Orvi had been meditating before the statue of Quelizad for hours. His knees ached, his butt was numb, and his back felt like an old man’s must feel, but he would not move.
It seemed like a simple decision. He wanted his confirmation more than anything, and Sister Uliemm was offering it on faith alone, tomorrow morning if he wanted. But he had spent his entire life in the House of Liliq, and being confirmed elsewhere felt wrong. Yet again, doubts were creeping into his mind, not for the first time, about what it meant to be a pupil of Liliq.
Musmahwa was dedicated to the Mother of Love, Gharqah to the Mother of Valor. There was the Mother of Commerce, the Mother of Shadows, Satar All-Mother herself. The Holy Town of Yeqat Al was dedicated to Vequa, the Mother of Waves, but it was she that guarded the gates to the Undersea; Vequa was only one step less holy than Satar Herself, really. One of the towns was dedicate to Hai Mitra, the Mother of Beasts, but most of them had Mothers of high esteem, station, and purpose. Orvi had Liliq. He had fish.
Shafinah lived on fish. Orvi had grown up above them on the Big Bolt, billions of his brothers and sisters flitting through the streams below him all his life. The town depended on the fish, but no more than Musmahwa depended on its corn and wheat, and the slugs that Sister Uliemm said provided their purple dyes. Orvi had never heard of a Mother of Slugs.
For years he had pictured this moment: sitting before the statue of Liliq, the great pike built of carved cedar, contemplating the Mothers and his position in their craft, pleading for a vision of his purpose. Instead he was here, in the larger and lovelier House of Quelizad. Crumpled beside him on the floor was a pink robe of cambric with an undyed rope to tie it with. His face was powdered with pink on his eyelids and red on his lips. He did not like the red; he was afraid to lick his lips and they felt dry. He liked the rest well enough, though.
Qara had demanded to have her face striped like a tiger. They had not the paints necessary, but they did have blacks as well as reds and pinks, and Qara used them to turn her face into a bloody horror. She was out at the festival right now he imagined, running about shouting for the mock battles to begin, terrifying babies and confusing adults.
Focus! Orvi was supposed to be clearing his mind, to be making an empty vessel for the Mothers to fill with their wisdom, drop by drop if necessary. But try as he might, his mind raced from thought to thought, flitting from frustration to frustration like a sparrow on the branches of a tree.
Please, he thought. Please help me. I don’t know what to do. I feel… He did not know what he felt, or at least he could not name it. Not even to himself.
The wooden floors below him creaked. Two novices had been left behind to watch the House. The monks were understandably fearful since the recent burning of their last House. The novices were probably out on the balcony, trying to watch the festival. They have festivals every moon, he thought, and they paint their faces. He thought of Monk Rissell as well, though he would not think words to that. Everything is larger, and cleaner, and more… more…
These thoughts were wrong, he knew. They were selfish thoughts. He tried to think of Liliq, to picture the great pike in his mind. It seemed to burn like a shadow cut out of the brightly flickering images in his head. Yet the clearer that shadow became, the angrier he grew.
Please, he almost screamed, please help me love what I’m supposed to love.
There was a cold, white flash against his eyelids, and a chill Spring breeze blew against his face. Orvi opened his eyes, and a wonder stood before him.
He could see the entire room clearly, dimly lit though it was. Everything seemed bathed in a silver glow, powdered with starlight. Before him on the marble plinth, in place of statue of the rainbow heron, stood a woman who glowed like the moon. She was tall and voluptuous. She wore folds of night and light like robes and scarves, and her long honey-colored hair swept down to her ankles. Her face was painted in the firelight of a winter evening and the shadows behind a doorway, and the faintest glow of the dying sun. Her eyes were as black as midnight, but her lips were as red as morning. She looked down upon Orvi with a faint, mercurial smile.
His eyes were so wide he felt they might fall out of his head. Quelizad extended her hand toward him. He raised his hand up, and felt himself lifting off the ground. Their fingers touched, and a surge of fire swept through him, floating in the air like a minnow in a pond.
Orvi, Quelizad said.
Orvi, she repeated. You are filled with shame. Please, share your shame with me, that I might balm it.
His heart slowed, and he understood this was a dream. He breathed, and he spoke. “Mother. This town is so beautiful. The people are so kind. They know so much I never knew. I feel like I have so much to learn here.”
These are good things, Quelizad said.
“They are, but shouldn’t I feel these things about home? About Liliq?”
I pray you, Orvi, let no Should command or constrain your heart. You feel what you feel. Feel it freely.
“But I can’t abandon my home.” He added, weakly, “Can I?”
