"How are you doing?" Malachi asked.
"Fine, I guess," the little girl replied tentatively.
"I know it's a lot to take in at once. I suspect you're handling it better than I did."
:She never had to worry about being captured by the Sunpriests. She never had to face captivity and torture and death at the hands of her greatest enemies. She should be handling it better.:
:They tried to kill her. Now she's going to live in what she believed to be Demon-land. That's a lot for a ten-year-old to take in,: Malachi objected.
:It is one thing to be going somewhere you thought had demons, but actually doesn't. It is another matter entirely to wake up in the hands of someone who does in fact command demons. Especially when the aforementioned person has no reason to help you and every reason to want you dead – or in a great deal of pain. She has it easy.:
:Come now, Darvin. Surely you see the parallels here. Anna thought we were evil, found out we aren't, and now is coming to live with us. I thought Sunpriests were evil, found out Lillian isn't, and lived with her for the past moon.:
:Yes, but we never tried to kill Anna. And most Sunpriests are evil. So I stand by my point, Anna has it easy.:
:I didn't have everything I thought I knew about the world revealed to be incorrect. She did. Accepting that one person breaks the mold is nothing compared to learning you had the wrong mold the whole time.:
:True. Very true. She is handling this rather well, I suppose,: Darvin finally agreed.
"We're really leaving tonight?"
"Yeah," he told Anna. "Just as soon as your aunt gets back with whatever it is she thinks we need." He flashed her a smile. "Once she explains her plan for getting us out of the Temple undetected, I can call Darvin, and we can be on our way."
He picked up on her wince and accurately guessed its cause. "He's not a demon, you know. Nor am I. Nor is there anyone in Valdemar as far as I am aware."
"I know," she replied quickly. "It's just – I can't just forget everything I've been taught." She ducked her head and traced the lines on the table with her fingertips.
"No one is asking you to. We just want you to keep an open mind. I know your aunt is more than a little odd, but do you really think she would have let me stay here for as long as I have if she considered me an enemy? Do you really think she would entrust you to my care if she thought I was a demon or associated with them? Hmm?"
"I – suppose not," she said hesitantly.
"Lillian is not that crazy."
She laughed a little at that, but the apprehension didn't leave her expression.
He met her eyes. "When she learned what the Sunpriests intended for you, she came back to her rooms and started crying. She sobbed that she was a failure, that she had failed to protect you. Does that sound like someone who would send you off with a demon or to demons?"
"No." She looked up at him. "She really thought she was a failure? After everything she's done? She's done so much, though! How can she think she's a failure?"
"Because she expects too much of herself. A part of her wishes she could save everyone, but she can't. No one can. But your aunt is stubborn, and so she refuses to admit that there are some she cannot save. She would save them all if she could. And she would die trying given half a chance." Perhaps he had put a little too much feeling into his words.
"But – if she died, who would save the ones like me?"
"A good question. It's a good thing she knows she knows to be careful." He took a breath to steady himself. Then he smiled. "It's your move."
:You're going easy on her.:
: She's not exactly the most comfortable around me. And I was playing hinds and hounds before she was born. Of course I'm going easy on her. After she has some more experience with the game, then I'll start taking advantage of any poor moves she might make. For now, I'll be nice, and try not to beat her too quickly.:
Darvin gave a mental snort. :You're getting soft in your old age, Chosen. A month of convalescence and you're losing your hardened edge.:
:Oh? And who was it that was worrying Anna wouldn't find the ride north comfortable? I believe I heard something about that nondescript saddle you have not being the one you would have picked if you'd only known we were bringing a guest out of Karse with us?:
:I don't have the slightest idea what you are talking about,: Darvin protested innocently.
:Of course not, I must have imagined it.:
:Exactly. Was your head injured in your capture, Chosen? Head wounds can sometimes cause hallucinations. Maybe you should have the priestess check you out again before you leave. On the other hand – you might like that too much. I would like you to leave sometime tonight, as you had planned.:
Malachi had a hard time keeping a straight face. Fortunately Anna was intently studying the game board, so she didn't notice.
They were just finishing up the game when they heard the amplified footsteps indicating Lillian's return. She had an even, purposeful stride that Malachi had had a moon to become familiar with. Anna had been startled by the footsteps earlier in the day, so Malachi had taken a moment to explain. He remembered that day, not so very long ago, when he was the one listening to the explanation. The world could change a lot in a month.
Lillian entered bearing a bundle of clothing, some of which she tossed to Malachi. "Here. Put those on. You'll need to wear that tonight."
Malachi caught it out of reflex. He stared at the clothing she had thrown him. It was black. He raised his eyes to stare at Lillian. She raised an eyebrow, challenging him to dispute her choice of wardrobe. "Few would question a Black-robe Sunpriest, Kai. Even one leaving the Temple grounds with a child in tow."
"So why aren't you doing this?" He did not want to put on a Black Robe. His preferred uniform was at the absolute other end of the color spectrum.
