Bane Eighteen - Fear
I think the date was going pretty well. Esme and I were having fun, at least. We poked around the shops and stared through windows and I spent a few coins on some street-vendor food that Esme and I ate on some convenient benches along the roadside.
Of course, we weren’t there just to have fun (even if it was fun, and that made it all rather distracting). While Esme sat next to me, I checked out Mom and Semper.
The two were doing pretty much the same thing we were, though they probably looked a lot better doing it.
When Esme and I poked our heads against the windows of some shop the people inside looked a bit annoyed, even if we were dressed like nobles of some sort.
When Mom and Semper paused before a shop the people within stumbled over themselves to present them their best stuff. Mom and Semper mostly ignored them, which only seemed to encourage the merchants.
“I think this is going pretty well so far,” I said.
Esme nodded. “Yeah. They have their arms hooked together.”
“Does that mean anything?” I asked.
“Well, it’s halfway to handholding, isn’t it?” Esme asked with a scandalous gasp.
Our eyes met, then we both giggled before jumping back to our feet. I grabbed Esme’s hand, which made her giggles hitch, then pulled her after me. “Come on! We need to start the next part of the plan!”
“We don’t have a plan!” Esme hissed.
I grinned back at her. “Then we make one up.”
The market street opened up onto a square smack in the centre of Santafaria. One side of the square had the city’s castle walls looming above it, and there was a road past that which led straight to the waterfront.
Stalls had been set up along the edges, and there was a quaint fountain in the centre with sides low enough that people could use it as a seat if they didn’t mind having the occasional bit of water spritzed onto them. To one side of the square was a huge building, the biggest I’d seen in the city.
It was maybe a quarter the size of the main keep at the castle and made of wood varnished in pale yellow. “What is that?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Esme said. “Oh, there’s a sign.”
She pointed next to the big double doors at the front of the building to a copper plaque which read the Yellow Exchange in huge embossed letters. “Is it a fish market then?” I asked.
“Aye miss, it is,” someone said from nearby. A middle aged woman tending to one of the stalls smiled at the two of us. “That’s where the day’s catch is auctioned off. Then it’s carted off to whoever’ll salt and cure and cook it.”
“Oh, thank you,” I said.
“It’s more than that. The fish auction’s only half. The other half is a proper auction. Once a week they’ll have all sorts of goods displayed and sold.”
“Like magical items?” Esme asked. “Or books?”
“Books, yes, but magical items, well, maybe once in a while,” she said with a grin. “Mostly it’s merchants selling goods to each other, sometimes nobles. Horses and donkeys, carts and carriages. Big casks of wine from Montele and game from the Vulture Plains. Say, do you girls want some roasted nuts?”
I fished out a pair of smaller denomination coins and handed them to the lady in exchange for a small bag of nuts. Mostly it was as thanks, I didn’t want to eat too much before we went to whichever restaurant we’d stop at.
“The big auction’s on today, if you two are looking to attend,” the lady said. “Are you two from here?”
“We’re from around here, kinda,” I said. “Esme here’s from Montele.”
Esme nodded and reached over to pluck some nuts from my bag. She didn’t let go of my hand, but that was fine. “That’s nice. Visiting the city with some family then?”
“Yeah, we’re on a date!” I said.
The woman’s face worked through a few emotions so fast I couldn’t read them all. “Oh. That’s nice,” she said.
“Um. Okay. Thanks for the information then!” I said before leaving with Esme in tow. “She went weird,” I said.
“I think she’s a follower of the Three,” Esme said. “She had a medallion.”
“Oh,” I said. The Three were pretty popular nearly all over, as far as I knew. The Goddesses of maidens, mothers and grandmothers everywhere. Even in the more... women-unfriendly nations they were still very much respected. The priestesses were nearly all trained as midwives and such. Not that I had to worry about that kind of stuff. “Well, whatever. Where’s Mom and Semper?”
“Oh, they’re over there,” Esme said while pointing across the square.
Mom and Semper were next to a nice stall being operated by a noblewoman selling fresh flowers in little clay pots. Mom was probably the one who was more interested, though it was hard to tell how Mom felt from so far away, her expression was always very aloof.
We did have a nice garden at home, and Mom liked flower language stuff and all the symbolism that went with it.
“Do you want some flowers?” I asked Esme.
“Um, sure?” Esme said, uncertainly. “I don’t think I’m very into flowers. They’re pretty enough, I guess. I’d rather a book on flowers.”
