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At dusk, they felt little guilt about turning people away, and sending them to the great houses that had been opened or to the temple and other locations the previous Brides were offering food.

Kieran, squatting near the firepit while Kaveri banked it for the night, sighed. “Not so terrible as a plague town, but difficult enough.” He noticed Neoma watching him, and tilted his head questioningly.

She smiled and ran a hand through his hair affectionately. “Talir told me I'd be proud of you. It was an understatement.”

That made him grin and nuzzle into her hand, an incongruously canine gesture.

Let's move farther back,” Kaveri said. “It's a little cooler and a little more private, farther from the fire, and we really don't need it.”

Rugs and blankets and cushions were gathered up and shaken out, and they relocated into the more sheltered corner near the cart.

Mirren waved towards the street. “Come join us!” she called, then, more quietly, “I wonder how long it will take them to stop worrying?”

I don't know the whole story,” Neoma said, “but I can tell you this: no one is going to leave even a few years of that behind easily. I suggest not asking in any depth about how they were lured in or what they've personally experienced since. Let them choose what they're comfortable discussing.”

There was no time to reply, before Demetrios and Juro were in range. A minimum of shifting around was required to make room for them.

Before all else,” Narcissa said in Enodian, “we need a common language. If possible.”

If you can forgive a poor accent,” Neoma said, “I know some Enodian. It's more from books than conversation.”

A passable knowledge and an accent,” Demetrios said, “is superior to no knowledge of a language at all. Juro and I speak a number of languages—for me, time, and for him, a gift for it. Is there another that might be easier?”

I think,” Kieran said in his own first language, “that is unlikely unless you know this one.”

It's been a long time,” Demetrios said, switching to it with no apparent effort. “I do, but I don't believe Juro does.”

That sounds like it's related to my people's language,” Juro said thoughtfully in Enodian. “But it isn't the same. I can learn it quickly, but not in one night. Sorry.”

Enodian, then,” Neoma said. “I'll ask if I need to.”

Thank you,” Kaveri told Demetrios and Juro. “We badly needed that food. And even more, you made sure Ander and the jennies got back to us safely.”

Juro shrugged. “I've had a couple of days to see how you feel about them and what you've been doing.”

I have some affinity for horses and their kin,” Demetrios said. “They were not pleased about being handled by strangers. They trust you and like you and I have no doubt they are much happier being back in your hands.”

That's good to know,” Madoc said. “Moonladies know, we put them through enough strangeness.”

Juro glanced at Demetrios. “You didn't lose it, did you?”

No chance of that.” Demetrios removed the tightly-woven bag that had been slung on one hip by a long cord over his opposite shoulder, and presented it to Narcissa. “This, I believe, is yours, and would be some challenge to replace.”

Narcissa, her expression quizzical, opened the bag. Smiling, she drew out a handful of glittering gold: presumably, her combs and hairpins, earrings and necklace, rings and bracelets, that she'd lost in her hasty change of form. “Thank you. I would have missed them badly, the next time I need to impress someone.”

As though it's your jewellery that does that?” Mirren muttered. “You could be stark naked and covered in mud and still convince people you're a princess.”

Was,” Narcissa said mildly. “Past tense, not present.” She spilled the gold back into the bag, and turned that smile directly on Demetrios and Juro both. “I didn't expect to see it again. That was thoughtful.”

Small thanks for our lives,” Demetrios said.

There are,” Tyrel said, “a lot of really big holes all over the place in what we all know, about recent events and more generally.”

I suggest,” Lysandra said, “that introductions might be a good beginning. I think Cissa and I are the youngest here, so that seems as good a reason as any for us to start.”

They went through short introductions, Lysandra for herself and Narcissa, Mirren alone, Tyrel for himself and Madoc and Kaveri, Kieran alone. Now and then Neoma questioned an unfamiliar word, and Kieran translated it into her language.

Neoma said her name, then hesitated. “Much more gets into a long story.”

I think everyone knows who you are,” Kaveri said. “Kieran talks about you.”

And no matter what the official decree,” Demetrios said gravely, “you have been the hope of many, that it might be possible to find a way out.”

