XV | Mark of the Goddess
"In my god and his mercy I seek refuge from Evil…" Asseo's voice began soft, audible only because nothing else moved.
For miles before him the desert stretched, swathed in blues, silvers, greys and the dark gullies of shadows like pooled ink gathered in its crevices. Only the needle-like teeth of earthen clay stacks that clawed towards the pre-dawn sky broke its monotony. Then, behind him, another voice joined. Asseo jumped, startled, and quieted as Daja's words layered in over his and finished the opening prayer.
"Though I stand in the shadows of the godless, deliver me from your wrath…" As Asseo watched, a curious pinch of expression filtered over Daja's features before he finished, "…for my faith shall not waiver."
Unlike Asseo, who clung still to his temple garb after washing it best he could with their limited resources, Daja wore the clothing of the foreigners—a worn, brown leather tabard laced loosely shut, cinched at the waist by a thick belt and worn over a light-weight, airy white top and similarly breeze-permissive black leggings. He had forewent boots, however, and his bare feet stood out, a handful of shades deeper and darker brown than the clay beneath them. He wore the garments well, filling out their shape no matter how alien they looked on him. But it was his lack of shoes that Asseo found most familiar.
"You always manage to lose your footwear."
Daja blinked, and then—to Asseo's surprise—he laughed. It was a light, open sound which, even in its brevity, heated Asseo's face and relaxed the contours of Daja's own, leaving him smiling and Asseo's belly warm with abashed satisfaction.
"So I seem to," Daja admitted. "A travesty that has plagued me across the desert." He did not sound terribly aggrieved. After a moment, he moved, settling to a kneel beside Asseo, and Asseo noted the shift in his expression to something more serious before he opened his mouth. When he did, his words came quiet. "Are you well…?"
In the wake of brutality following their first days, Balasar had spoken with Iramond. Asseo knew not exactly what was said, only that afterwards, only Iramond touched him, only Iramond ordered him, and Daja was not permitted to intervene—on penalty of Asseo's life. While Iramond was no gentler as an individual, serving one suited him better than the chaos it replaced, and Asseo offered Daja a wan smile.
"If he hurts you, Asseo…"
Asseo opened his mouth to say that he didn't, to appease Daja and keep him as far from the matter as he could. But something in Daja's expression pinned his tongue, and for a moment, he felt lost in it, swept into the wake of his stare like a storm on a dark night. He felt his pulse throb rough in his chest, and only realized he had been holding his breath when Daja dipped his lashes, breaking eye contact. The air in Asseo's lungs spilled free in a ragged exhale.
"This world," Daja said, "outside of the temple, without the rules I was governed by all my life…it makes makes me want for things that I have not, feel things that I have never…" A pause stretched between them, and Asseo watched as Daja turned his head, lashes lifting again to scan the bleak horizon. "I become angry, sometimes," he admitted. "I never was so angry. I never thought to hurt a person, never imagined anyone's death but my own, and even then I felt no anger, only fear at the end. But I imagine him touching you, and…" His brow furrowed—confusion, frustration, and guilt caught in the creases before he said: "I want to kill him. I think of you hurting and I want to spill his blood in the sand and leave his body broken on the dunes like they did with the men who raised me."
A chilled knot of something bunched in his gut, combined with a heat that crawled from his chest, up his neck, and into his face. He opened his mouth several times, but nothing came out. Eventually, Daja blinked rapidly, flushing, and looking guilty as though he had spoken out of turn. He, too, appeared for a moment like he might say something—apologize, retract some piece of his words, or qualify them—but then, he turned away instead, touching two fingers to his lips and then forehead, and dipping forward to pray.
Asseo hesitated, and then joined him.
'If be it your will that I should proceed, bestow unto me a fixed disposition, that I may go forth and serve as best as I am able, until the day upon which you return me to your keeping. To the rising sun I pray, su Vhaki ghadra…'
The troupe spent the day in the desert headed east and south towards the river Neshik, which they intended to reach by evening. Overhead the sun glared raw heat, before them sand stretched, and the hours dwindled at a dragging pace. On spotting the treeline come late afternoon, excitement stirred through the ranks. The first trees in days. Evidence of water and life other than themselves.
It was evening by the time they reached it, but as men arrived at the bank, the energy of the hours prior dimmed with the immediacy of a new fire doused in wet sand. Having ridden behind the first several, it was not until Ismene guided her mount forward and Daja had opportunity to peer around her that he saw the source of upset. The river Neshik—one of the three great tributaries fed by the Sadd'Fajhir—was dry, reduced from a thick ribbon of fresh water to nothing but a muddy smear of earth with the barest trickle of liquid in its center. As they drew close, Daja noted, too, that it carried with it the scent one might expect: dead fish, decomposure, and rot.
When tension in the group became obvious, Ismene did not linger long amongst them with her mount, and together she, with Daja riding at her back, moved them out from amidst the crowd some space further downstream. Daja followed suit when she dismounted. His eyes, though, trailed back up the bank, towards the sound of rising argument. Then, he looked to his company.
"What will happen?"
