Sh’ra struggled, but failed to keep her mouth from dropping open.
“How? How do you have a stone?”
He looked at her, his eyes soft but calculating.
“I suppose now is as good a time as any to begin your education. It will not have been in the histories you were taught, but each of the great houses in the Stone clan once held a stone. When the others destroyed theirs before the Scattering, house Za’reth, through the efforts of my ancestors, kept ours a secret. Of the other great houses that remain, S’ri, Mu’ir, and your house, K’vel, none kept their stones. Something your father greatly regrets. As do I. Which is why he sent you to get the stone from house Lo’rah — the lost stone.”
“House Lo’rah? There was never a house Lo’rah.”
“It was stricken from the histories. Foolishness again. If they made mistakes, we need to know about them. Thankfully, house K’vel kept a private family copy of the original hidden in their library. That is the book your father found and brought to me for verification. It is the reason you were entered into the games.”
“But why would a house be named after the goddess?”
“It’s unclear to me, but I have a few guesses. Before a few hundred years ago there are no records of the goddess being called anything at all. Around two hundred years ago, a priest included the name Lo’rah in some of his teachings. He claimed he had met her, that she had revealed her name to him. In the end, he was put to death for heretical teachings, but the name caught on nonetheless. From there, it spread in prevalence over the next hundred years until it became the accepted name of the goddess.”
Sh’ra listened, trying to take it all in. What did it mean that the goddess could be given a new name? Then she remembered the stone he was carrying in his pocket and a different question came to mind.
“Wait, why did I have to enter the games when you already had a stone? Couldn’t you have just given me your stone?”
“It was too risky. All the great houses entered into a pact after the Scattering. This pact included the destruction of the remaining stones and a vow to never use them again. It was decided they were too powerful. I’m not sure how my house kept theirs from destruction. But it was too much for me to trust your father with this secret. And, I didn’t even know if you would be able to use the stone. I was not going to risk my family on the chance.”
Sh’ra felt anger rising in her, anger for her father, for Teth, for Shin. All of it could have been avoided if this man had been willing to trust her. As much as it pained her, she also understood. She was willing to risk everything to save her family. Was his choice not the flip side of the same coin?
“What changed, that you now take this risk? That your wife is willing to give herself up for me?”
“Well, for one, my son is dead, taking with him any possibility for the continuation of my house.”
He said it flatly, but Sh’ra caught the pained look that flashed across his features.
“I am sorry, about Teth.”
“Yes, I am sorry too. He was a fool, but for all my learning, I was the greater one.”
“What do you mean?”
“It was me who sent him to warn you. When Ka’ri saw you had made it to the final trial, she was ecstatic. The dawn of a new era, she called it. It was just like the stories we had read in your father’s histories about the ancient games. Did you know only women competed?”
Sh’ra shook her head. She had not known. She had thought she was the first. Why had her father not told her? Za’reth continued.
“Anyway, with you near the end, I picked up a rumor from one of my servants. A rumor that you were to be targeted by the Air clan. I assumed they were sent to kill you. That was not my only mistake. I slipped a message to Teth, that he should try to warn you. They must have discovered him.”
“So… you don’t blame me for his death?”
“Blame you? Don’t be ridiculous. How could it be your fault? When the rumors were spread through the city that you had killed both Shin and Teth, I knew the truth of it immediately. They did not want an anonymous or accidental death for you. They wanted to make you an example. No, his death sits on my naive shoulders. Well, mine and his mothers. She was the one who insisted on getting a warning to you. And I could never resist her.”
Sh’ra thought of Teth sneaking through the grass, whispering her name. She had thought he was threatening her when he drew his finger across his throat. Was that supposed to be a warning?
“He got to me in time.” She said. “I would not still be alive without him.”
It was at least partially true. Za’reth shook his head.
“No, you lived because they wanted you alive. Don’t offer me empty consolations. They are only more painful.”
He was quiet for a long time before he continued. She wanted to ask him who had done this to her. Who wanted to make an example of her? But she felt hesitant to turn the conversation back toward herself.
“Anyway, with my son dead and our daughter and grandchild before that, what family is there left for me to protect? When Ka’ri and I saw what they were doing to you, we knew we needed to act - to save you and, possibly to save us all.”
Switching reins to his left hand, he took the stone from his pocket.
“Am I right in thinking you wish to become the Stonebearer?”
“Yes,” she said, her eyes hungry as she watched the stone.
“Do you want it or does your father?”
“What do you mean?”
“I will help you down this path, but it will not be easy. I need to know you are committed to doing what it takes - whatever it takes. Each of the clans will test you in ways that will make the games seem like an afternoon stroll in the woods.”
“I will do what I need to do.”
As she said it, something settled within her and she knew it to be the truth. He eyed her skeptically, but nodded an acknowledgement.
“Very well, I will agree to help you, but I have one condition.”
“What is it?”
“Are you familiar with the shards of Ee'rin?”
“Yes, each of the clans live near one of the six shards. They are holy places.”
“That is correct. The shards are connected in a way that has been forgotten. They hold the key to saving our world from the path toward destruction. My condition for helping you is this: As we visit each of the clans, you will use the stone at each of these sites to delve beneath the earth and make… corrections.”
“Yes, not being a stonebearer myself, that is the best I can give you.”
“How will I gain access to the shards? The Stone clan allows no outsiders within a hundred paces. Is it not the same for the other clans?”
“I will need your help with that as well. It might be that you will have to sneak in, but my hope is that when they each acknowledge you as Stonebearer, they will give you access to the shard.”
“What if they don’t?”
“Then you will have to find a different way.”
After what she had already been through, this did not sound too difficult to Sh’ra. It felt farfetched to imagine the world was crumbling beneath them, but if that was what Za’reth believed and if he was willing to help her because of it, she was willing to play along. And if he was right, she might just save the world along with her family.
“I will do it.”
“Good. Then it is time to get started with your training, to make sure you are ready for such a task.”
He took the stone from his pocket and tossed it to her. As she grabbed it out of the air, feeling it on her skin, a tension released from her chest. She had doubted it was real, doubted his entire story, but as she held the stone in her palm she knew. It was real. Closing her eyes, she breathed in sharply, extending her senses outward. Around her the stone lines sprang into sight and she saw the connection between all things.