"The Knave"

By James Berardinelli

    It was the darkest part of the night - the small hours halfway between midnight and the first light of dawn when the most nefarious deeds were often committed with only mice and roaches as witnesses. For the boy who went by the title of "The Knave", this was the best time of the day. He could gaze out the low, wide window in his sleeping chamber, thrown open to allow the entry of the cooling breeze of late Summer, and imagine all the things going on in the streets and residences of Basingham. Most of the city's good citizens would be abed while a select few, members of the Watch, would be patrolling the mostly deserted byways. Innkeepers and tavern owners would be shutting down their common rooms and throwing out those too drunk to exit on their own. And somewhere, in the stygian depths of some dank back alley, an unfortunate wayfarer would be breathing his last as his throat was opened from one side to the other.

    With a sigh, The Knave turned back to his rooms. They were spacious, as befitted the third-born son of a duke, although not as ostentatious as those of his elder brothers. He glanced at the bed and the naked girl in it and felt a momentary rush of irritation. Could he never find solitude? Even in this lost, quiet hour, there was another presence near to him. She stirred in her sleep, as if sensing his disquiet, but the fit of pique passed. He was fond of this one - too fond, truth be told. It wasn't just that she could do things for him that no other girl or woman had been able to do but she never made demands. It wasn't passivity - she could be aggressive when the need arose - but she didn't ask for money or favors or for him to put in a good word for her with the Master.

    She murmured something. It might have been his name. He had one, although he never spoke it. The Knave was as good a moniker as any. Others had used it as a pejorative before he appropriated it. Now everyone, even his parents, called him by it. Not that his parents had much interaction with him. The third son was expendable, an emergency necessity in case the unthinkable should happen and the first and second heirs died. But, since his brothers were hale and hearty and the eldest had two children tucked into their beds, no one paid much attention to him or his actions. He was allowed to live as he wanted and that included indulging in practices his brothers would never think of doing - such as fucking one of the household maids.

    It had all started out as a little bit of innocent fun. A year ago, when he was still three years shy of his Maturity, she was assigned to him. "To see to his needs" - that was how his father had put it, although the Knave doubted the Duke considered all the needs the girl would necessarily satisfy. Then again, perhaps the Knave didn't give his father enough credit. His liaisons with Lynda had begun with teasing and groping and progressed from there. It had now reached a point where he found it difficult to sleep if he hadn't satisfied himself with her and she wasn't lying next to him. It was only a matter of time before she started growing big with his child. He was surprised it hadn't happened yet, although she claimed she used a preventative poultice provided by The Knave's favored apothecary. When the pregnancy occurred, there would be a scandal. Third sons were expected to sleep with maids. It was an allowable offense, even for one as young as The Knave. But having a bastard with them was a breach of the unwritten code of conduct. Marriage was always a possibility but not one his parents would readily agree to. But was that what he wanted? Did he want to marry Lynda? Or was she just the latest in a long line of diversions?

    He didn't want to go back to sleep for fear that the dreams would return. For most of the current year, those nighttime visions, a plague that haunted him for as long as he could remember, had been absent. Last week, however, they returned. With their images of fire, blood, and violence, they frightened him, and he didn't know what to make of them. There was a sense of expectation, as if there was something he needed to do to make them stop, but he didn't know what. The lack of sleep was beginning to grind him down. He had to find someone to unburden himself to. Most men his age would talk to a friend, but The Knave lacked confidantes. Over the years, he had never cultivated compatriots the way other noble boys did. He kept to himself. The isolation suited his personality and lifestyle but there were times when it became lonely. Perhaps that was the reason why his attachment to Lynda had grown so deep. In a way, she was all she had.

    "Can't sleep?" Her voice was heavy with sleep.

    He climbed back into bed. "It's nothing."

    "The dreams again?"

    "I said it's nothing. Go back to sleep." Irritation tinged his words. Odd that he could be equally resentful and needy where she was concerned.

    The next day, he made a decision he previously considered but never acted upon: discuss his situation with a priest. He wasn't the most devout of boys but he believed in the sanctity and puissance of the gods. Perhaps their human representatives might be able to lend insight regarding the demons that stalked The Knave's nights.

    Brother Rasputomus was his father's personal cleric. In return for his services, the priest was provided with an austere chamber on the lowest level of the mansion adjacent to the cellars. The Knave had always believed it to be a damp, dreary place to call "home," but it suited Brother Rasputomous. He claimed he liked being underground and the moisture-laden air was good for whatever conditions ailed his arthritic joints. He was present, as he almost always was when not leading prayers or giving alms, when The Knave came calling.

