The room had two beds, a fireplace, and a giant washtub. It did not, however, have any plumbing. Nora and I spent some time lugging and heating water so we could bathe. A kind soul had previously donated a few bars of lye soap made with animal fat. It was strange to me it had no smell, but we were promised the soap would do the job.
“Shall we play rock, paper, scissors to see who gets the luxury of washing up first?”
“You first. You’re smellier than I am.” Nora waved her hand. My nose didn’t agree, but I didn’t argue. I really, really wanted to get clean.
“Before I forget… Why didn’t Aleph have your staff blessed?”
“I’m a dark mage. It’d be counterproductive.”
“Oh, is that right?”
“A blessing of amity would weaken a focus of animus.”
“A focus of animus?”
“My staff, for example. It helps me cast spells by focusing my … will? Emotions? Determination? Creativity?” She frowned, and I could practically see the wheels turning in her head as she thought about the process. Given that no one had told her how it worked, I was still impressed she could sling spells so well already.
“So, what are you going to do now?” I asked as I added the last kettle of boiling water carefully.
“Snoop around,” Nora answered shamelessly. “I’ll come back in about half an hour.”
“You might as well take the bucket with you and fill it up from the well on your way back.”
Nora nodded, grabbed the bucket, and left. I checked the water temperature, sat in the washbasin, and scrubbed. The rough cotton washcloth exfoliated everything it came into contact with, regardless if it was dirt or skin. I also washed my hair with the scentless soap, noting that it had grown even longer. At this rate, it would be down the length of my entire back before the month was out. I sighed, finding myself alone with my thoughts. I had been waiting for some sort of sign that I was dreaming, but hadn’t this gone on too long for that? It wouldn’t hurt to try contacting her straight from the church, right? I mean… I knew she said she was having trouble reaching Relias, but... isn’t this exactly what these structures were for? But what would I say to her? How could I strike the right amount of dissatisfaction with my current experience without getting served a pile of divine retribution? I considered the compliment sandwich, where you hide your grievances in between hand-crafted, artisanal slices of adoration to get someone to take a bite. Would she see right through that, though?
Nora’s ‘shave and a haircut knock’ startled me, and I almost slipped as I stepped out of the tub. I wrapped a towel around myself and opened the door.
“Much better!” She approved as she stepped inside with a bucket of water.
“Well?” I asked curiously. “What did you snoop on?”
“Aleph and Tetora are talking it out, so that’s good. I couldn’t find a copy of the local bible lying around to pilfer though, so keep your eyes open on your rounds.”
“You want to steal a holy book? From a church?” Weren’t we in enough trouble already?
“I said pilfer, not steal.”
I frowned. “What’s the difference?”
“It sounds better.”
I went to put on my clothes but flinched at their smell. I should have washed them, too.
“Aleph says we can wear the robes in the big closet.” Nora pointed.
I pulled out one for each of us. Mine would be weirdly short, and Nora’s would hang on the ground. One size fits no one.
After several iterations of lugging well water and boiling kettles of water, it was Nora’s turn to soak. I left her to do the thing, as she put it, and headed for the sanctuary. The sun was setting, but dozens of candles had been lit to keep the room from plunging into darkness. I went under the banner and knelt.
“Um…” I paused. What do I call her? Eura? Ms. Abrams?… Euphridia? Holy Euphridia? What was she to me?
“Eura… Um, Speranza is…” Come on, compliment first as the base! “Speranza… has a lot of nice people in it who are taking good care of me. I think that I really don’t belong here and that maybe you’ve mistaken me for someone else.” I paused again, lifted my head, and looked behind me. Good. No one was there.
“I want to go home, please. I miss Mother and Chester, and I’m really… scared. I’m not cut out to fight demon kings and save the world. The longer I stay, the more worried I am that the real Raelynn is still in trouble. So if you hear this, please let us come home. I appreciate any and all assistance you would kindly offer. Thank you.” There was no response, but I wasn’t expecting one, at least right away. Prayers take time to make their way to the recipient, right? I awkwardly bowed at the banner, stood up, and made my way out of the sanctuary.
“It’s… you!” Father Baram jumped back suddenly from around the corner, spilling a stack of papers from his hands.
“Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.” I crouched down and started picking up the papers. I tried to hand them back to him, but he had thrown himself on the ground as well.
“Holy Captain!” he shouted. “You’ve returned to us!” Oh crap, I had forgotten my mask! How could I have left the room without it?
“You’re… you’re mistaken! I’m–”
“An accidental impersonator.” Aleph’s firm voice came from behind. “A full-blood who seeks refuge in the wastelands, away from unintentional scandal.”
Father Baram looked at me for a moment from the ground, then stood up slowly. “Yes… now I see the hair is all wrong. Raelynn would never wear it like that.” While I was thankful he stopped the immediate hero worship, I was disappointed that it didn’t even cross his mind that Rae might want to try an original style? She had been pictured with long, flowing hair past her hips. I didn’t even want to imagine the daily routine of taming all that!
