A mistake. She wielded the first defense that came to mind, ignoring the part of her that told her she sounded childish, or foolish, or both. “But they were married!” Sifani told Ileniel vehemently. “We all knew the story – my foreigner mother left my father after a whirlwind marriage and a tragic falling-out.”
“Only a story.”
“If you’re lying to me about any of this – !”
“Why would I, Sifani? How do you think people would’ve reacted to the news that you were an illegitimate child? Maric had to tell them something!”
Sifani felt a physical pain in her chest at that. “Pa always told me you two lost your house in a fire,” she mumbled, knowing the thought didn’t follow.
“Some fire,” Lorin scoffed.
Sifani had forgotten Lorin was there, and hearing him made her inexplicably angrier. Something snapped inside of her – perhaps sanity, perhaps irresoluteness. Whatever it was, without saying a word, she spun on her heel and dashed into the tower, leaving Ileniel and Lorin gaping after her.
Sifani heard their shouts following behind her, but she ignored them with a vague sense of dark satisfaction. Taking the first flight of stairs two steps at a time, she bounded into the circular room where the band took their meals. There, Namiss, Jatan and Antian sat like members of the Deities’ Golden Council, their heads simultaneously snapping up from morning meals.
While Namiss and Antian gaped at what must’ve been her panting, wild-eyed self, Jatan’s brow immediately crinkled in concern. “Sifani, what happened? What’s wrong?”
“All of you, up.” Her voice was hard. “Arm yourselves.”
Knives appeared in Namiss’ hands seemingly from nowhere, and Antian began to glance around the room wildly, searching for the source of attack. Jatan went from bent old man to straight-backed protector in moments – starting from his seat, he approached Sifani with a decisive step. He took her by the shoulders, forcing her to look at him. “Is it the creatures?”
“They should be coming very soon,” she snarled quietly. Then she canvassed.
The world washed over with blue. The three people before her radiated light, each his own white-hot candle. Out of the corner of her eye, Sifani saw two more figures – Lorin and Ileniel – stumble into the room to try to prevent her from recklessness. She wanted to tell them that this wasn’t recklessness, it was reckoning.
If a Deity – if her own mother – was going to try to kill her, she should at least have the decency to talk to her, first.
She let her concentration shift from the people around her to the room itself – its sober wooden table, sparse decorations. There wasn’t much to work with, but if Sifani guessed correctly, she didn’t need much. She only had to wield enough power to signal to Nume that she was in the epheria, and the woman would come after her. She would send her dog-creatures, perhaps, like she did the first time in the garden, but Sifani hoped she would come herself.
Occasionally, Sifani did things without a plan, and as for this…well, she was definitely making it up as she went along.
I can create, she told herself, the very truth that had horrified her not long ago. Eyeing the rectangular table, ignoring the hands tugging at her arms – no one could force her out of the epheria now that she was inside – Sifani made herself see.
She saw deep within the structure of the wood. It was a web-like tangle she couldn’t have made sense of in her right mind, but in the insanity of her current state, it was perfectly clear. In the space of a blink, Sifani ripped a piece of that web away. As she began to reconstitute it, she knew that what she was doing to make her mother parley was to force her to remember.
The birds. I have to make those birds that Nume made. How in Donis’ name she was going to do that? She began to twist the pieces of the web she had pulled apart, breaking some portions apart, obliterating others. Try as she might, she could make nothing approaching an animal. As she repeated the process, her failures quickly mounting, she felt disconcertingly like a child fumbling with a twig and her father’s carving knife.
Fortunately, it took a longer time than Sifani expected for the monsters to appear. Like last time, she didn’t see them the moment they manifested, yet suddenly, they were there. Sifani planted her feet as four creatures stalked into a semicircle around her. She was aware of every muscle in her body tensing, coils ready to spring, as they approached, growling. “Hello, again,” she whispered fiercely.
The things rushed her at once. Sifani bit her teeth against the inferno of pain that bloomed across her body as the creatures scrambled for purchase in her flesh. Yelling, she flung the first two – one on each arm – away from her, hoping that her friends had recovered from their shock enough to finish the monsters off, now that Sifani had made the things visible to them. The other two creatures still gnawed at her legs, trying to drag her down. As Sifani stumbled and fell to them, desperately trying to kick and strike as she did, she had a revelation of her own stupidity.
In her haze of pain, Sifani realized one of the dog-creatures had released her leg. She stretched her arm out, hand scrabbling to grab something to pull herself to safety. She tasted phantom relief for a moment, only long enough for the first monster to relocate his death-grip to her shoulder. She screamed in agony as its teeth ripped through muscle. I guess there won’t be a parley, after all…
A human form burst onto the scene beside her, ramming a belt knife into the side of one of the monsters. Dazedly, Sifani processed the sight – he wasn’t burning with light, which meant he had entered the epheria with her. Lorin.
He seemed to dance in slow motion to the other side of her, swinging the bloodied knife as he did. Some corner of her mind winced as the knife came down toward the monster clutching to her shoulder – if Lorin wasn’t careful, he would stab her – and struck true. With a savage grunt, Lorin kicked its dark body to the side, hard enough that it smashed against the wall, and slashed at it once more for good measure, though the opaque black eyes already showed the universal glaze of death.
Sifani climbed to her knees, though the effort of it made her want to roll over and die. “You okay?” she rasped, staring at her companion’s back. His tan shirt was splashed with black, sticky blood, and his shoulders heaved from anger, or more likely exertion.
“Are you an idiot?” he snapped. Well, maybe the heaving was from anger, after all.
Loss and confusion crashed back down on Sifani in the silence that followed. The sweet, distracting fury left as quickly as it had come, leaving emptiness behind. “I had to talk to her.”
Lorin shook his head slowly, still not turning to face her. “You risked all of our lives – your own most of all! – so you could try to talk to the woman who is trying to kill you,” he said flatly. “I’ve thought you many things, Sifani, but never a fool.”
Something about the way he said it – the disappointment that lurked underneath it – shamed her profoundly. “I…” Sifani trailed off, still staring at Lorin. While doing so, she suddenly realized that just like that, something had undeniably shifted. The sense of emptiness there only moments before was gone suddenly – filled. Filled with a maelstrom, but filled nonetheless.
Understanding dawned on Sifani. She knew how her mother had brought those birds to life.
She glanced at the table – at the impossibly small pieces of it – and began to try to build again.
The creatures Sifani built were rough – a child’s charcoal scratchings next to Nume’s artistic masterpieces. But, she thought, they would make her point. Looking through the epheria into the void over Lorin’s shoulder, Sifani released the crude, brown birds she had made into the air. They took wing, and when they reached the ceiling, they didn’t burst into flame like her mother’s had done. Instead, they dissolved into water.
“Speak to me,” she said firmly. It was quiet, both a plea and a command.
Sifani didn’t know what to expect, and therefore expected nothing. So when the epheria appeared to ripple, she was startled to her core.
A woman seemed to step out of a…fold in the air between Sifani and Lorin. That was the only way Sifani could describe it. She had only the space of a breath to take in the striking height, the round face so much like her own, the hair’s golden sheen that her own hair hinted at, before a ring of fire sprang up from floor to ceiling, cutting the woman and Sifani off from everyone else in the room.
Sifani’s mind seemed to take much too long to catch up. She was face to face with Nume, as she had wished, and she was trapped.