“I have not brought any of these concerns to you before because, as much as the circumstantial evidence has piled up, it remains only circumstantial,” Toby explained. “Veilgrad, Ninkabi, Puna Dara, all these events are linked to Justinian, but not through evidence that could be asserted in a court of law. Even as Trissiny has gained access to the testimony of Khadizroth the Green about the Archpope’s activities… I’m sure you can imagine, Grandmasters, why the dragon’s word could be dismissed. I have deemed it best not to act in haste, especially when a careless tongue could provoke a hostile reaction from the Universal Church, or at the very least create political waves that would affect Omnu’s faithful.”
“It is wise to respect the power of words, and to be reticent,” Grandmaster Niontu stated, nodding his head once in a ponderous motion. “We have observed how the Sisterhood of Avei has been affected by its rash actions toward the Church.”
“Actions to which you were party, Tobias, if I am not mistaken,” added Grandmaster Eshii. “Perhaps you learned something of the dangers of interfering in others’ affairs from those events?”
“Excuse me, Grandmaster Eshii, but the opposite occurred,” Toby said, turning to her with a respectful bow of his head. “The handling of Bishop Syrinx was an internal Avenist matter, in which the Hand of Avei requested my help. I of course rendered it, as I deemed the cause just, and I would hope she would do likewise were I forced to call upon her. It was the Archpope who chose to insert himself forcibly into Avei’s business.”
“Viewed in that light, the whole matter with the Church and the Sisterhood changes color,” Grandmaster Mueller commented. Alone among the Grandmasters of the Dawn Council, she lounged in a half-sprawled position on her assigned cushion, while the rest sat serenely in lotus posture. “If the Archpope presumes to punish a major cult of the Pantheon for failing to bow to his wishes, he’s clearly getting too big for his boots.”
Grandmaster He made a series of motions with his hands in the silent language in which he communicated; standing behind him and to his left, his attendant bowed and interpreted aloud. “Hand of Omnu,” she said, her tone respectfully soft as always, “your tale of adventure at Vesk’s behest is a different matter. You gained both firsthand observation and the testimony of a god of the Pantheon that the Archpope has dabbled in forbidden powers toward selfish ends. Why have you only now brought this to the Council?”
“We should be mindful of how the thirty-year silence may have affected our perceptions of paladins,” Grandmaster Srivastariphan interjected before Toby could reply. “Especially after the protective role we have played in young Tobias’s early training. If he is deemed mature enough to journey on divinely appointed quests, he does not require oversight. It is our duty to provide guidance, administration, and a moral example to the faithful. The Hand of Omnu’s duty is to intervene directly where Omnu deems intervention needful. Ours are separate spheres.”
Eshii tilted her head slightly, causing a soft rattle of the beads hanging from her long ears. “And yet, when the Hand of Omnu comes before the Dawn Council, the order and relevance of events of which he tells us is clearly material to the subject at hand.”
“It can be taken as given that the Hand of Omnu need not update us on everything he has done, or discovered,” said Niontu, who represented the Cultivator sect which had raised Toby and formed the vast preponderance of Omnist belief on the Tiraan continent. “We are grateful that you have informed us of these things, even as this very information begs the question: why have you come before us now?”
They were a disparate lot, the Dawn Council. Unlike most of the Pantheon religions headquartered in Tiraas or at least on the continent, they were a truly centralized administration for the faith, whose reach was worldwide. Depending on the cult, the local leadership might be a true global authority in name only; most were simply that, the local leaders, whoever had risen to prominence here in the Tiraan chapter of their faiths. The Dawn Council, by contrast, comprised the elected or appointed figureheads of all seven formally recognized denominations of Omnism, several of which had scant presence in Imperial territory aside from their Council representative. As such, they came here from the world over. In the Dawn Council’s current composition, it happened that there were no Tiraan at all, and only Grandmaster Niontu of Onkawa and Grandmaster Mueller of Stalwar were even from the Empire. There were other sects within the faith, but smaller ones, which did not seek a role in the running of the cult. Omnists in general liked to be unobtrusive.
