Alliances in Spirit
The young man glanced left and right nervously, trying to find a way out of his predicament, but without luck. His name was Arjan, and his white stole, brass medallion, and medium-height kem'pallah, each bearing the stylized image of flame, marked him for what he was, an underpriest of the Dezolian Church and almost certainly a scholar at N'Daran Temple.
His surroundings, however, were not where one might expect to find a cloistered holy man. The narrow back street was filthy, the buildings that lined it ramshackle and crumbling, or, in the case of those built with Palman technology, had been stripped for wiring, circuits, and components over the years. The four men ringing him wore threadbare jackets and trousers, with red rags tied around foreheads to add a little bulk to their caps. The leader was the biggest of the four, well over six feet tall like most of the green-skinned native race but with a wiry musculature that made him look almost as bulky as a Palman. On his right cheek was a brand of the same symbol Arjan wore, only inverted. Arjan had known his task would take him into Ryuon's common quarter, but his expectations had not been to end up in this reeking pit of a slum, at the mercy of a defrocked priest and his gang of thugs.
Pleas for mercy, he judged, would be wasted on these men. Though Arjan knew no bandits, he'd been acquainted with any number of bullies in his lifetime, and they only reveled in the sadistic pleasure of grinding down a weak victim. Too, an ousted priest probably held a grudge against his former fellows. Only a show of force might save him from a serious beating, or worse.
Trying to keep his voice level, he took out his coin-purse and held it in his open hand.
"I am in a hurry," he said, "and I do not have time for this. Therefore, I am willing to let you have this token for passage instead of worrying us both with more protracted negotiations."
Would they believe his bluff? One clearly did, reaching out for the coins. At the last second, the leader cuffed the greedy footpad on the back of the head, then swung one big hand and slapped Arjan's purse from the priest's grip, knocking it into the dirty street. The purse's soiled cloth, though, was the least of the young man's worries.
"Hey! You don't think we'll settle for pocket-change, do you? A high-hat like you ought to have more. You're going to share everything with us, as a symbol of Heaven's generosity. We'll start with that nice kem'pallah. I'm sick of this cap; it makes me look uncouth, not the cultured man about town that I am."
Two of the other roughs let out hearty guffaws at Arjan's dilemma. Bluffing was clearly not going to work. Flight was likewise out; there was nowhere to run but through the ring of men or into a bare wall with no windows or door. That only left action as the scholar's last hope.
Chanting a quick phrase, Arjan gestured in a sharp thrusting motion with both hands. As a priest and scholar he had been trained in not only the Palman-invented system of mystic techniques, which most Dezolians had not, but also in the Church's traditional magic. Clouds of bright blue-white flame exploded outwards from Arjan's hands. The spell caused negligible injury as it was meant to combat undead horrors and demonic spirits but the holy flames blinded and distracted the thugs with their brilliance.
Seizing his chance, Arjan dashed for the biggest gap between the roughs. He almost made it, but one staggered into him, stopping his flight, and a hand grabbed a fistful of his robe. A powerful twist of the leader's arm hurled Arjan down onto the dirty, snow-speckled cobbles. Pain stabbed through his arm and shoulder as they hit the hard stone, then exploded in his midsection as a footpad kicked his ribs.
"Don't give him a chance to act; he may have other nasty magic tricks!" shouted the leader. He suited his actions to his words, slamming his foot down on Arjan's hand as the priest tried to raise it. Another kick landed in his belly, driving the wind out of him. He reflected that it was possible that he would die here, for even if the roughs didn't kill him outright the brutal beating they obviously intended to administer would leave Arjan easy pickings for the bloodthirsty scavengers, human and otherwise, that infested the slum.
Suddenly, he heard a strangled gasp, and a form crashed to the ground next to him. There was a confused welter of shouts and curses, with the sound of flesh slapping against flesh, and the leader stumbled backwards, his heel catching on Arjan's shoulder and sending him tumbling to the ground. Arjan squirmed out from under the man's legs and took a look at what was happening. It was clear that he was being rescued, though he didn't know why or by whom. A big, burly man was grappling with a third thug, while the smallest of the footpads circled them, a nasty-looking knife in hand.
Just then, the newcomer broke his opponent's grip and drove a fist into his face. It was a hard blow that bloodied the robber's nose, sending him staggering. Arjan thought fast and grabbed one of the footpad's legs with both his arms, yanking the leg out from under the man. Already off-balance, the footpad became the third to fall.
The big man rounded on the last thug, who wiggled his knife point at him threateningly. Arjan's rescuer just laughed and cracked his knuckles. The footpad glanced at his fallen friends, then his skin blanched to an even lighter shade of green and he ran. Another one was trying to rise, but the big man took the simple approach of kicking him in the face. The knife he'd been drawing fell and the robber flopped onto his back where he lay stunned. The last two men, not liking the odds as Arjan regained his feet, scrabbled away on hands and knees before making a run for it. The rescuer did not pursue, watching the men flee.
With the immediate danger past, Arjan got his first good look at his unlikely savior. In the chaos of the brawl, he hadn't realized it but the newcomer was actually fairly short for a Dezolian, barely six feet tall, but there was nothing small or weak about him. His shoulders were broad under his worn and patched jacket, his limbs thick and powerful. Arjan estimated his age at being in the late thirties, perhaps fifteen years older than the young priest. His clothes were similar to the thugs', though he wore no headscarf under his cap.
"Thank you," Arjan said as soon as he'd caught his breath. "Without your help, those men would have—"
"Amateurs," his rescuer said scornfully. He picked up the knife dropped by the unconscious footpad. It was an ugly weapon, with a serrated edge, but was spotted by rust. "Look at this. Only a fool doesn't take care of the tools of his trade." He tossed it down; the knife fell into one of the clots of blackened snow. In all the places Arjan had known, people kept the streets swept clean of snow; it was one of the common rituals of life. No so in the wilds of these back streets.
"Perhaps, but they were certainly more than enough to deal with me!" Arjan recovered his soiled purse, then opened it. "If you would accept a small token—"
The big man snorted.
"What do you take me for, priest? I didn't interfere for a fee, after all. I didn't like the look of things, you hear? Four low-grade thugs and I'm not fond of those Red Hats, either! Against one holy man. You've learned a lesson: prayers, money, and magic won't solve everything for you. Get killed and you wouldn't get a chance to learn." He looked at the coin purse and scowled. "Maybe you haven't learned. What's a torchy like you doing in this quarter, anyway? Come to get us to give up all our sinful ways, maybe? Or maybe you're looking to commit a few of your own, down where you figure no one will care?"
