Chapter Twenty: The Blood Temple
Content warnings for this chapter:
Detailed narration from the point of view of a character with PTSD, processing strong feelings and thinking about abuse; a few explicitly narrated misogynistic thoughts;
If you see other material that should be marked (such as common triggers or phobias), e-mail me. I am serious about web accessibility, and I will respond to your concerns as soon as I can manage.(hide content warnings)
I would not be able to concentrate while I was still standing on the steep street, pulling Rinn with one hand. I hurried inside – into the temple, which seemed appropriate enough. I was suddenly aware of time passing. Before this, I had been patiently waiting for my connection with the Waiting God to come back. But now, it was a deadline, and I didn’t know when it would come. I had to work efficiently, since this might be my only chance to access the memories freely.
The inside of the temple was dark except for a few shafts of the sun’s glaring light. These stones of the temple’s floor were cracked and uneven. I rolled Rinn into a corner, then manifested a reclining chair and sat down next to her.
I took out my phone and opened my note-taking app. This was my real phone, so it would come back to the material world with me. Back in the third layer, the Stern God had made me leave it behind physically, but I had made sure not to let go of it with my mind. Thus, it remained assimilated to me, so I had gotten it back in the beginning of the next layer. I had to take notes, because I wasn’t sure if I was going to keep any of the former Farseers’ memories after I was brought back to the material world. I would probably still have my own memories of remembering the other memories, but if it worked like remembering dreams, it would be hard to rely on it.
An old wound bothered me. My leg was cramped. The skin on both legs itched where they had gotten warm from walking. But none of that seemed important enough to interrupt me.
I let my eyes relax and stared into one of the pools of sunlight, letting the memories come forward, thinking of the one thing that seemed more important than anything else:
How did the Blood Temple fall?
It was finally happening. The demolition had begun.
It was hard to see it in the grainy black-and-white of the television. I would have liked to be there to see that wretched structure destroyed with my own eyes. But even now that Blood worship had been made illegal, there were too many people who refused to give it up, and an event like this could provoke them into a riot. It would not do to spoil my retirement by getting caught in the violence. It was enough to know that it was happening.
I lay back in my bed as I watched the gateway crumble, clouds of white dust spreading into the air. Then the camera turned, giving a view of the milling crowd just as a few Blood supporters rushed out towards the police barricade. In moments, they were writhing on the ground – the Stern police had released a sorcery against them. I smiled. I was not a cruel man, but those hooligans had brought this on themselves.
I should never have taken that wretched case. But at least they were finally getting what they deserved.
This was perfect, watching it all from the safety and comfort of my own bed. Even better that Eva was out of town, visiting a friend to “decompress”. Probably to vent about me. But, at the very least, it meant that she wasn’t here to nag me about wearing shoes in the bed. My shoes were not dirty. She never complained of a dirty bed when she didn’t see me wearing them, so it was just another of her irrational –
As Yali, I pulled myself out of the memory. Many of the Farseers were tiresome to work with, and this one – Garthold Brannet, the lawyer – was one of them. If I just let his memories go wherever they felt like, I would spend far too much time in his complaints about his wife. There was nothing wrong with his wife. She was an ordinary person with ordinary flaws, and I had no interest in his frustrations with her. But I had to work past them, because he had much more important things to remember.
He had thought of a case. A case he had been involved with as a lawyer, one that was related to the Blood Temple.
It started as an ordinary shoplifting case. For us at Hatheraw & Green, a petty theft from one of our storefronts should have been nothing more than a small loss for us. And that was all it would have been, if it hadn’t been for Mr. Tully’s insistence on micromanaging me. And then he’d had the nerve to blame me for what happened! I could still hear his voice ringing in my ears from when he fired me – “I told you to get them arrested, not to bring all of this politics down on us! I will personally make sure you never work in this industry again!” And that shrill Blood Temple judge – “Did you learn Blood law from a book? You subvert the meaning of justice!” Curse them all.
I should have known from the beginning that Mr. Tully was bad news. He had been CEO of Hatheraw & Green for only two months, while I had worked there for twenty years, but he insisted on lording his position over me. He hated me because I was professional where he was crass. The old CEO would have trusted me to do my job – trusted that those six shoplifting cases were routine cases that didn’t need his, or my, attention. But Tully made me report to him on every little detail.
“Another six gone to Blood? What do we pay you for, Brannet?!” he yelled, slamming his hand down on my files, spittle flying from his mouth.
I could have yelled back. But I chose to be professional. “Sir, there was nothing that could be done. I challenged them before the Concord of Temples as you asked, but the precedent is unambiguous. The Fourth Ring is shared between the temples, and whenever a crime is –”
“I don’t care about the details! Make something –”
I was about to say that whenever a crime is committed in the Fourth Ring, the Concord of Temples assigns it to whichever temple is considered to have the greatest interest in the outcome. In these six cases, the defendants were residents of the Fifth Ring, which meant the Blood Temple was considered to have the greatest interest. If he had listened to me, he would have understood that.
“– Make something happen! Fight it out in Blood court if you have to! That’s an order!”
“Sir, I am not an expert in Blood law,” I said. That was right, I had told him it wasn’t my expertise! I had done my job perfectly, I had warned him, so the whole debacle was his fault for ignoring my advice! I had even said “and so if you ask me to do this, I won’t be able to guarantee that the results will be favorable –”
As Yali, I typed out, Brannet didn’t understand blood law, believes he warned boss. This memory was full of the feeling of looking back and feeling justified. But that feeling couldn’t have been there in the original memory, and Brannet wasn’t still alive to add his own thoughts about it now. So the memory had already been rewritten while he was still alive. He had probably rewritten this memory many times, to cast himself in the best possible light.
Now that I thought about it, it was strange that the memories included so many exact words at all. I certainly couldn’t remember full conversations this well, and I was known for having a very good memory. Maybe the Waiting God had somehow enhanced them when it gave them to me. Would that make them more accurate or less accurate? It was hard to know for sure.
I didn’t like having to guess which parts were the truth. Maybe there would be other memories that were less unreliable. I skipped forward to what came next.
It was irritating to be working at Mr. Tully’s “orders”. He couldn’t order me – he was an administrator, not a drill sergeant. But I couldn’t talk back to him – that would be unprofessional. So here I was at the Stern library, poring over my books, sitting at a cramped desk under the tall shelves.
A lawyer of my position shouldn’t have been handling these cases in the first place – they were beneath my dignity. But we needed something to justify it to the Waiting. Years ago, I had been “promoted” into a different job title so that Hatheraw & Green could take advantage of a new subsidy from the Waiting Temple, a subsidy for legal services that “contribute to maintaining the order of the city”. So now, a certain percentage of my caseload each year was required to fall within the Waiting criteria. Having me work on routine shoplifting cases like these was less valuable to the company, but it was a reliable way to qualify.
The Waiting. As Yali, I paid close attention. Brannet’s actions were being influenced by the Waiting Temple. This was exactly what I was looking for.
Anyone in my position would have rankled at being seen as less valuable to the company, especially in front of Mr. Tully. I would show him how valuable I could be, I thought. I would take the cases to Blood court and win. And then he wouldn’t underestimate me again.
But as much as I poured over my books, I never figured out how to call that theft lowari without connecting it to Tanmei’s blood – and that was what let the Speaker go after us! I should never have –
Brannet knew what those terms meant, but I didn’t. And it was harder to study from the later memories that were caught up in his humiliation and vindictiveness. I stopped and fished for different ones, to try and learn what he knew about Blood law before he rewrote his interpretation of it.
Blood law wasn’t defined the way Stern law was.
The closest thing to an authoritative source was the Book of Blood. But the Book of Blood wasn’t just a law book. It was also a book of prayers, and a book of instructions for every aspect of life. It said how children should be raised. It said how to divide up the harvest equitably, and how much to lay in store for winter. It said how best to make love. It even had instructions for how to maintain farms and houses with simple materials. You might have thought they were trying to make a single book on how to build society from the ground up. And although it described many laws, it said that the true law could not be written down in a book. The true law was defined by “the blood of the people”.
So I cross-referenced the Book of Blood with other legal analyses and historical accounts – records of the Blood Temple’s hundreds of years of traditions and precedent – looking for anything that could be used to get the Blood courts to prosecute these thefts.
The Book of Blood didn’t use the word crime. The only cause for legal action was a violation of blood. First, there had to be a violation; then, the victim had to have an awakening of blood, where they realized the full extent of the wrong that had been done to them; and then, there could be revenge. The Book actually used the word revenge.
Fortunately, a “violation of blood” didn’t only mean an attack against someone’s physical body. A threat of violence was also a violation, and even an insult could be one, if it was degrading enough.
But I was interested in property crimes.
Under Blood law, a theft could be a violation of blood, but only in proportion to the strength of the connection between the victim and the stolen object. You couldn’t have ownership of an object you had never seen or touched. And the only people who had handled the goods before they were stolen were local employees. So the employees were the only ones who could have an awakening and get revenge.
And if I was hoping to use that as my strategy, my hopes were quickly dashed. If employees were able to “own” the goods, then they could simply walk off with the goods themselves, and the Blood Temple would be obliged to defend their right to do so. So, in historical negotiations, the Blood Temple had promised – as a concession to the Stern – that it would consider the goods unowned, in any corporation established under Stern authority. And therefore, the Blood Temple could tolerate the Stern Temple prosecuting thefts, but the thefts could never be violations of blood.
At least this kind of nonsense still had clear rules. It wasn’t so different from Stern law, full of impossible situations created by historical compromises, from which it was my job to find ways out.
– No, not nonsense. I couldn’t let Brannet’s opinions get into my head. If this was about Blood, I had to find the good in it. Could I see the good in this? Not yet… I needed the full picture first.
Once there was a violation of blood, you had to decide which of the four types of violation it was: shasset, dechiokhari, chet, or lowari.
The lowest type of violation was shasset, a mistake. It was for when the violator didn’t understand that someone would be hurt by their actions at all. The Blood Temple answered cases of shasset by educating the violator, and no other punishment. The violator was encouraged to pay restitution, depending on the circumstances, but not required to. Violations committed by younger children were generally considered shasset, even if they were intentional, because it was assumed that children didn’t understand the impact they were having on others.
So the way I had hurt Romhisat as a child would have been shasset. It was a violation, but it was forgivable given my circumstances. That seemed fair.
