The square was a supernova of people. From the high walk connecting the spires of the mirror-image temples of Xadas and Xianis, the crowd resembled a seething, moving mottled starflower. Alenxa Devaxi sat on the narrow, railed walk, legs dangling over the edge, and gazed down at the swirls of brilliant-colored silk and alsedar that flowed around the polka-dotted trade awnings and tiled fountains. She remembered tossing pebbles into those fountains years ago, before she knew how annoying it was, just to see a miniature geyser spring up at each point of impact, splashing people with water and garnering shocked looks. Now she sat, watching the intricate bright pattern and its fluid change, watching the people.

A slight swaying of the walk made her look up. Dialasin was coming toward her from Xadas, his orange alsedar robe seeming as immovable as the temple itself. Alenxa had long suspected him of putting weights in the hem of every article of clothing he owned, but she knew as well as he that nothing of that sort was allowed, especially for those of the Xadans who lived in service.

"SiXadas angara," said Dialasin, raising his right hand, palm out. A thin, jet-black line spiraled around his center finger, running down to his palm and continuing along its outer edge, making a gentle curve at the base of his hand and turning up into its center, till it stopped just short of a small horizontal scar. It was difficult to see the scar without looking for it; it was thin and precise, and barely as long as a finger was wide.

"SiXianis angara," Alenxa replied, just as formally holding up her hand with its unscarred palm. The palm part of the greeting was generally used only with strangers, but she was, officially, a stranger now to Dialasin. Everyone was, whether or not he had known them before his entrance into service had been finalized. Now he would have to formally reacquaint himself with anyone he wished to know, everyone but the highest servants of Xadas. "I see you have lived."

"You had expected that I would die?" asked Dialasin. "Only three ever have."

"Two of those in the last year," said Alenxa, toying with the single ring on her last left finger, an unadorned ring of beaten copper.

Dialasin made a disgusted noise. "How could you think I would die?"

"I was worried," said Alenxa. "One's best friend does not pledge his life to Xadas every afternoon, especially not in an afternoon so soon after two men have died in their pledges." She looked down, twisting her ring, watching a trade awning where a fight seemed to be erupting between a glass merchant and a large woman wearing starched qiseri ruffles at her wrists.

"They did not cut their hands." Dialasin sat down, cross-legged, next to Alenxa. "They cut their throats."

Alenxa looked up sharply, the ring forgotten.

"They were preparing for seclusion," he explained. "They were caught with women before they made their cuts, and they could not deny love."

"Neither one? The second did not learn from the first?"

"They were caught at the same time," Dialasin informed her. "Only Temple law forbids two trials together, for fear friendship will bring a false confession or denial, so the second was secluded till the first had been dead a season. He had that long to deny the woman, to forget her, and still he could not." He sighed. "They could not even lie."

"So they died instead." The ruffled woman had left the glass awning and moved on to the next one, for fine pottery. "I hear more like this all the time. I cannot agree with what you have chosen."

"I will not be harmed," said Dialasin. "I will never find a woman to love such as they did."

Alenxa kept silent. She knew better than anyone that he would be safe in the temple. He had never been in love with any woman, not the smallest bit. She had known him for more than twenty years, and though he had admired some women for their beauty, she had never seen him as capable of falling in love. She had tried to bring her friends to him, to see him happily married, but he did not even want them as friends. One friend was sufficient for him; Alenxa's was the only soul that had ever truly mattered to his. It made sense for him to dedicate to service of Xadas, and to live in the Temple, in service, instead of being one of the roving brothers who lived and worked elsewhere in the city; he would not mind the restrictions of the Temple ranks. Xadans in service were not categorically forbidden women. They were forbidden only one woman: the woman they loved most.

"I will not suffer for my choice," Dialasin continued. "There is no way they can catch me to punish me."

"You must mean that you will never be in a position to be caught," Alenxa teased him, not expecting that he would get the joke.

"Of course." If he recognized humor, he did not show it.

"You did well," said Alenxa, to change the subject. When he looked puzzled, she added, "Your hand."

"Oh." Dialasin gazed at his palm. "It just stopped itching yesterday."

"The tattoo?"

