The boy laughed in Matt’s face. “Give me that.”
“No, it’s not. You stole it.”
So what if this was true? He was not the one Matt had stolen the fish from, and he had no right to take it. She took a step back, clenching the fish to her chest.
The boy was at least four years older than Matt, and a foot taller, with straight black hair, dark brown eyes, and light brown skin. He was scrawny, dressed in rags so tattered you could count three ribs in the gap between his shirt and pants. His face was screwed in a mean, hard sneer. In short, he looked just like all the other street children—just like Matt herself.
Except Matt knew she was that bit hungrier. The last time she had eaten was the morning before, a few mangled cabbage leaves, scavenged from rubbish at the market. Today, she had been watching fishermen unloading their boat when they were distracted by a drunken brawl. It was her chance to snatch a fish and make off. Despite being raw, it was the nearest thing to a decent meal she had seen all month, and Matt was not about to give it up.
The sound of movement stopped Matt before she could take another step, and the boy’s sneer got broader. He was not alone. Matt twisted to look back. Two of his friends stood there, posing like grown-up rowdy boys. All three were bigger and stronger than Matt. One-on-one, she would still stand no chance in a fight, but could they outrun her?
The leader was the soft target. Matt could read him easily. He was a blowhard who thought she was going to roll over and give up, a puffed up bully when the numbers were on his side. The friends were too dim to do anything other than follow.
Matt let her shoulders slump, just enough to let him think he had won, then she charged, driving her elbow into his stomach. He curled forward, his mouth a big circle, like he was about to spew. “Ooof.”
Matt threw everything she had into a roundhouse kick behind his knees, taking his feet from under him, and then she was off.
At the corner, she stopped to glance back. The friends had helped their leader to his feet and waited until he had enough breath to tell them what to do. Matt had known they would not be able to work it out for themselves. Now the chase was on. The boys wanted the fish, and probably revenge. Matt raced away from the quay.
The road took her up the hill, and then through the alleys and winding stairways of Fortaine. Matt knew every street in the city, but so did the boys, and with their longer legs, they were gaining on her. Matt had to shake them off. She darted aside, heading to the main road up from the docks.
The High Street was its normal hectic rat run of horse-drawn carts. Matt ducked around one, hurdled the tailgate of another, and rolled between the wheels of a third. This was where it went wrong. She got through with no worse than a bruise and a scraped knee, but she dropped the fish and dared not go back for it.
Matt ran on until she was sure the boys had given up the hunt. Maybe they stopped to pick up her fish. Matt hoped not. She would rather it squished under a wheel than the bastards get it, but either way it was lost, and she would go hungry another day. Matt slumped against a wall, getting her breath back and refusing to cry. Never show you are upset, even when nobody is there to see.
She was in a part of town she did not normally visit. The maze of narrow-ways around the docks was her home. The only times she left were to scavenge in the markets or to try her luck with the mansions high on the cliffs, with their ocean views and more food thrown away than honest folk could put on the table. Trouble was, they also had armed guards who saw street folk as no better than rats. Some children who went to the high cliffs never came back. Vermin control, they called it.
The chase had taken her to the middle ground of quiet streets and comfy, well-guarded homes belonging to merchants and master craftsmen. The buildings were tall and brick built, with heavy wooden doors and bars on the ground floor windows. Walking along, Matt caught the sweet scent of flowers and perfume. Then she caught something else, a smell that hit so hard it made her gasp—fresh baked bread, just like Ma would make.
A rutted track cut between two buildings, leading to the rear of the houses. Some way down, a donkey cart was drawn up at a gate while the deliveryman chatted. The other man looked like a rowdy boy, hired muscle working as a guard. Normally, Matt would have backed off, but he carried no more than a staff, and the bread smelled so good. She sidled closer, reeled in like a fish on a line. The cart held a basket full of bread and wheels of wax covered cheese. Lumpy sacks suggested apples or potatoes. The barrels could be flour or beer. She recognised fish crates from the docks.
Matt’s stomach squeezed so tight it hurt. Her mouth watered and she had to swallow. Her eyes were glued to the food. She could not tear them away, and all the while she edged nearer.
“What do you want, kid?”
The harsh voice broke in like a slap. Matt was almost in touching distance. The deliveryman also stopped talking to look at her.
More habit than anything else, Matt stuck her thumbs in her ears and waggled her fingers while poking out her tongue. The guard made a half-hearted attempt to cuff her ear, but Matt ducked out of range.
Both men snorted with contemptuous amusement, then deliberately turned their backs. The deliveryman leaned his elbow on the cart, just to make sure Matt knew who owned it and that he had his eye on the food. She stood no chance of reaching in to grab anything. They would spot her and she could not outrun them, but Matt could not let the food go. She dropped to the ground, just out of their line of sight, rolled under the cart, and clung on.
The deliveryman eventually finished talking and urged the donkey through the gates. The cart stopped in a yard between the house and the garden. Matt remained hanging to the underside of the cart, even after the man’s legs vanished into the house.
Matt peered between the wheels. The garden was split into sections, a neat kitchen patch on one side, with rows of vegetables and herb borders, and an overgrown flower garden on the other. At the back were wooden sheds and iron railings. Matt guessed they were dog kennels even before she heard the barking.
The deliveryman returned, along with another pair of stockinged legs. Matt matched them to a woman’s voice, most likely the cook. The cart shook as something heavy was pulled off. Matt hesitated. Sneaking inside had been gut instinct. It could get her into big trouble, but was the risk any worse than starving?
The two pairs of legs returned to the house, going through a different door this time. Matt crawled out silently and followed the food down stone steps to a cellar. By candlelight at the far end, the deliveryman dumped his sack in a corner and adjusted its position to the cook’s liking.
A row of barrels were lined up inside the entrance, with just enough space for Matt to squeeze behind. By the time the two adults were on their way back, Matt was crouched in a dark corner, wedged between the barrels and the wall.
After ten minutes, all the food was stored and the deliveryman left for the last time. Matt heard a metallic clunk, like a key turning, then cook and candle came back through the cellar and left through an interior door.
Matt was alone with more food than she had dreamed of. The cellar had no windows, but enough light squeezed under the door for Matt to make things out, once her eyes adjusted. Footsteps creaked on the floorboards overhead. There were also muffled voices, but it did not seem as if anyone was coming. She crept from hiding, guided as much by smell as sight.
The crust of the bread was rough in her hands. It broke open, releasing a stronger wave of the wonderful smell that had first snared her. But it was as nothing next to the taste, the flavour of sunlight on farmland, rich with yeast and wheat. The crust crunched between her teeth. The soft dough melted on her tongue. The act of swallowing was a dream. Matt took another mouthful, then clawed off a chunk from a wheel of cheese. The next few minutes were devoted to the glory of filling her stomach. Even if she got caught, she could die happy.
Next, Matt checked the door to the outside, but as she guessed, it was locked. Her only way out was through the house, and that would have to wait until everyone had gone to sleep. Luckily, security was designed to keep thieves out, not in. Matt was sure she could find an upstairs window to drop from. In the meantime, she claimed two crisp apples from an open sack and returned to hiding. With her stomach full for the first time in months, Matt drifted off to sleep.
She was woken twice by people getting supplies, but nobody came near the barrels. The next time Matt woke, the cellar was pitch-black and the house was silent. Working by touch, she stuffed a small loaf of bread, another chunk of cheese, and four apples inside her shirt, then edged open the door to the rest of the house.
A wooden staircase took Matt to the kitchen. The fire was damped down for the night, but still gave enough light to see. Another narrow set of stairs climbed one wall, most likely going to servants’ rooms at the back of the house. Matt ignored them. Any window overlooking the garden would not be a good escape route if the dogs were let out at night. Two doors led from the kitchen. A band of light shone under one, so Matt picked the other.
The next room was a dining hall, dark and deserted. The only other exit from here also had light on the opposite side, and when she pressed her ear to it, she heard voices. Matt thought of going back to the cellar for another hour, but now she was moving, she wanted to be gone.
A musician’s gallery hung over the end of the room. Matt scrambled onto a table, and the wood panelling provided just enough fingerhold to climb the rest of the way. Up above was so dark she had to run her hands over the wall to find the way out. Matt inched open the door.
A wide balcony ran around three sides of a large hallway. Light from below wobbled across the plaster ceiling and poked through the railing but did not touch the back wall. The voices were clearer now, although still too low to make out the words. Matt edged over and peered down. Three men stood talking in the tiled entrance below, one of them holding a candlestick.
Matt did not know or care who they were or why they were up so late. The street door was what grabbed her attention. Now she knew exactly where she was. The room at the end of the balcony would overlook the main street, and if it was one of the men’s bedrooms, her best chance was to get out now.
Matt crept along, keeping to the dark side of the balcony and making as little noise as possible. Just as she reached the door, the tone of the voices changed. Light and shadow jumped across the ceiling. The men were moving, climbing the open staircase to the upper floor, and bringing the candles with them. With a second to spare, Matt slipped into the room before she was spotted.
Moonbeams fell across a large desk rather than a bed. It stood four-square in the centre of the room, covered with papers. Cabinets and bookcases lined one wall. A large casement window jutted over the street to Matt’s right. She ignored it and darted across the room to the smaller window opposite, only to discover it was locked, and the voices were getting louder and louder. They would not want to read books this late at night, would they?
Moonlight glinted on a penknife. Matt snatched it up and dug at the catch. Then the doorknob rattled and candlelight flooded the room. A shout came as the catch popped. Matt shoved open the window, ready to dive out, but too late. A hand grabbed her shoulder, hauled her back, and threw her to the floor. She half scrambled up, until a swinging backhand sent her flying again.
“Stop that.” A strong voice.
“It’s a thief.” The man standing over Matt spat out the words. Was he the homeowner or a guard? He was muscled and hard-faced like a rowdy boy, but his shoes were too lightweight to deliver a real kicking, the rowdy boys’ favourite way to pass on their employer’s messages.
“Yes, but I don’t mind thieves.”
“Even when they’re stealing from you?”
The blow had set Matt’s head spinning. She squinted at the first speaker, still standing in the doorway. He was the smallest of the three, but clearly the boss. Everything about him was neat and trim, from his beard to the square set of his shoulders. His clothes were expensive. The light shimmered over his red silk shirt and glinted off gold rings.
He laughed. “If they’re good enough to steal from me then they deserve whatever they can get.” He waved his hand. “Let the boy up, and we’ll see what he’s stolen.”
“Not a boy,” Matt said. She flexed her legs before standing, to make sure they would hold her, but refused to rub the side of her head. Never show you are hurt.
“Ah. Indeed.” The boss’s smile broadened.
“Bread, apples…cheese!” The shapeless lump fished from Matt’s shirt was what remained after her fall.
“Food. Which I’d say she needs more than I do.” He paused, tilting his head in thought. “Go down and tell the boys to wait a minute, while I talk to our young thief here.”
Once they were alone, the man placed the candlestick on the desk and sat, studying Matt.
“Would you like to introduce yourself?”
“Which is short for?”
“Pleased to meet you, Mattie. My name is Edmund Flyming.”
Matt’s mouth was open, ready to correct him. Only Ma called her Mattie. Nobody else was allowed, but the words stuck in her throat. If she had known whose house it was she would never have dared break in. He must like thieves, a third of them in the city worked for him, along with the fences, grifters, footpads, and smugglers. He also ran brothels and gambling dens. Things did not go well for folk who upset him, though street tattle claimed he was a fair boss and a man of his word. He sparked loyalty in his followers, fear in his enemies, and respect from most others.
“Where are your parents?”
“Ma ain’t around no more.” Matt chewed her lip, wondering how much to say. “Pa would get drunk and hit her. One night was really bad. I hid, and next morning, Ma was gone. Pa said she’d run away.”
“Did your father used to hit you as well?”
“So you ran away too?”
“Wasn’t that. My big sister, Emmy, got pregnant.”
“He couldn’t hold you responsible.”
Matt shrugged awkwardly. “He was the one that did it. After Ma went, Pa started paying attention to Emmy. When she got big, he started looking the same way at me. I wasn’t going to end up like Emmy, so I ran.”
Something dark, angry, and dangerous flitted across Edmund’s face, but not directed at her. “How old are you, Mattie? Nine? Ten?”
“About that, I guess.”
Edmund steepled his fingers. “As I’m sure you know, Mattie, I employ thieves, good ones. And you’re clearly a good thief. Would you like to come and work for me?”
Matt drew a deep breath, mostly from surprise. The memory of the food in the cellar was enough to sway her, and if she worked for Edmund Flyming, no jumped up bully would dare push her around. Before she could say yes, Edmund went on, as if she might need persuading.
