Chapter 3

*****

The morning general Seryl returned to the temple was completely normal up to this point. She and Yasmina had been cleaning the temple in the morning, while Shirin prepared new flowers for the shrines and even Tjonas had taken up the duty to sweep the courtyards as he watched Shirin out of the corners of his eyes. His overprotective streak still remained after almost a week had passed since Shirin had decided to open up to her, but apparently he had lost the ensuing argument between the two and at least tried to be of some use to them.

In the late morning hours, before they would go to the temple to escape the heat, Riana had then set out the offerings and so did Yasmina and priest Malain. Only after they were finished would Shirin with seemingly endless patience arrange her own offerings so that those statues who had received less than their opposite were equal.

Riana still did not see why the concept of balance was so important, but when Shirin had explained it she had not found an argument against it, either, and since it did not hurt anyone they simply went about their routines as usual. After all, how could she to tell someone that they worshipped the gods too much? Forbidding Shirin the offerings would have seemed hypocritical to her.

But this morning she found the shrines still "unbalanced", as Shirin had described it, and recalled that she had seen neither of them since their communal breakfast. Therefore she made her way back to the temple with a bad feeling building in her stomach.

The doors were shut and she could not hear if anyone was present inside, yet the unusually quiet courtyard made her nervous. Unconsciously she sped up her steps as she climbed the stairs to the wooden doors. They opened with the familiar squeal of the old hinges and Riana slipped through the opening quickly, so that she would not let the heat inside. It was easy to tell at once that there was someone present, because the atmosphere was different. It was not tense or anything unsettling; still a room with people had always held a different feel than a deserted one.

She did not face the others until she had closed the doors behind her, but she could tell anyway that all eyes rested on her. The scene she witnessed when she finally turned around, reminded her strongly of the first time, and she could not help but feel a little awkward. The children were standing a few steps behind priest Malain, who had apparently been talking to the general some moments earlier. The latter had not changed over the last days, except that he appeared a lot tidier today and his gestures were a little too hasty for his normally composed self. But he was in a good mood, she reckoned, as he raised his hand as a greeting to her.

However she did realize the anxious glances of Tjonas as she approached and somehow she got the impression that he was not at unease because she might talk too much, but to calculate her reaction to what was about to happen. As a result she at once wondered what had been spoken already and how much had been exposed.

Once again she also had that weird sense of fear when regarding the child and the fact that Shirin had gone back to impassive staring did not console her at all. It was all too clear to her that currently they would not talk to anybody, including her.

Hence she just greeted the general as if nothing was wrong: "Welcome, General Seryl. You are back earlier than I had anticipated."

He laughed bitterly: "I honestly did not plan on coming back this soon, either, and I have no intention of dragging my stay out."

Unusually he was speaking in a singular person, which was the moment Riana realized that he must have come on his own. In this case there would be no troubles with wayward soldiers. On the other hand it could mean nothing good if the visit was urgent enough to make him leave his men behind. Before she knew it her eyes had wandered to their two guests and Seryl did not miss her reaction.

"Exactly, I am here because of these two. I remember promising that I will do my best to attain peace, which has proven terribly difficult. The open war was a lot less strenuous than these small-scale battles. But what am I saying; you should not concern yourself with this, Sister. That's why I need to know if these two know anything about these hiding places – we would all profit from it. Yet I am afraid they refuse to talk to me still."

Riana was not surprised to hear that, any other reaction would have puzzled her a lot more. However she doubted that anything she did would make them talk to him, she thought and said as much. "I fear that, no matter how much time and patience, I will not be able to convince them to speak with the army."

With an amused look the general demonstrated that he understood her situation before he exchanged a knowing glance with the priest and took her by the elbows. Immediately she stiffened upon his touch, hence she did not resist when he determinedly led her outside but stumbled after him.

The door shut behind them with a dull thud and at last, with noticeable delay, she wrenched her arm out of his grip. He drew his hand back as soon as he realized her resistance, but her menacing stare apparently did not bother him in the slightest. She would have been surprised if it did, as she was well aware that a soldier would never be intimidated by her. However her intention to make clear how close he was to overstepping his boundaries came across.

Respectively venomous were her words: "It is neither my fault that the war does not go according to your plan, nor did I think I need to remind you that we do not tolerate trouble-making within these walls? Concerning the children I can try to talk to them, I told you not to expect a miracle, though!"

