She wanted to hate it. But the golden towers of glass reflected the sky and clouds where they rose to lofty heights above a city of translucent stone. The Temple of Solaire was a beautiful place beyond anything Niri imagined. And now it was her home. It would be perfect if only her family could be there with her.
“You dawdle,” Earth Priestess Broona said, pushing Nirine along from where she’d frozen in awe on the wharf having finally been freed from a dark room in the ship behind her.
Nirine stumbled forward, barely remembering to watch her path as her eyes slipped back to the sight before her. Gone were the nightmarish days spent crying and screaming in the room no better than a closet with a bed. She still could not bend her fingers due to the splinters and scratches received pounding on the locked door.
Gone too were the fears that she’d never been so far from home with or without her family. She’d traveled from her beloved island home of Tiero around the archipelago and across the sea, the very SEA!, to the vast island of Erowok. Even if she hadn’t seen any of it. Not a whiff of daylight had been granted her since Broona had claimed her at the solstice ceremony, and led Nirine away from her sobbing mother.
No, the sight of Solaire was enough to make her forget even that.
Eyes watering from unaccustomed daylight as much as lack of blinking so as not to miss anything around her, Nirine stumbled down the wharf with eyes on anything but her feet until the closest, and much more ordinary, waterside buildings hid the glittering towers behind them.
The streets were crowded with people and donkey driven carts, the mass of feet churning the dirt roadway to mud. Niri had destroyed her slippers on the ship and Broona hadn’t given her anything else to wear. The press of unknown people stomping by, as well as fears of bruised toes, shied Niri against Broona’s legs. Despite disliking the aloof Priestess, Niri would have taken the woman’s hand if hers could have grasped properly.
“You’ll trip me girl! Stand up straight,” Broona sent Niri sprawling into the mud with a shove. “Get up, come. I want to be done with you and return to my room.”
As she stood the sight of her solstice dress, the one her mother had made for her and carefully helped her put on days ago, sent overdue tears sliding down Niri’s cheeks. Her hands were coated as well, so she could not even try to wipe the skirt clean. She would only increase the filth.
“Oh good goddess, girl. Why are you crying now. Five minutes ago you couldn’t stop staring at your new home.”
Broona stood in the center of the road with hands on hips, ignoring the obstacle she made herself as carts and pedestrians veered around her.
“I… my mother.” Niri couldn’t keep her voice from waivering, though she managed to choke back the rising sobs. “She made this,” Niri whispered at last, holding out the muddied skirt.
Broona’s face softened a degree. She sighed. The ground beneath Niri vibrated, the feeling rising up through her legs as if her bones meant to dislodge. Niri’s ears filled with a whirring sound, until they popped and all sound faded. She stood staring at Broona who was surrounded in a brown haze. It disappeared with a blink.
Broona started to laugh. “That the first time you’ve seen power called?” Broona asked, pushing Niri ahead, though more gently this time.
“The first time I had it used on me,” Niri said breathlessly. She looked down at her dress now free of any muddy stain. Only a thread from a damaged hem, something Niri had done herself in her fit on the boat, marred the dress. “Thank you.”
Broona humphed, keeping a hand on Niri’s back as she guided her up the street. “Your training will really begin in Solaire. But there is no harm talking as we walk. Earth is the second greatest ability an Elemental can have. Your gift, water, is third.” Broona looked down at Niri with pride glinting in her eye.
“What is first?” Niri asked.
“You are curious… that can be good and bad. Fire,” Boona continued without explaining her first comment, “fire is the greatest ability. Which leaves what for the least?”
“Air. Why is that the least?”
“Because it is, child. It is one thing to be curious and another to question. Mind your teachers and do not irritate them.”
There was enough of a bite in Broona’s voice that Niri did not ask more. Instead Niri’s mind focused on something Broona had said and Niri had only just realized. She was a water Elemental. And she was here in Solaire to learn to control water. Niri made the walk through the port section of the town in a daze, guided by Broona’s hand.
The road wound out of the harbor’s lowland and up a hill until the tight houses of brick, stone, or thatch fell away to a narrow greenway. Beyond it sat the elegant stone buildings of the Temple of Solaire. Above them rose the lofty towers glinting in the afternoon sun.
Across the stretch of lawn and flowers, the Temple appeared bigger than the city of Tiero where Niri had grown up. And it held far more than buildings and businesses… and far less. There were garden after garden, some with fountains, others of stone. Some held windchimes, tall plants with fronds, and long streamers of fluttering cloth. And there were some whose every surface reflected light so brightly that it made Niri’s eyes water and head ache.
