Chapter III:66

She does not belong to you, this woman of your house. No more than land, that shall remain for long after your day is done. She is of the village, and the people, and worth more than any man. For one man might lay the seeds of multitudes in a day, the land must bear the crops to grow. It is the woman’s inclination to do so, but the womb bears the great burden, however gladly. All sense demands we are fruitful, and fill the land with our wisdom. Should the foreigner wish to claim her, then let them offer token, that they are ally, not conquer, nor brigand. That her great worth be shown some measure of honor, for what in multitudes, might never be repaid.

– The Path of Ascension, circa 70 B.E.

A House of the Plain

It was dusk, and though a village may lay somewhere over the next horizon, it was difficult to tell how far. A man had herded mixed cattle onto the road, but was struggling to get them to cross out of the way. He glanced up to four weary travelers, though looked no less so himself.

“You women on your way to town?” the man asked, and wiped his brow. He seemed both surprised, and shrewd. “That’s a good few hours on… with tired horses.”

“We are,” Kiannae offered.

“Scripture says we should offer rest to the weary, but I don’t have much to offer. Certainly not my own time, to introduce you to the wife. You lot are on horses, you care to help round up the rest? Get them up into the fences? Be a lot easier for you to chase down stragglers. Give me… seven shillings, and I’ll see to dinner, and you can have the barn for the night. A fair price, fairer than you’ll get from the inn, and it used to be a barn any how. Besides, it’s clear out, it’ll be quite chilly by the time you get there, worse if a wind kicks up. I think it might, if you were thinking of staying out on the plans. Daughter’s good with horses, too, for a fair price.”

“We’ve means to tend the horses ourselves, the rest sounds a fair deal,” Etore offered. She gave Katrisha a pointed look, and received an offended one in turn. “Shall we heard this lot to the pen, and call it a night?” Etore asked of the others.

“Might as well,” Kiannae said.

“I’ve managed to get comfy on hay before,” Katrisha offered.

Etore’s second warning glance got only a smirk in response.

Liora looked suspicious, but obliged, “Seems an honest bargain.”

Wren simply shrugged.

Etore snapped her reigns, and rode off to start circling in on outliers, and drive them in. The others followed. Though Etore was the better rider, only Kiannae seemed to really know what she was doing. As though she had an instinct for how the startled animals might move.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Dinner was served at a short table without chairs, but on rugs that kept one off an old wood floor. Shoes had all been left at the door.

It was bland to say the least. Chicken stock and vegetables, neither salt nor spice. None could decide if they should compliment the cooking, even to be polite, and certainly not to be earnest. It was food, it was filling. It wasn’t entirely unpleasant, but made even the most lean caravan fair seem delectable. Scarcely worth the shillings, but there was no point complaining.

It was eaten in silence as such, till the man of the house spoke up.

“Never seen anyone herd quite like that, least of all a woman,” he said fixing his eyes on Kiannae. “The rest of them seemed clumsy, ‘cept maybe the Osyraen. Where did you learn?”

“Nowhere,” Kiannae said. “I taught dire wolves to hunt, there was some trial and error.”

The man furrowed his brow. “Taught?”

“Unfortunate business with the mother, my company had to put her down. Discovered the pups after, someone needed to help them.”

“If the mother was trouble, why not put down the pups as well?” the man asked.

“We were the intruders on their land. The world has an order to it, a purpose for the things in it, that we druids try not to tread upon. Where we upset the balance, we set it right,” Kiannae answered. “Though, I’ve always imagined that by that reasoning, if we decide what is right, we shape the world as we would wish it to be.”

“Druid, huh? That why you have a tree on your ring, and that strange staff? Never cared much for druids, no offense. Wanderers, closer to the animals than people, at least that’s my father always said. The rest of you though, not druids I think. What has you five traveling north together, where are you coming from?”

“From the west, actually, except Liora.” Kiannae offered, thin lipped.

“That’s the long way around, for pilgrims.”

“It’s been a winding journey, we’ve been called to,” Katrisha obliged.

The man hummed. “It thought you were all women, high-born, wealthy from the look of you. Never seen the like of any of those staffs, nor those fancy swords. Figured there was no harm lending shelter, if you’d accept. Didn’t realize one of you was a man though, why you so quiet boy?”

“I think before I speak,” Wren said. “More than I can say for everyone.”

The man offered a small laugh, but look aware he might fit the accusation himself. “You spoken for, by one of them, or more?”

“The Osyraen,” Wren answered. “Yer right, high-born that one, princess of Osyrae. Though, we’re the wealthy ones as it were.”

“A princess, you say? From all the way out west? Thought you were hired help. Lot of princesses with swords, where you come from?”

“Most,” Etore answered in a low, almost condescending tone.

“Guess it’s to be expected,” the man remarked. “Anyway, I ask ‘cause I’ve a daughter too many just now, was hoping to be rid of her. For a fair token of course, prove you would give her a good life. I’d give warning, certainly, she’s a bit errant, but mostly obedient. Good to keep around for the animals though. I’ll be glad when the younger can be married off, or joins a cloister.”

