Ayasha had never spoken out loud before. Her voice was lyrical and lovely; the way she said his name, delicate and conscientious. Shy.
He spun, unsure he had actually heard it. She was still there, standing in his kitchen with her hood down for the first time ever, dripping onto his floor, her small hands hidden in the sleeves of her robe and tucked sheepishly behind her back.
"Is it alright," she asked carefully, "if I were to come down with you? If the fires of the forge are already lit…"
Of course. How stupid of him. It had never occurred to him to simply bring her down where she might dry off more quickly, in a room already warm and bright and ready. Mostly because he had never allowed anyone into his forge before. It was his place, his private comfort. He'd never even brought one of his lovers down there to his rooms.
"Yes," he said, still dumbfounded. "Yes, that's… quite alright."
There was another reason he'd never let anyone below into the forge with him before. It was his mask. The leather fit him perfectly, but in the heat of the forge-fires it became stifling and impossible, sweat slicking the skin underneath it, running into his eye. The forge was the only place he ever removed that mask.
If she came down there with him, he wouldn't be able to hide the ugliness behind that mask for long.
She was freezing. She needed to dry off.
"Of course," he said as she crossed the room on silent feet to join him, her eyes never leaving the floor. He put his hand on her shoulder to guide her, a strange, dazed feeling blotting out his train of thought.
The forge below was blazing. On a night like this, however, that was ideal. Ayasha scanned the room—anvils, work tables, heavy forging tools and piles of ores or unfinished projects stacked in strange disarray—and carefully selected an anvil near to the open hearth set in one wall, sitting prettily upon it to dry. She didn't speak again, but folded her hands in her lap to wait patiently.
Kayao went to his rooms and dug through his trunk. He had no women's clothes, obviously, but he selected a white cotton tunic and breeches. They would be several sizes too large but they would be dry, at least, and he retrieved a satchet of white tea from the saucer on his bedside table, to brew while Aya dressed.
She still seemed hesitant when he handed her the clothes, but without questioning him she disappeared into his rooms to change. He filled the tea kettle with water from the supply he kept to the side, mostly for cooling the heated metal in the cooling trough but always with a little kept separate for just such needs as this. The priestess returned moments later, and when he turned to see her he was stunned by what he saw.
The clothes did not fit so badly on her after all. Perhaps the heavy hood and long cut of robes had made it difficult to see that Ayasha was not so small as he thought she was. The girl was somewhat taller than expected, her body a little broader and stronger, not large but hardly petite, as her submissive posture and silent demeanor had led him to believe. She was… athletic, underneath the mourner's robes, her legs long and lean under the loose material of his britches, which she had rolled up at the waist to keep from tripping on, and her breasts—
He felt a little bloom of guilt in his stomach as he realized how immediately his eyes were drawn to them, and keenly aware that he was ogling a sacred priestess. He turned back towards the teapot, but not before he had seen the lovely swell of them under the white shirt, clinging a little to her still-damp body—stupid, he should have given her a damned towel. They'd been a bit more shapely, a bit more womanly than he'd expected, when so far he'd only seen Ayasha as a soft, self-conscious young lady under obscuringly over-large robes.
He realized something, as she moved about behind him to lay out those robes on the flat surfaces nearest the fire. Ayasha did not have the body of a meek little church mouse. He peeked over his shoulder to look again and caught sight of her rear, pleasing and well-rounded as she hefted herself back up onto the anvil to let her long, wet hair and damp skin be warmed.
No, Aya was too well-developed for a born and bred city girl living in a temple all her life.
She looked up and met his eyes, then. He saw she had a myriad of silver rings in one ear. She blushed, evidently guessing at his thoughts, and looked down at her knees.
"My master in the church," she said quietly. "He was an adamant believer in the health of the body. We studied several forms of martial disciplines to… well, to keep the temple strong, he always said."
"Ah-ha," Kayao mused. He crossed to the forge fire and hung the tea kettle up to boil. "I didn't think Charossians believed in martial discipline. Followers of the Chayen Ring are pacifists by nature."
"Yes," she said. "But fighting disciplines are one thing. There is nothing wrong with hard work and physical exercise to keep the body well."
He wasn't sure he believed her. She had the lissome shape of a practiced fighter. An assassin, almost.
