Turn 3

Narcissa had her own house, of more moderate size than Kaveri really expected though still luxurious and large enough comfortably for her and Evander, the bodyguards, and several servants.

Madoc and Tyrel were in a formal-looking room not far from the back door, one with mosaic floors and painted walls and a rectangle of couches, which were basically benches with one raised and scrolled end, each with its own small table near the raised end. The mosaic was of vines and grapes and bees and beehives, and the walls were painted with naturalistic pastureland and trees and plants. The plush cushions on the couches were all brocaded soft greens in leafy designs, and all the furniture was inlaid with woods of varying colours, highlighting the elaborately-carved designs of leaves and plants and trees.

Madoc was lying on his side on one of the couches, at an angle that didn’t put any pressure on the arrow. So still, with his eyes closed and his breathing slow and shallow—Kaveri suspected deep breaths made the arrow shift—that someone who didn’t know better might well think he was near death instead of acknowledging and accepting the pain.

“Bleeding again?” Kaveri asked Tyrel softly. He was as close as he could get, perched on the nearest end of the next bench; even knowing that this was only going to last a limited time, watching someone you loved hurting was always hard.

Tyrel sighed. “A bit more when we moved. Stopped again now. Moonrise is going to take a long time. Not tackling the steps to the roof until Sanur’s about to rise, since it’ll probably start again.”

Their blood being thinner, flowing readily and clotting less solidly, definitely had drawbacks in the case of a serious injury.

Hospital equipment had neatly severed the arrow through Mirren’s hand, which made it relatively easy to remove; with her hand bandaged, she was more or less functional. She sat by Madoc’s feet on the couch, one hand on him. Sharing a moon with her, Madoc would feel the resonance even without looking.

Kaveri sat next to Tyrel. Nothing about this room suggested that it was meant for actually sitting up rather than lounging on the couches.

There’s a definite theme here to the decor, though.

The tall woman in saffron, who apparently was the Oracle or chief priest of a god called Aithre, had taken charge at the hospital. She’d been waiting at the side door for Hermia with two stretchers and their bearers, and had protected Narcissa and her company from questions about anything save immediate injury. At Narcissa’s insistence, her two injured guards were whisked away to be treated by a pair of physicians, then she demanded that someone sever the arrow through Mirren’s hand. Though there were objections about Kaveri bandaging it herself, Narcissa stood firm and the saffron-clad Oracle—who, Kaveri thought, saw more than she was saying—supported her: they were strangers in Enodia and entitled to refuse care. Her own wound Narcissa had seen to in private with only Evander’s help, to the horror of the hospital staff, who were falling all over themselves in contrition for locking her outside.

Apparently, having personally escorted Madoc and Tyrel to the house, Hermia had sent a maid to the hospital with a clean dress and mantle that weren’t torn and blood-stained. The maid, in a white dress with green borders and a matching mantle that contrasted with her very dark skin, had wanted to help her mistress clean up and change. Narcissa had gently refused her assistance and sent her off to check on the injured guards. Kaveri had last seen her waiting for news of their status, and her body language suggested that it was more personal than concern for a co-worker.

All in all, Narcissa looked quite composed and neat for someone who had almost died, if less elegant than she had on the steps of the hospital.

Narcissa had found it necessary to order Hermia out of the room, over her guard’s objections; Evander closed the door behind her.

“It’s her job to be cautious,” Narcissa said, seating herself on a couch gracefully despite her own injury. “However, if you meant me any direct harm, you could have allowed the bear and eagle and archer to complete their task. If you mean any less direct harm, Hermia’s presence would be no protection. And I think this conversation is best kept private.” Evander, silently, joined her.

“Privacy is just as well,” Kaveri agreed. “What colour is your blood turning?”

“Violet.”

Not entirely a surprise, given the decor of this room. “Then you’re now Lirit’s child, in a very literal sense. Like me.”

“We’re truly and extremely sorry,” Tyrel said apologetically. “We don’t typically make a mess of things like this.”