If any of the women of his house were offended, they showed no signs. The guests were another matter, but all held their tongues, except Katrisha.

“Seems you could use more hands around the farm, not less.”

“Only so much women’s work to be done,” the man protested. “I wanted a son, to carry on some day, do what needs doing, but now I’ve got three girls. I’m sorry for raising the subject. Might not have a choice soon, it’s been a lean couple years. She’s enough gift they’ll offer us some, for her rearing, surely.”

“I’ve spent a great deal of my life, doing the things that needed doing. Not rather caring what anyone thought of me being a woman doing it.” Katrisha’s gaze was pointed. “You could teach her to herd, since you seem particularly short-handed in the task.”

“Let her get injured? Muck about with animals. That’d make it hard to be rid of her. Not but to let the cloister take her then, and they might offer us nothing. The price of healing her up, if they found the cause of injuries foolish. I think they would.”

“Might be men, who’d find it more useful, a wife who can do what needs doing, regardless of what it is.” Kiannae offered. “Just in case he has daughters.”

“I suppose,” the man said, and took a pensive bite.

“Certainly more useful to you now, wouldn’t she be?” Katrisha pressed.

He gave the middle of his three daughters a look. “What you say? You want to help me with the cattle in the mornings, and evenings?”

“I could,” the girl answered, and resumed eating.

“Do you want to though?” the father pressed.

“Not really,” she answered.

“See, it’s not very womanly. One girl gets it at least. Older one has an affinity for them, so I let her tend, not herd. I think it’s made her more like them though, fool girl. Maybe she always was. Maybe what makes you druids the way you are.”

“Not trying to sell her anymore?” Etore remarked, as Kiannae restrained herself.

“Did I give a price?” The man protested, quite offended. “A token’s proof, you value her… Well… not you, being a woman and all, of course.”

“Yes, but do you, value her?”

Katrisha gave Etore a very pointed stare. It needed no words to convey the question of who had implied whom would cause them trouble.

“Said I do,” the man protested, once he gathered himself. “She’s good with the animals, just too many mouths to feed, and I’m worried she’s going give me another. Women of gift, a trialsome boon, prone to fleshly folly. The midwife warned me, after she was born. Sisters too, when they come around. One as gifted as her, they always take interest, hope she’ll join them. It’s good training they offer, and other help for nothing more, earning favor. Not that we aren’t grateful, but that’s the point.”

“We haven’t taken advantage, with the meal, have we?” Liora asked. It seemed an intentional interruption, so much as actual concern.

The man stirred his dish. “We’ll do fine, feeding you lot. The wife and I have gotten very good at feeding our family on very little. Passing guests are not so much trouble as the day to day, and you paid enough to be worth the while.”

Liora looked back to her bowl only briefly, before taking a bite and looking back up.

“Perhaps I could teach her to be more useful,” Kiannae offered. “For the price only of her help with our horses, teacher a few things. I am a druid of some renown. My staff is a living thing, and I have reared dire wolves, from pups, as I said. If the girl is already good with animals, she might be of value to help passing caravans. You are on a hard leg, I’m sure you know.”

“Show me results, by morning, and I’ll consider it,” the man remarked. “Our mule has been struggling, and she hasn’t been able to help.”

Kiannae saw that the girl had finished her meager portion, and passed the remainder of hers over. “Drink it down quickly,” she commanded. “We’ve work to get to.”

The girl was hesitant, and glanced to her mother who did not look approving, but did as she was ordered. With only the slightest spill she caught, and wiped from her finger on the corner of the bowl. She got up, and followed as Kiannae walked out the front door. The girl set the latch behind as she closed it, and hurried to catch up.

“Errant he says,” Kiannae muttered. “What has your father to be so displeased of, about you? Didn’t even quite spill a drop, nor do the practical undignified thing, and eat that bit from your finger.”

The girl was silent, which earned her a pressing look several steps on.

“I know it’s not my place,” Kiannae said. “Yet, since I’ve decided to try to help, in one way, I figure I could offer you advice, on other troubles as well. Not that I’m the best at such. What’s your name?”

“Milly,” the girl said. “Millicent, means work, strength.”

Kiannae huffed. “Not the sort of thing I’d expect a commoner to know.”

“Should I take offense you call me common? We earn our names, by our deeds, when turn seven. We take pride in their meaning, as our father has given it.”

“You may take offense, so long as you take my apology. I meant only to express surprise that ones who work the land, would spend precious time upon such esoteric notions. The foolishness of highborn, as it were. Those who place themselves above, to luxuriate in such thoughts, not… labor with body.”

“The body may labor, as the mind considers,” Milly intoned. “I do agree, the high-born do spoil themselves.”

“You are talking to a druid, quite aware of what high-born do with their privileged status, or gifted for that matter. I am a tender of Mother Thaea, and all her children.”

