Book 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
All things happened for a reason. In the heat of the moment, it is unlikely any will understand what those reasons are. But with time, distance, and clear thinking, one could often deduce the outlines or sketches of Eli’s intent. Not the whole of it; that was beyond mankind’s understanding. But small pieces could be glimpsed, pertaining to the next step or two in a person’s life.
As the Sondesharan vessel rocked against the river current, Vinsah pondered these things. For the first time he could rationally consider why he was excommunicated. Some would only ever see the injustice done to him, and lay it at the feet of Marzac. There was, the raccoon reflected, some truth to that; but there was a greater truth yet: Geshter was Patriarch. That could only happen if Eli had let it be. Despite the corruption, Geshter was still Eli’s servant in the world, and through him, Eli made His will known.
Vinsah ran his paws along the front of one of Akabaieth’s journals. He smiled faintly. It was not easy to do so. Despite being able to face his excommunication rationally, it still pained him deeply. As did a horrible possibility that came to him from time to time; what if his excommunication had been just? That would mean he had been espousing heresy when he spoke of magic and in defence of Akabaieth and Metamor.
But others on the council, like Gavroche of Boreaux, had been in agreement with him. It hardly seemed likely that Vinsah alone would suffer if he was truly wrong about these weighty matters. Further, in his heart, he knew he spoke the truth. Many times he had asked Eli whether or not magic was just a tool. And then he would open his eyes and see a snout and paws folded in prayer. He would remember Father Hough and his remarkable congregation. He would recall his journey through Sathmore with Malger and Murikeer, each day filled with magic of one kind or another to aid them on their way. No matter what magic wrought for good or for ill, he knew that Yahshua’s love was greater still.
Which left the raccoon certain that his excommunication was unjust, but still a part of Eli’s plan. It was Vinsah’s responsibility to discern what his place was to be, and how best he could remain a faithful servant to Eli. All he’d had for company in the last month were Akabaieth’s journals and the many words of wisdom they contained. They had put thoughts in his mind that he would never have believed he could consider a year ago. And now, the time when he would need to make a decision about his fate was fast approaching.
A familiar light shone down the steps at the far end of the hold. The surprisingly gentle tread of Captain Delius came a moment later. Vinsah stood and smoothed his dishevelled garments as best he could. They stank of his musk as well as the sea and the ship, but what sailor would notice?
Delius’s lips were set in a tight line as he came into view. He bore a plate with bread and cheese. “Vinsah?”
The raccoon stepped into the light and did his best to smile. “How is the weather, Captain?”
“Foul. We have no winds, but the oarsmen serve well. We will reach Eldwater tomorrow. The portage will take some time, but it is the only way to reach the Western Sea with the Whalish blockade.”
Vinsah nodded and grimaced. A week ago they had encountered a Whalish vessel that informed them the Coral Basin was not safe to cross. The only way to reach Metamor by water was to sail all the way around the Southlands, a journey of at least a year! The only other option was to sail up the Breckarin river to Eldwater, portage the vessel to the Silvassan river, and then continue up the Sathmore coast, assuming the hull was not damaged during the portage.
Delius handed Vinsah the plate, and he scooped the heel of bread and small wedge of cheese into his paws. “And it will take us to Silvassa?”
“If we need to make repairs we can go to Silvassa. If not it will be easier to put into water downstream of the city.”
“And to return to Sondeshara, you will have to do it again. What will the Pyralians think of a Sondesharan vessel being hauled through their lands?”
“Given the blockade, hopefully not much...” Delius’s frown deepened and he tapped the now empty plate against his thigh. “But it is a danger. If our intent is mistaken, the Pyralians could damage our ship. We have an Ecclesia flag, so they shouldn’t.”
“And how will they react in Sathmore? They may not be familiar with the Sondesharan flag, but they will certainly know the Ecclesia’s. They just repelled an army from Pyralis a few months ago. I fear you will be met with violence if you attempt a portage.”
Delius appeared ready to argue, but Vinsah could see in the man’s eyes that he knew what the raccoon said was the truth. “I made a promise, Vinsah. I promised Father Kehthaek I would see you safely to Metamor. How am I supposed to do that if I do not risk a portage?”
It was not yet a commitment; there would still be time for the raccoon to change his mind, but it was clear to him now whose help he would need. “Leave your vessel in Eldwater. Restock your wares, but do not be in a hurry about it. While you do that, a few of your sailors can see me to Silvassa. I have a friend there that will help me make my way safely to Metamor.”
Delius appeared sceptical. “Who? Unless I know they can be trusted, I will have broken my promise. For a Sondecki, a promise is sacrosanct. Our power will not let us break them. So tell me who your friend is and why I should trust him.”
