Unlike most of the gods-to-be, Domitian didn't actually live on the Avenue of the Hopeful, or anywhere particularly near. Sefu and Olhas had to walk across a goodly portion of the Ascendant Court, passing such landmarks as the raucous wooden mead hall sacred to Cayden Cailean and the red limestone statue known as the Iomedaenne before reaching the quiet side street where the cult reportedly occupied a manor, at which point Olhas held up his hand to signal a halt.
"What?" Sefu snapped.
Olhas arched an eyebrow. "You might want to watch your tone. If that's how you snarl at a friend, how will you speak to Domitian?"
"Sorry," Sefu said. "I'm in a hurry."
"I noticed. But I want to talk before we come under observation. When we're about to head into the charlatan's presence, I'm going to cast a spell. Something that may give us some insight as to why Leyli holds him in such regard. It would be nice if no one noticed me casting it."
Sefu nodded. "I'll make a distraction. Was that all you wanted?"
"Except to recommend again that you hold onto your temper. You're still glowering like you want to kill somebody."
"Because I do."
Olhaus sighed, but resumed walking.
Domitian's manor was a large three-story house built around a central courtyard, a fitting residence for a prosperous merchant or aristocrat. Perhaps a worshiper had donated it. Black bunting painted with obscure white symbols draped the facade, marring the structure's otherwise handsome appearance.
"Apparently a fellow can make a good living off misery and guilt," Olhas murmured. "Notice the lookout in the window under the gable?"
"Yes." The sentry in question was a half-orc watching the street.
"Maybe you're not the first brother or father to pay a call with murder in his heart."
Yet even if Sefu wasn't, Domitian didn't have an armed ruffian tending the wrought-iron gate that opened on the courtyard. That duty had fallen to another black-robed worshiper, a skinny, unwashed wretch with a receding hairline and the eyes of a dog that spent its days tied up and ignored.
As with Leyli, though, that appearance of dull-witted suffering was in one respect misleading. The gatekeeper proved himself capable of judgment and decisive action when he studied the visitors and then said, "I'm sorry. The Lord of Penance isn't receiving petitioners today."
Staring the gatekeeper in the eye, Sefu unbuckled the pigskin pouch on his belt, took out a silver weight, and held up the coin for the man to see. "I recommend you accept this offering and let us in. Otherwise, we'll come in anyway, and give you something new to regret."
The cultist swallowed. "Wait here." He retreated into the house.
Sefu waited as long as he could bear it. Then he said, "To Hell with it." He gripped the top of the gate and lifted his foot to climb, and then the door on the far side of the courtyard opened again. Somewhat to his surprise, it was the gatekeeper who emerged and not the household guards.
The functionary conducted them into the courtyard, a garden of sweet-smelling red and yellow roses with a gurgling white marble fountain in the center. Bees droned among the flowers.
Sefu glanced at Olhas, and the gillman gave him a slight nod in return. Sefu clapped his hand to his neck and shouted, "Ouch!"
Startled, the gatekeeper jerked around. "Sir?"
"Something hit me!" Sefu snarled.
The balding man cast about and drew the obvious conclusion. "There are bees. Perhaps one of them—"
Sefu lunged and grabbed him by the front of his shapeless, grubby garment. "Or perhaps one of you idiots is throwing stones."
"Sir, I swear, no one would do that. Our master has agreed to see—"
Sefu interrupted by shouting in the other man's face, and on every beat of that cadenced bellowing, he gave him a bone-rattling shake. "I do not be-lieve you!"
It unquestionably riveted the gatekeeper's attention. Sefu hoped it was holding the interest of any other observers as well, so no one would notice Olhas hurriedly whispering his incantation.
He kept up the bullying for another moment, and then the sorcerer gripped him by the shoulder. "Stop," Olhas said. "I saw it. It was a bee."
Sefu grunted like he was reluctant to let the matter drop. That wasn't so far from the truth, even though the rational part of him knew the gatekeeper wasn't to blame for Leyli's predicament. But he shoved the man away and said, "Take us on in, then, and be quick about it."
