After half an hour, the light below Garenol winked out suddenly, and he could just smell the waft of smoke from the extinguished candles as it floated up to him in the rafters. He shifted silently on his perch, stretching each leg individually and rolling his ankles gently. He thought to himself an additional half hour would probably ensure that the man was asleep, so he continued waiting, holding the stained dagger delicately in his left hand, his right extended over, clasping the closest rafter to where he sat.
Thirty more minutes, he thought to himself, shifting slightly as the wooden seat began to irritate him. Then I can get a little sleep, go find Malus, and lay low. Maybe relax a day or two. Then he remembered their final assignment, the archbishop Polk. A frown played across his face as his delicate features drew into a worried countenance. Regardless of the reward at the end, Polk’s demise would not come easy, regardless of his or Malus’ skill.
The deeply entrenched church of Lor had been the dominant human faith here in the south since the dawn of written history. Much of its popularity and power came from the priesthood, a highly organized and charismatic group of unparalleled healers. Their abilities at healing, blessed by their god in this art above all others, made them absurdly popular with those who could afford it. The flow of gold into the coffers of the church from healing the sick, the lame, and for the right price, even the recently deceased, had rendered the church the single most powerful organization in Haarkedamia besides the Confederacy Council itself.
Polk himself had lead the church even since Garenol could remember. A man of immense influence, and immense physical dimensions, Garenol always remembered his eyes. He’d seen the man himself a number of times in the court of his father, King Galen. In Wood’s End, the small country of the Confederacy ruled by his father, the human population was small, but nonetheless was visited yearly by the archbishop, who made it a point to visit all the congregations of the faithful yearly if possible. Garenol remembered being a young elf, seated down from the dais that his father sat on for formal receptions, between his brothers Garel and Gaern, watching as Polk and his retinue appeared before the small elven court, resplendent in thick white robes, the hems and cuffs suffused with golden threads denoting rank. Polk himself would seem awash in gold, very little of the white of the cloth still showing through the glowing adornment of his vestments. The eyes were sparkling, and moved quickly, taking in everyone and everything in their field of vision, as if a master appraiser were taking stock in his auction house.
The dark but twinkling eyes had settled on young Garenol, stiff and uncomfortable in his court attire. Polk, disregarding court etiquette in his personal power, had veered from the approach to the throne, and walked to where Garenol sat with his brothers. The enormous robed man looked at them inquisitively, as if judging each for himself. After looking upon each in turn, his gaze had returned to Garenol, and he had smiled gently, as if sharing a quiet joke. He had then patted Garenol on the head and turned to face the dais and King Galen.
“So is this the young man that added the new solarium to the College of Magic?” Polk asked the king good-naturedly, his orator’s voice echoing in the grand hall.
King Galen had laughed, rising from his throne to come down the dais to greet the archbishop. They shook hands as Garenol sat blushing. Just in his second year at the College, he had decided to perform what he had optimistically called ‘independent research’. The result of his research had caused an explosion that had removed the better part of the roof in the lab Garenol had been in. His ears were just now losing the ringing whine that had plagued him for the past three weeks. He shifted uncomfortably as his tall, lithe father had shook the archbishop’s hand, reaching out and patting him on the shoulder.
“Yes, I am afraid this is our little prodigy, Garenol,” he father had said, laughing as he too reached out to pat Garenol on the head. “Incredibly talented and bright young mage, just not terribly cautious.”
Polk had laughed heartily at Galen’s friendly banter. He then walked arm in arm with the King away from Garenol and his brothers as they began talking animatedly about the happenings and intrigues of Haarkedamia. King Galen had proceeded to introduce Polk to various members of the court and functionaries in his small kingdom. Polk had greeted them all graciously as friends and equals, remembering the name and position of each the next time he encountered them: that night at a state dinner in his honor. He had regaled the table with tales of his church’s more colorful members, great paladins and crazed monks of Lor. Everyone had laughed long and hard along with the loud, portly archbishop. He made great connections with everyone he met, energized his small church congregation, and made friends of every person he touched. He departed after three days with more gold than the six members of his personal retinue could bear away in three chests lashed to longpoles.
Garenol still blushed at the memory of Polk. They had seen each other occasionally over the intervening years. And every time that their eyes met, the archbishop had beamed down at Garenol, and the archbishop would retell the hilarious story of how he’d blown the roof off the College of Magic as a youth. It always got laughter. Everybody remembered it. The great mad mage, Baron Strahkenhof, had giggled at the story, then told a blushing Garenol that he shouldn’t worry about it too much, seeing as how he, Strahkenhof, had been impoverished as a younger baron while paying to rebuild the parts of the College that he himself had personally rendered uninhabitable by leaving behind a trail of wards and etched runes that would summon howler monkeys randomly and without warning. Garenol even laughed to himself about the affair after hearing Strahkenhof’s crazy tale. He laughed harder when he found out that the tale was completely true.
