For once, all is well for the little healer, she escaped the palace and enjoyed a crisis free day. But soon, she is called again to the Palace, where she heals Captain Sechnall incompletely. Angry at what she thought was a violation of Selene's law, Marta forces Kemi's full story from her. Meanwhile, in the morgue that is deep in the Palace dungeon, something festers.
Kemeía, Greek: the process or act of change, especially from one thing to another, as the change from base metal to gold.
25th day of Winterwane
Master Reynard’s office
The sun slowly sank below the horizon, casting sparkles over Marossa Bay. An orange, red and pink spring sunset. So pretty.
“Kemi, are you listening?”
I turned away from the window in Master Reynard's office, and lied to Marta, bobbing my head “yes”.
“Mmhm, sure ye are. Come over here with the grownups then. It's your future we're talkin' after all.”
I huffed and moved away from the window to join them. Oh, I'd been listening a teeny bit. Reynard's little speech started with a heartfelt 'I can't begin to thank you enough for saving us', but then drifted to 'what the hells am I going to do with you?'
I hadn't meant to ignore them. It's just ...this was the first day since my change I truly relaxed. No one harming or hunting me. People liked me.
Sure, Marta and I made the rounds; I didn't lounge in bed eating magical elf chocolates. We delivered a big baby boy. Marta did the heavy lifting; and I wiped, swabbed and carried icky stuff away as needed. Fine, I carried away the 'after birth'; Marta would birth kittens herself if she knew I called it ‘icky stuff'. My only healing was a little mending to tears in the mother’s perineum caused by pushing the boy out.
Oh, and I fixed the broken foot of a man who's horse decided to stomp on him when he didn't give him a second carrot. It felt like a holiday.
“Your days of hiding are over,” Reynard said, rising from his desk. He clasped his hands behind his back and started pacing. It was amazing what a hot bath, a night’s sleep in his own bed, and several good meals had done for him. He looked so dignified in his deep green master healer's robe. I’d attended functions with him in my ‘old life’, but never had a chance to speak with him.
If I had known how unbalanced Ravela was, I might have sought out his help. Physical ailments I could heal, but I wondered, what could a healer do for an unwell mind? And one as sick as the Queen's? Maybe if I had known, and tried, my people wouldn’t be suffering under the Ravela today.
“Ah, Kemi, Ravela has been hard on Wildevale.” Reynard said, almost in answer to my thoughts. “The people of this city and kingdom are starved for good news. Already they buzz over what you did at the dock fire, and for the poor lad crushed by that wagon. News will spread like wildfire about what you did for Lunete. What they did to you last night was a tiny taste.”
I shook my head and signed an answer to Marta.
“She says no one knows what she looks like without her hood on, and she’ll stay hidden.”
I would! I wanted nothing to do with this ‘fame.’ Nor revenge for what was done to me, either. I only wanted to live out the rest of my life in solitude, helping and healing those who suffered wherever I could.
“But it’s not so simple, Kemi. Marta has been keeping me apprised of your miraculous healings…”
She’d been sharing intel with the Master Healer? Really? I put my hand on my hip and stared at my mentor. Come to think of it, they seemed awfully chummy. I began to question whether Marta was actually a widow. As if guessing my suspicions, she gave me a half smirk and turned back to Reynard. Hmm.
“…and I feel your sorgente; it is powerful and growing brighter. Even stronger than it was yesterday. I am beginning to wonder if what the people shout is true, that Selene has a mighty purpose for you…”
There are actually times when I’m glad I’ve been made mute. It stops me from saying something nasty or insulting. Mighty purpose? Such bullshit. There is no way I endured what I did at Ravela’s hands for a ‘higher purpose’.
‘I have a purpose for you, my Kemi.’
‘Oh? I suffered Ravela’s cruelty to prepare me for a ‘mighty purpose,’ I asked the voice in my head, the one I was starting to think was more than the insane mutterings of my broken mind. ‘Because if that’s so, it’s utterly cruel!’
‘No! I did not plan what happened to you. Kemi, my love, if my people are to have free will, then I must stand aside and let Fate have her way. It is my harshest burden. Yet I say to you, my cherished Kemeia, grow from your pain. Use it! Connect to others who suffer, to ease their hurt. I cannot remove the misery from the world without removing free will. All I can do is to comfort my people and soften Fate’s blow. For this, I have sent you into the world…
I’d not heard her -the voice- say so much before. And I didn’t want to think about whether what she said was true. I tried to tune it out, and tune back in to what Master Reynard was saying, but I received no relief, for his words echoed hers.
“…some say you may be Selene’s Healer herself, come again to the world! This morning, the High Priestess Varinia stood in this very room and told me her seers proclaim Selene’s Healer is in Marossa here and now! Are you she? Are you the one the prophecies?”