“I know you know sometimes when men say they’re being nice to young girls, they’re not really being nice, as with your father and your sister. I assure you I’ve no such interest in children, and no time for anyone who does.” He smiled. “You’re a good-looking child. So maybe in another ten years I might feel differently, but only if you’ve managed to turn into a man.”
Matt nodded. Edmund Flyming’s taste in lovers was also common knowledge in the city. “Yes. Yes, I’d like to work for you.”
There was a knock at the door and a head appeared. “Are you nearly ready, boss?”
“Yes. And can you wake Pearl? I want her to look after my newest employee.” Edmund stood and held out his hand. “Come with me.”
Half a dozen men and a couple of women were assembled in the entry hall, large rowdy boys for the most part. The woman casually cleaning her nails with a knife put Matt in mind of whispered rumours about the handymen—handy at putting a blade between their victim’s shoulders. But the one who stood out was a man with his hands tied behind his back and a sack over his head.
“That’s Will,” Edmund said. “He was supposed to be working for me, but he appears to have been doing some freelance work. I want to ask him about it.” He crouched down so his head was level with Matt’s. “But don’t worry. As long as you play fair by me, I’ll play fair by you. You can trust me.”
Matt stared into Edmund’s eyes. She did trust him. In that instant she knew it. She trusted him in a way she had not trusted anyone since Ma went.
A plump, middle-aged woman in bedclothes appeared. She toddled to Edmund’s side, showing not the slightest surprise at the bound man.
“This is Pearl. She’s going to get you a bath, a place to sleep, and clothes, more food if you want. And sometime you must tell me about your father, his name and where he lives.” Edmund reached out and gently brushed the hair from Matt’s forehead. “The world is an unfair place. Bad things happen to good people, while it can seem like bad people have all the luck. But sometimes even bad people have accidents.”
None of the adults used the word “money,” but they had their code phrases for it. Eawynn had no trouble hearing what was really being said.
“I’d be honoured to show my gratitude to the temple,” was her father’s code for, I’ll give you a lot of money if you take my daughter off my hands.
“Your piety does you credit,” which was the priestess’s code for, Thank you, and the more the better.
The priestess who talked the most was called Insightful Sister Oracle, sometimes with Most Reverend tacked on the front, to let everyone know she was extra important. The priestess sitting beside her was Assiduous Sister Treasurer. This priestess was also important, although she said nothing and did not smile. However, her eyes lit up every time Eawynn’s father mentioned his gratitude.
Two other priestesses were present. One was Stalwart Sister Door-warden, who was clearly not as important as the oracle or treasurer and so did not get to sit down, even though there were spare chairs. She had escorted Eawynn and her father, Thane Alric Wisa Achangrena, to the meeting room. The last priestess was not even worth an introduction and stood ignored at the back. Eawynn also did not get a seat and stood beside her father’s chair.
The priestesses all wore shapeless sea-green robes, held in place with a white rope belt. The material was a coarse, heavy weave. They all had shaved heads and no makeup or jewellery or anything to make them look nice.
Eawynn did not want to become one of them. She wanted to stay in her father’s house, with her own room; her nice clothes; her pony, Smudge; her kitten, Dumpling; her books and toys. She wanted to stay with Hattie in the kitchen to spoil her. She wanted things to stay the way they were. But what she wanted counted for nothing. Eawynn fixed her eyes on the wall and tried not to cry. She was not supposed to cry.
“I’ve kept the child with me, out of affection for her mother. A reminder of what we shared,” her father continued. “But I’ve always known some day I’d have to make other plans for her future. The position is, you’ll understand, delicate.”
Delicate. That was another code word, one Eawynn had heard many times. Insightful Sister Oracle nodded, her face blank.
“Her mother and I…” Without looking, Eawynn knew the sad little smile on her father’s lips. “We were young and in love. We were sure our families would approve the match. Both were of equal standing, but…” Her father’s hand waved in a vague gesture, to convey the cruelness of fate. “My love’s family had other plans. They kept the birth a secret. What could I do but go along with their wishes? But I ensured the child had a good upbringing, befitting her bloodline.”
Eawynn bit her lip. The story was one she had heard before, and one Hattie claimed was completely untrue. According to Hattie, her mother had been a pretty kitchen maid. In those days, her father’s sister had been thane, and her father had been free to live the life of a wealthy rake. A boating accident, two months ago, meant her father, unexpectedly, inherited the title. As Thane Achangrena, he was heir to an ancient and noble lineage, the equal of any on the Island of Pinettale. By comparison, Hattie was a cook, a servant, a nobody. No court of law would take her word against his, but Eawynn knew which one she believed.
From time to time, Eawynn would wonder about her mother, and what she had looked like. Her father had passed his colouring to her. Like him, Eawynn had the burnished red hair and pale white skin of the old Rihtcynn aristocracy. It allowed him to maintain the fiction of the doomed love affair with a noblewoman of good blood. But his heavy, drawn face, with squashed nose and narrow set eyes, was as different from hers as it was possible to get. How much did she take after her mother?
“She has received a suitable education for a girl of gentle birth. I’m assured she is an apt student. Although she turned six not a month ago, she knows her numbers and letters and speaks Cynnreord fluently. She can sing prettily and accompany herself on the lute.”
Did they have lutes in the Temple of Anberith?
Again, Insightful Sister Oracle nodded, her face revealing nothing. “Her education will continue in the temple. I’m sure she’ll become a most valuable member of our sisterhood.”
“Yes…yes, quite.” Abruptly, her father ran out of steam. He swivelled to face Eawynn.
She searched his eyes for a trace of the indulgent father she knew. Not that he had played much part in her life. He had always been kind, often generous, showering her with gifts, but mostly he had been absent, abandoning her to the care of servants. He was abandoning her again, but this time it was more serious. It was forever.
Eawynn almost gave in to the urge to plead, to beg him not to leave her in the temple. She was sure, if he gave Hattie a fraction of the money he was giving the sisters, the cook would happily take her in. However, being raised as a servant was not fitting for the daughter of Thane Achangrena, not even an unwanted, bastard daughter like Eawynn.
“You’ll stay here and become a priestess of Anberith.”
“It’s a noble thing, serving a goddess.”
“If you work hard, you’ll do well. The sisters are very pleased you’re joining them.”
And that you’re paying them so much. Eawynn nodded.
Her father stood. “Right. Well. Good day to you, Holy Sisters. My steward will be in contact.”
Stalwart Sister Door-warden escorted him out of the room, and out of Eawynn’s life.
“He hopes to fly high.” Assiduous Sister Treasurer spoke for the first time.
“Indeed. He’s clearly anxious to divest himself of anything that might drag him down.” Insightful Sister Oracle’s eye flicked in Eawynn’s direction. “He might be a useful friend to the temple.”
“Certainly if he pulls off the marriage to the Earl Blaedgifa’s daughter.”
“Yes. And I hear his prospects are very promising in that direction.” Insightful Sister Oracle turned to Eawynn. “So, child. You’re to join our community. Don’t worry. It’s a good life, as long as you’re a good girl. Are you a good girl?”
“Yes, my lady.”
“You should address me as Beloved Sister.”
“Yes, Beloved Sister.”
“She seems quick enough,” Assiduous Sister Treasurer said.
Insightful Sister Oracle nodded. “Tells me your father you knowing of Cynnreord. Are you liking the language for speaking this?”
Eawynn struggled to understand what she meant, and not because the priestess had switched to the actual language. Her accent was appalling. Insightful Sister Oracle managed to make the flowing ancient words sound as harsh and vulgar as common Tradetalk.
Eawynn replied, also using Cynnreord. “Yes, Beloved Sister, it feels so much more poetic and cleaner.”
“Well, he told the truth about that much.” Insightful Sister Oracle reverted to Tradetalk, which she clearly felt more comfortable speaking. With her shaved head, it was impossible to tell the colour of the priestess’s hair, but her skin was as dusky as any common labourer, or Hattie for that matter, although Eawynn loved Hattie and never held her base blood against her.
“Nurturing Sister Mentor will look after you and introduce you to the other girls in training.”
The last priestess finally had a name. She came forward and took Eawynn’s hand. “Come with me, child. I’ll show you the dormitory where you’ll sleep.”
Eawynn looked down at their interlinked fingers. Nurturing Sister Mentor’s skin was several shades darker than her own, yet she was still lighter than either of the more senior priestesses. Did blood and breeding count for nothing in the temple? Before she was taken away, Eawynn could not stop blurting out the question uppermost in her mind.
“Are you going to shave my hair now?”
For the first time, a smile crossed Most Reverend Insightful Sister Oracle’s face. “Not until you finish your training and take your vows as a priestess. And that won’t be for another fifteen years.”
The razor blade was a line of ice, scraping over Eawynn’s scalp. A lock of red hair floated down to join the others on the white flagstones. Wisps of sweet incense tickled her nose. The rasp of steel on skin was loud in her ears, blending with the chanting of her sister priestesses who formed a circle inside the ring of marble pillars. The Inner Sanctum of Sea and Moon stood on the small headland jutting out behind the elders’ residence. The sound of waves, breaking on rocks below, was a background rumble, carried on the dawn breeze.
The winter solstice had passed just seven days before, and the air was cold enough to sting Eawynn’s cheeks, but the long night was over. A final six-inch strand spiralled to the ground, twisting as it fell. The light of the rising sun flickered like fire along its length. In the future, there would be no locks, just a month’s growth of stubble to be removed by Comforting Sister Infirmarian’s razor.
Eawynn was the last of the three initiates to be shaved that dawn. Even in the dim light, she could tell her hair from the common black of the others. But would she be able to pick out the red when the cutting was a bare half inch? Eawynn hoped so. Her noble ancestry might mean nothing to anyone else, but it still mattered to her.
Eawynn knelt, facing the statue of Anberith that dominated the back of the sanctum. The stone was cold and hard beneath her knees. The new sea-green gown provided no more protection than the old grey novice one had done. Overhead, the last stars were fading in the washed blue sky, but no moon had risen that night. The Oblation of the Avowed Supplicants took place at dawn of the new moon, the hair offered to the lunar goddess as tribute, to ensure her return for another month.
Comforting Sister Infirmarian stepped back and gestured for Eawynn to stand. As she took her place among the circle, the cold air was unfamiliar on her freshly exposed scalp. Soon, she would get used to it, Eawynn guessed.
Most Reverend Insightful Sister Oracle, in her role as high priestess, led the cycle of prayers. This was the first time Eawynn had taken part in the ceremony, which concluded with burning the hair. In the initiates’ training, Eawynn had rehearsed the Oblation countless times, yet she had not anticipated how long it would take in practice. The ceremony dragged on and on. Of course, this was the extended version, the first after the solstice, where novices were initiated into the sisterhood, but even so! Were they going through it twice? Or was it just anxiety about what would follow, when she would learn her future role in the temple?
The final prayer was not finished until the sun was high above the horizon. The column of smoke floated away in the crisp air as the priestesses filed out. Nurturing Sister Mentor’s responsibility for the initiates was over. She gathered them around her one last time, embraced them affectionately, then also left. Her place was taken by the less affectionate form of Insightful Sister Oracle, who beckoned them to follow.
On the short walk, Eawynn tried to reassure herself she had nothing to worry about. She failed. By the time she reached the audience room, her stomach felt as if she had swallowed a snowball. Several elder priestesses were there before them. Who would she be assigned to? Was one looking at her with more interest than normal? But no, they were all acting as if she were invisible, much as everyone had been doing for the last four months.
The only exception was Enlightening Sister Astrologer, who sat at the front, smiling, and that was bad news. Insightful Sister Oracle posed herself regally on the chair beside her rival, and Enlightening Sister Astrologer was so busy smirking she did not even roll her eyes. The snowball started bouncing up and down.
The last elder, Studious Sister Librarian, slipped into the audience room and closed the door. Eawynn fought to suppress a pained expression at the sight of her. Not that Eawynn held any deep personal dislike for the current librarian, but if only her predecessor, Erudite Sister Librarian, had lived for a couple more years, the outlook would be far more hopeful.
Erudite Sister Librarian had been a brusque, opinionated, and irritable woman. She had also been an exceptional linguist and scholar. Was it any wonder she had lost all patience and respect for her fellow priestesses years ago? Eawynn had been the only one who could spend an hour in her company without provoking an outpouring of acerbic comments. Eawynn had also been the only one who could understand what was said, if the librarian, in her sole concession to tact, voiced the comments in an obscure language, such as Pinettia.
