The wind shrieked eerily, like the keening cry of a soul in torment, some spectre forced to walk the mountain heights forever. It swirled around the party of five travelers, cutting at them despite their heavy fur jackets and travel-gear. Though the green-skinned race of Dezolians was well-adapted to the climate of their icy planet, they could still feel the scathing cold of the wind-chill.
"You'd think that traveling with two priests we could have avoided some of this. Couldn't you have prayed a little harder, boss?" Colce complained over the noise of the wind. Though at just under six feet tall he was short for a Dezolian, his broad-shouldered, powerful frame made him the biggest of the five, even more than the two hunters who escorted the priests in case of a monster attack. He was also the oldest, about fifteen years the elder of his two priestly companions, which was one reason why he felt no qualms about speaking his mind. This attitude did not, however, win universal acceptance.
Specifically, the priestess Ryth had had quite a bit of trouble getting used to the easy familiarity between Colce and his master, Prelate Arjan of Vassha. It went well beyond what was usual for master and servant, and Ryth had been repeatedly surprised both by Colce's lack of respectful formality and by Arjan's uncommenting acceptance of it. Brought up in the traditional religious setting of Corona Tower since the age of twelve, she didn't have the same comfort as the Prelate with breaches of protocol. But, since Arjan outranked her as well, and she was a guest in his traveling party, that same respect for formality kept her from commenting further once she'd come to understand things were not going to change for her sake.
In such ways wisdom was gained.
Arjan couldn't help but smile faintly at Ryth's tight-lipped expression. He wouldn't have, ordinarily, but he felt very tired and worn down, and his self-control wasn't what it could have been. The five-day conference called by the High Priestess of all the Prelates in her demense had tired him, and the return journey was wearing him out all the more. Unlike Colce, he was more at home among books and scrolls than performing physical tasks, and fighting the wind took a lot out of him. Arjan was deeply looking forward to returning to his own bed, his own library, and he wondered suddenly just when it was that the unlovely little frontier town of Vassha had come to be associated with the warmth and the feeling of belonging implied by the word home.
Colce, he knew, fit into that category as well. He'd been in Arjan's employ for over six years, since the Prelate had been only a cloistered initiate, and with his age and considerably greater street-smarts he'd been much like an uncle to Arjan in many ways, opening the young student's eyes to the practical realities of life. Now, that knowledge and skill was quite a help to the Prelate in tracking fugitives and solving criminal cases.
The point Ryth failed to appreciate, though, was that to Arjan, Colce was not just an assistant. He was, effectively if not by blood, family.
"Ha!" Colce said without warning. "Look there--lights ahead!"
The others followed the direction of his pointing finger until they, too, saw the burning torch lights glowing through the wind-tossed snow and gathering dusk.
"That'll be Azaana Monastery, right enough. You can just see the outline of the tower against the sky. It looks like Her Eminence was on the mark about it being half a day's travel from the main road."
This show of disrespect was more than Ryth could take. Shocked into speaking out, she said incredulously, "You doubted the High Priestess's word?"
"I doubted her judgment--on travel, not religion. I'm a city man, myself, and I know that cityfolk don't understand country traveling. Plus, being an educated woman, I'm sure she's got a map to go by, and that just makes it worse. Maps are great for seeing where places are. They aren't so good at telling you how long it takes to get there. Ask the boss."
"I didn't know that bridge had collapsed after an ice storm," Arjan protested, recalling an incident from the journey they'd taken to Vassha when he'd first been appointed Prelate.
"You would have if you'd stopped to ask directions. That's the point. Maps don't tell you about conditions on the road, to say nothing of weather. Still and all," Colce admitted good-naturedly, "it looks like this time the maps were right."
Another twenty minutes of walking brought them to the bleak stone facade of the monastery, the torch lights they'd seen burning in bronze bowls inset in the walls flanking the main door. Colce hammered on the door's shuttered window with his gloved fist. At once, the window was unbarred and opened.
"Who seeks entry to the halls of Azaana?" challenged the porter.
