Years after her battles were all won or lost, Narnasia had learned that glory and victory were nothing at all, compared to watching her girls play in the sun. They darted in and out of the shadows—and there were always shadows in Viridill, where the high altitude kept their skies clear, but the rounded old peaks to all sides, many topped with massive trees, cast unpredictable patches of shade. The air was filled with the warmth of early summer, the smell of baking grass and leaves, the screams and laughter of a dozen teenage girls. They had been playing some kind of game at some point, some variant of tag perhaps, but by now were just chasing each other around for the sheer joy of it. Girls in sleeveless white novice robes dashed this way and that, shrieking and tackling each other, rolling in the grass, bounding up to take off again.
It was getting very close to time for afternoon drill. She really ought to put a stop to this, call them to order… But they were just so happy. So alive. Indulgent it might be, but she was indulging herself as much as them.
Narnasia leaned with both hands on her cane, braced against the ancient stonework in front of her, soaking it all up. The sun did her bones a world of good, soothing the ache that tended to accumulate in her joints, but the happiness of the novices was just as therapeutic to the spirit as the sun was to the flesh.
“Okay, all right!” shouted a gangly blonde, waving her arms. “Everybody back to barracks to wash up, or we’re gonna be late.”
They were a far from homogenous group, in temperament as much as description. Several immediately came to a stop—or picked themselves up off the grass—and began moving toward the novice barracks. Mostly, Narnasia noted, the orphans who had been raised in the Abbey and some of the boarders who’d been there longest. From others came groans, shouted imprecations (mild enough that she didn’t feel the need to intervene) and one loud, wet raspberry.
“Yes, I know, your life is so hard,” said Trissiny, the older girl calling them to order, with an easy smile. “You can complain all about it all the way there and back. Just get it out of your systems before Sister Zanouri is—”
She broke off, pivoting on one foot to hook the younger girl who tried to leap on her back by the arms. Half a second later, Trissiny had Mafi, a short thirteen-year-old with an olive Tiraan complexion, in a headlock.
“No fair!” Mafi shouted, struggling impotently.
“You can have it one of two ways,” Trissiny said, holding her without apparent effort. “Either ambush people from behind, or talk about fairness. Can’t do both, squirt.”
“Yup, and I sleep with one eye open.” She finally released the younger girl, giving her a playful swat on the rear to shoo her in the direction the others were drifting off. “All right, barracks! Nobody wants to be late for drill; you all remember what happened last time.”
More groans and razzes rang out, but the girls were all moving now. They were a mixed lot, these dozen. A core of five them had always lived in the Abbey; they had grown up together and shared the surname Avelea, which made them sisters in every way that mattered. Others rotated in and out of the ranks with each year, few staying more than a handful of months, though some returned on a seasonal basis. They were a mix, some the well-trained daughters of particularly devout Avenists who viewed a stint in the barracks a vital part of their upbringing, and some just the opposite, troublesome girls sent here to benefit from the Sisterhood’s famous discipline—often as a last resort.
Narnasia’s smile widened as she watched Trissiny chivvying them along. She was the oldest of the Abbey-raised in this lot, just a year off from being able to enlist in the Silver Legions. Not all Aveleas did, but there had never been a question about Trissiny. The faith was her life, its discipline as natural to her as breathing. She was a skilled fighter and in the last year, since the previously eldest sister in her barrack had grown and left, had slipped into the role of leader with effortless success. That girl would be an officer by the time she was twenty.
She leaned one-handed on her cane, lifting her other arm to beckon. Trissiny glanced at her, then made a final round of shooing gestures and paused to make sure her squadmates were moving in the right direction before turning and trotting over to Narnasia.
“Mother Narny,” she said with a respectful bow and a bright smile.
“How’re your squad faring, Trissy?” she asked, then chided herself inwardly at the brief grimace that flickered across the girl’s face. At the mature age of fifteen, she had decided the childhood nickname no longer suited her and insisted on its retirement. She was too polite to make an issue of it, which was largely why Narnasia accommodated her—when she remembered. She was too old to quickly discard the habits of a decade and a half.
“We’re having a really good few weeks,” Trissiny replied, her normal good cheer quickly returning. “It still takes a while to get Mafi and a couple of the others moving, especially in the mornings, but they’re good girls once they decide to be.”
“Good. I think you’ve earned a little extra responsibility.”
Trissiny straightened slightly, her expression growing serious. “We’d be honored. What’d you have in mind?” One could always tell the Abbey-raised girls from the boarders by whether they regarded extra responsibility as a privilege or a punishment.
