The shadows of the city were about to sharpen, and the last fishing vessel was weighing anchor in the distance when a grey-cowled figure emerged from the fog of the expired night. The acolyte halted at the gate of Palace Drusia. A yawning watchman, summoned by the bell, gave a perfunctory inspection of the visitor and the document he presented, one of many that he held at his side. Entrance was granted without a word.
The courtyard lay silent and empty, and the acolyte took his position near the middle, standing there like a statue to proclaim his arrival. His presence was eventually brought to the attention of another of the same order, who then descended down from the guest quarters and made her exit to the court. They unhooded themselves as a kind of greeting, revealing young and gaunt dragonborn faces.
“He is awake. The fees have been settled. Nothing else to report,” said the woman who had come from inside.
“Good,” the other stated and pondered for a moment whether there was anything else to discuss. There was not, so they parted ways, he towards the door that was held ajar by a servant, she to the gate.
A comment about the misty weather or some such morning topic would have broken the uncomfortable silence, but the servant maid at the door dared not open her mouth. She must have already become accustomed to the reticent demeanour that the grey robe entailed. They ascended a wide staircase and came into a corridor illuminated by candles in simple golden fixtures.
“There, sir,” she said, pointing to one of the doors. It was marked by an amulet hanging from the handle.
A slight inclination of the man’s head sent the maid away. At the door he pocketed the heavy chain bearing the torch-with-hilt pendant, and thinking that the rattle so caused was as good as a knock, he entered.
The person inside rose from his writing desk but was gestured to sit down.
“I am acolyte Prax. I have been appointed your water bearer.”
“Dulkan,” responded the tenant of the room. He appeared slightly nervous and pale.
“Yes, I know.” The acolyte dropped his papers on the table and selected a particular scroll, which he began to cite. “Dulkan Kiln. Son of Uratha Kiln, Lord of Kolmhaag. Identity verified with documents of adoption, no signet ring. Confesses the murder of a guard on the tenth of Sunburst in the Kiln residence in Duskport. No accusations raised by the master of the household. Subject requests, first, formal court procedure in accordance with temple law and, second, the right to the Ordeal of Iron and Fire. Signed two days ago, on the third of Reaping.”
The speaker did not wait for an interjection. “I have done the necessary investigations regarding the case, though it is not usually within my purview. The victim’s name was Grev, son of Greshk. You requested this information also, I was told.”
Dulkan turned to the text he had been writing and completed a blank space with the name.
Prax took note of it. “A written account is not binding without your seal. A judicator shall take an oral confession.”
“Oh, I understand that,” Dulkan said. “This is merely something personal. I do not expect any favours.”
“Good. You shall receive none as the Pandects cannot be amended.” Prax studied his client with a long look. “You have fasted for a day and a night?”
“I have, on water, excepting the draught prepared by the other one, Zella. That was yesterday.”
The acolyte then picked up a black book from the table. “You have studied the catechism? The language is not too abstruse for you?”
“I have perused the relevant pages, yes, and memorized the formula. The style is quite clear, actually.”
“Indeed. Ashanti’s word requires no exegesis. And you understand the principle of virtuous endurance? And the conditions of honourable and dishonourable termination of the ordeal?”
“Yes, I think so. And I do not suffer from any physical ailments that would affect the matter. I am ready.”
Prax paused to evaluate the answer and the tone of its utterance. “Very well. In that case I can recommend that you should be put to the ordeal. All arrangements for the proceedings have been made, and another party has offered to cover the fees, which — apart from wergild — amount to one thousand silver wings.”
Dulkan could not suppress a cough-like exclamation. “I have powerful friends, it seems,” he muttered to himself.
The acolyte put the book down, letting its metal clasps make their noise. “Cast aside any pride you might feel over your associates and their material influence. Know that the ordeal is one of our most fundamental sacraments, and when you undertake it, you bow before the Divine Dominator alone. So turn your thoughts inward and humble yourself, if you wish to pass.”
Dulkan ruminated on the words with a furrowed brow. “And if I pass, I will go in peace?”
“Subject, this is what you must understand,” Prax began. “The incandescent power of Ashanti can reveal the truth of what you are. Ask no more. If you seek absolution, you must turn to the Lord of Kolmhaag. If you seek validation for your act, search your own conscience.”
