The Last Tale of Yajikali

Chapter III - Foul Words in the Air

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

“Is there anything I can get you?” the black robed priest asked. The Grand Questioner Mizrahek sat cross-legged behind a short table in his dark office. A lanky light-furred dog was at his side, nose nestled in its paws. The room was small with only two exits, the forbidding iron door that all guests entered through, and the equally unattractive narrow passage that led to the sleeping quarters.

Questioners lived lives of poverty and denial. Yet Mizrahek had draped over the single window a silken garment of many colours and designs. The most prevalent was a series of triangles within triangles that made clear to anyone who knew that the drapery had come from Eavey. Silk was one of their chief products, and the triangle was one of their most often used decorations.

“A bit of honey and milk,” Kehthaek replied, his face languid, absorbing all that he saw in the office. A dozen tomes were stacked on the shelves beneath the window, mostly books of prayer, as well as a history of the Ecclesia and a weathered locked copy of the Canticles. They were few enough in number that none who entered would think it an extravagance. Even so, Kehthaek thought it surprising. His quarters had but two books: a book of common Ecclesia prayers used by the Apostles and a book on logic and thought written by the Felikaush.

Mizrahek did not move from where he sat, but one of the Yesbearn that always stood on guard went to retrieve the requested items from the larder down the hall. Though Mizrahek was Grand Questioner and Kehthaek’s superior, the milk and honey were not even truly his to offer. For the sake of hospitality the question had been asked.

Mizrahek’s eye studied the venerable Questioner with some suspicion. Kehthaek had known this man for many years – he had even been on a Questioning with him once – and in all that time, Mizrahek had never been able to completely hide his emotions. Kehthaek’s request to speak with him had come as a surprise, and was only granted because it was the polite thing to do.

Neither of them spoke until a small cup filled with milk and a bit of honey was laid before Kehthaek. His weathered face did not even twitch, but stayed immobile until he heard the iron door shut behind them. Kehthaek then allowed a small smile to cross his lips, while he deftly lifted the cup in his hands. He lifted the saucer as well, so as not to spill any of the milk upon his black cloak.

“Now,” Mizrahek said, his voice quiet, “you wished to speak with me on some matter of importance. You have only recently returned from your Questioning at Metamor, so I assume that you wish to inquire over some matter that pertains to that blasphemous city.”

Kehthaek allowed the honey to settle in the milk a bit. The flavour was a tad too sweet. “And permit me to also assume,” he said, meeting the Grand Questioner’s eyes with equal scrutiny, “that when you refer to Metamor as a blasphemous city, that you do so only in the respect that the curse the people suffer was placed there by a supernatural enemy of Eli, and do not in any way mean to imply that the people who suffer from this curse are blasphemers for being cursed. This would be in contravention of Papal Bull, and I know that you would never do such a thing.”

“Naturally,” Mizrahek agreed. “But surely you do not suggest that there are no blasphemers at Metamor. Your companion Akaleth found several that he was able to cite and present with strong evidence demonstrating their guilt. But you did nothing.”

Kehthaek smiled. This was the real reason he came to speak with Mizrahek. He doubted the Grand Questioner had any idea that it was he who was being interrogated and not the man who had come to his office. “As a Questioner, I am bound by the mandate of the Questioning. Being one of the fundamental tenants of our order, I was loathe to break it even to satisfy Akaleth’s curiosity.”

“Our mandate,” Mizrahek snarled, leaning forward to emphasize his words, “is to find who is an enemy to the Ecclesia and who is our ally. Those that do not support the Ecclesia have two options: either they convert and support us, or they oppose us. This is a war for salvation, Kehthaek. There can be no middle ground. There will be those that will find their way to Paradise, and those that burn in Perdition. Despite the Ecclesia chapel at Metamor, I think you will find that most in that blasphemous city will burn.”

He sipped from the milk, finding the mixture to be more to his taste. “Perhaps that is so, Mizrahek. At the very least, the villain who has slain Patriarch Akabaieth was not of that city. I am curious when next the Questioners will be called upon to pursue this man who did commit the murder.”

This made Mizrahek blink twice. “Pursue him? We do not even know if the information that Metamor supplied us is accurate. Until then, we can do nothing.”

“Nothing?” Kehthaek allowed a measure of surprise to show in is voice. “And why would the information that Metamor supplied us be considered inaccurate?”

“No one is impugning your abilities as a Questioner,” Mizrahek counselled, his voice distinctly superior in tone. “Do not ever think that.”

“Thank you.” In truth, in that moment Kehthaek knew it was precisely the opposite. He had performed his duty too well, and some on the Bishop’s Council and perhaps this very man before him did not like the answers that he brought back.

“The reason is because of the unreliability of the Metamorians. They did their best to hide truth from you. If they were willing to lie about their own people, then how much else did they leave out? There are far too many questions still to be asked. It is a pity the curses were in place, or you and your men might have found time to ask them.”

“The curses only prevented us from questioning one individual,” Kehthaek pointed out gently. “We were able to inform ourselves on that individual through the Duke and others.”

“As you stated,” Mizrahek granted with the wave of one hand. The dog lifted its head in surprise, but settled back down when the Grand Questioner stroked his ears. “But you should have found a way to question this individual yourself. Allowing yourself to be bound to an accord with a Lothanasi is simply negligent. Arrogant even. You think too highly of yourself, Kehthaek. You do not know all the answers.”

