It turned into an extremely busy day.
Patients showed up for Narcissa in such a steady stream that she began to leave more and more of the actual treatment—cleaning and covering shallow sores and wounds, measuring out medicines—to Lysandra. Tyrel was glad they’d discussed the question of when to halt for the day. Human eyes would begin to strain to perceive necessary details after dusk, and what oil they had was better used for food. She had agreed, with mixed feelings, to stop seeing patients when the natural light dropped significantly. Otherwise, it wasn’t impossible the line would continue right through the night.
Kaveri commandeered everything they had that was fire-safe and not already in use to serve, and used it to make sure individual ingredients were cooked before being added, since the drain on the soup pot never slowed.
More than once, would-be thieves tried to slip onto the lot, headed for the cart or the wagon, which led to Tyrel and Kieran and Madoc stationing themselves in a loose triangle, taking turns patrolling the grounds for anything they might miss from there.
Mirren had less and less time to watch for intruders of any size. Keeping those waiting to see Narcissa distracted considerably reduced the squabbling over who was next, and it was quickly apparent that the lack of pets had left a deep longing in many. It was, Tyrel thought, a good thing she was more resilient than a real cat of that size, since treatment ranged from reverential gentleness to rather heavy-handed enthusiasm. She tolerated it all and made certain no one felt ignored. At busier moments, Kieran stepped in to offer himself as well, and Tyrel saw him standing patiently still while a small child steadied itself on its feet by clutching a double handful of thick frosted fur.
Tyrel did find a moment to speak to each about the subject of Onyeka, though it took him until past noon to do so. Lysandra and Narcissa had a brief and unequivocal response: Aithre would not have suggested it without good reason, and they had no reason to believe she meant them ill beneath her smiles, so ignoring it would be foolish. No one objected to the idea, though Kieran wanted to do it after moonrise—which, Tyrel had to admit, had a certain logic to it. It would be easier to offer proof, and gave them more flexibility.
Before Tyrel could escape to follow Lysandra’s directions to the shop and take Onyeka an invitation to join them, the indignant female messenger had reappeared, followed by a trio of men each pushing a hand-cart. Those men hadn’t been starving lately either, not with muscles like that under their oversized, shabby clothing. The carts held food. A generous quantity of it, at that, in the form of grain and dried fruit and dried vegetables, and a limited amount of salted meat.
That, Tyrel thought drily, wasn’t coincidence. In its current form, much of this could have kept for several years with minimal loss. This was food that had been put away knowing that sooner or later, catastrophe would strike.
Narcissa, emerging from her tent when notified, had sighed, her expression a mixture of relief and exasperation as she listened to the messenger repeat the request for her to visit.
“Tell your mistress that she has my sincere gratitude—the demand has been straining our supplies greatly. Unfortunately, I will not be able to pay her a visit today.” She held up a hand, silencing a protest, and turned it into a gesture that encompassed those townspeople nearby. “This is not the largest number I have found outside my tent today. The hurts they bring are, for the most part, not immediately life-threatening, but a few could be if not treated. Others are, or could potentially become, disabling. The rest are unpleasant, uncomfortable, inconvenient, and may be frightening. Many are children. Shall I tell them that I must leave them so I can sit in luxury discussing literature and the joys and trials of travel with your mistress? Would you care to do so?” The messenger, lips pressed tightly together, said nothing. “I expect to be exhausted by dusk, when it will become more difficult to see clearly and make an adequate diagnosis, yet I have already promised my time in another matter, and it would be disrespectful and rude to break such a promise. Tomorrow, when I stop working at dusk, I will do what I can to make myself presentable for polite society, and I will come to her house, as I promised, both because I keep my promises and because I appreciate her generosity. I have no wish to insult her, and I hope she will understand and this will be acceptable to her.”
“I will tell her, my lady.”