Here there were no shops or merchants. No one hocked food or clothes. Niri had no idea what the multitude of buildings held. Unless they were homes for the Priestesses and Priest of the Church of Four Orders. Everywhere people wearing robes of varying color walked between buildings and through the gardens.
“They are all Elementals,” Niri said in awe. She hadn’t known there were so many with the goddess’ gifts in Myrrah. “I am an Elemental,” Niri whispered breathless and tingling at the thought.
“You are the making of one,” Broona said, voice deep with amusement. “You have a long road ahead of you to be a Water Priestess, child.”
“Here is a water girl for you.”
The woman Broona spoke to cast a lazy glance over Niri before turning back to the boy sniffing at her feet. “Will you fail again?”
“No, Priestess,” he replied, voice smaller than his balled frame.
“Good. Go back to the others. You, girl, join them.”
Niri jumped, realizing the Priestess was speaking to her. Scurrying to join the other eight children, Niri didn’t think about Broona until she turned and found the woman who’d brought her was gone. Panic lanced up Niri. Broona had been her only connection to home, someone who had at least explained a little of life in Solaire. But she’d left without a word, deserting Niri who didn’t know what to do. Or what not to do. Niri stared at the welt on the boy’s face. Despite the tears shimmering in his eyes, he glared at her and tilted his chin up.
“Misma, you next.”
A slight girl who looked to be a year or more older than Niri’s nine, danced anxiously forward, brushing long dark hair from her face. She glanced back at the other students before placing her hands on opposite sides of a stone bowl before staring into the watery depths. Nothing happened. An aching minute passed. Misma’s hands began to tremble, the shaking moving up her arms as the Priestess sighed.
“Such unskilled pupils,” the Priestess said, stepping forward.
The water in the bowl sloshed. Misma took a startled breath, caught herself, and focused again. Lazily, the water stirred, finally resolving into a small whirlpool that whipped around the bowl. Niri breathed in awe as well as relief.
“Good. Slow, but you managed something,” the Priestess said. “Kymrik, you are next.”
Kymrik marched forward like a young soldier, one that hated the order but would obey. He gave the Priestess a hooded glance from under his sandy blonde bangs, green eyes flashing, before he looked at the feather on the pedestal before him. It blew off the stone top. Kymrik stepped back with a pleased smile.
“Do it again,” the Priestess snapped, halting Kymrik before he’d walked two steps back to the class. “How do I know you didn’t blow on it?”
Anger swept across his face, but he toned the hot look to annoyance before he turned and bowed to the Priestess. As he stood, a whirlwind caught the feather, twirling it upwards from where it had fallen on the ground. Kymrik managed to lift the feather to the height of the pedestal, but there it stalled at an impasse. He tried shifting the small cyclone sideways, but the square stone top broke his whirlwind and sent the feather tumbling.
The Priestess laughed. “You wanted to show off. Put the feather on top of the pedestal and do not use your hands. We will wait.”
Kymrik took a deep breath and tried again. The next attempt, he danced the whirlwind adjacent to the pedestal and then sent a breeze to push the feather sideways. It was too strong and the feather fell off the other side. The Priestess smiled and lifted an eyebrow. He tried again.
By the fifth try, Kymrik managed to balance the upward whirlwind with a sideways along with a downward gust. The feather landed on the stone top and stayed there. Kymrik released a held breath, the haughty anger from earlier replaced with glazed exhaustion. He rubbed an eye as if he had a headache.
“Good. Next time do it correctly the first time. Rahnef, you are next.”
So it continued through the remaining four. The fire children lit a spark in a small pile of dried grass set on a pedestal matching the one holding the feather. An earth child rolled a round pebble an inch in an effort that collapsed her to her knees. At that the Priestess snorted.
“You will never progress to the maze, child. I don’t know why you were sent here, Pasir.”
Pasir walked back to the class with her head low and face concealed by red-blonde locks. Niri wanted to feel bad for Pasir, but the fear that had been growing as each student stepped forward pushed aside other concerns. All of the other children had taken their turn, all but her. And now the Priestess watched Niri.
“Your name, water girl?”
“Nirine,” she said on a shaky breath.
“Have you ever called power before?”
Niri shook her head, unable to speak. The Priestess glared at her. “No,” Niri spat. The Priestess looked angrier. “No, Priestess,” she squeaked.
“Well now is your chance.” The Priestess motioned Niri to the water bowl.
Niri inched forward, reaching the bowl feeling as if she carried double her weight in dread. She did as Misma had done, placing a hand on each side of the bowl, and looking down into the still puddle. A dark eyed, olive skinned, brown-haired and very frightened girl stared back from the surface.
“I don’t know what to do,” Niri admitted, glancing at the Priestess.
“Do you think I do? I’m an Air Priestess, not a water.”
