A GAME OF DESTINY
by Dalá'Valannía


Fitch, an ordinary apprentice scribe at Voldar, breaches the forbidden walls of the Temple of Seyella, the Goddess of Destiny, in an attempt to steal a blue rose for the butcher's beautiful daughter. He fails and is instead rescued by a mysterious young woman who wears a blindfold around her eyes. Despite his initial wariness, Fitch befriends the strange but lonely Nehmar, but it will take a cruel betrayal by one of them to make both realise that friendship can sometimes forge bonds strong enough to break the chains of destined fate.

 

CHAPTER I
THE ROSE


pon retrospect, it was pure stupidity on his part. Absolute idiocy that he thought he had been incapable of.

Obviously he thought wrong.

I am never going to fall in love again, he thought with sour bitterness. Not if it’s going to make me do half-witted things like this, sneaking into temples in the middle of the night like a lovesick calf.

Then he remembered that was exactly what he was, struck with helpless adoration over the daughter of the butcher on the street where he lived. And he too recalled, with an internal sigh, Lylyian’s eyes, the exact same shade of dewy violets, gazing at him pleadingly with the hint of tears at the corners, making the deep lavender shade of those irises even more remarkable. The pale oval of her face with its delicate features and her perfect mouth with its full lips, curved sweetly in a pout as she begged Fitch to bring her her heart’s desire.

The Blue Rose

View picture in full size  Picture description: The blue rose in Seyella's garden. Image drawn by Faugar.

“I just want one. Oh please Fitch!” The lovely maiden pleaded prettily. “It really is my heart’s desire, truly!”

Grabbing one of Fitch’s hands, she pressed the open palm against her heart fluttering under a sincerely heaving bosom to let him know how she wanted such a small thing, a blue rose which would grow only in one single place out of the entire city of Voldar – the temple gardens of the goddess Seyella.

Dazed and overwhelmed by Lylyian’s earnestness, he agreed to her request and all the while his hand still pressed against that soft, lily-white bosom.

Which would explain why he was currently crouched up on the branch of an extremely tall tree and feeling none too secure as his perch had a tendency to creak alarmingly under his weight. He was not heavy or fat, just of normal height and mass for a young man his age but even that was too much for the rotting tree limb to bear with equanimity.

Trying not to make any sudden movements, not wanting to break a limb, or most likely all of his limbs if he fell, Fitch peered cautiously over the top of the wall of which the tree branch was obligingly extended over and into the dark garden lit only by silvery pale moon and starlight.

He craned his neck for a better look, which turned out to be a grievous error in judgement for the branch gave a monstrous screech of protest as he did.

The sound of imminent collapse only served to increase Fitch’s panic, for while he was afraid of breaking his neck if the tree branch collapsed, he was also mortally fearful of the temple guards finding him within the sacred grounds and breaking his neck for him, if he had not done so during his fall.

Torn between wanting to climb down to safety and sanity and the thought of his love’s bountiful gratitude when he presented her with a blue rose, Fitch could only clutch his perch tightly with conflicted desires of an intact body and Lylyian’s lush body warring inside his mind and his loins.

Luckily, the choice was made for him when the bough, which finally had enough of its unwelcome burden, emitted a series of drawn out groans before it finally snapped and Fitch suddenly found himself tilting dangerously forward and before he could react, he was hurtling through empty air, limbs flailing about helplessly, to fall in what seemed to be a long time…

…and his plummet ended as abruptly as it began when he landed in the middle of a bush. A bush, studded with nailsbreadth long thorns.

Clenching his teeth tight together to prevent any gasps of pain, Fitch tried to extricate himself from his predicament without success. The more he thrashed around, the more the thorns hooked ruthlessly onto his clothing and into his flesh.

Reduced to frantic desperation, he started yelling for help, not caring anymore that the temple guards would hear him. At least they would get him out of this sadistic bush before they beat him to a bloody pulp.

“Help! I’m stuck! Help!” He shouted, humiliated and utterly mortified.

A flash of pale colour drifted into his sight and he stopped yelling, half expecting the figure coming towards him swiftly to be that of a guard. But it wasn’t.

“Oh do be quiet, you’re shouting fit enough to wake the dead.” The girl hissed at him angrily when she was standing before him. “Stop it or else the guards will come and believe me, they will not be pleased to see you. At. All.” She emphasised her last few words with a particular disapproving exhalation of breath.

