“Discussion of work over dinner,” Narcissa said, seating herself with her usual elegant grace, “is normally strictly forbidden. However, since I think it’s quite possible you have questions that Evander or I couldn’t answer at the time, I’m willing to suspend that rule for the moment.”
That chair, in the corner of Narcissa’s private sitting room on the second floor, was as beautifully-made as the rest of the things Narcissa surrounded herself with, and yet clearly well-used, the arms worn to a high polish and the leaf-brocaded green cushions uneven in shape and shiny in spots. The matching footstool showed similar wear. On a low table at her side was a basket of scrolls, and a shelf just above provided a place for lighting to read by.
Lighting she no longer needed: her nights would now be clearly visible, tinted with violet.
Like they really didn’t need as much food as the two teenaged maids had delivered, but it wasn’t the first time they’d eaten anyway, in the interests of blending in.
A second chair and footstool, in multiple shades of yellow and amber, golden and ochre, with a sort of scaled brocade pattern, was equally clearly Evander’s own, positioned near Narcissa’s at an angle and under another ledge for a light, with a second table and basket of scrolls.
The other furnishings in the room were less personalized, but comfortable nonetheless: graceful hourglass chairs, with shaped and carved seats and backrests and well-stuffed cushions. Small ornate tables dotted the room, and a single larger table held dinner in a collection of painted pottery dishes. Each diner had a smallish plate with a sturdy rim around the edge, and one simply refilled it at will.
“I’m more curious about what rules we’re breaking right now,” Mirren said. “Everyone working for you here is polite and all, but I’ve caught a few involuntary winces. Most have been over Tyrel and Madoc, I think, and the most recent ones were over them being in this room.”
“My vow not to marry puts me in a special category,” Narcissa said. “I’m not truly a priest, but I’m not really a part of the normal order. In a sense, I’m considered to have no sex. The tradition of having an entirely female household is an old one with complex reasons, and I’ve been quite comfortable with it, but my safety and that of my household take precedence. In a more conventional household, this room would be for the woman of the house to spend her day in, along with small children and any girls and women in the household, and to entertain her close female friends. The one downstairs would be for the man of the house to conduct business and entertain male friends and business acquaintances.” She smiled. “I have used it as such, and expect to do so again, since my role includes aspects that are more traditionally performed by a man. But I’ve always liked having the option of a more intimate space as well.”
Coming from the one woman in the room who was wearing a proper long dress, though her mantle had been removed downstairs at the door, that was interesting.
Kaveri considered asking why she and Evander hadn’t simply divided it between them in a conventional way, since they clearly were accustomed to working as a team, but discarded the idea. There could be any number of reasons, from Narcissa’s higher status, through different sets of skills, to preferences and personality.
“Is giving a speech in the morning actually going to help?” Tyrel asked, sceptically. With a long list of people demanding to see Narcissa, Evander had told them to come to the front of the hospital the next morning so she could address them all at once.
“I doubt it,” Evander said with a sigh. “You heard them. They aren’t listening to anything but rumour. They’re paying no attention to Neaira’s high priest insisting that it’s not Neaira’s bear, or to the Oracle insisting that this was not what it looked like.”
“I have to try,” Narcissa said. “A crowd is not a rational beast, but a crowd can be emotional, and it can be manipulated. I intend to point out that Neaira and Oreios are unlikely to work together and even less likely to hire an archer or arrange an attack that could put Neaira’s own high priest in Phleion at risk, and that their respective divine messengers could be expected to be harder to kill or thwart. I could spend the next several days doing nothing save repeating myself over and over to concerned representatives and delegations with no better chance of success. Since several have heard rumours about one of my rescuers being badly injured, I’ll give them the story you suggested, that one of you died protecting me and the rest of you, to honour his memory, are continuing to do so. No one questions the beliefs of foreigners.”
“It’s dangerous,” Evander said.
“If I’m hurt, I only need to survive until Lirit rises,” Narcissa said, looking to Kaveri for confirmation, and she nodded. “It might be safer if you were not right beside me, however. I’m less concerned about my life than I am about a second incident. I will not be used as a means of frightening our people, or of denying them a service that they need badly, or of promoting intolerance and prejudice.” While there was no fear in her tone, there was also no equivocation.
“Unless they have another bear and another eagle,” Tyrel said, “they can’t repeat that trick again. Because the ones from yesterday are quite dead.”
“How does this encourage intolerance?” Mirren asked, puzzled.
Evander winced, barely enough for Kaveri to spot it at all.
Narcissa’s forehead furrowed. “How to explain a great deal of social history and theology briefly. The white-headed eagle is the bird of Oreios. He oversees social obligation, propriety, and some aspects of family, including marriage. Some of it has great value, but some of it is impractical and causes unnecessary suffering. His teachings idealize lifelong monogamy between a man and a woman only and rigidly define roles for men and women, and they advocate merciless consequences for anything else.”
“Oh. One of that sort,” Tyrel muttered.
