An Untraditional Ceremony
Prelate Arjan let out a loud yawn. Surprised, he looked up from his book and saw that it was nearly ten at night by the clock. He'd become engrossed in his study of the early life of Bishop Ngangbius and had completely forgotten the time. He'd done the same thing on many occasions in his life, but this was the first time, he reflected, that exhaustion had come upon him before midnight. Ever since the Church had entrusted him with the prelacy of Vassha, Arjan had worked hard for long hours—and no wonder! The Prelate was the local head of the theocratic government, entrusted with seeing to his people's spiritual and physical well-being alike. He was the senior priest at the village shrine, the magistrate, and the village elder all rolled into one.
Arjan rose from his chair and stretched, then extinguished the desk lamp. As responsibilities increased, so did the time for pleasure decrease. The next morning would be busy; his assistant Colce had noticed certain peculiarities in documents submitted in the case Rethan v. Yord, and it would be necessary to ask pointed questions of the plaintiff and defendant alike. As he began to prepare himself for bed, Aryan heard a bell jangling somewhere in the building.
That's the door bell, he realized. Who can be calling at this hour? And at his residence, besides, not the village shrine where there was an underpriest on duty at all hours.
A few moments later, the night-porter rapped on Arjan's door.
"Your Grace, you have a caller. It is—"
"Tell them to come back at a decent hour," the Prelate snapped, nettled, then paused. It might well be an important matter, not just a case of the caller's rudeness. "No...no, I'll see them. Please show the caller to the library."
Arjan pulled on a dressing gown. Dezolis was a planet where icy conditions prevailed year-round in most regions, and Vassha was near the northern frontier. Even their green-skinned native race needed to respect the ice season and the killing winds, Arjan reflected. Bundled up warmly, he made his way down the drafty halls to the library.
While much of the shrine complex was predetermined in use and layout by its function, the young scholar-priest had soon made the library as much his own as his residence. Within a week of his arrival, it had been transformed from an austere storehouse of texts to a well-appointed, comfortable reading room. While shelves still covered every available space of wall, there were now two writing-tables as well as cushioned reading chairs and a thick carpet covering the stone floor. One of the chairs was already occupied when he entered, and his guest made to rise politely, but Arjan quickly forestalled him.
"There's no need for that, Eminence," he assured the elderly man. His face and hands were so wrinkled with time that no estimate of his age of less than one hundred years would have been reasonable. The ancient wore heavy yellow robes, patterned in black, but his kem'pallah was short and flat-topped, little more than a cap. The Prelate had met this man only once, briefly, at Arjan's formal assumption of rank at Vassha's shrine, but it was impossible to forget him: Hollast, a former High Priest of the Church, a writer of several brilliant philosophical works, retired from his exalted status to a simple life in this frontier village.
"No more an Eminence, Your Grace," replied the man who was popularly called Hermit Hollast. "I've given all that up, long ago."
"May I offer you refreshment?"
Hollast shook his head.
"No, thank you. Indeed, I must beg your pardon to set aside the common courtesies, for my message is most urgent."
"Very well, but—"
Hollast leaned forward impatiently.
"Prelate Arjan, forgive me, but I hope to prevent a murder—not one in some abstract future time, but which would happen, if at all, in the next few minutes!"
The Hermit's gentle but firmly insistent voice galvanized his young host at once. Arjan jumped to his feet, all thoughts of an evening's conversation with the retired High Priest vanishing from his mind.
"Where and whom?"
"A Palman merchant; I do not know his name. Indeed, I have never met this person. He is staying at an inn, though I do not know which one." Hollast shook his head, embarrassed. "I have not had any occasion to keep track of Vassha's inns, you see, for I have my own home and any guests of mine would stay there."
"What do you know, then?"
"This Palman sold a packet of kej to Kai, the trader. It proved to be poisoned, and the former Colonel, Juued, was killed. It seemed to the others that the Palman had done this, and they intended to go after him and exact vengeance."
"But you came here, instead."
Hermit Hollast spread his hands and gave a little shrug.
"There is a proper way to do things. And, I am a former churchman. The Church needs to prove itself worthy of ruling Dezolis, and the people have to trust it to rule well. Private vengeance might have been the only true justice in the days of the old civil government, but since the theocracy was reestablished, there is supposed to be law and order." He gave the Prelate a gentle but ironic smile, as if from a fond father. "I thought it best this merchant be judged in the tribunal, not by a mob."
Arjan nodded, and immediately rang for a servant.
"Fetch the headman at once, and then get Colce for me." To Hollast, he added, "We have to act quickly. If Kai did business with this merchant, he no doubt knows exactly where he's staying. I don't want to have to follow the riot!"
Luckily the headman of police arrived within minutes. Also holding the position of bailiff of the tribunal, Tem was a lean man made seemingly of taut whipcord with a black patch over one eye and a perpetually sullen expression. He was also a local man, unlike the Prelate and Arjan's assistant.
"Your Grace requested my presence?"
"Where in Vassha would a Palman traveler be likely to stay, Tem?" Arjan asked at once. "Which of the inns?"
"No inn. Mika's boardinghouse, no doubt. She speaks Palman and always wants to learn more about them, so she welcomes Palman guests."
"How many police-wardens are on call tonight?"
"The two men of the night watch, though I could rouse the other six if need be."
"There's no time! Let's go; you lead the way, Tem. Sir, please come with us and tell me what you can on the way there," he added to the hermit.
Luckily, Colce caught up with the three of them as they exited the shrine compound. Arjan's assistant was at least fifteen years older than the Prelate. Short for a Dezolian at a shade under six feet, he was a broad-shouldered, powerful man with a well-muscled build, and a tough fighter if it came to violence.
Mika's boardinghouse was, as Tem told them, near the west edge of the town. It was quite a walk in the frozen night wind, and Arjan regretted that he'd only thrown on his coat and boots over his dressing gown. Unfortunately, he could not take the time to change properly, not if a lynching mob was gathering. No doubt he made a somewhat humorous figure—not at all the commanding and dignified presence a Prelate ought to have.
"Hollast, could you tell me as much about the situation as you can?" Arjan asked. "I do not want to walk in blind and perhaps make matters worse."
"Of course," the hermit said, the icy wind whistling around the four men. "Kai, as you may not know since you are new to the district, is a fond student of ancient customs and traditions, even though he is a trader by profession. Specifically, he is an adept in the kej Tuumjem, the tea ceremony."
Arjan nodded. Though not himself an adept, he'd always appreciated the tranquillity of the kej Tuumjem, a ritual that had remained a fixed point in Dezolian civilization for over two millennia.
"Tonight," Hollast continued, "I paid a call upon Kai, for I had just received a set of scroll-paintings dating back to the sixth century BW and wanted to share them with a fellow enthusiast. However, when I arrived, I was mortified to realize that I had interrupted the end of a dinner gathering; they had just sat down to the tea ceremony and the water was beginning to boil."
"Who else was there?"
"Let me see...from my left there were Simkal the fur-seller, Renn the former village elder, and Colonel Juued. I apologized for my intrusion and made to leave at once, but the others all insisted that they could not turn me out and that I should feel welcome to join them."
Arjan could well understand that. Though Hollast obviously sought to retreat from such worldly concerns as social status—his modest kem'pallah, more typical of the hat belonging to the lowest class of unskilled laborer than that of a high official of the Church was a clear indication of that—the others would be unlikely to treat him with anything less than the respect due to a High Priest. Arjan himself had done the same.
"So you accepted the invitation," he said.
"At that point, it would have been rude not to. Kai set out a fourth stool to Simkal's left, and Simkal moved over. When Colonel Juued made to rise, though, Kai stopped him at once and led me to Simkal's vacated place instead. The Colonel protested, of course, but Kai told him to stay in his seat, that it was not fair to ask him to move, given the weakened condition of his legs. Juued was in his eighties, you see, and though of strong constitution his legs were all but crippled by rheumatism and age, so that the Colonel was forced to use two canes to help him get about, and that not easily." Hollast, by contrast, seemed to be in excellent condition despite his own advanced years; he had no trouble keeping up with the younger men. "I agreed at once, and we prevailed upon him to stay seated."
