The old temple’s stone facade gleamed from a recent scrubbing. Bowl-shaped planters flanking the front door bloomed with a riot of colors. Double doors of thick, polished oak stood sentinel in the front entry.
Sabetia smiled at the sight. A year earlier, she’d entrusted Elder Vanora, the Disciple of Clynnidh who’d assumed responsibility for this temple to the Mother Goddess, with a fortune to rehabilitate the place. Deep down, she’d worried about Vanora handling so much money and so many children at the same time. Until she saw the books, she wouldn’t stop worrying, but at least she knew some of the important work had been carried out.
She rapped the iron ring mounted in the center of the right-hand door against its base. The temple hadn’t served the area for worship far longer than Sabetia’s eighteen years of life. Its doors didn’t stand open to all. Especially not after she’d demanded the installation of locks and other security.
The teenage boy who answered wore a crisp, clean coat and pants that bore a striking resemblance to a guard uniform without the livery. A sword hung at his hip. He offered her a polite smile and held the door close to his body so she couldn’t see inside. “Can I help you, missus?”
“I’d like to see Elder Vanora, please.”
“May I have your name?”
His eyes widened. “I’m sorry, Lady. I didn’t recognize you.” He opened the door for her, his tanned cheeks darkening with a blush. “I mostly remembered your hair.”
The last time this boy would’ve seen her, blonde ringlets had fallen past her shoulders. Not long after, she’d shorn them all to spite her husband. They’d regrown only to her ears, and she kept them under control with a thick, cobalt band of linen.
“I’m not a Lady anymore.” Sabetia smiled at him and patted his arm as she stepped inside. With the Earl of Venithys dead, the High King had given her the option to take up her late husband’s title. She’d declined. Noble titles in this kingdom came with too much baggage, and she had work to do as a healer for the Mother Goddess.
Once, rotting timbers and cracked plaster had filled an open, airy temple to her patron. A wall of dark wood with a plain door now separated the entry from the rest of the building. Numerous coats and scarves in neutral tones hung on hooks along one wall. Pairs of brown boots, all in good order, lined the tiled floor beneath them, arranged from largest to smallest.
They’d turned the entry into a mudroom and buffer against both summer heat and winter chill. Sabetia approved.
“Begging your pardon, m’lady, but here, you still are.” The boy gestured for her to follow as he opened the interior door.
She smelled roasting chicken and fresh bread. Though she’d eaten before leaving for this journey, she savored the scent of good, hearty food. “That’s kind of you.”
“You’re the one who’s done us the kindness, m’lady.”
Sabetia didn’t think she’d gain anything by arguing.
The door opened into an intersection of two hallways. One sloped toward a depression at the center of the building where the altar had once stood. They headed to the left instead.
Warmth spilled through an open doorway. The aroma grew more complex, adding layers of coffee and herbs. Young voices chattering and laughing drifted on the air.
At the doorway, Sabetia stopped and basked in the joy of the room. Children sat along benches at several rectangular tables, eating chicken, rolls, vegetables, and potatoes from wooden plates. Their faces seemed bright and clean. They wore clothes in good repair, with few patches. Several of the older boys and girls wore the same kind of uniform as her guide.
An elderly woman, her long white hair bound in a tidy bun, sat in a chair near the hearth. Though her hands remained gnarled and her skin creased with age, she seemed younger in some way. Regular meals of good food had benefited Vanora as much as the children.
The man standing near Vanora, scraping meat from a roasted chicken carcass with an oversized fork, surprised Sabetia. She hadn’t expected Darius to stay with the orphanage. A man like him, a guardsman turned bodyguard, needed action, duty, and purpose.
For a while, protecting her had been his purpose. Then she’d gone where he couldn’t follow.
Children noticed her. Like the boy, they didn’t seem to recognize her. She watched her guide hurry through the room to Vanora’s side, then bend and speak close to her ear.
Vanora saw Sabetia, and her face lit up with a broad smile. She glanced at Darius, then used her wooden cane and the teenage boy’s help to stand.
“Everyone,” Vanora said. Her crackling, brittle voice cut through the chatter without volume. The room fell silent. “Please welcome our distinguished guest, Lady Betsy.”
Several children jumped from their seats with squeals of delight to rush Sabetia. She watched Darius turn, his brow raised in surprise, and see her.
Once, she’d considered him plain and ordinary, nothing more than an average guard with the usual amount of muscle. At the time, she hadn’t realized how little appearance had to do with matters of the heart and soul.
He stared as if unsure whether to trust his eyes.
Sabetia tore her attention from him to greet the dozen children vying for a chance to hug her. She didn’t remember their names, but gave each a joyful smile and embrace.