Arjan could feel his cheeks darken with embarrassment.
"No, no!" he pleaded at once. "It's nothing like that! I am a scholar from N'Daran Temple. My mentor, Prelate Ruvine, has had me researching some of the old laws from the Feudal Age and how they changed when the old theocracy was founded. He's trying to establish whether Church rule was actually more just in principle than that of the nobility, or only claimed to be the way all new governments do." He could all but see the other man's eyes glazing over, and skipped to the end of the story. "When I reached a snag, His Grace advised that I seek out an antiquarian named Fen, who often had copies of archaic works."
The big man's expression lightened, and he spat into the gutter.
"Ah, now, that's better. I know Fen's shop, and you're in the right part of town. Worse luck for you."
"You know where I can find him? Then, could you guide me there? As you already know, I'm not likely to get there safely by myself."
"Looking like a downy chick for the plucking, you won't."
"I would, of course, be prepared to compensate you for your time and trouble. Shall we say one hundred meseta?"
That price could have hired Arjan a police guide. Since the fall of Mother Brain nearly two decades ago, Dezolis's civil government had been steadily crumbling. No surprise since it had shackled its fate to an acceptance of Palman technology, technology that without the Mother Brain system was steadily failing. Although in the cities there was still some vestige of a presence of law and order, payment from the treasury was sporadic and the agents of justice were forced to supplement their income with private employment. Arjan probably should have hired such an escort in the first place; an armored trooper with a sonic gun would have been an effective deterrent to the street roughs.
Of course, he wasn't offering the price purely for guide services. It was, he hoped, a way to properly reward his rescuer in a tangible way without offending whatever code of personal honor and pride the big man held.
"Done!" He stuck out a hand. "Do I get the honor of knowing your name?"
"Arjan." He pressed the silver piece into the man's palm. With the government's struggles, paper money had become all but worthless. The meseta had been kept as a standard of value, but antique metal coins and ones freshly minted by enterprising persons were the only markers of it people would trust in these uncertain times.
"Well met, Priest Arjan." He bit the coin. Then, satisfied with its content, tucked it away. "I'm Colce, at your service. Now, let's be moving along before this lout wakes up and I have to waste your valuable time giving him another lesson in manners."
Since that seemed like an excellent suggestion, Arjan put himself into Colce's hands. The big man guided him down an alley and across two twisted streets lined with the hovels of the desperately poor. The thought struck him that Colce might well be a worse crook than the four he'd escaped, for he was obviously familiar with Ryuon's slums and knew all the tricks of street fighting. By rescuing Arjan, he could earn the priest's trust, then lead him to a den where he could be held for ransom. A smart crook would know there was much more to be had from kidnapping a priest than merely stealing his pocket-change which he could take anyway. The flesh crept nervously at the base of Arjan's spine as he was taken even deeper into the densely-packed quarter. He wondered whether to bolt but wouldn't that just land him in worse trouble, alone and thoroughly lost?
His doubts vanished quickly, to be replaced by a cool wave of relief as Colce stopped outside the third door in a small row of storefronts. A small sign painted on wood read, "Fen," and below that, "Antiquities and Wonders."
"Here's that junk-dealer of yours, as promised."
"And well worth the price of the escort," Arjan agreed. "These streets are so twisted, the district might as well be a maze."
"We like it that way! The hard-hats are too fond of coming down here and making trouble for honest tradesmen such as myself. A quick turn here and there can help a fellow avoid the kind of earnest discussions they enjoy. But you go on now, and take care of your business with Fen. Maybe you can get the old miser to lower his prices a few coppers, for the good of his soul."
The burly local turned to go, but Arjan stopped him, speaking quickly.
"Actually, Colce, I was hoping that you would remain while I have my talk with Fen."
"Oh? And why's that?"
"Well, it occurs to me that finding my way out of this neighborhood might be as difficult as finding my way in."
Colce picked at his teeth with the nail of his little finger.
"You may have a point, there. So, you'd like to employ my expert services once more, eh?"
"Efficient labor brings repeat customers," Arjan quoted, not from scripture or the philosophical writings of Bishop Ngangbius, but his great-uncle the vonde-trader.
"And discount prices. Ten coppers, with another ten if I'm required to give out any more object lessons to the local riff-raff."
Since that was a fair rate, even a cheap one, Arjan agreed without haggling. With that settled, he turned to Fen's door, depressed the latch, and swung it open into the shop. He stepped forward, then stopped on the threshold.
"What is it?" asked Colce, who was still outside.
"Take a look."
Arjan moved just inside the shop so the other man could join him and see what had greeted his entrance. The antiquarian's store was a disaster. Shelves had been knocked or pulled down, clay trinkets and vases shattered on the wooden floor. Books and scrolls were scattered about, some even torn underfoot. The shelves behind the counter were in a similar condition. The frame of an abacus had been broken, its beads littered here and there, and a red-painted metal box lay empty on its side on the counter, its hasp snapped off. The curtain which separated the shop from its back room had been pulled half off its mounting.
"It's been ransacked," Colce concluded at once. "There was a robbery. Look there; the local merchants use that kind of cash-box. The locks can be forced open with a knife blade, or better yet a pry-bar. Or at least," he amended piously, "I've heard rumors to that effect."
Arjan wasn't interested in the big man's criminal past so long as he did his job faithfully. The priest was more worried about the apparent failure of his trip. And then there was the question of the shopkeeper. Where was Fen?
Then again, something about the scene disturbed him.
"Colce, are you sure that this is a robbery?"
"The cash-box is open and empty, isn't it?"
"That's what doesn't make sense. If you were robbing this shop," he asked innocently, "and you'd taken the money, why smash everything? The thief couldn't have been looking on the shelves for the box."
Colce scratched his cheek.
"You may be right at that, holy man. Smashing all this stuff just makes noise and takes time. I wouldn't want some customer walking in while I was having fun breaking things. But if not robbery, what happened?"
Arjan pondered that question, and could only come up with two answers. He was painfully aware, though, that he had no real understanding of the criminal mind. A theological study of sin was one thing, but applying that to real-world concerns was entirely different. In trying to divine what a criminal might or might not have done, he was in over his head.
"There's probably any number of reasons that someone else could think up," he said, embarrassed at how he'd lectured about something he had no knowledge of, only logical deductions. After his initial folly at walking into the slum without realizing the local conditions, he didn't want to keep acting like the kind of arrogant scholar who acts like he knows something about everything just because he has a little education.
