Jourd’Umbra, 7th Primera
Ghia was at the bakery visiting Sappho when Jules and the others rode into Harbourtown.
She’d gone to get something to eat, but Laurel had been working, and Sappho and her wife were not in sight.
“Hello,” Ghia said to Laurel politely. Laurel glared at her and walked away. Ghia’s temper flared, but she held it in check as she remembered what Sappho had said about Laurel’s life. She followed the older woman down the length of the counter and tried again.
“Hi. May I buy some food?”
Laurel bared her teeth. “Ye can burn in Tyvian, fer all I’d care.”
Ghia felt as if she’d been slapped. “Do you speak to all your customers like that?” she said, tone icy.
“Nay – only those what are friends wit’ that cur Anala.”
“Laurel!” came Sappho’s very angry voice from the staircase to the upstairs living area. The slight woman crossed the room to her daughter’s side quickly, her stride reminding Ghia of a charging animal. “No child o’ mine’d be speakin’ tha way, and especially no ta one we’d owe much ta. Ye apologise ta Healer Ghia straight away, ye ken?”
Laurel turned away sulkily, her face disfigured by hatred. “Anala’d deserved ta die. Why should I be apologising ta the one what saved her?”
Sappho grabbed her daughter’s ear and slapped Laurel across the face. “How dare ye speak so!” she said, voice raised. Ghia was very glad she was the only customer at the moment. “Anala’d never wronged ye, and ye ken it well!”
Laurel rubbed her face, tears in her eyes, and looked at her mother belligerently. “She’d killed Adem an’ Isidora both and ye dare ta say she’d never wronged me?” The young woman ran out of the bakery and up the stairs before Sappho could react.
Sappho turned to watch her daughter go, a sad look on her face. “Dem!” she called gently, and the large man who was her wife poked his head out of the back. “Go ta Laurel, would ye?”
He said nothing, only nodded and went up the stairs.
There was an awkward pause while Sappho stayed looking after her wife and daughter and Ghia felt increasingly uncomfortable just standing there, saying nothing. After a while Sappho turned to face Ghia and apologised. “I’d never kenned Laurel blamed Anala so…though it’d explain a mite o ‘er behavior.”
Ghia nodded, still a bit shocked. Though she might have been angry with Laurel, all she felt was a saddened compassion for the woman. She looked at the staircase and decided she’d come by again the next day, and see if she couldn’t offer some comfort to Laurel.
“Did ye come in fer some food, child?” Sappho’s voice broke through Ghia’s thoughts, and she nodded hastily, but before she could order something Sappho spoke again, looking outside the window with a frown on her face. “Who’d that be? He’d not be from here.”
Ghia turned to see Jules tying up Suki next to Amora, a stressed look on his face. Before he even turned to the door, Ghia was running outside to meet him. She threw her arms around his neck and planted a large kiss on his lips.
Jules, pretend we’re together – Sappho Baker, inside, thinks I’m pregnant with your child, so please just play along, she sent to him before breaking off the kiss and smiling at him.
He gaped at her, looking incredibly confused. “Come again?”
“Long story,” she said, leading him inside the bakery. “Just go with it, please.”
They entered the bakery then and Ghia linked her arm with Jules’ in a proprietary fashion. “Sappho, may I introduce you to Jules deTania, Chief Medical Officer of the First Regiment? Jules, Sappho Baker. She’s a friend of Anala.”
Jules responded to her touch, falling into the pretense so easily, Ghia would swear he believed it to be real. He curtsied to Sappho. “A pleasure to meet you, Dama. I seem to recall sneaking away from the regiment back in ‘fifteen to buy some of your bread before we sailed to Voco,” he said pleasantly.
Sappho smiled at him, but Ghia saw the sadness in her eyes. “Aye? And did it suit yer fancy?”
“Got me through the battle.” He smiled graciously at Sappho and the woman beamed, and then offered them food – on the house, as before.
They accepted gratefully, though Ghia still felt strange about taking so much for free. Sappho wouldn’t hear a word otherwise, so she did not protest. After taking their sandwiches, neatly wrapped up for later enjoyment, Ghia bid a warm farewell to Sappho, saying she’d stop in again the next morning.
“You’ll have to be quick; Yarrow’s in a hurry to get back before the time she booked is up,” Jules said to her as they left the bakery, arms around each other.
Ghia shrugged as they unhitched their horses, put the sandwiches in a saddle bag, and led the animals down the street with them – a silent mutual agreement to walk, to get more time to talk alone before joining the others. “It will take us a while to get going anyway – there are nine of us now, assuming you found the stray lieutenant, and three of us recovering from injuries.”
