Days later, they came to the Great River, and the eastward road turned north, parallel with the river. They passed farms and villages as they approached Maungnoi to the north. The city came into view midafternoon as the sun was still high in the sky. It was poised atop a hill overlooking the river to the east. Unlike other cities in the Empire, Muangnoi had no walls. Instead, the river wrapped around the hill on three sides, leaving one side exposed to a sizeable boulder-strewn flat. The flat was dotted with homes and other buildings that started in a low density but increased in density and height as they reached the city center on the hill. The crown of the hill was occupied by a large, monolithic keep that towered over the rest of the town.
Camon, Achara, and Jorn rode into the city without even turning heads while the residence went about their work and trade that day. The riders trotted into the city center and located a modest inn where they found lodging and board their horses for their stay. By then, it was nearing the evening, and they found a small tavern near the inn. Camon ordered some ale, fire-roasted beef, and vegetables, and they sat down to eat and drink.
“The monastery Prawadi spoke of is upriver out of the city a ways,” Camon said. “It’s in a village that mainly serves the needs of the monastery and church there. The city here is actually fairly new by Imperial standards. The monastery was built after the First Reformation before the Church outlawed scrying.”
“Why would they leave the station intact then?” Achara said.
“The Church doesn’t like to share power, as we’ve seen. They can have it, but don’t want anyone else to. Well, at least that’s how the Inquisitors feel about it,” Jorn said.
“That’s partially true. The politicians in the Church would see it that way. Inquisitors are many things, but power-hungry isn’t one of them. They are dutiful to a fault and stick to their code even if it doesn’t make sense, as we’ve seen.”
“Indeed, so what’s the plan,” Jorn said.
“Well, we’re not going to be able to just waltz in there like we own the place. At least as pilgrims, we’d have a legitimate presence, but anything else will raise suspicions. We will need to become clergy. At least one of us does.”
“That would be you since you already know the part,” Achara said.
“That’s what I had in mind. I’ll need to find some robes and a commission. I think you two can pass as assistants.”
“And where do you propose we get a priest’s robe from?” Achara asked.
“That should be easy. The cathedral here should have some. The commission though, is the hard part. I will have to have one forged or steal it from a priest.”
“For a holy man, you are starting to sound like a first-rate criminal,” Jorn commented.
“I already thought I was an outlaw. Adding to my long list of crimes by impersonating a priest will have to be added to my dossier. After dinner, I’ll see what I can dig up here in the city.”
“Be careful,” Achara said. “The presence that followed us out of Rhatclang has returned.”
“I don’t know, but the same imminent threat is here.”
“Lay low then until I come back,” Camon said.
Camon took a few more bites of the vegetables and finished his ale. He stood, checked his sword, and then walked out of the tavern onto the street. Camon made his way through the maze of houses and buildings. For an Imperial city, this one had no planning to it, Camon thought. He kept his general direction uphill towards the citadel at the crest of the hill. The ominous building was basalt colored and square at its base. There was nothing in the way of a courtyard, just a street leading up to the citadel’s gate. Camon looked it over and saw no guard posted, and the gates were shut. He worked his way around the citadel looking for a way in, and nothing presented itself other than gates on the west and east sides of the citadel. Locked up tight, he thought. He made a mental note and went looking for the city’s cathedral.
He found the cathedral about a quarter of a mile downhill from the citadel on the east side. It was not like the other cathedrals in the Empire by standards. It lacked grandeur and presence without a towering spire or inspiring architecture. It was a simple wooding structure no taller than the surrounding buildings with a rock foundation. Camon glanced down the street, then went up to the cathedral’s steps and opened one of the large wooden doors slightly before entering the building before he quickly closed it behind him. The interior was dark now that the sun was down. Only a few candles flickered at the front of the place of gathering near the altar in front of the priest’s table.
Camon stayed near the walls in the shadows, quietly working his way around the building’s edge. He saw and heard no one has he inched along the edge towards the front, where he slipped into a vestibule off the side of the main sanctuary. He paused, taking stock of his surroundings and listening for anyone or anything in the building with him. He heard nothing. He found a door at the back of the vestibule, and he tried to open it. It was locked from the other side. There was no exit to the street from the vestibule, so he made his way across the sanctuary’s front to the vestibule on the opposite side. Camon quickly rummaged through a bunch of junk and furniture that filled the vestibule but did not find what he was looking for.
