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A priestess heals an enemy captain only to find him threatened with execution as a captive.
Beneath heavy gray clouds, Mara watched the battle unfold. The brief archery duel had ended, the Kailorian infantry throwing themselves into Aemeyn pikes with axes held high. The cavalry now clashed in front of them, closer to Mara. The gaudy banners and surcoats of the Fea knights gleamed despite the gloom. Bellicose shouts and anguished cries merged with the clatter of steel against steel, all rolling across the muddy field to break on the low hills to Mara’s left. Standing in the Kailorian camp, she grimaced at the sound, her hands clasped together under the sleeves of her tawny robe. This was the first open battle Mara had witnessed. Her seven years on crusade had been consumed by endless sieges. As scarring as the sieges had been, that plodding, numbing form of conflict had not prepared her for the ferocious clash of tens of thousands.
A gust of wind came from the north, and Mara saw the first knight gallop away from the melee, leading a horse whose rider was slumped forward and motionless. She saw from their heraldry that they were both men of status, puissant Fea lords. They quickly crossed the two hundred yards that separated the camp from edge of the battle. Grime speckled Mara’s robes as she ran out to meet them.
“Heal him quickly!” shouted the leading knight. “The men already waver.”
Mara nodded solemnly and approached the wounded knight. His gold and sapphire surcoat was pierced and torn in many places, his polished armor scratched and pitted. Dents covered his shoulder plates, and the top his helm was beaten in. Blood dripped from his visor. Breathing deeply, Mara took hold of his right arm and began a resonant chant. Through Saint Amria, she prayed to Kailor, the Lord. A moment later the knight straightened, shook himself, and drew his sword. He murmured thanks to Mara as he spurred his horse back into battle, the other knight beside him. She sighed as she watched them go. She was sworn to aid the sick and wounded wherever she found them, but hated healing men only to see them return to fighting, even in a crusade.
“And yet what is worth fighting against, if the Aemeyn Empire is not?” she muttered to herself. Aemeyr sought to conquer all lands under the sun, and perhaps beyond. She made no treaties save brief truces in times of weakness. Aemeyn armies moved patiently but relentlessly against any who did not submit to their emperor's rule. Within the Empire, people could be bought and sold, and even the darkest false gods were freely worshiped. So it had been for hundreds upon hundreds of years, and for as long the faithful of Kailor had opposed them.
Mara shook her head sadly. She looked to the west, to Aemeyr, and thought she could make out the water of the River Axios. This was a long-contested field. Nigh-unassailable towers watched over the river at this point, allowing Aemeyn armies to pass into Kailorian territory. Customarily, the crusaders let them enter mostly unmolested, for there were many stalwart Kailorian castles near the river. Mara had heard the strategists, always learned men from Jaredyn, speak: they regarded open battle as far too perilous. The last battle here, sixteen years ago, had been a disastrous loss for the Kailorians. Yet some men chafe when confined to fighting in sieges. When scouts reported that the crusading army outnumbered the entering Aemeyn force, the Fea nobles insisted on striking, shouting down the men of Jaredyn.
Soon more injured Fea knights came to the camp, and Mara had no more time for contemplation, her focus spent on treating the wounded and giving commands to the others in her order. Their former daring forgotten, most of these knights did not wish to fight once more. Their grim faces signaled defeat as they asked only to be made strong enough to flee further. Others, those brought back from the edge of death and those who had passed it, remained in the camp.
“Our cavalry is broken,” men began to say, and Mara saw that they spoke truly. The bulk of the Fea knights thundered past the camp in confusion. Instead of pursuing, most of the Aemeyn horse savagely turned to attack the Kailorian foot from behind. Yet hundreds of Aemeyn knights, in resplendent bronzed armor, surged toward the camp. Seeing their cavalry already in flight, few camp guards had the courage to stand against the Aemeyns. They fled or threw down their weapons. Some of the multitude of servants also fled, but most wavered, cowering in their tents until the chance had passed them by. The Aemeyn horsemen swiftly encircled the camp, shouting in their strange tongue. Despite the time she had spent with Ameyn prisoners, Mara had learned little of it.
