(chapter continued from previous post)
Outside, Tyrel did one more cursory walk around the edges of the campsite proper, then at Kaveri’s request fetched another pail of water. He didn’t mind washing a few dishes, which mostly was the mugs they were serving soup in. Narcissa insisted that they be well-cleaned with a soap that she provided—she said it was known in Enodia that sharing vessels for food or drink with the ill, even before symptoms began, could lead to falling ill in turn, and the people of Ilek would be vulnerable.
Lysandra, before going back into Narcissa’s tent, stopped by the cart. Tyrel saw her lean over the rails keeping everything in place, and reach out to touch Kieran, getting his attention. He was too far away to hear anything she said, and the contents of the cart mostly blocked his view of Kieran’s response. He wondered what that was about. Just checking on Kieran’s wellbeing, possibly. That would be like Lysandra. Whatever it was, it didn’t take long, after which she vanished past the curtain-flap of the tent.
While Tyrel was still washing dishes, Narcissa and Lysandra both joined them at the fire. In public and in character, Narcissa couldn’t offer to help, but Tyrel doubted he’d have allowed it anyway—she looked exhausted, though not a hair was out of place and her posture remained perfect. Kaveri half-filled a pair of clean mugs with soup and handed each of their princesses one.
“Thank you.” Narcissa took a sip, held it in her mouth for a moment, then swallowed before raising her eyes to Kaveri’s. “There are some… unusual flavours in this.”
“You’ll be happier if you don’t ask,” Tyrel muttered.
Kaveri just smiled. “I promise, it’s absolutely safe. It should even offer some good nutrition for the locals. But ‘Rel’s speaking from experience: anything I can invent on thin resources, civilized people would probably prefer not thinking about too closely. There are always things you overlook.”
“Noted, and I will not ask. At least not today. I trust you.” Narcissa took another sip, her gaze drawn to the fire, her expression turning inward. Lysandra laid her free hand over her sister’s, wordless comfort.
No one could realistically accuse their princesses of not being strong and resilient and resourceful. They’d adapted to life on the road much more successfully than Tyrel had feared, given the life they’d left behind. They’d dealt with unpleasant situations in Enodia, and Tyrel couldn’t imagine either ever hesitating. Within Enodia, though, there were both civil structures and private charities in place to ease even the worst poverty, to ensure that the most basic necessities were met. This? As Lysandra had said, as an honest accident, it would have been hard, but with malice behind it… And there was little the rest of them could do, to make this any less painful.
Standing in the midst of carnage, untouched by hunger or illness or fear of death… at moments, life before that felt remote and unreal.
Was that what happened to those others? Rather than seeing their unique nature as a means to help humans, continuing to live among them as completely as possible as Kieran had taught them to do, staying connected with the ups and downs of human life, had they lost that empathy, the memory of what it felt like to be human and afraid? Without it, had they begun to see themselves as superior, entitled to manipulate regardless of the cost? Because human lives were so often short and filled with suffering anyway, so what matter a few more or a few hundred more?
That was possibly more revolting a concept than the sort of venomous sadism that gave people pleasure in inflicting misery on others. At least the latter still saw their victims as people. The former dismissed their identities and their value, their experiences and their infinite individuality, entirely.
Lirit told Cissa that Talir has refused to choose anyone from their bloodline since Neoma left. Valeyan said Talir’s intention was that we help where we can. No wonder she stopped.
But thank you, bright lady, for your faith in me. I’ll do my best to live up to it.
He recognized the young woman who approached the small circle around the fire, and sighed to himself. A trifle underweight, she was nonetheless certainly not starving. Her dress was in better condition, her wide belt more-or-less still fit, her dark curls didn’t look brittle or dull, and she didn’t look old beyond her years. He and Kaveri had seen her several times today, along with a male counterpart.
She smiled when she saw Narcissa, and made directly for her, dropping to her knees just out of arm’s length.
“Yes?” Narcissa prompted.
“Great lady, my mistress bid me speak to you in person, to be certain you received her invitation and her plea.”
“The one about coming to her house? Yes, I have, and my people have answered repeatedly, since apparently your mistress has difficulty understanding the word ‘no.’ Does your mistress expect people to approach her personally after she has had her servants deal with something?”
The edge to Narcissa’s voice made Tyrel trade quick glances with Kaveri, then with Lysandra. The latter, catching his eye, gave him a small shrug and a trace of a smile before turning her attention back to her sister.
The messenger blinked. “I’m sorry, my lady, my mistress was puzzled by the refusal for no reason, and feared that perhaps the message was not reaching you.”
