(chapter continued from previous post)
“Oh, thank Aithre and the Twelve and One, Narcissa, you’re all right!” A couple paused just outside the ring of chairs until Narcissa inclined her head in invitation; only then did one take the remaining chair, and the other stole a stool from a nearby game-table.
The taller of the pair, by a full head, was wearing a pale rose dress with a deeper rose fringed shawl wrapped over it that matched the broad borders of the dress, and a substantial volume of gold jewellery in women’s styles; her hair was braided and coiled, her eyes were darkened and her lips were dark rose. The other wore a tunic of a mellow warm brown with narrow yellow bands along the borders, and a heavy gold bracelet and three rings with differing stones, hair cropped to shoulder-length. Kaveri would have been willing to wager that the shorter one had tightly bound breasts under that tunic, and that the taller’s silhouette owed something to padding.
Narcissa made introductions both ways. The taller she named as Demetria, the shorter as Ctesios.
“We were worried about the two of you,” Demetria said. “I got away to hear your speech this morning, but you’re entirely too good at keeping things to yourself.”
“We heard you were injured,” Ctesios added.
“It was messy but very minor,” Narcissa assured them. “Thaleia and Phaidra were less fortunate. Our rescuers have agreed to stay as our personal guards until we’re certain there’s no further danger.”
Both eyed the four foreigners.
“You lost someone in the attack?” Demetria said sympathetically.
“Dying in a battle is a good death,” Madoc said. “The kind our gods approve of, and what can you ask of life beyond good company, good ale, and a good and honourable death? But the job isn’t finished, and it would dishonour his death to leave it that way. We’ll be here until we know the ladies are safe.”
“He’d want us to,” Mirren added. “And it’s harder to miss someone when you’re busy.”
“By all reports, you certainly took care of a bear and an eagle handily enough,” Ctesios said. “Supernatural ones, at that. Not that I couldn’t imagine Oreios doing something like that, but Neaira, over a hospital that will make it safer for women to give birth and where children can get help? Not likely.”
“We’ve encountered something like them before,” Tyrel said. “They are very definitely not connected to any Enodian god.”
“Of course not,” Demetria said. “The Oracle wouldn’t say that unless she were absolutely certain. And the wolf?”
“According to Glyceria,” Ctesios said, “the wolf’s blood was yellow.”
“Was it?” Narcissa said noncommittally. “I was rather distracted.”
“Not asking,” Demetria said, with a low chuckle. “We’re just grateful you’re well and not giving up on what you do.”
“Never,” Narcissa said, her tone suddenly fierce. “No one is going to frighten me out of getting the hospitals firmly established and making certain they’re open to everyone. No one is going to make an example of my sister while I’m alive.”
“We know,” Demetria said pacifyingly. “You’re nothing if not dedicated. We’re right behind you, if we can do anything, I hope you know that. And speaking of your sister, I think she’s about to start, so we’ll leave you and your new friends to enjoy.”
“Interesting pair,” Madoc murmured as they moved off.
“They’re married,” Narcissa said. “Publicly, Demetria is Linos, one of the wealthiest and canniest spice merchants in Enodia. Ctesios, as Kallirhoe, has a rather fearsome reputation for being able to see the potential in a painter or sculptor’s work and providing the support and resources to bring it to full fruit, along with being a significant patron of several organizations that help orphans, widows, and the crippled. They own houses in Orthia and here and a country villa, that I know of. In private, at home or here, they trade roles, and they’re both happier that way.”
“Household staff are all discreet?” Mirren guessed.
Narcissa smiled as she raised her cup. “Or have reasons of their own to be personally grateful. Some are from among those orphans and widows and cripples. Some would fit in here. Or do so.” Her forehead furrowed. “I should talk to them about making sure my people won’t find themselves on the street, if anything happens to me. It would be a reasonable fear right now, and I’d like to know that eventually, when I have to leave, they won’t suffer for it.”
The music changed, now something with a heavier beat, and Lysandra took up position in the middle of the stage. She had a long translucent white veil, so light it drifted slowly in the air, wrapped loosely around her torso with the ends trailing down her back.
“Watch,” Narcissa said softly.
Lysandra started slow in time with the beat, shimmying and swirling, always in motion so she was playing to all sides at once.
As the speed of the drums gradually increased, so did hers.
Somehow, she let the veil unwind as she moved, and caught the edge in both hands to use as she danced, the veil now behind her, now in front, now swirling around her and now over her head. The coins of her belt flashed and jingled with the motions of her hips, accentuating them, and at moments the serpent on her belly looked almost like it was flexing its coils.
She made the young woman they’d seen dance in the temple look like a child practising.
And sheer exhilaration came across in every gesture as clearly as the sensuality.
“That,” Narcissa said quietly, without looking away, “is what keeps my sister alive. Take this away, and while my cousin might technically still live, he would never feel whole or happy. But while she’s dancing, she is what she’s meant to be. A number of people who have seen her dance say Aithre blessed her at birth—but Aithre’s blessings are never easy.”
“Not a lot of possible paths?” Tyrel said. Kaveri snuck a peek, though reluctant to miss a moment, and found without surprise that both brothers were watching with rapt fascination.
“Most women dance in public only once, in front of the Great Mother’s statue in the temple on the day they’re married, to ask her blessing. A few become professional dancers as entertainers, a few join one temple or another. Many assume that all professional dancers are prostitutes. It’s worse for those like my sister, harder to get jobs without being prostitutes as well. There is Aithre’s temple, though there are conditions. If Lysandra doesn’t choose to come, that’s likely where she’ll go. Otherwise… I think she’ll die. And whatever’s left of Evander would eventually suicide. It was close, a few times, before we found a balance.”