The frustrating unfairness of it nearly sent Niri crying. She’d been taken from her family for this? To be given to a woman who didn’t care and couldn’t teach her? Niri swallowed her tears as the Priestess shifted her weight and sighed. On the same breath where Niri hoped Broona had been wrong and that she wasn’t really a water girl, Niri wished with all her might she could make the water move. A line rippled across the surface, breaking her reflection.
“Hunh,” the Priestess said, stepping forward. “Again.”
Niri hadn’t done anything. She would have sworn that. It had been the wind or a water bug, anything but her.
“I can’t. I want to go home!”
The Priestess slapped Niri so quickly that she didn’t see the hand coming. “Never speak to me like that, girl. I said do it again!”
Niri’s skin stung, the shock wearing off into a turbulent fury that felt like ice inside her. She returned to the bowl, staring at the water as if she stared into the soul of the girl whose reflection waited there. And she wished there was no water in her.
Water hitting her hands as it raced out of the bowl erased the clear anger in Niri’s mind. She stumbled back as the bowl emptied, a circular sheet of water sliding from the rim to the ground. Niri stared from the empty bowl to the Priestess.
The Priestess sighed. “All of my students try me. Enough for today. Report for your assigned chores. You, water girl, will refill the bowl you just emptied… with sea water. Using a spoon.”
“She is Priestess Calysthia,” Misma said to Niri. They sat crosslegged facing each other from their respective beds, which were barely a foot apart, in the girl’s dormitory. “How did you do that on your first try? I stood in front of that bowl for weeks managing nothing until Priestess Calysthia grew bored. What she called me made me cry, but didn’t help me call water.”
“How can she be in charge of us?” Niri asked.”I’ve had tutors. They could make me learn without me realizing it.”
Niri’s feet hurt. She’d walked the path between water bowl and sea so many times she could find her way in the dark. Which it had been in her last run, when she’d used a cup and risked punishment for it. Tired as she was, she wanted to know more about Solaire and this Priestess who was her teacher. Or at least pretended to be. Calysthia hadn’t even been there when Niri finished her task. So Niri had sat by the bowl until a Priestess smelling of herbs had come and asked why she sat outside in the dark. That Priestess had been kind at least, taking Niri’s hand to lead her here.
Misma cocked her head at Niri. “Tutors? Your parents were important then?”
Niri blushed. “My grandfather is city elder in Tiero. You?”
“My family are cooks. Everyone but me, I guess.” Misma stared at her bedcovers.
“How long have you been here?” Niri asked when Misma stayed silent. The sound of slow breaths filled the night air around them like moths made of air.
“A month,” Misma said quietly. “I only learned to spin water a week ago.” She rubbed her arm at that, remembered pain on her face.
“We could practice? I don’t know how I did that. I didn’t even believe I was a Water Elemental. But maybe we can figure it out.”
Misma smiled, laying back on her narrow bed. “You are a Water Elemental. A good one already. We can try tomorrow. It isn’t like Calysthia is going to show us.”
Morning routine involved more chores as the Elemental children separated to make breakfast for the Priests and Priestesses, clean rooms, and tend livestock. After that there were several hours of education in a style Niri was familiar with. Here an Earth Elemental Priest brought out books of history and people across the world of Myrrah. For a time, Niri forgot again that she was so far from home and uncertain when, if, she would return.
It was after that when a meager lunch of bread and fruit was handed out that Misma appeared and grabbed Niri’s hand. Behind her stood Pasir and Haetrhi. “We have almost two hours before we meet with Calysthia,” Misma said, tugging Niri to come with them.
“Shouldn’t we ask Kymrik to join us?” Niri asked as she scooped up her food.
“Why?” Haetrhi asked. “He hardly needs practice.”
“Exactly. He knows what he is doing. Maybe he can teach us.”
“That’s true,” Pasir said. “He is the best of us at this. It wouldn’t hurt to ask.”
“If you ask Soukat, he would say he is the best,” Theyoef said. “I know where Kymrik eats. Come on.”
Kyrmik wasn’t eating though. At least not primarily. He chewed absently as he danced a feather in a circle around himself, turning slowly in time with the whirlwind he controlled. When he saw his classmates, the feather fell as the wind died.
“No wonder you are so good. I thought it was because you were older,” Haetrhi said.
Kymrik took another bite from the apple in his hand. “Age has nothing to do with it. Look at the new girl,” he said pointing to Niri with the handful of fruit. “She looks to be the youngest and managed more than most of us did in our first months.”
“So you’ve been practicing. For how long?” Misma asked, sitting on the stones that made up the little circular garden where Kymrik had hidden himself and his efforts.
