Edric, Temple divine of the Father of Winter, leaned forward in his saddle to pat the withers of his gelding with absent-minded affection. His hands turned clumsy on the reins once he was tired, a problem whenever he rode long distances. But this horse had never taken advantage of Edric's fatigue. After nearly two seasons spent traveling the southeastern plains of the Weald together, the gelding still plodded along with the same air of jaded resignation that he had worn when they first rode out from Easthome in the spring. Edric had grown to appreciate the constancy of his mount's dourness, a gift he thanked the Father for often and earnestly during his private devotions, a trait that he would sorely miss the next time he had to travel.
That likelihood spurred a question. Edric turned to his legal clerk, Urdo, who rode the rangy chestnut next to him with graceful ease. "Will these mounts be returned to the Temple herds?"
"Yes, Learned." Eying Edric and his gelding, Urdo added, "A pity. You get along with that fellow." For a change, Urdo did not add; unlike Edric, legal training in the Temple schools had taught him not only how to measure truth, but how to be tactful as well.
"I would be hard-pressed to find his like." And Edric might be on horseback again at first snowfall, even if all he truly wanted was to settle into his chambers with a stack of books and scrolls about geometry and not emerge until the Father's ice had melted and the Daughter's wildflowers had bloomed. But the results of Edric's tour of temple courts in the east had been both wearying and unsettling. The consequences after he reported would likely be wearying, unsettling, and require more travel, to boot.
Well used to Edric's abrupt speeches and silences, Urdo had returned to gazing up the road toward Easthome. No doubt he was contemplating his betrothed, given the yearning look. Around them, their armsmen rattled along cheerfully, seemingly pleased at the prospect of being back in Easthome with an evening's pleasures before them after a short and sunny ride. This final day of their journey was a work of art worthy of the Son of Autumn; the air was cool and crisp beneath clear blue skies. Edric could smell hints of smoke, drying leaves, and windfall apples on the breeze.
With the help of the Brother's best weather, their party was making good progress through the thickening traffic of farm carts, trade caravans, and others bound for the capital. These travelers did not give way as they would have for a kinlord, but they did tend to drift toward one side of the road out of respect for two well-mounted divines and their well-armed escort of lay-dedicat guards.
A group of chattering pilgrims quieted and signed themselves as Edric and Urdo passed, touching a theological point on their bodies for each of the five gods. They wore a motley assortment of colors, and had jumbled together the differing ribbons for the Father, Mother, Son, Daughter, and Bastard on their clothing that indicated a company joined in varying devotions only by a common destination at the great temple in Easthome. Edric raised a hand to return their greetings solemnly, having long ago learned that most people responded with alarm to any smile from a man wearing the braid of a Temple inquirer on his shoulder.
Soon enough, it was the turn of Edric, Urdo, and the armsmen to jostle over to one side of the road so that a group preceded by the banner of kin Hawkmoor could pass. Edric did not recognize any of the riders in the cavalcade, but he did exchange nods of acknowledgment with the richly dressed divine of the Mother riding her mule behind the cart that sheltered some powerful kinlord's lady.
After the election of Biast, the new and unwed Hallow King, there had been an upsurge in political maneuverings among the high kin. That also meant more lords were traveling since no letter could substitute for the knowledge you gained by watching faces while you talked. The same sort of considerations had led to Edric's superiors sending him out on this long tour of inspection. Given the likely results for Edric after he had reported, a part of him wished he had not grown so skilled at weighing expressions and words over the years.
At least his reports could wait until morning. After they had nudged their mounts back onto the crown of the road to resume their ride, Edric told Urdo, "Don't bother sorting the transcripts today. Stow our document cases securely, inform those who need to know that we are back, and then go and greet young Alma. I shall require all your time and attention tomorrow."
Urdo raised his eyebrows quizzically as he said, "Yes, Learned."
"I could tell the direction of your thoughts. If you need to seek me out for some reason, you may find me in Learned Lewko's quarters, attending his ninth-evening gathering."
"It is the ninth-evening, isn't it? I'm losing track after all our traveling."
"Can't blame you. A good rest will ease you back into the proper order of days."
"Oh, thank you, Learned, for that sage advice."
Edric quirked his lips in appreciation of the mild sarcasm. "Sage enough that I'm following my own recommendation. I haven't had a chance for conversation without, hmm, possible complications this entire summer." He trusted Urdo enough to add softly, "I'm tired. Too tired to be tactful, too tired for any but safe company."
Urdo nodded understanding. He had been with Edric long enough to learn that the handful of divines who gathered in Lewko's quarters each ninth evening were not just allies in the complicated skirmishes of Temple politics, but also friends.
Satisfied, Edric turned his attention back to the - for him - difficult task of steering his mount through traffic on the increasingly busy roadway. As usual, his gelding was no worse than grumpy at all the fuss and clatter. Perhaps Edric could purchase the horse for his own use. That would mean negotiations with the Easthome temple's master of horses, as well as finding space in a livery stable close to his quarters, but if Edric had to ride muddy or icy roads through the uncertain weather of late autumn, those personal funds would be well spent. And that was as much planning as Edric had time for when they came around a curve and emerged from a grove of coppiced trees to see clearly the great tan walls of Easthome before them.
Edric's party was delayed while making their way past the guardsmen at the Fields Gate - the fields in question were long gone beneath structures spilling out past the city wall - but encountered no difficulties along the curving, climbing streets of Templetown. The afternoon shadows had not stretched far before they halted by a long, low block of stables forming one side of a small court behind the Council Hall of the Father's Order. Once Edric had dismissed the armsmen with his thanks and a plump purse passed to their master-at-arms, he turned to his clerk, only to find he had been anticipated.
