42

I was surprised when a letter was brought to me the following morning during breakfast announcing that my combat and meditation training were complete. The letter, written in Korlaia's own hand, explained that my instructors, Mistresses Aisha and Tersa, had determined there was little more I could learn from them. I shouldn't have been surprised, considering Aisha's praise of my performance the other day. And perhaps I didn't really require further guidance in order to focus my meditation at this point. Still, the announcement meant I would have more time to tend to other matters, and I wasn't sure where I would begin. Besides continuing my investigation, my duty as Speaker was to instill hope in the people of Ralos. But how was I to do that? Give speeches? Write letters? All I knew about past Speakers was that they each contributed to the upholding of Remmusism in their own way. What use could I possibly be, besides uprooting the dark threat that lay in the heart of the country.

"Why do you feel so worried?" Seshara asked when I expressed my thoughts. "This declaration is proof that you have been succeeding in your studies."

"I know I should be proud," I said, "but there has always been this little voice in my head that makes me doubt my capabilities."

Seshara smiled, a bit sadly. "We often are our own worst enemies. But I shouldn't be the one to remind you to believe in yourself. That's your job."

A small smile pulled at my mouth, knowing she was right. I ran my thumb over the fine parchment. My smile faded. "There is one other thing," I said softly. "This letter says that . . . my punishment is ended." I would no longer need to clean the floors of the Hall of Fire.

"You almost sound disappointed . . ."

"I'm unsure if I have fully atoned for my mistake," I explained. "Some people will never forgive me for Kira's death. Her blood is on my hands, and I know I will carry that guilt for a very long time."

"Then that is your battle," Seshara said. "Not theirs."

I looked at my attendant straight on, peering into her light brown eyes. "You aren't that much older than me, and yet you always seem to know the right thing to say."

Seshara shrugged her shoulders with a smile. "I suppose the Mistress I had served before you rubbed off on me. She constantly gave me sage advice, and now I'm more than happy to pass it on to others. That means that I do not find your troubles tedious. Even a Speaker needs a good listener to vent to."

She really was a good listener, and never complained about my need to complain. More and more it felt like that's what I needed the most. And yet, there would always be troubles that I would not wish to bother Seshara with. As my attendant, she had more important matters to worry about.

With this newly granted freedom suddenly thrust upon me, I took a walk through the grounds, Seshara always trailing at my heels. I stopped in the Hall of Fire to pray at the altar for guidance before heading outside.

It was mid-morning and already bright and warm. As I descended the steps, I spotted Teran in the courtyard. He and a hooded eunuch were working together to hook a carriage to a pair of oxen. I remained where I stood, watching Teran tenderly pat an ox's side. But then the boy's gaze happened to turn towards the Temple, and our eyes locked. He was smiling. I couldn't back away, now, so I put on my own smile and approached.

The eunuch working with Teran took notice of me and bowed his head before I even got close. His eyes flicked towards Teran. "You must bow to the Speaker," he commanded, firm yet restrained.

"No, it is alright," I cut in gently, even as Teran was in the process of showing – rather awkwardly – the customary respect. This only made me smile more. "I am not here on official business."

The man was placated by my words, but nonetheless watched Teran warily as he made the final adjustments to the oxen's harnesses. It must have been strange enough to have an outsider living within these walls, and stranger still that a Speaker would dismiss formalities in their presence. Though Teran wore the garb of a eunuch, his full head of hair was a dead giveaway that he was not one of them. All eunuchs assigned to the Temples were required to shave their heads and faces, a custom meant to not only set them apart from other men but to teach humility.

I had not seen Teran for a full day, and that appeared to be all the time he needed to recover. His face had regained its usual color, and he had no difficulty standing on his feet. I then remembered that Seshara was still by my side, and I quickly looked to her.

"Seshara, this is Teran. A friend. He was hurt and is claiming sanctuary until it is safe for him to leave." The look Seshara gave me was one of curiosity, but if she had questions, she was not going to overstep her bounds. I never had told her.

"I serve lady Kaina as her attendant," Seshara told Teran as she lowered her head politely. "I do hope that the Temple has been treating you well."

Teran bowed back, but less stiffly this time. "It has, thank-you." When one of the oxen made a low grumble, he turned to it and rubbed its side. He almost seemed thankful for the distraction.

"You seem to be good with animals," I said.

Teran smiled, looking back at me. "They haven't complained so far. Perhaps I have found my calling."

"Perhaps," I mused, and watched as Teran's companion finished his work.

