Questioning - Part IV
s there anything else I could provide for you, Fathers?” Malisa asked as she finally settled down in her meeting rooms. She’d drawn three chairs for them to sit across from her own finely upholstered seat. A fire crackled in the hearth, recently drawn by one of her pages. The same page stood a short distance back, quiet and unassuming.
The three black robed priests sat as they had stood, with a practised grace that was deliberate in its unmanliness. All three rested their arms on the arms of their chairs, as if they were conquering despots surveying a wretched supplicant who would find no mercy at their feet. The central figure, Father Kehthaek, spoke, his voice soft, but clearly audible in the quiet room. “No, we will take all our meals and drink in the privacy of our own rooms. If you would have your kitchens prepare them for us, we would be most grateful.”
Malisa felt her teeth clench together. What arrogance! “You must speak with Steward Thalberg about that. It is his responsibility and not mine to see to the needs of the Metamor’s guests.”
The youngest of the three priests had been staring down her chest, noting the bulges in her surcoat. “You were once a man?”
“Yes,” Malisa said, resting her hands in her lap, wishing that they had not make her think of what the curses had taken from her. She had grown used to it over the years, but there was still a twinge of regret that struck her now and again.
“Many women here were once men, is that not so?” Father Akaleth continued, his voice more curious than anything else. It seemed to her the first real bit of emotion any of the three had displayed.
“That is true. And many men here were once women too.”
Akaleth appeared to ignore her comment. “How does it feel to know that you were so poor in your own spirit that Eli choose to reduce you to a woman?”
Malisa bristled at that and nearly sat up in indignation. In the course of her work as Prime Minister, she often had to deal with foreign dignitaries that could find little pleasant to say of the cursed castle of Metamor. But so rarely had she been effectively skewered by such an unpleasant and humiliating question.
“This is the work of an evil man, not of your Eli,” Malisa said, trying to keep her voice as level as possible, remembering all the rigour she had been given in the art of diplomacy. How she wished Posti were still here. Now that had been a Prime Minister and a fair magician who could have put this unkempt priest in his place.
“How do you know that?” the third priest asked, the one in his thirties. Father Felsah was his name, she recalled. His voice was flat, eyes as lifeless as a snakes.
“I was here when it happened. Where were you?” Malisa said, anger filling her despite the years.
The riposte did not appear to affect either Felsah or Kehthaek. Father Akaleth’s eyes went wide for a moment, and then narrowed suspiciously. “Do you doubt out authority to speak on matters divine?”
Sensing that this question was far more important than any of the others, Malisa drew herself up in her seat and counted to ten before she spoke. Her voice was measured, the words coming with slow precision. “I am not a member of the Ecclesia. I do respect its traditions and its ways. But I am not a member. Therefore, what reason would I have to believe in any authority on matters divine that you might possess?”
“Why indeed?” Father Kehthaek said, before either of his fellow Questioners could interrupt. For a moment, Malisa thought she saw a grandfatherly smile cross his lips, but the thin line returned quickly. “You are the one who wrote the letter to the Bishops in Yesulam detailing what happened the night the Patriarch and his retinue were murdered. Is this not so?”
Malisa nodded, feeling her ire settle. This was what they had come to ask after all. “Yes, that is correct. Did you read it?”
“Yes,” Kehthaek replied tersely. His skin was drawn tight against his skull, so that she could see his cheekbones protruding slightly. “For three days Patriarch Akabaieth dined with you here at Metamor. He wandered its halls, and spoke with its peoples. And then, when he tried to leave, on the first night out in fact, he was brutally slain. By whom, you did not know, although you claimed it was not Sathmoran spies, though the blade used to kill him was Sathmoran. That is what you wrote, is it not?”
“That it is.”
“But some survived. Kashin of the Yeshuel lost his left arm above the elbow. Sir Yacoub Egland had both his legs broken. Bishop Vinsah of Abaef had his chest caved in, though the wounds were not fatal. You also mentioned that Sir Albert Bryonoth was not among those found dead. Where are they now?”