Next was dechiokhari, a crime of desperation. If you were starving and broke into someone’s house to steal food, or if you had to hurt an innocent person while escaping from abuse, that was dechiokhari. When a case of dechiokhari came before Blood court, it was considered a failure by the Blood Temple itself, because the Blood Temple was responsible for making sure no one fell into desperation. It even triggered internal Blood Temple procedures to investigate how their services had failed the violator.
Third was chet, a crime of passion. If an argument between peers turned violent, or if you attacked someone in a fit of irrational anger, or if you took disproportionate revenge – like by killing someone who had cheated on you – then that was chet. It also covered giving in to selfish temptations, like if you stole something you wanted without caring who might have needed it. The Blood Temple’s approach to these situations was one of diplomacy. Their priests would encourage the violator to understand what they did wrong, apologize, and try to make amends. But even if they refused to apologize, the Blood Temple only considered that an unfortunate situation, not something where the Temple needed to intervene further.
I felt myself getting tense. The Dalners had been irrationally angry. The Dalners had given in to selfish temptations when they abused me for six years. And the Blood Temple would be lenient with such things? I needed to find ways to agree with the Blood Temple, but I couldn’t agree with this at all! The temples were supposed to protect people, and how could you protect anyone if you wouldn’t even punish people who were seriously harming others? It was all I could do to stay focused on my task, and not give in to resenting Blood again, right there and then. But this was no time for me get distracted from what I had to learn.
The final type of violation… was lowari.
Blood law defined lowari as violations that put one person above another. The archetypal example was forcing someone to be obedient to you, or abusing a position of authority to take advantage of someone. But it also covered small things, like publicly showing contempt for someone else’s accent. Assaulting someone for your own amusement was generally lowari, because it made someone’s figurative blood subordinate to your whims, but assaulting someone out of irrational anger was still only chet – unless you were in a position of power over them, in which case it was lowari again. The most consistent thing the Book said was that rape was always lowari – even in the context of marriage, because intimate relationships were sacred to the Blood God, so coercion within a relationship was like desecrating a temple.
My tension receded. I didn’t have to hate the Blood Temple. Everything the Dalners had done to me would have been lowari after all. And lowari was the one type of violation that justified strong action. Justified revenge.
Officially, the Blood Temple never carried out punishments. Instead, there was revenge, carried out by the victim. In cases that went to court, Blood Temple staff were happy to “assist” with the revenge, and the victim only needed to nod along. But victims of lowari were explicitly permitted to get revenge without ever going to Blood court – even encouraged to. “When you have been wounded, your blood cries out to be avenged!” said the Book of Blood. “Do not rush unthinkingly into judgment, but do not let anyone push you into easy forgiveness. Do not make yourself quiet!” And theoretically, if the original violator tried to take the victim to court for the revenge, the Blood Temple would classify the revenge as not a violation at all. The principle was that when someone committed lowari, they put themselves above someone else, which formed a wound in their social relationships that could not be healed until they were torn down again, and the victim raised back up. So tearing them down wasn’t a violation, it was an act of restoring the balance. Of course, if they hadn’t committed lowari, then tearing them down was a violation. Some of the most notorious trials of the last century had been disputes over who was the original victim. So the Temple’s rules were hardly perfect.
Brannet had told himself not to spend time studying the Blood Temple’s methods of punishment, because that would be getting ahead of himself. But then he had made an excuse and done it anyway, because he couldn’t resist fantasizing about what would happen after he won. And neither could I.
When the Stern Temple had punished the Dalners, I had never actually seen it with my own eyes. What would have happened, I wondered, if it had been the Blood Temple instead? I imagined Blood Temple warriors holding the Dalners in front of me, helpless and humiliated, at the mercy of my revenge. Then I could have made them suffer how I had suffered. How I had made Morrow suffer. I had enjoyed breaking his fingers. I had looked into his eyes and exulted in the pain I was causing, in knowing that I finally, finally had power over someone who had wronged me. And how much more might I have enjoyed it, if it had been my own abusers under my heel? I would have broken every bone in their bodies. I would have made them live the rest of their lives knowing that every time they moved a muscle, it might bring them pain from the memory of what I had done to them. Just as they had done to me.
Was this how the Blood God felt about the Waiting God…?
But the Blood God’s revenge had tried to kill me! It wasn’t innocent, it had kept fighting even when that meant killing humans who shouldn’t have been involved! That was –
Wait. That was dechiokhari.
And what the Waiting God was doing was lowari.
The Waiting God was my greatest enemy, and I had to remember that. The Blood God had done wrong, but it wasn’t the same. That was what I believed. And the Blood Temple’s rules categorized it in exactly the same way. Maybe this was something I could agree with Blood on after all.
My mind raced forward, digging into other memories of the laws around revenge.
The victim wasn’t the only person who was allowed to get revenge. Anyone in a close relationship with the direct victim could get revenge on their behalf. And if a person committed lowari in front of witnesses, it was also considered a violation against the witnesses. But you weren’t allowed to get revenge unless you were close to the victim or had seen the crime yourself.
Getting revenge for chet was permitted, but not encouraged. And if you got revenge for shasset or dechiokhari, that was not permitted, and you were probably committing chet. Even if the revenge was unjustified, it was still only chet as long as you believed you were justified, but it could be lowari if you were using it to control someone, or if you had lied about feeling violated in the first place.
Ideally, revenge would be carried out immediately after your awakening of blood – the moment you realized the full extent of the wrong that had been done to you. Delayed revenge was permissible, but there were limits on how long you could delay it, and those limits were much shorter than the Stern Temple’s statutes of limitations. Even for the worst possible violation – if a loved one was murdered right in front of you – the limit was only eighteen months. And everything else was shorter than that. If you were still thinking of revenge after the time ran out, the Blood Temple considered that an unhealthy obsession, and if you acted on it, you would be committing chet.
This was more complicated than I thought. I didn’t know what to think about it. Was I not supposed to still want the Dalners to suffer? Was I not supposed to hate Morrow forever?
At least the timer didn’t start until your awakening. If you had tried to go on with your life and forget the violation, you hadn’t awakened yet, so you could still get revenge when you finally processed it. And if a child was being abused, they hadn’t awakened until they got out of the situation and felt like they had the power to do something about it. But no matter how you looked at it, I had already awakened by the time I was thirteen years old. That was four years ago. And the Dalners had already been punished – they had been torn down in the eyes of my society, just like they were supposed to be. And Morrow had been torn down as well. By the Blood Temple rules, the injustice was supposed to be over. I was allowed to still feel hurt, but I was supposed to feel like it was in the past.
That was just like Rinn, forgiving Morrow as soon as the situation was over. Was Rinn’s way the Blood way? But I wasn’t like that. I was like the Waiting.
But I didn’t want to be like the Waiting.
I needed more time to process this, sometime later. My own feelings weren’t important – no, they were – but they weren’t urgent. Until the Waiting God came back, I had to focus on the things I couldn’t learn any other way.
Like what Brannet had done with his new knowledge of Blood law.
I set down my books. Now, I could start thinking about strategy.
In order to see any of the shoplifters be punished under Blood law, I would need to produce a victim. And either the victim would need to want revenge, or I would need to produce a second person who was allowed to get revenge on their behalf.
Fortunately, we did have witnesses – that was how the perpetrators had been caught in the first place. The only question was how to interpret the thefts as lowari.
Two of the six shoplifters had stolen food. I discarded those two as hopeless. But that was fine. Winning even one of these cases would be enough to mark my name down in history. I sorted through the files, until one of them caught my eye, an adolescent girl who had stolen an expensive necklace – oh gods, if only I had never set eyes on that file! If only I had never stepped into the room with that masked judge, never tried to –
I stopped the memory, and decided it was time to skip forward to the trial itself. No, trial wasn’t the word from the memories – this case hadn’t gotten further than a pretrial hearing.
The Blood Temple didn’t have separate courthouses like the Stern. Legal proceedings were conducted in ordinary meeting halls, in the same temples that were used for gatherings and worship. On my way to the hearing, I had to walk across a courtyard where children, probably orphans raised by the Temple, played noisily in the dirt. I gave them a wide berth – it wouldn’t do for my pressed suit to be dirtied by their rowdiness.
I arrived early, of course. The judge – no, the Speaker – was already in the room. They were a foreboding figure, standing still in their long red robes, with a mask that completely covered their face. I couldn’t even tell if it was a man or a woman. I had to remind myself that this wasn’t Stern court. A Speaker, short for Speaker for the blood of the city, had almost arbitrary power to make legal decisions, and was only accountable to the Blood Temple’s Circle of Elders. Officially, decisions were made by “the blood of the city”, and Speakers only “delivered” them. But in practice, if I wanted to be successful, this was the person I had to convince.
“Speaker,” I greeted, slightly bowing my head. From what I had learned, showing any more deference than that would be seen as grovelling. The Speaker nodded back.
Soon, the other parties filtered into the makeshift courtroom. The thief girl didn’t look quite how I had imagined her. She came in nervously, holding herself upright, wearing a plain, conservative dress. She was almost pretty. But she was clearly Fifth-Ring trash. No doubt this was her only conservative dress, and she paraded around the streets in straps that barely covered up those oversized breasts – not that I paid attention to that. I was a professional, after all. When she entered, I shook her hand firmly, looking her steadily in the eye while –
I yanked myself out of the memory. I breathed carefully, trying to control the tension in my neck and remind myself that these memories weren’t me. It wasn’t even the degrading, sexual thoughts that bothered me – he wasn’t the only Farseer who thought like that, and it wasn’t nearly the most disturbing thing in my head. But the way Brannet instantly turned around and congratulated himself for being a better person – it was too much like the Dalners. I will never be like that, I will never be like that, part of me insisted.
But another part of me insisted that I was wasting time. I had to view these memories before the Waiting God was back. I thought back to the hearing – but then I stopped myself again. I had a feeling I was about to do something careless, reacting to my emotions but missing the bigger picture.
What was I missing?
I needed to know how the Blood Temple fell. But something told me that the Blood God wouldn’t care so much about the courtroom details. What I needed was something more fundamental. When part of me would become part of the Waiting God, I could not be doubtful. I hated the god and its plan, but the god wouldn’t absorb the part of me that hated it. It would absorb the part of me that saw everything from a distance, the part that coldly picked out the truth without caring how much it hurt. It was a part of me that wouldn’t care if hundreds of people had to suffer and die, if I had a goal that required it. And so I needed an answer on the level of the cold truth. A reason that the Blood God’s destruction could never be my goal.