“So she thinks my servants would decline on my behalf without knowing absolutely what I want them to do? If that is the degree of trust your mistress has in her servants, or the degree of reliability of her servants, or both, then I suggest your mistress clear out her household entirely and create a new one. As for there being no reason given, it has been given as often as the reply. If your mistress needs a healer, she can come here like everyone else. I do not have time for social calls, there are far too many people in genuine need. I am not your mistress’ lap-dog to come when summoned. Her offer of gifts disgusts me. I have been working since just after dawn to help the people of Ilek, and their ills are primarily caused by not having enough food. Meanwhile your mistress and the others like her sit behind walls, and I very much doubt they ever miss a single meal or that she has stripped her house of everything that can be sold to feed children under her care. Yet she offers trinkets, as though I can be bought and sold?”
“My mistress is a great lady of Ilek, she needs to keep her household safe!” the messenger said indignantly. “And she often goes for several days eating little!”
Oh, does she, now? About, say, once a moon-cycle?
“A great lady should be generous and benevolent and courteous,” Narcissa said, her tone carefully measured in pace and volume both. “She should be grateful for the advantages she has been given, without taking them for granted, and should be alert always for ways to use those advantages on behalf of her people. A great lady should not fear going without or soiling her hands with humble tasks if it means helping her people when they are in need, because her compassion proves her greatness. I have found, in my experience, that those who claim to be great ladies are often more miserly and less kind, and therefore farther from greatness, than the kitchen-maid or the prostitute they scorn. I have no interest in wasting my time with those who demand the rewards of a title they have not earned.”
Narcissa, Tyrel thought affectionately, was as great a lady as any in the world, down to her very bones.
“My people are struggling to provide even a single cup of soup to those who come seeking my help. Once that problem is solved, it is possible I could have a little time, if there were in fact any great ladies in Ilek for me to visit.”
Oh, Cissa, no, that could be dangerous!
“But I remain unconvinced that there are. Otherwise, I have nothing further to say, and your mistress can stop harassing my household with these repeated empty messages. Go away. Go tell her that.”
“Yes, my lady,” the messenger said stiffly. Clearly she didn’t care for the indirect insult to her mistress. She got to her feet and left, back the way she had come.
“I don’t like the idea of you going into one of those houses,” Tyrel said, switching to their own mixed-language argot for the sake of privacy.
“I agree,” Lysandra said. “It could be risky. It seems very unlikely that this woman needs any healer beyond moonlight, under the circumstances. I doubt she’s graciously welcoming a guest to the town. That leaves her motives very much in doubt.”
“It could be,” Narcissa agreed. “But it also gains us entry through doors normally locked and guarded, to gather what information we can. It is possible they know who we are, and possible that they do not. We do not know how well or how quickly word travels between local groups. But we need supplies to feed these people in the short-term, while we seek a long-term solution for the situation. The number of people who come here will increase as word spreads that we give food as well. If this so-called great lady takes the hint and offers supplies of a useful kind and volume, that helps greatly with the short-term, and information might help with the long-term. For that, I believe it’s worth taking a chance.”
“True,” Tyrel conceded reluctantly. “But…”
“And I am certainly not going anywhere without my handmaid and guard.”
“That’s something, but…”
“You aren’t going to change her mind,” Lysandra said in resignation. “Not with reasons like that, not short of physically restraining her, which would probably draw unwanted attention.”
Tyrel sighed. “Will you at least back me up on my being very obviously well-armed?”
“That would be perfectly appropriate,” Narcissa said.
“Can we sneak your pet bobcat in on this trip? Or your pet cat?”
“Not without a great deal of difficult explanation, no.”
“Oh well.” It had been worth a try. Their princesses had absorbed quite a lot from him and Madoc and Mirren, both before leaving Enodia and since, and dancing had made both strong and coordinated and flexible. Lysandra, in particular, would be difficult for an enemy to subdue. “Will you promise that if anything goes wrong, you’ll both get into moonlight as quickly as you can and run like hell or go straight up, and not hang around to argue?”
“You’d prefer that to my bringing my special fans?” Lysandra asked.
“Those are going to be very effective under some conditions. I would rather your first serious use of them didn’t involve close quarters and potentially overwhelming odds on hostile ground. Any trouble, you get out any way possible and don’t worry about me. I’ve been cornered and outnumbered before and I’m still here.”
“That’s because you’re a clever slippery little fox,” Kaveri said affectionately. “He’s right. These are not conditions for fighting, they’re conditions for running away to choose a better battleground later.”
“We promise,” Lysandra said, and looked pointedly at her sister until Narcissa nodded agreement.
“We do promise that, yes.”
That was going to be about as good as it got.
Still, Tyrel had distinctly mixed feelings about this. Narcissa was right about both sets of benefits, but he still rather hoped this woman decided that the price was too high.
Narcissa finished her soup, set down the cup, and rose to hold out a hand invitingly. At the edge of the road a man hesitated, one arm held tightly against his body by ragged strips of cloth under a heavy square shawl. “Come,” she said in the local language. “Let me help.”