Vinsah nodded and rolled the heel of bread about his paws. “Her name is Nylene hin’Lofwine. She is a Lothanasi priestess who serves in the Silvassan temple.” Delius’s eyebrows rose. “A few months ago, one of my travelling companions, Malger, introduced us, and Nylene served as a gracious hostess. She saw us as we are, and was neither afraid nor horrified by our appearance. She had been Malger’s tutor in the ways of the Lothanasi, and promised us her protection if ever again we returned to Silvassa. At the time I was still a Bishop of the Ecclesia, but that did not matter to her. That is why I trust her, Captain. You should too.”
“A priestess of the Lothanasi?” Delius asked, the surprise on his face beginning to fade. “I can see that you trust her. I am not yet convinced.”
Vinsah’s claws dug angrily into the wedge of cheese. “Bishop Hockmann of Breckaris led an army into the passes at the head of the Silvassan river. If he’d come through, he could have swept on Silvassa like a wolf upon lambs! I was there serving on the side of Sathmore, and I exorcised the unclean spirit that had led Hockmann to this madness. Because of this and the parts my travelling companions played in turning the Pyralian army back, Silvassa was saved.”
“So she is indebted to you?”
“Aye,” Vinsah replied, feeling some of the tension leave his body. “Will you trust her now?”
Delius did not appear any happier, but after considering for a few seconds, the Sondecki began to nod. “If she is indebted to you, then I will trust her. But it will be I that sees you safely into her presence.”
“That is fair. Thank you, Captain.”
Delius grunted and tucked the empty plate under his arm. “We should reach Eldwater tomorrow. As soon as it is safe we will collect you and your things and begin the journey. Until tomorrow then.”
“Until tomorrow,” Vinsah replied, offering him a smile. The Captain returned up the stairs, leaving the raccoon alone in the hold. Vinsah settled down with the journals and rather quickly ate both bread and cheese. The bread was hard, but he was used to it by now. It was no better than the sailors had.
When he finished he selected one of the journals to read. But he found he could not open it. He had just committed himself to seeking and relying upon the aid of the Lothanasi. How much more would he ask of them, and could he do so?
Vinsah set the journal aside and rose to his knees. He folded his paws before his snout and prayed. “Abba, I know you love me. I know you have a plan for me, and while I do not know where it will lead years from now, I believe I know where it leads a few days from now. Abba, there is so much that your servant Akabaieth wrote, and so much of it seems meant for me. Please, if I am wrong or presumptuous, send me a sign to show me your will. If not, help me let go my fear and humbly submit. I know they are your servants, and if you mean me to go to them, help me to be a good servant to them as well. I am frightened, Abba. Help me to know your will.”
No more words came for several minutes. His mind was a jumble at first, thoughts slowly coalescing for a time before being dismissed by new thoughts. He tried to focus, pushing away all the distractions to seek that one thing he truly wished to see. It took time, but bit by bit, the fog began to disperse, leaving only a single image; his Lady smiling to him. He felt his heart lift, and his tongue finally found its voice. “Amen.”
The Vysehrad mountains were rocky crags with only sparse vegetation. The tallest peaks bore snow all year long, but most did not. While the southern reaches of the mountains extended into the Desert of Dreaming, the northern reaches dispersed into a series of low peaks and hills like fingers spread wide. The land around the peaks was rife with broad plains and small forests. Further to the west stood the Åelfwood, a forest of mystery and magic that any sensible Magyar would never enter.
Then again, no sensible Magyar crossed to the eastern side of Vysehrad where strangers who spoke no language they could understand did dwell. And yet, ever since Grastalko had become a Magyar roughly five months ago, they had done that very thing. Soon they would venture through the Åelfwood. Beyond lay the Steppe, their home; a land Grastalko could barely remember.
The last time he had been in the Flatlands, he’d been a knight’s squire, was called Golonka, and spoke a different language! Then there was the shrivelled stump of his left hand through which he could create fire. He certainly couldn’t do that five months ago!
So even though the other Magyars accepted him as one of their own without qualification, he still felt isolated whenever his friends would begin to speak of the Steppe. Their voices would sing with love and pride, and also misery for they missed it so. To Grastalko it meant nothing but the last gasps of an old life he had been honour bound to leave behind. They yearned to see the Steppe because it was their home. He yearned to see the Steppe that he might put such painful memories behind him forever.
He was a Magyar now, and the Steppe would soon become his home, one that he would share for the rest of his life.
But every time they ate, somebody would wonder how many days more it would take ere they reached home. So too that day did some of the boys his age while breaking their fast. Grastalko sighed and leaned back against a rock, his eyes wandering as the conversation turned to that unpleasant topic. Inevitably, he began to stare at the seer’s wagon. He hadn’t seen Bryone yet that cool October morning, and he wondered if perhaps he should bring her and Dazheen something to eat. And maybe after she’d eaten, Grastalko could show Bryone the beautiful trees all around. It was very strange to see the leaves changing colours at this time of year, but he reminded himself that things worked differently in Galendor.
