Thanks to Election Day, I have been sufficiently distracted from my work that I’m not going to make my writing goal today. So instead of wrapping up my day of writing in a blog, I’ll post an excerpt from my NaNo book. It’s currently my favorite chapter from the entire series so far.
Chapter 5: The Masked Priest
The corridors of the Trickster’s Tower were purposely kept dark and twisted, a labyrinth navigable only by those of the gold clergy. The tower’s exterior construction was identical to the other four of the Temple of the Five; it was the smallest of its siblings, but showed no outward differences besides its height. But inside, the tower was a confusing tangle of hallways to nowhere, false doors, hidden passages, and empty rooms. Much of the lighting in the windowless tower was designed to flicker or wink out at random intervals and most who lived and worked there carried glow-rods with them at all times.
Inside the tower, one could hear almost continuously the soft jingle of the garish gold jewelry worn by the Trickster priests in their lavish golden robes and tri-faced porcelain masks. The effect as a whole was unsettling to most, an effect entirely by design. Outside of the Trickster clergymen and the few members of the public who took the Trickster as their patron of the Five, very few had ever explored the interior of the strange tower. Even Deacons and High Lords avoided the place whenever possible. And most people believed that Trickster devotees liked it that way.
High Lord Zado Franzee swept through the tower with the ease and purpose of someone who knew its every secret. He navigated the snarl of confusing pathways with expert deftness, passing through a seemingly empty room to a blank section of wall, which turned out to be a mirror reflecting the opposite side of the room. A light touch and the mirror spun on a central axis, revealing a dark passageway behind it. As he passed through, the mirror snapped back into place and he was left in darkness. But it was of little consequence; this was his tower. He could walk its halls blind and reach his destination by instinct.
The floor here angled up slightly and the walls were lined with evenly spaced recessed doorways. Less than half led anywhere. Some opened to a solid wall, others to a short hallway that connected to an adjacent doorway in the same corridor. Two of them led into lavatories. But the door he sought was unique. The door he sought was an elevator that connected directly with his office.
It was second nature to march directly to the correct doorway, which appeared identical in every way to its brothers. He depressed a hidden button on the side control panel and the door slid open, revealing a polished gold interior. There were no buttons to press inside the lift; it only had two destinations and it was already at one of them. The door slid shut again and a heartbeat later, the lift was rapidly ascending. As with the other High Lords in their respective towers, Lord Franzee possessed the top-most section. With the exception of poor old Himel, who had to settle for the second-top-most level of the Master’s Tower; the High Deacon traditionally claimed the penthouse there.
The lift stopped with a slight jolt after a few moments. The imprint of a left hand appeared beside the door. But instead of his left palm, Zado pressed the back of his right hand against the illuminated print. The door slid open to reveal an enormous open space. Everything was trimmed in gold, from the light fixtures to the furniture and the eating utensils. A large display case held hundreds upon hundreds of tri-faced masks that had belonged to High Lords going back centuries. Some day, Zado’s own mask would grace the empty peg beside the mask of his predecessor and mentor, Pritori Qi. As per tradition, a Trickster priest’s mask was only removed in private or upon imminent death. And only those who had bestowed the masks to their owners or the priests’ protégés administering the death rites were permitted to see the priests’ true faces. Upon entry into the Trickster seminary, all future priests wore cloth hoods to hide their faces from their fellow students. All visual records of the hopefuls were destroyed, even those belonging to their families. On occasion, the priests were permitted to venture outside the Temple maskless. Naturally, no one knew of their true identities, not even their fellow clergymen.
Zado himself had gone on these mini pilgrimages a handful of times, disguising himself as an ordinary citizen. He would shed the golden chains and the layers of fine materials, donning the garb of the average Maesterosi. He always felt a certain exhilaration when he stepped outside with his face uncovered for all to see. Of course, no one paid him any heed. And why should they? Everyone knew the three-faced High Lord, but take away the mask and the clothing and he could be any one of them. That was the root of the Trickster’s teachings; everyone wears a mask, everyone has the potential to become someone else, for good or for ill. The Trickster warns people to be wary of deception because it can be anywhere and everywhere around them. The Trickster priests embodied that deception, made it a tenet of their order.
The High Lord crossed the extravagant apartment with its enormous rugs, priceless antiques, and golden everything everywhere, and entered his personal office. The office itself was larger than most private citizens’ entire homes and was furnished just as lavishly as the rest. His desk was eight feet wide, carved of two-million-year-old petrified Ushenni goldwood by the finest artisans on Montifestus nearly three hundred years ago. The gold inlay and highly polished wood surface still gleamed as brightly as it had the day Lord Milius Vandar had it delivered to that very office. The desk alone could finance the construction of an entire wing of Stinger fighter craft.
