The room was mostly dark, but for the red light shining around the edges of the blinds. It wasn't much to speak of, meeting the bare necessities of a hotel room, with one ratty bed, one well-worn dresser with an oil lamp perched on it, and a spindly-legged vanity. The light outside never quite went out, but it was pulsing and each pulse was reflected in the greasy mirror.
Two bodies were entwined in the bedding, limbs tangled together intimately. Murmuring, the man leaned in closer, letting his heated breath play along the woman's throat before he gently bit down on her earlobe, eliciting a sleepy groan, sensually arching her body back against her. Rather than persist, however, the man threw the sheets back and turned, sitting up. He dragged the covers back over the woman, even tucking them under her shoulder. With another sleepy murmur, she turned further away while he sat up, feet on the ground, staring blankly at the wall.
The pulsing red light reflected against the multitude of feathers standing out in disarray. Finally, he leaned over, fumbling blindly for the oil lamp. Snagging it, he carried it over to the vanity, sitting in the creaking chair there. His long white coat was draped over the back of it already, the bottom spread over the floor.
With a little more fumbling, a flame appeared and then the oil lamp began flickering dimly. Naevius sat there in the too-small chair, staring into the mirror at himself, eyes bloodshot, skin greasy and feathers oily, and cracked a wan smile, showing off sharp teeth. The woman shifted, turning away from the light, but he paid her little mind, that appetite already slaked.
Naevius reached into his lab coat, finding first the remains of a chocolate torte, wrapped in a napkin. He bit into the cake, and the tingling of sugar on his tongue roused him fully awake. Next, his fingers sought and found a folder rolled up and stuffed deep in a hidden pocket. Pleasantly surprised, he pulled it free then licked his lips and then opened the folder, leaning in close over the papers contained therein.
They were old, much older than the middle-aged enlil and probably older than the shabby building he sat in now. Still, they were written in a flowing, well-practiced hand and Naevius had no trouble whatsoever in reading the many ingredients laid out in front of him. That's all it amounted to in fact: ingredients, grouped first by type and then ordered by where they would be prepared in the recipe. One hundred twenty-five ingredients, a thrice-holy number, five prayers for five saints for each of the five Vis.
Naevius had hoped, but not expected, that Kincaid would be able to recover the entire recipe, but it seemed that there was still work to be done. The thief's performance had been everything he could have hoped for, and Naevius himself had the perfect alibi, lying here in Selene's arms. He had no idea when the man had managed to sneak the folder into his coat, as they had agreed. Naevius was notoriously wary, even paranoid, and people like Kincaid were exactly why.
On a clean sheet of paper, in his own cramped, nearly-illegible handwriting, the chemist began rewriting and encrypting the list, using modern names for the many herbs, fruits, vegetables, and decoctions. The conversions from the old names came easily, as did the cipher he had grown familiar with. The original documents covered three pages in beautiful script; Naevius' transcription fit into one cramped block on a single page.
"It's cold," Selene called from the bed, complaining and yet suggestive.
The enlil smiled, knowing she was hoping for more coins. "I have to go," he explained, "but I will see you again." Putting the finishing touches on his transcription, he folded up the sheet and slid it into a different pocket than before. The folder was rolled back up and returned to the original pocket. Crunching down the rest of the torte, Naevius reached for his pants.
Selene was sitting up in the bed, lamplight playing over her abundant curves. She smiling knowingly at him and beckoned with a finger even as Naevius slid one leg into the slacks. "Come back to bed," she begged, voice sultry. "I'll fix you breakfast in the morning."
The woman knew him well. He started to turn her down, but she followed with, "Lani' cheese saltenas with raspberries." She licked her lips and whispered, "Cappuccino e cornetto."
Damn did she know him.
Naevius didn't offer an answer, but he dropped the pants back to the floor and returned into her arms.
His appetite had returned in full.
The next few days passed slowly. Even a visit from the blues seemed over and done with too quickly. He had prepared the perfect alibi, with Selene and the proprietress as witnesses, but the guards didn't even press for details when he said he was at home the night of the theft.
At least it was a pleasant alibi to create, he told himself.
Finally, though, he looked up to see a familiar leovem circling overhead. "Well, well," Naevius murmured to himself, rubbing his talons together. There was no rush in his step as he made himself modestly presentable, a conscious brake on his every move. He ate lunch at a languid pace, pausing to wipe his teeth on a napkin every few bites.
Silently, he cursed himself for being so lazy before. Always before he had visited the monastery in the late afternoon. Any break in routine could draw suspicion. It was already hard enough to keep from smiling and laughing as each moment pulled him closer to his ultimate goal.
In the end, he relented, grinning broadly for all the world to see as he walked the streets of Terminus, heading toward the temple of St. Juno. He was more than an hour ahead of his usual schedule, but it no longer mattered. The alibi with Selene absolved him of any culpability in the theft if they even began to suspect him enough to investigate. Today's part was almost an afterthought.
