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A Fair Trade: A Tale of Weston

by Caris

Alessa folded back the hood of her cassock, taking in her surroundings, as the door closed.

The cell was bare, of course, with wooden walls and a stone floor. It was very small. The door to her south looked extremely sturdy. A bronze chamberpot sat on the floor, and an old-looking, thin mattress pallet was set in the corner. There was not room for much else. It wasn't a dungeon, she reflected, but it certainly wasn't meant to look comfortable. It also smelled musty, and she hated that smell.

She sat down on the pallet, folding her legs under her, and waited, her hands clasped loosely in her lap. The observers watching her from the small barred grille in the door did not find her frightened-looking, or even anxious. Eventually, as Alessa knew they must, they left. She was in no pain, nor did she expect any, and so it was easy for her to wait.

She didn't look at the door again. In truth, she was feeling quite safe. The Councillors wouldn't do anything to her, not yet. The guards were obviously under orders not to mistreat her; they had not even taken her herb-bag from where it hung on her belt.

Not long afterward, a commotion from outside the cell, down the hall, drew her attention, and she smiled, brightening slightly at the sound of a voice she recognized. She gathered herself and stood, her legs not even slightly sore from sitting down cross-legged. She stretched a little.

A man's face looked at her through the grille, his features anxious and drawn. The door slowly opened.

He wore a dull green woolen cassock, as she did, and his hair was cut short, as hers was, boy-short, though his was grey, and hers was light brown. His blue eyes were wrinkled around the edges, while her green ones were not, but they shared the same general sense of calmness most of the time. Neither of them wore obvious jewelry, and their belts were of strips of colored wool, braided together in a random mishmash of colors. They both wore the same sort of plain sandals, though in different styles.

"Sister Alessa. Did they treat you well?"

She nodded, slipping her hands into her sleeves to cover them. "Yes, Brother Ral. I am ready to take my leave."

He relaxed visibly and turned his attention to the guard at the door. "Your lieutenant said I could take her with me."

The guard grunted, and the two cultists left at a sedate walk.

Ral would never have hurried, but Alessa found herself walking slightly faster as they reached the street. She didn't even notice the horrible smell that hovered over the streets any more, though every time she visited, at first, it burned her nose badly. She tucked her hands into her sleeves and passed the peasants in their colorful clothing and raucous voices.

Weston was not a large city. It was far, far from the madness she'd always associated with the Eastern Cities, which she'd never even been tempted to visit. The streets of Weston were narrow, the houses were crushed together, and the people didn't wash nearly enough for Alessa's taste. It existed as a frontier village, a place where the miners could come to trade, where smaller villages could come together for whatever commerce existed between them.

As far as Alessa could tell, Weston was almost entirely independent from the control the government's capital, Priascialla, imposed upon more eastern habitations. She'd always assumed this was because of the rich mineral wealth and abundant plant resources Weston shipped eastward, but she was certainly no politician. For all she knew, it could have been bribes that saved Weston from kowtowing to the occasional Eastern noble who rode through.

If the feudal system had passed Weston by, however, the town still existed in the iron grip of the Council -- a group of merchants who more or less controlled almost every aspect of Weston-area life. Even the Church of Haran had to defer to their wishes, she had heard, though just about everybody here belonged to that religion.

One nice thing about the Council, Alessa thought, was that at least the village was orderly. Constables roved the village day and night, and though there were few of them, villagers themselves protected their homes vigilantly. Still, the Council did not prevent her order from being harassed. It was just this harassment that she had hoped to abate somewhat by her activities earlier today. Alessa still remembered her horror at being tossed in prison, though she had suppressed expression of it, as she had been taught to do.

Though Ral was quiet, Alessa finally broke the silence on the walk back to their rooms. "You are displeased."

"Yes. That was a very risky thing to do."

"But he is healing." She allowed herself a smile.

Several peasants got out of their way, staring after the pair.

Ral did not allow himself to get angry, but as they passed the wattle-and-daub houses toward Silver Square, he said, so quietly only Alessa could hear, "I am not sure it is worth risking one of our small number just for a boy, even if he is a Councilwoman's son."