Obviously frustrated by her answer he buried his hands in the pockets of his uniform, turned his back on her and said seriously: "There is no need to become this defiant. I am not a fool, Sister Riana, and neither are you. There is a reason why I came here on my own; because I have no intention of doing anyone harm. Something I could not guarantee with my men here. Let us make this simple: It is time to drop the pretences. Those kids will not talk to me and they will not voluntarily sell out their allies. But as things stand I do not have the luxury to care about age."

"You... you know?" Riana was baffled as she was sure the general had not known any more than her about the children's origin the last time. Now he nodded however: "I do, so does everyone else, and I saw no reason to hide it from those brats. They probably anticipated it the moment I returned. They must know that I would not come here without a reason. Anyway, most soldiers aren't happy about saving enemies. You should not defend them so rigorously if I may advise you."

She looked down to her feet and clenched her fists helplessly. Even though she had no intention on defending either side of this war, she would involuntarily be categorised by her answer.

"You do not have a response? That's a surprise." There was no malice in his voice, but no empathy, either.

To break the ensuing silence before it became unbearable she took a deep breath and told him: "You may not make differences in your work; that does not mean that I don't. The gods do not favour one party, their rules condemn those who hurt and protect who doesn't. You are here because you accepted to lay down your weapon in this place. They are only children who should never have become part of this battle. Hence I will not help to throw them back into the fray."

"Kids are innocent, huh? Perhaps that perception is due to a mistake of ours, but maybe you might want to change your mind when you hear about the details. The temple we found them at is nothing of that sort. Those buildings are apparently not temples; they are training grounds for the black butchers. I don't care if they seem innocent or if they aren't black – I will get this information and make sure none of m people comes to further harm. Those kids are a lot more dangerous than you think they are, and your compassion might come back to bite you. Think about it, I cannot force you to help me, but I can at least try to open your eyes."

"They already are wide open. Thank you for your concern. You may save yourself the time and effort, though."

"As you wish", he responded coldly, turned and left her standing in front of the door as he went back inside.

Riana sighed deeply and weighted for a second the idea of going back as well. Yet in reality she did not want to see any of them. The general should not get the impression that she was running after him and she did not feel like talking priest Malain or the kids.

On the other hand she was well aware that it was already much too late to get out of this mess and to avoid a decision now would most likely only make it worse. Consequently she leaned back against the cool stone of the wall and prepared to wait for everyone to finish. As much as the general's sudden harshness and temper had scared her deep down, his words had struck a chord within her. While it almost flattered her that he saw her as smart, as she was indeed aware that there was more to the children than met the eye. However she would not start to despise them or betray their trust only because he told her to. After all, their complaints had not changed her view of general Seryl. In the end all she had to rely on were other people's opinions and nothing she could confirm by herself.

Her waiting was not in vain because it did not take long for them to finish. Once again she winced when the general stormed out of the temple ahead of everyone else, his fists clenched at his sides and visibly trying to keep his calm. Priest Malain followed behind him, frantically trying to soothe him and apparently failing. All talk seemed wasted on the general right now.

"I understand that you are in a hurry, General Seryl, but please be a little patient. I am sure we will find a solution to this issue which everyone can live with."

Seryl stopped in the middle of the stairs leading down to the courtyard, half-turned and with a resigned look on his face: "I beg you, do not make empty promises. I will do nothing to disturb your peace any further, or the gods may punish me, but there is no possibility to resolve the situation to everyone's content."

Riana disliked that she had to agree with this point. It sounded so utterly hopeless. Priest Malain only nodded a little and threw a glance back through the momentary open door into the temple. By the time he returned his attention to the general, the latter had already rounded the corner of the temple and was out of sight. At last he took notice of her, though.

"Riana, dear, what did you tell him? I have never seen him so furious!" His tone of voice held no hint of an accusation, just genuine interest. When she answered truthfully the wrinkles on his forehead and around his eyes only deepened in worry, but he refrained from judging her.

Nonetheless he told her sternly: "At this rate things will end in an utter mess. Right now the children do not want to even talk to you, and we need to present the general with a solution by tomorrow if we want to maintain the peace. I will leave this issue to you, Riana; you do know them best after all. Please think of what we can do about it, as I have no experience for something alike to draw upon, either. Try to talk to them if you wish to, though I doubt it will be a success."

He also left and for a second she thought about really going into the temple to talk to her charges. The idea left her very quickly when she realized that she had nothing to say. She had told herself that she could not confirm General Seryl's accusations and therefore could not blindly believe them.

