It was her scheduled day for prophecy, and since her marking, Neldo never attended her preparations. Often Keron was present, sometimes another priest. Today, Soshay was surprised to find Tenoch in the preparation chamber.
“My Lord Second Priest,” She bowed her head trying to hide her confusion at his presence.
“Soshay, I hope you do not mind that I will be attending your work today.”
She pulled on the ritual tilma. “Of course not, my Lord.”
She was beginning to prepare the liuqui when he stopped her. “Soshay, is it true that you do not need the liuqui to give prophecy?”
Tenoch smiled at her, “I would like to witness that. It is a rare gift. And your patron today is very important.”
Soshay felt a twinge of concern. Something about the conversation seemed familiar. “My Lord, I consider all patrons important.”
Tenoch nodded, “Of course you do, but I wanted to be certain your words, however unintentional, do not offend him.”
Soshay nodded at him, but remained puzzled. “How will you help me?”
“Listen carefully,” He said, the tone in his voice changing.
Soshay listened, but when he finished speaking, she was certain she had not heard a single word. She let him lead her to the oracle’s seat in a daze. It almost felt like the haze from liuqui. Tenoch’s voice seemed to buzz in her ears as the patron entered the chamber.
She took a few calming breaths and began to speak.
The patron was a politician and landowner. He asked about a vote, something about farm tithes to the temples. He wanted to lower the tithes. Soshay closed her eyes. She stood before a field of crops. Many of them were withered. It was not drought, for she could feel the dampness in the air. “Diseased” she heard herself speak. “The crops are diseased. “Lessen the tithe.” She heard herself speak and felt a stabbing pain in her head.
When the prophecy ended, Tenoch was gone and Soshay’s head throbbed.
Days later, Soshay sat across from Keron at the table. The focus candle was lit. She forced her eyes to it, watching the flame flutter. She pushed everything else away, her tiredness, the hard chair, the chilly room, everything but the flame. She felt the shift and began to speak.
“He will awaken. He is awakening.” In the vision Soshay saw a man with a spear. He led the Cetza into a slaughter of the vassal states. The destruction was a confusion of blood, fire, and broken stone. It was a march of destruction and death that stretched to the Inkani lands. The Imperator’s Inkani empress was sacrificed on the unnamed God’s altar. “Blood, an ocean of blood.”
She shook from the trance, with a lingering sense of dread. She blinked to clear her eyes.
Keron had stopped writing in the book. “Soshay, what else do you see? Who is He?” There was something in his tone that frightened Soshay. She realized that Keron was not surprised by her vision, and she suspected that he had seen this God as well.
Soshay shook her head, trying to shut out the lingering images of destruction and the stink of flames. “I don’t know. That is all I saw.” She rubbed at her temples, the headache she had after her last time as oracle was slow to fade. “Do you know who he is?”
Keron shook his head, “I don’t know,” he paused, “But, I have seen him as well.”
Keron closed the codex he had been writing in and reached for another. Soshay stifled a groan. She recognized the book as one of the many, she should already have memorized.
She was slowly catching up on five years of lost studies. After receiving Tez’s mark, Keron had taken over all of her training. After the prophecy, he began teaching her the lore of the Temple of Twilight and the lore of the other temples. She was overwhelmed by the amount of knowledge she was supposed to have.
She assumed that Keron took over her lessons because he no longer trusted anyone in the temple to train her correctly, but Pelo had hinted there was some other reason. He would not tell her why he thought this was, but it made him laugh to mention it. She knew from the servants’ gossip that a new priest led the boys in their classes. Neldo remained in the temple, but he no longer held a specific position. She thought still feeling the anger at his actions burn.
Keron called her attention back to her lessons, and she dutifully recited the tenet of the other three gods and the gifts of their temples.
“The Temple of Dawn serves Zel, the Temple of Noon serves Mat, the Temple of Twilight serves Tez, and the Temple of Midnight serves Tzi.” She said by rote.
She knew each had a specialization, and she now knew the multiple domains each god ruled. She murmured her way through the gifts of the Temple of Midnight, Tzi’s temple. As she finished Keron paused. His silence pulled her full attention back to him. Have I answered incorrectly?
Finally Keron asked a question that surprised her. “Soshay, are you happy here?”
She looked at him quizzically. “That’s not a question about the temples.”
Keron spared her a small smile, “No, but it’s an important question nevertheless.”
She shrugged, “I don’t really know. I like to learn, and I can help people if I am here,” she paused wondering if that sounded naïve, but continued, “and ever since” she gazed at her marked arm, “everyone is very kind.”
Keron cringed, “Soshay, I am sorry for Neldo’s treatment of you. Tez brought you to me, and I was responsible for you” he gazed into the shadows, “I foolishly forgot that some within the temple care not for Tez’s will, only their own power.” He offered her a rueful smile.
She sighed, “I’m as happy as I can be. If I was not here, I would, more like than naught, be married to a man my parents chose and raising a brood of children – maybe that life would be better, but I was never a girl that dreamed of such a life.” she shrugged again.
The personal nature of the conversation made her uncomfortable. Keron and I do not talk, certainly not about our lives, she thought. “After my sister went into the service of Zel, I knew that option was closed to me. No temple takes all the children of a family.” she gazed at his averted face, “I think serving Her was the only vague desire I ever had as a child.”
Keron faced her, his eyes searched her face, “Do you still feel you should be serving Her?”
Soshay offered a sad smile, “She did not mark me. She does not speak to me. Tez does. In words I cannot deny. He gave me his mark. I’m meant to be in His service.” She looked away unnerved by his gaze. “I just thought His service would be different.”
Keron remained silent waiting for her continue.
“All my life, I have been plagued by these visions. It made life…” her voice trailed off.
“Difficult?” Keron supplied. “Don’t look surprised Soshay. I think you forget that I am an oracle too. I grew up as the child that screamed at things no one else could see. I had nightmares of events I could not begin to understand.” He tried to catch her eye, but she avoided his gaze. “I do understand.”
She offered a small nod and suddenly felt her throat tighten. She was appalled at herself for wanting to cry, especially in front of him. But all the painful memories of being that child, the child who screamed and cried at nothing. The child who knew too much and spoke of events she should not. It made the other children loath to be in her presence; it had made adults uncomfortable with her. It had made her alone.
She swallowed hard. “I – I thought it would be different here.” She looked at him helplessly. “I thought here, I could be useful. I would be with people who understood. I would be wanted.” She shrugged and stared at the smooth table top.
He reached across the table and rested his hand on hers. “You should have been wanted. Those that doubt you, only show their doubt in Tez, or their selfish desires for power. You have helped your people. Your prophecies have always aided us all.” He squeezed her hand.
His touch was warm, and she realized she liked the feel of his hand on hers. It brought back the thoughts she had about Keron as a man. She wanted him to continue to hold her hand, and that frightened her. She kept her eyes down, staring at the jaguar pattern on his mantle.
“Soshay, I want you to start believing you can trust me, that I can be your friend.”
He lifted his hand from hers, and she felt a pain at its loss. He rose from the table and sat in the chair next to her, his finger pressed gently under her chin, pushing her head up. She felt a rush of emotions flood her senses. His eyes, a deep brown seemed to see too much.
His eyes sought hers, “Could we be friends, my oracle?”
She could not breathe. Everything she knew was crumbling. This was not the Keron she knew. He was distant, cold. He was disinterested in anything other than piety and service. He is not my friend. She tried to imagine Keron bringing her gifts of oranges and laughing about silly temple gossip, and found she could not. “I – I do not know.” She wanted to tear her eyes from his dark gaze. Is he trying to read my soul, maybe he can, she thought. “I do not think I know what a friend is.” She offered a pale smile. “If you know what it is like to grow up with visions, you know that other children are loath to be in your company. I am not sure I know what a friend is.” As she said this her thoughts turned to Pelo and the other servants.
They showed her small kindnesses, but even they wanted something from her. Her blessing, her gratitude, or in Pelo’s case the small defiant acts he committed by simply helping her.
“I do not want anything from you Soshay.”
His words shook her and she jerked away from his touch. “Can you read my thoughts?” Her voice trembled.
He smiled and shook his head. “No, but I entered the temple as a child too. A child with power. I know it seems that everyone wants something from you. The priests want your power, but give you nothing in return. Those who pay for our prophecies are worse.” He grimaced. “We are nothing but tools to them.” He let his hands rest in his lap.
She gazed at him, searching for a trick, for some lie in his words. “Maybe, my lord, maybe we can be friends.” She was proud to hear that her voice did not shake, but her stomach knotted and roiled in turmoil.
“Then you must stop calling me, my lord, or high oracle. I have a name. You may use it.”
Soshay realized she was woefully under-prepared for this conversation. She did not have friends. She did not have her sister’s skill with people.
Chacon had an ability to manipulate others with words, and an ability to know after a few words what someone wanted. Chacon could change who she was to suit anyone, with the same ease as changing her dress. Soshay had never had this skill.
“You can be just Soshay, and I can be Keron.”
The words struck an unknown chord in her, as if they were almost a plea. “Yes, Keron, maybe we can be friends,” her voice seemed to echo through the room.
