Questioning - Part X

You will tell them who I am, and that I demand to see them immediately,” Raven ordered frostily to the two guards that stood outside the Questioner’s chambers. They were black-liveried men, their chest bearing the red cross that marked their servitude to the Ecclesia’s Questioners. They regarded her cooly, eyes narrowed, lips set in grim lines. These were battle-hardened warriors, Raven could see, men who had known the company of death.

After a moment, one of them opened the door, and whispered Raven’s words to another such guard on the other side. He then closed the door once more, and returned to staring at the Lothanasa. Raven returned the gaze, her own blue eyes like ice.

She’d first returned to the Lothanasi Temple after speaking with Father Hough. Having left Madog to comfort the boy priest, she’d sought comfort of her own, filling her eyes and spirit with the familiar sight of that blessed temple. The acolytes had all sensed her need to be alone, and had stayed glued to their duties. Even Merai had kept her distance, tending to the faithful in worship.

Inside her chambers were the nine circles. Lines of chalk spaced with candles along each step, they were her guide to peace, to gaining a connection to the world that was often lost amidst the bustle of the day to day activities. It was her root, the bindings by which she was able to feel the bones of the earth beneath her, the very tendons that held all creation together. Inside them she had sat, letting herself sink into the meditative calm that preceded the return of the world.

The first circle had taken from her all other sensation, a well of darkness that served to focus her mind without any outside distractions. It was as if the rest of the world ceased to be, and there was only Raven, her true essential self, floating in the limitless void. There was peace in that void, no fear of anything at all. Nothing was beneath her, but there was not yet even any concept of beneath to consider. It was her pure spirit, unencumbered by the intruding reality.

At the second circle, sensation began to return. It first came in the form of touch, the cold floor beneath her legs, pressing firmly against the fur. The white cloth she wore rubbing slightly over her chest. Her tail lay flat against the stone, curled around to one side. They were empty feelings though, numbness from sitting so long, an awareness of her physical form, but no understanding of where it lay.

And then, when Raven had proceeded to the third circle, context was added to her awareness. The sound of the acolytes singing a song in the temple filled her awareness. Her own scent, dry but firm filled her. The scent of burning wax, pungent and thick, was like a soft blanket in which her mind was wrapped. There were many more subtle nuances, each impacting her, and she spent tireless moment studying those scents, cataloguing and labelling them, putting them back in their place within the world.

The fourth circle brought a strange sort of sight to her, the world of light did not fully return, but she was aware of her own self, a creature of light and shadow intertwined. The very essence of all that was became known to her, limited to experience as it was a variant on her own sight, but there was still so much rich detail that her mind could understand instinctively. The flow of the Keep lived beneath that aura, the very essence of Metamor itself, bound by spells so arcane she could not have hoped to understand them in a thousand lifetimes. It was all hers to see.

And then, Raven let herself draw back, the world growing clear once more. She did not normally go beyond the fourth circle, and had no time for it that day either. When she had looked at the clock, she saw that two hours had passed. There was still much to do before she would see them. Her mind relaxed once more, she sought other things.

Raven occupied herself with her books, reading old passages, scanning words penned by men hundreds of years before. Words of wisdom, and words of warning, both taken to heart just then. She scanned histories, treatises on various ecumenical declarations as well as critiques of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. The last that she examined was the passage that she had shared with Patriarch Akabaieth less than six months ago. The Starchild prophecy, speaking of times that were all too near.

But after three hours, she knew she could delay no longer, and so put aside her books to meet with the Questioners. She had walked as swiftly as possible, lest some stray worry dissuade her for the moment. This was something that had to be done, and the only way that Metamor could remain free from political and religious strife was for her, the head of the Lothanasi faith at Metamor, to do this.

The door opened once more, much wider this time. Raven stared past the sullen guards. The one standing in the doorway inclined his head respectfully. “Lothanasa Raven hin’Elric, please enter.”

