Under bright white flames, burning in small bunches at the corners of the ceiling, Tymun waited. He stood straight, his hands clasped behind his back, and fought to keep his face smooth despite the discontent that burned within him. Meto stood in a similar posture next to him, while Artius cooled his heels somewhat separate from them. His hands were folded over his orange robes, resting on his still-prodigious belly. Neither Tymun nor Meto deigned to glance at him. The only sound in the large room was the low murmur of discussion between Selonius and General Amaren, commander of the Letaalese Home Legion. They sat behind a wide table ten paces in front of the waiting men, their heads together in earnest but low debate.
Tymun fumed. It had already been most of an hour since the time of their appointment, and yet they were still to even be addressed. The quartet of Phoenix Guards behind the table were still as stone, but he found himself unable to mimic their composure. He shifted his feet; he scratched at an itch behind his ear. Idly, he reminded himself that it was again time to shave his head clean.
None of the four Phoenix Guards was Emmis, to his disappointment.
His attention wandered around the room, noting the triptych hanging above the door to his left. It depicted a yellow flame, stylized to look like a phoenix at the top, in the central panel; the side panels presented virtuous figures, kneeling in prayer. Across the room, beyond Artius, a tapestry hung from a long brass rod. He did not recognize the scene of battle woven into it.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” Selonius finally said, raising his voice. Though seated, this time not raised on a platform as he was in the crucible the day before, the First Cleric yet maintained his regal air. Tymun repressed a shiver when Selonius’ dark eyes skewered him where he stood. “We will make this as quick as possible.”
Tymun could not stop a small laugh from escaping. As quick as possible? You missed that mark half an hour ago, priest.
Selonius gave him a sharp look before continuing. “I think it best if you all are moved out of the capital, for the time being. The events in the north are over and done with. We must all move on from that unfortunate accident. Don’t,” he snapped as Tymun opened his mouth with a cutting remark ready to go, “say a word, soldier. This is a delicate matter. I understand that. I hope you can take some comfort in the knowledge that Chaplain Artius will not be accompanying you two in your new orders. He will be going north, to Barrier, to study under Chaplain Katreina.” Selonius, imperious as always, considered Artius with no small amount of contempt. “He will spend time in contemplation and penance while he accommodates himself with his old quarters there.”
Tymun felt a spike of vindication as Selonius made his pronouncement. The emphasis on the word “penance” was appropriately ominous.
“You two, meanwhile, will go east,” General Amaren rumbled. He was not a large man, but he managed to sound like a giant. “We have had far too many reports of Roeteli aggression, of late. An entire regiment is being redirected to North Hareen, and you will march with them.”
Meto stirred but did not speak. He looked to Tymun, and the darker man took it upon himself to voice what he assumed was Meto’s unspoken question. “And when is this regiment to march?”
“Tomorrow.” General Amaren was grim. “Understand me when I say that the Roeteli have been very active. We must move with speed. Report to the staging grounds outside the east gate of the Tenth Tier, tonight. You will receive your marching orders there.”
“There will be no further questioning, for you two. Rest assured, however, that the Faith will continue its investigation of events in the north,” Selonius announced. Tymun understood his words to be a dismissal, though he was anything but assured. He clenched his jaw. How could Selonius so blandly send them away, with only a cursory interview and a hasty banishment to the far east to show for his “investigation?” Even Artius was being sent away instead of being questioned!
Tymun tried to protest, but the First Cleric stood. The flames behind him dimmed, somehow, and in his words was the faintest impression of crackling fire. “You are dismissed, soldiers. Obey your orders.”
Meto sent Tymun an alarmed look and hurried to the door. Tymun followed, though less quickly. He wished he had some way of truly challenging Selonius, but the First Cleric was simply too far beyond him. He was nothing to a man such as that.
Artius took a step to follow them, but Selonius’ voice whipped out at him. “Not you, Chaplain. We are not finished, yet.”
A grim smile on his face, Tymun felt suddenly released. He stepped through the doorway and joined Meto in the hallway, shutting the door just as Selonius snapped a question at Artius.
“Well, that’s better,” Tymun crowed. “I hope he roasts that pig for what he did. Or rather, for what he didn’t do.”
Meto glanced over his shoulder at the closed door, its wooden thickness muting the shouting coming faintly from within. He wore the slightest frown, a few wrinkles creasing his forehead like little eddies in otherwise still water. “I would give every coin I own to hear what words he has for Artius. So little about this makes sense.”
Tymun ran his hand over the short hair covering his scalp. He felt looser than he had since returning to the capital. “Well, as to that, I might have a way of getting a few answers. Remember that Phoenix Guard, Emmis? I’m going to find her tonight. She knows something.” He began retracing his steps from an hour earlier, finding his way out of the building and into the wide streets of the Third Tier. Night was lying thick on Letaal, and the unfamiliar blue glow of this layer of the city gave it an eerie feel. A few priests moved along the way, one or two accompanied by Phoenix Guards; a vendor pushed through the semidarkness, a cluster of firestones dangling from a pole attached to the front of his cart, casting a pool of blue light around him. Tymun eyed him as he passed, then sank back to lean against the stone wall next to the door from whence they came.
