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A Messenger to the Dragon

by Andrew Harvey

Published in Aurealis: The Australian Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction 1992 - (Issue 7)

And remember this, that I will send messengers in my name, and they shall provide the law which - while their time lasts - shall be my law. Their teachings will serve as a mirror of my love. And my messengers will always be with you.

From the first book of the Iahab


Lord Selk, first of the Dragon Clutch, member of the Imperial Pattern, and heir apparent to the Eastern throne sat tiredly on the step outside the smoking house. His legs ached, his scales itched, and his eyes hurt from the dryness of the air this high into the mountains. They had been on the road for three weeks now, and were still several days away from Sanctuary.

The twins were around somewhere trying to find a guide, and deciding that perhaps it was time he joined them Selk started to rise to his feet. As he did so, however, the doors to the smoking house were suddenly flung open and someone came spiralling out. Colliding with Selk they spun round angrily, talons out, eyes blazing insanely. Selk raised a hand protectively, but even as he did so his assailant was seized from behind, whirled round, and flung solidly against the wall across the street, where he promptly collapsed into a limp heap.

His savior, a slim, diminutive young woman dusted her hands.

"My thanks," Selk said, wondering where she had got the strength from to do what she had just done.

"My pleasure." She stirred the body idly with her foot. "Such trash should learn to hold their smoke." From the pouch at her waist she extracted a small vial, opened it, tapped a little of the green powder onto her hollow of her wrist, then holding her wrist to her nose sniffed vigorously.

"Like some?" she asked, holding the vial out to him.

"No thank you. I prefer to keep my thoughts clear."

She smiled. "It isn't Trak, if that's what you're concerned about."

"My answer is still the same."

"Everyone to their own," she said lightly, seemingly unconcerned by his refusal.

Selk bent down to check his assailant's pulse, it was strong, but he was going to have a headache to beat all others when he woke up in the morning. When he looked up he found his savior had disappeared. For a moment he considered trying to search for her, but the appearance of Harr, with news that a guide would not be available for a couple of days, quickly drove the thought from his mind.

***

A week later Selk studied the long flight of stairs still in front of them and sighed tiredly. The twins took the opportunity to catch their breath.

"How much further?" he asked their guide. This high into the mountains the air was so thin that every breath was becoming a battle.

The monk who was leading them paused for a moment. "Another couple of hours my Lord. These are the last stairs."

Selk nodded tiredly, and adjusted the pilgrim's gown he wore closer in an attempt to keep out the cold. It was a dark, formless shade of grey that merged perfectly with the sullen, lifeless rock around them. Turn it inside out however, and its dull, black inner lining would have served as a perfect twin for the monk's own gown.

"Does one ever become used to this air?" he asked, feeling as though he was gradually suffocating.

"It becomes easier after a season. After two it's as though you were born here," the monk said.

"Selk," Held said warningly. "There's someone coming."

Selk tilted his head to listen, and could just make out the sound of rattling stones on the path below. "More than one," he said. "I guess we wait?" he said, looking to their guide for instruction.

Their guide nodded.

It took ten minutes for the other party to catch up with them, and at the first sight of the one who followed the guide round the corner both twins moved in protectively around him. It was an Ajnin. There could be no possible misreading of the pattern of deep black scars engraved on his face.

An Ajnin, one of the Western Steppe's most feared warrior patterns. Selk swore softly - what did that do to his mission?

"Greetings pilgrim," the Ajnin said, drawing level. Her gutteral accent making it difficult for Selk to understand her.

"Pilgrim," Selk replied. "You're a long way from home."

"I did not think Sanctuary was reserved simply for those of your nation."

"You misunderstand me," Selk said, knowing perfectly well she hadn't. "I was merely remarking that you must have been travelling for some time."

"Two seasons," the Ajnin said shortly.

Their guide indicated they should continue, and stiffling a groan Selk put his feet to the steps once more. For a while the only sound to break the cold, crisp silence of the mountains was that of their boots slipping on the small stones that littered the path.