    "There are some who would scoff at the belief that visions such as these could come from the gods," opined Rasputomus after hearing The Knave's description of his affliction. "I am not such a person. I have seen my share of days" – The Knave thought that to be an understatement since, at least by appearance, Rasputomus must be in his sixth or seventh decade – "and learned not to question the portentous nature of dreams. Although not every nightly fancy is a visitation of meaning, those that recur often are."

    "My dreams are of fire, death, and destruction. They are of me at the center of a great conflagration. I see shadows of beasts out of mythology. Dragons. Djinn."

    "I cannot interpret your dreams, My Son. They sound dire, to be sure, but I'm not trained in reading their meaning. Once, in a long ago age, it was said some wizards were gifted with the ability to dream and understand those dreams. But no wizard has walked the land in the last millennium."

    Not the most illuminating of responses. The bastard is probably senile.

    With a snort of disdain and nothing resembling a word of thanks, The Knave quitted Rasputomus' quarters and returned to the more civilized parts of the manse. The dark mood that descended upon him the night before clung like a decaying skin for the next several days. If anything, his visit to Rasputomus turned his bile more bitter.

    The Knave was still of an age when a portion of his days was devoted to learning under a pair of tutors. That was his father's price for allowing him to pursue his increasingly rootless existence: "At least you can use the time to improve your education. The gods know it may sometime serve you well. You have a fine mind; it's unfortunate you've chosen a path that doesn't make use of it."

    The Knave's teachers were as different from each another as might be possible. One was the sultry, earthy Madame Isabelle. Her lectures were boring recitations of history and poetry but The Knave generally enjoyed them. Madame Isabelle hailed from the northern city of Syre, where she had spent more than a decade pursuing a career as a courtesan. Although The Knave hadn't yet sampled her wares (she claimed he was too young for such ripe fruit), he had little doubt the day would eventually come. He was used to getting what he wanted. Madame Isabelle was a handsome woman and The Knave enjoyed the peeks of flesh her wardrobe occasionally allowed. She enflamed him in ways Lynda didn't.

    Sir Bertram was another matter, however. At one point, The Knave had thought to learn something about the use of weapons from the doddering old soldier – after all, he was supposed to be a knight. Bertram, however, was interested only in talking about martial skills. Normally, The Knave sat in a semi-catatonic state and let the elderly man's monotonous lectures wash over him but, on this day, his patience, exacerbated by too little sleep, was too thin to allow him to passively endure.

    "Old man," began The Knave, his tone dripping with condescension. "Are you ever going to teach me something worthwhile or are you going to continue prattling the way you have for nearly two years? I'm sure my father assumed I would be proficient with several weapons by now. Instead, the only blade I know anything about is the one I use at supper."

    Bertram was visibly taken aback by The Knave's temerity. His shock, written on his weathered and lined face, gave his pupil a moment's glee. But the knight was not known for taking insults calmly and he reacted with predictable heat, puffing out his chest and taking two threatening steps toward The Knave. He had the good sense, however, not to put his hand near the hilt of the short sword he wore in a scabbard at his waist. Such an act would have earned him a quick death sentence.

    "You listen to me, you jumped-up little shit. At your father's behest, I've sought to teach you the finer points of military engagements and martial expertise. Thus far, you've proven yourself a most unworthy student. By now, we should have been sparring in the yard but your inability to absorb even basic facts about weaponry and tactics have stalled any progress we might have made." Having said that, he reached out to place a hand on The Knave's shoulder.

    In earlier days, Bertram had been an imposing man but age had robbed him of both his vitality and much of his strength. His back was stooped, he walked with a limp, and much of his musculature had degenerated into fat. Although The Knave was physically frail, he had been in enough scraps to have a fair knowledge about how to take down an opponent, even one as experienced as Bertram. In The Knave's view, the physical contact was justification enough to attack. No one touched the son of a noble – even the third son – without permission.

    A kick to the groin and a punch to the face was all it took to send Bertram reeling. He almost lost his balance. "You forget yourself, Sir," hissed The Knave, dropping into a fighting crouch in case the knight intended to engage him. For a moment, it looked like that might be the case but, after a moment, Bertram's features hardened into a stoic mask and he turned stiffly to hobble from the room. That was the last The Knave would ever see of the man but there were repercussions for his actions this afternoon.

