Questioning - Part XIV

A unicorn standing in a grassy field, with a blue sword stretching from Dexter Chief to Sinister Chief,” Sir Egland said, arms crossed over his chest, soft hazel eyes firmly fixed upon his squire who stood before him. The oryx’s sideways eyes gazed upwards at the brown timbers over their heads as if they would avail him the answer. For several moments he stared, lost in thought, trying to remember all of the names that he’d been taught.

“That’s the symbol for the House du Tournemire?” Intoran asked at last after several moments pause. At his knight’s pleased nod, Intoran smiled warmly. “I only missed a handful that time.”

“You are definitely improving, my squire,” Sir Egland said proudly, rising from his chair. While the oryx was easily familiar with the heraldic arms for each of the houses in the Metamor Valley, Egland felt it important that he know those in Pyralis as well. “Spend another hour studying them, and then resume your swordsmanship.” They had erected a large wooden pole in the small plot of land he owned just behind their home. Deep gouges had already been notched within by Intoran’s blade.

The oryx nodded, heading back to his small room on the upper floor where the scrolls that Egland had drawn out from memory lay. Sir Egland watched and smiled as his squire left, the short nub of a tail twitching once before the young man was gone through the doorway. A wistful twitch crossed his muzzle, and then he returned back to his seat.

Taking his sword from the simple scabbard, he began to stroke across it with his whetstone. The firm scent of the oils filled his nostrils as his arms found the rhythm once more. It was quite relaxing to just sharpen his blade, even though there was little need for it. The blade could already slice through his flesh should he just draw it across his skin. But on a day when travelling was not possible, it was a pleasant pastime.

It had only been a few minutes when the firm knocking sounded upon his door. Gently, Sir Egland set the sword and whetstone aside, and rose to his hooves. When he opened the door, a familiar badger stood before him. Like all badgers, he was stocky, and while large still was a foot shorter than the elk knight. The pleasant aroma of onions lingered around his form. It took Sir Egland a moment to recognize him as Master Derygan, one of the merchants in the city.

“Well met, Sir Egland,” Derygan said, inclining his head respectfully.

“Well met, Master Derygan,” Egland replied, his muzzle slack. “What might I do for you?”

The badger did not appear annoyed that he was not invited inside to sit. In fact, he appeared a little agitated, as if he were in a particular rush. It was not often that he had cause to leave his store. Rubbing his paws together, his small dark eyes strained to look past the elk standing in the doorway. The doorway was both tall and wide, to accommodate Sir Egland’s and Intoran’s antlers, but the rooms beyond were too dark for the badger to make anything out.

“I was looking for Dame Bryonoth. Is she within?” Derygan asked after a moment.

Egland shook his head, staring past the plump badger at street. He could clearly see the houses on the other side, but he lost sight of the ends of the street through the fog. “She left an hour ago to ride.”

He scowled unpleasantly, his claws clacking together. “She was supposed to cart my onions last night. I know she met with the... with them.” Derygan paused, an unsettled look replacing the moue for a moment. “But she did not show up afterwards.”

Sir Egland nodded at that. “Dame Bryonoth returned here,” he explained. The memory of her wrought form shivering as if she’d just come in from a blizzard brought a chill of its own to him just then. Her questioning must have been much more unpleasant than his own. She had not spoken of it at all to him that night, instead pushing her way past to her room, shutting the door and refusing to emerge until the next morning. She’d taken her meal and gone back to her room, only emerging in the afternoon to announce that she’d be out riding for the rest of the day.

It pained Sir Egland to see his closest friend and fellow knight so grieved. The Questioners must have done something horrible to her in their time, but she showed no sign of speaking of it, and so Egland never asked. “I will tell her when she returns that you came calling for her,” he offered to the merchant.

Derygan nodded, small eyes narrowing even further. “Thank you, Sir Egland. Tell her that I already had my onions carted, but I will have another shipment for her in a week if she still wishes to do so.”

“I shall tell her. Good day to you, Master Derygan.”

The badger returned the wishes, and then trundled off down the street at a quick trot. Sir Egland closed the door behind him and walked back to his seat. With only the crackling of the fire behind him, and the groaning of the timbers above as Intoran moved about his room, Egland continued to sharpen his blade. Only now, the slick metallic ring felt hollow.

Though the sun would not set for another hour still, the Valley was already darkening with the coming dusk. The fog had not lifted at all during the day, so now with the sun hanging just over the peaks to the southwest, more and more shadowed corners began to appear. The second full day with the Questioners at Metamor was coming to its conclusion, yet many still walked about as if suffering from a fresh wound.

One such that did not appear effected by the lessening of moods was the Headmaster of the Writer’s Guild, Zhypar Habakkuk. The kangaroo had spent his days as he always did, cloistered away in the Guild Hall, hard at work reading through manuscripts, making corrections, suggestions, comments, or even writing whole new sections when he felt it necessary. He always took his meals with his fellow writers, but on this day, that would not be possible. And so, with calm resolve, the kangaroo made his way to the quarters of the Questioners.

He’d dressed warmly in a rusty looking brown jerkin and breeches, with a red belt about his waist. It went well with his fur he thought. Habakkuk could not often wear finery, as his method of walking was often ruinous to his garments. From what he had heard of the other victims of the Questioners queries, he knew that he would likely be the most underdressed for the occasion.

