E X C O R P O R I B U S : I I
Completed January 26, 2019 (♒)
That the Northern Sky had somehow turned the Nanten back from the pass was a miracle, but there was no sense of that when they rode back into Lesalia. The streets of the capital were thick-packed with refugees from the western duchies, and none wished to think overlong as to whether their protectors might have cut down a neighbor or kinsman in the thick of the battle. As Zalbag wound his way back towards the heart of the city, he recognized that it had not rained since the night of his departure. The green on the trees outside the imperial palace seemed out of step with the season. Though it was midsummer, the hills he’d passed riding south had all been the color of rust.
Dycedarg had found him before he’d found his own offices again, and he embraced him with uncharacteristic enthusiasm and a sharp laugh.
“How does it feel to be a hero again, brother? They won’t last half the autumn at this rate!”
Zalbag had smiled and said nothing.
Later, after the War Council had informed him of all the particulars that hadn’t been sent him on the field, after Larg invited him to dine and wholly understood that he should decline, after some chemist did him the service of cutting out the catgut from a minor wound before it healed wrong--after all that, he found his way to where they’d quartered him in the palace and sat still in the gathering dark.
He reached beneath his tunic and pulled out the wrought iron icon that had lain hard against his skin all throughout the weeks prior. There was a dizzying sort of nausea to hold it and know it was real--to have tangible evidence that the last night he had stayed in Lesalia prior was spent on a bed that Wiegraf Folles had pressed him into.
He exhaled deeply. It was a selfish thing to let a sin he had undertaken willingly grieve him so much. His brother was being hunted by the devout in all the seven territories. His sister had vanished, possibly in a known heretic’s company. He had spent the past three weeks cutting down men who like as not once marched alongside him into Ordallia. If he wanted to wallow in his shame over letting some criminal Templar despoil him, he told himself he could take it to a confessor.
He was not rushing to do so, however, nor did he put the icon away. The fact that he had opted to wear it all this time and not to discard it for another said enough about how he regarded the matter.
On that evening, looking out at the dimming outlines of Lesalia’s steeples and towers, he held it fast.
He gripped tightly that memento of his one and only lapse from chastity, and realizing the perverse futility of the gesture, he used it to pray.
Zalbag awoke to the sounding of Lauds from the high cathedral, prayed once more, washed, and prepared himself for whatever would be demanded of him now that he was back in the midst of men who did not make their living on the battlefield. Dycedarg intercepted him before he could make his way to the former parliamentary buildings now milling with strategists.
He was told very firmly that nobody in the capital was disposed to making war before afternoon these days, and Zalbag was thereafter dragged to a breakfast for which he had little appetite.
Whomever had been the Atkaschas’ chef was apparently spared the full fury of the Nanten. Dycedarg cheerfully recommended their eel pie as the two of them sat on one of the palace balconies, everything about them burnt white with the harsh light of the summer sun. When he found Zalbag slow to respond, Dycedarg put in the request himself. In the meantime someone or another brought both of them each a glass of hot wine.
“Zelmonian Red,” Dycedarg raised the chalice to his lips. “It was always fine stuff but tastes all the finer now that we won’t be getting anything new out of Zelmonia.”
Zalbag sighed, not touching his cup but nevertheless resigning himself to the eels.
“If you don’t drink it, I will,” Dycedarg said nonchalantly.
“It’s not yet first hour. Don’t you have to spend the day being diplomatic or some such thing?”
“I do.” Dycedarg raised the glass to his lips again. “All the more reason to drink well at breakfast.”
Zalbag dropped the matter.
“It was good of you to leave when you did, by the way,” Dycedarg continued, eyes cast towards the door. “Matters with the Church were sorted out within a few days of you heading north. Orlandu would probably be supping here in our stead if you’d let yourself be delayed.”
“Matters were sorted out?” Zalbag asked apprehensively. “Then Ramza…”
“Matters were sorted out as regard you,” Dycedarg said in a low voice, brow slightly furrowed. “I don’t think anyone’s in a position to help Ramza at this point.”
Zalbag nodded as somebody arrived with a pastry done up with savory leaf and stewed currants, several rubbery coils protruding from its upper crust. He was glad it was apparently no longer the fashion to leave the heads on.
