Pierson greeted her with a silent nod, still deep into something with the two women, who were looking at him with furious faces. Even the usually gentle Callia.
Eris took a seat on the flattened woods-rushes near them, picking at the ears of it, pretending like she wasn’t burning to know more about the tension between them.
“Don’t think it’s decided because Eris is here, and you don’t want us… discussing it further.” Sarai began.
Pierson smiled. “If I don’t want to argue in front of Eris, it’s only because she will agree with me, and I don’t want you lovely ladies to feel ganged up on.”
“That’s two still two versus two. Or maybe even one and a half versus two.”
“Sharp tongue.” Eris chided her with Jayk’s insult. She spoke almost under her breath, but just loud enough to make Sarai’s lips thin quickly and for Callia to hold in a laugh. Pierson let his laugh out.
“And that’s exactly why Eris outnumbers you, most beautiful Sarai.”
“Don’t forget me, Pierson.” Callia said lightly, but in a voice that made Eris think of the sound a blade makes when it is drawn from a sheath.
“How could I forget you, oh gentle light of my mornings?!”
“Ugh, spare us any Liosinium charm and compliments!” Sarai sneered.
He made a gesture of surrender. “Ladies, please. You know this is the only way.”
“Doesn’t mean we have to like it.” Callia’s voice was dagger sharp again.
“Like what?” Asked Eris.
The women sighed almost as one and nodded at Pierson, who gave in and told her himself.
“They don’t like that they are to stay with the boys in the woods while you, me, and Nemnir head into Bara.”
“And of course there’s a bloody brilliant reason or two for it being that way round!” Sniped Sarai while angrily twisting a new arrowhead onto the shaft of an arrow.
“I’ve got to speak with Jerekyn, or someone of his type, to arrange passage into Bara for the lads. Through some dark underground path that they control, I’m certain. No way we’re just walking straight in through the gates with twelve city-voln orphans at our heels!”
“And it has to be you, me and Nem?” Asked Eris, excitement bubbling in her belly, she’d never been in a city before.
“Woods-voln are bloody rare in the cities. You might get one or two selling themselves on the streets. But they don’t move about much, and certainly not alongside a mountain-voln and a priest.”
“A priest?!” Eris said in surprise.
Pierson sighed and reached for his pack to pull something out from deep inside. He unfurled it, and it was gold and silver, shining, with embroidered lions roaring, their manes and tails trailing down the length of it. Eris’ eyes widened even further. A priest’s robe.
“You should see how gaudy the thing is they make you were if you live long enough to make it into the ‘Eye of Lios’… the master council of priests. This is fucking dull in comparison.” Pierson looked over the robe and grimaced.
“That’s not the fat priest’s.”
“No, Eris, its mine.”
“You were a priest?!”
“For a sickening heartbeat. Well, a thirteen month, perhaps. After sixteen years of training, I was ordained and served in the temple of Lios in Liosinium, the very heart of the centre of the world.”
“You… you believed?!”
Pierson paused. “Yes, I did. Very much so.”
“But… but you were a Button Man, not a priest?!”
Pierson sighed, and Eris got the impression he’d told this story recently. To Sarai and Callia, maybe? “My older brother died not long after I was ordained. My father decided that it would serve my family better if we kept a commanding presence in the army. I don’t know if he had even thought on me before that, I was a child when I was sent to the temple. But suddenly I was needed.” He laughed bitterly. “After all those years of praying to Lios to bring his light, to illuminate the darkness, and to allow me to see clearly… it was in the army that I finally saw His world the way it really was. And that was where I met Nemnir. And the bastard gods.”
He coughed, breaking the growing tightness in his voice and pretending like it had never been there. “With this robe, and the eye pendant that Nem ‘acquired’ from the fat priest on the road, we can gain entrance to Bara.”
“But if woods-voln are rare in cities, how are you going to get me in? And what about Nem?! Are there mountain-voln in the cities?”
