Artist : Joe Slucher
Author : Shona Kinsella
Andar held tightly to Jenna’s hand as they made their way through the busy city streets. He was terrified that she would slip away from him if he got distracted for even a moment. His daughter wandered from one place to another, gazing raptly at everything around her. She had never seen so many people in one place before. Truth be told, neither had he.
They entered a square, surrounded on three sides by temples, with a court house directly in front of them. The size of the buildings made Andar feel small and for a moment, he had a glimpse of how Jenna must feel all the time. He squeezed her hand and she pressed herself against his side. He glanced down and gave her what he hoped was a reassuring smile. She looked so small and fragile. Fear and love and grief bloomed in his chest at once.
The buildings crowded out the sky and Andar struggled with a feeling of being hemmed in. He had to take a moment to centre himself. He had grown up on the farm that he and Kait had worked until the rot came. He was used to wide open spaces and only seeing a handful of people from one day to the next.
In the middle of the square, a small man in a brightly-coloured robe, struck the midday gong. Andar pulled Jenna back, against the wall of the nearest building, as people streamed out of two of the temples.
From the south side of the square, a column of men wearing blue tunics with white wave patterns left the temple for Akulis, god of water, wisdom and wine. They walked to the centre of the square and fell into a rigid formation, one man in front, the rest in rows of 8 behind him.
From the north side of the square, the gilded doors of Malac’s temple opened, revealing a group of dedicants, all dressed in black robes, their heads and faces covered with opaque black veils. They moved in pairs, somberly and with great dignity. People hurried out of their path and the priests of shadows moved to stand opposite the monks of Akulis.
Both groups knelt in the middle of the square, offering devotion to their gods. Jenna tugged at Andar’s hand and he crouched beside her.
‘Papa, what are they doing?’ she asked in a small voice.
‘Giving thanks to Akulis and Malac for this day,’ Andar said, keeping his voice low.
‘They look scary,’ Jenna murmured.
Andar put his arm around her and held her close. ‘There is nothing to fear, my darling. They are just saying their prayers, as Mama did every day.’
‘It doesn’t look like Mama’s prayers,’ Jenna said sceptically.
Andar snorted. ‘They do things differently in the temple.’
‘Papa, why don’t you say prayers?’
Andar supressed a sigh, squeezing his eyes shut. Kait had been the religious one. Andar hadn’t really thought one way or the other about the gods since he was a boy. Until the rot had come that was. Then he had decided that if there were gods, they were nothing to do with him.
He was saved from answering by the doors of the temple on the east of the square banging open, spilling out a crowd of people in mis-matching and brightly coloured clothes. They made a lot of noise, some singing, while others shouted and laughed, still others blowing on wooden flutes and there were at least two people shaking tambourines. They flowed into and around the square in a dance that looked at first like chaos. As Andar watched, he realised that there was actually a pattern, almost. A rhythm that your mind filled in around the movements of the crowd. There was something…beautiful here.
‘Who are they?’ Jenna asked, her face glowing with delight.
‘Those are the dedicants of Sha-Fetuh.’
Jenna bobbed at his side, shuffling her feet to the not-quite rhythm of the dance. This was the happiest Andar had seen her since Kait died. Oh Kait.
He set his shoulders against the grief that wanted to drown him yet again and turned his face back to the square which was filled with the praise of three different gods. In amongst the whirling brightness of Sha-Fetuh, the other two groups knelt undisturbed. There was a beauty in the stillness too. For a brief moment, Andar was at peace.
Then Jenna’s hand tugged free of his, and she was running forward, swept up into the swirling, chaotic movement.
Andar yelled and dashed after her. He reached out, almost snagging the back of her dress before she darted between two dancers and was gone. He hung back, agonised, desperate to recover Jenna but fearful of what the punishment might be for disturbing the ritual. The temples had the power to press him into service if they saw fit; he could be kept away from the only reason he had left for living.
