By Lindsey Duncan
“Taras and I were talking,” our husband said from the head of the stairs, “and Liteyi, we’ve decided we want to have children.”
I looked up from the clay ledgers and hoped that if I squinted, I might be able to see something of what my sister saw in him. He was a bit too much brawn for my tastes, all ruddy and bulbously formed, and even with the invisible bond that tied me to her, I could not understand it. Of course, Taras did not have to touch him: as a priestess, she was exempt from all household matters, from the supplies and cleaning to the next generation.
That was my duty.
“You and I will have to discuss that this evening,” I said. It wasn’t for me to grimace or show temper – that was her privilege, and hers alone. “We have a craving for fresh peaches, and I’m going to the market for them.” The careful balance of language so as not to offend the goddess of the heavens was second nature to me by now. Taras’ emotions flowed down into me through our connection, and I could feel the juicy taste in my mouth, whining for attention.
“This is also baking day, and I need more flour.”
Haran paused, brows twitching in amusement. It had been a year and a half, and the novelty of two brides had yet to wear off. “You’ll need a little for yourself,” he said brusquely, counting coins. He did this now and again, usually when he wanted something. I took the stamped bronze without expression; he would never know exactly what it meant to me. “You take care of yourself out there, you understand?”
I sighed inwardly. Now that I stood to carry on his family blood, he worried over me. “I always do.”
I left by way of the women’s courtyard a few minutes later, reciting the list in my head. The sweltering heat of early autumn in the city of Nel-uvar filled my lungs and limbs. Humidity dripped off the amber clay buildings like rain, wafting through the entangled labyrinth of eaves and overhangs. The water trenches along the sides of the street ran slow and ponderous, carrying with them the stench of the city.
By habit, I shaded my eyes and looked towards the north and the mirage-blue façade of Vishanna’s temple. There Taras spent her days from before the dawn until the sun set, serving as a conduit between humans and goddess and keeping the records – clay tablets I didn’t know how to read. She was never punished with the light of day; it was why her skin stayed milky and soft as silk, while mine went thick and dark.
I hoarded the market coins as I always did, managed to save a bit more than I had been given; combined with Haran’s gift, it was a significant amount to add to my stash. I lingered by the high streets, studying the temple incense and offerings that could be purchased, and thinking. It was an old scheme, an idea I had never quite followed through. Though not happy with my sister and our husband, I was content enough, and just as it was her divine duty to serve the gods, I had been tasked with serving her. Surely it was not time for children yet. I could talk them out of it, wait just a little while longer.
Peaches, impossibly sweet, were the last to go into my basket before I returned through the simmering streets. Gongs rattled, hawkers cried, and the occasional rogue-eyed form slid through the crowd. Little hands sprouted where they did not belong, finding pouches and satchels and making free with them.
They avoided me, or rather they avoided the blue band on my arm that marked me a sister-servant under the goddess. For eleven years– since Taras reached womanhood– had accepted this honor and kept other thoughts for daydreams. To me, the outside world and its mysteries existed only for flights of fancy. I tried not to think about it: I did love my sister, her furtive taste for sweet things, the grace that sloughed off when she felt passionate about something.
I returned to the household to find Haran had departed for business. I felt a tremor of relief. Servants in dusty grey smocks greeted me with pearl smiles and growing laughter as we sank into the day’s routine.
As raucous as a beer-woman’s tavern we were, making much of city gossip and singing work songs to split the roof. I splashed myself with tepid well-water and felt the relief of it.
Haran and another merchant arrived shortly before sunset, but they did not dare enter our territory. By then the kitchen overflowed with scent and merriment. We waited on the mistress of the house for dinner, but I sent chilled beer in for the visitor.
Shadow swept over the city in lavender and silver. We set aside our work, covering dough, muting the kiln fires and closing doors. Veils went on; the laughter faded away. I watched by the window until I saw the familiar canopy and its two bearing slaves. The wind was unseasonable, hard from the west: I could smell her perfume, cool and clean like the earth after a storm.
I left the kitchen and took Haran’s left arm. He squeezed it a little tighter than usual. I looked straight ahead and made no sound. The servants knelt in the entrance to the kitchen; only our guest remained where he was, and he stood out of respect.
The two servants paused, the canopy wavering slightly under tired hands. Taras did not appear to notice; her opal brow was lightly marked with perspiration, a single curl of dashed ink escaping her perfect tresses. She was smooth and cool as always within the light linen robes, a figure made almost androgynous by the cloth of her office, untouchable, undesired.
