A vein of pink granite ran through the gray stone at the edge of the train tracks. Ilsa noted the color as a sign they had almost reached the city of Dal, just a few miles after taking the tunnel up to the Yrian Plateau. She laid her head against her seat, eyes still following the pink line in the barren ground where only sparse grass grew.
A few small shacks passed in the distance, right where the ground fell away at the edge.
Train wheels roared. The whistle blew. They passed the end of the pink granite vein and began to slow. The train pulled into Eshak station, on the western side of Dal.
Fingertips brushed Ilsa’s arm as her traveling companion, Blue, sat forward and peered out the window past her. Black braids fell around Blue’s shoulders. Those braids shifted only a little as the train came to a full stop.
Home. Ilsa took a deep breath. “This is it.”
Graystone buildings set with sparkling glass panes loomed over downtown Dal, visible in the distance above the long street outside the train window.
Blue grinned, eyes still focused out the window. “No fooling. I finally get to see the place you grew up.”
“Probably not. My mother told me they tore down our old building a few years ago.” Ilsa stood up and stretched her arms. She reached for the overhead luggage bins, where she had stowed her pack along with her red-painted wooden staff, a symbol of her office as a priestess of Hathani.
Blue shrugged. “I meant the Garden.”
Ilsa raised her eyebrows. “You want to see Saint Banyeen’s?” The garden where she had been trained in Hathani’s clergy had once been more home to Ilsa than her mother’s apartment, but those days were passed. “I thought you didn’t care about gods.”
“I don’t care about gods in particular.” Blue reached up with one long-sleeved arm and pulled down a travel case from the overhead compartment. She grunted with the effort of lowering the heavy case.
Ilsa knew from watching Blue pack, that the case contained her suit of combined armor. Blue did not like walking around in ordinary clothes, but security on the train took notice of heavily equipped mercenaries. As agents of the Unification, both Ilsa and Blue traveled with a low profile, but habits like Blue’s insistence on wearing armor were hard to kick. Ilsa knew that from experience.
She slung her pack over one shoulder. Staff in hand, she followed Blue out of their compartment and through the brightly lit central corridor to the open exit doors of the train. They stepped onto the platform.
The street that led downtown was lined with food stands and travel vendors, operating out of the sort of small motorized carts common throughout the city. Ilsa breathed in the smell of city air, fuel mingled with spicy food, fresh in the cool air. For the first time since she had left Saint Banyeen’s Garden, she had returned home.
Blue hefted her travel case and slung its strap over one shoulder. “Which way first?”
“Saint Banyeen’s is on the other side of town, but Fountain Street Hospital isn’t far from here.” The bottom seemed to drop out of Ilsa’s stomach as she said the name of the place where her mother had been committed.
“You can eat while I visit my mother.”
Blue frowned. “You’re going right now?”
The void sensation in Ilsa’s belly grew. “I have to see her. I won’t be long.” She paced a few steps from the edge of the platform and set one end of her staff on the pavement.
Blue raised her eyebrows. “You have to?”
“If you say so. I’ll get you something to eat for when you’re done.”
“I can feed myself.”
“I’m starting to doubt that. You haven’t eaten since we left Ayoch this morning.”
Ilsa sighed. “Please. It’s only been a few hours.”
“Does your mother really make you this nervous?”
“Maybe.” Ilsa held up her free hand, palm open. Her loose coat sleeve fell back. The back of her hand bore a pale brand shaped like a ring with a single dot in the middle, the evidence of one of her weapon bonds. “Please, Blue. Stop.”
“I understand. I’ll eat, then meet you outside the hospital.”
“Thanks. And sorry.” Ilsa lowered her hand, letting the sleeve fall back over the brand. She didn’t like pointing an open palm at her friend. For most people the gesture meant resistance in peace, but for someone who knew Ilsa’s bond, the motion implied a threat. When she summoned the weapon bonded to that symbol, it would appear in that hand.
“Don’t ruin yourself over any of this.”
“Take your pick. Your building. Your mother. Her condition isn’t your fault, you know.”
“If you don’t want to go, you don’t have to see her.”
Ilsa sighed. “Yes, I do.” It’s my place as her daughter, even if she is insane.
“If that’s what you think.”
She nodded to Blue. “It is what I think.”
