The days leading up to Ciara leaving the capital passed in a blur.
There was so much to do. Between planning her trip with Adessa, getting Stella ready to run the Hundred Gods Faith while she was away, and Allister insisting that they squeeze in as much training as possible before she left, Ciara had almost no time for herself. Or, for that matter, for her girlfriend, Lucy.
Girlfriend, that’s what they called it in Valvezia, and Ciara had one for the first time in her life. Lucy was smart, passionate, and her face lit up when she talked about something that interested her. And Ciara had barely spent a minute alone with her in the week since finding out that she would be going on an extended trip around Valvezia to train and pledge herself to new gods. In just under six months, she would have to fight a disciple chosen by the king himself to prove she was worthy to enter a huge tournament of disciples and bring glory to her gods on an international stage. That was a fairly daunting task for someone who had only become a disciple five months ago but, between her unique ability to pledge herself to multiple gods and the help of Princess Adessa, Ciara was confident she could do it. It just didn’t leave much time for socializing.
Of course, it wasn’t entirely Ciara’s fault. Lucy had been plenty busy too. She was training to become a scholar and she had recently presented a paper on Alix, god of tense alliances and Ciara’s first patron deity. Alix was the one who let Ciara patronize more than one god and who had fascinated the capital’s scholars. Ever since word had leaked out that Ciara might be chosen to represent Valvezia in the upcoming Nine Kingdoms Tournament—unheard of for someone who was only sixteen—interest in the Hundred Gods Faith had spiked, and Lucy was capitalizing on that to write more papers and secure her position as the resident expert on the subject. That meant that what little time they did have together was spent with Lucy asking Ciara, and sometimes Alix, questions about her Faith.
That was fine with Ciara. The increased interest in her Faith brought more glory to Alix and, to hear him tell it, would have her receiving a third Blessing any day now. She just wished that they also had some time to talk about more personal matters.
Or to not talk at all.
But without Alix, Ciara never would have had the chance to get out of her small village and live the life she wanted, so complaining that being his Champion was cramping her romantic life would be beyond ungrateful.
So Ciara planned and trained and prepared as best she could and before she knew it, her time in the capital was up.
Her friends all came out to see her off outside the Sling station and she said goodbye to each of them in turn.
Allister had taken time away from the duties of his own Faith and turned up wearing his blue-and-gold disciple’s robes, more weapons than seemed practical, and a solemn expression.
“May the ancestors protect you,” he said, giving her a small bow.
There was a time when she would have been annoyed by his formal manner, but that time was long past. They weren’t betrothed anymore and they had cleared the air regarding his unrequited feelings for her. She pulled him into a hug and ignored the awkwardness caused by both the number of weapons he had strapped to his body, and by Allister himself.
“Thank you,” Ciara said. “For everything.”
Allister blinked and gave her a bittersweet smile. “Stay safe out there.”
“I will, I had a good trainer.”
His smile moved from bittersweet to genuine and he gave her a simple nod.
Sam had taken time away from stealing things and being a drunk, and had turned up wearing dark clothes in need of a good wash.
“Don’t get killed,” he said with a half smirk.
Ciara rolled her eyes. “I’ll keep that in mind.” She leaned in closer and Sam flinched like he thought she was going to try to hug him too. She ignored that and whispered to him, “Keep an eye on Stella while I’m gone, okay? I figure that won’t be hard for you.”
Sam’s face shifted from surprised to embarrassed to grouchy so quickly that it looked like he was having a spasm. He muttered something under his breath that Ciara took as an agreement and she chuckled to herself as she moved down the line of her friends. She knew from personal experience how easy it was to be smitten by Stella and she had started seeing the signs in Sam over the past week.
Stella herself was next in the line, and in some ways saying goodbye to her was the hardest. Stella had been Ciara’s only friend for a long time, and they had rarely gone more than a couple of days without speaking since they were kids. She was wearing her high-priestess robes for the occasion, all black but cinched with a belt that featured a band of white and a band of yellow to represent Ciara’s different gods. It made for an appealing contrast to Stella’s light skin and fiery hair, which Ciara studiously ignored.
