7.1

That winter was unusually cold, so life in the settlement became more taxing. With the Splitmouth almost frozen through, the Denorians had to walk farther to get water, and the captive huskins needed to be watched closely in their pens, and fed with numbing regularity. Luckily, the food stores were ample, now that the tribe had stayed in one place for so long. The cold only led to a few deaths, generally due to the carelessness of caretakers, the frailty of the elderly, and the dangerous curiosity of young children.

When Stray crossed the open yards of the settlement, the ground cemented by permafrost, he always wore his heavy brivsa, but he often loosened it and let it fall back behind his head, as if he was out for a summer stroll. The frigid air on his nose and ears made him ecstatically aware of the movement of his blood through his temples, and he could almost feel his pulse in his fingers and wrists. A few years prior, he would have found it terribly uncomfortable, but now it felt like a sort of gift, or a challenge: the stirrings of his animus, the mournful song of the blood cowering in his capillaries.

On a gray afternoon, two weeks past the changing of the year, Stray made his walk to Mistra Septa’s, looking forward to his usual session with her. He passed Boyle’s dromo, locked down like a fortress, wooden planks covering every window, with no sign of light or life. As he approached the Splitmouth’s southern crossing, he felt a breeze against his cheek and the back of his neck, and he closed his eyes and let his feet carry him along. His skin felt dry as parchment, and he wondered, if he froze to death, whether he might solidify, standing up, into some kind of desiccated statue decorating the footpath.

The thought vanished from his mind when he reached the Splitmouth… he was lighter on his feet since he had started his movement training, but he still had to concentrate to keep a firm footing on the frozen water. Looking to the left, he saw two children, running and sliding along the north bank, wrapped tight in their winter furs, their faces and ears bound up in their brivsas like winter outlaws. One of the two children looked up and waved, and Stray waved back. He was glad the settlement still showed some sign of life.

Stray reached Mistra Septa’s pavilion several minutes later. He put up his brivsa’s hood and drew its scarf tighter around his face, and then, properly arranged, stepped inside. The warmth of the closed space enveloped him. He placed both hands palm-up, giving the traditional salute, and repeated Dissadae’s blessing. Scanning the room, he found Mistra Septa gathering up furs and cushions, obviously cleaning up after her previous session. Luna used to do this for her, Stray thought, but he hadn’t seen her around lately.

“Welcome, Stray,” Mistra Septa said. “I hope you’ve kept warm. Neither of us needs the company of some winter illness in this sacred space.”

“Warm enough,” Stray said, loosening the brivsa on his way up to the platform. He picked up a few cushions as he walked, and Mistra Septa rolled up the last Huskin fur, and they met at the far side of the pavilion, tossing all the furnishings into a pile to be put away for the evening. When they were satisfied, they found their usual places: Stray on an overturned wooden crate, and Mistra Septa in the assistant’s chair close by.

Mistra Septa asked Stray if he was ready to start, and he nodded. She commenced their chant: she found her tone, and he found his within a few seconds, and they remained in place for several minutes, cycling and synchronizing and rooting themselves in the resonance of the pavilion. When they finished, Mistra Septa called for silence, and told Stray to find his heartbeat and his pulse, and listen to the full song of his body. They spent a few more minutes on this exercise, and Stray ventured into his meditative space – the dark corner, the warmth, the womb – but didn’t go any further, wanting to remain alert and responsive in the presence of his teacher.

Finally, in unison, they returned to the present. Mistra Septa looked pleased, but Stray could also sense some sort of irregularity in her mood. He wondered about it for a moment, but wasn’t so audacious as to inquire. An extended silence filled the space between them, until finally, Mistra Septa made an unexpected suggestion.

“I thought we might try a different exercise today. Would you mind accompanying me down to where the Splitmouth meets the Prospect River, near the docks?”

Stray considered this for a moment, weighing the discomfort of another walk through the cold, but this concern passed almost immediately, and he agreed. Septa piled three layers of imported wool over her Caesura tunic, and she donned her own winter brivsa. The Caesurite monks’ brivsas were styled distinctively, bleached an eggshell white, with brown curlicues adorning the hood and the ends of the scarf. Mistra Septa’s was lined with fur from some shaggy mammal, and the scarf had a gold thread woven into it along the length. She pulled on furry legwarmers over her trousers, and finished her outfit with leather-soled slippers. At last, before she headed for her entranceway, she picked her katsun up from its place against the wall, sliding it into her beltstrap.

Stray and Mistra Septa retraced Stray’s previous walk, following the road southwest. For a while, Mistra Septa drilled Stray on his recollections of the previous week… she asked him to remember particular remarks, reactions, specifics of conversations, and his own emotional valences in response to them. This was a common exercise during their private lessons, and Stray had gotten good at it… it was easy enough for him now, even while walking. When he ran out of details to relate, they fell silent, and thus they walked the last kilometer to the water’s edge.

