The entire house felt still and drowsy, as Lysandra made her way to the kitchen. Even with no light other than the moonlight in the courtyard and through the small high windows, the house was by now familiar ground, and she really didn’t need to see.
All the household staff were sensibly in bed. Three of the odd foreigners who had turned their lives upside-down were out prowling again, a trio of small animals vanishing into the night-time streets in search of clues to a trail, or so they said. The fourth was up on the roof; earlier, he’d been oiling and sharpening not only his own curved blade but those of the others, but now he was catnapping on one of the wicker couches. She was certain he’d wake in a heartbeat, like the cat he sometimes was, at any sign of disturbance.
Narcissa, she knew, wasn’t asleep. Kaveri said it was because Lirit was so close to full, that Narcissa felt no desire to sleep or eat. She was, instead, on the roof, with no light but Lirit’s, working her way through a basket of scrolls she’d been wanting to read for months but had lacked the time for: treatises on healing, for the most part, Lysandra thought fondly. Narcissa insisted that her mind felt clearer than it ever had, that she could focus on the text and absorb and remember it better than ever before, with no fatigue and no distractions from her own body.
Which meant Lysandra had the courtyard to herself for exercising and practising and working out new moves and combinations of moves to include in her repertoire, though each dance was spontaneous. That was thirsty work, though, and there’d be mint water in the kitchen.
Not all the house was still. Near the kitchen were storerooms, and the sounds coming from one were clearly human and unhappy.
What in the names of the gods…?
Possibly she should let someone else know, but this was her house as much as Narcissa’s and what happened here was her concern too. There should be no danger within these walls.
The storeroom doors swung both ways on a simple pivot to make it easier to get in or out while carrying a heavy load, though with a bolt on the outside to keep it closed when not in use. She ran her hand down to the bolt, found it drawn back, and the door moved under her touch, so she pushed it aside.
“Hello?” she said softly. Scant light disturbed the darkness here, only a trickle from the windows, but with her eyes already night-adjusted, she could at least make out the shapes of storage amphorae to step around them. “What’s wrong?”
Closer and without the door interfering, those were all the more obviously sobs, which someone was now struggling to choke down. “N-nothing, milady.”
“Clytie? I’ve never heard of a nothing that leads to crying in a storeroom in the middle of the night.” She tracked the girl’s location by sound and touch, and gathered the full skirt of her simplest dance costume so she could slide down the wall to sit next to her. “This must be quite a remarkable nothing.” She found Clytie’s hand, slim and roughened by hard work long before Ctesios had sent her here to get her out of a job where she was being abused as vulnerable and desperate, and wrapped her own, larger and smoother, around it. “Will you tell me what it is? I’ll do my best to help.” She frowned. “Did one of the foreigners do or say something to you?” If they had, then children of the moons or not, rescuers or not, she’d have them out of this house in a heartbeat.
“N-no, not them. Th-they’re always polite, milady.”
That was something in their favour, at least. That, and the complete nonchalance about her own dual nature, which seemed to be quite genuine.
“Then what’s so terrible?” She reached across herself to retrieve the linen scarf tucked into her waistband, one she used to wipe away sweat or tie her hair back when it was interfering, and traded her hand in Clytie’s for the scarf so the girl could make use of it.
She waited patiently while Clytie wrestled both with the decision to speak and with the weeping that made it hard to speak.
“I-I almost did a v-very bad thing today.”
“Almost doing is a very different thing from actually doing.”
“Y-you shouldn’t trust me, milady. Y-you should throw me out.”
“I think you should tell me what you almost did, and why, and then let Narcissa and I decide what we should do.”
The sobs wound down gradually into broken sniffles.
“Pherusa sent me to the m-market today with a list. She wanted to make sure she can make something special for Phaidra and Thaleia when they come home tomorrow. I don’t gossip when I’m out, not ever, I really don’t.”
Cook, housekeeper, both maids, and handmaiden all had white dresses with green banding, a more conventional version of the bodyguards’ uniforms, and mantles to match, which made them easily recognizable when on duty. It would take courage or foolishness for anyone to be anything but respectful to a member of Narcissa’s semi-royal, semi-sacred household, and none of the household were at all likely to initiate trouble.
