Avvad, oh mighty Imperium, warrior of the Four Realms
Volcanic Valem puffing up its backside
The leash of the Silks held in the hands of the Tefra
Priests too ugly to remove their masks
Fear, the yoke of its people, in the guise of belief
A cattle nation of conquerors the Kahin-Shah leads
The Qao Fu jaitin, ever on the edge of ruin,
Skulking in caves like beasts hiding from hunters
Eating algae in place of bread and honey,
Too timid even to hunt down meat,
Too wise to enter the world at large
The Bali ishakas, a people of plateaus
Who succeed in only tearing each other down
Living in a land of plenty, yet never wealthy
They sit under thorny trees, hoping for wisdom
Like children, their Shakas squabble among themselves,
Neglecting to see the tiger prowling at their backs
And Oedija — ah, Oedija — my home of contradictions
The Pearl of Civilization, yet fearful even of its jester
The advocates of freedom propped up on the backs of slaves
A people who rule themselves by choosing others to rule them
A religion that died when the gods
Abandoned us to the Tyrant Wardens
What world do we live in?
It seems a mean and feeble place
Yet the Four Realms are the last bastion of civilization
In a world spiraling toward chaos…
- High Poetry of Lowly Things; by Hilarion the Second; 1085 SLP
Five long days passed.
I sat in a cafe by myself, sipping a cup of coffee, spirits low. Presumably, I waited for Xaron and Nomusa. Zipho, the owner of the cafe and a friend of ours, had a lead for a job for us and had asked us to meet at her cafe two turns past noon. After a morning of fruitless sniffing around, I'd arrived early and sat silently to drink my coffee.
I didn't want to abandon the hunt. I didn't want to consider other jobs. But with our purses rapidly lightening and food prices continuing to climb, I didn't have another choice. To make no mention of Nomusa and Xaron's continued resistance. Nomusa had tried bullying Maesos into letting us finish his job, but the loyal glassblower had stood firm even before her anger. Yet with the way things were going, I would have to track down Zotikos after all, if only for a little coin to continue my inquiries.
For five days, I'd scrambled for information. I'd tried to enter the Laurel Palace and been rebuffed. I'd tried to enter the Acadium to see Archmaster Kyros and the Tribunal to see Tribune Vusumuzi, but been turned away at both gates. I'd thrown coins at hints of whispers and received less back.
The immediacy of the puzzle was rapidly dissipating. Myron had received a small, private funeral, at odds with the man who had always drawn a crowd. Plans for Asileia's Ascension were well underway and would commence the next day. Soon, she would be the Ruling Wreath. Whether or not she was behind her father's murder, I doubted she would be amenable to someone investigating it.
For all my efforts, I'd learned little. Feiyan had met with Asileia again and again, confirming my suspicions of a relationship between them. But what sort of relationship remained unclear. Valemish temples continued to be well-frequented, but if the traffic was innocuous or not, I could not tell. Finally, whispers told of activity from within deme Thys. Xaron had said the Manifest had gathered a village there, and from what I heard, he wasn't wrong. Thousands of people were said to have set up in the encampments around the lake in the deme, and all were hoping for an impossible dream: to become attuned to the Pyrthae. But I didn't think a cult, even a growing cult lauding wardens, was likely to be behind killing Oedija's monarch.
I'd seen Talan yesterday during one of my long treks out for information. The Guilder had been less than empathetic and repeated his offer to accompany me into the heart of Sandglass's Valemish temple, pointing out I had no better leads. I found myself considering it before I returned to my senses. I wondered how desperate I'd be before I accepted, and feared I wasn't far off.
A quarter-turn after they were due to arrive, Nomusa and Xaron entered the cafe. I'd already finished my coffee.
"About time," I said drily as they approached my table.
"We're not that late," Nomusa objected. "And you can wait a little longer while we get drinks." She headed toward the bar that ran through the center of the room, behind which the portly Bali who owned the cafe, Zipho, bustled.
"Order mine too — you know what I like." Xaron sat down opposite me. "Learn anything interesting while you were out?"
I shrugged and recounted the day's learnings. "So not much."
He nodded sympathetically. For a moment, he looked as if he would say more. But he pressed his lips back together.
"Let me guess," I said. "You think the hunt's dead in the water."
"I didn't say that. But I wouldn't be wrong if I had."