“Are you sure you’ve got everything you need?” Ciara asked for perhaps the thousandth time that week. “The temple—”
“It’ll be fine,” Stella interrupted. “I’ve got Allister and Sam to help me. Just make sure to write me. I want to hear all about your adventures.” She smiled. “And I’ll need to know what to add to our Faith’s colors.”
Ciara smiled. Stella had once manipulated Ciara’s feelings for her in order to further her own position in society, and Ciara had been angry about that for longer than she cared to admit. But bringing Stella to the capital with her had been undoubtedly the right decision, and Ciara couldn’t imagine trying to build the Hundred Gods Faith without her.
Of course, saying all that would have been unbearably awkward, especially in front of the others. So instead, she said, “Don’t get married while I’m away, okay? I couldn’t live with myself if I missed my best friend’s wedding.”
Stella grinned. “I think I can manage that. I’ll miss you.”
Ciara pulled Stella into a tight embrace. “I’ll miss you too.”
Last in line was Lucy. She had taken a break from writing papers to see Ciara off and she had worn tight trousers and a black top that was just low cut enough to give Ciara ideas. Ciara stopped in front of her awkwardly.
“I’m—” they both started at once.
“You go,” Lucy said.
“I’m sorry we didn’t get to spend more time together,” Ciara said. “I hope we can when I get back. Ah, assuming you still want to that is.”
“Of course!” Lucy said. “I’ll be here when you get back. Just write me when you can and I’ll see you in six months.”
Ciara let go of a long breath. She hadn’t worked up the courage to ask Lucy if the trip would affect their relationship, and hearing Lucy say it wouldn’t was like setting down a heavy weight she had been carrying for the past week.
The pause in conversation began to drag and Ciara wasn’t sure how she should say goodbye. She wanted to kiss Lucy, but they were on a public street and that didn’t feel right, especially after living most of her life in a place where such behavior would have her shunned by the whole village. She had to do something though or Lucy would think she was a complete fool just standing there staring at her.
Ciara decided a hug would be best and moved in to embrace Lucy. Lucy seemed not quite on the same page and leaned up toward Ciara’s lips, which resulted in an awkward half hug and a very chaste peck on the lips.
Ciara released the shorter girl and stepped back feeling awkward. “Good luck with your presentation. I’m really going to miss you.”
Lucy looked confused, but moved past it quickly. “Never mind the presentation, good luck hunting gods! And, ah, I’ll miss you too.”
Ciara gathered up her bag and crossed the street before she could be any more awkward. She turned back and gave one last wave to her friends before she entered the Sling station.
Inside, leaning against the huge metal ball that they would be traveling in, was Princess Adessa. She wore an outfit of fitted black leather highlighted with silver fastenings that gave the impression of light armor, and her purple hair was cut short in a way that highlighted her cheekbones. She smiled when she saw Ciara and Ciara’s stomach did a flip. She had almost forgotten how devastating Adessa’s smile could be.
No, Ciara thought. I’m with Lucy now. I can’t be drooling over Adessa the whole trip.
“Done with the heartfelt goodbyes?” Adessa asked, standing up and hefting a large bag of her own without apparent effort. “Ready for an adventure?”
Ciara grinned. “I sure am.”
* * *
Cabrath Gnarl of the Gasping Death Faith stood on the roof of a building and watched his target shoot away on Galivan’s Sling. He had no eyes, having lost them long ago when his god had Remade his body, but the gaping holes where his eyes once were tracked her easily, even seeing through the metal of the Sling.
She was finally leaving the capital. Soon she would be isolated, far from prying eyes that might see and loose lips that might talk. Then Cabrath would strike, and they would both die gasping in the name of his god.
Ciara loved traveling by Sling. The Metal’s Pull Faith used their abilities to make the room-sized ball they sat in surge across the country, floating above a metal track that somehow kept it from shooting off in the wrong direction. It moved at breathtaking speed and Ciara didn’t think she would ever take the Sling without grinning. Favinar, her bird-shaped wind god, cawed his agreement in her mind.
