22 Prunalis to 21 Orcharis, Archilia’s Day 1138
By First Summer’s Night, I could finally look up from mundane law and get outside of myself. The panics still came and my face still seemed subtly off, but my shoulder was as Healed as it ever would be and my ribs were knitted.
I used the leisure to begin my other project, around my work — figuring out what came next. I received at least one urgent flash message from Savrin a tenday, and two or three letters, all asking my advice. I always responded, he never seemed to listen, and the questions were always variations on the theme of working with the Prava. He didn’t seem to learn from what I wrote. He made no mention whatsoever of my status, nor of any progress on returning me to my place. As expected.
Once Avah and I caught up the backlog of work, we found we only needed to work late three or four nights a tenday, instead of all of them, we could not work on the last two or three days of the tenday occasionally, and close the office entirely for Celestan’s largest festivals. Compared to my time as Prazia, we were positively lazy. Being two unattached, successful women in an affluent town meant every household with any pretensions invited us to everything. Had we accepted every invitation we received, we would have accomplished nothing. Avah spent at least one evening a tenday at a local dance, recital or musicale and forced me to accompany her at least once a tenday. Making those acquaintances was important; I’d need money and good will to challenge Savrin, Mathes and Tiwendar. Other evenings, we spent in the Belleview’s salon; Telia regularly brought writers, artists, musicians and philosophers to speak to her guests and the town. The last day of the tenday we always rode out to Archilavast for worship and meditation and the lectures they sponsored. Had a cloud of grief, shock and anger not been nailed over my head, I doubt I could have been happier.
I had spent twenty-two of my twenty-five years in almost constant work, save for the short holidays Da enforced. I’d been all of three when I got my first lessons in law, and I learned to read simultaneously with learning to speak. For a Royal child, and especially the designated Ascendar, leisure to be a child is an unaffordable luxury. When responsibility for a half-million people rests on so few, none can be excused, and they must all be superlatively competent as soon as possible, if not sooner. True, most Pronatiam and Pronemiam commence their adult work at sixteen, too, but a Wine District Pronator need know only viniculture, business and farm management. The Ascendar must understand everything that affects the government… and everything does. I’ve been pressed for minutes since I could reliably sit still, and a half-year’s accumulated legal work became a respite I desperately needed.
Not that I wasn’t anticipating Midsummer. The festival encompasses almost everyone; the crops are growing, the spring work is finished; lambing and calving are complete and sucking pigs are ready to be culled; the cows, goats and sheep give plenty of milk and the flocks are laying again; the spicy, crisp pale wines are palatable and the first fruits and vegetables are ripe. People don’t starve in winter, though food gets monotonous. Midsummer marks the beginning of plenty and the brief rest before the tumult of harvest. Most towns and langreves have long celebrations. Celadane and Sister Amaranth, the senior of Archilavast, invited Avah and me to share Archilavast’s Midsummer and Archilia’s Day, three tendays after Midsummer, and I relished the prospect, not least because I’d have uninterrupted time in their library.
I’d never seen a Midsummer festival. Cimenarum’s is reputably lavish, but we always missed it since it fell during the longest Prava recess, when Da escaped with us to the southern mountains to be a family, not a hive of bees. In those three summer tendays, we tramped the ridges, hunted, examined the stars, lived in a tent, climbed trees and were… as ordinary as possible considering Ministry boxes arrived every fifth day and Da disappeared with them to ensure Galantier didn’t descend into anarchy during our absences. We did the same at Harvest recess, two tendays at Last Autumn.
Archilavast was the best balm for my wounded soul imaginable. In Cimenarum, my religious obligations had always been fulfilled in the Karsai chapel, a pantheist space where all of Galantier’s gods were equally welcome. In fact, it meant each of the eleven temples and two of the syncretic sects sent someone to minister on a rota, and worship resembled Morning Audience, save that those appealing for notice, funding or privilege were religious, not secular. That sort of religious education is more like history lessons and philanthropy than an introduction to metaphysical mysteries. Within Archilavast’s barren chapel, I joined the community in raising my hands to the goddess, chanting her songs and pouring water for her. I sat facing a blank white wall and let her peace fill me as I stilled my mind. I’d never before been part of a community, and exercising my heretofore private faith for the first time instilled in me a comprehension I’d never had. It also let me understand Savrin a bit better. Though we found solace in different temples with entirely different ethics and senses of the world and faith, in our separate griefs we both sought connection with the numinous. Perhaps if we had that connection all along, we would not have needed it so badly as adults, and Sav might not have turned so fully away.
