A Vow that All Betray
from the operetta The New Moon
Flaming with all the glow of sunrise
A burning kiss is sealing
A vow that all betray
They stared at the pool. "I'm going in," Shiala informed her second-in-command.
Myrine gave a test tug to the rope knotted around Shiala's waist, then nodded.
Shiala stepped off the bank where the heterae had been sitting the day before. The water came to her waist, with a chill that caused her diaphragm to contract and her breathing to stop for a few moments. The tumult of the water could be felt beneath the surface, and her feet slid on large round stones before she found a place to stand. Looking down, she could see her leathers in the sedimentary waters down until her knees, and then only a dark green. Shiala glanced at Myrine, who hooked the rope twice around her elbow and watched her closely.
"Anything?" Myrine shouted to be heard over roar.
Shiala ran her fingertips through the top of the water's surface. "It numbs quickly."
"Maybe it's not the water," Myrine relaxed her grip on the rope a little. "Maybe they did it."
Mist sparkled in the fresh, sweet-smelling air. Shiala took a deep breath and felt her heart lift. It was a beautiful day. Turning from the bank, she moved into deeper water. One foot found no purchase, and she slipped beneath the surface.
When she got her feet under her, she yanked the rope as hard as she could, and stood back up, shoulder deep in the water.
Myrine surfaced near her sputtering and looking alarmed.
"It's not the water," Shiala smiled, water dripping from her crests. "Rope works though."
"Ass!" Myrine splashed her. She laughed. "You should get laid more often."
Shiala rolled her eyes. After Chara's kiss, of course she was going to hear about it until her team had had their fun.
"Seriously, I don't know what's more shocking, that you made a joke, that you smiled," Myrine ran her hand down her face to wipe off the water, "or that you spent the night with Benezia. Although, maybe that last one explains…."
She stopped talking when she saw Shiala's face.
The ache in Shiala's chest came from being in cold water too long. She made her way back to the bank and clambered up. Water streamed out from under and down her leathers. She looked toward the tents. Holding the Chloe through the night was part of the strangeness of this place. It did something odd to the senses. Everyone was feeling it. "You will address her as the Chloe."
"I will …. Wait," Myrine picked her way back to the bank, the rope trailing behind her. "You were happy a second ago. We saw what happened yesterday. You spent all night with her and a hetera. What else would we think?" she raised her hands in surrender. "Don't warp me! It's totally fair speculation."
"Not to her." Shiala let her glowing fists relax. Such displays would only fuel rumors she must correct. "She was overcome, as you saw, and I didn't trust her with the hetera."
Myrine coiled the rope around her shoulder. "Like hell."
Shiala walked off toward the far edge of the pool. The ache in her chest should lessen after she warmed up. It'd probably help to get in the sun. She looked over to the ruins where the heterae and the Chloe were. "I owe her a life debt."
"You guarded her all night?" Myrine put her hands on her hips. "Come on!"
"I have my reasons." The flash of Chara's meld was distant compared to the immediacy of the night before. Shiala shook her head. She was tired of the conversation. "Myrine, have you had any difficulty with the team sent by the matriarch, or with the heterae's guards?"
Myrine scrambled up the bank and joined her. "Shiala, you don't need to pretend with me." Standing this close they could speak normally, and the roar of the falls would ensure no one else could hear. "I've seen how you look at her."
"I look at her with concern. You know she's been unwell." Shiala decided she had to trust her second. "They've been waiting to make her new position public. It feels like they're waiting to see if she survives the Harrowing's aftermath." The memory of anointing Benezia with the oil surfaced and she pushed it away and the warm feeling it evoked. "That means all others competing for the position have an opportunity to try to get her out of the way. And here we are, in a cage only the heterae can open, outnumbered by guards who serve other masters, and in a place that seems to mess with biotics, especially the Chloe's." She turned toward Myrine. "What you see is someone responsible for the safety of the very person who saved my life. And right now, all I can think is-How can I do that here? How can I protect her if I can't identify the threats? We still don't know what happened to her yesterday, but whatever you think it was, it was not good."