Neoma blushed, but shrugged. “It got too bad to bear any more. I saw an opening and I ran and kept running. Luck and Talir led me to an earthborn who offered me sanctuary, and his spirit-creatures became my friends, and I hid there for a very long time, with only occasional human contact with a small village. Otherwise I would probably not have had the five decades or so I did there.” She glanced at Kieran and smiled. “Or been there to rescue and raise an amarog cub.”

Lirit told us in Enodia,” Kaveri said, “that Talir kept you with her a lot longer than one moon-cycle and then returned you very far away.”

Neoma nodded. “Very far.” She hesitated. “I don't know the word...” In her own language she said, “Across an ocean.”

Demetrios supplied the Enodian translation.

I had not much memory and no idea what I'd left behind or how I'd gotten there.”

So how did you get here now?” Kaveri asked.

Talir spoke to me directly a few nights ago. The first time, I think. She told me about Kieran and the rest of you. She said you might all die and others too. She wanted to bring me back here to help. She told me how. That was hard.”

How?” Juro asked.

Die, I assume,” Kieran said. “By anything of earth.”

Neoma nodded. “She said it would be the full moon, but I suppose that would have been too late.”

Very much,” Kieran said dryly. “I'm not certain our attempt at helping Ejiro and Ilek succeeded due to anything we did, but we had to try. We knew of no reason for stealth when we first arrived. We believed we were passing through on the way to the Valley of Umako, and then we believed the flooding to be natural.”

The Valley of Umako?” Demetrios said with interest. “I've heard of it, but have never seen it.”

Me too,” Neoma said. “It's said to be beyond words.”

It is,” Kaveri said. “Kieran took Tyrel and Madoc and I there. We helped out a bit, made a friend, and we thought we'd visit and see how he's doing and let the others experience the Garden.”

You're welcome to join us, of course,” Narcissa said. “Whenever we finally leave Ilek.”

Demetrios regarded her thoughtfully. “You know nothing about us, save that we've already switched sides once.”

We know,” Kieran said, “that Meyar and Sahen chose to accept you as our bloodline, not the other, despite the questionable logic of that.”

I am not entirely certain that I deserve that, or escaping from the reprimand everyone else received, or your acceptance. Juro has much less on his conscience than I do.”

Then I don't deserve it either,” Neoma said bluntly.

Demetrios' eyes widened and he flinched back. “How so?”

I did bad things with them too. There are only four choices. Rebel openly, which gains nothing. Begin to believe the lies, and stop being yourself. Find a quick death. Or learn to survive. If you are very clever, you make sure you're useful and you find the line between drawing suspicion on yourself and needing to outright accuse anyone else, even if it means no...” She paused, and said in her language, “promotions.” Kieran translated it. She met Demetrios' gaze with a smile that held no mirth. “Possibly, I'm worse. You're here and helping the people of Ilek. I ran and hid.”

The need is here, now, and immediate. You found a fifth option and got away.”

The opening was there, then, and immediate. Your opening came now, that's all. When you condemn yourself, you condemn us both. Shall we ask Meyar and Talir to include us with the others?”

A couple of heartbeats of stillness, then Demetrios bowed his head. “That is not an argument I can refute.”

I would rather you didn't.” Her voice softened. “It will take time. It won't always be easy.” She glanced around. “I'm not sure how completely our tribe here are going to understand...”

One can be supportive and sympathetic and patient,” Narcissa said, “without necessarily understanding in depth.”

True enough. And I'm getting the impression that my son has gathered an extremely loyal, if oddly mixed, pack. So. Instead of telling us we shouldn't like you, tell us who you are.”

Demetrios inclined his head. “My full name is Demetrios Bassarios.”

Lysandra tilted her head to one side, forehead furrowing. “That sounds familiar... Three Years Exploring the Islands! It's a book, the better editions include reproductions of paintings of plants and animals and people and landscapes. It's still popular, although it's been around for a while.”

Quite a long while,” Demetrios said drily. “I was still human when I wrote it. I enjoyed travelling and writing about the experience and what I learned, I enjoyed painting what I saw... and it got me far away from my family. Theodosia Bassarina was my sister.”

Oh dear,” Narcissa said, with a wince. “If one becomes the mistress of a king, well, it's hardly uncommon when marriages are for political reasons rather than affection or attraction. But best not to flaunt it publicly, and to insult the queen openly is rather... tactless.”