“Two weeks,” he said with a shrug. “I wondered when the rest of the class would realize it. The only way to advance from Calysthia’s teachings is to show you have strong abilities.”
“But how do you control the wind?” Niri asked. “I don’t understand how it is done.”
“And yet you did it,” Kymrik said with a lifted brow. He sighed and sat in the center of the circular stone garden. “What did you think of when you made the water leave the bowl?”
Niri’s cheeks grew warm. “I saw my reflection and… I wanted the water out of me,” she said in a whisper. “I don’t want to be a Water Elemental. I want to go home.” Niri dropped next to Misma, who put her arm around her.
“This is your home now,” Kymrik said. He looked over the small group in front of him. “It will be for the rest of your life. If you want to do well and have freedom, it is best to accept that.”
“How do you know so much?” Pasir asked, wiping a hand across her eye.
Kymrik shrugged. “There is an older student I know who is from Finndale as well. He told me.”
“So that is what you do? Think of keeping the feather aloft and it does?” Haetrhi asked.
Kymrik snorted. “No. I think of a small breeze swirling upward just where I want it and how fast I want and how tall… and you can’t think of anything else or it will fall apart. I don’t think about the feather at all.”
“I already have a headache,” Misma said, setting the cup of water in front of her. “I’ll go first,” she said with a glance at Niri.
“Otherwise you might not have any water left,” Pasir teased. Niri stuck her tongue out at her.
Niri, Misma, Pasir, and Haetrhi were tired when they arrived at their afternoon class, but each managed better than they had the day before. And Niri finally believed she was a Water Elemental. She could feel the drops of water slide over her fingers, following her thoughts. Even with only one day of practice, she was better than Misma and spun the water for Calysthia as if born to it. Because she was.
Misma did not mind her skill was harder earned. She was happy when it was her turn and she could move the water clockwise or counterclockwise as Calysthia demanded. Not being hit or pinched was enough for her. Kymrik too minded his task and did not show off today, doing exactly as Priestess Calysthia asked.
The only one who was hit this day was Soukat. “I said light a spark!” Calysthia yelled, towering over Soukat where he’d fallen after Calysthia strike. “Two months and you cannot even hold fire long enough to create a flame in dried shavings. I don’t care who your parents are or what they expect of you, but you are not worthy to be here.”
Calysthia chased him out of the small garden where they practiced. Brushing back her disarrayed hair, she glared at the rest of her students. “Afternoon chores, now!” They scattered.
“How did you improve so much?” Rahnef asked Misma as they met up outside the children’s dormitories at dinner that night.
Misma glanced at Niri and Pasir. “We’ve been practicing.”
“Do you want to come?” Niri asked. “We will meet again tomorrow.”
“We should ask the others too,” Rahnef said. “At least Theyoef and Bissyl.”
“Why not Soukat? I think he needs it the most,” Niri said.
“I wouldn’t recommend it,” Pasir said. “He’ll find a way to get us in trouble.”
The other girls left to head upstairs to their beds, but Niri hesitated. Soukat sat by himself, tearing at his bread as if to shred it rather than to eat.
“Are you alright?” Niri asked him as she approached.
Soukat might not have been able to summon fire, but there was enough of it in the look he sent Niri.
“I’m fine, water girl. Leave me alone.”
Niri hesitated. “I thought you might need help, we—” Niri stumbled back as Soukat bolted upright, spraying his food into the grass.
Soukat pushed Niri’s shoulder. “I do not need help from a water girl! Fire is the strongest element. No matter what I choose to show Priestess Calysthia about my abilities, I am better than you. Water has no place near fire.”
Niri turned and raced away.
Niri and her classmates had been sneaking away to practice elemental skills for two weeks. All in the class were improving except Soukat, who didn’t join them, and, hopefully, didn’t know what the rest of his classmates did on the breaks where they mysteriously disappeared. Even Pasir, who had once struggled to move a stone an inch, could control a round pebble enough to guide it through the scratched maze they made in the dirt of the garden where they hid their secret self-guided lessons.
Besides improvement and some new challenges from Priestess Calysthia, little changed in the afternoon classes. Until an afternoon when they arrived and a tall Priest stood beside Calysthia. He watched the children gather without saying a word.
With the silent Priest present, Calysthia refrained from her usual caustic comments. Nor did she threaten to hit anyone, though with each student’s improvement over the prior days, that had been diminishing anyway. Instead, the class was silent, but for Calysthia speaking the name of the next to stand in front of her or his pedestal under the gaze of a Priestess and Priest.
Nervously, each child called forth skills. Soukat trembled as he stepped forward, being only the second to be called that day. The spark he could sometimes conjure brightened once and then refused to reappear. Minutes inched by with an increasingly frustrated Soukat.
