ON THIS PARTICULAR DAY, a glorious sunny day in mid-winter here on Pantheon the central world of the Alliance, the imposing figure of Ravan Tal strode with a purpose across the soft-pink marbled floor. Each footfall of her boots echoing about the cavernous interior of the Odessa’s Palace. Tall slender columns of fluted marble soared into a vaulted roof above, which was decorated in the renaissance style of another era. Heavenly cherubs looked down on the Inquisitor as she passed, but her eyes remained focused on a single point some distance hence. A huge arched doorway flanked by two soldiers dressed in their ornate palace livery. Each holding pikes stood at attention fending off hours of silence and boredom.
The Inquisitor approached like a black-clad figure out of history. Cloak swirling behind her like the flapping wings of some huge monstrous raven of Pantheon myth. All she needed to complete the picture of menace was the long dark flowing hair of a Valkan. As it was, the Inquisitor wore her dark hair short, cropped closed to her skull, which was usually hidden beneath the hood of her cloak when out in public places. The one thing that identified her to all un-sundry, if not her elevated status, was the large silver ornate clasp with the Inquisitor’s Sigil, on her cloak.
At the last minute, as if she knew the Cherubs above her were curious to know what she looked like, Ravan Tal pushed the hood back to reveal her face. Upon nearing the twin guards, the pair snapped to attention pikes in full salute, eyes straight ahead, as they acknowledged her rank. In unison and as if by magic, the two huge carved golden doors parted with perfect timing, allowing Ravan Tal to pass into the private reception area beyond, which, even at this early juncture of the morning, was crowded with petitioners and hopefuls. The assembled waited to see the Odessa, or, at the very best, one of her senior Ministers. Though most would be lucky to see a junior minister, let alone the Odessa herself.
Ignoring the openly staring faces and not breaking step or pace, as the sea of bodies moved or stepped back from her, the Inquisitor angled toward a small plain-wood door in the far corner of the room. Not pausing to knock, Ravan Tal grasped the handle, opened the door, and walked into the comfortably furnished office that looked more like a Lady’s drawing room.
“Where is she?” The voice full of authority asked. Ravan Tal finally came to a halt a foot from the desk.
A plain but immaculately dressed woman of middle years looked up from her work at the desk she sat at, and doffing a pair of half-moon glasses, smiled.
“Ah! Ravan Tal, and a delightful good morning to you too.” The soft-faced plump woman rose and came round her desk to greet the Inquisitor. There was no handshake between Lillian Argenta, the Odessa’s Chief of Staff, and the Inquisitor, Ravan Tal. Not only was it not protocol to do so, as skin contact with an ordinary sensitive wasn’t without risk, but that it was socially abhorrent by non-Sensitives to stand too close, let alone associate with a Sensitive. Not so Argenta, who stepped toward Ravan Tal so that their personal space merged as one. And act more in deference to her, than defiance.
“You have not changed one bit, Lillian Argenta.” The voice softened.
“Really?” Argenta flicked a brow and cocking her head to one side, looked the Inquisitor up and down. “Nor have you.” She paused but a heartbeat, “shall I tell your mother you were here?” She continued the ritual.
Betraying no emotion, Ravan Tal nodded, “yes, my t’aunt, you may.”
Argenta caught the ghost of a smile as it turned one corner of the Inquisitor’s mouth. So, despite the stern appearance, the Inquisitor was in a forgiving mood. Forgiving mood or not, Argenta didn’t say, ‘when was the last time you saw your mother, my sister Rekha?’ Or even, ‘you should visit your mother, you know she misses you.’ No amount of pleading on her account would make the Inquisitor change her mind. Would heal wounds that ran deep, or would mend bridges long since burned. Argenta, for her part, had learnt that lesson early on and in the twenty year that had passed since Ravan Tal had been elevated to the highest order of Grand Inquisitor, nothing had changed between mother and daughter.
The distance was just too great.
“The Odessa is waiting for you in her private quarters.”
