The rooftop had been one of the biggest selling points of this house for both Evander and Narcissa. They hadn’t known then, though, that the covered section would someday be protecting Narcissa and a quartet of foreigners from a sun that could now do more harm than an unfashionable darkening of the skin.
Evander had, despite Narcissa’s disapproval, brought home a stack of reports and requests and invoices to continue going through. They’d expected a lot of extra work for a while, and recent events had only made it worse; a bit always piled up the day they left early and the morning they came in late, but this was more than expected, and it needed to be seen to. Narcissa dealt with ideas and plans and people, and she was very good at it, but someone had to make sure that the little details were taken care of without delay.
The rhythm of Narcissa’s voice was familiar, and rather comforting, though the strongly-accented voices that made up the rest of the conversation were neither. Narcissa was explaining a number of things to them, mainly the background on the hospitals as a continuation of other family efforts to improve the quality of life for all Enodians over recent decades, including the central part the two of them had played and the political struggles that had nearly prevented even the first one.
Motion nearby; he glanced up.
Kaveri, the lithe one with the striped hair, who seemed to dislike wearing any more clothing than necessary, the one who had only blunt weapons rather than the edged ones of her companions. She sat down on the chair at right angles to Evander’s, with the complex many-coloured braided belt she was working on, one with weights in the ends like her own.
“Not interested in the lesson?” Evander asked noncommittally.
Kaveri chuckled. “Completely confused by it. I’ll probably never be able to understand politics even if I live for centuries. There are aspects of civilization that make sense to me, and some that I respect or like, but there are some that are too strange and unreasonable.”
“Of civilization,” he repeated. “As opposed to…?”
“My people live in small groups of maybe twenty or thirty people, in a vast forest with rivers and lakes all through it. We don’t have houses or farms, and certainly not cities. We eat what the land provides, different foods in different seasons, and move to follow it, so shelters are made of branches and leaves and hides and rocks, whatever’s available.”
“It sounds like that could be a hard life.”
“Well, hot baths aren’t a common event, and you usually have to eat what you can find instead of what you want, but it has its advantages. No one has any power over anyone else. No poverty. It usually takes less time than you and Narcissa spend at the hospital every day to gather and prepare food for the day, so there’s plenty of time for storytelling and making beautiful things and whatever else you want to do. A healthy diet and a lot of exercise.”
Evander considered that. “It does have some appeal,” he admitted. “Perhaps in small groups in which everyone grows up accustomed to responsibility, some of the more persistent civilized problems would not occur. But I believe I’ll stay in civilization.”
“Everyone judges what’s normal by what they grow up familiar with. It’s a family joke, that Mirren and I approach things from opposite directions. I grew up in the Forest, she grew up in a city. Well, a large town, by Enodian standards. We help each other appreciate things in ways we otherwise wouldn’t have.”
“And the other two?”
“A… hm, I don’t know the Enodian word. A place with walls around it for defence, founded long ago to protect the area from invaders. But they no longer protect. They’ve grown corrupted.”
“So your friends left, like the woman who started your line?”
“No, they had an accident that forced them out. But they’ve decided since that it was a fortunate accident that made their lives much better. They had to stop being what they were expected to be and start being who they are, even though that’s a scary thing to do, and all the more when you lose everything familiar at the same time. Tyrel was the eldest legal son of the leader and was meant to inherit. He hated what he was doing and who he was forced to be but couldn’t see any other choices, so every day, he kept pretending to be what they wanted.”
“I have some idea what that feels like,” Evander said wryly.
“Tyrel felt so bad that for the first two years, he kept doing reckless things that put him in danger of dying for real. It can be hard, losing almost everything.”
“He still had Madoc and me. He still had all his skills, and now he can use them the way he prefers, to help people, not to hurt them.”
“You’re from somewhere different, but you’re including yourself?”
“Their people raid the cities they used to protect. The cities refuse to support them any longer, because the danger from outside is gone, so they just take what they want. That includes people, as… do you have a word for people who are legally property?”
“Slaves. Slavery was made illegal here some decades ago.”
“They take slaves. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Tyrel claimed me as his own, which kept me safe from the worst of it. When they had to leave, they took me along.”
“You didn’t go back to your own people?”
