Iirin receives a visitor that will change his life forever.
On the Moonsday morning that changed Iirin’s life, the kitchen that fed the temple-orphanage’s dozens of inhabitants was empty. The lack of noise and of the usual clattering noises of chaos from the staff should have been an omen to Iirin, a sign that everything as he knew it was soon to change.
Instead, Iirin was busy making breakfast for almost three dozen hungry little demons because the temple-orphanage’s half a dozen cooks and assistants were nowhere to be found and as always, Iirin had been left in the dark about everything beyond what time Matron wanted him to be at work in the kitchens.
Halfway through preparing the weak rice porridge for the littlest ones who were still teething, the doors that connected the kitchen to the dining room flew open with a bang that made Iirin flinch and nearly drop his ladle into the bubbling porridge.
“I knew I’d find you in here,” Matron said, her voice a taunt that never failed to make Iirin’s jaw clench. She spat the words out as if she was accusing Iirin of some horrible deed rather than yelling at him for doing the very task that she’d told him he was responsible for only the night before.
Iirin never stopped stirring the porridge, only half-turning so that he could look at Matron’s livid face and the twin pinpricks of red that brightened her cheeks.
“Matron,” Iirin said, dipping his head in a shallow show of respect that the demon in front of him had never once tried to earn. “What is it that I’m being accused of this time?”
Last month, one of the adolescent incubi living in the temple-orphanage had accused him of stealing a string of prayer beads from their room. That had led to an hour of watching from his doorway as Matron and two of the city guards turned his tiny room upside down. In the end, the boy had found his beads entangled in one of his shirts and the incident had been forgotten.
Of course, no one involved had thought to even offer Iirin an apology.
The time before that, he’d been a little late in returning from running errands for Tirenni and had come back to the temple-orphanage only to find the front gate locked and a surly, scowling Matron waiting for him in his room when he’d finally managed to sneak in through the staff entrance.
Matron’s mouth twisted with a frown.
“You –” She stopped before another word could slip free from her mouth, staring at Iirin as if she wished that she could wipe him from existence. When she forced herself to speak again, the words came out in a rough tone. “The seer sent a runner from the tower with a message for you.”
The seer, a marked mage that lived in seclusion in the tower that jutted up to the sky in the middle of Akkadia’s four quarters, had no reason to know who Iirin was or even that he existed.
And to send a message —
Iirin frowned, realizing belatedly that the porridge had started to burn as he stared down at it with unseeing eyes. “What did they want?”
It probably wasn’t anything. Maybe the seer saw that Tirenni or Argot would require him for a dangerous mission. Maybe they saw him doing something that would ruin their king’s day.
Matron cleared her throat, somehow managing to maintain a disgusted look on her face at the same time.
“The runner wouldn’t tell me,” she spat out as if offended that someone familiar with the God Quarter wouldn’t do her bidding. “She wanted to wait for you to come out.”
Iirin caught himself blinking rapidly, feeling perplexed. Quickly, he wiped his hands on the apron tied around his waist and then skimmed it over his head, barely disturbing the heavy fall of his silver hair. As he moved towards the doors, a thought stopped him.
“Can you get someone to mind the stove for me,” Iirin asked, his voice hesitant as he glanced between Matron’s stony face and the pot of porridge merrily bubbling away on the fire.
Matron narrowed her eye at Iirin but then hollered for her assistant Cuna to take Iirin’s place at the stove as she strode forward, heading for the receiving room without a backwards glance to make sure that Iirin was following her.
Honestly, Iirin thought to himself as he trotted a good distance behind the temple-orphanage’s high priestess, it would serve her right if he slipped away and went back to his room — or better yet, outside.
But then, Iirin didn’t want to miss hearing the seer’s message. Not even if it meant listening to it alongside Matron.
Iirin sped up, coming to walk at Matron’s side just as they entered the receiving room.
Cavernous and drafty, the receiving room was really only used during festival days when all of the little orphans were gathered for gift-giving or when one of their own was set to be married. On a morning like when no one seemed to exist in the same space as the house, the sheer size of the empty room seemed to dwarf the lithe harpy sitting perched on the edge of a spindly-legged chair.
The harpy rose to her clawed feet once Iirin drew closer, fluttering gold-tipped blue feathers in greeting as her dark blue lips curved upward in a brief flash of a smile.
“Iirin, I have a message for you from the seer,” she intoned in a voice that seemed like it cut at his very soul. “Will you hear it?”
Several heartbeats later, when their eyes met — his silver and her pale, pale gold — a jolt like lightning seemed to sear through Iirin’s veins and along the pale markings that littered his skin.
Iirin struggled to find his voice.
“I-if I m-may,” he stuttered, fingers fisting in the worn material of his tunic. “I wish to hear the message.”
The harpy smiled at Iirin, her sharp teeth gleaming in the light and then sketched out a brief bow. When she glanced at Iirin again, the gold in her eyes was gone, replaced with an inky blackness.
“In one week’s time, two will become three, love will set them on the path to healing, and the child with the markings of our land’s lost will know his true worth.”
The prophecy was as brief as it was vague, but Iirin still felt his head spin as he watched the harpy collapse back in her seat, her wings trembling at the exertion of holding the seer’s words within her for so long.
Iirin wasn’t that out of touch that he couldn’t decipher a prophecy about a binding.
“A-and this was for me?” Iirin asked, his voice shaking. “What –”
The harpy lifted one beringed hand, the palm facing outward. The gesture silenced Iirin effectively and immediately, doing more in a moment than Matron had been able to do all day.
“That was all the seer said in her trance,” the harpy said, not unkindly as she watched Iirin fidget before her. “But Dorna — Dorna gave me a message to pass on about your future bonded. They’re both Tals and –”
Matron interrupted, her tone sharp. “Did Dorna say that the message needed to go to Iirin?”
Taken aback by Matron’s question, Iirin and the harpy flinched at the same time.
“Matron –” Iirin felt his throat tighten. “I –”
“Go back to the kitchens, Iirin,” Matron ordered with an imperious note to her voice and a scowl settled on her sharp face. “I will deal with you later.”
Iirin blinked back the sudden pressure of tears at the corners of his eyes but then forced himself to obey Matron’s stern command. This was his life. His future bonding to two Tals of all the things. And yet Matron still could push him from his own life as if he was no more than a nuisance.
Matron would do what she always did to him, Iirin mused as he trudged out of the receiving room. She’d wheedle her way into making this arrangement beneficial to her — not the temple-orphanage — and damn Iirin in the process.
With Iirin’s luck — and Matron’s machinations — he would be bonded to two of the most terrifying denizens of Akkadia’s God Quarter before the week was out.