Keeping her sigh to herself, Argenta turned and walked toward another door hidden in a recess on the far wall. She didn’t wait for her guest to follow.
Staring at the departing back for a heartbeat, Ravan Tal felt a wave of emotion threaten to crash in on her senses. She reined it in as she followed Argenta through into the more modestly decorated corridor beyond.
It had been like this for days. Pressure, at the back of her skull, as if a tremendous headache threatened. Her senses all on alert not just tingling with anticipation. Something that happened every time she held a crystal in her open palm. But a full on array that, at times these last few days, had made her feel like she were drowning with sensory overload. This was more than anything else she had ever dealt with; in any case she had handled over the last twenty years. And she handled only the most significant or important cases assigned her by the Five Law Lords or the Odessa herself.
Today looked to be one of those days when the Odessa, Aerian Caligisto, had something of a politically sensitive nature for her to deal with. And of that, she had only a small inkling of what it might be.
Argenta took her through a maze of look-alike corridors that ended when they arrived at a modest looking wooden door flanked by two elite Palace Guards, each dressed in combat-ready uniforms, complete with suitable weaponry.
One guard took a couple of minutes to scan both the Odessa’s Chief of Staff and the Inquisitor with a handheld device, confirming that their identities were genuine, while the other guard looked on weapon held at the ready. Verification of their DNA complete, and at the nod from his fellow guard, the pair was allowed access to the room beyond.
In the old part of the palace, where the doorways were a good foot smaller than elsewhere, Ravan Tal instinctively ducked her head as she followed Argenta into the well-appointed salon. The upholstered furniture spoke of use and comfort. It smelled of well-worn leather and Lilacs, the Odessa’s favourite flowers. And, true to form, as Tal made her way to an overly large stuffed pink brocade settee, she spied any number of vases of fresh cut blooms adorning the room. She stifled the urge to sneeze. She was not good around flowers, animals or children. The last having nothing to do with any perceived allergic reaction. Children were brutally honest. Up until a certain age, before they learnt any guile or how to lie effectively, their errant butterfly thoughts leaked out and pooled around their fragile bodies like so much static.
“You might as well take your cloak off, sit and get comfortable, she might be awhile,” Lillian Argenta stood by a broad but plain antique desk, “I’ll order you kaffir?” She asked from across the room, as Ravan Tal unclasped her cloak and laid it across one end of the settee, along with a black-leather satchel that the cloak had hidden beneath.
“You still prefer those heavy-roasted beans from Malakhai?” Argenta watched the Inquisitor, as the tall slender woman sat. Those impossibly long legs only just finding room beneath the glass table. It was still a wonder to her even now that her little sister’s daughter had risen to not only become a Judge, but Grand Inquisitor. The family, as a whole, had been well blessed over the years with position and places of power through marriage, manipulation and deed. But raw talent? A talent like Ravan Tal’s? Never. No one in the family’s entire history, that went back several centuries, had ever manifested as a Sensitive. Ever.
“Yes. Thank you.”
Argenta, she decided, was being particularly accommodating. Ravan Tal narrowed her eyes but a fraction, and watched the plump woman fuss over items on the desk, rearranging them, avoiding not only eye contact but conversation. Well enough. Tal thought. She would find out what the intrigue was, soon enough, from the mouth of the Odessa herself. It was a little out of the ordinary for Argenta not to have given her a pre-brief in the Chief of Staff’s own office on the other side of the palace, and more than a little unusual to be here, in the Odessa’s private and, no doubt, well-shielded quarters. There were any number of discussions even the Odessa, Tal was sure, didn’t want her, the Grand Inquisitor, listening into by accident.
Whatever it was the Odessa wanted her to deal with on this day, was both sensitive and, more than likely, as she had not heard any whispers on her voyage in from the outer colonies, still very much a secret to the rest of the Alliance. Not even her staff at this morning’s briefing had the vaguest idea of what this hastily called-for meeting was all about. Her own personal spy-network hadn’t quite failed her though. One of her trusted, the thief Kevyn Brant, had sent one unadorned word to her.