Authors: Mark Charan Newton
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Domina omnium et regina ratio.
‘Reason is the mistress and queen of all things.’
Marcus Tullius Cicero,
For Emma and Oliver
A bell called in the priests for prayer, drowning out the worst of the screams. Through wooden shutters I squinted at the vivid brightness, peering down at the men in green
robes as they rushed across the paving stones of the courtyard. They surged towards the steps of an impressive temple, which was carved out of the rock-face, crowned with a triangular pediment and
covered with ornate symbols. In their haste, one of the priests lost his sandal on the way and paused in the sultry heat to slip it on again. Even out here it seemed everyone was in a rush.
The man stared up in shock when the prayer bell was silenced and the sound of Cornellus’ agony could be heard in all its hideous clarity.
The Temple of Procetes – a remote religious settlement hidden within a gorge – was a pleasant venue to be dispatched to for the day. It was a far cry from my usual haunts. After
being in Venyn City for so long, I was happy to escape the city’s dark, crowded streets. In stark comparison to the almost gaudy, luxurious architecture of Venyn, here were ancient limestone
walls with clean lines and subtle decoration, modest statues of deities, and the constant waft of fragrant incense and cooling breezes from the gorge. It made for a peaceful place, and Procetes was
a frugal and simplistic god. Within the settlement, decorum and diligent prayer were expected, personal ostentation was frowned upon, and the priests lived in quiet contemplation of their god.
On reflection, it was perhaps not the best place to carry out a punishment order. I wondered how long it would take before someone investigated.
Cornellus’ screams continued in the next room, each one making me cringe at the agony he must have been feeling. Unlike many of my colleagues, I was less than enthusiastic about this
particular aspect of the job.
Eventually, the door burst open. A balding priest in a plain woollen tunic, his remaining strands of hair slicked down with sweat across his forehead, held the door frame for support as he
regarded me with a look of utter disgust.
‘Do you have no respect whatsoever for the honour of Procetes?’ he spluttered.
I considered that carefully before answering. ‘I wouldn’t want to anger your god in his own temple, of course. But you should have considered that before sheltering a known
‘He claimed sanctuary,’ said the priest almost spitting in his fury. ‘We would have done the same to protect anyone in need. Every person deserves the right to shelter here.
You told me that you would be questioning him. What are you doing in there?’
‘Me personally? Nothing.’
The priest’s face paled as another desperate scream echoed around the stone complex.
‘As to what my associate is doing, I believe he is pouring molten silver into Gravus Cornellus’ eye sockets.’
The priest glared at the brooch on my white shirt, a hollow, blazing sun made of gold: the symbol of the Sun Chamber, the institution that, in working with kings and queens, helped keep the many
nations of Vispasia together in alliance and peace.
‘If it’s any consolation, this torture is not for me,’ I continued. ‘I don’t enjoy seeing anyone suffer, but I must carry out my orders.’
He muttered a curse, gesturing to the heavens with his hands. ‘But why? Surely an Officer of the Sun Chamber should conduct himself with more compassion. You are supposed to maintain the
peace – uphold the law, protect the innocent not indulge in this . . . this savagery.’
I raised my eyebrows. ‘Upholding the law is precisely what I’m doing. And it’s the innocent who have been threatened by the actions of that man in there.’ I gestured to
the door from behind which Cornellus’ screams were reaching an uncomfortable crescendo. ‘Try explaining to the innocents living in the slums outside your temple gates, or the ghettos in
Venyn City, why they won’t receive this year’s food gifts from the city’s council. It’s thanks to Cornellus’ nefarious accounting activities. Meanwhile, he’s
built himself a wonderful mansion in the country and been living in the lap of luxury, eating fine foods and drinking expensive wines, not to mention the numerous whores he had visit.’
The priest flushed and glanced again as the screams started to descend into a pitiful wailing.
‘You might say that it wasn’t especially
, was it? It was just as well one of our agents caught him in the act before even more people starved. Then his punishment
would have been more severe.’
‘Surely no one is deserving of such punishment as molten metal being poured into his eyes?’ He wiped his face with his hands.
‘Silver. Molten silver. We caught him siphoning off coin destined for the treasury in Free State so that he might be – and these were his own words – “surrounded by the
finer things in life”. So, in order for him to have his needs addressed, it was decided that his eyes should forever have fine metals imprinted upon them. Apparently one of our sheriffs
possesses a sense of irony.’
‘This is horrendous,’ he said shaking his head. ‘It is such a waste.’
‘Not entirely,’ I remarked. ‘At least we didn’t use gold.’
The priest was clearly in distress at the suffering of a fellow human and, despite my facetiousness with him, I secretly sympathized.
‘You Sun Chamber people, you come here abusing your powers—’
‘I’m merely carrying out my orders,’ I told him. ‘Anyway, I argued that his life be spared. Even this is a kindness of sorts.’
He did not seem particularly impressed by my efforts. ‘I insist you finish this torture immediately.’
‘It sounds like they’ve already ended.’ The relative silence was somehow more profound now. ‘You should head to the temple, priest. Cornellus will need all the prayers he
He glared at me again and left the room; shortly after he was striding across the courtyard, where sounds of holy chanting drifted, now uninterrupted, around the large enclosure. I rubbed at my
eyes and felt the beginning of a headache. I’d told the priest the truth, that Cornellus’ crime was a serious one, and the priest was lucky that the man’s confession had not
implicated the temple in any way.
The door was flung open and Maxid stepped forward, wiping his hands on a stained cloth. Behind him were Cornellus’ legs, limp on the floorboards, the straps still keeping him in place
– not that he’d be making his escape any time soon – and the smell of smoke drifted out towards me.