Note: The following story is in second person POV. After years in the Homestuck fandom, I have come to appreciate second person on a level I can't rightly explain. If you give it a chance, you might like it too, but I though I should give fair warning, just in case.
There will also be some slightly disturbing material later on, so the rating will probably be adjusted accordingly.
At any rate, I hope you enjoy the story.
"How good are you with the pen?" the Mayor asks, after lighting her pipe. You watch a curl of smoke wend through the air.
"I know which end to hold," you reply, because this is not the question you were expecting when you were invited into the Mayor's office.
The Mayor nods.
"You know the bridge outside town?" she says after a while, peering at you.
"Could your pen help with that?" she asks.
You purse your lips thoughtfully.
"We don't need it for anything," you say. You want to say 'leave the damn thing burned, there are dangerous things on the other side', but you don't because that's the kind of alarmist advice the Mayor dislikes.
"Someone does," the Mayor grunts. "The Errant King will be passing through."
The Errant King! That should get the town in a tizzy. He strikes such a romantic figure, the wandering king sans kingdom, bearer of a broken crown and survivor of the Battle of Three Monarchs. Not that anyone but historians call it that. To most everyone, it's the Last Bloody Stand, where the war that should have been surrendered long ago reached its overdue conclusion.
"He means to pass over the bridge?" you ask.
"He means to pass his whole army over it," the Mayor says.
"Tell me he's not trying to recapture the City," you say.
"Sweet Veru, I hope not," the Mayor says, shaking her head. "Kick off another war over that heap of stones? No, let the damn Liners have it."
Secretly, you think the same. The City is where you finished your schooling and spent the first few years of your priesthood, but that was concurrent with the last years of the war. Those were bad times, and the things you witnessed make you wish they'd burned the City after it was over.
"Alright, then what does he want?"
"Kings don't confide in me," the Mayor replies. "Though it's probably not even anything interesting. A contract, maybe. Only part that interests me is if you can fix the bridge. There'll be a lot of coin in it for the town if you do."
"That's reassuring! The chapel could use some of that coin."
"Yes, hm. Well," the Mayor temporizes. She is loathe to part with any of the coin so quickly, even if some of it was going to go to your chapel anyway. "But you can, yes?"
A curl of smoke loops strangely, the only sign of the subtle magics the Mayor is subconsciously weaving. She's been the Mayor of Keylore for thirty-five years, and you can only imagine the extent of her office spellwork, working to persuade you at this very moment. Not that it would work very well on a vilda, but after a few decades, these things take on a life of their own.
"I can," you say.
You don't particularly want to, but you can. You just hope this isn't the kind of small decision which snowballs into another disaster like the last war. You are a vilda, it would be a terrible embarrassment if you of all people had no foresight in such matters.
You take out your notebook that night, and the nice pen you were gifted once you graduated as an initiate. It's after dark that you finally have the time to slip out of the chapel and go out to the bridge.
The burnt husk of the bridge on either side of a gaping ravine hints at better times. This isn't one of the iron monstrosities the harried engineers would build during the war to hastily stretch over some new crater or disaster zone and get troops on the other side with as little fuss as possible. This was a product of peace.
You walk the few remaining cobbles and touch the broken pillars of golden marble, now overrun with moss, and try to imagine what it might have looked like.
You open your notebook to a new page. With a flick of the wrist, you put down the first word. Bridge. This is your starting point.
Bridge. You close your eyes and think about the feel of cobblestone under your feet.
You pen flits over the page smoothly, old habit returning, and when you get to the bottom of the page, you rip it out of your notebook and send it on the wind. It burns gold, then incandescent white, and before it even has the chance to disappear, you are already furiously working one the next page.
You start with how solid it is (should be, will be, is), and you draw on the shapes around you, on the hints of an architect's care for details, on the pre-war aesthetics of restrained decadence.
The pages fly out of your notebook, one by one, and float, and land, and where they land, there is bridge.
When you are finally released from your fugue, you are on the other side of the ravine, and you look back upon a beautiful bridge, gleaming white and gold in the soft sunrise. It likely does not look like it used to, but it looks like the old one might have looked.
Scribe magic is not the most powerful or accessible of the magics, but it has the benefit of being extremely reliable.
The Errant King's ambulatory nation is more joke than legend. The tent city which houses the last remnants of the Hinnavoyan people, on the roam for upwards of twenty years, is its own kind of traveling show. It springs up in an hour, the result of long practice, and by nightfall, the Hinnavoyans start trickling into town. They don't cause any trouble—the Hinnavoyans are quiet and withdrawn—but a handful do come to your chapel.