His reverie was broken when a pair of legs came between him and Bryone’s wagon. Grastalko looked up and saw grim-faced Hanaman standing akimbo and staring back down. “Grastalko, I wish thee to join me in leading the wagons this day. Wilt thee do so?”
Hanaman’s question was a polite formality, as refusing him would be a terrible insult. “Aye, ‘twill be a joy to aid thee!” Grastalko grinned widely and straightened up. The chance to be at the front of the wagons was genuinely exciting. Generally he sat far to the rear where all he could do was direct his Assingh to follow the wagon before them, and that required almost no effort for the beasts knew their job better than Grastalko did.
“Good, I shalt expect to see thee ready ere we depart.” Hanaman turned and headed towards his wagon to prepare.
“ ‘Tis unfair,” a boy two years younger called Rabji complained. “I hath ne’er been asked to the lead wagon!”
His bright-haired friend Volay laughed. “If thou wert in the lead wagon, we wouldst crash into the Vysehrad!”
Rabji shot him a dark look. “Hanaman hath ne’er asked thee either!”
Volay spread his hands wide in a look of indifference. “I be not the one complaining of injustice.”
Grastalko laughed and stood. “I wilt tell thee both what ‘twas like tonight. Ne’er fear, ‘tis likely the same as anywhere else.”
“Not likely,” Rabji grumbled, but Grastalko was already on his way to the cook pot to hand in his bowl.
Grastalko did not keep Hanaman waiting. In fact, he arrived early and did his best to hitch the Assingh with only one hand. The animals were stubborn, but after a bit of coaxing consented to their yokes. When Hanaman emerged from the wagon, he nodded in approval. “Climb up and take the reins. I shalt return ere we leave.” So saying, Hanaman headed down the line of wagons to check on the rest.
Grastalko found the seat atop the wagon comfortable. It was a little strange to see no other wagons before him, but also exciting. He wrapped the reins around his wrist and waited.
Hanaman returned after only a few minutes. With cat-like grace he joined Grastalko on the wagon, lips set in a pleased line. Grastalko had learned that their leader rarely smiled, but there were many subtleties to his expressions. “Be we ready?” the youth asked as he tightened his grip on the reins.
“Aye,” Hanaman waved one hand to the west. “Set us on our way. Following Vysehrad, but carefully.”
With a flick of his wrist, Grastalko snapped the reins. Both Assingh started walking, and there was a brief moment when the wagon resisted their pull. Then the wheels lurched forward and they settled into the comfortable and familiar gait of the Steppelands donkey,.
Grastalko cast a quick glance at the elder Hanaman, who nodded his approval again. The youth smiled and turned to watch the other wagons fall in behind them. One by one the reins snapped and each pair of Assingh followed the wagon in front of them. A grumbling sound struck his ears, and Grastalko quickly returned his attention to the land ahead.
“Good. When thou art leading, thy focus shouldst be on the path, not on how many dost follow thee. Dost thee understand?”
“Aye,” Grastalko nodded. Before them grasses spread for several miles, punctuated by the occasional grove or high hill. Rocks littered the grass, but most were small enough for the wagons to ignore. And those they had to detour around were visible far enough away that the Assingh barely had to turn to avoid them. After a few minutes, Grastalko loosened his grip on the reins, realizing there was very little he needed to do.
“Dost thou enjoy being a Magyar?”
The question was so surprising that Grastalko almost dropped the reins. He turned to the stiff-backed elder Magyar and opened and closed his mouth like a fish a few times ere he found his voice. “I... I hath made many friends here, and we hath many fine times.”
“ ‘Tis not what I didst ask.”
Grastalko sighed. “I hath enjoyed the pageant and the performances we dost put on. I enjoy my role in them.”
“Thou art a Magyar, Grastalko. Thou must know whether or not thou art glad of what thee be.”
It was such a simple question, but was anything in life every so simple? How was he to know whether or not he was pleased with himself? Perhaps the better question was whether he enjoyed all that he had done as a Magyar. He lifted his useless left hand enough to be noticed. “I dost wish I couldst do more. I wouldst enjoy learning to juggle by myself. I hath enjoyed the games I hath done.
“I dost not enjoy thieving, and I believe ‘tis wrong to do so. But I enjoy the pageant and I care for my fellow Magyars. I hath many friends and dost not wish to leave. I suppose that means that I dost enjoy being a Magyar.”
Hanaman nodded thoughtfully. He let the answer hang in the air for a few minutes before saying anything else. But the time he did speak, Grastalko could no longer see where they had spent the night. “Thou must let thy fear of thieving go. ‘Tis proper to take what we art due. Tell me, if thou wert to mend a stranger’s shirt and he didst not pay thee for it, didst he steal from thee?”