Why, why why? The world ground me up and spit me out, leaving me dead to my family and imprisoned me in this alien body. For gods’ sake, why won’t it leave me alone now? Yes, easing the pain of others felt as balm to my wounded soul, but this crazy ‘holy healer’ stuff? It was too much! I can’t do it. I’m broken. Leave me alone!
My eyes teared, and I didn’t want them to see. So I looked away to the window again. The sun had finally set and the first stars of evening were twinkling.
“Yet what do we know of you? Absolutely nothing,” Reynard continued. “You’ll get questions; hundreds and hundreds. People will beg to know about the wondrous little healer from the isles who carries the power of Selene in her. The Hall would need to protect you. We must... Kemi? Are you crying?”
“-Course she is! Divine healer? Prophecy? Yer throw'in an awful lot at the lass, Master Reynard.” Marta threw a protective arm around me, drawing me close. With her free arm, she wagged a finger at Reynard. “It'd be enough to flummox someone who'd trained in the Hall all her life, but Kemi's barely started her training. Look at the wee one! A puff of wind will sweep her off her feet.”
“An the lass has been through an awful rough patch too.” Marta jumped to her feet. I chuckled; the midwife was just warming up. “Whether she’s Selene’s famed Healer remains to be seen, but I vouch for her. I’ve grown fond of the little rat. Sure, she’s been a mule to get walking down Selene’s Path, but I’ll keep working her, and-”
Master Reynard’s door slammed open and several of the Queen’s Guard rushed in, crowding around me. The panic missing from me all day returned with a vengeance. I knew these guards well, the memories were burned in my soul. Branded.
“You. Healer Kemi. And you, Midwife Coona. You are needed at the palace. Captain Sechnall lies gravely injured. The Queen orders you to come. Now. A carriage waits outside.”
I turned to Marta, my eyes pleading for a rescue, because I did not want to return there, now, or ever.
“Hush your whining, child.” Marta whispered. “It’s simple. A man is suffering. You can heal him. We go.”
She was wrong. It wasn't that simple; every moment around the witch who did this to me was misery. And the man suffering? I suffered more from him than Marta could ever imagine.
But I am a healer.
“Finally! Hurry! He still breathes, but barely.”
My mind still swirled, so hard to think. The spell tracker worked beyond my wildest expectations, yet, in the end, was everything the Arcum vermin said true? That I’ve lost everything? And his threat of some 'doom'. An idle bluff, or something more?
First things first. My Captain sacrificed himself to save me. Part of me wondered why anyone would do that. Even with my obedience spell. It spoke to the character of the man. He must live.
But the Arcum daggers had buried deep into his chest and side. Worse, he became delirious so quickly, I suspected the dagger tips had been dipped in poison, belladonna most likely.
Kemi lowered her hood, and after gazing briefly at Sechnall with a look I couldn’t quite read -fear? Anger? Compassion?- she put her hands next to the worst wound on his chest. I felt her sorgente magic surge into him, fiery hot, and watched, amazed when the wound closed. But still, even after it did, she poured more energy in, hotter and hotter.
“What’s she doing?” I whispered to Marta.
“She’s burning out the poison while, um…” The midwife, placed her hand on Sechnall’s forehead and her eyes widened. “…while keeping his body temperature low. I didn’t even know that was possible!”
“Sorry …so sorry … forgive …didn’t want to…”
Sechnall was mumbling, and squirming on his cot, which I took as a good sign, since he’d grown stone cold before Kemi came.
“She made me …Corm…”
Kemi abruptly yanked her hands off him and backed away; I saw Marta’s expression change when Kemi did. She looked angry. No, pissed.
“Is everything ok?” I asked, uncertain about what was happening.
Kemi made several sign gestures, never once looking at me. She still fears me? Why?
“Mistress Kemi says the wound is healed and poison gone. He’ll be right as rain come morning, Majesty.”
“Good. Excellent. I am more and more impressed by your young healer, Mistress Coona. You shall bring her here daily, yes? Lunete must be monitored regularly. We’ve a midwife who serves in the palace, but I want Kemi.”
Yes, I’d reversed my spell on Jarath, this morning as I promised the girl, and sent him running out of the palace gates as fast as his chubby legs would carry him. Not that he needed any incentive; he couldn’t wait to leave.
What I wanted, what I would have, was Kemi. My enemies struck all I hold dear; she must be close when they strike again.
First I’d need to sort out her fear. I know she can't stand to be in the same room as me, but all that was needed, I think, was to show her I’ve changed. I will no longer be ‘The Mad Queen.’
The more I thought on it, the more I realized Kijek’s words struck me as deeply as his dagger had my captain.
I’d been manipulated so easily. So easily.
Someone. Will. Pay.
And what he said of Cormac? All the evidence implicated him. He betrayed me! The ‘blood gold’ he accepted, the confession of the Arcum spy, telling of their conspiracy to poison Lunete. The truthsayer, catching him in lie after lie after lie. It had been so clear!
Perhaps not so clear? Could I have been wrong? Because, what I did to him..
