Grandmother rocked gently in front of the fire, humming under her breath as she knitted, deft fingers clicking and clacking as they did on every other night – but this time it was different. This time, her long skirt had twisted itself around her legs, bunching up to reveal her feet.
She never left her rocking chair to walk about, not that he’d ever seen. She just sat there by the range, where she could reach out and lift the blackened kettle off to make a pot of tea.
The clacking of needles stopped, Grandmother’s eyes boring into him. It wasn’t a nice stare. Not the sort of stare that said, There are biscuits in the tin on the shelf and you can have one for being my favourite grandson.
No. This stare said, You’d better run, boy, or I’ll reach out with my clawed talons and rip the liver from your body.
The kitchen door slammed shut just as Padraig reached it, hitting him on the nose. Tears swam in his eyes and the door turned into a brown blur, writhing and squirming as if it could reach out and suck him into its fabric.
“Did you think you’d escape that easily?” growled his grandmother. “Don’t think I haven’t felt the way you look at me.” Padraig must have shaken his head in denial, because she went on. “I can read your thoughts, you know. Your nasty little-boy thoughts. I know every slice of cake you’ve stolen, every bottle of milk you’ve drained.”
What? Even the ones I washed up and put back on the step? His mother had just assumed she’d miscounted and ordered more for the next week.
“Yes, boy. Even those.”
Hear my prayer, Lady, and remember me. My life in your service came full circle when I once again journeyed with your judge-priestess …
Everything is the same, and nothing is.
The thought isn’t new, but it strikes Girl with greater force as they ride into the foreign city, as this leg of their itinerary will be very different. No more trials for one thing, since the judge-priestess has no standing here, this embassy being a step towards changing that, at least for the country’s border villages. But the main difference between this journey and the one fourteen years ago is Girl herself – she’s not an encumbrance to be delivered to the monastery, but a valued member of the priestess’s entourage.
She doesn’t have Sukhbir, and her heart aches at his absence, but Lal is with her, though he’s now senior guard and no longer drinks rice wine and raksi nor would ever again leave a priestess undefended. But the smell of the guards’ hard-leather armour is the same, as is their grumbling about everything, especially thieving villagers charging too much for stabling the horses. The long, tiring days have been the same, the pity and horror of the trials, the tears and anger at the judgements, the glimpses of good and evil.
Yet the main thing that’s the same is Girl herself. Her excitement, her hunger to learn, her resolution to make Sukhbir proud of her, and her determination to become a priestess of the Lady Giver-of-Judgements.
“I’m given to understand you’re a buttonhead, Mister Reynolds.” Ryan sat back and sipped his drink. “Show me. I believe I’ve paid for the privilege.”
We were in the Adventure Capitalist, a bar dating back to when we still had an economy. The corner booth was a wood-panelled cocoon, designed for privacy. Even so, I hesitated before removing the wig to expose the cranial interface sockets. “Satisfied?”
He smiled, although the revulsion in his eyes was obvious. “And the hardwiring, it gives you a significant edge over a headset? It’s not just blarney?”
“Good enough to be ranked first player in Grumman Coldplay. So, if this is an unofficial endorsement approach ahead of the Seoul semi-finals, forget it. I know we’re firm favourites to beat Weyland Aspiration, but my contract is cast iron, zero loopholes. You’ll have to go through the team agent just like everyone else.”
“Your exclusive contract didn’t prevent you accepting my offer of a quiet drink.”
“A grand in cash just to show up?” Now it was my turn to sit back and take a sip. “We’re just two guys talking, is all.”
Hear my prayer, Lady, and remember me. As an acolyte I tended the most beautiful of your shrines and discovered the secret of its reliquary …
Girl steps back, the better to see how the shrine looks. She’s privileged to be keeper of the oldest and greatest of the shrines to the Lady, especially as she’s the youngest and newest of the acolytes, as some of the other girls continually remind her. So it has to be perfect for the ceremony tomorrow. No, it’s well past midnight, the ceremony today. Which is why she’s here, not still in bed. Sleepless with excitement and worry, she couldn’t remember if she’d cleaned one of the butter lamps, so she dressed hurriedly and rushed across to the temple to check.