“Just a little thing for now. Since the weather’s holding, I believe we’ll move dinner to the lawn this evening. What do you think?”
“That sounds grand!”
“Good. Your barrack is in charge of setting up tables. Everything needs to be ready by five.”
“Consider it done!” Trissiny swelled with pride and snapped off a salute—a little too exuberant for regulations, but she wasn’t an inducted Legionnaire, and Narnasia wasn’t foolish enough to punish a child’s eagerness to please. “We won’t let you down.”
“I know you won’t, Trissyyynnny.” She caught herself, barely, and the girl’s mouth twitched in amusement. “Best get after your squad. You don’t want to disappoint Sister Zanouri.”
“No, I don’t,” she said seriously, stepping back. “I prefer my nose un-bitten-off.”
“You mind that attitude, child!” Narnasia leveled a finger at her, barely managing to keep her face straight. “That’s a full Sister you’re speaking of, one who could be out serving with the Legions but stays here to see to your education.”
“You’re right, I’m sorry,” Trissiny replied, making an effort at an abashed expression. “She’s only done that once.”
“Yes, ma’am!” Grinning now, Trissiny bowed again before turning to flee after the rest of her squad. Watching her go, Narnasia let the smile spill back over her features.
Having favorites was an absolutely terrible practice, both in raising children and in training soldiers. She had to be content with the self-discipline not to let it show in her actions, however. When the Goddess sent her a true golden child, well, she was too human to be truly objective. Ah, it was going to be a hard thing when her Trissy left, and the time was coming all too fast. But that was the way it was. Girls grew up, and women had to create their own lives.
She turned and walked back into the shade of the Abbey, slowly so that her arthritic legs supported her without the need for her cane. It was simple pride that made her do it, the same reason she refused to call on the healing light to soothe her aches except when she was alone in her chambers, but Narnasia Darnassy had served her Goddess with distinction, ran a well-ordered Abbey and had raised a fine crop of girls. She was entitled to a little pride.
Important as discipline was, a good commander didn’t forget morale. Besides, however they had been raised, teenagers were not soldiers, and a treat now and then was a healthy part of their upbringing. The picnic had proved quite a success; the conversation over dinner was louder and happier than that which usually rang out in the mess hall, but didn’t cross the line into raucousness. Some of the girls present might have pushed it toward that if left to their devices, but they were surrounded by better influences that kept them in check. Avenist discipline could bend when the situation allowed, but it did not break.
The Abbey’s current population—at least those not tending to guard posts or other duties during the dinner hour—fit at four long rows of tables. The folding tables set up on the lawn were more narrow than those in the mess hall, forcing their occupants into a greater than usual intimacy, but no one complained; personal space was always at a premium in the Abbey. There were the girls in training, several barracks of youngsters boarding at the Abbey, and about twice their number in cadets, adult women undergoing their basic training as Legionnaires. The Legion currently stationed in Viridill, the Third, was most encamped around the area, but two squads of full Legionnaires were present, positioned in the Abbey to look after their trainees. The cadets treated them with appropriate respect; the Abbey girls kept shooting them awed and envious glances. Between the various guests and trainees, the mix of priestesses and retired soldiers who ran the Abbey itself were a small minority.
There were no men present, though some few were attached to the Abbey in various capacities. It was a delicate line to walk; Narnasia had no patience for sexism of any kind and didn’t tolerate it in her Abbey, but she also had to manage the practical considerations of a campus full of teenage and twenty-something women. With an even blend of men and women, there was rarely a problem. When it was just women, men were of course a non-issue. A large group of women and a handful of men, however, resulted in all manner of competitive nonsense that undermined everything she was trying to teach these girls. It was tricky to ensure that male Avenists were shown adequate respect while still keeping them isolated for the sake of the students. It didn’t help that Avei’s faith tended to attract misandrists, though Narnasia took great pains not to employ any of those.
Still, tonight she put aside such headaches, eating slowly and letting the babble of conversation wash over her. As much of her attention went to looking around as to her dinner. Barrack Four had outdone themselves; they had taken the time to pull out the sturdy benches from the dining hall rather than inflict the Abbey’s stock of notoriously unreliable folding stools on the diners. The tables were impressively even, despite the inevitable small dips and fluctuations in the lawn’s terrain. Lanterns were hung carefully from the branches of ancient trees that twisted overhead, above head height but low enough they weren’t going to set the foliage afire. That was an impressively thoughtful touch; it saved space on the narrow tables, which of course was at a premium to begin with. Narnasia wondered whose idea that had been. Likely Trissiny, though she was wary of giving her golden child too much credit. That was a slippery trap.
