2285: PROLOGUE - LEVER AND FULCRUM
By John Hightower
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Earth Year 2261
And the gleaming crystal Spires of the Eternal City sang.
The spires of Yedor had always sung…a tribute to the Worker Caste architects and masons that had wrought them in a time so long ago that it was forgotten. Their song was a gentle song…a soft melody. The spires sighed with the wind and rain, and tinkled merrily when heated by the sun. None who heard them failed to have their spirits lifted or their burdens lightened. They were the pride of a proud and haughty people, a people who had not known War amongst themselves for so long that it was almost forgotten. For these people, Civil War was a distant memory drawn from dusty old scrolls that none now consulted except for the scholars.
Now the song of the Spires was discordant, confused. They did not sigh with the wind. They rang hollowly, echoing the rumble of the Warrior Caste artillery ringing the Eternal City. They rattled with the vibration as nearby areas were struck with plasma bursts fired from orbiting Warcruisers. Shards of the spires were blown off as hand to hand fighting commenced in the streets. The normally sunny skies were clouded with the smoke of destruction and the people of the city knew war again.
At least those of the Religious and Warrior Castes did. The majority, the Workers, knew only fear. It has been written that Civil War is the most horrifying kind of war, because the people turn on themselves and kill their brothers. And when the Warrior Caste, shamed by the Religious caste and the Workers for withholding their support during the Shadow War, decided to erase that shame by seizing power, they proved the old adage correct. Little mercy was shown to the people.
"Your souls will return to a newer, greater Minbar." They said as they cut the people down. "Perhaps, if you are fortunate, you will be reborn into the Warrior Caste."
The war should have been over quickly. The Religious Caste was far less powerful and far fewer in number than the Warriors. So many of their warships had been destroyed by the Shadows that the remnant of their fleet was not a factor. The Warriors controlled the space around Minbar. The Warriors controlled all but the few cities on the surface of the world where the Religious Caste was dominant. The war should have been over quickly, but it was not.
Delenn led the Religious Caste, and she knew war. She had learned the ways of war from the Humans, both as foe and friend, and she fought as the Humans fought…using adaptability, flexibility and tenaciousness to counteract the superior strength and firepower of the Warriors. She applied well the lessons she had learned from her mate, the most feared of Human warriors, and so the Religious Caste continued to hold the city. But they could not hold forever.
And as the two higher castes fought for control of the city, the majority of the inhabitants huddled in cellars and ruined buildings, going forth only when necessity gave them no choice.
With a shattering blast, the Singing Spires were brought down, crashing into the ground with a harsh scream. They would never sing for the people again.
And necessity drove two people forth…
Katell of the Shipwright's Guild trembled and pressed himself closer to the wall of the dusty, blackened cellar where he had taken refuge. Nearby, he heard the death rattle of the central spires as they finally collapsed under the guns of the Warriors, followed by the screeching disintegration of the huge crystal block on which the towers stood. With the demise of the Singing Spires, the pride of Minbar, Yedor had effectively died as well. In desperation and fear, Katell whispered urgently to the small figure he was shielding with his body, "The spires have fallen at last, and the Warriors…they will be coming soon. We…we cannot stay here much longer, Fara. There is little time, and I must get you away from this place."
"I am not sure how far I can go, husband…" The small figure huddled beneath him replied in a plaintive voice. "The pains…they are closer now…and our child and I are so cold and hungry." In sympathy with her statement, Katell's young mate, Fara, felt her stomach churn. "Is there no food left? None at all?"
Katell bent and kissed the cerulean patch on Fara's head. Looking sorrowfully down at her, he said. "I am sorry. There is no food. I tried to find some. I looked everywhere that I could think of, but there was none to be had. Others of both our caste and the Religious are roaming the food storage areas…as well as the refuse bins. They are hungry, also."
Looking into her tired eyes, Katell wanted to cry. The unborn one was demanding so much of her small body. In her present state, Fara could not fast…she could not even go without food for more than a day without becoming ravenously hungry. Katell had not told her, but he had not eaten in over a week. Instead, he had given his small share of their meager rations to her, and he could not forage very far or for very long to replace them once eaten. She could not defend herself, and he could not let her remain unprotected. Some of the Minbari in the ruins of the city had…forgotten themselves. In their own desperation, they might harm her if they found her alone. Resignedly, he swallowed his desperation and said, "It seems that the only ones with food are the Warriors. They have surrounded the city and are slowly starving us to death."
Fara looked up with a forlorn hope. "Perhaps…perhaps if we approached the Warriors and made the proper gestures of respect, they might bless us with something to eat…and maybe find a healer for us. We cannot remain this way much longer." A sharp kick to her midsection from the tiny foot of a hungry child caused her to double over with a soft grunt. As the pain passed, she gasped, "Can…we not surrender to them and be obedient…for our child? We…we are not fighting. We are no threat to them…surely they would help us, or at least allow us to pass out of the city. There may be food in the countryside, love."
Katell stroked his mate's crest sadly. <If it were only so easy… > he thought. Perhaps the Warriors would show mercy and let a small, pregnant Worker female pass…a big 'perhaps', assuming they did not simply shoot her from a distance as she approached. Katell knew, however, that letting him pass would be a different story entirely. "The Warriors are rumored to be killing those of our caste and the Religious as they encounter them. I cannot risk our child. If it were just us…"
She jerked her crest away, both angry and fearful. She knew he was correct, but the knowing did not ease her hunger pangs or the vaguely uncomfortable feelings inside her that came between her birthing pains…the feelings that went along with her body's preparations to deliver a new life into the world. It would be soon, she knew, and their present situation was making her desperate. She retorted, "They are only rumors! They are of our people also…surely they have not unlearned the lessons of Valen so quickly?"
"I think the Warriors have set aside Valen's teachings and are seeking to return to the old ways." Fara did not understand completely, he knew. How could she? She was so young…she had never seen violent death, had never even conceived that Minbari could kill Minbari until a few short weeks ago. Katell tried to explain. "To their way of thinking, it is better to deal with potential enemies now that it is to be faced with actual enemies later. I…saw things on the streets, while I was seeking food. Many of our people were dead, and not all appeared to have died in battle."
Fara's anger passed as she looked at her beloved's hurt expression. Nuzzling her head back beneath his palm, she started to cry as he began stroking her crest again. "I am so sorry, beloved," she murmured through her tears. "I know that you are right…but I am hungry, I am afraid and our child is coming very soon. I cannot help you, and I want to desperately. I am nothing but a burden to you. Were it not for me, you could either have left the city like the others or have been helping those of the Religious Caste."
"You are not a burden, love…" Katell began. He stopped in mid-sentence when he saw Fara's eyes open wide. Her tears were replaced with a long painful moan as she doubled over again.
