The Great Game
The leaves. The honeybees. The sheep, and the goats, and the bears. All these know their place in the world. Why, then, should the common man question his own? - Book of Dielle, 19.3
If the Château de Selvilles was a shining beacon of elegant prosperity, the Monastery in the Mountains was its antithesis. Perhaps in its early days the fortified complex had been whitewashed and polished, but now its stone walls took on a dark, smoky hue, eroded by centuries of weather and moss. It sat atop a mountain ridge with a sort of heft and gravitas that was unmatched by anything D’Alagin had ever seen; he had heard it was the second-largest structure in all of Dántaine and he believed it.
The monk who escorted him into the Monastery was a young man named Etienne. “Le Moine Principal will be with you shortly,” he muttered nervously, and then: “May I bring you some tea?”
“Please,” said D’Alagin, and Etienne retreated into some dusty back room to prepare the drink. D’Alagin unbuckled his sword from his belt, leaning it against the doorframe, and took the opportunity to inspect the office he had been led to. It was an intimate and thoughtfully-designed space. Cerulean wallpaper stood out from behind towering mahogany bookcases; a tasteful chandelier hung from a high ceiling and simple wood accents filled out the room. A vase of lilies was arranged on the windowsill.
He wondered for a moment what life was like for the men and women who lived in this place. Years of study and prayer, living sheltered and protected within the ancient fortress, drinking tea and reading books while the common people -- like himself -- tilled the fields and kept them safe. But as Etienne returned with the drink, diffident unease in his eyes, D’Alagin realized he would not trade his place in life for the world.
The liquid was scalding and had a bitter, earthy flavor that tickled his sinuses when he breathed in its steam. His eyes were still watering when the Moine Principal entered the office.
“Bonjour,” choked out D’Alagin, standing quickly and nearly spilling the tea all over his jacket.
“Please, sit,” said the monk. “My name is Père Gelmande. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
D’Alagin sat again and studied Gelmande’s face. It was impossible to tell his age. The man was pale, wrinkle-less, and shaven smooth; yet there was a calculating coldness behind those onyx eyes which he had only ever seen in his hardened, senior commanders who had forgotten how to feel joy.
“Père, if you please,” interrupted Gelmande with a smile, though he made no effort to disguise it as anything more than a saccharine facade.
“As you wish. Père, I am here at the Comte’s advisement, to inquire after a peculiar incident on the mountains.”
Gelmande’s eyes narrowed ever so slightly. “It must be very peculiar indeed for it to have brought you to the Monastery. I cannot say I have ever met the Commandant of the Guardsmen in person...nor even communicated with him through pen and paper.”
“I...well, oui, it was...quite strange.” D’Alagin took a drink of his tea as the monk watched him, motionless. The whole affair felt like a dream, one in which his tongue and voice would not properly obey his commands. The air was thick as he recollected what the Comte had said to him. Be tactful and cautious.
“Quite strange, yes,” he repeated. “Your pendant. It is, uh, beautiful.” If he had been hoping for a response, Gelmande gave him none, and he was forced to continue awkwardly, stumbling over his language. “Excellent...craftsmanship. Is it true that all monks at the monastery wear one?”
“Yes,” replied the monk, maintaining an icy eye contact. “From the day we graduate our studies.”
“I see,” said D’Alagin. “Well, Monsieur -- Père -- I believe one of your monks may be missing his pendant.”
Gelmande leaned forward, steepling his pallid fingers upon the desk. “And why,” he said quietly, “would you believe that, Monsieur le Commandant?”
“Because I found a pendant from the Monastery on a patrol.”
“Show it to me.”
“I do not have it. It is unwise to carry any more than is necessary on an expedition in the mountains, even if it is a single piece of jewelry. I am sure you can understand.”
There was a silence that seemed to freeze the very atmosphere between the two men, and with growing unease, D’Alagin realized that Gelmande’s eyes had flickered to the Commandant’s sword, which he had left standing against the doorframe when he had entered. Finally, the monk spoke. “The Monastery is a very ancient place. It is not unusual for items to go missing and reappear many years later in unexpected locations.”
“That sounds a bit like fairytale magic to me.”
“Or a magpie. Not all things to do with the Monastery are arcane, Commandant.”
“I have never seen a magpie in the mountains.”