Under the combined weight of their serene scrutiny, Toby indulged in a moment to center himself, inhaling and deliberately drawing in the peace of Omnu’s presence with the air. From here, the conversation would increasingly demand every shred of his own inner calm. Not unlike the unshakable serenity through which he had suborned Omnu’s own will in Ninkabi, he must remain inwardly harmonious while imposing his desires upon others. Here, at least, the act would have much less frightening implications.
Even with the force of their attention upon him, the Chamber of the Dawn was an environment which made it easy to calm and center oneself, by design. The center of its domed ceiling held a disc of crystal, one of the faith’s most sacred artifacts, which concentrated sunlight and streamed it into the room. Regardless of the weather outside, at any point between dawn and dusk, the Chamber of the Dawn was filled with warm beams of concentrated sunshine, a particularly precious commodity here in Tiraas. The seven members of the Council sat on cushions on the floor along the lip of stone encircling the chamber. Directly inside that was a circular trench in which water ran, softly gurgling and making the lilies and reeds planted in it bob gently. Toby stood upon the central stone island, where anyone seeking to address the Council was positioned. He still wasn’t sure what the source was of the soft breeze that made the climbing vines and small potted trees decorating the wall between Council members rustle. Doubtless something magical.
“I have come, honored Grandmasters,” he stated once he was certain of his equanimity, “to urge you to take action in response to this threat.”
“Do not be hasty, Tobias,” Grandmaster Eshii chided gently.
“Our way is peace,” Grandmaster Vadyevitch agreed. “We do not impose our beliefs upon others, least of all the Church.”
“He suggested neither haste nor imposition,” Grandmaster Mueller said with clear exasperation. “We’re talking about responding to a corrupt Archpope imposing himself upon us, not to mention everyone else in the world.”
“The honored Grandmasters should ever recall that peace is not passivity,” Grandmaster He’s attendant translated his rapid signing.
So far, about what Toby had expected. Mueller spoke for the Briars, the smallest sect represented on the Council, whom outsiders to the faith sometimes derided as “vegetarian Shaathists.” There were no more than a handful in the Empire, most concentrated in Stalwar, while their largest populations were in Glassiere and a few other cold climates. The Briars were survivalists, their lore more interested in foraging wild food than cultivating crops; they mostly traveled, helping people and small rural communities feed themselves in lean times, and providing aid to other wanderers on the roads. Grandmaster He wore the red and gold robes of his own order, the Open Hand, who were concentrated in Shengdu and were the originators and leading practitioners of the Sun Style martial arts.
Grandmaster Eshii was a bit unusual for being the only elf currently on the council. The peoples known in the Empire as “plains elves” actually were called “sun elves” in elvish. If a plains (or sun) elf felt the need to join a Pantheon cult, it was far and away most likely to be Omnism; they had a strong affinity for the sun and favored warm climes, though they practiced relatively little agriculture. Despite their smaller numbers, the simple fact of their lifespans meant elves were often among the oldest and most respected masters of their various traditions, and often found their way to a Council appointment. At some points in its history, the Council had been mostly or even entirely comprised of elves. Unlike humans, for whom membership on the Dawn Council was generally a lifetime position, elves usually served for a few decades and then stepped down.
Toby had expected the survivalist and martial artist to favor action; they generally did. Grandmaster Eshii represented the Radiants, the keepers of Omnist magical tradition, who also tended to cautiously embrace a proactive style, but it seemed elven conservatism won out in her case. Well, it was no great surprise and he hadn’t been counting on her support. It seemed five of the seven were likely to urge caution and complacency, much as he’d expected.
He immediately had to revise that assessment at her next words.
“Please do not misunderstand me,” Eshii insisted gently. “I urge caution, not inaction. In the face of events such as this, it seems to me that we cannot but act. However, haste leads always to ruin. It is essential that we observe and deliberate before committing to any course.”
“Yes, I agree,” added Grandmaster Srivastariphan. “At the minimum, we must gather more information, from as great a variety of sources as can be managed. Not that I doubt the veracity of the Hand of Omnu in the slightest,” he added with a nod toward Toby, who bowed his head courteously in response, “but it is basic practice which must be observed, when the stakes are so high. More information is always better than less.”
He spoke for the Golden Book, which mostly concerned itself with preserving knowledge and lore; this was no more or less than Toby had expected from the next best thing to a Nemitite. The lack of surprises continued with the next interjection.