“The alternative seems to be that the two lives that matter most to me would have been claimed by enemies, who would have then used that to try to convince Enodia that public hospitals are something Neaira opposes rather than something Enodia needs, and to stir up bad feelings of other sorts that would probably lead to innocent people being harmed. Under the circumstances, I’m willing to accept there being a price involved.”

Oh, I like her.

“We don’t know the full extent of what that price is,” Evander pointed out.

“That’s easy enough to explain,” Tyrel said. “We don’t age, we don’t get ill, and we heal from anything if we’re in the moonlight. When Lirit is full, you won’t need to sleep or eat. When she’s dark, you’ll be exhausted and hungry. Most of the time will be somewhere between, usually with more energy and less need for sleep or food than humans have. You’ll have another form available that you can change to or from as long as you’re in Lirit’s light, and that will be easier when she’s brighter. We won’t know what form until tonight. I’m a fox, Kaveri’s a raccoon, Madoc’s a bobcat and Mirren’s a wildcat. Because of the gift of an earth-lord, anything that kills you that’s born of earth, which means metal or stone or wood or animals that live on and from the earth, will mean that you stop existing here but you go to Lirit until she’s full, and then she’ll return you safely. Anything created of moonlight, including other children of the moons, does the same—the moons won’t allow their own substance to kill us permanently.”

“The moons created our kind with different goals,” Kaveri said. “Talir wants us to use our gifts to help others when we can. Lirit wants the natural world respected and guarded. Sanur’s not talkative, and we don’t know about Meyar or Sahen, as far as we know they still haven’t decided what they feel about our particular bloodline. A long time ago, one woman ran away from the cult that the moon’s children had formed, because she couldn’t bear what they do and she was one against many. The amarog who fought the bear is her son. Our blood comes from him.”

“So that’s what an amarog looks like,” Narcissa said. “I’ve only seen references in books, and they’re generally portrayed as much more ferocious.”

“I wouldn’t want that one angry at me,” Evander muttered.

“There’s that. And the woman who ran?”

“We don’t know what happened,” Tyrel said. “Kieran hopes to find her someday, or at least what became of her, but we haven’t yet.”

“Where are you from?”

“Very, very far from here. We have no home. We don’t stay anywhere for long.”

“Yes, not aging would become obvious eventually. Especially looking very young to begin with. I assume, then, you’re older than you look.”

“Somewhat,” Mirren said. “Not by centuries or anything. Except Kieran, he’s older than any human could ever be. But we plan to be around for a very long time to come.”

Narcissa herself, Kaveri estimated, was in her early thirties: certainly not a girl, though no pale threads disturbed the blackness of her braided and coiled hair. Fine lines showed at the outer corners of her eyes, but they were visible only at close range. That long formal wrapped mantle partially masked the shape beneath, but Kaveri didn’t think she was the kind of highborn who was out of shape and weak from letting others do everything for them.

Evander looked, at least superficially, a little younger, but that might be misleading. He was meticulously clean-shaven, or maybe some other method that reduced even the shadow that usually lingered, and his skin looked soft and un-roughened by exposure; his black hair was much longer than the local male fashion of around shoulder-length, and while it had been in a smooth tail at the back of his neck earlier, several tendrils had escaped to frame his face. Interestingly, he not only had gold rings in his ear-lobes, which she’d seen well-off men wear around here, but small ones higher up on the curve of his ear, which she’d seen only wealthy women wear. The muscle she could see was lean and flat.

“I need to stay here for a while at least,” Narcissa said. “The hospitals are our idea and our project, Evander’s and mine. If I vanish now, that could be endangered. After that…” She paused. “By choice,” she said, more softly, “I’m an herbalist and a healer. I took a vow long ago that I would never marry, and that I would devote my life instead to Enodia’s people in place of children of my body. And I knew long ago that I could never live long enough to learn everything about herbalism and healing that I want to know, or do the research that might save lives someday. I think that might, in the end, not be such an impossible trade.”