One sculptured hand extended. Haran reached across the threshold to take it, oh so carefully – a man ensorcelled, no less fascinated by her than he had been the day they met. She was not human; she was a conduit to the gods, and he was not allowed to be too close to her.
Taras turned her head and smiled to me, a genuine expression: light, happy, refreshed from her day. I tried to return it, but the memories of the small diversions that had entertained me seemed petty now. What were my aims to a priestess, even my sister?
“Are you all right, Liteyi?” she murmured as she pivoted, perfect and seamless, to Haran’s right.
“She’s fine.” It hadn’t been his question, but he answered it. “We have some things to discuss later, my wives.” We turned as one to face our guest, and he introduced us.
The merchant gawped at the sight. He had heard of the marriage, of course, but it was another thing to see it: most priestesses did not marry. “The lights of heaven shine upon you,” he said.
Taras smiled faintly, but she did not speak. Very few visitors ever heard her. Haran frowned, perhaps having hoped to impress his visitor, then jostled me.
“And upon you,” I said.
Taras retreated behind her screen; I released Haran’s arms to summon the servants with the meal. Subdued pallor hung over us in her presence. Even the merchant seemed a trifle intimidated, and kept his conversation to banal pleasantries. I sat nearest to my sister, but she was not in a talkative mood, and she never once gestured for me to relay her words.
I glanced at her more than once, trying to guess her thoughts, but she was inscrutable as the idea of snow. Even the emotions flowing down the tie between us were muted, preoccupied. After dinner, the men retired to the forechamber and Taras and I went into her sanctuary, attended by two servants. They held her cloak for her and brought her rose-scented water to wash her hands. She handed the bowl to me when she was done, and I did the same.
“Did Haran talk to you?” she wondered.
I kept my eyes on the water. “Yes, he did.”
“And what do you think?” There was anxiety in her voice, well-masked. I wanted to give her the truth, but her delight spilled over and through me.
“I think . . .” I trembled. “I think that this is your life to lead.” I hadn’t meant to stop there; my never subtle mind was trying to find the right argument, the right way to put off the inevitable. Eventually, every priestess needed successors.
Taras cried out and enveloped me in a sudden hug, a sudden rush of unseemly affection. “Oh, you are too good to me, Liteyi! This house seems so empty. It will be wonderful to have a small one about it . . . and I think it would make it less lonely for you, too.” She leaned back, regarding me with a more sober eye. “Vishanna believes that we should gather around us all the love that we can.”
I couldn’t muster the words to deny the sister I cared for the happiness in her eyes, even had tradition allowed. “Maybe . . . ” But I could not even say that it was the wrong time of year. By starting now, the child would be born before summer’s heat hammered down. “Why now?”
She peered at me, but did not seem to think anything of the question. “We live in the moment, Liteyi. We understand that tomorrow is a gift, not a right.”
I pushed the water bowl away before I could knock it over. “The goddess has given you many tomorrows, Taras,” I said. “There’s no need to fear . . .”
“Hope is my guiding light.” She smiled at me serenely. “We do not wait when we could move forward. Where are you in your courses?”
“My wives?” Haran’s voice floated into the room.
I was unsure whether the question or the interruption was worse. “We are here!” I called. The servants excused themselves hastily.
Haran wandered in, a tablet in his hand. He dropped it against his palm absently, clearly lost in thought, but his attention sharpened as he looked from one face to the other. “Settled, then?” he inquired.
“I will not reach the most likely time until the mid of the moon,” I said, realizing only when I had that I was pulling myself in deeper. But what was I to do? What Taras wanted was unwavering law for both of us, and it had been only a matter of time. I thought back to my coins, carefully hoarded.
“Well.” Haran started to say something, then paused, expression awkward. “Liteyi, perhaps . . .”
Taras laid a cool hand on my shoulder. The perfume floated up, tickled my nose. “Sometimes, the goddess shows her will even when the time is not quite right. But it has been a very long day,” she continued, “and we are tired. Tomorrow?”
It was a question . . . and not a question. While Taras’ fatigue–and I could feel it lingering in the tie–might save me again the next day, I could not be sure of it. “Tomorrow,” I said, pushing out a yawn to match hers.
“Shall we retire, then?”
The way we slept would have seemed strange to a foreigner: Haran on the right, I between them, and this night staring sleepless up at the warm amber moon.