Grastalko thought about it for a moment then shrugged. “If we hath agreed on payment, then aye, he stole from me. But if ‘twas a gift...”
“He stole from thee. ‘Tis different, as thee says, if ‘twas a gift. But what we do, the pageant, the juggling, the stories, we do not make it a gift. Those who refuse to give us our due recompense hath stolen from us. When we thief, we merely reclaim what be ours. ‘Twould be wrong not to.” Hanaman leaned in closer. “A Magyar must be willing to thieve, e’en if he dost not enjoy it. Art thee, Grastalko?”
They had already made him do it once, but then it had been from a prosperous town. It didn’t seem so bad to take from those who had plenty. What if they asked him to steal from a people who were poor?
And then he recalled the way his fellow Magyars had thanked him for stealing those extra bolts of cloth. The seamstresses had repaired many garments with what he’d taken. Even his new winter jacket had patches cut from those bright bolts. Grastalko sighed and began to nod. “If thee needst me to go thieving, I wilt do it, though I dost not enjoy it.”
Hanaman smiled faintly and patted him on the shoulder. “Thou shalt not be the first Magyar who dost not like to thief. Nor wilt thee be the last. But thou wilt be asked, and thou wilt do it.”
“Aye,” Grastalko agreed, though not with much joy. Maybe he could learn to enjoy it like that one Magyar, Gamran. Gamran had been the first to befriend him, and Grastalko still prayed nightly for his safe return. Perhaps if he went on a thieving with Gamran it wouldn’t be so bad.
They were quiet for a long time then. Hanaman sat with arms crossed and eyes on the horizon. Grastalko did as well, though he frequently looked to the south to watch the northernmost peaks of Vysehrad slip past. As he had predicted, after a time, being on the lead wagon proved just as dull as anywhere else.
The sun warmed their backs as they journeyed. As the minutes stretched into hours, their shadows slid to their right. By the time the shadows fell behind, they found a small river blocking their way. Hanaman told him to stop the wagon and wait while he consulted with Dazheen. Grastalko did as instructed, knowing it would be many minutes more before the elder Magyar returned. Several times in the last few months they had paused while the seer divined the proper route. In the Steppe they already knew all the crossings, but not so in this foreign land.
Grastalko felt the first pains of hunger when Hanaman returned. He briefly wondered if Hanaman had brought something with him, but the leader’s hands were empty. “Turn right. ‘Tis an old bridge half a mile downstream.” Hanaman always appeared unsettled after speaking with Dazheen, and this was no exception. But the youth did as instructed, and felt a brief glimmer of excitement when he glimpsed the wagons turning to follow him.
“How wast she?” Grastalko asked as they settled into a steady northward course following the river. The river was wider than the wagons, and judging by the dark waters, fairly deep. Even so, only a few trees grew along its bank amidst the more prevalent brush.
“Dazheen? Well enough. She saw the bridge without trouble. Knew what I came to ask ere I entered.”
Grastalko smiled and imagined the scene. Hanaman stalking inside lips set in a disgruntled moue, while Dazheen sat at her table with a knowing grin stretching her cheeks. And in her corner Bryone sat quietly; sweet Bryone, never daring to say what she thought or wanted, doing her best to be invisible.
“And Bryone? How wast she?”
“Bryone?” Hanaman asked in surprise. “Why dost thee ask about her?”
“She always be there with Dazheen. Thou didst see her.” Grastalko suddenly felt uncomfortable, but he didn’t know why.
“Thou be the first to ask of her in many months. Dost thee care for her?” Grastalko could not bring himself to say anything, but there was a rush of heat to his cheeks that betrayed him. “I see. What dost thee know of seers?”
“That they see things distant, many tomorrows from now.”
“Aye, and their power be strange and fragile. It dost require special dedication. And we Magyars dost need a seer to safely bring us across the Steppe. Moreso these foreign lands. Bryone be very important, and ‘tis fated that she be a seer.”
Grastalko nodded. “I understand.”
“Nae, thou dost not understand yet. One discipline that a seer must hold, be that they ne’er share their bed with any save a mage. I dost not understand why, but ‘tis how it must be. The powers a mage possesses somehow allow them to love a seer and a seer to love them, without taking away the seer’s power. Thou be not a mage, Grastalko.”
The boy trembled, his stomach tightening now from more than just hunger. “Dost thee say that I canst ne’er be with her?”
“Aye, ‘tis what I hath said,” Hanaman patted him on the shoulder. “It hath brought me pain to tell this to thee, Grastalko, but Bryone must be a seer. Thou must not pursue her. Another wilt be for thee.”
Grastalko could find no words. He stared at the empty landscape ahead, suddenly feeling as barren as the Vysehrad.
“Are you certain you won’t need us?” Kashin asked, his thumb rubbing the hilt of the Sathmoran blade.
