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Jianna’s breathing quickened as her carriage crossed from the squared blocks of the Pilgrims’ road to the rounded street cobbles of the Holy City. The rumble of the wheels across its bumpy surface seemed a poorer, quieter reflection of the tempo of her heart.
She craned her neck demurely, aching to catch a glimpse of the city through the small gaps where the canvas roof of her rude transport joined its rough-cut walls. Spires of polished stone and brightly shining copper bobbed past the cart as it rolled through the vibrant centre of Collectivist faith. Jianna’s grip on the package in her lap loosened as the focus of her attention shifted, and she felt her mouth falling open as she tracked the passing of the city’s innumerable temple spires.
The sound of a chuckle drew her attention back to the transport’s dimly lit interior. The armed man sitting on the bench across from her was grinning, his blood-red teeth reflecting oddly in the scattered light filtering through the carriage walls.
She returned his amusement with a grin of her own. She was too captivated by her wonder to care that she’d played right into his earlier teasing about slack-jawed provincials entering the city for the first time.
Giving up all pretence at dignified disinterest, she placed her package beside her, turned and scrambled to her knees. The elevation of her bench seat brought her up to the nearest gap—and an unimpeded view of the city beyond.
The central avenue blazed like holy fire under the midday sun, reflecting off the burnished roofs of temples and seminaries alike. Each building was adorned with brightly painted marble statues of the many-faced god whose worship was the beating heart of Collectivist belief. Several of these statues stood apart from the others, raised high on plinths erected atop the temple domes, probably to indicate specific worship of those Faces below. She strained to pick the familiar image of her own patron, Runil, from the dozens of statues across the skyline.
They have forgotten.
The cart rocked, upsetting her balance and sending her tumbling backwards. She landed in the armoured mercenary’s lap. Upside down.
‘Kah, girl, I know Renard is good to you and you will miss when he is gone, but throwing yourself to him like this, is not fitting, n’eh?’ The mercenary grinned as he held her, inverted by Jianna’s awkward angle.
Jianna leapt to her feet as though scalded and stammered an apology. Her face burned crimson in the darkness.
Renard laughed and dug into his pocket for another patu leaf, the stimulant which gave the Devil’s Maw mercenaries their name. He popped it in his mouth and chewed it lazily, fresh red juices bubbling between his lips as he wagged a finger at her in mock admonition.
‘Little lady of the cloth not right for Renard. Am sorry. Renard knows he is irresistible; is his curse to bear.’ His grin widened. ‘Am lucky girl not wearing her little package to prick Renard during his gallant rescue.’
Her gaze flicked toward the tightly wrapped bundle still sitting on her bench seat. She hadn’t unwrapped it since she’d left her seminary in Atibal.
He knows. Kill him.
She smiled shakily at the guardsman in response, but he’d already turned his attention to pounding on the front wall of the carriage and loudly haranguing their driver about his skill and parentage. She returned to her seat unnoticed and drew her package back to its customary position—gripped tightly against her chest.
Half an hour later, they arrived at their destination. Jianna alighted from the cart with some difficulty, forced to hitch the skirts of her acolyte’s robes over the splinter-filled edge of the cart. Her foot caught, pitching her forward to land heavily in the muck that coated the city’s streets. She felt mud and manure and all manner of liquid seeping through her clothing to stain her skin.
‘N’es Wah!’ the driver spat, leaping down from his position at the front of the cart to offer her a hand. She took it gratefully, leaning on the bulky mercenary for support as she struggled to rise without losing her grip on her package.
‘So much for the gallantry of the great Renard,’ her driver said as she found her feet. It was his turn to pound on the roughly hewn wall of the carriage. ‘Faithless skunk! What are you doing, making the lady clamber out like a layman?’
‘I’m all right,’ Jianna said, waving away his continued concern. She counted out her final fee to the company and turned to leave. She stopped, then pressed her last coin into the driver’s hand.
‘Here, for Dahlia—get her something nice this time, n’eh?’
The man peered at her with a curious expression, then broke into a wide, patu-stained grin. ‘Old Renard been telling stories about me back there, has he? Come out, you devil, and say goodbye to the lady!’