Near her, one camp guard rushed against the Aemeyns with a two-handed axe. He fell under a flurry of sword and mace blows. Mara leapt toward him, pulling his body back. He was nearly gone, with a shattered arm and cloven skull, but she knelt down and tried to fend off death. The Aemeyns murmured angrily. Mara heard a blade whistling through the air above her as she chanted, then a sharp clang. She looked up to see an Aemeyn knight with a crimson crest leaning over her out of his saddle, the sword of another Aemeyn caught in his gauntleted hand. With gray eyes glittering, the crested Aemeyn spoke a few harsh words to his fellow, and then released the sword.
Mara pulled the camp guard farther away, looking at the Aemeyn with wide eyes. She had not expected such mercy from one of them. Still staring, she rose and called for a lesser member of her order to take the wounded man to a bed. The Aemeyn dismounted and took off his helm. His face was long and scarred, but his expression was soft.
“I did not mean for that to happen,” he said to Mara, now speaking flawless Lathinian. “I am sorry.” Then his voice became deep and resonant, and he looked up to address the whole camp. “I am Octaevion Nicaetas, and here I speak for the Emperor. Know that the he has given me leave to be merciful. Do not fear slavery or execution. You will all become Aemeyn citizens and be welcomed by my people. In time, you will come to understand and even love our ways.”
Mara marveled that such words would come from an Aemeyn captain. The people of camp whispered to each other. Some looked to the hills to the south. Finally, a camp guard spoke up.
“Your arrogance inspires awe, Aemeyn,” he said. “Save such proclamations until you have victory in the field. Listen to cries coming from behind you. We Kailorians have not yet given up.”
“Victory is at hand,” Octaevion replied. “Your cavalry has fled; your footmen are surrounded. You must think of your new lives under the Emperor now.”
But a tremor went through his horsemen even as he spoke, and they began to turn to the south. A host of twelve hundred Jaredyn knights charged from behind the hill where they had been waiting in reserve. Ebony-clad priests rode with them, singing praises to the Lord in fell voices. It seemed as if Kailor had blessed their horses with heavenly speed, for Octaevion barely had time to remount and form up his men before the knights of Jaredyn struck. They were fresh, with long and heavy lances, while the Aemeyns had broken or lost most of their spears in battle, and were already weary.
Mara grimaced and braced herself for the coming carnage. Her eyes followed Octaevion, noticing how he wielded his mace with a strange hesitance. When she saw him fall she could not restrain herself. She dove in amongst the horses to rescue his body, not even pausing when a hoof struck her in the head, for she wore a steel cap beneath her bonnet. Some passing Jaredyn knights cursed her, but she managed to drag Octaevion away from danger. Mara saw that the plates over his belly had been pierced twice by lance points. Blood bubbled out of the wounds as she prayed for Saint Amria to save him.
“Thank you,” Octaevion murmured, reaching up and squeezing Mara's forearm weakly.
“Saint Amria taught us to aid all in need,” she replied, pulling out of his grasp.
The knights of Jaredyn swept away the Aemeyns by the camp. Pausing only to reorder their ranks, they rushed to support the beleaguered Kailorian infantry. Mara saw that the ground around the camp was littered with dead and dying Aemeyns. Once she was certain Octaevion would live, she placed him in a bed and went out to save any Aemeyns she could. She soon became exhausted and spent, for channeling divine grace strains mortal flesh. Yet she persevered in her mission, using salves, potions, and bandages.
Suddenly a Kailorian priest appeared, looming above her. “We have won the field,” he said, leaning on a long-handled axe. “Leave these heathens and come tend to the faithful.”
Most of the Aemeyns had been helped or were beyond it, so Mara obeyed the man wearily. She saw the slaughter on the main field and sighed deeply. Broken men and weapons lay everywhere. The stench of death and sweat forced its way down Mara's nostrils. Behind her, a young priestess swooned and fell into a pool of blood and muck. Mara gently lifted the girl to her feet, wiping her face. Then they both set to work, though the task seemed overwhelming. The moans and cries of thousands of wounded men washed over them.
“The pikemen of Auria surpassed all prior valor today,” Mara heard a nearby warrior say brightly, resting a bloody two-handed hammer across his shoulders. She could tell he was a noble by the quality of his harness. “It made me proud to fight on foot. By Kailor, they fully matched the Aemeyns.”
“That they did,” a similarly armed warrior replied, “but it would have been for naught without the priests. They bolstered our spirits and made us firm, even when we were beset from every side. Make no mistake, friend. The Lord gave us this victory, not any men.”
“You speak rightly. I saw how the axes of the clergy rent armored men in two. That was the wrath of the Lord. He made the heathens suffer.”
