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“You kill them! All the pilgrims who come here, you kill them!”

Yzhemal turned to look at Lazhar.

Lazhar turned to look at Yzhemal.

Alyssa ground her teeth together, staring at the two brothers as they turned back to face her. She had been in a stupor after the ceremony. Finding her unmoving as the bodies were being carted off somewhere, Lazhar had walked her back to the inn. Only when had he sat her down at the counter and Yzhemal poured her a drink did she finally snap out of it.

“You didn’t know?”

“Of course I didn’t know!” Alyssa said, slamming a fist on the table as she stared at the so-called priest of the so-called angel.

Lazhar clasped his hands together as he leaned against the counter from the seat next to her. “Where did you say you were from again?”

“I didn’t,” she said through grit teeth.

“It’s common knowledge. People travel from all corners of the land to ensure that they are delivered directly into Her Holiness’ loving embrace.”

Alyssa couldn’t help but to scoff at that. That angel treated criminals better than she had her own followers. Or maybe she simply enjoyed them more.

Now that she thought about it, Tenebrael had been looking forward to Alyssa’s supposed death. One full of suffering and agony for a time before she finally passed. If there was one thing she could say about the pilgrims’ deaths, it had been that they passed relatively quickly and painlessly. No one had been screaming out in anguish, in any case.

“If it’s so common, how come I didn’t know about it?”

“It isn’t often discussed in the open. Death is an uncomfortable topic for many.”

“Besides, you are a little thick in the head,” Yzhemal said under his breath. Still loud enough to get an admonishing look from his brother. “What? She is. She is clueless about money, good food seems to offend her. I even had to explain how to muck the stalls and then she still got it wrong, taking several times longer than it should have in the process.” As he spoke, he ticked off each point with his fingers.

Lazhar looked away from his brother to consider Alyssa with a scratching at his beard. “She does show up wearing impractical clothing.” His fingers stilled momentarily as he glanced down to her waist. “And doesn’t travel with decent weapons,” he mumbled, turning back to his brother. “A sheltered nobleman’s daughter who decided to run away, seeking love and adventure?”

“I’d expect a nobleman’s daughter to know what this is.” Yzhemal pulled out a silver bar and dropped it on the counter. “Your pay for the day, lass.”

She stared at the coin. He didn’t add in any bronze pieces, something she might have complained about under other circumstances. But then, she hadn’t worked for several hours because of that idiotic ceremony. If she had truly screwed up the stable mucking, it was probably more than fair.

He stood, turning to the back door behind the counter. “I have work to get done. When you’re finished, their rooms need to be cleaned. Any effects left behind should be delivered to Lazhar.”

Alyssa sent an accusatory glare to Lazhar as his brother left the room. “You kill them then you steal from them? You’re just a petty grave robber. Except more efficient without all the digging.”

Countenance darkening, Lazhar looked down at her. “There is plenty of digging. Surely you saw the graveyard. We take only what is required to erect a marker. Anything in remainder is buried with the pilgrims as a show of respect. If a pilgrim lacks the assets to pay the stoneman, I personally hand carve their marker to ensure that they are properly memorialized. That is something that is not common knowledge and I will thank you for not passing it around.” He leaned back and glanced to one side; towards the direction of the graveyard, though there were no windows to see out of the inn. “There is enough buried out there to rival the Pharaoh’s grand vaults, I’m sure.”

From his soft tone of voice, Alyssa had no reason to doubt the sincerity of his words. Which actually made this a fairly serious secret he was sharing so candidly. Word getting out would mean brigands and raiders—who probably wandered in droves around such a medieval world—would beset the town, looting and pillaging. In fact, even otherwise upstanding citizens might hear the call of greed to come and exhume as many graves as they could in a night or two before being run off.

Still… “You wouldn’t have to worry about that if you didn’t kill them in the first place.”

His eyes, which had been so jolly every other time Alyssa had seen them, turned sad. Not the kind of sadness for a lost loved one, but full of pity for another. “After witnessing what you saw, you don’t believe in Tenebrael?”

“Oh, I certainly believe in Tenebrael. I just—” Realization struck. Alyssa blinked, confused for a moment as she finished putting together the pieces. “This is all about belief, isn’t it. Six people a year get to see Tenebrael, they talk about her and probably describe her in some years. It isn’t about them though, it’s about the crowd. Six people just gave their lives to reaffirm the beliefs of a few hundred people.”