As she tousled the hair of the last girl, Darius’s shadow loomed over her.
She looked up at him, not sure what to say or feel. Though she’d intended to find him again, she hadn’t expected to see him so soon. Coming here had been about insuring the solvency of the orphanage and the investments supporting it. Someone could have stolen from Vanora or lured her into questionable financial entanglements.
Darius reached a hand toward her. He opened his mouth, then shut it. Twice.
Sabetia understood how he felt. She slipped her hand into his. “Darius. You look good.”
His rough hand warmed her. “You’re radiant,” he blurted.
Darius blushed. So did Sabetia.
“We should maybe go someplace,” he said, tugging on her hand. “Someplace else.”
Sabetia nodded and let him lead her through the building. “Have you been here all this time?”
He seemed relieved by the subject. “I oversaw the renovation. We sectioned the building into smaller rooms on two levels and rebuilt everything that needed it.”
“I’m so glad you were here for that. I worried about Vanora managing everything.”
They climbed a flight of solid wooden stairs. Darius opened the first door on the left and ushered her inside a small room with another door on the back wall. Colorful geometric tapestries covered the walls, and a huge matching rug lay under a desk and a scattering of wooden armchairs.
Sabetia hadn’t known him well enough to be certain of his tastes, but she could guess he’d decorated the room himself. “Is this an office?”
“In a manner of speaking.” Darius let go of her hand and gestured for her to sit. “My bedroom is through that door. Vanora isn’t up to managing all of this anymore. She did fine when it was just a bunch of kids who needed feeding and care. As soon as you gave her a pile of money, she didn’t quite know what to do.”
She chose a chair near the desk. He shifted another to sit with her.
“So you stayed to help her,” Sabetia said, not sure she liked the direction of this conversation.
“That was how it worked out, yes. I also teach the kids fighting, reading and writing, cooking, a few other things.” He leaned toward her, resting his arms on his legs. “I didn’t have anywhere else to go.”
Her smile faltered. He hadn’t delivered a rebuke on purpose, but she felt it all the same. When she left, he’d stayed behind and put in the work to solve a problem she’d tried to fix by throwing money at it.
“I’m sorry,” she said, unable to meet his gaze any longer.
He said nothing for a few long, empty moments. “I’d like to say that I stayed here to help because it was the right thing to do, but that’d be a lie. I stayed because I knew you’d come back at some point. People offered me jobs that I turned down because I was afraid I’d never see you again.”
Horrible guilt pressed on her shoulders. She never should have left. Since she had, she never should have returned.
“I should go.” She turned her back on him and reached for the door.
“Thank you for taking care of Vanora.” She fled down the stairs and hurried to the front door. Air, she needed fresh air.
Outside, she picked a direction and kept going. This city held nothing for her anymore, and she should’ve known that. She had to escape it. Dodging people on the side of the cobblestone street, she quickened her pace without understanding why.
Too surprised and stunned to do otherwise, she stopped without turning to see him. She panted to catch her breath.
Darius stopped in front of her, barely affected by the running. “Please don’t leave. I didn’t intend to chase you out or hurt you. You didn’t do anything wrong. Giving your money to Vanora was a good thing. If I hadn’t stayed, someone else would’ve helped her handle it.”
She opened her mouth to object. He touched two fingers to her lips.
“You had to leave. What that man did to you couldn’t be unraveled in a day, a week, or even a month.” Darius lowered his hand and hung his head. “Truth be told, I needed time too. I know you forgave me for knowing and doing nothing, but I had to forgive myself.”
“I made such a mess.” Sabetia covered her face with both hands.
Darius wrapped his arms around her and held her close. “No. You cleaned up a mess made by men.”
Sabetia leaned into the embrace and thought about what he said. The Disciples had convinced her not to blame herself for what her husband did to her. She hadn’t provoked him or deserved any of it.
She also hadn’t resisted him. Because she’d been trained not to resist.
Someone had molded her into a victim from an early age.
“Men didn’t make this mess,” she murmured.
“I don’t mean me.” She stiffened, knowing what she needed to do. The Mother Goddess had guided her home for a reason.
Darius let go. He lifted her chin with a finger until she met his gaze. “Do you want my help?”
Did she? No. Yes. Maybe? “I don’t know. Come with me.”
She took his hand, grateful for his support. As they walked together, she worried about her destination and what she meant to do there.
Darius said nothing. He squeezed her hand when she paused to get her bearings. Unable to determine the right direction, she waved down a carriage for hire and gave him the address.
They trundled through the streets inside a swaying box, accompanied by the jangle of chains, creaking of wood, and clatter of the city. Cutouts in the door let in sunshine.
