KANIEV REINED MAI to a stop and looked at the lumpy red hill that was his destination. The hill and the complex of quaint, colorful buildings at its foot sat among green meadows dotted with blue and yellow flowers and fluffy white sheep. Overhead, puffy white clouds floated in the clear blue sky. In the hot spring sunshine, Source Chaitrasse was a serene, almost idyllic sight.
Unfortunately, his lodestone told a different story. Kaniev took the smooth, flat, round stone, a little smaller than the palm of his hand, out of its pouch and looked at it again. The stone, normally a dark blue, was still glowing, the glow whitest and brightest in the center. No doubt about it, there was trouble at Source Chaitrasse, trouble that it was his job to fix.
Ha. Kaniev snorted as he put the lodestone away. After his last half-dozen failures, he had no business telling anyone he could fix anything.
But he was in possession of both the world’s only known Source lodestone, passed down through countless generations of Source-Fixers, and the rare set of abilities required to repair malfunctioning Sources. It was his responsibility, his duty, to present himself at any Source that his lodestone showed was having problems, get permission to approach the Source – usually not so difficult; the priests, sorcerers, and scholars who served at the Sources usually knew something was wrong, though they couldn’t say what – and fix the problem, again usually without much difficulty.
At each of the last six Sources he’d tried to repair, though, the malfunctions had resisted all his attempts to correct them. Feeling foolish and frustrated, he had finally been forced to give up and leave without being paid. For months now, he had been wracking his mind, trying to figure out what he was doing wrong. Had he allowed errors or sloppiness to work their way into his techniques? Or were his talent and skills degrading with age? Try as he might, he hadn’t been able to pin down the reason for his failures.
The prospect of yet another failure was only made more uninviting by what the folk in the nearby town had told him about the priestess in charge at Source Chaitrasse. Not the High Priestess; according to the gossip, Sera Valara was in frail health and would step down as soon as the newly-arrived Chosen had completed her training. Sera Fransisa, the next highest-ranking priestess, was the one who was actually running things at Chaitrasse, and she was said to be a stern battle-axe of a woman, not to be crossed by any man with a care for his dignity and his manhood.
He didn’t have to do it, Kaniev told himself. He was only forty; he could go home to the fiords, find a nice wife who could bear him a few strong sons and beautiful daughters, and take up fishing like his father and grandfather and great-grandfathers going back as far as memory could tell. As a boy, the prospect of spending his life that way had made him want to scream with boredom, and when the previous Source-Fixer discovered him and his talents and offered him an apprenticeship, he had seized at the chance for a life of adventure and excitement.
Now, though, with his skills mysteriously deteriorating and the prospect of another embarrassing failure ahead of him, a little boredom didn’t sound so bad.
But if he quit now, before he found an apprentice who shared his unusual magical abilities, he would leave Tehovir without anyone who could keep its many magical Sources functioning properly. He would break a long, proud line that went back as far as humans had been using Sources. If he gave up just because of a few failures and a case of nerves at dealing with a formidable woman, he would never be able to hold his head up again. And if he failed to fix this next Source, well, what was one more humiliation piled on top of the others?
He wiped sweat from his forehead; even with no shirt beneath the vest, the silver-trimmed black leathers he favored weren’t ideal for the hot climate of the southern Independent Kingdoms. But they were expensive and looked it; along with his collection of silver rings, bracelets, armbands, and earrings, his wealth worn on his body – what remained of it, anyway, after not being paid in six months – they proclaimed his status as a skilled and reputable tradesman.
And they suited him well, if he did say so himself.
Girding up his resolve, he kneed Mai into a walk – the old girl had seen better days herself, and should retire soon even if he didn’t – and rode on towards the hill. This time, he would succeed in repairing a malfunctioning Source. And as for the formidable Sera Fransisa, if he couldn’t charm her, he would eat his own sword.
* * *
THE ORDER AT Source Chaitrasse was housed in a collection of buildings as picturesque as the surrounding countryside. They stood two, three, and four stories tall, plastered in soft tints of yellow, rose, peach, blue, and sage. Balconies, protruding alcoves, and flower boxes spilling over with a rainbow of colors added eye-pleasing interest and variety. Carved benches, beds and boxes of flowers, and splashing fountains graced the stone-paved courtyard.
Kaniev walked Mai across the courtyard towards the largest building, which he assumed was the living quarters for the members of Chaitrasse’s order. More than a few acolytes in white robes, going about their business in the courtyard, stopped to stare at him. There were both male and female acolytes, though Kaniev had been told that those who served at Source Chaitrasse were under a strict vow of celibacy; most orders dedicated to Sources that required celibacy drew their members exclusively from one sex or the other. But if there was one thing Kaniev had learned about Sources in the last twenty-seven years, it was that every Source was different.
Kaniev hitched Mai to a post in the courtyard and unstrapped his knapsack from the saddle. Trying to project the air of confidence that had deserted him over the last half year, he strode to the front door, made of solid golden oak bound and studded with copper fittings going green with age. A rope dangled next to the door. He pulled on it; somewhere deep inside the building, a bell rang.