It was nearing mid-day when their guide suddenly stopped and held up his hand in warning. They were in a defile at the time, a gateway carved into the rock just ahead of them, and once again the twins moved closer to Selk, their hands instinctively moving towards their weapons.

"What is it?" Selk asked.

"Sanctuary," their guide said, and motioned them forward.

Held was the first through, closely followed by Selk. As he passed through the gate Selk could see why their guide had paused. He had heard that Sanctuary was impressive, but to actually see it, tired and exhausted after the journey. To come out of the cold and shadows of the valley into the full sun of the broad valley in front of them, and to see the temple carved into the face opposite was a moment guaranteed to take the breath away.

Six, seven stories tall, its triangular pillars supported an ornate frieze that ran the entire length of the valley. Selk knew it had taken two hundred years to carve that facade; and yet the facade was only a small part of the temple, the bulk of which existed burrowed deep into the cliff face behind it.

It took them quarter of an hour to cross the floor of the valley, to reach the main steps. And as they slowly climbed the last few steps of their journey they heard the chanting of prayers, coming from somewhere deep within the complex.

Once inside the party separated, the Ajnin going with one monk, while the three of them went with another to the cubicles that were to be theirs during their stay.

"The evening meal will be an hour before dusk," the monk said, before leaving them. "I will arrange for someone to take you. In the meantime, can I suggest you rest. Your induction is arranged for tomorrow morning."

"Our thanks," Selk said, looking at the cubicle he had been given. Light filtered into the room through a set of wooden shutters that were presently closed against the cold. Bare of all furniture save the ubiquious sleeping pit set into one corner of one floor, the cubicle was spartan in the extreme.

"I would suggest we follow the good monk's advice," Selk said to the twins, after he had withdrawn. "Those last set of stairs have taken almost everything out of me."

"Call us if you need us then," Harr said, and the two retired to leave Selk alone.

He was woken by the sound of a gong. Climbing stiffly out of the pit he found the twins waiting for him in the passage.

"Dinner?" he asked hopefully.

"It would so," Held said. "The only problem is that we don't have a guide yet."

But even as she spoke a monk came hurrying up.

The dining room was two levels down, and one courtyard in. There were ten courtyards in all, according to their guide, and they served as the method by which light reached the interior of the complex. Small gardens filled the base of the courtyard, each based on a different culture. The one they passed through was based on the Quarlw culture in the north of the continent. Small spiny cactus set into freshly raked gravel beds. Sophisticated, but barren in Selk's considered opinion.

The dining room was enormous, easily capable of seating over two thousand people. For the moment there were probably less than five hundred there, of who less than ten (from their cloaks) were pilgrims. This far into winter that was no surprise, in summer one could expect a hundred times that number.

After getting their food from the servery the three made over their way to where the other pilgrims were seated. Selecting a chair at the opposite end of the table from the Ajnin Selk was suddenly surprised to recognize the one sitting opposite him as his rescuer at the smoking house at Sarr.

"My lady," Selk said in greeting. He had forgotten how beautiful she was. Her features fine; her eyes large, with the soft, enticing grey of a summer sky. Her scales small and sharply defined.

She smiled, motioned too indicate that her mouth was full and that they should sit down.

"Lind, of the Ruby clutch," she said introducing herself as soon as her mouth was clear, and she had fastidiously cleaned the blood from her mouth with a napkin.

"Selk, these two," he indicated the twins, "Held and Harr are my clutch mates." He did not feel it necessary to name either their clutch, or pattern. Their mission for the Emperor was supposed to be a secret after all.

"You know each other?" Harr asked.

"Yes, she was the one who saved me from that smoker in Sarr. For which I don't believe I have had the opportunity to thank you properly," he told her.

She waved airily. "It was no problem."

Selk believed her, she seemed a highly capable individual.