“Good luck,” said Blue.
“I’ll eat when I’m done. Then, we should get striders for tomorrow’s ride.”
“Deal.” Blue turned toward the food stands. “It’s a long way from here to Tenlyres.”
Ilsa nodded to Blue. She hesitated and leaned on her staff for a moment. Then she started down the street toward the hospital.
Fountain Street Hospital occupied an entire block one street south of the street that led downtown from the station. Ilsa followed a narrow lane around the western side of the building to reach the mind ward. Like the front of Fountain Street, the building was made of the gray granite common in buildings across the Plateau of Yr, from Dal in the west to Chogrum in the east.
Behind a wrought iron fence with traces of snow at its base, the outer wall of the mind ward was painted with a peeling mural of white roses, another symbol of the goddess Hathani. The mind ward had been funded by contributions from temples and clerical gardens all over the city. Saint Banyeen’s had offered a sizable donation. Ilsa’s mother had been freely committed to the ward because of Ilsa’s affiliation with the garden.
Ilsa trudged through the open gate in the fence. She went up a patched blacktop drive to the four-doors-broad entryway of the mind ward. The place looked like Ilsa felt inside, like it was fighting a losing battle.
She stepped inside and crossed a floor of white tiles to the front desk. The nurse working there looked up at her. Dark eyes moved to Ilsa’s staff. “Good morning, priestess. How may I help you?”
“My name is Ilsa Barrett. I’m looking for my mother.”
The nurse nodded to her, then turned to the bright screen of a tablet where it sat upright on the desk. A ten-centimeter-long interface pin jutted from one side of the tablet and connected to the green and mossy side of a domesticated plant pile where it rose up through a hole carved through the desk.
Plant piles were easy to keep indoors. They grew wild the world over, each one capable of storing vast amounts of digital information within its genetic repository. The larger the pile, the more data it could hold. The one set in the desk was tiny by most standards, but it probably contained copies of all the patient records for the mind ward.
The tablet screen bore a news bulletin, warning of a Chogrumian force’s advance toward the center of the plateau. The desk nurse ignored the bulletin and tapped a few keys on her tablet’s touchscreen. “Is your mother, Luca Barrett?”
“She is on the second floor. Room 216.”
The nurse squinted at the screen. “She has another visitor at the moment.”
Ilsa’s frowned. Who would visit her maddened mother? For that matter, who else still living in Dal even knew her?
“Is something wrong?”
She forced her expression to return to a polite smile. “Nothing.”
The nurse smiled at her. Laugh lines crinkled at the corners of her mouth. “Have a good visit, priestess.”
If that was possible, Ilsa would not be so worried. She had not seen her mother in over seven years. Luca Barrett had spent a decade in this place, and Ilsa doubted that would help matters. Despite the care the facility offered to its patients they were still effectively prisoners.
Ilsa walked past the desk to the main hall of the mind ward. She found the stairway the same place she remembered it, near the elevator on one side of the hall. She climbed to the second floor, stepped into a low-security hallway, and then followed it straight to Room 216. Everything was where she remembered though a fresh coat of paint may have gone over the interior walls, unlike the mural outside.
She stopped at the door. With the sound of her boots on the tiles silenced, she heard a voice from the other side. It belonged to her mother, soft, ethereal, and barely audible.
“I’m always happy to see you. But I’m afraid you worry too much, Cass.”
Cass. Ilsa’s breath caught. She knew that name all too well.
“I’d worry more if I didn’t visit enough.” The voice that replied took Ilsa’s mind back to Saint Banyeen’s Garden and years into the past, an old friend and a betrayer.
She had first met Cass at her initiation as a neophyte when they had both been thirteen years old. The short form of High Priestess Uopemm marched across a garden path, strands of gray hair drifting in a slight breeze. Ilsa and Cass stood beside a prayer altar at one end of the path, both with their long hair, traditionally left untrimmed for a month prior to beginning training in the garden, tied back into long ponytails. Cass’s hair was red-blond, Ilsa’s, so black the highlights could have been blue. Each held the stem of a white rose in both hands.
The high priestess looked Cass up and down, said the blessing of Hathani in old Yrian, which sounded completely different from the modern version of the language nearly everyone spoke on the plateau. Cass bowed to the high priestess. Uopemm gave her a curt nod, then turned to Ilsa.
