“Mother of All. Mother of the World. Mother of the Spheres. Thank you for granting us beginnings.
- Prayer to Maiyou
I am going to die.
For that I curse him.
I am still alive.
For that I curse him.
My soul, lingers, awkwardly, like a squatter in a home that has already been repossessed.
I am fairly sure I stopped breathing a few minutes ago. I should have already happily sunk down to Gorgus' Deep Halls like a sensible dead girl.
But no. I'm stuck here, waiting on his pleasure. He has to see to me personally. It's all poetry and propriety and the proper way to do things with him.
I have a god.
Soon he will come for me.
That's what they told me all these years ago.
That's what I've been dreading all of this time.
They also told me that when you die, you see your whole life laid out before you, all of your mistakes, and triumphs and absurd little moments. I never believed them.
Ugh. I do not want to revisit all of my past idiocies.
At least there is no more pain. It's just me, the ghost of Darsena, and that dead hunk of what used to be me, about a foot below me. I try to control my thoughts. Meditate. Recite the appeal to Meiyou. Recite the Oath of Kazath.
I am so bored.
My mind is wandering, and I cannot stop it and I cannot help but dwell on things and am annoyed that I am thinking of times I forgot, days I put behind me. I am waiting for the visit of the Lord of the Seven Prisons and the Sleeping Dead, and he is late and I am growing annoyed and distracted and for that I curse him. I am trying to steel my will and prepare for his coming, but in my mind, I am a little girl again.
I am six.
I am dispassionate.
Everything is dispassionate. Today, I learned that word. I roll it around on my tongue.
Today, I am six.
The monks are watching us from behind their black hoods dispassionately. The children are reading their texts dispassionately. I stifle a giggle, because I just learned the word dispassionate.
The book I'm reading has many new words in it. Today I discovered this one. A moment before, I grabbed at the hem of the robe of one of the monks as he walked past. I asked him what the word means. He told me.
I stifled another giggle and said it out loud. Some of the other girls looked up at me for a moment as I pondered its meaning.
It sounded... right.
The monks are walking back and forth across the floor. We are sitting and reading. The entire temple is open today; a warm breeze is floating in from the ocean. The panels all along the western wall are thrown wide. The cushions and tables are pushed against the walls, and the wood floor is bare. The girls are sitting together in the sunlight on the porch with our books. The boys are near the altar, in the shadows, reciting lineages. Yesterday, it was reversed. I memorized the lineage of a man named Kazath with strange sounding parents and grandparents. Today, I am reading about the Queen of the Fair Folk, and her trade agreements with a city called Kazio.
Today, I learned the word dispassionate.
Dispassionate is how the monks are watching us read. We are not dispassionate. We giggle and whisper to each other and the monks are suddenly there, whispering back with reminders and corrections.
When Tahi, who is eight, is gently chastised for talking to Anuk, and throws down her book and says that she is done with reading, she is not very dispassionate.
The monks remain dispassionate as they grip her arms and drag her outside. Tahi is still not dispassionate. She kicks and screams as they dispassionately tie her to the post in the courtyard. Tahi is still not dispassionate. She screams as they dispassionately whip her bloody. Tahi is still not dispassionate. She whimpers quietly as they treat her wounds, dispassionately.
Tahi is still not dispassionate, but a week later, when she answers a monk's questions on the text correctly, they reward her with a crown of flowers and extra cake at dinner, and something in my mind wakes up and notices that even this is done dispassionately.
The monks are always dispassionate, even if we are not expected to be.
Tahi is eight, and learns quickly. I am six. A month later, I am distracted when I should be reading, and watch the trees and the sky and some birds for an hour, and when one of the monks quizzes me on what I was supposed to have read, I have no answer. He is not angry. His eyes are calm, but as he gently, but firmly, steers me away from the other children, I get a good glimpse under a monk's hood for the first time. The eyes are calm. They are not angry. But they are not kind.
They are dispassionate.
I imagine that they remain dispassionate as I am chained to the post and whipped. I cannot see from where I am. I forget to wonder about dispassionate things as the lash bites into the skin of my back. I am not very dispassionate at all as I shriek and struggle against the chains. But as they apply salve and bandages to my back afterwards, I sneak another look under the hood, and even as I flinch from the sting of the antiseptic, I marvel that the monks remain dispassionate.
I wonder why.
I am eight.
I read, and recite, and draw, and dance, and exercise, and run, and play, and climb, and fight, and eat, and sleep, and sing, and think, and cooperate and compete. New children come, always those without parents. Older children leave. One day, Tahi is gone, and the monks ignore my questions about her.
I live in the temple, with the other children, and we learn, and we play, and always, always we are watched by the monks in the black hoods. We do chores as assigned to us, and study as directed, and in our free time stay well within the courtyard walls surrounding the temple building.
