It was a small wonder he hadn’t worn a groove in the floor.

That floor was good hardwood, topped by a thick rug which, given the prior ambassador’s lavish tastes, was surprisingly understated and tasteful, yet which still might be worth more than the entire home Nicolai di Casson had grown up in before the seminary. But he’d been pacing across both of them for long enough that he’d quite lost track of time by this point, and he was hardly a small man. Some part of his mind half-expected there to be a rut a hand’s-breadth deep worn through the wood by now.

This post was a comfortable one, and the people he’d been sent to treat with were decent, honourable folk, however bewildering the array of customs their populace exhibited could sometimes be to a provincial knight of Rendayn like himself. His peers at the negotiating table treated him with respect, his staff was dutiful and attentive, his host the King was friendly and approachable and shockingly willing to put up with Nicolai’s foibles and occasional gaffes – and that didn’t even touch on the court wizard.

So why did this spacious, comfortable suite feel so much like a cell?

He’d been cooped up here entirely too long, he decided. Yes, the winter here was longer and colder than he was used to, and he’d arrived on a chilly day indeed to drive the point home. But that was quite a while ago now, and while it still didn’t exactly look like spring, winter’s bite was not so potent anymore. Besides, he was hardly unaccustomed to cold; while going directly from the subtropical warmth of Sashenar straight into a Kyrellian winter had been a shock, it wasn’t as though he hadn’t spent time in mountain settlements that spent great lengths of time blanketed in snow. They hadn’t had the bitter chill that a damp wind off the water on a cold day could, but he hadn’t wilted there, and he wouldn’t here.

Maybe it was time he got out of this place, after all. So long as he could afford the time to do so, taking a walk on his own time might help dismiss the feeling that he was a prisoner here.

He changed from the formal clothes that were his wont these days, never knowing for certain when he might need to make an appearance, into a simpler, local style. Still well-tailored – he’d indulged that much in his ambassadorial stipend – but aside from his mannerisms he might pass for a tradesman. It was far from the fur-trimmed formal armour he’d arrived in, that was for certain.

He did buckle on his sword belt, though, for what was he if not a knight, and what use was a knight who went unarmed? And just before he left the suite, he snatched up his red cloak with the golden scales-and-sword, fastening it around his shoulders with one hand.

Marco, his steward, was at his usual desk – as ever he had been, whenever Nicolai passed through here; the man surely didn’t live there, but he was always there when his charge passed by – and looked up when Nicolai emerged from his suite. “Something you need, Ser?”

“Are there any demands on my time today, Marco?” Nicolai tried to keep abreast of such things, but in his current agitation, it was entirely possible that something had slipped his mind.

The steward looked over his papers in an almost perfunctory fashion. Almost immediately, he replied, “Nothing today, Ser.”

“That being so, I will take the opportunity for a constitutional. I will be walking outside the city. I don’t expect to be very long – I may miss the evening meal, but I should return in time for the night’s service.” He didn’t need to worry too much about what he’d say at that service, at least not in the sense that he’d be disorganized and unprepared to say anything – he’d written enough material for five sermons before running out of things to do and starting his pacing.

“Very good, Ser. I will have the cooks set a portion aside in case you are delayed that long.”

“No need. I’ll tell them in person,” Nicolai assured him. He ought to take something to eat with him, at least enough to tide him over, if not a full mid-day meal.

“As you will, Ser. Anything else?”

“No…” Nicolai drew the word out, giving his racing mind time to come up with something after all, but nothing relevant came to his attention. “No,” he repeated, “that will be all for the time being. Good day.”

Marco returned the valediction and turned his attention back to his work. Nicolai shifted his cloak on his shoulders and went to the kitchens, to cadge some fare for a walking meal and to havge a portion reserved from the evening meal; then, munching as he went, he made his way to the outer door.

The streets were familiar to him, now. They didn’t feel like home – he rather doubted they ever would, really; the closest any city could come to that would be Sashenar, where he’d spent his years in the seminary. But these ones no longer felt quite so foreign, even with the dizzying variety of passersby.

Outside the city, though – he’d hardly ever been beyond the walls, and that mostly as a formality early on, acquainting him with the outlying districts. He’d never really had call to repeat that tour, and now he’d taken it upon himself to do so without even the benefit of a guide.

Nevertheless, he was a trained and experienced knight. He might not be able to live off the land for any great time, especially in unfamiliar woods such as those around this city, but he could deal with any of the hazards that were at all feasible for him to encounter here.

Not that he really expected to. Foreigner he might be, but he was armed, and his cloak, while of good make, was not ostentatious; he didn’t look wealthy enough to be worth the trouble of a fight with someone obviously comfortable with a blade.

