I took Lady Vesonna’s advice, finding the chapel behind the keep, built so that its rear wall and the inner curtain were the same thick stack of stones. The walls that pulled away from that defensive structure had been constructed more delicately, with corbels supporting the overhanging roof, this covered in brass roofing tiles long since covered in a green patina. The front wall contained three wood double doors, though humble in size, in recessed arches with an overhanging tympanum of the loyal Firstborn of The One—or maybe saints of one sort or another. I wasn’t really sure which. The front facade pushed upward to buttress the roof with a triangular rise of stone covered in arched pinnacles and miniature spires.
Between the doors, the stone relief of a tree—the Tree. On the left, the Tree bare and lifeless, with Ashaera suspended from it in miniature. On the right, the Tree empty of our savior, but in bloom and replete with fruit and flowers.
The middle doors stood slightly ajar and I could faintly hear the chanting of morning prayers. Attempting to maintain respectful silence, I pushed the doors open just enough that I could slip in. The building itself was relatively small, the main room maybe twenty feet wide and thirty feet from doors to the altar, a grand piece of stone worn slightly at the edges with use, carved with intricate scenes taken from the Book. A tree in bloom fashioned from a single piece of wood, stained to protect it and to bring out the detail of the carving, stood in the table’s center, flanked on either side by short, fat candles happily burning, releasing a pungent yet pleasant. Under all three items, a runner of gold and green hanging down on the right and left sides of the table.
A man stood facing that altar, flanked on either side by a boy dressed in the white of acolytes to the Temple. Together, they intoned a chant in Old Cantic, beautiful and haunting, the language of Ashaera and the original language of the Book.
The man in the center wore simple robes of muted green, without embroidery or embellishment. Given the reputation for ostentation of the Temple priests, I found both surprising and refreshing. From behind him, I could see that his chestnut hair was graying at his temples and the tips of his beard, his hear cut to a moderate length, somewhere between utilitarian and fashionable. He sang with baritone voice, deep to contrast the higher voices of the children at his sides.
I waited. When the chanting had ceased, the two boys turned away to see me while the man knelt before the altar in some silent prayer. Once they’d seen me the two broke in to a run, frantic words exchanged in excited voices once they’d cleared the doors to the outside. But the man remained undisturbed in his prayer, taking his time. Finally, he back away from the altar on his knees, bowed low, and turned to rise. His was a hard face, unmoved by my sudden appearance. He peered at me from under bushy eyebrows, his eyes the deep color of his hair. His hair had also begun to gray under his bulbous nose; he impressed me with a sense of hard-won wisdom.
“My lord, Iaren amn Ennoc,” he said, his accent thick with Ealthebad.
“The news of my arrival travels fast.”
“Not quite. But we do not often see guests of the lord roaming free inside the inner gate, and of those expected to arrive alone any time soon, you are the last. Simple deduction.”
“You must be Barro, then. The priest. Though I must admit that my deduction was simpler than yours.”
He smiled, causing his beard to bristle as the hairs splayed out with his stretching cheeks. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance, my lord thaumaturge.”
“What, no prayers against me, no sign of the Tree? You seem to have taught your flock to fear my kind.”
“My apologies for that, my lord. I know better; I am a learned man. Studied at the University of Unbronad, you see. Met my fair share of shapers, thaumaturges, and other practitioners of the Art. I understand that you are human, possessed of both good and evil, and that your Gift may accentuate that good or evil, but is not the salient factor in your demeanor or morality. The people of Vaina, however, are not so experienced. The only practitioners they are likely to encounter are the witch Falla, who lives in the wilds outside of town, or traveling charlatans who may pass through to defraud my flock before vanishing in the night. Their fear protects them. From being taken advantage of, from straying from the Path, from being tempted into corruption by those of maleficent intent and no control over their Gift.”
“This Falla, tell me about her.”
“As I said, a sorceress and a witch. She lives in the Old Aenyr ruins outside of town, where she performs workings for those townsfolk foolish enough to avail themselves of her Art. Divinations, potions, what she calls ‘blessings,’ amulets and the like. Deviltry if it’s not charlatanry.”
“You’re sure of that?”
He looked at me with an expression of incredulity. “Is there any doubt? She’s had no formal training, no apprenticeship, no education and has never been licensed by the Conclave or any other authority. I know enough about the Art to know that it’s use without training is dangerous to both body and soul.”
“I won’t argue with that,” I admitted.
“Of course you won’t; you’re a man of learning and no fool.” The dismissiveness of his rhetoric annoyed, but I had no need to argue with him and plenty of reasons to stay on his good side. He’d given me a good lead, after all, whether he knew it or not. “What can you tell me about Lady Aevala?” I continued.
“What do you want to know? I’ll tell you anything that would not violate the sacred bond between penitent and confessor.”
“How does she fare?”
“Terribly, I’m afraid. Insomnia, and nightmares when she sleeps. It is sapping her vigor, a sickness unto death if nothing is done, I believe. That is why I am so hopeful now that you have come and will endeavor to help you in any way I can.”
“Thank you, Father Barro. What can you tell me about Lady Aevala just before these recent events?”
“She…had become preoccupied by something. There seems to have been some tension between her and my Lord Aryden, which was unusual.”
“Tension? Over what?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’ve heard that they’re trothbonded to one another.”
“That is true. An excellent example to their subjects. Paragons of Ashaeran virtue despite the wanton proclivities of Altaenin culture.”
I brushed off the casual insult. “So you don’t think that any trouble between them was the result of an affair?”
Barro’s face became condescending; I’d apparently asked a question the whole world already knew the answer to. “Of course not. They are devoted to one another. I suspect that the tension between them—and my lady’s preoccupation—had more to do with the Lady Vesonna.”
“How so? Has she displeased her parents?”
“No, not that I’m aware. She’s a willful child, and perhaps too clever for her own good, but she is dutiful and honors her parents as the Book expects. I think that the lord and lady disagree over the Meradhvor engagement.”
“It seemed that Lord Aryden looks forward to finalizing a contract. You think that the lady is not so inclined?”
“Our lord is a good man, but he can be stubborn in his management of the family, and he has become well-accustomed to his authority. I think it’s likely that the lady expressed her dissatisfaction with the match and my lord overruled her.”
“But the negotiations started before the apparition appeared?”
“When did Edanu arrive?”
“Only after my lady fell ill and the specter began to afflict us.”
“Hmm.” That killed that theory, unless House Meradhvor had some unknown agent inside the amn Vaina household acting in their interests before Edanu arrived as envoy. I wouldn’t put it past them, but had they decided to remove the Lady Aevala’s objections to the marriage from having an effect, there would have been simpler—and more expedient—ways to accomplish that. Had the lady Aevala’s illness been the only fact at play, I’d have suspected poison. But the “haunting,” whatever it was, just didn’t match up. It was still to early to be formulating theories, so I tried to silence my mind on the subject. It didn’t listen, so I distracted myself by changing the subject. “Have you seen the spirit yourself?”
“No; I’m afraid not.”
“The Temple has rituals for the cleansing of spirits, you haven’t thought to try one?”
“No, my lord thaumaturge. The One has given the Gift and practitioners of the Art for our protection. Did the Noght Gennigt not establish that? I will serve my call in leading and counseling my people, but I shall leave to those better suited to it their protection.”
“Then perhaps I should set to that.” I gave a slight nod of respect as I took my leave, not waiting for the priest’s response.
Behind me, he called, “Come find me if I may be of further assistance, my lord thaumaturge.”