Monday, March 10, 2014

A Question of Balance - Chapter 5

Hi folks!

Sorry I'm not keeping up on the blog. There's lots of things going on, both personal and professional, so I'm behind on EVERYTHING right now. On the plus side, some exciting things are in the works for this series that hopefully (fingers crossed here), I'll be able to tell you about soon!

* * *

Desperate banging on my bedchamber door roused me from a nightmare concerning Samael and his demons. I reached for Luc, but cold blankets met my outstretched fingers. The secret passage was sealed once more. He must have left soon after I fell asleep.

The knocking turned thunderous. I dropped the wards with a word.

“What?” I shouted.

Sivan burst through the door as if my dream demons chased her. “I beg forgiveness, Justice. Sister Bertrice is here, demanding that she speak with you now.”

I didn’t need to scry to know what had crawled up her ass. Flinging blankets aside, I sat and stretched. “Escort her to my office, and bring us both breakfast. I believe she prefers that bean drink from one of the southern Mecas.”

The idea of drinking something best served with ham, onions and bread turned my stomach, but a little solicitousness would go a long way to smoothing over the priestess’ ruffled feathers.

“Yes, Justice.” Relief filled my assistant’s voice. She paused at the door. “You knew she would be here.”

“I asked for a favor from the Healers Guild.” I shed my bedclothes. “The Temple of Death has always been the most vocal over the split. I’m surprised it took her this long.”

“Do you want assistance with your hair, Justice?” she said. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one with the desire to let Sister Bertrice stew for a little bit.

“Yes, please.”

For all of my vaunted independence, that was the one thing I could never get right. Mirrors were as useless for me as the rest of the priestesses of Balance. While Luc and I had ridden circuit, he braided and pinned my hair for me. He insisted he wasn’t going to ride into a town or village with a justice that looked like a long-haired cat with mange.

When I entered my office, Sister Bertrice had worked herself into a good froth. Traditionally, each temple had its own color, but to me, everyone’s robes, including mine were the same dark blue. The priestess’ pacing had turned her robes to green.

She whipped to face me. “How dare you let those heathens mutilate one of the holy!”

The door clicked shut behind me. I didn’t blame Sivan for escaping.

“And a pleasant morn to you as well,” I replied as evenly as I could. “Would you care to break your fast with me?”

“A priestess was—”

“Murdered and violated, yes. “ I sat at the table the kitchen staff had brought to my office and poured my tea from the little ceramic pot. “But not by the Healers Guild. They assisted me in confirming several oddities involved in Sister Gretchen’s death.”

My cold logic splashed against Bertrice’s fury. She collapsed in the other chair. “Do you know who did it?”

I shrugged. “There are possibilities I am pursuing, but you know I can’t speculate. Any accusations would be sheer gossip at this point.”

Bertrice glared at me. “I’m not a fool, Justice. The sutured incisions to the throat were made after her death.”

“You are correct. Those were made yesterday at my behest. I wanted verification that strangulation was the cause of her demise. The Healers Guild found the windpipe crushed.”

“Why? The bruises made that obvious.”

“Not necessarily, Sister.”

“What do you mean?”

I scooped scrambled eggs onto a piece of Cantish flatbread and added pepper sauce. Luc had introduced me to the concoction years ago. “We both know there are venoms, herbs and mushrooms that paralyze a body before death.”

Waves of horror rolled off Bertrice. “You think she was raped with a knife while she was alive and aware?”

I folded the bread in half. “That’s part of the reason I consulted with the Guild. I’m trying to narrow down the possibilities.” Heat seared my tongue.

The priestess picked up the ceramic pot at her place and took a suspicious sniff. “Brewed Meca bean tea?”

I wouldn’t call the drink tea by any stretch of the imagination, but common sense said I shouldn’t rattle the tenuous relationship between us. “I understand you’re fond of the concoction.”

She poured a cup and sipped it. “Why would you trust the Healers Guild?”

“They have more thorough knowledge of aspects of the human body than I do. I would support anything that would help me perform my duties.”

“Balance in all things.” The sneer was evident in her voice.

“For every life, there is a death,” I shot her own temple’s motto back at her before I gentled my tone. “We’re not on opposing sides, Sister.”

“There was a time when temple authority was absolute.” She reached for a piece of flatbread, tore off a chunk and popped it in her mouth.

“The last demon war changed things. We haven’t seen the end of those consequences.” I took a sip of tea to cool the burning in my throat from the pepper sauce. “The situation last summer proved to me this city, this queendom, is vulnerable if the temples, the civilians, and the nobles don’t work together.”

We ate silently for a few minutes before she reached into her pocket and produced a scroll. “This may help you then.” She set it on the table.

“Sister Gretchen’s declaration?” I set down my bread and eggs before I ran my fingers over the wax seal. The raised letters and numbers sent a chill through me.

Bertrice stared at me. “I thought you could see.”

