TWO: INTERROGATION

ON THE EVENING OF ANNO U'UM 999

"In the name of the 72,000, who constructed this city with their own hands, where is the Ninth of the Nine?"

"Your Seer – the one you never replaced? I suppose no one could see as well as she could, eh?"

"Stubborn wench! Why won't you tell me where she is?"

"Because I do not know. Besides, the 72,000 are in their graves, and I am soon to be."

The Vulei, Fourth of the now-Eight and Lawgiver of the One, sighs. "You need not be executed, Vyshe."

Of the members of the Order of the Ouroboros, he's the only one who says my name right: VEE-shay. It means higher, in the peasant dialect of my late parents. The other seven insult me and call me Vish, rhyming with fish. To be fair, my cold and clammy skin beads with sweat. I'm gasping like a fish, desperate for water.

"I'll call for the bucket and dipper," the Lawgiver says, "if you tell me the truth. Where is the Visiera?"

Smacking my lips together, I only taste parched skin. "Even if I could tell you, I wouldn't betray her."

"She has betrayed you, and left you for dead." He forms a pyramid with his fingertips. "That's her way."

"You're sure?" I flash him a sly smile. No one can be certain of the old woman, even a member of the Eight.

"Do you think that you've been chosen? Aye, 'tis true, but that one has selected and abandoned others. You're not the first." He pulls me closer by the heavy shackles that bind my wrists. "Why are you still loyal?"

I run my tongue over the cracked surface of my upper lip. Both of them feel like sand in an hourglass. As it happens, an hourglass rests next to me on the splintered table. Its top bell is full, but that's no consolation.

"You have one hour to live," says the Vulei. "The lightning waits for no one, especially a heretic."

I start to answer, but dry, hacking coughs wrack my body.

"Water!" The Lawgiver beckons to a serving boy, dressed in rags and standing like a statue against the far wall. The lad hurries over to our table with a full pail and a ladle, but I'm not the one in charge of them. With a slow stroke, my interrogator dips the ladle into the water and holds it toward my lips. I gulp like a horse.

"Careful," he says. "Don't gorge yourself. You'll only get two dippers full, so take sips."

Once my throat feels slick again, I raise my head, glaring. I'll never let him know I'm grateful for his mercy.

He glares back. "How did the daughter of a wandering minstrel and a serf become the Seer's apprentice?"

"I've told you that at least twice. Must I lose more time repeating myself?"

"What I can't understand is why she chose you in the first place. Why not someone higher?"

That stings. "I believe you mean someone richer, more educated, and with a stronger mind. However, would such a person be as gullible as I? I think not. She needed one who knew nothing, so she could teach him."

"Or her. As it stands, you know much more than the humble folk do – history and poetry, for instance."

"Of course. I'm a bard, like my father before me, singing the lore of the people."

"As well as bawdy ballads, tall tales, and sacrilegious superstitions," says the Lawgiver.

I risk a laugh and shrug. "What can I say? Those earn me the most money, and I've got to make a living somehow." Not that my life will last much longer, under these circumstances.

"A more honest occupation would have been a farmer's wife, or scullery maid to one of our manor lords."

"How appealing."

"More so than the iron rod."

Sod it. He's got me. I'll keep quiet and wait for his next question.

"I want you to tell me your story again, but this time, reveal your heart. I do not believe you to be as gullible as you claim. You were lured into that huntress's trap, for certain, but you could have escaped. As soon as our former Seer revealed her true teachings, and true power, you might have reported them to us. Instead, you believed her lies and proclaimed her heresy. That is why you are here today, and must die tonight…"

"…Unless I do penance, and humble myself under the lash."

"Indeed." The Lawgiver trails off, narrowing his eyes. "Why won't you?" A candle near both of us flickers.

"Because she's right."

"Let's say, for argument's sake, that she is. Is it necessary to perish for the sake of her beliefs?"

"Nay. You and your Order are the ones who threaten heretics with death or humiliating pain, not the Seer."

"Watch yourself, girl. Do you believe she's innocent, the victim in all this? She is not. The one whom we trusted to peer beyond the veil of existence is no stranger to lying, manipulation, theft – even murder."

"If you were being hunted down, wouldn't you try to defend yourself?"

"Aye, but I'd keep one thing in mind: The One rules over all things, including our lives, and is omnipotent."

"My master disagreed. Instead of being beguiled by 'our' god, she showed me Its abominable true nature."

He scowls. "Shall I cut out your tongue before you face the iron rod, in the midst of this storm?"

I blink and smile, emptying my mind. "You can't. You need me to tell my tale first, and give you answers."

One of the interrogation room guards, blinding in his polished armor, speaks: "One quarter hour, Vulei."

The Lawgiver leans closer. "You have forty-five minutes in which to tell all. I know the facts. What of your feelings? You've never spoken of why you came to believe our former Seer, only how you followed her."

"If you haven't understood why by now, Lawgiver, I had better recount my tale from the beginning."

The sand in the hourglass seeps into the bottom bell, heedless of anything save its relentless progress.