Erik was unhappy, though he could identify no reason whatsoever that he should be. Tel Valori offered everything a young man could hope for, thus he was astonished when he finally identified the problem:
For the first time in his life, every desire was at his fingertips. General Shoji had amassed unimaginable wealth over his many campaigns, yet had bought little for himself; his coin was Erik’s to spend as needed. Even better, Shoji’s reputation alone was enough to render payment superfluous at most establishments. Erik basked in the glow of associated celebrity as he was offered souvenirs, meals, and services.
Though Shoji did not indulge in such pursuits, his soldiers knew where the bathhouses and brothels were, and happily served as Erik’s tour guide in Tel Valori’s shadier underworld.
Shoji’s notoriety was enough to earn Erik an instant place in the higher circles of social life. Erik began to learn both politics and social politics in ways he’d never have imagined in Idara. And he found it all dreadfully dull.
“You look unhappy,” a man observed as Erik passed him in the street.
You don’t know the half of it, Erik thought, but he was feeling belligerent so he said, “What business is it of yours?” Only now he noticed that the man was not dressed in street clothes, but in loose robes of jade green. Not just a man; a priest.
“The happiness of all believers is the concern of the Ascended,” the priest answered easily. He was leaning against a wall with his arms crossed idly.
Idara had been independent until Shoji’s conquest of it, and had priests of a half-dozen minor faiths. Erik had no experience with Asoko’s strange religion of Emperor-worship. He didn’t even know what the colors of each sect represented. He did know that heresy was grounds for execution in some circumstances.
He was on dangerous ground talking to this priest.
But boredom will sometimes drive a man to act unwisely, and so Erik retorted instead of answering politely.
“For an ‘ascended’, you seem pretty grounded to me.”
“Ah, an unbeliever then,” the priest said with a smile.
Erik hesitated. Belligerence was one thing, but outright antagonism might be borrowing more trouble than he could handle.
His unease must have been obvious, for the priest offered, “You’re in no danger from me, son.”
“Don’t call me son,” Erik snapped.
“My, you are irritable,” the priest said with a glance skyward. “Unhappy, just as I thought.”
“What do you care?” Erik asked, half curious.
“It’s my job to care.”
Now Erik was just incredulous. “It’s your job to loiter in the street and harass passersby with questions about their happiness,” he said dryly. “Shouldn’t you be in a temple somewhere?”
“That is almost exactly my job,” the priest answered. “Although I prefer to walk, I paused for a moment here because I was tired. And we can certainly go to one of the temples if you would prefer, though I don’t think you’re quite ready yet. The people I harass aren’t random, though. I’ve been watching you for some time.”
Now Erik felt a thrill of real fear. Perhaps the priest’s calm was because Erik was already caught, had already been found guilty of whatever passed for crime among these strange priests with their colored robes. His position was even more precarious than he thought if this priest had been stalking him.
Or could it be a ploy?
Now Erik cursed himself a fool for wandering about without Shoji. He’d thought he had the world by the tail, but he was wrong. It was Shoji’s success and prestige that he’d been borrowing. Abruptly Erik felt the weight of being isolated and orphaned far from home in a strange city full of laws he did not know.
“What do you want from me?” he managed, his throat dry.
The priest laughed, though not cruelly, but this only made Erik feel even more off-balance. Whatever was going on, whatever this priest wanted, he didn’t understand it. And if there was one thing he’d learned from Shoji already, if you didn’t understand something, you couldn’t control it.
“I don’t want anything from you, young man. I want something for you. I want you to feel happy, and content, and free.”
“Then leave me alone,” Erik answered immediately. Infuriatingly, the priest just shook his head.
“Can you honestly tell me that you’ve been content these last few weeks?”
Erik held back a retort; hostility hadn’t gotten him anywhere. Perhaps civility would.
“No,” he admitted.
“And you don’t even know why.”
How could this total stranger know this? Following Erik around the city was one thing; it wasn’t as though he’d been particularly careful. But this made it sound like the priest had been inside his head.
There were rumors of seers with this sort of ability among the Dolmec, but the Asoki possessed no such ability; did they?
“I’ll tell you what,” the priest offered, bending low like some confidant offering a secret. “There is a temple about three blocks from here.” He gave directions to it. “You think about what I’ve said. You consider how happy you are, here in Tel Valori, flirting with women who want your coin, and socializing with people who are not your friends. You think about it, and if you decide you’d like to know why you’re so miserable, come find me at the temple.” He put a gentle hand on Erik’s shoulder. “My name is Rishi.”
With that, Rishi the priest turned and walked away, leaving Erik alone with his puzzled thoughts.
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