Questioning - Part V

Bishop Vinsah was pacing madly back and forth in his chambers. His long striped tail lashed behind him erratically, brushing against is bed posts every so often. His paws were tightening into fists and then unclasping, recently trimmed claws pressing within his dark palms. His green eyes intently stared at the floor before him as he walked, voice muttering as he did so.

Upon his bed sat Father Hough, dressed still in his clerical smock, eyes transfixed with worry. He was pulling on his smock with both hands, balling the fabric between them, before smoothing it out to begin again. When he’d first come to the bishop’s quarters, the raccoon was not there. A note had been left for him stating that the Bishop felt a need for some air, and had gone to meditate. By ill chance he’d chosen one of the southern towers, and so hadn’t seen the carriage arrive.

Whatever good his meditation had done, Father Hough’s news had undone. He’d waited outside the racoon’s door for some time, he was not sure how long. He’d been able to pray the entire Litanies at least four times though. Normally he never prayed publically except during Mass, but it had been necessary to bring any calm to his spirit.

Vinsah had been quite surprised to see him sitting before his door stop, but warmly invited him in, waiting until the boy priest had climbed up onto the bed to sit before asking him what had him so upset. Hough had told him in only four words, the only words he could manage. “The Questioners have come.” It took the Bishop several moments to understand that statement. For a few seconds he simply stared at Hough, green eyes bit by bit losing cohesion, until snarl escaped his muzzle, a bestial sound that Hough was not sure he realized he had made.

And then Vinsah had begun pacing, back and forth like a caged animal surveying its bars impatiently. He muttered under his breath intermittently, pausing for long intervals, his ears turning upwards, as if he were talking with somebody only he could see, and was listening to what they had to say. Hough found his distraction unsettling, but for some time could not bring himself to say any more.

Finally, Hough cleared his throat and asked, “Bishop?” Vinsah stopped his muttering, and turned fully to face him, his tail lashing wildly about behind him. His eyes were still a skitter, but they held on the priest. “What are you going to do?”

Vinsah blinked and then shook his head, resuming his pacing. He did not mutter this time though, but spoke clearly, his voice measured. “I do not know. I don’t think I can do anything until I know why they’ve come.”

“They have to have come about Akabaieth,” Hough said softly, still kneading his robes.

“Yes,” Vinsah said, turning back around, his back to the boy priest. “Yes, they have come about the Patriarch.” He turned around again, facing Hough. “But what are they intending to do about it? Why are they here? It could be any number of reasons surrounding him. Until I know which, I’m not sure what I should do. If they seek to question me, I will meet them with the truth. If they have other things in mind, I do not know.”

There was a loud insistent knock at their door, and then a harsh voice called out, “Bishop Vinsah? Are you in there?”

Vinsah turned and strode to the door, pulling it open quickly. Beyond was another racoon, this one dressed in thick cloaks, several weapons visible between the folds. There were likely more weapons that were not visible somewhere on his person.

“Rickkter?” Vinsah said in some surprise as he stared at his fellow procyonid. “What are you doing here?”

“The Questioners are here. We need to see the Duke immediately,” Rickkter said, not even bothering to step beneath the lintel. His voice was firm, eyes set dangerously, but not for anyone present. He scanned within the room as if expecting to find the black-robed priests here, but saw only Hough. He tilted his chin towards the boy, but said nothing to him, returning his attention to the Bishop. “Come now before they seek you out.”

“I know the Questioners are here,” Vinsah said slowly, his eyes narrowing curiously. “I want to know why they are here before I do anything.”

Rickkter scowled a bit, appearing as if he wished to reach out and yank the priest after him. “I’m sure they told Thomas what they want. Now come along, we should waste no time in this.”

“Time in what?”

“In seeking Thomas’s official protection. Now hurry!” Rickkter said, growing impatient.

Vinsah sighed heavily and nodded, “Yes, I suppose you are right then. Would you excuse us, Father Hough?”