“Cute,” Milly said, as though she could see right through Kiannae’s putting on heirs.

Kiannae laughed. “Did you just call me cute? My sister, is cute, the little thing, I am the terrifying Stormwalker.”

Milly laughed. “Terrible are you?”

“Yes, so you can be assured, you won’t shock me with a word from your mouth.”

Milly looked only partly convinced, and furrowed her brow. “I kissed a boy,” the girl said with an evasive glance. “He was helpful, didn’t see much harm in it.”

“Shouldn’t be, but they get ideas.”

“Do we?” said a voice behind the girl.

She squeaked, and spun around covering her mouth. Then took a decided step back.

“Did I call you?” Kiannae demanded.

“No,” Taloe answered.

The girl looked between them, and caught the strangeness of his clothing as it shimmered. It had less texture than his skin, more watery in the pale light. She reached with hesitance to brush the trim of a sleeve, and drew back her fingers in surprise.

“What are you?”

He took the hand still suspended between them, leaned in, and kissed the back of her palm. This left the girl even more dazed by the sensation of it.

“What are you doing?” Kiannae demanded through gritted teeth.

“Just having a little fun,” Taloe said with an innocent smile. He let go of a hand that the girl rubbed to confirm it wasn’t wet.

Kiannae narrowed her eyes at him.

“Tell me the look on her face isn’t priceless?” Taloe laughed.

“This isn’t like you,” Kiannae said. “Are you becoming her?”

“Is it not like me?” he asked. “You’ve known me long, and well enough. Consider well, if it is like me or not.”

Kiannae plainly did not like the answer, for she did know him well enough. It was like him, in a way. She knew him flirting far too well. It was only a bit unlike him, to flirt with someone else, so boldly. It didn’t give much comfort.

“What… is he?” Milly repeated.

“A spirit, half ascended, tied to my heart. The kind of trouble I apparently asked for.”

“Ascended?!”

“For lack of a better words. Come to my side,” Kiannae ordered.

Taloe swirled around the girl, and to Kiannae’s left hand.

“He… he just…”

“Yes. He did,” Kiannae answered. “So, animals, that’s your affinity, according to your father. Let’s see what you know on the horses.” She turned and walked toward the barn.

Milly moved around Taloe with a dubious glance, and kept her distance.

“I’ve heard dragons do this.”

“One taught him a thing or two,” Kiannae agreed, and opened the barn door.

“Father says dragons… sin,” the girl offered with hesitance.

“The sin of dragons, or that they are one, I believe is the common sentiment.” Kiannae paused to see the girl was with her on the point. “They are of flesh, but they eat only a bit more than us of what we do, and quite a lot of things that we don’t — like rocks, and trees. Live a great deal longer, and some think them immortal. I imagine if it were not so convenient to despise a woman for wanting to rule — when none could stop her from doing so… Well, had a man done it instead, perhaps the Clarions would have worshiped him.”

“They didn’t worship Vhale,” the girl protested.

“They had already preached that the Empress was a sin, for years, in quiet circles. So they had an excuse to bow out, as she defended them from being conquered, as surely as any of the rest of her Empire.”

“The paladins… the paladins helped.”

“A woman helped,” Kiannae corrected. “A Queen. She fell with honor, along with half her company, and a man, then, against orders stood, with his, by her example. We call him Avatar now, though he had another name. More immortal flesh, but a man, who the Clarions all but worship.”

“Not a dragon though,” the girl protested thinly.

Kiannae huffed. “Not a dragon,” she conceded. “I’ve seen the sorts of things that wield such power, in small, frail frames. I am not so sure they are of the Sun.”

“Is… he?” she asked glancing to Taloe.

Kiannae closed the door on him as he stood outside not entering. He stepped through only after she turned her back in frustration. He was being more difficult than normal.

“Not always so sure,” Kiannae added.

He smiled, which made the girl look away, and all the more nervous.

“He’s harmless. I keep him on a tight leash,” Kiannae assured her.

“Are you harmless?” the girl asked, with no less suspicion.

“Most of the time. Lest I am given no other choice. Show me on this horse what you do, and I will critique your methods, and offer guidance.”

The girl moved to the horse’s side, and ran her hand along the withers. “He’s sore here,” she said.

“That’s his shoulder, just like you have. Shapes a bit different, but similar over all. He’s been lifting heavy things all day. It’ll make anyone sore. What’s next?”

The girl closed her eyes, and gift flowed from the palm into the offending muscle. The horse fidgeted.

“That’s how you were trained to heal, isn’t it?” Kiannae asked.

“Yes,” the girl said. “Mother did, and one of the Sisters comes by now and then, to check on me, as father says.”

“It works, but you can tell he doesn’t quite like it. It’s actually harder, and less efficient. There is swelling all around that sore muscle, and you are trying to force just it, to behave. It will work, but you create more tension by making the animal uncomfortable. Less effort, more broad. Take a breath, and will it to be pleasant.”