"Prelate Arjan of Vassha and company," Colce told him. Although both clerics wore ordinary traveling clothes instead of priestly robes, Arjan and Ryth did have their medallions of office worn outside their jackets for easy recognition. The window snapped shut, and then the door itself was drawn open.
"Come inside, Your Grace," the porter said, addressing Arjan directly. The man was lithe and thin, and wore the white jacket and trousers of a monk. The monastery had lay-servants to handle most of the menial work, but in troubled times door-guard was not a purely nominal task, as the leaf-bladed spear in the monk's left hand showed.
There had been troubled times, too, starting with the fall of the Palmans' Mother Brain twenty-five years ago. This had led to the collapse of Dezolis's civil government in turn, for its corrupt ways were rooted in the power Palman technology had granted. Unrest had gripped the planet, a tumult and social chaos that had only ended when the Church was able to reestablish its theocratic rule. It was still a new and tenuous thing, though, one that the Church still had to prove to its people on a daily basis. Too many slips, whether through mere incompetence or outright corruption, could plunge Dezolis back into anarchy.
"Nightfall's almost upon us," the monk continued, oblivious to the cascade of thoughts his appearance had set loose in Arjan's mind, "and it's expected that we'll get snow throughout the night. It's good that you made it here."
Of course, in the ordinary course of travel, they wouldn't have expected to be there at all, as the monastery was well off the road leading to Vassha. They'd come that way because the High Priestess had requested it: "I need to send one of my staff with a message for the Abbot of Azaana Monastery, and I'd feel more comfortable if she had an escort."
One could hardly refuse a request from the High Priestess who was Arjan's immediate superior, so the group from Vassha had grown by one, and its return trip lengthened by a day.
"We're glad that we made it as well."
"I'll just ring for the steward, so your accommodations can be arranged. We have nothing worthy of a high official like yourself, of course, but we'll do the best we can."
"I was a cloistered scholar before Heaven saw fit to burden me with a prelacy. It doesn't have the same rigor of your monastic training, but I'm sure I'll be fine with whatever happens to be available."
The monk pulled on one of three bell-ropes hanging along the wall, and in a few moments another white-robed man arrived.
"Good evening," he said with a bow. "I am Brother Tashiin, steward of this monastery, and I welcome you and your party within the sanctuary of our walls, Your Grace." He was a middle-aged man, around seventy, but his yellowed eyes had instantly and clearly spotted Arjan's rank.
"Thank you. My companion, the priestess Ryth, and I would pay our respects to your Abbot, if it would not interrupt him in his duties."
"Of course, Your Grace."
"In the meantime, please see that my assistant and our escort are shown to their rooms and given refreshment. There is no reason why they should have to wait for us to dance through the rituals of greeting." He turned to the other men. "Colce, why don't you see that our baggage is taken to our quarters, but once that's done you, Kado, and M'Britt should go ahead and eat since Ryth and I may be some time."
"Sounds fine by me, boss," Colce said with a grin. "Too bad that the monastic life doesn't run to deKal, though."
Brother Tashiin smiled conspiratorily at him.
"Oh, we recognize that the occasional guest does not share our lack of interest in stimulants."
Colce's grin widened at the thought of the hot, spiced amber wine, a sentiment clearly shared by the two hunters.
"Now, Brother, you're speaking my language!"
The steward summoned additional monks to show Colce the way through the winding halls and to assist in carrying the travelers' packs. Arjan and Ryth removed their heavy cloaks and overboots; their jackets and trousers were not fancy but at least they wouldn't drip water on the abbot's floor. When they were ready, Tashiin led the two priests inside, then up a long flight of stairs that followed the inside wall of the square tower they'd seen from outside. Passing landings on the second and third floor, they came to the highest level, where Tashiin knocked on the closed door.
"Reverend Abbot, you have visitors."