“I do not agree,” Grandmaster Akili said tonelessly. Sitting in the most perfect lotus posture of any of them save possibly Grandmaster He, she actually had her eyes closed and might have been meditating, had she not spoken. “There are multiple cults within the Pantheon’s aegis which concern themselves with rooting out corruption, and responding rapidly to changing events in the world. The sun rises, the sun sets. The winds blow and clouds pass, but the truth of the sun is unchanging. We are the peace beneath the tumult. To intervene in politics is not our purpose, nor our place.”
“Akili is correct,” Grandmaster Vadyevitch agreed. “You mentioned your cooperation with Trissiny Avelea, Tobias. This, it would seem, is her mandate, not yours. Not ours.”
Mueller let out the tiniest huff of breath, which for a Grandmaster of the Dawn Council was as good as a derisive outburst from anyone else. Toby kept to his own inner harmony, though frankly he was more inclined to be irritated at Mueller than the other two. Her impatience was not going to win any sympathy, and anyway, they had acted precisely as he’d anticipated.
Akili and Vadyevitch, of the Keepers and Preservers, the guardians of Omnist meditative discipline and healers, respectively. Keepers and Preservers could be difficult to tell apart from Cultivators, as they wore the same formal brown robes and often dwelled in the same temples. The difference was they were usually found in the robes and in the temples, whereas Cultivators preferred to be working in gardens or running their homeless shelters and soup kitchens, in work-appropriate attire and saving formal robes for (rare) formal occasions. These two denominations dispersed themselves through the populations of others, concerning themselves mostly with training and ministering to fellow Omnists. They definitely did not shift themselves to take independent action. On anything.
“I understand your frustration, Grandmaster Mueller,” Akili said without opening her eyes. “I urge you to let it pass.”
“That’s your answer to everything,” Mueller retorted, “and a good example of why your voice is but one on a council of seven.”
“As are we all,” Akili replied in utter serenity.
Toby caught a flicker of movement; Grandmaster He had struck the bronze bell sitting near his feet with a lightning-quick jab, causing it to ring as clearly as if hit by a hammer. That explained the purpose of the bell, which Toby had wandered about. Respect for one’s master was a big deal among the Open Hand; his attendant would be extremely reluctant to interrupt the Grandmasters of the Dawn council, leaving him one recourse for interjecting himself into the conversation at need.
“This argument is premature,” the young woman translated He’s signing. “The Hand of Omnu has come here to request action. The Council should hear what action he proposes before passing judgment.”
“This is good sense,” Eshii agreed. “Please, Tobias, share with us your plan. It will be, at the very least, a starting point.”
Toby let the condescension wash off him, bowing to He, to Eshii, and finally to Vadyevitch.
“Honored Grandmaster Vadyevitch is correct to mention the Hand of Avei, with whom I have conferred about this. The plan is hers, but the Hand of Vidius and myself have consulted with her in forming it, and both of us are in agreement. Gabriel Arquin is right now meeting with Lady Gwenfaer to urge the Vidians to take the same action the Sisterhood of Avei is about to commit, and which I ask the Dawn Council now to embrace.”
Mueller nodded and Eshii gestured for him to continue; the others simply waited with unruffled calm.
“I don’t know whether you have been informed of this, but the Thieves’ Guild withdrew its Bishop from the Universal Church immediately after the Battle of Ninkabi, in protest of the evidence of Justinian’s involvement in precipitating that event.”
“Evidence which, as you have pointed out, is inconclusive,” Eshii commented. “The Eserites have succeeded only in marginalizing themselves. A cautionary tale about the danger of acting in haste.”
“Please continue, Tobias,” Mueller said pointedly.
He bowed to her before doing so. “The Eserites are a smaller and widely disliked cult, it is true; it should be no surprise that they have garnered little support for their campaign. By the end of today, however, they will be joined in solidarity by the Sisterhood of Avei. Trissiny and High Commander Rouvad have decided that the Sisterhood shall bypass Justinian’s interference and appoint an Avenist Bishop, who will join Bishop Darling in seeing to their cult’s interfaith relations. Outside the auspices of the Universal Church.”
Grandmaster He signed rapidly, a thin smile cracking above his long white goatee.