“Pleasant?” the girl said dubiously.

“He’s an animal. Pleasant won’t do him any arm, but the strain of worry and discomfort will. He’s not smart enough to imagine the Path you hold so dear. He only knows fear, or comfort, companionship, or use. So, show him kindness.”

The girl looked a bit bothered, but Kiannae could see her shift technique.

“Take a deep slow breath, and let it out.”

The girl did, and the horse calmed, as she relaxed as well. She stopped, and rolled her shoulder.

“I felt that… in my own back.”

“Mirroring,” Kiannae explained. “When you give of yourself relaxed, you draw energy in the same places. It’s not as strong, but it is healthy.”

“Why don’t the Sisters teach this?”

“Because it’s pleasant.”

“Will it do me harm?” Milly pressed.

“It all depends what you call harm.” Kiannae rested her hand on another muscle, and began tending the area around it.

“They say if we waste our gift, we are diminished.”

“Yet they teach women to heal, the most expending use of gift,” Kiannae noted.

“Is it because… we are expendable?” the girl asked.

Kiannae huffed at the astute thought. “Where did you get that idea?”

“Some of the boys,” Milly answered, and looked away.

“They’re fools, and want you to be one too. Some may know the truth, and they are worse. When you use gift, it is depleted, yes, but it recovers, and grows. It matters little how you use it, it grows. Like a muscle worked, the body builds up more to replace what is lost. If you work yourself too hard, it can hurt, but so long as you rest, and recover, you will grow stronger. It’s a wide band in which to work. They teach you to heal, because it grows your gift. The more gifted you are, the more gifted your children are apt to be.”

“That is mostly what the Sisters say,” the girl agreed. “That the healthy womb bares strong young, and to not let our blood shed, but be renewed.”

“Yes,” Kiannae agreed.

“Is it because I heal the animals, that I… kissed that boy? Like father says. Have I let myself become more like them?”

“Animals are not pious, nor sinful. They do not ask if they are animal, or right, they simply are. A man who speaks the word, but does not consider, is not a man, just as the bird, that repeats sounds it does not understand.”

“I think I’ve heard that one before,” the girl said.

“It is in the words of Saint Darius,” Kiannae acknowledged. “If one listens, there are a great many things more, than most might hear. They pick, and choose their passages, to let them do what they please. The child is not the property of the parent, but of the village. Let a foreign people give token, that takes her into their number. Your father ignores the one half, and clings to the other. So it is considered, that the family has now become the tribe, and each man the lord of his house, and land.”

“This is the full scripture?” the girl asked.

“More or less. You are a pious girl, are you not? Have not all the right to read. Read all of it, do not simply listen to him speak, but learn to speak as he might have no choice, but to listen.”

“I don’t think he’d like that,” the girl protested, and moved onto the leg. She rubbed a bit, cross-ways when it proved very stiff.

“That can work, but it is often easier to work along the fibers, when using gift. The cross action breaks adhesions, but the lengthwise pressure restores order. Less wounding of the tissue, more direct restoration.”

The girl looked a bit confused by most of the words. “This way?” she asked running her hand instead down the leg.

“Yes, but up, towards the heart, is better. So that you do not pool blood towards the extremity.”

The girl reversed her direction, but seemed to be struggling with a spot.

Kiannae moved over, and checked as well. “Here is where precision can be beneficial, when a muscle is very stubborn. Do not however be just precise.” She took the girls hand, and placed a finger at the center of her palm. “Focus here, but let it spread outward.”

Kiannae had absently turned her ring over when it had gotten out of position. The girl trembled, and pulled her hand back. It was hard to tell in the low light, but she seemed to be blushing.

“When one makes the living gift, one makes life,” Kiannae intoned. “What returns to us, is life. Life is all the things, that life is.”

“You aren’t lycian, are you?” Milly pointed to the ring.

“No,” Kiannae answered, and turned it back over.

The girl almost seemed to not like the answer.

Kiannae perked a brow at this.

“You challenge the texts with their own words,” Milly said, and resumed her work. “A woman coming from the south, a druid, that is your faith, then, yes? Though you wear both. Druids… another faith of animals, but at least they do not abide the unnatural.”

“Oh, she’s abided a great many unnatural things, with a stern grimace,” Taloe interrupted.

This earned him a glare from Kiannae, and a questioning glance from the girl.

“I know the things you feel,” he said, “and I read them better in others than you. It’s a pity that.”

The girl’s look grew more dubious, but it seemed a fear turned inward.

“It was a boy you were caught kissing, but was he the only one?” Taloe pressed.

The girl turned almost dark in the low light, as her cheeks flushed, and she focused pointedly on the horse.

“Enough, go away,” Kiannae demanded, and he whiffed into mist.

“I’m sorry,” Kiannae offered.

“He’s not wrong,” the girl said through gritted teeth, and nerves.

“It wasn’t his place to intrude,” Kiannae added.