She nodded curtly to the guard, striding through the doorway. The room beyond was decorated in bright fabrics, the most colourful of which was pale yellow. She felt as if she had walked within the sun, her white robes blending into its brilliance. Yet, the room felt strangely cold, and as her eyes settled upon the three sun spots that sat like judges at the far end of the chamber, she knew why. The Questioners were black-robed priests, their cowls up to hide any human features they might bear. For a moment, they did not speak, and neither did she.

And then, the centre figure rose from his seat, slowly, as if it pained him to do so. The other two followed his motions, as if they were mirror reflections. With one cloaked arm, he brushed the hood of his cloak back, revealing an old face, much like Akabaieth’s had been. But where the now dead Patriarch had radiated kindness and love, this face bore none of that. It was as heartless as stone, and appeared to have been crudely chiselled from the same.

The other two Questioners also tossed back their hoods, revealing much younger faces, that of a man in his thirties, and one in his twenties. They all bore the familiar tanned skin so common in the Holy Land, as they were called. Except for the central priest, whose hair was whitening, their hair was all uniform black.

“This is an unexpected pleasure,” the eldest said, though there was no pleasure in his voice. “I am Father Kehthaek. This is Father Felsah and Father Akaleth. Why is it that you have come, Lothanasa Raven hin’Elric?”

Raven’s gaze was not pleasant, but neither was it grim. At least, not yet. “You are the reason I have come. It is your nature to ask questions, and you expect answers. It is now my turn to ask questions of you, and you will provide me with answers.”

“Why should we suffer any of your questions?” Akaleth shot back darkly. There was poison in his voice, a poison that Raven would not succumb to.

“You are guests in Metamor’s house,” she said, keeping her focus on the eldest priest. He was clearly the head of these three, and it was he that she needed to understand. “We are your hosts. But the first duty of a host is to her family, and if a guest’s conduct begins to threaten them she may have to see him to the door.”

Kehthaek’s lips curled. “In our country, hospitality is something we have long nourished. It is a matter of pride to take in a traveller and see to his needs. They are the ones who ask, ‘what is the road ahead like’, not the host.”

Raven nodded. “In your country, aye . But you are now in my country, and the rules are different here. If you wish to be a guest here at Metamor, you must abide by those rules. You have no wish to offend Metamor by your actions, do you?”

“We wish to find out what happened,” Felsah said, his eyes staring, seeing her as if for the first time. “That is why we ask questions. Offense is not our intent. If we offend by our questions, then perhaps it is better to ask why Metamor would be offended. Is that not so?”

She waved her hand negligently, as if swatting away a bothersome fly. “So why should you be offended when I ask questions of you?”

Akaleth snorted derisively, staring down his nose at her, even though he was only perhaps an inch taller than her. “We are not beholden to the likes of pagans. And you would do well to not offend Yesulam’s emissaries. Or to threaten them. Yesulam will remember your words.”

Her blue eyes slipped over to the young Questioner, staring hard and intently. “For the most part, Metamor is a Lothanasi city. I am the Lothanasa of Metamor. Therefore, events and guests of a religious nature are my concern. Not only is Duke Thomas your host, but so am I. If I so choose, I can order you to leave this city, and you will have no choice but to obey.”

“Would you?” Kehthaek asked, his voice a hand around her throat.

“I say that only so that you will understand under whose sufferance you are allowed to stay here. There are certain issues that we will discuss right now. Know this – you are the first of your kind, be they Patildor or Lothanasi, that have ventured within these walls in a century. My own people’s Questioners were banished from this city over a hundred years ago because they sowed fear and misery amongst the people. Should you choose to do the same, you will meet a similar fate. Our tradition is long, and our willingness to rely upon it is certain.”

She leaned closer, her tail firmly stiff, ears completely upraised. A snarl percolated at the back of her throat, and she let out only the faintest whisper. “Should you chose to force our hand and invoke this tradition, all of the world will know that it was Yesulam who brought offence. It was Yesulam’s emissaries who were poor guests that insulted their host. All the world shall know that the fault lies with Yesulam in this matter. Will you so needlessly weaken the hand of your faith–” she turned her eyes upon Felsah, whose own had gone wide at this speech, “–merely to ascertain the truth as you say?”

