A quick update on All Flames Cast: I went back and re-titled all of my chapter posts on here, because naming them “Chapter One”, “Chapter Two”, etc. was a bit misleading. Instead, I’ve gone with the character names and where the chapters fall into their specific sequences. I think I’m going to post, at most, two more chapters after this, as I’m really starting to get into the meat of the book and I’m nearing completion of the first draft. As that is, enjoy Harael’s next chapter—it’s a long one!
Harael awoke to pounding on the Dawn of Embers. He was confused, at first, as it seemed come from everywhere. When he forced himself to sit up in his bed, he realized it was really only in two locations: the door to his quarters, and the very intimate inside of his skull. He groaned, and flopped back down onto his pillow. He began to burrow his head underneath it when the shouting outside started.
“Harael, you’re needed!” It was Teramus, and his voice sounded far too lucid and sober for Harael’s peace of mind. “Now!”
He groaned again, though he used the noise to half-heartedly clear his throat. His lips were chapped, his tongue was dry, and his voice didn’t want to cooperate.
“Co—coming!” he finally coughed out. The gravelly sound that emerged was more reminiscent of the noise the cranes in the Tenth Tier made than a human voice. Harael rolled out of his blankets and sat up. He stretched, feeling more miserable by the second as his body began to wake up and realize what sort of abuse it had been shown the night before.
He trundled over to the basin across his room and poured a glass of water from the waiting pitcher. The first swallow was difficult, as his mouth and throat were so dry, but it improved his voice enough that he took a deep breath and called to Teramus on the other side of his locked door.
“Give me just a minute. I need to make myself presentable.”
Teramus acknowledged him, and Harael put the other priest out of his mind as he guzzled down the rest of the water in the glass. He splashed some water on his face, unmindful of the fact that some of it dripped onto the floor around the basin, and refilled the glass. He carried it with him as he made his way around the small desk and chair that took up a good portion of his quarters, only setting it down once he’d had another large gulp. It helped, but only a little.
He reached his wardrobe, against the back wall next to his bed, and wrenched open the door. The flaming hinges were always sticking, and he kept forgetting to get a smith in to take a look at them. He wasted little time in picking out robes, which he threw on right over his smallclothes. Today of all days, he didn’t care about what he wore underneath. It wasn’t like he’d ever find himself less-clothed in public, after all.
After pulling the embroidered blue robes over his head, he made his way to the door, gulping down the last of his water. His shoes were there, waiting to be slipped on. They were sturdy things, made for walking in the city; his formal ceremonial robes had a different set of matching slippers.
Harael unlatched the door and found Teramus leaning against the wall outside. He was stunningly alert, showing no signs of the alcohol they’d basically drowned in the night before.
“What are you, made of stone? How are you up and about at this hour?” Harael tried his best to keep his voice level, but he couldn’t help a little bitterness and anger creep in. “This is obscene.”
Teramus only smiled. He turned and led Harael down the hall, toward the far entrance.
“We’re going out? This is absurd, Teramus.” Harael turned to go back to his room and the attractiveness of a soft bed.
“Harael, stop. We are needed.”
Harael sighed and turned back to Teramus. He rubbed his temples, trying to banish the thundering ache behind them. “Needed for what? It’s the Dawn of Embers, for the Flame’s sake. We must be the only people in the city up this early.”
“Like I said, we’re needed. Selonius found me only an hour ago….”
Harael struggled to ignore his rapidly-mounting headache and listen to what Teramus was saying as they made their way through the unpopulated halls.
“After dawn, the expected upswing of crime was, ah, a bit heavier than anticipated.”
“So?” Harael meant the question to be sardonic, but Teramus explained anyway.
“These crimes fall under the jurisdiction of the Faith. They need Clerics to sit on Tribunal.”
“I know, I know. I’m being upset about it,” Harael said as they reached the end of the hallway. He rubbed his temples and squeezed his eyes shut, hoping for some type of relief, while Teramus opened the door to the street outside.
