Within the Walls

“Ah! Brother Aldus!”

The warm, familiar voice shook Aldus from his slumber. By the Goddess, when had he fallen asleep? And on his desk, no less!

“Brother Aldus, you really must be more mindful of how you toil so! He who cannot rest, cannot work.”

A tattered sheet of paper stuck to his face as he lifted his head to regard his visitor, standing in the threshold with hands on her hips. “Oh my!” he plucked the sheet from his face and set it down carefully, smoothing out the creases. “I’m so sorry… I, err… I apologize for your finding me this way, dear Sister Aerrin!” He felt his face turning scarlet, and not just where the paper had left an impression on him.

Aerrin simply smiled. “No different than how we used to find you in the libraries when you were still but an acolyte.”

Aldus smiled along with her. “Oh, but some things do change—for one, the demands of the atelier grow ever more taxing, more than those of a student. But you are right, of course. I would do well to take your wisdom to heart. Now then!” He clapped his hands together, and fought back a yawn. “I know you have even less spare time than I, what with all of your bright young pupils, and you have no doubt come here with purpose—how may I be of service?”

“Today, Brother, I believe I am the one who will be of service.” Aerrin stepped quickly into the room and set down an old tome on the desk. Tears of the Improvident Daughter.

"Oh! How lovely! You’ve recovered it! And so soon! How ever did you manage it?”

“Me?” Aerrin shook her head with a gentle laugh. “No, not me. I could not have braved our northwestern shores alone! The Goddess smiled upon us this moon. No sooner had I told the guards about your… misplacing it, than a hunting party from Mirith came to lend their hands. They are the ones who found it yesterday, at a giant party of brigands, so they said.”

“Brigands! Goddess shelter us!”

“Goddess shelter us indeed. It was quite the bit of debauchery, from what I understand, replete with all sorts of revelry and spirits and... birthday cake."

“Ah! For that last one, I may be to blame.” Aldus felt himself blushing again. “It was the good Chef Jesper’s birthday, you see, and I was hoping to surprise him for once, and do some baking of my own without drawing too much attention in the kitchens… fool that I am! When those trolls burst into my camp, I had no choice but to drop everything and run! It pains me so to hear the fruits of my labor went to such ill purpose!”

“Worry you not, Brother,” Aerrin said, an amused smile playing at her lips. “What’s done is done, and my tome is returned. Now—“ she tapped on the hardbound cover for emphasis, “You may still hold on to it a little while longer, but try not to lose it this time!”

“Yes, Sister, it shall not leave this office!”

“Good!” Aerrin gave a satisfied nod, which suddenly turned into a frown. “There is one other thing that should not leave this office,” she said in a much quieter voice. “A message, intended for you, given to me by one of the kind rangers who helped find my tome. A woman by the name of… Astronus. Yes. She wanted me to tell you that she found six more bottles of poison.”

Aldus felt his heart skip a beat.

“Yes… she and somebody else, someone called… Leia. Yes, that’s it. This Astronus also said that the two of them are researching whatever book you mentioned to them. And that is all. Dreadful, is it not?”

“Y-yes… terribly dreadful.” All at once, Aldus realized he was shivering, and reached for his cloak as he started to explain. “An old friend from the pilgrimage, that Astronus. And Leia, I've just met. Not a fortnight ago, I found them both in the pinewood glade. They helped fight off a swarm of ants and escorted me back here… and just outside the temple, we were attacked… by rabid sheep!” He shuddered. “Afterwards, we practically tripped over a bottle of poison on the way back. Those poor creatures… just like all the others that have gone rabid. And to have it happen right there… right outside the temple! Terribly dangerous place to find something like that lying around!”

“By the Goddess…” Aerrin’s voice was practically a whisper, and her eyes had gradually widened over the course of the story. She leaned in close, speaking slowly. “You mean for them to be your hunters. To look where you cannot. You hunt the Brigobaen Poisoner.”

Aldus gasped at the mention of those words. Impossible words. He felt the sweat drip down his forehead, and his gaze shifted unconsciously toward the empty desk in the corner. Evaristos’s desk. “I… I…”

“Well, you had better learn to be more careful if you mean to succeed.”

Aldus breathed a huge sigh of relief. “You understand. You must not tell anyone, Sister Aerrin. You musn’t—“

Aerrin held up her hand. “As I said, this shall not leave this office. Even this office may not be a wise place to speak. You need to be more careful. Starting with your messengers. There were many others in hearing distance when she gave me the message. Do they not know the dangers?”

“I… maybe not. I am to blame for this as well—I have not explained as much as I should. I will have to amend that on our next meeting.”

“See to it that you do, then. We can only hope that this slip-up has not endangered your mission… and so far, it seems, it has not… but you cannot afford any other errors.”

“Yes, of course.” Aldus sighed. “My mission.”

Aerrin put a hand of his shoulder. “I will aid you where I can, Brother… but that leaves very little room. I know you do not have much free time, here in your study, but even your ministry affords you more freedoms than mine. I have so many eager young souls, hungry to learn our doctrine. What little time I can spare, I will spare to watch, and listen.”

The sound of footsteps echoing down the hallway seemed to punctuate her comment. “And now, if you will excuse me, Brother Aldus, I must see to tomorrow’s lesson plans. Please, take care.” With a grim nod, Aerrin started for the door, and was gone.

After staring at the desk for what felt like hours, Aldus forced himself to his feet. Something, some voice inside him, pulled him up out of the basement, into the starry night, and toward the beach like a magnet, and before he realized what he was doing, he started strolling east across the sands, toward his favorite spot where the palms of the shore met the pines of the forest. To the glade where he and the others prepared and smoked the tea leaves over the fires to make Brigobaen's famous Pinewood Black. It was a little less than an hour’s walk from the temple, at an easy pace, and the brisk midnight air would be good to clear his head. The pale green light of the moon illuminated his path, peaking out over a ring of smoke rising up from the volcano looming on the horizon. The elder priests would call it reckless, perhaps, for him to go at this time of night. But the way forward, as always, was clear.
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