Briac watched as a speckled blackbird toddled slowly along the ledge of his window. He sat sideways at his desk, a few papers idly held in one hand, as the bird pecked at bits of dirt on the sill. Beyond, the streets of Kharo sprawled and twisted towards the sea; a maze of stone and wood that brought the myriad smells of the city towards his office. A smooth breeze brought in a pepper scent mixed with honey bread, followed shortly by sawdust and iron. But beyond these lay the ever-present tang of bodies, pressed together as they moved through the markets and streets. Far beyond the houses and tidy squares lay the harbor, already bustling as the sun rose in the sky. Dawn was a busy time in Kharo, as humans and pannari alike began to crowd the streets, and Briac found himself moving in his chair to turn toward the window and take in the city sounds. Though his tower rooms were separated by the main city by the walls and gardens of the Cathedra’s grounds, they afforded him a birds-eye view of the southern edge of the city.
Briac had been at this desk for several hours already, reading through the proposals and correspondence that had arrived late the day before. Most were not addressed directly to him, as few people would send a message personally to the Rabh Alai, but instead came to him after review by the Ninth Council.
He paged through the papers one more time before setting them aside. Trivial matters, mostly regarding increasing funding to this chamber or that, appointing a new Alai for a country temple whose aged head had passed into the arms of night. He could sign off on these without much further thought. Again he glanced toward the window. But the sun had risen further and the brightness was getting to be too much. He pulled his eye-cloth from a drawer and toyed with it for a moment, before choosing instead to pull down the curtain over the sill. Immediately the pain in his head eased, though this did remove the view he loved so much. Each day he rose early to take advantage of the faint light, only to have to turn away as the sun climbed. From this point until dusk he would have to remain indoors or risk the head pain that came to him even when he covered his eyes. For this reason, he loved the rainy and windy days, and the shorter days of mid-winter. But spring was several weeks in now, and though it brought the city to life below him it shortened his time to enjoy the sight.
A soft knock on the door interrupted his thoughts. He paused a moment to set down his papers and got up to walk towards the door. Upon opening it he was greeted by a petite woman in flowing white robes and elaborately braided hair.
“Rabh Alai,” she bowed slightly before continuing, “blessed morning to you. Is there anything I can get for your morning meal?”
Briac took a step back and gestured for the woman to enter his room. “No, I’m not hungry at the moment, but thank you Meera.”
She followed him into the room as he turned and walked back toward his desk. “I have a summary of today’s scheduled meetings for you.” She set a small sheet of paper down and began to run off his schedule with precision.
“To begin with, you will be meeting with the Council to discuss the appointment of a new member to replace Alai Khefar,” she paused to press three fingertips together and pull them toward her chest, “may his rest be peaceful. I suspect this will be brief, there are only a few candidates and each has already made his case in the small sessions earlier this week. I have those summaries here, as well as the recommendations of the Alai who have sponsored each man.”
“After this I have you in the Hall of Echoes to receive petitions. You have the usual three hours, after which you are free until the sunset services.”
Meera turned and frowned towards the window, her dark eyes narrowing. “It’s going to be very bright today Your Grace, if needful we can postpone petitions until the morrow.”
Briac waved his hand dismissively, “No, no, that won’t be necessary. I can manage just fine with my eye-cloth. I must always be available for the people to see, and arrangements can be made to dim the room. I won’t take days off for so little reason.”
She nodded, but her concern was still evident on her face. “I won’t have you falling ill. If you must take a break, please tell me and I will have arrangements made to cut the time short.”
At that she began bustling around the room, reaching into the wardrobe on the far side and taking down several sets of elaborate robes. “Since you are meeting with the council first, you must wear these,” she held out a set with heavy gold embroidery along the collar and sleeves.
Briac nodded, smiling to himself as he watched the woman evaluate several other choices.
“Yes, it must be this one,” she had turned back to the original, holding it out to him. As he took the selection from her, she turned back and reached into the depths of the wardrobe, producing several pairs of slippers.
“Gold, perhaps?” she murmured to herself.
