Jesra tightened her grip on the hilt of one of her kelshars as she stared at the intricate entrance of the bahlan temple. On any other occasion the subtle patterns of the mosaics, mimicking but never quite becoming the swirling silver of clouds, the burning lights of sunrises, the lofty trunks of trees, and the shimmering petals of flowers, would have fascinated her, but today she was here to hunt someone that she had hoped to never see again.
Why had he come here? she thought and flexed the white-feathered wings folded at her back. This was not a place to plan an escape from, situated as it was in a populated part of a major city where troops or police could surround the building and numerous surveillance cameras would quickly spot a fugitive.
So why had he chosen it? Why had Pejan told her to meet him here?
She stretched out her tal-sense to look for his presence and found that it reached no further than the walls of the temple. Foreboding filled her. If the Tal was not within, then that would be a very good reason why Pejan had chosen to meet her there. She, and any other kelthrin, would be at a disadvantage in such a place.
Of course, that would include Pejan himself, as even a fallen kelthrin still relied on the Tal to fight.
Perhaps he just wanted to limit the possibility of fighting. If both of them were without the Tal, then neither would feel in a position to capture the other.
For a moment she considered just walking away. If talk was all she would have opportunity for, then she would rather not bother. Talking to Pejan could only be painful.
But the elders had told her that hunting Pejan was her responsibility. Her test. If she went back without even talking, they would just send her out after him again. At best.
She readied herself, taking five times as long to check over the adjustment of her black surcoat, red sash and white deflection platemail as she would have on any other occasion. When she had tightened every strap for the third time she steeled herself to go in. As she reached for the door she caught sight of herself in the giant mirror that formed its face.
She stopped, noting that her hair was out of order, and took another moment to tuck the stray pearlescent locks back into place behind the silvery horns that swept back from her forehead. Then she looked into her own eyes and saw fear, uncertainty and some unknown third emotion hovering around the blue shimmer of her irises.
She searched for the identity of the third emotion in the subtle cues of her oval face, finding it in the wrinkle of her black brow, the faint curve of her tan lips, the flare of her delicate nostrils and the pulsing blue glow of the sunburst lineage-marks on her pale cheeks.
She realized that she hadn’t just been adjusting her clothes to be ready for a fight, but to look her best, as much as a kelthrin had such a thing.
The urge to leave, no, to flee, came back ten times stronger than before.
Jesra was just about to turn when the mirrored door opened in and a white-wooled bahlan, his ram-horned head barely coming up to her collar-bone, beckoned her inside.
“Lord Farseeker is waiting for you, Kelthrin Jesra. Please come in.”
Pejan knew she had come, then. There was no running away.
She followed the little man into the temple and felt the Tal disappear into silence the instant she crossed the threshold. It was strange to not sense the ripple of living things around herself. To not know, as if she had her hand on them, where every object in the room was. She had been used to that awareness since shortly after she began her training in the Tal as a child and had come to rely on it more than sight. Her gravity sense, birthright of every lirin, still gave her an impression of the mass around her, but it wasn’t the same.
Without the Tal the world felt dull and empty.
Without the Tal she felt dull and empty.
She shook it off and kept moving. Duty.
The bahlan lead her down a long hallway to a wide, high ceilinged room filled with benches that seated praying bahlan of every color from black to brick red to blue-gray to white and yellow. Most of the male bahlan wore only short pants while the women wore skirts and sleeveless vests that covered their breasts. The fabric of the clothing was dull in color but held subtle patterns that told stories.
“This is your first time in a prayer house, isn’t it, Jes?”
Jesra turned, almost whirled, and spotted Pejan standing in a corner observing her. He smiled with honest delight when their eyes met and she shivered in response. Her heart beat faster as he unfolded from his place against the wall and approached, his green eyes intense and subtly higher than hers, his short bronze horns jutting forward where hers retreated, his wings a black mantle on his back that outlined his lithe form in shadow where hers almost glowed even in the dim light. She backed up a step to keep the distance, and her head, and he immediately stopped, giving her space, the only change in his expression a flicker of pain in his eyes.
Her heart twinged in response.
“Look,” he said, waving at their surroundings. “The absence of the Tal will be distracting you right now, but that’s no excuse to miss the beauty in this place.”
