In a white-washed cell, there sat a man alone. He hunched, manacled, at a table set for two. High up the wall, setting sunlight played through iron bars. A crisscrossed beam graced the man, the table.
Steam rose in bright and voluminous plumes. Heady, spiced steam from roasts, stews, and pies, all couched in fine service. Glassware glittered on the rough-hewn wood. A pair of wine glasses, empty. To this rich spread, the man paid no heed.
There was a clack, a grind of turning key. The man startled, stared through stringy locks at the opening door. A large figure entered, clad in heavy red robes. A short, black veil was tied round his bald head, concealed his eyes. His bare arms clutched a jug of wine.
"Maximil?" he asked.
The lank-headed man grunted.
"I am called Kuero." He approached, pulled back a chair. It grated on the stone floor. There was a pop of cork, a splash of young wine into both glasses. Kuero sat with a huff.
"I" he said, picking up his glass. "Am to be your–"
"Executioner," interrupted Maximil, dully. "You will kill me in the morning."
"Yes," said Kuero. He drank from his glass, pulled forth a peppered terrine.
He tucked in with knife and fork, chewed. "Eat," he commanded, pointing to the spread. "This is the chef's best. All for you and I."
For a while, Maximil simply watched, eyes low and glowering. He watched cuts of fatty terrine pass the Executioner's wrinkled lips. He watched the sunlight glitter in wine, glazed octopus, and rich pudding. Abruptly, he growled, seized his glass, drank deep. His manacles clattered.
Kuero watched the stem upturn. He grunted in approval. "Good."
Maximil sloshed more wine into his glass, gulped it down. "Does my final meal please you, Señor Kuero?" he gasped, lifting the dripping vessel from his lips.
"It is for you. I would not see it wasted."
"Oh?" said the prisoner, breaking the crust of a meat pie. "Why such hospitality? As I recall, doomed folk meet the executioner at the ravenstone, not the dinner table." He gulped a greedy folkfull. "And her name is Guillotine, not Kuero." *
Kuero sliced a hunk of octopus. "You speak well, Maximil."
The prisoner, chewing industriously, lifted his manacled hands, jangled them. "Too well, evidently."
"The eloquent apostate is the most heinous."
"The most dangerous," grumbled Maximil.
"You incited faithless hysteria."
"I succeeded in my task. I am satisfied."
Kuero nodded, grim. "Because of that satisfaction, we sit together now."
"Oh?" mumbled Maximil, ripping a hunk of bread with his teeth.
"You are unrepentant. For that, you are subject to the old ways of execution."
Maximil laughed, spewed crumbs. "Absurd," he said, gasping. He swallowed more wine. "The 'old ways' I know are certainly not extinct, and they definitely don't involve feasting with the executioner." He waved the butt of bread. His shackles clinked. "Why not burn me at the stake? Wouldn't I make a better example?"
"You will be an example, in any case," said Kuero. He poured Maximil more wine.
"What example will I be, then?"
"An example of the Lord's merciful law."
"By giving me time to repent my apostasy before death?"
"You don't sound convinced, Executioner."
Kuero was quiet a moment. His jaw worked slowly. The black veil remained impassive. "Only angels are exemplars of the Lord's law." He chewed, swallowed. "And you and I both know there will be no repentance, Maximil."
Maximil nodded. "Anyone could guess that, given my politics." He leaned forward, picked up a small cake. "But repentance is not the Church's motive, is it? This is a matter of–"
"Of image," said Kuero. His lips twisted.
The prisoner grinned, bit into the cake, put it down. "That doesn't satisfy you."
The executioner took another bite of the octopus, pushed the plate away. He took up the wine jug, poured another glass, drank it slowly. Maximil watched him for many minutes, nibbled cake. Overhead, the sunlight faded, slid aside, left Kuero in shadow.
"I knew a time, not long ago," said Kuero, finally. A torrid edge entered his voice. "When a man like you would face no pretentious end."
Maximil shifted, listened. A wry tone crossed his scruffy face. "Oh?"
Kuero growled. "Not long ago, Maximil, an apostate would not meet his end at the ravenstone. Not by the lick of the pyre. Not by the touch of the guillotine." His wrinkled lips sneered.
"He would die in the street. Before his own home. When most unsuspecting." Kuero leaned over the table. "And when we cut him, there would be no repentance. No lofty example." He hissed through bared teeth.
"Just the Lord's sign in the gutter."
There was a pause. Maximil gulped, tried to readopt his tone. "You were an Inquisitor."
"Yes." The black veil fixed Maximil with what was undeniably a stare.
The prisoner scoffed, straightened somewhat. "As if that yet means anything. Mere zealot-thugs. State-sponsored terrorists." He rolled his eyes, reached for more wine. "Violent evidence of a crumbling theocracy. Inquisitors are–"
"Angels," Kuero boomed.