As Lysandra wound to a finish, the veil settling neatly across her arms, Narcissa met Kaveri’s eyes.
“I can’t leave her any more than I could leave without making sure the hospitals continue.”
“You won’t have to,” Kaveri said gently. “We have time to make sure nothing’s left unfinished.” In her experience, there was always something else left unfinished, but this wasn’t the moment for that, and they could cover the major ones.
“Moonladies,” Tyrel said, as Lysandra, laughing, dropped the veil in her basket and looked expectantly at the musicians. “If we go far enough from here for no one to have seen anyone dance like this anyway, and she does this, she would definitely not have any trouble getting jobs. Convincing a few that they don’t get to keep her, maybe.”
“And with us around,” Madoc added, “no one else is going to get close enough to find out details they don’t need to know.”
“How long can she keep this up?” Mirren asked, as Lysandra began again, this one a much more energetic fast-paced one, with more staccato sharp motions of her hips and also of her shoulders and ribcage, more rapid footwork, without ever losing the fluidity of the whole. The control she had in isolating and moving individual sets of muscles was formidable. No wonder she picked up self-defence lessons so readily.
“She’ll do a few now, then rest, then do more. Not all will be on the stage itself, there’s space between tables for reasons other than serving drinks and food. Later, there are usually a few amateurs or novices who want to, or other sorts of dancing. There’s a parallel for men, done with a cane or short staff, based on combat moves so it feels more sharp and rigid and it’s more about being strong and acrobatic. It can be pleasant to watch. Some of the resident foreigners have decided before to show us what they consider dancing.”
“Don’t look at me,” Mirren laughed. “Everything from Galimont is for groups.”
“About the closest we know,” Tyrel said, “is formalized fighting routines done against imaginary enemies. Kaveri can dance.”
“Not for an audience,” Kaveri said.
“Ingo dancing is a memorable sight,” Narcissa said reflectively. “Aside from whoever’s officially working, it’s entirely voluntary.” She looked up with a smile as a woman in a short cream-and-russet tunic, her long hair loose, stopped near them. “Yes, Elpis, Lysandra and I are both well. Will you sit down? Antheia isn’t with you?”
By the time they left, much later, Narcissa had reassured what felt like half the population of Phleion about her and Lysandra. They’d seen Lysandra dance with her veil, with a tambourine, with a pair of brightly-coloured feathered fans, and with nothing but her own body in motion, both on the stage and circulating around the room; somehow, she coaxed Kaveri into joining her for a lesson, with her tunic shed, and while Kaveri didn’t feel she’d particularly embarrassed herself, she did have a whole new appreciation for the skill and discipline involved. They met locals and foreigners, people who couldn’t conform and people who could but loved someone who couldn’t, most of them at least courteous if not outgoing and welcoming—though being there with Narcissa and Lysandra might have influenced that last.
And a substantial fraction of them, Kaveri was certain, could if given any clues at all spot their differences as easily as Evander had noticed the blood during the battle, and identify them as not human as readily as Dayo had long ago. A dangerous environment to be in, when they wanted to simply be still-human Narcissa’s foreign human bodyguards. But what else could they have done? Narcissa, clearly, had been right about the repercussions if they hadn’t gone.
“Here, let me take that,” Narcissa said, adroitly stealing the basket from Lysandra. “You’re always tired, and always still too afire with all that passion to feel it until we get home.”
“Just as well, then,” Lysandra retorted, “or how would you get me home, if I simply collapsed in the street like a drunkard who won at dice? See if Demetria would lend you a mule to sling me over with my bottom in the air, maybe?”
“Silly,” Narcissa said fondly.
Madoc’s gaze snapped to track motion; he made a low warning grunt, deep in his throat, and let a hand drop to his sica. Kaveri saw two human figures in the shadow of a narrow gap between buildings reconsider and flit back the other way.
She wasn’t at all sure Lysandra even noticed.
That wasn’t wine, either—she’d seen the dancer drink only well-watered wine, and even that not in excess. It would probably be difficult to maintain that level of control after drinking too much.
Hermia opened the door for them, hiding a yawn. It looked to Kaveri like Melanippe and teenaged maid Clytie had fallen asleep on two of the courtyard’s wicker couches, with the remains of a meal and a jug of wine on the small tables in front of them, and that Hermia had been on a third.
“A good night with no trouble, I take it?” Hermia asked.
“Yes,” Narcissa said. “Here?”
“The same. Pherusa and all got home not long ago, they’ve gone to bed. Apparently they had a wonderful evening.”
Narcissa nodded. “Get some sleep.”
“I will.” Hermia bolted the door securely.
Narcissa twined a hand into Lysandra’s, urging her upstairs.
“Then we’ll go to bed,” Lysandra sighed, following only reluctantly. “And then morning will be here, much too quickly.”
“I know, love,” Narcissa said gently. “But you can’t stay awake forever. There are daytime things we both need to do that are important to a lot of people.”
The four foreigners headed up to the roof, to bathe in the last of the moonlight.
Madoc tested the newly-added frame around the mouth of the courtyard. “That’s pretty solid. With a net over it, it will at least slow down anything trying to get in. If we weave the edges right through the rings so it won’t come off without being cut, better yet.”
The “net” was actually wide strips of fabric, long enough to reach across the gap from side to side, made thick but with a dense pattern of large regular holes that approximated a net. It was much easier to do than spinning cord and knotting it, but should be equally effective. At the edges, they simply wove each strip into the holes of the next, all one piece, to create a single expanse that could cover the whole opening. They didn’t have enough of it yet, but they were getting there.
Tyrel looked up. “And Talir’s gone. Only four more nights without Kieran, then he’ll be back.”
“And maybe then,” Madoc said, “we can come up with more of a plan than watching for immediate danger.”