The Holy City of Paterdomus
Early Spring, 315 P. F.
“The items were found upon your own person, and then identified by one of the paladins who apprehended you. It’s quite damning evidence, and stealing from the Exalted One’s temple would be a grave crime indeed,” Father Caius mused to the man before him, the very first that he’d been assigned to counsel. Caius was freshly ordained, and he looked not even thirty, a truth that certainly wasn’t lost upon this man before him. The accused fellow had deflated the moment he had seen the lawyer assigned to help defend him, no doubt assuming that Caius’ youth meant ineptitude. Fortunately for him, with that youth came not incompetence, but rather diligence and a desire to prove himself that many of the older lawyers lacked.
“...did you do it?” Caius abruptly asked, cutting straight to the point within moments of this first meeting with the accused.
“I, uh -- what, I thought you were s’posed to be the one helpin’ me defend my name, not tryin’ to get me to confess, or...”
“I am indeed meant to counsel you and help you defend your name, as best I can,” the young lawyer admitted, “but if you are truly guilty, you might as well confess and beg to be given penance and forgiveness. In doing so you would save much time, mend your conscience and your standing with the Exalted, and no doubt also spare yourself a harsher punishment than need be.” The young priest stopped with a pregnant pause to let those words set in. “I see that I took you by surprise, but when I asked, the guilt looked plain in your eyes. If even I can see as much, then you must realize that the Justiciar will too, for he would question you even more sharply. I shall not waste time or mince words; I repeat that this evidence is damning, and know enough of the courts and of our Justiciar that declaring yourself innocent and taking this to a trial would not go well for you.”
“I didn’t hurt or steal from nobody! Only took from that church what them orcs left behind, after they burnt it down. Didn’t know if they were runnin’ to the mountains or not, they might’ve come back later and taken the rest anyways!” By now the peasant was sweating and shaking, even more nervous and despairing. But he still clung stubbornly to forlorn hope, even as Caius told all with just the look in his blue eyes. “I guess the church could call that stealin’. But I got more choices right? If I don’t wanna confess or chance meself in the court, I could demand a--”
“--trial by combat,” Caius finished, looking down at his desk. “Yes, you could demand as much; however, you are not accused by a neighbor but by the church itself, and for its representative the Temple of Justice would name a Knight-Paladin. He would be a holy man who was chosen for that path by his aptitude and body, and who had trained with sword and shield from the age of ten. He would be armored with steel and padding, and you with only your own innocence and swiftness, or lack thereof. I do not suppose you are deft or skilled with a sword, or that you have some kinsman who is and who might stand for you as a champion? If I might be so bold, I suggest that a trial by combat is the last thing you should want.”
By then Caius’ gaze had left the desk to meet the man’s face. There was a great deal of fear and nervousness there, and some of it surely rubbed off and fed back into Caius’ own doubts. But his was a disciplined mind that could set aside such burdens, and so he forced his own countenance into a kindlier one. Perhaps that would help to soothe the fellow’s nerves.
“You are not wholly doomed or lost. I do believe that if you confess and request penance, you will have the best outcome. Justiciar Drusus is to preside over your case, and he is a most fair and just servant of the Exalted One.”
“Then that’s what I gots to do,” the thief finally relented, slumping back into his chair. “I’ll confess.”
The Justiciar was a just enough man. Nothing less could be expected of one who stood in judgement of others in the name of their Exalted god, a deity who embodied that very element of righteousness. But what was it that made the Justiciar just? Was it how he knew the scriptures all by heart and had memorized the Exalted One’s prescribed punishments for each mortal offense, and those prescribed by the kings of old for pettier crimes? Or was it how he had toiled and suffered pains in his own life, and thus could understand even if he did not pity or show improper mercy? No, by Caius’ reckoning it was foremost because the man’s eyes could taste honey and vinegar alike and set aside the difference. He was not blind, but able to see and then still set his heart aside, to treat a leper no differently in his judgement than he might a maiden most fair.
And lepers and fair maidens alike could wilt before Drusus’ stern, fatherly face! If he had ever laughed in his life, there were no lines to show it. Indeed his face was bereft entirely of wrinkles or scars or anything else to mar it, even as his age was growing more venerable and the top of his head had balded. Around the sides of that shining bald peak of his head there was a fringe of hair the color of ash, and then below that the rest was black as soot. When they thought they were beyond the hearing of their elders, Caius knew that the youngest boys in training to be priests would call Justiciar Drusus ‘candlehead’, the jape that the flame was that shining bald spot, and that black and white hair around made up the burning wick. If that were the case, then every time Drusus held court then each and every man and woman standing judgement (and the witnesses, too! He did not suffer anything save silence from the witnesses!) must have all been the wax.
