Zoë hugged the tiny child and handed him a loaf of bread.  She gave him a wave and a smile as he rushed off towards home, able to help feed his family for another day.  Zoë continued down the muddy alleys between houses in the slums of the city, occasionally stopping at doorways to drop off food from her basket.  She went to needy mothers, to the sick, finding the homes where elder brothers had to provide for siblings because the parents were dead, the places where hope was needed most.

            “God bless you, miss.”  One gaunt woman said, huddled in her shawl.  Zoë could only smile and walk on.  Inwardly she wondered how these people, faced with starvation, could hold onto their faith.  She saw it less and less, but there were still people who surprised her.  She herself lived inside the Citadel, with an actual faith healer for a cousin, and it disturbed her that no one there had the devotion of these simple people.  She couldn’t remember the last time a service there had even mentioned God.

            Zoë gradually worked her way back through the slums towards the centre of the city, and took off the hood on her cloak so the guards at the Citadel gates could recognize her.  She dropped off her things in her chambers and headed down to the Hall of Meeting, where Jason was scheduled to perform more healings. 

            The Hall was massive, with a cathedral-like ceiling arching upwards, and ornate carved pillars along the sides.  Pews with plush cushions lined up in rows, with candles and torches flickering in elaborate sconces on the walls.  At the front, on a lifted stage, Zoë could see Evan and his band playing soft music, while Jason stood on the floor offering his healing touch to supplicants.  She remembered a time when Neal or Alex would give sermons, when the boys were in the band together.  Since then they had all become too busy.

            For a long time now, it seemed as if all they did was offer healing.  It was a healing that never lasted for long either.  Gone were the days of encouraging messages, the celebration and worship of God.  It was if they had let that slip away.  The sick kept coming, so there was no time for anything else.  Zoë questioned whether they really had a purpose here anymore, other than collecting money from the impoverished and eating while their congregation starved.  She pushed down her anger and retreated from the Hall of Meeting, heading up to the Hall of Elders.  Dinner would be served there as soon as Evan and Jay were finished with the meeting, but in the meantime Zoë could have a few moments of peace and quiet.

            She stood on the balcony watching the sunset and eventually heard the others start filing in.  Zoë joined them at the table, sitting at Neal’s right hand with Jay beside her.  She looked around the table, feeling glum at the sight of the empty chairs.  Owen and Daniel, gone forever, and Alex and Genevieve still had not returned.  She missed them.  They were the only two people who made any sense to her now.  Jason was always working or sleeping, Evan was wrapped up in his music or making money, and Neal was too enraptured of his own leadership…

            Zoë hardly paid any attention to the conversations at the table.  She had let her thoughts drift off, and did not realize the meal was finished until a serving-girl offered to take her plate.  Instead of leaving the Hall, Zoë went out on the balcony again.  She let the cool night breeze caress her face as she looked out at the stars over the ocean.  As a child she had taken comfort from stargazing, feeling that though life might be inconstant, the stars never changed.  Now even the night sky was unreliable, as you saw meteor showers nearly every night, pieces of the sky falling to earth somewhere in the world.  What once had been a rare occurrence that invoked wonder was now commonplace.  Life had lost a sense of wonder, a sense of purpose, all sense of value or meaning.  Faith, dreams, love:  these things seemed like distant memories.

            Leaning against the stony wall of the Citadel, Zoë closed her eyes.  Taking deep breaths, she tried to find some sense of inner peace, since the outer world around her lacked any semblance of calm.  She wished that things would change, that something would happen.  At that moment, she heard whispering voices inside the Hall.  Someone had apparently thought it would be empty after the meal was over, and no one could easily see Zoë from her position on the balcony, resting against the wall.

            “We need to think of something,” a voice whispered, sounding like Evan.  “Owen didn’t exactly keep records of his transactions.  I only know a few of his contacts myself.  We’re going to lose resources if we don’t find out who he was working with…”

            “Do not worry,” came a second voice, and Zoë immediately recognized it as the cloying tone of Simon Lamb, “I have agents working on the problem as we speak.  You will not be deprived, my friend.  The greater problem is Alex’s investigation of the armed forces.  We’ve found it necessary to move our loyal troops to the Fringes.  I have Todey in charge of their camp in the north.  They should be safe there, though Alex is doing his best to weed out our bad apples.”

            “Perhaps it’s time someone arranged an accident for him as well.”  Evan suggested, and Zoë felt a shiver of fear run through her.  They were talking about murdering her cousin!  She bit her lip to hold back a gasp of terror and her anger, clenching her fists and holding as still as possible.  Her pulse filled her ears as she strained to remain silent and listen to their conspiratorial conversation.

            “No, not yet.  The hour has not yet come for our friend Reza to strike again.  Be patient my friend.”

            “Why should we wait for that?  It would be an easy thing to arrange…” Evan’s voice bristled with impatience.

            “Hush, this is neither the time nor the place…” Zoë heard their voices drift, and guessed that they were leaving the Hall together.  She waited several moments, her heart beating fast in her chest, and then peeked her head out round the corner.  Finding the room empty, she scurried towards the nearest door and headed down the corridor towards her rooms.  As soon as she was safely locked inside, she wrapped herself in the sheets of her bed and cried, tears spilling down her cheeks as sobs wracked her body.

            Alex had told Zoë he had suspected that some of their companions had been involved in a smuggling ring with Owen and Daniel, a conspiracy deep within the heart of their church.  Now she knew that these same “friends” were involved in the death of those two men and planned further mayhem, with Alexander their intended target.

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