Erudite Sister Librarian had unmistakably been training Eawynn as her successor. There really was no other serious candidate in the temple. If she were being honest, Eawynn would concede she could not quite match Erudite Sister Librarian’s ability to decipher ancient texts, but felt she had the edge when it came to ease of acquiring languages.
But then, without warning, Erudite Sister Librarian had been taken by a seizure one morning at breakfast, collapsed at the table, and been dead before nightfall. Her assistant, Studious Sister Cataloger, had been promoted to Studious Sister Librarian, surely something nobody could have predicted—or wanted. Eawynn caught her lip in her teeth. Too late now to regret laughing along with Erudite Sister Librarian’s biting remarks. How deep a grudge might Studious Sister Librarian be holding?
Insightful Sister Oracle stood and the murmuring stopped. “Welcome to our newest sisters. Our joy that you’re now joined with us knows no bounds.” She smiled at the other two initiates and the air above Eawynn’s head. “You’ve lived among us for many years and know our humble ways. Now you’ll play a full role in our life of prayer and reflection. You’ll continue assisting with the daily chores. We have no servants here so all must take an equal share—”
Though it’s a long time since anyone has seen you cleaning the latrines. Even with her guts tying themselves in knots, Eawynn could not resist the thought.
“—but you’ll now have your own special allotted role. Your former name will be forgotten as you become a true part of our community. To guide your footsteps, you’ll be assigned to an elder, who will be your teacher, your confidant, and your friend.”
Please don’t let it be Enlightening Sister Astrologer. But even if Eawynn was not directly assigned to her, the astrologer’s position, second in the temple hierarchy, gave her considerable sway. Would she indulge her petty spite by steering Eawynn into a demeaning role?
A year ago, when Erudite Sister Librarian was alive, Eawynn would have had no worries. Even a mere four months back, she still could have expected favourable treatment. Her father’s money and influence assured that. However, this was before her father joined his in-laws in an ill-fated attempt by Earl Blaedgifa to usurp the throne of Pinettale. Ex-Thane Alric Wisa Achangrena’s head was currently adorning a spike over the main gates into Fortaine, along with the earl’s and a half dozen other relatives. No more money would flow into temple coffers from that source, and overnight, Eawynn had gone from being a symbol of favour at court to being a decided embarrassment.
“Melodious Sister Chorister. To you we entrust the priestess who was once novice Beatrice. Henceforth she’ll be known as Harmonious Sister Chanteuse.”
No surprise there. Beatrice had a remarkable singing voice. She also had nimble fingers and soft lips, as she had demonstrated to Eawynn more than once. This came to a sharp end with Thane Alric’s trial and execution. Eawynn tried to tell herself she did not care. Beatrice had been more trouble than she was worth. In fact, Eawynn had assumed she would be the one to end it, but now Beatrice was acting as if merely being in the same room as her was an ordeal. The on-off “special friendship” was firmly off.
“Studious Sister Librarian—” Insightful Sister Oracle continued.
The rush of relief almost made Eawynn’s knees buckle. She caught herself in time. Her fears had been unfounded. Studious Sister Librarian had been able to overlook the gibes and condescension. After all, Eawynn had only been following Erudite Sister Librarian’s lead. The new librarian must know she was out of her depth and in need of help. Thanks to Erudite Sister Librarian’s coaching, Eawynn could speak six languages fluently, including archaic Pinettia, and read and write three different scripts. Whereas, despite years of study, Studious Sister Librarian could barely manage to hold a worthwhile conversation in Cynnreord.
“—to you we entrust the priestess who was once novice Agnes. Henceforth she’ll be known as Diligent Sister Caretaker.”
Agnes! Eawynn was not the only one looking surprised. Agnes was well meaning and tried hard, but she needed three attempts to spell her own name. How was she going to cope now that it was longer than five letters? And what could she do in the library? Except maybe clean the bookcases, once someone explained to her how a dust cloth worked.
The bouncing snowball grew spikes.
“Attentive Sister Chamberlain. To you we entrust the priestess who was once novice Eawynn.” Insightful Sister Oracle said her name as if it was being dragged from her mouth by a ham-fisted dentist. “Henceforth she’ll be known as Dutiful Sister Custodian.”
Custodian of what? Eawynn clenched her jaw. There was nothing she could do. Everything was set and sealed, her father’s final gift. She had preferred the pony.
Any hope it might not turn out too badly was squashed by Enlightening Sister Astrologer’s smug expression. They should have been allies, the only ones with enough noble blood in their veins to be worth mentioning. Yet, since the day Eawynn arrived, the other priestess had seen her as competition. Why? Was it no more than jealousy over who had the redder hair? Of course, recent events had made things even more combative. Just because the queen was her second cousin, Enlightening Sister Astrologer had taken Earl Blaedgifa’s rebellion as a personal slight—as if Eawynn had anything to do with it.
The meeting broke up after a round of congratulations which conspicuously did not include Eawynn.
“Come with me.” Attentive Sister Chamberlain said nothing else until they reached the Shrine to the Oracle.
On a personal level, the assignment of the chamberlain as her mentor could have been worse. Attentive Sister Chamberlain’s niece had married a housecarl of the Blaedgifa family, and she had even gone so far as to offer condolences for the death of Eawynn’s father. The issue was more that the role of chamberlain involved the maintenance of temple buildings, and there was no associated task Eawynn felt any desire to do.
The Shrine to the Oracle was some thirty feet wide and twice as long. The walls were made of the same dark basalt as the rest of the temple, but here it felt even more heavy and ominous, even though the high windows let in shafts of bright daylight. Deep alcoves were built into the corners. The ones facing the entrance were occupied by statues of Anberith on raised plinths. Numerous antique star charts hung around the walls. The only other decorations were two long mahogany friezes and a huge unlit incense burner in the middle of the floor.
“Dutiful Sister Custodian, we have ascribed a special role to you.” The smile held a tinge of embarrassment.
Eawynn braced herself.
“You’re to be custodian of the Shewstone.”
How much looking after could a stone need, especially one never on public view? In all her years as a novice, Eawynn was yet to set eyes on it. Admittedly, the Shewstone was the temple’s most valuable possession, generating vastly more income than her late father’s donations, but why did it need a custodian?
Attentive Sister Chamberlain held up a key. “You’re to have this. Guard it with your life.”
“Thank you, Beloved Sister.”
At the far end of the shrine, two steps down led to a door, which had been locked whenever the juvenile novices thought to try it. Now the key turned smoothly and the door swung open.
The Shewstone Sacrarium was smaller than expected, a windowless cave. Eawynn peered into the darkness until she spotted a lantern and tinderbox on a cabinet by the door. At Attentive Sister Chamberlain’s nod, Eawynn struck the flint.
The soft yellow light did nothing to reduce the impression of an underground hole. What little the room had by way of decoration was clearly intended to look expensive and mysterious. The walls were painted black, allowing only a suggestion of strange, twisted carvings. The table was antique, sagging slightly on one side, but still impressive. It might have been from the dawn of time, hewn from ancestral oak by the ancients. The only thing on it was a small silver oil burner. Two chairs were made of heavy square-cut timbers, looking as if the maker had only just discovered the concept of sitting.
At the back of the sacrarium, a black metal repository stood on long legs. The front and sides were cast in open latticework, allowing Eawynn to see inside. The Shewstone was a mottled stone orb, six inches across, on a simple silver plinth. The lantern light shimmered over its surface. Patterns swirled, suggesting something inside was alive and moving. When Eawynn got closer, the hairs on her arms stood up. The air was charged with static, as before a storm.
Despite herself, Eawynn felt a moment of awe. But then the question repeated in her head. How much looking after could a stone need?
The answer came. “Your tasks are to make sure this room is spotless. You must keep the lamps filled with oil, and burn incense before supplicants come for a divination. You’ll also attend Most Reverend Insightful Sister Oracle when she consults the Shewstone. You’ll have to ask her about other requirements. The Shrine to the Oracle also forms part of your responsibility.” The elder priestess patted the cabinet. “The equipment you’ll need is in here.”
Attentive Sister Chamberlain did not stay to watch Eawynn open the cabinet. The sound of her footsteps, crossing the shrine, faded away. Eawynn closed the sacrarium door. She did not want an audience.
Feeling like an actor in a badly written play, Eawynn opened the cabinet door. The skin on her face prickled hot and cold, anger and shame. As suspected, the equipment comprised of a brush, duster, and wax polish, along with a bucket and soap.
She had been given the role of housemaid.
Dutiful Sister Custodian? More like Menial Sister Janitor. She had been consigned to a humiliating role, just to prove the temple placed no importance on its previous contact with the late Thane Alric Wisa Achangrena. As if anyone at court would give a moment’s thought to the thane’s discarded bastard daughter. Maybe in a year or two, the elders themselves would not be so concerned.
Her father’s timing had always been off.
The young buck was everything Matt looked for in a man, oblivious, overconfident, and rich. Her palms itched with the anticipated weight of his purse. She trailed her mark across a square and down a side road, playing her favourite game of hunter and prey. The streets of Fortaine were hers. Fools, like the one she followed, stepped onto them at their own risk. And this one was a prize fool, swaggering along. He felt so highly of himself. Flaunting your athletic build was one thing. Flaunting the size of your coin purse was something totally different.
His clothes were fancy to the point of stupidity. His purple satin pantaloons were so puffed up they wobbled like jelly when he walked. If he went too far, he would get chafed in a most unpleasant way. The toes of his shoes were a foot long, curled back in the latest idiotic fashion. The gold embroidery on his doublet screamed, “Rob me.”
By comparison, Matt was dressed to look respectable and inconspicuous. She had a simple loose shirt and leggings, a lightweight leather jerkin, and supple rolltop boots, all in neutral colours. They were the everyday clothes of a craftsman, neither pauper nor gentlefolk. Nothing to mark her out from the crowd, and nothing to hamper her free movement.
The mark minced into the upper market, where imported luxuries like silk and spice were on sale. Matt was a dozen steps behind him, but she was in no hurry. In truth, she did not need to be lifting purses. Edmund had no shortage of people, sharp with the fingerwork, but she liked to keep her hand in. Besides, it was fun.
The mark was like a puppy, loose in a butcher’s shop, trying to take it in all at once—the colours, the smells, the noise. He even did a couple of pirouettes, looking at everything and seeing nothing. Matt was also checking out the market, but not the stuff on sale. It was pricey merchandise, but not worth the handful she could get from a snatch and run. The people were her concern. Before she made her move, Matt wanted to know who was out and about that late winter afternoon.
One of Gilbert’s lieutenants was leaning against the plinth of a statue, but the rival gang member was no concern. The upper market was neutral turf. Most stallholders Matt recognised. The best place to take the mark was by one paying protection to Edmund, and hence sure to turn a blind eye. A city watch constable was patrolling, but he was old Harry, who was bought and paid for. He would only try to arrest her if she gave him no choice. An indie homed in on her mark, but he backed off when he spotted Matt. Independent pickpockets knew better than to poach from the Flyming gang.
Matt increased her pace just enough to overtake the mark. For a few more steps, she stayed in front, then she stopped dead and jerked around, like a woman who has suddenly remembered she ought to be somewhere else. The mark bounced into her. She had given him no chance to do anything else.
They both managed to stay on their feet, although it was a close call for the mark. Confused apologies followed, while he dithered between anger at Matt’s clumsiness and a desire to be gallant with a pretty young woman. Matt bid him good day before he had settled on one or the other.
She marched back the way they had just come, with his purse inside her jerkin. However, before she had gone twenty yards, the mark started yelling. As luck would have it, he had stopped at the next stall and discovered that he and his purse had parted company.
Buffoon that he was, it was possible he would not link the theft to their collision. People like him must be losing things all the time. But it was all a little too recent and too blatant for even old Harry to ignore. Anyway, chase was another of Matt’s favourite games. She set off at full pelt.
The shouting went up a notch, so she had been spotted, but it was no cause for worry. The mark’s fancy shoes would be a bugger for running in, and old Harry was not going to knock himself out with the effort. Anyone who knew the street life of Fortaine would think twice about tackling Edmund Flyming’s adopted daughter, and those who did not would need a god or two on their side to have any hope of catching her.
Matt raced through a few twists and turns. The game was hardly started and already sounds of the chase were falling back. It was so easy, it was boring. Matt decided to put an end to it. She ducked into a dead end alley, blocked off by an eight-foot-high brick wall. Without breaking stride, Matt used a window ledge as a step up, jumped, caught the top, and hauled herself over. She dropped into the backyard of The Dog and Whistle tavern, where the last of the winter’s snow still hid between the stacked barrels.
Running footsteps echoed on the other side of the wall. They faltered and stopped.
