She was walking along the edge of the dark pool and came upon the Mistress of Time, as she usually did in these encounters, from behind and one side. As always the thing that caught her attention first on that beautiful face was that the mouth opened almost all the way back to the jaw hinge; she knew from past visits that the teeth along that jaw were cutters and slashers. A tooth baring smile from her goddess could be terrifying. The pool of dark liquid was not water, it was too thick for that, and if there had been light in this eternal cavern under the mountains of reality and existence, she was sure it would not have been a clear pool... Her divine mistress was soaking in it, naked as far as the seer could tell, leaning against the side of the pool with her eyes closed, breasts barely submerged in the liquid. “You’ve come.” The divine voice resonated through the cavern and the glimmering shadows of the seer’s predecessors turned from their occupations to pay attention. “The trouble with leaving you messages in your mind is that you’re not there when I do it. I get the feeling that instead of leaving you a message tucked into the frame of your window I’ve scrawled it on the back of the mirror instead.” Distant approval resonated through that glorious sound, “You seem to have found out most of what I tried to tell you on your own but you might want to go rummaging through your mind at some stage for some of my older messages – they’re still there and may be useful.”
“Yes mistress,” the seer knelt at the pool’s edge, “But what do you want me to do?”
The goddess turned to the seer with her stunning, closed mouth smile. “Hang on and enjoy the ride, child, hang on and enjoy the ride. If the high priest concerns you, don’t worry too much – if I find him too annoying I may have to instruct that the Deep Altar be reconsecrated. If he will insert himself into my hierarchy, then he can take the lumps with the smooth.” The closed mouth smile turned into an open mouthed one. “Now run along and get some rest, you have a big day ahead of you tomorrow.”
She woke with the sound of the morning knock on the door from the night time fire watch off to their beds. It was time to get up.
First Morning Service of Hours and then breakfast taken in the lower refectory but without the visiting soldier. Normally on this day of the week she would then go to the small public chapel where the local people were encouraged to conduct their business with the goddess. Shortly after she had become seer the Mistress of Duties and the high priest had decided that she should conduct weekly trance ceremonies there for the locals. She had so little to do as seer, they declared, that an additional task per week was not going to tax her. The infirmarian had objected and been overridden. The seer, the high priest and the Mistress of Duties had declared, was an asset to be used to the temple’s best advantage and profit. This morning, because of the visitors, there was to be no trance ceremony so the seer went straight to her window polishing task. Fifteen minutes into that and Master Dionis, the priest who administered the weekly trance ceremonies, came to find her while she was halfway up a stepladder with a pail of soapy water.
“You have to come,” he panted, “For the trance ceremony.” More panting. “Right now.” He bent over, hands on his knees to catch his breath.
The seer looked around carefully then said from halfway up the ladder, “I thought we weren’t doing that today, because of – you know.”
Master Dionis straightened. “We weren’t,” he agreed, “Then this morning everyone turned up because they heard the Sun Emperor had come to take the seer away and they all want to ask questions before she leaves. We tried to get them to go away, but there’ll be a riot if we insist.” He sighed. “The Mistress of Duties said that if you get down there and do it quickly, then it could be over and done with before the Sun Emperor’s retinue found out anything about it.”
“Very well then,” she agreed, “Can you take the bucket for me please?”
“Of course.” He matched his actions to his words and she climbed back down unimpeded.
She took her apron off and folded if over a rung of the stepladder. “Let’s go then. Get it over with quickly,” she shook her head in amazement. “She really doesn’t have any idea, does she?”
“I hate to speak ill of the Mistress of Duties,” the high priest’s slightly pudgy protégé looked almost forlorn as they started back the way he’d come, “But in this case, I think you’re right, she has no idea.”
The public chapel was fuller than the seer had ever seen it before. Before he’d come dashing to find her, Master Dionis had grabbed two passing deaconesses and told them to count the petitioners and get them to draw the numbered balls that would give them their place in turn. There were far more petitioners than the seer could provide answers for in a single trance but they were organised and calmly seated by the time she arrived. As well, there were almost three times as many spectators as petitioners so the room was almost full. She arrayed herself in the simple vestment she wore for this weekly ceremony and took her place in the chair in front of the altar. Master Dionis handed her the half full ceremonial cup of tincture and she drained it. The last thing she saw as she left her mind to the goddess was the soldier from last night’s dinner standing against the back wall and taking a draw on his cigar.
