Return 23 pt2

I’m so sorry about the delay – life got away from me for a bit! But while I’m talking anyway… Return is obviously winding down. I’d very much like to hear about what you thought of this story and of the rest. What I do next about Moonblood is still up in the air and it would help me decide. Thanks!
~Steph


(chapter continued from previous post)

At dusk, they felt little guilt about turning people away, and sending them to the great houses that had been opened or to the temple and other locations the previous Brides were offering food.

Kieran, squatting near the firepit while Kaveri banked it for the night, sighed. “Not so terrible as a plague town, but difficult enough.” He noticed Neoma watching him, and tilted his head questioningly.

She smiled and ran a hand through his hair affectionately. “Talir told me I’d be proud of you. It was an understatement.”

That made him grin and nuzzle into her hand, an incongruously canine gesture.

“Let’s move farther back,” Kaveri said. “It’s a little cooler and a little more private, farther from the fire, and we really don’t need it.”

Rugs and blankets and cushions were gathered up and shaken out, and they relocated into the more sheltered corner near the cart.

Mirren waved towards the street. “Come join us!” she called, then, more quietly, “I wonder how long it will take them to stop worrying?”

“I don’t know the whole story,” Neoma said, “but I can tell you this: no one is going to leave even a few years of that behind easily. I suggest not asking in any depth about how they were lured in or what they’ve personally experienced since. Let them choose what they’re comfortable discussing.”

There was no time to reply, before Demetrios and Juro were in range. A minimum of shifting around was required to make room for them.

“Before all else,” Narcissa said in Enodian, “we need a common language. If possible.”

“If you can forgive a poor accent,” Neoma said, “I know some Enodian. It’s more from books than conversation.”

“A passable knowledge and an accent,” Demetrios said, “is superior to no knowledge of a language at all. Juro and I speak a number of languages—for me, time, and for him, a gift for it. Is there another that might be easier?”

“I think,” Kieran said in his own first language, “that is unlikely unless you know this one.”

“It’s been a long time,” Demetrios said, switching to it with no apparent effort. “I do, but I don’t believe Juro does.”

“That sounds like it’s related to my people’s language,” Juro said thoughtfully in Enodian. “But it isn’t the same. I can learn it quickly, but not in one night. Sorry.”

“Enodian, then,” Neoma said. “I’ll ask if I need to.”

“Thank you,” Kaveri told Demetrios and Juro. “We badly needed that food. And even more, you made sure Ander and the jennies got back to us safely.”

Juro shrugged. “I’ve had a couple of days to see how you feel about them and what you’ve been doing.”

“I have some affinity for horses and their kin,” Demetrios said. “They were not pleased about being handled by strangers. They trust you and like you and I have no doubt they are much happier being back in your hands.”

“That’s good to know,” Madoc said. “Moonladies know, we put them through enough strangeness.”

Juro glanced at Demetrios. “You didn’t lose it, did you?”

“No chance of that.” Demetrios removed the tightly-woven bag that had been slung on one hip by a long cord over his opposite shoulder, and presented it to Narcissa. “This, I believe, is yours, and would be some challenge to replace.”

Narcissa, her expression quizzical, opened the bag. Smiling, she drew out a handful of glittering gold: presumably, her combs and hairpins, earrings and necklace, rings and bracelets, that she’d lost in her hasty change of form. “Thank you. I would have missed them badly, the next time I need to impress someone.”

“As though it’s your jewellery that does that?” Mirren muttered. “You could be stark naked and covered in mud and still convince people you’re a princess.”

“Was,” Narcissa said mildly. “Past tense, not present.” She spilled the gold back into the bag, and turned that smile directly on Demetrios and Juro both. “I didn’t expect to see it again. That was thoughtful.”

“Small thanks for our lives,” Demetrios said.

“There are,” Tyrel said, “a lot of really big holes all over the place in what we all know, about recent events and more generally.”

“I suggest,” Lysandra said, “that introductions might be a good beginning. I think Cissa and I are the youngest here, so that seems as good a reason as any for us to start.”

They went through short introductions, Lysandra for herself and Narcissa, Mirren alone, Tyrel for himself and Madoc and Kaveri, Kieran alone. Now and then Neoma questioned an unfamiliar word, and Kieran translated it into her language.

Neoma said her name, then hesitated. “Much more gets into a long story.”

“I think everyone knows who you are,” Kaveri said. “Kieran talks about you.”

“And no matter what the official decree,” Demetrios said gravely, “you have been the hope of many, that it might be possible to find a way out.”

