What followed might have been just a few moments of staring, but they stretched on to infinity in Sifani’s mind. The sheer number of words she had on the tip of her tongue alongside the bone-deep shock that had hit her cancelled each other out, so that she could say and do nothing. Nume was still as well, though her eyes – a bright hazel that seemed to glow almost gold in the light of the flames around them – narrowed with something much fiercer than evaluation. Sifani imagined that if a look could burn a person out of existence, that one would have.
After that split-second expression, Nume straightened, her face assuming chilly composure. She looked decidedly regal, but Sifani wasn’t intimidated. Deity, creator, matron, whatever – she was still one thing that Sifani couldn’t stand, and that was a coward.
“You’re fortunate I deigned to speak with you, girl,” Nume began at the same time Sifani hissed, “I’m surprised you summoned the courage to face me after twenty-seven years.”
The fire around them cracked as if in response to the tension. Sifani barely felt the strong heat pressing against her back, warming her fresh wounds and threatening and goading her. “You’re certainly less grand than I’d expected of a such a legendary being. Deity,” she spat, and the thrill of the heretical mocking was heady. “Now that I see you, I wonder what that word even means. You have power, but that’s the only thing about you that’s different from any aging farmwife.”
Sifani seemed to have struck a nerve, for Nume sneered. I’d always heard that mothers and daughters had a tendency to clash, she laughed – a bit madly – in her head.
“Power is the only thing that sets any of us apart,” Nume retorted, and now that Sifani wasn’t speaking over her mother, she could hear that the woman’s voice was low, seductive. The kind of voice that would entangle an insatiable, free-spirited man like her father.
“You can’t be that powerful, if you have to kill me to escape the wrath of your fellow Deities. Those are the actions of someone weak and afraid.”
“Don’t pretend you understand the workings of a people higher than you!” Nume stepped forward, eyes peering down at Sifani dangerously. A hint of petulance showed through, though. “Twenty-seven years is more than a lifetime for someone like me. The actions of the young are not to be accounted for, and I was but a child when I hunted Maric. He certainly was good sport,” she added with a predatory grin.
Sifani felt her face darken. “That’s my father you’re speaking about, harlot!”
The fire flared again, and it seemed that Nume was one moment across the circle from Sifani, and the next nose-to-nose with her, looming. Yes, Sifani considered fleetingly, I certainly got my height from my mother.
“As I was saying,” Nume breathed after a moment. “I was young.”
“And now, after years have passed, I suppose your wisdom has finally demanded you take action.” Sifani chose to speak carefully. The ground she trod was much too thin. “I know my religion – I assume the Golden Council forbade any dalliance with us mere mortals? Yes? I thought so. So, rather than face the consequences of your own actions, you’re going to erase the evidence.”
Nume snorted softly and took her face out of Sifani’s. She began to circle Sifani, then, looking her up and down in appraisal. “It’s a shame, really. You seem much like me, in a way, and your power is quite remarkable. I was certain that Maric could not have stayed with us, but you would’ve made a profitable addition.”
Sifani was doubtful that being “much like her mother” was a compliment, but the offense was overshadowed by sudden interest. What did she mean by “a profitable addition?” Was it possible to join the Deities? Sifani’s senses went on alert, and just like that the conversation reconstituted into a different thing entirely. Instead of a last confrontation, Sifani realized, this could be a first opportunity – an investigation into exactly who she was dealing with, and what that meant for a Reehler like herself.
“Joining you. That’s an intriguing thought,” Sifani answered, modulating her tone just enough to sound slightly desperate, likely pliable, and yet not suspicious. “If I’m as much like you as you think I am, Nume, that could be profitable for both of us, don’t you think?”
Nume’s lips twisted inscrutably.
“The way I see it, you have two immediate choices,” Sifani continued. “Kill me now and hope that erasing the evidence of your disobedience is enough to keep you from being found out and punished, or tell me more, and perhaps have a new and powerful ally.” She smiled grimly. “So, mother? What think you?”
Lorin stumbled back from the blaze that flared up between him and Sifani. “NO!” he shouted, taking a step foward as if he would attack the flame itself. Gods above, he could do nothing with fire! And that woman – Sifani was trapped in there with her!
Wiping both sides of his knife on the leg of his trousers, he shoved it into its leather sheath as he stalked back to where Ileniel, Jatan, Antian and Namiss stood, incredulous. They stared alternately between Lorin’s demeanor and the ring of fire burning in the center of their dining chamber, unsure which one was more incredible.
“There’s nothing we can do,” Lorin told them, “so stop staring, and I’ll explain what just happened.” He glanced irritably at Ileniel, who had his face in his hands and was murmuring into them lugubriously. Jatan stepped over to the man, looking only slightly disoriented that Ileniel had appeared seemingly out of nowhere minutes before, and put a comforting hand on his shoulder.
“That woman,” Namiss said in an angry, tremulous voice, “Who was she?”
Lorin took her arm, and the arm of an unsteady Antian, and led them over to a long bench angled against the curved wall. He sat them down. “That would be Sifani’s mother, who’s a Deity.”
Jatan and Namiss gasped. Antian almost fell backward off the bench. Lorin caught him and propped him up with a hand on his back. “Get comfortable, you three. Ileniel and I have a whole lot to tell you.”