"There is more at stake here than just a boy's health, Honored One," Alessa heard herself saying. "Our own elders feel that strengthening ties to Weston's government will aid our own safety."

"If the boy gets killed because he was touched by a cultist, it won't help us much."

"He will not. His mother loves him too much to allow anybody to hurt him. And she sees that he is improving now that his wounds were treated properly."

Alessa had not intended it to sound smug, but she knew, as soon as she'd spoken, that yes, it did sound smug. Ral said nothing in response, and his comments through the evening were limited to civilities and nothing more. When they arrived at Silver Square and entered the boardinghouse, she didn't even notice the stares directed at her and her companion. Ral, of course, didn't seem to either.

They went down a short wooden hallway to their room. It was not much bigger than Alessa's previous habitation, she reflected. It had a pair of narrow beds, with a small wooden trestle table between them, set under a window. The only other furniture in the room was a small wardrobe, which Alessa knew was empty. A lantern was set on the table, but it was not yet dark enough to use it. Ral sat down on one of the beds, sighing as he settled in.

She sat across from him, but at the table, looking out the small, dirty-silled window. There was no glass in it, of course; most windows in this part of the world were holes cut out of the walls, with shutters. The air that blew across her face was tainted with the reek of many men, and the scene outside showed ratty kitchen gardens in dire need of attention, fertilizer, and more sunlight. Just looking at them made her hands itch. Still, she gazed outside until the light began to fail. Ral meditated on his bed across from hers, not looking at her, with an expression of disapproval vaguely evident on his face.

When darkness began to fall, she got up gracefully and went to the door. "Dinner will be ready soon," she said to Ral. It wasn't that dinner here was anything to speak of -- greasy sausage, pungent cheese half gone off, sour beer, brittle roasts, and worse. She wanted to see what was happening outside; she couldn't sit here much longer, watching Ral ignore her.

When he didn't answer, she left, closing the door.

She walked down the hallway, her hands tucked into her sleeves. Then, ahead of her, coming from behind another closed door, she heard loud voices.

"What? Here?" a boisterous man demanded angrily.

She knew eavesdropping was a nasty habit, but just then a small pebble in her sandal demanded her attention. She dropped to one knee and began trying to get it out.

"Yes, I saw them come in, nice as ye please, just walked past everybody like they owned the place!" another voice replied.

Alessa's face did not reveal the sudden, all-too-familiar churning of her stomach.

"Well!" said the first voice. "They'll be at supper, won't they? We'll just have to show those cultists that decent folk won't tolerate them."

The pair laughed, but the laughter sounded ominous to Alessa, who finally got the pebble out of her shoe. Her stomach was bothering her, and she no longer felt hungry. She missed her chapterhouse's comforts, and wanted to return immediately.

She closed the door perhaps a trifle loudly. Ral's eyes opened from where he sat cross-legged on the bed.

"Ral, we need to leave now."

He looked past her, at the closed door. "That might be wise, at that," he conceded.

She listened for noises before she opened the door again. Ral got up and walked out behind her. When they passed the still-closed door of the rough-sounded men she'd heard, Alessa tried not to swallow or look afraid.

Ral saw her look long at the door, and his wise eyes missed nothing. He touched a place on his cassock, near his breastbone, where his pendant lay beneath the fabric. Alessa wore one too, and knew what he was doing, though he spoke no words.

A dreamlike feeling passed between the two Preservationists. Alessa felt invigorated and confident. They continued to leave the building.

A pair of miners, rough and malevolent-looking to Alessa's eyes, saw them, and almost snarled contempt at them. The miners reeked of beer. But when they got closer to the green-cassocked pair, the miners frowned, both puzzled, and let Alessa and Ral pass.

In this fashion, unmolested but leaving puzzled rowdies in their wake, the two left Weston, and began the long walk home.

Alessa knew the call to the Mother's chambers would come early, and she was not disappointed. The knock at her door came not long after dawn.

She got up, putting a clean cassock on over her shift, and donning her sandals. She opened the door.

Outside, in the low dawn sunshine of a clear day, a tall, red-headed man in a similar cassock told her, "Mother Kastiel is waiting."

She took the news without obvious emotion and headed down the path. The red-haired man didn't follow her, but went off in another direction.