Already the lamps were necessary, despite the early hour. To the southwest, through a gap in the surrounding mountains, they could see a rolling expanse of foothills still glowing in the late daylight, but the peaks sheltering the Abbey itself had already cast their deep shadows across the grounds.
Some commanding officers arranged their mess with themselves and their command staff at a head table. Narnasia much preferred to be amid her troops, to be part of them. Her seat was at an outer corner of one table, from which she could see the whole group. The ate, talked, laughed, and enjoyed themselves. Not all were so outgoing, but she saw no overtly unhappy faces.
Arrogance was a character flaw, one she tried vigorously to expunge, but looking over the women who answered to her, Narnasia again allowed herself to enjoy a rush of pride. However long she had left on this world, she would leave it confident she had done well by her duty. Who could ask more out of life?
Her musings, and everyone else’s talk, were interrupted by a sudden blaze of golden light.
Burning against the darkening sky, the eagle sigil of Avei hung suspended a dozen feet from the ground at the end of the long table arrangement. Stunned silence fell, but held for mere seconds before there came a scramble of benches being pushed back. Not everyone present knew what the sign meant; there couldn’t have been more than a few who had seen this in person. Even the Abbess hadn’t. But those educated by the Sisterhood recognized it, and surged to their feet to stand at attention. The Legionnaires and priestesses were first upright, saluting, followed by a smattering of the Abbey girls who had grown up with Avenist traditions, several of them looking shocked almost to the point of terror. The other students and trainees straggled to their feet, clearly uncertain what was happening, but following the example of their peers and superiors.
Narnasia was one of the last to rise, and not due to any sloth on her part. Rare and precious as this event was, her joints simply did not suffer leaping about; even once upright, she had to lean upon her cane, which didn’t adhere to regulations for standing at attention, but the Goddess would surely forgive her.
In a short span of moments, every woman present was upright, the enlisted saluting and all facing the glowing golden eagle, their expressions a blend of awe, reverence, fear and exultation.
The sigil pulsed once, trailing a curtain of light to the ground below it, which coalesced into a figure nine feet tall. There were several soft cries, quickly silenced, as the last of the younger groups finally realized what was happening.
Avei, in human form, was a strikingly beautiful woman, in a way that was impossible not to notice even when one knew how little value she and her cult placed on looks. She wore Legionnaire armor in the etched silver that had distinguished her paladins in the days when she still had them. A crested helmet concealed her black hair and partially obscured her face, but those blue eyes swept piercingly over the assemblage, causing more than one person to quail. She carried no shield, but had a traditional leaf-bladed short sword buckled at her waist, and a lance in her right hand, its butt resting on the earth.
There was near silence. The presence of divine magic in truly awesome quantity caused a faint but constant hum at the edge of hearing; it was a soothing, pleasant sound that filled the listeners with energy and calm. Even Narnasia’s aches ebbed away in the goddess’s presence. She knew that when they chose, the gods could project such a force of sheer personality that anyone gazing upon them could be driven to their knees, incoherent with awe. It was a good sign that Avei did not choose to unleash so much of her essence here, boding well for her intentions.
“The world is changing.” Her voice was deep, powerful, and echoed among them as though emerging from every part of the air. “Humanity regularly does what has once deemed impossible, or at least rare. Justice remains constant, but the nature of war has changed swiftly, and even we who should know best have struggled to adapt. As humankind have elevated themselves, the gods have grown more distant. We have watched you to see what came of all this progress.”
She paused, and slowly panned her gaze around the entire assembly. “We are concerned.”
Avei let this hang ominously for a moment before continuing. “The changes wracking the world are without precedent. The quiet of the gods in the last few years, the dwindling of our cults and the absence of paladins, has not been because we have left you to your fate, but because the times demand that we act carefully. As the world changes, the faithful must change with it, and even the Pantheon must adapt to properly care for our people. We have watched, in these latter days, and judged. We have considered deeply, planned accordingly, and made decisions. Now, the time has come for new action.
“In Tiraas, a Hand of Omnu has been called.”
The faintest stir rustled across the women present. One did not shift about and mutter to one’s neighbors in the presence of a goddess, but the implications of this announcement were too enormous, and too easily seen, to be ignored; quite a few reacted physically before they could restrain themselves. Narnasia especially saw immediately where this was going. Her heart tightened in her chest; her grip tightened on the head of her cane, hard enough that it would have seriously hurt her arthritic hands if not for the constant glow of divine light.
