“Fear not faith in the unworthy, for to be fooled is shame only on the undeserving.”
– Extract from ‘The Faith of Crowns’, by Sister Salienta
Brother Simon of Gorgeault had been, for near half a bell now, wondering what manner of madness might possibly arouse the leading souls of the House of Light to such actions. His arrest had been impeccably polite, his detainment in the back hall of the Selandine Basilica coming along with a nice wine from one of the lakeside monasteries and what was admittedly the finest roasted quail he could ever remember having. The accompanying plums had been flavoured in the manner of the famous ‘sacred recipe’: dipped in sweet brandy for seven days and seven nights. The name was a delicious little jest for the learned, as it was said that before Arianna Galadon had first founded the House of Light in the west she’d for seven days and seven nights prayed by the shores of the Lake Artoise. A shame that his enjoyment of the meal had been spoiled by the way a pair of armed guards waited by the door, a reminder that any attempt to leave would be tactfully but firmly rebuffed.
Simon was morbidly curious as to whether they’d go as far as striking him, should he insist. Though only a lay brother and so not hallowed by vows, he was not without repute in the House. Looking at the cast of the tanned faces – Arlesites both, and from the resemblance perhaps even kin – he decided that violence was not so improbable. The grandees of the House must have brought hands they were certain of from isolated holdings in Valencis and Orense, where the ancient grants of fortress-monasteries by the Arlesite reales had never been rescinded. It was an open secret among certain circles that orphans were taken in and raise for such purposes, particularly after long winters when desperate families found they had too many mouths to feed. The House of Light might be forbidden by law to field armies, but it was hardly defenceless.
Simon sipped at the potent red in his cup, enjoying the bouquet even as he considered what must now be done. In here he was isolated from his fellows in the Holy Society, which barred him from ascertaining how deeply this conspiracy ran. For this was a conspiracy, there could be no doubt about it. He’d been taken when coming to the basilica for an urgent council with a dear friend, Sister Dominique, whose position in the middle ranks of the Holies meant anything she deemed urgent was very much so indeed. Alas there had been no Dominique awaiting when he arrived, only a handful of apologetic priests and a detachment of guards. Brother Simon wondered if she had betrayed his trust of her own initiative or been ordered to.
Oh, there’d never been any doubt that Dom’s greater loyalty would be the Heavens and their House. That much had been made clear when they’d… parted ways many years year ago, after she’d refused the deeper courtship he sought. I will suffer none to rival Above in my affections, love, not even you, she’d said. He’d believed the friendship to have survive the end of their other tie, but this seemed to be a day of revelations. Simon drank a deeper sip than was strictly proper, wasting the vintage like some Callowan lout. It was the way of the Ebb and the Flow, he consoled himself. It seemed his vigilance as the First Prince’s eye on House affairs had lapsed, for he’d glimpsed no hint of the conspiracy before it struck. The failure stung, more from the consequences of it than his wounded pride.
By now, he thought, that animal Balthazar would have seized Her Highness and a purge of her loyalists would be taking place. None, and the Lycaonese least of all, could be counted on to take the deposition of a Hasenbach withy anything remotely like placidity. The Holies would have sent for the current sitters of the Highest Assembly before making their move, but the cautious among them would have delayed setting out. It might not matter: First Prince Cordelia’s most ardent supporters were all on the northern fronts, leaving only assermentés to speak for them, and there were tricks of procedure to deal with those. If enough of the royalty in the city had turned conspirator, anyhow. An outright majority from the onset was laughably improbable, but even half a dozen princes would be enough for the fence-sitters to believe the conspirators had a chance. Especially with the Silver Letters and the House behind them, and the First Prince kept under watch until she could be formally deposed and perhaps even put to judgement.
Simon’s ponderings were jarred astray when the door between the guards was opened, a woman in pale robes striding through. Age had been kind to Dominique of Blancbriand, tinting her hair more silver than grey and leaving her both straight-backed and lithe. Those grey-green eyes, though, ever smiling? They had not changed at all since he’d first gazed on them when they were both fifteen and Simon still believed his rightful name to be Simone. The lay brother drank again, for it would be a terrible faux pas to let the Principate begin its inevitable spiral into annihilation without being at least slightly drunk.
“Brother Simon,” Sister Dominique greeted him.
Her smile was forced. For being sent here against her will, pretending she had not been the bait in the trap to catch him, or because she was being forced to civility by circumstance? He could not tell. It ought to be interesting to find out.
“Sister Dominique,” he replied, setting down his cup to daintily wipe his lips with the attendant silk cloth. “I am sad to say you’ve missed the quail.”
