The election debates might be contentious; there would need to be security for the candidates. That was why Vinnie and Wildflower had to see Gratul Breck.
“You are right.” Breck made a note on a wax tablet. “There are debates in the Joy District amphitheatre, and the foot stadium in the north. Which of you will protect each?”
“Who’s debating in each spot? Some people might be … ” Vinnie paused. “Might be more contentious, you know? Could need extra protection.”
Breck snorted. “I know what you mean. Sadly, though, the speakers are chosen by lot, so I cannot yet say who will be where. Perhaps you could wait until we draw the names?”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll take the Joy District. We can move around if we have to.”
Jethan perched on a roof outside the Joy District amphitheatre, hidden behind the balustrade. They weren’t going to miss the debates, and this would be the perfect spot to watch them from.
It was also a perfect sniper perch, if that ended up being necessary.
“Here’s what I want you to do.” Outside the northern stadium, Wildflower addressed a detachment of Vinnie’s “security team”. The paint on their shields and breastplates wasn’t dry yet, but they were trustworthy: after falling in with Vinnie, none of them wanted to pick up their own bar tabs again.
“Chapton is debating Lady Katraktes here. I’m not impressed with Katraktes, and you shouldn’t be either. Go out into the stadium, do your “security checks” in the crowd, and make sure they know that. But make sure you’re subtle about it.”
They dispersed just as the master of ceremonies, Thane the Elder, stood up. “Lady Katraktes, Chapton, your topic is ‘Attacks on the Temples’. Katraktes, you may speak first.”
“Thank you, High Magistrate. The security of our food is a very important topic. As you know, it is a vital part of our economy, and — wait, I mean our temples! Temples! Food security is a topic dear to my — no, temple security.”
The security team barely had to do anything
Vinnie was already set up in the amphitheatre when the debaters arrived: Draca Procrusta, and PAN, the Kitchen Implement. Perfect.
He pulled a vial out of his pocket, and tipped a few drops into a glass of water. A matching glass was waiting at PAN’s lectern. He walked over.
“Hey! Being a water-carrier is an honourable profession, and I won’t have you interfering with my work.” A man in servant’s robes glared at Vinnie. “Get out of my way and go back to guarding!”
“We’ve received an anonymous tip that someone’s trying to poison the candidates. Could be nothing, but, as a precaution …”
“You could have told me!” The water-carrier pushed the glass back into Vinnie’s hand. “Drink this yourself, and leave me to do my job.”
When he returned from tipping the water out, Draca Procrusta was at the podium.
“The topic for this debate is The Media. My position on media is clear: it’s a mistake. These elves with their printing presses are ruining our city. We need stricter policies. A curfew on late-night music, for instance…”
Vinnie tuned her out, and took a closer look at PAN’s lectern.
“And in conclusion, I believe food security is essential for our temples, because people eat food.”
A rotten peach flew in from the centre of the stadium. “Secure this food!”
Wildflower didn’t try too hard to deflect it.
Katraktes hurried off the stage
Chapton stepped forward and cleared his throat. “I have a plan for the temples. I will call for public volunteers to help with the problems — recruit the best I can find.”
He paused. Two thousand people stared at him.
“The vandalism. The collapses. The, um, attacks. I will recruit a team to defend and rebuild the temples, and protect against these problems.”
This wasn’t as easy as he’d hoped. But at least they were listening.
“Music is essential to a functioning society. It relaxes people. It brings us together. It is hardly a danger or a distraction.”
Much as they disliked PAN, Jethan preferred the musician’s platform to Draca Procrusta’s. Vinnie, however…
Jethan watched his armoured figure move up and down the stage. What was he doing with that glass of water?
A hard shot, with a dagger; but the bow would have been too dangerous. Jethan threw.
Something struck the glass from across the street.
“Assassin!” Vinnie dove across the stage and pushed PAN to the ground.
“It came from over there!” Narsifiette pointed. “Guards, spread out and search those buildings.”
There was no second shot. Just several long moments of silence.
Then PAN pushed Vinnie out of the way, and strode back to the podium. “Citizens of Kathrakopolis, I ask you to consider this: Who might countenance such an assassination attempt? Does such a person deserve your vote?”
Narsifiette and the “security” team returned empty-handed, but that was to be expected; they were still recovering from big night.