"This one's ready to go," the eunuch announced. "If you want more work, go speak with Bahrem."

Teran nodded to the man, who then led the oxen and carriage to another section of the courtyard. It was just us, now.

"If you are going back," I said, "why not show me the stables? I have never been to them." Seshara made no objection, thankfully. It wasn't as if I had anything else to do, now that my schedule was freed up. I also couldn't help but notice that the longer we stayed out here, the more Priestesses began to eye us.

"I'd love to," said Teran, his green eyes lighting up at the suggestion. He wasted no time leading me and Seshara to the eunuch's side of the complex, and the shade here was a welcome reprieve from the harsh sun. Seshara chose to wait outside the stables as Teran and I entered.

Right away, my nostrils were filled with the earthy, musty scent of the animals. It vaguely reminded me of my old home, where we had worked with manure-enriched soil every day. Even my father sometimes smelled like this from his days in the wilds, and the horse that enabled him to expand his trade routes. It was a nostalgic smell. Not even the scent of manure offended me.

The stables were given just as much attention to detail as the Temple, the wooden pillars and vaulted ceiling carved with lovely images of flowers, birds, and horses. Oxen took up one half of the stables, while horses filled the other, and each were given their own roomy stalls. The animals groaned and nickered to one another, whipping their tails at buzzing flies and munching lazily on straw. Many bright, curious eyes watched me.

"This is Saro," Teran announced, bringing me over to a white stallion. I immediately recognized it as my horse, the horse that was tasked with pulling the Speaker's carriage, but I refrained from mentioning it. He stroked Saro's muzzle as if it were the most natural thing in the world. "He's my favorite so far. Doesn't make much of a fuss." Teran looked to me. "Want to pet him, Kaina?"

I regarded the stallion for a moment, looking into his large, gentle eyes, before agreeing. Cautiously, I reached out my hand. Saro leaned forward, pushing his nose against my palm. He must have recognized my scent. My hand traced the length of his muzzle with the gentlest of touches, and when I was certain we were both comfortable with the situation, I stroked his silver mane.

"He likes you," Teran whispered.

I pulled away and felt a blush creep into my cheeks. Saro shook his regal head with a soft nicker. "Thank you," I said to Teran after a moment, facing him. "Being here has made me feel a bit better." A part of me didn't even want to leave. My mind was being filled with happy memories of home, and I saw Mother's and Father's faces clearer than ever before. It was comforting, yet also sad. I still hadn't gotten over leaving them.

"Even I feel more comfortable here," said Teran. "I can actually hear my thoughts, not like when I'm in the city streets."

"What do you think about?"

Teran looked up at Saro, as if he could no longer look me in the eye. When he spoke, his voice was distant. "Everything that has happened. Why I'm here. What I'll do when I have to leave."

I subconsciously bit my lip. "You know you never will be safe, right? The guard who tried to kill you will still be out there. And I doubt he's the only one we'll need to worry about."

"I always knew there was something rotten in Emalfir's guard," Teran murmured. "It shouldn't have taken me this long to finally see it."

Slowly, I began to pace the straw-covered floor. One glance told me that Teran and I were the only ones in here. "It gets worse . . . And after all you and I have been through together, you deserve to know." I halted my pacing, but now my back was to Teran. Only the animals would bear witness to my words. "Captain Belan was responsible for the attack on my Temple. I had a feeling, ever since I first met him. I recognized his voice. And now he has admitted it." I didn't turn, but the silence that hung in the air between us told me that Teran was struggling with this information.

It took a while longer for Teran to finally speak. "Why would the Captain admit such a horrible thing?" His voice betrayed disbelief, denial even.

"Because at that point he had no reason to hide the truth from me. I confronted him, and he must have realized that continuing to lie to my face would solve nothing. The only problem is that now he can use my knowledge against me. He knows he is shielded from accusation. He controls the city guard. And King Sarif still trusts him." A lump formed in my throat, the reality of the situation affecting me once again. "That is why I can't tell anyone in a position of power. Nothing will change."

Teran placed a hand on my shoulder. "Then change needs to come from those without power. We both have seen first-hand how the people aren't happy with what's going on. We can encourage them to rise up, and—"

"And then what?" I retorted, facing him. "Sarif would never allow a public revolt to take place in Emalfir. No king wants that. It may even be viewed as heresy, for challenging the rule of a king is to challenge the Phoenix's will. Many people would die, Teran." I found myself grasping his arm. "Remember the execution? All that man did was ask questions. We can't let that happen again. I can't . . ." My voice choked on my own words, and my gaze fell to my feet.

