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The troupe of pilgrims continued moving east out of the west’s hillier terrain over the next day into a flatter terrain. The forest was still the same mix of pines and oaks they had seen since they left Rhattaay, but the ground was sandier, and the road was straighter. The paving stones, too, were smoother, making the wagon ride that much better for those aboard. Khumah rode on the bench of the lead wagon with an appointed driver from the pilgrims. Camon rode his horse at the lead, Achara, about midway through the caravan, and Jorn picked up the rear. They were not wearing their white robes anymore; instead, they bore weapons clearly visible to anyone coming or going.

“We’re in the Lake Country, Khettellaay now,” Khumah said. “This is in the jurisdiction of Rhatclang administered at Muangnoi.”

“Good to hear,” Camon said.

“The next outpost will be a welcome reprieve for the travelers. It’s a resort town called Baantellay, with a beautiful lake. It’s used by clergy and Imperial officers for sabbaticals and the oligarchs as a holiday destination. There’s an enclave there for pilgrims, though. It’s not as plush as the other accommodations, but I don’t think anyone will complain once we arrive. It’s better than sleeping on the ground in tents.”

“If Tahaan is there, Achara, Jorn, and I will have to duck out. Undoubtedly, he will have involved Imperials.”

“I should be able to clear your name, even so. We have tons of witnesses to the events of that day. The word of a single Inquisitor against a priest and more than a dozen citizens won’t carry them over. And we also have the prisoner.”

“Indeed. But just in case, we’ll be close enough to watch. We should be able to blend in until we are sure the air is clear.”

They rode the rest of the morning, and just after lunchtime, the forest opened and revealed a tranquil lake surrounded by manicured forests on its banks. Set back off the banks amid the forest were many palatial buildings of whitewashed stone with immaculate landscaping that was evident from across the lake. The road ramped up onto a stone causeway bridge that went straight across the lake. The pilgrims crossed the lake on the bridge and then ramped back down on the opposite side, where the road forked with one branch leading to the northeast and the other south. Khumah directed the caravan down the south fork, which took them into the town. The road itself served as the main avenue through the town. It was lined with whitewashed, waist-high stone fences that partitioned the road away from the immaculate buildings on either side surrounded by manicured lawns and gardens. Khumah led the caravan through the glitzy part of the town into another part that was occupied by humbler but still immaculate cottages. Amidst these, there was an Imperial station and a chapel. Adjacent the chapel was the enclave that had a few dormitories amid a garden-like setting.

The caravan pulled into the enclave, and Khumah gave the signal to stop. Camon, Achara, and Jorn waited a moment, then boarded their horses and discretely ducked out of sight before anyone really noticed they were gone. The travelers were greeted by a keeper who showed them to their dormitories where they would be staying. They unpacked their things, boarded their horses, and went in the dormitories with Khumah and the keeper.

Once they were out of sight, Camon, Achara, and Jorn found a quiet corner of the enclave’s garden and sat and waited, keeping an eye out for any movement in and out of the enclave.

“Any idea if Tahaan is here?” Camon asked Achara.

“There’s a lot of people here, so isolating him his not easy. I do believe I sensed his presence, though, when we came out on the bridge.”

“We should probably see if we can locate him then,” Jorn suggested.

“I would rather him come to us first,” Camon said. “Whatever confrontation he has, let it be between him and the priest. I think Khumah and the travelers will set him in his place. If he doesn’t come by sundown, then we can look for him. He’s got to be around here somewhere.”

“I don’t think you have to wait long. Look,” Achara said, pointing to a band of soldiers coming over from the Imperial station.

“Is Tahaan with them?” Jorn asked.

“Not that I can tell, but it’s a mob.”

“Stay low,” Camon said.

They watched the mob walk across the grounds towards the dormitories. They did not enter, but one of them went and pounded on the door, and the keeper came out. The soldier said something to the keeper, and the keeper went back in and found Khumah. Khumah looked at the soldiers, who then took him into custody and escorted him away from the dormitories. The pilgrims quickly emerged from the dormitories and followed. Two soldiers held them back as they carried Khumah away back across the enclave and back into the Imperial station.