At least Vinnie still had a few doses in reserve. Good thing he’d made that bet on D’ouvres; this stuff was expensive. He eyed the barrel the water-carrier was filling the glasses from.
“Thank you, Chapton. Lady Katraktes.” Thane the Elder lowered his hand. “We will now take questions from the crowd.”
A man with a flute raised his hand. “Chapton, you Strix spend all your time up the mountain, or in the air. How will you stay in touch with the … humans of the city?”
Chapton grinned. “Well, as you know. I spend a lot of time in the city. With my team, I’m often patrolling across town, or dropping in on one district or another. I feel I’m well in touch with all the citizens.”
It wasn’t just Wildflower’s “security” talking up the Strix platform now.
Finally, everything was in order. After what he’d heard, and Narsifiette being all too convinced by Draca Procrusta, Vinnie’s job was easy. When they refilled the glasses before questions, he dosed both of them.
Vinnie’s goons were barely a challenge. Jethan slipped down to street level and joined the crowd in the theatre. A glimpse or two would convince Vinnie they’d been there all along.
Besides, they had a question: “Draca Procrusta, aren’t your policies racist? The elven community relies on the printing press.”
“If the elves have tied their fortunes to an immoral industry, they have no-one but themselves to blame.” Draca sniffed her water, scowled, and set it down untasted. “They should have picked honest, human jobs like the rest of us.”
Next to Jethan, an elf journalist jabbed her pencil right through her notebook.
When the din died down, Draca turned to her opponent. “What makes you think I would stoop to assassins? Law and order are paramount to me; I would never disturb the sanctity of the elections. You, on the other hand —”
PAN took a slow sip of water. “Are you seriously suggesting I would order an assassination attempt on myself?”
Finally! The effects would take some time to show, but Vinnie could be patient now.
“There will now be a half-hour break before the second round of debates begin, as our debaters will change venues.” The organiser read a note from a runner. “Chapton the Strix will be debating an unknown candidate here, in the Joy District. PAN, you will be facing Captain Lyssa Thane in the Travel District.”
PAN snapped their fingers at her fan-bearers, and strode out of the theatre. The fan-bearers gathered her notes and banners and followed.
Vinnie fell into step alongside them. There could be “assassins” in the streets as well.
While the candidates reshuffled themselves, Jethan had some other leads to follow up on.
They called Charon, their giant raven, and flew a circuit around the Ring of Twelve, the temple circle. Things were suspiciously quiet. The walls of Helta, cut with names of soliders, didn’t have a single poppy under them.
Ienna’s temple was sealed and silent, but the lone priest outside explained they were preparing for the Feast of Masks in a few months. Bracaden’s temple never looked busy, but Jethan knew the signs of activity, and there was a lot less of them than their should be. Graffiti ran across the bas-reliefs and murals of Pheia, god of agriculture: “Why have you deserted us!” “We starve!”
Only the restored temple of Esdore was busy. The outer chamber thronged with elves in prayer, and there were new murals on the walls.
Jethan paused to look at them, and shuddered. A barren land; a gate; an idyllic, alien forest scene. Nothing that spoke of living in the real world. Perhaps that was why the elves had abandoned Ulalla, the Wild.
Chapton touched down in the Joy District amphitheatre, and folded his wings. He and the debate organiser were the only ones on the stage. The theatre buildings behind him were shut up and quiet.
“Who am I debating against?”
“A moment.” The debate organiser flipped a coin.
“You’re speaking first, I’m afraid. The other candidate has asked to be kept anonymous until they speak.”
“How can you call that fair?”
The organiser shrugged. “That’s the way it is. We can start as soon as the security team has set up.”
“Silence, please.” Thane the Elder stood to open the debate in the stadium. “PAN, you will speak first. Your topic is the Lightning Gang.”
“Thank you, High Magistrate. People of Kathrakoplis, I am confident that — Ag!” Pan’s mouth clamped shut, and the musician spun to face Lyssa, mouth twisted in a rictus of anger. They pulled a belt knife and raised it above their head.
“Get back!” Vinnie pulled Lyssa away from the blade.
“Guards, to me!” Narsifiette leaped between the two candidates. “Remember your drills.”
PAN screeched, raised their knife, and charged. The “security” team assembled around Narsifiette, and caught the knife with a clatter of shields.