The abbey was not large, as such places go. A ring of small outbuildings, mostly residences like Alessa's, stood inside a very large clearing in the forest. The path she walked, like all paths, were set about with small white marker-stones, and grass grew abundantly everywhere else. Other plants grew in an orderly fashion in rows along the paths and in a large central garden. People in green cassocks, all of them people Alessa knew, went about errands, or studied under the ancient trees that grew here and there. Several Preservationists labored in the gardens, all wearing woven straw hats that looked like bells, and cassocks similar to hers -- shapeless gowns of homespun green wool or linen, dyed well but not in all the same shades, with flaring sleeves that ended at the wrists, perfect for tucking one's clasped hands inside.

Alessa knew all of these people from birth, or from their arrival here. They were born of married parents in the Order, or came from other chapterhouses, or merely joined, though this was fairly rare. Alessa's parents had lived here until she had come of age, but for the past three years they had lived in another chapterhouse, to help the herbalists there cultivate a particularly useful medicinal herb, yorantel. Their absence did not pain her; they visited, and she could also visit, being perfectly safe in most of the forestlands between here and there. Besides, she had her studies, and her duties in the Abbey.

The Mother's house was in the middle of the garden. A large structure made of exotically purple-red wood, it was unpainted, unstained, with an open-air porch with a latticework roof growing thick with ivy and flowers. A dome could be seen from the ground, set into the house's center. The entranceway was arched, with flat purple stones in wedge shapes decorating the top of the arch. The door was carved profusely, and had a carved blackwood handle.

Alessa knocked. A moment later, a mature-sounding woman's voice said, "Come in."

When Alessa walked in, she was surprised to see that Kastiel was not alone. The silver-haired abbess was there, of course, sitting on a wooden bench padded with many cushions, wearing her amulet and her green cassock, but with her was someone Alessa didn't know.

The airy, peaceful room seemed to shy away from the chaotic stranger. He wore a green cassock, like everybody at the abbey, but his was lighter-colored, and it was covered in sponge-stamped symbols: triangles, circles, and stars, all in dark yellow dye. His sandals were yellow, a glaring contrast to Alessa's eyes, and his hair, a towheaded flaxen blond, needed cutting and stood out spikily from his head. He looked to be about 19 or 20, not too much younger than Alessa herself. His eyes were alight with delight and discovery as he toyed with Kastiel's beaten-bronze incense burner, which, alas, still had burning jasmine incense in it. He was just discovering this when Alessa came into the receiving room, and he had just dropped it on the floor, yelping and blowing on his hands.

"Heh, er," he mumbled, grinning from ear to ear. Kastiel smiled indulgently at him as he tried to clean up the mess of ashes with his bare hands, burning and dirtying them anew. He mumbled meaningless things by way of apology to Kastiel as he worked. Alessa stared. Kastiel was never this nice to her, or this forgiving of foolish mistakes.

Now Alessa noticed Ral tending houseplants in the sun window at the other end of the house. The sunlight came through the glass of the dome, shining on him as he went about his tasks. He looked up and saw her, and for a moment she wondered why he looked so amused. He turned his attention back to the plants, and the moment was gone.

Kastiel finally gave the stranger her handkerchief, and as he finished cleaning up, Alessa tucked her clasped hands into her sleeves, waiting.

The abbess finally nodded to the stranger when he'd finished up, and she set the ash-coated handkerchief on her desk. She looked up at the patiently waiting Alessa. "Novitiate Alessa, this is Novitiate Todrim. He's from the Eliff House."

Alessa did not reveal her surprise. "Eliff? That is a good distance. I hope you found the journey pleasant, Brother Todrim."

The flaxen-haired youth grinned up at her. "It wasn't bad. When I got bored I hopped, and that made returning to walking all the easier."

Alessa directed her startled look to her abbess, who smiled gently at the young man. "The Eliff house is known for its slightly unconventional approach to the Creed." She looked back to Alessa. "Your mentor recommended that I place Todrim with you for orientation, Novitiate Alessa. He was born within the Order, in this house actually, but he left very young. Now he is returned, and I expect you will help him get used to our ways."

