Jules awoke to the weak winter sunlight filtering through the curtains, hitting him square on the face.
He groaned and turned his face away, but regretted the movement immediately as his head pounded and a rush of nausea swept over him. He probably groaned again, but he wasn’t sure.
What had he done last night? He didn’t even remember getting back to his rack―he didn’t remember anything past the tavern.
One eye shot open in realisation. He couldn’t be in his rack, for there was no window by it. And this mattress was far more comfortable than his lumpy one at the castle. And the pillow, too. Also, it smelled different: his own pillow smelled like, well, him. This one smelled like….
Pungent herbs mixed with the smell of freshly milled soap and a hint of eau du taproom. Ghia.
He scrambled to sit up and clutched his head, then pressed a hand to his mouth to keep the nausea at bay. Gingerly he swung his legs over the side of the bed and sat on the edge, head in hands, a familiar position. Why was he in Ghia’s bed? Where was Ghia?
The bed was empty save for him, but that didn’t mean much. What had he done last night?
Quickly he glanced around the room, and breathed a sigh of relief when he saw the healer curled up peacefully on a chair not a metre away, wrapped in a housecoat and snoring softly. He sent a silent prayer of thanks that he’d not spent Midwinter Eve drunkenly debauching his young friend. That would be unlivable.
If ever I were to debauch her–which would never, ever happen, but still…. If it did. I would want to be fully sober. He allowed himself a small smile at this thought, for it remained fully in the realm of wishful thinking.
A draft alerted him to the fact that he wore nothing but underclothes, and he frowned. Had Ghia undressed him too? There were his boots, by the foot of the bed. Another chair held his breeches and jerkin, folded neatly. His shirt was nowhere to be seen.
The sound of movement made him look back to Ghia, who was stirring now. She stretched and yawned, then opened her eyes sleepily, like a cat waking from a nap in a sunbeam.
“Good Goddess,” she said, looking at the sun. “What time is it?” He winced at the volume of her voice, and she laughed softly. “Sorry,” she whispered, and got up from the chair. “I’ll get you some tea.”
“Thank you,” he tried to say, but his voice came out a croak. Before he could correct it she was gone from the room.
He was left to sit with his pounding headache and an inability to form coherent thought, but not for long. Within minutes Ghia was back, a stoneware mug in her hands. Gratefully he accepted the warm mug from her and took a sip; then grimaced.
“I’ll never get used to that taste.” His voice was working a bit better.
She quirked her mouth in a half smile. “It’s supposed to kill your desire to drink, Jules. That’s why it tastes so bad.”
“Guess I’m a slow learner,” he said, smiling back.
She shook her head with a soft chuckle, then walked to a dresser against the wall. “We’ve missed the morning meal and almost all of dinner,” she said as she pulled some clothing out of the dresser. “Of course, so did most of the patrons.” She turned and chucked something at him, which he just barely caught. He looked at the piece of linen clothing in bewilderment. She smirked at his scramble and confusion. “Fresh underclothes, Jules. I washed your shirt last night; you can borrow these for however long.”
“Ghia,” he said, putting the clothing to the side so he could finish his tea, “Why do you have men’s underclothing?” Granted, it wasn’t much different from women’s underclothing, but still…a puzzlement.
She shrugged as she pulled a work-peplos from her closet. “Better person to ask would be Kasandra. I don’t know why she has them lying around either.” She flashed him another smile and left the room.
“You didn’t really answer my question, Wench,” he called after her.
“I know,” came from the hallway, and he laughed.
Left to his own devices, he finished his tea quickly, for it was working already. His headache was nearly gone, and his stomach had settled down considerably. He walked to the window to see what view Ghia had. He’d never been in her room before.
One could see most of Atherton from this spot. He’d known the Cauldron was one of the tall buildings in town, but not that it had such a good view. He could see beyond the street called The Tracks, in the poor quarter of town, but everything looked sparkly and clean as the entire city was covered in snow this morning. North, he could see the towering buildings that made up the Temple complex; beyond, the castle loomed up even higher. He could just barely make out the taller buildings of the richer area of town: the Clinic, L’escuela, and a few houses that no doubt belonged to wealthy merchant families. He couldn’t see the East or South Gates, but the North and West ones stood out, open to commerce from the city beyond the city walls.
Impressive. We must be on the fourth floor, he thought as he moved away from the window, then frowned. Had Ghia dragged him up four flights of stairs? Why not just leave me in the taproom? Or kick me outside. And why give me her bed and take the chair? And go to the trouble of washing my shirt and taking off my boots? It’s so much work.
