“Admit the next petitioner,” the King ordered.
Tirevas Gelland loathed convening court. The fake smiles, the forced pleasantries, the inevitable traitor waiting to push a hot blade into his cold heart. He would never have aspired to a position such as this. No, he was born to it. The gods sure had a sense of humor.
It was a coveted role once, when Kilkara was prosperous and habitable. When men could hunt and farm and adventure. When hearths were warm and families were fed. When the depth of the King’s coffers could swallow a man. All before the cursed Red Tide began to bloom. Then, the throne had been contested. Now, there were no claimants, only malcontents. And it was his duty to see to them daily. Though there was little he could do.
The laws existed and were so unforgiving for good reason. They maintained a delicate balance that ensured Kilkara’s longevity. After all, there was only one forest left on the continent that still supported wildlife. Horticulture had taken to the rooftops throughout the capital, and very little, highly regulated pastoralism persisted on the northern grasslands. Few were brave or stupid enough to venture that far from the capital. Those who settled too near the barrens developed a malady the healers called acute bloom syndrome and more often than not would die. Even the waterways were clogged with rot. Piscators kept extensive, overpopulated fisheries away from the barrens, nearer to headwaters, so even much of Kilkara’s fresh water was polluted and undrinkable. No one had come on or gone off the continent in more than seven hundred years.
The clergy ensured no one ever forgot the Bloom nor the role the Diocesan Order played in stemming the tide. But even the almighty Order couldn't reverse the damage that had already been done. The Bloom had worked its way inland from all sides, enveloping the continent. Any area it had touched was contaminated and left fallow.
A conservative and precarious resource rationing scheme had been established to control dispensation. Crimes against it were punishable by death. At the same time, laws deterring crimes against persons had slackened. The best way to stay alive in Kilkara was to stay as near to the capital and as far from the barrens as possible. But there were no guarantees.
“Mercy,” a countryman cried, being dragged from Tirevas’ throne room.
Tirevas stood. “There is no mercy for thieving water.”
“It was not stolen, I swear.”
“Halt.” The guards stopped.
Tirevas descended the stairs from his dias and approached the condemned man, now on his knees. “I’ll give you one last chance. If you did not steal the water, then where did it come from?”
“Fine. It was a Dwarrian mechanism, I used a Dwarrian mechanism.” The man composed himself. “I collected the water from a stagnant pool and purified it with a Dwarrian contraption.”
“And this was a secret worth dying for?” Tirevas asked.
“No milord, but outside these walls it’s a secret worth killing for. I’m a dead man either way.”
Behind the King, a squirrely looking fellow in ornate robes stirred to life. He stopped just inches from Tirevas and whispered into his ear. Tirevas returned to his throne and sat down.
“I do not smile on your use of such contraband technology. I am a spiritual man, and this technological progress spits in the face of my beliefs. I’ve decided you will die . . . in the barrens.
“No!” the man screamed, breaking free from the guards. He had heard the stories, same as everyone else. How the barrens could boil a man to death. How first you lost all control of your faculties, followed by blistering and bleeding, and finally violent convulsions that racked the body to death over days or even weeks. The process was said to be prolonged and excruciatingly painful. Instead, the man ran across the throne room, bowling people out of his way and threw himself out of a window.
No one knows exactly how it started or why. It had gone on for so long that it had taken on a mythological dimension. There were of course conspiracy theories. Some blamed it on ancient magic gone awry, others think it was divine comeuppance for the extravagance of the upper classes. Still others attributed it to technological progress.
Only the clergy knew the truth and they keep it strictly locked and guarded in the arcane library within their walled enclave. The secret was protected in plain sight in the heart of the kingdom, in the heart of its capital city. Not even the King himself was permitted entry.
Tirevas judged the day’s final petition, then welcomed everyone to get the hell out of his throne room. He exited through a rear doorway that opened into the great hall, where a long table was sumptuously set for an evening meal. The squirrelly man in the ornate robes joined him.
“Patriarch,” Tirevas spoke with a mouthful.
“My lord, the Eltwyn chapter has reopened procedures.”
“Eltwyn? I didn’t authorize that.”
“I have authorized it. The Archbishop alleges a surge in heresy. This is in Kilkara’s best interests.”