Nikita stood at the bottom of the marble steps and looked up at the closed front doors of the temple. Her stomach was doing flip flops. She hugged herself, trying to calm down. She wasn't ready for this. She was barely seventeen. How could she possibly be a priestess?
I'm not so sure about this...
Sammy chucked her gently under the chin. Relax, kid. You'll be fine. They're gonna love you.
Nikita gave her friend a pleading look. Sammy was usually a pushover for that, even when he was busy.
Can't you come with me?
I'm sorry, sweetie. I can't. I got business.
Nikita could tell that Sammy felt really bad about turning her down. Feeling guilty, she hugged him.
It's okay, Sammy. I know you'd come if you could.
Trying to be brave, she turned back towards the imposing temple. She hesitated on the first step.
Why don't I just wait until tomorrow when you're not so busy?
Nikita! What are you so scared of? I've brought you here to services plenty of times. You go in there and charm them, just like you did Sal and all the rest of us.
Nikita sighed. I'll do my best.
Sammy waited until Nikita had walked all the way up the marble stairs to the front doors of the temple. She turned and waved at him. Sammy put his hands on his hips and gave her a stern look. He wasn't letting her back out of this.
Resigned to her fate, Nikita hefted open the door and went inside.
As always, it took a few seconds for her eyes to adjust to the dim light in the entry room. The attendant priest handed her the required robe and mask. Nikita took them, but didn't put them on. Instead, she stared at the featureless priest and tried to remember the speech she'd been rehearsing.
Um, hi. My name is Nikita Kryszka. Um, this is going to sound kind of odd... Well, it seems odd to me anyway, but maybe you're used to odd things. I mean, not that I think you're odd or anything. You see, I'm not here to pray. I mean, not that I don't worship Torodin. Of course, I do. I haven't offended you, have I?
Nikita hesitated. The priest stared at her and didn't say a word.
Oh, that's right. Sammy said that you're not allowed to talk. In this room, I mean. I'm sorry.
She had a brief reprieve when a group of young men came in behind her. They smiled at her, then donned their robes and disappeared into the shadow-filled sanctuary.
The priest was staring at her again.
Um, right. Uh, well, you see, I was in this alley... And, well, never mind that. The important thing is, I told Torodin I would come work for him. He let me heal my friend, you see. So now I'm here. To be a priestess, I guess. If that's okay. Only, I'm not really sure how.
The priest nodded and pointed to the cushioned benches against the wall. Nikita sat down. Then he (or she?) turned around and walked towards the tapestry that hung on the far wall. Nikita had always admired that tapestry -- the rich colors of the fabric portrayed the god Remiˇre carrying a wounded Torodin in their flight from the Abyss.
As Nikita watched, the priest lifted aside the tapestry and disappeared. Nikita was a little disappointed. She'd expected something a bit more unusual. A door behind a tapestry -- that wasn't very original. Curious, she lifted the corner of the tapestry and peered behind it.
The gray, stone wall was completely smooth. Nikita stared at it in confusion. Just as she was reaching out to brush her fingers across the surface of the wall, the masked priest walked through it.
Nikita yelped in surprise. She started to back away, but the masked priest grabbed her hand. She was too astonished to resist when he (or she) pulled her through the wall.
Okay, now she was impressed. The masked priest gave her a little bow that Nikita wasn't quite sure how to take, then disappeared back into the changing room.
She found herself standing in a dimly lit hallway. A man stood before her, dressed in black pants and a loose-fitting, gray silk shirt. He was quite handsome, with long, brown hair that was neatly combed and blue eyes that seemed to sparkle as he smiled at her. Surprised that he was not wearing the customary robes and masks, Nikita stared at him.
Welcome. Nikita, is it?
She nodded. The man had a very pleasant speaking voice. Nikita wondered if he were the priest who led some of the services.
I'm Dante, the temple secretary. Luciano tells me Torodin's asked you to join us. That's wonderful.
Well, I think that's what happened. It was all very confusing. I mean, I wasn't really expecting it.
Dante chuckled. No, I suppose you wouldn't have been. Don't feel bad. Several of the priests here never imagined this life for themselves.
Really? Nikita was surprised. She'd assumed that people studied and trained for a very long time to become priests.
Dante nodded. Don't worry. I'm sure you must be confused, but everything will become clear in due time. I just know you'll fit right in.
Thank you. I hope so. What do I have to do?
