I'm pounding away at my laptop keys to get A Modicum of Truth finished before the end of the month. Over the next couple of weeks, I'll give you a little taste of what's coming. Cheers!
I brushed past High Brother Luc’s personal attendant Istaqa and laid the scroll I carried on the chief priest of Light’s desk. “The pardon arrived. It’s official. I’ve been given leave to go south with you.”
While Istaqa stood in the doorway of the high brother’s office and harrumphed in disgust, Luc took his time chewing whatever was in his mouth. The orange-warm items on his plate had bites missing. A surreptitious sniff of the room revealed sweet pumpkin bread and eggs coated in Cantish hot sauce. My empty stomach grumbled its delight of both aromas.
Luc swallowed and regarded me. “Istaqa, the Chief Justice won’t leave until you feed her. Also, please bring her another pot of tea. And Anthea—”
I resisted the urge to sigh. Luc was determined to hold me to my oath at his predecessor’s funeral to do a better job as Orrin’s chief justice. I faced his attendant and bowed. “My apologies for my rudeness, Istaqa.”
The man’s second harrumph was slightly less disgusted than the first. He pivoted smartly on his heel and marched from the office.
“Sorry,” I muttered.
“I’m impressed you remembered his name,” Luc remarked.
I called the high brother a Cantish name that questioned his parentage, though mine was far more scandalous than his. Especially since I’d recently learned his predecessor at the Temple of Light, High Brother Kam, was my maternal grandfather.
Scandalous since members of the Temple of Light took a vow of chastity. As did members of my own order.
Not that our vows had ever stopped Luc or I from indulging.
Luc chuckled. “I know you’re excited about regaining your freedom, but you need to scale down the enthusiasm. Things are tenuous enough with Mother Bianca and Father Jerrod.”
I winced. The two temple seats had sent letters of protest to the queen when they learned she planned to pardon me for my illegal execution of her cousin, Samael DiRoy. The priestess and priest seemed to forget I did it because DiRoy summoned demons in order to seize the throne. And the Twelve only knew what else the little idiot had planned before I cut off his head.
It hadn’t helped that I made Bianca and Jerrod look like fools when the plots and schemes of Gerd, the former High Sister of Love, came to light.
Balance help me, I couldn’t even consider Gerd my mother anymore despite the fact the traitorous bitch had given birth to me. When she was caught selling demon grimoires along with children for immoral uses, her actions left me feeling less than charitable toward her. Plotting with the Assassins Guild to kill me was the proverbial last straw.
“I imprisoned Jerrod so he would be blameless for my actions. He will forgive me eventually.” I hoped. My actions to expose with the traitors within Orrin’s Twelve Temples were questionable at best.
At worst, I’d be facing another trial like the one that had sentenced me to the serve the city of Orrin permanently.
Luc picked up the scroll and perused it. “Have you had any word concerning Gerd’s trial?”
I shook my head at the mention of her. I definitely hadn’t drunk enough tea before the courier arrived with the queen’s pardon to deal with the thoughts of her. I snatched Luc’s mug and took a gulp. The overly sweet tea made me want to retch.
“You spit that back in my cup, and I’ll throw you in the gaol myself.”
I forced the mouthful down my throat and made a face at him while I set down the cup. “That’s nearly pure honey. How can you stand drinking it?”
He slapped my hand as I reached for a slice of bread. “Serves you right for stealing someone else’s tea. And it has medicine in it to increase my blood flow. The honey masks the taste.”
I tried not to stare at the stump propped on a padded stool. The stump where his left foot and ankle had been a month ago. Guilt squirmed in my mind. Luc had been abducted because Gerd had started the rumor we were having an affair. I should have been amused how her spiteful gossip led everyone in the city to believe we weren’t having an affair after she was arrested for treason.
Unfortunately, the renegades she dealt with and who believed her rumor decided to hold Luc hostage against me and my office. Then they sent me proof they imprisoned him.
“Stop it,” Luc ordered.
“What?” I said, trying to act innocent.
“I can’t stand that kicked puppy expression you get when you look at me.”
“It’s my fault it didn’t occur to me the bitch was selling demon artifacts.”
He didn’t have to question which bitch I referred to. He gulped his tea before he spoke. “And it’s my fault I didn’t realized that imposter Mat, Micah, whatever his birth name was, wasn’t a true brother of Light,” he growled.
“It’s both of your faults that we are short-staffed at the moment.” Istaqa set a tray in front me before he turned to Luc. “And once again, High Brother, I must protest. A woman as a member of the order of Light is highly inappropriate.”
I gratefully sipped my plain black Jing tea, enjoying the fact I wasn’t the one being lectured for once. My own staff dished out more than enough.
Luc sighed and leaned back in his chair. “What did Sister Shi Hua do this time?”