Sabetia sat beside Darius with her head on his shoulder and his arm around her. She wanted to say something to distract herself from their destination, but couldn’t think of anything.
Before she left, he’d sat at her bedside and waited on her like a servant until her hands had healed. She remembered standing outside to see the stars, leaning against him for balance and warmth. They’d said so little to each other.
Living under his watchful guard for two years had made those final few days strange and confusing.
Then she’d sold everything, handed most of the money to Vanora, and fled for a holy isle barred to men.
“You don’t have to do this,” Darius said.
“Yes, I do.”
He didn’t ask why. She lifted her head and touched his cheek with a fingertip. He smiled without looking at her.
The carriage stopped, and the driver knocked to let them know they’d arrived. Darius opened the door and helped Sabetia to the gravel-covered driveway in front of her parents’ house.
At the age of fifteen, two months before her birthday, the man who later became her husband had taken her from this place. She’d been willing and eager to leave it behind. Had she known what that man would do to her, she would’ve run away and never looked back.
The stately manor on the outskirts of the city seemed smaller than she remembered. Sprawling across grounds four times as large as Vanora’s temple, its stone and wood seemed sad and lonely, as if Sabetia had taken with her all the joy left in the house.
Not that this house had ever held much joy.
She stared at the dark front door shadowed by an overhang.
Once, she’d stood against a demon. She’d seen her dearest friend after vile men had tortured her to death. Sabetia’s own body had been battered with enough force to cost her children she’d desperately wanted.
Her mother loomed in her memory as a monster, far worse than all those horrors combined.
“Should I come with you or wait here?” Darius stood behind her as the carriage jangled and its horse clopped into the distance.
Riveted to the spot, Sabetia said nothing. She imagined her mother bursting through the door. Her mouth held a sharp knife, honed for the purpose of cutting Sabetia to the bone. Claw-like fingers would rip her to shreds. Whips would snap from her arms, flaying her flesh.
“I can’t do this,” she whispered, terrified Mother would hear her.
Darius draped an arm around her from behind and pulled her close. “Then don’t. We can leave. There are plenty of other places in this world to live.”
He wanted to take her far away. She wanted to let him.
If she fled again, she’d always feel the sting of failure. This thing gnawed at her. Though she hadn’t realized it until this moment, she’d left the Isle because of it. Because she needed to confront Mother.
“I have to.”
“I’m here for you, however you need me.”
She knew he meant it. “Let me go,” she murmured. Afraid he’d think she meant more than she did, she added, “Wait here, please.”
He released her from the embrace. “I’ll wait as long as you want.”
Nodding, she squared her shoulders and didn’t look back. She stepped onto the front stoop and pulled the string to ring the bell.
In less than a minute, the door swung open. The butler, a weary middle-aged man, looked down his nose. He’d never paid much attention to her. His job had always involved dodging Mother and managing the household servants.
“Can I help you, miss?”
If he didn’t recognize her, she saw no reason to give her mother warning about her identity. “I wish to speak with Madam Kayles, please.”
“And who shall I say is calling?”
“Miss Betsy. A Disciple healer from the nearby temple.” Technically, she spoke the truth. Elder Varona’s temple, of course, was not the nearest temple. In the same city, though, counted as “nearby” in Sabetia’s mind.
“I beg your pardon, Healer Betsy. Please do come inside.” The butler bowed and offered her the deference due a full Disciple. “I’ll fetch Madam Kayles directly. May I offer you refreshment while you wait?”
“If I might wait in the garden, that would suffice.” She wanted to see the place where Jason had swept her off her feet among the exotic flowering plants and glowing lights. For those few bright, shining hours, she’d felt wanted. She’d been the center of attention for a dashing, handsome man who said all the right words and did all the right things.
“As you wish, m’lady.” He led her through a house thick with grasping ghosts of the past.
No matter what she’d done, Sabetia had never proved good enough for the lady of the house.
The warm, fresh scents of late spring greeted her as she stepped outside again. Behind the house, vine-slathered lattices dotted with pinpricks of fragrant white and yellow provided shade for a wide stone patio. Flagstone pathways meandered through raised beds with flowers in every color.
This garden stretched into the distance, farther than Sabetia could see. It boasted trees, a stream-fed pond with colorful fish, and a few exotic plants more coveted than the varieties found on the High King’s palatial estate.
On the whole, the Kayles estate offered a great deal of intimidation to visitors. Mother liked that.
Sabetia touched an apricot-colored flower, remembering a time when her mother had beaten her for daring to pluck one of the blooms and tuck it over her ear. Its spicy fragrance, thrown into the air by her touch, made her nauseous.
She clasped her hands and stepped away from the plant.
“It’s an orchid cactus. They’re native to Serescine and challenging to grow here.”