I'll let Donar explain all that. He's High Priest of the Mage's sect, and he handles most of our training. He's in a meeting right now, but I'm sure he'll be pleased to meet you when he's finished. In the mean time, would you like a tour?
A tour? Nobody she knew had ever gotten to see the inside of Strand's Shadows. She nodded excitedly.
Oh, yes. Please.
She followed Dante along the narrow hallway. Small, shadowy alcoves and recessed areas within the walls offered tantalizing glimpses of paintings and statuary. To their left were several regularly spaced doors.
This hallway runs all the way around the sanctuary, he explained. These doors lead to the Shadow Rooms.
That made sense. The Shadow Rooms were really just small alcoves within the sanctuary that allowed worshipers private meetings with the priests. Heavy, black curtains sealed them off from the rest of the sanctuary, and worshipers knew that the room was available when the curtain was open. The priests made themselves available to their flock at all times, except during worship services.
Nikita recalled one time when Sammy had finally talked her into consulting a priest. Nikita had been very nervous. She'd gone inside -- it turned out to be nothing more than a very small, dimly lit space just big enough for two comfortable chairs -- and waited just a few minutes before a robed and masked priest had come in and offered to assist her. Nikita had given the priest a handful of silver (the traditional donation) and asked if the priest could help her to find her father. Unfortunately, it had been more complicated and expensive than Nikita had been expecting. Worse, a request for such personal information meant that Nikita had to give her name, and then the priest had asked her all sorts of questions about her family. He (or she) had somehow gotten her to divulge more about her past than Nikita liked to share with anyone. She wondered uneasily which priest that had been, but didn't suppose she would ever find out.
The hallway they were traversing branched off in several different directions. Dante led Nikita to the left, and opened a door.
The priests staffing the Shadow Rooms wait here. Everyone except the novitiates takes turns staffing it, even Donar and Silvio when they can spare the time.
Nikita followed him into a cozy, little room that was shaped like a lopsided polyhedron. Soft rugs carpeted the floor, and the room was filled with several leather chairs, a small round table upon which playing cards and coins had been scattered, and a large desk. A dimpled, boyish-looking blond man was writing at the desk. He looked up when they walked in. His blue eyes widened in surprise.
Dante smiled broadly. Seregil, meet Nikita. Our new priestess.
Really? The one called Seregil rolled up the parchment he'd been writing, set it down on the desk, and strode over to them. With a little bow, he took Nikita's hand and kissed it.
Well, aren't we the lucky ones? Welcome to Strand's Shadows, Nikita. You'll find you have several fans here, myself included. Watching you dance at the Port o' Call has been the highlight of my existence.
Dante rolled his eyes. You're a shameless flirt, Seregil.
Shame is over-rated. You know, Dante, since you're so busy today, I'd be happy to take Nikita on a tour of the temple.
I'm not that busy.
A small bell hanging above the desk gave a soft, tinkling noise. Seregil sighed heavily.
But the Shadow Rooms are. Dante, can you stay until Selima or Ruskin gets back? It shouldn't be long.
Without waiting for an answer, Seregil ran off. Dante turned to Nikita with a smile. I hope flattery doesn't make you nervous. I expect you'll be getting quite a lot of that here.
Oh, that's all right. I'm sort of used to it.
Dante laughed. I guess so. I can't wait to flaunt you in front of the Soltanites. You make the most gorgeous of their women look drab.
Oh, I don't know about that.
Just then, the bell rang again.
Damn. Wait here. I'll be right back.
Nikita looked around curiously after he'd gone. She resisted the temptation to go see what Seregil had been writing at the desk, and walked over to the far wall to examine a portrait of Torodin. It was an oil painting of the handsome and mysterious god wearing dark robes. He was smiling, and Nikita could almost imagine that his dark eyes twinkled. Whoever had painted this was very talented.
Nikita felt something brush against her leg. She looked down to see a small black cat rubbing against her.
Oh, how sweet. Nikita picked up the cat and scratched its ears. It purred and snuggled into Nikita's arms.
The cat stayed there for several minutes, which pleased Nikita very much. She'd always loved cats. Then, without any warning, it jumped down from her arms and onto the desk. Nikita was astonished when it picked up the rolled parchment in its mouth and ran out the door.
Oh dear, you can't have that.
Nikita chased after the cat. It led her down the right branch of the hallway. She quickly lost sight of it, and paused in confusion when the hallway branched again. How did people find their way around here?
She noticed that a door off to her left was open a crack. Perhaps the cat had wandered in there? She pushed the door open wider and peeked inside.
