Both Ged and Merti bowed low as the young woman approached. The Circle priestess wore a long cloak, one side white, one side black, and somehow managed to keep the white side pristine even as she traipsed through the mud that seemed to be Parsa’s most notable feature.
When the priestess came within earshot, she pulled back her hood and stared at Atanar with wide eyes that straddled colors of brown and green. Her round face looked quite young – too young to have elders bowing and scraping to her. But then, Sivoy had been samaat of her clan, and was probably not much older than this slip of a girl.
Atanar did not bow, but instead inclined his head to show respect for her station, as Ged had taught him in the week since they had left the Sufani. Her dark blonde eyebrows drew together as she looked to Ged and Merti. “So it’s true. One of the guards said you’d brought a Canderi, but I thought she was joking.”
Merti took a deep breath. “This is my nephew, serla. He has recently come to Aredia and seeks the blessing of the Circle. Can you–”
“Of course I can mark him,” the priestess interrupted. “But I’m not entirely sure I should.” She looked at Atanar. “What is your name, Canderi?”
Heat and anger pricked him at the address, but he kept his reply cool and replied in the manner he had practiced with Ged and Merti on the journey here. “My name is Atanar.”
Her lips pursed. “Why have you come here?”
“Because of you,” he replied. “For a mark.” He held out his wrist expectantly, uncertain of just what the process entailed other than ink upon his skin. Hopefully it would be quick. He did not want to spend any more time in this overblown mud puddle than necessary.
“Of course,” she said sharply. “I’m not simple. I meant, why have you come to Aredia?”
Ged and Merti tensed, but the priestess only had eyes for Atanar. He considered the words again, then said, “My aunt and uncle are older, and in poor health. They need my help to survive. It is,” he ensured these words held some weight, “the honorable path.”
The priestess’ eyes narrowed. “A Canderi warrior came to live in an entirely new country to help your aging family?”
Atanar nodded. He took no small amount of satisfaction at the shock on the priestess’ face, though it smoothed away quickly as she said, “And do you know of the One?”
She studied him again, until Ged coughed into his hand. “Serla, we can provide a tithe.”
“Very well.” She accepted the silver coin that Ged offered, slipping it into a pouch at her waist before glancing back at Atanar. “Wait here while I fetch my kit. I’ll return shortly.”
Atanar frowned at her. “Did the guards not tell you why we came here?”
She met his frown with one of her own. “Aye, but I didn’t believe them.”
“How do we know you’ll return?”
“I am of the Circle,” she said, as if that explained everything. Without another word, she turned and made her way back to the gates, which closed immediately after she slipped through.
The moment she was gone, he glanced between Ged and Merti. “’Kit?’”
“Her…equipment,” Ged replied. “The ink and needles, and whatever else she–”
“Needles?” Atanar broke in. “What is that word? I don’t like the sounds of it.”
Merti took a deep breath and patted his arm. “It’s all right, Atanar. It will hurt, but only briefly.”
“I’m not afraid of pain,” he shot back. “But…needles?”
When Merti gave him the most equivalent Canderi word, he swore aloud and rubbed his wrist reflexively. “Barbaric,” he muttered, shaking his head. “They do this to children?”
“It doesn’t hurt very much,” Merti said again.
“Do the children have any say in this matter?” Atanar replied. “Do they ask their parents to…mark them in this way?”
“No,” Ged said. “Most are marked as infants, so they won’t remember.” Atanar opened his mouth to reply, but the older man gave him a quelling look. “This is how things are done in this country, son,” he said calmly. “If you’re going to stay with us, you’d best get used to it.”
Atanar looked to Merti for an ally, but she only gave a small shake of her head. “It’s a strange custom, but not a bad one. Colin…” She took a deep breath. “He didn’t cry at all. He was strong.”
She looked away from him, blinking back tears, and would say no more.
