When she was at the basin she heard the soldier ask the infirmarian, “So, how often does she do this?”
“Throw up?” The infirmarian shot his answer back, “Every time now. Conduct the trance ceremonies? There’s the original three a year, plus the monthly ones that they added a few generations back, these blasted weekly things they added because she’s ‘just sitting around not doing anything,’ plus whenever the high priest decides that he absolutely has to ask the goddess about something.” He considered a moment then summarised, “Too often.”
“If you’ve finished with the young lady,” the soldier said, “She and I have a few more people to see.”
“Oh,” that was the infirmarian and the seer turned at the sadness in his voice, “You’re really going to take her away?”
“We have to,” the soldier shrugged, “Politics if not religion. But,” he emphasised the word with a waggle of the smoking cigar, “I can almost guarantee that she’ll never have to drink that stuff again.” He walked over to the seer as she put down her cup and took her by the upper arm once more. “We need to get moving. Infirmarian,” the older man looked back at him, “I recommend you get you patients ready to move and pack up everything you would want to take with you if you were leaving here.” Another draw on the cigar and frown lines creased the infirmarian’s forehead. “Just a word to the wise, you understand?”
The soldier and the seer left a suddenly busy infirmary behind them as he led her firmly by the arm towards the guest quarters. She could have struggled but his grip was strong enough that she had no hope of breaking free from it and she was not sure she wanted to. Hang on and enjoy the ride. Now seemed to be the time to follow that advice.
The Sun Emperor was holding court in the hostel parlour set aside for important guests who would not care to rub cheek by jowl with the hoi polloi. The private parlour was a practice, the seer had heard from those who’d filled the hospitaler’s post, that helped protect the common folk from the mad, bad, dangerous and powerful who sometimes chose to grace the temple with their presence. The Sun Emperor was playing chess against a priest of Jokkiel using a set that must have been his own because the seer did not recognise the brown and gray stone pieces. Dulcine was at his elbow, talking to him as he played, touching his arm with her hand. Nothing improper, but she obviously liked him. Dulcine was going to be so mad. The seer caught a glimpse of another small grouping off to one side: her mother, the high priest and an older priest of Jokkiel. This was going to be a very bumpy ride.
The solider spoke and his voice carried clearly across the room, “Dump the doxy, Delloran. I’ve found the girl we’re after.”
The Sun Emperor stood up, chess and Dulcine forgotten. “Yes sir!” Then a quieter, “Permission to dump the phony regalia, sir?”
“Yes,” a smile, “I’m glad I don’t have to wear that stuff.” Then to the room at large, “For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Jonan the Sun Emperor. For those who don’t know her, this young lady is the seer of the Silence Under the Hills.”
The seer’s jaw dropped as every member of the Emperor’s retinue in the room bowed in her direction and said, “My lady.”
Dulcine was on her feet now. “You,” she stabbed her finger into the chest of the golden haired young man taking off a heavily ornate golden cloak, “Told me that you are the Sun Emperor!”
“You told me,” he replied calmly, “That you are the seer. I think that sort of makes us even, don’t you, Dulcine?” She spluttered and he took the hand that was poking him in the chest. “Please stop poking me like that.” He kissed her, briefly, which made her splutter even more. “My parents are going to think that you’re just the girl I should marry: empress-to-be’s sister; intelligent; able to follow through on a plan of beneficial action; pretty; and probably willing to provide them with grandchildren. We’ve got a Duchy halfway between here and the coast. Consider it, please?”
The high priest and the mother of both the seer and Dulcine had abandoned the priest of Jokkiel and were heading straight for Jonan and the seer. Behind them the priest of Jokkiel, the blazing skull motif in the middle of his chest, was making a combination of expression and gestures that the seer interpreted as meaning either “I tried” or “You’re on your own.”
“Which duchy?” asked Dulcine.
“Your Majesty,” the seer’s mother made an unpractised dip to the Sun Emperor that wasn’t convincingly either a bow or a curtsy, “You are mistaken. This girl isn’t the seer, merely a subdeaconess of no importance. Please let her go so she can return to her duties.” Her mother looked daggers at the seer.
Delloran said, “Odon. I’m the eldest son, third child though. Both my older sisters are married.”
“If she’s not the seer,” replied Jonan pleasantly, “Then you can tell me her name, can’t you?”
“Guadalfambra valley; patrilineal inheritance; ham, goat cheese and coal?” Dulcine managed to summarise and question in the same sentence.