Kehthaek held a bundle of letters in his hands. Slowly, he shook his head. “For what we must do, only we can do it. If any of you were to accompany us, we would never be admitted to see Grand Questioner Mizrahek. Of all those named, he alone we dare confront.”
In the two weeks since Father Felsah had been returned they had diligently scoured every surviving letter that Bishop Jothay had ever received. The vast majority were useless, but there was enough damning correspondence that they were able to make a list of his conspirators. Many of the names, such as Bishop Rott and Bishop Temasah, were not surprising. Others, such as Grand Questioner Mizrahek, while not surprising, were deeply troubling. They implied that Jothay’s web of corruption extended beyond a few over-zealous Bishops and into all aspects of the Ecclesia’s hierarchy.
But it also gave them an opportunity. Their list of names was certainly incomplete. But if they could convince one of them to confess, they would learn even more of the conspiracy. And of all those named, only one were they confidant that they had the ability to persuade: Grand Questioner Mizrahek.
“But he will have his own guards,” Kashin pleaded. Both Driheli knights nodded in agreement.
“They will be Yesbearn,” Kehthaek replied confidently. “I can deal with them. Do not fear for us. Pray for us, but do not fear. Mizrahek is no stout oak to stay standing amidst a storm. Nor is he a frail reed that bends whither the wind blows. He is a creature of cedar, impressive to see, but under a strong gale he will break. We shall be the storm that breaks him.”
“Your hubris be wary it does not you destroy,” Czestadt cautioned in sour tones.
“If Father Kehthaek speaks it, it is not hubris,” Father Akaleth chided. The younger priest slid his hands inside his sleeves and left them there. “Not all confidence is born from arrogance.”
Kashin gripped the pommel of his golden blade. “We have only one chance, and you carry the evidence we’ve found. If you fail, we will be defeated and left with no other choice but to kill as many of the traitorous priests as possible. I began life dedicated to protecting the Patriarch. I have no wish to end it by killing the Patriarch!”
“You won’t have to,” Felsah assured him, lips lifted in a faint smile. “I know it seems ludicrous, but I believe we have already faced worse dangers and survived. And I believe Father Kehthaek when he says he can break Mizrahek.”
“And if you do, what then?” Kashin asked, his body tense.
“Then, with witness and evidence, we go before the Council.” Kehthaek curled his fingers around the bundle of letters. “We will need a patron. If all goes well, we shall represent Mizrahek. Sir Czestadt, Sir Petriz, I suggest you speak with Bishop Gavroche of Boreaux. He was the most vocal in defending Vinsah, and also, his family has long been a bulwark against the power of Marzac. If any can assist us, it is he.”
Kashin took a deep breath and finally let go of the sword. “I do not like this. But I know I must trust you in this. But also know this: I am Yeshuel. All the secret ways of Yesulam are known to me. When you go before the Grand Questioner, I will be near. Neither you nor anyone else will see me or hear me, but I will be there. Agree to this now, or I will not allow you to leave this room.”
All three Questioners fixed their gaze on the one-armed man dressed in black. His face was hard, lips set in a firm line. But it was his eyes that gave them pause, for they did not move from where they trained on Kehthaek, more determined than they had ever witnessed. “You have never Questioned a Yeshuel, have you?” Kashin then asked in a strangely subdued voice.
“Nae,” Kehthaek admitted. “And you are right. Come as far as you are able, but I warn you, you will not be able to hear what transpires within Mizrahek’s chamber.”
“But I can see what his guards do, and that will be enough.”
Akaleth laughed. “Indeed!”
Kehthaek finally nodded in consent. “Then we are agreed. Let us waste no more time.” Silently, the three Questioners and Kashin entered the underground passages while the Driheli settled down to wait. Petriz wasted no time, beginning his prayers once his companions were lost to sight.
It was the first time in over two months that Akaleth had stood within the Questioner Temple. The other Questioners knew he was missing, and many presumed him to be dead, thus Akaleth kept his cowl over his head as he walked the halls, not allowing any to see his face. Because of this, Kashin brought them to a hidden doorway near to the Grand Questioner’s chambers. Nevertheless, Akaleth felt nervous as he trod those familiar halls. His hand anxiously grasped for his whip, but of course, it was no more.
He was grateful then that they only passed two Questioners through the dark halls, and neither paid them any heed. But the two Yesbearn standing before the Grand Questioner’s chambers certainly did. At their approach, the guards crossed their spears to bar their way. “The Grand Questioner has summoned no one at this time. Why do you seek his audience?”
Kehthaek did not flinch, but met each Yesbearn with his piercing gaze. The Yesbearn were trained not to be intimidated by their charges, but it was hard to meet the grey-haired priest’s eyes. They did not budge.
“A matter of grave concern has come to me that requires the Grand Questioner’s attention. It cannot wait, but must be tended to immediately.”