“Oh, but we could give Semper some flowers to give to Mom. Mom knows what different flowers mean, so if we give Semper flowers that mean ‘I love you’ and she gives those to Mom....”
Esme’s mouth formed a cute little ‘o’ of understanding. “I see, that could work!”
I nodded and pulled her along towards another flower stall. There were a few of those, and I noticed that we weren’t the only ones out on dates. Maybe it was the pleasant weather and the season, but I think a good half of the people in the square were on dates of their own.
“We should probably go to another flower stall, not the same one that--” Esme cuts herself off even as I felt someone approaching me.
We were near the fountain, in the centre of the square. It was normal for people to come close, but this felt different.
I turned and stared as a woman, maybe in her mid thirties, loomed over me. She had some companions with her, four more women of various ages. They wore white gowns, simple and unadorned, with only a large necklace as decoration. It was the symbol of the Three.
“Uh, hi?” I asked.
She glared at me and Esme, her focus shifting to our hands. “Disgusting,” she said. “And you parade yourself out here in public where anyone can see your degeneration.”
“I’m sorry, what?” I asked, utterly confused. Was it because my skin was exposed? I was a little self-conscious about it. My skin was very pale and riddled with thin blue veins, the clear sign that I was a cultivator of dark magic.
I wished that the veins I had were more like Mom’s, a deep royal purple instead of blue. Maybe I’d grow into it though.
“Women lying with women, here, in the city so close already to the depravity of the Dark Lady,” the priestess said.
I blinked. “Wait, this isn’t about me being a dark-magic cultivator?” I asked.
“Is it true?” she asked. Her voice was pitched to travel. She might have been talking in my general direction, but she wasn’t talking to me. I glanced around, confused. A lot of the couples and others around had stopped to stare. “This fine city of Santafaria risks enough, does it not? And yet here you are. This, everyone, this is why we need the teaching of the three!”
“Hey now, what are you talking about?” I asked right back. I could talk loud too.
“Are you not enamoured with this other woman?” she asked.
“Of course I love Esme, she’s my friend,” I snapped.
“And are you not, even now, dating a woman despite being a woman yourself?”
A few gasps sounded in the crowd. Was it really that taboo? “Well, technically, yes, but it’s just a prac--”
“Have you no shame? To be so public with your ridicule of what the Three have claimed is right and just? This is why the Three guide us, her priestesses, to teach young ladies how to become proper citizens and mothers and matrons. Where is your mother who taught you to be this way?” she asked.
This was... a recruitment drive? I think they were trying to drum up support. It was what some of the books I’d read said you had to do if you wanted more power. Pick a group that was relatively small, then vilify them and encourage others to back you up with promises of pushing that group down.
Insulting my Mom though, that was a bit of a mistake.
The air cooled.
It was only noticeable because of how sudden it was. The woman took a deep breath to continue her rant, then let it out in a shudder. There was a plume of foggy vapour that came with it.
The way the world darkened was far more subtle, but no one missed it.
Clouds formed above in rapid, roiling waves, black as pitch and heavy with storms. Every shadow in the courtyard grew longer, then the shadows started to whisper and writhe, as if they desperately wanted to be more than mere black stains on the ground.
Mom was standing next to the priestess.
The woman might have been taller than me, but she had nothing on Mom who somehow loomed above her as if the woman were an ant next to an obsidian pillar. “That,” Mom said and the word was heard by everyone in the square even if she didn’t raise her voice. No animal dared to make a noise, including the humans. I noticed that a number of people had fallen to their knees and some looked like they were fighting a crushing weight.
I didn’t feel anything of the sort, and I don’t think Esme did either. But then, it was mom, if she had the ability to squish people with her sheer presence, then she’d probably honed that into a precise weapon of its own.
“Is my daughter you are talking to, little nobody who serves the Three. Would you care to repeat your grievances to my face? I would love to hear them. Perhaps Aida, Allegra, Alisa and I can discuss things over tea, like properly civilised goddesses, rather than scream at each other in the public square.”
“D-dark goddess,” the woman managed through clattering teeth.
“Yes?” Mom asked.
The woman fainted.
Mom stared at her for a moment, then she sighed. “And to think there was once a time when every God and Goddess had a better class of servant. Are you well, Valeria?”
“Hmm? Oh, yeah, I was gonna buy some flowers.”
“Oh? That sounds nice. They have red carnations from Toncia here. You should bring some home for Felix.” Mom made that little sound she made when she was happy, and the storm receded, the shadows slunked away from the renewed sun, and the air warmed itself up once more. But not so fast that anyone might think it all a dream.