Matthias Samuels stood before the triumvirate chambers. He briefly checked his appearance in the gleaming silver of his armor. His short cropped salt and pepper hair was perfectly trimmed and combed, complementing well waxed and coifed handlebar mustache. In all, his appearance was the best that one could buy from a cosmetic mage. Not a blemish on his unnaturally muscular body, and not a hair out of place. With a deep breath he prepared to enter the chamber to speak to the two men he knew were waiting for him while whispering under his breath.
“My faith is firm,” he mumbled to himself as he closed his hand over the doorknob. “It is the flame of truth, high and mighty, illuminating the majesty of the One True God while burning away those who refuse its truth. It will warm me in the night and light the way in the darkness. Al’Shazan’s truth is my truth and it shall shelter me from harm.”
Finishing the brief prayer, he opened the door and stepped into the chamber. Gareth was nose deep in a book, like always. All that focus on numbers and silver struck Matthias as more than a little wrong on a fundamental level. Gareth never said anything impious, but all of that reading and counting just seemed immoral. No man of proper character would willingly subject himself to all of those words without the hands of darkness being involved. Plus, the man was afraid of him. Matthias had seen it in his eyes whenever he encountered the minister in the halls of the Ember Palace. As only the guilty feared the inquisition,it meant that Gareth was guilty of something. It was just a matter of figuring out which collection of sins the minister suffered under. Unfortunately, only Al’Shazan itself could investigate and judge the triumvirate, preventing Matthias from acting on his suspicions. A shame really, twenty minutes with a fire magi and he was sure that the portly man would be confessing to his multitude of sins. The mental image brought a faint smile to Matthias’ stately face.
“I see you’re looking dashing as ever while you talk to yourself Knight Commander,” High Priest Aster stated, boredom dripping from his voice. “Now that you’re finally here, we can begin discussing the One True Flame’s latest directives.”
Matthias gulped and swore. Somehow the slippery old priest had seen and heard him while he stood outside of the room. The inquisition were supposed to fear no evil, but he was absolutely afraid of that fucking priest. Every time he looked at you, he saw through you. Matthias was sure that the high priest could discern his every motive and likely future action from a simple conversation. Everything was calculated months in advance with the old man, from a handshake to a construction project, he had his fingers in everything.
He could give a shit about Gareth’s sins, the Lord would eventually shine his truth on the man, but he absolutely hated interacting with Balthus. Theoretically every member of the triumvirate was co-equal, but it never felt like that. Instead, every one of these meetings somehow ended up with him doing what Balthus wanted him to do. Even after the meeting, Matthias could never figure out how the old man did it, but it was inevitable. No matter how much he prepared or walked into the chambers with logical arguments and strong resolve, somehow it always happened. Even when he thought he was resisting Aster, it would always turn out that the High Priest had predicted his actions and worked them into whatever plan he was advancing. It didn’t help that Gareth just sat in the corner and occasionally chimed in, usually to support Balthus.
“Knight-Commander if you could take your seat,” Balthus waved him in, highlighting his brief moment of unease and indecision at having been overheard by the priest. “Now, Lord Al’Shazan has ordered a grand celebration to honor the fifteenth anniversary of my ascension to the rank of high priest, but unfortunately the treasury simply doesn’t have the money to pay for the festivities.”
Gareth nodded along frantically to Balthus’ words, refusing to make eye-contact with Matthias. Even now, in this most holy of chambers, the serpent was afraid to directly interact with him. He probably knew that the strength of Matthias’ faith would shine the light of truth on his wretched, sinful ways. He would have to petition The One True Flame yet again to let him investigate the craven man. This would make the eighteenth time he had sent a request without a single answer. Well other than ‘stop bothering me,’ but that wasn’t a real answer now was it? An eventual investigation into Gareth and his scribbled lies was essential. Who knew what depths of depravity were hidden in his incomprehensible tomes.
“Why do we simply not tithe the peasants?” Matthias asked, his voice a deep smooth baritone. “If they know the depth of our Lord’s need, they will happily turn over the extra coin.”
