“People throw away the strangest things.”

Esther stood up when she heard Nicyes speak — he was standing in the doorway, and he was supporting Arturo, who was black and blue with bruises. Esther took a tentative step toward the pair, and noticed Arturo’s head hanging limply.

“Is he–” she began.

“Alive?” said Arturo with a raspy voice. He pushed off of Nicyes and straightened up, wincing. “Yeah, but I’ve felt better.”

Esther took a few long steps toward Arturo and punched him in the shoulder, which left him teetering. “You and your sense of drama. And here, I was worried.”

“Actually, that quite hur–” Arturo was cut off when Nicyes clapped him hard on the back.

“You can’t say you didn’t have it coming, mate,” Nicyes said.

“Also,” Arturo cringed, “that also hurt.” He braced himself for another impact.

Esther walked back to the pile of cushions she’d been lounging on before Arturo and Nicyes arrived, and settled back into her spot. Nicyes leaned against the wall by the door, leaving Arturo to stand by himself.

“So, where was he?” asked Esther.

“I found him lying on the side of the road, much as he is now,” Nicyes replied.

“He does like to exaggerate, but I wouldn’t call him a liar.”

Arturo interjected at that point, “No, he means in the dirt.”

Esther smiled and said, “You can lie anywhere, with anyone you please.”

Arturo let out an exasperated sigh — and winced.

“Who did this to you?” Esther asked.

Nicyes snorted, “Could have been anyone — or their mum.”

“I’ll have you know, there was a group of them,” Arturo said in an indignant tone.

“And just how did you piss off so many mums at once?” said Nicyes, “You interrupt their washing? Did you try and run off with their daughters?” He raised an eyebrow. “Their sons? Or did you just try to run off with their laundry?”

“You aren’t listening to me,” said Arturo, plaintively.

“You aren’t saying anything,” said Esther.

“I was investigating,” said Arturo, “asking around. Trying to find out about our mission. People disappearing, you know, why it was we even came here.”

Esther continued to stare at him, expectantly.

“The Gilded Flame, I think they called themselves. An esoteric order, I heard about them here and there, I figured they ran things behind the scenes. I was picked up by a couple of their men, though, and they wanted me to join them.”

Nicyes snorted.

“Don’t laugh! I know what it sounds like. Anyway, they demanded I make an offering if I wanted to join. I thought, ‘why not,’ but whatever it is they serve wasn’t pleased, so they roughed me up and tossed me out.”

“You’re lucky to be alive,” said Nicyes. “Next time, don’t go alone.”

“You’re telling me.”

“I’m surprised they didn’t kill you, being an outsider and all,” said Esther. She sighed. “What have you done, you foolish man?”