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Goddess! When is she going to assess me, and get this over with? Trudging along in Doma Pelai’s wake, Krais felt free to glare at her back. Menda, I know I pledged to take my punishment without complaint, but I expected to be punished!
Expecting her to take the left fork on the garden path, he stumbled and had to catch up when he realized she headed right instead. Frowning in confusion, Krais found himself following her toward the buildings housing a variety of mid- to high-ranked denizens of the Temple staff. Those who came to serve with wealth in their backgrounds often stayed in homes elsewhere in the city, albeit usually ones located near the sprawling grounds. If they had poor backgrounds, the various priests, librarians, servants, and apprentices usually slept in the dormitories associated with each section of the Hierarchy…excepting Agriculture, Crafts, and the Elder Citizen, who by law had to live among the people in a “modest” house with a “modest” budget for food, clothing, and furnishings.
Modest had deviated toward moderately decadent several generations ago. He had heard the current Elder Citizen, Sandu’thio, claim it was only fair because there were so many lavish palaces and mansions surrounding the Temple these days. But those lay outside the grounds. And Anya’thia’s predecessor had pointed out back when Krais was young that the Temple grounds themselves were oppulent and decadent for even the lowliest weed-puller.
But he expected to be taken to one of the sparse, mostly undecorated, equipment-lined Discipline cottages off to the west. Cottages built on the southwest side of one of the larger semi-ornamental lakes dotting the grounds. Cottages with trees and hedges for privacy, and far enough away that most cries of pain would not disturb the rest of the Temple’s many tenants. Not to a row of living quarters overlooking the eastern side of the same lake.
Does questioning our destination count as a protest? Is this our final destination for the evening, or are we visiting someone? Delivering more orders and instructions? I thought I heard her mutter “done” before we left her study in the Hall of Discipline…
Soft crystals sprang into glowing life on the porch of the residence they approached, activated by spells that sensed their presence. Doma Pelai pressed her hand to a rune plate on the door for a few moments, then reached for the latch and opened it. More soft lighting dimly illuminated the broad corridor of the entry hall.
This was not a full formal domicile like the one his father occupied; no atrium garden met them beyond the entrance hall, though care had been taken to set up a tabletop garden with plants and a spell-driven waterfall that trickled pleasantly over and over from top to bottom and back again. The loudest sound greeting them, however, was not the gurgling water, but rather, a strident, deeply offended,
“—Maaaau! Mrraaauu! Mauu! Maaa! Mahh! MIIAH!”
Calm, composed, stern Doma Pelai gasped and darted forward at the loud feline cries. “Oh, Goddess, Purrsus, I’m so sorry! I forgot to feed you!”
Stooping, she scooped up a beautiful Temple cat with sleek pale silver fur shaded to black at nose, ears, paws, and tail. Wide sapphire blue eyes glared at her accusingly, ears and tail twitching while the cat continued to complain vociferously at the doma cradling it high on her chest. Pelai hurried off to the left. Krais, feeling awkwardly forgotten, decided it would be wise to simply shut the front door and follow. Making sure it latched, he padded over the blue- tiled entry floor, noting the illustration scrolls hung on the walls to simulate the little garden courtyard most larger homes boasted.
He tried not to be too curious about the place. A guest parlor sat to the right, its door standing open, allowing him to glimpse the furniture inside. Lightglobes in wrought iron brackets on the walls, three comfortably padded benches and a low table, all carved from red padouk, all lined with cream and golden cushions, and all set in place to embrace the view of the southeast-facing windows. To the left, a hint of a writing study seen through the partially open door, also with a window facing the bushes and trees that gave the front of the residence some semblance of privacy from its neighbors.
Beyond the entry hall, where Pelai had vanished, lay the family gathering room, a larger pace with a more casual array of furniture and windows up high on the southeast wall, admitting pink and purple hints of the last few glows of the vanished sun outside. Bookshelves lined the walls, and a staircase sat to the right, its banniser poles carved to resemble a thicket of trees, replete with intertwining limbs set with green vera wood leaves. To the left, a hall led to points unknown, but probably to a bathroom, and perhaps another entrance to the formal writing hall.
Another open door, on the left, showed where the doma had gone: the kitchen. Krais approached it, since between the noises the pair were making and the fact the glazed doors to the back patio were still shut, it was clear where she had gone. Sure enough, while her cat—Purrsus, if he had heard right—continued to meow and pace in agitation down by her feet, she dug around in a cupboard under her counter.