Next to Niri, Bissyl and Rahnef glanced at each other. Both were fire children who could not only dance flames, but could throw a spark. Niri bumped them both. The Priest’s amused gaze lay on them instead of Soukat.
“Enough,” the Priest said, the word not unpleasant in its tone. But Soukat flinched nonetheless. He slunk back to the class, rubbing a wrist across his eye.
“Nirine,” Calysthia called.
“She is the new water girl?” the Priest asked her. Calysthia nodded once.
Niri kept the Priest in the corner of her eye as she walked to the stone bowl. It had only been the second time the Priest had spoken, and that he knew of her made her nervous. She placed trembling hands on either side of the bowl, uncertain what to do. She could make the water spin. She did that every day. But it didn’t feel enough. Though it was the easiest thing to start with.
The water turned, the lazy motion quickly become a whirlpool. Normally, Niri would have released the hold on her element with that. Normally she would have taken longer too, just so as not to stand out. But what Kymrik said came back to her. If she wanted to do well in Solaire, standing out by being good at what she controlled was important.
With a thought, Niri split the spinning water into bands so that a watery spiral spun in the bowl like a writhing snake. The Priest stepped forward. Suddenly nervous, Niri released her hold and the tight bands merged into a puddle as still as if she had never called it to move.
“Wait,” the Priest said as Niri stumbled back a step. He pulled a ribbon from a pocket of blue robe and dipped it in the water. “Dry it.”
Niri froze. She didn’t control air to summon a breeze. Confused, she met the Priests eyes. “I…”
“Pull the water from it,” he said, voice more kind than impatient.
Calysthia had never given a hint like that. She had never really helped teach them to do anything. The difference between the Priest and Calysthia pricked a desire in Niri. She didn’t want to be Calysthia’s student. She wanted to be his.
But Niri had never tried to pull water from something before. She tried pushing it from the cloth, but only sped up the drips. Instead she tried to pull it to join the water in the bowl, but that created a finger of water reaching up to the ribbon. That was almost right though. She let the thread of water touch the cloth and then reversed the flow, telling the drops to slide down, not up.
It wasn’t perfect and the cloth was still damp when the trickle of water stopped. Niri knew that because she felt it. So connected with her element, she could have pointed to every damp leaf and puddle nearby. But the effort had given her a headache too. She walked back to her classmates disappointed for the first time in days with herself and her gift.
The Priest returned to Calysthia’s side, waiting until the remaining students had their turn. He paid attention to Misma as well, but did not give her a similar challenge. When all were done, the students and two teachers stood awkwardly gazing at each other.
“I will take both water girls,” the Priest said at last. “Send them to me from now on in the afternoon. I will tell others that most of the children here have progressed and are ready for more advanced tutelage.” His gaze fell on Soukat when he said “most.”
Soukat looked away, hands curling into fists.
“But the younger one hasn’t been in Solaire a month,” Calysthia hissed. “And the other isn’t very skilled.”
“The one has worked hard, which shows dedication and promise. And the other, as you accidentally pointed out, is very skilled. Send them both,” he said again. “After all, what more do you think you could teach them?”
With that he turned and left. Calysthia’s anger after his departure wasn’t enough to diminish the happiness of the students. They met at dinner, laughing to think of the forthcoming freedom from their teacher. Soukat arrived late, sneaking into the hall and casting his classmates a sidelong glance.
“We could help him,” Niri began.
Rahnef shook her head. “I don’t think even practice would help him. There is barely a spark of red or gold in his aura.”
Niri didn’t understand what the dark girl who hailed from the southern shore meant. So much of being an Elemental and living at Solaire was assumed that Niri had trouble absorbing what she didn’t know. She went to ask, but a Priestess in glistening lavender robes stormed into the meal hall. A Priest trotted behind, his yellow robes no less fine.
Niri didn’t need the halt in conversation or students frozen halfway between tables to know the pair were important. The Priestess cast a feeling of power through the room. The man standing behind her held the same sway, though his felt brighter. More yellow. Like his robes. Rahnef’s statement about auras sorted itself in Niri’s head.
“Which of you burnt my rare snowflower bush? I know it was a student. High Priest Nezerreth saw a child running from my garden as the flames took the sole memento of my home. Who would dare do this?”
Not a breath broke the silence in the hall.
“Line up the fire children. Obviously it was one of them, High Priestess Lyannder,” High Priest Nezerreth said.
“It was me,” Soukat said, rising to his feet.
A surprised sigh rippled around the hall. The High Priestess raised an eyebrow. Even she knew of the lack of Soukat’s power. Niri winced.
