“Why are they growing corn there?” Qara wondered aloud. They were standing on the west bank of where the Lesser Bariad split out north, away from the Great Bariad. The town of Musmahwa was nestled within the fork, on the east bank on the lesser and the west bank of the greater. This meant they had to cross the Lesser Bariad, and although the river looked calm and was not much wider than the Big Bolt, it was definitely too big and too deep to bring a horse across.
Lightning was still breathing heavily, and Orvi was rubbing the side of his neck. “I don’t’ know,” he answered at last.
“The corn’s on this side of the river,” she said, redundantly. “Somebody has to cross the river every day, just to grow his corn. That’s stupid.” The telltale yellow stalks had not yet emerged, but both Qara and Orvi knew corn plants when they saw them. “Do you think there’s a bridge farther north?”
“Maybe.” He patted the unicorn’s forehead. “Sorry buddy, I guess we’ve still got a little farther to go.”
“Hey!” Qara shouted. “Hey you!”
A man had emerged from one of the many huts by the river. They were small domes, made of hardpacked clay. Orvi thought his own chamber at the Mother’s House was larger than what he saw. He had thought a monk’s life was an austere one, but he was starting to wonder. It made him think of Brother Hesiud.
“Hey you!” she shouted again.
“My name is Yvmal,” the man called back. He was tall and lean, wearing a grey shirt and mud-colored pants that hugged his boney frame. His scarf, also mud-colored, was wrapped around his entire head except his face, which was square and lined.
“Hey Yvmal!” Qara shouted. “How do we get across the river?”
He pointed to the hut next to his. “Rhanga has a raft ready. I’ll get it.”
“Thanks, Yvmal!” She turned and smiled at Orvi. “That was easy. Isn’t it weird that they just have rafts ready? It shouldn’t be that hard to make a bridge, right?”
Orvi had turned to look back over the fields they had covered. Lightning had carried them far and fast, though he was exhausted from carrying two people. He wondered what had happened to Podger, and Qara’s horse. “Whose horse was that, that you rode to… to…” They had spent eight days together on the unicorn’s back, but had spoken very little.
Qara’s normally buoyant demeanor fell slightly. “I borrowed him from Girad Imsek. He’s rich, he owns three other horses. He’ll be fine.”
Yvmal emerged from his neighbor’s hut with a small raft of woven wave-grass. It was dense, with thousands of stalks folded and woven together tightly. It was not wood, but it did look very secure. It was light, too. Yvmal carried it over his head easily. “Be careful with this, all right? Rhanga will need it soon.”
“Are you just gonna throw it to us?” Qara shouted. The river was at least thirty feet across.”
“Oh,” Yvmal paused. “Good point. We don’t usually… I’ll just…” He moved to a small patch of shallows and set the raft in the river to test the current. Then knelt onto the raft and started paddling himself across with his hands.”
“It’s such a small raft,” she said to Orvi. “I don’t think he could even fit, if he lied down.”
The current was light, but Yvmal still wound up a ways downriver before he reached their side. He gestured for them to stay put and carried the raft back up to them.
“Will that thing fit all of us?” Qara asked.
“And our horse?” Orvi added.
Yvmal raised a finger sagely, then hesitated. “Ah. Good point.” He hummed a moment before pointing north. “Let me take you to the Holy Bridge, it’s about a mile north.”
They took turns carrying the raft as they went. “So, how come there’s no bridge at the fork?” Qara asked. “That seems like an obvious place for one, right?”
“Well, we have to keep the river clear, don’t we?” Yvmal answered obviously.
“Right, right,” Qara agreed. “Why?”
“Why?” said Yvmal. “For protection, of course.”
Orvi was leading Lightning when he asked, “But wouldn’t a bridge on the Lesser Bariad be okay? I mean, Zalja isn’t going to attack from the west, right?”
“I’m not talking about Zalja, kid. I’m talking about…” he glanced around. “What are you kids doing here, anyway?”
Orvi jumped at that. “Right! Sorry, we need to speak to the senator at once, and we need to see the Mother’s House. Is it on the Holy Bridge?”
