As a consequence of visiting Sarai, Jules was late to the banquet. Yet, as usual, he was among the first there.
Usually his visits with his sister left him feeling light, as if his troubles had been lifted and he’d returned to a time before their mother’s death. This visit had left his thoughts and heart heavy.
It was the reading, centrally―not so much what his sister said as what she didn’t say. She’d gone into detail on the second and third cards. While Jules was happy to know his love life would improve (what other way could it go?), and unsurprised to hear the cards speak of his nightmares (soldier back from war: not exactly alchemy to figure that out), he could tell his sister was covering up something: the other five cards.
He knew a bit about Aradia’s Deck, the oracle employed by the priestess of the order. The deck had been around since the First Age, when Aradia of the Stars had bequeathed it to the people of Athering. The seven-card reading was known as the Mirrors reading, and showed what in the world at large would reflect directly on the querent.
What he didn’t know were the interpretations―what the cards meant. Such information belonged to the Mysteries of the Order. That’s what worried him.
All his sister had said of the five remaining cards was that the future Athering feared would come to pass and that he would have to make some choices. Which means what, exactly? he’d asked her.
She’d frowned and shook her head. The cards are shutting me out, Brother. They won’t say.
This Jules knew to be horse manure. Sarai was trying to protect him from the knowledge, a trait she’d picked up from their mother that infuriated him.
Trying not to linger on the reading, as he knew it would do no good, he scanned the hall for his table. Tables, he mentally corrected. As CMO of the First Regiment, he had a choice of sitting with the Healers or the ranking officers of the First through Third Regiments.
Surprisingly enough, Yarrow wasn’t at their table, nor Caelum. He felt a tightening in his gut, and hoped her absence was mere tardiness. Anala and Aro were there, early as usual, and Anita and Leala had apparently just arrived. The healers’ table held Ghia, Giselle, Jera, and a few healers Jules didn’t know by name.
While he stood deliberating there was a slam as the door to the hall shut again, and soon Jules saw Fanchone sit down with his bellica at the officers’ table.
That settles that, then, Jules thought as he made his way to the healers’ table. Anything to avoid the stuffy and arrogant CMO of the Second Regiment.
Ghia nodded at his approach and made to rise, but he waved at her, bidding her stay seated. “You hardly need to rise for me, Healer,” he said with a smile.
She ignored him and stood anyway. There was a scraping of klinae on the floor as the other healers followed her lead. “I thought you military types were suckers for protocol, Chief,” she said with a saucy grin.
He shook his head and took his seat, and the healers followed suit a moment later. “I hope someday this will be the other way around,” he said with a gruff sigh.
Ghia inclined her head. “As do we all, Chief.” She must have given some sort of signal, for a second later Jera and Giselle were involved in a loud conversation and Ghia was whispering to Jules under the noisy cover. “Yarrow and Caelum are fine, but mayhap not with each other,” she said, her lips barely moving, though he heard her loud and clear. “I’m not sure what happened, but I think they had a large row; Yarrow’s too angry to speak, and Caelum’s moping.”
Jules nodded, his gut tightening further. He was sure he knew what that fight was about: Yarrow must have confessed to Caelum. I should have talked to her, he thought with regret. Before he could ask Ghia about the spy, a servant was at his elbow and their conversation lulled while he gave his drink order. They stayed silent until the drink came back. When the servant was far away he dared to speak. Jera and Giselle kept up their cover and he silently blessed the close-knit nature of healers.
“And of the spy?” he asked, his cup in front of his lips.
Ghia shrugged. “Not in the hospitalis anymore; I daresay she’s reported to her mistress already. I couldn’t find her anywhere, though I plan on making a more thorough search later.”
“Don’t make too large a priority of it, Ghia. What’s done is done.” And Goddesses forbid the Empress’ eye should focus on you, he didn’t say.
Her eyebrows knit together as her face hardened. “The girl was in my hospitalis. I plan on dealing with her.”
Jules sighed and said nothing, knowing he couldn’t convince the stubborn girl otherwise. He’d just have to keep an eye on her himself.
They fell into a short silence, before Ghia asked him in a normal voice, though a bit too brightly, how his day had fared.
“Fairly uneventful,” he lied easily and could see in her eyes that she knew it. “And yours, Healer?” he asked her before she could press him.
“Oh, boring as usual – just more herbcraft. Harvest, dry, grind, store, repeat.” She gave a small huff of laughter.
He joined in her mirthless façade. “You should have enough novice healers that can do that grunt work and leave you free.”