“A bold and clever action,” his interpreter translated, “in the best tradition of the Avenists.”
“Best?” Niontu replied, frowning. “I am concerned that this further reflects Trissiny Avelea’s established penchant for extreme violence, taken into the political realm.”
“I am concerned that this reflects the influence of Trissiny Avelea’s violent temper upon our own paladin,” Grandmaster Vadyevitch said solemnly, “a subject about which this Council has deliberated in the past.”
Oh, had they? Interesting.
“You want us to do the same,” Mueller said to Toby, ignoring her colleagues’ commentary.
He bowed again. “The Sisterhood has immense credibility. Their action against the Church will make a powerful statement against Justinian’s ambition and corruption. If all three of the Trinity cults act in unison, that statement will become impossible for the Archpope to dismiss, and difficult for him to maneuver around. More importantly, it will inspire corresponding actions from some of the smaller cults; with careful encouragement, more still can be persuaded to join.”
“You propose a complete abrogation of all spiritual custom!” Grandmaster Srivastariphan exclaimed. “A thousand years of tradition—traditions which exist for good reason.”
“This is a textbook example of what I meant by acting in haste,” Eshii added with a desultory shake of her head that set her earrings to rattling again.
“It’s a good plan,” Mueller said laconically.
“The needs of the moment must never overwhelm consideration for the whole scope of history, past and future,” Akili intoned.
“This is far too bold, Tobias,” Niontu added in a tone of patrician concern. “An appropriate action for Omnists against political ambitions such as Justinian’s would be to gently urge cooperation from the other cults, and a measure of reason and restraint from the Church itself.”
“Such aggression is not Omnu’s way,” said Grandmaster Vadyevitch. “Even in the arena of politics and words, violence is violence.”
“And violence is to be avoided if there remains the slightest possibility of so doing,” Toby agreed earnestly. “Hope and calm will not achieve this, honored Grandmasters. To negate the outgrowth of violence, we must observe the situation carefully to foresee where it may arise, and act gently in advance of events to ensure that it does not.”
Grandmaster He struck his bell again, but rather than signing for his interpreter, when the others turned to look in his direction he bowed deeply toward Toby from his sitting posture. Toby bowed back.
“Rash action is the opposite of forfending violence, Tobias,” Grandmaster Eshii said gently.
“I concur entirely,” Toby replied, bowing to her now. “Thus, it is strategic action which is necessary. That is what I propose. It is the role of Omnu’s faithful, and our highest priority in matters such as this, to prevent and minimize violence. In this situation, Justinian’s increasing ambition and disregard for the autonomy of cults and individuals, to say nothing of the gods themselves, is going to lead inexorably to violence. It’s astonishing that the Eserites have not already begun attacking the Church, but I can’t say how long their restraint will hold out. The Avenists are explicitly martial in nature, the Salyrites have never shied from aggressive action when provoked, and some among the Vidians are well known to be as ruthless as they are subtle. If this situation is allowed to continue spiraling, there will be bloodshed—and that blood will be upon our hands as much as Justinian’s, if we discard our opportunity to prevent it. This explicitly political action to isolate and neutralize Justinian will pave the way for his removal through peaceful means. His removal is absolutely necessary, and any other means are to be avoided if at all possible.”
Grandmaster He spoke with his hands, echoed seconds later by his attendant. “When struck, one must move with the blow. To wait for it to land before deciding upon a response is the path of defeat.”
“Excellent advice for a fight,” Grandmaster Niontu chided, “but this is not one of those.”
“I respectfully suggest, honored Grandmaster, that you defer to Grandmaster He and the Hand of Omnu concerning what is and is not a fight,” Mueller said, deadpan. “They have courteously refrained from lecturing you on how to grow barley.”
“Really, Laura,” Vadyevitch murmured.
“Peace, please,” Eshii implored, raising both her hands. “I believe we have come to a difference of opinion concerning the details of a matter upon which we have broad agreement. The actions of the Archpope, as our paladin have warned us, require consideration, and probable response. We must confer, in detail, and decide exactly what we shall do.”
“Yes,” Srivastariphan agreed quickly. “Due consideration is essential; above all else we must avoid acting in haste, and thus in error. The care such deliberation demands will give us the opportunity to observe unfolding events as the Sisterhood and possibly the Brethren take action. We can learn more from this.”
