A carriage pulled up, the horses snorting and flicking their tails as they drew to a halt. Arsha watched as the door opened and Micah stepped out to help Rachael down.
“Thanks,” the girl said, giving the man an awkward half smile as he boarded the carriage again. Micah smiled back and closed the door. Then a whip cracked, and everything was covered by the sound of the carriage clattering away.
Arsha was sat at the prow, head resting against the railing, her legs dangling over the front of the ship. The cavern floor, far below, was shrouded in darkness. Above, the lights in the roof glittered like stars. The sound of the carriage faded, and then all she could hear was Rachael’s footsteps echoing through the still air as the girl walked towards her. She pulled her legs up and turned to sit with her back against the railing, as Rachael sat down beside her.
“Hey,” she said.
“Hey,” Rachael nodded. “Micah went back to go watch some more of the hearing.”
“What was the examination like?” Arsha said.
“Horrid,” Rachael replied, “all needles and weighing and stuff. Blood tests, all kinds of things. And the whole time they had me sitting in this stupid white nightie thing with no undies on or nothing.”
Arsha pulled a face.
“Yeah, well it’s done now. They said I’m all OK. No germs or whatever.”
“Well, that’s good.”
“So, this hearing of theirs… It’s been going three days now. How much longer is it gonna be?”
“Tomorrow. They’re going to make all their closing arguments and stuff. Either way, it’s all going to be over after that.”
“We’re not going to win. Are we?”
For a moment, Arsha didn’t say anything. She leaned her head back onto the railing and stared up the lights above them.
“None of them want to say it, but… It’s not going well. Micah’s quiet and Ilona is just more… Intense. She’s always that way, when she can’t solve something.”
“Yeah. I figured. I guess that means they’re going to take me away after all,” Rachael said.
“I know,” Arsha said, feeling a lump in her throat. “I don’t want them to.”
“Thanks,” Rachael said. There was a long pause before she added “And your dad… I guess they’re going to lock him up too.”
Unable to even form the words, Arsha just gave the barest of nods.
“I’m sorry,” Rachael said.
“He’ll think of something. He never gives up,” Arsha said, feeling all too much like she was trying to convince herself. “For you too. I know it. He won’t stop fighting until we have you back.”
“It’s OK. I know how it is.”
Arsha reached out and took the girl’s hand.
“You know I’m not giving up on you, right? Not ever. We promised.”
Whatever Rachael might have said in reply, it was lost when they both turned towards the sound of another carriage approaching. It was larger and more elaborate than the one that had brought Rachael back from her examination, and it was painted all in white.
The carriage doors opened and four men in long white coats disembarked. Though Arsha didn’t recognise the braiding and trim on their sleeves and shoulders, she knew that even Citadel guards didn’t normally wear such elaborate uniforms. They were followed out by a young woman with a boyish face and short cropped hair that was pulled close to her scalp in rows of tightly woven braids. The woman wore a half cloak of green and gold cloth, and beneath the dark leather of her armour there were flashes of blue silk. A sword hung from her belt, the hilt and scabbard simple and unadorned. The last figure to emerge from the carriage was dressed head to toe in a full white robe, with a white silk scarf that covered their face. The hem of the robe was trimmed in a deep red, and it was marked all over with the golden sigils of the Chamber of Foresight. Arsha had never even seen the marks in person before, only in her father’s books. The figure moved calmly, with a stately and feminine grace, as if her feet were only brushing the ground. The guards took up a formation around the two women, strangely tense despite how little danger there seemed to be. They approached the ship without a word spoken between them. The guards kept a slight distance, as if actually touching the person in the flowing white robe might be a terrible thing.
At the foot of the gangplank the short-haired young woman made a commanding gesture, and two of the guards turned to stand watch on the dock. Then the robed figure ascended the walkway to the deck, the remaining pair of guards flanking her. Approaching the prow, she stopped a few paces from them. Arsha felt herself holding her breath. In the shadows of the deep hood she could make out a dainty chin, skin the colour of honey.
It was eerie, how quiet everything was. When the woman spoke, it was with a voice like music, clear and gentle, that sent a shiver of recognition down Arsha’s spine.
“Good evening ladies. I wondered if I might come inside.”
Feeling as if she had only just come to her senses, Arsha leapt to her feet and gestured politely towards the main door.
“Thank you,” the woman said, her head inclining slightly below the hood. Hearing the voice again, Arsha felt her suspicions growing even surer.
She lead the way as they headed inside, Rachael staying close beside her with a bewildered look on her face. At another gesture from the short haired woman, the remaining guards took up positions just outside the door. From their faces it was clear they were not happy about something. As Arsha and Rachael got the heavy door open, the robed woman turned to her companion.