Hough nodded and slipped from the bed, resuming his death grip upon his robe. “I’ll be in the Chapel if you’ve need of me.” The warrior stepped aside as Hough walked out the door and back down the hall to the Chapel. Vinsah took a moment to extinguish the lamps, and then followed his fellow racoon down the hallways. Rickkter had been shifting his wait from one paw to the other impatiently, and once they started out, moved so quickly that Vinsah had to push himself to keep up.

“When did you find out?” Vinsah asked between breaths. Rickkter did not appear to be in the least bit winded by his quick pace.

“Only a few minutes ago. I’m glad to see I got to you first though, Bishop.”

Vinsah snorted slightly, his mind a jumble of tangled thoughts. “That’s not much of a surprise. The Questioners tend to wait a short while after they arrive before they seek anyone out. It lets their victims worry and fret for a while. By the time they get around to their victims, they’re already so exhausted they’ll usually talk much easier.”

Although he could not see Rickkter’s eyes, lagging behind as he was, trying not to step on his companion’s madly flicking tail, he could see the tilt of his ears, the curving of his muzzle. He could tell that Rickkter was sneering. “When I was in Durrich I saw a group of Questioners first hand. They had come for Bishop,” he paused a moment, turning his head to glance back at Vinsah meaningfully.

“Bishop Joachim of Durrich,” Vinsah finished for him. “I know of what you speak.”

Rickkter slowed his pace to turn his head more fully on his fellow procyonid. But he did not stop, continuing on down the lamplit passageway. They trod upon a soft red carpet that covered all but the edge of the way, while the walls were but stone, spaced with lamps in scones every ten paces to give it sufficient light. With their animal eyes, they saw it quite clearly.

Seeing the warrior’s surprise, Vinsah added, “I have been a Bishop myself for fifteen years now. My parish was in Abaef. We were less than a day’s journey from Yesulam. I heard all of the news from the lands of the Ecclesia.”

“I see,” Rickkter said, his voice cold. “Did you hear about what the Questioners who came did to Bishop Joachim to make him confess to heresy? Did you hear of the trial they conducted, bringing forth witness after witness who levelled the most ridiculous of charges against him? Did you see the look on the people’s faces as they watched their beloved Bishop cast down before them by those black-robed priests and their thugs?”

Vinsah braced his tongue against the back of his sharp teeth, his tail lashing about more firmly. He had heard rumours of such, but had assumed they’d been exaggerated. Durrich was on the southern coast of the easternmost landmass in the Southlands, near the foothills of the Darkündlicht range that separated it from the next landmass. The church there was barely a hundred years old, the old Lothanasi temples still standing. Four years ago, they’d been put to use.

“I had heard he’d been teaching that the Lothanasi pantheon was real and that there was no sin in showing devotion to them as well,” Vinsah muttered quietly.

Rickkter nodded. “Aye, they are real enough. But what you heard and the truth are far different.” Rickkter stopped then and leaned forward, putting one claw to the bishop’s chest, and pressing firmly. His eyes were narrowed lose, glaring angrily, but the anger was not at Vinsah himself. “Bishop Joachim had asked the Lothanasi to reopen the temples. He wanted the people of Durrich to have a choice, a free choice. Your Questioners destroyed him for it, and accused him of heresy. And that was only four years ago.”

Vinsah swallowed heavily then, blinking. He offered a silent prayer up to his Lady, asking her to pray for strength for him. He could feel her comforting smile at the back of his mind, but the raccoon before him occupied his thoughts. “I did not know,” he said at last, feeling as if he were a child who’d been caught doing something forbidden.

“I did. I was there. And now you do too,” Rickkter said, his voice cold. He straightened up then, and resumed walking down the corridor. It turned to the right, narrow windows raced up along the left side, though it was well into the afternoon and so cast dim light against the tapestries on the far wall. Scenes of life at Metamor were brought out, history of the great castle shown, housing every race under the sun at one time or another, each abiding within its walls, but never mastering the spirit of the palace itself.