I shook my head. "I'm not done yet."
He shrugged and looked away.
An awkward silence fell. Despite my annoyance, I made a play at reconciliation. "And what did you do this morning?"
His gaze wandered to the ceiling. He didn't have to answer for me to know.
"Gone to your mysterious woman again?"
He finally met my eyes. "I've told you," he said with a touch of irritation, "it's not like that."
"Then what's it like? You haven't told us any details."
"I'll tell you. Eventually."
Nomusa approached the table and, seating herself, set Xaron's drink in front of him, a mug of coffee so sweetened with honey and milk as to be almost unrecognizable.
"What'd she say?" I asked.
"She was annoyingly vague." Nomusa took a sip of her coffee and made a face. "And distracted. I'd ask her for another drink if I thought it would be any better. You would think being the true Heir of our ishaka would count for more."
Normally, I would have rolled my eyes at Nomusa invoking her claim to royalty. Not that it was untrue. When she was a child, her father, Shaka of the Yorandu, had been killed with the rest of her family. Only her aunt and Nomusa had survived. Fearing for Nomusa's life, she had taken her to Oedija and cared for her until her death. Since then, Zipho, also of the Yorandu ishaka, had taken her under her wing and treated her in a uniquely Bali blend as her rightful leader and an errant daughter.
But I was far from a joking mood. I couldn't think of who else Zipho would want us to meet other than a prospective client. With dread, I thought about how much harder it would be to drown out Nomusa and Xaron's objections to my fruitless pursuit when we had a paying job waiting in the wings.
She shrugged. "All I know is that we're meeting someone soon and were lucky they didn't arrive before us."
Just then, someone entered the cafe. All three of us looked around expectantly.
Xaron quickly turned back to the table, eyes wide. "Tribune," he muttered.
My heart hammered in my chest as I stared at the Tribune. The Bali man was dressed in the maroon robes of the Tribunal and stood scanning the cafe with a calm expression. His skin was dark and rich as newly rained earth. Though his robes hung thick about him, his thin face betrayed his spare frame. White gloves peeked out from beneath wide sleeves, and around his neck hung a bronze medallion composed of two half-circles connected by a thin lattice of silvery threads. The robes were sign enough of who he was, but the medallion legitimized his station as part of the Confessionary Tribunal, Oedija's judiciary branch of the government.
I leaned forward and spoke in a low voice. "That's not just any Tribune. That's Tribune Vusumuzi. He looked into Myron's death, and is in charge of the Shepherds."
Zipho bustled over to the Tribune and made a big show of pouring him a drink, a performance at which Vusumuzi smiled politely.
"Did Zipho want us to meet him?" Nomusa whispered, incredulous.
My mouth had gone dry. This couldn't have come at a better time. After all my scrambling, here was someone with firsthand information of the murder. Why now, of all times, Zipho chose to introduce us was beyond me. But if the gods wanted to bless me with good luck, I wasn't going to object.
"They're coming," Xaron muttered as the pair approached. It took me a moment to understand the depth of his nervousness. Then it finally clicked. Tribune Vusumuzi, being in charge of the Shepherds, enforcers of the laws restricting wardens, would undoubtedly make a feral like Xaron uncomfortable.
The Tribune held a steaming cup as he stopped before our table. From behind his back, Zipho gestured impatiently for us to rise. We readily complied.
"Nomusa-sha," Zipho said, addressing Nomusa in the Bali usual practice, "please meet Tribune Yorandu Vusumuzi-sa. Honored Tribune, this is Eshalo Yorandu Nomusa-sha, true Heir to our ishaka."
Vusumuzi bowed and offered his arm. Nomusa gripped it at the forearm from above, while he gripped from below.
"Vusumuzi-sa," she said formally, "I am always delighted to meet a fellow of our ishaka. Have you been gone from it long? Zipho-ma has not given your family name."
"Please, call me Vusu, Nomusa-sha," the Tribune said as he withdrew his hand. "And as you may already suspect, I left our home a long time ago. The family I come from is no longer of consequence, as I am its last member." Though his words were firm, he smiled in a kindly manner.
"His tatu tell a different story," Zipho said conspiratorially. "He has only shown me once, but my eyes do not deceive. From the line of the old kings, he is."
