Chapter Two: The Brown Land
Part Five: The Burnished Throne
It is hard to know in advance the exact point when a man’s patience will reach its limit. For some it is when the last on a heap of disappointments is dropped onto them, and they finally hit a turning point from which there is no return. It is rarely a dignified sight; the result is never something the man would do in his right mind. A wise man once told me that patience is all that separates men from the animals. That and folding clothes.
The exact moment when High Executioner Servath Reznik’s patience reached its limit was when he was hunkered behind a wall, his warjacks were being catapulted around the battlefield by the enemy’s hidden artillery, while trollkin seemed to appear from appear nook and cranny in the otherwise deserted village. His Cleansers, men and women who were more used to burning down heretical but otherwise harmless villages, were scattered to the winds, fleeing in every direction. He had had enough. Hefting his enormous blade, he roared out into the open. Every trollkin gun, every heaving set of jowls that somehow spewed lightning and bile, every eye was on him.
The exact moment when Vice Scrutator Vindictus’ patience reached its limit was when the High Executioner was returned to the Scrutatorial Palace on the bed of a wagon, his fine armour in tatters and Reznik himself unconscious. The training regimen of the Scrutators of Menoth promotes decisiveness in the face of adversity, with a predilection towards grabbing whoever you think is guilty and torturing them until they agree. During his short time in the city, he had been researching his old rival Scrutator Victus Semper and his minions. There was one person in Merwynn who he suspected to be at the bottom of the Menites’ continued reversals, an unwise association for which Semper had a curious blind spot. A scoundrel, a vagabond, a wastrel and a confirmed heretic.
Naturally I was dragged from my bed and stuffed into a sack at the Vice Scrutator’s earliest possible convenience. I woke up tied to a worryingly comfortable chair somewhere deep in the bowels of the Palace, gazing up at the spotless white vestments of the Vice Scrutator. He regarded me from behind his mask with the eyes of a pitiless predator. My lord and master Scrutator Semper generally regarded me with cold disdain, his lord and master Grand Scrutator Severius with anger and distrust. I saw no recognition in the Vice Scrutator’s eyes, no evidence that he knew there was another human being before him. All he saw was a loose screw that he could turn until it fastened everything in place.
“Master Siskington, you stand accused of aiding and abetting the enemy and frustrating the Great Work. You will tell us how you obtained knowledge of our battle plan and who you have been communicating with on the other side.” The voice did not come from Vindictus, it came from somewhere behind me. A method I was well used to from dealing with Semper, keeping the brute force unpredictable and always expected. I waited for the question, I had been an unwilling witness to enough interrogations by now to know that any unsolicited responses would be punished as surely as falsehood.
“Who have you been telling about our actions in the Darkfen?” There was the barest nod from Vindictus, a sound of well-polished metal knobs being manipulated, and suddenly the chair contorted and bucked like a stallion. It would have thrown me off, except that I was strapped down. It made sounds come out of me that you might hear at an abattoir. With this little incentive, I started wracking my brains. I had barely heard anything about the latest moves against the Fenfolk, apart from hiring the mercenaries. I was engaged in other pursuits for my master, spreading the word amongst the criminal element that it was better to leave Sulese shipments alone and that a little brigrandry could be tolerated so long as it was carried out on Morrowans. The mercenaries had known about the plan, but from what I heard most of them were dead. The ne’er-do-wells I was dealing with daily had no reason to know, and I hadn’t told them. There was noone, there was nothing. There was a stabbing pain all up and down my back though, so I thought harder.
Not quick enough though. The chair sang with metal tension, and I felt like every one of my limbs would break at once. All the blood rushed to my head, and I could barely hear my questioner above the pounding in my skull. “I have to insist that you answer in some wise, Master Siskington, or I will have Leonard turn the handle all the way. I don’t think you will enjoy it. Who have you been telling about our actions in the Darkfen?” At this point I was about to tell him the name of everyone I had spoken to in the last two months. Scrutator Semper. Grand Scrutator Severius. Hairy Ned from Cannon Street. A girl called Roaldia I’d been seeing on and off for a few weeks. My own mother. Anything to get me out of this chair.
The exact moment when Scrutator Victus Semper’s patience reached its limit was when his internal spies whispered to him that the Throne Room was in use without his permission, and that the subject was none other than his personal henchman Master Siskington. Now we had had our differences, and he may only have pressganged me into Menoth’s service because I was the most convenient gutter-rat he could dredge up. He may have found me personally odious and doubted the integrity of his soul after our every meeting. But in the name of the Lawgiver, I was his guttersnipe, and there was some history between him and Vice Scrutator Vindictus which made my torture an unacceptable turn of events.
