Chapter Nine

The week that followed my awakening with no memories, I was in a trance-like state. I was sure I remembered everything the priests had said, everything they saidmight happen to me, and everything I'd have to do. Why hadn't the priests warned me about injuries, pain and stolen memories? Did they not follow the teachings? Had I not been listening? For the past eleven years I had been cultivated to carry out the work the Mother appointed me to do. I had been told, and had blindly believed, she had picked me, of all people. The evidence was all around me. After all, there had to be a reason I escaped the mass killing. If I hadn't been chosen I would have died with my parents, I had often told myself this, and yet, in light of my shortcomings, the seed of self-doubt began to sprout. Had I really been chosen? Why wouldn't the Mother have picked someone strong instead of a little girl who passes out from pain, and forgets.

The pain in my wrist began to fade and little by little strength seeped back into my body. Yet, I didn't try to move. I just lay in bed staring at the wall, speaking as little as possible and insisting that I wasn't hungry, whilst the phantoms of doubt chased through my head. Soon, I began to suspect that Maia and Roman were having conversations about me. Roman continued to carry me down to meals and Maia would try and have me do simple exercises so that I could get up and move again. I refused to do them and complained of pain when she would try and help, though there was no pain. I just wanted time by myself.

I must have had them worried. It must have been a week since Joanne disclosed that the priests would have known about my memory loss during the ritual. Roman began to carry me from room to room during the day. They insisted I sit in the middle of things, so I could be social, but I didn't talk. I refused to even get dressed. I still wore the simple nightdress I had woken up in. I kept turning over what had gone wrong in my head, and arguing that there was possibly nothing wrong at all. I just couldn't believe the priests would purposely leave out such a big piece of information. Yet, I didn't want to believe Joanne was lying.

While Roman and Maia worried and hovered, Riley took a different stance. "You're being a baby," he hissed one afternoon, "You told me your wrist is almost back to normal, yet you just sit here and mope. I'm sure you could walk downstairs if you wanted to. Why is losing your memory having such a negative effect on you? You were warned this would be hard."

I knew this was true. I knew I should tell Roman that he needn't carry me anymore, I was sure I could walk for myself. I knew I needed to start for the third shrine. Everyone was counting on me, yet I felt this pull that I couldn't escape. I was being pulled downward into my own thoughts. It rendered me useless, and I couldn't escape from the consuming chatter in my head. So I continued to lie in bed, raking my memories for the time I had lost or else wondering if I wasn't meant to be priestess.

Joanne had taken to coming in every afternoon while Roman and Maia were occupied with after dinner activities and telling me stories. They were mostly from her time with the church. Other times they were about her childhood, and sometimes just things that happened around the house.

I began to look forward to her visits, maybe because I thought she would fill me in on other things the priests had neglected to mention, but also because she always told such interesting stories. Her very presence warmed me, and I began to wonder if this was what it was like to have a mother. I'd never had a mother figure before. I only had the maids at the palace and before that the nuns at the orphanage. None of themwere very motherly. I began to wonder why Joanne had never had any children of her own. I knew she would be my ideal mother, she seemed to fill every room with warmth, and made me feel better about myself. It would have comenaturally to her. I posed this question to her, perhaps several days after I woke up, asking if her children had perhaps moved away. My voice surprised me a little when I spoke; it had grown hoarse with disuse.

"No," she answered sadly, "I have no living children. I lost a child once, and that's when I retired from being priestess."

"What do you mean?"

"You couldn't remember what it was like after the coup. You were so young. His Majesty ordered everyone with the Gift to be killed, even the children, you see.

"John and I had married at about your age now, and we had been trying to have a child for over ten years. Shortly after the coup failed, the Mother blessed me. I was finally going to have a baby. We were so excited, John set to making the furniture, and I was knitting day and night. Babies grow so fast. But then, the worse thing that could have happened, happened. A constant and steady heat began to burn in my womb. I ignored it at first. My child didn't have the genes to be special, but soon I was able to control the fire too. I tried not too, but it was unconscious."

"Wait, what do you mean, you could control fire?" I cut in.

"Mothers of the Gifted can channel their child's gift, while they're in the womb. Children with the same Gift as the mother, make them stronger, while children with a different Gift make the mother very ill. The Mother didn't intend for two Gifts to be had. Often a child with a different Gift from the mother will be stillborn. Then you have ungifted mothers like me, who only hold the Gift while with the child.

"I tried to hide my new powers, but I had no idea how to control them. The priests I worked with could hardly fail to notice the changes. I know some kept quiet, and I am grateful to them." I nodded, the priests would never report an innocent, they had often harbored Gifted during the genocide, "It was useless though. I was reported and quarantined." My heart sank as she said this, of course she had told me the outcome of the story, yet the slightest flicker of fire flashed in my chest too, "When I had my little girl, they took her from me. I resigned my post as priestess afterwards," my heart was back, and it was burning for Joanne, I bit my lip and stared fixedly at my usual spot on the wall, expectantly, "then John and I moved out here and have lived ever since." Joanne finished her story very quickly, her voice catching.

I lay silent. I knew his Majesty's orders had meant children too. After all, I had been riding to my death when he had picked me up. The King's sins would take a long time to wash away, if they ever did. They will still be here after he passes away for sure. Joanne it seemed was not ready to forgive. I didn't blame her. Killing an innocent child is a high crime, even if he didn't directly; the order was still his, though I was the proof of his repentance.

