“What have you been doing to the candidates?”
Vinnie scanned the crowd milling around in the square.
“Vinnie, look at me!” Narsifiette grabbed his shoulders and spun him around. “We need to talk. Now.”
It had taken Jethan far too long to get changed out of the Kasita costume, but they were finally back at the square. And that was just the person they needed.
Jethan rushed onto the stage. “Narsifiette, you need to talk to the priests. What do you remember about the city you came from?”
“Vinnie and I —”
“It can wait. Come on.”
Vinnie fell into step behind the two of them.
Lyssa Thane was still unconscious. Wildflower carried her out of the sun, and made sure she was lying on her side; but that was as far as their first aid went.
An aide clattered into the room, followed by about twelve priests. They all glared at Wildflower. “What are you doing in the temple of Kalagon? This is an urgent meeting!”
“Captain Thane fell ill in the debate.”
The high priest of Baket knelt down and checked Thane’s pulse. “She does need to rest. But her family’s house is only a few stadia away. She’ll probably be better off there.”
Wildflower was gone in a flash, literally.
Moments later, Lyssa was safe in a bed, and they were back to listen to Narsifiette’s story. Teleportation came in handy sometimes.
Chapton paced up and down the stage, planning his speech. Before the votes were cast, he would have one final debate against Draca Procrusta.
He knew what his policies were, now. That would be easy. But today was also the day of Ostracism: one citizen would be banished forever. As a magisterial candidate, Chapton would have to nominate someone.
The priests settled into a circle in the outer sanctum of Kalagon; this time, Jethan took a place among them.
Vinnie and Wildflower stood to the side while Narsifiette spoke: “I don’t remember much about the fall of Kathrakopolis — my Kathrakopolis, before we left for the green place. The sky was falling, I remember that.
“There was fire and dust everywhere.
“My mother told me to run, and we found a door — a gate, maybe. She pulled me through, and then we were in that … that green and pleasant land.”
Jethan watched the High Priest of Esdore closely. Had she just moved? A tic?
The priest of Kalagon, Gratul Breck, leaned forward. “Narsifiette, if you could please try to remember. We need to know about the rings, the missing ones? The Ring of All?”
Vinnie nodded. “I’ve heard of the rings. All, Twelve, Shadows, Rule — that’s how it goes, isn’t it?”
Esdore’s priestess definitely winced at that.
“Are you Chapton the Strix?”
Chapton looked up. The crowd filling the square had vanished. Only one woman, dressed incongruously in red robes and a golden crown, was still here. She repeated the question.
The woman climbed the steps to the stage. “Are you the one who would be the ruler of Kathrakopolis?”
She knelt down in front of Chapton, and lifted the crown off her head. “O Chapton, rightful ruler of Kathrakopolis, I present you your crown. But with the crown, comes a duty. Do you swear to lead your people to the Eighth Rank, when the end comes?”
“I’d like some more information first, if you don’t mind. What is this Eighth Rank?”
The woman sighed, and lowered the crown. “I can only tell you you will know it when the time comes. But it is the destiny of your people. Your duty. Chapton, do you accept the crown?”
“Well, what if the Eighth Rank turns out to be something bad? Can I back out of it if the time comes?
“Preposterous!” She sprang to her feet. “Coronation is a solemn vow; you can’t just change your mind if you have regrets. Good day to you!”
She strode away from the stage too quickly to call it graceful.
“What about the Ending Ring? Or was that the Last Ring as well?”
“The names were not in Koine, you know; all the Rings were translated from Runic. Topiary 17:5, or perhaps Luchador 21:5; I forget” Breck shook his head. “But yes, the Last, or Ending Ring. Do you remember anything”
Narsifiette sighed. “I’m not sure. It was all a blur. I think a rock fell on my head at one point, or a bit of sky — like I said, the sky was falling.”
Her eyes widened. “Actually, I do remember. Something hit my head, and the next thing I knew I was lying on the ground, facing up. The buildings of the city had collapsed, and between the Towers I could see something on the horizon.
“A ring of white fire.”
The red-robed woman was nearly two stadia ahead.
“Wait! Come back!”
The woman paused.
Chapton landed in a rush of wings ahead of her. “I’ve decided. I will accept the crown, and I will go to the Eighth Rank when the time comes.”
The woman smiled. “Very well.” With a solemn gesture, she raised the crown and rested it on Chapton’s head. Once again she fell to her knees. “Hail Chapton, Tyrant of Kathrakopolis?”
“It’s just an old word for ‘king’.” The woman patted him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.”
Then she stepped past him, and was gone.
Gratul Breck frowned. “This is grave news. If the Last Ring is the falling sky, what can we do to save the city?”
Vinnie looked up from the wall he was leaning on. “Not like it worked last time. Some sort of firebreak’d be better. A trench?”
“Not through the ocean.”
The room fell silent.
Silvanus rubbed against Jethan’s leg. He was never far away, now; but he had a way of moving and acting like a cat. Most people couldn’t even notice the antlers and wings.
He moved to Narsifiette’s lap. She patted him as she talked. “The sky fell. I — I can’t really describe it any better than that. But if you want to know how to stop it, I really can’t tell you. I’m a warrior — we all were — and I was ready to fight anything. But there wasn’t … for all I know, there isn’t one at all. Maybe this isn’t something we can fight. But what else …”
She hid her face in her hands.
The temple door swung open. “Hello, everyone!”
Gratul Breck looked up. “Chapton. What is that you have on your head?”
It looked rather fake to Jethan, but it was definitely crown-like.