Alessa wasn't listening very much. She was directing a cold look at Ral, who wisely stayed turned away from her piercing and very unappreciative glare. She began to realize that this audience had nothing to do with her ambitious plans to make Weston people more friendly to the Abbey.

The young man leapt to his feet, offering his only slightly ash-stained hand to Alessa, startling her out of her glare. "That's wonderful! Let's shake, and then you can show me where the food hall is!"

He was so cheerful that her indignation melted somewhat. She shook his hand (or rather, was shaken by his hand, so enthusiastic was he), and he was leading the way out before the startled novitiate knew what was happening. She looked back at Kastiel.

The older woman stood and came over, while Todrim talked to the flowers outside in a soft but joyful babble. She murmurred to Alessa, "He is the ideal Eliff Preservationist. Do not think of him as inferior. They are taught to revere chaos. I was hoping he might bring some new ideas to our house." Alessa must have looked dubious, but Kastiel said, "You are our most quick-witted member, and Ral was not just being intentionally irritating when he suggested you."

Alessa blushed at this, and bowed her head slightly. "With your leave, then, Mother."

Kastiel nodded, and Alessa more or less bolted.

It only took a few hours for Alessa to start wishing she had a more violent nature. Todrim was into everything, absolutely everything, and he had the energy of a treewee. He asked many questions, and was such a forceful personality that Alessa felt overwhelmed. She struggled to maintain her calmness and center, but it was difficult around him.

"So how do you get flour?" he was asking, as they ate summer-vegetable stew and circular slices of hearth bread, thick-crusted and tender-insided, smeared with golden butter.

"We buy it from Weston. The prices are reasonable, compared to us cultivating it ourselves. We sell them herbs and wound salves, and doctor the villagers when they fall sick." She took a sip of sweet, pale ale, the taste perfectly complementing the barley in the stew.

But her face shadowed with emotion as she spoke. Todrim leaned forward, his bright grey eyes piercing. "But.." he said, trailing off.

She shrugged, taking a bite of bread. "But what? They don't like us, but that's no secret. They're Haranites."

"I've already heard some of the rumors going around," he said intently. "Did they really beat one of you up?"

Startled, she only nodded. "He got too near an ale-house full of miners, and I guess things happened."

"Come on, do you really suppose that's isolated?"

She looked at him, her food forgotten. Without another moment's thought, she shared what she had heard back in Weston the day before. Her stomach began to hurt as she talked. Nobody else was in the refectory at this hour, at least, to hear her tale, except for the carefully listening Todrim. He sat very still, and only listened, as she told him what had happened to her best friend Galen, who'd been so badly beaten that now, a month later, he was still on light duty in the flower gardens, tending their large field of medicinal and dyemaking plants.

Todrim looked far more subdued than she remembered. Finally he said quietly, "We should go talk to the priest there. Surely he won't stand for this."

"I don't think you know him well, but we can try," she found herself saying hesitantly. "But perhaps we ought not wear our robes."

He looked up angrily. "No, we will wear them. We are not without defenses."

She nodded, astonished at herself for nodding, but doing it anyway.

That night, as she got ready to leave, Alessa looked around at her little room. The wooden puncheon floor, covered by a green rag rug she'd made. The window cut out of the west wall, shuttered now because she was leaving, the plain white drapes discolored slightly by time. The bed and desk, which she'd help make of whitewood when she was much younger. Her few books, borrowed from the library at the Abbey; she'd read them so often through the years that they were like friends. She touched a small deer figurine carved of wood that stood on the desk, poised as if hearing a noise that had startled it. Her expression was unreadable, from long, long practice.

She looked to the door, squared her shoulders, picked up her walking-staff, and left. Her pendant, worn outside her robe, felt like it was almost vibrating.

Todrim waited for her by the First Clearing, where the white rocks marking the path shone like the moons. They started the long walk without words, but after a while, as the Abbey faded from sight behind them, Todrim said, "Don't be afraid."

"I'm not. I just know their priest. He's not easy to talk to."

Todrim grinned boyishly. "I'll talk to him."

"You?" she said, before she could stop herself. Somehow the vision of Todrim trying to convince the fat, self-indulgent holy man of anything made her both amused and nervous.

