High Priest Balthus Aster tried unsuccessfully, again, to adjust his jacket so that the collar would cover his face. It was incredibly hot out, and he was only wearing the bulky and sweaty garment to conceal his appearance. Unfortunately, the finely woven fabric didn’t seem capable of performing even that minor of a task. Frustrated, he glanced at his assistant/bodyguard Armand. He had told the younger man to find outfits that would let them both blend in, but it had only really worked for Armand. The tunic and hat he wore looked exactly like the rest of Diyall’s residents as they wove too and fro during the nightly festival of lights. Balthus on the other hand, looked like some sort of deranged flasher partially concealed in a bulky, lumpy jacket. The citizens of Diyall might not be able to recognize him as their High Priest, but Balthus was pretty sure he had seen at least three women worriedly grab their children and pull them away from him in just the last hour alone.
Ultimately, the goal was to avoid being recognized. Drawing attention from the throngs of tourists and festival attendees wasn’t ideal, but as long as he only stood out as a poorly dressed celebrant, it shouldn’t be too big of an issue. Even before Matthias’ actions increased tensions in the capital, it wouldn’t have been terribly safe for the administrative ruler of the entire Empire to walk the busy streets of the capital. Now, there were reports of the rank and file priests being harassed or roughed up by the angry masses. Ironic really that the inquisitors got little more than backtalk and dirty glances despite being the origin of the unrest, but instead it was the priesthood that suffered at the hands of common hooligans. It was the way of things really. Balthus himself was sure that were he to be discovered he would almost certainly be a prime target for their ire. Matthias would probably have someone buy him a drink.
Armand casually led the way through the crowds, walking them past street vendors and the bobbing lanterns that formed the core of the festival of lights. Balthus took a brief moment to admire the splendor of the sight. It might not be worth the money that the Church spent to maintain the festival nightly, but it certainly did turn Diyall into a hub for tourism and creative endeavors. Already, a few of the more enterprising celebrants had begun to release their floats and kites, causing majestic shapes and lights to soar over the city. With any luck, the candles powering the floats, more or less paper bags covered in brightly colored designs that captured the warm air created by the candles and used the captured air to keep themselves aloft, would extinguish before they landed. Without luck, another slum would burn.
The floats were beautiful when released in large numbers, but they posed a risk of wildfire to everything dry within miles. Balthus had tried to have them banned for years, but Al’Shazan always remarked on how ‘pretty’ they looked when it observed Diyall from the celestial realm, so the floats stayed. In the rainy season, the floats didn’t pose much of a risk as the city and fields were damp and hard to ignite, but in drier seasons, the Church would have to hire squads to patrol the city to put out any flashfires created by the blasted things. Balthus had a more than a sneaking suspicion that the ‘prettiness’ that Al’Shazan sought was actually the city burning once again rather than simply some floating bits of brightly colored paper.
Finally, after almost two hours of travel through the crowded streets, Armand signalled a halt to Balthus. In front of them was a middle class shop, painted in greens and blues. Posted on the wall of the shop was a finely crafted wooden sign adorned with the symbol of an open eye. Glancing briefly at the drunken crowds, Balthus stepped inside, the door jangling slightly at his entry. The interior of the shop was well appointed and smelled vaguely of woodsmoke and spices, likely from the braziers quietly burning incense. A robed woman looked up at their entry and motioned briefly for them to follow before exiting into a back room.
Balthus followed her silently, into the back room and down a staircase, until they entered the store’s basement. The basement was almost the size of the main room of the shop, its walls inlaid with crystals in geometric designs, catching and throwing back the light of the circle of candles placed in a circle in the center of the room. The woman walked into the center of the circle where she sat down on a cushion and closed her eyes. Balthus followed her into the main room of the basement before sitting down in a well cushioned chair just outside of the circle, Armand following him and taking up position just behind the priest.
“Madame,” Balthus began, only to be interrupted by the woman.
“High Priest Aster,” she stated, eyes still closed. “It is good that you came to visit Madame Ocestra. There is much going on in Diyall, and Madame Ocestra is honored to use her third eye to aid the High Priest.”
“Err yes,” he replied, slightly put off by her behavior. “I have heard from others that you possess the gift of prophecy and we are beginning to enter uncertain times. I wanted to speak to you to see if these rumors are true, and if they are, to see if I could utilize your gift to steer the Empire back onto a stable course.”
“I knew you were coming, didn’t I my lord,” she opened her eyes slowly before making eye contact with Balthus.
“I thought we called ahead?” Balthus asked, scratching his well trimmed beard quizzically. “Armand, you sent someone to schedule an appointment for tonight right?”
“I did my lord,” the previously silent bodyguard stated. “Madame Ocestra personally confirmed that that the shop would be empty of other guests at this time and that she would be ready to receive you. I wouldn’t have agreed to bring you here without investigating the route and the shop first.”
“I meant that I knew you were coming before you sent your courier,” she clarified, looking slightly embarrassed. “I made sure to be in my shop when he arrived so that we could schedule the appointment.”
“Fine, I guess,” Balthus replied, taking out a small wordpad and glancing at his notes. “If you could just let me know of some of the more public prophecies you have made that have come true as well as the level of detail with which you have made the prophecies, I would greatly appreciate it. Before we can rely on your predictions we obviously have to verify their power and veracity, I hope you understand.”