"In Valen's Name!" she gasped, desperately trying to breathe through the contraction. "This is the…worst…one…yet!" Curling up in a whimpering ball on the floor, she was barely aware of Katell bending to hold and comfort her, nervous almost to the point of panic and unsure about what else he could do. After a moment of intense pain that seemed endless to her, the contraction began to subside and she slowly uncurled, breathing shakily. Fear was in her eyes as she implored, "Please, dear husband…is there any place for us to go to get help? Any place at all? I…I do not think our child will wait much longer. A few hours, at the most." Taking her husband's hand, Fara laid it on her abdomen. Katell felt a sharp kick. His child was safe and warm, but also hungry and impatient. "We need…a healer," she continued haltingly.
Katell reluctantly removed his hand from Fara's large belly. "I have heard that a place of healing still stands…but I do not know if it is true." He looked forlornly at her. She was weak from both hunger and the nearness of the birth. "It is a long walk, precious one, and the streets are not safe. Also, I…I am not sure that you are strong enough to make it there."
<A place of healing… > Fara thought with new hope. If it would increase the likelihood of their child being born safely, she would walk through a stampeding herd of foodbeasts. Struggling to stand, she said, "Take us there. Our child cannot be born in this ugly, dark cellar. We will make the journey somehow." Brushing off her husband's attempts to take her in his arms and carry her, she leaned against the wall for a few seconds, regaining her balance, then straightened. Her determined voice sounded out of place coming from one so small. "I will walk as far as I can. Conserve your strength, husband. You have not fooled me. I know that you have been giving me your share of the food as well as mine, and you are weakened. I do not want you to have to carry me too far, although I think you will need to eventually."
She took his arm and the two Minbari struggled up the steps and out of the cellar. Exiting the ruined building that had once housed their small apartment, Fara first blinked at the brightness of the light, then looked around in shocked disbelief. Because of her condition, Katell had not allowed her out of the cellar in over two weeks. "Our home…" she murmured as she surveyed the ruined street and the small building she and her husband had once occupied, "our little garden…it is all gone." Crystal crunched under her feet. She noted it and murmured, "As a child, I remember the Warriors telling us that this was what would become of our world were it not for their sacrifices in battle against the hated Humans. Now, we have created that world on our own…and the few 'hated' Humans here look at us with sadness and pity. It was all so beautiful…I had hoped our child could play here one day. What have we done? Where will we go now?"
Katell took his mate's arm and they began slowly walking, the shattered crystal of damaged and ruined structures rattling in the cold wind as they walked past. Bundling his tiny mate closer to him for warmth, he said, "We will go to the place of healing first. The child must come first, love. After you and the child are seen to, I will approach the Religious Caste and see if they have some place for us to stay that is relatively safe. I am a master starship crafter of the First Level…surely they can find some meaningful work for me when we rebuild."
"Can this be rebuilt?" Fara asked, trembling from the chill and pulling her dirty robe more tightly around her. "The structures can, of course, but the soul has gone out of this place." She looked around sadly. "I do not think that it will ever be the same, particularly under the control of the Warrior Caste." Wrinkling her nose in distaste, she concluded, "Once the Blessed Delenn is subdued they will have us at war again…seeking to finish what was started against the Humans."
As they picked their way through the rubble, Katell continued the conversation, more to keep his wife's mind off of their present situation than for any other reason. "That cannot be allowed to happen. I fought beside the Humans against the Shadows, and they are not the dishonorable murderers we first believed them to be. They understand mercy…perhaps even more completely than we seem to. Even Starkiller proved to be of noble heart, as the Blessed Delenn discovered." Reaching a point where the street was blocked, he grunted as he tried to shove aside a piece of debris to allow Fara to pass. "Also, the Humans are now stronger than they were…and we are weaker." Gesturing vaguely in the direction of distant gunfire reverberations to make his point, he said, "They know our ways better than they did before. A renewed war with them might turn the people's attention away from the problems we have created among ourselves for a time, but it would not be the forgone conclusion that the previous one was. It is possible, perhaps even probable, that we would either be defeated or left so weakened afterwards that whatever remained of our society would collapse even in victory. No, the Warriors cannot be allowed to rule unchecked, if it possible to prevent it."
The two walked for a long time, making slow but steady progress…hiding when it appeared the fighting was drawing near and then returning to their journey when the sounds of war grew distant. As they walked, it became apparent to Katell that Fara was tiring quickly. Finally, Fara stopped walking and wailed as another birthing pain took her. With tears in her eyes, she slumped against a wall and slid to the ground as her husband ran to her side. "Is it…much farther, my love? I…I cannot go much farther." She grunted through the contraction, "The walking has…hurried the birth, I think."
"It is only one more street, Fara. You can make it." Bending, Katell put his arms underneath her and lifted her with effort. She seemed so heavy, despite her small stature. Not at all like she had seemed when they had joined two cycles before. Fara had seemed so light then…light as a feather, with a petite yet perfectly proportioned figure and laughing gray eyes that drew him into her heart every time he looked into them. He had been the happiest Minbari on the planet when the ceremonies were complete and she became his mate. Later, when she told him she was with child, it had been cause for celebration. The Shipwrights had so few children now…they were a slowly fading clan like so many others. Every new child extended the life of the clan for just a little longer. And then the Shadow War came and he reluctantly bid farewell to his young wife and her little garden, following the Blessed Delenn along with many from his caste and taking service in the fleet.
He left her as a tiny, slender female…and he returned to find her full, beautiful and glowing. But now, Katell reflected, things were bad. She was crying and moaning, and she trembled with the strain she was imposing on herself to hold off the birth. Jogging down the street with her in his arms, Katell rounded a corner and ran straight into an armed patrol. Before he even realized what had happened, he found himself staring straight down the barrel of an energy weapon. For an instant, his mind froze up. All he could see was the snub nose of the weapon, a human PPG rifle, centered on his forehead. When the weapon did not immediately fire, he risked a glance at the group that had captured him. Religious Caste. No Warriors would have lowered themselves to using a human weapon, but the Religious Caste, starved as they were for weapons and supplies, were using anything they could get their hands on.
"Who are you?" A no-nonsense voice said from behind the weapon, "And what are you doing here?"
Katell bowed as respectfully as he could with a pregnant female in his arms. "I am Katell of the Shipwright's Guild, Respected One…and this is my mate, Fara. Please, we mean no harm…we are only seeking a healer." Nodding his head in a gesture at his mate, whose face was tense with pain, he hurriedly continued, "My mate is with child, and she is ready to give birth." In his arms, Fara moaned again and held herself against him a little more tightly.
After a second, the weapon was lowered. Katell found himself facing a monk only a little older than himself. "There is a place of healing up the street, and you may pass. The Warriors are very close behind you, though, and we do not know how much longer we can hold this area. You must hurry."
