Gareth could already feel himself sweating through the embroidered doublet that he was wearing. It was a sunny day out, a rarity for the rainy season, but the omnipresent humidity seemed to have partnered with the beating sunshine to make him as miserable as possible. Again, he dabbed at his face with a handkerchief. Intellectually he understood why Williard Stallswarth’s trial and punishment needed to take place outdoors, the man had killed one of the most powerful people in the Empire. The peasants needed to be assured of his guilt and to see him punished publicly for his crimes. After all, the Church didn’t want the more enterprising amongst them to begin weighing the pros and the cons of killing Church officials. Gareth, as the official in charge of levying taxes, and thus a universally unpopular figure, heartily agreed with the sentiment as he preferred to keep his head on his shoulders and his blood on the inside. He just wished that they could have found a time to hold the trial that wasn’t so blasted miserable.
Still, as he surveyed the packed crowd, it seemed like half of Diyall had braved the heat to turn out for the man’s trial. A good showing for the miserably hot weather. Most importantly, the elders of the inquisition were all present. Even if they hated Matthias, propriety demanded that they show up for the punishment of the one who had killed the head of their order. Really, they were why he was here despite the moist heat. Although the inquisition had extended an invitation to the treasury, there had been no real expectation that he show up. Balthus sure hadn’t, the lucky dog. No, he was here because Balthus had put together some plan to install his bodyguard as the head of the inquisition, and as per usual he had left all of the hard work to Gareth. So here he was, in the heat, ignoring some barrister’s droning voice and preparing to do Balthus’ dirty work by threatening and blackmailing a bunch of old men.
Of course, most of his reluctance over getting his hands dirty had faded away as soon as he saw the dossiers on the elders. For a collection of aging racists that publicly hated the lizard people and beast folk of the Empire, they sure seemed to like their children a lot. A little too much actually. The Church ‘demi-human youth mentorship’ camps would really have to go regardless of today’s outcome. There certainly wouldn’t be any more ‘mentor slumber’ parties, that was for sure.
The detached and clinical portion of Gareth’s mind couldn’t help but muse at the statistical improbability of every elder in the inquisition having such a disgusting sexual proclivity. It also annoyed Gareth more than a little that like everyone else in the Church’s hierarchy he was forced to submit to the knife and become a eunuch as part of the ceremony to take his vows yet the inquisition and crusaders were exempt, and this was the result. A collection of hunched and predatory degenerates preying upon children. Gareth really would have preferred to keep his balls. He certainly would have put them to better use than the cretins in the inquisition.
The elders were implicated in much more mundane crimes as well. They took bribes, administered justice unevenly and sold political favors to the highest bidder. The sort of things that Gareth had expected to find when he unleashed Anne on them. The reports painted a dark picture of the inquisition as a whole. While Matthias was the outward face and drawing the majority of the attention with his bloodthirsty antics, the elders were running an operation more corrupt than a dockside brothel. Or Gareth had been told. He sighed deeply while the barrister kept droning on about the administration of justice and proper order. He missed his balls. It wasn’t fair that those assholes got to keep theirs while he was stuck empty handed, double entendre intended. It was doubly unfair given that Anne’s operation seemed to specialize in turning beautiful young things into agents. It was like being stuck inside a pastry store during a fast. Positively maddening.
Finally the barrister finished his speech and took his seat with a self satisfied smirk. Gareth was sure the man thought he was being eloquent but no one was impressed. The Church already knew the judge’s verdict, having written it before the trial began, and the peasants were just here to see blood. Then the judge began speaking and Gareth had to suppress an inward groan. The woman was ponderous. If it weren’t so damn hot, he would probably be more appreciative of her craft and solemnity, but everyone knew Williard was going to be sentenced to death. He had killed one of the most powerful men in the Empire in his own bedroom. The fact that Gareth himself had secretly sponsored the assassination and that literally everyone in the Empire applauded his actions in private meant little in a court of law. It was the principle of the matter. Right and wrong meant little before the weight of tradition and ritual that was the Church’s justice system.
