“Wake up sleepy bones,” she sang, “you’ll miss the festival!”
“Yes!” the wizard echoed. “There’ll be dancing!”
“Paeans to the Mother of Love!”
“Love, Behfa! Love!”
Captain Behfa’s eyes creaked open like a rusty hinge. She grumbled.
“Doesn’t that sound like fun?” the wizard asked.
“It sounds… distracting.”
“Diverting,” the wizard answered. “I’m sure she meant diverting.”
Rhanga was a petite, pretty woman of five-and-thirty years, living alone in a domed hut made of mud and clay. She had happened upon them when Behfa was trying to swim across the river and told them there was a bridge about a mile north. When they crossed and walked all the way back to Rhanga’s hut, it was just past noon, and Behfa’s vision was starting to blur. “Your beautiful shirt is soaked,” Rhanga had said, “and your jack may be ruined. Please, let me dry them.” The wizard had gone to hobble their horses at a post farther in town, and returned to find the Captain wearing a linen shift and blushing as Rhanga took her clothes out with a clothesline she would string between her hut and her neighbors’.
“Ahh,” the wizard japed, “what would Zayenna say if she saw this beautiful woman had gotten you out of your clothes so easily?”
“She wouldn’t say anything!” Behfa sniped. She curled up in a blanket to ward off the Spring chill, and lied down facing the wall. “She’s hundreds of miles away.
The wizard softened at that. “Oh, I’m sorry, Behfa. I’m sure she misses you terribly.”
“This isn’t about her,” she grumbled.
“No!” Behfa shouted into the wall. “It’s about my family. It’s about our future.”
“Ah,” the wizard nodded. “Family is important.”
She had fallen asleep before Rhanga had reentered. Her dreams were dark and muddled, with clouds of shadow punctuated by silvery blots flashing through like lightning. Once or twice she woke briefly to hear the wizard and Ranga discussing some festival that was happening that night, but she could not keep a grasp on the conversation before dipping back into slumber.
“I baked you an apricot,” said Rhanga. The smell sashayed into Behfa’s nostrils, and her stomach roared. “It’s not much, but there’ll be a lot of food at the festival.
“I took a quick look around while tying up the horses,” the wizard said. “You have many different fruits here, I see.”
“We’re blessed with many orchards here at the fork, yes.”
“Delicious. Booboo, you must try this apricot.”
“My name is Behfa!” she snapped, finally sitting up. She saw the wizard and Rhanga sitting on a purple rug with a bowl between them. A second bowl was right in front of her, knocked over, its contents on the clay floor.
Rhanga had been wearing undyed pants and shirt, both baggy, with an old brown vest, when they met earlier. Now she wore a long, cream-colored skirt of silk, a sleeveless blouse of deep blue, and a gauzy, diaphanous robe of cream that gave her muscled arms a ghostly quality. The sides of her hair were pinned back, making her nut-brown eyes look all the larger.
Behfa cleared her throat and placed the baked apricot back in the bowl, but did not eat it. “Sorry,” she muttered.
“That’s all right. Behfa. That’s an unusual name.”
“Her grandfather was Zaljan,” the wizard offered, entirely truthfully. “I hope you won’t hold that against her.”
Rhanga hesitated, staring at Behfa, before smiling. “I suppose no one chooses their family.”
“That is often the case,” the wizard hedged. “I have heard that, in Zalja, when a man and man wed, or a woman and woman, they often adopt a child that has lost their parents. They say these are the truest loves of all, because they are picked.” The wizard chuckled slightly. “Not that I think other parents do not love their children. And I certainly don’t mean to disrespect the Mother’s Houses.”
“That is a nice thought,” Rhanga agreed. “It cannot be easy, being an orphan. I often wonder how the pupils feel, raised by monks, yet surrounded by families.”
“Better than an orphanage,” Behfa grumbled.”
“More Zaljan customs,” the wizard dismissed. “But enough of that. If we quote any more Zaljan trivia at you, you may rightly fear we are Zaljans!” They both laughed at that.
“Behfa,” Rhanga exclaimed, making her stomach stir again. “Your clothes are still outside; I’m sure they’re dry by now. I’ll be right back.” She stood and walked out, her gown and robe fluttering behind her.