I would not think of these things. Later. I must talk to the truthsayer again, as I must further ...discuss ...these matters with Ambassador Aldana.
“Begging the Queen’s pardon, but do we have your permission to leave? It’s late, Kemi’s tired, and I have wee ones to feed.”
My mind had wandered. Easily done, with so many balls in the air …relations to rebuild with the City Council and Guilds. A perverted plot to get to the bottom of. Rebellious provinces. And, oh yes, mustn’t forget, Wildevale is on the precipice of war with its neighbors.
“Yes, Mistress Coona, you have our leave.”
Before she could scamper out I intercepted Kemi and grabbed her hands. They were so small and quivered in my grasp.
“Thank you, Kemi. It seems I shall be saying that often.”
My words did nothing to calm her and she never once looked up at me, only nodding.
I stood thinking about it -about her- long after she fled. I had the feeling I’d hurt her terribly, though I could not for the life of me recall how or when.
A clearing on the banks of the Muln River
The moment we left the palace gate, Marta grabbed my arm and yanked me along the wooded river path. Where was she taking me? I couldn't break her grip and I couldn't tell her to stop. All I could do was follow. Or get dragged on the ground. We stopped in a clearing, where the dark Muln gently washes by a sandy bank.
“Here. It was here I fished you out one year ago. Tonight, for the first time, you made me wish I hadn’t.”
What? Why would she say that?
I turned my head so she wouldn’t see my hurt, but she was having none of it. She grabbed my face and wrenched it so I looked at hers.
“Cry all you want, it buys no sympathy with me! I don’t care if you have the power to heal the sun and moon and stars, you broke Selene’s promise, to heal any and all in need! You chose not to fully heal the Captain. I saw it! The moment you choose who receives Selene's gift and who does not, you are evil.”
Her words were hornet’s stings. I tried pulling away, but she wouldn’t let me; she gripped tighter and started shaking me.
“Why? What pain did you leave Captain Sechnall with? Who are you to judge him unworthy? Admit it! You chose not to heal him completely.”
It was true. I didn’t heal Devin fully. I could have, but I chose not to. I nodded yes.
She slapped me not as she did at the docks when I froze. This time she did it to make me feel pain.
Something broke in me.
I yanked from her grasp, and signed words. Ones I never wanted to say to anyone.
I signed them again slowly, my hands clenching into fists between sentences.
“Captain Sechnall raped you?”
I signed more.
“Wait ...wait …all of them? All of who? I don’t understand, Kemi.”
I signed and signed, my words spilling out. Once I started, I couldn’t stop my hands. I would make her understand. I would tell her everything.
She knew the queen changed me, knew I used to be a man. But not who.
I was the Queen’s Consort, Captain Cormac.
The queen and I loved each other. We would marry. Rule as Queen and King. Have children. Grow old together.
We we good together; right for each other. Whenever Ravela drifted into one of her moods, whenever she started acting erratically, I always seemed to balance her, though I wasn't sure how.
Her sorgente was so powerful, and I was a skilled and clever nique. Together, I thought us unstoppable.
I led the Queen’s Guard, and through them, Wildevale’s army. Under my command, were my comrades, my best friends, my lieutenants Sechnall and Malley. We enlisted together. Rose through the ranks side by side. Served in the same unit in the horrible Arcum border skirmishes of 22. We were closer than brothers. And the Guard? Our esprit de corps was unmatched by any other army in Argentia. I loved them all.
The first years after Ravela was crowned were a dream. We were doing so much good for Wildevale! I convinced Ravela to order dozens of projects badly needed throughout the kingdom. To repair and widen the roads, better connecting Marossa with Eldham and Hwen. To upgrade our navy vessels, but our merchant ships too. Wildevale's navy and merchant fleet used to be as respected on the sea as the Glamorgan cavalry was on the land, and I hoped to restore that reputation. And I knew our merchant fleet was a key to the kingdom's prosperity.
It was a heady time, and so exciting. And then we were to be married.
It crashed so quickly it was surreal.
Ravela was stunned when Lunete mysteriously fell into a coma over a year ago. Devastated. She worshiped her little sister; I’d never seen her so enraged. She wasn't thinking right, striking out at everyone. I tried to calm her as I had in the past, but she would have none of it.
Things turned worse. An Arcum spy was captured, who, under interrogation spun a farcical story of me, me! conspiring to poison Lunete. To blackmail Ravela, offering the antidote only if Wildevale allied with Arcum against Parasia. I thought Ravela would laugh off this tale, but she didn’t; something inside her had changed. She stripped me of my rank, and ordered, no, compelled with her spells, my own men to arrest me and throw me in a dungeon cell.
I was in shock. I kept thinking the nightmare must end soon, it must! That the truth would be told and I would be freed. How naive. The night after bags of Arcum gold were 'found' hidden in my quarters, Ravela came to my cell with a truthsayer.