Gareth passed the time waiting for the judgement to be pronounced by mentally tracing the rivulets of sweat trickling down his back. He silently vowed to find the public relations flack that decided to place the important official seating uncovered and in the sun and have the man killed. The practical effect is that he couldn’t zone out, fan himself or get refreshments without looking flippant. Apparently the decision was made to make the Church officials more ‘visible’ so that the peasants could see them during the important proceedings. Gareth certainly didn’t feel dignified. Shiny, and possibly in need of healing magic due to low grade heatstroke, but not exactly dignified.
Eventually, the judge began the ritual invocation to Al’Shazan. With some effort, Gareth pushed back his seat and stood up, taking his cap from his sweat drenched brow and putting it over his heart. Near him, the rest of the inquisition elders did likewise as the judge began exhorting the God of All to guide her towards truth and justice. Almost then minutes after she began talking, her sentence was pronounced. Death via divine flame, the same punishment the Church had leveled on heretics and traitors since time immemorial. Utterly unremarkable except for the part where it would be carried out immediately in Diyall Square in front of the crowd. Great for cowing the masses into realizing the horrifying consequences of opposing the Church, not great for keeping the already unacceptable temperatures near a more manageable level. Worse, the higher level officiants in the Church would all be expected to take part in the invocation which meant getting within thirty feet of the cage where Williard was gagged and restrained. Even without the heat it was a gross process. The last time Gareth hadn’t been able to get the smell of melting heretic out of his best cape for weeks.
Groaning to himself he exited the designated seating and walked with several other senior priests towards Williard’s cage. The ritual went smoothly, the five highest ranking priests invoking Al’Shazan’s holy name and calling down the fire of heaven in a suitably impressive pillar of flame that consumed the poor man. Walking back to the stand he smiled slightly to himself as he considered the next stage of the ceremony. Now that Matthias’ killer was put to rest, it was time to bury the Knight-Commander himself and Gareth was one of the man’s pallbearers.
Everyone of import knew the animosity between the two of them, but when someone as important as Gareth offered to participate in the ceremony, anyone who valued their career couldn’t say no. The message to everyone watching was clear. Symbolically he called down the flame of heaven before dumping his enemy’s defeated corpse into its grave. He put Matthias into the ground both literally and figuratively and they could be next.
A pretty little piece of political theater put together by Balthus. Anne approved of course, but Gareth couldn’t help but notice that neither Anne nor Balthus were out here in the sweltering heat casting spells and engaging in hard labor. That was the way of things wasn’t it, the two of them were thinkers, planners and artists, and then the accountants and clerks were left to do the real work.
An hour or two later, the funeral itself was done and Gareth strode through Matthias’ funeral reception triumphantly. Only the most powerful of the powerful were invited to the luncheon reception, and all of them had seen him make eye contact with the gaggle of inquisition elders as he had ‘accidentally’ dropped the body at the last second, causing the coffin to split open and reveal Matthias’ abused corpse for all to see. They had all heard him half heartedly apologize about how ‘mistakes happen when you get careless,’ again while staring down the elders. Gareth was proud of that one. Usually Anne and Balthus didn’t give him much room to improvise, but the intentional mistake seemed appropriate. Given the upcoming crisis in Dakhmar, it wasn’t the time to be subtle. It was time to make a statement even if that statement was as straightforward as publically shouting ‘if you step out of line I will kill you.’
With a smile on his face he approached a gaggle of the most prominent elders of the inquisition where they clustered around a buffet table. As if their corruption and horrid sexual proclivities wasn’t enough, one of them was visibly stuffing hors d’oeuvres into a satchel. Gareth rolled his eyes at the man’s excess. The funeral banquet was already ruinously expensive, it didn’t need a penny pincher exacerbating the situation.
“Now, now Hainswoth,” Gareth slapped the furtive old man on the back, “that’s hardly good manners. You wouldn’t want someone sneaking a take home bag at your funeral would you? If so let me know, I’ve been putting together lists and I want to make sure I can accommodate everyone’s wishes. You never know when such a thing will come in handy.”
