Questioning - Part XX

Duke Thomas Hassan of Metamor was sullen. Tomorrow, the Questioners would be leaving, and he would once more face that difficult choice that Dame Bryonoth had placed before him. She wished to shoe him, but how could he be shoed like a real horse and still also be the Duke? It was an imponderable that he had been tossing about in his head for some time now. While there was a definite allure to the notion of being properly shod like any other beast, he still worried about what would become of Metamor.

His page, Lan, had already brought him his evening meal, and Thomas was rapaciously making short work of it. The boy seemed fretfully nervous about something, but he did not say what when the Duke had asked him. It was of no matter anyhow. His own concerns were far more pressing upon his mind, making him brood fitfully, drawing his attention away from the matters of state.

The Equinox festival was only a week away, and so he was pouring over the ledgers and requests from the merchants and tradesmen in Metamor. The numbers had swirled before his eyes most of the day long, but he had been able to pick out a few of them every now and then. The celebration would be small, just as the first after the Battle of Three Gates had been. But it would not be sedate, rather it would be a boisterous occasion that fill every Metamorian with delight and pride.

But Thomas could not keep his mind upon it, or anything else he was doing. He had been sitting there with an apple held up to his muzzle for several minutes ow, and then, only then, did he place it between his teeth and eat it. Lan was pretending to watch some oddly interesting spot upon the wall, but the boy’s eyes strayed repeatedly to the Duke at his table. Thomas rather wished that his dinner could last him for the rest of the night, but that had been his last apple. He would have to return to those ledgers shortly.

The knocking that sounded brought a brief surge of delightful respite to both Thomas and his page Lan. The boy stepped to the door, opening it a crack and spoke in a low voice for a moment. The Duke spent that time straightening his doublet and brushing a few bread crumbs from his whiskered lips. When he looked up, the boy was shivering visibly. “Your grace,” he said in a halting voice, “the Questioners wish to speak with you.”

Thomas stiffened, and stood up from his seat. He had been successful at avoiding the Questioners for the most part ever since they had arrived. Their very presence made him feel weak and vulnerable, as if all his secrets were written plainly upon his face. He wished that he could flee down into the secret passages between the walls, the dark spaces that led him to his pleasant reprieve. But he could not do that. Nor could he turn them away.

“Let them in,” he said, marshalling what strength he had, keeping his voice steady.

The boy nodded, and opened the door widely. The three dark robed priests glided across the terrazzo onto the fine carpet covering the floor to his room. Their cowls were drawn up, making them shimmering pillars of black basalt, marred by the open wound of the cross upon their chest. As if their moves were rehearsed they slid into position, shoulders only inches apart, before the horse lord.

“Greetings to you, your grace,” the central figure stated. Father Kehthaek the Duke remembered after a moment. “We have come as promised to inform you of our findings and what conclusions we have drawn from them.”

Thomas smiled slightly then. “Well, I will be glad to hear it.” And then have them out of his presence again.

The priests’s head tilted slightly to one side. His hands lifted and drew back the cowl of his cloak, revealing an elder face, chiselled, though without warmth. The other two priests did the same, only their faces were younger, and their hair still black. Kehthaek’s eyes narrowed slightly. “There is but one matter that needs to be cleared up, and it is you that are best able to do this.”

Stifling a shudder, the horse lord nodded slowly. “What can I help you with?” He asked, his voice steady for the moment. One of his hooves was beginning to scrape slowly against the carpet in anxiety.

“It is about a certain individual that we have only recently become aware of,” Kehthaek said, his voice betraying not even the barest hint of curiosity. It was as if he were speaking merely for its own sake. “Do you have any idea who it was that killed Patriarch Akabaieth?”

The horse blinked at that, nearly stumbling back into his seat. All this time and they were now asking him that? “Well,” Thomas said, fumbling for his words. It was clear to him that they knew something, but he was not sure what it might be. “There are rumours that a Southlands mage was involved.”

“What is his name?” the youngest of the three asked, his eyes intent, almost triumphant.

“We are not certain of that,” Thomas replied. He could well remember the trial, and how it had torn Metamor apart. He’d watched both Charles and Phil leave the Keep, the triumvirate he had been told that had been so important, sundered likely forever. And now these three priests pressed at him to betray what little there was left to it.

“Surely you must have some inkling to the murderer’s identity,” Akaleth said, his demeanour strangely assertive and calm. It was as if he were gloating.

