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.