“The boy wanted me to,” the girl said, it seemed defensive. “Says there’s gonna be a war, more women than men left after that.” Her breathing was a bit harsh. “That he’ll have many wives. Too busy, so they’ll need to keep each other company, and prove they got along.”

“The boy wanted me to,” the girl said, it seemed almost defensive. “Says there’s gonna be a war, more women than men left after that, that he’ll have many wives. Too busy, so they’ll need to keep each other company, prove they got along.”

“Is that a thing Clarion’s are preaching now?” Kiannae asked shrewdly. “Your father did question if Wren was spoken for by more than one of us, I had presumed it was a barb against Lycians.”

“No, not exactly, but some of the boys seem to have it in their heads, and some of the men seem to know, and ignore it, or abide it. It’s not unheard-of, concubines, low women, still good for making children. However errant, or unfit for the path. Some of the girls play along, particularly if they think they might be the proper wife. It wasn’t bad… but once I did, he wanted a kiss too, which wasn’t bad, till we got caught. He’s not wealthy enough to impress father, and didn’t offer to pay token to have me, but his family has enough, he could have.” She huffed.

“Which did you prefer?” Kiannae asked with suspicion.

“How could you even ask!” the girl demanded.

“By speaking words,” Kiannae intoned.

The girl huffed again, walked around the horse, and started on the other side. Kiannae followed, and did the same.

“You’re doing better,” Kiannae said, moving on from the sore subject. “Does it feel easier to do it this way?”

“Yes,” the girl answered. Silence followed. “You said you aren’t lycian,” the girl spoke up again. “Were you lying? That… thing… implied… something.”

“I don’t know what I am really, but you aren’t too far from the border. If you liked the girl better, it might be best for you to head that way, go around Twinsgate, to be sure.”

“Just run away, like that? How would I…”

“Lycia takes refugees.”

“What’s that?”

“One fleeing the condition of their home land, and what it would make of them.”

“A wife? I’m not errant, not really. Just cause it felt good… only means it’s something to avoid.”

“Why would you avoid what feels good?”

“It’s a distraction.”

“Why do things feel good?” Kiannae asked, and set her hand on the girls. This earned her a terse look.

“To tempt us from the path.” She pulled her hand out, and moved to another horse.

“Why? Who is to be behind such temptation?” Kiannae asked. “For what purpose?”

“Why would I question this?”

“Because the scriptures say to question, to consider. Darius did not ask for sheep, for sheep are animals. He asked for people. People to reason, and seek reason, above the un-reasoned animal. If you do not question, then you are more like them.”

The girl did not look entirely convinced. “Do you seek to have me?”

“No,” Kiannae huffed with amusement. “Only to help you.”

She looked all together bothered in many ways.

“Does your father ever give you things? Your mother? Something you want, because you were good?”

“Yes,” she answered. “Now and then.”

“A reward,” Kiannae pressed. “A reward for doing a good thing. This, is why things feel good, but they could spoil you, and give you gifts all the time.”

“I don’t understand,” the girl said with a furrowed brow.

“It is not about fearing what feels good, it is about moderation. Even Sylvia preached this. ‘Desire is restraint.’”

“What nonsense is that?”

“Have you ever saved your money, presuming you’ve had any.”

“I get a little, I always save it. Can’t buy much with what I get.”

“Then you buy something that you want more, than what you could have had in the moment.”

“Yes…” the girl said.

“You wanted, you desired, or knew you would, so you restrained yourself to fulfill one greater.”

The girl rubbed her own forehead, and used some gift because it seemed she was in actual pain. Kiannae permitted silence to set in again. They resumed working.

Before the third horse, the girl caught Kiannae’s eye. “So you believe, it wouldn’t be a bad thing, if I liked the girl’s kiss more?”

“Why do we marry?” Kiannae asked.

“So that law protects the children, and may see that they are cared for.”

“So it is, for the rearing of children then? This is the purpose?”

“Yes…” the girl said without much conviction.

“Interesting. Is the rearing of children men’s work?”

The girl started laughing, and covered her mouth.

“It would make more sense, wouldn’t it? It’s how the cloisters do it, more or less. Just chastely, but then one asks, why again, do they fear what feels good?”

“Why?” the girl asked.

“Because they believe they can’t restrain themselves, so they ask us to. Ask us to fear it as well. To hide your hair, your face, you beauty, for fear they will go mad. Men, are strong in the body, and weak in the spirit. The mind varies. This is a simple fact. No learned mage can rightly contest it, the gift of women is stronger.”

“Now you say dangerous things indeed,” the girl said with a conspiratorial air.

“Yes, and you have gift enough to heal, you can surely see auras. Tell me it is not true.”

“We burn bright, because we cannot contain ourselves, it is an animal folly.”

“What can you not contain, gift? The gift is life, some believe, so you are more alive. None, burns brighter than the Avatar, what is it he cannot contain?”