You are mortal, Orvi, and your power is almost boundless. You can leave Shafinah. You can return. You can do both.
You are unsure, yet you are on the path. If you stay on the path, it may lead to certainty.
“Stay on the path?”
You may. Or you may return to the Mother of Fish. Or you may stay here. Certainty often comes with time, but what we do with that time may determine what we are certain of.
Orvi shook his head. “I still feel it. I…” he almost sobbed, though his eyes were dry. “I’m ashamed of myself, but… I’m ashamed of my House. I’m ashamed of my home.”
Quelizad extended her other hand, and Orvi reached out to take it. I sorrow for these feelings, Orvi, but I pray you do not fight them. Neither do not cling to them. Let them pass through you, as the rivers pass through the lands of the Yenai, carrying good and ill out into the Sea.
For an instant, Orvi looked away, but looking away was so painful, he thought it death to blink, and looked back to her face. “What should I do?” he asked.
Orvi, I am so sorry, said Quelizad. Though you call me a god, I am less powerful than the mice of the field, for I could never place the cruelty of Should on your feelings. Feel them. Follow them. This is my counsel.
He nodded. “Thank you, Mother of Love.”
Thank you, Orvi, for sharing these feelings with me. I wish you well.
He could feel himself floating back down the floor, his aches mere whispers of the breeze. His right hand was still extended out, even as the ghostly figure seemed to simultaneously float up and fade away. His eyes watered, but he would not blink, desperate to drink in every second of this vision.
Then, minutes or hours later, he realized the room was dark again. Before him stood the marble statue of a rainbow heron. Marble, not cedar. Heron, not pike. Quelizad, not Liliq. Mother, and Mother.
I know what I have to do, he thought, rising to his feet.
As he stood, a sharp gasp came from behind him, and the whistle of metal scoring through air.
Without thinking, he collapsed and rolled to his right, stumbling back up into a stand. There before him, sword in hand, was Captain Behfa Ro Kheer. The mole beneath her eye seemed to glow black against the flickering orange that lapped against her light skin. She wore a dark shirt and a leather jack, her armor all gone. Dark eyes glowered at him, sharp as razors. “Don’t move,” she purred, extending her weapon toward him. “I’ve killed men three times your size.”
“I dunno,” he said, trying to keep his voice even. “Seems like I’ve gotten away from you twice now.”
“You’re not away yet.” She gestured into the far corner of the room with her blade. “Sit down over there, facing the corner.”
“You want me to turn my back to you?”
“If I see your face five seconds from now, I’m putting my sword through it.”
Orvi stood in defiance, like he thought Qara would do, but it was less than two seconds before he turned and sat in the corner. He heard faint creaks as Behfa moved around the statue, looking for something. He hoped the novices downstairs could hear her steps.
“No, nooo,” she moaned. “It’s marble. It’s supposed to be wood.”
“I guess they were afraid it might burn.”
“Shut up!” she hissed. “How do you open this thing?”
Open? He had no idea what she was talking about, but wanted to keep her guessing. “How can I tell you if I shut up?”
Heavy steps punched toward him, and his heart fell into his stomach as a hand gripped around his smooth head. Finding no purchase, she yanked his forehead back and put her sword up against her throat. “You want those to be your last words, boy?”
He wanted to be brave, but it was gone. “No,” he stammered, ashamed.
She shoved his head back into the corner and stomped away. “There’s a secret compartment or something in this statue. Where is it?”
“I don’t know,” he admitted, feeling more ashamed than ever. “I’m not from here.”
“They all have them,” she snapped. “It’s the same as the statue in Shafinah. Where’s the compartment in that one?”
“I don’t…” He felt so small, he feared he might melt into one of cracks between the floorboards.
“Oh,” she sneered. “That’s right. You’re still a child. A pupil, yes? I guess they only tell monks the important things.”
I guess so, he thought. I hope so.
There was a huge, heavy grinding noise, and Orvi looked over his shoulder to see Captain Behfa trying to shove the statue off its plinth. “Wait!” he called. “There’s novices downstairs. They’ll hear that!”
“If they’re smart, they won’t,” she growled, still shoving.
Either the captain was incredibly strong, or the statue and plinth were two separate things. The rainbow heron tipped out, screaming as no heron ever had, and fell to the floor with an enormous boom. The floor cracked and creaked, and the whole House seemed to groan with it.
“Yes!” Behfa screamed aloud. “Here it is! I knew it!”