A blank-faced wooden bust sat on the desk. Lord Franzee gingerly removed his tri-faced mask and placed it upon the bust. He greatly enjoyed these private moments to himself when he might free himself from the confines of the mask. He knew of very few priests who actually enjoyed wearing them. They were dark and claustrophobic and hot, so very hot inside. But they wore them as a symbol of their devotion to the Trickster, whom they perceived as the wisest of the Five.
Placing the pinky, middle finger, and thumb of his left hand against the underside of his desk, a small panel on the top slid aside and a holographic menu appeared floating in the air. He saw that he had a message from the Veil. He tapped at the holographic interface and brought the message up to read. It was from Miklan, the head supervisor of the Gods’ Fist project.
Franzee scanned the message. The weapon was nearing completion and would be ready to test within the next month, far ahead of the six-month projection he’d given the Deacon just weeks ago. Whether that was a purposeful misdirect in the typical Trickster style or a genuine overestimation, Zado couldn’t say. In all honesty, it could be either. Even the High Deacon wasn’t immune to the Trickster’s ways. The golden priests were oath bound to deceive everyone.
After finishing the message, Franzee sent a brief word of acknowledgement to Miklan and forwarded the message to the High Deacon’s office. He’d be pleased to hear the news, especially on the heels of Cadmeus just two months ago. The Surrie attacks had intensified over the last two weeks; they were assaulting targets seemingly at random. None of the locations thus far had made any strategic sense, but the council, fearing some heretofore unknown tactic, had thought it safest to post forces at every Imperium world in the event of more surprise attacks. If the Surries were hoping to deceive the Imperium by drawing forces away from vital systems, they were sorely mistaken. Now that each system had its own defense fleet, small as they may be, Zado expected the Surries would see their tactic had failed and the attacks would cease. One cannot trick the Trickster.
* * *
Franzee sat at his place at the pentagonal table in the council chamber. The figure of the Trickster, ten feet tall and wrought in gold-flecked marble stood behind him as it had for so many centuries before. The High Deacon was finishing up his opening prayer to the Five.
“The Hand above, we ask that you bless us in your Light and guide us to see your truth,” the Deacon said, arms stretched upwards to the heavens.
“The Hand above,” Zado chanted with the other High Lords. Once the prayer had been said, High Deacon Fel took his seat at the apex of the pentagon. Aromatic smoke curled out from the censers placed around the room. To his left, Lord Himel wheezed with every breath and tugged anxiously at his beard, which had gone quite grey in recent years. Directly opposite the Deacon was the council’s newest member, Lord Rhaes Tarygen. He had been raised up two years before after the death of Lord Vestebulon. The Wizard priest’s passing came as little shock to anyone. He had been nearing a hundred and sixteen years old at the time. Lord Tarygen was a great deal younger than the ancient priest had been, just sixty-three if Zado recalled correctly.
The High Deacon looked to Zado and gave a little nod. The Trickster priest nodded back and everyone round the table turned to stare at the masked man.
“This afternoon, I received word from the Veil,” he began. His voice, muffled from the outside, was deafening within the porcelain mask itself. “Director Miklan assures me that things have proceeded much quicker than anticipated and the Gods’ Fist weapon will be ready for testing very soon.”
As expected, Lord Himel was the first to speak. “I thought we couldn’t expect a practical test for at least another six months,” he barked, giving Zado a critical look.
Lord Franzee nodded. “And that was the case,” he confirmed. “But it is the case no longer.”
Himel scoffed. “That’s why I hate these bloody masked priests. You can never get a straight answer out of them! Six months, six weeks, six days, it’s all the bloody same to them!”
The High Deacon raised a hand to silence the fat lord. “Continue, Lord Franzee,” he said.
Zado nodded. “Director Miklan wishes to remind the council that this is merely a prototype and that it may yet require further work.”
Himel made a rude noise. “There it is!” he cried out. “The catch!”
Zado fought the instinct to snap back. Trickster priests were taught to suppress all emotion. Emotion betrays intent, and intent is the root of deception. Behind his mask he scowled, but one would never know by the sound of his words. “Lord Himel, I swear to you there is no catch,” he replied pleasantly enough. “Director Miklan and his team have been working tirelessly for five years on this project. If he says it is nearly ready for testing, you can rest assured, it is ready for testing. But as a scientist, he always allows for a margin of error. He is confident that it will function as specified, but admits that there are always unforeseen variables.”