She gave him a tight smile and, as he lifted the carriage’s canvas flap to shout into the shadowed interior, she stepped away and allowed herself to be swept into the whirlwind of colour and sound which was the city’s crowds.
It was dusk by the time she had navigated the press of humanity and arrived at the steps of her Diocesan office. She stopped to look up at the towering edifice, drawing the ire of the crowd around her as they stumbled into the sudden dam in the street’s flow. She ignored their scowls, lost in her appreciation of the building.
When she’d first come to the seminary in Atibal, she’d feared the storeys above her might fall and crush her during the night. It had seemed impossible that anyone could build something so big.
This building was to the seminary what the seminary had been to her back-alley workhouse.
It soared from the stone promenade before her to the three burnished-copper domes atop its roof. Its entire façade was carved into an ornate frieze which depicted the history of worship and Collectivist conversion across the Western District. Her eyes traced the interweaving designs upwards, following the repeating story of her Diocese—one god rising in prominence and power before being deposed by invaders, and the beliefs they brought with them.
The top level of the frieze depicted the coming of Collectivism, and the modern era. In place of the earlier scenes of destruction, this showed proselytising Collectivists in full excavation mode, unearthing the Truths of the old gods and notarising them for the Collectivist pantheon, where each religion, alive or dead, was known to be True.
Jianna blinked and shook her head. For a moment, she’d thought there was another layer of carvings between the penultimate and final lines; scenes of horror and torture and death, a generation-long purge which had left a Truth buried in ash with nobody to remember and nothing to record.
But as she looked, the shadows of the setting sun continued to stretch between the sculpted lines of the frieze, distorting the imagery and leaving the designs open to many such fanciful misinterpretations.
She returned her gaze to street level and mounted the steps before her, admiring the curves and polished brilliance of the crescent-shaped marble staircase. The reddening sunlight drew out the stone’s natural beauty, and Jianna felt like she was walking on a cloud; ascending from the filth-lined streets into a holy place.
Still caught up in this pleasant haze, she reached the wide pair of burnished bronze doors which marked the building’s entrance. She reached out a hand to caress the intricate embossment across their surface and noticed with concern that the doors had no handles. How would she—
Jianna jumped at the shout from her right, almost dropping her carefully bundled package. She looked across the landing and saw a powerfully built temple guard in full ceremonial regalia; the brilliant sky blue of his gold-rimmed cloak and helmet plume contrasting against the unblemished white paint of his armour. As he strode forward, she noted he’d been standing in an alcove of sorts, designed to have a view of the stairs whilst remaining unseen by passers-by below.
‘What are you doing here, girl? The House isn’t open to . . . people like you.’ The guard appraised her with a critical eye. Even with his face mostly hidden behind his shining white-and-gold-plated helmet, she could see his clear distaste. She hugged her bundle closer to her chest in a pointless attempt to mask her grime-stained robe.
‘Hi! Sorry—hello, sir. Your grace?’ Jianna stammered, searching for the proper way to address the soldier.
‘Guardsman!’ she said, snapping her head up and drawing herself into what she hoped was a noble bearing. ‘I need to—I demand you open these doors and present me to the Archdeacon.’
The guard’s dubious expression metastasised into outright disbelief. ‘You demand? Not even the ordained are permitted entry to the Diocesan House without express invitation, but you, a’—his gaze lingered on the blue cloak she held bundled in front of her as he counted the stripes sewn into it—‘a second year acolyte, you demand I let you in?’
‘Yes,’ Jianna said, inclining her chin and clenching her hands around her package to prevent their shaking. ‘I claim entry under the Rite of Discovery.’
The guard scoffed and shook his head. ‘The Western District is a known province, kid, not some provincial Parish. Nobody’s invoked a Rite of Discovery in over thirty years—there’s nothing left to dig up.’ He turned his head and spat, sending a gobbet of phlegm to mar the polished stone by their feet. Jianna watched the vulgar act, horribly transfixed. In her place, Father Mario would have said that despoiling this marvellous staircase was just as sacrilegious as defecating on an altar.
