"Gods, what have I done?" Kroelich, High Patriarch of Brennor, knelt before the tomb of Elienne with his hands clasped together in desperate prayer. His long white hair hung down over his face, hiding the tears in his steel-gray eyes.
Here in the crypt beneath the High Temple, he could be alone. Even faithful Tomas would not interrupt him. He, like everyone else in the compound, believed their ruler to be secure in the great gilded bed in his chamber, sleeping away the toils of the previous day, readying himself for the next.
But Kroelich could not sleep. Sleep brought dreams; dreams brought nightmares. Dreams brought the vision of she who was to have been the Intercessor, of the Defender of the Faithful. Dreams brought pain.
"What have I done," Kroelich whispered again into the stillness of the crypt, into the darkness. The gods did not answer. He bent his back so low it seemed it would break, clasped his hands so tightly they were white, the nails blue, bowed his head so deeply that his forehead pressed into the cold stone of the sepulcher. The gods did not answer.
How could they? Why would they? She who was to have been the Intercessor, she who was to have spoken with them, had no voice.
He remembered her voice, high and sweet, like a child's, and he remembered her, as white and fresh and delicate as an elden flower. He had spoken to her once, taken the small hand into his own, gazed unflinchingly into the huge brown eyes. And sent her...
"No," he moaned. But there it was again, the vision; sleep was not the only abode of nightmares. "No!" He would not look upon it again, could not. He threw his hands up over his eyes. Still, he saw.
Gabriel of Morevale had stood before him, his broad shoulders bent in despair, his gray eyes hollow, the body of Elienne in his arms.
"The task is completed," said the Defender, his voice weary, utterly bleak. His mouth was grim, firmly set in a hard line; it seemed as though he had to hold it thus to stifle a scream.
Kroelich was unable to speak. He looked upon the small body, as white and cold as stone, as smooth and pure as the finest marble, and nearly collapsed.
Slowly, deliberately, the Defender had strode past him and gently laid Elienne before the altar. He knelt and reached out a huge, trembling hand to smooth the soft brown hair from her face. The broad back heaved with a great sigh.
Kroelich, his legs so stiff he did not think he could force them to move, approached haltingly and lay his hand on the Defender's shoulder. Gabriel of Morevale drew away violently, as if he'd been burned.
"My son." Kroelich's voice was but a choked sob.
The Defender's shoulders only bowed lower, and his head dropped to his chest. In a voice so soft, so pitiful, Kroelich could barely hear it, he said, "I must undergo the Ceremony of Disgrace."
Kroelich could not speak. He could not move. He looked upon the body of Elienne, at the broken man before him, and he knew there were words he should say, something he should do. But he could not.
His heart tightened in his chest; he could not draw breath. Shuddering, he again reached out to lay his hand on the Defender's shoulder. "My son, you have completed your task," he said softly. "Go now in peace, Gabriel."
The Defender shook; it seemed the effort not to throw off the hand that lay upon his shoulder was too great. "Your Eminence, I beg you to allow me to undergo the Ceremony of Disgrace." His hand trembled as he gently touched the face of Elienne. "It is I who am responsible for the death of she who was to be the Intercessor."
No! Kroelich opened his mouth to say the word. No! It is I who sacrificed the life of this sweet young woman, who placed a burden too terrible to bear upon you. And now the heretic is dead and the threat to the Holy Church, to the peace of Brennor, is no more. I, too, have completed the task, my son. And I, too, am broken.
But he only stared at the bowed back of the Defender. "Go now, my son."
Gabriel of Morevale drew himself up stiffly and turned. "I have broken my most solemn vow." His fists were clenched so tightly that the knuckles stood out white against his dark skin; the gray eyes pleaded, begged, for an end to the pain, for censure, disgrace, penance, punishment.
Kroelich looked up into the tortured face. What have I done, he thought? Gods, what have I done? She was to have been the shield, he, the sword. Now the shield was shattered, the sword broken.
He could not look upon the terrible gray eyes. He would not. "Begone, Chosen," he had thundered as his hand, his treacherous hand, raised and struck the Defender of the Faithful's ravaged cheek. He would not, could not, meet those eyes.
But he did meet them, every day and every night, awake or asleep, always.
Kroelich slumped to the floor at the foot of the sepulcher and lay his cheek upon the stone.
"Mother Abbess," Sister Adynn cried breathlessly, wringing her hands, "there is a woman in the anteroom!"
The Abbess rolled her eyes and scratched beneath her wimple. "Yes, Sister."