“But he’s still a bloody golden priest,” Himel fired back with blatant disdain. “You lot lie as much as you tell the truth, and nobody ever knows quite when you’re doing either!”
“The priests of the Trickster deceive, we do not lie. There is a marginal but important semantic difference,” Zado said. “We take oaths to continually remind the children of the Five that deception is everywhere. And we adhere to our oaths without wavering. But we do know when is and is not an appropriate time to sow deception.” This was true for the most part, but not all in the order agreed that there was ever a time when deception should be avoided. He honestly had no idea to which camp Miklan belonged, though he hoped that the project director wouldn’t attempt to deceive the leader of his own order. “It is to the best of my knowledge that this report is factual and accurate,” he finished. “Director Miklan has invited the council to oversee the first practical test of the weapon in one month’s time.”
Zado looked round the table. The faces staring back at him were sober, grim. As they always were when the weapon was mentioned. He couldn’t blame them; he, too, found it hard to think of anything but the disastrous consequences if such a device should fall into the hands of the Surries. Or any rogue criminal, for that matter. There were times that it was easy to forget that the Surries were not the only public enemies. There were crime organizations all throughout the Imperium who would love to get their hands on the Gods’ Fist device.
“If the tests are successful,” Deacon Fel said, “does Director Miklan know how long it would take to install the weapon on a ship and have it ready for use in the field?”
Franzee pondered that a moment, trying to recall if the director had mentioned any such timetables. “I don’t believe he’s ever said, Your Grace,” he replied. “The technical specs of the device go far above my level of comprehension, so I couldn’t even wager a guess as to what it would take to integrate the technology with one of our military vessels. Would you like me to request a full report, Your Grace?”
Fel shook his head. “No, that’s fine. I can ask him in person when we all see the test.”
“I do not relish the idea of returning to that awful place,” Himel muttered, his jowls jiggling. “It’s bloody terrible on the nerves, flying through that blasted nebula!”
“Well as overseer of the Imperium stellar navy, you do have a certain obligation,” Lord Wyrrlo reminded him. As always, the Mother priest wore fine silks of the purest white bedazzled with tiny clear crystals that caught the light and threw it back in thousands of rainbow sparkles. His pungent perfumes competed with the heavy incense burning in the censers placed at the feet of the statues of the Five. Distance and his mask protected Zado from the worse of it, but he didn’t know how Lord Magesterio could breathe being seated next to the lord of flowers.
I imagine he must be used to it after all this time, Zado thought to himself. I cannot imagine I ever would be.
Himel shot a scowl across the table at Wyrrlo. The two were notorious for their rows and it was no secret that Lord Himel loathed the Mother priest. “I don’t need you to tell me my obligations, Lord Wyrrlo,” he hissed, gnashing his teeth. “I didn’t say I wouldn’t be going back; I said I do not wish to go back!”
“This bickering is quite pointless,” Lord Tarygen spoke up. He was a tall, gaunt man with deeply set dark eyes, sunken cheeks, and sharp cheekbones. His steel grey hair was kept short and his receding hairline emphasized his already prominent forehead. Unlike Lord Vestebulon before him, Lord Tarygen carried himself with strength and authority in his heavy emerald robes. He gripped his green-stained staff in one bony yet curiously powerful hand. “Every moment we sit here tearing at each other’s throats, the Surries continue to ride on their wave of victory, chipping away at our forces spread across the Imperium and at the people’s faith in this body.” He spoke with such authority and wisdom that he had everyone’s rapt attention, even the ever-belligerent Lord Himel. The curious way he rolled his R’s betrayed his origins on Montifestus, the famed artistic capital of the Imperium.
Several of the lords were nodding along, Zado among them.
“Lord Tarygen is right,” said Deacon Fel. “This council must present a unified face to the Imperium, now more than ever. The Surries would love nothing more than to sit back as we dismantle ourselves from the inside out.
“Their attacks have been growing bolder, more erratic,” he said, jumping to his feet. “Why?” he asked, staring at Himel. He glanced around the table. “What’s their strategy?” He paced back and forth.
Behind his mask, Zado followed the Deacon’s movements, wondering where this was going. He’d never seen Fel so worked up before, pacing like a caged animal.
“Lord Tarygen has highlighted the core issue here; the Surries won a major victory against us and they are taking full advantage of what that means. Their own forces have been energized like never before and we have been left demoralized.” He pounded a fist on the table. “We’ve got to do something to hurt them the way they hurt us!”
Zado glanced around the table at the other High Lords. They were all staring at the High Deacon, some with mouths slightly ajar. This was a furor they had never seen from the man in his two decades of service.
“What do you suggest, Your Grace?” Zado took it upon himself to ask.
