"Why have you brought me here?"
The Abbot's chamber seemed fitting to Arjan for this confrontation, both as the monastery's seat of power and the scene of the crime.
"I could have called for a formal session of the tribunal, under my authority as Vicar, but I thought it might be more productive to speak to you in private, with only Brother Tashiin and Colce present. I'd hoped you would be more willing to explain to us why you murdered Abbot Kozil, Ryth."
The priestess looked at him in stunned surprise.
"Your Grace? How can you--" she stammered. "I couldn't--"
Arjan held up his hand.
"No, it was you. Everything about this murder points to an outsider unfamiliar with monastery routine. It is impossible to accidentally fall from the windows in this chamber, and given last night's weather it would not make sense for him to be on the roof. Nearly everyone I've spoken to today assumed that the Abbot had been murdered even with the knowledge that the snow on the roof was undisturbed. The only reason to push the body out the window would be to try to disguise the murder as an accident, but no resident here would have believed that. I myself was slower to come to that conclusion, even though His Reverence had told me himself that the cloud cover would interfere with his activities and there was no point in going up to the roof. Only an outsider would have made this basic mistake in attempting to conceal the crime."
"Then it must have been one of those hunters of yours, or maybe him, Your Grace," Ryth protested, gesturing at Colce.
"You might almost get the idea she doesn't like me," Colce said. He subsided when Arjan frowned at him; the Prelate did not consider a murder to be a subject for levity.
"That isn't possible."
"Why? Because they're from Vassha?"
"No, because the three of them slept in the outer room of my suite, alibiing each other as well as myself. As the only woman in the group you were given your own room in the female dormitory. and there is more, besides."
She stared at him in confusion. Arjan pointed to the brazier.
"The killer used that as the murder weapon, picking it up and striking the Abbot in the back of the neck. This is not something a trained fighting monk or hunter would do. Most carry weapons as a matter of course even if not intending violence, and a trained fighter would also know better ways to subdue an unarmed old man then to use such a clumsy improvised weapon. You and I, Ryth, are from similar backgrounds, cloistered scholars from an early age, and would be the two people most likely to make such a crude attack."
Ryth's truculence was beginning to fade as Arjan enumerated the evidence against her, worry starting to take shape.
"Another point against you is one raised by Colce. He wanted to know why the killer hadn't left a fake trail on the roof as part of the stage-dressing. I had a slightly different question. Since you wanted to disguise the killing as a fall from the roof, why not simply take him upstairs and drop him from there? The answer is that you simply were not physically capable of it. You are a very small woman and not particularly strong, whereas all but the most elderly monks and nuns are in peak condition. Dragging the Abbot's corpse to the window was most likely all you could manage. And, of course, the windows face inward, so you had no option but to drop the body into the courtyard instead of outside the monastery where it might have gone undiscovered for some time."
He looked searchingly at Ryth.
"I know that this crime could not have been premeditated. Her Eminence's decision to send you here to Azaana was hers alone. Nor did you mean to kill the Abbot when you came to these rooms last night, or else you'd have brought a weapon. Yet you, a devout priestess of the church, struck down a man universally believed to be a holy monk and a wise Abbot. There must have been some reason."
Tashiin could not contain himself any more. He stepped forward, fists shaking.
"Why did you do it, you apostate? Why did you kill Abbot Kozil?"
Ryth met his anger directly, a twisted snarl capturing her face.
"Apostate? If anyone turned his back on the Church it was him. Prelate Arjan mentioned that I was raised a ward of the Church, but did you know why I was orphaned? Your good, wise, and holy Abbot Kozil murdered my parents!"
"How dare you?" Tashiin shouted. "You'll take those lies back or else I'll--"
"Let her explain, Brother Tashiin," Arjan said. "She'll face justice for her crime in due course, but she has the right to be heard."
With an effort of will, Tashiin lowered his fists and stepped back away from Ryth.
"Thank you, Your Grace," she said mockingly. "I'm glad to know that your personal curiosity is important enough to refrain from taking summary vengeance." She paused, then sighed. "I'm sorry, Prelate. You didn't deserve that, and neither does Brother Tashiin. Have you ever heard of a village called Renet?"
The name was oddly familiar to Arjan, and in a moment he was able to recall why. Abbot Kozil himself had mentioned it the night before during their talk.
"It was near Nahar," he said softly, "and destroyed in 1296."
Ryth blinked in surprise.
"Yes, it was," she said. "Thirteen years ago. I was a child of twelve when the pai'tekkan's army decided that it was time to destroy the devil's tower. They moved into our village and took it over utterly as their base of operations. We were put out of our houses and shops; the soldiers took our quarters, our supplies, everything. We'd been invaded. Majo and Pajo tried to explain it to me, but I didn't know what Nahar was or why it needed to be destroyed.
