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In the jumbled darkness of the catacombs beneath the city of Amalo, there was a shrine to Ulis in his aspect as god of the moon. It was thousands of years old, and the carving of the four phases of the moon on the plinth had become almost undetectable, worn smooth by generations of reverent fingertips. Whatever the plinth had supported was long gone, but the shrine remained.
The shrine was a landmark that every Ulineise prelate in the city knew, and it was frequently used as a meeting place, since it afforded better privacy than the Ulistheileian where formal audiences were held.
Dach’othala Vernezar, the Ulisothala of Amalo, was an elven man of middle age and great ambition. He had his eye on the Archprelacy, and although the current Archprelate was neither ancient nor infirm, it did not do to forget that Vernezar’s every move was made with political gain in mind. I had thus received his summons with no little dread, for I was a political sore point, directly appointed by the Archprelate to be a Witness for the Dead for the entire city.
Prince Orchenis had gone to the Archprelate and asked that I be assigned to Amalo for an indefinite period of time, for two reasons. One was that the city had no Witness of my type, who could actually speak to the dead. The other was that the religious hierarchy of the city was, as the prince put it, a nest of vipers, and the Ulineisei were the worst of the lot. The Archprelate had not commanded me to accept assignment in Amalo, but I had agreed with Prince Orchenis that my services were needed. I received a small stipend from the Amalomeire to sit in a cramped box of an office and wait for the people of Amalo to come, which they did in a slow, sad, hopeful stream. I disappointed them, for my ability was not the magic it was always shown to be in operas and novels. But even though I could not discover answers in dust—even though the answers I did discover were frequently inconvenient and sometimes disastrous—they continued to petition me, and I could not leave them unheard.
Today had brought three petitioners whom I could not help (one of whom stood and argued with me for three quarters of an hour); the news that two of the cases for which I had witnessed had been judged unfavorably by Lord Judiciar Orshevar; and a lengthy and fruitless search through Ulvanensee, the municipal cemetery of the Airmen’s Quarter, on behalf of a petitioner who believed his sister, and the child with which she had been pregnant, had been murdered by her husband. I had started with the registers, but had ended up walking the rows, reading gravestones, looking for names that the registers did not contain. I was tired and covered in the municipal cemetery’s powdery dirt; when Anora Chanavar, the half-goblin prelate of Ulvanensee, brought me Vernezar’s message, I did, for a weak moment, consider not going.
Anora came with me, although we argued about that most of the way there. “Thou needst a witness,” he said stubbornly. “I know Vernezar better than thou dost.”
“There’s no need for thee to draw his attention,” I said for the third time.
“He cannot harm me,” Anora said. “If he takes my benefice away, he only makes a greater headache for himself, because then he has to find some other fool to give it to. Do thou watch. He’ll pretend I’m not even there.”
Anora was quickly proven correct. Vernezar made eye contact with him for a pained moment, then hurriedly turned away. My heart sank as I took in Vernezar’s companion. Othalo Zanarin was the loudest voice in the faction which objected to my presence in Amalo. She was an elven woman of considerable cold beauty, some inches taller than I was, though not nearly as tall as Anora; she was a member of Vernezar’s staff, and I knew he was afraid of her. She, too, was a person of connections and ambition, and she had the Amal’othala’s ear.
“Good afternoon, dach’othala,” I said. I saw Zanarin wince pointedly at my voice, which was harsh and graveled thanks to my surviving the sessiva when it swept through Lohaiso during my prelacy there. It mostly did not bother me, except when someone like Zanarin made sure it did.
“Good afternoon, Celehar,” said Vernezar. “I apologize for dragging you down here—not nearly as elegant as what you were used to at the Untheileneise Court, I’m sure—but this really isn’t a matter for the Ulistheileian.”
“No?” I said, my heart sinking further at his use of “I.”
“No need for any formality,” Vernezar said with a smile, and I was grateful to Anora for being so stubborn. He was right: I needed a witness. “I just wanted to see if we could reach an accord.”
“An accord? About what?”
Zanarin said, “Dach’othala Vernezar has a most generous offer.” Zanarin had taken an instant dislike to me, partly because I had been the one—at the behest of the Emperor Edrehasivar VII—to find the Curneisei assassins of the Emperor Varenechibel IV, partly because my appointment came directly from the Archprelate. By one argument, that meant I outranked all the Ulineise prelates in Amalo except Vernezar.
Nobody liked that argument, least of all Vernezar himself.
The other argument was that, as an unbeneficed prelate, I was outranked by everyone except the novices. Zanarin had made that argument first, but others had been quick to back her up. They might have carried the matter, since they were making a much more palatable argument, had it not been for Anora and the other municipal cemetery prelates objecting, for here the relatively trivial question of my rank had crossed a much larger, ongoing contention among the Ulineise prelates of Amalo, that being how a prelate’s benefice should be valued. Some prelates argued for wealth; others, prelates like Anora, argued for size. A third faction argued for age. It was a bitterly divisive issue, and I thought the true measure of Vernezar’s worth was his inability to resolve it.
“I wanted,” said Vernezar, “to propose a compromise. It seems clear that, having been appointed directly by the Archprelate, you are of greater rank than the ordinary prelates, but since you are unbeneficed, you are of lesser rank than the prelates of the Ulistheileian. Does that seem fair?”
It seemed guaranteed to make everyone unhappy, possibly even more unhappy than they were right now. Anora murmured, “The prelates of the Ulistheileian are also unbeneficed,” and Vernezar pretended not to hear him.
“You are offering me rank in the Ulistheileian,” I said slowly.
“Yes,” said Vernezar.
Beside him, Zanarin glowered.
“But in turn,” I said, “I would have to concede your authority over me.”
There was a pause, as distinct as if it had been measured by a tape.
“Do you deny my authority over you?” asked Vernezar.
“I was appointed by the Archprelate,” I said. “Not by you.”
“Are you claiming you, a mere Witness for the Dead, are equal with Dach’othala Vernezar?” said Zanarin. “Just because your family married into the imperial house doesn’t—” Vernezar caught her eye, and she did not finish her sentence.
Copyright © 2021 by Sarah Monette