The Last Tale of Yajikali

Chapter XXIII - The Raccoon Unmasked

by Charles Matthias

Cover | Contents | Prologue | Book I | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | Interlude I
Book II | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | Interlude II
Book III | 31 | 32 | 33 | 34 | 35 | 36 | 37 | 38 | 39 | 40 | 41 | 42 | 43 | 44 | 45 | 46 | 47 | 48 | Interlude III
Book IV | 49 | 50 | 51 | 52 | 53 | 54 | 55 | 56 | 57 | 58 | 59 | 60 | 61 | 62 | 63 | 64 | 65
66 | 67 | 68 | 69 | 70 | 71 | 72 | 73 | 74 | 75 | Epilogue

Vinsah had sailed the Yurdon river many times in his long years living in the Holy Land. It was a steady river, winding past russet cliffsides and broad plains, each festooned with greenery brought to life by the river’s bountiful water. Fishermen’s boats lined the shore, with nets cast into the waters to bring in the daily food. And merchant vessels could be seen in the river’s middle, flowing serenely past the ancient desert towns where venerable women sat beneath thatchwork awnings while the flies danced around their faces.

Through the porthole in the small quarters he had called home for the last month, the raccoon Bishop watched all of these and more slide by on the western bank. They were all intimately familiar, and he felt a sullen pain in his heart as he saw the life he’d once lived and known so intimately on display, as inaccessible as the moon.

He’d known when he left Metamor that he could not live in Yesulam again. That was not why he’d come on such a dangerous journey. He’d come because it was his duty as a Bishop of the Ecclesia. There were things to be said before the Council of Bishops, and his fate needed to be debated. He did not know what the future held for him, but he remained confident that Eli would bless him.

Still, he felt a great trepidation in his chest when he saw the mighty hill of Yesulam slide into view. The ship was slowing and he felt it shifting beneath his feet. They would be docked soon, and his letter to Bishop Jothay would notify his grace of Vinsah’s arrival. Jothay had been one of the few whom Akabaieth had also trusted, and Jothay had been one of the few who had stood up for Akabaieth’s plans until the end. Vinsah could not think of anyone else he would rather meet first.

As he stared at the sparkling radiance of Yesulam, he noticed something odd. A hazy darkness was obscuring part of his vision. He lifted his hand to brush whatever mote of dust might be in the way, but stopped. He turned his hands over and studied them. The skin was darkening and turning grey. No, it was fading.

Vinsah blinked in surprise and then when understanding dawned in his mind he churred to himself. The Holy Land was without magic. Of course Murikeer’s illusion charm would begin to fail. As his raccoon shape began to grow in clarity, he wondered why the curses of Metamor did not also abate in this land. They were magic too weren’t they?

It was of no matter now. The ship rocked back and forth violently for a moment, and then was still. They were at the dock. In a few minutes a messenger would be sent to Jothay with his letter. Vinsah had to prepare himself for going into the city.

He examined himself in his loose fitting traveller’s garb. His tail protruded quite visibly from his trousers, but it was his raccoon head that would garner the most attention. Vinsah went through his pack until he found a long cloak with a sizeable hood. Pulling it on, he found that it could disguise most of his features. A person looking at him directly would see his snout, but if he bent low, he might be able to hide it.

Satisfied, he churred to himself as he began to gather his things for this last phase of his journey. He’d come so far in the last six months, but now finally, he was at Yesulam. He felt as if he’d come back to a childhood home after years of absence.

Quietly, he began to pray, as one by one his belongings were packed.

The first thing that came to Jothay’s lips when he read the letter from the curse-struck Vinsah was, “Eli damn him to Hell!”

The golden blade sang in his mind, throbbing like the pounding of kettledrums. He bit at his lip, and when the iron taste that flooded his tongue wasn’t enough, he began to nibble at the fingers of his left hand. It was anxious, and Jothay himself could barely sit still so frenetic he’d become in the last few days. The Autumnal Equinox was tomorrow. Tomorrow, all his efforts would come to fruition.

And Vinsah had to show up at just this time to complicate matters! “Damn him!” Jothay spat again, a bit of blood splattering the short letter. Vinsah wanted his protection while he was in Yesulam to address the Bishop’s Council. Akabaieth’s old aide had not yet spoken to anyone else of his arrival, as he feared that if any saw his animal features they would panic and might bring himself or themselves to harm.