Malisa took a deep breath, “Sir Egland has recovered and now serves as a knight here in Metamor. When he is not serving the Ecclesia parish here, he helps with the defence of the city. Sir Bryonoth was found this winter, and after some time recovering, has done much the same as Egland. Kashin took the Sathmoran blade and left, saying it was his duty to avenge the Patriarch’s murder.”
Kehthaek nodded at that. At Malisa’s questioning glance, he said, “It is his duty to do as you say. And Bishop Vinsah?”
“The Bishop has recovered, and he helps Father Hough in the Ecclesia services. He has also helped rebuild homes all about Metamor these last few months.”
Her eyes were drawn once more to the youngest of the three, Father Akaleth. He had reached into his black robes and pulled out a small metal bracelet that could fit over ankle or wrist. A screw was placed in one side, the end pointing in was blunt and wide. He was idly turning the handle, the tip pushing into the bracelet. She stared wide-eyed for a moment, as the tip was not flat, but covered in an array of small notches. Were that device used on anyone, it would grind a hole in their flesh and bone.
Kehthaek touched Akaleth’s arm gently, catching the younger priests attention. Akaleth gave him a questioning glance, but the elder priest only shook his head and gave a slight wave of his hand. Grimly, Akaleth slipped the device back within his cloak, eyes narrowing unpleasantly as he stared at Malisa. No, he wasn’t staring at her, but at her wrists as she let them rest in her lap. By the gods, Malisa trembled, what was that man?
“Why has Bishop Vinsah remained here?” Kehthaek asked then, his voice strangely gentle.
Malisa forced herself to gaze at the older priest. His eyes were firm, but there was no trace of animosity within them. “His injuries kept him abed for two months. He had become a raccoon by the time he was able to move up and about.”
“That did not answer his question,” Felsah interrupted brusquely, though his voice lacked anything resembling indignation. “Why did Bishop Vinsah remain here?”
“He became a raccoon,” she repeated. “He could not have hoped to travel anywhere outside the Keep. None of us who become animals can. We are called demons by many still. He would have been killed should he have ventured beyond this valley.”
“Has he spoken of his duty to the Ecclesia at all?” Kehthaek asked, his voice merely curious.
“Not to me. He may have spoken of it to Father Hough, the Ecclesia priest for the parish here.”
“Then we will ask him,” the Questioner said. “Who came upon the scene where Patriarch Akabaieth and his retinue were slain?”
Malisa licked her lips, remembering the names of the four that had arrived first. One of them was now dead, and a second banished. Thankfully, neither had arrived first. “Murikeer Khannas was the first to arrive.”
“Who is this Khannas?” Felsah asked, his voice empty even of curiosity it seemed.
“He is a mage,” Malisa replied. Akaleth’s lips pulled into a thin, taut line of displeasure. Felsah did not appear to have heard her, while one of Kehthaek’s eyelids lifted ever so slightly.
“Was he the one who investigated the attack?” Kehthaek asked then, his voice warm after the cool of the younger priest’s voices.
She shook her head, “No.” Having no desire to wait for them to ask the obvious question, she went on. “That was done by Misha Brightleaf, the head of the Long Scouts here at Metamor.”
“The Long Scouts?”
“An elite organization of some of our best scouts and warriors,” Malisa explained.
“And it was he who decided that Sathmore was not responsible for the murder?” The elder man continued.
“I believe so, yes.” Malisa had not been involved in that decision or that investigation. She had trusted the scouts and mages to do their job, and had simply taken them at their word when they told her that Sathmore was not responsible. She of course was familiar with the details, but she did not want to share them with these priests.
“Who do you think killed the Patriarch?”
Malisa blinked at the question. She opened her mouth and shut it. “We do not know for certain who it was who killed the Patriarch.” She could well remember the trial of Charles Matthias only two months back. The face of the man that was suspect glared mockingly at her through the pages of memory, that self-satisfied snarl upon his lips making her flesh tremble. “We have a few ideas, but nothing we can prove for certain.”
“What are your ideas?” Felsah asked.
“I do not think I wish to speak of them just yet. They are only ideas after all.”
“It is for ideas that we have come,” Akaleth said, his voice harsh, indignant. “We seek to know what happened. If there is something you suspect, then you must tell it to us that we may study it too.”
Malisa glared back at the young priest, though in truth, he was slightly older than she. “I am not beholden to you. You have no right to compel my tongue. You are here at the sufferance of my father, Duke Thomas. Do not threaten his loyal subjects lest that sufferance come to an end.”
“Your father gave us permission to investigate these matters. Would you interfere in that?” Akaleth practically snarled, but some arcane training kept his emotions from being displayed wholly on his face. “Would you insult the Ecclesia by refusing its servants?”
“And would you insult in turn Metamor by refusing its people the chance to consult? Allow me the opportunity to speak with my father. Then we shall decide what it is safe to tell and what it is not. Come back with your questions another day, and then we shall see if they can be answered or not.”
Father Kehthaek rose from his seat, his expression soft, but there was some other quality to it that Malisa could not define. “We will again ask this question of you, Prime Minister. Consult with your Father. In two days, we shall speak again. I hope you will be able to give us an answer.”
The other two priests also rose, their hands slipping within their sleeves quickly and smoothly. “If you would now direct us to the rooms your Steward has prepared for us, we should be most grateful.” From the tone of his voice, Malisa could not help but wonder if these three priests could ever actually be grateful to anyone.
“Of course,” she snapped her fingers and the page came forward. He was a short lad, only twelve years of age. The curse would take him in another two years. “Would you see that these men find their rooms. Thank you.”
The boy nodded wordlessly, looking at the black-robed priests with trepidation. He straightened himself up though, and stepped quickly to the door, opening it for them. The priests slid out through, their robes brushing feathery light against the jamb. And then, the page closed the door behind them, leaving Malisa alone at last in her meeting chambers.
She bent over her chair, head resting in the palms of her hands, long hair falling down over her shoulders. She shuddered, fighting back the fright that had sunk into her heart. They had been at Metamor less than two hours, but already she knew they would regret every single one of them.
Thomas had waited only a few minutes after retiring to his chambers before scaling down the cobwebbed tunnels to the secret rendezvous with Bryonoth. But when he arrived, he found nothing there, and so had climbed disappointed back up to his chambers, where he laid on his bed, tossing and turning for about an hour. The candles he’d lit in his chambers had grown shorter, the pile of wax beneath each a thick smudge that his pages would clean the next time he allowed them in.
That hour had been particularly painful. Images of the Questioners standing before him, piling their demands upon him, the weight of their questions carrying lives themselves. He could feel himself shrink from each one, wishing that he could escape that burden, take off the mantle of his dukedom, and take on a much simpler one. How he wished to just whinny back at each word they spouted to him.
Thomas had no wish to face them again. If it were possible, he hoped that Bryonoth would keep him as a horse for the entire time he was here. It would be far easier for him. No longer would he need to worry about the wishes of Yesulam, the delicate balance that existed in the Midlands, or the many secrets that lived within Metamor herself. Instead, he would just have to do as instructed, and worry about splitting his hooves upon the cobblestone roadways as he towed vegetables to market.
After an hour, he could pretend to sleep no longer, and was once more scaling the mouldy steps down that secret tunnel to the side wall of the keep. He carried a torch with him, it’s pale light only vaguely illuminating the dark corridor before him. But as he reached the final landing and lifted the loose flagstone, he saw that there was a small note, the wax in place, but no seal upon the wax. He took the note in his free hand, and broke the seal, lifting it up to read.
It was not signed, but it did not have to be. Thomas felt his body shiver in fright then, as he read that note. He would have to face the Questioners, and not only that, he could not let them know of how Bryonoth made him a real horse. He fell to his knees, his chest heaving in fear, tears streaming down his face. He pressed the note to the bridge of his head, wishing in agony that it was not so. How could she do this to him, at the time when he needed her the most?
Clutching the note to his chest, Thomas finally forced himself to his hind hooves, and fled back up the narrow chamber, the torch nearly forgotten in his haste. The tears flowed down across his cheek, staining his chestnut brown hide with their saltiness. When he reached his chambers, he tossed the torch upon the fire, and fell once more upon his bed, letting his tears fill his bed sheets and pillows.
The note, the note in which Dame Bryonoth of the Steppe had destroyed his only hope for escaping the Questioners, was still held to his chest, the wax smearing across his surcoat.