Failure, or refusal, is always punished. Success is always rewarded.
There is never any anger. Everything is always fair. None are favored. None are begrudged. The same cold, exacting standard judges and measures each of us, boy and girl alike.
I learn, and I succeed, and I fail. I am rewarded, and I am whipped again, and I am ignored. I am praised, I am corrected, I learn.
I am taught.
Finally, one day, I ask why.
I am five years old again.
My parents are dead.
Fire is everywhere. Red and orange, reflected in the spreading red on the floor.
The door is broken, the table is broken, the chairs are broken.
Mother and father are broken.
Shouting and rushing and loud noise and screams and horses and fire fire fire fire fire.
He is there now. His face is red. Red like the fire, and the blood. He has a monster's face. It is a wooden face. It is a red, wooden face. It is smiling. It is not a happy smile. It is full of teeth.
His robes are red, like his face. I shriek and burst into tears as he gathers me up, and his soft words try to comfort me. He runs, holding me tightly, away from the fire, away from the broken things.
Deep red. I am held tightly within the deep red of his robes. Far off, over his shoulder, orange and red lights the sky, as a village flickers and dies. Sparks rise up into the night, and then there is darkness, and trees, and another fire. But this one is small, controlled, in a pit.
There is warm broth, kind words, a soft blanket.
There is the rocking of a boat. The roar of waves.
There is sleep.
And when I woke up, I was here, in the temple. I was in the dormitory, lying in what would come to be my bed. Tahi was sitting there, and she was the first person I met here. She explained how things work, how the monks teach and punish, what was expected of us. She was the first of many friends, and the person who held me when I bawled for my parents or woke up screaming in the night.
She was the first of many I would meet who would come, and then go, and I did not yet know why.
I am eight.
I do not remember much about my parents. I can no longer bring their images to my mind. I can't even tell you what village we lived in, or in which state. All I know is that I was saved by a man in red, and awoke here, in The Temple, living with other children from across the land who had lost their homes, their parents, their lives. I went to sleep in a boat, and awoke in a strange bed.
I am eight, and I awake in a strange bed, again. The last thing I remember was being sent back to my room after the questioning. I fell asleep in the temple, and awoke... where?
I am eight, and we were studying the wrestling styles of desert peoples of the south, and my curiosity won out and I had tugged at the hem of one of the monk's robes, and asked him why they are always dispassionate. He narrowed his eyes, the first expression of emotion I had ever seen from one of them. I thought he didn't understand me. I repeated the question, asking why they are never allowed to be angry, or happy. He gently took me by the wrist, and led me outside.
I thought I was going to be whipped again, but we walked past the whipping post, and went through a small door in the courtyard wall. He led me across the grass beyond the temple to a small building nearby.
For the first time, I saw the temple from the outside. I had been asleep when the mysterious man in red left me here, and hadn't been beyond the wall since. The temple rose up, safely tucked within the wall, in the middle of a sea of green grass, all cut smooth and flat, all on top of a high cliff. I could see the ground drop away in a huge circle all around the temple, and the building we were walking towards was on the cliff's edge. I could hear the roar of the ocean, and for the first time realized we were on an island, high up on a plateau towering above the sea. The temple was white and red and blue and every other color, and it was towering and ornate and beautiful.
I didn't have time to see more before the monk ushered me in through a door, and we were in darkness. I started to feel around for a wall but strong hands gripped my shoulders, and a voice from behind me said, very quietly: "Don't move, and be honest. For your own sake, be as honest as you can be." I dropped my hands to my sides, and blinked, trying to see anything in the gloom.
The person holding my shoulders spoke, loudly this time. "She has eyes."
Someone different, a voice from in front of me, answered back. It was a woman's voice, and when she spoke, the room turned cold. "Has she seen?"
The monk holding my shoulders answered, "She has inquired."
There was a pause, then yet another voice from in front of me, this time a man, spoke. "What is your name, child?"
My voice sounded very small in the darkness. "Darsé."
"Your full name."
I swallowed, trying not to tremble. There was nothing dispassionate about that voice. "Darsena. I don't know my family name."
Another voice, from the left, asked me about my village. I stammered out an answer. Another, from the right, asked me about the weather outside. A chorus of voices, some male, some female, asked me questions, one after the other, about the strangest things. Some asked questions from my studies. Some asked about the texture of the grass as I walked on it today, or the color of the banners that hung from the top of the Temple. I was asked some questions I didn't understand at all, about fire and gods and swords and women and men and clouds and gnomes and spirits and kings and horses and cats and sneezing and hide and go seek and I tried to answer all of them as honestly as I could.