A thought came to me in a flash. Garthold Brannet wasn’t the most important person in here. His memories were the loudest, but he wasn’t the most important. “He just sucks,” was what Rinn had said about him. The one the Blood God had cared about was Hiram Soleocchi, the schoolteacher. No, not “the schoolteacher” – the Blood Temple caretaker.
I could return to Brannet later, with a fresh mind. For now, it was time to learn more about Hiram. Ever since I had received the memories, I had been using his skills to reassure Rinn and the others. I had already felt like he was the most useful of the Farseers. But Rinn had known there was even more to him. I didn’t know what I was looking for, but if it mattered to the Blood God, it was important enough for me to find out.
Ah… the Blood Temple…
Whenever the kids started asking me for tales of the Blood Temple, it took me back to a happier time. Nowadays, apparently, I was “the cool substitute teacher”, but it made me sad when they called me that. I would have been happy if I had earned that title with my stories of the old Blood Temple. Happier still if I had earned it when I patiently listened to their stories of their lives. But the truth was much less heartening. In all their other classes, these kids were being told to keep their heads down and study. All I had to do to be “cool” was to give them a break from that. A chance to relax and move their bodies.
I was in the middle school today. It was a beautiful day outside, and I had let the kids put the desks in a circle to play a game with each other. Principal Cossaman would have wanted me to keep them “on task”, but it never seemed right to enforce the Stern rules on them. Nowadays, half of their parents were away in the factories from dawn to dusk, and came home too tired to spend time with their children. Who could blame the kids for wanting more space, more affection?
The Stern were always telling us that things were better than ever, because of all this “progress”. Because the parents’ labor was giving us all the newest automobiles and personal computers and whatever other great inventions the Seeking had dreamed up. When I was young, an automobile had been a luxury for the rich, and now it seemed like even the poorest families had them. But were they happy? Were people happier now? I couldn’t help but wonder if we could have gone a different way. If we could have had all these marvelous inventions, but also had our children be happy.
I paused. This memory was wistful, but I could feel dozens of others behind it. Feelings of stress and struggle rose into my mind. Among the factory workers were Hiram’s own friends and family. I remembered watching a cousin come home exhausted from a long day of work, yell at his wife, and collapse into bed with no time to cool off. I remembered long nights of comforting a friend, a friend who wanted to give up on life after an illness cost him all of his savings, which he had barely scraped together over years of labor.
Instinctively, I found myself reaching for the Stern. You can’t give up! You have to keep working, you have to finish what you started or you’ll lose everything! I had to remind myself that these were only memories. But even then… for Hiram, there was no end in sight. These people had kept working, and they were still losing everything. What kind of world was this? It was against everything from the Waiting culture where I’d grown up. When you worked hard, you were supposed to achieve something! Hiram had made peace with these memories, but the sense of peace just made them more unsettling. And it was always me – Hiram – who had to mend feelings, to be the voice of stability.
Just as I – Yali – had needed to be the voice of stability for Rinn. After I was forced into it by the Waiting God.
Was it the Waiting God’s fault for Hiram, too? Did this all happen because the Blood Temple fell? That was certainly how it felt from the memories. But how was the Blood Temple connected to the factories?
I felt like Hiram’s original memory had more answers for me. I allowed it to continue.
“Hey, old man!” one of the kids piped up. “Mister Soleocchi, are you listening?”
I blinked, bringing myself back to the present. “Ah, call me Hiram. Did I doze off there?”
One of them leaned forward. “Mister Hiram, is it true that Blood temples had giant orgies every year?”
I smiled sadly. Nowadays, kids only wanted to hear the gory details, about the orgies, the floggings. Of course, kids had always asked about those things, because that is what kids do best – hunting after the highs and lows of life until they find their place in the world. But there had used to be another kind of questions, too. Ten years ago, there had been the kids who asked “why aren’t we allowed to say the Blood prayers anymore?” And the kid who asked “my granddad says the Blood Temple always sent someone around to take care of his mother when she was having one of her episodes, so Granddad could still go to school. Why don’t the Stern do that?” But for kids growing up today, the Blood Temple was just a part of history.
What could I tell them? Yes, there were holy days when we hosted orgies. Yes, we sometimes carried out public floggings for severe violations. But no, I couldn’t tell them any stories about the floggings, because Blood tradition forbade gossiping about someone’s past punishment. No, I wouldn’t forget Blood tradition just because the Blood Temple was gone now. There were reasons for how we did things. After someone was punished, they needed the chance to return to equal status in society. If you treated their humiliation as a funny thing to gossip about, you were stepping on them for your own amusement. That was lowari.
And none of that was what the Blood Temple was really about.
What a pity I couldn’t tell them my fondest memories, of the hard, satisfying work of Blood. At their age, they weren’t yet ready to appreciate such things. As I often did, I made a compromise, telling the hectic story of our relief effort for Hurricane Fjarl –
– but as Yali, I didn’t have to compromise with those kids from the past. I had now touched the thought of what the Blood Temple was really about. So I skipped straight there.
It was a time of peace, a slow autumn when the days were warm and the temple well-stocked, years before the hurricane threw us into recovery. It had been a good year for the eastern farmland, and the harvest festival had been more lively than ever, with bonfires and feasting filling the streets, clear from wall to wall. A simpler time, when I could sit with the temple children all around me and read to them from the Book of Blood.
I was no priest, but I still looked forward to any time I could read the words aloud, lovingly thumbing through the worn pages of my old copy. The Book of Blood was the only holy book that published new versions on a yearly basis, to reflect the living truth of the people’s will. But for me, I always kept the copy that my grandfather had read to me as I sat on his knee.
“Each one of you has a fire inside you,” I would always read. “A fire of your pride… A fire of your strength… A fire that is always burning. Always be sure to feed that fire, to grow strong in a way that is all your own. And be sure to feed the fires of those around you, because what makes any of us strong, makes all of us strong. No person is above or below any other.” On the best days, there was time for everyone to listen together, from the smallest children to the most wizened elders, because everyone needed the words in their own way.
Okay, that all sounds nice, I thought, as Yali. But what did we actually do?
One memory stood out.
One day, while I was loading the kids’ dirty clothing into the newfangled electric washing machine, little Camlen approached me, tugging at my pant leg and croaking out that his throat was hurting. The poor thing – the temple was a hub of activity, so it was all too easy for diseases to spread. I had been keeping ahead on the laundry, praise the Waiting, so I could easily interrupt it to take care of him.
Camlen had a bad cold, but at least it was only a cold. I took his hand and found us a quiet room. I helped him get wrapped up in a blanket, then mixed some honey water to help soothe his throat.
“It’ll be okay,” I said softly. “Temple will take care of you. You’ll be all better before you know it.”
When Hiram said Temple, he was referring to himself. Figuratively, the temple caretakers were the Temple. And it was obvious how much affection he had for the children here. There were kids of all ages at the temple, from toddlers up to teenagers. Some of them were orphans. Some of them stayed at the temple during the day while their parents were away working. Some of them just loved to play at the temple, even when they didn’t have to. And some had just showed up one day without saying why.
Out of all of them, I especially loved the ones who were struggling, the ones who were clumsy and sad and didn’t know how to put their feelings into words. Those were the ones who needed the Blood Temple most of all.
Of course, it’s hard to love anyone when you’ve been awake for twenty hours cleaning up after the incredible variety of messes they know how to make. But caretaking isn’t a feeling – it’s a habit. Civeah, one of the other caretakers, sometimes said she loved the children every day, but on other days, she said she hated them every day. Maybe I just wasn’t as Blood as she was. Or maybe we were both Blood, but I was also Waiting enough to remember how I would feel on other days, not just how I felt at the moment.
That day was one of those days. Camlen kept holding onto me and wouldn’t let go, so I had to stay up all night and keep soothing him. To keep him entertained, I lugged in the radio and tried to tune in to a good program. This late at night, there weren’t many to choose from. Most of the city’s radio stations were in the upper rings, and the magic in the city walls meant that radio signals couldn’t get from one ring to another. Among what was left, I still had to skip past most of them – too many of these radio comedies were based on degrading people, and it just wasn’t right for kids to grow up thinking that was the way to be funny. But I finally found one that was good-humored. Before long, Camlen was laughing along, in between his occasional coughing. I kept sitting with him, gently rubbing his back, until the morning light had come and he had finally managed to drift off to sleep.
Once he was fast asleep, I neatened up the blankets and –
I pulled myself out of the memory. This was just a bunch of feel-good stuff! Was this what Hiram thought was the true purpose of the Blood Temple? The feeling in the memory was overwhelming, like he thought this was beautiful and perfect, but was it even good decision-making? He was so happy that they weren’t having a crisis and he could afford to put things off – but if you weren’t having a crisis, that didn’t mean you could afford to idle around! It meant you could afford to prepare for the next crisis before it happened!
I felt uncomfortable. Hiram’s skills had always helped me – even in moments of danger, his memories had helped me stay calm and know what to say. It felt like a betrayal to think that he was only somebody like Alchemist, a person who had skills but failed to take things seriously when they needed to. But I had always been taught that the true measure of a person was how they behaved in a crisis. And everything I had ever experienced confirmed it. If Hiram was wrong about what was important, I couldn’t afford to pretend he was right.
With some unease, I turned my mind to something that would show me how the Blood Temple handled a crisis – the thing Hiram’s memories had touched on earlier, the response to Hurricane Fjarl.
By the whim of the Seeking, the main temple didn’t get the worst of the storm. The power was out all across the city, and we got a lot of rain, but that was all. But a lot of our smaller temples had been hit hard, and they needed immediate help to keep serving their people.
We called in all the temple’s part-time workers, and had a big planning meeting in the main hall. People kept rushing in and out, and everyone wanted to talk at once. Our big map of the city was covered with red marks for every place that needed more workers or food or supplies. In the first hour of the meeting, we agreed to send everyone we could possibly spare to help our other temples. By the time the meeting ended at sunset, we had agreed to send even more, because the others could spare it even less.
For the five of us who stayed behind, we had to turn the temple into a staging area for all the supplies that were coming through. And we had to do it fast. There was no one left to make the rounds in the neighborhood, to check on the elders and disabled people who lived close to the temple. It was a tragedy, knowing that they might need us now more than ever. But us five had enough work for twenty people, and it was vital to the lives of so many more.