There are nine Archilian rites — dedication, in childhood; flowering, at adulthood; embarkation, when one chooses a path of wisdom to pursue; two rites of donation, when Archilians ensure future generations to tend Wisdom’s garden by partnering to create children for the order; revelation, when the results of one’s path of wisdom are given to the community; sowing, when one teaches what one has learned; recession, when some Archilian elders retreat into their own minds to contemplate the sum total of learning; and transition, when one leaves this life for the eternal one in Archilia’s light and fire. I’d been dedicated as a child, though the rest are denied to a Pantheist. Most Archilian rites are performed at Midsummer or Archilia’s Day — dedication being performed around the child’s sixth birthday and funerals held when needed.
At Midsummer, Avah and I would be included in the rites as female dedicates to Her Wisdom, but three days before the tenday long festival, Cel and I had a meeting about a legacy gift to the hospital, and a walk planned — her version of mind Healing. We were tramping through Archilavast’s mountainside woodlots when she said, “Do you want to take your second rite?”
I stalled for a good quarter-millia. I shouldn’t, since the Ascendar and Monarch must be Pantheist. I firmly believe our government must be at least Pantheist, if not entirely neutral about religion, but no matter my ultimate fate, I’m a person, too. There are thousands of conflicts when a government is invested in the single body of an individual, and even if I never managed to claim the throne, I didn’t want to abandon the possibility by claiming my private faith. However, taking the rite would confirm again to the Unholy Triumvirate that I didn’t expect to return to my former place. Yet, a consecrated priest of Lethis occupies the throne now. That precedent is established… “Can you explain the rite first?” I asked. “I’m rather above the normal age, and a half-adult’s dignity — and joints — are more flexible than my elderly version.” That, and I didn’t know if Flowering had an aspect of the Midsummer fertility festival. Some faiths do, but I absolutely could not tumble with anyone in the fields. Politics aside, I wasn’t ready.
Cel laughed. “What, do you think we make the girls hop about on one leg while reciting the Sophia creed? It’s nothing so extraordinary.” Her normally mobile, wry face stilled and took on a peaceful expression. “I honestly don’t know what the men do, though I assume it’s similar. We’ll walk out into the night and stand under the vast emptiness of the sky, each of us alone as we were before time. Then we light a fire from the eternal flame and come together in the presence of the light that defeats darkness. In ancient Porsiria, they performed the rite on the beaches and used driftwood so that the fire burned in every color imaginable, but we just put salts and herbs on the fire. It symbolizes the spark of wisdom in all of creation, as we are the spark against surrender to the darkness of ignorance, and only in community can we burn with Archilia’s fire. We use the eternal fire because it is like her Wisdom and love — eternal.” She sighed softly, then her cheeks pinked. “That probably sounds… mundane and rather pointless, but being alone in the dark and then knowing that you’re not alone, that we have such power so close at hand…”
I wanted that feeling.
Cel still didn’t know — by Archilian definition — whom I’d been born, though I’m certain she knew. Every lay Archilian of twenty-five would have known the second rite many times. Many wouldn’t perform the third, which technically makes one a novica, nor the rites of donation, since that dedicates a child to the Archilian way until adulthood, but I should have known this already.
I made the decision almost without thinking. No matter what my future held, I can separate my public self from my private one. I would never insist my faith be shared by all, but if my private faith helped sustain me in this bright, beautiful, savage world, would not that be better for the people I’d lead? Anyway, how could the quest for knowledge and the path of wisdom possibly damage anyone? Aren’t we all better off when we’re educated and part of a cooperative community? I nodded, tentatively at first, then more firmly.
When Celestan’s women wandered into the night, I went too, separated from those on either side by several yards. In near-perfect darkness and silence, I’ve never felt so small, nor so fully part of the vast whole of creation. I might be a mere snowflake or grain of sand compared to the staggering, ageless grace of the universe, but I’m part of it. And in that moment when the tiny seed flame caught, I felt Her Voice, knew her care and peace. I knew that this and every community of dreams and wisdom counterweighted darkness’ symbolic children — callousness, greed, wrath, pride. I cannot explain it. It is a mystery, in the purest sense of the word. We do not understand, but we perceive, and in that perception, we are remade as part of the universe.
Afterwards, there’s a celebration through the night. There’s dancing — there’s always dancing — and Avah enjoyed herself thoroughly. I had several lively conversations but as the sky lightened in the east, I noted how few people remained in the courtyard.
Celadane sat beside me on a strawbale. “You’ve lost Avah?”
I chuckled. “Fertility festival. She’s no reason to remain celibate.” I hadn’t seen her, nor he who had been escorting her over the past few tendays, for several hours.
“Nor do you,” Cel said, eying me sidelong.
I sat up straighter, but sighed nonetheless. “Not yet.”
“Will you ever tell me?” she asked. She didn’t sound hurt, precisely, but not happy, either.
