Nemnir had not been happy. And even less so about having to pass Pierson his mountain on its length of leather so that the ‘priest’ could wear it about his wrist like a trophy, its dullness standing out against the shine of the long sleeves of the crumpled robe. Instead of the hanging pendant, which had long nestled safe against his chest, Nem had to make do with a ripped sliver of the material of the robe taken from somewhere underneath, tied around his throat, and also marking his ownership with shining thread. Eris had one too, and she was constantly fighting the urge to pull at it and to yank it off.
But the two golden chokers made the guards’ eyes at the gate flow over them and focus instead on Pierson’s subtle but confident performance as a priest of Lios.
“Good day, be blessed.” He began as they walked the final steps towards under the guards’ gaze to the narrow but tall double doors. It was a minor entrance, one used more by nobles according to Pierson.
“Greetings, Blessed of Lios. What business have you in Bara?” Asked the older of the two guards, a man working on a moustache, but slightly let down by the threads of silver in it and on his head.
“A visit to the temple in your fine city, bearing greetings and gifts from Tralis.”
“Fine? Sounds like you haven’t been here befo-” began the younger guard, but he was cut off.
“On foot? All the way from Tralis?” asked the more experienced man.
“We detoured. Our horses did not make it past an encounter with some heathen woods-voln. Had it not been for my mountain-voln shield here, neither would have I!” Pierson gestured without looking and Nemnir, who was apparently channelling his anger about Eris being a fake captive into the very convincing glare of an indentured man.
“Thanks be to Lios. Looks like you made them pay for their insolence though.” The older man looked directly at Eris, his eyes burrowing under her leathers. She turned her disgust into the burst of action that they’d agreed on earlier, darting suddenly away from the two men, but letting herself be caught up to by Nem who grabbed her easily and flung her over his shoulder, her muddied boots kicking against his chest, and her yells deafening him.
“Your ‘guest’ is still wild then!?”
“She will be obedient once she learns the full power and might of Lios.” Pierson said, putting a hideous dark edge into his voice, making a threat. Eris took the cue and calmed her kicking, but stayed on Nem’s shoulder. They’d agreed that a display of his strength couldn’t hurt their cause, and it kept her face mostly away from the guards. Although, Pierson had admitted that one woods-voln looked pretty much like another to many city-voln.
“Still wearing those wretched leathers is she? Not for long I imagine… the charity of the temple will bath and clothe her.” This guard was sly, his words had double meanings, and Eris’ hands itched for her dagger, currently hidden among the golden layers of Pierson’s robe.
“And the temple of Tralis has charity enough for hard working guards as well, of course.” Pierson moved forwards, bringing out a small handful of coins for the guards. The older man accepted his without comment, but when Pierson went to trail a few silver and gold onto the younger man’s palm he demurred.
“Please, Blessed of Lios. Would you…? My wife and I have been married for near three years and still we have not borne children. A blessing please, instead of coin?”
Pierson stopped, stumped it seemed. “Coin can be exchanged for the blessings of Lios at the temple…”
“The lines of people waiting to repent are long. We have submitted a request for an assigned audience, but there has been no response. For many months now. Please, Blessed of Lios?” He sounded desperate, and Eris peered about Nem’s broad shoulder as much as she might to see the earnestness of his young hairless face. Her mother had told her about the possible causes of childlessness, explained how she had healed a man of his failure to sire children through several tinctures and… and she had said something that Eris had not really noted when she had been a younger child, but Eris suspected that she now understood what her mother had really meant. I was so, so sad for him. He so desperately wanted children, but something inside him was broken. And I helped him, as She who once healed helped us. More and more she was certain that her mother had been a true healer, just as she had healed Nemnir by wanting it so greatly. Could Eris help this man… would she want to?
“Very well.” Pierson palmed the coins, taking the man’s hand in his instead. Eris felt a growing fear that they would be found out now, but then she remembered that Pierson had once been a priest. This at least was not a lie, even if Pierson now truly followed the Crowned One, ‘She who once healed’ by another name. “Lios, rest your endless tasks as centre of the centre of the world, I beg of you. Turn your gaze upon this faithful servant and his wife’s womb. Fill their lives with your light. Bring them a child to rear in your service. This I pray.”
“This I pray.” Both the guards repeated, the older man just as fervently as the younger, whose eyes were welling with tears.
“Thank you Blessed! Thank you!”
