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"You are this girl's parents?" The priest's voice cut through all the murmurs around him.
"Yes, sir." Nora's face hardened. "Whatever she's done, please forgive her. She doesn't know what she's about."
"She has done nothing to offend. I have come to visit her parents. If you would be so good as to receive me into your home, I will speak with you and your daughter. Alone." He gave the last word only a small emphasis, but the knot of men and boys began to unravel and move back toward the quarry. Astonishing. Bryn had never seen a man with such power.
"Our house is close by, Your Honor, but we have no stables, only one stall," said Simon, looking anxiously at the mounted soldiers grouped behind the priest.
"I understand." The priest dismounted. He nodded to Bolivar, who leaped from his own horse and then lifted Bryn down from the mare.
Bryn walked with Bolivar after the priest, who followed her parents down the path worn smooth by generations of stonecutters. The rest of the procession stayed silently behind. She looked up only when they came near the cottage where she lived. It had been her home for fifteen years, but now she imagined seeing it for the first time, and the sagging porch and patched walls stood out glaringly.
The priest stooped to go through the door. Bolivar remained outside, glaring vigilantly across the scarred land.
Inside, Simon dragged forth the good chair for their guest. Nora prepared tea while Bryn stood watching. Nora set forth the white porcelain cup decorated with painted violets that had belonged to her grandmother; the cup Bryn and her brothers were never allowed totouch.
"Sorry I have no sugar, Your Honor," Nora said.
"No need. I never take sugar in my tea." The priest gestured with his ring for them to sit. Bryn sank onto the bench beside the old wooden table, across from her parents. "You know who I am?" he asked.
"Master Priest?" Simon breathed, bowing again from where he sat.
The priest inclined his head. "Yes. You may call me Renchald."
Renchald. Bryn heard Dai's voice in her mind, cracked and thin with age and wine, telling her that name. "I was long gone from the Temple, my dear, when Renchald rose to be Master Priest." Bryn stared at the tall, clean-shaven man sitting so upright in her family's one good chair, his robes gleaming with gold, his green eyes inscrutable. His shoulders weren't as broad as her father's nor his chest as deep, but somehow he exuded great strength. Strands of silver threaded the dark hair at his brow; his long fingers gripped the porcelain cup firmly. The Master Priest of the Temple of the Oracle sitting in a stonecutter's cottage, drinking ordinary tea? Why?
"This journey I'm on," he said, "includes the purpose of finding new handmaids to serve in the Temple of the Oracle. As you may know, these handmaids and the male acolytes who also study there receive the best education in Sorana. Some handmaids progress to the rank of priestess." He paused. "Your daughter would be suitable to become a handmaid."
Bryn nearly choked on her tea. Sweat ran over Simon's face, as if he labored in the sun instead of sitting in the cool of a stone cottage. The skin around Nora's eyes jumped as though bitten by unseen insects.
"I don't see how that can be, sir," Nora protested. "The girl is nothing but a dreamer. Not good for anything but talking with the air, idling about in the woods with nothing to show for her hours away."
Bryn opened her mouth to say she knew better than to talk with the air, but Renchald spoke first. "Come now, madam. I have been Master Priest for more than a decade. Do you believe that I am mistaken?"
Bryn's mother shook her head, her narrow face whitening as she looked at the floor.
"Those who serve the Oracle see what others miss," the Master Priest went on. "A child born to such a calling is often thought to be a dreamer."
Bryn swallowed more tea, gulping back a hundred questions.
"Can she read or write?" Renchald asked.
"Why would the daughter of a stonecutter learn to read?" Simon answered mildly.
"The daughter of a stonecutter," Renchald answered, "might have no reason to learn. But a priestess of the Oracle must be able to read the messages of kings and queens." He turned to Bryn. "Would you like to study such things?"
Bryn swished the dregs of her tea and then set down her cup. "I can read and write," she said. She met her mother's outraged eyes. "Dai taught me." Without the Master Priest's presence, Nora would surely have shouted in anger. Bryn addressed Renchald, explaining, "The village priest. Dai."
"Ah." If he knew of Dai, he didn't say. "How long has he been teaching you?"
"For many years. I've read all his books several times over."
"Ah," he said again, and a spark of unreadable feeling flickered in his eyes.
"I don't understand." Simon sounded as if someone had told him the quarry where he'd worked all his life was not a place to cut stone after all.
"The gods keep their ways hidden," Renchald answered.
The gods. Ever since Bryn could remember, her mother had called upon the gods, asking why they had made her bear five sons, then finally given her the daughter she had prayed for, but such a daughter! A girl who burned the supper if asked to mind it, who flitted about the fields and woods, coming home with sap stains on her threadbare clothes and foolish lies on her lips--lies about people she had never met and places she had never been. Why, Nora had demanded, would the gods send her such a child?
Her father asked the gods for their blessing every morning and evening, his prayers a tumbling mutter that meant little to Bryn. And though Dai had taught her the rudiments of the pantheon, most often he spoke of the gods as if they were malicious tricksters who would trip a man on his path for the pleasure of seeing him stumble. "Winjessen is a sly one, but it's Keldes you must look out for--Keldes wants more subjects for his kingdom of the dead. . . ."
Bryn wanted to ask Renchald what made him think she could be a handmaid in the Temple. But he was speaking to her parents, his ring glinting as he raised a hand. "Do you give your consent for Bryn to travel to Amarkand? There she will be with others of her kind. She will serve the gods."
From the Hardcover edition.
Copyright © 2005 by Victoria Hanley