“Perhaps, someday, when it’s safe for you to know.”
She nodded and sighed. “I hate to do this, because I so rarely see you this… well… content, but… um.” She handed me a letter from her mother.
I skimmed through family matters that meant little to me. Your father is moderating his tongue better, but he is sorely provoked, as they all are these days. He says, and I concur, that it’s like the last years of Ardenis, though I know you don’t remember. This boy is just as erratic. Not that I see your father much; they’re working like demons to mitigate the worst excesses coming from the northern arc. Dark rumors about the young lady are not helping matters; we’d be much helped if someone — anyone — had seen her recently. Since I can sooner imagine her on the face of the moon than in seclusion with that poor woman, I have my own nights of dark worries. Pax told us at an after-theater last tenday not to worry, but the infuriating lad wouldn’t say more.
As you requested, we shall send your share this year to the refuge, not Healers’ Institute; your father tells me he plans to increase our donations since most charities are going begging — more than most years. I am quite happy you are safe and out of this mess; would that we were, too.
I returned her letter. Things must be dire indeed if Teregenitor Alvard’s holding his tongue.
“I haven’t said anything — “
“Please don’t,” I said. The references were vague — expected, if one feared a letter might be read in transit — but the northern arc meant the Reformists, and I was likely the young lady in question. And yes, Savrin did seem as erratic as my late, little-mourned grandfather; several small brain-shocks in his last years frayed his temper and made him increasingly unreliable. “Why did you change your donations?”
“The Archilian refuge used to be a Famine Coffer,” she said. “They’ve stopped receiving their grain and cash distributions, but people still come there for help. If we turn them away, they’ve no other aid. All of the Four Sisters temples, the Lunagans and the Teandrians have been cut off, and I hear the same from the Sardanis and the Renarans. I’ve no Cleatarni or Corsari acquaintance, but I can guess.”
I shivered despite the warm night. Most charity funds went to the temples since they had the organization to find and care for those in need. Savrin had not closed the Famine Coffer, but if the temples weren’t getting their distributions, it made no difference. “Anything else you’ve heard?” I asked.
“That you haven’t?” She tilted her head back and looked into the fading stars. “The Healer General now wants records from my colleagues.”
“About civilians?” I asked, incredulous.
She nodded. “Which is passing strange in itself, but worse are the specific records he requested.”
“Healer General Generis was replaced,” I muttered to myself. That had slipped past me. “What happened to her? And what records?”
“She’s at the Renaran hospital again, in the Manufactury,” Cel said. “The new Healer General wants to know exactly what sort of procedures every Healer and Midwife does, what medicaments we prescribe — “
“Why?” I asked. “Leaving aside that you and your assistants have better things to do than duplicate records, the government needn’t know that. The Healer General’s office lacks the staff to handle that amount of information — a thousand Healers must generate ten thousand records a day — “
“Or more,” she said. “They don’t want our records, just a quarterly accounting of specific procedures and prescriptions.”
“That’s not so bad,” I said.
“It is,” she said. “Here it matters less because we’re so busy, but consider a smaller town, like Reva. One Healer there, with two assistants and two midwives. Grenarin serves about two thousand people. How many women? How many of child bearing age? Grenarin’s whole practice probably delivers twenty babies a year. From that one report, one can identify individuals.”
My stomach knotted. I suspected I knew why Savrin’s government wanted such information. The new Minister of War was bloodthirsty and, according to Ragin, something of a coward. He’d want every man who could be turned into a soldier if they decided to conscript. Further, the Lethians would be interested. They’re generally skeptical about Healing, since it violates the principle of decay, but the new order strongly disapproved of intimacy outside of marriage, and they’re not fond of it within marriage. Given midwifery records and Savrin’s support, they could punish women with pearls or who sought interruptions. Or just didn’t have a baby every two or three years, no matter why.
I would have thought that much information too unwieldy to compile, but Lethian clerks and scribes regularly work with enormous manuscripts. It might be too much to maintain in print, but Lethians were already rumored to keep detailed records about the communities in which they ministered. Adding another layer of complexity might not be beyond them. For a faith that believes in the principle of decay, they’re awfully organized. Why? What purpose does it serve? And can I question Master Cedri about them, next time I see him? Better to know one’s enemy. “Thank you, Cel.”
“Can you do anything?”