Briac sat back in his chair and watched as Meera held several selections of shoes up against the robes she had already chosen. Once a suitable pair was selected, he stood and allowed her to drape the elaborate garment over his shoulders. Her small, round face was pinched in concentration as she tugged and pulled the layers into place, fastening them with various toggles and ties. The robe was exquisitely crafted, a dark crimson color with touches of orange in the sheen of the silk. The collar and sleeves had an array of beadwork and embroidery in intricate patterns, reminiscent of flames.
His shoes he stepped into himself, but Meera bent down to ensure they were properly fitted. She stood again and brushed a wrinkle out of a fold by his hip.
“Yes, very nice.” She smiled. “These colors suit you, Your Grace. And they truly bring out the red in your eyes.”
“Now, we must fix your hair.” She reached back towards the wardrobe and produced a gilt comb from a shelf. “Sit.”
Briac sat again and turned towards the shaded window, letting his handmaiden comb and part his hair. He closed his eyes as she began to braid the front sections, letting her deft fingers do their work. He enjoyed this time more than he cared to admit. Though she was known throughout the Cathedra as a fire-brand, with him Meera was a calming presence. Though not yet sixty, she had risen among the ranks of the Alai at a young age and attained the title of Alai Anyasa before she was twenty. As far back as he could remember it was Meera who woke him in the morning and comforted him at night, and Meera who soothed him when his headaches grew too painful.
Though she could easily have passed off many of her care-taking duties to lesser handmaidens, she had always chosen to take care of these small details herself. It was a testament to her dedication to the Alai and her love of the Goddess. Briac knew she would accept no less than perfection in the appearance and comportment of the Rabh Alai, any less would be a poor reflection of her care.
He opened his eyes as she pinned the last of his braids into the elaborate knot behind his head. She stepped back and turned his face towards her own, her eyes darting as she assessed the symmetry of the design.
“Wonderful,” she declared, letting go of his chin. “The whole comes together quite nicely.”
Briac smiled. “May I stand now?”
“Of course, Your Grace.” Meera took a step back to let him up. “We have less than an hour until the Council meets, if you don’t eat now you may find yourself ravenous by midday.”
It was clear she was not going to accept no for an answer. For all that he was the Rabh Alai and beyond reproach, he could hear the motherly tone in her voice.
“Of course, you’re very right, Meera.” Briac agreed. “Have something brought up.”
She nodded briskly. “Yes, that would be best.” She stepped over to the door and poked her head out, talking softly with a guard who stood just outside. In a moment she re-entered the room and began clearing off Briac’s desk. Soon the pile of papers was organized and placed into neat stacks, each according to priority.
As she worked Briac sat again and began to read the candidates summaries she had brought earlier. The appointment of a new Council member happened only with the passing of a previous member. With Alai Khefar’s death the previous month this would be the first open Chair in almost ten years. When an opening occurred it was not uncommon for hundreds of Alai to petition the seat, but thankfully for Briac the laws allowed the members of the Council to winnow down the list to two or three though a system of sponsorships, and most likely a few bribes, before the Rabh Alai was asked to weigh in on the remaining few. It appeared that at this time there were three candidates left, and the Council had requested his presence for the final debate.
Because a Council seat was a life-long appointment, it was crucial that the choice be made carefully. There was, of course, a way to remove a member from their seat, but the process was complex and time consuming, and had only successfully been accomplished twice in written memory. Those cases were exceptions; it was rare for the motion to even be put forth.
Briac had not met the candidates for this seat, but hoped to become acquainted with them soon. Each had impressive backgrounds and solid sponsorship from Alai in the Cathedra. The first, Alai Gerat, was a middle-aged man whose work was primarily with the Library of Colura. His sponsor’s note declared him a great scholar and historian whose knowledge of Alai law and history would be invaluable to the Council.
The next was an older man, Alai Wentah. He was a long-time member of the Cathedra, and Briac now recalled that he had met the man on some previous occasion. He was said to be solid, forthright (if a bit brash), and a great lover of debate. His sponsor was sure that Wentah would bring his fire and passion for the Goddess to the Council and surely help resolve disagreements among the other members.