"Well, the only idea I have is that Fen didn't pay up his protection-money, so let's hear yours."
Arjan nodded, then reluctantly began.
"I thought that perhaps whomever did this hated Fen intensely, so he or she was consumed by the urge to smash things and destroy as much as possible. That is, the motive wasn't really to steal, but to cause Fen pain and suffering."
"I follow that. Any other ideas?"
"Well, I also thought that perhaps a thief wanted something besides money, perhaps a particular antique. By smashing everything in sight, he or she could hide what was missing because so much had been reduced to debris." He glanced back at Colce. "You said something about protection-money? What's that?"
"It's a nasty trick played by gangs of crooks. They approach shopkeepers, and basically threaten to break things, harass customers, and otherwise be a general nuisance unless the shopkeeper pays the gang to 'protect' himself from the nasty consequences. Some of the gangs actually do offer some protection of a kind by roughing up rival crooks who try to rob the shop or make trouble, while others just take the money to leave the shop alone."
"So, you think Fen might have refused to pay some gang, and they did this to retaliate?"
"And to give an object lesson to other merchants, so they know the crooks mean business."
"You know a lot about the ways of criminals," Arjan observed.
Colce shrugged and grinned.
"When a man is forced to make his own way in the world, he naturally picks up a few tricks as he goes."
"I wonder where Fen could be?" Arjan mused, concerned. "I'd have thought he'd be cleaning up."
"Well, if it wasn't a gang who did this, he might have reported the crime to the military police. They're corrupt, right enough, but they're usually willing to actually enforce the law now and again when the bribes aren't big enough."
He didn't need Arjan's head-shake to realize the flaw in that, though.
"Nah, never mind that. The door was unlocked. He wouldn't leave it open; it's an invitation for anyone to help themselves to whatever's left."
"Perhaps Fen was out when whomever did this was here. He, she, or they would have forced the lock to obtain entry."
"A burglar certainly wouldn't relock the door," Colce agreed. "That might be it. Or..."
"Let's have a look in back," Arjan said, coming to what was apparently the same conclusion Colce had reached. A mounting tension made him shiver as he picked his way across the floor, trying to keep from breaking anything else under his boots. He hadn't worn overboots for city walking, or else he'd have been considerably clumsier in his steps, he reflected, his brain fastening on minutiae to avoid the building fear.
When he reached the far side of the room, though, his mind could no longer hide from the possibilities. Arjan's hand trembled as he gripped the faded white curtain and pulled it to one side. He looked into the back room, which clearly served as the antiquarian's living space and workroom. A table against one wall was littered with books, papers, and inksticks, a hard bed piled with quilts was against another wall, and a small stove provided warmth as well as a place to cook. These and a small chest for clothing were all of Fen's furnishings.
A body lay sprawled in the midst of them.
The crumpled form looked to be of a man approaching old age, perhaps seventy or so, a macabre centerpiece for the dismal chamber. He was dressed in the blue jacket and trousers common to artisan shopkeepers, with a broad, mantle-like collar over his shoulders. His kem'pallah had fallen from his head and lay next to it, its average height and rounded top confirming the social class suggested by his clothing.
"Fen," Colce verified.
There was no blood, no sign of a wound, Arjan noted. Fen hadn't been stabbed. Then what? Poisoned? Strangled? Gingerly, Arjan approached the body.
He nearly jumped and let out a little high cry of shock when a low groan escaped the corpse's lips. Colce broke into chuckles at the priest's surprise.
"He ain't dead, you know. Slugged, probably."
Now that he was thinking more clearly, Arjan could see that Colce was right. Though the layers of clothing he wore disguised it, Fen's chest was slowly rising and falling as he breathed.
Feeling ashamed of his outburst, Arjan knelt next to the semi-conscious man and made a quick examination. Sure enough, a large bruise on the back of the man's head was turning the skin a mottled blue-black. Arjan at once called upon his abilities as a technique-user and drew in the power to use Res upon the injured man. The healing technique was not able to deal with concussion or other secondary effects of the blow, but would heal the injured flesh, clear up the bruising, and halt any further internal bleeding if any had occurred. After that, he used Arows to restore Fen to consciousness.
"Wha—? Who?" the antiquarian babbled, looking back and forth between the two men in shock.
"Don't worry, sir," Arjan said quickly. "You're among friends. I'm Arjan, and this is Colce."
"Oh...y-yes, I think I've seen him around before." His voice was thin and weak, no real surprise after his injuries. Suddenly, though, his eyes swelled wide, as if he'd been struck by a sudden thought or, more accurately, memories of where he was and how he'd come to be there. "My shop! My treasures!" He struggled to sit up, so that Arjan was forced to restrain him gently.
"Please, take it more slowly. You have been hurt, and although my Res technique has healed the superficial injuries there may be lasting effects. Someone hit you on the head."
"Thieves! Thieves and brigands!" Fen exclaimed.
"That covers a fair percentage of the locals," Colce said dryly. "Any particular thieves and brigands you mean?"
"I...that is...n-no, I don't know. It happened fast, they shouted and cursed...I was c-confused."
Arjan looked at him curiously. The injured man would not meet his gaze or Colce's, and he trembled oddly. Was it some sudden symptom of his injury, the priest wondered? That wouldn't give his escort such a sour look, though. Colce had a disgusted scowl contorting his features, and Arjan did not know why.
"It's too bad," Colce said. "If you could identify them, the military police could have a chance to recover the loot the thieves took when they ransacked your shop."
This announcement froze Fen again, just as when he'd realized how he'd been knocked unconscious.
"Ransacked?" he exclaimed. "Oh, no! The...they couldn't have taken it!"
Fen struggled to his feet with something akin to panic, resisting the priest's attempts to try and keep him at ease. He dashed out into the main room with surprising agility for one his age, then dove behind the counter. Arjan and Colce followed him and saw Fen on his hands and knees. The counter had a couple of drawers built into it, but there was also a panel, one without a handle and which looked like it would fit flush with the surrounding wood. It was obviously a secret hiding place, but the reason it was obvious was that it was standing open, and empty.
"It's gone! They took it!" Fen exclaimed.
"What? What did they take?"
The antiquarian turned to Arjan.
"You! You're a priest. Are you from N'Daran Temple? Do you know a priest named Prelate D'krin?"
"The keeper of the N'Daran Archives? Of course."
"Thank Heaven! You have to let him know what's happened. The taavinpum bee^aasej has been stolen!"
"You can't mean it."
"I do. You have to let him know."
"If you don't mind me asking," Colce put in, "what, exactly is the taavinpum bee^aasej?"
