Chapter 7
The Plan

Four days following the incident in the entrance hall, Pitre made the uncharacteristic decision to skip his Library session. The urge had been particularly strong that day and, frankly, he didn't care if the Bursars noticed he'd been absent. They saw no promise in him anyway, they'd told him that many a time. Jurgan was much better at numbers than he was. He was too distracted for counting. At best, he'd be a clerk's assistant, and, in all likelihood, Jurgan's.

" if I'll ever be that stone-faced fool's helper."he muttered under his breath. In truth, he did care about what became of him. He did not want to remain a lowly proto-novice helping out the Bursars in their more onerous jobs; he wished to be on the path leading to the rank of a senior priest, leading to authority. Kind of Syllis.

Syllis.the mere mention of the name calmed him. The familiar laughter rang loudly in the silence and Pitre spun around, startled. But it had been only his imagination, and he sighed. He really needed to see the other boy, catch a glimpse of him, just exchange a snatch of conversation. Or maybe. It was so utterly bewildering, yet the mere presence of the other boy calmed him. Glimpsing him in the hallways, hurrying along in the careful way of his, eyes downcast, brought a surge of.something to his heart. The eyes still unnerved him though, that had not changed. He still could not stand looking into them.

The right side of the corridor he was walking in opened suddenly onto a veranda, looking down into a small courtyard. It was cool outside and the breeze fresh and crisp so he decided to pause for a few minutes and enjoy the late fall weather. He walked over and leaned against the plain stone railing.

There was a stunted olive tree in the middle of the little courtyard, its gnarled roots running cracks across the pavement. Three doorways opened onto the yard from the ground floor. Suddenly an unmistakably milk-white, sharp-featured face popped out of one of them, followed closely by a black- clad body hurrying across the courtyard. Pitre stood up straighter.

"What in the Maker's name." he whispered, staring. But Syllis had already disappeared into one of the doors.

Pitre scratched his head. "What would he be doing sneaking around here? I thought he had washing duties." he trailed off, realizing had been talking to himself. It was a foolish habit, which he was trying to break, the way the Bursars had told him to. Talking to oneself was unnatural, a mark of evil.

Syllis had gone into the door directly across from where he was currently standing, which was in the direction of the vegetable gardens. Pitre knew how to get there fairly quickly, so he gathered up his robes and ran. He ran right around the veranda to the opposite side where there was a staircase leading down. After stumbling down the crumbling stone steps he hurried down the hallway and burst into another courtyard, this one walled and completely bare. There was a solitary black figure kneeling by the far wall, facing away.
He turned, looking up as the taller boy came and crouched beside him on the flagstones. "Yes, Pitre?"
"I saw you walking across the courtyard. Sneaking, I should say."
Syllis smiled and looked down, idly brushing his fingers against a little canvas bag on the ground in front of him.
"Say, what's that?" Pitre looked at it curiously.
"It's what I'm supposed to be doing right now."
"Ah." Pitre reached out and eased the bag open with his hand. A stream of shiny black seeds spilled out. "I see. So that's why you aren't reveling in the simple joys of washerwomen, like Clodpool is at the moment, and the rest of the novices."
"Oh, yes, the grand pleasures of washerwomen's work." Syllis rolled his eyes.
Pitre chuckled. "So.who gave you those seeds?"
"I asked for them."
"What for?"
Syllis smiled enigmatically. "It depends."
Now it was Pitre's turn to roll his eyes, then chuckle and glance at Syllis closely. The sight that met his eyes was not reassuring.
He did seem better, if Pitre did not scrutinize him too closely. He was alert, relatively happy, and looking less corpselike than the night of the Ritual. But the veins still showed black against white around his temples, and his normally feverish green eyes seemed more unsettling than usual, set in deep, purple shadows. His voice did not sound quite right either. Though it still retained that strangely light Northern accent, when he spoke, it was in petulant, slightly hostile tones.
"They're apple seeds, and you're planting them. The deacon gave them to you, because he thought you couldn't keep working outside like that."
Pitre frowned. "He did that knowing that obviously Meioze will not care, as you are still not feeling well. You are ill, aren't you?"
"You were ill ever since that night, and you've been avoiding work. Meioze has not talked to you since the Ritual. You have only spoken to Clodpool, and you have been avoiding even me!" something, unseen until now, clicked in Pitre's mind. "You're planning on leaving, aren't you?"
Syllis stared at him for a long moment, then shut his eyes, exhaustion and defeat hanging thickly about him.
Pitre regarded him curiously, reaching out to rest his hand on the other's thin shoulder. "Do you really want to leave?"
"How could I," he mocked, softly, "knowing how terribly you'd miss me?" "I mean it, Syllis." Pitre's fingers curled tightly around the black fabric. "I'm serious. Do you really want to leave this place, even after you're already been Raised?"
Syllis' eyes opened again, and the sudden heat in them struck Pitre. "Of course," he said, his gaze auguring into the other boy's. "I have to, I can't do it again.I-I can't," he finished miserably.
"Can't do what?"
It seemed as though something inside of him had broken, a door opened, a wall tumbled down, and Syllis' eyes - though burning and feverish- were completely clear. "The Rituals, that is what I can't do." He was looking Pitre right in the eyes. "Meioze will make me do it again, he wants to. Glaeron approved of it. The next ceremony is on the next new moon, and I will have to do it again, I just know I will. They'll make me. We have to leave before then."
Nearly non-existent eyebrows rose in surprise. "You are coming with us, with me and Clodpool. Why shouldn't you?"