‘I’m certainly not opening the door for something you’ve glued together out of spit and hope, thinking it’ll get you into the Archdeacon’s favour. Or is it his bed you’re aiming for?’
Jianna tore her gaze away from the glistening gobbet and met the guard’s sneer with the same fire she’d seen in Father Mario’s eyes when he’d spoken about making this journey.
‘This has nothing to do with hope, guardsman,’ she said, hefting the package in front of her. ‘This has to do with Truth. This item was discovered within the very grounds of the Atibal seminary, and completely recontextualises the history of worship at that site. It may even recontextualise Collectivism itself. And nobody, certainly not you, can stand between God and His Truth.’
The guard appeared unimpressed by her rhetoric. ‘If what you’ve got is really that important, then one of your priests would have come. They wouldn’t send some wet-behind-the-ears skirt instead.’
Jianna pursed her lips and took a deep breath. Her palms itched.
‘There were . . . extenuating circumstances,’ she said. ‘Our senior researcher, Father Mario Vilasquez, was going to make the trip but due to a sudden illness he delegated the responsibility to me.’
‘He must have been sick in the head, then,’ the guardsman said with a sniff. He glanced towards the thinning crowd on the city streets below, then back towards his vacant guard’s alcove.
More like the heart.
‘The specifics aren’t important,’ Jianna said. She could feel her growing testiness bleeding into her tone. ‘What matters is that this artefact—’
Jianna stopped, her prepared defense crashing to a sudden stop. ‘What?’
‘Show me,’ the guard repeated. ‘If what you’ve got is so great, let me see it.’
Jianna licked her lips. Her fingers twitched reflexively. ‘I couldn’t . . . this—this is for the Archdeacon’s eyes alone! I can’t just unwrap it on the street!’
The guard shrugged. ‘Then you’re not getting in. Look, you can stand here and talk about Truth all the way to Matins, but it’s just words, isn’t it? If you’ve got something worth a damn, then show me.’ He nodded his head towards the guard station. ‘If I like what I see, I’ll think about letting you in.’ He tipped his head forward and raked his eyes over her once more. ‘Nobody comes up here at night, so if I like it two or three times before the Matins guard change, that could only help your chances.’
Jianna’s breath caught as his meaning became clear. ‘We’d have a while for me to . . . show you, then?’
She clutched her package close to her heart and released the breath she’d been holding.
‘All right,’ she said, stepping forward. ‘Let me show you what I’ve got.’
The guard grinned and stretched his free arm towards the alcove, guiding the way.
Jianna stepped out of the guard’s alcove and smoothed down the gold-lined blue cloak she’d wrapped around her torso, Malinese style. She breathed a sigh of relief at how well it covered the stain from her inelegant exit of the carriage. This was a much more appropriate way to present herself to her Archdeacon.
She took the time to readjust her package so its contents remained fully hidden, then moved towards the inscrutable metal doors.
With the last light of the setting sun, she looked over the design, a finger tapping her lips as if to aid her recollection.
Two down, three across and swivel to the right.
Her hand danced across the door’s embossed surface, sliding sections of the image into new positions like a Tsing puzzle box. She felt a click under her fingers as the new position of the images revealed a tiny opening in the door—a keyhole.
Taking the guard’s key from the folds of her bundle, she inserted it into the hole and turned it to the right. The door creaked open in front of her. She smiled and unhurriedly tucked the key into the folds of the guard’s cloak before stepping into the Diocesan House.
After all, she had hours ahead of her yet.
The inside of the building, although a sight seen by few, far surpassed the grandeur of its exterior.
As the ornate front doors clicked shut behind Jianna, she stood transfixed by the entryway’s opulence. Everywhere she looked, gold and jade reflected the lamplight with stunning beauty. She’d never realised her Diocese was so wealthy—one certainly wouldn’t have known it from the seminary in Atibal. She thought back to the cold stone rooms she’d spent so much time studying and sleeping in. She remembered the hours spent scrubbing soot from the mantles, and the chastisement of Father Mario the time she’d spilled a tray of used candlewax instead of pouring it around a new wick.
