Chapter 1

***

This feeling of discomfort was nothing new to her, on the contrary, Riana had become so accustomed to it that she usually just locked it away in the back of her mind and kept going. But never in the course of the last years had she ever felt it this strong, and all it had taken was a look into those large dark eyes, void of anything but silent resignation. There was not that fire to be found which was present in the soldiers' eyes, no radiant determination and not even the tinge of suspicion most people held, when they arrived at the frontier for the first time.

There simply was nothing in this girl's face but emptiness as her gaze travelled lazily over the white walls framing the courtyard, and Riana could not suppress the cold shiver running down her spine.

In a futile attempt to rid herself of her sudden anxiety without drawing attention to herself, she fidgeted nervously in her place and began fiddling with the ribbons of her dress to occupy her hands. However, she immediately stopped when Yasmina next to her threw her a questioning glance, and Riana just shook her head. Even if she had felt like it, she could not have explained herself without being rude to their guests.

Hence she simply tried to concentrate on the happenings on the other side of the yard. The soldiers who had arrived some time ago where patiently standing in a crowd and waiting for their general to finish talking to priest Malain; the head of the little temple. The two men had been conversing ever since they had passed the temple gate and the scene had not changed in the meantime. Effectively Riana's attention had been drawn away from their lengthy conversation, half of which did not concern her anyway.

Unfortunately, this pulled her eyes back to the two people present who were certainly no soldiers, and who consequently appeared utterly lost in this formation. To her they appeared to be ordinary children, about fourteen years old, clad in simple but clean wide shirts and trousers or a long flowing dress in the girl's case respectively. She was still eyeing her surroundings with that distant expression on her face, and neither did she seem to care that her ponytail had come loose and strands of fair hair were falling into her face. Every time one obscured her sight she would just brush it back behind her ear and keep staring at nothing.

Riana shuddered again, despite the heat of the desert sun burning from the sky.

So at last her attention drifted to the boy next to the unsettling girl, yet he was obstructed from Riana's view by her presence. Besides, in contrast to her unconcern, he had his head turned downwards, his bangs almost hiding his eyes and his arms were crossed in front of his chest in a gesture which clearly told anyone that their presence was unappreciated.

Judging by this Riana could only guess that he was focusing on the general's back, which was turned towards them at the moment.

Unexpectedly she was torn from her thoughts when Yasmina urgently pulled at her sleeve and she turned to her right, eyebrows raised in a silent question.

Even more to her surprise Yasmina whispered in a low voice: "Didn't you pay attention? The general just said that they've conquered Sazin. You know what that means?"

"The tribes will be angry?", she answered, albeit with no real enthusiasm. She knew that this news meant quite a lot more, but she had stopped caring about the war on the outside of their safe walls months ago. To reflect on what was happening all around them would have raised too many questions on right and wrong and loyalty, thus she had reached the conclusion that it was best to ignore.

Her friend only frowned and skipped her remark: "It means it's finally over. With the barbarians gone we can go back to normal!"

Riana nodded half-heartedly and looked across the courtyard to the general. 'But normal never included soldiers', she thought for a second before she sighed. If there was truly nothing left for them to do, perhaps they would just leave for good in one or two days.

To everyone's relief the talk did not last much longer, so Riana was glad to get away from her overly excited fellow temple-maid as well as from the soldiers, who dispersed to the living barracks behind the temple building as soon as they had been allowed to do so by the general.

In the end only priest Malain, the general, Yasmina and her as the only remaining temple-maids and the two children were left in the yard. Riana's intention had been to cross the paved space quickly and disappear through the entrance of the little temple, yet her plan did not work out at all.

In fact, she only managed to take two steps in the aforementioned direction before the priest's gentle yet firm voice halted her: "Sister Riana, I would like to speak with you for a moment. Sister Yasmina can take over your duties for now."

"Yes, father", she responded dutifully, turned around again and walked over to the little group as joyfully as she managed. Commonly the temple-maids were not included in the conversations between the priest and the general, and she was unsure if she even wanted to hear what she was about to be told. On the other hand the general had been paying visits to their temple for more than a year now, and so far she had always enjoyed his company.

While she disregarded Yasmina's envious glare in her back as the former made her way to the temple in Riana's stead, she greeted the two men with a little bow. "Welcome back, General."

General Seryl was quite handsome in her eyes, even though he seemed to carry a constant frown carved on his solemn face. After arriving at the temple only half an hour prior he was still wearing the light-brown army uniform, his shortcut brown hair stuck messily to his forehead and his face was tanned to almost the same colour as his hazel eyes. He regarded her friendly, but left the word to priest Malain.

"I assume you have not missed the good news that Sazin has finally been freed. Naturally it will take a lot of time until life will be back to normal for both the city and out temple, yet General Seryl has assured me that they will do their best to maintain peace. General, would you like to address the issue yourself?"

He affirmed it and continued in his low, even voice: "Thank you, Father. The situation in town is not stable enough for me and my men to stay any longer than necessary. That said, we will leave tomorrow morning. However I have asked Father Malain for some assistance and he guaranteed that you were the most suited person for this task."

Automatically her eyes grew larger. "May I ask what exactly this task is? I cannot fathom I am suited for anything that might be useful to the army!"