He tried the door at the back of the vestibule, and it slipped open and creaked. Camon opened it just enough for him to walk through, and he then closed it behind him. Camon groped his way around the darkened room, unable to see anything at all. He found it was furnished with tables and chairs with some other shelves. Camon deduced it was a dining room or meeting room of sort, and he went looking for a door. He found one that was not locked, and he opened it into a narrow hallway with a lit lantern hanging in the middle, offering some light. Camon walked quickly and quietly down the hallway to another room, and he placed his ear on the door. He heard nothing, then he opened it and slipped in and closed the door behind him. He slipped in and groped his way around the room until he discovered a bed and a table with an inkwell and some parchment paper. An occupied room, he surmised. Camon then lay flat on the ground and shimmied under the bed and lay there as still as he could and waited.
He waited for the better part of three hours until a portly man carrying a candle came into the room. The man closed the door and set the candle on the table before he removed his commission and placed it on the table, then his robe placing it in a hamper. He slipped into a tunic for sleeping and sat down in the chair at the table and wrote something. He then lifted his candle and set it on the bedside table before getting in the bed and blew out the candle. Within twenty minutes, the man was snoring loudly.
Camon waited another ten minutes before moving. He ever so carefully slid out from under the bed and crawled across the floor to the table. He could see ever so slightly, and he found the commission and tucked it in his belt, then went to the hamper and removed the robes. The man was still snoring loudly. Camon cracked the door to the hallway, which was now dark, and listened. He could only hear the man’s snore. Camon then slipped out of the room and into the hallway, and he closed the door behind him.
Camon then retraced his steps down the hallway back through the meeting room and then back into the vestibule. The sanctuary was now dark as well, but Camon tiptoed around the edge and back towards the door where he entered. The bundle of robes looked conspicuous, so he put them on over his clothes and then opened the door to the night air, which was cool. The street was well lit by moonlight and the lights of the surrounding buildings casting light on the road. Camon then made a beeline for the citadel he could see towering over the rest of the buildings. He got to the east gate and went around the building to the west side, which still had no guards. With the citadel as a bearing, he made his way back to the inn through the maze of other buildings. Before he got there, he removed the robes and turned them inside out and balled them up tight under his arm. He then entered the inn and walked past the innkeeper who did not even bother looking up. Camon then went back upstairs to his room, where he found Jorn.
“Took you long enough. Did you get what you needed?” Jorn said
“Easy as pie. I took it off a priest who went to sleep,” Camon said.
“You make it sound as if you’ve done this before.”
“Sneaking around places looking for stuff? Once or twice in my life.”
“I prefer a good fight to all the sneaking around.”
“Stealth has its advantages. No one got hurt, and the priest will be none the wiser in the morning.”
“What does it take to get another commission?”
“Usually, just asking. But these things are imbued with magic that authenticates them to the bearer. I hope no one checks, because if they do, we’re screwed. I’m going to guess that nobody bothers to do more than a glancing check.”
“Sounds like a gamble,” Jorn said
“It is, but not as risky as just going into the monastery uninvited as a civilian.”
“I’ll just have to follow your lead.”
“Indeed,” Camon said. “We’d best get some sleep, though. Tomorrow morning will be here before you know it.” The two laid down and went to sleep and woke the next morning before the sun was up. Camon left the room and knocked on Achara’s door, who stirred and answered. Camon retrieved the stolen robe and commission and went downstairs, followed by Jorn. They waited for Achara, who came down a few minutes later. They all went out together to the stable, saddled and mounted their horses, and went out into the city as the sky was transitioning from dark into the early morning light.
By the time the sun had risen in the east, they were beyond the houses and out on the road headed northwest. Beyond the city, Camon stopped and ducked into a thicket and changed into the priest’s robes, and then he put the commission around his neck. He then remounted his horse and rode for a few miles when they came to the monastery.