"Because." looking into Syllis' pale, drawn face, Pitre suddenly found it impossible to say anything even slightly hurtful that came to mind. He hesitated, floundering, and Syllis spoke again.
"You don't have to come, I just thought-"
"No, no, of course I'm coming!" Pitre blurted out. "It is just."
"We'll.we will need to sneak out.we will need to be very careful, they'll be looking for you-I mean, for us."
"I know."
The simple statement shook Pitre. There was utter conviction in those swirling green eyes, fervor so certain that he found he could not look directly at the other's face. This.this idea of his.this plan, it would never work! It was insane! It was suicide! Meioze already despised Syllis beyond belief, as did his shady little helper, whatever his name was. When - if they managed to run away, he would send his priests to hunt them down. And with an oaf like Clodpool for a third man, it would not be long before Meioze succeeded and Syllis would, in all probability, be killed. It was a very dire thought indeed.
All this flashed through his head in the time it took him to digest Syllis' words. "We will need supplies." he said instead.
"You mean food, right?" Syllis was staring at the seed bag, his left hand resting against his chest. It seemed an oddly protective gesture.
"I will take care of them. explore the different passages, with Clodpool. Try to find a way out that the priests won't suspect. We will meet every other night in the.the lower storeroom, two doors down from the Refectory, the one with the broken lock." Pitre frowned suddenly. "By what time must we leave?"
"In two weeks." The answer sounded quite definite.
"That is too soon, much too soon."
The other's eyes went blank and closed, his face hard, all in a breath. The hand on his chest clenched into a white fist. "That is when we must leave, Pitre. Not a day later."
Pitre felt a twinge of guilt as he looked at the other's pale face. Syllis had trusted him, so he must at least stick to the plan. It seemed like certain death, but maybe prayers did reach the Maker's ears. "All right, everything will be ready ten days' time, hopefully."
"Hopefully.with the Great Lord's grace." Syllis added zealously.
"May it be so." But the words sounded painful even in Pitre's own ears.

Hulking and vacant, with a smattering of black fuzz on his head which looked even more ridiculous than the shaven look, Clodpool regarded the other priest in slow surprise. When the fact that Syllis was still looking resolutely at the door, ignoring him, penetrated his thick skull, he frowned.
"Why are we waiting here again?" he asked for the second time in as many minutes.
Syllis rolled his eyes and sighed wearily. "I already told you. We're waiting for Pitre, our friend Pitre, how many times do I have to repeat that?"
Clodpool grunted and shifted uncomfortably, running his eyes around the small, stuffy storeroom. It was the same tiny storeroom they had been meeting in, every second night, for the past fourteen days. There was a small canvas sack tucked underneath the sole rickety table, and Clodpool remembered hazily the day they had acquired it. It had hailed that afternoon, and when Pitre had come in he had been shaking and his eyes were bloodshot. Apparently those were all the supplies he had managed to gather during ten days of quiet filching from the kitchens. He could still recall Syllis' face with crystal-clear quality, the perfect expression of disappointment on that pale, familiar face. It had been strangely comic in Clodpool's opinion.
The sound of a sandaled foot tapping brought him back to reality. Syllis' entire posture conveyed impatience, arms crossed and hip cocked a bit to the side. He was staring at the floor now, pale lashes resting delicately on equally pale cheeks.
"When was he supposed to come?" Clodpool asked.
The other priest simply ignored him.
A while passed, in silence except for Syllis' mechanical foot-tapping and Clodpool's occasional grunt and shift, until they heard the sound of quickly approaching footsteps from the corridor. The door burst open suddenly, and Syllis looked up.
"Sorry I'm late," Pitre gasped, dropping a heavy looking pouch on the table with a thump. "That fiendish.woman just wouldn't let me go. Bloody novices, do be running around where they shouldn't be!" his impression of the head cook's high, nagging voice was frighteningly dead on.
Syllis' eyes lit up and he ran across the room, throwing his arms around the taller boy in a quick hug. Pitre's eyes widened.
"I thought you'd never come." he cried, drawing away and looking up at the other's face, an odd look in his eyes. "I was beginning to think.did you get the supplies?"
"Yes, I did." Pitre still looked a bit shaken at Syllis' reaction, but he took it as simply nerves. After all, tonight was the big night, and Syllis was already a bit of a mess to begin with.
"And I'm afraid it's not much," Syllis opened his mouth to protest but Pitre hurried on before he could. "But I have some good news as well. Remember the place I told you about?" Syllis closed his mouth and nodded quickly. "My aunt's old house? Well I found a certain passage that leads straight to the Craftsman's quarters, and from there it's only a very short walk down the street and an alley and you're there!"
"What are you suggesting?" His hands were still resting on Pitre's upper arms, looking in the dim candlelight almost like pale spiders on the coarse, black fabric.
"We could go there first, before we leave, restock, like." Clodpool spoke up unexpectedly from across the room. "That's what you're saying, right?"
"That is exactly what I'm saying!" Pitre agreed, not missing a beat. He looked down at Syllis' pale face. "We could bring all the supplies over there first, and rest a bit before we.leave, proper. There's also a cartman nearby, whom my aunt knew. We will probably be able to procure a donkey or some such off of him."
"A donkey?!"
Clodpool snickered. Pitre smiled as well, confused. "Yes, a donkey."
"We are going to ride the donkey?"
"Why, yes, what else would we need a donkey for?"
"Need a donk-priests don't ride donkeys!" Syllis spluttered, blinking furiously.
Pitre grinned even wider. "Would you rather ride a horse?"
The shorter priest's mouth simply dropped in sheer horror. "A-a wha-a horse? But it is not allowed for novices to ride beasts of burden! It is specifically written so in the Writ!"