I don't know how long I was standing there answering questions. It seemed like hours had passed, but in the dark, it might have only been a few minutes. I was eight, how could I tell? In the darkness, my mind started to play tricks on me. I started to see shapes and flashes of light out of the corner of my eyes. My throat was dry, and my feet were getting tired. Suddenly, the questions stopped, just as abruptly as they had begun. The voices talked, quietly, back and forth among themselves, and I couldn't hear what they were saying. I wanted to rub my eyes, but the fingers still wrapped around my shoulders squeezed a warning before I could even raise my hand.
Then the door flew open and I was thrust outside, alone. The door slammed closed behind me. I blinked at the brightness of the light, before realizing that the sun had long since set, and it was the light from the moon that seemed so harsh to my eyes, even only at half full. I stood there blinking while another monk came walking up from the temple. Without a word, he led me back inside the wall, to my chambers, and left me there. The other children were already asleep. The questioning had gone on for hours, I realized, and I had stood there the whole time and had missed the evening meal.
I fell into bed, too tired to care about my stomach. I awoke the next morning rested, but famished.
And I was in a strange bed.
I am ten. Today I met Peytr.
He is a god. At least, that’s what the other children whisper.
It has been two years. The temple I am living in now looks nothing like the elaborate and colorful temple I grew up in. It is flat, low and dull. It only has one story. It is brown. The walls are still of sliding paper, but they too are brown. The floors are a dark brown. Our beds are brown. This building is smaller, because there are fewer of us here.
It is the most beautiful place I have ever known.
We are on an island, but this island is full of trees. There are trees everywhere, with roots above the ground that look like my hair in the morning. There are tall trees with long, wide leaves and giant brown nuts growing at their tops. There are spiders and turtles on the beach. There are no cliffs, and we can go down to the water’s edge, and even swim in the surf sometimes. I cannot see any other islands. The water stretches in every direction as far as I can see. I don't know where my family's old village is, or where the other temple is, but I do not care, because I like it here.
There aren't as many children here, but we are all brothers and sisters to each other. We're not just random orphaned brats. We're special. They told us so. We still learn, we still compete, but now we are told why. We have a reason, and that reason unites us. The other children, the ones we left behind, the ones who are fated to go through life with eyes clouded, will find work on ships, in shops, in taverns, in brothels, on councils, in armies. They will find success of a sort. The Council of Lords will continue to pay the Temple of Gorgus the Restful for its work in caring for orphans, raising them and training them so that they can be useful members of society, and not beggars or bandits. And all of those children who grow up in that temple, who find places throughout the land, will always have some loyalty to the home that took them in. Someday, that loyalty will be called upon.
The rest of us, however, those of us who see, who question, we are separated out, and now we are told our role. We are to be trained as spies, as agents, and assassins, as movers of the world. We are not being trained for the purpose of power, or for money, or for the whims or hatreds of men or nations or races. We have more important work. We are told how important we are, and that all of our work will be towards the eventual restoration of the world. To us is given the honor and the privilege of serving a god. We are priests and priestesses, and missionaries bringing light to a world shrouded in darkness.
We are the arms of Gorgus.
Petyr is the best of us. He is twelve. He is a god, or at least, that’s what the other children whisper. All of the other children, the ones who were here before I came, talk about him all of the time. He grew up here, like we all did, but he was called away and spent the last few years with the monks. He got special training, because he was the best. I asked if we could all get special training alone with the monks, if we were good enough. They looked at me like I was crazy. “He’s Petyr,” they said. “You aren’t.”
The training we did receive was thorough, in all walks of life. We learned music, and fighting, and trade, and manners, and reading and writing, and sums, and economics, and astronomy, and chemistry, and natural philosophy, and the long history of the kingdoms of men and dwarves and dragons and beings Fair and Foul. We were told this was important, and we were asked to do our best.
We all wanted to be good enough, so we learned and competed and fought but always helped each other. Even if none of us were Petyr, we all secretly hoped to get that special training, and that we might all stay together.
The ones who didn’t try, who didn’t take to their lessons, didn’t stay. They left, and we were not told where they went. None of us wanted to leave, so we all did our best.
On my first day in this new place, I learned about my new duties and chores, and how things worked at this new temple. The monks in their robes were always there, still dispassionate, to explain things to us, but they weren't in charge anymore. We were. Those of us who were older would lead the younger newcomers and often would instruct them in things they had already learned. The oldest would learn from the monks themselves, but the monks were only there to teach and to ensure that discipline was maintained. They were rarely, if ever, needed. We disciplined ourselves.
I met Petyr today.
On my first day, I learned the proper forms of address, and by the end of my first month knew how to greet someone politely from any of the old eight kingdoms. Two years later, Petyr swaggered in and looked us all over, and then told me that my bow was too abrupt and that my accent made my honorifics sound like an insult.