The sun was only just peeking above the Tenth Tier to the east, and Harael groaned anew when he saw it. “By the Flame! It can’t be past the tenth hour of the morning, Teramus. I meant to sleep until dusk.”
Teramus shrugged. “Selonius asked for me in particular. I wasn’t going to deny him.”
Harael shook his head, slowly, and grumbled, “Well, burning good for you, Master Sober Robes. You could have left me out of it. I don’t think any of the criminals brought before us will be too happy about having a cranky, hung over priest presiding.”
“He told me to find another priest to fill out the three. Of course I was going to bring you.”
Harael glared at him. “Careful, friend. I might have to sentence you to death if you say anything else incriminating.”
They were silent for a time, walking through the mostly-empty streets. A few crews of civil servants popped up now and again, working hard with buckets and brooms and rags and carts to remove the evidence of the festivities the night before. It seemed that everyone else was sane, and safely ensconced in bed like decent people.
They made their way down the sloping street to the gate into the Second Tier. A thought struck Harael, and he grabbed Teramus’ sleeve. “We’re not going to the Crucible, are we?”
Teramus looked at him, amused, and delicately extricated his pale blue robes from Harael’s grip. “No,” he said with a laugh, “we’re just going to the eastern Common Tribunal.”
“Thank the Flame,” Harael muttered, feeling a bit weaker in relief.
“What, a few hundred stairs down into a hot chamber underground doesn’t sound fun right now?”
Harael shot him a look. “One more crack like that, and I swear I’ll find a way to have you charged for something that requires a fatal solution. This is not the morning for it.”
Teramus only chuckled and kept walking.
Harael trudged alongside him, thinking dark thoughts. Unbidden, a memory rose to prominence: his first and most unfortunate experience with the strong, bitter ale brewed out west. Fuzzy images blurred through his mind, displaying his childhood friends with their jugs of beer brewed by their fathers. Harael shuddered at the memory of running through the streets of their little village, clad only in his smallclothes, yelling at the top of his lungs. Such fourteen-year-old folly was bad enough, but when he remembered the end of that night, he nearly retched right there on the street.
With his hands clasped over his suddenly churning stomach, he muttered obscenities. “Teramus,” he began, “never let me drink like that again.”
Teramus turned bright, obnoxiously lucid eyes upon him. “Like last night? Bah, I’ve seen you down twice as much.”
Harael shook his head, being as delicate as he could. “No—just no.”
Teramus chuckled again, leading the way to the eastern edge of the Third Tier. The Common Tribunal loomed ahead within minutes, its imposing walls painted with the same blue as the rest of the buildings around; the only difference was the colossal blue flame, ever-burning, above the gated entrance.
The gates were open, but Teramus and Harael moved toward a smaller door to the right. The Phoenix Guards, in front of both the main entrance and the smaller Priests’ Door, snapped straight at their approach. While they were no doubt still in an elevated state of vigilance in regard to the Faith, Harael knew they would have acted no differently on any other day of the year. They were Phoenix Guards, after all.
Despite his impairment, Harael managed to mutter a blessing upon the soldiers as he passed between them and into the building. Teramus chuckled again at his tone.
Inside the Common Tribunal, the halls were nearly as deserted as the streets outside. A few clerks bustled along crossing halls, shuffling papers, their ink-stained sleeves pushed up to their elbows. It was always a busy morning for clerks. Harael found some small delight in their urgency. No doubt those men were celebrating just as thoroughly as he, the previous evening, and their jobs required much more than sitting and sentencing citizens to death, this morning.
Only a bit farther in, Teramus turned left, through a doorway, and into a room filled with desks and about a dozen clerks. The sound of scribbling quills and rustling paper permeated the air; Harael found it oddly soothing, though his feet still dragged as they approached a particularly fat woman, perched atop a stool behind one of the many desks.