Arjan could imagine the scene, the five men seated on low stools in a circle around the brazier where the copper kettle heated just to a boil. Each man would hold a porcelain cup, most likely a rare antique used only for this purpose given Kai's reverence for the tea ceremony.
"Kai then poured for us each in turn. You are familiar with the kej Tuumjem?"
"I am, though only as a participant."
Kai would have taken a small spoonful of the dried kej leaves and placed them onto the wooden tea-strainer, the kej korta. Holding it over the first cup, he would pour hot water five times over the leaves, letting the infusion strain into the cup. Unlike Palman tea, which needed to be steeped to bring out its flavor, native tea was strong enough that merely straining water through the leaves created quite a potent brew. Steeped for even two or three minutes, kej would be all but undrinkable. When the first cup was poured, Kai would move to the second, and so on from left to right around the circle. He would finish with his own cup, then all would drink simultaneously.
"Within a minute after we had drunk the tea, Colonel Juued began to gasp and choke. Before any of us could react, he pitched onto the floor. He was quite dead, we soon verified, but then by that time the rest of us were all feeling short of breath. It felt as if a vice was being clasped around my throat and I couldn't seem to get any air. Fortunately, both Kai and I myself were skilled at the use of the Anti technique to cure poison."
"Did the Colonel have a bad reaction to the poison, then?" Arjan asked.
Hollast shook his head.
"I cannot say; I have no medical training, though it is certainly true that he was affected more quickly and severely than the rest of us. Due to the symptoms and the effectiveness of Anti, though, we all knew that it was a case of poisoning. Kai at once punched his fist into his palm and shouted, 'That rajago-breed of a Palman! Selling tainted kej!' Immediately, Renn asked why Kai should do business with, as he phrased it, 'that invading pestilence.' Kai told him that the price had been right and Renn replied, 'Of course it was! He made sure you'd buy it that way. Probably poisoned it deliberately, to kill as many notables of the town as possible!'"
Arjan was aghast.
"How could he make an accusation like that?"
"Don't forget, boss," Colce cut in, "that after Palm was destroyed but before the Church regained power there was a lot of resentment between the Palman settlers and some of us. Too many of us remembered what their mining technology had done to our planet in Skure and wanted to banish them from Dezolis—and some of them were just as bad, assuming that they could take what they wanted."
Hollast nodded agreement.
"Your assistant is quite correct, Prelate. During the time of chaos following the Palmans' Great Collapse, there were many acts of violence by misguided people on both sides."
It had been the chaos of those times which led to the collapse of the civil government and the restoration of theocratic rule, Arjan of course knew. Ultimately, that was why the young Prelate, whose vocation had been as a religious scholar and theologian, instead found himself dealing with the secular needs of Vassha rather than just its spiritual concerns. Yet he had been a child, then a cloistered student during the period of conflict and his fortunate circumstances, together with his even disposition, insured that his own life had been barely brushed by the crises. Hermit Hollast, on the other hand, had been active as a high-ranking churchman even as the Church was stepping into a leadership role to protect the people of Dezolis from the costs of war. Colce, likewise, had been an adult on his own at the time. The violence, and the feelings of fear, hatred, and prejudice that had spawned it, were much more real to them.
Renn, too, would be of that age. Perhaps he had suffered at Palman hands—or perhaps he had been one of those seeking to expel the Palmans from Dezolis.
"I see. It was this that inspired them to go after the merchant?"
"That is so. By this time, Kai's servants had come to see what the trouble was about, and in a few minutes the entire group had convinced itself that the death was indeed a deliberate scheme by the Palman, and that we had been lucky only the Colonel had died. I could not convince them otherwise, and they rushed out in a frenzy to find the merchant and exact vengeance."
Arjan had intended to ask for more details about a point or two which had confused him, but did not get the chance. Tem chose that moment to call out, "Look there; that's Mika's boardinghouse, and there's a crowd gathered!"
"Hurry, then! We may yet be in time."
They ran forward through the icy wind until they could see about a dozen people gathered in a knot around the building, shouting and waving their fists—some of which clutched weapons. More than one windowpane was broken, more than likely by thrown rocks. Burning brands were held by some of the men and women, which most of all sent a chill through Arjan's belly like a knife of ice. The thought that these people—his people—might burn out a house, defile the holy symbol of Dezolian faith for the purpose of murder made his heart twist in revulsion and gave him a strength of will he hadn't realized until that moment that he possessed.
"Stop this at once!" he roared, surprising even Colce with his vehemence. "Stop it right now, I say!"
He'd gotten their attention, at least. The mob turned around his way, their eyes hard and unfriendly in their angry green faces.
"Stay out of this!" shouted one of the men. "That dirty Palman is a murderer!"
"Poisoned old Colonel Juued, that's what the alien scum did," a woman cried.
"So you'll murder him in return, is that it?" Arjan challenged them. "And anyone who happens to get in your way? Perhaps some of you have forgotten that we have law and order in Vassha now." He found Renn in the sea of faces and added, catching him with a stare, "Unlike in the old days, when a corrupt civil government took bribes and used its power to abuse the people, we now have justice. Or are you afraid to bring your case before the Light of Truth in the tribunal hall? Maybe there is one of you, or more than one, who cares nothing for bringing a murderer to justice but merely wants to exterminate a Palman in the same way you accuse the Palman of wanting to do to Trader Kai and his guests? Indeed, I am certain not all of you are among his guests and servants. Colce, Tem, who are these idle loafers who have nothing to do besides join in others' blood-feuds?"
Colce hooked his thumbs in his belt.
"Well, I know Essal over there, and Palk the drunkard, and Chivelle the vagabond."
"There's also a couple of layabouts from the Drunken Owl and Jessa the barmaid from there."
"Good. Any one of them not out of my sight in one minute you can go ahead and arrest on a charge of rioting. Attempted murder might be the more accurate description, but we'll work out the fine details after a full investigation."
More than one of the mob blanched at the Prelate's words, but there were several who, not thinking clearly in the frenzy of the crowd, got their hackles up at the challenge.
"Mind your own business, preacher," a man Arjan did not recognize called out. "You can pray for the Palman dog's soul when we're done."
Colce glanced dubiously at Tem, who returned the look coolly with his single eye and unhooked his truncheon from his belt. The short, broad-shouldered man shrugged, then flexed his hands, ready for a fight. Arjan knew, though, that if a brawl broke out, the crowd would tear them apart in a frenzy of bloodlust. Still, he wasn't going to stand by and condone this; mob violence made a mockery of everything the Church was trying to do for Dezolis.
More experienced than his master at dealing with low-class vagabonds like those who had attached themselves to Kai's group, Colce knew that any show of weakness would be it. Arjan's bold words and surprisingly commanding presence had asserted the Prelate's will over the herd, and Colce wanted it to stay that way. Without further ado, he stepped forward and crashed a hidden-hand punch to the belly of the last man who'd spoken.
"Talk respectfully to your prelate!" he ordered as the man doubled up from the surprise attack. Another quick move, this time a draw-kick to the man's jaw left the lout on his back, stunned unconscious.
The swift and effective action broke the challenging spirit, and several of the mob slunk quickly away into the darkness. That left only Kai, his guests, and his three servants.
"Kai," the Prelate prompted the trader, "do you wish to report a murder to be investigated by the police?"
The other man met Arjan's gaze sullenly. The mob-fever was leaving him as the band thinned out, and it appeared that defensiveness was warring with shame.
"Yes, I do," he finally said. "I accuse the Palman merchant Elissa Vair of murdering my guest, Colonel Juued, and of nearly killing my other guests, His Eminence Hollast, Elder Renn, and my fellow trader Simkal as well as myself, by selling poisoned kej. She is residing here at this boardinghouse, Your Grace." The formality of his speech was appropriate to the moment—a concession, in fact, to Arjan's assuming control of the case—but there was a fussiness to his tone that suggested it was also natural for Kai.