Any hypothetical street scum could doubtless tell that much about him, though they wouldn’t know the half of it. Couldn’t possibly tell just by looking at him that Nicolai was a veteran of as much combat as any other Hand of the Just alive. Couldn’t know, unless they were amazingly well-informed for the breed, what that sword-and-scales emblem on his cloak even signified – the years of martial training, the dedication. The faith, and the power that came as a reward for keeping that faith.

No Hand was ever consecrated without first demonstrating a connection with that power, an undeniable sign of Verantine’s favour. For all that the Order of the Eternal Chain had changed over the generations, that one inviolable tenet had kept the Hands from straying too far from their original purpose. In the darker times back in the Capitol, when he’d been recalled after that business with Stefano, when he’d been biding his time in a small penitent’s cell and waiting for the Council to decide what to do with him, that moment of connection had been his greatest comfort. Oh, he’d called on that power other times since, giving succour to allies and to innocents, but those had been moments of urgency. There in the great Cathedral, he’d had the time to treasure the source of that power, to feel the Will behind it, the approval of his God for the man he’d become. There had been other times when meditation and prayer had brought him some assurance that he was on the right path, but none of them had been so unequivocal, had truly brought to him that holy presence.

But he’d been a young man indeed, then – very young to be sworn in. That moment of connection had been nearly half his life ago. What was he now?

And did Verantine still approve of what he’d become?

He presented himself to the gate guards and passed without issue. For all that they’d never had cause to become familiar to him, he was known to all the guards in the city, and his credentials were excellent; he had the good regard of the King and Queen, as well as the court wizard.

All of that should have been a comfort… but this was the King and Queen of a country that his own nation had largely spurned. The past three ambassadors had all been sent here as punishment, shuffled off to a duty that nobody of consequence cared much about, a nation too far and too difficult to reach – or be reached from – for any real worry that a diplomatic failure could cause trouble for Rendayn. Even the ambassadors before that had been sent here because they were too important to simply be dismissed, but not held as worthy of any truly important work.

There was no reason for Nicolai to think any better of his own assignment. His confession had been troubling to the Council, and while he hadn’t committed any action that merited censure, they hadn’t wanted anyone with such thoughts in his head anywhere important. So he’d been sent here.

Well, there was hardly any worry that those thoughts would cause a stir here. The sailors had sniggered about the libertine ways of Kyrellia, but for all that, there was some truth for it. This King wouldn’t have thought him dangerous and unworthy for having impure thoughts about another male; and though Stefano had been a young man indeed, he had been, as the locals might say, “old enough to know his own mind.”

No, a match between them might have been a little unconventional here, but only for the difference in their ages and their degrees of authority. Nicolai had been delicately introduced to a few same-sex couples among those at court, and while the introductions had been very cautious indeed, that had plainly been for worry of his response.

And they’d seemed… normal. Nothing remotely unusual about them. They certainly hadn’t come across as rapacious predators, and none of them had ever said or done anything to him that was anything but polite.

But, he reflected as he passed by expanses of muck and snow that might someday soon be fields again, scripture sternly forbade such matches, condemning them who engaged in them as monsters.

So where did the truth lie? And what did it all make him?

The impression Nicolai had gained from scripture was that mere impure thoughts did not matter; that such things might occur to anyone, and their true measure was in what they did about such thoughts. That even the finest of heroes could see beauty in another man’s wife, could even be tempted by her, and so long as he didn’t actually engage in adultery, he was no less a hero for the temptation to do so.

Nicolai didn’t see himself as a hero of legend, the sort that bards all over the realm would sing about, but he liked to think he was honest with himself, and he had changed some people’s lives for the better. He hadn’t always been in time to spare them all hardship, but he’d done what he could in its wake. Stefano himself had been case in point.

And he’d had to all but eject the youth from his quarters to keep him from his bed. Had he somehow pushed Stefano into making those overtures?

Or had he been just like the men he’d met here – normal enough, save in preferring another man’s touch to a woman’s?

If that was normal, what did it say about the scripture that forbade it?

Coming to a wooded copse around a small pool, Nicolai decided he’d done enough walking and put his back to a fir tree, leaning against the bark and closing his eyes.

What was the scripture that forbade it? Recent, all of it, on reflection. None of the core commandments, nor the Tablets of Instruction that he’d visited on pilgrimage, said anything about it. The closest they came was the third Tablet, which warned the faithful not to let lust drive them to betray a sworn oath. From it, more recent scholars had drawn the injunction against any exercise of lust outside of wedlock, but it still didn’t condemn anyone who felt lust.