I had no more time. I was not sure if my purse was ample enough for what I needed to do, but I would have to hope. I waited until I heard soft snoring–from Taras, of course; Haran never did–and edged into a sitting position. From there, it was painstaking but easy to work my legs up from under the sole linen blanket and to slide my body to the edge. I would be in severe trouble when it was discovered that I had left them alone, but I did not mean to be held accountable for that.
The night markets had not yet closed for the year, and I could hear their keening music like accompaniment to my heart as I found my slippers in the dark. The pouch came to my hand by feel, tucked away within my morning robe. I slipped into the tiring room, fingers trembling as I touched combs and trinkets meant for Taras. Just tonight, just this once, I had need to emulate her brilliance.
Moonlight was my only illumination; I worked by feel. The creature who stared back at me in polished obsidian was smoke-eyed, foreign, but hard. I hoped that that apparent courage would leach into my skin by proximity.
I came to the threshold. I counted my coins and then a second time. Enough to purchase a lavish offering and the incense to accompany it, plus donations to the priests. How could such largesse fail to carry my words on high? If my sister’s position as priestess gave my words additional elevation, I had nothing to worry about.
I could not be sure of that. In theory, I proposed to abandon her, to run away on my own. If I stowed away on a caravan, I could reach the far ends of the empire in a few weeks, or dare the barbarian lands two moons after. I had meant to hoard some of my coins to pay for the trip, but there was no time now. I would trust to luck and perhaps more private prayer.
Cold was slow to clasp the brick and mud of Nel-uvar as I threaded my way through the fitful city. Shadow-swords slashed the paths the moonlight made and caused my soul to jump in my body. The figures who passed me were unfamiliar, garishly clothed, living torches in the night whose beads and bells jangled with raucous fervor. Nightwalkers who only plied their trade after dark; common laborers who had neither the desire nor the opportunity to frequent the streets at day.
I detoured around the common market nearest our home and headed for the temple district and the great Moon Market. The shortcut took me under bridges and deep into winding alleys, into a place where the song of the city dwindled to nothing.
It was my solemn duty to protect my sister. That, more than any problem in escaping Nel-uvar, determined my course of action. I could not bear knowing she was unhappy, feeling it through the tie between us even hundreds of miles away. Yet if I could find some assurance of her happiness, if I could earn a promise of the gods to keep and cherish her even beyond her devotions . . . .
That chance drew thin in the silence around me, and I hesitated. The thicket of darkness, moist and humid with the lingering heat, lay too quiet for my liking.
I fought the urge to clutch my coin purse, wary of the jingle. I told myself to walk and keep walking, though my ankles twitched in preparation to run.
I smelled something sweet and cinnamon, a strangely reminiscent perfume that wafted down the lane. Smoke behind it, crisp and acrid.
My eye caught the movement, ebbing and grey: a hard-eyed man in battered street garb. “Good night.” His teeth were the brightest thing about him, moon-bright in the shadows and bared in an expression of shallow civility.
“A fair one.” I managed a smile. “May it be kind to you.” I had grown adept at dodging Taras’ admirers from the days of before, those who didn’t realize that my opinion mattered little. I had mastered the art of walking sideways without appearing to, and I judged the steps to the bridge above with a nervous eye. If I hurried, I could make it up into the night.
It would have been fine, if he hadn’t had a companion who lunged in to fill the gap.
“Maybe you can help us with that.”
The coins seemed to burn through the fabric into my skin, as did the comb woven through my hair. “A blessing? Of course you have my blessing,” I stammered. Had I given away I was a priestess-sister? My head swam, and it seemed that the pleasant scent on the air had turned into heady fumes.
“Oh, but we are blessed.” The first man turned that glowing smile on me again. “How else would we have come to find you? Turn over your purse.”
His companion loomed without a word, and I was helpless to stop my fingers. I did have the common sense to brace my hip against the wall, precious little defense that would provide me, so I could keep the laden pouch out of sight. I spilled out a handful, quivering.
“This,” I said, “this is all I have.” I was proud of the assurance in my voice, until the moment a stray wind snatched my robe and revealed the still-weighted pouch at my side.
Time took a step to one side and waited on us, the two thugs staring at me, I coiling all my muscles into a desperate knot. The only experience I had in conflict was that sometimes I bit sewing threads, but I could not go back.
“Don’t make us hurt you.” He sounded sincere, which made it even worse.
“You don’t have to,” I said quickly. “That’s . . . that’s a lot of coins. I can give you a few more, I can go away with the rest, you won’t have to risk the guard coming, everyone is happy.” I swallowed the rest of the words, but they made me nauseous with their weight.