“Others will follow,” Avei declared. “Many have said that the age of paladins has ended, and they were right—but only because the nature of paladins needed to change. In addition to a period of observation and introspection among the gods, a clean break was needed. Now, a new age begins, one that will be led again by Hands of the Pantheon, by all the gods who have summoned paladins to their bidding, and in the years to come, by some who have never done so before. We serve the world according to its needs, just as you serve me. Now, the call goes out.”
She fixed her stare at a point near the middle of the assembly.
“Trissiny Avelea. Stand forward.”
Narnasia felt every muscle in her body tightened into unbidden rigidness. It saved her, barely, from screaming.
Trissiny gaped at the goddess, completely poleaxed. She made an erratic, whole-body twitch before apparently remembering how her limbs worked; even then, the girl stumbled as she stepped out of line. Swallowing visibly, she walked slowly toward the deity, past the lines of silent, staring women. Her body struggled between disciplined posture and an obvious desire to curl up into invisibility. Though she didn’t hurry by any means, in moments she stood within reach of the towering deity’s arms. One knee buckled momentarily, then stiffened. Avenists were not required to kneel to anyone, but few people could stand that close to the goddess of war without feeling a powerful urge to show some kind of obeisance.
Narnasia clutched her cane, actively trying to snap it now. The sturdy hardwood was in no danger from her aged arms, but it served as an outlet.
No, no, no, not her. Not her!
“There is a hard road ahead,” Avei said more quietly but still audible to everyone present. “The call I lay upon you is an honor, but it is also a heavy burden, and will exact a steep price, more painful than you can yet appreciate. In my thousands of years guarding the world, I have summoned many of the bravest and best to my service. Some have refused the call, and not one of them did I condemn. It is a lonely thing and a hard one, to give up your own life for the sake of others. Do not doubt that I ask anything else of you. Do not answer this call out of any desire for glory, or any expectation for your own happiness. Answer it only if you desire to serve. That you will serve is the only thing I can promise. What say you, Trissiny? Will you be my Hand in this world?”
NO! Narnasia screamed silently.
Trissiny gulped. “I—I’m not…ready. I’m not worthy.”
Avei smiled at her, and her expression was both gentle and achingly sad. “No one is ready, child. No one can be. And I would not call upon anyone so arrogant as to believe herself worthy. If you doubt yourself, Trissiny, do not doubt me. I have chosen carefully, I promise you. The only question is whether you are willing.”
Trissiny drew in a deep breath, squared her shoulders and set her face. Slowly, she sank to one knee, bowing her head. “I will serve however you think I best can.”
“So be it.”
The three words rang across the Abbey grounds, echoing in the luminous background noise of the goddess’s aura. Above and between the two figures, light flashed and coalesced into two shapes, a sword and a shield. Both were clearly ancient, and battered from long use. They floated slowly downward to hover at chest height.
Narnasia glared at them. She had seen those weapons before.
“Rise, then, and take the tools of your calling.”
Trissiny rose slowly; almost hesitantly, she reached out, first threading her left forearm through the shield’s grips. Then, finally, she grasped the sword by its handle.
The change was instant and without fanfare. One moment the girl stood diminutive before her goddess, a slim and somewhat gangly figure in a short robe. In the next she stood tall, sword and shield in hand, clad in the silver armor that so many present had only seen in paintings.
“We have a long road to travel together,” said Avei solemnly. “You will face countless battles and many hardships, but you will never do so alone. This new world will learn to respect you, Trissiny Avelea. Hand of Avei.”
Trissiny’s own aura flared into existence, and eagle wings of golden light stretched from her back, blazing with the intensity of the sun. The light swelled until no one could stand to look, then faded just as suddenly, leaving her standing alone in the dusk, only a faint gleam of divine favor limning her sword and shield. In the dimness that followed, Avei was gone, even more abruptly than she had arrived.
The newly minted Hand of Avei stared into space where the goddess had stood. Despite her armor, despite everything, she looked bemused and lost.
Then, quite suddenly, she was mobbed by a rush of women from each of the tables. The air was filled with cheers, praises, and shouted questions, mixing into an unintelligible jumble and overridden only by the shrieks of Barrack Four, who were the first away from their seats and managed to cluster around their squad leader before everyone else dogpiled her.