“I was under the impression that my abilities as a Questioner were not being impugned. Was I mistaken?” Kehthaek did not allow even the hint of indignation slip from his tongue.

Realizing his error, Mizrahek took a quick breath. “No. You were not mistaken. Circumstances were simply not in your favour. Metamor is a blasphemous city that does not appreciate the rules of hospitality. That you did so well is a testament to your abilities. However, the answers you have brought back are not satisfactory.”

“We brought back the identity of one of the two attackers,” Kehthaek said, lifting the cup of milk to his lips. “And a description of the second. I regret that we were unable to discern a name for the woman. But the man, Krenek Zagrosek, is now known to us. Has anyone sought word from Sondeshara if there is such a man?”

Mizrahek nodded. “Bishop Morean knew of him. He does exist, but he has not been seen for four years. His grace thought him dead.”

“So when will we be seeking him out?” Kehthaek asked.

“We do not know enough to be certain it is him, as I have already said.” Mizrahek glowered visibly, sweat beading on his forehead. Old eyes narrowed at Kehthaek, and his gnarled fingers dug into the dog’s fur. “Do you have anything else you wish to speak with me about? If not, then you will need to excuse me, for I have a great many things to attend to.”

If Mizrahek truly had any business that needed tending, then he must have hidden it in his bedroom for there were no papers of any kind in the office to merit the Grand Questioner’s attention. Kehthaek had no desire to mention this incongruity.

“No, that is all. Thank you for your time and for your hospitality.” Kehthaek finished the last of the milk and set the cup with the bit of honey upon the table. “May Eli go with you.”

Mizrahek repeated the formality, and kept his eyes on Kehthaek until the other priest had left the office. Kehthaek glided out the door, the hem of his robe fluttering along the basalt floor like some sea snail undulating beneath the sea. His face was passive, hands tucked in either sleeve of his black robe. Only the red cross that was emblazoned on the front of the robe brought any colour to his garment.

Though his face was empty, his mind was furiously active. It was clear to him now that Mizrahek was not to be trusted. He was not going to do anything about the Patriarch’s murderer, nor was the Bishop’s Council. For whatever reason, they were all content to let him remain free. He felt certain that not all on the council had become corrupted in his absence, but enough of them had to have been bought in one form or another for this injustice to be left unpursued.

With grim determination, Kehthaek knew that something had happened in Yesulam during his absence. The Ecclesia that he had served was disappearing faster than he could imagine possible. He was not one to shrink from any sort of fight. This would likely be the most important one he would ever wage in his entire life.

But he would need allies. Kehthaek let a smile play across his lips. There were two others he could be certain had not yet succumbed to whatever had swallowed Yesulam in their absence: his fellow Questioners that had come with him to Metamor, Felsah and Akaleth.

Kehthaek resolved to speak with them each as soon as possible. Not too soon lest Mizrahek take notice. But soon. Soon.

His course of action set, the elder Questioner retired to his quarters to recite a few prayers. They would all need a great many of those in the days to come.

Though it was a bright and warm day, Misha felt cold and miserable on the inside. He was riding along the road to Glen Avery with Caroline the otter, bearing news of a terrible sort. He was coming to tell Kimberly that she may not see her husband for a year or more, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

It would have been worse was he coming to tell her that Charles had died. With a deep shudder that even his horse could feel, Misha recalled the agony of telling the Latoner family that their husband and father was dead; killed in a Lutin ambuscade. Even as he thought on Craig’s death, his claws dug at the scars he bore on each arm, scars he’d cut into himself during the funeral. When he told Craig’s wife he wished he could have torn his own throat out. But the knowledge that this trek could be worse did not bring the fox any comfort.

Caroline slipped her paw into his and he felt his fingers curl around her own tightly. His grey eyes regarded his lutrine love without pretense. She could see the turmoil brewing beneath the surface of his fur. He let out a long breath and she tried to smile to him. “This has to be done,” Caroline reminded him. “It should have been done a few days ago.”

Misha bit off his first choice of words, even as the first of the mighty redwoods of the Glen began to slide on past. “I have to do this, Caroline. You know that.”

She nodded, the tips of her toes flexing at the horse’s sides. When they had first ridden out from Metamor that morning they had been galloping. After only a half hour they had allowed the horses to slow to a gentle trot. It was a long trip to the Glen crossing a third of the valley in the process. Misha had made that trip many times in the last year, especially in the last six months.

But never with so heavy a heart as this.

And he would have come sooner but that Thomas needed him at Metamor in those first days after Charles left. There were so many details to attend to, arrangements to be made, new schedules to be posted, and more scouting routes to be planned, that Misha barely had time to forbid any of the other Longs from breaking the news to Kimberly. Misha had always given ill news of a Long to their relatives in the past, and he would not surrender that duty now.

Caroline let go of his paw as they passed beneath the first boughs of the Glen. The wide clearing was familiar, and he could see that there were many Glenners about attending to their day’s business. There were even a few merchants from the south of the valley still selling wares at the edge of the clearing. Lord Avery was still in Metamor attending to business with the Duke, and had not sent word of what had happened back to his wife at Misha’s request. Nobody in the Glen knew what news the fox was bringing.