The city was already welling with people when Dulkan and his escort joined the throng on foot. The mist had cleared, but the streets were now pulsing with unusually knotty veins of traffic, so the dust raised in their wake made the scene almost as clouded as it had been at dawn. Something momentous had taken place. Everyone could feel it.
As they came to Destrier’s Walk, Dulkan felt grateful there had been no chains, and that no armed guards had been ordered to hold him by the elbows. Thus he was spared the suspicious looks and pointing fingers. Face after face ignored him since he was dressed quite plainly and carried no weapons. None had an inkling that here walked the very man who had sunken his steel in the Baron’s heart only a few days before. And yet he was now being taken to the temple of Ashanti over the death of someone whose renown, or notoriety, was even smaller than his own. The irony might have been worth a grin, but not for Dulkan himself, and not on that day.
Turning to the sunlit Long Shadow Street they were suddenly showered with flower petals: two elf girls were singing and dancing and throwing around their floral confetti from wicker baskets. Dulkan brushed off a few from his hair, while Prax somehow managed to avoid the indignifying adornments entirely. Further on they came across a clique of human children who were kicking a ball along and chanting something of their own devising. It was a rather morbid couplet: “Red dragon dead, Baron got no head.” They repeated the rhyme expressionless and innocent. Dulkan watched intently as they skipped by, but he could not decide what to think of the little ones and their game.
Borel, the decapitator, had ran off to spill ale in the seaside taverns, his old haunts, or so Dulkan guessed. The barbarian would turn up eventually. Carric had approached Lady Yagasha, attempting to gain admittance to the Marram libraries; Dulkan had not seen the sorcerer since the third of Reaping. Althaea was naturally preoccupied with negotiations, but she was aware of the penitent’s plans and had taken the time to write a compassionate and encouraging letter despite all her entanglements. Dulkan’s thoughts then turned to all the other Duskport acquaintances. He desperately wanted to avoid any encounters.
Fortunately, Scales Avenue was clogged by the colourful coaches of wealthy families. The two pedestrians could slip through without attracting anyone’s attention. Dulkan overheard talk, both excited and anxious, of new mercantile ventures, speculative opportunities, fears of looting and unrest, and of how “everything was about to collapse”. In front of a grand portico, spanning the width of the street, rows of wagons were being loaded with crates, cloth-enveloped chandeliers and gilded furniture. And at the crossing of Trade Street were two guard officers arguing, apparently trying to determine who exactly was in charge and whose mandate had been rescinded. Nearby a haggard, drunken bard was contributing to the cacophony, with the belly of a passed out dwarf as his footstool. Both wore the servant attire of house Marram.
At last they came to Sundial Square, where the monumental edifice of Ashanti’s temple covered the northern side. Everything appeared to be in order, and a cavalry company in shimmering plate mail paraded the new flag of Dusk Coast. The event elicited unending cheers from the windows of the surrounding residences.
“We are expected,” Prax pointed out to Dulkan, who lingered at the steps of the temple, unwilling to miss the last glimpse of the parade before it turned out of sight.
The acolyte guided his client through the narthex where a great thurible was swung. They dragged faint swirls of incense in their train as they passed to the nave, a cavernous space flanked with cyclopean colonnades under a dim clerestory. Behind the columns were recesses along the aisles, and Dulkan followed the other towards one of them. He softened his stepping as he became mindful of the irreverent clack of his boots against the massive stone tiles. The sounds, his own and those from unseen origins, reverberated through the vastness of the temple, leaving the air darkly susurrous.
Passing a travel-worn paladin and his squire, they stopped at a wooden balustrade that separated the aisle from the semicircular alcove on the other side. A case was in process: at the foot of a tall bench squirmed a burly human on his knees, his mouth gagged, hands tied, and a pair of guards holding him in place. Silver mirrors and lamps high above reflected light on the shoulders of the accused.
A gruff voice from the shadows was passing sentence: “Five hundred silver wings as compensation to the offended party and six hundred silver wings to the temple for contempt of court, both sums to be paid by the end of Shedding on pain of four days in the stocks. Does the subject have anything else to say?”