Chastened, Fitch looked up at her and asked humbly instead, “Could you help me out, please?” Although she sounded furious, she didn’t seem murderous and Fitch would rather take his chances with a temple maid, he thought that was probably who she was, than the guards.

He tried to make out her features but she was towering over him in his present position and he could not see her face clearly, it was shrouded in shadows, but her robes, though simple, were woven from expensive fabric. She was not as full-figured as Lylyian but built more on the slender side, bordering on undernourished.

Putting her hands upon her hips, she appeared to consider awhile. Then she flung the hands up into the air in a ‘why not’ gesture and muttered something low under her breath, a word composing of three syllables but not in a language that Fitch recognised.

As she did, the thorns, which were clinging with persistence to Fitch’s shirt and trousers, retracted their prickly teeth and to his disbelief, the vines uncoiled from his body of their own volition even though neither he nor the girl laid a finger on them. He was free.

He jumped up hurriedly, wincing slightly in pain as the numerous wounds and scratches on his body, caused by the sharp edge of the thorns, started bleeding minutely.

“I suppose you would want me to help heal you now.” His unknown saviour heaved a sigh resentfully.

No, I just want to get out of here, Fitch wanted to say. He would rather endure his injuries than stay another minute within temple grounds.

“Oh come along then.” The girl said before he could speak, her tone making it clear that she was doing all of this under extreme reluctance and turned to walk back where she came from, obviously expecting Fitch to follow her. Which he did, for he didn’t know the way out, and using the wall as a route of escape was out of the question now.

She walked surprisingly fast, weaving out of labyrinthine garden paths and curving passages with ease while Fitch tried to keep up, and led him to a clearing where a large house, made of alabaster and stone, with cunningly carved columns, a marble trellis and windows which had gauzy draped curtains, giving the entire place an ethereally insubstantial feel. Like a house from a children’s bedtime tale.

Over the sloping roof, a short distance away, Fitch could see the main temple of Seyella, looming up in the darkness, lighted at night with torches between the huge twin colonnades that supported the structure. The massive statue of the Goddess of Destiny was, as usual, standing motionless in front of the temple entrance, arrayed in her grey robes with her eyes covered by a blindfold, an owl perched on her shoulder, while the rest of her features were carved into an expression of severe impartiality.

He could also see the myriad shadowy figures of the temple guards and priestesses moving within the temple, going about their duties for worshippers arrived regardless of day or night, and a fresh new worry descended.

Turning his head around quickly, he did not see anyone in that house or around. It was strangely deserted.

The girl was entering the door of the house with confidence, her steps brisk and purposeful, and Fitch followed, though with less assurance.

The inside of the house was no less beautiful than its exterior, decorated in colours of bronze green and glowing gold, and magnificent tapestries hung on the walls while lush carpets were laid on the floor. But there was an undeniable coldness surrounding the splendour, a feeling of depressing flawlessness within its perfection.

“Where is this place?” Fitch asked softly, not daring to speak loudly.

The girl, her back still to him, was now over at a cupboard, cleverly built into a wall. She was busy rummaging around a number of small pots kept on a shelf and did not answer him at first. Her hands ran over several of the jars, lingering over the different shapes and sizes, and sometimes picking one up to sniff at the contents before putting it back again.

“Sit down and do not speak until I tell you to.” She ordered him imperiously, not bothering to turn around to look at him, one finger pointing to a bench at one side of the room.

Fitch crept over to the bench and obediently sat down.

The girl caught hold of one yellow jar and smelled it cautiously.

“Aha! Found it!” She held the jar up in her hand like some ancient warrior maiden, lifting a sword above in triumph.

She turned around and Fitch got his first proper look at his rescuer at last and he could not speak for a long while, shock dancing down his spine as he saw.

“Seyella!” he whispered finally when he remembered his ability for speech.

The girl frowned at him, her forehead puckered in a furrow, above the strip of thick silk she wore, bound around her eyes, hiding them from sight.

“I am not Seyella.” She told him with disdainful contempt. “I am the Goddess’s Voice.”

Seyella’s avatar! Fitch nearly bolted out of the room when he realized with gradual horror who it was that had brought him here to this place. And he would have run, if only he was not still gaping at her, his mouth opening and closing like a fish, and reeling from the revelation.

When he recovered enough of his wits to think coherently, the Voice had walked to where he was, and thrust the yellow jar in front of his face. Although the silk blindfold must have been thick enough to completely obscure her sight, she walked with unerring accuracy as she had done in the gardens to the bench and nimbly avoiding a chair and desk that was placed in her path.