It was not uncommon for Misha to be greeted shortly after he entered the Glen by several of his friends there. But he was grateful that this time none of them sought him out. Whether because they were on duty in another part of the forest or whether they could see the look of desolation in his eye did not matter to him. He let out a heavy sigh as he undisturbed approached the Matthias home.

Caroline and he dismounted at the roots of the massive tree in which the rats lived. Although there was no hitch to secure their horses reins, they knew the beasts would not become lost. If they did wander off, somebody would see them and bring them right back. That was just how things were done in the Glen.

Misha felt Caroline’s paw at his back, and he nodded. “Thank you for coming,” he told her. She didn’t have to say anything, but he could feel her reassuring smile. With a heavy fist, he pounded on the door.

A trilling voice sounded within, one that made Misha’s heart ache. A second later, the door opened and revealed a rather cheery looking opossum clutching a baby rat in her arms. The rat was desperately suckling. “Misha! Caroline! Come in!” Baerle said exuberantly. “Forgive our lack of modesty, but feeding five children can be a trial sometimes.” She turned away towards the kitchen. “Kimberly! Misha and Caroline are here!”

Misha snorted humourlessly but followed her inside. There was the scent of fresh baked apple pie in the air, in addition to the stink of a mischief of baby rats. Misha saw two of them resting on a heavy blanket tucked in one corner near the hearth. A third was scampering around the edges of the couch sniffing and feeling everything with his fore paws. He did not see the last child.

When Kimberly strode from the kitchen, looking similar to the way that Misha remembered her before she married Charles, though with a bit of the matronly girth still, he saw the fifth child clutched in her arms nursing. Both Kimberly and Baerle were wearing tasteful dresses that exposed only the breast from which the children were feeding, but Misha barely saw them. All he could see were those bright smiling muzzles that were so thrilled to have such welcome friends over so unexpectedly.

“Caroline! Misha!” Kimberly exclaimed with bright eyes and chipper voice. “What a surprise! What can we do for you?” Even as she spoke this last, she saw the looks of regret on the fox and otter’s faces and her voice began to lose its thrill. “Is something wrong?”

“Charles is fine,” Misha said first. He would never let them think anything else. “But something has happened at Metamor that requires his attention.” He drew a bit of parchment from his satchel resting on his hip. “He wrote a letter to you that he asked me to deliver.”

Kimberly took the letter in her free paw and quickly sat down. She set the letter aside for a moment to dislodge the child suckling her breast. The rat seemed to hold on all the tighter as she pulled his head back. “Oh Erick, stop being so greedy. I’ll feed you again soon. Baerle, can you please take Erick?”

The opossum first undid the strap concealing her other breast, and then plucked the child from Kimberly’s arms. Before Erick could wail loudly at the unfairness of it all, Baerle pulled his head in close to her chest. If the little rat could tell the difference, he gave no outward sign.

Misha and Caroline sat down on the couch opposite Kimberly and watched. They were holding each other’s paws tightly, eyes never leaving the lady rat as she broke the wax seal and began to read. Almost immediately her eyes widened, and the cheer that had been on her face disappeared into a shadow of fear and anguish. One paw rose to her face, and she began to nibble anxiously on her claws.

Seeing her distress, Baerle carried both children around behind where Kimberly sat so that she could read. Kimberly held the letter up a little higher for the wet nurse, her paw trembling so badly that the letter began to shake. Caroline slipped from Misha’s side and knelt before the rat, and helped to steady her hand. She put her other paw on Kimberly’s arm to give her what comfort she could.

Quickly, Baerle too became transfixed with horror at what she read. Her eyes began to well with tears only moments after Kimberly’s cheeks became stained and wet. “No.” Baerle murmured, holding the two children closer. “No, how could this be?”

Misha grunted heavily and choked back his own frustration. “It is a long story, and one that you cannot tell any other. At least not yet. We don’t want our enemies to know that they have left the Keep. But in short, we know who killed the Patriarch, who his chief allies are, and where they reside. Charles and James are part of a party that is going to kill them.”

Kimberly was openly weeping, and Baerle was close to as well. Caroline slid onto the couch and pulled Kimberly into her chest. “He’ll be all right. Just let it out.”

Baerle climbed onto the couch behind Kimberly, the two babes still nursing at her chest. She wrapped her arms around Kimberly’s back, the two little rats pressed gently between them. Misha wished to say more to them, but could not find the words. He looked helplessly to Caroline. The otter returned his gaze, her eyes very clear. Right then, there was nothing he could or should say. He merely had to wait.

And wait he did. Kimberly’s tears lasted a few minutes, as did Baerle’s. Caroline allowed herself to shed fresh tears as she held both women close. Misha could not help but wonder what Charles had said in his letter, but he had no intention of asking. The rat had left his family for reasons that would no doubt seem mysterious to Kimberly. And he would be gone for a very long time. None of them knew how long, so they would wake each day wondering if that was the day Charles and the rest would return. And at the end of the day they would go to bed knowing that they would have to wait at least one day more.

For Kimberly, a new mother of five little rats, the burden was incredible.

“Thank you, Caroline,” Kimberly said at last, choking back her sobs. She wiped at her eyes with her apron. Both Caroline and Baerle slipped back from her. Baerle clutched both children in her arms. She did not bother to dry her face.