For a moment the past months' horrible helpless feeling at seeing her suffer returned in force. Shiala made herself focus on the current puzzle. What had caused her collapse? If it had been the paint, why had the paroxysms started when it came off? If it was the water, why did it only seem to affect her? If it was the heterae, then why did she go willingly to them this morning? The ache in Shiala's chest intensified. Maybe it was the water. It had a tingle, or that was the cold.
"If you say so." Myrine looked away when she glanced at her. "There's not been any trouble with anyone. The others are polite, professional, even fun occasionally."
Something caught Shiala's attention on the bank beneath their feet. "Myrine, you didn't mention Psyllos when you ran down the list of assignments." Footprints could be seen in the hard sand below, their outlines blurring where they went down to the water, where the sand was soft. "She was right here. She was going to intercept their leader, Aspasia, when the Chloe fell yesterday." Shiala turned back toward Myrine. "Where is she now?"
"She's not someone I typically assign. I thought you'd given her something to do, that it's why you brought her." Myrine shrugged. "She's been a pain since you sent her outside. She's not a team player."
Shiala frowned. "Have you seen her?"
"No." Myrine shook her head, "But I mostly try to ignore her."
"Please find her and ask her to report to me," Shiala stared in the direction of the ruins, as Myrine headed back to the tents, talking in her omni.
Wiping sweat from her eyes, Benezia focused on the energy flows, their colors, widths, temperatures, movements. Trying to manipulate them was difficult without music. They were all bright and interweaving, making it hard to distinguish them by sight.
"Could you please play again?" She looked over at Lais, who nodded and picked up her cithera. With the music, it was easier to find the tempo of the energy pulses. She could almost do it with her eyes closed, just by feel, until the fingers of her right hand reached too low and a stream of energy jangled yellow across her nerves on her right side. Benezia jumped. Every muscle fiber twitched. She grabbed her right arm with her left. The contractions stopped after a few minutes. Although not as painful as full spasms, it was far from comfortable.
The first time it had happened, hours ago, Sia had offered to soothe it. She had not accepted.
Lasthenia approached her. "You can't force it. The currents are too strong. You don't control them; you use them. See." She made the energy around her brighter and swayed with it. It looked effortless. "Don't try to make it do anything, flow with what's there."
"Maybe we shouldn't try without the music. It is her first week." Leontia could be heard saying to Aspasia.
Benezia turned her back to them and stepped in next to Lasthenia, carefully mimicking her motions. Again, she had to feel her way, because sight misled. As she concentrated she became aware of a heat, a pull to the left. Opening her eyes, she looked over her shoulder and saw Sia sitting there.
Sia rose as if beckoned and the others scattered. Out of the corner of her eye, Benezia saw Anassa circle in the shadows of the wall, no felt her do so, as she felt the energy flows surge between her and Sia as the other slowly approached. "Yes?"
The pull strengthened, then jangled into turbulence. Benezia decided it was time to clear the air. The energy distortions they created between them had to be dealt with. "Why?" Energy, her energy, curled around Sia's legs like hungry flames.
The energy from Sia pulsed and skipped to the rhythm of a heartbeat, then slowed, parted around Benezia's skin. "I'm afraid you'll have to be more specific."
"Why did you do it, after being so patient?" Benezia's energy swirled in turmoil.
Sia merely looked at her, then turned, stretching the energy out between them as she walked over to a wall and reached out to touch its jagged top.
It was too much. Biotics crackled like lightning across Benezia's skin and arced across the ground, lifting loose stones around them. "I trusted you!"
"If you had, none of that would have been necessary, nor would you be upset with me now." Aspasia had not moved, but Benezia could see her energy had shifted. The hetera was afraid, afraid of her.
As angry as she was, Benezia did not want Aspasia to fear her. She closed her eyes and focused, pulling from her lifetime of discipline to reign her biotics in. "It should have been my call to make."