Arjan turned to the big man dubiously. Colce was obviously a shady character of some type; was it right for him to give away information about the Church's valuable property to such a man? Then he felt a flush of shame overcome him. Colce had saved him from robbery and serious hurt, perhaps even saved his life, without asking for a reward or taking advantage of Arjan's lack of local knowledge. He'd more than earned a little trust from the priest.
"It's exactly what the name says, the holy writings of Taavin, the very first Archpriest of the Church. The original manuscript was kept in the archives of N'Daran Temple. It's a priceless treasure of the Church, not just because of its wisdom but also as a relic of one of the holiest men in Dezolian history." He couldn't imagine why it had been in the squalid shop, but that could wait. The important thing was to recover the holy writings.
Fen seemed to realize this as well; his back stiffened and his posture grew erect.
"This changes everything. We'll have to summon the police at once. I can identify the ones who did this, and the police can get the manuscript back."
"I thought you didn't see who robbed you?" Arjan asked.
"He was afraid to talk, before," he said derisively. So that was it, Arjan thought.
"Yes," Fen admitted, hanging his head. "They're a nasty criminal gang around here. They pay off the police who guard this quarter, so they can do what they like."
Colce folded his arms across his chest.
"That's how it goes. I don't blame the police too much, though. The only way they can make a decent wage is to help crime instead of stopping it," he said, presumably for Arjan's benefit.
"It's shameful," the priest said. "I didn't realize that the pai'tekkan's government had slipped so far." It was no surprise, then, the rumors he'd heard of chaos in the rural districts, the complete collapse of central authority. Arjan had doubted them when he'd heard them, but not now.
"The crooks were the Red Hat gang," Fen said. "I pay them protection-money every week, but I've missed payments because I bought two rare books to help me with my study of the taavinpum bee^aasej. I was scared to talk, but the theft of the manuscript changes everything. It's Church property, and that means the Church can go directly to the city government. A local gang's bribes won't touch the garrison chief, and we have to get that book back."
"You're right," Arjan said fervently. "Colce, can you go fetch the military police, and send a message to the temple for me?"
The big man shrugged.
"Why not? I was going to take a hike up to the temple for five coppers anyway. It doesn't make any difference if I have someone along or not. I'll get this Prelate first, though. The police have a bad habit of not letting people who report crimes go running off as they like."
"All right. I'll wait here with Fen."
Colce slipped out the door, leaving Arjan with the distraught shopkeeper.
"This is horrible," Fen wailed. "A priceless treasure lost, my money taken...what will I ever do?"
"I'm sorry about your shop," Arjan said lamely. It was not always easy for the young theologian to find the right words to deal with people's emotions, and it often left him at a loss.
"Bah! Trinkets! Odds and ends, worth barely more than the space to store them. Now, these—" He set to work picking up the books "—are worth something, but I can fix them." Fen stroked a torn page with his long fingertips. "I'll have these back into shape right enough, you'll see. Knowledge is priceless, my young friend, and while we can learn much from objects, it is the written word that teaches the most. There is knowledge in its purest form, as the taavinpum bee^aasej were pure distilled wisdom! Ah, what a loss!"
His voice was choked with emotion, but he managed to master himself and save Arjan from having to flounder through trying to give comfort to a distraught man. It was moments like this that made the young priest wonder occasionally if he had chosen the right path through life. His belief was sincere, he knew, but when it came time to put that faith to use in helping people, he was not so sure of his ground.
As it had been written, the Church was not merely about having faith. It was in sharing the Way of Heaven with others that it found purpose.
"It hasn't been very long since the theft," he reasoned. "The thieves would not have expected you to report the crime, since they assumed you would be intimidated by their threats. I'm sure the military police will recover the sacred writings."
"I hope that you are right, Priest Arjan. Ah! But in all the excitement, I never did ask you why you came. I'd thought that Prelate D'krin had sent you to retrieve the manuscript, but that can't be so, for you were surprised I had it. So, tell me what it is that you need, and perhaps I can still be of service."
"Ah, well, actually it was Prelate Ruvine who advised me to seek you out. I've been working on a project involving a comparison of the laws of the late Feudal and early Theocratic Ages. The temple archives, though, lack a copy of the early canon codex. There are references to it, but they date to around the 400s AW, centuries later."
Fen broke into a smile.
"Then what would you say, young sir, to an original printing of the Codex of Canon Law, in the edition of 80 BW?"
"That's less than fifty years from the rise of the theocratic government! How did you ever come across such a thing?"
"These are troubled times, Arjan. People lose their appreciation for the rare and special, for the things that make life worth living, and concentrate only on the living itself. Sold, stolen, traded...who knows how many hands it passed through, before it came to me? It isn't in the best of conditions, but until Prelate D'krin came to me, I had been working on a conjectural restoration of the damaged or obscure sections, which I hope may be of use."
"I should think so! May I see?"
"Of course, of course. Come with me."
Fen took Arjan into the back of the shop, and carefully plucked a book from the litter on his desk.
"Thankfully this was a printing of the finest quality. The binding is scratched and marred in places but intact, and the pages are not so delicate that they fragment with a touch. Still, you'll have to use care. I'd best wrap it for you. Oh, and here are my notes." He added to the stack a thick sheaf of papers covered in tiny, precise handwriting.
"May I?" Arjan reached for the pages.
"Of course! Be my guest."
Arjan began to look through the handwritten documents. It did not take him long at all to realize that they had been written by a scholar of advanced gifts, one considerably more knowledgeable than he himself was. For the first time since learning Fen's shop was located in Ryuon's slum quarter, Arjan began to see that his mentor had known what he was doing in sending him to the antiquarian.
"Fen, this is exactly what I'll need! Thank you. How much is the price?"
"For you, only two thousand meseta."
"Two thousand?" Arjan exclaimed.
"It is a rare work, nearly unique, I would say. Besides which, you are also paying for my efforts in analysis and restoration."
A more experienced buyer would have known to commence an extended session of haggling with the aged shopkeeper, but Arjan was not the most worldly fellow in that or any other regard.
"I don't carry that sort of money with me. I'm just a cloistered scholar; I do not even have two thousand meseta, Fen."
"The temple, however, could easily afford it."
Arjan nodded, for it was quite true.
"I do not have the authority, though, to spend temple funds, regardless of how valuable the purchase might be to the Church." There was, he realized with displeasure, a hint of a whine in his voice, from his frustration at being given the opportunity he needed and being thwarted in it at the last moment. He tried to control the emotion. Not only was it petty, but after what the gang of thugs had done to Fen he certainly needed the money. Indeed, Arjan and Fen were fellow victims of the so-called Red Hats.
