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Ressa looked around the park. No one was paying any attention to her; several parents were untangling some unhappy dispute in the sand area and the elders were still snoozing. No one here would likely report her visit to the strange mountain priestess to the grayrags. And it would help distract her from her worries to talk to someone about nothing of import. She decided to indulge her curiosity.

Ressa walked over and nodded to the priestess. The woman looked utterly comfortable sitting on the grass in her strange mountain clothes. The dress she wore was simple, in practical greens and browns. The colors weren't customary guild, scientist, or fashion colors, and the dyes were either unevenly faded or had always been a bit irregular. "Rai?" Ressa had no trouble remembering the priestess' title, it was the word 'bright', and the nickname of Bai's twin brother.

The woman smiled. "Kunabei," she offered. "Would you like to join me?"

Ressa nodded, and folded herself gracefully down to the ground. It felt strange, sitting on the grass in her official robes. "Rai-Kunabei. Are you enjoying your stay in Affamarg?"

The woman nodded. "I am. I always dreamed of traveling, when I was a girl. And now that my little sister is Rai for the mountain, I am finally free to live elsewhere for a while."

"So, what do you think of us down in the lowlands?" It was an inane question, and it made Ressa uncomfortable as soon as it was out of her mouth.

The priestess considered her question seriously, however. "Frankly? I find that people are people everywhere, and that while they may feel they have very important things to do - like that Scientist Oranaan, who wants to save the world - they are about the same mixture of wise and foolish as they are on the mountains. I wonder if the Goddess wanted me to travel, to provide the same kinds of help and insight I do at home to a wider group of people. Otherwise, why would we have two priestesses in the same generation and the same family too. That's when I can get people to let me read the disks for them. Other times, when I'm being ignored as some daft purist or superstitious performer, I think perhaps I'm letting my wish to travel overshadow a clear understanding of the Goddess's intent."

A superstitious performer - hadn't Ressa been thinking of her in much the same way? She sounded intelligent and thoughtful, not at all what Ressa had expected. "I am curious," she admitted, "about your disks. Is there any special way one is supposed to ask?" Ressa realized she didn't even know what to call the thing the priestess would do.

"No, nothing special. We mountain people aren't as hung up on proper forms as you city people."

"What is the cost?"

"Well, in the mountains, the priest or priestess draws disks for people who need it, and the villagers provide the things the priestess needs in turn. It might be food or fixing her roof or a new skirt or even money."

"Kind of like my salary. People don't pay licensing officials directly to review their licenses; we get paid regardless, so we will do the proper service of licensing things appropriately - and not issuing a license when that is more appropriate." Ressa didn't have authority to approve or deny licenses herself, but she had found that nuance was not interesting to most people.

"That's a good analogy."

"But here, you don't have a village, so that probably isn't working so well."

Rai Kunabei nodded. "Exactly. If I am to stay here longer than needed to assist that young scientist, or go anywhere but my mountain after, I'll have to figure out how to reliably get the credits to pay for housing licenses and all the rest." She patted her license pouch. "This would let me sleep in this oak, but I'm no longer young enough to find that a pleasant novelty." She reached for the large leather bag sitting on the ground next to her. "You are welcome to a reading."

Remembering that the woman's licenses specifically allowed her to accept gifts, Ressa opened her license pouch and pulled out a few credits and a luxury token, offering them to the priestess. "Well, I would like a - whatever you do. And then, if I have time, I may have questions. I'm always curious. Bai says that's an important trait in a licensing official, and seems to appreciate it even in a mere clerk." She felt a pang, mentioning Bai's name in casual conversation.

The woman slid the offered payment into a pocket somewhere in her dress. "Do you have a particular question?"

Ressa shook her head. There was no way she could form a single question about her present or future, not anything more meaningful than a desperate desire to know when she could return to being just the mostly-invisible Head of Files and occasional Carnal Guild worker.

Rai Kunabei accepted that response. "All right, then, let's see what the Goddess has to say about your situation."

She reached deep into the bag, drawing out a disk quickly and without looking inside the bag. It was a disk of iron, with a bright, enameled picture of a clear glass into which a stream of water was flowing. The image was upside down as it came out of the bag, and Kunabei frowned slightly, then gave Ressa such a compassionate look that tears threatened behind her eyes again. "This is Drinking Water, which is the nurturing aspect of water, all turned on its head. The Goddess is telling me that in some essential aspect of your life, you're not getting what you need, and indeed, someone or more than one someone has been draining you." She resolutely set the disk on the ground and turned it a half circle. "You must be aware of this situation, it's too all-encompassing to be in the background."

