“Wise words from savage mouths,” said Pel, softly. She eased up with the roughness of her fingertips. The rain threshed over the tent roof. The cooling embers gave away a little more of their ruddy light and deep soft shadows grew. “I was a happy child. My home is away in the east, past the Elradian Deserts, which are spoken of like a myth in these lands. Actria. Actria. It is a beautiful land, my home, though I do not think you would see the beauty. You people, I think you are mad for your love of green hills, and wet oaks, grey rocks and cold mosses. Actria is a land of hard gold and amber soils, cliffs and crumbling rocks. Ochre in a dozen shades, from white to flame red. The great Vasqu runs through it, and brings floods that wet the soils for crops every year. The sky is like cut turquoise, and there is turquoise in the earth too. So much, that you can kick it out of the ground in some hills. Gold like grains of rice tumbles in the currents of the Vasqu. And yet, it is a long way from perfect, my home, my Actria. In the north of Actria is a wilderness of airless grey forest, dry, without rivers or streams. Hardly any animals live there, but deep, deep in the forest is the City of the Bloodied Lady. The people of that place are some of the last scions of ancient Zenothia, Empire of a Thousand Darknesses and Blood Red Moons. Zenothia ruled over a bloody aeon. It stood a thousand years, and was overthrown a thousand years ago. But in the City of the Bloodied Lady they look back to their ancestry to Zenothia, and practise the old magic of the old cancerous empire. Divinations from living entrails, blood-rituals and death magic. They believe that a person can be made to speak prophecy only at the cusp of death. In their belief, a prophecy is all the more potent, if the mind has already be pushed to madness. So they think. So they think.” She rinsed her hands off in the water of the bath, and got up to dip some clean water out of a barrel with a brass pitcher, pouring it over Caewen, running it down her neck, shoulders and back, rinsing away the suds. It was cold, and left her shivering. “You ask, what happened to me? Just the same as what has happened to many whose towns and villages are a little too far north, a little too close to the edges of that dismal forest. Too many Actrian towns have walls that are not in good repair, or bells of alarm unused to ringing, stiff on their ropes. I hid in the vineyard, but I saw them come and take my family. My two younger sisters, my older brother, mother and father. They took my uncle too, and his family. A hundred others too, driven north, for blood-rites and other uses.”
“Why hasn’t your people put an end to this city then? You must have soldiers.”
“Many satraps, over many years, have taken armies north. None have returned. The City of the Bloodied Lady has magic at its call, weird beasts, and fell sorceries. They are not easily cast down by spears and cavalry.”
“But they might be by magic, if a person sutdied it deeply enough?”
Pel looked her in the eye, knwoingly. “Yes. That thought has occurred to me.”
“Mm. So, what happened to you then? After the raid?”
“I swore I would never be in a place where people like that could reach an arm into my heart and pluck it out. So I gave myself as an apprentice to the water temple at Tictisoquanna, and it came to be that I had a reasonable talent for the arts and ways of the the enchantress, and so I was trained.” She grew so quiet that even her breathing seemed to have stopped. “Tell me, Caewen of the north, where the darkness rules, and night demons wander, do you know of a way to bring low a city of blood and darkness, sorcery, ghosts and terrors, all of them night-worshippers, though and through?”
“No,” said Caewen. “That is beyond anything I know.” After a moment’s breath she added, “I would tell you if I knew such things.”
“Well, it never hurts to ask, I suppose.” Pel got up, rolled her shoulders a little, and recomposed herself into her hard, feline attitude. “You should rinse, dry off and come back to the main vestibule to sleep. Others may want to use the bath too, and you have been in here longer than is strictly polite.” She swished her way back through the curtain then, pausing only to pick up a few woven blankets from a table on her way.
After Pel was gone, Caewen spent a solid minute just staring into hollow air, listening to the rain, thinking. As she got out of the bath, she shot a glance at the biloko and said to them, “There world really is full of miseries, isn’t it?”
Their reply was a series of unhappy rattles and hisses in their throats.