“No.” The leader shook his head. “We earned this. All of it. There won’t be any guard, one way or another.” He thrust out, catching my arm. “This can be easy-”
I shrieked, wrenched free, and bolted. Two steps later, I was arrested by the solid bulk of his companion, a hard jerk and a fist to my stomach. My thoughts drove up past the top of my head as my feet fought for purchase. I clawed at him even as the leader grabbed my hair to pull me off. I remember biting his fingers even as the pouch string snapped and the coins–my hard-earned, hard-hoarded hopes–went scattering everywhere.
I leaned, weeping, against the wall, unable to move even when they pulled a few chance coins out from under my feet and unwound the combs from my hair … quick, impersonal. They pelted away into the shadows, merry laughter rising and mingling with the nightly chorus of the markets.
I slid down, landing with a light thud in the clay track. My fingers scratched along the earth, searching for the coins by feel. They might have missed some, I reasoned, and …
Before I had even close to enough to make the same purchases, I would have a child to think about, a child who would be mine and not. I had never thought of myself as a maternal figure–I had hoped to become a message-runner when I was a child–but I could not imagine walking away from that.
I felt the edge of a copper halfmoon and pocketed it, feeling no relief. That was it, then. I would go back, hope to sneak into the house without anyone the wiser, and continue on the life Taras had set. There should have been a freedom to it, that everything was secure.
There was not. I clutched a star-silver until it bit my palm, and even devoid of the slightest offering or sign of reverence, I rocked onto my heels and prayed.
“Great masters of the highest heavens,” I whispered, “Look down upon me now and grant my hopes for the priestess Taras . . .”
It was no use. I let my voice fade into nothing, and felt the rest of me follow.
“Oh, don’t stop now.”
I jumped, fearing by rote that another thug had found me, and craned my neck back to look at the man. He was smaller than I had expected, probably not to my nose if I were standing, but for all that wiry, tight, powerful without flaunting it. He wore an assortment of rings threaded through his nose, ears and other rather more unlikely places, glints of copper, bronze and the occasional silver. I found myself staring, transfixed. He lifted his brows by deliberate increments until, blushing, I turned away.
He burst out laughing then, a rich and autumnal sound. “Quite a collection, aren’t they? Means I always have money to burn; and you’d be surprised how few people are willing to tear it off your face.”
I found I had nothing to say a few seconds after I opened my mouth. I closed it.
“You don’t talk much, do you?” he said in a bright voice. “That’s all right, I think I can fill enough silences for both of us.” He thrust down a hand. “Come on.”
I uncurled carefully, sliding the three coins into my robe, then took his hand and climbed to my feet. I found I was right: I could easily see over his head. “Who are you?”
“It speaks!” He stumbled back, kicking one leg around to support the motion. Amber-drop eyes caught the moonlight and tossed it back to me. “I have a lot of names, and am many things to many people. How much time do you have?”
This was not what I had expected, but reality began to assert itself. “Thank you for the hand,” I said. “I have to be headed home.”
“Let me walk with you?” He spun about with a broad sweep of his hands. “The streets are tricky at this hour. You never know who you might run into.”
Where had he been only moments before? But I stifled the question and found he’d stolen a smile from me, despite myself. “Very well,” I said, “At least as far as the main thoroughfare.”
“Direct me, and I shall follow.”
We headed up the alley in the wavering moonlight, my guardian shadow bobbing like a man at festival. He walked indolently, the strut of a far bigger man.
“What brings you out? You don’t seem familiar with the streets at night,” he said.
I wasn’t sure I should answer the question, but his manner was so easy and the night so deep that it was hard to keep the words in. “I meant to offer prayers to the gods.”
A light touch at my elbow. “Something got in the way, then?”
I pulled in a breath. “I lost my . . . thieves,” I managed. “They cornered me, they took everything, and I had nothing left for an offering.” I’d thought I had made my peace with it, but trying to tell the story made my throat tighten and my eyes crinkle in the effort of restraining tears.
“Ah, but the gods understand that.” A rumbling chuckle. “They’re greedy, certainly, but they have so many people that do their bidding, surely they wouldn’t begrudge one fine woman like yourself?” He pivoted, walking ahead of me now, eyes on my face.
I shook my head. “I had something very important to request.”
“Well, now you have my curiosity.” He touched my arm, light as the evening winds. “May I ask?”
I lived with servants who would never ask my story and walked among people who thought I was blessed. I had never confided in anyone, and now the words sputtered and started out of me. Even as we looped onto open streets again, I told him everything.