“Nem’s easy enough. Mountain-voln serve in the army, like he did. Voluntarily or not. And mountain-voln in the army convert. Voluntarily or not. And converts have to pay for their repentances as much as city-voln do. More so in fact, as the priests weigh the scales heavier for the other volns. Nemnir will be a repenter who couldn’t afford his sins. My indentured servant.”
Pierson looked uncomfortable. “You’re young enough to have been stolen.”
“A grown woods-voln woman is hard to take… alive.” Sarai began softly, sadly. “But children…”
Eris felt anger flood her veins, red hot and bubbling in her chest. “Priests do… that?!”
“They pay for that. Other men get them for them. That’s what I thought the lads were for at first. But the priests also like woods-voln as their… look, it don’t bare thinking about!”
Eris nodded, but the anger was still a burning pyre in her chest. “You were a priest Pierson. And you’re a good man.” She ignored his dismissive gesture. “Yes, you are. Were there others like you?”
Pierson thought. “Some. Some that believed and used that belief for good. But you have to remember – or learn, because you weren’t brought up to serve Him, thank the bastard gods – Lios commands a great many things. His words ring out from Liosinium every day with yet more orders and doctrines. But none of those words are for anyone’s good but His own! Repentances fill his coffers with gold. His people die in a war that has raged for more years than I know. He hates the volns that don’t serve him. He brings nothing but darkness and hate, and calls himself the Light!”
By the end of his words Pierson looked exhausted, his usually twinkling grey eyes flat like a dull city-voln’s. But Eris thought with a start, that was exactly what he was. She’d gotten used to thinking of him as Pierson, sneaky and sly and good, but he was a city-voln. His life had been greatly different to the wandering she’d done with her mother and her mother’s mother. Hers had been a life of new horizons and love. His had been a life of pitiless study, doctrine, and fear. And all because of Lios.
“You hate that I need to pretend to be… stolen. But you don’t want to leave me here with Sarai and Callia. And the lads.”
“No. No, I don’t.”
“They told you!” She tried to keep her voice calm but she failed.
Pierson looked confused, and she realised from Sarai and Callia’s faces that they had not told him about her bloods. But even so… “You are worried about leaving me with a bunch of lads! Like I’m some kind of simpering fool?!”
Pierson smiled softly. “Lass. No. I’m worried about you. I want you where I can see you. Likewise, Nem’s never going to focus on the job we have to do if he’s worried about you all the way back here in the woods.”
“She’d be safer with us!” Sarai snapped.
“No one in Bara is going to touch even a single hair on the head of a priest’s favourite.” His voice changed, and she realised that he was quoting someone, someone who he’d hated, someone with an older, cracking, voice. “‘The eyes of Lios sees everything. And punishment is the prize the sinner wins. Both in this life and beyond the grave.’”
“Ugh, don’t do that.” Eris said, fighting the urge to spit. Hearing priest’s words out of the mouth of Pierson was just wrong. “When do we go?”
“Tomorrow morning. Bara is less than half day away if we take the king’s road, as any proper priest would do. Arriving on foot will be unusual, but there’s always a reason that a guard will buy if it comes with coin enough. Although…” He paused. “Do you still have the partner to that boot you wear, Eris?”
She looked down at her feet, the booted and the wyrd. She had the other boot in her pack, holding onto it in case… well, she didn’t know why really. It fit over the lattice, but some stubborn part of herself had put it aside and let the wyrd foot be seen by the others. Unlike the crutch, she was almost proud of it. I made that. I made that. “I have it.”
“And your leathers will be fine for going into Bara.”
“You mean, if I’m a recent stealing.” There was that burning inside her again. And its target was not just the priest, but Lios behind them. The spider at the centre of the web, no matter how many bloody lions he embroidered onto his priests’ robes.
Pierson nodded. “So it’s set.”
“So you think you’ve convinced us that taking her into that pit is a good idea?” Said Callia.
“He isn’t even thinking about how Nemnir’s going to react.” Said Sarai, slightly smugly.
Pierson grimaced. “Oh fuck.”