"Valen's blessings be with you…" Katell muttered gratefully as he hustled Fara through the monks. Arriving at the place of healing shortly thereafter, his heart almost failed him. People littered the courtyard around the small building. Males, females, a few children…there were so many. Most were injured, some severely. Some were crying, but many simply stared off into space…not believing the situation they were in and no longer caring what happened to them. Swallowing, Katell said, "We have arrived, love. Just a little longer."
A long second passed before Fara whispered, "I am…failing to delay the birth. Please hurry."
Running up the steps, Katell forced his way through the door and burst into the inner sanctuary. The small greeting chamber was littered with injured, just as the courtyard had been. It was chaos, with people running to and fro and many simply standing in the way. Forcing his way through the throng, Katell jostled the first official-looking person he saw. When the young male turned to him, he urgently said, "I need a healer! Please help us."
The official, a Religious Caste acolyte, looked at the two bedraggled people for a few seconds before realizing the problem. Injured were important, but to the Minbari, children were Isil-zha, the Future, and were precious. The pregnant female in the worker's arms immediately received his undivided attention. "This way," he said hurriedly.
Taking Katell by the arm, the acolyte led him down a corridor strewn with people. Arriving in a small examination room that looked as if it had seen much use, he motioned for Katell to place his mate on the table. As Katell gently laid Fara down, the acolyte said, "I am sorry…it is sad that your child must be born into a world of strife. At the same time, it gives me hope for the future that there are still children at all. Valen's blessings be with you. The healer will be along when he is able."
After the acolyte left, Katell stood nervously in the room holding Fara's hand. She had not said a word since they had entered, but Katell could hear her whimpering and see the strain on her face. "The healer is coming, love. You are doing so very well. It will not be long now."
"I want to push…" Fara grunted, squeezing Katell's hand so hard he could feel the bones grinding together. "I want to push now." Sucking in a breath, she began wailing. "Katell…Katell! Please tell the healer to hurry…I cannot fight the urge any longer…"
A new voice came from the doorway, saying, "Then do not fight it." Looking up from his mate, Katell breathed a huge sigh of relief as a middle-aged priest walked in and immediately moved to examine Fara. Placing his hands on her belly, he felt around for a moment. "The little one appears to be positioned properly…" Moving back to her legs, he opened her robe and pushed her legs up and apart, bending to examine her birthing canal critically. "Yes, you are fully open." The healer observed, "You are ready and can push at any time." Motioning for Katell to hold her hands, the healer said, "Now, push…"
Fara screamed in relief and agony and then bore down. Were it not for the gentle pressure Katell was exerting on her hands, she would have risen off of the table. A shudder swept through her as she felt the child move inside her. And Pain…there was Pain, but it was a natural pain that brought happiness and joy. The child was coming. With a stifled cry, Fara gasped and squeezed her eyes shut, bearing down with her overtaxed abdominal muscles yet again. Dimly, she felt herself opening wider than she ever thought she could. Arching her back, she pushed yet again…
All things considered, the child came easily. As Fara cried out in joy and pain, she gave a relatively small squeeze and a small head bearing tiny, soft nubs at the temples appeared. As it emerged, little gray eyes opened and the head began turning of its own accord, seeming to take in its changed surroundings wondrously.
"Ah! A curious one, are you?" The healer smiled and said as he made minor adjustments to the newborn's position. Looking at the awe-paralyzed Katell, he continued, "This one is already looking at the world, already seeking out others known from past lives…a sign that the child has both a destiny and an old soul. And the child has the eyes of the mother…gray, the color in between the Darkness and the Light. The child will be one who decides the courses of events, for good or ill." Bending back to his task, he gently assisted as Fara pushed once more, delivering the body. The healer smiled again, somewhat sadly this time. "A female…a new young woman for our shattered world. I hope she creates a better one than we have left her." Removing the child, he handed her to her tired but smiling mother and cut the umbilical cord. Tying it off, he turned to a beaming Katell. "Congratulations. Do you have a name picked out for the child?"
Katell did not answer immediately. As he groped to find his voice, Fara raggedly spoke up from where she lay with the baby. "Mara," she said, "Mara of the Shipwright's Guild."
"Excellent. A name from the Ancient Tongue. It means 'New Dawn' if my memory serves." Looking around him sadly, the healer noted, "Our people could use a new dawn about…what is that sound?" In the distance, a high-pitched whine gradually strengthened.
Katell, although only a Worker, had been to war and recognized the sound. It was the warning whistle of an incoming rocket. He looked around hastily. At first, he heard only the whine as it drew nearer. Then, at the last instant, he heard an explosion and saw fire as it swept up the corridor and into the room. Throwing himself hastily across Fara and the child, he felt intense heat wash up his back. He was dimly aware of the kind, cheerful healer being consumed in a flaming pyre as the Minbari was thrown across the room. Screaming? He heard screaming. Somewhere in his shocked mind, he realized that the screaming voice was his. Looking down, he saw the wide, gray eyes of his mate looking into his in surprise as awareness of this existence left him…forever.
A few minutes prior, in another part of the ruined city, Delenn of Mir instructed her aide to contact the Warrior Caste to arrange surrender. Not surprisingly, the Warrior Caste leadership readily agreed, and a cease-fire was called. The guns fell silent. Unfortunately, there is no recalling a weapon already in the air. A Warrior Caste missile fired at a known Religious Caste strongpoint found its target. That the target was next to a place of healing troubled them little…after all, would they not be reborn more enlightened than they had been before?
In a place of death once known as a place of healing, there was almost nothing but silence. The only sound wafting through the air among the broken and burned bodies was the horrifying wail of a female mourning for her mate and the hungry, frightened crying of a child.
Irilenn of Valeria surveyed the ruins of the decimated healing place impassively through large green eyes. <There is not much life here left to protect… > she noted without emotion. Not much life…she had seen too much death and not enough life over the past few weeks. She feared that it was making her callous, but these were hard times. Pulling her crimson-bordered white cloak a little more tightly around her slender frame to ward off the chill breeze that had blown up, she turned to the two young attendants next to her and said, "The two of you will search this place of healing. When you have completed this task, report back to me here."
"Yes, Enlightened One. You command, and we obey." Bowing, the two attendants, young girls really, scurried off to do their leader's bidding, their unadorned robes flapping as they stumbled down the mound of debris on which Irilenn stood.
A little guiltily, Irilenn turned away. She had sent those two young girls to do work that she was supposed to do. Under almost any other circumstance, she would have seen to it herself. Irilenn was known for her dedication, tenaciousness and ambition. She cherished Life above all other things, but was hard as crystal when it came to practicalities and she was ruthless in protecting the Sisterhood. Over the years, this combination of character traits had facilitated her rise to the second-highest position within the Sisters of Valeria. Squeamishness was definitely not in her nature, and it was not the reason she had shirked this duty. There was something else she wanted to see…
Presently that which she was awaiting appeared. In the sky over the city, a giant holo formed. The Temple of Varinni…the place where Delenn of Mir was supposed to formally surrender to the Warriors. Clasping her slim, delicate hands in front of her, Irilenn watched attentively, not hearing another older Sister coming up behind her.