“You were going to pray for her happiness?” Underneath his surprise was a rogue thread of amusement, brought out in crinkles at the corners of his eyes.
“Of course,” I said, trying not to feel nettled. “What else would I pray for?”
“You could have prayed that the gods break the bond between you,” he said, “or that they grant you duties of your own. Lots of ways to cheat the system, Liteyi.”
“I love my sister,” I said, “I would never do anything to-” His words left me bled of motion in the center of the wide thoroughfare. “I never told you my name.”
He waggled one shoulder in a shrug and hop-stepped around me. “It’s my job to know these things. I also know you have a very interesting birthmark at the base of your -”
“That’s quite enough!” I cried. Indignation faded as I stared at him, my mind reaching for answers. I have a lot of names, he’d said . . . “Who are you?”
“We’ve been over this before, I think.” He flashed me a grin as he spun about. “But very well, if you must take the joke away . . . I am Adarath, god of luck, risk, thieves and all those who play with their wits.” He wrinkled his nose, a gesture which caused the piercings to twitch.
It was all I could do not to sit down right there in the middle of the street. I doubted him for a fleeting instant, as much to preserve my sanity as because I thought he was lying, but one glance from those now-incandescent amber eyes made it impossible to do.
“I called to you?” I whispered.
Up came the brows in a flash of amusement. “No, the thugs who attacked you did. I believe that was their incense you smelled burning. Terribly sorry about that.” He rocked back onto his heels. “But since I’m here, and you seem to be in some distress, and I have considerable appreciation for people trying to get out of their assigned duties . . . ask me anything.”
I frowned uncertainly. I had been the answer to a prayer? I wanted to be angry, but was afraid of his reaction. “I’m not sure . . .”
“Oh, of course you are,” Adarath cut me off. “You did me a favor, being in the right place at the right time and saving me from having to roust up someone from another part of town.
Ask your boon.” He paused, a significant quirk to his smile. “You can change your life completely.”
“I . . .” I did not have enough coins to take me far with any certainty, but I had not changed my mind. “I want the priestess Taras to have perfect happiness.”
Adarath sighed. “Are you sure?”
“I am.” I smiled sideways. “I’ve been taking care of her since I was a child. I can’t stop now, even if I can’t stay here.”
“Very well.” He stepped forward, laying a light hand on my shoulder. I was dizzy with the touch, the knowledge that I now stood face to face with a god. He leaned in, with a gentleness and solemnity that did not fit either his usual manner nor the scores of legends in his name, and kissed me on the brow.
A sense of weightlessness trickled through me, feathering down my veins. The heat seemed to fade, leaving me acutely aware of the chance breeze. That was all; nothing more dramatic than that. I realized then that I no longer felt tired, no trace of slumber.
“Say thank you.” Adarath spoke in my ear.
I jumped, wondering foolishly how he had gotten from in front of me to behind. I should have expected such things from a god. “What did you do?”
“I reversed the tie.” There was a smirk in his voice as he circled back into view. “Now, instead of you feeling everything that Taras does, she will be conscious of your every emotion.”
“What?” I bit down my panic, suddenly conscious that I could wake her up. “Why would you do that?”
“So you don’t have a choice about what you do,” he answered with a slow grin. “Do you see? If you want your sister to be happy, to live in a cloud of warmth, you’ll have to find it for yourself. The only way to answer your prayer is to seek your fortune.”
“But I don’t know where I’m going,” I said, “or even if I can-”
“You’ll make it.” He patted me on the shoulder. “After all, you have to, don’t you?”
I like to think I had a very intelligent answer to that, but I never had a chance to say it. He made no flourish, no timely gesture, only vanished and left me on the darkened streets alone.
Alone, and with a small heap of bronze halfmoons where he had been standing.
I bent to collect them, careful to keep my pouch out of sight this time. I counted them in my head, and started to ration them for my journey. So much for a place in the caravan, so much for food along the way, so much for citizenship upon my arrival . . . .
For I had been given a mission I had to follow. Adarath was right, very right; if it meant Taras’ happiness as well as my own, I would go to the ends of the earth for it.
Or at least as far as the border.
I sent a thought of hope and best wishes down the tie and started toward my future.
Lindsey Duncan is a life-long writer and professional Celtic harp performer, with short fiction and poetry in numerous speculative fiction publications. She feels that music and language are inextricably linked. She lives, performs and teaches harp in Cincinnati, Ohio. She can be found on the web at http://www.LindseyDuncan.com/writing.htm