Orvi stood and looked. The captain was holding aloft a piece of magic smaller than her own fist. It looked like the lesser fire that was burning on the first floor of the House, except while lesser fire was a deep and pleasant purple, this magic was red as blood.
“I knew it!” she cried again. “There had to be more than six! Do you know what this is?”
She turned and saw him, standing and staring, but she did not seem to care. “Magic?” he ventured.
“Yes!” she cried, still heedless of the noise. “A new magic, something they only pondered but were too scared to seek.” She calmed a moment and examined the stone. “It’s red like blood magic, but it’s crystalline like lesser fire. Water and fire. Opposites combined, forced together by mortal ingenuity. I’ll call it blood fire.” A mad smile split her face. “Someday, they will call me Behfa Bloodfire.”
Orvi eased his left foot a little to the side. His feet were bare, having left his slippers by the front door of the House. “Behfa Bloodfire?” he asked, “may I leave? If that’s all you want?”
She looked at him, a contemptuous sneer slashed across her face, as though she had already forgotten he was there. For an instant, it looked like she might actually let him go, but then the sound of footsteps came hammering up the stairs.
“What happened?” one of the novices cried, until the other pointed and shrieked.
“Run!” Orvi shouted. “Tell the guard!”
Faster than a snake, Captain Behfa was behind him, her sword once again up to his throat. Where the so-called blood fire had gone, he did not know. “Move and he’s dead,” she hissed. She jerked her head and whispered, “move over to that corner and lie down on the floor.”
As they moved, the floor groaned in protest. Pine cracked, and in the dark it looked as though the great marble heron were trying to burrow into the floor. “Don’t worry about me,” he said, “just go.” Her sword nipped into him, and he felt a drop of blood slithering down his neck. The novices’ eyes grew wide, and they carefully crept into the corner.
“Good,” she whispered. She shoved Orvi down into a kneel and unwound the rope that was wrapped around her waist. She tied his hands behind his back, using the rest of the rope as a leash. “All right, boy, you’re gonna walk us out of this room, then down the stairs, and to the horses. Understand?”
“Where are the horses?”
The captain cursed under her breath. “Just start walking.”
Oh so softly, Orvi trod along the far edges of the room, yet even this made the floor moan and crack. When he made it to the staircase, he tried to run down and slip out of her grip, but the captain yanked him back and slipped the sword under his jaw again. “My blade’s getting very thirsty,” she purred. “You’ve got to stop tempting her like this. Cause if I kill you, I won’t have a hostage anymore, so I’ll have to take your friends in the corner there. Understand?” He nodded. “If you’re gonna be a bad hostage, I’ll just get better ones. Got it?” He nodded again. “Good.”
“What are you gonna do?” he asked as they slowly moved down the stairway.
“I’m a magician,” she said. “I’m gonna mine some more magic. Then Zalja will have what it needs to wipe you people out.”
“What it needs? But Zalja’s twice the size of Yena. You’ve got twice the cities. You’ve got a standing army. You’ve got better steel, better armor—”
“And yet Yena still managed to repel us.” They had reached the second floor, which was full of much more hallways and doors than above or below, all of them bathed in moonlight. “I wonder how a bunch of ignorant savages managed to turn back the greatest army in the world.”
With magic? It sounded absurd. Zalja had more magic mines than Yena too, though he guessed they did not have this blood fire, whatever that was. It did not matter. He had to get away. Once again, he had to warn somebody.
“Where’s the damn exit?” she grumbled.
“This way!” And he ran forward again, this time slipping out of her grip.
“Get back here!” she bellowed, her sword crashing against a wooden wall.
“No thank you!” He almost giggled, feeling like Qara, his rope leash trailing like her long braid of hair. He ran from room to room, somehow lost in the moonlight, unsure. Once he ran into a small room only to find Behfa storming in from the other direction. As he ran, he screamed out, “Run! Get help!” but he was not sure he heard anyone moving above him. He only heard the stomping of Behfa’s boots, and the groans and creaks of the marble heron above.
As he bounced about the rooms, becoming familiar with them again, the captain’s boots grew faint. He slowed down, breathed deeply and softly, and willed his heart to still. He managed to step over his arms and get them in front of him, then wound the rope leash up and kept it in his grip. He moved to the corner of the small room he was in, trying to keep an eye on both doorways, and listened. There were still creaks above, and another crack, but nothing nearby. Had she left? If she could escape, she would not need a hostage.
Escape. Orvi’s bones turned to water as he realized he could not let her escape. Whatever that red crystal was, it must be important to Quelizad, to Musmahwa, and to Yena. He could not let her walk away with it. Should he pursue her? Should he wait?
