Return 7

Behind them, shadowed by one of the empty buildings and what had once been a dense wooden fence protecting a garden, one human figure and one much smaller one watched them go.

Aquamarine light splashed, and the smaller shape became human, at least in form.

“I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything that beautiful,” the one who had been small said, tone approaching reverence.

“No,” the other said quietly, “nothing even close for a very long time. An Enodian dancer, to traditional if simplified Enodian music, very obviously blessed by Meyar…”

“But they’re the heretics. Aren’t they?” He didn’t sound sure of himself.

The quieter of the two favoured his friend with a weary smile. “You know they lie. If what you see in front of you contradicts what they say, tell them you believe them but in private trust your own eyes. Can you honestly claim that she wasn’t dancing with Meyar’s blessing?”

Brief silence, then, “No. I can’t.” Another hesitation, then, “Maybe Meyar wanted you to see it? Other than when you changed, there was no light around you. Nothing more than a real horse or a human, I mean. I’ve never seen that happen before. I didn’t know it could happen.”

“Maybe she did. And I’m grateful for it, even though there’s sure to be a price.”

“But Ejiro…”

The other sighed. “I didn’t know that, either. At times I wish I were less of a coward, or more sure that death would be an escape from my conscience. Did you hear them? Both women speak pure upper-class highly-educated Enodian. I heard a whisper that something happened in Enodia recently. Had it been some great victory, they’d have been certain to tell us in detail. Instead, we’ve heard nothing, and I’ve seen no one new from Enodia or nearby for the past few years. Nor, now I think of it, anyone who had been assigned to Enodia recently. I wonder whether there’s a connection.”

“Are we going to report this?”

“We aren’t supposed to be here ourselves. I would rather not try to even explain that much, let alone attempting to describe what we just saw. There will be no compassion from them, you know that. It could do Ejiro further harm, or the dancer, and I don’t care to be responsible for either.” He looked down sadly at his own hands, outlined faintly with blue-white light. “If I could paint that scene…”

“I know,” the other said, in much the same tone. “There’s music, something new for her, using that rhythm…” A heavy sigh. “But we follow orders from above, since we haven’t proved, and will not prove, that we’re worthy to be trusted with independence or explanations, right?”

“Until and unless we can find an alternative, yes. Though one must wonder. If they are the heretics, and we follow what the moons want, why is she dancing with joy and passion like Aithre herself in Meyar’s light, while you and I and many others have lost what matters most and skulk in the shadows afraid to look up? If Talir is angry and has turned away, how is it that the man with them belongs to her and clearly has her blessing still? Many questions, and I fear the only solution to them leads onto dangerous ground. I’m not certain I’m so desperate yet as to venture onto it. Although I’m not certain that I am not, either.” He shrugged. “We need to be back before moonset. Come on. It’s faster if you ride.”

* * *

Onyeka woke sharply, certain she’d heard a cry. The ground was shivering under her, and she heard the glassware and pottery in the kitchen downstairs rattle.

“Oh, now what?” she muttered to herself. Something had obviously disturbed Ejiro greatly. Wearily, she swung her legs out of her bed.

A quartet of humanoid figures, their heads scarcely reaching above the height of her knee, scurried into the bedroom. All four were wearing the kind of simple wrapped garments that a child might wear, but despite that and their size and their sexless build, they were not children. Skin white and glistening as the surface of a pearl and short curly hair as bright as silver wire made them clearly visible in the moonlight that filtered through the thin oiled leather covering the window. All were gaunt, though they hadn’t always been.

Only four. There were five the last time I saw them all at once. Yet another one gone back to Ejiro…

There was no word for their current state that seemed more appropriate than hysterical. She hadn’t heard one speak since the time of the second flood, by which time nearly a dozen had taken refuge here, seeking someone familiar and trusted in the midst of their fear and confusion and growing weakness. Despite that, one climbed on the bed beside her and seized her hand, tugging at it urgently; two others ran to fetch her clothes, and the last paced in rapid agitated circles.

“I’m coming,” she told them, her voice hushed so as not to wake her children, and retrieved her hand so she could get dressed. “Go on ahead to the temple, I’m coming.”