"Very well. Your guests and staff will need to be interviewed as witnesses." He rubbed his chin and considered the other arrangements. "Colce, keep watch here. Tem, fetch the night watch and with them arrest both the Palman and this man." He pointed at the ruffian lying unconscious in the snow. "Once that is done, Colce, come join me. I'll be at Kai's house, investigating the crime."
The two men bowed their heads in assent; the headman left at once.
On the way to Kai's house, Arjan felt the vigor and energy he'd momentarily possessed drain out of him, to be replaced by uncertainty and self-doubt. He'd never in his life come face-to-face with a murder case before; thus far in his prelacy he'd encountered only simple crimes of theft or assault, cases where it had been easy for the police-wardens to obtain the evidence and catch the criminal red-handed. Now, though, he was dealing with a tricky case that did not seem as simple as everyone seemed to assume, and the most serious crime possible. At least he'd stopped the lynching; as magistrate he'd still have to bring the murderer to justice but as a priest he'd managed to guide a dozen or so members of his flock away from a mortal sin.
He had no doubt, though, that if he was not seen to be taking quick and effective action, the bad feelings would rise up again in the community. Arjan knew it was too easy to fear the strange and alien, and a frontier town like Vassha had relatively little experience with Palmans to make the people comfortable with them. Emotions would only escalate if the official investigation was overly delayed.
Arjan stopped along the way at the home of Senj, Vassha's leading doctor and apothecary. Dr. Senj also acted, when necessary, as the village coroner. Senj was a wizened man in his early nineties, whose bent back made him seem shorter than Colce even though he was actually of above-average height. The doctor was, like Hollast, an energetic man despite his years, as he proved when he answered Arjan's repeated knocks.
"Eh? What's our Prelate doing here at this hour, and with such a crowd?" Senj complained, blinking sleep from his eyes.
"I need your assistance, Dr. Senj, on an official matter."
The old man snorted.
"Official! Ha! And you still in your dressing-gown." He pointed with the tip of his laerma-wood cane at Arjan's legs below the hem of the Prelate's coat.
"It is an urgent matter," Arjan replied stiffly to cover his embarrassment. "I did not have time to change properly."
The doctor, however, broke into a wide smile, showing perfect teeth.
"There's hope for you yet, Your Grace. Most of your young whippersnappers at the shrine would rather cut off their right arms than give up all that empty formality. So what is it? Someone sick?"
"It's a case of murder. Colonel Juued is dead."
"You don't say? It took this long, did it? Figured someone would have done for the dirty crook long before now."
Arjan blinked in surprise. Dr. Senj was a notable eccentric, but also a reliable and intelligent man. If he claimed that the late Colonel was dishonest...
"Didn't know that, did you?" Senj asked slyly. "No surprise. You're a new man here. Outsider! Can't expect you to know all you should about the people. Still, it gives you a fresh perspective, and that can't hurt. Let me get dressed. That wind's too cold for these old bones to be running about in a dressing-gown like you youngsters! Ha!"
Dr. Senj scuttled back into his house, then reemerged fully dressed and carrying a satchel with his medical supplies. He slipped into his coat and overboots, and the little group set off again.
Although he had met Kai briefly as one of the village notables, the Prelate had never before visited the man's home. Seeing it for the first time, he was impressed by its size. Like most Dezolian buildings, it was constructed of wood and had a single story, but the steeply angled roof which encouraged snow to slide off instead of building up to dangerous levels allowed for a large attic. The ground floor itself was also quite large, with many rooms; Kai was either a successful trader or had family money to be able to afford his home.
They removed their overboots in the foyer and placed them on the drying-rack so they would not track snow through the house, then headed into the front hall. Two intricate scroll-paintings flanked a large octagonal window, through which Arjan could see that the house was basically U-shaped with an ornate garden in the center. Four torches blazed in the garden for illumination.
"Kai, have your servants take your guests to a room where they can all wait comfortably until I am ready to question them. All six, mind you—the servants are witnesses as well. You can show us to the tea-room and Colonel Juued's body."
"Of course, Your Grace." He turned to the eldest servant and said, "The front parlor, I think, Rall."
"Yes, sir." The servant bowed his head respectfully, then showed the others out through the door on the left-hand side of the hall. Kai then led Arjan and Dr. Senj in the other direction. He took them through corridors and rooms whose polished wood floors, tasteful furnishings, and samples of ancient artwork verified the Prelate's impression of Kai as an antiquarian and deep believer in Dezolian tradition. The tea-room proved to be more of the same; it was devoid of any furniture beyond the candelabra in each corner, the fireplace, and those things needed for the kej Tuumjem. Those latter items included the low stools to sit upon, the grill-topped brazier for the copper kettle, and a brass-bound chest of a dark, nearly black wood, where cups, kej, and korta were kept. The effect would be to minimize clutter, so that nothing disturbed the atmosphere of peaceful, harmonious meditation so vital for the tea ceremony.
Now, though, the room held an atmosphere that was anything but harmonious. On the contrary, hatred and violence were almost tangible forces battering against the Prelate's consciousness. The candles had been allowed to burn when the mob had rushed from the house; some had burnt out while others guttered feebly, sending weird shadows of the three men moving across the walls. The elegant cups lay on the floor where they had been dropped, most turned on their side. One had shattered on the hard wood, and there were dark pools of spilled tea here and there. Most shocking of all, of course, was the sprawled form of a man. He lay on his side, dressed in a formal jacket and trousers of expensive colored linen.
"You're lucky there wasn't a dangerous fire," Arjan said, indicating the candles. "You could have lost all you had, Kai, by rushing to take the law into your own hands." The Prelate barely suppressed a wince as the words left his mouth, appalled at how pompous he sounded. Kai did not seem to notice, but took the reproof.
"I apologize, Your Grace, I—"
Arjan waved aside further apologies. He may have been correct, technically speaking, but he would only embarrass himself further if he pressed the point. No doubt it was only his nerves that made him raise it in the first place.
"Dr. Senj, would you examine the corpse?"
"Indeed I shall." His lips twitched, as if he was going to add something more, no doubt a pithy comment of some sort, but he held his peace. Instead he bent down on one knee and tested the body for rigidity, then turned the corpse over.
"Colonel Juued, right enough," he remarked. "I know that face all too well." He lifted up a cane lying next to the body. "There's something men of our age share, I'm afraid. Treasure your health, Prelate, while you still have it."
The doctor peered at Juued's narrow, lined face and the grayish tinge of the skin. He opened his satchel and used a tool to pry the corpse's lips apart, then examined the inside of the mouth. He then went on to the eyes, which he examined under a magnifying lens.
"Ahh, yes. Well, there's no mistake about it; the greedy old dragon was murdered, right enough."
"Quite. I'll know for certain after a proper autopsy, but the signs of distilled mistralgec venom are clear. The color of the skin, the broken blood vessels inside the mouth and on the tongue, and the milky film flecked with irregularly-shaped specks in the eyes are all indicative of this poison."
"Can you test for it? Chemically, I mean?"
Senj glanced around at the paraphernalia.
"You mean, to see if it was added to this tea?"
"Yes, please test the water in the kettle, the tea left in any cups that haven't spilled, and the used tea leaves there on the korta." He turned to the trader. "Let me see the rest of the kej you purchased from the Palman."
Kai went over to the chest, opened it, and took out a wrapped paper package. The tabs at its edge were slightly slack, indicating that it had already been opened at least once.
"This was, I presume, the first time you had made tea from these leaves?"
"Of course, Your Grace." He shook his head ruefully. "I cannot believe that I was such a fool. I believed that she was nothing more or less than a peddler, a traveling merchant. Now I see it all, but she had me completely fooled."
Arjan noted once again that unlike Hollast and the others who hadn't dealt with Elissa, Kai referred to the Palman as "her." He wondered if gender made any difference in Palman society.