"No. They use some kind of ointment on the blade. It keeps the scar from fading."

Alenxa shivered at the calmness of his voice. He had had to make not one cut in his palm, but two, so even and so close together that the strip of skin that came away was thinner than the edge of the thinnest coin. She would never have had the strength to make one cut; he had unperturbedly made two.

"Xianarans do not scar," said Dialasin. "If you were to--"

"I told you I would not when we first learned of it," Alenxa interrupted, keeping a calm voice. "I told you I would not when you told me of your choice. I told you I would not when you entered the gates of Xadas. I am telling you again, and I do not want to be asked any more. I will not give up the idea of men because you believe it is my destiny to serve Xianis. And I will be no more inclined toward it for knowing that they do not scar."

"Xianarans do not have to give up men forever," said Dialasin. "Only for the time they serve."

"I would not serve." Alenxa tried to keep the growl from her voice, but it crept in anyway.

"Then I will not ask you again." Dialasin contemplated his palm again. "It frightens you?"

"No." Alenxa studied her sandals.

"It repulses you, then."

"No! Stop that." Nothing irked her more than when people thought they were emPowered and could read her thoughts.

"Then what?"

Alenxa sighed. "Nothing. It only--bothers me. I never thought you would do it."

"It is all I know," Dialasin said.

She had to admit that he was right. The life of the temple was all he had lived and remembered, done and liked. There, where he had grown up, people were always kind to him, and it was law that no one, Bianxeni or any other race, could so much as affront any Bianxeni in service without Temple repercussions. There, where everyone could eat, sleep, and learn, it did not matter that he was an unHoused orphan, too poor to buy himself a House name. There, and around her, he did not need to be any more than Dialasin. "And it must be a good life to know so well," she said. "But it is not all I know."

"It may be better than what you know," he said.

Alenxa's head snapped around. "You said you would not ask me again." It was difficult to keep the anger from her words.

Dialasin stood, disturbing the stillness of the walkway. "Only I did not ask." He held up his hand again, the black tattoo stark on his pale skin. "SiXadas angara, Alenxa."

She had no desire to return the courtesy, but her guilt moved her. "SiXianis angara, Dialasin."

Silently, he turned and went back to Xadas. The walk shook less than the folds of his orange robe.

Alenxa watched him go, half wanting to call him back for a good heart-to-heart talk, but she knew that once he was assigned to Temple duty, that would be less and less likely to happen. To take her mind off the subject, she looked down into the square, watching the people below. Her eyes were drawn to a spot of bright red moving through the crowds just beneath the walk. A Xianaran, out doing errands for the temple. They always seemed to get exactly what they wanted, for the price they asked or demanded, and no more or less. Fascinated, Alenxa tracked the woman with her eyes, following her to the glass merchant's awning.

Bottles? Alenxa asked herself, confused. What would a Xianaran want with bottles? They never used anything glass in day-to-day services, only pottery. She was further perplexed by the large, pot-bellied bottle the woman picked up. It was a common shape for glassware--bottles like it were used to hold everything from wine to seeds--but it was too big to be of any practical use to a Xianaran. Anyone's head would have rattled around inside it, assuming that it could first get through the narrow, cork-stopped mouth. Even more peculiar was that any buyer at all, let alone a Xianaran, would set her eye on a piece of merchandise that was so fatally flawed. The light shining on the glass showed its unevenness of form and texture, apparent even as far away as Alenxa's perch. Good glass would bounce, sometimes; this bottle, even if coddled as all glass should be, could break into a million slivers on the way home.

The red-robed woman was talking with the glass merchant in a very animated way for a Xianaran. They were not required by law or precedent to be calm or mild-mannered, but most were far from boisterous. This one appeared to be bargaining with the merchant, who looked Kjechorii. But something was wrong. The Xianaran seemed to be pleading, insofar as any servants ever did so, but the merchant was not wearing even a semblance of the notorious Kjechorii bargaining face; in fact, he looked puzzled. At last the woman turned away, as if to put the bottle back, and the man caught at her robe, speaking to her. She nodded, shifted the bottle to reach a purse hidden within her robe, took from it a coin entirely too large to pay for the bottle, and handed the money to the merchant. Then she walked away toward Xianis, carrying the bottle as if it were a child, and looking satisfied if not quite pleased with herself.