The monks of St. Juno were downcast when he arrived. One of the younger monks recognized him; wearing moss-green robes, the monks kept hair and plumage trimmed short but not quite bald. The men allowed their beards to grow long. The youth beckoned for him to follow. "You're here for the unspeaking one, Master Alchemist?"
"I am," Naevius confirmed. He tried to keep his smile at bay once again. "Everyone looks unhappy today," he noted, trying not to say any more than that. Then he thought better of it, remembering that the guards had questioned him so he couldn't play completely ignorant. "Is it because of the theft?"
"No, no," the monk assured him, not even questioning why Naevius was aware of it at all. "The theft is unfortunate, but Serpens watches over us still, and Saint Juno's memory continues to guide us. It is only that… we mourn."
Alarm bells went off in Naevius' head. Mourning was bad, he didn't want mourning. "Mourn?" he repeated, a cold sweat threatening.
"It was very recently that we lost one of our own, the venerable Brother Digno," the young man explained.
"Yes, I had heard of that. Very tragic. You mourn still?" He tried not to sound too impatient.
"No, well, yes, of course we do, but… Now I fear we might be losing another, as well."
'Might' allayed some of the enlil's fears. "Is it the boy? That's why I bring him medicine, to keep him as well as can be." He silently applauded himself for sticking to script. The two were moving deeper into the monastery. The building was old, but not as old as the First Bank had been. This was built after the Calamity and the dark green-grey stone had been quarried from the eastern mountains. The lighting was rather limited, but the hallways were immaculately clean, with many monks tasked solely with keeping areas clean while others toiled in the gardens they passed and still others devoted themselves to study and teaching.
Saint Juno lived and died in the Kingdom of Excelsus and the true home to her followers was there. The temple here had been built when a duke forced them out of Secare and Terminus became their home away from home. Although it could not be confirmed, most historians believed that the duke expected to be able to take over the trade of the monks' famous liqueur, La Lluvia. When they left, however, they took the secrets to brewing it with them. That duke eventually bankrupted himself, and the king himself invited the monks to return, even adding the rest of the duchy to the lands surrounding the monastery.
Anything to bring back the famous elixir.
So it was, though, that the temple of Saint Juno in Terminus had a distinctly medieval feel to it, similar to much of Excelsus. It stood out among the more modern buildings that surrounded it, and yet it was respected and welcomed in the Grand Metropolis.
"No," the monk assured him. "He has not gotten better but grows no worse that we can tell. He still cannot speak, sadly. It is Father Piadoso whom we mourn for. He has fallen gravely ill. You will see him soon -- he asked to see your ward some hours ago and the young man still sits with him."
Naevius had to fake a shocked expression. "Piadoso? He was the picture of health when I saw him last! He can't be as bad as all that, can he?"
"Forgive me, sir, it's… difficult to speak on." The enlil felt a twinge of guilt at teasing the young man, so.
Adopting a more somber tone, Naevius shook his head. "No, it is I who should ask forgiveness. I've seen many sick people in my time, and perhaps I've grown too cavalier."
They walked in silence for a time, climbing stone stairways. Each window they passed, some no more than arrow slits, was filled with stained glass depicting a scene of Serpens or her saints, usually Juno. Naevius wanted to grumble at the boy to walk faster, fingers twitching with excitement.
Thankfully, it seemed that only Piadoso had been affected. When he encountered the man in the bank, he had shaken hands with both Piadoso and the unnamed monk with him. According to his talk with the former follower, Lapsus, the temple divided their monks into Fathers and Brothers, and one of each were entrusted with the secret recipe for La Lluvia. The previous holder, Brother Digno, had passed away unexpectedly, but of natural causes.
That meant that another Brother would be chosen to carry Digno's half of the recipe -- the half now in Naevius' possession. When he met with the two monks in the bank, they were there to retrieve the written record of Digno's half, for the new Brother to either copy down or memorize before returning to the true monastery in Excelsus.
"Here we are," the unnamed young monk announced. "Please keep your voice low." Coughing sounded through the heavy wooden door in front of him. The monk placed his hand on the iron ring of the door, but didn't pull it open. "Master Alchemist, I would ask a favor…"
"I know what you're about to ask, son, but I'm not a doctor."
"No, I know, I know. The doctor has already been, he… he says it doesn't look good, doesn't look like anything he's ever seen. Some think it's a punishment for losing… for the recent theft. Some think it's a rare disease brought north from the Kingdom." The monk refused to face Naevius and the old bird let him take his time, no matter his own impatience. "It is not just. I would have you ease his suffering… if you can."
"I will do what I can," Naevius promised, trying to hide his knowing smile.