Questioning - Part II

The long thin reeds of the Steppe grasses bent low under the firm westerly wind. The warm air coming in from the Sea of Pyralis swept up the Flatlands until they crashed headlong into the Great Eastern Range. Sitting high in his saddle, shield slung across his back, Sir Lech Poznan of Bydbrüszin stared at the tents and horses milling about along the river’s course a league ahead.

So like the fields of Stuthgansk, he thought pleasantly, reminiscing on his homeland’s gentle slopes, long dry grasses, and pleasant sun-filled sky. Of course, there was one thing missing here in the empty Steppe north of Yesulam – the ocean. From the minarets of Stuthgansk one could see across the great Eastern Sea, watching as the sun rose upon the world. To the north, the shadowed line of Manzona could be seen, a forbidding island as large as these Flatlands, filled with jungles, mountains, and dangerous myth.

His rider was already heading back, his horse moving at a comfortable gallop. Good, the Flatlanders had accepted his invitation to talk then. A sudden thrill of disappointment filled him – he would not fight this day. Running his mailed glove across the hilt of his heavy sword, he smiled. It had not been so long since he’d had to put down the rebellious merchants scheming to undermine his father in Bydbrüszin. His mail had been stained red for weeks after that.

But now, he was far from his lands, his duty, his charge. While he was proud to have been selected to accompany the Knight Templar of the Driheli, one of only two Knight Commanders to have been so chosen, he would prefer to be taking drink in his father’s sprawling manor. To wander a land as vast as the Steppe and as empty as his bed, searching for a cripple at the behest of the Bishop did not please him.

In the distance, he saw that a separate party of horsemen was breaking off from the Flatlander camp, and was beginning to make their way across the fields. Sir Lech Poznan could not count how many, but there were more than four riders at least. At his left, his squire breathed heavily as he watched. The young man would make a good knight someday, but he did not take enough pleasure from battle, the Knight Commander thought.

The sound of hoof beats crept upon his right. Glancing sideways, he saw the black-robed priest Athfisk. He was an older man, thin and nearly bald. His large eyes poked out from the sockets as if he were a fish, staring uncertainly at the scene before him. He made the sign of the tree protectively over his breast, and hissed unhappily, “Pagans.”

“Aye, father,” Sir Poznan agreed, also making the sign of the tree, though mostly from duty to the most holy than out of fear. Beside him, his squire also crossed himself, doing his best to appear as strong as his master.

Sir Poznan gave an almost imperceptible nod of approval to his squire Skowicz, and then looked to Father Athfisk, speaking determinedly. “But we may need what they know.” He then leaned back in his saddle, his charger steady between his legs. “We shall put the fear of Eli in them, good Father.” He smiled then as he turned back to the Knight Bachelors that accompanied him. They were all members of the Order of Driheli, and it was well known that they were very good at putting the fear of Eli in others.

His rider had nearly arrived, when Sir Poznan saw that the Flatlanders had stopped in the middle of the field between them, and waited. He seethed at this, glaring from beneath is mailed helm. “What arrogance is this? How dare they refuse to join us!”

The knights at his back sneered, hands gripping sword hilts, ready for the word from their master to strike. But Sir Poznan waited for the rider to return to hear the exact message. But his hand was gripping the hilt, fingers tight enough to crush oranges to pulp. The rider was a short man dressed in a tight fitting jerkin and breeches. He did not go armed, as befitting his station. On his tunic he bore the crest of the Driheli, the green shield with blue cross touching each side.

He slowed his steed down as he neared, drawing him up sharply before the Knight Commander’s charger. He lowered his head with respect to both Sir Poznan and to Father Athfisk. “The leader of the Tagendend has agreed to talk, sire. He says he will wait for you in the field, and that no weapons are to be brought.”

“The curr! The pagan curr!” Sir Poznan spat, hot citral landing with a heavy splat. “Very well,” he said after regaining his anger. He lifted his sword from its scabbard, and held it to his left. Skowicz took it firmly, holding the blade for his knight until he returned. “How many are in their company?”

“Six, sire. The First Hunter Fultag and his son Horvig, with four other horseman,” the rider was rubbing his steed’s neck, soothingly now. The beast looked eager to run more.

“Father Athfisk, I ask that you would attend with me.”

The priest bowed low his bald head, pinking under the sun’s touch. “I will be only too glad to, Sir Poznan.”

