Nasira took the first oath on a cloudy afternoon that dulled the brilliance of the grand chapel. Like her handful of peers beside her, like the many who had come before them, and like every soul who had ever sworn any solemn oath, she would not appreciate its true weight until much later.
The first oath of the Order of the Owl was simple.
My allegiance belongs to the Lightbringer alone. I shall bear no offspring. I shall hold no estate. I shall swear fealty to no other. These, I swear, until I am discharged by the Lightbringer, until I resign my duty, or until I am given to the First of the Dead. I swear to the secrecy of these bonds forevermore.
The nervous candidates repeated the Chancellor’s recitation, sentence by sentence. They all had known, one way or another, that they had chosen to undertake a years-long term of training in the hopes of graduating to some sort of severe and permanent dedication of service to Ae, the Lightbringer and the Goddess of Knowledge. Most of them hung on every word of the oath, hoping to find in one of them a clue to the secret duties that awaited them.
All of them noticed the curious paradox: most of the elements of the oath were only in effect until they were discharged or resigned, which made for a strangely toothless oath. A few took note that the oath to secrecy was set apart and could not be rescinded by a mere discharge.
None grasped, that afternoon, the true nature of allegiance.
The candidates needn’t have pried apart the wording of the oath too much, for their formal training began the next morning—after an evening of being shown to their cells and taking mess with the knights and their fellow candidates in the refectory—with an introduction to the purpose of the Order of the Owl. Knight-Prior Yorven explained, pacing solemnly before the arcade, that, 325 years ago, a particularly shrewd Chancellor of the Apostles had been summoned to a tense negotiation with a Veldic lord who sought to be crowned emperor. The chancellor in question, suspecting treachery, organized a personal bodyguard to accompany him. Presenting themselves as unassuming robed monks, the bodyguards foiled a kidnapping attempt by the lord’s retinue. The next chancellor sought a continuation of the practice at their first session of the College, and the apostles found themselves in a bind. They couldn’t bring themselves to deny the chancellor the aegis that his duties evidently warranted, but the military and hierarchic implications were unseemly. The charismatic leader of the anti-bodyguard faction moved to bring the matter before Ae herself, who cut the knot by creating a knightly order bound to herself: the Order of the Owl.
“You were wise to consider this carefully, even reluctantly,” Ae had said to the gathered apostles. “All mortals and institutions are corruptible. But properly carried through, an institution sworn directly to my Word and placed at the College’s disposal should prove more resistant to that corruption. Use it well.”
The Order’s portfolio had inevitably grown. Yorven turned to stand square to his disciples and explained: “any time the success of a College endeavor is in doubt, we may be called upon to dispel those doubts. We shield its agents from violence. We aid in the protection of the vulnerable. We augment the arcane knowledge of the apostles. We join their songs and we speed the spread of our Word.” He paused for effect. “What this means is that we do not fail. Every hour of your day is now dedicated to the College’s success. Your allegiance is to the Lightbringer, and She commands you to protect this College. You will train relentlessly. You will eat and rest as it befits our success. If you doubt your ability to do this, it is to no shame. This order needs sharp swords, but the world beyond needs sturdy hammers and straight levels just as dearly. Think on it. Speak to myself or Knight-Prior Ella if you wish to be relieved of service.”
Nasira distinguished herself from her peers quickly. Six of the dozen candidates resigned—to no shame—after reflecting on the personal ambitions they had, of which the Order explicitly or implicitly forbid pursuit. One broke his leg in equestrian training and was instructed to return to training, if he wished, in two years’ time. Of the remaining five, only Nasira and Pyvin had the Talent for magic, and Nasira was a much quicker study. Pyvin was capable of terrifying feats of pyromancy: Nasira had overheard two of the knights whispering, once, about how they were glad Pyvin had remained in the training, for he could be a great menace if unbonded in the world. But he came by subtler uses of his Talent only slowly and with great time and attention paid.
And so, in her second year of candidacy, Nasira was accorded a great honor afforded to only three students in the history of the Order.
Sweat trickled down Nasira’s forehead and the back of her neck with the final surge and ebb in her soul. Knight-Abbot Way had performed an unusual gambit, offering a thrust of the sword as a feint to obscure a merciless assault on her will. The sharp edge of his Talent crashed forth against her own. Nasira was tired, but not too tired to stand her ground and resist it. Her focus held. His withdrew.
To the class’s surprise, Way fell to his knees, breathing hard.
“Ha. Ha… ha! Ah, nuts.”
He wrestled himself to his feet and gave a salute appropriate to the end of the exercise before collapsing again.
“Abbot, sir, are you all right?” Candidate Othall asked from the edge of the circle.
“Ha. Yes,” Way managed to wheeze out. “Give me a second.”
Curious onlookers had stopped in the arcades to watch. Nasira, remembering where she was, shrugged in a futile effort to adjust her sweat-drenched tunic and returned the salute. She gave him a second, as bidden. As she did, what had just happened began to dawn on her.
“Sir, you just tried to kill me.”
“Haaaah hah,” Way coughed. “No. But the spirit of what you’re saying is…”
Othall was scandalized. “He what? You what? I’m sorry, that can’t be what just happened.”
Pyvin giggled breathlessly. “Like a man trying to fell a bear with a spoon.” Candidates Sera and Juno shared a look.
Way laughed a labored laugh once more, but he was gathering himself up. “Pyvin has the right of it. That was a cruel strike. Would have parted damn near any soul in the Seven Kingdoms from its body, just like that. If only you all knew just how futile it felt aiming even that at her.” He shook his head. “Class dismissed. Spar with each other if you want. I’m spent.”
It had been three hours already and rest was in order, so the candidates busied themselves picking up their training equipment from the garth.
Abbot Way found Nasira carrying the training swords back to the armory.
“Nasira,” he said, just loud enough for anyone to hear. “You need someone stronger than me.”
“There isn’t anyone, if Prior Yorven’s assessments are correct,” Nasira replied. “There are wizards more experienced, warriors with more notches, and Talented with more Talent, but who else like you, sir?” Nasira thought. “Does the northern Emperor have a general so skilled?”
“Possibly. Not what I had in mind, though.”
“Who shall I speak to?”
Nasira froze. And then she thought. Stammering never did anyone any good, Prior Phera would frequently observe.
“I hope the idea isn’t that she’s to try to kill me.”
“Hah, no,” Way said. “Nothing like that. But you need knowledge I cannot provide. Who better than the Goddess of Knowledge to ask it from?” Nasira looked doubtful, so Way pressed on. “She grants few audiences, it’s true. But this is not unheard of. I’m confident she will see fit to tutor you. And you’ll continue to train with us; Pyvin especially benefits from your example.”
“Good. I’ll write the apostles and recommend you.”
Ae’s chapel was smaller than the grand chapel but no less impressive. It was arranged more like a throne room, with pew-like galleries stretching down the flanks and a dais set before three soaring stained glass windows. The windows radiated in the morning sun and the whole chapel was awash in their golden-orange light. No throne topped the dais. Ae sat cross-legged upon the bare marble, wearing a pure white himation edged with royal blue. Her iconic crested helm and spear rested aside, leaning against the wall between two of the stained glass windows.
Nasira was surprised—though as she thought about it, she supposed she shouldn’t have been—to note that Ae’s voice was plain, serene, and unadorned, like a clear lake on a calm day.
“Abbot Way wrote an impressive recommendation for you, Candidate Nasira. Is it all true?”
“I have not read it, Holy Mother.”
“Then I suppose you shall have to tell me if you believe Way is in the habit of lying, no?”
“I do not believe so.” Nasira felt her brow leaden with concern. Why should Ae doubt…?
Nasira felt a shadow pass over her heart and deepen in the corners of the chapel. She tensed, and raised her will against the gathering dread.
The shadows retreated, and Ae smiled enigmatically down from the dais.
“That was rude of me. I hope it does not recast your perceptions of me overmuch.”
Nasira stood, coiled like a spiritual spring.
“You’re testing me, too,” said Nasira. “You want to be sure that I have my wits about me, even in Your presence.”
Anger edged at Nasira’s heart. “Why? Way must have said so. You don’t trust him?”
“Ah,” Ae said, her smile widening. “Of course I trust him and his oath. But I know him. He is a mortal. He has been wrong before. I thought it possible he would pass a candidate through whose raw talent was simply too dazzling for him to assess. I am pleased that is not the case. As well as I am pleased to receive a candidate with the nerve to ask me questions.”
Nasira’s anger began to twist into panic. It must have been obvious, because Ae added, “I mean that sincerely.”
Nasira, though confused and in unfamiliar territory, realized that at least she should stand down. She began to uncoil her will, sinking gently into one of the many breathing exercises she had learned in the last two years. She, again, broke the silence.
“I should like to ask more, then, Holy Mother.”
“Good. I would be disappointed in a knight-candidate who should not. First, however, I wish to know more of your past. Abbot Way informed me, accurately, of your gifts and your discipline, but not of who you are beneath them.”
“Yes, Holy Mother. I am from the Hyng, from a town on the north end of the west shore. For a girl with Talent, I was fortunate to be surrounded by people who showed me great kindness. I was allowed to dabble in it, even to develop it. My family were businesslike folk with the ability to provide for tutors and education for anything I showed an affinity for. Which was a lot of things. It was my Talent I was most interested in, of course.”
“That drew the attention of Westsea Chief Boin. His rule over his domain is… firm, and his affinity for strong warriors is well known. We weren’t sure, but we thought he would conscript me. His honor guard would be a prestigious summons, of course, but Boin is… a greedy man, and a bully. I had distaste for him. My parents did, too.”
Ae continued to listen.
“I was contacted by Knight Uren. I think he had heard of a talented young woman on the west shore and had intended for the meeting to go differently, but I was under a lot of stress and was scrambling for options, so he had to move quickly. It was awkward and neither of us trusted each other much, but he was offering a clear way out and a sympathetic ear, and my family felt he was trustworthy, so I agreed to come with him to the College.”
“You had a choice.” That clear voice again.
“Yes, Holy Mother. At the time I thought Uren was kind and helpful and worth taking a chance on. Now I know that Uren is extremely reliable and professional, and that’s truly what I was seeing reflected.”
“And your oath? That is taking much more than a chance.”
Nasira dithered. It seemed manifestly unwise to lie or dissemble before the goddess, but the truth wasn’t easy to get out.
“I don’t know if I can articulate it. Uren thought I sought freedom from Boin’s compulsions. Maybe that’s a part of it, but I don’t think it’s all. The Order provides so much training. It feels deeply satisfying to be honed, to be skillful, to be powerful. But I never thought to rule, never wanted it. So if I’m to be honed, I’m to be honed as a tool. I suppose I should resent that. But I feel no sadness pledging my fealty. Only eager for the next bout with Pyvin.”
