Lysandra huddled under the eaves of a roof, tight against the wall and praying she was hidden by shadow, while the owl swooped back and forth. She’d barely escaped its talons twice in fleeing from the walled compound, and wasn’t sure how often she could continue to do so. At least it seemed to have lost her for now: it felt like she’d been hiding here for hours, though it had probably been minutes.
What was she going to do?
Her sister’s whereabouts were unknown. Obviously her deception had fallen through, but that didn’t mean she’d been captured. In fact, it was unlikely she had. Lysandra had caught a glimpse, while dodging the owl, of a figure she thought was Juro being dragged to the outbuilding the others were in, but she dared not linger. She’d be no help dead.
What help could she be alive? She was alone, five of her family and one ally going into that building but not coming out. Even the donkeys and Ander were gone. She couldn’t find or reach Narcissa, and it probably wasn’t safe currently to try.
She needed to add something more to the equation in order to change the result of it. If she was alone… then change that. She knew of someone, a group of someones, who were familiar with spirit-creatures and, if not exactly on her family’s side, shared a common enemy.
She peeked out to look for the owl, and caught a glimpse of green-gold in the sky back in the direction she’d come from. That should give her time to get to where she needed to be.
The temple offered a clear landmark that was hard to miss, and from here, she could estimate which house was Onyeka’s. It could complicate matters if anyone saw her change, so probably she should go to their camp where she could get out of sight briefly first.
Why was there a fire in the pit at their camp?
She circled lower, and recognized Onyeka on the spread rugs and blankets, small Nechi curled up beside her motionless, another child of similar size nestled against her, and Enitan stretched out next to his sister. There were other women present, one of them the current Bride, the others ranging in age right up to one who seemed to be quite elderly and looked vaguely familiar. Of course, much of Ilek would look vaguely familiar after the past three days of seeing patients.
There were also at least a dozen humanoid figures, maybe two feet tall, with pearl-white skin and curly silver hair, scurrying busily around the lot.
Lysandra dropped lower, landing quietly on the roof of the wagon. One of the white figures tugged at Onyeka’s sleeve and pointed in her direction.
Onyeka looked, and smiled. “There’s no need to hide. These are my sisters.”
That explained the range of ages. Every seven years, Onyeka had said. It made sense that their unique experience built an enduring bond between them.
She glided down from the roof and changed as soon as she reached the ground. “Just as well,” she said. “I need your help.”
“What we can do is yours for the asking. Where are your friends?”
Lysandra sighed. “That’s why I need help. Kaveri and Kieran were attacked and taken while the rest of us were trying to gather information and resources. We tried to rescue them but things went wrong somehow. I don’t know how many are still alive. I think Narcissa probably hasn’t been caught but I think the others all have. And the people who have them are going to want to torture them to death starting, probably, at full dark tomorrow. So we had to change plans very quickly.” She sank wearily to her knees on the rugs. “Maybe Tyrel was right and we should have just started killing them all on sight. But they aren’t all evil. Some of them don’t want to be part of it, they’re just afraid. One took a risk to help us and now he’s in trouble too.” She heard her voice starting to shake, and made herself stop and take a deep breath.
The old woman with the short curly ice-white hair laid a hand over hers. “No use questioning the past,” she said, though she sounded sympathetic. “What help can we be? We have different skills, but none of us can fight.”
Lysandra gathered her thoughts. “Fighting with weapons failed. We still have some time before Talir sets. We get our strength from the moonlight, and my friends are trapped in a building that blocks all light. It has a tile roof, and the walls are baked brick. If my friends have moonlight, they can escape any cage, any bindings.” I hope. But it was the best chance she could think of.
“And?” the Bride, Abena, prompted.
“When I danced for Ejiro, and he saw us, he cried out and the ground shook. If the ground quakes right under that building, it could bring it down. If part of the ceiling falls, well, it probably won’t kill anyone, and the moonlight heals us. If my friends can get free, then they can fight back, and they’ll know who they need to kill so Ejiro won’t be hurt any more. I know the gods aren’t supposed to act directly, but they can reward an offering they find particularly pleasing. What I offer is a promise, since I can’t perform it at this moment. The dancing that I do is how we honour our earthborn in Enodia and ask her blessing. Meyar is still full enough that one of the next two or three nights I can dance for Ejiro from moonrise to moonset without needing to rest, and I doubt my dancing props were of much interest to anyone looking for things to steal. It’s even better the night Meyar is full, although she’s waning now. I don’t know whether that’s an offering that would please him. I could strip our wagon of jewellery and other expensive things, or offer what food we have left, but my dancing by moonlight is something no one can buy, I let few ever see it, and it comes from who I am.”
