The doors closed behind them, and Tymun grimaced. Meto, next to him, grunted.
“Am I the only one less than satisfied with what that was?”
“That? That was a farce,” Tymun growled. He ignored the small whimper that came from Artius, behind them. “We will never get answers. Or restitution.”
Meto snorted, shrugging his wide shoulders. “We’re soldiers. When do we ever get what we want?”
“When? Right burning now, that’s when,” Tymun responded, moving with long strides down the hall, hoping to leave the building as soon as possible. “I want a drink, and I intend to get one. We didn’t get to celebrate last night, and that needs to be remedied.”
“Sounds a fair notion to me,” Meto said. Tymun could all but hear the sudden smile on the man’s face. “Ignore the wishes of the First Cleric and have a good ale. Lead the way.”
They were admitted swiftly back out into the streets of the Third Tier. Tymun supposed that made sense; after all, why bother with people trying to get away from the First Burning Cleric? Tymun felt a sneer tugging at his cheek as he thought of Selonius. The blasted man, all smug and secretive in his black robes, knew more than he was letting on. Even the self-righteous Blue Robes had irked him.
Granted, very little didn’t irk him, these days.
Out on the streets in the now noontime sunlight, Tymun sighed. The uniform blues of every building in sight would soon begin spewing priests and clerks and servants as the Dawn of Embers came to a close. Though religious strictures mandated that only necessary work be performed on the Dawn of Embers, Tymun knew that the population of Letaal stayed inside and slept in for more…liquid reasons. And he had been forced to eschew such enjoyments, rise with the dawn, and cool his heels for hours before being subjected to a flaming joke of an interrogation. A couple questions, and they were shuffled back into obscurity, to be reassigned somewhere and forgotten.
He realized he was clenching his teeth, and forced the muscles in his jaw to relax. He needed a drink, badly. And he needed to get away from all of this blue. A good, orange tone to the scenery around him sounded much better.
Artius followed along behind them, tentative, for a time. He made noises a couple of times as if he were about to speak, but closed his mouth with alacrity each time Tymun glared back at him. He wanted no lip from the worthless bastard. No prayers in combat, no fires for cooking for weeks…Tymun reflected privately that Artius was lucky he hadn’t simply killed him in his sleep on the way back to Barrier and the borders of the Empire. He knew that each of the other five survivors, including Meto, would have told any questioners that Artius fell off a mountain path or took sick in the swamps or something. They were none of them happy with the Orange Robe.
When they approached the gate and sloping road up to the Fourth Tier, carved out of the cliff face on the easter edge of the city, Artius finally worked up the nerve to speak. Despite Tymun’s unvoiced ire, his threatening stance, Artius drew himself up. “I know you blame me. You’ve certainly told me often enough over the last month. But you should know I speak the truth. It was not my fault.”
Tymun snorted, and Meto laughed outright. “Not your fault, eh? You curled up like a little baby, too scared to be responsible for the men around you.” His anger growing, Tymun spit at the ground in front of Artius’ robes. “I hope they burn you for dereliction.”
The Chaplain’s face darkened, and his mouth worked. He crossed his arms, adopting a stance that did not intimidate Tymun, no matter Artius’ intent. “It was beyond my control. My prayers would not have—” He cut off suddenly, shaking. Tymun could see his neck tense, his shoulders hunch in.
Tymun spit again. “I might have to see you again, tomorrow, but I hope I never have to serve with you. You’re worthless.”
“Worthless? Burn in Oblivion, Tymun. If it weren’t for me, Meto would have died of that bite. I cleansed the venom from him with a prayer of pure fire. Remember that, in your inconsideration,” Artius snapped. He spun away, the perfect figure of indignation spoiled slightly only by his hollow figure. If he had retained all of his fat during their travels in the north, it may have even caused Tymun a twinge of guilt.
As it was, Tymun simply shook his head derisively at the priest’s back and turned up the road. As they passed under the gate, the stones sloping steeper, he tried to breathe normally. It had been one long trek of anger and misery, the bodies of men he’d served alongside left to rot in those infernal swamps. It was as bad as the day he had left his brother’s body, rent and bloody under the blades of Roeteli raiders, to cook in the sun while he fled for the safety of home. Worse, really, because it was the result of his decision that day to take up the sword, to enlist in the army for the sake of vengeance.