She nervously tucked a strand of her blonde hair behind an ear. There was silence between them until the kettle boiled and he removed it again, pouring the steaming tea into cups and handing her one.
"Aya," he said very quietly. "I thought you had a vow of silence, as penance for being cast out."
"I wasn't cast out, Kayao," she said. She held her teacup in both hands and stared down at the golden liquid in it, musing at her own reflection.
"You… weren't?" he asked. "But… you wear the robes of an apostate. You wear the mark of a mourner and you've never spoken before. If you're not doing penance why do you allow people to treat you like an outcast?"
Her mismatched eyes met his. "I am an outcast. I just wasn't cast out."
He frowned at her. She took a slow sip of her tea, then explained.
"I wasn't excommunicated by the Charossians. I abandoned my vows of my own volition. There is a difference, and technically I am not required to wear the black robes or hide my face from others… but I choose to."
"I left the church I had been raised in. I… am not sure what else to be, besides an apostate. I don't have any other life but my faith, so I obey it even in exile."
"Aya, that doesn't make sense," he said. "If you haven't abandoned your faith why did you leave your home?"
Again she was silent several minutes before answering.
She took a deep breath.
"I don't know, Kayao. I really don't. Something… was just wrong about it."
An acolyte trained in martial disciplines, in a church proscribing pacifism. A master pushing to 'keep the temple strong', in the face of a peaceful message.
In service to the God of Death.
Aya had seen something in her master and his teachings that had frightened her. She had discovered something that she could not reconcile with the philosophy she had devoted her heart to. She didn't have the body of a girl born into a priesthood of modest, prayerful meditation and somber deprivation. She had the body of a girl who'd been trained for things like espionage and assassination.
The implications of it boggled his mind. If his deductions were right, little Ayasha had been slated for something much, much greater than a vow of devotion and lifelong service to a church. Somebody had wanted her for greater things, things that had begun to warp her and change her perspective, altering her faith in peaceful, somber appreciation for the passage and cycle of life into a darker purpose.
And then he remembered where he was, sitting quietly with a lonely woman in his forge, in a mountain outpost leagues away from whatever secrets Aya was running from. And even if he was right… she had run from them. She was here, wearing the marks of an outcast because she had cast herself out.
He stared at her. He wondered what she had seen. He wondered what it meant to her, deep in her heart.
He wondered why she was telling him.
Ayasha looked up at him. "I'm sorry. I don't mean to burden you—"
"No," he said. "It's alright. Are you going to be okay?"
"Yes, I think," she said, and again nervously tucked a strand of her hair—it was mostly dry now, turning rakishly curly in the heat of the fire—behind her ear. Her earrings jingled together softly. "I… I just had to tell someone, Kayao. It's been such a very long road away from my home and my master…"
Something occurred to him then, something that made a green fire flare up in his belly.
"Did he hurt you?" he asked, before he could think better of it.
Aya blinked at him, a little alarmed at his tone.
"N—no. No, Kayao, he never hurt me."
He felt a tension inside of him let go.
"So… you don't precisely have to wear those," he said with a nod towards her robes. She shook her head.
"And you don't precisely have to keep your silence."
"Obviously not," she answered.
"Then I still don't understand why you do it. The way others look at you, treat you like you're some sort of bad luck—"
"What if I am?"
He furrowed his brow. "No. Aya, you're not. You… you're beautiful."
That won him a smile, and she even gave him a little laugh.
"Kayao, that is quite kind, but I don't see what beauty has to do with being bad luck. Plenty of men have met their downfall at the hands of pretty women."
"No," he said again. "That's not you."
"And what do you know of me?" she asked softly. "Until this night you didn't have the slightest inkling about who I really was."
"I did," he said.
He got up from where he sat, crossing to her anvil, and gently reached out to touch her face.
"Even though you never said a word to me before tonight, Ayasha," he murmured. "I knew you. I could see you, even if you hid everything under those mourner's rags."
Her mismatched eyes searched his. She raised up a hand, too, and touched—to his sudden panic—the leather of his mask. He had forgotten he was still wearing it, even despite the discomfort already broiling on his skin underneath it.
"Is that so?" she asked.
In answer, he leaned forward and kissed her.