“She still insists on bathing with the men!”
I stifled a laugh at the attendant’s mortified tone. Unlike the order of Light in Issura, each of the twelve temples of the Jing Empire allowed both men and women to serve as clergy. In addition to admiring the sister’s more than capable skills, I personally liked Shi Hua. It had been my recommendation that the Jing priestess assist Luc while our own Reverend Father of Light audited all the temples of his order in Issura for additional imposters.
Luc appeared calm to even my peculiar sight as he regarded his aide, but I could feel his irritation prickle along my psyche. “We do not have a separate facility for her. Not to mention she’s used to joint accommodations in her homeland.”
Istaqa’s coloring creeped from orange to red. “This could turn into a scandal.”
Luc crossed his arms. “Are you planning on sending her down to the public bath house? Because that would cause a scandal. It says my staff can’t keep their vows, or their libidos, in check when we have a guest.”
“B-b-but—” Istaqa turned to me for help.
I quickly shoved a huge bite of eggs rolled in flatbread into my mouth and gave him an innocent look. I’d done a great many ill-conceived things in my thirty-one winters, but I wasn’t about to jump into the middle of this argument.
“There is no ‘but’ here, Istaqa,” Luc ground out. “If neither you nor the rest of the staff can behave yourselves around Sister Shi Hua, I’ll be happy to send the lot of you back to Standora for reassignment. And that’s after she finishes kicking your asses.”
The assistant’s visage shaded from red to crimson. I wasn’t sure if it was Luc’s threat to send him back the main temple at the capital or that Luc reprimanded him in my presence.
Or maybe it was the fact that Shi Hua probably could take on the entire priesthood, wardens, and staff of the Orrin Temple of Light and win.
“Yes, High Brother.” Once again, Istaqa pivoted on his boot heel and stomped out of Luc’s office. This time, he slammed the heavy oak door for good measure.
I finished chewing and swallowed. “Trouble?”
“Nothing you didn’t start,” Luc snapped.
His bad mood stung. “I was trying to help you when I recommended Shi Hua. With that damn audit and—” I shrugged. There was no judicious way to point out between the imposter who’d murdered the real Brother Mat, Kam’s death during the battle to regain control of the Temple of Love, and Luc’s own injury, the junior-most priest, poor Brother Jeremy, had been run ragged until both the Issuran and Jing Reverend Fathers of Light agreed to Shi Hua’s temporary transfer.
With my prodding and an assist from both nations’ Reverend Mothers of Balance.
“I know. I’m sorry.” Luc poured more tea into his mug and added a healthy dollop of honey. “With the current investigation into the infiltration—”
“Yes?” I prompted.
“This cannot leave my office.”
I raised an eyebrow. And how do you plan to stop Istaqa? He’s listening outside your door.
Luc sipped his tea before he grinned. By using mind speech so he can’t hear a blessed word. He quickly sobered. They found another infiltrator at the Temple of Light in Multnomah.
A chill rippled across my skin. Part of me had hoped our situation here in Orrin was an isolated incident. But that’s in Pagonia.
And Tandor is on the border with Cant.
Tandor. Our sister city to the south. All evidence pointed to our problems coming from there, but if Issura’s northern neighbor also had been compromised…
But our imposter was born on the island of New Thenos, I countered.
And that’s on the other side of the continent. I agree with Shi Hua. With the demon incidents here and in Jing, we may have stumbled across a worldwide conspiracy. Discrete messages have gone out to the Light temples in other lands. Very quietly.
I couldn’t suppress my shiver. Such a plot would explain why someone had hired the Assassins Guild to kill me. Thanks to my inept attempt to gain human eyesight, I was the only one who could see demons, regardless of their spells.
And once again, it made me wonder why Shi Hua was at the top of the wishlist of the Assassins Guild’s mysterious client. I was beginning to think it wasn’t because she was a distance speaker of incredible power.
“You’re worried about leaving Jeremy and Shi Hua here alone,” I said, giving Istaqa something to gossip about.
“I’m more worried about my staff doing something incredibly idiotic,” he started, using variation of one of my favorite words. “Especially when it comes to Shi Hua.”
“This is what happens when they demand chastity from our orders,” I grumbled. “I could have Gina guard her in the bathing room here if you want. Or she could use the facilities at Balance.”
“Or I could petition the Issuran Reverend Father of Light to amend our order’s criteria and allow admission of women.”
I stared at Luc. “Do you think he’d actually consider such a proposal?”
Luc shrugged. “We may not have a choice. Not if there are more infiltrators like Micah. It all depends on what we find in Tandor when we ride down for the audit.”
“And in the meantime?”
He grinned. “I’m looking forward to watching our visitor from Jing wiping the cobblestones with anyone idiotic enough to lay an improper finger on her.”