"Yes, it should have." It was said matter of factly, without challenge. "Can you imagine what would have happened yesterday if I hadn't taken matters in hand?"
In the distance, Benezia could hear the other heterae laughing at the waterfall. She couldn't keep herself from shuddering. The relief from the pain she had been carrying was worth a great deal. Aspasia had been honest about trying to help her with that. She wouldn't have survived Patras last night as she had been. On some level she was grateful, or would be, in time. This was less about that than about what she had had to reveal, and her shame. She lowered her head. "I can imagine what would have happened if you had failed."
"We would all be dead. We almost were." Sia had pulled herself up on a more even section of the wall when Benezia looked up. "Is that what you want?"
"How can I trust you, or Anassa?" Benezia had not let her awareness of the other hetera slip.
"Anassa has a very special gift, and that and her strength were why our Dida selected her, as she selected each of us." Sia's energy was easier to read contrasted with the wall's more sedate energy, but it might also be a distraction from the other who had remained. "You don't need to accept each gift, if you disagree with our Dida's choice."
"So I should trust you because your Dida does?" Benezia fought to still the turmoil that made it so hard to think around Sia.
"If not for that, then because we helped you." At this angle, the sun painted Aspasia's skin a pale yellow. "Benezia, I know you well enough already to know it is not us you are having the most difficulty trusting, and that you are aware of that."
Benezia turned away, to face toward the cataract. Anassa leant on the wall fragments that remained on that side. The sun was high in the sky. Again Benezia remembered the pressure building inside her, Let me in, the sensation of being pinned, unable to escape, violated by and yet wanting their touches, begging for them. Her cheeks burned. You must surrender all…. She closed her eyes and rubbed her hand over them.
Sliding off the wall, Aspasia approached. Benezia could feel her energy like heat, getting warmer as she got closer, could feel the warmth from her hand before it caressed her shoulder. "Benezia, one's prota experience is powerful even without the disorienting affect of the Goddess' touch."
"It's not the …. What?" Benezia turned and energy surged and pooled in her abdomen, the streams and cords connecting her and Sia bright and hot. Sia's eyes glazed black before returning to their usual golden. To want, no need, to feel Sia inside her again after what she had done, was she insane?
"Being awakened right before being sent to the Goddess, it opened you to her gifts like none before you, made it possible for her claim you completely. There are no greater forces in this world." Sia's energy invited hers. "The former frequently leads to conception if it happens in the matron years, even among lesser talents, and undoubtedly the latter is meant to, Benezia. The only shame is that you had to wait so long to experience it, although that clearly had a purpose in your destiny."
Destiny?! Grief welled up in Benezia, and the sense of hollowness, absent the jagged pains of before. The child, so tiny, covered in blood, lifeless in her hands, no stillness more profound, more wrong. "Not the only shame." Her throat and chest were tight. "I may not have known what I was doing, but I did it, and I have to live with that."
"To know such power and such powerlessness simultaneously, I can only imagine." Sia stepped closer. "Please, Benezia, you don't have to face it alone. Let me use my gift to help."
Benezia shook her head. She would never be the same, she couldn't see the world the same way, move in it the same, and would have to accept that. Sia had played a role in that. All that had happened was too raw, the reopening of that wound. "Not today." She forced herself to step back, out of the sweet glow between them, the intoxicating heat. "I would like to return to my other lessons." Behind her, Benezia felt Anassa go, presumably to gather the others. "Sia, about what you saw, you're sure?"
"That you conceived that child with your prota, yes." Aspasia respected her wish for distance by withdrawing toward the table. An expression Benezia couldn't read flitted across the hetera's face. "That she is your prota, absolutely. Search your memory, and you'll know it's true too. It's not something I would mistake. Nor, once it is experienced, is anyone likely to do so. It's called an awakening for a reason."
"And you told Sha'ira this?" Benezia frowned.
