The High Priest led us up and up, for what felt like an eternity. As we walked the walls that flanked the stairway, up to this point being made of sheer stone, began to gain gold leaf, powerful religious engravings, murals made entirely of precious gems, and the final five stairs were made of solid gold bars.
I was aghast. I have never been one to tout the absolute necessity of money and its purpose in the modern world, and I could hardly wrap my head around the sheer amount of wealth that must have been contained in these stairs alone. Even the King of Precia and the Pahr of the Garegeb would have been hard pressed to match the sheer amount of valuables in this final pathway. The rest of my party had similar reactions, calCatze looking especially displeased with the display.
"There's no point to it," he muttered, "no point at all." Captain Yara, as per her usual habit while in Elisham lands, glared at the decoration, and Sir Waish had no reaction other than a slightly raised eyebrow. Such opulence could surely not be topped by the palace itself, I assured myself, thoroughly making sure that I would not be prepared for what was to come.
At the top of the stairs was a magnificent garden. Plant species from every corner of the Continent, flowers from the Crecians, grass from the Had'Ze steppes, cone trees from the Svelter, and even a few plants that looked suspiciously like The Jungle were dotted around the square of greenery. I was taken aback again, but this time for a much different reason. Some of these plants I had only ever read about, or seen pictures. Some were just legends in Precia, told around the fire when speaking of far off lands. I had never dreamed that I would see so many in one place. There were paths cut into the garden itself, the trees above making a natural roof so that workers and others could wander through without worry of the weather. I couldn't help but look all around as we wandered through, the path we were on was covered by a Precian Maple and an Elisham Speartree, with its curiously straight leaves. As the Continent was entering the Season of Sprouting, buds had begun to appear on the plants. Flashes of orange and red, yellow, purple, and vibrant blues stood out against the green background. These colors were overtaken by white and black buds as we neared the entrance to the Temple itself.
And what an entrance it was! Pillars of marble shot out of the ground as though a natural phenomenon to hold up the massive archway that greeted us as we stepped out of the garden. Hundreds of murals, depicting the stories of the Elisham faith, covered this archway, quotes from past Monastycs were carved into the ceilings and even more extravagant wealth was used to make this entryway more awe inspiring. It was almost enough to make me ignore the groups of soldiers watching us from the edge of my vision.
A few dozen guards were stationed on the perimeter of the clearing, one behind the other, spears held lax in their hands and shields at their sides as we approached. A few were talking amongst themselves, a couple laughed, though curiously none of them turned to look at one another. The ranks stood facing into the courtyard, as though their necks were made of stone. When the High Priests appeared from the maze of green there was a shout from our left, presumably a commander of sorts.
"Holy One's approaching!" and as one the entire complement of guards straightened their backs, and lifted their shields to their chests, crossing their spears across the band of metal. The High Priests nodded at this salute, and continued on towards the archway. I could tell that at least two of my companions were both impressed and perturbed by the strangeness of these guards. I was busying myself with escape routes. It never hurts to look. Sir Waish seemed to have the same idea, his head was on a swivel, back and forth searching across the lines of guards and casting a look back at the garden. I hoped that the guards would put this off as Precian oddities rather than hostile intent, but my companion was in full plate armor. Hope was all I had.
As the High Priests approached the guards standing in front of the door took a step to the side, and pointed their spears in the air. Tilting the weapons, they formed a smaller archway for us to walk under.
"What an odd bunch of traditions" calCatze muttered, and Captain Yara grunted her agreement. I wanted to stop and explain that there were plenty of strange traditions in their own respective countries, like giving a child a weapon at the age of three, or segmenting a tavern based on career, but there was no time to waste. The High Priests certainly weren't stopping. As we approached the doors they swung open from inside, and we stepped in. The doors closed behind us, and just before they were closed for good I heard the commander yell out,
"At ease!" There was a sudden shifting of metal and leather, but off by the reverberating thud the doors made as they closed. Now we were treated to a new kind of extravagance, not in sheer amount of wealth but the absence of such.
The interior of the building was massive, ceilings reaching up so high as to question if they even existed, the room itself was larger than any that I could remember seeing. The huge throne room dwarfed even that of the Precian King. On the left wall was a simple shrine to Aeyla, incense burning in metal holders and one of the holy texts open before the swirling symbol that represented the river itself. Against the back wall was a small wooden chair, which would have looked mighty uncomfortable were it not for the small woman lounging there, one leg thrown over an arm of the chair, another holy book in her hands. The right wall bore a bed, a screen to change behind, and three racks of different robes and dresses. These three stations did not even begin to take away from the emptiness of the room. I had a hard time believing that anyone could live here and stay sane.
Though maybe that would explain some things.
The High Priests motioned for us to stay in the entrance, one of them being much more polite about it than the other. I'll let you guess which is which. Regardless of which of the two priests decided that waving us away like an unwanted pet was appropriate treatment for a group of dignitaries, the pair approached the new Monastyc and conversed in low tones. I can only assume of course that the tone was low, as the room was large enough that they would have to yell for us to understand them. We waited in relative silence, aside from the shifting of feet and the creaking of armor. I looked around the room again, still in awe of its sheer size. It seemed that, were the ceiling to go any higher, clouds would form and the building would form its own storms.