“Wait. She…what?” Meto halted when Tymun did. “How do you know that? And how in Oblivion do you plan to find her when we’re supposed to be on our way to the Tenth Tier? By the Flame, it’ll be past midnight by the time we get to the staging grounds, even if we start right this moment.”
“I just know it,” Tymun replied, firm in his conviction. He had a feeling, a stubbornness that he clung to. He had done little but brood over the course of the day, mulling over every word Emmis had spoken the night before. He was sure that she was involved, somehow. If there was a plot afoot, she knew about it. He was morally certain of this.
Meto crossed his arms. “Listen, Tymun. I’m not going to waste my night wandering around in a restricted Tier, looking for one woman. If you want to, by all means. Let me know if you find anything.”
Tymun considered the Pallonian, then shrugged. “I won’t stop you. I’ll catch up—with some answers.”
Meto still did not leave. He looked at Tymun, his eyes almost unfocused, as though he were trying to somehow see inside of him. He heaved a sigh, perhaps a touch too melodramatically. “Very well. Good luck, I suppose.”
Tymun inclined his head, curiously devoid of any opinion on Meto’s lack of faith in him. He settled in, trying to get comfortable while leaning against the wall, and watched the Pallonian disappear up the street to the east. Once Meto’s back was out of sight, Tymun shifted his attention to the meager foot traffic, paying special attention whenever he heard the clank of armor or saw a glint off of a breastplate. But Emmis was resolutely not appearing for him. He began to grumble to himself; night deepened.
“Come on, come on…” he muttered, craning his neck to look first one way, then the other. He was just beginning to wonder if he should begin moving about, even though this building seemed to be the center of activity in the Tier at this late hour, when the door next to him opened. Startled, he stepped aside with alacrity. He found himself staring down at a Blue Robe, even fatter than Artius.
“What in Oblivion?” the priest remarked, pulling up short. His voice was shrill. “What in the name of the Flame do you think you’re doing, loitering here? Begone with you.”
Tymun glared at the man, ready with a scathing remark about their relative shapes and sizes. He reconsidered, however, when he registered what color the man’s robes were. A priest of the Fifth Shade could make all kinds of trouble for him…and if word got back to Selonius, he had no doubt the First Cleric would see to it that he suffered for his impertinence. So, instead of taking the haughty, chubby man down a verbal rung or two, he bowed his head and muttered a vague reverence before beating a hasty retreat. He cast a look back, and saw that the priest was watching him leave. There would be no chance of returning to the area near that particular street, now.
Navigating easily in the azure light of the Third Tier, he hurried west. Though he had no idea where he was going, he trusted that he would find something that would point him to Emmis. He began looking for buildings that looked like barracks, deciding that he would ask for her and pretend to be a messenger. He did not wear his sword, of course, having just come from an audience with the First Cleric, so he thought he could get away with such a pretense.
He noted a likely building ahead, looming two stories higher than those next to it, and cut across the paved stones of the wide street. His breathing picked up, just slightly, and he tried rehearsing what he would say when he entered and was inevitably confronted. Tymun paused in front of the door and wiped his hands on his pants. They were sweaty. The thought of Emmis rose in his head, unbidden, her striking eyes etched in his memory. “Don’t get ahead of yourself,” he muttered to himself, and then set his hand upon the handle.
“What are you doing here?” A voice demanded from behind him. “Messages are to be delivered to the command office, two blocks that way.”
Tymun spun around, his pulse spiking. Emmis herself stood in the street, pointing to back the way he had come. She gaped when the flames hanging overhead illuminated his features.
“Emmis, thank the Flame,” Tymun gasped. She filled his eyes, blonde hair hanging straight to her shoulders, bangs pulled across her forehead to drape over one ear. She seemed somehow taller than she had the night before, though Tymun knew he was looking slightly down into her grey eyes.
“What in Oblivion do you think you’re doing?” she demanded, pushing him backward before opening the door and dragging him inside. “You’re not supposed to be in the Third Tier!”
“I—I know,” he stammered, trying to get his bearings, regain his balance. Her grip on his arm was like iron, and she pulled him along a narrow hall, turning twice, before shouldering open a door. She all but threw him into the little bedroom.
He got a brief impression of a narrow bed, a wash stand, and a thin wardrobe against one wall. The Phoenix Guard gave him time for no more. “You could get imprisoned for encroaching so far down, you know. The priests assume the worst when people overstep themselves.” She paused, and her face hardened. “You’re not here to kill that priest, are you?”
“What?” he gaped. “No! No, I just left him, in fact. With the First Cleric. I was summoned for an audience!”
Emmis leaned back at that. “An audience?”
“And you just finished with it?” Her eyes became slits, and she began drumming the fingers of one hand against her thigh.