It led,” Lysandra said to the others, “to the queen complaining to her parents, who were understandably displeased. Enodia nearly ended up at war. Which was avoided by removing everyone involved from power, crowning the first Diamantian king, sending the former queen home with a rather large pay-off drawn from the property of the families involved, and apologizing profusely. What that did to the economy was less destructive than a war would have been.”

They were rather poor and self-absorbed rulers, wary of new ideas and lacking in compassion,” Demetrios said. “Enodia has done far better under the Diamantians.”

We learned what not to do,” Narcissa said.

As for Theodosia, she wasn't malicious.” Demetrios sighed. “At that time, women were taught to see their worth only in the men they could attract. Unfortunately, unlike some women, she embraced it to the exclusion of all else. She had no natural aptitude for deep thought and was given no reason to develop the ability. While she was incapable of considering consequences, various kinsmen were quite able to do so, and they encouraged her anyway because they saw advantage to them. That is, I think, even more shameful than her behaviour. Unfortunately, the entire mess, including my own embarrassment and then the loss of the Bassarion wealth, made me rather easy prey.” He shrugged. “Much more recently, I met my shadow here,” he gestured to Juro, “while I was painting the portraits of a very self-important family in a wealthy trade city in order to get close to them.”

I was being small and cute and furry and spying on them,” Juro said. “And reporting anything I learned to Demetrios. It worked so well they sent us to another city together. I had a problem with that one and almost got myself in trouble objecting. Demetrios stopped me and found a sneaky solution I could live with and he's been keeping me out of trouble ever since. How I got there... my people come from the very far north, but they're traders with fast ships that can handle shallow or deep waters. My grandparents were part of a group that set up a trading colony on the island lemurs are from, which is far south. It gave them a way to reach other southern markets and maintain connections with the north. I grew up speaking four languages fluently and a little of several more. I'm a scop, which is a poet and a musician and a storyteller, and we don't write things like that down so an excellent memory is essential. Something bad I'd rather not discuss left me crippled. Sahen gave me back my voice, although I promptly lost it again in a different sense. It took me a while to untangle being grateful to Sahen from hating the people choking me. After having to watch someone I considered a friend going through their idea of penance and Lirit not healing her, I was scared to do anything about it no matter how I felt.”

That's the whole point,” Neoma said gently.

Given my experience of Lirit,” Kaveri said, “and that we even have it on good authority that after she chose Cissa she'd already decided to be like Talir and only choose from our bloodline, if she didn't heal your friend it was because she had reason to believe she wanted to die more than she wanted to live.”

Quite likely she did,” Juro said. “I had... sometimes given up, on some level, but not entirely. I think some part of me was still hoping there just might be a way to get answers that made sense and get some control over my own life back.”

Control, you have,” Tyrel said. “Although having control over your own life doesn't mean you can't choose to stay with friends, sometimes or all the time. And whatever answers we can offer, you can have.”

Could we get to what happened last night?” Madoc asked. “Some of us missed big chunks of it thanks to someone getting a little enthusiastic with his throwing knives.”

'Veri told you, they were using a damned obsidian knife!”

Kaveri winced. “Madoc, leave him alone. My close encounter with that knife should be sufficient for all of us.”

Madoc sighed. “Yeah, and hanging around to face them yourself, such a good plan. All right, I'll stop griping, you know I don't like it when I'm not there to watch your back. So, what happened?”

That took some time, untangling the various accounts and piecing it together.

That's probably about it,” Tyrel said. “Any other questions?”

A woman's laugh, very close to them, and a saffron-clad Enodian woman settled herself gracefully on the rug next to Lysandra. “And can I be of any help in answering them?” Aithre said. “Sahen is proud of you, Juro, that you held onto hope, however tenuous, and that when you had the chance, you chose in its favour despite fear of the consequences.”

Thank you, my lady.” Juro dropped his gaze submissively, then looked up again. “You knew I was there.”

Of course I did. Demetrios, Meyar has been waiting a long time for you to have the faith in yourself and her that she has had in you. That's why she seized the chance to be sure you saw Lysandra dance. Your will to live has always been very strong, even in the midst of overwhelmingly terrible conditions, but your mother is very pleased that that should no longer be so essential.”

He inclined his head. “My thanks, wise lady. You're far from home.”