It was clear that Akaleth did not like her. In fact, all his efforts appeared to be focussed on keeping himself from throwing something at the priestess. Felsah’s robes were shaking slightly, as if he were shivering beneath them. Kehthaek was as still as a statue, the thin line of his lips set so firmly that a sword could not have opened them.

But then, they parted with words, words so sudden that they almost did not seem to be spoken at all, but fed directly into her mind. “What do you want?” His eyes were fixed upon her. Whether he was convinced that what she said was true or whether he was simply humouring her to further his own arcane amusement she could not tell.

“You have said that you have been given the task of finding out what happened to Patriarch Akabaieth. From whom did you gain such authority?”

“Patriarch Geshter and the Council of Bishops sent us here,” Akaleth crowed, his chest expanding slightly. “We are acting with the full authority of the Ecclesia and of Eli himself.”

“I see,” Raven said, raising her eyebrows and allowing her eyes to widen slightly as if she were impressed. “I assume, then,” she asked innocently, “that you have the seals of Patriarch Geshter, of the Council of Bishops, and of Eli himself to prove this?”

Akaleth sneered. “How dare you ask that?! In the lands of the Ecclesia, none would dare such impertinence as to doubt Eli’s own messengers.”

“That may be so,” Raven conceded, nodding once. “But as I said before, you are in Metamor now, and we dislike playing host to a disruptive guest.” She turned her focus suddenly on Kehthaek, dropping all pretense, and spoke in a low voice, every word filled with quiet intensity. “If you cannot produce a document bearing the seals of your Patriarch and the Council of Bishops, then you will have come here under false pretenses and I shall have you thrown out. If you have such a document and refuse to produce it, then I shall also have you thrown out.” Her eyes narrowed a fraction. “Do not test my resolve in this matter.”

She eyed all three of them menacingly, her ears erect. Under her fierce gaze, she could see Akaleth seethe in repressed fury. Kehthaek considered her calmly, his eyes studying her as his mind pored over her words. The last, Felsah, just stared emptily as if his mind had retreated within, shutting out the outside world. Her aura sight could sense nothing from the latter two, a fact that disturbed her – it was as if they were not even there. She looked into their eyes in an effort to read them visually, but their expressions were as blank as their auras.

“Father Akaleth,” Kehthaek said at last, his voice slow, measured, but firm, “would you kindly produce the document that Lothanasa Raven hin’Elric requests.”

There was definitely an unhappy moue upon Akaleth’s face. However, he reached within his robes, and held out a small scroll case only the width of his hand in length. It was jewelled at both ends, bright yellow citrines set against green iolite. With a twist, she undid the case, and a small roll of parchment slid out. Unfurling the parchment, she quickly scanned the text, and the seals of the Patriarch and Council of Bishops. It was legitimate, there could be no question of that. And they were only meant to inquire after the Patriarch’s death.

Returning the parchment to its case, she redid the clasp and handed it back to Father Akaleth. “Very well, you will be allowed to continue inquiring about Patriarch Akabaieth’s murder. But I am not yet satisfied.”

Akaleth snatched the jewelled scroll case back from her paws, and stuffed it once more within his robes. “Not yet satisfied! You have seen that our being here is mandated by the highest authorities in this world. There is nothing left that needs to be said. Get out and stop interfering with our duty.”

Raven suppressed a snarl as she turned to take him in fully. “Oh there is much still to be said, Questioner,” she said, smiling tightly, her voice cool and almost patronizing. “Without that parchment, you would be well on your way outside the city walls by now.” She raised her eyebrows again. “With it, you are a guest – but now, like any responsible host, I must have your assurance that you shall do nothing to abuse our hospitality.”

“And what will you do?” Kehthaek asked, though all she could hear in his voice was curiosity. She wondered if more was there, or if he was as blasé as he seemed.

“You will put your own seals upon a document stating that you will refrain from certain activities while you are here. There will be no torture. There will be no rampant accusations. There will be no threat of reprisals against anyone. Any person you question shall have the right to be accompanied by a witness of his or her choosing. You will make your decisions known to Duke Thomas, myself and others before you leave. And you will leave by Saturday at the latest regardless.”