“We thank you for bringing these things to our attention, Tobias,” said Niontu, nodding deeply to him. “Obviously, we’ll not ask you to stand before us while such an in depth discussion proceeds. Before you take your leave, was there anything else you wished to bring to the Council’s attention?”
“Yes.” He inhaled again; this was the moment. Only by retaining serenity in the face of what was about to happen would he remain in control of the situation. “Doubtless, honored Grandmasters, you are aware that the role of paladins has always involved the gathering of their own allies and resources from outside the faith. I am glad to say I have been blessed in this area, and have many connections upon which to call. In particular, influence with several noble Houses and newspapers under their control, as well as connections in other cults, will be of use in spreading this message. While you confer, honored Grandmasters, I shall ensure the world knows that I, speaking as Omnu’s mortal representative, reject Justinian and his Church, and will urge all who are faithful to Omnu or any god of the Pantheon to join me.”
“Tobias!” Niontu exclaimed.
“Haste, young man,” Eshii said, more sharply than she had spoken to him yet.
“You must not act in advance of the Council!” said Vadyevitch. “You risk issuing a statement which contradicts our decision.”
While they reacted volubly, Grandmaster Mueller’s eyebrows shot upward, but she remained silent. Grandmaster He watched Toby closely for a moment, and then deliberately smiled and nodded his head once.
“I appreciate your zeal,” Eshii said in a more soothing tone, “but Tobias, you must not pursue such an action.”
“Indeed,” Srivastariphan agreed, nodding emphatically, “you must wait for the Council’s decision before taking a public stance, young man.”
“The fact that you would suggest such a thing demonstrates exactly why,” Vadyevitch added. “You do not comprehend the ramifications such an action could have.”
“Forgive me, honored Grandmaster, but you are mistaken,” Toby said politely, bowing to him. “I understand precisely. I ask your pardon for the presumption, honored Grandmasters, but I do not ask permission.” Straightening his back, he let the beams of the sun crystal bathe him and met each of their eyes in turn. “I am the paladin of Omnu. It is my duty to act, to do what I judge is necessary. The Dawn Council does not have the authority to countermand me, nor does it have the power.”
“Do you hear yourself?” Grandmaster Eshii demanded, aghast. “Such defiance risks creating a schism within the cult!”
“You should be aware, honored Grandmasters, that plots are afoot to engender exactly that, within both the Sisterhood and the Thieves’ Guild. I expect similar attacks to occur within any cult which takes a stand against Justinian. There will be a schism among Omnu’s faithful. By acting in advance, with strategy and forethought, I will enable you to predict where and how it will form, and thus minimize the damage inflicted.” He turned to Grandmaster He and bowed deeply. “As we were just reminded, when one is struck, one must move with the blow.”
“That is nonsense,” Niontu insisted. “You could easily avoid the existence of such a rift by not taking this action!”
“Yes,” Toby agreed, serene in the face of their displeasure. “But since I am going to do it anyway, you now have advance notice that it will form. Now, while the Council deliberates, you can decide whether you wish to damage your credibility and authority by setting yourself at odds with Omnu’s mortal representative, or flow with the motions as you were all taught in the martial arts. I deeply apologize for this presumption,” he repeated, bowing again to all of them, “but the storm is coming, honored Grandmasters. I cannot, in good conscience, allow you to be soaked while you debate whether to go inside. If this means giving you a push, so be it. In the end, we will all be judged for our actions. In my case, they will be actions, not passive intentions.”
All seven of them stared at him in silence. Most appeared stunned, but Mueller and He both regarded him with small smiles of approval.
“I thank you for your time, honored Grandmasters,” Toby said diffidently, bowing a final time before turning to go. “You have many important matters to discuss; I should not distract you any longer.”
So declaring, he turned and walked out of the chamber at a serene glide.
Hopefully they would decide to join him in repudiating Justinian. If not, their Bishop was going to land in hot water with the Council; he had met with her first, and attained her agreement with his plan. Whatever they decided, the Omnist Bishop would shortly be joining the Eserite, Avenist and hopefully Vidian in rejecting Justinian’s reign.
That, they did not need to know until it was too late for them to stop.