“Why do I need new clothes?” Thara asked Ametalo. “I have many clothes already. I can’t wear them all.”
“For the twentieth time, Thara: because it will soon be spring, and because thy lady mother wishes thee to have new clothes, as a michen from a respectable family should every spring and autumn.”
As she spoke, Ametalo grabbed his elbow to haul him back up onto the high curb, away from a great muddy puddle in the high street of Zhaö. Heavy snows had fallen that winter, even so far south, and as they melted they made ponds in the streets and rivers in the gutters. Ametalo had gotten the old pair of heavily waxed knee-high boots Thara wore from a stable boy who’d outgrown them, that they could go walking without him ruining his clothes. She’d warned him not to speak of the boots to his mother: “She’d not be pleased to see thee dressed, as she’d put it, like a sewer-mucker.”
“I don’t like the tailor shop,” Thara informed Ametalo now. “Ensol Zhunar makes me stand very still and sticks me with pins.”
Her reply was sensible, as it usually was: “An didn’tst wriggle about like a worm on a fisherman’s hook, wouldst get fewer pins in thy flesh.”
Unable to refute this logic, Thara tried one last resort: plaintiveness. “Couldn’t we just … not go to Ensol Zhunar’s shop, Ametalo?”
She sighed one of her heavy sighs. “Osmichen Thara. We have no choice in this matter. If we do not take you there, there will be no new outfits for you, and your mother will be very angry at us for not obeying her order.”
Thara fell silent, setting his ears so that he would not be scolded for letting them drop in public. Ametalo did not revert to the formal with him unless she was at her patience’s end. And she had spoken in sooth: if she displeased his parents enough, she would be dismissed from her position. Then Thara might get a new tutor who spent his mother’s carriage money on carriages instead of books deemed unfit for a nine-year-old boy of good birth, who insisted they go to michen-dances instead of to the Ulimeire, or who — worst of all — forced him do things that were, in his father’s favorite phrase, “befitting of a man.”
They were perhaps a block away from Ensol Zhunar’s shop when they heard the shrieks of horses, the scream of a man, and a very loud crash. Before Ametalo’s hand could tighten further on Thara’s elbow, he broke away from her and ran.
“Thara! Get back here, damn thee!”
He felt a flicker of guilt, as he would not have had he been running from his mother or especially his father, but he did not stop or slow down. Something interesting had happened. Naught interesting ever happened to Thara or to anyone he knew.
A forest of trousered legs and booted feet, with the occasional long skirt in between, had sprung up around whatever had happened. The air was thick with shouts: “Someone fetch the Vigilants!” one man exclaimed far above Thara’s head and at least half a dozen people away. Thara, small for his age, spotted a man standing nearer by with his feet apart, and he propelled himself through the stranger’s legs. There was a gap between yet two other men, and he plunged through that as well — then stared at the scene before him.
The horses, still screaming, drew his eye first. One seemed unhurt, dancing about in its harness in agitation, its muzzle white-flecked and its eyes like saucers. The other lay on the cobblestones, also wide-eyed and foaming, the foreleg and hindleg on the downward side of its body bent at different but equally alarming angles. Its throat would have to be cut, Thara thought, sorrow welling up in him. Last autumn, on one of the hunts his father insisted on taking him on, a horse had had to be so dispatched after stepping into a deep sinkhole and snapping its leg. Its patent agony had elicited a cry of sympathy from Thara, which in turn had provoked a sneer from his father.
Then he …. felt something, pulling his attention away from the horses. Was “felt” the right word? It wasn’t a touch to his skin, nor something moving inside his body, nor an emotion. It were as though the heap of clothing beside the wreck of the carriage, with the one outstretched, unmoving hand, were drawing him to it…
The man’s coat was rent up one side, muddy water soaking into the thick, heavy wool. It looked as though it had been respectably plain, the sort of coat worn by a man who had money but was not noble. There were boxes spilling from the wreck — a merchant’s goods, perhaps. All of this seemed to occur to Thara around the edges of his mind. He stared rapt at the man’s neck, which was bent at an angle no more natural than those of the horse’s legs. He took in the slackened jaw, the stream of bloody drool issuing from the corner of the open mouth, the one ear mangled and nearly torn from the head, and the eyes that stared without seeing.
Those eyes suddenly swiveled in their sockets toward Thara. They were emerald-green, but the color was growing cloudy, and that cloudy green diminishing around the widening black pools of the pupils.
And, dead though Thara was sure the man was, those eyes were fixed squarely on him.
Child of Ulis! the bloody mouth burbled, the words thick and watery but comprehensible.
Thara’s heart began to pound. He knew he should turn and run. He knew he should wish to turn and run. But he did not. Something held him fast in place, and it was not horror. Not entirely.
Child of Ulis! the dead man repeated. Our blood cries out for justice! Hear and tell of our accusation!
