Ileniel leaned forward to put his forearms on his knees, a posture he often took before launching off into a personal sermon, or a particularly long and complex tale. He waited several heartbeats before speaking again. “I can only tell you what I know, but it should be enough.” He took a deep breath.
“Your father and I were schoolmates, both looking to work in government before he became a financier and I turned to my research. Though we were very different in temperament, we held a common fascination – the history of the Reehlers. Maric was the first person I met who had a little Reehler blood in him – at least, the first and only person I met during my school days who confessed to it. He knew that my research was more than a passing fancy – it was a deep love for the subject, a profound fascination with the people – and so he trusted me with his secret.”
“He made occasional forays into the epheria, and told me all about them. After the first year of our friendship, we decided to share a lodging, and together, we developed theories on – and recorded all we could deduce about – this other world.” Ileniel smiled thoughtfully, to himself, Sifani thought. “Maric was my partner in research, you could say, and a good one at that. We were enthusiastic about bringing the knowledge of the Reehlers and the epheria back, and finding out how and why it was lost in the first place.”
In a wink, his demeanor fell. “Things began to change one day when your father was canvassing, for that was when he met her.” Ileniel grimaced slightly as he looked over at Sifani for the first time since he started his story. “I’m sorry,” he said uncomfortably, visibly squirming. “You wanted the truth, though. I didn’t really know your mother, except for what came through Maric. Her name was Nume – her family and hometown were a mystery. Maric was immediately and completely taken by her.”
“You must understand – Maric never wanted for female attention, but suddenly he found himself strung along behind a woman who seemed, from everything he told me, not to care that he was alive. At first I thought that your father was simply intrigued by the challenge, since, in my experience with him, very few women had every turned him down.” He spared a grim half-smile for Sifani. “Always hated that, I did.”
Ileniel cared about women? Sifani thought with surprise, following his jest. How many more shocking revelations is this day going to bring?
The man continued, the lines of age so often hidden against his dark skin illumined by the sunlight. “However, the more Maric chased Nume, the more concerned I became. Somewhere along the way, I saw that his fascination had become obsession. And though your father always was one of the most self-assured, arrogant people I knew -“
“Arrogant?” Sifani raised an eyebrow.
“A strong family trait, I hear. But as I was saying, though he was one of the most self-assured and arrogant people I knew, I was sure he would throw himself at Nume’s feet if she ever decided to end the game and put him off for good.”
Ileniel paused. Sifani sat with her hands clutched, waiting for him to go on.
“And then?” Lorin’s voice.
“And then…he caught her.” Ileniel spread his hands.
Sifani stared at him flatly. “Don’t you dare end your tale there, Ileniel.”
“Sifani, I can’t help but feel this part isn’t mine to tell.” He was squirming again. Sifani felt her hands curling into fists. “Perhaps if you spoke to your father -“
Her father? Why – so he could lie to her again?
“Ileniel!” Sifani rose, standing over her father’s friend with fury beating against her ribcage, threatening to break free. A moment of light-headedness washed over her.
She swayed. In the periphery of her awareness, she heard Lorin’s voice and saw him reaching out toward her, but most of her being was focused on her sudden awareness of the pieces of everything around her.
Those pieces were so fragile…they would be so easy to destroy…
Blood pulsed in Sifani’s ears, the world and its sounds were swallowed up as if she were floating underwater.
”Sifani, you have to stop! Don’t let your anger take over!”
She remembered where she was, what she was doing.
The sounds and voices settled back into realism and clarity.
She shivered, blinking up at the bright sun startledly. “You can stop shouting at me, now, Lorin.”
She looked over at Lorin beside her, and Ileniel cowering just behind him, and felt her heart drop at what she saw. Even Lorin’s warm eyes had that icy-cold tinge of terror in them – terror at what might happen if Sifani had another breakdown here outside the epheria.
She wrapped her arms around herself – she felt like she stood in the depths of winter, after seeing their faces like that. Sitting down again, Sifani said, “I’m fine. Sit down, both of you – nothing’s going to happen.”
Ileniel looked as if he’d rather eat a roasted Piper leg than resume his story at Sifani’s side, but to his credit, he crept back to the water barrel and sat gingerly. The sight would’ve been hilarious, if Sifani weren’t responsible for the fear that still hovered over his expression.
