"Who better for a down-on-his-luck delinquent to entreat for aid from a trying situation than the high priest of an accommodating religious order?" was Seph's sarcastically wordy reply.
Five years after the events in The Acolyte's Map and It's Not Easy Being Green, nineteen after In the Cards (in-progress story), and twenty four after Adventures of a Young Messenger.
"Cyn, there's someone looking for you. I brought him to your office, but I think he might be crazy."
The high priest rolled his eyes up at the sky in silent prayer asking for patience; not for the priestess delivering this news, a long-time friend whose judgment he trusted, but for the small disasters that kept piling up that day. "'Might be crazy'?" he repeated, already regretting what the answer would be.
The other Messenger shrugged her shoulders slightly. "He seems harmless enough. I wasn't sure what else to do with him; it seemed cruel to send him back to the street and he was rather insistent that it was you he had to speak to."
Curiosity was beginning to win over exasperation, but it was a close battle. "Very well, Liz, I will sort it out. I know you have other work to do, but can I ask you to help Ricky with fixing that mess?" he gestured to the empty fountain a few yards away where a slightly blue-tinted young acolyte was scrubbing. "I fear he may do something else foolish before the day is over."
The dark haired woman nodded and took the brush that Cyneric offered without comment, a reaction rare for her. Whatever the situation that awaited the high priest inside the Messenger's Mosque, it must be odd if cleaning sculptures in the heat of midday was a better alternative.
Brushing his hands on his red robe to dry them, he headed inside. At his door he momentarily pondered if he could pass whatever this was on to someone else, then had a flitting regret that he could no longer avoid interaction by hiding away in libraries. He had finally lost some of that shyness that had plagued him all of his life, but he feared he would never be particularly social- a trait incongruous with his affable and extroverted religious order and which was probably found amusing by their mischievous deity.
Once on the other side of the door, he immediately saw what the priestess had meant and why she had made reference to the street. A scruffy man lounged in one of the chairs as though he belonged there. He wore simple tattered clothes and a few equally shabby bags rested on the floor at his feet; Cyneric thought he could possibly be about his own age, although it was hard to tell through the bushy beard and disheveled dirty blond hair. When this person heard the sound of the door close, he turned towards the direction of the noise, but did not seem able to focus on the precise location. Cyneric could quickly tell what the reason was for this: the unkempt man was blind.
"May I help you?" the high priest asked. He was unnerved by the unseeing dark eyes that, despite his soft footsteps, somehow seemed to be able to follow his movement across the room with some level of success. Was this normal for someone who could not see?
"I'm seeking Cyneric Conroy. Are you he?" The man had an accent- if Cyneric had to wager a guess, it was that of one of the northern islands. His words were well-educated and self-assured, putting them at odds with his vagrant appearance.
The Messenger began to nod, then stopped when he realized this was likely a pointless action. "I am. May I ask the reason you were attempting to find me today?"
"I figured you would help me." This was a cryptic- and rather presuming- statement; the man's gall was impressive, if not somewhat irritating.
A thought was gnawing at the back of Cyneric's mind, however. Blind, a northern accent, presuming something in a way that seemed he felt he had a right to... suddenly it clicked. He knew exactly who this was, but surely he must be mistaken... "Zodóseph?" he asked incredulously.
Under the thick, light-colored beard, the corner of the man's mouth twitched up in a kind of good-natured smirk. "Got it in one. You always said you were smart."
Cyneric found himself having to lean against his desk while he tried to make sense of what was happening. Why was this priest so far from his home country of Zet- and looking very much out of uniform? Had Eros again sent Seph to this kingdom, decades after his previous assignment here? Considering how that one had played out, with his mate barely getting out of it alive, Cyneric felt his heart begin to race as he asked, "With what do you need help?"
That question seemed to make the other man lose what had appeared to be a permanent layer of confidence; his shoulders slumped and he fumbled nervously at the cuffs of his loose sleeves. Finally he gave a simple, flat response. "I left."
"When you say you 'left'-"
"I left. My order. Zet. Everything." It was clear that Seph was trying to keep emotion out of his voice, but not doing a particularly good job of it.
The high priest, meanwhile, remained in disbelief. "You cannot be serious!"
