• Published 2nd Jan 2017
  • 1,153 Views, 94 Comments

The Casebook of Currycombs - AugieDog



In a world tucked somewhere between Equestria and Victorian London, the aardhorse detective Currycombs solves crimes with her friend and colleague, the unicorn medical mare Silver Scalpel.

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3 - The Case of the Unrestrained Orphan

Author's Note:

This third adventure:

Was originally written as a submission for NonBinary Review #11, the theme of which was "Anne of Green Gables." I'd never read the book before, but checking a copy out from the library, I found it to be quite enjoyable.

Mike

"Good morning, Scalpel!"

As accustomed as I'd become to that voice during the past six weeks, hearing it ring out from the dining table as I emerged into the common room of our shared apartment scarcely an hour after sunrise took me by surprise. But there indeed sprawled Currycombs, her mane damp and her red velvet robe thrown carelessly across her back. What seemed to be at least five copies of the Ehwazton Times sprawled in an equally indolent fashion across the table, and the dishes scattered among the pages looked more like the remnants of last night's supper than this morning's breakfast.

I refused to gape. "Just coming in?" I asked.

She waved a hoof, her gaze not leaving the papers in front of her. "With my mind refreshed by two entire hours of uninterrupted sleep, I'm ready to embark upon the solving of another crime."

That, I'll admit, did get me to gape. "Currycombs, I've told you that you cannot function at your peak without proper rest."

A smile pulled her muzzle. "Which is why, my dear doctor, I forced myself to take a full two hours."

Any further admonishment on my part was interrupted by a rap at our front door. Uncertain what to expect given the unusual vision of Currycombs conscious and responsive before midday, I sent a spell through my horn to push down the door handle and was delighted to see our landlord Mr. Trencher standing in the hallway. The owner also of the bakery and panini shop above which we lodged, he was an aardhorse like my friend and roommate, but two more dissimilar beings, I could scarcely imagine.

Rather than a matter of mere temperament, however, their differences, now that I thought upon them, more exemplified the gap between Currycombs and every other equine in the city, the country, and indeed the world. For Mr. Trencher bore upon his flanks three baguettes that formed an equilateral triangle—his eigensigil—and he wore his mark as we all did: with pride and respect. Our eigensigils, after all, stand as the most powerful sign that the magic filling our beloved realm of Hevosenvalta has touched us. Yes, the process begins with the ceremonies conducted on our Discernment Day when we receive our names, but most of us are much too young at the time to recall that event. The moment the crossed scalpels appeared upon my haunches at the age of fourteen, however, shall always live in my memory as the moment when I joyfully embraced my destiny.

Currycombs, on the other hoof, had no eigensigil. Or rather, as she put it, no apparent eigensigil. Her mark, she maintained, was nothing less than the invisible, omnipresent truth, symbolic of her calling as the only private consulting detective in the entire realm. And I couldn't deny that the powers of inductive and deductive reasoning that I'd seen her display in the month-and-a-half of our acquaintance were indeed remarkable.

As when she called out before I could even greet Mr. Trencher, "My condolences, sir, that your latest apprentice failed to meet with your approval! This makes six you've dismissed just this month, doesn't it?"

Mr. Trencher's dark brown face darkened even further. "Was that little miscreant up here?" He stomped, flour puffing into the air from his fetlock. "I sent him on his way not half an hour ago with the warning that if he ever attempted to enter this building again, I should have the law on him!"

"The law?" Looking up from the papers at last, Currycombs scowled. "Considering the addlepatedness of the Ehwazton constabulary, I shouldn't wish their attentions upon any but the most benighted of fiends!" She sprang to her hooves and stalked toward us across the carpet with her nostrils flaring. "I was merely unable to ignore the cloud of powdered sugar scent that wafts about you, sir, which led to the obvious conclusion that you've once again been forced to coat this morning's donuts yourself rather than assigning the task, as is your preference, to your apprentice."

Mr. Trencher stared quite openmouthedly at my friend. Currycombs for her part flashed a brief smile, slipped her head between me and the doorframe, and plucked an envelope with her teeth from the pocket of Mr. Trencher's apron. "In a similar fashion," she said, balancing the envelope across her upraised hoof, "I shall assume that this message is addressed to—" She glanced down, and her ears drooped. Sighing, she flicked the envelope toward me. "Dr. Scalpel. Of course." And she began slouching back toward the table.

