Golden rays were just flickering through the stained glass, casting streaming colors of green and ochre, crimson and indigo onto the raised altar in the far end of the chapel. Speckles of shimmering dust drifted through the air, floating up, then down, sideways and in arcs in the cold air, their individual meanderings more silent than the stillness inside. Few of his peers were nearby, knelt in similar fashion in quiet contemplation and prayer. His eyes wandered, and this was not the first time he had knelt while looking up in awe and admiration of the human achievement in structure, architecture, achieving beauty unseen before its kind, taking an object or two and making them into a thing of splendor. A mechanical mind, he did not have. But he did have a fondness for things that already were, the plants and their every genus, their purposes and their every characteristic, using the natural to make something natural, it was always organic, and nothing more. Silent admiration and reverence for things he could not comprehend or duplicate was appropriate in this time of private worship.
But a slight scraping, and the western half of the chapel flooded in a blinding white light. His moment lost, he blinked and absently turned around to look at the entrance. The only visitors that arrived this early were those in dire need, or who had traveled the night through to come here, searching for something that he and his fellow monks would do their best to fulfill. Both figures were hooded. No, they were not expecting brothers from another monastery. Or, to be more accurately, he noticed a moment later, a brother and sister. And the sister was in the lead. The dawn sun was behind them, but he could see clearly enough that it was she that opened the door, she that began sweeping her gaze quickly through the vestibule and into the nave.
He turned his head around and faced the altar, noticing a few of his brothers do the same. Brother Norudarre held a higher position than they, and he would be soon picking himself up from the kneeler and turning around to welcome the guests.
He heard footsteps, made from shoes not of a mendicant kind, but nevertheless of one who tread with haste. Brother Norudarre, about ten pews in front of him, leaned forward and began shifting his habit. This morning was colder than most, and he knew the old man's bones were not in the best of condition at this hour. The footsteps, quick and reverberating through the arcades and niches, came closer to him, louder. He regretted his position at the end of the pew, closest to the center aisle, for that was where she approached from. But this was his position, it had been for fifteen years, and he scolded himself for being nervous of these guests. They were not meek and respectful. Their business was important. He bowed his head in silent reproach of himself.
The echoes had stopped, and stopped beside him. A female voice spoke, not as loud as her footsteps, but resonating with passive authority. He looked up and found himself gazing wide-eyed into the face of a young mistress, thin face and dark hair pulled back behind the nape of her neck into the dark brown hood of what appeared a habit. A woman disguising herself as a monk? What could this possibly mean?
"Father Norudarre," he started, quickly looking away to where the older monk had finally gotten to his feet. "He will assist you with what you need."
Her thin lips frowned and a scowl masked her refined features. "I wish to speak to you, not anyone else."
He glanced at the tall man behind her, his curiosity in vain because the man hadn't made eye contact with anyone, especially not him. He looked back to Father Norudarre, who had heard what the lady said. The entire chapel had heard what she said. And he didn’t wish to be as curious as they as to why she wished to speak solely to him. Brother Norudarre nodded to him, gesturing with a knobby hand toward the entrance.
He swallowed and looked back to the lady who towered above him, at least from his kneeling position. He got up onto his feet, now looking down face to face at her, and pointed half-heartedly to the door. "We may speak outside," he said.
She didn't nod, but turned on her heel with her male companion close beside her and began for the door. All the young monk could do was follow at her heels.
She stopped for him as he closed the door. The air was crisp, the same air that had kept him awake for most of the night, making it easier for him to attend today’s pre-dawn meditation period. The kitchen's chimneys were billowing with steam and smoke, the cooks already preparing the morning's meal, but asides from that particular activity behind stone walls, there was not another soul in sight in the Mono Luthor's cloistered enclosure. As he closed the door to the chapel, a chilling sense of vulnerability swept over him. Yet, he could not place the fear. Female visitors were common. The latch clicked, and he turned to the lady.
"We must speak somewhere more private," she exclaimed, her eyes darting around the courtyard.
He knew their words could not be heard here, for there was no one to hear them, but he obliged to her peculiar request anyway and led them to the southern area of the grounds, away from the chapel and library, to a small building made of cobble stone and surrounded by unique and unusual herbs. As they traversed through a small section of vegetables and flowers, he quickly surveyed each and every plant that he passed. The two followed closely behind him and said not a word, and as he got to the door of the small building, he turned to catch a glimpse of her still staring all around the enclosure. Her anxiety seemed to succeed his own and a sudden surge of compassion flowed through him.
"This is the herbal laboratory, there is no one inside at this hour," he said softly. Her black eyes quickly turned to him and remained staring, calculating. Glad for the excuse, he looked away to unlock to the door and opened it wide for the two.
"Close it, quickly," she exclaimed. "It's warmer inside, come."
He followed her command and went inside, hurriedly closing the door behind him.
"And lock it."
He locked it, and with his back to the door, looked at her. Her companion had yet to raise his eyes.
"A chair," he pointed to the far end of the room, to the only chair in the small single-room building. "You may sit in if you like."
"I would prefer to stand," she said flatly, and after reassuring herself with her own eyes that the room was indeed empty save the three of them, she turned back to him. "What is your name?"
"Kal," he replied. His back still to the door, he took in a quick breath. "And yours?"
She stared at him, her face neither pretentious nor serene. "I am Shalassah, and this is my guard. I have need to speak with Father Gensia, and you will take me to him."
Shalassah, Father Gensia -- he blinked at her, thoughts cascading over themselves. "Shalassah, Princess Shalassah?"
"Yes," she frowned and pulled back her hood.
Not that he would have recognized her anyway. Her simple beauty was captivating, yet he willfully pushed it from his mind and focused on something more important to him than princesses and beauty. "And Father Gensia, he is old, and not permitted to--"
"I know he is sick," she snapped. "Do not make excuses, I came to see him here and I will see him, and you will take me to him. I know you, you are his young apprentice, he has a fondness and concern for you. You will have access to him that others would not."
He absently pressed himself to the door. "How could you know me?"
She tilted her head and narrowed her eyes. "I didn't know your face, but I was told you were young. I have a gift in guessing, you could say."
She was being honest, Kal thought, trying to assure himself that she didn't mean harm, she only wished conversation, and this was the only manner she knew of. And Kal wasn't familiar with royalty. Perhaps they all acted this way.
"I will need to speak to him first," he began, but was quickly interrupted.
"And I need to speak to him today. I am leaving here preferably before noon. I will remain here and wait for your return, and you will take me straight to him."
Kal stared at her.
"And you will tell no one of my presence, except for Father Gensia. You will tell no one my name or my position. Swear it."
He nodded. "You have my promise." His hand was already on the door knob, tensely waiting for anything else she had to say.
"Go," she said.
Her companion's eyes finally opened, pupils blue as a clear winter sky, glaring at him. Kal nodded again quickly, immediately opened the door and let himself out. A thick cloud of steam escaped his mouth as he exhaled and he turned his eyes to the tall eastern tower where his master had been confined to for almost six months.