"I haven't told a lie in twenty years; of course I'm telling the truth." Seph sounded offended by the fact that Cyneric would think otherwise, but continued to explain despite his annoyance, "I couldn't stay in Zet- I just couldn't face that, not after resigning."
"I see." Actually, he didn't. Cyneric could not even begin to imagine turning in his amber and leaving his brethren behind. He would sooner give up a limb than renounce his Calling. Probably, anyway.
It seemed his comment didn't matter much, though, as the once-priest had fallen into something of a rant. "Everyone I knew began to treat me like a criminal, like I had done some terrible act by wanting to leave. Me! I'd done everything my god, my order, and my country ever asked of me and then some! I've healed hundreds, thousands over the years. I couldn't handle the constant pressure and expectations anymore and it was beginning to make my magic unreliable and, quite frankly, dangerous. I'm burned out, Cyn. All I'm asking is for a place to stay for a while."
Cyneric could feel a headache coming on and rubbed at his temples to try to stave it off. This was not what he needed on his plate today. On top of that fiasco with the young acolyte defacing the statue of Hermes by dyeing the water blue (he had never liked that fountain- or the sewers beneath- much and it had certainly seen worse over the years, but that kind of sacrilegious act could not be encouraged), this morning the Gate had once again malfunctioned and sent a dazed and soot-covered Messenger to Joven instead of Logging Town. Then another acolyte had been caught stealing, two ordained priests, who certainly should have known better, had gotten into a fight over an assignment both wanted, and now he was being asked to harbor the runaway of another deity. Was it just frazzled nerves from the summer's heat affecting everyone or had he angered a curse-bearing gypsy without realizing?
At least this situation was one he did not have to face alone. He returned to the door and upon opening it, spotted someone walking down the hall. Almost amazed that something had gone his way today, he told the boy "I need you to find Brother Rafion and send him up here as soon as possible. He should be in the courtyard."
After the young priest-in-training had bounded away with a ″Yes, sir!″, he turned to see that Seph had ceased scowling and, surprisingly, looked almost happy. "Raff's here, too?"
"I promoted him to weapons master a few months ago, so technically he is now here on permanent assignment. I thought I had mentioned that." Even if he hadn't, surely Raff would have- but the half-elf's handwriting did look something like a drunken, ink-covered spider had meandered across the page. Perhaps the person interpreting Seph's mail had thought it said "whimsical monkey", which would have also been an accurate term.
"I must have left before the letter got there." That answer made far more sense, although now Cyneric was stuck on the idea of training spiders as scribes and almost missed Seph's following question. "How does he like getting to beat people on a daily basis?"
"Too much. In hindsight, perhaps I should have made him the cook or the math instructor."
The disheveled man actually snorted. "I've tasted what he calls food and, if it's possible, his ability to count is even worse. Counting apples might make his head explode."
Cyneric was saved from having to defend the other Messenger- not that he could, as he was having a hard enough time trying not to laugh as he certainly agreed- by a knock at the door and the entrance of the one of which they spoke.
″What's this Liz says about a hobo?″ Leave it to Raff to enter a conversation so tactfully- and so obliviously. As he tried to get through the doorway without tripping over the medium-sized dog that pushed past his legs, he failed to notice that anyone besides Cyneric was in the room.
Raff carefully dropped the padded helm he had been holding in order to tie back his long hair and distractedly ordered, ″Jack, heel!″ The armor and padding he wore did little to hide his slight frame; although now in his forties, thanks to his elven heritage he still did not look much older than the group of young acolytes he had been instructing. This, coupled with his constant cheerful and somewhat flighty attitude, had caused the Messengers who had not known him well to shirk on those lessons. At first. They had soon realized that this youthful instructor took his duty- and his weapons- very seriously.
Not heeding the half-hearted command, the shaggy mutt dashed across the room to jump into Seph's lap and begin licking at the scruffy man's face. This surprised Cyneric, as the dog rarely strayed from Raff's side and even more rarely showed affection to strangers, having explained that he was ″the elf's protector and companion″. Considering that it had shown up just before Raff crossed paths with a dragon and a cursed artifact, Cyneric figured it ″spoke″ the truth. He had not bothered to explain to it that it was technically his job to be those things since getting into an argument with a dog would be a waste of time; besides, Raff could use all the help he could get to stay out of trouble.