These occasional outbursts from Currycombs no longer threw me completely; activating my magic, I caught the envelope as it drifted to the floor, thanked Mr. Trencher, closed the door upon his still-bewildered countenance, and looked at the letter's return address. "I say! It's from Sister Heartfelt, the abbess at Foster's Orphan Asylum." I couldn't help smiling at the familiar crest stamped below her name. "My alma mater, as it were."

Currycombs gave a snort. "I don't suppose one of the orphans has been charged with some atrocity of which she needs to be acquitted?"

I glared at her. "Sister Heartfelt and her nuns run an entirely respectable establishment, I'll have you know!"

"A pity." Her nose had already returned to scraping the newspaper.

Opening my mouth to launch into a full-throated defense of the only home I'd known before joining Her Majesty's cavalry, I instead restrained myself. Currycombs when forced into idleness was a very different mare than when she was engaged in the pursuit of justice. Even the tunes she so expertly coaxed from her hammer dulcimer took on a dreary and somber edge between cases, and the thought of what I might hear through the wall this evening if my friend didn't find some problem to engage her interest made me wince in anticipation.

With a shake of my head, I made my way across the room to the sofa, settled in, and used one of my scalpel spells to slice through the top of the envelope. The note inside bristled my mane. "It appears there is a bit of a mystery here."

"Oh?" Currycombs swung her head toward me, her ears quivering.

"A medical mystery, at any rate." I read the note aloud. "'Dear Silver. I hope you don't mind me writing to you, but a rather delicate situation has arisen concerning one of our wards. Anise is a lovely young pegasus mare of nearly one and twenty years, but she's yet to gain her eigensigil. She's in fact been returned to us five times from apprenticeships we've sent her into the city to pursue.

"'In the past, we've invited such rare individuals to take vows in the Hooves of Mercy. Their lack of external direction, we believe, indicates that they're already filling the position they're meant to occupy, and their sigils unfailingly appear once they've committed themselves utterly to serving Hevosenvalta by caring for the orphaned as a member of our order. But Anise has declined my offers—she says she's certain her destiny lies without our grounds—and she's further been reported to me as being ill-suited to every job given her here around the orphanage.

"'She's rapidly approaching the age at which our charter will no longer allow us to offer her room and board as a ward, and she's such a friendly and earnest young thing that I found myself wondering if there might be a medical reason for Anise's condition. I'll happily hire you as a consulting physician should you be willing and available.'" I shrugged at Currycombs. "Not perhaps the sort of conundrum with which you usually concern yourself, but—"

"On the contrary, doctor." That odd fiery light had come into Currycombs's eyes. "As one who often struggles to explain her own eigensigil, I find much to intrigue me in the case so far presented." She cocked her head. "If, of course, you wouldn't mind me tagging along on your investigation..."

I had to laugh. "After the tagging along I've done in your wake, you shall be most welcome!"

"Excellent!" Currycombs leaped to her hooves. "Allow me to slip into some more suitable garb, and we'll be off!"

My own wardrobe had remained the same since before I'd begun rooming with Currycombs—cavalry blankets, I'd found, served splendidly when draped across my shoulders to hide the deep scars left by the griffin whose attack had forced me into retirement—and while I waited, I dashed off a quick reply to Sister telling her to expect us within the hour. I'd just wafted the note toward the orphanage via my magic when Currycombs emerged from her rooms in her Mulster coat, the pockets stuffed with the sundry magnifying lenses, wax paper pouches, and glass tubes that made up the tools of her trade.

The morning outside shivered ever so slightly, the crispness of autumn rustling the air. Foster's Asylum lay just across the Cloven River in the countryside north and east of Ehwazton, and I had to smile at the entirely unaccustomed wave of nostalgia that swept through me at the thought of revisiting those well-remembered woods and vales.

We trotted along the cobbled streets with the city bustling about us for some ten or twenty minutes before Currycombs suddenly spoke. "These nuns: eminently trustworthy, I should imagine?"