Thankfully, Fen did not seem offended, or indeed concerned, by the priest's manner. Instead, he waved a hand dismissively.
"No matter. Your Prelate Ruvine certainly can arrange for payment to be made, and the fact that he advised you to seek me out tells me that he expected it to happen. Can't deal with a trader and not pay for it, hm?"
This was a good point. While Arjan was considering it, Fen took the notes back and began wrapping them up with the book in a large sheet of coarse gray-tinted paper.
"I'll tell you what, Arjan. You seem to be an honest young man. You take these, and arrange to have payment delivered. I'm sure that I can trust you to see it's all done."
"But...what if His Grace does not agree?"
"Don't be silly, young man." When Arjan's concerned look did not abate, he said, "Oh, very well. If you cannot arrange payment, then merely return the Codex copy and the notes, so that I will have the opportunity to sell them to someone else. As for the benefits of studying the material you'll receive for a day or two, consider it the gift of one scholar to another who appreciates my work." The aging man's wrinkled face creased further in a broad smile. "So, are those terms acceptable to your priestly sense of ethics, then, hm?"
"Oh...yes. Yes, of course."
"Good!" Fen sealed the paper packet with a blob of sticky evergreen sap. "There you go, and may it help as much as you hoped."
"Thank you very much," Arjan bowed his head politely.
Fen began to clean up the shop once again, and Arjan at once offered to assist. In recovering and organizing the various items, he had to ask their historical significance, and this quickly turned into a friendly bout of shop-talk between the two scholars. The antiquarian, of course, was more aware of their monetary value while Arjan had a more symbolic understanding of the assorted artifacts, but this was an inevitable result of their respective professions. The pleasant discussion continued until a veritable crowd arrived.
"Fen! This messenger tells me that the taavinpum bee^aasej has been stolen!"
It was the Keeper of the Archives, Prelate D'krin, who burst into the shop like a whirlwind.
"I am sorry, Your Grace, but I was beaten unconscious and when I awoke, the book had been taken."
"No! This is a ... That manuscript was a priceless treasure! Oh, Heaven forgive me for neglecting my duties so! I should have sent monks to guard the shop, to make sure the bee^aasej was safe!"
"Excuse me," a sharp voice cut in, "but what you said about that book being priceless. Are you speaking figuratively, in terms of its value as a religious treasure, or does it have immense cash value?"
The second arrival, several steps behind the excited Prelate, wore a stiff dark blue uniform marked with the insignia of a colonel in the military police. His close-fitting white helmet, made of sturdy ceramics, had the suggestion of a built-up crown at the top. While this raised the height of the helmet, a not inconsiderable fact in a society where the height of one's kem'pallah hat increased as did one's social status, it also made the helmet somewhat less useful as head protection. It made Arjan think, for surely such vanities should have been set aside when readying for combat?
Four more police officers followed him into the room, their helmets more efficiently rounded but otherwise identical in their blue uniform fibercoats and holstered guns. These were Palman-made weapons: a laser shot for the colonel and sonic guns for the troops.
"It would be of immense value," D'krin answered.
"A scholar, archivist, or collector of rare books would pay many thousands of meseta for this book," Fen agreed. "It is a great treasure of the Dezolian people those Red Hats have stolen."
"Red Hats?" D'krin asked.
"A criminal gang, Your Grace," the colonel explained. Arjan noticed Colce at the back of the group and wondered if he was the source of the officer's information. "They take their names from the red bandannas they wear around their heads. The captain assigned to this neighborhood has been investigating them for some time but hasn't turned up any solid evidence or found victims willing to testify, until now."
Arjan wondered if the Prelate knew what he'd learned, that the colonel's statement was barely more than a euphemism for an epidemic of corruption in law enforcement. No doubt he did; a churchman of such high rank had to be more aware of the world than a cloistered scholar who rarely took his attention from books of theology and history.
At least, Arjan hoped so.
"Well, I'm certainly willing to testify now!" Fen barked. "Their leader is a nasty piece of work named Govis, and he has the brand of a defrocked priest on his face! I can identify some of the others, too."
"Yes, don't just stand there. That manuscript is a priceless Church treasure! We can't afford to let those dirty crooks keep it. Who knows what they might do? Especially if the leader was defrocked. You know that only happens for crimes of great moral turpitude. Who knows what someone like that might do to a holy treasure out of sheer viciousness and evil-minded cruelty?"
"Don't worry. Even the deepest holes in Ryuon won't hide that pack of g'grats."
"Pardon me," Arjan spoke up. "On my way to this shop, I was attacked in the street by these Red Hats as well. At least, I presume it was the same gang, because their leader was a defrocked priest and they wore red rags on their heads."
"That filthy orang' Govis probably wants revenge on the Church," D'krin cursed. "How did you get away, Arjan?"
"Colce, there, helped me."
"Well, it's good to see that there's still basic decency in the world," the Prelate observed.
"I'm glad you said something," announced the colonel. "We'll want as many charges as we can to throw at those thugs. Officer Hoovu will take your statement, then Fen's. Meanwhile, we'll make sure the Red Hats don't leave town with their loot."
The rest of the process passed by with drill-team efficiency. Arjan's statement was taken down and the officer quickly moved on to Fen.
"Well, that's that," Colce said as they left the shop. "Dezolian justice at work."
Arjan had to admit the law's performance hadn't been very professional. He and Colce had done as thorough a job of examining the scene, and they'd just been cautiously reacting to the wrecked shop! Combined with the obvious corruption that let gangs of crooks run free and have their way with the poor, it painted an ugly picture of law and order. "A just rule is our foremost tradition upon which all else is founded," Bishop Ngangbius himself had written. Instead, reports told of anarchy outside the cities and he'd seen firsthand the injustice within. The pernicious influence of the Palman Mother Brain might have been gone, but there was still the legacy of what had happened to the Dezolian people.
Changes had to happen, or else a terrible cost would be paid by all their souls. But what could be done? It was easy to destroy, to tear down broken institutions, but not so easy to build up new ones to do well what the old had done poorly.
"But at least your trip down here was successful," Colce said, pointing at the package under Arjan's arm, "and an education besides. You scholars like that kind of stuff."
"Truth is always valuable, but rarely easy."
"Sounds like something some wise man might say."
"I'm glad to hear you say so, but I've got a long way to go before I qualify as wise," Arjan replied with a dry chuckle.