“That’s us,” Delloran had striped off everything on his top half down to his shirt, “Might you be interested?”
“Well?” persisted Jonan, “If she’s not the seer, what’s her name?”
“I wouldn’t want to bother Your Majesty with such a trivial piece of information,” the Mistress of Duties drew herself up and threw a look that could have killed at Dulcine.
Yes mother, that cat is well and truly out of the bag. The seer threw a glance at her sister herself. She really likes him. If I go with Jonan and do what the goddess wants, then Dulcine is free to do whatever she wants... For a moment she saw images of a blond-haired family, well most of them blond, stretching forward through time - generations of them. Is that what we all look like to the goddess, our potentials cast before us like shadows?
“I’m prepared to be bothered and I demand to be indulged.” Jonan tapped the ash off the end of his cigar. “If she’s not the seer, what’s her name?”
The Mistress of Duties and the high priest exchanged looks. The seer looked up at Jonan. He’s enjoying this.
“I have no dowry,” said Dulcine flatly.
“Empress-to-be’s only sibling,” responded Delloran, “That’s an enormous political potential right there.”
“You and both your daughters have the same eyebrows, nose and upper lip,” Jonan pointed out, punctuating his sentence by pointing the cigar at each woman in turn. “I’m not going to believe that this young lady isn’t your second daughter.”
“The seer is this temple’s major asset,” put in the high priest smoothly. “What recompense do you offer us in return for her? Of course, for a reduced recompense she could remain among us and you could return to visit on a regular basis.”
“Did you plan this?” demanded Dulcine.
Jonan stubbed out his cigar on the stonework surrounding the door.
The seer thought Delloran’s reply was heart-stoppingly simple, “Not until I met you.”
Jonan’s eyes began to glow with white-gold sunlight. The high priest and the Mistress of Duties both took a hasty step backwards. “Do you think the temple owns the seer?” Jonan’s breath fumed golden in the air. “Do you think you own the seer?”
The high priest swallowed nervously. “It is my duty to see to the temple’s interests.”
“Do you not know your own history?” Jonan’s voice had begun to reverberate, almost as if he had two voices, “The temple was founded to support and sustain the seer, the seer did not come into being to support and sustain the temple. You and she serve the divine spark, she and it do not serve you.” He looked around the room and the seer followed his gaze. Dulcine was looking at him open-mouthed while holding both Delloran’s hands. Delloran was looking at Dulcine. The other temple staff in the room looked as stunned as Dulcine, except for the high priest who looked terrified.
The high priest’s articulate response was, “Umm.”
“Madam,” Jonan turned to the Mistress of Duties, “I am marrying your younger daughter out of hand in front of the main altar in,” he paused to calculate, “The time it takes us to get there from here. You may wish to be in attendance.”
“I forbid it!” Her mother looked almost frantic. “Our place is here. Your wife would have to leave with you. Couldn’t she still produce your heir from here? We could go on-”
“That is what concerns me,” that reverberating double voice was almost gentle, “That you would go on as you always have, feeding her that baby-killing poison. Would you allow us only one child?”
The seer realised something and tugged at his sleeve with her free hand to get his attention. He looked down at her and she was lost for a moment in those glowing eyes, caught for the first time in her waking life in a divine regard. She shook her head to clear it. “All those alliances you talked about at dinner last night, you were serious?”
She swallowed hard. “That’s a lot of children.”
“I thought we might work on it together and see how things turn out.” He smiled at her and turned back to her mother. “Consider madam, fall in with the prophecies and my plans for executing them and you will be grandmother to an Emperor and a Duke, then great-grandmother to half the world. Oppose us and the best that will happen is that neither of your daughters will ever talk to you again.”
It was a small gesture, a bob and a nod of acquiescence, grudgingly made. “Very well.” The Mistress of Duties folded her hands in front of her and stood there, resolutely erect. “What do you want of us?”
“We marry,” said Jonan, “We pack, we leave. When we leave, every living creature in this temple will be on that open ground beyond the gates to the temple grounds to farewell the seer. Every living creature. No-one has a duty or a need more important than this. Do you understand me?”
“Yes,” the Mistress of Duties pursed her lips, “Is there anything else?”
“Everyone might be well advised to be packed to leave the temple,” Jonan blew on the end of the cigar and it ignited again, “And have their pack with them.” He took a draw on the cigar and the light in his eyes began to fade. “As a precautionary measure. So,” he looked around the room, “Who’s coming to our wedding?”