Mara wound bandages around a man’s shattered arm as the warriors spoke. She scowled, staring at the Kailorian soldiers swarming over the fallen bodies of the Aemeyns, murdering the injured and looting anything they could grab. It was mostly the pikemen from Auria, Mara thought. They had become renowned for their indiscipline after victory. A few priests were shouting for them to stop, with no effect. In the distance, the knights of Jaredyn continued the rout. Mara could hear faint screams.
“I hate men and their wars,” she said.
At dusk the Jaredyn cavalry returned, bearing few prisoners. Mara had no bandages or salves left by the time she began searching among the mounds of Aemeyn dead. She found a breathing man under two corpses. He was young and fair-haired, with a wicked slash across his throat. Mara cupped his face in her hands and invoked Saint Amria. It proved too great a strain. She fainted, falling on top of him and into dreams.
Mara found herself in a verdant field, half tilled and growing wheat, half filled with buttercups. The sky was cloudless. The sun shone resplendently. Finches and sparrows flitted through the field, warbling merrily. Octaevion stood beside her as husband and lover, affection sparkling in his gray eyes. He wore an amber tunic instead of armor, and bore a thin walking staff in place of a mace. He wrapped an arm around Mara's waist and they gazed off into the west together. All about them, priests of Kailor hammered their axes into hoes or dedicated them to cleaving only wood. Mara simply breathed. The air filling her body felt warm and clean.
She woke inside a tent, the images of the dream gradually fading. Sitting up, she placed a hand over her heart and shook her head. It felt like years had passed. “What a puerile fantasy,” she said, rising to her feet. “I am a woman, not a blushing girl.” The smile on Octaevion's tan face lingered as she dressed herself. She wondered why she had saved him. As an Aemeyn captain, she knew he would be judged in church court and surely put before the axe. She had seen it happen before. The priests considered leading men against the faithful to be worse than murder. Even common Aemeyn soldiers received many lashes.
“I'll make them take him to the high arbiter in Clunea at the least,” Mara whispered.
She stepped out of the tent. Waiting outside, a younger priestess saw her and smiled. “He lives, Sister,” she said. “The man you were trying to save, I mean. He lives.”
“That is good.” Mara looked up to see a reddish sun peeking through the clouds. All about her, men rolled up tents and strapped packs onto horses and mules. The army was preparing to move. “Where is Father Kain?” she asked the priestess.
He was the ranking priest in army, the man assigned to watch over Mara. She shivered slightly, remembering their first meeting as she walked through the disappearing camp. He had just come from an execution; Mara could still see the tiny splotches of blood that had peppered the edges of his flowing white robes. He was not cruel, Mara knew, only devoted to the axe and the scales, cold and disinterested: a paragon of stern justice. She found him talking with a number of warriors, wearing an alabaster mantle over his armor.
“Know that I protest the execution of any prisoner,” she said. “I will argue for mercy in any case that is brought up.”
Kain looked down at her grimly. “You need not shout such things at me. You sound as if you fear that I have already gone through the prisoners with a bloody axe. I am not that kind of man.”
The men standing by Kain stared at Mara, some murmuring disdainfully. Mara felt her cheeks growing faintly hot. “I did not intend to be discourteous. I am sorry. Perhaps my wits remain benumbed from the battle.”
“There would be no shame in that. We have all suffered.” Kain stepped closer to Mara. “I can understand your passion, Priestess. Seeing this endless destruction pains me as well. But mercy is not the way stop it, no matter how much it appeals to the heart. Only justice can bring about order.”
It was a debate they had had many times before. Mara turned away. “I have my duties to attend to. I wish you well.”
Searching through the camp, she gathered up the other followers of Saint Amria and led them in afternoon prayers. Their little circle made Mara consider how few of them there were: a few dozen amidst an army of thousands. They spent the rest of day tending to the remaining wounded as the army marched away from the River Axios. After sunset, Mara sought out Octaevion among the prisoners. Most were sitting in rows now, their wrists shackled together behind their backs. There were perhaps a thousand of them, Mara thought, largely because of the efforts of her order. She wandered amongst the prisoners for some time.
“Greetings, Priestess,” Octaevion called out to her at last. The guards nearby shifted nervously, gripping their axes. He looked different, stripped of his armor. They had given him only a coarse tunic to wear. He smiled gently at Mara, revealing hidden scars. He did not seem at all fearsome now, yet somehow he retained his former dignity. “Please tell me your name, my savior.”