I knew little of the history of the Bali chiefdoms, and nothing of the kingdom that had once united them. I glanced at his sleeves hiding the tatu. Nomusa's eyes showed she wished to see them as well but did not ask. Perhaps it would be considered rude.
"It is not entirely out of the realm of the possibility," Vusu said with a smile. Then he turned to me. "And may I ask your name?"
I was off balance for a moment that he addressed me directly. Typically, Bali spoke only to each other, even when others were present. Perhaps he had been so long in Oedija that he had adopted our manners.
"Airene," I said after a moment's pause. "Of Port."
He nodded slowly. "Very nice to meet you." He held out his palm face-up, and I hesitated before greeting him the Bali way. Even through his sleeve and glove, his skin felt feverish. I withdrew quickly, studying him. Was he ill? It would explain his thinness. When I met his gaze, he smiled at me, and something of it seemed sad. It confused me, but I didn't let it show in my expression.
"And you?" Vusu said, looking past me to Xaron, who stood the furthest back of us all.
"Xaron of Port."
Vusu held out his hand, but Xaron looked aside as if distracted. Vusu let his arm drop but gave my friend a considering look. I wished Xaron had simply accepted the greeting. He risked drawing the Tribune's suspicion.
Zipho watched the exchanges with more than a bit of her own puzzlement, but she quickly recovered her sheen of affability and turned to Nomusa. "I thought you all might be interested in talking."
With a nod, she returned to her counter to attend to the growing line of customers.
Vusu made no move to sit, so Nomusa, Xaron, and I remained standing. Silence fell between us as Vusu studied each of us. Despite the awkwardness, his gaze remained calm. I wondered what Zipho's reason for introducing us was. I didn't dare believe what I hoped it was for.
I broke the silence. "Tribune Vusumuzi, I'm sure you've been busy these past few days."
He smiled again. "No more than usual, I'm afraid. Myron's death is just the latest trial."
It seemed a flippant dismissal. Could Vusu not suspect anything of it? Could it be a natural death after all? My stomach sank.
Desperate to keep my hopes afloat, I said, "I would think the Despot's death is a greater challenge than most."
Vusu continued to wear his slight smile. "It is a piece falling on a board full of pieces, Airene of Port. But other designs continue forward."
"You see this as a game, then. I wonder who the players are."
The Tribune's eyes crinkled. "No one surprising for you if I'm not mistaken. Yes, I've heard of you three before. Finches, after the Order of Verifiers."
I tried to repress a wince. Our work wasn't exactly illegal, but it couldn't be called sanctioned by the law either. And Xaron's abilities had sometimes been key to our success. Perhaps a pattern would be apparent to one who worked closely with wardens like Vusu.
"Yes," I replied shortly.
"Do not fear. I have no wish to interfere with your work. In fact, I believe it a worthier path than most. After all, at its heart is the pursuit of truth. And truth should always be unveiled, lest we all suffer the consequences of secrecy."
The Tribune was not at all what I'd expected. I wondered what Nomusa and Xaron made of him. "I appreciate you saying that. We try to uphold the Verifiers' mission as much as we can."
"And from what I've heard, you've done well."
I nodded, unsure of what else to say. I knew where I wanted to turn the conversation, but considering the Tribune's earlier dismissal of my inquiry, I didn't think I'd have much luck.
Vusu glanced at the sandglass Zipho had mounted on one wall, which told the time as two-and-a-half turns after noon.
"I fear I must go." He looked to each of us in turn, and I thought his gaze lingered uncomfortably on Xaron. "It was a pleasure meeting you, Airene, Nomusa-sha, Xaron. Do stop by my solar soon. I would like to speak further. Perhaps your talents might be useful in these tumultuous times."
Stunned, I muttered words of thanks, then each of us bowed. The Tribune nodded his acknowledgment and turned away, setting his mug on the counter untouched. Waving his farewell to Zipho, he turned out of the cafe.
A moment later, Zipho bustled up next to Nomusa, staring at the closing door. "That man! Half the time he comes in and forgets to eat or drink. No wonder he's withering away!"
Nomusa drew her close. "Zipho-ma, why did you introduce us to the Tribune? And don't think to play coy with me anymore!"
The cafe owner huffed. "I do not play coy, Nomusa-sha! A Tribune is a good man to know, is he not? Vusumuzi-sa has come here for some time, on and off. I would not have asked him to meet you, as I did not want to overstep my relationship with him."