Soukat tilted his chin up at the doubt infusing the air. “I can prove it.” He pulled a crumpled blossom from the inside of his tunic. The room chilled with sudden dampness as the High Priestess glared at Soukat standing defiantly before her.
“Impossible. He never could have,” Bissyl whispered.
“Why?” Lyannder hissed. “You of all here know how much I loved that plant. Why would you do this?”
Soukat threw the flower to the stones at her feet. “Because you are a Water Elemental – a weak element! You do not deserve to be on the High Council of Solaire. Only Fire should rule.”
“Many of the Priests here feel that way,” Kymrik said. “It isn’t just Soukat who thinks Fire should rule.”
“It is considered the strongest of the elements. You’ve heard Priest Guranse at lecture this morning,” Haetrhi said, crossing his arms as he slouched in his chair.
Niri could understand Haetrhi’s annoyance. Priest Guranse had also said that air, Haetrhi’s element, was the weakest. Water, Niri’s element, was the second weakest. Supposedly. After seeing High Priestess’ Lyannder’s power, Niri doubted that.
Rahnef kept her gaze on the table while Bissyl pushed food around his plate. Both were fire children.
“Do you think one element is stronger than other’s?” Niri asked Rahnef.
Rahnef glanced up through her long lashes. Slight red burnished her dark skin. With a sigh, she relaxed her straight back and leaned into her chair. “I don’t know about that. But… the first time I saw Solaire, I thought the golden towers lit by the sun looked like flames.”
“Fire rules the Temple,” Bissyl agreed. “We are told that every day in our afternoon training. Most of the High Priests and Priestesses are Fire Elementals. Only two of the twelve are water, one air, and two earth.”
All the students Niri had started her training with had progressed from Priestess Calysthia’s brutal class to individual tutoring with a Priestess or Priest of their Element. Possibly including Soukat, who they hadn’t seen in a week, not since he’d confessed to burning High Priestess Lyannder’s favorite shrub.
Misma glanced at Niri. “Priest Bai never mentions strong or weak elements,” she said. “He just teaches us how to control water.”
“Probably the best use of your time,” Theyoef teased, jostling Misma. The small group of friends giggled.
They split up after that, hurrying from the lunch hall for their afternoon classes. No longer taught by Calysthia, each looked forward now to learning to hone elemental control. Niri relished her time under Priest Bai’s gaze as he patiently challenged Niri to push her abilities. Most evenings she was exhausted, but happy. Water did not feel like an unimportant element to her at all.
As she ate dinner with her friends that night, the room fell silent as the door to the hall creaked open. Soukat limped across the floor, a smirk on his lips despite a fading bruise across his cheek. All Niri could think was that if fire ruled the Temple of Solaire, it wasn’t kind – not even to one of its own.
It took two days, but Rahnef managed to learn what had happened to Soukat.
“Not even his parents could save him. High Priestess Lyannder demanded Soukat be punished,” she told them.
Soukat’s parents were both powerful Elementals. His mother was a High Priestess of Fire and his father too wielded great authority, though was not on the High Council. He was an Earth Elemental and kept the records for Solaire. And it was said he obeyed everything his wife asked.
“I’m surprised,” Pasir said quietly. “They must know that Soukat doesn’t have the ability to create a spark. From High Priestess Lyannder’s expression when Soukat confessed, even she knows he has little power.”
“With Soukat’s confession and High Priest Nezerreth having seen a child running, what choice would they have had?” Theyoef asked. “He wanted to be punished.”
“No, he wanted everyone to know he had the power to do it,” Kymrik said with distaste.
“What if he did?” Niri asked. “He can hold a spark… sometimes. If he prepared the shrub by pouring something highly flammable over it?”
Rahnef sighed. “That is disturbing… but possible. Maybe he hoped to light it and then save it?”
“And panicked so he couldn’t find the power to put out the fire,” Bissyl added.
“I think you are both being too kind,” Kymrik said. “I think he meant to burn it. I bet his parents are proud.”
If his parents weren’t, Soukat was. And among some of the Elemental children, he was considered a hero. At least for a few days. By the end of the week as word raced through the students that Soukat remained with the beginning teacher and most days couldn’t conjure a spark into existence, Soukat received snickers instead of welcomes. Soon he ate alone again, avoiding the food hall.
It was easy to forget about him and avoid the areas he lurked. Niri might not have remembered Soukat at all, finding so much joy in her training that she occasionally forgot how much she missed her family far away in Tiero. But ignoring Soukat turned out to be worse than feeling sorry for him.
When Niri and Misma arrived for their afternoon training, they found Priest Bai standing over broken stone and wooden bowls. The spilled water dribbled across the classroom floor, leaking under a doorway as if searching to escape. Niri’s surprise froze her in the center of the room, water dampening her shoes. Though she could have prevented it. Misma raced forward, picking up broken bits of cups and bowls, including an ornamental fountain that had taken days for Misma to master.
