Adlis watched as Kulgan turned his back and marched toward the Haven. Beneath her hat, her ears were blue.
We're both freaks. The only difference is that someday, maybe you won't be a freak anymore.
Her heart was beating in her throat. How could he speak so casually about it? As if he didn't even care. Was that what being an outcast did to you? Spend enough time being rejected by the people you love, and eventually you'd stop caring one way or another? Adlis had to stifle a gasp.
She thought she had known fear when she was being held captive by the Red Fangs. That fear had seemed downright silly when she'd suddenly found herself in close proximity to a Twister. Once she'd gotten to know Kulgan, even that fear seemed insignificant compared to the terrors she'd faced in the Graylands. And what on Haroz could be more terrifying than the beasts that haunted the Graylands? Such a thing was simply unthinkable...
And that was why Adlis was so surprised when that was exactly how she felt here, contemplating her future. The very idea that her heart would collapse into an emotionless void like Kulgan's scared her more than anything she had gone through over the past week. It sounded so outlandish at first, but the more she thought about it...
What would her father say if she came back to Arborough with her ears like this? His daughter and eldest child, the one he would parade through town as the model of civility and stature. His pride and joy, and Arborough's future leader. This whole time, she had been focusing on getting home, never stopping to think about what would happen when she actually got there. She could feel his disappointment as keenly as if he were right there in front of her. He would take away her birthright, that was for sure. She couldn't blame him, really. If Arborough were to appoint a woman who had plainly been touched by magic as their governor, the church would all but declare war on them. Arborough would be a pile of ashes within a week.
But then what? If the title of governor were to be passed on to her brother, what would happen to her? Would Trestin allow her to stay? Hide her the way she had promised to hide Kulgan? Or would he cast her out, perhaps even turn her in to the church? Her relationship with her brother had never been pleasant. While she had been flighty and spontaneous, Trestin had been level headed and calculating. Adlis was fond of breaking rules, or at least finding way around them, but Trestin was far, far stricter about such things. A shiver ran down Adlis' spine. Turning her over to Brother Gestaul sounded like exactly the kind of thing he would do—not out of spite, but simply because it was what he was supposed to do.
And if he didn't, then what? She would still be evicted from Arborough, disowned from the governor's family, and told never to return. She had surprised herself over the past few days, finding herself to be much stronger and more resilient than she'd ever imagined. Even so, the one thing that had kept her going was the thought that eventually she would return to her old life at home. The idea that this would be her life from now on… running from place to place without a home or any of the comforts she had grown up with, going hungry most nights, having to keep her ears hidden or else risk being caught by the priests… eventually withering away inside like Kulgan had. No longer caring if she lived or died, not caring if she was labeled a freak or a monster. Nothing but cold, gray apathy in her heart, merely existing day to day with nothing to live for.
No, she thought with a sudden wave of conviction.
She turned to her simmk companion. “Za.”
He turned and bowed his head respectfully. “Yes, mistress?”
Adlis got a little bit of satisfaction when Za, despite his best efforts to return to his former subservient ways, jumped in surprise. “L- Leaving, mistress?”
She nodded. “I'm going to find that priest we saw earlier, Za. Maybe he can fix my ears.”
“B- B- But Master Kulgan said you weren't to do that, mistress!”
“Kulgan doesn't understand! Or maybe he does, and he just doesn't think it's worth the risk. Either way, I don't care. I'm going.”
Za was trembling now. “B- But mistress...”
“Za,” she whispered, taking a step closer to him, “stop calling me that.”
He didn't reply.
“I don't expect you to some with me,” she went on. “In fact, I don't want you to. Stay here, and when Kulgan gets his room go up and stay in there with him. You'll be safe there.”
“But you'll be—”
“I know. I'll be in great danger. I might not even come back. That's why I don't want you anywhere near me when I do this.” She poked him in the chest. “Stay here.”
The poor simmk was shaking even harder now. Adlis could tell how badly he wanted to grab her and drag her back to Kulgan, who would call her an idiot and probably tie her to a chair until morning. She couldn't let him do that. Before Za could react, Adlis lunged for him and wrapped him in a tight hug.
“If I don't come back,” she said, “I want you to know that I'm still your friend. I'm sorry for yelling at you earlier. And for hitting you. Be safe, all right?”
“M- Miss Adlis?”
Adlis smiled. “Yes?”
“I'm sorry too. I- I know what I did wasn't right. I don't know what came over me.”
She pulled away and looked him in his painted eyes. “It's all right. You didn't know what you were doing.”
“I know it was bad. I don't blame you if you hate me, Miss Adlis.”
“I could never hate you, Za! I'll tell you what: if you can forgive me, I'll forgive you.”
His knees were trembling now, threatening to make him collapse in the middle of the street. “I already have, Miss Adlis.”
“That's good,” she said, nodding. Then she paused. “You aren't even going to try to stop me?”
All at once, Za stopped shaking, and he stepped back out of her reach. “I know I can't do that, Miss Adlis. I ain't strong enough or smart enough.”
Adlis frowned. “Don't talk about yourself that way, Za. You're a—”
“But I know somebody who is!”
He turned just as a window on the third floor of the Haven opened, and somebody extended their hand through it and waved their hat like a flag. Adlis recognized Kulgan's black and silver hat even in the dying light. Za gave her one more look, and then took off running for it.
Suddenly, Adlis understood what he was doing.
“D'yargo!” she exclaimed, and then turned and bolted the other way. She had to get out of here before Kulgan pulled Za up into their room and learned what she was doing. She couldn't let Kulgan stop her. He might not see why she had to do this, but she did. He would say that fixing her ears wasn't worth her life. It was, though. It was worth it because if she didn't get this curse lifted, she wouldn't have a life to live anyway.