Jules didn’t like the thought of anyone inconveniencing herself over him. Especially not a friend like Ghia. Goddess knew she had enough things to take care of without worrying about him.
As if summoned by his thought she walked back into the room, dressed now and with her hair pulled back into a tight bun, looking almost dark brown instead of red. As she got closer he saw it was still wet, and surmised she was an incredibly quick bather.
She shrugged, as if to answer what he didn’t say out loud. “I prefer my showers cold,” she said, and tossed him a few more pieces of cloth: his shirt and a fresh towel. Before he could ask anything she was talking a kilometre a second, giving him directions to the showers so he could bathe himself and telling him when dinner would be finished so he didn’t miss any food, all the while never stopping her movements about the room, pulling linens out of cupboards and placing them on top of the dresser before stripping the bed.
“Ghia,” he said, unable to keep up with the bustling girl. “Slow down. How many cups of tea have you had?”
She gave him an innocent look that was anything but. “Only three. Now, I have to get to work so I can get off in time for my shift at the hospitalis. Are you going to be alright?” She was already halfway to the door, dirty linens in one hand, clean in the other.
“As soon as you tell me why you bothered to drag me up four flights of stairs when you could have just left me on the taproom floor,” he said. She stopped short, back still to him.
“Bad for business,” she said, but he knew it was a truth that lied to cover up another truth.
“Then you could have kicked me outside and left me to sleep with my horse.”
She turned around then, her face incredulous. “You really think the heir to the title of Head Healer would leave someone in a drunken coma out in the cold so he could freeze to death? Are you sure you’re okay, Jules?”
He met her eyes unflinchingly. “Don’t dance with me, Healer. We both know there’s something you’re not telling me―why did you stay the night with me?”
She glared at him and her mouth hardened into a thin line, but he didn’t back down. “Aside from your nightmare, waking me up in the middle of the night from my comfy sleep in the room next, where I had a warm bed, and your staying calm only when I was near you,” she said, and he flushed, “there was a spy here last night. I’m pretty sure she followed Yarrow and Caelum. If she had an accomplice, there was no way I was leaving you alone to the wolves.”
Jules felt the air knocked out of him. Sure, he knew there were spies and assassins of the Empress everywhere, but it just hadn’t been brought home to him until now that they might show interest in him.
But of course they would. I’m Yarrow’s CMO and it’s no secret Empreena Zardria wants her sister destroyed.
“We need to warn them,” he said flatly.
She nodded once. “Yes. We do. But we’re taking our time. Haste will garner further suspicion. See you in the taproom,” she added, and was gone.
By all the fires of Tyvian. Jules felt like punching something in self-disgust. I spend the night getting so drunk I can’t take care of myself and Ghia–whose life shouldn’t have such cares, so early–has to remind me that all of our lives are at risk. No one was safe from the Secret Police―especially not the officers of the First Regiment.
With a sigh, he picked up his clothing and towel and headed downstairs to the showers. Looked as if Midwinter Eve was to be his last carefree night. Not that it had been particularly carefree, at that.
He took his time riding back to the castle, as per Ghia’s suggestion. Perhaps it was an order. He held no illusions as to who outranked whom, no matter what wartime protocol might dictate.
During dinner she’d asked him to take care of some errands for her aunt, and told him she’d go to the castle first and try to get a message to Caelum and Yarrow.
“I’m working this afternoon anyway, so it won’t look strange,” she’d whispered to him as she’d served him in the taproom. “If you hurry back, questions will be asked.”
She was right, as usual; so he’d done the shopping Kasandra had required, making his way back through the back paths wending through the middle-class areas of town.
He found himself on Temple Avenue, when his war-mare, Suki, stopped and whinnied. He chuckled softly. “You’re smarter than I give you credit for, girl.” The horse tossed her head as if to say “Well, of course!”
He clicked his teeth and twitched the reins. “Come on, then. Let’s go visit Sarai.”
Suki happily obeyed, for the priestesses in the Temple Bestiary were kind to animals, and several dedicated to Cayusee. The mare could be sure of a treat and warm stall.
Entering the gate of the Temple Complex was like entering another world. Outside the streets of Atherton were covered in snow that had already turned to a muddy slush; the sky was gray, all greenery leached from the world around. The Temple Gardens, while still covered in snow, looked pristine and still alive. Jules had no idea how the Order did it.