For a moment, the Deacon’s fire seemed to flicker, to waver as he considered what he was going to say next. There was a clear, if puzzling, internal struggle being played out before the council and Zado had a good idea what was behind it.
“I think, at this time,” Fel started slowly, “we should reexamine Lord Himel’s plan to assault the shipyards at Vigo.”
There was a collective intake of breath, a moment held suspended in time like before the crashing of a wave. But then that moment had passed and all five hells broke loose.
Lord Wyrrlo and Lord Magesterio were furious, shouting across at Lord Himel, who roared back at them. The High Deacon was yelling as well, trying to explain his sudden shift in beliefs, but his argument was lost in the din. Only Lord Tarygen and Zado himself remained silent on the matter.
Zado was fairly certain he knew where Tarygen fell; though more civil than Himel, the Wizard priest tended to agree with the fat lord more often than not. He had a much more tactical military mind than Lord Vestebulon ever had. And as for Zado, his saw the wisdom of the plan but understood the offense taken by the priests of the Mother and the Child. In all honesty, he wasn’t entirely certain where he stood on the idea. As had been posited, the Surries’ victory was more than just physical assets won in battle; they had taken away some of the collective spirit of the Imperium. The shockwave from that defeat was still traveling through the ranks, wreaking untold damage as it did so. Drastic actions may, in fact, be the answer in this case. They had to regain some of the morale they had lost while simultaneously putting an end to the boost they had given the Surries. The loss of the shipyards at Vigo would be a critical blow, arguably an even greater blow than the Surrie gave at Cadmeus.
The two silent lords shared a brief glance before Lord Tarygen stood and pounded his staff against the stone floor. The sharp cracks echoed loudly around the chamber, stopping everyone mid-sentence. They all turned to look at him and he stared back at them with a deeply disapproving gaze.
“I believe His Grace was speaking,” Tarygen said sternly and sat back down. The others, who had leapt out of their seats to argue, likewise took their places at the table.
Fel nodded in thanks to the Wizard priest. “We need a victory on par with what they achieved at Cadmeus,” he said to the now silent table. “Believe me when I say I have agonized over this idea for a very long time. It still sickens me to suggest, I swear it to the Five above. But this is war and the Surries have all but cut off trade to Maestero. This is the Imperium capital,” he said. “And we are already running short of medical supplies. Parts of the planet have begun rationing food. Every day that Cadmeus is held and the starlanes cut off to us, our strength fails us a little bit. And those bits will soon begin to add up. This is a terrible option. It is utterly despicable.” He shot Himel a brief look, “But I genuinely believe it to be our best option.”
“How soon could such an operation be carried out?” Zado found himself asking. The Deacon made a compelling case.
Fel looked at Himel for an answer.
“We could have our forces mobilized within three weeks, perhaps,” he said. “But only once a plan of attack has been drawn up. The shipyards will not be a simple target to take down. They’re utterly massive. It will take continuous fire from hundreds of ships for hours. All this while most certainly facing a Surrie fleet. I assume they won’t simply allow us to demolish their primary shipyards without a fight. This means leaving worlds without defenses.”
Fel nodded. “I think they’ll have bigger priorities with their shipyards under attack than playing their games on our outer fringe worlds,” he said grimly.
“Might I suggest holding off on this assault until the weapon can be utilized?” Zado asked.
Himel began to argue something but Deacon Fel cut him off. “We will delay as long as we can, but I can’t guarantee anything,” he said. “We could use the time to plan this out anyway. As Lord Himel said, this won’t be a simple operation. We can expect heavy casualties.”
The silence that came with that last sentence was nearly as unbearable as the shouting had been moments before. Once more, it was Lord Tarygen who had the right words to say.
“We are in a war that has lasted for generations,” he said. “A war that has claimed millions of lives on both sides. Children have been born, grown up, sired children of their own, and grandchildren, all during the course of this war. For most of us alive today, it is all we have ever known. If we commit this heinous act and it helps us to bring about an end to this conflict, then it is our duty to bear the burden of damnation for the sake of the generations to come.”
No one, not even Lord Wyrrlo, the most outspoken against the plan, had anything to say. Zado was impressed with Tarygen, had been since he had been raised up to the Council of the Five. The man was truly the embodiment of the Wizard, so wise and never without the exact right thing to say.
“I think this is a good place to call this meeting to a close,” Fel said quietly. “Good day to you all. Five be with you.”
Zado watched the High Deacon leave the chamber without another word. The others followed suit, the Trickster priest last of all. May the Five have mercy on us all, he thought as he left. The Mother will have her hands full soon enough.