"Not about the child, but yes, I told her she had no special claim to accompany us here." Sia's energy reached out to her. "We need to talk about this, Benezia. She has done you harm. In our joinings I experienced that you have lived with long periods of abstinence, that your partners have not been many or terribly inventive, truly a surprise given your status and beauty. This I lay squarely at Sha'ira's feet, a failing that has impoverished your life for the majority of it. You did not know what you were missing. Surely you are beginning to be aware that such a pattern will not be possible for you anymore. Not only do your duties demand otherwise now, but so do your gifts and your awakened state. You slumber no more. Do not try to fall back to sleep."
"It sounds like you are suggesting I have more reason to be embarrassed about a lack of experience than …" Benezia faltered. "I was serving Thessia."
"I'm saying these are connected. You didn't navigate such a powerful joining better because you'd never had any practice doing so. Thessia will be better served by you living a whole life."
Benezia turned toward Sia.
"Mela, don't look so stricken." Sia stepped toward her and reached out a hand as if to stroke her cheek, but thought better of it. "Can you think of any more suited to help you than present company? We can make sure it's not something you're ever vulnerable to again, even with this powerful love-mate you've found."
"This…." Benezia's cheeks burned at the thought of how she had treated Aethyta, recognizing no rights before and after conceiving with her without consent or even notification. She raised her hands to cover her cheeks. She had dismissed Aethyta like, like a common porne, like the most meaningless of partners, and on Janiris! And all this time, mourning their child, she had thought of no one but herself, her loss. "She's my prota?" It was true, she knew it. All the careful planning, the young exploration with Fe'ira, all turned on its head, what she thought she knew, again. Sia was right. "Goddess, she's my prota." She stared in shock at Sia. "The matriarchs don't want me to have anything to do with her."
"Life has its own plans." Sia smiled. "A prota bond must run its course. Whatever your judgment against yourself about what happened, she is, quite clearly, the game changer, and those rarely happen by accident. I don't sense that you're finished with her, but you tell me, prophetic one." Her jib was gentle.
Still, Benezia found it necessary to sit. At some point, she would have to face Aethyta.
"You can't dance sitting down, Benezia," Lasthenia teased as she entered the ruins.
"You can if you're sitting on someone's face," Leontia laughed. "How about mine?"
Benezia let Sia pull her to her feet. She had known she had much to learn, just not how much.
Diva twisted in the ropes, trying vainly to loosen them. A pebble bounced off her crests.
"Stop." From her position reclined against the rock wall, Ydis picked up another pebble and tossed it at her. "You keep that up, and I'll throw bigger."
With her mouth stuffed with a gag that had dried her spit, Diva could only glare.
"Where'd you get this?" Ydis held up the triangular dagger between her thumb and finger. "This is too nice to belong to you. You stole it from the heterae, didn't you?"
Diva struggled a moment longer, her efforts tightening her bonds. As long as she hung from the tent pole they'd run through her bonds and wedged into the rocks, that would work against her. She didn't plan to keep hanging from it, though.
"There's something different about you. The matriarch said to keep an eye on you." Ydis got to her feet. "When Shiala sent you outside the same day one of the heterae had to leave, it seemed that you needed to be watched because you couldn't be trusted around them. I almost envied you for that. Managing to seduce a heterae, that is something. I wonder what she saw in you. Believe me, I've been trying to see what it is. You're arrogant, terrible at following orders, stubborn, and don't trust anyone." Ydis walked over to her and tested the tightness of the ropes around her wrists, then squatted to examine Diva's face. "But last night, I swear you were going to hurt Aspasia, with this, maybe even kill her, to stop her from helping your mistress." Ydis tucked the dagger into her leathers. Diva made a note of where. "Yet you clearly don't have the training of a commando or a huntress, or Anassa could never have surprised you like that. Although, who would have guessed a heterae could fight like that. That's someone with training—and not any kind I've seen before. Totally new fighting style, absolutely no warning. So I'm wondering, do you know something I don't, and just had the wrong one pegged as the assassin? Are you part of the problem or the solution? Was it all an act?" Ydis tugged the gag down, out of Diva's mouth.
