Excerpt from PEOPLE OF JUDGEMENT – now available on Zackerium.com

Jun 25, 2021 | fantasy, The Nine Suns

“It’s a fair offer.”

“It’s an insult.”

“No, an insult would be calling your mother a woman of low virtue…”

“No need to dance around the subject, Orlon. My mother was a whore and the best woman I have ever known. To state the obvious is not an insult. You trying to chisel us like this is an insult.”

Gaebrel let out a sigh, pulling his coat more tightly about it. A cold wind was blowing in from the Empyrean and his breath rolled out in a cloud. Behind him were his companions, standing in silent witness and waiting for this negotiation to end so they could get someplace warm. Even Hurren looked discomfited by the wind, though the ursuhli would never admit to such weakness.

“Captain Harrn,” said Orlon Indelaar of the order of Saint Vitek, who also starting to shiver, but put physical discomfort in a distant second place to his duties, “the Grand Elder himself has agreed to sponsor your admission into the secret archives, the first layman to be given such a privilege in three hundred and seven years…”

“Considering that only yesterday he wanted me irons and locked away for the rest of my life, that’s hardly convincing.” Gaebrel’s hand drifted to the medallion, secure as always in a pocket and well out of sight. He pulled his fingers away a moment later. “So you’ll understand if Yorannan’s word is questionable at the moment.”

“Grand Elder Yorannen to you, Captain! And you know the Oracles convinced him to change his mind.”

“Yes, my eyes are still seeing spots.” After the Blue Oracle finished her fit and recovered her wits, all four of them huddled with the Grand Elder, the Voices of the Source and the Servant of the Godhead talking shop, as it were. A great glowing shield was raised and when it was lowered, Yorannen told Gaebrel and his companions that they could go free, that ‘their course was set by hands greater than his and he would not dare interfere.’ Which only soured Gaebrel’s mood even further…too many strings already pulled at him, pulled by various beings, human and otherwise, whose intentions were opaque at best. “Morrec tells me that all manner of schemes and intrigue is afoot about the worlds of Inveril and Yorannan is not a young man. What if we arrive there a year hence and find ourselves overhauled by a border cutter?”

“My word to you, that will not happen.”

“The word of a Vitekian,” Morrec said with contempt.

Orlon glared at him, then turned back to Gaebrel. “You will have access to the archive. A document has already been prepared and will be placed in your hands once the job is completed.”

“That helps Gaebrel with problem,” said Pohtoli. “But what of the rest of us, who don’t labor under any curse save the fear of poverty? We were supposed to be paid for the last job and no coin has yet graced my palm.”

“You know full well that with the Valarei at war with one another and the Autumn Court can’t spar the funds,” Orlon said, waving his hand at Ilorin. From this distance it looked peaceful, a blue and green orb floating in the dark gray of the Empyrean, the terrible battle raging across its surface invisible to their eyes.

“It doesn’t matter who pays us,” said Gerel, shivering in the cold wind and wear extra layers over his lean form. The dark-skinned warrior hailed from a desert world and hated the cold. “If the Valarei are skint at the moment, then it falls on you.”

“Twenty-five thousand gold caric’s,” Gaebrel said. “For each of us. And access to the archives for myself. And we want it in writing. In return, we find the Valarei’s lost king.”

“Twenty-five thousand!”

“Time is wasting,” Gaebrel said. “Every moment that passes, he gets further away.”

Orlon sighed. “It appears I have no choice. Shall we head below, the feeling is lost from my fingers.”

“By all means. Lead the way.”

“There are three kinds of ilurei.”

Orlon sat beside a small cast-iron stove set in a baked clay mounting, warming his hands by the grill while keeping an eye on the kettle at the top. Gaebrel and his companions were in there was well, save for Hurren, who lurked just outside the cabin door, filling the hallway beyond and occasional shifting aside to allow a sailor to pass. “The kuyei you already know,” he said, nodding at Yasinnic. “The Valarei you have met. The Anrei are something else entirely.”

“Blue skinned, right?” asked Gaebrel

“I hear they are cannibals,” Gerel added.

“Yes…and not exactly,” Orlon said. “Their skins are blue, physically that sets them apart and their ears are taller. As for cannibalism…I am told that is true in some cities, not others. What truly distinguishes them is the nature of their religion, which is focused on blood sacrifice. Like all ilurei, they worship the Source of All, but in their reckoning of things, its continued existence and the entire Universe as a whole, depends on regular blood offerings. There is some theological dispute about the nature of these offerings – the chief one being whether whether so blood comes from ilurei, humans or other thinking beings, or if animals are sufficient.”