His face registered surprise for a moment before he spoke. “Nine? Almost twice what we started with. We did find Lt. James alright – a good thing, for it gave me someone to chat with on the road here.”
“Were Caelum and Yarrow not friendly with you?” She frowned. They seemed friendly enough between Atherton and Mudflat.
Jules’ jaw tightened. “I did not wish to speak to them,” he said, and then extrapolated on the events that had occurred after she and Aro had left Mudflat.
“How dare she!” Ghia found herself shouting in the street, and quickly lowered her voice. Letting Amora’s reins go, she quickly went to Jules’ side and grabbed his left arm gently, itching to take a look at the wound. “Are you okay?”
He quirked his lips in a half-smile. “I wouldn’t mind your taking a look at it,” he said, so perfectly mimicking her thoughts she looked at him sharply.
“Can you read my mind now, Jules?”
He laughed and wrapped his arm around her shoulder. “No. I just know you too well.”
Not so well as I want you to know me, she thought, and slapped herself mentally. Now is not the time, Healer. She pulled away from him and grabbed Amora’s reins again, though the horse hadn’t even wandered. She just needed to do something with her hands.
“I will say that despite how well I know you, I was still surprised by your greeting,” Jules continued, and Ghia felt her face burn.
She managed a carefree and impish smile. “Yeah. About that. Long story.”
He gestured to the road ahead of them. “I’ve got time.”
Whatever on earth had possessed her to use Jules as the phantom father of her phantom child? Ghia briefly explained how her reading Laurel’s mind had led to pretending she was pregnant. “I’m sorry I used you, Jules – it was just easier than explaining the truth. And safer.”
He smiled and reached over to ruffle her hair. “Don’t think twice about it. Glad to have been of service.”
He fell silent then, and they did not speak for the rest of the journey to the tavern. Ghia frowned, looking over at him, for he looked…disappointed. Probably just upset about what happened in Mudflat. Tyvian, I’m seething!
As they exited the stables, horses stalled and feeding, they ran into Lares as he exited the main tavern door. Seeing her, he bowed deeply. “Ah, Healer Ghia. I was just sent to find you. Bellica Yarrow wishes to speak with you, she said.” His eyes flickered to Jules briefly and Ghia caught what wasn’t said: Yarrow still didn’t trust Jules enough, even with so simple a task as finding the head healer. A look at the CMO’s face told her he caught the significance as well.
Still angry with her cousin over Mudflat and the woman’s current behaviour, and wanting to give Lares more opportunity for friendship in Athering, she decided introductions could come before reporting. “I’ll go inside in a moment, Lares. Thank you. First, I want you to meet my very close friend, Jules deTania, CMO of the First Regiment. Jules, Lares Stout-Heart saved my life the other night.”
Jules’ eyes widened. “You didn’t tell me about that.” His hands gripped her shoulders as he examined her, as if injuries were suddenly going to appear on her body. “Are you alright?”
She patted his hand gently and refrained from being sarcastic, extricating herself from his grip. “I’m obviously still alive, Jules, so yes. All the danger passed without my sustaining a scratch, thanks to Lares here.”
Jules looked at Lares for less than a second before he embraced the other man in a tight hug. “Thank you, Lares,” he said, and Lares awkwardly returned the embrace, a disbelieving happiness on his face.
Ghia could have kissed Jules again for his ready acceptance of Lares but decided not to, as that seemed to do funny things to her body, clouding her mind. She wanted her mind clear for her meeting with Yarrow.
The men disengaged and clasped hands affectionately. “I’d be proud to call you a friend of mine, Lares, for acting in my stead.” Ghia thought about Lares kissing her and nearly guffawed, but retained control admirably well.
Lares inclined his head respectfully to Jules. “It is my pleasure to serve a lady such as Ghia, Jules. But I accept your friendship gratefully.”
Jules grinned. “Good. I’ll buy you a drink.”
“And I’ll report to Bellica Yarrow,” Ghia said before they forgot her presence in the haze of male bonding. She gave the food she’d carried from the saddlebag to Jules. “Guard our sandwiches, Jules – and save some for me. I’m ravenous.”
Before the two men could protest she was inside the tavern and heading up to the room where Yarrow waited, next to Ghia’s room shared with Anala and, as of last night, Aro.
Yarrow sat by the window, looking out at the harbour. Ghia had no doubt the bellica had watched her entire exchange with Lares and Jules, but the healer didn’t particularly care what Yarrow thought of it. Caelum stood by the wall; when he noticed Ghia’s sudden and silent presence in the room he started before quickly letting Yarrow know the healer was there. He left then, closing the door with a quiet snap behind him.
