16: Number The Stars

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"A couple of Marmacks," said Acel. "A pair of dirty, squabbling apostates. Two men barely worthy of the name who've never heard of the commandments, let alone forgotten them."

"Acel..." said Ever. The whole situation felt like a barrel of Elder Betenson's gunpowder placed too close to a campfire.

Acel only looked at her and cracked a morbid grin.

"But I'm no better," he said. "At least you two have a response. Even if it's a useless, violent one. I'm sitting here and I keep going over it in my head, every moment since we walked out of there and left them all behind, and I live through it again and again and I'm still not sure if any of it made any sense. And now there's nothing, and maybe we're the only ones left, and maybe we're going to die in these cells."

"Acel, are you—"

"Where's God, I wonder? In all of this, where is He? Has He gone?"

Ever didn't know what to say. Apparently neither did Chy or Rolan, because all three of them were sitting in their respective cold, dark spots with their eyes locked on Acel. It was disconcerting, to say the least, to see him this way. He seemed on the verge of giving up.

"Oh, ye of little faith!"

Ever snapped her head toward the empty hallway so hard she felt a muscle spasm, only to find that the hallway between their cells was no longer empty. The Prophet's voice was warm and paternal, at odds with his looming appearance.

"I'm sorry," said Thayne, stepping fully into view. He had apparently been lurking just outside their view. "It was not my intention to frighten you."

Acel, who hadn't revealed any surprise at Thayne's sudden appearance, got slowly to his feet.

"It seems to me that's exactly your intention," he said.

"Yes, well..." Thayne disappeared from view for a moment and returned with the wooden armchair in hand. He set it down across from their cell again. "I came here, in part, to apologize for my harsh words this morning. Not to recant them, you understand, but to convey my regret at my...unsympathetic delivery."

"If what you said is true," Ever said, "we have nothing left to talk about."

"The truth is," Thayne said, folding himself into the old wooden chair with an easy creak, "you are wise not to trust me. You would be even wiser not to trust anyone, in this age. But I have not come to talk about Bountiful. I've come to tell you a story."

"You want us to listen to you tell us a story," Ever said, "after you've just told us not to trust you."

"Listening doesn't require trust, my dear," said Thayne. "It merely requires silence."

Ever felt heat growing in her face; her anger at this man felt like a powder keg near a camp fire. As if sensing she was about to retort, Thayne held up one long index finger.

"Number the stars beneath the moon," he intoned. Ever felt her breath catch in her throat upon hearing the words.

"Three, for the stakes surviving doom," she finished. It was automatic; she couldn't help it. Looking at Acel, hearing the boys across the way murmuring to themselves, she knew they were thinking the same thing she was.

"The sickle moon in dark of night," continued the Prophet, then stopped, as if waiting for a response.

"Faintly illumes our secret flight," said Rolan softly. Thayne smiled.

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