“Most of Enodia accepted some time ago that a social system without exceptions and variations is an impossibility and perhaps undesirable. There have always been and will always be people who cannot conform, no matter how you define roles and no matter how you try to pretend otherwise or punish them, and those people can have a great deal to offer—some of our most brilliant artists, engineers, philosophers, among others. Similarly, we welcome foreigners, because they have so often enriched Enodia with new ideas and new skills. The majority of Enodia has come to believe that, in effect, one’s private life, as long as everyone involved can and does consent, should remain private, and has no bearing on one’s public life. The irrationality of being more accepting of foreign custom than of the natures of our own people has been pointed out. Several laws regarding illegal acts have been removed. Some of Oreios’ most devout would like them restored, and for one’s private life to be once again public property, as though who one loves or how one dresses has any bearing on one’s ability to do a job or keep the terms of a contract. Or whether one deserves courtesy and equality. Oreios’ teachings are, in some respects, in direct conflict with those of several other, equally prominent gods.”
Narcissa, Kaveri thought privately in both respect and amusement, was so accustomed to public speaking that it showed in her speech even within a small group. When giving explanations, at least. She couldn’t really complain: at least Narcissa was covering a great deal of information fairly concisely.
“That’s what the eagle represents,” Mirren said. “And how it connects to intolerance. But why would anyone think it attacking you has significance? Because you won’t marry? I’m sorry if I’m being rude, I’m trying to understand this suituation.”
“My personal vow has a great deal of precedent and even Oreios’ most devout haven’t challenged it. That I have very strong feelings on the subject is common knowledge. We recently had a situation in Orthia with a physician who made a few ‘mistakes’ too many and was investigated. Every one of those so-called mistakes involved someone who in one way or another violates the values of Oreios. There were some unpleasant incidents around the trial, including violence against a few unconventional individuals and a vocal minority claiming the physician had been guided by Oreios for the good of Enodia. The physician can no longer practice and is being watched in his new menial job as he labours against the very large fine levied against him: repaying the fees of surviving patients and those charged to families of those who died, and paying off any additional expenses they incurred including funeral costs and legal fees. Evander and I were deeply involved. Though the majority considered the verdict fair, we made some outspoken enemies.”
“Neither the first nor the last,” Evander muttered. “But we thought they were all human. Cissa’s feelings for that particular issue are mainly my fault, since it affects me directly.”
Narcissa laid a hand over his. It could have just looked like affection, something they’d already witnessed repeatedly between this pair, but Kaveri saw her fingers flex as she gave his hand a squeeze.
“How?” Kaveri asked. “Trust me, we’ve encountered any number of things while we’ve been travelling, we’re not easily shocked. We’re more or less on our way to visit someone we really like who was born with a female body, but even his earthborn recognizes him as having a male soul. And who is considered an appropriate sexual partner or not and what are seen as natural acts and what gender even means seem to vary everywhere.” Given the details of this god’s teachings Narcissa had specifically mentioned, and given that sex and gender seemed to be a subject that even otherwise fairly sensible civilized cultures frequently had irrational ideas about, she had a feeling the issue lay in that direction.
Evander relaxed somewhat, though he did reverse his hand in Narcissa’s to hold it. “I was born male. I’m quite certain I should not have been.”
Well, that accounted neatly for a number of small mysteries.
“To what degree is this common knowledge?” Tyrel asked.
“If you are born in a royal family,” Narcissa sighed, “it is all but impossible to grow up without being watched at all times by scores, if not hundreds, of people. Nannies and tutors, palace servants, court functionaries, the aristocracy collectively, your own extended family which includes kin by marriage and their kin, and it goes on. When we were very small, we considered ourselves sisters. As we grew older, it became clear to everyone that my cousin is different.”
“Not everything is public knowledge,” Evander said. “People speculate. They always do, even if there’s nothing to base it on. Most, I think, simply assume that I prefer men in my bed. While our family is some protection, there is a very delicate balance. I have reasons for not trying to pretend to fit in. I also have reasons for not going farther. Enough is believed or assumed or known that no one questions the propriety of my presence in Narcissa’s household.”
“Anyone employed by this household,” Narcissa said, “is both accepting and discreet, else they would no longer be here.”
“Understood,” Madoc said. “Most people know enough to be certain you’re a viable target for a god with extremely narrow ideas, without knowing precisely in what way. Have a bear kill Narcissa and it removes the founder of the hospitals and creates a powerful reason to inhibit anyone from carrying on or allowing anyone to carry on in her memory. Have an eagle kill Evander and it stirs up fear of retribution in those outside one god’s notions of decency, and justifies prejudice and violence against them. Can’t help but notice that unless I missed it, his priest hasn’t been trying to deny involvement, and oh, how we just love gods like that. From the little we know about the other children of the moons, they like to recruit people who are vulnerable. That would have created a lovely hunting ground for them.”
“Which you thwarted quite effectively,” Narcissa said. “And I can’t begin to tell you how glad I am you happened to be here.”
(chapter continued next post!)