I hated him so much.
By the end of my first week, I had already learned the basics of musical theory, and was writing my own compositions by the time Petyr arrived. He looked at the sheet music I’d filled up and laughed, and called my harmonies childish.
I hated him so much.
In my fifth week, I learned the basic form of fencing with the long pointed swords used in the North. By the time Petyr arrived, I was disarming all of the other children, and occasionally scored points on the monks. Petyr called me up, laughed at me, sent my sword flying out of my hands with one motion of his wrists, and said that I moved my knee too much when advancing.
I hated him so much.
A few months into my stay here, I learned to play the lute. Petyr laughed at me, and laughed harder when I broke a string while trying to tune it. He said I was undisciplined.
I hated him so much.
I dreamt about Petyr that night, and he chased me around, laughing at me, pointing out everything that I thought I was the best at, sneering with that knowing self-important grin. Oh, I wanted to smack that smile right off of his face!
I woke up, and remembered something from a book I'd read back at the old temple when I was just a kid. Back before I was ten. I woke up early thinking about that old book, and took my lute into the jungle to the frigid spring that we'd jump into when it got too hot here. The spring sat in the middle of a clearing in the jungle, crystal clear and deeper than any of us could see or dive down. The water came from somewhere deep underground and wherever it was, it was cold. The island was always warm, but the water in the spring was always freezing. It was winter here now, and though the island was still as humid and warm as always, the water was actually frosting over.
I thought about that old book I read, and thought about Petyr, and I hated him so much. So I sat beside the spring, holding the lute in my lap, and I started to practice. I played for a good half an hour until my fingers started to hurt. Instead of stopping like I usually would, I dipped my fingers into the icy water. I bit back a gasp of surprise and pain, and held my fingers there for a moment, then started playing again. It hurt, but I kept playing. Every time I felt like I was about to give up, I put my fingers back into the water, and then kept playing again. My fingers would start to ache, and I’d be about to give up as always, but I would say no, dip my fingers into the icy water again, and keep playing. I kept playing until the chill from the water and the ache in my fingers seemed to spread to my whole body.
It hurt all over. I was tired. I wanted to go back to bed.
And I said, out loud: "No. I'm not done yet. I'm disciplined."
And I dipped my hands in that water again and kept playing.
I heard clapping behind me and turned in shock, dropping the lute.
Into the spring.
Petyr was there, frozen in the middle of clapping, his eyes wide, watching my lute disappear with a splash. I blushed, and lowered my head. My lute sank with a gurgle and a stream of bubbles. Here comes that laugh again. I hate him so much!
I heard a larger splash, and a squeal of shock, and there he was, in the spring, holding the lute up, treading water, shivering. He stared at me, holding the lute out, neck deep in water, and I just stared back at him, my mouth gaping.
"Um... please take this. It's a little... cold... in here..."
I blinked. "Oh. OH! Oh sorry!" I grabbed the lute and set it aside, then held out my hands and helped him pull himself out of the water.
He ripped his shirt off and stamped around, blowing on his hands and rubbing his arms. "Eaaaah! that was cold!" He paced back and forth, hopping and puffing and I just couldn't help myself. The great Petyr was cold. I don’t know why it was funny. It just was. I burst into laughter.
He didn't get mad. He smiled and laughed himself, and it sounded like bells ringing. He fell down next to me and laughed along with me.
Finally we stopped laughing, and caught our breaths. He picked up the lute and turned it around in his hands, inspecting it for damage. "You're very good,” he said, as if describing the weather. “You're the best of them. You're going to surpass them all."
I just sat there. I didn't want to say something and sound stupid.
"I think if you push yourself, you could be the best of any of us."
Don't talk. Don't say something stupid. I just nodded.
He held out the lute. "Would you play something for me?"
I took it and kept on not speaking. I just played. I played my very best and didn't talk and somehow my fingers didn't hurt at all anymore.
When I was done playing, he smiled, stood up and gathered up his soaked shirt. He nodded down to me and walked back off into the jungle towards the temple. The morning bell was starting to ring, and it was almost time for breakfast.
That night, I dreamt about Petyr again.
I don’t think I hate him quite as much anymore.
I am fourteen. I am the moon, and Petyr is the world.
We were disciplined. We all learned. We soaked up information and assimilated it, and we exceled. Those who did not, left. We were the best. We were the few. We would save the world.
I am fourteen now, and I have learned everything there is to learn. Petyr walks with me every day now after dinner, and we talk about lessons and history and philosophy and he stands and talks about the world outside and what he has seen, and he stretches his arms wide trying to describe it all and his eyes are stars and he is the world and I am the moon.
He is a god.
