With the rising of the sun, the campsite roused back to full activity. The rest of Ilek had no need to know that sleeping had largely been done in the span between moonset and dawn, with Lysandra keeping watch alone, Madoc back in fur drowsing between circuits of the lot. Kaveri, who had slept earlier, had gone out during that time and returned around the time they rose, a basket on her hip filled with, well, whatever she’d found.
The donkeys and Ander had to be fed and watered and their stable cleaned—Kaveri brought them out, with Kieran’s help, to let them stretch for a moment while Tyrel wielded the shovel, since there was little activity around them.
There was breakfast to see to, even Lysandra slipping past the point of needing nothing at all, though no one needed as much as a human would. The cats and Kieran, in lieu of sharing the soup, continued to snap up mice whenever the opportunity presented itself, with Mirren often giving her extras to Kieran; Tyrel had absently eaten three or four after returning, as he helped Mirren clear the cart of small intruders before changing back.
The lemur delicately lapped up a small dish of soup, and nibbled on whatever Kaveri handed it from her scavenging trip. Obviously, no matter how much it liked fruit, it wasn’t fussy.
A third Enodian woman, this one in a saffron Enodian-style dress much less striking than the dancer’s costume they’d last seen her in, joined them at the fire. Her midnight hair lay loose down her back, uncovered; indigo and metallic-gold serpent tattoos coiled around her lower arms, but she wore no visible jewellery save two sets of gold rings in her ears. She settled herself next to Lysandra uninvited.
The lemur let out a small shriek of alarm and ran for the stable. Kieran and the cats approached immediately, however. Aithre laid an elegantly-manicured hand on Kieran’s head affectionately.
“Take care, little sister,” she said quietly to Lysandra. “Storms are brewing, and I fear that even though they are not of your making, you may be caught in them. There are those among the gods who are displeased with your mothers for creating your kind at all. Spirit-creatures, they feel, should simply be what they are, and to give humans, with all the complexities of the human psyche, the gifts you have can only invite trouble.”
“They do have a point,” Kaveri said. “I don’t entirely agree, obviously, but I can see why they say it.”
Tyrel rather wished he couldn’t.
“As the other bloodline grows more powerful and more destructive, what was once only a few gods becomes a chorus. Many voices demand that your mothers end the entire problem permanently. Your mothers insist that they cannot punish all for the actions of a few, and some of us stand with them on that. But the pressure grows ever greater for them to find a solution, not only here for Ejiro’s sake, but a broader one. Lirit no longer chooses new children during that abominable initiation, though she grieves—she has chosen none since you, Narcissa. The other three reluctantly draw closer to the idea. That would be a solution of sorts, but they are many already, and even without Valeyan’s gift, it could take a very long time for them to cease to be a force.”
Tyrel suspected that they didn’t want to ask what sort of permanent solution would involve punishing all universally.
“We can act much more directly than they can, or you can,” Narcissa said. “Is that not how it goes? The direct actions of gods are limited by mutual agreement. Spirit-creatures can interact with all worlds, human and natural and divine, and especially with other spirit-creatures. Human activity is limited sufficiently by their own abilities and perceptions.”
Aithre nodded. “That is correct. Since I am an oracular goddess, and your sister is in a sense one of my oracles, and you are all spirit-creatures, I can be here now. I believe I am the only one fond of you who can. And I know that you need no threat to yourselves as motivation to act, not when you encounter such an atrocity.”
“Can we ask something about that other bloodline?”
“You can ask as much as you wish, whatever you wish. I will answer what I can. I am not all-knowing. However, I think it very likely that any subject of immediate interest to you will be among those I have been investigating these past few years. I am rather limited in watching them directly outside Enodia and its surrounding area. I can be wherever you go, little sister, since you honour me and there is an implied invitation, which you could withdraw if you chose. It is odd for spirit-creatures to be able to have multiple allegiance that way, but that is one aspect of your rather unusual origins. I cannot go where I have no followers. Your mothers and I have common ground in our concern for you, and they have told me a great deal.”
“What under the moons do they even want?” Tyrel asked, some exasperation creeping into his voice. Kieran whined agreement. “We know from talking to the ones who were arrested in Enodia that most of them are just treated like pieces on a game board. They don’t know the reasons why the people in charge make the decisions they make. The ones who might have had a few answers were the ones who refused to talk at all. They have to have a goal of some kind. What is it?”