On that day, Caius too felt like he was made of wax. He had only just been ordained and assigned as a lawyer to serve under Drusus and give counsel to the accused, and this was actually the very first man he was to stand for, though certainly not the first time he’d been before a court as a clerk or witness, or even before Justiciar Drusus. As the young priest left his cell in the dormitory at sunrise and made his way up one of the city’s high hills and towards the great Temple of Brazen Justice, he passed at least a dozen smaller ‘temples’ that were really more offices or schools than places of worship, then by one of the temple knights’ barracks that doubled as a holding prison for those awaiting judgement, and then he’d climbed to the steps of the great marble temple top the hill.
Twin Knights Templar clad in ornamental armor and white tabards stood guard on either side of the entrance, and recognizing Caius as the lawyer, one of them kindly pulled open the heavy oaken door. The young man gave a gracious nod and murmured a greeting, then slipped inside. The first thing to meet the eye was of course the artwork: massive statues guarded corners, engravings elsewise covered the walls and great pillars, the tiled floor had mosaics, and the windows had panes of stained glass. All of this was sacral imagery depicting the Exalted One and his champions: saints, paladins, and kings of old, near all of whom stood locked in combat against inhuman monsters or else in judgement over shackled warlocks or other evil men. The dawn filtered through massive windows high up near the temple’s vaulted ceiling, and those first few anemic rays of sunlight served as the only illumination, so gloom filled the air, and yet that only brought the decor to life. The dim animated and embellished the brilliance of the Exalted One’s gilded eyes and fiery hands just as it did the gleaming bronze born by his paladins, all of which was juxtaposed by dark voids and swirling red-eyed shapes that represented the servants and beasts of the night. Every man to stand on trial that morn had already been brought into the temple and made to wait an hour or more, left to stew in the unsettling aura of the monsters and the forces smiting them down.
Caius found his place besides other clergymen serving as clerks and lawyers, well away from the benches of witnesses and the line of accused. Silence filled the air but for the occasional hushed whisper or grating of the door being pushed opened. They waited while the stained glass slowly became aglow as more sunlight poured in through the windows, the gloom finally being staved off, and then Justiciar Drusus at last entered with the scabbard of his greatsword in hand. He took his place upon the high dais by the altar, drew the sword as tradition dictated, and surveyed the crowds.
Drusus was a tall and hard man, still lean and strong but not quite so formidable as he’d once been in his fighting days. Some wounds to the leg had left his limp and ended his time as a paladin guarding the borders, yet he still moved with dignity (albeit slowly) and stood straight as a spear, chin ever high. His eyes were red, Caius saw, but it was no doubt the product of his reading all the briefs upon these cases before him. Drusus cared for detail and read closely; he’d probably been awake and at his desk somewhere within the temple long before even the first of the lawyers had arrived.
Keeping the tip of the greatsword high above his head, the Justiciar finally broke his silence by beginning a long prayer out loud. He beseeched the Exalted to look down from his Heavenly Hall and unto his faithful, to aid in his loyal servants’ peace and help them to deliver justice. By the end even his strong hands were trembling from the sword’s weight, so he placed it back into his sheathe and laid it upon the Exalted One’s holy altar, and only then motioned for the judgements to begin.
The first case was a most scandalous and salacious one that involved one man accused of having grown too familiar with his brother’s wife. Neighbors and kin aplenty had come to bear witness for either side, and it seemed as though half the entire village had been questioned on the matter, but most had work to attend to and had merely been interviewed at their village rather than summoned to come in person. Still, their testimony had been recorded and compiled into one document that was read out loud by a priest. During the proceedings impassioned and wild accusations were flung between the two brothers and the witnesses, but there was only one swear (it came from the aggrieved brother and was directed at the other brother’s innocent wife, of all places) hurled -- Drusus’ icy gaze and sharp condemnation of that first one was enough to discourage such undignified words and prevent a second, so the court was able to maintain that much civility, at least. The case took the better part of three hours to resolve, and the two accused were finally found guilty of adultery, yet mitigating factors (namely intoxication) made Drusus unexpectedly restrained in his sentencing. The adulterer and adulteress alike were each to be sobered by having a hot nail driven through the palm of their left hands, and then the adulterer was additionally made to pay some silver in reparations to his shamed brother. The adulteress he did not punish further, instead relegating the matter of any more disciplining for her unto her husband.