My laugh was self-deprecating. “After a fashion. My vision isn’t the same as yours.” I pointed at my eyes. “I can’t differentiate ink from parchment.”

She tapped the scroll. “Since one of the priests from Light will have to be there when you break the seal, he can check the inked date for you, but according to our records, Sister Gretchen deposited her declaration with us eleven days ago.”

Which was exactly what the imprinted code of Balance said. At the most a week before the priestess of Love was brutally murdered and left to pickle in a wine barrel. “You’ve spoken to your priest who took the declaration.”

“Yes. He will be available at your convenience for official testimony.” Bertrice took another drink of her pungent brew before she said, “Let me guess. Gerd told you Gretchen didn’t have a declaration.”

I sighed. “You know I can neither confirm or deny anything regarding an open investigation.”

Bertrice set her cup down with a sharp clink. “Watch your back with her, Anthea. If Thalia could have proven any of the things we suspected about her, you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

“What do you mean?”

“You represent one of Gerd’s few failures. She tried to murder you once. We could never figure out how she beat the truthspell.”

“No one can defeat a truthspell. And murder? By the Twelve, what are you—”

“She took herbs and mushrooms to stop the pregnancy.”

I stared at Sister Bertrice. Her words froze my soul. My mother had tried to kill me in the womb. “It’s illegal to interfere with any child conceived during the Spring Rituals.”


That single word spoke volumes. How deep my mother’s ambitions went. How ruthless she could truly be. It chiseled an entirely different sculpture of her possible culpability in regards to Gretchen’s murder.

“Why wasn’t she punished?”

“She claimed it was the pregnancy madness.”

“And she was truthspelled.” I pushed my plate away, my appetite destroyed.

“Like I said, Thalia was sure she hindered it. Somehow.”

“That’s not possible.” I was repeating myself, but I couldn’t seem to stop.

“Under normal circumstances, I would agree.”

I sipped my tea, attempting to find some equilibrium, before I said, “Why are you telling me this now?”

Bertrice leaned forward. “Because if Thalia or I could have proven she did it deliberately, she would not be a problem today. Because I have a vested interest in keeping you alive, Anthea.”


“I was a healer. I burned out my power saving your life.” She relaxed back in her chair.

Her admission was more shocking than all of her revelations put together. It explained her animosity toward the Healers Guild. Without her gift, she would have been thrown out on her ear.

I cleared my throat. “Can anyone verify your story?”

“Gerd.” A smirk floated along Bertrice’s voice, but her next name carried sadness. “Brother Kam is the only other one alive who remembers the incident.”

Kam. He’d known me as a child. Why hadn’t he ever said anything ? Was the knowledge buried so deep in me that what I thought was instinctual trust was actually a memory?

Bertrice blew out a deep breath. “I don’t suppose you could arrange an audience between Master Healer Devin and myself.”

The abrupt change of topic startled me. “Why do you need me to do it?”

“Because if I seek it of my own volition, then I’m a traitor to my temple. If you force me to meet with him during the course of your duties while investigating the murder of a priestess from another temple…”

Goddess, how I loathed politics. But Bertrice’s suggestion made sense. “Perhaps. Tomorrow after the midday meal?”

“That would be acceptable.” She climbed to her feet. “Thank you for your hospitality, Justice.”

I stood as well. “Thank you for bringing Sister Gretchen’s statement of her last wishes to my attention.”

After Bertrice had departed, I picked up the statement. While I had time to summon a witness from the Temple of Truth, my gut said whatever was in the document would take far longer than the two candlemarks I had before court started. I crossed my office. Laying my hand on the spot in the marble, I spoke the words of the unlocking spell, and placed the statement inside the block. Only a priestess of my own Temple could access the special hiding place.

Taking the accursed document across the street this afternoon would give me the excuse I needed to question Kam.

* * *

Thank Balance, I didn’t have any capital cases that morning. As it was, I could barely keep my attention on the trivial matters before me. Or they seemed trivial after the shocks Sister Bertrice had delivered to my breakfast table.

Especially the damn runaway horse that had cracked a cobbler’s sign.

Once today’s case were heard, I gave instructions to my clerk Donella to invite the healers and Sister Bertrice for a meeting here. She gave me an odd look but nodded before I raced across the room to catch the young priest who’d been my truthspeller today.

“Brother…could you wait a moment?” Death take me, I couldn’t keep my own staff’s names straight, much less Luc’s.

The junior priest paused in collecting his things. “Yes, Lady Justice?”

“I have a declaration of last wishes.”

“I’d be happy to witness, m’lady.” Goddess help the boy, he actually sounded happy. And when did I start thinking of the juniors as green children?”

“Trust me, you don’t want this one sitting on your shoulders. Is Brother Luc available?” I knew damn well he wasn’t. He’d said he wouldn’t be able to get to the tracking spell research until after the midday meal.