The monastery was a compound of buildings, and the adjoining chapel was constructed of stacked stones of all different colors from the surrounding land. The buildings were rustic but well maintained as were the grounds. It was surrounded by a chest-high wall that was more decorative than anything. There was no gate at the entrance. The entire complex was shaded by ancient oaks that towered over the buildings with swooping branches and massive trunks. The wind rustled the leaves together in the morning light as birds chirped and flew here and there collecting nuts and anything else they could find to eat. The ancient buildings evoked stability and age to the entourage. They took a moment to admire how these structures had stood for millennia.
They dismounted their horses and then walked them into the monastery through the main entrance under an arch of stone into a courtyard paved with the same kinds of rocks the buildings were constructed with. Camon gave a signal, and they all stopped. A moment later, a young monk emerged from one of the buildings and came up to them. The monk extended the palm of his right hand up to Camon and said, “Greetings, your grace.”
“Greetings, my son,” Camon said, placing his right hand on the young man’s hand.
The young monk bowed and then asked, “How may I serve you and your assistants?”
“We seek a meal and a quiet place to rest and reflect for the day,” Camon said.
“Indeed, your grace. Please, follow me.” He led Camon, Achara, and Jorn through the complex to a stable, and he had the stable boy take their horses to be fed and groomed. He then led the company away from the central cluster of buildings to a stone cottage towards the back of the compound. He opened the cottage to a room with padded high-backed chairs and a sofa with a bearskin rug on the floor. The room was decorated with preserved animals and other hunting trophies. “I hope this is fitting for you. We use this cottage for visiting scholars usually, but we have none, so please feel free to make yourselves at home.”
“It will be just fine,” Camon said. “Thank you.”
“With pleasure,” the young monk said. He then left them in the room.
“What’s the plan from here,” Jorn asked as soon as the monk was out of sight.
“We find the scrying room, use it, and leave before anyone knows what happened.”
“So when do we start?”
“How about now?” Camon suggested. “Besides, all these animals in here are starting to creep me out. I’ve never been one for taxidermy.”
“I’ll make a mental note of that next time I want to scare you,” Jorn said.
Camon looked out of the room and back out towards the main cluster of buildings. He pointed to a round tower connected to one of the buildings, “I suspect that may be where we are trying to get to. It doesn’t look too hard to reach. Let’s go check it out.”
They left the cottage and went back out onto the grounds. They crept under the canopy of trees towards the main cluster of buildings to avoid raising any suspicion. They came to the outside of the tower, walking around it and not seeing an outside entrance.
“We’ll have to enter it from the inside. I was hoping we could avoid that,” Camon said. “Stay vigilant.”
They walked around the adjoining building and found the only entrance. It was locked. Camon looked around and did not see any monks or priests.
“Do either of you know how to pick a lock?”
“I do,” Achara said.
“Let me guess; you learned that when you lived on the street with the thieves?”
“It’s one of the first things you learn.”
“Then why did you not pick the lock that I busted back there on the mesa?” Camon asked.
“You didn’t ask,” she smiled.
“Make it quick,” Camon said, pointing to the lock on the door.
Achara removed a knife from her boot and a hairpin from her hair and went to work while Camon and Jorn stood by watching. They then heard a click, and Achara pulled the door open slightly and went in. Jorn followed, and Camon went last, looking around before he entered in and closed the door behind him.
The room they stood in was full of old crates and furniture stacked from the floor to the ceiling covered in dust. Achara was almost dancing, trying to avoid the mice nests on the floor in and around the crates and furniture. Jorn’s nose squinched at the dank, musky odor.
“I don’t think we’ll have to worry about anyone following us in here,” Achara said. “Nobody has been in here for years!”
“Let’s hope the scrying room is in better shape, or we’re going to have a lot of work just getting it ready to use.”
Camon walked past the filth being careful not to step on anything that was not solid floor. His boots left tracks on the dust-covered floor, and they brushed cobwebs away as they went through the rooms and down a hallway leading to the tower. They came to the tower door which was latched with four massive bolts. Camon threw the bolts back and then grabbed the handle of the massive door and heaved. The door opened, and a draft of cold air hit his face and blew his hair back. They then walked into the room and pulled the door closed behind them.