The two Yesbearn opened the door to allow him through, their eyes scanning over his peculiar form, though aside from a little curiosity, nothing else showed. Habakkuk had once read of the training they had undergone, but it had been many years ago. Even so, he simply stated his name, and then passed into the bright room beyond. The three cowled figures at the back caught his eye instantly, and without waiting for their invitation, he hopped to the chair they’d set before him, and then shook his head.

“I’m afraid that I will not be able to sit in this. My tail is too big.”

The Questioners gazed at him from beneath their cowls oddly. The one on the left crossed his arms. “Why can’t you just lay it over the side?”

Habakkuk shook his head. “That would be terribly uncomfortable for me. You’ll have to find another chair.”

The priest shook his black-cowled head. “We will do no such thing. Sit down.”

“No,” he reiterated, his voice flat but insistent. “I am physically incapable of doing so. You will need to provide me with one that I can sit within. I am sorry.”

“Are you really?” the priest asked acidly, arms still crossed. “How do we know this isn’t some excuse you are giving to keep from having to answer our questions?”

“Because it isn’t,” Habakkuk answered drily. “But berating me for making this request instead of fulfilling it will certainly keep you from questioning me.”

The priest simmered for a moment, before the Questioner on the right lifted his hand. His voice was emptier than his companions had been. “Take one of the beds from its room.” This was directed at the two Yesbearn that were standing on either side of the door. With speed, they moved to one of the side rooms, and began to work on the bed within. The doorway was not wide enough for them to carry the bed out as a whole, so the three Questioners plus Habakkuk listened as they dismantled it, the wooden braces removed, nuts undone and dropped with a clatter to the stone floor.

But in only a few moments, they began bringing pieces out. The offending chair was set to one side, and after Habakkuk had hopped out of the way, the two Yesbearn began to rebuild the bed. The three Questioners watched from behind their cowls, though only the one on the left looked annoyed by the proceedings.

When the Yesbearn had the bed put back together, they brought the thin mattress through the doorway, and set it on the bed. They had not brought any of the covers with them, and when they stood back beside the main door, it was clear they meant not to. Habakkuk offered no complaint as he stretched out on the mattress, his long legs dangling before him, toes and claws scratching over the carpeted floor, long tail stretched out behind him.

“Ah, that is much better. Thank you.” He nodded his head respectfully to the priest at the right. But the Questioner did not return the gesture.

“You are Zhypar Habakkuk?” the centre priest asked. His voice was firm, but it still felt more a question than a statement.

“Yes,” Habakkuk said, resting his paws on his knees. “You summoned me here, did you not?”

“I am Father Kehthaek,” the priest continued, ignoring the question. “This is Father Felsah and Father Akaleth. We are here regarding events surrounding Patriarch Akabaieth’s death.”

Habakkuk nodded, ears turning a bit. “And it is your intent to understand what happened, is it not?”

“That is correct.”

“Then you are wasting your time speaking with me,” Habakkuk said, ears waggling. “I was not present either for the attack upon the Patriarch, nor for the investigation that came afterwards. What little knowledge I do have you would likely be able to gain from others with whom you have no doubt already spoken.”

Felsah’s cowl stirred as he turned his head. “Nevertheless, there are some things we wish to ask of you.”

With a heavy sigh, Habakkuk nodded, and then gestured to their cowls. “Please remove them if you would. I am not accustomed to being accosted by cloaks.”

The three Questioners pulled back their hoods at once, the two men at the sides both dark-haired and fairly young, while Kehthaek had white hair, his face lined with age. Habakkuk rubbed one claw at his pants leg as he studied their faces, faces he knew had been coming to Metamor. What role did they play, and what would they go back with? Was there anything that must not be said? The kangaroo did not know.

“Were you ever in Patriarch Akabaieth’s presence?” Akaleth asked, his voice crisp, eyes narrowed. Habakkuk nodded but said nothing. The priest tapped his thumbs together as his fingers laced together over his knees. “And when was this?”

“The first night he arrived. As I am the Head of the Writer’s Guild here at Metamor, which as you know provides us with a significant source of income from the southern lands, it was my duty to attend the banquet given for visiting dignitaries. Patriarch Akabaieth qualified.”

“Were there any other occasions that you were with Patriarch Akabaieth?”

“No,” Habakkuk said, crisply. “I did not see him after that night at the banquet.”

Akaleth leaned back in his chair, one eyebrow raised as if surprised to hear this. “Are you a Lightbringer?” This last was said with some contempt, but what he said next dripped with undisguised disgust. “Are you a Returner?”

Again, Habakkuk shook his head. “I am a Follower.”

“Oh?” Akaleth leaned forward slightly, his hands cupping over his knees. “And why did you not do more to see Patriarch Akabaieth, then the head of our faith?”

His head tilted a moment, ears lifted in curious consideration. “There are many Keepers here who are also Followers, but who also could see the Patriarch but once while he was here. Why do you think my failure to glimpse him a second time was a deliberate act on my part?”

“I implied no such thing!”

“Of course you did,” Habakkuk said, pointing one finger down at the mattress. “You asked me why I did not do more to see Patriarch Akabaieth while I was here. By that, you are saying I did not do enough. You did not ask me if I did or not, you simply assumed I had. Thus, you are stating that I either did not care enough to try to see him again, or I deliberately avoided seeing him again. Either way, why do you feel I was acting in this manner?”