Jothay had known Vinsah would eventually return, but he had hoped that it would not be for some time yet. After tomorrow, Jothay would no longer have any reason to fear – his plans would be complete and no force on Earth could undo them. But first, he had to incorporate this new factor into his design.

“Why in all the hells did you have to come now!” Jothay sat up from the desk and tore the letter into little pieces. “I hate you! I hate you!”

His hands continued to shake even after the last of the parchment fluttered to the ground. He brought his left hand back to his teeth and began to chew. Blood began to ooze from the small punctures in his skin, but he felt no pain.

Tomorrow evening he needed to be at the altar with the sword. Together, Zagrosek and he would tie the sword into the nexus of magical energy that flowed under the city like a river flows deep beneath the shifting sands of a desert. Somebody needed to die during the ritual, and after Zagrosek’s failures, Jothay had intended it to be the infuriating Sondecki – though he had yet to mention it to him.

As he thought over that part of his plan, a smile began to creep across the Bishop’s face. He began to giggle like a child. Nobody else knew that Vinsah was here in Yesulam. Akabaieth’s aide would make a perfect sacrifice. All he had to do was bring the beastly priest in secret to Jothay’s residence. Zagrosek could be lying in wait to drag him down to the altar. Assuming that Zagrosek could keep this one a prisoner, they could sacrifice the Bishop and no one would be the wiser.

And afterwards, Jothay could still kill Zagrosek anyway.

But how could he bring Vinsah to his quarters? The answer came quickly — the Driheli. They weren’t doing anything of consequence anymore. They’d completely failed to find the Magyars or kill Kashin. Surely this was one duty they could successfully perform.

Gleefully, Jothay set to writing two letters. One for Vinsah and the other for the Driheli. He’d go tell Zagrosek himself what he intended – except for the murdering him later part. He couldn’t wait to see the look in that damnable Sondecki’s black eyes when Jothay ran him through with Yajakali’s blade. He nearly bit his pinky off at the knuckle in his delight.

The eastern wall of the Questioner temple dropped away rapidly towards the docks and the Yurdon river. The ground was terraced in a series of verandas where Questioners often came to meditate in the morning sun. Brilliant frescoes depicting scenes from the Canticles decorated the eastern walls, but they had not been tended to in some time and were showing signs of age and neglect. Fortified crenellations stood between each level, and against them were small stone benches upon which the Questioners could sit.

Felsah was enjoying a bit of solitude that morning, though not by choice. Father Kehthaek had been summoned by Grand Questioner Mizrahek; to what end Felsah did not know. However, it made him wary. Mizrahek had deliberately prevented any further investigation into Zagrosek and the events surrounding Patriarch Akabaieth’s death. And he’d also stymied inquiries into Bishop Morean’s disappearance.

Whatever Mizrahek was trying to do, it could not be good.

Felsah chose to spend his time waiting for Kehthaek to return out on the veranda where he knew he would be able to find solitude. His journal was in his hands, and between gazing across the eastern desert he would write few thoughts or scribble poor drawings of the mechanical fox Madog. At first, when pictures of Madog showed up in his journal he was irritated. Now, he was always pleased to find his hand crafting the metal vulpine’s features into the page.

He was occupied with a careful articulation of Madog’s perked ears when a shadow fell across the page. Felsah had not heard anyone approach, but his Questioner training helped him suppress the look of surprise that attempted to leap to his face. Standing before him was a blue robed Sondecki. The man’s face was grave, but he lowered his head respectfully.

“Forgive my intrusion, but Captain Delius told me to seek you out immediately. Where is Father Kehthaek?”

“Attending to Grand Questioner Mizrahek. Whatever message you have for him, I will convey.”

“Of course,” the Sondecki nodded. He folded his hands before him and continued, “A ship from Pyralis just arrived. Upon arrival a messenger was sent bearing a letter to Bishop Jothay. This caught our attention. We investigated further and discovered that their cargo included one passenger. That passenger is Bishop Vinsah.”

“Bishop Vinsah has arrived?” Felsah asked, alarm growing in his mind. “We cannot let Jothay have him. I will gather Kehthaek, and if you speak with the Magyars we can meet down at the docks. We’ll have to intercept Vinsah before Jothay finds him.”

“Agreed,” the Sondecki nodded. “There is a small establishment by the wharves that is popular amongst sailors, but not until after late in the evening. ‘The Fish Net’ it is called. We can meet there. Why must we wait for Father Kehthaek? Shouldn’t we secret his grace away before anyone is the wiser?”

