Wednesday, November 15, 2017

A Modicum of Truth - Chapter 5

Despite some concentrated time in a hotel room with my write-only mini-laptop (it has no e-mail, and I keep the Wi-Fi and internet turned off), I'm still not quite done with A Modicum of Truth. But I promise I AM working on it! ________________________________

After our quick meal, we entered the tunnels from the hidden passage in Luc’s bedchambers. I didn’t need illumination to pick my way through underground system between the temples. To me, the walls glowed a pale lavender. Some sort of tiny living creatures gave off a light I could see with my strange eyesight.

However, Noko and DiCook needed conventional flame. I led the way so their lamps didn’t blind me with their heat. The balls of magical energy produced by the priests of Light would have been preferable for all of our needs, but once again, we were back to our problem of a shortage of able-bodied and trustworthy priests.

It also said how desperate the Reverend Mother of Balance and how unnerved the Reverend Father of Light were to send us both to Tandor with the recent upheaval in Orrin and the trade season about to start.

Thankfully, Luc didn’t make some idiotic protest that he should accompany us to the Temple of Thief. I had equal gratitude our destination was next door to Light. I still had problems with anxiety in constrained places after Luc, Shi Hua, and I had been attacked by a demon in the tunnel system last month.

As we approached Thief’s underground door, magic vibrated against my skin. All of the temples had placed some kind of warning wards near their tunnel entrances after our latest demon encounter. No one wanted to face a possible invasion in their nightclothes.

I placed my hand on the granite door and whispered the words to unseal it. The door swung inward.

And I found a swordpoint at my throat.

The Thief warden holding the opposite end of the weapon quickly lowered it. “Apologies, Chief Justice. We were not informed of your visit.”

I entered and gave her a slight bow. “My apologies to your High Brother for the lack of notice, but times necessitate certain…avenues of action.”

DiCook and Noko followed me into the high brother’s private quarters. Some signal I missed must have passed between the two wardens because the skin of Thief’s protector turned from medium yellow to bright orange.

She sheathed her sword. “One moment, if you please, Chief Justice.” She marched across the bedchambers of her head priest, but she only opened the main door a crack. Whispered words were exchanged before she shut the door again and watched us.

In the meantime, I examined my counterpart’s personal room. To my surprise, it was nearly as spartan as my own. I’d expected trophies of some kind. Maybe even the wood paneling or tapestries the other temples used to soften the harsh chill of the marble walls. Instead, the blue-green marble blocks were bare except for…

I peered closer. Magical sigils marked the walls. Not just drawn, but carved and filled with various metals. The pale blue of gold. The warmer greens of silver and copper ores. It was odd to be able to see writing and not feel it as I normally would. My gloved fingers reached for the closest marking, the symbol for a veil.

“Find something of interest, Chief Justice?”

I turned to find the leader of Thief standing in the doorway of his own private chambers and smiled. “I always find things of interest in Orrin.” I inclined my head. “I hope you’ll forgive the intrusion, High Brother, but I found a bit of evidence at the scene of a crime today that necessitates a consultation with you.”

High Brother Talbert wasn’t a big man. In fact, he was shorter than me with a slight build. He kept his hair the length of a fingertip and appeared freshly shaven every time I’d encountered him. If it weren’t for the leather leggings and silk tunic of the Temples, he’d pass through the city unremarked. I had the impression many people underestimated his skills in that regard.

He exchanged a look with his warden, and she left the room, closing the door behind her with the barest of sounds. He touched the sigil next to the doorframe. All of the symbols in the walls flared to life, and magic tingled across my skin.

“Impressive,” I murmured.

“Given your entry route, I presumed you and the magistrate wish to keep this consultation private,” Talbert said. “How may I be of service?”

During last month’s convocation, I hadn’t been sure where High Brother Talbert stood. He’d stayed carefully neutral until I proved Gerd had initiated false charges against me and her subsequent attempt to mind-control the magistrate. But as Luc repeatedly reminded me, I needed to learn to trust people other than him. And I couldn’t blame Talbert for holding back at the convocation until he learned the players and positions of Gerd’s game.

And mine as well.

“I need any information you may have concerning a coin one of my wardens found.” I pulled the kerchief from my pocket and handed it to the priest.

One of Talbert’s eyebrows rose as he accepted the bundle from me. “I take it this is evidence from the site of this morning’s murders?”

My eyes narrowed. “How do you know they were murdered?”

A corner of the priest’s lips curved upward. “Peacekeeper Dante wasn’t implicated in the bribery scandal, and the magistrate wouldn’t have summoned you and High Brother Luc unless he had suspicions.”

“So much for keeping this matter quiet,” DiCook grumbled.

Talbert shrugged before he unwrapped the coin. “Our temple’s role is to keep an eye on things.”