She didn't know how long she ran, or how far. All she knew was that Kulgan was faster than she was, and he was a master tracker on top of it. There probably wasn't anywhere in Embraus, or even in all of Tassendile, where she could hide from him, so her only option was to get there before him. There was only one problem...
She skidded to a stop in the middle of a street that, even at this hour, was busy. People of every species were still out shopping, talking, and travelling. She looked around frantically. There were street signs everywhere, but none of those helped her if she didn't know where Father Rychar was in the first place. There was only one thing for it, she decided. Seeking out the oldest, least threatening looking man she could find, she tapped him on the shoulder.
“Eh, what?” he asked, turning around in surprise. “What d'you want, lass?”
“I- I'm looking for someone,” she answered, trying to look as pitiful as she could. Suddenly, she wished Kulgan had let her keep the torn up dress she'd gotten in Everdry. “Have you heard of Father Rychar?”
The old man narrowed his eyes, but then burst out laughing. “Do I know Father Rychar? D'yargo tourists. Y'can smell 'em a mile away.”
Adlis blinked in surprise. “I'm sorry, what?”
“Ain't nobody in Embraus ain't heard of High Priest Father Rychar, lass. Right famous, him.”
High Priest Father Rychar? Adlis found that this didn't surprise her. “Can you tell me where to find him?”
The old man rubbed his stubbly chin and pointed. “He’ll be at the Temple’a Embin. Does sermons every night. That’a way.”
A flutter of excitement broke through Adlis' anxiety. Even though she hadn't caught her breath from her last run, she took off once again in the direction he had pointed. Sweat matted her fur to her skin, and it certainly wasn't ladylike to run in a dress, but she didn't care. If she could just get to the temple before Kulgan found her, this nightmare would be over. She could go home without being afraid of what would become of her anymore. She could go out in public without wearing a hat.
Assuming he doesn't turn me in, she thought, a smidge of fear dampening her enthusiasm. Surely it wouldn't come to that, though, would it? Embin's love and mercy was for everyone to take. Father Rychar himself had said so. And it wasn't like she was actually a witch either. She was a victim, and these ears were a curse. She found herself growing more confident with every step. Things would work out. They had to.
Ten minutes of running later, she crested the hill the old man had told her about, and spotted the Temple of Embin. It was a majestic thing, far more ornate than any building in Arborough. Light blazed from a series of stained glass windows that ran up the length of the church. In them, Adlis could easily make out familiar scenes from the Book of Order, like Embin appearing in Prallance, forging his dawniron chain, and smiting Vashiil with it. She could hear pipe organ music filling the air, and even the voices of the choir below it. The doors stood tall and imposing, twenty feet from the road, chiseled into beautiful patterns.
Adlis took a deep breath. This was it. No going back now. Summoning her courage, she pushed one of the massive doors open.
The door swung silently on oiled hinges, and the sounds coming from inside became nearly deafening. Adlis froze. It wasn't Embinsday, but the church was full to bursting all the same. Dozens of rows of pews were spread out before her led to the pulpit at the front of the room.
Of course it's full, she chastised herself. These people probably go to church three times a day!
Even as she stood there in the doorway, stunned, the hymn they were singing ended, and Father Rychar himself stepped up onto the stage.
“My children,” he said with upraised arms, “you may be seated.”
“Miss, would you like to come in?”
Adlis jumped, and turned to see an usher standing beside her, hands clasped behind his back. He was a zik like her, and though she'd been standing there with the door open for over a minute, the look in his eyes was friendly.
She nodded. “Um, yes please.”
“There is an open seat this way,” the usher said, motioning for her to follow him.
She went after him as he expertly weaved his way through the pews and the people until they came to the empty seat he had mentioned. The sanctuary was gigantic, and yet nearly every seat was filled.
“Thank you,” Adlis whispered, sitting down.
The usher raised his finger. “Just, um, one thing, miss,” he whispered back. “Would you please remove your hat?”
Adlis' blood froze in her veins with fright. Of course. How could she have possibly forgotten? It was taboo to wear a hat into the house of Embin. The usher stood there expectantly, waiting. It was a reasonable request. Nobody would refuse something so small.
“Miss?” the usher asked when she didn't move. The people sitting around her were giving her strange looks now. She couldn't remove it, though. Right then, her ears were as white as snow.
“I... I think I'll keep it on,” she said, knowing full well how horrible that would sound. She wouldn't be surprised if they threw her out of the church then and there.
To her relief though, the usher merely frowned and walked away. The other church goers were muttering amongst themselves, giving her dirty looks. That was fine. She could live with a few people she didn't know calling her a heretic. That was at least better than being called a witch.
Up on the stage, Father Rychar opened the large, yellowed tome that sat upon the pulpit.
“Tonight, my children, I would like to read from the Chapter of Cleansing, Passage Twenty Eight.”
This was strangely comforting, Adlis realized. She had always hated going to church at home. The cathedral was small and cramped, especially since there the only one in all of Arborough, and that always made it as hot as a furnace as well. Still, there was a comforting sense of normalcy to sitting down and listening to an old man preach. Not to mention that this church was easily ten times the size of Arborough's. Even though there were far, far more people attending this service than her church at home would see in a month, Adlis was still able to sit without being crushed between the people either side of her.
Father Rychar began to read, “And during those days, witches and warlocks walked amongst the good folk.”
Adlis' ears paled under her hat. Oh dear...
NEXT TIME: “And they were great people and everyone loved them and made them pies and stuff. The end.” But seriously, this is all just coincidence, right? He just so happens to be preaching about magic the night Adlis shows up looking for help… right?