This an unedited sample chapter of the upcoming edition of the Justice saga, A Hand of Father
We gathered in front of Light shortly before First Morning. Any hope I had of keeping this diplomatic party small flew south with the migrating birds. Duke Marco insisted on sending his sister Lady Alessa to advise me in the subject of trade, which meant she brought a handmaid and two guards. Magistrate DiCook insisted that four peacekeepers escort us to augment the wardens.
High Mother Leocadia couldn’t leave because she was still dealing with the aftermath of her predecessor. However, she insisted her personal chef Ademaro, the one she brought with her when she was assigned to Orrin, accompany us.
Add in to the mix two clergy and two wardens each from the Love, Conflict, Thief, and Wildling Temples. To top everything off, High Brother Ben waited until late last night before he told me he was volunteering himself and one of his priestesses to our party. Which meant two more wardens as well. Ben’s excuse was that he owed Luc and me for breaking the mind control spell Gerd had cast upon him.
In an effort to find some peace in the midst of the pandemonium, I entered the Temple of Light. Gina followed me inside, and she surprised me by sitting beside me on the bench. A few citizens looked at us curiously, but otherwise, they withdrew into their own thoughts.
The clergy of Light entered the sanctuary, their voices raised in song. Sister Shi Hua’s soprano elevated the morning prayer-song to a new level of harmony. The loveliness made me wonder what the dawn services in Jing sounded like with the blend of voices.
Luc had no problem using his crutches to kneel before the statue of Light and the eternal flame that burned at His base. However, Brothers Jeremy and Garbhan assisted Shi Hua to her knees. The young woman had entered her final trimester of her pregnancy, and I swore each day her middle was a handspan larger that the day before.
Unlike Balance’s severity, Light’s image welcomed anyone and everyone. He reminded me of my maternal grandfather Kam. Not in appearance so much, but His carved smile matched Kam’s good humor. I missed him, and I often wondered if this last year would have turned out differently if he hadn’t taken a poisoned knife met for me.
The service turned to call and response. Mine and Gina’s voices joined the other worshippers’ in Light’s warm embrace. Even when Death takes us we would still see Him again.
The Reverend Mother may have been playing games with my emotions by telling me there was a prophesy about me and by setting me up to bond with the Light priest assigned to my circuit. However, Luc was everything to me Light promised. Joy. Illumination. Truth.
And most of all love.
However, Balance and Light didn’t have so much tragedy weighting Them when They first came into existence. Did I really think I was better than the Twelve Themselves? That I could overcome all the problems set in my path.
Yes, we can.
An open hand was in front of me. I looked up at Luc. Then I looked around the sanctuary. Most of the civilians had left. The few who remained were asking for personal blessings from the other Light clergy.
I released the air caught in my lungs, but I couldn’t speak, out loud or silently. Taking Luc’s hand, I stood, squeezed his fingers and released them. Together, we left the Temple of Light.
And for some strange reason, my nerves danced under my skin the same way they did the night we sailed out of the harbor for Tandor late last winter. I didn’t bother praying for guidance from Balance. The one time she spoke to me, she told me to jump off a cliff.
* * *
As we traveled south on the National Road, I could see the damage to the cobblestones and surrounding vegetation from the passing of the queen’s army on its way to our rescue. Normally, the duke would have repaired the road, but there was no reason to waste the money and effort.
No merchants traveled along this section anymore. Not with the loss of Tandor in Issura and Rambla in Cant. There was simply no place for the merchant caravans to restock their personal water supplies even if they used camels as their beasts of burden.
I patted Nassa’s neck as she plodded along the road. The oases through the Valley of the Lost were well marked. We should be fine. I don’t know what I was worrying about.
“May I ask what you’re fretting about?” Claudia said. She and Sister Migina of Conflict flanked me while we rode. Claudia had removed her veil now that we were several leagues from the city walls, probably to enjoy the warmth of the sun on her skin.
“Everything,” I answered. “I can’t stop worrying about everything.”
“What specifically?” Migina asked.