Finally, Thara’s feet began to move on the cobblestones — forward, not away, and not stumbling but with a smooth and purposeful gait that would have pleased even his father. He dropped to his knees beside the dead man, thankful for the boots but knowing, somehow, that he would have knelt even had he not had them to protect his fine trousers from the mud. His hands moved, seemingly of their own accord, until his bare palms lay on either side of the blood-drained face.
“Thou! Michen! Get away, he’s dead, it’s unclean!” The shout seemed to come from very far away, as if in a dream. Thara paid no more mind to it than he had to Ametalo’s angry shout.
The flesh beneath his hands was still warm. The eyes continued to pin him fast, and the blood-smeared lips moved again.
We were Solumet Athezhar, a dealer in dry goods, established in Cetho Avenue. Our business partner was Rahevis Imilar. We came to realize he is a deeply dishonest man, and we were traveling to our solicitor’s office to separate our interests from his. A youth leapt out at our horses and frightened them a-purpose, causing our carriage to overturn. We had seen this young man skulking around Imilar’s property, and we know Imilar must have paid him to commit the deed. Cry out against him, child of Ulis. Avenge us for the wife and children we leave behind by revealing Rahevis Imilar for the murderer he is!
The dribbling mouth fell silent, and the clouding eyes rolled away from Thara, never again to fix upon the face of another. Unhurriedly, he removed his hands from the cooling flesh, and he stood up once more.
“Michen,” said a deep voice behind him. Thara turned and gazed up into the stern face of a Vigilant Brother. Ametalo was striding briskly up to them; she stopped just behind the Vigilant, her eyes wide and her mouth a flat line.
“Thara, what on earth wert doing?” she demanded.
“The man spoke to me,” Thara replied.
“What man?” Ametalo snapped.
“The dead one.”
He’d never seen such a stupid expression on her face before, and Ametalo was not one to pull faces. Part of him wanted to giggle at it.
The Vigilant’s, by contrast, was thoughtful. He dropped to one knee to look directly into Thara’s eyes. “What did the dead man tell thee — Thara, is it? Dost remember?”
The world had fallen still, Thara realized now, the moment he’d laid eyes on the body of Solumet Athezhar. Now it began to rush around him again, him and Ametalo and the Vigilant Brother. Two other Vigilants hefted Mer Athezhar onto a stretcher, covering his face with a cloth before they carried him away. A fourth knelt by the lamed horse, blade in hand. Yet others stood about, speaking with the men and women who had first come upon the scene. If a maz had fallen over Thara before, now it was gone; if he’d been somehow dreaming on his feet, now he was awake. This was real. He was going to speak a name, two names, to the Vigilant, and afterward, Thara … felt, again, things would never be the same.
He breathed in deeply, smelling mud and soot and horse dung and chilly air. He swallowed. And then he said with a resoluteness he did not feel, “He said he was called Solumet Athezhar, and that a man named Rahevis Imilar made his carriage crash.”
Thara had only ever seen Vigilant Brothers when his mother or Ametalo took him into town; they did not patrol the noble districts of Zhaö, where families hired their own armsmen and where naught happened anyway. Every Vigilant he’d ever seen before had seemed to him like a mountain: high, wide, made of stone, utterly implacable. So this one had seemed to him, but now his mouth opened, giving him the look of a fish in the market, and his brows had climbed as high as Ametalo’s.
Then the big man asked, “Hadst ever met or seen Mer Athezhar before?” His voice was quiet, respectful, but there was force and power behind it, more than ever seemed to underlie the shouting of Thara’s father.
Thara shook his head. How would he have ever met someone like Mer Athezhar? Nobles did not speak to tradesfolk directly; their stewards or cooks or edocharei did. And the last time Thara had tried to slip downstairs to explore, he’d been six, and his father had thrashed him for it.
The Vigilant straightened up again. To Ametalo he said, “We are sorry, Min… er… or is it Merrem…?”
“Min Esalvin. Ametalo Esalvin.”
“We beg your pardon, Min Esalvin, but the michen must come to our headquarters, where a scribe can record his testimony.”
Ametalo gave the man a hard stare. “He is nine years old, Brother. We would be remiss in our duties if we let him speak to enforcers of the law without his father, Osmer Belaris Celehar, present.”
She did not invoke the name of Thara’s father very often, nowhere near as often as his mother did. When invoked, it tended to ease disagreement and opposition as quickly as oil eased the creaking of a door. But the Vigilant did not relent in the face of it. “With all respect to House Celehada, Min Esalvin, it is crucial that the osmichen’s testimony be taken before his memory begins to fade. There may be a murderer afoot, with scores yet to settle, and he may not care whom else he harms — such as women and children in the path of a carriage.” Ametalo’s throat worked. The Vigilant continued: “You, as his tutor, may of course chaperone the osmichen to and at our headquarters. And his father will most certainly be asked to meet with the Hierophant of Zhaö before any decisions are made regarding his future.”