Urdo looked up from unbuckling the saddlebags that held their document cases to say, "I shall see about securing your new friend."
"Then find someone else to carry your saddle back to your quarters. The rest of your afternoon doesn't need to be wasted running about like a porter after dickering like a peddler for me."
"I shall. As well as someone to carry yours." Edric recognized that particular note of affectionate exasperation in Urdo's voice from long experience with his own sons. With a wave of acknowledgment, he swung down from the gelding and handed his reins to a waiting groom. Taking his own saddlebags, he left Urdo to his negotiations.
Edric was happy to leave most of the contents of the saddlebags in his chambers for later unpacking by the chamber servant for this wing. He did set the small gift he had brought the man aside. He also retrieved the package intended for Lewko. Then he knelt before his small painting of the Father giving gifts at Midwinter to express his gratitude for a safe, if not serene, journey.
Once he reclined in a tub at the temple bathhouse maintained by healing divines of the Mother's Order, he added more thanks. Those dedicats claimed cleansing the body in hot water could prevent certain sicknesses, but Edric was content if the waters soothed away some of his weariness. He kept himself fit, as any man should who wanted a dependable digestion and the even temper it supported, but age still collected a toll. He was no longer the high kin youngster who had ridden the Weald season after season while settling minor disputes for his cousin, Earl Foxbriar.
After clambering out of the great wooden tub, he let a lad in the green of an acolyte of the Mother examine and tend to the small injuries that had accumulated during the long journey. While the acolyte worked, Edric re-read the letters that had awaited him in his chambers. His son Berhan still attended his Lord as part of an embassy to a coastal Darthican province - quite impressed by both their galleys and their ladies, he was - while Bosko was involved with some esoteric measurements of the stars at his Temple school in the Darthican capital. Experienced at reading between the lines of their letters, Edric could tell that neither of his offspring had wandered into trouble. Amazing: they had survived their youthful exploits to grow into men. There had been times when Edric had doubted.
Either he had visibly doted as he read his letters or the acolyte was from stern stock. The boy seemed cheerfully unimpressed by the judge's and inquirer's braids as he helped Edric dress in fresh robes of grey and black. "Shall I return your traveling robes to your chamber servant, Learned?"
"Umph. Along with these letters. If it won't keep you from your other duties."
A grin was his only response. Suppressing an urge to ruffle the acolyte's hair, Edric nodded curt approval. Then he went to retrieve the oilskin-wrapped package he had left with the bathhouse attendant before making his way to Lewko's quarters. If he was early for the gathering, perhaps the divine of the Bastard could find them both some dinner.
As a Temple inquirer, Edric had spent a great deal more time in the company of the Bastard's dedicats than most divines of the Father did. Among their many other duties, inquirers had to judge theological cases involving demons, one of the Bastard's strange odds and ends of divine responsibility. The Bastard was also said to enjoy meddling with the justice giving that was part of the Father's domain. Given this divine tussle - and the sacred tales that held the Bastard was the offspring of the Mother and a great-souled demon-paladin, rather than the Father - relations between the two gods' orders were always complex, sometimes difficult, and occasionally distant.
Edric snorted, causing a passing scholar-dedicat of the Daughter to glance over at him in surprise. His relations with the Bastard and his Order were indeed complex and sometimes difficult. Distant, though? No, Edric could not claim distance.
After leaving the bathhouse, he strode down a narrow alley and through a back gate into the temple grounds proper. There, he took a passage that arced around one of the great stone domes sheltering the five chapels of the quintarian gods. For once Edric saw no ceremony assembling when he emerged into the great central court. Burning brightly beneath the enveloping shadows of late afternoon, the sacred fire was tended on its plinth only by an acolyte and the occasional worshipper. Edric was able to traverse the rest of the temple without distracting or being distracted. A quick walk took him the rest of the way to the two-story scriptoria of the Bastard's Order where Lewko had his den.
He did not need a guide to find his way once within, although he did notice a few surprised glances through open doors before he halted in front of the familiar portal. There, Edric took a deep breath and resettled his robes. He moved the package he carried from one hand to the other and cleared his throat. Realizing what those gestures hinted about the state of his nerves, smiling grimly, he knocked.
Lewko's calm baritone called out, "Enter." Edric did.
Near two seasons had passed, but Lewko had not changed; as ever, his tall, slim frame was draped in faded white robes modest for his Temple position but quite appropriate for his temperament. If there was any fresh gray in his sandy hair, Edric could not see it. He was too busy hiding how his heart leapt when Lewko looked up and his face lit with joy. Seemingly, after near two seasons of separation, Edric's ruinous ardor had also not changed.
"Edric!" Lewko rose from behind his cluttered table before crossing to the door, hands outstretched.
Edric hastily put the package down and stretched out his own hands to envelope Lewko's. He did not resist when he was pulled into a kinsman's embrace, but allowed himself a few gentle pounds on Lewko's back before he stepped away to examine his friend. "Seems you keep well."
"Unlike you. You look...worn thin." Lewko had kept his grip on Edric's hands, and his gaze was penetrating.
"A rough journey, not in the riding but in the results. I shall spin you my tale if we have enough time before the others arrive. No details, of course, but you would gather the gist from temple gossip in any case."
"Others? Ah." Lewko released Edric to close his study's door. "Our group is not meeting tonight. We agreed that everyone was too busy just now to do proper justice to good conversation. But that does not mean you cannot stay and have dinner with me."
