Artist : Joe Slucher
Author : Shona Kinsella
‘It is you that we are interested in, farmer. Sha-Fetuh has called you here.’ The master of flow pulled out a chair and sat at the table, resting her chin in her hands and looking intently at Andar.
Andar just stared at the woman opposite; what she had said was so far outside his expectations that he had no idea what to say. Words bounced off each other in his mind.
Sebold came back into the room, carrying a plush, red cushion, which he brought to Jenna, slipping it beneath her as Andar held her up, using the extra moment to think.
‘I’m sorry,’ Andar said at last, ‘but I think you must have me confused with someone else.’
‘There is no mistake, Andar of the Talimessi family. You have been promised to Sha-Fetuh since birth. We are very glad to welcome you home.’
Andar held Jenna’s hand tightly. Too tightly; he felt her squirm and loosened his grip. ‘I’m sorry, wise one, but I do not understand.’
‘You are Andar, youngest son of Raul Talimessi, are you not?’
‘I am. But I know nothing of any promise to Sha-Fetuh. My parents were not very religious, we were rarely observant, even at home.’
‘Your father came to us shortly after your birth. He sought the blessing of Sha-Fetuh, and in exchange, he promised you to the service of our lord. You were to be delivered to the temple to begin your instruction during your thirteenth summer.’
‘My father never spoke of this. How can that be?’
‘Perhaps he planned to tell you as the time approached?’
‘My whole family died when I was ten years old.’
‘A tragedy indeed,’ the master of flow said gently. ‘So many lives were taken that day. I am sorry for your loss. Was it ever established how the fire started?’
Andar glanced at Jenna and gave her a reassuring smile, though he wasn’t sure it had worked. His daughter was looking between him and the master with a solemn expression on her face.
‘Carelessness,’ Andar said. ‘The winter dance was held in the barn of one of the neighbouring farms. Someone knocked over an oil lamp. Thirty-three people were trapped inside.’
‘And you?’ the master asked. ‘How came you to be safe?’
‘I was unwell that winter. I had the breath-stealing cough. For a time, they all thought I would die.’ Andar paused and wrapped his arm around Jenna, who had pressed herself against his side. ‘By the night of the dance, I was on the mend, but I was still very weak. My grandmother stayed home with me while my parents and brothers went out. They never came home.’
‘I’m sorry to bring up such painful memories,’ the master of flow said, her voice soft.
Andar shook himself. ‘It was all a long time ago.’
Jenna’s stomach rumbled loudly and Andar blushed.
‘My apologies,’ the master said. ‘I have kept you waiting too long for food.’
She clapped her hands and barely a breath later, two dedicants swept into the room bearing silver trays. They bustled around, placing plates on the table and Andar was embarrassed to find himself drooling.
‘We who serve in the temples have been somewhat insulated from the food shortage,’ the master of flow said, indicating the dishes. ‘However, many of the dedicants have chosen to forego an evening meal in favour of sharing our food with those less fortunate. So, this is the main meal of the day for many of us.’
The dedicants placed the final dish on the table and turned as one, the swirl of their robes prompting a delighted giggle from Jenna, before leaving the room.
There was a basket with fresh flatbread, a bowl with spiced eel, another bowl filled with greens and one with what looked like bean paste. A glass of watered wine had ben placed in front of each of the adults with a cup of water for Jenna.
‘Please, help yourself,’ the master of flow said.
‘Thank you.’ Andar loaded up Jenna’s plate, giving her a small serving of everything, despite her grimace at the spoonful of greens.
‘What did mama always say?’ he asked his daughter.
‘Eat your greens,’ she said grudgingly, eliciting a chuckle from their host.
‘I have travelled far in the service of Sha-Fetuh,’ the master said, ‘and few things remain constant from one place to another. But children the world over do not wish to eat their greens.’
Andar smiled and fondly ruffled his daughter’s hair. He was grateful that for the moment, she had enough food that she only grudgingly ate her greens. It was only too recent that she had been close to starving.