Thomas could not help but nod. He wished to lie to them, but his whole being had no manner of dishonesty in it for these three. It seemed leached from his flesh, leaving only the pain of reality behind. “Yes, we do.”

“And what is it?”

A heavy sigh escaped his lungs. “Zagrosek.”

“Ah, this Zagrosek then, “Akaleth continued, obviously delighted by his little sport. The other two Questioners said nothing. Lan was quivering in a forgotten corner of the room, even while two of the guards had stepped inside, keeping an eye on two of the Yesbearn that had accompanied the Questioners. There were so many ears and eyes there to watch Thomas’s bestial fright. “Has he ever been to Metamor any other times?”

Thomas had been told that they’d spoken with Jessica that morning. He decided that she must have told them about Zagrosek, as they said they only recently came to know of him. And it was entirely possible that she told them more of Wessex’s studies. But just what had she told them?

Unable to do otherwise, Thomas nodded slowly. “He was here last Spring manipulating the late Lord Loriod into treason. Doubtless you’ve been told of that.”

The young priest ignored that though, his eyes narrowing as if scenting blood. “Did Zagrosek come to Metamor any other time?”

He took a deep breath. “We are not certain if he has or not.”

“Perhaps I should rephrase my question,” Akaleth said at great length. From his tone, Thomas felt as if he were being lectured like a child. But from the goodness of Father Akaleth’s heart he was being offered a reprieve. From what others had said of the young priest to him, he knew that such a proposition was as likely as the sun rising in the West. “Has anyone named Zagrosek been to Metamor on any other occasions?”

The horse lord gripped the table. He could feel the eyes of his page and his guards upon him. They studied him, hoping to see their sovereign blast these parasites back into the darkness from whence they came. They were all depending upon him, depositing the weight of responsibility onto his shoulders. How he wished he could slip from under that mighty burden and simply be a beast of burden. Their loads were much lighter and far simpler to bear.

Even so, Duke Thomas knew he had to rise to this moment and be strong for them. As difficult as it was, the horse lord measured himself, letting his eyes become steely, his voice dismissive. “You have already a moment in mind. Speak it and belabour not this point any longer.”

Akaleth drew back slightly at those words, but did not relent. Felsah to his side stiffened, but the central priest, the eldest, remained unmoved. “It is true there is a moment that I am considering. But could there not also be others? How are we to know that you have told us all if you simply ask us what we know, and then tell us it is so?”

The Duke of Metamor waved his one hand negligently, but did not take his brown eyes away from the Questioner. A gaze of withering indifference flowed from those eyes, a reproach that would have left many to stumble back into their seats. Yet Father Akaleth continued to stand, his own eyes tight and drawn, refusing to give any ground.

“You forget your mandate, Questioner,” Thomas said slowly, his voice low, nearly a whisper amidst his gruff undertones. “You are not to make accusations against anyone.”

“I have made no accusation, I am merely pressing you to answer the question I have asked. Has anyone named Zagrosek been to Metamor aside from the two times already stated?” Akaleth replied, his voice icy.

“You implied that I was a liar,” Thomas pointed out. “Do not insult the House of Hassan so lightly.”

“I assure you,” Father Kehthaek cut in, his own voice distant, “that he does not.”

Thomas struck the table with one fist. “Do not speak in riddles to me. Especially when you use them to mask a clever invective. Say what you mean and be done with it.”

Kehthaek considered those words for a moment, even as Akaleth’s eyes continued to narrow, a sneer sneaking out across his features, though it was quickly hidden once more. The priest on the other side stared silently beyond the Duke, as if hypnotised by something that was not even there. He seemed utterly removed from the conversation. So it came as a great surprise when Father Felsah spoke next. “How many times has a man named Zagrosek been to Metamor?”

Thomas breathed heavily and nodded. This was a question that he could not be avoided through indignance. It was clear to him that they either suspected a third time, or knew of it already. “Three times,” Thomas admitted after a moment’s pause. “A man named Zagrosek has been to Metamor three times. Whether it is the same man each time, that we do not know.”

“What was this third time?” Akaleth asked again.

Thomas shook his head. “You know of it already is my guess.”

“Indeed,” Kehthaek said then. “As you have admitted there were three visits, it will do us no harm to admit the matter that concerns us at present. We are interested in knowing more about Zagrosek’s final visit to Metamor, during the Yule.”

“What specifically were you interested in knowing?” Thomas asked.

The elder priest let a small smile escape his lips. “Tell us of his friend, Charles Matthias.” The horse lord felt his heart skip a beat. Had they heard about the trial? How had they discovered that? Who told them of it? Jessica? No, she knew better than to do that. Who could have it been?