“I’m no civilian. Let go of me!” Lyssa twisted out of Vinnie’s grasp, and made a grab for PAN.
Vinnie and Narsifiette piled on behind her, and held the musician down. “Someone get some rope!”
“Chapton, your topic is the gillman necromancer.”
“Thank you.” Chapton scanned the crowd. A lot of expectant gillman faces looked back. “I understand many of you live in fear of the gillman necromancer. While I am not certain such a person exists, if they do I will make sure to bring them to justice.
“As High Magistrate, I will establish a crack team to seek out this necromancer. Their search will not stop until you feel safe from necromancy.”
The crowd was silent, attentive. He was starting to get good at this.
Vinnie stood strait in his full Paladin regalia, armour shining with more than just reflections. “Do not fear, citizens. This mad, drunk person has now been safely restrained.”
Lyssa knelt beside the PAN, and checked for a pulse. “This doesn’t look good. I recommend…” the Captain’s voice slowed, and she looked up at the crowd and adjudicators.
“In the interest of fairness, I recommend we call a priest of Baket to assess this person’s fitness to continue.”
Behind her, the High Magistrate glanced at a messenger. “Go. Lyssa, it now your turn to speak.”
“Fine.” She stood up. “People of Kathrakopolis, I will not let the tragedy you have just seen go unanswered. Whatever demons may have possessed my fellow candidate, I shall be sure to find them and drive them out of the city.”
Her father, the High Magistrate, held up his hand. “Lyssa, your topic is the Lightning Gang. Please stay focussed.”
She spun around. “This is no time for politics! Do what you must, Father, but I will not leave this person to suffer.”
Vinnie tried to tune out the shouting. Narsifiette said something about keeping the crowd off the stage.
“In conclusion, my elite team will ensure the city is safe, so all the citizens of Kathrakopolis can live in comfort.” The crowd applauded as Chapton sat down.
“Thank you. I now call the second speaker.”
The theatre doors flew open, and an ogre in yellow robes strode out. “I am Cordwynn Zandt, and as a candidate I will ask the hard questions. Chapton, what do you mean when you say the city will be safe?”
“Well, I want them to be secure, and comfortable.”
“So you would give every citizen an armchair?”
Wildflower shook their head. The questions were challenging, but Zandt never managed a single word on her own policies. The “security” team circulated through the crowd, pointing that out.
“Well, it seems PAN has somewhat recovered. Any questions for our candidates?”
The elf reporter waved her notebook. “Is it true PAN was poisoned?
The musician whispered with the priest of Baket.
“We cannot say at this stage. There was no evidence of anything but water in my glass.”
Vinnie nodded to himself. Of course the drugged glass was still in the Joy District.
A familiar gillwoman raised her hand. “I have a question for Chapton. How will you defend the minorities of our city?”
“I will defend all the temples equally, including the water deities: Ienna, Bracaden, and Baket. As I travel through the city, I will listen to all.”
The next question was from Meth, the ogre. “What will you do for industry in this city?”
“While I am not a smith, I shall support the industry as best I can.”
“I have a question.” Cordwynn Zandt spoke quietly, for an ogre. “How will you support industry, specifically? Empty words mean little.”
“Well, I did investigate the stolen grain. As I did there, I shall be sure to promote jobs and growth.”
Cordwynn laughed. But it was Chapton the crowd applauded.
The final round of debates was in the political centre of the city: the square outside the Temple of Kalagon.
Wildflower joined the crowd as they flowed out of the amphitheatre, swapping rumors back and forth. Chapton was going to make a donation, a large one, to industry in the city. Wildflower took care to leave what industry unspecified.
Other rumours reached their ears. People were already whispering of Vinnie’s exploits. Wildflower smiled. Paladin had done a good job keeping the city secure. A few other people mentioned the Lightning Gang — apparently there’d been more lightning strikes this month.
Jethan skirted the debate preparations, and approached the door to the Temple of Kalagon.
“What is your business in the temple? The Twelve High Priests are sitting in an urgent conference, about the damage to the pillars and the temple.”
“That’s exactly my business.” Jethan smiled. “I was at the temple of Esdore when it was damaged, I’ve seen the ruins of Aei and Oe, and I’ve investigated the pillars. They need to speak to me.”
The guard moved aside.
