46th Day of Ripening Season, 342 years After Mourning
I have made a new friend, I think. Whether she is one of Imorgan’s or not, only time will tell. The newly ordained Cardinal, for I have no doubt that while she may have skipped the public ceremonies, the official sanctification of her role was instituted immediately after her men had taken me away, before even the first blow fell, must realize that you have washed me with mercy. By laws older than the mourning of our once glorious world, she must readmit me into the priesthood. The question remains, what are her intentions? That she hides something is clear to anyone with even one good eye. And so I question the appearance of my new friend. Instead of greeting her with thankfulness, I watch her with a guarded mind.
She came this morning, after the morning bells. You know, Sisters, I keep the rituals. Were I but a breath away from death, I would keep them; for it is within the rituals of faith that I find myself drawn closer to you.
The hour of dawn is dedicated to praise, as it should be when the sky is alight with the fiery breath of the divine.
The hour after, I dedicate to the prayers of others.
I pray for the sick, those too sick to walk and those who’ve only begun to show symptoms. I pray for mercy for each of us. And I pray for the dying, that you would comfort their passing until you retrieve their souls. I pray for your servants who toil endlessly to ease their suffering. I pray for the survivors who need comfort and strength to continue walking their paths. I pray for food, to sustain us during this long and weary battle against death.
Most of all, I pray for the children. I beg you to watch over them; to safeguard them and set up warriors to guard them and watch over them. I find it a strange coincidence that it was while I whispered these words, she walked into my life.
I saw the light first. When everything is dark, a flickering light is easily spotted, no matter how far away. It eats away the darkness, a tiny circle of hope drawing nearer. A candle walked through the stone hallways.
When she entered, her head hung low over the food tray, I knew her story without her having to speak it.
“Whe—” my voice, unused to working with cracked and swollen lips, sounded funny. I tried again. “When did they pass on?” I asked, trying unsuccessfully to put compassion into the question.
She must have understood me, despite my poor pronunciation, for a tear plopped onto the tray as her grief was reignited.
“Two days ago,” she said, placing the tray on the floor. “My sister and I are all that remain,” she finished with a ragged breath. I vaguely wondered how many times she would end up telling her story, how many times she would rip open the wound to relive a grief that should be buried with the body.
It was such a familiar story. Always death. Always grief. In that moment, I longed for the busy days of the abandoned farm. There is nothing left for me here. Soon . . . when my strength returns, I will join them again.
“Your servant said to give this to you.” She cupped a small bag in her dirt-covered hands. Reaching forward awkwardly, she dropped it onto my lap.
“How old are you?” I asked her. She was old enough to marry, yet wore no wife ring.
“Fourteen,” she whispered, dropping her head again, in shame, or fear, or something else, I do not know. “Poppy is eleven.”
I pulled on the strings absentmindedly while I asked more questions. “Poppy would be the sister? What’s your name?”
“Hilla,” she said. Then silence.
My eyes opened wide in surprise. From the north. “How long did you travel?”
“I don’t remember. The days run together. A long time. There were eight of us. Pappa got sick first. One by one, we all got sick.”
She said more, but I had stopped listening. Inside the bag was a silver signet ring, the shape of a claw embossed onto its surface. The mercenaries ring.
“Who? How?” I croaked.
She shrugged. “Your servant told me to give it to you,” she repeated and looked at the door.
The girl would say no more. She promised to return with the evening tray, and I watched her go with a touch of sadness for the journey that brought her here, delivering broth and a candle to a battered old man in a dungeon.
It was only later, hours after she had gone and I tossed and turned fitfully, unable to sleep, I reflected on what she had said earlier.
‘One by one, we all got sick.’
These words haunt me. Have you sent me a prophet, Sisters? A spy? Or a keystone?