“He is one of Metamor’s scouts. He’s now living up at Glen Avery.”

“Why is he living at Glen Avery?” Father Akaleth asked. Kehthaek withdrew one more within himself, simply observing.

Thomas did his best to hide the trembling that so wished to make itself known upon his flesh. The equine part of him wished to run and kick at these frightful creatures, to somehow banish them from his thought so that he could return to placidly grazing with somnolent mind. But he knew that to do such would be to risk revealing before his page and guards the nature of his relationship with Dame Bryonoth, and that was not something he could do.

“All right,” Thomas said, leaning forward, giving each of the priest’s a sullen glance. “Here is how it is. This man, Zagrosek, that came here to Metamor for the Yule, was a friend of Charles’s from his youth. There were several strange similarities between this man and the one that killed the Patriarch, not enough to be certain that they were the same men, but enough to arouse suspicion. As Charles was the one he used to get inside Metamor this last time, it was thought best for Charles to spend a short time at Glen Avery until these matters could be sorted out.”

“And how was this decision reached?” Akaleth asked, his expression bemused.

“Through a trial. It was the best way to examine all the evidence.”

“And was this Charles Matthias accused of playing any role in the death of Patriarch Akabaieth?”

“Accused yes, but the exculpatory evidence was clear. Charles was rushing to rescue the Patriarch at the time. He was one of the first upon the scene in fact. He was accused only because of his past relationship to a man bearing the same name as the one we believed was responsible for the Patriarch’s murder. You can rest assured of the fact that Charles is innocent in the matter of Akabaieth’s death.”

“Interesting that you should have such confidence in this yet go to great lengths to avoid mentioning that matter to us for nearly five days.” Akaleth mused, his voice as slick as lamp oil, and just as flammable.

Thomas crossed his arms and stared down at the Questioner. “I don’t think so. I have heard of what has been done by the Questioners. How they have accused men of heresy for the flimsiest of reasons, torturing confessions from men, and worse. Why should we have told you about a matter that we have dealt with when it could only have led you to lob even more accusations?”

Kehthaek held up one hand to forestall any response from either of the other Questioners. His eyes were dark and smouldering as he stared at the Duke. Thomas felt himself yearn to wither under such a baleful stare. There was something ferocious within those eyes, a caged predator who yearned to kill its captor, thirsting only for his blood.

“We, as Questioners, need to know all the truth if we are to reach a good decision. It is because there are so many who refuse to tell, that so many Questioners have taken up the tactics you cite.” There was real venom in his voice this time, Thomas felt sure. This was not an act, but a blindingly clear example of the true Kehthaek. And it was terribly frightening. There was a force to his personality that was overwhelming. Thomas was no longer a horse, but a mere insect about to be crushed beneath the elder Questioner’s foot. Even the other two black robed priest’s appeared to quail in his presence, trembling as if afraid they would be swept aside in his wake.

But the moment was short-lived. Soon, Kehthaek’s expression was placid and unremarkable. “Now, we will finish what we have started. Please, if you would, tell us all that you know about the relationship between Charles Matthias and Zagrosek.”

Thomas sighed heavily, and then turned to the boy. “Lan, would you please fetch these priests chairs. Thank you.” The boy went off to his task, even as the Duke of Metamor sat down within his own. Though the tension in his legs was eased, that which lived within his chest was not. How he yearned to just pull carts for Dame Bryonoth once again. At that moment, he would have let himself be shod.

“Good!” Sir Egland said, even as he nimbly deflected his squire’s sword thrust. Even though he was wearing a vest of chain mail, he was still able to sidestep the oryx’s next swing. He then had to lift his blade to block the down thrust that Intoran made. He held his sword above him, and then, tensing his leg muscles, he pushed back. Intoran, was also wearing his mail shirt, though had not yet learned how to compensate for the added momentum it gave him. And so, he stumbled backwards, slipped on the wet cobblestones, and fell upon his tail.

Sir Egland smiled and set aside his wooden practice stave, picking up Intoran’s fallen blade as well. “Be careful of your weight. If that happens in battle, you would have been skewered a second later.”

Rubbing one hand over his head just between the two long antlers he bore year round, Intoran nodded, slowly rising to a sitting position. He was breathing heavily in the nippy March air. He looked upwards for a moment, surveying the clouds that still lingered in the valley. The fog had mostly blown off to the north. A steadily rising Southern wind had finally managed to dislodge the bulk of it, but it had still been many days since there had been any sighting of sun, moon, or stars. His eyes narrowed as he stared, and then, with a heavy shove, he managed to rise to his hooves.

