Even balled into tight fists, she was sure that her shaking hands betrayed her fear and rage. Mia Jayne stood before the representatives of the Order of Vis Firmitas, her eyes taking in the rough-hewn walls of the chamber, the dim yellowy glow of the gourds resting in their sconces, the somber, coarse robes, craggy faces and the multitude of inscrutable eyes boring into her from the dais directly in front of her. She was sure those eyes were examining every speck of detail she presented to them, and Mia felt exposed at their gaze even as she knew it was pointless to hazard a guess as to what they might think of her slight figure, pale as a ghost birch and dressed in her tropics garb of gauzy layers, her auburn, wavy hair plaited down her back and her bright blue-green eyes glimmering with gold flecks. This entire enterprise had been a horrible mistake, and she had known it so before she even arrived at the cavernous mountain way flanked by imposing hardwoods she could not name. Mia had not been able to help herself from wondering if the trees were elders as she had passed beneath their sprawling roots hugging themselves to the rock crevasses that formed the entry to the Order’s stronghold. She had wanted to touch them to find out but dared not. Dashing these thoughts aside, Mia mustered the remaining fire in her gut and spoke.
“You must be mistaken, sir.” Mia attempted to keep her voice calm but firm. She was quite certain she was failing miserably at this attempt. “My father is gravely ill, to be sure, but such claims as you have asserted just now are entirely outside the realm of possibility.”
The oldest of the assembled clerics, a withered, stooped-back man with piercing gray-blue eyes clear as her favorite pond and disheveled silver hair jutting at seemingly random angles who had named himself Dom Nikola turned her father’s letter gently in his hand. He stood then, and Mia could see that he was rather tall even given his sloping shoulders and advanced years.
“Miss Jayne,” Nikola said, his voice soft with the slightest rasp. It was a low voice that weighed each word carefully and deliberately. It was a voice that commanded attention. “I assure you that the contents of the letter as I have described them to you are accurate in all respects.”
Her eyes narrowed in disbelief. “Then, pray, let me read it myself.” She held out her hand in gesture for the letter. Her father had sealed it with a sap mark, and she had respected the mark’s intent. It was galling that Dom Nikola felt he could use the existence of the mark of privacy against her.
“That will not be possible, Miss Jayne,” the cleric stated simply. “The letter provided for specific instruction in that regard.”
The rage was returning, and her words flowed out haltingly, all attempts at collecting herself gaining no purchase. “So I am to believe that my father traded me for succor just as that. That I am now yours to do with as the Order commands. I am an adult. My service is not his to give.”
“That your service is yours alone to give is certainly the way of it,” the cleric replied. “That your father wishes succor is also the way of it.” He paused to scratch his ear thoughtfully. “No person can choose for you. The path is yours alone to take. Be that as it may, it is the Order’s choice whether to provide the succor, and the only payment for such that you have brought to our doors is your person.”
Mia could not help the shaking of her head as she responded, “What is this organization that it requires payment to aid a dying man reaching to you for aid? Perhaps you are the monsters I have previously thought.”
Nikola smiled softly at her reply, his eyes clear as pools and yet unreadable. He pretended as if her insult had not been issued. “Ah, but your father would request charity from us where each person among those here serves a role of import. To send one of our own skilled clerics on a journey to your father to administer a speculative treatment when such person is sorely needed among us and to in turn leave you with no ascertainable competencies to fill such a valued role is charity indeed. To expect more is foolhardy, and your father was not foolhardy.”
“So I really have no choice then?”
“One always has a choice Miss Jayne,” Nikola replied.
About this Photograph: This photograph is a detail of Nijo Castle in Kyoto, Japan, taken March, 2008.