Pierson released his hand and patted his shoulder. “Best you be heading home right smart this evening. Go to your wife as soon as your duty allows.”
“Of course! Yes!” The older guard began to open the gates for them, and the younger guard ran to follow suit. Pierson had explained that there were greater gates at the walls of Bara for the admittance of carts and traders, but that these thick wooden portals would lead them into a noble and wealthy area where they would be less observed. Eris did not know what to expect, even though Pierson had described some of the things that made a city, trying to steady what he had confused for nerves on the road. It had been excitement.
Inside the way opened up into a courtyard formed by three storey buildings leering over any arrivals. More guardsmen were about, sharpening swords as they sat and talked together, or going about other business in the buildings which must have housed them. The courtyard led onto a street of closely placed townhouses, their numerous windows jostling for space. Here there were a few walkers in the streets, the first city-voln women that Eris had ever seen, with the rounder faces and dull coloured hair of men like Pierson, but displaying their arms and hair bound by bands of gold, both material and the metal. She was surprised to see that they wore long dresses not unlike her mother’s old homespun ones, but elegantly draped with cloth she did not recognise. They shone not unlike Pierson in his robe, but muted somehow, the gold and silver overlaying other colours in intricate patterns but not making up the entire outfit like the priest’s glorious robe. None wore weapons either. Not even the favoured small dagger or her mother, or her mother’s mother’s long sword. And they had such superior looks upon their faces, especially when they noticed her hanging over Nem’s back, taking in her dark ragged braid and her old leathers.
“Might I walk now?” she asked Pierson who walked below her.
They passed by a fine house with a mirrored door, and she grimaced, seeing herself slung over Nem’s shoulder, her rear in the air and her hair loosening itself even more. It was the clearest she’d seen herself since the day the boy had… since leaving the caravan where her mother had had a small polished copper hand mirror. Her eyes darted to her left foot, but in the boot it looked identical to its mate.
“Let her down Nem.” Whispered Pierson, smiling amiably to two nearing women with strange spreading contraptions held about their heads, shadowing their faces. They looked concerned at seeing a wild woods-voln “Now, you won’t try to escape again, will you?” He said loudly, and the women clutched more at the strange shelters they were carrying and scurried past.
“Hope they slip and stick those parasols where Lios’ light don’t shine.” He muttered once they were well away. “I’d forgotten quite how it is in the cities.”
“They hate and fear you sweetling.” He eased the frown on his head, seeing other people about. “But they love me because I wear these damned robes. Even if I’m the very soul of evil for having captured you.”
Eris walked on in thought, still taking in the babbling noises and perfumes of this part of the city, but also thinking something through. “Were you always like this, Pierson?”
“Dashingly handsome and a great wit?”
Nemnir chuckled briefly and then hid it, maintaining his shield-slave persona.
“I mean… you’re city-voln. You must have thought as they do once?”
“I did. It’s even worse in the centre of the world, in Liosinium. You’d not have made it past the gate, but be strung up for torture, even if you were my pet.”
“And seeing Nem… what happened to Nem, that’s what changed you?”
“Aye.” He was quiet, even more quiet than he needed to be to escape prying eyes.
“But Lios must have sent hundreds of thousands to the front for the endless war. They probably saw things like you did. And worse maybe. Why aren’t they like you?”
Pierson paused, stopping rock still. He began to walk again as he saw people noticing them standing still. “There must be, you’re right. S’pose some you’ll meet at the Light of Lios are somewhat like me. Not as clever perhaps, but they think different to most city-voln.” He stopped and suddenly pulled her close by her leathers to lean down and kiss her cheek, and whispered in her ear. “They worship different to most city-voln”
Eris realised the kiss was a cover for his blasphemous and risky words, but still felt strange about it. In this game of disguises the ‘priest’ was kissing her because she was his. Other priests, on other days, had walked other streets with other young girls and done the same to them, and gotten just as little attention as they did now. She felt that rage bubbling in her again, and focussed it on Pierson, striking out with a kick that connected with his shin through even the layers of the robe.
“Argh!” Yelled Pierson genuinely, before quickly recovering as other city-voln turned to look. “You little bitch! Wait till I get you to the temple!”
He grabbed her roughly and dragged her along with him, Nemnir storming after them, until they’d turned several corners and left those prying eyes behind.
“Eris!” he hissed. “Don’t do that again! Someone will call on the city-guard or some passing button man and then-”
She covered her eyes as she felt hot tears begin to fall, sobs just held in. Nemnir moved closer but resisted holding her.