"Balasar will calm them." Ismene shrugged, pulling a strip of cloth loose from her waist and approaching the muddy bank. "Aggitated as they are, some may choose not to continue with us, but there are few options presented. Balasar will not stop now. Not so far as we have come…"
Daja watched her wade out and layer the cloth on the damp trickle over the mud, soaking the cloth before unstoppering a small bottle she had on hand and wringing the water in. It was a technique only newly familiar to him, after having heard Asseo speak of resorting to such measures on occasion in the driest months in his childhood. But he had never seen it done, and it occurred to him—as it had often of late—how much he had to learn of the world beyond the temple, from the complex to the most simple of daily tasks for survival.
After the raucous of discord among the troupe seemed to fade, he followed Ismene back up the bank. The evening meal was had, and tents set up for the night. It was only after, when the sky was black with night and flecked with scattered stars, that Daja eyed the line of the bank again. Not everyone had retired yet to sleep, stray conversations still evident, but the promise of an opportunity to bathe—if only to dampen his skin and replace the sweat of several days with muddied river water—was enough to spurn him into slipping out from the main encampment and down, out of immediate sight and into the shadows along the bank.
He slipped his shoes off. Shivering at the trickle of sensation that climbed his skin as his bare soles met the cooler silt of the riverbed, he shut his eyes and stood for a moment just as he was. Then, after a single furtive glance back in the direction he came to assure himself he had no followers or eyes on him, Daja moved to carefully piece off and fold the rest of his garments. Once stripped, he set them neatly aside on a dry patch of bank, and moved out. His chosen area, more closed off by a patch of tall, leaning palms and drier underbrush, seemed blockaded some from the smell of further up, which Daja appreciated immensely as he dampened a strip of cloth in the wet center.
To bathe, after what felt like an eternity without a drop of water on his skin, felt heavenly. Ismene had provided him with two small stones etched with runic symbols which she called 'marks of cleansing' and instructed him to place them into whatever bowl he used to gather water in. Though the markings were wholly unfamiliar, he took them to be northern magic of some minor form, and little as the priests of his temple approved of such things, Daja felt that the circumstances here necessitated them. He followed her instructions. When he had clean water trickling over his sun-baked skin, running rivulets of liquid to clear away the filth, nothing described the feeling of relief.
He could not say how long he spent at it before he became aware of company.
Immediately, he stilled. Feet on the bank. Face to the river and back to whomever it was, his long hair folded forward over his shoulder and—for the moment—unbraided and loose. His pulse stuttered in his throat as he waited for some evidence as to his company's identity.
"If you had strayed any further…" At the cool, neutral tone of Balasar's voice, Daja relaxed—some, "…I might have thought you were trying to run."
"Not run." Daja raised his washing cloth again, drawing it down over his arm and not looking back. "Where would I run? And…" He drew it around, sweeping behind to the nape of his neck and upper back, eyes shut, "…I have no intention of leaving Asseo."
Balasar snorted. "Let me guess. Because you love him…"
That pulled Daja's gaze around in a startled snap. For several moments he stared openly, waiting and watching Balasar in the darkness as though expecting his understanding of the words to change somehow in the in between. Then, when they did not, he shook his head, brow pinching with confusion.
"No," he said. "Of course not."
"No?" Balasar's footsteps barely sounded when he moved. "Strange."
Daja pursed his lips, eyes darting back out towards the opposite bank. He ignored the stuttered lurch of his heart against the cage of his chest as the distance between them shrank. There was no reason for it. "It is not. He was my teacher and my master. I could not love him, any more than I could love any of my masters. My love was for my god and he alone. Anything less would be sacrilege."
"And yet he loves you."
Midway into the process of folding his washing cloth, Daja stilled. A strange knot crimped in his throat, heat teasing up his neck and towards his face. He swallowed it down and shook his head. "He does not," he said, ignoring the twist of uncertainty that followed the words. "None of my teachers did. It was forbidden. Asseo dedicated himself entirely to his faith and knew that I belonged to Vhaki—" When his gaze strayed again towards Balasar, Daja released a breath and stood stiffly, leaving his washing cloth layered over the lip of his bowl and moving in to fetch his clothes. "Asseo was dedicated to our god."
"I do not doubt that. But it does not change the fact that he loves you."
After cleaning his feet, Daja reached, unfolding his leggings and pulling them on as he stood again. In truth, Daja knew nothing of love, and he understood that. He had not been taught to feel it, and his teachers were only that—teachers, strictly barred from forming attachments towards him, for he was not theirs to want. He had never known family, relatives, friends or lovers in the sense that those outside of the temple did. Asseo was the closest he had come to having a friend and Isoba, strange as it was to think, the closest to a father. That in mind, Balasar's words nagged at the needles of doubt in him, his uncertainty only further agitated by their rapidly changing circumstances.
Not a handful of days ago, he could have sworn with pause so many things—his fate, his faith, the indomitable will of his god, and the unchanging patterns of what was, had been, and would be—but the further he was taken from his temple, the more such certainties eroded. He hadn't loved Asseo. Not on the day he had first looked upon him, so small and young compared to his other teachers, and meek to go with it, barely daring to meet his gaze. Not on the last day they had lain together in their final 'lesson' when Asseo had been only bold enough to request one final time with him. Not when Asseo had confessed that he would miss him and the words sounded like something else, heavy with a meaning that Daja could not then decipher.