Nevertheless she knew that it was impossible for her to ever look at the children without suspicion blooming and they would notice what was wrong. She was not a good actress after all and so she remained standing outside the temple for a while longer.

In the end she was astonished when the solution to everything became clear to her all of a sudden and she laughed quietly at how simple it was. It was strange that she had not thought of it sooner, but maybe she had been too tense before and to afraid to fail and lose someone's trust.

Perhaps it still might not be the 'right' decision, but Riana was at least confident about what she had to do.

*****

She knew that she had to finish before her courage left her again and doubt would arise. Hence she lost no time in her preparations. Yasmina was truly puzzled when she came to her in the late afternoon and requested these items, yet she tolerated her answer "it's important, I'll explain later" with a shrug. Probably she was still intimidated by the general atmosphere after the morning's events. It had not taken her long to hear about the incident and she had seen the general's mood herself at the midday meal.

At last, when she entered Shirin and Tjonas' room, the sun had set over an hour ago and only the lamp on the wall cast some light on the brooding children.

Without an explanation she dropped the bag with the food and water in front of them and folded her hands in front of her belly, waiting for them to react. She had made up her mind about this measure and she would go through with it until the end. Shirin was the first to react and took a look at the contents of the bag. Immediately understanding showed on her face as she accepted it a little sadly, but without complaint.

Her voice was barely above a whisper when she asked, likely to confirm her thoughts: "You want us to leave?"

Riana shook her head solemnly, then nodded: "Yes and no. I allow you to leave since this is the only way to avoid any further clashes. I cannot force you to do so. The question is; what other choices so you have?"

"Be taken away by the general eventually", she concluded and handed the bag to Tjonas with a strange determination showing in her eyes, while her face remained motionless. "Let's go. There's nothing here for us to gain."

Silently the three figures made their way over the empty yard of shrines, passed the temple and reached the main gate at the inner courtyard. Riana owned one of the keys for the gate just like Malain and Yasmina, but still she felt anxious to be using it without asking for permission in advance. She was not used to act on her own accord.

"Why did you choose our side and not the general's?" Shirin finally asked as the lock on the gate clicked open in the eerie quiet of the night that was about to fall.

Riana breathed deeply. She had expected this question and she was prepared, but to say her thoughts out loud made them so much more real. When she announced them now there would be no option to take them back, so she had chosen every word carefully: "You are mistaken, I have not chosen any side. My knowledge concerning the background of this war is limited too much to even consider making the right decision. Thus I cannot support either of you without betraying the other and my belief in the gods. In conclusion, if there is no possibility to solve this to everyone's content, my only choice is to have you leave. This solution which is to no one's content, and better than favouring one or the other."

Only after she had finished did she dare to turn away from the gate and two her former charges. Shirin had her eyebrows raised a little and her head slightly crooked to the left yet accepted her explanation wordlessly. Her brother frowned instead, no longer trying to hide his harsher nature, but shrugged at last.

"You think it is better because it serves no one? Fine. I think it's just cowardice so you can avoid making a decision. But you're the one who has to live with it, so I don't care. Thanks for not selling us out", he told her as he went past her through the gate, clearly displaying the air that made both of them seem so much older than they actually were and which still frightened her a little bit.

However, she was glad to part this way. At least none of them would have any trouble with this farewell. There were no ill feelings, yet all attachments any of them might have had before had been drowned in all the recent revelations.

He did not turn back to her again and just stopped to wait for Shirin, who wavered to go through the gate for a second. Her eyes already focused towards the dark desert spreading out in front of them and the small town which did not lie too far ahead she wanted to know: "Do you think the gods reward us for avoiding decisions in their name?"

"No, the gods reward us for making the right decisions, so there can be neither praise nor punishment in not taking sides."

Shirin smiled cautiously."I hope you will find happiness in your unchanging world. I believe the gods will not judge wrong or right decisions, as long as we grow with them." And then she hurried after her brother.

Although she was tempted, Riana did not look after them. Instead she closed the gate dutifully and made her way back to the living barracks. As she walked by the shrines she hesitated and folded her hands. Not in prayer but simply out of habit. She would take responsibility for what she had done in front of the general in the morning. He would be angry before leaving and she could live with that.

However she would never admit out loud that her decision had nothing to do with the gods. All she wanted was to selfishly return to the sheltered life they used to live. Because if there was a right or wrong choice to this, then it meant the gods had forsaken them already.

So her refusal to mature might be nothing to take pride in, yet she could at least keep living with stagnation when she was unable to move on.