With that, she gestured to the road. They fell silent, going to an altar made of the same stone that marked the way. The altar was old, probably as old as their Order's foundress. Its age was marked by the softening of its carved edges, by the bits of dirt and algae growing on it here and there. It gleamed, though, in the darkness, as if it were a lantern.

A small, low white-stone bench, long enough for two to kneel upon, was set before the equally low altar. The top of the altar was shaped like a shallow bowl, and currently empty, as it had not rained in days. A low shelf surrounded the bowl.

Alessa and Todrim both drew forth small, intricately painted leather flasks and unstoppered them. As one, silently, they bowed their heads and poured a few mouthfuls of water out into the bowl. They poured slowly and with great reverence.

Then each novitiate drew from their pouches a sprig of herbs and a small, round cake. The cakes were identical to those in their backpacks, wrapped in linen cloths. They placed the herbs and the cakes on the shelf.

The two then knelt, their heads bowed. Alessa realized that Todrim waited for her to speak the prayer, and she did: "We give to the forest as the forest provides for us. We acknowledge the old debt, and pay it gladly." She wondered, very briefly, what prayers Todrim's chapterhouse had said over their offerings.

If he had something to say, he didn't say it; they stood, brushed themselves off a little, and went on their way down the road.

The path wound through the thinning forest, then through scrublands. Alessa and Todrim were both used to long walks, even Alessa, who'd just come this way, and this one was no different from any other one. When the scrublands ended, not long before the Tam River, they began to pass sheepfolds, as the dawn approached. The sheep and goats didn't appear interested in the two travelers. They moved at a slow but steady pace, taking breaks as they needed, while the golden dawn rose before them.

The river was as tumultuous as usual, but the bridge, which had always existed, as far as Alessa knew, stood firm. Water droplets sprayed onto the hem of her robe.

Weston's west arch was, as usual, not guarded, but a couple of constables were lounging around near it, waiting for something, or someone. They saw Todrim and Alessa and glared.

Todrim walked right up to them, determinedly. Alessa could only tag along. She noticed that the few people around at this time were watching them, in their mismatched clothes, on the packed-earth street. They didn't look very charitably inclined toward the newcomers.

The guards didn't look like it either. One scowled at Todrim when he got close enough to speak. But Todrim didn't waste time. He said quickly, "We seek the Holy Father, please."

The guard looked like he was about to say something unpleasant, but Todrim was not afraid. Alessa suddenly felt her pendant grow warm, and realized what Todrim was doing. Just as the guard's mouth opened, out came the words, "Go to Green Square, and it is east, on Vaelis Road, not far."

At this, the guard looked surprised, no less so than his friend.

Todrim turned to Alessa, beaming. "See? I told you they weren't bumpkins like the rest of them. Now let us go." He turned away and began walking down the street, Alessa in tow.

"That wasn't a nice trick," she said to him as they walked past opening shops and streets filling with women with jars and baskets of washing balanced on their generous hips.

"It worked, didn't it?" he replied easily, smiling at her. "Any trick that keeps us from fighting sounds like a good trick to me."

Alessa wasn't sure what her superiors would think, but said nothing further about it.

The temple to Haran was large and white, like all of them were. It was trimmed in red, like all of them were, with red painted window edgings, and red doors. The cupola at the top, flame-shaped like most of them on Scialla, was painted red, with gold decorations. It was stupendous, not for its size, which was larger than a town the size of Weston would warrant, but for its expense. It stood in the best neighborhood in Weston, with lots of land around it for the growing of ornamental trees and shrubs in a beautiful, and largely useless, garden. The symbol of Haran, a golden eight-pointed star, was embossed on the red door. There were no other signs of the building's function, but in this part of the world, there was no need for other signs.

Todrim did not hesitate, but walked up the white-cobbled walkway to the door and went inside. Alessa followed closely, looking back behind her before she entered the temple. Behind her, she saw people staring, and a couple guards entering the area, trying to look casual.

Inside the temple was cool, far cooler than the springtime weather would indicate. The walls were thick and whitewashed, probably plaster, if Alessa didn't miss her guess. She closed the front door behind her, and stood with Todrim, both of them looking around.

