“I’m not going to apologize for hitting you last night,” said Esther. “Either time.”

Arturo was lying on the floor with some beaten and flattened cushions arranged underneath him awkwardly to support his back. Esther fastened her tunic in place with a clasp and patted herself down. Arturo said nothing.

“Well, I might be a little sorry about your back,” she said. She didn’t turn to look at him, but instead found a skin of wine and took a long drink.

Arturo made a noise somewhere between a grunt and a groan. He moved ever so slightly to adjust his position on the cushions, but otherwise said nothing.

“You really shouldn’t try to move,” she said. “You’ll only hurt yourself again.” She still wasn’t looking at him. She drained the skin and tossed it aside. Esther retrieved her belt and put it around her waist, and affixed her axes to it. Standing in place, she turned her waist back and forth to make sure the fastenings were secure. Her axes swung back and forth with her.

“I was really hoping you’d be in some kind of condition to accompany me, but it looks like I’m going to need to go into this cave alone. I know the others are expecting us, and in your state, you’ll only slow me down.”

Finally, Esther turned to look at Arturo.

“Don’t go back to the Gilded Flame lodge. I don’t care if they unleash a plague of snakes on the city — they aren’t our primary concern in Chaika, they aren’t responsible for whatever is making people disappear.” She paused and pursed her lips, then nodded as though agreeing with herself.

“They might not be helping matters, but they aren’t the cause of the problem,” she said. “Something else is, and my bet is we’ll find it at the bottom of that well.”

She moved to the door and looked back over her shoulder. She opened her mouth as though to say something, then thought better of it. She walked out.