“I don’t know.” Yet. Time to get to work. “Thanks for trusting me. I know I give little enough reason for it. For now, the only advice I have for your mother is go home to Alvard and stay there. The rest of your family, too. Anyone who needn’t be in Cimenarum should leave and stay away. It’s much easier for the Royal Messenger Service to read every letter going in and out of the city than it is for them to read the millions of letters going from langreve to langreve.” I hesitated before giving her one last piece of knowledge that only one who knew Savrin intimately would know. It confirmed my identity, but Cel could maintain the Archilian definition of know with the best. “Savrin forgets what’s not right in front of him. He always has. He’s a master of out of sight, out of mind. If the only Royalists in Cimenarum are the Teregenis who must be there, the rest will be safer. Mathes won’t forget but Savrin has most of the power and he and Mathes aren’t getting along — “
“That’s good, right?” she asked.
I wobbled my head. Conflict meant some of Mathes’ more radical proposals failed or were overturned by Royal Writ in vengeance, but in a choice between evils, I prefer Reformist notions of government to Lethian ones. If Savrin broke entirely with Mathes, he’d still need advisors, and that meant me or the Lethians. I suspected it could go very badly for me if, in the next half-year, Savrin decided he wanted me as his primary advisor because he’d grown impatient with Mathes. Mathes would probably make common cause with the Lethians out of sheer spite. If their quarrel heated, I might again be a target. “Just don’t write that — next time you see your family, tell them you got it from an… unusually reliable source.”
Her head dropped forward on her neck, and I was startled to see her dab at her face. “I wish you could really talk to me. Every day, I get a little more worried.”
“I wish I could, too,” I said and patted her free hand. “And me, too.”
She sniffed once, then pulled something else from her pocket, a small blank book of the sort she used for notes. She put it in my lap. “If you won’t talk, as your Healer, I want you to write. You can always toss it in a fire and it’ll be gone, but you must communicate, even if only with yourself.”
The sun was above the horizon when I finally returned to the room I shared with Avah, though I didn’t expect to find her there and I was only retrieving clean clothing. My rest was over. I needed to get back to the real work of Galantier.
Yet Avah was preparing for bed, her long hair damp over her shoulder. She hadn’t cut hers so short. I sat on the edge of the narrow guest room bed. “You’re the last person I expected. Did you enjoy yourself?”
“Yes.” She curled into the corner of the bed and smiled dreamily. “Jareth is very sweet.” She almost purred, her eyes half-closed with satisfaction. “But I daren’t let it last. He wants children.”
That had to hurt her. I squeezed her hand. “Why aren’t you enjoying it while it does last?”
She looked rueful. “He’s quartered in the men’s dormor.”
“You could have left a note on the door; I’m sure Cel can find me a bed.”
She squeezed my hand back. “So you can live vicariously through me? It’s unfair to you, and according to Jareth, autumn barley fields need people to roll around on them. Firms up the earth and the soft little shoots just pop right back up. Rather like him.”
I looked at her skeptically. “Did I need to know that? And you don’t believe that, do you?”
“Actually, it is true,” she said. “Wheat needs it, too, though we use a roller down south.”
“Is that what it’s called? Encouraging the barley?” She blushed and we both laughed at the notion. “I’ll find another bed — but not that way,” I said.
She shook her head. “I’d rather not advertise something that can only be a dalliance. But thanks for offering.” She sighed again, less happily this time. “However, Jareth mentioned that Darav took quite an interest in you. You might consider taking a walk with him. It’s what we normal girls do.”
“You didn’t encourage him,” I said warningly. Her hesitation told all. “Avah — you should have told me first.”
“No, because a dalliance makes you look normal, just like coming to Celestan and declaring yourself Archilian instead of Pantheist. It tells the Triumvirate you’ve accepted your life as a free citizen.”
“That’s no reason to tumble with the first man who — “
“I didn’t say that,” she interrupted. “Try your pitiful substitute for flirting. Be seen with him. Certainly there’s someone up here reporting your movements back to Cimenarum. At least, were I Simin, and you had a potential rival like you, I’d have someone watching you, at least occasionally.” She sat up straight and looked at me hard. “I’m your last defense,” she said. “I may no longer officially be your security, but some things never change. Simin always said protecting you sometimes means protecting you from yourself, and in this case, you need to look as normal as possible. I made the right decision by encouraging Darav and you know it, else you’d have already started yelling.”
True. “I’m not a child.”
“Usually no, but in this, you are. Rien, talk to Cel about giant fennel. Use it. When Darav asks you to take supper in the woods, go. He’ll be gentle and when you tell him to stop, he will.”
“No,” I protested. “Even assuming I want a lover, which I can’t say I do, nobody knows if giant fennel prevents a kindling or just floods it very early. If the latter, it might ruin my one chance.”
“Fine, let the midwives blood you and fit you with a pearl until you decide to marry. You need somebody. I’m not enough. You need to live in the world.”
I gathered up my clean clothing and sponge bag to take to the women’s bathry. “I’m trying, Avah.”