“I’ve read they don’t like have a liking for outsiders,” Gaebrel said. “Like the dzur, or the Wennatans.”

Orlon picked up the kettle with a rag and poured a measure of hot water in a cup holding a tea strainer. A delicate aroma filled the cabin as he set the kettle aside and let his tea steep for a moment. “It is more accurate to say they don’t have a liking for the Valarei. The two races have been at war with each other from the very beginning. All the ilurei originated on Ilorin, but early on the anrei vacated the place and settled on the two inner worlds of Fhirial, where they remain numerous and strong. Every year, ships of the Four Courts skirmish with anrei raiders in the Empyrean, with a major war breaking out every century or so. Any prisoners the anrei take are never seen again, sacrificed in one of their rituals.”

“What of anrei prisoners?” Morrec asked curiously.

“There are none,” Orlon responded. “The Valarei kill them on sight.” He picked up the cup, raised it to his lips, then set it back down to cool some more. “Before she left Nan Harel, the Autumn Queen passed on some useful information, courtesy of Lord Keptharo. A flotilla of anrei raiders were attacking merchant ships along one of the routes to Ilorin. They fled once warship flying the Autumn banner arrived on the scene and as no other anrei vessels have been seen near this world, it is likely our friend Artunal is with them. According to Keptharo, the ships were flying the banner of Vaxamaac, a city of note on the world of Maydataru. With the celestial winds blowing in their favor, they should close to home by now.”

“Which side of the religious divide does this city fall on?” asked Morrec.

Orlon picked up his cup. “Hard to say at the moment. My sources claim that the city is divided on the question. Having a noble born man of the Summer Court – even one of mixed birth – would only complicate the matter. Which may give you the opportunity to get him out.”

“Can’t the Valarei tell you more?” Gaebrel asked.

“This does not come from the Valarei,” said Orlon. “My order has its own sources of information on that world.”

“I thought the the anrei didn’t welcome outsiders,” Gaebrel said.

“You weren’t paying attention. They kill Valarei when they have the chance. Humans, ursuhli, even kuyei…well, it depends.” Orlon swirled his tea in the cup, then sipped it. “The larger cities welcome any offworld traders willing to make the trip – few are willing because the Four Courts patrol the routes in and turn back any headed to the inner worlds. But those slip past the blockade are assured of high profits.”

“And you happen to know someone in this city,” said Morrec disbelievingly.

“The Vitekians are the eyes and ears of the High Canon,” Orlon said. “It’s our sworn oath to protect the Faith, to uphold its friends and weaken its enemies. That means making friends in strange places, that some in their salons might deem disreputable.” There was an edge in his voice as he said this and a glare shot Morrec’s way.

Then he shrugged. “In truth, the fellow is a merchant whose done business on several occasions with a trader friendly to our order…I won’t bore you with the details. But he is friendly to our interests and will help you as best he can.”

Orlon set aside the cup and pulled a folded packet of papers from his pocket, sealed with wax bearing the image of his order. “This has more details.”

Gaebrel took the packet. It felt suspiciously thin. “Not much to go on,” he said, handing it to Morrec.

“For twenty five thousand gold carics paid out to every one of you reprobates, it should be more than enough. We pay for results. Speaking of which…” He took out two more folded pieces of paper and lay them on the desk, then opened a drawer in the table and fetched a bottle of ink and a pen. Both documents were covered with lines of text, written in Haleric and marked at the top and bottom with florid oaths swearing fidelity to the terms listed in between.

“Make your marks,” Orlon said, picking up his tea cup.

Gaebrel picked up the papers and skimmed them both. Identical contracts , promising the money and access in return for Artunal’s return. No tricks or codicils. Reluctantly he scrawled his name across the bottom of both, then stepped aside as his companions did the same. Hurren went last, Gaebrel handed him the pen and Gerel offering his back as a writing surface while the ursuhli put a surprisingly delicate signature on both.

“Your copy,” Gaebrel said, handing one of the documents to Orlon.

“Which make this official.” Orlon carefully folded the contract and placed it in the drawer. “Best be on your way, Captain. The longer you wait, the more likely young Artunal will lose his life. And as I said…we pay for results.”

A vibration ran through the Crannenaar ship as the cable fell free from the Sparrow. Sailors gathered about the back deck and began hauling in the rope that was the thickness of a strong mans arm. One of the men called out a work chant, the other timing their movements according to its cadences.

Below the main deck was a large cabin, with windows running along the stern. Orlon stood there, his tea cup in hand and freshly refilled. He watched as Gaebrel and his men opened the sails, the ship shifting course and picking up speed.