“Teramus and Harael, Clerics,” Teramus stated, raising his left hand. A flame danced briefly above his palm, blue and steady. Harael mimicked his gesture, saying a silent prayer and summoning a similar flame. A tingling sensation spread across his hand and up his forearm; skin slowly blackened, charring in a pattern as familiar to him as his own reflection.
She stared at them for a moment before marking their names next to images on a parchment. Harael noted that it was already halfway filled; a busy morning, indeed.
“Straight through, fourth court on the right,” she said, her voice terse. Harael suspected she may also be struggling from a similar malady as himself.
Teramus nodded, his pale flame disappearing and the charring on his hand fading back into normal skin. Harael mimicked him a moment later, as his attention drifted to a short woman, Yellow-robed, who strode furiously through the room and toward another door.
“What’s Lareina doing here so early?” Harael muttered to Teramus as they proceeded past the clerk’s desk. He jerked his head in the direction of the Yellow-robed woman, and Teramus followed his motion.
“No idea,” he grunted, his eyes puzzled. “She normally doesn’t come through until evening. She says the setting sun guides her better than anything.”
Harael watched her brusque dismissal of the porter at the door. She shouldered it open, a sheaf of papers in her pale, slight hands. The porter stood head and shoulders above her thin frame, but he made his face carefully blank while she passed.
Teramus tugged on his sleeve. “Come on. No time for that. Judgment now; speculation later.”
Harael let himself be dragged along, privately thanking the Flame that he was stopped from making his pounding head do any more work.
Teramus led him to the fourth door and through, and Harael found himself in a court he’d never seen before. This one was much larger than the typical courts: rows of benches along one side were sparsely populated with priests in a rainbow of robes.
He saw young red-garbed apprentices with sheaves of paper for notes, rubbing their bloodshot eyes; there were Yellow Robes, four of them, clustered near the far wall and in deep conversation; two Orange Clerics sat in the front row, clearly exhausted but still alert and interest; and, to Harael’s great surprise, a pair of Chaplains near the back, one in her trademark voluminous whites with fanciful golden threadwork on the sleeves, and the other in robes black as pitch. His cowl was up, so Harael could not pick out his identity—it could only be one of seven priests, after all—but the White Robe was most certainly Reatta, First Chaplain of the Imperial Navy. It was common knowledge that she carried as much authority as any of the Black Robes save Selonius himself—and, unlike Selonius, she had no problem leaving the capitol to throw her weight around and get her way in far corners of the empire.
Teramus stopped short, renewing his grip on Harael’s sleeve. “No speculation,” he hissed, and Harael could not stop of snort of laughter from emerging.
“How well you know me, you blue-draped rag,” Harael muttered as talking ceased and heads turned to see from whence the laughter had come.
“Blue-draped rag?” Teramus glanced at him sidelong. “That’s a new one.”
“I’m feeling creative this morning.”
Teramus shook his head and sighed, releasing Harael’s sleeve; Harael thought he would need to get the thing darned, soon, with how much Teramus had been manhandling him.
The low hum of talking rose again from the dozen or so men and women in the benches, and Harael followed Teramus down the other side to the Tribunal stand. They took the two lower seats, one on either side of the elevated—and quite decorated, Harael noted—middle chair. Selonius was not yet in attendance.
From his vantage, Harael was able to see just how different this court was from any of the others he’d been in over the years. Most of them were small, with a stand for the three presiding priests against one wall, a main entrance opposite, and a simple raised circle of stone in the middle to serve as the Crucible—the place where defendants and witnessing had to stand while delivering their statements. A single table for a recorder usually sat in the corner against the wall behind the priests.
This room, however, was much more than that. Beyond the unusual benches for what Harael supposed was an audience, the Tribunal stand was larger, higher, and more ornate. The main entrance across the room was some dark, heavy wood he didn’t recognize, with thick bronze bands for reinforcement, and boasted four Phoenix Guards in full regalia; two more stood vigil by the recorder’s table, which also had a low railing enveloping it. The Crucible in the middle was cut marble, a full foot taller than the surrounding floor and pure black. It seemed to radiate foreboding.
This was all easily viewed, for over a hundred torches and candles lit the room, but the true centerpiece was the chandelier. Harael felt drawn to it—Flames, even Teramus seemed to have a difficult time not gazing upward in reverence.
The monstrosity was a forest of burnished steel and gold. Reflecting glass panels hung down and spread glinting light across the entire room. Seven layers of flames burned steadily, rising from the cool reds to a solitary black tongue at the top. Harael had to squint to even make it out.
He nudged Teramus and pointed with awe. Black fire was something only a handful of priests could maintain. “Do you think that that’s why the Black Robe over there is here?”
Teramus glanced over at Reatta and the shrouded man next to her. “Who, Tumael? Hardly.” He snorted quietly. “They’re here to scheme and watch, as usual.”
Harael opened his mouth to ask, but Teramus cut him off.
“Remember. Speculate later.”
Harael rolled his eyes, but had no time for a retort. Selonius himself appeared in the seat above and between them.
“Let’s get this thing going.” His voice rang out across the chamber. The conversations in the benches died out instantly, and Harael noticed the younger apprentices hastening to put quills to parchment. “It’s a bad enough business as it is; I don’t want to waste anyone’s time that could be better spent recuperating.”
Chuckles ran throughout the room. Harael noticed a couple of the Phoenix Guards grinning, and one apprentice in the front row, who was a particular shade of unhealthy pale, mouthed “thank the Flame” with some fervor.
Harael assumed that, like the augmented chamber, the proceedings would be dealt with with more pomp and ritual than the smaller tribunals he’d been on in the past. Instead, two of the Phoenix Guards at the main door grabbed the handles and swung them wide without comment, and Selonius seated himself.
In strode four more Phoenix Guards, escorting two men whom Harael instantly—and somewhat surprisingly, considering his state—recognized. He couldn’t help but shake his head in exasperation at the sight of the two Guards from the previous night being escorted up to the Crucible.
Teramus leaned back and caught Harael’s eye. Harael nodded, rolled his eyes, and returned his attention to the two men now standing on the black marble.
“Before the Flame, and by the Flame, you stand before us charged with blasphemy,” Selonius began. Harael was startled by the informality of the trial. One simple, opening statement, and that was it. “Disorderly conduct and brawling on the Night of Ten Thousand Fires. Do you have any defense?”
The room was silent save for the scribbling of quills. Harael counted five breaths before the Phoenix Guard went down on one knee.
“Your Radiance,” he began, “I kneel before you and before the Flame. My name is Marinus, a devoted and faithful servant from the territory of Pallonia. Our conflict last night was but a brief misunderstanding….” He was cut off by the Dragon Guard suddenly dropping to his knees next to him.
“We didn’t throw no punches, even, Your Radiance,” he babbled, clearly out of sorts and suffering from what seemed to be the universal hangover in the city. “Uh…I suppose you need my name, eh? For the record? I’m Martaan, sir. Uh, Your Holiness. From Near Jinda.”
“No punches?” Selonius mused. “Are there witnesses of your claim?”
The two men exchanged a glance, then jerked their eyes away from each other. Their disdain was plain as day, even united in the common goal of avoiding being burned to death.
“There were plenty, Your Radiance,” said Marinus. “Though none are here. I imagine most are at home or in some alley, sleeping off their drunk from the night.”
Selonius peered down at him, imperious. “A pity.”
His tone moved something in Harael. These men were going to die a horrific death for something as small as a simple tussle; it was clear as the morning sky that neither were suffering from any substantial injuries. His conscience moved him.
“Excuse me, Your Radiance.”
Selonius looked down at him.
“I believe Teramus and I may actually be able to help. We were in the same room as these two men when they argued. Unless something happened after we left, they never went beyond words in their disagreement.” That wasn’t precisely true, but Harael forged on, turning back to the two Guards. “Did you engage each other after we left?”