The morning light played in through real glass windows, their diamond-shaped panes scattering it like a prism. The air felt new, as if the day hadn't made up its mind yet how it felt. A lamp in a brushed-silver sconce was set in one wall, the light still burning, casting unseeable light around the already-daylit room. An archway set about with red velvet curtains went one way, and doors were set to the left and right. A large, white marble statue stood near the velvet-lined archway; Alessa knew already that this was supposedly Haran's Avatar, Saint Someone Or Other Noble from Priascialla. She never remembered all the names of that odd religion.

Some acolytes, all younger than their visitors, wore red cassocks, or white, or grey, and were gathered in small bunches off to one side, near one of the large doors, upon which was hung what looked like a duty roster. Alessa had seen far too many not to know exactly what it was. The young men turned, saw the pair there in their green cassocks, and whispered among themselves. One of them opened that door and bolted down a hall. The rest of the acolytes stared without saying a word.

Todrim sighed deeply. "What a walk! Makes a body thirsty, doesn't it, Alessa?"

She stared at him. "Todrim," she muttered.

"Amazing that nobody'd offer a visitor a drink of berry juice!"

The acolytes remembered, all five of them, that they had duties elsewhere and, like their friend down the hall, bolted down other corridors.

The sixth acolyte had knocked upon a door, and spoken with someone on the other side of it, down the hall. Alessa tried not to notice what was going on, as she hated feeling like a snoop. But it did not escape her that a rotund fellow in a deep red cassock came bumbling out of that doorway, closing and locking it behind him, and came over to them. The acolyte stayed in the hall, shutting the door behind him.

The priest, for it had to be a priest, had a very fine woolen cassock on, trimmed in woven-silk bands of silvery-grey ribbon embroidered in white. It was very well-made, covering his bulk almost like a dress, pooling near his feet. The sleeves were huge, bell-like, revealing a fine white undershirt beneath, the sleeves gathered into cuffs. He wore a golden starburst necklace, the 8-pointed star so sacred to him. Alessa wondered if the points on it ever stuck into his skin. She was very aware of her amulet worn outside her cassock, almost burning her, it felt like.

The priest looked them both over. "Ah, " he said. "We don't get many of your type here."

Alessa spoke before Todrim could. "We have walked from our abbey in Westbridge, to speak with you, Father Lucan."

He didn't look happy at that. Bald, squinty-eyed, and possessed of a singular set of jowls, he had all the makings of a sourpuss, and he was looking fairly sour at the idea of entertaining Preservationists. Alessa said quickly, "We will not need much of your time, and we have come far, sir."

She hoped, very much, that Todrim had something clever up his sleeve.

The priest chewed air a moment, thinking, then pushed a hand toward the other door. "Let's talk in there," he said. "I haven't broken my fast yet."

The pair followed him into a magnificent refectory, one clearly intended only for those living in the temple. Fine white-oak tables, carved and lacquered, were covered in white runners of the finest linen, all lavishly embroidered with gold and red silk along the edges in the starburst design and others holy to Haran. Alessa wondered why the acolytes here had so much time on their hands; she'd never seen anything at her home, or even in her life, so lavishly made or appointed as this refectory.

The priest sat down and another acolyte they'd seen earlier approached with a magnificent crystal decanter set with a golden handle and engraved base, to pour wine into pale-green glass goblets on his tray. The acolyte was dusty-brown-haired, like most people here, and seemed surprised when Alessa thanked him for handing her her goblet.

She waited for the priest and Todrim to get their wine, not sure what to do. The priest nodded to the acolyte, who bowed and backed away, still slightly bowed, to stand near the door. Then the priest harumphed and held up his glass. The two visitors looked quickly at each other, then followed suit.

"In the name of the Father we love, I bid you greetings and upon you pray blessings," he said, in what was clearly a ritual saying; it lacked a certain conviction.

"Greetings from our own home, and we certainly thank you for your blessing," said Todrim.

The priest took a drink of wine.

Alessa and Todrim took a drink. Alessa's eyes bulged despite her years of training, and she held the liquid in her mouth, trying to decide what to do. She looked frantically at Todrim, who looked just as surprised. Eventually, because the vinegary wine was too vile to hold on her tongue, she swallowed, suppressing a gag.