Ae nodded. “I understand.”
“Don’t you, as a matter of course?”
“It is not a given. I do not know all things.”
“… You do not? I have to admit… admit that I don’t understand… you… much, Holy Mother.” Nasira regretted even beginning the sentence, but stumbled through it; the idea of an unfinished admission seemed somehow yet more embarrassing.
“Few do, for while I am no liar, I am very deliberate with my Word. You have taken an oath of secrecy, have you not?”
“Yes, Holy Mother.”
“The Goddess of Light and Knowledge casts shadows. They are dangerous to traverse.”
“Secrets, Holy Mother?”
“Yes. It is important knowledge, carefully stewarded and guarded. You will learn it.”
Despite her spear and helm being several yards over a moment ago, she rose with them in hand now.
“Ready yourself for a bout, candidate.”
The final oath was administered at midnight. One by one, the torches were extinguised. The only remaining light source in the grand chapel was a brazier burning behind Chancellor Pellwyn. The chancellor and her lectern cast a long shadow across the five candidates.
My allegiance belongs to the Lightbringer alone. I shall bear no offspring. I shall hold no estate. I shall swear fealty to no other. My labors are for the Lightbringer and her people. My life is for the Lightbringer and her people. These, I swear until I am given to the First of the Dead. I swear to the secrecy of these bonds forevermore.
The new Knights spoke to each other and their new peers, exchanged thanks and congratulations with their Priors, and retired to their cells shortly thereafter.
Nasira was first assigned to the order’s storied duties at the chancellor’s side some months later. It was a stiflingly hot summer day at the College. The only reprieve to be found was in walking the long, shady arcades, allowing the steady highland breeze to take the edge off of the heat.
That is not what Chancellor Pellwyn was doing. Instead, she was to be found pent up in her office, receiving appointment after appointment from the Librarian, the apostles, and a succession of petitioners. All of them were concerned with one thing: the kidnapping of Lay Brother Fevlan off the coast of East Arc. Fevlan had been aboard the Temerity, a merchant cog returning from the north, when it had been captured by pirates. The pirates had contrived to deliver a note of ransom to Gelfan’s Landing, and the numerous parties to the ransom note had immediately begun fighting over what to do and how to do it. As was often the case, it fell on the College to coordinate and provide formal channels for the vicious bickering.
This was Nasira’s first shift as the chancellor’s shadow. At four minutes to noon, dressed in loose-fitting summer robe befitting the station of an apostle’s aide, she disappeared from her cell, having rendered herself invisible to the human eye using one of the Order’s many arcane techniques. She walked the small, empty back halls of the College and passed through the back wall of the chancellor’s office (another of the secrets of the Order) as the bells tolled noon. She exchanged a salute with Knight Frey, felt rather than seen, and assumed a post behind the chancellor, opposite the office door.
Strictly speaking, the Order of the Owl was not a secret to the apostles, and all of them would be aware that the chancellor was being guarded as such. But the lay petitioners and backwater priests that made their way through that office that day would never have known of Nasira’s watch.
Nasira watched and listened as visitor after visitor offered their perspectives, grievances, complaints, accusations, and outrage to the chancellor. None were of any real threat to the chancellor: their quarrels were mostly with counterparties for whom Pellwyn was serving as an intermediary, and any who persisted in their belligerence would inevitably relent in the face of Pellwyn’s absolute determination. Besides assessing each new visitor for their demeanor, attire, and physical attributes, Nasira’s duties compelled no action. She spent most of the afternoon listening as Pellwyn received her visitors’ mounting anxieties and reiterated her position: King Renault of East Arc had given authority over the rescue over to his kingdom’s Body of Merchants (a quarrelsome, power-hungry voting assembly), and the College would be participating as a claimant. Unfortunately, this meant that the College could not participate as a consultant, a detail that was cause for great, acid debate between Pellwyn and her fellow apostles but was not even brought up with the lay petitioners.
After shooing a merchant (owed money by the Temerity’s owners) from her office, Pellwyn stood to seek a late, late dinner in the refectory. Nasira followed, unseen and unheard until the two were alone in transit.
“Chancellor, your shadow. Knight Nasira.” the shadow whispered.
Pellwyn pulled up to a halt. “Yes. Your first year, correct?”
“My congratulations on your knighting. Something I should know?”
“Yes, Chancellor. I find it unlikely that the courtier from East Arc was telling the truth. The geography of the northeast shore is plenty accommodating for pirate harbors, and the King’s navy is not nearly large enough to have scoured it.”
Pellwyn thought about this for a moment. “So he’s likely been lied to and is accidentally passing on the falsehood to us. At any rate, if the pirates are holding the Temerity in East Arc, then, it becomes a problem for the king right away, and the Body will be out of everyone’s way.”
“Yes. We could send a Knight of the Owl to search the likely locations, Chancellor.”
Pellwyn shook her head. “Hmm. No. Besides the woefully small number of knights available to us, it’s too risky. If the Body catches wind of someone trying to do something about this without their leave, it’ll be six more months before anything can get done and Fevlan is as good as dead. If he hasn’t turned pirate himself already. Wouldn’t blame him.”
Nasira protested. “The Order would do it, and it is very good at secrecy.”
“I know, Knight Nasira. Thank you.”
The dismissal was polite but incontrovertible, and Nasira continued her watch in silence.
Summer and fall passed by. Fevlan had gone pirate and had gotten captured alongside the crew that kidnapped him during a botched raid on a nameless seaside hamlet on the north shore. The Body of Merchants was relieved of its duty, and Fevlan was granted clemency by King Renault at the request of the College. His execution was commuted and he would, instead, spend 10 years laboring for the army of East Arc.
A new obsession gripped the petitioners to the chancellor’s office and the College at large and the rest of the Seven Kingdoms besides. The Seven Kingdoms had become Six.
Chancellor Beca Pellwyn frowned at the letter atop the pile. Her secretary, a sharp young man with a stylish sweep of blond hair that set off gaily against his robes, frowned, too.
“Cut with a thick but sharp blade. Warrior’s implement of some sort, I’d say,” Tormen said. He gestured at the wax seal and the turned up edges of the cut down its center.
“I see,” replied the chancellor. “Nevertheless, they passed it through. Let’s have at it.”
She unfolded the envelope and retrieved from within a letter bearing a matching seal: the Manticore of Duranlach, rampant on an empty field. This seal had not been tampered with.
The Most Reverend Apostles of the College of Ae’s Word,
One week after the date of this letter’s signing, I will order my knight-commander to surrender the garrison at the Rising Stone and receive Emault II and his retinue in the great hall. By then I hope to be escaped by contrivances of my close aides.
I will persecute this war no longer. Emault II will have his rule, I suppose. But I received this crown and this mandate from Ae, Goddess of Knowledge and Protector of our Realm, and I cannot in good conscience abdicate those. I beseech you for sanctuary. I prostrate myself before the mercy of the Goddess and the good will of those who spread her Word.
The True High King of Duranlach, Tethraz I
Pellwyn scoffed and handed the letter over to Tormen, who began scanning it. “Idiot,” she muttered.
“How do you mean, Chancellor? I see no signs of alteration, by the way.”
“To whom are supposed to we address a reply? By now he’d be gone from Rising Stone. And why would Tethraz not prefer to show up unannounced on our doorstep? It’d be much harder to turn him away like that.”
Tormen thought about that for a second. “There’s no reason for Tethraz to write this at all.”
“And plenty of reasons not to. Poor tidings for your escape plan if you announce it in a letter that then gets intercepted.”
“Emault forged this, then?”
“I think so, yes.”
“I see what you mean by ‘idiot’. But still, idiot or not, why forge this? Why forge it and pass it off as intercepted?”
The chancellor sighed. “Good questions both. A test, presumably. Create this fiction and see how we react. Do we send search parties out over the nearby countryside to seek the wayward king? Do we prepare to hold Tethraz in secret, or offer public sanctuary? Do we open channels with Emault?”
“If we’re right to see through this as a ruse, we have the upper hand, then, right?”
“In a manner. But we have little room to misrepresent ourselves for the purpose. Anything we reply with here will necessarily be something we must commit to publicly.” The chancellor paused for the space of a breath and then continued. “I’ll speak with the librarian first. Then, round up the brothers and sisters of the fifth degree or higher who call Duranlach and Orland home. I want to meet with them in two separate meetings tomorrow afternoon. Get me their senior members in the morning if you can. I think that would be Brother Kedsen and…”
“Brother Uthora, I believe.”
“That sounds right.”
“I’ll begin forthwith.”
Having read the letter and conveyed its suspicious and suspected context, Chancellor Pellywn laid it down on the mahogany table and slid it over the polished, mirror-shine surface.
“One way or another, the siege is over,” she said. “Duranlach’s barons will be swearing their fealty to Emault and her hamlets and villages will honor a new royal family.”
Brother Kedsen of Duranlach fidgeted, looking stopped up like a bottle of sparkling wine.
“I was hoping to know what you thought,” the chancellor pressed.
“Administrative problems,” he mumbled. “The new king’s court won’t like their new clerical peer, Bishop Irthul, so he’ll be gone before the month is out, and then…”
“Oh, come off it,” Pellwyn said. “You’re acting like that’s your problem.”
“Is it… not?”
“No. It’s mine. Something else is bothering you. Best be out with it.”
“Oh, fine. Emault’s an ass. A big, imperious ass. It pains me to see him get what he wants. And you’re going to want to give him more of it.”
Pellwyn rapped her fingers on the table. “I won’t argue that. This would all be much easier if he’d gotten the pox at camp and called the war off. But here we are.”
“You’re going to recognize his claim, aren’t you?”
“We can’t dance around the issue forever, brother. We could waffle for a few months, but you said it yourself; the man’s an ass and he won’t forget the insult. We can recognize his claim and get on with our lives, or we can renounce it and have sixty-three academies in Duranlach and Orland expropriated of their assets. And possibly of their people.”
Brother Kedsen’s lips pursed. “He wouldn’t dare, would he?”
“You tell me. Would you roll those dice?”
Kedsen rose to the question, finding a sudden boldness. “Without hesitating, sister. We spread the word and we defy those who would silence us. Should we shrink from the challenge because of a little risk?”
“I can’t ask those priests and lay people to… what? Go to war for us? Preposterous.”
“You can. They—we—invested you with that power. You swore to command. They swore to join you in Ae’s mission. We tell Emault that this adventure was a monstrous mistake and that he should restore the kingdom. He is enervated by the siege, surely. It won’t even come to blows—he knows he’ll have to come to the table.”
