Catch up with Sifani’s story in part one and part two of “Bloodlines of Epheria!”
Taking the paper from Sifani slowly this time, Ileniel opened it with somewhat of a flourish. It couldn’t have been long, but his eyes scanned it from top to bottom at least three times before he folded it up again. When Ileniel moved the paper from where it had been covering his lips, Sifani saw that they were pursed, as if he just eaten a lemon and wasn’t sure what he thought about the taste.
Ileniel met Sifani’s eyes. “All of you are sure about this?”
“Len, it’s Jatan. He never puts anything in writing that he isn’t sure of.”
The man nodded slowly, then self-consciously glanced at his colleagues and the birds. The blue exercise circles were slowing down to a leisurely trot. The custodians would soon begin to wonder why he was resting for so long.
He tucked Jatan’s note into the pocket from whence he had produced his handkerchief. “I might…see you soon.” Turning on his heel, Ileniel walked away, not looking back. Sifani still felt the ghost of his long black hair swinging back and forth as he did.
As she scooted back out of the crawlspace – relaxing a bit proved to help her wriggle out without requiring Lorin’s aid – Sifani smiled. Ileniel’s reaction was no less than she expected. The discovery that her breakdowns didn’t occur inside the epheria, no matter how Jatan and the others tried to trigger them, changed everything.
Lorin regarded Sifani with a smirk as she emerged from the wall, his arms crossed over his sizeable chest. “My view from this end has not been unpleasant,” he informed her nonchalantly.
Striding forward, she grabbed onto one of his wide lapels and pulled him along behind her as she walked. “Oh, shut up.”
“Ileniel?” he asked, jogging to catch up.
“He’ll join us inside the week, or I’m the princess of Para.”
Lorin snorted in laughter. “You know, I knew a woman from Para, once. Whenever I pinched her, she always said this strange phrase in her own language, and when I finally ask her what it meant, I found out that—”
Sifani reached over, pushed Lorin’s jaw shut, and kept moving.
A short walk brought them to the copse where their horses were tethered. As Sifani swung up onto the saddle of her chestnut mare, she regarded the world with a feeling of both distance and wonder. How was it she could sometimes feel so foreign to a place so very familiar, as if each time she inhaled, she breathed in only half of the air she was supposed to be breathing?
As the wind picked the strands of hair up from off her cheeks, and the green and brown land streaked past her and Lorin as they galloped toward the city, Sifani determined to cease thinking and simply enjoy the ride.
Sifani laughed from inside her hot bathwater, shaking so hard that she dropped the bar of soap she had been running up the length of her left arm.
Namiss sat in a chair in the corner, violently working snarls from her shoulder-length, jet-black hair with an ill-repaired old hairbrush. The sharp-chinned woman grinned as she related the remainder of her tale. If nothing else, Namiss always came back from her excursions with tales.
“He threw the chair at me, he did! And by Donis, I caught it!” She wagged her head, snickering. “You should’ve seen his face – he was so shocked that he simply froze there. I put the chair down, smiled, and walked out the door like anything!”
Still chuckling, Sifani retrieved the soap from beneath the sudsy water. If Namiss hadn’t been forbidden to show her face within the limits of Hashiram along with herself, the girl would’ve turned the whole city topsy-turvy by now.
“That does remind me, I grabbed you a little something today –“ Sifani looked up just in time to snatch what Namiss tossed to her from the air.
Opening her hand, she turned the smooth, green sphere, the size of a chicken’s egg, over in her palm. She pushed her fingernail between the hairline crack in its center, then popped it open. Inside were two heart-shaped leaves, deep red with a grey tinge at the edges.
Her lips twisted in disapproval. “Namiss, I told you not to-“
“It’s just a harmless little aid, Sif. Something to amplify your emotions so you don’t have to let others get you so worked up for their tests. The more you learn to control your temper, the harder it gets for them to do. The things Jatan is letting them do now to make you mad…they’re getting downright brutal.”
“But Lightleaf?” Sifani said flatly. “I’m guessing you didn’t get this by robbing the apothecary.”
“Well, actually, this time I did.”
Sifani groaned and stood up from the bathtub, picking up her towel from beside it and wrapping it around her shoulders.
“Whaaaat, Sif?” Namiss whined. “You told me not to see the street salesmen any more, so I haven’t.”
“I’ll shave your head, Namiss,” Sifani told her dispassionately. “Shave your head and dye your skin until people take you for a mottled cavefox, and there won’t be a disguise good enough for you to go unnoticed in the city on any of your mad capers.”
“Eh, it was a boring job, anyway,” Namiss muttered.
As she pulled her blouse over her head and tucked it into her snug, light-colored breeches, Sifani felt a secret appreciation for Namiss’ gift, stolen though it was. The girl was a royal handful – she wondered at how the Deities had saddled her with so many of those – but she was a friend, and by Donis, a Reehler like her had to take those where she could find them.
It’s not too late to read part 1 of “Bloodlines of Epheria!” Catch up here, then read on!
They turned away from one another to face that world they loved. It was particularly vivid this time for their having jointly accessed it, and Sifani soaked in the sight like water after a drought. She had often described the epheria to Jatan and the other researchers as life distilled – though Lorin called that an exaggeration, it was simple truth to her.
As always, Sifani noted the objects that stood out most bright against the blue-tinted palette. The trees and grass burned with a white light that paled the other objects, though Sifani knew if she could see the Pipers and custodians from this vantage point, their comparative brightness would be like the sun next to a candle.