Ametalo began to speak again, but then she closed her mouth. Her eyes were still wide, but there was thought behind them. Finally she said, “Could you please give us five minutes, Brother? We were on our way to the tailor, Ensol Zhunar, who was expecting us.” She switched back from the plural to the formal. “He is but a block away; we will inform him that we cannot keep our appointment today, and then we will accompany you with Osmichen Celehar to your headquarters.”
The corridors of the Vigilant Brotherhood’s headquarters seemed a forest of long, thick legs clad in rough brown trousers, echoing not with birdsong but with men’s voices. Thara followed the legs belonging to the Vigilant who’d spoken to him on the street — Brother Perentha, he’d introduced himself as — with Ametalo’s hand firmly on his left shoulder, steering him. A few of the other Vigilants glanced briefly at the three of them, but most paid them no mind. The walls were bare mortared brick, the floors stone. The air smelled of damp, of fire ash, of other dust, and somewhat of men’s sweat, though there was also a delicious trace of food in it that made Thara’s nostrils twitch.
Brother Perentha stopped to speak for a long moment in an undertone to another Vigilant, who nodded at intervals and finally hastened away. Then he opened a heavy wooden door and beckoned. “In here, please, Min Esalvin, Osmichen Celehar.”
They followed him into a long room with a long table, numerous chairs, and more cap pens and piles of ragpaper than Thara had seen before in his life. The walls were lined with metal shelves, and the shelves held countless … not books, Thara didn’t think, more like slender pouches made of heavy, dark-brown ragpaper. The walls and floor in this room were wooden, the air was much drier and warmer despite there being no hearth he could see, and it was heavy with the sticky-sweet metallic tang of iron-gall ink. The door closed behind them with a solid thunk, swallowing up all the noise in the corridors.
“Please be seated. Could we get you both something to drink?” Brother Perentha asked solicitously. “Our Brothers have a kettle of cider on the boil —”
“We do not drink, and the osmichen is too young in any case,” Ametalo said sharply.
With what seemed to Thara a carefully blank expression, Brother Perentha replied, “Neither do Vigilant Brothers, Min Esalvin. The cider is not fermented.”
Her pale face flushed, and her ears dropped a little. “Ah. Of course. Yes, please, that would be very kind of you.”
Brother Perentha reopened the door halfway and spoke briefly to someone Thara presumed to be yet another Vigilant, standing somewhat beyond it. Then he closed it again, sat at the table across from Ametalo and Thara, uncapped a pen, and pulled up a sheet of ragpaper.
“Now,” he said. “Osmichen Celehar, could you please tell us what Mer Athezhar said to you, word for word, as best you can remember? Take your time and do not rush. And, if you believe you have misremembered something and thus spoken in error, please do not feel foolish for correcting yourself. It is a common occurrence after one has witnessed a distressing scene.”
Thara thought that odd. Mer Athezhar’s words might have been engraved in his mind, so sure was his memory of them. He reported each and every one to Brother Perentha, from the initial cry of “Child of Ulis!” to Mer Athezhar’s plea for justice, stopping at intervals and repeating himself so that the Vigilant’s handwriting could keep up with Thara’s voice. Ametalo’s mouth drew even flatter as he spoke, and her hand stole out to cover his own.
The door opened once more, admitting a Vigilant who seemed much younger than Brother Perentha. The tray he carried bore two steaming mugs, a small bowl, and a few homespun napkins. Thara smelled not only cider but chestnuts, and his mouth watered hard. “Thank you, Brother Cenet,” Brother Perentha said absently, still writing, as the tray was set down. The younger Vigilant dropped him a sharp, swift bow, the kind Thara had seen Untheileneise Guardsmen execute in parades at Cetho, then turned to Thara and Ametalo and gave them a somewhat statelier one before turning neatly on his heel and departing again.
Ametalo took one mug and handed Thara the other, and he drank deeply. It was fresher and stronger than what the cider-sellers usually peddled on the street. Steam was rising off the chestnuts, too, and judging from their aroma they’d been roasted in salt. Thara picked two from the bowl, set them on his napkin, and peeled the hull from the first. He nibbled at it lightly, as was his wont by both appetite and training.
Although Thara had ceased talking several minutes ago, Brother Perentha had continued to write, and he did not complete whatever he was writing until Thara had finished the chestnut. Then he looked up and said, “Osmichen.” There was a tension to his features that Thara could not quite understand. “We are sorry to ask you this, as it may be distressing, but… could you please describe Mer Athezhar as you first saw him on the street?”