"That wasn't a quotation?" The big man grinned broadly. "Maybe you've got a future in sermons after all. Now let's get going. We need to get you back to the temple."
Arjan's first duty upon returning to N'Daran should have been to seek out Prelate Ruvine, to find out if the temple would meet Fen's price for the antique codex of laws. This was not so easy as it might have been, however, because the leaders of the temple were busy trying to deal with the loss of the taavinpum bee^aasej, and to decide upon appropriate action. Messengers came and went, and an almost constant conference was underway in the High Priest's office, with only the identities of those present changing. Arjan was denied the opportunity to approach the Prelate.
In truth, though, he hadn't tried as hard as he could. Rebuffed in his initial attempts, he retreated with codex, paper, and inkstick to a cubicle in the scriptorum and eagerly immersed himself in research. Modern problems vanished from his mind as he plunged into the law from the days when the Church had possessed secular authority as well as religious. It was a fascinating study, he found comparing and contrasting those laws from the initial decades of theocratic rule with both the laws that had existed before Church control and the Church's own moral principles. This last point was particularly interesting to him; some of the writers Arjan had read believed Church rule placed Dezolis in the hands of those with the proper moral base to make decisions for the good of the people, but others felt such a role would taint the Church's purity with worldly concerns and present a temptation to which they would inevitably succumb. History, as told by the actual documents and not by biased commentators, would settle the point as to whether the Church had brought justice to the world or the world had brought corruption to it or, perhaps, both.
As was often the case, once consumed by his work Arjan lost all track of time. The slow sinking of the sun in the western sky was barely noticed; the temple interior was largely lamplit anyway so his own work area did not suffer from any lack of light. More than seven hours passed by in a wink of an eye until a voice roused his attention.
"I believe that you wished to speak with me, Arjan?"
Arjan looked up into the face of his mentor. Only then, jolted out of the world of his studies and back into reality, did he take note of the darkness behind the workroom's small, high windows and outside in the corridor.
"Your Grace, I ..." he stammered, mortified. Ruvine, though, had no sharp words or even ironic ones. The Prelate preferred gentle mockery to scathing rants when it came to minor breaches in discipline to offer his student in criticism.
"Why don't you leave your materials here and come walk with me, so we do not disturb the others?" At least three of the other cubicles were also occupied, Arjan noted.
He followed his mentor out into the arched hallway, where Ruvine took out a long-stemmed pipe, filled the bowl with tabak, and ignited it. Tiny wisps of smoke drifted upwards to join that which ran from the burning watch fires ringing the columns along the stone walls. Fire was the holy symbol of the Dezolian faith, not only for its obvious benefits in preserving life but also as a representation of the Light of Heaven which illuminated even the darkest spirit.
"So, I hear that you were involved in a bit of excitement today."
"Your name came up in discussing the matter of the taavinpum bee^aasej. I know that you are aware of all the facts."
"It is a tragic loss."
"But your own search was successful, I see."
"Oh yes, Your Grace, very much so."
Ruvine smiled. Though only in his mid-fifties, his generally unflappable calm lent him an aura of wisdom and experience more appropriate for someone Fen's age.
"I'm glad that my advice was productive, then. I'd hoped Fen could be of service. He's an enthusiastic scholar in his own right, and he has contacts among private collectors all across Dezolis, whereas our archivists are more used to dealing with other temples and public archives."
"I've been very impressed by his scholarship. His notes are much more coherent than my own. Only..."
Ruvine's lean fingers caressed the smooth, rounded bowl of his pipe in a steady, rhythmic motion.
"I'm surprised that he had a shop in such a location."
The Prelate shook his head.
"It wasn't always like that. His shop has been in that location for decades. Remember that it's been less than twenty years since the collapse of Mother Brain, and crime and poverty have both exploded since then." He shook his head ruefully. "In 1280 that area of Ryuon was a perfectly nice shopping district. I'm afraid I really didn't appreciate for myself how much it had changed, or else I would have recommended you take an escort with you. My ignorance nearly let you be badly hurt, or worse, and I can only offer you my deepest apologies."
"Thank you, Your Grace. I appreciate that." Arjan took a deep breath, then plunged on. "The book I received from Fen was an original printing of the Codex of Canon Laws from 80 BW. He let me bring it back on a temporary basis, but..."
Ruvine favored him with his faintly ironic smile again.
"The price was a bit unexpected?"
"Two thousand meseta."
"A not inconsequential sum but, I believe, appropriate for the volume in question. I shall authorize the disbursement from temple funds tonight."
"You can do that?" Arjan asked, surprised. He'd known Ruvine could obtain the money, but had expected him to have to go through channels to do so. "Your Grace," he added belatedly.
The Prelate chuckled softly at his student's discomfiture.
"As a matter of fact, yes. I've been appointed temporary Keeper of the Archives in place of D'krin. The military police arrested the Red Hats, but were unable to recover the missing manuscript. I'm told it is not entirely uncommon for thieves to cache their ill-gotten gains so that they can retrieve them when their sentence is served. Colonel Ma'ii is hoping to persuade one of the gang to reveal the location with promises of lighter punishment or even outright release, but nothing is certain. In any case, the High Priest believed that Prelate D'krin's poor judgment in not properly seeing to the bee^aasej's security required dismissal from his position. I'm sorry, really; he only made the same error I did, not being aware of the environment around Fen's shop."
"I suppose the High Priest believed Prelate D'krin should have learned the truth before sending a holy treasure out of the temple, Your Grace?"
"Those were almost his exact words. There's a lesson in that, by the way. It is always important to at least be aware of what you should know, even if you don't actually know it yet. It's just lucky for both of us that you did not suffer for my failure in that area the way the archives have from Prelate D'krin's."
He paused, then said, "Why don't I give you that letter of authorization now? Then you can see that the codex and Fen's annotations are properly catalogued, and then get to bed. Scholarship isn't your only duty here, after all; I believe you read for the dawn service tomorrow, and that might be difficult if you fall asleep at your books at three in the morning."
"Again," Arjan admitted. He'd done that more than once.
The Prelate's smile lasted all the way back to his office.
After receiving the authorization, Arjan tried to obey his master's suggestions. He resisted the temptation to return to his book, instead seeing that it was properly catalogued and shelved before returning to his cell for sleep. His room was more comfortably furnished than the initiates' dormitory or the ascetic monks', but still simple. Lit flame being dangerous in a private room, the holy symbol was an icon, a scroll-painting hung facing the bed so that Arjan would be looking at it as he fell asleep. Only, sleep did not come easily.