Alenxa watched, bewildered. The afternoon sun on that coin had shown it to be at least a gilded karali, worth ten bottles like that one if it were only a karali, and a hundred if it were a gold galiar. That woman had given the merchant enough money to feed himself, and any family he might have, for at least a week. Why anyone would do such a thing, she had no idea.

She had no time to think of any ideas before she felt a familiar sliding sensation on her right foot. Lunging for her shoe, she nearly fell off the walk, losing one of her rings as she grabbed the railing, still holding tightly to the strap of the sandal. Helplessly, she watched the ring, the one of beaten copper that she wore on the last finger of her left hand, fall through the air and bounce on the reddish paving stones below the walk. Miraculously, it had not hit any people, or, worse yet, any open baskets. No Bianxeni, however corrupt, would claim a ring lying on the ground, for fear it belonged to someone, but of the other races, anyone could be a thief. Alenxa darted off toward Xianis so fast that she had to grab hold of the rails to keep from following the path of the ring, and the jointed metal pinched her fingers hard enough to draw out a few curses before she reached the Temple spire.

The steps inside the spire were steep but broad, built to suit the first High Servant to live in this temple. According to the stories Alenxa had heard, that particular Xianaran had been tall, with a perpetual shortness of breath. Steep steps allowed for a higher ceiling, but the stairs had to be wide enough to allow someone to stand on them and rest. They were much more efficient for someone going down than for someone going up, even if they did make one's head spin. Forgetting long-dead High Servants who no longer conferred with Xadans on the walk, Alenxa flew down the dizzying stairs, pausing at the landing at the foot of the staircase. The landing always made her nervous; it was the roof over the Spirit Well where the highest servants worshiped in quiet and seclusion, and as it was also a floor where people walked, anyone walking there needed to be silent. She paused only long enough to remember which of the four short flights of steps pointed her to the Temple gates, then went down them into the square Sanctum Hall that surrounded both stairs and Spirit Well. She very nearly forgot to walk backwards out of the room, but turned just in time to avoid being caught by the red-robed Xianaran carrying the flawed bottle. Just to be on the safe side, she immediately fell into a full genuflect and held it as she backed quickly down the aisle.

Once both her feet were on the blue tile of the Welcome Hall and safely past the Sanctum's red floor, Alenxa spun around and broke into a run. She saw, too late, that two more fully accoutered Xianarans were on their way in. Stifling a groan, she turned left out the door in the hall and into the Children's Spaces. She knew it well enough, having gone there as a small child to learn about her race's religion and culture, and she hoped that she would appear to be a departing volunteer teacher. There were enough of those around, Xianis knew, and they came and went according to their wildly varying schedules of classes. Reaching the door to the Gate Hall, she gave thanks that she hadn't been caught, and went out into the courtyard.

Most of the time, the huge walled courtyard known as the Gate Hall was nearly empty. Today, as luck would have it, one of the High Servants was holding an audience for all the newest immigrants, and the entire yard was packed with people. Alenxa stopped and stared for a moment, ready to scream in frustration. Then, with a rather loud "Pardon" and a couple of shoves, she began to swim through the crowd. It was slow going, so slow that by the time she reached the pool in the middle of this side of the Hall, she nearly splashed through it before remembering where she was. Catching herself just in time, she contented herself with walking around the outer rim, back into the crowd. On the other side, people seemed to have a better sense of the urgency of her flight, and a way appeared almost magically. She ran on, trying to hurl a few words of thanks behind her.

Strictly speaking, Bianxeni were supposed to enter the Temple courtyard through the Friends' Gate, and to leave the same way. That gate, though, was directly across the courtyard from the door to the Welcome Hall, and Alenxa's detour from the main hall had taken her too far afield. With the words of a smiling, serene-faced teacher ringing in her ears--the Strangers' Gate is for those who do not know Xadas or Xianis, or have rejected one or the other or both--she raced past the white-robed initiates where they stood at mock guardposts, and out the Strangers' Gate.