Ressa nodded slightly.

"Is it a money issue? I can't take food from the starving, that's not my calling at all!"

"No." Ressa tried to smile. "No, I have a good job, more than one; that's not where the issue lies. It..." Ressa thought of her longing for Bai, so much like longing for a drink on a hot day. And she felt so drained from Urti's demands and threats. "Some of it, anyway, is over, I think. I hope."

"Good." The priestess reached into the bag again and brought out another disk. It was also of iron. "The second disk represents the skills or tools needed in this situation." She turned it over to show a shadow of a figure with a sharp knife and a lumpy bag on its back, and drew in a breath. "This is the Enemy, the dangerous aspect of people. Oh, my. I think you are right in fearing that this is not all over. You will need to protect yourself still. Be careful with your words - and perhaps a self-defense class would be in order too. You look like a strong woman, but strength isn't enough if you're attacked physically."

Ressa wished she'd gotten this advice before someone drugged her and left her unconscious on Bai's front porch. "I - yes, I should take such a class." Having been attacked, it would be easy to get a license to get the necessary training to protect herself better in the future.

"And, finally, the emotional or personal aspects affecting this matter." Rai Kunabei reached in to her bag again, and this time drew forth a copper disk, showing the three moons in a dark sky. "The moons are the embodiment of an abstract nature. This is very personal indeed to you as a woman, but it also affects the more abstract things you do - you work in a licensing office. That's very abstract indeed, by the standards of these disks. The enemy you have - I suspect you are just a means to an end for him. It might be an attack on your position, or on the licensing system." She shook her head. "This is a strange disk to get in this position, especially reversed. Does the reversal mean it's not abstract, or not natural, or is very personal indeed?"

Urti's attack on Ressa had been very personal, but the shadowy figure behind him, the one who had replaced the official document accusing Ressa with an obvious forgery - the thought that the attack might be against the licensing office or even the Empire and she and Bai were just in the way? That thought filled her with a clean rage. "It could be both," she said quietly.

"Or more than one enemy. I can't tell you for sure what this disk signifies. But then, sometimes the message is not meant for the priestess. That was a hard thing to accept, when I first became a priestess." She set the disk in the grass beside the other two. "Do you want to look at the disks or hold them?"

Ressa considered the time. She had permission to spend as long as she needed this afternoon, taking care of things, but she didn't feel right spending more time in the park right now. "I have things to do now; will you be back here again?"

"This is the most comfortable oak I've found in the city parks so far. I should be here most days for at least a little while."

"Then I would like to visit with you again soon, and look at them then."

Rai Kunabei nodded kindly, with a calm acceptance common to someone much older than Ressa, though she clearly was still a young woman. "Go, take care of what you need to do."

It felt like getting approval from her teachers and mentors had when she was young, healthy and simple and satisfying. That feeling, and the inner rage the final disk had awakened set Ressa's thoughts racing in a much more normal path than she'd been able to manage this morning. First, she must go to the guild office and check the records of the available counselors. A good counselor would help her though this, and could sign paperwork for the self-defense class. And as to issues related to her impending promotion to Assistant, that became clearer too. She resolved to speak to an academic adviser at the University. Surely there would be some courses that she would find useful or interesting that could be counted as credit toward the next form. It would be irregular to spend several months having earned the new status before announcing it and claiming her new salary, but given her circumstances, it should be possible to get an exception so when her promotion to Assistant became public it wouldn't become more fodder for the grayrags. Especially if her counselor was willing to fill out a form stating the delay would benefit her health.

Suddenly, she was looking forward to making that appointment. If some shadowy enemy or enemies still had sights on her Bai or her beloved job, she resolved to be ready to protect them.

Author's Notes

I can't wait for Ellen to show us what happens next!

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Characters Featured:
Ressa, Bai,

Referenced Articles:

Story collections:
Ressa's Reading Part 1
End of the Rails Part 3
Ressa's Reading Part 1

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(These stories may be unrelated)
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Ressa's Reading Part 1
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End of the Rails Part 3

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