As the Phoenix sang, her tune turned from one of mourning to that of celebration. With each note of her song, Kaiser Archeleus Imler slowly, and though wobbling terribly, got to his bare feet. Once standing, Archel stared up at the brilliant fiery hues trailing after the Phoenix. On an impulse, he held his scrawny arm out, fore- and middle fingers extended. She swooped around his head, gently landing on his outstretched fingers where she promptly ceased singing. Archel turned to the still kneeling Celatrix, “um, could you please get up?”
“As you command, Praeceptor Archel,” Celatrix Verna replied as she stood. The double line of now silent, previously chanting, ministers followed her cue and also rose.
“It’s not really a command,” Archel mumbled.
“What, milord?” she asked.
“Uh. Nothing,” Archel said, absently stroking the Phoenix’s back. “What happens now?”
“With your permission, we finish the ceremony,” she answered.
“May I?” Celatrix Verna asked.
“Sorry. Yes,” Archel replied.
“Never say ‘sorry’, milord,” she said.
He looked from Celatrix Verna to the Phoenix and back before saying, “but, sometimes I am.”
“I know. Even so, as Lord Gryphon you should always appear confident. ‘Sorry’ just doesn’t illicit confidence.”
“Oh,” Archel said softly, continuing to pet the Phoenix.
Celatrix Verna smiled at Archel, “as Praeceptor you have time to learn to be a great leader like Kaiser Rudolpho.” She leaned in, adding, “if you want…” With a flourish, she bowed to Archel and the Phoenix, then spun around and stepped up to her staff, which remained at attention next to the golden, jewel-encrusted, crown-like fence surrounding the Phoenix Rose. Once again she applied pressure to the staff. This time, multiple ear-piercing whistles culminated into one and shook the Templus de Ambros complex.
The Phoenix launched off of Archel’s hand, as if chasing something. While she darted through the sky trailing sunset sparks, the second round of fireworks lit the night with a blue fireball, immediately followed by green, white, and red ones. Each popped as if impervious to rain or Aquilo’s windy breath. The Phoenix dove through the showering sparks, creating an enormous fiery infinity sign in the air above the temple.
“Ecce! Archele oriens. Rex Archeleus est,” Celatrix Verna shouted.
The dual line of ministers heard her and began chanting, “Archele oriens! Rex Archeleus est.”
Though the rain continued to fall, the fireworks staggered the spectators and the Phoenix’s flaming infinity burned their retinas. The new chant brought out the last few stragglers of Ambrosia City, among which were the Inquisitor and the duumviri. Each of the three men carried a duffle bag over one shoulder. In the Forum Publicos, they elbowed through the crowd, making their way to the other side where sat the tourist entrance to the Templus Ministrae as well as the main entrance to the Templus de Ambros. Both of which they passed by without a second look. When they finally reached the normally well-guarded giant double doors that led into the Antigone Courts, the trio stopped and watched the surrounding area. With the crowd distracted, they had no fear of raising suspicions. One-by-one they walked up the steps and slipped through the unguarded doors.
“That was too easy,” Jougs whispered.
“That was a door,” Vorant responded.
“Shh,” the Inquisitor hissed at Jougs, who rolled his eyes and shrugged his shoulders, while Vorant stifled laughter. After removing a sheet of paper from his pocket, the Inquisitor aligned the map with the front entrance and traced a route with his middle finger. He pointed to his left, “this way,” he said. In his rush to reach Chief Justice Fraunx Adonis’ private chambers, the Inquisitor saw not one bit of the ornate moldings, intricate tapestries, or impressive bas reliefs that decorated the halls. When they finally made it to the stairwell they expected to run into a guard, but unbeknownst to them, the Antigone Courts were vacant save for three justices watching the fireworks from a 2nd floor balcony. The handful of guards that were supposed to patrol had all snuck out to catch the display. Rather than climbing up the stairs, the Inquisitor led them around the left hand side where another set of stairs disappeared down. He paused at the top, thinking about Rainboy’s and the unexpected stairwell. A chill ran through him. What other surprises do you have waiting? he wondered as he took out his little LED and flicked it on.
“Are you sure it’s down there?” Jougs whispered.