The gates opened again, revealing the black and white clad priestess, now with a village girl trotting in her wake, carrying a small leather rucksack. When she caught sight of Atanar, she froze in place, mouth agape, until the priestess ordered her forward.
The Cipher returned to the trio and spent a few minutes ordering the girl around: place the blanket on the ground there; set down the rucksack here; open it like so and carefully remove each item. Incense and candles were lit; the latter were placed in points around the blanket. All of this, the village girl did without question, though her fingers fumbled with the rucksack’s buckles and she could not get the blanket as smooth as the Cipher seemed to want.
At last the little tools—including far too many needles—were set up according to the Cipher’s instructions and the girl was told to stand aside. The Cipher took a seat cross-legged upon the blanket, then glanced up at Atanar, who stood with Ged and Merti a few paces away.
“Come here, Canderi.”
Canderi. As if that was all he was. But that was likely all she saw: a danger. The village girl certainly felt that way about him, for she seemed torn between staring at him when she thought he wasn’t looking, and flinching every time he glanced her way. A monster. Atanar’s shoulders sank as he dropped to sit before the Circle priestess.
“Right wrist here,” she said, indicating a smooth piece of flat marble resting in her lap. It was awkward, but Atanar followed her direction in the end, though he could not suppress a flare of uneasiness at being so close to a stranger who’d showed him hostility. It did, however, give him satisfaction to see that the Cipher did not seem to care for the arrangement any more than he did, for she tensed when he lowered his wrist, and hesitated before tracing a simple cross with her finger, murmuring to herself. This close, Atanar marveled at the intricate designs that flowed from beneath her sleeves to her fingers, covering the back of her hands: spirals and swirls, vines and flowers, and other symbols he had no name for.
“Such designs are extraordinary,” he said, hoping to break some of the awkwardness between them. A foolish hope rose in him; perhaps the needles weren’t meant to pierce his skin, and she could create this coveted tier mark with only her finger. “Are the markings on your skin magic? Are you a mage?”
She stared at him, mouth slightly agape before she snapped it shut and gave him a look that would have made even his mother wince. “I’m no mage,” she said through clenched teeth.
Atanar’s gaze slid over her shoulder, to see Ged and Merti both fighting back laughter. Well, at least they were entertained. “My apologies,” he said to the Cipher.
She ignored him. After tracing an invisible design, she studied his broad wrist a moment, then reached for one of the items the village girl had set out. It was a white linen cloth beside a bowl of soapy water. The Cipher dipped the cloth in the water, then carefully wiped Atanar’s wrist up and down. To his embarrassment, the cloth came away coated with dirt; he could not remember the last time he’d had more than a quick scrub in an icy stream.
But the priestess didn’t seem to notice. Instead, she began to hum softly as she selected a needle from a small velvet-lined box that lay open beside her, glanced around, then looked over at the girl. “Candle,” the Cipher said quietly.
The girl scrambled to grab the nearest candle, in a glass holder, and offered it to the Cipher with trembling hands. “So sorry, Serla Telfair. I forgot–”
“You forgot last time, too,” the Cipher interrupted. “Decca, if you want me to recommend you to the Circle, you must remember basic instruction.”
Decca’s cheeks colored as she bowed low. “Yes, Serla Telfair.”
The Cipher held the needle in the yellow candle flame. She did so quickly, but Atanar was certain the flame must have burned her fingertips.
Telfair then dipped the needle in the little saucer of black ink beside her, and glanced up at Atanar. “Be very still,” she said in a soft but commanding voice. “This will feel a bit like a bee sting, but if you move, it will hurt much, much worse, and we’ll have to start over.”
Atanar could not pull his gaze from the black ink upon the needle as the reality of what he was about to do truly sunk in. He was about to brand himself as an Aredian – forever and indelibly.
He could not go back to Cander. He could not go home. Even if he could cross the border, he would never belong there again. Vorunn laughed aloud.
Well and so. He was here now; he had to take this step forward, even if it led him to the abyss. He took a deep breath and nodded. “I’m ready.”