The reflective expression which had settled on Seryl's face during the priest's explanation vanished upon her question and his good humor returned like a mask pulled over his face. Only a shadow of tiredness remained as he clarified: "It has nothing to do with the army's business. In fact, the army is completely overstrained with the situation at hand. Well, after the conquest of Sazin we did not have a choice when it came to dealing with the black butchers, but we did not expect to find Eastern prisoners at their heathen temple. We do not know how to deal with them properly because they are…", he made a small break searching for the most fitting term as he looked at the children, but in the end he still seemed a little dissatisfied, "…peculiar.

"We intend to send them to the capital as soon as possible, but so far they have not been very talkative and I do not blame them for mistrusting the soldiers. Our hope rests on you to find out more about them - who they are, where they come from, how they got here and whatever they may be able to tell us about the enemy. I fear they will never open up to someone like me and that is where you come into the picture: Simply take care of them and at best, gain their trust until they can be moved on."

Immediately her head snapped back to the two persons in question.

The boy did not even try to hide that he disliked the idea, fixated her with angry grey eyes before he demonstratively turned away. Contrary to his behaviour the girl returned her straight gaze and smiled, or at least Riana assumed it was supposed to be a smile. But in truth the corner of her mouth tilted upwards, yet the expression never reached her eyes, which were finally showing something like slight curiosity though.

Aware that she herself must appear anything but confident right now she breathed deeply to calm herself and shrugged of her worries as well as she could. Then she announced: "Alright. I am honoured by your trust in my abilities, General. I will do my best to make them feel at home. Father, General, it was nice talking to you." She bowed again before she walked over to the two children.

Ignoring all their hostility or disinterest she put her hands together in front of her stomach and said in her most friendly voice: "Welcome here, you two. My name is Riana; I will be caring for you during your stay. If there is anything you need or would like to know, please don't hesitate to tell me."

They did not answer, just as the general had indicated, and Riana sighed silently. This was going to be a lot more difficult than it had sounded, but she would not give up before she had even tried.

Consequently she beckoned them with a sign to follow her and hesitantly they walked with her across the courtyard to the temple's entrance. From there the way led around the small stone-building on the left side. They went along the path leading along between the temple's white walls and the outer wall, shadowed by small palm trees lining the way.

Riana just kept on talking: "I don't know if you do understand me, but I'm going to assume that you do. I take it you will make it clear if I'm talking too much anyway. Well, I'm going to show you to your rooms, since you will be spending the upcoming days – or weeks, with us after all. Don't worry, we have no intention on keeping you locked in, but I guess you must be tired after walking all the way here from Sazin."

She threw a glance over her shoulder to ascertain they were still following her, and to her surprise found them apparently listening. At least they were paying attention to her rambling, if they understood or not.

They reached the end of the temple, where the living barracks were framing the oval line of shrines in the centre of the small space. The huts were simple two-story bamboo-houses which had been constructed as more and more people came to seek refuge at the temple. Originally there had only been the one hut on the utmost left, which belonged solely to the temple's servants. Now those consisted only of her, Yasmina and priest Malain. The rest of the people working here had left when the war had started and none of them had ever come back.

Into exactly this hut she led her two charges since she had no intention on keeping them closer to the soldiers than necessary, and she would be more at ease herself knowing them to be within her immediate reach. As a lot of rooms were empty anyway no one would feel bothered by their presence.

In order to reach the door of the hut however, they had to walk over the pebble stone path through the line of the shrines for the six main gods and Riana thoughtlessly passed them at a solemn pace.

Only when the other steps behind her fell silent did she notice that something was amiss.

The girl had stopped dead in front of two of the stone statues, but she was not looking at them, instead her gaze was glued to the pedestals which they were standing on. For the first time she clearly demonstrated emotions when she caught her companion by his sleeve and pointed down to the sacrifices lying to the feet of each statue.

Riana noted that there were copper coins which had not been there before, and she assumed that some of the soldiers had left them, especially because the temple did not offer coins but flowers, and only underneath three statues of the respective deities small flower bouquets were lying next to the traditional offering pan.

Unsure what the problem actually was Riana just watched and said nothing, because they seemed capable of resolving the issue themselves. In the end the boy simply shook his head, made a gesture motioning in the direction of the other barracks and she nodded tentatively. At last she graced the pedestals with one last glance and let herself be tugged along with him, not without bowing her head to the whole circle of statues, though.

When they caught up with her there was no reaction whatsoever and Riana decided not to ask for the moment. Not like they would answer her in the first place.

Wordlessly they entered the wooden hut, and Riana showed them up the stairs to two empty rooms, only to be stared at with wide eyes. Then they both shook their heads vigorously and he intertwined his hand with hers, stubbornly showing that they were not about to part with each other.

For the first time this day Riana laughed wholeheartedly upon seeing them act like the children they actually were. She pointed towards the room whose window was facing towards the desert in the East and mentioned happily: "Don't fret; I will bring the mattress from the other room. It may not be proper, but I think the gods won't mind."

When she returned a moment later with said mattress the boy was sitting on the floor, his back to the wall, and the girl was standing at the window. As she entered they both looked at her again, and followed her every movement as she stretched out the blanket next to the other one on the floor. Beside the mattresses, a small wardrobe and the chamber pot the room was empty, and Riana made a mental note to bring some flowers later to chase away the melancholy.

"Riana?"

The girl's voice was quiet and the stress of her name was on the second syllable instead of the first, but after all her name had definitely come across.

"Yes, - oh, I do not know your names, yet. Please forgive my rudeness for not asking sooner!"

"Thank you", she said only, this time much more clearly and again she smiled at her with that smile which would not quite reach her eyes.

Riana only smiled back: "You're welcome."