I will (*fingers crossed*) have some huge news in a few days! So, here's the next chapter of A Measure of Knowledge
to tide you over until then.
This was one of those times when I truly would have traded all my other gifts granted by the Twelve for the ability to distance speak in order to know what was happening in Jing. Together, Jeremy and I helped Shi Hua upright and to a chair.
High Mother Leocadia brought a cup of water for the distraught Light priestess. “Should we summon a healer?”
“No, and shield your thoughts. All of you,” Shi Hua snapped. “I need some breathing room.”
It wasn’t like the Jing woman to lose her temper, but only then did I realize how close our fellow clergy were crowding around us. The energy of their worry for her and concern about Justice Mei Wen’s warning was enough to set my own teeth on edge.
“You heard Sister Shi Hua,” High Brother Talbert said. “Everyone take a chair or a bench while we sort this out.”
Murmurs filled the room. With the mention of demons, unease filtered past many minds despite Shi Hua’s pointed request for the clergy shield their thoughts. But everyone did as Talbert asked except for the twelve Temple seats and Brother Jeremy. He fed his own energy into Shi Hua.
The rapid crimson throb of the blood vessels in her neck slowly dulled to her orangish-red hue now she was no longer subjected to Justice Mei Wen’s pain. However, she continued to rub her abdomen.
“Anthea, you should sit down, too.” Talbert pulled a second chair closer to Shi Hua. “We don’t need you passing out either.”
High Brother Han of Conflict firmly grasped my left elbow and shuffled me to the second chair. I had the impression he would have picked me up as one would a recalcitrant child if I had refused. Truth be told, my own knees were shaky from the intensity of the link with Shi Hua’s friend.
Once seated, I said, “Justice Mei Wen was definitely attacked by a demon.”
Talbert folded his arms over his chest. “Is she still alive?”
I looked at Shi Hua.
“I don’t know,” she murmured. Hot, red drops trickled down her cheeks.
“Who else can we contact in Chengzhou for confirmation of the attack?” I asked.
“Are you saying she lied?” Fury reddened Shi Hua’s skin to the point I could no longer see her tears.
“No, I’m terrified she’s dead, and we may have just lost Jing.” I looked up at Talbert. “Could you please send someone to the Jing embassy? Ambassador Quan should be informed.”
He turned and barked the order to his chief warden, Sabine. As I expected, she exited to the rear of the sanctuary. A horse would be much quicker, and Sabine was smart enough to take another warden or three with her to the embassy district. The Jing guards would take a squad of Temple wardens more seriously than a single messenger.
I took Shi Hua’s left hand in both of my own. “What about Reverend Father Biming?”
She shook head and wiped her cheeks with her free hand. “We weren’t supposed to speak until Third Evening on First Day. Things have been so quite lately with the fierce winters across the Northern Hemisphere—”
“That may be exactly what the demons were waiting for,” Han said.
“Are you saying we’ve been lackadaisical?” High Brother Jax of Wildling snapped.
“No,” High Sister Mya of Child said. She stood very close to Talbert, their robes touching, which allowed him to shield her with his quicksilver talents. It said how bad the emotions and thoughts were leaking from the junior clergy. No wonder Shi Hua lost her temper earlier.
“It’s simply human nature to relax when a supposed threat doesn’t materialize,” Mya continued. “Not even the creatures of the forests and mountains cannot maintain such vigilance indefinitely.”
“Neither the emperor or the Temple heads in Jing would simply let a demon army enter the capital,” Shi Hua said angrily.
“No one is saying they would,” Brother Jeremy murmured soothingly. “Everyone is upset, and they shouldn’t conjecture the status of Chengzhou before we have more information.” He looked up and glared at everyone surrounding the mother of his child.
“It’s better Shi Hua’s doesn’t try right now anyway,” Luc said. “If she were to do so, it could split the attention of the person while they are fighting for their life.”
“And that may be the critical moment where the tide of the battle is turned,” I added.
“So, what would you have us do, Anthea?” High Sister Mariana of Knowledge glared at me. “Nothing?”
Mariana and I were barely civil to each other after I called her out for shirking her duties last summer. She wasn’t a renegade or evil per se, just lazy and self-centered. And her laziness and self-centered behavior had cost lives in Orrin.