The Knight Commander wheeled his stallion about, the horse prancing impatiently in place, snorting with eager anticipation. “Andrej, Ignacz, you will join me as well. The rest of you remain here. But be ready to charge should they defy us. You will see me raise both my arms should I wish you to attack,” Sir Poznan turned his charger around once more and set off at a firm gallop towards the six Flatlanders waiting in the midst of their parties.

Aloft he held his fist, empty but proud. Sir Andrej and Sir Ignacz flanked Father Athfisk as they rode. His shield bounced on his back, the tip thumping against his belt heavily. He could feel the absence of his blade, as if he were about to topple form his horse on the other side. He was so used to its weight that it galled him. How dare they ask him to go unarmed. They had no business making demands of him like this. He was a Knight Commander of the Driheli. Had any of the people in the Duchy of Stuthgansk done this, he would have cleaved them in two.

It was obvious which of the six he approached was the First Hunter. He was an older man, a bit short, with greying hair, grizzled features, and eyes that were as cold as steel. Beneath the thick horse-hide jacket he bore, it was clear that he would be no slouch in a fight. Had he been born near Stuthgansk, he would have been squired early. His son, Horvig the name was, appeared to be about the same build, though he lacked the lines or the grey that spoke of age. His eyes nevertheless betrayed a maturity that spoke of many hard lessons learned. The four warriors at their flanks were all older than the boy, but bore the scars of many fights.

They were also unarmed.

Sir Poznan drew his charger to a stop a short distance before the Tagendend, turning the beast in a steady circle as his men came upon his flanks. Father Athfisk settled at his right, goggle-eyes staring at the horse-hide clothes of the Flatlanders as if in disgust. Athfisk had spent his entire life in the city of Stuthgansk, so it was little surprise he had not seen what men who lived under the stars were given to wear.

Like all good knights of the Ecclesia, Sir Poznan was trained in the use of the northern tongue, though he found it too light upon his tongues, as if he were speaking with only half his breath. “Sir Lech Poznan of Bydbrüszin I am,” he announced, lowering his arm and pulling his shield from out behind his back to display the crest of Bydbrüszin. White on the Dexter and red on the Sinister, with a yellow flame in sinister base. The green and blue emblem of the Driheli was added to the Dexter chief.

The First Hunter drew his horse forward, nodding his head respectfully, but no more. “I hight Fultag, First Hunter of the Tagendend. Why hath thee called for parlay?”

“First, a prayer,” Sir Poznan said reproachfully.

Fultag sniffed slightly, staring down the length of his long nose. “We hath no interest in thy prayers.” The boy Horvig seemed to want to say something more, but wisely caught his tongue.

Holding back the snarl that yearned to escape his lips, Poznan drew himself up taller in the saddle. “For you we do not pray. It is for us that we pray. Is it more disrespect to the Knights of Driheli that you will show?”

The First Hunter appeared to consider the question, looking from the armoured men on horseback, and then across the field to the other knights and squires left behind. He then gave a curt shake of the head. “No, I hath no objection to thy prayers for thee.”

With the wave of one hand, Sir Poznan gestured the priest forward. Father Athfisk led his horse between the two groups of men, turning his back upon the Tagendend who simply watched impassively at the Ecclesia ritual. In their own native tongue, Athfisk spoke, so that the horsemen would not understand.

“Praise Eli for all his blessed works and gifts. And in this time, we ask for Your blessing oh Yahshua upon the tongue of Sir Lech Poznan, that he might bring Your wisdom and grace upon these barbaric heathens. And should they reject that word, Oh Son of Eli, grant Sir Poznan your winnowing fork that he might slay them for their blasphemy. We pray all of this in the name of the Father, the Son, and of the most holy Ecclesia. A-men.”

Father Athfisk made the sign of the tree upon his chest, sa did the three knights, their heads bowed momentarily in prayer. Once finished, the priest rode his horse back to Poznan’s side, while the Knight Commander lifted his eyes once more upon the Tagendend. If they had understood the Southern tongue or what was said, they gave no sign of it.

Clearing his throat, Poznan stood taller in his saddle once more. “Questions of you I have that I would ask,” Poznan said, keeping his voice level, distant.

“Then ask,” Fultag said, while his son watched both him and the knights. It was the look of one learning something important.

“There is a man for whom we are searching. But one arm he has – the right. Tall, skin from sun and desert tanned. A shock of grey hair amongst black over one eye he has.”

