(chapter continued from previous post)
“We seek only to learn what has happened here,” Narcissa said gently. “I’m a skilled healer, travelling to learn and to offer my assistance. It is difficult to know where to begin.”
“Can you heal an earth-lord?” the young woman asked, and her laugh had a manic edge. “Because if you cannot, then we are all dead, we simply have not yet accepted it or stopped moving.”
Motion, something bright white and larger than a mouse, drew Lysandra’s gaze to the nearer end of the stiff green curtain, but whatever it was, it was out of sight before she could get a clear view. She was sure it hadn’t been a mouse and she had no impression of fur or feathers.
“Your earth-lord is unwell?” Narcissa asked.
“Ejiro has never before abandoned his Bride, not in all the history of this region. This is the heart of his domain, his first temple and the home of his Bride, and he does not come here.” She sank down on the bench again. “I have followed every rule, I have loved him and I have served him, and yet I have not seen him since the first flood came. Some say it’s my failing. But he chose me himself, and if I’ve displeased him, why would he not choose another, rather than punishing all of Ilek?”
The feeling of being watched was rather distracting. A spirit-creature of some sort? Not all gods created them, but many did, and this would be an appropriate place. Or perhaps just a pet or guardian animal of some sort, and she’d been mistaken. This town was enough to make anyone edgy.
“It seems unlikely that it is anything you have done. I think these conditions are being caused by something too large for one earth-lord to restrain, not by his displeasure with those dedicated to him.”
“You’re foreigners, what do you know? Leave, and let us all die, and the suffering will end for Ilek. Perhaps then Ejiro can recover.”
“Sometimes death is the only way,” Narcissa conceded. “But sometimes there are solutions that are hard to see, especially from inside. We’re very sorry you have suffered through so much. We will try.”
The Bride shrugged, hunching forwards, her face buried in her hands.
At the altar before the statue, Narcissa paused, traded glances with Lysandra, and knelt on the floor of hard-packed bare earth. She freed a thin gold bangle from the collection around one wrist, and laid it on the altar. “What we can do, Earth-lord, we will do, you have my word.”
Lysandra knelt beside her. Since she was wearing much less jewellery, and none of it gold, befitting her role as handmaid, she placed next to her sister’s a bangle of delicately carved hard black wood she’d been given by an admirer of her dancing. “With all respect and honour, Earth-lord.”
They rose and turned towards the door, and nearly ran into another woman. Immediately inside the arched doorway, but standing to one side so her shadow hadn’t drawn attention, she watched them with no expression at all, a small basket braced on one hip. Her soil-streaked faded dress had probably once been a warm ochre, close in colour to the scarf that held her collection of matted shoulder-length braids back from her face. That leather belt looked like it once had more decoration, maybe glass or metal studs or even something finer set into it, but only discoloured spots remained. She was certainly older than the Bride, though it was hard to judge beyond that.
“That was kindly done,” the woman said. “I’ll be only a moment.” She stepped past them and went directly to the Bride, dropping to one knee beside her and laying a hand on her shoulder. “Abena. I brought you food.”
The Bride nodded without looking up.
“You must eat,” the woman persisted gently. “Please. It is not what you should have, but it is what I can give. Abena, please.” She reached into the basket with one hand, firmly drew one of the Bride’s hands into reach with the other, and placed in it a palm-sized coarse-looking cake. “Eat.”
The Bride looked at it dully for a couple of heartbeats, then sighed. “Yes, Onyeka.” She took a small bite, chewed it thoroughly.
“Promise me that you will finish it.”
“Yes, Onyeka. I promise.”
“Good.” The woman got heavily to her feet, and laid a hand on the head of the younger that looked oddly like a blessing. “I’ll fetch the basket and check in on you later.” Leaving the basket next to the Bride on the bench, she strode back to the doorway and outside; a tilt of her head invited Narcissa to join her as she strolled down the street. Narcissa took her up on it, falling into step at her side. Lysandra followed, trying to identify what it was about this woman that felt so unusual. Nothing threatening, but something more than was obvious.
“You were kind to her,” the woman said. “She needs that desperately. She has been accused of being responsible for all Ilek’s woes, by those seeking someone to take the blame other than themselves and their own decisions on behalf of Ilek. That, at a time when she was already vulnerable and in distress because Ejiro was not answering…” She shook her head. “Ejiro always loves his Bride. He would not do this to her as some mad revenge for some unintended wrongdoing.”
“The priorities and perspectives of the gods seem to be unlike those of mortals,” Narcissa said. “Those who are loving and protective seem to care less than we for formalities and details.”
“Ejiro, unquestionably, and triply for his Bride. I have never seen you before. Travelling through? This is a difficult time of year for that even when all is well.”
“We did not know that,” Narcissa said ruefully. “We had intended to continue onward, but we can and will stay in Ilek for a time. I’m a healer, from very far away, a country called Enodia. I’ve been travelling, with my handmaid and two servants, so I can learn as much as possible and do what I can to help others.”
The woman grunted noncommittally. “I’m sure any of the great houses would welcome you. They have food to spare.”
That was, sadly, not much surprise: they kept encountering people willing to let others starve while they feasted.
“I have not asked for such hospitality,” Narcissa said. “And would refuse it if it were offered.”
“That won’t win you friends. Why?”
“I prefer to be accountable only to myself. I will help anyone in need to the best of my ability. I do not get involved in local politics or bow to local values, and that can be difficult if I’m a guest in someone’s house. My wagon is quite comfortable and my own people are very good and very loyal, so I have little need to depend on hospitality. We were offered use of an empty patch of land. Lysandra? Did you notice whether there were street signs?”
“It’s a little over a block east of a fountain of three elephants,” Lysandra said. She’d noticed that in bat form she instinctively made note of landmarks, and it was spilling over into human form.
Another grunt. “You’re from Enodia?” Lysandra thought some of the wariness in her voice was beginning to sound more muted.
“Yes,” Narcissa said. “Though it feels very far away sometimes, and at moments I miss it badly.”
“My husband will be disappointed to not meet you. His most treasured possession is a book describing Enodian devices and how they work. The number of times I’ve heard ‘Agapios says…’”
“I must have missed that one,” Narcissa said, her tone carefully neutral. “I know of a history written by Agapios of Helike, but not an engineering work by anyone of that name. But then, I’m not an engineer. I do know of a very popular work on small devices written some three dozen years ago by Hypatia of Phleion, which spread some way outside Enodia. We found copies of the book and the devices she describes frequently for a long time after leaving home. None recently, however.”
“Could be I got the name wrong. It’s been a while, and I’ve had other things on my mind.”
Possibly a mistake, or possibly a test. Not all Enodians would have passed it, if it were the latter, but one used what was available.
(chapter continued next post!)