But first, someone had to tell the younger children what to expect. That was me. I called them together and told them that today was an important day for all of us, and I needed to trust them to take care of each other while we caretakers worked for the hurricane relief. Jae-nyu and Quercien volunteered to help, and I brought them outdoors with me, quickly looking for work that was safe for them to do. I knew that it would take a lot of my attention to manage them, maybe more than the extra pairs of hands would gain us, but we were a community, and a community works together.
“We can’t accept this food! Nonperishables only!” Civeah was yelling as we came out, waving her arms, trying to get the point across through the noise of the rain. A local family was trying to give us a cartload of donations, even while three trucks were waiting to be unloaded at once.
Rohin, the old priest, briefly looked away from a heated conversation with a Stern Temple messenger. As he turned, a gust of wind caught his red robe, blowing of the hood into his face. Barlim had teased him for still wearing the robes of a priest while it was pouring, but he was proud to be a priest, and he refused to be seen without them. You couldn’t take away someone’s pride.
A Blood priest! As Yali, I paused to redirect the memory. What were Blood priests like?
Everyone understood that Rohin was in charge around here. That wasn’t how the Blood Temple was supposed to work – tradition said that Blood priests should only offer education and advice, and let the listeners make their own decisions. But Rohin had a way of giving advice that didn’t really give you a choice. He would just keep saying “Ah, but perhaps you haven’t considered –” until you gave in. In theory, the Blood Temple had rules that could stop this kind of thing. If someone raised the issue before the Circle of Elders, the elders would investigate, and they would certainly find that he had too much power to be an ordinary priest. Then he would either be exiled or promoted to a Speaker. Since he was widely respected, he would probably be made a Speaker, which meant he would have official authority, but would have to wear the mask all the time and wouldn’t be allowed to give himself an identity separate from the other Speakers. But in practice, none of that would happen – Rohin was likable enough, and no one was angry enough to get the Circle involved, and Rohin was smart enough not to do anything that would change that. Only Civeah still bothered to argue with him, and she usually ended up doing what he said anyway.
Interesting… after the way Rinn had talked, I had almost been expecting Blood priests to be like something from a legend. But of course, they had really been just a normal role in society. And since Hiram had formed this memory while he was still alive, that meant he was willing to see the Temple’s imperfections after all…
Holding his hood open with his hand, Rohin said, “I think, perhaps, we can? We can’t send the food onwards, but our own larder is nearly emptied.” And it was still stocked with ice, praise the Waiting, not needing electricity to stay cold. “It is, perhaps, the way the least would go to waste –”
“Who’s gonna move it all?” Civeah yelled back.
“We’ll take care of it,” said one of the donors gruffly. “We’re all in the same temple.”
“Your devotion –” Rohin held onto his hood. “Your devotion sustains us all. Hiram, do you have time to –”
Of course, as soon as Rohin looked towards me, I knew I’d be stuck with showing the family to the larder. In minutes, we were a whole train of people carrying food from the cart down into the cold larder, people of all different sizes, me and Jae-nyu and Quercien and the whole family who was donating it.
While I was hurriedly organizing everyone’s items onto the shelves, I heard Jae-nyu scream from outdoors. I ran back up the stairs, careful not to stumble from my fatigue. Out in the rain, I found Jae-nyu sitting in the dirt, next to a heap of broken glass. She had gotten tired while carrying a heavy juice bottle, and put it down to take a break, but she had put it on a stack of tarps that wasn’t stable, and then it had slid off and hit her in the leg before it shattered. She pulled down her pants to show me her bruise.
“That looks painful,” I said gently. In my head, I continued, but not bad enough that I can afford to stay away from my other duties. I knelt down next to her, feeling the strain of wanting to help when I knew I had to keep it quick. “Would you like to head inside and rest? Remember, it’s always okay to –”
“No!” she said loudly.
Sometimes, kids could be such a headache. If Jae-nyu kept working when she was this tired, she was going to hurt herself again. But that was her pride, and it was better to let her get hurt than to ask her to give up her pride. Eventually, she would learn her limits, and until then, it was my job to support her as best I could. “I know you can be strong,” I said. “Keep being strong, but remember to be careful –”
Hearing Hiram talk to the child like that… I could feel a bitter anger rising inside me. He actually respected her! I couldn’t count how many times some useless adult had refused to believe what I was capable of. Had acted like they could keep me safe, when I actually had to do it all for myself. But Hiram knew.
“Hiram, there you are! We could really use an extra body over here –”
I looked up. Civeah and the others were straining to lift a pallet of portable generators out of a truck. They really did need help. Reluctantly, I started to stand. I patted Jae-nyu on the shoulder. “I’m sorry, but it looks like I’m needed. Jae, if you’re okay to keep working, I’m appointing you as guardian of this broken glass. Don’t touch it, but make sure nobody steps on it until someone can help you clean it up.”
Jae-nyu nodded resolutely. I stood and hurried towards the others, fighting the feeling that I was leaving something unfinished. An emergency was a difficult time. If only we lived in a world where there was always enough time to take care of everyone who was hurt. It had almost seemed like we did, back in that one autumn, when I had been able to spend a whole night to take care of…
That was… The same memory of the sick boy from earlier. As Yali, something was bothering me. This wasn’t just a fond memory of old times. Hiram actually felt like he had accomplished something then, and he was frustrated that it wouldn’t get done now. But what was he thinking of? Staying up with the boy all night didn’t solve anything! What about the next time the boy was sick, when Hiram might not be there? Someday, the boy would have to learn how to handle it on his own, and until then, this was just delaying the inevitable. But Hiram felt like this was a beautiful success, a holy thing. What was so successful about it? I couldn’t tell. This was frustrating. It was even worse than when I was trying to understand the Waiting God – with the god, I could at least ask what it thought about something, and then I could form new god-thoughts to get my answer. But with the memories, I just had to hope there was already a memory that explained it.
There might be some way I could figure it out, but I wasn’t getting anywhere right now. I thought back to the hurricane.
The first memory that came up was the beginning again, the big meeting where they were arguing about where to send help first. I was about to skip forward to a different memory when I noticed an old man who looked oddly familiar. Not familiar to Hiram, but to me, Yali.
But how could someone from eighty years ago look familiar? Unless – wait! It was familiar from the Waiting God’s past, not mine. The man was dressed the same way as that group I had seen negotiating with the businesspeople. Who were they? Hiram’s memory thought of them as important people who deserved a lot of respect… people you’d see working with the Blood Temple, but not exactly Blood Temple leaders, either. I thought back, trying to find other memories of them.
It was a long time before, when I was just a few years out of school, the year my grandfather passed. I hadn’t gotten used to my role at the Blood Temple yet, and I was nervous around all the important priests and community leaders who came by. That was how I met her – I was moving a cart of firewood down the hallway, to restock the beacon fires on the temple towers, when a proud, dignified old woman approached from the other direction. I hurried to move my cart to the wall so she would have plenty of room to pass.
She looked at me sharply. “You there! Young man. Why did you move aside?”
The lines of her face spoke of someone who did not smile easily. I fumbled for my words. “I – you – you’re from the neighborhood council in Sarsonhill, right? You must have important business, I’m nobody important –”
The old woman gestured at my cart. “You are doing the work of the Temple, aren’t you? That cart must be very heavy – heavier than me, that’s certain. In this hallway, you are the important one.” She pointedly moved herself to the opposite wall.
“I – uh, thanks, I’ll just –” In hindsight, I appreciated her show of respect. At the time, I shut my mouth and hurried on my way, not sure how to handle the situation.
But in the coming months, she made a point of noticing me, pausing on her way to thank me for my work, asking after how the Blood Temple was treating me. And in return, I heard her own news about her work on the neighborhood council. It sounded like a constant struggle, making sure everyone in Sarsonhill was advocated for, despite their many conflicting needs and perspectives.
“These hustlers from Literate Communications are still trying to get our permission to build one of their radio stations in Sarsonhill. We told them that if the towers would be built in the middle of Sarsonhill, and if their broadcasts would become part of Sarsonhill culture, then the towers would be owned by the people, and the people would decide what was broadcast. They laughed at us! When will they give up?”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “If they laugh at you in your own home, how do they expect to make you agree to anything?”
“They have nothing new to offer. But they are persistent…” she scoffed. “They want us to think of how wonderful it would be that they will bring jobs, that they will hire Sarsonhillers. So their offer is that we will do the work for them, then they will own the result? What rubbish! But some of the weaker wits on my council are halfway persuaded by it. Young man, I fear for my grandchildren’s generation… Just this morning little Surei asked me, ‘why can’t we have good radio like the upper rings?’ Where did she even hear that the upper rings have good radio? I would hardly call it good, I have heard their programs, they are full of liars trying to sell you things you don’t need. I told her, we could have good radio, but those greedy men will not let us have it unless they can use it to control us. We are a proud neighborhood, we will not be turned into working dogs for some distant company!”
“Surely the Blood Temple would put a stop to that!”
“The Blood Temple is not what it used to be, young man. The Circle have made one too many treaties for my liking, and now they are too wrapped up in their politics to see how the world is changing around them. When I was your age, they would have come down hard on something like this, but too many things have changed…” She shook her head. “No, don’t let me demoralize you. Maybe the Blood Temple isn’t what it used to be, but you are part of its next generation. You can make it whole again.”
“Me? I’m just a caretaker…”
She fixed me with a steely glare. “Caretakers are the beating heart of the city, and don’t you forget it!”
Hiram felt encouraged when he heard that. As Yali, it was bittersweet. Unfortunately, the Blood Temple had fallen before Hiram had been able to live a full life as part of it… Unfortunately? When had I started unconsciously taking the side of the Blood Temple? True, that was what I wanted to happen, but I had been expecting to make a conscious choice. Not to just have it… sneak in, without my permission.
So this was what I had seen in the Waiting God’s memory. In the vastness of the god, there must have been thousands of meetings like that one. Thousands of meetings where… where companies from the upper rings had tried to bring their idea of progress to the Fifth Ring. “Progress” that the Blood God and its people had resisted – and now I understood why. Because this “progress” was a form of control. Because they knew how it would end, as I had seen it end, in Hiram’s old age, with the Fifth Ring’s people turned into factory workers, never seeing the rewards of their labor.
Progress that the Waiting God had seen as a stepping stone along the path to achieve true order.