“It is all right, child,” Bai said, taking the jumble from Misma’s hands. “All can be repaired. It will give the earth children many good lessons.” Bai spoke calmly and soothingly, but there were tears in his eyes.
“Here too?” Priest Guranse asked from the doorway.
That got a reaction from Bai. “Other classrooms were damaged as well?” Bai asked.
Guranse frowned. “All but fire.”
“Soukat,” Misma hissed. “Who else could it have been?” she asked when everyone remained silent.
“It is a lot for one child to accomplish alone,” Guranse said. But he didn’t sound convinced.
“Then he had others help him,” Misma argued.
“We could ask,” Niri agreed. The destruction did remind her of Soukat. As much as she wished it didn’t. “He should be with Priestess Calysthia now.”
“I will get a High Priest,” Guranse said. “Go and ask the child if he knows anything.”
Bai followed Niri and Misma to where Calysthia stood berating a new group of young elemental children. Soukat was not among them.
“He said he’d been selected for individual training days ago,” Calysthia told them.
“You didn’t check?” Bai asked.
Calysthia waved a hand. “What do I care? Nothing would help that boy.” Bai stared at her.
“What do you think Soukat has been doing?” Misma whispered to Niri.
“Destroying classrooms?” Niri guessed.
Bai turned from Calysthia, looking at his two students. “Did you see Bai at the morning lecture? Breakfast? Dinner last night?” he asked as Niri and Misma shook their heads. The irritation Calysthia had caused fell from Bai’s face, fading to worry. “I hope Guranse brings his mother.”
Bai shepherded them back in the direction of the long hall holding the training rooms. Halfway back, they smelled smoke. Bai ran, leaving Niri and Misma to decide if they wanted to follow. The sight of other Priests and Priestess hurrying towards the dormitories and not the training rooms finally spurred them to chase after.
Smoke and flames twisted from broken windows in the boys wing of the building, the sight skidding Niri to a halt. From the midst of it, came a high pitched scream that wailed on and on. Niri and Misma clutched each other, watching Fire Priests and Priestess smother the flames in agonizing slowness. Then in an instant, the fire died.
A tall woman in deep red robes stood staring at the building with a waxen face framed by brown hair the same color as Soukat’s. Her hand remained held out with fist closed from when she’d snuffed the flames. Next to her, Guranse waited in pale fear.
“Where is my son?”
Those near the building stepped back as a Fire Priest with charred robes walked out carrying a small charred bundle. Niri turned from the sight and smell of burnt skin, and gagged.
“I was practicing,” Soukat said, voice trembling and raspy. “But I couldn’t make it stop.”
Soukat’s mother looked at her son dying in another’s arms. Her eyes were distant. With a wince, she turned and walked away.
Guranse grabbed her arm. “I doubt the healers can help him. He will die.”
“Do not dare touch me, Earth Priest,” she hissed, rounding on Guranse. “No true son of mine would be injured by fire.”
This time no one stopped her as she walked away. Only one sound broke the silence as Soukat sobbed, “mother.”
Lyannder’s anger was so complete that snowflakes fell from the cold abyss suffusing the room. “Bring him,” she hissed to Nezerreth. “If I touch him I’ll drown him.”
Soukat’s funeral brought stillness to the Temple of Solaire from the heights of the translucent towers to the usually bustling wharves. It was also the first time that Niri walked through the wide gate set into a rose quartz wall and entered the inner recesses of the Temple to where the most powerful of Elementals lived, including Soukat’s mother, High Priesstess Enfallia.
Priest Bai walked Niri and Misma across the wide stone courtyard between towers so lofty they appeared to touch the sky. They blazed in the sun and what Rahnef had said came back to Niri. They did look like flames reaching high above her. Niri watched her feet, fighting sudden tears in her eyes.
Beyond the high towers, chipped stone blocks perched grew out of a rock outcrop. They looked old and battle worn, though they held back nothing more threatening than a forest. The woodland wasn’t the same as the wild jungle that grew on Niri’s home island of Tiero beyond the warding stones of the town. There were not as many flowers or vines, nor were the leaves as large or frilled. But it was a forest and felt safer to her than the bright towers and sunlit gardens of Solaire.
And beyond the forest, Niri saw that Solaire had one more secret to share. A lake glistened in the morning sun. When she finally reached its shore, Niri could see the small bay opened up to a lake whose farther shore lay beyond sight.
“It is the sea?” Misma asked after touching the water. Niri did the same, feeling the salt in the water with her gift before she tasted its tang in the drops on her fingers when she put them to her lips. “I didn’t think the Temple of Solaire was on a point.”