“Misha,” Kimberly said, her voice small and trembling, “can you tell me what happened?”

The fox nodded slowly, lacing his fingers before him. “The man who killed the Patriarch and his allies gathered at Metamor to perform some ritual. I don’t understand it, but I know that it was bad.” He sucked in his breath. “The worst part is, they were successful.”

“Oh no!” Kimberly quailed. “Is something bad going to happen?”

“That’s why Charles had to leave. To prevent that bad thing from happening. If we had been able to stop them...” he growled loudly at himself and his claws dug into his knees. “Forgive me, but the memory of it is still too fresh.”

Kimberly nodded, brushing back some of her tears. “Please, I must know.”

“Of course.” Misha took two deep breaths and that was enough for him to feel calm again. Or at least, calm enough to talk about what had happened on the Solstice. “We all tried to stop them. Charles, Jessica, Rickkter, Malisa, even James and Habakkuk. All of us were there trying to stop those evil men from finishing that ritual. We failed. They all escaped, though Habakkuk did kill one of them. Do you remember Ambassador Yonson?”

“Yes. Well, I remember that he often requested fruits for his meals.”

“It turns out that he was one of their chief allies. He had been a spy here at Metamor for an entire year, and we never had a clue. Damnit! We should have known.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” Caroline reminded him. “It was not your fault. Nor is this.”

Kimberly trembled in her seat, but it was Baerle who spoke next. “Why was it that Charles had to go? Why didn’t you go?”

Misha snorted and leaned back on the couch, his tail bunched up behind him. “That is the most frustrating part. It turns out that Habakkuk is a prophet.”

“A Felikaush?” Kimberly asked, her eyes narrowing. “Charles told me that he was.”

He was surprised for a moment, but then knew better. This was not the sort of secret that Charles would keep from his wife. Charles was famous for grumbling behind closed doors about people who irritated him. He did not spread gossip, and he was always careful who he spoke to, but he still grumbled. Misha could well remember several times that the rat had been in his office grousing about this or that minor irritation.

“Yes, that is right. And he told us that this was a moment of prophecy, and that some Keepers needed to go with him to fight this evil directly. But he was very specific about who could go and who had to stay.” He balled his paws into fists. “I wanted to go. I want you to know that I was furious when he told me that I had to stay behind while my friends put their lives at risk. I still am. But he told Charles and James that he had seen them in his visions of this mission, and that they had to go.”

“And you believed him?” Baerle asked in surprise. She plucked the female rat from her chest even as she spoke. The child was clearly sated, because she did not even object. “A prophet? I thought they only said cryptic things that nobody understood.”

“Duke Thomas believed him, and in the end that is what matters. And after seeing what I saw that day, I think I believe him too.” Misha shuddered at the memory of the Shriekers, and most especially of that man with the cards who could control their minds with so little effort.

“And you have no idea when they’ll be back?” Baerle asked as she walked over to the baby blanket and set the full rat back down. She did not pick up another, but focussed her free paw on securing her modesty.

“None. I do not understand what they set out to do. Our enemy’s base of power lies in Marzac, but they journeyed into the Barrier Range. Not the opposite direction, but just about.” Misha let out a barking mirthless laugh. “Honestly, I don’t know. But at least he is alive, and when he comes back, he will be so glad to see you. I promise I won’t make him go out on any more long trips for some time.”

Kimberly smiled weakly, but could no longer meet his gaze. She stared down at the letter which lay folded on the table. “What am I to do?”

“You’ll receive Charles’s wages as a Long Scout, so you will not have to worry about maintaining your home,” Misha pointed out, wishing that he could find some way to comfort her. Caroline seemed to be doing a much better job without even speaking. With her arm draped over Kimberly’s back, the otter did not need to do anything more.

Kimberly pointed to the letter with one claw. “Charles wants me to move to Metamor once the children are old enough.”

Misha nodded. “The Keep made a set of quarters for all of you in the Long House. I saw them and was very impressed. You’d do well there. We would all help you move when you are ready.”

“But, it wouldn’t be the same,” Kimberly said, tears starting to come to her eyes again. Both Baerle and Caroline moved closer to her. “This is the home I built with Charles. I could not build a home without him.”

“Well, if you need help, we will always be ready to give it. In fact, Caroline and I are going to stay here at the Glen for a few days to give any help you need.”

Kimberly began to cry again, and even the opossum had a fresh tear on her face. “Thank you, Misha, Caroline. I miss him already.” She turned and hugged Caroline tightly. Misha could not stop his feet from standing him up and walking him over to her side. Together, he held Caroline and Kimberly tight. He even managed a bit of his paw to hold Baerle too.

The wharves of Whales were always busy. This was one of the seminal truths about life on an island nation. Especially one with a secret as coveted a the Whalish Fire. That fire had kept Whales’s naval fleet the best in the world for centuries. Whales had endured the whims of time while other nations fell into anarchy and chaos. And if Prince Phil had anything to say about it, it would stand for several centuries more.