Krais blinked. He hadn’t noticed how, ah, nice her backside looked. Intimidating in the leather-stripped, pei-slii stamped kilt of a Disciplinarian, but…feminine. Very nice thighs, very nice calves in those tight-laced boots… He’d forgotten how lovely she could be, in their years of semi-antagonism toward each other. Antagonism caused far more by his slavish devotion to his father than to anything she had ever done, he forced himself to admit. Antagonism that had kept them—or at least him—from seeing each other as fellow human beings. Ordinary people, despite having extraordinary powers.
Proof of just how ordinary she had become came when she placed a dish of what looked like flaked fish and shredded cheese on the floor for her cat to eat, turned—and choked on a shriek. All from catching sight of him standing patiently in the doorway. She blinked at him and clutched at the breastplate-like leather of her uniform vest, struggling to control her breathing. Down by her feet, her gat gnarmed quietly under its breath, eagerly eating the moist, stasis-preserved treat.
Krais cleared his throat. “I am sorry that the demands of having to discipline my brothers and I caused your pet to go unfed, this morning.”
She blinked, and her mouth opened without anything coming out. After a moment, she managed to ask, “What happened to you, Krais? You’re so very…different…than you were before.”
The way she flopped her hands and shrugged made him realize that, in this moment at least, they were not Doma and Penitent, but just two people who lived and worked at the same Great Temple. So instead of acting penitent…and instead of acting like his old, arrogant, pride-filled self…Krais shrugged. “I went up against the Gods. They showed me the errors of my path. Now I work to change my ways.”
That made her blink, then frown…then raise a palm to her brow with a wince. “Dammit, I forgot to assess you, too. This day just keeps getting longer and longer, doesn’t it?”
Somehow, Krais didn’t think that latter mutter was for him. Shrugging again, he shifted to kneel on the brick red tiles of the kitchen floor. “Let’s get it over with, then.”
“Oh, please, not in here,” Pelai muttered. “Out there, where you can at least kneel on the matting, and be comfortable.”
Brow quirked, he eyed her, then pushed back to his feet. “You’re being very kind to me. I thought you implied to my father you would follow his wishes on punishing me harshly.”
That made her snort, as he had done so earlier in her office. “Politics. I implied that to get him to stop pestering me. The older he gets, the longer he serves as an Elder Hierarch, the more Dagan’thio believes the laws do not have to apply to him—and I gave you an order, Penitent Krais.”
Her voice sharpened on that last statement. Stung a little by the unfriendly whip of it, Krais turned and strode back into the family room. The felt padding sat near the north corner, where the brick hearth sat awaiting those rare nights when the weather turned actually cold, usually from the monsoons of winter. Unlike the felting of similar mats in the Elder Disciplinarian’s home, this one was still thick and spongy under his feet, which meant comfort to his knees.
Settling into place, facing the unlit, empty hearth, Krais braced his palms on his kilt-covered thighs, and waited. The last time he had felt the soul-deep searching of a Disciplinarian had been shortly before his final test as a neophyte applicant to the training. A test he had failed with the words, This is not your Destiny, whispered into his heart and his mind.
Her hands came down on his shoulders, once again half touching his deltoids, half touching his vest. For a brief moment, Krais wished he had been given a chance to change into fresh, clean garments. Even a pair of outlander pants would have been fine, so long as they were not ageworn and in need of laundring with something better than a cantrip spell. If they were applied strong enough to scrub out odors as well as stains, then they wore down the fibers twice as fast as soap and water.
Then she began, inhaling deeply, exhaling slowly…and seeping her energies through his personal shields. Shields which she now controlled, but had thankfully left in place, the kind meant to keep magical attacks from seriously damaging or stunning him. Those were instinct-deep magics, difficult to dismantle deliberately after years of training and reinforcement. Energy seeped down beneath the inks embedded in his skin, entwined in his powers. Down through muscles, into organs and bones…and then into his soul.
Unlike the warm sunshine of the Goddess, Pelai’s touch felt cool, almost chilly. Not in a bad way, though. To his inner senses, she felt like drinking down a spell-chilled glass of ice-mint on a hot summer’s day. The brew was a favorite across the whole of the Temple grounds, composed of a blend of tea leaves imported from the mountains of Aiar, far to the west, and locally grown Mendhite mint plants. With just a little bit of salt and sugar added to the mix, it became an instant thirst-quencher—hardly anyone could be found without mint on their breath on a hot summer’s day, here on the Temple grounds.