What then surprised the high priest even more was that instead of pushing the dog off, Seph briefly hugged it close and began talking softly to it as though it would understand him. Cyneric knew that it could communicate with the Messengers any time it wished, much like his recently god-sent fox was able to, but how could Seph- who wasn't of their order- know that the dog was more than it seemed? And who the heck would snuggle a strange dog, anyway?
While Cyneric remained baffled by magical canines, Raff had finally noticed where his pet had ended up. ″Jack, heel″ he repeated, then added in a ″Blast it, get over here!″ when it continued to ignore him. At last it jumped down, but remained near Seph's feet as it began gnawing at its paw, as though daring Raff to try to order it around again. Cyneric had to hide a grin behind his hand when he saw the dumbfounded expression on his mate's face; Raff had never had an animal ignore him before.
Shaking his head, the half-elf began to apologize, ″I'm sorry about him. Jack's never done that before.″ He did not seem to realize who he spoke to, despite knowing Seph far better than Cyneric did. It must have been the beard.
Seph seemed to play along with the fact that his friend was clueless by paying no mind to the apology. ″Is he actually a dog acting like a dog? I think he's too shaggy to be another fox trying to trick me, but I wouldn't put that past you or a fox.″
Again that dumbfounded expression returned and Raff blinked in confusion several times before exclaiming, ″Saef?? Ye look like something the dog dragged in!″ Despite being fluent in the human tongue for now more than half of his life, the half-elf still retained some of the brogue that had come with the language he had originally spoken.
Oh yes, that elf is ever so tactful, Cyneric thought with a grimace, but quickly realized he had no reason to worry. Seph grinned his crooked smirk and remarked, ″So he is a dog. Thanks for not stringing me along this time.″
Raff hurried over to squeeze the man's hand in greeting; had he not been padded in layers of leather armor, he probably would have hugged him enthusiastically, which was his usual greeting towards almost anybody. No wonder people thought he was decades younger than his actual age. ″What're you doing here?″ he asked as he slunk down into the other chair next to Seph's. Even weighed down with armor, he moved like a cat.
″Who better for a down-on-his-luck delinquent to entreat for aid from a trying situation than the high priest of an accommodating religious order?″ was Seph's sarcastically wordy reply.
″He's here to call in a favor from someone who owes him greatly and has the authority to help,″ Cyneric clarified when the half-elf's eyes began to glaze over.
When Seph nodded, Raff looked from one human to the other appearing to still not follow what the two of them were talking about. ″You, Cyn? I don't understand. Wouldn't it be me who owes him? I mean, I was the one he saved from- ye know.″
After twenty years, Raff still did not feel comfortable talking about his time spent captured. If it hadn't been for Seph opening up communication through letters, knowing from experience as a healer from a war-ravaged country that in situations like this there was someone who would be both prying and concerned, Cyneric never would have entirely found out what had happened. That, too, he owed Seph for, although eventually they had begun corresponding because they had become friends of a sort. At particularly introspective times, Cyneric sometimes wondered if learning at sixteen that such evil existed in the world had in a way destroyed some of his innocence long before he would have come to learn this as an adventurer. Perhaps that had been part of the reason he was ever after prone to fits of paranoia and cynicism, although, despite his silence about the subject, Raff himself never seemed to be half as affected by what had happened to him.
″Follow that thought through, Greeneyes,″ the high priest prompted. There were days when the half-elf could have momentary flashes of surprisingly astute insight and then there were times where he could be as dense as a rock. Cyneric knew to be patient and wait until Raff caught up with the situation when it was one of his slower days.