Alenxa stopped a few strides into the square, getting both her bearings and a good deep breath. Looking up, she saw the spire walk high overhead, slightly to the right. The crowd in the square was somewhat less bemused than the one inside the Temple gates, but if they moved faster to let her by, they were ruder about it. By the time she had gotten to the place near the center fountain where she had last seen the ring, or thought she could still see it as it fell, she had said she was sorry more times than she could remember having said it in the last month.

After scanning the paving stones for any glint of copper, in whatever shape feet might have made of it, Alenxa dropped to her knees to search more carefully. She thought it had fallen close to the fountain, but still she looked farther away, moving in a circle from where she thought it might have landed. Panic set in rather quickly as she realized she couldn't see it at all.

Suddenly, something shiny and copper-colored bounced toward her, awkwardly because of an unevenness in the pavement. With a gasp she snatched at it, but her fingers immediately told her that it was the wrong shape for her ring. Opening her hand, she saw a copper quarter-mark, its face imprinted with an image of the Kjechorii Consul-Dome's carven doors. A true coin, minted legally here in the city, but worthless all the same.

"So choosy the Bianxeni beggars are," said a voice over her head.

Alenxa looked up sharply. Kjechorii, to be sure.

"And so bold," added a different voice, coming from a young, almost sneeringly handsome Kjechorii, nearly muffled by his affected and decidedly overgrown black mustache. "To beg in the streets, fools they already are, but to appraise the coins we toss out of the goodness of our hearts, greedy fools they must be."

"Such ingratitude," agreed the first voice, belonging to another young Kjechorii, this one shorter and clean-shaven, with a beaky nose and a way of speaking directly through it. He noticed Alenxa glaring at him, and addressed her. "What will you say, Bianxeni?"

Alenxa stood up, the quarter-mark clenched in her fist. "I will say that I am no beggar," she said, dusting off the front of her clothing.

"So, now!" said the taller of the two, with some measure of surprise. "Better than us you would be?"

"Only if you are beggars," said Alenxa, already knowing from their sparkle-sewn hats that they were not. No beggar could afford a Kjechorii hat, much less one with glittering designs embroidered on it in silver thread.

The tall one turned to his companion, giving Alenxa a sidelong glance. "Are we beggars, Chorjun?" he asked, with theatrical innocence.

Chorjun pretended to have to think, squinting and tapping his thumbs together on his chin. "No, Kadirach," he said finally, "I do not know that we are."

Smiling fragilely, as if dealing with an old man or a mental deficient, Kadirach turned around. "Beggars we are not, Bianxeni. What will you say now?"

Alenxa smiled back, a honey-sweet grin that even felt pasted on. Courtesy, as defined by Kjechorii, required that she match outward emotional states with the two, which was easy when none of the three was being sincere. Courtesy also required that she give them her name, as they had given her theirs, but she did not want them trying to wrap their tongues around it. "I will say that people who are not beggars and have silver on their silly wrinkled hats are certainly not too poor to give something more than a quarter-mark to a beggar."

"So, now!" exclaimed Chorjun. "But a beggar you are not either."

"So that is settled," said Alenxa, trying not to sound smug. Getting a Kjechorii to admit that something anyone else said was right was not an easy task. She decided to quit while she was on the winning end. "Now you may have your money back," she continued, offering them the coin on a pointedly open palm. Kjechorii gave people money only after goods had been exchanged, and payment was considered final once money had changed hands. The traditional way of exchanging money was to place it in the other person's hand, a method that allowed for copious cheating if either party followed Kjechorii traditions.

Kadirach, however, failed to notice the subtlety. He laughed. "Keep it. Worthless it is. And we do not need it, if we have enough money to wear silver on our silly wrinkled hats. I see you wearing no silver on your silly thin robes, Bianxeni. May we meet."

Alenxa was too angry to return his "May we meet," but she decided that she had broken enough unwritten laws of cultural interaction for this one not to matter. She watched them go, not trusting herself to open her mouth. She knew she should have gotten off more insults while she had the chance, but it was too late. With a snarl, she hurled the quarter-mark at the departing Kadirach's silver-sewn silly wrinkled hat.