Finally, Briac picked up the summary of Alai Kesav. He was the youngest of the final candidates, and his work and training had been in the mid-land temples. He had spent some years travelling the continent and his strengths were said to be in intuiting the needs of others and communicating with the more common people. His sponsor wrote that his humble background and his charisma would help the Council see more clearly the will of the Goddess in everyday matters.
Meera had since finished her work organizing Briac’s desk and moved on to making his bed linens in the next chamber. She re-entered his office room as Briac finished reading the summaries. They both looked toward the door as a guard knocked softly, and at a word from Meera it was opened. A petite human girl of no more than fifteen brought in a steaming tray, and Meera motioned her to place it on the desk.
The girl nervously bowed to Briac, just barely remembering to set the tray down before she began the motion. Briac nodded politely to her and made the sign of the blessing with his hands. Meera made a soft shushing sound and ushered the girl out the door, closing it behind her.
The tray was full of an assortment of foods. Briac lifted the lid of a small teapot and inhaled, enjoying the rich, spicy scent of the steeping tea. He motioned for Meera to sit and poured her a small cup, passing it over to her before pouring one for himself.
“The cook has made it strong today!” Meera said approvingly, taking a small sip from her cup. She cradled it in her hands and a smile spread across her face.
Briac leaned back and enjoyed a sip of his own, letting the sweet and peppery mix fill his belly with warmth. “They know my preferences well by now.”
“And they should.” Meera harumphed and leaned back into her cushioned chair, taking another sip of tea.
Briac frowned and leaned forward, eyeing the contents of the tray. “However someone keeps adding this horrid pastry to my breakfasts.” He held up a sticky confection that looked to be covered with powdered sugar and small nuts.
“Horrid?” Meera laughed, “That pastry looks divine!” She took it from him and took a small bite, letting a few bits of crust flake down onto her cupped hand. “And so it is! How could you call this horrid?”
Briac made a face. “Well it’s covered in syrup, for one. And filled with custard, which I detest. I can’t handle something that sweet so early.”
“Well, I can.” Meera took another bite, trying not to let the sugar dust fall on her lap. “You can just give me all your pastries then.”
“You can have them.” Briac smiled. “You can order extra just for yourself.”
“I couldn’t!” Meera laughed. “I’d be as big as a house within a week. You must stop tempting me.” She popped the last of the confection in her mouth and wiped her fingers on a napkin from the tray.
Briac reached forward and chose a small bowl of fruit. “This is much more my style.”
“Eat that quickly, though, we only have a few more minutes until we have to leave.” Meera sipped her tea again. “And don’t get any of that juice on your robes.”
He gave her a wry smile and picked at the fruit. “Sometimes I think you forget I’m not ten years old anymore.”
She huffed softly and tried not to smile. “I know you too well, that’s all. You forget about the finery and ceremony too easily. It’s my job to remind you.
“Just as I must now remind you to put on your eyecloth. And you must tell me right away if the headache gets too fierce.”
“I will, Meera, I promise.” Briac reached into his drawer and chose a red cloth that matched his current robes perfectly.
His handmaiden stood and took it from him, wrapping it lightly around his head and securing it with a tight knot. She pulled a few hairpins from her waistband and secured them behind his ears, taking a moment to ensure the braiding in his hair was still intact.
Then, with a final up-and-down glance, she declared him ready to leave. As they left the room, a motion of her hand sent the small kitchen-helper back into the room to retrieve the breakfast tray. They continued along the quiet halls of the Cathedra, leaving behind the private suites of the Rabh Alai for the busier hallways of the southern arm. Meera stayed by his side, gently guiding him with her hand down the steps and passageways, especially if the way grew too dark for him to see through his cloth.
This early in the morning the light in the hallways was not too bright, but he was grateful for the eyecloth each time they passed a section of the great arching windows that lined the outer walls. It was not long before they reached the outer doors of this arm of the Cathedra, and Briac braced himself as he stepped out into the morning sun.