“If it sets you at ease, nobody at Murond is making any official inquires about Alma at present,” Dycedarg said as he sipped his wine. “Should the two of them keep out of sight and gain some measure of sense, I suspect we’d stand a decent chance with a petition for pardon once this damned war is over.”
There was much on Zalbag’s mind that he did not say and did not wish to say. He was certainly in no position to critique his brother’s flippant attitude towards the Offices of the Pardoner at present, and the myriad sentiments he held as regarded the fate of their youngest siblings were not ones he wished to cast before Dycedarg. He watched in silence as a domestic served them, the edges of his nails biting into his balled fists.
“You’re awfully morose for somebody who just saved the capital, you know?” Dycedarg said after a mouthful of eel. “I apologize if I ought not have brought it up.”
“Do you think they’ll execute him?”
“I think our brother, however I might feel about him personally, has proven exceptionally adept at not dying when by all rights he ought.” Dycedarg sighed. “Murond also has plentiful other considerations on her hands these days, and she’s apparently parading the former Captain Folles about as if to advertise how easily ecclesiastical law can be bent to keep a man from the gibbet.”
A smile faded from Dycedarg's lips as Zalbag felt his own face go pale. For the rest of the meal, nothing touching on the fractured state of House Beoulve was discussed. Zalbag ate his food and sipped his wine in penitential silence.
When the Templarate did return to Lesalia, Zalbag faced none of the pandemonium that characterized their first visit. There was no Northern Sky stronghold under siege; there was no Examiner conducting active investigations; there had been no fraught reunions with lost brothers. He had spent a restless week doing nothing of real import. He had taken exercise. He had made arrangements as regarded the coming march. He had paid for prayers on behalf of the dead. When no news from any informant came out of Bethla, he had eventually been made to accept one of Larg’s invitations to supper.
At night, he had prayed, and sometimes he awakened to find legible marks on his palm from where the sharp iron of the icon had bitten into his skin.
He was almost anxious that something should happen by the time he found himself once more in his office and was suddenly told that a member of the Templarate wished to speak with him. He gave his assent. No breath nor tremor animated his body as he listened to the echo of footsteps within the hall.
When Wiegraf stood before him as he had nearly a month prior, he stood as well.
They nodded to one another with the formality of perfect strangers.
“I have returned with some news out of Murond. Would you care to sit down?”
Zalbag did not hold his gaze on Wiegraf long, nor did he look about for the gold-wrought icon he suspected he wore.
He sat down.
“I must inform you that your brother has killed the keeper at Orbonne and absconded with a number of rare relics of the faith. The office of the Inquisition tried him in absentia and he is under sentence of execution.” Wiegraf’s voice was a blank. He might as well have been reading from a scroll.
“I have seen his name among the condemned,” Zalbag said with as much dispassion as he could muster. “This is no great surprise.”
“Your sister is already in Church custody, and will be conveyed to Murond. I suspect no charges shall be brought against her.”
“That is good to hear.”
“As for you, General…” He paused. “I’m sure that you have been informed that no investigation was begun regarding you.”
Wiegraf looked him very pointedly in the eye, and Zalbag allowed himself to linger on his features. They bore none of the smothered rage they had the last time he stood in this office and none of the bitter passion he remembered from when last they parted. There was, instead, a coldness to them that seemed out of joint with every other time they had met.
He was still very handsome.
“Murond, nevertheless, wishes documentation of your loyalties in this case,” Wiegraf continued. “If you could look over this statement and sign it, I think we can put matters at an end.”
As before, Wiegraf slid a sheet of vellum bearing the stamp of the Examiner onto Zalbag’s desk. As before, he read its contents. It was a simple declaration of the faith, followed by a statement that he would devote himself “to the extent of his abilities, body and soul, in life and beyond it” to the defense of the Church from those who threatened her.
He signed it and handed it back to him. Their fingers nearly glanced one another’s in the exchange but did not actually touch.
“Thank you, General.”
Templar Folles, who had turned as if he were about to leave, looked back at him again.
“There is no grievance with the circumstances under which I left the city last?”
“None, General. In fact, it was I who met with some penalty in the end for my attempts to detain you.”
He looked again at Zalbag, his eyes alight with an intensity that registered as neither anger nor sorrow, but attested to some meaning evidently unspoken. Inwardly, Zalbag shuddered.
He did not stop him as he turned to leave the room this time, nor did he move again until he was certain that his footfalls had faded beyond hearing.