“And that’s why we have to see the Duke now,” Rickkter said. “Or they may try to accuse you the same as they did Bishop Joachim.”

Vinsah nodded as he hurried along beside the warrior. They made an interesting pair rushing through the corridor, passing the occasional guard or messenger on their way. Two raccoons, one dressed in a long flowing cloak, swords and knives evident on his person, as well as the promise of others more cleverly disguised, and the other in the black clerical cassock of a priest, the most dangerous item he carried was the finely wrought emblem of the tree hanging upon a slender cord about his neck and the prayer beads dangling from his belt.

After they moved through the passage with the windows, they took another right turn, and then found themselves moving along a circular hallway that bent to the left. They were in the central spire on one of the upper floors, Vinsah presumed. He had never taken this way before, but Rickkter must have, for he strode confidently, never even hesitating in his choice of paths. The hall itself grew brighter and more finely decorated as they continued, delicate vases set between thick tapestries that were lit by bright lamps that hung nearly from the curved ceiling themselves. Ornamental suits of armour stood silently, empty, but clutching swords and lance as if ready to step down from their dias and do battle with any who meant harm to the Keep.

At last, they came to a wide doorway, the horsehead coat of arms fixed above the arched lintel. Two guards stood outside, dressed in carefully polished mail, brandishing wicked spears in one hand, swords tucked in their scabbards at their sides. Rickkter approached them, and stood tall. “Is Duke Thomas in?”

The one on the left, a bull morph that stood a foot taller than the warrior mage, nodded, long black horns dancing in the air as he did so. “His grace asked not to be disturbed.”

“What?” Rickkter said, his voice both shocked and infuriated. “This cannot wait, we must see the Duke immediately. This is a matter of politics which requires his attention. Any delay could prove disastrous.”

The bull’s companion, a man with broad shoulders and stubble upon his chin, obviously once a woman, shook his head sadly. “His grace said that under no circumstances was he to be disturbed. He was not feeling well.”

“And he’ll be feeling worse if you do not announce us at once!” Rickkter demanded, his face twisting in a snarl of undisguised contempt.

The bull glowered and lowered his spear before the door, shaking his head. “I will not. I am sorry, but his grace was quite specific about this.”

“Specific about what?” Another voice called. Rickkter and Vinsah turned, as did the two guards. Coming along from the other direction was a red robed alligator – the Steward Thalberg He did not wait for an answer though, but walked up until he was standing next to both Rickkter and Vinsah. His yellow eyes scanned them both quickly registering mild surprise at seeing them together before the duke’s private chambers. He especially eyed Rickkter, noting the weapons protruding from the folds of his cloak. Thalberg was of course as tall as the bull morph, but he still bore a slight shuffling limp from when he’d nearly been crippled in the assault.

The bull licked his thick lips with an equally thick tongue. “His grace asked not to be disturbed by anyone, master Thalberg.”

“Oh stuff that nonsense, Andhun,” Thalberg scolded, his jaws snapping shut for emphasis. Rickkter stood aside for a moment, watching the Steward with keen interest. Thalberg leaned forward, while the bull Andhun pulled his spear back. The alligator gave the oak a firm pounding with his fist. “Thomas? It’s Thalberg. Are you in there?”

The sound of hooves shuffling along both carpet and stone came to them from behind the door muffled, but with their sensitive ears they could hear it. Soon, the door creaked open, and a horse’s head poked out – Duke Thomas. “Yes, Thalberg?”

“Your grace,” Thalberg said, his voice reverent, no longer commanding. There was a faint hint of concern in those marble tones. “Will you permit a few of your subjects an audience?”

Thomas blinked once and then nodded, opening the door wider. It was dimly lit inside the wide rooms. Thalberg stepped through first. Rickkter waited, and then gestured for the Bishop to follow after. Vinsah nodded, and did so, trying to stay out of the way as he came inside. Rickkter closed the door quietly behind him.