Being sent to dig the monastery’s new cesspit; being up to her shoulders in the greasy filth running through the soil from some nearby, forgotten midden, before her shovel had thudded into . . .
She crossed the hall and looked closer at one of the gold-plated frames which rimmed a metre-tall portrait of some long-dead Archdeacon. It dented under the pressure of her thumbnail. The value of this portrait alone could fill her seminary with oil lamps for a decade; could pay the night men to collect a generation of the seminary’s waste; could—
‘Can I help you?’ a dry voice enquired from her left, and Jianna nearly jumped out of her skin. She turned, trying not to look guilty, and found herself meeting the gaze of an ancient priest of Runil.
‘I’m looking for the Archdeacon,’ Jianna said, swallowing back her fright. The priest remained passive, regarding her like a cat might look at a church mouse after already having eaten—is this one worth the effort?
‘I was sent by Father Mario Vilasquez of the seminary in Atibal,’ she elaborated. ‘There’s been a discovery on Diocesan grounds, an important one. It could be a new Truth. Please, I’ve brought it all this way.’ She gestured with her shrouded package and a corner of the wrapping fell away, exposing the glint of metal beneath.
The priest cocked an eyebrow and held out an arthritic hand to receive it. As he did, the shadows of the passage seemed to enlarge around him, as though hugging the true edges of a distorted image.
Jianna pulled her package closer and turned away from the man, tucking the corner of the cloak back around the exposed section of metal. He withdrew his hand with a sigh, and the shadows receded to their original state.
‘Very well,’ he rasped. ‘Follow me, if you please, Daughter . . .?’
‘d’Atibal,’ Jianna admitted with some reluctance. ‘Jianna d’Atibal.’
If the priest thought anything of her parentage, his face didn’t show it. He simply inclined his head and turned to lead her down the corridor.
Jianna followed the ancient, bow-backed man as he shuffled through a dizzying labyrinth of passages and stairways, muttering to himself under his breath as they passed by room after room, and painting after priceless painting. Finally, they came to an overly large set of gilded doors which he creaked open with ponderous effort and ushered her into the most beautiful and terrifying place Jianna had ever been.
The walls of this room were as gaudy with wealth as the hallways had been, but ringed so wide a space that Jianna could make out little detail on the far wall. Even if she could, it was the floor and ceiling that commanded her attention. The vaulted stone rafters soared far out of the reach of the dim lamplight that danced along the sides of the room and glowed on room’s single table. The floor was also beyond Jianna’s sight—the polished black marble mirrored the room so perfectly that it seemed the priest before her was gliding over a void, the swish of his robe joining him to his inverted image. She stepped forward, and her own reflection kept pace below her as her footfalls echoed across the seemingly empty space.
In the centre of the room, where the aged priest of Runil was leading her, Jianna saw a tight knot of robed figures huddled around a comparatively rustic wooden table. The soft rustle of paper and low murmur of voices floated across the polished tile towards her with an air of respectful urgency. As she closed the distance, she saw the telltale colours and designs on their robes which marked them as priests of each of the major Faces of God worshipped throughout the Western District. One of these priests leaned over the table to retrieve some edict and Jianna saw the glint of a flowing, freshly inked signature as the attendant withdrew, blowing gently on the paper. He looked up and saw Jianna and her guide coming towards the table.
The scratching of the Archdeacon’s quill slowed and then stopped as one by one his other attendants turned inquisitive faces towards their unexpected visitors. The Archdeacon himself leaned sideways in his chair, looking around one of the lesser priests to witness the subject of their interest. She stopped and sucked an involuntary breath.
The Archdeacon was far younger than she had expected him to be. Not a single one of the priests at Atibal had been below the age of fifty, having spent years—decades—studying the histories of worship gathered by Collectivism and publishing their insights to earn their ordination. But this man shared neither the sagging nor gauntness of jowls she associated with the clergy, and the trim lines of his close-cropped beard were unspoiled by the colour of age. He couldn’t have been any older than his thirties.
What had taken her most by surprise, though, was the design on the clasp of his robes—a distinct and oddly-shadowed circle within a diamond. It wasn’t associated with any of the Gods which had once existed within the Diocese, as far as Jianna was aware.
