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.
The Day of Accepting, when she’ll become a priestess, is still years away, but perhaps in time this land, even this city, might form part of her judge’s circuit, so she looks around at the people with some satisfaction.
Then satisfaction vanishes, for in the crowd is a face she recognises. Recognises and loathes. Aprakash.
Girl stops by the mouth of another alley, leans forward to peer around the corner, then straightens and slaps her hand against a wooden wall in frustration. The alley is empty save for a short, stocky man under a shadowed overhang, who looks quickly round at hearing the noise, then slips away between two houses and disappears.
She considers giving up. It’s getting dark; they’re to attend a festival tonight and she’s in enough trouble without being late; and she’s tired. It’s been a long afternoon wandering the city, from the Prefect’s palatial courtyard house, where they’ve been given rooms, down to these ramshackle hovels at the river’s edge. Officially, she’s been getting a sense of the place and its people; in reality she was looking for, then following, Aprakash – if he’s here tricking another poor girl into marriage, she intends to stop him.
But following someone is harder than she thought, especially in a foreign city, even after she eluded the guard Lal had detailed to escort her. She did her best to keep Aprakash in sight while also keeping her distance, but now she’s lost him.
She’s about to abandon the hunt when she hears raised voices down the alley, then a cry of pain. A young man with a pockmarked face stumbles backwards from a doorway and lands heavily on the ground, blood pouring from a cut at his temple. A pretty young woman rushes out, helps him to his feet and pulls him away from the house, towards the river. Another man emerges from the door, tall, thick-set, carrying a bloodied cane – Aprakash. Girl steps back out of sight, then peers around the corner again.
Aprakash points the cane at the man. “Get the rest of the money by tonight or you’re dead,” he says, then he strolls off down the same path the stocky man used.
The woman hugs the young man and alternately kisses him and wipes away the blood from his face as they slowly return to the house. Girl wishes they’d hurry – she needs to follow Aprakash. Finally, they reach the door.
Girl moves forward, but her arm is caught in a strong grip. She whips round, heart thudding in sudden fear, which instantly turns to guilt.
“Well,” says Lal, “you’ve some explaining to do.”
Movement and colour fill the platform by the city wall, then chimes ring, the music ends and the dancers bow to the Prefect. Girl joins in the loud applause – despite the cold, the whole city seems to be there, watching – but her thoughts remain fixed on Aprakash. Her explanation and apology were accepted by the priestess, but she had to promise not to behave so recklessly again. And though the Prefect was told of the incident, Girl doubts he’ll do anything. She’ll have to stop Aprakash herself. But how?
Absorbed in the problem, she hardly notices the short man wearing a wide-brimmed hat and bundled in sheepskins who strides onto the platform, nor the two similarly clad men who walk back and forth bringing equipment. Then an arc of light splashes against the wall, sparks shower across the platform, and Girl forgets Aprakash.
The man – a smith, she remembers, known as the Fire-Flower Master – repeatedly, mechanically, dips a ladle into a bowl of molten iron and throws the liquid onto the stone wall, where it becomes a coruscating storm of metal rain. Girl gasps at the beauty of it, clapping her hands in delight as the scintillations cascade down, and she waits impatiently when the smith has to pause as his assistants bring on more melted iron and carefully refill the bowl.
The men are filling the bowl again when a blast of noise rings out from beyond the platform, followed by a shriek of agony, cries of distress, a woman’s screams. The smith drops the ladle and runs towards the clamour, his men follow. Shouts spread rumours of explosions, deaths, burning houses. People flee, the Prefect foremost among them.
Lal tries to lead the priestess away, but she walks towards the danger, to offer help to the injured. Girl goes with her.
They find no burning buildings, no great injuries and only one death. A young man – the smith’s apprentice, she learns – lies under a vat which has burst apart, covering him in molten metal.
Girl stares at the remains of the dead man’s pockmarked face. When she saw him before, Aprakash was threatening to kill him.
“Rinchen, is this the man you saw in the alley?”
Aprakash has been roughly handled by the Prefect’s guards but the cuts and abrasions cause Girl no problem in identifying him. “Yes, honoured one.”
“Tell us what you witnessed.”
It’s not a trial, not of Aprakash anyway, but undoubtedly it’s a test of the judge-priestess, for why else would the Prefect ask her to conduct this preliminary examination? So Girl is scrupulous in relating only what she saw and heard. It’s still too much for Aprakash.
“She’s lying,” he yells. “It wasn’t me. I’ve never seen her before.”
Girl fixes her eyes on him, words trembling on her lips – Never seen me, Aprakash? Never seen the child you kicked and punched when she wasn’t quick enough bringing your drink? The child you would have beaten to death to hide your theft of the god’s gold? The child you terrified when you swore you’d be revenged?