“It is best if Bishop Vinsah sees somebody he trusts. Father Kehthaek is the only one I know who can compel his grace.” He stood up and clutched his journal to his chest. “Let us waste no more time. We will meet you at this ‘Fish Net’ as soon as we can. Eli go with you.”

“And you, Father,” the blue-robed Sonecki replied before slipping off down the other end of the veranda. Felsah set off for the Questioner temple at the fastest walk he could manage.

“You said you have news,” Sir Czestadt said when the four knights had settled in the small chamber. The day was still young, but after they had spoken last week, his men wasted no time in seeking the city officials who might know the clues they needed to find the Magyars.

Sir Guthven smiled from behind his beard. “Yes. Though it took some time before any in the Commerce Guild would speak to me, one of their clerks finally admitted to me this morning that there is an Innkeeper who has been making larger purchases than normal.”

This was good news. It was the first evidence they had that might lead them to the Magyars. “Has this Innkeeper received a rash of new business?”

Guthven shook his head. “Not according to the clerk.”

Sir Poblocka smacked his hand on the table. “The Magyars must be there. Let us move in and seize the Inn.”

“Patience. First, where is the Inn?”

“The Inn of the Slumbering Lion lays at the northern end of Yesulam in the merchants district.” Sir Guthven stroked his beard to call back all the details he had learned. “It caters to the spice merchants that frequent that quarter of the city.”

“And the Innkeeper?”

“A man called Ahadi,” Guthven replied quickly. “It is rumoured that he favours spices upon which the Ecclesia frowns.”

“Opium?” Wodnicki asked curiously.

“The clerk did not know.”

Czestadt spread his fingers wide and took a deep breath. “From what you tell me, Sir Guthven, I believe you have found where the Magyars are hiding. We shall strike before dawn tomorrow. We dare not ride to the Inn openly, for surely the Magyars will be alerted to our coming and escape. Disguises. Cloaks that will cover our armour and swords so that we appear as common men.”

“There are many cloaks that will serve that purpose in the barracks,” Wodnicki added. “I will seek one for each of our knights.”

“Good. I will need a map of the district so that we can plan our approach. The Inn will undoubtedly have a backdoor, and we’ll need to keep it covered. Any other exits they have will also need to be watched.”

“There should be a map in the library,” Sir Guthven pointed out. “I can look for one.”

“Both you and Sir Poblocka should look for it. The library is extensive.”

Before Poblocka could agree to the task there was a knock on the door. “What is it?” Czestadt called out.

The door opened a few inches and a folded bit of parchment was shoved through. “Message for you, milord Templar.” Czestadt grunted and snatched the message from the squire’s hand. The youth pulled the door shut a moment later.

The letter was affixed with Bishop Jothay’s seal. Czestadt grimaced as he broke the wax and scanned the sloppy handwriting. A bit of blood had sprayed onto one corner of the vellum.

Czestadt crumpled the note and began to growl. “What is it, milord Templar?” Sir Guthven asked, his hand furiously combing his beard.

It took him a moment to still the growl and speak. “It seems that we are to escort a newly arrived Bishop to the Cathedral. He waits for us down by the docks. Apparently, he is rather strange looking too.”

“Strange looking?” Wodnicki chuckled lightly. “How so?”

Czestadt regarded the knight sullenly and asked, “Have you heard about a place called Metamor?”

Kehthaek had sat for a full ten minutes in the office of Grand Questioner Mizrahek before either of them spoke more than was required by laws of hospitality. The summons had come just after the morning service; Kehthaek was loathe to keep Mizrahek waiting, so had delayed only long enough to tell Felsah where he would be for a time. And then he’d come to the dark office, whose interior was lit only by the light streaming through a window partially obscured by a silk curtain embroidered with triangles within triangles.

And as he sat facing this man whose stony countenance grew grayer with each passing moment, he realized how apt that decoration was. Both of them faced puzzles within puzzles, and part of those puzzles was sitting across from one another. For Kehthaek the puzzle was why this black-robed priest would seek to prevent any from finding the Patriarch’s assassin and bringing him to justice. He could only imagine what Mizrahek must think of his fellow Questioner who sought in secret to do that very thing.

When the guards brought the requested cups of milk and honey, Grand Questioner Mizrahek lifted the bright draught to his lips and sipped. “Tell me, Father Kehthaek, why is it that you have been absent from the temple so frequently of late. It is not like you to leave your fellow Questioners for such lengthy periods of the day. Many have begun to wonder where it is that you go. I wonder what it is you do. Would you care to tell me?”