I do not see the other children as much anymore. My lessons are with the monks now, lessons that build on what I have learned before. Before, I learned how to imitate a merchant or a courtesan or a caravan guard. Now, I learn how to think like one. Now, I learn how to be one.
Petyr is there, every day, after dinner. We walk, and we talk, and I fall into his eyes, and I dream about him.
He is a god.
I am good, but he is better, and every time he disarms me or outwits me at some game or remembers a detail I have forgotten, he laughs with that open, ringing laugh of his and I cannot be mad at him, any more than I can be mad at the rain or the wind.
I do not see the other children as much anymore, but I see Petyr, and he is all I need to see.
I am fourteen. I have killed. I am the instrument of a god.
I have learned everything there is to learn, and now it is time to test what I have learned.
Petyr is not here. I awake, and a monk is here. I do not know his name. I do not need to know his name. He tells me to follow, and I do so.
We walk to the beach together, and a small boat awaits. I climb in, and the monk pushes us off, and slowly begins to row. All day, he rows, tirelessly. He stops only to eat, and we share a meal of bread and meat, and some water. Then I sleep, and when I awake, we have reached the shore, somewhere.
It is time for me to show what I have learned. I climb out of the boat, and walk up a grassy hillside to a dirt path. A wagon sits nearby. In the back of wagon are a large trunk, two small rucksacks and several boxes. The monk climbs into the back of the wagon and opens up the chest. Inside are fabrics of all sorts. In moments, he is no longer a monk, for his clothes have changed. He is no longer a monk, for his face is no longer dispassionate. He is a merchant and I soon learn that I am his daughter. I invade the trunk myself, and make it so. It is true, because it is what we choose to be.
We drive our wagon slowly down the road and come to a town. We arrive in the evening and find an inn, and when we speak to the innkeeper we are a merchant and his daughter. The innkeeper has no reason to doubt this. When the morning comes, we find the market and speak with the constable and find a place where we can set up shop.
I spend the next couple of weeks selling cloth. I speak to villagers and I haggle prices and I scream at thieves and I deal with angry customers and never, never, am I not a perfect daughter of a merchant.
At night, when I go to sleep at the inn, I am a merchant’s daughter. In the morning, when I wake, I am a merchant’s daughter.
After a couple of weeks, we have sold our wares, and bought other supplies that we might sell elsewhere, and we take our leave of the village, and move on.
The monk takes me to another town. Now he is a nobleman and I am his sister. Another visit to our chest of costumes makes it so. We join the local Lord for his evening meal, and I am gracious and demure and refined and I am the perfect sister of a nobleman. The Lord, Mansey, is drunk and drools all over me, making various offers for my hand and various suggestions about how we could spend our wedding night. I smile and make excuses and flatter and never, never, am I not the perfect sister of a nobleman.
That night, when I go to sleep, I am a nobleman’s sister. The next morning, when I wake, I am a nobleman’s sister.
My brother and I share a room on the upper floor of Lord Mansey’s manor. It is quite luxurious, and thankfully has two beds. I sleep well. When I wake up in the morning, my brother is already awake, sitting on the edge of his bed.
I am getting dressed, and he speaks to me, not as my brother the nobleman, but as a monk of Gorgus. It is a subtle difference, but I recognize it. The Monk tells me who I should be next.
I think on it for several minutes, because this is more of a challenge. I rummage through the trunk with our clothing and select a particular blouse and corset, a specific skirt, and several jars of makeup. I set these aside on a table nearby. Then I move to my rucksack and remove a bottle of water mixed with alum and some other ingredients (various nuts and fruits) and smear it all over my head. I tie the hair up, and away, and settle back into bed.
“I am feeling ill, brother. Please make my apologies to our host, would you?”
The monk is again a doting brother, and bows, and agrees, and leaves the room, and he is smiling.
I spend all day in bed, and it is boring, but by the next morning I think that I am ready.
I rise as the sun just begins to peek through our window. My brother is already awake. The wooden shutters are thrown wide. I leave them so. I have a hunch, and my hunches are usually correct.
I am glad that these rooms have wash basins. I wash my hair, and remove the foul smelling concoction I smeared there. I examine the ends. Not quite blond, but lighter than it was. I apply some powder to heighten the effect. I don’t have any more time, because the monk only gave me two days to complete my task.
I turn to the clothing that I laid out yesterday. It is far less elegant than the dress I wore to dinner with Lord Mansey. I put it on. My brother helps me with the corset.
I apply makeup, doing my best to diminish my jawline, trying to create a different face.
I don't have a mirror. I wish I had a mirror. I have to do this all from memory, from my own imagination of my face. I work, picturing myself, picturing the results of my efforts, and finally finish. I hope it is convincing.
My brother, well, not my brother anymore, since I am no longer his sister, watches in silence.