“I thought…” gasp, “…she went…” gasp, “…in here.” Oh, what a lovely toffee-nosed accent.
“Ah. She must’ve gone another way.”
Gasp, “But where?” gasp.
“We’ll try the docks.” Good old Harry.
Matt grinned. The footsteps faded.
The gateway from the yard opened onto Pillow Row. All things considered, it would be as well to get off the streets for a few hours, enough time for old Harry to give up the hunt without it appearing fishy, and for the mark to cut his losses and go home. In another few days, he would have forgotten what she looked like, should they meet again. If only he knew it, Matt had done him a favour. Perhaps, in future, he would be more careful with his money.
Meanwhile, Matt knew the perfect place to kill a few hours. At the corner of the road was the Honeysuckle Bower, one of Edmund’s brothels.
The madam greeted Matt. “Hey there, stranger.”
“Hey there, yourself. How’s business going?”
“Horizontal.” An old joke.
The air was thick with cheap perfume and cheaper beer. The lighting was low to disguise the fading state of the decoration and the women. Sometimes it did not pay to look too closely. Imagination could be a useful tool. Yet the Honeysuckle Bower was far from the worst brothel in Fortaine. The girls were clean and friendly, the bedsprings still had some bounce, and the beer from the cellar was cold.
“Have you got a message from your Pa?”
“No. I’m here on my own account.”
Matt had been a regular visitor from the time she entered Edmund’s household. At first, just as a messenger, pampered and played with by the whores who wished to indulge their maternal urges. Once Matt reached mid teens, she discovered other reasons to visit the brothel. Her arrival today had been greeted by a couple of whores smiling at her in a way that said they were not thinking of playing pat-a-cake.
Matt pulled the stolen purse from her pocket, tossed it in the air, and caught it so it jingled. “I need to lie low for an hour or two, until someone stops looking for me.”
“With an emphasis on lie?”
“Less risk of falling over that way.” Matt’s grin broadened.
“Yvette’s been missing you.”
“I think she’d throttle me if I said no.” The madam patted Matt’s arm. “Go on. She’s all yours.”
Already Yvette had detached herself from the group of lounging whores and was sauntering forward, exaggerating the sway of her hips. Yvette wrapped her body around Matt’s, kissed her soundly, and then linked arms to lead Matt to the back rooms.
All in all, it was shaping up to be a very good afternoon.
Eawynn positioned the last lamp and stood back to admire the effect. The sacrarium exuded a suitably arcane otherworldliness, without being too blatantly contrived. Everything was in place except the Shewstone itself, which would have to wait. It went without saying that a mere Dutiful Sister Custodian did not get entrusted with a repository key. There was only one, and Insightful Sister Oracle kept it on a fine chain around her neck. She probably slept with it. Eawynn could only hope she was never in a position to find out for sure.
This would be the nineteenth time she played attendant, and the charade had lost its novelty. Admittedly, some humour could still be found in Insightful Sister Oracle’s attempts to speak Cynnreord, but even this was wearing thin.
The supplicant and his servant were waiting in the Shrine to the Oracle, with Redoubtable Sister Door-warden hovering nearby. She had taken over from Stalwart Sister Door-warden a month ago, when the elderly priestess could no longer manage the chaperoning duties. Except for in the public sanctuary, persons of a male persuasion had to be accompanied at all times on temple grounds, presumably to ensure they did not do anything inappropriately masculine to offend Anberith. Redoubtable Sister Door-warden was taking her newly acquired duties very seriously. She watched the men with an intensity normally only seen in cats tracking flies on a window pane.
It was not as if the supplicant appeared the age or type to cause trouble, and if he could afford a divination, he must be a person of standing. He was in his late thirties, dressed like a minor noble, in an elaborately embroidered tunic and coat, with fur trimmings, well-cut, of good material and new. His servant’s clothes were more subdued. Both men had pale skin, the barest half shade off white. Their high cheekbones, green eyes, and red hair would have been a match for Eawynn’s, if her head were not shaved.
“Is all ready?” The client spoke with a lilting accent.
“Yes, sir. Most Reverend Insightful Sister Oracle will be here soon to perform a divination for you.”
The supplicant nodded and murmured to his servant. Eawynn caught a few words, just enough to know they were talking in Cynnreord. Where did they come from? Surely not Fortaine, or anywhere else on Pinettale. Who now retained Cynnreord for daily use?
Before the Rihtcynn conquered them, the islanders had spoken a language known as Pinettia. Some still did, in isolated mountain villages. Everyone else had adopted Tradetalk, the mongrel common tongue of the empire, which seemed to consist of removing everything from Cynnreord that would strain the abilities of an idiot, blending in the most vulgar elements from the assorted vanquished nations, and then shifting the vowels, so it could be spoken without fully opening one’s mouth.
After the fall of the empire, the conquered lands had gone their own ways, but Tradetalk was still widely understood and used, especially where folk from different nations met. The Island of Pinettale, with its reliance on trade and seafaring, had kept Tradetalk as its own.
Insightful Sister Oracle swept in. In addition to her normal robe, she also wore a cowl, partially obscuring her eyes. Presumably, it was to enhance her mystical air. “Greetings, seeker after knowledge.”
“Please follow me.”
They left the servant and Redoubtable Sister Door-warden to watch each other outside, or more accurately, for the priestess to watch the servant while he ignored her.
The sense of being entombed was even stronger with the sacrarium door closed. Insightful Sister Oracle waved the client to his chair and pulled out the repository key with a flourish. Once the Shewstone was in place over the unlit oil burner, she also sat and steepled her fingers. She bowed her head so her eyes were lost in shadow. The dramatic effect was marred only by Insightful Sister Oracle’s misguided faith in her own acting ability.
Eawynn adopted her normal pose, standing silent and unmoving against the wall. She was unsure why her presence was required. The part she would play was minimal in the extreme. Perhaps it was hoped a second pair of eyes would deter any thought of that inappropriate male behaviour while the elder priestess was concentrating on the Shewstone.
“I am the voice of the oracle, High Priestess of Anberith. Stranger, you sit in the presence of great wonder and mystery,” Insightful Sister Oracle began. “Might I be allowed to know your name?”
“I am Waldo of Bousack, a merchant.”
Which was the more unexpected, his home or his profession? Bousack was a small town on the north coast. Rihtcynn ancestry was no more common there than anywhere else on Pinettale. Yet both supplicant and servant were red-haired speakers of Cynnreord. From his looks and the way he carried himself, Eawynn would have pegged him as a foreign nobleman. Maybe he had moved to Bousack from the mainland years ago and now considered it his home. But where was he from originally?
If Insightful Sister Oracle shared her surprise, she gave no sign. “You’ve come needing answers for a matter of great importance.”
“Indeed, I have.”
A few seconds of silence.
“Whatever you seek, doubt not the Shewstone will have the answer.”
“This is what I’ve been told.”
“You are here on an auspicious date. Today is the Spring Equinox. Did you choose it for a reason?”
“I knew it was today, but the timing is coincidental.”
Eawynn pressed her lips together to control a smile. Maybe this divination would be a little more interesting than the others. Whatever prophetic ability the Shewstone might have, Insightful Sister Oracle’s revelations amounted to prodding the clients to reveal what they were hoping to hear, then feeding it back to them, couched in sufficiently cryptic terms to give some wiggle room, should events not pan out as desired.
This supplicant was giving away no clues. Insightful Sister Oracle let the silence drag on, beyond any hope he might break down and blurt something out, but eventually she accepted defeat and beckoned Eawynn to light the burner. This was Eawynn’s only role in the pantomime, and one which she would rather have been excused from. Perhaps that was why she was there. Did Insightful Sister Oracle also feel the deep disquiet, even distress, when the flame was lit?
As it heated, the patterns in the stone swirled and writhed in a frenzy, seeming alive. It made a sound, high and faint, trilling like a bird. If Eawynn listened, she could persuade herself there were words in the sounds, although this was just a trick of her imagination, she was sure. But the Shewstone did not want to be over the flame. Eawynn could not shake this fancy, no matter how much she derided herself.
The high-pitched shrilling began. Insightful Sister Oracle leaned forward, holding her hands on either side of the stone, just far enough away to run no risk of burnt fingers. “Ask your question, Waldo of Bousack.”
“Thank you. I have to make a decision. An old friend of my father has asked me to join him, backing a new venture, trading with the Verlesie Isles. I’ve no experience of these lands and wish to know whether it would be a wise investment.”
That was it? This time, even Insightful Sister Oracle could not conceal her surprise. Judging by his tone, Waldo himself placed scant importance on the question and had no interest in the answer. Was it just his accent?
The temple charged a staggering amount for consulting the Shewstone, reckoning the premium enhanced the prestige of the divinations. The high price might result in fewer customers, but the net balance was the same. Most supplicants came with matters of life or death, tricky, awkward, insoluble problems. For a straightforward business deal, surely Waldo could find a better source of information. Bousack must have other traders with relevant experience. Why was he not asking them? And he was a merchant, by the tears of the gods. It was his trade. Builders did not consult an oracle for advice on how to lay bricks.
So how was Insightful Sister Oracle going to play this game?
From her pained expression, the elder priestess was asking herself the same thing. Then she closed her eyes and let her head fall forward. She swayed gently from side to side, the portrayal of a very refined trance. When she spoke, her voice was a full octave lower than normal. Her words were in Cynnreord.
“Old ropes holding us but not to go forward. In rocks with waterside salt grow seeds, but big and fat they come over friendly ground.”
Eawynn winced. The priestess’s accent had not improved over the years, and her grasp of the language would have shamed a three-year-old. Of course, the prophesy was intended to be cryptic and not understood by the client, but that was no reason to sound like an idiot.
Insightful Sister Oracle let her hands drop and opened her eyes. She provided her Tradetalk translation. “Ties from the past do not guide us into the future. The seed that sprouts on rocky shores, will flourish on home soil.”
So that was what she meant. Was Waldo equally amused? If so, he hid it well. He bowed his head graciously. “You mean regardless of how this venture goes for my father’s friend, it’s not the one for me. Better profit will come from investing my money in projects I’m familiar with.”
“Yes. I think that’s the conclusion one may draw.”
Always agree with the supplicant, and it was not a hard call. Waldo clearly had no enthusiasm for the deal. Why he had invested so much in getting an answer was anyone’s guess. Maybe he was beholden to his father’s friend and needed a good excuse to duck out.
Whatever lay behind it, Waldo seemed satisfied. He stood and gave another of his formal nods. “I thank you, and your goddess, for your help.”
This too was unusual. Most supplicants wanted the maximum return from their outlay and would ask as many follow-on questions as they could get away with.
However, Insightful Sister Oracle was not going to detain him if he wanted to go. She extinguished the burner. “Dutiful Sister Custodian and Redoubtable Sister Door-warden will escort you out. The blessing of Anberith be upon you.”
“I pray Anbeorht guides my way. Good day.”
There it was again. Waldo had stressed the original form of the goddess’s name, as if correcting Insightful Sister Oracle.
For the seafaring islanders, Anberith was second in importance only to Toranos, the storm god. As goddess of moon and tides, she had been worshipped on Pinettale for centuries. The tribes had given her a score of names—Berrima, Bathine, Abela, and others. Then the Rihtcynn conquered the island, to add to their burgeoning empire. They equated her with one of their own goddesses and had bestowed yet one more name, Anbeorht. As such, she acquired dominion over fortune telling and childbirth. The Rihtcynn Empire had fallen, but the expanded role for the goddess had stuck, along with the corrupted form of her new name.
Where had Waldo lived before Bousack? However, he rejoined his servant and left without revealing any more information to satisfy Eawynn’s curiosity.
On her return to the Shrine to the Oracle, Eawynn caught a glimpse of a green robe, disappearing into the sacrarium. She assumed it belonged to Insightful Sister Oracle, but when she drew close, she heard voices.
“…are willing to pay that much for the Shewstone, maybe we could increase the donation for consulting the stars.” Enlightening Sister Astrologer was riding her favourite hobbyhorse.
“I don’t think that’s the way for us to go.”
“Can I ask why?”
“You know why. This way, we can give guidance to all, rich and poor. If we increase the donation for your valuable work, poor folk will…”
Not give us any money at all. Insightful Sister Oracle left the words unsaid, but Eawynn had no trouble providing them.
“We could offer the guidance of both the Shewstone and the stars on a sliding scale, related to the supplicants’ resources.”
“Why should the prophesy of the Shewstone be placed so highly above the wisdom of the stars?”
“The Shewstone is a unique mystery. Anyone can see the stars.”