“You still disagree.” Grand Elder Yorannan stood beside him, also holding a tea cup in one hand. In the other was a small tin flask, which let out eye-water fumes as he poured a healthy dollop of spirits into his tea.

“It doesn’t matter at this point.” Orlon drained the cup in a single gulp The Sparrow was now a speck id the distance. “But yes, I disagree. Gaebrel Harrn should be locked up in the brig. Leaving him free is an invitation for trouble.”

“You allowed him and his miscreants the freedom to roam about for years, with that medallion in his possession and with full knowledge of what it was.”

“The Infinity Key.” Orlon didn’t hide the bitterness in his voice. “I thought it was a myth! A kezan artifact with the power to sink continents and crack worlds like a dropped egg…only no one knows what it looks like, or if it even exists, ten thousand years after the last kezan turned to dust! Every scholar I’ve spoke to, men who’ve spent their entire lives studying kezan artifacts, every one said it was lost in the civil war that destroyed their empire. There was one man, one of perhaps five in the entire universe who can read their language unaided, who told me the damnable thing never existed, that it was a mix of old legends kicked up by treasure hunters over the centuries…”

“Here.” Yorannan handed him the flask. Orlon poured a measure of spirits into his mouth, then spent the next minute coughing nonstop, handing it back in mid-hack.

“Then I come across young Master Harrn,” he finally said after catching his breath. “With that medallion glued to his side like a boil that won’t be lanced. I figure, why not tell him about it? It didn’t mean anything and on the rare chance he did come across the actual device, it would turn out to be…I don’t know, a magic lamp, or something that turned water into whiskey. Not a weapon that could end the universe!”

“And the fact that the Neverborn were hunting him didn’t raise any warnings?”

“The Agazins scour the universe for artifacts of all kinds, kezan and otherwise! There was one man I heard of, he sold one of their agents hunks of scrap metal from a slag heap, claimed it was from the tomb of an Eburrean prince. Got away with it on three separate occasions, would have survived if he hadn’t gotten greedy and dipped his snout in the trough a fourth time.”

“What happened to him?” Yorannan asked.

“I believe his flayed skin was flown as a banner from the stern of an Agazin frigate…along with the scalp of the fellow who paid him. The point is, letting them run around kept those abominations off balance.” Orlon twisted the tea cup about him his fingers, still disgusted with himself despite the shot of strong spirits. “Gaebrel and his men were useful to my Order, they succeed at the kind of mission that others would consider suicide. They rescued one of their companions from Neverborn captivity, something that would have killed a party four times their size! Then there was that…business around Olysi, I brought them in on that…”

“I’ve read the reports,” said Yorannan. “And I’ve seen the wanted posters.”

“But they succeeded. So when they turned up around Fhirial, it seemed like the Godhead was smiling on us. I needed a band of desperate men for an impossible mission and lo and behold, they were locked up an Autumn Court jail! I had no idea the Neverborn were active, let alone that the damned Infinity Key was real!”

Orlon’s fingers squeezed the cup, then loosened as he felt it creak under his grip. “The ultimate weapon and I let the one man who held its key run around for years. Of course I wanted him under lock and key! I don’t understand why you let him go, you were just as eager to lock them all up…”

“Brother Orlon, you have forgotten one of the first lessons we all learn as novices.” Yorannan slipped the flash back into a pocket. “Faith and Reason…the two gifts of the Godhead to his children, the two lamps by which we find out way through the darkness. But far too many people who should no better think they only need one or the other. Even those who are sworn to the Faith…especially you Vitekians. Far too many of your brethren think that Reason is enough and discount the insights of Faith, seeing as unnecessary or even misleading. It is a fault you share with those heretics and apostates who deny the existence of the Divine and claim that we are nothing more that the crude material we see and touch. But at least with your Order, it is a fault you come by honestly, spending so much time in the outer dark in the pursuit of your duties.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Reason tells us what we should do,” said the Grand Elder. “Faith tells us why we should do it. In the end, you and I are nothing more than servants to the Godhead, laboring to the day when this flawed Universe might be made anew. Take it on Faith that leaving that band of rascals free to cause what chaos they can is Divinely ordained. Who are we to stand in the way of the Will of Heaven?”

Orlon still looked doubtful. The Grand Elder patted him on the shoulder, as a father might a confused son. “For what it’s worth, your skills at bargaining those fellows down will not go unnoticed. Twenty five thousand for each? Who knew heroism could come so cheaply?”

“Imagine their faces,” Orlon said, a smile at last ghosting across his face, “when they find out they could have demanded five times as much!”

The Grand Elder’s laugh carried across the Empyrean.

PEOPLE OF JUDGEMENT (Book Five of the Nine Suns) now available on Zackerium.com!

Also available: