Leona R Wisoker: Salt City

Salt City


Leona R Wisoker

The waiting was the hardest part. Moir thought it would never end, that long grey silence while the senior priests debated. He could hear them, just barely, and only because the door, swollen under a barrage of spring storm humidity, didn’t quite shut properly at the moment. Their voices sounded even, but senior priests rarely got emotional over something as routine as a novice being confirmed as a junior priest. Getting emotional was the sort of thing novices did. Especially while waiting for that confirmation.

Moir couldn’t stop himself from going over every mistake he’d made during his training, re-examining every twitch of expression and inflection of words to see if he’d somehow failed. When the seniors had withdrawn to confer, s’iope Anac had seemed displeased, but he always looked that way. Moir had never seen the lean man really smile. His expression remained as severe as his plain, harshly starched robes. S’iope Enouk had been friendlier, but again, he always radiated a comforting sense of amicable goodwill even when delivering a blistering reprimand. N’sion Cabrach, the head of the Northern Church, had listened to the two senior priests interview Moir, keeping his gaze fixed firmly on the ceiling the entire time, and had made no comment at all.

Did that mean the n’sion was displeased? Was it normal behavior? Moir had no idea. Novices had little unsupervised time to gossip, and most of that wound up being about what was for dinner that night, in any case.

The voices went on, murmuring just below clarity. Moir shifted his weight from one foot to the other and studied the grey stone floor, desperately fighting the urge to edge a tiny bit closer to see if he could make out a few words. Eavesdropping was not proper. Such thoughts were based in anxiety and insecurity, which this morning’s sermon had addressed. Insecurity and anxiety come from an improperly balanced soul. It had been part of a long, droning examination of the Fifteenth Creed. Keeping your soul’s balance is the primary task of a righteous man.

Moir looked at the shadows on the white walls, then tilted his head to squint at the angle of sun coming through the narrow windows, trying to estimate how long he’d been waiting. He’d come into the examination promptly at noon. This room had the same north-facing window style as the lecture room, so if the shadows were comparable, it was currently drawing on towards dinnertime. That worried him. Surely they didn’t always take so long to decide on the fate of a potential junior priest?

Potential. That had Moir gritting his teeth. His posting application hadn’t been approved yet. It should be. It would be. He hadn’t done anything wrong. Not really.

But if they knew about Seffan, they might not agree. His parents would certainly not agree. Their son and a mere servant? Unthinkable. And if Moir lost Seffan . . . no, best not to think about that. It would all work out. Everything would be fine.

Moir began working through the Creeds, trying to calm himself to an appropriate level of serenity for the upcoming audience. There were over a hundred of them. He mixed up the Twentieth and Twenty-second, as he always did, and had his usual flash of irritation that they were so very similar. Sometimes he suspected that the priests who’d developed the Litany of Creeds hadn’t really been paying attention, but that was a disrespectful thought. He paused in the Litany to offer apologies to the Four, and promptly lost track of which Creed he’d been about to recite.

The door of the n’sion’s conference chamber creaked open, aided by a shoulder, from the sound of it. S’iope Anac beckoned Moir forward, his lean dark face creased in a slight, irritable squint that probably had more to do with the recalcitrant door than with Moir. Probably.

Moir drew in a breath and walked into the conference room, head high, spine straight, ignoring the trembling nausea haunting his stomach. Two sturdy standing candelabra, each holding four thick candles, lit the room against the oncoming twilight. Moir inhaled, testing the air, and picked out notes of orange and lavender. He’d helped make a two-hundred batch of candles the day before. These were quite probably from that labor.

He tucked his hands into the sleeves of his grey robes and bowed. First to the north, honoring the four-lobed bancti, symbol of their faith. Next to the west, where n’sion Cabrach, head of their faith, stood looking once more at the ceiling. The tilt of the man’s head revealed a large mole under his left ear. Three thick black hairs stuck out at sharp angles from the mole. On anyone else it would have looked absurd, but the variegated birthmark splotched across the right side of the n’sion’s face cut short any thoughts of mockery.

Birthmarks are a sign of the gods marking you out for attention. The question being, of course, which of the gods. N’sion Cabrach’s birthmark was clearly from Syrta, god of earth and growing things. Had it been from Payti, like Seffan’s, he’d never have come this far.

Don’t think about that. Don’t think about Seffan. This was a time for complete and total focus. An ill-timed, fond smile could completely wreck this entire process. He wouldn’t go back to the novice hall for another cycle of training. He wouldn’t. He’d seen the mockery directed at such failures. Most of them simply withdrew from training within a few days, too humiliated to continue.

Rumor said one boy had killed himself. Moir tried not to think about that.

Moir directed a carefully measured bow to the two s’iopes. Not as low as he’d gone for the n’sion, but not as shallow as he’d use for a confirmed junior. Then he stood silent, chin tucked to chest, in the precise center of the room. He could feel a slant underfoot. Many novices had stood here waiting for judgement over the years, steadily wearing a divot into the pristine floor.

“Your application to become a junior priest,” the n’sion said without any formal preamble, “is approved. You’ve done well, Moir. You’ve exceeded all requirements and expectations. It’s past time for you to leave the novice nest. I name you siolle.” On the last words, Moir couldn’t help looking up. The n’sion was finally looking Moir straight in the face. One of his eyes was green, the other a gray-blue shade; the discrepancy sent a shiver up Moir’s spine. Mismatched eyes meant a man had the attention of multiple gods. Moir dropped his chin to his chest, closing his eyes in frantic apology for his rudeness.