Martaan shook his head, and Marinus said, “We did not, Your Brightness. I left with my fellow Guardsmen soon after you and your friend. I was arrested not half an hour later. I barely had time to have another cup of wine, much less hunt this man down and fight him.”
Selonius stare hard at Marinus, then transferred his gaze to Martaan before glancing down at Harael. “You were there? And you, Teramus?”
From his other side, Teramus nodded. His face was impassive; Harael could not guess what he thought about their intervention. Marinus and Martaan, on the other hand, were visibly relieved. The word of two Blue Robes carried weight. Having them on the Tribunal itself almost guaranteed them clemency. Were it anyone else but Selonius as the third, they would already be on their way with smiles back on their faces, no doubt to drink themselves silly despite their hangovers.
However, it was the First Cleric up on that carved middle chair, and their lives still hung in the balance. Selonius scratched at his chin, then shrugged. “I suppose I don’t have much to say, then. Your accuser vanished into the night after alerting the patrol, so we really don’t even have a conflicting witness.”
Their faces both broke into grins.
“However,” Selonius continued, raising a finger, “you will both be confined to your respective Tiers for a month. Marinus, you will not leave the Third; Martaan, the First. You are dismissed. Walk in the light of the Flame.”
They bowed their heads and genuflected, their smiles fading a bit but not entirely. “The Flame grants me life,” they said in unison.
After that, it was only a brief matter of the escorting Phoenix Guards getting them down from the Crucible and ushering them out through a side door. Their audience murmured about the outcome, but Harael found himself too weary to care. The whole morning had been disconcerting, what with his headache, the oddities of certain people around the Tribunal, and the spur-of-the-moment testimony he gave. The apparent laxity of the judgment was particularly intriguing, though he guessed it may just be because everyone was suffering too much to care.
Selonius leaned back in his chair, rubbing a hand through his hair and down his face. “It’s always the worst, on this particular morning.” His tone was conversational, but Harael couldn’t tell if he were speaking to them or to himself. “The blasted Dragons always go after our Phoenixes during Ten Thousand Fires. Every year.”
Harael made a noncommittal noise, unsure if he was meant to respond. Selonius opened his eyes and glanced down. “Be glad you don’t have to do this every year.”
“Oh, I am, Your Radiance. I enjoy myself too much during the night to ever want this.” Harael managed to work in a glare around at Teramus on Selonius’ far side.
His glance did not go unnoticed. Teramus rolled his eyes, of course, but Selonius looked down at him before returning his attention to Harael. “Harael, is it not? Teramus recommended you highly—though I see you are less than thrilled by that, at the moment.” He chuckled. “I’m surprised you even spoke up during that hearing. I know how, ah, assiduously we like to celebrate the Night of Ten Thousand Fires.”
Harael felt his face heat a bit, but something in Selonius’ tone told him that the First Cleric may have similarly indulged in years past. “I do my duty, Your Radiance. Despite any temporary handicaps.”
Selonius laughed outright. “Temporary handicaps; I like that.”
Harael saw Teramus roll his eyes again. “You all drink like children.”
Selonius looked down in surprise, and Harael saw his eyes darken before his face was turned away, toward Teramus. “Like children, Teramus?”
Harael felt his stomach lurch. It was already tender, and the sudden anxiety gripping it did nothing to help. He swallowed as Teramus answered.
“Sure,” he said, surprisingly jaunty. Harael was stunned at his boldness. This was the First Cleric they were speaking with. “You can prove me wrong anytime.”
Selonius leaned back in his chair and laughed, his eyes leaking tears. He caught his breath and retorted, “Soon, Teramus. Soon. I’ve learned a thing or two over the years!”
Harael slumped in his own seat. He just plain didn’t know anymore. This morning was too far beyond his comprehension. The First Cleric was chatting with Teramus as though they were old chums! He knew that much of his friend’s past was private, but surely it didn’t involve a familiarity with Selonius….