Inside, Jethan told the assembled priests as much as they knew. The creature in the temple of Esdore, and the ghostly priests. The things Gat had mentioned: coming endings, Ienna’s impending sacrifice. Everything they had realised in the last few months.
Gratul Breck, nodded slowly. “This is serious news. If you speak of endings, the Seven Rings of the city may be involved. You know the Ring of Shadows, the Ring of Twelve, and the Ring of All, I am sure; but there are also rings of time: The First Ring, the Ring of Rule, and the Last Ring.
“The First Ring is believed to lie under the city, and the Ring of Rule is likely present somewhere. But no-one has seen the Last Ring; we believe it will not show itself until the end of Kathrakopolis is near.” Breck shook his head. “And the Seventh Ring has always been a mystery.
“Perhaps this visitor from another city you speak of, this Narsifiette, may know more.”
Jethan nodded. “And the pillar in the Forge District? When I saw it, it was scorched by lightning.”
Breck grimaced. “That must be dealt with. To deface, the pillars is an insult to Kalagon. We let that ogre’s copper framework stand, but if it is allowing damage to the pillar …” He sighed, and shook his head. “He must stop.”
“What about the curses? The monster at Aei and Oe’s temple had a weapon that seemed evil. And somehow halved, as though the brother of the twins was missing.”
“I am afraid I can help you little with that. It is worrying to have the Twins separated, especially with the temple incomplete, but I do not see what can be done.”
A whisper ran around the other priests. “Still a child, you know. Tieflings grow slowly.”
“Those eyes, yellow and purple. A sure symbol of the Twins.”
The high priestess of Ienna stood up. “Jethan, Aei and Oe are in need of a new high priest.” She held out her hand. “Will you accept the position?”
Jethan glanced at the masked priest of Bracaden. The mask gave the faintest of nods.
For the final, panel debate, the candidates would have wine to sip. The barrel sat unattended behind the temple stairs.
Vinnie still had two vials of madness left.
As the candidates took their seats, Wildflower rejoined Vinnie and Narsifiette. Their combined security teams spread out around the stage.
Narsifiette glanced at the cups of wine at each place. “I know they didn’t find anything last time, but I’m still worried about poison. Someone should taste the wine, to be sure.”
“Seems reasonable.” Vinnie fetched three cups, and they each took a mouthful of wine.
Wildflower’s tasted … strange.
The last debate was a rapid-fire barrage of questions.
“What is your priority for the city?
Lady Katraktes said food, of course. PAN was going to “destroy the pillarsh. No, wait, protect! I meant protect.”
Chapton vowed to track down the Lightning Gang with his elite team.
“I will ask the hard questions.” Cordwynn thumped her fist, once.
“I’ll secure the pillars.” Lyssa Thane’s swallowed. “Disease is returning to this city. Something must be wrong.”
Draca Procrusta promised to “ensure order. I will institute a curfew.”
On the sidelines, Wildflower grimaced at that. “And keep all the Strix to stay inside all night, when they do their work?”
Dressed as Kasita, Jethan slipped out of the temple and into the crowd. They watched the debate in silence.
“One last question.”
A traveller in red raised his hand. “To all our candidates: where do you see the city in five years?”
“Thank you.” Chapton stood up. “In five years, I see the city safe, and secure. Free of bandits, and with its temples solid, standing, and strong.”
“What!” Lyssa leaped to her feet. “I go away for a year, and what do I find? Upstaged by a musician. All of you! You steal my policies, you take my place, and now you want to take over my city. I was born to defend Kathrakopolis, and I will break the head of anyone who says otherwise.”
She raised her chair over her head, and smashed it on the temple paving. “Face me on the field, all of you!”
Kasita drew their bow, fired, and was away in a moment. One arrow was enough. Then Wildflower was beside Lyssa, holding her down in an iron grip. The rest of the security team surrounded her.
Gratul Breck stepped out of the temple portico. “This debate is now adjourned. We have heard the votes, and the best candidates, Draca Procrusta and Chapton, will go on to the election.
Once Lyssa was subdued, Narsifiette pulled Vinnie away. “You’re sly, but you can’t fool me that easily. What have you been doing to the candidates?”
Lyssa was unconscious, but it was still safest to have someone watch her. As Wildflower sat, mulling over the stories they’d heard about her squashed ambitions, a new power rose into their mind. A way to get to the truth.