Akaleth leaned back in his chair, and waved his hand negligently. The other two Questioners simply watched, their faces impassive. “But you have not said whether you sought him out or not. Did you try to see him again after the banquet?”

Habakkuk nodded his head in approval. “A much better question, Father Akaleth.”

“We are not here for you to critique our questioning techniques,” Akaleth snapped abrasively, his eyes suddenly livid. “We are here to discuss some very important matters. Now tell me, did you seek out Patriarch Akabaieth after meeting him at the banquet?”

“No opportunity made itself available to me,” the kangaroo said after a moment’s pause.

“How could that be? Patriarch Akabaieth was at Metamor for another full two days.”

Habakkuk leaned forward, his long feet digging at the carpet more deeply. A few threads were plucked loose by his thick dark claws. “And just how often do you have opportunities to see the Patriarch back in Yesulam?”

“When in Yesulam the Patriarch attends to Eli’s will for His Ecclesia.” Akaleth scowled then. “There is always much that needs to be done.”

“As it was while he was here. Patriarch Akabaieth kept for himself a busy schedule while he was here. If you were to take three days to try and see the Patriarch, how often do you think you would be able to see him and speak with him?”

“That is irrelevant. I could choose any three days I wanted. You had no choice.”

“Which makes it even more unlikely that I would have been able to see him,” Habakkuk pointed out. “As he only had three days at all here in Metamor, he had to use every moment of them wisely. To what end would he have spent any amount of time with an individual he had already met and with whom he had no business?”

Akaleth waited for a moment, as if expecting the kangaroo to continue. But Habakkuk let his own question hang in the air, dark eyes scanning across all three priests. Felsah’s face was blank, staring at him as he were a garden sculpture. Kehthaek regarded him distantly, as if from some great perch, like an eagle peering down the mountainside at a small rodent that would make a delicious feast.

“You say that Patriarch Akabaieth had no business with you,” Akaleth said then, his fingers curling around the end of a leather strap that was tucked within his cloak. Habakkuk could not see how long it was from his perch upon the bed, but he did not need to see it to know what it was. “Why do you say that?”

Habakkuk scowled as he looked at that hand. “If you are going to threaten to whip me to loosen my tongue, then you had better get on with it. If not, put that away.”

Akaleth’s eyes narrowed hotly, and his body began to shake in frustration. “How dare you order me about!”

“With ease. I know of the document that Lothanasa Raven hin’Elric had you sign. If you have no wish to break that which you signed, then put your strap away.” The kangaroo’s voice was firm and cold then, a dark unpleasantness within his eyes.

The priest took a deep breath, composing himself once more, obviously fighting to maintain his anger. “If you know about the document, then why have you come alone?”

Habakkuk turned his muzzle slowly. “Has anyone else brought a friend with them since?”

“That is irrelevant.” His grip on the strap was secure, but he made no move to bring it out of his cloak or to hide it again. “You are here to answer our questions. And I asked you why you thought Patriarch Akabaieth had no business with you.”

“Yes, you did,” the kangaroo nodded, and then pointed once more to the strap clutched in Akaleth’s hand. “And why do you think I have yet to answer you?”

Akaleth sneered then, his whole body convulsing with fury. “You insolent beast! Were it not for your idiotic document, I would loosen your tongue!” It appeared that the black-robed priest had more to say, his face twisting from a venomous scowl to an impotent snarl, and back again. But then, he leaned back within his chair, and crossed his arms, the strap no longer visible. “Now answer my question.”

While the strap was no longer visible, the priest’s hands were balled into fists still. “Is it still in your hand, Father Akaleth?”

Akaleth flung his hands out at the kangaroo in frustration, showing that both were still empty. “There! Does that satisfy you, beast?”

Habakkuk shook his head slowly, a disdainful expression crossing his marsupial features. “No. I am no beast, and I expect you to call me by my name as I have called you, Father Akaleth. Can you do that?”

Akaleth’s body was twitching, the robes shivering as he held back his great fury. His black hair was beginning to fall over his ears and across his cheeks, dark strands that were held close to the scalp. “Of course I can, Zhypar Habakkuk.” It appeared to take a great deal of mental will to simply bite out those words.

Tilting his head to one side, the kangaroo let a small grin play out across his muzzle. In his eyes lay only disdain and calculation. “Why is it do you feel a need to beat me with your strap, Father Akaleth? Does not the Ecclesia teach that we are to love our neighbour as ourselves?”

“I am a Questioner of the Ecclesia. It is my job to get answers. Those who serve the Dark One must be motivated to ensure truthfulness.”

“Why are you suggesting that I serve the Archenemy?” Habakkuk asked, still smiling.

“Do you?” He still was only barely able to control his temper. At his side, neither Kehthaek nor Felsah stirred, watching the proceedings as if from a great distance.

“How do you know whether a person you strike is truly a servant of the Archenemy? Is it because they admit to it after you beat them? How do you not know they are simply saying that to get you to stop beating them?”

Akaleth hit his fist on the arm of the chair, and stood up, eyes filled with fire. “I am the one asking questions here, not you!”

“Are you sure?” Habakkuk asked, leaning back slightly on his tail. The scream of rage that echoed up from within Akaleth’s chest filled the room, a sound more familiar from the throat’s of beasts than that of men. He held his arms out at his side, as if he intended to rip the kangaroo’s jugular out with his bare hands.

