"Nun on the Run"
[standard disclaimers, no money for me, etc.]
The warm weight on his chest was pleasant, much better than a warming stone. Soft when he touched it, moving up on four feet. A cat. She butted her head against his hand, rumbling a purr. Obligingly, Bevier scratched her ears and stroked down her back. She circled on his chest and came to a rest, kneading his shoulder gently. She lay pleasantly for an endless moment, then started grooming her paw. Lick, lick, lick, scrape. Lick, lick, scrape. She kept missing her own paw and sweeping a rough tongue over Bevier's skin, part tickling and part painful.
He reached up to push her back, but she latched onto his hand with soft paws and began grooming his hand, in a lulling reciprocity of his petting.
He reached up with his other hand to scratch her ears, and smoothed down long hair instead. His fingers brushed bare skin on her lower back. One of her slim hands traced a line from his jaw to his shoulder, the other splayed warmly over his upper chest. Bevier ran a wondering hand over her shoulder, and then down the smooth skin of her arm. She lifted her head, and he met Shanpu's pleased gaze.
He leaned forward-
And found himself exposed to the chill air of his room, having fallen halfway out of his pile of blankets. Bevier cast a bleary look around. He was alone, the cold moonlight confirming the total lack of girl. Or cat. He pulled the covers back up over his ears, feeling groggy and disturbed. Truly, the mind plays some odd tricks, he mused uncomfortably. I think I'll leave that one out of the confessional for now, lest they think me daft.
He watched the moon shadows crawl by for a time before sleep claimed him again.
Shampoo perched casually on the edge of the window sill, watching the laboring women below. Their black habits looked particularly uncomfortable in the heat. Shampoo smirked a bit at the bloomers that encased her legs. They would probably shock the ladies here, but the undergarments Shampoo had stripped down to were nearly grandmotherly by Amazon standards. None of the nuns were looking up at the windows, though.
There was one more floor above her, then the roofline. Shampoo took a breath and then launched herself up and over to the next window, bare foot catching the top edge of the frame. She twisted with a huff and used the momentum to ricochet back and up again, fingertips catching the window above hers. Shampoo pulled herself up cautiously, but the shutters were closed. The maneuver was easily repeated on the next window up, and moments later she crouched on the rooftop, heart pounding. Still out of shape, she thought, annoyed at the exertion.
Up here, laundry lines of clean linens billowed in the crisp breeze, interrupted by a few water barrels. Shampoo gave a satisfied nod, looking around. She had to keep her exhalations quiet, but other than that it was an ideal practice space, the smooth stone cool under her feet. The first set of katas stretched her body in ways in hadn't moved in weeks, but she sweated through it. The laundry became both camouflage and opponent, the barrels obstacles and footholds.
She took a long break mid-morning, wondering if she should go down and make an appearance in her room. The hen-women had abandoned her after dropping off a tasteless bowl of mush early that morning. If the routine was the same as yesterday, lunch wouldn't be served until after noon, and then there would be a dreary, uneventful wait until the evening meal. Shampoo was deeply relieved she had discovered a quick route to the rooftop, or she would've been driven insane within a day.
A peek over the side of the roof marked no significant change. Women still toiled in the gardens, some of the more elderly resting on benches next to the walls. Some were shaded by what looked like lemon trees, and Shampoo narrowed her eyes. There was a lot of interesting things you could do with a lemon, given a few other ingredients…
A light winked off metal in the distance and her attention sharpened. Visitors? There was a silly part of her that immediately hoped for a familiar black-haired figure, but she figured the chances were remote. It took several minutes for her eyes to make out that it was several people on horseback, none of them with the blazing white tabard of the Cyrinics.
Interest flagging, Shampoo stretched leisurely, the rest of her kinks finally pulling straight after staying so many days in odd quarters with no exercise. The next kata started off easy, then quickly evolved into a tight series of whirlwind sweeps and blows. The final jab was meant to be a finishing blow to the throat, and Shampoo took her time pulling back the center. Her breath slowed, blood thrumming through her veins, pulling chi in from sky and earth toward her heart. It felt slightly odd, different somehow from the power she grew up with.