To contribute to the order of the city…
It was connected. The process had already begun in Hiram’s youth, and it was the same process that, decades later, steered Garthold Brannet into his ill-fated court case.
I needed to know the end. I steeled myself to put up with Brannet’s memories once again.
Once everyone was present – especially Tanmei Luef, the “victim” I had chosen – the hearing could start. I was there as her advocate. In Blood court, a victim was allowed to designate one or more people as their advocates – which didn’t usually mean lawyers, and often meant friends or family. But since there were no qualifications for an advocate, it was a convenient excuse for me to be present.
The hearing began with her reading out her accusation, which I had prepared with her in advance. It was a real sob story. She was one of the recent layoffs at Hatheraw & Green. Her home was full of mold after it had been damaged in a flood during the previous month, and because she had lost her income, she had had to cancel a repair job she had scheduled. Then she had gotten seriously ill from the mold, ended up in the emergency room, and ultimately had to sell her home for a pittance to cover expenses. It was lucky I had found someone with such a clear connection between their loss of income and their physical body. Our argument was that thefts of expensive goods – such as the theft this case centered around – had directly led to the layoffs that caused Tanmei’s miserable hardship.
After our presentation, the Speaker finally spoke. Now I could tell that she was a woman. Her voice was curt and dismissive – she must have been prejudiced against me from the start. “Is there a direct connection between your situation and the taking of the specific necklace?”
“In the case of Grem v. Sargon,” I interceded, “a gang of young men wantonly destroyed a dozen pumpkins belonging to a farmer. When Sargon Verth, a regular customer of the farmer, heard of what happened and saw that there were no pumpkins left for him to buy, he beat one of the young men bloody. When it was challenged, the blood of the city pronounced his actions as permissible revenge for lowari, on the basis that the young man must have known that his actions were depriving someone of pumpkins, even though there was no proof that the dozen pumpkins would have been sold to Sargon, or even that there would have been any pumpkins left for him to buy if those dozen had not been destroyed. In the same way –”
“I din’ know anything!” the thief girl blurted out. She looked like she was about to cry her eyes out. “I din’ make it flood, I din’ make ’er get sick –”
“You will have your chance to speak later,” said the Speaker brusquely. At least there was some sense of decorum here. “So,” she continued, “the accusation before the Temple is that Tanmei’s blood was dependent on Hatheraw & Green, and that thefts have left Hatheraw & Green no choice but to abandon her. Is that correct?”
I should have known! I should have realized what a disaster I was walking myself into. But I thought I had reasoned it out so well. I simply said, “That is correct.”
“Where are the decision-makers?” said the Speaker curtly.
“Beg pardon, Speaker?”
“The decision to terminate Tanmei’s employment was made by human beings. It was one or more human beings who considered Hatheraw & Green’s budget and, per the accusation, determined that they had no choice but to abandon the blood of one of their own. Let them come before the Temple and testify.”
But the reorganization had involved people from four different departments across Hatheraw & Green, up to and including our CEO! If he was called to testify in a routine shoplifting case because of me, I’d be a laughingstock! “Speaker, I appreciate the Temple’s interest in having the best possible information, but surely it’s not necessary for them to personally –”
“Necessary? If a person has been forced to take part in another’s suffering, should they not be eager to see that injustice brought to a resolution?”
“No one at Hatheraw & Green wants to see anyone suffer, I assure you! But surely you don’t expect them to take time out their busy schedules just to –”
“Did you learn Blood law from a book?” the Speaker barked. “You subvert the meaning of justice! We DO expect them to testify – an accusation has been made, and their decisions are at the heart of it! Do you think they are so high above Tanmei that they have no need to look her in the face?”
“Then we withdraw the accusation! Don’t we, Tanmei –”
“Fool!” the Speaker shrieked –
– no, this memory felt distorted. Earlier, he had seen the Speaker as an authority figure. Now, she felt like an unreasonable person, irrational and shrieking. Why? It had changed when… when Brannet learned she was a woman. Now it made sense. I’d seen the same thing from a few of the other male Farseers. Whenever a woman was criticizing him, even the physical sound of her voice was recorded differently, not the way it would be for me, or Hiram, or most of the other Farseers.
Mentally, I tried to correct it.
“Fool!” the Speaker declared. “You cannot quiet her blood! The blood of the city hears your words as an attempt to control her, and by law, the accusation can no longer be withdrawn! You have made it far too clear why you are here. You brought Tanmei here intending to use her suffering as a tool to benefit Hatheraw & Green. But suffering cries out with a voice of its own, and those who were truly responsible must be found! Let every pertinent financial record be brought to the temple, and let everyone involved in the decision come to testify! The blood of the city demands it!”
I tried to think. The Speaker’s words felt unreasonable, but only because I was inside Brannet’s memories. Of course, she was right, Brannet didn’t care about Tanmei Luef at all. I had to think about this as Yali. And as Yali –
– as Yali, I had been wrong all along. I had thought the courtroom details wouldn’t matter, because I had assumed they would just be about the guilt or innocence of the random shoplifters. But now… Blood court went beyond that. The Speaker had pointed straight past Brannet’s manipulations. The Blood Temple had a system for how society was supposed to care for its people, and when that system wasn’t upheld… “The Blood God doesn’t forget where the real fault is just because you point fingers!” was what Rinn had said. The guilty party was the Hatheraw & Green hierarchy itself.
“Hatheraw & Green most certainly won’t be complying with such a demand!” I said quickly. “We are established within the jurisdiction of the Stern Temple, and the Blood Temple has no authority to –”
“So you came here with no intention of respecting our decisions? Begone from this temple, scofflaw! Run and tell your masters to expect our full demands in writing by month’s end, and tell them that we will not be used!”
How did it end this way? Curse them all! Curse that Speaker for spiting me! Did she –
I skipped forward.
I never liked to think back to the time right after the hearing. When Mr. Tully fired me, he scheduled a full hour just to yell at me for bringing the Blood Temple’s attention against us. Did he ever apologize for ordering me to do it in the first place? Did I ever get an apology from Hatheraw & Green after the repercussions ultimately ended in their favor? Of course not.
But I did watch the news like a hawk. I had expected the case to fade into obscurity after Hatheraw & Green rejected the Blood Temple’s demands… but only the Waiting knows the end. The Blood Temple had no authority to compel testimony from Hatheraw & Green executives, but they did have authority over the Fifth Ring, where Hatheraw & Green had two storefronts. And they must have been waiting for an excuse to act, because they banned Hatheraw & Green from the Fifth Ring and seized the two storefronts. Hatheraw & Green appealed to the Stern to protect their assets. And that was where things got complicated.
Back then, it was unprecedented for the Stern police to enter the Fifth Ring. But the Trade Unification Treaty had changed things, allowing corporations do business on both sides of the wall. No doubt, when the Blood Temple signed the treaty, none of them believed they were giving permission for Stern forces to enter their territory. But in a beautiful legal argument – no, not “beautiful”, that was just Brannet’s bias – the Stern Temple stated that the Blood Temple’s seizure of Hatheraw & Green assets was a violation of the Trade Unification Treaty, and claimed the right to a “minimal enforcement action” to protect the assets.
Soon, the Concord of Temples was inundated with accusations from both sides. And while the temples took weeks to debate in the Concord, the situation escalated. The Stern arrested dozens of Blood Temple personnel and held them in Stern temples within the Fifth Ring, which were technically their own pockets of Stern territory. Blood warriors attacked those temples – another diplomatic violation – to break them out. The Blood side brought priests to the front lines of the fighting, and when those priests were inevitably injured or arrested, they used it as an excuse for further violence. And after the accidental death of a Blood priest in Stern custody, the Blood Temple accused the Concord of stalling and unilaterally declared a state of war between the two temples.
Accidental death? Just like it “wasn’t the Waiting God’s fault” that the Blood Children were being killed. I didn’t believe it for a second.
Declaring war was their last mistake. Our forces were better-equipped and better-organized, and the Blood forces were crushed in battle after battle. The Blood Temple was able to drag out the war for another four months, but they never stood a chance. In the end, their loyalists were scattered and their temples were in ruins. They couldn’t even assemble a delegation to send to the Concord, so the Concord voted to formally withdraw recognition, and reassigned the bottom two rings as Stern territory. Once the Stern had formal authority, they finally began to stamp out the remains of that archaic institution. The remaining Blood temples were either demolished or repurposed to serve unglamorous functions. Companies like Hatheraw & Green, which had been de facto excluded from the Fifth Ring by the Blood Temple’s policies, were free to expand their operations there –
– and to exploit the Fifth Ring’s people. It was all coming together.
But how much of this was the Waiting God’s plan?
The Waiting Temple had its own military, but it was hardly ever used. I remembered a statement released by the Waiting Temple, lamenting the violence on both sides, but taking no additional action. Which made sense, because there was no need for the Temple to overextend itself when things were already going in the right direction. It was better to let it resolve itself than to become entangled.
I concentrated. Those last thoughts hadn’t felt like Brannet’s usual opinions. Was it the Waiting God again? Yes, it was! And it was merging with my own thoughts the same way as before, so I had been right – it wasn’t really conscious of what I was doing. That meant I could examine its thoughts again! Had this all been part of its plan? The Waiting Temple subsidy leading to Brannet getting involved in this case, leading to the fall of the Blood Temple? I held that idea in my mind, trying to express it in the way the god understood things, and listened for the god’s conclusions.
It was hardly a grand design. Like so many things, it was a messy sequence of events, set in motion by a soul whose purposes were far askew from our own. It would have been foolish to rely on this particular one of our temple’s countless half-formed expressions of our will. But our net was wide and slow, and just as a drought needs only one spark to become a fire, Blood’s temple could never have remained stable forever, not when the city’s loyalty was turning away from Blood and towards a deeper structure. Things would be messy for this long moment, but they would not be messy forever.
And that was bad, I insisted to myself. The Waiting God’s structure was bad.
How disorganized I was being, to protest against something that was unavoidable.
We went back and forth like this for a few minutes. The Waiting God’s thoughts felt so true, it was hard to make them doubtful. Even if I had learned to view the Blood Temple as good… a good thing could still be sacrificed, if it would obtain something greater. I needed the final piece of the puzzle – I needed to see Blood as not just good, but irreplaceable.
The memories were harder to reach this time, but the Waiting God wasn’t fully present yet. And now that I had seen so many of them, I knew where to look. I would still be able to view them for a while longer.
I blocked out the god’s thoughts and became Hiram again.
