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The Temple, City of Zion, The Temple Lands
The snow outside the Temple was deep for October, even for the city of Zion, and more fell steadily, thickly, only to be whipped into mad swirls by the bitter wind roaring in off Lake Pei. That wind piled thick slabs of broken lake ice on the bitterly cold shore, swept dancing snow demons through the streets, sculpted knife-edged snowdrifts against every obstruction, and chewed at any exposed skin with icy fangs. Throughout the city, its poorest inhabitants huddled close to any source of warmth they could find, but for far too many, there was precious little of that to be had, and parents shivered, watching the weather—and their children—with worry-puckered eyes as they thought about the endless five-days stretching out between them and the half-forgotten dream of springtime's warmth.
There was no cold inside the Temple, of course. Despite the soaring ceiling of its enormous dome, there weren't even any chilly breezes. The structure reared by the archangels themselves in the misty dawn of Creation maintained its perfect interior temperature with total disdain for what the merely mortal weather of the world might be inflicting upon its exterior.
The luxurious personal suites assigned to the members of the Council of Vicars were all magnificent beyond any mortal dream, but some were even more magnificent than others. The suite assigned to Grand Inquisitor Zhaspahr Clyntahn was a case in point. It was a corner apartment on the Temple's fifth floor. Two entire sides of its main sitting room and dining room were windows—the miraculous, unbreakable, almost totally invisible windows of the archangels' handiwork. Windows which were completely transparent from within, yet flashed back exterior sunlight like mirrored walls of finely burnished silver, and which were utterly impervious to the heat—or cold—which passed through and radiated from windows of mortal glass. Paintings and statuary, all chosen with a connoisseur's exquisite discernment, added their own luxurious beauty to the suite's interior, with its thick carpets, indirect, sourceless lighting, and perfect temperature.
It was far from the first time Archbishop Wyllym Rayno had visited the Grand Inquisitor's personal chambers. Rayno was the Archbishop of Chiang-wu in the Harchong Empire. He was also the Adjutant of the Order of Schueler, which made him Clyntahn's executive officer within the Office of Inquisition. As a result, Rayno was privy to far more of Clyntahn's innermost thought than anyone else, including his colleagues among the Group of Four, yet there were places inside Clyntahn where even Rayno had never been. Places the archbishop had never wanted to be.
"Come in, Wyllym—come in!" Clyntahn said expansively as the Temple Guardsman always stationed outside his chamber opened the door for Rayno.
"Thank you, Your Grace," Rayno murmured, stepping past the guardsman.
Clyntahn extended his ring of office, and Rayno bent to kiss it, then straightened and tucked his hands into the voluminous sleeves of his cassock. The remnants of a truly enormous meal lay strewn in ruins across the large dining table, and Rayno carefully avoided noticing that there had been two place settings. Most vicars practiced at least some discretion when it came to entertaining their mistresses within the Temple's sacred precincts. Everyone knew it happened anyway, yet there were standards to be maintained, appearances to be satisfied.
But Zhaspahr Clyntahn wasn't "most vicars." He was the Grand Inquisitor, the keeper of Mother Church's conscience, and there were times when even Rayno, who had served him for de cades, wondered exactly what passed through his mind. How the same man could be so zealous when it came to rooting out the sins of others even while he indulged his own.
Fair's fair, Wyllym, the archbishop told himself. He may be a zealot, and he's definitely self-indulgent, but at least he's not hypocritical among his peers. And he does draw a remarkably sharp line between sins which are merely venal and those which constitute mortal offenses in the eyes of Schueler and God. He can be as irritatingly sanctimonious as anyone you've ever seen, but you've never heard him condemning any of his fellow vicars for weaknesses of the flesh. Spiritual weaknesses, yes; he can be utterly ruthless where they're concerned, but he's remarkably… understanding where those perquisites of high office are concerned.
He wondered who to night's visitor might be. All of Clyntahn's appetites were huge, and he craved novelty. Indeed, few women could hold his attention for long, and once his interest in them waned, he tended to turn to another with sometimes startling abruptness, although he was never ungenerous when he transferred his interest to another.
Rayno, as the Inquisition's adjutant, was well aware that there were those within the Temple's hierarchy who disapproved—in some cases, strenuously, if quietly—of Clyntahn's addiction to the pleasures of the flesh. No one was likely to say so openly, of course, and Rayno had very quietly quashed a few reports of condemnatory comments before they ever reached the Grand Inquisitor's ears. Still, it was only natural for there to be a certain . . . unhappiness. Some of it could probably be put down to pure envy, although he was willing to concede that there was genuine disapproval of such sensuality behind much of it. Indeed, there had been times when Rayno had found himself feeling much the same sort of disapproval. But the archbishop had concluded long ago, even before Clyntahn was elevated to his present office, that all men had flaws, and that the greater the man, the deeper his flaws were likely to run. If Clyntahn restricted his particular faults to the pursuit of fleshly plea sure, surely that was far better than what Rayno had observed in the occasional Inquisitor who found himself using the cover of his high office to indulge his own taste for unnecessary cruelty.
"Thank you for coming so promptly, Wyllym," Clyntahn continued as he ushered the archbishop to one of the Temple's incredibly comfortable chairs. He smiled as he settled Rayno and personally poured him a glass of wine. The Grand Inquisitor's normal table manners generally took second place—or even third—to the gusto he brought to food and wine, yet he could be an incredibly gracious and charming host when he chose to be. Nor was that charm false. It simply never occurred to him to extend it to anyone outside the circle of intimates he relied upon and fully trusted. Or, at least, trusted as much as he ever trusted anyone else.
"I realize your message didn't seem to indicate any immediate urgency, Your Grace. I had business in the Temple to attend to anyway, however, so it seemed best to respond to your summons promptly."
"I only wish I had a dozen archbishops and bishops who were as reliable as you are," Clyntahn told him. "Langhorne! I'd settle for six!"
Rayno smiled and inclined his head in a small bow, acknowledging the compliment. Then he sat back, nursing his wineglass in both hands while he gazed attentively at his superior.
Clyntahn was looking out the floor-to-ceiling windows at the swirling snow and wind. His expression was almost rapt as he contemplated the icy torrent of white for the better part of three minutes. Then, finally, he turned back to Rayno and leaned back in his own chair.
"Well!" he said, with the air of someone getting down to business at last. "I'm sure you've read all the reports about the seizures of Charisian merchant ships month before last."
He arched one eyebrow slightly, an