The question made me blink. "Of course! The Hooves of Mercy are well respected for the work they do amongst the orphaned throughout Hevosenvalta and the entirety of the world!"

"Of course, of course." She shook her head. "I have a distrust, I fear, of charitable organizations. In my experience, they often prove more interested in sustaining themselves than in sustaining those they purport to serve."

I could think of no response, and it occurred to me that, despite our rooming together for a month-and-a-half now, I knew very little about Currycombs: where she'd grown up, where she'd been educated, any of that. My status as an orphan gave me no family history to share, and I'd never been one to fall easily into conversation, a trait, I'd discovered, that Currycombs and I shared. When she was on a case, she questioned relentlessly, probing with conversational feints and touches to exhume the buried veins of truth. But between times in our apartment, we could spend hour upon hour in each other's company without an uttered word passing between us.

So I didn't ask, and Currycombs didn't offer, the two of us a ball of silence rolling through the clatter and hum of the morning. Leaving the main road, we made our way through the sleepy suburbs of northeastern Ehwazton and soon crossed the river at Terebinth Bridge, the glass and brickwork of town giving way to the green fields and occasional patches of forest that made up the countryside inland of the capital.

"Lovely," I said, deepening my breaths.

"Concealing," Currycombs muttered.

This time, I was unable to mute myself. "And what, pray tell, do you believe to be hidden in this bucolic setting?"

She shrugged. "Just the natural horror and depravity of the equine race."

At this point in our acquaintanceship, I'd experienced Currycombs's idea of humor several times, but I saw no trace of a smile about her now. Not knowing how to politely ask what in the bright blue above she was talking about, I instead repeated, "Natural horror and depravity?"

"Undoubtedly." Her dark eyes darted from side to side as well as upward and downward, a constant motion that made me dizzy to observe. "Our wild, untamed ancestors raged and ravaged through these open spaces, waging war first amongst the three tribes and then against our non-equine neighbors when the unicorns, pegasi, and aardhorses finally united under the horrid principles of tribalism. It took the narrowing confines of civilization to force the equine mind and body toward moderation in thought and movement." She shuddered. "Even today, there's much that makes me wonder if we've not stalled somewhat on the path toward justice and decorum."

It took some effort not to raise my voice. "Do you honestly mean to say that you find the equines of modern Ehwazton to be as scrupleless and immoral as our ancestors in the centuries before the first queens of Firebird House came to rule over us?"

A sideways smile tugged her snout. "I was under the impression that recent events had made you uncomfortable discussing the queens of Firebird House."

I failed to repress a shiver. "True," I admitted. "But a large part of my reticence has to do with the secrecy to which we've been sworn." I glanced up and down the empty country road and lowered my voice even further. "But for all the peculiarity of our rulers' serial immortality, you can't deny that they've had a positive effect on Hevosenvalta as a whole."

"I agree entirely. They represent the confines of civilization to which I referred a moment ago, and their excellent example has made our species as a whole aware that scruples exist. So when we engage in criminal behavior nowadays, we at least know that we're transgressing the right and the proper." Currycombs shrugged. "That advances us from ignorant savages to hypocrites, I suppose—if such a movement can be called an advance."

"Now see here!" Again, I could barely stop myself from shouting. "Allow me to draw your attention to the rule of law under which the entire world now operates, to the breakthroughs in medicine and science we've experienced, to the peace and prosperity we've enjoyed for more than a millennium! We're not perfect, of course, but neither are we the vile creatures who came together under the tribalist banners during the dark ages with the intention of subjecting the entire world to their rule!"

The narrow-eyed look that Currycombs shot at me was equal parts exasperation and uneasiness. "If you truly want to have this discussion, Doctor, we shall have to venture into certain areas of conversation that I know for a fact make you even more uncomfortable than the truth about Firebird House."

"Indeed?" I tossed my mane. "And what areas of conversation are those precisely?"

"Griffins," she said.

Catching myself in mid-stumble, I clamped down on my body's desire to leap away from the mere sound of the word. "What about them?" I asked through teeth I could hardly unclench.