Unwise, unwise, but Edric was too weary to resist. "Yes, thank you." As Lewko reopened the door and leaned out into the corridor, Edric shifted a stack of scrolls off the campstool Lewko kept for visitors. After a vain search for an empty space, he jammed them onto one of the crowded shelves that lined the divine's study. Then he retrieved his package and sat, suppressing a grunt. Edric never had grown immune to the soreness that came after days in the saddle, and soaking could only do so much.
He was content to wait and watch while Lewko collared a passing acolyte and sent her off with instructions to fetch two meals to his chambers. He did not have many chances to observe Lewko without being observed himself, and he did not want to waste this opportunity.
Edric had been shocked when he realized the power and heat of his desire for Lewko, who had never offered more than warm friendship and good council. In fact, Edric had felt as if he had squatted down to pet a puppy and found himself being dragged through all five chapels of the temple by enthusiastic teeth clamped through a sleeve of his robes.
The odd loves of man for man or woman for woman had their proper place, of course, under the protection of the Bastard, divine master of disorder and all things out of season. But Edric, even in his youth, had followed the Father of Winter, patron of husbands and sires, of reason and mathematics, of truth, justice, and a decent death.
Edric knew enough about human nature to guess that his love for his own father, who had been both gentle and strong, had flowed into devotion to a divinity who governed so much of what Edric esteemed. He had thought his fugitive lustings after men long crushed beneath the weight of other experiences, other interests. When his wife Imma died young in childbirth, it had seemed natural, blessed, to follow the path from high lord's justice and lay dedicat to divine of the Father's Order, senior judge, and, eventually, Temple inquirer.
Now Edric understood that he had been a fool. Even the young justice he had been should have remembered that feelings do not always bow before reason. After years of entirely rational motives for spending time with Learned Lewko, Edric was lost and likely pointlessly so. He did not even know if Lewko was one who could welcome such desire. Many of those gathered into the Bastard's Order - like Urdo's betrothed, Alma - had the usual predilections. And Lewko was too reasonable, in the twisty way that the white god's dedicats practiced reason, to parade his personal tastes. Of course, his calm restraint merely made Lewko more appealing to Edric, mad as it was to want a man who was not merely a Temple overseer of a different Order but also a--
"Sorry. I drifted, there."
"I admit, I was about to nudge you to see if you slept." Lewko grinned, which made him look both younger and even more appealing. "I hope you will enjoy pottage prepared with whatever inspiration afflicts our kitchen today. The cook is an artist, but she has the temperament to match."
"Given how much I have traveled, I had better like pottages. They do go down well when I am this tired."
"Perhaps you should take my chair."
"If I do, I fall asleep. Sit down, man, and help keep me awake instead."
Shifting his own chair around the table, Lewko sat within arm's reach of Edric. "Speak to me of your trip, then. Successful?"
"Say dispiriting, rather. By the gods, I would have thought removing the pressure the late Earl Horseriver exerted on the eastern courts would have had some salutary effect."
"Not so, I take it."
"There were a great many dents to be hammered out. But, for the most part, they now administer justice exactly as Temple law commands. Most of my seniors will be pleased."
Lewko pursed his lips, looking intrigued. "But not you."
"Well. Mine is the advantage of once having had to replace a shoe while riding circuit as a young sprig of high birth. I learned then that village craftsmen cobble the same shoe every time. Not a right shoe, not a left shoe, but the same shoe. Pity my poor foot that season." Edric knew his frown only made him look grumpy. "Many of those Temple courts follow the letter of the law because they fear their new freedom. All that high influence stunted their imaginations and initiative. But unvarying justice quickly decays into injustice." He rubbed a hand across his face. "I've no notion of how I shall convey this to the legal council or how it is to be remedied. Given my usual lack of tact--" Breaking off, he shook his head.
"You could try saying to them what you said to me. Still, it is too bad Oswin is not in Easthome to help you explain the subtler implications to your overseer."
"Nonsense. He has the babe newly walking to worry about, as well as his first two children. Not to mention, Hallana." The two divines exchanged speaking looks. Learned Hallana, Oswin's spouse and their friend, was cheerful, devout, and frequently inspired, which made her friendship somewhat unnerving. "Add his Learned duties to the joys of teaching jurisprudence to the would-be legal scholars swarming Suttleaf, and the man has altogether enough to keep him busy just now."
"I would wager you are actually more concerned that he would come up with another 'horrible complication no one else ever thought of' during your meetings."
"Hah. Oswin would, at that. And then he would take my complaint as a compliment again, with our debate of the point somehow ending with me owing him another drink." Edric waved a hand. "Let him ponder his own horrible complications for a while. His offspring will provide him the opportunity. Children always do."
"Which reminds me. How do your own boys go on?"
"Surprisingly well." There was a knock on the door, but news about his sons was a harmless enough topic to discuss while the two acolytes cleared space on one of Lewko's tables and laid out a meal. By the time Edric had finished boiling down Bosko's work into a form entertaining and comprehensible for someone deaf to the poetry of mathematics, he had surprised himself by eating the entire large bowl of pottage they had placed in front of him and then mopping out the remnants with a crust of brown bread.
"You need not look as if that pottage ambushed you," Lewko said mildly.
"You deliberately distracted me."
"As I thought wise. You needed distraction."
All Edric needed for distraction was for Lewko to stay seated this close to him. "My turn to choose our topic of conversation."
"Oh? Ours is to be a tiny ninth-evening gathering, then. Would this new topic have anything to do with that package leaning against your chair?"
