On the last day of his long journey, Dhamikhan stood on deck, holding on to the railing with both hands and keeping his back very straight. His knuckles had gone white, although the blazing sun of the past days had coloured his skin no matter how hard he had tried to keep the veils and robes in place.
They had told him it would be hard, of course; and he had laughed in their faces. Now, after a fortnight at sea, he knew what they had meant to warn him about. The wind had ripped at his clothes from the moment the ship had left the shore, and had he packed for the Spire, not for the journey at sea. Tears in the fine fabric and stains on his veils marked the passage of the days. The worst of it had been the seasickness, though, and it was that which turned his knuckles white even as he stood straight-backed and looked out to the horizon, searching in vain for the island that would mark the end of his journey.
“Find yer sea legs in the end, didn’t ya?” Someone slapped him hard on the back, making him nearly double over the railing. “Told ya it’d be all right. Why dontcha stay with us, boy? We could use a good empath hand around here. Ya can do our sewing with those lovely hands of yours.”
There was rough laughter, echoed from several directions on the deck, but Dhamikhan straightened up and kept his eyes fixed on the sea. Cursed, blasted sea. Even now, when it lay mostly still under a perfect sky and a white sun, the constant rise and fall of the waves made his stomach rock. He clenched his teeth and held on harder to the railing, ignoring the sudden heat that rose to his head. He took a deep breath and whispered his mantra to the Goddess. These are your waves and your waters. Guide me and guard me, and I will follow and serve you. These are your waves and your waters…
His stomach settled somewhat, and Dhamikhan let out a slow breath. The wave of nausea had passed him by; again.
Behind him, the incessant chatter and laughter of the non-empaths went on. A disgrace that they should even be allowed to speak to him! But the captain, who stood broad-legged behind the wheel with his hands locked on his back, had his chin pointed at the horizon and did not call them to order. Dhamikhan glanced at him and shot him an angry thought, at which the captain only raised one eyebrow and returned the thought to him, coated in softness and warmth.
Snorting, Dhamikhan turned back to the sea. He shook off the sensation of softness and summoned up his pride and his determination instead. Still feeling the captain’s eyes on his back, he straightened up further. Who was he to listen to a man who didn’t possess half the empathic talent that he did?
There — a glint at the horizon. Dhamikhan’s heart leaped, though outwardly he remained calm. Could it really be?
Straining his eyes, he caught a glimpse of light — no more than a faint reflection somewhere at the horizon, brief enough to have been a glitter on the waves or the beacon of another ship. But no, there it came again. Dhamikhan squinted to see. His heart wanted to pick up an unnaturally fast rhythm, and he quieted it. It was hardly appropriate of an empath to show such physical emotion, even in the face of the Spire’s glory.
Wave upon wave, the ship steered closer towards the gleam. Dhamikhan breathed deeply, taking in the wind; forgotten was the sickness that had tormented him for days and confined him, pathetically, to his bed when he had planned to prepare himself in every possible way for his meeting with the Lady Oracle, the greatest authority of the Spire. He pulled his lip between his teeth, bit it once, and then quickly forced his face into stillness again. Sometimes the forgotten dark corners of his heritage caught up with him when his focus failed.
So do not let it fail. His mother’s voice was strong and sharp in his mind, like a shard of glass. The Goddess sets out your path for you, but if you are too weak to walk it, she will find another champion.
Oh, how it sparkled in the sunlight. Dhamikhan tightened his grip around the railing. It was the Spire. He could see it clearly now, rising more out of the misty horizon for every wave the ship rode, and it was glorious.
“See it, sir!” shouted one of the non-empath barbarians behind him, a man twice as broad as him and with a voice like sandpaper. “Island’s ahead starboard!”
“Take us in, then,” the captain called back, and the moment he did, his voice touched not only Dhamihkan’s ears, but also his mind — like that of every other empath on the ship. He shuddered at the foreign double-sensation. A man who spoke in words and thoughts! How the Goddess could have permitted such a twisted creature to exist was beyond him.
Dhamikhan turned when he sensed the presence of Lady Elian, who came to stand beside him without ever making a sound on the rough boards of the deck that had been scrubbed every day of their long journey. She had dealt with the realities of the ocean better than he: The veils that controlled her light hair were perfectly in place, revealing only the pale blue of her eyes and the soft curve of her nose and lips. He didn’t catch the slightest glimpse of her hands. Despite the wind, she always succeeded in pulling her sleeves down far enough, hiding her skin and keeping it as white as it had been the day they left.
‘So here we are, then,’ she said softly to him. Her voice was like water in his mind, cool and clear and perfect. She was twice his age and yet she didn’t look a day older than him. Her skin, preserved through the utmost care and the greatest control of every thought, looked like marble, carefully chiseled by the hand of the Goddess herself.
If it hadn’t been such an inappropriate thing to think about his mentor, Dhamikhan could have loved her. As it was, he tucked that thought far away, buried it beneath his admiration, and hoped that she would never pry that far into him. He had no doubt that she could.
‘A humbling sight,’ he answered, conjuring the image of the Spire in their shared thoughts. ‘Truly worthy of the Goddess.’
‘As are many edifices on our islands, or even on the mainland,’ she replied. ‘Why this one, Dhamikhan? The end of our journey nears. It is time you told me.’
The thought that flashed through his mind before he could quench it left a very real feeling of discomfort in his stomach, not unlike the seasickness he had battled. ‘Is it not as good a place as any other?’ he asked. ‘The Goddess is strong here. It is told you can feel her presence every day when the tide comes in.’