"A Sunpriest in the company of a child is less likely to be questioned than a Priestess of the same rank," she answered somberly.
Malachi stiffened. He glanced at the clothing in his hands, then at Anna, then back at Lillian. "That sort of thing happen often?" he asked, no hint of his thoughts in his tone. He would be ineffectual as a spy if he couldn't conceal his emotions, even if he suspected Lillian was much better at it than he would ever be.
"Often enough," Lillian responded in her mask-voice. "Less often once I find out about it."
"What difference would that make?"
Lillian gave a predatory grin that had Malachi repressing the urge to shiver. "The Sunpriests might have to rethink how they think of me if they knew how many I led into Vkandis' arms," she said darkly. "Fortunately, there are a great many more prominent rivals than me, so when a Sunpriest with less-than-savory habits dies unexpectedly, I am rarely considered a viable suspect."
:Very dangerous,: Darvin commented. :Glad she's on our side.:
Malachi couldn't help but agree with his Companion. Lillian was every bit as dangerous as her Robe indicated. She was extremely subtle, however, and exceptionally good at deception, so it often passed unnoticed. He kept forgetting how dangerous she could be, the reminder that was her clothing aside. Until she did something to remind him. Like this. To survive amongst the Sunpriests as she did was nothing short of miraculous, and to have been able to eliminate some of the powerful, dangerous Sunpriests – did not bear thinking about.
Lillian was very, very powerful. If she wasn't one of most powerful Sunpriests, it was only because she did not want to be recognized as such, not because she wasn't. Malachi was absolutely certain that he was in the presence of one of the strongest people in all of Karse. The amount of power it took to mask that power was even more astonishing. Malachi didn't know how she did it.
He wasn't sure he wanted to know.
Anna was wide-eyed. She looked at the two of them with more than a little bit of shock, and a touch of horror. Twenty-four candlemarks were not nearly enough for anyone, even a child, to completely alter their world view. So, yes, the girl was going to be horrified by them discussing the murder of those who still, in her mind, retained some of their former position as upright pillars of authority, regardless of everything she had just learned about the true nature of the Sunpriests. Thankfully she was oblivious to the undercurrent of their words.
"All right, then. I guess I had better go get changed." He ducked into the adjoining room to swap his nondescript brown garments for the notorious Black Robes. Malachi caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror and paused to examine his appearance. Border-bred though he might be, he didn't quite have the sharp lines of standard Karsite features. His hair was the brown that was as common as dirt, and similar to it in color, a trifle lighter than Lillian's. Green eyes weren't overly abundant in Karse, but overall there was nothing that would set him apart.
:Especially not when anyone you meet would be more concerned with your Robe than your face,: Darvin aptly remarked.
:True. The Robe is all the average person notices. And since it's not done to impersonate a Sunpriest, anyone wearing a Robe, must be one.:
A mental snort echoed down their bond. :No one in their right mind would try to impersonate a Sunpriest. If they got caught . . . : Darvin's mind-voice trailed off, implying all the terrible things the Sunpriests would do to an imposter. Death would probably be a mercy.
:Thankfully it will only be for a few candlemarks, and I have a real Black-robe to back me up or bail me out, should it come to that.:
:When did knowing a Karsite Black-robe become a good thing?: Darvin asked entreatingly, with more than a hint of incredibility in his tone.
Malachi tried unsuccessfully to smother a snicker. :About a moon ago. Do try to keep up, Four-Foot.:
:Four-Foot? Hmph. How about I make you walk home? Who would have trouble keeping up then, Fire-bait?:
:You are never going to let me live that down, are you?:
:Of course not. You lived, and scared the manure out of me in the process. Therefore I get to nag you about it for all of eternity. Learn to live with it, Chosen.:
He chuckled. :Hey, like you said, I lived. I survived the Sunpriests. I can deal with anything that comes after that.:
When he returned, wearing the Black Robes and a smile, Lillian was filling Anna's head with more bits of information about a more realistic view of Karse and Valdemar.
" – aren't demons," she repeated. "Heralds are well thought of in Valdemar, and Companions are very special, generally benevolent creatures."
"Like Firecats," Anna agreed.
I probably should have listened to more of the stories about Firecats, Malachi realized. Clearly relating Companions to Firecats was a comparison that Anna could understand. Likely it could resonate in other Karsites as well. If they could possibly spread that analogy . . .
:I am not a Valdemaran Firecat,: Darvin said with indignation. :I am a Companion.:
:Of course . . . Mouse-Catcher.:
As Darvin sputtered at him, Lillian recalled his attention to the room. "What's so amusing?"
"Hmm?" He found Lillian was looking at him with a fond expression on her face.
"What're you smiling about? I could use a laugh."
"Oh. Just Darvin. He's taking exception to being compared to a cat."
:That would be putting it mildly.:
A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. "A Firecat isn't just a cat. They are avatars of Vkandis, often believed to be former Sons of the Sun returned to give aid and advice."