The wizard smiled brilliantly. “What a lovely woman. Did you know they have boys to tend the horses here? For anyone? You just tie the horses to these posts farther in town, and these boys come out and feed and clean the horses.”
“We had that in Tsen Ikha.”
“We had that in Tsen Ikha because you are a prefect’s daughter.”
“Yes, true. A divine commander’s daughter. Here, though, the posts are for everyone.”
“Everyone who can afford a horse.”
The wizard nodded at that.
Rhanga came back in on feet light as a dancer’s and laid Behfa’s clothes beside her. “Would you like me to wait outside while you change?”
“It’s fine.” She faced the wall when she removed the slip and changed back into the shirt. It was warm from the afternoon son. The leather jack, simple and worn, had a comfortable weight to it that made her feel surer. “Thank you.”
“Yes, Rhanga, thank you so much for your kindness,” the wizard agreed. “Musmahwa is truly a sacred place. It’s easy to see why the Mother of Love reigns here.”
She half-cocked her head as she smiled at that, as though fighting the urge to hide from such flattery. “Thank you, Dalsam. And you, Behfa. Please, let me bring you to the circle. The festival starts at sundown.”
Behfa had seen little enough of the town before collapsing in Rhanga’s hut, not realizing just how tired she had been. The squat, domed huts that dotted the shoreline were only a small part of Musmahwa. A few hundred yards in, larger huts of baked brick and occasionally timber began to emerge in greater order. Rhanga explained that the domed huts were for the widowed and unwed, and these larger homes were for small families. Larger families lived in proper houses made of fired brick from Mu May. She pointed out a senator’s house which, remarkably, was one of the timber homes, no larger than any other, though it was painted white with a few blue whorls upon it, and Behfa noticed a small patch of beanstalks behind it that most homes lacked.
The people, however, were the most colorful she had seen in all of Yena. Blues, greens, violets, reds, and yellows, they all appeared in no clear patterns, though many wore pink sashes around their waists or over their shoulders. “How do they afford so many colors?” she wondered aloud.
“We have dye farms at the north end of town. Slugs for purples, bugs for reds, sunflowers for yellows… I forget the others. But the blues come from Gharqah, from a stone the wizards unearth. They’re very free with them, since they have no magical properties.”
“I don’t know,” the wizard mused, “they seem pretty magical to me.”
Rhanga giggled politely at that. “As you say. Many of the clothes are in trade as well.”
“What do you trade?” Behfa asked. “Just dyes?”
“Dyes are very valued, yes, but also our monks and novices receive many gifts during their pilgrimages.”
“Oh yes” said the wizard. “They make the circle around Yena, don’t they?”
“Some. Mostly they go where their passions take them. They preach, they counsel couples, help people get along better.”
“What generous people.”
“Have you never seen a monk of Quelizad in your town?” Rhanga asked.
“Not for some time,” said the wizard.
“Where are you two from, anyway?”
“Shafinah,” Behfa spat out at once.
“Oh!” Rhanga lit up. “That’s unbelievable! We received a couple of visitors from Shafinah only yesterday! You must know them, a little girl with a long braid and a pupil. A pupil of, uh… I’m sorry…”
“Liliq,” the wizard answered, seemingly unperturbed. “Shafinah is a big town, but I’m sure we’ve met at some time.”
“I have to go,” Behfa insisted.
“Behfa, please,” the wizard objected, smiling. “Let’s see the opening ceremony. There are so many people here, all rushing about. I’m sure they’ll all be at the town center soon, right? Everyone will be there.”
“Yes,” Rhanga said. “A few of them might be at the food stands or the game huts, wanting to be first in line. All of the dances and shows will be at the circle though, and the opening ceremony, so most everyone’s headed there.”
The circle was enormous. These Yenai towns sometimes seemed larger than Tsen Ikha, but the people were so spread out that the population could not have been a tenth of the size. The circle, however, was more crowded than Tsen Ikha on market days. Everyone was shouldered in. Behfa kept them toward the back, so all they could see was an ocean of heads. The wizard suggested Behfa put Rhanga on her shoulders, but neither responded to that.