"Perhaps Elder Renn is right and we should have no dealings with them," Kai continued. "They don't think like we do; indeed, I understand that under their Mother Brain most of them rejected religion altogether. It may well have been a mistake to believe we could coexist with such people!"
Privately, Arjan believed the opposite was true, that it was the duty of a priest to bring the Way of Heaven to any unbeliever. Even if it was just to restore their own native faith, even aliens should not be left without spiritual guidance. It was, Arjan believed, one of the things that set humanity, regardless of specific race, apart from the animals—the ability to be aware of things greater than themselves, and to offer proper reverence. Aloud, though, he only gave a murmured "Mm-hmm," and returned to his examination of the room. Dr. Senj, meanwhile, collected several samples in glass vials he took from a padded case in his satchel.
A few minutes' examination, Arjan realized, revealed nothing that did not confirm Hollast's account of the death. Nor did the corpse's pockets contain anything more than a house key, a money purse with a few hundred meseta, and a simple good luck charm of feathers and red thread. The latter item of course held no magic, but was typical of the way peasant superstition still persisted even among supposedly enlightened villagers. When he'd been at the seminary, Arjan had even known fellow initiates who would still carry such amulets or link their thumbs to ward off the evil eye.
While the coroner was finishing up his various tasks, Arjan asked Kai for his story of the murder. Though the perspective was different, it tallied in all significant details with the hermit's.
"How did you choose your guests?" he asked. "A retired soldier, a retired officer of the local government, and a fellow trader do not seem like a socially harmonious mix."
"You are correct, Your Grace. I have various interests in common with each, but I would not have had them together, say, as dinner guests. However all are—or was, in the late Colonel's case—men of tradition, who appreciated the kej Tuumjem for what it was, and with whom I could share the proper atmosphere of the tea ceremony. For, as you no doubt are aware, the correct attitude is absolutely vital for the kej Tuumjem to be a success. Indeed, the interruption by His Eminence Hollast might have been enough to disrupt the harmony of the scene." He shook his head regretfully. "Would that I had chosen to stop! But, His Eminence is such a strong character and tranquil spirit that I was sure he would only add to, rather than detract from the atmosphere of the ceremony. Little did I know that the outcome had already been settled, thanks to that accursed Palman's treachery!"
"That has yet to be determined," Arjan reproved. "I observe that the chest where you keep the kej leaves was unlocked. When did you purchase the tea?"
"Yesterday. The Palman, Vair, came to my shop and offered me goods for sale. Most were of no interest, but the kej was well-priced and appeared to be of the finest leaf. Greed was my downfall!" he lamented. "I allowed a merchant's interest in figures and profit to distract me from the true, noble spirit that the kej Tuumjem demands of an adept."
"Then," Arjan continued, not distracted by the trader's wailings, "the tea leaves lay wrapped in the chest there all last night and all day today? I presume since this room is dedicated to the tea ceremony that it remains largely unused during the course of the day."
Kai regarded the Prelate curiously.
"That is so; the housekeeper cleaned the room in anticipation of my guests' arrival, but...do you mean to suggest, Your Grace, that some outsider could have entered my home, and poisoned the kej after I had purchased it?"
"I merely wish to remain open-minded. We cannot even be sure it was the tea which contained the poison. It might have been put in the kettle, and poured from there into your cups as you prepared each in turn."
"These are shocking suggestions, Your Grace!"
"Murder is a shocking crime."
"There!" Senj declared, putting away his samples. "I have everything I need to make the tests."
"How soon will you have the results?"
"I presume you'd like them before I begin the autopsy?"
Arjan nodded firmly.
"Absolutely. The autopsy is likely only to provide positive proof of what you have already told me, while the tests could give vital new information."
"My thoughts exactly, Your Grace."
Arjan offered the doctor a hand up, but Senj ignored the extended limb, preferring to regain his feet through the use of his own cane. The Prelate wondered if the dead man had been as resolutely self-sufficient.
"Have two police-wardens bring the body to the morgue for your examination," he instructed, "but get those tests finished as soon as you can, no matter the hour."
The coroner just grinned at Arjan's enthusiasm.
"Don't worry; I will."
He headed for the door without further ado or words of farewell.
"Let me question the other witnesses now, Kai."
Arjan began with the servants, since they had both the best opportunity to notice anything and likewise the best chance to tamper with the tea paraphernalia. The gardener and the cook both denied all knowledge of the crime and could offer nothing useful; Arjan chided each for taking part in the mob. Though it was not entirely unreasonable when faced by a corpse and the desire of their employer and his associates for vengeance that they would follow his lead, there was nonetheless a point where even a loyal servant needed to exercise sound judgment on his or her own behalf.
The housekeeper proved to be quite a different matter. A thin, frail woman, she was terrified from the first, but Arjan soon realized that it was not the horror of guilt which afflicted her, but so far as he could tell the fear of authority. Having heard Arjan's speeches at the boardinghouse, she had become convinced that she would be punished severely for her part in the attempted lynching. He had barely been able to get her to calm down over that when his questions about the tea-room—had she touched the chest or kettle, had she seen anything out of place while cleaning—set her off once again on a paroxysm of wailing and sobbing.
It might have been no more than an act; the young Prelate did not have much experience with devious persons. Arjan didn't believe that it was, however. The woman was simply terrified of the power of the law and the ability the authorities possessed to do her harm. The thought struck deeply at Arjan's already wavering self-confidence. Perhaps the servant's fear was irrational, but there had been times in Dezolian history—many far too recent—where the law had been a brutal tyrant. It was the responsibility of local Prelates across the planet to insure that did not happen again.
The case had thus far featured too many examples of what happened when the authorities could not be relied upon to be fair and just. Arjan had to solve it, and more than that bring the guilty party to justice without harming the innocent. It was the only way to build faith in the people that the Church could be trusted to rule and not merely guide.
Since all he had gotten from the housekeeper were a few barely coherent protests that she'd seen and done nothing, Arjan dismissed her into the company and, hopefully, comfort of her fellow servants. He then called in Renn and Simkal. The former was a lean, spare figure while the latter's plump build testified to the success of his business. Both men bore sullen, displeased looks.
"I strongly resent being kept here like a common criminal," Renn said at once. He clearly disliked being subject to the new authority that had usurped his position, and Arjan's sharp words from outside the boardinghouse had only whetted his appetite for confrontation.
"Speak respectfully to His Grace the Prelate!"
None of them had seen Colce enter the room by the side door. His sudden interruption startled all three men, Simkal actually letting out a squeak of surprise.
"It's only by His Grace's mercy that you aren't under arrest now as 'common criminals,' which is just what you are," Colce barked. "Or didn't you know that rioting and the failure to report a death to the authorities are both crimes? You're important witnesses in a murder case. Be glad you're being questioned here instead of in the tribunal!"
Simkal looked a bit abashed by this rebuke while Renn only appeared surly. Arjan decided that the former village elder missed his past authority and was resentful of the new system that had replaced not merely him but the very position that he had once held.
"My assistant is correct," Arjan said. "I could have had all of you arrested for your role in that lynch mob. What made you so intent on killing the Palman merchant, anyway?"
"It should be obvious even to you!" Renn bristled. "We were poisoned by the kej. He—"
"It hardly matters, unless you plan to breed them. In any case, she sold it. If Kai and Hermit Hollast hadn't known the Anti technique, we'd have died. That murderous filth shouldn't be allowed to walk our streets. I don't know how the Church can be so naive as to think that such barbarians can be trusted to keep their agreements. This incident just proves it!"
"I have no idea," Simkal added, "why Kai would do business with a Palman in this matter at all. What can one know about kej? They don't even drink it."
"Greed," Renn pronounced, echoing Kai's own words. "Even the most traditional and harmonious soul can be corrupted by the day-to-day practice of such a worldly profession." He seemed not to realize that he had just insulted Simkal, who himself was a trader. "That's the only reason he would stoop to doing business with those filthy aliens at all. If we can't get rid of them, then at the least they should be kept in their own towns, forbidden to come in contact with decent people!"