Where the Splitmouth joined the Prospect, there was a narrow rocky beach. To the north, Stray and Mistra Septa could see the small network of islands that marked the Splitmouth’s breaking point. Normally, the water here moved hastily from the rapids just upstream, but now, in the dead of winter, the flow was interrupted by an accumulation of ice. The beach itself was bone-dry, and the water was frozen solid for thirty meters out over the river.

“Very quiet out here,” Stray said. “I guess anything that makes noise has taken shelter.”

“Something like that,” Mistra Septa replied. “So… we’re here to play a game we used to play at the Envoclajiz, when the temple river froze halfway-over. Are you ready?”

Stray nodded, tugging his brivsa down a few centimeters to let a few breaths escape. Voluminous clouds issued from his mouth as he spoke. “Sure. What are the rules?”

Mistra Septa drew her katsun and reversed her grip, so that the blade pointed downward. “I’ll take this out a few meters and plant it in the ice. Your goal is to go as far as me, pull it out, and then take it a little farther and put it back in. The winner is the one who’s willing to walk the farthest.”

Stray asked a couple simple questions, but the game was entirely self-explanatory. Mistra Septa took the first turn, as she had promised… she left the bank, setting a rhythm for her steps, and got nearly halfway to the open water before she decided to plant the katsun. Its sharp point slid into the ice like a flag-pole, perfectly perpendicular to the frozen surface.

Stray took his first tentative steps toward it, and found that out here, the ice seemed relatively stable. It made crunching, scraping noises under his feet, but he couldn’t feel any significant sagging, or any movement of the water underneath. His first moment of minor panic arrived when he pulled the katsun out, but there was no disturbance, except for the hiss of the treated wood sliding out of the ice.

Stray continued three more meters out, trying to step lightly. With his final step, he heard a crack in the distance, like an aquatic echo through the brittle air, but he didn’t balk. His first attempt to skewer the katsun into the ice failed… it was absurdly hard… but on his second try, putting more weight behind the thrust, he managed to set the marker.

As he returned to the bank, Stray passed Septa, already heading out to accept the challenge. She was polite, only moving the katsun out another three meters, but Stray could tell she was getting bored.

So Stray approached again, trying to accelerate the game’s progress, but three steps beyond the previous goal, he felt the icy surface shift beneath his right foot. The ice didn’t crack, but suddenly, unexpectedly, he was vividly aware of the flow of water several centimeters beneath the sole of his foot. His senses sharpened considerably, and his nerves started reacting to the vibrations and displacements in the frozen surface: a moan, a shiver of stress, a shift in pressure, as if the ice was speaking to him through the marrow of his bones. His mind was flooded with anxiety, and he froze, trying to calm his panic response.

When he could breathe normally – three deep breaths, a clear sense of his pulse and heart rate – he locked his legs in place and drove the katsun back into the ice. Again, the surface shifted, but it didn’t give way.

“Come on, you can do better than that.”

Stray jerked his head around, shocked: first, that the voice was so close… right over his shoulder… and second, that it wasn’t Mistra Septa’s voice, but Mistra Eryn’s. He discovered her a mere meter behind, standing right in his tracks, her feet together and her hands behind her back. It occurred to him that, even in his high-strung state, he hadn’t heard the slightest sound of her approach.

“I see you’re feeling the ice, Stray,” she said. “Now keep going. It’ll be more than the ice and the water… it’ll also be the air, the sounds of the trees, even your own circulation. Above all, listen to your body, act with your mind, and don’t be afraid.”

Stray nodded and stepped inside himself, fully inhabiting his own smooth sensory surfaces. He closed his fingers around the katsun’s handle, exhaled, and pulled it back out. He took a step, felt a touch of cold wind around his calves, and suffered another twinge of panic. Exerting a great effort of will, he visualized the fear as a sensory organ, a sharpened prong that was making contact with the neutral surface of his animus. He shifted his weight instinctively, looking for an anchor point in the ice, trying to determine his next step.

The ice sagged, the water came closer, and his breath caught in his chest, but nothing gave way. As he sighed with relief, he heard Mistra Septa’s voice from the bank: “You know, Stray, if you can touch the open water with the point of the katsun, you automatically win!”

Stray took another step, listening now to the shifting resonance around him, a whisper that seemed to warn him and guide him from one point on the ice to the next. Slowly, as he gained an intimacy with the patterns of stability in the ice, his consciousness of his steps became rhythmic. The anxiety faded, and he began to move more quickly. His verbal functions stopped engaging, except to observe, and commit to memory, the incredible feeling of levity, as if he was always at just the weight that the surface could support.

Even this reverie had its limit, however, and for Stray, it came when he was just a meter from the edge of the ice. His rhythm was interrupted by a crack just under his feet, a hiccup in the flow he had adopted, and he found himself suddenly unstable, trying to keep his toes on the patches of ice that would hold him. His body screamed to step back, to retreat from the inevitable disaster, but another part of his consciousness – the part that he had spent so long exercising – replied in kind, fighting against his instincts and holding him in place. Holding his breath in his lungs, he slid his hand to the very bottom of the katsun handle and stretched his arm out toward the water.