“What do you mean ‘needs,’ Al’Shazan just wants to throw a party!” Gareth snapped back. “Plus it’s months until the harvest, the peasants don’t have enough money to pay us and eat. They won’t have any currency to tax until they sell this year’s crops.”
“The Creator of All said it wants the party, so it needs it,” Matthias bit back, eyes flaring as he stared at the overweight accountant. “It’s always about the mundane and mortal with you. Money for this. Food for that. You never put the immortal in your eyes. The glory of our service to the Lord, the beauty of its word, our holy duty guide the populace towards the One Truth. Our bodies are but shells, and if the peasants have to neglect those shells for days or months in pursuit of their holy service then so be it. I know that YOU Minister Theones can certainly stand to neglect physical pleasures for a couple of days, it might do your corpulent form some good.”
The fat man tried once again to hide from his gaze, but Matthias kept staring. How DARE he undermine the will of God. There wasn’t even a question about what Al’Shazan wanted, it simply revealed its will to the High Priest, if not the infinite wisdom behind its decision. He had burned many lesser men alive for questioning that wisdom, but alas. He gritted his teeth once again and cursed the limitations on the inquisition. Gareth and his treacherous books needed to be put to the question and soon. Maybe he could settle for another investigation of the man’s staff. Every time the inquisition looked into them, they found a good number of sinners and heretics trying to hide their deviant behavior behind their cursed letters, figures, and graphs.
“Now we may all be Al’Shazan’s children, but I would be grateful if we could stop fighting like children,” High Priest Aster stated evenly, glancing from Gareth to Matthias. “Now you are both right. Al’Shazan has spoken, so we must act, and our actions will require sacrifice.”
Matthias nodded, looking back to the priest. The slippery man always seemed to find a way to turn the situation to his advantage, but his faith couldn’t be questioned. Al’Shazan had appointed him high priest after all, and Al’Shazan’s decisions couldn’t be questioned. Questioning Balthus was tantamount to questioning Al’Shazan itself. The logic simple and tidy, just the way Matthias liked it.
“Although tithing the peasants is always an option,” Balthus continued, “it might be in bad taste this year considered the destroyed crops in the Edra floodplains. Further tithing would likely lead to starvation and it is hard to guide starving or dead peasants to Al’Shazan’s truth. On the other hand, it has come to our attention that certain nobles have likely been committing the sin of miserliness.”
Matthias stirred at the mention of sin. Second only to his love of Al’Shazan, he loved ferreting out and destroying sin. More than that, he was good at it. He could see sin where no one else could, his mind unfettered by distracting factors such as facts, evidence, and Al’Shazan’s code of justice. In his brief term as Knight-Commander he had discovered over twenty new sins, including miserliness. Even though the newly discovered sins had never been mentioned in the code of justice, Matthias was able to divine their inherent truth simply by using his finely honed and divinely granted intuition. True, many of the sinners complained that ‘building houses with an even number of windows hadn’t been a sin before’ or that ‘poetry wasn’t actually a sin,’ but after a good flogging all of them admitted their errors in the end. Especially the poets. Both rhymes and writing were inherently suspect, combining the two was clearly a sin of the highest order. The only real question Matthias had was how he was the first to articulate their degeneracy. He briefly suppressed his own sin, that of pride. He would have to punish himself for that when he returned to his quarters later.
“I have it on good authority that the Tyban, Rosewood, and Stallswarth families have been hoarding wealth,” Balthus said while shaking his head in disapproval. “Although they have tithed based upon their earnings as has been the requirement to date, it has come to our attention that they have not tithed based upon the substantial amount of gold held in their vaults. After all, the sin of miserliness is the act of not spending ones earnings to glorify Al’Shazan. At some point they earned that money and it was not spent to glorify Al’Shazan, the clearest case of sinfulness I have seen since Matthias ferreted out the heresy of the printing press. Truly a marvel, discovering the sin of ‘mechanical words.’ I heard that the scribe’s guild donated very heavily to commend the Knight-Commander on his discovery.”