“He does not,” responded an acolyte on her clients behalf. The judicator’s mallet struck with sparks, and Dulkan caught a glimpse of the deep-sunken eyes of a dusky brass dragonborn.
The guards dragged the struggling convict out, leaving the clergy to write the necessary records. Before long Dulkan was called. He walked into the shaft of light and kneeled. From his position, the figure crouching above was obscured by the front of his bench, so Dulkan was forced to stare at a parament and the emblem of Ashanti embroidered on it. Prax exchanged scrolls with another acolyte and then came to stand behind Dulkan.
Someone spoke a monotonous litany: “Confessional examination of subject Dulkan Kiln is commenced. Illustrious hierarch Taleon presides as judicator.”
Parchments rustled, and then the gruff voice began its questioning. “Is the subject verily Dulkan Kiln, son of Lord Uratha Kiln?”
“He is,” Prax answered.
“And does the subject acknowledge that, in the absence of any civil litigation against him by the offended party, temple law shall be enforced?”
Dulkan followed the dialogue with some confusion.
The harsh barking continued. “Do you submit yourself to the authority of the Sacred and Most Ancient Law of Ashanti and accept it as absolute and infallible?”
Prax tapped Dulkan on his shoulder. “I do,” the latter answered with a dry throat.
More rustling of parchments. “Now,” began the judicator, “on the tenth of Sunburst of the current year, you committed the murder of one Grev, son of Greshk, who was serving as a guard in a house owned by Lord Uratha Kiln. Secondarily, you eluded arrest and withheld information of your direct involvement in the aforementioned event from temple authorities until the third of Reaping. Do you confess these acts?”
“Was the primary act necessitated by self-defence?”
Dulkan gave some thought to the question, although he knew the answer. “It was not.”
“Was the primary act committed to defend another, or were the circumstances of an extenuating nature in any regard?”
Dulkan hesitated and turned to Prax, who bent down to hear the whispered question. “I thought that my liberty was at risk and that the guard’s intent to take me captive was unjustified, in a moral sense. Do such considerations have any weight?”
Prax shook his head. “Not under temple law.”
Dulkan then replied sullenly: “There were no… extenuating circumstances.”
“And is the subject of sound mind and therefore fully cognizant of the criminality of his act, to wit, the deliberate violation of sections 35, 291 and 292 of the Pandects?”
“He is,” Prax said.
Then a masked cleric dressed in black habiliments came to the kneeling examinee and presented two objects, viced in long tongs as one would handle animal carcasses. Dulkan knew the items well.
“Do you recognize the exhibited articles as the mortiferous implement and its accompanying scabbard?” the judicator asked.
“Do you hold these articles to be unclean and abhorrent in your sight, and therefore do you willingly relinquish possession of them and offer them to be cleansed in flames?”
Again Dulkan felt the tap of Prax’s claw. “I do,” he responded at last. The rapier and scabbard were promptly taken away.
The judicator then rushed on. “The law finds the subject guilty on all accounts. Does the subject demand the right to the Ordeal of Iron and Fire?”
Rustling and creaking. Dulkan could feel the deep-set eyes of his judge peering down at him over the bench, but he could not look to make sure. This lasted for a dozen heartbeats. Or a dozen rapid lashes, as Dulkan imagined them.
“Does the water bearer deem the subject fit for the ordeal?” Taleon’s bark had lost some of its grimness.
“I do,” Prax said, laying his hand on Dulkan’s head.
“It is granted.” Taleon struck his mallet.
I have come.
Dulkan now stood in the hypogeal sanctum where the ritual was to be performed. It was a round room below the temple, coarsely hewn in the rock by unknown hands, a memory of an era lost to written history. At its centre, upon an irregular dais, rested a brazier of bronze spewing white fire and light at the dome. An oculus drained the odourless smoke.
There were two portals into the vault. A trail of wet footprints came from the antechamber where Dulkan had washed himself. Through the opposite entrance arrived six others, all stoic dragonborn. First, three senior hierarchs assumed their watchful positions around the room. Then came Prax, holding in his arms a bowl of water, and once more he took his place behind Dulkan. The fifth was a sacristan bearing the ceremonial brand: a blackened iron rod with a crossguard and a pommel at one end. He approached the fire.
