The afternoon sun was fierce enough to keep the moonblood group on the shaded side of the street. Even humans who lived here treated the sun with respect: in this climate, and especially with Midsummer approaching, it wasn’t unusual for the locals to take some time in the middle of the day to stay cool. Humans, however, didn’t sunburn the way the moons’ own children did.
Kaveri and Mirren, by virtue of local women’s fashions, were better-covered. Tyrel knew Kaveri tolerated without too much irritation the plain ankle-length dress, short-sleeved, a straight fall gathered by a braided belt; unfortunately, unlike Mirren, she was less comfortable with the yards of fine colourful fabric that then had to be wrapped over the dress to go outdoors. Tyrel could certainly see why she disliked the hampering draperies, but it did give both women the option of drawing one fold up over their braided and coiled hair to keep the sun off, and tucking their bare arms inside.
The accepted local male fashion exposed more—in fact, more than Tyrel would have preferred, to both sun and eyes. The short-sleeved tunic always ended just above the knees, with only a loincloth under it and nothing between there and his sandals. A lightweight calf-length cloak was usually left flipped back over the shoulders except at need; a hood would have been useful, but would be unremarkable only in whatever passed for winter here or on a rainy day. It was, Tyrel had to admit, reasonably cool, but he felt under-dressed. Dresses and tunics typically were in plain solid colours with, perhaps, contrasting borders; mantles and cloaks were usually more ornate, woven in multicoloured patterns, at least basic geometric ones even for those who couldn’t afford more elaborate designs and more expensive colours.
More than two decades of wandering had driven home the point that if they wanted to not draw attention, they needed to dress the part.
On the other hand, this did allow for some unobtrusive hiding places for the sorts of small personal weapons they kept on hand.
Kieran paced along sedately on four feet, the loop at the other end of his leash around Mirren’s wrist. Occasional locals, women especially, were accompanied by large sleek-pelted muscular dogs on leashes, the dogs well-behaved but nonetheless keenly alert, so he excited only mild attention.
Not that they were going to pass for locals, no matter what they did. The people of this part of the world were overwhelmingly dark-haired with fairly dark olive-toned skin, of middling height. Among them, Mirren’s honey-blonde hair, Kaveri’s tawny-and-walnut stripes, and Madoc’s darker brown-blonde with subtler stripes were as distinctive as the pale skin all four shared. Mirren was a little taller than most local women, but not strikingly so; Kaveri and Madoc were comfortably in the average range, which as usual put Tyrel on the low end of normal. And while they’d picked up the local language, accents were going to betray them, as always. There were many other foreigners, though, and over the past few days, they’d encountered only courtesy, if not outright welcome.
“This is a really nice country,” Mirren said. “If we weren’t on the way somewhere, it would be tempting to stay here for a while. The statues in the park are amazing. How can anyone carve and paint stone into looking so real? And those fountains, it’s hard to believe human hands could build anything so complex and perfect. Can you imagine the one with those odd fishy-dolphin-things under the light of all the moons? It would be even more beautiful than the rainbows the sunlight makes.” Every word bubbled with Mirren’s usual enthusiasm fed by Sanur being barely past full; it showed in how she and Madoc both moved, too. Personally, with Talir just as recently past dark, Tyrel would have been happy staying indoors and relaxing, but he knew it was hard to stay still so close to a full moon, and the stroll in the park had been leisurely.
“As cities go, it’s nice enough,” Kaveri conceded. “At least the parks are green space of sorts for the people who live here, even if it’s all tamed and measured and controlled. It’s still too many people all crowded together on top of each other, though. Maybe out in the countryside, where there’s still some wild land that’s no use for farming…”
Tyrel glanced over his shoulder to meet Madoc’s eyes and share a grin. They’d heard any number of places evaluated in similar terms. They had yet to visit anywhere that satisfied both, and Tyrel doubted that it was possible.
Tyrel had no idea what he personally preferred, except that he liked change and variety. Madoc’s reply to any question on the subject was invariably a shrug and some version of, “I’m fine anywhere.”
“So maybe we’ll come back,” Tyrel said. “Given how long it generally takes us to get anywhere, with winter stops and getting distracted, if we’re going to get back to the Valley of Umako while there’s any chance of Dayo still being alive, this is probably not a good time for a long stay. But it could be an interesting place to live for a while.”