He heard Jenna squeal and his heart leaped into his throat. Then she laughed. His eyes darted from one dancer to another, seeking any sign of his little girl in her faded green dress and bright yellow ribbon that Mab Tenaway had given her.
One of the dancers swept past with Jenna in his arms. She was laughing and waving her hands in the air and the dancer was laughing with her. Andar started forwards but his daughter was passed from dancer to dancer, all of them holding her up and making her laugh. To intervene now would be disrespectful at best. He took a step back and clasped his hands at his waist, waiting anxiously for the dance to end.
A few moments later, the small man at the centre of the square struck the gong again. The vibrations ran up through Andar’s legs, adding to the tension he already felt.
As one, the dedicants of Akulis and Malac stood, bowed to the gong-ringer, and turned back to their respective temples. They seemed to flow through the dedicants to Sha-Fetuh without interrupting the ongoing dance.
A swirl of patchwork robe right in front of Andar, made him blink rapidly and step back. Before him, stood a tall, thin man with bright ribbons woven through shoulder-length hair. He held a giggling Jenna out to Andar and smiled.
‘I believe she is yours?’ the man said in a surprisingly deep voice.
‘Yes, thank you,’ Andar reached out and took Jenna, holding her tight. ‘I’m so sorry, she meant no offence.’
The man laughed. ‘All children belong to Sha-Fetuh. She is welcome to join our devotions any time.’ His gaze moved from Jenna to Andar. ‘The master of flow would like you both to join us for the midday meal.’
‘We would be honoured,’ Andar said, bowing his head. His heart caught in his throat. What could they want with us?
Inside, the temple was cool and surprisingly quiet after all the noise outside. The man with the ribbons in his hair, who had introduced himself as Sebold, led them along corridors lined with artwork that pulled at the eyes. It was all Andar could do to follow swiftly at his back and not stop to examine every other painting they passed, each one nothing but a riot of colour at first glance, only to reveal their subject to the corner of the eye.
Jenna skipped at Andar’s side, singing under her breath. Every now and then Sebold would look around and grin at her and she would grin right back. Andar was glad to see her so happy. That niggle in your heart, that’s not jealousy at all. Only a terrible person would be jealous this his daughter has found some happiness, even if it is because of someone else.
Sebold guide them through a doorway and into a small dining room with three walls made of glass. Sun streamed in, making the room feel warm and inviting. Plants grew in pots all around the walls, with more hanging from the ceiling. A moving shadow caught Andar’s eye just at the same time as Jenna gave a delighted squeal.
Andar looked up to see small brightly coloured birds flitting around above them. Jenna laughed and clapped her hands as two of the little birds swooped past her face.
‘Please, be seated.’
Andar turned to see a woman walking towards the table. Where did she come from? Around the same height as him, she moved with a supple grace, reminding him of a cat. A streak of silver ran through otherwise dark hair that flowed down her back.
Andar lifted Jenna into one of the carved wooden chairs then moved her in close to the table.
‘Sebold, please fetch a cushion for our young guest,’ the woman said, seating herself opposite Jenna at the round table.
‘Yes, master,’ Sebold said, nodding in deference then hurrying through the door.
Andar sat beside Jenna, pulling his chair over closer to her and folded his hands on the table. He wasn’t sure what the purpose of this meeting was but he was anxious and needed to reassure himself that his daughter was close and safe.
‘Thank you for joining me,’ the woman said, smiling. ‘I am the master of flow, which means that I lead our worship, for the moment.’
‘I am sorry that my daughter interrupted the dance in the square.’
‘There is no need. Children are called to Sha-Fetuh, his wildness runs in their veins and sparks from their fingertips.’ The master shook her head. ‘No, that is not why I asked you here.’
‘I don’t understand,’ Andar said, frowning and resisting the urge to reach for Jenna’s hand. He didn’t want to do anything that might give away his discomfort.
‘It is you that we are interested in, farmer. Sha-Fetuh has called you here.’
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