The room was lit by several lamps that hung from the walls, including one that sat on a large writing desk that was strewn with various papers burned with seals of many varieties. A fire crackled within the hearth, though it appeared in need of more wood. The bed sheets were a tumble, as if Thomas had been sleeping fitfully and had prevented his servants from fixing it. The air was thick with the scent of horse, even more so than Vinsah would have expected. It almost felt as if he’d walked into a stable to give comfort to a farmer who’d had to put down a suffering beast.

“I am sorry for the mess,” Thomas said, leaning against the desk, his tail hanging low over his crumpled clothes. “I have been trying to find something,” he continued, gesturing to the pile of documents.

Thalberg’s face was grim as he surveyed the bed. Vinsah had never in his life slept within anything so luxuriant as the one that the horse lord of Metamor possessed. Even when he’d lived in Abaef, his bed there was but a simple hay pallet when compared to what he saw before him. The alligator rubbed his paws together as he glanced at the fire, and then back to the Duke, “I will attend to your fire and bed sheets, your grace. Rickkter and Bishop Vinsah were at your door first.”

Thomas nodded his head, smiling slightly. “Thank you, my friend.” His words were strangely distant, as though he was simply watching himself act, and not actually participating.

With the flick of one paw, Rickkter gestured for his fellow racoon to step forward. Vinsah did so, casually glancing at the documents that were strewn across the desk. It appeared that Thomas had been sitting there rifling through them when they had come to his door. Judging by a few words that jumped out of the text at him, he was reading over various treaties and trade agreements with the neighbouring lands.

“Your grace, I wished to seek your protection. I seek asylum should the Questioners wish to remove me from Metamor at this time.” The words felt odd coming from his mouth, but he knew it was what Rickkter had brought him to do. After hearing of the tale of Bishop Joachim of Durrich from the mouth of one who was there, he felt far less certain of his own safety. When he’d paced back and forth in his chambers, he’d merely been wondering what he would say to them when they asked whatever it was they would ask.

Now, he was thinking entirely different things. Patriarch Akabaieth had tried to rein in some of the worst excesses of the Questioners zeal while he was the Pontiff. But how much good had it done, the raccoon priest could not help but wonder.

Thomas stood up straight, and blinked, looking at Vinsah with surprise. “My protection?” He shifted about uncomfortably. Was it just a trick of the light, Vinsah wondered, or had the Duke been crying? “What do you want me to do?”

“This are your lands,” Rickkter interjected a bit impatiently. “If the Questioners try to take Bishop Vinsah back to Yesulam forcefully, you could intervene. They would have no choice but to leave him here.”

Thomas nodded at that. “Yes, I know. I fear that it would cause a rift between Metamor and Yesulam. After Akabaieth died...” his voice trailed off, and he shook his head sadly. “I’m sorry. I’m speaking like a fool. You have my protection.” There was a long pause as Thomas stared past Vinsah, seeing but not something in the distance. His flesh trembled for a moment, and then he regained his composure. “You have my protection,” he repeated, as if he was not sure he’d said it.

“And if they threaten you, just let me know,” Rickkter said. Vinsah noted that his fellow raccoon did not say he’d do anything about it, but let that slide.

“They won’t come to me,” Vinsah slowly. “They will not come for anyone. They will send a request to have that person come to them.”

Thalberg, who had brought the fire back to a warm blaze, and was currently straightening the dishevelled bed sheets, nodded. “They asked me to arrange for four chairs to be placed in their room so they could question in comfort.” A strange look crossed the alligator’s face. “I’ve yet to do that.”

Thomas nodded for a moment, and then returned his attention to the Bishop. “What will they do? You know them best.”

Vinsah glanced once to his fellow raccoon and then shook his head, one claw tracing over the tree that hung around his neck. “I do not know. It depends on why they’ve come. Did they tell you?”