Thara blinked, then thought for a moment as he blotted his fingers on his napkin. “Well… he was a big man. Maybe not as big as you, Brother? Maybe a little older. Um. His neck looked broken. And he was bleeding from his mouth, and his right ear was all torn up.” Ametalo’s hand shot out again to grasp his, tighter this time. “And his eyes were … their color was changing. They’d been green but were turning grey.”
“And yet… did his eyes, or his mouth, move when he spoke to you, Osmichen?”
Thara nodded. “Yes, Brother. He looked right at me, and his lips moved as he spoke.” Through her hand, he could feel Ametalo shudder. He eyed the other chestnut lying untouched on his napkin. He was not very hungry, but the first chestnut had been delicious…
There was a firm knock upon the door. “Come in,” Brother Perentha called. The door swung open to admit an old man whose black robes flowed around him like waves around a ship as he moved inexorably forward. In his hand he carried a long, white staff whose knob was carved to resemble Ulis in his fullness in the night sky. But he did not lean on this staff; he stood as tall and straight-backed as any Vigilant, if his shoulders were not as broad.
Brother Perentha rose from his chair and bowed deeply, not the military bow the younger Vigilant had given him but the kind one would give a dach’osmer at the Untheileneise Court. “Your Sanctity,” he said. Ametalo was pushing back her chair to rise, reaching for Thara’s elbow, but Thara had already slid down from his own chair onto his feet and was bowing as well, the second chestnut quite forgotten.
“So this is the lad,” the old man — the Hierophant of Zhaö — said, in a voice like shriveled parchment pulled tight over steel. When Thara raised his head he found himself fixed with a pair of eyes the color of milkjade, and though he had been raised to look people in the eye he struggled not to turn his head away. At the edge of his vision he could see that Ametalo’s eyes were wide and her ears trembling, but she remained silent.
“Yes, Sanctity. We have taken his testimony, as to what the unfortunate man said to him, and we have ascertained that the man was indeed dead at the time.”
The Hierophant, though the oldest in the room by far, did not take a seat. Brother Perentha remained standing as well, as did Ametalo, and Thara could not have imagined sitting down again just then.
“What is thy name, michen?” There was a thread of kindness in the Hierophant’s voice, but Thara had no illusions this man would brook any foolishness.
“Thara Celehar, Sanctity,” he said, the words rushing out in a tumble.
“Of House Celehada, we take it?”
The Hierophant turned to Ametalo and frowned. “And this young woman is thy…”
“His tutor, Sanctity.” Ametalo bowed again. “We were accompanying him on an errand when — when the incident occurred.”
The old man dismissed her with a nod and turned back to Thara. His eyes narrowed, but Thara did not think it was in anger. “Thara, we are greatly interested in what occurred to thee today.”
It had been, in sooth, a more exciting day than Thara usually had. But he reflected, although of course he did not say, that naught of great importance had befallen him today, not in comparison with poor Mer Athezhar.
“We would ask,” the Hierophant was continuing, “that explain’st to us whatever caused thee to attend upon the dead man. Mayest use whatever words seem correct to thee.”
Thara closed his eyes for a moment, then reopened them. He had been unsure how to describe even to himself how he had been compelled to stare at Mer Athezhar, to kneel by his side, to lay his hands on his face. He was not sure how he would have described it even to Ametalo, who took him more seriously than anyone else did. At least until today.
“I… ” His face grew hot — he was too old an osmichen to be speaking in the informal to a near-stranger, let alone the Hierophant of Zhaö — and he began again. “We are not sure how to describe it, Sanctity. We couldn’t … not go to him. It was — it was like being in a dream, perhaps? Except we were not dreaming. Maybe a maz, although we do not think we have ever been spelled.” He grimaced, then covered the grimace with another bow. “We are sorry, Sanctity. We do not understand, ourself.”
He straightened up to find, to his surprise, an odd understanding in the pale-green eyes.
“Thou wouldst not be the first to describe it in any of those words,” the Hierophant said.
“Your Sanctity…” Ametalo began hesitantly. The old man turned to her, and she said, “We apologize, we do not mean to speak out of turn…”
“Go on, our dear,” he said mildly.
“… Sanctity, is Thara not too young for this? We are not fully conversant with the practice of Witnessing, of course, but we were given to understand that children did not Witness.”
Witness. Thara turned the word over and over in his mind. If he were not a witness, as Ametalo seemed to be saying, why had Brother Perentha insisted on having his testimony? He had not watched Mer Athezhar’s horses bolt and overturn his carriage, no, but he had seen what it had done to him.
“Usually they do not,” the Hierophant said. “Not children Thara’s age, in any case. Typically the gift emerges in adolescents, often at a funeral. The gifted one may not hear the corpse speak, but they may feel a sense of fear and confusion emanating from the coffin or the pyre.”
Oh. Thara tilted his head a bit.