“I had to change too much, in order to survive. I don’t think I could have belonged there any more, even then, and I would have missed Tyrel and Madoc. So I chose to stay with them. I’m glad I did. We’ve seen a lot of interesting things, and we’ve helped some people along the way.” She sighed. “We usually try not to ruin the lives of the people we try to help.”
Evander echoed the sigh. “Cissa’s life isn’t ruined. She studies herbalism and healing because she wants to. The hospitals are important and we’re both proud that they’ve come this far and we both want very badly for them to succeed, because they’ll help more people than any one person ever could. Having the connections and status to do more, and being able to see the need for it, meant we felt that we had to do it. But she gets more personal satisfaction out of helping someone with her own hands and seeing the results. Once she stops feeling guilty, like she deliberately broken her vow to look after Enodia, she’ll be all right. Cissa’s very strong and very adaptable.”
“Her life isn’t the only one we’ve made a mess of.”
“I do have options. I just haven’t decided yet.”
“We’ve forced you into a position of having to choose, and I’m sorry.”
“Cissa’s right. If you hadn’t been there, at least one of us would be dead. Probably both. Everyone from the Peacock would be hiding, and the hospitals might have died with us. That would have been worse.”
“I suppose so, but might-have-beens are always tricky. Maybe Neaira would have stepped in personally to object to being framed. We’ve seen odder things happen. I wish we hadn’t made things hard for you.”
She did sound genuinely troubled. Maybe she was very good at acting, but instinct didn’t really believe that was it.
“I would rather that Cissa be alive and out in the world doing what she does than have her be dead, a martyr or otherwise. Me, well, whether I’m glad I’m still alive depends on when and where you ask.”
“You were glad last night,” Kaveri said softly.
When I’m me, I’m always glad I’m alive. It’s when I’m not me that I don’t care. How to explain that to anyone, let alone a foreigner? He settled for another shrug. “Yes.”
“You don’t like us, do you?”
The directness startled him. “You really aren’t good at civilization,” he said in amusement. “Admitting you dislike someone is usually rude, or at best tactless, and not only in Enodia.”
“Sometimes honesty gets you farther.”
He contemplated how to answer that. “I don’t dislike you,” he said finally. If she wanted honesty, then she could have it. “But I don’t trust easily at any time, and less so when I know someone means us harm. Cissa says Lirit wants her to trust you. We have any number of stories that make it clear that the priorities of gods don’t always align with those of humans. From where I stand, you showed up from nowhere at the same time there was an attack on us by people you admit are much like you and you conveniently thwarted it, and there was an apparent accident that has had a permanent and major effect on our lives. Within less than a day you were intimately a part of this household and therefore of the various aspects of it that are normally kept private. The one person I trust and love most has very little say in how closely her future is connected to yours, and in effect, I have to choose whether to lose her or lose everything else. While there’s at least a reasonable chance it truly was an accident, it’s still a difficult concept. I had little say in letting you find out more about me than most people ever learn. With Enodians, I can usually make a reasonable guess what they’re thinking about me, even if they won’t say it to my face because of Cissa and our family, but I haven’t the slightest idea about any of you.”
Kaveri listened attentively, and nodded when he finished. “That makes perfect sense, and I can definitely see how it could look suspicious. It doesn’t help that we have so little information to offer as far as catching the ones who attacked you. I told you we’re sorry for disrupting your lives, but I’m sorry also for inadvertently violating your privacy. In a culture that sees some forms of difference as being abnormal, being cautious about trusting and about letting anyone close to you would be necessary.” She was quiet for a couple of breaths, thinking, while nimble fingers worked on the complicated braid. Evander let his gaze drop back to the expenses list from the hospital laundry.
“For whatever it’s worth?” Kaveri said finally. “My people tend to be flexible. If someone knows that their spirit belongs to one sex and their body to the other, then to us, that person is gifted and special, able to see things others can’t and to bridge the human and spirit worlds the way they bridge male and female. We’ve encountered people with that sort of dual nature a number of times who’ve been able to recognize us, or at least tell that we aren’t human, or clearly see the things that give us away even in full sunlight.”
“An interesting way to see it,” Evander said, intrigued despite himself. “It’s been said often that Aithre’s priests can see hidden things.”