The light hit his eyes like a dagger; even through the cloth he could feel the rays pierce deep into his head. He closed his eyelids briefly and let himself adjust to the pain. He had long years of practice in separating the pain in his head from his conscious body. It seemed ever present, especially on days like this, but he was able to continue walking through the courtyard path even as his eyes began to ache. Once he reached the other side, though only a few moments had passed, he stepped into the darkness of the stone hallway with a small sigh. He felt Meera squeeze his shoulder lightly, acknowledging the ordeal. He was thankful for her strong presence, she was always there beside him.
Thankfully the path from this point to the Council chamber was entirely indoors, and he traversed it with no further incidents. But the pain in his head remained, a constant reminder of his condition. He bore it in silence as he entered the chamber, and made no note of his agony as he met the gazes of the nine Council members before him. He greeted each one with a small nod of his head, and each bent to perform the proper bow as he passed.
Meera had stepped back at this point, positioning herself unobtrusively against the side wall. She would keep her place throughout the full meeting, as Alai Anyasa she was the only non-Council member allowed to attend these sessions. Her place as the Rabh Alai’s chief handmaiden was one of complete trust, and the secrecy of the Anyasa was legend. Nothing said or done in the chamber would be revealed by her unless by order of the Rabh himself. And if the Anyasa declared the Rabh too ill to continue a session her word was taken as law. Briac was thankful in many ways to have her there, silently watching out for his interests.
He often felt that the Council chamber was the home of a many-headed snake. But this serpent had no qualms about any one of its nine heads biting the others, and though as Rabh Alai Briac stood above the Council Chairs, he never felt quite at ease sitting among them in the Rabh’s ornate Tenth Chair.
The chamber itself was done in a classic style, with elaborate friezes depicting the Goddess lining one wall. The opposing wall held carvings of the first Rabh Alai, telling the story of his birth and subsequent ascension into the Goddess’ arms. On the far wall, beyond the circle of ten chairs that held the official Council seats, there was a pillar upon which rested a glass case. Inside the case was a piece of parchment, no larger than a man’s fist. But on that small paper was written the words the Rabh Alai Tevos had written upon waking from his prophetic dream.
A new world lies across the gulf. She will provide a new home, and waits for us with open arms.
There were days that Briac felt comfort from the presence of Tevos’ words behind him. Locked in glass as a reminder of the will of the Goddess. But there were days when it almost felt like an accusation, a reminder of what was dreamed and lost. A new world waited for them, that part was true. But when the pannari ships touched shore and their tired, half-starved sailors sank to the ground, what met them was not the Goddess’ loving arms, but the stony faces of humans. Their home was claimed by another race, their new world occupied by suspicious and violent creatures.
But Tevos in his wisdom was able to carve out a space for the pannari here, negotiating with the human Emperor for land and goods. And in four hundred years their home grew outward from tents and small wooden cabins to this bustling port city filled with pannari and human alike. Briac was not the first of the Alai to wonder if this was the true will of the Goddess, and certainly not the first Rabh to feel doubt that they were truly meant to be here. But the choice had been made, and their people were no longer plagued with the famine and pestilence that drove them from their homeland. But each time he sat in the Sun Chair, only feet from the pillar with Tevos’ words, he felt the weight of the prophecy on the back of his neck.
He took that seat now, letting a silent guard pull out his chair for him. The Council Chairs each took their place after he had sat. The Iron and Earth Chairs were adjacent to him, containing two old Alai with steely gazes. Further down on his left hand side was the Sea Chair, followed by the Grass and Mist Chairs. And on his right were the Blood and Dust Chairs, with the Fire and the now-empty Moon Chair across from him at the end of the long, oval Council table.
As he sat each member also took their seats, and Briac waited for the shuffling and repositioning of robes to finish before he spoke.
“By the Grace of the Goddess, we gather here today to do her will.” He made the three-finger sign of benediction and let his gaze fall from one man to another around the circle before him.
“Blessed be her Grace.” The chorus of members replied.
Briac nodded his head for a moment as the group shared the traditional silence. Once completed, he gestured for the secretary to begin recording the session. “Let us begin by discussing the appointment of the Moon Chair.”