(chapter continued from previous post)
Within was, quite simply, a six-by-twelve-foot portable room. At the far end was a raised bed with curtains that could be drawn across it; it even had a glazed bay window looking out the back. Below that, sliding doors that were partly stained glass concealed a cubbyhole meant for children to sleep in, just as luxuriously comfortable as the upper bed. The rest of the space was a masterwork of cramming a huge amount into very little space without wasting an inch. The padded benches for seating all had storage beneath them; a number of tables of varying size and height were built to fold up flat into the walls into alcoves, out of the way. The walls slanted outwards slightly, so the small cupboards at the top were less likely to be a problem, though they were positioned high enough and were shallow enough to leave a comfortable amount of headroom. Through the centre ran clear floor, covered with a soft thick rug, just wide enough to walk along. Each side had a substantial glazed window with curtains to draw across, as did the door, which made the interior brighter during the day than a wagon really had any business being.
It should have felt crowded and cluttered. Instead, by some miracle of brilliant design, it was compact and cozy.
Narcissa, now in a plain violet dress instead of her black dress and veil, smiled. She was lying on the bed with a book open in front of her, not much surprise, and a mug on the sill of the bay window next to her. “Kettle’s hot for tea,” she said, in an Enodian-heavy version of the mingled argot they used when they were alone or wanted not to be understood, “and I made sandwiches, and there’s fruit in the basket. How was the crowd?”
“Not bad,” Lysandra said. “Reasonably responsive, and we got a few tips in the last show. We’ve played in worse places.” She checked the teapot that waited on the work-table that folded down above the bench nearest the tiny iron stove. Wrapping a quilted square of linen around the handle of the kettle to protect her hand, she poured steaming water into the pot, so Narcissa must have already made sure it was ready. While it steeped, she took mugs from their hooks and set them up in neat rows.
“Definitely,” Tyrel said, moving the basket of fruit to a smaller down-folding table where it would be easier for everyone to reach, and retrieving the heaping platter of sandwiches from the high shelf over the stove.
There was room for everyone to sit down with the late-night snack—with Lysandra on the edge of the bed beside Narcissa, and the quartet who were in human form on the padded benches, and Kieran stretched in the middle of the floor. Kaveri wouldn’t have wanted to share the space with anyone she was on less intimate terms with, but it was only her family here.
Outside, beyond the closed door, the rest of the travelling show was settling in for the night, performers and hands, the seller of tin-plated and brass glass-gemmed trinkets, the seller of simple candy in elaborate packaging, the puppeteer who amused people between the stage shows. Beyond that, the market itself was growing quieter, as much as it ever could with a considerable number of large restless animals.
Inside, in a small warm bright world of their own, they could discard the masks they needed in order to function with humans almost constantly around.
Narcissa told them about her own evening. A master at reading body language and subtle clues after a lifetime spent in a royal court and interacting with a marginalized part of the population, she found an opening and then did her best to convince them that she really did have magical powers, using everything she heard, everything she could lure them into giving away, and everything she could observe and deduce. Kaveri might have been more worried had she less faith in Narcissa’s pragmatic approach to advice. Besides, at every opportunity Narcissa slanted the discussion towards questions of health. Whether someone left with a jar of ointment or a bottle of coloured liquid, a box of pills or a bag of single-dose paper packets of powder, they also left with a set of conditions: make sure to take it exactly at sunset, make sure to mix it with freshly-collected boiled spring water, make sure to use only the spoon provided which was carved from a sacred oak and etched with magical symbols. Of course, the “magic” lay in Narcissa’s skills in diagnosis and pharmacology, but belief was powerful stuff… and the “magic” worked.
They eventually wound down. Lysandra and Narcissa had the bed, and Mirren and Madoc settled themselves underneath. The benches along one side worked as a bed for someone not overly tall or broad who didn’t move in their sleep, which meant Tyrel typically took it, and Kaveri unrolled an extra rug onto the floor just below him. Kieran, in good weather, preferred to sleep outside, and in bad weather usually joined the donkeys and mule.
Given the moon phases, Kaveri woke well before dawn, but she stayed where she was. The almost inaudible whisper of paper told her that Narcissa had woken as well, and was reading by moonlight through the bay window without waking Lysandra, who needed more sleep right now. Talir was only a crescent, and Tyrel still slept soundly just above Kaveri, but she could hear soft sounds from Madoc and Mirren that told her they were also awake.
Her family. Her tribe. It was growing, and seven travelling was much more complicated than when it had been just her and Tyrel and Madoc with Kieran helping them learn what they were, but not one of them would she willingly lose now. So far they’d been fortunate: despite the drastic differences in backgrounds and skills and personalities, leading to friction at moments, they had no true incompatibilities to deal with, no combinations that simply could not get along with each other.
She hoped they wouldn’t find themselves with anyone new in the family anytime soon, but the unexpected happened, and when it did, they were responsible for the consequences. Probably the best she could hope for was that no one joined them that was discord in the harmony. Perhaps a moon-sibling for Lysandra…
And, as the sky began to pale, she heard the sounds of the fair beginning to wake: the lowing of cattle, the bleating of goats and sheep, the braying of donkeys, the rumble of wagons, the rising buzz of voices.
She wriggled towards the bed without getting up, and reached into the cubby underneath, not really caring who she touched or where. “Water?” she suggested, in a whisper.
“I’ll come,” Mirren whispered back.
“Both,” Madoc said. “Donkeys too.”
Already dressed, they slipped away as quietly as they could, gathering up the kettle and two pails for indoors. They stepped carefully over Kieran right outside the door—his sleepy yawn showed teeth that made other people deeply nervous—and collected the pails for the donkeys and mule.
Time to get on with the new day.