When she came to herself again the entire first row of petitioners was clasping the polished copper tokens that showed that the goddess had favoured them with an answer to their question. She could see tokens part way along the second row as well; apparently today had been very productive but she had no real feel for how that worked. About a quarter of the recipients look happy, another quarter sad and the rest, thoroughly confused. Normal results then.
“Dear friends, that concludes our ceremony today.” Master Dionis was sounding his most unctuous but the seer had found that meant he was thinking about something else while he spoke. The something else was probably the Sun Emperor’s soldier, who was now leaning with one shoulder against the wall level with the front row of petitioners. He was smiling at her now and she felt like the rabbit that could see its hunter and had nowhere to run.
A merchant in his best trading garb leapt to his feet in the second row, shouting, “But we haven’t had a chance to ask our questions yet! Give the girl another dose of the stuff and let’s get on with it! We know our rights!” Two more petitioners, one a tradesman and the other a farmer, leapt shouting to their feet in support and three or four petitioners in the second and third rows grumbled loudly in agreement.
“Friends, please.” Master Dionis was now paying attention to the matter in hand and sounded a much nicer man. “She cannot.” The seer felt the retching coming on and grabbed the artfully hidden bucket from under her chair and got it into position just in time. She’d had a good breakfast this morning too because she hadn’t expected to be doing this today. The congregation stopped open mouthed. They’d normally left before this happened.
The soldier covered the distance between them very quickly indeed, reaching her before she’d ceased clinging to the bucket. As he reached her the tired-looking, middle-aged woman who must have been the first petitioner stood, saying, “You poor dear, I’ll find you some water shall I?”
The soldier picked up the ceremonial cup and sniffed it cautiously. He put it carefully down again and turned to face the angry petitioners. “If you give her another dose of that stuff now,” his voice overrode the recommencement of the merchant’s protest, “She’ll die. If I understand matters correctly,” he gave a deferential almost-bow to the seer, “This tincture works by knocking out the higher centres of the brain so the goddess can take over the seer’s mind and body.”
He looked from the seer to Master Dionis and back again. Master Dionis simply looked helpless so the seer agreed, “Essentially, yes.”
“The problem is,” the solider went on, “It’s got a few rather nasty things in it. The body habituates to some of them so you need to take more and more tincture to get the same effect. At the same time, those ingredients and some of the others are poisonous. To give you answers to your questions,” he glared at the merchant, “She has to drink half a cup of poison, an amount that would kill you or me because we’re not used to it. If she has another half cup now, it’ll kill her.”
“Then why weren’t we properly sorted in terms of importance?” demanded the merchant. “I have a vital question about my business and I don’t even get to ask it, all because of some selecting a ball nonsense. Seems to me that’s a fine set up for the temple to get more out of you to make sure you get a small numbered ball.”
“It’s set up that way so the goddess can intervene,” said a surprised Master Dionis, “If she wants to, and decide whose questions she will answer.”
The middle-aged woman who had offered to get the seer water turned around, her face illuminated by surprise and validation. “The goddess thought my question was the most important one, out of all of these people?”
“Well,” the seer replied truthfully if a little uncomfortably, “She at least thought that no-one else’s question was more important than yours.”
“Nonsense!” The merchant was spluttering, “How can the whereabouts of some young twit packed off down the river for sale in Calibyre be more important than my question?”
Out of the flurry of hubbub and cries of “Shame” from a fair portion of the congregation rose the voice of thin faced, unhappy-looking man from the third row of petitioners, “How do you know what happened to her missing son?”
The merchant froze, jerked as if he meant to run, then stopped when he realised that he wouldn’t be able to get from among the chairs, let alone make it to the door.
“I think, Master Dionis,” said the soldier, his hand now firmly on the seer’s shoulder, “That I can leave this man in your capable hands while I take the seer to the infirmary.” He took a draw on his cigar and added piously, “The ways of the goddess are indeed mysterious.”
“Indeed,” Master Dionis gave the seer a worried look then turned his attention to the matter of the merchant. The man was already being physically restrained as the soldier led the seer, bucket clutched to her still, towards the door.
The last they heard from the merchant was, “I’ll appeal all the way to the Sun Emperor, then you’ll see! I’ll ruin all of you!”