She looked mildly taken aback. At his lack of open resentment, perhaps? He nearly sniffed in disapproval. If that were the case, she had spent too long speaking with House firebrands. Even if a lay brother, Simon was an Alamans of proper birth. It was to be expected he would walk to even the gallows with a bon mot and splendid indifference, much less suffer a turn of the Ebb with grace.
“I already ate, though I thank you for the courtesy,” Dominique said.
“Ah, but at least let me offer you a cup of wine,” Simon gregariously said. “You there, with the sword.”
As both guards bore such a weapon, there was some degree of confusion until the one to the left gestured at himself hesitantly.
“Indeed,” the spymaster said, “do fetch a cup for Sister Dominique – and make it silver, by the Gods. This is a coup, not a Lycaonese debutante ball.”
He did not bother to speak to the guard any further, knowing that in circumstances such as this one confidence was the key to being obeyed. He invited his old friend to sit across from him, smiling pleasantly as if he were host instead of prisoner. Poorly hiding her bemusement, Dominique sat.
“Why are you…” she began hesitantly.
“It is an Arlesite red,” Simon told her, sounding surprised as he glanced at the bottle by his now-finished plate. “Copper would taint the bouquet.”
It was not what she’d been speaking of, as they both knew, but that was they way to get to someone with the upper hand talking: confusion and blithe refusal to acknowledge they had anything of the sort. Simon’s fascinating summer as a young man with a Lantern lodge in Tartessos had taught him that a gentleman could get away with nearly anything, given sufficient audacity and an amicable bearing.
“You seem in a congenial mood,” Dominique ventured.
Simon smiled and from the corner of his eye saw the guard returning with a silver goblet in hand. The man hesitantly set it on the table, as if he did not know quite how it should be done, and after an awkward half-bow made as if to leave. The lay brother restrained him with a gesture and let out the faintest hint of a sigh.
“My good man,” he said, “Sister Dominique is one of the Holies. Do you intend to make her pour her own wine?”
The guard looked vaguely panicked for a moment, before venturing a no touched by a heavy Tolesian accent. Ah, as he’d thought. Most definitely one of those trusted sword arms from Arlesite lands, likely even a lay brother himself. Proper vows taken would naturally forbid violence, save if given exemption by holy tribunal, but these had only rarely been granted since the Liturgical Wars. The man clumsily poured wine for his old friend, who protested it was unnecessary all the while. The guard looked deeply relieved when Simon dismissed him, further marking himself as a figure of authority.
“I had feared you might be distressed,” Dominique cautiously said, after taking a polite sip from her cup.
“Aggrieved, perhaps,” Simon conceded. “These cloak and dagger theatrics are rather unseemly for servants of the Heavens, though I can understand the necessities involved.”
Something like relief touched her grey-green eyes, and that burned Simon more than all the rest. For it meant she did care for him, after all, at least a little. Yet she’d gone through with it anyway. It would have been better if she were only using their old closeness, he thought. Cleaner.
“I argued for your involvement, Simon, I truly did,” Dominique told him. “I told them that your silence was out of hopelessness, not malfeasance. They might even have listened, had Serigny not argued so strenuously that you were Hasenbach’s creature body and soul.”
“Of course he did, the brute,” the diplomat sighed. “His value would have lessened if you had another among you with close access to her.”
Gaze careful as he spoke, he found no hint of a hesitation before she nodded in acknowledgement. Good. Balthazar the Bastard’s involvement had been a given, since such a great plot could hardly have taken place in Salia without the notice of the Silver Letters, but it was heartening to learn even by implication that the Circle of Thorns was not involved. Louis de Sartrons had no part of this… spasm of lunacy.
“The Silver Letters were too valuable to antagonize by insisting,” Dominique told him, faintly apologetic. “And there were fears he might turn on us if he felt the cause to be in too frail a state.”
Now, it was most unlikely either the Holies or a creature as leery as Serigny would have put treason to act without a patron of sufficient influence. There were only so many of these in Procer, these days, and among those one stood out above all others: Princess Rozala Malanza of Aequitan. She hardly seemed the kind of woman to try her hand at such an affair, but then the most successful of ambitions were often the most skillfully hidden. A prod was in order to see what might yet come tumbling out.
“I imagine he pressed Princess Malanza for a pardon before committing to anything,” Simon idly said. “I’ve never known the Bastard to have faith in anything but favours rendered.”
Dominique looked at him amusedly, nursing her cup.
“Clever Simon,” she said. “Fishing for answers, are we?”
Ah, and yet she did not deny. That was telling, for all she had not outright told.
“I imagine I shall have to resign my position in the Holy Society, after her election,” he mused. “A poor way to end my tenure, but retirement would not be such a terrible thing at my age.”
“It might not have to be so,” Dominique said.