"Irilenn. I thought you would be watching." The older Sister murmured. Stopping beside her, the old one continued, "It appears that the Warriors have finally brought your daughter to task. Are you sure that you wish to watch her humbled before all of Minbar?"
"My daughter no longer, Avaier." Irilenn turned and bowed respectfully to the Head of her Order before turning back to watch the drama unfolding. "I forswore that relationship over twenty-five cycles ago. Still, I admit that I have followed the events of her life as I was able. A bright career…tarnished by many mistakes and misjudgments." Turning back, she watched the holo of the temple proceedings. That strutting popinjay, Shakiri, had appeared and was speaking of a 'New' Minbar. Irilenn snorted derisively at the bombastic warrior but continued to watch. Without taking her eyes off the projection, she murmured, "I almost wish Dukhat had never discovered her, because he cursed her the day she touched the Triluminary. Death has followed in her footsteps wherever she has trod since. Even the human she has chosen as a mate will eventually die an untimely death, due in no small measure to her choices."
"Yes…death," the older woman agreed. "For one so dedicated to life, it is ironic that death seems to be her most persistent lover." In the hologram above, Delenn spoke words of defiance to Shakiri and stepped into the Starfire Wheel. Avaier noted it neutrally. "Even now, she attempts to sacrifice herself. One more death, as if that will satisfy her. She will not die, though. Even now, it would not surprise me if she had some sort of manipulation planned. It is in her nature. She is, after all, the flesh of your flesh. Even the Sisterhood cannot erase the bond of genetics."
Irilenn struggled to keep her face neutral, but her insides were clenching as she watched the Starfire Wheel grow larger and more intense. Delenn was coming closer to being consumed, taunting the Warrior leader all the while. Delenn…her child…Irilenn remembered well the day she had given birth to her. The infant was already looking around even as she emerged, surprising both the healer and her parents, her green eyes marking her as one with special gifts. That had been such a bright, happy day…and now, it had come to this. Her gifts had become a curse that followed her through life. Unconsciously, Irilenn held her breath, expecting a bad end even as curiosity drove her to wonder about Delenn's motive for this desperate act.
In the Temple, Shakiri had finally stepped in after some prodding from one of his subordinates. He was a coward in his heart, Irilenn knew. He would not stay in long. It did not matter, because Irilenn abruptly realized something that most other Minbari would not think of, and she instinctively knew that Delenn understood it as well. No full Minbari could withstand the Starfire Wheel unprotected for as long as Delenn could. With that realization, she knew beyond uncertainty why her offspring had selected Varinni as the place of surrender. It was an unexpected benefit of her change. Although she was physically weaker than most Minbari, Delenn knew that strength of body and fighting skill would not be a factor in the Wheel, as they would have been for a challenge in any other setting. Physical adaptability, however, would be…and human bodies, even hybrid ones, were far more adaptable. Even as she watched, Irilenn could see the advantages coming into play. Delenn, while obviously in extreme pain, was not suffering quite as badly as her opponent was even though she had entered the Wheel before he had. Her hair was protecting her scalp from the intense heat, and her skin, transformed to withstand Earth's brighter, hotter and more radiant sun, was shunting the ultraviolet radiation far more efficiently…reddening rather than scorching as Minbari skin would. Irilenn smiled slightly in reluctant admiration of Delenn's cleverness as she said, "No, she will not die. You are correct, Mistress. She has a plan, I am sure."
Despite her confidence, Irilenn began to worry again as Shakiri jumped out of the Wheel, his skin smoking despite the relatively short time he had been subjected to its power. Delenn could leave without shame at this point. With the warrior's abandonment of the test, the voice of the Religious Caste in the new government was secure. Delenn, however, had other ideas. Involuntarily, Irilenn gasped as Delenn beseeched the heavens and then collapsed onto the hard stone floor, finally overborne by the intense punishment the Wheel was venting upon her. She was going to sacrifice herself after all, Irilenn realized, and remake herself as a martyr. She did not want the Religious Caste to merely have a voice in the government. She wanted her caste to dominate it, and she was willing to sacrifice herself to make that happen. Even her human body could not withstand the Wheel if it was to fully open. As she watched, a Warrior dove into the wheel and carried Delenn out. Irilenn breathed a shaky sigh of relief, only to gasp again as the Warrior stepped back into the Wheel and was immolated, after declaring his conversion to the Religious. Everything, both in the holo and around the two watching Sisters, became still and quiet.
The old Sister finally broke the silence. "There…you see?" Avaier turned to Irilenn and smiled somewhat sadly as the younger woman caught her breath. "We have learned three things here today. First, Delenn never does anything without manipulating somebody. She may not have intended it, but she manipulated that noble warrior into sacrificing himself for her. He is another death for her tally sheet, and one less ally she will have available to her later. I would imagine that her soul by now is heavy with the weight of the dead it carries, and this saddens me. Second, we have learned that she is as formidable an opponent as we believed she might be, as the Warriors have discovered to their chagrin. She has not merely triumphed, but also embarrassed them…an embarrassment they will not forget. Delenn's attempted sacrifice will result in her commanding even less respect from them in the future than she would have had she merely stepped out after overcoming Shakiri. She could have preserved their dignity while still emerging victorious yet she chose not to. I fear that this choice will return to haunt her someday." Looking more closely at Irilenn, her sad smile was replaced with an amused one. "And third," she chuckled, "we have learned that your ties to your daughter have not completely been erased."
Somewhat defensively, Irilenn replied, "They are not 'ties', Mistress. They are merely…concerns."
Waving off Irilenn's hasty protest, Avaier continued, "It is of no matter. You can take oaths, but you never completely stop caring. It is the same for all of us with mates and children. I miss Dukhat still, as I know you do your mate." Moving to a half-shattered bench, she dusted it off and sat. "Ah! These old bones…they will not trouble the world for much longer, I think. Soon, I will join Dukhat in the Place where no Shadows fall, and we will be one again." Looking up at Irilenn, she folded her hands in her lap and said, "You mentioned wishing Delenn had not met my husband. You realize that he and I arranged that encounter, do you not? She is a part of the plan, albeit an unwitting part."
Irilenn nodded in confirmation. "I suspected as much, but I was not high enough in the Order at the time to be told the specifics. How much bloodshed could we have avoided had you simply summoned Delenn and made a Sister of her, rather than maneuvering her into an acolyte's position with the Grey Council? We could still have placed her on the ship and we would have had much more control over her actions."