The day has been too exciting, he told himself, and to a certain extent he was right. The fear of physical combat, the shock of the damage to Fen's shop and the lost manuscript, together with the very different thrill of scholarly research, made for a great deal of mental agitation. Images from the day, Govis's cruel, branded face, the crumpled form of the injured antiquarian, the strutting colonel, the signs of poverty and despair in the streets circled in his mind.
What was curious, though, was that Arjan found himself seeing these images in a different way than he had while experiencing them. It was as if in immersing himself in history for seven hours he had managed to push back the day's events so that he could think of them more as abstract facts than personal experiences. The more he did see the matter as abstract facts, though, the more the conclusions he drew disturbed him. He could see questions that needed to be answered, questions that he did not think anyone was asking, at least as far as he knew.
Given some of the possible answers, he had a bad feeling as to why no one was asking those questions.
Unfortunately, it seemed that quite literally Arjan wouldn't be able to sleep without getting those answers. He rose from the bed and dressed, then went to the monastics' quarters and requested the service of one of them on night duty. A white-clad nun, her lean, whip-like fitness a sharp contrast to Arjan's limited physical ability, responded almost at once.
"Yes, Priest Arjan?"
"I need you to go into town and find a man named Colce. Give him this for his time and bring him back here." He handed her a string of fifty copper cash and told her the neighborhood where Colce was known. "Make sure he knows it's both important and urgent."
"I will." She bowed her head respectfully.
It was only an hour later, around one-thirty in the morning, when the nun returned successfully.
"I found him in a wine-shop," she said, her face showing obvious disapproval of drunken revelry. "Hopefully he isn't too far gone to be of use. Is there anything further I can do?"
"No, I believe that will be all." He regretted having to say that; like all her brethren the nun was a trained fighter with guns, melee weapons, and handfighting arts alike, but this was something he wanted to do without anything else from the temple being present. It was a matter of trust, or more accurately the lack thereof.
"Very well. Good night."
Colce's red-rimmed eyes showed that he was in fact somewhat the worse for drink, Arjan saw as he met the big man in the visitor's room. He wasted no time, pointing at Colce with a sharp gesture.
Colce rocked in his seat on the hardwood bench as the poison-curing technique instantly jolted him back to sobriety. While it was no use in fighting a hangover or dealing with the lasting effects of alcoholism, Anti made for an excellent short-term solution to the problem.
"That," Colce said, blinking, "is going to cost you another ten meseta, holy man."
"Done," Arjan agreed at once. Fair was fair. "I need your help badly, though, and I couldn't wait."
"I knew that already, priest, just from the time. What's the trouble?"
"I need you to take me back to Fen's shop."
"It couldn't have waited until morning?"
"I've got a bad feeling that it can't."
"Well, let no one say I'm not willing to do my part for the sake of Heaven, especially when Heaven is paying cash. Can you tell me any more about the job, and why you couldn't get the little miss with the attitude to be your escort?"
"Yes. In fact, I'll explain on the way. I'm going to need more help from you than just an escort."
When they reached Fen's shop, they found the door locked and no light coming from inside, no surprise given the lateness of the hour.
"He's probably sound asleep," Arjan noted. He hadn't even thought of that. "You'd better knock and wake him up."
"Unless he's the lightest sleeper in Ryuon, that'll probably wake up half the street with him," Colce pointed out.
"We have to talk to him."
"There's easier ways to get through a locked door than making a racket until someone opens it."
If he needed any more confirmation that Colce was no stranger to crime, Arjan now had it. The big man was offering to force the lock to commit an illegal act on his behalf.
Worse, Arjan found that he did not want to refuse. The idea made too much sense. Yet, the ends were not supposed to justify the means. It was a basic tenet of morality that unjust methods were still unjust, even if an ultimately good result was achieved.
I should have just gone to the police, he thought, staring at the dirty, moonlit street. I don't have the ability to do this. I can't know the right decision.
"That's got it."
"Wha—?" Arjan's head snapped up. Colce was slipping a flat piece of metal back in his pocket and favoring the priest with a broad smile. He opened the door, revealing the shadows beyond.
"Put off making a decision long enough and life will make it for you," Arjan sighed. "Thanks."
They slipped inside. When their eyes had adjusted to the darkness they crossed the shop floor, which was now swept clean of debris, and went into the back. With the deft hands of one used to doing things by feel without enough light to see by, Colce struck a lamp. Fen lay asleep in his cot and Colce shook his shoulder, rousing him. The antiquarian blinked at the gleam of light, shrinking back in fear from the sudden intrusion on his sleep.
"W-what do you want?" he quavered, and Arjan felt a wrench of guilt at frightening the man. He was bungling this badly.
"Just to talk," he said.
Fen looked from one man to the other, recognizing their faces as sleep cleared from his brain, chased out by the sudden fright.
"Priest Arjan? What are you doing here?"
"Firstly, I wanted to say that your price for the codex has been approved."
"You broke into my shop and woke me up to tell me that?" exclaimed the old man. "Are you insane or am I?"
"Neither. We're here for another reason as well. We know you lied to us and to the military police about what happened to you today."
"What do you mean? I know I was scared at first, but when I found the holy writings were missing, I did my duty."
"No, those were the lies I meant. The Red Hats didn't steal the taavinpum bee^aasej, and I doubt they did anything else to you, either."
"You are crazy!" Fen insisted sharply. "Just because the police couldn't recover the manuscript—"
"How'd you know about that?" Colce interrupted.
"Well it stands to reason, doesn't it? You wouldn't be here if you'd recovered the holy writings. You'd know for sure that they did take it, then."
"But they didn't take it, and it won't be found no matter what the hard-hats do to Govis and his thugs. Bribery, threats, or even torture won't turn up the book, because they don't know."
Fen looked back and forth between Colce and Arjan.
"That's right, Colce," the priest said. "We have the only man who knows, right here."
"You're talking nonsense!"
"Stop it!" Arjan almost screamed from sheer frustration at the repeated lies. It made him feel even worse, because he'd come to genuinely respect the antiquarian's scholarly mind; each lie felt like a blow, a punishment for his own lack of good judgment. "I can believe that as a defrocked priest, Govis would recognize the value of the taavinpum bee^aasej and that he might know what depraved collectors he could sell it to for cash. I can't believe that he would break into your hidden safe and take it, but not grab the codex you sold me. The codex was sitting right here on your desk in the open! You can't tell me a thief would pass up easy loot."