Teramus grinned, then glanced over his shoulder at the assembled spectators. While most of them were engrossed in talk about the two Guards and the verdict, no few of them had their attention on the three priests of the Tribunal, no doubt wishing they could hear whatever was making the First Cleric laugh. Reatta and Tumael, specifically, were watching with body language that hinted at suspicion. Tumael had lowered his cowl, leaning forward, and his hazel eyes were squinted.
The door Harael and Teramus came through opened, and he twisted around to see a clerk step in and wave to Selonius. The First Cleric nodded, his laughter subsiding. The clerk bowed once and withdrew. Only moments later, the main doors of the hall opened once again, and the same four Phoenix Guards entered, this time escorting a single man. He walked slumped over, supported by the strong arms of two of the guards. He seemed to have no fight in him; certainly none of the innate strength and confidence Harael knew Marinus and Martaan had. His eyes fluttered from side to side, flinching away from whatever he saw.
This man was terrified. Harael could see the knowledge and inevitability of the man’s death etched in those wide brown eyes.
Again Selonius began: “Before the Flame, and by the Flame, you stand before us charged with blasphemy. Disorderly conduct and murder. Do you have any defense?”
The imperious tone that Selonius adopted for the statement seemed to drain the last bit of energy out of him. When the Phoenix Guards removed their hands to let him stand in the Crucible, he collapsed to his knees, weeping. “Your—Your Radiance, I beg of you! It was not me!”
Harael heard Teramus snort quietly in disbelief. Selonius ignored it, staring down with implacable features at the man. His silence spurred the man on.
“It was not me! I promise! I am a simple vendor,” he sobbed, “a simple vendor in the wrong place. The murderer just looked like me!”
This time, Teramus didn’t bother to keep his skepticism quiet. “Just looked like you? I’m sure.”
Selonius glanced at him, this time, before returning his attention to the man. “What is your name?”
The man trembled as he responded. “Tyrun, Your Radiance. Of Teliis.”
“Very well, Tyrun of Teliis. Do you have witnesses of this…look-alike?”
The man did not respond, only sobbing harder.
“None?” Selonius looked at the Guards around the wretch on the floor. “Are there witnesses against?”
One Phoenix Guard took a small step forward. “I am one, Your Radiance.” His firm voice projected well, snapping attention to himself. Harael supposed the Guard was an officer, used to drawing regard with his voice. “I was the arrestor in this case. I saw the act: a knife across the throat, right there on the street.”
At this, Tyrun yelled in protest. “Not me! It was not me! He just looked like me, only with black eyes!”
Teramus regarded the man’s raving silently before asking, “Black eyes? Convenient, when yours are such a dark brown. I’m sure it would be so easy to confuse the two on a busy street at night.” His sarcasm was plain.
The Guard spoke up again. “Your Brightness, I saw the entire thing. This man, without provocation, killed a reveler. I stooped to help the victim, but he was already dead. This man did not even bother to flee the scene, only standing his ground in defiance. He immediately claimed it was not him, and that we saw it wrong.” Harael found the Guard’s reluctance to even speak Tyrun’s name particularly telling. He wanted no part of the man’s blasphemy.
“Did you?” Selonius spoke, his voice quiet but edged with something harder than steel. Harael shifted in his seat, suddenly a little uncomfortable next to the First Cleric.
The Guard shook his head. “We did not.”
Selonius sat back, nodding to himself. “Very well. Teramus? Harael?” He looked to each of them for their support, and at their nods, continued. “Before the Flame, by the Flame, and in the light of the Flame, I sentence Tyrun of Teliis to die. The crimes of blasphemy and murder seal your sentence.”
Tyrun’s protests faded into the stunned and silent acceptance of the doomed. His eyes did not waver from Selonius until the four Guards dragged him to his feet and turned him around to escort him to his consignment to the Flame.
Once the doors closed, Selonius groaned. Harael looked up to see him rubbing his hands over his face.
“You know, I normally don’t like it when we hand down those sentences,” Selonius said. “But it’s men like that that just go to prove how important the Night of Ten Thousand Fires really is. How any man could countenance murder, on the open street….”