The older of the two guards, both appeared to be in their late twenties, shook his head. “His grace ordered that none should disturb him.”
“This matter concerns a great heresy within the Ecclesia, and is therefore more important than his grace’s wishes.”
The Yesbearn appeared to mull that for a few seconds before they drew back their spears. “Very well. You may enter.”
Kehthaek nodded in thanks as he slipped past to the dark portal beyond. He drew open the latch while Felsah and Akaleth gripped the heavy black ring. They pulled hard and the massive iron door slowly began to open. Once it was wide enough to admit a man, Kehthaek swept through.
Mizrahek was eating a bit of bread and honey at his small table in the centre of the room. His golden-furred dog lay curled at his feet, tail wagging slightly, eyes watching the Questioners closely. Behind Mizrahek huddled the cramped door that led to his sleeping chambers. There was one window in the room, over which was draped a cloth of bright colours and intricate designs. The pattern was made primarily from triangles within triangles, a particularly Eaven conceit.
Where else could Mizrahek have obtained the silk but from Bishop Jothay?
Mizrahek did not look up from his plate, but a flash of anger was visible in his brow. “Father Kehthaek, the Yesbearn were instructed not to allow anyone entrance while I broke my fast. What possessed you and your cohorts to violate the sanctity of my meal?”
Akaleth drew the iron door closed, and then drew back his cowl. “We have come for your confession, Grand Questioner.” At this Mizrahek glanced upwards, and the light of recognition dawned in his eyes. Yet, there was no surprise in the gaze. “Aye, it is I, Father Akaleth, whom you thought dead. Or did you think I was otherwise?”
Mizrahek rolled the bread between his fingers and dipped the end in the small jar of honey. “Your absence has been noted. Where have you been all this time, Father Akaleth? Following up on something I expressly forbid Father Kehthaek from pursuing? I will have you stripped and beaten if it is true.”
“Someone has already done that,” Father Akaleth sneered. “We are here to Question you, your grace.”
As one, the three Questioners drew their cowls back over their faces. They sat in a line before the table, all of their flesh concealed by their black robes. Only the red cross of the Questioners brought any colour to their countenances. Mizrahek watched the display with growing irritation. “You have no authority to Question me.”
“Incorrect,” Father Kehthaek stated in a dry pedantic tone. “Our mandate was to investigate matters concerning Patriarch Akabaieth’s murder. Recent facts have come to light which have expanded the scope of this inquiry. Facts that implicate you, your grace.”
Mizrahek spat out the bread, eyes livid. “You dare! That matter was settled months ago, as you three attested! You identified the perpetrator. The matter is closed and your mandate fulfilled. You have no authority here to Question me.”
“We have the authority,” Father Felsah insisted. “We have it because for a Questioning to cease, the three Questioners must come to an agreement on the particulars of the case. At the time we submitted our findings, there were still disagreements. Do you not recall that this was the case?”
Mizrahek snorted and rubbed his fingers together. “The differences you cite were removed from the reports before they were distributed to the Bishop’s Council. Therefore, the Questioning is over.”
“Do you admit that you removed the disagreements in our statements?” Akaleth asked, feeling a familiar fire well up in his flesh. Some men were maddened by the sight of gold, driven to a feverish rage in its pursuit. For Akaleth, the thought that he might capture a man in a lie brought out a similar ardour.
Sensing the dangerous ground upon which he stood, Mizrahek began to smile. He stroked the dog’s head between the ears, and the creature began to wag its tail in appreciation. “Only insofar as the information did not pertain to your investigation. You spoke at great length of the rudeness of Metamor, Father Akaleth. Interesting to learn, but utterly inconsequential. What you had to say on who killed the Patriarch was all that mattered, and there, you agreed.”
“All things relating to the person who assassinated the Patriarch,” Akaleth countered. “And there we did not agree. I specifically cited that Zagrosek was seen in Metamor during the Winter Solstice when they were invaded from the north. Neither Felsah nor Kehthaek mentioned this. Yet it was removed from the documents.”
Mizrahek grimaced and narrowed his eyes. “I think that is quite enough. Get out, before I have you disrobed for violation of your mandate.”
Kehthaek shifted forward slightly. “You will do no such thing, Grand Questioner. You will sit there, pet your dog, and answer every question we ask.”
“You will leave!” Mizrahek snarled, his free hand trembling in rage.
The elder Questioner drew out a single piece of parchment from his robe. “This letter is dated January of this year. It begins, ‘Bishop Jothay, I appreciate what you have done on my behalf, and I remain your faithful servant. Yet I feel the manner in which you removed Father Kehthaek from the selection by assigning him as a Questioner to Metamor may in the end prove misguided. He is astute and relentless, and far more dangerous on that side of an interrogation than he ever could be if he were to remain in Yesulam. While it is true this was the easiest way to prevent him from ascending to Grand Questioner, I do not think you will have any hope of keeping the identity of your Sondeckis friend secret after this.’. The letter is signed with your name, your grace.”