So it hadn’t been handed down from Verantine, nor from one of the Twelve who had first been chosen by Him. It was a conclusion drawn by scholars in latter days, who’d studied the original dicta and read between the lines, attempting to glean Verantine’s intent thereby.

But the scholars don’t always get it right, part of his mind insisted. Ser Traven had never married, but his dicta had been the very basis for the third Tablet of Instruction. Which in addition to the injunction against betraying sworn oaths for lust had included a commandment to be courteous and respectful to one’s lovers… however many they might be. That was why he’d instructed people not to betray oaths made to them, or so it had seemed to Nicolai as he’d studied that tablet. To judge by the volumes of history that had been compiled around the site of that Tablet, Ser Traven had been a notable ladies’ man, if a conspicuously considerate one.

The celibacy for which the Hands of the Just had become known was a recent thing. As late as two hundred years back, it had not been uncommon for serving Hands to marry and raise children – they’d been specifically cautioned to teach their offspring that other worthy lives existed than that of a Hand, that those children could make informed choices on what to do with their lives rather than being pushed into the seminary. Scholars had since decided, in imposing the de facto rule of celibacy – to this day it wasn’t part of a formal oath – that it had meant all children from any family that a knight might come in contact with, but if Nicolai was to be honest at least with himself, that rationale just didn’t make sense with the original dicta or early scripture.

Nicolai looked into the ice-filmed waters of the pool, mind racing. He knew the scholars didn’t always get it right. But if he couldn’t always trust their pronouncements, where did that leave him, on the matter for which the scholars guiding the Eternal Chain had effectively exiled him?

He took a deep breath, and did something he hadn’t done since his final days at the seminary, since his investiture.

He knelt in the snow, gaze turned down into the pool, and he prayed – not as he often did, sending thanks to his God or wishing for strength or wisdom in what he’d resolved to do, but seeking true communion. He needed to know if the thoughts of the Holy Father had shifted over the centuries, or if it was only Rendayn’s interpretation of them which had done so – needed to know if he still had the Father’s favour, or if he truly had strayed, in that tense moment with Stefano after the battle.

“O Holy Father,” he whispered, though in his mind the words were a shout to the heavens, “I am among strangers with strange ways. For the sake of those who yet look to me for guidance, for the sake of those whose lives I will yet touch, I beseech You – grant me some sign, if I am still held in Your good graces, or if I have strayed from the path. I beg of You – share with me Your counsel, and set me on the proper course.”

Ser Nicolai, said a deep voice in his head – that of no man he had ever known, and strangely resonant – I would never have intruded upon your life without your willing it. But ask, and you shall receive.

The reflection of the sky grew in his eyes. For one dizzying moment, he thought he was falling – but his body was rock-still. It was only his perception that was shifting, and the world spun away from him.

He stood – not knelt, but stood – in a great hall. Not the sort that the highborn might have, but as it would have been known hundreds of years before. Smaller than the great Cathedral, smaller even than many regional temples he’d seen, it might have been the common room of an ancient mead hall, or a lord’s greeting-hall from the same time. Aged timbers crossed overhead; furs softened the flagstone floor in front of two great hearths, one on each side. In the center of the room, instead of flagstones, the floor was hardwood, marking a path up to a dais on which an understated wooden throne sat.

In that throne was seated a figure, curiously indistinct, undeniably powerful. The path leading to it was flanked by a dozen more normal-looking men, not identical, but each distinct from the others. Their faces weren’t quite the same as appeared on the old icons, but they were plainly the faces which those icons had been carved to emulate. They were all armoured, not in ceremonial plate but in lighter, serviceable garb of war. Those on Nicolai’s left, the seated figure’s right, were armed with swords and bucklers; those across from them bore only tower shields.

“Come,” the distant figure said, and the voice was that which he’d heard before the vision took him. “You have long since earned the right.”

Shaken, Nicolai nonetheless forced himself to obey. As he strode forward, the figures to either side shifted their arms, swords pointing high, then swinging down to the ground in salute, shields held up proudly.

He passed the last pair – or, from another perspective, the first pair, Ser Adren and Ser Talos, the very first Right and Left Hand of the Just – and knelt at the foot of the dais, head bowed.

