Temple of the Fallen — Amazon ebook. (Still working through some print issues — that link is forthcoming.)
Here’s the first chapter:
The stack of reports threatened to crush Gregorius at the slightest provocation. They poured in all through the day, from every region the Beloved controlled and many they did not, telling him everything he needed to know and a great deal of things he did not. The details some of the report writers went to were fantastic, intricate, and above all, absolutely boring. No matter how fast he read, no matter how much time out of his day he devoted to reading, the stack continued to grow like a sentient tumor.
He needed to find some way of filtering out the bad information from the good. Yet he was the only person in the organization with the ability to know what they needed and couldn’t pass the load off on some subordinate. Gregorius needed to check the information and decide what Njaladin saw and what he did not. He needed to mask certain truths and certain rumors, and keep the others in dark about quite a few details. The Beloved leadership had expanded faster than he wanted it to. Secrets were necessary from those he didn’t trust, those that came to his table against his will and power.
The inner circle was growing almost as fast as the stack of papers he was expected to sift through. His grasp on the reigns was slipping. He knew that if he expected to accomplish his goals some people at the top had to go. His first choice would be Njaladin as a given; not only was the man dangerously interested in his own goals, but he was the most powerful sorcerer alive and perhaps the greatest threat to Gregorius. After that, the original leader of the Beloved, Jones. But Gregorius couldn’t simply wave an arm and have either of those men executed. He needed something unfortunate to happen.
Perhaps something within the papers before him.
As he pulled another handful from the top of the stack, another servant ran in with more papers. Without saying a word to Gregorius the young, bony man placed a pile of reports as high as Gregorius’s shin was long on the only clear area of his desk. He wondered if the desk, almost large enough for him to sleep on, would ever become so burdened that the mahogany cracked under the weight. He quickly decided it couldn’t happen; the stacks would reach the ceiling long before that and branch out to the rest of the office, then the rest of the corner tower.
The trumpets that announced the imminent speech of one of the Beloved leaders echoed in through his half-open window. Gregorius sighed and wondered which he would prefer — to have to give a speech with Sullivan, or sift through this garbage. Sullivan gave speeches nearly every day, hoping that the constant use of his voice would help his damaged vocal cords. After the way Aiden Nash slit Sullivan’s throat, it was a wonder the man survived. He had Njaladin to thank for that. Gregorius felt he had Njaladin to blame. Sullivan wasn’t committed to anything save his own survival, and that made him dangerous and untrustworthy. He would just as soon stab Aiden through the heart as he would Gregorius or even his master, Njaladin.
Aiden Nash presented an interesting problem for the Beloved. On the one hand, he and his off-worlder friends were dangerous men. More dangerous than Gregorius believed at first, and the fact one of them got to and nearly killed a man as smart and powerful as Sullivan proved it. But on the other hand, they made for great propaganda. The rumors about Zern Comyn succumbing to the lust inherit in her lineage helped gain the support of many of the lower class. They wanted to be suspicious of the nobility, to believe that they were somehow more base than the common man, more deceptive. Believing that, and that Zern and the others stood opposed to their freedom and happiness caused them flock to the Beloved.
The Beloved needed the enemy that the off-worlders represented. Without them, the best choice would be Syidia, and Syidia had an army and navy that could wipe the Beloved off the map and out of the history books with a blink of their High Priestess’s amber-brown eyes. The off-worlders weren’t such a threat at present, but Gregorius knew that could change. He tossed another report of a sighting in the rapidly filling trash bin. The real problem the off-worlders presented Gregorius with now was that he couldn’t find them. All evidence pointed to them leaving the world again, which sent a chill through Gregorius. Every time they reappeared they were stronger than before.
Sighing and pinching the bridge of his nose between his right forefinger and thumb, Gregorius opened the top drawer of his desk. The wood squealed angrily as it slid open. He reached in and removed a leather satchel that contained a half dozen letters he’d prepared the day before. Each contained orders and instructions for one loyal servant or another. Their plans worked too well, and now he had to come up with something new to handle the throngs of devoted followers. They just didn’t have the room at Nalis Taren for anyone else. The massive city and surrounding country were filled to the brim with Beloved.
