This is a shift to young Scar's pov...

Chapter 4

It was late afternoon, but as I crossed the temple grounds, I was still preoccupied with my encounter that morning with Dejan. I hold no illusions about life because I come from a privileged family, but the conditions in which that young vatrish was forced to live were sobering. It wasn't so much the pitiful hovel or the unwholesome area he lived in, but the wretched treatment he had received from his father. Although he had been known to act out of anger, my own father was generally an affable and even-tempered man, and he certainly never struck either my brother or me. I could barely imagine Dejan's despair.

Deep in my own thoughts, I nearly missed the slight shift in the air pressure just to my right as the side of a rigidly held hand nearly connected with my chin. I jerked my head back awkwardly but then quickly took my stance and blocked the elbow that followed the first attack. A foot flew past my face and I raised myself off my heels to maintain my balance as I leaned back. It was elementary stuff, but my attacker was not trying to cause me any injury. He grinned at me as I straightened up.

"Get your head out of the clouds, Andakar!"

I grinned back a little shamefacedly at the young priest standing before me. Imir was a few years my senior and had completed his novitiate only the year before. He was a serious priest but a genial man, well-liked by all of us at the Kanda temple for his wry humor. He and I were both younger brothers to accomplished men, each in their own way, whom we greatly admired. His brother was a master blacksmith and mine was a scholar.

I bowed my head. "Your pardon, Saahad. I was distracted."

Imir clicked his tongue with mock severity. "Thinking wayward thoughts, are we?"

"No, no," I assured him. "I'm just…troubled, I suppose. I met a young vatrish this morning and his story isn't a happy one."

"Ah!" Imir nodded. "I heard about the patient you brought in to Uvar."

"You should have seen him!" I said as we continued across the grounds together. "I found him sitting under a fountain in South Kanda, crying like a child, his face all battered and bruised. And he told me his father had done it to him! When I took him home, which could hardly be called a home, he was almost terrified that his father should find me there." I blew out an exasperated breath. "It makes me angry all over again, but I don't know what I can do about it."

"The boy has no mother?" Imir asked.

I shook my head. "She died about half a year ago, he told me."

Imir put on a thoughtful expression. "Half a year ago? I wonder if the father is the same fellow who came to us around that time. I think it was while Saahad Ahirom was visiting from the Great Temple. Yes, I know," Imir added with a wry smile at the slight grimace I couldn't help making. "Everybody's favorite."

Saahad Ahirom was not popular, but he was second only to Saahad Logue, the spiritual leader of all Ishvalans. Saahad Logue was a great yet humble and holy man; Ahirom was simply preoccupied with his own greatness.

"The man's wife—or the woman he lived with, I suppose—was dying," Imir went on. "The man was in desperate straits and was seeking our help as a last resort. Ahirom took it upon himself to go with the man to his house—setting an example for all you poor novices," he added with a deeply pious look on his face that fooled no one. "He found the poor woman wasting away in what was probably an advanced stage of cancer and there was nothing he could do. It's possible there never was anything to be done, apart from major surgery, and we're not equipped or trained for that. Even if there had been a chance, we didn't have the resources to pay an Amestrian doctor. In the end, Ahirom could only offer the man pain medication and prayer. He may have offered sympathy, but knowing Ahirom, I rather doubt it. The man took the drugs, but told Ahirom rather ungraciously that he could keep his prayers." Imir gave a grim smirk. "As you could probably imagine, neither of them took the encounter well."

"I remember when Saahad Ahirom was here, but I don't recall the incident," I admitted. "I was in the middle of examinations."

"Yes, you certainly had your head in your books," Imir remarked. "Just like your brother." I took that as a compliment. "Anyway," he continued, "that was the last we heard of the vatrish."

"Until the woman's burial, I suppose," I added.

"No, not even then," Imir replied. "As far as I know, no one went out there."

I looked at him, startled. "No?"

Imir shugged. "Considering the man's feelings toward us, I'm not surprised."

"But did he…did he bury her himself?" I asked. "With no one to say the prayers?"

Imir considered me with a look of resignation. "It was clear the man wanted nothing to do with us. Whatever his feelings toward his creator are, only he and Ishvala know that. On top of that, Ahirom made it clear that the man was not deserving of our charity."

I was shocked. "But that isn't his decision!"

"Of course it isn't! But few of us can get past Ahirom to speak to Saahad Logue directly, particularly over a vatrish." Imir lifted his broad shoulders at the look of incredulity on my face. "I know, I know. Even the least of God's people is worthy."