The Inquisitor shot Jougs a dirty look, and then began his descent. Unlike Rainboy’s, these stairs were wide, broad-based, and covered with plush red carpeting. The entire vibe was different, but the same caution warning pulsed in the back of his mind. Midway down the stairs, he stopped, swung his duffle around and dug through it. When he removed a rifle and attached his LED to it, the duumviri quietly followed suit. Satisfied, the Inquisitor resumed his descent. At the bottom of the stairs he glanced at the map again, turning it twice to realign it. After which, he led them through the underground passage, passing by the oak door of the Antigone Courts’ antechamber and the amphitheater door. The moment they reached Adonis’ chambers they had no doubt they were in the right place. Two busts of Adonis stood guard on either side of the cherry door which showed hand-carved scenes of the court process, including the various types of execution. The Chief Justice in each scene held a remarkable resemblance to the conceited man captured in blue marble. For the second time that night, the Inquisitor removed his lock picking tools. In no time, he had the door unlocked and with the duumviri on his six, he shoved the door open. They stormed the chamber, coming face-to-face with Justice Levi Bayleaf.
Holding up both hands to block the blinding light from the three LEDs suddenly shining in his face, Justice Bayleaf shouted, “damn it, I can’t see. Turn those lights off, will you? The lamp’s on. Sweet mother of Mercury, what’s wrong with you? Trying to give me a heart attack?” The senior justice had taken advantage of the lax security to break-in to Adonis’ office. As such, he half expected one of the Antigone’s guards to find him. Once the Inquisitor and his men turned off their LEDs, he said, “I know I’m not supposed to be here, but the Chief Justice asked me to get some of his notes,” it was a story he’d worked on for the better part of five minutes. If his sight wasn’t impaired by the white spots from the LEDs he would have forgone the lie.
Laughing heartily, the Inquisitor asked, “Justice Bayleaf?”
“Well, this is…a pleasant surprise,” the Inquisitor laughed again.
“What do you mean?”
Ignoring the question, the Inquisitor turned to the duumviri, “gentlemen, if you’d be so kind as to wait outside. The Justice and I have overdue business.”
Jougs leaned in, whispering, “do we have time for this?”
“Mister Jougs, when opportunities present themselves, only fools turn away.”
“What are you men talking about?” Justice Bayleaf asked, squinting into the shadows. “Wait a minute. You’re not Mercury’s Elite. Who are you? What are you doing here?” He stepped toward them, and then abruptly stopped, throwing his hands into the air and saying, “don’t shoot.”
Holding the justice at gun point, the Inquisitor said nothing while he waited for the duumviri to vacate the room. Certain that they were alone, he sloughed off the duffle bag, lowered the rifle barrel and stared at Bayleaf. “The years haven’t been kind to you, old man,” he finally said.
“They aren’t kind to anyone who reaches my age,” Bayleaf replied. The two men glared at each other in the dim light of Adonis’ table lamp. Bayleaf asked, “how do I know you?”
“We met when I was a child,” the Inquisitor stated, “a long time ago. You sentenced my father. I’m told I look just like him.”
Curiosity sunk its filthy hooks into the justice, he asked, “what’s your dad’s name?”
“Grayson Lawrence Whittaker, Senior,” the Inquisitor answered proudly.
Shrinking back, Justice Bayleaf stuttered, “Gr-ray-so-son?”
“That’s right. And, I’ve waited 15 years for this,” the Inquisitor swung the rifle barrel up, catching the justice under the chin, “you knew. Yet, you just had to make an example out of someone.” He shoved the rifle further up, forcing Bayleaf’s head to tilt back awkwardly. “You spoke to him. You knew he didn’t have the capacity,” with a flick of his wrists the Inquisitor slapped the justice with the rifle butt. Bayleaf stumbled back, one hand holding his freshly bruised cheek, the other wildly feeling for the desk. “Too many brawls, hits to the head,” the Inquisitor said tapping his noggin. “You wouldn’t know it, Dad was practically a genius before he started street fighting to feed his family. That’s how he landed in my gang.” The Inquisitor leaned toward the shaking justice, “my gang. He didn’t know. No one knew. That’s why they couldn’t tell you.” Pointing the rifle barrel at the floor, the Inquisitor closed the gap, lifted up Bayleaf by the chin, and said, “the secret to criminal success is a complete disassociation from your real life. That’s the hard lesson I learned after you had him murdered.”
