Saint George held his ground as the beast advanced. His armour made no noise, all the chains and jewels immobile even with a sword held high and one foot poised mid-stride, suspended above ground. His face was half in shadow but his eyes were alight, reflecting the myriad candles floating in the shallow pool. They burned golden around him but turned indigo and purple where the beast approached — not that the night needed reinforcement, or the beast more spectacle. The giant snake embraced two men who moved in perfect concert, sometimes as a four-limbed demon and sometimes eight, the placid animal entwined among them in slow but flowing coils. Two dancers were required for the snake’s enormous weight, and a measure against it strangling either one of them, but their movements made the demon feel alive, like they’d stepped off a mainland shrine or a torch-lit mural. Mundi had to force herself to care about Saint George and fet bad about his actor.

The pool of light tightened around the saint, made him a lone pillar of gold against a sea of swirling dark. Sure, the outermost candles resumed their drifting glow as the beast paced past them, but all of the attention in the audience had shrunk to where Saint George was about to strike — or get extinguished.

The snake, drugged as it was, would take no part in that, but the swords were a different matter. The district’s desire to outdo its neighbours in this festival had not only hired the best troupes, it made performers move from props and trickery to an immersion laced with very real risks. This kind of theatre would’ve come from poverty and desperation a few generations back, but now it was a mark of prestige. Aren’t we just fancy, Mundi thought, and watched Saint George dazzle the beast with his upheld sword as he grabbed the blade he’d held between his teeth, and plunged it forward.

The demon roared and spun, sending candles splashing, flying out, gold and purple mixing in an upset sea. Saint George’s swords and armour flashed in a blur of limbs as he dodged the beast and parried, his skin a rich dark red against the dancers painted green. The act picked up in speed.

The snake was spared this part; Mundi had just about caught a glimpse of it disappearing in the water, likely guided by a background handler. The human commotion was entrancing enough, the dragon dancers separate one moment and joined the next, closing in on the saint with each swoop and twirl. Just as he went down —

“Mistress Stoteleimon, a thousand apologies –”

Mundi jerked, so focused on the play that she’d completely disregarded the light in the corner of her eye. She exhaled and turned her head, setting her face in a smile so polite it was guaranteed to make the messenger question his life choices. Behind her, the audience went silent as Saint George dodged, then struck the crucial blow.

“It’s your son, Mistress,” the attendant said so quietly as to almost mouth it, then cringed and yelled to make himself heard in the celebrating crowd. “He needs to speak with you.”

She rose to follow as he just about avoided slapping himself in hasty gratitude, and went up towards the terrace overseeing the entire garden used for that night’s stage. The attendant led her to a private enough booth, equipped with an elongated frame atop a wide, low table that could easily seat six. The booth was so obviously built for nobility who couldn’t be bothered with a play but had to be seen that she decided to make full use of it, and ordered tea and fruit to be brought in.

The frame was the low-precision type designed for brief exchanges, mostly gossip or flirtation, but it would do in an emergency. She authenticated Phyri’s writing by the hand and the speed in which it manifested, then acknowledged receipt of it by erasing his apology and handwriting a  question instead.

[Pilgrims], he wrote.

Mundi sighed. He knew how to handle visitors so this was either too trivial to require her attention, or he was slow in getting to the point. They’d talk about it later. She waited, then ‘hm’ed despite herself at [Church-appointed; pass-seal fine]. A more delicate type of visitor, then, and an odd hour for sure, but the boy still knew the protocol. Why drag her out of —

[Province seal help.]

Mundi grimaced. She wiped the frame clean with a stroke of her hand just as she caught sight of another attendant’s light through the lattice of the screen. She waited until her tea and seasonal fruits were laid out, picked up some pomelo, then decided that Phyri knew what he was doing and wrote [Show] instead of scribbling out a reprimand.

The fruit burst in her hand when the image showed.

“What the hell,” she said without thinking and cringed, remembering where she was. She wiped the pulp off her hand as she took another look at the seal Phyri had pressed against his frame to transfer it in as much detail as her end would allow, then erased the image. Taking a moment to down her tea in a long, measured gulp, she wrote [Wait] in response and killed the line.

Phyri did the right thing, she figured as she hurried home in a festival-provided carriage, when he called for her advice rather than anyone else’s. The boy knew full well what that ludicrous seal was meant to represent. The Tree of Christ rising over a torn-down wall, with no other saints or adornments? There was only one place where such an image would make sense, and as far as she knew — as far as the Church acknowledged — that place did not exist.

