She lay on her back, knowing that she was pinned down, but gasping for breath nonetheless. With wide eyes, Sifani stared up at her attacker. What she saw was something she had no name for.
Claws. The first things that Sifani took in were the claws. Yet in the split second that followed, she was more dumbfounded by the thing the claws were attached to.
The creature that crouched on her sat on trembling, horse-like haunches of stringy muscle, but its resemblance to a horse ended there. Nothing about its shaggy covering of fur, large lurid eyes, or short-necked head – like an earless dog – was normal.
All that in one moment, and then Lorin was upon the creature, tumbling over Sifani as he tackled it off her chest. To her own fleeting chagrin, Sifani screamed when yet another black body streaked past her from behind. There were two of the things! And they were both going for Lorin now!
With a yell – Sifani had gotten her breath back, damn those things! – Sifani stumbled to her feet and ran to Lorin’s defense. Even as she did, she saw three blazing figures of light approaching the fight in speed. Squinting, Sifani jerked her face away by instinct. It was Jatan, and Antian and Namiss! What in the Deities’ names did they think they were doing?
Bracing her body, Sifani sent one monster reeling with a sound kick to the side of its head. The blow knocked it away from Lorin, and its pained whimper immediately became a snarl as it turned its fangs toward Sifani. She forced down a shiver, staring at those fangs. This is a creature of the epheria, she told herself quickly as the thing stalked toward her, so if I leave the epheria, perhaps it will disappear, in turn…
Sifani pressed her eyes closed to the blue-washed world, hoping desperately she was right.
When she opened her eyes to the real world, the dogs were still there.
Luckily for her, Namiss appeared at Sifani’s side, knives in either hand, while Sifani was still gaping.
“Don’t just stand there, Sif!” Namiss screamed.
Dark hair swinging, Namiss slashed one blade across the monster’s snout. Even then, it took Sifani another moment to reorient herself. As the creature continued to train its ruby-eyed gaze on Namiss, Sifani took advantage of its distractedness and flanked it. Snarling, she charged, flinging her arms around the creature’s body and grappling with all her strength. Its head twisted, snapping, searching for something it could clamp its jaws upon.
Sifani managed to snake one arm around the monster’s muscular neck. She used her other hand to grip its lower jaw, forcing its snout straight upward. Namiss moved in, her blades flashing. A crimson line bloomed across the creature’s throat, spraying blood.
Simultaneously, Namiss and Sifani let the body fall and turned to where the other monster had been attacking Lorin. Lorin and the two men with him were standing, thank Donis – Jatan was even holding a stout branch for a club – but the creature was eyeing them all with unalloyed hatred. Moreover, though it was limping, it was still moving toward them.
Namiss held aloft a knife. “Move, Antian!” she shrieked. “Move!”
Antian turned and saw them. He had been with them long enough to know that people moved when Namiss said to move, and staggered aside.
With a vicious flick of her left wrist, Namiss let loose her second, still unbloodied knife. It took the monster in the eye, and it released an outraged, injured cry – a long-lasting screech that made Sifani want to claw at her ears.
“Run!” Sifani ordered through the pain of the noise. She heard Lorin’s voice shouting the same thing only a hair behind her.
Five pairs of feet pounded across the hard-packed ground of the park as they took advantage of the monster’s wound. As each one of them fled through the entrance, Lorin counted them under his breath and then spun and closed the gate, its metal frame ringing as he slammed down the latch as well.
Sifani watched numbly as the creature threw itself against the gate. Its cry was rife with rage. She and her companions simply stood outside the park and stared at it for a minute, shocked into complete silence. As its maniacal eyes darted from face to face, Sifani couldn’t help but wonder, however foolishly, if it had been sent to hunt – to kill – one of them.
Her companions’ silence lasted through their pulling up their hoods and making for the tower once more. There would be much to talk about once they were back in the privacy of their hideout.
Don’t miss out on the complete story! Catch up with the rest of “Bloodlines of Epheria” via the links on the part five page.
Antian and Jatan had their cloaked and hooded heads pressed together, conversing, the whole time they led Sifani, Namiss and Lorin out of the tower and into the weed-ridden park Sifani knew well. Huddled in its shadowed corner of Hashiram, the park was one of the group’s only safe havens in the city. Between its state of disrepair and the cluster of old gravestones in one of its corners near the gate, the place was remembered only for being “cursed by the Deities.”