Avaier sighed. "I considered doing as you describe, but it would not have accomplished our aims. She could never have been appointed to the Council itself. Delenn would have had to forswear her caste, and thus her chance to serve as one of the Nine. My husband could not have chosen her, since one of the castes would have had to give up a position so she could fill it and all would have balked at having a Sister among them." Waving her hand in the air at the holo, which was now fading, she smiled and said, "This was the optimal solution. Delenn remains outside of the Order, yet through you she is close enough to us for our purposes. Dukhat and I agreed that this was the way it should be before we arranged her appointment."
Irilenn responded frostily to the seeming offhandedness with which her superior dismissed her and Dukhat's manipulation of the woman who had once been her daughter, even though she understood the necessity of their actions. "Yes, and then you had Dukhat whisper in her ear that she was 'special', that she had a 'destiny', a role to play in future events. And you gave her power, far too soon. Avaier, she was only twenty cycles old! Barely out of childhood! Dukhat only had her for two cycles prior to that…the two of you built that poor young girl up so fast that it is no wonder she came apart when your husband was killed! Did you predict that she would side with the Warriors, Avaier? Did you know that she had that kind of rage in her?"
"Perhaps…perhaps we overestimated her capabilities and emotional control in that instance, but no one could have predicted that Dukhat would die. We anticipated many more cycles under his guidance for her, as well as influence from the more stable elements of Humanity once we had established contact. A Child of Valen on the Gray Council, Irilenn. A young, pretty one at that…even by human standards. I worked so hard to make that happen, so hard to establish her credibility through Dukhat so the others would accept her despite her youth. It was critical to the plan to have her there when contact was made with the people of Valen. Yes, Delenn was rushed into a position of authority before she was ready, but it could not be helped. The humans were expanding far faster than the Sisterhood anticipated. Our ill-advised war with them was a minor setback, of course…but it all worked out." Avaier sighed, then said, "So much death…but she has taken a human mate now and matters may proceed. So we are set back a few cycles? It is of little importance." Avaier favored Irilenn with a faint smile. "Do not trouble yourself over this affair with the Starfire Wheel. Had Delenn died, it would merely have postponed us a generation. A generation is nothing compared to the hundreds of cycles we have been planning this."
Avaier's statement upset Irilenn, but she covered it well. Delenn might be a pawn, but she was still a living being and the Sisters were sworn to protect life. She held her tongue. One outburst at the Mistress in private could be forgiven, but Irilenn knew her place. Avaier was correct, anyway. In the final analysis, Delenn was unknowingly serving the needs of the Sisterhood, although it had taken several cycles longer than anticipated. "I am not troubled, Mistress. Delenn lives and she is far more secure in her position now. As you say, matters may proceed."
Avaier gazed out at the destruction around her for a long moment before saying anything. When she looked back at Irilenn, she looked even older than her age would attest. "We need her to join with Sheridan and bear offspring, Irilenn. Is she capable of that?"
"None of our people know, Mistress. Delenn has seen human physicians almost exclusively since her transformation, and we do not have access to their data. What little we do know about her physiology seems to indicate that she might be capable of carrying at least one to term, but that her genetic structure is somewhat unstable and even one child will place severe strain on her metabolism. The Sisters trained in genetics believe that she is still too much of our race and that her womb will lose efficiency after the first. Even if she can bear one, it is unlikely that others will follow."
"One is all we require. Let us pray that she and her mate prove to be exceptionally fertile, then. If not, the Sisterhood will find a way to 'assist' them in conceiving." Avaier paused and chuckled a little before saying, "I understand that conception between humans is similar to our people's and considered extremely pleasurable, just as it is for us. I hope that your daughter and her mate find ample time to practice this act." Turning serious again, Avaier looked hard at Irilenn. "There is one other matter, Irilenn. One of no small importance to the plan and our Order."
Irilenn was caught by surprise. "Yes, Mistress?"
Avaier gestured at the blasted ruins around them and shook her head. "Look at the chaos we have created. It is another sign that we are a diminishing people…one of many signs." Perking up, she continued, "But, at the same time, options are presenting themselves that could lead to our salvation. Minbar is no longer isolated from outsiders. The humans are here, and they are not leaving. Other Earthers will come in the future, and the Order must move quickly to take advantage of the opportunity their presence presents us." Avaier gestured loosely at herself and smiled. "By comparison, I am not moving as quickly as I used to, as you may have noticed. We need to be dynamic, and dynamism is not a quality normally associated with this aged body." Sighing, she looked at Irilenn for a second then said, "Soon, I will step down as Mistress of the Order and retire to our Temple in the North to await my husband. I intend for you to assume my position."
"Me? Why now, Mistress? You are not so old."
"You speak an untruth, Irilenn." Avaier smiled indulgently. "But it is a kind untruth, so I forgive it. I am old, and you know it. As for why now…look around you. Not at what you see here, in the present…look into the future. Ten cycles, twenty…our world, which has not changed since Valen's time, is about to change again. The ways of our Order have not changed over an even longer period. We will have to change as well, though, to bring our plans to fruition. We will need to open up, to become more of a factor in our society. Some in the Sisterhood will resist this, and I am too old to fight them. You are not. You see my vision of the future, even if you do not always agree with my methods. We have surreptitiously guided Delenn since her childhood, for example, and you do not completely agree with that. Yet you accept it in principle as a necessity to help our people. Some must be sacrificed if all are to be saved."
"Mistress, surely you are not leaving now…"
"No, not now. I will remain in position until we determine if Delenn can conceive naturally." Reaching out, she took Irilenn's hand in her own. Kindly, she said, "Despite the fact that you have forsworn her, I do not want the actions we would have to take with her if she proves to be barren to weigh upon you. If those steps are necessary, I will oversee them before relinquishing leadership."
"I do not wish for her to be harmed."
Standing, Avaier smoothed her robes and dusted off her hands. "We would simply be giving her what she wants. She will want children eventually, Irilenn. All Minbari want children, although fewer and fewer can bear them. Still, it would be far more pleasant for her and her mate if it occurs naturally." Pausing, she idly picked at a loose thread on her robe as she changed the subject. "Irilenn, I want you to reestablish contact with your daughter and develop at least a friendly relationship with her."
"A 'personal' relationship? This is not our way, Mistress." Irilenn stated, suddenly puzzled. "I believe that it is too late for that, in any event. We are virtually strangers to one another. I have spoken with her on only three occasions since entering the Order, and none were recent. Once when she left Draal's apprenticeship at Temple, once at the ceremony celebrating the fusion of her crest and her attainment of adulthood, and once at the funerary ceremony for her father. All three were under the most formal of circumstances. She would be suspicious of a personal communication from me now."
"I did not say the 'friendly relationship' would develop overnight, Irilenn." Avaier noted amusedly. "Yes, she will initially be suspicious. Given time, though, you can allay those suspicions. She is now the 'Power to be Reckoned With' on this planet and the closer you are to her, the closer she will be to the Order. But there is more to this, is there not? You do not wish a rapprochement with your daughter?"