“No, no, it’s in town. Who would put a Mother’s House on a bridge?”
Qara and Orvi shared a look. “Soooo why is it called the Holy Bridge?” she asked.
“The monks ask the Mother to bless it daily, to repel… to keep it safe. It might be holier than the Mother’s House by now, it’s so blessed,” he added laughing.
They looked at each other again.
“Why do you need to see the senator?” he asked.
Orvi felt bad, frighting a man who seemed so paranoid, but it had to be said. “We’re from Shafinah. A band of Zaljan soldiers came into town a few days ago. They tried to burn the Mother’s House.”
Yvmal stopped at that, nearly dropping the raft. “No! Why? No, not again. Why?”
“She didn’t try to burn it,” Qara objected. “She only did that to get us to back off. She wanted inside for some reason. She was trying to get something, I think.”
“Inside?” Yvmal mused, walking again. “But there’s no valuables inside the Mother’s House. There’s maybe a handful of holy relics, but those wouldn’t mean anything to a heretic. To a Satariai, I mean. From Zalja.” He was starting to pick up the pace, and his long legs made it hard for Qara and Orvi to keep up.
“We don’t know what she wanted,” Orvi said, panting. “Senator Potem brought some guards and chased her off before she could do… whatever she wanted to do.”
“Oh!” Yvmal slowed again. “So the danger’s gone, then?”
“We don’t know where she is,” said Qara. “The senator went to East Gate, but she’s sending people to all the other major towns too, just in case.”
“Just in case?” he asked, speeding up. “So these Zaljans, they could be anywhere?”
“Well, there’s only seven of them,” Orvi added. “So they’re probably all going to the same place, wherever it is. They might just try to run back to Zalja.”
“Oh,” said Yvmal, slowing. “That’s good.”
“Or maybe not,” Qara added. “She has a famous dad that burned one of the Mother’s Houses, so maybe she’s trying to do something like that. Maybe. I mean, not burn it, but—”
“A famous…” Yvmal sped up again. “A famous father who… Was it Ybril Ro Kheer?”
“That’s it!” Qara exclaimed. “How did you know?”
“Because he burned our Mother’s House!” Yvmal said, breaking into a run, the woven raft bobbing over his head as he went.”
“Oh yeah. My dad said that was Musmahwa, didn’t he? Wow, he is really hoofing it.”
Yvmal was hopping and sprinting down the river, and the raft slipped from his hands and tumbled into the river. He only ran faster after that, vanishing up the light incline toward the bridge.
Orvi and Qara watched the raft float by as they stopped to catch their breath. “I wonder what Rhanga needed that raft for,” said Qara.
Orvi was unworried. As they watched the raft disappear down the Lesser Bariad, he felt like a fist that had been gripping his heart had finally unclenched. “Well. They know,” he said. “Tomorrow, we can go home.”
“Home? Don’t you wanna look around this place? Don’t you wanna find out why they just have rafts sitting around, or why it’s crazy to build a Mother’s House on a bridge?”
Orvi started leading Lightning up the river again. “I have to get home,” he said. “I have to tell the monks. I have to tell them what happened. To Brother…”
“Oh. Okay.” He could tell Qara was disappointed, but she did not press him. “But hey! We made it, right? Yvmal’s probably found the senator already, with those giant beanpole legs of his. We saved the town!”
“Yeah,” Orvi agreed, smiling in spite of himself.
Just then, they heard a beautiful, clear cry up above them, and saw a flock of four rainbow herons flying southerly toward the town. They turned in a wide circle and came to rest on one of the buildings, roughly east of where the children were standing.
“That must be Quelizad’s House,” said Orvi.
“Why? Is she the Mother of Birds or something?”
Quelizad’s House was the most beautiful building Orvi had ever seen. It sat atop of a very light hill that seemed to have rolled up just to support it, glistening green shortgrass spread all over. A large garden rested before the House, surrounded by a gate of wrought iron with bars that curved gently into shapes that did far more to beautify than to repel. Inside were bushes twice the height of a person, clipped and cut into the shape of warriors, dancers, magicians, and herons. A path down the center of the garden was lined with blossoms of every color Orvi could name any many more he could not.