Harael nodded in agreement. “Strictures have their place. It could be total anarchy out there without the Flame for a guide.”
Teramus looked troubled for a moment, but did not speak.
“Yes, Harael. We must all follow the light of the Flame, and let it illuminate our lives.” Selonius sounded regal once more. He shuffled through a few papers, frowned briefly, and returned his attention to Harael and Teramus. “Now, before the next hearing, you must know what is going on.”
Harael squinted at him, curious. “What’s different about it?”
Selonius looked at him for a long moment, clearly judging his response. “It is not a trial, not in the way these last two were. It is more of an interrogation: word has come back from the north. A scouting force was sent beyond our borders and came back severely diminished. Rumors abound of ambush by the Avernen. We must ascertain the truth, directly from the soldiers themselves.”
“Avernen!” Harael was shocked. Tales of the Avernen were widespread, even reaching to his childhood home of Arbor—but he’d always thought of them as feral things, creatures of the wild north like bears and leckals. Certainly not as thinking, scheming combatants capable of planning an ambush for Letaalese legionnaires.
Selonius nodded. “If the Avernen are openly moving against us, there are implications. We must find out what happened, and why.”
“Implications?” Teramus mused. He leaned back in his chair and met Harael’s eye, eyebrows raised.
Selonius ignored Teramus’ question. It was clear that, as important as the implications were, priests of even the Fifth Shade were not to be privy to them. He merely nodded to one of the Phoenix Guards near the door, and it was opened once again.
This time the Guards escorted in three men: two soldiers, obviously both seasoned veterans, and one portly priest who looked much the worse for wear. His cheeks had a subtle hollowness to them, and Harael gathered that, despite his size, he had lost weight recently. The soldiers looked in better shape, physically, but both had a haunted cast to their eyes, and their movements were fidgety.
They approached the Crucible; with each stride, Harael noticed more and more of a separation between the soldiers and the priest—an Orange Robed Chaplain—despite their proximity. Their attitudes were different; their bearings spoke volumes.
When they stopped, Selonius spoke. This time, even the short formality was dropped.
“You know why you are here.”
The Chaplain groaned softly, and the soldiers glared at him. It was the first overt sign of hostility between them. One of the soldiers, clearly Pallonian with his blue eyes and solid stature, snorted.
The other cleared his throat and turned back to the priests. He was thin and muscular, with dark skin and eyes. Letaalese, then, from the east. “Oh, we know, Your Radiance. We don’t like it, but we know.”
Several people among the crowd made noises of indignation at his tone. Reatta hissed loudly, and Harael glanced at her. Tumael sat, silent, in his black robes. Harael squinted at him, wondering what was going on inside his mind, before recalling the matter at hand. He needed to get a handle on his wandering thoughts; it seemed that the aftereffects of alcohol included a boost to his natural curiosity.
“You would be wise to consider your words carefully, soldier,” Selonius said, his voice imposing and accusing. “Especially when you haven’t even been introduced to your Tribunal yet.”
The Pallonian snorted again. “Please. We’re not on trial. You just want us to tell you all about how your little priest here let us down and got half our friends killed up north.”
That piqued Harael’s interest. “What is your name, soldier?” he asked. “And what do you mean, ‘let you down’?”
“Meto, Your Brightness,” he sneered. “And I mean that Artius here was worthless when we needed him most. He didn’t even bother with a prayer for us when the Avernen attacked.”
Harael looked up at Selonius, his eyebrows raised. When the First Cleric did not deign to even notice him, he transferred his stare to Teramus. His friend obliged with a similar, wide-eyed look and a shrug. Neither of them, it seemed, knew why a seasoned Chaplain would neglect his soldiers like that.
The Chaplain—Artius—bowed his head. Harael had rarely seen a man appear so defeated. Yet, it was not his appearance that intrigued him; rather, it was his peculiar negligence beyond the border.Harae Why would he leave his soldiers unprotected and unsupported? It was a miracle any of them, the priest included, had come out alive.