It was a relief to breathe more freely again. Diva panted, and tried to summon some moisture to her mouth.
"Who sent you?"
Diva curled her lip at the commando.
"I'm guessing you're a spy, a plant, that your lack of training was meant to fool the heterae. The energy work they do, they must be energy readers. They would have been able to tell if you were trained. What are you?" Ydis watched her try to swallow. "What matriarch ordered you to protect Benezia? How did you find out about the threat?"
The sound of other boots on the rocks kept Diva from trying her plan. This dehydrated, she couldn't be sure of her flare. One she could definitely take out, a group she'd rather not risk. They might try a more difficult form of containment to escape. And the only matriarch's name she could think of would be far too dangerous to mention.
Ydis yanked her gag back up, stood and walked toward the newcomers. "It took you long enough. I said by three."
"Yeah, well we had to come back the long way. They're looking for her. Even set up a grid. Maybe we should hand her over, so there'll be no misunderstandings."
"Don't worry about it. Shiala isn't fond of her. We're doing her a favor. She'll thank us."
"I don't know. She seems pretty serious, about everything. She may not think it's funny."
"It's not, but it'll be fine. The matriarch outranks Benezia. She can get her and the rest in line if it comes to it. You worry too much."
There was some scuffling. Diva braced herself. This might be her best chance. No way was she going to wait for anyone to find her like this, especially not Viala.
"Don't take your eyes off her, you hear me?" Ydis' boots approached until they were right under her face. A hand hooked her gag, pulled her face back into an uncomfortable angle for her neck, and poured water on it.
Diva coughed and choked as the gag swelled in her mouth. Her eyes watered as it became difficult to breathe.
"… anything good?" The boots were gone, the voices farther away by the time she'd managed to breathe again.
"No, nothing, they all have their clothes on. They've been dancing for hours."
"No move on Benezia?" Ydis' voice. "We need to make a plan, to neutralize Anassa."
"I don't understand. If she's an assassin, why didn't she take Benezia to the tent and do her last night?" That was Scylla, Ydis' not so bright second in command. "Or why tip her hand by taking out this one in front of us?
"Assassins don't kill those they are not paid to, and they don't like to get caught." Their voices were getting farther away. "She'll wait until no one can tell it was her, until Benezia trusts her completely."
"Won't she be on guard against us?" Their footsteps faded away.
Diva closed her eyes and concentrated.
"None since last night. Everyone not on the perimeter only noticed the Chloe." Myrine accepted the food packet from Shiala.
"I checked caves," Shiala pointed to the cliff face, dotted with the dark holes of the ancient dwellings. Carved shelves for sitting or storage were still intact in many of them, and secondary chambers beyond. "There's too many. Station some of our people in them. The vantage point is great, and it would be perfect for an ambush."
Myrine nodded. "She may be hiding in one of them. You've thought of that, haven't you?"
"Of course," Shiala bit into her food. "But she has to eat sometime, and back at the estate, she was more fond of sunbathing than hiding. I don't think it's her style."
"Not even to get out of work?" Myrine looked thoughtful. "You know, we should check anywhere that has a vantage point on the heterae. She might be indulging her voyeuristic streak. Have you checked on the Chloe?"
"No, she'd let me know if she needed help," Shiala mumbled around her food. She had not told the others that Psyllos had been caught fucking one of the heterae. She'd caused enough trouble without notoriety.
"What if she couldn't?" Myrine seemed to be catching her concern.
Shiala nodded slowly. "We need eyes on, and some form of communication more reliable than the omnis. The signal bounces all over here." Her stomach tightened. "I'll do it."
"Of course you will."
Whatever her second had said had been lost to Shiala's sudden realization. "What?"
"No really." Shiala forced herself to focus.
"It makes sense that it'd be you, that's all." Myrine fiddled with her omni. "I'll put a watch on the food and check with the others to see if anything's turned up yet, shall I?"
"Oh, okay, right," Shiala looked over at the ruins. It would be good to know the Chloe was okay. That was not why her heart was suddenly racing. "Then go off rotation, so that you can spell me later."
