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A Saint's Path

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Chancellor Lupe dy Cazaril swung out of the saddle and landed firmly on the ground. He reflected thoughtfully on the state he'd been in the last time he made this particular crossing. While he ached from the long ride, the weather had been good, the pace had been restrained, and he was neither bleeding from the back nor cramping over an unpleasant demon and a far more unpleasant sundered, murdered ghost, all wrapped together in a gut-busting tumor. Having such reflections could make almost any day that he could stand upright seem a blessing.

As much as he hated to leave the court of Chalion, all his affairs and particularly his wife and child, he could not have argued that his cause was not needful. The court of the Fox in Zagosur was familiar from his earlier visit, but Cazaril was not merely a courier for a Royesse today. No, today he was a courier for, well, a considerable list, headed by a ruling Royina, her consort and heir to the Fox himself, a dowager Royina, and probably at least one of the gods.

A groom whisked his horse away and Cazaril headed a company into the Roya's halls where they were shown to rooms, given a chance to wash, and attendants generally danced. Cazaril's own needs were modest, though he did take time to dress properly and be sure that his request was being properly relayed, that he be granted a meeting as soon as possible with the Fox and the archdivine of the Zagosur temple. And privacy.

His meeting was granted at speed, both due to the messengers sent ahead to announce his coming and the reputation he had acquired in his last memorable visit. Cazaril left his own attendants, soldier brothers of the Daughter's Order who had safeguarded him through the mountain passes, out of this meeting, since he was so strenuously requesting privacy. Nonetheless, he was not surprised, when he was shown into the Fox's presence, to find the Fox's own chancellor and a secretary present in addition to the requested archdivine.

Cazaril went to one knee. "My lord, the Royina Ista dy Chalion-Ibra bids me bring this letter to be delivered to your own hand." He carefully proffered it, and the Fox cracked it on the spot as Cazaril pulled out a thick bundle of other letters. "I have rather more dispatches, but that is the most essential. Royse Bergon wrote a letter as well and among my baggage is a family portrait they begged me deliver. But," he turned on the archdivine, standing to hand but rather startled to be addressed, "your opposite number in Cardegoss requested me to bring a letter to you, as well, that is also to the purpose of my visit."

"Rise, Chancellor dy Cazaril, and pull yourself up a chair," the Fox instructed even as he read. The archdivine looked at the Fox for a clue, received none, so opened his own letter. This left the poor Ibran secretary and chancellor, rather excluded, to fidget, so the secretary covered his own discomfiture by popping out his seat and bring the chair to Cazaril directly, leaving himself the less dignified but busier position of scrounging a chair of his own. Cazaril sat and waited in composed silence.

Finally the Fox looked up. "You may go," he told his secretary and chancellor. And they went. As Cazaril had suspected, the words of the Royina and Royse got him his privacy much more quickly than any persuasion before he had informed the Fox of the purpose of his visit. Now, the Fox and the archdivine understood full well.

"Do you really expect me to believe that Arban dy Talovar has been possessed by a demon and his court hasn't noticed it?" The Fox was not one to beat about the bush with allies. "And how is it that Royina Ista supposedly knows the business of my own provincars better than I do?"

"I would not suspect she does," Cazaril assured the old Roya quickly. "But in matters touching the divine and the unholy, the temples do make their own communications with some regularity. And the Royina is a saint now. Or again, as I suppose I should say."

"Yes, but that still doesn't explain why she thinks dy Talovar is demon-ridden, nor why my son believes the old madwoman!"

"I'm afraid that Royina Ista dy Chalion was never mad. Merely cursed, despairing and cut off from divine grace, to which she is now granted access again. As for the demon, I understand there was a minor saint of the Brother who glimpsed enough to be sure and send his report before he was forced to flee. I have not heard report of him." At this, Cazaril glanced at the archdivine, who cleared his throat.

"Nor have I, I'm afraid. But, ah, I'm afraid the Cardegoss archdivine endorses all the Chancellor's claims; I'd heard of the Royina's calling before, of course, though I hadn't expected her to need to descend so quickly."