At last! I thought, for truthsayers were incapable of speaking falsehood. She’d see. She’d release me. Except, for each accusation I denied, the sayer said “he lies” in his snively voice. Each time I proclaimed I was innocent, he said ‘he lies.’
‘He lies, he lies, he lies.’
Each time he spoke hammered another nail in my coffin.
The next night, Ravela came alone.
She’d had all the other prisoners removed. When she smiled at me, I knew I was damned; she wasn't my Ravela any longer. She'd become cold and cruel. Reptilian.
She started casting, spell after spell. I shielded as long as I could, but I was a nique against a sorgente, and quickly depleted the power I’d saved.
Then the pain began.
My body twisted inside and out. Bones cracked and reshaped, my skin felt like it melted. Every nerve in my body was on fire. I screamed until I was hoarse. I wept. Begged for mercy. Spoke whatever words I thought she wanted to hear.
‘Your voice bores me,’ she purred, 'and we can't have you spoiling the fun by telling your men who you are.' With another spell, it was gone. Not blocked. Not silenced. My vocal cords were ripped from my throat.
Selene granted me a small mercy then. I passed out from blood loss.
When I woke, I was naked, and changed. I was petite, scrawny, hairless, and
My wrists and ankles were chained to a bed in the Guard barracks.
Ravela sat next to me, smiling her insane grin.
‘Why,’ I mouthed to her. It burned to do even that.
‘You harmed me in every imaginable way, Cormac,' she answered in a sugary voice. 'Poisoned my sister, who lies in a coma from which she may never wake. Betrayed your country for Arcum gold. And you destroyed my heart.'
'Everything. Everything I loved, you took. And I thought, shall I stoop to your level and seek petty revenge? Take all you love?’
‘But no, I am a benevolent queen. I will show mercy. In response to your hate, I show love. I know how you love your men. And now, I will let them love you back. I’ve cast a little love spell on them. On all the Guard. I realize you aren’t the most attractive thing -maybe over time your body could develop more- but to them you are now -mmmmm- irresistible.'
Panic seized me and I yanked hard on my chains. I prayed to any gods or goddesses who could hear to free me, or at least let me die.
When I close my eyes, I still hear her laughter.
‘Fear not, lover. Once you die… sorry, once they fuck you to death, I’ll cast a spell to make them forget. Think of it as my last mercy to you.’
She gave me a long wet kiss on my lips and left.
The following weeks blurred together into never ending torture. I was taken, over and over and over, by my friends, my comrades, raping me again and again and again...
My mind shattered.
All was a blur of pain and humiliation after that, but at last, I think one of them strangled me as he fucked me, and when I blacked out, he must have thought me dead. And threw me into the river with the other garbage.
I stopped signing. My arms fell to my sides.
I turned to face the icy Muln flowing by. I was so weary. The dark memories had escaped the pit I'd stuffed them in and I'd never get them in again. Reynard thought I was 'destined for greatness'? Ha! I was broken in every possible way. I could never be fixed. I wondered if I shouldn’t jump back in the Muln and let the dark river finish the job.
Don't. You. Dare!
Marta slumped to the ground. She reached up and grabbed my arm pulling me down with her. When I looked at her face, I saw wet tear streaks shimmering in the moonlight. And she never cries. Her arms wrapped around me in a fierce hug.
“Gods! … how could she? ….such evil! …that's the most horrible thing I ...Kemi!”
Her sobs dwindled to silence. We sat unmoving for the longest time, listening to the soft whispers of the Muln as she flowed by. Then finally:
“And the first directive of a healer,” she whispered, “is to do no harm.”
I blinked, not expecting those words.
“Ravela's memory block. That's what you didn't heal. You stopped healing Captain Sechnall, not for revenge, but because you thought it would pain him more to remember those memories. I even heard him call to Cormac as you healed him.”
I nodded my head. Yes, of course yes. I learned when I melded with him the spells Ravela placed on him caused him agony, but... you see, Devin has such a true soul, matters were either black or white to him. It would hurt him more to recall the sick twisted things Ravela forced him, forced all of them, to do to me. In a way, Ravela raped them, too.
Marta leaned away from me a space, but still held my hands. When she spoke, her voice was barely above the river's murmur.
“Forgive me, for doubting you, for striking you. I thought in my ignorance, you were abusing the divine gifts Selene has given you. But it turns out, you were following the Healer's Way far more deeply than I ever imagined. I am so sorry and I beg your forgiveness.”
She lowered her head to the ground before me in supplication. I shook my head for her to stop that, and pulled her close to me. She sensed my need and wrapped me in her arms again with her bear strength, absorbing the shudders of my body as I silently sobbed. We sat that way the longest time, she kissing the top of my head and whispering how she'd never doubt me again. And me, soaking up her strength and love.
“You've been living with that inside ye for so long. You've told yourself there was no hope of healing for what happened. But now you've gotten it out, the real healing can begin.