Myrine nodded and loped off toward the westernmost edge of their perimeter.
Shiala made her way across the stream and slowly approached the ruins. Inside music was playing. Barefoot, and in a thin sleeveless robe, Benezia was dancing. Her feet flashed across the stone, her skirt billowing then flattening against her legs. Her arms were lifted, her eyes closed, her movements hypnotic. The others laughed and clapped, the music picked up tempo, Benezia whirled, her feet a blur across the stone. Her face was lifted and sparkled with sweat. Her hands clapped, she spun, the music ended with a big flourish, and she came to a standstill.
Shiala felt her stomach tighten.
When Benezia opened her eyes, she looked straight at her.
Shiala's heart raced and her fists clenched. She bowed her head in acknowledgment.
Shiala stepped back outside the ruined walls and settled into a good position to watch and wait.
Eventually there was a break for food, and Aspasia ate a proummon very suggestively while standing near the Chloe. Then there was another long session of apparently teaching her dance moves.
It wasn't until the sun was setting that most of the heterae filed past her toward the waterfall. Shiala kept her attention on Benezia. She seemed to be having a dispute with Aspasia. Or Aspasia was asking her for something and being turned down. Shiala took that as her cue to approach. Benezia stood facing the table, selecting food from it.
"... why not?" Aspasia stood behind Benezia.
Benezia did not turn to face the hetera. "That would not be appropriate, for reasons I don't expect you to understand."
"We agree on that at least." Aspasia was standing too close to Benezia. Shiala tensed, ready. "Perhaps you prefer to be my victim, and Metis'."
Benezia turned and said one thing, then walked away, past Shiala toward the tents.
Shiala gave a warning glance to the hetera and followed. Back at the tents, Myrine stood and shook her head. She'd have to be told.
"Chloe, there's a matter that needs your attention."
"Not tonight." Benezia kept walking toward her tent.
"Diva's missing." Shiala tried to explain.
Benezia stopped and raised a hand without turning around. "Shiala, I trust you. I know you can take care of it." She closed the distance to her tent and went inside. Her biotics filled it with a pale white light, lifting items from their storage spots, making them float. It took a while before the items settled back to the floor and the glow dimmed.
Shiala's and Myrine stared at the tent.
"We have bigger problems," Myrine suggested.
"Go on, get some rest." Myrine pointed toward the command tent. "We can't do anything more tonight."
Anassa joined Aspasia as soon as she'd retired to the rooms they had claimed in the ruins. They exchanged glances as Anassa handed her a plate.
"You don't have to keep waiting on me," Sia protested.
"There's not a lot else for me to do," Anassa said flatly.
Sia set the plate on her lap. "That's not true. You could soothe those who went today, or prepare those she may choose tomorrow."
"I'm not sure I could."
"Ana," Sia placed her hand on the other's leg.
"Don't." Ana shook it off and looked away. After a long moment, she looked back. "What's it, what's she like now?"
"Just being near her, you must have felt." She looked at Ana for a few minutes before she admitted, "When she reaches out for me, not even knowing that she's doing it, it's …." She shook her head. "I have to find something to hold on to, before she learns how to control it, or I will lose my mind."
Ana placed a comforting hand on Sia's back. The other shivered.
Sia's golden eyes turned to Ana's. "Dida sent us both for a reason. I need you."
"She doesn't trust me, and I'm not sure I do either." Ana rose. "Look, your biotics are amplified too. Eat, I'll gather the others. We'll figure this out."
"Wait." Sia raised a hand. "Have any of the guards checked in with you? I've not seen them today."
"That's a good thing, believe me." Ana smiled. "They're probably someplace out of sight, drinking themselves silly, resolving past differences with Benezia's guards in proper fashion. Don't worry, we're safe. No one can get in or out of the gates, and this valley is hidden even within those. That's why this training, when we're all most vulnerable, always happens here."
"I suppose you're right." Sia turned her attention to her plate.