"Have you been here long?" he asked.

"A day or to."

"And you're here alone?" Held asked.

"Yes, I was travelling with some others, but they got held up in Soreil, and as my reason for reaching Sanctuary couldn't wait I came on alone."

"And how much longer do you think you'll need?"

"Not much, my business is almost complete."

"My Lord Selk?" a monk behind him asked uncertainly.

"Yes," Selk said.

"The abbot wishes to see you."

"Now?" He hadn't even had time to take his first bite.

"He did say it was urgent my Lord."

Selk stared unhappily at his uneaten meal for a moment before rising.

"My companions?" he asked.

"The abbot requested their attendance as well."

"Did you have to ask?" Harr said, standing.

The abbot's rooms were some distance away. The path they followed sparsely lit, and chosen (Selk was sure) to avoid contact with others.

Finally they arrived at an ornately carved door, and after knocking their guide ushered them. Two people waited there for them, seated on stools in front of a small charcoal warmer.

"My Lord," the older of the two said, rising slightly.

My Lord Abbot," Selk said, recognizing him from the description he had been given. Old, and serene, his scale were almost translucent with age, his eyes hooded with the lid of death. He wondered who the other was, but controlled his impatience to ask. All would undoubtedly be revealed in due course.

"Guardians," the Abbot said, recognizing the twins with a nod of his head.

The twins, who had earned the title as a result of their self adopted role as body-guard to the Emperor's heir, acknowledged the greeting with a slight bow.

"My thanks Hepg," he said to the monk who had brought them. Hepg bowed, and left them, closing the door behind him.

The twins, without saying anything, took up their position on either side of the door. Many people found their silence and similiarity in appearance distracting (having been hatched from the same egg) but the Abbot merely smiled and turned back to Selk.

"My Lord Selk," he said. "An agent of the Emperor is always welcome in Sanctuary.

"You are well informed," Selk said told him. "The Emperor had not wished for anyone to know of our mission." And when he returned to the palace one of the first things he was going to do was to find who was responsible for allowing the Abbot to find out.

The Abbot raised his hands in gentle humour. "I would have wished that we could have indulged the Emperor in his little games, but we have a need of your powers of investigation."

"Oh," Selk said.

"A murder," the other said. Her voice quiet, but with the power of authority.

"Holy one," he said bowing, now knowing who she was.

"Selk," the other said acknowledging the bow. She was younger than Selk would have imagined her, perhaps only twenty summers. But there was a maturity in her face which indicated a knowledge beyond mere years. The faint flush to her throat scales indicated that she had still not become acclimatized to the thin air. There was no doubt, however, that this was indeed the one who the Emperor had sent him to question.

The last Messenger of God had been dead some fifty years now, and rumours had been circulating for the past five years that his successor had finally appeared. With the news that this person was in Sanctuary the Emperor had dispatched Selk to establish the truth of the matter. For the recognition of a new Messenger was no simple matter, having ramifications which extended far beyond the Faith.

Entrusted with God's love to teach, and with God's will to evoke new laws, the arrival of a new Messenger would impact on all nations which accepted the Iahab teachings. And given the present difficulties the Empire was having with the Federation of the Western Steppes (as both nations contested for leadership of the continent) the nature of this latest Messenger was even more important than normal. One sentence, one word from the Messenger could set everything on its side. Was it surprising therefore why the Emperor had chosen to despatch Selk on this mission.

"So tell me of this murder," Selk said quietly.

"An hour ago the body of a pilgrim was found in one of the inner courtyards," the Abbot began. "It appeared she had jumped from the window of her room on the fifth floor. There were no signs of a struggle, and her room had been locked from the inside."

"Yet you've described it as murder? Why?"

"Because the Messenger has said so."

"You have accepted her?" Selk said surprised. He had not expected the Abbot to make a decision so quickly. The news the Emperor had received indicated she had only arrived in the Sanctuary three seasons ago, and the tests for a new Messenger usually took at least four.

