Chapter One, Scene One
The Five of Cups
Erela laid out the tarot cards with shaking hands. Five of Cups. Seven of Wands. Cassandra’s Wheel.
The first she knew well enough. For three weeks she had waited here in Delmoir, a rapidly growing town in the center of Lis-Maen, near the edge of the Cantermagne Gorge. For three weeks, she had been without her family. Well, everyone save her uncle, Cornelius.
Her mother had been the first to suggest that Erela stay with Cornelius while the muster traveled north, past Bastion and into Steymhorod. There, her muster would convene with several others, including Boss Sacha’s.
Erela didn’t want to meet with Sacha’s muster, especially with so little time lapsed since their last encounter. Trapped together for a week by an unforeseen blizzard in the Meridiennes, Sacha’s high priest had marked Erela as one set aside by fate and demanded that she leave her family to join the ranks of their religious order.
The fact that Sacha’s muster followed the visions of priests and not priestesses was strange enough, but the priests had concocted additional religious mandates in their service to Cassandra. They bound themselves and the priestesses who aided them to celibacy, so as to better hone the inner eye. What was more, they held the greatest sway over the muster’s travels. Rather than advising the boss as best they could, they functioned as the leader of the muster, with Sacha as a figurehead and mouthpiece. This left those in the muster relatively powerless in influencing the muster’s travels and communal practices. The priests held themselves apart.
Things had not always been this way. Several years before, her datha had explained, another wise and kind boss had led what was now Sacha’s muster, with the boss’s sister as high priestess, serving at her right hand. Tragedy struck their muster as they traveled south from Vestige. Bloodthirsty creatures, sent from Alessandra herself attacked in penumbral hours before the dawn. The boss and the priestesses did not survive.
With their numbers reduced by half, a new era dawned, with Sacha and a blood-ordained sect of priests at the helm. All those who had survived the attack bowed at the feet of their new leaders and accepted their mandates.
Those outside Sacha’s muster watched with caution and asked Cassandra to reveal the truth of what had transpired when the time was right.
Erela shivered as she recalled the panic in her mother’s eyes at the priest’s declaration, made before all those gathered. It had been her mother’s reaction and not the priest’s shouted words that had helped her to realize the severity of the situation he had created. For almost a thousand years, their people had longed to return to their home. And as their hopes twisted to despair, more musters considered the alternate path foretold by Danut and his followers. He had only to choose a partner for himself, the priest explained, a singular exception to their practice of celibacy, and for the first time, their goddess would appoint not one chosen, but two. And together, they would resurrect the ruins of Orison and return the saudad to their rightful home.
During their last meeting, Danut had proclaimed that Erela was to be his partner in the reclamation of their homeland.
Datha had scowled and stepped between his daughter and the priest, symbolically refusing the match. As the gathering reacted to her father, Mama had pulled Erela back to the safety of their wagon. “A shadow holds fast the fate of Sacha’s muster, cher’a,” her mother whispered. “Spread on the table before it is a hand of cards that have yet to be revealed. Be not anxious for the shadow’s gaze to fall upon you.” The muster had abandoned their meeting and sought shelter among the witches of the Emeraude.
But within the year, Lord Draego of Steymhorod had requested their aid, a gift of healing for his new wife he believed none beyond Mama could bestow. When Sacha’s muster heard of Draego’s plight, they promised their aid as well.
Erela had bowed to her parents’ wishes and consented to stay behind with Unchi Cornelius and his partner, Rupert. The two made a striking pair together, each bright-eyed and inventive.
Across Eldura, the Cities’ nobles and politicians sought the couple’s creations. Cornelius’s extensive experience as an apothecary and Rupert’s as a mechanist had seen innovations in airships and mechanized contraptions. They had even dabbled with aiding their neighbor, a witch named Abigail, with enchanting various “assistants,” as she liked to call them. The part-metal, part-skeletal creations littered the garden patch that ran between her uncle and the witch’s home. Her first three nights here, Erela had struggled to sleep for the clanking and clicking of the magically animated creatures.
Of course, without her uncle and Rupert, she would never have met Maverick and Lyra. Both inventors in their own right, it was Lyra who had first caught her eye one rainy afternoon in her favorite tavern, the Tilted Cup. A few flirtatious glances, whispered conversation, and two sparkling glasses of wine later, she and Lyra had exchanged their first kiss beneath the dripping eaves of Lyra’s cottage on the edge of the gorge.
Lyra’s hand had slipped on the doorknob as she tried to open it, and she giggled in the middle of their kiss, the sound tickling Erela’s lips. Erela sprang back when the door swung open beneath Lyra’s fingertips instead, and a dark-haired man with warm brown eyes had stared at her and then smiled. “Who have you brought home this time?” His shining gaze danced over Erela’s sodden frame and beamed at Lyra before he beckoned them both inside out of the rain. Their afternoon together had dampened the loneliness leaking from Erela’s chest, but even the affections of the two young inventors weren’t enough to fill the hole left by her muster.
“So let me ensure that I understand,” Rupert said in his rolling baritone on Erela’s twenty-third evening in Delmoir. “This sudden caution emerged from folk legends surrounding your great-great-grandmother?”
Behind Rupert’s shoulder, her uncle shook his head. Though Rupert loved Cornelius, he still struggled to understand the importance of saudad stories. Like so many outside their people, he refused to accept that the line he wished to draw between myth and legend was as much part of his own imagination as he believed the saudad mythology to be.
Erela bit back several retorts before she settled on one that would be respectful to her parents and people without confusing Rupert further. “Circe’s blood flows through my mother’s line and grants us a special place among our people.”
Cornelius nodded behind his partner. Her father’s brother had been one of the only saudad she had ever known to choose life outside the muster. Her uncle masked any sadness this caused well, but Erela felt its gentle tug in moments like these. At least they understood one another.
“It would be like . . .” Erela squinted at the floor, trying to conjure an appropriately impressive comparison.
Her uncle intervened. “Like the Blazing Battalion asking us to craft a special line of weapons for the champions.”
Rupert’s eyes widened at the idea.
“He doesn’t mean the money that such a request would bring,” Erela clarified. “Instead, it would be the honor and prestige of such a request.”
“Hmm, I believe I understand,” Rupert answered. “Just as we revere the champions, the saudad revere your great-great-grandmother.”
Erela smiled. “Exactly.”
The inventor raised a quizzical eyebrow. “But can not the champions take care of themselves?” he challenged. “As a blood-heir of this revered line”—he waved his hand to substitute whatever term might more appropriately fit ‘blood-heir’—“why aren’t you powerful enough to fend for yourself against whatever misfortune this other muster brings?”
Erela returned her eyes to the floor. The fluttering wings of her uncle’s gaze traipsed over her, begging her to understand, to not be hurt by Rupert’s words, but it was all too much. The ever-present weight of her family leaving her behind clouded her vision, and its wispy fog blurred the lines of everything else around her. “I’m sorry that I’m not as powerful as the Chosen of Cassandra.” Her voice was whisper-quiet, a rustle across the quiet apartment.
She hurried away from Rupert and her uncle and dashed for the stairs.
“Erela,” Rupert called after her, “that’s not what I—”
The thud of her door silenced the second part of his apology.
She clomped across the wooden boards of her small bedroom and slid to the floor next to the green marble fireplace. Erela laid her forehead against her knees and wrapped her arms around her head, muffling the sobs that shook her shoulders.
All of this would have been easier if she truly were the Chosen of Cassandra. But she was just one saudad, alone and without her family. And it would be several more weeks at least before she saw them again.
The Tree of Silver Chapter One, “The Five of Cups,” copyright 2021 Beth Ball. All rights reserved.