The tip of the katsun touched the water and made a ripple, just past the far edge of the ice, just as Stray felt himself falling forward. He braced himself for the shock of the cold water, but it never came… instead, he felt a strong hand on his upper arm, pulling him back and providing a counterbalance, infusing him with a miraculous stability that gave him the strength to stand back up. He looked back over his shoulder at Mistra Eryn, holding him upright, and wondered how this patch of ice could possibly support both of them.

“Impressive! Now find your footing, and follow me back… the ice here is about to collapse.”

Stray did as he was told, taking two breaths to find his balance and then pivoting without changing the position of his feet. Mistra Eryn was already three paces ahead, allowing Stray to follow meticulously, reproducing her exact footsteps. Mistra Eryn seemed to make the ice stronger, more stable, by some impossible effect of her very presence. Stray managed to reach the bank without allowing his pulse to rise up and run away from him.

“It’s been many years,” Mistra Septa said, “since we met someone who could do that on the first try.” Both she and Mistra Eryn gave Stray congratulatory bows, and Mistra Septa took back her katsun.

Presently, Mistra Eryn turned and looked east, up the length of the Prospect River. Stray followed her gaze, and discovered a horizon that was softening and darkening, taking on a dusty orange hue. Mistra Septa was looking that direction, as well, and so she remained as she spoke.

“So, Stray… Mistra Eryn and I are wondering about your plans. Whether you plan to be initiated, how you feel about the tribe.”

Stray thought about the question for a moment. “Well, Edzie is getting initiated next Fall, and I have another whole year to get ready for it. I’ve been thinking about traveling, or visiting some of the other Concordance tribes, but… nothing beyond that.”

Now Mistra Eryn spoke, still gazing along the river. “Stray, do you know how the Caesura Prospectus works?”

Stray knew some rumors and hearsay about the recruitment ritual of the Order of the Caesura, but he didn’t know the details. He said as much, admitting that he had always been curious, but had never thought to ask.

“Most of the adults in your tribe have a partial idea,” Mistra Septa said, “but only we Mistras really understand it. Every winter, just after the new year, a handful of youth from the eight tribes… no more than forty or fifty total… make the pilgrimage to the Envoclajiz, to test themselves in our initiation trials. They need the sanction of the Mistras, and they have to make the journey to the monastery alone, including the final climb up Gryffepeak. We call them Prospects, and this river is named for their journey.”

Stray’s mind was quick, but it wasn’t entirely ready for this conversation’s implications. “So who can be Prospects? Is it only tribeswomen? How old do you have to be?”

Now Mistra Eryn spoke… the Mistras seemed to be alternating intentionally. “Anyone can be a Prospect… they come from everywhere… but because of our relationship with the Concordance, most new initiates tend to be from the tribes. Traditionally, the pilgrimage is made at the beginning of the year leading up to your tribal initiation… if you fail, you’re welcome to return to your tribe and accept full tribal citizenship, just like normal. And on a side-note, most Prospects are tribesmen, not tribeswomen. The hermetic lifestyle tends to attract more males than females.”

“That’s… surprising,” Stray said. “Why do we have three female Mistras, then, and only one male?”

“Most of the monks are male,” Mistra Septa said, “but the ones who return to the tribes as teachers are generally female. It’s hard for males to earn your tribes’ respect, and the men prefer the privacy of monastic life anyway.”

Stray nodded, understanding perfectly, and Mistra Eryn continued. “So, Stray, Mistra Septa and I both think you have an aptitude for our practices… your emotional stability and sensitivity, your perceptiveness, your attunement, your focus in your meditation… and we think you’d do very well as a Caesurite. It’s rare to find someone who fits our profile so perfectly.”

“So…” Stray hesitated. “You want me to become a Prospect?”

Mistra Septa put a hand on Stray’s arm, doing her best to be reassuring. “We want you to do what’s best for you. But we’d like you to give some thought to Prospectus… you have the raw talent, you’re capable of completing the trials, and there’s a great deal we could offer you… acceptance, community, purpose, and our investment of faith. You would be a great force in Dissadae’s service.”

Stray was at a loss, and the two monks allowed him to absorb the news. Finally, in lieu of an answer, he came back with another question. “So how long does Prospectus take? What are the trials like?”

“It’s tough to explain,” Mistra Eryn said, “without really going deep into our teachings. The journey to Gryffepeak and the Envoclajiz would take a week, give or take a few days… once the new Prospects are gathered, the monks spend two more weeks teaching you the basics of Caesurite theory and praxis. The trials themselves come at the very end, and they’re mostly designed to test your commitment. Forty years in the Order is a long time, and we need to know you’re serious.”

“Yeah, that is a long time,” Stray said, largely to himself. Both Mistras nodded in unison, still looking off to the west, in the direction of their temple.

“You have time to think about it,” Mistra Septa said. “Your best chance would be a year from now, right around this part of the season.”

Mistra Eryn had grown bored of standing in one place, so she’d wandered a bit inland, to a fallen tree by the main path, and was balancing on its splintered trunk. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, given how hopeless you were just two winters ago,” she said, “but I think you’d like it, Stray. I think it might be where you belong.”