Renn's xenophobia was open and obvious, but Arjan had to question it on some level. Was he really such a hater of Palmans, or could it be a sham, designed to conceal the motives of a murderer? After all, with the Palman executed for the deed, no one would be likely to look too hard at what had really happened, and by all accounts Renn had been among the most active of Elissa's accusers.
Then again, reflected Arjan, it would have been very difficult for Renn to enter Kai's home secretly and plant the poison in the tea, kettle, or cups. And would he have poisoned himself? If so, had he intended to die or would he have had some plan to save himself? The former suggested the fanatic, but what could Renn have had to be fanatical about? The entire idea, the Prelate admitted to himself, was extremely far-fetched. The real problem was that he, Arjan, had no real comprehension of how someone could have such a sweeping hatred of another group of people the way Renn seemingly did of the Palmans. Unable to visualize it, he distrusted it and looked for other motives, even when there simply was no such hidden agenda. Nonetheless, he found it incomprehensible that supposedly civilized Dezolians could be bound up in the senseless hatred of an entire race.
The Prelate shook his head ruefully at the follies of people as well as his own naiveté. The murder case appeared to be tied up in these reckless passions, which demanded that he give them his full attention.
He led the two witnesses through their accounts of what had happened. These did not differ materially from those of Hermit Hollast and Kai. It became clear that Simkal did not like the late Colonel; he remembered a number of cutting remarks Juued had made. Renn merely looked scornfully at the plump trader.
"You just could not understand the attitude of the professional military man."
"And you can?" Arjan prompted waspishly.
"Of course! Authority—power, if you will—exists to be used. If it is not, it is lost. Colonel Juued understood that the only way to maintain authority is through tight control and direct action. Soldiers know this in their blood, from the battlefield."
Arjan met the former elder's gaze coolly.
"I suppose that you disapprove of the way I am handling this investigation?"
"Since you invite me to speak freely, then I don't mind saying that I do! The culprit is obvious; you have her in custody. Perhaps you were right to insist on a formal trial in the tribunal," Renn admitted grudgingly, "since in my day I'd have called on the military police to enforce my authority, too, instead of letting the citizens take action on their own. But this questioning! Dragging us all back here! You're just making yourself look soft and weak. It just goes to show that priests can't be trusted to hold power. You're too concerned with saving souls to take decisive action! History shows that; the original theocracy got pushed out of power by the Palmans in the late ninth century when they first came here en masse."
Arjan's first instinct was to argue furiously with the elder's final assertion. As a scholar, he knew that the previous theocracy had fallen and been replaced by the pai'tekkan's secular government not because it had caved in to the Palmans but because it had tried to keep them from exploiting Dezolis as their own private source of raw materials, especially laconia. He held his tongue, though, realizing that arguing the point would gain him nothing.
"I thank you for your frankness," he replied politely. "I have one more point to clarify. When Hollast accepted Kai's invitation to stay, you moved over, Simkal. Why did you do that?"
"Why, because even as a retired High Priest, Hermit Hollast was of greater status than any of us. It was only right for us to move aside for him."
"Thank you. You may return to your homes now; I'm finished with the questioning."
The two men bowed their heads to the Prelate and left the room.
"What now, boss?" Colce asked.
"We go to the jail. I need to speak to Elissa Vair, and to get the coroner's report on the chemical tests I requested. Then..." he shrugged. "Then I can't be sure."
The two of them went to the foyer and reclaimed their overboots. Colce also donned his coat; the Prelate had left his on to cover the dressing-gown as best it could, and was regretting the decision. Perspiration was plastering his undergarment to his back, and he felt hot and dizzy. The blast of cold wind when they went outside did nothing to improve things; it seemed to knife right through him, chilling the hot sweat and making him shudder. It was after midnight, he was aware, and he was getting sleepier.
"You don't think it was the Palman, then?" Colce asked as they trudged away from the house, boots gritting on the snowy path.
"I don't know. It's the most obvious answer, and yet..." The truth was that Arjan's reluctance to suspect the merchant came from the same place that his suspicions of Renn did, his own lack of understanding of fanatical prejudice. Yet history proved that such blind hatred could and did erupt into senseless violence. No matter how the Prelate's own instincts recoiled from it, he could not set aside this obvious explanation.
"I had considered a theory," he said, "that some enemy of Kai's might have slipped into the house and planted the poison, knowing that eventually Kai would carry out the tea ceremony and suffer the effects. Still, there were no signs I could see of forced entry, and the poisoner would not know how many innocents he or she would kill along with Kai—which was exactly what happened in this case. Kai survived, and it was the Colonel who died."
"Did you want me to have a look at the place?" Colce suggested. "I might be able to spot the signs of a burglary you might miss, or rule that out as an option."
"You might try that tomorrow," Arjan agreed. Before entering the Prelate's service, Colce had not lived an exemplary life. Quite the opposite, in fact; he'd been involved in a number of criminal activities. That had taught him many handy tricks which he'd found most useful in legitimate service, and which Arjan was learning could be turned around to aid in the detection of crime. "Still, I can't help but think it is unlikely."
Colce rubbed his chin.
"The servants, then? Since they presumably live in the house they would have a better opportunity to plant the poison; since they certainly wouldn't be invited to one of their master's tea parties their own lives wouldn't be at risk, and in a household like that there are always plenty of motives for servants to kill—that goes without saying."
"Present company excepted, boss," Colce said with a chuckle. "A fussy old crow like Kai can't be easy to work for, though—and that museum he lives in!"
"I found Kai's home to be excellently furnished in the best of traditional styles."
"Like I said, a museum piece. To be looked at, showed off to his friends and guests, maybe, but not lived in."
Arjan shook his head. He hadn't seen it that way at all.
"I don't think so, Colce. Every minute I spent in Kai's presence, I got the impression of a deeply traditional man who believes in the customs and rituals of our Dezolian past, rather than trader putting on a pose of gentility to attract well-off customers." Which description, he realized, actually described Simkal quite fittingly. "I think that Kai is first and foremost a conservative man, in love with our history, whose mercantile activities give him the resources he needs to indulge his interest. Even the former High Priest, Hollast, believed Kai to be a true adept of the kej Tuumjem, a level he could never attain without the true spirit."
"Hunh. You figure that's better or worse than if he were a phony?"
Arjan smiled thinly. The cold bit at his inadequately-covered legs.
"I'm not sure, but I think any motives would be different. There's no evidence, though. It would take much close questioning, I think, to expose a motive among the servants. Kai's friends wouldn't know and the servants would be likely to cling together, to protect one another."
"True. So you're back to the Palman, then?"
The Prelate shook his head again.
"In truth, I can't say. Maybe I'll know more after I question her."
He took the trouble to change into his formal robes before crossing from his residence to the jail, which was part of the tribunal compound. Arjan's knocks on the locked door received no initial response, so he rapidly crashed his fist loudly against the planks. Through the small, barred window he saw the night-guard jolted awake, almost falling out of his seat. The man's curses were audible as he came to the door and threw back the bolt.
"Do you know what time it—Oh! Your Grace, a thousand apologies!" He all but cringed out of the way.
"I understand that you were not thinking clearly, having just been awakened," the Prelate snapped, "but next time check to see who is there before you open the door. That is why we keep it locked, after all." The explosion of sarcastic temper wasn't like him, Arjan thought ruefully; his ill feelings had evidently been happy to fasten upon any legitimate excuse. It was a reflection of just how out of sorts this case had him—after midnight, confronting not merely his first murder but a myriad of strong emotions and the obvious political concerns it was no surprise he was not at his best!
"Show me to the cell of the Palman who was brought here this evening," he commanded. The night-guard scuttled to obey, reminding the Prelate of nothing so much as a loathsome green bug.
Elissa Vair sat on the hard wooden bench that was the cell's only furniture, hugging her knees to her chest. Her hood was drawn back and her long, yellow hair hung in limp strands around her face. Arjan wondered whether Palmans found such angular features attractive.