“The stars reveal the glory of the gods’ creation. The Shewstone is a…” Eawynn could almost hear the sound of a tongue being bitten.
In the absence of an answer, cheap charlatan’s trick, would have been Eawynn’s guess.
“We’ll discuss this again.”
“And my answer will not change.”
Enlightening Sister Astrologer stomped from the sacrarium. Seeing Eawynn standing outside, her expression achieved the almost impossible feat of becoming even more irate. It was a shame. If only Enlightening Sister Astrologer knew it, Eawynn agreed with her.
Long ago, the position of astrologer had been foremost in the temple. The Shewstone, and the revenue it produced, had shifted the power balance. It was no secret Enlightening Sister Astrologer dreamed of reverting to the earlier scheme, and Most Reverend Insightful Sister Oracle had not the least intention of letting it happen.
The high priestess was locking the repository when Eawynn entered. She slipped the key inside her robe and smiled, clearly relieved Enlightening Sister Astrologer was not returning for a second bout.
“I think the divination went well.”
“Yes, Beloved Sister.”
“Waldo had a trace of an accent. He might have lived on the mainland at some stage.”
You don’t say. “Probably, Beloved Sister.”
Insightful Sister Oracle flashed a condescending smile. “You’re doing well. Keep it up.” She bustled out.
Eawynn held her tongue until the elder priestess was out of earshot. “I’m so pleased I can sweep the floor to your satisfaction.”
She turned up the wicks, so it was light enough to see while she cleaned. Still, the sacrarium felt heavy and oppressive. She paused before the repository. The Shewstone was back in its cast iron cage. The swirling patterns inside were becoming less frenetic. The whistling had faded. Now it sounded mournful, the lament of a lost and lonely soul, trapped in a stone prison.
Eawynn bit her lip. “You and me both.”
A thump on the door woke Matt with a jerk.
“Edmund wants to talk to you.”
Matt groaned and hauled herself up in bed. A band of sunlight squeezed through the shutters. Judging by the angle, the morning was well advanced.
“He didn’t say. He’s in the study.”
“Is he alone?”
“Got a couple of visitors.”
“Anyone you know?”
Matt swung her feet out of bed, yawning. “Tell him I’ll be along in a few minutes.”
The sheets beside Matt moved and a head appeared. “What is it?”
“I’ve got to go…” Matt struggled to recall a name. “…honey.”
A hand slid up Matt’s thigh, its goal clear. “Can’t you stay with me a little longer?”
“My father wants to see me.”
“Hmmph.” But the hand’s owner had better sense than to argue.
Matt reached for her discarded clothes. The woman in bed raised herself on one elbow to watch. Marie. That was her name, maybe.
“What does he want?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you want me to wait here for you to get back?”
Matt thought about the offer while tying her shirt. Maybe-Marie was pretty. From memory, Matt could also confirm she was agile, enthusiastic, nicely padded, but not overly bright.
“I don’t know what he’s going to want, or how long I’ll be. Better if you get Pearl to show you out, when you’re ready to leave.”
Maybe-Marie’s mouth puckered in a pout. “You won’t forget to mention me to him, will you?”
That was it. Maybe-Marie wanted a job in a gambling den. Which might work. She might not be up to mastering the more complex card games, nor any fancy dealing, but she was pretty enough to make a certain sort of punter show off by betting high.
“Yeah. I’ll tell him.”
“Will I see you again?”
“Maybe, Marie.” Matt escaped.
Edmund wanted her to meet the visitors, else he would have waited until after they went. But if they were the sort of people who should not be left waiting, his message would have had more urgency. Matt reckoned there was time to wash her face and have a stab at breakfast.
Pearl was in the kitchen, gossiping with the cook, while helping prepare vegetables, and at the same time, no doubt reviewing the stores, planning orders, and setting menus for the next week. Pearl had started out working for Edmund’s grandfather as a whore, but had proved far too good an organiser to stay as one. Her ability to do four things at once had kept the Flyming household running smoothly for decades.
Pearl was the only person in the world, other than Edmund, who could get away with calling her that. Matt scooped a mug of milk from a churn.
“There’s someone in my room—”
“Is she the one with the loud squeal?”
“Umm…yes, probably. Can you see she leaves soonish?”
Pearl shook her head. “I swear, you and Edmund were cut from the same cloth. He’s your Pa, right enough.”
Matt smiled and grabbed a cinnamon bun. She could not remember when she first called Edmund “Pa” as a childish slip of the tongue, but it had pleased him. Whatever his experience with women might have been, no children had resulted, and Edmund was safely past the stage of youthful experimentation. Before long, it became accepted that Matt was his adopted daughter. In truth, Edmund was more her father than the man who sired her ever had been.
Matt swallowed the last of the bun as she knocked on the study door.
Two strangers were in the room. From their dress and posture, one was the master, the other a servant or henchman. Clearly, they came to strike a deal rather than ask for a job. On the principle of, “the longer the robe, the less the work,” the master did not do much. His clothes were immaculate and expensive, but interestingly, he wore no jewellery, not even a signet ring. Both men had swords on their belts, but from the way they held themselves, neither was a skilled fighter nor a handyman assassin. They certainly did not have the muscle to be rowdy boys.
Both had red hair and white skin, which was rare on Pinettale, except among the bloodsucking nobility. Since lords and ladies would never dirty themselves contacting Edmund directly, they must have come from the mainland. Which posed interesting questions. The clothes were new, bought in Fortaine. Apart from being local in style, they showed no sign of travel, no salt or sweat stains. Either their luggage had been lost overboard, or they did not want to advertise their origin with a distinctive type of dress. But why not?
The once-over took less than a second. “You wanted me?” she asked.
“Yes. Come in.” Edmund was half sitting on a corner of his desk. “Allow me to present my daughter, Matilda. She’ll be the one who undertakes this assignment.” He tilted his head to Matt. “These gentlemen have an interesting proposition. I’ll let them explain.”
The leader treated Matt to his own examination, then cleared his throat. “My name is Waldo of Bousack. I’m in Fortaine because there’s an artefact we desire. Have you heard of the Temple of Anbeorht?”
If he comes from Bousack, I’m a cabbage. Apart from the other clues, he spoke in a staccato rhythm, biting off his words, and his vowels were rounded and stressed. Matt had spent enough time on the docks to place his accent due south on the mainland. But though reading him was easy, it was harder to know how to read his question. Every child in Fortaine would know what he was referring to. Yet he was waiting for her to answer.
“You mean the Shewstone?”
“Yes. They call it the Shewstone. I intend to have it.”
“You’re hoping to buy it?” Two could play the game of asking silly questions. “I can’t see them parting with it. Do you know the priestesses reckon it can foretell the future? They rake in the money. You’d be amazed.” To Matt’s way of thinking, the scam was so brazen even she would have felt a twinge of guilt carrying it out.
“I am very aware of how much they charge, and I do not think it would be for sale, regardless of price. Which is why I’ve come to your father to see if he can acquire it for us.”
“Won’t be easy.”
“If it were easy, we wouldn’t need your services. Do you think you can do it?”
Matt shrugged. “If the money’s right.”
The Flyming gang did not generally work as thieves for hire, but business was business, and Edmund would not have wasted her time if he had no intention of accepting the job.
“Your father and I have agreed on a price.”
Matt glanced over to meet Edmund’s eyes. What was he thinking? The Shewstone was just a ball of rock. Could they get away with passing off a replica?
As if hearing her thought, the visitor said, “I arranged for a divination yesterday, so I could first see it for myself. The artefact was exactly as I’d been told. I must have it.”
Which meant he might notice if he did not get the genuine Shewstone.
“How quickly do you want it?”
“Within the month. I cannot wait much longer.”
Matt nodded. She trusted Edmund already had a plan in mind, and if they could not steal the Shewstone inside a month, they could not steal it at all.
“Sounds good to me.”
“I agree.” Edmund pushed himself away from the desk. “How shall we contact you when we have it?”
“My companion will walk along the harbour wall, each day at noon. You may pass a message to him there.”
So, the visitors intended to conceal their lodging. A vain hope. Edmund would want to know more about their new clients and did not lack the resources to find out. The information would be forthcoming, of that Matt was sure.
Edmund’s face gave nothing away. “Then I think, gentlemen, we’ve covered all that is needful.”
The visitors nodded politely as they were shown out.
“What do you make of them?” Edmund asked once they were alone.
“They’ve come a long way for a lump of rock.”
“The mainland around Sideamuda, I’d say.”
Matt took a seat in the casement window. “And with money to burn.”
“You don’t know the half of it.”
“How much are they offering?”
“Four thousand yellowboys.”
“I know. We’d have jumped at half that.”
Matt was puzzled. “They didn’t strike me as fools.”
“Except for being desperate to own a stone ball.”
“There is that.”
Matt turned her head to look on the street below. The two strangers were walking away.
Edmund joined her, leaning his shoulder against the window frame. “It feels too good.”
“And if something seems too good, it probably is. You think they’re pulling something?”
“I don’t know.” He sighed. “We go carefully. Any hint of a problem and we tell them it’s off.”
“Right. Any idea how we’re going to get the stone?”
“Nope. That’s up to you.”
“We need someone inside the temple. I don’t fancy our chances of bribing a priestess, and men aren’t allowed in.”
“You think I could become a priestess? I’m not sure the haircut will suit me,” Matt joked.
“I suspect the haircut would be the least of your problems. Fortunately, there’s a less demanding way in for you.”
“You’re thinking of the hostel for travelling gentlewomen who’re too dainty for common inns?”
“Do you think you can play the part?”
Matt laughed. “You doubt my acting ability?”
“I’m not sure about you staying sufficiently virtuous.”
“I don’t have to be virtuous, just act it. I’m sure that’s all the sisters are doing.”
“You can’t afford to slip. No matter what the sisters are up to when the public aren’t around, you should stay in character with your cover story.”
“You’re from a quaint little rural spot. You’re in town to tidy up the affairs of your recently departed uncle, because you’re the only one your family can spare, but you’ve never been to a big city before and your husband is possessively jealous and wants to be sure you aren’t cavorting with sailors and the like.”
“Wife is hardly an option.”
“I don’t know. If word gets out, they might be queuing up outside my bedroom door.” Matt ran the idea past what she knew of the sisterhood and winced. “You’re right. Husband is safer.”
“You don’t have to lift the stone yourself. Just see how it can be done. We’ll plan on you staying in the hostel half a month. You can extend it if necessary. But I don’t think you have to worry about being recognised afterward. The priestesses don’t leave the temple much, and when they do they’re surrounded by guards.”
“A wig wouldn’t hurt.”
“True. We’ll send a letter to the temple. You can show up a couple of days later.”
“And remember. Don’t take risks. Maybe this man calling himself Waldo is just a clown who doesn’t know the price of a thief, but something about this is making my back itch.”
“You know me.”
“Precisely. That’s why I’m saying it. Be careful.”
Matt wandered back to her room, which was now empty. Pearl had done her job. But with hindsight, perhaps she should have had Maybe-Marie stay. Matt was facing the prospect of days on end stuck in the temple with only the Virgin Priestesses of Anberith for company. Unless the priestesses were more fun than their tag suggested, it could be her longest period of celibacy since turning sixteen.
Matt closed her eyes and groaned. “The things we do for money.”
The stout walls of Hyth Diepu could have held out against the ragtag rebel army until loyal reinforcements arrived, but the base-born rabble inside the port city made common cause with the besiegers and rose up. In two days of fighting, the traitors burned the warships in dock and massacred the sailors.
With the loss of such a significant part of the Rihtcynn navy, the seas would become the home of pirates, and Earl Swidhelm Wisa Gyrwefenna saw there was no hope of keeping Pinettale secure within the empire. He therefore made the hard decision to take full personal responsibility for the island, and named himself King of Pinettale, so that he might preserve a remnant of the noble Rihtcynn culture there for the generations to come.
Or to put it another way, Swidhelm saw his chance and grabbed it. Eawynn sincerely doubted the first king’s motives had been altruistic.
The events, and the slant on Swidhelm’s actions, were familiar to her. It had been her father’s favourite bedtime story, on the few occasions he had seen fit to tell one to her. At the time, Eawynn had preferred Hattie’s funny tales of Jibjob the Bear. However, Alric Husa Achangrena had wanted to impress on Eawynn their noble heritage. He could trace his ancestry back to Swidhelm by multiple routes, most directly through Swidhelm’s youngest daughter, who had married the Thane Achangrena of the day—his great-great-great-great-great-grandfather.