“My name is Mara of Rowen, but I did not save you. That was the grace of Kailor, called down in Saint Amria's name.”
“I still identify the gift with its bearer.” Octaevion paused, and his eyes flashed, the smile fading to only a trace. “You saved me, yet the other servants of your god say I am to be put to death. Why is this?”
Mara nearly recoiled at the sudden intensity. “I will not abandon you to that fate, but only because Saint Amria preached mercy for all creatures. As the priests say, you deserve death for what you have done.”
He hung his head, pale brown hair cascading over his face. “Will your voice be enough to stay their hands?”
“It may well not be,” Mara whispered. “Would you rather I had left you to die in the field?”
“No,” he said softly, looking up. “I'm grateful for whatever time you have given me.”
The rising moon doused everything in ghostly white as Mara bid Octaevion farewell and retired to her tent. “Not since my initiation have I felt so unsure of myself,” she murmured before beginning her evening prayers.
She met with Kain the next morning, under a light but chilling rain. Behind them, the crusading army began to march north, to a nearby fortress. “I have but one Aemeyn captain to accuse,” Kain told her from under the hood of his cloak. “All the others fled or died in battle. Let us leave for Clunea quickly if you will argue for this man.”
Mara chose to travel alone, and Kain brought only two lesser priests with him. Even Octaevion had a horse, though his hands were bound. The clouds parted as they rode away from the ravaged border with Aemeyr and into Faine. Soon the sun shone, outlining rolling hills and lively autumn forests. Kain enforced a grueling pace, and they flew across the countryside, speaking little.
“Why does she make us waste days for this one Aemeyn?” Mara heard one of the priests whisper as they stopped to eat in a small town. “In my mind it is a great mercy not to slay every Aemeyn who has taken up arms against us. Does that not satisfy her and her saint?”
Kain silenced the man with a stern glance, and the meal passed quietly. Octaevion thanked their hosts eloquently as they left. “You Kailorians are a pleasant people,” he said to Mara. “I could live happily as a prisoner in this land.”
Dusk fell many miles later, and, after prayers in a country church, they took rooms in the local priest’s home. Despite a comfortable bed, Mara slept fitfully and woke a few hours before dawn. She rose and approached the priest who guarded Octaevion’s windowless room.
“I will relieve you,” Mara said to the guard. “Return to sleep if you wish.”
The man hesitated; Mara could see the suspicion in his dark eyes. Yet weariness apparently overcame it, and the priest went to his bed. Mara took his place by the heavy wooden door. It was not meant to be a cell; it had been a pantry before they arrived.
“I am not sleeping,” Octaevion called out softly. “Come in and talk with me, Mara.”
For a moment Mara wondered, for Octaevion was lean and strong, a mighty Aemeyn captain tried in countless battles. What if he had escaped from his shackles; might not he seize and silently strangle her after she opened the door? She thought of praying to Saint Amria for a ward against harm. Then she shook her head, tossing her auburn hair, and laughed. She entered Octaevion's room without further delay. “What do you wish to speak of?” she asked.
“I have been thinking about your people.” In the darkness, Mara could hardly make out Octaevion's form. “Men have few luxuries and many look ill fed. It is not like in Aemeyr. Are the common people in all of Kaildom as poor they are here?”
“The Fea nobles are harsh masters. But few lands are much better off, save those by the great city of Jaredyn. The Church cares for our poor. We do not abandon them.”
“In Aemeyr there is no need for such care. All people provide enough for themselves. Famine is unheard of my country, Mara.”
“Why do you speak of this?”
“I want you to know that we Aemeyns have reasons for fighting to expand the Emperor’s rule. We do not do it out of bloodlust, nor out of greed. There is no fighting inside Aemeyr. If the rest of the world would but submit, an age of unequaled peace and plenty would follow.”
“There would be peace if your emperors did not endlessly make war. You have tried for more than a thousand years, and the only result has been a multitude of graveyards.”
“There you are wrong, Mara. Inside Aemeyr there is peace. Inside Kaildom there is not. You cannot deny that the lords of Faine fight amongst themselves incessantly, as well as with those of Auria, Portan, and Harney. In the north you crusade against the Tormlings. You would still have many wars to fight without Aemeyr.”
Mara sighed and hung her head. She could come up with no answer.