“Thank you, n’sion,” Moir said. Had that been a quiet chuckle from his left? Daring to hope he hadn’t offended after all, he straightened his back and gathered his wits. He was a novice. Novices didn’t have to do everything perfectly. Even s’iope Anac had admitted that.

. . . but I’m not a novice anymore. I’m . . . I’m a junior. I did it!

I’ll be able to see Seffan again. . . .

Sounds seemed hyper-clear in the following, too-long moments. The n’sion shifted his weight, sandals scraping against the stone floor. S’iope Anac cleared his throat. S’iope Enouk let out a small sigh. Moir’s elation soured swiftly to dread as the n’sion spoke again, this time in a distinctly less amicable tone. “Your request to serve the north-west congregation within Bright Bay, however, is not approved.”

Moir’s breath caught in his throat. He darted a quick glance, without moving his head, at the three men standing before him. N’sion Cabrach now stood to Moir’s left. S’iopes Anac and Enouk, standing a little apart from one another, were to Moir’s right side. When had they moved? Or was his mind mixing up where they’d been moments before? He could feel sweat beading on his forehead, and his breathing went ragged as N’sion Cabrach’s words sank in.

“But I thought–” he began, then caught Anac’s sharp scowl and shut up.

The faintest of frowns creased Enouk’s forehead, but the n’sion seemed . . . amused?—perhaps by Moir’s evident disorientation. No, that was disrespectful, he was n’sion, he was above feeling petty amusement at the anxiety of a junior priest.

Keep your soul’s balance. Anxiety was improper.

Moir realized he’d been staring. He hastily put his gaze back to the floor, not wanting to ruin the moment with a rebuke for ill-manners. “N’sion,” he murmured into the waiting silence by way of extra safety. “I serve your will, and through you the gods.” His knees threatened to give way. He wanted to sit on the floor and burst into entirely unseemly tears. This wasn’t fair. . . .

“Yes,” the n’sion said dryly. “You do. You’re needed more urgently elsewhere, siolle. Bright Bay has sufficient priests for the population, and your exceptional dedication has earned you a signal honor.”

He paused.

Moir set his teeth in his tongue and concentrated on not throwing up all over the shiny clean stone floor. There were four thin cracks in the stone by his left foot. Something had been set down too hard, or the ground had shifted, or there had been flaws in this section that were finally wearing through. Easier to focus on that than on what was being said, or so it seemed, but the next words firmly yanked him from the comforting daze.

“You’re going east,” the n’sion said. “You will be serving Salt City.”

The words hung, empty of meaning, for a long moment. Then Moir swallowed back an acidic surge of reaction, blinking hard. The holy salt mines weren’t just east. They were east. Days of travel away. He’d never been beyond the walls of Bright Bay. Seffan had been as far as Obein, once, and told outrageously improbable tales of ghosts and witches, three- headed animals and blue-skinned giants. Moir knew perfectly well Seffan had made it all up. And yet. . . .

“For how long, n’sion ?” he managed to say in a reasonably steady tone, despite his rising desperation.

Anac grunted in clear disapproval of Moir’s temerity. The n’sion seemed amused by the question. The creases around his thin mouth and mismatched eyes deepened.

“Assuming you accept senior status after the requisite year of probation as siolle–which we certainly expect–you’ll be in training to replace s’iope Banfield,” he said. “It’s a permanent posting. Is that a problem?” There was a distinctly dry emphasis on the last word, and the creases shifted to a sterner line.

“Of course not, n’sion,” Moir said, his mouth numb around the words.

He hadn’t intended to move past junior status so quickly, if at all. He’d been told that a junior could remain at that level for as long as they desired. He’d expected to continue as a junior for many years, an entirely respectable choice. With that status in hand, his parents might even be willing to overlook certain other choices–and if they didn’t, he’d still have the resources of the Church behind him to lean on. His plans all centered around staying a junior. And on staying in Bright Bay. . . .

But saying any of that aloud would be vastly unwise. Instead, he asked, in a tone far too close to a croak, “When do I–leave . . . for Salt City?”

“You leave in the morning,” the n’sion said gravely. “Anac will take you through supply and go over maps and such with you. After you eat, of course.” He smiled. In Moir’s mind, the amiable expression twisted briefly into a leering mockery, as though the dark faces of the gods were laughing at the ruin of his dreams.

Moir bobbed his torso in a stiff bow, recognizing the dismissal in the man’s tone, and backed up a step. “Thank you, n’sion.” His stomach felt entirely too uneasy for food. He couldn’t even imagine sitting at the public tables, enduring the roistering congratulations of his fellow novices.

“Do try to look pleased, siolle Moir,” the n’sion said in a dryly amused voice. “This is the most honorable post we could have assigned you, and a very necessary one at that.”

Moir opened his mouth to answer, then caught himself. He backed up another step, then muttered, “I serve your will, n’sion, and through you the gods.” The candle flames flickered, bending as though his slight movement had been enough to swirl the air in the too-quiet room. A shiver ran down his spine. Was Payti watching? Was she laughing at him?

Anac snorted, then moved around Moir with brisk steps and opened the door. The candles guttered, flames dancing in staccato chaos. “Let’s go, siolle,” Anac said. “There’s a lot to get through. We’ll take our meal in my rooms. There isn’t time to go through the usual celebration.”

Moir bowed to the n’sion again, just to be safe. He turned and followed Anac from the room, the hissing crackle of disturbed candle flames echoing in his mind.

Lioness looking pensive

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