“I know you don’t. And I know Pherusa often sends you. You’re better at haggling and more comfortable in the crowd than Megaira is.” The younger of the two teenage maids was much happier staying inside the walls of the house as much as possible.
“Today there was… a woman came up beside me when I stopped at the fountain, and asked who I was, and was it true that you and milady Narcissa are both still alive and not injured. I did tell her that much.”
“We’ve been telling people that repeatedly for days,” Lysandra said dryly. “It’s no secret. And your clothes make who you are obvious.”
“But she kept talking. She knew a lot, and I thought at first she must be a friend of yours or milady Narcissa’s, asking about Phaidra and Thaleia and she knew their names and how they were hurt, and I didn’t want to be rude to her. I didn’t tell her much. Just that the physicians think they’re both going to be all right in time. I-I did tell her they’d be out of the hospital tomorrow. I didn’t think until afterwards that maybe I shouldn’t have.”
“That isn’t such a big thing. That would have been a difficult situation for deciding how much to say without possibly offending a friend or telling too much.”
“That isn’t the very bad thing I almost did.” Clytie sniffled. “She didn’t know very much about the foreigners but she questioned how they stopped an attack by animals that would’ve been dangerous even if they were natural and they obviously weren’t, and whether they should be trusted or might be more than they seem. I didn’t let anything slip at all of what milady Narcissa told us, I promise. Not even a hint.”
“That’s why Narcissa decided to tell you.” After due contemplation and discussion, Narcissa had explained everything to her household staff and offered to find them another job elsewhere immediately if they found it difficult to accept; fiercely loyal to their princess, not one took her up on it. “She trusts you.”
Who knows this much about us? Any friends from the Peacock that Cissa and I talk to fairly freely would know better than to ask the staff instead of talking to us directly, or at the very least would introduce themselves. They wouldn’t talk to others, they understand about privacy.
“But she shouldn’t trust me. This woman… she kept implying that they’re dangerous and were part of the attack and that no one sees it… and she said that if I helped her and her friends, it would mean milady Narcissa would be safe.” The tears began again. “She said… Hermia would think I was brave and clever, not just a kitchen maid.”
Lysandra shoved cold chills into the back of her mind. Worry about where they got so much personal information later. “What did she want you to do?” she asked gently.
“She w-wanted me to open the back door for them, after everyone’s asleep. She said she and her friends d-don’t trust the foreigners and think they mean bad things for milady Narcissa, and the only way to keep them from hurting her is to get them away from her.”
“She didn’t say that. I think she meant it. I almost… I thought about it. About Hermia if I saved milady Narcissa, and that maybe she wouldn’t go away and leave us…” Her voice broke completely, and she dissolved back into sobbing.
Lysandra slid an arm around her to hug her close; Clytie, too distressed to think about rank, twisted to bury her face in Lysandra’s shoulder. “They offered you something you want badly. More than they know they offered, even. Being tempted by that doesn’t mean you’re bad or that we shouldn’t trust you. It just means you’re human. Sometimes things that you want conflict, and then you have to think seriously about both sides and try to work out the consequences. The back door is locked still, with no strangers in the house, right?”
“You decided against what she was asking, even though you had reason to hope for good things if you listened to her. That’s much more difficult and much more brave than refusing when there’s nothing for you to gain if you agree. That isn’t less reason for us to trust you, it’s more reason.”
While Clytie cried herself out, huddled against her, Lysandra pondered what this meant.
One very public attempt at assassination and discrediting. One less public attempt to get into the house through being disruptive—Hermia had seen the two waiting by the back door and agreed that it had been no accident, though they were all less certain the two attacks were connected. This, though, an approach that would probably have lead to the entire household dead in their beds if it had gone as planned, it felt more like the first one.
Their enemies didn’t know everything, though. With only Madoc of the quartet here, and Narcissa up all night, it wouldn’t have gone as planned.
(chapter continued next post!)