“That’s probably less about Aithre herself and more about the nature of the people she attracts. It isn’t always gender boundaries that give that kind of sight, but that seems to be a consistent one. Where Tyrel and Madoc are from, there isn’t much difference between men and women. Women are as likely to be warriors as men, and either will lose status if they aren’t, unless they master a skill like blacksmithing that supports the warriors. They dress and act the same. They see a much greater difference between their own and the people of the cities, or between free and slaves, than they do between men and women. It wouldn’t even occur to Tyrel or Madoc to see it as unnatural rather than a legitimate personal choice.”
“It isn’t a choice.”
“I think they’ll figure that out, if they ever stop to wonder what could possibly motivate someone to deliberately choose something that would make their life so much more complicated. They haven’t needed to before. Mirren’s town does have some differences in the roles of men and women, though less than some places. She doesn’t take well to being told that as a woman, she must do this or can’t do that, and she’s a highly social person who likes to be around people and is quite sensitive to mood. So she tends to see differences more as interesting than as good or bad. She’ll likely ask a lot of questions, though.”
“I don’t mind questions that aren’t excessively intrusive or phrased rudely.” He’d certainly endured enough of the unpleasant sort. “They’re better than assumptions that are usually wrong.”
“If she oversteps, just tell her. Does that help at all?”
Slowly, Evander nodded. “Those would be odd details to invent, when I suppose you could have more easily just said that you see nothing wrong with it and left it at that. So yes, it does answer that particular question.”
“We try our best not to let anyone find out we aren’t human, and sometimes we create roles to play for a while. Those are masks. A mask that was forced on him made Tyrel miserable. I think that having to wear one so much, without knowing that it’s for a limited time, would be very hard even though you do have a few people around who know who you really are. If there’s any way we can help, we will. If we weren’t here, who would you be right now?”
“That would depend on the chances of business or family company dropping by. As often as I can… Lysandra feels more real.”
“This is your house. We’re here to keep you safe, not to make you feel unsafe. Be you. You don’t dance like that without a lot of time spent working hard on something you love. Please don’t let that suffer because of us. Once the moons rise tonight, we’ll get the net fastened down. After that, we’re going to take advantage of Talir and Lirit being bright, and Tyrel and I are going to go investigating. Mirren’s coming because she’s very good at being invisible. Only Madoc will be here until nearly moonset, just in case of trouble, and one person should be easy to avoid. Tomorrow I expect us to be out almost immediately after moonrise.”
“When you’re strongest, but so are they.”
“That’s why Madoc will be here. As long as the doors downstairs stay locked, the only access is right here,” she gestured, “and the net will at least slow down any attempt and possibly stop it altogether. If we can find out, as you said, where the bear and eagle were hiding before they attacked, or any other information, it will do more to protect you than hovering next to you indefinitely. I hadn’t realized just how much we depend on Kieran and his experience to guide us. Three nights after this without him.” She gathered up the partly-finished belt and stood up. “Anything you ever want to know, just ask. We don’t take offence easily. We won’t keep secrets from you that we might from others, not given what you already know and for Narcissa’s sake and with an open invitation to join us.” She smiled. “And if there’s a time soon when you feel a bit safer, maybe I can talk you into another lesson in dancing, hm?”
Evander couldn’t help answering that smile. “Maybe.”
“Good. One way or another,” she added thoughtfully, “watching you dance is now on my personal list of things I’m glad I’ve seen while we’ve been wandering around.”
Evander watched her walk away, back towards the others.
If she was telling the truth…
But that was a very large if.
If she was telling the truth, then life might not be so bad out there, outside Enodia. With friends who were willing to accept Lysandra as real, so she could live all the time, and Evander, who should never have existed, could die.
While Lysandra lived in the moonlight for decades or centuries… with a body that felt wrong, that she hated as much as she loved the joy of dancing, that she’d have given anything to make match what her inner self insisted it was supposed to be. Wasn’t one lifetime of that enough, and more than enough?
At least it wouldn’t mean watching Narcissa walk away from him.
Or would Narcissa be better off without the cousin who was always hiding in her shadow, leaning on her strength and protection and reassurance?
You couldn’t have disrupted my life much more if you’d deliberately tried.
Well, long-term decisions could wait. More immediately, there was only the hospital to concentrate on, and maintaining the facade of normality… and dancing, because getting out of practice or out of condition would be intolerable. And, well, life felt more bearable and less bleak for Lysandra, even without the elaborate preparations to perform. Did she trust them even that much, though?