As the noon hour was approaching, Phil had taken a short reprieve from his many duties to stand upon one of the palace balconies overlooking the sea. His large white ears turned towards the crash of surf on rock, the boisterous scrambles of sailors through rigging and upon deck, and the snapping of bright sails in the westerly winds. He loved hearing those sounds. It reminded him of his youth when he served in the Whales fleet. There had been a sense of true freedom serving as a Captain in the Whalish Navy. When out on the sea, he was as close to being the master of his own destiny as any man could ever hope.

His attention briefly focussed on a merchant vessel that was docking at the wharves. Sailors threw out lines to men on the pier, while the sails were brought done and secured. As he watched them move, he could not help but marvel at the mechanical efficiency of a good crew. They were each instruments with special functions, but like a living organism, could respond to the subtle changes and eddies that occurred in practice. There was nothing quite so pleasing to his eye than a crew that had served together for a long time.

“Your highness?” a voice called from the archway behind him. Phil turned and nodded his head to the King’s Prime Minister, Niacles. He was an older man dressed in white loose-fitting robes. Niacles and Tenomides had been good friends for many years, though Phil and he had only more recently warmed to each other. Niacles suffered an injury early in life which prevented him from joining the Navy, though he had always been a strong supporter of the Fleet with his office.

“Minister Niacles,” Phil said and hopped away from the bright stone railing. “What might I do for you today?”

Niacles strode out to meet the rabbit and bowed quickly. It was not a perfunctory or flattering bow, merely a respectful one. Nor did Phil consider it necessary, but Niacles was a firm believer that those holding an office of honour should be treated accordingly. That belief had served him well in his many years as Prime Minister.

“I thought you would be interested to know of your father’s condition.” For a moment Phil felt a sudden surge of hope, but the dour expression on the minister quelled his excitement. “Sadly, there does not appear to be any change in his condition. He is still bedridden, despite the doctor’s attempts to help him rise.”

“But he is not deteriorating?”

Niacles shook his head, and let out a sigh of relief. “By the grace of the gods, no. He has a very strong will. The doctor says there is still hope that he may yet defeat this malady.”

“Good,” Phil nodded his head and thumped one foot for emphasis. “What have we heard from Pyralis?”

Niacles spread his hands wide. Despite never serving in the Navy, his hands were very strong and callused. “Nothing new I fear. What messages we have received suggest that an armed force from Pyralis moved into passes through the Sathmore mountains. By accounts we have heard, the force is not large, but significant enough to defeat and occupy some of the southeastern Sathmoran cities. But this information is three weeks old.”

“Aye, that is most unfortunate. Have any of the dragons returned with news?”

The minister let out a snort. “That was the news, your highness.”

Phil nodded glumly and then motioned towards the railing. “If you have a few minutes, please come stand with me, Niacles. It is too lovely a day to be chasing papers.”

The minister took the last few steps along the balcony and rested his hands upon the stone railing. The stone had a rich earthy colour like clay, but had stood solidly for hundreds of years. Apart from the modified royal blue doublet that Phil’s wife insist he wore for decency’s sake, both Phil and Niacles appeared in the noon-time sun like white quartz statues. Niacles stood with his head held high, eyes studying the eddying clouds overhead. Phil’s focus returned to the docking merchant ship. Cargo was being unloaded, so his view was not nearly as interesting as it had been only moments before.

“I’m having a difficult time deciding what to do regarding this Marzac affair,” Phil announced after they had been silent for a minute.

Niacles had not been present when the Marquis du Tournemire had spoken to them about his fears. Being the Prime Minister, he had been told shortly thereafter. At the time, he had not been able to shed any more light on the Marquis’s tale. Phil did not expect him to then either. It was increasingly becoming a problem whose solution was fraught with incredible risk at every turn, but provided little tangible reward.

“There does not seem to be any good ideas,” Niacles admitted. “If you send forces in to investigate, then if what the Marquis says is true, you’d be sending them to their deaths. It would be risky enough as it is with that entire region of sea surrounded by coral beds.”

“Which is why so few of our ships pass that way now. And when we do pass through them, we are headed to the East: Pyralis, Yesulam, Eavey, Stuthgansk.” Phil waggled one paw in the air. “If what the Marquis says is true, a good number in our fleet are already corrupted and we’d never know it.”

“And there is no way that we can test this?”

Phil shook his head. “No way that we have found. I had three sailors who’d been on vessels that strayed close to that land arrested for drunkenness last week. While they were being held, mages scanned them magically for any signs. They could see nothing unusual at all.”

“Then maybe we are safe and this corrupting power cannot extend across the sea?” Niacles suggested hopefully.

“My heart tells me that we have reason to fear,” Phil replied, eyes narrowing thoughtfully. “It would explain the Patriarch’s murder, or at least it gives us a few more clues to track down his killer. Tell me, do you believe that the Marquis can be trusted?”

Niacles pondered the question for a moment, rubbing his chin with one finger. “He was instrumental in stopping the Sutt conquest of Southern Pyralis. You were in your last years as a naval captain at the time, your highness, so might not remember all the details. And he dealt fairly with the other lords afterwards. Despite his considerable contributions, he did not ask for a greater reward, nor did he receive one. He has stayed close to his connections in the Southlands, though what those might be I do not know.”

“Have you had dealings with him before?” Phil asked, turning to face the minister.

Niacles grimaced. “The Marquis has never interfered with our affairs in the past. I think that we can trust him to genuinely do what he feels is in the best interest of Pyralis and its people. Not necessarily what is best for other nations.”

