“You come here often.” The sound of the priestess’s voice was no surprise after the soft melody of wooden chimes had announced her presence, yet somehow, Tahl hadn’t expected her to speak. He glanced up, regarding her translucent head covering with a pensive frown. He never would understand how the priestesses walked with such confidence. Even with his reflexes and skills, he wouldn’t be so confident walking blindfolded.
“It’s a nice place to be,” he said after a time, making no effort to rise from the cool floor. He’d been rolling a pim between his fingers when she’d decided to creep up on him, and he returned to flipping the silver coin across his knuckles after he’d concluded his cursory pondering over whatever sixth sense the priestesses had. After all the months he’d spent sitting in the same place, he’d still never seen a priestess without a pale green silk sheet over her head. For that matter, the flowers in the woven crowns they wore atop the veils never seemed to wilt, either.
A soft giggle escaped her throat. “It is.” She crouched beside him, resting her elbows on her knees as her skirts pooled around her bare feet.
Tahl’s eyes drifted to the wooden chimes that hung from her wrists. The weights that dangled from the clappers touched the floor, the soothing clink of the wooden tubes muted. “You’re here every night.”
“And you are not, so how would you know?” Her tone was playful, teasing, and he tried to picture the smile that might go with it. She straightened her chimes. “But you are here a lot. Always at the same time, always before sunrise, when the rest of the world sleeps. Yet you do not seek the clergy, nor do you offer prayers.”
“I don’t speak with the priestesses tending the temple, either,” Tahl said. “This is a first.”
This time, the sound the priestess made was thoughtful. “A failing on my part. I have never thought to speak to you before.”
His coin grew still between his fingers once more. “I don’t really want the attention.”
“Yet you come,” she said. “Many, many nights.”
Tahl rubbed the edge of the coin with his thumb. He could just feel it between the fleshy pads of his fingers, warm and smooth, save for a single nick in the edge that had grown familiar. There was no reason to tell the priestess anything, yet he couldn’t help feeling he owed her some sort of explanation. “It’s quiet here. I like to sit here and think, while all the rest of Orrad dreams.”
“And when do you dream?”
His lips twitched with a hint of a smile. “All the time.”
A quiet moment passed. “What do you dream in these waking moments?”
That little smile evaporated.
“Forgive me,” the priestess said hastily, rising to her feet. “It is not my place to ask. I shall leave you in peace.”
She’d gone no more than a handful of steps before a clawing sense of guilt churned Tahl’s words loose.
“Being… appreciated,” he said. “Being someone who deserves to sit here.”
The priestess paused a few feet away. Her head swiveled back toward him, though her face remained hidden. The movement made the chimes at her wrists sway. Tahl could have sworn the sounds they made seemed curious.
Sheepish, he looked away.
Slowly, the priestess turned to face him fully. “Everyone deserves to sit here. Brant’s temple is welcoming to all.”
“Is it?” He couldn’t help the doubtful, sarcastic twist to his voice. “I doubt the Lifetree would want me here if he knew where I spent the rest of the night.”
The tilt of the priestess’s head told him that had been intriguing, not frightening. But she did not question him, and for a long time, she did not speak. Even the wooden chimes that hung from her wrists grew silent.
Belatedly, Tahl realized her stillness had made him hold his breath. He filled his lungs and released the air as a sigh. This wasn’t like him. He wasn’t sulky, and he didn’t care what the priestesses–or Brant–thought of his profession. He liked what he did. He liked the challenge, liked the thrill, liked the occasional luxuries his thievery brought. The silver pim tumbled between his fingers at an agitated pace.
At last, the priestess spoke. “The temple is not a refuge solely for the holy, but for those who hurt, as well. We are never so lost as we think.”
He did not reply. Instead, he tucked in his chin, his eyes trained on the altar before him. He always sat at the foot of the steps, gazing up at the altar on the dais, where candles flickered through the still of night.
“The sun is rising.” Her tone was gentle, soothing, free of accusation. “May it rise on your soul as well.” The priestess bowed her head and hooked two fingers in the double crescent that represented Brant’s canopy. Then she turned, her skirts and veil rippling like waves on the Ranton river as she disappeared between the pews.
Tahl stared after her for a long time. But he couldn’t linger, and eventually, he rose from his cross-legged position on the floor and stretched his legs. If the sun was rising, it meant he was out of time to sit and dream. Kind as her words had been, the priestess’s words meant little. His soul was swathed in the night.
He stepped onto the dais and left his last pim in the poor box.