The House itself was as symmetrical as Liliq’s House, but that was all they had in common. The first floor was made of brick, but not the red brick of Mu May that had built many of the homes in Shafinah. These bricks were bigger than a person’s head, painted a deep purple. Purples were rare, so the paint had chipped in some places to reveal the brick was grey underneath. The first floor was topped by a great balcony terrace of wooden planks that ran all the way around, and Orvi saw a monk standing up there looking down on them; her long hair was a strange honey color, and her face made his heart beat faster. She wore loose, flowing robes of light violet with a fabric belt of deep blue. She saw him and smiled; Orvi blushed and looked away.
The second and third floors were made of pine. The second floor had almost as many openings as it had walls, but what walls were there were painted a deep blue like the monk’s belt. The third floor was forest green with no openings at all, not even windows. The roof, also green, was a sharp four-cornered steeple, and at its pinnacle was a wrought iron structure that split into eight curving branches. The rainbow herons they had spied earlier had alighted on four of them, their black beaks preening their peach plumage.
“That’s really tempting the All-Mother,” Orvi said, pointing at the metal structure and trying not to look at the monk.
“What is?” asked Qara, “the birds?”
“The metal,” he said as they approached the gate. “Lightning could strike that, and set the whole Mother’s House on fire.”
“You’d think they’d learn,” he grumbled.
“But wait,” Qara objected. “If the All-Mother wants to burn the House down again, won’t she just do it? No matter if there’s metal up there or not?”
“So what difference does it make?”
“I like the birds,” Qara added innocently.
The gate swung open lazily, and they took their time down the blossom-lined pathway to the front of the Mother’s House. As with Liliq’s House, there was a doorway but no door. By the time they approached, a monk had appeared to great them.
“Greetings,” they said, “I am Sister Uliemm. Welcome. You look to be from Shafinah, am I correct?” They were very tall with large hands, but they gestured delicately when indicating Orvi. Like the monk on the second floor, Sister Uliemm wore robes of violet with a blue belt, which on closer inspection both looked to be made of satin. Their face was powdered lightly, with a faint pink shading around their eyes. They were almost as tall as Brother Hesiud, and something in the arch of their eyebrows was intimidating, but when their red lips parted in a bright smile, Orvi felt at ease again. Like Orvi, their head was shaved smooth.
“Yeah!” Qara belted out. “What’s with your hair? Do you have lice too?”
Sister Uliemm’s eyes widened briefly before considering Orvi’s head. “Ah. I take it you are not looking to join our order then? I see your hair is already starting to grow back. May I have your names, please?”
“I’m Qara Fishmonger, and that’s Orvi. He’s a monk.”
“A pupil,” Orvi corrected.
“I see,” the Sister nodded. “You must be nearing your confirmation day, am I correct?”
Orvi looked at his feet.
“I think he already passed it,” said Qara
Sister Uliemm’s face lit up at that. “Why then you are a monk! A novice is still a monk. Greetings, Novice Orvi.”
“No, I mean, the day passed. We were traveling here. When the day passed.”
The Sister’s face crinkled at that. “Ohh. I am so sorry, Orvi. I should have been more observant.” They cast their arms wide in self-recrimination. “And here I am, interrogating you at our door like criminals. Please come in, Pupil Orvi and Qara Fishmonger. Come in.”
The Sister called over a boy about Orvi’s age, already wearing purple robes and a shorn head, and ordered him to tend to Lightning. With that, Uliemm swept behind them and placed a hand on each, ushering them inside.
The first floor did not have as many windows as the second, but there were braziers every eight feet or so. Most of the braziers had modest fires burning in them, with grates set atop to prevent spills, even though the floor was stone, covered in lush rugs of various muted shades. A few of the braziers, though, had small lumps of magic glowing in them. “Is that Fool’s Fire?” Qara asked.
Sister Uliemm’s laugh was deep and from the belly. “No, Qara. I promise you, we are not fools. That is some lesser fire a wizard left us while passing through from Gharqah. There are only a few left, you can see, but when they are gone we will make do.”
“They’re so much brighter than the fire,” she observed.