He was not going to go down the childish path of resentment towards the man. After all, the event was pretty remarkable, most definitely memorable, and rather hilarious, given the seriousness and humorless nature of most of the proctors of the College of Magic. No, what had always driven Garenol’s mistrust of Polk had been on the final day of that first visit, as he watched his father’s liveried porters struggle to lift an imperial ransom’s worth of gold into the reinforced wagon that followed Polk’s gold-filigreed carriage. Polk had stood there in the circle of gravel leading to the keep’s main door, still laughing, still patting shoulders and vigorously shaking hands. No one else seemed to notice the departure of wealth.
That evening, in the first quiet family dinner after Polk’s departure, Garenol still wondered at all the money that had left Wood’s End, destined for the coffers of the Lorian Church, based in Venne. Garenol had already finished a number of years of mundane schooling, as his father’s carefully chosen tutors had drilled into him a number of political and economic lessons, since he could be raised to the throne if something were to befall his older brother Garel. He was bothered that his father had seemingly overlooked the departure of all this wealth, and that troubled him, as he considered his father as rather just, astute ruler. He had poked at his food noncommittally, finally clearing his throat to speak. He had to know why his father allowed this to happen.
Before he could voice what troubled him, King Galen leaned back in his chair at the head of the table, looking deeply into a glass of pale yellow fortified wine from Porl. “Children,” he said, looking down the length of the table at his three sons, and his wife, Tirrana, “what did you think of our visiting friend the archbishop? Quite the character, wasn’t he?”
“He was really friendly,” Gaern, the youngest, quickly replied, “He remembered my name when I saw him at dinner, and gave me a little icon.” The young elf gestured at the small token next to his plate that he had been playing with through dinner; a small silver eagle spreading its wings, affixed to a thick disk of polished azure stone. King Galen nodded.
Garel, recently graduated from the College of Magic that Garenol was now notorious at, pursed his lips in thought for a moment before speaking. He then said, “For such a powerful man, he certainly seems to put those around him at ease. He spoke to his underlings as close friends, and even remembered the names of our two footmen who opened the great hall’s doors for him and his retinue. That kind of ability and charisma with people is pretty amazing, but it makes me wonder how he would fare leading people in stressful or violent times. He seems almost too friendly, like he wouldn’t be able to take the reins when true power had to be used.”
King Galen chuckled at the seriousness and studied cadence of his eldest son’s response, “I can see that your tutor in politics and governance has been talking about personality and charisma again. Are you and he in agreement about personality as it applies to leadership?”
“I would suppose that we are, father,” Garel answered, leaning in over the table slightly to better see his father, “It is one thing to be loved and admired by your charges, but ultimately, those aren’t enough to lead people through famine or war. I think that being more a symbol of power and strength to your people helps you take control in times when the common people cannot be trusted to serve their better interests.”
Galen nodded, a more serious look crossing his face as he listened to his eldest son’s opinion. Obviously, the boy’s tutors were grooming him for the throne already. Good, he thought to himself, you never know when this knowledge may become absolutely necessary to the boy. He looked across from his eldest to Garenol, who had remained silent, slowly pushing peas into a line across his plate with a silver table knife. “How about you, Fireball? Seems the archbishop heard of your escapades all the way up in Venne?”
Garenol looked at his father, placing the knife aside. He thought for a moment further. Then he began to speak, haltingly. “Forgive me if I speak out of place, father, but the archbishop seemed to be performing a magic show.” Garenol paused.
His father sat down his drink, intrigued by his quietest son’s stumbling train of thought. “Go ahead son, how so?” he said gently, trying not to derail the young elf’s ideas.
“Well,” Garenol said, gathering a few more seconds to think, “How he treated everyone and how he remembered all the names and greeted everyone as his oldest friend, it all seemed like the flourishes that a street magician would use to hide his sleight of hand. You remember that performer that came through the city in the spring, father? The one you had brought in for us?” he gestured at his brothers. His father nodded in recognition, his expression now serious. “He wasn’t a mage, just a normal gnome. But he was able to do these amazing tricks, small animals appearing and disappearing, all kinds of things with a deck of witching cards. But none of it was real magic. He was just really fast and dexterous, and he kept talking and cracking jokes the whole time. By the time you realized what was going on, he’d already pulled the joke on you. All while you were looking where he wanted you to. While you were laughing at his cap falling off, he’d slip a sparrow into a different pocket, or a coin into your own pocket. It was a week before we figured out what had gone on.” His younger brother Gaern was nodding in agreement, remembering the show.