The young sister's eyes grew wide. "She, she wishes to speak with you." She threw her hand up to her mouth and blushed.
The Abbess nodded and bustled toward the door.
"But, Mother Abbess, she, she..."
"She what?" Clenching her fists, the Abbess turned and heaved a great sigh.
Sister Adynn's voice was very small; it shook. "She is..."
"She is what?"
"She is..." Sister Adynn shook as violently as her voice. "She is... not like us!" she blurted.
The Abbess fixed her withering gaze on the young sister; the girl looked like she might faint. Sighing, she said gently, "Of course, Sister Adynn, she is not like us. She is not, I take it, a member of our community?"
"Oh, no," cried Sister Adynn, paling beneath her fiery cheeks. "Gods, no!"
"There is no need for blasphemy, Sister." The Abbess edged her voice with steel. "If you cannot explain yourself, I will see for myself."
"Oh, no, Mother Abbess, you must not!" Sister Adynn gasped. "Not unprepared."
The Abbess tapped her foot, a bad sign, a danger signal, known well to all the sisters under her care. "And just what is it I should be prepared for?"
"She, well, as I said, Mother Abbess, she is not like us." The young sister hurried her words as she saw the Abbess fold her arms across her ample bosom, a clear indication of impending wrath. "She is, she is..." Sharp eyes bored into hers. "She is beautiful!"
Slowly smoothing the front of her robes, the Abbess licked her lips and rolled her eyes. Her face was red. "She is beautiful," she repeated in a flat voice.
"Oh, yes, Mother Abbess, as beautiful as a goddess," cried Sister Adynn, emboldened by what she considered a reprieve.
She shrank back as she was skewered by the flinty eyes.
The Abbess' mouth was tight. "And what, by all the gods, have we to fear from one who is, as you say, as beautiful as a goddess?"
Sister Adynn threw herself to her knees and clutched at the hem of the Abbess' robes. She lowered her back and bowed her head. "She is beautiful like, like..."
"Yes..." The Abbess calmly snatched away her robe.
"She is beautiful like a painted lady," shrieked Sister Adynn.
The Abbess had to stifle a laugh. So one of the renowned prostitutes of Avacar had shown up at her door. She must be one of the successful ones; no one would describe some of the poor wretches as anything other than pitiful.
Well, the high and mighty whore would find no sympathy here for her fleeting remorse. If she had truly repented, which the Abbess doubted, having dealt with similar situations before, she should seek a priest.
The Abbess bit her lip. "The gods grant forgiveness to all who seek it," spoke a small voice in her brain. Her face flushed with unfamiliar shame.
She would see this woman. "Gods, grant me patience, and mildness, and compassion, and charity," she whispered as she whisked past Sister Adynn, through the doorway, down the hall, to the anteroom door.
She peered through the grate. And gasped.
Standing in the middle of the anteroom was the most beautiful woman she had ever seen. Had she not been garbed in a tattered, filthy gown, had the long, heavy golden hair not hung in matted tangles, had the slender white hands not been shaking so, the Abbess would have sworn she was experiencing a vision of the goddess Solan. In profile, the woman appeared as perfect as a statue carved by the greatest artist of Brennor.
But Sister Adynn had been correct: only a very expensive whore would possess such flawless skin, such graceful posture, such luxurious hair, such a garment as the diaphanous white gown the woman wore. Only a very expensive whore would radiate such potent, sensual beauty. Only a very expensive whore would dare to walk the streets of Avacar like this.
The Abbess narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips. "Charity," she whispered in her mind like a chant. "Compassion." She swallowed. "Patience." She sighed and reached for the handle. "Mildness." But pulling the latch she considered how best to send this baggage on her way.
"You wished to see me," she said, infusing her voice with the severity gained from years of practice, drawing herself up to her full height.
The woman turned.
Eyes the color of violets, of amethysts, met those of the Abbess; they shone, they sparkled, in the sun streaming in through the window.
But they glittered not with sunlight. It was the tears: the tears that fell from the shadowed eyes, that coursed down the too white cheeks, that pooled in the corners of the drawn mouth.
The Abbess threw her hand to her breast and staggered back. This face was beautiful, equal to, surpassing, the woman's form. But it was a terrible beauty, suffused with sorrow. The violet eyes were bruised with pain; they burned with a sadness unbearable to behold.
The woman stepped forward and fell to her knees. She bowed her head.
The Abbess found her hand was shaking as she lay it on the golden hair. "My child," she whispered as she blinked away her tears.