“Then what in Oblivion are you doing wandering into a Phoenix Guard barracks?”
Tymun quailed before her interrogative, backing up until he ran into the bed. His knees buckled, and he sat down with a thump. “Looking for you?” he answered lamely. He tried out a smile, but knew immediately that it was too sheepish by half.
Emmis threw her hands in the air. “When I said I’d see you again, I didn’t mean you should come hunting me!”
Tymun’s smile slide sideways a bit. “I needed to talk to you. And I didn’t have time to wait: we’re ordered east, and we leave tomorrow.”
Emmis closed her eyes and adopted a look of patient exasperation. “You needed to talk to me.” It wasn’t a question. She opened her eyes and crossed her arms. “Very well. What do you ‘need’ to talk about?”
Unsure how to begin—where to begin—Tymun fiddled with the cuff of his shirt. “I need answers, Emmis,” he said at last. “Things don’t add up. And…and I think you know something about it,” he finished in a rush. He looked up at her, silently begging her to nod, to agree, to explain.
She looked down at him with a curious expression. She titled her head, uncrossed her arms, and licked her lips. He felt his heartbeat spike. “I don’t think you understand this situation, Tymun.” Her words were careful. “I’m just a soldier, like you. I don’t make decisions here, or sit in council, or anything like that.”
“There’s something here, Emmis,” he insisted. “The way you acted when I told you about the north, about Artius and the Avernen and the man in the village…it wasn’t just a normal reaction.” He took a deep breath. “You were different.”
She considered him for a long moment, then gestured for him to scoot over. She sat down next to him on the bed and leaned forward to bury her face in her hands. “I swore oaths, Tymun. Oaths of secrecy, oaths of duty. I’m not at liberty to discuss the things I hear priests talk about.” She turned her head to look at him. “In any case, I haven’t heard a single word about that Chaplain who was with you. All I have are guesses and half-understood mumblings among the middle Shades.”
“That’s something, Emmis!” He balled his fists, urgent. “It’s more than I know, for certain. And I can’t just let this go. I’m about to head east, probably into battle once again.” He gritted his teeth. “The Roeteli are pushing hard on the border, I hear. I don’t want to march into what might be my death without knowing if I can trust the priests who will be standing beside me.”
With a soft groan, Emmis sat back. She rolled her neck, and a faint crackling sound came. “Much better,” she murmured. And then, “Okay, Tymun. I’m going to be straight with you.”
He held his breath and watched, filled with a mixture of excitement and trepidation as she pushed herself to her feet and once again loomed over him.
“You’re reading way more into this than anything I know about. If I was different, if I reacted strangely last night, it wasn’t because I know about some secret plan among the Pirin priests.” Her gaze softened, and a half-smile tugged at her lips. “It was because I thought you were interesting. I saw something different about you.”
Tymun sat, stunned, speechless.
“I wish you weren’t going east. It would have been nice to figure you out.” Her smile grew. A sparkle came into her eyes, enticing. “But I can’t change orders. Certainly not orders to soldiers in the army. I’m just a regular Phoenix Guard.”
“Emmis…” Tymun said, hoarse. His throat didn’t want to cooperate, closing as he tried to speak. Frustration over her unhelpful answers warred with wonder over what she thought of him. His skin prickled, hot, and he fought the desire to reach for her. That wasn’t what he wanted—he wanted answers, by the Flame, real answers that would tell him if he were putting his life in danger by playing along with the First Cleric’s plan for him.
“Shh, Tymun.” She leaned forward and placed her hands on his shoulders. Her face, her eyes, her lips were so close… “I’m not going to taunt you with this. I will tell you only what I know. And this is something I’ve known for a long time, you understand.” She grew serious, her smile disappearing. “The Black Robes don’t like sending priests over the borders of the Empire. They reserve that for the Missionaries. The only reason that that Chaplain was with you was because the Missionaries are all…um…occupied. Unavoidably.”
Shivering in his battle against his desires, he did not trust himself to answer.
“I don’t know if that helps you or not, but that’s what I know.” Without warning, she straightened and stepped back. She took a deep breath, exhaled. It seemed to deflate her more than one breath should allow. Her face looked hollow, too pale, like some undead specter from a child’s tale. Those words had taken a toll on her, somehow.
Though her hands no longer touched him, Tymun still felt their weight on his shoulders. His shivers doubled, tripled, and then subsided altogether. He gathered himself. Standing, he said, “Thank you.” His words felt dishonest, though he did feel some gratitude. He did not know if what she said would be useful, but he recognized the favor she had done for him. “I—I should go.”
She ducked her head, her blonde hair falling from behind her ear to cover part of her face. “Yes.”
Tymun’s hand twitched as he stepped forward, spasmed as though he would grasp her hand in some wild attempt at a deeper understanding. “Good night, Emmis.”
He stepped by her, untouched, and opened the door.
From behind him, he heard her voice, faint and warm as the heart of a firestone: “May the Flame guide you back, Tymun.”
Read the next chapter: “Barrier”