The boy gave a sudden snort of disgust, leaning back a bit in his saddle. Sir Poznan glared at him, letting his fury be undisguised. “What child is this that sport of me would make?”

Fultag laid a hand softly on his son’s shoulder, protectively. “He hath spoken for all of us, not to make sport of thee, good knight, but of the man of which thou speakest.”

“Then him you know?” Poznan snarled.

“Aye. His name we do not, but he art a Magyar that we did cross blades with only two months gone.”

“A Magyar?” he said, the word unfamiliar to him.

“Thieves and tricksters who travel by carriage across the Steppe,” Fultag explained, though there was no trace of reproach in his voice anymore. “Why dost thee seek him?”

“Thieves?” Sir Poznana asked then, stunned at this. “Tricksters?” He then let out a load roaring laugh, slapping the pommel of his saddle firmly with his right hand, the shield in his left lowered to his side. “Thieves!” he shouted again in delight.

The Tagendend were patient through this bout of mirth, saying nothing. Finally, Sir Poznan regarded Fultag once more, eyes narrowed. “This man once a Yeshuel was. Protector of the Patriarch he was. In his duty, he failed. To repay that failure have I come. Where might he I find?”

At this, the Tagendend stared at him in surprise. Only Fultag was able to maintain his composure. Horvig stared openly for several seconds before regaining the imperious posture his father carried. And then, the First Hunter let out a crackling, bitter laugh. “I wilt tell thee where thou mayest find them. They dost travel East from Doltatra to the mountains along the Northern reaches of the Steppe. To the Eastern mountains thou wilt find them. Thou hast my blessing.”

“Stick thy sword in his gullet!” Horvig said, his voice restrained, but it was clear there was something more to it than just echoing his father’s sentiments. Sir Poznan did not care what that could be.

“If to that it comes, I will,” Sir Poznan nodded to them both. “The Tagendend I thank. What have you said but to help Mother Ecclesia. A-men.” He made the sign of the tree over his chest, as did the others in his company.

“And thou wilt help the Tagendend. I bid thee the wind’s speed in thy quest,” Fultag said, before turning his impressive stallion about, leading his people away peacefully.

Sir Poznan nodded to his own men, and they turned and left the field peacefully too. He could like Fultag, perhaps Horvig too, if they weren’t heathen dogs. Their very presence would not have been tolerated in Stuthgansk. He could well imagine being sent out to slaughter such infidels should they refuse to convert to the one true way.

In fact, as Sir Poznan considered that, he briefly thought about raising his arms to signal an attack that he might rid the world of the pagan Tagendend. But two things made him decide against it. The first was that the Bishop who had ordered them this far north had been explicit that they were to dedicate themselves to finding this Kashin once of the Yeshuel and kill him. The second was that it was never a wise idea to launch an attack upon an enemy to whom he’d turned his back.

The wind had quieted some when he finally pulled his charger up short before the knights under his command. They all sat expectantly upon their stallions, squires each only a short distance away ready to follow their liege’s signal. Skowicz brought his pony around and held out his sword. Sir Poznan took it with a quick grateful word to the boy, and returned it to its scabbard.

“We ride northeast, towards the mountains.” Sir Poznan said, scanning about the sky for the sun. When he saw it, he turned first to the bright burning globe’s immediate right. But then he remembered that he was no longer in the South. Here, the sun was too his South. “Damn heathen land,” he swore, bringing his charger about. “There,” He gestured with his shield tip. “We ride in that direction.”

His eyes cast once more amongst his men, settling upon one of the riders. When the young man met his eyes, the knight said, “Bring this message to the Knight Templar Sir Czestadt. I head northeast to Doltatra and to the mountains. Some of the infidels have told me that is where I might find him. He is amongst the company of Magyars, a band of thieves and tricksters. Now hurry!”

The lad nodded firmly, nodding his head in salute, gave a quick glance at the other riders clustered about, and then gave his horse a quick kick to the belly, setting him thundering across the plain.

Even as the rider began to head southwards back towards the river delta, Sir Poznan gathered the attention of his men. He had no idea what the Knight Templar would do when he received his message. He hoped Sir Czestadt would bring his knights along with Sir Petriz’s knights to bear upon the mountains as well. All he could do know was chase down Kashin, and hope he reached the mountains first.

“Let us ride,” he said finally, returning his shield to his back, giving his horse a sudden kick. The charger leaped forward, setting out at a comfortable gallop across the field. They would not be able to hold this pace for long, but it would be good for their blood. With a smile, Sir Poznan imagined himself leading them into a battle against those accursed heathens. What delight!