As they traveled, Ciara and Adessa discussed the first leg of their journey. Lucy and Adessa had provided a huge number of stories, reports, and rumors to sort through in order to find gods that didn’t have any disciples yet.
Of course, if they went out into the wilderness far enough, they were bound to find some gods, and that had worked out well for Ciara when she had pledged herself to Favinar. But, she knew from experience that many gods found in the wilderness weren’t that impressive, like Purgus, the god that could give someone the power to subsist off swamp muck. Ciara needed gods that would give her the power to win the upcoming tournament, or at least compete without embarrassing herself. She also didn’t want a god that would saddle her with strict restrictions, or demand that she do things that she couldn’t live with. Just the thought of Yatheek’s Trial was enough to make Ciara shudder. Plus, she needed a god that wasn’t too similar to those she was already pledged to or the two would never accept working together. And one with a Trial that wouldn’t get her killed in spite of the additional difficulty that new gods would add because she patronized multiple deities.
In short, it was a hard ask, but the story they were going to investigate now seemed like a strong candidate. Apparently, outside the town of Ziat there was a cave that whispered secrets to all who passed. The townsfolk stayed clear of it as it had a habit of revealing exactly what people didn’t want to know. Apparently, the secrets it revealed had been responsible for more than one killing over the years. That certainly sounded magical, and Alix was convinced that the stories went back far enough that whatever had started off in that cave was probably a god by now, though Ciara still wasn’t sure quite how that worked.
So, Ziat was the first stop on their journey and both girls were excited to get started.
“What kind of god do you think it’ll be?” Ciara asked.
Adessa shrugged and reclined on the bench seat they shared. “Secrets seems the most obvious, but there’s enough nastiness associated with it that it could be a god of discord or paranoia too. You don’t want to go pledging yourself to something like that.”
Ciara nodded. “A god of secrets would be awesome though. Maybe it could let me see my enemies’ weaknesses, or lead me to powerful spiritual objects and forgotten gods.”
“Or maybe it’ll drive you insane. I’m still not sure this cave-of-dark-and-terrible-secrets is such a good idea.”
“If it’s something awful, I won’t pledge myself to it. I promise.”
“That’s something. We have to make time for training as well. If we spend too much time hunting down gods, there won’t be enough time for you to master your new abilities.”
“I still feel like I have a lot more work to do to master the ones I’ve already got, especially Wind Reading.”
“I assume that’s why you’ve brought the renowned genius Princess Adessa along with you,” Adessa said with a smirk.
“That must be it,” Ciara said, rolling her eyes. “How far is Ziat?”
Adessa shrugged. “Few days from the nearest Sling station, town called Bladefall. We’ll stay there tonight and squeeze in some training in the morning before we leave. I’m looking forward to seeing what you’ve learned since last time.”
Ciara grinned. “You’re not going to make me cut you with my new axe, are you? It’s all shiny and I don’t want to get it all covered in your blood.”
Driving a wood axe through Adessa’s shoulder, only to have the wound close moments later, had been a particularly shocking part of Ciara’s first training session with the princess. Although it had made the point rather well that Ciara didn’t have to hold back.
“Only if you can hit me.” Adessa flashed a smile. “So I wouldn’t worry about it too much.”
Ciara snorted and the conversation moved on to little things: where they would be staying, the best way to get from Bladefall to Ziat, and what they had packed for the trip. None of the topics was particularly fascinating, but Ciara enjoyed talking to Adessa, and the journey passed quickly in her company.
When they reached Bladefall, the Metal’s Pull disciple who had been operating their Shot—which is what they called the metal balls that traveled on Galivan’s Sling—bowed deeply to Adessa.
“It has been my great honor to serve you, Princess.”
Those were the first words the disciple—a young woman with sandy hair—had said to them the whole trip, and even these she spoke awkwardly. She was clearly terrified of saying the wrong thing. When Ciara had been little, she had heard stories of girls who became princesses and lived happily for the rest of their days, but if this was how people spoke to them, she wasn’t sure it was quite the happy ending it was made out to be.