Now, however, as the night winds danced over his dampened skin and his fingers moved to lace his trousers, things were different. Everything was different. And when he thought of Asseo…
How he had looked in the light of new dawn, curled towards his chest, barely touching, and peaceful. How his fingers still moved over Daja's skin with hesitant reverence as though in worship of something beyond human which Daja no longer considered himself to be. And how angry he became—and was—to think of anyone hurting the man, touching him…
Daja frowned. He realized he still did not know what love was. Dismissing the thought, he dipped to fetch his tunic and belt. A finger touched his shoulder.
With trained obedience, Daja froze. His exterior stillness, however, did nothing to calm the lurch of his pulse as the pads of Balasar's fingers traced the rise of his shoulder blades and in along the bare skin of his back. He tapped once at the small of it, his touch light, but enough to make Daja's breath burn on the exhale.
"What is this?"
There was no way to misunderstand the question, given the location of the mercenary's touch. So, Daja said, "The Mark of the Gift."
A pause stretched between them, the air still as a held breath. But Balasar did not withdraw. His touch lingered long, hot on Daja's skin and holding him torn between two instincts—to jerk himself away, and to lean into the touch. At an impasse, he remained perfectly still until Balasar spoke. "That's impossible."
Whatever Daja might have anticipated, that was not it. He glanced in spite of himself, looking over his shoulder to find Balasar's face too close, but pinched with focus on the marking at Daja's back. Daja did not withdraw. "It cannot be anything else," he said. "All those born for Vhaki are marked as such. It has been so for the turn of many centuries…"
Balasar's fingers slipped, dipping along the groove at the small of Daja's back, stalling where he knew the marking to end and then—after only a moment's hesitation—letting his hand fall away entirely. "Have you seen the marking yourself?"
"Not on myself," Daja said. "Or any other Gift, for each meets Vhaki many years before the next is born. But in texts, yes…in renderings and tomes to our god. Recreations of it."
Balasar's eyes remained fixed on his back for some time before finally moving away and turning as though to study the treeline, though his focus was clearly elsewhere. "What you have on your back is a sigil to the goddess Qierri…the northern goddess of the wind, and daughter of the Great Mother, Mele."
Daja stared for a long moment, studying the mercenary's face. Then, he turned to face him. "I don't understand," he said at length. "This is the mark given to those chosen by Vhaki. I have borne it since the day of my first breath. Perhaps it is similar to one of a northern goddess, but you who do not worship any—"
"My mother was a priestess," Balasar said. "She dedicated many years of her younger life to a temple in honor of the wind goddess." He met Daja's gaze and held it, expression as even and unflinching as his voice. "I am not mistaken."
Many things occurred to Daja, then. Questions. Argument. Retorts. Few would have much effect, though, if any at all, and what lodged itself most stubbornly in his mind was not related to his new confusions, but instead, Balasar's first revelation.
"Your mother was a priestess," Daja repeated finally. He could not discern whether he was more miffed at the irony, amused, or otherwise in disbelief.
"And she raised you?" Daja asked, only just managing not to put emphasis on the final syllable.
If the mercenary was insulted, he did not show it. "My father—though she never told it to me, and I had to discern it for myself in time—was a high minister of the temple that took her in. He mentored her before I was anything, took a liking to her, young as she was then, and taught her how to please the 'gods' among other things. When she became pregnant with me, however, his liking for her and the welcome of the church vanished, and she was forced to find work and housing elsewhere. She raised me with her faith, and for a time I listened. But you understand that as I grew and came to know the world for what it was…it became more difficult for me to respect a church that did not respect us, particularly when it was at fault for the 'sins' we were forced into."
Daja stared, feeling in the pause that followed that this was unique information, not spoken of lightly. To think that of all the ways circumstances might have unfolded, the man before him was born not only to two holy people, but each of a foreign church in the northern mountains which he swore bore the same sigil as that Vhaki chose for his mark. Daja could not credit that to chance. What fate's intention by it was, however, he could not discern, and thus for the moment, he held his tongue on the matter, asking instead, "How could a man of church…?"
"Men are just that," Balasar said. "Imperfect. Corruptible. Human. Brittle, and weak, usually. Easily susceptible to their desires and whims. Religion gives an illusion of grandeur, some higher purpose to aspire to and a veil to hide behind, but at their core…all persons are flawed."
"And you?" Daja asked.
Balasar raised his eyebrows. "Me?"
"What are your flaws?"
For an instant, Daja thought he caught a spark of amusement in the man's gaze. Then: "That depends on who you ask."
Before he could curb himself, Daja snorted, and pulled his shirt on. When he opened his mouth to rebut, however—
A scream cut out over the riverbank from camp. Shouting accompanied it, followed by a mash of voices and words, but Daja's mind was already locked, heart frozen on the identity of the first outcry because he knew that sound.
"Daja—" Balasar started, but too late, for Daja was already off and halfway down the embankment, bare feet sprinting over the too-dry soil as though made for it and attention honed on a single point.