“Some younger children do in fact Witness, rare though it is,” Brother Perentha added. “There are records on these shelves of adults who went missing for several days. They had been parents or guardians of small michen, five or four or even three years old. Later they were found dead in their homes, with their little charges carrying on animated and seemingly one-way conversations with the remains.”
Ametalo made a small noise of distress. Thara wondered if his father would be more or less horrible if he were dead. Less, probably, he decided.
“Thara’s gift is, nonetheless, unusually strong,” the Hierophant said. “And there is a prelatial need for those with strong gifts. Anyone called to Ulis can learn the rudiments of Witnessing, but without the gift one seldom obtains more than a few words or sentences, often garbled. The gifted, for their part, benefit immensely from clerical instruction: through correct practices of meditation, they can strengthen their minds against the toll that Witnessing often takes on the unlearnèd. It would grieve us not only for Thara’s gift to be lost to the prelacy forever, but to fear that one so bright and brave would ever after struggle with the god for his own sanity.”
Ametalo caught her breath sharply. Thara, his face growing warm, could not focus on any words the Hierophant had said except bright and brave. Ametalo often called him bright, but nobody else did, and he could not recall anyone ever having called him brave.
“We do, of course,” the Hierophant continued, “understand the political issues presented by osmichen and dach’osmichen who have been god-marked, but Thara would not be the first such child, and there is protocol in place.”
“Sanctity, we would have no say whatsoever in the matter,” Ametalo said.
The Hierophant waved his wizened hand. His seal-ring, Thara noticed, was large and set with moon-opals. “Of course wouldst not, our dear. The official process is for our secretary to send Osmer Celehar a formal invitation to meet with us at the Ulimeire, where we would discuss his son’s future. Thara himself would be present for some of it, though perhaps not all of it.”
Ametalo, to Thara’s complete lack of surprise, did not look the least bit reassured.
He reflected later, as he and Ametalo and his parents stood in the foyer of the Celehada manor, that her instincts had been correct.
“The mandate of the Vigilant Brothers to rein in the lower orders!” Thara’s father roared, his voice echoing off the brilliant-blue Soluneise tile in which Thara’s mother had had the foyer redecorated the year before. “Not to trouble those of noble blood! And thou, Min Esalvin, shouldst have refused to let them question Thara at least until we could be summoned!”
“Oh, dear,” Thara’s mother murmured, standing well away from the rest of them. It was the sixth or seventh time she had uttered those words so far. It was the entirety of what she did whenever Thara’s father laid into him with either words or hands. Though her own hands were clasped, her jewel-bedecked ears remained high, and the look of dismay upon her face was muted, as good breeding dictated.
“Osmer,” Ametalo said in the exceedingly polite tone that, like her use of the formal with Thara, indicated she was quite unhappy. “Had we defied the Vigilant Brother, we would have found ourself locked into a cell in short order, and the Vigilants would have had custody of Thara regardless. We felt it wisest to stay by his side and ascertain that he was not ill treated in any fashion.”
Thara spoke up: “And I was not ill treated. They called me ‘Osmichen,’ they gave us roast chestnuts and hot cider, and the Hierophant called me bright and brave.”
A sneer split his father’s reddened face. “Of course he did. He does not know thee, does he?”
Thara dropped his head, shame scalding his cheeks. “Hold up thine ears,” his father snapped, “as hast been told many times.” Thara clenched his jaw and forced them up again; they trembled but they held.
Then his father rounded on Ametalo once more. “And hadst thou not let him out of thy sight, Min Esalvin, he’d never have seen that dead tradesman in the first place! How can we trust thee with the safety of our only child, when canst not shield him from death and destruction and barbarous commoner behavior?”
“We are very sorry, Osmer,” Ametalo said, her voice barely audible, her own unadorned ears quivering. Thara’s heart froze in his chest. He wanted to beg his father not to send her away, but he had a sickening feeling that, were he to did so, it would steel his father’s resolve to dismiss her instead.
But then his father turned back to Thara, whose relief was short-lived. The Celehada were not a house known for their height or breadth, yet even a man who was not very tall could loom easily over a small-boned boy of nine.
“And there is a matter quite aside from the indignity of having our son interrogated like a commoner,” he snarled. “We do not permit thee to meet with any hierophant, or prelate, or other such peddler of superstitious rot. No cleric may inherit land, title, or money, and no cleric may take a wife and beget heirs. As well thou know’st, thy birth left thy mother unable to bear more children, and thine aunt-by-marriage has given thine uncle no sons. An she never does, thou, Thara, shalt become Count Celehel when he dies. Thou shalt take a wife and continue House Celehada. There will be neither black robes nor carnival-masks in thy future, and thou shalt most assuredly will not defile thyself again by laying hands on a corpse.”
Every word of this speech would burn in Thara’s mind for the next six years and more, in no small part because he carefully cultivated the bitter memory like a shoot of valerian in his mind. One day, he thought near-daily, he would uproot it with a single pull.