“I’m glad that we have these clouds,” Intoran said then, even as he reclaimed the practice stave when the elk knight offered it. “Like this, I know that the warmth is from the sword practice. It is good to know that the pounding of my heart comes from your instruction, sire. If the sun were beating down upon us, I would not be able to appreciate the bumps and bruises as much.”

Sir Egland let out a short laugh. “Enough of that now, Intoran.” He smiled though, even as he twisted the stave once more through the air, working the knot forming in his wrist free. It was good that his squire still had his spirit with him. It was one of his most endearing qualities, he knew, one that attracted the elk. It was one of many reasons that he loved Intoran.

“Ready?” the elk asked then, his tone taking once more that of instructor. The oryx nodded, and soon they traded blows again. When they had first begun to work on Intoran’s swordsmanship, Egland had found it merely a diverting exercise, with little pain involved. Now, from the bruises he had welling on his shoulders and upper arms, he knew that he would be sore and stiff in the morning.

With a quick twist, he knocked aside his squire’s thrust. That was how it should be he reminded himself. It meant that Intoran was learning, and paying lose attention to his instructions. Egland could only hope he’d been that good of a learner when he’d been a squire. It had not been that long ago he realized, even though it seemed world’s away just then. It had been a different life altogether then, far away to the South in first Pyralis and then Yesulam. He’d known all his life that he was going to be a knight when he became of age, it was what had been expected of him after all, being his father’s youngest son. Though he’d harboured his secret dreams of playing the viola upon the road, he’d never lost sight of knighthood.

A sudden smack upon his elbow brought an end to his woolgathering. Egland let out an exclamation, twisting his arm back to ward off his squire’s assault. Within another moment, he began to press the attack, whacking away, forcing Intoran to defend and back up. A grin crossed his cervine muzzle, even as the pain filled his elbow and muscles. A few swipes here, a jab or two there, and soon he had Intoran with his back against the wall of the courtyard.

Intoran jumped to the side then as Egland jabbed forward. The oryx was exceptional at leaping, and had on several occasions taken the knight by surprise. But not this time, as with a shout, Intoran fell backwards, the end of Egland’s stave catching him just under the arm and through his mail shirt. Reaching forward, the elk caught his squire before he fell and broke the stave, or anything else.

“I would say it is time I pressed you more. You still have much to learn about defending yourself my squire. But you are doing well. My elbow will have quite a nasty bruise in the morning thanks to you!” This last he said with a smile, patting the oryx upon the shoulder, and stepping in a bit closer.

With a subtle smile, Intoran nodded, and back up slightly, slipping along the stone wall. “Thank you, sire. I am sure the one I will have on my tail will be larger.”

“Hah,” Sir Egland laughed then, turning back towards the centre of the small courtyard. It was part of the small collection of homes dotting this portion of the city. Small gardens decorated the corners, but nothing was blooming in them yet. The familiar sound of their door opening and closing came to them both then. There was only one person that could be, Dame Bryonoth.

“I wonder,” Intoran said softly after a moment. He never got farther than that, for the sound of another door closing hit them, and it stilled the words in the oryx’s throat.

Sir Egland’s head lowered a bit at that. Bryonoth was shutting herself in her room once more. It was like those first two weeks after Bryonoth had become a woman. She’d cloistered herself in silence, as if her very reason to live was gone. Oh, she’d gone out at night once or twice to walk about when nobody would recognize her, but she’d spoken so little to Sir Egland that it had hurt.

And now it was happening again. A curse upon the Questioners for whatever they had done to her. Sir Egland shivered, and then lifted the stave again. “Let us for another hour, and then we shall retire for the evening.”

Intoran nodded, his face set in a grim line as well. There was no fooling his squire, Egland knew that. With little joy, the two continued their mock battle.

If it could be said that the Questioners were apologetic, then that moment, as far as Duke Thomas knew, was the only candidate. Even Father Akaleth, usually scornful and derisive, seemed more complacently smug, with a whisper of conciliation in his brow, though conciliation about what the horse lord did not know. Father Felsah was a blank slate, though his withdrawal bore the mark of melancholy. And the eldest, Father Kehthaek, once implacably inscrutable was now remarkably deferential.