“Here, it’s a salve. Rub it on your wounds.”

Taking the pot instinctively, Fitch could not help but sense a growing spark of exasperation, overriding his feelings of awe and fear, at being talked to like he was a child.

But he did what she told him to, scooping out the salve with his fingers, and dabbing gingerly on the more serious of his bleeding scratches. The effect was immediate and gratifying, a numbing coolness spreading and dulling the worst of his hurts.

As he spread more of the cream onto his abrasions, he took the chance to sneak surreptitious glances at the girl who was now sitting in a chair near his, her face seemingly gazing upon him steadily but with her eyes covered by the blindfold, giving her an uncanny and uneasy aspect somehow, he could not be sure.

She didn’t seem very pretty, what features of her countenance that could be discerned, not in the earthy, sensual way that Lylyian was. She had glorious rich copper tinted hair though, piled high above her head in curls and her neck, like Seyella’s, was exquisitely shaped, long and delicate. Her posture was restless as her hands clenched and unclenched upon her lap.

He could remember seeing her before, now. Not here, person to person, of course. But sitting, far away from the general masses, on an immense, heavy iron throne set on a raised pedestal as he and some friends had gone to the temple during the appointed festival day of Seyella’s in the month of the Turning Star. They had went, not from a sentiment of religious fervour but because they had been bored.

From his vantage point in the crowd, the Voice, wearing her austere grey ceremonial dress, had the quality of a doll, fixed and rigid, as she sat on her throne, surrounded by her priestesses. Her face, eyes always hidden by the ever-present blindfold, looked out vacantly across the expanse of worshippers kneeling reverently before her as they awaited her blessings in a hushed, expectant silence.

The air grew stale and warm and Fitch had fidgeted, impatient and hungry, and he was about to suggest to his friends that they leave, when the sound of a bell being struck three times rang out, clear and ominous, and the Voice parted her mouth to speak and Fitch forgot everything as he listened.

The sound of the goddess’s voice was unbearably beautiful and it was not calm like her visage, but wild and powerful as a burning sky. And there was heartrending desolation in it too though what could possibly make a goddess so sad, Fitch did not know.

Like a song it was, what She said, the song of all joyous beginnings and inevitable ends to come. And each of her words seared Fitch’s heart with light until he thought he would fracture into a thousand pieces and each piece would know that once he had heard the pure, faultless inflections of a goddess.

When it was over, as the priestesses escorted the Voice away and the worshippers filed out in a sea of humanity, Fitch had been left shaken, feeling like he had been ripped apart and put back together again. Peculiarly enough, later, he had not been able to remember what she had said, only that the goddess’s voice had been mesmerising and hypnotic and travelled to all corners of the vast hall with ease.

And now, the vessel in which Seyella poured her divine nature into was sitting a short distance away from him, her knees drawn up against her chest in a child-like gesture, one untidy curl escaping from her tight mass of hair, and she was asking him something.

“What were you doing here in the temple gardens anyway?” She was saying with abruptness, and her words were ordinary and the tones unfriendly though it contained a smudge of unwilling curiosity. A normal voice, not unpleasant but had none of the rounded goldenness, which had made it compelling on that hot festival day.

The swell of embarrassment and discomfiture came over him again when she asked. He couldn’t tell Seyella’s Voice that he had been sneaking into the temple gardens because he wanted to steal a blue rose for the butcher’s daughter.

Flushing, he tried to think of an excuse but none, nothing plausible anyway, came to mind.

“You’re not an assassin, are you? Because I’ll have to call for the guards to come kill you if you are one.”

Blanching ashen now, Fitch assured her, somewhat disjointedly, that he had no intentions of assassinating anyone or anything.

“Well, alright. I suppose I believe you. No assassin could be as stupid as to get himself caught in such a simple warding spell.”

“Spell…?”

“The thorn bushes.” She heaved another one of her impatient sighs. “They’ve been spelled to catch hold of any intruders. And they would never have let you go if I haven’t come along and saved you. You would have been caught there until the morning patrols came by to get you. Or the dogs.”

“Oh. Thank you.”

“You are welcome.” She said automatically and not with any real sincerity. “If you are not an assassin, then what were you doing here? If you don’t tell me the truth, I’ll scream and the guards will come.”

“No! Please don’t do that,” Fitch hurriedly replied. “I, er, wanted a…rose.”

“A what?”