About a month after the death of Solumet Athezhar, Rahevis Imilar and the young man in his employ were executed for murder. Athezhar’s widow and children were awarded a portion from Imilar’s estate, with the rest reverting to the crown.
Matters concerning commoners were not topics for discussion in the noble districts of Zhaö in general or the Celehada manor in particular. Thara and Ametalo learned of the news as, on their way to the Ulimeire, they passed a streetcorner crier with a rapidly dwindling stack of newspapers. Ametalo’s ears flattened, her eyes narrowed, and her hand tightened upon Thara’s.
Thara, for his part, found himself taken with a strange sadness. He did not know why he should feel sad for murderers, and those he had never met at that. The cloud upon his mind did not lift until, at the Ulimeire, he lit two candles under Ametalo’s close supervision and silently prayed that Mer Imilar and the young man whose name he did not know would someday find expiation, and peace, in the realm of Ulis.
In his thirteenth year, Thara was deemed old enough to go about Zhaö unchaperoned, though Ametalo often did accompany him still. In his sixteenth, several months before reaching his majority, he began to lay his plans.
“We are deeply pleased you have sought us out, Osmer Celehar,” the Hierophant said one afternoon. His hands, even more wizened than they had been six years before, were folded before him on his great carved desk. Sunlight streamed in through the round window opposite with images of Ulis stained into its glass, and the moon-opals of the Hierophant’s ring flashed in the rays.
“Thank you, Sanctity,” Thara replied. His voice had cracked the year before, but rather than eventually settling into a smooth masculine register, it had acquired the timbre of a frog with bronchine. Ah, well, at least it was deeper than his father’s. “But ‘Mer Celehar’ is fine. We are no lord, and we do not imagine we shall ever be one.”
The Hierophant smiled. “Mer Celehar, then. You appear to have grown into the fine young man we had expected from our brief meeting with you. We cannot imagine you would prove aught but a credit to the prelacy, and we are relieved, for your sake, that you will be taught to regulate your gift through meditation. Of course, it will be yet a few months before you can legally take your vows, and all would-be novices must undergo interviews and other tests to gauge their strengths and their weaknesses, god-given or mundane.”
There was a nervous tightness in Thara’s chest: were applicants to religious orders ever turned away? It was not his gift that was his worry. Since the incident with Mer Athezhar, he had accompanied his parents to three funerals; at each, as the Hierophant had described, he had found himself attuned to troubled emanations from the casket. He had also found himself drawn more and more over time to the Ulimeire, to the great cemetary of Zhaö, and to the moon in the night sky. But was he suited to the serving of congregants’ spiritual needs? For all that he had been schooled in Courtly etiquette, he preferred his own company and that of a book, or Ametalo’s company.
“Such weaknesses can often be remedied,” the Hierophant said. “For example, poorer novices often must be taught how to speak more properly, and sometimes how to read. It is also not uncommon that those called by Ulis are of a quiet and aloof nature, but they often can be trained to open their ears and hearts to congregants, and a gentle upbringing is no small assistance in this. That said, there is always a place for god-marked clerics with no callings to ministry.” Thara’s tension eased somewhat. “More generally, novices study all the gods and their orders, with special emphasis on the prayers and rituals of the one who has called them and the history of that god’s order. The novitiate also requires the study of theology, philosophy, theosophy, logic, rhetoric, and various other subjects. It is an intense three years of training.”
“We believe we are equal to it, Sanctity,” Thara said. “Our tutor shaped our mind very well.”
“Ah, yes, the young woman who accompanied you to the Vigilant Brothers’ headquarters. You are rather young yourself, still, to assess in full how well she served you, but from our limited knowledge we would say quite well indeed.” The Hierophant paused, then asked, “Mer Celehar, you are aware, are you not, that clerics in all orders must abide by various prohibitions?”
“We do, Sanctity. We know that clerics receive a very basic stipend for their needs and may not earn money beyond it, nor may they accept more than very modest gifts from congregants. They are also forbidden to marry, or to bequeath property of any kind.”
“Do you understand why such rules were laid down?”
“Not… entirely, Sanctity? The vow of semipoverty seems to be a check on greed and ambition. But…” Thara began to feel his cheeks warm, but he kept his ears and features still. “… are intimate relations considered to profane one who is sanctified?”
“Only the sanctified who are devoted to Csaivo. For the rest, the issue is not purity of body but focus of energy. One’s heart must, first and foremost, be devoted to one’s god and, if one has them, one’s congregants. Earthly love, within or without marriage, is a distraction therefrom. Caring for children is an even greater distraction, especially when one is constrained in providing for them. And the prelacy cannot possibly take on the fiscal burdens of children begotten or borne by its clerics.”