Matthias preened for a second at Balthus’ praise. The donations from the scribes guild had come in very handy. He had been able to outfit two whole bands of crusaders with brand new silver armor with that money. The officers from those bands had complained that the silver armor was ‘very expensive’ and ‘didn’t work nearly as well as iron armor’ but there was no question that it was shinier, and as the High Priest Granmott III had said, ‘the shinier an object, the better it reflects The One True Flame’s truth.’ After all, the true goal wasn’t to beat back the demons, barbarians and heretics with cold steel, it was to show them the purity and truth of God’s word. It was a shame, but he had to put those officers to the question after the newly outfitted bands suffered heavy casualties due to their officers sinfulness. They tried to blame the new armor, but Matthias knew better.
“But wait Priest,” he interrupted, confusion furrowing his brow. “An inquest of this nature will be very expensive, time consuming and I’m still not sure how it will generate the gold needed for the holy festival.”.
“But that’s the beauty of it Matthias,” Balthus responded. “In punishing sin, the main goal after stopping the sin itself is to try to ensure that the punishment is sufficient to deter any future sinful actions. We need to ensure that the sinners will remember the inquisition’s punishments and to warn any other potential sinners away from the path of deviancy. To make sure that the sinners remember why they are punished, I have always suspected that it is best to find a way to connect the punishment with the sin itself. ”
Matthias nodded slowly, unsure of where Balthus was going. Everything he said sounded logical, but he suspected that the old man was about to twist things so that he could get his way. Again.
“Then we must make sure that the punishment fits the sin,” Balthus continued, a predatory smile spreading across his face. “I can hardly tell the inquisition how to do its duty, after all, flogging and removing fingernails are time tested methods of ensuring piety, but maybe we should look into how much deeper the punishment can go. The core of the sin of miserliness is collecting and maintaining money. I have always found it strange that after they are punished for their sin, they are allowed to keep the money that was the core of the sin. It always struck me as a doctor putting an ointment to ease pain on an infected wound but refusing to have a priest heal the infection itself. These poor sinners are only going to continue committing the sin of miserliness if we leave the money in their hands, and if we are devising a fitting punishment, what is more fitting that taking their lucre from them?”
“I’m not sure,” Matthias answered slowly, still worried that Balthus was trying to trick him. “All sins have been punished in more traditional ways. We torture the individual until they admit their sin, and then we torture them to punish them for committing the sin. There is a lot of history behind those traditions. I don’t want to simply discard torture because of some new fad.”
“But my dear Knight-Commander,” Balthus responded, his grin positively terrifying, “no one is asking you to abandon torture. Plus, you have already innovated have you not? Discovered new sin after new sin. A little more innovation in the service of Al’Shazan is hardly anything new. Plus, it would only make sense that the inquisition be allowed to seize 25% of the money collected in this fashion. I do recall you complaining that Gareth wouldn’t give you any more money to upgrade the torture devices in the Chamber of Truth or the armor of your crusaders. What would be more fitting than to use the wealth of the sinners to pay for their own punishment?”
“I suppose,” Matthias agreed, still unable to shake the feeling that Balthus was tricking him. Almost every new idea or suggestion from the Priest had ended up working out to the old man’s benefit, but he couldn’t find fault in the man’s logic. The Chamber of Truth did need a new iron maiden and the pit of sorrows was hardly up to code. It only made sense that the sinners pay for their own rehabilitation rather than law abiding taxpayers.
The rest of the meeting went quickly. The payment for the festival was authorized by unanimous vote as was the inquest into the noble families. Gareth scurried off like the wobbly cockroach he was to avoid speaking to Matthias further, further affirming his guilt, and Balthus politely excused himself to begin planning the party. Finally, Matthias himself left the triumvirate chambers, already planning the investigation into the noble families and how he would get them to admit to their sin. After all, 100% of those accused admitted to their sin. A statistic that Matthias was sinfully proud of.