NINE NATIONS

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WORTHEIM DUCHY
Priester Lehrer of Kloster Alt

          As the last dim traces of day faded over Offnung Harbor, the acolytes of Kloster Alt scurried about her stone hallways, ducking into recessed alcoves to light the tallow candles.  Before long the gray corridors of the cathedral became a patchwork of yellow light and purple shadow.  Three of the acolytes, young men sent by their families, or plucked from the orphanages, to be educated by the holy men of the faith, and to one day become evangelists of the Purity themselves, gathered in one of the pools of light to gossip.
          “I was in the kitchens this morning when Holger the fishmonger was delivering crabs,” whispered Edel, a short, red-faced boy from the sugarcane fields of Stockgarten.  He had wide, black eyes and a long nose, and his low voice echoed through the hallway. 
          “He says there’s going to be a Versammlung next month.  He heard that the Ritters are going to try to depose the Duke.”

          “My father’s a Ritter,” breathed Nefin, a round youth who wheezed his words out of fat cheeks.  “He says there’s always talk of a Versammlung, but that there hasn’t been one since his grandfather’s time.”
         “What would your father know, Nefin?  He’s a Ritter in name but not by holdings.  What true knight has to send his son to be an acolyte of the Reinheit?  At least Edel and I are proper orphans, with a decent excuse to be here.”  This was spat out by Wilmer, the tallest and ugliest of the three, with a cruel white scar that began on his left cheek, crossed his nose, and ended at his right eyebrow, traversing the empty crater where his eye had been.  He fixed Nefin with his left eye, sending a chill down the other boy’s spine, and laughed, a cold, rasping sound. 
          “Can’t even afford two squires, like real knights.  Do you resent your brother squeezing past you on the way out of your mother’s womb, beating you to your father’s paltry titles by a few minutes?  Or did your father know what he had made, and reach in and pull out the better of the two to squire him?”

          Nefin’s broad chin trembled as he thought of a response, but he had none.  His father’s holdings were sparse, and his family poor, if ancient in honor.  The Armen family was one of the oldest in Wortheim, and had been one of the last to acknowledge Oepacian hegemony after the conquest.  That was one reason they were poorer than the houses that had taken the knee much earlier, when the issue was still in doubt.
          “At least Nefin has a father.  What brothel did they find you behind?”  This was bold for Edel, who usually deferred to the older, stronger Wilmer.  The one-eyed acolyte grinned with pointed teeth at Edel.
          “I’m not sure.  Now that you mention it, I suppose there’s a chance that Nefin and I are half-brothers.  Although I doubt the great Ritter Armen can afford the quality of whores I grew up with.”
          “That will be quite enough,” came a strong, gentle voice from the shadow.  All three acolytes froze in place, with their eyes downcast, although Wilmer dared a rebellious glance at the hooded figure emerging from the gloom.                 
          “To your cells now, Nefin, Wilmer.  Wilmer, five verses of penance before you retire, for your lack of charity.”  The robed man ignored the snort of derision from the scarred boy and turned to Edel.  “Walk with me for a moment, son.”

          Edel exchanged a brief worried glance with Nefin before the two other youths headed off down the hallway.  In a moment, he was alone in the velvet half-light with Priester Lehrer, the high holy man of Kloster Alt.  The monk folded his hood off his bald head, revealing a kind face framed by a thin white beard.  The Priester appraised Edel for a moment, and then closed his eyes for a moment, as if deep in thought.  He then smiled.
“We must be careful about equating the ramblings of fishmongers with the gospel of the Reinheit,” the old man intoned, with the slightest edge of amusement.  “But tell me lad, what else did the man say?  For I get precious little news of the street in my sanctum, and I am aware that there may be some truth to this rumor you present.”