Each of the six gods of Nahria boasted a Temple in Marna, but the Temple of the Architect was by far the tallest. Even if Irella hadn’t lived in the Temple of the Architect since coming to Oruku, it would have been impossible to miss. Constructed by magic out of glittering blue aetherrock barely distinguishable from the clouds above, tall enough that it would have required a massive base to support its bulk had it been built of any other material. Together, the six levels of the Temple formed a stairway for the gods' journeys to the heavens.
A pair of workers sat in front of the entrance to the Temple, chatting as they ate sour fish balls straight from their skewers. Irella passed them with her escort. They paid her no mind as she walked by, the sight of a priestess and her guards returning to Temple too common to note.
Irella was the only thaumaturge in service to the Architect east of Ulmes, but there were hundreds priests of the Architect in Marna alone.
She counted seven in the main hall as she entered the Temple. Most met with petitioners, but Irella smiled to see one priestess teaching a pair of children, too young to be novices, how to build a strong wall out of miniature blocks.
The lemon-ash scent of incense filled her nostrils, teasing her memories with a history of safety and purpose edged with the omnipresent scorn she had endured since arriving at the Temple at the age of eight. With the might of the temple—of the Architect Himself—behind her, she need not fear famine, or slavery, or abandonment. The only thing she had to fear was the high priest and his orders—and the judgment of her peers.
The first thing she heard was a prayer; a woman’s family home had been destroyed in a recent spate of flooding out in the countryside. Irella couldn’t help but envy the priestess who would be tasked to help the woman.
The work Irella specialized in was important, and the speed she could bring to a task with the Architect's grace often-critical, but it was also mostly thankless. The people who understood and appreciated the import of her projects had been too powerful, too absorbed in managing the world, to really be grateful for the beneficence of the Architect.
Guilt flooded her at the thought. She didn't serve the Architect because she wanted gratitude. She did good work, and that was precisely what the Architect demanded of His followers. Safe bridges, unobtrusive piping, their whole purpose was to provide frictionless infrastructure — Irella's job was to make sure nothing went wrong, not enjoy the kudos that came from fixing an issue that had already escalated to being a problem.
Still, though Irella was one of the strongest thaumaturges in the Architect’s service, and capable of far more impressive work than simple home repairs that even an acolyte could make without magic, she would rather help a fishwife than embellish a market to overawe foreign traders.
No matter how much Lysaria needed the trade.
A voice stopped her just before she left the entrance hall. "You're back! I thought you were set on reforming the capitol."
Irella winced, then pasted on a smile and turned. ”It’s good to see you, nin-Johsti.”
The old thaumaturge, who had trained Irella when she was young and interceded with the High Priestess on her behalf countless times, had the same indulgent eyes he’d worn in her youth. “But you’re not staying, not even to keep an old woman company in a time of grief.”
Irella blinked in surprise.
Johsti’s cheeks dimpled. “Or you wouldn’t have brought two biladiyn through the main hall without noticing my presence. Why the hurry? Surely you’ll be home for awhile, what with… everything.”
Irella shook her head. “I’ve been sent to Uskune. I’m not even supposed to be here right now.” She flushed a little. “My orders were to go straight to the garrison.”
“But you wanted to talk to the senior Priestess and she’ll overrule en-Avestur?” Johsti sounded sympathetic, but her disapproval was unmistakable.
“Ah. Not nin-Lanlanor, then. The sky road to the palace is dangerous, Irella, if I’ve told you once I’ve told you a thousand times.” The old woman only dropped honorifics when she was scared or very angry. Irella imagined it was the former, today. "The gods will protect you if you fall, but what of your biladiyn?"
“Why are there so many angry people outside the palace, nin-Johsti?” Irella asked, changing the subject.
“Because the softhearted old fool who rules here now won’t let me remove them.”
Irella raised her eyebrows. For nin-Johsti to even joke about pitting the power of the gods against their own people meant the situation was of great concern — and she hadn’t sounded like she was joking. Irella stayed silent, waiting for a real answer.
Johsti sighed. “They want Valentina to come and bring the armies with them. With Eramepi dead, no one believes the League will stay together, and if our soldiers and our finest priests are all down south, there’s no one to protect us if things destabilize.”
Irella winced. “You’re far more skilled than I am, nin-Johsti.”
The older woman quirked a self-deprecating smile. “I’ve practiced a few more tricks for longer, perhaps, but sometimes there’s just no substitute for stamina and power, girl, and those you’ve got more than anyone else east of the plains. The people remember the Siege, nin-Irella. They know who makes them safe, and it certainly isn’t me or an old trader like the Governor.”
“The Governor can’t make Valentia come back any more than I can make her order me to stay,” Irella said, feeling guilty anyway. Maybe if she’d phrased things differently, or been more patient…
“Mobs aren’t like people, nin-Irella. They can’t be reasoned with. They can only demand, and rage.”
“What do you think I should do?”
Johsti closed her eyes. “Go to Uskune. You can’t be the reason the League breaks, no matter what the people demand.”
“I promised Wanishtu I’d talk to his father,” Irella said.
Johsti patted her shoulder sympathetically. “And what did you promise your Empress?”
Avestur wanted her gone because he couldn't control her. Valentia wanted her gone because she couldn't control the people who hated her. Wanishtu and his father were the only ones to seek her help, and she didn't dare give it.
Not in such a critical moment for the future of the League.
If Valentia couldn’t hold the cities together, the peace they had worked so hard to build – a peace that marauders and slavers did not dare disturb – would crumble. Eramepi’s legacy would crumble. The incessant, petty raids would pick up and another generation would be left starving or orphaned or both.
Irella bowed her head obediently. She was going to Uskune.
I hope you'll forgive the little rant in this scene, but also I often feel like one of my biggest weaknesses as a writer is a lack of willingness to emote on the page. I went out on a bit of a limb here trying to overcome it.
By nature I tend to be passionate about my interest, and I enjoy using fiction as a vehicle for teaching – that's kind of my schtick. But I tend to be a lot more reserved about my actual opinions, especially about tings people might argue with me about where emotions run high.
The time of my life where I enjoyed arguing with people on the internet is by now many years behind me. I try to leave debates about social issues to people who find fulfillment in fighting culture wars; not because I don't think social issues are important, but because I only have so much emotional bandwidth, and my sense of fulfillment has for so long come from teaching and helping people.
Teaching, at least in my region and content area, is a profession where I strongly feel it's best to let students draw their own conclusions based on their own values, rather than soapboxing – so I'm in the habit of adopting a certain sense of professional reserve.
Some of that is just personality though. I'm not really a heart on my sleeve kind of person, although people who have seen me teach or seen my interviews often describe me as engaging and passionate. But those are all very safe environments for me – it's more difficult for me to be that sort of outgoing when I don't feel "safe," and perhaps I spent too much time training to be a lawyer, but the process of writing is generally one of the least emotionally safe things I ever do.
There's no opportunity to "read the room" and adapt on the fly to people's reactions, there's no real expectation of privacy even in personal correspondence or private journals – I never trust they won't "get out" somehow, I've heard too many horror stories.
This is a bad habit in fiction writing, though, at least when writing for a modern audience that doesn't love highbrow literature. So, I'm trying to work on opening up a little more, and letting at least my characters' feelings and point of view shine through a little more in the prose.
Thanks for reading along!
Note: There are a couple of affiliate links & codes scattered around, but these always come from links I was already recommending and usually I share them because they benefit you too (i.e. getting you extra time on trials).