Old and thin her voice might be, but Narnasia Darnassy had commanded troops in her day, and could still seize and hold the attention of a battalion at need. Silence fell as she stepped forward—slowly, as her joints demanded, but not so slowly as her pride asked. She limped and relied on her cane, making her way between the tables as quickly as her legs would permit, unwilling to leave Trissiny alone for a second longer than necessary.
“Mother Narny,” the girl said desperately as she drew close, “I don’t… I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”
Narnasia struggled as she had rarely struggled with anything to smile, but for Trissiny’s sake, she did it. “When you need to do something, child, you will be told. That is one of the advantages you have, now. For now, you only have to be.”
Trissiny carefully sheathed her new sword at the scabbard hanging from her belt and slung the shield over her back, then stepped forward, arms outstretched.
Narnasia met her half way, gathering the girl into an embrace. She squeezed as hard as her thin arms could, ignoring the way the armor pinched and dug at her.
“I am just so proud of you,” she whispered fiercely into Trissiny’s hair. With her expression momentarily hidden, she allowed it to relax, permitted the tiniest sliver of the agony she felt to show through. She wanted to weep.
She did not, of course.
In the darkness of the pre-dawn hours, she limped doggedly through the winding paths between tombstones and mausoleums behind the Abbey. The moon had already vanished behind the mountains and there were no torches, but the faint starlight of the mountains was enough. Despite the darkness, despite the betrayal of her aging body, she had walked this path many times. She hardly needed to see.
The tomb occupied pride of place, facing a little cul-de-sac which itself encircled a bronze statue of the woman interred here. Narnasia only glanced up at this; it was only dimly visible in the darkness, anyway. She limped past it, making a beeline for the tomb itself. In her haste, she actually stumbled the last few steps, dropping her cane and throwing up both hands to catch herself against the broad stone door. There she stood, leaning against it, finally, finally letting the tears come.
It was far too dark to make out the words, but she could feel their indentation under her hands. She knew that name better than her own.
Here lay Jasmine Darnassy, the last Hand of Avei. Dead these twenty years, and as everyone had believed, truly the last. The Age of Adventures, the era of paladins, was over. There would be no more brave, brilliant women hurled into the thick of the carnage, set to face struggles that no one could hope to survive for long even with the full aid of a goddess. Narnasia had allowed herself to believe, and take comfort in the hope, that no more mothers would ever have to lay their girls to rest this way.
Now it was all starting again. And the first lamb laid on the altar was another beautiful, amazing young woman she regarded as her daughter.
There was a saying among their cult, fully endorsed by history: No Hand of Avei ever died in bed.
“Why?” she rasped, letting her head hang and the sobs come. “Haven’t I given you enough? What more do you want from me? I have never asked anything of you. Is it too much that I be left with someone to love?”
She drew back a fist and slammed it into the stone. That, needless to say, was agonizing, spikes of white-hot pain roaring up her entire arm, her hand throbbing unbelievably. Narnasia was falling before she realized it.
Strong hands caught her, then gently and with the utmost care pulled her upright, held her steady. It was light, now… And the pain that had so undone her seconds ago had already receded.
She heaved a deep sigh, closing her eyes, then turned. When she lifted her head and opened them, Avei was regarding her with an expression of weary sorrow. She was human-sized, now, scarcely taller than Narnasia would be if she could still fully straighten her spine. She didn’t glow, per se, but it was lighter around her, bright enough to see clearly.
“You’ve given everything,” Avei said quietly. “You have done all I ever asked, and done more than I would have required. Willingly, even eagerly. I have had soldiers as valuable as you, Narnasia, but none more so.”
For a devout, lifelong Avenist to hear such praise directly from her goddess—in fact, to be personally visited by Avei at all—was all the dream she would once have wished for. Now, all she could feel was bitterness.
“If I’ve earned any favor from you,” she whispered, “don’t take my Trissy. She deserves so much better.”
The goddess actually hung her head for a moment. “…she does. As do you. As has every brave woman who has followed me into an early grave, and all those left to mourn them.”
“Then it’s just business as usual,” Narnasia said, the bitterness of it clawing at her from the inside. “A world full of paladins again. More meat for the grinder.”
