It was a beautiful morning, the sewing woman called Ailysa thought. More than a bit cool, as May often was, here in the City of Zion, with a brisk breeze blowing in off Lake Pei, but filled with sunlight. The vast, beautiful Plaza of Martyrs was drenched in that rich, golden radiance, and the sounds of the early-morning city were hushed, stilled. Even the birds and wyverns seemed subdued, muted, she thought.


            But that was almost certainly just her imagination. God's winged creatures had no concept of what was about to happen here on this beautiful spring morning. If they had, they would have fled as quickly as they could fly.


            Unlike them, Ailysa knew exactly what was going to happen, and her stomach muscles were tight with tension and incipient nausea. Ahnzhelyk had been right about how horrible this day was going to be, but Ailysa had meant what she'd said. She had to be here, however dreadful it might prove to be.


            The crowd was vast, filling a good half of the enormous plaza before the Temple's soaring colonnade. She'd tried to decide what that crowd's mood was. She'd failed.


            Some of them — many of them — were as silent as she herself was, standing there in their jackets or shawls, waiting. Others chattered to one another as if this were to be some sort of sporting event, yet the very brightness of their chatter, their smiles, said otherwise. And then there were the others, the ones who waited in a silent anticipation fueled by rage and fired by a savage demand for the Church's justice.


            Justice, she thought. This wouldn't be justice even if he'd actually done the things he was accused of!


            A sudden stir warned her, and she looked up, biting her lower lip, as the procession of guardsmen, Inquisitors, and, of course, the victim appeared on the Temple's steps and began the descent to the platform which had been erected so that the spectators could be sure they wouldn't miss a single grisly detail.


            Voices began to cry out from the crowd, from the ones who'd waited in anticipation for so long. Jeers, catcalls, curses. All the pent-up hatred, all the bitter-tasting fear which Charis' rebellion against Mother Church had awakened, was in those half-inarticulate screams of fury.


            The ex-archbishop appeared not to notice. He was too far away for Ailysa to see his face clearly, but his shoulders were square, his spine straight, as he limped along on his cane in the plain, scratchy burlap robe of a condemned heretic. He carried himself well, she thought, her heart swelling with a pride she was surprised to feel even now, and the bright sunlight wavered through the sudden welling of her tears.


            He and his guards and executioners reached the platform where all of the hideous tools had been assembled to carry out the penalties assigned for heresy and blasphemy by the Archangel Schueler. His stride seemed to hesitate for just a moment as he stepped up onto it, and if it had, who should blame him? Even from here, Ailysa could see the heat-shimmer above the braziers whose glowing coals embraced the waiting irons and pincers, and those were but one of the horrors awaiting him.


            If he did hesitate, it was only for a moment. Then he moved forward once again, taking his place before the waiting, shrieking multitude who had come to see him die.


            Another figure appeared. As the executioners, he wore the dark purple of the Order of Schueler, but he also wore the orange priest's cap of a vicar, and Ailysa's mouth tightened as she recognized Vicar Zhaspahr Clyntahn.


            Of course, she thought. This is the first time in the entire history of Mother Church that one of her own archbishops has been put to death for heresy and blasphemy. How could the Grand Inquisitor not appear? And how could a man like Clyntahn possibly stay away from the judicial murder of the sacrifice for his own crimes?


            The Grand Inquisitor unrolled an archaic, formal scroll, and began to read from it. Ailysa tuned him out. She had no need to listen to a recitation of the alleged crimes for which Dynnys was to be executed. Not when she knew that the one crime of which he was truly guilty was being the Group of Four's perfect scapegoat.


            It took quite a while for Clyntahn to finish the lengthy litany of condemnation, but he came to the end at last, and turned to Dynnys.


            "You have heard the judgment and sentence of Holy Mother Church, Erayk Dynnys," the vicar intoned, his voice carrying well, despite the breeze. "Have you anything to say before that sentence is carried out?"


* * * * * * * * * *


            Dynnys looked out across the vast plaza, and a corner of his mind wandered how many times he'd walked across those same stones, passed those same statues, those same magnificent sculptures and fountains? How many times had he passed under the Temple's colonnade, taking its majesty and beauty for granted because he had so many "more important" things to think about?


            His thoughts had floated back through those other days, other visits to this place, as Clyntahn read off the list of offenses for which he was to die. Like Ailysa, if he'd only known, he had no need to actually listen to them. He knew what they were, and as the Inquisition had demanded, he had duly confessed to all of them. There'd been no point refusing to. Eventually, he knew, they would have brought him to confession. That was something at which the Inquisition was well skilled, and even if he'd somehow managed not to confess, it wouldn't have changed his fate.


            Still, there could be one mercy yet. He remembered the upper-priest's cold promise, the message from Clyntahn himself which the Grand Inquisitor was unwilling to deliver in person. Confession, and the proper public admission of his guilt, would buy him a strangling garrote and a quick death before the full catalog of punishments the Archangel Schueler had decreed were visited upon his no longer living body.


            Dynnys had understood Clyntahn's minion perfectly.


            Public contrition, the admission of guilt and entreaty for forgiveness, were an important part of the Inquisition's punishment of sin. God's mercy was infinite. Even on the lip of hell itself, a soul touched by true remorse, true contrition, might yet find forgiveness and sanctuary in Him. And so tradition decreed that anyone condemned before the Inquisition was entitled to make public repentance and to recant his sins  before execution of his sentence.


            It was a tradition which was sometimes ignored. Dynnys had always known that, even before his own fall from grace. To his shame, he'd never been so much as tempted to speak out against that practice. It hadn't been his business, and the Inquisition was jealous of its responsibilities and prerogatives. If it chose to silence some criminal lest he use his final moments to spew forth protests of innocence, accusations of torture, fresh declarations of heresy or fresh blasphemies, then surely that was the Inquisition's business.


            But it was also a tradition the Inquisition had learned to use well for its own advantage. A prisoner who acknowledged his guilt, besought forgiveness, proclaimed his penitence, and thanked Mother Church — and the Order of Schueler — for saving his immortal soul, even if it had to come at the expense of his mortal body, proved the justice of the Inquisition. It was the demonstration that no one had acted in haste, that true justice and the holy purpose of God had been duly and properly served.


            And so, Dynnys had given the Inquisitor his word. Had promised to say what was "proper. "


            To give Clyntahn what he'd known the Group of Four wanted from him, obedient to their final script.

About Eric Flint

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