Kaveri felt a great deal of her own tension ease. If Narcissa had something still to live for, that was going to greatly reduce the guilt behind disrupting her life in the name of saving it, and vastly increase the chances of Narcissa choosing to survive the first few precarious years.

“There’s a whole huge world out there,” Kaveri said. “Filled with more kinds of plants than anyone could ever count, and every local culture uses what’s available to them and comes up with different techniques and tricks.”

“My family would be functioning without me if I were dead, without time for me to wrap up several things,” Narcissa said. “And to make certain that the hospitals will continue even in my absence. I’m unsure how readily Neaira will free me from my oath to her, but I’m sure we can find a solution. But there’s one serious problem.”

“Which is?” Mirren prompted.

“Evander and I grew up together. We’ve been closer to each other than anyone else all our lives.” She reached sideways, clearly without thought, to lay her manicured hand over Evander’s briefly.

“Like Madoc and I,” Tyrel said. “If we hadn’t had the choice taken away from us before we even knew what was happening, I would’ve chosen to change and stay with Madoc, rather than the two of us being separated.” He threw his brother a look that was a mixture of affection and worry. “And Kaveri did choose to stay with us. That’s a very easy problem to fix. All it takes is a sharp knife. Your blood will do it. Maybe not yet, but after tonight, definitely.”

“I’m not entirely certain I want that,” Evander said, very quietly. “Not because I don’t want to be with Cissa, but for… personal reasons.” His gaze darted to Narcissa, and clearly she could read it for what it was.

“Can we talk later?” she asked gently. “Just the two of us?”

He nodded silently.

“There’s no hurry,” Mirren said. “Now, in a fortnight, in a year, whenever, it’s all the same. But you’ll stay essentially the age that you were at.”

“Not entirely,” Madoc said, though he had to pause for a shallow breath every few syllables. “Taken a really close look at ‘Rel lately? I think Talir’s taking pity. Or got tired of the grousing about being taken for a teenager.”

Actually, Madoc had a point: had Kaveri just met Tyrel, she’d probably have guessed him to be in his mid-twenties. Not a drastic change, and not in any specific aspect she could readily identify, but there was a very subtle suggestion of aging there that the rest of them lacked.

“Apparently there are some exceptions,” Kaveri said dryly. “But we have no idea how that works or what the moons base it on or whether it’s just Talir. Assume you’ll stay pretty much as you are.”

Narcissa nodded. “So. For the time being… I hope you aren’t going to abandon me to learn by myself?”

“No,” Kaveri and Tyrel said, and Madoc grunted something that sounded negative, and Mirren shook her head.

“We’re a family,” Kaveri said. “What we ultimately have is each other. So we look out for each other. We won’t leave here without you. And we aren’t going to force you to leave before you’re ready.”

Tyrel frowned. “I’d also very much like to know what’s behind this assassination attempt and what they are doing here.”

“So would I,” Narcissa said. “It sounds like I now have a better chance of surviving a further attempt on my life?”

“They probably don’t know you’ve changed,” Tyrel said. “Or about us, even. So yes.”

“Good. But better if they continue to not know. Two of my four personal guards are not going to be able to return to work in the immediate future. Because of my vows and special status, my entire household is supposed to be female… except Evander, he’s special too.” That last sounded like an afterthought. “Women who are able to fight are in short demand, and women able to fight that I would be inclined to trust my safety to are even more so. Under the circumstances, I think no one would be surprised if I wanted at least two guards specifically to watch over Evander when he isn’t near me.” Evander gave her a look that was all wordless protest, but she ignored it. “I assume I can trust you not to harass or pursue the women of my household?”

“Absolutely,” Tyrel said. “We have nothing to prove and better priorities than chasing women who aren’t interested. When we got here, we claimed that Kaveri and I are married and that Mirren and Madoc are. We usually do some variation of it, it’s simpler. We can continue that.”

Narcissa considered that. “Yes, I believe that will work well enough. Some degree of irregularity is understandable, and it’s preferable to the perception of two unattached men living among a group of women. Welcome to my household.”

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