Marta unlocked our hug and leaned a little away, to look at me.
“Are ye sure ye dinnae want revenge? Ah ken ah wid fur sure, lassie.”
Sometimes it took me a few moments to sort through Marta’s thick Glamorgan accent. Someday she’d have to confess her own story to me of how she ended up in Marossa, so far from the wooded highlands of her home on the other side of Argentia.
Revenge? I suppose that would make sense for most, revenge for the horrible way Ravela destroyed my life. But she didn’t just destroy it. She deconstructed it. What should I seek? Justice? Prove my innocence? Force her to reverse her spell? Go back to my old life?
There was no life to go back to.
I knew, in my deepest core, call it my own sorgente nature now, call it my new woman’s intuition, call it whatever you damn well please, I knew there was no going back.
And ...I'd made a different choice. I am a healer.
'You are My healer.'
No, no revenge. What I'd signed to Master Reynard earlier was true; all I wanted was to be left alone to live a quiet life, one where I could bring healing and comfort to others in pain. I signed this to Marta.
“But you've not been living, girl. Only surviving. Always looking over your shoulder. Hiding under your robes, in the shadows, or behind me. Denying what you've become.”
She stroked my unruly hair, tucking strands behind my ear.
“You're a mighty healer now, yes, and maybe you are Her Healer, come again to the world. But a pretty one, too, at least Ravela's spell did that. Or maybe it was your own sorgente's doing once it kicked in after she changed you. I've never heard of such a thing in all the kingdoms, going from nique to sorgente.”
I hadn't either. The only explanation I'd come up with in the year since my change, was I'd have been sorgente if I'd been born a woman.
Marta's voice was gentle, but her embrace tightened. “I was wrong about your healing of the Captain, but I do know this: you must start living again! No, more than that, you must embrace life again. The path to your healing lies there.”
I shook my head. No! Please! No! Why can't everyone leave me alone!
'Yes, Kemi, let go of bitterness and live again.'
'How?' I signed, in frustration. 'How do I 'embrace' life after what she did to me? How?'
“From now on, your training will take a different path. Now we work on you.”
Marta laughed at my questioning look.
“You’re a beautiful young woman, Kemi, it's time you learned what that means.”
Oh no no no.
3rd day of Rainmoot
Madame Chinedu's Parlor
“For you see, the hips are the pleasure centers of our bodies.”
The woman, Madame Chinedu -she who's garish billboard over her front door proclaimed -Fortunes Told! Mystic Tattoos! Love Spices! Exotic Anatol Dance Lessons! - had her hands on my hips, pushing my hip up on my left side.
“And when you feel connected to your hips when you sit or walk, you’re graceful with no effort at all. And this makes you magically sexy to other people, eh?” The raven haired woman winked at me.
Oh no! No no no! That was so not what I needed.
I’d spent most of the last year hiding in shadows. Pretending I wasn’t what Ravela had turned me into. It worked for a while. Yes, biology periodically made me admit I was a woman, specifically once a month. For the first months after Marta fished me from the Muln, I easily passed as a boy.
Yet when I began to heal people, when my sorgente fired up, something started happening in my body, too. I filled out, became curvy. My hair turned a lustrous black and developed a curly life of its own. Finally even my bulky ugly apprentice robes betrayed me and stopped hiding what I was.
Marta extracted a promise from me to embrace who I now was, yes, but I hadn’t thought that would mean embracing sexy!
“Hahahaha! You look like you just swallowed a bug, Kemi,” Chinedu said, standing back from me. “Now again. Bend your knees, get into Honau Seated Position, raise your hip up on the side -that’s it, good!- Release, back to center into Honau position again. Now squeeze the other hip up and work it, Kemi, work it!”
Well knock me off my feet, I found myself smiling!
This was so different from the old ‘me’! He, -I- would have never gyrated my body this way. Oh, sure, I loved dancing; ballroom dancing with Ravela in better times. But this movement? Getting a sensual swing from my hips? Or learning the seductive saltatus dance? Never!
Yet I was loving it! I figured out pretty quickly the trick to the sway was to always come back to Honau position.
“Now, add the steps, but keep the sway, Kemi…”
This was my third lesson with Chinedu, and already the steps came more easily. It was like I could feel my old male stiffness falling away.
After another hour, our lesson was interrupted when a young boy -seven or so, I guessed- came clattering into Chinedu’s parlor, scratched and bloodied on his arms and legs, and sporting a magnificent black eye. He raced to Chinedu and buried his head in her skirts.
He was dark-skinned like Chinedu, and like me too; I knew she had a son and guessed this was he. Or else strange street urchins ran in to hug her.
“They were teasing you again,” Chinedu asked, her voice a blend of compassion and anger, the way only a mother’s can be.
At first I figured the other boys teased him because of his Anatol coloring, but when he tilted his head up and spoke “yeth,” I saw the problem. The poor little guy had a severe clefted lip.