Instead, Akaleth stormed to one of the doors at the side, and slammed it shut behind him as he marched into what was no doubt his own chambers. The sound of the strap cracking against stone could be heard from within, as could the priest’s peals of rage. Habakkuk glanced after him, the smile gone now, only a disgusted moue remaining in its place. With a heavy sigh, he turned his attention back to the two Questioners still there. He drew in his breath, and then said in slow, resigned tones, “Did either of you have any questions for me?”

The priest on the right nodded his head. “Why is it do you feel that Patriarch Akabaieth had no business with you?”

Habakkuk shrugged. “If he had business with me, then would he not have sought me out?”

Felsah paused then, his fingers rubbing against each other in silent contemplation. His face was far more passive, slack, as if the life had been drained from it like water from a stone. “Why did you have no opportunities to meet with Patriarch Akabaieth?”

The kangaroo continued to lean back on his tail, his paws before him. It was a position he could never have held before he’d grown the long, thick tail he now bore. But he found it pleasantly relaxing, and conducive to clear thinking. And it was clear to him that Felsah was far more clever than Akaleth had been. Even now the third Questioner was striking his strap against the wall in frustration, as well as other small metallic objects that Habakkuk could not identify by sound alone.

“I had no opportunities to meet with the Patriarch because he was constantly busy, engaged in very private activities. As I received no summons nor a visit, no opportunity existed.”

Felsah tapped one finger thoughtfully on the end of his chair. “So what is it that you were doing while the Patriarch was here?”

“My duties,” Habakkuk replied crisply, though he did not immediately elaborate.

“And just what are your duties?”

“I am the Headmaster of the Writer’s Guild, as I said before.”

“What duties does your office include?”

Habakkuk spread his paw wide. “There are quite a few. It is my responsibility to read over all submissions to the Guild by its members. I make corrections and suggestions as needed. I also instruct on matters of style and calligraphy. When enough manuscripts are prepared, I am also the one who sees to it that enough copies are made and that they are then properly bound. It is also my duty to organise events for the Guild members, as we meet regularly.”

“And just how many of these were you engaged in while Patriarch Akabaieth was at Metamor?”

He took a deep breath before replying. “As there was no official declaration that the Patriarch would be coming to Metamor, we of the Writer’s Guild were unable to prepare anything special. Thus, we had no special meetings during his visit. Also, this meant that I still had a great many manuscripts to read and edit.”

“So aside form the banquet, you spent those three days that Patriarch Akabaieth was here at Metamor read and editing manuscripts?”

Habakkuk nodded and smiled then to the withdrawn Questioner. “That is correct, Father Felsah.”

“So why is it that you made no effort to seek out Patriarch Akabaieth?” Felsah asked, spreading his hands wide, voice betraying the slightest hint of confusion.

“But I have already answered this question. No opportunity existed for me to seek him out,” Habakkuk reiterated, letting a touch of annoyance slip through his voice. “If we continue to dwell on this question, one that I have already answered, then we may be here for an awfully long time. Is that what you wish to do, Father Felsah? Do you wish to keep me from my duties?”

Felsah shook his head. “No. But it is our duty to understand what happened to Patriarch Akabaieth.” He licked his lips once, fingers closing into his palms. “When did you first hear that the Patriarch would be coming to Metamor?”

Habakkuk nodded and took a deep breath. He found that taking a deep breath was both calming and soothing, plus it gave him time to consider his answer. “That morning. One of the members of the Guild accosted me in my office and told me of the news.”

“Did you at that point know that you would be invited to the banquet?”

“Yes. I am the Head of the Writer’s Guild after all. The official invitation arrived only a few minutes later.”

Felsah nodded and then leaned back in his chair, his face shifting slightly, as if he were struggling to make muscles that had atrophied years ago move again. “Did you accept the invitation?”

Habakkuk leaned back further on his tail, tapping his claws against his rust-coloured breeches. One of his red-furred ears swivelled to the side, and he blinked quizzically. “I was at the banquet was I not?” It was quite clear to the kangaroo now why he had been summoned before the Questioners. Somehow, they had discovered that he had not wished to attend the banquet. He was quite surprised that anyone had even remembered that.

“You and others have said as much. But what did you do with the invitation?”

He gave a quick shrug. “I suppose I tossed it into the fire at some point this winter. I do not remember what I did with it.”

Felsah shook his head. “No, what did you do about the invitation when you received it?”

“I set it down on my desk. I had a great many things to attend to after all, and the banquet was not for many hours yet.”

“Did you respond to it immediately?”

“No, not immediately. As I had said, there is much that I needed to do that day. If I was going to attend the banquet, it meant I had to finish my duties early. A formidable task even when a person is in full health.”

Felsah’s eyes narrowed slightly. “What was your response to the invitation?”

Habakkuk lowered his muzzle slightly, giving the Questioner an annoyed stare. “I already told you that I attended the banquet.”

“Yes, you did,” Felsah admitted, wagging one finger lightly before him. The lines of his face, though still young, were beginning to show. “But that answer was for a different question.”

“You asked me what my response was. I attended the banquet. At the end of the day, that was the response I made to the invitation. It was a gracious and expected offer, and I provided the expected response. I was there when the Patriarch supped with Duke Thomas and many of the other courtiers here at Metamor. How am I answering the wrong question?”