Most manors had a great hall, and that was where the gatekeeper appeared to be leading them. As they crossed the foyer with its imposing staircase and lesser doorways, Olhas glanced around. The action looked casual, but Sefu assumed his friend was taking in every detail like the expert scout he was.
Sefu peered around, too, but saw nothing that seemed particularly revelatory. The space just looked like the entryway of any rich man's home. It sounded different, though. Somewhere on one of the upper floors, someone was weeping, and leather slapped flesh with a steady smack-smack-smack. Sefu told himself Leyli was still out begging. It wasn't her crying or taking the beating, either.
The great hall smelled of sandalwood incense, and there were votive candles burning. A pair of half-orc toughs flanked a high-backed, ornately carved wooden chair on a pedestal, and on this throne lounged an exceptionally handsome, muscular man with shoulder-length white-blond hair, vivid blue eyes, and a silver goblet in his hand. He was naked except for a red silk robe loosely tied with a sash of the same material.
To that extent, the place was pretty much what Sefu had expected. But the two worshipers who'd apparently been receiving their fledgling deity's personal attention constituted more of a surprise, and not a pleasant one.
A pretty, middle-aged woman sat cross-legged on the tile floor with a pair of pliers in her hand and several teeth lying in front of her. Bloody drool streaked her chin.
Across from her, a man even skinnier than Domitian's average worshiper slumped twitching and trembling at a little table set with a cup and a plate laden with apples, figs, grapes, and pears. He clearly yearned—and needed—to drink and eat, but wasn't doing either.
The acts of self-mortification brought an insult to Sefu's lips. But when he looked Domitian in the eye, the obscenity faded away unspoken, along with the spasm of outrage that had drawn it forth.
He'd noticed before that Domitian had the kind of good looks and commanding presence that no doubt helped a fraud dupe the vulnerable. But now, as though his eyes had just finished adjusting after coming into this shadowy place from the summer sunlight, Sefu felt like he was truly seeing the man for the first time. And what he beheld was a piercing kind of perfection. A flawless face radiating compassion and wisdom so profound that they might well partake of the divine.
Suddenly Sefu wondered what right he, a simple fighting man, had to barge into a holy place with malice in his heart and judge this noble spirit and his teachings. Maybe Domitian would pass the test of the Starstone someday. Maybe the path he offered, stringent though it seemed, was the way to peace and clarity for some. Maybe Leyli—
But the thought of his sister walking that path, going dirty and hungry, whoring, submitting to beatings and maybe doing even worse things to herself, brought him up short. Prompted by sheer instinct, he reached down through the confusion that had overtaken him to the anger still seething underneath and sought to feel it in full measure. Afterward, he realized he was breathing as heavily as he had after brawling with the half-orcs. But his thoughts were clear, and his resolve restored.
Domitian smiled sardonically, like a fencer might if an inferior but lucky opponent avoided an attack that by all rights should have scored. Or maybe he didn't. The expression, if had been there at all, came and went in an instant, and then his face was grave and kind.
"Sefu and Olhas," he said.
"Someone ran home and told you to expect us," Sefu said.
"No," the cult leader replied. "Nobody had to. I'm only a shadow of what I will one day become, but already I'm more than a man. I don't mean it to sound arrogant, but it's a fact. I have ways of knowing what others lack. Even you, sorcerer, with your magic poking and prying at me. Is it telling you anything you can understand?"
Olhas smiled. "I take it that despite our attempt at misdirection, someone spotted me casting a spell in the garden."
"No, but I don't blame you for assuming that. Darkness is false comfort, but until we're ready to face the light, it can be the only comfort we have."
"We didn't come here to listen to your gibberish," Sefu said.
"No," Domitian said. "You came to take Leyli away from the only source of comfort she's found since her life turned to grief and despair."
Once again, there was something in Domitian's gaze, and in his deep, rich tones, that eroded Sefu's certainty like waves washing away a drawing in the sand. What if—
No, curse it! No, no, no! He closed his eyes for a moment, shutting out the sight of Domitian's magisterial face with its expanse of forehead and long, narrow nose, and that made it easier to think.
"Her family can comfort her," he said.