But she had seen it before.
‘Hasim? Who is this?’ the Archdeacon asked the priest of Runil.
‘This, your Grace, is Jianna d’Atibal; an acolyte from the seminary of that same city. She, apparently, has uncovered a Truth.’
The Archdeacon raised an eyebrow.
‘A Truth?’ he repeated. ‘In Atibal, you say?’ His focus moved to Jianna’s bundle. She followed his gaze and saw that she’d absently begun to unwrap the package. She whisked the cloth back into place, masking the embossed design that had begun to peek through the wrappings.
‘Leave us,’ the Archdeacon commanded his entourage with a snap. The priests silently gathered their papers and filed past her and Hasim, who showed no inclination of his own to follow his Archdeacon’s command. Several of the younger priests shot vitriolic looks at Jianna as they made their exit, though she noted the more elderly shuffled by as though used to being dismissed in such a perfunctory manner.
The Archdeacon remained still in his seat, leaning his elbows on the table and regarding Jianna over clasped hands, until the click of the great doors latching echoed across the polished floor. Then he leaned back, his rough wooden chair creaking as he repositioned his weight.
‘Well then, Daughter.’ He gestured to the table. ‘Let’s see the Truth you’ve brought to show me.’
Jianna hesitated, her hands tightening around her package once more. She licked her too-dry lips, and the Archdeacon smiled at her kindly—like an indulgent older brother.
‘Don’t worry, Daughter. Whatever you’ve found will remain your discovery. I’m not going to take it from you, if that’s what you’re worried about.’
She took a halting step forward and dropped her package on the table, recoiling from it as though the very act was painful. The Archdeacon watched her with a curious expression, before leaning over and unfolding the cloth Jianna had wound around her prize.
The final weave of her acolyte’s cloak whispered away, and the dagger Jianna had found a little over a week ago glinted dully in the lamplight. In fact, it looked much duller than it should have—as though the light of the well-trimmed lamps that ringed the table were deepening the shadows around the blade, rather than reflecting off it.
Even so, the knife was a thing of beauty.
It was elegant, in a way that made the adornment of the room around them seem absurd, even childish; the overwrought effort of an adolescent who cannot grasp that a thing is not made beautiful simply by adding more to its design. This weapon had been fashioned with true artistry, the pattern of its grip embossed with care and attention to detail, and the flowing script etched into it’s single-sided blade not distracting from its functional purpose.
And its balance, Jianna knew, was second to none.
The Archdeacon reached towards the knife’s pommel, as though to caress the symbol etched there: a circle, within a diamond. He stopped short of touching the dagger and snatched his hand back to rub against the identical symbol on his robe’s clasp instead. He didn’t speak to her as his eyes roved over the artefact, taking it in from every angle and lingering on the etched script that ran along the blade.
Finally, he raised his eyes to Jianna and smiled.
‘Do you drink wine, Daughter? Or should I say, Sister?’
‘No, your Grace. Acolytes aren’t permitted to—’ she began to answer, before the weight of his words hit her. She felt her knees go weak. ‘Sister, your Grace?’
‘Indeed,’ the Archdeacon said. He gestured past her to Hasim, who had somehow procured a silver tray with a bottle of amber liquid and a pair of silver chalices while she’d been focused on the artefact. ‘I think you’ve earned the right to celebrate your imminent ordination, don’t you?’
‘I . . . I don’t know how I can accept, your Grace.’ Jianna stepped forward to grip the edge of the wooden table. Standing suddenly seemed a difficult thing to do.
‘Well then, permit me to offer you a special dispensation on this occasion,’ the Archdeacon said. He stood and retrieved the bottle from Hasim. ‘A Golden Nectar, and from the Shan province, no less! You do spoil us, Hasim.’
The elderly priest bowed his head in acknowledgement as the Archdeacon poured the precious wine into the chalices. He stepped forward and offered one to Jianna, who shook her head.
‘Your Grace, thank you but I couldn’t. Not even the Bishop at Atibal could afford a bottle of—’
‘Please, call me Lawrence. And I insist—it’s traditional.’