Pellywn leaned her elbows on the table and steepled her fingers. “You know as well as I do that if Tethraz’s army couldn’t deter him, a couple dozen scribes scribbling angry letters won’t get him to recant his claim.”
“So, what? You mean to surrender the principle of just rule?”
“No. Let me propose an alteration to your plan, then. We force him to the table with our denunciation and the threat of raising our military resources, whatever they are, to ‘protect’ our academies. A bluff, but it should do. We concede that he is the ruler of Duranlach, now; it is in our nature to seek the truth of things and we see little reason to deny the plain truth. But we force him to abandon that ludicrous legal justification for the conquest.”
Kedsen looked uncomfortable. “I feel like I have walked into a trap. Have you been leading me to this? Did you have this in mind before I walked in?”
“No, brother. Your points on the justice of the matter are well merited and you have been persuasive. But I see no future where we can force Emault back from his new realm unless the kings of East Arc or Anteianum suddenly develop an immense zeal for the matter to be resolved according to this justice. So, I propose a solution to resolve those truths.
“Besides, if Emault backs off from the legal claim, it severely weakens any justification he might have to meddle with the bishopric or the ecclesiastical circuiting.”
“Ah. A concrete benefit you seek, not mere righteousness,” said Kedsen.
“Don’t be surly about it, brother. You have won the argument; until today I have personally thought it quite dangerous to challenge Emault at all. And I believe the Orlanders will be amenable to this, too.”
Brother Kedsen shifted in his seat. “I hadn’t considered… how can you say that? I guess I assumed we would have to out-persuade and outvote them.”
“I spoke with Brother Uthora earlier. Uthora feels the moral pinch Emault has put him in and finds himself wishing for an opportunity to make a rebuke. This might be just it.”
“And with Uthora… well, he commands a lot of respect in the Hall, doesn’t he?”
“Yes. Think about it. If I can count on your support for this, the College can present a united front.”
“I will. Thank you, Chancellor.”
After Kedsen had bowed and left, Tormen whistled. “That was underhanded, Chancellor.”
“I know. When is Uthora scheduled to arrive?”
Erefar eyed the lumpy sack of gold with affected suspicion, and then he turned his gaze up to face the solicitor.
“Half up front, of course,” stammered the man. He was rail-thin and a few inches shorter than Erefar, wearing a sharp brocade tunic and hose. His hands, now pushing the sack forward, weren’t callused with labor, but they were deft and gnarled as befitted a scribe.
“You’re new here, right?” said Erefar.
The man bit his lip, casting his gaze about the otherwise empty hospital quarters. The next room over was one of the major wards, and even now, the low din of its bustle could be heard in this room. “Well… what’s your rate?”
“Dirty Jack told you about me, didn’t he? I can imagine that bastard choking down a laugh now. Take the gold back, my friend. I don’t have any use for gold.”
“An assassin… with… no use for gold?”
“No use whatsoever. My name is Erefar. I prefer not to think of myself as an assassin. I practice self-control of the body, mind, and soul, in the service of Ae. Of course, the art of violence can be both a focus for training and a tool in that service. And that’s where my reputation precedes me.” He pushed the sack back toward the man. “And I’ve taken a vow of poverty. Take back your gold, friend.”
The little man took the gold back off the table, looking more worried than ever.
“Now,” said Erefar, “you have need of my skills. It sounds like you need someone dead. And Jack, bastard or no, might just have sent you to me because your cause is a just one.”
The man cleared his throat, puffed out his chest slightly, and took his chances. “The Chancellor of the College of Apostles is leading us astray. She is an evil influence on the apostles and the College and the world will be better for her defeat.”
There was a thick silence between the two men. Finally, Erefar broke it with a whistle.
“Quite the charge. You must be Brother…?”
“Call me Galvin, please.”
“But you are.”
“That’s neither here nor there.”
Erefar sighed. “Fine. You can be evasive about that, but don’t you dare mislead me about what we’re getting into.”
“We? Do you… are you going to ask me to help?”
“On the contrary, you’re asking me to help, which is to say, you understand your part in this already. Are you sure about this, Galvin?”
“You are to be an accomplice to a killing. That is quite illegal. And it is not something the just do lightly, if they do it at all.”
“This is justice. I know it without a doubt.”
“Then let’s get started.”
Erefar established “Galvin’s” good faith over the next several weeks, repeatedly inviting the cagey brother back to the back room of the hospital where Erefar gave his alms. There, they began by going over the evidence for Chancellor Beca Pellwyn’s corruption and her evil intent.
The corruption was easy. A careful examination of the College’s records, particularly within the chancellor’s office, revealed a pattern of glossed over details, sketchy credentials, abridged processes, and missing justification documents. Each of these was deniable or traceable to some particular exigency, but taken together the pattern of patronage appointments was crystal clear. Pellwyn was treating the office of the chancellor as a well of resources to be drawn on and allocated according to her whims, not as the sacred duty that it was.
That was a worthy case for recall by the voting body but hardly rationale for a murder. But Galvin claimed to know that Pellwyn was going to forfeit the moral authority of the College for a political convenience.
To support this charge, he presented a letter, signed by the newly ousted High King Tethraz, announcing his intention to escape and seek sanctuary at the College.
“Why in the Worlds Above and Below would he ever write a letter like this?”
“That was my thought, too,” said Galvin. “It must be a forgery. But I have it on good word that she’s been meeting with Brother Uthora, the senior member of the Orlander delegation. His younger sister-by-blood has a position as an undersecretary in her office; he’s in her pocket. I think she means to give over the Duranlach parishes to the Orland circuit, and she’s working through Brother Uthora to communicate this to the chaplain and relevant prelates. She wants to make this a fait accompli before even…”
“Hold on, Galvin. That is a great deal of supposition for a forged letter and a single meeting.”
“It’s so obvious, Erefar. Pellwyn cares nothing for the conquered and wronged; can’t you see? Emault is power, and she wishes to be allied with power despite the command of the Word. I wish I could convey how naked this all is.”
“You need to convince me. This is on my conscience, not just yours.”
“If only you knew these people…” Galvin trailed off.
Erefar let that sink in for a moment, before replying, “And why shouldn’t I know them?” He looked up at Galvin with a knowing smile.
Nasira willed her force into the world in a great torrent, and she wove it amongst the cords of power that lay taut but still around her.
The immensity of her will was, itself, a marvel. There were only two dozen in the world, perhaps three dozen, known to the Order to have the Talent to match it. But to join it with such intricacy and precision was beyond any of them.
And still, the test Ae had put before her was more than she could manage.
With her channels of determination scored into the world, over and under, around and between the ley lines of the Halls, she flared her hands and pulled with her soul. The world shuddered under the weight of her will, sagged, and bent. Books tumbled from bookshelves and then whole aisles of them crashed to the ground, splintering and shattering in a roar of wood and leather binding.
And then all was silent. She had reached the very threshold of the act, but Nasira had not reformed this section of Ae’s library to her will. Ae looked on thoughtfully.
“Rest, Knight Nasira.”
Nasira resisted the urge to collapse, and instead she sat, trembling, amidst the wreckage of the library, in a manner more befitting her dignity as a knight of the Order of the Owl. She breathed, simply and with intent, until she no longer shook with the effort.
“I failed to summon enough will. The exertion is near my limit but not in excess. If I can memorize the patterns more deeply I may have more focus to spare and succeed.”
“I agree. Apply yourself to the study as you have time.”
As Nasira continued to recover, the endless aisles of bookshelves began to repair and right themselves. The creaking and shifting was much softer than the destruction, but the effect of many hundreds stretching off into the distance all mending themselves in kind accumulated into an insistent rumble.
Every time Nasira trained with the Lightbringer, they would end with an exercise to test Nasira’s limits. She would fail, every time. But every time, the test would be harder than the last, and Nasira would be just as close to succeeding.
“Do you have ambitions, Nasira?”
Nasira remained still, thinking. It was an unusual question, and it wasn’t often that the goddess addressed her without her title. Was that a message? She took extra time to be sure of the rightness of her answer.
“None precluded by my oath of fealty, Holy Mother.”
“I see. You see how unusual that is, I should think.”
“Yes, Holy Mother. The world is full of stories of hubris. Hubris is an easy trap to fall into when one has means to feed it.”
Ae chuckled. Nasira had always thought Ae’s sly, sure laugh was somehow incongruous with her divine grace. “And hubris is the only reason one might have ambitions?”
“No, I suppose.”
“No indeed. Care to try again?”
Nasira searched within. “I tell myself that, about the hubris. It’s true but only a small part of the truth. The truth… is that I haven’t thought about it much.”
Ae listened as Nasira thought.
“I have been happy. I find satisfaction in these exercises. Deep satisfaction. In the knowledge. In the practice. The service is gratifying and edifying, yes, but I will admit that the practice is what drives me. With my heart and mind filled thus, I had not thought of the oath as limiting.” Nasira felt her brow furrowing.
“You see, now?”
“Yes, I think.” Nasira took a deep breath. “My loyalty has never been challenged. Should I ever tire or grow frustrated—should learning be not enough—or should some other matter assert its importance… But I made an oath, didn’t I?”
“Yes, you did. But we are not fools, are we? Boredom and frustration are dangerous poisons to the body, mind, and soul, and you cannot simply wish them away.”
“I will not break my oath, Holy Mother.” Nasira didn’t know what else to say.
“Think, Knight Nasira. Your resolve—or stubbornness, as it were—is formidable and appreciated. But think on it. The time may come. It seems inevitable that a woman of such singular skill will feel the need to turn her back on service and duty to leave her mark on the world. I hope that by our efforts we can avoid that.”
“I will think on it, Holy Mother.”
Pellwyn stood from her stool and examined the new length of tapestry. It was a good beginning. Its shining elements set perfectly off the stately deep blue field, lent a textured vibrancy by interwoven greys and lavenders. So far, her execution had been flawless.
She shook the stiffness out of her ankles and freed her wiry, silvering hair from its pins. In just a few minutes, as expected, there came a knock at the door to her residence.
Sister Tethys, an apostle of the fourth degree, entered. Tethys was neither the seniormost Duranlachian apostle, nor the highest in academic attainment, nor the most beloved. But she was sufficiently senior, sufficiently credentialed, and sufficiently respected, and on top of it all, she possessed considerable personal charisma and unmatched political talent.
She was the voice that the chancellor needed.
“Beca! It looks splendid.”
“It’s wonderful to see you, Philla. And thank you.”