“That is an outrage!” Akaleth spluttered angrily, his robe quivering.

Raven turned her gaze upon him and let her widen slightly. Though her voice and face were calm, turbulent waters were being stirred beneath them. “You wish to be a poor guest, Questioner?” He continued to seethe, but said nothing more.

“Do you have a document already written, or do you wish to compose it now in our presence?” Felsah asked, his voice quiet.

Raven reached within her white robes and pulled out a scroll case of her own, though far less ornamental. She offered it to Kehthaek, who took it in surprisingly strong hands. He unscrewed the lid and pulled the parchment out. Akaleth shot vile death with his eyes at Raven, as the elder priest read through the words she’d carefully written out only an hour before. Felsah’s eyes appeared slightly distracted, as if he were staring at something only he could see.

Inspecting it for a few moments, Kehthaek then laid the parchment down on the small mahogany table set before his chair. From his robes he produced a small medallion, the cross of the Questioners inset in the centre. “Wax,” he said, and one of the two guards retrieved a candle. He brought it to the table, and set it beside the document, along with a stick of wax. Kehthaek nodded, took the stick and held it in the flame before pressing it against the parchment. He then pressed the face of his medallion into it, sealing the sign of the Questioners into it.

After slipping the medallion back within his robes, he waited a moment before offering the parchment back to Raven. “No, Father,” Raven said, her voice steely. “All of you must mark your insignia upon it. Not just you. All three of you.” At this, she let her eyes wander specifically to Akaleth, who still bore a disgusted moue.

With a sneer, Akaleth produced a similar medallion to the one Kehthaek carried. He did the same as the elder priest, placing a dab of wax upon the parchment, and then marking it with that cross. He then withdrew his medallion from the wax as if it stung his fingers to touch the parchment. Raven felt her tail twitch, as if some strange wind had just blown through the room, but the air was still and occluded outside.

“Father Felsah?” Kehthaek asked, glancing upwards at the priest to his right. But Felsah did not hear him, staring wide-eyed as he was at something in the far corner of the room.

With an uncertain trembling, he raised his arm and pointed with his hand. “What is that?”

All eyes turned to follow his eyes, including Raven’s. The corner he had been staring at was clouded in shadows, deep ones from the sways and draperies decorating the wall. Little light penetrated the corner, but what did gleamed off the brightly polished surface of the figure crouching there. The priestess blinked and felt her legs nearly give out beneath her. This was the second time in nearly as many hours he had simply appeared from the shadows.

“Madog!” Raven called in disbelief. “What are you doing here?”

The metallic fox crept out of the corner, glancing around at the gaggle of priests staring in befuddlement at him. The two guards had drawn their swords and interposed themselves between the fox and the Questioners. Madog sat back on his haunches and panted as if he were laughing merrily at them. “I wanted to meet them,” Madog said then, his voice bereft of any malice. It was merely curious.

Raven blinked. So did the Questioners and their guards. It was Felsah who spoke at last. “What are you?” He leaned down a bit, stepping to the side of one of the guards so he could see the automaton more clearly.

“I’m Madog,” the mechanical fox said, blinking once, ears turning towards the Questioner. “What’s your name?”

“What is this toy?” Akaleth snarled, narrowing his eyes in distaste at the automaton. His shock had passed, and he was now glaring balefully once more.

Raven had to put one paw upon the back of the chair to stay standing. “He’s an automaton. A creation of a bygone age. He was unearthed a few years ago and rebuilt. I do not know much more than that.”

“Who does?” Felsah asked, unable to take his eyes from the mechanical fox. He had bent down, gingerly creeping past the guards to approach Madog.

“He is not why you are here,” Raven said, reminding him.

Felsah nodded. “Of course.” Madog stared back up at him, turning his head to one side, blinking metallic eyes.

“Get it out of here. It is a demon beast!” Akaleth snarled, waving to the two guards wildly.