Even more puzzling, though, was Selonius’ calm in the face of this news. The First Cleric betrayed no surprise, and his silence, his impassiveness, while he stared down at the three soldiers was downright unnerving. Could this Artius have lost his faith entirely? It made no sense.
“Nothing to say?” This time it was the dark-skinned man. Harael found himself uncomfortable; certainly it had been some time since he’d been on the receiving end of such a tone. The man had even withheld his name so far. These men were belligerent. The Chaplain standing with them began to shake; Harael thought he might be crying. “Isn’t it funny that we were called here to give you answers, when we’re the ones who deserve them?”
That just piled it on. Not even the men who knew the priest best were sure why he had abandoned them. What happened up there?
Selonius broke his silence. “You will get your answers in time. There are greater things at work.” He rubbed his chin and drew in a deep breath. Harael couldn’t have torn his attention away if he’d wanted to. “Did any of you have interaction with the locals? Other than the fighting with the Avernen?”
Harael was a bit disappointed that Selonius did not elaborate on the “greater things at work”, but was nonetheless curious as to how the foreign population of Nera Nasha might have influenced the Chaplain Artius. He watched the soldiers closely, hoping to understand.
The darker soldier narrowed his eyes, seeming to mull over his answer for a moment. “We went through a village a few days before the ambush. Nothing beyond that.”
“A village? What did you do there?” Selonius’ voice was sharp, his question like a lash. Harael was surprised at his sudden tone.
Surprised, he thought with amusement. I’ve been nothing but surprised, today.
Before the soldier could answer, Selonius spoke again. “And what is your name? This is not a trial, but I would prefer to know the names of all involved in this…fiasco.” Selonius’ mouth twisted with the last word.
The soldier glowered before answering. “Tymun, Your Radiance. Tymun of Last Lake.”
Last Lake. Harael nodded to himself. The east of the empire, indeed. Last Lake was about as far northeast as you could go and still remain in Letaal. Not too far beyond the city lay the arid and sandy lands of Roetel, and all their hordes of raiders and nomads.
Tymun went on. “We stopped for supplies, though they weren’t very helpful. Only some food and water. They kept trying to sell us wood, for some reason.” The Pallonian soldier, Meto, nodded in agreement.
Harael tried to divide his attention between the soldiers and Selonius, but the First Cleric’s reaction to Tymun’s statement surprised him. Selonius’ eyes widened, and a look of revulsion crossed his face.
“Why would they try to sell you wood?” Harael asked, curious. “You weren’t building anything across the border, were you?” That might explain Selonius’ anxiety; if Letaal were establishing permanent camps in Nera Nashan territory….
But the soldiers shook their heads. “No, Your Brightness. We were on a scouting trip. I have no idea why they thought we would want to buy wood.”
There was something in his voice that troubled Harael. He didn’t think Tymun was lying, really, but there was simply something there. The soldier knew something, undoubtedly. It wasn’t difficult to understand why he wanted to hold it back: he, and the Pallonian soldier, were nearly killed because of a priest. It stood to reason that they weren’t too happy with the Pirin order at the moment.
Selonius seemed to have come to the same conclusion. He sighed, then said, “Very well. You are to return to your barracks. You and your fellow soldiers will be confined there until reassignment. Artius,” he continued, and the Chaplain looked up, “you will report to the Third Tier and confer directly with the Seventh Shade, tomorrow evening. There are many things to be discussed, including your immediate future.”
There were some further murmurings from the attendees, and Harael noticed Reatta and Tumael whispering together. Tumael must not have been happy, being pulled in for—Harael chuckled to himself—clerical duty. Selonius went on.
“Teramus, Harael, you will also report to the Third Tier, tomorrow at sundown, for further assignment. We must head off all threats to the Faith—and to the empire.”
Harael’s forgotten headache suddenly returned.
Read the next chapter: “Seeds of Doubt”