I would like to think that I never truly left the Blood Temple. All of my social circles were built around it, and even as my Temple friends brought me grimmer and grimmer news, I never stopped thinking of it as my temple. But the physical temple had become a dangerous place to be. When the Circle of Elders had made their declaration of war, they had said so themselves. Those who would fight for the Temple were asked to fight. Those who would not fight were asked to stay at home and protect their families. And I knew which of those was me.
When the Stern captured our high priest, everyone disagreed on who should take over for her. It shouldn’t have mattered, because the role of high priest was a formality – no individual person can have too much power. But even in the Blood Temple, people had a weakness for hero-worship. Worse, the Stern Temple insisted on acknowledging our Acting High Priest, even after the Circle appointed another to replace him. It should have been obvious that the Stern were trying to pit us against each other. But there were fights. Friends accused friends of betrayal. I did what I could to mend feelings, but the temple I had loved was falling apart.
Again, Hiram was only sad, when my own response would have been more vindictive. One “betrayer” was a close friend of his, a disabled woman he’d helped with housework in his official role as caretaker. Without the Temple’s support, she’d had to reenter the workforce to support herself, working for one of the new companies who’d moved in. And his other friends had called her a traitor for doing it… until they, too, saw their old jobs disappear from around them. Midwives and even cooks saw their traditional practices banned under the new Stern laws. The Stern were slowly dismantling what had come before them, until the Fifth Ring’s people had no choice but to fit themselves into the Stern system, laboring their lives away for the new order. These people were being sacrificed for the Waiting God’s plan. Just as it had tried to sacrifice me.
As Hiram, in the end, I was tired. Too many of my friends had died in the fighting, and too many more had been carried away to the Stern prison when they tried to protest against the new laws. I understood what drove them, but it was not a place I could follow. I had never had the Stern instinct, the instinct to sacrifice everything rather than compromise my principles. Something good had been lost forever, but there had always been loss, and there was no sense in fighting for something that was already gone. My one small rebellion was to keep my Book of Blood when the Stern burned all the copies, hiding it under a floorboard and lying to the Stern when they came to take them. Other than that, I adapted. I found small ways to keep the tradition of caretaking alive in the new order.
That was what the Blood Temple had always been about. It was never about all this fighting, all this politics. It was about people caring for each other, even if it meant staying up late into the night to make sure they –
There was the memory of the sick boy again. The same fond memory of staying up all night just to comfort him.
Why? Why did Hiram keep coming back to that memory, even when he was thinking about these bigger injustices? By now, I had seen him being both thoughtful and pragmatic. He liked feel-good things, but not enough to cloud his judgment. Was I the one who was missing something important? It was unsettling. To him, it was so obvious why this would be a good formative experience for the boy. But to me… how could I make sense of it?
I hunted through the memories, ruthlessly skipping back and forth, searching for an explanation. Memories of him watching over the children, breaking up fights and explaining the value of respect for each other – no, not quite the same thing. Memories of him making the rounds in the community, telling new neighbors about the Temple’s services – no, too practical. When did he ever think about his reasons? How could he just keep going all the time?
“How do you put up with it?” Civeah slurred.
She was already swaying on her feet. She only ever came to this dingy bar to get drunk out of her mind, and it was always my job to get her home safely, because she wouldn’t let anyone else do it. She had already asked me to dance four times, even after we had agreed not to. We both knew she would take it as a romantic gesture, then be heartbroken later.
I didn’t have to answer before she went on. “Belleketh broke her doll again, the wooden one I just fixed yesterday! So I fixed it again! Why?! Those little ashhhhholes break everything, they break everything, they break everything they touch. They’ll do it forever. What’s the point of it all?”
Already knowing how she would answer, I began, “You should take some time for yourself. I promise we can cover –”
“Fffuck that,” she said, as always. “Just, how do you put up with it? You perfect, you perfect, ahhh –”
I knew she wouldn’t remember in the morning, but I did my best. “You fixed something much bigger than a doll,” I said. “The children rely on us. And every time they see us being there to support them, they’re learning something bigger. They’re learning that there is someone they can always rely on. That’s the real magic of what we do. We’re teaching them that this is a world where people can rely on each other. Where we care about each other. And maybe when they’re older, when someone else is relying on them, they’ll remember, and they’ll know what they need to do…” I leaned against a wall, trying not to look at the harsh electric lights. “Ah, I’m sounding like my grandpa, bless his drifting soul…”
I pulled out of the memory, a sense of disappointment filling me. This was his reason? It wasn’t a reason I could accept. In this world, you couldn’t rely on anyone. You had to know how to take care of your own needs. I could feel an emptiness inside me, the sickness, the guilt, of every time I had been been hurt because I carelessly expected someone to get something done without me checking it. Every time I had hesitated because some useless adult had told me things would be taken care of. Teaching kids that they could rely on anyone was just going to get them hurt! They would blunder into danger again and again until they were burned enough times to stop trusting anyone else with their safety! And if the Blood God thought this was holy, the Blood God was letting it happen! It would be responsible for their suffering, for my suffering! I could feel anger building inside me, anger at this man who would try to soothe away the core of what made me strong, what made me Yali Seti. I could just imagine him softly telling me it was okay to let down my guard. I could never let down my guard! If I did, I would be weak and helpless and pathetic, I would be back with the Dalners, I would be sick and no one would take care of me, I wouldn’t get up in the morning. How could this be holy?! How dare the Blood God try to soothe me! How dare it tell me that all my work was meaningless, that everything I had done to protect myself was meaningless?!
But if the Blood God was bad, then the Waiting God was right. To protect humanity from their foolish vulnerability, it was necessary to carve away the remnants of Blood, to clear humanity of the frivolousness that held them back from doing what needed to be done. Then the world could become whole. Humanity could finally free itself from its destructive complications.
No! That was wrong! It was just the Waiting God getting in my thoughts again, it had to be wrong! I didn’t care about humanity – if it would make the Waiting God right, I was against it!
A familiar cold feeling flowed through me. It was like I was watching my own thoughts from a distance. I saw them fighting, the part of me that saw the Waiting as the only shelter from the chaos of the world, and the part of me that saw the Waiting as a monster who had exploited me without remorse. I had always told myself I would look at the truth without filters, but it was hard to see past the two parts’ rage. They were both afraid that if they let me look, then the truth wouldn’t be what they wanted it to be.
But the truth is never what you want. And if you want to change it into what you want, then you need to see it for what it is.
I peeled them both away, forcing back my rage, coldly opening myself up to learning what I was afraid to know. I was already crying. I hated it. There was much more to do, and I was crying already.
What did I know for sure?
It was a fact that Hiram had told that boy he didn’t need to worry. It was a fact that Hiram believed that that was good, that it was sacred to the Blood God. Was it truly sacred to the Blood God? Every part of me said yes.
It was a fact that I had needed to worry. It was a fact that if I had not worked to protect myself, I would still be with the Dalners.
Was it a fact that Hiram would have told me that I didn’t need to worry? And if he did, what would the Blood God think?
No matter how much he cared, he wouldn’t have known I was being abused. What if he had seen me and assumed nothing was wrong, then tried to reassure me that nothing was wrong? How could I know if he –
A memory leapt to mind, almost before I went looking for it.
“Is my son here? Svet – He’s here, isn’t he?”
I looked up from my gardening. The evening sun made it hard to get a good look at the woman. Remembering my training, I said, “If there is a Svet here, if you’ll just wait here, I can step inside and tell him that his mother is –”
“What is this? Is he here or not?”
“Just Temple policy, ma’am –”
The woman pushed through the door. I was stunned – it was taboo to enter a living space uninvited! But on second glance, she was dressed like someone from the Third Ring, so she probably just didn’t understand our norms. I dropped my tools and hurried after her – and found Civeah already blocking her path, thank the gods.
“Ma’am, you can’t come in here, you have to step outside –” Civeah began.
“Svet, come here! I am your mother!”
I knew where I was needed. I slipped past them and knelt down next to Svet, who looked like he was trying to hide his tiny body behind a chair. He was a quiet kid – he looked about nine years old, and he had walked into the temple by himself a few weeks earlier. It was common for kids to move in and out of the temple without much fuss, and Blood Temple tradition said not to ask about anyone’s past unless they volunteered it themselves – what mattered was the care the Temple could give them in the present. It was six more years before Svet opened up to me about how his mother had abused him. It made me cry, knowing what he had been through, but also knowing how the Blood ways had helped me protect him even before I knew.
In the present, I patted Svet on the shoulder. I was the only person he allowed to touch him, but he seemed to like it when it was me. “It’s okay,” I whispered. “You don’t have to go with her unless you want to. It’s your choice.”
As Yali, I gripped the arms of my chair, hanging onto every word.
“How dare you stand in my way?! I birthed him, we have a bond of blood! How can you call yourselves a Blood Temple when –”
“Do my ears deceive me?” came Rohin’s voice from the outside. “Did someone wonder if this is not a Blood Temple?” Rohin never raised his voice, but you could tell when he was scandalized.
Civeah and the woman both started shouting. I stayed at Svet’s side, whispering to him, reassuring him that no one would force him into anything. I offered to bring him to a quiet place away from the yelling adults, but he kept watching, transfixed.
“Ask yourself,” said Rohin, “how should a child experience a bond of blood? Should he feel it as a cord for his mother to yank him about with? Or should he feel it as a bond of protection and trust –”
“Your worship, I do not need a lesson in how to raise my son. I only ask that you give him back to me –”
“Ah, but he is not ours to give. If he does not reach out for you, then you must ask yourself, ‘what have I done to strain the trust inherent in our bond?’ Then, perhaps, you will understand –”
“He doesn’t come to me because he is too selfish to understand how much I’ve sacrificed for him! He needs me! Svet, come here –”
“You desecrate this temple with your words,” said Rohin sadly. “You must cease violating our space. Wait for me in the main hall if you would discuss this further.”
“You heard the man!” yelled Civeah, all but dragging the woman out the door.