A moment later, a girl in a white robe opened the door and blinked up at him with big green eyes set in a pale, thin face. “Yes?” she asked in a high, sweet, barely audible voice.
She looked very young, maybe thirteen years old or so, and her fair hair and coloring suggested that she was a long way from home, which was probably close to the Kriethi border. Most likely, she was the youngest of several daughters, put into service here because her family couldn’t afford a dowry for her. “I would like to see Sera Fransisa, if you please,” Kaniev said kindly.
The girl blinked again. “May I ask–”
“Aislinne.” A stern female voice cut off the girl’s words. “Return to your studies. You are to let the stewards open the door and greet visitors.”
The girl’s cheeks reddened. “Yes, Sera Fransisa. I was only–”
“Now. Don’t argue with me. It is inappropriate for you to be speaking with strangers, especially strange men.”
The girl’s flush deepened, and she lowered her gaze. “Yes, Sera Fransisa,” she answered, her voice reduced nearly to a whisper. She backed away from the doorway, making room for the woman who took her place.
The first thing Kaniev noticed was the priestess’s ample bosom, impressively corseted beneath her elaborately draped and pleated white robes. He certainly wouldn’t call her fat, but she did have substance to her, something he appreciated in a woman.
The priestess was under a vow of celibacy, he reminded himself sternly. Whatever his other faults, and they were many, he wasn’t in the habit of seducing women who had made such vows.
Unless they wanted to be seduced. And, of course, only when being seduced wouldn’t conflict with the Sources they served.
“Yes?” Sera Fransisa said without the slightest sign of interest or any other emotion other than irritation.
Kaniev dragged his gaze to her smooth, oval, olive-skinned face, which was still considerably below his own eye level. Warm brown eyes met his with a stern, humorless look. Her rich chestnut hair, done up in elaborate braids and curls, had no more than a scattering of gray in it, and only a few faint lines showed at the corners of her eyes and mouth. She wasn’t young; neither was she far into middle age. Probably about his age, Kaniev guessed, give or take a year or two.
“Can I help you?” she asked, more impatiently this time.
This one clearly had no interest in being charmed. Still, Kaniev rose to the challenge. With any luck, he could still over-awe her with his stunning good looks and masculinity so that she wouldn’t laugh at him too much when he failed to fix her Source. “My name is Kaniev. I…”
“If you’re begging, you can go work in the fields, and at suppertime we’ll give you a meal and ten pennies.”
Kaniev’s mouth dropped open, then he quickly closed it again. Did he look like a beggar? He was a little travel-worn, true, and it had been some time since he had shaved, and he had had to sell some of his jewelry, but could a beggar afford these clothes? “No, I’m sorry, you misunderstood. I’m not begging. I’m a Source-Fixer. I detect Sources that aren’t functioning properly and repair them.” Or not. “My lodestone indicates that there’s a problem with Source Chaitrasse.”
Sera Fransisa raised one dark, arched eyebrow; otherwise, her face remained as filled with emotion as a somewhat annoyed stone. “A problem.”
“Yes. Here, look.” He took the glowing lodestone from its pouch in the front pocket of his knapsack. “See? Here in the middle.” He pointed to the center, where the stone was glowing brightest. “That means it’s at the location of a Source that isn’t working correctly.”
The priestess peered at the stone, frowning slightly. “What is that?”
“It’s the Source lodestone. It’s attuned to the powers of all the Sources of Tehovir. I’m not sure exactly how it works; there’s a legend that it was mined from the legendary Great Source where the powers of heaven and earth come together to create Source-power. I don’t know about that, but I know it’s been used by scores of generations of Source-Fixers, and I know that in the twenty-seven years I’ve been in the trade, the lodestone has never been wrong.”
Her eyebrows furrowed together, and Kaniev felt the stirring of magic in use. “It’s channeling Source-power,” she said after a moment. “So this isn’t just a trick.”
“Not a trick.”
Sera Fransisa studied the stone a little longer, her shapely lips pursed in a fetching manner. “I suppose you sound sincere,” she finally said. “Something about the Source has seemed a little off recently. Normally I wouldn’t pay it any mind, for if you do know anything about Sources, you know that the flow of power in a Source waxes and wanes according to the season and the phase of the moon. But there’s an important ritual tomorrow night, so I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to take a closer look and make sure everything is in order. Come with me.”
The priestess strode out the door past him and across the courtyard, heading for a smaller building that butted up against the hill, covered with creamy white plaster and decorated with elaborate moldings. That must be the Source’s shrine; Source Chaitrasse itself was likely in a cave on the hillside that formed the back wall of the shrine. Kaniev watched Sera Fransisa walk towards the shrine, indulging himself in a private moment of admiration. Her purposeful stride, full-bodied curves, and flowing white robes billowing out behind her put him in mind of a ship in full sail.
He shook himself and hurried to catch up with her before she could notice him loitering behind. So far, so good; she had believed him and agreed to let him see the Source. Now all he had to do was keep from humiliating himself by failing to fix it.
Copyright 2017 Kyra Halland. All Rights Reserved.
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