Every quaint inner garden in the backs of taverns and inns smelled differently. Those in the north smelled strongly of pines, ferns and fresh red beets boiling, the ones on the plains carried an air of hard bread and roasted walnuts, while the ones in the south smelled of lemon-wine and hay.
Silque had learned to recognize them all. She was a Saint, and could thus spend her nights in whatever priories or temples along the roads if she wished. But inns had such a welcoming feel, one that Silque found hard to resist. It was both an anchor and a luxury in her many years of travel.
Her current stop was in the central part of old Zofia. A small town with a tiny priory and an even tinier inn, with an aroma of soft roses and a trace of grilled cheese.
Silque closed her eyes and simply breathed. The first rays of sunlight kissed her face, enclosed her in a warm corner where the chill of the night was long forgotten. She doubted anyone apart from herself and the innkeeper was awake – dawn came early this far into the year, after all. Maybe she could have used the extra hour of sleep, but these first moments of silence were much too valuable for her. Her calm breath was like a casual prayer to a goddess that never left her heart, even though she was most definitely truly gone from the world.
Death of the Gods. Still new. Still odd. The One Kingdom of Valentia brought many novelties, and Silque hoped she’d seen them all at this point. Some of the changes were hard to bear, like the loss of blessings, but most changes were easier to get used to. No borders, new trades, new unity. Which meant one simple thing: people suddenly travelled all over. In search of happiness, profit, new chances, or new knowledge.
Valentia was barely recognizable compared to two years past, but one thing remained – there was always need of a healer. Coincidentally, every village and town was short of them. Silque felt guilty if she stayed in one place too long, so the road was her constant companion.
Silque didn’t fear dullness. There was beauty in stability and routine. But she’d lie if she said she didn’t enjoy moving so freely, waking up in a new place every so often. She’d walk with other travellers, with merchants and entertainers and common folk flooding the roads, and every one of them had a story to tell.
And because of them, almost every other village had a prosperous inn to accommodate the new stream of business. Though even the most successful of the inns could only afford to offer one meal per person. Evening meal, or morning meal.
Silque always chose the morning meal. When she stopped by a new village, she worked hard until the middle of the night – such was just the way for her profession. Her options were either breakfast at dawn, or eating while standing up, surrounded by darkness, before hurrying back to the priory. It wasn’t a difficult choice.
The innkeeper appeared on the terrace, a small wooden bowl in hand. She disappeared behind one of the high railings completely covered in ivy, before she came into view once again, moving toward Silque’s little corner. The innkeeper served bread with melted cheese and honey-glazed wheat cookies with a ‘good morning, sister’, then rushed back inside.
Silque could hear the sounds of more of the guests stirring. No wonder the innkeeper moved in all haste – as far as Silque could tell from the night before, the inn was filled to the brim with guests.
Eva would probably wake from the noise. Silque could go and knock on the room opposite her own just to make sure Eva was up, but she was reluctant to leave.
Here, her world was sunlight, honey and gentle willow branches dancing over her head. She'd give little Eva some time to wake by herself.
The entire garden was full by the time a young girl stumbled out on the terrace, her bonnet hanging lopsided and her eyes half-closed.
“Morning ma’am”, she mumbled at Silque before she collapsed on the wooden stool by the table and rested her head on her arms.
Silque chuckled and passed her a piece of bread and cheese. “Sleep well, Eva?”
The answer was incomprehensible, but Silque was used to that. Eva was thirteen, and even Silque had not been able to wake at sunup at that age – or speak very clearly for that matter.
“You don’t have to stay up so late with me, you know”, Silque chided her gently. “You’re still growing. It’s important that you get your rest. Skilled clerics know how to take care of themselves, too.”
“I’ve still gotta-a-lotta learn, though”, Eva mumbled through her chews, and she adjusted her bonnet. “If I’m to be a saint like Miss Genny one day.”
A breeze travelled over them, the hanging branches of the willow rustling gently. Silque smiled and watched the dance of leaves. “Ah, yes", she said. "Of course. But you know, I could bring the books with me to Genny in your stead, if you like?”
Silque had offered that once before, and Eva gave her the same answer this time. “No, no! I mean, the whole point is to meet her, you know. Her signature is just a bonus.”