“What do you mean by that,” Elder Brimford, another elder, responded hesitantly, turning to acknowledge Gareth’s approach.
“Just what it sounds like,” Gareth answered playfully. “There sure have been a lot of people dying recently and I didn’t want to be unprepared if it were to happen again suddenly. Especially to such august personages as the elders of the inquisition. Don’t worry, we already have contingencies in place to free the children from the unspeakable sex dungeons in your mansions. I really don’t know how you were able to keep those from Matthias for as long as you did, they seem fairly sinful to me but then again, I’m hardly an expert on the matter.”
“Minister Theones, we hardly kept people in those dungeons,” Elder Hainswoth interjected, gesturing heatedly with a skewer of shrimp that he had been in the process of sliding into his bag. “It is true that the law protects against the exploitation of children, but that only applies to human children. There is no prohibition against having some fun with lizard person and beast folk young. After all, they are little more than animals. There is no such law protecting animals so everything we have allegedly done is on the up and up. Perfectly legal.”
“Now, I don’t actually mean to humor that rather intense bit of racism,” Gareth cocked his head to the side, staring at Hainsworth quizzically, “but there actually are laws protecting animals from sexual exploitation. High Priest Aster instituted the ‘Lonely Farmers’ Act’ almost eight years ago with the unanimous approval of the Triumvirate, including Matthias’ predecessor.”
“Well, this is different,” Hainsworth huffed, “no one who matters has complained about it before now, and given the Empire’s instability neither you nor Aster have the stones to do anything about it.”
“You do know that High Priest Aster just proposed having all of you killed out of hand when he found out about this, right?” Gareth questioned the old men, half smile still on his face. “We were trying to weigh out how to deal with the issue, and his solution was just to have you all die in the same night at the hands of ‘Matthias’ enemies.’ It would be a thin excuse, but after you let Matthias stay in power for as long as you did, he isn’t exactly convinced that the continued existence of your order is in the Church’s interest.”
“Really,” Gareth sighed theatrically, placing a hand on his chest as he affected an aggrieved tone of voice, “I’m of half a mind to compromise and just turn you over to the judiciary for another round of show trials. I can assure you that you are in the vast minority in thinking that abusing the children of imperial citizens is legal. Ironically, the conservatives will want your heads almost as much as the progressives. One side for consorting with animals and the other for being callow monsters.”
“Minister,” Elder Hainswoth puffed out his bony chest and tried to loom over Gareth to little effect. “Do you mean to try and threaten us, the noble elders of the inquisition with your words here today? We represent hundreds of years of history and ritual. The Empire will not simply stand by while you cast us down. There will be riots in the streets as the people themselves stand firm against this naked power grab.”
“Hainswoth,” Gareth’s half smile flashed teeth. “I don’t think you realize how much damage Knight-Commander Samuels did to the inquisition. Even with our efforts to prop you up to maintain the Empire’s stability, the average peasant hated the inquisition near the end. In no small part because the nobles hate you even more than the peasants. While your lot have been too busy playing court politics in the Ember Palace, the rest of the Empire has passed you by. If you do not appoint our pick Knight-Commander and gracefully retire, we will have you castrated and publicly murdered for your crimes. Even if someone values the experience and institution of the elders, the simple answer is for us to appoint new elders on the occasion of your passing.”
All three of the elders gasped, Hainsworth dropping a drumstick. They glanced at each other nervously, obviously unsure as to whether Gareth was bluffing or not. Gareth surreptitiously kicked the drumstick under the buffet table.
“When you die,” Gareth’s grin had completely transformed, there was no mirth, just a sharklike display of teeth. “There will be no lamenting, there will be no state funeral. I control public sentiment, and before long you will be the monsters of every play, and the villain of every opera. The people of the Empire will spit on the ground at your passing. Instead, I offer you mercy, retreat with dignity and live out the last of your days in seclusion. The public will still hear of your misdeeds, but Balthus has grudgingly agreed to not prosecute your actions further. I’m afraid that it is the best deal you’re likely to get.”
