Birth of a Religion

Marat, priestess of Utu, adjusted her position until she had a clear shot both at the priest of Velanac, and at the drummers who stood to either side. To her left, she could see Amrar, priest of Ra, also prepared with a short bow, not all that different from hers. She stifled a laugh. It’s probably a minute or so before midnight out in the real world above, though I can’t tell in this cave, she thought. I can barely move, my magical strength is expended, all my healing items, herbs, and other mixtures are empty. I’m bandaged around the chest, on one leg, and both arms. Pulling this bow is going to be painful. It’s a fitting end to my career.

Somewhere to her left, she knew that her colleague, no, associate Natisha was sneaking around the edge of the cavern. Just out of sight of the entrance stood the Lord Kaltros, leader of this little expedition, along with the three remaining hired guards. A few meters behind them would be Lord Mayor Zirdan, mayor of Sidroc, who was the expedition’s patron. He was lying on a stretcher after being hit by several crossbow bolts in their last encounter. It was miraculous that, without any remaining priestly healing ability in the party, he was still alive.

With everyone injured in some way, it seemed likely that this would be the end. The only surprise was the absence of guards to stop them from getting into position to attack the high priest, but she wasn’t going to complain about that. Perhaps they could at least interrupt whatever ritual he was performing before they all died in the inevitable counterattack.

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Simple Risk

Jerin, legal advocate, could not quite believe the young woman facing him across the table. They were in the Aagerinar city jail, and he had been asked to take her on as a client.

“Marita, heir to the Earl Northmarch, and also third in line for the Duchy of Aagerinar,” he said, reciting the known data. “How old are you, anyhow?”

“Rumor has it I’m 15.” Her expression didn’t change. She was relaxed, even serene. There was no sign of the tension he would expect of a young woman under arrest.

“Rumor has it? Don’t you know?”

“My adoptive mother guessed I was eight when she adopted me. That was seven years ago. In actuality, nobody knows for sure.” Very slight amusement showed. He suspected that if this girl did know, she wouldn’t be telling. “But none of this is important right now. I need you to do some work for me.” Not “represent me” or “defend me.”

“If I’m to represent you,” he said, “You’ll need to follow my instructions exactly and trust yourself completely to my care. You are charged with a serious crime, and it’s under the city jurisdiction, not the ducal, so you it won’t be easy.”

“On the contrary,” said Marita, “You’ll do exactly as I say, speak when I tell you to, and be quiet when I want you to. You will merely be a voice.” It was amazing how, when you started from the original serenity, slight changes could convey a great deal of meaning. Now there was a hardness in her expression that would permit no argument.

“Someone your age can’t do that!” he said. “The legal system can be complicated, and you can’t count on your birth to save you from this one. City judges aren’t chosen by the Duke, and aren’t susceptible to the kind of influence you’re used to using.”

“I can get someone else. Or you can sit beside me, win this case, and get the fame that results. It’s your choice. But remember, I don’t deal well with disloyalty. You’ll agree to do things exactly as I say.” Still that hardness around the lips.

Jerin considered for a few moments. He could end up looking like a fool, but on the other hand, Marita had the reputation for living a charmed life, she was close friends with the Ducal heir, her mother was the High Priestess and founder of the Ecumencial Temples of the Sun, and her father was the Earl Northmarch. The odds she was going to end up swinging by the neck from the end of a rope were probably small.

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Convenient Timing

The new arrival joined the crowd in the bar of The Featherless Parrot, one of Shalem’s business inns. What was meant by a “business inn” was simply a place where it was more likely that the patrons were making deals than that they were being entertained. It suited the visitor to be in such a place.

Those who watched him—and there were many—saw a youngish man with a slightly effeminate look. It was so obvious that he didn’t really belong in this place, that most assumed that he really did. Nobody could be as weak and inattentive as he looked, and yet alive, unless he was very competent indeed.

It was some time before anyone decided to contact the visitor. Making contact with a stranger in a business bar could be dangerous, though this one didn’t look like he was waiting for anyone in particular. He seemed to be just enjoying a drink and some dinner, as unlikely as that might be. It was possible he was looking to hire, and was waiting for someone to contact him.

“Welcome to Shalem.” The tone was not welcoming, but the visitor looked up into the face of a middle aged man.

“Really?” he said, with a slight twinkle in his eyes. “I kind of doubt it.”

“Well, as welcome as anyone is here. Why are you here?” It was abrupt, but one approach was as good as another.

“I’m just looking around,” said the visitor. “I’m in from Malethia via Aagerinar, security consultant to the East Coast Commercial Guild.”

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