Wherever these pilgrims were really from and whatever they really wanted was her business until she determined whether to kick them out or tell the boss about them. Preferably, much more preferably, the former.

***

She found Phyri hovering by the gates of the parochial court. “I told Father I called you,” he said as the carriage drew up, before it had a chance to slow. “That’s all. He’ll only talk to Ser if you say so.”

Mundi pushed the door aside and jumped down to shush him. “It’s fine,” she said, eager to relieve her own guilt at seeing him so tense; perhaps the festival wasn’t the best time to hand over charge of the court to a nineteen year old. She gestured at the carriage to move on and glanced over the gates where five tall roofs loomed in the dark, but only two lit dimly from below: the large house as always, and the guest house. So far, so good.

“I told them I’d give them time to settle down and eat,” Phyri said, all in one breath. “I followed all the courtesy their pass-seal demanded. It’s genuine, I checked. The other one I just… I kind of let it…”

Mundi put a hand against his cheek. “It’s fine, Phyri,” she said when he finally calmed down. “You did everything right, especially to ignore that seal. No awkwardness for you or them that way.”

She waited for him to open the gates and let her through, and sighed a little at the sight of the occupied guest house. So many ways it could go wrong. “I’ll sort it out before he’s back.”

“Can I stay?”

Mundi paused. Whatever obstacles she’d have in dealing with the guests, having to assert authority while being neither the district priest nor a man, she’d rather handle out of Phyri’s sight. On the other hand he’d already met them, and if she wanted to get their story out and verified before they vexed Sebaste with it, she could use the help. “Come along,” she said. “Tell me what you’ve learned about them.”

***

Swapping the shawl and jewelry she wore to the play for something more austere in the Church-heraldic black and bronze, Mundi listened to her son’s impressions of the pilgrims and their retinue as she pondered how to handle them. There wasn’t much to go on, meaning they were either every bit as cautious as she was, or there was just no story there — except the province seal destroyed the latter option. Right, then.

Two monks by the ordained names of Nurmat and Milun — western names all right, though the men could be from anywhere the way Phyri had described them — accompanied by six or seven novices in their early twenties, a train car’s worth of luggage, and a small but heavy looking coffer. It struck Phyri as important by the way they seemed to guard it, but Mundi would expect this from a band of pilgrims on an Ecumene-wide journey; the aides and the luggage indicated months of travel, which in turn meant they’d be carrying relics from their monastery to exchange with holy sites along the way. Phyri would’ve come across this custom in a book but, until he travelled further than the islands, Mundi couldn’t fault him for not recognising it. She’d tell him more about it later.

Unless the pilgrims really came a stupidly long way.

Mundi snorted at herself and shook the thought away. She bobbed her head at Phyri to tell him to get going and, following him to the guest house, turned her sleeves up and braided her hair just enough to bare her neck. She needed every sign of seniority but also figured her own pilgrimage tattoos would reassure the guests they were taken at their word. Then she’d take them apart.

The Tree of Christ over a broken wall, honestly.

***

The monks, seated on the far side of the table in the central hall and attended to by their novices as they shared the evening meal, nodded to Phyri in recognition but rose and bowed when Mundi entered. The younger of the two took a moment longer to acknowledge her, and his face was tense and unhappy when his ordained brother moved to greet her. She couldn’t hold it against him, though, as her own guard went up next.

“Mistress Stoteleimon,” the senior monk said with genuine pleasure as he made the sign of blessing. “It is an honour to meet you.”

Mundi returned the bow and the sign, and considered her options as she straightened back. Never mind that he knew her name; he could’ve asked the staff, to show her proper gratitude for receiving him this late. No, this was a man who expected to see her, expected to talk to her; most likely a man who’d read her books knowing they were hers.

To assume otherwise would have been more modest, perhaps, but certainly more insulting to both their intellects. She could only answer him as plainly as he himself had spoken, but she also couldn’t allow him to have her at a disadvantage. Right, then.

“Sit down, please,” she said. “You’ve come a very long way.”

“Indeed we have,” he echoed — or the hall echoed with the strength of his voice — and made himself comfortable. He was a large, sturdy man of vaguely western features whose lower face was obscured by bristly grey mustache and beard, and who seemed to be at home in both palace and tent. “Thank you for opening your home to us, Mistress and young Master. I am brother Nurmat and this,” he said, clasping his sulking companion’s shoulder and pulling him down beside him, “is brother Milun.”