    "You ungrateful whelp!" His father, normally a mild-mannered man - The Knave had referred to the Duke on more than one occasion as a milquetoast - was red-faced. "To treat an honored knight in such a disgraceful manner… what do you think your punishment should be?"

    Having endured two years of that man's tutelage wasn't suffering enough?

    The Knave said nothing. He did his best to look shamefaced - admittedly not an easy thing for one such as him to accomplish. Truth be told, he was rather proud of how he acted where the "honorable" Sir Bertram was concerned.

    "Things can't go on like this," continued the Duke, droplets of spittle spewing from his mouth along with his words. "I've tried to be patient with you for some time now but you've exhausted what little tolerance I have left."

    The lecture continued in that vein for some time but The Knave stopped listening. His father had made similar threats in the past but he was a master of not following through. As long as his son didn't become a public embarrassment, there was nothing to be gained by exiling him. The Knave was cognizant that once his older brothers had sired a few more children that might not be the case. But he guessed he was still safe for the next two years while he remained shy of his Maturity.

    Less than a week later, after an energetic session in bed with Lynda, The Knave lay on his back, his skin slick with perspiration and his breath coming in gasps. His exertions were such that he felt almost dizzy.

    "I wasn't too rough on you, was I?" he asked once his breathing had stabilized enough to put voice to the question. Almost to his surprise, he discovered that he cared about the answer.

    "You wasn't gentle but I ain't bothered. Got more pleasure out of it than I usually do. When you puts your mind to it, you can scratch the itch the way no one else can." She was only two years older than he was but, when she spoke like that, the gulf between them seemed greater.

    He grunted. It felt a little different this time but not just because of the effort he put into it. There was something else… something about her. Suddenly alarmed, he sat up in bed and stripped away the thin sheet covering her naked body. It was as he suspected.

    "Your belly." The words were an accusation.

    "No woman's blood the past two cycles. And I been having trouble keeping down meals. Wondered how long it would take you to figger it out."

    The Knave closed his eyes and willed back the wave of panic that threatened to surge forward and overwhelm him. Not now, dammit! Not so soon after Bertram! Even his placid father had a breaking point.

    "I guess you ain't pleased."

    "Not pleased? How could you consider that I might be pleased?"

    "I ain't the first maid to carry her master's bastard." That was a plausible defense for her but he didn't think it would work for him with his parents.

    Could they marry and legitimatize the child? For a fleeting moment, The Knave considered the possibility and found that it didn't revolt him. But it would never happen. There was only one choice and he had always known it would come to this. "You'll have to get rid of it and soon, before someone figures it out."

    The expression of hurt on Lynda's face was so acute that The Knave almost winced. Surely she hadn't expected him to suggest something else?

    "There are other ways. You can send me away to have it. Or you can pay off someone to pretend to be the father."

    The Knave shook his head. "Easier to just get rid of it and have it done. Why don't you go to the apothecary and get a draught from him. I'll give you the coin for it, if that's what you're worried about." It was, he thought, a magnanimous offer.

    "Mayhap what he gives me will kill more than the babe. It's been known to happen. Those things ain't always safe."

    "There's risks in everything. If you had it, you could bleed out. Now get it taken care of. The sooner, the better. The bigger it gets, the more of a problem it will become."

    The Knave didn't see his maid for several days after that night, leading him to believe she was doing his bidding. She was right - some of the concoctions used for the purposes of ridding a woman of an unwanted child could have unfortunate consequences for the person taking them. The more certain the remedy, the more likely it was to kill both mother and baby. The Knave had given Lynda sufficient money for her to buy the best drug available. It was up to her to obtain and use it. He made it clear that he didn't want her in his bed again until the deed was done.

    It was hard sleeping alone. He had become so accustomed to her constant presence at night that the emptiness beside him felt like a tangible thing. He was no romantic to believe his feelings for Lynda tended toward the overused word of ballads and poems, but there was no doubt he craved her presence. Even as he told himself it was purely physical - that he missed the release she provided - he knew it was more than that. Sex was part of it, to be sure, but there was something reassuring about having her warm body pressed against his during the darkest hours of the night - the times when the dreams most often came to him. Awakening from one of those alone was terrifying. At least if she was with him, she could succor him and coax him back to calmness.

    Five days after revealing her condition, Lynda returned to his rooms. It was shortly past midnight when she let herself in through the side door. He was already abed when she came to him, head lowered and eyes hidden by the bedchamber's dimness.