"Well, I'm still wondering why the whole court hasn't noticed that a demon is ruling them! I haven't heard of any cows exploding or unexplained plagues of frogs or the like!" Cazaril judged that the Fox was huffing more out of reflex than disbelief, but then, the Fox had rarely had any dealings with the supernatural.

"Apparently, it is quite a mature demon. My understanding," and Cazaril glanced aside to the archdivine, making sure to draw the Fox's attention to the presence of a man who could correct any theological misunderstanding that might still trip Cazaril, "is that when an elemental is newly released, they have little power and little form, but when they have inhabited many hosts in the world of matter, they grow cunning and dangerous. Also, we are not yet sure whether the demon has full control of dy Talovar or if the Provincar is still in command."

"Even if it is the demon in control," put in the archdivine, "it will certainly have access to all the memories and wits at dy Tolavar's disposal. I am afraid, if it has not revealed itself, that it must be clever indeed." The man's hands washed themselves before him. Cazaril was not entirely sure whether his nerves were due to the man being afraid of a demon Provincar or an angry Fox. The second was certainly closer to hand.

"Yes, yes," replied the Fox, waving away the theological concerns, though not attempting to argue them. "But this letter claims that Ista is headed into my lands even now to rid me of this problem. If, I say again, there truly is a demon." Cazaril reflected that he might never in his life have met a man as stubborn in his suspicions, even doubting his own son. Then again, one need not reflect long to remember the fate of the Fox's first son. "If she and her little traveling menagerie are here to aid me, I'll be glad to make them welcome; I've no cause to fear her, nor will I grudge her border crossings or the like. So why is it you've ridden all this way, dy Cazaril? Your couriers could have dispatched this news easily enough, and made me believe it as well as you." Cazaril had some doubt of that last, and of what the Fox was truly prepared to entertain even now, but he did have a purpose, and he leaned forward as he came to it.

"My lord, the difficulty is that the demon has possessed one of your provincars, not just another man on the street. He is a man with an army, troops to guard him, and while the traveling court of the Royina-saint has soldiers to guard it, they are too many to move in stealth and too few to protect her against the entirely earthly powers of one of your districts. Iselle and Bergon are not so mad as to march Chalionese troops into Ibra, even to defend the dowager royina, but they rather hoped that you and I might devise some means of protecting her and helping preserve the object of her mission."

The Fox sat back in his chair and regarded Cazaril for a long time, frowning. Cazaril had endured worse frowns for longer when less centered himself, and he bore up easily, maintaining his air of earnest entreaty. The archdivine's hands balled into fists with the effort of keeping quiet and still; Cazaril did not break his eye contact with the Fox.

"You know," the Fox finally said, more slowly, "that we are barely recovered from years of civil strife here in Ibra. Dy Talovar would not be the only one of my provincars alarmed if I were to again begin marching troops on one of their capitols. And dy Talovar's forces are better maintained than most and his friendships among the other provincars are strong."

Cazaril let out a breath slowly, more relieved than he had expected to be. Now that the Fox was bending his thoughts not to how his son and daughter-in-law might be scheming to betray him but to how to safeguard Ista, their conference could finally move in the direction Cazaril needed. The direction the Fox needed too, if it come to that; the Roya might be suspicious, but the final benefit of this scheming would all be his.

"I think that the soldiers might best be drawn from the Son's holy orders, if not the Daughter's. Certainly, the soldier-brothers tend to be more pious than most, and might appreciate coming so near to a working saint's party. Bergon suggested," Cazaril put in the name of the Fox's beloved son to sweeten the man a little, "that they might make a festival march of it. If they invite all the citizens they meet, including soldiers, to celebrate with them, it would seem difficult for dy Talovar to creditably mount an armed defense."

"It would at that. Be expensive, though, to feast enough soldiers on the route to match dy Talovar's army." The Fox sounded more morose than anything.

