Stray had been to many feasts, large and small, and as far as he was concerned, the “Arrival Banquet” didn’t qualify. Each Prospect was served a modest cut of huskin flank that didn’t taste particularly fresh, and each table had a shared bowl of preserved fruit, and that was the extent of it. Stray found a place among the other Prospects, but he ate in silence… he felt detached, hypnotized, like an empty dromo suddenly opened up to the cold air. It took a particularly determined young Prospect… the same one, in fact, who had asked Miggish’s name… to crack open Stray’s reverie, which he did by offering him an extra serving of huskin.
“What? Why? Don’t you want it?” Stray asked, suddenly alert, dimly aware that the other boy had been trying unsuccessfully to talk to him for several minutes already.
“No, I’ll just eat the fruit. Maybe have some bread later. I’m a forage-boy… no eating animals but what I kill myself.”
Stray looked the boy over. He was not beautiful in any principal sense of the word, but his face had a charming openness to it: gently-set hazel eyes, an expression like a child looking for approval. He wore a dark reddish tunic with a plunging neck-line and a square hood, lowered to show a neat crown of curly auburn hair. He was more pale than the tribespeople, Stray noticed… almond-skinned, only as swarthy as Stray himself. Stray couldn’t entirely judge the boy’s physique, but he seemed tall, sturdy, and lean.
“Forager?” Stray raised an eyebrow. “I think I remember something about that… from the woodlands way out west?”
“Aye, Alcovale, myself. First time among you tribesboys.”
“You must have been on the road a long time. I can’t believe you’re not famished.”
The Alcovalean shrugged, speaking with disarming candor. “I am, but hunger and me are old friends. Wasn’t bad traveling, back before Horizon and the Range River, but spoils are more scarce out here, where the chill drives it into the soil.” He paused, apparently shy for a moment, and then asked: “So, is it like they say out here, that you have beasts that just stand idly by for you to kill and eat them?”
Stray scowled at this. “No, I don’t think so. The huskins will put their horns straight through a herder’s gut if she gets too close.” He paused. “I mean, we’ve domesticated a few of the herds, so we don’t have to hunt them down every time we need some meat, but… that’s not what you’re talking about, right?”
“No, I suppose not. I don’t know much about your big slow animals. On the way out here, I passed through the supply cities… that was the first time I ever saw cattle… but those aren’t wild, like yours.”
“Yeah, probably a little different.” Stray took the cut of huskin meat. “Thanks for the second helping, at any rate. I’m Stray, of the Denoria tribe, bulwark of the eight.”
“Bastris Corvish of Alcovale.”
Stray and Bastris spent the rest of the meal discussing big, slow animals… the nuances of wildness and domestication, the appeal of a food supply without the thrill of the hunt. Stray noted Bastris’s fetching red tunic, and Bastris boasted that it was specially-made and packed for his arrival at the Envoclajiz. Bastris offered an account of his town, their means of hunting and trapping small game, their fears of large animals and their distaste for big hunting parties. He was talking about tracks and trap-setting when Miggish returned to the dining hall and summoned the Prospects to their quarters.
… … … …
There was a time, when our spirituality was in its infancy, that we – the followers of the wise, obscure spirit of the world – could only understand that spirit in terms of presence and absence, being and non-being. That was the age when all were of a single sect, living in a stronghold near the source of the Tempus River. You all know this as the Age of Names, and you know this sect as the Precaesurites.
Those who have studied history also know of the schism, and the exodus of the Caesurite faction. Led by Exile Luxus, revered servant of the fevered earth, we left the riverbank and crossed the plains. Several hundred followers joined us along the way – tribeswomen, freed slaves, exiles from the barbarians who roamed the prairie – and at the foot of the Crag Mountains, they built the town of Gryffe, and we built this monastery, the Envoclajiz: the organ of the world’s voice.
Through our studies and meditation, carried out in isolation from the archivists and bureaucrats of the river kingdoms, we discerned a new nature in the world-spirit. We called him Dissadae, and by focusing our meditation and worship upon him, we have found a path, however tortured and furtive, to a higher unity: oneness with the earth, communion with the sky, integration of mind and body, the four paths as our scaffold, the mantle as our site of convergence. These are the things you will learn over the next twelve days, and this training will culminate in your final trial. If you pass, you will undergo the Caesura Prospectus, becoming a councilor of Dissadae.
Today, we will start with Dissadae’s first principle, the recognition of a rhythmic world: the principles of pattern and break, of continuity and disruption, of articulation and aggregate. The simplest way to see into this unified aspect of the universe is to study your own body, which is a minor masterpiece of rhythms and repetitions and disruptions. Today we will learn to listen to those rhythms: the breath, the pulse, the heartbeat, the cognitive cycle.