Like a breeze he could not feel, the word Should floated by him. He shook his head and let it float away. Then he took a deep breath. If he did not go now, he would never leave that corner. He tore himself away and dashed out the nearest door.
The captain’s blade appeared, swinging in from the right at the level of his head. Orvi dropped and rolled, and as he stumbled to his feet he glanced to his left and saw the stairway down in the next room. He felt fingers grabbling at his smooth head, but he slipped away and ran.
“Stop! Now!” she roared behind him, and the House shook.
The dim light of the braziers and glowstones of the first floor seemed to swallow him in darkness as he took the steps two at a time. “Stop!” she bellowed again as he hit the bottom step. It was dark as death, but the open doorway far ahead of him glimmered clearly.
As he pitched forward, a tiny shape flew past his head and struck the ground. A tiny, yellow, almost oily spark burst from the object. Orvi had time to rear back before the little yellow rock exploded in a torrent of glistening, gilded flame.
The floor of Quelizad’s House was stone, but it was covered in thick carpets, and every one of them was burning, licking against the brick walls, climbing up to the wooden ceiling like hungry tail cats chasing a bird up a tree.
A scream came from above him, drowned out quickly by his own. Well over half the floor was dotted with huge rugs, and all of them burned with a sweetly, sickly, oily yellow flame. Behind him was a wall of fire, a dark shadow striding through it like a shadow cut out of some hell. Cracks echoed like thunder overhead as Orvi tried to dance around the burning rugs, sweat already pouring down his body. His world was yellow and orange, and for a mad moment he thought he spied the peach and black flickering in the fire.
“Stop!” a voice called behind him, and he ducked and rolled forward, nearly bowling strait into a towering blaze. He was trapped in a corner of fire, and stood to see Behfa bearing toward him, her sword raised.
You need a hostage, he wanted to scream, but all reason had left him, and he was choking on the smoke, thin though it was. He ducked and swept to the side, but she grabbed his wrists in a grip like a tiger’s bite. She pulled him firmly before her and lifted the point of her sword to drive into his chest. “Help!” he managed to cry out.
An earsplitting crack sounded above them, like Satar herself opening the heavens. Captain Behfa looked up, and Orvi wriggled out of her grip, but no sooner had he done so, than the pine ceiling split open, and a giant heron made of marble plummeted downward toward them, its sharp beak ready to pierce them open.
They dived away from each other, and Orvi nearly scorched himself again as he weaved through the flames. He looked around for a way through, but that was all it took for the captain to be on him again, slashing wildly. He ducked and dodged and nearly burnt himself again when backing away. Finally, she lunged forward furiously, and he managed to whirl around her and run back toward the stairway, finding another path around the burning rugs and out of the building. He could see it, the only doorway leading outside. It grew closer, closer.
A scream came from behind him, but he did not look back. He dropped and rolled again, just by instinct, and never knew whether it accomplished anything. He rolled back up onto his feet and erupted out of the House and into the night before collapsing onto the shortgrass outside that had not yet taken fire.
He gasped for only a few seconds before struggling up to his feet. A small crowd had gathered, less than two dozen, but some were already running off for help. “Get a senator!” he cried, “it’s—”
A heavy form bowled into him, knocking him over before yanking him back up to his feet, and he once again felt Captain Behfa’s sword below his jaw. “Nobody move!” she choked out.
“There’s two novices on the third floor!” Orvi shouted before coughing horribly. The captain yanked at his head and began dragging him away. The crowd was growing, but no soldiers had arrived. Everyone was staring at the House, dumbfounded, except a familiar old man with dark, windswept hair. He was staring at their retreat, profound confusion and sorrow etched into his face.
“It’s fine,” Behfa was muttering over and over as they vanished into the night. “It’s fine, it’s fine. All they need is a little blood magic and they can put the fire out. Yena has blood magic, I know, they have all six.”
“You said that crystal was blood magic, right?” Orvi coughed out. He knew little and less about magic, but the captain had called the red crystal blood fire, so whatever blood magic was, there must be some in the crystal.
“Raffid has some, I know he does,” she insisted, weakly. “Finally!” she coughed out, wheeling Orvi around to face a set of posts with horses hobbled to them. “Finally something’s going my way.”
There were over a dozen horses there. Lightning looked up at them, and Orvi wanted to cry out, but he knew the unicorn was too small to carry both of them. I’m sorry, he wanted to say, as the captain dragged him over to a grey gelding and hoisted him up in front before sitting behind him. Without another word, sword still drawn, he heeled the horse and galloped out of Musmahwa.