Jianna lifted a shaking hand and accepted the cup. She raised it to mirror Archdeacon Lawrence’s toast and took a sip. The wine was sweet and silken as it evaporated on her tongue, and its warm glow suffused her throat the whole way down. The dreamlike quality of the past few minutes intensified a hundredfold as she set the half-full chalice on the table beside her.
He’s going to kill you.
‘So, it’s real, then? A real Truth?’ Jianna asked.
Lawrence nodded. ‘As true as it gets—evidence of a whole new religion, previously unknown to Collectivism, hiding in Atibal of all places! Who knew that backwater slum had anything of value left to offer, eh?’ He chuckled as he tilted his head back, draining his chalice. He peered into the empty cup with an air of disappointment and held it out for Hasim to refill. ‘Once you’ve written your paper on the find, nobody within the Holy See could possibly deny you’re the foremost expert on this lost religion—and expertise is, after all, the only real requirement for ordination.’ He smiled. ‘Believe me, it’s an effective way to skip the traditional route to recognition.’
‘But’—Jianna’s head swam—‘how can you know it’s completely unknown just by looking at it? We had to go through the entire library at the seminary to determine those letters on the blade weren’t in any known language, or describing any known form of worship.’
‘A man doesn’t get to my position without attaining a certain level of knowledge.’ Lawrence smirked as he took another sip of his wine. Jianna noticed his hand drifting to his robe’s clasp as he did so. He licked his lips appreciatively. ‘How many of your clerics undertook this research with you?’
Don’t tell him.
‘Only Father Mario and I,’ Jianna replied. ‘He didn’t want to risk any rumours, especially if the artefact turned out to be nothing special.’
‘No, can’t risk that,’ Lawrence agreed, giving Jianna a knowing look. ‘Besides, it would make it so much harder for him to claim the discovery as his own if everybody knew you were the one who found it, wouldn’t it?’
Jianna felt a chill growing from the pit of her stomach, banishing the wine’s warmth. ‘How did you know he—’
‘It’s not as great a deductive leap as you might think,’ Lawrence said, shaking his head at her amazement. ‘I once had a seventy-three year old priest—seventy-three!—stagger through these doors dragging a stone tablet half his size, which he claimed to have discovered while rappelling down a cliff for bird’s eggs. After a lifetime of researching in obscurity, he thought he’d found his ticket to a bishopric and by every Face of God, he was going to take it. So, what did you do?’ he asked as he returned the chalice to Hasim’s silver tray and walked back around the table. He dropped into his seat with none of the gravitas he’d displayed when the room was full. He even hooked one leg over the arm of his chair.
‘Did you steal—sorry, recover—the artefact from him and creep away in the night? Or did you simply murder him and prise it from his cold, dead hands?’
Kill him. Kill him NOW.
The coldness spread from Jianna’s stomach and crept up her spine. She stepped away from the table and her limbs felt heavy, clumsy as she moved them.
‘What’s happening?’ She asked, panic clawing at her chest. Was it getting difficult to breathe? ‘Why can’t I move? What was in that drink?’
Lawrence regarded her with amusement. ‘Alchohol.’
She leaned forwards and gripped the side of the table with both of her hands. The room’s spinning began to slow. She looked down, but found no anchor in the mirror-polished tile. Only herself, staring back.
She remembered Father Mario’s bloodless face, staring up at her from the bottom of the cesspit.
‘Well, either way you’re here now and we can move on to bigger and greater things,’ Archdeacon Lawrence said, as though he were discussing the weather. ‘Hasim, how long does it take a pigeon to reach Atibal from here?’
‘Less than a day, your Grace.’
‘Excellent. Please draft a letter to Atibal’s bishop expressing my deepest condolences over the tragic loss of life in the fire. Reassure her that the Diocese will commit funds to the rebuilding of the seminary and arrange some temporary priests and research assistants to be sent to the region to minister to her people in the meantime.’
‘Of course,’ Hasim answered. Jianna looked up to see a small frown crease the old priest’s already crumpled brow. ‘May I ask when this fire occurred, your Grace?’
Hasim bowed and turned to leave.
