"There's no mercy in me, only justice. I wasn't trained to mercy.
Love is the only grace I have."
It had been bold of Penthe to ask, but Thar had no interest in meting out either punishment or reward. Arha's secrets were her chief concern. She had heard from Kossil something of what had happened in the Room of Chains, but Arha herself had been sullen and silent. Penthe made a useful spy, if witless, and some part of Thar yet remained that was not wholly wearied by it all; that took a small and private pleasure in making use of one of Kossil's own. "Take the apples that you saved," Thar said, voice dry, lips thinning as the girl's round face turned crimson. As if Thar would not have known; as if Thar did not know all the sorry secrets that formed their waking hours.
She watched Penthe wend aimlessly up towards the Small House, and then raised her hood and went on her way. A chattering clutch of girls hushed as she passed by. She quickened her step as she drew nearer to the orchard; hidden by her hood, she glanced round – once, twice. The girls had started talking again and, coming from the Big House, she heard Duby and Punti, high voices carrying on the thin breeze, betting as to when the goat would give birth. But there was no-one watching; no-one that she could see. She ducked into the shade of the trees.
Thar had been the child of a woodcutter from a village in the east of Hur-at-Hur; the seventh child, and a girl as well – unlucky, in the way they told it there. They had given her to the temple in Mesreth as soon as it would have her; when she had shown herself apt, she had been sent on to the Place. She had already learnt how to work hard, and she gave herself over entirely to the new tasks set before her, trusting that faith would come in time. At first, learning the dances and the chants had given her a secret delight, but she swiftly mastered them; and she grasped too, and early, what kind of men they were, these gods to whom she had been given over. The years ground on in the desert, and she kept her silence, but when the dark had at last become too much and the day was not enough, "Mistress," she had burst out to Arha-that-was, "do you ever doubt?"
"Doubt the darkness?" the Eaten One had answered. "Why would I?"
And it had been real for her, Thar saw; and she was grateful to know such certainty could indeed exist. She applied herself again and, in time, she made faith an act of will; a habit, like everything else to be done in the Place.
She walked on beneath the trees. They were stripped bare of their fruit, and their leaves were sparse, but they gave cover enough. Thar stood for a while in the silence, one hand resting upon dry bark. Then she drew back her hood, and breathed in deeply. The leaves were shifting, dappling the ground with light and shadow. Thar stood and watched the play for a while and then, high up amidst the branches, she caught a glimpse of something bright. She pushed the branches aside.
It was an apple. The girls must not have seen it, Thar thought, stretching up to pluck it from the branch. Hard work, as the year turned from late summer; hours of stretching and bending – a single fruit high up and out of sight was easy to miss. She rolled it round in her hand, slowly. It was a little bruised, she saw, the skin stained brown.
As she neared her end, Arha-that-was had wanted none but Thar beside her. In the stale room of the Small House, Thar had sat for hours, repeating back to Arha all that had passed between them across the years; the tales of the rise of those they served and the webs of power they had woven; the dark ways of the labyrinth. But late one night, when the rush light was burning low, and the only sound for hours had been the rasp of the old woman's breathing, Arha had spoken, had asked her something else.
"What do you wish for, Thar?" she whispered. "When you are reborn? What do you wish for?" Her voice held a plea, as if she wanted to see, if only for a moment, a glimpse of the path denied her. Arha would come back as herself again and forever; no escaping the maze for her, no way beyond the darkness.
Reborn. As if this one life had not been enough. But what if indeed it were true? What else did Thar know? What could she tell her? She remembered little more now than the stink of her father's breath and the bend of her mother's back. Would that have been her life outside the Place? Married to a man hardened young by want and drink? Bearing him a baby each year from fourteen and beaten down by thirty? The secrets that Arha entrusted to her might be void, they might be heartless – they might not even belong to Thar – but they were her charge. The giving would be hers.
So she had sat in thought, and the silence had stretched out between them. When she came back to herself, it was too late. The old woman had gone unanswered.
She bit into the apple, deep. It tasted sharp and sweet. She ate slowly, with the patience and method she brought to all her tasks; eating the skin around the centre, taking the edges, then starting on the crisp white flesh.
They had misjudged Kossil, she and Arha-that-was. Obedient but sly, that had always been Kossil's way; as a girl she had been dutiful to her elders, all deep bows and lowered eyes; to her peers she had been a tyrant, another terror in their closed little world. As a priestess, her ambition had been obvious, her ploys unsubtle. Thar thought her pitiful; Arha had scorned her. They had not seen how well power would sit with her, not seen how well she would grow into it. As the years bit deeper into Arha, they had perhaps come to fear Kossil – or, had come to fear how she might outlast them.
If it had only been for herself, Thar would not have feared Kossil now, if only through weariness. But the girl, now, the girl... that was Thar's concern.
"She fainted," Kossil had told her, with contempt. "She is afraid of the dark."
And hearing that, fear had clawed at Thar's heart too, but she had held herself in check, revealing nothing. It was not true; would not be true. Arha must fear nothing. "She will learn," Thar had replied, and had said nothing more.
Sometimes, when she watched the girl, Thar's heart would quicken, would miss a beat. She would watch her at her tasks, with the girls, or the women, and she would see in her something of Arha-that-was – something of her pride, or her certainty, as if she had indeed been reborn. Sometimes, watching the girl, Thar almost felt she had grasped it; she had almost come to believe.
With one last, spare bite, Thar finished her apple. She shook the seeds onto the ground; the core, uneaten, she hid within the folds of her robe. She raised her hood and came out from the cover of the trees.
It was nearing the middle of the day. Black habits, just like her own, were hurrying across the Place towards the Temple of the Twin Gods. As Thar joined them and went inside, she saw Penthe, face pink from running, and nodded from the shadow of her hood. She would hear what the girl had to say later. Now, there were the midday chants to be done.
And as Thar lifted her voice, leading the women and the girls in praise of the gods, in the latest of the long line of empty words that filled the days, she tasted something sweet upon her lips. And, for a moment, it was almost as if it gave her joy. It was almost as if she believed.