    He made his voice stern to hide his eagerness at her arrival. "Is it done?" The answer seemed self-evident. What else would have kept her away for nearly a week?

    Saying nothing, she disrobed then joined him on the bed. In the darkness, she was a sleek shadow. Her lips brushed his then her mouth began wandering downward. The Knave closed his eyes and waited for her to finish. She was acting unusual but he was content to allow this to play out as she wanted it. Once he was spent and lying on his back recovering, she spoke for the first time. "I'm leaving. I almost did what you asked but, when it came time to take it, I couldn't do it."

    The Knave's blood boiled. "Asked?? I didn't ask anything. I told you what to do! And you have the temerity to come in here as if nothing happened and tell me you've ignored my demands. Who the fuck do you think you are?"

    She moved but not quickly enough. The Knave wasn't the most powerful of men but he was cat-fast and had more than enough strength to hold her down. He moved into a position where he was straddling her torso. They had been in this position before but never for this reason.

    "There's no forgiveness for this," he said. The words were ice-cold, devoid of emotion. Sensing her danger, she began thrashing about, seeking to throw him off. He clamped his legs against her body, pinning her arms. He then grasped her throat with both hands.

    Killing was a surprisingly easy thing to do. At first, she struggled mightily but the harder he squeezed, the more feeble her exertions became. In the end, she just lay there, eyes staring blankly into the darkness, her chest no longer rising or falling. In a strange way, it amazed The Knave. Only minutes ago, this body had been a vessel for a vibrant woman. Now, it was used meat, the rot primed to begin.

    The trembling started once he moved away from the body as the weight of the situation struck him a blow. What have I done? Getting a maid pregnant was bad; killing her was criminal… but only if he was discovered.

    Putting aside guilt and remorse for the moment, he concentrated on what needed to be done. The deed would have to be hidden by morning. Merely disposing of the body wasn't enough; it had to be burned so no one could identify it. Lynda's disappearance might incite some curiosity but no one would suspect her death especially if she had confided her intention to depart. They would assume she had gone. The only ramification The Knave would have to consider was how he would feel sleeping alone in the bed where he had slain his lover.

    By dawn's first light, it was done. The Knave, not used to physical exertion, was exhausted almost to the point of fainting. Even though Lynda was petite, it was hard work carrying her body through the mansion's benighted corridors , dumping it into a wagon bed, and driving it to the field where he lit it on fire. In the end, despite the coolness of the night, he was bathed in sweat and the smoke from the fire tainted his clothing. It wasn't until daytime when he returned to his bed and, although he lay there for several hours, sleep didn't come. When he closed his eyes, all he saw where hideously distorted images of Lynda's face. The darkness had prevented him from watching the light die in her eyes; his imagination sketched out the image for him.

    In the end, he wept but when the tears stopped flowing, he berated himself for his weakness. The fault lay with her, not him. Had she done what he required, she would still be alive. Defiance of that sort demanded punishment. Doing the right thing wasn't always easy but there was no cause to cry like a child. Lynda had done things for him that no other woman had but she was gone and it was time to move on.

    As he expected, his maid's disappearance excited some gossip but nothing more substantial than idle curiosity. When it became clear she wouldn't be returning, the Duke hired another woman to replace her, although this one was considerably older and less attractive. Perhaps The Knave's father had known about the liaison and suspected Lynda's departure might be related to a pregnancy. The Duke's choice for the new maid assured history was unlikely to be repeated, although even if she had been pretty, The Knave wouldn't have invited her to his bed. His sexual appetites had perished with Lynda. Women no longer excited him. A visit to a brothel proved disastrous - despite the ministrations of several women, he was unable to perform nor did he have any great desire to do so. Life had lost its flavor. Even his sessions with Madame Isabelle, once a daily high point, lost their appeal. She might have been the only one to recognize a change in her pupil; he had so little day-to-day contact with his parents and siblings that if they noticed anything unusual, they likely assumed it to be a byproduct of his usual moodiness.

    Days and weeks passed for The Knave, with Summer giving way to Harvest, and little changed. He found himself spending more time in his rooms, venturing out only when some necessity required it of him. Most of his waking hours were spent brooding and his nights were filled with the nightmares he was unable to keep at bay. He lay abed often but got little sleep. His natural irritability was exacerbated.