A scent arose from her, one with which I was familiar certainly but not one that I'd ever sensed from her before: the salty stink of nervousness. "I'll ask again, Scalpel, if this is a topic with which you really wish to engage."

"Damn it, Currycombs!" My forelegs had begun itching beneath the drape of my blanket, but I stomped my hooves against the paving stones and refused to succumb to the whimpering little voice in my head. "Kindly make your point, madam!"

Her ears flicked. "Let me ask you, then: why do we maintain garrisons such as the one in which you so valiantly served in the disputed areas between Hevosenvalta and several of the griffin kingdoms?"

I snorted. "Because several of the griffin kingdoms refuse to stop attacking us!"

"And what reason do they give for their continued aggression?"

As much as I wanted to snort again, I couldn't quite manage it, the lovely warmth of the sun overhead suddenly feeling every bit as oppressive as the heat I'd known in my various postings. "They give a number of answers, but I would boil it all down to fear. We've beaten them before, and they know we could do it again if we ever set our minds to the task. We tell them we're not interested in that sort of thing any longer, but their fear disallows them to believe us. So they bluster and squawk and slash their talons like so many pinpricks against our sides." The heat whisked away from me just as suddenly, my scars now as cold and hard as stone. "It all has very little effect and serves even less of a purpose."

An oddly tentative note crept into Currycombs's voice. "And what reason do we give for their continued aggression? And by 'we,' I don't mean equines such as yourself who've given the matter a great deal of careful thought. I mean the average unicorn, pegasus or aardhorse in the streets of Ehwazton or serving on the front lines."

The cold had spread like a fog across my entire hide, but ahead, my gaze picked out the trim little Foster's Orphan Asylum sign. A gravel path led away from the main road there and wound across a grassy meadow to the sycamore and cypress trees that had marked the western boundary of my world for more than half my life.

Shaking my attention away from the unpleasant places Currycombs's questions had taken it, I grabbed eagerly at the excuse to conclude our conversation. "I believe we've arrived."

"Yes," Currycombs said quietly beside me. "I believe we have."

Whether the disappointment in her voice was real or imagined, I ignored it and focused instead on the matter at hoof. "We're here," I said—more for my benefit, I must admit, than for hers—"to help a young mare in need. Therefore, I shall investigate in my way and you shall investigate in yours, and we shall see what can be done."

"Excellent advice." Currycombs crunched into the gravel and started down the path.

We reached the asylum's front gate, nestled among the sycamores, in short order and I was more than a little surprised to see Trailing Arbutus, the old pegasus jack-of-all-work, curled up amid some blankets and dozing in the doorway of the little gatekeeper's hut, the morning sun slanting through the branches overhead to further dapple his already dappled hide.

A snorting laugh came from Currycombs. "You're the native here, Scalpel. What's the protocol in this situation?"

Mr. Arbutus gave a similar snort. "Scalpel?" he asked, sitting up, his eyes still closed. "No, no. I'm afraid our Miss Silver Scalpel joined Her Majesty's cavalry some ten years back."

Swallowing against the sudden lump in my throat, I raised my voice. "It is I, Mr. Arbutus, come home for a visit."

The stallion blinked, then broke into a wide smile. "Why, it's Miss Silver indeed!" He put a hoof to his mouth. "Or forgive me. Dr. Scalpel it is now, isn't it?"

The various escapades into which I'd dragged him during my years here flashed through my mind, and I had to do a bit more swallowing. "You need never ask my forgiveness for anything, Mr. Arbutus. This is my friend Currycombs. Sister Heartfelt asked us to stop by."

"Currycombs?" Mr. Arbutus did some more blinking in her direction. "Is that the same Currycombs as I've been reading about here and there in the papers?"

For all that Currycombs had no wings, she managed nonetheless to preen. "Quite probably, sir." She gestured at the hut. "That seems a small apartment, if I might be so bold. Is there no room for you in the main house?"

I gave her a glare. "Of course Mr. Arbutus has a room! What makes you think—?"

"The bedding." Currycombs gestured again. "Why would anyone rise from a perfectly good bed at so early an hour merely to repair to a few blankets on the floor of a hut? Correct me, in fact, if I'm wrong, sir, but this isn't the first night you've slept out here."