He made his eyes widen in surprise and leaned forward when she invited him to do so.
“We have been corresponding with her for months,” she murmured, “and she’s expressed very devout sentiments. There was talk of restoring the House’s ancient seat in the Highest Assembly, Simon. Not even after the Liturgical Wars was that seriously spoken of, but with the Hidden Horror warring on us Malanza says the Heavens must be brought to the fore once more.”
To Simon’s knowledge Rozala Malanza was no more devout than most Proceran royalty – that was to say, she had Salienta’s tongue and Bastien’s hand – though he rather doubted the Holies had been suddenly convinced of her deep and abiding respect for the House of Light. Of her deep and abiding desire for overthrowing the woman who’d made her mother drink poison, however? That they’d believe, and perhaps simple base hunger for power as well. And in such dark times, well, why would Princess Malanza not restore the House’s long-abolished seat in the Assembly? It was only natural to pay stronger heed to the light of Above when the night grew long. That such a seat would bring the influence of the Holies to heights not seen since the fresh first days of the Assembly must not have weighed on the scales at all, surely.
Brother Simon de Gorgeault had spent most his life serving as a bridge between the royalty of Procer and its priesthood, finding loyalty belonging to neither but instead to a higher calling: peace. He had served, willing, for he saw in the Holy Society a function that would prevent the coming of another three Liturgical Wars. Pride in robes and crowns was an unfortunately common affliction, and a company of men and women with a foot on both shores went a long way in smoothing away conflicts that might otherwise have grown into harsher things. Yet the truth was that Simon had oft leaned more strongly towards the House, as for all its many flaws it served Good more genuinely than any other institution on Calernia. Princes and princesses, even the finest among them, so often chased venality and power at the expense of those they were meant to be the just stewards of.
It was a bitter thing, to be faced with the truth that the House of Light could be just as grasping.
“It would be a grand thing,” Simon breathed out in wonder.
Dominique leaned back, smiling contentedly.
“The seat could not be yours, naturally,” she told him. “Yet you might say I am the foremost candidate for it, and should election confirm me I would find great comfort in the keeping of an advisor knowledgeable in such matters.”
Not the most subtle of offers, though it did have the benefit of both plausibility and political significance.
“I would be honoured,” the lay brother smilingly lied.
They both sipped at their wine.
“It will be different, under First Princess Rozala,” Sister Dominique casually told him. “There’ll be no more of Hasenbach’s heresies and tyranny. Gods, the gall of that woman. She might as well have declared herself queen, stacking the Assembly with her lickspittles and those she bullied into submission. And for what? To make peace with the Arch-heretic if the East and her helper the Carrion Lord.”
“No mortal ruler can overturn the decision of a conclave,” Simon agreed.
In truth he’d wrestled with the First Prince’s decision himself, in private. That Cordelia Hasenbach had grown increasingly ironhanded could not be denied, though he’d always reminded himself that every method she had used to strengthen her influence was legal and with recorded precedent. The peace talks with the Black Queen and the Carrion Lord had been… hard to swallow. Both were infamous Damned who had wrought great suffering on the Principate, and the Queen of Callow in particular had been declared Arch-heretic of the East by a greater conclave. Bargaining with such a monster was to stray from the path the Gods Above had set for their children, undeniably, yet what else was there to be done?
Would the Gods truly prefer the destruction of Procer and all its people to making peace with one of the Damned? Simon could not believe it so. Such a thought reminded him too much of the light gone cold in the eyes of some of the older priests, those who spoke of shepherding needing the stick as well as the kindness and how sparing one was straying from the will of the Gods. There was valour, there was virtue even, in refusing to compromise with Evil even in the face of death. In holding principles above life. Yet Simon de Gorgeault could find no Good in sending millions to their death when it need not be so. It was a poor shepherd that let wolves take the entire flock.
“And this talk of sending priests to the north as if they were soldiers, this demanding the House’s belongings as if they were hers to dispose of,” Dominique continued, tone genuinely angry. “Did you know there are no House holdings in Lycaonese principalities, Simon? All lands belong to the princes and even chapels must pay rent as if they were tenant farmers. That is what Cordelia Hasenbach sought, mark my words. It had to be done.”
“It must have been a difficult decision,” he said, sounding sympathetic.
Her goblet was mostly empty by now, and he poured it full anew without her taking much notice. She’d always been a lightweight.
“Of course not,” she replied. “The will of the Heavens was clear. A choice made in clarity is hardly a choice at all.”
“I can only imagine,” the silver-haired man said.
“There will be no need to stretch your spirit for such,” Dominique teased suddenly learning forward. “I had expected this to be difficult, Simon, but I did your faith disservice. In truth I came to make request of you, before your pleasant hospitality distracted me.”