    One rare day when he ventured outside the mansion, he experienced a defining encounter. While rambling through Basingham's wide, crowded marketplace searching for overpriced goods, he came face-to-face with one of his childhood adversaries, Panthas, the first son of Archduke Pontos. As had been the case when he was little, The Knave discovered that Panthas could bring out the worst in him. The routine meeting turned into an argument and the quarrel became ugly when The Knave pushed Panthas aside with too much vigor, knocking him over and causing his doublet to become muddied. The next morning, The Knave received an official challenge by way of Panthas' second. The duel, which was technically illegal for anyone under the age of Maturity, was to be conducted outside the city limits at dawn two days hence. As the challenger, The Knave was accorded the choice of weapon.

    His lack of proficiency with ranged weapons - guns, bows, slings - made those easy to eliminate. Panthas was known for his ability with a sword, so that was an equally poor option. After also rejecting maces, axes, and hammers, The Knave eventually settled on knives. As soon as Panthas' second departed to inform the Archduke's son of his opponent's preference, The Knave paid a visit to the apothecary. The man's medicinal competence was questionable but his talents extended to less reputable substances than anti-pregnancy potions.

    "It has to act quickly to disable," he said, explaining what he wanted.

    "The problem with that kind of poison, Young Master, is it's invariably fatal and usually easy to detect. My recommendation is to use something more subtle - a little sprinkle on the food or in the grog. It will take some time to act but you won't be disappointed by the result, and no one will be the wiser."

    "I don't have days or hours or even minutes. The moment the poison is administered, it must cause incapacitation." Otherwise, I'm dead - not that death means much to me anymore.

    The apothecary shrugged as if to suggest that people who didn't take his advice eventually regretted it. "If you're determined to go with a contact poison, there are several options. How much coin you got?"

    "Money isn't a problem. Give me your best."

    The man smiled a toothy grin. "If your coin purse got no bottom, I can give you something that'll put the other man on the ground in two seconds with froth coming out his mouth in five and blood from his ears in ten."

    Exactly what I'm looking for.

    It wasn't cheap and The Knave was certain the price was being exaggerated for his benefit but the situation was desperate so he didn't haggle. That omission earned him a raised eyebrow and another insincere smile. He left with a lighter purse but in possession of what he needed to give him a chance against a bigger, more skilled opponent.

    The Knave arrived at the appointed location for the duel early enough to be sure he was there first. He carefully applied the venom to his two blades, making sure none came into contact with his skin. Although the apothecary indicated it needed to enter through an open wound to do optimal damage, it could burn exposed skin and, if it touched the eye, would cause blindness.

    Panthas and his second reached the clearing a few minutes before dawn. Both boys were surprised to find The Knave alone - it was highly unusual for any participant to come to a duel without a companion. They surmised that The Knave was so solitary and generally disliked that there was no one he could trust.

    Panthas' second gave a long-winded recitation of the rules of the contest. Each participant was allowed two knives. The confrontation was not necessarily to the death - either combatant could quit at any time. Their loss by withdrawal would satisfy honor's requirements. However, because of the nature of the weapons, a crippling or fatal outcome was possible. In any event, the victor would be decreed immune from retribution assuming the strict code of honor was adhered to. Once both boys affirmed an understanding of the conditions and an agreement to abide by them, Panthas' second stood back and the contest began.

    The opponents took some time circling each other and making occasional feints. The Knave wasn't an adept knife fighter but he knew the basics from having watched matches held in Basingham's less reputable quarter. He was content to let Panthas make the first move. All he had to do was counter it, avoid getting his throat slashed, and deliver a blow that broke the skin. Panthas was wearing some kind of leather vest and leggings that a knife probably wouldn't penetrate, but his arms were bare and his neck and face were exposed.

    Eventually, his opponent wearied of the preliminary dance and moved in for a strike. The Knave twisted away from the blow but was unable to land a retaliatory hit of his own. The men separated again, both more wary. The Knave wasn't entirely sure what he was doing but he could tell by Panthas' appraising look that the other boy might be toying with him. It occurred to him that Panthas was likely as experienced with a knife as he was with a sword; the blow, when it came, could be quick and decisive. This wasn't necessarily a duel to the death but there was no doubt in The Knave's mind that the only way Panthas would get satisfaction was to take a life. His situation, never good to begin with, had turned grave.