She had known for quite some time that her aim was good, but even with that in her favor she did not expect to hit a moving target with such a light missile. The coin, though, flew straight at the hat, hit squarely in the middle of a silver-embroidered flower, bounced once, and succumbed to gravity, falling into one of the folds of the hat. Alenxa stood there for a moment, shocked enough to forget that she had been angry, and stared. What she had done was as close to impossible as things got, but she was too dazed to think about anything but the look that would surely be on Kadirach's face when he found the quarter-mark in his hat. The saying went that only Kjechorii currency had quarter-marks because they were the only people sufficiently hung up on monetary detail to deem them necessary; Alenxa was quite sure that Kadirach was more than sufficiently hung up on such matters. Feeling satisfied, she turned back toward the fountain, but no sooner had she dropped to her knees to resume her search for the ring than she felt a tentative tap on her shoulder and scrambled to her feet. "Yes?" she asked the woman facing her.

"I believe you will not find what you are looking for," said the woman, a small smile on her narrow face. "You are the one who was on the walk?"

"Yes," said Alenxa, suddenly filled with a wild hope. "You saw me drop my ring?"

"I saw you drop your ring, I saw you jump up and run into the spire, and I saw you come out the Strangers' Gate," the woman told her. "Not every ring is so precious. I went to the place I saw it fall, to get it for you."

Alenxa did not ask if the woman had it. By her accents, her clothing, and her dark eyes, she was Bianxeni. Anyone could have dark straight hair, even a Melasharan, but it took a Bianxeni to have dark eyes and an ivory complexion with it. And anyone could look for a ring for someone they knew, but it took a Bianxeni to help a stranger. If the ring had not been stolen, this woman had it. If she did not have it, it was lost forever.

The woman held out her hand, showing Alenxa the shining copper ring that rested on her palm. "This is your ring?" she asked, blinking but not flinching as Alenxa snatched the ring and jammed it onto her finger. "I had thought it must be of golden beads and colored glass on silver wire, or pure bandstone with ivory inlays. Then when I found it, I thought it must be the only one you had. Now that I see you, I can see all the others you own. This one must be very special to you."

"It is," Alenxa agreed. "It is the oldest of my rings. A friend gave it to me as a child, with one for himself as well, and I have worn it ever since."

"It still fits your finger?"

"It began on my thumb," Alenxa explained, feeling herself smile in response to the grin on the other woman's face. "I have worn it on every finger as it fit each one in turn. My friend told me he had bought them big enough to wear all our lives, if we wanted to. He was right." She twisted the ring a little, settling it on her finger. Every ring had a story, a story sacred to its owner, which had to be kept pure. That was the domain of sanctity boxes; they held Bianxeni rings when their owner had to do something or be somewhere that the Inscriptions and the temple did not consider pure.

The stranger's smile had not faded. "I am pleased to have met you," she said. "SiXianis angara."

"SiXianis angara," Alenxa returned, still smiling. She watched as the woman went to a trade awning with its front curtains closed, ducked under the flap in the back, and gradually reappeared inside as the front of the awning opened. It appeared to be hers, but how she had come to be a merchant mystified Alenxa. There were few enough Bianxeni merchants to begin with that they were an oddity even in this trading center of a city, and though female merchants were common among all the races, it was rare to see a Bianxeni woman with an awning of her own. Curious, Alenxa moved closer. The awning seemed to house mainly items suitable for furnishing and maintaining a Bianxeni household, and everything, from the rugs and cabinets to the glasses and sanctity boxes, looked to be of reasonable, if not superior, quality. Alenxa thought for a moment about going in, but she knew that she had too much work to do, and people to meet on top of that. Turning the other way, she walked on through the square.

It didn't take long for her to realize that she was some distance from where she needed to be to meet her friends. The search for the ring had landed her at the edge of the Bianxeni area of the square, near the large section dominated by Kjechorii. She was to meet them in a Salshern dominated area, at their favorite restaurant, and that was almost directly opposite her location. Sighing, she kept going, through the small corridor lined with awnings owned by Bianxeni and the sector packed with the smaller, more delicate tents favored by the Melasharans, to the walkway that led out of the square and down the second busiest street in the Salshern quarter of the city.

Section 2

Copyright 1999 by Katherine Foreman.

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