Ghia stood, refusing to let her temper get the best of her. She would keep the upper hand here if it killed her.
Yarrow turned to face her then, and the bellica looked very tired. “I take it you know already.”
“Yes, and I think it was terrible of you to treat Jules like that!” she snapped, quickly losing her calm. “How could you be so cruel? And when he was injured!”
“Just because you’re in love with him, girl, doesn’t mean everyone else is,” Yarrow growled at her.
Ghia looked away, feeling as if she’d been slapped. “I’m not in love with him,” she lied.
“Sure. Just as I’m not in love with Caelum,” Yarrow said, giving Ghia a sardonic look. The healer would have laughed had she not been so upset. Yarrow sighed and rubbed her eyes tiredly. “I don’t expect you to understand. But I had to know where his loyalty was – and there was no other way to do so. Jules has been an unknown variable for me since – well, since Nucalif.”
“What was in Nucalif?” Ghia asked. She knew, of course, but needed Yarrow to say it.
Yarrow’s face shuttered closed like storm windows. “You don’t need to know that.”
“Not if you don’t want me to forgive you, Yarrow. Am I your cousin or no?”
“Of course you are!” Yarrow yelled, exploding out of her chair. “What on Althea’s green bosom could change that? It doesn’t mean I have to tell you all my secrets.”
“It does if you want us to have any sort of worthwhile relationship – and we’ll need to, if I’m to be Lady Lihin and you Queen.” There was a terrible pause in which Ghia’s stomach dropped as she realised what she’d said. Yarrow stared at her, face unreadable but emotions flickering in her eyes, too fast for Ghia to catch. I’m in it deep now. She forced herself to go on. “I’d rather it were a relationship based in trust, cousin,” she said quietly.
Yarrow expelled a gusty breath of air as she looked out the window again. “Juno’s tits, but you’re gutsy, girl,” she said, giving Ghia an admiring once-over. “Or just very stupid,” she amended, and Ghia found herself agreeing silently. There was another pause before the bellica spoke. “But you’re right. If this is going to happen – this gotterdammerung that I seem doomed to be a part of – then there needs to be some risk. And so I find myself taking such a risk in offering you my trust.”
Ghia nodded and looked at the floor for a moment before deciding how to continue. “Thank you, cousin,” she said simply. Another pause, and then she looked up at Yarrow again. “I offer you mine in return – and begin by telling you that I already know what happened in Nucalif.” Yarrow’s eyes widened, and Ghia pressed on, to say what needed saying before Yarrow decided she was enough of a threat to run through with a sword. “Just as I know you didn’t do it, and just as Jules knows. And too – just as I know the cut on your hand on Midwinter Eve came from your mother’s Shrine, where her broken sword lies – and that Caelum has loved you deeply for some time now, though I’m pretty sure that the only one who doesn’t know that at this point is you – and how I knew that Anala would die if I didn’t leave Atherton for here when I did – and too, how I knew you would lose the use of your hand and back inevitably when you were brought in those years ago. All this and more, Yarrow.”
Yarrow’s face held horror, and her sword was already drawn and up in a defensive position. Ghia calmly snapped up a shield around her, though whether it would deflect steel or not remained to be seen. “How could you know that, Healer?” And how can I trust you?
Ghia heard her think. “Because I told you what I know, and didn’t go anywhere else with it. Because blood is thicker than water. Because I’m answering your unspoken thought now, and if I can do that – what else can I do, that I haven’t?” She let the near-threat hang in the air between them.
Yarrow’s eyes narrowed. “What are you, Healer Ghia? Witch or demon?”
“Neither. Put the sword down and I’ll tell you. It can’t hurt me anyway,” she added, hoping her bluff was correct.
“All the same, it makes me feel better.”
Ghia sighed and settled herself on the floor comfortably. “Suit yourself. I suggest you get comfortable. It’s a story the length of a lifetime – mine, specifically.”
Yarrow shifted her weight slightly and re-gripped her sword but did not sit. “I’ve got time.”
“Good. It’s needed. But before I go on, answer me a question?”
“My mother’s name?”
Yarrow frowned at her, but did not refuse her an answer. “Charity deDesdemona, so far as I know.”
As I thought. Goddess help me. “Thank you,” was all she said, and then she launched into the long tale of Ghia deHelene/Charity Donacella-Voto/Exsil Vis-Lihin, the healer of Athering with extraordinary powers and an alien heritage, walking in both worlds but belonging in neither.
Neither woman slept that night.