Madog turned his head to the younger priest, licked his jowls once, and then turned around. He walked to the door and nosed it open, despite the latch being closed. The guards outside were quite surprised, and stared inside to make sure that all was well. Kehthaek waved them back to their posts, and glanced back down at Felsah, who had stayed crouched down to watch the automaton leave. “Father Felsah, Lothanasa Raven hin’Elric still needs your insignia.”

“Of course,” Felsah repeated, pulling his medallion out with oddly slow deliberation. The corner of his eye was ever upon the spot that Madog had stood, but he too managed to stamp his cross into the parchment. Raven waited a moment to make sure all the wax had dried. She then took it in her paws, and nodded.

“I have all that I have come for. If I hear that any of you have broken this accord that you have signed, then I shall call for your immediate expulsion from this city. Is that understood?”

Kehthaek nodded. “It is. There is much still we need to do. Unless there is anything else, might we be allowed to continue our inquiries?”

Raven nodded her head as well. “Very well. Do not give me cause, Questioners.” And with that she turned and glided regally from the room, refusing to give them any indication of how strongly she wished to be out of their presence. They said nothing as she left, and for that she was grateful. She half expected to find Madog waiting for her in the corridor beyond, but he was nowhere in sight. Why had he come to see the Questioners? She doubted she would ever know the answer to that.

Gripping the parchment more tightly in her paws, she headed back to the Lothanasi Temple. This had to be put somewhere safe immediately. It surprised her that they had folded so easily. And it also unnerved her. What their true game might be, she could not help but wonder the whole way back to the temple. But no answer came.

“So,” Father Hough said, pouring a bit of milk for the Bishop who sat cross-legged in the same chair that Raven had selected a few hours earlier, “how did it go?”

Vinsah snorted a bit, still feeling the tingle of the brandy that Rickkter had shared with him earlier. He was not normally a man wont to drink spirits, but it had seemed the right thing to do after such a harrowing interrogation. His head felt as if a thousand bees busily built a gigantic hive in some far corner of his mind. There was little doubt that the boy priest had smelled the alcohol on his breath – the selection of milk instead of the usual apple cider they shared was proof of that.

“As well as can be expected,” the raccoon finally managed to say, his tongue sour and thick. He’d already told his tale to Rickkter, who had drawn great delight from several parts of the story, most especially the humiliation of the youngest Questioner, Father Akaleth. The part where he’d struck his fellow priest had at first surprised his fellow raccoon, but the look of astonishment had been followed quickly by raucous laughter and much back-slapping.

Hough handed him a cup of milk, and blinked curiously. His eyes were puffy as if he’d been crying. “What happened?”

“They are not happy that I have not yet ventured to Yesulam.”

“But you’d never make that kind of a journey,” Hough exclaimed. He did not say why he thought that was so, and there was no need. They both knew that Vinsah’s raccoon form would bring only hatred and violence anywhere he travelled in the kingdoms south of Metamor.

“I know that, and I explained that to them. They are not chosen to be Questioners because they have understanding hearts. They are chosen because they are good at sniffing out the truth. At least, some are. The rest are chosen because they are implacably inflexible, or outright monstrous in their zeal. Still they wish me to go to Yesulam. And they are right, it is something I will have to do. I honestly cannot put it off for much longer.”

Hough bit at his lip, sitting with his legs sticking out over the end of his chair. “When?”

“I don’t know, but soon,” Vinsah admitted. He sipped at the milk, the warmth strange upon his cups-addled tongue. “I will have to pray about it to find the right time.”

“What else did they say?”

Vinsah shrugged. “They wished to know what happened to the Patriarch. I told them all I knew, though I admit it was not much.”

“Did you speak about the trial?”

He shook his head. “No, that I did not mention. If I had, they would only have concluded that Metamor was guilty. I was not about to let that happen. I know her to be innocent of any wrongdoing.” His face turned very sour. “One of them spoke ill of Akabaieth.”

“What?” This news brought an even greater shock to the boy priest. “How could they? He was Patriarch, and now he is dead. It is doubly a crime to speak ill of such a good man now in Eli’s hands!”