Thomas nodded, the white’s around his eyes visible for a moment, but disappearing quickly. “They said they were here to investigate the Patriarch’s murder.”

Taking a deep breath, Vinsah nodded slowly. “Then let us hope that is all that they are here for.”

“I’m not going to take any chances on that,” Rickkter said darkly, arms crossed over his chest. “Does Metamor currently have any treaties with Yesulam?”

“Only the one authorizing the existence of the parish here,” Thomas replied, lifting a sheet from the desk to demonstrate. It was marked by the green symbol of the Ecclesia as well as the Metamorian crest.

“Good. That leaves them very little leverage,” Rickkter muttered, though there was a certain amount of relief in his voice.

Again Thomas nodded, this time appearing tired, as if he’d been up all night and all day. Judging by the state his bed sheets had been in, Vinsah found that thought quite likely. “Was there anything else you wished of me?” The horse lord asked at last.

Vinsah glanced at Rickkter, and then shook his head. “No, that was all. I thank you, your grace for offering me your protection.”

“I hope they will not make me declare it,” Thomas stated, a sentiment that Vinsah could not help but agree with, though he did not say so.

Both raccoons gave bows then, and stepped to the door. Thomas had his head resting in one hoof-like hand, he was no longer watching them. Rickkter opened the door, and gestured for Vinsah to step through. He did so, smiling weakly to the two guards standing outside. They did not appear to be terribly happy, butt hey said nothing either.

Without a word, they both began to walk back the way they had come. Vinsah continued to rub his claws across the wood of the tree, and then as they made the turn back down the corridor with the narrow windows and tapestries, he said, “They will send for me. They will want to ask me what I know.”

Rickkter nodded slightly, his face grim. His eyes took in the entire hall in one sweep, though he did not seem to actually see any of the tapestries or other decorations for what they were. It was as if he expected one of the black-robed priests to lunge from beneath them ready with a panoply of hooks and wires to torture the Bishop.

“Let me handle them in my own way,” Vinsah added, his own eyes straying across one tapestry, this one set in the centre of the room. It depicted a large battle, the people of Metamor as they were now, many of them animals. He too was an animal, a raccoon. His claws reached up to the mask of black fur around his green eyes. The mask he’d put on himself, she had called it. Though he had asked her many times in his dreams, still he did not understand what she had meant by that.

“Of course,” Rickkter said at last, as they reached the end of the corridor. “And I will handle them in mine.” There was such a dangerous cast to his voice that Vinsah recoiled from him for a moment. Realizing that it was not meant for him, the Bishop fell back into step with his strange companion. Ever since he had come to Metamor, that was all he’d known, strange companions.

“Just don’t kill them,” Vinsah said, though he knew Rickkter would not go that far. At least, he hoped his fellow raccoon wouldn’t.

And then Rickkter did a very strange thing indeed – he laughed. It was a twisted laugh, but one full of secret delight. “Why Bishop, I had no intention of that.” Vinsah chuckled lightly, wondering if he should feel any better.

Thalberg set the last pillow in place, his long red sleeves drifting out before his cold body. The fire had been neglected for too long, leaving the Duke’s chambers feeling as chilled as the air outside. During the summer, Thalberg enjoyed being an alligator as much as he could. During the rest of the year, it was a burden that did not sit well with him.

Pulling his thick robes tighter, he turned upon his liege, slowly stepping across the carpeted floor to the desk. Thomas still had his head resting in his hands, as if he’d forgotten that his Steward was still in the room. Thalberg waited patiently, studying the Duke, noting the lines of tension in his face, the way his ears tilted back against his head in exhaustion. While he had seemed more himself talking with the Bishop and Rickkter, there had still been some subtle weakness that did not escape the alligator’s notice. He had known Thomas all his life, and yet he’d never seen him like this.