The infrastructure couldn’t handle another wave of them, another wave of mouths needing food and water, people needing jobs and shelter. But everyone wanted to be close to him, Sullivan, and William Bruce, or to see Colin of Kent, the man the Beloved claimed belonged on the throne of Beldavia. While it would make planning a bit harder, Gregorius wanted to move half of the leadership to another part of the region. Njaladin, under the guise of Kadeem, had to stay in Nalis Taren, as did Colin and Sullivan. Where those two went, so did William Bruce and his daughter, Erin. Gregorius also had to stay and deal with the reports and keep abreast of the goings on in the city. But Colin’s cousin Lawrence, the ever pompous Maxwell and his friend Jones, and the oaf Donovan could be moved.
Gregorius glanced at the faded map on the wall to his left. As their support changed, so did the shaded area of the map. Larger cities were marked with red dots, smaller cities with plain black dots. He needed somewhere important to send the other four members of the Beloved, but still close. The shaded area of the map stopped inches from the capital city of Nalin. If the Beloved gained those few hundred miles and the city itself… Gregorius began signing the letters and sealing them with wax and his ring.
After he finished, Gregorius returned them to the leather satchel and stood. He grabbed the slightly pointed hat he was expected to wear, adjusted it carefully, and glanced at the map again. Ever since the old Arch-Prelate of the Church of Nalin chose him as his successor a year ago, Gregorius found his taste for the church diminished. Of course, since his defection to the Beloved — his plan the entire time as he convinced Cecil Bohan, the head spy of King Henry Athelstan, of his own worthiness and virtue — the Church officially replaced him. It bothered Gregorius deep in his soul that Ronaldus, the Arch-Prelate who backed him, died thinking of him as a traitorous wretch and involved in the death of Finley Mitchell.
Not only was the death of the former Champion of the Five and a war hero not his doing, but Gregorius knew it wasn’t on the orders of the Beloved, either. He had his suspicions about who was behind it but no evidence to back them up, and nobody was talking. He knew Cecil Bohan searched as hard for the truth as Gregorius himself did. There were times when he felt the murderer must have been a ghost in the night and that they would never find them. A phantom, a thief in the night, the kind of monster children feared would get them from under their bed or the dark corner in the room.
He sighed again and straightened his slumped shoulders, grabbed the satchel full of letters, and stepped out of his private office. His scrawny servant boy waited outside. Gregorius handed off the letters and locked the door behind him, ignoring the grovelling bows of the servant until the young man disappeared down the hall. People treated him like one of the gods come to flesh sometimes and it annoyed Gregorius to no end. One of the central tenants of the religion they claimed to follow was not to take any man as being more important than another. Yet kings, nobles, and priests were all treated as though they were more than mere mortals.
People would soon find out that kings died just as well as anyone else.
Gregorius grimaced inwardly when he saw William Bruce approaching. If there was ever a man who thought more of himself than William, Gregorius didn’t want to meet him. Sullivan encouraged it, inflating the man’s ego in order to get him to follow the Beloved with more veracity than any others in the leadership, except perhaps Maxwell and Jones, and the fact William’s daughter was to marry Colin didn’t help matters at all. In addition to formerly being in the Five, William spent years in a foreign prison for serving his kingdom, and that caused him to think of himself as having given more to Beldavia than the rest of the Beloved. This gave the man an arrogance bordering on irrationality.
It wasn’t that Gregorius didn’t appreciate the sacrifices made by William or any other soldier. He just didn’t need to hear about it every single time the man spoke. Every speech for the commoners, he repeated the same lines about what the prison was like, about not seeing his daughter grow up. Whenever anyone rebuked him for any reason, his experience in the prisons of Loran was his retort. It didn’t matter if they were discussing grain prices or unnatural sexual acts. Somehow his experiences made him an expert on everything and anyone that questioned him on anything was somehow doubting his service.
