped behind his back. The boy looked at him with the steady, unnerving gaze he'd been taught and Hollowcrest forced himself to focus on the matter at hand.
"Hergcrest?" he asked, already knowing the answer. Sicarius never returned without the task completed.
"Disposed of," came the clipped reply.
"And the girl?" Hollowcrest watched Sicarius very closely, but there was nothing telling in the blank face or relaxed body. Perhaps he'd schooled the boy too well.
"I do not know what girl you are speaking of," Sicarius replied, his stare unwavering.
"The shaman's girl that disappeared from the kitchen two weeks ago. A kitchen worker reported seeing this girl using you as a pillow." He watched intently for a reaction, but there was still no indication of any guilt, just a cool wall of disinterest.
A slow, unconcerned blink. "I have not been to the kitchens since my last mission."
"Are you saying the woman was lying?" Hollowcrest asked the question, but he knew anything further would be fruitless. There was nothing supporting the boy's involvement other than the statement from a woman who quite possibly said it to stop the interrogation.
Sicarius echoed his thoughts. "People will say many things to avoid torture. I would not allow anyone to use me as a pillow."
"Very well," Hollowcrest stood and walked to the window, staring out at the night sky. "I agree; the idea of such a thing is preposterous and the woman will be dealt with. You are dismissed."
He knew when Sicarius was gone because the room felt emptier. Hollowcrest stared out the window, left alone with his thoughts.
In the dead of night Vera jerked awake. For a bleary moment, she didn't know what had awakened her but a feeling of dread descended on her. She peered around the tiny shabby room and her stomach dropped when she saw the black clad figure standing at the foot of her bed.
She didn't even feel the pain.