“But Minister Theones,” Elder Brimford interjected hastily, “the inquisition has always been run independently and it has always had its elders. We represent an institution almost as old and hallowed as the Church itself. You can’t simply throw us out on the street due to a couple bad decisions. At least give us a chance to make amends before you punish us en masse. I’m sure once you hear our side of things it won’t look nearly as bad as whatever report you’ve received. We’ve always acted for the overall benefit of the Empire. Even if we might have wandered astray from time to time, we’ve had our reasons.”
“Your reasons?” Gareth questioned dryly. “Please tell me all about your reasons.”
“Hull Brimford,” he continued, reciting word for word from the man’s dossier. “Aged seventy one, served with some distinction against the armies of the deceiver. Most of said distinction was purchased or exaggerated. His actual service was with the quartermaster’s office where he saw combat only twice and strong evidence exists that he embezzled arms and pay meant for crusaders on the front. Later he continued his service as a militia commander in the Walform province where he frequently took bribes from local organized crime to look the other way. He was strongly suspected of coordinating with said organized crime to leave the local magistrate unguarded so that he could be assassinated due to her anti-corruption practices. Later, he took a position with inquisition high command at the Ember Palace where he accepted money on nine occasions to close an inquiry into a clearly sinful person or organization. He took money at least twice to close an investigation into a clearly heretical organization. He took money fourteen times to open an investigation and find sin in innocent or otherwise blameless people or organizations.”
“Now Minister Theones,” Brimford interrupted nervously, twitching slightly as he put his hand on Gareth’s shoulder, “I’m sure this is all speculation and hardly necessary. I really don’t think you need to keep going.”
“He had Elder Simonson murdered to open up a position within the elder of the inquisition,” Gareth continued, ignoring the shaking old man. “Upon Simonson’s death, paid to have two rivals for the position discredited and used his contacts with organized crime to have the third killed in a fabricated tavern brawl.”
“Hull!” Elder Hainsworth gasped, “You had Simonson and Jeffers killed? I know I had my differences with Simonson, but he was a decent man and Jeffers was a protege of mine. Plus, Jeffers owed me money. I always thought that his death was a bit suspicious, but the man did love his drink a little bit too much so I was never able to confirm that it was anything other than an unfortunate accident.”
“If it makes anyone feel better,” Gareth supplied helpfully, “Simonson had three affairs while in office, killing the husband of one of the women he was sleeping with and had two children from those affairs murdered before they could publicly name him as the father. Jeffers used his authority to cover up at least six previous bar fights that resulted in the death or dismemberment of another individual at his hands. In short, neither of them were actually decent men and their deaths weren’t really that great of a loss. Except whatever was owed to Elder Hainsworth. I can empathize with the pain of failing to recover an unpaid debt due to an overly convenient death.”
The entire crowd of elders shifted uncomfortably, none of them willing to make eye contact with Gareth. Most of them were aware of what they had done to assume their positions, with the obvious exception of Elder Patterson who suffered from syphilitic dementia. Despite acquiring the condition through a fairly profound lack of interest in the concept of consent, he had spent most of his twilight years thinking that he was a duck and focusing on consuming puddings. These days, he was probably the most blameless of the elders and in all likelihood he would be allowed to maintain his position. After all, they would be able to secure his vote with nothing more than a bribe of bread crumbs and dessert.
“Now gentleman,” Gareth spoke into the silence that consumed the buffet table after his dressing down of Brimford. “I have a dossier on each of you, and to be honest, Hull was relatively middle of the road. It’s more than enough to have each of you and your families burned in Diyall square in fairly short order, but doing so would destabilize the Empire. Right now, that’s the only thing keeping you alive, but it’s a rather thin protection. If we have to push the issue, we will and you will all go up like a cheap set of floats at a festival of lights. Now, I don’t need your responses immediately, we want to make sure you have a proper amount of time to think your situations over. I just expect those answers by tomorrow morning. You can give them to the hooded men removing you from your government suites at sunrise.”
“I do apologize for being such a downer,” he continued as no one responded, “please do enjoy the buffet. I’m particularly proud of the diversity of products on the dessert table.”
Patterson clapped and quacked excitedly.