I eyed first Claudia, then Migina. “You two sound suspiciously like High Sister Mya.”
“With all due respect, Chief Justice, do you really believe you’re the only one who has ever sought Child’s help?” Migina shook her head.
“Everyone in Orrin knowing my personal business is one of the reasons I was on the edge of madness,” I complained.
“It’s not like the citizens are watching your every bowel movement,” Migina said.
“No, that’s the wardens,” Claudia jibed. The two priestesses roared with laughter.
“To answer your original question, Sister Claudia, and to change the Twelve-forsaken subject,” I said. “I was thinking about the lack of repairs on the National Road.”
“It is troubling,” Claudia murmured. “However, Duke Marco wasn’t expecting to support the queen’s troops and an entire city’s worth of refugees.”
“Unfortunately, the losses of Tandor and Rambla also leave a huge gap in Issura and Cant’s defenses.” Migina pursed her lips. “Restoring the settlements on the Anacapa Islands won’t be enough if another cache of demon eggs are brought to our shores.”
“You fear demons may have more somewhere?” I asked.
A wry smile tilted the Conflict priestess’s mouth. “Of course they do, but I’m more worried about what may be lurking in the Valley of the Lost. I read the reports from my order who were with you in Tandor.”
“Where would we put a new fortress?” I asked.
“I don’t know if it would have to be a fortress,” she said. “There just needs to be water facilities.”
“But where would we dig wells?” Claudia asked. “That close to the coast, any well is likely to be contaminated with sea water.”
“A good portion of Tandor’s aqueduct is still intact,” I mused. “We can check it as we head east.”
My statement launched a conversation of possible ways to capture the water from the mountains that was probably pouring onto the sands of the desert for the last six months.
* * *
Rather than making camp for the night, we continued at an easy pace. We would stop at the last watering hole before the National Road curved out into the desert and spend the day there. Traveling through the Valley of the Lost during the sunlight hours, even in the autumn, was not wise.
With the moonless night, Claudia, the Wildlings, and I took point. I linked with Sisquoc and Farrah as they scouted ahead. I didn’t need conventional light to see, so I called out holes and uneven stones for the mounted members of our party. Claudia and her steed matched mine and Nassa’s pace.
The sister of Love seemed determined to keep an eye on me. Part of me wondered why. The other part didn’t wanted to know. However, the curiosity won out.
“Sister, why are you trying so hard with me?” I asked softly.
She exhaled. The green cloud of her breath dissipated rapidly in the dryer air. “I’m not sure that is a subject we should be discussing during this diplomatic mission.” She glanced behind her. “Nor should we be discussing this subject with other ears around.”
What about silent speech?
Claudia’s laughter jingled in my mind like the silver bells on her robes. All right. The issue is I admire you. You swooped in as if you were Balance Herself and rescued us in Love from a horrible situation.
Her esteem teased its way through my guilt and jealousy. I didn’t know how to respond to that.
All of us assumed Gerd lied about you and Luc. She sighed, and this time, the guilt I felt wasn’t mine. I was honored to conceive a child with a brother of Light, but I swear to Love neither the high sister nor I would intentionally hurt you.
I tried to swallow my own anguish. You tried to tell me that more than once. It was never you I was angry with. It was Gerd. She hated her birth parents so much she literally let it destroy her.
Nassa whinnied at the pressure of my knees against her ribs. I forced my thighs to relax and patted her neck.
High Sister Mya made me realize I was following Gerd’s path. I resented her so much for taking my sight, and then my ability to have children that I let that resentment spilled over in my regard for you. I swear to Balance I never wanted to see harm come to yours and Luc’s son. And I most definitely never wanted you to suffer my fate.
So how do we go forward from here if none of the issues between us was our fault?
Mya is right about one thing
, I said. It’s going to take time for all of us to heal from the destruction Gerd wrought over the last couple of years.
True, but I’d still like to be friends.
I’ll work on it
, I said. I’ve never had anyone want to be my friend before. Can you be patient with me?