They embraced and sat for evening tea, making small talk about Pellwyn’s weaving techniques and chosen subject (the Vigil of Saint Yorven). Tethys teased Pellwyn for choosing, as usual, an obscure event referenced by a single source and not often studied by young apostles. Pellwyn ribbed Tethys for being right, but nonetheless having done that reading herself.
“You are good at it,” Pellwyn continued. “Source interrogation. If you just put together the patience for cataloguing, note-taking, and cross-referencing…”
“Yeah, yeah. I’d attain the fifth or sixth degree without any trouble. You know that’s not my ambition, Beca.”
“It could help. And you wouldn’t need to rely on that pretty smile of yours lasting forever.”
“Oh, I won’t have to.” Tethys flashed that pretty smile. “I’ll just have to get where I’m going before it turns bad, won’t I?”
Pellywn snorted. “If you say so. It might end up being my fault.”
“I thought something might be up tonight. Won’t you clue me in?”
“Hah. Don’t won’t you clue me in me, Philla.”
“Okay. Emault is my new king. You want to know how I feel about it?”
“I do so ever like knowing things.”
“Well,” Philla stroked her chin thoughtfully. “Personally it isn’t much of an object to me. My parents and sisters will pay their taxes to the Baron of Efschaz as usual, he’ll pay the king’s cut to a new king, and here I am here. Unless the new king is particularly sensitive about the loyalties of his far-flung subjects and calls me to court to take an oath. There was a king who did that in the early league days, you know.”
Pellwyn laughed. “And look who can do even the most dreadfully boring records searches when it suddenly becomes very important.”
“You have me there. Point being, I have yet to discover a way it should excite action or comment from me.”
“Which is convenient for the both of us, isn’t it?”
“Why, yes, it is.”
Pellwyn leaned forward in her chair, resting her elbows on her knees. “Emault knows he can apply a lot of pressure through our parishes and their properties, now throughout his two realms. He’ll want us to lend him as much legal legitimacy as he can squeeze from us. He probably imagines it’ll help him later down the line.
“For now, he’s just testing us. But we need to commit eventually, and sooner is better than later for our purposes here.”
“Has the College a position?”
“Of course not, sister. The apostles have not considered any of Emault’s deeds or correspondence in session.”
“But I’ve spoken with Kedsen and Uthora. Both can be convinced of a particular bit of needle-threading I’ve proposed. We’ll recognize Emault’s rule but get him to agree to never bring up that Gods-forsaken ‘claim to the administration of the Head Waters’ nonsense, upon threat of repudiating it publicly. We have enough leverage to get that out of him.”
“Ah. Not quite a stirring moral stand, but a careful policing of the moral borders.”
“I can be convinced, too, I think.”
“I had thought so. Listen, Philla. This is important and I would be very disappointed if you made me beg for this.”
“I would never!” Philla giggled.
“You would never, of course. At any rate, I’m prepared to recommend you to the librarian as a secretary, or as a procurement director.”
Philla’s giggling strangled. “Procurement director? You want me out of here, don’t you?”
“No, Philla, think about it. The librarian’s office is the most prestigious in the Coll—”
“Second most prestigious.”
“No, the first. The voting body is the source of the College’s prestige, which it confers directly upon the librarian as an agent of the Word. The chancellor is merely a functionary to the voting body.”
“You may believe that, but I don’t.”
“Consider them equals, if you must. And besides, this is a risk already. My office is quite well-staffed and a friendly appointment would be all too easy to spot. The rumors…”
“Damn the rumors. You need my help on this, and I need more than some posting to a dusty library out in wherever the Hell.”
“Forget procurement, then, if the travel is too much an object to you. The secretarial position is excellent.”
“It doesn’t sound particularly… commanding, Beca.”
“It’s the surest way to the top. Half the librarians in the last century came from the ranks of the secretaries to the librarian. I know librarianship sounds dreadful to you, but parley the position correctly and your peers will assume you’re being groomed for it. Move laterally from there.”
Philla tapped her finger on her cheek, calculating.
“You’d be the youngest in the office currently. That’s a statement.”
Philla folded her hands over her lap. “Convince me,” she said.
“We’ll get the examination waived. Or forged. I don’t care. You can keep having tea with me. That’s not for nothing.”
“No, that’s not for nothing.”
“You’ll get my help on the lateral move out. Just give it a year or two.”
Philla lifted her teacup to her lips. “The tea is excellent, isn’t it.”
It had been several years since Erefar had walked the halls of the College, something he had last done at the request of the College itself. Erefar gave alms through his skilled ministrations at the great hospital at Anteianum. While the hospital was formally administered by the King of Anteianum, its proximity to the College meant that it was augmented by a great deal of priestly talent from the College. A lay practitioner whose knowledge of Ae’s healing arts rivaled even the priests had aroused enough interest, and perhaps suspicion, to have him summoned to the College to explain himself.
He had found himself welcome then, his skills determined to be genuine and his character unimpeachable. But now he was an interloper.
The College, as an institution purporting to uphold the Word of the Goddess of Knowledge, prided itself on keeping no secrets. That wasn’t true in the strictest possible sense: the College deliberated business “within the house” frequently, and even if the conclusions drawn and actions taken were transparent and public, the “inner thoughts” of the body of apostles were not always made plain to the world. But the ethos was real, and what it meant now was that Erefar’s mission of infiltration was trivial. All he had to do was arrive at one of the many public libraries, and from there, skulk his way down a hall or two to arrive at the residences, where he stole a robe and passed himself off as Brother Pyth (nobody had asked his name and nobody was likely to, but an alias was a comfort all the same).
He found Brother Uthora in prayer in his chambers, small and unadorned, with the door open to the hall. He loitered for only a moment. He circled around, slowly, being sure to spend some time in empty chambers and side halls to lessen the chance that he passed the same person twice in these tight, stuffy hallways.
This went on for hours. Brother Uthora left for a brief lunch in the refectory, then to a series of meetings on some obscure effort of scholarship he was contributing to, and then to afternoon study. All the while, Erefar maintained the strenuous discipline of not being noticed.
Uthora was beginning to look like a bust until late in the evening. As the orange slowly drained from the evening sky, he gathered with several of his peers directly in the middle of one of the College’s many cloisters, far from the galleries of passerby and eavesdroppers. But Erefar had long ago mastered the art of hearing, and he could make out enough of the ensuing argument from the anonymous distance of the galleries.
“… proposal before the voting body,” Brother Uthora was saying.
“You want… approve?” That was another older Brother whose syrupy accent, slightly thicker than Uthora’s, clearly marked him as a fellow Orlander.
“No!” Another Orlander practically shouted.
“… objections?” Uthora was asking.
“Of course. It’s just wrong.” The voices were getting louder and more distinct. All of them were from Orland.
“And how do you make that out?”
“What sort of academy would we be if we taught the rectitude of conquest?”
Erefar waited, listening as carefully as he could, but the debate had broken out into a verbal scrum. He wasn’t likely to get much more out of it. But already he had something: Brother Uthora was whipping votes for a proposal to the voting body. His fellow Orlanders were divided on the matter: a survey of the group’s stances gave three-to-four against whatever Uthora was suggesting. And the (admittedly hostile) characterization of the proposal as embracing “the rectitude of conquest” was suggestive of Galvin’s worst fears.
Erefar began to worry that his zealous solicitor had been right after all. There was something rotten afoot at the College.
He lurked about the edges of the cloister for a bit until the argument began to exhaust its novelty and the parties began going their separate ways. He chose to tail not Uthora, but another young apostle who had seemed ambivalent about his position in favor of whatever Uthora’s idea had been.
A few days later, “Brother Pyth” took his seat high in the back of the lecture hall for the early morning seminar on ecclesiastical domain and delegation of authority. Brother Chin-Lo was to speak at tremendous length about the three Bishoprics of Anteianum and the history of their legal authority within the old Ivian League. This was, apparently, a matter of great relevance to the College hierarchy today, but how and why was completely lost on Erefar. He thought it more interesting that this steep and stately lecture hall was constructed mostly of elm, benches and desks and stairways alike. Was elm even common in the highland forests? Perhaps in earlier decades…
Erefar scanned the crowd. Among the neatly staggered rows of heads atop robed shoulders, one stood out: wiry gray hair tied back into a bun, held tall above an immaculate white robe. She sat in the second row, near to the entrance, and she was still with studied attention.
Erefar noted the unremarkable colleagues sitting beside and around her, and he returned to his waiting.
As promised by the syllabus, Chin-Lo’s lecture was thorough in the extreme. No source was left unexamined, no interpretive frame unexplored in his investigation of the legal regime of the Old League and what it might imply about the proper organization of the contemporary College of Apostles. At least, as far as Erefar could make out. He thought at first to attempt to follow the carefully organized argument, but his thoughts drifted and drifted, to his duty and to his mark.
He had consulted with Galvin before undertaking this phase of his inquisition: how close could he get to Pellwyn without arousing suspicion? Were her bodyguards likely to notice him in a simple disguise? Did she ever dismiss them? Where might they be stationed?
“You have nothing to worry about,” Galvin had said.
“… Meaning?” Erefar had asked.
“Follow her. Talk to her, for what good it’ll do. She has no bodyguard.”
“You realize how unusual that is, no? A woman so powerful…”
Galvin had fidgeted irritably at that. “You know what the College is like. The strictest adherence to its… strictures. This should be easy; why do I feel like you’re trying to complicate it?”
“No bodyguards,” Erefar had repeated, wondering.
Today’s excursion in the College had borne that out. Not once had Erefar seen anyone follow Pellwyn from place to place, and no sentinels stood watch within or without the rooms she occupied. The closest thing she had to a retinue was her secretary, a bright young Orlander who attended and took the minutes of nearly all of the meetings in her office. Young and healthy though he was, he did not look especially capable of great feats of violence. Indeed, not one of the Brothers or Sisters Erefar saw wore any weapons more dangerous than a whittling knife. This was one of those strictures Galvin had mentioned, apparently.
Erefar remembered how had once been summoned here to prove his good faith before the apostles. What would they have done had Erefar turned truculent, he wondered?
Brother Chin-Lo concluded his sermon, and the crowd of robed bodies began to rise and fill the lecture hall with the shuffle of papers, the thumping of feet on the risers, and the chatter of stimulated disciples.
Pellwyn exchanged a few words with Chin-Lo and left. Erefar, a few minutes later, descended from the risers and followed.
Bodyguard or no, he had to remain discreet: it would not do for an alert bystander to notice someone following the chancellor. Erefar made a point to circle outside through the nearest cloister, taking in the fresh fall wind, the beautiful alpine-scented air that was, Erefar thought, one of Anteianum’s greatest treasures. He wished he could linger in the morning sun for hours. Several young scholars were sharing lunch on the grass even now.