"Clearly not," Domitian said, "or she would never have sought me out in the first place, and if you did somehow succeed in taking her away, she would only return at the first opportunity. Such being the case, surely it's better to leave her to the life she's freely chosen. That way, you won't poison the love she feels for you."
It made an ugly kind of sense. Sefu hated admitting it, but it did. He might even have said so, except that just then, with a sudden, spastic flailing, the man seated at the table overturned it. The cup clanked and spilled the water inside, and fruit tumbled across the floor. The cultist buried his face in his hands and sobbed.
Domitian turned to one of the half-orcs. "I believe Ioseph has tested his willpower sufficiently for one day. Help him back to his room, and give him his usual supper at sundown." He looked back at Sefu and Olhas. "Where were we?"
The interruption had startled some of the unaccustomed defeatism out of Sefu's head. He took a breath and exhaled the rest of it. "You were saying that if I took Leyli away, she'd just run back. But she couldn't if you refused to take her back."
"Why would I do that?" Domitian asked.
"Because I'll pay you. I have some savings, and my mother does, too. It won't be a fortune, but it will be more than Leyli brings in begging and... doing whatever else on the street."
Once again, if Domitian smiled a mocking smile, it was the merest flicker of an expression, too ephemeral for Sefu to be sure of it. "But I don't care about money."
"Then why send your followers out to get it?"
"Supporting the faith is a part of their purification."
"I don't believe you. You don't want to shut Leyli out because it might cause the rest of your victims to doubt you. Or because it gives you too much sick enjoyment to mistreat her."
"I suggest, my friend, that it is you who have found joy in hurting others—first your opponents in the Irorium, and then the pirates you've hunted across the Inner Sea. I hope you understand that just because the latter task is necessary doesn't mean your motives for performing it are pure."
Sefu faltered, uncertain, but this time only for an instant. "Maybe you're right. Because I'd certainly like to tear out that lying tongue of yours and—"
"Enough!" Olhas said.
Sefu blinked. "What?"
"This conversation isn't serving any purpose," the gillman said. "The man is scum, but the Graycloaks have apparently decided he isn't breaking the law, and you evidently can't bribe him to force Leyli out. So she'll have to decide for herself that she wants to come home."
"Indeed," Domitian said, "and I promise she will when the time is right."
Sefu glared at him. "You—"
"We should go," Olhas said, and though he hadn't raised his voice, there was an insistence in it that made Sefu heed him and keep walking even when he thought he heard Domitian chuckle at his back.
"What was that all about?" he demanded once they were away from the manor. "Were you worried I was going to attack him and bring every ruffian and cultist in the place down on our heads?"
"A little," Olhas replied, "but I mainly wanted to get you out of there because of the notion that would inevitably have occurred to you after that one."
Sefu cocked his head. "What do you mean?"
"Domitian asked if my magic was telling me anything, and actually, I did perceive arcane forces at play around him. But I already knew something unnatural was going on because I could feel him trying to tamper with my mind. Couldn't you?"
"I... think so. There were moments when I couldn't help being impressed, and feeling half persuaded, even though I had those two poor, suffering fools right in front of me to show what kind of bastard he really is."
"Fortunately, your anger armored you, and a sorcerer's will shielded me. But Domitian wasn't just trying to manipulate us. He was reading our thoughts. It's the only way he could have known my name. It was never spoken during our altercation on the avenue, and Leyli has never heard of me, has she?"
"No." Much as Sefu loved his family, he'd never been much for writing home.
"There you are, then. I needed to get you out of there before you hit on the idea that I knew would come to you. Your anger might have kept Domitian from seeing it in your head, but we couldn't count on it."
"The idea that you knew would come to me." Sefu shook his head. "Which would be... if Domitian uses magic to control his followers, then Leyli really isn't there of her own free will! And if we carry her off, you can use your own powers to restore her to herself!"
The gillman nodded. "It's at least worth a try."
Coming Next Week: The fine art of kidnapping in Chapter Three of "Lord of Penance."
Richard Lee Byers is the author of more than thirty novels, including the first book in R. A. Salvatore's War of the Spider Queen, and the co-creator of the critically acclaimed Young Adult series The Nightmare Club. His short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. For more information, visit his website.
Art by Colby Stevenson