Mother’s voice made Sabetia’s spine snap rigid, forcing her to stand straight and tall. Otherwise, Mother might slap her.
“What’s the secret?” Sabetia asked without turning around. She needed a moment to compose herself.
“Keeping the soil dry enough.” Angelica stepped beside her without looking at her. Rings on her fingers winked in the dappled light. “May I ask what brings a Disciple healer to our home?”
“The past.” Sabetia turned to face the poison still flowing in her veins. She and her mother shared the same golden curls, the same blue eyes, the same lines and curves. Angelica showed her age around her mouth the most, with tiny lines not fully covered by cosmetics.
Angelica blinked at her, the twitch almost a flinch. “Sabetia?” She reached for Sabetia’s hair. “What have you done to yourself?”
Her pulse speeding and her heart pounding in her ears, Sabetia raised her hand to block her mother’s. “Don’t touch me.” She couldn’t think of anything else to say. Only the most basic, primal need tumbled from her mouth.
Angelica’s mouth twisted into a snarl. She slapped her daughter. “How dare you?”
The blow exploded across Sabetia’s face. Her head snapped to the side. She raised a hand to cover her cheek. Every instinct, honed by years of training, screamed for her to cower and beg forgiveness.
She closed her eyes and breathed. This woman didn’t own her anymore. Sabetia had money. Her status within the Disciples required nothing from Mother, and Mother could do nothing to interfere with it.
If she strode outside, she would find Darius willing and able to strike down Mother for daring to lift a hand against her. One of her dear friends, the Queen of Liath Moor, the daughter of the High King, would offer shelter if anyone decided to call it murder. If she asked, the Lady of the Isle would scold the High King on Sabetia’s behalf. The Archive of Ar-Toriess would do almost anything for her.
Unlike three years ago, when she lay in her bed, wishing for death to release her from her private prison, Sabetia had places to go and allies to call upon.
She’d done nothing to earn their loyalty. Nothing except show them kindness and respect. Unlike Mother.
No, she rejected this woman as anything other than the bearer of the womb responsible for spawning her. Angelica Kayles had never risen to the mantle of mother. She’d wanted a perfect little trained pony to prance just so.
Sabetia had tried. She’d tried so very hard.
She had no more reason to try.
“Striking a Disciple healer,” Sabetia said. “An interesting choice.”
Angelica reached for Sabetia’s hair again, this time trying to grab it. The woman meant to drag her by the hair. “You filthy little liar.”
Though Sabetia couldn’t muster the courage to smack her mother’s arm, she could jerk her head to the side and out of reach. Certain she would get nothing more from Angelica than violence, she backed toward the house. “I’m not a child anymore. I don’t need you. I don’t need anything from you.”
“Selfish little brat. You’ve–”
“No!” Her anger felt wrong, like a deep, dark, shameful secret. Learning to express it had taken months of pain and frustration. Sabetia had yet to truly accept it. “You never loved me. You demanded obedience. Fealty. Sacrifice. Perfection. I gave you everything I was. I bled for you. I broke for you. And in return? You gave me nothing. Not even a flicker of affection. Yet you call me selfish. Because when you look at me? You see yourself.”
Angelica stared at her, rendered speechless for once.
Sabetia had thought she came to vanquish a foe. Facing her mother, she realized she didn’t care what happened to this woman. If Angelica lived to old age, she would have no one by her side to care for her because she had never cared for anyone else.
“Whatever happens to you now makes no difference to me. You’re irrelevant. Worthless. Pitiful. Goodbye, Angelica. May you never need my help, because I won’t give it. The Mother Goddess only calls upon us to forgive those who deserve it.” Sabetia turned her back on Angelica and strode inside.
She passed through the house, shoving away the memories it conjured. Every moment of her childhood would stay with her, but she didn’t have to let it hold sway over her.
Through the front door, she smiled at the sight of Darius, waiting patiently for her. He straightened as she approached.
“It went well?”
Sabetia laughed, excising a thick clot of emotion. “Not really.”
He took her hand and kissed it. “Should we leave the city to stay away from her?”
Glancing back at the house as they left the driveway, Sabetia considered the question. “No. I’m going to talk to the disciple at the closest temple and ask about serving there in addition to our temple. Angelica should see me, often, as an adult out of her control.”
Darius squeezed her hand. “I never imagined you had a spiteful streak.”
“Spite? No. I don’t hate her. She has all that money, all those beautiful flowers, but she has nothing.” She raised Darius’s hand and touched his fingers to her cheek. “Why bother hating her for that? Especially when I have everything.”
She smiled. “Everything that matters.”
He kissed the back of her hand and escorted her to a place she knew she could call home.