Joanne's eyes had filled with tears by the end of her story. She didn't stay long, and she left before I had come up with a comment, an expression of sorrow for her loss, but Joanne had given me what I needed with that story. Where I had once been drowning in a pool of doubt, being pushed ever deeper by implicit lies, now I was suddenly back at the surface burning from the injustice Joanne's tale spoke of. For her lost baby girl. I knew I had to continue forward, and deal with any surprises as they came.

"Good morning Claire," Maia gave her usual morning greeting the next day, "Roman will be in soon to take you to breakfast, would you like to get dressed?" she asked, dangling a set of my clothes in front of me, as if to tempt.

"Yeah, I'll get dressed," I answered, sitting up quickly. Maia dropped my garments in surprise. I was a little stiff from my general lack of movement, but moving wasn't hard at all. My wrist seemed to be as good as it was going to get for now, I was perfect, except for my memories.

I took the clothes Maia had dropped and pulled them on; they clung to my skin in a comforting way, unlike the loose dressing gown I had been wearing. By the time I was fully clothed Maia was smiling, "So you're feeling better, the boys will be pleased. Too bad Riley's in the kitchen having his breakfast." Maia pushed me gently back on the bed and picked up a brush from my bedside and began pulling it vigorously through my hair.

"Do you think tomorrow would be too soon to leave?" I asked Maia as she worked through my matted hair, my voice was still hoarse from my lack of using it.

The constant pull against my head stopped as Maia considered, "John and Joanne have been very good to us, leaving today would be rude, but I think tomorrow wouldn't be too soon, as long as we give warning today. Claire, what was the matter with you? You had Roman and I worried."

"Joanne said the priests had known I was going to lose my memories." I mumbled.

"I'm sure the priests didn't forget to tell you on purpose. You have to remember that you are the first to perform this ritual after the Mother herself. Some mistakes will be made, and you must allow for them." Maia was now braiding my hair, pulling it up in ridiculous hairstyles.

There was a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach at her words, of course Maia was right. I took my amber plaits from Maia and began running my fingers through them to undo the braid, "You've made me properly ashamed."

"Good, now let's go down to breakfast, I want to let everyone know that we're leaving tomorrow."

We met Roman on the stairwell as Maia and I exited the bedroom we shared, "You're up," he stated, green eyes widening, stopping in his tracks.

"I'm up," I repeated, not quite meeting his eyes, "and I'd like to leave for the next shrine tomorrow,"

"One track mind. Ok tomorrow is fine with me, just have to let John know so he doesn't start me on anything new tonight." He put his hand under my chin and forced me to meet his gaze, "I'm so glad you're feeling better." He let go of my chin and gripped me in a tight hug, "Let's try not and do this again," he whispered squeezing me tightly ushering Maia and me down the stairs, his pink face matching mine.

Riley flicked his tail irritably and said, "Finally," as I entered the kitchen of my own accord. I thanked Joanne for her hospitality and apologized for staying so long and leaving so suddenly.

"Not a problem," Joanne said, squeezing me tightly, then spoke to Maia over my shoulder, "After Claire finishes her ritual you should come and visit the girls, they will miss you."

"Maia's leaving?" A quiet voice asked from the kitchen doorway. Lily was standing in the doorway with Lavender, clutching at her older sister's shirt hem, green eyes huge.

Maia quickly went over to the two girls and kneeled down at their level, "Yes, I'll be leaving in the morning with Claire."

Riley slipped off the counter, and headed for the girls, I thought he was going to brush comfortingly against them, as he so often did me, but he slipped past and headed up the stairs. I frowned after him, what was he up to? My attention was drawn back to the ground as Lavender flung herself at Maia, "I don't want you to go!"

"It's alright Lavender, I'll come and visit," Maia said, trying to calm the shaking girl, she closed her arms around the child in a tight embrace and began to rock her, but she continued to cry.

I turned away and looked at the sunrise lighting the sky with hues of pinks and oranges. Maia had become part of the group, but now she had found a place she was wanted and needed. I would ask her tonight if she wanted to stay with this family. Here she wouldn't be lost as the youngest of six sisters. I continued staring out the window, watching the birds flutter about and start their morning routine, and listening to Lavender's continued sobs.

A soft squeak made me turn back. Riley had re-entered the room and deposited the strangest thing in front of Lavender. Bright yellow with huge black eyes and an orange beak, a little fake duck gazed off the floor at everyone.

"Where did you get that Riley?" I asked, I had never seen a toy like this. Neither had Lavender. She slid down to Maia's knees and picked the duck up off the floor. It barely fit into her hands. She turned it over and over, looking at it in wonder. Finally she squeezed it the slightest bit, and turned to give Maia an astonished look when it let out a squeak.

"He must have brought it in yesterday," I turned slowly to see who had spoken. It had been Roman, but it hadn't sounded like his voice, it had been strangely high, and he seemed to be frozen mid-bite of his toast.

"No I didn't," Riley replied, perching himself back on the counter. He seemed to be very proud of his find.

"Well, where did you find it then?" I prompted.

"Doesn't matter, but now the little ducky will have a more appropriate home."

"What'd he say?" Roman asked.

"Says he's not telling," I replied, puzzled.

"Oh, well, I think I'm going to go get packed." Roman replied, tossing his toast back onto his mostly full plate and hurrying out of the room..

"Well," Lily said, "that was weird."