If the Deities cared about the group’s trespassing, though, they had never expressed it. Feeling the thrill of anticipation in her veins, Sifani jogged ahead of Antian and Jatan and pushed the bent park gate open. She felt a slight jolt of surprise, then, not at the metallic screech that followed, but at Lorin’s suddenly appearing at her shoulder, matching her stride for stride.
Antian followed after both of them, lips pressed into a smile of merry satisfaction. “That’s what I like about you, Sifani,” he said, folding his hands as he stepped inside the gate and surveyed the crumbling walls and overgrown paths within. He chose a narrow section of wall devoid of creepers and settled back against it. “You are enthusiastic, and no one can learn anything well without enthusiasm to fuel her learning. Start canvassing when you wish – that is, of course, if Jatan has no objections…?”
Jatan, steady eyes seeming to focus on Sifani and yet see everything else as well, nodded serenely as he joined Antian at the wall.
Namiss entered a few seconds behind Jatan. She was just in time to cough loudly and shove her hand in her pocket when Sifani looked at her, reminding Sifani of her gift.
With the slightest roll of her eyes, Sifani turned her back to her watching companions and reached into her pocket for Namiss’s sphere of Lightleaf. Though Lorin looked at her questioningly when the plant was already halfway between her lips, Sifani just shrugged at him and popped it the rest of the way in. Drug or not, it would make both their jobs easier.
Only moments later, Sifani felt a surge of intense feeling – anticipation, ecstasy, even the sharp tang of fear – as Lightleaf entered her system. She reached out to grip Lorin’s arm, and together, they canvassed.
The world became awash with ethereal blue, and the objects around her lit up like candles. More than candles – they were flames of white, flames of life, burning comfortingly and dimly in stones and earth, and yet fiercely, almost threateningly in grass, trees and flesh. Sifani had to turn away when she glanced over her shoulder at Namiss – the light emanating from the girl might well haved seared Sifani’s eyes to blindness.
A hand, hard and thick, took Sifani’s arm firmly and turned her about. She found herself staring at a stone-faced Lorin, the only thing in this reborn world that the light and color did not touch.
“Time to remember, Sifani.” Lorin’s lips barely moved – he was whispering so that the others could not hear, Sifani knew, but his voice resounded loudly in the epheria. “Let’s talk about Jans, the man you worked with in the Head Counselor’s home.”
The Head Counselor’s home. That alone was enough to make Sifani’s blood heat to an angry simmer. It had not been her fault. If there was any justice in the world, the Deities had not granted it to her that day. She had stood against a traitor, defied him like a heroine of her childhood stories, and was rewarded with madness she could not control, destruction she could not stop, fear, and finally, banishment.
The anger and the Lightleaf made her tremble from toes to fingertips, but as long as she deferred from reconstituting, Lorin would go on.
“Jans was winsome, wasn’t he. Clever. And he used you and your trust. He used you, Sifani. He used his familiar voice and soothing smile to make you let in the killer. You were almost responsible for the Head Counselor’s assassination, and all because money meant more to Jans than duty or loyalty ever did.”
Or than I ever did. The unbidden thought made Sifani writhe with pain and frustration. Such sentiments were the only thing Lorin didn’t know about herself and Jans, yet would that he knew nothing at all!
Sifani realized her hands were clutching at her stomach, but she did not stop them. She was angry, so angry at that dung-heap of a coward. Jans was the epitome of what she hated – a person who would twist words, promises, knives, anything to serve himself and his own dishonorable goals. And the worst of it was, she thought she might have loved him once.
Her emotions were all anger, now, a tangled mess building pressure in her head she couldn’t withstand much longer. Gods, but this stuff from Namiss works.
Doubled over her own clenched fists, Sifani raised her head to look at one of the pitiful trees in front of her. Once, she had made “every leaf of a tree into fibrous strands,” as Antian had put it. She had been able to see those strands at the time, somehow, with her eyes or some other sense.
Only now, she would swear that she could see the strands of those strands she saw the first time. Her mind was stretched out over a canvass of a million paint-like dots that she knew without a doubt she could arrange at will.
She knew she had never felt this, before. She had never gone this deep – didn’t know she was able to – so deep that she knew she could build, even destroy, with the tools lying before her.
Sifani reached down into those millions of dots as if dipping brush into paint, and knew what she wanted the leaves to become…
I’ll make them into rain, as it was raining that day… The paintbrush of Sifani’s thoughts whirled into action, breaking down, rearranging, casting aside.