"Royina Iselle thought to include some goods in my train that might ease your burdens there." Actually, Cazaril had suggested it and done the calculations as to appropriate amounts, but the credit needed here was not Cazaril's. The Fox let out a little snort, perhaps a laugh, perhaps irritation.

"Seems to have thought of everything, hasn't she?"

"Well, not quite, sir," Cazaril admitted. "There are two main difficulties that we have yet to resolve, and they might impinge upon each other. And for both, the Royina thought your insight would be absolutely required to provide any resolution." And this time, for all that it felt like flattery coming from his mouth, Cazaril was being precisely truthful.

"Ah? And what does our dear daughter-in-law lack? It seems to me there is little in life she has not already bent to her designs." This statement was more admiring than bitter; it was, perhaps, good for the Fox's nerves to have as strong a friend in Chalion after so much war and double-dealing in his life.

"Knowledge of Talovar is the main thing; the Province and the Provincar. Royse Bergon said he had seen the man little and he had not been much in your discussion, since he was not rebelling, not coastal and not often in court now. There were two main questions we could not resolve. The first was how to keep dy Talovar and his demon from fleeing the court when word of Ista's approach reached him, and the second was the question of why dy Talovar would entertain the demon in the first place, if he is not totally overwhelmed."

"What --?" The Fox cut his question off, frowning at Cazaril. Then he took a breath, glanced at the silent archdivine and looked back at Cazaril with narrowed eyes. "We'll discuss that second in a few moments, but I think the first ought not to be too difficult. The city of Dalceron, where dy Talovar makes his seat and where he still is now, so far as I know, has only two reliable approaches. We will have the Royina's main escort from the Son's order join her shortly, making merry as they go, At the same time, we can send a contingent from the Daughter's order to meet them in Dalceron, ostensibly to set up a real party in the Royina's honor, generously paid for out of her household so as not to burden one of my most loyal nobles. It should not, however, prove difficult to slip the dowager royina around the city from one slow moving party to the other, so she can watch the path on which the demon does not expect her to travel. She can retire to a comfortable wagon for a few days and not be seen. If the Daughter's order doesn't have men loyal enough to keep her hidden and safe, I'll have to appoint a new Holy General."

Cazaril nodded judicious approval. It was hardly fool proof, but the demon could only choose one direction at a time in which to leave the city, and Ista could only be in one place at a time. Best to have her covering the most likely vector for flight. What was more worrying was wondering whether the demon would be willing to flee.

"That seems a sound enough plan to me, my lord; certainly, I have thought of nothing better, studying the maps in my travels here." The Fox's mouth twisted at this cautious approval, but he pressed the expression out straight again.

"Now, explain to me what you are saying about dy Talovar entertaining the demon. I thought you were saying, or at least implying, that you thought this was some sort of higher powered demon than the norm and was oversetting his reason."

"That is not precisely assured," Cazaril answered cautiously. "We believe it is a mature demon, one of the ones escaped from the plague of demons in Jokona last year, which unfortunately means that it likely knows of Ista, and of the danger she can pose it." He glanced sidelong at the archdivine and gave the man a little nod. Jerked out of his safe observer's status, the man cleared his throat and nodded back.

"Ah, yes, my lord, I'm afraid I must endorse all that the Chancellor has said so far. All my temple news confirms the demon outbreak coming from Jokona, that the Royina Ista was the cause of its demise. Also that there may still be quite a few more elementals than usual out and about. I hadn't had word until this of dy Talovar, but, ah, I must admit I'm overdue to hear about the saint's progress there. His disappearance is, well, most disturbing when taken with these reports."

The Fox and Cazaril both frowned at the archdivine. That hadn't really been the insight Cazaril sought, but the man seemed caught quite a bit out of his depth. For the first time, Cazaril found himself wondering what the gods thought of the fluttering creatures who seemed to get promoted to high temple office. That was probably unfair, but every archdivine to whom he'd gone for advice on truly supernatural matters had been singularly useless except on vague questions of theological theory and temporal politics. They were devout enough, but compared to the saints he had been privileged to know they seemed strangely shallow.