It was a curious feeling, almost fizzy. The grounding Shampoo felt at home was solid, uplifting; her meditations left her feeling tall, powerful, in harmony. Here she felt like she could dissolve into bubbles if she wanted to, and fly with the wind.
Just don't jump off the roof, the girl-voice whispered, amused. Shampoo inhaled, but didn't lose the connection this time. You're really interesting, you know that?
Good morning, Shampoo greeted her. You came back.
Like a bad penny, the girl said cheerfully. There's something you need to hear over on the other end of the building.
Shampoo found herself heading across the roof, despite the warnings from her paranoid side. Over here? she asked, not seeing anything. Then Shampoo leaned over the edge of the roof, realizing that a heated discussion was audible through an open window in the floor below.
"-such nonsense," Lady Dorsai was saying sharply. "She will be perfectly safe with me."
"We need her on hand," came a male voice, sharp with restrained irritation. One of the riders, undoubtedly. "If our negotiations are to be effective, we must have our bargaining piece within reach."
I understood all of that, Shampoo thought with some surprise. How-
I'm helping a little. Shh. Listen and remember, ordered the girl-voice.
"-half-day's ride from Coombe," the lady scoffed. "Hardly what I-"
"Selmas wants her close," the man cut in. There was a brief, rather ominous silence, and Sanpu's neck prickled.
"I will of course follow His Holiness' wishes," Lady Dorsai said, her voice quiet with veiled venom.
"Events are moving more swiftly than we had anticipated - the girl's appearance is an god-given opportunity, the first wedge in the edifice of the Church Knights. We must strike while the iron is hot."
Shampoo's eyebrows shot up at this. A wedge, am I?
The voices began to fade, moving away from the window. That was exactly what we needed, the girl's voice said smugly. Now good luck!
Good luck with what? Shampoo said, rather alarmed. There was no response, and she muttered a few dark things under her breath. The Amazon girl dithered for a moment. The conversation confirmed what she had gathered from her mysterious friend the night before last – that she needed to get back to Bevier in Coombe. But would it be better to pretend she had never left her room, and maybe get more information? Then a sharp cry came from her room, and the decision was made for her with a quickly growing commotion at her escape.
Knowing that it would take them a few minutes to search as far as the roof, she squinted westward, toward Coombe. The walls were still faintly visible from this distance. She drank her fill from the rain barrels, calculating possible dangers, and the billowing laundry caught her attention. She grinned. Running through the fields in her bloomers would attract unwanted attention, but she had her solution hanging from the wire: one of the nun's outfits.
Shampoo tied up the long hem to keep her legs unencumbered. Assessing the possible routes off the roof, she judged the stables to be some ten feet below. Moments later, she rolled soundlessly onto its roof, and used the momentum to flip over the edge of the outer wall. Gripping the edge of the parapet, she surveyed the drop. The ground was cleared of debris and brush, and the earth looked hard-packed. There were no ledges or hand holds on the wall, though it was rough enough to climb down if she had the time.
Taking a steadying breath, she pushed to the left and ran sideways down the wall, her bare feet getting just enough purchase on the rough stone to prevent it from being a free-fall. She rolled when she hit the ground, keeping momentum, and sprinted for the fields. It wasn't quite harvest, and she thought she might be able to duck into the wheat stalks.
Ten seconds, came the unexpected warning. A spike of adrenaline summoned energy from her fingertips to toes and Shampoo ducked into the wheat just as the outer doors of the convent opened. A column of horses thundered out, with several searchers on foot. Blood humming at the nearness of it, she whispered a thanks to her benefactor and darted deeper into the field.
A faint cry came, and she figured that someone had found a footprint outside the wall. If they had her track the journey to Coombe was going to be treacherous. She had to hope that her mental visitor would stick around for long enough to get her through, but she pushed herself to move faster.