“I get that a lot…” I murmured, shoving the papers into his hands.
“Maybe you should cut it short,” Father Baram suggested. “There's even less chance you might be mistaken for her.”
It was my hair, but it seemed everyone had a firm opinion on it, which I found irritating. “I’ll consider your wise words, Father.” I tried to keep my tone neutral, but Aleph must have sensed the barb in it.
“Ah, Rachel… Perhaps you could help me prepare dinner if you have a few minutes?” He had already taken my arm and led me into the small kitchen. Inside were my prized onions and potatoes, waiting to be chopped.
“What are we making?”
“Spiced stew.” Oh! Aleph’s famous spiced stew! My irritation faded at the mention of proper food.
“You… have all the ingredients?” I asked excitedly. Spice equals flavor!
“Yes. I would ask that you…”
“Cut the potatoes into small cubes and dice the onions! I’ll start the onions first so you can sauté them with the aromatics!” I grabbed the wooden cutting board and got to work.
“I didn’t know you could cook…” he seemed surprised.
“Huh? Doesn’t everyone know how to cook?”
“But you…” Aleph stopped. “Apologies. I assumed something, but I see I am wrong.”
“So what about the protein? What are we going to use?”
“S-surely, you mean some meat, right? Sliced pork belly… beef… even chicken would be alright…” Not beans! No more beans! I get that they travel well, but…
“Dried soybeans are nutritious and plentiful.”
“Tetora wants meat,” I coaxed. I wanted meat, too!
“Yes, and if we had that available, I would add it, too. The beans will suffice.” The note of finality in his voice kept me from complaining more.
With my prep work complete, I sighed and sat on a wooden stool near the stone stove. At least the kitchen was stocked with potable water, so I didn’t have to go out to the well again. Once everything was on to boil, Aleph also took a seat.
“Now we wait,” he said with a small smile.
We sat in silence for a little while, but I interrupted it. “Why did Father Baram tell Everett he had to be a farmer? He’s just a little kid.”
Aleph nodded to himself as if he had anticipated my question. “Today was the day he received his covenant name.”
“Wait. What was his name before today?” No wonder he couldn’t spell it!
“It is rude to ask that question, little dragon.”
“Why?” I pressed.
“Birth names… are discarded. They are only temporary, and once you are given a covenant name, it is considered quite the insult to call someone by their birth name.”
“But what if someone makes a mistake?”
“Then they should sincerely apologize and strive not to repeat it.”
“But what if someone doesn’t like their covenant name? Or their purpose? It’s not fair they don’t get a say in it!”
“Six-year-olds do not make the best choices, little dragon.”
“So why do this at six, then? Why not when they’re an adult? Who gets to choose names and purposes, anyway?”
“So full of questions…” Aleph sighed with a chuckle. “Holy Sage Relias can answer these better than I, but I will try my best. Let’s focus on who chooses, shall we? What do you think the answer is?”
“Father Baram,” I replied promptly.
“I’ll concede he revealed it to the congregation, but he is a vessel of greater authority. I pose the same question to you again.”
“Um. The head of the church.”
“And who is that?” he asked me again.
“Uh. The council?”
“And who guides their choices?”
“Logic and empathy?” I answered with more of a what than a who, but I hoped I wasn’t entirely wrong. Hybrid shaming aside, maybe the council had some redeeming qualities?
“And who gave them the ability to reason and empathize?” I saw where this was going.
“Euphridia.” I sighed. “But she isn’t…” Oh, how should I say it? “I mean, she…”
“Just because she is not physically present does not mean she does not guide us in our daily lives.” Aleph lectured.
“So you’re saying Euphridia decided Everett should be Everett, and he should be a farmer.”
“You are simplifying the process, but yes. Do you remember today’s reading?”
“Yes.” I thought it was a lot of naught, but I didn’t dare say that to him.
Aleph pinned me with a soulful gaze. “What did Holy Sage Relias say his first purpose was?” I wasn’t the only one who asked a lot of questions!
“Guide humanity.” Whatever that means. You might as well herd cats for a living.
“And Relias established the council that oversees The Church of the Everlasting Covenant over three thousand years ago. So my last question is, who created Relias?”
“Euphridia. Okay, you have a point, but…” How could I get him to see it was all so silly?
“Let’s try something else,” Aleph murmured as he stood up to stir the pot. “Let’s say we tell Everett to be an artist.”
“Alright. What’s the worst that could happen if he becomes an artist?”
“Who is going to buy his art?”
“Well, if he gets really good, he could…”
“He could be the best artist in the world, but who will see it?”
“Surely the other people in town would support—”
“They can’t afford to buy art. They are farmers in a small community in the wastelands.”
I got annoyed, but I couldn’t find the words. It just wasn’t fair.
“You are struggling just as Everett will,” he patted my shoulder gently. “It is easier to begin the struggle when young. He will grow up considering what it means to be a farmer. He will grow a sense of self and of being part of something greater. Don’t worry. He has many around him who will help him on his journey, just as you do.”