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The High Priestess

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Their teachers didn't shout. Their teachers didn't reprimand. They didn't swear, in terms scatalogical or geneological or theological, they didn't raise their voices or lose their tempers at all. They demanded discipline, and they got it, or you were out. They made sure you knew the risks, and if you did not measure up, you died.

In the beginning she was still curious enough to notice that if you had a legitimate reason for falling behind, not completing a sufficient number of exercises, not moving quick enough, they were merciful. They dealt out a token punishment and then snuck you off to the medical ward for treatment both of your injuries and of whatever it was that caused you to fall behind in the first place. She wondered if this kind of latent compassion was meant to be seen, then decided it wasn't. They had already stripped most other forms of compassion away from their training. This was only good judgment. If a tool was broken but still usable, you repaired it.

If, however, a candidate faltered because of nerves or uncertainty or fear, the tool was not usable. And they cast it away.

As the children grew older, more and more of them joined the ranks of those castaways. She watched, once, shoulders in one place and body in one place and moving only her head to look over her shoulder as the boy was marched down the aisles of desks and out the door, never to be seen again.

They didn't only fight. Or do exercises, or other physical things, they also studied. The Bible, until she could recite it from memory and with her eyes closed woken up from her bed at some late hour of the night. Which they did do, to test their memory. They made her and everyone else recite long strings of liturgical poetry; as they got older they made her and everyone else recite the Bible while at a running march, or balancing on a pillar with weights on her arms. Healthy body, healthy mind. Sculpted body and sculpted mind, to their specifications.

And when they had sculpted her into a form they wanted, she began to learn different lessons.

The boy was taller than her but not by much; fair haired, or once had been before they got to him; older than her, at least she thought he was, older than almost everyone there which made her wonder why he was there to begin with. An older person couldn't be taught all the things that she knew. But when they brought him into the class regardless of his age she looked at him once, then looked back at the Monsignor who was their teacher.

He sat at her table in the cafeteria because she sat at the end, and there was a place in front of her, and there was no one else. They looked at each other over plates of high-protein white rice, eggs, beef. If he had any questions he didn't ask them. Maybe because he listened to the silence and her own lack of questions, and took that as a guideline. Or maybe because of whatever had put that haunted look in his eye.

"Where do you come from?" she asked him one day, between lessons. He looked at her as though he didn't understand the question, his gaunt face with the cheekbones held up high and his gnarled hands, and then he looked over his shoulder.

"Out there."

That was all she got from him as far as who he had been and what he had done before this, and maybe it was better that way. She didn't like how she thought about those things when she was around him. They weren't a part of her life, she didn't need to be wondering that, asking those questions.

They were all grown now, even the youngest candidates, and instead of daily exercises where they picked things up and put them down again for hours upon hours, they had only two hours of basic exercise. The rest of it was fighting.

He was quick. Frustratingly so, she couldn't get a read on him even though she could take down most of her classmates two falls out of three. Fighting was one thing she took pride in once she realized she was good at it, graceful and kept her balance easy, quick to see the patterns in the movements of others and anticipate where they would strike next. One classmate was just a fraction too slow, and rooted himself in the ground to compensate. Another kept dodging right until they circled around, which would work on an opponent who didn't think five steps ahead. If the boy had a particular weakness that she could see it was that he didn't concentrate enough on the fight. He could run her into the ground if he tried, he could wear her down with his seemingly interminable stamina, but only if she didn't take advantage of his dreaming moments, first.

"You use your flechettes too often," he told her one day in the practice yard. They were grown now, trained Priests and waiting for their first assignment. "They won't always be effective."

Then he helped her up and she realized that half of his dreaming moments were studying her. Studying everyone he came across, everyone he encountered. Looking for how he could protect himself against them.

"They were effective against you, today," she told him. "That's all that matters."

"What if that isn't all that matters?" he asked, but then he turned and went to the showers and she didn't have time to pin him down to a reason for it.

They circled each other in the practices. They circled each other at mealtimes, in the showers, when she entered a room he waited a few minutes and then left, and vice versa. And yet they couldn't resist exchanging a look of understanding, because both of them watched. And studied. And learned. Few others in this school did that outside of what they were told to learn. Her innate curiosity. Him wondering about what mattered.

She did learn other things from him, late at night. She learned the more visceral meaning of touch, she learned what it was like to have another's breath on your skin for no necessary reason. She learned how a bond could be strengthened by sitting next to another person for hours on end; she learned what a bond like that was and how it helped a person.

And she wondered why the Church had never taught her this, or why they prohibited anyone from exploring it. When he slipped his hand around hers, curled his fingers over the back of her hand she wondered many things. She felt the rough patches of his skin, the warmth of his palm against hers and the slowly building damp between, aware of every part of it. When he was even that close, without touching, she was conscious of the line of his body down from her shoulder to the backs of his knuckles barely an inch away from her. And it sharpened their fighting. It made them better at anticipating each other, supporting each other in combat.

It might have been one of the reasons they survived when so many Priests died. It likely was one of the reasons they didn't succumb to hopelessness, suicide, or addicting themselves to whatever they could lay their hands on when the Priests were disbanded. She knew there was something out there that tied her to her old life. And that it was there, waiting for her, when she wanted to go to him.

She hadn't thought it would involve defying the edicts of the Church and overturning the order of the City as they knew it, but they both knew their calling, and each other. It gave them a sense of solidarity, enough to lead the other Priests the way no one else could. And there was a little satisfaction in that.