Breck glared. Chapton smiled. “A little old lady gave it to me.”
“… and you are making a mockery of the democratic process!” Gratul Breck was standing very close to Chapton. “Before you can be elected, you must purify yourself. Bring the Castor Oil!”
One of the junior priests handed Chapton a spoon of thick liquid.
“What? So I just have to drink this?”
“That is the holy penance. You must purify yourself before Kalagon.”
Chapton took the spoon, and swallowed. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Vinnie fidget; but the oil tasted as mild as milk.
“Very well. Chapton, you are now purified and ready to stand before the people of Kathrakopolis.”
Maybe it was just butterflies in his stomach, but Chapton didn’t feel too well. Funny; usually he didn’t have a problem with milk.
A little old lady gave him a crown?
Jethan glanced at the priestess of Esdore, and raised an eyebrow.
The priestess shrugged, and spread her hands.
“Citizens of Kathrakopolis, I introduce to you your two candidates: Chapton the Strix, and Lady —” Thane the Elder leaned over to his butler and whispered a few words “— Chapton the Strix, and Draca Procrusta!”
As my last act as High Magistrate, I must remind you of the voting procedure.” He held up two pebbles. “If you wish to vote for Lady Procrusta, place a white stone in this urn. For Chapton, you may place a black stone.
“Please, do not write your candidate’s name on a potsherd.” The magistrate raised a large fragment of terracotta. “These are for the ostracism. Whoever has their name on the most potsherds will be expelled from the city.”
The magistrate bowed, then slipped something off his finger and handed it to his butler. “I, Thane the Elder, now step down as High Magistrate. This election is open.”
Silvanus was enjoying playing a cat, tracking rats through the crowd.
Wait. What was that rat carrying?
Jethan signalled Silvanus to watch more closely.
For this final election, the square was packed. Security for the final vote would be crucial, so Wildflower scanned the crowd carefully.
A flash of red robes, there; here, a knot of Vinnie’s “companions” working their way through the crowd.
Draca Procrusta was saying something, but Wildflower only listened with half an ear. Her usual buzzwords: security, responsibility, the establishment. “… and as you can see, I am the best choice for the position
“As to the worst choice? Who you should ostracise? That elf, Lacy Along or whoever she is, who’s been spreading trash and gossip. If anyone is a threat to the city, it is her!”
Wildflower had heard enough.
Silvanus pounced on a rat. The rest scattered into the crowd, dropping a clatter of potsherds.
A decoy? How many more were there?
Jethan scanned the edges of the square for somewhere to change.
“As High Magistrate, I will protect the temples. I will keep the citizens of Kathrakopolis safe and happy; safe from the Lightning Gang, the necromancer (if they exist), and any other threats that may arise.” This was the easiest speech of the day. “And unlike D—”
Chapton winced. That milk was really disagreeing with him. “Unlike —”
What was her name again? Why had he suddenly forgotten?
“Unlike my opponent, I will bring people together, rather than drive them apart.” He bowed with a flourish.”People of Kathrakopolis, I commend myself to your judgement.”
The crowd looked back expectantly. Thane the Elder tapped a piece of terracotta.
“You ask who you should ostracise? Kid Rat, who attacked the city not two months ago. Kid Rat has kidnapped us, and tried to murder us. No-one else could —”
Someone in the crowd squealed.
The rats surged in from the crowd, towards the centre of the square. Towards the urn of ostracism votes.
Silvanus pounced again, but this time the rodents closed ranks, scratching and pushing the Wolpertinga back.
Kasita elbowed citizens out of the way. “Those rats are the enemy of democracy!”
They saw Narsifiette charge. Vinnie and Chapton leapt from the stage, but too slowly. Time seemed frozen.
The rats were moving oddly. They formed a shape that echoed, shimmering, in the air above them.
Then Silvanus swatted one, and the spell was broken. Vinnie’s glowing sword and Kasita’s arrows fell in their midst, and suddenly there were only ordinary rats, lying dead on the cobblestones.
The other high priests picked their way through the mess, and began to count the black and white stones.
It was over. Scared, or bored, a few people were already leaving the square. But Wildflower stayed to listen as the ostracism votes were counted.
The priests were reading out the names on the ostra, the potsherds, as they counted them. “PAN.” “Kid Rat.” “Cordwynn Zandt.” “Kid Rat”.
“Kid Rat is dead.”
A young guard from the temple saluted Wildflower and Gratul Breck. “Kid Rat is dead,” she repeated. “Alcie saw him turn into rats this morning, and somehow one got out of the cell. It took a key, and let the rest of him out.” She pointed to a brass key in the middle of the pile of dead rats.
The High Priest of Kalagon shook his head. “This is quite irregular. We may have to count again. Who was the second most common?”
The priest of Baket set the last ostra onto a pile. “Cordwynn Zandt.”
Cordwynn, the ogre, didn’t have much to say.
“Good day to you all, and goodbye. It seems the time has come for me to explore the world.” She stepped off the stage, and the crowd parted in front of her.
At the edge of the square, she looked back. “If you can, make an offering to Kalagon for me.”
Then she was gone.
“Chapton the Strix, I proclaim you High Magistrate of Kathrakopolis.” Gratul Breck stepped closer, and spoke more softly. “Chapton, here is the crown you had.” He sighed. “Please do not wear it too quickly.”
As the high priest stepped away, Thane the Elder’s butler shook Chapton’s hand. “Congratulations, Magistrate.” His handshake was very firm. “My master wanted you to have this.”
When he slipped away, a heavy brass ring rested in Chapton’s hand.