“It is not, child,” Bai said, sadness weighing his voice. “This is the Lake of Tears and lies behind the Temple of Solaire. Though it is salty like the ocean.”
Anything more Bai would have told them about the lake was dismissed as twelve finely dressed Priests and Priestesses walked down the leaf scattered stone steps between the old Temple and shore. Behind them came a thirteenth carrying a bundle wrapped in red cloth in his arms.
Niri did not need Bai or Misma to tell her the last man who wore robes the color of dark earth was Soukat’s father. The flowing tears and how he cradled the small bundle to his chest said that. Niri took Misma’s hand, feeling the loss of her father and mother afresh. The tears sliding down her cheeks washed the pride of small accomplishments in Solaire away. In that moment, Niri would have traded her gift of controlling water for her mother’s hug.
Misma too was crying, though she’d suffered under Soukat’s taunts far longer than Niri. A sudden intake of breath cut off her friend’s tears. Niri followed Misma’s surprised stare to where the Priestesses had gathered on the shore. Soukat’s mother blocked her husband’s way to the small boat waiting on the gentle water.
“Fire should not be laid to rest in water,” High Priestess Enfallia stated, clear voice rippling through the silent gathering. “He should be burned on shore.”
Next to her, High Priestess Lyannder in her lavender robes stiffened, hands clenched in irritation. High Priest Nezerreth placed a hand on Lyannder’s arm before turning to Enfallia.
“We honor all elements in this ceremony,” Nezerreth said. “The wind will fill the sails as he is cradled by the wood over water until the fire takes all.”
Enfallia narrowed her eyes, but did not speak. Or move. It was Soukat’s father who ended the ultimatum. He stepped off the path and walked around his wife, fussing over the drape of the blanket as he lay the little burden in the boat. Enfallia stood pale and livid as she watched her husband defy her. He never glanced at his wife as he raised the small red sail and pushed the boat holding their child’s body out into the open water.
A gentle breeze immediately filled the sail, pushing the craft from shore quickly as if to keep anyone from going after it. Niri doubted Soukat’s mother would touch water even if her son rose from the dead and yelled for her. Enfallia found her vengeance though. The small boat erupted in flames with a fury to outshine the morning sun.
Niri stumbled a step away, fighting a desire to call water to sooth the blaze. Bai dropped his hand to her shoulder, sensing the desire as much as her fumbled control. Niri released the urge, but not the touch she had to the lake. Though she stood on shore, she felt water wrapped around her, a cool comfort to the loss flooding her soul. She wanted to go home. But part of her feared that her parents wouldn’t understand who she was becoming. Just as Soukat’s mother didn’t understand how little of a gift he’d had.
Niri and Misma held each other as cinders fell from the burning boat, the fire so hot it consumed all but a few charred boards, which drifted in the water. A few people stepped away from the lake shore, but the knot of High Priestesses and Priests waited.
Soukat’s father stayed at the water’s edge until the last speck of the boat which had held his son’s body fell out of sight. Head bowed, he turned and trudged up the rough bank, nearly running into the one person who did not move from his path.
“You disobeyed a High Priestess,” Enfallia hissed to her husband.
He looked at her with red rimmed eyes. “I’ll take banishment as my punishment,” he answered. “I never want to see you or Solaire again.”
A whisper ran through the gathering like a suddenly stirred breeze. Soukat’s father brushed by his wife for the second time that morning. This time, she flinched.
Bai glanced from the tense group standing on the main staircase to Solaire to Niri and Misma. “We will walk back the long way along the lake shore.” Bai turned his back on the High Council, waving the two girls ahead of him.
The gentle waves lapping the stony shore and birds calling from tree tops broke the silence as they walked. Far down the shore, small buildings were visible tucked against the trees. But the sadness of the day stifled Niri’s curiosity. The desire to know what they were and if she could visit them faded before reaching her lips. But she did finally find the urge to speak.
“Can he, Soukat’s father, really leave Solaire?”
Bai glanced at her as he directed them onto a path that led into the forest, curing back toward the Temple. “Yes, child. None of us are trapped here. You are too young to be allowed to leave, but many who live in Solaire journey elsewhere. Some choose to live in other towns.”
“I didn’t know that,” Misma said.
It was a comfort in its way – to know that though she was an Elemental, Niri was not bound to live out her days here in a place that flipped between inducing amazement and terror in the same hour.
The golden towers of Solaire appeared through the leaves overhead, appearing all the brighter lit by the afternoon sun while she stood in dense shade. She had not chosen to come to the Temple. She had not wanted to be a Water Elemental. But she was and she was here. Solaire was where she had to live. For now. But maybe not forever.