“Maybe, will have to suffice, my Soshay.” He touched her hand one last time, and moved farther from her, “but now maybe we should return to your lessons? You have an initiation to prepare for, unless you wish to talk more?”
He seemed suddenly unsure to her. As if he no longer knew what to do. This unnerved her more than anything. Keron is always in control; he always knows everything. She considered telling him her secret, admitting that Tez had given her the ability to read. It would allow her to give him something to prove she was willing to try being friends, but telling him that Tez had given her the knowledge of reading seemed like too great a confidence. Besides, she admitted to herself, I like his praise for my quick study of reading. She shook her head, “we should return to my lessons, my – Keron.” His name felt strange upon her tongue.
Keron nodded, “If there is anything you need, I will get it for you. If you need to talk, then you only need ask.”
She chewed her lip, considering her words. “I do wish to ask something. I know the skills of the Far-seer, sending the soul to far off places to witness events, are not traditionally part of Tez’s temple. Far-seers are servants to Tzi – and maybe Mat” she looked to him to correct her information if she misspoke, or misremembered her lessons.
Keron offered her a nod.
“In the vision, when Tez marked me,” she tilted her chin toward her arm, “the man in the vision told me to learn to see.”
Keron started to open him mouth as if to speak, then stopped and nodded for her to continue.
“Is it possible that He wants me to learn to be a far-seer? While I was recovering, I wondered if He simple meant I was to watch my visions more closely, but that does not seem right.” She let her thoughts trail off, unfinished. She did not want to appear to be questioning or doubting Tez’s will, nor did she want her question to be taken as heresy.
Keron sat silently for a moment.
Soshay’s felt her confident façade start to drop away. She absently ran her fingers over map stitched into her blouse.
Finally Keron spoke, “You are correct. The gift of seeing is one used by Tzi and Mat. It is said that the God of the Noon Sun sees the farthest of all the gods.” He smiled at her, “but Tez sees further, as He sees through time”
Soshay nodded, unsure of his intention. Were his words a subtle rebuke, reminding her of her obligation to Tez? Everything in their interaction had new meaning and implication to Soshay. To be friends meant to trust him, but it means he should trust me.
“So Soshay, you wish to learn to far-see. Does Tez not offer His favorite priestess His guidance?”
Again Soshay questioned his words. He asked to be friends, but Soshay had been in the temple long enough to recognize that many priests played games of politics. They manipulated those with gifts to serve their private power-agendas. Even though he claimed to understand, she considered that Keron’s recent attention could be part of making her his pawn. Although to be his pawn would be better than to be Neldo’s slave.
She bit her lip before she spoke. “I have meditated and prayed since the incident. Sometimes I think I hear His voice repeating the same words.” She shrugged, “I have not seen the vision again, nor have I seen the man from the vision again. But Tez values intellect and ingenuity, maybe He hopes I am smart enough to decrypt what He wants.” She risked a glance at him. The small smile he had worn before became a real grin. She surprised herself by noticing for the first time that Keron was a handsome man. His habitual stone-faced expression muted his attractiveness. She noticed her heart beat a little faster.
Keron laughed. Not a small artificial laugh, but a full throated roaring laugh that echoed mirth throughout the vast record room.
Now, Soshay attributed her quickened heartbeat to fear. Had she misspoken? Or simply sounded foolish, naïve to him?
He rested his hand on her shoulder. “Stop looking so worried, my Soshay!” He managed between laughter and deep breaths. “I did not mean to insult you by laughing. I promise, I do not laugh at you. Your guile with wit and words would make you a master diplomat. These are also skills vital to an oracle. Few manage these skills on their own, most are too lost in their visions to manage carefully chosen words with high-ranking patrons. Your words are well spoken, and your logic sound. If you believe Tez wishes you to learn the far-seer’s arts, you shall.” He squeezed her shoulder slightly, letting his hand rest on her shoulder; then, as if suddenly conscious of their physical proximity, he quickly pulled his hand away.
Soshay stared at him wide-eyed. Who is this jovial man? What happened to the staid emotionless Keron? The entire exchange left her disquieted and off balance. If he recognized her words were chosen to manipulate, did he think she was using words and behavior to manipulate, she wondered. Am I trying to manipulate him? She managed to stutter, “th-th-thank you.” She pulled her wits together and offered him a shy smile, “I think Tez will be pleased.”
His laughter finally stopped, but the smile remained. It turned soft at her words, “He cannot help but be pleased with you Soshay.” He eyes traveled over her face as he spoke. “You speak of the man from your vision. Describe him for me, again.”