“DON’T! Don’t you dare deny your complicity. I was there, remember?” Squeezing Bayleaf’s jaw, the Inquisitor growled, “first you suggested the death penalty. Then, you smiled when the sentence was read. And, you laughed when he stumbled up the stairs at Raven’s Drop. You laughed.” In his unbridled anger and without realizing it, the Inquisitor had shaken Bayleaf so hard he’d dislocated the old man’s jaw. “I know your type. Done business with hundreds of you. Sneaky, conniving, backstabbing shits. So focused on your own power plays you’d miss the truth if it hit you in the face,” in emphasis, he shoved the old man into the desk. “Iphigenia must love me,” he chuckled, “and hate you. Don’t worry, I’m a professional. This will hurt.”
“How much longer? I’m so tired,” Archel whispered to Cassie while they slowly marched from the Phoenix Rose to the Tomb of the Gryphons.
“I don’t know,” she yawned.
Archel rubbed his temples, “my head hurts.”
“So does mine,” Cassie mumbled, pinching the bridge of her nose. “I wish they’d shut up.”
“I could order it,” he offered.
“Don’t do it. You’ll ruin the ceremony.”
He continued to rub his temples, “fine.”
When they finally reached the field before the black marble mausoleum, the entire procession halted and the chanting abruptly rolled to a stop. Mercury’s Elite Guard stood in formation wearing their dress uniforms. Colonel Dagon headed the small army. He marched to center field, where Celatrix Verna met him. After a brief exchange of words, the Celatrix motioned for Archel to join them. Without waiting for permission, Cassie followed.
“Praeceptor Archeleus,” Dagon bowed deeply from the waist, never taking his eyes off of Archel.
“Hi, Colonel,” the boy answered uncertainly.
“The Elite await your command,” Dagon said.
“May we proceed with the funeral?”
“Oh. Yeah,” Archel nodded his head and instantly regretted it.
“Thank you, milord,” Dagon said.
Archel helplessly looked at the colonel, “uh, you’re welcome?”
Dagon snapped to attention, saluted, then kicked a foot back. He executed a perfect about-face and marched to the head of the Elite’s formation. Once he’d returned to his place, the drummers began a rolling thunder that competed with Aquilo’s growl. Suddenly, the drumbeat ended and single horn cried into the early morning. Its call was answered by a competing horn. They battled momentarily, then silence fell. The drums picked up their thundering beat, building slowly, slowly. Then, they too fell silent. Dagon shouted, “make ready. Fire.”
Three cannons exploded. Archel and Cassie both stepped back holding their ears.
“One,” a counter said.
“Fire,” Dagon ordered.
The cannons exploded again, causing Archel and Cassie to tighten the grip on their ears. They glanced at each other, both feeling the pain.
“Two,” the counter said.
“Fire,” Dagon commanded.
Again, the three cannons flashed their charges, booming as they spit fire. The teens reacted by squeezing even harder.
“Three,” the counter said.
For the last time the cannons roared, their blasts echoed in the sullen silence that followed.
“Four,” the counter said.
The drummers emerged from the formation, marching into new positions and bringing the Elites with them. As they carried out the maneuver, Archel whispered to Cassie, “will they’ll do this for me, when I die?”
With both hands still holding her ears, she lifted a palm and whispered, “what?”
“When I die…” he stopped, “never mind.” The distinct sound of metal sliding out of scabbards brought his attention back to some of the Elites, who’d formed a sword arch.
The minister pall bearers stepped out of the processional line, carrying Kaiser Rudolpho’s casket through the arch. Two-by-two the swordsmen swung their swords down after the pall bearers passed by. At the mausoleum, they placed the casket on the stand under a statue of Rex Gryphus. With the casket in place, the pall bearers stepped out of the way. The drummers resumed, the swordsmen returned their swords to their scabbards, and then backpedaled into their original places.
In one voice, the Elite sang, “Astra declive. Morte est. Quidnunc? Sol oriens. Vive est.” As they sang, they reformed into two columns that marched toward Archel. Upon reaching the youth, the song abruptly stopped and the Elites dropped to one knee, shouting, “PAREO!”
Archel didn’t know how to respond, he glanced at Cassie, who knowingly shrugged her shoulders. One look at the Celatrix told him nothing and Colonel Dagon was unhelpfully one of those kneeling before him. He searched his mind for anything that might work and said the first thing that came to him, “oh. Sure.”