There was a bit of an unspoken plea in her words, and Silque did not miss them. She looked down from the willow, onto her empty plate.
“It’d be lovely if you could join us tomorrow”, she said apologetically. “But Halcyon’s wish is saint’s only. I think Nomah would be fine with your presence, but—“
“It’s okay, ma’am”, Eva answered with a smile. “I’ll be a saint in no-time, and then I can keep you company during every boring annual church meeting until I'm gray to the bone!”
Silque smiled too. “They’re far from boring, Eva.”
“No offense”, Eva scoffed into her bread, “but you couldn’t find joy in sitting still for a whole day if you tried, ma’am.”
The road to the Grand Monastery was a harsh one.
Archsage Halcyon and Nomah had been gifted an old fortress by the queen, to become the base for the new united religion. A fortress built for defense in war, walled by thick forests with a thin path up through the mountainous hills of former Rigel’s borders.
But Silque was no stranger to walking for hours on end, no stranger to being alone. Brigands and bandits were in no way a thing of the past, but despite her experiences, she felt no fear. The Mother walked with her.
She’d left Eva in the village at the base of the hillscape, and she wasn’t worried about her safety – contrary to what Eva felt for her sake.
“I can walk with you, ma’am”, she’d insisted. “If anyone comes to lay a finger on you, I’ll drain the life out of them and then use that power to smash them to bits with Seraphim-magic! I can do that, I swear!”
Eva had never seen a true fight, and for that Silque thanked the Mother every day. Her experience of war was through the window of an orphanage, and then through Genny’s (widely popular) fantastical fictions. If Silque didn’t know better, she’d have thought that a cleric shouldn’t have such violent thoughts – but since meeting priestess Mae again after many years, Silque had scratched that notion. Some followers needed to fight injustice and evils with more than words.
Silque was not like that, though. She’d always walked in whatever direction her heart pulled her, and spent as much time praying for the lives she’d needed to take as she did fighting, in some sort of illusion of compensation. Back then it hadn’t felt like enough, but now… The leaves rustled, curious fox cubs ran alongside her on the path, the outline of the familiar Grand Monestary in front of her…
It was enough. She felt like enough.
The day wasn’t long, not by usual annual meeting-standards. Queen Celica was present as a representative for the royal house, whereas Halcyon represented the Duma worshippers and lady Irma spoke for the followers of Mila. Archsage Nomah was the supposed neutral part, even though he too had roots in Mila’s teachings. The first two meetings like this had been a bit of a mess, but this year everything flowed nicely, to Silque’s delight.
It was the usual – terror uprisings, remaining Duma Faithful’s lurking about trying to revive their god, witches aimlessly wandering the continent – there was just so much work to be done after the war. Peace wasn’t a gift with a guarantee. It was a fight, too.
Many saints volunteered this year, like the year before, to dedicate their time to fix these problems. Others offered to teach at schools. Only a few chose Silque’s path of being a healer to anyone in need. All were important tasks, Silque supposed, but not for the first time she felt a little guilty for not going with the fighters. Because she, if anyone, would know what having blood on her hands meant, and how to survive that.
But that wasn’t what she wanted. And a friend had once told her that what she wanted was more important that she might think. She hoped he was right.
Stars hovered above their heads when the meeting was concluded, yet Silque wasn’t ready to go to sleep yet. This was one of the only chances she had to meet so many old friends of hers in one place.
She’d attempted to speak to Genny, if not only to bring a story back to Eva, but the saint of Novis was always surrounded by other followers, and Silque didn’t want to impose. In the end, she settled beside Tatiana, a glass of tart apple juice in hand.
“Sister”, Silque greeted her. “How do you fare?”
Tatiana had stared into the crowd with empty eyes, and she barely reacted to Silque’s words with more than a glance.
“Oh… Oh, hello, sister Silque. I didn’t see you there for a spell. How are you?”
Silque smiled politely. “Very well, thank you. Quite a day, wouldn’t you say? The list of woes never grows smaller, does it?”
“No indeed”, Tatiana agreed, a smile pulling at the corner of her lips, but not quite getting there. “Even so, I do not intend to change my duties. My village will never stop needing me, it would feel… Wrong to abandon them, even for a great cause.” There was a bitterness to her words, one Silque didn't understand, but she tried to simply gloss over it.