The priest shook his head but did not speak. The shouts of rage had died off from Akaleth’s room, but the younger Questioner did not yet reappear. It sounded as if he were pacing back and forth talking to himself. After a moment considering the new silence, Felsah finally opened his lips. “We already know that you attended the banquet. That in and of itself is not the matter that we are concerned with just this moment. The question I asked was in regards to your response to the invitation. Not to the action that you took in going to the banquet. What response did you send back to the Steward of Metamor concerning the invitation?”

Habakkuk sighed and rubbed his paws over his breeches. “Given that the details of the banquet itself were likely not disclosed to you by members of the Patriarch’s retinue, it seems to me that your interest in this matter is very serious. It is of concern to you to understand whether there was any involvement by anyone at Metamor in the death of the Patriarch, is that not so?”

“If such happens to be the case, yes,” Felsah admitted.

“Thus, you question me now regarding this matter because you have been given reason to believe that something I may have done or said was suspicious, or cause for concern. Is that also not so?”

“We have made no judgements yet.”

Habakkuk waggled one finger. “Ah, but you have. By bringing me before you, you have judged that what I would have to say could be important. You have a very limited time frame here at Metamor, and so you could not very well question every one here to find out what they might know. So you had to have some method for selecting those whom you would summon. Am I incorrect in my assessment?”

Felsah shook his head. “No, you are not.”

“Thus,” he spread his paws before him, “you must have a reason to believe I could provide some beneficial information concerning Patriarch Akabaieth’s murder. Now, I am certainly not capable of enlightening you about the murder itself, as I was not present, nor am I in the circle of people at Metamor who have been debating these matters at length already. Thus, your interest in me has nothing to do with those events, and the fact that you have asked no questions about them only further convinces me of this.

“Also, I know your reason for being here is solely concerned with the matter of Patriarch Akabaieth’s death. You could not possibly be truly interested in the content of my work, or of the stories that I help pen and bring to life. While you may have seen the efforts of our Writer’s Guild, it is of no more importance to you now than whether the sun is shining in Yesulam at present.

“So I am trying to understand here,” Habakkuk declared, pressing his paws back on his knees, his huge feet tapping at the carpet as if dancing to an unheard tune, “what reason there is that you feel I may have something important to say that will help you in your questing. My only contact with the Patriarch as we have clearly established was at the banquet that first night. Yet so far, you have asked me nothing of the banquet itself. Why is that?”

Felsah took a deep breath, absorbing the soliloquy. As he breathed, the red cross upon his chest spread outward, and then contracted again, the bending of the cloth making it look more like a gnarled tree. His voice was soft, measured. “The reasons we have summoned you are our reasons. You know of our goal, and it will be clear to you why you were selected after the questioning is over. Speaking beforehand of it can only hamper our ability to question.”

One of his ears lifted fairly high. “Oh? And why would that be the case? If I know to what ends you seek to question me, then would I not be able to more clearly help you reach that end? I would certainly be able to target whatever details would be most beneficial to you then, and we could do away with the chaff. Is this not a better method than your haphazard, slipshod and wandering inquiry?”

“But we want to hear as many details as possible. Perhaps we might see something in them that you have not,” Felsah pointed out gently, eyes narrowing slightly. Beside him, Kehthaek sat silent and immovable as stone.

Habakkuk’s ears went rigid at that, and he took on an indignant posture and tone. “You suggest that we who were here for these events are not capable of examining them, and that you who were not present but upon the other side of the continent can better tell us what happened?”

“About certain things, that is quite possible,” Felsah said then, not in the least disturbed by the kangaroo’s repose. “We of the cloth can often spot details of a supernatural nature that may not be clear to those not versed in such theological matters.”

Habakkuk crossed his arms, leaning back once more on his tail. “Oh? Like what for example?”

Felsah shook his head. “That is not why we are here.”

“Then how can you expect me to take you at your word if you do not indulge me?”

“I am not here to instruct you in such matters. I am here to understand. The way you wish to do things is quite limiting. You would have us wear blinders like a horse. But we Questioners must be eagles that peer down upon all, noting every single detail about the world.”

The kangaroo did not immediately answer, his muzzle pressed tight in a grimace. From the other room that Akaleth had stormed off into he could hear nothing but quiet breathing. The priest had apparently managed to calm himself. He idly wondered if he would emerge to take his place at Kehthaek’s left again.

“And yet, you cannot do that,” Habakkuk declared, clasping his paws together. “Should you attempt to note every detail, you may very well end up an eagle. Instead, why not trust the judgement of those who were there? You have a very limited time frame to work with, Father Felsah. You will have to make compromises.”

Felsah lifted his hand to speak, his face contorted oddly, and then he shook his head and let his arm fall back into his lap. A heavy exhalation of breath came from his lips and then his eyes cast down the kangaroo’s chest and finally to the bed that he sat with tail sprawled behind him on. His black cloak seemed to fall inwards, as if his body were shrinking in on itself. Felsah laid back in his seat, no longer able to find words for his tongue.

An at that signal, the grey-haired priest stirred, as if waking from a long slumber to find a world drastically changed. Father Kehthaek’s dark eyes shown with a strange light, his hands slowly rising from their perch upon the arms of his bright chair, to clasp before him in a comfortable weave. When his lips broke, a hard voice came from them. “The invitation to the banquet came from Steward Thalberg, did it not?”