“William!” Gregorius forced a smile.
“Arch-Prelate,” William said, bowing his head slightly.
He kept walking past Gregorius, causing the man to suppress a sigh of relief. Gregorius started to walk in the other direction, his light grey robes dancing along as he hustled around the nearest corner and down the first flight of stairs he came across. This led him into an abandoned armory, filled with ancient, rusted weapons and cobwebs. Gregorius took a deep breath and glanced back up the twisting stairwell. No one followed, and no footsteps approached. He sighed and leaned against the wall.
Gregorius sniffed at the air. Mixed with the familiar, thick smell of mold was something else. A smell like sweat, and an altogether different smell but definitely from a human body. Then he heard it: the wet, unattractive sounds of two people having sex. He stood straight up and straightened his robes, quietly creeping through the room to find the fornicators. If they had to resort to having their tryst here then he knew they weren’t on the level, or they were on the level but had a rather interesting desire to merge body and spirit surrounded by weapons and dust.
When he found them, two bodies intertwined on a fresh blanked between a row of axes and spears, Gregorius took a step back into the shadows. Erin Bruce sat astride Donovan, the red-haired man who turned to the Beloved on the day that Ciel Aria attacked Nalin. She was moving rhythmically up and down on Donovan, moaning quietly, her eyes clenched shut. Her hair cascaded over her shoulders and half covered her small breasts as they bounced, her small pink nipples peeking out from behind the golden locks. She had her left arm resting on Donovan’s chest almost on top of the deep red scar near his heart, and her right between her own legs, her fingers moving through the blond curls covering her sex.
Afraid to breathe and give away his presence, or move and risk knocking over some of the fragile old equipment around him, Gregorius stood as still as he possibly could. Despite his office, he found himself transfixed by Erin’s body, and couldn’t look away as she and Donovan made love. Minutes passed, and each let out a series of moans and grunts that signaled the end of their current sin. Erin rolled off of Donovan and lay beside him, nestling her head on his shoulder.
“Colin will know I’m not a virgin.”
Donovan made a rude noise. “We’re not marrying you off to Colin for Colin, and we both know it. It’s about placating William because they need his support.”
“I know.” Erin ran her fingers around the scar on Donovan’s chest. “I’m so afraid he’s going to find out. William, I mean.”
“About us, or about you?” Donovan asked.
“Either,” Erin answered. “Both.”
Gregorius narrowed his eyes, wondering what about herself Erin sought to conceal. He made a mental note to find out and exploit it. She served little purpose for him other than to keep William in line, and he didn’t like the power she had over Colin — and he now understood why Donovan agreed with Colin so often. It wasn’t Colin he agreed with, but rather her future majesty. As Sullivan attempted to turn the leadership into a democratic council Gregorius saw an advantage in controlling the bitch that controlled two, possibly three, of the ten of them.
Four, he corrected. Lawrence followed Colin almost automatically. Six, if Maxwell and Jones followed Lawrence. Yes, he needed to know what her secrets were.
Erin sat up, her back to Gregorius, then leaned forward and crawled, on her knees, away from him. Like her chest, her behind was somewhat lacking, but the positioning showed more of her privates than the tryst had. Erin gathered up her clothes in one arm and dressed, keeping her back to them both. Donovan followed. The two of them kissed, and then left together. Gregorius waited, listening as their footsteps tapered off in the distance.
By being annoying, William Bruce had inadvertently helped Gregorius in a way he might never understand.
When he emerged from the tower and into the main courtyard, a serving girl just as scrawny as the serving boy, ran up to him. “Mister Gregorius!”
“Arch-Prelate,” he corrected.
“Arch-Prelate,” she said. “A woman is here for you.”
Well that’s an interesting gift, Gregorius thought. “Who?”
“The Queen of Kheldar.”