What of the leaves she could turn into water, she did. Droplets formed, large and looming and all around her, in her mind’s eye. Everything else…everything else she made dust. Water and dust. Fitting, the only two things that Jans had left behind in his wake.
The voices, even cries, of those outside the epheria were faint and echoing as always. For a moment Sifani thought the noises were wails, but then she made out delighted timbre that marked them instead as shouts of excitement. Wanting to view the aftermath of her work, Sifani pushed her manic thoughts of Jans and the Head Counselor into the background, though the Lightleaf made doing so a visceral struggle.
She was still fighting to get her anger under complete control when fear knocked it aside completely. One moment, Lorin was moving toward her with a slight smile, the next his eyes were fixed on something just beyond her, wide with fear.
“SIFANI, LOOK OUT!” His sudden yell had a strangled sound.
Sifani tried to turn around, but something large and heavy barreled straight into her stomach. It knocked her to the ground, and all the air fled from out her lungs.
Did you happen to miss “Bloodlines” part 1, 2, 3 or 4? Catch up with Sifani’s story and join us back here!
Antian was indeed bent over his notebook when Sifani, Lorin, Namiss and Jatan climbed two flights of stairs to his level of the tower. His light hair fell lank over jug ears, and his thin right arm moved rapidly with the scratching of his pen. He bolted from his chair when Jatan said his name.
“Sifani!” Antian’s expression was all pleasure as he approached her, and he and Sifani touched each other’s shoulders. “I could hardly wait for you to come back. Welcome, welcome.” He hauled two rickety chairs from the wall and brushed a layer of dust from each of them with his hand, gesturing for Sifani and Namiss to sit after he did. “Did Jatan tell you about our next test?”
“Only that there was one,” Sifani replied, declining the seat. “What is it this time, Antian? I expect a great discovery from you today, as always.”
Antian’s nervous foot-shifting, which had long since ceased to irritate Sifani, commenced as he told her of the plan. “Well, it’s quite clear – as you know – quite clear that your power to reconstitute is much fiercer than we originally thought. Your breakdowns in the real world have allowed you to do things we didn’t think possible. We saw this in the test where you turned every leaf of a tree into fibrous strands, somehow, and of course, made the Head Counselor’s home—“
Blessed sweet man – he covered his mouth in mortification, realizing the incident he had just called up. Sifani waved her hand to indicate it was fine. Even if she let herself think about it, she would never admit that she continued to be disturbed by what happened on the day the study and practice of reconstitution was outlawed in Hashiram and its joint cities of Enell and Ashare.
Though Namiss had been with her, the situation had been entirely Sifani’s fault. That was the first time Sifani had experienced a breakdown – a particularly fierce one, for few things angered her as much as betrayal – and she had accidentally brought the Head Counselor’s manor down in dust.
Lorin studied his fingernails as he addressed a still humiliated-looking Antian. “Are you going to finish describing the test, or is this where we insert our own ideas for consideration?”
With an abrupt shake of his head, Antian remembered himself. “Ah, yes, Lorin. The test.” He regarded Sifani again. “Because we know how strong you can be in moments of anger, we’d like to see what your anger, coupled with control, can do within the epheria.”
Sifani tilted her head, resting her chin on one fist as she stared at Antian thoughtfully. “It’s worth a try. Though, who’s to say that my anger will yield that level of power whenever – and wherever- I use it?”
Namiss’s mouth formed an awed “oh.” “Imagine, Sif,” she said breathlessly, “if your anger is as strong in the epheria as it is in the real world…the possibilities!”
Namiss had always been captivated by Sifani’s description of the epheria. There was no Reehler blood in the girl’s veins, so she’d never truly know what it was like – Jatan had recruited Namiss as a scout or sorts, as she outstripped most street toughs in terms of survival instinct and ability.
“It would be amazing,” Sifani admitted. “What do you need me to do, Antian?”
“We’ll go out, as always,” he said. None of them wanted to an accident to happen in their home in the tower, since it had been hard enough to secure the building for themselves as it was. “Lorin will canvass with you, and help anger you, if you need help. Then, I want you to try to reconstitute something you accidentally reconstituted during one of your breakdowns in the real world. Only if you judge it safe, of course,” Antian amended swiftly. Jatan hadn’t wanted them to dare test the limits of reconstitution. There had been no stories, no lore, that even Ileniel the scholar could find of what happened if a Reehler tried something beyond his or her ability. “Pour all your concentration into it and see what you can do. If that goes well, you can try something even more difficult next time.”