The Hierophant paused again, then resumed in a sharpened tone: “Of course, while celibacy would not be demanded of you, neither would you be encouraged to bed woman after woman, especially among your congregants. You would also be expected to prevent, as best as possible, any conceptions resulting from such encounters. Should such precautions fail, you would be morally obligated to make certain the child is adequately cared for, but in such circumstances you should not expect any financial support from the prelacy. We understand that young men have their needs, but we ask that you be temperate, discreet, and responsible in meeting them.”
Thara’s face grew hotter, and he lowered his head. Let the Hierophant think the rising color in his cheeks was that of a sheltered youth’s modesty, not borne of the thought, Of course he would not think to consider warning me against bedding man after man. Or bedding even one man. Or loving him.
Not that the Hierophant would have had to warn him against any such things. Ulis had given Thara an immense gift, and he would not repay the god with shame and scandal. He had spent the last three years keeping his family, he hoped, ignorant of the yearnings that had horrified him when they first emerged. With his consecration, he would draw a heavier veil between himself and the pull of the world, the pull of his own body. He would hide his form in black robes and his face behind a white mask, and his unnatural desires would find their tomb in his devotion.
Over the next few months, Ametalo frequently told Thara’s parents she was accompanying him on an errand at his request, but she would spend the day at the bookshop while he spent it at the Ulimeire. He met with the Prelate of Zhaö, who echoed the Hierophant’s delight tempered by warnings. He met several of his soon-to-be fellow novitiates, with whom he instantly felt much more kindred than he ever had with any other young nobles. He completed an examination with pen and paper. He sat before a panel of three curates, who interrogated him for several hours to discern his moral character. He attended gatherings of both clerics and laypeople at which his ease and ability in speaking to strangers and to crowds were gauged. He sailed through all his tests easily save conversing with strangers, but his soon-to-be superiors assured him that, with practice and perhaps some minor guidance, he would be soon able to master his reticence and communicate the goodness of his heart more clearly to his congregants and fellow clerics.
On the morning of his sixteenth birthday, after he had washed and dressed and as he was packing his valise, there was a soft knock on the door of his bedchamber. He opened it to a sniffling, red-eyed Ametalo. Her ears hung low under her hat, her cloak was buttoned up to her chin, and her own valise was in hand.
“I’ve come to say goodbye,” she said.
Thara’s heart splintered. He wanted to throw his arms around her, but he was far too old for that, so instead he reached for her hands. She set her valise down so she could take them.
“I will miss thee sorely,” he said, quietly but vehemently. “Hast been more like …” He bit the words back; they were unbecoming of a man of noble birth, especially one who had destroyed his mother’s ability to bear more children. “Hast done so much for me, Ametalo, I cannot ever thank thee enough.”
She scowled through her tears. “There is no need to thank me, Thara. Wert ever a delight to tutor.” Her expression remained perfectly straight as she continued, “Even all the times I wished to strangle thee with my bare hands.” Thara, who had been fighting back his own tears, laughed instead.
“Before thou goest, I have something for thee.” He turned about and went to his desk, where he fetched a letter from the top drawer. He handed it to Ametalo, who read it silently, her nose growing redder and her eyes damper all the while.
To whom it may concern,
We would like to introduce ourself as Thara Celehar, son of Osmer Belaris Celehar and Osmerrem Vichano Celeharan, at this writing about to take our vows as a canon in the Order of Ulis. We write on behalf of Min Ametalo Esalvin, who tutored us from the time we were six years old until today, when we reached our majority.
We would like to state that we credit Min Esalvin with having shaped and opened our mind far beyond what would have otherwise been the case, as well as provided us with a most excellent moral example in every sense of the term. She was also highly protective of us while we were in her charge. We would absolutely vouch for her character, sense of duty, and fitness to educate any other child.
We are aware that we are very young and inexperienced to be writing letters of commendation. If you would like to correspond with us on the subject of Min Esalvin, or, perhaps, correspond with our superiors in regard to our own character, please do not hesitate to write to us at the Ulimeire of Zhaö, Boulevard of Belthelema IX at the corner of Istandaärtha Street, Zhaö, Thu-Athamar.
Canon Thara Celehar, Order of Ulis
A sob issued from Ametalo. Thara felt his own eyes welling up, but he stood, silent and unmoving, until she looked up and said, “Didst not have to write this.”
“Of course I did,” he said, his voice even rougher than usual. “I don’t know an didst obtain such a letter from my parents, but I should hate to be the courier sent by a prospective employer to confirm it with my father.”
She laughed, low and bitter. “I have not asked for such a letter, for just that reason.”
His heart pounded in alarm for her. “Where wouldst have gone, without one?”
“I’d simply have lied, said I was newly bereaved of either father or husband and had to resort to tutelage to make ends meet. Gods know, I’ve done it long enough that I can pass for having a gentler upbringing than was the case, and a better education too.”