There was silence. Maximil sat, wide eyed. His lips twitched, as if to speak, but did not. Above, a cloud passed over the barred window. The waning light died.
With care, the dark form of Kuero rose. It took up the wine jug, corked it, tucked it under one arm. It moved to the door.
"Apostate…" it said, turning. Maximil did not look. He seemed small, alone, at the table.
"I will see you in the morning."
Alexo plucked a plum from the crate. He squeezed it, smelled the sweet skin. "Hmm," he pronounced, held up four fingers. The grocer, a brown mouse, nodded. Alexo placed some copper pesetas in an outstretched paw, took up three more plums.
"Ivrne," he said, proffering one over his shoulder. Behind him stood a young woman in a linen sun-hood. She took the fruit in thin, pale fingers. "Thank."
"'Thanks,'" corrected Alexo. "And you're welcome." He turned away from the grocer's stall. "Come. We must find Maita." Ivrne followed.
The market filled a wide, brick square before Isodora Chapel, hot and bright with Southern sun. Many hundreds of folk crowded there, wove their cluttered way through wavy rows of stalls bearing fruit, baked goods, fish; the assorted plenty of the sideside land.
"There are so many," said Ivrne, looking about. She spoke with an upturned lilt. Dark eyes darted neath her hood, framed by yellow hair.
"There are even more folk in the Capital, my friend," said Alexo.
"Why do they gather here?" said Ivrne, turning the fruit in her hands.
"For the market, of course."
"No. Why this place?"
"Ah, I see," said Alexo. "This building," he said, pointing to the high spire. "Is a Chapel. Folk who follow the Lord Aveth worship here."
"I have heard of," said Ivrne. A crease of distaste crossed her brow. "Are these all Avethans?" she said, suspicious.
Alexo nodded. "Nearly all the folk of Alagór are Avethan. The humans, at least."
"No. Not anymore."
"Because of me?"
Alexo paused a step. He glanced to the open door of the church, at the censer hanging in the arch. The coiling smoke of frankincense** was palpable even at a distance, hot on the palette. Alexo glanced to Ivrne, briefly met the inky, expectant eyes.
"Yes," he said. Ivrne nodded, squeezed his hand briefly. Alexo shivered.*** They kept walking.
They neared the square's center. There, the crowd was thickest, gathered round the greening statue of a grim and claustral matron. At her bare, bronze feet were piled gifts of fruit and coin. Folk approached her briefly to lay offerings and make the sign of the Lord.
Ivrne pointed at the statue. "Who?"
"Saint Isodora. The Chapel was built in her honor. They call this Isodora Square."
"What are they doing?" Her black eyes flitted over the offerings, the thronging worshippers.
"They are laying gifts for her."
"Why? Are not saints dead?"
"Avethans believe her spirit remains alive. They show generosity in hopes she'll bestow a blessing upon them."
"What does blessing do?"
Alexo smiled, wry. "In Isodora's case, folk hope she'll protect them from creatures like you."
Ivrne grinned impishly, considered the statue a moment. She tugged her hood down, slipped into the crowd. Frowning, Alexo watched her approach, bend, delicately place her plum on Isodora's toes. She returned beside him, smug.
"You're their most dreadful of nightmares," said Alexo, smiling.
"Let us go," smiled Ivrne. White teeth flashed under the hood.
They set to walking again. Alexo picked and nudged his way through the market crowd. Ivrne simply crept ahead, unnoticed, in the sunlight between bodies.
Abruptly, she stopped, looked down at the paving bricks. "What is this?" she said, turning back to look. Alexo stopped beside, looked down, frowned. "Ah," he exclaimed, low.
In the space between the red pavers, there was glittering, pitted gold. A glittering, gridlike web of metal, as if someone had poured molten wealth in place of mortar. It continued for several meters on either side.
"What is?" asked Ivrne. She bent to touch the gold, warm in the sun.
"Not something Avethans should be proud of," said Alexo, softly. "There was a time when the Holy Inquisition poured gold wherever they spilled blood."
Ivrne withdrew from the bricks, grimaced. "They killed here?"
Alexo nodded. "They did."
"The Inquisition executes people who they say are heretics."
"Why pour gold?"
"So every execution will be remembered."
Ivrne studied the bricks for a while. Dots of gold swam in blinking, inky eyes. "Maita is not Avethan, yes?"
"No," Alexo replied, quiet. "Maita is like me."
"Good." Ivrne turned to leave, took care not to tread on the gold.
"Speaking of," said Alexo, peering over heads. "I do believe I see her."
A dark, freckled woman was pushing towards them. She was panting, as if from a run. Ivrne waved to her. "Maita!" said Alexo, smiling. "Speak of the serpent, and he shall appear!"
Maita stopped before them. Alexo's smile faded. A stark fear showed on the woman's face. "Maita?"
