Chapter 4: Royal Tidings

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 Flanked by black paladins, Trench followed the Lord Inquisitor from the crowded taproom into an even more crowded kitchen and pantry. Cooks labored over open fire pits and stone ovens preparing foods for the inn patrons. As serving wenches delivered the meals or returned with dirty plates, porters wrestled with wine casks and beer kegs, moving them into position to replace empty ones at the bar.

At first sight of the black platemail and somber steel faces, the dozen hirelings froze in place as if caught in a taboo act. The decadence in the streets of Zaille was an edict issued from the crown, and the Church knew well enough not to interfere in the pleasures of broken men. The time for collecting funeral tithes and hiring mourners would come well after the casks ran dry.

"Clear the room," Afhear said, his soft voice barely audible above the whistling of a kettle.

With a sudden violence that raised the hackles on the back of Trench's neck, the Inquisitors lunged at the nearest workers. "Get out!" The hiss of steel against steel reverberated in the kitchen as the warrior priests partially unsheathed their long swords.

"Did you not hear the Lord Inquisitor?"

"Get out!"

Afhear turned on his heels to watch—to watch Trench—not the fleeing kitchen workers, who scurried like frightened cats. When one of them tried to slip passed Afhear to the back door, the Lord Inquisitor grabbed him by the scruff of his collar and yanked him back so hard the man gagged. Choking for want of air, the wiry man gasped, his eyes large and bulbous with fear as he fell to the floor.

To slow his fall, he inadvertently reached for the exposed metal of a grill and burned his fingers. His screams of pain were accompanied by smoke and the sizzle of cooking flesh. The stench reminded Trench of bacon, a treat on rare mornings when the army rode through fallen Korvrai villages and sacked the stores.

Trench had no love for the Church or the holy army they kept in the name of securing the faith. The Black Paladins of Tyrmekka were little more than gaudy egotists who disliked being upstaged in their black plate and gilded swords. If they could not stand out, they would not stand at all, often walking the streets bullying peasants, skimming vendors, and assisting priests in the extortion of coin for prayers from beggars.

Pompous peacocks. Stroking their cocks in one hand and venerating their holy symbols with the other. Hypocrites—the lot of them.

Still, they were trained warriors, formidable, and there was nothing more dangerous than a zealot with a sword and the skill to wield it.

"I hear you are to be applauded for your exploits on the battlefield," Afhear said, turning his back to Trench as he finger-by-finger removed his gloves. It was a snub, a subtle insult, especially while his two guardsmen were busy chasing the staff out of the kitchen. When Trench did not reply, he turned to the Ardanian. "No comment?"

"You said you wanted a word? Is that it?" Trench crossed is arms across his chest. "You could have just bought me a drink."

The Inquisitor chuckled, taking an apple from a bushel on the floor. He tossed one to Trench unexpectedly, who caught it and stared at the fruit in his hand. "The word to be given here is not mine, Captain Ruivan. I was simply sent to fetch you and secure a private place." He looked around the dingy kitchen, selected a second apple, and took a bite. "Though am curious about something," he said around a mouthful of pulp. He chewed slowly as if contemplating how to word his question. "There was an incident tonight in the Swenge Church Cemetery. Four men were killed and left among the tombs. There was clearly a level of expertise. Would you know anything about that?"

"Why would I know anything about such a matter, Lord Inquisitor?"

Afhear grinned. "Just a question, Captain Ruivan. It is only a crime if it was murder. Self-defense is another matter, but worthy of reporting."

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