Return 24

“Talir’s up,” Kieran said. “Not much longer.”

Lysandra nodded. “Juro? You’re sure about this?”

“I’m looking forward to it.” The stringed instrument cradled in his arms was unfamiliar to Lysandra, but that hardly mattered. “I’ve picked up some Enodian songs over the years, and I can improvise backup. Especially with such inspiration.”

Lysandra smiled at him. A night spent in deep communion with Sahen had done a great deal to heal Juro’s apprehension, and despite moments of nerves, he really was rather charming. Of course, that was frequently true of musicians in many cultures, and she had no intention of letting it go to her head, but still… “Good.” She looked around to check on their audience.

They’d chosen the site of the final confrontation, the compound they now knew was properly the Great House of the Zebra, as the best location available under the circumstances. The ground was clear of those prickly weed bushes, and part of it was sufficiently flat. Of equal importance, it was readily accessible: the gates were standing open, and word had spread that Abena and the others hoped Ejiro would return tonight. Lysandra doubted that the majority of Ilek would have cared, even if they knew, that she normally never allowed humans to see her dance in the moonlight, but it didn’t matter.

The visibly chastened members of the other bloodline, all of them, lurked near the outer walls and in the shadows of buildings and of the wagon and cart that Lysandra and her family had brought with them. Lysandra suspected that their current meek behaviour reflected, in many cases, shock and apprehension more than any real indication of taking the lecture from the moons to heart, but they had time to think. Ejiro’s current and previous Brides had promised to make sure they were safe for as long as any chose to remain under their protection, though food and comfort were less easy to promise. Probably at least some would choose to strike out on their own.

Lysandra and Narcissa had scratched a handful of marks into the ground, to define a substantial ring. Ejiro’s small white spirit creatures had taken over from there, using bright white pebbles to create a clearly visible line on the ground.

Just outside that line, their audience were settling themselves.

Nearest the line were Abena and her predecessors, all of them, along with Enitan and Nechi and another small child belonging to one of the previous Brides. Interestingly, all were dressed much the same way Abena was: breasts sagging with age and malnutrition were bare, the tattoo pattern of dots visible across them and bellies, though the wrapped skirts the others wore were of more conventional fabrics than Abena’s strongly-textured reddish-brown one. Wide belts showed hints here and there that they’d been lavishly decorated with gild and silver previously. And each wore many strands of what might be beads or seeds. The white spirit-creatures arranged themselves protectively nearby, keeping humans from getting too close.

With them, scattered among them, was Lysandra’s family. Behind that, a significant percentage of Ilek’s population had chosen to come—from curiosity, in hopes of seeing Ejiro again, in the expectation of this proving to be nothing, she had no idea.

Lysandra stood up and moved out to the centre of the clear ring. Narcissa had her tambourine and her voice, Kieran had his drums… she just hoped there was genuinely enough for Juro to build from, or at worst, that he’d realize otherwise and not disrupt her dance.

Half-full moon or not, dancing in the moonlight was always sheer tireless joy, and tonight, she was doing it as a gift and tribute to Ejiro. Disruption would be deeply annoying.

As Meyar nudged her way up over the horizon, Lysandra unfastened the clasp at her throat and let the dark blue cloak slide off her shoulders, catching it neatly and dropping it next to the basket that held a few of her favourite dance props.

She and Narcissa had spent quite some time on her appearance, making sure that every detail was perfect, in due honour to Ejiro. In her traditional saffron skirts and top and her gold jewellery, she could have passed for a temple dancer in Enodia.

Which in a sense she was, though for a different earthborn.

As pale blue light touched her, a gentle caress filling her with love and support as much as with energy and life, she let herself begin to sway in place.

Kieran and Narcissa understood, and took up their part in this, the familiar sound of drums and tambourine and of Narcissa’s voice raised in a song meant for Enodia’s Great Mother.