“Shush, girl, shush. I know. I know. This place is hell, and its thrice damned for a woods-voln. We’re a quick march away from the Light of Lios, we’ll get there and throw these masks away for a while. How’s that? I’ll even spend some of Nemnir’s coin on a warming drink for you, lass.”
Her tears turned into a half smile as Nemnir play-acted grumbling. They took to walking again, the redness of her eyes working in their favour, even as they found the tavern and went in. Curious faces turning at their arrival looked away when they recognised the new arrivals as a priest with his muscle and a tearful property. Eris kept her head down anyway, only stealing the occasional glance at the patrons in their fine clothes toasting and reciting lines of what they must have thought was great poetry at each other.
Pierson ushered them in further and looked about. “Damn. We’re too early in the day. Just dumb city-voln heirs and heiresses.” He whispered, before straightening with a smile as a woman in a satin dress approached them.
“A table, Blessed?”
Eris snuck a look, taking in her rather obvious bosom and the flowing grey of her hair. Beautiful, but she lacked something when she smiled.
“Estille?” Pierson said, following her to where there was a space in a corner, where a bench with soft cushions sat against the wall. “Don’t you remember me? I wrote you so many lines of love from the front!”
Other patrons sniggered, turning to gossip as he pouted.
Eris was bemused at Pierson’s petulant behaviour until she realised that this was just another mask, hidden beneath the anonymous priest was Pierson the city-voln heir. He must have known her from before and was covering for it with the other patrons and her.
“Of course I remember, sweetling. I enjoyed every single word and prayed daily for your return in good health, after doing your duty to Lios of course!” She sidled up to him and ran fingertips over the embroidery of the robe as they sat together, with Eris and Nemnir left to stand awkwardly by them. “You’re wearing the gold again my dearest.”
“Father recognised one of his many bastards once he realised I was a dreadful captain, and likely to cause more dishonour on the front than honour. He sent him to the war instead. Now I’m free to return to the service of Lios.”
“Blessed be!” She smiled, her grey eyes sparkling. “Good news indeed. And you have companions?”
She looked to Nemnir and Eris. Her eyes were calculating behind their long lashes and black outlines. “Two new pets?”
Pierson made a dismissive gesture. “The hulking one owed repentances and I needed a guard on the road. The girl… well.”
Estille nodded. Then there was a strange shifting happening between the two of them on the bench in the corner, and Eris was surprised to see Pierson bring his hand up to fondle the woman’s breast through her dress as they got ever closer behind the wooden table. They fiercely locked lips, and kissed each other’s faces and biting upon each other. Eris frowned, anger rising on behalf of Sarai and Callia, until she saw that between kisses they were also whispering to each other.
I’m going to lie. And cheat. And do things that I won’t have time to explain. All of this I do to help the boys, and you. I do all of these things with love in my heart for those two wonderful and infuriating women. All of this you must know now and you must be ready for.
Pierson had spoken those words on the road and now she finally understood.
The reunited lovers pulled away from each other, and for a moment Eris caught a glint of metal in the woman’s hand, something sharp that had been held into Pierson’s side. It was there one second and then deftly put away as Estille turned a smile onto Eris, now with some real warmth in it as Pierson continued to coo and fawn over her like a fool. A bar man brought two metal goblets and moments after he left them alone again the woman had dipped a long fingertip into hers. It quickly traced a swift shape in red on the table that she drew Eris’ eyes to with her own, before wiping it away with her sleeve.
The outline of a person’s arms, shoulders, and head. The simple form of a bastard god.
Eris looked deep into the woman’s eyes, and gave her a weak smile back.
“Wonderful! So wonderful that you are back my love.” Gushed Estille, ignoring a passing man who grunted mockingly.
“That’s what she said to me last week.” He drunkenly weaved away before she could reply, an indignant pout on her lips.
“Now, let’s eat and drink our full and speak of many things! Its hours until the tavern bell rings and all goodly pure servants of Lios must return a’bed.” There was a double meaning in her words, she was certain, but it escaped Eris for now. The thought of a meal and even a bed was more attention taking. Even a seat to sit in would be nice after being on the road and being left to stand while Pierson and this woman were conspiring. She found herself fighting the urge to yawn.
“Later I might even introduce you to a good friend of mine. Jerekyn.”
Eris was instantly alert again.