Edric quirked his lips. Lewko had a generally well-hidden weakness for unexpected gifts, not too surprising in a dedicat of the Bastard. "Think this might be for you, do you? Seems you are right again, Learned." He reached down and picked up the package, passing it to Lewko.
Lewko made a show of weighing the package with both hands. "No rattling or rustling."
At Edric's snort, Lewko raised brows in amused acknowledgment. Then he used his eating knife to saw through the twine that held the oilskins together.
Unwrapping first the oilskins, and then the inner layer of coarse linen, from the painting they protected took Lewko some time. But once he had the painting freed, he raised the wooden panel in both hands to examine it in the light from the wax candles the acolytes had lit before they departed his study.
"Wonderful," Lewko breathed after a pause for appreciation. "Both the Father and the Bastard, by Their colors. But what in our world are They supposed to be doing?"
"Well, the depiction is by a lay dedicat of the Daughter who paints pious legends local to the eastern plains. You know how harsh their winters are. Once the lakes freeze solid, the men like to go out onto the ice together, pitch tents, chop holes, and fish."
Lewko's eyebrows rose. "I begin to see."
"Mind you, this is no pastime for a noble young hunter, given the amounts of sitting, drinking, and lying involved. So the locals claim that, when the Father of Winter wants to go ice fishing, he does not take the Son. He takes the Bastard."
Lewko looked back at the painting. "Their lines are going to tangle." His expression turned quizzical. "I wonder what They intend to catch?"
Edric opened a hand to show it empty of answers. "I do not know the precise tale."
After shoving aside some dishes, Lewko carefully put down the painting on the table in front of him. He leaned in close to give it one last, speculative inspection. "Thank you," he said, still admiring. "I will enjoy seeing this hanging in my sleeping chamber. Your judgment, as always, was excellent." His smile down at the painting was dazzling.
Edric fought his own smile and lost. "Thought you might like it." Gods, he loved this man.
"I do. Very much." Without warning, Lewko looked up. His gaze caught Edric's own. After a heartbeat, Lewko's eyes widened slightly. Then his gaze turned keen.
Reading Lewko's expression, Edric felt his pulse speed and something between dread and desire suddenly roil the pottage in his belly. Oh, Father of Winter--
When Lewko spoke at last, his voice was very soft. "Edric."
Lewko's lips twitched, but his gaze stayed shrewd. "That look was unmistakable."
Edric closed his eyes, opened them again. The Father was the god of seeking and speaking the truth, both taproots of justice. Edric had trouble lying. "Doting?" he offered, not a lie but a faint hope.
Then his true feelings had shown. Edric could only growl, "Bastard claim it."
"Exactly." Now it was Lewko's turn to close his eyes. "Precisely. Which is the only way I could win such a look from you, my dear friend and respected divine of the Father." He opened his eyes and rubbed his forehead.
"Learned, I apologize--"
"Don't. Don't you dare. Disastrous as this might be, don't you dare apologize."
Quiet fell, although Lewko's lips moved silently; Edric was not sure if he was praying or cursing. He had been reliably informed that, where the Bastard was concerned, the two activities often overlapped. As for Edric, his many questions and pleas to the Father over these past years had gone unanswered. Now he had come to that place he should have avoided, and all he had left to go forward with was his heart-warped judgment.
Lewko's eventual sigh was loud in the silence of the room. Leaning back in his chair, he steepled his fingers before he spoke. "Do you know why you were given your mission?"
"Of course I do. I am blunt, not naïve. You know that." Even Edric could hear the brusqueness in his voice at what he feared was not another change of topic. "Primarily, they wanted me to use the hammer as needed in the east. Secondarily, this was a final assessment of my abilities. I am close kin to the Lord Foxbriar and, through my mother, to Hawkmoor and Boarford as well. That makes me a strong candidate to succeed the Archdivine of Waterford."
"Archdivine-elector," Lewko corrected absently.
"Even in the east, we heard when he had another apoplexy."
"He weakens, yes. Healing divines have assured me that he is brought low by his dedication to eating nothing but fresh game rather than by some divine punishment for his allowing himself to be--" Lewko pursed his lips before choosing "--influenced during the late election of the Hallow King."
Bribed, Lewko meant. By more than one of the opposing factions, as Edric understood it. "As that may be. Nonetheless, I wish certain people would alter their plans, find some other, better choice." Edric waved a hand from the direction of the archdivine's palace towards the direction of the hallowed king's hall.
"You are a capable enough administrator, known both for your honestly and your devotion." Lewko's voice was at its mildest.
Edric snorted. "I am a maul. You know that is what our acolytes call me when they think their elders cannot hear: Edric the maul. No subtlety, no grace, just a large hammer. I even dream of hammering."
"Do not bother, Learned and Blessed. Not those sorts of dreams, the meaningful kind. I never have god-touched dreams, only ones in which I annotate endless depositions filled with errors, or realize I am naked while sitting in judgment, or try to eat pottage with a knife, or step out onto some village dance floor, not knowing the steps, with y-- Anyhow, hammering." Edric shook his head. "That one, I have been having all too often these past seasons. Must be the riding. I use a maul to hammer nails into an entire village's worth of shoes. When I am finally done, I am brought walnuts, bushels of them. So I break all of those open. Do you know how hard it is to extract the meat intact from a maul-cracked walnut?"
"I confess, I do not."
"In my dreams, I imagine that I do. Oh, and then? Eggs. With live chicks in them."
"How do you open an egg with a maul?"
"You do not. You open an egg on a maul. Best tap gently and with care."
"Of course," Lewko almost breathed.