“Yes,” Uliemm sighed, “they are a blessing. I hear lesser fire is very common. Rat magic, some call it, it is so common, yet we will soon have none. We have sent a novice or two to Gharqah over the years for study, hoping to retain our own wizard, but they never return. I suppose the love of crystals in the earth overpowers even the love of Quelizad. But, Satar shaped us to obey our passions, not our institutions.”
“What’s an institution?”
“A wise question, Qara Fishmonger,” they answered with another bright smile. “I pray you never find the answer.”
They had reached a stairway at the end of the great hall that made up most of the first floor, and from there they climbed up. The difference was palpable. While the first floor was dim and sleepy, the second floor was bracing and sharp, like the chill of an early spring breeze just after the sun crests the horizon. There were doors everywhere, windows anywhere that lacked a door, and almost as many monks. They all wore the violet robs and blue belts and painted faces, though less than half had shorn heads, and even the handful of pupils Orvi saw wore robes, though theirs were pink with undyed rope belts. He tried to look for the honey-haired woman had had spied on the balcony, but he had no luck.
“What are you looking for?” Qara asked.
“Just, nothing, I… just looking at all the people.”
“It is a busy day, yes,” Sister Uliemm agreed blithely. “The full moon is tomorrow night, and we of Musmahwa hold celebrations every full moon. And of course, it is nearing midday, when Brother Benfra and his novices must bless the bridge. Come.” They ushered the children into a small room with a chair and table made of pine. The Sister bid them to wait there, then returned a minute later with two stools. “Sit, sit” they asked. Everyone sat. “So, what has urged you to delight us with your company?”
“How come you bless the bridge every day?”
“No. Wait,” Orvi interrupted. “We came here to warn you. Our town was attacked, or, well, not attacked, but… visited… by some Zaljan soldiers. They were trying to get into the Mother’s House. The senator went to East Gate to warn them, but we thought we should warn all the Mother’s Houses, just in case. It was Ro Kheer’s daughter. Divine Commander Ybril Ro Kheer’s daughter,” he added. “The one… the one who… who…”
Sister Uliemm nodded to him, smiling, then turned to Qara. “The bridge is blessed every day to repel evil spirits. Devils. It is believed they cannot pass running water, so the shallows of the Great Bariad are no concern, but the Lesser Bariad is deep here, so a bridge was needed.” They smirked, almost sheepishly. “Experts are unsure on whether the devils can cross over running water, so we bless the bridge each day.”
“What devils?” Qara finally asked.
“The devils that first chased us out of Yaalk, back at the beginning of time.”
The Yenai had supposedly all migrated out of the Cradle of Yaalk millennia ago in the Sear Age. From there, they settled along the Great Bariad, which was born when Satar struck the earth with lightning, opening a geyser from the Undersea to quench the thirst of the pilgrims and lead them to the shores. The Zaljans, the Khabarese, even the Yaalkese who eventually traveled back up the Bariad to the Cradle, were all descended from those first Yenai.
“I don’t think we left the Cradle because of devils,” Orvi balked.
“Oh?” the Sister said with sincere curiosity. “And why do you feel we left?”
“Yes?” they asked, by all signs genuinely interested in his opinion.
“Well, because… it’s hot… in Yaalk,” he suggested weakly. “It’s cooler. Here.”
Sister Uliemm nodded, enlightened. “Ahh. Yes. It is hot in Yaalk. Or so I have heard. I have never been to Yaalk. One wonders how our ancient ancestors, without the benefit of magic or even the guidance of the Mothers, might have divined that Yena was cooler than Yaalk, but perhaps that is merely one of the mysteries of the world. It is certainly no more ridiculous an idea than devils. I have never seen a devil either. But then Yaalk is real, I think, so perhaps I must think devils are real as well.” They shrugged. “Thank you for these thoughts, Orvi. Regardless, as far as Musmahwa is concerned, the answer is devils, and they wish us to bless the bridge each day for their protection. If we did not, someone might well tear down the bridge, and then we would have to cross ten more miles north just to get across the Lesser Bariad. Hardly convenient for the corn and wheat farmers.”