Krais had not drunk any in roughly nine months, but he remembered how refreshing ice-mint could taste. Feeling her energies mingling with his now made him shiver in unexpected pleasure. Never in a hundred years would he have guessed he’d enjoy having his soul weighed and measured by the power of the Goddess bound in Naranna Pelai’s wrists.
That energy seeped back out of him after a few more moments, retreating a little faster than it had spread, but not painfully so. The doma lifted her palms from his shoulders a moment after it vanished. Her words confused him.
“You are remarkably sin-free for your recent history. As if you had already been doing months of penance… You left nine months ago, faced the gods six months ago…and whispers of the Goddess tell me you are now free of sin,” she murmured, moving around to face him, a frown furrowing her lightly tattooed brow. “But when I look at you, I see the sigils of where to strike and with what implement marking your hide. Your existence, versus my test, is a contradiction.”
She seemed to be awaiting an answer. So he asked cautiously, “Do the words of the Goddess, the ones to absolve me of physical penance, outweigh the runes on my skin?”
“Normally…? Yes, they would,” Pelai admitted bluntly. “When the Goddess chooses to punish a penitent personally, and when She chooses to remove the inkstains of your sins, mere mortal Disciplinarians know better than to get in Her way, or risk suffering being scraped off the pages of our own palimpsests. However, your father…”
Krais didn’t even have to wait for her to trail off pointedly. He realized immedlately what she meant, and bowed his head at the irony. After six months of constantly haranguing his sons, Dagan’thio would never give up on the idea of punishing them for failing him. “My father will insist upon seeing whipmarks and rope lines on my body. Burns and bruises. He was not suitably satisfied with your comments about inflicting me withmental and emotional punishments.”
“No, he was not,” she agreed gently. Crouching and resting her elbows on her knees, hands lightly clasped, Pelai studied him. “He needs to think you’re being thoroughly punished. And to be fair, my assessment did indicate that counting back more than six months ago, you had plenty of sins racked up in neeed of expiating. Arrogance, pride, rudeness, violence, greed, bigotry against other nations…”
Krais quirked his brows at her. “Part of me wonders if you were ever fully loyal to Mendhi.”
She frowned at him. “I would hardly be picked to be the next Guardian if I were not.”
“I meant, putting Mendhi first before all other nations,” he explained, accepting her chastising tone.
“That’s because you and your father have conflated true loyalty to Mendhi with being determined to see it first among all nations,” Pelai stated. “They are not the same thing.”
That confused him. Seeing it on his face, she shrugged and straightened, flicking her hands briefly upward as if to ask the Goddess for patience. The doma moved over to the padded couch that faced the window-strewn wall overlooking the night-shrouded lake and lowered herself onto its cushions. Krais turned on his knees to face her, and saw her unlacing her boots by hand, not by magic. The simple act suggested they were going to stay here tonight.
“True loyalty to Mendhi is not dependent upon it being first among nations,” she told him as she worked. “I will be loyal to Mendhi even if we are ever proven to be last among nations…and now that we have the Convocation active again, there will be comparisons being made once more, as there were in centuries past. With hundreds of kingdoms around the world, the odds are low that we would be the first and foremost among them.”
“But…if you’re loyal to your nation, shouldn’t you want to see it be the best and most important?” Krais asked.
“Yes, but the needs of the kingdom must come first—the actual needs,” she clarified. “Do you remember at about this time last year, when the Elder Commander got into that big verbal fight with the Elder Agriculturalist, on whether to spend discretionary funds on improvements to the Mendhi Fleet, or spend it on the flooded villages in the Ungoro Valley?”
Krais gave a little nod…then paused, actually thought about it, and nodded slowly. “…I think I see what you mean. The Fleet could have made us more powerful in coastal defenses, but we already have reasonably good defenses. By contrast the villagers needed help getting their homes rebuilt, and the fields that had been washed out or buried in too much mud reseeded for more and better crops. Improving the Fleet would make us seem to be number one in the eyes of our neighbors, but investing instead in the farmers ensured the survival of our citizens, the most vital part of the nation.”
“Exactly. Which is why the Elder Exchequer chose to side with the villagers, pointing out rightfully that without the farmers working their fields, we would have less money gathered in taxes to pay for our armies and fleets. When we get Hierarch Elders who forget to take into account what actually is best for the nation…then no matter what our leaders might claim, we stop being the best of nations, and start sliding down toward the bottom of the heap.” Her hand made a downward swooping gesture, before she switched to untrying the lacings on the other boot.
Since she didn’t seem interested in punishing him harshly, Krais found himself gesturing toward her loosened footwear. “Would you like me to pull that off?”