Pitre tried not to roll his eyes. "Blazes Syllis, even I know those rules are obsolete, at least for a case like ours. Aren't they, Clodpool?"
"You're right."
"See, Syllis? Even Clodpool agrees." Pitre gazed at him cheerfully, smiling.
Syllis simply glared back, until he finally saw the humor in the situation and cracked a shaky smile. He stepped back and, letting his hands fall to his sides, said, "all right, tell me your plan."


"Can you see anyone?" Syllis hissed. They were standing in the shadows of a doorway, peering down a fog-enshrouded street. It had been surprisingly - almost unnervingly-easy to exit the Monastery. Although night was by no means a calm occasion there, the halls had been almost unnaturally empty. They had only encountered one person on their way out through one of the back vegetable gardens, and that had been a young novice, no older than twelve, who had turned tail and ran off as soon as he saw them. Clodpool and he had sneaked out first, with the heavier supply sack. Pitre was supposed to leave after them to make sure nobody was following, although Syllis doubted anyone would. It was nearing midnight, and the air outside was freezing cold. Nobody would notice their absence until tomorrow afternoon, at the earliest.
"Nope." Clodpool hissed back. Syllis motioned for him to pick the sack back up and move down to the next patch of shadows, which was under a street seller's awning. According to what Syllis had understood of Pitre's explanations, they were currently a street and two alleys away from his aunt's old house. Syllis hoped he had the exact directions. Many sacrifices had come from the Craftsman's Quarter.
"All right, see that little streetlamp over there, Clodpool?" Syllis pointed to a street corner about twenty paces ahead. "You run up there, I'll follow you. Turn left into the alley."
Clodpool nodded and, after casting a quick glance up and down the street, set off at a shambling run. Syllis waited a few minutes, then followed him. He splashed through rank-smelling puddles, wrinkling his nose. This was not a very good part of town at all.
Clodpool was waiting for him, crouched behind a large barrel at the entrance to the alleyway. Syllis kneeled down beside him. This passage seemed even more menacing than the previous street. No light shone from the tumble-down houses fronting it, and rats scampered loudly across the damp pavement, making noisy little splashes in the numerous puddles of waste. Syllis pulled his cloak tighter about him, and tried not to shudder.
"Where to now?"
"Uh." Syllis closed his eyes and tried to recall the conversation he had had with Pitre just a few hours ago. Turn left at the streetlamp. Don't' worry about the rats, just ignore them. About ten paces down there will be a gate.
"Into the alley. About ten paces down there'll be a wooden gate to your right. We turn there. It should be unlocked."
Clodpool nodded and, hefting the sack in his ham-like hands, rose to stand up.
Syllis grabbed the other's beefy arm and pulled down ".and Clodpool? Be very, very quiet. And don't worry about the rats."
Clodpool simply nodded again and stood up, letting the other boy hang on to his arm.
They set off at a quick walk down the dark passageway, the soft sounds of their footsteps almost drowned by the sharp pat-pat-pats of little claws scurrying on the wet pavement, and the disturbingly loud drip of a faucet. They could scarcely see their own feet, it was so dark in there. The sound of a wet slap rang suddenly through the dank alleyway.
Clodpool stopped abruptly. "Found it."
Syllis, already confused and distracted by the chaotic anxiety whirling in his stomach, didn't hear him and walked solidly into his friend, making them both stumble.
"Wha-oh, sorry." Syllis mumbled, backing away. Clodpool merely grunted and fiddled with the catch on the gate. It was too dark for either to see more than the dim gleam of light on rusty metal.
"I can't open it."
Syllis rolled his eyes and pushed past Clodpool. The gate was about waist-height, so it was not difficult for him to reach over it to the other side. The catch was a very simple one, and though wet and slippery from that evening's rainfall, took only seconds to figure out.
"There you go," Syllis muttered, swinging the gate open. He motioned for Clodpool to go first.
This alleyway was even narrower. They had to walk single file, and even so Syllis could touch both walls on either side of him when he raised his arms. A candle shone in a solitary window, high up in one of the crumbling walls. A dog barked somewhere in the distance. He tried to quell the trembling in his hands.
"Uh.Syllis?" Clodpool muttered over his shoulder.
"How do I know where this house is? There's not much light, and I don't think these houses here have door signs."
Syllis bit his lip and tried to concentrate, pushing down the nagging fear in his stomach. "I is on the left-hand side, the second house with a blue door. Pitre said there should be a sign, a symbol for us to recognize." But what that symbol could be, he had no idea.
They walked for a while, in silence except for the splashing of their feet in the rank puddles, until,
"I can't see too clearly, but I think this door's blue, Syllis."
They paused in front of a nondescript building, identical to the rest. It had filthy whitewashed walls, one storey, no windows, and the wooden door was hanging off one hinge. In the dim light from the solitary candle, the flaking paint on it seemed to have once had a bluish shade, akin to periwinkle.
Syllis was silent for a long while, staring at it. Then he noticed something, a little circular smear of red paint above the doorway, with a small dab of yellow in the centre. But this couldn't be the house, he thought, wasn't Pitre's aunt supposed to have been a merchant?
"I think this is it," he said instead, nudging the cracked door open with his foot. The strong odor of long abandonment wafted out. The interior of the house was dark as pitch, and quite menacing.
Clodpool hesitated, so Syllis just pushed past him and went in first. There was a low table right beside the door, and he fumbled around it with his left hand until it closed around the unmistakable stub of a candle. There was also, surprisingly, a match. Syllis struck it and yellow light, seeming blinding in comparison to the alleyway, flooded the chamber.