It was all the more amazing because a moment before they had been grilling Thomas about the minutest details of the trial. They probed with painstaking care every mote of Matthias’s trial they could get their tongues upon. Yet, there was something that was being avoided, like men who walk about a wide pit whose bottom they cannot see, but Thomas could not discern what it might be. And he’d had very little time to dwell upon it, for the barrage of questions had continued, another two coming for every one he answered.

But then, even as the night bore down upon them, and his page had to light the remainder of the lamps within his chambers, the Questioners shifted noticeably. They became more relaxed, and bore no more questions. Even Kehthaek laid back in his seat with one arm hooked over the back of his chair, legs crossed before him. He spoke as a merchant trying to drive up his price for a sale he knew he’d already made. Though their demeanour had changed, the cloying atmosphere had not. Thomas still felt harried from all sides, and wished to bolt from the chambers to the blessed stables so that Dame Bryonoth might curry his anxiety away.

“And so,” Kehthaek said languidly, “given the way that many Metamorians rushed to prevent the attack upon Patriarch Akabaieth, including this Charles Matthias whose association with the killer is uncertain but doubtful by the testimony of even those who had no cause to defend him, it seems to us that Metamor bears no direct guilt in the matter.” He did not smile at this, but the edges of his lips twitched as if he wished to. “We shall tell the Bishop’s Council in Yesulam as much when we return there.”

Thomas breathed a sigh of relief. But he held some of his breath back, knowing that there would be more for that priest to say.

And he was right. Kehthaek brushed his fingers together, waving his booted foot in the air before Duke Thomas’s table as an equal might. His guards could see the effrontery and were plainly outraged at such pretension on the part of the Questioner. “On the matter of Charles Matthias, we will concur with your finding at your trial, that he was guilty only in bad judgement. Were this offense responsible in any way for Patriarch Akabaieth death, we would take it far more seriously. But had he done otherwise, it seems to me that nothing would have changed.

“That said, Patriarch Akabaieth was killed on Metamor’s lands. That is a blow that cannot be forgotten easily. Metamor’s fault lies only in that their defences were not sufficient to the task of protecting Patriarch Akabaieth. But, as it also seems likely that the killer would have struck regardless, this also will not in our judgement merit any retribution against Metamor or any of its holdings. But we do have a suggestion to ameliorate any ill tidings that exist.”

Thomas waited several moments, but when the Questioner did not speak again, he leaned forward and asked, “What is your suggestion?”

Kehthaek returned his arm to his lap, and let a slight smile grace his lips. “Why, merely to make sure from now on that any official visitors from Yesulam are fully protected both as they enter the valley and as they leave it. Such a show of good faith on your part would go a long way to soothe the anger against Metamor that may exist.”

Pondering the suggestion for a moment, Thomas realized that while it was given in good faith, and it was a good idea, it was also a threat from the Questioners. If they were not able to leave the valley unmolested on the morrow, they would report negatively about Metamor’s treatment of them. Even reports of their innocence in the Patriarch’s death would have a shadow cast over them were that to happen. And it was something that Thomas could not allow to come to pass. He nodded slowly then, no trace of a smile visible upon his muzzle.

“I would,” Thomas said at great length, “appreciate it if you would take a moment this evening to write down what you intend to say to the Bishop’s Council. Put your seals upon it, and leave a copy with both Raven hin’Elric, Father Hough, and myself. As a show of good faith on your parts. I will attend to matters of security this evening, so give your minds rest on that score.”

Father Kehthaek nodded then. “Your request is reasonable. We shall accede to it within the hour.” From the flinch on the youngest of the three, Thomas could see that it was not so reasonable to Father Akaleth. But the junior member of the Questioners was not going to countermand his elder before the Duke. Kehthaek then stood. “If we have your leave, your grace?”

Thomas nodded, and rose from his seat then, feeling the last bout of strength fill his legs. In another moment this unwholesome trio would be out of his room and he could get some respite. “Of course. I wish you all a safe journey.” Thomas held out his arm, gesturing to the main door. One of his guards opened it for them. One of the two Yesbearn went out first, even as the three priests pulled their cowls back over their faces. Once they were outside, the other Yesbearn followed them out, and then the Duke’s guards returned to their post outside.

Only Lan was left within the room, and the boy looked very nervous. Thomas felt his flesh shudder as he collapsed back into his seat. “Lan, my sleeping draught,” he called, too wound to do anything else. Tomorrow night he could be with Bryonoth again he realized. What a glorious feeling that would be, he thought, even as he his ears turned to listen to the page preparing his drink. He’d send a message to Misha and George after he’d had a sip. They could take care of the rest.

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