Suddenly suspicious, Edric studied Lewko, remembering the times they had worked on inquiries together. Lewko could coax confessions from a stone. Certainly, he was having no problem getting Edric to talk, as fragile as he felt. Edric felt...he felt for those chicks in his dreams. He felt like a chick being cracked loose into cold uncertainty. All at once, he realized he was shaking. Lurching to his feet, he stood, unable to move further, still shaking.
Quicker than Edric would have predicted, Lewko was out of his chair and over to Edric with a hand on each of his shoulders. "Gently. Gently, there."
Edric could only glare. "I am tired."
"And this conversation has been trying for a mortally tired man."
"Would you stop being so reasonable?"
For a long few heartbeats, Lewko studied him. "Oh, aye," he said, still in his calmest tones. He released Edric's shoulders before moving to cradle Edric's face between his two strong hands, both soft and rough with a scholar's calluses. Then he kissed him.
Lewko's lips were warm and a little dry, knowing but not insistent. For a first kiss, this fell somewhere between awkward and exploratory. But all at once, as if something had broken open at last, Edric's arms went around Lewko and his own lips responded with all the heated yearning he had hidden for so long. Their kiss slid from gentleness into wet and muddled urgency.
For a short time that seemed long, they embraced with passion that had nothing to do with dedication. Their Order robes were only annoyances between searching hands and flesh. But when Edric realized, dimly through want, that he had found and now caressed a patch of robe-warmed bare skin, he forced himself to free Lewko's lips. "Gods," he ground out.
"Bastard," Lewko replied, but whether the single word was a prayer, a curse, or an address to Edric was not clear. Even through the layers of robes, Edric could feel Lewko's arousal.
"I. Expected something--" Edric lost his thought, found it again "--more. Gentle?"
"Yes, better talk. Ah. Flesh has its truths, too. Not all gentle ones." Lewko interrupted his little homily to lick the hollow of Edric's throat, which was not helpful. At least he stopped after a few more heartbeats and moved to rest his mouth against Edric's cheek. His breath there was a whisper of warmth that seemed to murmur to Edric's lust.
"Umph. Talk. We should talk." Edric made himself stop sliding his hands along the cloth over Lewko's hips, stilling them so he could not seek out what he truly wanted to caress.
Lewko had also stayed his hands, but he was still so close that Edric could sense his heat, hear his ragged breathing, smell fresh sweat, wool and laundering herbs, and a whiff of ink. After a deep breath, Lewko said, "Well, this does confirm that I recognized your earlier look." With an effort, Edric did not turn his head to recapture Lewko's lips as he spoke. "I hope the welcome in my response was clear enough."
Edric was surprised into a laugh.
"You do not do that often enough." Slowly, reluctantly, Lewko stepped back. Edric loosened arms to let him go.
Lewko's short hair was wildly disarranged, his robes yanked about and wrinkled, and his lips full and bruised-looking. He touched them and smiled. Then his gaze dropped low on Edric and his brows rose. "My apologies about that." But his expression was not at all penitent.
"I'm old enough to have two sons grown. I am sure I shall somehow survive 'that'." With a sigh, Edric sat down again on the campstool. Then he picked up one of the remaining pieces of brown bread and studied it so that he would not have to see Lewko's face when he told him, "But I am afraid."
"Oh, why would that be?" The irony in the words was light and loving. Edric looked up. "Your kin? Your Order? Your superiors, both Hallowed King and Archdivine? Your god?"
"Him, I still trust for some reason. Even after seasons - years - spent struggling with this on top of every kind of case that Temple courts across the Weald can hopelessly snarl. But you forgot to mention my target." Edric shot a dry glance at Lewko, who had tried sitting himself, and was now likely feeling about as comfortable as Edric. "I aim high. Not everyone desires to maul a saint."
"Sorry." He was not, having occasional doubts about the petty part. "Your sacred office should not make any difference. It does."
"I know, I know."
"I just cannot sneak and hide. Not with you. Not with Learned Lewko, not with Blessed Lewko, and surely not with my friend Lewko."
Lewko's expression was utterly neutral as he asked, "You mean for this to be everything or nothing? I fear you will have to choose."
"And you have no say in the choice?"
"Everyone knows about me." Lewko spread both hands wide. "I am the Bastard's man."
"They still won't expect anything like this. These days, even when you allow them to see you, everyone sees the saint - the petty saint - and not Lewko, like I do." Lewko flashed him another of those heart-stopping grins, and Edric returned him a smile even as he shook his head. "You are right, though. I am the one out of season. I do have to decide." He felt his smile go sour. "Not that I can think right now. At least, not about anything higher than your--"
Hastily, Lewko interrupted with, "Then perhaps we should end this evening's meeting early."
"At least I have enough sense left to know I need sleep more than anything else, thank the Father."
"And I need to speak my mind to a Certain Someone, at length. For all the good that will do. Chaos and panic and the urge to run around in circles while screaming: His holy signs in this are unmistakable."
"Hah. Poor judgment, and good judgment, and a hard choice to make. Do not think the Father looks away."
"Oh. Well, then. I shall anticipate dignified chaos and stately panic, and the completely rational urge to run around in circles while measuredly screaming in key." Lewko's mouth hovered between faint amusement and faint annoyance. "Go, Edric. Depart while you can, dear Learned."
Edric would never know where he found the strength to leave Lewko's chambers. To leave Lewko.
He staggered, more than strode, back to his own quarters. The temptation to stop in the temple and have a word, with grey god or with white, was strong, but he knew the most likely outcome of his prayers would be some dedicat finding him asleep on a stone floor before the morning services. Edric did not try to pray until he was flat on his back in his own bed. Then he lay still, trying to muster his words as he stared up into the dark.