She took the offered excuse to break eye contact and examined the interior. It was, if possible, even more beautiful than the outside. Where the exterior had been glass-chip mosaic, the inside was intricately carved wood and richly embroidered tapestries. Close inspection of one of the pillars showed her several different colors of wood all layered onto each other to form an image of a river flowing from a spring in a mountain. The woods were all chosen with appropriate colors, silvery white for the peak of the mountain, jadewood for the forests, and various earthtone lumbers for the lower slopes, except for the river itself, which was done in bloodwood of a particularly deep and vibrant hue, which seemed an odd choice.
She reached out, looked to see if anyone would stop her, and on finding all the bahlan ignoring her in favor of their prayers, ran her fingertips along the river and the folds of the hills. Perfectly carved and burnished. Beautiful.
“Each pillar depicts a story from one of their prophetic songs,” Pejan said. “Forty songs, forty stories, forty pillars in every prayer house. Not all are done in wood. Some are gold, or gemstone or ivory.”
“Bahlan are slaves,” Jesra said. “How do they afford it?”
“They get paid a little, and a good quarter of each day’s wage for every bahlan is spent here.”
Several bahlan left, at the end of their allotted prayer time, and several more came in, as well as two robed Peltay with their long ears lowered in respect, all passing by the two outsiders without comment.
“Why is the Tal not here?” Jesra asked, glancing at Pejan for a moment then looking away to examine another part of the room.
“That is the question, isn’t it? If you ask a bahlan, they will tell you there is no Tal. Perhaps the strength of their disbelief repels it from this place. Or perhaps the being they pray to does. I have no answer for you.” He moved into Jesra’s line of sight again, but he was himself looking around the room and not at her.
She eyed him covertly, watching his graceful steps for any change from what she had known before. If anything there was a new hesitance to his motions, or perhaps a new patience. He shook out his great bat wings, resettled them and then looked to her again. She looked away, pretending to be studying the carpet, which had its own richness of patterns.
“The important thing, Jes, is that there is a different kind of thinking that can be done here. Once you get used to the absence of the Tal there is a peace to the silence. A still place, perhaps. The Tal is always moving, always breathing, even when you forget it’s there. Here, there is nothing… except the quiet you will find underneath the nothing.”
“Is that why you summoned me here? To tell me about nothing?”
She met his eyes, challenging him, but he only responded with another delighted smile.
“I have missed you.”
She gritted her teeth and lashed her tail in frustration.
“They sent me to kill you, Pejan.”
“I know,” he said and spread his hands, exposing the marriage tattoos that spelled out Jesra’s name, clan and birthsign on the webbing between each of his fingers. He looked them over, then smiled at her yet again.
She gripped the back of one of the benches and squeezed until the wood groaned and cracked.
“I will kill you, Pejan.”
“Perhaps.” He stepped within arm’s reach and held out his hand for hers. She released the bench and he took that hand and gently spread her long, strong fingers, exposing silvery scars on the webbing between the pale palm and the black back of her hand, where her own markings had been, so he could examine them. Her heart hammered at his touch, shaking her whole body so that she was certain he noticed, but he released her hand without acknowledging it.
“Perhaps even today,” he said, then met her eyes again and looked deep into them, seeing only her for a long time.
“But not this instant.”
She wanted to disagree but could only nod.
“Just listen to me, Jes. I am not what they say I am, and I do not intend to walk the path that so many other vulthrin have walked before me.”
She looked for lies, for all the tells that she’d learned since they were children together, but they weren’t there. “So you don’t intend to overthrow the Legarchy?”
She snorted. “So you do.”
“I intend to change the paradigm, Jes. If that causes the Legarchy to fall apart, so be it.”
“The paradigm being that the Legarchy has the power, and not you.”
Pejan’s tail twitched at her response and he shook his head sharply.
“The paradigm being that we refuse to acknowledge that there is more to the universe than the Ring.”
It took Jesra a moment to home in on his thinking. Only a moment.
“The Black is safety,” she said.
“The Black is ignorance,” he replied.
Jesra stepped back and shook her wings out, but didn’t break eye contact.
“We don’t even know what’s outside it.”
She had no reply. She studied him instead, trying to figure out where he was, what had become of her beloved Pejan… after. She had expected bitterness, anger, blame.