“Where was I?” he asked timorously.
“‘And then he caught her.’” Sifani quoted. “Please, elucidate.”
Ileniel took a deep breath, unconsciously looking to Lorin and waiting for the other man to nod before he started up again.
“Well, that’s what happened – Maric caught her. Whatever your father did, Nume finally decided that she would have him. I didn’t see Maric for a full week – he stumbled in once, grabbed a few things. I saw her behind him…it was the briefest glimpe, but I did…” Ileniel trailed off.
“What did she look like?” Sifani hadn’t meant to whisper it.
The man’s eyes took on a far-off cast. “If you had studied her features bit by bit, you would conclude that she was a fine woman – pretty, even – but beholding all those features at once, together, she became unaccountably….beautiful,” he breathed. “Just beautiful. I couldn’t put my finger on what made her that way. It was a presence, I suppose, the likes of which I’ve never seen before, or since.” As if suddenly aware of what he had said, Ileniel’s head snapped upright. “Hum, that is – as I was telling you – I saw Maric that once, and then not again for many days. When he came back, it was only because she had gone.”
Ileniel nodded sadly, his face contorting with sympathy. “She left your father without a word as to why, and it crushed him. He was a broken man for weeks afterward. I was furious, as I would’ve been for any friend.” The admission seemed to embarass him, but Sifani found a sliver of unused emotion to feel appreciation for it. “So you’ll understand that when Nume walked in several months later, belly swollen with child, all imperious rage, I refused to leave Maric to confront her alone.”
Off to the side, Lorin clicked his tongue softly. “You should’ve left the man to fight his own fight, Ileniel.”
Until then, Sifani had never seen Ileniel sneer. “What do you know about manhood, boy?” he spat. “Had you seen the way Maric worshipped her, you would’ve understood why I thought he needed an ally. And before this imp continues, Sifani, I will tell you that that confrontation is when we found out who your mother really was.”
“She told Maric that she could not keep the child – that Maric must raise the babe alone. Maric, poor man, had spent nearly half a year haunted and broken, and by that time, his sorrow had curdled into anger. He would have none of her talk – ‘coward’s bluster,’ he called it, and I was proud! – so the fight only escalated, even as I looked on.”
“I remember it like it was minutes ago,” Ileniel continued softly. “The house began to quake. Things began…they began to both disappear, or dissipate, and to manifest. Where once there was a wall – suddenly smoke, or fire. The ground around us churned to water, if you will believe it. And…sometimes…things. Creatures that shouldn’t exist. Beautiful, beautiful birds, colored things, in moments of recounted passion.” Ileniel had the prudishness to blush, then – how had the man survived the actual conversation, Sifani wondered? “They burst into flame the moment Nume’s anger rekindled,” he muttered, darting his eyes away from Sifani’s when hers widened with horror. “There were many such things.”
“I had my suspicions, then, Sifani. They were only confirmed when Nume appeared to Maric for the last time.” Ileniel’s head was turned away from Sifani, now, and she struggled to make out each word. She wanted to remember every detail of what he was saying – to taste every moment, every bitter truth he was telling her in order to replace the sweet lies she had been told all her life before then. The man sounded choked. “Speak up, Len,” Sifani managed. “Please.”
She realized he was crying, then. Her numb heart wouldn’t let her feel anything for him. He kept on, speaking doom, like an oncoming bank of thunderclouds. “When Maric opened the door to her, she was holding a wrapped baby, and she pushed her into Maric’s arms.”
“‘If they ever find out, they’ll kill me,’ your mother told him, by way of explanation, and then he asked her, ‘Who will?’” Ileniel wiped his hand across his face. Sifani heard him sniff. She felt a twinge of disdain, and an even stronger jolt of painful inevitability.
“Who did she say, Len?”
“You already know.”
“I want you to tell me,” she heard herself say.
“None of the other Deities were supposed to know you live. They weren’t supposed to know you existed! But if you’re making yourself known, Sifani…by all things holy, you must stop going to the epheria! Nume – your mother – she thought she had made a mistake with you. She is one of the Deities, Sifani, and she mixed her blood with a mere human. To her, you are still a mistake, and she will cover that mistake any way she has to!”