Rohin and I exchanged a glance. We had all been in the middle of working when this had begun, but we would need to stay interrupted a little longer. The children were clustered together, waiting for us to speak – some upset, some not understanding what had happened. Quickly, we reassured them that they were safe, and that the mess they’d been cleaning up could wait until another time. In his most serious voice, Rohin explained how there are some people who believe that children are the property of their parents, but here, we believe that every child is their own person, with their own fire that cannot be suppressed by anyone. I held Svet gently while Rohin led us all in the Prayer to Recover Strength. Like many times before, the words washed over me:
“…and though I have been shaken,
“And though storm and tide have tried to drown my flame,
“I know that my body is a place of power…”
It was impossible. It was too convenient. Was I supposed to believe that I could have just walked into the Blood Temple and they would have protected me from the Dalners? That they would have fed me, taken care of me, no questions asked? Without needing proof, without me having to record everything to be taken seriously? It couldn’t be real. That just wasn’t how the world worked. People might like to think of themselves as good, but as soon as it was difficult, their true natures would show themselves. I couldn’t forget how my mother had abandoned me to suffer. I couldn’t forget Morrow’s memories of stranger after stranger closing their doors to him. No one would fight for you unless there was something forcing them to.
But I couldn’t deny what I had seen in Hiram’s memories. If I had been there… there was nothing that made me different from Svet. The caretakers would have protected me, without demanding anything in return. And even before that… it hurt to imagine it, but when I had lived with my mother, I could imagine them visiting us on their rounds, helping to carry away the trash that lined the halls, making sure there was always food ready for us to eat.
I had thought it wasn’t how the world worked, but maybe… maybe it only wasn’t how the world worked now. How the world worked without the Blood God.
My teeth chattered. I felt dizzy and sick. Everything I had done… Every time I had checked and double-checked so I wouldn’t miss what my mother had forgotten, every time I had forced myself to stay quiet when I wanted to scream, every time I had stayed awake late into the night planning out how to protect myself… It WOULD all have been meaningless. It SHOULD all have been meaningless. I should never have had to do any of it. I should have gotten to live in a world where I didn’t have to work harder than everyone else just to live in safety. A world where I could be weak and helpless, where I could afford to be weak and helpless, because there would be someone there to protect me, to take care of me, no matter how many times I messed up.
I wanted to scream. Without thinking, I forced myself to stay quiet. But then I remembered. I shoved past my barrier and screamed, my voice filling my throat with pain, my breath coming back in quick gasps. I screamed again and again, bracing myself against the chair, tears slopping unwanted into my lap. It was worse than anything from before. It was a pain too intense to bear, a pain I had thought I’d grown numb to long ago, suddenly ripped open and made fresh again. There was no escape. The pain was inside of me. I couldn’t make it go away. I didn’t even want it to go away. This pain meant something. I knew it in the core of my being. This pain was my connection to everything I had lost, to every part of me that I had locked away so that I could carry on.
To the part of me that was the most Blood.
And then I knew. Screaming and crying, I knew. This was it. This was the reason I had been looking for. The reason that no part of me could ever give up the Blood God. Even the most Waiting part of me, the part that would choke away all my weaknesses to carry me through to the next day, knew it was true. Even with everything I had sacrificed to stay alive, staying alive had never been the only part of my plan. I had planned to stay alive… and then be happy.
It all felt so clear now. So this would be my final plan: to make a world where it was safe to let down my guard.
Was that what the Waiting God wanted to stop?
Decisively, I cleared my mind and listened for the Waiting God. I brought forth its vision for a new world. And next to that, I brought forth my own vision for the world. Next to the god’s grand design, it felt small and incomplete. But it was a strong seed, and it did not waver.
This smaller vision was flawed, of course. It had an element of our nature, but we could see its flaws so clearly. Humanity as it existed was shortsighted and selfish, and they would not simply care for each other because it was right. Any plan that would change this would have to begin with changing the nature of humanity. This smaller vision was a vision for a world of humans who were happy in their lives, who were having all of their needs met. But the vision provided no method of reaching that world, because if one simply began meeting the needs of the humans who existed today, they would never be motivated to change. Our greater vision took account of this. In order to reach a better world, humanity had to be shown that the path to happiness, the path to having their needs met, was a path of change. A path where they must set aside their temporary desires, so that they could work to bring about a better reality.
I interrupted the god’s thoughts. What would this “path of change” look like for people who didn’t follow it? The god was only imagining people who did follow the path and did get their needs met, but what if they didn’t want to? Well, each opportunity for short-term gratification was a branch where they might turn aside and fall into their selfish habits again. The efficient thing was to make sure these branches were clipped away before they might approach them.
What did that “clipping” look like? I insisted. Did it look like children having no choice but to obey their parents? Did it look like me having no one I could tell about the Dalners’ abuse until I discovered a way by myself? Did it look like people having no way to survive without working all day for a distant corporation?
Not exactly. Those were all flawed, human approximations of our will.
So that was a yes, then. This was how humanity would be forced into the plan. Isolated and exploited, slowly starved of their basic needs until they started to see the Waiting God’s path as the only path of reality, and any other world as impossible idealism. Before I had seen all the memories, I had been unsure. I had thought its goals might have been good, if only it didn’t have to kill the Ravellers to make it happen. But now, I knew how to see it through the lens of Blood. I had known what questions to ask to reveal the heartlessness in every part of its design.
The Waiting Temple had claimed to be maintaining the order of the city. But the Blood Temple had had its own order. The conflict had never been about order against disorder. It had been about an order where people were nurtured, against an order where people were exploited.
That seemed misguided. We had thought of the plan as exploitative, but it was not the plan that was the source of exploitation. None of these demoralizing worries about typical abuses committed by humans were a reason to doubt it.
But the abuses were inherently enabled by the plan. Hadn’t we just thought of taking away people’s options as a good thing?
The god was silent. It didn’t understand, just like it hadn’t understood the connection between me and its high priest. It generally thought that exploiting people was bad, but just didn’t make the connection. It was unsettling, but it also gave me a surge of hope. If the god could not fill this space with an answer, then when part of me became part of it, I could fill this space with an answer. And my answer would be, We are going to stop now.
I had my own plan now. I would make the world a place like the one Hiram had envisioned. And even as the god had doubted this plan, it had still seen the Waiting nature in it. To be Waiting was to desire certainty about the future. And what could be more certain than a world where children could grow up knowing that there would always be a place for them? Knowing that the lives they built would never be sacrificed for others’ greed? That would be my vision of what it meant to be Waiting. And no matter how deeply the god was committed to its plan, it could not completely dismiss me.
I was ready to approach the portal.
I slowly pushed myself up from the chair, giving my stiff joints a chance to move and relax, giving my eyes a chance to adjust to seeing the outside world again. I had been in the memories for a long time.
My body is a place of power, one of the Blood prayers had said. I stood up straight, trying to feel some of that power. A little of Blood, even if I couldn’t feel it completely.
As if in response, the ground rippled and shook. As I stood in place, the building around me lost its form, turned into liquid and retreated into the ground. My eye was drawn towards the light of the sun. Ahead of me, the city melted away, leaving a smooth, sunlit, fluid-like pathway, opening the way to my final destination. I knew what I had to do. I hefted the handle of Rinn’s wagon and began to walk.
In the distance, the portal stood atop a huge, five-sided black pyramid, rising above the city skyline. Before I knew it, I had reached its base. The slope of the pyramid was just shallow enough that I could walk up the sides without losing my footing, and just steep enough to give my leg muscles a strenuous workout as I walked on and on. And I understood it now. The huge structures in this world weren’t here to make me feel small and intimidated. They were here to make me feel powerful when I climbed them. To make me feel like I was their equal, just like Rinn had said.
As I climbed up the endless slope, I looked back on what I had learned. The more I did, the more confident I felt, and the more things I understood. I thought back to all of Hiram’s memories, letting them flow from thought to thought, doing my best to absorb all the little lessons of the old Blood Temple. With my free hand, I copied down some more of the prayers onto my phone.
And before I knew it, I was near the peak.
Before I got too close, I paused to think, manifesting a flat platform into the side of the pyramid so I could rest. The portal and the god weren’t the only things I was about to face. The others were already there. Morrow and Alchemist.
I could already see it through the Watchful Eye I had placed on Morrow. I had mostly been tuning it out, but now, I paid attention. The two of them were camped out on the flat top of the pyramid, a black and shining pentagon about fifty meters wide, centered around… it. I couldn’t even see the portal through the Watchful Eye, it was like a blank spot in my vision.
Morrow and Alchemist were lying near the edge, cuddling on top of a messy heap of pillows and mattresses, mostly manifested by Alchemist. Morrow was still able to manifest, but he had usually been too depressed to do it. He had alternated between the hurrying forward erratically and sitting down too depressed to move. Alchemist had been taking care of him, trying to give him encouragement and reassurance. They had even talked to him a little like the way Rinn had.
I wished Rinn could be awake with me for the end, instead of just those two. I couldn’t forget the sight of Morrow crouching over Rinn, grinning while he made her suffer. And even for Alchemist, I couldn’t forget how much work I’d had to do to stop them from walking into danger –
Wait. Was it un-Blood for me to think that way?
Not for Morrow, certainly! He had committed lowari, and – I hesitated. I suddenly felt certain that if Rinn was awake, she would say he had only committed chet. But it was definitely lowari. I was definitely still allowed to hate him! And —
And what about Alchemist?
I breathed carefully, keeping myself calm. I cared about Rinn. And Rinn hadn’t liked how I was treating Alchemist. I didn’t want to accept it… but she had a point, too. For my whole time in the Otherworld, I had only been thinking of how Alchemist could be useful to us. Even when I was kind to them, it was only to make sure they would make us the potions we needed. And it had kept us alive… but that was over now. Our lives weren’t in danger anymore. So it wasn’t right for me to still be thinking of Alchemist that way. It wasn’t right that my only feeling was frustration about their weaknesses.
I had to find a better way to treat them, to think about them. A way that was more Blood.
I listened for the future, searching for possibilities.
I felt myself walk towards the portal. I saw Morrow hurry towards me and speak to me, ask me questions. I felt myself lash out at him. I felt myself hold back. I felt countless fragments of anger and tension. I saw both of them step away from me, huddling quiet and scared at a distance. I saw us keep an uncomfortable truce until the time came to enter the portal.
This was not the future I would choose. I could do better.
I listened for a different future. I felt myself pretending to be calm, answering Morrow’s questions so that Alchemist would think we had an understanding. I felt the futures where my frustration built up until I struck him again. I listened for a future where I would navigate my feelings, where I could keep the illusion of peace between us, just as I had in the first layer. I felt myself waiting at the portal with them, feeling isolated, just keeping calm while I waited for the end. This was not the future I would choose. I would not be ready to face the Waiting God if those were the feelings in my mind.