“It’s very peaceful,” Madoc said. “Very clean, too.” The buildings around them ranged from faced stone through cheaper brick to inexpensive wood, but anything less than polished marble was coated thickly in whitewash on the exterior, rendering everything blindingly bright in the midday sunlight. Windows were few and small and set high on the walls, but some buildings had murals or pictures painted on them—some of those were businesses, at least on the ground floor, advertising services. With underground sewers, few animals, and people cleaning up even after those, the only thing they had to watch underfoot was the worn cobbling. “Good trade and diplomatic relations in the area, a royal family that’s popular and respected… if I had to pick a city to spend a few years in, somewhere I didn’t want to fight a lot, then somewhere in Enodia might be a good choice. Set up shop doing, hm. Leather-work, maybe. Or do something totally new and go just outside the city and apprentice myself to a beekeeper or something.”
“A beekeeper?” Tyrel laughed. “Where’d that come from?”
“Hey, they’re fascinating little buggers, really, and Enodia’s famous for its honey. Why not? Other than the current quest, do you know something I don’t, about not having time to check out something just because it’s different?”
“If you want to go learn about bees, go for it. I just wasn’t expecting that.”
Kieran made a low wuffling sound of amusement, ears forward and jaws parted in a canid grin.
Of course, he had been encouraging them all along to diversify more, with variable success…
“Maybe, for something very different, I should try life as a priest?” Kaveri said mischievously, gesturing to the looming bulk of the Great Temple. “Enodia has more gods than anywhere we’ve ever been, surely I could find one willing to take me for a while. The Great Temple is supposed to honour all the gods. Since we’re here, maybe we should stop and make sure our mothers are being granted their due respect?”
That idea was greeted with unanimous agreement.
“Besides,” Mirren added, “I’ve heard that even the forecourt is supposed to be beautiful, and that it gets better as you go farther in. Even more so than in Orthia, and that’s the capital city.”
An immense solid wall surrounded the precincts of the Great Temple. The gates, huge things of wooden beams bound with metal, stood open, admitting all and sundry to the forecourt.
The central part of the vast open space was paved with seamlessly-fitted marble. It took Tyrel a moment to make sense of the design: it was a sort of map of Enodia, with inlaid stylized buildings marking towns, one of them circled in gold which was presumably Orthia, and waterways and major roads, and the nearer edges of Enodia’s neighbours.
Around the outside, under an overhanging roof that offered some shade, the floor was made up instead of mosaics showing the people of Enodia going about their lives, working and playing. A number of people with baskets or trays or small carts sold things that could be used as offerings: a bewildering array of flowers in many shapes and hues, ears of grain, small cakes, metal discs, things less readily identified.
Directly across the forecourt, a similar set of doors opened onto another area.
The two courts between them couldn’t have held the entire city, but they could have made a valiant attempt at doing so, Tyrel figured.
The inner court was, at least relatively, smaller. The floor was again smooth marble, this time light with a dark spiralled labyrinth design. Around the walls, under a similar overhang, Tyrel saw statue after statue, each on a low pedestal that extended into a stone offering-table.
Directly ahead, most of the distance across the court, loomed a block of stone three times human height, rough and uneven. Carved from it, as though stepping out of it, was a curvy woman in her prime twice the height of a human, with a crown of living green vines; the two-thirds of her that had emerged from the block was painted vividly lifelike with skin of a deep reddish-brown and muddy-black hair, with the rest of the block left natural. That could only be the local earthborn. It was the only statue in sight that was open to the sky.
“Wow,” Mirren murmured. “I know a lot of gods have a presence in Enodia, but I wasn’t expecting this many.”
“I hope they don’t bother to notice us,” Kaveri muttered. “The others may generally respect our mothers, but they aren’t invariably well-disposed towards us.”
“Let’s see if we can stay on their good side,” Tyrel said. “A few small offerings can go a long way. Suppose we…”
Kieran wuffed softly to get Tyrel’s attention; he had his head raised, ears perking forward, facing towards the forecourt.
“There’s a lot of people coming,” Tyrel relayed, still not sure exactly how he and Kieran communicated between forms but grateful for it. Madoc and Mirren were discovering that increasingly they could do much the same.
Nothing in Kieran’s body language suggested that he expected trouble, though.
In moments, the jangling of instruments and voices singing became audible even to human ears.
Tyrel estimated that the procession must include at least fifty people, maybe more, all dressed in their best. The centre of attention was a woman wrapped thoroughly in a white mantle, not a trace of colour even in embroidery on it, and she had her arms tucked within it; a white veil covered her face and her hair, which was loose under it—something Tyrel hadn’t seen in Enodia before. She was in a sedan chair born by two men, and both men and women circled around her.
A man in a tunic of blood red embroidered with amber ears of grain and white hares circled the courtyard, pausing to speak to everyone present without exception and pressing something into their hands.