As Chinedu murmured what comforts she could, I felt my healing energy warm. I could heal injury and illness, but what about deformities?
Oh yes, my healer, deformities too!
I blinked; hearing that voice again. More and more I suspected who she was. Which scared the crap out of me!
Gingerly I approached Chinedu, and tapped her shoulder. When she looked at me wondering what I wanted, I moved my hands just over his body and pantomimed laying them on him.
“Oh!” Understanding showed in her eyes, and she looked down at the boy. “Tamid? This woman is Kemi, and she’s going to make the ouchies go away, right?”
I nodded yes, scratches and bruises, but I planned to do so much more. The boy looked at me with wide almond eyes, waiting for me to speak.
“Kemi’s like you; she has trouble speaking too, only she can’t speak at all.”
I smiled at him, trying to reassure, and then I gently laid my hands on his face. Warmth flowed from me into his little body and he gave a light laugh.
“Hahaha, thap thickles!”
After a few moments, I pulled my hands back and looked to see the results. And smiled.
Tamid’s hand shot to his mouth and he rubbed it. His eyes grew wide.
“Hey!!!!! It’s… Mama! My lip is…”
He ran to the washbasin in the next room and jumped up and down, trying to see what had changed in the mirror.
“She fixed it! I can… speak real good!” Tamid slammed into me as he hugged my waist, nearly knocking me over. “Thanks Kemi! You're the best!”
“Call me donkey mouth will they? Ha! I’m gonna go show my friends!”
Tamid let go of me and scampered out the door of Chinedu's flat, screaming “Hey guys! Look!”
I was smiling, until I saw Chinedu’s face. Filled with a mother's deep gratitude, yes, but there was a gravity I’d not expected.
“You healed him.”
I shrugged. It’s what I do now. Heal, I mean. Well, I shrug a lot, too.
“No. You healed my son! His childhood, his life, will be so much better now without that deformity! I owe you, Kemi.”
I frowned; she sounded almost angry. Why?
“You’ve probably never heard the saying ‘better to find a Nglal's nest than to save a Kuuma's life, have you, Kemi?”
Oh shit! I bobbed my head. I had heard it.
I was one of the few northerners to visit the Anatols, or Cormac was. Several years ago, shortly after her coronation, I'd convinced Ravela to let me lead an official Wildevale delegation to Faylyn Island, the northern most of the Anatols, with hopes of establishing diplomatic relations, and maybe even signing a trade treaty. The local leaders -it was hard to tell what the system of government was- politely and graciously told us neither they nor any other Anatol island wanted anything to do with the mainland kingdoms to the north.
We northerners tended to think of the mysterious isles only in terms of their exotic spices and spicy women. But during the visit, I learned some of the culture of our distant southern neighbors. They'd shown me a Nglal they'd captured and caged. He was weak and injured, which was why they'd been able to capture him. But even so, my local guides fell down laughing when I made the mistake of looking into the man-eating serpent's eyes. The hypnotic compulsion to run to him was so strong! It's how they capture their prey, you see, their meals literally present themselves for eating.
I also learned the people of the isles don't call themselves Anatolans at all; that was a northern mainland name. They called themselves Kuumas.
And, more to the point, a critical Kuumas cultural aspect was they despised being indebted. They thought of it in terms of a soul debt; I never fully grasped the concept. But clearly that was what I'd run into here with Chinedu.
“You do know, don't you Kemi?” Chinedu smiled. It almost seemed evil. “Good. You've been to the isles, I'm thinking?”
I nodded my head warily.
She laughed then, and it was a warm one.
“Never fear, lass. It's just now you're in for a much different treatment than Marta planned.”
I blinked my bewilderment to her, and she smiled.
“You see, Marta paid me to teach you dance. She and I are friends, each living in a city far from our homelands, we were drawn together. And she was my midwife when Tamid was born.”
I nodded. I knew Marta had badgered Master Reynard into approving a “Kemi training fund” from the Healer’s Guild, based on my “special needs”. I didn't know she and Marta were friends. I didn't want to pry, as I knew people from the Anatols loathed speaking of their private lives to strangers. At least I'd known enough not to ask Chinedu about her 'husband'. Another thing I'd learned on my island visit was the idea of 'marriage' simply didn't exist.
“So dance was all it was going to be. But now, after what you did, I'm in your debt.”
I gulped, and she laughed and her eyes glittered and, maybe it was a trick of the early morning light, but they also glowed a little too.
“Be scared Kemi! Oh, I've figured out a little of why Marta wanted you to learn dance and movement. I can tell who you are now is not who you've been. If I had to guess, I'd say you used to be a man, and someone worked deep magic on you.”
I thought about denying it. But maybe she actually did have the Sight and wasn't just another fortune teller scammer. Or maybe I was just so clumsy, that it was the only explanation.