“The blue rose of Seyella. I wanted one.” He clarified, his face still blushing deeply though she could not possibly have seen his shame reflected there.

“You did all this for a blue rose?” The Voice said sharply and incredulously.

“Lylyian wanted it…” Fitch was starting to feel even more stupid, explaining to Seyella’s avatar his reason for petty thievery.

“I think you are an idiot.” After distinctly telling Fitch what she thought of him, the Voice stood up quickly. “Aren’t you done yet? You have to leave now.”

Without waiting for his answer, she walked out of the room in that self-assured manner of hers, bypassing obstacles easily, as if she could see.

Fitch, feeling like a well-trained dog and resenting it, followed her once more.

Through the garden maze they walked through again and this time, she led him to another section of the immeasurably long, high wall, which ran around the boundaries of the temple and before a modest narrow doorway with iron railings.

Producing a key, she fitted the curved contours into a small knothole and turned it. With a small creak, the gate swung opened to lead out to a small passageway.

“The kitchen cooks use this gate for deliveries to the temple.” The Voice told him. Then she grinned an unexpected mischievous smile of gleeful delight, like a child who had done something naughty and was proud of the fact that the deed had been undiscovered by the adults. “I stole the key.”

“That’s good.” Fitch could only congratulate her half-heartedly. He was too intoxicated with the lure of sweet freedom so near to say anything more.

He was about to make a dash through the gate when the Voice grabbed his sleeve with fingers that dug into his flesh like claws and held on tight.

There was a slight hesitation, and then she asked hurriedly, “Is this Lylyian of yours… is she very beautiful?”

“She’s the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen.” Fitch, taken aback by her question, but nevertheless, stuttered out. He recalled an image of Lylyian and warmed to his description with heartfelt passion. “She has hair the colour of gold and lilac eyes that’s like bluebells in summer.”

“She sounds like a silly doll for a baby.” The Voice gave a very unladylike snort of derision.

“She does not!” Fitch replied, stung.

The Voice shrugged. Then she said, “I want you to come back.”

“I, I don’t understand.”

Brusquely, she pushed him through the gate so that he found himself standing on the other side, looking in at a dark-skinned girl with a blindfold and a murky, seething mass of bushes and foliage silhouetted ominously behind her back.

“Come back seven days later. Exactly seven days from this night. At this hour and meet me at this place again. You must come back!” The girl told him, her face with its enforced blindness turned to him with impatient edginess.

“But why?” Baffled, Fitch asked.

“You want a blue rose, don’t you? Come back seven days later. You must promise to come back. Promise!”

Hardly daring to believe his ears, Fitch thought he heard her say that she would give him the rose. Then she repeated herself and he knew his ears had not deceived him. But he, try as he might, could not fathom why she was telling him this. It was obvious she didn’t like him very much and yet, here she was, informing him that she would help him gain Lylyian’s favour.

Fearing that to linger any longer would mean certain discovery by the guards, he promised her, stammering his agreement to meet her again seven days hence.

As he promised her, she nodded curtly once and then slammed and locked the iron gate in his face. Without saying anything more, she hurried away and Fitch stared at her retreating back, becoming smaller and less distinct as she melded effortlessly with the shadows, until she was long disappeared from sight.

For the second time in a very short period of time, Fitch Serdior who lived in a modest little house, apprenticed to old Joure the scribe, in a small street on the eastern section of Voldar, was thinking with unhappy disgruntlement that he had gone officially insane.

“What am I doing here? I should not be here, I should be at home, asleep in my nice hard little bed, after a warm supper of roast chicken and turnip soup!” He started to say in a low enough voice that unexpectedly rose higher and higher until the word ‘soup’ was shouted out to the night-sky with deep aggrieved annoyance.

A sky that was darted with bright silver threads as rain fell with persistence, piercing through Fitch’s cloak with competency until he was thoroughly wet, shivering and miserable.

“Exactly seven days, she said. Same time and place, she said.” Fitch muttered angrily under his breath. He kept his end of the bargain, but she obviously had not.

He contemplated leaving, walking until he was so far away that the lunacy might leave him like a bad dream and he did, almost, do that. He marched a few steps away from the gate, then stopped, hesitated, sighed and proceeded to walk back again, pressing his face between the iron bars for the hundredth time. And it was no different from the ninety-ninth time previously, what little of the garden he could see from his position, seemed totally devoid of anyone, including a rude and ill-mannered brat of an avatar for the Goddess of Destiny.

