Wednesday, November 22, 2017

A Modicum of Truth - Chapter 6

My truthspell session with Yanaba, as emotionally uncomfortable as it was, relieved both of our minds that neither of us were part of the conspiracy to destroy the Twelve Temples. I also revealed my meeting with High Brother Talbert.

Unfortunately, Yanaba’s lack of experience meant she could provide no further insights, but at a minimum, she was forewarned the Assassins Guild was still active in Orrin. Part of me prayed the renegades and their allies would follow Luc and me to Tandor and leave the younger priest and priestesses at our temples alone, but I feared the junior clergy would only provide more tempting targets.

When First Evening bells rang, I put aside the paper work I had been reviewing. Talbert’s warning continued to bother me. I was still wondering how to give the Reverend Mother adequate information without revealing too much to possible traitors. The entire process gave me a headache.

Stretching my cramped fingers, I headed for the courtroom. Since it was the largest room in our temple, it was also the most convenient place to have a nearly full staff meeting.

Or full staff meeting, I realized as I quickly counted heads.

Two tables had been shoved together. Wardens were placing benches around them while Sivan and Deborah directed the rest of the household staff in the placement of eating utensils, steaming bowls, and hot platters. Ming Wei watched over Justice Yanaba and kept her out of the way.

“Isn’t anyone guarding our gates?” I asked to no one in particular.

Hogarth shuffled closer to me in order to be heard over the din. “Gina made deals with some of the wardens from Love and a couple of the Wilding priests. People she trusts to watch our backs. They’re protecting our walls for the next couple of candlemarks.”

The Wildlings I understood. “Love?”

Hogarth shrugged. “You don’t think Dragonfly and the rest of them girls didn’t truthspell the demon out of their new wardens. Plus the priestesses owe you and Gina more than a few favors for getting them out of that mess they were in.”

Such cooperation reassured me that we made some progress in repairing the relationships between the Temples in Orrin. Yet, I could help but notice everyone, not just the wardens, were armed. Even our two squires and the kitchen girl had knife sheaths on their belts.

Their concerns plus the wardens’ confrontation with me this morning made my next decision a little easier. “I’ll ward the room as an extra precaution.”

Hogarth nodded. “That would be best.”

I reached for my shoulder and pulled my sword from its back sheath.

And every one in the courtroom immediately drew their weapons, too.

Everyone except Hogarth. Even Yanaba’s blade was in her hands.

“Do I need to throw a bucket of cold water of all of you?” I snapped. Most of their faces gleamed scarlet.

Yanaba shrugged and sheathed her sword. “You cannot fault the wardens and staff for their uneasiness, Chief Justice.”

“What was your excuse, Justice?” I asked as I headed for the basalt statue of our goddess.

“I heard you draw your sword,” she said primly. “In my scant time assigned to Orrin, I’ve learned you rarely do so without a threat present.”

My glare had no effect on her since she couldn’t see it. However, the rest of the wardens and staff stowed their weapons amid stifled snickers. Nor did I want to destroy the good humor by pointing out we haven’t had any capital cases since the chaos Gerd and the Assassins Guild had caused.

I turned to our cook. “Deborah, do you have everything you need from the kitchen before I ward the room?”

The residual snickers cut off abruptly. I hated ruining their moment of levity, even if it were at my expense, but I also wasn’t taking any unnecessary chances with their lives. A demon would make short work of those wardens and priests watching our walls right now. And even as fast as my people had armed themselves, one or two would die before any of us registered one of those bastards in the room.

“No, m’lady,” Deborah said.

I knelt before the statute of Balance and sucked in a deep breath. The one helpful thing Penelope had done during her tenure was to place a padded kneeler at the base. The ancient invocation rolled off my tongue. Yanaba and the staff responded at the appropriate places of the prayer/spell.

I rose, and holding my sword perpendicular to the floor, I strode clockwise along the circuit of the room. Once again, I detected a presence at my shoulder, one I’d felt since the Reverend Mother sentenced me to the Orrin seat. While it would be comforting to believe Balance herself had taken a direct interest in the happenings of the city, I wasn’t that much of a fool.

Maybe it was one of my predecessors. Not Penelope because she hadn’t given much of a shit when she was alive. The more likely choice was Justice Thalia, who’d died protecting Orrin from pirates. But that was only wishful thinking on my part since I’d learned she was my maternal grandmother.

I brushed aside the wayward thoughts and concentrated on the spell. Residual power from centuries of my predecessors rose out of the stones and melded with mine as I circled the room. When I return to the statue, I slid my sword between her clasped hands. The wards settled into walls, floor and ceiling of the huge chamber. No intruder would enter without my permission.

The energy pulsing in the stone made the courtroom feel far warmer than a hundred braziers ever could in winter. I removed my harness, gloves and outer cloak and placed them on the podium seat before I took my place at the head of the table.

I held up my goblet. “Thank Child for her bounty, and thank Mother for gifting Deborah the skills to make everything edible in the dead of winter. Let us eat.”

That impromptu grace brought the humor back to the room. Once everyone had taken their fill, I raised my goblet to Little Bear. “You asked for this meeting, Chief Warden. Why don’t you begin?”

His face turned a bright orange-red as he cleared his throat. “I’m speaking on behalf of the entire staff of Balance. Are you being permanently transferred to Tandor?”

Is that what they were worried about? I shook my head. “No, definitely not.”

“Then why is Justice Yanaba here?” Leilani blurted. The junior clerk immediately slapped her hands over her mouth. Thanks to the residual effects of our earlier truthspell, Yanaba’s emotions rose above the others. She was more amused than angered by Leilani’s indiscrete words.