“I’ve yet to know the feeling of belonging somewhere like that”, Silque mused, taking a sip of her juice. “It must be nice.”
Tatiana didn’t answer, her gaze growing distant again. Like a haze dimmed around her. Maybe it was better to gloss over that too, but Silque felt like she was staring something serious right in the face and that she couldn't ignore. Or she wasn't a saint worth the name.
“Sister Tatiana, are you feeling well?”
“I am simply tired”, Tatiana answered, her voice sounding all but mechanical.
“Oh, yes, quite understandable”, Silque smiled, raking her brain for something else to say. “I... should go to sleep myself soon. But it is nice talking like this, sister to sister. Say, how is your Ezekiel?”
“Oh! Very well! Absolutely well!” Tatiana’s eyes glistened with panic as she looked anywhere but on Silque, then her shoulders slumped. Probably realizing how unconvincing her claims were.
Silque raised a hand, unsure what to do with it. Something was definitely wrong, for the gentle Tatiana to be panicked. Silque had seen her face-to-face with terrifying Necrodragons and knights on more than one occasion, and she'd still never seen Tatiana anything but joyful or determined.
To Silque’s relief, Tatiana was the first one to speak.
“Can I have some of your juice?” Tatiana asked hoarsely. There were tears on the rim of her eyes, now. Silque answered by handing her glass over, and Tatiana downed half of it.
“Sister, whatever it is, you can talk to me. I promise not a word of it will spread to another soul.”
Tatiana let out a chuckle, or a sob. Probably both. “Thank you, dear. I know, I’m just… very tense.”
Silque finally decided to put her arms over Tatiana’s shoulders, and let her lean against her. It was a bit awkward considering how much taller Tatiana was, but it felt good to do something.
“I know why he had to leave”, Tatiana sobbed. “And he promised to come back… He promised… But I’m only dying here by waiting on the seashore every day – I should have gone with him, Silque. Even if it meant going to another war, I’d still be with him.”
Silque had no idea what any of this truly meant, but she could guess the most of it. “He’s gone to Archanea?”
Tatiana nodded against her shoulder. “He’s sent two letters”, she continued. “But it’s hard, he has to be so secret all the time or he might be in danger, and yet he tells me not to worry… My heart will break soon, holding all this fear inside me.”
She was quiet for some time, before she reached the glass over to Silque again. “It hurts to love when you cannot be close”, she whispered. “And when you fear you may never be, again.”
“Oh, Sister…” Silque rubbed her shoulder. “I’m so sorry. But if I know General Ezekiel, he’s strong enough to defeat a whole squadron of knights on his own. And I’m sure whatever Archanea has to throw at him, he can handle.”
Tatiana straightened. “Thank you, Silque. Dear me, I’m sorry for drinking all your juice, that was… quite rude.”
Silque only laughed, and let go of her shoulders. “Anything for a friend in need.”
“You’re too kind”, Tatiana said, but she smiled a small, mischievous smile. “Oh, and all I have done is talk about myself! Can’t wallow in misery all day, can I?”
Silque recognized the tone of her voice, finally. It was like a friendly embrace. The sound was like a reminder for how easy it was to like her – that, and she always had the latest news from the Valentian high society, despite living so remotely.
“I should ask you, dear!” Tatiana went on. “Why, you’re always so busy moving about, but that won’t stop the heart from finding places it likes more, no?”
Silque wasn’t sure what to answer, but she nodded despite that. Tatiana’s tears were drying, and that was indeed a good thing.
“And… perhaps the heart finds people, too?”
Silque didn’t say a word, but she felt her cheeks grow warmer. Tatiana took that as well as any response - she gave a delighted laugh, the worried lines around her eyes disappeared for a moment.
Anything for a friend in need, indeed, Silque thought, and laughed with her.
A child played the flute outside the priory door. He sat on its steps, on the far end of the stair, repeating the same three songs over and over. Impressive tenacity, Silque had to admit.
She’d been at this small town priory before, the last time three months ago. She recognized the picturesque apple trees and the people running the market stands, as well as most of her patients. Even the little musician – he’d been a patient too, almost unable to breathe from a bad lung infection. That memory made his flute-playing more bearable.