The abbot's quarters were simple, a two-room suite with a reception room or study on the outside and, presumably, the abbot's bedroom behind a closed door. There was little ornamentation, all of it religious such as a copper brazier in which burned a bright flame. In this cold tower, Arjan suspected the fire served a dual purpose, being valued for its warmth as much as its symbolism. Of course, that was exactly why fire was the holy symbol of Heaven's light to the Dezolian people, so the fact that the brazier served a practical purpose as well was also symbolic on a different level.
"Reverend Abbot, allow me to present Prelate Arjan of Vassha and Priestess Ryth," Tashiin introduced them. "Your Grace, Priestess, this is Abbot Kozil of the Azaana Monastery." The steward bowed his head once and withdrew.
Although etiquette did not demand it, Kozil rose from his plain wooden seat and bowed his head in greeting. An abbot was of the same effective rank as a prelate, and moreover Kozil was the host. These plus his obvious age shown by his rheumy eyes and the weblike tracery overlaying every inch of exposed skin, made it that not even the most rigorous application of politeness demanded that he rise. That he did so anyway revealed much about the elderly monk.
"I am pleased to meet you, Prelate, Priestess, and I bid you welcome to Azaana."
They returned his greeting and politely apologized for intruding at such an hour.
"Not at all. These walls were built to give safe haven to those of our order, so that we might train our minds and bodies in safety and solitude. It is only just that we offer that shelter to others as well, and even more so for fellow Church officials. But I must admit to a certain curiosity, for Azaana is well off the beaten path of most roads in this area, and I am intrigued by what may have brought you to our gate."
Ryth took a leather scroll-case from an inside pocket of her jacket and opened it.
"I bring a message from Her Eminence the High Priestess for you, Abbot Kozil." She tipped the case and let a tightly rolled scroll, sealed with magenta wax, slide into her hand. "This was the reason for my journey here; Prelate Arjan and his staff were gracious enough to provide me with an escort."
"Of course, Priestess." He took the scroll; despite his age there was no weakness or hesitation in his movements. We will be happy to offer you our hospitality as Her Eminence's messenger and as a sister in the Church." He turned to Arjan. "Am I to gather that you will be leaving us in the morning, Prelate Arjan?"
"That is so, Your Reverence. In truth, I would be pleased to stay a time, for I hear that you have a marvelous library," he admitted with a smile, "but my duties and, indeed, my heart call me home."
Kozil smiled widely.
"I understand completely. I, too, would not wish to be long away from my place here, even were I gone to Corona itself. You are a wise young man to appreciate this."
"I thought that a Prelate would be regularly transferred every few years for the purpose of keeping him or her free of local conflicts?" Ryth asked, a bit confused by the Abbot's attitude.
"Quite so," Kozil agreed. "A Prelate must always stand for what is right and just, not become a partisan in the squabbles that naturally spring up between people. But I think that to truly do a good job, a Prelate must not see himself as being above and apart from the people, but to value and love them."
Arjan nodded and extended his chilled hands to the brazier.
"As Bishop Ngangbius writes, Ryth, Heaven does not sit, cold and remote, in judgment, but extends its warmth and love to each of us. If we lose touch with our humanity, we cannot guide anyone towards the Way of Heaven."
He felt a bit silly to be lecturing Ryth; although the priestess held a lower rank they were roughly the same age. Still, it was a point he felt deeply, and if he had been in any way successful as a Prelate this was at the core of it.
"Yes, Your Grace," Ryth acknowledged and bowed her head respectfully. She didn't understand--yet--but Arjan hoped that she would spend the time to think on it.
"Now then," the Abbot said, "I am sure that you both are tired from your journey and in sore need of refreshment."
"Your instructive conversation--" Ryth began a polite demurral, but Kozil's soft chuckle cut her off.
"You are a kind young woman, but there is no need. Brother Tashiin will show you to your rooms. There will be plenty of time left before dinner for you to change." She looked relieved at that and no wonder; the slightly-built priestess had had the worst going of it in the storm.
"Thank you for your hospitality," Arjan said.
"Your thanks are unnecessary, but you are most welcome nonetheless. Moreover, Prelate, may I extend you my personal invitation to dine with me tonight?"
"Of course; I accept with pleasure."