I imagine myself, my appearance. I am thinking of someone filthier, more common, tawdrier, than a nobleman’s sister. This is my real test. Did I succeed?
I quietly leave the room, closing the door behind me. The monk is still sitting at the edge of his bed, silently.
I walk down the hall, and come to the top of the stairs.
I head down them, slowly, and come to the main entrance hall. Several servants are working here, cleaning the floors, lighting candles, carrying in deliveries. I look around for the man I am supposed to find.
There he is! Lord Mansey is walking in right now through the main doors from outside, and coming towards the stairs. In about thirty seconds, he will be here. He is not looking at me; he is talking to another well-dressed man, some sort of courtier. I slip the rest of the way down the stairs, quietly, and wait until he is almost upon me.
Then I step off of the stairs, directly into his path. He smacks into me and the impact shoves me to the floor. He trips and falls next to me. A dozen eyes, previously oblivious to my presence, focus on the two of us. The courtier stares at us, wide-eyed.
"What... I... damnit, watch where you are going, woman!" He holds out his hand, not to me, I should note, but up to his courtier, who helps him to his feet.
I immediately pull myself up to my knees and bow. "I'm so sorry, m'lord. I wasn't watching where I was going. Please forgive me, sir!"
The Lord puffs a bit as the courtier pats him down and brushes him off. "Be more careful. I don't recognize you. Who are you, woman?"
"I’m from the market, sir. I was just delivering some herbs to the lady upstairs, sir. Some sinta for her stomach and head, sir."
"Ah, our guest. How is she? Is she feeling any better?"
"Begging your pardon, m'lord, but I don't think so. She was retching something awful, sir."
"Watch how you speak, wench. Be off with you then. Back about your business."
"Yes, sir. Sorry, sir." I bow low and climb to my feet and scurry out through the front doors as Mansey and his courtier begin mounting the stairs. I smile, but only inwardly. He didn't recognize me at all! I was a foot away from him, and I spoke with him for hours at dinner, and he didn't look at me twice today. None of the servants did! All of my lessons click into place. I understood before when they told me that people only see what they expect to see, but I never truly knew it before. I want to scream in triumph, because never, never was I not the perfect embarrassed peasant who had just clumsily walked into the path of her Lord.
A thought occurs to me, and I realize that my job, my test, isn't quite finished yet. Mansey is heading upstairs.
It's broad daylight, and there are tons of people about, but everyone is focused on their work, carrying supplies, or selling wares or cleaning. No one is seeing anything but what they are expecting to see.
There's a tree just off of the side of the house, and its branches reach just close enough, I think, if I’m careful…
I wander over towards the tree and look around. No one is watching me. I quietly reach up and pull myself up into the lower branches, and lift myself towards the top. I reach the branch I was looking at and I inch along it towards the house. I’m right next to the window of my room. It's open, just as I left it. I gather my strength and leap.
The monk, still sitting on his bed, raises one eyebrow as I struggle and gasp and manage to heave myself bodily into the room. I tumble in and slam to the floor. I glare at him, and put my finger to my lips. He just raises his eyebrow again.
I quickly pull off my skirt, corset and blouse. I ruin the blouse rubbing my face into it, trying to remove as much makeup as I can, then I shove everything down into the bottom of our trunk. I grab a shawl from within it, and bundle up my wrong-colored hair. I leap into the bed and pull the covers up just as someone knocks on the door.
The monk shakes his head as he rises and goes to answer it. Mansey and his courtier enter. Mansey rushes to my bedside, grabbing at my hand and touching my cheek. "My lady, I heard you were unwell."
I blink and look up at him, seemingly confused. "My Lord? Have you come to see me in my illness? I have neglected you. I should not have worried you so!" and I make as if to rise, letting the covers slip just slightly as I try to sit up.
The Lord's strong hands push me back down, and he blushes. "Nay, lady, you must rest. I will not have you exerting yourself. I want you well, and strong, and when you are feeling up to it, you must come and have dinner with me. We still have the matter of the disposition of your hand to discuss." He gently pulls the covers back up over me.
I blush myself now, and flutter my eyes. "My Lord is too gracious. I will do as he commands, and rest, and I can only hope that I will be able to join him sooner rather than later. I do so look forward to continuing our earlier conversation."
He rises, smiling. "It is settled then. Sleep, my fairest lady, and I will see thee soonest. Until then, I shall think of thee most fondly." He bows, and then then strides out, dragging the courtier behind him.
The monk rolls his eyes as he closes the door behind them.
I just smile, because never, never was I not the perfect ill sister of a nobleman who waits with bated breath for the attentions of a Lord who might marry her.
I burst out laughing, but I muffle it in a pillow. Oh, this is so much fun!