It was a small room, whitewashed like the outside, and sparsely furnished. A closed-up fireplace stood at one end, a table with three legs at the other. The air was cold and soggy, in addition to the smell.
Clodpool hurried inside and dumped the heavy sack unceremoniously on the table. It creaked dangerously.
"I don't think Pitre's dear aunt was a merchant, of any sort," Syllis muttered under his breath. He walked back and shut the door gently. To his surprise, it did not fall off.
"What are we supposed to do now?" Clodpool asked.
The burly boy nodded expressionlessly, pulled a stool out from the shadow of a corner, and sat down on it.
Syllis stared at him. He chewed his lip, thinking of his wonderful choice of a traveling companion. For the first time in memory, he regretted ever becoming Clodpool's friend. Not that he had had much choice about that, but he had to admit the boy was an oaf. He couldn't even open a gate, an unlocked one too. Who knows what other simple tasks he was not capable of doing. What in the Maker's name had possessed him to bring him along?
Syllis clenched his fists suddenly, nails digging into his palms. But no, he couldn't assume that. He had to bring Clodpool. It would have been unthinkable to leave him behind. He simply would not be able to make it out with just Pitre and, as much the thought baffled him, he was scared to do so. He hated to admit it, but he needed Clodpool. He had a certain calm to him, a certain blunt assurance, that was not to be found in Pitre. Frankly, he was needed merely to balance them all out.
"I-I'm sorry, Clodpool."
The other boy looked up at him swiftly. His face was glum and dark, tight with anxiety. "What for?"
"For-for...oh, never mind."Syllis trailed off miserably, ducking his head. He backed across the room and slid down the wall to a sitting position, legs sprawled out in front of him and white, shaking hands lying limply in his lap.
They sat there a while, in the damp, still silence of the derelict house, intercepted sporadically by the dripping of the eaves and the rare bark of a lonesome dog. It was quite a wretched atmosphere, all the more heightened by the utter feel of neglect pervading the decrepit little house. Syllis stared at his lap, merely wishing his hands to stop trembling for once.
"Do you remember your parents at all, Syllis?" Clodpool asked into the silence.
The other boy did not look up. "No."
"Were you? I mean, look like you?"
"I don't remember them at all, but I guess they were."
"Do all Northerners look alike? Are they all pale?"
"I guess so."
Clodpool fell quiet. The silence stretched, and Syllis glanced up at him curiously. His friend was sitting rigidly on the stool, holding on to it with both beefy hands. His face was strained.
"I-you-they never did tell me.exactly what my. family," Syllis said softly. Clodpool stared straight ahead.
"Th-they said.well, he said, actually, you know who I mean.they were all killed," he continued, gazing at his hands. "In a raid. Burned inside their hut, probably. What else would you do with Northerners?"
Syllis had never told this to anyone, although in all likelihood many had already guessed so. But he did not worry about spilling his heart to Clodpool, not this once. Of all people, he would probably not even react. It was rather a lot like telling his biggest secret to a familiar piece of rock.
He waited for a reaction and, not getting one, rested his head against the cold stone wall and closed his eyes. Shortly after, he opened them again in surprise as a rough voice cut through the silence.
"But if they killed your family.why didn't they kill you too?" There was a note of confusion in the coarseness.
Syllis glanced up at his friend before answering. "I don't know why they didn't. I don't think I ever will, either."
Clodpool grunted from his perch on the stool. The tight silence closed up on them again. In the stillness, Syllis noticed that the room had suddenly become very stuffy. Unconsciously, he wiped his forehead roughly with his sleeve, and loosened the scarf around his neck. Was he sweating?
He glanced at the door. So far, there had been no sign of Pitre, and he was getting worried. He was supposed to have left mere minutes after them. Where could he be?
There was a long loud creak as Clodpool shifted his weight on the narrow stool.
"Yes, Clodpool?"
"Uh.may I excuse myself?" There was a definitely embarrassed edge to the normally gruff voice.
Syllis nodded, not looking up. There was a small rush of damp air as Clodpool hurried out the door, barely stirring the soggy atmosphere.
Syllis frowned. It was a strange, common occurrence, yet he still did not know exactly why his dim friend constantly needed his permission to do things in his presence. It was baffling, really; usually, Clodpool would be a glum, unresponsive rock, following him around like a shadow but not really exhibiting the qualities of a lifelong friend, while at times he could almost resemble a dog - of the large and stupid variety - relentlessly pleading and vying for his attention. It was more than baffling, it was utterly bewildering. Quite unlike Pitre. Well.Pitre was a very different matter, and he realized that right now he was wishing rather badly for the other boy to come or else, or else..
With a sigh, Syllis reached inside his robes and closed his hand around the knife, his familiar comfort in times like these. He drew it out carefully. A part of his palm had clutched the blade - there was blood, warm and sticky, dribbling between his fingers - but he paid it no heed. The glinting of the knife in the yellow candlelight mesmerized him for a moment, as it always did, but he knew there were more important matters to be taken care of. But there was already blood.he clutched the golden hilt with his other hand, gasping as the blade cut further into flesh. His knuckles showed white against white on the hilt.
He stared at it intently for while, forgetting the initial purpose of his actions, before a strange doubt began creeping into his muddled mind. Clodpool would be back soon, so he would have to finish this quickly. But should he do it, in the first place, if soon he would be escaping and running down a dirt country road to the wintry unknown? Also, he had not been feeling too well - in relative terms. In fact, he'd been worse than usual, but it was hot and stuffy in the little room, Pitre was not there to distract him, and maybe a little pain wouldn't hurt after all-
Clodpool walked back in, surreptitiously wiping his right hand on his robes. He noticed the gleam of the knife, but glanced at it only briefly before returning to the stool and resuming his silent study of the cracked floortiles.
