It began as a tickling at the back of her conscious; then spread as a numbing buzz over her whole head. She broke off mid-sentence, confused, and her eyes were drawn inexorably to focus on a spot just past Caelum’s point of entry to the hall. It struck her like the blunt end of a sword: familiarity, family, belonging. She wanted to shake her head, to dismiss her musings, but her eyes seemed rooted to the spot, paralysed. All the while she felt a singing in her blood, a quickening of her pulse, as if she had come across something so real she could barely stand the sensation of home.
“Ghia?” Jules’ voice, barely a whisper, cut through her thoughts.
All at once it broke; she was back to normal. Normalcy filled her with an incredible longing. For that brief, shining moment she had felt completed, as if she’d found a piece of herself she hadn’t known was missing until she stumbled upon it, only to drop it again and feel its loss all the more sharply.
Not immediately able to cover the despair that crossed her face, she gave Jules a wan smile and squeezed his hand reassuringly. “I’m fine,” she half whispered, half sent, as she’d been doing all evening. He didn’t look convinced but, when she didn’t say anything more, he shrugged and returned the hand squeeze.
The banquet was lengthy, with many courses, as usual. Ghia sampled each course but did not stuff herself. She noticed Jules and most of the other officers, former and current, exercised similar restraint. The courtiers followed no such restrictions on their appetite. They gorged heartily until they could eat no more, and then waited a bit before starting again. She was surprised there wasn’t a lineup to the privies.
Looking over to the table reserved for the first three Regiments, she noticed Anala as usual was enjoying the quality, if not the quantity, of the food with relish. Ghia had deduced that despite her relationship to the head cook, Anala didn’t get quality food often and appreciated it when it was available. The healer admired her restraint.
Anita and Leala also ate with restraint, heads close together in the quiet conversation of whatever it was lovers talk about over dinner. The most aloof of all the bellica-major or bellica-majora pairs, the two women seemed to have no passion except for each other, and theatrics; they were known patrons of the playhouse in Atherton. Ghia shrugged. At least one well known couple have figured out that they are an item.
Shifting her gaze to Yarrow and Caelum, her earlier gleanings were confirmed. The bellica and major sat silently, not looking at each other, not even acknowledging the other’s presence. Well, she amended, where Yarrow was a stone, Caelum looked like a wounded dog, stealing glances at his mistress, hoping to be let back inside from the cold. What had happened? She wished she could read Yarrow as easily as she could the average Atherian.
Suddenly a white-hot, searing pain tore through her mind and was gone in an instant, replaced by a terrible clarity. She felt as if she could see through all the people around her, into their souls and deepest mind. The thought made her sick, overwhelming her, and a wave of nausea hit her as she flailed in a sea of emotions and thoughts. Where are my boundaries? She struggled to remain upright and conscious.
A hand grabbed her elbow and from very far away and extremely close at the same time she heard Jules ask if she was all right. Barely able to concentrate, she tried to nod a yes. The motion made her sicker, and she clamped a hand over her mouth to keep from throwing up. She had to get out of there.
She shakily got to her feet, stumbling over her klina, and dizzily ran for the doors, the room a blur. Dimly she was aware of people staring at her in bemusement and only a bit of concern. She could hear Jules following her and explaining, “Ate too much. Needs some air.”
With all her remaining strength she opened the heavy doors and ran down the hallway, looking for a plant.
Finding one, she collapsed to her knees and retched into the dirt, watching the Midwinter supper on the upswing. Lovely. She tried to sit back but her body informed her she was not done. She retched violently until there was nothing left in her ravaged system.
She came to be aware of hands holding her hair back, and a voice murmuring soothingly. Jules, she thought, his concern palpable as a weight on her back. How embarrassing!
She sat back, and Jules’ hands left her head. He squatted in front of her. They stared at each other. “You want to stop lying to me about being okay and tell me what’s up?” he said in his best Chief Medical Officer voice.
She shrugged. “I decided my tree-friend here should enjoy the feast as well.” He frowned at her, unamused. She sighed. “I don’t know, Jules. I’m just as surprised as the rest of the court.”
He nodded slowly, lips pursed. “Are you pregnant?” he asked abruptly.
She had to hold back a laugh, afraid the motion would make her sick again. “No. I believe there is a prerequisite, which I lack.” She was pleased to note the blush on his face. Turnabout is fair play.
Intent on his job, however, he continued. “What have you had to eat today?”
Ghia thought back. Not much, she thought of replying with, but decided to cooperate. “An egg and toast for breakfast.”
“What kind of jam?” Jules said, cutting her off.
“Sheepberry,” she said after a moment. “And the banquet food.”
“That’s it?” The look on his face lacked description.
“That’s normal for me. Well, except the banquet,” she added after a moment’s thought.
Jules shook his head, sighed. “I’m surprised you’re not thinner, with that kind of diet.”
Ghia shrugged. She didn’t have time to eat. Or much desire, for that matter. She’d rather work through her dinner break.
He stood, stretched, and glanced back at the hall. “Maybe it was the courtiers’ eating habits that made you sick,” he suggested in a low voice.
Ghia smiled weakly. You don’t know how close you are, she thought. “Undoubtedly,” was what she said aloud.