Here in the Caesura, we call this the path of Viscitae the silent. Viscitae teaches us to listen to ourselves, first and foremost, and to exercise those rhythms and patterns in a way that’s beneficial to our mental and physical performance. Today we will take the first step in the first length of the first lap of your journey: we will examine the surface where your mind makes contact with your body, and we will try to find your baseline resonance, which we call your tonic.
Stray sat, legs crossed, in a recess in the mountain, under a jagged protrusion hanging low enough that he couldn’t stand up. He had sat for two hours already, and he had watched the afternoon turn into late evening; the light was almost entirely gone now, and from the darkness, a cold wind rushed into the niche, roiling around his head and shoulders. His eyes remained shut tight, and he dissociated himself from the roar in his ears, focusing instead on the stillness of the stone beneath him.
The day had been eventful… Miggish had shown the Prospects to their communal bedroom, a cavernous dormitory called the Eyas Quarters, situated directly beneath Envoclajiz’s large garden. They stowed their belongings – for some a single pack, for others a small cart – and they were promptly led back through the cramped stone corridors, up the stairs, and on a tour of the first floor of the temple. This first floor seemed to consist primarily of four spaces: the dining room, the garden, the salon, and the Dissiduary.
The garden was enclosed by the temple’s outer wall, and it was inert and depressing in the winter cold: the loose groves and paths, so spontaneously placed, looked like they belonged in abandoned ruins. The dining room, the Prospects had already seen… it was lit by a row of tall west-facing windows, and it might have been grand and stately, but in the cold air, with most of its torches still barren, it seemed like a songstress’s throat closed up tight by a coughing fit.
The salon was a massive, windowless interior courtyard, lightly furnished with crude wooden seats and tables. Its ceiling, five human heights aloft, was supported by rafters as large as tree trunks, with monumental chains still dangling from anchors in the wood. This salon was also home to an enormous circular stone hearth, complete with bellows and metal racks, that Miggish called the Daeforge (“or just The Forge, if you’re in a hurry”).
The Dissiduary was a large auditorium with a bronze pedestal in the center, surrounded on three sides by pews raised up on lofted platforms. The pedestal held a ceremonial firepit, its embers still glowing red; a few meters past, the Dissiduary’s back wall was bare mountain stone, lit by ambient daylight seeping in through an aperture in the ceiling. In the thin air of the Dissiduary, Stray could feel the density of the mountain… it seemed to brace itself with the Prospects’ every breath, an impermeable shell around the fragile atmosphere. Any sound in this room, Stray thought, would cut into us like a predator’s cry to a nursing mother.
Miggish informed the Prospects that this – the Dissiduary – was where their final transition into the Order would take place, if they made it that far.
Stray let the wind back into his thoughts for a moment. After the temple’s vast, volumetric silence, the sound of the wind out here was positively deafening. He looked for his tonic, as Mistra Septa had taught him, and though it was drowned under the fury of the atmosphere, he could still sense traces of it, a comforting hum emanating from his center of gravity.
In the grasp of his tonic resonance, Stray let his mind fall back into its memories of the day’s lesson. After they toured the ground floor, the Prospects were all herded, like unruly animals, into a spacious underground practice room, a few twists and turns away from the Eyas Quarters. There, they were introduced to Fedra, a stately young Caesurite Monk with round cheeks and a disorderly skein of black hair, loosely curly where it fell in locks around her ears. She was a specialist in the emanences of meditation, she told them… Aaraya (the cry) and Viscitae (silence). She spent the afternoon instructing the Prospects in the art of listening: first to the ambient rhythms of the environment, and then to their own bodies, so rich in interior echoes. This culminated in each Prospect looking inward for their tonic, their private resonance, by approximately the same method that Stray had once learned from Mistra Septa.
Stray returned to the present, and found himself, for a moment, teetering on the edge of introspection. At one moment, he would sink into that warm, dark place that he had visited so many times in his exercises with Mistra Septa. This would consume him for several minutes at a time, and he would start to feel himself falling upwards, into the clear sky of his imagination… then suddenly, there would be a vibration in the stone, or an unexpected gust over the mountaintop, and his body would take back control of his consciousness, sending him a thousand overlapping messages in a tactile barrage.
Eventually, a few of these sensations converged, and he became aware of approaching footsteps, tentative, coming down from the bluffs above.
Momentarily, he caught a glimpse of another Prospect passing by his niche, making their way carefully over the unrefined terrain. They were slender legs clad in standard tribal attire: thick canvas trousers, feet bound in cloth. Without thinking, Stray reached out as the legs passed by, touching the Prospect’s calf. The Prospect jerked around in Stray’s direction, leaning in to see him.
“Prystia oestis, greetings.” The glow of the evening light illuminated a pair of dark eyes beneath a light gray brivsa. “So some of us are still out here, after all this time?”
“Well, you’re not the last to give up,” Stray said, “but certainly not the first, either. But you haven’t missed the signal to return… that I can promise. They just haven’t given it yet.”