The younger monk sat down and continued to say nothing, which bothered Nurmat not a jot. “We come from the House of Dositei,” Nurmat said as if the name meant anything.

Mundi joined them by the table. Phyri, mindful of his duties, joined the novices and, satisfied that there was sufficient food and freshly brewed tea within reach, led the boys away.

Mundi allowed brother Milun to pour them all some tea, forcing down a smile as she pictured brother Nurmat kneeing him in the rear to get him to move. A lithe man of average build but with a taut, intense face made to intimidate underlings, Milun seemed as out of place in this cosy scene as Nurmat fit right in. Mundi took a moment to inhale the steam, appreciate the meld of tea and spices, and decide what to say about this House of Dositei.

She made a note to commend Phyri on his choice of leaf; the guests would not stay up for long.

“Forgive me,” she said after a sip. “The name of your House is new to me.” Damned if she was going to identify their blasted seal. Let them say it, or prove they’re pilgrims and move on.

Nurmat’s countenance cooled, but only for a fraction of a moment. “Indeed,” he said with vigour. “So it is to us! The House of Dositei is as new as a working monastery gets, but since we are new we are also first in many ways.” He lifted his teacup in a western gesture of success, effectively congratulating himself since she didn’t make a move to do so.

This was fine with her. Mundi put her tea down and pressed her palms together in continued polite ignorance. “Which province does the House belong to?” she said. “A thousand apologies for this, I was not in to welcome you myself –”

Nurmat’s smile took on some of Milun’s edge, though the older monk projected disappointment rather than distaste. He’d hoped to provoke her into something — excitement? intrigue? outrage? — with these hints and insignia, but other than letting him know she read his seal just fine, she refused to compromise herself any further. No; whatever he came here to say he’d have to say himself.

He too gave up on tea. “Rome,” he said in a proud and pleasant voice; Milun twitched. “The Ecumenical Province of Rome.”

Mundi folded her hands in her lap. She could’ve said “get out” and would have stood by it even if word spread that the parochial court kicked out visitors it had agreed to host. For Sebaste’s sake, for her own — she’d have done it and moved out disgraced, but with her conscience clear and her mind at peace.

How dare they.

“Brother Nurmat,” she said in a voice measured by her slow, steady breath, “you thanked me for opening my home to you. But you see, I opened my home to pilgrims with a seal of purpose given by the Church, and a seal of province damaged by long travel. These are the people I will house and bid farewell to, may God bless their journey.”

Nurmat took these words in as thoughtfully as they were given. But while he contemplated his reply, the creases of his weatherworn face drawn close and eyes piercing in the shade of bushy eyebrows, Milun’s patience gave.

“With all respect, Mistress,” Brother Milun said, “we are here to talk to Little Brother Baptist.”

“Not unless I say so,” Mundi said. “Brother Nurmat understands how this household is run, and so does whoever sent you. You are here, I believe, to accompany your Brother. Stay here and listen, or leave and argue to your soul’s delight. There are plenty who will argue with you at this time of night while the festival is on and drinks are free.”

The young monk twitched again, whether in surprise or sheer affront. Head bowed and palms pressed to his chest in contrition, he nodded to both her and Brother Nurmat. “If you allow it, Mistress, I will speak to Little Brother. Until then, I will pray.”

He rose and, murmuring a blessing for his hosts and mission, withdrew towards the guest house shrines.

Nurmat nodded and said nothing; only after his companion was gone did his nose wrinkle in frustration and his mustache stir, betraying a brief sigh.

Mundi replaced his tea with a freshly brewed batch. They sat in silence for a while, taking in the faint sounds of novices settling in nearby, the bell of Milun’s prayers as he worked out his frustration, and the cries of animals in the trees outside.

“My apologies, Mistress Stoteleimon,” Brother Nurmat said. “I am fully cognizant of your Little Brother’s apprehension when it comes to Rome, and I do not intend to disrespect it. I did however hope, going by the information I had gathered, that you would perhaps agree to… consider what I have to show you.” He turned to point to where the novices had stored their coffer, and took the opportunity to stifle a great yawn.

“Rome is real,” he said when he faced her again. “The province seal we showed your son is only missing patron saints. I would have never dared take it along without the offices of Church and Christ to back it up. I have every document –”

Christ?” Mundi hissed so as not to shout. Her voice was strained now. “You took all that to Christ??”

She didn’t have to add “and now you dare come to my house?”; Nurmat saw it in her face and shut up quickly to amend his tactic.