The people of Euper did not quite know what to make of the black carriage with the red cross that slowly passed through their town. Many of the homes had bee rebuilt, nestled against the slopes of Metamor hill like puppies to their mother’s nipples. The roads had long since been cleared of snow, the grasses brittle but wet as winter let go its grip upon the Valley. Men and women took the wood that the timber crews had freshly cut from the northern woods, and fashioned them into the supports for new homes to replaces the ones lost in the attack. They stood like bare skeletons on the hill, and when that carriage hove into view along the road, they felt as cold as bone too.

Most of the people of Euper were Lothanasi, and so could not have been expected to know the significance of the Red cross upon that black wagon. The cross, the ends of each arm widening slightly, coming to a flat knob. Each arm of the cross just long as any other, making it appear a bloodied star upon the black canvas of night when see from a distance. Up close, it was an eye that saw all, the black corners filling the space between each arm an alien lid opening to reveal that crimson orb.

But there were a few Patildor amongst them, men who stopped their work when it came around the hills and trees into view, turning up the road through town towards the walls of Metamor. They stopped their work, staring in shock, seeing something they had never thought possible. The impassive faces of the guards riding upon the carriage did not heed them, despite their bestial visages. Many of those who knew what burden was carried within that carriage tried not to stare, having nowhere to flee to, homes but empty carcasses without their skin.

They each failed, as their eyes could not leave the red cross. The rapport transfixed them, thoughts coming to them that they could not suppress. Am I the one, they each asked. But the carriage laboured past, black horses slowly drawing their burden up the muddy road lined with white stones, towards Metamor herself. The walls stood, battered but not beaten, yet to their eyes, they trembled before the Questioners.

Of the Metamorians standing watch upon the towers, there were some who knew what was climbing that road, as slowly and as inexorably as time itself. The Patildor amongst them made the sign of the tree, as if the Questioners were an evil spirit to be warded away. One, a young pinto who’d been cursed barely three years, abandoned his post, nearly stumbling from the bailey wall in his fright. He ignored the surprised questions of his fellow guards who watched the carriage with unease, trying instead to focus on their dice.

The pinto took the ladder down quickly, his spear clutched in his hoof-like fingers so tightly that his knuckles were white even through the brown horse hide. Surprised Keepers jumped out of his way as he raced along the road, through the town, towards the castle itself. They gave shouts of alarm and indignation, decrying whatever could be so important to put him in such a foolish rush. They sagely pontificated on the impatience of youth, though the pinto did not linger long enough to hear their recriminations.

Would soon know what it was that had frightened the young guard after all. They would, and tremble quietly within their homes, sipping upon family spirits to dispel the sight of that black carriage rolling down the main avenue of Metamor, wheels crunching upon the cobblestones, the horses hooves sounding like the beat of funeral drums.

Heedless of the spear he still carried, the pinto charged through the halls of the Keep, giving a great shock to many a servitor and chambermaid. His destination was fixed firmly in his mind, and the magic of the Keep itself guided him harmlessly to it – the doors to the Ecclesia Chapel. Spear still forgotten, he plunged on through, startling a group of parishioners bent down in prayer before one of the bright mosaics depicting a Station of the Tree. A gasp rose up amongst them, as the stallion’s wild eyed look was one not seen in their cathedral since the assault.

Seeing neither the priest nor the bishop, the pinto, having stopped a moment to catch his breath, the enormity of his run finally crashing into his youthful body, slumped down within the nearest pew to rest. He cradled the spear in his hands, resting his long head against the haft, ears flicking up on either side. His nostrils flared with each breath, chest rising and falling in exhilaration. Though he could not yet exorcise the image of that black carriage climbing the hill to Metamor, the run had left him feeling strangely sated.

Even though he was young and could not have been expected to have seen a Questioner carriage before, it was likely, he knew, than neither had any of his fellow Metamorians. Only one man in all of the land could have ever seen them before, and that was the Bishop Vinsah. Yet from the stories he had heard from his parents, stories told when he did not wish to eat his meal, or had taken his knife and cut his father’s tack, he had recognized it instantly.