The Abbot nodded. "I will argue her case before the Council before the end of the year."

"And if Council rejects your case?" Harr asked.

"I die," the Messenger said flatly.

A harsh sentence, but the stakes were high.

And of course, Selk realized, once a person had accepted a Messenger there was nothing one could do but believe what they said, otherwise why bother accepting them in the first place. The question was then; why did the Messenger believe it was murder?

"She was my twin," the Messenger said, even as he started to turn to ask her. "Her death was neither accidental, nor suicidal. If it had been either I would have known."

"It is not possible to know everything one's twin is thinking," Selk said glancing at Harr. "Did she closely resemble you.?"

"Yes."

"So, if it was murder, perhaps the murderer mistook her for you."

"Perhaps." "Did she arrive in the Sanctuary with you?"

"No, she only arrived a couple of weeks ago."

"There is something else," the Abbot said. "One of the brother's reported seeing a monk in the corridor outside her door immediately after her death."

"Surely that is not too unusual," Selk said. "After all, this is a temple."

"True, but when the brother called out to her to stop she moved away."

"Did he recognise her?"

"No."

"But it was definitely a female?"

"That is what Brother Marr has said. You may speak to him if you wish."

"Thank you, perhaps later. Now, if I could have a look at the scene of the crime? If that is what it is."

"Of course."

Leaving the Messenger in the Abbot's room the four of them made their way up a series of stairs to the fifth floor, then along the corridor past a series of closed doors.

"What do you think?" Held asked, as they followed the Abbot along the passage. "Will the Council accept her as the Messenger?"

"I don't know," Selk said slowly. "The Abbot has accepted her, but she will certainly fail if we can't prove this as murder. The one thing a Messenger must be is infallible."

"Do you always separate the pilgrims?" Selk asked as they neared the end of the corridor, and the door propped up against the wall indicated they had reached their destination.

"If we can. Although a pilgrim's links to their homeland are supposed to be cut when they enter the Sanctuary, we often find it easier to help them adjust if their contact with others is somewhat restricted."

A quick glance into the room showed it to be the same as Selk's, then Selk turned his attention to the door. It had been taken off its hinges, presumably by the monks who had had to enter the room, but was otherwise undamaged. Lifting it back into position with the twin's assistance he replaced the pins which were lying on the ground, and swung it too and fro several times. It swung easily.

The lock the abbot had referred to was a simple latch that rested in a groove of metal inside the door frame. In the open position the latch rested on a stud attached to the door, rotated 180 degrees in a groove attached to the door frame - effectively locking it. Bending down Selk inspected the underside of the metal bar.

"My apologies my Lord Abbot. But why don't you have some way of opening the door from the outside. It can't have been easy taking the door off its hinges."

The abbot shrugged. "Tradition."

"Held, do you see anything?" Selk asked. "Your eyes are better than mine."

Held examined the bar. "There may be something. A couple of scratches, just there." She showed Selk where there were, just beyond the edge of the door.

Getting down to his knees again he peered at the door. "Knife," he said waving his hand. Harr handed him her's. Carefully holding the knife on the edge of the door he rested the latch on it, then raised the knife so that only a fraction of the metal protected beyond the edge of the door.

Carefully he closed the door, and just as it was almost closed he started to remove the knife. Almost immediately the latch fell off the blade.

Selk rose to his feet and shrugged. "You get the idea however. I don't think it would take too much practice to get it right."

"So it was murder!" the Abbot said.

"I haven't said that," Selk said quickly. "All I've done so far is to establish that it may have been murder."

Leaving the twins to stand guard at the door, the Abbot standing uncertainly next to them, Selk crossed to the window and looked out. It was a long way down.

"You've removed the body."

"Yes," the Abbot said. "I have had it placed in the cool room. You may look at it any time you wish."

"Do you know when the death occurred?" Selk asked, inspecting the shutters carefully as he spoke.