“Rukiya, these people are old and dear friends. I’d like to speak to them alone, please.”
The shorter woman looked surprised, perhaps even horrified by this suggestion.
“My lady, I can’t.”
“Rukiya, please. Just do this one thing for me.”
Lips pressed in a thin line, Rukiya nodded, clearly even unhappier than the guards were.
“I’ll stay by the door, but not outside. I won’t let them put half a foot of steel between us.”
No happier, the shorter woman nodded as Arsha led them all inside. True to her word, Rukiya took up a position just inside the inner doorway, as the robed woman followed them down to the mess. Sitting alone at the table, Milima looked up as they entered and her eyes immediately widened in astonishment.
“By the Seven… Seeker, I am so sorry. No one… We weren’t told of an official visit…” Milima blurted out, jumping up from the table. Arsha saw Rachael’s eyes widen in surprise, clearly taken aback by the sight of Milima seeming so flustered.
“Milima, please. It’s quite alright,” the robed woman said. “This is not what you think.”
Calmly, the figure drew back her white hood, revealing the face that Arsha remembered from her father’s sending stone. She felt butterflies dancing in her stomach as she tried to keep her expression calm.
“My name is Maya. I’m a very close friend of Rishi Chandra, and I am very grateful to finally meet you.”
“Can I… Can I offer you anything?” Milima said, still clearly nervous and confused.
“Tea would be lovely, thank you,” Maya said with an angelic smile, as she settled herself at the table.
Milima nodded and turned to set a kettle on the stove.
“I… I suppose you know Rishi’s situation,” Milima said, as Rachael and Arsha took seats across the table from Maya.
“Yes, and your husband’s too. I’ve been sitting in on the sessions. Milima, I am so very sorry. I know this must be awful for you all.”
“We’ll pull through,” Milima said, with a faltering attempt at a smile. “Seeker… I don’t meant to impose, but is there anything you can tell us about what’s going to happen at the hearing tomorrow? Anything you might have heard?”
“I’m afraid there’s very little I can tell you,” Maya said. “Beyond my own suspicions.”
Milima nodded, unable to hide her disappointment.
“I have heard a little about Reuben Ben Mahir,” Maya continued. “He’s an earnest and forthright young man, by all accounts, just like his sister. Very eager to prove that his family’s influence had nothing to do with being granted his appointment, whatever the truth of that might be. And he’s gained a reputation as something of… A troublemaker, I suppose. He’s embarrassed more than a few nobles already, exposing dirty secrets and a few shady dealings. I couldn’t say if he actually believes in what he’s doing, or if it’s just more Guild politics, but he’s certainly ruffled a few feathers. But going after Manindra… I really don’t think he knows how dangerous an enemy he is making. That worries me.”
“Well it’s about time somebody stood up to the man. Honestly, Maya, the thought of Manindra Bhandari finally getting what he deserves is the only silver lining I can see in all of this,” Milima said, as she set a steaming mug of tea down in front of the woman. For a while Maya just stared down into the surface of the liquid, as if seeing something there.
“Manindra’s plans don’t fail,” she said. “They just get… More dangerous. The man has no concept of defeat. He is entirely possessed of the certainty of his own importance, his… His ‘right’ to the things he has set his eyes on. There is nothing in this world that he does not believe he can bend to his will. It’s just a matter of how far he will have to go to make it happen. So yes, that scares me. Manindra is never more dangerous than when he has been defeated.”
With a heavy sigh, Milima set herself down at the table. Maya raised her cup, blew gently on the surface, and took a long sip.
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to seem ungrateful. I appreciate your insight, Seeker, I truly do,” Milima said.
“You’re carrying a lot right now, Milima. I understand.”
“And being a terrible host. I’m afraid I’m not really sure what we can help you with, though. Rishi and Abasi are both in holding, and it’s just myself and the girls here on the ship right now.”
“Actually, my visit concerns the young ladies. I wondered if you might permit me to speak with them alone for a little while?”
“Uh… Certainly,” Milima said, taken aback. “If it’s alright with the girls, of course.”
Confused, Arsha glanced at Rachael, who looked just as perplexed. The girls both nodded.
“Wonderful,” Maya said. Then, with a glance upwards, at where Rukiya was no doubt still holding guard on the floor above, she added “Is there somewhere we might…”
“If you’re looking for some privacy, Rishi’s library is at the end of the hall,” Milima said quietly.
“Thank you,” Maya said with a warm smile. As the woman stood, Arsha jumped to her feet and lead the way. Her father’s library was located at the very back of the ship, past the stairwell and just above the engine room. She opened the door and let the others step into a room that would have seemed large if it was not some completely filled with bookcases. Each shelf was filled to the brim, the books strapped into place with leather bindings to keep them from shifting with the movements of the ship. In the centre of the room stood a round table with four chairs, and a single ghostlamp at its centre.