“I know, but he did nonetheless. I have some dark suspicions that some on the Council are using this as an opportunity to denounce Akabaieth’s aims. They are going to degrade the man in order to do it as well. I will fight that tooth and nail. It is only another reason that I must go to Yesulam. Nobody can speak for him as I can.”

Hough finished off his cup of milk, and set it between his knees, small fingers rubbing over the lip. “How could they?” he said, his voice very small, as if it belonged to an even younger child. “He was Patriarch. Aren’t all of us supposed to give him honour, respect, obedience, and love?”

Vinsah sighed heavily then, lapping up the last of his own milk. It did settle his stomach quite well. He leaned back in the chair, feeling the comforting cushions give slightly at his weight. His triangular ears rubbed at the back of the fabric, tickling them ever so slightly. But he was now used to such a sensation, and it no longer bothered him.

“I wish it were so easy as that. I doubt even in the older days when the Ecclesia was young that it was as easy as we all are told. Out here on the outskirts of the faith, it is easy to believe all the good that we hear. It is easy to show complete devotion to the Patriarch and Council of Bishops. I have been at the centre of the conflict for many years now. Many on the Council have their own ideas about where the Ecclesia should go, what she should do. I had never thought any capable of speaking ill against the Patriarch, especially after he had passed away. But now, I am not so certain.”

“I cannot believe it,” Hough said, eyes downcast.

Vinsah offered him a comforting smile. “Do not worry, Father. The Ecclesia is the instrument of Eli’s will here on this Earth. If there are bad men who would use her to their own ends, they will not succeed. That is the promise that Yahshua has made to us. We must simply have faith in that. I will journey to Yesulam. And when I return, I know I will bring a message of peace back with me.”

The young priest nodded, smiling a little once more. “I do not wish you to go, Bishop, but I know you must. I feel as if you have left already.”

“Fear not. I will not leave before the Easter celebrations have come later next week. I will be here with you for that.”

Hough smiled more widely. “Thank you, Bishop. It will be a celebration you will thoroughly enjoy.”

“I’m sure it will,” Vinsah said, smiling, happier to be talking about such things. He would be happier still when the Questioners left. The offer that Kehthaek had made to him still stuck in his mind. But he was far from ready to decide that as well.

“Come in, Dame Bryonoth,” Kehthaek said, gesturing to the chair in the centre. Outside, though the sun had not been seen once that day, it was growing dark. True night would only be another hour away. And the fog remained clutched about the valley like a noose, winding tighter and tighter about the Keep.

Bryonoth entered the room, her broad form typical of Steppe-born women, though there was a still masculine traces to her features. They were subtle things, the tilt of her chin and eyes, the bearing of her nose, the sway of her arms, and even subtle movements of her hips spoke more of a man than of a woman. She wore much the same tabard that Egland had, though hers had obviously been refitted for a woman, the symbol of the tree on her chest a bit distorted.

“Greetings to thee, Fathers,” she said, her voice deferential, though also uncertain. That was common and encouraged by the Questioners.

It only took a moment for Kehthaek to introduce himself and his fellow Questioners, and then Akaleth began. “How does it feel, Flatlander,” he said with some contempt, “to have Eli himself take away the proud status of your manhood and make you a woman instead?”

Bryonoth tensed at that, obvious bitterness coming to her face. “I hath no wish to speak of my disgrace.”

“So you wish to be a man again?” Akaleth pursued, his lips splitting in supple delight. Though they always began any Questioning with their hoods up, Akaleth was leaning so far forward that his face was visible beneath the cowl. As it was also coming onto dusk, more lamps had been lit within their chambers, casting more light through the room, making the shadows both longer, but also, bringing out certain shadows that had once been hidden.

Bryonoth’s face itself was a mask of varying shadows. The sides of the chair cast duelling blackness on either side of her face, rough cheeks flickered, showing the line of bones one moment, and then nothing the next. Her brow was heavy, letting her eyes sink further inside of her head, as if they were speaking to a barely animated cadaver who was in the process of decaying.