Several minutes passed, the fire crackling warmly in the hearth, the lamps flickering and casting the room in a yellow ambiance. The carpet beneath Thalberg’s boots was rich and soft, the tip of his tail brushing against the fabric. Along the walls were several bookshelves, another horse emblem of the noble house of Hassan, as well as those of the other families living in the Valley, the Avery crest, the Barnhardt crest, and the rest. Even the Loriod crest had been dusted off and placed once more along the wall, though only in memoriam for long departed Alvarez, who had ruled his people fairly and kindly.

Before bitterness could seep into his heart once more, for he’d been good friends with Alvarez, Thalberg scuffed his boot against the floor. Thomas’s ears lifted and turned at that, and then, a moment later his head did as well. “Oh, I’m sorry Thalberg. You’d been so quiet I forgot you were here.”

“It is all right, Thomas. I did not want to interfere before.”

Thomas nodded, smiling a bit. “What was it you had to say, my friend?”

Thalberg leaned forward slightly, letting his jaw open more. “I wanted to ask you how you were, your grace. You have not been yourself lately.”

A look of surprise crossed the Duke’s face. He sat down in the chair then, his tail lashing back and forth behind him. “How do you mean?”

“Well, have retired to your chambers a great deal of late, asking not to be disturbed. And today, when the Questioners came before you, you had the look of a man afraid. That’s not quite true, but I can think of no better way to put it. I am worried, Thomas. Have you taken ill? Is there anything that I can do to help?”

Thomas sighed, though Thalberg could not quite tell why. “I have been feeling everything so much more vividly after the assault. It has been wearing heavily on me for some time now. I thought that I was getting everything back in order, and then they show up.” He sighed once more, and then glanced past Thalberg to the now straightened bed. “I haven’t been sleeping well either,” he added, his voice quiet.

“I see that. I could have Healer Coe mix you a draught to help you sleep,” Thalberg offered.

“Yes, thank you,” Thomas said, smiling slightly. A knock on the door cut short the words that were on the Duke’s tongue. The both turned to the door, where Andhun was poking his head in. Of course, this meant that he’d opened the door a good ways. “What is it?” Thomas asked.

“A message just arrived for you, your grace,” Andhun said dutifully, holding out the sealed bit of parchment. “It is from Raven hin’Elric.”

Thomas’s ears turned forward at that. Thalberg had already strode forward, taking the note from the bull’s hands. “Thank you, Andhun,” he said curtly. The bull slipped back outside and shut the door once more. Turning the note over in his hands, Thalberg did see the Lothanasi crest, and the crest of the hin’Elric family stamped into the wax. He did not open it though, but handed it to Thomas, who took it gingerly.

With a careful grip, the Duke undid the seal and read what was inside. With a heavy sigh, he tossed the note on top of the stack of parchments, and then shook his head. Thalberg offered him a questioning glance. “It seems Raven has heard of their arrival too. She wishes a private audience with me tomorrow morning.”

“They are most unwholesome interlopers,” Thalberg stated firmly. “They had the audacity to suggest my cooks could have poisoned the Patriarch’s food.”

Thomas stared up at him then, his face mixed with revulsion. “How dare they!” The spark of anger did not last long though, the tired and lost visage replaced it soon enough. “Let us just hope that whatever it is they seek they find soon. Could you tell Raven that I will meet with her over breakfast in my counsel chambers?”

“Of course, Thomas, I shall tell her right away. I will also stop by Coe’s on the way and procure that sleeping draught for you. I will bring it back with me as soon as it is prepared.”

Thomas smiled, and rose to his hooves once more. “Thank you, Thalberg. I’m sure I’ll get plenty of sleep when the Questioners leave.”

“We all will, your grace,” Thalberg agreed, he bowed then, and excused himself from the room. He hoped that the sleeping draught would help Thomas feel more like his old self again, but there were nagging doubts at the back of his mind. Something told him that this was more than just a lack of sleep or the pressures of his station. Thalberg could not help but wonder what it might be, hoping that he was simply imagining things.

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