"You idiota, Alexo," panted Maita. She pointed to Ivrne. "Taking her to the open town. They already know."
"What?" said Alexo, growing pale. His eyes darted about the crowd. A commotion was growing. People were shouting, parting in droves from a disturbance some yards away.
Maita's eyes bulged. "They are coming," she said, shoving Ivrne in the opposite direction. "Run, you fools!"
Ivrne glanced once at Alexo. Animal fear widened her whiteless eyes. She blinked, vanished into the fleeing crowd. Alexo began to backpedal. Maita tried to tug him faster.
In a daze, Alexo observed the object of the crowd's flight: A rustle of black and white cloth over corded limbs. A flutter of prayer slips affixed to a slit-eyed helm. A titanic length of glittering blade, outstretched. A voice, heavy with molten fervor.
"Unto the glory of the Lord, I sentence these heretics to die."
"Alexo!" cried Maita.
Alexo startled, began to run too late. Heavy footfalls overcame him. Steel shon white in the Southern sun. A cry was cut wetly short.
Blood again stained the bricks of Isodora Square.
Firlund's Office of Secrets classifies the group as terrorists, militants fed by the shadowy depths of the Alagórian state. The State itself insists they are disbanded. The Church of Aveth mimics the State's sentiment, yet continues to laud the group's deadly achievements.
The people of Alagór are of divided mind concerning the Inquisition. To many, the public assassination and covert disappearance of apostates†† and heretics is a terrible fact of faith. To others, it is a cornerstone.
The hunting Inquisitor, of shining greatsword and flowing chiaroscuro robe, is a supremely evocative image. It is one from the formative lore of Aveth. While most call it Inquisitor, Executioner, Terrorist, the truly pious know it by another name: Angel.
Since its inception by the Church some centuries ago, the faithful Inquisition has made a mission to attain this holy authority. Since no angel yet walks the world, Inquisitors believe it falls to them to assume the holy aspect; becoming, momently, angelic executioners.
Assumption of the aspect is the Inquisition's most cherished ritual. It is a solemn arming ceremony. A worthy Inquisitor is first bathed in holy water, smudged with sacred vapors, then dressed in the livery of their task. This sacred armor, fixed with prayer slips sealed with wax, is then draped in the voluminous black and white of angels. ‡ A sacred blade is retrieved from its cloister, taken to hand. The Inquisitor, thus armed, is unleashed. In pursuit and execution of their target, they are as the angels. Few will recall the experience. ‡‡
These angelic assassins are widely known as Inquisitorial Executioners. Sightings of their holy violence‡‡‡ inform most folk's image of the Inquisition. Even in the faithless, they can instill an awful, stunned reverence. These killers are far from the Inquisition's only operatives, however.
The appearance of an Inquisitorial Investigador inspires near the same holy dread as an angelic assassin. These sly and eloquent detectives perform the inquiry for which their group is named.
Before the group's political dissolution, an Inquisition Investigador would make no subtlety in their work. Often, they'd introduce themselves from the church pulpit, towering Executor in tow. Such an introduction would often yield fearful answers and finger-pointing, even before inquiry commenced.
Nowadays, investigations are more covert. The name of the Inquisition is no longer bandied about. It is used in a measured manor, if only to inform an appropriate level of fear. Fear is warranted, for, after an inquiry concludes, an Executioner's blade is never far behind.
Since its official dissolution following the return of Aveth, the Inquisition has, rather than going to ground, merely become more vicious. While public executions have become more infrequent in the streets of Alagór, covert and broader Coastal operations have increased aggressively.
Nary a week passes without a brutal assassination claimed by the Inquisition. The targets are mainly extranational: A Firlish magician slain, her hands severed. § An Emperoussin theologist, fed lye. A Belvirinian philanthropist, starved to death in his own locked cupboard.
Rumors say the Inquisition's recent aggression is a product of direct guidance by the returned Lord. Others rebuke this. They point out that the Lord has not descended from her mile-high minaret since her return. Instead, they say, these extranational brutalities exist to draw focus from a more subtle, more insidious plot within Alagór.
Rumors of such a plot are spoken only to trusted ears. They say the Inquisition has engendered a plot to remove Aveth from her minaret cloister. Not to depose her, but rather to free her; for they believe the Lord is a prisoner of her own people.
To do so, the Inquisition will rely not on the brutality for which it is known, but the inquiring secrecy for which it is named.
† Parousia is the Second Coming of Aveth. Aveth is the faith and Lord of most humans within Alagór, the Coast's Southernmost nation of great scale.
†† Fortunately for the faithless, it takes a large and politicized act of apostasy to attract the ire of the Inquisition. Many non-Avethans live in Alagór. Only those who would challenge others' faith make targets of themselves.
‡ Avethan lore holds that angels hid their wings within cloaks and robes of black and white.
§ Practical magicians typically house the bulk of their powers in the transplanted bones of their hands.