“No, m’lady. Are you sure I can’t help? I assure you I’m fully versed in the protocols.”

I pulled him away from the crowd still filing out of the courtroom. “Is Brother Kam available? This regards the priestess that was murdered. If what I suspect is in the declaration, there are going to be some very unhappy people. I’m not allowing you to ruin your career at your temple over a potential political mess.”

“I see.” A little relief mixed with his disappointment. “Yes, I believe Brother Kam is available. May I escort you to the Temple of Light, or shall I bring him here?”

I laughed. “Are you seriously suggesting that Brother Kam interrupt his midday meal?”

“What was I thinking?” the junior priest said, his voice rueful.

It took me a moment to retrieve the declaration. It took me more than a moment to convince Little Bear I didn’t need a warden to accompany us. If I didn’t know better, I would think we were all seeing conspiracies under every slab and cobblestone of the city.

The young brother led me to the private dining room, where sure enough Kam was plowing through a chicken pie. He insisted that I be brought a chicken pie as well.

Kam dabbed his mouth as my escort rushed off. “Now, what can I possibly do for you today, my lovely Anthea?”

I pulled the scroll from my pocket and laid it on the table. “Sister Gretchen’s declaration.”

He reached for his goblet and took a long swallow of wine. “So you're painting a target on the old man?”

I smiled despite my own anxiety. “No. I want a seat to be my witness. Gretchen made a point of leaving this with the Temple of Death instead of her own. Since Luc’s unavailable…”

He glared at me. Kam actually glared at me. “I’m no longer considered an active priest.”

“Why are you so afraid of Gerd? I’m the one she tried to kill in the womb.”

There was no sound. No movement. For a brief instant, I wondered if Kam had died in his seat.

He released the breath he’d been holding. “Who told you?” He waved a hand. “Never mind. That was a foolish question.”

I folded my hands and leaned my elbows on the table. “You and Bertrice seem to think she’ll try to finish what she started. Something that happened thirty years ago.”

“She’s evil, Anthea. Stay away from her.”

I’d heard Kam worried, jovial, and falling down drunk, but raw terror was in his voice now. “Unless she’s been consorting with demons, she’s still human, therefore manageable.”

We fell silent when the young Light priest who had accompanied me entered with my food. Once the door shut behind him, Kam staggered to his feet. His age was very apparent in the way he trembled as he warded the room.

He dropped into his chair as if all his energy had been spent in that little act of magic. “She didn’t have pregnancy madness. We could see it in her eyes. We knew, but we couldn’t prove it.” He slammed the flat of his hand on the table’s surface. The dishes shivered at the release of his anger.

I folded my hand over his. The skin so wrinkled, dry as a dead leaf. His age sunk into my heart. “Do you believe Gerd could have killed and violated Gretchen?”


Like Bertrice this morning, the single affirmation said everything.

Except something didn’t fit. I couldn’t see what Gerd would gain from the manner of Gretchen’s death. The money and property interests were too obvious.

It wasn’t any daughterly affection that colored my viewpoint. If there was one thing about my mother, it was her ruthless efficiency. She’d learned from her first attempt at murder. If she wanted Gretchen dead, the priestess would never have been found.

I tapped the scroll against the hardwood. “If she is behind this perversity, the contents of the declaration may force her hand.”

“You don’t think Gretchen left her property to the Temple of Love.”

I chuckled. “Of course not. Otherwise, Gerd would have been pounding on the doors of my temple, demanding that the seal be cracked and its contents confirmed last night.” I squeezed his hand. “Why didn’t you ever tell me you knew me from my childhood?”

His other hand patted mine. “I had hoped, prayed, that you didn’t remember Orrin. And that you never found out what your mother had done to you. Bertrice nearly killed herself saving you, and she always felt guilty that she condemned you to the Temple of Balance.”

I shook my head in confusion. “What do you mean?”

“Her power burned out before she could fully restore your health. By the time we could get another healer it was too late. The poison had destroyed your sight.”


Anonymous said...

*Le Sigh*

This story makes me want to time travel to the future just so I can buy the book - ravenously consume it in a delighted sitting, then come back and gleefully re-live the tale as it comes out chapter by chapter...



Suzan Harden said...

Ah, Dee, I want to oblige you. I wasn't joking about personal stuff. Even though the fam has officially moved, we still have our former house to deal with. I'm only getting a few hundred words in between painting and landscaping work. And the sooner we get the house sold, the sooner I can (hopefully *fingers crossed*) hire the cover artist I want. When this book comes out, I REALLY want to do it right!

Anonymous said...

No pressure - I just want you to feel the luvs. =)

I pray your house sells quickly and smooth.

I've no doubt the book will be wonderful - it already is!


Suzan Harden said...

I apologize, Dee. My anxiety-ridden, defensive side comes out when I put pressure on myself to get things done NOW. *wry smile*

I'm not very good in a cluttered environment. And right now, my environment is very cluttered. *sigh*

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