Arsha closed the door and turned to see Maya standing in the centre of the room, hands folded in front herself. The woman’s poise and grace seemed entirely flawless. Rachael stood a little to one side, looking nervous, unsure of what to do with herself. As Arsha stepped towards the table, however, Maya moved towards her.
“May I?” the woman said, reaching out to take her hand. Dumbstruck, Arsha just nodded, as Maya held her palm up between them. Then she realised what the woman was looking at, the thin line of the scar standing out clear against the skin. Maya’s soft fingertips brushed across the knotted line.
“You did this yourselves?” she said. Arsha nodded. “Very well done. This is a strong binding. Any fateworker would be proud.”
“How… How did you know?”
“Red string. It took me a while to puzzle it out, of course, but two nights ago I dreamed of a hand clutching a bloody knife. The rest was easy to put together.”
Arsha nodded, not saying a word.
“Oh there’s no need to be so cautious my dear. I assume you already know about the prediction I shared with Rishi, yes?”
“How did you…?”
“You recognised my face, darling. The moment you saw me. Your father refuses to even keep a holo in case he lets slip that we stay in touch, and that was first sending I’d made to him in ten years. The only way you could recognise my face is if you’d found a way to listen in. Rishi is too careful for anything else.”
“I… Yeah. I did, a bit. I’m really sorry,” she said, lowering her eyes. Maya’s hand settled lightly on her shoulder.
“It’s done now, and for the best I suspect. Have you told Rachael yet?”
“Good,” Maya said, smiling.
“So… Is that what this is about?” Rachael said. “This prediction stuff and all?”
“In a way. We should sit,” Maya said, gesturing towards the table. Still feeling a little dumbstruck, Arsha followed Rachael, taking a chair beside her. Maya sat down across from the two of them, folding her hands on the table.
“So… What else can you tell us about your prediction? About what’s going to happen?” Arsha said. Her throat felt dry.
“Very little I’m afraid. Most of it is still fairly opaque to me. I’ve been having visions ever since, but they’ve been confused, fragmentary, very little that I can piece together. That’s the nature of predictions, I’m afraid. Mostly the Chamber collects these pieces, cross-references them with what the other seers have seen, and builds up a larger picture. Seers very rarely have a complete prediction on their own. The intelligence that the Chamber passes on to the Guild council is usually gathered from hundreds of seers across thousands of visions, and even then the results are generally murky at best. But, the truth is, these last few weeks, I’ve been keeping most of what I’ve seen to myself. I fear there’s something rotten at work in the Chamber, and I can’t escape the feeling that whatever I’ve been seeing… That it wasn’t meant for them.”
“Won’t you get in a lot of trouble for that?” Arsha said.
“Perhaps. But that can’t be helped.”
“You don’t seem all that worried,” Rachael said.
“The life of a Seer is a little hard to explain. I know this all must seem very strange to you, Rachael. In this world, people with abilities like mine… The Guild needs us, but it also fears us. We live very constrained lives. I have not left the Citadel since I was 12, and I will probably remain here until the day I die. After a while you grow used to the idea of living in a cage. It certainly leaves you with very little to be afraid of. I might lose a few privileges, perhaps, but I’m too valuable for anything worse than that.”
“That’s…” Arsha began to say.
“…Awful,” Rachael finished for her.
Maya simply spread her hands, palms upward, in a helpless gesture.
“There is one thing that I am absolutely certain of,” the woman said. “Something has started here, something much bigger than what we can see now. The two of you are standing together at the eye of a storm. The choices you make now could change everything. The fate of worlds will be reshaped by what you two have done, and what you continue to do now. I know that’s an awful responsibility to place on you both, and I wrestled without myself about whether to say anything at all, but… But I know that no matter what else happens, you are going to need each other. You must find strength in each other, because soon there is going to be very little else left to you.”
Arsha turned to look at Rachael. The girl looked just as nervous as she felt.
“I’m sorry. I know that isn’t exactly what either of you wanted to hear,” Maya said. For a while neither Arsha or Rachael made any reply, an uncomfortable silence settling in the air.
“I was wondering before,” Arsha said, “how do you know my dad?”.
“I’m his sister. Of sorts,” Maya replied in a matter-of-fact tone.
Arsha’s eyes widened.
“Sister? Dad never mentioned having any brothers or sisters.”
“No, he wouldn’t have. We’re not related by blood. Rishi was my father’s ward. You know about the wreck that killed his parents, I suppose?”