And since then, he had never even seen another Roeteli. His life had been consumed with training, with travel and guard duty in half a dozen cities from Far Jinda to Clear to the capital itself. Until their assignment to Barrier, and orders to scout Nera Nashan movements in the Icefalls and Averna.
He stifled a growl, thinking of the Nashan village and that blasted Chaplain. By the Flame, an old foreign heathen had been more successful summoning a flame than their dedicated priest, trained in battle prayers and benedictions. What in Oblivion was the problem? It wasn’t as though Artius had been some slacker, a priest with no care for his charges. He had served their company for the better part of a year, and had a fine reputation throughout the legions in Heart and Letaal. Not anymore, though, Hareal thought with a sneer.
The tunnel under the wall leveled out some, and as it turned to the left Tymun saw the light of the far gate, opening out into the Fourth Tier. A wave of yellow greeted them, shining in the sunlight, and they walked in silence through the merchants’ Tier. Vendors were now appearing, having decided that it was late enough for recovering drunks to want food. Merchants with wan faces, still clearly suffering from their indulgences the night before, hurried about. To meetings, Tymun assumed idly. He had never learned much about their doings.
Meto broke his silence just as they were approaching the gate to the Fifth Tier, on the west side of the city opposite the gate down to the Third. He looked somehow uncomfortable in his well-worn clothes, shrugging before talking. “Tymun…” he began, and shrugged again. “What do you think Artius meant by that, there before he left? That it wasn’t his fault.”
“Of course it was his fault. Don’t let his guilty lies fool you, Meto.”
With another shrug, Meto went on. “I’m not so sure they were lies. He seemed really angry at you. Not just at himself. And the way the First Cleric kept being vague…it was like he knew why Artius didn’t help us.” Meto took a deep breath, looked down at his feet, and balled his fists. “Do you think he had orders to let us die?”
That startled Tymun. “I hadn’t considered something like that. The flaming priests do like their separation from the normal command structure. Could be they’re trying to set themselves up for something…” he trailed off, trying to think of anything in Artius’ actions that might have given him away in the days before they were carved up in that swamp. The only thing that came to mind was his resistance to using his prayers, his reliance on firestones and almost catatonic refusal to participate against the Avernen. He wanted to find something there, but he just couldn’t. “I don’t know.”
Meto gave him a curious look. “You thought of something. I can tell.”
Tymun hesitated, not sure he should bring it up or even if it was connected. Meto’s earnest, blue-eyed stare convinced him. “You remember that little Nashan village?” He barely waited for Meto’s nod. “I saw something there. I never told Artius, because I thought it would surely piss him off. Likewise with those priests in the crucible today.”
They passed into the tunnel to the Fifth Tier, walking past soldiers on guard duty who nodded greetings at them.
“There was a man, an old man. The one who kept trying to sell us wood. I was curious, and I followed him a little bit after he gave up. He went back to his house and…” Tymun took a deep breath. “And he made fire. Right there, without a prayer or anything. It looked like he used some stones, hitting them together, and it made fire.”
Confused, Meto frowned. “What? That doesn’t make sense. It’s impossible to make fire like that.”
“I know it is!” Tymun burst out. All those weeks of keeping his frustrations inside, his doubts private, boiled over. “I can’t think of how it could happen. I can’t. It’s been driving me to distraction!”
Meto’s frown deepened, and he rubbed his chin. “Stones? Like, just a couple of rocks?”
“Yes! Well, one of them was kind of flat, and darker than the other. But yes, just stones. No prayers, no words at all that I could hear. And he made fire from it, on some thin branches in a fireplace. I’ve never seen anything like it. Why did he put the flames on branches? What’s the need for that?”
They emerged once again into sunlight, into the much more familiar orange shades of the Fifth Tier. Tymun immediately turned off the main avenue, following a street that ran along the bottom of the cliff, the Sixth Tier above, heading for a tavern he knew would be open, even at this early hour on the day after the Night of Ten Thousand Fires. It could not have been much past the second hour of the afternoon, by the thin angle of the shadows on the street. Here, soldiers were in abundance, cleaning refuse and washing the stones. They would be kept busy today, returning the city to something closer to the pre-Night of Ten Thousand Fires state.