Last came an aged female, short of frame and walking with a stick. Here was the truthseer, as Dulkan knew she was called. He could detect some of that same forbidding quality in her mien as in the others, but there was more to her. Not charm or sympathy, but perhaps a vague note of wisdom beyond the ordinary.
She gave the signal. Dulkan began the rite. “I have come.”
“Where have you come?” the truthseer asked.
“To the presence of the Divine Dominator.”
“What is your name?”
“What do you seek?”
“Where is the truth?”
“In His fire.”
“How are you to take it?”
They walked to the dais. Dulkan stretched out his right arm, palm upwards. The sacristan placed the hilt of the iron rod there and the other end down to the bottom of the brazier. The truthseer clutched Dulkan’s wrist in a firm grip and gazed up into him. The ordeal had begun.
Behold the loyal subject. That is what I am to you, am I not? And you can sense my thoughts, my inner words. So be it. I reveal myself, and seeing you I have a looking glass before me, a mirror of my mind.
Slowly the warmth of the fire was beginning to rise up the iron hilt. It was quite bearable. The truthseer betrayed no emotion.
I have borne pains and faced perils before. You shall see the extent of my commitment. And my courage. Yes. Our age needs champions who have the strength to make sacrifices, and in time our work shall bear fruit to all. Are you not impressed? Outside this temple, this very morning, a new flag was waved. And I was there fighting for it, fighting against the autocratic Baron. Do you see fear in me? You shall not find it.
The truthseer’s expression was passive, waiting. The warmth was intensifying.
Any pain on my hand is merely a sensation of the body. And though a soldier’s body is strong, his will must be stronger. I shall endure and so prove my mettle. Let it come! The heat is a higher judge than any judicator up on his bench, his eyes on the books of dead authors. Do you not agree?
Dulkan took a deep breath.
See? I have the fortitude. Physical suffering, hah! I had to end the life of a guard. One of my own family. A necessary evil. And now I am here. Had I not done so, I would have been taken away. Then I could not have fought the Baron. And yet I feel guilt. Can you see it? Can you see the regret? It burns more painfully than this iron.
The truthseer’s grip tightened.
More? My hand is yours. This sword hand. You wish it burnt? To mark a murderer? No. It has its use. I need it. The future of our domain…
For a moment Dulkan’s could not think clearly. The truthseeker shook his arm, and the hilt shifted its place. Now a reddened band could be seen across the palm where the iron had been. Dulkan pursed his lips.
I could wrench my hand free. You know it. And yet I choose not to. What more do you wish to see? I bow before Ashanti. Is this not it? Then why have I come here? What is the purpose?
The truthseer was now inspecting Dulkan’s face with great keenness and anticipation. She seemed to be conveying something with the intensity of her focus, as if urging Dulkan on.
Dulkan let his thoughts melt into a torrent of fragmentary, wordless conceptions. The night of the tenth, climbing up the wall to the roof. The guard’s threatening stance. Both move their mouths. Must meet Vulkan. Idiot servant. Idiotic orders. Pride. Heart pounding. The sword is drawn. Desperation. Blood drips from the wound. Head feels light. Panic and shame. Vulkan would avert his eyes. Why did it happen?
The ideas grew even more abstract, distilled by the pain into form-defying essences. Uratha. Kolmhaag. Lectures on the Kiln virtues. Polite smiles of the people. Playing children. Acting out scenes from heroic sagas: “Die, traitor!” Must go inside at once. His lordship’s command. Musty tomes in High Dragonic? Rather tales by the fireside. And sparring with Vulkan, wise old friend. Oh, to ride out one day. With Edessa.
Freedom, the Age of Splendour — boy’s daydreams. The fight, the escape — grotesque games. That was all there was to it.
“You have the truth.” She released her grip.
The iron clanked against the brazier edge as it was dropped. Dulkan turned and splashed his tortured, blistered hand into his companion’s receptacle, gasping and groaning, not caring if the ceremonial atmosphere was to be maintained or not. For him it was over, at last.
He turned his palm in the cool water, while Prax eyed him over in silence. Once the searing agony relented sufficiently, Dulkan could open his eyes and observe the acolyte: still stern as ever, and showing no especial concern, and nonetheless something had changed. But was it a change in Prax, or…
Now I know.