‘Wait,’ Jianna said, drawing herself away from the table. Her reflection teetered unsteadily beneath her. ‘What are you saying? You can’t—’
‘Calm yourself, Sister,’ the Archdeacon said, holding up a placating hand. His other hand drifted to the clasp on his robes. ‘You’ve had rather a lot of wine, and I believe you’re getting confused. I apologise, it’s my fault; I should have encouraged you to drink slower, given your inexperience.’
Jianna’s gaze flicked to the chalice she’d set down on the table. It was empty. Hadn’t she left it half full?
Lawrence stood, reaching a hand across the table. ‘Come,’ he said. ‘Let me show you to a room where you can rest, and we’ll continue our conversation in the morning.’
Don’t let him touch you.
She stepped back and shook her head. ‘You’re going to kill them! Why?’
Lawrence stood with his arm outstretched, regarding her a little too intensely. Then he dropped his hand to the table and traced an idle pattern on its lacquered surface, right next to where the dagger lay. His other hand traced the same pattern across the design on his clasp.
‘We share a rather unique fraternity, you and I,’ he said. ‘And whilst I’m sure you were as careful as you could be with the body, someone from the seminary has undoubtedly noticed that both you and dear Father—Viscantez, was it?—are missing from the grounds. I realise, forgive me, they might not particularly worry about misplacing a bastard acolyte, but you can never be certain when someone might be transferred to another part of the Diocese. I’d hate for them to see you and be reminded of the priest that disappeared at the same time you did.’
‘You don’t know that he’s dead,’ Jianna said.
Lawrence barked a short laugh. ‘A D’Khal artefact doesn’t change ownership lightly.’
She fixed her gaze on Lawrence’s clasp. ‘Who did you have to murder to get yours, then?’ she asked.
He froze, a look of surprise flickering across his face, and for a moment Jianna thought the shadows of the room deepened, drawing towards the knife on the table. In the corner of her eye, she noticed the wine in her cup had returned to its previous level and she felt less giddy, as though the room had been spinning, but had suddenly stopped.
Lawrence rubbed a hand across his eyes and chuckled softly. ‘Of course you can see it. What an idiot. I’d just got so used to . . . never mind,’ he said, shaking his head as though clearing it of a bad thought and gesturing to the knife on the table. ‘It cut you, did it?’
Jianna thought back to the moment she’d pulled the rotting chest from the ground. In her memory, she pictured how the wood had splintered apart in her hands, revealing the glint of metal underneath. How, unthinking, she’d rubbed a thumb along the blade to clear it of the muck.
Lawrence sighed, reading her expression. ‘You’ve bound it to you. What a shame—I was actually looking forward to researching a D’Khal artefact with some company this time around.’
A flicker in the reflection below her was the only warning Jianna got. She dove forward, reaching for the dagger as the supposedly decrepit Hasim swung his silver tray at her from behind. But her movements were groggy, and its edge grazed the side of her head. Purple spots exploded across her vision, and she stumbled into the table instead, knocking it over and tipping the Archdeacon’s papers, inkwell, silver goblet—and Jianna’s D’Khal knife—to the polished stone floor.
‘No!’ Lawrence shouted, leaping for the dagger as it skidded across the room. ‘Don’t let her get it!’
Jianna rolled, and Hasim smashed the silver tray into the tile where her head had been, causing a spiderweb of shadowy cracks to blossom across the floor. She flailed desperately at him as she struggled to rise, but her robes tangled around her. Hasim reached out with a strength and quickness that belied his apparent age and grabbed her roughly by the blue sash she had taken from the guardsman. She thrashed, shrugging off the loosely folded cloak and staggering to her feet as he fell backwards.
She felt a thud in her side and turned to see Lawrence standing to her left with a triumphant snarl curling his lip. She looked down. He’d buried the D’Khal knife up to its hilt in the soft, fleshy part of her abdomen right below her ribcage.
She felt her strength pouring back into her, shredding away the traces of fog from her mind. She clasped her own hands around Lawrence’s, prising his fingers from the blade one by one. His expression turned from satisfaction to horror as she reclaimed the D’Khal knife’s power and forced it free of his grip.