Phil nodded slowly and rubbed his paws together. “So what advantage would Pyralis gain by him bringing me this warning?”

“A fleet of rogue Whalish ships sailing along the Pyralian coast could do a great deal of damage to his country.”

The rabbit frowned and thumped his foot in thought. There seemed to be no way around the inevitable. “Well, I do not think we should do anything until this war in Pyralis has been put down. Let us see if the Marquis is as good as his word first.”

“That sounds like the wise course of action,” Niacles agreed.

Phil heard it first, the stomping of booted feet running towards them. He turned his ears, and then his head. A moment later, Niacles heard it and looked back across the balcony towards te doorway where into view ran a shaken Commodore. Pythoreaus was in orange uniform, his greying hair frazzled by his run. “Your highness,” he said in deep tones even as he caught his breath.

“What is it, Pythoreaus?”

“Terrible news, sire. The merchant vessel that just docked spied a wreckage on her voyage south from Sathmore. They investigated, and discovered that it was the Miletus. They scoured the wreck for a day, but found no survivors.”

“The Miletus?” Phil asked. He knew the ship, but for a moment could not quite remember what it’s mission had been. “How did it sink?”

“It appeared to have been struck by lightning. What didn’t sink burned.” Pythoreaus let his frown deepen. “We found bodies burned alive, including that of the Marquis.”

“What!” Phil hopped a few steps closer tot he Commodore. “The Marquis du Tournemire?”

“Aye, sire. I fear that he and all aboard that ship were struck down by the heavens.”

Phil felt the balcony began to tilt like the deck of a vessel in stormy seas. He fell to all fours and shivered from the shock of the news. Neither man approached him, allowing to fight against his feral instincts himself as he preferred. If either of them dared to touch him, another flood of lapine instincts would overwhelm him.

As it was, Phil felt very small, surrounded by huge monsters that sought to claim him. It took all his self-control to keep from running back inside to find a place to hide. His claws slowly raked over the stone. Any faster and it would have been clear he was trying to dig. Somehow, in the back of his mind, he knew this was no accident. Somehow, the evil power that the Marquis unwittingly awoke had stretched out its hand and silenced the Marquis once and for all.

Now, Phil and the people of Whales may be the only hope that anyone had to stop the evil of Marzac before it spread. Phil reminded himself of that duty, reminded himself and willed his paws to stop clawing. Slowly, and with each new breath he took, Phil began to master his instincts and turn himself back into a man of reason.

When his fit had finally passed, Phil rose, brushed off a bit of dust on his blue doublet, and nodded to his two advisors. “If the Marquis is dead, then we can no longer afford to wait. Issue a recall order to all naval vessels on the western coasts of Galendor and Kitchlande. Leave a handful of vessels in the Sea of Stars in case Metamor has need of us, but the rest must return here.”

“It will be done,” Pythoreaus bowed his head quickly, but stayed to wait for more instructions.

“Also, organize a small expeditionary force to investigate the waters around Marzac. They are not to go near the coast, nor are any of them to be equipped with Whalish flame. No one aboard should know the secret of it either. I am willing to sacrifice some of our men, but I will not sacrifice that secret. Have them set sail within three days.”

“It will be done. Is there anything else, sire?”

“No, that will be all for now. Meet with me when you have the force selected. We will discuss further details then. Niacles, have a message sent to Metamor informing them of this newest development. If there is any knowledge they can give us, now is the time.”

Niacles nodded, “I shall have the message sent within the hour.”

“Thank you. And now I am going to see my father. He must know of this too.” So saying, Phil hopped back into the palace. There was steel in his eyes. He would not fail in this. Whales would not fail in this.

In the city of Yesulam, the warmth of the Summer sun stayed in the air for a couple hours past sunset. So when Akaleth of the Questioners answered the summons of the Bishop Jothay of Eavey it was still quite warm. The stars sparkled dimly overhead, while the great Cathedral was lit from within by hundreds of flambeaux. Akaleth was dressed only in the black robe with red cross as was the custom of Questioners. Each of them owned two such robes, in the event that one of them was torn or ruined by accident while on a Questioning. Beneath the robes were woolen linens of an unremarkable style. The only time that they had not been sufficient to warm him was during the nights in Metamor.

Akaleth owned a few other trinkets whose use was just as important he felt as the black robes for instilling fear and compliance in those that were questioned. Over the years he had developed an ability to keep them secreted in his robe sleeves. Often he wound wind the end of the whip around his fingers, feeling the tough leather hide against his flesh. That leather had scored many backs, including his own when he’d been a youth. He could well remember the day he’d wrested it from his Rebuilder father.

For a moment as that triumph he’d sought all his younger life came back to him he smiled. But inevitably emptiness followed. He’d remember the look of defiance on his father’s face when Akaleth had ordered him tried as a heretic. Even when that man that had scarred Akaleth’s back out of fear for the boy’s precocious abilities and interest in the Ecclesia had begun to burn, the new Questioner had felt the exultation of triumph. He had rid the world of one of Eli’s enemies he told himself.