After regaining his breath, the pinto rose and quickly strode to the back door where he might find Father Hough, and hopefully Bishop Vinsah as well. The high vault of the Cathedral’s ceiling rang with the echoing foot falls of his hooves as he crossed the gray stone floor. The parishioners praying the Stations paid him no heed now, their heads and muzzles bowed in silent communion as they knelt before the mosaic hanging upon one of the pillars near the walls. Long shafts of light shone through the clerestory windows, casting strange colours about the room, and odd shadows that lurked in the recesses. Even as the pinto watched, his heart eating fretfully, they seemed to move and shift.

When he knocked, he did so with the end of his spear, the loud booming resounding above like a chastising voice. He cringed at it, but stood as rigidly as he could. The boy priest answered the door after only a moment, smiling up at the horse who towered at least three feet over him. Father Hough’s curly brown hair framed a child’s face, innocence in every line, though the eyes were unmistakably older.

“Ah, Eglaf, my young lad,” Hough said, his voice piping with a youth that the pinto could never reclaim. “What brings you here dressed as a guard and bearing your spear. We have not been invaded again have we?” Though his voice was jocular, dark hints lay beneath it, images neither wished to resurrect.

Eglaf took in a deep breath and held his head low, not only from shame, but also so that he might look the priest in the eye. In that moment, the smile left Hough’s face, replaced by a look of grave concern. Before the priest could ask what was amiss, Eglaf managed to find hi voice, working his supple lips in stuttering need. “I... I saw... black car... carriage come up the... the hill to Met... Met... Metamor. It’s the... the... Questioners.”

Father Hough blinked for a moment, unsure if he had heard the trembling pinto correctly. And then, his face went slack, eyes growing wide. His small hands clutched at his clerical robes, pulling them tighter to his chest as if he were a toddler holding a stuffed doll for comfort. Several more times he blinked, lips stretched into a rictus of terror. “Eli have mercy!” He cried out, and then made the sign of the tree apologetically, and fearfully. “What could they want here? I must tell the Bishop!”

And without any further word, his robes hiked up around his knees, the Father dashed out of his room, swinging the door shut behind him. Eglaf barely had tie to step back out of the way. The clap of thunder resounded loudly up into the upper chambers of the cathedral, but it too faded, long after the priest had disappeared out into the hall to find wherever the raccoon Bishop had gotten himself that day.

Stumbling backwards, Eglaf the pinto slumped into the empty pew. His hooves were crossed before him, scraping lightly against the stone. He could feel one of the nails in his shoes was a bit loose, and he grunted, ears flicking back against the side of his head. Thinking of the trip to the blacksmith was almost prosaic, a pleasant distraction to will away the image of that black carriage riding through the streets of Metamor.

He shuddered and prayed that it was all a mistake.

Leaving many astonished Keepers behind amongst the streets of the rebuilt town, the black carriage circled about the gardens before the castle. They moved impassively, no thought given to whether they would be welcomed or not, but only impassivity. It was clear to any who saw them that whether they were wanted or not was completely irrelevant to them. They rode across the Keep’s grounds as if they owned them, a landlord coming to collect on his rent.

When they drew up before the tall gates to the castle, the carriage finally came to a stop. The guards flanking the doors stared in wide-eyed wonderment as to what this dark arrival could mean, or want. The soldier holding the reins jumped down smoothly from his perch, thick boots striking the terrazzo with the sound of a door shutting. He strode purposefully to the foot of the steps leading up to the wide doorway, and then knelt, making the sign of the tree over his chest.

“My charges wish an audience with his Grace, Duke Thomas Hassan V,” his voice was clear, though the accent was strange to them. They had only heard it once before in their lives. Each trembled when they recalled when that was – when the Patriarch had come to the Keep. “Tell him that emissaries from Yesulam have arrived.”

Poking his head into the doorway, one of the guards passed the message onto those inside. He then slipped back out and shut the door, trying his best to remain as composed as possible under the gaze of the red cross and the four soldiers. The soldiers did not move, but stood firmly still, even the one who had spoke. He remained before the steps, kneeling upon the cold stone.

While the Patriarch’s arrival had been met with enthusiasm, this carriage, did not bring the same cheer or levity. Though both guards standing at the door were Lothanasi, they each knew that this carriage could only bring agony.

“Let them in,” Thomas called out, after taking several moments to compose himself. He was sitting down heavily in the throne that he id his best to avoid. It was rare for Metamor to receive any official visitors these days, and so he could conduct his business in more informal setting for the most part. But for this, neither he nor his Prime Minister and Steward could imagine any other place.