The library door opened. Eawynn looked up to see who would come in. She was supposed to be reading Holy Scripture rather than distorted history, but after four hours spent cleaning, she needed entertainment, and Wilfrid’s Rise and Fall of the Rihtcynn Empire was the best option on offer. Given her low standing, being caught out would mean more trouble than she wanted to think about. But how great was the risk? Nobody else was in the library, and the book was written in Cynnreord, using old clerical hieroglyphs. After Erudite Sister Librarian’s demise, only three other priestesses could decode it well enough to even get the first idea that she ought to be looking at something else. A stout figure in sea-green waddled into the library, and Eawynn smiled. Redoubtable Sister Door-warden was not one of the three.
Eawynn was about to return to her book, but another person followed the priestess in. This woman was a stranger, of average height, dressed in secular clothing, a long blue surcoat, reaching well below her knees, with matching red collar and stockings. A white shirt and dainty shoes completed her attire. Her skin was the light brown of a commoner, but her long wavy hair held a tint of auburn, proclaiming a modicum of noble blood in her ancestry. Possibly there was another trace of Rihtcynn forebears in the delicate bone structure of her face. Her hands were also well formed with long fingers. She looked to be in her mid-twenties.
“We have nearly one hundred and fifty books in the library,” Redoubtable Sister Door-warden announced proudly.
“Really.” The overstressed cadence suggested the woman was not quite as impressed as she was trying to sound. A bland smile was plastered on her face.
“While you’re staying with us, you may come here to read. Studious Sister Librarian or one of her assistants will help you find a suitable book.”
As long as you don’t ask Diligent Sister Caretaker. Eawynn still wanted to scream at the injustice. How could a featherbrain like Agnes be assigned to the library? She understood the politics, but it was not being fair to the books.
Redoubtable Sister Door-warden started to back out, but the visitor was not ready to leave. She tottered the length of the room. Her hands were folded demurely over her stomach. Judging by her clothes, the woman was either an artisan or married to one. She was attractive, but otherwise unremarkable, yet something was odd about her. It took Eawynn a moment to work out what. The woman’s manner was timid, mouse-like, with small, teetering steps. Her walk should have been ungainly, yet, like a mouse, her footsteps made no sound, even on the tiled library floor.
At the rear of the library, the woman stopped by the metal grill protecting the proscribed books from unauthorised eyes. Insightful Sister Oracle’s permission was needed to even open the grill, let alone read any of the contents.
“Why are these books locked up? Are they valuable?”
Redoubtable Sister Door-warden had followed, making considerably more noise. “All the books are valuable. These ones contain particularly sacred writings that only the elders may read. They hold deep mysteries of our faith.”
The woman did not sound convinced, and nor was Eawynn. Probably every inquisitive novice in the temple’s history had tried to sneak a peek. If any had succeeded, they were not letting on, though this did not stop rumours about the contents. Juvenile suggestions were that the books held erotic bedtime reading or magical spells. Eawynn would now guess they included tips on how to wheedle clues from supplicants, plus maybe a compendium of pretentious metaphors in Cynnreord.
The visitor continued her circuit, although it seemed her eyes spent as much time on the windows as they did on the books. Was she a glazier, come to give a quote for new stained glass? Whatever her interest, Eawynn wished she would hurry up and go. The next ceremony was due soon, and Eawynn wanted to finish the chapter without distractions. But no such luck. The woman stopped by her table.
Eawynn restrained the pointless urge to conceal Wilfred’s history. It would merely make her appear guilty. Anyway, even if the visitor was a scholar and could decode the script, how was she to know what Eawynn was supposed to be reading?
The woman looked pointedly at Redoubtable Sister Door-warden, who finally got the idea she was expected to introduce them.
“This is Madam Hilda of Gimount. She’s going to be staying in the hostel while she concludes some business in Fortaine.” Redoubtable Sister Door-warden gestured with one hand. “And this is Dutiful Sister Custodian.”
“Good afternoon.” Madam Hilda’s smile revealed even white teeth. “May I ask what you’re custodian of?”
“Really.” For the first time, the woman’s interest was unmistakably genuine. Her eyes widened slightly, and her voice acquired depth. “I’ve heard so much about it. I was hoping I might even see it while I’m here. Would that be possible, do you think?”
Redoubtable Sister Door-warden got her answer in first. “I’m afraid the Shewstone is never on display. You would have to make a representation to Most Reverend Insightful Sister Oracle.”
“That’s a shame.”
The woman’s eyes fixed on Eawynn, and here again was an off note. There was nothing timid in that gaze. An intent glinted in their depths that Eawynn found unsettling. Hilda of Gimount had locked eyes with her—a wolf, not a mouse—brazenly sizing her up, and Eawynn did not know how to react. How she ought to react was easy; there was little doubt what advice any elder would give. But how did she want to react? Eawynn was completely at a loss, and that was the disconcerting part. Whatever else was happening in her life, Eawynn always knew her own mind. Was it just a reaction to being ignored by everyone else for months?
Eawynn felt her cheek burning. It did not matter whether it was annoyance or embarrassment. The effect was always so obvious on her pale skin. She looked down at the open page, taking a few seconds to compose her features, hoping the woman would move on. However, when she looked up, Hilda of Gimount was still watching her, but now with an easy grin on her lips, like a woman enjoying a private joke. What game was she playing?
“I’ll show you the rest of the temple.” Redoubtable Sister Door-warden came to the rescue, albeit unwittingly. She shepherded the visitor to the door. But before Hilda of Gimount let herself be led out, she stopped to throw one last broad smile at Eawynn.
When the door closed, Eawynn let out a long sigh, either of relief or apprehension. She could not say which emotion was uppermost. There was something intriguing about Hilda of Gimount, maybe even dangerous. She was also very attractive. But the last thing Eawynn needed were more black marks against her name. This woman was trouble. Eawynn could feel it in her core.
After a few deep breaths, she returned to Wilfrid’s history.
Such true-born Rihtcynn as resided on Pinettale rallied to King Swidhelm’s cause. United, they were able to maintain discipline in the army and put down uprisings by the commoners. The victories were hard won. In Anmet and Monflacin, mobs murdered everyone of Rihtcynn blood. Sorrowfully to relate, many noble bloodlines were extinguished. Yet, though sorely tried, King Swidhelm kept a firm grip on Fortaine and dealt ruthlessly with the rabble. Once his capital was secure, he had a stable base from which to launch his campaign to subdue the rest of the island. Five years after King Swidhelm took the throne, Pinettale was again at peace.
Back in the colonnaded courtyard, Matt rubbed her face discreetly, trying to massage her expression into one suitable for a decorous gentlewoman. A cheesy grin was certainly not right. She should have been more careful with the good-looking priestess, but good-looking women were always Matt’s weakness. Besides, as Matt read the signs, the custodian had potential, and not just in terms of access to the Shewstone. It was a shame about the shaved head. The custodian was pretty enough to carry it off, but Matt was sure she would be even more attractive with enough hair to run fingers through. The grin threatened to return.
“That was the library. I think I’ve already told you this is called the atrium.” The door warden, on the other hand, was a lost cause, regardless of hairstyle.
“Yes, Holy Sister.”
In the middle of the atrium was a neat garden of low shrubs and box hedges. Spring bulbs were in full bloom. The four sides were lined with pillars supporting a low vaulted roof over a wide walkway, somewhere the sisters could take exercise on rainy days. To the north, east, and west, arched passageways gave access to the other areas of the temple. There was no southern exit. The Temple of Anberith backed directly onto the cliffs overlooking the port. As befitting the goddess of tides, the sounds of waves crashing against the shore could be heard everywhere.
The priestess paused by another door. “You saw the audience room when you arrived?”
“Yes, Holy Sister.”
They progressed as far as the eastern arch. “As a resident of the hostel, you may come and go through the atrium at will, but you may not enter here under any circumstances.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it.” I have far more interesting dreams.
“It leads to the priestesses’ private quarters.”
Private quarters—dormitories, washrooms, an extra special place to pray, and maybe an orgy chamber. Or maybe not, but the priestesses had to do something for fun.
The circuit of the atrium continued. There was a schoolroom, where the daughters of the gentry could be taught to read and write, an accounting office, where rich people who felt compelled to give away money could do so, and a chart room where a grumpy priestess was calculating something and did not want to be disturbed. They left that last room rather hurriedly.
Matt was also shown into two enclosed halls of a religious nature. The larger was the Shrine to the Oracle. A door at the rear was pointed out as being the unpronounceable whatsit where the Shewstone was kept. Matt nodded and said nothing. Expressing too much interest would be a mistake. She concentrated on small steps, with her elbows clamped to her sides, pulling her shoulders in, and smiling sweetly all the time. Her face was starting to ache.
They concluded the circuit back at the northern exit. “The Sanctuary of Anberith is through here. It’s the only part of the temple open to everyone.”
I know. I came through on the way here. “Yes, Holy Sister.”
Anyway, Matt already had a longstanding familiarity with the large, open-air Sanctuary of Anberith, with its huge statue of the goddess surrounded by a circular reflecting pool. The crowded ceremonies provided excellent hunting grounds for pickpockets.
“The doors on this passage are my special responsibility.”
The solid, iron-studded doors were clearly her pride and joy. She was all but fondling them when Matt arrived. Would the priestess drag her back to admire the woodwork again?
“Is this why you are called door warden? Do you have the keys to all the doors in the temple?”
The priestess pouted. “I am charged with ensuring no unsuitable persons are admitted to the inner temple.”
In which case you’ve failed by letting me in. And, between the lines, it was a no for a key to the Shewstone door. Presumably, the custodian had one. Matt would have to find out. Again, she had to work to hide a grin.
“I’ll show you your room.”
The door warden might not be guardian of all keys, but her duties apparently extended to full guided tours, when she was not otherwise busy snuggling up to the atrium gates. She led Matt through the western arch, into an area given over to general domestic buildings. A chimney puffing smoke and the smell of cooking marked the kitchen. They passed by the open double doors to a workshop. A paved courtyard surrounded by stables and a small blacksmith was wedged in a corner a short way off.
The hostel was, fortunately, closer to the kitchen than the stable. It consisted of six private rooms over storerooms. A small, unoccupied cubbyhole was near the foot of the stairs.
“That’s where Welcoming Sister Hosteller normally sits, but she’s not around at the moment.”
The redoubtable sister had an amazing natural talent for saying the obvious. And where did the priestesses get their names? Did they shorten them for everyday use? Would the door warden answer to “Red”? What was the original name of the priestess in the library? Matt was going to have to find out.
Matt’s bags were waiting for her upstairs. Her small room was furnished with a bed, a footlocker, and a wardrobe. Between them, they took up half the floor space. A window looked out over orderly rows of vegetables and herbs.
“That’s the kitchen garden.”
“Indeed, Holy Sister.”
The well-tended area was walled off from the rest of the temple, either to stop overweight sisters from taking unauthorised snacks or to stop the cabbages and carrots from joining in with the ceremonies.
“We grow food there.”
Matt pressed her lips together, fighting the urge to laugh. Irony would, most likely, go right over the sister’s head, but the risk was not worth taking. Fortunately, a reply was not needed.
The priestess clapped her hands together, “Oh yes, food! You’ll want to see the refectory.”
“That would be nice.”
The refectory turned out to be a large hall, conveniently close to the kitchen and the hostel. Two long tables ran the length of the room. At the far end, a smaller table was raised on a dais.
“This is where we eat our meals. You’ll have a place at the high table, or if you prefer, you may request meals in your room, if you ask Nourishing Sister Kitchener in advance.”
“I wouldn’t want to be a bother.” Unless the sister in the library was the one providing room service.
“Breakfast is straight after the dawn ceremony. Luncheon is at noon. The evening meal is at the sixth bell, unless this conflicts with the tides. For those whose work keeps them up late, a light supper is available.”
“That’s good to know.”
They went outside again. The door warden was, mercifully, running out of things to say. How long before she quit prattling and went back to her beloved gates? “You’re free to join in with all the ceremonies.”
“I’m looking forward to it.”
“Female guests may visit you in your room, if you make arrangements with me. Men are not allowed beyond the atrium, and even there they must be chaperoned by either me or my assistant.”
That’s fine. I prefer women in my bedroom. Probably best not to say it aloud, although maybe the orgy chamber was not such a farfetched idea. The sisters were human, and for all their talk of chastity, there were certain basic human needs. Again, thoughts of the priestess in the library threatened to give Matt a most indecorous smile.
A nearby door opened, and an elderly priestess emerged. This time the door warden did not hesitate to introduce them.
“Beloved Sister, this is Hilda of Gimount, who’ll be residing in our hostel for several days. And this is Most Reverend Insightful Sister Oracle, the leader of our community.”