Soshay frowned in confusion, but she began to recite the description. She could still clearly see and hear the man in her mind’s eye. “And he had a voice like thunder.” She finished.
Keron smiled at her, again she noticed it was a real smile. And again she felt her heart beat a little faster. “Soshay,” he asked, “Did you recognize him?”
Soshay shook her head. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him before. He was so pale, so white. I’m sure I’d remember anyone who looked like that.”
Keron’s eyes drifted to the codex on the table between them. Soshay followed his eyes and found the image of Tez painted on the cover.
She cocked her head at Keron. “Are you implying that the man was Tez?” Her voice dropped to a reverent whisper. “But the man I saw looked nothing like any of the images of Him.”
Keron’s gaze shifted back up to her face. Soshay felt his eyes on her. “The images of Tez are created by men, men who are artists, not priests and not oracles.” He paused, “they could not know His true face.”
Soshay opened her mouth to protest, but found she had no words. She looked at him imploringly.
Keron’s expression became serious, “He appeared to you, my oracle. He spoke to you.”
Soshay sat in stunned silence, considering his words. Could the man really have been Tez, but if he was Tez, why would he appear to me? “You think I have really seen Tez?” Her voice was barely a whisper.
Keron nodded and smiled. “He chose you to see His face.” He said with a shrug.
Soshay frowned, “You’ve never seen Him? But you’re His High Oracle.”
Keron laughed. “No, I have never seen Him. And High Oracle is a title created by men, not the God. I had thought that you would recognize the man as Tez before now, but I think I erred in that.” He paused, “You think to low of yourself, Soshay. As your friend, I will have to help you with that.”
They sat in silence for a moment, before Keron shook his head slightly, as if chasing away a daydream. “It is almost time for evening prayers. I will leave you to find your own way back to your rooms, and I you will have a teacher to teach you to far-see.” With those words, he rose from the table with a fluid grace that spoke of a life outside of scholarly or priestly pursuits. “We will continue our lessons tomorrow, my Soshay.” With that, he left the room on silent feet.
Soshay dumbfounded, watched him go. Was it truly Tez in my vision, she wondered, but felt the rightness of it. She considered what it meant that the god Himself had appeared to her, but was distracted by wondering what Keron intended by his overtures of friendship. She was certain that Keron had told her about the man being Tez as an effort to inspire trust.
Maybe Keron has gone mad. She replayed the conversation in her mind. Each word and gesture so outside of what she expected from Keron. She began putting away the codex they had been using for the lesson, finding her way in the dim room through memory. Suddenly she froze with wide eyes, could that vile Neldo be right? Does Keron view me as a woman? She felt the heavy book slip through her fingers and thump to the floor. He can’t think of me like that, that is just awful gossip Neldo concocted to steal power. He can’t. She recalled his hands resting on her shoulder, the slight pressure of his fingers under her chin. Her hand unconsciously strayed to that point and she for a moment she imagined she could still feel the warmth of his touch. She knelt and grabbed the codex. His eyes had lingered on her face and her body today. She hurriedly thrust the codex onto its shelf. He said I was his. He called me, my Soshay. The words echoed in her mind as she fled the chamber, with emotions at war.
Keron watched her flee the records room, as if pursued by slavering monsters. He considered going to her, to ask what had frightened her so. It may go farther to make her see me as a friend, he considered. But I cannot push her in this. She must begin making her own choices. She will choose my friendship or not. She must begin to make her own choices or the temple will lose her. I will lose her. He thought and the sudden pang he felt considering her loss made him pause. He ran his hand through his hair. Maybe I should have told her about the possession. If she knew maybe it would bring back the willful, defiant girl I brought into the temple. He headed toward his own chamber, still lost in thought. Can I make her the woman I saw in my vision? Do I want her to be that woman?
“Keron? Are you drifting in some vision of our doom?” The irreverent voice cut through his thoughts.
Keron started and saw Telmax, his under-priest, waiting at his door. “Telmax, you have no idea what doom awaits you if you continue to ambush me.” He offered the young man a smile. Even though Telmax had been his under-priest and he had to admit to himself that the man had become a friend over the years. He still found the younger man’s beautiful features disconcerting. Keron often found that he had to remind himself that the younger man was his under-priest.
“Did it go well?” Telmax asked.
Keron opened his door, “Better then I had hoped, but also more troubling. She had not realized that Tez appeared to her in the vision”
Telmax offered him a questioning look, “Do you continue with the plan?”
Keron considered the embers of friendship he had laid. Will she forgive me this manipulation? “Speak to Ohili about her. See if he will take her as a student, and yes, we continue. We do not have a choice.”