She laughed again. “So are you. Where Lysandra is, you'll see me visiting now and then. Kieran, your best efforts accomplished more than might be readily apparent. I cannot tell you what might otherwise have happened, but to the best of my knowledge it would all have been bad. As it is, it all worked out, without further deaths. Those responsible are now unable to interfere with efforts to set things right. The mice fled from the centre of the quake, and Ejiro's neighbours seized the opportunity to send hawks, owls, cats, foxes, and anything else they could find to feast on them. Their numbers will be greatly reduced very quickly. Some of the well-fed hunters will move into Ejiro's domain to stay and reproduce. Fire will be necessary to remove the invasive plants, but that can be controlled and will be over quickly. The next earthborn upriver and the one above that are working with the river's god to find a way to prevent another flood no matter what conditions are like, until the wetlands can be restored. Earthborn are very resilient, and all are aware that they all are connected and will help each other. Ejiro will recover quickly.”

What of Ilek?” Narcissa asked.

That is largely up to the citizens of Ilek. It will be a year or two before food is truly adequate, though it will begin to improve very soon. Whether Ilek tries to return to what it was, or is content at a more moderate level, is their choice to make. Word will spread soon that those seeking work can begin to come home to their families. Many are talented craftsmen. They can rebuild Ilek, though they may find Ejiro less generous with resources than previously, and I think that Ejiro's future Brides might be more actively protective.”

The Brides,” Lysandra said, “are already setting up a system to make sure that the additional food is used fairly for as long as it lasts. We can pass on word that they're looking for a healer or two who can stay for a while—and that there won't be any more accidents that mysteriously target healers. With any luck one will come soon. But we really can't stay here, can we? They have to do this their own way.”

Aithre nodded. “I can't give you commands, but I would advise departure very soon as the best course of action. So. I have a message for you, little sister. Ejiro understands that it would be difficult for you to wait some twenty-one days until Meyar is full, by which time the other four will all be at or near dark. Although your mother is only half full, he will accept tomorrow night for you to dance for him, but he would like someday when you are in this area again for you to dance for him at the full moon.” She laughed as she rose to her feet, though she stayed in place, swaying to music only she could hear, never still. “I think you will find, as you travel, that your dancing pleases earthborn. A word of advice, Demetrios. The past cannot be changed, it is already on the page. The future, however, is being written, one breath and one heartbeat at a time. Dwelling on the past can rob you of the future, but dwelling on the future sacrifices the hard-earned lessons of the past. All that is given to anyone, even oracular gods, is the present, in which memory and anticipation meet in each choice. Find the balance.” Between one dance step and the next, she was gone.

You chat with gods regularly?” Juro asked.

Valeyan, when we're home,” Kieran said. “Other earthborn at need. Aithre has a strong interest in Lysandra. I've met many other gods over the years, some friendlier than others. But as far as talking to gods... one each, more often than any. All five of the moonladies are up. Look at your mother, each of you, and listen to her, and tell her... well, anything you want to tell her.”

Juro obeyed with only a moment's hesitation, though Tyrel saw tension in his upper spine and the set of his shoulders. Trusting them, but Kieran had told him to do something strictly forbidden.

Sahen's light brightened immediately around him, a brilliant blue-green radiance. Juro smiled, all the tension fading away, his gaze never leaving his nearly-full moon and mother.

Well, we've lost him for a while,” Kaveri said, amused.

You too,” Lysandra told Demetrios. “You saw Meyar's reaction last night when I asked whether I was disrespectful to talk to her. One day soon I'll tell you about the gift she gave me when I changed, one that made as important a difference as no longer being human, but she gave that unasked out of love and wanting her children happy. She'll be delighted, not upset, I promise. What reason could I possibly have to lie about that?”

It isn't lack of faith in you,” Demetrios said. “But it is a rule and a fear that has been very long established.” He closed his eyes briefly, then opened them and looked towards waning blue-white Meyar.

It took a moment more, perhaps long enough to open inward barriers, but the relaxing of tight muscles, the smoothing away of his visible apprehension, occurred in a sudden rush.

That's better,” Kieran murmured. “Even if neither moves until moonset, they need this. So. We linger another day, so that Lysandra can dance from moonrise to moonset for Ejiro tomorrow night, and we do our best to be away from here the next day. Those of us with full moons that night can celebrate that better if we are properly alone, and Ilek can work out its own path in peace now there is no more outside influence. And we will be at the Valley well before any complications due to moon phases. Agreed?”