“As Kailor rules in the heavens, so must an emperor rule on earth,” Octaevion continued. “That is the only way to have order.”
Mara frowned. She doubted that Octaevion truly revered Kailor. “You speak sweetly,” she said, “but would you not massacre a town full of orphans and grandmothers if your emperor commanded it? Answer me truthfully.”
Now Octaevion sighed, and he put his head in his hands. “I would,” he said, his voice slow and tense, as if each word wounded him. “If the Emperor commanded it there would be some wisdom behind it. But he has never asked such a thing of me, and I pray to all the gods that he never asks it of any man.”
“Yet such horrors have happened. I would not slay anyone, not even if Kailor himself, descending from heaven in his full splendor, ordered me to. War is too costly a way to make peace, Octaevion.”
For some time Octaevion said nothing. Outside, a dog howled long and mournfully. Mara ran her fingers through her tangled hair and leaned against the wall. “Your words give me much to consider,” Octaevion said at last. “Tell me more of your saint.”
Mara talked of Saint Amria and her teachings, from her birth in central Faine six hundred years ago to her martyrdom at the hands of misguided clerics of Kailor. Saint Amria had preached a new message, that sins could be washed away without blood or punishment. A pale light radiated from Mara's face as she spoke of the oaths against killing or causing suffering, of how Saint Amria had even practiced mercy against the followers of the dark gods she opposed, and redeemed many of them.
“There is a faith like that in Aemeyr,” Octaevion said as the sun rose, “though they worship an ancient Aemeyn deity.”
Soon Kain and the other priests awoke, and the party returned to the road. Mara and Octaevion rode side by side, still conversing. The two priests stared and grumbled, while Kain said nothing but prayers to Kailor for speed. As the sun drooped low in the sky, they saw the peaks of the cathedral, the seat of the High Arbiter of Clunea, rise in the distance. It was as much a fortress as place of worship and justice, and had broken armies in the past. The city sprawled out in the cathedral's shadow; no other building was a quarter as tall. They followed the stone streets to the broad gates of cathedral, passing colorful but subdued markets, gray houses, and noisy taverns. Most of the city’s inhabitants paid them no heed. A few scrawny dogs lifted their noses from gutters and idly sniffed at the five companions. Beggars timidly reached out their hands.
“A mighty city,” said Octaevion, “though not as a grand as the cities of Aemeyr.”
Two young priests led the group into the cathedral. “Father Kain, the high arbiter regrets he could not welcome you personally,” one said. “He will hear your case tomorrow.”
Turning away from the high-ceilinged hall, now echoing with the sounds of evening prayer, these priests showed the travelers to their rooms. “Do not take the prisoner to his cell just yet,” Mara said. “Let him at least dine with us.”
After washing away the dust of road, they ate a simple meal with the lesser clergy of the cathedral: onion stew, sausage, and hearty bread. Mara ate only the bread, and little of it. Octaevion, watching her, did the same. “Give the rest of my portion to men in the city who need it more,” he said loudly. The cathedral priests looked at him with confusion and distress, saying nothing. Mara smiled.
“Walk with me out in the moonlight,” Octaevion said to her after the meal.
“He may not leave the cathedral,” Kain said, moving to shackle Octaevion's wrists once more.
“Then I will take him to highest balcony,” Mara replied. “We can see the moon from there. I need to prepare him from coming day.”
Kain frowned slightly, but nodded. Mara led Octaevion up long, winding stairs of marble. The stars gleamed against the ebony as they stepped out into the night, and the moon dripped her ethereal luminance across the city. Mara could discern the form of a guard on a lower, smaller balcony, his helm and the steel limbs of his crossbow glowing pale white. The chill air filled her chest and made her pulse quicken. Octaevion turned to gaze at her, the shifting shadows covering half his body. She met his gray eyes, wondering what lay behind them.
“You are a beautiful woman, Mara,” he said, moving to stare out into the darkness. “It may be a sin to say that in this land, but it is true.”
Mara caught the hint of grin on his lips as he spoke. The depths of her belly felt completely hollow, and her legs shook. “Do not try to seduce me, Octaevion,” she said. “I will already argue for you as best I can come tomorrow.” She pulled her arms close to her chest for warmth, rubbing them together slowly. “Your honesty will not help you when the high arbiter questions you.”
“I imagine not. Are you prepared?”
“As prepared as I will be, yes.”
“You have done this many times before.”