"You shouldn't have to do this alone," Teran said. His hands held my shoulders, gently. When I lifted my head, steadfast determination was on his face. It made him appear more mature.

"No, Teran," I whispered. "I can't let you be involved. You'd be killed for sure. Belan has threatened to harm those close to me if anything goes wrong."

Teran's thick brows furrowed. "Then why tell me any of this if you expect me to do nothing?"

The words cut deeper than I expected them to. Phrased that way, it put me in a bad light, made me appear selfish. But perhaps that was the truth of it. "Because I almost lost you once before. If you understand the threat . . . maybe you can find a way to avoid it."

"I see what you are saying, but you can't possibly think I'm going to ignore this."

I sighed. "I'm not even sure what I'm saying."

Teran didn't speak. He didn't even object when I pulled out of his grasp, yet I felt him watching me as I left the stables. As I walked solemnly back to the courtyard, Seshara in tow, I wondered if I had done the right thing by warning him. He had a gentle spirit yet proved that he could be stubborn and foolhardy when the opportunity arose, such as when he tried to stop that guard from hurting me that night.

Isn't that a lot like me? I asked myself. Unfortunately, I couldn't form an answer.

"Speaker!"

The call came as I began to mount the steps to the Temple, and I turned. Three Initiates stood in the courtyard, watching me, and as they approached, I realized I recognized them. I didn't know their names, but one was Kira's companion and the other two had confronted me while I cleaned the Hall of Fire. This couldn't be good . . .

"What do you want?" I asked, trying to push the irritation from my voice.

"We heard the rumors," Kira's friend began, "about a boy seeking shelter in the Temple. Who is he?"

"Exactly that," I said. "The High Headmistress granted him sanctuary."

"But you seem awfully chummy with him," one of the other two remarked. She was the tallest. "We thought you would have learned your lesson, after that whore was excommunicated—"

My gaze cut into her. "Do not speak of Sari that way." I couldn't allow myself to shout. I couldn't let them see how angry I still was.

"Or what?" shot Kira's friend. "You'll kill us? Like you killed Kira?" The pain of her loss was as acute as my own, I sadly noticed.

Seshara stepped forward, surprisingly calm in this tempest of emotions. "You know not of what you speak, Initiates," she said in the evenest of tones. "I bore witness to the event, and I assure you that it was a tragic accident. You are in no place to make such accusations against the Speaker."

It was apparent on the Initiates' faces that Seshara's words did not assuage them. They were more than happy to fling curses at me, but my attendant was not their intended target. They bit their tongues, for once knowing their place.

"Is there a problem here?" an elderly voice inquired. I turned to see High Mistress Ara descending the steps, flanked by her own attendant. A suspicious light was in her eyes, which focused solely on me.

"It is nothing, High Mistress," I said, bowing my head, though I trusted her as little as I trusted these Initiates. "I was just on my way inside."

"Then you would do well to watch your conduct, Speaker," she said. Though Ara's voice was calm, it dripped with venom. She never did think highly of me. "You only hold onto your vaulted position thanks to the High Headmistress' good graces. She is too soft on you, I say."

The three Priestesses made no attempt to hide their smiles of approval. At least they made it easy to see where their loyalties lay.

"Ah, speaking of!" Ara announced, and I looked to see a gilded carriage pull before the Temple. A eunuch opened the door and Korlaia stepped out, assisted by her attendant. Every one of us had the good sense to bow.

"Welcome back, High Headmistress," Mistress Ara greeted. She straightened herself as much as her elderly back would allow. "Was your trip productive?"

Korlaia ascended the steps, her glittering robes trailing behind her. "Well enough," she replied, yet her face looked weary. She looked to me. "Oh, Speaker . . . I wish to speak with you if you may accompany me . . ."

I bowed my head in agreement, glad for the distraction, and followed her inside. High Mistress Ara trailed behind us.

"High Headmistress," she piped in as we entered the Hall of Fire. "If I may say a few words . . ."

Korlaia sighed, and I wasn't sure if it was out of weariness, impatience, a lack of agreement with Ara's views, or all the above. "Very well, Ara. If you make it quick." She didn't stop walking.

"Well," the older woman began without wasting a moment, "I have some concerns regarding our newest . . . addition." She passed me a glance, and I knew she was talking about Teran.

"You speak of the boy," Korlaia said flatly, cueing in as well.

