With his fingertips shaking, Ralis pulled on his scarf, trying to tighten it. He frowned as his fingers slipped on the knot and the whole thing came loose. “Father Ralis, do you need help?” a voice called from behind.
Ralis turned in surprise—he was sure nobody had noticed his plight, but here was young Alexander, coming to help him. “I’m not a Father, you know,” he said as he bent forward slightly for the young man.
“I know, I know, but you help us so much you ought to be one,” Alexander said, pulling the scarf tight around Ralis’s neck. Ralis stumbled forward, catching himself on Alexander’s shoulders.
“Sorry,” he said, standing up straight again. “And Alexander, becoming a Father is no simple means, you have to be a devoted student of the faith and serve Rijma’s people with your whole soul.”
“Sounds like you.”
Ralis laughed. “Like me? I’ve hardly studied a day in my life!”
Alexander shrugged. “But you’ve served; a lot. More than anyone I know, even Father Prosbin.”
“Only because I’m older than him,” Ralis replied, turning towards the exit of the dining hall, “that man is far better suited for the job than I.”
Alexander laughed and pushed open the door. As he did, a the winds burst past the building’s boundary and into the room, carrying the frigid air of winter with them along with a few flurries of snow. Ralis peaked his head outside and shivered. “You sure you want to go out in that, grandpa?” Alexander said.
Ralis wheeled around. “I think I preferred Father, even if it is incorrect. Can’t you just call me by my name?”
“Sure thing, 421796.”
Ralis rolled his eyes. “Not even close,” he said, clutching the metal tag around his neck. “My number is 526179.”
He turned back to the winter winds and stepped outside. “Just call me Ralis, alright? While we are Nameless, it is only in the fact that we lack surnames like those on the Upper District; calling someone by their number just seems…” he paused, searching for the right word.
“Inhumane?” Alexander offered.
“Improper,” Ralis chided, pulling up the flaps of his trench coat through the tighten scarf for an extra buffer against the winds.
“Whatever you say,” Alexander said. “Be safe out there, would you?”
“Stop treating me like an old man,” Ralis shot back as he clutched the rail leading down the steps to the road.
Alexander laughed behind him as he closed the door.
Ralis reached the bottom of the stairs and rubbed his hands, noting how sore they felt. “Stupid thing, aging,” he muttered as he stepped into a roundabout alley that he knew would not only block the winter winds but lead him home quicker.
As he walked, he sighed at the sight of the slums around him. He’d always known that their society lacked regard for the type of people that lived here, and while he did his best to help out, he felt that unless something was done soon, there would be a lot more to deal with than theft and vandalism, he’d be surprised if he didn’t see the streets of the Capitol running with blood one of these days.
He nodded to a few homeless gathered around a small fire as he rounded a corner then paused. Ahead of him was the small form of a child, wearing nothing but a sackcloth bag. From what he could tell, she looked no older than six or seven. He called out but the child ignored him, continuing down a different pathway.
A child shouldn’t be out in this cold, he thought, starting down the entrance of the alley he’d seen the girl disappear down, but stopped, finding a stack of boxes and crates in his way. To their side was a small hole, which he presumed the child went through. It wasn’t big enough for him, but he could see down it well enough and thought he saw the girl slipping into the darkness of the next street.
“Could just be on her way home,” he muttered, thinking about how long it would take to pursue the girl. He started away, but something stopped him. He sighed, then turned around, going back the way he came, nodding at the group of homeless persons again, then started down the next street.
He worked his way down the street, pushing past piles of trash and other rubbish until he found himself under a singular, flickering, light post where the street ended in a wall. He frowned, then turned back to the street behind him. There was no other entrance than the one he had used, besides the alleyway the girl had come down, of course.
Did I miss her? He thought, shivering as a particularly strong gust of wind whipped under his cloak, burling it in the air. Is she still in that alley?
He looked around once more, then took a step down the dark lane. In the darkness, he could only see shapes and figures outlined by moonlight, but for him, that was enough to work with. He searched every nook and cranny as he went until he found himself, unsuspecting, at another corner lit by a few neon signs advertising less than desirable establishments.
And there, under this light, he found her paused, looking up at the night sky. He furrowed his brow as he looked at her. Something about her stirred his memory. Then she looked down, at him, and everything clicked into place. “Charlette,” he whispered.
The girl didn’t reply. Ralis froze in shock. He’d heard rumors up on the Wall but this… this was real. “Charlette,” he said, rushing forward.
The girl took a step back and Ralis paused. “Charlette,” he said, “don’t you… remember me?”