"About an hour ago."

"Can you place where everyone was at the time of death? Particularly the pilgrims."

"But Brother Marr reported seeing a monk."

"No, according to you he reported seeing someone who looked like a monk. Perhap what he actually saw was this," and removing his cloak, he reversed it and showed it to the abbot.

The abbot nodded thoughtfully, it was obviously something he had not considered.

"That is not to say that it was not a monk," Selk warned him. "But if someone did try and kill the Messenger, I believe it more likely too have been a pilgrim. Now, is it possible to ascertain everyone's location at the time of the murder?"

"I'm afraid not. Pilgrims have a guide to reach here, but once within the walls they are left pretty much to their own devices. It's part of the learning pattern."

"A pity," Selk said. At the palace he would have been able to plot everyone's movements to within five minutes.

Turning now to the shutters he attempted to close them. To his surprise, however, they stuck. "Harr," he called. Together they managed to force the shutters closed; but then, when he then tried to open them again, they refused.

Hitting them with his shoulder they suddenly opened, and Selk (overbalanced) was only saved by Harr's quick hand on his shoulder.

"Thanks," Selk said, looking ruefully at the ground outside where he had almost joined the room's previous occupant.

"Do you ever have these open?" he asked the Abbot.

"No."

"Well perhaps she simply wanted the window open for some reason and overbalanced."

The Abbot remained silent. This was not something he wanted to hear.

With Harr's help Selk closed the window again, this time trying to lock it with the latch. The wood had warped however and the latch was unable to be closed.

"Interesting," Selk said. "You can see the latch was closed until quite recently. There is a build up of rust on the metal." He studied it closely. "There are no signs of scratching or forcing. Intriguing."

Coming to a decision he turned to the rest of the room. "There were no personal belongings?"

"No, nothing."

"Harr," Selk said, indicating the pit with a jerk of his head. Harr immediately started to go through the rugs. It only took her a moment to finish her inspection and climb out of the pit shaking her head.

"I think we should have a look at the body now. After that I may need to question the pilgrims."

The Abbot looked uneasy. To allow temporal authority to usurp that of the church, especially in Sanctuary, was bordering close to sacrilege.

"If you would care to lead on," Selk prompted.

During the walk to the cool room, where the body had been stored, Selk's mind circled endlessly around the problem of the window latch. He knew it was part of the answer, there was something lurking on the edge of his consciousness, but for the life of him he couldn't think what it was.

Selk didn't learn much from the body, but then he hadn't expected to. The corpse had become one as the result of a five storey fall, though whether she had jumped, or been pushed Selk still hadn't made up his mind. The only thing he hadn't expected was her uncanny resemblence to the Messenger. Even living every day as he did with the twins had not prepared him for it, and for a moment it was as though he was looking at the body of the Messenger herself.

Somehow serene despite the injuries, her face still possessed much of the strength he had seen in her twin.

No, there was nothing to be gained from the body.

"My Lord Abbot," he said, turning to him. "I must now ask that you permit me, as a representative of the Emperor, to question the pilgrims."

The Abbot looked uncertain. Selk knew he was asking a lot, but there didn't seem any alternative. He had reached an impasse.

"My Lord Abbot, there is no choice if you wish this murder solved," he pushed.

The Abbot nodded slowly. "Very well then. Who do you want to see first?"

"The Ajnin. If this was done on the orders of the Tyrant I believe he's our best chance."

The Abbot nodded again.

Within half an hour the Abbot had managed to have most of the pilgrims returned to their rooms, and Selk conducted to the Ajnin's quarters.

The Ajnin was standing by the window as the Abbot led them into the room.

"My apologies for inconveniencing you," the Abbot told her. "But Lord Selk is conducting a murder enquiry."

"I am at your service my Lord," the Ajnin said.

"May I ask why you've come to Sanctuary?" Selk asked, as the twins took up their positions on both sides of the door.