“And this,” Thalberg indicated with a wave of a green-scaled paw, thick red robe draping over the flesh to keep it warm, “is where Akabaieth slept.” The room was large, freshly furnished with draperies and sways between the pillars carved from the walls. Against the outside wall was a grand hearth fashioned from peppered marble, while two doors stood beneath hand carved lintels on either side. It was to the left door towards the outside that he gestured.
Father Akaleth opened the door, but did not step inside, scanning bout for a moment. The room beyond was well-apportioned, with long gold and white drapes that framed the wide window that rose up nearly to the high ceiling. A massive bed occupied the centre of the room, the quilts the same colour as the drapes, festooned with pastoral images. The black-robed priest appeared an unwelcome shade to be chased away before the bright splendour.
Standing back at the main door into the halls of the Keep were the four guards that had accompanied the priests. Thalberg had yet to hear any of them so much as utter a word, though he was given to understand they were quite capable of it. Father Kehthaek had given them a strange name that was similar to the Yeshuel that had accompanied Patriarch Akabaieth. But where the Yeshuel were strangely full of life, these four lacked it.
“This will be perfect,” Akaleth stated then, closing the door to what ha been for a few days Patriarch Akabaieth’s bedroom. “Four rooms is just enough.”
Thalberg blinked, his yellow eyes narrowing. He’d brought them here, and he wished to leave as soon as it was polite too. “For all seven of you?” he asked then, enjoying the irony of being the one to ask questions of them.
Felsah had stepped over to the hearth, and was examining the flint. Two of the guards came to his side and began to stack slender pieces of wood within the freshly cleaned fire pit. The eldest of the priests, Father Kehthaek, simply stood in the centre of the room, impassively surveying all as if he were a porcelain statue overlooking a secluded garden. The youngest , Akaleth, stepped up to the alligator, the one stranger in their midst, and nodded.
“The Yesbearn will guard the door by twos, and sleep by tows in one room. We each shall have the others.” Thalberg nodded absently, noting the name for the guards, wondering for a moment what it could mean, and then he wondered whether his presence would no longer be desired.
Kehthaek suddenly began pacing the main room. Aside from a small dining table and a few slender chairs, it was empty. Malqure and his staff had not yet had the time to completely furnish the main room. In fact, it had taken weeks for the ibis to even remove or dust the old furnishings after the Patriarch’s death. The elder priest strode in a small arc a few paces before the mantle. He stopped three times. “I want chairs, three of them. One each in these spots. Can you provide them?”
Thalberg nodded. “Yes, Fathers. Is there any particular style you wish?”
Kehthaek shook his head, glancing once at the decorations already spread about the walls. “It is not important. Something that you think would complement the room will do.”
The alligator was glad to hear that. It would tear Malqure’s hear out to have to add chairs that would clash with all the effort he had put into the room that day. “Is there anything else?”
“A fourth chair, to be set across from them. Make it of the same design. And a low table that can be set between them to separate them.” Kehthaek glanced up to the Steward. Thalberg felt all of a sudden that these requests, though they were meant to sound impromptu, were actually an old tradition of the priests. “We will need all the usual amenities of course.”
“Of course. I will have them brought in each morning if that is all right.”
Kehthaek did not nod, but he the slight shuddering of his features seemed to convey approval. “Thank you, Steward.”
The fire was now sparkling within the hearth, and Father Felsah and Akaleth had come to stand beside their fellow priest. Thalberg, though quite a bit taller than each of them, still felt as if he were shrinking before their combined gaze. He held himself up a bit taller then, eyes narrowing, teeth clearly visible as he opened his jaws to speak once more. “Is there anything else I can do for you, Fathers?”
“Yes,” Akaleth said suddenly, nearly cutting him off. “We have some questions to ask of thee.” Thalberg kept his appearance stony, merely nodding his head in assent. The young man went on, “Did you have any involvement in the investigation into Patriarch Akabaieth’s murder?”
“No,” Thalberg said quickly.
“But you are the Steward of Metamor, are you not?” Akaleth asked, his surprise discernable, but otherwise well masked. “Would you not have been intimately involved in the Patriarch’s affairs while he was staying under your charge?”
“It was my duty to see to the accommodations and to the meals.”