The girl cocked her head as if confused but Ralis was certain. This was Charlette, his granddaughter, the girl lost to them five years ago.
He stepped forward again, kneeling down on the cool concrete of the alley. With a bit of effort, he pulled down his collar and loosened his scarf. “Charlette, please,” he whispered.
Please let her remember me, he thought, extending his hand toward the girl, studying her light blue eyes, remembering her light brown hair, her slim face. The girl stepped forward.
“Who are you?” she said. “Who’s Charlette?”
Ralis clenched his teeth, feeling his stomach tighten. “You’re Charlette! How could you forget? I’m your grandpa, don’t you remember?”
She shook her head, stepping forward again. She grabbed his hand. “I think… I do,” she said after a moment.
Ralis laughed, he couldn’t help it, then pulled her into an embrace. “I can’t believe this,” he whispered, getting to his feet, still holding her hand.
A whisper of wind blew through the alley, carrying a few tuffs of snow with it. Ralis turned to the sky as more snow began to fall. “Come on,” he said, pulling the scarf from his neck and wrapping it around the girl, “We shouldn’t be out in this weather. The Church is nearby we’ll head there.”
After a few minutes of walking, Ralis inched open the door of the now quiet church and stepped inside. There, he removed his shoes and carefully removed his hood, mindful of the hundreds of pellets of now-melted snow still clinging to it. Carefully, he removed it and hung it on a nearby stand.
He then removed the wet scarf from Charlette’s neck and hung it next to his coat. Once done, he turned to the long hall ahead of them- towards the singular light still buzzing, flickering in the darkness. “Hello? Father Prosbin? Are you still here?”
As his words echoed across the hollow chamber, Ralis could hear movement from the backroom. A moment later, the door creaked open, revealing a rather small man, older than he was. The Father wrapped his coat closer to his chest and raised his light towards the pair. “Ah,” he said after a moment. “Brother Ralis, please. Come on, oh,” he paused, then raised his lantern higher.
“Bless my soul,” he whispered, stepping toward them, his old wooden shoes clinking and clacking on the cobbled floor. He reached the podium, on which he set his lantern, then started down the small steps toward them.
The girl glanced up at Ralis, then grabbed his hand; he gave it a soft squeeze. “Don’t worry,” he whispered. “Father Prosbin is a kind man.”
The girl nodded but didn’t say anything. Together, they waited for the old Father to make his way to them. Once he was only a step or two away, he stopped and smiled. “Charlette? Is that you?”
The girl stepped closer to Ralis, gripping his cloak. Father Prosbin grunted, then turned his eyes to Ralis. “How can this be?” he asked. “She… well… you know.”
Ralis nodded. He knew just as well as the Father that Charlette had died in the river six months ago. “That’s why I’ve come to you, Father. Well, that, and the snow is beginning to come down harder than I’d like.”
‘Supposing that God’s word ought to shed some light on such a mystery?” the old Father chuckled. “Come,” he said, gesturing to his office. “I’d rather not stand in a cold empty church on such a night as this, come along. Bring the girl- it is late. I have space for her to rest.”
Ralis nodded then followed the Father into his quarters. They were small, nothing exquisite, that was for sure, but they were homely. In the main room, there was a couch, two lounge chairs, and a desk in the corner overflowing with papers and books which sat in stacks in its corners or on the ground, leaning against the wall for support. The rest of the room was immaculate- Ralis hadn’t expected anything less for a servant of Rijma.
“Have a seat,” Father Prosbin said, settling into one of the recliners, swiveling its base so it faced the couch.
Ralis gave the girl a light nudge and she ran to the couch, settling in one of the corners, leaning on the armrest. She immediately began to yawn. Father Prosbin grinned at that and got to his feet again. “Let me make some tea for us,” he said. “It’s been a while since I’ve had guests like this.”
Ralis nodded and took his place on the couch near the girl. He smiled as he watched her nestle into a ball in the corner, obviously tired. In the other room, he heard Prosbin light the stove and fill the kettle with water. “You need any help in there?” he called.
“No, no. I’m just fine,” the old Father called back. “Make yourself at home, I’ll find us a snack to go with these. Would the girl like anything?”
Ralis glanced over to the girl to find she was already asleep. “No,” he called back. “And make that tea for two.”
A few minutes later with tea warming them from the inside and the Father’s old kerosine stove warming them on the outside, they were ready to talk. Ralis glanced at the girl again, now covered in a light blanket, then turned back to Father Prosbin, who was settling back into his chair, just having retrieved a rather large book from one of his many piles. The Father nodded to himself, then looked up at Ralis. “A strange time we live in, isn’t it?” he said.