"You'd never get me to believe it," Colce agreed dryly. He cracked his knuckles, hinting at his opinion of people who stole holy items.
"I...this is absurd! You have no evidence."
"Fen," Arjan said entreatingly, "the military police aren't stupid, even though I've learned a few hard truths about their honesty. I can explain this all to Colonel Ma'ii, and he'll understand. Who do you think he'd rather squeeze, a bunch of petty crooks who extort coppers from a slum neighborhood, or a man who's stolen a rare manuscript worth thousands?"
Before Fen could reply, Colce spoke up again.
"The holy man doesn't really know what he's saying by 'squeeze,' Fen, but you and I both do. You keep lying, and you know what those bastards will do to you."
Arjan blanched at the implication. Was it true? Fen apparently believed it to be, for he threw back the blanket and sat up with a deep sigh. He reached for a robe to cover up, for he'd been wearing only underclothing, and began to speak.
"You're right, of course. I've been dealing with collectors for so long, people who will do anything to get their hands on a new treasure, that I'd lost sight of what ethics I had." He laughed bitterly and said, "Look around outside. I watched, year by year, as my home rotted away under me. Decent people never came here anymore. The only ones I could do business with were fences and middlemen except the Church, who had the power to ignore the way this neighborhood was decaying. I ignored it for years, hid in my books and my studies, until one day I woke up and saw that I was an old man surrounded by a sea of filth and without even the money to escape."
He shook his head ruefully. Not, Arjan suspected, for his crime but for missed opportunities in his life.
"So, I worked out a plan with Prelate D'krin. He was a greedy man, always wanting luxuries and a life of ease, and he hated the responsibility of being Keeper of the Archives. He got me the taavinpum bee^aasej, and I found a buyer. Once the sale was complete, we split the money and I staged the theft to explain why we couldn't return the manuscript. As long as the police had a good scapegoat, and the Red Hats really are a local extortion gang, so they were perfect for the part, they wouldn't look any further. D'krin would lose his position, but that didn't matter because he was ready to retire anyway, and fifteen thousand meseta would go a long way towards making his retirement a comfortable one."
"Fifteen thousand meseta?" Colce whistled appreciatively.
"That's right. The manuscript sold for thirty thousand to a collector in Aukba. And it would have worked perfectly if I hadn't wanted to make a few thousand extra by selling that codex."
He buried his face in his hands, a sobbing, pitiful figure.
"Come on, Fen," Arjan said softly, moved to pity by the waste of a brilliant mind despite a crime many would see as sacrilegious. "Get dressed, and get your share of the money. Make sure you have the name and residence of the collector who bought the manuscript."
"Not to mention what middlemen and go-betweens you used to seal the deal," Colce contributed, remembering the dynamic of such trading from his own experience.
"Are you taking me to the police?" Fen asked.
"No," Arjan said. "They'll have to be told, of course, so as to drop the charges against the Red Hats. Even criminals shouldn't be subjected to false accusations."
"Don't worry. There's still the attack on you to hang on them, and I'm sure the hard-hats have squeezed out a few other charges they can press by now. Govis and his boys will get what's coming to them."
Arjan wasn't quite sure whether Colce's words were reassuring or not.
"For now, though, I'm going to take you to N'Daran Temple. The High Priest and Prelate Ruvine can decide what action to take against you and D'krin. The only one you stole from is the Church, so it should be a Church decision whether or not to press charges, and how else reparations can be made. If the military police are as corrupt and unjust as you both represent, I don't see how giving you up to them can accomplish anything. Get dressed, and let's be on our way."
To say that Prelate Ruvine was surprised to be woken out of a sound sleep to hear Arjan's story and Fen's confession would be an understatement. Still, he took it with his usual aplomb before summoning monks to guard Fen until the morning, when the temple's senior staff would meet to settle on a course of action containing the theft and its perpetrators. Ruvine's thanks were not effusive (he was never effusive), but his sincere and forthright congratulations on Arjan's reasoning and quick action made the young man feel better than any long speech would have.
Nonetheless, he felt utterly exhausted as he politely showed Colce to the temple door. He felt immensely grateful to the older man who'd not only saved his neck but had been a vital part of finding the truth. Of course, he'd been a hired retainer for some of that service, but that fact did not affect either the necessity or the quality of it. It was only this consideration that kept him from seeking out his bed and a few badly needed hours of sleep.
"Can you explain something for me?" Colce asked out of the blue.
Their footsteps echoes in the empty corridor.
"Well, you explained to me all about Fen and what he'd done and why you thought it was him and not the Red Hats, but you never said why you bothered confronting him at all instead of just going to that Prelate of yours and letting him handle it? Why the personal touch?"
"I didn't know who in the Church was Fen's partner. I assumed there had to be someone, which was why I didn't go to the military police, because I thought it was unlikely the taavinpum bee^aasej would have been given to Fen for study in the normal course of events. The sensible thing to do, if D'krin had wanted Fen to study the manuscript, would be to invite him to do so here. I did not actually know it was D'krin, though. Prelate Ruvine, after all, received a promotion to take over D'krin's duties as Keeper of the Archives." He felt a faint spark of shame at suspecting the man who had encouraged and promoted his studies; it felt, vaguely, like a kind of betrayal. "I couldn't tell what was the appropriate thing to do until I'd heard the story from Fen."
Colce rubbed the back of his neck, then moved his head in a circle, stretching out the kinks from his spine. Apparently he, too, was feeling the effects of the late hour.
"So you were willing to turn in your own teacher? Good for you."
Arjan stopped in his tracks.
"Good for me?"
"Yeah. Look, a guy like me, all I've got is my friends. Only natural I'd stand up for them, even if they weren't exactly in the right. You're a priest, though. You know, hope and grace and the Light of Heaven and all that." He grinned, showing that he meant no offense. "You're supposed to believe in doing the right thing, just like the hard-hats are supposed to care about preserving the law and catching crooks, not fattening their purses with bribes. Believe me, it ain't been all that common in my life to meet someone who gives more than lip service to the ideals he's supposed to represent."
He gave Arjan a hearty clap on the shoulder in approval.
"Of course, you're also dead clueless about the way the world works. Too many prayer-books'll do that to a man. So, if you ever need someone to watch your back or talk to people who aren't exactly convivial around holy types, just send for me, okay?"
Arjan didn't know just how he'd end up needing Colce's services again, since this day had hardly been usual for him, but he had a feeling he'd find a way.
"Good. Oh, and hey, there's one more thing."
Colce's mouth opened in a wide smile.
"You still owe me ten cash for making me spend the last few hours sober!"