Smoke and Whispers

illustrated sword

Every Sanctuary of the Oracles was built with one purpose: to impose order on the wild energies that spewed through the empyreal rift and into the world. Even amid the opulent and unconventional architecture of the Corregal sanctuary , that sense of order was absolute, apparent in every aspect of its design. in each sharp corner, every measured archway, even the placement of the windows in the high gallery overlooking the assembly hall. For most people, the effect was as comforting as walking into a mother’s embrace.

Jaciel Oura was not one of those people. Her skin prickled whenever she came to the sanctuary, and her teeth itched. More irritating than painful, she often likened the sensation to having fallen asleep on an anthill. Once, at the urging of a sympathetic cleric, she had tried to overcome the problem by spending more time at the sanctuary instead of less, and volunteered for a year of service as an acolyte, hoping the constant exposure would inure her to the discomfort. But by the end of the first week, her hair was standing on end all the time. After a month, she was practically sparking whenever anyone so much as touched her. She said goodbye to the sanctuary soon after, and made it a habit to visit as seldom as possible.

Needless to say, it was not the place she would have chosen for a meeting, but her employer had insisted. And, naturally, her employer was late.

She took refuge in a window embrasure to wait. The assembly hall, which bridged the river itself, was crowded at this time of day, and no one paid her much attention. She watched the people coming and going, making their petitions at the three altars to the Hands of the Broken God, some silent, some singing, some smiling, some weeping, depending on the need that had brought them here. Priests and priestesses moved among them, providing guidance and support as they might. Twice, she saw them usher ill or injured individuals towards the healer’s alcove, when a more intensive ministration was required. Meanwhile, members of the Bell Guard patrolled the periphery, more an honor guard than from any real need to keep the peace.

The only good thing about having to be here was that her arm was already starting to feel better, as being closer to the gate’s power worked to ease the discomfort of her wound, even without a prayer or ministration. Her leather coat had taken most of the damage from the girl’s small knife, leaving only a shallow, two-inch gash in the flesh of her bicep. She had cleaned and bandaged it herself, and would not have sought healing at the sanctuary for something so minor. But if she had to be here anyway, at least she was getting some benefit from it.

She saw Taline Sabenay long before the Maestra of Sabenay House saw her. Taline was hard to miss, sweeping up the length of the assembly hall in an ornate gown that probably dated back to the last years of the empire, with her head held high and eyes flashing when “lesser” folk were not quick enough to hurry out of her way. Sabenay was an ancient and prestigious house (if lately reduced in fortune) and Taline was not about about to let anyone forget it.

Bypassing the first of the altars — Sarrel’s was always the most crowded — Taline made her imperious way up the broad stairs to the second altar, which was dedicated to Evod. Because where else would you plan a secret meeting with your hired informer than at the feet the Grey Watcher? Jaciel wondered why the woman insisted at playing games of intrigue when she was so ill-suited for subtlety.

She waited until Taline had lit a candle on the altar, and seated herself on one of the benches surrounding it, before she emerged from her nook to join her. Dressed in a plain brown tunic with her Porter’s badge on the shoulder, she felt invisible next to the grandiosity of Maestra Taline, lost in the shadow of violet silk, ruffled lace, and embroidered trim.

“Well?” Fabric rustled as Maestra Taline moved her skirts aside to make room on the stone seat. She spared no time for civilities. “Tell me about the Jurati.”

“I had four men waylay him on Crosslight Road, just as you asked. He was able to take them down without raising a sweat.” Granted, the men she had hired had been little more than thugs, not skilled swordsmen, but the Jurati was still young, and he’d handled the ambush with remarkable aplomb. Jaciel was not afraid to let her admiration show.

Taline’s face was flushed with barely contained excitement. She had never been an attractive woman, and now, nearing the end of middle age, she eschewed the sort of quiet dignity that was normally expected of women like her. Her clothes were ostentatious, her personality more so. She said what she wanted, the way she wanted, with little regard for the conventions of polite society. There’s no time for such foolishness, she often said, in the face of all I must accomplish. It was this audacious attitude that had attracted Jaciel to her service in the first place, and kept her there despite other opportunities that now and then arose.

“Four men and you,” Taline said, the fight playing out in her imagination. “He’s better than you expected.”

“He is, Maestra. I’d say he has the potential to be one of the best swordsmen in the city.”

“Can we get him away from Fleuracy House?” She had a habit of gnawing on her thumb when thinking, and she did that now, as if worrying the problem with her teeth.

“He was sent to Sieur Eristan. I don’t know by whom, or why, but I suspect he’d need a good reason to leave.” Jaciel shrugged. “If you offered him enough money, maybe.”

A dark look crossed the Maestra’s face. “If I had that kind of money I would not be in this position in the first place. We’ll have to find some other way to persuade him.”

“But why, Maestra?” Jaciel was used to carrying out odd missions for her mistress, no questions asked. But Taline’s fixation on the Jurati was more than a little odd. “What is one swordsman going to do for you? No matter how good he is?”

“Do not question me on this, Jaciel.” Taline spoke sharply, drawing curious looks from nearby petitioners. She glared back, until the gazes, daunted by her ferocity, turned away again. When she spoke again, she kept her voice low, but it trembled with intensity. “Three days, I lit a candle to Thest and asked to be shown the path to restoring my House’s fortune. Three nights, I dreamt of a drawn sword. The very next day, you came to me with news of this Jurati wonder.” She reached out and grasped Jaciel’s hand. “Don’t you see? He is meant for me. Do not question me on this.”

There was no room in Taline Sabenay for doubt, and though Jaciel could still not see how the Jurati presented any kind of solution, she could not deny the force of her employer’s belief that he would. “No, Maestra, I will not,” she said, choosing to trust in the vision, even if were not her own.

Taline nodded once and withdrew her hand from Jaciel’s. Her attention turned again to the altar before them, with its scores of candles flickering in a subtle draft. “If he will not leave Fleuracy House on his own, we must find some way to have him removed.”

The fading ache in her arm gave Jaciel the answer right away. Leaning towards the other woman, she kept her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “He was with a girl…”