“That’s not what I expected,” Camon said. “Why would they take the priest?”

“Tahaan is undoubtedly playing them. He means to use the priest to get to us,” Achara surmised.

“Perhaps, but if we walk in there, we are not walking out,” Camon said. “And breaking him out would only confirm in their minds whatever lies Tahaan has told them.”

“So, what do we do?” Jorn asked.

“Wait,” Camon said.

“Wait? That’s your plan?”

“Well, they are going to have to come back for the prisoner eventually, who is still in the custody of the pilgrims. Then they will have to determine what to do with the prisoner and who to believe. The priest’s word ought to carry more weight than the Inquisitor’s, though.”

“I hate waiting,” Jorn commented.

Even so, they waited another hour, and yet again, a group of soldiers came over to the enclave. This time, they went straight for the prisoner who was bound to one of the wagons, and they took him into custody and walked him back across the road to the station.

“They have the prisoner now,” Camon said.

“How much more? It’s about another hour until sunset.”

“At that time, we’ll go into the dormitories and rest for the evening. Hopefully, we will see Khumah in the morning.”

“You have a lot of faith in those Imperials,” Achara commented.

“They have to be when dealing with the clergy. If they were to accuse a clergy falsely, the Church would have nothing of it. Besides, we’re the ones that Tahaan wants, not Khumah.”

They waited again, this time though they watched the sun sink over the lake and behind the horizon. Frogs and crickets started their nightly chorus, and the three travelers finally got up from their place and walked to the back of the enclave dormitories that faced the lake, and entered in. They found one of the pilgrims who showed them to their respective rooms. Camon and Jorn shared a room while Achara shared a room with one of the other pilgrim women. The rooms were small with two beds and an aisle between them. Each one had a window that faced the outside. After settling in for a while, they all met up again outside.

“If we can, avoid mingling with others. Stay in your rooms and mark the closest escapes should things get nasty during the night. Should that happen, meetup where we were this evening. We can attempt to break from there.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Jorn said.

They all went back to their rooms and went to sleep. Camon was the first of him and Jorn to pass out. They slept through the night without any alarm and awoke the next morning to the sounds of roosters crowing as the first light turned the skies from dark blue to pinks and purples.

Camon sat up in bed and looked out the window and around the room. Everything was as it was the night before. He dressed along with Jorn, and they went out of the rooms into a common area where other pilgrims were eating from a table of loaves of bread and fruit set out. Camon took some along with Jorn, and they found Achara, who was off behind the buildings sitting alone, looking out over the water.

“See. Nothing to worry about,” Camon said.

“Still no Khumah, though,” Achara noted.

“If we don’t see him by noon, I’ll be suspicious that something is up. Did you hear anything from any of the pilgrims?”

“You told us not to mingle, so I didn’t. I’ve heard nothing.”

“Me neither,” Jorn said.

“Then we best wait,” Camon said

They finished their breakfast and walked about the enclave’s gardens enjoying the flower arrangements and topiary that had been carefully shaped into all sorts of mythical creatures. The scenes might have been intended for children, but the three travelers found them amusing, nevertheless. They kept to the gardens’ outer edges in view of the entrance like they had before, watching and waiting.

About midmorning, another group of Imperials came to the enclave again, this time with Khumah, and they saw Tahaan among them. The Imperial soldiers were leading both men. They stopped in the middle of the enclave and called out to the pilgrims. A few minutes passed, and the entourage gathered about the Imperials who had boxed in Khumah and Tahaan. The Imperials then started questioning the pilgrims.

“Can you get a read on what’s going on?” Camon asked Achara.

“I’ll try…” she replied. Achara sat on the ground cross-legged and closed her eyes and calmed her breathing to where it seemed as if she was now nothing more than a statue. Camon watched the crowd nervously as they went through each pilgrim one at a time, questioning them. Khumah and Tahaan did nothing but watch. After an hour of questioning, the Imperials turned to Tahaan and Khumah and questioned them further. After some time, the Imperials left, and it was Khumah, Tahaan, and the pilgrims with no Imperials. Achara opened her eyes and stood.