“You did such a wonderful job the Assassins Guild nearly took over the city,” DiCook snapped.

The chief priest of Thief neither flinched nor grew angry. “While our previous justice ignored my warnings concerning Love, our current justice handled the situation quite ably without my temple’s assistance.”

I groaned. “This mess started when Penelope was still chief justice of Orrin?”

Talbert nodded. “Yes, odd things have been happening long before your arrival. But Gerd accelerated her plans with her acquisition of the demon grimoire around the same time as your appointment to the seat of Balance.”

“You mean sentence,” I said sourly, but the priest was no longer paying any attention to our conversation.

The subtle intake of his breath and the lightening of his skin were the only indications of his feelings.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Do you know the history of the Assassins Guild, Chief Justice?”

I shrugged. “They appeared before the demon wars. The first mention in the histories was three hundred years before the Battle of Toscana.” The beginning of the demon invasions. A chill ran through me. My own Reverend Mother had confirmed her belief my recent encounters with demons were the prelude to another full-scale invasion.

Talbert’s mien grew even more somber. “Just as the Healers Guild was originally part of the Temple of Death, and the Smiths Guild part of Father, the Assassins Guild was spawned from my temple. A fact we do not like to acknowledge.”

I blinked. “Why?”

Talbert chuckled. “Why don’t we like to recognize such a horrid past, or why such an organization was created?”

“The creation,” I said. “I can understand not wanting to recognize it.”

“Originally, the guild’s purpose was to…ensure leaders stayed on task regarding preparations for the coming war with the demons. Our memories are so short compared the gods though.” Talbert sighed. “There were those within our own order who didn’t believe Balance’s warnings.” He shook his head. “They preferred to sell their skills, and over time, well, they didn’t think twice about extending their reach or their profits.”

The idiocy of men never failed to amaze me. “But why are they here in Issura? And why now?”

Talbert sighed and rewrapped the coin. “I don’t know the answer to either of those questions. We have been trying to discern their purpose and lost nearly a dozen of our own priesthood in the course of two years.”

His admission jarred me, but not enough to speak when he was forthcoming with information.

Talbert stared at the cloth in his hand. “Our temple has worked too hard to keep them out of our queendom for the last two centuries.” He hesitated for a moment before he said, “Why aren’t you asking the most obvious question, Anthea?”

“Do you mean the reason for the coin?”

He nodded.

I smiled. “It’s a warning to you they will continue to kill innocents if you assist me.”

His own lips tilted. “And why don’t you think it’s a warning to you?”

Laughter spilled from me. “I’m at the top of their list of contracts to fulfill.”

He cocked his head. “And how did you come by that information?”

I hesitated for a moment. “Would you mind terribly if I kept my source to myself for now? I would hate for the magistrate to request my presence at another murder.”

A slight smile curved Talbert’s mouth. “I understand your reasoning. If I may be so bold, Anthea—” He paused as if searching for the right words. “Maybe you shouldn’t make your reports to Standora quite so thorough.”

I watched him through slitted eyes. “Why?”

“Not even your temple is immune to infiltration,” he said. “Don’t ever make the assumption it is. Thief is the easiest for them because of our shared history, but we’ve also been on guard for exactly this possibility for centuries.”

Talbert held out the cloth-wrapped coin. He’d given me quite a bit of information to mull over. It didn’t quell my discomfort that my own Reverend Mother had insinuated the same fear. What woman would deliberately blind herself to gain admittance? Had the Assassins Guild recruited someone like me who resented being trapped in temple service? Or was our problem with the support staff the sisterhood depended on so much?

“Thank you for your analysis, High Brother.” I took the small bundle from him, slipped it into my pocket, and turned to leave.

Talbert cleared his throat. “One more thing, Anthea—”

I faced him again.

“Bianca is far more dangerous than your mother ever was.”

“Gerd was insane,” I said.

Talbert inclined his head. “Even so. However, Bianca is not. She found her association with Gerd quite…profitable. You ruined that.”

“Profitable how?” I asked, though I had a sick feeling I already knew. Nathan, the squire I’d acquired last month, had mentioned Orrin’s street children feared to approach Mother for aid though caring for those in need was one of the Temples’ primary responsibilities.

“I think you already know.”

Anger burned through my blood. “And you didn’t take action because…?”

“Lack of proof and a senile justice.”

Talbert’s wry reply didn’t help my mood. My anger turned into sheer rage. “Penelope knew?”

He shrugged. “I cannot tell you what she knew and didn’t know during the last year of her life. All I can tell you is that your own Reverend Mother ignored the pleas of the staff at your temple. And that Penelope herself ignored much of what was happening in the city during her tenure despite my predecessor’s counsel when she was still in control of her faculties. All I can say is be careful. While I will tender any aid you may require, don’t make the mistake of trusting everyone.”