She had cleaned the ornate copper lamp. But she cleaned it again, and the others, then spent time rearranging them around the jewelled casket – the reliquary – which, for so long, has had sole pride of place beneath the statue of the Lady. The reliquary itself received special attention from her during the day. Above all else, it has to look perfect.
Opinion is divided in the Acolytes’ Hall as to whether Revered Mother will break the reliquary open to split the precious palm-leaf manuscripts it contains – manuscripts the goddess herself wrote, setting out the rules of the Order. If so, the new reliquary being presented tomorrow – today – will hold half the leaves; if not, the new one will stay empty, so won’t be a reliquary at all, only a decorated box. Girl hopes the old reliquary remains sealed. After so many months caring for it, studying every detail of the finely worked silver with its lapis and gold inserts, its sapphires and emeralds, she wants nothing to spoil its perfection.
But the pottery lamp she brought with her is failing. She makes one final, tiny adjustment to a butter lamp’s position, then – as always before leaving the shrine’s enclosure – she kneels and gazes up at the gilded statue. Every other figure portrays the goddess with six arms, usually with the symbols of her six aspects in her six hands. Only in this statue can Girl see any likeness to the Lady, and with the marble evoking silken robes, its beauty and serenity fill her with ever-renewed wonder.
“Thank you, Lady, for entrusting me with this honour,” she whispers, then offers her usual prayers for the monastery and its people, for Sukhbir and others she loves. Then she rises and steps through the gate in the tall railings that surround the shrine, locks the gate, and drops the key chain over her head.
As she emerges from the temple, the lamp’s flame is no more than a red glow. The night is overcast, with no glint of moon or starlight, but in the distance she sees a momentary pale glimmer, a sense of movement relieving the darkness. It’s only when she’s again undressing for bed that she wonders why anyone else would be out there in the middle of the night.
“What was that sound last night and where are all the garden gnomes?” Molly asked Bernard when he dashed into the kitchen.
“Maybe they got fed up of the cats peeing on them and walked off,” he said. “I’m late.”
“Maybe you’ve finally made good on your threat and got rid of them.”
“I’d never do that, dear.” He planted a buttered-toast kiss on her cheek and left her in a flap of half-buttoned clothing.
By the time he reached Southampton he had two missed calls and a wall of text messages from her. Honestly, if the gnomes really had been stolen, fair enough. But who the hell would even want them? Especially the angry-looking one with the fishing rod — when they’d moved down south from Sunderland, he’d even tried to get her to leave that one at the old house. No such luck.
He didn’t bother reading the messages; he’d call her on his lunch break — if he got one, that was. The ships coming in and out the port were a bit more pressing that her cheap garden tat.
The day was its usual slice of hell-on-toast and now the Royal Brunel was heading back to Dublin after an outbreak of legionnaires, he had the added task of late fees and what to do with empty Berth 46.
Hear my prayer, Lady, and remember me. Your aspects of Wisdom and Truth guided me both in the Novitiate House and in my travels with your priestesses …
“So while Wisdom and Truth are comprehensively interlinked,” the priestess of Truth continues, “they remain discrete entities.”
As, for example, now, thinks Girl. For the truth is she’s bored – she’s heard this lesson many times – but wisdom keeps that truth hidden. She suspects the merchant and his family are also finding the lecture tedious, though they’re valiantly pretending otherwise, mindful of the honour accorded their house by the presence of two of the Lady’s priestesses. Only the simple-minded daughter, staring open-mouthed, appears truly interested, though doubtless understanding little. As for the boys, they’re a mass of twitches and fidgets, and one is surely about to yawn.
The priestess has noticed. “But I’ve talked for too long. Perhaps, Master Tshering, you might now tell us more of the white-hued golden takin we hope to see.”
“First,” says the priestess of Wisdom, “we should release the children. I’m sure they’d rather be elsewhere.”