‘How did you know who I am?’ Andar asked, realising that he had not introduced himself to anyone at the temple.
‘Sha-Fetuh told me,’ the master said simply. ‘Our lord is gracious and speaks to those called to his service.’
‘If all of this is true then why did no-one from the temple ever come looking for me?’
‘The temple was made aware of your father’s death. It was decided that you had enough to deal with. Your grandmother needed you as much as you needed her. Someone had to tend your family’s farm. Sha-Fetuh decreed that you be left at home until our need became greater than your family’s.’
‘And you think that is now?’ Andar was striving to be respectful but he could not supress the tone of incredulity in his voice.
‘Indeed.’ The master leaned forward and lowered her voice. ‘Your farm has been lost to the rot, I believe?’
‘Not lost! True, I haven’t been able to produce much but the farm is still there, the land is still useable. When the rot passes…’
The master of flow shook her head, a sad smile on her face.
‘It is not so simple, my friend. The rot will not pass, like a prolonged period of rain. The rot has set in, it’s here for the foreseeable future. That is why you are needed here. Now.’
Andar looked at Jenna who had eaten most of the food on her plate and was pushing the greens around, making pictures with them. He looked back at the master of flow, ready to beg. He knew they could force him into service, the law granted such power to the temple. All he could do was beg them not to take him from his daughter. He was all that she had left.
‘My farm may not need me, but my daughter does. Her mother, my wife, died. There is no-one else to care for her.’ He thought with guilt about how his position had changed since he arrived in the city. He had come here to find someone else to take care of Jenna while he went home to die. The offer of a new life from Mab Tenaway had changed things profoundly, had given him a new determination to see his daughter grow up.
‘I am sorry that I was not clear,’ the master of flow said, sounding surprised. ‘It is you that we are interested in, but of course your daughter would be welcome to stay with you within the temple. But, please, eat. We can discuss the details after our meal.’
The master of flow had the placid expression of someone who was certain of getting what they want.
Resigned, Andar began to eat.
There had never truly been a choice, he knew. From the moment that Jenna had stepped into the dance and brought us to the attention of the temple, our fates were sealed, Andar thought as they walked through the city streets, making their way back to Mab Tenaway’s house. He couldn’t hold it against her though. Perhaps Sha-Fetuh had called to her as the master of flow suggested. Although, truth be told, Andar didn’t really believe in the gods. Not in the sense of actual beings who intervened in mortal affairs. He had always thought of them more as ideals, something to strive towards.
The master of flow had suggested that they return to Mab Tenaway for the night, let the old widow know where they were going and collect the few belongings that they had, before returning to the temple in the morning.
Jenna stumbled for the third time in as many moments and Andar realised that she was growing tired. It had been a very eventful day and they had been up with the dawn.
‘Come on,’ he said, lifting her up. ‘I need a cuddle from my favourite person in the whole world.’
Jenna giggled and wrapped her arms around his neck, her head settling comfortably on his shoulder.
‘I think I’ll like it at the temple, Papa,’ she said in a sleepy voice. ‘The master lady said I can help feed the chickens.’
‘I’m sure there will be many interesting things to do,’ Andar said, shifting her weight a little. ‘Do you like the master lady?’
‘Oh yes. And Sebold. He was funny.’ Jenna yawned then continued, ‘will you have to dress like Sebold, Papa?’
‘I don’t know,’ Andar said. ‘I hadn’t really thought about it.’
They were getting close to Mab Tenaway’s house now and Andar was eager to get back. He thought Jenna may have a nap before supper and he wanted to do a few small repairs for the kindly widow before he had to leave.
Shouts of alarm broke through the afternoon bustle and suddenly people were all streaming in the same direction as Andar, pushing to see what was happening. Andar held Jenna tight and picked up the pace, starting to feel anxious. Smoke was drifting into the sky from somewhere close by. I’ll leave Jenna at the house and then go and do what I can to help, once I know that she’s safe.
He rounded the corner onto Mab Tenaway’s street and stopped in his tracks. The smoke was coming from the widow’s house.