The Handmaidens of Petra and the Shield of Halav
"How I Spent My Winter Festival Holiday"Prologue: A Wager
“You must be gentle with my broom, Little Flower, or you will wear the bristles down to nothing, and then what shall we do to keep the snows off these temple steps?”
Jasna looked up at the old patriarch’s admonishment. She hadn’t been sweeping that
“It isn’t like anybody ever attends services here, anyway,” Jasna muttered. At the old patriarch’s sigh, she immediately regretted having actually spoken the words aloud.
“I beg forgiveness, Father.” She actually meant the words that time. “It’s just… Elder Licinius is an ass.”
“Jasna! You mustn’t speak of church elders in such a manner.”
The girl stood a bit straighter. “Elder Licinius is a pompous ass,” she said.
“That is much better,” the priest of Koritiku said with a grin and a nod. “‘If you are to speak a truth, you must speak the whole of the truth.’ So, what does the blowhard have to say that has you taking your anger out on my poor broom?”
“i sort of… overheard him… discussing something with Sir Stick-in-the-Mud, who was asking about the Song of Halav again. Honestly, they insisted on fixing it in writing six hundred years ago, you would think the Thyatians would actually take the time to learn it.” The girl swung at a clump of snow, sending the blob arcing away towards the temple promenade.
“Jasna, the broom….”
She clutched the broomstick tighter. “Elder Licinius said that it was all a lie. A story, blown up by a scared people in the dark days before they made great cities and iron.”
“Jasna, my Little Flower, it is just a legend. Those events… if they did happen, happened thousands of years ago. Thousands, my dear. That is perhaps a hundred and fifty times the time you have even been alive. Twenty-five of my lifetimes ago. That is a very long time for a story to grow. You’ve been to the docks. You’ve heard the fishermen. And those are merely tales a few hours old.”
“So, you don’t believe in the Song, either?” The girl pushed at a clod of snow, nudging it closer to the edge of the step.
“I would be a bad Traladaran if I said I did not.”
“You cheated and stole before you became a priest,” Jasna said. “You are
a bad Traladaran.”
The old man chuckled. “Yes, I suppose that is the whole truth.”
“It is true, though,” Jasna said, and the priest looked up at the fire in the girl’s voice. “Maybe not all of it, but the core of it.”
“Now you begin to sound like one of crazy old Sergyev’s Returnists.”
“It is true,” Jasna insisted. “And I’ll prove it to you!”
The old priest looked at the girl for a long time, until her breathing slowed and the color eased from her cheeks.
“Shall we make a wager, then?” he asked.
“What sort of wager?” the girl asked, her balance shifting, subtly, to the balls of her feet, taking her weight off the broomstick.
“Prove me wrong, and I will relieve you of snow-clearing for the rest of this winter.”
“And if I cannot?”
“Then you must tell that pompous ass Licinius that he is in the right.”
Jasna’s hands tightened on the broom handle, the knuckles going white as the snows she was supposed to be clearing from the temple steps.
“Very well,” she said. She spit on her hand and held it out to the priest, who spit on his own and then clapped his bony hand in hers.
“With honor,” she intoned, as they shook
“With honor,” the priest said, his own tone solemn.
There was a beat of silence between them, and then they both laughed as they broke the handshake, wiping hands on robe and tunic.
The priest made his way slowly to his feet. He waved off the girl’s offer to help. “Just finish the steps, and then you may be off.”
He turned, and shuffled back into the temple, letting the heavy wooden door creak shut behind him.
“Do you really think she will be able to do it?” asked the figure in the shadows by the door.
The old priest smiled, and kept walking towards the low altar at the front of the sanctuary. “I think she stands a much better chance than that lot of fools you have chasing this errand.”
“They seem better able than the pack of fools the Knights of the Griffon have scratching around,” the figure said. “What makes this ‘Little Flower’ of yours so special, that a child could succeed where grown adventurers keep failing? You think it is her conviction? If this venture relied on crazed belief, then Sergyev would have found the artifact himself thirty years ago.”
The old priest turned, leaning heavily on his crooked staff. “My dear Aleksyev, my Little Flower is certain because she knows something you or I do not. After all, we shook and declared the deal in honor.”
“As if there is any honor among thieves,” Aleksyev sneered.
The priest of Koritiku laughed. “That is precisely the point, my friend. Jasna will cheat, and I would expect nothing less of her.”