“So do you think I should go back up the mountain?” The Prospect was trying to whisper, but the keening wind was forcing her to shout.
“I doubt it matters now. We’ve both already broken the rules. I think we may as well stay here and wait for the signal together.”
The Prospect raised an eyebrow. “You are not in violation, or at least, not to the same degree… you only tried to help me. It is I who let her patience wane, and lost her nerve. I should go back up.” She hesitated.
“If that’s what you want,” Stray said, “but like I said, I don’t think it matters. It’s not like we know what they’re thinking, right?” He pulled his brivsa down to his throat. “This seems like as good a place to wait as anywhere.”
The other Prospect hesitated another moment, and then sat down against the rock, facing Stray. She pulled down her brivsa, revealing a stern face, strong in the jaw and chin. “I saw you on the staircase, before Dissadae’s Relief. It looked like you were here early. Did you travel a great distance?”
Stray shook his head. “No, not compared to some of the others, like the boy from Alcovale, or… any of them, really. I’m from the Denoria, the closest Concordance tribe. I’m Stray.”
“I am Grave, of the Solavera,” she said. “Thank you for helping me.”
“Grave?” This amused Stray, but he tried to sound unassuming. “Like, a dead person’s marker?”
“Indeed. I am named in honor of Dissadae’s death-aspect, in hopes that it will watch over me and spare me its embrace. You are named for Dissadae’s wandering heart, are you not?”
Stray shook his head. “No, I think somebody just liked the sound of it.” He let the conversation pass, and then pressed on. “So you’re of the Solavera, the reverent… I haven’t met many of you. Do you come to our festivals?”
“No, we don’t send ambassadors to any festivals, nor do many come to ours. We’re too small a tribe, I think… we often escape notice.”
“What brought you to the Order?”
The girl gave a wry half-smile. “Fate. My parents petitioned me for the role before I was brought into the world.” Stray looked confused at this, so Grave elaborated. “That is our manner of choosing Prospects in the Solavera tribe. Each season, the favor is given to one of the child-bearing mothers, and the child, once born, is groomed for the Prospectus, given special attention by the elders and the Mistras, and taught the behaviors necessary for a life in the Order. Honestly, until two years ago, I didn’t even know that all the other Prospects come of their own accord.”
“Your Mistras have been tutoring you your whole life?!? You must be better than half the monks by now! Hardly fair to the rest of us!”
“No, not quite so,” Grave corrected him. “It is contrary to Dissadae’s custom for a child to learn the emanences. We’re merely conditioned for discipline and self-possession, and kept from spending too much time with the rest of the children. Solitude and self-control are our virtues, they say.”
“And how did you take to it?”
“I was exceptional, or so they reassured me. Now that I’m here, I’m less confident.” She arched her stiff back. “So, my tale is told… now for yours.”
Stray struggled to put his journey into words. He considered telling Grave about his father’s departure, about his debt to the tribe, about his growing uncertainty and his search for some solid ground to stand on… but this all seemed too intimate, so he gave a simpler answer. “I became close friends with some of the Mistras, and they told me I should come. I guess I always felt like I needed something else, beyond what the tribe could provide, but they’re the ones who opened the door for me.”
“Your experience seems common,” Grave acknowledged. “Of the few Prospects I’ve spoken to, most seem like they needed to find a new home, and this seemed to be a way of choosing one for themselves, rather than allowing fate to choose it for them.”
“That must be strange to hear, coming from a situation like yours.”
Grave turned an incisive gaze toward Stray, as if she felt threatened, but then it softened and turned to resignation. “I was almost bitter, for a time, but I’ve given it some thought, and I’ve realized… Dissadae chooses all of us, whether through our own restlessness, or through the hopes and ambitions of our parents. Choosing the Order… it may give us some small satisfaction, some feeling of control, but the other Prospects don’t know the future, any more than I do… we are all being cast by the hand of fate into this trial, and Dissadae has cleared a path for each of us alike.”
Stray nodded, feeling reassured by this answer. The wind blew into the crevice, battering his ear and cheek, discouraging him from talking any further, and when he glanced back over at Grave, he saw that her eyes were closed, and she was breathing evenly, focused inward, ready to return to the strange work of solitude and concentration. Stray turned inward, as well, absorbing back into the night air.
It was several more hours – nearly morning – when they heard the sound of a brass bell, their signal to climb back down the mountain and return to the temple.
Stray awoke to an obscure voice, like tree limbs creaking in the wind, coming to him through the walls of the Eyas Quarters. It seemed to bypass his ears entirely, absorbing directly into his mind. It was saying his name.