"I don't know how much of the battle's history, you know, but the army successfully defeated the minions of darkness and half-destroyed the tower of Nahar itself. What they didn't do was stay and finish the job. Instead they retreated to Renet to celebrate and carouse. That night...we were attacked."
"The surviving creatures?"
"It was horrible. They slaughtered everyone they could reach, soldiers and citizens. Those of us who could barricaded ourselves inside buildings. Zombies and ghouls were wandering the streets, shadows coming to life and attacking people, it was horrible." Her eyes were blank, her mind far away. "I can still hear the screaming even now when I think about it."
She stopped, and a bitter spasm ran through her as she pulled herself back from the past.
"Then the soldiers ran. Oh, they probably called it a 'tactical retreat' or something like that, but they ran away. Some of the villagers ran with them...my father all but threw me into the back of a military vehicle, then went back for Majo. He...a mesoman..." She shook her head. "If he hadn't tried to rescue me, he wouldn't have been killed, and he only had to expose himself because the army was leaving the villagers to die."
Ryth looked challengingly at Arjan. The Prelate had nothing to say.
"That's not the worst of it, though. I've studied history, I know that armies lose battles, that they sometimes are routed and suffer horrible losses. There's no excuse for what happened next, though. The army regrouped on the ridgeline overlooking Renet. We could see the fires, hear the screams rising up to us. There were still people there, fighting, dying, and they...and they..."
Arjan remembered Kozil's own words.
"They destroyed the village."
"Last night, the Abbot spoke of the campaign in passing, that he had been a colonel during the attack on Nahar."
"They used their weapons of Palman technology," Ryth said bitterly. "With the war machines they'd managed to get out of the village, they launched an artillery strike. Missiles, plasma cannon...I don't know what else. But I stood not as far from Kozil as I do from you now, watching him shout to his men to fire. There were people still alive in there, some of their own soldiers, villagers, my mother...and the army killed them all rather than regroup and try a counterattack. Oh, they won the battle, but only by murdering dozens of the people they were supposed to protect. They dragged us into the fight, then botched the job and brought the enemy to us, then ran like cowards and shot us down."
"But Abbot Kozil wasn't the commanding general. He didn't make any of those tragic decisions," Arjan said.
"That's what he said when I confronted him last night," Ryth said. "I don't know how I controlled myself when I saw his face; I recognized him at once, but I didn't want to make a scene. This was a private thing. So I slipped back after everyone but the nightwatch was abed. I told him who I was, what I'd seen, demanded an explanation, and he took the coward's way out. Following orders! He couldn't even bring himself to face me when he said it! Then he said that he regretted the pain I'd suffered! Nothing about his own guilt, mind you, just that he was sorry for me." She was shaking, trembling with fury just as she no doubt had that night. "I couldn't believe it. He may not have made the decision, but he didn't pause to question it, ask if there was another way besides sacrificing innocent lives. He just passed on the order without hesitation. And he couldn't even admit that much! I didn't want that man's pity; he could never understand my feelings. I just wanted to know that he realized he'd been wrong! But he...but he..."
It took her a moment to master herself.
"I grabbed up the brazier and hit him. The rest of it is just like you said. I...was afraid, so I didn't want to be caught. I cleaned up the ashes and spilled coals, and I dragged Kozil's body to the window and pushed him through. I hoped the fall would cause enough damage that my hitting him would be concealed, but I didn't realize the courtyard wasn't kept swept free of snow."
"The wall is too thick to look down from the window," Arjan said.
"When I was done, I slipped back to my guest room. Luckily, no one saw me." She looked the Prelate squarely in the eyes. "If you hadn't solved the crime, I don't know if I would have eventually confessed. I admit, I didn't want to be caught and punished. But there is one thing I do know." She turned to Tashiin, her gaze as intent as when she'd faced Arjan. "I know that taking vengeance was wrong. I know that the hatred I feel for him even now is wrong. And I am willing to freely admit it, instead of trying to hide it from people who already know. I may be afraid of the consequences, but at least I'm not afraid of the truth."
"No, Ryth," Arjan corrected her softly, "I think you are. The Way of Heaven teaches us to face our sins honestly, it is true. It does not teach us to take pride in them."
She flinched as if struck, and the pained look lasted as Tashiin took her from the room.
"So what now, boss?" Colce asked.
"The investigation is complete. I'll write up a formal report, and the monastery should be able to conclude the case in its own tribunal. If you start packing now, we should be ready to leave by the time I'm finished. I find myself yearning to be home."
"You and me both." Colce then broke into a sudden grin. "The wine here's not bad, but to my mind there's really no point in staying in a place where every girl's taken a vow of chastity."