Odd dreams banished with a hearty breakfast, Bevier set out at a trot the next morning with Delric trailing behind. The implications of his discovery were knotty, and Bevier spent all morning picking at it. The chief question, How could this have remained a secret for so long? kept circling in his mind, following closely byWhat do they mean to do with the connection? Arcian court politics weren't nearly as convoluted as some kingdoms; they were a pleasant waltz compared to, say, Lamorkand. Yet the courtier were just as keen-eared, and none had heard rumors of the brothers' royal connections. With their half-brother hidden from public eyes, the two brothers were effectively running the city, which would be incentive enough. But why the steady oppression of the Cyrnics, or the general sense of unease throughout Coombe? Though the Champion worried at it, he came to no new insights before meeting Dagan back in the chapterhouse.
Bevier and the Interim Preceptor were deep in discussion when the page arrived, panting from the stairs. "We must have more information-" Dagan was saying, a thick finger drilling the table. "Yes, lad? Speak."
"M'Lords," the lad bowed. "The girl is back. She is returning to her rooms now."
Bevier shot to his feet, debate forgotten. "Miss Shanpu is back? By herself? How did she get here?" He breezed past the boy, still firing questions. "Was there an escort? Has she been treated well? When did she get here?"
The lad's stumbled through several iterations of "I'm not sure – no – well, I didn't really-" as they wound upward to the room, Bevier trotting the last few steps down the hall. Dagan waved a dismissal to the flustered novice, and nodded to the knight stationed at the door.
Bevier reigned in the urge to pound on the door, and simply knocked twice. "Miss Shanpu, are you really- oof!"
Shanpu launched herself at Bevier the moment the door was clear of the frame, and the two stood for a second wrapped completely around each other. It was, in truth, a wonderful feeling. As hard as she was trying to squeeze the air out of him, he felt like he could fully breathe from the first time in days. For a long moment Bevier reveled in having her secure in his grasp at last, smelling of sun and spices and girl.
Only a step away, Dagan was watching them with bemusement. Gently, Bevier pulled away, and tilted her face up to be examined. "You are unharmed, Miss Shanpu?" Her wide violet eyes were tired, but she didn't have any obvious bruises. She was wearing an odd black robe, not the dress she had left in.
"Bevier-san," she said, but her voice cracked, and she hid her face in his tunic. Bevier exchanged a stony look with Dagan, and they ushered her back into her room. Bevier sat her gently on the cot and fetched a cup of water from the ewer in her room. The girl wiped tears away, leaving grubby streaks on her cheeks, and gladly accepted the water. Bevier began to ask her the same questions that he had asked the page earlier, but had to refill her cup twice before she seemed able to speak.
"What happened?" Bevier finally bit off. Shanpu sighed, and looked mournfully down into her cup. "Please, Shanpu."
She looked up at him through her lashes, embarrassed. "Shanpu very sorry, Bevier-san. She be very stupid, go alone and then get taken away." Her face crumpled a little. "Shanpu no want to go away."
"Away where, child?" Dagan said calmly, when Bevier didn't say anything for a moment. He was visualizing, as it happened, Hursa's head smashing repeatedly into the wall, and couldn't seem to think of anything to say that wasn't an oath and unfit for a lady's ears.
Shanpu gestured out the window. "Shanpu and Lady Dorsai go east of city. Big house and lots women together." She made a face. "Is very bad food."
Both men had started at the mention of the Duke's mother. "There is convent that Lady Dorsai patronizes," Dagan rumbled. "That would be more proper for a girl hostage than the palace prison."