He sucked air in through his teeth. Queen Isabelle currently occupied herself by working as a sort of messenger from the Special Council of Velios, a meeting of all the kings of the six kingdoms and the high pontiff of the Veliosian church. In addition to being married to a king, her half brother was also a King. Unlike Erin, however, her control of these two men was limited. Her younger half brother was too young and hotheaded to listen to her, and her slightly older husband didn’t listen to anyone, not even the head of the Veliosian Church. Gregorius checked his robes to be sure they were immaculate.
“Where is she?” Gregorius hissed.
“Here,” a heavily accented voice answered. Gregorius spun, his heels digging into the soft earth slightly.
The dark haired, dark-eyed woman smirked down at him from the side of her carriage. Gregorius was taken aback as she stepped down onto the grass. Her black hair was marred only slightly by grey, making Sullivan again a liar, and her caramel brown eyes appeared far more intelligent than Gregorius expected in a noble woman. Her olive skin wasn’t as dark as Sullivan claimed, either, leading Gregorius to believe the man wanted to exaggerate her resemblance to a Syidian. Her dress was simple, yet somehow still regal, a medium magenta color accented by gold, including a gold rope belt at her waist that supported an ornate dagger. Ornate, but no doubt deadly in her hands.
She wore two rings on both ring fingers: her engagement and wedding rings on her left, and a ring adorned with rubies and emeralds, and another with sapphires and opals, on the other. A small, silver — or perhaps white gold — circlet adorned her head. As she walked, her generous hips swayed with confidence and femininity. Gregorius bowed floridly when she approached him.
Gregorius looked down at the shorter woman. “I must say, this is certainly a surprise… Shall I fetch his majesty?”
She clicked her tongue. “Colin of Kent has not yet been recognized as a king by the council. As you know, until this dispute is settled, neither he nor Henry Athelstan have a voice on the Special Council. And as such, I do not consider either to have attained the rank of ‘majesty.'”
Gregorius made a fist with his right hand, hiding it behind his back. “If that is their majesties’ decision.”
“I bring other news you will find unfortunate. The council is deadlocked. Three nations support Athelstan. The other two support you, and so does the Church, as long as you agree to reunite with the true religion.”
“We will,” Gregorius assured her. “Why do your kings continue to oppose us?”
Isabelle shrugged. “Kings do not like to see kings challenged, unless by other kings.”
“Colin of Kent has just as much right…”
“Some feel that the Comyn family has a right to the throne. Or perhaps the Valois family. Some even suggest the Bohans. You know as well as I that since the death of King John that your throne has been in a state of flux.” Isabelle grinned at him. “I seem to recall that you fought a war over it.”
“Not I,” Gregorius said. “Very well. Any messenger could have told me what you have. Why have you troubled yourself with such extensive travels?”
Isabelle fixed him with a cold glare. “I have been sent to speak to Sullivan Sinclair and William Bruce. As they currently oppose their old friends Magnus Comyn and Duncan More, the Special Council wants to hear from them. Without the bias of long distance reports. Despite the position of my ‘kings’ the Special Council respects me in my own right.”
“No one but a royal can do the job of a royal,” Gregorius said.
“No one but a royal,” Isabelle agreed. “I will speak to them when they are available. In the meantime, would you be so kind as to show me to my quarters while I stay?”
“Very well. Had you sent a messenger ahead of time…”
She just glared at him again. Gregorius averted his eyes and glanced around at the keep of Nalis Taren, trying to decide where to stick her to avoid having to deal with her. He didn’t mind her as much as he pretended, but his experience with royalty taught him that dealing with them was much the same as dealing with an angry snake. They’re not necessarily out to harm you, but if you make the wrong move it can be deadly. The wrong phrase or glance could insult her and then her brother and husband wouldn’t just vote against supporting the Beloved.
They’d actively oppose them, possibly militarily.
As he thought about where he could place her that would be appropriate, he noticed that a group of her guards were also looking around, noticing everything and anyone getting within a hundred yards of her majesty or her belongings. Gregorius smiled. “I have just the place for you. It’s a wing of the keep very suited for royalty. In fact, the future Queen of Nalin has her room right next to the one I have in mind.”
“That sounds lovely,” Isabelle said.
Gregorius tried not to grin. She had no idea.