"I still don't follow what you mean about dy Talovar entertaining a demon, Cazaril." The Fox returned his attention to Cazaril, plainly dropping the archdivine from his considerations. The man looked down, studying his hands.

"Well," Cazaril replied, "he clearly hasn't gone desperately to the temple, begging for help in excising the demon who stole into his will. If he were unwilling but in control, that is what he should have done, and Ista could save him with, relatively speaking, little more fuss. But he hasn't. If the demon has overpowered him, then its concern will be solely for its own freedom and we need not worry about more than cornering it for Ista. But if it is dy Talovar in control and has decided there is some goal for which he can harness the demon's powers, well, then we must be on guard for what that goal must be. Would you say dy Talovar is a forceful man, one of strong will?"

"No question. I wish more of my nobles had his spine," the Fox admitted. "I suppose that means it probably is him. Damn and blast. He's arguably third in line for my throne. Supported me against my firstborn, but one of his lieutenants claimed that dy Talovar had helped set up Bergon's kidnapping. I didn't believe it, since he was the only one to say so, and he was breaking in his reason by then."

Cazaril chose not to make any further inquires into the methods of questioning the Fox had used. His intelligence was usually reliable, so he clearly knew the limits of his own interrogators.

"What do you think now?" he asked carefully. The Fox drummed his fingers on the table before him, looking pained and old.

"There's others with blood claims as good as his; the reason I put him after Bergon on my list of heirs is his loyalty, for so many years. It troubles me more than I'd like to admit to think he could be so seduced into betraying me."

This admission, and the pain it, was more than a little surprising to Cazaril. The archdivine looked equally startled and looked up to catch Cazaril's eye. The Fox was looking at the table, so Cazaril risked a little charity; the archdivine was clearly in need of an opportunity to recoup a little standing, so Cazaril let his eyes flicker to the Fox and back, signaling the man to get off his rump and say something.

"Ah, perhaps, my lord, it will be possible to save him, even if he has been so seduced." That had the desired effect, at least in so far as the Fox looked up sharply. Then the archdivine had to continue or really be left on an unsupported branch. The appointment of his position was not technically within the Fox's gift, but if the Fox couldn't arrange matters to his own satisfaction within the temple in Zagosur itself, he had declined startlingly.

"Consider, sir, that we will likely never know what impulses and seductions and promises the demon could truly make. If the demon is removed, surely the temptation will be also. Dy Talovar is, well, he's not a young man, at least, I believe? With a son full grown enough to take his place? Perhaps he might be offered a quiet and honorable retirement; perhaps even a position of some lesser temptation but still responsible. I believe, I recall you saying that his judgment guided you in the past? Perhaps he could serve as an advisor, or perhaps even a judge for your courts, as I believe him to be a lay dedicat of the Father's temple."

Despite the man's tendency to make his statements and suggestions into questions, Cazaril could see the appeal of the idea, salvaging the life, skill and honor of what must surely be one of a very small group of genuine old friends. But the Fox would not still be Roya of Ibra if he were not cautious.

"Yes, honorable retirement, and quietly, in any case. I do not particularly care to try and explain all these matters to my court in such a way that will prevent them from starting a new civil war. But we shall see whether he flees his city, dy Cazaril, and that will tell me how far I may trust him afterwards. If the demon overmastered him, he will flee from this saint's approach, fearing destruction. If dy Talovar is still in command, though, he will not flee for anything, for to flee would be to relinquish all hope of any scheme bringing him to my throne. He would have no more position after. I will draft a letter for him, ordering him and his heir to attend on me here, for the Royina Ista to command him after she removes his demon, and see his dutiful submission. Or not."

There was certainly no joy in this for the Fox, Cazaril could see, but his iron resolve held the man upright and straightened to the task. Cazaril glanced again at the archdivine, and though still subdued, the man sat straighter, less afraid and stronger in his purpose. Good; he might not be a great souled man, but that did not mean he was either bad or unworthy.

"Go and summon my secretary and chancellor back to us, dy Cazaril, and tell them they'll need at least a half dozen pages. We have some things to set in motion."