But duty called, and Erefar withdrew to the halls.
He retraced his steps to the lecture hall and, from its closed door, turned left to follow in Pellwyn’s footsteps. From here, he reasoned, if she had taken this hall she must be destined…
“Can I help you, Brother…?”
Erefar had turned the corner directly into Chancellor Pellwyn. He had nearly collided with her, in fact. His mind snapped to his persona.
“Yes, sister. Brother Pyth. I was hoping to find Brother Chin-Lo; I had a question.”
“Ah. I’m afraid I don’t know his schedule. You may try his residence; it’s in the north hall.”
“Thank you, sister. If I may…” Erefar ventured, suddenly curious as to why she was at this lecture. “What did you think of his thesis?”
Pellwyn chuckled. “Chin-Lo is one of the most brilliant scholars to ever conduct a historical analysis.”
Erefar smiled slyly. “That was not a very direct answer, sister.”
“Ah, yes. His analysis is immaculate. But his normative claims simply don’t hold, in my opinion. At the end of it, he is simply deriving an ought from an is.”
“Is it not a matter of scripture, sister?” Given how badly Erefar had followed the lecture, he had no real reason to think it was a matter of scripture, but it seemed a good a guess as any.
“Sure. But the same scripture would have us spread the Word the best we know how.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Put another way: High Bishop Thanalan was a talented individual whose College survived several concurrent crises. The College hierarchy he instituted is now preserved in the Word. But that was over a millennium ago. Anteianum barely even speaks the same language it did in those days.
“Holiest Man in Old Anteianum or not, why should I think he knows better how to manage today’s College than I?”
“I see,” said Erefar. “You were hoping for something more?”
“Perhaps. Regardless, anything so thoroughly explored can be edifying in its own way.”
An admirable attitude, or a polite fiction to cover her arrogance, Erefar wondered? “Of course. Thank you, sister.”
Erefar left in the direction of the north hall but swung back around to the lecture hall yet again. He took the left, again, and found himself in a quiet hall between a small library and a handful of study rooms, currently empty.
By the time he reached the next corner of the hall, he had gone too far—whatever errand Pellwyn had gone about back here, she couldn’t have gone too much farther and still had time to collide with him back at the lecture hall. And yet there was nobody back here.
What could she have been doing?
Erefar doubled back to the library. The door opened with an excruciating creak, announcing his presence to the only occupant, a librarian reading a book in an enormous leather binding at an unadorned desk in the back corner.
“Good afternoon, brother.”
“Good afternoon. Has Sister Pellwyn passed by recently?”
“Why… well, yes, as it happens.”
It was painfully obvious to Erefar’s trained eye: this man had something to hide and had considered lying just now. Such were the benefits of going undercover in institutions like this one: no one was prepared to handle a competent spy.
“I thought so. Shame I missed her; I was trying to borrow a book from her. Do you think she left it here?”
“No, I don’t think so….”
“Oh. I thought for sure… what was she doing here, then?”
The librarian stammered out a nonsensical lie, which was all Erefar could get out of him.
Nasira, from the gloomy corners of the chancellor’s office, watched the crisis of the seven kingdoms play out in miniature.
Pellwyn, now, stood from her seat and leaned onto her table with her knuckles. Her elderly body loomed, stern but not stiff, over the obdurate Duranlachian.
“Sister, do you mean to tell me you would have brothers Gillam and Erwan call their parish militias to arms to be slaughtered by the king’s professional retinues on your behalf?”
“Of course not,” Sister Genea replied primly. “I mean to take up arms as well.”
“A hollow gesture,” said Pellwyn. “You have no numbers to call upon. Join them armed with your stole and your crook and die with them. Is that supposed to make it better?”
Genea’s eyes flashed. “We are armed with our faith, sister. I call upon you to forge your faith into justice: what warrior would surrender a weapon forged of metal that could not corr…”
“I have done the reading, sister,” Pellwyn snapped.
She stood straight and turned to face her bookshelf. Nasira could see the lines of her face drawn tight, her teeth grinding. “You are not under any illusions that this will end with a miracle, are you?” she continued. “A great many people will die, and the College will be banned from both kingdoms. If we are to make the first sortie ourselves, I scarce believe Ae would intervene on our behalf.”
“Then it is as you say, we fight with the tip of our quill. Declare his rule unjust—as it is—and he will soon send his armies to seize church properties. The first strike will be theirs, and…”
“… and Ae will not like such trifling…”
“They’ll commit to violence sooner or la…”
“I will not attempt to fool the Goddess of Knowledge with a manufactured casus belli.”
“So we forfeit justice.”
Pellwyn took a deep breath and released the tension in her face. She turned to face Genea.
“You are a mountain of faith and a formidable rhetorician. Logician, too, I expect. And beyond that, you are good, genuine, and true. But you know your hopes for Ae’s intervention are distant. You know that this is a righteous suicide you propose. I couldn’t stomach to watch that.”
“It’s my sacrifice to make, Chancellor.”
Pellwyn was silent for a time.
Then, she said, “your brother by blood is petitioning the Duke of Estil for clemency, isn’t he? Burglary, I believe.”
The color drained from Genea’s face as realization set in. “I had heard this about you, but…”
“If we go to war I need to be in Estil’s good graces.”
“This is wrong. You’re despicable.”
“You expected the College to co-petition, I know. It’s common but not guaranteed. You’ve been present for sessions where those motions failed.”
“This is corrupt. You’re blackmailing…”
“You’re making an enemy.”
“I would rather have you as an enemy than as a corpse. Do we have an understanding?”
Sister Genea stood and left without replying.
Nasira felt ill.
Moments later, Duke Phinereaux of Chentria arrived. This man, Nasira had heard Pellwyn discussing with her secretary, was a vassal of King Emault, a dignified and well-respected member of his inner circle, and his chosen emissary to the College for the next few months. He had, coincidentally, arrived only a day after the suspicious letter from High King Tethraz.
“It is such a pleasure to be paying a visit to such a fine institution on official business,” he began, twisting at his silver mustache with contentment. “I should hope that…”
“Some nerve you have, Phinereaux.”
The duke was taken aback. “Pardon me?”
“You know your purpose here. Emault’s claim stinks. This fine institution is full of brilliant scholars, and he insulted every last one of them with an offering of garbage.”
“Tell me the meaning of this at once.”
“Have I mentioned the bloodshed? How many good people died at the end of pikes in the last year, do you think?”
“What’s your point, Beca?”
“Give me a good reason I shouldn’t call the faithful to arms.”
The duke’s eyes widened, then narrowed. “You wouldn’t dare,” he hissed. “It would be a slaughter.”
Nasira sensed the clouds of fury gathering. Pellwyn and Phinereaux stared daggers at each other, and Tormen looked aghast.
“A fine slaughter, I’m sure. Do you know how far your levies and cavaliers are from your estate? Your sister’s holding? You had a sterling career in the field; I’m sure you can estimate the length of the forced march and the incurred attrition. Desertions, reprisals from marauders, so on.”
Phinereaux’s hands remained folded neatly in his lap, beneath the comfortable bulge in his belly. Nasira noted that his belt was made to bear a cavalry sword in a scabbard, but today he did not wear it out of respect for the College’s symbolic prohibition of weapons of war. A hunting knife’s handle protruded neatly out of his right boot, which was permitted.
Pellwyn wore no weapons.
“You’re a clever lady, but you can’t expect me to believe you’d send your rabble to murder my family.”
“Of course I wouldn’t. But a holy war, they say, has no commanders and no discipline but truth and zeal.”
Nasira’s eyes panned over the two of them, her heart racing. Was Pellwyn’s threat genuine? More importantly, did Phinereaux think it was genuine? If he did, she would need to be ready for violence at any moment.
Phinereaux began to fidget.
“… Outrageous. Did I come all of this way to be browbeaten?”
“Yes. What else did you have in mind?”
Nasira grasped he haft of her short sword. A sharp, nimble tool, used mostly in formation fighting… but also in brutally close quarters like these.
“I was expecting to admire the erudition of our new subjects, the Duranlachians who study here.”
“I see. And?”
“You see the problem, perhaps. The King did not realize that there was to be a negotiation. Tell him that he will need to do better than that. My apostles are outraged. He needs to win them.”
Phinereaux shot to his feet. Nasira’s veins ran with ice and her muscles coiled for action.
But his hands rose stiffly to his hips, far from the sheathed knife.
“So be it, then,” he muttered before he stomped out.
Nasira relaxed her body and her mind. Pellwyn sat. Tormen still looked a little queasy. “I didn’t expect, when you said ‘threaten’, that we would threaten threaten.”
“Ah,” said Pellwyn, with a sigh. “That was unkind of me to surprise you like that.”
Nasira watched Pellwyn’s face as her eyes scanned the papers on her great desk, probably out of habit. Her expression was unreadable.
“Would you do it?” asked Tormen. “Raise militias to seize castles? Shed more blood?”
“I wouldn’t be doing it. We would be doing it, after a vote.”
“I don’t want to, Tormen. You know that. I’m doing my damndest to keep it from happening.”
“Is that what that was? I know we need the support of the Duranlachians, which means getting concessions from Emault, but this…”
“Every tool at my disposal, brother. Every ounce of leverage. Anything less would be an abdication of my responsibilities.”
“You can’t just wait! You’re stalling,” Galvin moaned.
“If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right, my friend,” Erefar chanted. It was a mantra he had oft repeated to previous solicitors or beneficiaries of his work. “I am not going to deviate from my vows to Ae.”
“I am telling you, your vows to Ae compel you to strike this imposter down!”
“I’m not convinced yet. I would never forgive myself if I did so in error, and I could not ask the Goddess to forgive what I could not.”
“What the Hell else am I supposed to do to convince you?”
“You are sure you have seen no other correspondence or identified any other conspirators?”
Galvin crossed his arms and shook his head. “Nothing. I’ve been looking. All of these meetings happen so quickly and I can’t forsake my own duties just to go snooping in on my colleagues who may or may not be doing anything untoward.”
“I understand. And I agree that something is wrong at the College. But what? What has she done that the Lightbringer should forgive our bloody hands for righting?”
Galvin threw his hands up. “Bah.”
“We have one more opportunity, then. Whatever the legal circumstances of the vote may be, there are sure to be moments of great duress and gravity for the apostles. I may be able to convince one of them to tell me the truth of the situation.”
Galvin sighed irritably. “Are you saying… on the day of the session? You’re cutting it close.”
“I am doing it right.”
The next day, Erefar made yet another appearance in the halls of the College. This time, it was Brother Stefan he tailed.