The boys leap up and are out of the door as soon as their father nods. The girl, Pema, trails after them.
“You may go, too, Kalpana,” says the priestess.
Scientists worked out a way to stop murders altogether. They had a fancy name for it, some ridiculous sounding thing that I can’t remember, but everybody else refers to it as a soul swap. If you kill someone, you swap souls. You’re now dead and somebody else inhabits your body. Shocks all round.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. Sort of. I mean, you didn’t really have to worry about it unless you were a murderer.
Things went a little wrong, though, as things often do when they’re not tested enough. The soul swap didn’t just work for murders. I remember reading about the first case – a doctor lost a patient on the table. The patient, little old dear called Susan Smith, found herself staring at her own corpse with a scalpel in her hand. There was probably lots of screaming, but they never mentioned that on Now the News.
Then there were the car accidents. A plane crash. That weird one where a toddler accidently murdered his Grandpa with a shotgun – now little Jonny has the mind of a ninety year old and is off the breastmilk.
People freaked. Like, totally freaked out. For quite a while some people just refused to leave their houses. Say you were driving your car to work one day, and somebody decided to step out in front of you? That’d be the end of you.
Hear my prayer, Lady, and remember me. My first year in the Novitiate House was a time of great learning, but also a time of sorrow and death …
Girl is kneeling, about to pour yet more tea for the foreign trader, when he slips from his cushion and slumps against her.
The other traders jump to their feet, exclaiming loudly. The priestesses of Wisdom and Truth rise more elegantly, quietly worried. Unmoving, unmoved, old skinflint Dhanash, who invited himself to the negotiations, demands to know if Master Jin is dead.
Girl tries to remain calm, supporting the trader as she sets the tea-kettle down, then carefully lowering him to the devdar-wood floor. She touches his throat, seeking the pathways of his life force, but finds only clogged and stagnant channels.
A priestess kneels beside her, considers the man’s harsh breathing, his rank breath, then presses a point of confluence at his neck. “I fear it’s the honeyed disease. Fetch a healer, Kalpana. Go your quick way.”
Girl runs from the Teaching Hall. The proper way to the House of Healing is down the four storeys of the Novitiate House, then through, across, along and past the many courts, open alleys, covered passages and buildings winding their way around the monastery. But the roofs of the two Houses are connected. It’s a simple climb even in formal robes, and she knows which window shutters open easily from the outside.
For Girl is no stranger to the House of Healing. She lost Sukhbir there.
Such an inhospitable country. A few inches of soil over granite was barely enough to support the growth of straggly grass and the wild horned sheep that grazed there. One of them watched him now, from the top of a pile of damp grey rocks. Those yellow slitted eyes seemed too intelligent for a sheep. More intelligent than some of his officers, truth be told.
Lucius turned and shouted down the hill. “Aurelius!”
“I fancy mutton for dinner. See to it.”
Aurelius saluted, then his eyes drifted towards the sheep, silhouetted against the haze of a mid-morning sky, and he frowned. There were stories told around the campfire, grim tales of what would happen to those who killed the local sheep, and now here was one of those sudden local mists creeping across the ground towards them.
Hear my prayer, Lady, and remember me, the child you named Kalpana, though in my heart I always remained Girl. In the Postulant House I learned of your first aspects, but I didn’t truly understand until the township and the pilgrim hospitium …
Girl stands by the prayer flags, several yards from the hospitium door, and not only to ready herself for the stench of illness and death. She’s accompanied priestesses of Compassion and Benevolence on many occasions to comfort the dying, but always alongside other postulants. This time she’s the only one.
Girl has learned a great deal in her six years in the Postulant House, not least that it’s more than a place of teaching, it’s a place of assessment, and not every applicant is accepted into the Order. She’s determined to become a priestess, but first she must progress to the Novitiate House, and she’s sure the hospitium is where she’ll be tested and the decision made.
One deep breath and she takes a step forward. Then stops dead. Inside the hospitium a woman’s voice has risen in a screech.