Jules gave a small chuckle, and as usual Ghia found the sound pleasing, deep and comforting. She enjoyed laughing with him. There are so few laughs to be found nowadays. Everyone had to take what there was. They spent a moment in that comfort, that cozy silence only friends can have, before Jules broke it with a sigh, and said “They’ll come looking for us in a minute.”
“Hoping to catch us in a tryst,” she completed for him, and immediately reined her thoughts in. With my boundaries gone, it’s going to be hard to keep out of people’s business.
“After the performance you just gave? Not likely.” She stuck her tongue out at him. He grinned, and then reached a hand down to help her up. Gratefully, she took it, and immediately heard him: If she’s accepting help outright, she must be sick. Ghia let go of his hand as if it burned her and got to her feet quickly, if unsteadily. Another wave of nausea hit but she fought it and won. She stood straight and looked Jules in the eye. Recovering from the rejection of his help, he masked his all too obvious hurt. Tried to mask. She cast about for an explanation but there was none; so she settled for a smile. “You go on ahead, Jules. I need to catch my breath.”
He nodded reluctantly and turned to go. Ghia could hear him again: Then what have you been doing? If you don’t want my company….
She shut her eyes and blocked him out, trying to find a point of reference. She felt as if she were floating, finding pathways in the sky through the thoughts and feelings of others.
What’s happening to me?
You are awake to your own strength and free from restrictions, a voice-not-her-own answered her.
Her eyes flew open in shock. The corridor was empty but she could sense a figure in front of her. The feeling of home was back.
“Who are you?” she asked aloud. To her own ears her voice sounded harsh and rough.
A friend, the voice said, again in her head. It was soothing and soft and reminded Ghia of sunlight through trees, warm wet earth, grass in the wind, and the Healer’s Garden, with the pungent smell of herbs permeating the air. I take it you want your boundaries back? it asked. Ghia was sure the voice was a she, deep as the dark earth.
Yes, please, Ghia said, catching on. The voice would prefer her to send as well. She sensed the voice was nodding mentally, and then it felt as if a weight had been placed in her mind. The clarity was gone, replace by a muffled sensation, and she no longer felt sick. That is temporary, the voice said. Come see me in the North Tower within six days time. I’ll train you.
Ghia must have looked doubtful. The voice went on: unless you would rather float alone when the block wears off and be unable to control what you hear?
Ghia felt a surge of cleansing anger. You’re the one who removed my boundaries in the first place!
Yes, because they would have done you more harm than good in the long run, and because I seek a student–I have for years. You have been the only Terran I’ve found with such powers.
Ghia frowned, her anger replaced with confusion. Terran?
There is much you must learn, the voice responded. Come to the North Tower?
Tempting, Ghia had to admit. She would love to increase her control over her powers. She felt so comfortable with this being, whoever or whatever she was. Yet Ghia’s good sense told her that if an invisible creature with mind powers that rival your own invites you into a Tower that’s been closed off for centuries, you don’t go without asking some questions first.
What are you?
Ghia felt the mental shrug of the creature. A very old being.
Try as she might, Ghia couldn’t find anything with that answer to make her wary. She just felt like it was right, that her heart was urging her to go, to get the training. She sighed. Against her heart, her logic invariably lost. I’ll come, she agreed. But only if you let me see your face.
There was a hesitation. Ghia raised her eyebrows expectantly.
Can we compromise on the eyes? The voice said, hope tingeing her tone.
Ghia considered a moment, and then agreed.
Immediately beautiful eyes appeared before her, floating where they would be on a woman with Yarrow’s height. They contained the colours of the earth and wisdom of the ages, and changed constantly – from the yellow of summer flowers to the brown of good soil, to the green of grass and the purple of foxglove, flickering with a hundred emotions at once. Ghia was taken in by them – she felt she could drink from them forever.
“Ghia!” the sound of her name from across the hall turned her head sharply away. Jules stood at the doorway, an expectant look on his face.
She turned back to the eyes to say goodbye, but they were gone. Hurriedly she joined Jules at the doorway, knowing she’d have no answer for what she’d been doing. The doors were closed; no one at the banquet could see or hear them. “The banquet’s almost over, you know,” Jules said. “Just announcements and the dessert course left, and then back to our beds to dream of bellies not so full.” Ghia smiled at him and reached for the door handle, but he put a hand on her shoulder and stopped her.
Thank Althea, she thought when she heard nothing from him.
“Ghia,” he began, then stopped, searching for words. She put a hand on his and said nothing, letting him find what he needed to say. Frustrated, he ran his other hand through his hair and started again. “Look, just because you’ve got everyone else fooled doesn’t mean you’ve pulled the linen over my eyes. You can talk to me―we’ve been friends for how long?” His look was stern, and she felt guilty that she hid so much from him. But it’s necessary.
She sighed; looked away. “I know. I’m sorry I don’t talk to you more, but most days I don’t know what to say.”
He sighed in return and then suddenly, surprisingly, wrapped her in a hug. She thought of protesting but she could feel how much he needed that contact. Slowly, her arms came up and wrapped around him as she realised she needed that contact too, that sometimes it was too much to be so alone. They stood like that for a minute or two, before coming to a mutual silent agreement that they had to get back before people started to talk.