It was quiet, too, beyond the high white walls, unlike the noise of the busy city streets, for even on cold Midwinter Day, Atherton bustled with activity. The driveway that led to the main building and the Bestiary off to the side was cleared of snow and clean as a dirt path could be. Already a young woman was walking out to meet him, a smile on her tranquil face.
Suki stopped in front of her and Jules dismounted, bowing deeply before the priestess. She nodded in acceptance of his deference.
“Chief Medical Officer Jules,” she said, a light query in her tone. He nodded, unsurprised. He and Sarai both had the look of their mother, and he had visited a few times in the past. The priestesses would know of him, at least. “Is your mount in need of attention?” the priestess continued, and Jules shook his head. Suki snorted.
“Well, nothing past a warm stall and mayhap a treat or two while I visit my sister, Dama Priestess,” he said with the smile he’d heard was charming.
Her eyes twinkled now as she took the reins from him. “Of course.” She waved to the main building. “They’ll be better able to direct you in there,” she said, and he bowed again. The priestess walked off with Suki, who practically danced with excitement.
The main building of the Complex, the Temple itself, was tall and imposing, though it looked carved from starlight. The history books Jules had studied in Atton’s L’escuela said that it had been built in the First Age, then nearly destroyed at the beginning of the Second Age and rebuilt. The same thing had happened at the end of the Second Age. He wondered if it was the destruction of the temple that heralded the end of an Age, or vice versa.
This current incarnation of the temple still carried the wonders of Second Age architecture, and so the multiple carvings that adorned its facades did not weigh it down, but lightened it, so it seemed to float on air. It was multicoloured and twinkled, the faces of Goddesses and figures from myth looking down at the medic as he ascended the stairs out front. A sense of awe descended over him, as always when he came to the Temple.
Had it been the same for Sarai, the first time? He was sure she had to be used to it by now, having resided here for twenty-four years. And she’s the strongest of us, he thought with a smile as he entered the warm building. Surely Big Sister is not so cowed as her brothers may be. Though he didn’t think Nathaniel had ever actually made it to the Atherton Temple.
There was a desk in the foyer, behind which an acolyte priestess sat, doing the job of concierge. Jules’ steps echoed in the large room as he walked up to the desk and she looked up with a smile and asked how she could be of service.
“I’m here to visit the Air Priestess Sarai,” he said with that same charming smile.
The woman frowned slightly. “I’ll let the High Priestess Sarai know you’re here, Monsieur…” She left the sentence hanging, waiting for him to supply his name. Hastily he did, trying to hide his astonishment, and the woman left him in the foyer.
High Priestess already? He’d been gone only four months and already she’d gone through two more levels of the Order? At this rate she’ll be Mother Superior by her fortieth birthday. And quite a formidable one.
He didn’t have to wait long. Soon the concierge was back, with the priestess Kara.
Jules greeted his sister-in-law with a brotherly embrace. She returned it warmly and made a small sign with her hands, a blessing she did every time he came to visit.
“Huanyam huanaipriyan, Jules,” she said, using the greeting used by all priestesses to laypersons. He had no idea what the words meant and he was hard-pressed to pronounce them correctly. The Temple spoke a strange dialect he’d never mastered; Sarai, on the other hand, spoke the words as if they were her birth tongue.
He laughed a little. “When are you going to tell me what that means, Kara?” he asked as she led him through the hallways of the Temple.
“When you become a priestess,” she replied, a twinkle in her eyes. “It’s been a while since you’ve come to visit.” There was no reproach in the words, but he felt it anyway.
“The Campaign was long and hard. I’ve been having trouble adjusting since coming home.” And trouble sleeping, save last night. Midwinter Eve may have been the first good night’s rest he’d had in well over a month. Curious.
Kara nodded, but said nothing. It was a flimsy excuse, he knew. He’d been back for over a sevenday. He should have come to visit Sarai right away. Feeling like an inadequate family member, he cast about for something to say, to keep the conversation going. “I hear Sarai is a High Priestess now.”
Kara smiled, a quiet pride on her face. “Yes. She truly has a talent for the skills required of the Order. Always has.”
“Well, I’m sure she wouldn’t have made it without the loving support of her husband,” Jules said diplomatically. Kara laughed, a pleasantly deep chuckle.
“And I’m sure I wouldn’t have made it to Fire Priestess without the loving support of mine,” she said pointedly. “But I doubt I’ll climb further. I have not the skill Sarai has. And besides, I’m happy where I am.”
She stopped walking then, and Jules realised they must be at Sarai’s quarters. He also realised he was completely lost. The Temple was a maze, as well it should be, being built for defence. Only the priestesses knew their way through the hallways. He’d have to be led out again, as usual.