“You are well-known to me, Ser Nicolai,” Verantine said. “I know you for a good man and a pious one, and those two, I fear, are not so closely-bound as any of us might wish. You have prayed for wisdom and strength, that you – not I, but you – might put to right the wrongs of the world. And that was right and proper. When Rendayn was first made, I promised its people that I would not be a God-tyrant. That I would leave the running of it to the mortals that lived there, and guide them only from afar. But I also promised that I would mark with visible favour those knights who were close in tune with my plan, as I have done when each member of your Order was sworn to service. And I promised that my counsel would be available to them, should they need it. And so, for the first time in centuries, someone has asked, not for wisdom for him- or herself, that subtle gift that all too easily goes astray, but for my actual counsel.

“I doubt that you intended anything so direct as this, but it is time and past time that I involved myself more closely with my faithful. So, since your prayer satisfied those terms of my promise which permit me to act more directly, I brought your spirit here. And when we are done, I will send you back to where you were, and only an eyeblink will have passed.

“So ask, Ser Nicolai di Casson. What do you wish to know?”

Nicolai lifted his head. Verantine’s face was indistinct, shrouded in such brilliant light that His features could not be clearly seen, yet that light did not pain the man, as looking at the sun might, or even a field of new-fallen snow; it merely meant that he couldn’t see clearly. But what he saw looked like the face of an aged Padro patriarch, wise and discerning, yet kind. He swallowed. “Holy Father, I was sent to Kyrellia as punishment, in fact if not openly so, after confessing to impure thoughts for a young man who’d come into my care. Have I… truly strayed so badly as that?”

You have not strayed,” the god replied, “nor were your thoughts ‘impure.’ Not for a single moment did you think Stefano was yours, as property, nor take as your due that he or anyone should find you appealing. Nor had either of you sworn oaths to others that those others would be your only lovers. Your punishment, Nicolai, was not just. But while the subject has come up, you should know that I am pleased with how you have handled it. You have not sulked in your quarters, nor held yourself apart from the people of Kyrellia; instead, as ever, you have risen to the challenge, and been a true ambassador, fostering peace, friendship, and cooperation. And if the seeds you have planted may be slow to sprout in Rendayn, plant them you have. You have taken your punishment and turned it into the high honour it should be, and that, at least, is right and proper.”

Briefly, Nicolai bowed his head, accepting the praise which resonated in his heart of hearts, for doing with his lot as he knew it always should have been. Then he lifted his head. “Why?” he asked. “Why has custom grown so afraid and scornful of such a match, if not by Your will?”

The radiant face turned slightly. “Ser Traven?”

The second-nearest man on Verantine’s left, youngest and most handsome of the lot, relaxed from his parade salute; so too did the rest, a moment later, but it was only Ser Traven that spoke. “Since first farms were settled, mortal folk have needed to be concerned with property and inheritance. That is how marriage came to be. And because such matters can be bitterly contested, rules have sprung up around it. I tried to preserve some sanity when I set forth my thoughts on the matter, but every time a case came up on the edge of the rules, those rules tightened a little more, covering cases which had previously been left to people’s good judgement. Unfortunately, not everyone’s judgement is good, and some people need to live under strict law, or they do things which harm others around them. And so, bit by bit, habit became custom, custom became tradition, and tradition became law.”

He took a deep breath. “Would such a match offend You?”

“No,” Verantine said, and for that single word, His voice was suddenly sharp and strong, undeniable. More gently, He went on, “Both of you are good men. I will not speak of his mind and deeds in detail, for that is his prerogative, not mine. As for yourself, I know, Ser Nicolai – and hope you will not find me too harsh for saying bluntly, as you never have to yourself – that your affections in general run more strongly to men than to women, though the times and attitudes you live in have made you garb that attraction as friendliness and camaraderie. So long as you keep respect for those men in your heart, as ever you have, I am confident that you could never make a match unpleasing to me, for you are not the sort of man who could. If I have one regret, where that attraction is concerned, it is that it makes it rather more difficult to seek fatherhood, but I hope – not command, never that, but hope – that you will consider taking a child into your life, however it should come to pass, and teach that child more directly to be good and noble, as you have done with other children whom your life has touched more in passing.”

It should have been comforting, all of it. And yet… he sighed. “What should I do? I don’t want to turn my back on my homeland, but…”

“But your homeland has turned its collective back on you. Through no fault of yours, Nicolai. The times ahead might not be easy, but I hope my clear and unambiguous statements to you, directly in this fashion, will at least assure you that I find your conduct good and becoming, and that this much will be of at least some consolation to you.”

Nicolai bowed his head, unsure what else to say.

The god did not draw a breath as such, but He shifted slightly. “I swore a solemn promise not to interfere with the future of my chosen people, beyond shielding them from outside meddling. As such, I do not give prophecy, and endeavour to shield my people from its grip. But through willing agents such as yourself I make my will known.