The small, wiry man who had introduced himself as not-Brother Galvin followed a remarkably similar schedule to Brother Uthora’s. The morning was spent in quiet, fraught contemplation, broken by a lunch and then an afternoon dedicated to the steady scholastic life. Again, the evening proved to hold what Erefar had been looking for: the gathering of the conspiracy.
Brother Stefan had reacted predictably to Erefar’s insinuations that he would strike late. Worried that the deed might be carried out too late or that there might be fallout from an assassination so close to the voting session, Stefan had called together his most trusted colleagues to discuss.
And so he tipped his hand to Erefar that he was not acting alone. He had four associates. All were young, brightly glazed with achievement and love of their craft. Passionate scholars, then, with an affinity for theory. In this case, Erefar supposed, moral theory.
Their discussion today, taking place in Stefan’s own chamber over bread and tea, focused on a very physical, immediate sort of arrangement, however. They supposed that the chancellor might die at the lectern during the voting session. How might they ensure that justice was carried out and not just a random act of violence? Their plan seemed to be to assume that some sort of recess would follow the stroke of death and that they would need to take advantage of it. Stefan would watch for the event and signal the four so as to better be prepared for the outbreak of chaos. Two of them would abscond to the chancellor’s office, scavenging for useful bits of evidence and inventing excuses as necessary. Two would remain with Stefan to help in case the panic in the Hall gave way to some sort of malleable, or at least challengeable, mood.
Erefar considered this himself. Their plan was as fine a plan as a few young conspirators could be expected to produce, but he doubted it would have great effect. They needed his help. Fortunately, he knew how to provide it.
After that, they meandered down what seemed like much more well-worn grooves of thought. How could they best clean house? None of them had the tenure or résumé to compete for any high offices, but they all agreed that they had to lever all of the meager power and authority they could muster anyway. Sister Liliana suggested that they lean on the treasurer to exceed his normal mandate (which was to aid in the continuity between chancellors) and to do a thorough accounting of the chancellor’s office and uncover the stains of corruption within. All of them agreed that the treasurer had thus far been too competent to be a crony himself. Brother Stefan also reminded the group that the librarian’s office would be particularly important, and they should be surreptitiously priming any contacts they had there.
One by one, they filed out, until Brother Stefan was alone. Erefar raised his hood and left the adjacent cell, impressed with the convictions of his solicitor but not yet in possession of the surety he sought.
Nasira arrived in Ae’s chapel and found it empty. She approached the dais, laid her equipment aside, and sat before it in contemplation.
A few minutes later, Ae was present, sitting upon the dais. “Have you thought on it, Knight Nasira?” she asked, as if their prior conversation were but minutes ago.
“Yes, Holy Mother.”
“Have you any new insight?”
“Some, Holy Mother.”
“Care to share?”
“Yes, Holy Mother. The oath may constrain me from the pursuit of justice.”
“My duties are strict and my obligations many. When a matter of right and wrong arises, what shall I do if the execution of my duties precludes giving aid to the cause of righteousness?”
“For one thing, Knight Nasira, you are not all-powerful. The College is a wonderful body of people and your duties in support of them are for the good of the realm. Of course you cannot execute all possible duties for the good of the realm at all times.
“For another, I believe you are being circumspect.”
“… Yes, Holy Mother.”
“Speak freely. Never fear to offer the truth to me, no matter how unbecoming.”
“The matter of Emault’s conquest is vexing. I worry for the response the College might make.”
“What makes this matter so dire?”
“The chancellor’s methods, Holy Mother. She lies and coerces and distorts the voting will of the apostles.”
“Chancellor Pellwyn is a cunning woman.”
“Do you condone her handling of the matter?”
Ae said nothing for a long time.
Nasira, finally, looked up, and she was surprised to see Ae standing upon the dais, clad in steel. Her breastplate, greaves, and gauntlets were polished to a perfect shine, and the horsehair crest of her helm brushed the air with arrogant grace.
“You know the history of your Goddess, Knight Nasira. But your question shows that you have not followed the path to its end.
“I was once Ae, Goddess of Wisdom and Rule. The Ivian League was my work. It was my purpose. I united the warring kings and queens and bent their knees at the throne of justice. Their realms were ruled justly—as just and as right as mortal hands could strive to make under the steady tutelage of the divine.
“But Osi was dull. Parthyia was greedy. Uthien was too trusting and Othard mendacious to match. The Word is imprecise on this bit of history, for it matters little what their particular weaknesses were, and it does little good to damn their names in the annals of history. What matters is that every generation of rulers was mortal, and the end was inevitable. Before its third centennial, the League disintegrated. Even a Goddess could not keep the mortals from their bloody quarrels.
“And so She forsook the mantle of Wisdom and Rule and sought Knowledge as Her new domain. Should She, then, presume to judge those who carry on the burdens of Rule?” Ae turned, fixing an eerie stare on Nasira through the eye-slits of her helm.
Nasira thought about this. “The Word carefully implies that the Goddess of Wisdom and Rule was righteous in her rule, righteous in her abdication, and righteous in her current stewardship. Should I understand this differently? That you have regrets, Holy Mother?”
Ae sighed. “The Word is no lie. My Rule was righteous. And it was a terrible mistake. It was an act of hubris.”
“And you feel it would be hubris to pass judgement on your own chancellor?”
Nasira bent her head back down as in prayer.
“So I must answer this question for myself, then?”
“Yes. What you will do with your own hands and heart must be your decision.”
Nasira thought. “I must suppose that the chancellor’s motives are as she says. She believes her resolution to the crisis is just and must be pursued. She is willing to sacrifice… or impinge somewhat, I suppose she would consider it… the virtues of the College’s voting body and its governing rituals.
“Am I to weigh the Word of the Ae and its precepts for the College against the human wisdom of its ranking member?”
“So it seems.”
Nasira thought for several long, silent minutes. Then she looked up again. “Have you knowledge to share, Holy Mother?”
Ae removed the gallant war helm, smiling, to behold Nasira. “Of course. Rise, Knight Nasira. Come with me.”
Nasira rose left the chapel with Ae.
The Lightbringer’s Chapel, from its perch upon the crest of the highest cliff on Mount Caelias, overlooked the main campus of the College. From here, the scholars of the College could be seen traversing the quadrangles and cloisters of their home far below, carrying on in a slow serenity. Only the vague suggestion of the noise and bustle of their activity was audible beneath the wind. The ancient stronghold at the heart of Anteianum crowned the jagged ridge a mile across, and the bright white-and-orange city sprawled across the saddle of fertile land between them.
Ae stood at the top of the first step, her steel no longer donned, her himation rippling in the highland wind.
“Look, Knight,” she said, half-shouting above the wind. “You see much, yes?”
“Much, but also little. Like the parable of King Atu.”
“Yes,” Ae chuckled. “Come closer, Knight Nasira.”
Nasira obeyed, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the goddess.
“Now,” Ae said, “What you see, you know from your studies, is a matter of… convenience, we may call it. Light from the sun, variously reflected and absorbed and sent to your eyes by the logic of optics. You see flesh, clothes, grass, wood, and stone. This is the sight that the human eye is made for.
“But few know that the human soul is made for sight, too. And a powerful sight it is: it may see what it wishes, not merely what comes to it.”
Ae turned to watch Nasira.
“Knight Nasira, are you ready? This will be a difficult kind of teaching.”
“Yes, Holy Mother. How so?”
“It requires a balance: an open heart and a steel focus, each held in perfect measure. It is rather like balancing with one toe on the tip of a spear.”
“I shall spend much of the next few hours falling, then.”
Ae laughed. “Yes, Knight Nasira. But when you have gained your footing, you will have the greatest knowledge I have to offer: to see the world how it is. You will know what is true so that you may rule yourself according to what is just.”
Chancellor Pellwyn and Tormen agonized over the draft of the letter for the entire hour they had allotted to it. In the end, they had something satisfactory, written in Tormen’s carefully practiced neutral hand:
Your Grace, King Emault II of Orland
The College of Apostles is pleased to learn that the war between your throne and the throne of Duranlach has concluded and that the levies are being released to their harvest and their mourning of their comrades. Peace is becoming of Ae’s realm, and we must honor the price paid for peace.
We have received conflicting reports on the custody and disposition of the High King Tethraz and his son, and we hope that, whatever the circumstances may be, they are resolved swiftly and as amicably as is possible.
The Office of the Chancellor has called the Chaplain of Duranlach to the College for consultation regarding the ministration of the Word in the kingdom as its administration evolves. We invite representatives from your esteemed court to participate in the deliberations that will help define this bold new era.
Yours in the Worship and the Word,
All of the necessary points were laid out: a careful non-congratulation clothed in prim optimism, the “calling” (not “recalling”) of the chaplain attached to the old high king’s court, and the sturdy deniability on the matter of the high king. Referring to the old high king as the high king was a risk; Pellwyn calculated that if Emault determined it to be a slight, the College could save face by claiming not to have known what legal proceedings Emault intended for the investiture of power. The invitation of King Emault’s representatives was awkward and blunt, but they had run out of time.
Pellwyn hoped to find herself writing this letter in her own hand and adding her signature to it later, but first, Sister Tethys would propose it herself, either during the second full session of the College’s voting body or after a recess in the first session.
“Take that to Sister Tethys. I’ve asked her to make this motion on my behalf. Then have your seat. I’m leaving to take my place at the lectern presently.”
“Yes, Chancellor. Will you need notes on the session?”
“Nothing the parliamentarian won’t collect themselves. Enjoy this one. We should witness some passionate debate.”
Tormen hurried down the halls. Sister Tethys was neither in the refectory nor in the cloister where she normally participated in morning rhetoric and oratory seminars. The last place he knew to try was her personal quarters, which he knew were in the northern residence ward but not exactly where.
The halls were empty, the voting members having left the chambers to fill the galleries and non-voting members having taken recess in the refectory, cloisters, or south lawn. It was becoming worryingly difficult to find anyone to ask for directions to Tethys’s quarters.
Until he ran into Erefar.
When Tormen turned the corner, he found himself face-to-face with a stranger wearing the robes of an apostle. He wore no stole and his face was unfamiliar, so there was no placing him. Except for the halo of light that surrounded his body. Joy, love, and faith shone in the air and bound his figure to the firmament, holding it forth for Tormen’s eyes.
For a moment, Tormen was sure he had encountered an angel in the halls of the College.
The flesh and blood of his counterpart were unmistakable, though, so he gathered himself back up. “Who are you?” he asked. “I need help.”
“Brother Tormen, it matters little who I am. You can see with your eyes on whose behalf I am here.”