“Well, I don’t do public prophecy,” Madame Ocestra shifted uncomfortably on her cushion. “I find it tawdry, it denigrates the entire profession, turning us from mystic professionals into nothing more than two bit showmen. My clientele are amongst the most powerful and discerning in Diyall. All of my prophecies involve deeply confidential matters so I’m afraid that I cannot disclose either the questions answered or the predictions themselves, but I can assure you that all prophecies are completely guaranteed.”
“So,” Balthus continued, snapping the writing pad shut with his free hand, “how can I verify the accuracy of your prophecies. I hope you have something that I can rely on.”
“Well, I can tell that you are here due to the Knight-Commander’s actions,” she replied, waving her hand. “I have seen that his actions have caused uncertainty and that you are coming to me for advice on how to navigate the turbulent waters created by his inquest into the noble houses.”
“Are you going to tell me that my hair is greying next,” Balthus bit back with a laugh. “Of course I am here due to Knight-Commander Samuels inquest. He may see it as a simple matter of finding and torturing sinners, but everyone else in Diyall knows that the noble houses are not to be trifled with. I fear that they will take his inquest as a declaration of war, and that they will refuse to disappear into the night without conflict.. If you want to prove yourself, tell me a secret. The God of All, Al’Shazan recently issued an edict that has not yet been publicly announced. Tell me what it is if you want me to believe in you.”
“That may be impossible,” she replied with an embarrassed cough. “My powers only apply to predicting the actions of mortals. Predictions related to Al’Shazan, the heavenly host, and any actions related to their words or deeds are beyond me. Their great power cloud the future and make any sort of accuracy an impossibility.”
Balthus paused, his sharp gaze focused on Madame Ocestra. The shape of Al’Shazan’s actions draped over every major event in the Empire. The God was primarily self-interested and hedonistic, but he was fairly involved, issuing edicts and directives on at least a semi-annual basis. Worse, most of those edicts dealt with the operation of the entire Empire. If Madame Ocestra was unable to see anything impacted by Al’Shazan, her visions were almost worthless for any matters of state. Suddenly, he had an awful thought.
“Madame Ocestra,” he began, speaking slowly, “what sort of matters do you usually consult on? I would expect that major business dealings would be too impacted by our Lord Al’Shazan’s actions for you to predict with any real accuracy.”
“Although I use the sight to help my clients with many things,” she responded, shifting slightly in her cushion, “I usually am hired to help in matters of love or inheritance. Truly, many a besotted noble needs to know if their beloved truly cares for them, and there are many who wish to know if their spouses have remained faithful. It is a complex and lucrative field, examining the hearts of the post powerful men and women of the Empire.”
“Madame Ocestra,” Balthus spoke slowly, annoyance in his voice over his wasted evening, “tell me if there is anything useful you can tell me about Matthias or his inquest. Any sort of prediction whatsoever that I can act on.”
“I can tell you that like many men, women will be the end of him,” her voice took on an unearthly tone as Madame Ocestra waved her hands through the air, causing the candles around her to flare with light as a low humming filled the room. Balthus rolled his eyes at the low level display of magic. It was going to take more than a cantrip and a haphazard collection of conjurer’s tricks to trick the most powerful Priest in the Empire.
“Armand,” Balthus stood up before looking to the younger man. “If you would kill Madame Ocestra I would be very grateful. If she truly has the sight, she will have foreseen this moment and have some method to prevent it. If the sight can’t help with something so trivial, I hardly have need of her.”
“Wait, my lord!” she exclaimed, leaping to her feet, panic draining the blood from her face as she began backpedaling.
Without a word, Armand drew his sword in a smooth motion. With a flash of magic and a blur of speed Armand darted past the flailing woman. Her head flew against the wall in a flash of crimson before her body collapsed next to the cushion. Armand glanced down at her body as blood began to pool. With a shrug, he flicked the blade, spraying the dead woman’s blood in a line across the basement floor.
Balthus walked out of the basement. No one stood in the storefront, at least that prediction held true. He walked out into the night and paused, looking up to the stars. In the distance, the lights and shouts of the nightly revelry continued on. The clamor annoyed him more than usual as he contemplated his options. Madame Ocestra had been grasping at straws, and having her murdered while satisfying hardly accomplished anything. Balthus still needed a way to predict Matthias’ actions. The Empire simply couldn’t survive having a rabid dog running the inquisition.
Armand walked out of the empty building and stood next to him. At least he was competent. No stupid questions or backtalk, he just trusted that Balthus knew what he was doing and acted. A shame really that he wasn’t in charge of the inquisition. He probably would have actually eliminated most of the Empire’s corruption by now. Alas, he didn’t have the political support from within the inquisition to be elected as their leader. Of course, that had probably changed with Matthias’ insanity. Half of the inquisition’s elders had already been killed or tortured for disagreeing with the madman on theology. At this point the remaining elders would likely vote for anyone to get rid of Matthias. Their fault really, he never was sane. Balthus had quietly advised against the man’s appointment when the previous Knight-Commander had died, but the order had balked at his suggestions. Apparently ‘maintaining their independence’ was more important than actually bothering to vet their choice. Matthias looked the part, magically enhanced blue eyes and square jaw. He stood just over six feet tall and every inch of him looked the part of a holy paladin, spewing brimstone and preaching damnation. They claimed that he would revitalize the inquisition. He did after a fashion. It certainly didn’t stand in the same form today as five years ago.
“Ser,” Armand said looking over to Balthus as he stood gazing up into the empty night air. “It’s a pity she was a fraud.”
Balthus nodded. A pity.