Mr. Arbutus engaged in another round of blinking. "Well, you'd do the same, I daresay, rather than spend the night under the same roof as a—" His brown and white speckled face reddened. "I don't like to say it, do I? But—" He glanced from side to side, then sidled up to whisper rather loudly directly into my ear. "A heretic, Miss Silver! Here! At Foster's!" He stepped back and shook his head. "Not worth my life to be anywhere too near when the Spirits finally catch up to punish her, now, is it?"

The words struck me with nearly the force of a physical blow. For the idea that the Spirits of Hevosenvalta punished those they deemed to be heretics lay at the center of ancient tribalist dogma.

Memories flooded me from my decade in harness. As Currycombs had seemingly inferred earlier, in my assignments at the far-flung edges of Her Majesty's Realm, I'd heard more than my share of such rubbish. I'd in fact been forced to upbraid many an underling who'd called our neighbors—griffins, dragons, barghasts, kappas, what have you—lesser beings and heretics since they remained untouched by the Spirits whom the ignorant thought gave us equines our names and eigensigils. One might just as well have said that pegasi and aardhorses were inferior to unicorns since they channeled magic more indirectly than we did, or that pegasi and unicorns didn't qualify as truly equine since we lacked an aardhorse's dexterous hooves.

The sheer wrongheadedness of this drivel never ceased to infuriate me. Magic was a natural phenomenon, after all, no different from the gravitational force that drew us all downward or the pressure gradients that the pegasi manipulated to make the wind blow. Nonsensical talk of Spirits ill-became any true child of Hevosenvalta, and, well, suffice it to say that it was a subject upon which I'd often lectured rather passionately.

So to hear these sentiments not more than a twenty-minute trot from Ehwazton, on the very threshold of my childhood home, and from a stallion for whom I had nothing but admiration and respect? To call me tongue tied would've been a severe understatement.

Fortunately, Currycombs never seemed at a loss. "Well! It looks as if we arrived just in time!" She nodded to the gates. "May we enter, sir?"

"Of course!" Mr. Arbutus stumped over, gave the gates a push, and they swung smoothly open. "I'm sure you two'll deal with this before any of us honest folk get stricken."

Currycombs was already marching through, and I hastened to join her after forcing myself to nod amiably at Mr. Arbutus. The silence of the woods, however, pressed down upon me, and we'd scarcely gone around the first bend in the path before I was hissing out, "It's impossible! Spirits and heretics? How could someone like Mr. Arbutus honestly subscribe to such outdated and tribalist ideas?"

"Forgive me, Scalpel." Currycombs was glancing about as she always did when her attention had been engaged, her ears twisting and her nostrils flaring. "But neither he nor this place strikes me as particularly modern." She gave a little skip that caused the tail of her coat to flare, exposing her unmarked flanks. "Imagine if he'd caught sight of my own heretical features!"

I wanted to stomp and assert that Mr. Arbutus would never show anything but loving kindness and concern to anybody, but still shaken, I held my tongue.

Fortunately, the path between the gate and the orphanage wasn't long, so I couldn't continue brooding. The house itself looked much as it had when I'd been in residence, the ivy neatly trimmed and the shutters neatly painted. The door opened at my knock, and Sister Heartfelt herself smiled up at me from beneath her black and white wimple, a few more lines on her face but otherwise unchanged. "Oh, Silver!" she exclaimed. "Thank you so much for coming! It's wonderful to see you even in such troubled circumstances!"

I bent down so we could tap horns and hug, the sweet, familiar scent of cinnamon and cloves trying to conjure more bubbles of nostalgia in me. But other thoughts kept lurking to the fore: did Sister Heartfelt know that Mr. Arbutus subscribed to tribalism? Did she herself perhaps—?

No. I squashed any and all groundless conjecture and stepped back to introduce Currycombs. Almost wincing in anticipation of her letting loose with one of her tone-deaf but factually accurate instant character sketches, I was instead pleasantly surprised when she merely bowed her head and said, "I hope we can be of some assistance to young Anise."

Sister Heartfelt nodded. "The children are finishing their breakfasts now. If you'd care to come this way?"