“What did you do for each?” the young man pressed, his voice tight. Kehthaek and Felsah simply stood there watching him. Two of the four Yesbearn had slipped out into the hall and were standing sentry. The other two had begun moving the meagre belongings into each of the four rooms.
“I organized the reception, and choose them men who carried the palanquin. I specified the menu for the banquet that evening, and choose the guests to invite. I supervised the cooking of the meal. And I oversaw the clearing of the gardens for his speech. That is the extent of my responsibility.”
Felsah’s voice was crisp. “Could any of the cooks poisoned the food?”
Thalberg, felt his muscles tense at that question, his long tail moving back and forth in agitation beneath his robes. How he would have liked to smack the impertinent priest with it. “Absolutely not. I can completely vouch for their loyalty.” His voice was a bit angrier and louder than he would have liked. After a moment, he added in calmer tones, “And no one took ill who was at that banquet.”
“What of the men who carried the palanquin?” Akaleth said.
“One of them was killed in the siege we endured not three months ago, but the others are still alive. They never even came close to the Patriarch,” Thalberg had to restrain his voice lest his anger show again.
“In the gardens, did you notice anything suspicious?” Felsah said.
Thalberg swivelled his massive jaw to meet the middle-aged priest, and then shook his head. “I saw nothing I would consider suspicious.”
“Even in light of what happened to Akabaieth one day later?” Akaleth asked, his voice growing hot.
“I saw nothing,” Thalberg reiterated, his voice very forceful. “And I deeply resent the implication that anyone here at Metamor had any involvement whatsoever with the Patriarch’s murder. We cherished the man, loved him, and were heartbroken when we could not save him.”
One of Kehthaek’s eyelids rose slightly at that, as if he were only now taking an interest in the questioning. “We are simply trying to understood, good Steward. Did any of the guests at the banquet act oddly, as if they were not themselves?”
“No,” Thalberg insisted, his voice slowly becoming level again.
“Did anyone refuse an invitation to attend the banquet?” Kehthaek asked again, his voice strangely soothing after the hot words of Akaleth, and the icy words of Felsah.
Thalberg shook his head once more, and then stopped. “Well, the Headmaster of the Writer’s Guild originally declined the invitation, but he came anyway.” After he had said it, the alligator was quite surprised by himself. Why had he told them that? Now they would suspect poor Habakkuk of collusion with the sinister forces that had slain Akabaieth!
“Who is the Headmaster?” Kehthaek asked, his voice still calm.
There was little he could do now except tell them about the kangaroo. “Zhypar Habakkuk. He said he had taken ill, and that was why he wished not to appear.”
Kehthaek stood silent for a moment, as did the other two priests. The Yesbearn may as well not have even existed for all the noise they created. After several moments pause, the leader of the Questioners nodded his head. “I thank you, Steward Thalberg. I’ve only one more request of you, and then you may continue about your duties to the household. Would you be so kind as to send a messenger to wait outside our door this very hour. We have much correspondence to attend to.”
Thalberg nodded, already taking a step back. “I will have one sent at once.” He took another step back, breathing heavily. His yellow eyes glared at the youngest of the priests, Akaleth, but it was for only a moment. He then turned and stalked out the door, passing between the two Yesbearn standing guard. With quick feet, he continued on down the passage, not daring to let his breath out until he turned a corner.
He took several more breaths then, leaning against one wall for support, his tail rubbing against the back of his legs. He felt relieved not only to be out of their presence, but also that he had not lost his temper any more than he had. Nor had he wilted under their questions as Thomas had begun to do.
That thought struck Thalberg heavily. It was not like the Duke of Metamor to shrink so from such intense questions. In fact, the alligator had never in all of his years ever seen him act so weak before foreign dignitaries. While he had in the past expressed fears and uncertainties to his closest friends and advisors, never had he acted so publically. In fact, the very memory of it made Thalberg’s stomach turn in worry. Had Thomas taken ill? Or was there more going on that he did not know about.
With a heavy sigh, he knew that he would have to speak with Thomas himself about such questions. Perhaps it was nothing but an illness gone unchecked too long. A few short words with his Duke would settle the matter, he assured himself. Just a few short words.
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