He stepped back, wild-eyed, and Jianna saw he was smaller than he’d been a minute ago. And were those acne scars she saw beneath the frizz of his suddenly unkempt beard?
‘How—’ He sputtered as she pulled the knife free of her belly. It slid out bloodlessly.
‘You said it yourself,’ Jianna replied. She whirled to her right, stepping inside Hasim’s outstretched arms and dashing her blade across his throat as he leapt for her. Warm arterial blood sprayed across all three of them. Hasim—who she now saw clearly as a thuggish, middle-aged man with broad and muscled shoulders, close-cropped black hair and a savage-looking network of tattoos across the backs of his hands; a far cry from the illusory old man she’d first met in the entrance hall—collapsed to the ground at her feet, kicking wildly and scrabbling at his throat in a desperate attempt to stem the flow of blood. Jianna looked up at the blood-spattered Lawrence who, now that she held the dagger once more, was powerless to fool her.
‘This artefact is mine.’
Lawrence retreated as she stepped away from the dying Hasim and strode towards him.
‘Wait. I can help you—I’ve been studying the D’Khal religion for years now. Their rituals, their artefacts, how they purged their own history when they reformed into the Collectivists. I can get you in to read the sealed texts; I can teach you! You’ll never understand any of it without me!’
‘Oh, my dear boy,’ Jianna said as his back pressed against the room’s ornate walls.
‘How wrong you are.’
Nobody noticed the ancient Hasim as he shuffled back through the audience chamber’s doors and into the labyrinthian passages of the Diocesan house.
None of the priests milling by the end of the passage questioned his relayed command from the Archdeacon to leave further matters until the morning, and nobody asked what business required the senior cleric’s personal attendant to expertly navigate his way through the passages to the office’s front doors and let himself out into the night.
Certainly, nobody commented on the elegant dagger he carried on his hip, nor the matching cloak clasp he had pinned to the blue cape around his shoulders.
Jianna sat in a shadowed alcove of the bridge over the river Celeste—the central bridge, to be exact. Thanks to the memories she’d collected from Renard the mercenary, the Temple Guard, Hasim and the Archdeacon, she now knew almost every thoroughfare and back alley on this side of the city. From here, she had an unimpeded view upstream, to where the river wound its way through the heart of the city, and alongside the Temple of All.
She’d been reluctant to follow the knife’s advice when it had first directed her here, but now she understood why it had. It had been confusing—terrifyingly so—when Father Mario had finally recognised the symbol on the D’Khal knife and tried to wrest it from her. The moment she slid the knife into his heart and quieted its thirst with the draught of his memories, it had seen something in them that it knew would help her. Not even Father Mario had realised he’d seen the D’Khal symbol before—the barest glimpse of the Archbishop’s clasp reflected in a puddle, or the glass window of a carriage, or somewhere else its illusory power was weak.
She chuckled to herself, balancing the knife point-to-point on the tip of a finger. Lawrence’s memories of his daily terror at having to set up in that reflective room after he’d collected the identity of the Archdeacon into his D’Khal brooch were particularly strong in the dagger’s recollection. No wonder he never stepped away from that awful table he’d had Hasim drag in—the modern Collectivist scholars might not remember why tradition demanded State affairs could only be ratified in a mirrored hall but if there was one thing they excelled at, it was blindly following the dogma of men long dead.
Thankfully, the strength of this particular memory didn’t eclipse Lawrence’s other, more useful ones—like the memories of his extensive research into D’Khal history, and his theorising on the locations of other artefacts from the early days of Collectivist expansion. With only the brooch, he’d been stuck collecting imagery and illusion without the memories associated with them. If he wanted to impersonate someone—say, the owner of the only other D’Khal artefact he’d known the location of—he’d had to position himself where he could research their habits the old-fashioned way.
With two D’Khal artefacts at her command, Jianna was not bound by that constraint.
‘I wonder,’ she whispered to her blade as she balanced it before her face, looking past it to the night fires of the Temple of All far beyond. ‘How much the man who wears that crown in there remembers about where he dug it up?’
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This story is the first of the Soul Artefacts series