If this is how You treat Your friends, it is a wonder that You have any-- was as far as he managed to get before sleep overwhelmed him. He could never remember afterwards which of the divine pair he had been addressing at the time.
The pale light of an autumn sunrise streamed through Edric's windows when he awoke. All those early starts to long days of riding had made rising at dawn a habit. He had already spent a good deal of time stretched out on his belly before his own painting, trying to find words for the Father that made sense, by the time the chamber servant rapped on Edric's door to let him know the warm water was coming and morning devotions were at hand.
Sometimes ritual prayers seemed to fly like arrows, and sometimes they were only thinking aloud, but sometimes, this time, they felt like trying to talk in a closet jammed solid with bales of wool. Eventually, Edric relaxed his fruitless concentration and allowed his gaze to wander across his gathered fellows while he chanted. Urdo, he noticed, had an air of warm and earthy contentment about him as he responded from his place amid the junior divines on the benches across the hall. Seemingly, someone had spent his evening exactly the way he wanted to. Unlike Edric. Before his thoughts could drift toward specifics, Edric forced his attention back to the calls and antiphons.
First meal was unstructured this morning, and Urdo came to sit on the bench across from Edric before the trenchers were passed along the tables. "Did you have a pleasant time at Learned Lewko's?"
Edric's expression must have been interesting. Lowering his voice, Urdo asked, "Politics?"
Urdo's nod was sympathetic. He launched, without any prompting, into an involved description of the reorganization of their inquiry documents that he had somehow managed to complete between waking and morning services. The mingled urges to hug him and smack the back of his head were quite familiar to Edric from being a father; he did neither, settling instead into a discussion of what transcripts to bring along to their morning meetings and interviews.
Those meetings could have gone worse. By the time he was half way through his third, Edric realized he was managing to communicate his concern about the eastern courts, if not all of the nuances of his worries.
"You believe they could benefit from more training?" Learned Intal, overseer of the Temple courts, asked him.
Edric raised an open hand, showing his lack of certainty. "Might help. Not sure if lessons can cure brittleness."
"Brittleness seems a strange word to describe precision," said a senior judge, whose name Edric liked to forget.
He allowed himself a snort. "Precision? Precision implies exactitude, and that, in turn, demands specificity. You cannot be specific, or exact, or precise if you are dispensing justice like so many lengths of cloth sheared from the same bolt of cheap woolens."
There were stirrings around the table. Sometimes his colleagues forgot that Edric had shared a desk at Temple school with Learned Oswin, learning to twist words into ropes that could lead or halter alongside the best of them.
"Arguments by analogy are usually fallacious," a jurisprudence scholar observed to the ceiling beams.
Stretching his lips into something not a smile, Edric said, "A blunt fellow like me needs to add a little padding before I start pounding away." He sensed, rather than saw, Urdo suppressing amusement next to him.
"We are drifting from our course," Intal said. "Now, we could try shifting--" He paused and frowned when a gray-robed dedicat eased in next to his chair to murmur in his ear. His brows rose. Turning his attention back to the table at large, he said, "We will have to postpone the rest of this session. Learned Edric, your presence is required elsewhere."
Edric tried to hide his surprise and likely looked glum as a result. Rising, he bowed to the assembled divines as Urdo hastily scooped their remaining documents back into their cases. Then he followed the dedicat, who he seemed to remember was attached to the archdivine's palace staff, from the council chamber.
In fact, the archdivine's palace was their destination, no real surprise. Urdo attended on Edric with the expression of false serenity that the young always seemed to think whitewashed over wild surmise. Edric settled for being grateful that at least he was not being rained on. The dawn had grown into another beautiful autumn day, although the breeze from the southern sea had a chill edge that hinted winter was advancing.
The archdivine's palace was as much a place of business as a residence, although the furnishings were as rich as one would expect after centuries of tussling for position with Hallowed Kings and high kin families. The great chamber that the devotee led them to was paneled floor to ceiling with smoke-darkened oak carved with exquisite care into depictions of saint's lives and other holy tales of the five gods' workings through mortals in the material world. Given that this was Easthome, a city once ruled by the shamans and beast lords of the Old Weald, large animals were conspicuously absent among the painted and gilded wooden figures.
The display continued in the number of high-backed and velvet-cushioned chairs that graced the room, but those chairs were made inconspicuous by the men who sat in them. Close to the hearth, Edric recognized the handsome young Hallow King, Biast, with his Sealmaster, Hetwar, seated beside him. He was attended by Hawkmoon, Badgerbank, and the two Lords Boarford.
Seated nearby, not quite in opposition, was Archdivine-ordainer Fritine and a handful of senior Temple-men. Lewko stood slightly to one side of and behind Fritine's chair, within easy speaking distance. His attitude as Edric entered was at its most gentle and unobtrusive, bland as oat porridge. Altogether, counting attendants, there could not have been more than twenty or so individuals gathered in the chamber, which meant this was a confidential meeting, by the gods.
"Learned Edric, kin Foxbriar. Please be seated." Biast had spoken first. That warned a bowing Edric where this interview was going. There was an empty chair placed for him right where everyone could have a good look. He sat, and Urdo took up his own station standing behind Edric's chair.
There was a moment of silence while the Hallow King eyed Edric like a hound whose temperament he had not previously tried in the hunt. Then he said, "I am told you are a blunt man. Thus, I will begin by saying that the Archdivine-elector of Waterford has had a third fit, and is not expected to linger more than a handful of days."
