Although only a short time past noon, the lumination in Saris Fey-Branche’s manor house was entirely artificial. Magistrate Galitor would have found this an uncharacteristic waste of resources by Chosen Blood if there hadn’t been so little of it.
Before the eyes adjusted it was as if he were stepping into a darkened store room. It was cold, dry, and, despite having just stepped in, the air had an uncomfortably stale stench to it. He comforted himself that it was sweet perfume compared to the twisting, corpse lined road which led to the building.
The doors closed soundlessly. Within minutes, the eyes of the magistrate and armsman had adjusted to the darkness. A soft glow filled the corridor, emanating from no source that could be easily pinpointed. The even lighting was functionally augmented by the interior’s stark duochromatic of red and black. The bright red color of freshly oxidized blood, undoubtedly no coincidence, stood out noticeably throughout the building’s features, enabling a surprising amount of ease in navigation.
“Wait here.” Galitor did not wait for a response from Venian before striding away. The zealot would respond to a command from someone of higher authority as readily as his body subconsciously telling him to breathe; indeed, it would likely override such impulses.
There was not a single smooth curve to be found on any part of the structure’s furniture. Every last piece was edged or pointed in all of the aspects and components. It was as if the items within sought to reach out to passerby with lethal intent. More than once, Galitor was momentarily convinced that he saw the faded remnants of actual bloodstains upon them, thoroughly scrubbed by slaves, but upon reflection lost his certainty.
Galitor slowed as he neared the doorless entrance to Saris’s spacious yet austere office. The Chosen Blood soldier stood within, his attention leaving a file or report of some kind as it was closed. Skin jet, eyes crimson, all that separated the stern, elven creature from being a homogenous part of his two colored surroundings were his scleras and neatly combed, short cropped hair, both flawless white. He wore a loose robe of the same jet black, so that it was difficult to tell where cloth ended and flesh began.
Saris Fey-Branche turned his attention to Galitor, direct but not confrontational. “Magistrate. Good evening. Come in. Would you like a drink?” The statements were made as if they were items being checked off from a task list. Saris reached for a stone pitcher.
“It is forbidden to imbibe while on duty.” The judge sounded parts worried, confused, even slightly angry, but, above all, resolute.
“It is water, magistrate.” No haughty bemusement, no warmth. Cold, even.
A moment passed while Galitor parsed the response. “Yes… please. Thank you.” He reached for the offered pitcher and poured himself a full glass. It was down his throat before he had even started thinking about it. The chilled, pure water was more satisfying than any wine he had imagined being within the opaque container. It was the first genuinely pleasant sensation he had felt since Venian had arrived at his office earlier than morning. The first glass was emptied immediately. Galitor poured himself a second glass, giving it more measured attention.
“Lord Saris… forgive me. How may I be of service?” He composed himself as well as he could, wiping dribble away from his mouth as if absent-mindedly.
The elf did not acknowledge Galitor’s apology, instead leaving eye contact to return the pitcher from where it had been taken. Saris gazed into the distance, speaking as if to the air. “There are many kingdoms in the realm in which the law is strict and unforgiving. They are not like us. Our people do not live in fear as theirs do. They are grateful. Productive. Secure. Happy. Do you know why that is, magistrate?”
Galitor assumed that an answer was not actually expected, and so the moments lingered at on until at last direct and confrontational eye contact from Saris demanded one.
The magistrate did not receive his position by chance. Born of an old, noble merchant family, he had been trained in law and government at the finest academies and had dedicated his life to public service, accepting only the salary he needed for the expenditures necessary to justify his status in the eyes of his peers and underlings. He knew the answer to the question posed to him as if one were asking simple arithmetic of a mathematician. “We do not answer to the rule of a single despot, my lord. We have partially independent cities looked over by a single, unifying force. In turn, the members of that force are accountable to each other for their overall success. While in predominant authority over the city councils, the individual members of the force that has the authority to dicate law are held in check by one another by discipline and the need for prosperity. It creates a dependable structure that the peasants and gentry alike can rely upon.”
“Precisely.” Saris nodded, slowly, folding his arms behind his back. “It is, above all, the lack of corruption that allows our people their sense of safety. With trust, revolutions do not occur. The people are more likely to make sacrifices toward the common good. Their behavior is more productive, which in turn promotes advancement and further allows us to do what must be done to protect them.”
It would have come across as a politician’s inspiring speech if the words weren’t so devoid of emotion. A tingle of fear laced its way up along Galitor’s spine. He knew, he was certain, the he had engaged in no activities illicit or disloyal, but to be summoned by a superior who then felt the need to explore the subject of corruption could not possibly be an auspicious occurrence.
“I am informing you of this because, moments after you were retrieved to meet with me, all fourteen members of your staff were forcibly removed from your office and executed. As we speak they are being placed along the road which leads here.”
Galitor felt as if his entire biology were breaking down. Every normally autonomic system seemed to stop functioning. No breathing, no heartbeat. A sense of pained tension fled to his head and his hands felt dry and clammy. He had to exercise his full will not to loose the contents of his bowels before the Chosen Blood warrior.
“I know that you were unaware of their activities. They were extremely careful, and we had not allotted you the resources necessary to fully observe and regulate their behavior. They had been collecting taxes for purposes far beyond their own needs and twisting the laws to favor of those they preferred or who bribed them. If we were allow such events to go unpunished, horror and destitution would follow. We would be no better than any other of the realm’s tyrannies…”
Galitor nodded quickly, his voice a hybrid of whisper and croak. “Of course, my lord… of course. You don’t need to explain yourself to me. You did what had to be done…”
“Are you afraid, Galitor?” Saris raised a pure white eyebrow.
“Yes… yes, my lord, I am. I had known several of those men for years.” The magistrate’s eyes took a far off look to them as memories invaded his brain in force.
“Good.” The word was directed with forceful finality. “You fear so that your people will not have to. You take their fear for them, because it is your duty, because you, I, all of us… ultimately we serve the people. Your fear will shield them from everything that could destroy us.”
Galitor nodded dutifully. None of those words were reassuring, except that, gradually, his brain was accepting that he would not be dying. Not yet. “It will not be allowed to happen again, Lord Saris. I will see to it.”
“Thank you, magistrate. You are dismissed.” Saris turned and reopened the folder he had been working on prior to Galitor’s arrival, calmly shifting his attention as if the subject matter had been of no more importance than a granary report.
Galitor turned and walked, at first, with a quick, nervous pace. It slowed to a stop before he turned the corner near Venian. The fanatic could not be allowed to see him in such a state. With no means of measuring the passing of time and his sense of it compromised by his body’s erratic functions, Galitor had only the vaguest of ideas of how long he stood in that corridor attempting to collect himself. Only when was certain, only when he could step with confidence and project an air of proud command, did Galitor return to the entrance where the armsman waited.
“Come. We have work to do.” Galitor did not look directly at his companion as he strode toward their horses, but even so he noticed gleam in Venian’s eyes, proud even to be in the company of a citizen who had conversed with a soldier of Chosen Blood.