Wednesday, November 8, 2017

A Modicum of Truth - Chapter 4

By the time the guild apprentices and our wardens loaded the bodies into Master Davin’s wagon, Daniel returned with Sister Farah from the Wildling temple. She shed her robe, leggings and tunic and placed them on the seat of the wagon before she shifted into her fox form. She examined the corpses before I led her through the building. She thoroughly sniffed everything in the seamstress shop and the apartment above.

Once we were outside, she shifted back to human form. Master Davin averted his gaze just as he had when she first removed her clothes. However, he was the only one who did so. Social mores were different in the eastern nations of the Northern Long Continent, but I didn’t know the details. I’d been meaning to ask him about his personal history over a social meal in an effort to know him since I wasn’t sure where he was from originally, but with the recent troubles in Orrin, I had not had the opportunity.

The normally light-hearted priestess’s skin glowed a dark orange, and anger radiated from her. “You were correct in your observations, Chief Justice. I could smell kyaneos notos in the used cups and in the honey.” I frowned. “Kyaneos notos?”

She reached for her clothes. “The poison used by the Assassins Guild. Roughly translated, it means ‘southern blue’. It can produced by the manioc root or by bitter almonds.” She tugged on her leggings. “That’s the reason no one in the Healers Guild noticed the substance when their stock was tainted. They use sweet almond oil which blended with and obscured the specific scent.” Her coloring faded to lighter shade as she reached for her tunic. “What I don’t understand is how they managed to get a lethal dose into the honey.”

“What do you mean?” I said.

Farah mumbled something, but I couldn’t understand with her tunic covering her head. But Davin frowned. “She’s right.” I looked at them both askance. “About?”

“The honey,” the priestess and the healer said at the same time.

“Honey, fruit, sorghum grass,” Davin continued. “Anything sweet can help offset the effects of kyaneos poisoning. It is not a remedy in and of itself, but a treatment of last resort or used in conjunction with a healing.”

“So, the honey jar may have simply been the most expedient method of killing the peacekeeper,” Yanaba said. “His wife and children may have been collateral targets.” Before either I or the magistrate could say anything, she sighed. “But I’m jumping to conclusions again by assuming Dante was the primary target, aren’t I, Chief Justice?”

“You’re learning.” I smiled even though she couldn’t see it. “That’s the important thing.” However, the deep-seated feeling in my gut said my protégé was correct.

DiCook clapped his hands. “If we’re finished here for the time being, Chief Justice, High Brother, I need to speak with you about additional patrol arrangements in Orrin.”

From the way the magistrate rocked on his heels, that wasn’t the subject he wanted to discuss, but it was good to know he was learning some discretion. Despite our efforts, the orders for Luc to visit Tandor weren’t as secret as I’m sure both the Reverend Father of Light and the Reverend Mother of Balance would have wanted.

“I must accompany Master Devin first—” I started.

“Go take care of the magistrate.” The healer made shooing motions with his hands. “I was leaving to check on Lady Katarina when Warden Daniel arrived. With her so close to her due date, the living need to take priority. Besides, Aaron won’t do anything until we are both present. Or I should say politics prevent him from examining our victims until I return. None of the other masters want to be directly involved.”

I snorted at the melodrama between the Temples and the Guilds. “They are certainly curious enough when I’m present.” Luc shuffled forward on the steel crutches Davin had designed with one of Orrin’s master smiths. The devices were far more than the typical Y-shaped polished wood most injured amputees used. In fact, he’d been leaning how to fight with them thanks to Shi Hua. “Do you mind if we have this meeting at my temple, Magistrate?” Luc grinned at Davin. “I know a healer who will be most irked if I miss my afternoon medication.”

Davin shook a finger at Luc. “I meant it when I told you if you miss a dosage, I’ll haul you back to our manse.” “What? You mean Istaqa hasn’t been making his daily report to you about everything that enters and leaves my body?” Luc mocked.

The healer crossed his arms and glared. “He tries, but you go out of your way to make his job difficult.” DiCook leaned toward Davin. “I totally blame Chief Justice Anthea. He’s picked up quite a few of her bad habits over their time riding circuit together.”