"Miss Vair," he addressed her. All priests were required to learn at least a smattering of Palman; one day it was hoped that all people of both races would obtain a basic bilingual education. "I am Prelate Arjan; I be the one assign to investigate your crime." He had a feeling he was making small mistakes in grammar, but hoped they would not be a major impediment to understanding, for he did not know any translation magic.
"What crime?" the woman protested. "I haven't done anything!" Then, in halting Dezolian, she added, "I not do crime!" Apparently deciding that he was more adept at her language than she was at his, she switched back to Palman. "I don't know what's going on! I'm just a merchant, here to deal in goods. It was a profitable trip, and the woman who ran the boardinghouse good company, but then tonight that mob appeared outside. Mika said they were after me, and from what little I understood of their curses it sounded like she was right! Then your men arrested me and locked me up! What am I supposed to have done?"
"You sell kej to a trader name Kai?"
Elissa nodded her head.
"Yes, I did. I didn't think there was a trade-tax on it."
"The kej is poison. A man die from it."
The merchant's eyes widened.
"Poisoned! But that can't be! I don't like the taste of the stuff myself, but I can spot leaf-rot or black-edge mold well enough. There's no way the tea was tainted."
"Not mold. Poison."
The woman's eyes went even wider, and she shrank back against the hard stone wall.
"You mean, that someone did this on purpose? But, why would I do that?"
"They say, you hate Dezolians. You know tea ceremony important tradition. You poison kej, ruin tradition, try kill many." It would be, Arjan thought, the way a fanatic would think. How appropriate would it be to bring death and destruction into a ritual meant to assure calm and tranquillity! He was barely able to suppress a shudder at the kind of polluted thoughts that could do such a thing.
"Kill many? But you said that only one man died," Elissa protested.
"One man die. Other men sick. Anti technique save other men. All who drink take poison."
"And...and you think that I could do something like that?"
"You sell kej yesterday. If not you, who?"
"Maybe it was poisoned by the man who sold it to me? Did you think of that?"
"Who sell it to you?"
"A merchant in Zema, Duvan." She sighed, then shook her head. "No, I've done a lot of business with him. He's a sharp trader and a hard bargainer, but nothing I've gotten from him had ever been even slightly off. Besides, even if he hated Palmans, he knows we don't like the taste of your kind of tea. It doesn't make sense at all."
One could take that reasoning one step further, Arjan supposed. If it was this Duvan who was a prejudiced fanatic, he could have poisoned the kej knowing it would be sold to Dezolians, who would in turn jump to the conclusion Kai, Renn, and Simkal had. But, if that was true, why would he have dealt with Elissa Vair many times before without incident? It was too farfetched to believe he was lulling her into a false sense of security, as there would be nothing for him to gain from that.
No, Arjan thought, he didn't have to reach out to some other district. The poisoner was in Vassha, perhaps right in front of him. Unfortunately, even if she did despise all Dezolians, she was too sly to admit it. Over the course of a long conversation, even a cautious person might not be able to keep from giving away such strong feelings in subtle ways, but Arjan lacked both the fluency in the Palman language and the knowledge of Palman culture to be able to detect any such subtleties.
"Look," she said, apparently moved to talk by his impassive silence, "all I did was sell a packet of kej, and at a good price, too. I still made a decent profit, though; I knew an adept of your tea ceremony would pay more for high-quality kej than an ordinary person. In my book, I don't care if a person's skin is white, black, or green, so long as their meseta is good. I'm interested in making money, not hashing over stupid political debates."
"We will see," Arjan said, and walked back down the passage. The night-guard let him out, and the Prelate stood for a moment in the cold air of the rear courtyard.
Arjan felt lost. He had no clues to go on, no evidence that would point him towards a particular person as a poisoner. He didn't even have an idea as to the motive. Was it a twisted, racist soul behind it all? Or did people like Renn just suspect that because it reflected the taint on their own spirits? It troubled him that a small mob had been raised so easily in Vassha. He would have to have Colce look into the matter of these tavern loafers and vagabonds. The ones who were just down on their luck needed to be found gainful employment, steady work to keep their idle hands from making trouble, while the true criminals needed to be brought to justice and kept from building up a substantial underworld. The Prelate didn't have the confidence of the well-to-do in Vassha, as their willingness to form a mob showed; if he allowed a criminal underclass to flourish it would only make matters worse!
Then again, he thought glumly, if he didn't reach a solution to this poisoning case, it would all be irrelevant anyway. The Renns, the Palman-haters, would protest that Arjan was soft, that the Church didn't have the courage to punish a killer. The story would spread, and most of the common people would rise up with them. Such a mass poisoning, striking right at the midst of a Dezolian tradition, was a deep affront to their culture, their soul. It would incense all of Vassha, so long as the killer remained unpunished. On the other hand, if—Heaven forbid—Arjan caved in to pressure and found Elissa guilty, it could ignite a conflict with the Palmans. He doubted they would ignore such manifest injustice any more than a Dezolian would.
Could that be the killer's ultimate motive? Arjan could scarcely comprehend it, but surely a fanatic would be willing to sacrifice his or her life—by drinking his or her own poison, or on the execution ground, as appropriate—if it would spark a war between the races. The idea made the Prelate's stomach twist.
How can I sort this out?
The wind swirled around him, biting frigidly through his clothing. Tired and agitated as he was, the cold seemed to have more effect than it otherwise should have. It was ironic, he thought, that he as a priest had a vocation to combat spiritual evil, and yet when he came face-to-face with it in one of its most elemental forms he was confused, unsure of himself.
Instinctively, Arjan's eyes turned to the watch fire that burned in the center of the courtyard between the tribunal and the shrine. The flame in its three-legged bowl was kept burning here as it was in the village square day and night, even during the worst of storms, for it was a holy symbol of the Church. For the Dezolians, fire was not merely a life-giving gift of Heaven, enabling the people to spread out from Dezolis's tropical zones to the far reaches of the planet. Fire was something more, a tangible representation of the Light of Heaven which pierced through all darkness. The tower where the holy Eclipse Torch was kept was called Corona, after all, for the Church was to be the light that shone even in the darkest hour of the people. It was more than a mere statement, it was a sacred trust each and every member of the clergy took on with his or her ordination.
Staring at the sacred fire, Arjan felt a warmth grow inside him. Evil, he knew, could only be overcome by staunchly defending good. His duty was clear; rather than stand and worry about the consequences of failure, he needed to find the killer of Colonel Juued and bring him or her to justice with sufficient evidence to prove their guilt. Only by doing this could he assure himself, with complete certainty, that none of his fears would come to pass.
The brainstorm that came to him was sudden, almost explosive. Even as the knot of tension in his belly began to dissolve, the idea burst full-flower into his mind, as if Arjan's fears and self-doubt had been holding his reason in check. If he was right, he knew what Dr. Senj's tests would reveal. The Prelate changed his direction, not returning to his residence but instead leaving the compound, passing through the broad gate in the wooden palisade.
Unlike the other official buildings, Vassha's morgue was not located in the shrine compound proper, though it was nearby so that the underpriests could easily cross over to perform the death-rites and preside at funeral services. No doubt the coroner would be there, performing the autopsy.
Arjan had never liked the morgue. It was the only building in Vassha that had been built using the Palmans' advanced technology prior to the destruction of their Mother Brain. External walls of metal, interior wall linings and floor tiles of some synthetic material, fixtures, light mountings, and screens for use with electricity all felt artificial and unnatural. Now that energy was not available to make the technology work, the building had an eerie stillness about it, as if the morgue itself was a silent corpse.
An attendant told the Prelate that Dr. Senj was in the operating theater. Arjan knew the way, so he crossed to there. Colonel Juued's body had been laid out on a metal table; next to it the doctor was setting out his instruments for the autopsy. It did not look like he had begun, though, which made Arjan happy. If it had started, he would have had to wait until it was done before interrupting.
"Ah! Come in, Your Grace. I've finished with the poison tests and was about to begin the autopsy."
"I'm impressed by your speed and efficiency," Arjan complimented him.