During the past seven days, he had thought long and hard over whether to return to the temple. He contemplated his options while studying the scrolls that Joure had passed him, weighed the advantages and disadvantages while eating. It was even starting to invade his dreams as well, images of blue roses, darkly baleful, filling them until he would wake up, unable to breathe for a moment.

Much as he wanted to see the happiness reflected from Lylyian’s perfect countenance, happiness that he was the cause of, his suspicions and scepticism had nearly overwhelmed the former desire.

And in his more honest moments, he admitted to himself that cowardice played a part in his reluctance to return to the temple as well.

Then, yesterday, he had seen Eiae, son of the richest spice trader in the eastern sector of the city, hanging around the butcher shop and standing next to him, giggling and resplendent in a green low-cut cheap cotton dress, was Lylyian.

To be so ingloriously supplanted by Eiae of the piggy eyes, pockmarked face and sly grin! Eiae who never missed a chance to poke fun at his name by mutating it to ‘Snitch’ whenever they met on the streets. The utter ignominy of this was too much to bear.

His pride injured grievously and resolve strengthened, Fitch vowed he was going to get that blue rose for Lylyian or die trying.

Earlier in the evening, he had sneaked out of the house after Joure had retired for the night, and feeling horribly guilty as he did so, betraying the old scribe’s trust in him because of Lylyian. Joure who had been like a parent to him when his own mother and father died when he was nine.

Sighing, Fitch swore to himself he’d make it up to Joure by studying those Brownie scrolls they’ve gotten recently from Milkengrad. Joure had paid a fortune for them, using a hefty chunk of his life-savings but the old scribe announced with some satisfaction that it was worth it.

The rain fell harder and he leaned back against the gate, irrationally thinking that perhaps by doing so, he would not possibly get any wetter.

Something grabbed him by his shoulder from behind.

Fitch was ashamed to admit it later, he insisted it was an exceedingly masculine yell of surprise, but he screamed.

“How many times must I tell you to be quiet?” The Voice sounded like her usual self, irritated and aggrieved. “And has anyone told you yet that you shriek like a half-witted girl who saw her husband naked for the first time on their wedding night?”

“You lied!”

“I did not! How dare you say that!”

“You told me that you would give me a rose if I came back seven nights later.”

“No I didn’t. I asked whether you wanted a blue rose and told you to come back seven nights later. I didn’t say I would give you one.”

“That is a technicality and you know it. You implied to me that you would give me a blue rose!”

“And I will. If you win.”

Fitch grounded his teeth together until his molars protested.

He settled for glaring at her unless he realised how stupid it was. The blindfold that covered her eyes stared smugly back him, impervious to angry glowers.

“You lied to me.” He insisted mulishly, crossing his arms on his chest, knowing he sounded like a child deprived of a candy treat but not able to stop himself.

“Armeros’s teeth.” She retorted rudely. “It’s not my fault if you can’t listen properly. In any case, I didn’t lie. You wanted a rose and you will get one…”

With an expansive gesture, she upturned the contents of the box she was holding onto the table. The dices clattered onto the surface with a pleasant heavy clacking sound. The first dice was red, and the second was blue while the last was a curious mixture of green at one side and yellow on the other.

“As long as you can win a game from me.” The Voice concluded her sentence and this time, she did smile smugly.

The colours of the dice immediately alerted Fitch on what game she intended they play. Disbelievingly he stared at them. “You are not serious about this, are you?”

Her silence was answer enough.

The impulse to walk out of the alabaster house was so strong that he almost coiled himself out of the chair he was sitting to leave. The slight movement was enough to jar the edge of the table and the Voice felt the tremor. For a brief moment, her body seemed to slump a little, as if she knew he was going, before straightening stiffly again.

An insight flashed across Fitch’s mind quickly, she’s disappointed that I’m not going to play.

It was a funny, odd little thought. Incredible, almost impossible to contemplate seriously that this proud girl before him, arrogant and secure in her knowledge as a Goddess’s avatar, would actually be distressed for the simple reason that a common scribe’s apprentice would not play an even commoner dicing game, popular with foot soldiers in barracks, with her.

Not entirely sure what he was doing and after a surreptitious glance at the waning moon, aware that he would have to sneak back home in a few hours’ time before Joure wakes up, he asked with a resigned air, “We have nothing to bet with. I did not bring any coins with me.” His half-hearted final protest sounded feeble, even to him.