“In recent times, I have been too passive, too distant. The ever-tightening strictures of faith have come to define me and all the people of Rendayn. I am seen as strict and hidebound, too much concerned with trivialities which no ruler, divine or mortal, has any business being concerned with. It is time and past time that I clarified my will on such matters.

“As I do not wish to abridge my people’s control over their collective destiny, I cannot give you much detail now. But know that matters have been set in motion which should focus the attention of the Faithful back on my broad injunctions and on the details set forth by my first-sworn Twelve. And it is your actions which have given me an opportunity to do that. Though you currently live under a shadow where the people of Rendayn are concerned, comfort yourself with the knowledge that it may yet serve as the catalyst for a change for the better.

“Knowing all this, and with the proviso that I cannot give specifics of your future – is there any other knowledge you seek from me, Ser Nicolai, that might better equip you to face the trials of your life?”

Nicolai thought it over a moment.

This was nothing like his prior contact with the Holy Father, which had come only as wordless affirmation that his deeds had met with Verantine’s approval. Whether that was the simple display at his confirmation, or the power to act beyond mortal capabilities – to heal those wounded in the course of his battles – it had been clear enough to reassure him in times when he had less reason to doubt himself.

Now his doubts had been deeper, more complex, so it was sensible, in a way, that more explicit contact would be needed to dispel them. Yet he’d never heard of such a visitation as this. Could it all be an elaborate illusion of some kind?

It wasn’t as though asking that would be any help. If it were an illusion from without, whoever crafted it would simply say that it wasn’t; if it were a conjuration of his own mind, the same problem applied.

But whether it was a true visitation or a figment of some kind, all that the figure of Verantine had said here – and that of Ser Traven – aligned with what he knew of the original scripture. Where the newer rules came in conflict with them, it had ever been his way to attempt to live by the rules of today, but always in the context and the guiding principles of the original.

If this was an elaborate hallucination, maybe it was just the chance his mind had needed to make him see everything for what it was. And if it wasn’t… then he was blessed as few men had ever been.

In truth, he was so blessed, divine vision or no. And so he would remind himself, whenever his unfamiliar travails gave him cause to doubt himself. He would cleave to those principles which had guided his life since his youth.

He lifted his head. “Not at this time, Holy Father,” he answered at last.

“Know that you can ask, Ser Nicolai,” Verantine told him. “If all you are faced with is a simple decision on a complex issue, all I will likely do is tip your mind to the decision I most favour. But your deeds have given you a generous account with me, on which you have only rarely drawn. I am pleased that you do not draw on it too frivolously, but you have earned the right to some comforts; you need not only call upon me in emergencies. So long as you do not wield my power for injustice, nor to command undeserved respect from those who witness it, you are welcome to call upon it for lesser matters as well as greater. You have my respect; do not fear to let others see that this is so. And stand proud, for you are a good and worthy man.”

Nicolai took the last instruction literally, and stood. For the first time since the start of the vision, he saw himself as clad in fine plate, shining more brightly than ever mere polish could explain; this, he suddenly felt certain, was his pride, his armour against doubt, and its shine was his conviction and his determination to do good works.

He looked up at Verantine’s face, and the small smile that he glimpsed through the radiance was his sign that he’d read that imagery exactly right.

“And do call upon me more, Ser Nicolai,” the figure said. “Even if all you wish is company that understands you. I should be pleased to hold a discussion with you that doesn’t need all this formality and gravity.”

“I will… try to remember, Holy Father,” Nicolai replied.

“Good. Now close your eyes, and return to where you were.”

Nicolai closed his eyes…

And when he opened him, there he was, kneeling in the snow, gazing through a thin film of ice into the pool.

He took a breath – a real breath, not merely the suggestion of one in what was either a space between worlds or a construct of the mind – and stood, and turned back towards the city, composing a new sermon in his mind.

He would not share this vision at the evening service. But he could remind his little flock, so far from home, of the principles which had brought him this far. Of the very individual aspects of their shared faith, the things which went beyond what any ordained authority handed down. Of the fact that everyone who held that faith, who tried to live as Verantine enjoined, could seek his own answers – and that, while men like Nicolai would always be there to advise them, as would the Holy Father over him, at the end of the day, their faith was their own.

By the time he’d made it back to the walls, the only problem he faced was distilling all the things he’d thought of into one sermon. But he rather thought he could offer the little group of faithful at the embassy some consolation in their isolation from home and kin – and some inspiration, too.

He’d always been touched by their respect for him, from the first time Marco had asked him to lead the service. But for the first time, he was truly looking forward to his time in the pulpit.