Just as I was about to turn stool pigeon on everyone I’d ever met, the door to the chamber first creaked and then exploded inwards, showing the room with splinters. Scrutator Semper stood in the doorway, his eyes shining with a hellish light. He threw out a hand, it was encircled for a moment with the weak light of tiny runes. My bounds sprang open at the bidding of their master, and I was dumped without ceremony onto the cold flagstones of the floor. Never had I felt so blessed than when my head rebounded against that cool stone. Welcome darkness engulfed me.
As I was not a witness, I cannot report verbatim the conversation that passed between the Vice Scrutator and his subordinate in the following minutes. Sufficed to say their old acquaintance was revisited with a vengeance. A Sul-Menite priest’s education does not leave much room for friendship or nostalgia, and it did not help that the two men were so similar. Vindictus was the more powerful wizard and political manipulator, while Semper was an administrator par excellence and a long-term schemer to beat the band. They agreed that I was a security risk, but my treatment was unacceptable. I was to be confined and kept ignorant of any plans they were making, and they would ensure total secrecy relating to any further battle plans. My use in the streets of Merwynn could wait until they were sure if I was the leak.
I awoke in a chamber bathed with fetid half-light, on a hard wooden pallet. My head felt like I had been dragged head-last up a set of stairs, which was indeed the case. But I wasn’t bound at the wrists or feet, and all of my bones appeared to be in the right place. The day was looking up. There was someone speaking.
“So you don’t think that the Greensnakes are likely to make a move in the autumn when the beef markets start selling again? You’re a bigger fool than you look.”
Brother Clarence hove into view, looking confused. He was wearing his street-disguise, looking like any other yokel refugee from the hinterland, swept into the underworld of Merwynn where his brawn could be put to good use. He took a look at my bleary face, and stood back with his hands on his hips.
“What’s wrong with you, old sport?”
“Nothing, who were you talking to?”
“You…we were talking about the Greensnakes.”
I was bewildered. Sitting up (and regretting it), I rubbed my eyes and looked about the chamber. There was straw on the floor and a narrow slit which let in the smog. The door had no handle on this side. So I was a “guest of the Scrutator”. Clarence had come to visit me, that was nice.
“No idea what you’re talking about, Clarence. I’ve been out for the count I’m afraid.”
The Knight Exemplar leaned against the wall, shaking his head. Then, as if hit by a lightning bolt, he leapt across the room and grabbed me by the scruff of my jerkin.
“You and I! We’ve been talking for about ten minutes! You remember nothing?”
I shook my head, worried that he would throttle me to death and finish the job Vindictus had started. I had no idea what had come over the man, usually so calm in the face of every situation.
“You were talking about your spies in the Greensnakes criminal organisation, stuff you should barely have told me, let alone anyone else who could overhear. It seems, old boy, that you talk in your sleep.”
He had calmed down now, but still held me dangling in the air with as little effort as I would lift a puppy. He frowned, adding things together in his head.
“That chivvy you’ve been seeing…”
I saw where he was going at last. I nodded, my head lolling back and forth like a turkey’s.
“Yeah, she’s stayed over.”
“Rightio. Don’t move a muscle.”
He threw me down on the pallet, and had knocked on the door and was out of the chamber by the time the spots stopped dancing in front of my eyes. Once he was gone, I stood up and started pacing back and forth. It was a habit I had picked up since becoming part of a legitimate enterprise, much more respectable than picking your nose as a ruminatory technique. So it was true, I had spilled the beans. In my sleep, granted, but I doubted the Scrutators would see it that way. Dreamers never lie, isn’t that what they say? In fairness, how was I to know that a dancing girl would turn out to be a spy for the Fenfolk or whoever it was that was giving us a hiding out in the Darkfen?
I thought about the girl. Roaldia, her name was. She was quite the firecracker. Since I had seen her dancing in the Peal of Bells, I had known that she was something special. Like a delicate flower with hidden thorns. I imagined Clarence tracking her down. He was a trained killer, a survivor not only of the regimens of the Exemplinarium but the extra sadisms inflicted by the Errantocracy. He had contacts in every slum and back alley the whole city over, he knew every gang-sign, he would blend in, disappear, and the first you would know of him would be when he was slitting your throat from behind. Still, given what I had seen of Roaldia…I’d give him even odds. I felt a twinge of regret for that. However things shook out, by the end of the day it was likely I’d be losing a friend.