Aithre nodded. “The lies they are told are cruel ones, meant to break the spirit and keep them in a form of internalized slavery. Those at the heart of it have made a mistake, though I think they have not yet realized the extent of it. Some they choose because they offer convenient access to resources: property, contacts, whatever they feel is desirable in a given situation. Some they choose because they have reason to believe that they will be devout and unquestioning believers who will follow all orders. But they also choose among the brightest and most gifted. By doing so, they weaken communities and rob them of passion and hope, making more people vulnerable, as well as gaining… well, most often a muted and crippled version of their true gifts, but also their skills, which are often considerable. There, I think, is their mistake. Lying to the brightest and most gifted in order to keep them obedient is rather like trying to keep cats penned in a sheepfold. With the threat of dogs outside, it might be possible for a time, but once they begin to escape, especially once they discover that the dogs are not real, it becomes an impossible task. Steal from them what matters most to each, and they have little left to lose. As for the reason the whole thing exists… At the core is a very small group. One child of each moon. Centuries ago they formed an alliance. In simplest terms, they seek power. They do not see it that way, however. They have come to believe that, in essence, the world would be a better place for everyone if they were in charge. Not of part of it. All of it.”
That elicited a variety of sounds of disbelief and scorn; Aithre waited through them.
“I agree. It is, from any other perspective, an absurd idea. But to them, it is real. Gods, they feel, are unable to relate to humans, because we were never human and have no human experience to draw on—even though many of us are born of human need and human belief. Humans are, however, unable to rule themselves. Their lives are too brief, and they are too ruled by the weaknesses of mortal flesh. Those at the centre believe themselves to be uniquely qualified to rule over everyone. Those who disagree are, they think, simply too short-sighted or ignorant to understand, which is further evidence. It may take many centuries and cause immeasurable suffering, since so many are misguided and ignorant, but it’s simply unavoidable sacrifice for the ultimate goal.” She spread her hands. “Did you expect an answer that you would like?”
“Not really,” Tyrel said with a sigh. “Not given what we already knew about them. But the truth is pretty bad.”
“Yes, it is. I do not think I need to tell you that it must stop. I believe that above all else they fear Neoma and her bloodline. They are certain that Neoma herself is dead, but they have suspected, and since events in Enodia they are certain, that her bloodline continues. You are like them, but not under their control, and you have abilities they lack. You are living proof of the extent of their lies. You look upon and talk to your mothers without fear, secure in their love for you, and you listen when they speak. Rather than struggling to follow laws of control and obedience and deference, you honour your mothers’ intent in creating your kind without surrendering your identity or passion, and they support you instead of punishing you for it. They have placed none of you over the others, though you respect your varied strengths and experiences and use them as the situation demands. Talir has not turned her back in anger, two of her few remaining children sit here now. They want you each to be unique and live with joy, and you do. Those at the top know, even though they do not tell the others, that your mothers acted in Enodia several times in ways that should have made their feelings explicitly clear, as they protected you and denounced the actions of their other children. I do not know their feelings or reactions to that, but it is difficult to imagine how you could be a greater threat to them, simply by existing.”
“But an animal that feels cornered and betrayed is dangerous,” Kaveri said.
“Given the way so many gods feel,” Tyrel said, “they may be the greatest threat to us, just by existing.”
“What are they doing in Ilek?” Kaveri asked. “It’s in ruins already. They must already have stolen whatever they could from here.”
“They have raped and ravaged Ilek of all they want. They simply wait for cooler weather and longer nights. They have treasures enough to fill several wagons, bought at a fraction of their value or plundered outright. If they follow their usual pattern, they will send them to large cities far away and keep them out of sight for some years, in time selling them at great profit to fund their plans or using them as bribes and gifts. They have recruited a number of talented craftsmen in glass and allied materials—gold and silver, brass and steel, the things Ilek became known for.”
“They set up and baited a trap,” Kaveri said. “And have harvested the best of the fish who swam into it.”
“Ejiro’s nearest neighbours want very badly to help, but they fear to act, lest it provoke some new act of assault against him that will cause him further harm. They are aware, not of what people or spirit-creatures are doing here, but of Ejiro’s health and his injuries. They have plans to begin setting things right, and will do so, the moment they know there will be no retaliation. But, as I said, many earthborn are troubled and alarmed. The death of an earthborn is a very, very rare event, but it it not impossible. They are resilient and can bear a great deal of change with little distress. They experience time in ways that make the lives of other gods seem ephemeral and even natural catastrophes are only part of the cycle. The lives and deaths of the humans and animals and trees and plants that live in their domains, intimately connected to them, are to them a part of the natural cycle, though that does not mean they are indifferent, and some take a more direct interest. The more extreme human activity can be uncomfortable to them, and some tolerate it with more patience than others. But human civilizations pass and the wilderness reclaims even great cities in time. Forest regrows, mines collapse, wild things return. What happens, happens with their consent. Ejiro was deceived into allowing actions that were intended to weaken him. He did not know they waited with a large quantity of seeds and a breeding population of mice, neither native to the area, and were prepared to decimate such wildlife as could help and dose the local cats with contraceptives. This was their most blatant attack yet.”
“Which will probably escalate,” Tyrel sighed. “And obviously they wouldn’t have cared one way or the other if Ejiro died, as long as they got what they wanted. That could easily turn into the most expedient solution somewhere else being just to outright murder the earthborn. And that phrase is total insanity and I can’t believe I said it.”
(chapter continued next post!)