“I know damn well who to blame, Magistrate.” But the healer’s sharp words were leavened by a certain amount of teasing.

The peacekeeper and our wardens tried to muffle their snickers, but a fair amount of dismay flowed from Yanaba. I would have laughed also, but somehow, I’d been accused as an accessory. Retaliation seemed more appropriate.

“Since I’ve been deemed guilty of corrupting a priest, maybe I should have you pay for our midday meal, Magistrate,” I said.

“Oh, no.” He waggled a forefinger in my direction. “I’ve seen you eat. You wouldn’t leave enough scraps for a rat along the wharf, much less my children.”

Even my protégé giggled at that rejoinder. It was good to see Malven relaxed around me, considering how bad our initial relationship had been.

It also meant I didn’t have to be as careful about any remarks I made. “I’m surprised you wish to save your most cutting insults for a private meal.” I tilted my head. “How can you possibly perform without an audience?”

“That’s enough. All of you.” Luc jabbed a finger in DiCook’s direction. “Magistrate, I believe you’ve been equally corrupted. I seem to recall you quite peeved with the Chief Justice’s jocularity when previous murder victims were found.” He faced Davin. “And you threatened to tie down the Chief Justice in order to treat her wounds.

“I, on the other hand, am becoming quite cranky because it’s past first afternoon, I am hungry, and the one thing Anthea did right while we were on circuit was making sure we ate at regular mealtimes.”

Laughing, I raised my hands in surrender. “Far be it for me to step between any priest and his meal.”

One of Luc’s warden brought his horse forward. Or rather his new mount, a placid creature unconcerned when her rider mounted on the right side rather than the left.

My good humor fled at the sight. The use of the same poison meant we still had assassins operating in Orrin. Regardless of my rebuke to the magistrate months ago about making assumptions, I was sure of that fact. Balance help us, the alleged noblewoman could even be the skinwalker who as behind Luc’s abduction and had eluded us while we dealt with the demon.

While I was still hesitant about involving someone outside of the temples, there were few of my fellow clergy I could trust in this city. That meant I relied heavily on Magistrate DiCook over the last few months despite our personality clashes. And he may have some insight about the strange coin Daniel had uncovered.

We walked behind the healers’ wagon until we reached the Temple of Light. Davin waved as he and his apprentices continued down the main thoroughfare. The clopping of the horse’s hooves melded with the rest of the day’s traffic. I paused at the steps while Luc and his warden continued to the back gate of the Light complex. “Justice Yanaba, would you please review today’s court reports? The clerks should have them ready for you.”

Her lower jaw dropped, and her disappointment rolled across my psyche. She had hoped to be included in this meeting. “But, Chief Justice—”

I leaned close to her ear. “Your place is to obtain practical experience right now. And things are far too dangerous for both of us for you continue arguing with me in public.”

Her mouth closed, and she nodded firmly. “Yes, m’lady.”

Good. Maybe she had some sense after all.

At my nod, Daniel took her arm from DiCook. She wrapped her hand around his bicep and let him lead her back to our temple across the thoroughfare. Noko, however, stayed at my side. Considering the Assassins Guild’s first attempt on my life had been on these very steps, I knew any command I gave her to leave would fall on deaf ears.

At the top of the step of the Temple of Light, the two wardens standing guard bowed as we approached. The man on my right opened the door behind him and guided me, Noko, DiCook, and DiCook’s peacekeeper to the chief priest’s private dining room. It wasn’t like we didn’t know the way, but with the infiltration of the temples by renegades, all protocols were being followed to the letter.

The murders of Love’s entire contingent of wardens had left everyone a little paranoid.

Luc was already settled at the head of the table. I still expected Kam to take that chair though it had been nearly a year since he semi-retired in favor of Luc taking the temple seat. Now that he was dead…

I repressed a sigh. Balance knew I would have missed the old man even if he weren’t my grandfather.

The Light warden gestured for DiCook’s peacekeeper and my own warden to follow him, but Noko stood resolutely at my side. Almost as if she dared her opposite to physically remove her.

“This is a private meeting, Warden Noko,” Luc said.

“With all due respect, High Brother, I will remain.” She lifted her chin.