"I hope to take vows," the Ajnin explained.

Selk raised an eyebrow.

"The rest of my clutch is dead," the Ajnin explained. "My last brother died three seasons ago in a skirmish on the northern border. It has freed me from the pattern, and so I have come to Sanctuary."

Selk nodded understandingly. It was a familiar enough story amongst the patterns, those collections of interlocking debts (both owed and due) between clutches. Especially amongst those chosen to be warriors, where death often came early.

"I don't suppose you would be able to say where you were between your arrival, and dinner?" Selk asked.

The Ajnin bared her teeth in an evil grin. "As a matter of fact Easterner, I can. I have suffered from an old wound which is aggravated by the thin air. For the times mentioned I was in the clinic."

"Witnesses?"

"Of course."

Harr let a low whistle warningly, barring her teeth.

"Is that all my Lord Abbot?" the Ajnin asked, choosing to ignore her.

The Abbot looked at Selk, who nodded dispiritedly. Another dead end, and unless they came up with something from the rest of the pilgrims that was the way it was going to stay. It was beginning to look to Selk that the Messenger's life was already forfeit.

With the failure on his questioning of the Ajnin on his mind, Selk paused for a moment outside the door to think.

Strength, he mused, that was the answer. It seemed that it would have taken at least three people to have forced the latch on the shutters, and yet Brother Marr had reported only seeing one, and a female at that. Not that a female wasn't as fast, or as cunning as a male; but in raw, brute strength they were sadly deficit. And it was on the question of strength that whole investigation seemed to presently hinge.

Suddenly, with a muttered expletive, he knew the answer. "Lind of the Ruby clutch next," he said shortly. How could he have been so blind?

The Abbot led the way to her room. She was seated on the edge of the sleeping pit as they entered the room.

"My apologies for inconveniencing you," the Abbot told her. "But we have had a murder in the temple and Lord Selk is conducting an enquiry. He has asked to speak to you."

Lind stood up slowly. Selk motioned unobtrusively for the twins to separate, and they both moved slightly out to cover her.

"I am at your service," she said.

"Do you mind if we search you?" Selk asked.

"Of course not," she said shrugging delicately. "I have nothing to hide."

"May I see the pouch?" Selk asked.

Lind unfastened it from her belt and gave it to Harr, who in turn handed it to Selk. Opening it Selk took out the small vial he had seen her use after she had disposed of that smoker at Sarr. Opening it he cautiously placed a small amount of the powder on his tongue.

"Tranj!" he said, immediately spitting it out.

"Very good," Lind said with a smile. "Your reputation has preceeded you."

"You're living on borrowed time Lind," he warned her. Although Tranj provided the user with increased speed, and phenominal strength; it was very expensive, and highly addictive. Without the drug any user would quickly die. It was also a drug widely used by Western Steppe assassins.

"A short life, but a happy one," Lind told him.

Selk glanced through the contents of the rest of the pouch, but the knife he was looking for was not there.

"Search her," he told Harr.

Harr started to move in, but even as her hand touched Lind's shoulder Lind moved. In a blur that was almost too fast to see a knife appeared from a wrist harness, and Harr was at her mercy. Held's gun was now in her hand but it was too late. Selk cursed silently, he had known Lind was fast. He should have had the twins hold a weapon on her from the start, but now (of course) it was too late.

"Don't move Harr," he told her.

"I don't intend too," Harr replied. "She's strong."

"Very wise," Lind told them. "Now if no-one does anything silly we may be able to break this little stand-off without anyone getting hurt. Held, please place your gun on the floor."

Held looked at Selk, who nodded. They didn't have any alternative.

"You realise you can't get away," Selk told her, as Held carefully placed her gun on the floor in front of her.

"Actually I don't," Lind told him. "The border is only a short distance away. And while I won't exactly be welcomed home with open arms the Tyrant will undoubtedly offer me the protection of her house."