"When you get to be my age, Prelate, you soon find that waiting for anything is not your favorite activity. You're never sure if you'll be there when the waiting is done."
Arjan had trouble suppressing a grin.
"So, since you've decided not to wait, why not let me in on the results, too?"
"Heaven save us from high officials who think they're funny," Dr. Senj said with a chuckle, then came quickly to the point. "I'll save my full report of what tests I ran and how they pointed me in a specific direction for when I testify in the tribunal and the scribes are taking down the official record. In the samples of tea left in those cups that hadn't spilled or broken, I found the presence of distilled mistralgec venom, as I had suspected. It was also present in the kej leaves used in the tea ceremony, though only in trace amounts. None was present at all in the kettle."
"So it was the tea that was poisoned and not the water?"
"That is correct. I verified this by testing the unused kej leaves, and found a strong dose of the poison. It had probably been added in liquid form and allowed to dry on the leaves. The process would have taken no more than an hour for the drying to finish completely and would be less likely to be noticed than if it was added in powder form. Of course, the murderer wouldn't have had to be present while the poison dried. Open the packet, apply the toxin, reseal the packet, and leave; that's all that would be needed."
"So whomever took the first scoop of leaves would be guaranteed to get enough poison to kill."
"Exactly. The poison has an active life of about two years before it would start to break down chemically."
Arjan nodded. The results had not necessarily verified his theory, but nothing about them had in any way contradicted it.
"There was one more thing that interested me, Dr. Senj. When I first called on you this evening, you called the Colonel a crook. Why was that?"
The coroner shrugged.
"Because he was. You know what military officers were like under the pai'tekkan. Juued was the commander of the local garrison, and used that position to line his pockets. He put the squeeze on trade, extorted heavy bribes, stuck his hand into regional government, and generally made sure that if anyone made any money in the region, he got his cut."
"Why wasn't he prosecuted?"
"He had the good sense to retire before the civil government fell. By the time the Church reestablished control, he hadn't committed a crime in over a decade. As I'm sure you know, you clergy didn't worry too hard over past corruption when you were rebuilding the government. Not enough time for that, I daresay!"
Arjan shook his head, agreeing that no, there wasn't.
"You're quite right. The hierarchy was more interested in weeding out corruption from the government they were building, especially in the armed forces. The investigators were far too busy dealing with the many active-duty officers involved in bribery and oppression to go back and prosecute criminals no longer in the ranks unless their crimes were far more serious than some petty squeeze. Nonetheless, I'm glad to know the truth."
"It gives me a motive."
Dr. Senj looked shrewdly at the Prelate.
"You know something, don't you, Your Grace?"
"As yet, I only have some speculations, but I hope to know more later on. I thank you for your assistance at this late hour."
Dr. Senj smiled dryly.
"In ten or twenty years I shall have all the sleep I want, Your Grace. I'd rather be involved in as much as I can while alive, so that when Heaven takes me at least I will know the difference."
There really wasn't much one could say to a comment like that. Arjan reflected that it was likely this attitude that made the old man continue his medical practice and to act as the coroner when many his age would be retired. And why not? Arjan was certain that he had no intention of giving up the priesthood so long as his mind permitted him to continue.
He bid farewell to Dr. Senj and returned to his residence, where he rang for Colce. From his bleary appearance, the Prelate's assistant had apparently gone to bed after they had separated.
"What's up, boss?"
"Colce, I need the principals of this case summoned here, to my library."
The burly man yawned.
"At this hour? Maybe it would be better to call it a night and pick up the business with a rested brain in the morning."
"I feel perfectly fine!" Arjan said, rubbing his hands together briskly. "If the others are a bit tired, then it may help keep their guard down. I need five people brought here for a conference: the four survivors of the kej Tuumjem and Elissa Vair. Please extend all courtesy to ex-High Priest Hollast. For the others, if they protest, you may take as many police-wardens as you need to make sure they attend! You'll come to this conference, too, to insure the good behavior of everyone present while I outline my solution to the murder."
A broad smile crossed Colce's face.
"Well, now, that's more like it. It'll be worth staying up past two in the morning for this." He slipped out the door at once.
For perhaps the first time during his prelacy, Arjan did not feel uneasy or frightened to confront a suspect. He was nervous, yes, but only from excitement and anticipation. Perhaps, he thought, some of it was due to the late hour; it was easy when tired to get carried away by emotional extremes, either of black depression or an almost exalted state of creative excitement.
To calm himself, he brewed a cup of strong kej on the small tea-stove he kept in the library for when he was engaged in late-night studies and did not want to disturb the servants. He sipped the strong brew, hoping that the stimulant would keep his brain working clearly. The irony did not escape him, but then, he supposed, if he found himself writhing in agony from poison it would be proof that his theory was wrong. Of course, no such thing happened; the worry was merely a trick of the mind.
Hermit Hollast was the first to arrive. He greeted the Prelate with a wry comment about the time, to which Arjan responded with a polite chuckle. A police-warden led Elissa Vair in next, her wrists and ankles shackled and a gag binding her mouth; the combination of restraints would prevent her from using one of the mystic techniques, spell-like powers which most people could master at least to a limited extent with enough practice and training. The ironware clanked as she was shown to a chair. Colce arrived not long after with Kai, Renn, and Simkal. All were surly and resentful to varying degrees.
"Warden, you may remove the prisoner's gag and then go," Arjan instructed the policeman.
"Your Grace, I must protest," Renn started as the warden complied with Arjan's orders. "To be dragged from our beds, after already having been questioned once tonight—"
"Do not complain to me," Arjan cut him off sharply, the confidence he felt in his solution carrying him forward with a new determination, "of how you are being treated! Of all of you, only Hollast has earned any respect in this murder investigation, for only he complied with the law by reporting the crime to me! Now, despite your efforts to exact summary vengeance, I have found the truth. Nonetheless, rather than force a confession from the murderer in the tribunal, I have called this conference to allow things to be settled out of the public's eye, rather than exposing every sordid detail of your lives to the crowd. Or would you prefer to testify in the open tribunal to your lawless activities of this evening, where every citizen of Vassha can hear them from your own lips and the scribes will take your name and crimes down to become part of the official archives forever?"
Renn recoiled in his seat, stunned by the explosion of chastisement from the usually diffident churchman. In truth, Arjan surprised even himself. Colce, for his part, flashed him a quick smile over the heads of the witnesses.
"Your Grace," Simkal asked warily, "did you say that you have discovered proof of guilt?"
Arjan did not answer directly. Instead he turned to Elissa and ordered her, "Explain what you know of the kej Tuumjem." At her confusion, he amended in Palman, "The tea ceremony."
"I know little," she said haltingly. "Host pours water through tea for first person. No steep—too strong. Then moves tea to second cup, pours. So on until all guests have tea. Then host last."
"Exactly," Arjan said. "This explanation of course ignores the philosophical and spiritual aspects of the ceremony but admirably sums up the key technical points. That is, the same tea which is used for the first cup is used for all cups. What does this do to the taste?" he asked Kai.
"Well, the first cup is the best, of course. The host gets the last cup, so that the most bitter brew is kept for himself rather than the guests."
"And likewise," Arjan said, "the second guest's cup is not as good as the first's, the third's is not as good as the second's, and so on. The chemicals that when mixed with hot water create 'tea' become washed out, diluted so that less is left in the leaves to enter each successive cup."
He paused, thinking for a moment. There were two ways he could go at this point, and wasn't sure which would work better. Then, making his decision, he pressed on.
"The same reasoning applies to a poison added to the tea leaves, which Dr. Senj has verified was done in this case. The first cup poured would contain the strongest dose, hence the nearly immediate death of the Colonel. The second and subsequent cups contained less of the poison, so you four could be saved by the Anti technique. This is also what makes me certain that the crime was not committed by Miss Vair. If she really was a fanatic, trying to kill Dezolians wantonly, she would know the poison would be diluted, for as she has just explained to us here and now she is well aware of the kej Tuumjem's general procedure. No, only a fool or one who expected all of the cups to be brewed at once as when preparing an ordinary pot of tea would choose this method for a mass murder."