I smiled. “And here the current holder of the seat of Light has recently lectured me on taking the chance of trusting someone other than him.”

Talbert laughed. “Then my temple and I shall try to live up to High Brother Luc’s opinion until the two of you return.”

“Return?” I could feel my eyebrows climb my forehead.

“As I said, we try to learn everyone’s secrets, Chief Justice.” Another shrug from Talbert. “It’s our purpose.”

Of course, it was. “Are there any other temple heads I need to concern myself with?”

He shook his head. “You already know the issues with Father Jerrod, but he’s the only one Bianca can truly manipulate. Actually, the rest of us are breathing a little easier with you in Balance’s seat.”

Now, why did Talbert’s reassurance send a surge of doubt through me?

* * *

Once we returned to my own bedchambers and DiCook had departed to warn the rest of his peacekeepers about this new threat, I summoned Yanaba to my office.

I smiled as Ming Wei carefully guided my junior justice to a chair at the little dining table in my workspace. The extra furniture crowded the already tight accommodations, but I’d had broken my fast while meeting with various officials lately. I could have those same engagements in one of the proper receiving rooms and had my own squire Nathan race back and forth, fetching various documents. However, I deplored wasting time.

Having another justice in residence also gave Ming Wei purpose as a squire since I didn’t need two. Last month, Ambassador Quan of Jing had turned the child over to my care as a show of good faith. The girl had been terribly abused by her own parents and a Jing noble with a predilection for children. At first, the child couldn’t tolerate any adult touching her. Balance help her, she still couldn’t with anyone else but Yanaba. But here at our temple, she started to come out of her shell, and we all had Nathan to thank for that.

And to the girl, a sightless woman wasn’t a threat.

Yanaba pushed back her cowl. “Thank you for your assistance, Ming Wei.”

The girl bowed even though the younger justice couldn’t see her. “You’re welcome, Lady Justice. Please summon me when you are finished.” She shot me an impish grin and darted out of the room, closing the door behind her. With Yanaba and I meeting, Ming Wei and Nathan would have some time to play.

The younger justice twitched in her chair. “I apologize for speaking out of turn—”

“Stop.” I resisted the urge to hold up a hand as those with normal sight would do. I’d picked up too many bad habits once I’d accidentally given myself vision.Of a sort.

“This talk isn’t a dressing down about your insubordination on the street earlier.” I picked up the teapot Nathan had brought before Yanaba had arrived and poured her a cup. “With everything happening over the last month, we haven’t had a chance for a frank conversation between the two of us. And I did promise to inform you of the results of my meeting with the magistrate and High Brother Luc.”

“A-all right,” she said as I pressed the cup into her hands. She took a sip and grimaced.

I suppressed the urge to laugh at her expression. “And to start, when were you planning to tell me you hate Jing black tea?”

Her jaw fell open. “H-how—you didn’t probe my thoughts.”

“I didn’t have to.” I sat and watched her reaction.

A wry expression ameliorated her disgust with my choice of teas. “I apologize, Chief Justice. I keep forgetting you can see.”

“That doesn’t necessarily mean I pay attention to everything I should.” I took the cup from her hands before I poured contents from the second pot into a fresh cup. “I think you’ll like this better.”

She took a sip and smiled. “Rose hip. My favorite. Thank you.”

“This brings me to the first issue we need to discuss. Honesty.”

Shock marred her features. “You think because I didn’t state my tea preference to you I am untrustworthy?”

I laughed. “No. That was simply manners. Something our staff reminds me I’m sorely lacking.” I took a long swallow from the cup with the black tea to sooth my own discomfort. “I want us to truthspell each other while we have this conversation.”

Yanaba’s stillness reminded me of rabbit unsure if a predator had spotted her yet. Finally, she released the breath she held. “You fear I may have fooled the Reverend Mother and I may be a renegade priestess.”

“Are you saying the same thought hasn’t crossed your mind about me?”

She choked off her aborted laugh. “When the Reverend Mother first briefed me about my assignment to Orrin, yes. Now…” She stared at nothing before she added, “I think you’re far too troublesome for the renegades to want to recruit. Are you sure you want to truthspell me?”

“Yes, but as long as you don’t worry about offending me, it won’t hurt you.”

“You mean like killing the imposter who murdered Brother Mat and impersonated him?”

I sighed. “You heard about that.”

“Except your staff—”

“Our,” I corrected her.

“You didn’t lose our staff’s respect in that incident,” she amended. “Which either means they conspired to commit treason with you or you’re forthright and committed enough to our purpose for them to follow you through the gates of the demons’ realm if you asked.”

I leaned back against my chair at her words. “I pray it never comes to that.”

“As do I, Chief Justice.” She shook her head. Worry sliced lines in her youthful features. “But I fear we may not have a choice.”

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