Adessa seemed not to appreciate the obsequience, though she was used to it. “I’m honored that you’re honored. Bye.”
They had gathered up their bags and left the Sling station, heading for the nicer of the town’s two inns. Bladefall was much bigger than Ciara’s village, but fell far short of the enormity of the capital, and hadn’t gone to the expense of having the streets paved with stone. People were going about their business and many of them seemed to recognize Adessa on sight. Ciara supposed that wasn’t too surprising given her distinctive hair and manner of dress. Their reactions to seeing her, though, were mixed. Some of them bowed, curtseyed, or even went to one knee, but an equal number seemed to give Adessa a wide berth, with some even scurrying away the moment they saw her.
“Is this because of what you did to Hadu?” Ciara asked, feeling not at all comfortable with the reactions.
Adessa shrugged, seemingly ignoring the people. “It didn’t help. Towns that have their own station tend to be rife with capital gossip, and you can bet that chopping off that bastard’s arm made a stir.”
“I’m sorry for that,” Ciara said.
“I’m not. It was my stupid brother’s fault you and your friend got caught up in that mess to begin with. Besides, the general sentiment is nothing new. Nobody wants to offend a royal and nobody wants to be near a monster.”
Ciara frowned at that, then linked her free arm with Adessa’s. “I wouldn’t say nobody.”
Adessa laughed at that and when she spoke her voice was sarcastic, but the warmth in her eyes was real. “Thanks.”
It didn’t take them long to reach the inn. It was a two-story wooden building with a sign displaying a scimitar next to the words The Dancing Sword. The interior was fairly standard fare, with the first floor taken up by a taproom with a bar against one wall and a set of stairs leading to the rooms in one corner. It was familiar to Ciara, having grown up in her father’s inn back in her own village. Though, while the place was nice enough, she couldn’t help but notice that the floor could use a clean and a few of the bottles of liquor could use a polish.
That thought led her to wonder how her father was getting on back home without her. Had he hired help to take care of some of the chores she used to do, or was he managing on his own?
She shook off the pang of homesickness and focused on what Adessa was saying.
“Just the one room thanks,” she said to the innkeeper, a portly man whose mustache was threatening to engulf his mouth. “And some of whatever you have to eat.”
“Of course, Highness. If your servant requires a place to sleep, we have a horse shelter out back that isn’t being used at the moment. It’s not much, but there are blankets and such.”
Ciara’s traveling clothes were plain and in need of some repair, but the assumption still rankled her.
Adessa’s expression was sharp enough to draw blood. “My friend here will be staying in the room.”
“Um, yes, of course. My apologies. I, uh, I’ll see to that immediately. It’s room two, just up the stairs and to your right. Can’t miss it. I’ll, ah, get you that food now.” The man practically fell over himself handing over a silver key and then disappearing out the back.
Ciara’s heart skipped a beat at the thought of sharing a bed with Adessa, but she was with Lucy now and she reminded herself she shouldn’t be entertaining thoughts like that.
“Just one room?” she asked.
Adessa pursed her lips for a moment like she was thinking something over.
“The room is for you,” she said after a moment. “I don’t actually sleep. Part of my . . . inheritance.”
“Oh. What will you be doing while I’m sleeping then? Don’t you get bored?”
She shrugged. “I find ways to entertain myself. Tonight, I plan to keep an eye out in case my brother sends anyone to cause trouble.”
“Do you think that’s likely?”
“Not really. He’s a bastard, but he usually forgets about his little vendettas once they are out of his face. Plus, I went to see him before we left and made my feelings on the matter clear. Doesn’t hurt to keep an eye out though.”
Ciara raised an eyebrow. “Made your feelings clear?”
“I helped him redecorate his sitting room.”
“You broke his stuff?” Ciara asked. To be honest, she had been hoping for something more after the prince had tried to kill her.
“Actually, he broke it. When he collided with it at speed.”
The innkeeper came back with some vegetable stew, bread, cheese, and sausage. Ciara’s stomach rumbled to remind her she hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and they both dug in to the food with gusto. While they ate, they talked about nothing while the innkeeper flitted around nervously, trying not to offend Adessa any further.