Kehthaek lifted his cup to his lips and sipped. The milk was warmed slightly, and the honey daintily tickled along his tongue. “This is good milk. Thank you, Father.” He set the cup and saucer down gently, the muscles in his face moving only to speak. “There is a great deal on my mind, Mizrahek. Much has changed of late in Yesulam. Do you not feel it?”

One of the Grand Questioner’s hands strayed to stroke an old hound’s head. The dog lay at his master’s feet, eyes closed in sleep, but the ears perked at Mizrahek’s touch.

“We have a new Patriarch, Kehthaek. Of course Yesulam will feel different. Is that all that you seek to learn in your sojourns away from the temple?”

Kehthaek met his piercing gaze with disinterest. “Perhaps. Perhaps there are things that can only be seen from outside these walls. We go on Questionings to find answers, and in that time, we must leave these walls. But when we are not on Questionings, are we to cease seeking answers to all the mysteries that Eli has granted us? Should any say yes, they would aggrieve the hearts of scholars throughout the world.”

Mizrahek’s eyes narrowed. “There are areas of inquiry which the Ecclesia frowns upon. I trust you are not seeking enlightenment in the bosom of sorcery.”

“The only sorcery I would seek to understand would be the kind that threatens the Ecclesia. Should we discover that sorcery’s mortal root, then it can be undone far more succinctly. Which brings us to a matter that I am curious about.”

Kehthaek waited silently for several moments until the Grand Questioner grew impatient enough to prompt him. “What are you curious about, Kehthaek?”

“Your curtain. It is Eaven if I am not mistaken,” Kehthaek said, gesturing to the silk drapery. “A gift from the Bishop of Eavey perhaps?”

Mizrahek scowled. “That is not what you are asking questions about. Where do you go when you leave the temple?”

Kehthaek sipped at the milk, and narrowed his eyes, still staring at the curtain. “It is distinctive, you know. The Eaven design that is. They have always favoured triangles. Did you know that their city is designed with three corners and divided into four sections, each section the shape of a triangle as well. And not just any triangle, they favour the triangle whose sides are all the same length. It is one of the few perfect polygons that can be used as a building tile.”

“I know what a triangle is,” Mizrahek pointed out testily. “But you haven’t answered my question. Where do you go when you leave the temple?”

Kehthaek lowered his eyes and shook his head sadly. “I am shocked at your breach of etiquette, Mizrahek. You ignore my question then berate me for not answering yours.” He set the milk down. “I fear I have no more taste for this.”

The Grand Questioner’s eyes flashed with rage, but were quickly stilled. A serene calm fell over him , as well as a chastened curl of his lips. “I have overstepped the rules of courtesy. Forgive me.” He lifted his cup and took a deep draught. “I fear that will be all then, Kehthaek. Do try not to wander off. We may have need of you here in the temple.”

Kehthaek rose, glad to have finally been dismissed. “Should the need arise, I am confidant I will be where I am needed. Good day to you, Mizrahek.”

The Grand Questioner waved him out, and Kehthaek gladly went, though he noted the continued breech of etiquette. There could be no doubt that Mizrahek had grown close to Bishop Jothay. The silk curtain was from Eavey, and was a gift of Jothay’s. Could the two of them have an alliance? It would explain why Mizrahek was preventing any from pursuing the Patriarch’s murder.

But what was more worrisome was that Mizrahek likely knew that they were continuing the investigation. He may even know that they met in the small chapel in the one of the poorer districts. He doubted that Mizrahek knew that they met with the Magyars. Surely he would have done more than summon him to his office if that were the case.

Nevertheless, he needed to seek Felsah out and alert him. He was not ten steps on his way to Felsah’s chamber when the priest’s voice called to him from behind.

Kehthaek turned and smiled softly at the younger Questioner. Felsah’s eyes were alight with worry. He motioned Kehthaek closer, and then into a side passage. Kehthaek followed, feeling tension fill him anew. “What is it, Felsah?”

Felsah whispered so quietly that Kehthaek was not quite sure he heard him. “We have to head to the docks. Right now. Vinsah has arrived.”

It was nearly two hours after his letter had been sent before the reply had come. Jothay was delighted to hear of his arrival and was sending Driheli knights who were assisting him to see him safely to the Cathedral. Vinsah need only wait in his room within the Pyralian ship until the knights arrived.

