It began with giggling whispers in the dormitories of Orbonne Monastery. The princess was coming, they said, and they had sent a precious treasure as proof of her lineage. Dorothea thought it was something boring like a crest, and Margritte swore up and down that she'd heard somewhere that it was a gold-plated statue of a lion, but Alma privately believed that it must be a princess's bejeweled tiara.
"Let's go see it," Ajora whispered to Tietra, their foreheads pressed together under the sheets.
"But what if we get caught?" Tietra asked.
Alma petted her hair. "Think of all the times we snuck into the kitchens of home late at night! What else could that have been practice for, if not for this?"
Tietra shook her head.
"Tietra," Alma said. "The next time you speak with Margritte, would you like to do so with the knowledge that you have known the weight of a princess's crown, and she has not?"
Tietra gasped at Alma's audaciousness, then grinned and clasped Alma's hands in her own. "I would like that very much," she whispered intensely.
"Then it is settled," Alma said, and the two giggled quietly under the sheets. They waited until the last candle was extinguished and Sister Eunace's shuffling footsteps faded away. They stayed awake for an hour past that, listening to each other's breathing and the creaking of the monastery floors, pinching each other to make certain neither of them fell asleep.
"It's time," Alma said, and she poked Tietra out of bed.The stone floors were cold on her bare feet, even on such a mild spring evening, and she shivered at the touch. She located the lamp on her side table through sheer memory of the room. She patted the table's top beside it until she found the tinderbox.
"Alma!" Tietra whispered from where Alma assumed was the doorway. Alma blindly made her way towards her voice, trying to avoid knocking into the other beds as much as possible. She bumped into Tietra, who wrapped an arm around her waist and ushered her into the hallway. Tietra did always have better night vision than her.
"I'd bet you farthings to gil they've hidden it in Elder Simon's office down below," Alma whispered. She could feel Tietra nodding her agreement as she led Alma towards the stairwell.
Alma paused at the top of the stairwell to light the lamp, opening it just enough to let out the smallest sliver of light, just enough that they could see where the next step lay.
They reached the lowest level of the monastery where the air was always cold, from winter to summer. Alma placed the lamp on the desk in the center and opened it more so the room was dimly lit.
"If I were a royal treasure, where do you suppose I would be?" Alma asked herself, opening a drawer. Tietra shrugged nervously and contented herself with the less-invasive searching of shelves.
O precious girls, o untouched maids.
Alma's head jerked up. "Did you find something?" she asked Tietra.
"Nay," Tietra said.
Which one of thee shall treat with me?
Alma walked cautiously towards the strange voice, peering around a column. She gasped. "Oh look, Tietra, look!"
Tietra rushed to her side, bringing the lantern with her. It lit up the pure white statue of a maiden, holding the most beautiful, pure crystal in its hands.
"It is glorious!" Tietra whispered reverently.
Alma reached a hand out to the crystal. Was it her imagination, or a trick of the candlelight, or did it seem to glow all on its own? Her fingertips brushed its face.
At last at last at last at last
Ajora pulled her hand back from the crystal, echoes of the strange voice still racing through her head. "What is this?" she asked, stumbling backwards. "Who speaks inside my head?" She fell onto the ground of the dusty catacombs. Her kerchief fell from her head, and Dalmascan-white hair slipped over her shoulders and brushed the dirt floor.
I am what thou may someday be
"What do you mean?" Ajora asked.
O treat with me, O set me free
And I shall give thee power unmatched
"What sort of power?"
The power to lift the hearts of man
To wield the sword and staff in turn
Enrich the soil in shades of red
Until its harvest match thy heart
"No." Ajora shook her head, even as her fingers trembled with want. She dug them deeper into the ground, steeling herself from reaching for the stone. "Mother has said that lasting change comes from the heart and from prayer. My movement's strength grows by the day, and our words are echoed louder still. I do not want your power."
O dearest child, o foolish maid
When revolution is at hand
Remember me and all I give
Ajora rose to her feet. "I shall remember, but I shall not yield. You will see. We shall cleanse the church of its corruption without trickery."
Are your disciple's words so strong
When soldiers' poison fills their guts?
Ajora's heart caught in her throat. "What do you mean?" she asked. The stone said nothing, but unwanted images started to flash through her head.
"No!" Ajora gasped. She turned and fled down the stone catacombs, the holes in the crumbled ceiling and the demonic glow of the stone her only light.
The stone's laughter echoed in her ears.
She scrambled out of the caved-in entrance to the catacombs, leaving her pack and kerchief behind. She gathered her skirts up above her ankles, her hair immodestly streaming behind her, and ran across the sandy stretch that lay between her and her village. How long until she reached them? How many people poisoned as she dallied with demons beneath the sands?
She reached the main square, impervious to the people staring at her.
"Stop!" Alma cried. "Don't drink the water!"
Tietra grabbed Alma, pulled her away from the stone. They fell in a heap on the floor.
"Are you all right?" Tietra asked, fussing over Alma's head. "Oh, my dear Alma, what happened?"
Alma blinked slowly at Tietra. "I'm sorry," she said. "Did I say something?"