His joints ached as he climbed the three hundred icy steps to the monastery. Shy Aubolis kept his pain to himself. “No need to complain to the Ether,” he mumbled into the falling snow.
A blast of wind whipped the cowl from his brow and scattered icy flakes into his face. “Would the Ether listen, Shy Eel?” it seemed to ask.
Aubolis turned his back to the wind. He scrambled to secure his pocket, but discovered it empty. Aubolis searched the steps and found the green envelope stuck to a nearby patch of wet ice. With his tail, he snatched the letter and moved it to an inside pocket.
“One thousand and twelve,” he taunted as he tightened his sash. He had lost count of the years, but he had never lost count of her letters. “You have yet to steal a single one from me.”
The wind laughed on its way down the mountain and across the frozen lake.
Aubolis repositioned his hood and studied the sky. Through a thin gash in the clouds, he spotted the familiar streaks of the planet Kain. Of Opal, the system’s darker star, there was no sign.
The sanctuary’s spire disappeared into the clouds as it grasped for the star’s purifying light.
“May the sky be cleared and True Mass be blessed,” Aubolis whispered. He meant his words for the Ether, but a gust stole them away. “So be it,” he added. Aubolis let the wind have its victory. He resumed his ascent and said nothing more.
The snow continued to fall. The wind faded, and by the time Aubolis reached the arched gates at the top of the stairs, it was nothing more than a breeze.
He passed into the sanctuary.
Pilgrims from across the Opalious System filled the pews. Photons webbed across the vault from the exposed spire crystal, but those who had traveled to Reev to bask in Opal’s healing light remained in darkness.
“Another day without True Mass.” Aubolis felt the letter through the fabric of his robe and wondered if he could accept the blame. “Without the burden of sin in my pocket, perhaps I might have reasoned with the wind,” he considered. “Asked it to push the clouds away.”
Aubolis removed his clawheels and slipped barefoot along the shadowy perimeter of the sanctuary. He passed through the mouth behind the altar and flipped back the cowl of his robe. From his pouch, he withdrew his luminescent shalh.
“How does the market fare, Shy Aubolis?” whispered a voice in the darkness. Aubolis lifted his shalh and caught the profile of Micha, who stood watch over the proceedings.
“Have you attended to the spire, Young Micha?”
Micha frowned. “That is Shy Pike’s responsibility.”
“As I understand it, Pike has taken ill. Did I hear wrong?”
“You did not.”
“Then please: attend to the spire. We must ensure that it is at full height.”
“And what of the watch?”
Aubolis withdrew a skin of ceremonial spice from his belt and handed it to Micha. “Young Remus will need this. Bring it to him and ask that he take your place. I will stand watch until he arrives.”
“But Remus is in the chapel preparing for Dark Mass, Shy Eel.”
Aubolis frowned at the novice, who knew better than to address him by his familiar name. “Indeed he is,” growled Aubolis. Micha winced and lowered his head. Aubolis continued: “And if he is not yet done, then he is taking too long. Hurry.”
As Aubolis watched Micha disappear into the darkness, he regretted that he had not been available to manage the situation as it unfolded. He felt the envelope through his robe and whispered, “Sometimes you are too much the distraction.”
In his heart, he enjoyed that so many young Shy called him Shy Eel behind his back. The name reminded him of his early years at the monastery, but his current position as one of the elders demanded formality.
“Shy Aubolis: Skinny as a Ruthus Eel,” bellowed Young Par during a morning meal many years ago. It didn’t take long for someone to reduce the proclamation to Shy Eel.
The elders at the time had tasked Aubolis with fetching items from the market city at the base of the monastery. Aubolis’s legs and tail grew strong, but he never developed that layer of fat upon which the other Shy depended to stay warm.
Aubolis refused to abandon this role as he advanced in age and rank.
It was during one of those early trips to the market that he sent his first letter to Helon. He remembered how his hands shook as he handed the envelope to the system traveler. Weeks later, he received his first reply. Their forbidden correspondence followed him deep into the years.
He once considered his night-time chills part of his penance, but he had long since ceased to beg the Ethereal Murk for forgiveness.
It didn’t take long for Young Remus to arrive. After a formal exchange, Aubolis departed into the inner cloisters and entered the plunging tower. He descended the spiral path toward his cell. The shalh, he held palm down to highlight his feet. He dragged his tail along the cold surface to offer quick aid in case he slipped.
A shout echoed from deep in the tower. Aubolis decided to ignore the disruption. He entered his small cell near the top of the spiral and dropped the shalh into its cradle on the wall. A second shalh embedded on the adjacent wall flickered to life. Aubolis withdrew the items he had retrieved from the market and placed each atop his reading desk. The envelope, he propped up on the stone shelf above his cot.