No one was stirring when Benezia waded into the water. Fog obscured the base of the waterfall, but she did not plan to go that far. She wanted daylight, when the sun rose. Squaring her shoulders, she raised her arms to greet the new day with the ancient prayer. "Edo." The movements were so familiar she didn't need to think, just breathe, be. "Nyni." Fear colder than the water rose in her throat, and she endured it, neither pushing it away or pulling it close. "Κοινωνία." She would find her center.
The chill and charge of the water burned and rose up her legs. Benezia closed her eyes and listened for the music of the water. Even with her eyes closed, she saw it again before she could hear it, saw the energies flowing in everything, that they coexisted, no, more than that, that they needed each and the others to be, that together, they made a picture too dazzling for the eyes to see.
Once again she sunk to her knees. The cold water pushed against her belly, creating an ache. It swept over her legs and around her abdomen in its dash, its rush, to get to the sea. It pulled on her robe like fingers. It rose to her breasts, and she shuddered. It was so cold. She stilled herself, settled, let the cold water pull her, let her knees sink in the mud, felt the silt seep through her toes. It was water, music, and time, time itself, rushing past. She let her energy sink into the ground, to the rock below the water, to the energy below the rock. Still she felt restless. Listening required a space inside, a space she knew was there, a space she'd been afraid to return to since the baby, her baby had left an emptiness. Listening required space, space inside, a space she knew was there, and when she found it, it was like the cave, the cave with the paintings on the ceiling, the unseen cave where her blood flowed, the garden behind her house, the invisible garden flourishing within her ribs fed by her breath. Yes, listening, she finally heard the music inside her. When she could finally hear that music, she started to hear more: the music of the water first, then of the stone, then of the mud, then the air, then of the sun, then of the fish in the stream and the things that crawled in it and on its banks, then in the birds in the air, then in those sleeping and awake, and they layered one on the other to make a symphony so beautiful it could hardly be born.
Tears ran down her cheeks as she lifted her face to the first rays of the sun. She was floating inside her body, in this lightness, in this music. She half expected to discover she did not touch the ground. She could not remember when she had last not felt pain, but this was not just the absence of pain, like the respite of sleep, this was fullness, kairos, the answer to her prayer. This was not death, but life. She was part of the song, a singer. She lifted her arms in gratitude and praise for all that was carried off by the years, and all that remained, and she let go the burden she'd been carrying.
Only a week remained. That left no more time for pride. Aethyta strode through the mostly deserted polling place toward the debate hall. An assembly had been called, a quorum declared, and Armali's next legislative session had officially begun. Preparing for it was probably why Benezia hadn't gotten back to her yet. It should be easy to find her here, if not to get close.
Aethyta stopped in the arched entryway to smooth her dress. Yup, everything was where it should be. It wasn't wearing flowers, but it was her best, and she was in fine form. Satisfied, Aethyta pushed open one of the large doors and made her way into the hall. The rows at the top were sparsely occupied, of course. Aethyta snorted. Maidens were more interested in ass than assemblies. The matron level, however, held quite a crowd. Even choosing the top row, it took a good many minutes to wriggle her way around the row from the steep stairs to an open spot on one of the benches. Settling in, she propped one elbow on her knee and surveyed the remainder of the section below her. Scanning for cleavage didn't work with the rows packed this tightly, and trying to identify faces wasn't easy with so many looking down or queued on the stairs for an opportunity to speak. Aethyta first tried to find Benezia by her particular shade of blue, but that failed, so she decided to check if she was on the stairs. Really she should have started there. Yet, it didn't seem possible Benezia could be among them and not stand out. Aethyta slid to the edge of her seat and craned her neck to look behind her. Maybe Benezia was in some last minute negotiation. She'd have been able to find her by now otherwise.
"Are you looking for someone?" The matron on her right with a thick stripe on her bottom lip smiled at her.
"Yeah, Benezia." Aethyta pushed back against the purple-skinned matron on her left, who had been annoyed by her moving about, and had elbowed her. "Do you see her?"