And then, his father died, and Akaleth felt empty. The days and weeks that followed had been some of the most miserable of his life. One of his mentors amongst the Questioners assured him that the only joy in life came from doing the work of the Ecclesia, and that he must be zealous in pursuing it at every opportunity. And he felt that old exuberance when he was sent on a Questioning. It was truly the only time he felt alive.

His mission to Metamor Keep had been the first Questioning when they had found no one upon which to render judgement. While he did not doubt the veracity of the conclusions that they had reached, it galled him that they were unable to bring the man who had slain Patriarch Akabaieth to justice. He had also hoped that he would be able to put those pagan Lothanasi in their place, but he’d been stymied by Father Kehthaek at every turn.

Akaleth felt the anger building up inside of him and he stopped on his walk across the gardens to take several deep breaths. He’d never before been on a Questioning with Kehthaek, but he had heard from some of the other Questioners his age who had. They had all spoken admirably of his ability to ferret out the truth, but also of how utterly frustrating it was to Question under him.

And now he knew that first hand.

What was worse was that there was going to be nothing for him to do for some time. He was ineligible to stand for a Questioning for at least another month by the rules of his Order. That meant he was left with little to do but to study at the feet of the elders and attend daily Services. He would do both, but would find no solace there.

And that was why he journeyed to the suites off the great Cathedral of St. Kephas to meet with Bishop Jothay. His grace had promised Akaleth that he could help drive out the pagans who had infiltrated the Ecclesia. This was an effort that he was looking forward to. It might even bring him some joy.

The Cathedral of St. Kephas was built in the centre of Yesulam, and in fact was the focus of the entire city. To the west were suites that connected with the cathedral meant for visiting Bishops. Many Bishops had elected to stay in Yesulam during Patriarch Geshter’s regnal year. This was common practice and was used to help insure a smooth transition from one Patriarch to the next. Not all Bishops stayed, but many from the Southlands had for it was more difficult for them to keep in touch with Yesulam than those in Pyralis or the Midlands.

The residences were full of broad balconies and open doorways. Frescoes depicting scenes from the Canticles and from the life of Yahshua decorated the walls. As Akaleth walked past them, he nodded in approval to all of the ritual symbols that lived in those murals and in the reliquaries set in venerated alcoves. He did not understand how the Rebuilders could choose to enforce a faith without symbols and rich history to weave it all together. It was what had always attracted him in his youth. He made the sign of the tree several times in his passage.

Bishop Jothay’s quarters were set on the western edge of the residence, with a balcony that overlooked the river. There was still a good portion of the city between the residence and the city walls that stood on the bluff before the Yurdon river, but Akaleth was told the view an hour before sunset with the sun reflecting off the waters was breathtaking.

The entrance to Jothay’s quarters was an onion shaped archway with a silk drapery keeping him from seeing anything other than shadows beyond. Two guards dressed in the green of the Ecclesia stood outside carrying pikes. “You may go in,” the elder of the two guards said. “His grace is expecting you, Father.”

Akaleth nodded his head. When not on a Questioning, it was customary for Questioners to leave the cowl of their cloaks down as a symbol for others to see. Kehthaek’s willingness to lower his cowl to the Metamorians had been just one more thing that irked him.

The guard held the silk drapery to one side and Akaleth stepped through. The room beyond was plush, with a tree and a gilded copy of the Canticles set on a small table on the eastern wall. To the west was an open pillared arch that led to the balcony. The balcony was lit with flambeaux at each corner. To the north was another silk draped room which was presumably the study and bedchambers. In the centre of the room was a depression in which rested a thick Eaven carpet and several large silk covered pillows. Reclining against those pillows was the corpulent Bishop Jothay.

Jothay smiled wide, showing his receding gums and dark stained teeth. But the smile upon his chubby cheeks gave im a cherubic appearance, like the children angels shown in the murals. Akaleth half expected to see a golden halo surrounding his tonsured brow. “Good evening, Father! I have been looking forward to seeing you. Tell me, how are you feeling since your return?” He then gestured to another pile of pillows resting against the stone siding of the depression. “Please sit and relax. We men of the Ecclesia are allowed the comforts of this world so long as we do the Ecclesia’s work.”

Akaleth was not used to the poshness of the Bishop’s chambers, but found the pillows quite comfortable. It was difficult to stay seated he found, and so ended up lying on his side like the Bishop. “Thank you, your grace. I am well. Eager to be of assistance to the Ecclesia, but I am unable to do anything for a time. It is the way of the Questioners to rest and seek communion with Eli after they have returned from a Questioning.”

Jothay nodded his head, smiling still. He laughed at something under his breath and stared back at the northern archway. His eyes narrowed, and he began to suck on his lower lip. No, Akaleth realised, he was biting on his lower lip.

When the bishop’s playful eyes rested upon the Questioner, the smile had returned. “I wanted to commend you for your revealing report on your Questioning at Metamor. You provided many details that will assist us in deciding what course to pursue. Tell me, did those of the Ecclesia at Metamor provide you with any difficulties? One can hardly expect the pagans to cooperate. It is pity you could not do more to ensure their cooperation. But of the Followers, did any trouble you?”

Akaleth sucked in his breath and pondered. It was normally the Lothanasi that had completely vexed him. Most of those they interviewed had been Lothanasi. There had been that Rebuilder fox who obviously hated them. Akaleth had to admit to himself that he rather enjoyed the way that Kehthaek had completely disarmed him. Still, it would have been more satisfying to see his rebellious back bleed.