The kangaroo tensed and nodded. “Yes, I believe I already said as much.”

Kehthaek shook his head. “No, you didn’t. Father Felsah did.” Habakkuk sat up straighter then. The priest was right about that. Though he had been but a statue moments before, he’d been a sponge, soaking up everything that had been said. “What answer did you give Steward Thalberg to the invitation? It is customary in your lands after all to send a response to an invitation before you actually arrive. The response is not that you attended, but whether you were going to attend or not. What did you respond?”

Habakkuk took a deep breath and let his ears sag a bit on either side of his head. That they already knew the answer was fairly clear to him. “I told Steward Thalberg that I would not attend.”

One of Kehthaek’s eyebrows raised slightly, as if this surprised him. Lines on the priest’s face smoothed out. “Truly? And why did you tell him that?”

“I was not well.”

“Sick?” Habakkuk nodded. Kehthaek leaned forward ever so slightly. “What sort of sickness were you suffering?”

“A common enough malady. I felt tired, and my stomach was churning. I’d not been able to keep anything down that morning.”

“What caused your illness?”

Habakkuk shrugged. “I am no physician. Who can say what causes any sort of illness. Likely it was bad spirits ailing me, either from something I’d ate or drank the night before. Or it could have been a bad air upon the wind. Who can say about such things?”

The priest appeared to consider that for a moment before leaning in a bit closer. “What do you think caused it?”

“I already said, it could have been something I’d had the night before that was leaving me feeling so rotten.”

“Yes, you had,” Kehthaek nodded. “But that is not a proper answer. I asked what you thought happened, not what could have happened. There are many things that could have happened that could bring about illness. But we as people tend not to cling to diverging possibilities unless we are truly ignorant of which may be true. I asked you what you thought happened. Are you so completely ignorant that you do not have at least some notion of what possibility was the most likely?”

Habakkuk took a deep breath, and then let it out as he shook his head. “Who can say? I am no physician, therefore, I am not capable of making my own diagnosis. Were I to tell you my suspicions, it might prejudice you into making the wrong conclusion given my symptoms.”

“Humour me,” Kehthaek replied, face tight.

“I was under the impression that you wished to know about the Patriarch, not me.”

Kehthaek steepled his fingers. “You speak at great length about nothing, Headmaster Habakkuk. Why do you think you were ill?”

“And you chase after reflections in mirrors when you should be looking for what is real instead.”

“Why do you think you were ill?” Kehthaek reiterated.

“If you wish to waste your time with me, very well, I will humour you,” Habakkuk said, annoyance trickling through his voice. “It is true what I said that I could keep nothing down that morning. It very likely was from too much to drink the previous night. I do not remember if I had been at the cups, but it is something I have done before. Now, when I received the invitation, I had to wonder how close I would be to his Eminence. After all, Patriarch Akabaieth was a very old man. Any brush with sickness might bring him low. Just the thought of hastening his departure made me feel even sicker.”

“Hastening his departure?”

“Well, he was what, ninety years of age? Surely he did not have that much longer to live.”

Kehthaek nodded. “The fear of giving him your illness, what you said came from cups, a common enough malady indeed, caused you to refuse the invitation?”

“My not feeling well, and all that it meant did, yes.”

But the priest looked sceptical. “How is it that you feared giving Patriarch Akabaieth an illness from being well into your cups? It is not something that can be passed around as all men know who have supped such libations.”

Habakkuk shook his heads. “I did not fear making his Eminence intoxicated, if that is what you mean. No, what I felt was different. While I did have a slight headache from the cups, I also was queasy in my stomach. It is possible that I may not have had the best ale.”

“But do you believe that to be the case?”

The kangaroo felt annoyance at this line of questioning. He knew where it was going, and it was a place he had no wish to go. “Yes, I believe that to be the case. It was not the best of ale by far.”

Kehthaek brought one finger up to his face to touch to his lips, and then set the hand back down in his lap. A bit of his greying hair had fallen over one of his ears. “When you say it was not the best of ale, are you referring to an imperfection in its fermenting?”

“That could have been the case. By the time I had the ale, I was already quite inebriated.”

“So you could hardly distinguish the taste?” Habakkuk nodded uncertainly at that. “Then how is it that you suspect that it was bad ale?”

“Well, feeling ill the next morning is a very good reason.”

“Is that all?”

Habakkuk leaned back slightly, studying the older priest. There was a focus to this man that the other two lacked. As he sat there considering his response, the door opened once more, and Akaleth emerged, his face calmly serene, hands stuffed in either sleeve. The kangaroo watched him as he glided ghost-like across the floor to his chair. With languid grace, he sat down once more, newly patient eyes regarding the Keeper.

Once Akaleth had found his seat, the kangaroo turned his attention back upon the older priest. “Are you familiar with the effects of alcoholic libations?” At Kehthaek’s nod, Habakkuk continued, “Then you know that while they do make the world move slower, everything one sees while intoxicated is really there. Well, I know that the ale was bad in some fashion, because not only did I feel ill in a way I was not expecting the next morning, but also because I remember seeing something that was not there.”

“What did you see?” Kehthaek asked.

“As I was intoxicated, the image was not very clear.”

“What did you see?” The priest reiterated, his voice just as level and firm as before.

Habakkuk grunted and waved one paw negligently before setting it back on his rust-coloured trousers. “I saw an older man being murdered.”