Edric signed himself, five points and his hand pausing to spread over his chest, without removing his gaze from Biast's. The King studied him again before telling him, "We are here to interview you as Waterford's successor."
That seemed to call for a sitting bow. When Edric straightened, he did not look over at Archdivine Fritine, who was his cousin through three different lines and known for favoring his kin in an unobtrusive way.
Biast had tilted his head as if he were as interested by Edric's silence as he would have been by speech. "We have discussed you at some length, so I will not bother crossing known territory again. What have you heard about Waterford's difficulties?"
Aside from being ruled by a divine so deaf to the sacred that even the gods must have been exasperated? Edric had learned from Lewko that Biast was - open - to the notion that the concerns of the gods were not always the concerns of kings and archdivines, but Waterford still had to be tended in this world. Feeling as if he were walking barefoot across a field studded with caltrops, Edric cleared his throat and spoke.
By the time he had been raked over by Archdivine and Hallow King, by Sealmaster, Lords, and Temple officials, Edric felt stretched thin again, as if he had ridden rough terrain for days. Lewko had watched the interrogations with a maddening sort of neutrality, his face impossible to read.
Everyone else in the chamber seemed to be practically shouting out their attitudes. Biast was dubious but increasingly willing to be persuaded, Fritine confident and pleased with himself, the Lords - mostly kin, of some degree, to Edric - complacent, the Temple-men resigned. Only Hetwar seemed guarded, as if he sought some snare that he could not see.
The questioning had come back around again to Biast. Edric studied him warily. He found himself respecting the young man a deal more than he had when this interview began, which only made him cautious. Somehow, he sensed that attitude was reciprocated. He was not surprised when Biast asked him, "Should you be Archdivine-elector of Waterford?"
"Do you ask for a judgment, sir, in terms of theology, or politics, or practicalities, or my personal concerns?
"Mm. They are all of interest."
"Well." Edric took a deep breath. "Theologically, I seek to follow the will of the gods, specifically the Father's, in my case. Having heard certain rumors of my candidacy--" Hetwar's lips tightened at this conformation of information leaking "--I prayed at some length but received no sign. Nor have I learned of anyone else having done so." He saw Fritine start to drum his fingers on the arm of his chair and stop himself. The archdivine was a practical man, not fond of the uncanny. "Given that, I must fall back on reason and judgment. I believe I am acceptable to the Temple. Also, to the high kin, which covers much of the politics." His closest cousin, Earl Foxbriar, seemed to swallow a chuckle. "Speaking practically, I would say yes and no."
Biast leaned forward. "That sounded very certain, for a split vote."
"Waterford needs sorting out. Likely, I can do that, and well. But this is not a matter of judge and then ride away again. Waterford also needs ruling, tending, the gentle and firm care of a parent. I am not known as a gentle man."
"An honest one, at least," Hetwar interjected, tone wry. Edric thought it significant that the sealmaster had dared to interrupt with his reaction. He bowed his head in acknowledgment, although not as low as he would have for Biast or Fritine.
"I notice you have not mentioned your personal concerns, Learned." Biast's tone was mildly inquiring, but his eyes were intent. He leaned forward a little.
And here it came, the moment Edric had dreaded. Now he could speak or be silent. He would not lie. But if he spoke -- Edric stared at his Hallow King, time seeming to slow as images that had stalked him for years clawed at him again. The expressions of the men in this room, reacting. The eager postures of acolytes when they shared some juicy bit of gossip. The slightly hostile confusion of worshippers confronted with any notion too strange. The looks on his son's faces, reading letters conveying the news. His dear, dead wife's features, smiling in sweetly puzzled affection. His mother, so proud of him at his marriage feast. His father.
His father. Father had been the first to speak with him about his lack of tact. Edric could still hear him saying, "Truth is a blunt tool, boy, and one that smashes a great many unwary fingers." Then he had ruffled Edric's hair. "Although sometimes truth is the only tool we have."
Truth was precious to the Father, the Father most would claim Edric no longer served. He felt cold, sick. He spoke.
"I will do my duty. But I had hoped to continue my courtship." His voice was steady, but his pulse pounded in his ears.
There was a stirring of surprise over in the Temple seats. Only Lewko stayed still, although his lips did twitch toward a smile and then straighten. Fritine was the one who said, "A good marriage is a firm buttress for a ruling Archdivine."
Making sure his attitude was respectful, since he knew his expression was sour, Edric told him, "I cannot marry, sir, since I court the Learned Lewko."
The chamber was suspended in a silence that somehow vibrated like a plucked string. Edric felt hollowed out, thin and translucent as a scraped skin, while he waited for chaos to begin. He started when he heard the voice behind him, his father speaking, and yet somehow, indescribably, more than his father.
"Good. Now hammer it home, boy."
Before he could twist around to stare, Biast said bemusedly, "That would be a concern, yes."
Edric had expected the clamor of exclamations and arguments that followed hard on the hallowed king's words. He had not expected Lewko's eyes to widen as he looked at Edric, and then for him to lean forward and sieze the flushing Archdivine's sleeve before muttering urgently into his ear. There was an odd sort of white glow about him as he spoke. But Edric was distracted from that by the overtones to the clamor he heard, every word of which was suddenly and strangely clear to him.
"...saw no signs of such peculiar..." Truth.
"I told you Walrin would be a better candidate than..." Lie.
"Lewko? Who is this Learned Lewko?" Assumed ignorance, another lie.
"...should have considered Renno more seriously. He's cunning, kind, devout..." Truth.