“Anything, for you,” Simon smiled.
“The Holy Society’s eyes in the city are needed,” Sister Dominique told him. “And they will not acquiesce to lending aid without your word.”
“What shall we seek?” he asked.
“Serigny botched the work,” his old friend said with open aversion. “Hasenbach tricked some of the palace garrison into protecting her and escaped into the city with a handful of soldiers. We need to know with whom she took refuge, but her lackeys have barred their manses to all priesthood. Your fellows, though, will not find all such doors closed to them.”
It was a labour not to close his eyes and breathe out. Oh, Gods grant you allmercy. They’d lost the First Prince. Even if it was truly Rozala Malanza who’d been trading letters with the conspirators all this time then their pardons were now no better than scrap parchment. Nothing less than civil war would topple Cordelia Hasenbach if she was not a kept prisoner, and that left them as the fools who’d tried to execute a coup mere days before foreign armies arrived. If they did not find the First Prince soon, everyone involved in this was as good as dead. Her Highness was no Alamans or Arlesite, to hesitate at chastising priests: she’d hang them all without batting an eye. Serigny, at least, would know that well. And he would not be afraid of turning to great bloodshed if he felt cornered. Something needed to be done.
“Of course,” Simon agreed. “I shall need ink and quill.”
“I’ll have them brought,” Dominique smiled.
“Simpler to walk to a scrivener’s desk, I would think,” he amusedly said. “It would be unseemly to send guards back and forth like fetching boys.”
“I suppose,” Sister Dominique chuckled. “You’ll need to write quite a few letters, besides.”
They rose, and to steel himself Simon drained the last of his cup. He gallantly offered up his arm for his old friend to take and they made for the end of the hall unhurriedly.
“There are some who will need to speak with me in person,” Simon said, sounding pensive. “So it is plain I am not being coerced, you see. Still, given the… ruckus outside an escort would not go amiss.”
“I will send for guards from the cathedral,” she assured him. “Though I’ll need to sit in on such councils, you understand. The Holies would not agree otherwise.”
“It is only natural,” Simon dismissed. “I am not yet trusted.”
Dominique patted his arm approvingly, like one would a dear friend. Or a pet.
“You have always been blessed with an understanding nature, Simon,” she said. “It is one of your greater virtues.”
He made himself look pleased.
“I shall blush if you continue in this vein,” he warned.
A discreet glance ahead told him the guards were only half paying attention to them as they approached. The timing, he thought, would be of some importance.
“Did I ever tell you of the summer I spent in Tartessos?” Simon smiled.
“With the Lanterns?” Dominique said. “Little, in truth.”
She did not sound particularly regretful of that.
“They must have some wisdom to their teachings, I suppose,” she conceded.
I remember when you were hungry, Simon thought. When you burned with a need to read every book, speak with every stranger from a faraway place. When your eyes grew dark for the late nights and you were furious of your body needing to sleep at all. I remember how beautiful the flame that moved you was, Dominique, and I mourn that woman for you are only what’s left of her. Was this what happened, he wondered, when you began to believe there were no more answers left to seek?
“They refused to humour me before I ventured with a band into the Brocelian,” Simon said, almost nostalgic. “It was a rather fascinating experience. I met this woman, you see, by the name of Elvera. And she knew a remarkable trick.”
“Did she,” Sister Dominique patiently smiled.
“Oh yes,” Brother Simon smiled back, gently extricating his arm just as they passed the guards.
This would be his seventy-fourth winter, and it had been much too long since he’d undertaken strenuous exercise. Yet for all that his limbs no longer had the limberness of his youth, utter surprise had wings of its own. His fingers smoothly drew the sword of the guard to his left and he pivoted slightly, ramming the pommel in the other guard’s face. Another pivot and he thrust the point of the sword backwards into the first guard’s throat. Dominique yelled out in surprise, the other guard rocked back in pain and surprise as Simon ripped free the sword only to cut into the back of the survivor’s neck. Messy blow, the lay brothed judged. A killing one, but the death would be more painful than if he’d cut deeper. He left the sword in the corpse and both dropped a heartbeat later. Ah, but the bloodspray had rather marred his robes it seemed.
“It does work better with an axe,” the silver-haired man noted. “She was quite right about that.”
“You madman,” Sister Dominique hissed. “What are you-”
“You were correct,” Simon pleasantly said. “A choice made in clarity is hardly a choice at all.”
Best to make a run for it, Simon de Gorgeault mused as a woman he’d once loved cursed him loudly. Though she’d let it slip that there were so few guards here an escort would require more to be sent for from as far as the cathedral, it was unlikely there would only be two.
Time to see if these old bones still remembered how to run in the face of certain death.