Avatars of Vkandis? Returned Sons of the Sun? A glimmer of an idea began to take form in his mind, but Darvin broke into his train of thought.
:Well, in that case, I suppose I shouldn't object too much about the comparison. It is flattering after all.:
Being compared to a –
:Although, I would suppose since Vkandis hasn't made His presence felt in a while, Firecats are in short supply.:
:You're probably right,: Malachi agreed. :All she's mentioned are legends of Firecats, all of which predate even Vanyel.: Now what had he been thinking? Oh well. Malachi figured it probably wasn't important anyway.
"You can – talk to – Darvin?" Anna asked, a little timidly. Lillian's staunch comments and her repetitive comparisons of "Hell-Horses" to familiar Karsite legends could only do so much in the short time; after everything, the child was still hesitant about Companions.
"Darvin is just as intelligent as you and I. in fact, to hear him tell it, he's more intelligent."
:That sounds about right.:
"He . . . he talks in my head. It's called Mindspeech, the ability to speak with your mind instead of just your mouth. Real imaginative name, I know. There are two forms of Mindspeech: Thoughtsensing, being able to hear other people, and Projection, where you project your thoughts to let someone else hear you. Most of the names are self-explanatory."
"As far as I can ascertain," Lillian put in, "all of the Heraldic Gifts are comparable to abilities within the Priesthood, and most of the so-called "witch-powers" are no different either."
Anna gave an awkward nod. Poor child! She hesitated for a moment, before finding the courage to ask, "What happens to me when we get to – Valdemar?"
"I promised your aunt I'd look after you, so I thought I'd enroll you in classes at the Collegia in Haven." The look of blank confusion had him explaining further. "In the middle of Haven, there's the Palace and the three Collegia, Bardic, Healer's, and Heraldic. There are also the various gardens and the river and the Companion's Field and the stables, but those are fairly standard. The only way into the Heraldic Collegium is to be Chosen by a Companion, to have one Companion pick you out and bond with you. Healer's and Bardic are open to those with interest and talent, not use the Gifted. Because in addition to the Heraldic Gifts are the Healing Gift and the Bardic Gift."
Lillian looked like she wanted to ask something, but it seemed as though she couldn't find the words. She shook her head and he continued.
"Within the three Collegia, we like to color-code people. Herald wear white, Herald Trainees wear grey. Healers wear green, Bards wear scarlet, and their trainees wear pale green and rust, respectively. But there are also students at the Collegia who are not directly connected to any of the three. Those are the Unaffiliated students, also called Blues, because they wear blue. The Blues take most of the same classes, but they are usually there with a sponsor, whether that is because they have an aptitude or because they have family at the Court. So I thought I would enroll you as a Blue, and then we could take it from there."
Anna considered this. "What sort of classes would I have to take?" If Malachi detected a hint of suspicion in her question, it was perfectly understandable and he let it pass.
"Well, technically, you wouldn't have to take anything. Healer, Herald, and Bard trainees are required to take classes because they are all following more-or-less standard curricula. Blues, on the other hand, are just there because someone they know thought they should get the benefit of classes that were already available. The classes include everything from Equestrian and Weaponry to Geography and History, with specialized ones for Gifts and other skills the Trainees will need. The only classes you have to attend are the ones you want to."
Anna was surprised by this, which – again – was perfectly understandable. Lillian had not gone into detail on the schooling the children in the Cloisters took, but she had said enough. It was not difficult to realize the children were given no choice in the selection of their classes. Their lessons were whatever the priests thought they had an aptitude for or should take.
"What about – language?" she asked.
He smiled gently. "I'm not the only Herald who speaks Karsite. We'll work on your language skills first, before getting you started on anything else."
"Valdemaran syntax is different from what we're familiar with, but it wasn't so bad to learn," Lillian added. "Malachi spent most of the past month teaching me. Once you get past the syntax, it gets much easier." She gave her niece a conspiratorial smile and stage-whispered, "Their sentence structure is as backward as they are."
Anna smiled at that.
"You'll do fine in Valdemar, my dear," Lillian said.
"How do you know?"
"Because I have faith. Faith in you, faith in Malachi, and most of all, faith in the Sunlord. You will do well in Valdemar."
So would you, Malachi wanted to say, but he held his tongue. She had made her choice, as had he. Neither one would change their mind; they both felt their responsibilities too strongly to be able to relinquish their duties.
"Are you sure?" Anna clearly wanted reassurance at uprooting everything she thought she knew about the world.
"As sure as I can be. You have a strength of spirit that will serve you well in adapting to the challenges of life. Karse is being – badly mishandled by our leaders. Your light would be snuffed out here; they have already tried. Valdemar might not be perfect, but I believe it will be better than Karse. I trust Malachi; he will take care of you. Your strength and your light – and your life – will be allowed to flourish and grow in Valdemar. You'll be safe, and I sincerely hope you will be happy."
Anna jumped up and hugged her aunt.