Her eyebrow arched up, wrinkling the pale blue inks of her translation tattoo. “Would you have made that offer, or even thought of making that offer, before meeting the Gods?”
Since the answer to that was a flat-out no, Krais flushed and frowned at her. “We are stuck together for two months. You have to spend a minimum of six hours a day tending to my Disciplining in some way. Since you will soon have many other duties as the next Elder Mage to occupy the average working hours of your day, that means I will be stuck in close proximity to you during the other hours.
“I was thinking we could try to get along, rather than be constantly at odds with each other. For once. Now that I’m somewhat reformed,” he added under his breath.
That made Pelai sit forward, brows raised. “So, you acknowledge you were a massive inksplat to me in the past?”
He started to protest that she wasn’t stain-free herself in her actions and words, but caught himself. Breathing deep, Krais struggled to let it go. She watched him through two, three breaths, her expression far more thoughtful than the accusatory he had feared. Contemplative, not condemnting.
When he felt he could speak calmly, he simply said, “Yes.”
Brows rising again, if briefly, she murmured, “Well, I definitely cannot top that, whatever I might try to do to you.”
“Oh, haha, very funny, good pun,” Krais quipped sardonically. He’d learned more than enough about being a Disciplinarian just by growing up around his father—never mind his quickly aborted attempt at undergoing the training to be one—to know that top was the nickname for the person who did something to another; bottom was the person who received whatever was being done. They were not interchangeable with dominant, the person in control of a situation, or submissive, the person conceding control of that situation.
She flashed him a brief grin. “I’m glad you found it so amusing. Now, take off my boots and move back. You don’t want to be close for the next few moments.”
“After wearing boots instead of sandals all day? I’d think not,” Krais muttered. Taking a deep breath, he carefully worked her unlaced boots off her feet, then moved back quickly, setting the boots aside to air out. Sandals were more comfortable but Disciplinarians were expected to be able to fight the rogue mages they were sent down to hunt, and toe-to-knee boots covered in defensive runes among the pei-slii sigils gave their shins better protection in a fight.
But she didn’t try to stick her feet in his face, or demand that he remove her socks. Instead, she peeled off the short stockings that kept her feet from being blistered by the leather, pursed her lips, made odd kissy-noises, and called out, “Purrsus, it’s stinky feet time! Here, kitty kitty! Stinky feet!”
More air-smooching noises followed. Krais felt his jaw drop a little. Of all the possible things he could have imagined the Second Disciplinarian to have said and done, that was certainly not among them. Certainly not in such a cheerful, amused tone. Her efforts did get results, however,
Thump-thump-thumping paws echoed over to them. Her cat scampered out of the kitchen, bounded across the rough-glazed tiles, and skittered to a stop. The feline sniffed her toes, immediately headbutted her soles, and purred madly, rubbing his muzzle and cheeks all over her bared feet. Bemused, Krais looked up at the owner of those feet.
Pelai smiled and shrugged. “He has a foot fetish. Either I sit down for a few minutes at the end of my day and let him indulge…or he claws at my feet until I stop moving so he can flop and rub all over them. Since I don’t want to be clawed, we just have this little ritual at the end of every day.”
“Ah…so that’s why you never pick up a submissive for a week. Your cat does all the worshipping for them.”
Snorting, she flipped a hand and scoffed. “Oh, please, I am not Doma Calippa, who cannot walk five lengths without a bevy of submissives swirling around her, backs bowed in obeisance. I don’t want any submissive servants in my life.”
Krais frowned in confusion. All his life, he had seen his father picking up submissives from the courtyard and putting them to work in and around the house, whether it had been their family home in the city before his elevation back when Krais was just fourteen, or at the manor here on the Temple grounds. It was seen as a badge of honor to be picked for service by the Elder Disciplinarian, and his mother, Karei, flat-out delighted in ordering them all about. Despite being a mid-ranked Librarian for her work, she had learned many Disciplinarian tricks, and handed out praises to the worthy and punishments to the needy with a deft, experienced hand.
It was in that vein of confusion that he asked, “But…isn’t that why you became a Disciplinarian? To have control over others?”
“Ugh.” She lifted her foot and pushed it at his face. Krais swayed back, and her silver-and-black cat mrraurred and reared up, hooking his paws around her ankle to drag her toes back into comfortable sniffing range. Obliging, Pelai lowered her foot, let her cat continue to rub and purr, and explained her disdain. “You have learned some very bad perceptions of who and what a Disciplinarian is, from your father. He likes the power games. So does your mother, and definitely your youngest brother. I’m not sure about Foren.”