A man in a finely embroidered coat walks up to the mural of Vild, kissing his fingertips and touching the goddess' face, but he doesn't drink from the blessed fountain. Instead, he looks at you sidelong, like he's sizing you up.
He's middle-aged, tanned and weathered and with a scraggly auburn beard, and much too stocky and rough looking to be wearing that coat. More mercenary than courtier, if you had to guess.
"Blessings of Vild upon you," he says when he catches you looking at him.
"That's my line," you reply sedately.
"You missed your cue," he says, shrugging.
He doesn't really do anything after that, just sheepishly sort of slinks off.
"Don't take it personally," a woman interjects, as she picks up the offering cup and fills it to the brim with water from the blessed fountain. She is tall, lanky, her skin a deep rich brown and her hair falling over her shoulders in black ringlets. She wears light leather armor, decorated with whorls of yellow paint, though she is unarmed as far as you can see.
"His schoolteacher used to be a vilda," she says. "Makes him feel like a little schoolboy being around you lot."
Then she drinks the whole cup breathlessly, in great big gulps as if she's been thirsty for years.
Your mouth falls open in shock.
"You're supposed to sip," you say, almost dazed by this behavior.
"It ends up in the same place anyway," the woman replies, patting her belly. She smiles at you winningly—all rows of gleaming white teeth—and this distracts you just enough that you don't pursue the matter.
"Are you the only vilda around here?" she asks.
"The only one in Keylore," you confirm. "There are a few more verua to speak of."
The woman nods thoughtfully.
"Good to know," she says.
Then she leaves, before you can ask why it's good to know
The evening services are slightly more crowded than usual, but other than that minor disruption, nothing really happens.
At least, nothing happens until you get called to the Mayor's office.
The Errant King might have once had boyish good looks and an air of charm about him, but now he is a wilted man, tired and stooped under the weight of his broken crown. He's thin and tall, unshaven and with wrinkles around his eyes, and whatever curly-haired prince might have once captured the imaginations of starry-eyed youths, he is now replaced by this worry-gnawed king.
His brown eyes are the first to turn to you when you enter the office. They are soft, placid eyes. He is sitting on the bench along the wall as the Mayor argues with his companion, and you sit down on the same bench, to wait until the Mayor is finished and calls on you. You're not sure if you should have bowed or not, but it's too late to backtrack, and sneaking glances at him, you can tell he isn't particularly insulted by the gesture. You have a hard time believing this is the man who destroyed his own nation out of sheer pride.
"What are you doing here?" the Mayor demands, rising from her seat as she notices you.
Before you can defend yourself, someone else steps forth.
"I asked the vilda to come," she says, and you notice it is the same woman who visited your chapel the other day. "I thought, you know, only fair," she shrugs.
"They want to whisk you off south," the Mayor tells you pointedly.
"Borrow for a bit," the woman says. She turns to you. "I said borrow, not whisk. We want your help, not to take you along on a whimsical adventure."
"And why would you need our only vilda, hm?" the Mayor demands. "When we have several verua that could attend your spiritual needs just as capably, if not better."
Thanks a lot, you mouth to the Mayor. She's a verudite, though, so you are already aware of where her sympathies lie.
But she does have a point. The insistence on taking a vilda along doesn't bode well. It reminds you of a line from a well-known play: You pray to Veru if you are innocent and have been wronged, but you pray to Vild if you are guilty and have been caught.
You hope they aren't expecting miracles. Vildas do not perform on command.
You look to the Errant King. He has silver stars embroidered along the edge of his dark cape. They draw your attention immediately. The moon is Vild's symbol, and silver stars are the marks of vildites. Your own robes have stars along the hems and sleeves, dark blue on silver, the colors reversed to mark you as a priestess.
The King has noticed your scrutiny. He shifts in his place (the squirm of the guilty, your old first level instructor would have called it), and flicks the edge of the cape so the stars are hidden.
"Myrah tells me you have a chapel here," the King says, his voice soft. He tilts his chin towards the woman, indicating that she is Myrah.
The Mayor and Myrah continue to argue. You turn your head to the King, and incline it slightly.
"Not a cathedral?" he asks.
"What for? There's only me," you say.
"Ah. But if there were a cathedral, there'd be more of you," he says, smiling.
"And then you'd have an easier time prying me from the Mayor's grip?"