Elsewhere on the ship he could hear ceaseless activity. There never was any true rest on a sailing vessel, but at that moment it was particularly busy. The sailors were offloading the cargo that had been carried, while the dockworkers were busy cataloguing all that now stood on the wharves. Several wagons were waiting to collect the merchandise so that it might be stored until whichever factor these supplies were meant for came to claim them.

Vinsah had no desire to disrupt the sailors work. During the long weeks of the voyage, he had stayed out of sight, coming up on deck for some air only at night when he was less noticeable. But when he saw half a dozen knights ride out onto the docks bearing the blue and green cross of the Driheli, the raccoon knew that he had no choice now. With a quick prayer for strength, he drew his travelling pack over his shoulders and opened the door to his cabin.

He kept his cowl pulled far over his head, nearly to the point of plastering his ears against his skull. The stern cabins were quiet at least, which allowed him to climb the narrow steps to the deck without notice. He even managed to climb into the noon-day sun without comment. But as soon as he began to cross the deck, many of the sailors took notice of him and fell silent. The sailors who did not were quickly warned by their fellows that the strange deformed passenger was leaving.

During the course of the voyage, Vinsah’s superior hearing brought to him mutterings from on deck between sailors unhappy with the presence of a Metamorian demon on board. Ill luck they said, and several predicted that their doom was at hand. But here they all stood safely moored to the docks of Yesulam, and not a single man had even come down with indigestion the entire time. Yet still they stared at his back, unable to see his features but knowing for certain who he was. When Vinsah set paw to the gangplank, he heard a few sighs of relief pass the lips of the sailors. He too sighed as if a great weight were lifted from his chest. Despite all adversity, the impossible was made real; he was standing in Yesulam.

When he reached the end of the gangplank, Vinsah headed straight for where the knights waited at the end of the wharves. Behind them towered the hill upon which Yesulam lay like a cat sunning himself upon his master’s pillow. The stone wharves gave way to sun-baked clay streets, and upon these the Driheli destriers stomped impatiently. Vinsah approached them with his head bowed to hide his features.

The knight at the lead, a man with a pallid complexion and a vicious pink scar running up the right side of his face addressed him. “Sir Czestadt of Stuthgansk I am, Knight Templar of the Driheli. To Bishop Jothay of Eavey you we shall in safety convey.”

Vinsah churred to himself. The man was clearly a soldier first, linguist second. He knew the tongue of Sonngefilde well enough to ease their conversation. “Thank you, Sir Templar. I am Bishop Vinsah. I fear my appearance will be shocking to many, and I would like to travel as unnoticed as possible.”

“We have a seventh horse that you may ride. If you ride in our midst, then you will not be seen.” Even as he spoke, one of the other knights led a riderless horse forward.

Vinsah glanced at the animal and smiled. It was a beautiful roan, more suited to speed than to war. “Thank you, Sir Templar.” Vinsah gripped the pommel of the saddle and as he did so several knights gasped in shock. His paw was clearly visible. He grunted and pulled himself up. His tail slipped free and even Czestadt appeared to recoil. Vinsah gripped the end of his cloak and drew his tail back underneath.

“I trust you were told of my condition.”

Czestadt scowled at the rest of his men, some of whom had already drawn the sign of the tree upon their chests. “We were told, yes. You will forgive us, your grace, but there is a difference from knowing something and seeing it.”

“Very true,” Vinsah admitted. The end of his snout was visible now that he was sitting upon the horse. Several knights could not take their eyes off of it. At least the roan did not mind his beastly musk, for which the raccoon was grateful. “I remain a man, whether covered in fur or not. A Papal Bull was decreed last year which stated those who suffer from the curse of Metamor are not demons and are to be regarded as equal in the eyes of the Ecclesia.”

Czestadt nodded again. “This I know, your grace. Now if you will ride with us, we will bring you to Bishop Jothay. He waits for you in his residence at St. Kephas’s Cathedral.”

Vinsah gave the reins a tug and let the knights surround him. He felt conspicuous sitting on horseback, but with the cloak and the six knights around him, he should be safe from most eyes. He swallowed and lifted his eyes to gaze up at the high walls of Yesulam. He’d hoped that it would feel like home to him. Instead, he felt a twitch of fear fill his belly. He was an alien in this land, and no matter how familiar everything seemed, it would never be home again.

He lowered his eyes and pulled the cowl more firmly over his head. In silence, he ignored the stares of knights and let the Driheli guide him up the long switchbacks to take them to the city.