Syllis felt the blood rushing to his cheeks and ducked his head, biting his lip in frustration. It was getting very stifling in the room, and hopefully Clodpool would mistake it for the heat. Maybe, Clodpool won't question it at all, being his usual, thick, dim-witted self.
Syllis glared down at his lap, at the folds of his black robes spread out on the filthy floor. What was keeping Pitre? They couldn't have caught him already, he was not that incompetent! In fact, in his opinion Pitre was quite skilled, in many things. It shouldn't be taking him this long at all. Unless..
The alleyway outside suddenly exploded in a cacophony of barks, running footsteps, a flurry of splashes, and quick as a blink a familiar figure crashed through the doorway, a heavy bundle in its arms. Syllis froze, mouth gaping.
"Did I shut-is the door shut, Syllis? Quick, close the door Clodpool." Pitre rushed forward, dumping the bundle on the table beside the smaller pouch, not pausing to take a breath. Clodpool hurriedly shut the door, careful not to slam it. Syllis did not move.
"Let me just get my breath for a moment.I slipped on one of them puddles back there, banged my head against the pavement. I never realized this part of town was in such bad shape, waste on the ground, rats running everywhere, dogs barking everywhere, worse than the Monastery-"
"Where have you been, Pitre?" Syllis finally spoke, hands clenched and a black vein throbbing in his temple.
"What? Oh, well, I was on my way here, up to just recently, arrived right now, though I still feel my lungs are-"
"What took you so long?"
"I-uh, oh." Pitre paused and took a deep breath, a bright expression stealing across his face. "I," he announced, setting a long, cylindrical bundle on the table, "have acquired a.. map."
Syllis gasped. Even Clodpool managed a gape.
Pitre grinned even wider, almost splitting his face in half. "Yes indeed.a map." He punctuated that by spreading the parchment wide on the table, setting the bundle down on one edge, the food pouch on the other. "This is why I was a bit late. I had remembered an old friend the Librarian had mentioned, a fellow prone to prayer and nighttime mutterings. Very easy to persuade. Made labeled drawings for a living. I made sure to pass his shop and, fortunately, it was open. I knew the man would give anything for an old visit from a temple envoy, and I can happily say that my suspicions were confirmed."
Syllis got up and approached the desk slowly. Clodpool clustered around from the opposite side.
"Yes, I know it's not in the best shape," Pitre brushed absently at a patch of grime on the faded vellum, "a bit old and outdated, but it ought to do. I don't think the Great South Road could have changed much in the space of; let's say.twenty years.or so."
"Does it.does it show all the way, the entire Road?" Clodpool asked in an awed tone.
"Uh, yes, I think so. That, the little blotch far up in the North, that's us. And.see that big black spot? Further south, by the river? I'm quite certain that's the Imperial City. I'm not quite sure about the scale of the thing, though.ah.Syllis?"
The other boy was staring down at the map, eyes heavily lidded so Pitre could not see them clearly. "Why did you bring it?" he asked finally.
"Why did I bring the map? Well," Pitre sounded as if he had been expecting this question, yet had not quite prepared an answer, "we need it. We need a map, to know the way, and you know how dreadfully rare they are-"
"It's a map!" Syllis cut in, eyes blazing strangely. "Of course they're rare, they were outlawed! You should know this, Pitre, you're a Bur- "
"Oh, Syllis!" Pitre cried out, grabbing the other boy by the shoulders. "It's just a map!"
"The Writ-"
"Your stubborn zeal isn't helping anyone!"
"Zeal? Zeal! It is called-"
Clodpool cleared his throat. Both turned to look at him, and he shifted uncomfortably. "Uh, does the Writ not decree that, that," he frowned suddenly, as if he had forgotten something.
Pitre, having seemingly picked up the other's train of thought, grinned suddenly and shook Syllis by the shoulders in excitement. "Of course! How did I forget? Syllis, does the Writ not decree that maps, if made not by those seeking profit, are an item of good?"
Syllis frowned, staring distractedly at Pitre's hands, before answering. "Well..yes-"
"Then we're fine!" Pitre cried, snatching the map up from the table and examining the top half carefully.
Syllis opened his mouth, and then closed it, about three times before finally snapping it shut. He glanced at Clodpool, who simply looked back sympathetically. Pitre had obviously tried to persuade him, and well, there was nothing to be done about the map.
Pitre continued examining the map, until he finally rolled it up and stuffed it into his robes. Syllis stared at it awhile, feeling Pitre's eyes on him the entire time.
Finally, he said, "shouldn't we leave soon?"
Pitre brightened up immediately. "Indeed, we should. Happily, the Bursars won't notice we're gone until tomorrow morning, but the gates close at midnight, so we better hurry. Here, Clodpool you take the food pouch, I'll carry this bag." He glanced worriedly at Syllis.
Syllis nodded. "I'm fine, Pitre."
Pitre grinned at him, and turned to the door. Syllis blinked. Pitre did not grin nearly this often. It was probably the strain. He himself was feeling it quite profusely this particular night.
"All right, just so we don't get lost, we walk down this alley outside up until it is joined by another one, on the right side. We go down that one up until it joins the main thoroughfare of town. It's the same street the Monastery is on, except we will come out on it much further down, so there is little risk of Voren jumping out from the shadows." Clodpool snickered. "Anyways, we then walk down to the gates, they will let through of course, Syllis just needs to show them his knife. Then, it's on to freedom." Pitre grinned at Syllis. The other stared back expressionlessly.