It is days later when we leave, making excuses and promising correspondence noncommittally. I am the sister of a nobleman, and I remain so until we approach another town. A city, known as Water's Run.
This time I hesitate when the monk gives me my new role. I do not protest, but I have to give it long thought. He says nothing, neither in encouragement or admonishment. This one requires nothing fancy, but I will admit it gives me pause. I think for a few moments, and then delve into our trunk. I find an appropriate dress. I apply appropriate makeup. I put on a long belt, attach a coin purse to it, and then place a small dagger between my breasts. Our wagon reaches the town gates by the time I am finished. Night is falling. For now, we are a merchant and his wife.
We slowly roll through the city past the town hall and the market square towards the poorer districts. Now there are taverns and houses stacked up against each other, and inns. And here and there are clusters of women, watching as we pass, seemingly about to speak to the monk, er, I mean my husband, until they see me sitting beside him.
I wait until we are relatively far from such groups, and slide off of the wagon. I take up my own place beneath a lamp post as the wagon slowly rolls away without me. We are near the docks, and sailors start walking up from the taverns, heading back to their ships. Merchants and fishmongers come from the other direction, heading back towards their homes. The women begin calling to them, waving and beckoning, sometimes ignored, sometimes heading off with them in pairs into the shadows of the alleys or towards the doors of one of the inns.
I try to mimic the calls of the whores, but this isn't something I've learned. I have practiced the skills of a courtesan (well, not every skill) and of an entertainer, but that isn't exactly the same thing. There's casualness to it, an experience that I lack, and I just sound like I'm acting. The men glance over to me, and then hurry along, as if my very presence makes them uncomfortable, even if they don’t know why. The whores glare over at me. They know I don't belong here.
I stop trying to call out to the men, and instead try to look vulnerable. I hold myself close, shiver, and glance about nervously. I shift from foot to foot, and tremble. I think I'm overdoing it, but it isn't long before a man walks past, then walks past again a few minutes later. He comes back a third time, and stops about two arm lengths away, watching me.
"You're new here," he says, and it is not a question.
I look up, wide-eyed. "Y-yes, sir." I take a moment to size him up. He's not well-dressed. He's no sailor, but he's not rich. His clothes seem fine at first glance, but they're worn. I've studied styles and trends. These went out of style about five years ago. He wants to appear important, then. Likes to show off, but it's an act. Has an ego, but doesn’t have the name or money to back it up.
"Yes. I mean, yes, if you please. I can... I'll do... for 5 coppers I'll do whatever you like, sir."
He frowns. "How long have you been doing this?"
"Just... just a few days, sir. Please, I need the money. I'll do whatever you want."
He shakes his head. "You'd just lie there. I'll not waste my money on a girl who doesn't know what she's doing."
He turns to walk away. I swallow and step towards him. "Please, sir. Four coppers. Whatever you want, sir. I'll do my best."
He shakes his head, but I can see, no, feel, the smile he's hiding. "A waste of money. I can't enjoy myself with a girl who doesn't know how to please a man."
"How can I know how to please a man if I've never..." I catch myself, but he notices. He notices the slip-up that this poor, innocent, unfortunate girl before him made. And that smile that I sense but cannot see widens, and there's a fire in his eyes.
For a moment, I thought I’d rushed things, but I guess I was mistaken.
He stops and turns back to me. "You've never...? Not even once?"
I don't answer. I look down at the ground, blinking away tears.
He moves closer, and I back away, slightly, until I am pressed up against the lamppost. He slides in, very close, and lifts my chin with his finger. "This is your first night out here, isn't it?"
I swallow, and nod, trembling.
"Child, you won't make much money if you don't know what you're doing. Here's what I'll do for you." He presses his face up to my own, his lips at my left ear. He actually kisses it before speaking again. "I'll pay you this copper here", and he pulls out a single coin, "and I'll show you everything you need to know. I won't smack you around like some of the men out here might. How's that sound? Take it or leave it."
And he slides away, still holding up the coin, watching me expectantly.
I look down, and away, and clench and unclench my hands, biting my lip. I make it look like the hardest decision I've ever made, and it is in a way, but not for the reasons he thinks. I would not be lying if I told him I was terrified.
I’m not acting. I might be lying, but I am not acting.
Finally, I look up, lip trembling, and hold out my hand for the coin.
He pockets the coin and grabs my hand with his own. "You get paid afterwards. That's how this works."
And without waiting for my response, he drags me off down an alleyway so forcefully that I gasp. He leads me deep into the shadows, and when we're far from the road and completely covered in darkness and silence he turns, grabs me and presses me firmly up against a wall. "Now, time to earn your pay." He grins, and it's a nasty grin, a sickening grin, a hungry grin, and if I wasn't so afraid of what I was about to do, I'd be terrified of it.