It was painful to watch, but there was little more the Questioners could do. Felsah and Kehthaek had gone to the Fish Net tavern to meet the Sondeckis sailors and await the arrival of the Magyars. While they had been settling in, the Driheli knights had ridden down onto the wharves. The Sondecki Captain Delius swore and beat his fist against the table as they watched a robed figure that could only be the raccoon Bishop go out to meet them.

The irony being that Nemgas and two of the Magyas, the burly Chamag and the archer Kaspel, arrived only three minutes after the knights had ridden off.

The Fish Net was an establishment that catered to sailors. As such there was a good quantity of ale available, as well as a steady supply of coarse humour. Even around noon there were few seats available for the Questioners or Magyars. But the Sondecki kept a corner near the wharf-side windows for them to sit peacefully. Neither Kehthaek nor Felsah wore their priestly vestments, signs sure to generate rumour, rumour the Questioners could not afford anymore.

“Why didst thee do nothing?” Nemgas demanded angrily. “Thou couldst hath sent a message.”

Kehthaek shook his head, “No, I fear not. We have been here for no more than five minutes. As soon as I heard that Vinsah had arrived we rushed down here. There was no time to prepare a note.”

Nemgas turned on Delius. The Sondecki was still staring out the window at the Pyralian ship. “And thee? Why didst thee do nothing?”

Delius glanced at the Magyar, but did not turn from the window. “His grace did not know us. One of our own had slain his master. I doubt he would be willing to trust us.”

“Fighting will not help,” Felsah pointed out mildly.

“That is right,” Kehthaek nodded, his face weathered and full of strain. It was surprising for the Magyars and for Felsah to see him hiding none of his expressions. It seemed that taking off his Questioner robe took off the role as well.

“What is done is done,” Kehthaek continued. “What are we going to do about it now?”

Chamag grunted and fingered his axe. “I wouldst not mind killing the Driheli.”

It was Nemgas who shook his head. “In the midst of the city? The guard wouldst be upon us ere we hast slain two of the knights.”

“Then what?” Kaspel asked as he eyed the other sailors in the tavern warily. Some of them were giving them curious looks, but most were just enjoying their ale.

“We watch Jothay constantly. Vinsah is being taken to Jothay’s chambers. We need to know what Jothay intends to do with him. But we must also protect him. Jothay may have allies on the Council, but I doubt that all of the Council would side with him should Vinsah be found dead.”

“If the Council even knows,” Delius muttered, his eyes focussed on the window again.

Kehthaek smiled. “You are right. The Council doesn’t know Vinsah is here. Let us tell them.”

“Tell the Council? What wilt that gain us?” Nemgas asked, clearly frustrated.

“The Council will wish to speak with Vinsah. If they know that Vinsah is in Yesulam and under Jothay’s care, then Jothay can do nothing to him. It will buy us the time we need to act.”

Nemgas pondered that for a moment before nodding. “Aye, thou speaks truly. I wilt have a man watching Jothay always.”

Kehthaek rose from his seat. “If I am to inform the Council, I must leave now. Felsah shall stay with you and help coordinate our next move. I will return here when my errand is done.”

“Ja,” Nemgas agreed. “We wilt wait for thee.”

As the elder Questioner left the tavern, Felsah found himself staring at the wharves through the window with Delius. There was nothing they could do now but wait.

After returning from the altar, Jothay spent a good ten minutes scrubbing himself down to remove the scent of the catacombs from his flesh. He had Zagrosek hold his sullied clothes in the recess behind the wall while he dressed in fresh raiments. And after all of that he still had to wait a full half-hour before the Driheli bothered to show up with that irritating raccoon in tow. He had to gorge himself on fruit to keep from biting himself.

When the Driheli finally arrived, it was only Sir Czestadt with a cloaked figure in tow. Jothay smiled and wiped the bit of melon from his lips with his sleeve. “Ah, welcome, do come inside. We don’t want anyone to grow alarmed by your presence. Czestadt, please close the door so he’ll be more comfortable.”

The knight complied, and then turned slowly to regard the two priests. Jothay ignored him and gestured to the small extra room that adjoined his suite. “Your grace, I have a small space prepared for you. It is not much, but it was all I felt safe arranging on such short notice.”

The cloaked figure nodded slowly. His voice was quite surprising, with a heavy rasp to it. Behind each word there was an audible burr that grated on Jothay’s ears. “Thank you, your grace. It is good to see a friendly face in this city.” He followed Jothay into the small chamber. There were no windows, and only a few pillows and a sleeping mat in one corner.