Irilenn cast her eyes down. In a low voice, she said, "Forgive me, but I do not. Although I care about her and acknowledge her as my offspring, I do not love her. She is tainted with darkness. I look at her face and see my own, but then I see her bloody hands…too much blood for me to ever look at her without seeing it, no matter how sincere her regret is or how hard I try. Her persecution of the war with the Humans during the short period she acted as the Voice of the Grey Council shamed both her father and I, and eventually the weight of that shame killed my beloved husband before his time. Now you tell me to love this woman who broke my mate's heart? I know she did not intend it and is not solely at fault, but I do not want to know Delenn of Mir, Mistress."
"Have you not heard me, Irilenn?" Avaier replied sharply. "I did not tell you to love her. I said befriend her, and whether that friendship reaches to your heart is immaterial…perhaps it is even better if it does not. Your personal feelings in this matter do not concern me. You will do it because I ordered it and because it is necessary." Her admonishment complete, the old Sister sighed and patted Irilenn on the arm as she added, "Someday, Delenn will find out what we have done, both to her and to our people. I would prefer to have her cooperation in our endeavor when that day comes, but it may remain for you to bend her to our will should she choose…unwisely. Today, we have seen that mere force, either of arms or of spirit, will not overcome her. She does, however, have weaknesses."
Irilenn was mulling over her leader's order. Build a relationship with a woman whose face she shared, but whose mind was as alien to her as a human's might be. "What weaknesses do you speak of?"
"In a one-on-one confrontation, such as the one between her and Shakiri we just witnessed, none. She is the equal of any of us in cleverness and cunning and is a master of manipulating a situation to her advantage. Consider this, though," Indicating a large piece of rubble, Avaier pushed against it. Not surprisingly, the heavy piece of masonry did not move despite the frail Minbari's efforts. "When you encounter an object so heavy that it cannot be budged through your strength alone, how do you move it?" Avaier asked. Bending, she picked up a loose section of pipe and placed it atop a smaller piece of rubble adjacent to the larger one she had tried to move before, wedging one end underneath the larger piece. Pushing down on the pipe with her foot, she was rewarded for her effort when the larger masonry block rose off the ground and rolled over on its side. "You use a lever and fulcrum." The old Minbari sighed and dusted off her hands. "Delenn is much like this large rock. If you believe she will not cooperate when the time comes, you do not confront her directly. Her strength will match yours. Like this rock, she will not move through your efforts alone. Instead, you need to find the proper tools to magnify your strength…applying only the minimal amount of pressure necessary to move her in the direction we wish her to be moved. If done with finesse, she will never even know that the movement occurred. The lever and fulcrum that will move Delenn is out there somewhere, and befriending her may help you find it. She may even provide you the tools herself. Once she does, you can exploit them to get what we want and what our people need."
Avaier glanced past Irilenn and abruptly changed the subject. "Your attendants are returning, and rather quickly. I believe that they have found something. I must go. Seeing me here will intimidate them even more than you do." Grasping Irilenn's hand again, she drew it to her breast. "I am leaving you the collected pieces of a puzzle, Irilenn. I have spent my time as Mistress gathering them and guiding them to the places that they need to be. I am entrusting you with the task of assembly. Only a few pieces remain missing. Find them. Find them and move us forward again."
As Avaier moved off, picking her way back through the rubble in the direction she had come from, Irilenn heard the aged Minbari woman speaking softly, almost to herself. "Subtlety," she said, "Subtlety and patience will allow the Order to succeed where the brute strength of the Warriors failed."
When the attendants picked their way through the rubble and presented themselves to Irilenn, she could see that they were disheveled. Their robes were dirty and torn, and their faces smudged. They scrambled to a halt and bowed their heads respectfully to her, waiting for her to speak first before speaking.
"What have you found, that the two of you return to me in such pitiable condition?" Irilenn's voice was not harsh, but she made it a point to speak formally to the younger attendants. She had found through experience that it was much easier to demand instant obedience when they were young and then gradually relax as they grew in age and experience than it was to be friendly in the beginning and then have to instill discipline later.
The senior of the two, a girl of about thirteen cycles, almost of an age to become an Apprentice, bowed respectfully before speaking. "Enlightened One, forgive us for our appearance. We have searched the remains of the place of healing. Many of our people's souls have departed inside, but we believe that there is an infant somewhere in the wreckage. We heard crying and combed through the debris, but we were unable to locate the source."
The younger of the two spoke up. "We looked dutifully, Enlightened One, going into many barely-accessible places. That is why our robes are in disarray…"
"Stop!" Irilenn snapped, looking hard at the young girl. Irilenn did not know her, but the youngster could not have been more than ten cycles old. He crest was uncarved and not even close to being full yet. "I did not ask why your clothes were dirty…I merely remarked upon it. I asked what you had found. In the future, follow the example of your older sibling and give me the information I request. Should I want extra, I will ask for it."
The child trembled and bowed her head in shame. "Yes, Enlightened One."
Irilenn looked at the trembling child. "What is your name, girl? I do not know you."
The young attendant glanced up quickly before lowering her gaze again. "I am called Vadenn, Enlightened One. I am of the Tuzanor chapter."
"Vadenn…hmm." Irilenn thought a moment. She had mildly chastised the young attendant. Now she needed to praise her. "Dark Wanderer. It is an interesting name. You have done well, Vadenn, despite your obvious lack of discipline. You may look up, I am not angry with you. You are young and will learn with experience and additional training." Calming somewhat, the young attendant looked up as Irilenn continued, "Now, you and your sibling can show me to the place where you heard the child."
"Yes, Enlightened One." With speed borne of dedication, not to mention a little trepidation, the young girls began to scramble back towards the ruins. Retrieving her medical bag, Irilenn slung it over her shoulder and picked her way more carefully behind them. "A little more slowly, young ones," she called after them, "I am not an ancient yet, but I am not as spry as you."
Presently, they arrived at the place of healing. Ducking through blackened doorways and crawling over shattered crystal wall supports, the two girls wormed their way into the center of the ruined structure, with Irilenn following more slowly. By the time she caught up with them, her robes were just as torn and ragged as those of the attendants. As she crawled through a hole in the wall, the girls helped her to her feet. Straightening, Irilenn looked around and absently brushed herself off. "Is this the place?"
"This is where we first heard the crying, Enlightened One."
Irilenn held up her hand to quiet the girls. "Silence, please." She listened. After a moment of quiet, she caught it. A faint gurgle and wail. Irilenn turned, trying to gauge the direction it was coming from. Searching for survivors was, after all, the reason her fellow Sisters had left cloister in the first place. Irilenn was looking for survivors as well but, by order of the Mistress, she was looking specifically for children. Turning back to the girls, she quietly said, "You are correct. There is a newborn in this place, a hungry one at that. Spread out and look."