“This is a period of meditation, Shy Aubolis,” he reminded himself as he studied the envelope. The green fabric had no place among the muted colors of his cell. He decided to push the letter beneath his cot with the others. He would read it later, he decided.
“You disrupt me,” he told Helon.
Aubolis took the envelope and grunted to his knees. The letter never left his hands.
“It has been too long,” he whispered. He knelt over his cot and peeled open the envelope. Flakes of red sealant scattered over his pillow. Once his fingers touched the paper, he knew that he had exceeded his ability to resist. His breath caught as he extracted and unfolded the letter.
Aubolis didn’t recognize the handwriting….
You must forgive the delay. It is not for lack of trying. No longer can my fingers wield the pen that has connected us these many years. I finally accepted the need to ask another for aid. She swears that she will keep our secret, but I do not trust her.
I am glad you are unable to hear my voice in its weakened state. These are my final hours. Is it wrong to be thankful that you will never view me through the lens of age? I like to believe that I am beyond caring, but that would be a lie. When you dream of me, be sure that I am young.
The truth is that I have become bitter, a fact that I have tried so hard to hide from you. I am bitter, because I am here, and I know that the power of Opal over Reev will keep you young long after I am gone, but I am also bitter because the knowledge of our transgression will live on with you. I am bitter, because we have never seen our child.
Could it be that Opal will keep you alive after even our child has died of old age?
I guess none of this matters. I wish that it did.
I have one final thought that I need to convey: I wish that I had never become your student. I wish your lessons had never enthralled me. I wish that you had been dull. And yet, sometimes when I find myself smiling, I realize that I am thinking of our tails twisted together in the depths of transgression.
Goodbye, Quiet One. It is now up to you to complete our penance, and I hope you will fare better than me. Perhaps my passing will give you the strength you need.
Aubolis dropped the paper onto his pillow and watched it fold. He closed his eyes and tried to picture her young face looking up at him. It had been too long. Within his own mind, the sin that bonded them together ceased to matter long ago. He realized that he had thought of neither her face nor her flesh in years.
He realized that Helon had become her letters.
“And in the end, we are still so far apart,” Aubolis whispered into the gloom.
The sound of the chief acolyte singing the Call to Darkness echoed through the plunging tower. Aubolis didn’t have time to mourn. He left the letter where it lay and struggled to his feet. He changed into his purified robe.
“Shy Aubolis,” whispered a voice from outside his cell.
Aubolis paused, but he did not turn toward the voice. “I hear the call,” he said.
“Shy Aubolis, I have come to beg forgiveness.”
Aubolis stood like ice. He said nothing.
“Earlier, I was wrong to speak to you in such a familiar manner. It was a slip.”
“Young Micha, is it?” Aubolis asked. “There is nothing to forgive.”
“But surely, there is.”
Aubolis lacked the will to argue. “You examined the spire as I asked?”
“What did you find?”
“The third lock had come loose. I tightened it and extended the spire. The pilgrims experienced True Mass. It was brief, but the donation boxes are full.”
Aubolis sighed and smiled. “May they be healed,” he whispered. He turned to Micha and added, “You should have been more attentive.” Once the words met his lips, Aubolis concluded that he had placed Micha into a role for which he was ill-suited.
“Yes, Shy Aubolis. May I go?”
Aubolis lost focus as his mind trailed toward Helon and her final letter. “Things have changed,” Aubolis whispered. “We must accept change.” In a stronger voice, he added, “There is something I would like you to do for me.”
“Another task?” grumbled Micha.
“Yes. Another. Do you know why they call me Shy Eel?” he asked.
Young Micha hesitated. “Because you are skinny?” he asked.
“Skinny and strong. And I am so because of my travels to the market city. But I am tired, and this is a responsibility I should have relinquished long ago.” It took all his will to proceed. “I will pass this task on to you,” he struggled. The rest came easier. “You will retrieve small items at the request of the elder Shy. Nothing more.”
“But…what of the temptations? I have heard stories.”
Aubolis met the young Shy’s eyes. He knew Micha’s history. Like so many, Shy Micha was here because of a transgression. “While you are here in this monastery, you will apply yourself. You will strive to become greater than your flesh. And some day, you may find that your weaknesses do not have the hold over you that you thought they did. Someday, despite the feelings in your heart, you may realize that you have already moved on.” Aubolis looked down at the letter. “You may lament this discovery.”
“I understand, Shy Aubolis. But perhaps another would be a better choice.”
“Perhaps. But I chose you.”
The chief acolyte sounded the final call.
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