The throne room had a high vaulted ceiling, statue lining the walls, with bright colourful tapestries hanging between. Guards stood before each pillar of stone, spears held firmly in hand or paw. His daughter Malisa, who now served as his Prime Minister, was at his right, while his Steward Thalberg was at his left. He was grateful for their presence. He did not think he could handle the heavy responsibility of welcoming emissaries form Yesulam, especially ones who put such a fright in his guards.

At Malisa’s suggestion, he’d sent word to both Bishop Vinsah and Father Hough, but neither they nor the messenger had arrived yet. Thomas leaned forward in his seat, resting his hoof-like hands upon the arms, wishing that he could be elsewhere. A slight smile entered his mind as he thought of where he’d rather be, under Bryonoth’s masterful hands, carting potatoes for her once again.

But first he had to get through this meeting, he assured himself. Should he stumble, both Malisa and Thalberg were quite capable. He wished he could leave the responsibility completely up to them, but they had asked for an audience with Duke Thomas, and that was he.

The figures that entered the double doors at the end of the hall were three men, each dressed in black clerical robes. Cowls were drawn up over their faces, and their sleeves were long, hanging down to their waists, even though they kept their hands before their chests, tucked inside. Though their sleeves were in the way, Thomas could see the top arm of the red cross he’d heard described by the panicky messenger who’d brought the news to his chambers. They moved quietly, seeming almost to float along the ground instead of walk, the hems of their robes undulating across the floor like so many insects.

Wordlessly they strode forward, until they came to the dias upon which the throne sat, whence they bowed low, also in complete silence. Thomas felt his hands gripping the arms of his chair more tightly. There was something unearthly about these three priests, about the way they moved. While he had seen many at Metamor who could no longer walk as men, himself included, what he saw before him now was something that even the curses of Metamor could not explain. It was a distinct otherness that surrounded these beings. As if humanity were something they had disavowed.

When they stood once more, they each flung back their cowls, revealing all-too human faces, though their skin was a darker shade than any Keeper could boast. Their features were angular, hair black, except for the centre figure whose was grey. Lines of age like worn leather creased the grey haired’s face, while the other two were both younger, by twenty years at least. A slow curl came to the eldest’s lips, as if he were trying to smile but had forgotten how.

“I am Father Kehthaek,” his voice was harsh, reminiscent of the Patriarch and his entourage. However, Akabaieth’s tones had possessed a smoothness he could only have gained from his youth in Whales. The priest on the other hand spoke as if he’d learned from wild beasts. “This is Father Felsah,” he gestured to the man on his right, who appeared to be in his early thirties, and who bore cold black eyes. “And this is Father Akaleth,” he said, gesturing to the priest on his left, a younger man of perhaps twenty-seven or twenty-eight. “We are the Questioners.”

Thomas nodded then, his tail twitching back and forth in the small recess cut into the back of his throne for his comfort. “This is my Steward Thalberg,” Thomas said, trying to smile as well, though his heart was trembling, both from the ominous cast the three priests gave, and from the duty he knew he alone could perform. “And my daughter and Prime Minister, Malisa.”

There was a strange warmth that suddenly came to Kehthaek’s face, but it was short-lived. Thomas saw that his guest was not going to speak, and so asked, “What brings you? From Yesulam?”

“We are here,” Father Kehthaek began, any traces of a smile gone from his lips. His hands were tucked within his sleeves once more. “We are here to question and to understand.”

“To question and understand,” Father Felsah reiterated for emphasis, though there was no tone discernable in his voice.

“What it is that happened here during Patriarch Akabaieth’s visit,” Kehthaek finished as if his brother priest had not even spoken.

The youngest nodded slightly, only the vaguest of gestures. Compared with the other two Questioners, it seemed exaggerated. “We will find out what happened.”

Thomas blinked at that, glancing over to his daughter at first. She was standing still, one hand gripping the sleeve of her robe as temperately as possible. Seeing no help from his daughter just then, he took in a deep breath. “Didn’t we send word to Yesulam about what happened?”

“You could have lied,” Felsah said, so plainly that it took the three Keepers a moment to realize just what had been said.

Thalberg and Malisa both visibly tensed, while Thomas felt himself wither under those dreadfully emotionless tones. He had not been lying, but even the accusation made him wish to crawl away on his belly. “We did not,” Thomas said, his voice strangely quiet, afraid another scolding might come. Bryonoth never treated him like this. Hers was a loving voice that soothed his fears and gave him peace.