He gives a strained smile. Then he reaches into the recesses of his cloak and takes out an envelope, which he hands to you.
"Our old vilda died a few months back," he says. "But she suggested I give this to a new one."
You take the envelope. It's smooth, quality paper. There's nothing written on its exterior, and it isn't sealed. You open it and take out the paper inside.
"-Ha, you'll see now, she'll want to come and you won't stop her," Myrah's voice cuts through, and the Mayor falls silent. "What does it say?"
"It's blank," you reply.
"Blank? It can't be blank, you're reading it wrong," the woman argues.
"Oh, then perhaps you can demonstrate your technique for me," you say, and hand her the envelope and the paper.
Myrah turns both over several times, her expression growing increasingly displeased.
"That- old- weasel-" she grits out, as if making a monumental effort not to curse on each word. She gnashes her teeth, and you take the paper and envelope before she can do anything hasty.
"I take it that wasn't as convincing as you hoped," the Mayor drawls, looking quietly smug.
"I should leave," you say.
"Yes!" says the Mayor.
"No!" says Myrah.
Personally, you know who you fear more. You depart.
You go back to the chapel.
You have a room in the back, something like a study and something like a day room. It's larger than your bedroom, which can fit only a narrow cot and a nightstand, so you do most everything here, from eating your meals to studying texts.
You sit in your comfortable chair and inspect the letter carefully. You check inside the envelope, you hold the paper up against a lamp, but nothing reveals itself. If it's from another vilda, it's probably more than just a practical joke. You can see nothing written, but with the right magic, there is any number of secrets a blank piece of paper can hold.
The problem is that you can't think of a single one of those.
Surely the mysterious sender wouldn't make a puzzle that can't be solved. Those are cheating.
You look over your bookshelf for something that could help. Vildas are usually trained in scribe magic, and the mandatory healing magic that both vildas and veruas are expected to perform, but over the years, you learn the magics which can't be taught, the vilda magics that develop on their own with every day of practice. Those can vary greatly from one vilda to the next, and it's impossible to predict what forms they will take.
You smell the paper, but you don't feel the telltale pinpricks of magic. For all intents and purposes, this is a perfectly regular, unmagicked envelope and blank piece of paper.
It's probably symbolic then, you conclude with a frustrated sigh. You were never good at symbolic.
You put the letter (if it can even be called such) in your pocket and go about the rest of the day. You expect someone to come ask for it back, perhaps Myrah, but nobody ever does come.
Hinnavoyans come in a steady trickle to your chapel, but they are too shy to ask for more than a blessing. Around noon, old woman Jana drops in on you. She hands you a basket—there's eggs and cheese and a couple of apples in it—and immediately begins complaining.
"Sweet Vild, my youngest is at it again!" she says, hands raised in surrender. When Vild doesn't reply, she turns to you instead. "Do you know what he told me this morning? He said, 'Mama, I met me a Hinnavoyan.'"
"That doesn't sound like his phrasing," you say.
"Well, he didn't say it, but I could tell he would've if he had the spine," Jana amends. "He's got his eye on a Hinnavoyan, I can tell. And he's had his mind on marriage ever since his sister left for her apprenticeship! Him and Berth, they're racing to leave from under my roof. Neither wants to be the one saddled with the old woman in her years of need!"
"I'm sure they're not," you say, even though you're sure they are.
You invite Jana to sit on one of the benches outside your chapel to vent, and a few more women gather there to listen and commiserate. You are handed a few more offerings—mostly food, though deer sweet Bertrude gives you a pair of good sturdy socks—and you listen and offer whatever advice you can.
As noon arrives and the streets empty, so does your chapel. You clean up a bit and go to the back to have lunch, and then return to the chapel for the afternoon service.
You take out the letter in the quiet moments, in the lulls between tasks, and look at it, still trying to figure it out, still waiting for a stroke of genius, but it never works out that way. You end up putting it back in your pocket and out of your mind again, and go about accomplishing something real instead.
It is not a remarkable day, by any accounts. You close the chapel as it gets dark (night services are saved only for holidays, seeing as there aren't more vildas), and sweep the steps last.
It's darkening, but not yet the time for the streetlights to be lit, and that is when you smell something odd. It's sweet and astringent at the same time. It takes you a few moments to place the smell, and by then you feel floaty and disconnected from your body. You let the broom drop, and strong arms clasp around you.
"There now, who brought the sack?" a jovial man's voice asks.
The broom clatters against the stone steps, and that's the last thing you hear.