“We could easily go through the wall. What do you think?” Lorin’s voice penetrated Sifani’s thoughts, sounding as though it were coming from all around her, though softly, as it did when they canvassed.
She nodded concisely. “I was thinking the same.” The wall wouldn’t be a risk – not like reconstituting something that was alive, anyway.
Together, with their surroundings flowing past them, dreamlike, she and Lorin knelt before the nearest corner of the courtyard wall. Lorin arched a questioning eyebrow at her. He relished reconstitution as much as Sifani did, but he often deferred to her, especially in more difficult tasks.
She gestured for him to go. He was a decent enough partner, after all.
Smiling to himself, Lorin touched the uneven surface of one of the foundation stones twice as large as his head. It softened, crumbling into particles as fine as sand, and blew away.
Having seen the goal accomplished, Sifani willed herself out of the epheria. She would’ve liked to stay longer, but Jatan would verbally flay her if he discovered she had been dawdling again.
Wondrously, willing herself out was all it took – she had always thought transitioning easy. Sifani found herself back under the stark morning sun, staring at a hole in the bottom of the wall where the stone used to be.
She glanced over at Lorin long enough to check his eyes. They were there – grey as rain, with that slightly arrogant cast as always. She had to admit she was glad of that. She did understand a little of why people feared Reehlers, as she had never gotten used to seeing others’ eyes become blank and white when canvassing.
If they were both out of the epheria, though, it was time to get down to business. Sifani stretched out on her back, head at the entrance of the gaping hole. “My turn.”
She began to wriggle along the ground, not stopping until her head was all the way through. Out of the corner of her eye she could see the figures in the courtyard. Perhaps she could scoot just a little bit further…
To her horror, she heard Lorin call wryly from the other side of the wall. “Let me help you!”
Before Sifani could protest Lorin’s help with a sound kick – her legs were strong for other tasks besides walking, and standing on Lorin’s grotesquely powerful shoulders – he pushed hard on her feet, shoving her forward without warning. She resisted crying out as her arms and shoulders wedged into the tight space.
Sifani glowered at the sky above her as she tried in vain to wiggle free. She was going to have to ask Lorin to get her out, wasn’t she? Sifani decided that if she were capable of killing the man with only her feet just then, she would have.
Instead, she settled for rolling her eyes, though it was much less gratifying. Then, she tilted back her head to glimpse the Pipers’ courtyard upside-down. The flamboyant blue circles were even more stomach-churning from this viewpoint! Sifani clenched her eyes and teeth shut to fight down the nausea. Amidst the custodians’ whistled commands to their birds, she finally managed to ignore her agitated stomach and insert a high-pitched whistle of her own.
Once again, it proved easy to find Ileniel. He had never been very subtle, despite his own beliefs about himself. The man’s black-tufted head – he now had a tuft where a long, glossy mane once grew – perked up suddenly at the sound of Sifani’s signal. His eyes swept back and forth across the courtyard, then fell on Sifani’s face with a wide-eyed and slightly hunted look.
Perhaps he should feel a bit hunted, but Sifani refused to pity him. It wasn’t her decision to come here. It might have everything to do with her, but Jatan was the one who gave the orders.
Ileniel stepped out of formation, and was swiftly followed by a fellow bright-cloaked figure that appeared to be his superior. Head bowed toward the other man, Ileniel moved his hands in expository fashion. He offered a few acquiescent nods as they conversed, then at last handed the man his Piper’s leash. Ileniel carefully watched his colleague jog back into a circle before his gaze swung back to Sifani, lips turned down into a decided scowl.
Thinking himself the paragon of sneakiness, Ileniel tugged a long handkerchief from a hip pocket and dabbed at his forehead as if tired from the exercise. He smiled ingratiatingly at several of the custodians he passed as he approached the wall where Sifani lay.
She sighed. She wouldn’t be surprised if he brought the whole lot of them, birds and all, down on her and Lorin’s head with his ridiculous attempts at artfulness.
Ileniel arrived at the wall and leaned against it, facing outward.
The handkerchief passed over his face again as he spoke from the corner of his mouth. “I hoped I would never see your face again, Sifani a-vinna Leyone.”
“It’s good to see you, too, Len.” Sifani shifted, trying to reposition her shoulders comfortably. “How’s life on the bird farm?”
“Convent,” Ileniel growled. “It’s peaceful.Serene. Undisturbed.” She saw him grimace from behind a fold of the sweat-soaked cloth. “Need I go on?”
“Maybe later.” Sifani flashed him her most dazzling and ingenuous smile as he peered down at her. “You do know how much I love hearing you run your mouth.”
Ileniel’s annoyance remained a low rumble in his throat. “So tell me why you’ve tracked me down, and then get out of here, oh destroyer of kingdoms.”
Sifani sighed again. So melodramatic. “I have a message for you, from Jatan.”
He reached down and tried to snatch the paper she held up from out of her hand.
Sifani swiftly retracted her hand. “Oh, no you don’t!” she admonished. “Jatan said you had to read it with me present. No running off into your dark scholarly corners, denying me the pleasure of seeing your reaction.”
The scowl had never left Ileniel’s face, but it became chagrin for a fleeting moment. Ileniel would clean Jatan’s boots with his tears if the man let him. He probably wondered what he had done to deserve such a punishment from Jatan, having to read this message in front of the woman who so repulsed him.