Arjan only waited a moment before continuing; he wanted to keep the men off-balance by rapidly hitting them with fact after fact. This, he believed, would be the best way to induce a confession.
"So if not a mass murder, what was it? The killer knew that whomever was in the first seat would receive the fatal dose. That was Colonel Juued, a man who while still an active military officer extorted money from traders and minor officials alike. I do not know if it was some lingering grudge that brought about his death or if there was some new outrage, but I am well aware that wrongs can fester over time if not redressed, until the rage, the gate can no longer be contained. Justice and forgiveness are the twin blades that can lance this infection before it bursts." Careful, Arjan; you're starting to preach, he warned himself. "In this case, there was no lancing."
"Are you saying, Your Grace, that the murderer put the poison in the kej right there in front of us?" Simkal asked. This time Arjan chose to answer him.
"I am not. I had considered that possibility, that Hollast's entrance or some other distracting moment allowed it to happen, but Dr. Senj's tests proved this was not so. The poison was added to the entire packet of tea, and in advance of the ceremony."
Renn turned and gave a suspicious glance at the Palman, but did not speak. Perhaps he believed Arjan's reasoning; more likely he just feared another tongue-lashing.
"I don't understand, Your Grace," Kai admitted. "How could the murderer know that the Colonel would drink the first cup?"
"It was traditional," Arjan told him. "Just as the host pours for himself last so as to receive the most bitter kej, so too are the guests seated and poured for in order of social rank. Even though today we are not so caught up in such things as in the feudal age, this tradition is strictly observed. When Hollast arrived unexpectedly, Simkal moved at once to acknowledge this. Likewise, Renn and Juued started to rise because as a former cleric of high rank, Hollast would be entitled to the first and best cup of kej. However, against all tradition, Hollast did not take the first seat but the third, for as a holy anchorite he has humbly rejected the lofty status due to his former position and felt no desire to demand the best place."
Hermit Hollast looked quite embarrassed at Arjan's praise and managed to murmur a polite demurral. Direct compliments, not on the past which he had set aside but on his present lifestyle, had proven to be the one thing that could pierce his aura of calm modesty.
"It was not, however, Hollast who first suggested that Juued keep his place on account of his infirmities—and therefore be certain to receive the fatal dose."
Slowly, as if they were coming to believe the truth against their will, Hollast, Simkal, and Renn all turned to look at Kai.
"It was Kai, the most rigidly traditional of you all, who spoke up in favor of sentiment, insuring that Colonel Juued and none other took the first cup. It was Kai of all those intended to be there who had knowledge of the Anti technique to cure himself as well as those he had no wish to murder. It was Kai who set the guest list, insuring as no one else could in advance, that the Colonel would be entitled to the first seat. And, it was Kai who was the first to denounce the Palman merchant to an audience he found quite receptive. I don't know if it was he who first suggested banding together to execute Miss Vair, but I am quite certain that if he was not he was nonetheless prepared to be."
Kai's lips trembled nervously.
"I want a full account of your crime here and now, Kai. If so, I will permit you to confess in the tribunal and limit that confession to the specific facts, and avoid the public humiliation of having every detail dragged before the masses."
The trader let out a heavy sigh.
"What does it matter now? You are the Prelate. You decide guilt or innocence, and since you have already uncovered the truth there is no point in denying it further. I have despised Juued for years, as you suspected. When he was the commander of the local garrison, responsible for enforcing the excise laws, he squeezed me for every meseta he could. He retired as one of this village's wealthiest citizens on the money he'd extorted from his victims; I think he liked to stay here just to be able to see us every day and laugh in his heart about how he'd gotten the better of all of us. Some—most—shrugged Juued's extortion off as part of the cost of doing business. Corruption was epidemic; side bribes were more or less necessary at all stages of a transaction. Having him here in town, though, putting on his airs as a genteel man who respected our ancient traditions, was more than I could bear. Every time I saw him the black hatred grew and grew like a canker inside me, until I simply had to act."
The murderer sighed heavily.
"I had the idea almost a month ago, but I couldn't think of a way to escape punishment," he continued. "I admit it; I wanted to live, or else I'd just have stabbed Juued in the street and let come what may. Then, yesterday, when I bought kej from Miss Vair, I knew that I could do it. I invited Juued, Renn, and Simkal to the tea ceremony. Renn and Simkal have no love for Palmans; I knew I could get them worked up with rage. Once Miss Vair was dead, I assumed you would close the case, especially given the fact that she'd sold me the kej. Dead, she could not testify in her own defense, and I doubted you'd severely punish—a fine, perhaps—several leading citizens for executing a fanatical Palman who'd attempted mass murder. I now believe I may have underestimated Your Grace's tenacity."
Arjan doubted it. If things had gone off as planned, he would likely have been so concerned in dealing with the mob and its aftermath that he'd have overlooked the question of whether they'd lynched the actual murderer.
"When His Eminence Hollast arrived, I thought he'd at first ruined everything. Then I decided to push on. Having Juued take a cup ahead of Hollast made my stomach clench with revulsion at the undeserved honor I was granting him, but the spirit of the kej Tuumjem was destroyed anyway by my knowledge of the impending death of that arrogant orang', that cheap crook who put on the airs of a cultured gentleman! I'm not sorry he's dead, and while I am not happy to be caught, if I had the choice of letting us both live on or both die, this is how I would want it. And at least," he added with feeling but also the pompous arrogance that had characterized his life, "I can console myself with the knowledge that our sacred Dezolian traditions of order and justice are in the hands of an honest official and not a corrupt g'grat like Juued."
Arjan took no pleasure from the man's praise, only disgust that a man could prose on about justice after confessing to one murder and a deliberate attempt to commit another.
"Colce, put this killer under arrest, and get Miss Vair out of those chains. She is free to go."
Grinning, Colce set to obeying at once. Renn and Simkal all but slunk out, unable to face the Palman or, perhaps, the knowledge of how their own xenophobia had been used to manipulate them. Arjan turned to the Palman and, in her own tongue, apologized for the treatment she had received.
"Oh, no," she replied, shaking her head. "You don't have to apologize for anything. You saved my life from that mob, even though you suspected me of a horrible crime. It's those two and their friends who should apologize. As far as you go, Prelate, I should be thanking you."
Arjan returned her head-shake with one of his own.
"If you thank anyone, should be Hollast, here. Rather than take part in the mob, he flee to fetch help, and he make Kai make mistake."
"Now, your Grace, that's going too far," Hollast said in Dezolian. "You were the one who solved the case."
"Oh, no," Arjan replied. "Your unexpected arrival made Kai act out of character to give Juued the killing dose of poison, and it meant there was one witness who preferred a lawful investigation to a lynching. Without you, Kai might easily have succeeded."
The older man looked quite flustered once more. It was hard for him to stammer out a response, and he had not quite regained his equilibrium by the time he and Elissa took their leave not long after.
Arjan was left alone in his library. With the solution of the case and the arrest of the confessed killer, the surge of energy that had possessed him was draining away. Steadily, the Prelate was becoming increasingly aware of just how tired he was. His bones ached and hoped he had not caught a chill, going about in the cold wind without proper dress. His mind craved sleep, too, and a subtle depression seemed to possess him.
The kej Tuumjem was an ancient ceremony, he thought, a tradition passed down through the years, and yet who had practiced it? A corrupt officer, a murderer, and two men whose xenophobia was so great they could be manipulated into forming a lynch mob. What was the value of civilized culture if those who practiced its rituals were such men?
Arjan suddenly recalled that he had once read something along those lines. Rising from his chair, he found the book in a matter of minutes. He flipped through the pages until he reached the words originally written by the great Bishop Ngangbius:
Without tradition, we are only living in the moment, without the history and heritage that make us a great civilization; without justice, we are barbarians. Therefore, a just rule is our foremost tradition upon which all else is founded.