The sediments! The mold! The sourness! She rubbed her tongue against the roof of her mouth, unable to look at Todrim. She did, however, sneak a peek at the priest, and he was looking at his goblet dubiously.

"Well," said Lucan. "Not our, ah, best vintage, apparently." He looked toward the doorway, where the acolyte cringed, his decanter held behind his back.

"Yes," said Todrim quickly, as if he'd made a decision. "In fact, this is what I came to ask you, and you just answered me."

"I did?" The portly priest peered at Todrim, amused.

"Yes." He held out his goblet. "Of late, our brewers have been getting great praise, among our order. We are now producing too much wine and ale. We came to ask you, who is so well known a conoisseur, for help in locating a potential buyer for it all."

The priest looked rather surprised. Alessa had to admit that she felt rather surprised herself, though she did not reveal this fact. The information Todrim provided was entirely news to her, but he undoubtedly had something up his sleeve, and she didn't want to ruin it.

Todrim set down the goblet with an ill-disguised grimace of distaste. "Where are you getting this stuff, anyway?"

The priest, still surprised, was taking a minute to work around to this new concept. He stammered, lost in thought, "Our supplier is .." He looked at the goblet Todrim had set down, and set his own down. "Not important. Tell me more about this." His eyes were hungry; his smile spoke volumes.

"I will. Why, do you know, we even brew this magnificent plum liqueur..." Todrim trailed off chattily, grinning like a maniac.

"Really," said Lucan. It wasn't a question. It was more of a purr. His eyes narrowed shrewdly and he leaned forward. "Yes, do tell me more."

The pair left the temple much, much later. Todrim sauntered along with the happy-go-lucky gait of one who has won against difficult odds. Alessa walked beside him, simmering just as Ral had the day before.

The streets were now filled with people, most of them poorly-dressed villagers and the odd visiting transient miner there for supplies. Merchants, apprentices, children, wives, farmers, and others pushed past the two heading west out of town, and Alessa felt pounded by their voices, their bodies, their undisciplined ways. She didn't speak until they had left. Nobody molested them on their way out, probably because they were lost in the mid-day crush and the constables had much more to do than harass infidels. Todrim had an order form in his hand, written on paper bearing the seal of the Church of Haran, and he consulted it ostentatiously as they walked; perhaps that also had something to do with their peace as they left.

But when they were on the road, passing the goat farms, Alessa finally spoke, and felt her kinship with Ral more firmly than ever. "Todrim, why did you tell that priest all that?"

He grinned over at her. "Because it's true! He needs a new brewer, and we've got great brewers!"

"We're not producing that much extra, and you know it."

Todrim laughed merrily. "Gloomygus! We could make much more, and you know it!"

She turned her attention to some fine, long-haired goats looking for grass near one fence. "And what IS plum liqueur? I've never even heard of it."

"I suppose we'd better find out. He's expecting a shipment in one year."

She frowned. Deeply. Tried to get her anger under control. "Todrim, you've guaranteed the doom of the abbey."

He stopped walking and looked at her intently, as if gauging her intelligence, or her perception. She stood her ground calmly. "Companion Alessa," he said almost formally, "I've guaranteed a link between the Abbey and the Church in that village. The priest will NEVER let us be bothered, because we'll see to it we're indispensable to him. He loves his stomach, and you already told me he's more or less in charge of Weston. He'll make sure the Council knows how indispensable we are, and the Abbey gets money, lots of it, prestige, lots of it, and the love of the whole village for supplying them such lovely ale.. for a price. Isn't that worth it all?"

Alessa listened, but her brow remained furrowed. "I suppose Mother Kastiel will need to make the final decision." Perhaps, she thought, this approach would work better than ambiguous quests to help and heal, things that were open to interpretation, or didn't affect a great number of people. Was she getting cynical, to believe that ale would work where healing couldn't?

But Todrim gave her no time to think further, for he said, "She'll love it. She's practical, that woman. Now, let's get going, or it'll be dark when we get home, and I want to see her face by daylight when I tell her how much good the Abbey will see of this!"

And to her lasting surprise, Alessa found herself agreeing, oddly enough, and let Todrim lead the way back.

She did not, however, as much as he hinted he wanted her to do so, hop. Fair was fair.

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