"I have heard the Tyrant does not accept failure lightly," Selk said. "You may find it more difficult than you expect to gain her protection."

She looked surprised. "Why? My mission was successful. The Messenger is dead."

Selk shook his head. "Her twin sister."

She thought for a moment. "You may be right then, but the Tyrant is not as unforgiving as you would have her. Still, for all that, I am pleased to have finally met my Lord Selk. Perhaps fate will give us an opportunity of meeting again."

"I hope not."

Lind shrugged. "My pouch," she said. Selk threw her the pouch. While they spoke she had been moving steathily towards the window, now suddenly she threw Harr across the room against her twin, and as both went down in a flailing mass of limbs she spun, released the latch on the window and vaulted through. Selk watched her land, recover, then zig zag away. It was an impressive feat Selk thought, especially when it was realized they were on the third storey.

Held struggled to her feet, glanced out of the window, and started for the door.

"Oh let her go," Selk said disgustedly. "If you catch her you'll just end up getting yourself killed."

"My Lord."

"I know you're good, but you're not that good," Selk said. "And besides, the case is no longer our concern. Is it my Lord Abbot?"

"No," the Abbot agreed.

Held still looked uncertain.

"Neither of the two people concerned owe allegiance to the Emperor," Selk explained. "And as the murder took place on temple ground, I will now leave the capture and punishment of the culprit to the Faith."

"My thanks my Lord," the Abbot said slowly. "You may rest assured that we will do all that we can to bring the culprit to justice."

"That is all I ask for. For the present, however, the three of us have an interrupted meal to finish. Held?"

Held looked wistfully at the window for a moment, then nodded slowly. It was no longer their concern.

In the morning, they received a summons to the Messenger. She met with them in one of the inner courtyards. It was based on the central Ih'i culture, full of low shrubs, and soft rounded rocks. Much more welcoming than the Quarlw culture's attempt Selk thought.

As the monk who had guided them to her backed carefully away, the Messenger rose from the rock she had been sitting on to greet them. "My Lord," she said gravely. "You have my thanks."

"Your thanks are unnecessary," Selk said. "I do not believe that our God would allow the murder of a Messenger to escape undetected, or (in time) unpunished."

The Messenger stared at him in shock, before collapsing slowly once again to the rock.

"How long have you known?" she asked finally.

"The thought occured to me last night. I haven't really known until you admitted it however."

The Messenger raised her head, exposing her throat in a gesture of submission.

"May I ask why you did it?" Selk said.

"If I may ask how you knew?"

Selk reached out and softly touched the scales on her throat. "There is some flushing on the scales," he said in explanation. "Is not what one would expect from someone acclimitized to the high attitude, such as your sister would have been after three seasons. You, on the other hand have only been here two weeks. Now, your turn to answer my question."

"I could not just let my sister die," she said. "Her message is important, and deserves the chance to be heard." She paused for a moment. "If you could just have met her. She truly had been touched by God."

"I do not think that you have been passed by either," Selk said softly. "Your secret is safe with us."

"You will not speak of this?" she said surprised.

He shook his head. "It is a matter for the Faith. I do not think it necessary. One further question however."

"Yes."

"Does the Abbot know?"

She shook her head. "No. And I do not believe that his eyes are as good as yours."

"Perhaps, perhaps not." Selk could not believe that the Abbot did not at least suspect, and if he hadn't said anything, then he too had had his reasons to remain silent.

She puzzled over the words for a moment, then smiled softly in agreement. "Perhaps, perhaps not."

Selk smiled in turn, and held out his hand, she grasped it for a moment, then as he turned to leave.

"My Lord."

"Yes," he said turning back.

"If I am accepted, you will have no hold over me."

"Holy one, if you are accepted, nothing will have a hold over you."

"Just so long as we understand each other."

"I think we do," Selk said, nodding to the twins to follow him out. "Yes, I think we do." And that was afterall, what the Emperor had sent him for.

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