The Voice, if anything, straightened her spine even more until it looked as though she was going to snap in halves. The fine brows above her blindfold knitted together shortly before smoothing out once more.

“A temple maid left some dried peas here.” she said, gesturing her hand towards a “We can bet on peas.”

“Peas?”

“I like them, they’re crunchy.” She justified defensively.

“And if I win a game, just one game, you would allow me to pluck a blue rose for my love.”

“Yes.”

I’m going to regret this, Fitch thought as he picked up the red dice. “I hold you to your promise. I take the red.”

“Pass me the blue dice.”

Doing as he was told, dropping the small little ivory square dyed a brilliant blue, onto her palm that was smooth with well-shaped nails. It was a hand that had never toiled or laboured a day in its life but still looked strong despite.

“You know the rules of this game?”

“Yes, it’s Saki, isn’t it? The dices represent Troll and Paladin and if the Troll rolls higher than the Paladin or vice versa, he wins the round.” Fitch growled impatiently. “The two-colored dice represents Seyella and when both players rolls the same number, Seyella will be used to determine the deadlock.”

“Good, you are not as stupid as you sound. Twenty peas for every round we play until all are gone. The one who holds the highest number at the end wins.”

“Fine.” Fitch just wanted to get this over with. If he was lucky, he might even win the first game and be on his way home, in time for a few hours’ of sleep, and a delicate rose beside his pillow.

“One more thing, I’m not going to be a nasty old Troll. I want to be the Paladin. You be the Troll.”

“Whatever.”

The smug grin on her face intensified until it became a veritable smirk. “Then, let us begin. You may throw first since you are my guest.”

“Thank you. Your graciousness is kind indeed.” Fitch muttered sarcastically and flung the red dice upon the table, holding his breath when it skimmed and skipped over the tabletop rapidly before slowing and finally stopping to a halt near the edge.

“Five!” he cried out the number on the topside of the dice with triumph.

In a flash, her hand reached out and with the tip of her finger, she stroked the top of the red dice, ascertaining for herself through the number of grooved circles.

“Not bad for a first throw.” The Voice acceded.

Ha, let’s see her top that! Fitch crowed mentally.

Swirling her own dice within the loosely clenched fist, she hesitated a moment, and then with a practised movement, threw the dice out.

The blue dice didn’t dance across the table as Fitch’s had. Instead it balanced upon one point and spin dizzyingly round and round until the black circles etched on each side became a blur.

But gravity prevailed and eventually its trajectory grew sluggish and the numbers became more distinct.

When it finally stopped and settled, Fitch could only stare incredulously.

As she had done before, the Voice reached out and felt the result of her throw with her fingertip. The grin resurfaced as she did.

“Six.” she said serenely. “I win the first round. Twenty peas please.”

By the time, the first ray of light appeared over the horizon, leavening the murky black-violet of a dawning night to a heavenly white-blue, Fitch was making his bleary way through the arch of a small side garden-gate.

And he had not won a single game out of the thirty-three rounds they played.

“Five, I win again!” she announced, not smugly, but with a certain pleased satisfaction.

Fitch muttered under his breath about loaded dice as he rolled his turn (his opponent overheard what he was saying but loftily ignored him) and subsequently lost once more. A four to her five. It was becoming an annoying tendency. Losing for countless times since the first night they started playing this game. A few times, if he was very fortuitous, they might roll the same number and had to break the impasse with the Seyella dice. Even then, inevitably, he would still lose, rolling a number or two beneath hers.

That had been a month ago and the frozen hand of Urtengor had slowly yielded into the welcoming embrace of Seyella, heralding a new birth of the seasons.

As he stood to leave on that first night, humiliated by his inability to best a girl, a sightless one at that, the Voice had offered him another bargain as she sat there, with a mountain of peas by her hand on the table.

He could come back two times every week to play again. And the stakes would remain the same. If he wins a game from her, a rose would be his. He accepted her challenge, unable to resist, although his acceptance came more from a desire to best her, even once would be enough, than anything else. Including his original reason for wanting a rose.

Truth be told, he had given up on Lylyian by now. What propitiated this sudden cooling of ardour was very simple. The very next morning after playing saki with the Voice, he reached home from the temple with barely enough time to wash his face and a change of clothing, when Joure greeted him with the news that Lylyian was to be married to Eiae.