She gave him an arch stare. “With Muerta’s Tears? Would you trust such a tricky procedure to a babe just out of swaddling cloth?”
“Ah, no,” he said hastily while he mentally smiled at Ghia’s description of her novices. Most were close to her age and yet her behaviour could place her as their mother. “How is the Lieutenant?” he added, sobering.
“Slowly improving. It’s good he was under your care, Jules, and that you got home when you did. A few more days, or Fanchone’s…work,” and she did not try to cover her disdain, “would have lost James his eyesight forever.”
“You flatter me. It’s Christopher who is so handy with the herbs,” he said, deflecting the praise to his second-in-command. “And none of the Medicorps can match the Healers’ Guild in skill,” he added, complimenting her and her colleagues.
She smiled without humour. “Make sure you tell him that, then. He hasn’t stopped swearing at us since he was out of pain enough to speak coherently. Most cantankerous bastard I’ve ever had the misfortune of treating.”
Jules snorted. “That’s James. When he’s injured, at least.”
“Like Bellica, like Lieutenant…” she said lightly, and Jules nearly spat out his drink. With effort he swallowed, but immediately started choking as the wine went down roughly. He coughed, trying to get air back into his body, and felt a pounding on his back.
“Thanks,” he rasped when he could breathe again.
Ghia looked at him with concern that didn’t properly cover her mirth. “Your face is purple.”
“Maybe you could give me mouth-to-mouth,” he leered at her.
She laughed and gave him a swat on the arm. “Lech.”
He smiled to hide his disappointment, and signalled to a nearby servant to fill his goblet again. As the red liquid spilled from the pitcher into his cup, something occurred to him, Once the servant had walked away again he voiced his concern.
“Ghia, if you were in the hospitalis all day how did you know about―”
He was cut off as the doors slammed shut and a collective gasp went up around the room. Jules directed his eyes to what everyone else was staring at, and he, too, gasped.
Standing at the entrance to the hall was the long-dead Queen Zameera.
Jules had seen the Queen only once when she’d been alive―a former bellica herself, she had made regular inspections of the troops under her care. With the rest of the new privas he’d stood at attention while the steely-eyed woman had inspected his barracks, walking beside the then-First Bellica Gray, now the Eorl of Harbourtown.
That brief glance had imprinted her strongly in his mind, and he recognised her as she stood in the hall now, gazing at the people who had gathered for the banquet. Her dark hair was tied tightly back, as it had been during her inspections and most of her rule, and she stood in her oftworn peplos, a piece of black silk with some simple, yet regal, embroidery on it. One of Nucalif’s finest, back in its heyday.
The hall had fallen absolutely silent. That silence stretched on as courtiers regarded Zameera and she regarded them. Before anything could be said or done, the doors at the other end of the hall that led to the kitchen (and to the historic Elevator to the Empress’ quarters) flew open and Zanny and Zardria strode in. The two women stopped short at the sight of their sister and mother, faces registering a gamut of emotions from shock to disappointment, which did not surprise Jules, though the relief he saw on Zanny’s face did. It was gone in half a second; so he convinced himself he’d imagined it.
The three women stared at one another, a triangular showdown, while the hall watched, tensed to see who would break first. Against all mental bets being placed, Zameera gave a twisted half smile and bowed slightly before the Empress and Empreena.
“I was not aware I looked so like my mother,” she said in a gravelly voice, and the spell was instantly broken: everyone could hear it was Yarrow, not a ghost of seventeen years past. “It is, after all, only her peplos.”
A small sigh was released from the collective breath everyone had been holding. Jules watched Zanny fight desperately for composure while her niece looked on in hatred towards the bellica.
“Yes, well, take your seat, Bellica. You’re dangerously close to being late,” the Empress said, an almost-threat, before turning to mount the stairs to her own table on its dais.
Zardria fairly snarled at her sister before following the Zanny.
“Happy Midwinter, Sister, Aunt,” Yarrow said, moving to her own table without stopping to witness the other women freeze momentarily, caught out in their discourtesy to their family member.
And score one point for Yarrow, Jules thought rather sardonically. But what will it cost her?
“Too much,” Ghia whispered, and Jules frowned at her. She looked startled at his attention. “She laid it on too thick with them. It could cost her,” she added hastily, as if she had said something obvious. Jules relaxed. It was silly to think anyone but Sarai could know his thoughts.
With a sigh, he sat back as the table was loaded with large serving plates of the first course. This banquet would go on half the night. He could tell.
And where in Tyvian was Caelum?