“Shouldst not have to,” Thara said angrily. “Wert a most excellent tutor, and deservest all the credit for it.”
Ametalo shrugged, a smile of resignation on her plain, beloved face. “We do not always get what we merit in life, Thara. And I have been more fortunate than many of my background, girls especially.”
She retrieved her valise, secured the letter inside it, and set it down once more before taking his hands in hers again. “As canst probably tell, I am on my way out myself, but through the servants’ entrance. I shall take my final wages from Mer Bozhesar” — the Celehada’s steward — “and bid him and his staff my farewells, for they are fine people. However, I see no point in making any farewells to thy parents.”
“Nor I,” Thara said, though he knew how deeply improper it was. “Ametalo… I do not know how much help I could be, as I am about to take a vow of semipoverty. But… an ever needst my assistance one day…”
She squeezed his hands. “And an thou shouldst need assistance, Thara, please seek me out. I had planned to head to Ashedro anyway, but thy letter gives me better odds at finding a post there. I do not know how much help I could ever be to thee, either, but … I would try.”
She swallowed visibly, then, and released him, and picked up her valise a final time.
“The gods keep thee, Ametalo,” Thara said.
“And thee, Osmichen Thara,” Ametalo whispered, sniffling as she moved away.
He shut the door, then, and sat on his bed, and let the tears come. It was better, he thought, to release them and be done with it. For what would come next, he wished his heart to be as hollowed out as a new-built crypt.
It took perhaps fifteen minutes before he had wept his fill. Then he washed his face and hands again, and he leaned against the wall of his bedchamber. He thought not of Ametalo but of his father, and the words spoken to him more than six years before.
Despite the memory he had nourished in anticipation of its bitter harvest, he had begun to think it might be best for him to leave the house unseen and unheard. He was a much earlier riser than his mother. But, though there was little game to be found in Zhaö proper, his father’s love of the chase often prompted him to rise with or just after the sun. The later the hour waxed, the less likely his father was to be spending a rare morning abed.
Though Thara was not yet sanctified, for much of the last year he had been learning the meditations of his future order, how to draw the coldness of Ulis into his veins. And though he had not yet earned the right to secure a scrap of stiffened parchment over his face, he had known how to mask himself since childhood.
Quietly he stepped into the hallway, then gained the first steps of the long, curved staircase that led down to the foyer. The soles of his shoes seemed to make horrific thuds upon the well-polished wooden steps, even through the fine Barizheise runner. He braced himself for, and was not surprised to hear, the challenge:
“Where goest thou, boy?”
His father stood in the middle of the foyer, feet apart, shoulders squared, arms crossed.
Thara stopped midstairs. There the transom bathed him in warm morning light as he drew upon his new training and sought to breathe in dark, cold calm.
“That is our concern now, and not yours.”
His father’s brows shot high, and he began to laugh. “Oh? Think’st that because hast obtained thy majority, art no longer obliged to answer to me while art under my roof?”
The cold of Ulis was giving way to a darker, hotter, savager swell of feeling. “If you would kindly move out of our way, we would be out from under your roof within a minute.”
“Art a pedantic little shite, just like thine old maid of a tutor,” his father snarled. “Whether or not the roof of my house is literally above thy head at the moment, Thara, is a separate issue from whether still residest beneath it.”
Thara’s urge to draw his own lips back was fierce. He almost managed to resist it. “What makes you think we were speaking literally and not figuratively as well?”
His father’s sneer was completely expected. “Thus, again, I ask: where goest thou? Art sixteen years of age, hast neither a job nor a seat at any university, and hast no property that is not legally mine by rights. Had I any use for them, I could demand the clothes off thy back and the contents of thy valise.”
Ulis, please forgive me, Thara thought, descending the final steps, locking eyes with his father. Let me have this one unbecoming satisfaction, this one indulgence of mine anger, and I will be cold for thee forever after.
“Over the last several months, Father, we have been making arrangements at the Ulimeire of Zhaö. Tonight, when the sun sets, we will take our final vows of canoncy in the Order of Ulis and as a Witness for the Dead. We forswear any potential claim to the title of Count Celehel, and we will put this oath to paper and have our signature witnessed for legal purposes. We will never take a wife, nor will we ever beget children. And we will never, ever return to this house, for never again do we wish to lay eyes on you. If our lady mother has aught to say to us, she may ask for us at the Ulimeire.”
His father stared at him, his face draining of blood, truly without words for the first time that Thara could remember. In the face of it, Thara’s rage began to gutter, and he decided he would not linger until his father had regained his ability to argue. He pushed past him, his gut roiling at even the superficial physical contact. Though it did not grow in the gardens of the Celehada, the stench of valerian seemed to prick at his nostrils as he walked for the last time out of the house of Belaris Celehar into the ever-cold, ever-patient embrace of Ulis.