The cat sat on its haunches, just inside the doorway. It mewed at her. Nikita picked the cat up and searched the floor around it. There was no sign of the parchment.
Then her eyes strayed to the rest of the room. This was definitely a space designed for comfort, filled with cushioned chairs, couches and pillows. A few small tables were scattered here and there. In the corner, a man sat at one such table. A slender blond, he was leaning over some sort of game board upon which lovely black and silver pieces had been carefully arranged. He hadn't noticed Nikita come in. She was about to introduce herself when the cat leaped from her arms again. It bounded over and jumped onto the table, just long enough to scatter pieces everywhere. Then it ran back out of the room, ducking under Nikita's legs too quickly for her to catch it.
Gods damn it!
Nikita turned around just in time to see the blond man pick up the game board and hurl the remaining pieces aside. Many hit the floor around her. One piece struck her in the forehead and slid into the front of her blouse.
The man turned and noticed her. He scowled.
Who the hell are you?
Nikita was startled by the sudden hostility. It had been a long time since anybody had yelled at her. Already nervous and unsure of herself, she completely lost her composure.
Uh, well, I was with Dante. The bell rang, and he had to go...
Dante knows better than to bring his women in here. Donar will have his hide. You'd better get out of here. How did you get in here anyway?
I don't know. He told me to come in, and then there was this cat. I was trying to get the parchment from it, but I got lost. I -- I'm supposed to become a priestess.
The man rolled his eyes. Torodin save me from dim-witted women. You certainly are lost. The temple of Soltana is on the other side of town from here, you dolt. Now get out.
Nikita turned around and ran. She wasn't sure what was going on, but she wasn't going to come back to this place by herself. She was almost out the door when she literally ran into another priest.
She backed away and looked up. The priest was tall and muscular. He wore the black robes, but had removed his mask. He was handsome, with aristocratic features, pale blue eyes and long white hair. He frowned at her, and Nikita decided that he was very intimidating.
Who are you? Worshipers aren't allowed back here.
Nysander, what's going on?
Another priest was walking down the hallway towards them. This was one was big, too. Nikita cringed -- priests of Torodin weren't supposed to be big and intimidating. She felt quite vulnerable.
The man walked up and stared at her. He was dark-skinned and bald. His well-muscled chest was bare; he wore only loose-fitting gray pants. He grinned at her, showing white teeth.
Well, hello there.
I'm terribly sorry, said the white haired one, who had taken a firm hold of Nikita's arm. You're going to have to leave.
Nikita trailed along helplessly as the white-haired man led her towards the door. Don't be offended, he said. Only priests are allowed back here. But you're welcome to come back and worship with us any time.
Or be worshipped, quipped the dark-skinned man, who had followed them.
Ignoring his companion, the white-haired man pushed Nikita gently but firmly into the changing room. The attendant priest was handing out robes to an older couple. Nikita thought she caught him turning around to stare at her just before she fled.
What a disaster. Nikita was sure that she must have made a mistake. She obviously wasn't welcome at Strand's Shadows. What was she thinking? Her, a priest. The whole idea was laughable.
Nikita felt the game piece bumping around inside her blouse and fished it out. It was all black, maybe onyx. It had been carved in the shape of an elegant woman wearing a crown. Nikita had never seen anything like it, but she suspected it was valuable. Wasn't that just great? Now they were going to think she stole from the temple. Maybe she could get Sammy or Mario to take it back and toss it in the offering box.
She went back to the Port o' Call to ask Sal's advice, but he was out. After waiting around for a while, Nikita decided to go look for Sammy. She found him at the Magical Mermaid, having a drink and watching some stage magician do sleight of hand tricks. Nikita slipped into the chair beside him.
Sammy, I'm so glad I found you. I don't know what to do. It was awful One of the priests threw things at me, and then they threw me out. I think they're all crazy.
Hearing someone chuckle behind her, Nikita turned around. A handsome, older man with graying hair stood behind her. He had wide shoulders and was well over six feet tall. He wore black robes, with tiny silver buttons in the shape of eyes -- the symbol of Torodin.
Uh, Nikita, said Sammy, meet Donar Greylock -- High Priest of Strand's Shadows.
Nikita wanted to crawl under the table. I, uh, didn't really mean that about you all being crazy.
High Priest Greylock chuckled again. She was surprised when he pulled out a chair and sat down with them. He was carrying a mug of ale.
I can't say I blame you for thinking that, not after the reception you got. We owe you an apology.