Walking through the familiar hallways after an absence of ten years made me step as gingerly as a cat across damp grass. Everything seemed the same, but Mr. Arbutus undoubtedly had held his unfortunate opinions on non-equines and magic during my time here. Had the topic simply never come up?

The clutter of foals' voices roused me from my funk, and we stepped through the large oaken doorway into the refectory, the same rows of tables filling the sunlit room as I recalled from my youth. The fillies and colts who'd yet to gain their eigensigils sat to the right of the central aisle while those who had become besigiled sat to the left—and, oh, with what joyous ceremony did a youngster move from the one group to the other. The head table along the entire far wall of the room belonged to the nuns and novices of the order, but at the far left end of it sat a red-maned filly just at the cusp of marehood with no wimple on her head. She appeared to be sharing a joke with some of the youngsters among the unmarked, all their ears perked and their eyes sparkling.

"All right, now," Sister Heartfelt called, her horn giving off the jingle of sleigh bells. "I'll ask you all to rise and greet our guests, Dr. Silver Scalpel and Ms. Currycombs, then we'll break a bit early for classes and chores."

The foals all stood and recited, "Good morning, Dr. Silver Scalpel and Ms. Currycombs," then began trooping past us, their eyes and whispers flitting in our direction. Most of the sisters followed in their wake, bowing slightly to Sister Heartfelt, but three of the nuns remained seated: Sister Verdant and Sister Clear Water as well as an aardhorse whom I didn't recognize. The young mare at the end of the table had stayed as well, though the act of rising with the others had revealed quite clearly that she bore no eigensigil.

Sister Heartfelt turned to me, her smile suddenly a bit more strained. "Thank you again for coming on such short notice, Silver." Her horn glowed, the door to the refectory swung closed, and she began moving down the aisle toward the head table. "I don't believe you know Sister Pleasant Vale. She joined us four years ago now."

The aardhorse nodded, her black mane and white hide very nearly the same colors as her wimple. Her smile was also the only one in the room that I would've called unshadowed.

"And this," Sister Heartfelt continued, moving along the table to the end, "is Anise."

"Oh, but please." The young mare's head came up, and the tone of her voice coupled with the open but somber expression on her face made me understand why Sister Heartfelt had used the word 'earnest' in her letter. "Would you be so kind as to call me Anisette? It has a much crisper sound to it, and I simply adore a—"

A snort from the other end of the table interrupted her. "And there," Sister Pleasant Vale said, her voice sweeter than the snort would've led me to think, "is the very root of the problem laid bare." The look she aimed at the girl seemed too soft to be a glare but too purse-lipped to be anything else. "We cannot choose our names, child. The magic of Hevosenvalta gives them to us as it does our eigensigils—as signs that we are true equines—and it is for us to accept them with grace and humility." She sniffed and turned away. "I for one would certainly never wish to be so ungrateful as to refuse this perfect gift."

Ears flicked around me, my own included. And while what Sister Pleasant Vale had said wasn't as objectionable as Mr. Arbutus stating that mysterious Spirits had not only singled equines out as the world's master race but that they also spent their time monitoring our behavior and punishing those who didn't conform to certain societal norms—

Currycombs gave a snort of her own. "And may I inquire, sister, as to your passive-aggressive opinion of hair dye?"

Sister Pleasant Vale's head snapped back, her eyes going wide. "What in Her Majesty's realm do you mean by that?"

"I mean a product that one uses to change the color of one's mane." Currycombs gestured with her snout toward Sister Pleasant Vale. "Is not naturally blonde hair like your own also a gift from Hevosenvalta? Or should we be allowed to change our manes to a darker shade should that more suit our stark and severe self-image?"

Something between a cough and a laugh came from Sister Heartfelt, but Sister Pleasant Vale's mouth tightened. "That's an unbalanced view of the cosmos, my child," she said.

"Fortunately," Currycombs said, "I'm not your child, or I would likely receive the same sorts of negative reports you've been arranging to be sent to Sister Heartfelt about Anisette."

"She's named Anise," Sister Pleasant Vale more hissed than said. "And I certainly cannot be blamed for her failure at the most basic of tasks!"