Ralis nodded. “Is this… okay? How can she even be here? I saw her body, we buried it even. How can she be here?”
Father Prosbin nodded. “A mystery indeed, but does it matter? She’s here and we ought to be thankful. If the rumors are really true, then our nation has truly been blessed- loved ones thought dead, returning.”
“I know, and I am truly grateful, I just want to make sure my eyes aren’t deceiving me.”
Father Prosbin chuckled. “You may be gaining years, Ralis, but your eyesight can’t be that bad, can it?” He picked up his tea, sipping a bit, then set it back down. “But enough of that. I don’t think you’re worried too much about how she’s back. What is it?”
Ralis paused then realized the reason he’d wanted to come to the church. “She’s forgotten everything. I don’t think she actually knows who I am… I don’t know, she just seemed lost, I found her in an alley—what kid wanders an alley this late at night?”
“Perhaps she couldn’t remember her way home?” Prosbin proposed.
“I suppose,” Ralis muttered. “But, whatever the case, I think she needs to choose another name, she didn’t even remember hers was Charlotte.”
“And?” Ralis replied, perplexed. “What do you mean?”
“I know you have more to say,” Prosbin replied, sipping his tea.
Ralis took a deep breath. Prosbin was right, he always was, the man seemed to be able to read not just minds, but hearts, pull out feelings and thoughts Ralis was barely aware he had. “I’m worried for her. If they’ll accept her.”
“Is that even for us to decide?”
Ralis paused. “What do you mean?”
Father Prosbin settled further into his chair, letting out a small sigh of comfort as he did so. “Ralis. There will be many who view this Rising, as some are calling it, as something evil, something to be feared- but that is simply because they don’t understand. Our God works in mysterious ways and her daily whims are completely unknown to us. However, that should not stop us from following the plan she has given us.”
He leaned forward, passing the open book from his lap to Ralis. “Read the verses on the most right column for me, starting at number seven. I trust you remember these?”
Ralis nodded. He did, any true follower of Rijma would.
6- Trust in me and me alone, there is no other who can see the dawn ahead. Trust my timing and my love, trust my hope, shining, as stars above.
7- Trust your God, her redeeming dawn.
8- Trust that when the end times come, my people will have no need to frown. Trust in me, have hope in me, I will bring the dawn. The burning dawn.
9- When dawn shines out at last, smile and dance. Evil will be done away, and only good will be here to stay.
He finished reading the verses and passed the book back to the old Father. “So what about her?” Ralis asked, gesturing back to the girl curled beside him. “What do I do?”
“Did you not just read those words,” Prosbin asked. “Trust God.”
“Is she really my granddaughter though? She doesn’t remember me, let alone her own name! What should I do?”
“Raise her as your own. Love her,” Father Prosbin said, closing his scripture. “Ah, look, she’s waking up.”
The girl shifted, rubbing her eyes, then sat up. “My friend says you can’t remember who you are,” Prosbin said.
The girl stared at him for a moment, then shook her head in confirmation. “I don’t,” she mumbled. “Do you?”
“No,” Prosbin said, getting to his feet and shuffling over to his desk, “But that’s okay. Why not have a restart? Without a name or memories, you’re free to start over.”
He knelt down after setting the scripture on his desk and selected a small tome from one of the stacks. “How about we have you choose a name? Ralis and I were just discussing that a few moments ago.”
“Is that… okay?” the girl asked.
The Father laughed. “Of course! I’m a priest, aren’t I? If you can’t remember anything, then why should you continue to make new memories under an old name? Come now,” he said, handing the tome to the girl, “Choose a name.”
The girl nodded, then opening the book, began to leaf through the list of names. Ralis and Father Prosbin sat in silence as she did. Custom said that when a child turned five, they were to choose a name. This was established in the second book of Rijma, written by Ophilius, an ancient prophet. Until then, parents called the child by a name of their choosing, but at age five, when a child could begin to really remember things and interact with the world around them- they chose a name of their own from the list of names- another ancient text written by Ophilius, containing a list of over ten-thousand names.
After a few minutes, the girl spoke. “Maki.”
“What?” Ralis replied, unsure he had caught the name.
“My name,” the girl said, pointing at the book. “It’s Maki.”
Ralis smiled, watching the girl beam as Father Prosbin took note of her new name.
“A good name it is, Maki,” Prosbin said. “I hope that you find happiness in your name and in your life.”