In different circumstances she would have liked him, calm and pleasant despite fatigue, but at that moment her tolerance was wearing thin. He still had the option of quitting all this talk of Rome and staying as a pilgrim visiting the festival. She’d introduce him to the boss as such and, as long as Milun played along, the parochial court would simply be another stage. If there ever was an elegant way to solve a problem, here it was.

But no; despite his fatigue, or because of it, Nurmat decided to push on.

“I asked to be sent here,” he said. “I’ve read your work, I studied it — yes, yours,” he said to her sharp glare. “If I were a heathen I’d wager money that I could accurately tell which passages are yours and which are Little Brother Baptist’s. And I’m very much aware of the grief your work has brought you instead of… instead of being celebrated for its enormous achievement.”

“Shouldn’t you be resting, Brother,” Mundi said, more embarrassed for him than she was upset. Even Milun had retired with his bell.

Nurmat’s mustache bristled up. “I knew I would offend you coming here with this. We’d thought of ways to — ah, but there was no good way to go about it. So I thought I knew you, having read your books, and decided to appeal to your curious nature.”

“You tried to intrigue me, in order to flatter me, knowing all along that you’d offend me?”

“Well.” He put his hands together. “Consider, Mistress: I do not talk to women much.”

She had to laugh at that confession.

“That is the first thing you said that I can easily believe,” she said, “in a story where Our Holy Mother Church has expanded the Ecumene with Rome of all the lands, without money or crusades, without telling anyone, and with the blessing of the Christ. Rome, which is inaccessible by any reasonable means or by any reasonable people. Rome, where what little progress the Ecumene had made in centuries was ruined by what you call my ‘enormous achievement’. Unless, of course, I misunderstood all this and ‘Rome’ is a province carved out in some entirely new place… but then you put a broken wall on its seal so on top of all of this I am to believe you have made it to the West across a desert no one has been able to approach in thirteen hundred years because of how poisonous it is.”

Brother Nurmat pondered this. “In essence, yes.”

Mundi stared. He carried on. “We haven’t gone across just yet but we’ve breached the desert and I’ve brought you proof. The House of Dositei is on the Wall so you were right, we have come an awfully long way.”

He got up, wincing only slightly for his age, and took the coffer that had so intrigued young Phyri.

Bowing so their eyes were level he placed it carefully in front of her, a small box that nonetheless signalled immense wealth and was certainly not made within the Ecumene. Further north, perhaps: there was a Khanate feel to the detail which did a very fine job of appealing to Mundi’s curious nature. The side of the lid that faced her was impressed with the image of the Tree atop a wall that was becoming familiar if not exactly welcome — just like the monk sat there, waiting for her judgement.

Proof?

Rome was made of rumours.

Rome was legends, superstition, Rome was a story told to children when they misbehaved and a story told to adults when they had to be made angry. ‘Rome was taken from us.’ ‘Rome was promised.’ Rome worked as a rallying cry precisely because it was so distant and vague. Nobody really cared for Rome apart from the overly zealous who made their way by sea, if they ever made it, and who were better off away from cultured folk. No non-Christian people cared for that land either, and had long abandoned conquest.

Cursed, poisoned, haunted, call it what you want, Rome had power as a story. Proof? Mundi put her life’s most driven effort in dispelling superstitions leading back to it, and all that proof had got her was a wave of grotesque deaths. Sebaste quit Rome there and then, without ever setting foot inside its blasted borders, and because he gave up so did she, having no entry to the world of scholars save through him. As far as her or Little Brother Baptist were concerned, that whole story was scrolled up and sealed.

Brother Nurmat knew all this.

She placed her hand on the lid and kept it firmly down. “Let’s say there’s proof. Let’s say I let you stay. What then? What do you want of him?”

Nurmat nodded at the box. “There’s an invitation for the both of you. God willing, you accept.”

“I will ask you one more time, Brother.”

His tiredness caught up with him. “If you think you would be happier if we left you out of this… well, so would we. But we can’t move on without you. Lord knows we have tried.”

Mundi stood and bowed to allow him to retire. “I will see you at the festival tomorrow,” she said. “Directions will be brought to you at second morning prayer. Sleep well, Brother.”

***

Thinking back, she was surprised to find herself indifferent to the offer. Never mind the appeal to vanity; it was almost sweet how they thought a woman would still fall for it if her intellect were praised rather than her beauty. What surprised her was that Rome had lost its lure, that the years she spent forgetting it had dulled her fancy after all.

But that admission — no, that offer of adversity?

She could work with that.