Arsha scrunched her nose up, confused.
“Dad told me that he grew up with his granddad, after his parents died.”
“I know. You have to understand, Arsha, he had his reasons for lying. After everything that happened, Rishi wanted nothing to do with our family. The truth is, I envy him, being able to leave it all behind so easily. Even sequestered in the Citadel here, I’ve never really felt like I was far enough away from my father.”
Maya paused, her shoulders settling in a heavy sigh.
“Manindra. Manindra Bhandari.”
“That crazy old…” Rachael interjected, seeming to catch herself just in time.
Maya just nodded.
“I was the youngest. I think even as a little girl I recognised the madness in my father… And how it had infected my brothers. In a way, it infected Rishi too, but there was a kindness in him that my father could never quite find a way to cut out. Not like he did with Rakesh and Naveen. As for Dayaram… I don’t know. Whatever part of himself he managed to hold onto, he’s buried it deep inside. He plays the dutiful son so well that he’s forgotten how to be anything else.”
“No… I can’t believe that. How could my dad be anything like those people?”
“For all the poison in his heart, there is much in my father to admire, Arsha. Much that your father learned from him. Rishi is driven, resourceful, determined, inspiring, and fearless. All things my father taught him. Our parents shape who we are, whether we like it or not, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t decide what kind of person we will become. Rishi has gone to the ends of the earth to cut away my father’s influence from his life, and he has become a very different man from the one that Manindra wanted him to be.”
“But why didn’t he ever tell me this?”
“Why do you think? Rishi never wanted you to have anything to do with my family. Arsha, believe me, I couldn’t agree more. If I could somehow erase that part of myself, I gladly would. If there was a surgeon’s knife that could cut deep enough to extract every last trace of him, I would hold it myself, and I would smile with every cut.”
“He still shoulda let her know,” Rachael said. “It weren’t right, keeping that from her.”
“Perhaps. Rachael, I’m not trying to pretend that anything about Rishi is perfect. We are all flawed creatures. He’s made the best choices that can, given his circumstances. I’m not in a position to judge him.”
Rachael said nothing, obviously holding back whatever thoughts she had on the matter.
“Is there… Is there anything else you can tell us? Anything at all?” Arsha said.
Maya considered this for a moment.
“This is a marvellous library,” she said, at last, looking around the room in apparent wonder. “I suppose Rishi must have a copy of the Guild laws and statutes here somewhere.”
Arsha looked around, uncertainly.
“I guess,” she said.
“Volume Three, if I recall correctly,” Maya said. “There is a chapter on the subject of lineage and inheritance. You’ll find some interesting notes on the subject of blood-bonding, and how it relates to Guild law.”
Arsha scrunched her nose up, trying to figure out what the woman meant by this.
“I thought that kind of thing was, you know, forbidden,” she said.
“Oh yes. The practice of fatework, in all forms, is highly regulated within the Guild. However the results of that practice are another matter entirely.”
“So what Arsh and I did…” Rachael began, tailing off with a nervous look.
“Would, to my understanding, be recognised by Guild law as no different from any other blood tie. If Reuben means to snatch you away from your family here by having your adoption annulled…”
“It wouldn’t matter, because she’d still be my sister,” Arsha said, hearing the excitement in her own voice.
“By Guild law, that will make Rachael every bit as much your father’s daughter as you are, entitled to all the same protections. Reuben might try to argue it, of course, but there’s enough precedent that I imagine Miss Karvonen will be able to tear him to pieces. I’m sorry, I know this doesn’t help your father… Believe me, I am every bit as worried about Rishi as you are, Arsha… But at least it is something.”
“Thank you,” Arsha said. She turned to look at Rachael, and saw the nervous relief in the girl’s eyes, barely concealed.
“Thanks,” Rachael said, not quite able to look Maya in the eye. “Really, thank you, for all of this.”
“You’re both welcome, of course,” Maya said. “Now I really should be going. Rukiya will only let me stay down here so long.”
The woman smiled and got to her feet, smoothing the front of her robe down.
“Hey,” Racheal said, “you won’t… You won’t get in too much trouble for all this? Will you?”
“A little. But I’ll be fine. Honestly, I think Rishi will be more angry at me than anyone else will.”
“Why?” Arsha said.
“Because your father is one of kindest men I have ever known, and he’s never stopped trying to protect me, from myself and from everyone else. But sometimes little sisters just have to get in trouble.”
Maya smiled again, and just for a moment Arsha saw Rachael smiling back, as if amused by something the woman had said. Then Maya turned and let herself out.
“Remember, Volume Three,” the woman said as she closed the door.
Copyright © 2015 by Peter Brunton. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.