"Then all the more reason to minister to them!" I argued.

Imir clapped me soundly on the back. "Then let that be your mission, Andakar my son! And Ishvala's benisons be with you!"

I stared at him for a moment. He was being facetious, but even as he spoke I could feel the idea taking root and growing. Imir could see the workings of my mind in my face. "Oh, Ishvala!" he sighed. "What have I started?" He gave me a shrewd look. "Take it up with Saahad Bozidar," he said. "I don't know how good a fit this will be, but I think you have the temperment for it." He grinned. "Or plain cussedness."

..

The stillness of my master's thought was so profound that I was tempted to think he hadn't heard me. I knew otherwise, of course, and I forced myself to wait patiently. Of all my teachers, he was the dearest to me, like a second father, and I was anxious for his approval. We of the Kanda temple felt that Bozidar should have been appointed to serve beside Saahad Logue rather than Ahirom, but then we would have lost him to the Great Temple in Gunja, the heart of Ishval. Well, Gunja's loss was our gain.

Finally he turned a thoughtful but penetrating look to me. "This is an ambitious endeavor to take on yourself," he remarked. "Do you feel you're truly prepared for such a challenge?"

I was about to reply very firmly that I was, but Saahad Bozidar had taught me more than once not only to avoid pride but to be wary of overconfidence. "I honestly can't say how prepared I am, Saahad," I said carefully. "This is a different world from what I'm accustomed to. I know I'll make mistakes, but how better to learn?"

A smile stole across my master's face and, encouraged, I went on. "But those people are in desperate need! They shouldn't feel as though they've been forsaken!"

Bozidar nodded slowly. "Are you sure they feel forsaken? Are you sure they don't live apart from the rest of Ishval out of choice? Free to live as they please?"

That idea hadn't occurred to me. "Then is it us they've forsaken?"

"An interesting question, isn't it? Who turned their backs first? Was it the vatrishi and the falshaii? We gave them those names. Dust and Despair," Bozidar said with a sorrowful thoughtfulness. "They have no one else but each other, but they may prefer it that way."

"But that isn't right!" I argued. "As Ishvalans, we should not be fragmented like that, not in these times!"

Bozidar raised a warning finger. "Ah, now you're getting into politics, my son. If you want to talk about shared humanity, do we not have such a bond with the Amestrians?"

I scowled. "Barely."

My master sighed. "Andakar, you have a heart bursting with compassion, but there are times that I fear your head is like a hive of bees."

I lowered my gaze, chastened.

"But," he went on kindly, "your heart tends to win out because that is where you hear Ishvala more clearly." He turned to me and placed a firm hand on my shoulder. "Your foremost wish is to help your friend, is it not?"

I nodded. "It is, Saahad."

"Then start there. Keep it simple. Don't try to take on too much at once," my master instructed. "Act as the situation warrants. And keep me apprised of how things are going. If you need my help, let me know." He regarded me warmly. "But I think the wisdom will come to you."

I bowed my head. "I'm grateful, Saahad," I said. I smiled at him. "My heart is lighter already. I simply couldn't turn my back on Dejan."

"No, indeed," my master agreed.

"I don't want him to fall into despair because of his father's wickedness." I shook my head, still appalled at Dejan's treatment. "It truly has made me appreciate my own family that much more," I added.

"And how are your worthy parents?" Bozidar asked. "And your brother?"

"I saw my brother in the marketplace this morning," I replied. "He said my mother asked after me, so I assume she and my father are well."

Bozidar looked at me with mild surprise. "Don't assume, my son! You should go see them. Your diligence in your studies does you credit, but you should never neglect your parents."

I felt somewhat torn. "But it's been my duty this week to sit by Saahad Adai in the evenings. He could leave us any time."

Bozidar waved his hand. "Our beloved Adai is going slowly but gently to Ishvala's bosom. It's unlikely that he is concerned with or even knows who is sitting beside him. If I can't find someone to take your place, I'll do so myself. After all, Adai was my master." He smiled and gave the merest hint of a wink, as though addressing me as still a schoolboy. "You run along."

We turned away from each other, he back toward the temple and I toward the outer gate.

"Oh, Andakar," my master called me one more time. I had barely put my hand to the gate, and I paused and turned.

Bozidar stood on the walkway, his arms folded, a slight, contemplative frown on his face, his posture for conveying something that he wanted his students to consider with grave care. "I do not think it is wickedness that drives Dejan's father to treat his son the way he does. Perhaps you will find out what it really is."

…..