Hearing of the impending nuptial, wild schemes to wrest Lylyian away ran rampant within his feverish head and plans to escape to somewhere unimaginably far and exotic was foremost. Escape to places that he’d only seen on maps and dreamt about, like the Crimson Isles or further south to the Ashmarian lands. Just him and Lylyian, happy and free, with all the lands of Caelereth laid before them.

Then he realised how dim-witted he had been, how blind and unwilling to see. Passing by the couple one day on a street corner when out on an errand, he glimpsed the look of utter contentment on Lylyian’s face and with a flash of unwanted insight, knew that it was not a marriage of convenience as he had first assumed but that the beautiful butcher’s daughter, somehow, had fallen in love with pockmarked Eiae.

Though he had moped around the house for a few days, his appetite dwindling enough to worry Joure, his heart eventually recovered, much to his disgruntled surprise.

So that was that, he did not really need nor want a blue rose to woo Lylyian anymore. This part was clear enough. What confused him was why he came back to the temple once a week to play a silly game he couldn’t even win. And what even more baffling was he didn’t tell the Voice of Lylyian’s upcoming nuptials but kept it a secret during the games.

Looking at the girl sitting opposite him, with her ever-present blindfold, he convinced himself again, repeatedly, that he came back because he wanted to best her at least once. To prove that he can win one round and then he need never come back to the temple. A small traitorous part of him was not satisfied with this reasoning and clamoured for more analysis. Could it be that pity and compassion, felt instinctively when he thought she was alone, been a motivating factoring in his return journeys to the temple?

He didn’t know and until he found out, they continued playing saki.

“I’m tired.” The Voice announced abruptly, stretching her hands above her head and yawning. She was wearing a plain pale-green dress today, which brought out the flame colour of her hair. “The priestesses kept me up all of yesterday night and the night before.”

She had never spoken so casually to him before, unconstrained and off guard, as if he were a friend or equal. Usually, during their previous games, they never spoke much and if they did, it was usually the Voice ordering him to do or fetch something. Instinctively, Fitch felt wariness creeping up over him, making his nerves twitched, but reluctantly he asked.

“Why?”

“Preparing for Seyella’s Festival, of course. It’s the month of the Turning Star, Seyella’s time of the year. The ancient elves use to call this month, córt'ometrá.” The tint of superiority returned and Fitch found that he didn’t mind it all that much now. In fact, he was rather used to it and this, somehow, unsettled him even more than why he did not tell her about Lylyian’s betrothal. He put aside his confusion, not particularly wishing to examine it, not now anyway.

He stood up instead, thankful for a chance to go home early for once and get some sleep.

“Where are you going?” It never ceased to amaze him, the way she could catch the tiniest sound and instantly knew it for what it was.

“Going home.”

“I did not say you could go yet.”

Fitch sat down again. He was too tired to argue and also, he knew by now, protesting would not do him any good.

They sat in silence for a while, the Voice fiddling with one of the peas from her winning stack, turning it over and over between her thumb and finger. Their respective dices lay on the table, dormant, waiting for the next game to begin.

“Fitch?” With a start, Fitch realized that it was the first time she ever called him by his name. He had mentioned it to her before, and she had accepted with a careless shrug, and did not offer her own name. “Tell me about outside.”

“What?”

“Outside.” She repeated impatiently. “What is it like? What does Voldar look like?”

“You mean you don’t know?”

“I have never left the temple since I was brought here. The priestesses won’t let me out. They say it is too dangerous.” The Voice said simply. “You are the first person I’ve spoken to who isn’t a temple priestess, servant or soldier. Not that you’re much of an interesting conversationalist but you’ll do, I suppose.”

Fitch could scarcely believe his ears. “You mean you have never made a step outside? And never spoken to anyone else? At all?” She was no better than a prisoner crossed his mind and an unexpected rush of anger, not at her, but directed at her jailers welled up. Her little abode took on a new aspect for him. It was still beautiful. Like a gilded cage was beautiful.

She shrugged her shoulders, seemingly sensing his feelings. “It is not so bad. I can hear. Sometimes I stand by a window or a door and I can hear the people walking outside the temple gates and what they are doing. There is a market near the temple, am I right?”

Fitch nodded. “They sell mostly souvenirs there. Cheap amulets and potions. A hedge witch or two, plying fortunes to the gullible.”

“I knew it! I wish I could visit it.” The Voice said with triumph in being right, mixed with wistful longing.

“Why don’t you?”

“I told you, the priestesses would never let me.”

“You’re Seyella’s Voice. You can do anything, command anyone here,” he argued.