At this Akaleth stirred in his seat, eyes going very wide. Felsah shifted uncomfortably within his own, looking back and forth, pulling his black robe tighter about him as if a cold wind had just raced along his spine. Even Father Kehthaek tilted his head slightly, eyes narrowing, their scrutiny intense. “Did the old man look like Patriarch Akabaieth?”

Habakkuk shrugged. “I was inebriated. I only remember that it was an old man. He may have looked like the Patriarch, but I do not know for certain.”

“Did you think it was Patriarch Akabaieth?”

Again he shrugged. “I only remember seeing the image. I do not know what it was I thought about it. My memory of that night is sketchy at best. I could have, after all, he was on a mission of peace. There are many forces who would be interested in preventing that.”

“But,” Kehthaek said, holding up one finger. “Patriarch Akabaieth did not arrive at Metamor until the day after you had that vision. And by your own words, his arrival was a secret that you did not know until shortly before he arrived. How then was it that you knew he was on a mission of peace when this was a closely guarded secret?”

“I did not,” Habakkuk explained, his words coming slowly. “It is possible to reinterpret past events with new knowledge one gains later. I consider it the most likely course of events that I saw in that false image what happened to the Patriarch after it was done.”

“At what point did you feel the old man might be Patriarch Akabaieth?”

Habakkuk let out a sigh. “It is hard to say. You are asking me to remember particular thoughts that I had nearly six months ago. Can you remember every thought you have ever had?”

Kehthaek shook his head. “Most thoughts that we have will never be conjured back. But thoughts of striking poignancy will stay with us. Making the connection between what you say you saw and Patriarch Akabaieth would likely be very startling to a devout Follower.”

At that, Habakkuk felt his flesh twitch. Where Father Akaleth had openly threatened and accused him of various misdeeds, Kehthaek was much more subtle. However, like any threat, it was an opening. “Are you suggesting that I am not sufficiently devout in the practise of my faith, Father Kehthaek?”

“Are you telling me that the thought of the Patriarch of the Ecclesia, the spiritual head of your faith, being murdered did not startle you enough that you would remember when it first came to you?”

“I had many other responsibilities occupying my mind while the Patriarch was still alive. I had kept my focus upon them, and not upon the image I’d glimpsed in a drunken stupor. And as with all things, the actualization of a thought is much more startling than the thought itself. I know that I saw the possible connection after Akabaieth was murdered.”

“Did you suspect before?” Kehthaek bore down, his questions as probing and direct as possible.

Habakkuk shrugged. “It may have occurred to me, but even then, what reason did I have for believing it to be true?” Akaleth appeared interested in asking something then, but he kept his mouth tightly shut. The other Questioner continued to stare uncertainly at the bed upon which the kangaroo sat.

“You said before that it came as no surprise that he was to be killed. His mission of peace you said was upsetting to many forces.”

“In retrospect, yes, I see that,” Habakkuk explained, his voice strained. Rarely had he squared off against such a determined questioner. “But as I said, I was preoccupied with many other matters, and so did not give such concepts their due consideration at the time.”

“Why did you not make any effort to warn Patriarch Akabaieth about the vision you had?” Kehthaek asked, his voice suddenly changing to a lighter tone.

Habakkuk leaned back a little, his ears turning slightly. “This vision came to me while I was drunk on admittedly bad ale. I cannot even be completely sure that it meant the Patriarch. Why should he have been interested in any warning I could have provided?”

“Patriarch Akabaieth believed in visions as bearers of Eli’s will. The prophetic tradition was not completely wiped out with the sacking of Fellos.” Habakkuk did not move at that statement, just continued to stare at Kehthaek attentively. “It is quite likely he would have taken your words to heart.”

“And how was I expected to know this? The Patriarch was a mystery to almost everyone here at Metamor. What little we had heard coming from Yesulam was not terribly promising, at least in regards to our interests.”

“An incurious mind would not seek out such answers,” Kehthaek nodded. “However, you are a writer, and thus, you have a curious temperament.”

“And my inquiry was into the work of my fellow Guild members as I have said repeatedly. I did not have the time to inquire after the Patriarch’s inclinations towards visions received in drunken states.”

Kehthaek’s eyebrow shot up at that. “I am not impressed by sarcasm, Headmaster Habakkuk. So you did not warn Patriarch Akabaieth that a danger existed?”

“No, I did not,” Habakkuk said firmly. “And even if I had, what good do you think it would have done? The Patriarch was already being guarded by very capable men. They were prepared for an attack by anything except a legion. And they were attacked as I understand it by a single man. If all of those men could not stop a single individual from killing the Patriarch, how would he have been any safer had I delivered a warning?”

The priest appeared to consider this for a moment, rubbing his fingertips together slowly. And then, as the silence drew first from seconds and then into nearly a full minute, Kehthaek leaned back in his chair and spoke, “Have you ever had other visions come true?”

“When you say true, how do you mean that?”

Kehthaek’s lips twitched, but he did not smile. “I take it by your answer that you have had other prophetic visions.”

“I did not say that at all,” Habakkuk declared hotly. “I asked you a question. There are many different types of truth. After all, who does not have premonitions, or thoughts concerning the future? I have had many such extrapolations turn out to be correct, and many that have not. This is no instance of some prophetic gift as you intimate.”