“It’s been said a long time,” the old woman said, “a song from the heart of a child has greater value than gold from the hand of the wealthy. Your lady has been giving from her own skill and soul since you arrived here, caring for Ejiro’s people. Your clever friend who finds food in unlikely places has been giving from her own skill and soul in feeding Ejiro’s people. Your other friends have been protecting them from the short-sighted so they could. The gift of your own skill and soul in dancing in Ejiro’s honour is, I think, a worthy one. But that’s for Ejiro to decide. Call him, Abena.”
Abena hesitated. “He doesn’t come any more.”
“Try,” Onyeka said gently. “We’re here with you. This is a unique situation. He’s awake, we know that. Maybe he can and will come, at least for a moment.”
Abena swallowed hard, and nodded. She rearranged herself kneeling beside the rugs, her palms flattened against the ground, and began a soft singsong chant.
After a moment, first one, then another, and ultimately all of the previous Brides joined in.
The small white people abandoned their various tasks and gathered into a ring centred on Abena but incorporating all of them… and they were humming a harmony, Lysandra realized.
Would he come? Would he have the strength? It had taken a long time for him to respond when she’d danced for him. Would the entreaty of his Brides, current and former, make a difference?
She hoped so, for all their sakes. Because she couldn’t think of anything else that might save her family, and her family were the best chance of stopping Ejiro’s enemies.
* * *
Narcissa crouched flat under a handcart, one of four pushed tightly together near the remains of a large garden plot. Cover was scant within these walls. She needed to find a way out. But the gate was guarded while they searched for her, nets and a grey wolf and a maned lion and that owl all ready. The myriad tricks Tyrel had taught her to lose a tracker were of limited use under these conditions, though at least she’d avoided capture so far.
A shadow, a quiet footstep, legs clad in loose pale trousers just outside her hiding spot, and someone crouched, only a silhouette backlit by moonlight. She dug in her back feet, ready to launch herself again.
“Before you flee, gracious lady,” a male voice said softly in Enodian, “I suggest you do not move. Lirit protects you. When you are not active, there is no trace of her light around you. I believe the others depend on seeing that light, and are likely to overlook you as completely as you failed to recognize me as what I am before your… friend? kinswoman?… danced for Ejiro. I do not know what led Juro to take such a risk for your sake, but while he can at moments make decisions somewhat impulsively, I care very much for him and I trust him. I think Meyar’s daughter would have little reason to dance with her friends all dead, and that would be tragic. And who am I to question when Lirit does not wish you to be found? Please. Stay here. I will do my best to find a way to get you through the gate, or at least into a more secure hiding place until I can do so. But it might take me a little time.”
The footsteps resumed, and she saw the legs move away.
“Demetrios!” someone shouted, not too far off. “Anything?”
“Nothing over here,” that same voice called back, in the local language now instead of slightly old-fashioned but highly-educated flawless Enodian. “Possibly she was but she’s gone now!”
There had been quite a lot to think about in that one short speech. Juro had told them about Meyar hiding her light around his friend Demetrios, and that seemed consistent with the rest of it. Should she trust him?
Juro had done his best, she believed that. Some of what Juro had said suggested that Demetrios was significantly older than him, and had kept him out of trouble a number of times, and an implication that Demetrios had somehow arranged for them to repeatedly be assigned to the same area. That could suggest someone favoured by those in power, with all the unpleasant attendant possibilities. Alternatively, and quite plausibly for someone accustomed to Enodian court life, he could simply be extremely good at balancing a large number of complex factors and convincing those in power that he was something he was not.
Which it was mattered. A lot.
But then, her options were limited, and she too could play roles when necessary—and when not caught outright as she had been tonight.
She scuffled around in the rather hard ground until she’d made a shallow oval hollow for herself, keeping a wary eye out for anyone approaching and freezing often to listen for motion. Maybe an opening would present itself. Maybe her visitor would return with an idea. Maybe she’d be here a while. At least this was cover, and if Lirit was helping her hide, so much the better.
Finally, she flattened herself into it, her ears down against her back, doing her absolute best to simply look like a small hummock of dirt and not a hare with Lirit’s light in her veins.