The words remain unspoken. She calmly answers the priestess’s questions and shows no emotion when Aprakash blusters and lies, nor when the priestess concludes he should be held securely pending further investigation. After he’s dragged away, Girl excuses herself and walks out into the Prefect’s gardens, pretending interest in the ponds and lacquered bridges, the sculptured rocks and strange stunted trees. Only when she’s quite alone does she smile. Revenge, Aprakash. But the revenge is mine.
“So, you’re having Aprakash executed.”
Girl spins round. An ornate pavilion stands by a miniature waterfall; the Lady sits inside, dressed in the gown of a judge-priestess. Joy at seeing her is tempered by resentment at the accusation.
“He’s merely being held for possible trial.”
“Suspicion of murder is enough to hold him, while the Prefect’s men investigate further, but the priestess said she’d need more evidence to convict him.”
“But it won’t be my priestess trying him, it will be the Prefect’s lackey, and the Prefect cares little for evidence and nothing at all for a moneylender’s bully like Aprakash, but he cares a great deal about rapid judgements. Your evidence will be enough for his court. But you surely guessed that. Revenge is sweet, isn’t it?”
Girl clenches her fists, then turns away towards the pond fed by the waterfall. “I’ve done nothing wrong,” she says, watching the golden fish shimmering in its depths. “If I’d heard any man make that threat, I’d have done exactly the same.” She stoops, gathers a handful of pebbles from the path and tosses one into the pond, scattering the fish. “It’s not my responsibility to secure more evidence.” Another pebble. “It’s not my fault if the city magistrate is lazy or corrupt.” Another. “It’s not my fault if Aprakash is executed.” She flings the rest in together. “Anyway, he deserves it!”
She twists back to the Lady, determined not to yield. But the Lady has gone.
“I thought you hated this Aprakash,” says Lal.
“I do,” Girl replies, stalking ahead of him through the crowded streets.
“I remember Sukhbir nosing round your village, finding out about him and his mam, and telling us they’d made your life hell.”
“I’d have thought you’d want to see him dead.”
“So why are we doing this?”
She turns on Lal, bringing him to a sudden halt. “Because I hate him and I want to see him dead. When I’m judge-priestess I’ll condemn someone only if there’s no doubt in my mind, and I won’t have Aprakash haunting my decisions by making me wonder if I rushed to judgement here and made a mistake before ever I began. I need to know he’s guilty. It’s not enough that I believe it – I have to know.”
She stalks away again, hate and anger feeding on each other, and it’s only with difficulty she controls herself when they reach the city’s foundry district and the forge of the Fire-Flower Master. The portable furnace used in the festival lies on the ground in shattered pieces, the smith’s two assistants fussing over it.
The men are reluctant to speak, though she’s prepared a story for her interest in the furnace and how it was damaged, and their talk of temperature differentials and the dead man’s carelessness is vague and unconvincing.
“Such a terrible accident,” she says.
Neither man speaks but they exchange furtive glances.
“With so many people around, it’s fortunate no one else died. But doubtless you ensure no strangers approach the furnace.”
They nod, but before Girl can ask if they noticed a particular stranger in the shape of Aprakash, one of them points behind her. “You’d best speak to Master Gang.”
Girl turns to see the Fire-Flower Master emerging from the courtyard of a house. He’s short and stocky, and without his hat she recognises him as the man she saw in the alley before Aprakash appeared. A young woman stands behind him. Though she’s now disfigured by bruises and tears, Girl recognises her, too.
“Is that Master Gang’s daughter?” she asks.
“His wife,” says the assistant. And Girl finally understands.
Girl sits in the pavilion by the small waterfall, her legs drawn up tight to her body, her arms around her knees, her forehead on her arms. She wants to cry.
“He admitted everything,” she whispers. “His wife planned to run away with his apprentice, so he tampered with the furnace to make it explode. The moneylender guessed or found out. That’s why Aprakash was sent round, to get back as much money as he possibly could.”
“Young wife, aggrieved husband. It’s a common story,” says the Lady.
“The Prefect won’t punish him. Master Gang is an artist, he says, important to the city. He’s also a master armourer – that’s his real importance. He’s too valuable to be executed, and it gives the Prefect a hold over him.”
“That’s a common story, too.”
“But it isn’t right.” She raises her head to look at the Lady. “How can you want a judge-priestess to work here with this kind of corruption?”
“Because I want this kind of corruption ended.”
Girl buries her face in her arms again. Then, grudgingly, “He did honour the priestess’s wishes and set Aprakash free.”
“But you wish he hadn’t?”
A long silence, then “I wish … I wish Aprakash had been guilty.”
“And you regret discovering he wasn’t?”
“Yes. No. A little. When he’s punished it has to be for his own crimes, not someone else’s, but …” Girl raises her head again. “What if he harms someone else? What if he kills? It’ll be because of me.”
“No. It will be because the law requires proof, and because revenge is no substitute for justice.”
“But if he does kill someone, we’ll have to stop him.”
“We will, little mouse. I promise. We will.”