At the center of the circle was a huge wooden platform, maybe twenty feet wide, made of cedar and painted pink and blue. Every few minutes a boy or girl in pink robes would hurry about, Yenai pupils according to Rhanga, but otherwise the stage was bare.
“You have these every month?” the wizard shouted to be heard above the crowd. “It’s surprising you still get such a turnout.”
“Things are a bit slow around here. We take our joy wherever we can.”
“Weaving does not excite you?” he jested.
“I saw some wave grass in your hut, woven together. Are you making a mat?”
“A raft? To cross the river?”
“Look! It’s starting.”
In truth, it was a few more minutes, but more people in robes were starting to assemble on the stage. The adults wore violet robes. Some had shorn heads, others had hair that flowed in long, waving locks, and all of them had their faces painted in a light colors that might them all the more striking.
“You can’t tell women from men,” Behfa grumbled, still loud enough to be heard.
“I suppose that’s not important for a love goddess,” the wizard said casually.
“We can find your friends after the opening ceremony,” Rhanga said, seemingly not following their conversation.
“Oh, that’s all right,” said the wizard, calm as the sea. “We’ll find them tomorrow, after everything’s calmed down.”
A short monk with a shorn head threw up their hands, and flames shot up into the sky. The crowd oohed and clapped their hands. Musicians appeared on either edge of the stage, and as they played the monks began to dance, their robes flying open and fluttering to reveal tight pants and shirts festooned with tiny handkerchiefs of every color. The dances were demanding and acrobatic, twirling and tumbling about in remarkable synchronicity.
“This is incredible!” the wizard shouted. “They prepared this in a month?”
Rhanga said something she could not hear. Behfa was slowly backing away through the crowd, her left hand keeping her sword securely against her thigh. She continued to move backward, her face toward the ground so she could see more of her immediate surroundings. Focus as everyone was on the dance, they still parted for her politely enough, and after a minute or so she had escaped the crowd.
She had asked Rhanga where the Mother’s House was during their walk to the center, and she had said north, so Behfa started north. Spread out as the town was, it was still not hard to find. It was the only building in town higher than one story.
The Mother’s House was enormous, with a gated garden before it more diverse and beautiful than even the Khan’s gardens in the royal palace. The last light of the vanished sun lent the whole place a forlorn air, but she could see there were still braziers burning inside. She was shocked to see that, just as in Shafinah, the temple did not even have a front door. The burning of the temple seemed to have taught them nothing, except to rebuild their first floor in brick instead of timber. Behfa scoffed to herself as she slipped inside.
The second floor was all wood, so she could hear one or two sets of foosteps moving along. The first floor was huge, dimly like by fires and glowstones, but completely abandoned. It’s like they’ve never known war, she thought in disbelief.
She was more careful climbing to the second floor, keeping her feet to the far edges of the steps to prevent creaks. The second floor was awash in moonlight, with windows all over and dozens of doors leading out onto wooden balconies that overlooked the town. By good fortune, the people she had heard walking about were outside to the south, probably trying to see the festival. Behfa’s eyes swept about fast as a cobra’s strike, found the stairs, and tread to them as quickly as silence allowed, landing on her heels and carefully shifting her weight to her toes to prevent creaks. She did the same as she climbed to the third floor.
The third floor was a single room, big enough, but dwarfed by the two floors below. There were only two braziers, both with glowstones, but still the room was largely shadowed. Near the center-back of the room was a statue upon a stone plinth. It was a likeness of the large, skinny, peach-colored birds they had seen a few days back on their journey, its head up at an angle, its wings extended, and the feintest suggestion of a smile upon its beak. There were over two-dozen candles burning before it, casting their warm light upon plumage made of precious gems of every color, gaudily hued fabrics, and several gold and silver chains draped about the creature’s neck.
The candles also cast their dim light upon a little boy, seated before the statue, his back facing Behfa. He was in light pants and shirt, with a dark robe, his head recently shorn. She wondered briefly if it was the pupil from Shafinah, but decided it did not matter.
Slowly, so slowly, she crept upon the statue. And drew her sword.