I am terrified of it. I am not acting. I might have been lying, but I am not acting.
He presses up close against me and covers my lips with his own, his hands moving down and feeling for the ties on my dress. I freeze, and try to breathe, and try to remember what I'm supposed to do but my mouth is busy with his and my breath is busy with what he is doing with his hands, and my own hands are splayed wide, out of the way, frozen. I gasp as his lips find my throat, and shiver as he pulls the dress down around my ankles, trembling in the cold as he kneels and he tries to pull free my feet from the material.
I look down at him, kneeling there, and at the knife I've been palming in my left hand ever since he yanked me down this alley, and I think of my god and of my mission, and it is simply not enough to summon the will to do what I must, but I think then of this world we live in and how ugly it is for so many people, and how I don't even have to be here except by choice, and I think of all of those women who have to be here, night after night after night lying under a man like this, and I stare back down at him and somewhere deep within me a fire flares up and somewhere else something goes utterly cold. I think he feels my stare, because he stops his clumsy fidgeting with my dress and looks up at me, one eyebrow cocked as if to ask a question.
I bury my knife into his neck, and rip it free. He stares in surprise, opens his mouth and says nothing. He does not fall.
I plunge it in again. He winces, but says nothing. His hand comes up, as if confused, wondering at the hole in his throat.
I stab him again. He finally falls over.
I fall upon him, straddling him. I stare at my knife. I stare at his neck. I stab it again. And again, and again.
My vision blurs, and I stab stab stab stab stab stab…
It's much later. I'm not holding the knife anymore. I'm curled up, naked, a few feet away from him. He's staring, unblinking, off into the sky, his chest and neck and chin coated in crimson.
I'm covered in it. Bathed. Baptised.
I look around, but no one else is here. I stand up, unsteadily, and find my dress lying crumpled next to him. I put it on as best as I can. It is smeared with the filth of the alley and a thousand men and whores who came here before me. I cannot find my knife.
I stagger off, towards the harbor. I keep to the shadows. I don't have to try to stay concealed. Years of games and practice make it second nature. I don't have to think about it. I don't want to think about it. I cannot think about anything. Not yet. Not time. Later.
There's no one about. The harbor is quiet. The sounds of song and revelry come from uphill, away from the water’s edge, but here it is silent. Ships sit out in the distance in the middle of the river at anchor. More sit docked nearby. I slide through the shadows to the water's edge, and gently lower myself over the edge of a dock. I hold my breath as the coldness of the water envelopes me, and I remember the man’s hands and I tightly close my eyes and sink to the bottom, feeling the mud between my toes and river grass wrapping around my legs. I stay there until my lungs are bursting, then push off, upwards and away. I break the surface and swim, quietly, silently, a river eel, an otter. My face is wet from the river and that is all. My eyes are wet from the river, and that is all.
My arms are aching by the time I finally clear the harbor and reach the main river and its current. I relax, and tread water, and let the water carry me downstream. I wait until the city is well out of earshot before moving to the shore and climbing out of the river. I lay on the bank, drenched and panting. I don't bother to look up at the monk who is, of course, sitting here with our wagon, waiting for me. I don't ask him how he knew where I would come out of the city. It was his job to know. It was my job to become a whore, and to kill a man.
I passed the test.
I do not care.
The monks do not speak often, unless it is necessary, but now this one does. "It was difficult, was it not? It is the most difficult thing you have ever done. Now you understand our burden. We will restore the world, but we must suffer to accomplish it. We must become death, and bear the burden of ending the lives of those whose time has come, despite our sorrows, and our sympathies. We cannot be weak. We cannot flinch from our duty. We serve the god of death, and he does not flinch from his duty. He takes all, in his time, some sooner, some later.”
He rises from the wagon and kneels beside me. “Our god does not hate, and so we shall not hate. He does not show mercy, and so we shall not show mercy. He is not cruel, and so neither shall we be. He is dispassionate, as we must be. All, in their time, will come to him. Some, for his purpose, will come sooner. Some, for the world's sake, will come sooner. We will serve his purpose. We will deal his death. We will save the world, but we cannot do so in hate, or in anger, nor in sorrow, of in grief. We must be dispassionate. Now, do you understand, child?"
I nod. I understand, though I am not dispassionate. Perhaps that will come in time. I burst into tears and sob on the banks of the river for a time, and the monk does not scold me. I am not dispassionate. Not yet. I am only fourteen. Only a fool would expect me to be.
I let out a scream and vomit and the monk says nothing. I am not dispassionate. I am only fourteen. Only a fool would expect me to be.
But he knows that I will do my duty. He knows that when the time comes, I will kill again. He knows that I am the instrument of a god, and when the time comes I shall do his will to the best of my ability.
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