I didn't really think about the time, but when I reached my parents' house in North Kanda, it was close to suppertime. My unexpected arrival sent my mother into a flustered state of frantic activity, which made me feel a little guilty. I said as much to Miri, one of the two servant girls, but she just laughed.

"You've made her whole day, Zhaarad Andakar!" Miri said. "She couldn't be happier!"

"That's right," my brother added, appearing in the doorway of my parents' sitting room. He gave the girl a wink and nodded toward me. "After all, her baby's come home. You won't see her making such a fuss over me."

"That's because you're always here, Zhaarad Mattas," Miri retorted. She shook a finger at him. "You need to get your nose out of those books and start looking for a wife. Then your mother will make a fuss over you."

Mattas spread his hands with mock helplessness. "Didn't I ask you to marry me last week?"

Miri rolled her eyes. "Oh, wouldn't your father love that! Besides, you know perfectly well I have a young man already, so take your blather somewhere else."

The other girl, Rashida, poked her head through the opposite door, the one that led to the kitchen. "Miri!" she hissed urgently. "The mistress needs you to see to the flatbread!"

"Coming," Miri replied in a weary sigh and sauntered toward the door, giving me a quick grin over her shoulder. Her expression suddenly sobered and she scurried out of the room. The girls were easy and familiar with my brother and me, but not in front of my father, who had just entered the room from the opposite door.

Turyan, current head of the house of Ruhad, had been chieftain of Kanda ever since I could remember and one of the leading adjudicators in all of Ishval since well before that. He enjoyed the esteem and respect of the entire community, something he would prefer to believe that he had earned by merit but which also came from the near reverence in which our family was held. Ishval had not been ruled by princes for a thousand years, and those in authority were elected by the populace. But Ishvalans held onto their history and lineages jealously. The house of Ruhad was one of the last remaining noble families, and my ancestress had been the bride of the last prince of Ishval.

As little importance as my father claimed to place on this, he cut a regal figure. He was tall and broad-shouldered. His clothes were well-made but simple, the only ornament being the three narrow bars of gold that he wore at his throat. Aside from a couple of ancient books that were kept in a closed cabinet, they were our family's only surviving heirloom of the princely age. The bars were engraved with prayers for the health, prosperity, and continuation of the house of Ruhad. So far, Ishvala had seen fit to grant us all three, although Mattas had yet to set my parents' minds at ease as far as establishing a new generation.

Father spread his arms and pulled me into a tight embrace. "Andakar!" he exclaimed warmly. "It does my heart good to see you!"

"It's good to be home," I replied. I stepped back. "You look well, Father."

"Your mother takes good care of me," he replied easily. He held me at arm's length searched my face. "And you? Temple life seems to agree with you."

"It's uncomplicated," I agreed.

"Ah!" Father gave a nod of weary frustration. "Well, I envy you, then! Life has become so much more complicated since we joined with Amestris!"

"Joined" was not the word I would have used and I would have said so. As much as I loved and respected my father, his opinions were not always mine. But he was faced with enough contention throughout his public work and he expected his home to be free of it.

Rashida appeared in the doorway with a prim little bow. "Supper is ready, Zhaaradi," she announced.

Father laid his arms across our shoulders. "Come, my sons! Let's see the feast your mother has prepared!"

At the temple, food was simple and adequate to nourish the body but was not a pleasure to be sought in its own right. What my mother had prepared, much of it on my account, was embarrassingly lavish. Once my father spoke the blessing, I tried not to indulge too shamelessly, but I really did miss her cooking. My mother beamed at me, nearly misty-eyed.

"Here, Andakar!" she urged, passing me a bowl of olives and a plate of warm flatbread. I already had a collection of dishes gathered in front of me. "They don't feed you enough! You look thin! Turyan! Don't you think he looks thin?"

Mattas made a show of squinting at me. "You're right, Mother! I can barely see him!"

"Oh, peace, boy!" Father chided him with a laugh. He gripped my shoulder. "He looks solid enough to me!"

My mother would never be convinced. "Well, I think he looks thin."

"Mattas is the thin one," Father said, dipping a piece of flatbread into a bowl of olive oil.

Mother just waved her hand in Brother's direction. "Eh-h! This one is like a rug! Always underfoot!" She gave him a pleading, frustrated look and Mattas tried very hard not to roll his eyes. He knew what was coming. "I was talking to Yagana today. Her daughter Najela is turning seventeen tomorrow. A very pretty girl."

"She is indeed!" Father said with a nod. "A good family, as well."

"She's gorgeous," Mattas agreed.

Father raised his hands in the air. "Ishvala be praised! There it is!"