The Prospects had returned to the Envoclaijiz after the private meditation sessions. Those who had held out, lingering in the higher reaches – Stray and Grave among them – found a significant contingent of Prospects waiting at the temple entrance, watched over by Miggish and Fedra, some silent and timid, some whispering amongst themselves. Some lecture or reprimand had been delivered, it seemed… the Prospects who had endured the entire exercise were congratulated on their patience, and everyone was led off to secure a few hours of sleep before they commenced their second day.
Stray listened for another moment… hearing the even breath of sleeping adolescents, the occasional creaking of the beds’ frames… someone muttering something from an anxious dream… and then the voice said his name again. He pulled himself out of his bunk and dropped to the floor, and without a second thought, he followed the voice that beckoned him.
The sound, which seemed to converge upon Stray alone, might as well have been coming from the stone itself. He guessed the dawn wasn’t far off… none of the other Prospects woke, or even stirred, as Stray slipped past toward the hallway. The voice continued calling, leading him along the narrow passageway, up a staircase that seemed fastened in the vice grip of the surrounding stone, and finally up into the garden, writhing and disfigured in the moonlight, where two silhouettes waited for him under a leafless tree. Stray approached cautiously, shivering in the wintery air.
The figure on the left was Fedra… Stray recognized her by her height and hair, tied back behind her head. The other monk was a male, looking significantly older… perhaps in his sixties, bald except for a splash of thin hair around his ears and the crown of his head. His beard hung down to his collarbone, and then ended abruptly, as if severed by a single clip of a pair of shears. His robes hung loose around his chest, revealing a mat of gray hair, and a wide sash bound the garment closed above his indelicates.
“Greetings, my lords. Hello, Mistra Fedra.” Stray spoke cautiously, choosing to employ the traditional teacher’s title.
“Greetings, Stray,” she replied, as the older monk looked on with a vacant stare. “We’d like to talk about the exercise this evening… your meditation in the upper reaches.”
Stray spared the older monk a curious glance, then turned and spoke to Fedra. “Of course. I suppose you’ve spoken to Grave already? I pulled her aside, and we meditated together for a while. I’m sorry if this was… an offense.”
“You are quick to admit the mistake. I appreciate that. But you knew that it was an exercise in solitude, and you knew the signal hadn’t been given to return. Did you think we wouldn’t know?”
Stray shook his head, trying to look contrite. Fedra didn’t respond immediately, so Stray continued: “No, Mistra, I didn’t. I knew you could hear us.”
“Very good,” the older monk said unexpectedly, his voice as deep as a ravine and expansive as a riverbed.
“The exercise was to teach patience in the face of uncertainty,” Fedra said. “Those who came down early – after the evening passed and they lost their composure – we had words for them, so the exercise would be meaningful. Now at least one of them… the Solavera warrior named Grave… will be denied that meaning. What would you say to her, then?”
“I apologize again.” Stray looked into Fedra’s eyes. Anxiety quickened his heartbeat and pulse, and he fought against its inevitable rise. “I don’t think my transgression will ruin her training… she’s a strong candidate, my lords. I think, if anyone deserves censure, it’s me.”
Fedra’s expression didn’t change. “My concern, Stray, is that you seem to understand, better than anyone, the purpose of the exercise… and you knew we could hear you. So why did you stop her?”
Stray was silent for a long time. He reflected on the question and tried to listen to his instincts, caught between deference and honesty… and in some other part of his consciousness, he struggled with his strategy: was this a test of some sort? Was it an ethical juncture? These considerations, which seemed to take a lifetime to Stray, stretched out over a silent half-minute.
At last, Stray chose candor. “Mistra, I stopped Grave and begged her company because I thought it was the right thing to do… wiser, I figured, than blind obedience to the test. We’ve come a great distance in solitude… for some, it’s been a few weeks… for others, months. For many of us, this solitude has chased us our whole lives. What made this test challenging was that we were misled… we were led to believe, if only by implication, that the exercise would be a few hours, not an entire evening and night passing into the morning. For our first day to end in isolation, and trickery… inflicted by the very Order we’ve come so far to honor… that challenge inspired neither joy, nor loyalty, Mistra.”
Fedra continued looking impassive, but the older monk allowed himself a guarded smile.
In the face of the silence, Stray continued. “I am sorry, Mistra. I hope I still have the chance to prove myself.”
Fedra allowed the question to linger for a moment before she spoke. “There is sense in your defiance, Stray, and you’ve spoken well for yourself. I will discuss it with Prima Pradjiss, and we will let you know if there are any consequences.”
Stray nodded, keeping his head down.
“You can return to the Eyas Quarters, and get tonight’s last morsel of sleep.” She paused for a moment, seeing Stray’s downcast eyes. “And Stray… it’s okay. Mercy warrants mercy. Dissadae’s hand guides you.”
Stray lingered a moment, until it was clear that the monks were done with him. They remained motionless, statues by the gnarled tree trunk, and Stray finally turned away from them, passing under a sinuous stone arch and returning to the temple corridors.