The next matter was one of graver crimes -- apostasy and witchcraft, from an elder woman that the village had accused of spurning their village’s priest, consorting with trolls in the shadow of the mountains, and haunting the local children in their dreams. Paladins had been sent to search for signs of this supposed troll, and after days had found nothing, so she was cleared quickly enough of that charge. But a letter from her village’s church did indeed show that she frequently claimed sickness and did not attend; Drusus rebuked her and suggested that her propensity for colds and other minor afflictions might well be caused by weakened morals and a lack of faith. Still, she had sometimes attended, and she knew enough prayers to appease Drusus, so that rebuke was her only punishment on that count. There was not, however, any evidence save her own denials to prove her innocent of using witchcraft to project herself into dreams and haunt the children, and two children had indeed claimed to have been haunted by a shadowy figure in her likeness. As he was no fool, Drusus understood that even the minds and memories of the young and pure could err from time to time, and so the testimony of a few children was not enough to give him certainty. For the nature of the crime made it very difficult to find the truth, it seemed apparent to all that a trial by ordeal was necessary, that the Exalted One could judge more wisely.
A purplish elixir of ground trollsroot, a most noxious and deadly plant, was concocted and she was ordered to drink of it with all those present as witnesses, so she had no choice but to feebly nod and accept her lot. It was said that witches and those that bound themselves to the Black God were oft immune to such poison altogether and might even enjoy the taste, for such vile fluids flew already flowed through their veins, but that less insidious ones with wicked hearts would merely wither and die over the course of a few hours. A pure soul, however, would always repel the substance and give the body strength enough to expel the poison before its effects could kill. Indeed this woman did quickly gag and vomit, and so demonstrated her purity of heart. She still did seem deathly pale and was soon shivering, but she was shown innocent before all. Drusus ordered her put into the charge of a temple infirmary, and she was carried out on a litter.
Those two cases had taken longer than expected, and so the Justiciar adjourned the court so that all present could have the respite of some rest and take their midday meal. Caius stepped outside to breathe in fresh air and feel the sun upon his face, only to find himself standing in a great and slender shadow. Those who lived in Paterdomus long enough could learn to tell the time just from where the shadow hung, splitting the city in two. This shade came from the Silver Tower a whole hill over, a massive spire that crowned the Cathedral, grandest temple of all Paterdomus and indeed all Outremer. That tower loomed over the entire city and even had a commanding view of some of the surrounding country beyond the great walls, and it was from those heights that the ruler of this realm (and he with most righteous claim as successor of the Holy Kingdom, to hear any priest of Paterdomus tell it) could preside over his lands, that great jeweled crown no doubt resting over a troubled brow. That was of course to say that the Silver Tower was home to the study and living quarters of the High Father, the Beacon of Light and Hope, Flame of Wisdom, First Servant of the White God, High Priest of Paterdomus, or whatever other style you wanted to give to Pontiff Aulus.
The Pontiff, once a greatly respected and perhaps even feared figure indeed, was alas rarely spoken of in Paterdomus now, and reduced to laughing stock everywhere else. He had long secluded himself up in that tower, supposedly in prayer. His last public appearance had been years ago, within the great cathedral below his tower, and there he’d delivered a fiery and frenzied sermon of doom and darkness, promising a second Great War and speaking of a time of strife and judgement when the sky would grow black as it wept acrid tears over burning lands. At first the paladins were eager, expecting this to mean another great crusade, but the call to invade Arugoth hadn’t come. Now the commoners whispered about His Holiness under their drinks, claiming Aulus to have lost his wits at best (perhaps a fair assessment; all that Caius could remember of the Pontiff’s visage on the day of that sermon was how his once-magnificent beard had become a great long mess of unkempt white and of how all the other clean and proper-looking senior clergymen around had been furrowing their brows and frowning) or an outright madman who spent his days poring over ancient spellbooks and tomes, and every other oddity and artifact in the temple’s reliquaries. A few particularly loathsome fools had even started spreading preposterous rumors of strange lights coming from the tower’s Hall of Mirrors during the dead of night as the product of Aulus performing queer magical rituals. Naturally, men had been arrested and the Knights Templar had tried to quietly suppress such heretical and malign rumors, but that had seemingly done nothing but inflame the gossip. Many among the ranks were all too eager to choose a replacement, yet the Pontiff retained his title for life, so they could only circle round like vultures.
Father Caius shook those disturbing thoughts from his mind as he walked, eventually leaving the great shadow behind and venturing down the hill to a stall where some man was peddling apples that he’d carted in from some orchard in the country. Caius paid the man a copper coin then claimed two of the larger apples for his midday meal, eating them as he climbed up the hill to the Temple of Brazen Justice. He quickly finished the first apple, the thing sweet and good inside even as it’s peel had been spotted and marred, but as he came back into the shadow of the Silver Tower, he bit into the second and prettier-looking apple only to discover that it was half rotted. With a sigh, the lawyer spat out the bite of apple and tossed the rest of the fruit away, and then a few minutes later he stepped back into the temple. His man’s case was slated to come next.