She was quiet for a moment. “It isn’t so simple. You would not understand so cease your questioning. Tell me about outside and perhaps I’ll give you a rose without you having to win a game from me.”

She was lying; Fitch knew that, it was something in her tone. He could recognise the different timbres of her voice by now, how a certain distinctive inflection would be indicative of her quicksilver moods. This would be the best time to throw her challenge back into her face, tell her that he didn’t need a rose anymore, and leave.

He could have, but he did not.

So he told her about his work as an apprentice scribe, the small house he lived with Joure. The commissions they received from clients who wished to translate or decipher foreign manuscripts did not pay very much but it was enough for an uncomplicated life with simple but nourishing food and sometimes an occasional extra to set aside for what Joure called an apprentice fee for Fitch when he was ready. The early morning peddlers who hawked their wares at the top of their voices, each trying to outdo the other, out on the streets when the mist was still heavy and the air was cold and clean.

He described to her his friends and acquaintances, where they would go when Joure let him out for a day’s rest, the larks and mischief they got into, the places they would haunt with the persistence of idle youth. Like the tavern two streets away where the best storytellers in Voldar would gather and display their craft to a captive and rapt audience, relating tales of great deeds and greater mortal men and women who performed them. Kings and queens, baker boys and village girls who became heroes and heroines, long dead, but forever immortally revered as long as one bard could remember them and what they had done.

Then there was stately majesty of Thyrrinths Hold, the ancient and traditional seat of power for the past Sovereigns of the Erpheronians, the way it loomed like a sentinel over the rest of the city, and how it would shine with a dull red, as if the very bricks were bleeding, when the setting sun struck it at just that special moment. Or the statue of Queen Katya the Just situated in the middle of the city. She who had been known as the Dragonseeker, later the only Dragonslayer after Wengerim, her statue carved in the likeness of when she had been a young girl, not yet Queen, with candid sturdy features which the unknown sculptor had skilfully infused her famed strength of will and innate courage, tempered with compassion.

All he related, she listened with avid curiosity and interest, not interrupting even once.

There were many more things he could have told her, such as the various temples dedicated to the Twelve, each shrine remarkable and unique to their own gods’ characteristics, but there was no time left. At least, for that night which was night no longer but a dawning day.

When he left this time, she told him her name.

Nehmar, she had said, half-grudgingly. Don’t mispronounce it. I hate it when they don’t pronounce my name properly. See that you do.

Whence next he came, they still played the same game over and over until the peas were amassed at her side of the table and when she was too tired or distracted to continue, he would tell her what he knew of Voldar, and through her eagerness, a city that had been his home for all of his life, became new and wondrous once more.

When there were no more places and images left to describe, he told her the stories he had heard in the tavern instead and she drank them all in with a craving, bordering on starvation.

Stories like the exploits of Eghana Hedynn, the first of her sex to be appointed Captain of the Guards, made Nehmar applaud with approval. She believed implicitly in heroic staples such as the deeds of Lysander Dain, husband to Queen Katya and defender of Voldar during the siege of the baneful Dragonknights, or the tragedy of Drafas Tristin, but was openly doubtful with regards to events that happened in past Ages like the War of the Chosen.

“Ma'asherom is a fairy-tale told to frighten silly children. He never existed,” she said dismissively. “Nobody could be that powerful. And if he was prophet of Coór then, he must be a fairy-tale because everyone knows Coór belongs to the elven legends, not ours. Only the Twelve are the true Gods of the world.”

“Well, Joure says it’s the other way around. That the High Goddess of the Elves is the real one, and our Gods are but Her pale shadow-selves. And Joure’s the wisest man I know.”

“Blasphemy!” Nehmar stuck her tongue out at him although she seemed more annoyed than really angry. Fitch thought she was annoyed, not because what he said was considered sacrilege, but because he had dared to debate against her. “In any case, I’m not interested in the elves. They’re too perfect for me. It’s unnatural for any beings to be so perfect. I’ll much rather hear about mortals like us who had real adventures. Tell me about Eyrin Fontramonn again and how he defeated Saban Blackcloak.“

“Eyrin was reputed to be half-elvish.” Fitch pointed out. “And you know the story already, aren’t you tired of it yet?”

“Yes and no. No, I am not tired of the story and yes, Eyrin was supposedly an elf but only reputed and half-blooded at that. Stop blithering and just tell me the tale.”

So he told her the story again.

Story written by Dalá'Valannía View Profile