The girls moved to look in every hidden nook and cranny, upending debris and peeking between sections of fallen masonry in their search. Irilenn looked as well. After several minutes, Vadenn came up behind her and caught her attention. "Enlightened One, I think I have found the child," she whispered. Pointing at a barely standing archway across the inner sanctuary, she said, "There are baby noises coming from beyond that far wall."
"Then we will look there." Mindful that the younger girls needed praise as much as discipline, she added, "Good work, Vadenn. Follow me." Leading the girl back to the archway, Irilenn peered in. The archway led into darkness. It was dark, but not completely silent. As Vadenn had indicated, the sound of rustling cloth and a soft gurgle emerged from within.
Removing a small glowlight from her bag, Irilenn indicated to Vadenn that she was to stay in place. "This structure is unstable, Vadenn. It is better that I risk myself in there than you. Rejoin your sibling and await me."
Vadenn bowed in acknowledgement. "You command, I obey, Enlightened One."
Moving forward once Vadenn departed, Irilenn saw that the archway led into a partially collapsed corridor. Small rooms, evidently examination rooms, branched off to the sides. She peered into one.
In the glow of the light she saw bodies, many of them. Some were holding each other. Most were in barely-recognizable heaps of tangled arms and legs on the floor. The majority appeared either burned or asphyxiated. With a shudder, Irilenn reflected that it was a horrible way to pass beyond. She quickly performed cursory examinations on a few, enough to determine that the blaze that swept through the corridor had probably been fatal to all, at least in the examination rooms nearest the impact site. Backing out, she moved through several other rooms at the near end of the corridor. Entry into each revealed more corpses. No one lived that she could help.
She was almost to the last examination room and starting to lose hope when she found what she was looking for. Glancing in the doorway, she was about to move on when a baby gurgle stopped her. Peering in, she did not immediately see anything different from the other rooms. Two burned bodies lay across the floor, and there appeared to be another on what was left of the examination table. Moving further into the room, Irilenn first checked the bodies on the floor. <Passed beyond, both of them… > she determined quickly. Turning to the body on the examination table, she shined her light on the figure, absently noting that the person, a young worker-caste female, did not appear as badly burned as the others. Her lower body had been almost charred, but her upper body was intact. From the surrounding evidence, Irilenn deduced that one of the deceased, probably her mate, had partially shielded her from the fire that had swept through this portion of the building.
Seeing a hint of movement, Irilenn moved forward to stand over her. In the female's arms was the object of her search, an unharmed, living child. The poor newborn, also a female, was attempting to suckle at one of her mother's bared breasts. Evidently, Irilenn assumed, the mother had survived for some time after the blast, although mortally injured and unable to move. Irilenn's heart went out to the poor woman even as she reached out to gently pry the child out of her arms. As her fingers closed around the squirming infant, she softly murmured, "Greetings, little one. I am called Irilenn. I have come to take you away from this place. Will you come with me?" The baby looked up at her and squinted. "There, that is a good child…"
Irilenn started to pry the mother's fingers away, but froze in shock as the young female's supposedly dead grasp did not loosen. Despite her years of training as a Healer, she almost jumped out of her skin when the burned woman's chest rose as she sucked in a shuddering gasp and opened her eyes. Swallowing, the woman blinked and looked at Irilenn without seeming to see her. "Katell? Love…is that you?" She croaked through dry, chapped lips.
The injured woman was seeking her mate. Hastily, Irilenn dug in her medical bag and retrieved a small flask of water. Opening it, she put her hand behind the woman's head and let her sip a few drops before saying, "No, young one. I am sorry, but your mate has passed beyond the veil. I am Irilenn, of the Sisters of Valeria."
The young woman blinked back tears and swallowed again. She had such beautiful gray eyes, Irilenn thought. She briefly considered calling for Healers with more advanced equipment, but discarded the notion. This young female had already moved too far toward the Light. Her injuries were too severe. By the time the other healers reached her with a stasis unit, it would be too late. Irilenn decided that it would be best just to comfort her. After a second, the young Minbari spoke. "I…know. The fire was so bright and hot…it seemed to burn through me. Two days…I have waited to be found. Our child…I had to stay for our child. Katell is waiting for me?"
"I am certain that he is. Your mate would not leave such a brave one alone, even in death."
"I am passing beyond, then? I am going to join him?" She asked plaintively. Irilenn could already hear the death rattle in her throat. Now that her child had been found, the mother's wait to join her mate was ending. She was already beginning her passage into the next life.
"Yes. You are too severely injured. I wish there were something I could do." The young woman did not acknowledge her, but Irilenn felt the female reluctantly release her grip on the child in response. She softly pulled the baby away from her. Consolingly, Irilenn whispered, "Do not be afraid. Your soul is merely going to join his for the journey to the next incarnation. The two of you will share many more lives together. The pain of separation is fleeting, and it will pass quickly."
"It is all right…there is no more pain." The young woman's arms flopped to the table, the strength in them already gone. Her gaze became unfocused and she seemed to be looking beyond Irilenn's shoulder. After a moment, she managed a small smile. "I can see Katell, Sister. He waited, just as you said he would." Her face then took on a beatific expression, her voice rising as she excitedly said, "He is waving! He is calling for me, Revered Sister! I…think I am going now. Our child is…is safe. She is called Mara…of the Shipwright's Guild."
Shifting the baby into the crook of her arm, Irilenn reached out and held the dying woman's hand. "Mara. It is a pretty name, for a pretty child. You need no longer worry for her. She will miss you, but she will be taken care of. You may rest now."
The child's mother drew in another shallow gasp and breathed, "Thank You..." as she expelled it. After a second, her eyes opened wide, looking at something far beyond what Irilenn could see. The Sister watched in both sadness and amazement as the Light left the young woman's eyes and she joined those that awaited her beyond the veil. Once she had passed, Irilenn gently released her hand and laid it back upon her breast. The young worker caste woman's short journey in this life was over.
Another journey, however, had only just begun. Looking down at the child in the crook of her arm, Irilenn was surprised to see that the child was quietly examining her with intelligent gray eyes, much like her mother's. "You are an old soul, are you not?" Irilenn murmured amusedly. Looking at the baby reminded her of why she was there in the first place. "Well, Mara," she said brightly, shaking off the young mother's death with a rapidity borne of experience, "I suppose we should get you tested. We will find you some food after that. Is that acceptable?" The baby gurgled in reply and Irilenn chose to accept that as a 'yes'. Rummaging around in her bag, Irilenn brought out a small, triangular object…a priceless relic from a time long past. "Now, if you will just oblige me by lending me your hand, little one…"
Irilenn pressed the Triluminary against the baby's palm. Almost immediately, it began to glow…brightly. To Irilenn's amazement, it glowed far more brightly than normal for other Children of Valen, almost illuminating the room in its intensity. "This is…interesting. Very interesting indeed." Irilenn murmured to herself as she watched. Pulling the Triluminary away, Irilenn looked down at the child. Speaking in the infant babble adults seemed to universally adopt when talking to babies, Irilenn said, "You are a funny Minbari. Do you know that? Yes you are…" In response, the child merely gurgled again and eyed her, looking for the promised food. "Why are you so funny, little one? Let us find out. Do you agree? Good."
