Rewritten again 8/19/2023
I sat down.
Having drawn one of several chairs to the desk, I eased myself into. The chair itself was a big thing with a high back and fixed arm rests. It cradled my back.
Priam poured me a drink of a black, acidic fluid that tasted vaguely earthy. It soothed. He also spoke to the pattern spiders about the hole in the wall. Several small ones appeared and when he asked them to fix the hole, they went to work. We didn’t talk while they did. I read my folder.
When the spiders had fixed the wall and we could talk, Priam did.
“You’re associated with and for a while used to work for Koru, Lord of Rats. What do you know of him?”
“You tell me,” I said.
Priam shrugged. “The Lord of Rats is an unpopular, nasty old god who thinks he should be very popular. He believes he deserves to be loved and respected. He isn’t, and he’s been ruminating over this for decades. Perhaps obsessing is a better word.
“Aepoch, the Thunder Eagle, is the highest of the flight gods. He is great in the halls of the Titans, and Mallens speaks with him at length. Aepoch is not just a flight god, though. He’s also the highest god of song. You weren’t alive then, but in the old days, rats could sing like birds. When Aepoch told Koru that his children weren’t allowed to fly because they couldn’t sing, he was wrong. Which is why Koru challenged him.
“But Aepoch is a great god. He stole the voices of the rats and bound their songs in an old basket kept in his mansion. Only little squeaks escaped, and that’s all rats can say. So all the gods laughed at Koru, and they threw him out of Attarkus. They literally threw him out. He fell down the mountain, beat and battered himself against rocks, and fled to caves in the mountains. That’s also why rats are scared of birds.
“How much of that did you know?”
Trying to be cagey while truthful, I said, “Koru tells it somewhat differently.”
The cracked man nodded. “He would. That’s a reasonably objective if abbreviated version of the story. For the sake of argument, let’s treat it as what happened.
“Koru did not take it well. He’d long had some agreement with Aph, the Drowning River–”
“The Drowning River?” I interrupted.
“Yes. That’s what he was called long ago. There’s some form of dark magic, sorcery, I don’t know, where Aph takes the power of anything that drowns in his waters. He is much stronger than he should be.”
The old man repeated for emphasis, “Much stronger than he should be.”
When the silence stretched out and my rockblood glass ran empty, I admitted, “I feel like I’m missing a key piece.”
“Oh, you’ve got the pieces. You just haven’t quite put them together. What did you shout during the fight?”
“Raln?” I said calmly. I didn’t shout it now; I said it quietly so my fingers didn’t cut through the chair’s armrests. Words of power need power. They need to be yelled with enthusiasm.
“Exactly. One of Northshore’s words of power,” said Priam.
I made a get-rolling gesture.
He sighed. “Speech is the first part of power. Koru gave rats the gift of speech many years ago, when the Clockwork Gods had just made the world. But he is not a kind or benevolent god. He made a deal with Aph, where he fed his children to Aph’s waters. There are many, many rats, and Aph got great power by drowning them.”
“That’s…horrible,” I said quietly.
“Yes. And if we could prove it, we would Sanction them both.”
Good, I thought. I didn’t say anything, but I had a hard time keeping my face blank.
“But Aepoch took the gift of speech from Koru’s children. Aph’s power began to fade. He’s still strong. Very strong. But he spent himself extravagantly. His star moved from ascendance in House of Ajaxos to descent in the House of the Wastrel.”
Ajaxos was a great king of old. He had conquered the Worms of Meru, leashed them, and made them build Mount Attarkus for which Mallens had given him great riches.
I nodded slowly, waiting.
Priam said, “Aph’s star has moved back into ascendance in Axajos, and now another star is with him. The new star is red and glitters. Our greatest astrologamages do not know what it is or where it came from, but they worry it may be many stars all standing close together. We sent good agents across the Firmament to explore it, but the mountains around Axajos are tall and the Worms of Meru live there, piling up the cliffs and peaks. I pulled my agents back. Koru himself has a dog star. He has no fixed place in the heavens and defies astrology. We don’t know what he’s up to.”
Coming to a decision, he took the gun out of his lap and hid it in a jacket pocket. Priam wasn’t a big guy and that .43 was a hammer, yet he hid it without a trace. I couldn’t see an outline. He had poured himself a drink at the start of our conversation and noticing my glass was empty, his half full, topped us both up.
He moved well. With the white in his hair and cracked features, I expected him to move gingerly, but he surprised me. He handled the iron with one hand and moved the decanter of rockblood around smoothly. It was a big jar. He didn’t slosh or spill.
Since he seemed to be getting his own thoughts in order, I looked around the office. The room was amber and sandstone. The carpet was maroon and tan, and the ceiling and walls were a subdued desert pattern. Priam’s desk was a huge glass thing without drawers, but behind him stood filing cabinets as tall as a man. One wall was windows that faced mountains and the dark sky. It was daytime, not yet lunch. There were other furnishings like small chairs, a simple table, bookshelves, and a drinks cabinet that did little but enhance the feeling of space. My apartment was significantly smaller than his office.
Who was the judicial director? I didn’t see any power totems, no signs of worship, but I doubted he was a mortal. Glancing around, I did see pictures and awards from centuries back. He’d gotten an award for ‘Best Junior Investigator’ two hundred and forty years ago. Several floor-to-ceiling bookshelves held legal books, but they seemed more practical than theoretical. Keeping Abreast of Criminal Justice Theory and The Search for Evidence seemed worn.
“What’s your domain?” I asked. “What are you god of?”
“I’m not a god. I’m just a spirit.”
“How did a mere spirit become a Judicial Director?”
“Oh, I was born high,” he said and seeing my frown, explained, “I don’t claim divinity. I’m a monotheist.”
I squinted at him. “Really?”
“Yes. There’s a fair number of us in Fate. Maybe more here than elsewhere.”
I kept squinting.
Looking defensive, he said, “The reason you don’t notice us is that it doesn’t come up in conversation that much. When it does come up in conversation, it’s with someone you knew was a monotheist already. So you think there’re only a few of us, all like that.”
Suddenly realizing he was justifying himself, he changed topics.
“I’ve been investigating Koru for some time, since long before he and Aepoch had their confrontation. Mass murder of anything, even rats, is something I take a very dim view on. The great mysteries of Fate are mostly why it takes us so long to get anything done, and the only thing I’ll say in our defense is we know it takes too long and we’re working on it.
“This was a little different. Things that should have gone through didn’t. Paperwork that should have been filed wasn’t. Investigations get bogged down in permissions and fiefdoms. They don’t usually break up because an evidenciary writ gets filed incorrectly five times. We’re Fate. We can do paperwork fairly well. I still don’t have investigatory authority to look into Koru’s dealings.”
He drummed his fingers on the desk. I waited.
Priam said, “Koru is a nasty, vile, selfish spirit. He’s powerful; there are many rats. No one likes him, but someone in Fate is protecting him.”