I couldn't help but grin into my cup of watered wine. Mattas regarded our parents with patience. "There's more to a girl than looks and family, you know," he told them, not for the first time. "Yes, little Najela's gorgeous, but she's dumber than a bag of hammers."

Mother smacked his arm. "Mattas! What a thing to say!"

"Look, Father, Mother! Don't worry! When I find the right girl, I'll know," Mattas insisted. "But she's got to be somebody I can talk too. She's got to be more than just a well-turned vase, pretty on the outside and nothing on the inside."

"Ah, my firstborn!" Mother sighed tragically. "No one in Ishval is as brilliant as you! How will you ever find your equal?"

Mattas leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. "If I didn't know you better, Mother, I'd say you were being sarcastic."

Mother gave him an affectionate look. "Oh, go on with you!"

"I promise, you'll both live to see grandchildren," Mattas assured them. "Just don't go arranging anything for me behind my back, all right?"

Father gave Mattas a subtly severe look. There was a bare moment of awkward silence before Mother spoke up in a light, brisk tone, telling of how the son of one of their neighbors had received an award from school for his excellent marks. Father took up the change of subject, praising the boy's diligence. The tension had disappeared, but my mother cast a warning glance at both Mattas and me that my father either didn't see or chose to ignore.

Mattas had come perilously close to touching on one very tender subject. My father was not an only child. He had a younger sister who, after the deaths of my grandparents, came under my father's care. As a strong believer in tradition, he felt it was his duty to seek out a suitable husband for Zoya. She had other ideas. She had met a poor but handsome young potter in the marketplace and would have no one but him. It truly shouldn't have mattered, but my father's one vanity was the provenance of his family name. Aside from being stung by his sister's defiance, he was embarrassed. In all other respects he was an equitable man, but in this he completely lost his temper. I was very young when this all happened, and it was the most angry I had ever seen my father, either before or since. He sundered all ties to her. He forbade anyone in our household to speak of her again. Even Saahad Bozidar could not make him change his mind. Zoya, for her part, didn't care because she was happy.

After supper a colleague of my father's came to discuss some business with him, and they went out into the garden, calling for Mattas to join them to lend his expertise. Mattas was also studying law, being expected to follow in Father's footsteps. He studied many other things besides, such as natural science, mathematics, history, and foreign languages. His hunger for new knowledge was so insatiable that it couldn't be limited to the confines of law alone, nor was he challenged by its complexities. At times when Ishvalan law conflicted with Amestrian law, something that seemed to baffle heads that claimed to be older and wiser, Mattas would manage to either tease out a suitable compromise or find a loophole.

I joined Mother in the kitchen as she and the girls cleaned up after supper. I offered to help, but they all scoffed at me and made me sit at the table with a plate of honey pastry. My mother set a waxed paper parcel of the confection, a specialty of hers, and set it by my elbow.

"Take this to Zoya's, will you?" she said softly. My father couldn't hear us, but she was still cautious. "Oh, and here's some flatbread, too. Mind you drop it off tonight before you return to the temple. I don't want it getting stale."

Zoya's cooking was just as good as my mother's, but she appreciated this consideration. Mother, Mattas, and I had not abandoned her as my father had, but we were forced to go behind his back, something that felt wrong and right at the same time. But my father was no fool. He might even already know what we were up to. For one thing, gossip was one of those minor sins that Ishvalans never seemed to be able to resist. If he had an idea, he showed no indication. I would like to think that we had his unspoken approval, but he would never say so.

"I will, Mother," I told her. As an afterthought, I added, "Could you wrap a few more pieces of honey pastry?"

Mother chuckled. "Of course, my love! Are you sure your fellow novices won't get jealous?"

"They're not for me," I replied. "They're for a young man I met today. He has a hard life, and I doubt he's ever had a treat like this."

Mother nodded readily. "Well, then I'll make up a parcel for him."

"I was going to mention him at supper, but…well…it didn't seem like the right time," I said, recalling the tense moment we had earlier. "He's a vatrish, you see."

Mother sat across from me and sighed softly. "The hopelessly poor are almost more elevated in your father's eyes than someone who was getting by well enough but who set his sights above his level in life."

"There are no levels!" I said with quiet frustration. "We are all the same in the eyes of God!"

My mother reached out and took my hand in both of hers. "Oh, my dearest boy! You are so good! And of course you're right! In all other ways, your father is a dear man, but you know how he is."

I nodded. There was no remedy, but we made up for it as well as we could. It made my resolve to help Dejan that much stronger.