Gelmande’s lips curled at the edges. “Perhaps some birdwatching excursions would serve you well, then.”
Another pregnant pause. D’Alagin could feel his heartbeat in his eardrums and see it pulsating at the edges of his vision. He reached deep into his inner wellspring of courage and drew up as much as he could. “Are there any monks missing from the Monastery, Père Gelmande?”
“No,” said Gelmande abruptly, and stood. His once-impassive voice betrayed a hint of anger. “There are not. Monsieur, you may tell the Comte that if I need his assistance with Church affairs, I will ask him myself.”
“Surely, as a Guardsman, it is my duty to-”
“Thank you for your time.”
D’Alagin pushed back his chair and made for the door. As he pushed it open, however, Gelmande cleared his throat.
“One last thing, Commandant. A word of caution, if you will. You may want to ask yourself why the Comte has used you, a chief of the Guardsmen, to carry out this political investigation. I have no doubt that you are a capable commander, but surely your skills are...ill-suited for this sort of role.”
D’Alagin opened his mouth to speak but found that he had nothing to say. Gelmande closed the door, and suddenly Etienne was ushering him out of the office tower and into the courtyard of the Monastery. It was early, but here on the mountains the sun set prematurely, sinking below the jagged peaks and painting them blood-red. As crimson light flooded the courtyard, D’Alagin thought of one final, last-ditch ploy.
“Etienne,” he said quietly. “I am afraid it is too late for me to depart at this time. I cannot ride across the realm in the dark.”
“Of...of course,” came the reply. “We have spare beds for this purpose. Let me show you.”
“No, no, do not trouble yourself. I am sure I can find it on my own, if you give me directions. For now...I think I will peruse your library, if I am allowed.”
It was easy to manipulate -- no, encourage -- the young man, and within minutes D’Alagin found himself in the expansive library of the Monastery. The smell of dust and vellum was enveloping. Awkwardly, gingerly, he inspected the countless tomes that lined the walls, stacked so high in some places that it was necessary to use a rickety ladder to access them. WIth each footfall on the weathered stone floor, with every creaking step on the ladder rungs, his heart jumped -- convinced that suddenly Gelmande would appear in the doorway, summoned by the noise, and drag him unceremoniously from the room. But the library remained empty, and soon he had collected six or seven volumes that all seemed to relate in some way to the missing monk on the mountains.
They were mostly historical records, though two were cartographical surveys, filled with painstakingly-detailed watercolor maps and decorated with what looked like real gold lettering. He found one or two references to “The Fountain,” which seemed to be an ancient, lost ritual site of some kind, and one map which displayed the “theorized outer extent of The Catacombs,” whatever that meant. But the atlases proved to be useless, and D’Alagin was forced to turn to the daunting task of reading through thousands of pages of monastic records.
As the lamplight flickered and his eyes grew heavy, he continued to read, not quite sure what he was searching for in the brittle papers. Due perhaps to some blessing of fate, he remained undisturbed. He wondered whether the monks had a curfew or bedtime. He wondered whether they all were like Etienne, bashful and unthinking and subservient. Gelmande, certainly, was not. D’Alagin supposed a man did not become Moine Principal without some element of ruthlessness to his character. Was he really so different himself?
And what had Gelmande been suggesting about the Comte? During their meeting Challant had seemed a portrait of sincerity, but doubt began to creep into D’Alagin’s mind as he considered the facts. Surely the Comte had agents at his bidding to do sensitive political work. Why had he selected a Guardsman? Was he trying to remove D’Alagin from the mountains? For what purpose?
D’Alagin was so consumed by thought that he nearly missed the relevant clue in Monastery Records, 502-540 Année de Paix. He bent closer, squinting at the binding and craning his head -- indeed; a sheet had been torn from the book. And, though he was far from an expert, the page for 16 Croumille, 513, seemed to be written in a different hand, with different ink, than its neighbors -- as if it had been filled in later.
Mind racing, D’Alagin scribbled the date on a scrap of paper and rushed to return the record book to its shelf. All thoughts of Challant had left him; what remained was a boiling concoction of dread, trepidation, and nervewracking thrill. There was a conspiracy, buried deep by the monastery and the church. And whatever it was, wherever it led him, he would find it out. He had been tasked to do so by his Comte. After all, he was a soldier. And it is a soldier’s task to obey.