The girl bit her lip, and gave Kiannae a very shrewd stare. It was a lot to accept, even if it made sense to her, and was indeed dangerous.

Kiannae placed a hand on her own belly. “They want your gift here, where it serves them. The one thing no man can do.” She ran her fingers over her own palm. “They want it here, where it makes you useful, to do the things they are not strong enough for.” She touched her fingers to her temple, and shook her head. “They do not want it here, feeding your mind, and opening your eyes, to see they are not special, after all.”

The girl laughed nervously, and resumed her work.

“Use your wisdom. The men of this land want you to play a role for them. Play it, if you will, but know the truth of these things in secret, or flee, because it is not a safe land, for a smart woman.”

“Then why are you here?” the girl challenged.

“Who said I was smart? I’m off to meet the Avatar, in search of a mentor who might well be mad, for all we know. A course that surely spirals towards my own promised doom, and I’m not sure which is the worse. To be a Queen, or die.”

“A Queen, or die?” the girl asked, doubtful. She shook her head. “You’re fooling with me.”

“Wouldn’t that be nice,” Kiannae said.

From her look the girl might have taken it the wrong way, but this went uncorrected. Her technique in tending the animals was, as they moved on to the mule.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Estae 23rd, 1 S.R.

“Fair well on your travels,” the farmer said as the last of his guests were on their horses.

“Fair well in your labors,” Liora offered in kind, but it had a harsh air.

“Use what I’ve taught you well,” Kiannae added to a young woman. “With wisdom, for security, and well-being.”

The girl nodded.

Kiannae pulled her reigns, and rode her horse away first. Her sister was quick at her side.

“What was that?” Katrisha asked. “I know, when you’re talking around something.”

“Etore had more to worry about than even I, would have expected.”

“Did she?” Katrisha asked with confusion.

“Where you go, women of an inkling seem to follow.”

Katrisha perked a brow.

“She was not overly clear on things, but I advised her, that Lycia is not far. That is not what has me most troubled though.”

“What does?” Katrisha asked.

“Well, other than Taloe going out of his way to let me know he thought she was interested.” Kiannae huffed. “After all we’ve seen, are we sure the man we chase, will be the same one we remember? Would that man have disappeared without a trace?”

“He did?” Her tone was far too curious, and got a stern look for dodging the question. “Fine. I’ve… wondered,” she admitted. “It’s hard to imagine that man succumbing to this madness. Mercu, yes… he’d revel in it I’m sure, but Laurel?”

“You did not meet Dorian quite as I did. Though, you’ve met a few that way, with your tendencies, I’m sure.”

“My tendencies?”

“Never mind,” Kiannae muttered. “A stern, cold tempered man to make Laurel seem the kind, and flighty sort he secretly was. We’ve seen that man flustered, by no more than political foolishness. If he was always secretly a seer, are we sure we ever really knew him? He hid it well.”

“Not that well. You do recall he was harder to beat than anyone but Horence in a spar? He turned his gifts elsewhere, to the road beneath his feet, not the horizon. His words. Which, in hindsight…”

“Now, we’ve nowhere to look but the horizon, for it seems the stones beneath our feet are as unstable as any distant future.” Kiannae took a breath. “I did reading, in my time away after I learned about you, and your… path through the court. Did you know the cloisters keep records?”

“Yes.”

“Of whether residents, and guests prefer girls or boys?”

“They do?” Katrisha asked. “What ever for?”

“I’d think you’d know. Sylvia was curious. They insure the records were untraceable, but by those who recorded them. They are sighted in book I found. One in twenty without gift, those with, showed more… variable tenancies, but as high as one in five with. Baring of course the intervention of Red Sisters, who can turn almost anyone’s eye… Also once turned, it often sticks… as a variable tendency.”

“What’s your point?” Katrisha demanded with a narrowed gaze.

“How many have ever said no?”

“I don’t know,” Katrisha said.

“Any?” Kiannae pressed.

“Marline,” Katrisha said, “not that I was asking.” She cleared her throat. “So that doesn’t count. A shop girl on the road, though, certainly.”

“One, in all your years of cavorting?”

“Maybe I just knew the right ones to ask. Twenty percent, one in five, not that unlikely.”

“How about without gift? Because, that is one in twenty.”

“I’m lucky,” Katrisha muttered.

“Fortunate, one might even say.”

Katrisha glowered. “Liora,” she added, being sure the woman was far enough behind. “Not that I asked, or tried, but she rather up front made herself clear, repeatedly.”

“Two, very good,” Kiannae said. “Three maybe. Have you kept count of how many said yes?”

“No, but I could count them if you like. I do not lay so casually with anyone as you imagine. Never, just a passing thought.”

“Even if a passing night,” Kiannae chided.

“Forty-eight,” Katrisha said, tapping her fingers together. She looked away bothered at the expression this earned. Also, for her own sake, to actually put a number to it. It was strange, not like counting the same things, each one their own moment. Putting a number to them felt cheapening. “Counting the men, and more than a few sweet but… tame evenings. Girls who just wanted to know… I… count them, it’s not all about…” She huffed. “Whatever.”