“I know your pain,” Avei said quietly. “You may not believe it, but I do. Jasmine was my daughter, too. I shared your pride in her, your love for her, and the agony that I couldn’t protect her in the end. Everything you’ve suffered, Narnasia, I have suffered. And not only the once, but for every Hand I have lost. Every single soldier who has fallen in my name. Every Legionnaire, every loyal trooper of the hundreds of nations that have lived in the last eight thousand years. They serve, they suffer, and they die, and they never do so alone. I’m there at the end to mourn each one. Every. One.” Narnasia couldn’t look away; there were tears sparkling in Avei’s eyes. “And each time, I call forth more, knowing it will only end in more loss and bereavement… Because that is the meaning of duty. We fight because someone has to, even knowing the fate of all those who serve. Every time I think I can’t possibly bear to go through this once more, I remember every soldier who has fallen in my name, and I have to go on. They didn’t quit. How can I?”
“I’m sorry,” Narnasia whispered. “I’m so sorry. I can’t believe I… I shouldn’t have dared to speak to you like that.”
“You hurt, sister. And you have every right to.” The goddess shook her head, gently leading the Abbess over to a stone bench and helping her to sit. “The day I no longer care about your pain is the day you should find a new faith.”
Narnasia leaned back against the bench, closing her eyes. “…how do we go on?”
“How do old soldiers do anything?” Avei sat down next to her and slumped forward, planting her elbows on her knees. “We’ve forgotten how to do anything else.”
The Abbess nodded. There was silence for a while.
“I only wish I could take the burden from her,” she whispered at last. “I wish I could have suffered instead of my Jasmine, too. Let them have the glory and me the pain. But… I know very well why you called them and never me. Jasmine, Trissiny… They’re special. I couldn’t have done justice to that duty. Jas did her title proud.”
“She did,” Avei said, nodding.
“Trissiny will, too.”
“I have no doubt of it.”
She heaved a sigh. “Forgive an old woman’s hysterics. How, then, can I help her? Whatever time I have left, I’ll do anything I can. I wasn’t there to support Jas; I’m not leaving my Trissy to face this alone.”
“She’ll never be alone.” Avei straightened, gazing up at the bronze statue of Jasmine Darnassy. “As I said before, the world is changing. Paladins have to change, too. I won’t make you any promises, but I have…plans. I have hope. I’m holding to a chance that we won’t lose this one so easily.”
“I’ve never told her,” Narnasia whispered. “About her blood. I’ve gone back and forth on it… To this day I don’t know whether it was right or wrong. I just wanted her to have as normal a life as she could, but… I suppose that’s not a consideration anymore.”
“You have some time, still, to make a decision,” said the goddess. “Three years.”
“Three?” She had expected to have Trissiny to herself for one more year at most. Girls raised in Avenist temples could join the Legions at sixteen.
“Three,” Avei said firmly. “At eighteen, she will be old enough for the next stage of her education. She will go then to the University at Last Rock.”
Even in the goddess’s radiant presence, Narnasia’s body ached at the speed with which she sat bolt upright. “Tellwyrn?!”
“Arachne,” Avei said, her expression grim. “Believe me, I know her faults; they are numerous and deep. I also know her virtues, however, and I think my cult has become too eager to discount those. Trissiny already owes everything to her kindness.”
“You have raised up a fine soldier, Narnasia. But do you know how many fine soldiers I have?”
“…all of them?”
“Exactly.” Avei nodded. “Trissiny is destined to be more, and Arachne can teach her that. She lives in a gray, meaningless world of nihilistic complexities with no moral compass whatsoever. Somewhere between that and the stark, black and white ethics you have instilled in Trissiny is the balance she will need to do her duty in the world that is taking shape around us.”
“What could I have done differently?” In spite of herself, Narnasia bristled. “I raised her in the faith. I’ve taught her your principles.”
“This may be a very painful thing for you to learn,” Avei said wearily, “but even the gods are not perfect. I am not content with sacrificing my most prized warriors like chess pieces. I want Trissiny to have a chance. Don’t you?”
Narnasia could make no reply to that.
“To do this, she will need more resources than my Hands have had in the past. It’s a new world, and a new type of paladin will be needed to uphold justice in it.” She turned her head to stare directly into Narnasia’s eyes. “We may yet lose her. But it will not be because we failed to arm her with everything she needs.”
The Abbess drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “…three more years, then. There’s so much left to teach her… Suddenly it doesn’t seem like enough time.”
“You’ll have my help. Together we will send her off prepared.”
“All right…” Steeling herself, she nodded firmly. “All right. I’ll do as you ask.” Narnasia rolled her shoulders, feeling the old aches, but also the old determination of her younger self. She would not send her Trissy off with anything less than everything she had to offer.
“How may I serve?”