Acting on a hunch, Irilenn stepped back over to where the abandoned shell of the child's mother lay. Pressing the Triluminary against the dead woman's hand, she nodded to herself when it glowed, almost as brightly as it had for the child. Irilenn then walked around the table to where the mostly burned body of the woman's mate was crumpled on the floor. Pressing the Triluminary against what was left of his hand, she nodded in confirmation as the device glowed again. She looked back down at the child, who cooed up at her happily. Irilenn continued to speak in babytalk. "Do you know what you are, funny one? Your parents were very special…yes they were. You, little one, are a doublet. Do you know what that is? Both your parents are descended from a very great Minbari, and his gift is very strong within you. Perhaps even more than that…I think your parents may have been doublets, also…"
A small, timid voice came from behind her. "Enlightened One?"
Irilenn paused in mid-sentence. Hastily palming the Triluminary, she turned to see Vadenn standing there, peering in uncertainly. Harshly, Irilenn said, "Vadenn, I told you to wait outside. Why did you disobey me?" Silently, Irilenn prayed that Vadenn had not seen the relic. Knowledge that the Order possessed such items was a carefully guarded secret, known only to the Grey Council and a select few of the Sisters themselves.
Vadenn instantly adopted a contrite posture, bowing her head in submission. She was to be rebuked again, she knew. "I am sorry, Enlightened One. You…you have been gone for some time, and it is darkening outside. My sibling and I thought it best if we checked on you…to see if you were unharmed."
Irilenn was good at reading between the lines. The two attendants were afraid, both of the ghosts the coming darkness might reveal in this place of death and Irilenn's ire. Thus, the smaller of the two had been 'elected' to locate her by the larger. Irilenn sighed. She must be losing her touch if the attendants were more afraid of 'ghosts' than they were of her. She said, "You mean, it is growing dark and the two of you were becoming frightened, I would wager." Eyeing the girl sternly, she continued. "There is nothing out there that will harm you, Vadenn. Nothing worse than my foul temper." Irilenn continued to glare at the young attendant for a moment before turning away.
"Enlightened One," the attendant ventured timidly, "When I came down the corridor, I heard voices and saw lights…I was afraid and hid myself until they went away."
Irilenn almost froze. Quickly formulating a response, she said, "There is no one alive in here except I and this child, Vadenn, no one. As for the light, it could have been the flickering of my glowlight."
"I thought I heard another adult voice. I thought that perhaps a Human warrior or Shag Toth had come for you."
The girl had heard too much, Irilenn realized. She needed something else to worry about. "You were mistaken. Even Shag Toths do not dare to come to Minbar, and humans are only here at our sufferance." Bending, Irilenn surreptitiously dropped the Triluminary back into her bag while indicating that the attendant was to approach. When Vadenn was close, Irilenn said in her most commanding tone of voice, "I am displeased that you disobeyed me. When you return to cloister, you will seek out your Mentor and tell her of my displeasure. Is that understood?"
Foreseeing additional litanies and chores as penance, the young girl nodded and studied her boots with great intensity. "Yes, Enlightened One."
Irilenn sighed. "Now, as long as you are here, hold this baby. Be careful with her." Handing the child across, Irilenn moved to gather up her bag. Removing a small bottle from within, she held it out for Vadenn to take. "Feed her."
Vadenn took the extended bottle of formula and nudged the baby's mouth gently. The baby rooted at the nipple for a moment then began to suck greedily when the proper contact was made. "Ohh…such a hungry baby. Does she have a name? Is there any indication of what clan she is from, so we can return her to her family?"
Irilenn almost froze up again. Such an innocent question, but Vadenn had unintentionally placed her in an ethical dilemma. Doublets were astonishingly rare, almost unique. Because of their genetic makeup, very few were born alive, yet this child appeared perfectly healthy. Children like this one could be critical to the plan and, as such, needed to remain under the watchful eye of the Order. Irilenn decided. She would do her own penance later. "No," she lied smoothly. "The child is nameless…and her clan is unknown. There are few records surviving in this place in any event. She will come with us."
Vadenn looked at Irilenn with excitement in her eyes. "She is to be one of us, then?"
Irilenn stooped down and smiled at the attendant. "You are correct, Vadenn. She will be an attendant, just like you." Irilenn crooked her finger and put it to her lip in thought. <Tuzanor…Vadenn was from Tuzanor, a small, out-of-the-way city. Small, yet large enough to hide the child from any of her clan that might come looking. > Children were precious to the clans, and the Shipwright's Guild was not large. In such a close-knit clan, surviving members would certainly remember that one of their missing females had been pregnant. Hiding this important find in Tuzanor for the Sisterhood was as good an idea as any. "Vadenn…I have an idea," Irilenn said, smiling indulgently at the young girl before continuing. "Forget what I said about being displeased with you. It was you that actually found the child, after all. I just entered and retrieved her. For this, I will reward you and your chapter. This child will accompany you back to Tuzanor and be your younger sibling. If you care well for her, you may in time be deemed worthy of Apprenticeship. Still," Irilenn ventured, "having a younger sibling is both a great honor and a grave responsibility. Can you carry it out?"
<An Apprentice! Just one step below the revered Sisters themselves! > Vadenn thought excitedly, bowing as well as she was able with the baby in her arms. In her mind's eye, she was already envisioning herself with a carved bonecrest and wearing a crimson-scripted outer robe, as well as the help that a younger sibling could be to her in her chores. "I will do as you command, Enlightened One. I am honored to be chosen to oversee her development for the Order." Vadenn reached down and tickled the baby with a finger. The child gurgled happily. Looking back up, Vadenn asked, "But what shall we call her? She needs a name."
Irilenn was uncertain with her choice of Vadenn to be responsible for the baby. Vadenn had already shown a disregard for discipline, and she was far too young for these responsibilities…still a child herself. Irilenn feared that the baby's life with Vadenn as her older sibling would be difficult, but it could not be helped. The Tuzanor chapter would bear close watching. None of Irilenn's doubts made it to her delicate features, however. Smiling again, Irilenn said, "Well, since you are Vadenn, which means 'Dark Wanderer' in the ancient tongue, then it is only fitting that we call your younger sibling 'Light Wanderer'. We shall name her Ardenn."
To Be Continued…
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