It was true, he could. That corona of holy energy could not be forged; the blessing of the Goddess was manifest to his eyes.
“I need to find Sister Tethys. But you… need something from me? Sir?”
“Yes. Please, this is important. You know these proceedings are important. Tell me of your errand, that I may witness on behalf of Ae.”
“Am… Are we not doing the right thing? This is important, and I need help doing it, and I don’t understand why…”
Erefar shook his head sadly. “Not all of Ae’s business is carried out in the light of day, you well know. Do you trust the testimony of your eyes, that I am an agent of her will?”
“I… I must. I do.”
“What does your heart tell you about your mission? About the secrets? Is there corruption at work? Is this right and just? Are you confident in that?”
“I will pass the letter on to Sister Tethys as Ae wills it,” spoke Erefar. “Permit my witness, and go on, knowing that your duty to Her is fulfilled.”
After a moment more of hesitation, Tormen handed over the letter.
“Yours in the Word,” Tormen said, before retreating toward the assembly of apostles in the Hall of the League.
Chancellor Pellwyn stood at the lectern on the floor between the two galleries of seated apostles. She lifted the gavel, and she brought it down.
Every set of eyes snapped down to the floor, and the chancellor called the College of Apostles into session.
Pellwyn had requested (practically begged) the parliamentarian to permit her to dispense with the usual prelude, which was a half hour or more of announcements and readings of report abstracts submitted by various committees. In the end, she had convinced the parliamentarian that he didn’t want to have to deal with the nervy apostles debating theological politics with an extra hour of fatigue and frayed tempers. So tonight, she began with the main agenda: first, a reading of the purported letter from Tethraz and a dissemination of copies, and second, a series of submitted motions, each a proposal that the College react this way or that, each to be considered in turn.
The first motion to follow the reading proved to be a strong start. Pellwyn recognized the first voting member on the agenda: a young Orlander, who stood quickly and belted out, “I move that the College issues a circular condemning King Emault II for initiating a conquest of obvious personal ambition, to the detriment of his subjects and other subjects in Ae’s realm, and urging him to return Duranlach to a state of just rule under the high king’s chosen heir.”
He had clearly been practicing that mouthful in the last hour, and the barreling momentum of his oratory seemed somehow comedic. The College thought so, anyway, and there was one audible chuckle and scattered low chatter in the Hall. Pellwyn thought to herself, hopefully, that the voting body was in the mood for a thoughtful debate.
A young sister seated nearby seconded the motion, and debate began.
As Pellwyn continued to recognize speakers and make note of what they stood for and who they were, her shoulders tensed with worry. The cleave through the ranks of the apostles was not the same one that divided the allegiances of Orland from Duranlach and from her rivals. Instead, it was age. Junior apostles lusted for the moral repudiation of Emault. Fresher from their studies, Pellwyn surmised, they must have seen this issue as one of clear moral calculus, an issue the College could simply not sully itself by abdicating. Senior apostles worried more about the College as an institution. Some saw it as a fighting body that must pick its battles with care, and others believed in its proud tradition of being above the petty disputes of mortal pride and greed.
Pellwyn forced her mind into motion, absorbing the gist of the ongoing debate while triangulating her standing within the new terrain. Kedsen’s authority was no longer even half as important as she had hoped. Uthora’s impact was also somewhat diminished. Would Sister Tethys be able to soothe the raging consciences of her young peers alone? Was there any unexpected support they could count on or olive branches they could improvise?
The debate became rancorous, and Pellwyn was greatly displeased to find that the apostles who stood in opposition to the motion didn’t seem to grasp the particular moral zeal that was driving their opponents, and as a result were arguing straight past them. She began to struggle to keep order, her voice rising to a shout to recognize sanctioned debate and her gavel banging ever more desperately to silence the unsanctioned debate.
She was raising her hand to get the attention of the parliamentarian when the assassin fell.
Erefar examined the letter and was convinced.
It lurked between the lines, but it was plain to a careful observer: the chancellor’s preferred solution was a dithering legalistic negotiation with the conquering army. There was no denying the fact that the College would stand aside while armies ransacked villages, butchered levied sons, and besieged starving cities, from this point forevermore.
And then there was the skulduggery at the edges. Why Sister Tethys? Erefar was sure that if he followed up on that he would find an unbecoming appointment or a discreet exchange of value.
That was no way to conduct the Word of Ae.
Erefar left the shreds of the letter in some secretary’s wastebin and made his way to the Hall of the League. Before reaching it, he turned aside to the adjoining cloister, stepped out into the breezy upland afternoon, and scaled the wall, bounding up with each heave of his arms and legs. There was nobody around to witness as he summited the arcade, started up the wall of the Hall of the League, and finally perched himself by one of the small, circular stained glass windows at the crown of the hall.
From here he observed the proceedings for a moment, hoping merely to learn the layout of the room and the location of the people of interest within. Opportunity presented itself readily. Chancellor Pellwyn stood at a lectern on the floor, in the center of the hall laterally and set slightly toward the back. The galleries stood down the sides of the hall, packed with apostles. Stefan watched from high on the far gallery; his conspirators sat down low, near the lectern.
Erefar considered returning to the ground and walking through the front door. No physical protection was present for the target, besides dozens of apostles—mostly scholars by trade and by temperament, distracted by argument and not ready for sudden physical violence. But as the acrimony in the chamber rose in volume, Erefar realized that it would be a simple thing to break this window before him and sneak out onto the beams. So he did. Within moments, he was perched in the darkness within the crown of the high-vaulted Hall of the League.
Now was the time. It was a risk, but Erefar was a holy man. Tormen did not deny it, and neither could the rest of the apostles. He would strike a blow for justice here, and hopefully, with the help of Brother Stefan and his colleagues, the rest of the apostles would see and act on the truth.
He padded across the beam above the chancellor, retrieved the steel he had brought for this task, and set his feet for the leap.
Chancellor Pellwyn stood at the lectern on the floor between the two galleries. Nasira watched from over her left shoulder, observing the scene as the apostles filed in.
The letter from the high king dominated the agenda for a series of full sessions of the College’s voting body. Every apostle of the third degree or higher, wearing the silver stole of duty, was present in the Hall of the League for the first session on a cold afternoon just two days before the beginning of the Feast of the Solstice.
They were energetic and nervous as they took their seats. Some fidgeted in the pews and others chatted animatedly with their colleagues right up until the bang of Pellwyn’s gavel.
Every set of eyes snapped down to the floor, and the chancellor called the College of Apostles into session. Nasira felt seen, even in her customary state of invisibility. Every soul in that room knew she would be there, after all.
She began by listening to the progress of the proposals and the debate. An enthusiastic faction began by calling for the College to repudiate the conquest of naked personal ambition as unbefitting a moral ruler. The College at large seemed to accept the barb in the spirit of vigorous debate, at first, but after a few volleys back and forth, the arguing apostles began to draw battle lines and sharpen tongues. As the sarcasm hardened into insult, Nasira began to lean forward onto the balls of her feet.
The particulars of the conversation fell away into the background as she searched the crowd. She had never seen tensions so high in the Hall of the League. It was an unusually contentious motion that the College was considering, but that was no reason to ignore the instinct and experience that told Nasira to note the animosity. Everywhere she looked, the nervous anxiety had been sanded away to something raw and red.
The chancellor called for order and reprimanded a junior apostle, who sat down huffing. It wasn’t the most serious accusation that had been hurled and everyone knew it, but it fell out of decorum in an obvious way and had provided Pellwyn with the opening. Nasira started scanning faces. Senior members looked glum, pained, and determined. But the junior members, almost every one, were livid.
One junior member sitting in the gallery on the upper left-hand side was nearly trembling. He was a small man, almost swallowed by his robes, with a full head of hair not yet lost to baldness. He didn’t look angry or combative. He did look nervous. His eyes darted to the door. To the floor… here, there. Around the galleries, especially at the front row on the right-hand side of the Hall.
At the chancellor.
Nasira threw back her hood and drew her sword. None would know, unless Pellwyn were listening for the whisper of steel coming free, which she would not be. Nasira thrust her soul through her mind and opened it to the reality of the world.
Nasira, now, employed one of the most difficult types of seeing Ae had taught her: to see into hearts. In the Hall of the League, there was erudition and passion, thought and deliberation on display. Each apostle she saw, shaded with their hopes or their fears, stained by their secrets or imbued with potential, textured and bright like an oil painting in colors vivid beyond imagining.
The small man in the overlarge robes was a knot of fire and light. Hope and self-doubt swirled within a pall of resolve. It didn’t look right. It didn’t have the look of a man contemplating violence.
Nasira, thinking suddenly of Abbot Way’s training, looked at the one place the man hadn’t looked: up.
A robed man perched on a beam, setting his feet for the plunge. He was a bright white light of singular purpose, refracted into a full rainbow of thought and pathos, cut through with a razor-thin, void-black streak of murderous intent.
Directly below him stood Chancellor Pellwyn, granite-gray with age and nuance, speckled and textured with contemplation. She was raising her arm to signal something banal to the parliamentarian.
The contrast was striking: the brilliant light of a talented, driven, blessed being. The thick, murky gray of calculation, secrets, and compromise. The shadow of death.
Nasira gave it no second thought.
A killing spell is difficult. It requires a great deal of power and precision and a robust understanding of the mortal body, mind, and soul. But sometimes it is the only thing that will do. She aimed her will. She drew and focused every ounce of purpose and determination and every feeling of ought that had ever welled up in her heart. As she did this, her mind sized up its target.
Knight Nasira tore the assassin’s soul from his body.
It came free with a sound like a great oak being snapped in half, heard not just in the ears but felt in every heart and throat in the Hall. The man’s body fell limp fifty feet to the ground beside the sword it had held.
Nasira stood, visible and with sword bared, by the chancellor’s side.
Chancellor Pellwyn and Abbot Way argued for nearly an hour in her office that night over how soon the College would resume its voting session. In the end, Way was able to pry a one-day recess out of the chancellor’s steel grip.
“She wants to ride the wave of sympathy,” Way grumbled to the gathered knights in his cell.
“An unbecoming complaint,” said Knight Juno.
“Maybe. But also the truth, and it’s never good to ignore the truth. That said,” Way rumbled on, “we have twenty hours before the session resumes. The chancellor might only be alive because the most formidable knight I have ever sparred with just happened to be on watch. The next time she lives I don’t want it to be just because we got a lucky show of the damn dice.”
“Agreed, but we will post Knight Nasira as her shadow again, no?”
“Perhaps,” said Nasira, her gaze distant. “I have been asked to the Lightbringer’s chapel at dawn.”