Three heeded her, but one stayed, so desperate to help her dress quickly that it had the opposite effect. It hovered near as she slipped quietly out of the house through the back door and followed the alleyway out to the street. It didn’t matter whether anyone saw her. They wouldn’t dare offer any violence against her directly, even now, and they’d be unable to see her companion.

Even before she came into the temple, Onyeka could hear two voices raised in one of the sacred songs sung only by a small and select group of women, songs in Ejiro’s honour. This one, she knew even before she could distinguish the words, was a plea.

In the temple, Abena was on her knees in front of Ejiro’s statue, tears streaking her cheeks as she begged him to tell her what was wrong. The two women who had moved more quickly than Onyeka were on the nearest bench, and they were the source of the song. The elder, who was well into her fifties with a great deal of white hair showing in her bound-back braids, had one arm around the younger, some two decades younger. Several dozen of the small white figures darted around the space, unable to settle for long, though at moments small groups paused to huddle together for a moment.

Another arrived, as Onyeka paused in the doorway, a woman in her sixties. That she limped and used a cane was a grim reminder of Ejiro’s weakness. Others followed, gathering together, joining the song with little need to think.

The last two arrived together, the younger, who had yet to reach thirty or to choose which of her suitors she wished to marry, solicitous support for the elder, who had lived for over eight decades, her close-cropped curly hair entirely white and her body wizened by time, though her steps remained steady.

“Not that song,” Funanya, who was the eldest of them, said briskly. “Whatever disturbed him has passed. Sing him back to sleep instead. If anything had changed, if there were anything we could do to help, he’d tell us. Himself or through the Bright Ones.”

“We need to know,” Abena said.

“We won’t know tonight.”

“I think something has changed,” Onyeka said slowly. “The newcomers… they’re like those others, but they act entirely differently. Respectful of Ejiro, kind to Abena. The healer herself and her handmaid, I believe them that they’re from Enodia and that she’s a great lady there. She recognized the Enodian things in the shop. Of everything, they wanted a counting-frame that’s been of no interest to anyone because it works by twelves. And they paid for it with a good meal for me and my children and Abena—they offered coin too, but what’s that worth, compared to learning about them? They wanted to know what’s happened to Ilek. They may be the same kind, but they aren’t them.”

“Now that is an interesting change,” Funanya said thoughtfully, lowering herself carefully onto a bench, with young Efua’s aid. “You believe them?”

“Not without more to go by, but nothing yet has made me think they’re more of the same. I have some doubts as to whether the other two are in fact servants. They act the part well, but something doesn’t entirely feel right about it. But that means nothing, as far as their intentions.”

“But what made Ejiro scream, then?” asked Eniola, the elder of the first pair to arrive.

“I don’t know,” Onyeka said. “But I think it’s unlikely the newcomers attacked him in some new way.”

“We can’t ask the Bright Ones to keep watch on them,” Funanya mused. One of the Bright Ones was leaning against her leg, and she absently combed withered fingers through its silver hair. That seemed to calm it considerably, and that spilled over noticeably to the others. “If they’re spirit-creatures themselves, they’ll only see them, and that could put our friends in danger. We need to assess this change ourselves. She’s a healer?”

Onyeka nodded. “She says she travels to learn and to offer help where she can. She has more medical supplies than food, I think, but I don’t believe they expected to come into our situation. She said she’ll do her best to help everyone who comes to her—that she doesn’t take sides in local affairs or discriminate. I can’t help but wonder, though, whether Ilek being undermined by spirit-creatures of her own kind would be considered a local affair by them.”

“A very good question, that,” Funanya said. “I think, then, that we’d best add as many observations as possible to your excellent beginning, and visit the healer ourselves.”

“We don’t all have excuses,” Efua said.

“Then find someone who needs a healer, and stay with them to visit her. If you can arrange it, then do so. And take note of everything you can.”

“That seems reasonable,” Eniola said. “Gather again tomorrow night?”

“Yes, and we’ll see what we’ve gathered, and whether it’s a harvest we can make any use of. Now. My voice can’t hold it any longer, you know that. Sing Ejiro back to sleep. Best if he does, under the circumstances.”

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