"Convent," Shanpu repeated, nodding. The black robe suddenly made a great deal of sense, and the two Cyrinics exchanged intrigued glances. Dagan pulled up a spare chair, and Bevier knelt next to the her. "Two days," Shanpu griped, "And that far-" she gestured with a clenched fist, giving Bevier an sharp look. Bevier frowned, not understanding. "Shanpu sits and waits so long! Girl says Lady Dorsai is bad Lady. She is bad Lady." Shanpu repeated, stern. "And Shanpu so bored! So she escape." She grinned at Dagan. "Shanpu back."
"You just..." Dagan waved a hand, "escaped? And came back on foot?"
Bevier, knowing her a little better, had perked his ears at the bigger mystery. "Girl? What girl?"
It took Shanpu several minutes, even with Bevier translating, to get across the idea of a strange voice speaking in her head. Dagan's expression was polite, but Bevier knew she wasn't daft, or lying. "That's very like her," he muttered. Both Shanpu and Dagan blnked at him, and he explained, "This appears to me the none-too-delicate touch of Aphreal, unless I misjudge."
Dagan sat forward. "That's the Pandion Order's…. patron, is that right?" Bevier nodded. The awkwardness it placed on the Orders to rely on magic from a god that they didn't worship was an especially touchy subject in Arcium. They would have tread carefully both in public perception, and even within the Church. Then the Preceptor asked doubtfully, "She would be so direct?" It was relatively unheard of for divine Romalic to contact the parallel Cyranic Order, much less the populace at large. Bevier gave a minute roll of his eyes, and nodded.
If the Younger Gods were involved, something much bigger than court politics was in the works. "Unless I'm badly mistaken, Miss Shanpu just got elevated to the rank of major player in this drama." Shanpu's eyes were worried and confused, and he knew she didn't understand. He tried to explain in Putonhua, and her expression brightened. He hesitated at this unexpected reaction, and took her hand in both of his. "Do you understand? You are in more danger now. Lady Dorsai and others will be fighting to get you again."
Shanpu grinned, a mischievous sparkle in her eyes. "I hope so. I have missed good opponents."
Bevier couldn't help grinning in return, though his anxiety did not abate. She was fierce, that was certain.
"I think we need reinforcements, Sir Dagan," he said turning to the Preceptor. "With the way the wind is blowing in Coombe, I don't trust keeping her here in the Chapterhouse."
"What? Yes, certainly." Dagan waved a hand, obviously puzzling through something else. "We ought to inform the other Chapters, and the Sarathi. Certainly King Dregos will want to know." He paused. "The original plan to send you both to Cimmura should stand. Sephrenia's depth of knowledge will speed the exchange of information, something we're sorely lacking right now. Hergrim will be able to contact the other Chapters, and we'll send riders off to the Basilica and Larium."
"Hergrim. Have I met him?" Bevier asked, frowning. He couldn't remember their latest tutor in the Styric arts, not having as close a relationship as the Pandions had with Sephrenia. Brash Romalic tended to wear his disciples out quickly, unless they came to the position with a great deal of prepossession.
"Possibly," Dagan said, being curiously oblique. "Ten knights will assemble as an escort for you on the morrow. Does that satisfy?"
"As you say," Bevier conceded. "Time does seem to be pressing." He turned back to Shanpu, who was trying to follow them with limited success. "We leave tomorrow. We go to people who will help us," he told her.
The girl nodded. "Shanpu stay here for Bevier." She twinkled up at him, then her eyes became pleading. "Only-"
Bevier knelt by her side quickly. "Yes?"
"Shanpu is so hungry. There is food?" she asked plaintively.
Dagan chortled. "Of course, Miss Shanpu. I'm sure Sir Bevier will be happy to get you something." The look he sent Bevier's way was arch, but Bevier complied with good humor, happy to at last have his charge back in hand.
Been a long time, hasn't it? Many many things have changed since I last posted, all to the good, but I'm also happy to be back working with this story. I hope not everyone has lost hope of future installments, because you guys are seriously the best incentive to actually continue writing! I rewrote this chapter about four times, not least because I lost several chapters in a computer crash in 2009. :*( So there's lots more to come, even if most of it only exists in my head right now…