I held up my own hand. “This is one time where temple decorum will be dropped. Everyone needs to know what’s happening because all our lives depend on it. I want you to present your concerns.” I turned to Yanaba. “Would you care to answer our junior clerk’s question, Yanaba?”

She sipped her wine before she began. “The Reverend Mother sent me here for several reasons, chief among them was to see if my presence would ferret out further conspirators while Anthea is investigating the Balance Temple in Tandor.”

“But why?” Tyra asked. “All our evidence points to their Temple of Light’s involvement, not Balance.”

“The Reverend Mother has noticed the similar discrepancies in Justice Elizabeth’s reports that were in Penelope’s prior to her death,” I said.

“B-b-but—” Donella sounded like she was having an attack of nerves. Probably because she’s the one who’d handled the bulk of Penelope’s duties when the justice had become too senile to perform them.

“You’re not in trouble, Donella,” I said. “You informed the Reverend Mother of Penelope’s condition.” I couldn’t help grinning. “Frankly, you, Sivan, and Little Bear were doing a better job of running the temple than your justice, which was why the Reverend Mother let the situation slide until she could find a way to force me to take the seat. So, to rest your minds, I’m not leaving Orrin anytime soon.”

“That leads to the other main reason I’m here,” Yanaba added. “If, Balance forbid, something has happened to Elizabeth, I’ll be sent south to Tandor once Anthea is satisfied with my performance.” She lifted her goblet again. “That’s assuming our Chief Justice fails to get herself killed during the audit.”

More snickers rounded the table. If the teasing kept the staff at ease given the dire circumstances we faced, the least I could do is graciously accept it.

Little Bear rapped his knuckles on the table. “Which brings us to our next concern, m’ladies. This trip to Tandor. We have no idea what’s really happening down there. Anthea and Luc could be walking into a city already under the thumb of the Assassins Guild or demon dealers.”

A murmur of agreement ran around the table.

“Or both. We are well aware of it,” I said. “But someone needs to find out for sure before a demon army scales our walls on their march north. Given what happened at Love, our own Reverend Mother refuses to risk more lived than necessary in case Tandor has unknowingly fallen. Nor can the queen risk sending in conventional troops without raising the ire of the nobility.”

I took a gulp of wine before I continued. “The reverend mothers and fathers in Standora made their decision, and I’m going to follow it. They need members of the clergy who they are sure haven’t been compromised.”

“Anthea, I don’t mean to be contrary, and the Twelve know you’re a pain in our collective backsides—” Sivan started.

“Aye,” Deborah muttered.

“—but you need to be here,” Sivan finished. “Whatever’s going on, Orrin’s at the heart of it.”

“Once we know what’s going on with Chief Justice Elizabeth and what the demon High Brother Dav is up to, we’re coming back,” I said, injecting as much reassurance into my voice as I could.

“Which brings us to our final concern,” Little Bear said. “Who is accompanying the two of you?”

I sighed. “If I had my druthers, it would be just me and Luc—”

“That’s unseemly,” Hogarth snapped. “You’re no longer a circuit justice. You’re both temple seats.”

“Thank you for stating the obvious, Reverend Mother,” I said sourly. He glared back at me.

I turned back to Little Bear. “Right now, I can tell you who’s not going. You and Gina are staying here. Yanaba needs the two most experience wardens if something does happen to me.”

A smile twisted my lips. “Gina’s already turned down Love’s request for her transfer to their temple as their new chief warden, for which I thank you more you realize, my dear.”

She bobbed her head in acknowledgment even as her face turned scarlet.

I leaned forward. “By the same token, Yanaba has requested you as her new chief warden if we discover the temple in Tandor has been thoroughly compromised.”

Gina’s attention flitted between me and Yanaba. “I-I don’t know what to say.”

The younger justice smiled. “You don’t have to answer just yet. While I hope my planning becomes a moot point, I wanted to be ready in case. Anthea has already stated she won’t give up Little Bear because she spent too much time training Sivan, and they are a package deal.”

The assembly broke out in laughter, with Sivan muttering some nasty things about my hygiene even though she was smiling.

When the din died down, I said, “Have no doubt, this trip is extremely dangerous. We already lost Aglaia last month. Thief knows the odds of everyone involved in this alleged audit dying are damn high. That’s why I’m asking for one, and only one, volunteer.”

Tyra jumped to her feet. “I’m going.”

The last thing I wanted was to hurt the grieving woman. She and Aglaia had been far closer than I knew before the battle at Love had cost Aglaia her life. “This isn’t a revenge trip, Warden.”

Tyra inclined her head. “I realize that, Justice, but you need someone who understands how both you and High Brother Luc work—”

Muffled banging on the main courtroom doors interrupted her justifications for her inclusion.

“Were we expecting guests tonight?” I muttered wryly.

Sivan chuckled. “Since you took the seat, nearly all guests are unexpected.”

Whoever was at the door tried to enter. While my normal wards had a certain flexibility, the addition of centuries of power would have barred even our brothers and sisters from the Temple of Conflict along with the Issuran army from getting into the courtroom.

With a word and gesture, I dissolved the wards. Farrah, the Wildling second, nearly fell on her face when the door abruptly gave way and she stumbled through.

“Sorry to interrupt, Chief Justice.” Her narrow countenance didn’t look the least bit apologetic. “But Ambassador Quan of Jing demands to see you over a matter of life and death.”

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