“I did not ask about extrapolations or guesses that you bring upon yourself. I referred to visions.”

“What do you mean by visions, then?”

Kehthaek leaned back in his seat, head rested against the soft cushions. “A vision, properly understood, is something that comes unbidden to the one who sees it. It is not present in the physical sense. But it is nevertheless real. It usually depicts future events, though visions of past events have been known to occur as well.”

“Before I came to Metamor, I was a merchant of rare books. I read them as well, quite thoroughly, so I know quite a it about what you describe. Such visions as you term them do not come true in the sense that is often understood by those to whom they are given. We need to first clarify by what we mean true. Understanding of a vision is often important, and usually does not come to any who receive them until after the event in question comes to pass.”

“Thus,” Kehthaek finished for him, “what you saw the night before Patriarch Akabaieth arrived at Metamor was indeed a vision, and it came true in only a few days time. You who know a great deal about such things as you claim, yet did not pursue this vision at all. Why not?”

“Because I know a great deal about such things,” Habakkuk retorted. “Visions as you know are not unavoidable, but actions taken to avoid them often lead to the very consequences feared. The play of human events is not set in stone. Visions thus are often warnings of things to come. But they are mysterious in their revelation. We can never understand them enough to know what steps must be taken to prevent them from coming to pass. Sometimes we stumble upon them by accident, other times there is nothing that could be done to prevent them, as seems likely in this case.”

“But how could you have known it was inevitable given that you told me you understood it so little?”

Habakkuk shook his head. “In such a case, nobody could know that.”

The priest leaned forward, eyes alert. “But you have not said whether you understood it or not, merely asked how we could expect you to understand it. Did you know that what you saw was inevitable?”

He felt as if some great trap had closed around him. Habakkuk sighed and leaned back further in his seat. “Nothing is inevitable. Without a doubt, had we been warned an hour earlier, the Patriarch would have survived that night. But would it have stopped the attacker forever? No. Whoever wanted to kill the Patriarch would have found a way despite our efforts. His path was set, as was the Patriarch’s. But even so, how was I to know that the old man in my vision was actually the Patriarch?”

Kehthaek leaned back far in his chair then, staring past a grim line at the kangaroo. For several moments he sat like that, the silence of the room complete except for the muted activity in the city beyond the open windows. Habakkuk felt his flesh stripped from him by those eyes, and scrutinized to the last strand of fur. His heart began to pound a quicker pace. For the first time he had set foot within this room, he knew that certain things were in danger of becoming known.

And then, Kehthaek turned his head from side to side. “Father Felsah, Father Akaleth, please leave.” Both priests looked stunned at this request, but did so without any complaint. The two Yesbearn that were standing inside the room broke apart and followed after the two. Felsah and Akaleth, accompanied by one Yesbearn each, disappeared within their rooms. The only ones left within those bright chambers were Habakkuk and the grey-haired Questioner.

“The time for questioning is over,” Kehthaek announced as if handing down a sentence of death. “But there is still one thing to be said, Headmaster Habakkuk, and I shall say it. First, I will tell you of a story of my own life, one that will give weight to the words I shall say.”

He sat a little taller in his seat then, eyes imperious. “Thirty years ago, I made the bold pronouncement to one of the senior Questioners that I could produce an answer from any man with words alone. As punishment for my pride, I was sent to Fellos to ask the scholars there what I thought was a simple question. I will not bore you with the question itself. I spent an entire month there, and never was my question answered in full. Even the pieces I received for my labours when placed together did not form a complete whole. It was a valuable lesson to learn.

“And in your evasions and half-answers, I see the same tactics I once faced those thirty years ago. But this time, I know what the answer that you will never say is. You are a Felikaush. You have had visions of future events the whole of your life. You knew the man in your vision was Patriarch Akabaieth, and you knew there was nothing you could do to save him. You were sick to your stomach with misery over this, and could not bring yourself to know the man, lest you threaten the secrets you need to keep for an even darker day. When pressed, you attended the banquet anyway, but then flung yourself into your work so as not to think of what you knew was coming. Is this not so?”

Habakkuk sat for several moments staring at the Questioner. When he did speak, it was slowly. “You have a vivid imagination. We could use that sort of talent in the Writer’s Guild.”

Kehthaek snorted derisively then, and leaned back in his seat. “I thank you, Headmaster Habakkuk for your confirmation. Unlike many others, I trust the Felikaush. Your secrets will never cross my lips again. But I am afraid I have just one more question for you.”

“You said the time for questioning is over,” Habakkuk reminded him.

“Indeed I did. Nevertheless, I have but one more. This one is very simple.” Kehthaek waited a moment before continuing, giving Habakkuk plenty of time to lodge another protest. When none came, he asked, “Do you know who killed Patriarch Akabaieth?”

Habakkuk offered the Questioner a slow smile then. “Not yet.”

At that, Kehthaek nodded his head, and rose from his seat. “We are finished then. Go back to your manuscripts Headmaster Habakkuk. I thank you for your help. May Eli’s blessing be upon you.”

“And upon you, Father Kehthaek,” Habakkuk said as he jumped back to his feet. The door back to the hallway opened as he approached it, and with great relish, he hopped on through. He hurried along, the corridor speeding by quickly. His clothes took the strain stoically. There were many manuscripts still to be edited, and he had no desire to focus on anything but them for the moment.

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