I bit my tongue before I said any of the thoughts about her racing through my mind. “No, But I’m not putting Sister Shi Hua’s sanity or life at risk until we consult with Ambassador Quan. He was gracious enough to petition the Jing Temple of Light on our behalf to allow Sister Shi Hua to supplement our own Temple after we lost so many of our own brothers to the renegades. I don’t wish to throw away either her life or our diplomatic relationship with Jing out of fear.”
My answer was obviously not the one Mariana was expecting from the way she shrunk back at my withering logic. She met the eyes of each our fellow seats, but she found no support.
Jeremy looked up at Luc from where the younger priest crouched next to Shi Hua. “Why don’t Garbhan and I take the sister back to our Temple for some rest?”
“No,” Shi Hua spat. “Chief Warden Sabine will bring the ambassador here, so I will wait for him. Here.”
Even I was taken aback by Shi Hua’s blatant insubordination. This behavior was not like her at all, which meant the short contact with Justice Mei Wen had shaken her far more than I’d realized.
Thank Balance, Cedar Grove approached their little group before Luc could open his mouth to reprimand the young Light priestess. “Shi Hua, would you please accompany me to my chambers while we wait for the ambassador? I have some private questions for you if you don’t mind.” She made a point of patting her own growing belly.
The Thief priestess’s attempted distraction didn’t fool anyone, but Shi Hua pushed to her feet. She pointedly looked at Jeremy and said, “I’d be glad to answer your questions concerning my experience birthing a child. Alone.”
Cedar Grove shot a look at Garbhan and shook her head. Both priests had the appearance of dejected suitors, which in a way, they were. The two women headed toward the doorway leading to the Thief clergy’s private rooms.
“What did I do?” Garbhan whined.
“You had the misfortune of being blessed with a penis,” I said.
A few of the people around us did a poor job of hiding their snickers.
“Anthea.” There was a warning in Luc’s voice. “You are not helping matters.”
“Someone had to lighten the mood.” I sighed and took the cup High Brother Xander of Death handed to me. The sweet taste of Pana red wine took the edge off my own nerves. “The rest of you didn’t feel what happened to Justice Mei Wen.”
“What did happen, Anthea?” High Brother Jax asked.
I closed my eyes and concentrated on the memory of the link. “The Jing justice is blind—”
“As a proper justice should be,” High Father Jerrod of Father scoffed.
I ignored his nasty comment and continued, “—so I have no visual clues. The Temple bells were ringing the demon alarm code.” I focused on the tolling Mei Wen heard, trying to identify each Temple. “Balance. Conflict. Mother, Father, Light.”
My limbs trembled as my mind replayed the slight, but intense, contact. “The Reverend Mother of Balance is shouting orders. Steel against stone. Shouts of pain. Mei Wen’s own warden is cut down. She slips and lands on marble flooring. Warm, sticky, copper-tasting. It’s her warden’s blood. Another human is dragging her away from the fighting. The rancid taste of demon magic. Fire across her belly—”
At the intense pain, my eyes flew open. I half-expected to see my own entrails spilling into my lap.
“It’s all right, Anthea.” Luc’s warm grip on my hands was far more reassuring than his words. “You’re here with me in Orrin.”
I gulped air. My face was wet from the other justice’s pain. “It feels like it was a concerted attack on all twelve of the home Temples in Chengzhou. The Justice wasn’t in contact with Shi Hua long enough for the alarms to cycle through, but if five were ringing at the same time—”
“It’s best to assume the demons struck all twelve at the same time,” Talbert said.
“Separate the imperial forces from the Temples, and the Temples from each other.” Han nodded. “Sound strategy.”
“What about Jing’s philosophical schools?” Leocadia folded her hands inside the sleeves of her robes, probably so the rest of the clergy couldn’t see them shaking. “Surely, they would aid both the emperor and the Temples.”
“Emperor Bao Chengwu already has executed any member of the School of Sorcery he can find after they sided with the renegades,” Luc said darkly. “While all the schools deal talent to some extent, I doubt the emperor has much faith in any of them, especially since his own father was a member of the School of Sorcery.
“You are correct in that regard, High Brother,” a familiar voice rang out behind me.
I turned to find Ambassador Quan stride into the sanctuary of Thief. He was accompanied by four of his own guards and his alleged concubine Yin Li, as well as the wardens led by Sabine.
“Our emperor only keeps his own father alive out of paternal courtesy.” Quan approached me and cocked his head. “What trouble have you stirred up this time, my dear Chief Justice?”