“More than a few hundred people. Almost everyone in attendance was not from Teneville.” Lazhar turned around, waving a hand through the tavern. “Most who view the ceremony here are not from this village. They will leave tomorrow. They will leave with this experience, believing in it until the day they die. And they will share this experience throughout their lives, reaffirming the beliefs of those who cannot travel.”

Alyssa turned away, utterly disgusted. However, she couldn’t help herself from asking, “What’s in it for you? Revenue for churches across the land? Ale sales? Or not…” she mumbled, more to herself than Lazhar. “You give ale away for free and if you cared about the money, you’d just dig up the graveyard.” Technically, Yzhemal didn’t give ale away for free. Customers did pay for it. But if they wanted it for free, all they had to do was go outside and find Lazhar. It was more like they were paying for the shelter, warmth, company, and service.

She turned to him and watched, waiting for what he would say. If he said anything at all.

Lazhar took a deep breath. Then he smiled. Not his most joyous smile, but a smile filled with sorrow. “Hope.”

“Hope.” Alyssa couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “That’s it. You kill people to reaffirm the beliefs of people solely for the sake of that belief.”

“Sometimes, a little hope is all that is needed. Consider those guarding the Fortress of Pandora—I assume you know of it—how willing would they be to die at the hands of vicious monsters for the sake of Lyria if they didn’t believe someone was waiting for them after their deaths?”

Disparaging soldiers for anything they fought for was not Alyssa’s right. Especially not soldiers defending their country. Some causes might be worthy of criticism, but not fighting to protect others.

Before her mother retired and became a security guard, she had been in the armed services. Alyssa had never asked why. Perhaps she would if she ever saw her mother again. Though she fully expected an answer about how it was for the money without any real deeper cause behind it.

Did that apply here? Did soldiers in this world get paid?

“If I might ask, you said you certainly believe in Her Holiness. Yet you do not believe in the purpose of the festival?”

Alyssa bit her lip. Mentioning her belief in Tenebrael might have been a mistake. Saying that she had seen her personally might be bad. What would a sycophantic priest do if she had seen his god? So she skipped that part entirely. “I believe it is wrong to advance towards death, neither—”

“Nor do I.”

“B-but you killed them.”

“You keep saying that,” he said with a sorry sigh as he shifted towards her on the stool. “Not a one of the pilgrims who have participated in a ceremony during my lifetime have been unaware of what the ceremony entails. I ask each and every one to ensure there are no misunderstandings. They are the ones who drink the tea in the end.”

He stood and crossed to the door, apparently satisfied with his speech.

“How do you know she cares?” Alyssa said before he could leave.

“Ah,” he hummed, turning with a wide smile. “That is actually the easiest question to answer. Every pilgrim who sees Her Holiness has their words and actions recorded. The content varies, but we can infer her responses. Sometimes a pilgrim will repeat her words verbatim. Today, I am curious as to her response for Aziz’s question. He did thank her for it.”

She really wanted to tell him about how she acted; both her actions before the ceremony as well as how she had suddenly put on a holy show while the pilgrims were dying were worthy of mention—the fact that she had complained about his speech as well. Just to scream out how wrong he was. But she was still wary of telling him that she could see Tenebrael. Instead, she sighed and changed the topic, wanting to keep the sycophant from knowing much about her.

“I don’t think you’re a bad man, Lazhar.”

“Thank you,” he said with a dip of his hat.

“If morally shady. But this religion is dangerous. You might be honorable, but you won’t be around forever,” she said, recalling Tenebrael’s words about finding a new high priest. “How long before someone exploits the ceremony? Before a new high priest digs up and uses the riches in the graveyard? Before someone builds churches around the land, claiming that Tenebrael needs money and then collects it for themselves?”

For once, Lazhar didn’t respond. His countenance shifted to a thoughtful expression as Alyssa stood up.

“I suppose I should go clear their things,” she said with a small sigh, heading towards the stairs.

One more night. Once morning hit, Alyssa was going to leave. She couldn’t stick around this place any longer. Perhaps nowhere else would be better, but it could hardly be worse. Lyria seemed a good destination, though maybe with a stop at her home to collect a few more supplies.

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