The only thing she could find was the studied determination of someone with a well considered plan. And the same affection for her as always. And sorrow.
This was not the mindset of a vulthrin. Not any that she had ever read about.
“And what will you do when the Kellate tries to stop you?”
“If I cannot go around them, I will cut my way through as many as I have to, and no more.”
“You will kill other Kelthrin?”
“If I have to. And I am not a kelthrin anymore. I was cast out.”
“Because you would not repent.”
Jesra closed her mouth. She did not want to say, not when he still had those tattoos.
Yet it had been his fault. He had pushed, he had demanded that they do it his way. The one way the Kellate had banned. She felt anger uncoil inside her.
“You knew it was against the rules when you…”
He cut her off. “We, Jesra. We knew it was against the rules.”
She stumbled, pulled herself back together.
“You insisted on an official marriage.”
“On vows, Jes. On promises. On treating you not one bit less rightly than you should be.”
“Pleck, Pejan! I would have been yours either way. We could have been together!”
“I told you then I would not receive any of you without giving you all of me, and I meant it. I made a promise.”
“The Kellate demanded that I keep my promise to them, and instead I kept my promise to you. And you kept your promise to the Kellate. That is what happened, and that is all. I will not hate them for telling me to leave, but neither will I repent of my decision or submit to their rules now that I am not one of them.”
“Pejan! They are the Kellate! The Lightbringers. The Lawkeepers! They enforce justice and bring peace throughout the Ring!”
“They enforce a status quo, and many of the things they say are just, are not just. I will not submit to them, and I will not allow them to continue like they have for the past two-thousand years.”
“So you’ll kill them?”
“For the sake of every living being in the Ring, yes. If I have to. ”
“And what about me?”
Pejan gave her a broken smile. “My plan has flaws.”
“Flaws where you kill me?”
“Is that what I said, Jes? Is that who I am to you?”
Jesra tried not to see what he had meant, but she already knew it. Knew it deep down, in a way that made her gut clench and chilled her clear through.
“Takta plekat, Pej! Why don’t you just stop? Go somewhere on the outer rim, have a family…”
Jesra felt like like her insides were going to crush her, to twist her heart until it crumpled and stopped beating. Was that what this was all about?
“Will you stop if I go with you? If I leave the Kellate right now and just go?”
He gave her a sad look.
“Then why? Tal! Why? What’s so important that you’ll throw everything away for it?”
“I’d have to show you. You’d have to come with me and see. Read the reports and ancient records, see the broken stars and the old stations, hear the strange transmissions. Talk to the outsiders hiding in the rim. Ask the questions you don’t want to ask, and realize that the only answer is on the other side of the Black.”
She shivered, the world beginning to slide out from under her. Pejan wasn’t pleading with her. He never pleaded, it was the strangest thing. But she was slipping toward him. Falling toward him.
She wanted to know what drove him.
If it really was so important…
She wasn’t thinking straight. Her thoughts were warped. Her priorities were warped. This was why the elders had forbid marriage, because the ties were too close, too powerful. She reached out for the Tal, to find wisdom, but the Tal wasn’t there, only the quiet.
Curse you, Pejan! Why do you have to be you?
“Will you come with me, Jes?” He asked, and waited for an answer. She glared at him in return, trying to keep herself angry at him while she struggled to think in the quiet. After a minute of silence he started to show some nervousness, then genuine worry. Her resolve wavered, and she stopped reaching for the Tal and just looked at him.
Saw him in the quiet, watching her, hoping, waiting.
Her resolve shattered.
She grabbed him and buried her face against his neck, then wrapped her wings around him and crushed him to herself.
“I hate you, Pej,” she whispered. “Why couldn’t you just not see? Why couldn’t you just listen, and believe, and do what you’re told?”
Pejan shuddered against her and she felt his arms start to come up around her, hesitate, then slowly close around her back and return her squeeze.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
She released her grip with one arm and slammed him in the side with a knuckle-punch that would have cracked stone. He gasped, but didn’t let go of her.
“Don’t you dare be sorry. I’m going to throw away everything for you. Don’t you DARE be sorry, Lord Pejan Farseeker!”
There was a long pause and she thought he was just enjoying having her close. Then he said,
“I promise I won’t be sorry if you’ll agree to be Lady Farseeker again.”