Silence stretched through the plodding of hoof beats.

“That’s a very odd number,” Kiannae finally said.

“Even, technically,” Katrisha protested with annoyance.

“Don’t be daft, sister. Think.”

Katrisha looked a bit pale.

“Do you think it’s chance? Whatever the specifics, that you would count them to that number? Do you think anything in our lives is chance, at this point? Be wary sister, for you may not be lucky, at all.” She glanced back to the woman her sister had checked the distance of not long before. “We’ll see if your count of failures remains… as it is.”

Katrisha glared at her sister, snapped her reigns, and rode ahead.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Liora trotted her horse up beside Katrisha on the road. Nothing was said, not for some time at the head of the group, where she had been keeping to herself. More than a few hours to town it had proven, and the village was only just then visible on the horizon ahead, near noon.

“Alright, I didn’t hear what about, but I know a quarrel when I see one,” Liora remarked.

“What do you care?” Katrisha snapped back. “I thought I was nothing to you.”

“A persistent thorn in my side. Whatever troubles you, seems to have a way of digging you in deeper. Of making my life more complicated than it already is.”

“Same to you,” Katrisha muttered. “It’s nothing you need concern yourself with. A statistical anomaly, nothing more.”

“You’ve never struck me as the quiet suffering type, so out with it, that I might be sure it does not concern me.”

Katrisha gave her a dubious look. “You won’t like it.”

“I’ve been told I don’t like much of anything, which was mixed praise, coming from a fellow paladin. Doesn’t stop anything from being real, or dangerous, me not liking it.”

Katrisha laughed, and shook her head. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Certain people — your… former companion among them — have it in their heads that the two of us are fated to make each other’s lives… quite complicated.”

Liora’s jaw clenched. “You’ve said as much yourself, you know.”

“Oh,” Katrisha laughed, “you can be coy, after all.”

“I wouldn’t call it coy, just hoping I’d misunderstood. You’re right, I don’t like it.”

“I keep wanting to like you, then you do something horrible, and then you say something just enough… something, to make me like you again.”

“What have I done that’s so horrible? Why is it troubling you all of a sudden, that others have the same suspicions of you, as me? You should be used to it, given the life you’ve chosen to live.”

Katrisha gave a sickly laugh. “Maybe you’re right.”

“I don’t quite know what to make of that.”

“Forty-eight,” Katrisha said.

“What?” Liora said with a furrowed brow, that only deepened.

“The number of people who’ve shared my bed, discounting the odd sibling or… parent. Not all of which were all that much more than that. A warm embrace, a gentle touch, a kiss, here or there, it varies. I never counted, but I always took account.”

“That’s… a rather large number,” Liora said, seeming still more bewildered than squeamish.

“It is, I suppose. It’s also an oddly small number, by one.”

“By one from what?” Liora asked, though it was clear she struggled to not worry where the conversation would lead.

Katrisha took a deep breath, and let it out.

“Do you know of the importance of the number seven?”

“That… some hold it to be important. There are seven Arch-Paladins, though there are well more Wards than that. The others are simply Grand Paladin, and from these the highest posts are filled.”

“Is that what they’re called, Wards?” Katrisha asked.

“Called a lot of things, but a common word to describe our places of training was needed. All children who come to the Order, are wards of the Order. Be it by birth, conviction, or penance. Those born to it, mostly hold the name of the place.”

“Never mind what the wider world would call that,” Katrisha said thin lipped.

Liora gave her a warning look, to get to her point.

“Yes, people consider the number seven perfect, the number six imperfect. I couldn’t tell you why for sure. The only guess I have, seems far to simple.”

“That is?” Liora pressed.

Katrisha drew a circle in the air, and left a filament between them. “If one were to wish to make a circle of any given size, they would need a bit more than six times the distances from the center…” She drew a line such. “To do so, but less than seven. That’s my best guess. There is a fractum which resounds in sevens. The rhythm I have tapped in my palm to step through shadow is long then short, seven times. Like the branches it has. Have you seen Etore’s new sword? Same pattern etched upon the blade.”

“What does this have to do with anything?” Liora asked bewildered.

Katrisha laughed. “Seven times seven, is forty-nine. So, forty-eight, is one short. Also, two short of fifty. Helio really didn’t like the numbers five or ten. It’s always been something of a mystery why. Her surviving writing’s aren’t clear, some say it was the fifth son who did her wrong.”

“Helio, Lady of the Veil? First Matron of the White Women?”

“A mathematician of some note, not that her style caught on. The Osyraen decimal notation won in the end, and I suppose, so did the man who scarred her. Given, that she is now remembered more, as you say, than for all her other works. Diminished, so that men might not feel small.”

“Most do not like it, that I know well.”

“Some do.” Katrisha laughed. “So even your own words imply.”