“Aye, I hath wished that from the moment the curse did this to me,” Bryonoth said at last, her voice tight, as if she were holding back the well of her own sorrow and bitterness.

If Akaleth noticed this, then he either wished to hurt her, or did not care. “But of course, you are going to be a woman from now on, are you not? You were given a great gift by Eli, that of masculinity, at your birth. But by your actions, you have squandered it away, and Eli has punished you by taking that gift away and making you a woman. Hasn’t He?”

“I...” Bryonoth began, but shook her head, hands balling into tight fists. Though she was now a woman, her hands appeared quite strong and well-weathered. Though a woman, she was still one of coarse upbringing. “I dost not know what Eli hath planned for me. If ‘tis indeed a punishment, then ‘tis one that wounds deeply.”

Felsah spoke then, his voice crisp. “What of Duke Thomas?” There was a sudden look of alarm on her face. “Why did you try and kidnap him?”

The alarm faded into a general melancholy. “I wast ensorceled and hath no control o’er my actions. I couldst think only of what a fine stallion he wouldst make.”

Akaleth’s eyes went wide at this, but he did not speak just then. The empty-faced Felsah continued while Kehthaek sat in complete silence, as if it were a cloak he wore. “Who ensorceled you, Dame Bryonoth?”

The shadows seemed to collect more firmly about Bryonoth then as she leaned even further back in the chair. She closed her eyes and shook her head, features indistinguishable for a moment. “I hath no way to know. I canst remember aught from when I wast knocked from my Povunoth, and when I entered Metamor to take his grace.”

“You cannot remember?” Akaleth asked in surprise. “It was around New Year’s when you tried to make off with the Duke, was it not?”

“‘Twas the Solstice.”

“That’s over two months of time that you say you cannot remember. Is that not just a bit too much to expect us to believe.”

“‘Tis a terrible time. I wast in captivity, and kept unawares all that time. I dost not know any more,” Bryonoth said, her voice seeming to waver, as if it wished to go deeper. It was almost as if another were speaking with her voice.

Akaleth crossed his arms indignantly. “I think you are lying.” He paused a moment, as if he wished to say something more, but something prevented him. “Yes, you are lying,” he added then, as if to convince himself. “You were kept in captivity, then you must know by whom. Tell us who held you prisoner.”

“I believe ‘twas the same man who attack us that night.”

“The night Patriarch Akabaieth was murdered?” Felsah asked.


“Tell us of this man,” Kehthaek said at last, rubbing his thumbs together in his lap. “Describe him for us.”

A strange smile began to curl at Bryonoth’s lips. All three priests felt their eyes narrow, their hearts tremble. The candle flames dimmed at once, casting the room into deeper shadows. Bryonoth’s face seemed to pass from the world, replaced by a dark mask, the night’s own face. Tendrils of fog crept through the windows, as if feelers for some immense monstrosity. Faint whispers came along the wind, words strangely spoken, no, chanted.

“Certainly, but you will remember none of it,” Bryonoth’s voice stated, though for a brief moment, they each knew it was not Bryonoth.

An hour later, when Dame Bryonoth left them, and the lights had come back within the room, they did not remember a word.

He stretched, satisfied, and laid back upon his bed, letting out a loud sigh of delight. Glancing to the bed across from him in their room at one of the local Inns, he saw that she was sitting up, sipping from a bowl of warm soup. Her one eye met his, and then she shook her head.

“It was very amusing,” he said, almost defensively to her, as if he needed her permission to act, which he certainly did not.

“Men,” she snorted derisively, though her voice still sounded weak. She returned to sipping slowly from the warm broth.

He laughed lightly then, and laid back once more upon his bed, arms crossed over his chest. It had gone far better than he’d expected. If it did not use up so much of his strength, he’d have wished that he could do it more often. Closing his eyes, he let pleasant dreams restore his strength. Perhaps tomorrow would be the day his letter from Yesulam arrived.

“Have you heard?” Thomas asked Thalberg as the alligator was admitted to the Duke’s personal chambers. It was now past sunset, and the horse lord was preparing himself for slumber. The sleeping draught that Coe had fashioned for him was being mixed into a drink by his page. He was not terribly interested in sleep just that moment, as both relief and excitement filled him.