I'll leave you two alone, said Sammy, picking up his drink. A pleasure seeing you again, Donar.
Sammy. Donar watched Sammy wander off with a smile on his face. Nikita was confused.
Sammy didn't tell me that he knew you.
He's been a loyal worshiper for many years. Nikita waited for Donar to say more, but he only changed the subject.
I do apologize, Nikita. It's not our habit to throw things at our new priests, and then toss them out the door.
Oh, it's all right.
No, it isn't. He peered closely at her, frowning. You have a bruise on your forehead. Freddy is going to apologize in person.
Nikita realized he was referring to the man who yelled at her. Nikita didn't want to start out her relationship with these people by getting one of them in trouble.
Oh, it wasn't his fault. He didn't know I was there. That reminds me, I have this. She pulled the black game piece out of her pocket and slid it across the table.
The priest picked it up and looked at it with a curious smile. Hmph. The queen. An omen, I wonder?
He smiled at her. It was a smile that lit up his eyes and painted laughter lines around his mouth. Nikita started to relax. She could tell this man was very kind.
Just musing aloud. We're going to have to teach you about omens. And you must call me Donar.
Of course. We don't hold much with formalities at Strand's Shadows. You'll find that we're very much like a family.
Nikita stared at him in surprise. A family? She'd always wanted that. Maybe this would be her way of getting one?
That is, if you're willing to come back to us. I can promise you a much calmer introduction this time.
Nikita grinned. That would be nice.
Donar set a slow pace back to the temple. So, I understand that Torodin asked you to join us?
Nikita told him what had happened when Gina was stabbed. She was much calmer now, and managed to relate all the details. Donar didn't interrupt once.
I was worried that I was just imagining things, she confided. I felt different at first, and I healed Gina. I know I did. But then the feeling went away, and I wasn't any different than before.
Donar nodded. You weren't imagining things. Torodin chooses his priests in many different ways, Nikita. Apparently, He felt he needed to do something dramatic to get your attention. What happened when you healed your friend was very special. You'll find that in the future, the use of your powers will depend upon your holy symbol. We'll have a ceremony for you tomorrow, and a party of course. It's been a while since we've ordained a new priest. Everyone is looking forward to meeting you.
I'll have powers, Nikita said in awe.
Donar smiled. Indeed, you will. It may seem a bit overwhelming at first. But you will learn. All of the priests and novitiates meet with me regularly to study spells, among other things. I'll be teaching you to interpret dreams, and to read the future in the stars.
Really? Nikita was very excited. She loved to learn new things, and all this stuff about spells and dreams sounded so mysterious.
I guess I have a lot to learn. But Sal said I could have as much time off as I want. He's very happy about all this. Oh, Sal's the owner of the Port o' Call. I dance there.
Donar smiled. Yes, I've heard. I understand you have other skills, as well. It's fortunate that you can already read and write. And your skills at spying and disguise will be invaluable.
Nikita stared at him with wide eyes. How did he know so much about her already? She wasn't sure if Sal would approve.
The priest noticed her alarm. Don't worry, Nikita. Your secrets are safe with me. And Silvio as well. He is the High Priests of the Thieves' sect, which you'll be joining. You must trust us completely, and feel free to come to us with any concerns. It's one of the greatest joys of being a priest, Nikita. From now on, you will never be alone. Torodin will be watch over you, and your brothers and sisters in the faith will always be there for you. I want you to think of Strand's Shadows as your home.
Nikita was touched by his speech. She decided that she was going to like Donar very much.
Thank you. I can't tell you how much that means to me. I -- I've never really had a home. Or a family.
Donar gave her a sympathetic look. You do now. Nikita soon found that Donar was quite true to his word. The priests all welcomed her with open arms. Donar introduced her to High Priest Silvio, who proved their informal nature by greeting Nikita with a warm hug and a kiss on the forehead. Freddy's apology was a bit rough around the edges, but he quickly took Nikita under his wing and taught her to play his favorite game, which was called Chess.
Nikita's proudest moment came when they held a ceremony for her in the small, private chapel reserved only for the priests. Donar and Silvio blessed her, and Silvio placed her new holy symbol around her neck. Nikita instantly felt different, as the powers of a cleric were bestowed upon her. For the first time in her life, she felt special.
Reverently, she lifted her holy symbol to her lips and kissed it. Thank you, she prayed silently to Torodin, the god she would serve for the rest of her life.
Like a whisper on the wind, Nikita was sure she heard the soft response, You're Welcome.