There was little for us to do but wait. Going forward would have been a breach in decorum and would have undoubtedly stifled any chance we might have of an alliance. On top of that, the insult we would have unintentionally caused to the Monasatyc would almost certainly get us killed. Going back was also out of the question, for similar reasons. At least if we went back, I mused darkly, we would be killed immediately by the guards outside, rather than waiting for an executioner.
We waited for what seemed like an eternity. As the High Priests turned around and returned to motion us forward, calCatze muttered,
"I could feel myself getting older. Gods, do I have any gray hairs now?" He leaned towards Captain Yara, headfirst. The Garegeb captain smirked but said nothing else. I looked away, pretending to be embarrassed. It seemed like being a bit haughty was the only thing that Elvar respected, and I would unfortunately have to play his game if I wanted to get us close to Allara.
"The Monastyc will see you tomorrow. " Ti translated.
We all froze and stared at the pair of High Priests that were now before us. Elvar had, as usual been the one to deliver the news with Shuri hovering behind like a disappointed dog. The latter of the priests seemed to be on our side, such as it was, but was being overruled by her companion. I had no doubt that each of the High Priests were greatly respected in the city, but it seemed like some held much more power than others. I can't stand politics.
I was the first to speak.
"Of course, Holy Ones. We would not want to disturb Her Most Jubilant Majesty with such trivial matters as hostile invasion." Elvar's right eye twitched, and Shuri took a deep intake of breath. Before either could respond, I continued. "We will return to our quarters and await another summons. Might I request however that, if we are to be brought here solely to witness the Monastyc receiving such poor council, that you reconsider fetching us? I would not wish to burden you with guiding such poor souls as we." Ti translated the whole exchange.
Shuri was trying hard not to laugh. Elvar was, at a guess, furious. His right eye was now slightly more closed than its twin, and he spoke through gritted teeth. "Shuri can see you out." With that he stormed passed us out the door, Ti right behind, and disappeared. Sir Waish patted me on the back, which I knew was worth three hearty cheers from the Knight. calCatze was aghast however, saying
"You're going to get us killed." Captain Yara formed a third opinion, nodding her approval of my speech. I shrugged at my Crecian companion, who shook his head in disbelief, but said no more on the subject.
Shuri looked absolutely delighted with my behavior, smiling the whole way back down the massive ziggurat. She didn't say anything, but she didn't have to. There was plenty said by the expression of absolute joy on her face. As we walked down the ziggurat, some of the practicing monks stopped and glared at our party. All of these, it should be noted, were dressed in the same excellent manner as Elvar had been, and they all had the same haughty sense of superiority about them. Some looked as though they were about to come speak to us, give us a piece of their mind, but backed away when they recognized Shuri. She met the glares of each and every one of them, her smile enough to force them to look away. Some of the guards even turned to stare at us, only to return back to their posts when they saw Shuri, a sheepish expression on their faces.
The High Priest led us to the inn, and graciously held the door open for us. We stepped inside to find the place empty as the night before, the cheery bartender behind her counter.
"Oh, hello!" She said as we walked in, looking up from cleaning a mug. "Oh, High Priest Shuri!" The mug nearly slipped out of her grasp as she hastily drew her hand from the left shoulder to the right hip. Shuri nodded in appreciation at this, then said,
"Lyel, relax. You've known me since I was a kid." She grabbed a chair and plopped down into it, melting into a slouched position with an appreciative sigh. "And drop the High Priest bit, please. You practically raised me, it doesn't' feel right." The bartender, who I could now confidently call Lyel, smiled her infectious smile and put the mug down. Walking out from around the bar, she drew up a chair next to High Priest Shuri and asked,
"So what's this I hear about Elvar being insulted?" She gasped, then "Did you have a hand in this?"
It seemed like news traveled fast in this city.
High Priest Shuri laughed and stretched out her legs, then said, "I was in the room, sure. Doesn't mean I had anything to do with it."
"Well now, everyone knows you don't' get along with that man." Lyel responded, looking over the High Priest as though she were a prized possession. The other rolled her eyes before saying,
"Who, me? Why would I have a problem with someone who opposes everything I stand for?"
"Now dearie, tax reforms were always going to be a hard sell."
"Obviously, but at this point it's just him in the way. Trouble is he's always had Allara's ear."
"Well, she was his pupil. You know how you felt about your teacher."
"Lyel, I hated my teacher. Half the time I think I chose the Path of the Beggar out of spite." Lyel laughed at this, before realizing that our party was still in the room. She leapt up with a started, "Oh!" and rushed back behind the bar, throwing a few mugs on the counter and pouring some ale. "Here," She said, "Drinks on the house." We all thanked our host, saluted the High Priest with our mugs, and drank. Lyel and Shuri went back to their conversation, and our party took a table of our own. I did my best to split my attention between the two groups. I don't approve of eavesdropping, but information is always important.