Sarai’s quarters were different from last time. They were larger, more stately, with an antechamber. He supposed that came with the rank of High Priestess. Sarai stood in the middle of the room, hands clasped demurely at her waist, clothed in a dressing robe and her wet hair unbound instead of in its usual braid.
“I didn’t mean to bother your bath, Sarai,” Jules said, chagrined.
She smiled and shook her head. “I always have time for my little brothers, Jules.”
“I’ll leave you two to your visit,” Kara said diplomatically, and left the room.
Jules crossed the room to hug his sister. “I’ve missed you, Sarai,” he said into her hair. She had always been smaller than he, and had always looked younger, which was a source of some amusement between them as the woman was four years his senior.
“I missed you too, Frere,” she said as she wrapped her arms around him and returned the hug. “I feared you might not return from Nucalif.”
He sighed as he released her and looked down at her pixie face, so much like their mother’s. Her hair was dark, like his, but there was already a bit of gray at the temples, the one area where her age showed. Her face still looked no older than twenty-five.
“I fear I did not wish to,” he said sadly to her.
Her eyes creased in sadness as she caressed his face. “Such pain you’re in, little brother. What has wounded you so?”
He grabbed her hand with his and shook his head. “It’s not something I wish to speak of―and haven’t you always been able to know my thoughts, anyway?”
She laughed softly. “True. Very well, then. Sit. We’ll eat, and I’ll give you a reading.” She was already moving to the table and klinae arranged by the wall. He wanted to protest, for he had no desire to have his future told by a deck of cards, but he knew Sarai wished to help him somehow. Best way she feels she can.
A tea tray loaded with a pot of the hot drink and a plate of biscuits materialised on the table. He raised his eyebrows at his sister.
“No magek there,” Sarai answered his unspoken question. “A dumbwaiter.” She pointed to the wall. “And the fastest hands in Athering.” She wiggled her fingers and winked at him.
He smiled, but didn’t believe her. Sarai had never been faster than he.
In a comfortable silence, as usual between them, he poured the tea while she pulled the cards from a drawer in the table. Maybe she’d anticipated his visit, keeping them there instead of by her ara, which presumably stood in her bedchamber as it had in her previous quarters. Or mayhap this table was easier to use for readings from Aradia’s Deck.
When the tea was poured and each had nibbled a biscuit, she passed the cards to him and told him to shuffle, keeping his mind blank. He tried to obey, but inevitably his worries crept in and took root, sinking deep into his mind’s soil. With a sigh he finished shuffling the deck and handed it back to his sister. It was hopeless.
Sarai concentrated; then quickly cut the deck into four piles. She chose a card from each pile and laid them down, eyes closed, and then consolidated the deck again, from where she chose three more cards. With seven cards face up on the table, she moved the deck to the side and opened her eyes. Sarai regarded at the spread, fingers drumming on the table, a crease forming on her forehead as she frowned.
“Interesting,” she said.
“I refuse to give in to cliché and ask what’s interesting, Sis,” he said equably. Her laugh sounded forced.
“I’ve just never seen a reading like this before. That’s all.” Her voice was quiet. He could see she was debating over how much to tell him. Meaning, the reading wasn’t necessarily good.
“So. Am I to die in the near future?”
She looked up at him, stricken. “What? No,” she said, but she sounded uncertain. “Well, the cards don’t say you are.” She pointed to the seven cards she’d laid out. They were pretty pictures and gibberish to Jules. He shrugged. “I did a Mirrors spread, so only three cards are supposed to talk about world events; the other four are supposed to focus on your life. But there’s too much overlap, and a high percentage of Pantheon cards which is unusual in and of itself.”
Jules felt a cold stone settle into his stomach, but he forced his tone to stay light. “I hate to break this to you, Sis, but events in the world at large could very well have to do with me. I’m Yarrow’s CMO, remember?” Like it or not, it’s true. I’m as much a target as she.
Sarai sighed. “I know. I don’t particularly wish to admit it. Okay then,” she said, her voice suddenly lighter. “Let’s get on with it.” She smiled so brightly at him that he had no option but to let her spell out his fate.
When Jules returned to Suki, she looked at him as if to ask, Did you have a pleasant visit? He shook his head as he walked her to the driveway and mounted her, guiding her to the exit from the Complex.
“Aside from the reading, yes,” he answered, and she seemed satisfied with that. “Aside from the reading,” he said again, to himself. His worries had multiplied since noon, and right now he just wanted to crawl back into bed and stay there forever.