The former high priest went discontentedly to bed in his tent. It was his second night of not being high priest and he felt he had a lot to be discontented about.
The temple no longer existed – it had collapsed the moment the seer bearing a divine spark of the goddess within her had left the grounds. She was now married to the Sun Emperor and her Imperial coronation was being planned. With the seer gone, the temple’s main function was gone too and it was going to be rebuilt not the way it was but to guard and mark the way to the Deep Altar. As no man had ever returned from the Deep Altar, a gathering of the goddess’ senior clergy had replaced him with the temple’s former Mistress of Works. His old ally, the Mistress of Duties and the seer’s mother, had been sidelined as well but she was going to organise her other daughter’s wedding to the heir of the Duke of Ondo so he suspected she’d find herself nicely settled somewhere. Most of the rest of the male clergy were moving to the capital to found an abbey under the Master of Studies and the Master Librarian who had both been invited to instruct at this university-thing the Sun Emperor was founding. Some of the female clergy, like the Mistress of Infants and Oblates and most of the librarians, were going too. He had been pointedly not asked. The heads of the goddess’ other major temples had suggested that he might take up a travelling auditorial role but it was all very vague...
He was in a night bound garden lit by starlight and fragrant with pale blooms. Espaliered plants and staked flower spikes stood dark against the brick walls. Formal beds in sculpted, graduated heights surrounded a central circle of grass that showed a studding of flowers, even by starlight. The centre, the focal point of garden, the pride of place was occupied by a statue. The former high priest could not have said what it was made of, particularly in this light, but its subject was portrayed on a greater than human scale, a creature of grace, womanly attributes and female beauty. He was also not alone.
She moved through the garden, deliberately brushing the beds of plants to release the scents of leaf and blossom as she came. Once he became aware of her he could only watch her come towards him, unable to move or speak.
As she reached him, her face cloaked in shadow, her voice resonated through the garden, “There you are, you foolish man.” The glorious voice sounded almost fond, he thought. “I’ve never had the opportunity to tell you how much I like this place, have I?”
He gazed, awed and gobsmacked, at the weapon suspended from a belt around her waist. “No, divine mistress,” he sank to his knees and did not prostrate himself only because she had not left him room to do so without turning aside from her, “but I do not know where we are.”
“Oh, do get up,” she said with a touch of asperity, “if I wanted you to grovel, you’d know it. I suppose you don’t normally see this place this way.” She gestured grandly as he stood. “This is the portion of your mind devoted to me and my service. I must admit that I’ve always found your image of me very flattering. I do hope,” she looked at him almost coyly, “that this meeting doesn’t prove too disillusioning.”
“Uh, divine lady, there’s nothing I can say to that statement that won’t sound all wrong.” He paused and considered his conversational options. “Should I have noticed you here before now?”
“I don’t think so,” she sounded amused, “I took care to wander through while you were concentrating on something else. I think it’s good to know what those sworn to my service have running around in their heads.”
“Am I in trouble for the business with the seer?” She was already here and it was now a real fear.
“I’m not making you grovel, am I?” She still sounded amused. “I would have preferred it if you’d treated her less like an inconvenient tool, but you did what I needed you to do. She’s a dear girl who loves her family and her home. If she’d been entirely happy where she was, it’s possible that not even true love could have gotten her to move and I couldn’t guarantee true love. I will admit,” a touch of pensiveness entered her voice, “that I didn’t realise how isolated never being addressed by name can make a human feel. It didn’t matter so much when they came to the task later in life and they were being called ‘Mother’, ‘Grandmother’ or ‘High Priestess’ anyway, but it has been a real issue the last few generations. Particularly as your hierarchy was pushing physical isolation as well. I must say,” her tone shifted again, to amused and intrigued this time, “Jonan does seem to have a way with breaking down that isolation. Perhaps I should recultivate my acquaintance with Jokkiel...” She finished with a gurgle of laughter.
The former high priest thought to himself that her mouth seemed wider under the shadows than he would have expected. Then he wondered whether, in the current circumstances, he had any thoughts to himself.
“But, to business.” She was suddenly all practicality. “You, Ciri,” of course she knew the familial form of his given name, “are now a free agent and at something of a loose end. Though I must say, you do seem to like filling the rest of your mind up with worries – can’t stand the unfurnished feel perhaps?” She smiled that impossibly wide smile again. “I have a little job for you. The seer and the Chambourian Verses are important, but they’re not the only iron I have in the fire. There’s an item I have tucked away in storage that I believe is ripe to come back into play. I want you to retrieve it for me.”
“Divine lady?” He was flabbergasted. Whatever he thought of himself, he had never considered himself quest material. Quests handed out by gods only happened in legends and surely not to middle-aged administrators and politicians.
“Ciri, trust me on this. You’re not just in one legend at the moment, you’re in at least two.” There seemed to be a lot of teeth in that open smile. “I’m the goddess of time, I know what I’m talking about.” Her mouth closed again. “I could tell you exactly how to get there but you wouldn’t be able to follow the directions because you can’t do the things I can do.” She took his hand, put something in it, and then wrapped his fingers around it. “So you’ll have to do it the hard way. Start by going north along the Broken Way until you find the symbol pressed into the gold disc. The next step will come to you, I’m sure.” She released his hand and stepped away. “It will do no harm if everyone from the temples or with the Sun Emperor thinks you’ve left in a snit. That would actually make it easier for certain useful things to happen. Oh, and you might want to get rid of some of that unnecessary worry-clutter, it’s not really helping you, is it?” She stepped back again and was gone.
He woke. A particularly annoying member of a particularly annoying species of migratory cuckoo was making its piercing mating call from the peak of his tent. It was light outside, but not by very much and the sounds he could hear nearest him were people threatening a certain bird.
It had been a strange dream born, he was sure, of wishful thinking. Then his right hand, the one the goddess had held in his dream, touched a metal disc in his bedroll. He pulled it out into the light. It wasn’t a coin but it was gold. On one side, pressed into the metal was a trident-like symbol with the tines and shaft touching the rim of the disc. He turned the disc over and found the symbol was on both sides.
It seemed he was going on a journey.