Nomusa bowed her head in thanks.
"But then he asked about you," Zipho continued.
"He initiated this?" I interjected, forgetting myself.
Both Nomusa and Zipho scowled at me.
"Yes," Zipho replied stiffly, though she looked at Nomusa. "He asked about you two days ago. I was vague, but when he continued to be interested, I invited him here."
"You should have told us more directly," Nomusa rebuked her. "What if he were after us?"
Zipho scoffed. "Vusumuzi-sa is a good man."
"He's a Tribune. Still, thank you. He could be a good person to know."
Making our pardons, we left Zipho's. I burned to ask what their impressions were of the Tribune, but I couldn't do it now. Vusu had known of us. Gratifying as that was, it was worrisome. We would not stand up to the scrutiny of the Tribunal.
But even so, we'd talked to the Tribune, and he wanted to speak further. The inquiry had another lead if I pursued it with patience. A man of contradictions such as Vusu was not to be trifled with lightly. But even with the risks, I would approach him. I couldn't stop now.
I stopped abruptly in the street. Xaron and Nomusa turned back.
"Hunting again?" Nomusa asked in a neutral voice.
"Now?" Xaron objected. "We have a lot to discuss."
"I have to know more if I'm going to speak further with the Tribune." I said it off-hand as if it were a given.
They stared at me, speechless.
"He was there. He saw the scene of Myron's death, and likely his body. If anyone would know if it was murder or not, it's him." I met each of their gazes. "Tomorrow I mean to go to his solar and ask him about it. And I mean to know as much as I can at that time."
Nomusa laughed scornfully and began walking away. Xaron lingered a moment, looking helplessly at me. "Good luck," he said, then followed after her.
As I watched them leave, loneliness settled in again. The three of us had usually worked together. I doubted I could have remained a Finch for so long without them. But still, I couldn't give this up because they would not join. I had to believe that once they saw evidence of a conspiracy, they'd cave. They'd come around in the end.
Someone grabbed my arm.
I startled and spun away, disoriented. Everything came into clear focus as I recognized the honor grinning at me, his hand still extended from touching me. Kako.
"You," I hissed. Fear, cold and clammy, spread inside me.
"Me," Kako agreed easily. "Had you expected someone else?"
"What do you want?"
"You know what I want. Or should I say, what my mistress wants."
Whispers went both ways. Feiyan must have heard I'd been inquiring after her. She was the hawk watching for ripples on a pond, only she had a hundred eyes watching for her.
I had been careless. And carelessness could deliver Xaron straight into the Shepherds' hands.
"We had an agreement," Kako said, his tone pleasant, his eyes anything but. "You were not to investigate anything related to my mistress. In return, we would leave be your… secret."
Fear chilled me. I knew the secret he referred to. As a result of the incident three years when I'd narrowly avoided dying, Feiyan had gathered that either Xaron or Nomusa was a warden. Though she didn't know which of them was, I knew it would do little to protect any of us if Shepherds came knocking at Canopy's door.
Though I needed to appease him, I could give no more than a perfunctory bow. "I apologize. It was not your mistress I've been looking into. It's the woman she's been seen with."
The honor shook his head with a knowing smile. "No, no, Airene of Port. Do not attempt to deceive me with such thin lies. You knew precisely what you sniffed after. Yet like a hungry mongrel, you could not help yourself. I understand this. We all have desires burning inside us, waiting for the opportune moment to sate them."
His gaze had gained an uncomfortable edge. I looked aside. "I will avoid her. You have my word."
The honor took a step closer. "And you will avoid whispers of Asileia Wreath as well," he said in a low voice. "Understood?"
He leaned back, his smile renewed. "Good. Now may you have a pleasant, uneventful day. Can't have too much normalcy in times like these."
He gave a mock bow as he spun off into the crowd. I watched the strange honor as he disappeared out of sight.
I turned and walked quickly toward Canopy. No doubt Feiyan would keep eyes on me still. I would be able to learn nothing more today. But no matter what I'd told Kako, I would not stop. That Feiyan protected Asileia was further confirmation that something was amiss here. I would have to step more carefully and speak more softly and continue on. Despite the risks.
Though I wondered what this hunt would cost.