Anyway, I wanted to trust her; my circle of friends was so tiny. So I nodded “yes”.
“Don't you worry, lass. I care not who you were. Who you are, now, I care about a great deal, because you've just given my son a new life. So I can never fully repay you. But if you know anything about the Kuumas, then you know I have a soul debt to you, and must try.”
To refuse, or to try to 'forgive' the debt, I guessed, would be a grave insult. So instead, I nodded 'yes' and started gnawing on my fingernail.
“Here's how it's going to be. Marta has been telling everyone you're from the Anatols which is a lie of course. Except, I'm going to turn the lie into truth. You'll learn dance from me, yes, but that's just the start. You'll learn our language, our culture, our dress, our foods and spices, everything.” Then she leaned close to my ear and hotly whispered, “Even how to make a man or woman moan in sexual ecstasy all night long.”
I doubted I’d ever be attracted to men, especially after the nightmare I'd endured in the dungeon. But to other women? Honestly I'd never thought about it. Chinedu laughed again when my mouth flopped open.
“Monogamy? Sexual orientation? You northerners are so narrow minded.” She took my hand and led me to her 'salon' room of her flat, the room where she applies tattoos. “I'll have you looking like a proper little sexy and sultry Kuumas girl in no time.”
She stopped though, with a questioning look on her face.
“When you healed Tamid, you healed everything except his black eye. Why?”
I wished Marta was here to translate my sign language. This would be a hard concept to pantomime.
I made a circle with my finger around my eye, and then I beat my chest -well, my breasts- and flexed my bicep. And then looked hopefully into her face.
She looked perplexed only for a moment, and then she burst into laughter.
“You left it because it was manly? Because it was a shiner to be proud of?”
I nodded my head, relieved she'd gotten it.
“I'd have never thought of that! It will be good to have a male perspective around the place; it'll do Tamid such good. You'll be his big brother and sister, yes? You are goddess sent for sure, Kemi.”
Two hours later I wandered Marossa’s bustling and noisy market stalls looking for the one that served spicy Anatol kebabs. I was meeting Myrrine at Lalos to grab a quick bite of lunch before Marta and I made our afternoon rounds. Chinedu has ordered me to eat Anatol, or Kuumas, food whenever I could; part of my immersion program. She gave me a letter of introduction and told me to show my new tattoo to Lalo, the stall owner.
Did I say I wandered through the brightly colored booths, displaying goods from Argentia’s farthest corners?
I didn’t. I swayed.
Chinedu had tossed my dull olive robe in her fireplace and burned it before I knew what she was doing! Now I wore a light flowing red dress, embroidered at the hem with gold thread. It seemed sheer too; I swear you could almost see through it to my skin. A wispy sky colored shawl wrapped around me, and bangles jangled from my wrist. Under the bangles on my right wrist, I sported a new tiny white rose tattoo, one that identified me with Chinedu's clan. The way she explained it, it kinda meant I was her niece now, or daughter.
My marching orders were to come to her house early every morning to train and immerse. I suspected it meant cleaning chores too. Ha! We’d see about that!
Oh, one more thing? When I swayed, there were tiny bell chimes. Chinedu fastened a thin belt around my waste that placed small bells over each hip. She told me my homework was to sway as I walked in a way that made the bells chime each step.
Heads turned and eyes followed me as I passed through the brightly lit booths. I even got some catcalls.
I tried not to blush too brightly, thinking instead of Chinedu's words again:
'Work it, Kemi, work it.'
Palace – Lunete’s Bedroom
“Seriously? Don’t get me wrong, Sis. I’m thrilled you’re out of bed, but spinning madly about in your nightgown? You're giving our captain quite a show. Mistress Coona, please tell me this isn’t part of the exercise program you spoke of.”
“Yes, Lunete, don’t overdo it!” Captain Sechnall looked to be on the verge of throwing my sister back into bed. It was cute to see how protective he was of her. His green eyes sparkled whenever they were together and he grimaced less from his headaches. Perhaps I might risk loosening my compulsion spell on him.
“Hummph! Tell these grumps I’m fine Marta.” I laughed when she stuck her tongue out.
“A little spinning won’t kill ye,” Marta said. “but Princess, could ye stop that ruckus for a wee second though, love? I want to see how you’re doin.”
Lunete flopped onto her bed, giggling as she did. Soon, Marta held her wrist to check pulse, peered into her eyes and generally poked her as midwives and physicians do, so I waited for her assessment. But to me she looked flush and healthy. She even had a peach-fuzzy blonde hair sprouting on her head.
“You’re doing well, Princess. Any troubles digesting your meals?”
“I’m sooo sick of porridge. May I pleeeeeease have real food? I’d kill for a baked potato.”
“I take that as a definite ‘no trouble’ then. Yes, I think you’re ready for a little something more.”
“Define, ‘something more’ please, Midwife Coona.”