Father Kehthaek’s voice, though mostly flat, did feel reassuring in some way. “We do not believe you lied, your grace. Patriarch Geshter sent us here so that we might see for ourselves what has happened. He wants a member of the Ecclesia to investigate these matters, though no disrespect is meant.”

The horse lord nodded, sitting up a bit straighter in his seat. “I see.”

Malisa then spoke, her voice quiet, “What do you think to uncover so many months afterwards that we have not already provided?”

Father Akaleth appeared to visibly tense, narrowing his eyes. “There are things that men of the cloth can see that others cannot.”

“Duke Hassan,” Kehthaek interrupted, his voice strangely compelling. The sense of otherness no longer surrounded the three Questioners as much as it had when they’d gone cowled. But there was something decidedly different about them. “We wish only to bring this matter to rest. Can you possibly stand against good Patriarch Geshter’s wish to fully understand how this tragedy came to pass? Would you stand in the way of the Ecclesia as it tries to show honour to one of its greatest leaders? Will you not permit us this opportunity to simply ask questions?”

Thalberg appeared to bite back some caustic retort. Thomas wished he would say it, and give him a reason to have these strange priests thrown out. Malisa remained quiet as well, waiting upon her father to make the decision. Thomas wished that he did not have to answer their questions. He wanted to say no to them, wanted to tell them to go back where they came from. He wanted to be able to climb down the secret passage to meet with Bryonoth, so that she could yoke him once more, and make him haul vegetables about the city. She could even take him to a blacksmith and shoe him if she liked. But he had to be here in this room answering these questions, making these monumental decisions. He was tired of making decisions.

With a heavy sigh Thomas nodded, unable to look into the eyes of either the priests or of his daughter and Steward. “Yes, you may do as you wish.”

The eldest priest stood a little taller then, hands still cloaked within his sleeves though. “I thank you, your grace. We will need quarters to stay in for the next several days.”

“I’m sure my Steward can find you something suitable,” Thomas said, gesturing to the alligator who appeared quite unhappy about something.

The great reptile nodded his head then, long jaws opening to speak. “I will make arrangements for that shortly.”

“Make it the same rooms that Patriarch Akabaieth stayed in if you would,” Kehthaek said, his tone level, but indescribable as well. There was something within it that eluded the horse lord.

Thalberg flinched then, his long tail shifting from one side to the other. “The nature of the Keep may make that difficult. Those rooms might not exist any longer.”

“Might not exist?” Akaleth asked, his voice growing hot. “What do you mean by that?”

“The insides of this Keep can change as you walk about them. Those rooms might no longer be accessible, that is all.” Thalberg kept his yellow eyes on the eldest priest, as if they were somehow safer there.

Kehthaek turned back to Thomas though, and offered a slight smile. “If the Patriarch’s rooms are not available, we will be understanding. But if at all possible, I seek your permission, your grace, that we might use those rooms.”

Taking another deep breath, Thomas nodded. He turned to Thalberg, and tried to smile to the upset alligator. “If you could...”

“Yes, your grace,” Thalberg replied, keeping his tone level now. There was a strange distance to him, as if he were thinking about something completely different. But Thomas had neither the time nor the inclination to wonder what it might be.

“Your grace, would you permit us to begin our questioning with you at this time?”

Thomas felt his blood curdle at that. His ears rose up in alarm, and he was certain that the whites of is eyes were visible now. “I... I am tired now. You may ask my daughter, Malisa. I wish to rest now.”

Malisa’s eyes went wide at this, but she kept her composure firmly, doing her best to smile to the strange priests. “I will be glad to help,” she said, though her voice hinted at displeasure, and uncertainty. “We may retire to more comfortable quarters to make things easier. And to give my father a chance to rest.”

“I will see to your rooms, Questioners,” Thalberg said tersely, stalking from the chambers without another word. The questioners all followed after Thomas’s daughter, leaving by way of the main entrance, as two guards fell in at Malisa’s sides. Their robes crawled once more across the red carpeting, and that sense of otherness returned to Thomas, making him feel ill.

But soon, he was alone apart form the guards. Thomas wasted no time in rising. Now that he was alone once more, he could head to his chambers. He would instruct the guards to let none enter while he “rested”. Perhaps Bryonoth would have left him a note. Perhaps he’d get to be aught but a beast of burden again that night. He felt a soothing comfort at that thought. Beasts of burden did not have to deal with arcane priests from Yesulam bearing questions.

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