Nervous under the high priestess’s gaze, Ilsa shifted the rose in her hands. One of the thorns cut her already-branded palm. The high priestess did not seem to notice the blood that flowed between her fingers. She said the blessing. Ilsa bowed, silent despite the pain. Then, Ilsa and Cass set their white roses on the altar to complete the ritual.
Cass’s had been clean, but Ilsa’s flower was spotted with blood.
Almost fifteen years later, Ilsa took a deep breath outside the door to her mother’s room in the mind ward. She opened pulled it open and stepped inside.
Cass sat in a chair by the head of the bed, pale red hair cut short now that she had the freedom of a full priestess. Her red staff was propped against a wall in the corner by a south-facing window, through which light filtered into the room. She wore a plain black shirt and trousers. Her coat hung on a hook by the door.
Mother and Cass turned together to face Ilsa. Luca looked surprisingly well, for a middle-aged woman who had been a prisoner since her mid-forties. Her formerly pure black hair had strands of gray in it, and her face was pale and lined, but she did not look like a miserable prisoner. Her eyes bloomed with recognition when she saw Ilsa’s face.
“Is that—?” She hesitated. “Is that you, Ilsa?”
“It’s me, mother.” Ilsa walked to the foot of the bed and let the door shut behind her.
Cass stared at her, eyes wide. She put her hands on the arms of her chair and pushed herself to her feet, eyes still on Ilsa. “I can’t believe it.”
“You thought I’d never come back?” Ilsa shook her head. “You were wrong.”
Tears began to build in mother’s eyes. She pushed herself to her feet, hospital gown trailing about her ankles, and then walked to the foot of the bed where Ilsa stood. They were the same height, mother, and daughter, but her mother had not passed many of her finer features to Ilsa. Mother’s face in her youth had been the model of Dalite beauty, but Ilsa’s was far too blunt, too harsh. Mother opened her arms to embrace Ilsa.
Those arms were frail, all but devoid of muscle. Ilsa hugged mother back, still holding her staff. The emptiness she had felt in her stomach when she left the train remained, even in that moment. Ilsa stepped back from her mother and felt the beginning of tears in her own eyes.
“I’m glad you’re here.” Mother wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “I’m so happy to see you, Ilsa.”
“I wanted to see you, mother.” Ilsa sniffed back a trickle of tears.
Mother cried openly. “You haven’t written since the middle of summer. I worried you were dead. Your work is so dangerous.”
“You don’t need to worry about me. I’m a priestess of Hathani.”
“A mercenary priestess,” said Cass from the corner of the room, “Isn’t safer than any other mercenary, east or west of the plateau.”
Ilsa turned toward Cass, words she wanted to shout at her former friend already on her lips. She spoke softly. “Don’t forget why I went east, Cass. I sure haven’t.”
“I wasn’t the one who requested you leave Saint Banyeen’s. And I didn’t make you leave Dal, or Yr, either.”
Ilsa walked around her mother and planted her staff between herself and Cass. “You told them about my father. The rest followed.”
Cass grimaced. “The High Priestess already thought she knew.” She took her staff from the wall and started toward Ilsa.
Mother stepped between Cass and Ilsa. She raised her clean, empty palms as if to hold them both back without touching them. “Peace, both of you. What’s done is done.”
“Yes. It is.” Ilsa grimaced.
“Ilsa, please. Cass has been good to me. She’s helped me stay sane while you were away. The visions aren’t so bad when I have visitors.”
Ilsa lowered the end of her staff. “You still have them? You never mention them in your letters.”
“You don’t want to hear about them. The doctors call them hallucinations, and I thought you would agree.”
“Mother. I—” What could she say? She did not believe her mother had mystic sight. The ancient legends of those who could see spirits were nonsense. Even the Oshomi Nomads who lived in the center of the plateau didn’t really believe in them, except for the small band that lived around the Guardian of Tenlyres.
“I see them all the time. My parents. My brothers.”
Trauma hallucinations, the doctors had called them. Ilsa remembered from years ago when she had first had mother committed. Mother’s whole family, including both her parents and all her brothers, had died in the war with Dal’s rival city, Chogrum forty years ago. Ilsa’s father had been from Chogrum. Since her childhood, she had wondered how her mother could have loved him, knowing where he came from.
