Before they left Try Again, Ardent stopped at the village shrine. It was a single room, more of a shelter than a building, but large and with a high ceiling. It was built of natural materials: a clay brick foundation, wooden walls, and a thatched roof. It was dim and chilly inside: the windows had no glass and were shuttered. Ardent lit a taper at the entrance. “It’s kinda shabby, I know,” she said to Miro. “But it was the first building made in Try Again.”
“Was there a Try before Try Again?” Miro asked, unable to resist.
Ardent laughed. “Sort of. Imosididi and Kivivetete built the first house in this area, ten miles west of here. It was too far from the river, and they abandoned it after a fire damaged it. Then they moved here, and decided their big mistake was not starting with a shrine. So.” She gestured with the taper, then walked to the altar, a polished wooden cabinet topped by a two-tiered slab of polished stone. Six humanoid figures rested upon the upper tier: Justice, carrying an open cage in one hand and a key in the other; Love, nude and with her arms open; Persistence, with legs braced and leaning forward, his cloak whipping back; Truth, with a scroll unrolled to his base in his hands; Duty, carrying a globe upon its back; and one other Mirohirokon didn’t recognize. It should have been Family, a parent with a nursing baby in their arms, but instead the figure held two interlocking rings.
Each figure had a votive candle holder set before it. Ardent cleared the remnants of the last votives from the holders, then replaced them with fresh candles. She lit each votive in turn, head bowed for a moment of contemplation between each one.
Miro hung back, not wishing to intrude on her ritual. There were no seats in the shrine, just rows of flat mats. He knelt on one of the mats a couple of rows from the back, and clasped his hands. Miro appreciated the concepts of the Ideals, and understood that other people found the rituals associated with them calming and centering. But even so, he’d never felt connected with any shrine, nor felt that bringing a sacrifice to an Ideal had helped him live up to it. They weren’t gods. They didn’t have any power beyond what you brought to them.
At the altar, Ardent took a minor Ideal Mirohirokon didn’t recognize from the cabinet: a woman with a cup in her left hand, and her right hand covering its top. She set the minor Ideal on the lower tier, and lit a votive for it as well, then bowed her head.
Mirohirokon closed his eyes and prayed to the tri-part god he did believe in. Divine, give me strength for what lies before me. Guide, help me to find the Path, and not to stray. He prayed for his father and for Ardent too, while he was at it, and then apologized again for his fallibility. He felt the weight of his obligation to his father like a chain on the back of his neck: a twisted, tangled, knotted rope of vibrant copper, stained by tarnish and corruption. It was, he suspected, the reason his obligation to Ardent was already contaminated. I am too bound up in this course to do anything pure. Guide, I don’t know what else to do. Every course I see is worse than this one. But if this is the Path, why does it still feel twisted and wrong?
There was no answer, but he hadn’t expected one. He ran through a litany in his head, over and over again, until he felt Ardent’s hand on his shoulder.
“Hey-o, sugar. Did you want to illuminate the Ideals, too?”
Miro shook his head, and wondered if he should have done so anyway, for her sake if not his own. Her soul is true. She’s a lot more likely to be on the Path than I am. Maybe I should just follow her, wherever she leads.
But if Ardent thought his refusal unusual, she showed no sign of it. “All right. I’m ready to go when you are, sugar.” He took her offered hand, and she helped him to his feet.
Miro glanced to the altar; she’d left the minor Ideal on the lower tier, with a folded prayer burning on a sacrifice tray before it. “That minor Ideal you set out – I don’t recognize her. Which is she?”
“Moderation,” Ardent answered. “Expect I’m gonna need to see a lot of her from here on.”
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