Mara sighed and nodded.
“I will not even ask what the outcome has been in the past. I wish to stay hopeful.”
Silence reigned for some time. “Teach me something of your language, Octaevion,” Mara said finally. “I have been trying to learn, but have had little opportunity to practice.”
The two of them talked in Aem until the night grew very cold. “The language of your people is beautiful,” Mara said, “but it has become late. I must take you to your cell.”
She led him down to the very bottom of the cathedral. The cells, all for the accused awaiting judgment, were small but clean. Two men guarded the prisoners, each wearing a brigandine, steel cap, and mail sleeves. One bore an elegant partisan, the other a crossbow; both had swords at their sides and horns around their necks. They were not priests; the clergy watched over prisoner during the day, but they needed their rest. The guards gave Mara friendly nods; she could see the curiosity in their eyes. They wondered why a prisoner had been kept out so late. She handed Octaevion over to them, saying little.
“It's kind of you to spend time with him on his last day,” the guard said as Mara started to leave.
“This may not be his last day,” Mara said dully.
“Perhaps not, Priestess, but it very likely is. I like to see any prisoner treated well before he is put to the axe. It eases my mind, I guess you might say.”
There was an execution in the courtyard of the cathedral the next morning. Mara did not want to see it, but Kain insisted. It was a woman, not a man, on the chopping block. Her dark hair spilled down onto the stone floor. She had been an Aemeyn leader, captured in a siege on the southern front. She held herself with dignity, neither struggling nor weeping. The axe fell. Bile rose in Mara’s throat, but she forced it back down.
“Her sins are now redeemed,” said Kain. “She enters the next world pure.”
Mara wondered if it had been cowardice to avoid executions in the past. “I will see this through to the end,” she whispered, “whatever that may be.”
Kain spent the next hour questioning Octaevion, and the high arbiter took an hour after that. It was nearly noon before he called Mara and Kain in to argue. Octaveion was not allowed to watch; he remained in his cell. The wide room, familiar to Mara, was of gray stone carved into sharp angles and edges. In its center stood a towering pulpit, etched with holy verses. Atop it sat the high arbiter, dressed in black robes embroidered with gold and silver. A set of iron scales rested in front of him, ever balanced, the symbol of his station. In the back of the room sat the scribes, clutching books and pens. Mara and Kain took their places in front of the pulpit.
Kain began, speaking of Octaevion's crimes against Kailorians, listing the battles in which he fought and led men. “He must die for these sins,” Kain concluded, “and thus be freed from them. Such is the law of the Messiah, and his way, as when he purified the city of Kor long ago.”
“But are you a prophet yourself,” Mara replied, “to deal out that judgment? Miracles may flow through us both, but we should not consider ourselves chosen. We must remain wary. The dark gods delight in deceiving us, and they may grant power as well. Thus we should be ever cautious, and not eager to condemn men to death. Saint Amria had a revelation and found means for redeeming the worst of men without the axe.”
Mara turned her face up toward the high arbiter. “Please, give the life of this Aemeyn over to my order. We will place him in the care of a church and allow him save himself by grace and good works.”
“Leading men in an unjust war is mortal sin,” Kain said, “and the teachings of Saint Amria do not trump the word of the Messiah. Death is only way to atone for this. By seeking mercy in this world you are consigning him to hell.”
Mara sighed, and she wondered why the Church tolerated members of her order at all. With what the majority believed, why had Amria been a declared a saint instead of a heretic? Mara swallowed and continued to argue, speaking of Octaevion's character and his reasons for serving the Emperor. The debate lasted an hour longer, with her and Kain fighting over Saint Amria's interpretation of scripture. During that time Mara longed to be openly called a heretic.
Finally the high arbiter spoke. “I side with Kain,” he said, his voice resonant, filling the room. “I have met with the Aemeyn. He does not deny his crimes. The law is clear on this matter. His sins will be cleansed at the next dawn.”
Mara listened to the ruling without surprise. She left the room quickly, returning to her chamber. She stretched out her palms and prayed to Saint Amria. She knew what she wished to do but was afraid. “It is the path to anarchy,” she whispered. Mara did not go to dinner; she stayed in her room, in prayer and contemplation, into the depths of night.
“Kain thinks he has won now, I imagine, and Octaevion thinks I have abandoned him.”
She carefully stepped out into the silent halls of the cathedral. Making no sound, she crept toward the cells of the prisoners. “Why did I not attempt this for the others?” she asked herself.