Sifani heard Lorin snort behind her. He always chafed at rules. She knew the importance of them, though, and submitted to Jatan’s final judgment about such matters even when it was difficult. There was so little known of Reehlers, anymore. So much had been lost after the Fifth Era Migration that Sifani was determined to see the precious knowledge they gained preserved for future generations this time around.
“Perfect,” she told Antian confidently, to offset Lorin’s scoffing. “Take me where we need to go.”
Sifani picked up the sphere of Lightleaf she had set by the tub and pocketed it. “Thank you, Namiss,” she relented.
The girl’s night-dark eyes lit up appreciatively.
Sifani jerked her thumb at the door good-naturedly. “Come on, let’s go to supper. I’m sure Lorin’s starting to miss me.”
Sifani gave herself a cursory glance in the mirror as she headed for the door with Namiss on her heels. She saw what she expected to see – a woman less boyish now that she was out of her dusty riding clothes, but with a face that was still too babyishly round for beauty, and long hair not light enough to be called golden yet not dark enough to be called brown. Fortunately, it was not her job to impress anyone, only to show up and let others weigh, measure and categorize her and Lorin from sunup to sundown until they figured out something new about Reehlers and the epheria.
The two women’s booted feet echoed in the empty stone corridor that stretched away from the room they shared. As usual, only one torch burned at the far end of the hall, just enough to fitfully illuminate the doorway beside it.
Sifani opened it, and she and Namiss passed through into the circular chamber beyond.
Jatan was already sitting at the head of the long table on the other side of the room, hands folded as he watched Lorin sink his teeth into a juicy rabbit leg. His aging head swiveled toward Sifani and Namiss as they entered, and the light of a smile touched his thin olive cheeks.
“You made good time.” Jatan stood, gesturing to the empty chairs and the food spread out on the table.
“I would never dawdle,” Sifani replied pleasantly, taking care to make her exclusion of Lorin in that statement as egregious as possible.
Namiss rounded the table to take her regular seat beside Lorin. Balking suddenly, she rapped her knuckles on his head as she passed behind him. “Unblessed!” she exclaimed as she sat, eyeing his already half-eaten food.
Sifani touched Jatan’s shoulder in greeting, then settled down in her chair across from Lorin. “Were you really so hungry you would risk dishonoring the Deities by starting without us?” she addressed him.
Lorin grinned, one cheek still stuffed with food. “What can I say? Carrying as much weight as I did this afternoon really wore me out.”
Namiss gasped exaggeratedly, pretending offense on Sifani’s behalf. Lorin winked at her roguishly.
Jatan looked back and forth between them with ever-present longsuffering. He seemed to give up trying to understand, and instead went right to business, his soft accent full of that quiet earnestness that had always endeared Sifani to him.
“Sifani,” he turned to her, “Lorin has told me of Ileniel’s agreement to return to us. It will be well to have him back again. His knowledge of the forgotten literature will be invaluable in the coming days. Perhaps you were right – perhaps he has missed his partnership with us after all.”
The image of the screeching Pipers and the trotting, robed men flashed across Sifani’s mind. “Trust me, Jatan, the life he’s leading now looks positively oppressive.” Her voice dropped to a wry murmur. “I suppose it would have to be, for him to agree to come back into my presence so quickly.” She glanced around, and only then noticed the empty chair next to her. “Where’s Antian?” She had grown used to Antian’s presence, after all those days of him trailing her around the tower with a book and pen.
“Buried in his notes, I’ll wager,” Jatan shook his head with something approximating affection. “He can hardly wait to observe you in the epheria again. Since our discovery last week, he’s barely budged from his writing table.”
Namiss piped up vehemently after slapping Lorin’s hand away from the roll on her plate. “Don’t you think you all know enough about Sif already? Bother Lorin for a while, and give her a little rest, why don’t—“
Shaking her head, Sifani interrupted. “It’s fine, Namiss. I want to learn about the epheria as much as anyone else here. The more we understand it, the more we can teach other Reehlers to act properly within it.”
“And, the more we have an advantage over those who would misuse reconstitution,” Lorin added.
“That, too.” Though so far, the only one who had managed to misuse reconstitution was her.
“Eat up, then,” Jatan said. “It seems you have work to do, Sifani.”