Matt was not absolutely sure of protocol, but gave a half curtsy that ought to suffice and bowed her head. “Holy Sister.”
“I’ve been showing her around.”
Her divine reverence gave a weak smile. “I trust you’ve found it inspirational.”
“Yes. I was particularly inspired in the library.” Matt liked to be truthful when she could.
“You read?” her snotty holiness sounded surprised.
“My father made sure of it. He said otherwise you could not hope to succeed in business.” Regardless of which side of the law your business was on.
The door warden said, “I’ve told Madam Hilda she may read books in the library.”
“She may. But the books contain weighty matters that are not easy for the lay person to comprehend. Our guest may find more suitable reading matter in the schoolroom.”
“Thank you.” But I already know A is for apple. Her up-her-own-arse-edness was not endearing herself to Matt. Smile, smile, smile.
“You’re in Fortaine on business?” Her not-too-holy-to-chase-money-edness, was also a little slow on the uptake, but had eventually registered Matt’s words. The sums were running behind her eyes.
“My uncle died recently. I’m here to tidy up his affairs and see what state they’re in. There had been some talk of debt, hopefully unfounded.” So don’t expect a donation to temple funds.
“I trust so. You’re a follower of Anberith?” The sums were still running.
“I’m a faithful daughter of all the gods. My husband thought it better for me to stay with you. Fortaine is a port city, and sailors are…” Matt smiled like a woman too demure to know exactly what sailors were, other than it was not good.
A bell sounded, interrupting any further pursuit of a donation, though Matt suspected it was only a temporary diversion.
“It’s time for the Laudation of the Irresistible High Tide. Will you join us?”
“I’d be delighted to, Holy Sister.”
The Sanctuary of Anberith was comparatively empty, no more than two hundred worshippers. On holy days and festivals, half the population of Fortaine would squeeze in, ten thousand or more. Those were Matt’s favourite times to visit. At the moment, lifting purses would be too conspicuous and totally out of character for a demure businesswoman from Gimount.
Deprived of her normal entertainment, Matt had nothing to distract her from the ceremony. She had not realised before how unbelievably tedious and overbearing it was. The only amusement was that the chief priestess had adopted a particularly silly headdress for the ceremony.
Matt looked at the statue of Anberith, thirty feet tall. The prayers beseeched her to maintain the cycle of tides. Matt was sure, if the gods took their roles the least bit seriously, then Anberith would continue looking after the sea, whether or not she was asked by a group of hypocritical parasites in fancy dress. Alternately, if the goddess decided she could not be arsed anymore, asking her was a waste of time.
The temple took a tithe of all the wealth passing through the port and levied fines for various shortcomings in its followers, then coerced whatever donations they could from people with more money than sense and capped it all by extorting eye-watering amounts from the sham of fortune telling.
When her time in this world was up and Matt came to be judged, she could only hope the gods would show mercy to an honest thief. But if there was any justice in the afterlife, the fate awaiting the swindlers who lined their own pockets in the name of the gods would be no softer. Matt never stole from anyone who could not afford it, and she certainly never claimed she was divinely ordained to take whatever she could get away with.
The prayers droned on. “I, your most humble servant, give thanks for the grace you have shown me.”
Humble! Matt wondered how the chief priestess could say it with a straight face. Did she know what the word meant? The ring of green-clad priestesses began yet another chant, about the seas, the moon, and how happy they were to be so pious. Did any of them have the slightest sense of irony? Some people simply did not deserve to have a nice Shewstone.
The statue of the goddess smiled down, kind, placid, and with just a hint of humour. Matt was sure Anberith would see things her way. Then she caught sight of the attractive priestess from the library. Matt bowed her head to hide her expression. She would relieve the chief priestess of the Shewstone, and along the way, she might even have a little fun.
The wooden frescos in the Shrine to the Oracle were a nightmare to polish. Wax got caught behind the little knobbly bits, and the effort of getting it out would cause smears elsewhere, resulting in the fresco looking worse than before Eawynn started. Each fresco would take all day, and polishing them once a year would surely be enough. However, Attentive Sister Chamberlain had ordered it done twice a month.
Eawynn reached one of her least favourite bits, a selection of fruit spilling from an overturned seashell—not that there was much to choose between it and the rest.
“Is this what you do as custodian?”
Eawynn jumped. Hilda of Gimount stood an arm’s length away, smiling.
“Yes. Mostly.” Caught off-balance, Eawynn’s answer was a touch more honest than she intended. “I mean sometimes. But there’s more to it.” And now she was babbling.
Hilda gave a knowing smile, clearly amused by Eawynn’s disarray. “Of course. I assume there would be. After all, you’re Sister Custodian not Sister Janitor.”
Eawynn could only hope her smile was not too sickly. Yet maybe she gave something away. Hilda’s expression became more serious, with a hint of confusion. “I mean, it would be silly if you spent all your time cleaning and polishing. I saw the book you were reading in the library.”
“You understand clerical hieroglyphs?”
“Me? Oh no. I had no idea what it was. I didn’t even recognise the letters. Which means you’re a scholar who was reading something really obscure. You don’t set scholars to do a housemaid’s job. I can’t see the chief priestess wasting a mind like yours.”
That’s because you don’t see how things are. Even so, Eawynn could not help smiling at the compliment.
“So what else does a custodian do?”
“I assist Insightful Sister Oracle when she consults the Shewstone.”
“That sounds more interesting.”
Had she known it, Madam Hilda was no more accurate than with her previous assumptions. Eawynn merely nodded.
“The consultations, they take place through there?” Madam Hilda pointed to the back wall of the shrine.
“Yes. In the Shewstone Sacrarium.”
“That’s a bit of a tongue twister.” She tilted her head to one side. “The book you were reading, was that to do with the Shewstone? I imagine there’s a lot of arcane stuff you need to know.”
And you’d imagine wrong. “Insightful Sister Oracle conducts all aspect of the divination. My role requires no special knowledge. I just assist.”
“But you are in training to be the next oracle?”
“No. I don’t expect that role will come to me.”
While they talked, Madam Hilda had been edging forward. Eawynn suddenly became aware how close she now was. The woman had slipped right under her guard. Scant inches separated them, and her eyes were locked on Eawynn’s face. Madam Hilda was flirting. Of that Eawynn had no doubt, and the knowledge set her pulse hammering. Maybe it was a game that would be fun to play along with. But the visitor was not the one standing in jeopardy, and she was not the one who should be calling the shots.
Eawynn took a half step back. It was time to assert her own script. She was not a fluff-headed adolescent. “Is there anything I can assist you with, Madam Hilda?”
“Oh please, call me Hilda, no need for the madam part. And is there anything particular you’d like to assist me with?” While they had been talking, Hilda’s expression flitted between amusement and confusion. Humour was now dominant, but then she raised her hands in a conciliatory gesture and backed off. “It’s fine. I’m just here looking.”
Hilda set off on a slow circuit while she continued talking. “When she was showing me around yesterday, I got the feeling your Sister Door-warden was rather put out that she doesn’t have a key to the Shewstone room. Or did I misunderstand her?”
“No. Only three of us have keys. Myself, Insightful Sister Oracle, and Attentive Sister Chamberlain.”
“And there’s no chance of you giving me a quick peek at the Shewstone?” Hilda gave a conspiratorial grin, then again held up her hands, before Eawynn had a chance to reply. “No. It’s all right. Forget I asked. I was just…” She shrugged and continued her inspection of the shrine décor—the statues, the stonework, the incense burner, the windows.
Eawynn sucked in a breath, surprised at herself and how close she had been to agreeing to the request. So much for my own script. She would have to do a lot better. What was it about the woman? Eawynn’s eyes remained on Hilda, watching the way she walked. The dainty footsteps were those of an old woman, yet a fluidity and grace underlay them, a dancer miming a role rather than genuine frailty.
What game was Hilda playing? She’s flirting with me. That one was obvious, but was there more to it? Hilda’s stockings did not hide the muscle underneath. Her shoulders stayed perfectly aligned over her hips. Eawynn studied the movement, hoping for a clue, only to realise Hilda had turned her neck, looking back with a smile that outdid anything to date.
Eawynn felt her face burn to have been caught out in such blatant ogling. Focusing on the wretched fresco, she re-attacked the wax smears and tried to ignore Hilda’s soft laugher drifting through the shrine. For once, the overblown fussiness of the woodwork was a blessing, a job needing complete concentration while she regained her composure. She embarked on her twice monthly battle to avoid getting a wad of wax stuck in the dent where the stick joined an apple.
“Couldn’t you get a housemaid to do that?”
Again, Eawynn jumped at the voice by her shoulder. Did the woman’s feet make no sound at all?
“We sisters perform all necessary tasks. We don’t employ servants. Housework is part of our general duties.” Of course, before Eawynn was given the role, nobody had been specifically assigned to cleaning the shrine.
“You’ve got armed guards outside the gates.”
“Only in the outer temple. It would require an emergency for them to enter the inner temple.”
Hilda studied her with intense dark brown eyes. “Do you enjoy it, being a priestess?”
Not an easy question. “Serving the goddess Anberith is an honour.”
The amusement returned. Hilda was too astute not to spot a question being ducked. “Don’t you miss all the things you had to give up when you came here?”
“I was too young to have anything to give up.” The pony did not count.
“I’d just turned six.”
I was an encumbrance to my father’s ambition. “My family thought it best.”
“Now you’re old enough to make up your own mind. Couldn’t you leave, if you wanted to?”
Where do I have to go? “I’ve taken my vows as a priestess. My life is here, forever.”
“You don’t know what you’re missing.”
Oh yes, I do. Hilda was standing very close, holding eye contact.
The pounding heartbeat returned, along with a tingling in her knees. Eawynn locked her legs and prayed she was not going to blush again.
The subject of “special friendships” was well known in the temple. It was never talked about directly, mainly because the gossip mill had an extensive range of code phrases above and beyond the standard euphemism. Once you worked out how to interpret what they were saying, some priestesses hardly talked about anything else.
Among the novices, Nurturing Sister Mentor had been on guard against juvenile crushes and had kindly but firmly taken steps to squash them before they developed further. Yet she was not infallible, as Beatrice and Eawynn had been able to find out. Their experiences had been awkward and hasty, but they had managed to break a few rules.
Eawynn was aware that many priestesses, freed from Nurturing Sister Mentor’s oversight, formed questionable bonds with each other, not to mention a few who formed even more questionable bonds with the guardsmen on the gates. Eawynn reckoned no more than a quarter of the sisters could truthfully claim the name of virgin priestess. Though in her own case, further straying looked unlikely. Nobody wanted to be known as a close friend to the daughter of an executed traitor, even had Eawynn desired to pursue such a relationship.
But what of Hilda? She had a life outside the temple. Gossip over breakfast had spoken of a jealous husband, anxious to keep his wife from the temptations of common inns. Eawynn chased the questions around in her head. Where was this conversation going? Which of them was being naïve? Hilda was playing games; that much was certain. Was she bored and seeking a little excitement to pass the time? Was this how she acted with every woman she met or was she making the most being away from her husband? Either way, Eawynn was tired of people playing games with her life. She was not a toy. She would not surrender what little control she had.
Eawynn fixed her attention on the fresco and the awful, crevice-scarred bunch of grapes. But she could sense Hilda’s eyes on her. The woman’s body was so close, Eawynn fancied she could feel Hilda’s warmth, burning through the sea-green robe, setting her on fire.
“Don’t you find the life of a priestess lonely?”
“I have the company of my sisters.”
“But how much company do they provide?” The subtle emphasis on the word company put her meaning beyond doubt.
Eawynn narrowed her focus to each appalling grape, one at a time, while the butterflies in her stomach threatened to drive the air from her lungs. “I’m quite happy.”
Eawynn had polished the same grape three times, but was unable to think of anything else. She offered up a silent prayer, imploring Anberith to prompt Hilda to leave.
“I’m pleased you’re happy, but if ever there’s anything I can do to make you happier, you only have to ask.” Hilda’s voice was warm and husky.
The polishing rag was dry, removing wax rather than applying it. Abruptly, the jar appeared between her face and the fresco.
“Do you want this?” Hilda’s tone had changed to pure humour.
Eawynn could not stop herself. Her head jerked around. Her sight locked on the face of the woman holding out the jar—the level gaze of rich brown eyes; the finely balanced cheeks and chin, framed by curls of auburn hair; the straight, pert nose; the full red lips. Eawynn felt her face burn. She could not speak.
Hilda gave a soft laugh. “Tell you what, I’ll put it down here.” She carefully set the jar on a ledge and then trotted from the shrine, making no more noise than on her arrival.