“I will inform you promptly if I cannot take watch.”
“Good,” said Way. “Horace, you’ll be on the floor too. Pyvin, you’re backup for Nasira. I trust you two to get the rest you need before tomorrow’s session.”
“Yes, sir.” “Understood.”
“Nasira,” Way barked. Her eyes snapped into focus. “You rest too.”
“No, Abbot. I couldn’t possibly tonight. Let me help.”
Way made a show of sizing her up. “I trust you. I’d be glad to have you help Juno with the questioning.”
Juno seemed to consider this. “After what they all saw in the Hall… maybe I should be the one helping.”
Nasira closed the cell door and turned to face Brother Stefan, who sat on the cot by the wall. The blood drained from Brother Stefan’s face.
“Brothers Stefan and Porta. Sisters Liliana, Mora, and Ilin-to. Have I identified the members of the conspiracy correctly?”
Nasira barely even heard what he said (“no, it wasn’t…”) the lie was so obvious upon his heart.
“You cannot lie to me.”
Stefan quailed into silence.
Nasira paused and thought. Her mind swirled with the potency of the truth, of duty, and of daring. And of the afterimage of this brother’s soul: fire and light.
“Brother Stefan, I am Knight Nasira. I have taken an oath to uphold the Lightbringer’s will and to ensure the success of her scholars. Everything I do, I do for that.”
Nasira let her expression soften the tiniest amount before continuing.
“I want to know why there was an attempt on the chancellor’s life today. I want to understand.”
Stefan gulped. His voice cracked as he forced out, “for justice.”
“How do you mean?”
“For… Orland. For truth and for… right.”
“Brother, explain as if I am to be convinced that it is right.”
Brother Stefan was speechless for a moment, reeling as if the gravity of the room were shifting beneath him.
“Brother, I am not a piece of steel. I am not a headsman nor an axe. I am your sister. Talk to me.”
Brother Stefan rubbed his temples, then the bridge of his nose. Then he sighed—theatrically, Nasira thought—and seemed to slump… and relax.
“It’s simple,” he said. “The chancellor wants us to ratify Emault’s conquest. An act of war, slaughter, and for what? For his own glory. We couldn’t stand by.”
Nasira saw two angles immediately and chose the one that seemed to flatter his convictions. “Ratify? How do you mean?”
“The chancellor… is going to urge the College to treat Emault as if he were the rightful ruler of Duranlach. The College ought to be the keeper of the moral code in these realms. If we don’t condemn the conquest…”
“… who will?”
“And you believe that the chancellor was agitating for this?”
“Yes, it was clear. The hushed meetings. The politicking.”
Nasira frowned. He didn’t even know the half of it: the threats and blackmail, the bluffs, the intimations. And yet…
“Thin evidence for an execution,” she said.
“We… we acted in justice for Orland. The moment was about to pass, and if we failed…”
“So the chancellor’s life was forfeit on shaky confidence, then?”
“Firm confidence. I know in my heart.”
“I can see that. But I see no evidence.”
Brother Stefan sighed. “I don’t see the point of arguing about that. It’s moot.”
“Ah. There are no more attempts in the waiting, then.”
“No. And we’ll be right, you know. She’s going to propose… it. You’ll see.”
“I suppose I shall,” said Nasira, in a tone she hoped suggested humble good spirit. “It might well be sooner rather than later. They return from recess tomorrow.”
Stefan said nothing to this. Nasira pressed the second angle.
“You thought you could not convince them.”
Stefan looked up, appearing surprised. “Of course we couldn’t. You saw that room, didn’t you?”
“With utter clarity. It was full of red-rashed nerves and tumult. You saw something different?”
“The senior members, with all of their prestige. They all came down on the side of…”
“Of rejecting the first motion made.”
“Well, yes…” Stefan’s brow furrowed.
“Do you remember that motion? I do. It was quite fiery. ‘Hasty,’ I think I heard it called.”
Stefan saw the thrust and parried it. “You think they would have been in favor of the same substance but with tamer verbiage? Unlikely.”
“What were your plans for convincing them?”
Stefan’s silence seemed much more sudden this time, like a blow to the gut. He recovered his wits and spilled back forward into it. “It was too late.”
“You do not believe the voting body could be convinced? You believe the prestige and seniority of the more cautious members could not be overcome?”
“No, certainly not. It’s built in to that process. They can wield their seniority, spend it, make their will with it. They would have gotten their way. I have no doubt.”
Nasira could see the doubt upon his heart just as plainly as she could feel it within hers.
Nasira and Juno reported their conclusions to Way: Nasira and Way had identified the six conspirators correctly in the immediate aftermath of the attempt, she had killed the only one practiced in violence in any serious way, and the College and its officers faced no identifiable, specific threats to a reconvention of the voting body. Additionally, Stefan had identified the assassin as Erefar, who might be known to some apostles as an almsgiver who had previously been called to testify before the College on his skills and background. A search of the College’s records would tell them all they could desire to know of him.
Stefan had also filled in the last missing piece of the puzzle: while trying to convince Juno that he and his co-conspirators were absolutely loyal to Ae and the Word, he offered up the tidbit that he had purposefully neglected to inform Erefar about the danger of the Order of the Owl.
Satisfied, Way dismissed her to get some sleep, but as promised, Nasira found she could not. Instead, she went directly to the Lightbringer’s chapel to pray.
“It is just past midnight, Knight Nasira,” Ae’s voice rang from behind her at the chapel entrance. “You are very early.”
“You are early, too, Holy Mother,” she replied. “I thought to pray and think.”
“Did Way not order you to get some sleep?”
“I told him I would not be able to. He trusts me to care for myself.”
Ae chuckled. “That old cavalier. He trusts in his knights when sometimes he should just give them orders.”
“Yes, Holy Mother.”
“Will you pray before me? You are in my chapel, but if you thought to be alone I shall allow you to be so.”
“I will pray before you, Holy Mother.”
Ae, then, was present upon her dais, sitting.
“Abbot Way and my knight-brothers and -sisters have offered me a great deal of commendations.”
“You are troubled by this, I see.”
“None have thought to ask me… if I did the right thing. To kill.”
Ae listened, as she did.
Nasira worked from the ground up. “When I saw the man in the rafters, I had very little time. Obviously it would be too much to expect me to conduct an internal trial, to weight the evidence and produce a verdict.
“However, I had many tools at my disposal. Most Talented bodyguards would fall back on fire and force. They injure and intimidate and often kill. Any of the three outcomes are usually acceptable. But there are others. Force can protect. An interposing shield could have diverted his blows. An adversarial transposition could have placed the assassin’s body miles away from here, harmlessly. Alchemical transmutation in spell form could have reduced the metal on his person to dust.
“But I killed him. When I saw the threat, my reaction was to terminate the threat. The threat happened to be a person.”
Nasira begrudgingly traveled the last few paces to the end of the thought.
“Nothing in me warred against this until later.”
Ae spoke. “Was this in violation of your oath?”
“Of course not, Holy Mother.”
Ae smiled that wily, laughing smile. “If it was not in violation of your oath, what troubles your conscience?”
Nasira stood at the precipice of a dozen distressing thoughts. Each one seemed a long way down. She said nothing.
“You may lay aside the honorifics,” said Ae. “Indeed, please do. We should be free of them this once.”
“Yes,” said Nasira, feeling horribly unbalanced without the “holy mother” to lean on at the end. “I have previously worried that the oath and its duties may prevent me from pursuing higher justice.”
“This seems yet worse. Fulfilling my duties… was that an injustice itself?”
“I have said before: I sit not in judgement.”
Nasira looked up. Had she ever looked her Goddess in the eyes before?
“My years of rule are past,” Ae said. “I have chosen this monasticism so as to bring knowledge to my realm. Here, I pronounce no law, hold no trials.”
“I beg you bring knowledge to me, then. I am lost.”
“So be it. This knowledge I have shared with you before,” Ae said. “Your soul exists apart from your duty. Not only is it not to your dishonor, it is your most vital character, here, now. You are mortal. You are a person. If I wanted a mere weapon to bleed my foes with, I have several to choose from. I happen to be quite fond of this long spear, as you know.”
“Are you trying to cultivate me for something? What does this have to do with Erefar?”
“Cultivate, yes. Not for anything.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You expect a Goddess wants servants and wants her will to be done,” Ae replied. Nasira heard a faint note of irritation. “Is that all I should want?”
“And it is not all you should want. It is what troubles you even now. You killed without hesitation. You upheld your oath. But…?”
“He was a good man,” Nasira said. “His soul was bright with promise.”
“Ah,” said Ae. “You saw Erefar quite clearly, then.”
“Was this a test?”
“Everything is a test, my friend. But no, this is not some sort of contrivance. I have met Erefar, hance my remarks. I was saddened to learn that you had killed him.”
“Forgive me, Holy Mother.”
“I have not asked for your apology, and it is not my forgiveness you need.”
“Fine. But I should have spared him. I should have… anything but a killing spell. Anything.” She ground her teeth in frustration.
“Warriors kill. They may do many things with their skills, but killing is what they learn to do with no hesitation, with no troublesome calculations or restraints. This you have learned from Abbot Way, one of the finest warriors in the Kingdoms. Should you have hesitated to kill? Should you have risked falling short of your duty? Your oath?”
“Yes. I… preserved the integrity of my duty, but cost the world a wonderful soul. The oath… I can afford to risk.”
“Could Beca afford for you to risk your oath?”
Nasira regretted it immediately. “… No. Forgi—”
“As I have said, you need not my forgiveness.”
“I don’t understand,” Nasira nearly shouted. “I killed a good man. Should I not seek for that to be absolved?”
“Perhaps you may. Though again I shall add that, of course, he was about to kill a good woman. Truly, do you want for absolution?”
“Was his cause not just?”
“Was it? I cannot see the future,” said Ae. “Can you?”
And in that moment of fatigue and doubt, Nasira saw her Goddess as clearly as she ever had before. She closed her eyes and took a breath.
“I need not your forgiveness. You give neither judgement nor forgiveness. You give knowledge.”
“And you can only give what knowledge there is to give.”
Ae smiled. “Yes.”
And the knowledge She had to give was this: justice was not something that could be simply known.
But all the same, it had to be made.
The goddess may not have had the knowledge to share with Nasira about whether the chancellor’s plans were the best for the College or whether Erefar could have been subdued safely. But there was much knowledge She did have, and it would not do to leave it unused.
Nasira stood. “I should rest, Holy Mother. I must return to duty in the morning. But I have decided that I should like to ask a favor afterward.”
“I would like to know more about Erefar. Perhaps I can atone. For the both of us.”