Mizrahek’s face tightened into a violent sneer. “How did you find that? Have you been stealing Bishop Jothay’s personal things while he is away on a pilgrimage?”
They ignored the question. Felsah gestured to the letter still in Kehthaek’s hand. “Are those your words, your grace?”
But Mizrahek was canny and knew well what they were doing. “The writing of letters is hardly a crime. The stealing of letters is a sin, one which you are clearly culpable of. Eli commanded against such acts and has done so since the earliest days!”
“Eli also commanded against murder. And against coveting. This letter implies you have committed or are a party to one, and guilty of the other. That is two sins, your grace,” Akaleth pointed out, savouring those truths. “The letter is signed by your hand and bears your seal. Are we to believe that the words are not yours?”
“Believe what you like, but your accusation is groundless. There is nothing in that letter that implies anything you suggest.”
Felsah tucked his hand back in his sleeve. “Then you tacitly admit the letter is yours. Let us examine what the letter says. You thank Bishop Jothay for a favour performed on your behalf, and then state that you remain his faithful servant. What are we to understand by this?”
Mizrahek stared between them, his rage slowly subsiding. After a few seconds he leaned back and answered in a calm voice. “To your earlier question, yes, the words are mine. The favour you ask about refers to this tapestry that hangs from my window. You no doubt can discern it is from Eavey. It was a gift in honour of my election as Grand Questioner. And in regards to being Jothay’s servant, it is merely a statement of gratitude, and does not imply any subservience on my part to him, nor that any favours are owed him.”
Akaleth tapped the letter with one finger. “But the very next sentence claims that Jothay had a hand in selecting Father Kehthaek as one of the three Questioner assigned to journey to Metamor, and you felt this was misguided. The conjunction you begin this sentence with, ‘Yet’, further implies that these first two sentences are related. Is it not actually the case that you were thanking Jothay for his interference that led to your election as Grand Questioner?”
Mizrahek snorted. “Nae, that is ridiculous. Bishop Jothay has no voice in these halls.”
“Yet, he did have a hand in selecting Father Kehthaek to journey to Metamor.” Akaleth let a bit of fire fill his voice, and gripped his wrist tightly. There was no whip there, but he realized that there was a greater thrill to the Questioning when he did not need it. “That is also something he should not have had a hand in. How do you explain that?”
“Let me see that letter,” Mizrahek demanded, holding out his hand. “I want to see for myself what it says.”
Kehthaek drew it back inside his robe. “Nae, your grace. Now answer the question.”
The Grand Questioner’s lined face drew taut, eyes narrowing in renewed fury. “I knew you would never give up, Kehthaek. I told him not to let you pursue these affairs. I tried to tell you to give up and let it lie, but you do not let go of any mystery. But you have no choice now. I am Grand Questioner. Whether Jothay interfered or not in your selection to journey to Metamor is irrelevant. I am Grand Questioner, and you answer to me!”
“Incorrect, I answer to Yahshua. You are merely the head of our order. Unlike the Patriarch, you are not invested with infallibility.”
“Neither are you!”
“That much is correct. However, I have the truth in my hand. And I have many other letters which also testify to your knowledge of the Sondecki mentioned in the fourth sentence. You feared we would learn of his Sondecki friend. While at Metamor we did learn of a Sondecki, and learned that it was a Sondecki that assassinated Patriarch Akabaieth. Your letter was written before we had learned who killed the Patriarch. Why did you mention a Sondecki in your letter?”
Mizrahek glared at Kehthaek and slowly rose to his feet. “You have no authority to Question me, Father Kehthaek!” his voice was rising to a roar. “And if you do not place these letters of yours on this table and then leave, you will all suffer terribly for your arrogance.”
Kehthaek did not move. “We have learned through these letters that Bishop Jothay conspired to assassinate Patriarch Akabaieth, and also, that he has had a long term association with Krenek Zagrosek, the Patriarch’s assassin. And we have learned that you and others on the Bishop’s Council knew about it and either did nothing or actively supported him.”
Mizrahek smiled as he leaned over the table towards the three cowled Questioners. “And you will leave those letters and all your conspiracies here on this table. If I ever hear that you have spoken this to another, I will see to it that you all are assigned to Metamor permanently. Or perhaps some place even less hospitable!”
Akaleth laughed at the man, knowing how absurd his threat was. No one outside this room could hear him. It would only work if they buckled. But after what he had faced in the catacombs, he had no fear of this fool. “And who will see to it that this threat comes to pass? Your leader is gone, and you don’t know where.”
“Jothay will return,” Mizrahek declared, eyes narrowing suspiciously.