“Yeah, how come you grow corn on the west bank?” Qara asked.
“The soil is better,” they shrugged. “And of course, it is more difficult for the Zaljans to burn a field on the far side of a mighty river. Speaking of which, now that you have had some time to sit and rest, I hope you will permit me to sway our conversation toward Pupil Orvi’s news about these Zaljan soldiers.”
Orvi repeated the tale of the Zaljan soldiers, and how they had nearly burned down the Mother’s House with greater fire, and how they had fallen into the Big Bolt. Sister Uliemm nodded attentively, but did not comment until he had finished.
“It sounds like there is no particular reason to fear they might come here,” they concluded. “Did they have any writ with them? Any declaration of war?”
“Oh! I forgot. No, no they didn’t.”
They nodded again with another faint smile. “And you say Yvmal has run to Senator Vishtim to warn him?”
Qara and Orvi shared another look. “Well,” he hedged, “he went somewhere.”
“Of course. Qara, I have a favor to ask you. Would you please find Sister Rissell and bring her here? She has long hair the color of honey, and wears robes like mine.”
“Okay!” Qara bolted off at once.
Sister Uliemm placed their elbows on the table and stared at Orvi. “Pupil Orvi, I hope you will forgive me, I feel there is more to this story you have not told me. It seems strange to me, that Shafinah would send a pupil and a fisherman’s daughter alone across the Plains of Inish Aiva, even if these Zaljans are unlikely to visit us. Is there anything more you may have forgotten?”
Orvi flushed and stared at the floor. He did not know why he had not mentioned Brother Hesiud, but now that the time came, he found he could not form the words.
Sister Uliemm seemed almost to read his thoughts. “Was there another on your journey? A monk perhaps?” He nodded. “And you were separated?” He nodded again. “I see. Can you tell me what happened to this monk?” He stared at the floor. “I understand. I hope you will be able to tell me more before you depart, if you are willing.”
There was a few seconds of quiet before Qara reentered with the honey-haired monk named Sister Rissell. Uliemm asked her to find Senator Vishtim and warn him about the Zaljans, in case Yvmal had become “… distracted.” In a voice like birdsong, Rissell agreed and was gone.
“Well…” Sister Uliemm spread their hands wide. “It would seem your mission is complete. You were very brave and resourceful to come, but I would feel better if you allowed me to arrange an escort to take you back to Shafinah. In the meantime, our full moon festival is tomorrow, and I have no doubt the senators would love to thank you for your courage. Would you consider spending a day or two here with us?”
“What’s the festival like?” asked Qara.
“Ah, there are cakes and dances and mock-battles.”
“I’m in!” she shouted. “Let’s do it!”
“Outstanding,” said Sister Uliemm. “Qara, might I convince you to enjoy our gardens for a few minutes, perhaps retrieve your unicorn? I wish to speak with Orvi a little longer, and then we will arrange rooms for each of you.”
Qara danced out of the room. Again, Uliemm’s demeanor became more sober.
“Orvi, I understand your spiritual journey through the secrets of the Mothers is very personal to you, as it is to each one of us. Yet it seems to me that you may have been guided here for a purpose. I wonder if you would consider receiving your confirmation here, with us.”
Orvi felt a brick drop in his stomach.
“I am not asking you to join the House of Quelizad,” the Sister hastened to add, “though you are entirely welcome. You could be confirmed here with us, however, and return to Shafinah as a novice to continue your studies with the Mother of Fish.”
A strange feeling came over Orvi. Although Sister Uliemm seemed entirely sincere, even respectful, something about the way they said ‘Mother of Fish’ made him feel something that Captain Behfa’s mockery had not. “There are rainbow herons perching on the top of your House,” he said.
“They often do. Avatars of Quelizad. It is a blessing, if I am not mistook.”
“Did you notice how their feathers are the same color as the Zaljan flag?”
The Sister’s nod suggested they had not noticed this. “I see. Yet their feathers are also green, and blue, and purple.”
“But mostly peach. How do you know that’s not a sign? Of… something?”
“That is a wise question,” the Sister smiled. “I pray you never find the answer.”