Pitre blinked and turned away. "However, there is one last thing we have to take care of. Syllis, I told you we shall have a donkey, and we shall. The cartman I told you about lives on the second alley, and we shall go to him and he shall give us a steed."
Syllis gasped despite himself. "We're going to steal a donkey?"
"Well, not steal. Borrow. After all, he knows we're coming." Pitre sounded unsure of himself.
Syllis' eyes narrowed, but he said, "We better get a move on."
Hefting their packs, the little trio left the derelict house. They did not look back after and, had they known the door promptly fell off as their feet splashed through the puddles of the alley, they would not have cared much. Rats scurried before their feet, so close Pitre almost stepped on one. The candle which had lighted their path earlier had been extinguished, probably by the old house-mistress on her way to sleep. It was utterly dark in the narrow alley. Soon though, they turned into another lane, this one wider and with laundry lines strung across the closely-built houses. It was much safer and more.homely looking than the other alley. As Syllis looked up at the little whitewashed houses he thought that, had he not been a priest, he would have liked living there. They stopped a little while after, in front of a very nondescript house with a separate walkway going along its side.
Pitre shuffled around to stand behind Syllis, dragging Clodpool behind him. "I think you better go first, Syllis."
Syllis gasped in outrage. "Me? Why me?"
"Because...because if the cartman sees you first, he'll be more likely to give us the donkey!" Pitre whispered back urgently.
"But-but you said he knew we were coming!"
"Well.maybe he forgot. All you have to do is just knock on the door, and as soon the man will.see you, and your knife, he will hand us the donkey without arguing! Come on, Syllis!"
The paler boy glared at the flaking door in front of him for a while, ground his courage and - making sure to take note of the occasion - rapped smartly on the wood, twice.
There was a loud crash from the interior of the house, before the door opened to reveal an irritated, sun-dark face, half-covered with lank, unwashed black hair.
"What in the-" the man's beady eyes widened, and a look of sheer terror stole over his blunt features. He kneeled down instantly, ducking his head and knuckling his forelock.
Syllis stuffed the knife back into his robes. Mustering his best glare on the crouching man, he motioned towards the alley. "We need a steed."
Yes, that is it. Blunt and to the point, the way a priest would say it.
The man looked up at him quickly, panic in his dark eyes. "But, my Lord, I don't--"
"Hush!" Syllis snapped. "You have a steed, a beast of burden available? Must an envoy of the Church explain himself to a mere commoner?"
The frightened cartman nodded quickly, tugging his forelock furtively. He had obviously never been face to face with a priest. Syllis doubted he had ever even been to a Ritual.
"Yes, yes, most profuse apologies. M-may I rise? Here, your Grace, just let me show you to the back." Syllis and the others made way for the man as he squeezed past them. They followed him down the narrow walkway, around to the back. There was very small dirt yard, surrounded by high crumbling walls. A lanky grey donkey, looking as if it had not been fed for a month, stared back at them morosely. It was tethered to a dilapidated wooden cart, lying abandoned on the dusty ground.
The man smiled ruefully, nodding at the sorry-looking scene. "Take your pick, my Lord."
Syllis stared at the measly offerings. "Is this all?"
The man gulped, knuckling his forehead.
Syllis sighed and rolled his eyes, not caring if the man saw past his thin disguise. That thing would drop dead two miles from the gates!
Someone, probably Clodpool, poked his back urgently. "All right-" Syllis cleared his throat. "We'll take the.donkey," he said in a more forceful tone.
The man bowed and untied the beast, fingers fumbling nervously at the rope. When he finally had it worked out, he led the sorry thing to them and handed the rope end to Syllis.
"There, my Lord. A wonderful steed, if I may say so." Did the man have a crick in his neck, or did he normally duck his head that often?
Syllis eyed the rope disdainfully for a moment before accepting it, rather daintily. He glared at the man, who ducked his head nervously, and turned on his heel.
"Come," he said imperiously, with more than a touch of candor, "come, lads. Our work here is.done."
It was very hard to maintain the arrogant mask and not burst out laughing when he saw Pitre's glower at that last comment.
A short while later, they were back in the main alleyway, clumsily trying to maneuver the donkey between the closely built walls. Syllis had never handled any beast before, so even before the man was out of sight, he threw the rope to Clodpool.
"Hang on to it!" he hissed in response to the other's confused look.
As soon as they got the donkey safely into the alley, led by Clodpool up front, Pitre turned to Syllis. He was seething. "What was that all about?"
"What was what?" Syllis flicked imaginary dust off his shoulder.
"That. The whole.come, lads, my faithful slaves bit. It was a bit overdone, don't you think."
"Oh, well, I did a good job, didn't I?" Syllis pouted, clutching both hands in front of him, fluttering his eyelashes and looking generally quite silly.
"Hm," Pitre clenched his jaw and frowned at Syllis, trying obviously to stay angry. It was hard though, in the face of that ridiculously hopeful expression, and Pitre softened. "Well, actually..yes, you did do a wonderful job," he finally conceded. Syllis grinned manically. "I hate to admit this, but when the door opened and all, you almost had me fooled. You were channeling pure Meioze there!"
Syllis' grin became even wider, and he threw his arms up in the air dramatically, frightening the donkey in the process. "Oh, thank you so much, my darling Pitre! If it wasn't for you," he took a step towards Pitre, face perfectly straight, "I would have..I would have died many years ago, from just.plain grief! Oh, you saved me! You, you my love, have always loved my little performances!"
"May the Great Lord protect us.." Pitre muttered. There was a short, perfectly silent pause, before all three - including Clodpool - dissolved in laughter. Syllis himself almost choking, leaning on Clodpool for support, he was laughing so hard.