Eventually, Ciara retired to the room while Adessa went outside to keep watch.
Alix was waiting for her in her room.
“You’re looking well,” Ciara said upon seeing her patron deity. When she had first met him, he had looked like a rich man who had been lost in the woods for a week. But now he looked like a rich man straight from his estate, straight-backed, handsome, and regal.
“Word of your candidacy for the tournament has spread. As you bring more glory to my name, my power increases. As does the power I can grant you.”
Ciara grinned like a child opening a present. “Are you saying I can pledge myself to even more gods now?”
Alix made a face. “No. That is proving to take more power than I had expected. Five will be your limit for a while longer at least. What I am saying is that you have earned a third Blessing.”
Ciara’s grin threatened to split her face. “Seriously? Why didn’t you lead with that? I’m surprised you didn’t appear in the taproom.”
“You haven’t been amenable to me interrupting your socializing in the past.”
That was true. Alix had killed the mood on Ciara’s first proper date with Lucy pretty convincingly, but Ciara wouldn’t have minded an interruption for news this big.
She shook her head. None of that was important now. “So, let’s get to it. What exactly can your third Blessing give me?”
“As Champion, that is up to you. Obviously, you will want something that will allow you to use multiple third Blessings from the other gods in our coalition. But, whether you wish to layer them on top of one another, or switch between them, is a decision you will have to make for yourself.”
This was a conversation they had touched on before, and one Ciara had been thinking about ever since. There were advantages either way. Layering third Blessings on top of each other would be weaker in the short term, but would eventually give her access to more abilities at once and would probably be the stronger choice in the long run. Then again, if she could keep pledging herself to more gods, she could get plenty of power down the road. What she really needed was a way to compete in the upcoming tournament where she would be fighting against disciples with third Blessings of their own, so it might be smarter to take something that would give her an advantage in the short term.
But a third Blessing reshaped the disciple’s body, and that was what ultimately made her decision for her. Ciara had never been that happy with her appearance, but she didn’t want to look in the mirror and see a mishmash of different gods. It might be vain, but she wanted to look like a person, and not some amalgam of different Remade bodies.
“I want to be able to switch between third Blessings,” Ciara said, making up her mind. “And any increases in strength or speed you can give me would be much appreciated.”
“Switching between bodies will use most of the power the Blessing allows, but I should be able to strengthen you a little, and of course increase your life span.”
Ciara had heard disciples with Remade bodies lived longer, but she hadn’t gotten specifics before. It just hadn’t been that relevant until now. “When you say increased life span, how long are we talking?”
“No one can say for sure, but a couple of centuries would not be out of the question. Assuming nobody kills you by then of course.”
“Centuries?” Ciara asked.
“Perhaps more, depending on what Blessings you gain in the future,” Alix said with a self-satisfied expression. “I assume that is acceptable?”
“Yeah,” Ciara said, wondering how strong she could get in a hundred years. “I’d say it’s acceptable.”
Alix nodded. “Then there is just the aesthetics of the form to work out. And whether or not you would like to remain a woman.”
That brought Ciara up short. “What?”
“Your body is to be reformed. Remade, as the Valvezians say. If you wish it, I could remake you as a man instead. That might make your pursuit of women easier.”
Ciara hadn’t known that was an option, and the way Alix said it, without any judgement, made her seriously consider it. There were many times when her life would have been easier had she been born a boy. Her father never would have tried to marry her off had she been male. She could have been physically stronger and maybe had an easier time in the various fights she had gotten into. Stella might have even been genuinely interested in her.
On the other hand, there were people who were genuinely interested in her for who and what she was. Lucy was interested in her as a girl, and it would be unfair to her to swap genders without even talking about it first.
But this wasn’t about Lucy, or Stella, or anyone else. It was about Ciara, and who and what she wanted to be. And, as soon as she realized that, she knew she didn’t want to be a man. It might have made things easier in some ways, but it wasn’t who she was.
“I want to stay as me,” she said. Then, she added, “But, if you could make me look a bit better, I wouldn’t say no.”