Before long, another instrument joined in, and then a rather pleasant male voice twined itself into Narcissa’s, not so forceful as to overwhelm Narcissa, but adding a new richness to the song.

Smiling to herself, Lysandra released the last of her doubts. Juro hadn’t been bragging. The music would be just fine. Which meant she could lose herself in it utterly, with no need to hold back.

Only the fading of Meyar’s presence jolted her back to awareness of anything beyond her own body and the ecstasy of movement and the rapture of her mother’s light. She swirled to a halt and knelt, both hands on the ground, as the music ended.

“I hope, Earth-lord,” she said, “that my dancing pleases you. It seems like small thanks for the lives of my family.”

For a long moment, no one and nothing moved.

Then the ground in front of Lysandra heaved.

She could all but see the effort that went into it, and it took time.

Still, when Ejiro smiled at her, he looked like the handsome man whose statue Lysandra had seen in the temple. Around them, she could hear voices, reverent whispers of Ejiro’s name.

“Your dancing,” he said, “is pleasure given form. Quite likely, I owe my life to you and your family. Thank you.”

“You’re very welcome, Earth-lord.”

“You will always be welcome here.” He chuckled. “Another earthborn to add to the list of those who think highly of you.”

“Thank you.”

He turned away, and dropped to one knee in front of… not Abena, but elderly Funanya, for a long and loving kiss. When he moved away, on to kiss the one that had come next, she sat still, eyes closed, her smile wistful and delighted and sad all at once.

As near as Lysandra could determine, he worked his way from the eldest, in order, to Abena, then rose.

His form rippled and altered, the handsome man in his early prime shifting fluidly to that of a lovely woman with strong features and full breads and wide hips, who knelt in front of Enitan to kiss him.

“Three years to learn, and I’m yours,” she said, laughter in her voice.

And Ejiro’s human avatar crumbled back into the same earth they were sitting on, effectively disappearing.

“What… how…” Onyeka sounded distinctly startled. She wasn’t alone in that: much of the audience appeared to be rather taken aback.

“The human forms of the earthborn,” Kieran said, “are only temporary vessels, a way for them to interact with those of us who perceive time and space very differently from the way they do. As such, they need not be static, though it seems uncommon for them to change.”

“We’ve been very worried,” Funanya said. “Abena has no successor, and three years is not enough time to begin from nothing. The child of a previous Bride, however, knows more already, and that is not beginning from nothing. Enitan is of a perfect age. We no longer need to worry.” She looked down, cupped a hand gently under her necklaces, then raised her head and smiled. “And we have another gift as well.”

The beads, apparently, were seeds.

Seeds that were germinating, starting with Funanya’s.

“We need to plant these,” Funanya said. “They mean food. Here, perhaps, where there are no invasive plants to choke them. Help us.”

In the flurry of action that followed, Lysandra and her family escaped to the wagon and cart, both of which they’d packed neatly before moonrise. Ander and the two jennies drowsed, tied to the wagon.

Scant need for words. It was time to go, and let Ilek find its own path.

Lysandra left the others to harness the animals quickly while she changed from her dance finery to more practical clothes for travelling in.

They had to take care on the way to the gate, because the planted seeds were growing rapidly, some of them making use of anything in range for support. Damaging those plants was out of the question.

Finally, they escaped.

“We can stop for a while to sleep while the sun is high,” Kieran said. “Somewhere several hours away from Ilek. We’ve done well by Ilek, but they have no need of us. So, onward to the Valley of Umako.”

“We can wish for no more distractions,” Kaveri laughed. “But I’m not holding my breath. Well. Onward, and let’s see where the road takes us!”

Hm, an hour late and still perhaps a few rough edges… sorry about that. Life is interfering. Watch for one more post, an epilogue of sorts, to follow as soon as I can (I hope this week, but that might not be possible). Thanks so much for the gift of your time and your attention in joining me in one of my worlds! And I’d love to know what you’ve thought! (To those who’ve given me that as well, thank you!)

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