The door leading in was cracked open, and Mara could see torchlight flickering inside. The two guards sat a wooden table, sipping flagons of wine and sleepily playing dice. One noticed her standing by door and stood up suddenly.
“Ah, Priestess,” he said sheepishly, trying to hide the dice, “I apologize.”
“Sit back down,” Mara said, walking into the room. “It is a quiet night. What else can you do? There is small sin, if any, in games and drink.”
Cautiously, the guard obeyed. The other slapped him on the shoulders and laughed, then yawned. “What can we do for you, Priestess?” he asked.
Mara flashed them a sad smile. She doubted they would let her take Octaevion away on any pretext; she knew Kain or the high arbiter would have given them strict orders. “I had dream,” she said, drawing close to one of the guards, “a vision from Saint Amria. You have a strange and deadly illness, though you have not yet felt it.”
The guard's face turned pallid. “Can you heal me, Priestess? Surely you can, if you are telling me this. I trust in Saint Amria.”
“Be still,” Mara said, leaning over the table. She began a soft chant with the cadence of a lullaby. The tricks of Aemeyn sorcerers would fail within these sanctified grounds, Mara knew, but her power was different. The chant ended. She caught the sleeping guards, one in each hand, and gently lowered their heads to the table.
“Which dark god is deceiving me, I wonder?” she whispered, as she took a key ring from one guard's belt.
Octaevion was awake inside his cell. “You’re setting me free,” he said, as she removed his shackles. Mara did not reply, but unrolled a long cloak and set it on his shoulders. Knowing the gates of the cathedral would be watched, she led him out to the stables through a locked side door.
“Give us two swift horses,” she said firmly to the dozing stable boy. He had a stout falchion on his belt but looked very young. “We must get to Laion by dawn. Pack ample food and water for the journey.”
He awoke with a start and rushed to do as she commanded. They mounted and quickly rode into the empty streets of Clunea. The moon had set; the sky was black save for a few stars. The fled the city on back streets and were lucky enough to avoid the city’s watchmen, though Mara felt she could have cowed any of them with resolute proclamation, as much as it would have sickened her.
Outside the city, Mara turned to Octaevion and slowed her horse. They both stopped, side by side. “You"re going back to them,” he said. “They will punish you for this.”
“Yes,” she said. “They will whip me. Throw me in a dungeon, perhaps, and take my title. It is about time. I have been compliant for too long.” Mara paused. She heard a hare crawling through the brush by the worn road. No birds sang. “And what will the Emperor do to you when you return to Aemeyr?” she asked Octaevion.
“I will be called to account for my failure. I doubt they will let me command men again.”
“I hope they do not put you to death. That would be a sad and strange ending.”
Octaevion laughed. “No, I do not think they will do that.”
“If you lead cavalry once more,” Mara said, “I will be there to undo your handiwork.”
He reached out and put an arm across Mara shoulders, then bent down toward her face until their noses nearly touched. His scent, subtle and pleasant, filled her, and his warmth washed over her, dispelling the autumn chill. Mara lifted a hand and stroked his face, fingers delighting in every dip and curve. He stared into her, his gray eyes glowing as falling stars.
“I will still serve the Empire, Mara,” he said, “but I renounce the mace. I will not fight again, even if the Emperor himself commands me.”
“Lair!” Mara said, pulling away abruptly and turning her head. “Silver-tongued fool. You say that only to ease my heart.” She could feel herself breathing intensely, almost panting like a dog on a hot day. Her horse snorted softly and stamped the ground.
Octaevion pulled back. “I have many faults but dishonesty is not one of them. You have changed me.”
They locked gazes again. Then he flipped up the cowl of the cloak, concealing his face, and grabbed hold of the reigns. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you.” His horse began a steady westward trot.
“If our two peoples ever make peace,” she called out to him, “I will come to Aemeyr and find you.”
“Not if we were both elves who could live six hundred years would I imagine that happening. But I will pray for it.”
Mara felt cold as she watched Octaevion disappear, his form fading fast into the gloom. She held one hand between her breasts, feeling her chest shrink and swell, waiting for her body to calm. A single tear glided down her face. Some time passed before she began to wheel her mount around. The rosy hint of dawn appeared over Faine’s hills. As she rode back to Clunea, Mara heard a sparrow sing.
|Rust||The Prince's Sword|