After a moment more of thought, the elven priest replied with chagrin, ″Oh. Right. That should've been obvious. What do you need from Cyn, Saef?″
The once-priest began to fumble with his sleeves again, as though that was a nervous habit whenever he was uncomfortable. ″I'm looking for a place to stay for a while. I left my order.″
Raff's reaction was the same as Cyneric's had been. ″Ye did what?″
The dog began to whine softly. Seph reached down to scratch its ears, which seemed to calm both of them a bit. ″Like I was saying earlier, I got to the point where I felt smothered. I just couldn't handle the pressure anymore. Everyone was expecting too much from me, as though they thought I was some sort of miracle-bringer and not just a talented healer. My faith was slipping and it was making my ability to heal unreliable. Some days it was as strong as ever, some days it wouldn't work at all. I figured I should leave before it caused a huge problem.″
As if in awe of the wreck that was his friend's life, Raff tried to stammer out several questions at once. ″What? But- I don't... How- What did you do when the magic didn't work?″ was the one he finally settled on.
Seph nudged with his foot the small satchel that sat on the floor next to the dog. ″Salves, poultices, and herbs- and hope that one of my brothers or sisters was nearby if things got too bad.″
Now it was Cyneric's turn to give a more thought-out comment. ″What I do not understand is how you could leave when your skills were so needed.″
Seph's head snapped up when he heard that. Letting go of the dog in order to sit up with his back straight, he said defensively, ″I didn't leave them in the lurch, if that's what you mean. There are other healers just as strong as I was with far better faith; I was just the one that people knew about. Eros must have been okay with my decision because no calamity hit me on the way out.″
So at least the healer had not been his order's only hope and he had his god's approval, although probably not his blessing. Hopefully that meant that Cyneric would not be struck down himself by helping Seph. Silently he said a short prayer to Hermes hoping that his next words would not be a mistake. ″You helped out a Messenger when he needed it most; for that I will gladly give you what you ask. For helping this one in particular, I owe you far more than that. Raff, I'll need you to find him a spot to stay in the mosque until I think of a more permanent solution. Perhaps Hermes will have a suggestion.″
The half-elf nodded emphatically and while the relief on Seph's face was evident, he still seemed somewhat unsure. Had he really thought that he would be turned out or did he fear what the judgment of a god might be? Trying to reassure him, Cyneric told the healer gently, ″Do not worry, Seph. Gods willing, everything will be fine.″
Seph nodded but said no words of thanks as he followed the dog out of the room; for all that Cyneric had asked Raff to help the healer, it seemed as though the dog wanted to lead him instead. At the door he carefully stepped around the discarded helmet then said low under his breath to his guide, ″Yeah, I know how this works. Just lead and I'll follow.″
Raff noticed the lack of gratitude as well; a sheepish expression crossed his face once he was alone with the other Messenger. ″I think he's relieved. I know he doesn't like asking for help,″ he explained, then looked up at Cyneric with thankfulness in his bright green eyes. ″He's a bit of an arse, but this means a lot to me, Cyn.″
The high priest leaned down to kiss his mate's brown hair softly. ″I know, love. Trust that I will find a way to repay him.″
The half-elf grinned up at him, then bent to pick the bags up off the floor. Before he could follow Seph and the canine out, Cyneric stopped him. ″Hold on a second. Do you know why he is acting like he understands Jack? Does that seem odd to you?″
Raff shrugged as best as he could considering the burden of armor and Seph's possessions. ″Until a few months ago he had a fox that was like yours. I guess he's used to silently talking animals.″
In Raff's preoccupation with trying to carry the packs and retrieve his helmet on the way out, he didn't notice that Cyneric's jaw had dropped. How had a priest of Eros gotten a divine fox of Hermes, something only the Head Messengers received? And how could he talk with a sort of magical dog when he wasn't even a priest anymore? Cyneric fought the sudden pressing desire to go bang his head against the wall until the world began to make sense again and settled on walking over to the corner of the room where a small shrine was set up. He had the glimmering of an idea of what to do with Seph that had started when the healer mentioned in passing that he could still heal without magic- a very useful skill- but he definitely needed some divine guidance. Divine guidance and possibly some answers; his god had some explaining to do.
((After writing that silly list of things that might happen to my characters, I realized that I was on to something with three of them and this plot bunny was born. This may or not be what happens in five years, but I'm leaning towards this being pretty darn accurate. This ficlet references a few things from The Acolyte's Map but it's mainly pulling from "In the Cards", the novel I'm still working on. Someday I'll share what happened when Raff was taken prisoner and why Seph shares some abilities with the Messengers!))