‘There will always be such stories, Dhamikhan, some of them true and some of them not. Supposedly the Goddess visited the Forests of May-Nanh and the stables of a handful of peasants south of Barkelin. You know how the cycle goes. Whenever solstice nears, the Goddess seems to be extraordinarily busy.’
‘Non-empath dribble,’ Dhamikhan spat soundlessly, reaching only her mind. Not even the half-empath captain would be able to follow their softly spoken conversation. ‘But two Sacrifices in the passing century. Sightings and stirrings of the ocean! Is that not cause to assume the real presence of the Goddess?’
‘It may well be,’ Lady Elian admitted. ‘It is admirable of you to portray such faith, especially considering…’
She left the sentence unfinished and Dhamihkan tightened his grip around the railing a little further. ‘If there is something you wish to say, Honoured Priestess, I shall give you all my attention.’
She gave him a thin smile. ‘You are strong for your age. Rumour has it your father has prepared you in the most effective ways for your great future.’
‘And do the priestesses of the Goddess ordinarily listen to rumours, Lady Elian?’
‘You would be a fool not to. You may have the skill to control your own mind, though that remains to be tested, but if you truly wish to become part of the Spire, you would do well to pay attention to the minds around you. They are what will dictate your rise and fall in the Spire.’
‘I receive your advice and will honour it greatly.’ Dhamikhan kept his eyes on the sea, although he could feel Elian’s gaze burning on the side of his face. It was only the first of many tests he would have to face, he knew.
‘Tell me about your sister,’ his mentor said at last.
Dhamikhan had to concentrate to keep his mouth from twisting. ‘So you know, then.’
A glassy shower of laughter pearled over him, but it was absolutely soundless. ‘You were entrusted to me to bring you before the Oracle. Don’t you realize I have turned every little pebble of your insignificant life?’
‘My lady’s voice is sharp and clear as crystal. I understand what you are saying.’
‘So do not make me repeat my question.’
Dhamikhan exhaled slowly. He had known that this conversation would come, of course, though he had not expected to be held before he had even set foot on the island. So now it was earlier rather than later, then. Perhaps it was as well to be done with it. ‘What is it you wish to know? I am certain your pebble-turning will have shed light on every aspect of it.’
‘Watch your tone with me, Dhamikhan.’
‘Forgive me, my lady.’
‘I am not interested in the facts. As you say, I have turned enough pebbles. Tell me about the things the crystals don’t say. Tell me about your feelings.’
Before he could reign in his thoughts, Dhamikhan had turned towards her with a frown. ‘My feelings?’
Her eyes were the palest blue he had seen. If the empaths were ever to reach the perfection of purest white, she would doubtlessly be among them. Her eyes made him perspire.
‘You are aware of the great honour that has been granted you,’ she said to him.
‘Yes, my lady.’
‘The Council of Elders has issued my command to bring you into the Spire and before My Lady Oracle, and I do as I am bid. But should I have the slightest doubt that your intentions are pure, I will lay down my life before I allow you to set one foot upon that island. So answer my question, be quick about it, and I will watch you closely for the slightest hint of a lie. Do we understand each other?’
‘Perfectly, my lady.’
‘Then be quick. We are nearing the shore.’
Dhamikhan kept his eyes on that shore and his hands firmly clenched around the railing while he said into her mind, ‘I have not seen Rhima for seven years. Tomorrow, incidentally, is the anniversary of our parting. In seven years, I have spent tens of thousands of thoughts on her, but not one alluded to missing her.’
‘I imagine you know the circumstances that parted us.’
‘In detail. Why did you not go with her?’
‘Because I was not worthy.’ He felt Lady Elian’s questioning gaze, but refused to look at her while he went on. ‘You ought to know, my lady, that the Goddess has spoken to me strongly all of my life. I have no doubt in my mind that serving her is the purpose of my existence, and I will do whatever it takes, suffer whatever she demands, to gain her favour.’
‘Big words for an impure empath.’
‘My family line is pure,’ Dhamikhan said, realizing already during the thought that he had failed to keep it devoid of emotion.
‘Pure enough by the standards of the Council,’ said Lady Elian, as he had known she would, as he had thought himself hundreds of times. ‘But there is a higher standard to be upheld if you truly want to serve the Goddess.’
‘I will uphold it.’
‘Your sister,’ she reminded him.
Dhamikhan inhaled deeply, tasting the salt of the sea in the air. He straightened up and let go of the railing, although the ship still rolled uneasily under his feet. When he turned to Elian, he imagined his own face to look as unmoved and perfect as hers. ‘Rhima is a disgrace to the vision my father had for us,’ he said. ‘Her faith is honest, but childish. That she has not risen to any rank of note in her seven years in the Spire proves my meaning. I care for her in the way a brother is obligated to care for his younger sister, but I am ashamed of the weakness she has portrayed, and if I could fulfill my purpose without ever crossing her path again, I would. Does that answer your question, my lady?’
Elian inclined her head. ‘It does for now. I appreciate your candour.’
‘You and my Lady Oracle shall have nothing but candour from me for as long as I live. I swear it.’
The corner of her mouth seemed to twitch into the beginnings of a smile, but he might have been imagining. ‘You truly are an ambitious man, Dhamikhan. I look forward to seeing if your deeds live up to your promises.’
‘We shall see.’