“Please,” he said, giving a small coin to each of the moonblood group. “Say a prayer, if you would, for my bride and I.”
“We’d be happy to,” Mirren said gravely. “How could we not wish the best of fortune to you both?”
He smiled. “I admit, I feel I already have the best fortune of all in her, but why tempt ill luck?” He went on to the next bystander.
The two men carrying the chair set it down in front of the statue of the earthborn. An older man offered his hand to the bride to help her rise, and once she was clear of the chair, it was whisked away. All around swirled the rest of the procession. Only a handful actually had instruments: a small drum, two tambourines, one had a wooden pipe, and one had a rattle in each hand, but over half the people present were singing—some more successfully on key than others.
The bride, accompanied by an older woman and a younger one, faced the statue of the earthborn.
“I come here this final time as an unwed maiden,” she said, her voice trembling slightly, though with excitement or apprehension Tyrel couldn’t decide. “I will leave here the wife of a good and true man. I implore your blessings on our future together. Grant us health and prosperity, harmony and children, so that we can contribute well to Enodia and show you due honour always. This is my prayer, Great Mother.”
The two women with her helped her to unpin her veil and remove it, and to unwrap the white mantle. Her groom, meanwhile, knelt on the hard stone floor, far enough back to allow some space between him and the statue. He was, Tyrel noted, right at the mouth of the labyrinth inlaid in the floor.
“I heard about this,” Mirren whispered. “Most women only dance in public once in their lives, at their wedding, but they learn how all their lives. It’s supposed to gain the Great Mother’s blessing if they do it well. The dancing that women do here is supposed to be unique.”
Beneath the white mantle, the bride was wearing an outfit Tyrel certainly wasn’t expecting. The voluminous long skirts sat low on her hips, and the top fit closely and exposed her midriff and her cleavage along with her mostly-bare arms. Copper serpents circled her upper arms, a collection of thin metal bangles her wrists, and a wide triangular necklace of beads covered her upper chest; heavy beaded earrings swung from both ear-lobes. The fabric of both skirt and top was dyed the same kind of vibrant scarlet as her husband-to-be’s tunic, and over the skirt was a yellow mesh scarf tied as a belt, jingling with small pierced coins. All that scarlet must have cost one family or the other a small fortune, but he’d given up being surprised at the lengths people would go to for public display at births, weddings, and funerals.
The music changed, became a more regular rhythm, and the singing faded out rapidly.
Barefoot, she danced.
Tyrel had never seen anyone move like that before. She seemed able to move any single part of her body independently while keeping the rest still, and yet, every motion was fluid and intensely sensual. There was footwork, but not a great deal and not complex, and the gestures of her arms and hands and the tossing of her long unbound hair seemed intended mainly to emphasize what she was doing with her torso and her hips—which was, more often than not, undulating and sinuous, with occasional sharper punctuation. She stayed mostly directly in front of her husband-to-be, occasionally circling around him without ever touching.
Her husband-to-be watched without moving, spellbound.
Well he might be, Tyrel reflected, with a bride who could move like that.
The musicians, eventually, began to slow the pace, and the bride’s dance wound down. She ended in front of her groom, and held down both hands to help him to his feet. She was out of breath, her chest heaving, and he visibly had trouble not looking, which she seemed to find more amusing than offensive. Together, they made their way to stand before the statue again. Both bowed to it deeply, hands linked.
Then the entire party, each pausing to bow to the statue, went on past it into the Great Temple proper.
“Let’s go inside another day,” Kaveri said. “I’d hate to interrupt. I’m not sure which god we should be praying to on their behalf.”
Kieran took a few steps out into the middle of the court, and once he knew they were following, he led them to the statue of the earthborn. In front of it, he planted one forepaw and tucked the other back, bowing low so his chest and throat nearly touched the stone.
Tyrel shrugged. “That makes sense.” In front of the statue was a stone hollow with a few coins and a scattering of ears of grain and other things in it; he tossed the coin into it. “They’re your people, Earth-lady, and you know them and what they need better than we do, but please accept our good wishes for the futures of the couple getting married here today.” The other three added their coins as well.
“That was an interesting little scene,” Madoc said, as they turned away, and eyed Mirren and Kaveri speculatively. “I wonder how long it would take you two to learn to dance like that.”
“Maybe if we decide to come back here for a while,” Mirren chuckled, tucking a hand around his arm.
“It would certainly be a way to earn a few coins once we leave this part of the world,” Kaveri reflected. “As long as we have our warriors present to protect us from anyone getting the wrong idea. For the moment, I believe I’d like a bath before we eat. The baths are a part of this place I very much like. Shall we?”