"...Walrin would never consent to money changing hands on his behalf." Lie, painful lie.
"Edric's lost his mind." Well, that was true enough, as far as the speaker knew. That was also Foxbriar.
"Sirs." The clamor continued, spilling its secrets. Edric took a breath, and put a judge's authority into his voice when he said, a second time, "Sirs!"
Amazingly, the turmoil stopped dead. Biast puffed out a breath; Hetwar's lips twisted. The Archdivine started to speak but stopped at a touch of Lewko's hand on his shoulder. But Lewko's gaze was all on Edric, and he looked as if he stood alone in candlelight, awaiting reports of his only child's first night raid.
Doggedly, Edric ignored Lewko and addressed himself to the hallow king. "There is another good candidate known to the Temple, although not he whose name was most frequently put forward as an alternative to mine. In that case, purses have changed hands." Edric made sure his gaze rested on Hetwar, and then drifted toward Hawkmoon, as he said, "To tell truth, enough money has changed hands over Waterford. Too much. Even the gods must lose patience at last."
For some reason, his words fell into absolute silence. When he was done, though, everyone started talking again. Only Biast did not join this new round of clamor. Instead, he examined Edric with what Edric's strange new senses told him was recognition touched with consternation and glee.
From behind him, Edric heard another familiar voice, this time Urdo's, choking back a snicker. He turned to see his clerk grinning in amazement, as if Edric had sprouted feathers from his head of the exact color that Alma wanted waved by her wedding procession.
"Well?" he growled under the cover of voices once more rising in volume.
"I-- Nothing, Learned." Lie.
Edric scowled at what needed no strange senses to be recognized as a fib, but he was forced to turn away when Biast raised his voice to shout, "Enough!" This time the noise trailed off instead of stopping dead, but stop it did. Then Biast said, his tone exquisitely polite, "I believe we need to continue these conversations with a smaller audience. I shall speak with you on some later occasion, Learned. Thank you for a most--" he paused, visibly considered, and finished "--enlightening interview."
Edric hastily seized his chance to leave the chamber, with Urdo still trailing behind him. Once out in the anteroom, he ignored the stares he got from various underlings who had also been ejected. He was too busy working his jaw as his ears popped. Then he straightened his robes and tried to decide what had just happened.
Lewko's arrival was a surprise. At Edric's look of inquiry, he said, "They likely want to discuss doing something they think impious, as if the gods will not hear when I am absent. I shall be called back in soon enough." Edric was relieved when he could not assess the truth of this statement. His strange perception seemed to have stayed behind in the great chamber.
He did not want uncanny senses to interpret for him Lewko's eyes half-closing and his lips smiling slightly. Edric preferred to savor his own understanding when Lewko asked, voice rich and languid, "By the way, would you care to join me for dinner again, Learned?"
"I would. I would, indeed."
"I am going to examine that wonderful alabaster statue of the Mother more closely," Urdo said hastily. He marched off across the anteroom without waiting for a response.
"That was obvious." Edric shook his head.
"It certainly was." Lewko's face went serious as he drew close and said quietly, "Dignified chaos, and stately panic, and completely rational urges to run around in circles while measuredly screaming in key. Do you understand what happened to you in there?"
"I heard my Father's voice."
"As one petty saint to another, I would say so, yes. We saints see...a bit of the light of our gods around each other."
Edric did not grit his teeth. "At least I no longer know the truth of what you are saying."
Lewko considered him. Then he said, "That gift may return. A good mount is never wanted for just one journey, something I should have remembered. Also, what we think is the trip entire is often only the first day's travel." At Edric's appalled stare, Lewko patted his shoulder. "I am half intrigued and half horrified by the idea of attempting to teach someone with whom I am so intimately entangled, about sainthood. We really do need to discuss those eastern tales of ice fishing, at length."
"I am not even sure they will not abandon all reason and appoint me Archdivine."
"I see you start your sacred journey with the proper apprehension about what lies ahead."
Edric glared at his beloved - Father help him - colleague. "I have the distinct, if unaided, impression that you are enjoying this."
"After a fashion. Lesson one for a new mount? Move on or get kicked in the sides."
That was when Urdo came marching back across the room, having apparently decided that his Learned seniors would not start tearing each others' robes off before his very eyes. Along the way, he shot pointed looks at a cluster or two of underlings who had drifted close in attempts to hear Edric's and Lewko's conversation.
"Do you think we will miss the rest of our meetings, Learned?" Urdo's voice, as he brought up this less-than-confidential difficulty, was pitched to carry.
"Not sure yet. Most likely, we will. Better brace yourself for getting nothing useful done for the rest of the day."
Urdo looked pained. "At least I reorganized the transcripts before this happened." He brightened. "And I did finish securing your gelding for you, as well as finding a place to keep him. However, the livery stable wants to know if you would consider renaming him. They already have two horses named Blaze boarded there."
"Edric actually bought a horse?" Lewko sounded mildly intrigued. Edric strangled an urge to roll his eyes.
Ignoring this, Urdo told Lewko, "He's a good fellow who takes his rider along any road, through any weather, without hesitation. However, he always, always looks as if he had just been fed sour mash." After a sideways glance at Edric, Urdo added blandly, "He and the Learned seemed to suit each other quite well."
Lewko's lips twitched. "I see." He turned. Ignoring the clusters of underlings drawing close once more, he placed a hand on Edric's robed forearm. "And what do you intend to rename this dour-but-faithful steed?"
Edric knew his smile was ironic as his own hand moved to cover Lewko's. "Maul. I am going to call him Maul."