“Jothay is dead,” Felsah said in a quiet voice.
Mizrahek spun on him. “What did you say?” He grabbed Felsah’s robe and shook it. “What did you say!”
Felsah repeated it in the same soft tone. “Bishop Jothay is dead. He’s been dead for nearly five weeks.”
Mizrahek’s eyes went wide and he leaned backwards. “You lie!”
“You know we speak the truth,” Akaleth declared, the thrill of the capture filling him. “I was there and saw him die. I saw him allied with Zagrosek. I saw him consorting with dark powers. I saw him summon an evil beast, and I saw the power of Eli smote that beast, just as Jothay himself was cast down for his transgressions. You are guilty of partaking in the corruption of the Ecclesia, Mizrahek. We will not back down.”
But the Grand Questioner was not yet done. He took a few tottering steps backwards until he was next to his small door. The dog lifted its head and whined curiously. Felsah extended his hand and gently pet the dog to calm it.
“Yes, you will,” Mizrahek declared hotly, and he picked up a nasty whip. Shards of glass and metal hooks were embedded in the leather. A blow from this whip would rip flesh from bones. “Rakka! Angriff!”
The dog jumped to his feet and snarled at the Questioners. Felsah withdrew his hand as the dog Rakka snapped at his fingers. Mizrahek grinned as the animal set its paws on the table, leaning towards them, trying to decide which of them to strike first.
Felsah cooed softly at the dog. “Calm, Rakka. Calm.” He extended his hand unafraid. The dog looked confused for a couple seconds before he began to lick Felsah’s hand. The Questioner leaned forward and resumed petting the now friendly dog.
“How dare you!” Mizrahek roared. He lashed the whip at Felsah’s back, but Akaleth’s hand darted out and grabbed it first. A bit of glass cut into one of his fingers, and the leather painfully scored his palm. But it was a familiar pain, one he had long since grown accustomed to. Akaleth held firm even as the blood began to flow down his arm. “What? You!”
“You will not hurt him, or anyone else, your grace. Let go of this evil that drives you mad.”
Mizrahek stumbled backwards into one corner, dropping the whip. The three Questioners rose and came around the table. Akaleth tossed the whip aside and curled his hand into a tight fist to keep the blood from flowing too freely. Silently, they converged on Mizrahek, pinning him into the barren corner.
“Confess,” Kehthaek stated, his voice cracking like a hammer blow.
“Nae! I have nothing to confess!”
“You are party to an evil man. You knowingly conspired to seize power. You knew the Patriarch was to be assassinated, and did nothing to save him,” Felsah said, his voice like a rising tide threatening to drown this priest.
“Confess!” Kehthaek repeated, his voice measurably harder this time.
Mizrahek’s eyes darted from side to side, looking for some way to escape, but there was nothing. “Leave me!!!”
“Their blood is on your hands too,” Akaleth said, shaking his fist. Drops of blood flew from his flesh and splattered across Mizrahek’s face. “Patriarch Akabaieth. Bishop Morean of Sondeshara. Iosef, Alfais, and Lakaesh of the Yeshuel!”
Felsah’s voice continued to rise in tone, sounding like the roar of an ocean wave crashing upon shore. “You have corrupted the Questioners in order to protect yourself and your evil allies. Those allies then attempted to corrupt the Order of the Driheli in order to further their plans, sending them to kill innocents!”
“I... I hate you!!!” Mizrahek stuttered. “You were always better. You were always better. I have hated you for that forever! I will not confess!”
Akaleth continued to shake his fist. “Because of you, Bishop Vinsah has been excommunicated unjustly! Father Felsah was nearly beaten to death! Wars blossom in the West! All their blood is on your head!”
Felsah roared: “Your ally Jothay’s power came from the ancient evil of Marzac. He sacrificed dozens of innocents to a pagan artifact that yearns only to destroy the Ecclesia. Marzac wants to destroy all of mankind, and for a little taste of power you allied with them! You have betrayed Yahshua Himself!”
With each name chanted, Akaleth shook his fist. “Akabaieth! Morean! Iosef! Alfais! Lakaesh! Vinsah! Kashin! Felsah! The Driheli! The Magyars!”
They towered like titans over Mizrahek, who by now was reduced to a simpering old man cowering in fear. After the final blow of tongues he screamed. “Aye!!! Aye!!! Eli forgive me!! I confess!! I confess!!!
The three Questioners took two steps back. As one, they drew their cowls. Father Kehthaek’s face was hard, the lines of age making him appear skeletal. He gestured with one hand towards the table. “You will write your confession, your grace. I shall dictate it.”
Felsah set out a clean bit of parchment, a quill and an inkwell. He then helped Akaleth bind the cut on his hand. Together they watched Mizrahek crawl to the table, his body still trembling with tears standing in his eyes, and do exactly as Father Kehthaek instructed.
Book 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