Chapter 8 Part 8 | Son in Sorrow | IHGK Book 2
A whisper ran through the Hearth that night, carried from one sympathetic mouth in the Healer's House dispensary to various sympathetic ears until it reached a young Sister who worked in the kitchens; she nodded, setting her stubborn black cowlick bobbing. When she returned to her work, she picked up a dinner tray and walked the long stairs into the basement to Sister Ibbit's chilly cell. She gave the renegade her evening meal and murmured, "She is with child, Blessed Ibbit," before she turned away.
Ibbit tore her bread into hunks, the hunks into chunks, the chunks into shreds, the shreds into crumbs. She threw them into her soup and ate with deliberate intensity until the same black-haired Sister came back for the tray. "Tell our friend in the dispensary I have a task for her. Carry it out, the both of you, and then flee," said Ibbit.
The next morning, after the black-haired Sister's work ended, she asked for permission to go into the City on a personal errand. She tucked a brown paper package containing a large amber flat-sided bottle into one sleeve and a small bundle of personal items and food in the other. She walked up the Promenade, through the busy streets to Kingsbridge. The Guards let her through the iron gates into the grounds of the Keep, bowing to her reverently. As she walked up the gravel drive, an estate cart stopped for her and gave her a ride to the Keep itself, where it let her off in the kitchen yard. She walked past the more ornate mudroom door to the delivery door that let straight into the kitchens, and knocked.
"Please, come in, Sister," said the answering footman.
"That's unnecessary," she smiled. "I have a package for Her Majesty from Eldest Sister Imvalda." She handed over the brown paper package, the green wax stamped with the Sister's Temple official seal: a bee. "Tell her it is a stronger, better tincture than the one we sent home with her." The footman accepted the package and made a shy request for a blessing; a nasty head cold was sweeping through the Keep's staff. "May Venna watch over you and keep you from illness. May She watch over all who live under this roof," said the priestess, her hand on his lowered head.
"Thank you, Sister." The footman bowed and closed the door. She wiped her hand on her habit, turned and walked out of the Keep's grounds, through the City and out into the surrounding countryside to hide herself.
By the time the black-haired Sister was missed, the Blessed Ibbit was gone. Ancient, secret passages used for smuggling injured people riddled the Hearth, as they did all Sister's Temples; they were sworn to treat anyone who came to them, even fugitives. The Sisters thought they knew every old tunnel in the Hearth, but they had never thought to look for new ones.
Sedra worried over her mother. Cousin Donnis's arrival had revived her initially, but lately she'd worsened, her face taking on a gray cast. Donnis and Miss Hanston thwarted Sedra's every attempt to find out more.
By nature Sedra preferred solitude early in the day, but now she rode with her mother and Lady Donnis every morning. On this particular ride in the foothills, not long before spring turned into summer on Nerr's Day, the dew on the Fairy Meadow sparkled like the ocean; the sharp, sweet green of wildflowers and fresh grass perfumed the clear air. The three women let their mounts wander as they would, cropping the new plants. Having no particular mount of her own, Sedra rode Temmin's half-Inchari horse LeiLei. She was not the horsewoman her mother was, but the sleek black mare's tidy gait and good wind pleased her. She was scheming how she might get LeiLei away from her brother for good when her mother said, "You should know, Seddy, that your father has spoken to me about a possible match for you."
Sedra pulled back on the reins, jerking the mare's fine head up; LeiLei shook her head in irritation, glanced reproachfully at her rider, and went back to her treat. Sedra patted the horse's neck and murmured an apology, adding to her mother, "To whom shall I be sold?"
"Oh, Seddy, don't say that," fretted Donnis.
"You were allowed to choose, ma'am. Mama was sold to Papa. I think I might know who's buying me," she retorted.
"I wasn't sold, Sedra. I followed my father's wishes, as shall you," said Ansella. "I'm glad, really. I wouldn't have my beautiful girls and that hectic brother of yours if I hadn't. Some day you will look at your children and feel the same way. Amma guides us for our own good, if we but listen to Her."
"Where is Amma guiding me? That's what I want to know."
Ansella flexed her fingers in their fine goatskin riding gloves; her clear blue eyes gauged her daughter's face. "It would appear the King of Sairland is in need of a wife."
"Sairland!" gasped Sedra. So far away? She would almost certainly never see her family again were she to leave the continent for the great island to the east. "I thought…I know I have said some harsh words about His Grace the Duke of Alzeh, and while I have no feeling for the man at least I would still be in the Kingdom!"
"Your father says Sairland is where your country has most need of you," said her mother. "I have heard much good about King Bannig."
"Bannig?" snorted Sedra. "I've heard all he rules over is drinking and dancing."
"Sairland did not come to rule the Amman Ocean by drinking and dancing, my chicken," said Donnis.
"Bannig didn't obtain that ocean himself, cousin," Sedra countered. "His grandfathers did the work for him."
"He maintains it," said Ansella. "Gently, dear, gently."
"I'm sorry, Cousin Donnis," said Sedra somewhat sullenly, though she meant it.
"Bannig is sending his brother to open negotiations in the coming spokes. It is in your best interests to learn all you can about Sairland, its history and its customs," said her mother.
"You're not talking to Elly, Mama," she snapped. "I already know more about Sairland than Papa, I'd wager." She cracked the reins, and LeiLei left the Fairy Meadow at a sharp pace.
"I'm so very glad I had sons," said Donnis after the departing Princess's back.
"Alberto was no easier," said Ansella, "nor Evval."
"Berto and Ev were hectic boys, true, but in the end they grew up and they're still mine. Girls are given away to the families of their husbands, or to the Temples. Rarely are we allowed to keep one, and though it's a solace to us when we can, not having their own household is hardly fair to them, is it?"
"I wonder if there is any fairness to women in this world." Ansella turned Flor's head toward the higher hills and gave the white mare's ribs a heeltap. "Come, let's give Sedra her solitude."