“Blessed is he who is stained by the fruit of his labor, for he knows the honesty of his own hands,” the priest intoned before holding out a bowl of still-warm ashes. Njal dipped her fingers into it, up to her knuckles and then pulled them out, giving a delicate flick to shake away any extra soot. She folded her hands together and returned to her kneeler, pressing the folded hands to her forehead in prayer.
It had been years since she’d attended the blessing, but she felt like perhaps now, of all times, she needed it the most. When she had been at the academy, every day had begun before dawn with the Blessing of Ashes, to ensure they learned their trades well and did honor to the Builder and his codes. Even after she had left the academy, and been taken into the dubious employ of Lord Ainsley, she’d still done her best to attend as often as time permitted. She enjoyed the ritual, the calm feeling of a day’s work being blessed by the Builder himself.
But after her exile, she’d traded the honest smell of forge ashes, for the far sweeter scent of Opium. Now, she wasn’t sure when the last time she had woken before dawn to attend the service had been, but it had been a long time ago.
The bells tolled and she rose, following the small group of faithful out of the church and into the frigid, snow-blown streets. Mr. Blackcinder would expect her to return to the apartment before long. Failure to arrive, she knew, would result in him tracking her down, on the assumption that she’d relapsed, sunk into a den to lose herself again.
Still, she thought she had time. She checked the small crowd of brothers and managed to spot the one she wanted. “Brother Rudyard!” She called and the bulky man turned, face set serious and then breaking into a smile.
“Njal! I didn’t know you were back in town.” She reached him and they clasped hands. He grimaced a bit when he felt the ashes and she smiled apologetically.
“Recently returned to the living. I was curious, are you still in charge of the library?”
He nodded. “I am, something I can help you with?”
“I was hoping you had a copy of Benchley’s Treaties on Tension and Internal Force that you’d be willing to loan?” She’d been forced to read the book her first year at the academy, which was long enough ago that it was probably time to refresh her memory.
His eyebrows went up, eyes going blank briefly as he consulted, she assumed, the vast memory palace he maintained. “Ah…yes. Planning on building a ship?”
She shook her head. “Refreshing my memory. I remember it as being required reading my first year.”
He nodded. “I’d be glad to loan it, you’ll need to come sign the papers, though.”
She smiled and followed when he gestured, around the corner and to the door that lead into the hall, and from there the stairs down to the library. It was no warmer inside than out, the fire having not been laid out yet. Njal wondered at that a little; were the builders falling on such hard times? There hadn’t been many for the daily blessing, but then, only the most faithful ever roused themselves early enough to receive it, so the service was usually sparse.
“You’ll need to fill this out.” He slid a book and a pencil across to her while he disappeared into the stacks.
Njal leaned over and wrote, careful not to smudge too much soot onto the page.
“Rudy! Brother Ox! Are you coming to practice or not?”
Njal froze only for a moment before turning, pulling on a smile. “Dominic!”
He paused, his eyes narrowing, gaze sweeping from the top of her head all the way to her feet. Dominic always sees too much, she’d said to Melnik, and she was right. She swore he could see right through to her treacherous heart. “Ms. Edwyn. You look well.”
She kept her smile in place, leaned back against the table with casual ease. “Clean living, Brother.”
“Very clean, it seems.”
Rudyard returned with the book in hand, but before he could hand it to her Dominic had swiped it and looked over the cover. “Damnit Dominic, I said I’d be there, and I’ll be there.”
“You say that, but here you are in the archives with a lovely women.” His eyes flicked back to Njal, then back to the cover, as if he were trying to puzzle together how she and that book fit together.
She took the book from him, tucking it under her arm. “I’ll return it before a week is out, Brother.”
Rudyard waved a hand. “Don’t worry about it. I know you’re good for it.”
Dominic gave him an incredulous look, didn’t even bother to lower his voice. “She’s a known opium fiend.”
“And yet still a member of good standing in the Church.” Njal beamed a smile at Dominic. “I promise not to smoke your books.”
“Or sell them?”
Njal turned away, heading for the exit. “You know where to find me if I don’t return it.” before they could say more, she was back out in the streets, head and shoulders hunching into the cold wind as she made her way to what counted as home. She tried not to let the sting of Dominic’s words linger, but she couldn’t help poking at the wound. Opium fiend. Is that really what she was known as here?
Part of her insisted she hadn’t been, that she really could have stopped whenever she wanted. The clearer part of her, however, the one that had been emerging in the recent weeks as she recovered, remembered all too well the bone-deep agony of the withdrawls. If Melnik and Blackcinder hadn’t kept her behind a locked door, she would have been in the dens in a heartbeat, even if only to make the pain stop, to put an end to the shaking and tremors and vomiting. Not because she needed it.
She pressed her lips into a smile as she climbed the steps, trying not to be insulted by the relief in Blackcinder’s face.
“Welcome home, Miss Nahl.” He beamed at her.
She gave him a smile and then slipped into the warm little apartment, him returning to guard the door. Keep her in. Probably report to Melnik that they didn’t need to go find her. This time.
She washed the soot from her hands, leaving some of it beneath her fingernails as a reminder, then settled down with a cup of coffee to read her book.