“I am curious why you sought me out, your grace,” Jothay replied, turning back to Vinsah. What he saw made his tongue stop. Vinsah had thrown back the hood of his cloak, and what was beneath it was the head of a beast. Grey fur covered all his head, which was surmounted by triangular ears. Black patches of fur covered his eyes like a mask, and his eyes were a brilliant green, like agate. A snout protruded, and his nose was small and black like a dog’s.

Jothay giggled momentarily and then looked aside. “You are not quite the priest I remembered.”

Vinsah’s tongue rubbed against his teeth as if he were trying to work something loose. “You should experience it from this side. It is still me in here. I have just been given a different skin by the curses of Metamor.”

“What is it like?” Jothay knew he shouldn’t delay, but he was genuinely curious. Vinsah was an enigma the likes of which he had not seen for a long time.

Vinsah shrugged his pack onto the pallet and spread furred hands that almost resembled paws. Each finger was tipped with a short, black claw, and his calluses were more pronounced. He still had an opposable thumb, but it did look a bit longer than a human thumb should be.

“I really cannot describe it. The fur takes some getting used to. As does the tail. But you hear things far better than you did before, and the world is alive with scents in a way you could never imagine. For instance, I can tell that you have been eating fruit recently, and that you’ve also just bathed. There’s a bit of a mustiness about you too, but I cannot quite place it.”

Jothay giggled again. “Oh my, that is good! I had to venture into the catacombs recently. I put a prayer on an old friend gone many years now.”

“Ah, that would be it,” Vinsah agreed with a quick nod of his head. “But what made my journey so difficult was the trouble with my appearance. All see it and are filled with fear. I can go nowhere without being disguised. That in itself is not easy. But here I am at last. Tell me, what has happened at Yesulam in my absence?”

“Well, things have begun to calm ever since the truth of the Patriarch’s murder was brought back. You’ll be happy to hear that there are few voices calling for war against Metamor.”

“I would be happier if there were none,” Vinsah replied, frowning. He let the cloak slip from his shoulders, and Jothay could now see his tail and feet. He bore sandals, but from the shape of his feet, the raccoon could have more comfortably gone without them. The tail came down nearly to his ankles, and was adorned with black and grey circular stripes.

One of Vinsah’s ears turned. “Someone is at your door.”

Jothay grunted unhappily and stepped out of the room. After he took care of whatever interloper was at his door he would have Zagrosek drag this dumb coon down to the altar. There was no point in delaying it any longer.

Czestadt was still standing by the door like a marionette with his strings cut. Jothay motioned for him to attend to the door and the knight opened it a crack. His dark eyes regarded the messenger outside, and his hands practically snatched the small scroll-case from the timid hands.

“What is it?” Jothay asked, quickly growing impatient.

“A message from the Council,” Czestadt replied. His eyes went wide momentarily, and Jothay saw that Vinsah had stepped into the main room.

“What does it say?” Vinsah asked, brow furrowed as if he were trying to crack a particularly difficult nut.

Jothay drew out the message and scanned it quickly. He felt his grip tighten on the page, and it took all of his effort to keep a level voice. “The Council seems to have heard that you have arrived, your grace. You have been called to an audience with them tomorrow.” And that also meant that Jothay would have to change his plans. If the Council discovered that Vinsah was not in Jothay’s chambers, then they might detain Jothay long enough to prevent him from going through with his plans for the Equinox. How in all the hells had they learned that Vinsah was here?

Vinsah looked down at his paws and chuckled mirthlessly. “I guess it was too much to hope for that a man of my appearance could quietly enter the city. I doubt I could even take the time to enjoy her streets after the fall of night.”

Jothay liked that idea even less. The last thing he wanted was for his sacrifice to wander off and not come back. “I would not do that, your grace. There have been many strange things happening of late. Bishop Morean has gone missing, and there have been several murders in the city. I would not risk the streets at night, especially not as you are.”

“Bishop Morean? Of Sondeshara?”

Jothay nodded. “I am afraid so. It was not long after the Questioners returned informing us that the Sondecki Zagrosek was responsible for killing Patriarch Akabaieth.” There, Jothay thought. That ought to occupy Vinsah’s mind. “Why don’t you wait in your room for now. I have many arrangements to see to now. I’ll have something brought in for you to eat later.”

Vinsah nodded slowly, his green eyes lost in thought. “Yes, that sounds fair. Thank you again, Bishop Jothay. You have been a true friend.”