Sifani nodded and prepared to dig in to her food at last. When she looked down, though, her roll was gone. She trained her eyes on Lorin with brows furrowed.
As always, he somehow managed to balance very beautiful with very stupid as he pretended to examine the faded tapestry hanging on a nearby section of wall, innocent as a lamb.
Sifani sighed. “I’m always working, Jatan,” she said.
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.
Sifani might have marveled at the strength and breadth of them, if Lorin wasn’t such a great buffoon. A beautiful buffoon, but a buffoon nonetheless. If he was aware of the fact he certainly didn’t care.
He grunted beneath her weight and looked up at her from below, waiting until she looked back to make eyes at her legs. That was just to stoke her temper, Sifani reminded herself firmly. He did excel at that.
“Do you see anything, my milk-tempered maiden?” Lorin asked sweetly.
Sifani dug her heel into his shoulder bone for good measure.
She allowed herself a smug smile at his pained reaction. “It’s only been one minute, Lorin. What do you think I would have seen by now?”
He shrugged, and Sifani almost lost her footing. “I don’t know how they rally the things. For all I know the custodians just say, ‘Go!’ and the birds rush out of their cages for their happy morning jaunt.”
Sifani almost expected it to happen, since the Deities seemed to think it a great joke to prove Lorin right and her wrong on a regular basis. Instead, she stood teetering on her partner’s shoulders for a good five minutes longer, listening to him sigh childishly every thirty seconds or so, probably just to get a rise out of her again.
Then, the great birds they had been waiting for came prancing out onto the wall-enclosed, carefully trimmed lawn, tethered with thick leather leashes – it must’ve been quite the task to get them past those snapping beaks onto those long necks. Custodians jogged behind them, directing them by whistling sharply through their teeth.
Sifani didn’t have to inform Lorin of the birds’ entrance. The squeals that the wretched, cerulean blue Pipers made were fit to raise her ancestors from their graves. She clutched the top of the uncut stone wall and lowered her face behind it so only her eyes peeped over. She and Lorin were only here to deliver a message from Jatan, but even such a simple task would see them at the gallows if they were caught.
“Is he there?” As usual, Lorin’s voice bespoke complete seriousness now that the real work had begun.
Sifani scanned the swirling, gaudy wheel of Pipers and humans, her head spinning with the sight. The custodians’ matching blue garb made them hard to pick out from between the tall figures of the marching birds, but sure enough, as the exercise circle broke off into two separate rings, she saw Ileniel’s face, dark as well-brewed tea, flash into view.
Sifani tapped the center of Lorin’s black-curled nest of hair, and he hunched over so she could hop off his shoulders. They were very strong and broad…
The thought made her want to hit him, but she channeled her anger into her task instead. If she did nothing else during her time with the Reehlers, she told herself, she had to learn to control her temper. “Ileniel’s there, but I don’t know how we’re going to get him alone,” Sifani murmured more irritably than she intended. “There are at least fifteen other custodians there, holding on to the Pipers’ leashes.”
Lorin nodded like he expected no less. “That’s why Jatan sent us, Sifani. Shall we canvass?”
She found herself suddenly grinning at him in answer. She couldn’t help it. Canvassing was perhaps the one and only thing that she and Lorin had in common.
Sifani wrapped her long fingers as far around Lorin’s arm as they would go. Physical contact with another Reehler always intensified the effect of their power. When she closed her eyes and opened them again, the world had been created anew.
Where once the colors of the forest around them were sundry – green and brown, grey-flecked and blue-speckled – they were now all awash with a soft blue glow. The whites had become lighter, the darks deeper. Though Sifani always missed true colors when too long in the epheria, she found herself starving for its otherworldly beauty after much time in the real world, as well.
The only thing that maintained its realism was Lorin beside her. He exchanged glances with her, grey eyes twinkling from behind a dark curl tumbling over his forehead. A genuine smile like that, one that broke the hardness of Lorin’s face, was like a flower growing out of a crack in the rock – always beautiful, always surprising.
Well, my plans for my full-length fantasy novel have taken some twists and turns, which has been more than a bit stressful. Nothing like a good ol’ dose of feeling-like-a-total-noob right before sending your first query letter to an agent. So, today I took a short break from anything related to that project. Instead, I started writing something strictly for my relaxation and your enjoyment.
“Bloodlines of Epheria” is a fantasy serial that I will publish on my blog. Check back frequently to read the next installment, and by all means, leave your feedback! I love interacting with people about story.