"Do you think it is wise to keep him here? After all, he is an outsider; not one of the eunuchs. It seems risky."

Korlaia finally stopped in the corridor and turned. "It is only a temporary allowance," she explained. "He is pulling his weight with the others and is forbidden from entering the Temple. I have no reason to doubt the boy's integrity or suspect him of ill-intent. Do not forget that our Temple has sheltered those in need in the past, as the necessity arose."

I smiled softly at Korlaia's defense of Teran, but all Ara did was snort derisively.

"If anything happens while he is here," she said, "I will hold you and the Speaker accountable."

Korlaia didn't bat an eye. "I would expect nothing less, as High Headmistress. Such is my burden. Now, if that is all you wished to say, you are dismissed."

Ara clamped her teeth together behind thin lips and bowed stiffly before departing. I was glad to see her go.

"She hates me," I said in a low voice as Korlaia and I resumed walking. I didn't mean to speak the comment out loud, however.

"She is a woman of . . . strong opinions," Korlaia said, having heard me. "There has been a growing divide in recent years between those who believe the Speaker should be a woman of high standing, and those who believe the title belongs to whomever the fire chooses. I, frankly, have a difficult time seeing Ara's point of view, for it is the fire that chooses a Speaker, not us mortals. Fate cannot be undone, no matter how deeply one may wish it."

The truth of the matter left a bitter taste on my tongue, for I had spent so long fighting against my fate. Every time I tried to run away from what I was, a harsh reminder awaited me. I could no longer afford to think that way.

At last, we reached Korlaia's quarters on the top floor, and our attendants were made to wait in the hallway. Whatever Korlaia wanted to say was meant for my ears only.

Once we were both seated, she said, "I had arranged an audience with the King this morning. Suffice to say, it was . . . tedious. I encouraged His Radiance to increase the scope of the investigation into the killers and to keep the Temple informed of any developments. But all he said was that he'd take it into consideration." Korlaia sighed. "Now I see why you have been wary, Kaina. I do not doubt that Sarif is a good man, for he has ruled fairly since he was first crowned. But something has changed. The Sarif I knew would never shirk from doing what was right. Instead, he keeps himself closed off within his palace, unwilling to interfere in matters affecting his own country."

"I am as concerned as you are," I said, carefully. "Lord Erif had even warned me. I do believe that Sarif's recent behavior is linked to his wife's illness, causing him to lose faith in the Phoenix." I could have gone on to say that I also believed Belan was instrumental in the King's dour outlook, but I still feared what would happen if more people knew. Belan was a shrewd man.

Korlaia regarded me with a grim expression, folding her hands beneath her chin. "He did appear distracted when I spoke with him, and Queen Anaka indeed was unable to attend. I have met with the royals many times over the years, and Anaka was ever by her husband's side. It seems this illness she suffers from is serious, indeed."

"It feels too convenient," I muttered, almost to myself. Anaka starts growing ill and miscarrying only a few years ago, and Sarif devolves into despair. Meanwhile, heretics are emboldened, and the city guard is under the command of an extremist leader. I couldn't speak any of this out loud, but the spool was beginning to unwind before my eyes.

However, the High Headmistress must have been reading my mind, for she said, "You do not think this is a natural illness. That perhaps King Sarif is being manipulated."

Our eyes locked, and all I could do was nod.

Korlaia kept herself composed even in the face of bad news. "This is a serious allegation, Kaina," she said flatly. "One that cannot be made without proof."

"I understand." I hesitated before adding, "The organization that attacked Sinati could be involved. If there is manipulation going on, they would be the likely perpetrators. Which means that I need to see the prisoner one more time." Assuming he was still alive, of course. Belan could create a convenient "accident" to prevent the man from revealing any additional information. There was no reason for me to believe the prisoner had any involvement in or knowledge of King Sarif's change, but it was the only lead I had besides confronting Belan. He was far more dangerous.

Korlaia didn't respond right away. No doubt she was weighing her options. But at last, she said, "I will trust your judgement, Kaina. You have shown progress in your time here – that I can no longer ignore." She reached under her desk and pulled out a fresh roll of parchment, which she prepared to write upon. She eyed me, quill in hand. "If I provide you with my permission to visit this prisoner, I expect you restrain yourself. Do not put yourself into any unnecessary danger. Depart when the time is right, but do not tarry there too long. Do I have your word, Speaker?"

My heart was already galloping in my chest. This was more than I could have hoped for. Swallowing down my anticipation, I gave a curt nod. "Yes, High Headmistress. I understand . . ."