He could only recall three members of the Ecclesia speaking with them. Bishop Vinsah and the two knights. His fingers felt the end of his whip and he rubbed the leather soothingly. “The knights were both dutiful and answered us promptly and without hassle. I think they were the only ones we questioned that did not raise my ire. Bishop Vinsah however proved most difficult. He even dared to strike me on the cheek for doing my duty.”

Jothay had been nodding happily as Akaleth told him of the knights, but his smile disappeared into a concerned frown when the priest made mention of Vinsah. He slowly began to shake his head. He drummed his fingers atop his belly in consternation. “That is most distressing to hear. Most distressing indeed. To strike a member of the cloth doing the Ecclesia’s will? Why did you not mention this in your report?”

Akaleth frowned and rubbed at his cheek. The bruise had long since faded, but he could remember the moment vividly. One moment he’d been taunting the Bishop, deliberately goading him into a rage. He’d never actually expected that rage to boil over into physical violence. He let out a long sigh, his teeth ground tightly together. “Because I see now in retrospect that the words I spoke that led him to strike me were ill-chosen, and disrespectful to a dead man.”

“I thought you said you were doing your duty.”

“I was. But I believe I could have found a better way to say it. That is why I did not mention it in my report. I do not feel he was justified, but I did not want him to be judged on the basis of that alone. There are other things that he did and said that have given me great enough pause.”

“Truly?” Jothay leaned forward, very interested. “Was there anything more than what you spoke of in your report?”

“Only that he was quite indignant that the Council of Bishops did not endorse all of Patriarch Akabaieth’s ideas.”

“Being a Bishop,” Jothay mused, “Vinsah is entitled to his own opinions. He should have a say. However, if he expresses heretical ideas, then we must know about them so that we can try to bring him back into the fold. Failing that, we have ways of dealing with heretics, sad as it is to do.” The Bishop leaned forward, eyes narrowing. “Did he express any heretical ideas?”

Akaleth shook his head. “If he had, I would have reported them. But as I said, I feel that his time at Metamor has led him to be more tolerant of such ideas. He did not seem to mind that he was living in a pagan city.”

“Will he be coming back to Yesulam as he ought?”

“He said that he would. He has become a creature that looks like a raccoon but walks like a man.”

Jothay nodded, biting his lip again. To Akaleth’s surprise, he was drawing blood. Quivering eyes glanced furtively at the northern archway. “Well, I wanted to speak with you about an endeavour I have been labouring at for some time now. The example of Bishop Vinsah has me concerned. There are more like him in the Ecclesia. People who have become tolerant of pagan ideas, even going so far as to embrace them and call for the Ecclesia to do the same. I hope to root out these pagan influences and restore the Ecclesia to her true self. But this will not be easy. These men are powerful and are willing to do anything. If you choose to help, you may be asked some very strange things. Can you do this for the Ecclesia?”

Akaleth narrowed his eyes. A slow smile spread over his face and his fingers tightened their grip on the end of the lash. “I would be very interested to hear more of what you intend, your grace. And I am willing to do many things for the Ecclesia. Who is spreading these pagan influences?”

“I am so delighted to hear that, Father Akaleth. To answer your question, I must remind you of what we face. Those who will allow pagan ideas and thoughts to circulate in the minds of Followers are traitors to the Ecclesia. They weaken the Ecclesia, and will lead many good men into heresy. We cannot tolerate them.”

Jothay rubbed his hands together, the flesh of his belly jiggling. “Such traitors will call for peace between the Ecclesia and her enemies. If there is peace between us, then we will never be able to unite all the lands of Galendor and this world under the banner of the Ecclesia. Yahshua bade us to make Followers of all nations. We cannot allow foolish and heretical notions of peace with pagans keep us from that task.”

Akaleth pursed his lips, feeling his heart quicken in his chest. “Are you saying that Patriarch Akabaieth was wrong to go on his journey?”

Jothay nodded slowly. “He was a good man, and a visionary in many ways. But he allowed unwise sentiment to prevail over just counsel. Patriarch Geshter is doing what he can to correct those fatal errors. But the seeds have been planted, and we must weed out Eli’s garden.”

He felt incredibly tense. He had never liked the idea of Patriarch Akabaieth’s mission to bring peace to all kingdoms. But he had been Patriarch, hadn’t he? “And what of Akabaieth’s assassin? What will be done about him?”

Jothay chuckled and licked at his lips, sucking the bit of blood down. “Naturally when he is found we will bring him to the justice of the Ecclesia.”

“What would you have of me?” Akaleth asked, his grip tightening on the whip.

“You are a Questioner, Father Akaleth. Listen to all that you hear, and ask questions when you fear there may be traitorous thoughts lurking. And report anything that you discover to me. I will see that those traitors are denounced before the Council. Can you do this?”

Akaleth stiffened but after several seconds hesitation finally nodded. “Aye, I will do as you have asked, your grace. May Eli’s peace be with you.”

“And with you, Father Akaleth. Go now. Send word when you have heard any news.” And with that, Jothay waved a hand in dismissal. Akaleth rose, bowed and made the sign of the tree before leaving. He could not help but walk a bit faster than most Questioners were wont to do.

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

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