    The Knave's next action was born out of desperation. His attack, clumsy and inexperienced as it was, had the advantage of surprise. Yet Panthas was too good a combatant to be taken completely unawares. The Knave felt two blows strike him in quick succession - one to his right shoulder and the other to his left forearm. The latter bit so deeply that he dropped the knife in that hand. But his other weapon did what it needed to do. The wound was a mere graze on Panthas' hand - a seemingly insignificant cut - but it decided the duel. The crazy grin of victory that broke out on the Archduke's son's face was short-lived. In less than second, before he could deliver a death blow to the Knave's exposed back, he was doubled up in agony, screaming and crying as he collapsed to the ground. While Panthas' second rushed to his friend's side, The Knave retrieved his dropped knife and departed the scene, looking for a healer who could staunch his bleeding and bandage his wounds.

    It took little more than a day for the consequences of The Knave's "victory" to rebound upon him. The poison that killed Panthas was easily traced and the second readily provided all the necessary details about the duel. The Archduke demanded an immediate meeting with The Knave's father during which conditions for reparations were detailed. A thundercloud masking his features, the Duke returned from the discussion and immediately summoned his son.

    The Knave stood before his father, head bowed, and endured a verbal flaying. "By all rights, you should hang for this. The stupidity of fighting a duel at your age… then to cheat by using poison! No son of mine would stoop so low. You have no honor! You're fortunate Archduke Pontos is willing to settle this matter without involving the magistrates. It will cost me a tidy portion of my wealth and your sister will have to wed his new heir.

    "Then there's the matter of the mysterious disappearance of your former maid, Lynda. I don't know what happened to her and I assume you're not going to tell me but after your actions in the matter of the duel, I now believe you capable of many disgusting and horrific actions I previously thought beyond you. You aren't just an unprincipled knave, you're a cruel and craven misanthrope who should no longer be allowed to continue in civilized congress.

    "Your punishment is this: you are disinherited and stricken from the family roster. You may no longer call me 'father.' You are banished from Basingham, never to return while I draw breath. And you are consigned to the priesthood. A representative of Prelate Ferguson will arrive on the morrow to 'escort' you to Vantok. Don't mistake this for an optional career. Should you consider leaving the temple, Ferguson and his minions will be within their rights to charge you with apostasy, which carries a gruesome death sentence."

    The die was cast. His fate was sealed. There was nothing he could say or do to escape this path. His cozy, comfortable, rootless life was at an end.

    For The Knave, training as a priest was akin to a term of imprisonment. He thought about escape on many occasions, but one consideration kept him in the temple: he had nowhere else to go. Much to his surprise, cloistered life was to his liking. After an initial period of reluctance, he became active and dedicated, and a strange thing happened to him while living in those sheltered quarters - the nightmares stopped.

    After having been in the temple for nearly a full year, he received a summons from His Eminence, Prelate Ferguson. The Knave approached the audience with trepidation. During his period of confinement, he had seen Ferguson only once at a distance. The man's reputation was one of asceticism and fierce devotion to the gods. He was uncompromising, unforgiving, and domineering. The Knave didn't know of anyone who liked the man, but everyone respected him.

    As was customary, The Knave knelt on the cold, hard floor during the audience while Ferguson stood, towering over him. There was an ornate chair - one that looked suspiciously like a throne - but the Prelate didn't use it. He was an ancient man, having lived close to seven decades, but there was nothing grandfatherly about his regal bearing. His bearded face was lined but his hard blue eyes were unclouded and sharp.

    "I have watched your progress, My Son, since your arrival. I am most pleased by what I've seen. You came to us under duress, with strict orders to be kept here even if it was against your will. Today, I lift that ban. You are free to come and go as you see fit. But I offer two pieces of information for your consideration. First, Archduke Pontos has made a formal request to me for your extradition. He wishes you to return to Basingham to stand trial for the offense that brought you here. I refused him; you are now a priest-in-training and therefore beyond secular justice. He has no claim upon you.

    "Secondly, we are approaching a time of great crisis. The gods have revealed this to me and me alone. I cannot speak of the nature of the crisis at this time, but know it is coming soon and, when it happens, it will reshape the order of things. I believe you have it in you to be one of my lieutenants during this period of upheaval. Factor this into your decision as to whether you wish to stay in the temple and become a priest or explore your options in the outside world."

    As The Knave exited the formal audience hall, his decision was already made. It was here, under the stewardship of the gods' representatives that he had found himself. No longer was he "The Knave." He had reclaimed the simple, humble name he had been given at birth: Justin. That was who he was at this moment, and this is where he belonged. Little did he know that another, more feared appellation waited in the future for him to lay claim to it.