“What Lothanasa Raven has managed to do?” Thalberg said, and when Thomas nodded, he nodded as well. “Yes, I have heard. I am glad to know they will be sullying our home for only a few days more.”

Thomas’s ears perked at that. “You don’t like them?”

Thalberg stood up a bit straighter at that, studying the horse lord with his yellow eyes. Thomas could feel the keenness of the inspection, but could not quite tell why it was warranted. Did he suspect something was wrong still? He had the sleeping draught now, and Raven had done for him what he’d hoped she’d do. What could possibly be bothering his Steward still?

“No, Thomas, I do not. They are not good people, and the questions they ask are not innocent. They are poisonous arrow tips meant to make us suffer slowly. Their true intent is not something they will reveal. At the very least, Raven has collared them. We’ve no need of a dangerous hound loose in our walls.”

“So now we have it chained to a wall?” Thomas asked, even as the page offered him the goblet with the sleeping draught mixed in. He took it in one hand, but did not yet drink it. “A wall we are shipping South in a few days.”

“Indeed.” Thalberg paused then, standing tall with his hands held behind his back just above his thick tail. Thomas tapped one hoof-like finger upon the side of his goblet, while his page stood several paces back, waiting quietly, but watching for any unspoken signals. The alligator eyed the goblet in the Duke’s hand. “How is it?”

Thomas shrugged, lifting it to his muzzle. “It helped me sleep last night. I hope it does tonight.” He then quaffed the draught as quickly as possible. It was bitter, but when mixed with wine it was not nearly as bad. It did not stop him from thinking about Bryonoth and what she wanted to do to him as soon as the Questioners had left. He still worried about the promise she had made to shoe him before making him haul produce once again.

He was still uncertain how to feel about the arrangement Raven had worked out. It was good to know that Raven had finally gone and done what she had wished him to do. The responsibility had been taken from his shoulders, and she had what she wanted. But now that he knew they were going to leave, it left him only a few days before Bryonoth would summon him again, and put that halter once more upon him. Just thinking about the fire that would spread through his flesh, forcing him to be but a horse, made him tremble ever so slightly, as if it were coursing through his body already.

“Thomas?” Thalberg asked, his voice curious, drawing him back from his reverie.

“What? Oh sorry, my mind was wandering,” Thomas admitted, holding the goblet out. The page quickly retrieved it from his hand and set about cleaning it on his way to the cupboard.

“I merely wondered after your health, your grace. I also am curious as when we might expect to continue our matters of concern for Metamor. The fields will be ready to be planted in a few weeks. Might we resume discussion about what we shall trade, and what we shall keep this summer?”

Thomas nodded his head then. “Yes, we must not let the Questioners interrupt us too much. They will be gone in a few days true, but it will be good to dwell on easier matters.”

“Yes it shall,” Thalberg said, narrowing his eyes as if he were studying the Duke for some detail only he knew about. “Is there anything else you will need this evening?”

Thomas shook his head. Already he could feel the cloud beginning to fill it. The draught that Coe had concocted worked amazingly well. “No. Will you be ready by afternoon tomorrow to begin the discussion? Let us have my daughter and Andwyn here as well, there is much we can all discuss”

“Of course, your grace,” Thalberg inclined his head, and backed towards the door. “I bid you good night, Thomas. I will see you tomorrow afternoon.”

Thomas smiled to his friend and watched as he disappeared out through the large door. He then stumbled over to his bed, the covers of which the page had already turned over for him. The boy then discreetly disappeared out the door as well after extinguishing all of the lamps. Thomas smiled to him as well, and then quickly undid his shirt lacings. He then undid his breeches, and tossed them both aside.

His eyes clouded over as he fell back against the pillow. Strangely enough, in his fogged state, he felt as if he were laying upon hay. He could almost smell that tough dry odour filling his nostrils. A content smile graced his lips as the draught did its work. Within moments, he was asleep, with only the fire crackling in the hearth making any noise in his room.

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