"The Hepta?" The matron shook her head. "No, come to think of it, I haven't seen her or any of the others even on the news for months. It's strange, they usually pop up every other week or so doing something important to advance social causes. In fact, now that I think of it, I don't even think she was at the last couple of assemblies, which is very odd for her. Usually she's here."
"Months?" Aethyta felt a flash of panic. This had seemed like a sure bet. The opening of a session was the only day to get items on the agenda for the duration. Anyone who cared about power would be here, and power apparently was what Benezia was about. Then Aethyta remembered. How could she be so stupid?! She had completely forgotten Benezia's blindness! Guilt welled up. It might be partly her fault Benezia hadn't been to the assembly in a while. "Have you seen her since Janiris?" If Benezia had tried to take her up on her offer to help her find a way to see, it would totally explain not hearing from her. No wait, Benezia had ended things, so there was no need to feel guilty. Ended things—what was she, a swooning maiden?! Aethyta shook her head. Benezia had made it clear there had never been anything significant between them.
"I don't know. I don't make every assembly. My children are still young." The matron smiled again, apologetically. "You could always check the rolls."
"Let me know if you see her. I'm dying to meet her." A matron with heavy facial markings in the row below put her arm on the floor of their row and turned around as best she could toward Aethyta. "When she spoke about encouraging more trade and openness on Thessia, in our schools and businesses, she said what I'd been thinking better than I could have myself. She has such a way of putting things, I always find myself agreeing with her viewpoint. A friend of mine actually met her and says she's really very nice, that she listens." She giggled.
"You have to be dull stones to not know that none of the Hepta will come to any assemblies until they announce the Chloe." The purple-skinned matron in a dark blue dress on the other side of Aethyta told the fangirl dismissively.
"Or siarist," the matron with the white stripe on her lip corrected the purple-skinned one. "There's no need to be rude. Not everyone knows Temple customs."
"The what now?" Aethyta bent forward to better hear those in the row below. Down in the center ring, a matriarch had started to call roll. "Why won't Benezia be here?"
The purple-skinned matron shrugged. "Probably because in a crowd it'd be easy for someone to pull off her or any of their headdresses and see who'd been chosen."
Aethyta looked back to the matron with the white stripe in utter confusion. "The Benezia I mean has great tits, light blue skin, lots of people following her around. She doesn't wear headdresses."
The matron with the white stripe laughed and pressed a friendly hand to her arm. "I thought I was the only one who noticed."
"I'm pretty sure we're all supposed to notice. I mean, come on." Aethyta winked.
The purple-skinned matron did not approve of their levity. "The Potnia has chosen her successor, and the news will become public sometime this year. It's an important time. There's not been one from Armali for many generations."
Aethyta swiveled around, the pieces falling into place. "Benezia might be getting a promotion?"
The matron with the striped lip nodded. "Armali has two of the seven candidates this time: Benezia and Narissa. They're both excellent leaders, and if either gets chosen, it will mean increased prosperity for our poli."
"Narissa has accomplished more in the assemblies, but it's only because she doesn't challenge anything like Benezia does." The fangirl added. "I really hope it'll be Benezia."
"If you're here to ogle, you'll be disappointed." The purple-skinned matron said smugly.
"Where's she going? It hasn't even started yet." The fangirl asked as Aethyta threaded her way along the row back to the steps.
"You've offended her," the matron with the white stripe could be heard reproving the purple-skinned one.
"No, merely informed her there will be no tits today," the purple-skinned one could be heard rejoining as Aethyta climbed the stairs. "Don't you know who she is? That's the hanar porn star, Aethyta Megaras."
"What would she be wanting to talk to a Hepta about?" the fangirl could be heard asking.
AN: This section is important to finish before I write Benezia's trial, and it's taking more words than I hoped. I thought I'd be able to fit it all into one chapter, but here we've got two, and it looks like it will take one more before I get there. It's like one of those sponge pills. This is what's been taking so long. Bear with me-there's a pt. We're getting there.