"Basic?" With a wave of a forehoof, Currycombs indicated the closed door. "Like caring for the younger among her fellows? Perhaps you're referring to the way she was amusing several of them when we entered? Or perhaps you mean the concern in their voices when they left, all of them wondering in whispers what would become of their dear friend Anisette."

"Anise!" Sister Pleasant Vale leaped to her hooves. "Names are holy marks of Hevosenvalta's favor! Like eigensigils, they are perfect and unchanging!"

Currycombs cocked her head. "And Hevosenvalta itself? Should we forbid unicorns from using spells because they alter the natural world? Perhaps farming should be outlawed since it repurposes the land! Or dams should be scorned for shifting the courses of rivers!"

"Please!" Anise—or Anisette, I'll rather say—flared her trembling wings. "If I'm to be turned out of the asylum, then let's just cease arguing and get on with it!" Blushing, she bowed her head to Sister Pleasant Vale. "But I shall say again with respect, sister, that I cannot see anything positive arising from creating categories when it comes to the many and wonderful gifts we receive simply by being alive and aware. All are surpassingly wonderful, and ranking them upon some arbitrary scale will only serve to devalue some while overvaluing others."

"Outrageous!" Sister Pleasant Vale stomped a hoof. "I'll not be lectured by a pair of ignorant snips!" She wheeled on Currycombs. "Hevosenvalta gives herself specifically to us equines so that we might reshape her! That is intrinsic to our faith, and to believe otherwise is to commit—" She stopped, her mouth still open and her eyes going wide.

My eyes felt very wide as well. 'Heresy' was the only way I could imagine that sentence ending, but to admit to such tribalist leanings would have been a career-ending blow for anyone who claimed herself devoted to the Hooves of Mercy.

Beside me, Sister Heartfelt took a step forward, her eyes narrowing. "Might I recommend, sister, that you think carefully before you next speak?"

With a twitch, Sister Pleasant Vale's face became a mask of shock. "I don't know what you mean, sister! I was merely—"

"Demonstrating," Currycombs cut in, "a complete and unfortunate misunderstanding of how magic works!" She moved past Sister Heartfelt. "For you seem to honestly believe that our ability to tap more deeply into the world's natural magic makes us equines the true inhabitants of this world while all other peoples are secondary at best!"

Sister Pleasant Vale's glare at this was unmistakable. "I'll not have you putting words into my mouth! I was merely pointing out how ungrateful it is to turn our backs upon—"

"Backs?" Currycombs flipped the tail of her coat aside to unveil her own unmarked flank, and everyone in the room save myself gasped.

Unfortunately for Sister Pleasant Vale, her gasp was followed by the word, "Heretic!"

This outburst largely ended the day's discussion. Sister Heartfelt quietly and icily asked Sister Pleasant Vale to accompany her to the main office, and the two other sisters in attendance recalled some urgent class work that needed their attention. Which left Currycombs and I alone in the refectory with Anisette.

She was staring at Currycombs. "Your mark," she said breathlessly. "It must be invisible! For I can't imagine you haven't one, not a mare as accomplished as yourself!"

Currycombs barked a laugh. "Such insight from one so young!" She gave the floor a stomp. "Now, if you'd care to come away with us, we live above a bakery that's in need of an apprentice. It's likely not the work you'll be dedicating your life to, but it'll give you a place to stay and something to do till you find yourself."

"Oh, Ms. Currycombs!" A flap of her wings carried Anisette over the table; landing, she galloped past the spot where I remained rooted and wrapped a hug around Currycombs' neck. "Thank you!" She shuffled back with a blush. "Sister Heartfelt has been ever so kind to me as have most of the other nuns and the children, but, well, I feel that it's rather incumbent upon me to show them that life carries on even when one doesn't have an eigensigil."

That finally stung me from my stupor. "Ah, but you're mistaken there, Anisette." I gestured toward Currycombs. "Your eigensigil is every bit as present as my friend's. The invisible power of kindness, I should judge it. Or perhaps love."

Anisette did some more blushing, and Currycombs nodded. "Excellently put, doctor. And now back to town for the three of us, I think, to let Mr. Trencher know that his days of powdering his own donuts are once more at an end!"

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