This meant the people here recognized her, too, and it was a nice feeling. She’d meant what she’d said to Tatiana about belonging somewhere – she’d like to. She’d very much like to, one day.
And this place returned to her mind time and time again. Here, even the long days at the priory granted her with a view from its elevated position, overlooking half the town where a lovely dose of sunlight filtered through healthy, age-old trees. Where there were friendly faces wherever she turned. Some new, some old.
“Oho! Silque! You’re back!”
Silque turned around, her professional smile immediately more genuine at the sound of a voice she recognized.
Forsyth had not changed in the slightest after the war. He still wore his armor even to the most ordinary occasions, and he still radiated a whole squadron’s worth of energy, his stride proud and merry.
“Hey, Python!” Forsyth spun around in his step. “Hurry up, will you? Silque is here today, can you believe it?”
“I heard ya.”
Python hadn’t changed much, either. Still following in Forsyth's every step, still with half his hair hanging down in his eyes when he leaned his head. What was different was the baby tied to his chest, whose head he supported as he leaned down to say something to the boy on the stairs. The boy grinned, and stopped playing immediately. And for that, he got a coin.
Python still looked like the entire world bored him, but after months fighting for the same cause, Silque had learned to find the little gleam in his eye.
“Mila’s Blessings upon you”, she smiled at them both. “I’m glad I got to see you, since I’m not staying here long.”
“Hello”, Python greeted her back. “Yeah, busy bee as always, huh?”
Forsyth stepped up to her and gave her hand a good-natured shake. “I swear, people like you are the saviors of Valentia! And here we have Eva, correct?” He extended a hand to Eva, who put her notes under her arm and answered his greeting.
Silque would have loved to keep exchanging words with such close friends, but with more patients needing her attention, she couldn’t do so with a clear conscience.
“What can I help you with?” she asked instead.
Forsyth sobered and gestured at the baby sleeping against Python’s chest. “It’s Emm, my daughter. She caught that nasty lung bug a month ago, and we go here for check-ups every week. My wife’s not present though, so I got Python to go with me. I can’t carry her you see, I have, uh… back problems.”
“Yeah right”, Python scoffed. “You’re just trying to get me attached to her.” Python dipped his chin and played with the baby’s hand absentmindedly, letting out a low coo from the back of his throat. “But it isn’t gonna work, is it, Emm?”
“Seems to me like it has”, Silque teased. “Put her down on the scales, please.”
Python’s ears grew red, and he shrugged as he walked past her.
“Yeah, whatever.” He gently loosened the ties keeping the baby secure and placed her on the scales. “Someone’s gotta teach this poor soul how to relax. Her parents sure ain’t gonna.”
Forsyth practically beamed, ignoring the quip. “Uncle Python”, he said, barely containing his excitement. Python only scoffed again.
It would have been difficult to ignore them since they got into another argument while Silque examined little Emm, but then again, Silque was used to their friendly jibes. Eva got the existing notes on Emm, and they sorted through the diagrams together. Silque found nothing unremarkable, so after only a few minutes, she turned to Forsyth with the baby in her arms.
“She’s gaining weight”, she smiled. “And I hear nothing wrong with her airways, her legs are strong and her heart ticks like a clock. All seems to be fine.”
“Oh, that’s great”, Forsyth said, taking Eva’s hand and patting it in gratitude. “Thank you, you’re saints – literally!”
Silque noticed how little Eva beamed at the honor of being called a saint, even from that context, and Silque only smiled and shook her head. She handed the baby over to Python, who put Emm back into the little carrier on his chest with ease. And behind him, Silque spotted Forsyth, back at it with one of his teasing grins.
“Say, Silque, it’s been so long”, he began. “And knowing you, you don’t take many breaks. What say you to join us for dinner? By us, I mean me, and Python. He’s coming too.”
“First I hear about it”, Python muttered, but he didn’t protest.
“Well, you’re hardly ever busy, I might as well make your schedule for you.”
Python only rolled his eyes, and Silque couldn’t hold back a giggle. “I’m sorry”, she said, clearing her throat. “I’d love to, but I’ll have to decline. I still have work to do.”
“Aw, come on!” Forsyth was the pushy kind, she knew that well enough. Well-intended as it may be. “You’re not the only healer here – you could take an evening off!”