Eawynn stared at the doorway while she got her breath back. As prayed for, Hilda of Gimount had gone, and most annoying of all, Eawynn now felt nothing but disappointment.
The wig was itchy, but Matt did not want to risk being caught without it on. She had hoped she would get used to the thing on her head, but after five days it was getting worse, not better. Maybe she could have done without a wig. It was not much in the way of disguise. However, her normal short crop was not right for a genteel wife and businesswoman. At least the weather that day was grey and cold, so the wig was not making her scalp sweat.
Matt stood at the window of her room, watching rain fall on the rows of vegetables in the kitchen garden, until a knock disturbed her. “Yes?”
“I’ve brought your luncheon.” Somethingy Sister Hosteller poked her head around the door.
“Are you feeling unwell?”
“Just a headache.” The one I would have got if I sat through one more lunch with Unsightly Sister Orifice spouting her tight-arsed drivel.
No doubt it was intended as an honour for hostel guests to sit at the high table with the top rank priestesses. It was an honour Matt could happily have gone without. Her limit for self-righteous blabbering had been reached midway into her first mealtime. The chief priestess had turned bullshitting into an art form. The tedium was not helped by someone droning out Holy Scripture in the background throughout the entire meal. Did the sisters never take a break and lighten up?
After the hosteller left, Matt put a thick slice of cold pork and a thinner slice of apple on a slab of bread and stood chewing while she continued looking out the window. From a burglary angle, the kitchen garden was the obvious route in and out of the temple, far easier than scaling the cliffs from the beach and less well defended than the front.
Both inner and outer walls of the garden were fourteen foot or more, but nothing a rope ladder could not get you over. From the upper floor vantage point, Matt could see shards of broken glass cemented along the top, but the work was old and more was missing than remained. A leather saddle was scarcely necessary. Somebody had let the maintenance slip. Possibly the same somebody who decided to spend the temple security funds on pretty new uniforms for the guards. Matt was not complaining.
The public entrance to the Sanctuary of Anberith was from Silver Lady Square. It would be hard to cross the open expanse unseen, even at night. Whereas, a maze of narrow streets lay over the garden wall. Yet, this vulnerable side of the temple grounds merited no more than an occasional patrol. The guards were stationed in the big sanctuary during the day, when honest worshippers were allowed in. Then at night, they all went home, except for a few who stood outside the main gates. The sisters and the guards they employed did not have the first idea about security and certainly could not think like a thief.
The Shrine to the Oracle was locked at night but pickable. The same was probably true of the windowless room the Shewstone was in, although Matt had not yet been able to examine it from the inside. What obstacles might a thief face? To date, she had been taking things slowly, waiting until her presence was no longer a novelty, while familiarising herself with life in the temple. Now was the time to speed things up.
Matt swallowed the last of the pork and picked up one of the floury things the sisters called cakes. Had they not heard about cinnamon or honey? She took a cautious nibble.
Luckily, getting into the shrine promised to be a lot of fun. The oh-so-pretty custodian (whose real name she was yet to learn) was oh-so-easy to read. She was also easy to manipulate. The more direct the comments, the more stubbornly the priestess fixated on what was in front of her face and ignored everything else. Of course, flirting was always fun for its own sake.
Matt felt the grin split her face. How far could she get with the flirting? The custodian was definitely receptive. You did not blush like that just because someone handed you a jar of polish. Matt played with a fantasy of seducing her on an altar. Additional pleasure came from imagining the outrage of the chief priestess. Although from purely practical considerations, it would be far more comfortable to entice the custodian up to her room one night.
Matt threw the last half of the “cake” out the window for the birds to choke on and poured herself a mug of small beer. Thankfully, the sisters’ brewing skills exceeded their baking.
Edmund would tell her to forget any idea of seducing the custodian. But then, Edmund would be basing the advice on his own personal experience. Pearl had told enough stories about the trouble Edmund’s exploits in the sack had got him into as a youth. Apart from the humour value, maybe Pearl hoped the cautionary tales would put Matt off copying them. If so, it had not worked. She and Edmund were far too similar, and not just in preferring lovers of their own sex. They understood each other perfectly.
Matt loved him for the way he had changed her life, the security he had given her, and the pleasure they took in each other’s company. As a child, she had worshipped him as a saviour, a hero. Now, he was her best friend. She trusted, loved, and admired him, and knew the feeling was returned. Edmund was the only father she wanted. The only father she would name as such.
Maybe, more than anything else, what they gave each other was the one unchanging relationship in their lives, unlike their sexual entanglements, which were never simple or pain free or long lasting. Although, on the plus side, no matter how messy the affairs might get, they were quickly over.
Sex was a simple, animal need, enjoyable for all concerned, and every animal other than humans seemed to know this. How much easier if people could take the same uncomplicated approach. Instead they bound it up with absurd expectations and threw obstacles in the way just for the sake of it. Or, as with the priestesses, denying themselves and claiming it made some divinity happy, without a shred of evidence the divinity gave a rat’s arse either way.
Why did people make things so complicated? They turned sexual desire into the whole courtship game, the chase and the conquest, with nobody saying what they meant, or doing what they wanted. They played stupid games like “hard to get.” Then Matt thought of the custodian and laughed aloud at herself.
Who was she to talk? How much fun those games could be.
Eawynn shut the sacrarium door and turned the key. Her work as housemaid was over for the day. She closed her eyes and gave a few words of thanks to whatever deity might be listening. The whole half hour before dinner was hers, to do whatever she wanted. If only there were something permitted that she actually wanted to do. Eawynn looped the thin chain through her belt and dropped the Shewstone key into the pocket in her robe.
What should she do? The library was her normal choice, but she had finished Wilfrid’s Rise and Fall of the Rihtcynn Empire and had read all the other books at least twice. She could go to the small garden behind the washroom and watch the sunset over the sea, but the wind was chill that day. She could go for a stroll through the market stalls in Silver Lady Square, but leaving the temple unchaperoned, although not forbidden, was frowned upon, and people found enough reasons to frown at her, without providing them with more.
Eawynn stood in the atrium considering her options. What did she want to do? Or maybe she should ask herself what did she least not want to do. Then, in an instant, the answer came to her. On the other side of the atrium, Hilda of Gimount was disappearing into the passage leading to the Sanctuary of Anberith.
In the days since their encounter by the fresco, she and Hilda had met several times in passing. Each occasion had been regrettably short and they were never alone. The words exchanged were brief and polite, nothing more.
Was Hilda avoiding her? Admittedly, Eawynn’s schedule had little free time, and Hilda was reputedly busy, sorting through her late uncle’s affairs. However, Eawynn was starting to wonder if she had misread Hilda’s intentions. How much that hurt! She did not want to pursue any variant on a special friendship, but equally, she did not want to think the only interest anyone had shown in her for months was a misunderstanding.
The perverse disappointment annoyed Eawynn beyond bearing, but she could not stop herself reacting to the mere sight of Hilda. Each time, her pulse would race and her stomach would flip. They had shared just one conversation. Nothing more. Why act like this? Yet fighting it was pointless. The urge was stupid and reckless, but she had to talk to Hilda, if for nothing else than in the hope of soothing her damaged ego.
Eawynn sped around the walkway and followed her quarry along the passage. Redoubtable Sister Door-warden was in her alcove by the heavy timber doors. Eawynn would have felt sympathy for her. Surely sitting by the door all day was the one allotted role in the temple less interesting than cleaning the shrine and sacrarium. However, Redoubtable Sister Door-warden merely pouted at her.
Eawynn emerged into the open on the other side. The sun had nearly set, casting long shadows across the Sanctuary of Anberith. The water in the circular pool was still, reflecting the statue of the goddess like a mirror and setting her against the pale blue sky. The next ceremony would not be for another two hours, at moon rise, and the wide expanse of flagstones was deserted, except for the uniformed guards who stood sentry while the sanctuary was open to the public.
Eawynn had expected the hostel guest to be going into town. However, Hilda was heading to one of the enclosed shrines. There were four of them, each set in a corner of the sanctuary, and dedicated to a different aspect of the goddess—Anberith of the Moon, Anberith of the Tides, Anberith of the Birthing, and Anberith of the Prophesy. The last of these was Hilda’s destination.
At that time of day, the shrine was most likely empty. One private conversation was all Eawynn wanted, to resolve any misunderstandings. Or so she tried to convince herself. Yet the onset of nerves set her legs quivering.
Midway across the sanctuary, Eawynn hesitated and pressed her hand against her forehead. Who was she trying to fool? She was acting like an idiot. But knowing this did not stop her following Hilda. What possible good outcome could there be? Eawynn sighed and carried on walking. At least it was not boring. She was getting very tired of being bored.
The dim interior of the shrine was a triangle, twenty feet across at the base. Directly opposite the entrance, a candlelit statue of Anberith was holding a fortune-telling orb similar to the Shewstone. The walls were painted with mystic symbols, interwoven in patterns.
At first it looked as if the shrine was deserted, but once Eawynn’s eyes adjusted, she spotted two figures in a dark corner, away from both the candles and the entrance. Hilda was not alone. A tall man, dressed in everyday work clothes, stood with her. Their heads were close together as they talked, too quietly to be overheard.
Eawynn stopped in the open doorway. Neither person had noticed her, so she could back away. Maybe finding a book in the library was not such a bad idea. But who was Hilda talking to? And about what? Curiosity made Eawynn hesitate a second too long. Hilda glanced over, saw her, and smiled. She addressed a few last words to the man, then trotted over, her smile getting broader with each step.
“Have you come to pray?”
“Umm. No.” Which Eawynn immediately realised was a silly answer, depriving herself of the only legitimate reason for being there.
If Hilda was confused, she did not show it. She slipped her arm through Eawynn’s. “Good. Then you won’t mind having a walk with me.”
“No.” Eawynn’s reply was half squeak. A wave of tremors threatened to reduce her to a heap on the ground. Somehow she managed to remain upright. Even through the material of her robe, the touch of Hilda’s arm flooded all Eawynn’s senses.
Hilda led her toward the middle of the sanctuary. The effort of putting one foot in front of the other took all Eawynn’s concentration, but she was hazily aware of the man’s footsteps as he too left the shrine.
“That was a fortunate coincidence,” Hilda said, after they had gone a short distance, and Eawynn was starting to re-master the art of walking.
“That man, Raff. He’s one of my uncle’s ex-employees. He was bringing me a message, but stopped to ask Anberith for good luck in the future. We just happened to run into each other.”
“Things are going well. We’ve managed to switch funds around and clear some issues. With any luck, I’ll be able to go home in another seven days or so.”
“Oh.” Eawynn clenched her teeth. She had to think of something more intelligent to say. Bad enough that she had set herself up, acting like an idiot. Now she was sounding like one as well.
“I’m pleased we have this chance to talk. I’ve not been able to see as much of you as I’d like.”
There. That was the sop to her ego Eawynn had wanted. Now she could disengage her arm, bid Hilda good evening, and walk away. Except she could no more walk away than fly. Whatever game Hilda was playing, she was winning, galling as it was to admit.
They reached the pool around the statue. Hilda said, “There’s something I’ve wanted to ask you, but you don’t have to answer, if it’s forbidden or anything like that.”
“Yes. What?” She was squeaking again.
“Your name. What did your parents call you, before you came to the temple?”
Hilda drew them to a halt and turned to meet Eawynn’s eyes. “Would it be too much of a cliché to say that’s a nice name? It suits you.”
Hilda continued their circuit of the pool. “You know, even though we haven’t had much contact these last few days, I’ve been watching you.”
Eawynn was silent. She could not say Oh again, and could not think of anything else.
“Does that bother you?” Hilda asked.
Did it? Eawynn was too worried about her knees giving out to be able to think of anything else.
The kitchen bell rang out, signalling ten minutes to mealtime, saving Eawynn. But did she want to be saved?
Hilda slipped her arm free. “I’ve got to go wash my hands before dinner.”
Eawynn nodded. She watched Hilda walk back through the archway to the atrium. Only once she was out of sight could Eawynn start to shake some life back into her legs, steady her breathing, and wait for her pulse to slow. The effect Hilda had on her was outrageous. Eawynn closed her eyes. The most absurdly outrageous thing of all was that she loved it.
“What sort of idiot have I let myself become?” She asked the question under her breath.
Simple answer—an infatuated, infantile one. It was not a situation Eawynn was ready to tolerate. More to the point, she could not afford to tolerate it. Her position was bad enough as it was. Anything that might happen between her and Hilda could only make life worse, especially if the rumour mill got to work. She had to impose some self-discipline and be sensible. In another seven days, Hilda would be gone.