Jothay smiled, doing his best not to giggle as he watched the coon disappear into the room beyond. Jothay dropped the heavy curtain over the doorway to muffle the sound of his voice. He then motioned for Czestadt to join him at the opposite end of the room.

“What is it now?” Czestadt asked, his voice tired and raw.

“Tomorrow at sunset I want you to come here and bring Vinsah with you to the altar. I have need of both of you there, whether he likes it or not.”

Czestadt nodded slowly. “Sunset tomorrow? What if he is still speaking with the Council?”

Jothay shook his head and began to giggle helplessly. “I doubt that will happen. Now go.”

The Driheli knight walked stiffly to the door without another word. Jothay was glad to be rid of him. Still, he might yet prove useful. And he certainly wasn’t nearly as irritating as Zagrosek. Jothay crossed to the other curtained room and slipped into his bedroom. He supposed he would have to get this over with now.

The portly Bishop waved one arm and from out of the shadows stepped the black-clad Sondecki. Zagrosek’s countenance was distant, but his eyes were heady with impatience. “I assume,” he said in a low growl, “that our plans have changed?”

Jothay resisted the temptation to smack him across the cheek. Vinsah might hear that. “Yes. Get back down to the altar. I will meet you there tomorrow after the Council session has ended. I’ll bring the sword, and Czestadt will bring Vinsah.”

The Sondecki’s eyes narrowed. “And if the Council should send him elsewhere?”

Jothay snorted. “Oh, do not worry about the Council. I promise you that Vinsah will be right back in that room when the sun sets tomorrow. Now go before he hears us.”

Zagrosek studied him for a moment, and then bowed his head and stepped back into the shadow. The black tendrils curled around his form and absorbed him into their substance with a quiet series of pops. Soon, Jothay was alone in the room. Unable to hold it back any longer, he fell face first onto his bed and began to giggle hysterically.

The room was spare, but it would serve for now. Vinsah knelt on the pallet and opened his satchel. A few minutes with Akabaieth’s journal would do well to calm his mind and prepare it for the Council session tomorrow.

Beyond the heavy curtain he could hear Jothay and the knight Czestadt speaking softly. He could not make out what they were saying, but Jothay sounded troubled. Vinsah knew Jothay decently from their years as Bishops, though they had met only infrequently. During the last few years, Jothay had been more and more at Yesulam to assist Akabaieth and Vinsah with the Patriarch’s plans, though his duties to his diocese had always kept him at a small distance.

But something was nagging the raccoon. Jothay seemed changed in the many months since Vinsah had last seen him. He seemed edgier, and his lips had kept twitching as if he found all the world around him the most hilarious joke he’d ever heard.

But Akabaieth had trusted him. That was enough for the raccoon.

What Jothay had said about Bishop Morean did disturb him. Where could the Sondesharan Bishop have gone? It was all the more curious as he, like Zagrosek, was a Sondecki. But so too was Charles Matthias, and Charles was clearly not a villain despite his youthful friendship with Zagrosek. Jothay may have wanted to claim that things were better, and perhaps they were on the surface. But something deeper was at work here. Could his arrival have been better timed perhaps?

No, it was silly to ask himself such questions. His Lady had brought him here to Yesulam at just this time. He’d followed her words and guidance, and he had seen so much, and learned so much more than he ever expected to on this journey. Now he was here, and it was his time to lay his fate before the Ecclesia.

He smiled and began to churr. Eli would bless him for his devotion. He would have nothing to fear on the morrow, he felt sure of it. His claws stroked the yew pendant that hung inert about his neck, and then he opened his old master’s journal to read for a bit. There was no need to go anywhere else now. He would wait here until he was needed by the Council.

Vinsah curled up on the pallet with his tail against his legs and without fear of his fate, enjoyed his mentor’s wisdom.

Cover | Contents | Prologue | Book I | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | Interlude I
Book II | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | Interlude II
Book III | 31 | 32 | 33 | 34 | 35 | 36 | 37 | 38 | 39 | 40 | 41 | 42 | 43 | 44 | 45 | 46 | 47 | 48 | Interlude III
Book IV | 49 | 50 | 51 | 52 | 53 | 54 | 55 | 56 | 57 | 58 | 59 | 60 | 61 | 62 | 63 | 64 | 65
66 | 67 | 68 | 69 | 70 | 71 | 72 | 73 | 74 | 75 | Epilogue

« Previous Part
Next Part »