Neoma blushed, but shrugged. “It got too bad to bear any more. I saw an opening and I ran and kept running. Luck and Talir led me to an earthborn who offered me sanctuary, and his spirit-creatures became my friends, and I hid there for a very long time, with only occasional human contact with a small village. Otherwise I would probably not have had the five decades or so I did there.” She glanced at Kieran and smiled. “Or been there to rescue and raise an amarog cub.”

“Lirit told us in Enodia,” Kaveri said, “that Talir kept you with her a lot longer than one moon-cycle and then returned you very far away.”

Neoma nodded. “Very far.” She hesitated. “I don’t know the word…” In her own language she said, “Another continent.”

Demetrios supplied the Enodian translation.

“I had not much memory and no idea what I’d left behind or how I’d gotten there.”

“So how did you get here now?” Kaveri asked.

“Talir spoke to me directly a few nights ago. The first time, I think. She told me about Kieran and the rest of you. She said you might all die and others too. She wanted to bring me back here to help. She told me how. That was hard.”

“How?” Juro asked.

“Die, I assume,” Kieran said. “By anything of earth.”

Neoma nodded. “She said it would be the full moon, but I suppose that would have been too late.”

“Very much,” Kieran said dryly. “I’m not certain our attempt at helping Ejiro and Ilek succeeded due to anything we did, but we had to try. We knew of no reason for stealth when we first arrived. We believed we were passing through on the way to the Valley of Umako, and then we believed the flooding to be natural.”

“The Valley of Umako?” Demetrios said with interest. “I’ve heard of it, but have never seen it.”

“Me too,” Neoma said. “It’s said to be beyond words.”

“It is,” Kaveri said. “Kieran took Tyrel and Madoc and I there. We helped out a bit, made a friend, and we thought we’d visit and see how he’s doing and let the others experience the Garden.”

“You’re welcome to join us, of course,” Narcissa said. “Whenever we finally leave Ilek.”

Demetrios regarded her thoughtfully. “You know nothing about us, save that we’ve already switched sides once.”

“We know,” Kieran said, “that Meyar and Sahen chose to accept you as our bloodline, not the other, despite the questionable logic of that.”

“I am not entirely certain that I deserve that, or escaping from the reprimand everyone else received, or your acceptance. Juro has much less on his conscience than I do.”

“Then I don’t deserve it either,” Neoma said bluntly.

Demetrios’ eyes widened and he flinched back. “How so?”

“I did bad things with them too. There are only four choices. Rebel openly, which gains nothing. Begin to believe the lies, and stop being yourself. Find a quick death. Or learn to survive. If you are very clever, you make sure you’re useful and you find the line between drawing suspicion on yourself and needing to outright accuse anyone else, even if it means no…” She paused, and said in her language, “promotions.” Kieran translated it. She met Demetrios’ gaze with a smile that held no mirth. “Possibly, I’m worse. You’re here and helping the people of Ilek. I ran and hid.”

“The need is here, now, and immediate. You found a fifth option and got away.”

“The opening was there, then, and immediate. Your opening came now, that’s all. When you condemn yourself, you condemn us both. Shall we ask Meyar and Talir to include us with the others?”

A couple of heartbeats of stillness, then Demetrios bowed his head. “That is not an argument I can refute.”

“I would rather you didn’t.” Her voice softened. “It will take time. It won’t always be easy.” She glanced around. “I’m not sure how completely our tribe here are going to understand…”

“One can be supportive and sympathetic and patient,” Narcissa said, “without necessarily understanding in depth.”

“True enough. And I’m getting the impression that my son has gathered an extremely loyal, if oddly mixed, pack. So. Instead of telling us we shouldn’t like you, tell us who you are.”

Demetrios inclined his head. “My full name is Demetrios Bassarios.”

Lysandra tilted her head to one side, forehead furrowing. “That sounds familiar… Three Years Exploring the Islands! It’s a book, the better editions include reproductions of paintings of plants and animals and people and landscapes. It’s still popular, although it’s been around for a while.”

“Quite a long while,” Demetrios said drily. “I was still human when I wrote it. I enjoyed travelling and writing about the experience and what I learned, I enjoyed painting what I saw… and it got me far away from my family. Theodosia Bassarina was my sister.”

“Oh dear,” Narcissa said, with a wince. “If one becomes the mistress of a king, well, it’s hardly uncommon when marriages are for political reasons rather than affection or attraction. But best not to flaunt it publicly, and to insult the queen openly is rather… tactless.”

(chapter continued next post!)

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