The messenger wasn’t even off the lot before Narcissa looked at Kaveri. “Use it. If she’s offended, well, what is she to do, try to reclaim it after it’s been eaten? Feed these people.” Her forehead furrowed in thought. “If there is anything you can put together that Tyrel could take as a gift for Ejiro’s Bride, I think that would both be kind and help encourage Onyeka to view us kindly.”
Kaveri nodded. “I’ll see what I can do quickly, even if I have to get back into whatever flour we have left. ‘Rel, can you wait a bit?”
“Whenever you want,” Tyrel said. “I doubt Onyeka has a tight social schedule that would make a late invitation hard to keep.”
“I need to get back to work,” Narcissa said, re-pinning a lock of midnight hair that had dared to escape, and turned back to her tent.
Lirit waxing towards full in a few days or not, Tyrel was sure she honestly would be exhausted by dusk—and equally sure that she would keep going as long as she could stay on her feet, if not stopped.
Before long, Kaveri laid out four rounds of pan-bread on a clean square of cloth from the cart, spread on two of them some thick mixture she’d been concocting while the bread cooked, and put the remaining rounds on top. She presented the whole bundle to Tyrel.
“Pass on my respects to both Ejiro and his Bride along with our lady’s, please?”
That statement, quite audible, halted what had looked to Tyrel like incipient protests. Not all looked entirely happy, he heard at least one grumbling under his breath about wasting food on the source of the problem, but no one made any overt complaints.
Nonetheless, he checked—and made a show of checking—that he had both katari and his small visible dagger in place. Making sure his throwing knives and dagger were at his back, hidden, he did more surreptitiously. It wouldn’t actually have surprised him much, had someone attacked him for the food he was carrying. As it was, he figured it would come down to a race between desperation whipping the locals into a mob that would storm the camp, and completing their job and escaping intact with the jennies, Ander, and the gear they were pulling. Possessions complicated things. Although, he had to admit, they’d be doing far less good in Ilek without those possessions.
And he couldn’t deny that it was a pleasant luxury to be able to drowse away Talir’s dark in the safety of the wagon, with adequate food in reach and no need to hurry back into activity.
The streets, as they always did, looked quite different in daylight. Finding the temple wasn’t difficult, though, and from there, finding Onyeka’s home took only a moment.
He knocked, and waited, wondering whether Onyeka had rigged something up that would allow her to see without being seen.
Finally, the door cracked open. “Yes?”
“My lady Narcissa sent me. She hopes you and your children can join her for a late meal, at moonrise, once she has finished seeing patients for the day. Nothing as fresh as duck and vegetables, unfortunately, but Kaveri is resourceful. And she sends a gift for Ejiro’s Bride, which she suggested I give to you to be certain she gets it.”
She opened the door wider, though still blocking access with her own body. “Is there something she expects in return? No, it doesn’t matter, food will buy anything in Ilek these days. It’s thoughtful of her to remember Abena. The Bride.”
“She pays respect where it’s due.”
“Huh.” She accepted the wrapped package, and regarded it without expression for a moment. “An unexpected donation of food a few months ago smelled wrong. She only had a little, but it made her very ill. It may have been a genuine accident, but I doubt it.”
“Lady Onyeka,” Tyrel said, pitching his voice very low so it wouldn’t carry, “if my lady wanted someone dead, she wouldn’t bother with poison. She’d send me, in the night, and that someone would never know I was there and would not wake. No disturbance, too quick for suffering, and no question of success or failure or the wrong target. But she values life too highly to do so casually, and she honours the earthborn and their favoured ones.” It was a calculated risk, but they did intend to tell her everything anyway.
“I don’t find that much of a surprise.” He saw nothing suggesting that she found it alarming either. “I think it’s unlikely your lady would wish Abena any harm, after being kind to her as she was, and knowing the poor girl is no threat to anyone.”
“Poison as a weapon does sound familiar, however. We might have a common enemy.”
Her eyebrows rose. “Might we, now? I expect this will be an interesting meal, then. Thank you, and I’ll be there. And I’ll take this to the temple.”
Tyrel inclined his head respectfully, and backed up a couple of steps before turning around.
(chapter continued next post!)