I stifled a giggle at the captain’s words. Military thinking; so precise and anal! Cormac was the only military man I knew who seemed immune to it. He was such a freethinker.
I blinked to snap my attention back because what he asked was important. I’d need to arrange a regime of tasters to screen her food once it she moved on from porridge.
“Yes, Marta, what should she eat and avoid, and what exercises should she do?”
Marta turned to me then. She regarded me differently now for some reason; her eyes were cool, distant. Maybe I read too much into it, but she seemed …repulsed. I wondered what changed to make her feel this way to me. I shrugged. Maybe someone told her a tale of one of my 'atrocities'. Ciro tells me there are many rumors of my misdeeds circulating among the people.
“Your Majesty. I wager she’s ready for bland foods, boiled vegetables and lightly spiced stews. I’ve made tea mix for vitality; one cup in the morning and one at night. As for exercises, her muscles are fit for more strenuous exercise. Long walks in the palace garden maybe? The spring air and sunlight will work miracles.”
“It’s Kemi who works miracles,” Lunete said. “She did something to my muscles earlier that took all the soreness away. I feel guilty; she should be healing people in real need and not my achy calves.”
“Where is the elusive Kemi?” Captain Sechnall said. “I wanted to see her to say thank you for saving my life.”
And I did too. Wanted to see her. There was something about having her around -even with her apprehension of me- that made me feel good. Balanced.
“Hahaha. She’s the reason I was spinning,” Lunete said, her eyes alight and twinkling. “She had to leave for her lessons.”
“Lessons? Like anatomy or something?”
“Nooo,” Lunete giggled again. “Mistress Coona made her leave to go to a dancing class! She's learning the saltatus! She must show us what she's learned tomorrow, Marta.”
“She'd be mortified, Princess,” Marta answered, alarm showing on her face. “I swear the girl has two left feet. I made her take the class to try to knock a little of her awkwardness out and keep her in touch with her heritage too.”
I blinked several times taking that in. I suppose it made sense; it was a spicy Anatol dance. I was unaware it was taught anywhere but the isles themselves.
Hmm. Dancing. I tried to remember the last ball we'd had in the palace. Well before Lunete fell into her coma, I recalled, the summer before. When Cormac and I danced until well past midnight, and then under twinkling stars, he kissed me...
My heart ached, and those last memories surfaced again. Of what I'd done to him. Looking back, I felt so removed, as if the person who did those things was completely different from me.
Was he innocent? Had I been wrong?
And if I was, then what I did to him, oh Selene! I used my magic to… to…
“R-ravela?” Lunete asked, her light mood gone. “Are you well? You look so sad!”
“Hmm?” I shook off those doubts and memories. I'd need to come to terms with them someday. And to terms with what was not …right …in me. But not now. Later, after I've pried the full truth from Aldana.
No, not now. Later.
“Maybe a ball is what we need, Sis. In honor of your recovery. Kemi will be invited too; we'll thank her in public for her service to you. ”
“You’ll wear that fancy uniform of yours, won’t you Devin?” My sister’s eyes went all dreamy. “Mmmm.”
The captain blushed, and I resisted looking at his tunic to see if blood was rushing to anywhere other than his face. I was about to tell them to ‘get a room,’ but then had to remind myself we were in her bedroom.
“And you will come with Kemi, Marta,” Lunete said, clapping her hands. “as her sign language interpreter. It is our wish and command.”
“It won't be the best piece o' news she receives,” Marta answered, as she packed her medical tools into her burlap satchel. “I can assure you of that.”
“Your Majesty! Captain! I must speak with you!” Ciro burst into the room, red faced and wheezing. The poor old fool must have run the length of the palace to find us. “We have a *cough* problem.”
“Are we under attack?” Captain Sechnall said, his hand moving to the broad sword sheathed at this belt.
“*cough* No *cough* Yes. I-.”
“Which is it? Out with it, man.” Something seemed wrong with my adviser, something more than being out of breath. His eyes were glassy and his skin was pale and clamy.
“It's the morgue. Ambassador Kijek’s body is ...smoking.”
After he spoke, the aged man crumpled to the floor and began coughing again. Marta ran to him; her hands checking pulse and fever, her eyes scanning and assessing.
“Oh Selene no!”
“What is it, Marta, speak!”
“I've seen this before, when I was a medic in the Glamorgan army.” Marta's hands shook. “In the 2nd Abirav War.”
“The war against King Amangons,” Sechnall asked.
“Yes,” Marta whispered. “When the fell King used disease as a weapon.”
“Amangon's Gift?” Sechnall's eyes widened, and he turned to look at Lunete, worry written on his face.
“Wait! Explain!” I was lost now. “What Gift? What's wrong with Ciro?”
“If I'm not mistaken, and I hope to Selene I am,” Sechnall said, “Mistress Coona believes Ciro has fallen ill with the plague.”
“You are not mistaken,” Marta said, with a voice that sounded like death.
author's note: the story concludes in Part 4
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