“Are you claiming either Magistrate DiCook or I would harm the chief justice?”

The color of Noko’s skin didn’t alter one whit at Luc’s chiding. “Given the circumstances over the last year, the wardens of Balance are leaving nothing to chance. We will do our duty regardless of the pride of any official.” Her gaze fell on me with that last statement.

I now had a very good idea what Little Bear and the rest of the wardens wanted to meet with me about over supper. DiCook broke the tension by chuckling. “Let her stay, High Brother. Far be it for either of us interfere with the young lady’s duties. I wouldn’t want to lose my head should Justice Anthea choke on a fish bone.”

Unease washed over me at the magistrate’s jest. When had Luc and DiCook switched personalities?

I took a seat on Luc’s left, but Noko didn’t claim a place at the table. Instead, she stood behind me and slightly to my right, keeping her own sword arm free should the need arise.

Istaqa and two of his staff entered with platters of dried meat, cheese, dried fruit, and Cantan flat bread. Simple fare like we consumed on our circuit compared to Kam’s gastronomic efforts. Luc’s personal attendant shooed the other men out, placed a pot of tea with Luc’s medicine on the table before the chief priest, and poured DiCook and I each a cup of wine. Istaqa shot an irritated look at Noko before he too departed.

My stomach grumbled but before I could pop a wedge of cheese in my mouth, Luc said, “Anthea, would you mind?” I shook myself out of my maudlin thoughts of Kam. “Of course not.” I circled the room, laying the wards that would keep anyone, including the nosy Istaqa, from overhearing our conversation. My stomach grumbled again when I finished. I snatched a slice of sharp cheese and shoved it into my mouth.

DiCook ignored the spread of delectables and folded his hands together. “You need to start including Justice Yanaba is these little war councils, Anthea.”

“Why?” I said around my mouthful of cheese as I slid into my chair. “She needs to learn the basics first.”

“She needs to be included,” DiCook repeated.

“Did you actually watch her and listen to her conclusions at Dante’s? Balance, help me. Was I that arrogant when I was her age?” I muttered as I reached for more cheese.

“Actually, you were far worse,” Luc answered.

“She needs to look deeper, or she will continue to miss the obvious,” I countered.

“She needs to know what in the Twelve is going on in this city if she’s going to be any use while you two are gallivanting around Tandor!” DiCook slapped the table for emphasis. The dishes and utensils rattled at the sharp blow. Luc and I exchanged looks.

He’s right.

I didn’t answer the high brother’s silent reprimand. I faced DiCook. “Was that all you wished to discuss?”

“No.” He leaned forward. “What did you find at Dante’s?”

“Four bodies,” I said dryly.

He threw his hands up. “We’re back to dissembling? I thought you and I had finally gotten beyond that.”

I sighed. “I wanted to ask Luc about the evidence I found first so I’d have a solid lead to give you.”

Luc leaned forward eagerly. “What did our assassin give Dante’s daughter?”

I reached into my pocket and drew out the cloth. Both men watched breathlessly as I unwrapped it. Even Noko leaned over my shoulder to see it.

I carefully passed the unusual coin to Luc by the folds of Daniel’s kerchief. “I was hoping you might be able to place a tracking spell on it.”

His brows drew together as he held up the coin by a corner of the cloth and examined it under the overhead lamp. “I’ve never seen anything like this.” He shook his head and passed the cloth and coin to DiCook. “I’m not going to be able track the person who gave it to Dante’s daughter.”

“But you were able to track the gold piece your father gave you years ago,” I protested.

“Because it had more sentimental value to me than what the metal was worth, and I had carried it since I’d become a novice,” he said.

DiCook cleared his throat. “This doesn’t make sense. Minting coins has always been the province of the national governments, even at the height of the demon wars. It’s not gold, silver or copper.” His eyes met mine. “Why would an assassin give a child an essentially worthless coin?” He slid the disc nestled in cloth across the table to me.

“A very good question, Magistrate.” I smiled. “Chief Brother Luc, if you don’t mind me using your entrance to the tunnel system, I think it’s time we ask the source. Anyone else interested in a visit to the Temple of Thief?”

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