"Where up with.that?" Pitre choked out between guffaws.

Syllis shook his head, struggling for breath. "I don't.know."
"What should donkey?" The mood was getting to Clodpool, too.
"What?" Pitre gasped out, wiping his mouth with his sleeve.
"Name the donkey. It can't stay nameless."
"Oh I know," Syllis stepped forward, staggering slightly, "if I may suggest-"
"No, you may not. We do not want to make the poor thing's life more miserable than it already is."
"Make its life more miserable? Me? Why, the thing's half dead as it is!"
"Yes, well, we don't want to make it fully dead sooner than we have to."
Syllis' mouth fell open in outrage, and he half-turned away, as if in shock. Pitre approached him, grinning widely, laying a hand on his shoulder apologetically, but Syllis merely slapped it away.
"I'll have none of that now," he snapped, glaring up at Pitre through his lashes. "I shall name the beast, or we shan't name it at all, simple as that. Is that right, Clodpool?"
He started tapping his foot, hip cocked to the side and arms crossed over his chest, and Pitre knew it was time to give in. Casting a look of mock helplessness at Clodpool - who was watching the proceeding with quiet amusement - he said, "all right Syllis, pick your poison."
Syllis sent him a look of pure venom, but he smiled anyway, walking over carefully to the donkey and petting its head. "I say..we name him.Bill."
Clodpool blinked. "Bill?"
"Yes, Bill. Doesn't he look like a Bill to you?"
"A Bill? I don't get it."
"Well, that's understandable. And you, Pitre?"
"Why.why Bill?"
"Because," Syllis put his hands on his hips and cocked his head to one side, as if in thought, "well, because all donkeys are called Bill. Someone told me that, once. Or would you prefer the name.Jon, my dear Pitre?"
Pitre grimaced. "Jon's fine."
"Then Jon it is." Syllis smiled in a smug, self-satisfied manner and flicked his hand limply at Clodpool. "You, Clodpool, are in charge of our faithful steed, Jon. So from now on, you shall be known as.the Donkey Master! Now lead on."
Clodpool took the lead and tugged Jon down the alleyway. Syllis followed behind the donkey, with Pitre bringing up the rear.
"If you're thinking of making the 'Pouchmaster' or some such, I suggest you drop the idea right now," Pitre muttered from just behind him.
Syllis just chuckled softly, and felt a breath of air stir the back of his neck as Pitre shook his head.
"You're hopeless. And just so you know, I do not think you should have put Clodpool up front. He might get us lost before we're halfway down this alley."
"Oh, poor Clodpool can't possibly get us lost, can he? Not with the wonderfully accurate directions you gave us! It's simply preposterous!"
Pitre punched his shoulder playfully in mock anger, but still managed to make Syllis stumble into the wall.
The rest of the walk continued mostly in silence, save for occasional chatter and the odd direction. The peculiarly jolly feel of before was replaced mere minutes later by a kind of cold, writhing dread. Oddly, Syllis seemed the least affected by the new mood - Clodpool notwithstanding- and he bounced along, almost cheerfully. Pitre, trudging solemnly behind him was, to say the least, alarmed.
They reached the main thoroughfare about thirty minutes later. It was a very wide, cobblestone street and was, like the rest of the town, foggy, dark, and starkly uninviting.
A lone beggar stared up at them from the rank shadows of an alley, but Syllis ignored him and instead pointed ahead to where a pair of large street lanterns sputtered in the darkness.
"Those would be the gates," Pitre murmured. They walked more quickly now, Clodpool tugging urgently on the rope, muttering to himself. Syllis clenched his hands and pushed he image of glittering metal out his mind, focusing instead on the current situation. Soon, if the Maker smiled upon him, he would have left his old life behind and gotten on the road what, he was not quite certain.
The avenue was in obviously better shape than the Craftsman's Quarter. The puddles of waste were almost totally absent from the cobblestones, the shops and houses fronting the streets all at least two stories high, with roofs of tile that glinted in the moonlight. They passed by a particularly lavish-looking inn - The Pearly Gates - and Syllis tried not to gape at the sheer amount of carved white marble on its front. It was certainly marvelous, but he could feel Pitre's eyes on him and he did not need the other's mocking laughter, not right now.
Scant moments later, they were by the gates plaza. Just out of earshot of the guards Clodpool pulled sharply on the rope, and Pitre grabbed Syllis by the elbow and pulled him to the shadows of a doorway.
Syllis sent a pointed look at the hand on his arm, but Pitre ignored it and merely dragged him closer.
"I hope you understand we now have to make those guards actually believe we are fully Raised priests. They will be much harder to convince than that cartman."
"What do I say this time?" Syllis muttered back.
Pitre thought for a moment, chewing his lip, then dragged Syllis even closer and leaned right in to whisper in his ear. "This is what I have in mind." Warm breath ghosted over Syllis' cheeks, and he tried not to shiver as he wondered why his friend needed such close proximity. "Keep Clodpool off, he will only cause trouble. Let them believe he's our helper, a novice, like. I think all we need is a flash of your knife and that'd be enough, but dealt with the cartman, so I will do the talking this time, all right?"
Pitre pulled back to smile at him, Syllis simply blinking up at him uncertainly, before dragging them both back into the street proper.
"We're ready, Clodpool."
The guards were two very ordinary looking men, tall and dark-skinned, wearing burnished leather with the Scepter of the Church emblazoned on the chest in faded green. They had the expressions of men who had been forced to work much longer than they thought necessary, something which Syllis thought was, of course, credible as nobody ever liked working night shifts.