“Why must everything…”

“Be about power?” Katrisha interrupted. “Or play, or plays for power, or playing with power. Yes, I know what you meant. Chiding me for my ‘indecent’ ways, and here I have admitted to you the rather large number of my lovers. You’ve only had the one it seems.”

“I have not,” Liora protested.

“Not at all? I swear, there has to be more to it than that.”

“I loved him, but he was never my lover… we only… kissed, once. Once, for all the ruin that alone brought. How ironic that it was his lack of desire in this, that brought such folly on us all. How pitiful that in a moment of weakness I wanted… a pact, a seal. Something of meaning, and all one fleshly indiscretion bought me, is heart ache. That the kind of thing you want to hear?”

Katrisha glanced away to the horizon. She took a breath. “Most of those I count, were little more than that, a little longer lingered in that.”

Liora had no response.

“Those I love, leave. One way or another. I loved one girl, before all the others. She lay her hand on mine, by the moonlight, as my absent fool musings, might make her message clear. I looked into her eyes, and knew that I would be what she wished of me. I fell in love with her, as I had scarcely imagined doing. I’d expected a man, some day, a boy like in the stories, those fit to tell in a world so afraid of desire. Yet she was a girl, and so ripped unceremoniously from my arms. She begged me seek solace, and I might not have, if not for the pestering of a boy, who betrayed me. Such a foolish childish way, and so I struck back against him in kind. You learn to fight back right. I chose a boy he thought lesser instead.”

“So you do, also like men,” Liora commented, not quite sure what to do with any of the rest.

“Like would be a strong word,” Katrisha teased.

“I would know nothing of that,” Liora said.

“You liked him well enough to want a kiss, a token, a moment to seal whatever pact you had in mind.”

Liora looked a bit sad, but stricken, and closed her eyes. “I felt something, for a moment, frail, and burning. It shattered in an instant when he rebuffed me. Had I not seen the truth, I would have simply felt rightly reproved. I felt a fool, for giving way to such a thing, but until that moment I had not felt it. Not once.”

“Until it was clear my dear Celia wanted more than my friendship, neither had I, really. Until I gave myself to the moment, I was not even sure then.”

“And yet forty-six followed.”

“One finds, sometimes, they like, what they had not fully considered.”

“Now again… you imply…”

“No, I converse, there is a difference,” Katrisha gave Liora a friendly, but reproving look. “I have tried to be nothing more than your friend. Not that I am always sure why I even bother. I do admit, though, as I teased you once, it’s a thin distinction for me. One that I am more than capable of respecting the bounds of. Few it seems in my life though, have seemed to feel the need for such bounds.” She drew a breath and sighed. “Maybe it is my fault. That was what the fight with my sister was really about, more than anything.”

“A statistical anomaly?” Liora repeated the phrase, she only mostly understood, and tried to frame it with Katrisha’s words.

“I can count the men I’ve been with on one hand. I can count the women who have refused an actual advance with less. Even if I were to count you, for your persistent implication I proposition you. Three, to be generous, for a princess who realized I liked her that way. She got ahead of anything I had no intention to imply. All because I struggled under the weight of these dark things that haunt us. The realization was like watching a battle played out a hundred thousand times, to no good end.”

“Here I thought I was an adept fighter, that I’d only ever lost six real matches. Even against instructors, early on. You’ve seen two of them, most got too scared of losing face to try. I shouldn’t be, but I suppose I’m impressed.”

“I wasn’t bragging,” Katrisha said. “And it’s more like diplomacy, than an art of war. Though, I have learned to use the arts of war to such ends. I suppose it can be a bit like a spar, openings, and guards, testing strikes.” She gave Liora a curious glance. “Why are you being so personable, all of a sudden?”

Liora took a breath. “Because I’ve been reminded, of how plain the flaws of my faith can be, and how lonely the path I walk is. I thought I would feel at home in that man’s house, and all I felt was more the more a foreigner. I could barely even speak, for fear it would end in the grave disrespect to our host, of a ‘fancy’ sword to his throat.”

“I see,” Katrisha offered, and tried not to laugh.

“You, and I, we may not have much in common, but we have both seen one thing, I think. This world was built by men, for their benefit, because women, failed to rein them in.”

“They are difficult creatures,” Katrisha obliged. “Careful though, you are sounding like a rebel.”

“Well, I am the daughter of two, and seem intent to defy the order of this world, so much as uphold it.” She gritted teeth. “I feel sorry for those girls back there, that they do not have my strength, or yours.”

“Are you so sure?”

“Their father’s house was still standing, last I saw,” Liora countered.

“Then perhaps they are stronger, than either of us.”

Liora made a small huff of amusement. “Perhaps so.” She looked a bit bothered. “Six… is an odd number, now that I think of it.”

“Even, technically.” Katrisha laughed, a bit more than seemed apt, in part from her own private humor, but also a nervousness sort.

Liora frowned, and did not finish her thought, and Katrisha was glad of it.

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