I listened for another future, and another and another. I heard myself trying to tell Alchemist I cared about them, but saying the wrong thing and making them anxious. I heard myself trying to do better, trying to explain too many things too fast, not leaving Alchemist time to process it. I felt myself trying to give them enough space, only for Morrow to distract them before they could absorb what I said.
But each future took me a step closer to what I was looking for. I could do this.
I forced myself to my feet. It had taken me hours to find a future that truly satisfied me. But I had found adequate resolutions for the possibilities I had struggled with. I hefted the handle of Rinn’s wagon, and headed for the portal.
Morrow ran down to meet me, as I had seen. I caught his hand, keeping it close between us, out of Alchemist’s view. I looked in his eyes to make sure I could see the fear there. “I’m not planning to hurt you,” I said quietly. “But don’t speak to me.”
I let go of Morrow’s hand. He backed away from me. This was going well.
I pulled the wagon up onto the flat top of the pyramid, and began rolling it across the black and shining surface. This close to the center, the sun was straight above me, beating down hard on my head and shoulders, burning away at my skin, even through my clothes. But this sun was more familiar now, and I could feel a bit of warmth amid the burning.
Ahead of me, in the center of the floor, I could finally see the portal with my own eyes. It was the same substance as the other portals, but it was so much more than anything that had come before it. Once my eyes were on it, it was hard to look away. Instead of being shaped like a doorway, it was like an obelisk pointing upwards, about the same height as I was, joined to the sun by a column of light, glowing black and white and every color of the rainbow at the same time. It felt like its power was spilling across the world, radiating a sense of awe and fear and purpose. No wonder Morrow and Alchemist had kept their distance from it.
Alchemist nervously approached me and looked at Rinn’s head, the only part of her that was sticking out of the foam. Tears filled their eyes.
“Is, she… You used, the…”
“The second one we made,” I said gently. “She was injured in the fight. But she will recover.”
“Will she… that one was…”
Alchemist was trying to ask about the side effects of the potion. The sleeping effect was very powerful. If someone already had a weak soul when they drank it, they might never wake up. So Alchemist’s worrying wasn’t unreasonable. In the futures, I had tried dozens of responses before I found one that would reassure them. “Examine her soul yourself,” I said. “Feel how strong it is. I am completely confident in her.”
Alchemist stepped closer and nervously touched Rinn’s head. Then they nodded and pulled back again. After a pause, they turned and looked down over the city. I saw their eyes linger over the distant gouges among the buildings, where Justicar had fought us.
“She’s, not, coming, is she…”
“She’s dead,” I confirmed. “We couldn’t convince her to stop.” I waited for Alchemist to glance at Rinn, wondering if Rinn had been the one who killed her. I said the best thing I had found to assuage their worries. “We did it together.”
“Oh. I guess, you had to do it…” Tears dripped down their face.
“I wish I could tell you something else.”
Alchemist turned and looked at the portal.
“I knew…” they said resignedly. “I knew… when we got here, there was already three…”
Those words had been confusing when I foresaw them, but now that I was here, I understood what they meant. The portal had five sides, just like the pyramid under us. I could instinctively tell that there was one side for each of us. But the dazzling energy of the portal was strongest in just three of them – Rinn’s, Alchemist’s, and mine. The sides for Morrow and Justicar were duller, as if the power had been stripped down to the minimum necessary. Its full energy had no purpose unless you were still alive and still a Raveller.
“This wasn’t right,” I said. “None of this should have had to happen. All I can say is… it’ll be over soon. We’ll all go through that portal. You’ll be home again.”
“Will we, wait for, Rinn…?”
“No. I’m going to send her through unconscious. Just to be safe.”
I sat down, manifesting a long bench for the three of us, with a wide base to keep it stable when Morrow would knock into it later. My mind was bent towards what lay ahead in the portal, but I could afford to take a little time for closure. Alchemist sat down next to me. Morrow thumped down on the other side of Alchemist, huddling into their chest. Alchemist idly started feeding him a large candy bar.
“Alchemist,” I said evenly, “I believe I owe you a great deal. Your potions have saved Rinn’s life more than once now. And possibly my life as well. If there’s anything I can do for you in return, I’d like to do that.”
“You don’t, have, to –”
“It’s okay. Just tell me if you think of anything.”
Alchemist’s head wobbled back and forth. The only sound was the sound of Morrow’s chewing.
“There is, maybe, one thing… I know you, don’t like, Morrow, but…”
“It’s okay. Go on.”
“Do you know if he’ll…” Alchemist glanced towards the portal. “Since he’s not… with the god…”
I concentrated, just like if I was using the Seeing. I already knew what I was going to say, but Alchemist would feel more reassured if it looked like I had checked.
“I believe he’ll get back to the material world safely,” I said. “Even though he can’t be part of the rejuvenation, the process for returning the Ravellers to the material world is separate from that.”
“Oh…” Alchemist draped their arms around Morrow, slowly rocking him back and forth.
I gave them a little time to relax. Then I added, “We can also exchange phone numbers, in case you think of anything I can do for you once we’re in the material world. I won’t have any magical abilities, but… people say I’m very capable.” I pulled out my phone.
Alchemist shivered. “I, didn’t, have my phone, with me, when…”
In the future, Alchemist had also worried they’d be forgetful. If I just told them my number, they thought they might not remember it. And if they told me their number, they thought they might accidentally give me the wrong number. “Here’s what we’ll do,” I said. “You can manifest a copy of your phone. It will have your phone number in it, so I can copy that number into my real phone. Then I’ll call you once we get back to the material world. I won’t be able to call right away, because I’ll be taking care of Rinn, but I’ll try to call within a day or two.”
Alchemist nodded. They manifested their phone, and thumbed through it to find where it would show their number. “If I could, also, give this to, Morrow, and, Rinn…”
I carefully copied Alchemist’s number. “Rinn and Morrow both lost their real phones in the Stern God’s world. But the lost phones will still go back to the material world with them. So I can write down Morrow’s number now and then text it to you when I’m back, and for Rinn, I can give Rinn your number –”
Alchemist flinched a bit. They had realized, based on what I said, that I wasn’t willing to let Morrow know my number. I was trying not to force Alchemist to think about the conflict between us, but it would have been easier if Alchemist wasn’t so smart.
Pretending not to notice, I continued, “I could give hers to you, I assume she’d be okay with that, but I just –” I carefully kept any hint of resentment out of my voice. This wasn’t about Morrow. “– I just want to make sure to respect everyone’s boundaries.”
Before long, there wasn’t much left for us to say to each other.
“We should go through the portal now,” I said.
Morrow panicked and jerked away, as I had known he would, at the thought of returning to the material world. But I had made the bench sturdy enough, so he didn’t fall or break anything.
“Morrow,” I said levelly.
I had struggled with how to feel about Morrow. I hated him, and part of me felt sorry for him, and I hated him more because I felt sorry for him. And as much as I wanted him to just shut up and stay in a corner, I knew that wasn’t how I wanted to leave things right before I went through the portal. It wasn’t Blood.
Morrow’s eyes were still bugging out. Even with Alchemist here to soothe him, he was terrified. Part of me felt a sick satisfaction at that. But that wasn’t what I was trying to do. “I’m not going to hurt you,” I said. “I just want to say…”
Rinn had forgiven him, even tried to encourage and support him. I could never do that. But the Blood Temple didn’t have to be all love and support all the time, just like it wasn’t all rage and violence all the time. They understood that there could be serious conflicts between people, and sometimes you needed strong boundaries to keep everyone from getting hurt. And sometimes you needed to fight to protect those boundaries, but sometimes, the time for fighting was in the past. I had made Morrow lower than me, and now, it was time to bring him back up to equal.
“I just want to say…” I continued. It was hard to make the words come out, but as I spoke, I felt like a tension was being released from me. “I just want you to know, I hope you can find peace. We can never be friends, but, but… Rinn cares about you. And I… I care about what the gods have done to you. You didn’t deserve what happened, any more than the rest of us did.”
I held out my hand. Morrow didn’t take it right away, but I kept holding it out, knowing it would only take time. Finally, he leaned forward with both hands and clasped them around mine, crying. I pulled him to his feet, holding him a short distance away from me, but balancing him as he stumbled.
“I’m going to make the world a better place,” I said. “I’m going to make it so that the abuse and neglect that were done to you, and the abuse and neglect that were done to me, will never happen again.”
Morrow said something in a small voice. Even through the Watchful Eye, I couldn’t quite hear it. It might have been, “yeah, right”. Or it might have been, “thank you”.
I turned and faced the portal.
It was like waves of power were rolling off of it, pushing me back and away. But it wasn’t a forbiddance. It wasn’t actually trying to keep me away. It was a challenge, daring me to push my way against the waves, to assert my right to occupy my space in the world.
I stepped forward, pulling Rinn’s wagon with one hand. Alongside me, Morrow and Alchemist followed, a little more hesitantly. I took another step, and another. The portal loomed ahead of us, black and formidable. It was time. Time for us to face the gods. Time for the gods to face us.
We fanned out around the obelisk, each looking for the side that called to us the most deeply. One for me and one for Alchemist, the Ravellers who were still conscious. One for Morrow, dull but still waiting to take him home. At my left, one for Justicar, which would remain unvisited and silent. And at my right, one for Rinn, still alive and brimming with energy.
I unmanifested part of the foam holding Rinn in place, just enough for me to move her arm. Solemnly, I cupped her small hand in mine, reverently lifting it and holding it near the portal’s surface.
It was time. I could feel it like the sun burning me in the shadows, like thunder shaking me to the bone. Across from me, Alchemist and Morrow felt it too. Moving as one, we took the final step. With one hand, I pressed Rinn’s hand into the unearthly blackness. With the other, I touched the side meant for the Farseer.
I felt myself lurch forward, my hand suddenly empty. I looked and saw Rinn’s arm passing through mine as if it wasn’t there, a translucent echo, our bodies unmoored from the world. A dizziness came over me, darkness closing in all around, the primeval energy of the portal expanding to drown me. The stars awakened. Where was my body? Hadn’t we had a body? I was already slipping away. I reached for my thoughts, but the mind slid from my grip like nothing. Worlds spun past, worlds of geometry in perfect balance, worlds of foundations resting subtly askew, waiting centuries for the right moment to lurch apart. Something wavered at the edge of memory, something terribly important, something merely human. And then it passed, fading into the innumerable stars.