The Grand High Warden stood and smoothed out his shirt, relieved by the Shadow’s departure. He grabbed his uniform jacket, buttoned up, and checked himself in the mirror. It wouldn’t do to be seen wandering the palace corridors the least bit disheveled. He checked himself in the mirror, brushed a bit of lint from a crisp epaulet, then made for the door.
He’d put off his next bit of business, but with the departure of Eyses he felt better prepared to face the ordeal. A Quester held a survivor from the slum brawl, and had requested an audience with the Grand High Warden. Protocol usually demanded such functionaries to make an appointment and come to Haun, but custom restricted Questers from the confines of the palace proper, relegating them to the sub-levels underground.
Even the Sun King was forced to allow necessary evils.
Haun marched form his office nestled high in the Warden’s wing until he came to the grand staircase that connected the palace’s myriad segments. He crossed the wide balcony, throwing furtive glances left and right before disappearing behind a thick tapestry. There were other, more public entrances to the Quester’s demesne, but no self-respecting palace official would ever let it be known they had business with the band of pariahs, bona fide or not.
He stood in the dim light for a few moments, allowing his eyes to adjust and steeling himself for the descent. The basement levels were never truly dark, but light was kept to a minimum in some places. Regions of full shadow lurked in the palace foundations, actual dark corners where one never knew if some foul thing might be hiding.
What better atmosphere to conduct interrogations?
He walked as briskly as he dared without seeming to look the coward. Truth to tell, the Questers were one of only two groups in all the world who made him nervous—Shadows being the other. There was good reason to fear, though he could never admit it to anyone. Shadows and Questers were the only people in all the Sun King’s realm he could not order around. Patriarchs of Great Houses could be arrested at his whim, and even the generals and admirals of the military forces were ultimately answerable to him. These other factions were independent, accountable to the Emperor alone.
He wasn’t sure who to fear most. A Shadow would kill if necessary, but only at the Emperor’s word. On the other hand, being called to account by a Quester would make swift termination by a Shadow a thing to be desired. The lowest of inquisitors could take even someone as highly placed as Haun into custody and subject them to all manner of tortures both physical and mental.
No one ever came out of a Quester’s ministrations unbroken.
“Who’s that?” a gritty voice from the shadows spooked him as he rounded a corner. Haun’s hand went for his sword, finding nothing at his belt. Weapons were not allowed in the palace sub-levels.
A stooped figure dressing in a rough brown tunic and cowl trudged out of the murk. Haun wasted a scowl at the man, knowing he would not have dared if the inquisitor could see his face. “I’ve come to see Attendant Gelen. He’s expecting me.”
“Follow,” the bent man ordered. He followed as the man hobbled down the gloomy corridors. Cold fear ran up Haun’s spine as they passed doorways leading into pitch black rooms. Here was the real reason Questers were outcasts: they consorted with darkness.
Haun had never seen true darkness before visiting these dungeons. Though he’d grown up in a tiny village in the far south, his parents had still been sensible and prudent citizens. Never once did they allow the lamps in their house to run short of oil, or their flames to sputter and die. When the time came for the long trek north to a new life in the city, his father spent much of their moving expense money on a luxury coach and hostels on the Emperor’s Throughway. Even during the one night they were unable to reach the next hostel, their coachman kept the lamps bright all through the night.
A treasure worth more than gold.