"Who goes there?" one of them cried out, spitting out a small ball of tobacco as he did so. "Who walks here at this ungodly time of night?"
"Priests do," replied Pitre, stepping into the glow of the lanterns, "we of the Most Devout Order of the Writ wish exit tonight, on Church business."
The man, who had spoken blinked, then ducked his head respectfully. However, Pitre saw from the corner of his eye that the other, taller guard was still staring at them doubtfully. Syllis, ever observant, had noticed too, and with a glance at Pitre he stepped forward.
"Must we delay?" he grated, and all shred of doubt seemed to vanish from the other man as he stepped back with a hiss. "Must officials of the Holy church be questioned by guards because they are doubtful?"
Sometimes Pitre wondered if his friend was not destined to become a Master of Novices. At times, he could make his very presence radiate cold superiority that, coupled with his appearance, made even Pitre a little afraid.
"Y-you must sign the register." the first guard gestured at the other, who, sending a look of utter fear and loathing at Syllis, picked up a small wooden chest lying at his feet.
"There will be no signing of the Register." Pitre thought fast. If their names were recorded, they would be found within the hour. He had to think of something! "We.the matters with which we are occupied require us to leave unrecorded, and the signing would rob us of valuable time. We must hurry."
"What? You-"
He was cut off by a single look from Syllis, who then pointed to Jon. "We carry much with us. Must luggage not be recorded?"
The man nodded shakily.
"Then we must hurry! Record us only as officials of the Church, nothing else." and with that Pitre gestured at the two of them and pushed past the guards. Clodpool tugged urgently on the rope and hurried after Syllis, casting a look back at the two men. Surprisingly, they did not call out after them. A priest was, after all, a priest, and no less than a Northerner at that, too.
They burst out into the night-clad countryside, leaving the twenty- foot high walls of the town -San Argar- behind them. The road ahead wove its way through a myriad of low hills, all bathed in uniform silver moonlight spilling from the heavens. Syllis hurried forward, casting his sandals aside as he did so, rushing off the road and into the thigh-high winter pasture. He stood there awhile, squidging his toes in the cold mud, hand trailing over the dried, yellow grass. He stared up at the skies and marveled at the sight of so many stars at once, unmarred by the smoke of the Monastery, at the wonderfully simple feeling of cold mud between his toes.
"Are they after us?" Pitre's voice rang out in the darkness.
Syllis didn't answer. He instead looked down at the grass, brushing his hand idly over it, plucking out a solitary still-green stem. He heard Clodpool mutter something, a gruff agreement of sorts.
Footsteps crushed through the grass behind him. It was such a peaceful atmosphere, almost indescribably beautiful to Syllis. The stars twinkled above, their dim, silvery light mesmerizing, mocking him with its beauty. Not that he would admit to anyone, but it was breathtaking. Something fluttered inside him, in the region just below his heart.
He felt Pitre behind him, very close. A star, red and bright up in the very dome of the sky, winked at him, and Syllis spun around quickly. Pitre's eyes seemed unnaturally large and dark in the lucid moonlight, soothing and menacing at the same time. Syllis felt strangely.was excited the word?
"We're out of there, finally. Now the hard part begins." Pitre paused, glancing up at the sky. "The stars are quite beautiful tonight, eh?"
"Hmm." Syllis mused, gazing up at him steadily. The moonlight was starting to have a very strange effect on him.
"You like this, don't you?"
"Yes, I do. I like it quite a lot." Syllis stared up intensely at Pitre, not quite placing the gleam in the other's dark eyes.
"We'll have many more night of this, hopefully. Unless the snows don't come early, like the Bursars say they will." Pitre's face changed imperceptibly. "We'd best go now, Clodpool's waiting still with the.with Jon."
"Ah." Syllis looked down at his left hand, brushing it over the tops of the dried grass. He noted how strikingly his flesh contrasted against the dark roughness of the dead stems, seeming ethereal in the cold moonlight.
Pitre seemed set for an extra word, a feather-light touch, but it never came. Syllis waited for it, hooded eyes staring down, then finally feeling the other move away and sighed breathlessly. The mood faded away like a bubble in the sun, one moment encompassing the world, the next, gone and forgotten.
"Shall we go now?"
Syllis closed his eyes, a sudden weakness, exhaustion, making him tremble.
"P-Pitre, I'm not sure I." he began, but Pitre cut him off with a hand on his shoulder.
"We can wait," he said kindly, squeezing the other's shoulder. "I know you' you' should be tired, and anyways we won't walk far, I promise. We could make camp just half an hour's time from here, off where the woods close in. Nobody takes this road in winter. Also you could ride J- Je.uh."
"Jon." Syllis corrected, smiling weakly.
"Yes, our faithful steed Jon. What a wonderful, easy to remember name you picked, and yet of all people I'm the one to keep on forgetting it. Anyways, for a while you could ride-"
"No," there was a sudden, eerie defiance in Syllis' green eyes, and he pushed past Pitre, shoving his sandals back on. A stark change had come into him. "I'll walk."
"Walk?" Pitre hurried after him, a worried look on his dark face. "You? I mean, I know you've been getting very little sleep for the last week or so, what with the whole- how long would you walk?"
"For as long as we must." There it was again, the hard edge to his voice, the strange heat in his eyes.
"But just a moment ago you were.are you sure-"
"Yes, I am." Syllis' eyes glittered in the moonlight, and they were no longer feverish.
Clodpool sent both of them confused looks, and he tugged on the rope and set off down the moonlit roadway, hooves and sandals clucking in tandem. Pitre shook his head, but following nonetheless.