“How come you never say that to me about my work?” Python complained. Forsyth ignored him, his eyes on Silque.
Silque was about to decline again when she felt a hand on her shoulder.
“It’s okay”, Eva said. “I can fill in your spot for a few hours. I’ve been ready for that a while now, you know.”
“It’s not the pupil’s responsibility to determine when she’s ready”, Silque answered. “But I do admit… You’re better than I was at your age. Can you handle two hours alone?”
Eva grinned and shrugged. “If everything collapses, I’ll come and fetch you. Seems calm enough right now, though.”
“Splendid, splendid!” Forsyth exclaimed. “Thank you, little Eva! I live not more than a short walk down the street, and my door is always open!”
The last thing Silque saw of the priory for the day was Eva, standing straight and proud with the widest of smiles, waving goodbye.
Silque had not felt so relaxed during an evening in a long time. Her waking rest came with the free hour at dawn and not thereafter, and she didn’t mind that. But stepping out of the priory and into a little villa with cherry-colored walls and the smell of freshly baked bread laying to cool… That wasn’t bad, either.
Forsyth babbled on and on as he chopped carrots and fried onions, and that was quite soothing. Like they hadn’t been apart for months on end, like they were still warriors trying to raise tents in the rain.
“Being a dad is the best!” he exclaimed, throwing garlic in a pan. “Me and Elene, we were so ready for the responsibility, and I feel so alive—“
Python made fake snores, his head leaning against the wall. Forsyth glared at him, before he took a jug of cream from Silque’s hands and poured it into the pot, the smell of onions and hot milk spreading all over the room.
“I’ve been wondering this for three months – is Eva your kid now, lady Silque?” he asked, glancing up from the stove.
Silque laughed quietly and wiped her hands on her borrowed apron.
“I am very fond of Eva”, she answered. “I visited a priory in Rigel, and she was so eager to help and learn. When I was about to leave, Eva asked to come with me as my apprentice. Not as my daughter. Although, sometimes when she calls me ma’am I think I hear mom.”
Forsyth gave a knowing laugh and nudged Python with an elbow as he stirred the stew. Silque wasn’t sure what that was supposed to mean.
Forsyth kept talking, even as they sat down to eat he found words between his chews. Python was quieter, as per usual, but that was soothing too. Silque could tell he was listening, waiting for an opportunity for him to speak.
“How do you like being among the Bow Knight Guild?” Silque asked him when Forsyth stopped to take a breath.
“Nothing against them”, he shrugged and poked a carrot with his fork. “And they pay me enough, so. There’s that.”
Forsyth sighed into the rim of his glass. “They could pay you so much more if you actually let them promote you.”
“Why’d I want to be captain? So much more work, telling other people what to do. I’m a decent archer, that’s it.”
“You are a great archer”, Silque protested lightly. “You’ve saved my life more times than I can count.”
“Yeah, well, likewise”, Python said. “But that’s just how things go in a war.”
That might have killed the conversation a little bit, if not for Forsyth. He listed every kind of story from their march to Rigel, even the stories he wasn’t personally involved in. Silque’s cheeks almost ached from smiling so much, it all felt… homely. Python left for a short while, before the market closed up, then returned with fresh fruit for them to share over yet more stories.
Two hours passed much too quickly, and Silque found herself being unwilling to leave. She lingered in the door, embracing Forsyth and giving little Emm a finger to hold. Python lingered as well.
“I got these for you”, he said, handing her a little jar of toffees. “At the market. I remember you got a sweet tooth.”
“Quite”, Silque smiled. “Thank you very much.”
“You’ll be moving tomorrow again, I take it?”
Silque smiled at him. “Yes. People still have need of us, and Eva has much to learn from me… I have even thought about taking her to Archanea. She’s a wanderer like me, I think she’d appreciate seeing the world beyond Valentia.”
Python gave a little chuckle. “Seriously though, you didn’t get enough travelling from way back when?”
”I have always felt most at peace with myself when I walk the path my Mother intended. I still feel my calling to find any soul in need of soothing and pain mended. That might change, one day, but not today.”
“All right, I get that. Big dreams ‘n all. You’ll come back and visit someday again though, yeah?”
Silque couldn’t help her smile growing wider. “Yes. I most certainly will.”