Ilsa put a hand on mother’s shoulder. She looked into mother’s eyes. “It’s alright. I’m here.”
“They aren’t my only visions, Ilsa. I see a horse with girl’s face, white roses in her hair.” Mother’s eyes went wide. She trembled as she looked Ilsa. “When she talks, she sounds like you, my daughter.”
“Mother, please try to calm down.”
“She has pale skin, pale like ours, but her face is shaped like a nomad’s. Why does she speak with your voice? Why does my beast daughter visit me?”
Cass approached slowly from mother’s other side. “Luca, your daughter is here, your real daughter.”
Mother blinked and turned to Cass. Ilsa kept her hand on mother’s shoulder and looked at her tear-streaked face. “I’m here, mother. Everything is safe.”
She nodded, and then wiped away her tears with her hand. “Thank you. Thank Hathani, and all the gods, for both of you.” She looked from Cass to Ilsa. “Ilsa, I’m so glad to see you. It’s just, my beast daughter frightens me.”
“A sight like that would scare me too.” Ilsa wished she did not have to tell mother the rest. “I wanted to see you, mother. But I can only visit you today. Tomorrow I’m leaving again.”
“You’re leaving?” Cass scowled. “You just got here.”
“I have something to do. I’m riding east in the morning.”
Mother deflated. All the excitement from first seeing Ilsa faded from her face. “Why do you have to go? Are you here to fight against Chogrum?”
“I’m not.” Ilsa sighed. “I can’t tell you where I’m going. It’s for the Unification.”
Cass’s scowl turned even darker. “Unification is never going to happen, Ilsa. Your mother needs you.”
Ilsa shook her head. “I’m going, but I’ll come back. I promise.”
“Is it dangerous, this mission of yours?” mother asked.
“I won’t lie to you.” Ilsa squeezed her mother’s shoulder gently, and then released her grip. She turned toward the door. “But I will be back. Saints preserve you, mother.”
Mother said nothing. Ilsa marched out the door. She made it most of the way down the hall to the stairway before Cass caught up with her.
The red-haired priestess clapped a hand on Ilsa’s shoulder. “Ilsa, stop.”
Ilsa whirled and swung her staff one-handed. Cass blocked the blow with her own staff. Wood rebounded from wood. They glared at each other.
“What do you want?”
“We’re on the edge of war with Chogrum,” said Cass. “Why are you going east?”
Ilsa lowered her voice. “I’m going to Tenlyres. Cass, you can’t stop me.”
“I wish I could. But you’re right. I should never have told the high priestess about your father. She only suspected you, but she wouldn’t have dismissed you from the garden if I hadn’t confirmed what she thought.”
“An apology? You’re a few years late, Cass.”
“I regret it every day, Ilsa. You were my best friend. I would never have told her if I had known what she would do.”
“Whole lot of good that does me now.” Ilsa took a deep breath and drew her staff up, away from the lock with Cass’s weapon. “But I’ll remember this.”
“Be careful. Tenlyres is going to be even more dangerous than usual with war brewing.”
“I know. Thank you for visiting my mother. Saints preserve you, Cass.”
“Be red.” Cass nodded to Ilsa.
Ilsa turned and continued on her way out of the hospital. She recognized Cass’s words. They were the beginning of one of her proverbs. Cass always had been good at writing those little scripts.
Blue met her on the street outside the mental ward, dark hair and skin glowing in the light of midday.
“That really was quick,” Blue said. “You alright?”
“I’m fine.” Ilsa’s stomach growled. “But I’m hungry.”
“Good. You admitted it.” Blue smiled. “Let’s eat.”
“Of course, I waited. You’re like my sister, even if you try to live like you don’t have a body.”
Ilsa smirked at her friend. “Thanks, Blue.”
“Food, then striders. It’s a few hundred kilometers even to the Western Lyre.”
“It is.” Ilsa nodded. Her smirk faded away. “And I hear there’s a war on its way.” She turned over Cass’s parting blessing, one only Hathani’s clergy really used. Be red, Ilsa thought, like blood on a rose. She clapped Blue on the shoulder.
They started down the street, heading to the east side of Dal.