“The Imperials have washed their hands of it. They are ambivalent. They can find no fault in Khumah or anything we did.”

“What about me?” Camon asked.

“I couldn’t hear what they said, but they were projecting nothing short of disinterest in everything.”

“That’s good to know. I bet that they don’t want to get involved.”

“Why would they not want to, but the constable in Neuasut wanted to take you down?”

“Every jurisdiction is different. Even so, Rhatclang and Rahttaay have never been too keen on getting involved in the Church’s affairs. They prefer to keep these matters separate. Up north and in the east, that’s an entirely different matter,” Camon explained.

“So, are we in the clear?” Jorn asked.

“Not yet, but I think it is safe to reveal ourselves.”

“Good. All this cloak and dagger stuff isn’t my style.”

Camon, Achara, and Jorn made their way to the lake’s edge, then back through the dormitories and emerged, and when they did, the pilgrims turned and then parted with Khumah and Tahaan facing them. Khumah was calm and collected, but Tahaan’s face was hot. Camon approached with Achara and Jorn behind him.

“Where have you been?” Tahaan insisted.

“I was about to ask you the same. You abandoned your post and duties, Inquisitor,” Camon said.

“I was doing my duty by trying to bring justice, where it needs to be done. But this priest is in league with you now. He’s committed treason against the Church for abetting you!”

“The Imperials don’t seem to agree,” Camon remarked.

“The Imperials. Psst! They don’t know justice either,” Tahaan bawled.

“So what do you want to do? Strap on some swords and have a duel or something?”

“At least that way, I could do justice to you.”

“I am not your enemy, Tahaan. I really don’t want it to come to that or for anyone else to get hurt. It’s bad enough that Nakroh had to die. If you resume your post as protector of this entourage, I will be gone, and you won’t have to see me anymore.”

“If we were anywhere near Rhatclang or Rhattaay, you wouldn’t be so bold as to make gestures. You would be running from me, being hunted down like a wild animal!” the Inquisitor shouted.

“Because there would be dozens of you about, no doubt. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve run from Inquisitors.”

“So, you admit that what you are doing is wrong!”

“I admit that what I am doing is illegal. But it’s not wrong. Laws are not always a good guide for morality. You should know this.”

“You practice forbidden arts and belong to a forbidden order. It’s heresy!”

“It saved your leg, did it not?”

The Inquisitor said nothing, but his scowl said everything.

“Look, we can debate this until we’re both blue in the face,” Camon said. “We’re never going to agree. You can have a reprieve from this, and I will walk away. But otherwise, as long as I’m around, you’re going to be on pins and needles, and so am I. There’ simply not enough room for both of us, so I will go my way so you can fulfill your sworn duty to your order. You may think that you are doing it by pursuing me, but it won’t happen. You will fail. At least do something you know you can be successful at.”

“Don’t lecture me about duty, Paladin. You have no idea what that word means!”

“Actually, he does,” Khumah said. “The Paladins were protectors of the Church long before the Inquisitors were ever created. He fulfilled that duty in protecting us when we were attacked, and he continued to do it in your absence. Tahaan, he’s not the enemy. The man that they put away is. Let the Paladin go, and we can continue our journey together as it was.”

“You leave me no choice,” Tahaan said.

“There’s always a choice,” Khumah said. “Don’t be a fool, Tahaan. You’re no match for the Paladin and his associates, so you best not make yourself a martyr. The Imperials will simply burn your corpse, and that will be the end of you. And the Paladin will walk free, being exonerated because he acted in self-defense.”

“Argh!” the Inquisitor screamed. “You win this time, Paladin. But you have not seen the last of me. I will hunt you to the ends of the world if I have to!”

“I look forward to our next meeting then,” Camon replied. “Until then.”

Camon then saluted Khumah, who then gestured back at Camon, Achara, and Jorn. They turned and went to the dormitories. They collected their things and went out. The pilgrims had formed a crowd around them, thanked them, and blessed them as they went to the stables. The three companions then saddled and mounted their horses and set out from the enclave, and the pilgrims watched them ride out of sight down the road towards the north.

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