Dinner in the lower refectory tonight was fairly standard. A thick stew-like soup based on cured meat and dried pulses with some of last season’s root vegetables followed by a milk and grain pudding. The standard menu for this day of the week at this time of year. She collected her bowl from the servery and looked for a place to sit. Dinner was a more formal meal than lunch and everyone was supposed to be in place before it began with the Evening Grace. There were empty seats here and there but when she approached the first one the body language and expressions of the people already seated made it clear to her that the regulars of the lower refectory would rather that she didn’t sit next to them.
In the end she took a seat at the empty end of a table occupied by a group of subdeaconesses giggling, once her ears attuned to their conversation, about the deacon giving the Grace this evening. She could see their point; not only was he good looking with a fine speaking voice, he gave an excellent Grace. If he was going for ordination, he’d be a fine catch for any of them. The seer liked men in general but had never liked one in particular enough to take the risks that would involve – the tincture would kill any pregnancy she started and her mother’s wrath at any such misbehaviour on her part was a terrifying prospect. Dulcine’s probable reaction to the trespass on her territory was even worse.
The seer ate her meal quietly and slowly. According to the Verses the Sun Emperor’s heir would be born of the seer of The Silence Under the Hills. That was an old reference to their divine lady. We’ve almost forgotten that she has teeth. So what would the Sun Emperor do when he found out Dulcine was the wrong sister? Return her and demand the right one? The temple of Jokkiel had a reputation for martial prowess, which made sense if they were expecting the man to rule the world. How did the high priest think he was going to either fend them off or stop them finding out in the first place?
One of the subdeaconesses laughed loudly, “But have you seen him? He’s gorgeous! I don’t think she’ll mind too much.”
“He certainly looks the part,” an unknown male voice agreed, “But it’s all politics after all.” The seer looked up. The man standing opposite her was taller than her but well within the range of average height. He was dressed like a soldier, she saw them sometimes in attendance on great persons come to ask the goddess for advice, in his trousers, shirt and vest, strung about with leather belts and sashes designed to carry weapons not now in evidence. He was carrying a soup bowl, a burning cigar and a small dish. “It’s all right if I sit here, isn’t it?” he asked. “I started in the other refectory but someone seems to have taken Jokkiel’s patronage of spices to heart and added the entire spice rack to the stew,” he put down his soup bowl in the place opposite the seer and pulled out the chair, “That or a whole bunch of people thought they were the only ones spicing it and each did something different without tasting it. I like spicy,” he sat down and put the cigar on the dish, “And I like flavoursome but this was somewhere beyond that. Fortunately for me, I wasn’t at the high table so I could search out another option. You’d almost think,” he smiled blandly at the others sitting at the table, “That the Sun Emperor was being encouraged not to stay.” The seer pegged his age at a decade or more older than hers, his face was weather beaten enough that it was hard to tell. “Sorry about the smoke stick,” he was speaking directly to the seer now and indicating the burning cigar, “But I’m not myself without it. I’m Jonan, by the way.”
She sniffed the air, the subdeaconesses at the other end of the table looked appalled and uncertain. “That’s not tobacco, is it?” the seer asked.
“No,” he knocked the ash off, picked it up, took a draw and put it back down again, “It’s not.” As he looked at her he raised an eyebrow for a moment. “As I was saying,” he began attacking his soup, “It’s all politics. The Sun Emperor could probably roll straight over most of the petty states between here and the coast with his current strength, but a lot of people are very invested in those prophesies. That’s a lot of political capital if he plays it right and if he’s building an empire he needs an heir, so why not the seer? She’s pretty enough, seems bright enough, so why not? If it means that even one little kingdom joins us instead of us having to fight them, then I’m good.” He shrugged. “Fewer battles mean less chance of being killed.”
Jonan talked almost non-stop for the rest of the meal. He told funny stories about himself and other soldiers. He assassinated the characters of half the nearby heads of state, some of whom the seer had met. He gave pithy assessments of regional politics and worked out, perfectly logically, who the Sun Emperor’s unconceived children would be married off to. He was intelligent, articulate, informative and every so often he took a draw on his cigar. The seer thought that she would like to introduce him to the infirmarian and her other friends, if only to see if anyone else would be able to get a word in edgeways.
After the meal was over she excused herself citing unfinished personal chores.
“It was nice talking to you,” Jonan had just taken another draw on his cigar, “You smile and laugh in all the right places.” As she stood up he added, “You never did tell me you name, did you?”
“No, I didn’t, did I?” She smiled back at him. “But as you’re not staying here, surely that can’t matter?” And she left with a backwards smile over her shoulder and a wave of her fingers. He sat at the table looking after her, a half smile on his face and the smoking cigar in his hand.
You just flirted with him.
It proved impossible to get back to her room, even through the back corridors, during the study period after dinner so she joined the group in the second work room who were preparing old sheets for turning and rehemming while an elderly priestess read from Tales of the Genshenon, an apocryphal book of improving stories.
After study period was the Evening Service of Hours, attended by all the clergy. Normally the seer took her place in the centre of the front row but tonight Dulcine was there with a tall, blond man in a sun-emblazoned cloak. The subdeaconesses were right, he was gorgeous and Dulcine was enjoying playing up to him. His golden blond head smiled down at her white blonde one; the two of them together would make the most gorgeous blonde babies. Tonight the seer took a place in one of the pews cast into shadow by candle, lamp, supporting pillars and banners. She was cloaked from not only the Sun Emperor’s entourage but from her own temple hierarchy. She kept up with the service; standing, kneeling, reciting and praying at the right time. When it came to the silent prayer, the ‘drop of thought into the lady’s stream’ as the text put it, the seer prayed not for the Sun Emperor and the temple as the presiding priest instructed but for guidance.
“Gracious lady, mistress what do you want me to do? What do you need me to do? What am I supposed to do? Are the Verses right or do you have another plan? Do I make myself known to the Sun Emperor or do I hide from him till he leaves? Guide me, counsel me, please.”
Enlightenment did not dawn by the end of the service and the seer slipped out by a shadowed side door into the back corridors. She made it into her quarters behind the sanctuary without meeting anyone and locked the door behind her. She didn’t want a visit from her mother tonight. Her quarters were three small linked rooms, windowless but ventilated, lit by lamp and candle with the back of the bas relief behind the altar making up the back wall of all three of her rooms. She walked up to the back wall of the middle room and stretched her arms across the wall as if she were trying to embrace it. “I know that I can’t make everyone happy this time,” in the privacy of her own rooms she could pray out loud without censure or censorship, “But I don’t know which course of action would please you.”
She washed in her bathroom, the third of those rooms, and put herself to bed.