While they walked, Meto brooded, considering Tymun’s questions and frustrations. He waited for the Pallonian man to say something, but Meto maintained his silence until they came upon the small establishment nestled up against the cliff, just east of the middle point of the Fifth Tier. A smile grew on Tymun’s face, regardless of his unanswered questions.
The door of The Landed Shark was open, inviting, and so very familiar.
“Ah, Master Tymun!” The clipped, Auran accent of Master Rian rang out as soon as they walked in. “It has been some time!”
Tymun could not help but laugh, feeling a little bit of his anxiety bleed away. The rotund tavern owner, with his bright red hair and freckled face, waved from behind the bar along the back wall. A few customers were in, including, to Tymun’s surprise, a pair of Phoenix Guards seated at the bar. Women, both of them, they turned to watch Tymun and Meto enter. Judging by the relief on their faces, Tymun guessed that Rian had been regaling them with tales of his fishing exploits back when he lived in the Tenth Tier.
“Master Rian,” Tymun said, giving the man a small bow, “some time, indeed. Far too long, believe me.”
From a door in the far corner came Rian’s wife, Katy, just as freckled as he but somewhat slimmer and with hair closer to brown than his pure red. Upon seeing Tymun, she brightened and put the clay jug she was carrying on the nearest shelf. “Tymun!”
Throughout it all, Meto only shook his head in amusement. He was no stranger to the owners of The Landed Shark, of course, though nowhere near as friendly with them as Tymun. He had always preferred to keep his drinking to a minimum, no matter how boring things got in the capital.
“How have things been, here in the capital?” Tymun asked as he approached the bar, selecting a stool next to the two silently relieved Phoenix Guards. He noted that one of them, a woman so palely blonde she could not conceivably be from anywhere other than White, up north in Icefall, had a severe beauty to her. Her gave her a quick smile before sitting down and returning his attention to Master Rian. He did not see if she had any reaction to him.
“Oh, good enough, good enough,” Master Rian said, avuncular as always. “Managed to survive the Night of Ten Thousand Fires, so that always portends another good year.” His grin widened. “What can I get you two gentlemen?”
Tyler nodded along as the Auran spoke, and then pointed to a shelf behind the bar. “You know me. Some of the Phoenix Twenty.”
Master Rian chuckled and turned to a small oak cask. He uncorked it and poured a small measure of the rich brown whiskey into a glass tumbler. “You do like it, don’t you?”
“Best flaming stuff there is,” Tymun replied, accepting his drink. Without regret, he dug in his purse for a silver coin. Next to him, Meto ordered a mug of ale, offering a couple of coppers.
“So what have you been off doing? You were in Barrier, correct?” Master Rian managed to sound like a proper Hareenish barkeep, despite his careful words and sharp accent. He just had that kind of a presence.
“You could say that,” Meto grumbled into his beer. “Flaming lunacy, it was.”
Bemused, Master Rian raised an eyebrow. “That so? I’ve heard Barrier is usually nice and quiet. The Nashans don’t like the place so much.”
Tymun laughed darkly. “Oh, they don’t. We just went a little further north of Barrier, in places the Nashans like just fine.”
“And the Avernen,” Meto added. “But it seems our priests aren’t so fond of the flaming place.”
“Avernen!” Katy gasped, coming up to add her clay jug to a row of similar containers on the highest shelf. “Surely you jest.”
She exchanged a look with her husband, shaking her head. “I thought they were just a story. You know, like the dragons or the icy undead.” In mute support of Katy, the brown-haired Phoenix Guard nodded once, sharply.
His thoughts turning darker quickly, Tymun found reprieve in the peaty notes of his whiskey. “I wish it were so, Katy. I wish it were so.”
“What was that about the priests, soldier?” The blonde Phoenix Guard was leaning in, her pale grey eyes intent above high cheekbones. “You didn’t sound so happy when you mentioned them.”
Wary, Tymun eyed her and her much darker companion. He didn’t want to start any trouble, especially with Phoenix Guards. They looked all too ready to use the knives at their waists. “It’s a long story, really….”
Read the next chapter: “The Empress”