“So,” King Galen said, leaning forward and putting his forearms on the table, “You think that the archbishop is a rogue, eh? Trying to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes, completing a performance?” Galen laughed lightly to himself as Garenol looked down at his plate, expecting a tongue-lashing from his father. He never cared for these lessons in statecraft from his father. “Then what was he trying to conceal, Garenol?” His father continued, looking straight at him, the gaze withering Garenol’s downturned face.
“Father, I was just telling you the impression I felt watching him these few days,” stammered Garenol, “If I speak out of turn, then please, just tell me and I’ll apologize.”
“No, Garenol,” his father said, “I want you to tell me what you saw. Now, tell me.”
Garenol’s brothers looked at him with worried expressions. His younger brother was clearly nervous for him, and Garel, who was supposed to rise above petty things like an uncomforable conversation, was looking on with a worried expression, as if he wanted to contribute but was scared.
“Alright,” Garenol said, finally breaking his silent despair and looking back up at his father, “I think that the whole show was for the money he took with him. Did you see the chests? That wagon they brought with them barely got moving under a team of six draft horses. And the whole time, he’s just talking and laughing and touching people, but his followers? Those men who were with him? They were making sure that those chests of gold were secured before they left. Where did that money come from?” Garenol was rambling now, speaking all the thoughts that had fermented over the course of the dinner. “That was a fortune. More money than I had ever seen. We don’t even have that many humans living here in Wood’s End. Some merchants and those few craftsmen who work along with our carpenters and carvers. Why does he even need that money? Was it the only reason he was here?” Garenol stopped, finally realizing that he was on the verge of ranting, embarrassed but glad he was finally able to voice the concerns that had been trapped behind his clenched teeth all day. He looked back down at the table, avoiding the eyes of his father, now wide at the conclusion of his rant.
King Galen sat silent for a moment. He then took back up his glass, twirling the golden liquid under the light of the chandelier above the table before finishing it off in a slow draught. He smiled at the taste, swallowing as he replaced the glass on the table. No one had dared to speak yet. “Garel,” he said sternly, startling the oldest boy, “That is what I should have heard from you.” Garenol looked up, confused. His brother’s expression was as shocked as he figured his must be.
“The money. All that money. Garenol, that was enough gold to feed every single subject of our nation for an entire winter. Probably with enough left over to buy each family a couple of cows or a horse. That wagon leaves here every year with those chests. Polk comes, we talk, he laughs, he charms. He bolsters the faith of his human constituents here in our nation. Their faith is strengthened. I’d wager my spear,” he continued, gesturing over his shoulder to the hearth, where a heavily runed longspear hung over the mantle, bookended by a paid of enormous dark purple horns. “that each member of the church here feels blessed, and will feel that way each time they visit the temple or see a cleric of Lor for the next few months. But the money, the money always goes with him. A couple of chest’s worth of his loyal followers’ wages and earnings from the year. And one chest from me, absolutely filled to the brim with a portion of the state’s gold.”
Garenol looked confused, “But father, why would you have to give the church of Lor so much money? We aren’t even humans.”
King Galen sighed, as he looked back over his shoulder towards his long retired weapon. “Because son,” he started, then leaned back onto the table, looking each son in the eye in turn, “that man brought me back from the dead a number of years ago. That type of blessing from their god does not come without a price. And for those of us not of his faith, the price is almost unbearable. So I pay him in thanks, and from indebtedness. And also,” each looked back around to ensure his sons were listening, “so that after enough chests, they will owe each of you, should the time come that you have to avail yourselves of their services. They are an insurance policy in a way. They can heal almost any wound. They can heal even a dead man, so long as there’s still a body. Never forget that, my sons, but also never forget the cost. That wagon, every year I have sat the throne.” Galen leaned back into the velvet cushions of his chair, and waved at a porter, who brought the bottle of Porl wine over to deftly refill the king’s glass. His sons sat and pondered at their father’s speech.
Garenol shifted again, his legs were getting stiff. He thought again about what his father said, all those years ago. Heal a dead man, so long as a body still existed. It wasn’t going to be enough to dispatch Polk, they were going to have to dispose of his body entirely. Tomorrow night was going to be tough.
But for now, he had a job at hand. Checking the wrap around his face by feel, he edged towards the tile that was slanted up just a crack. He silently removed it, and stood up, straightening himself atop the narrow rafter. He then stepped into the open air above the dark hole, floating down into the room, slowly and silently, the darkness enveloping his form.
7 - Berlin
8 years ago