Dimly luminous fruit hangs from the boughs which arch over the small arbor, limning the edges of her hair with rainbows. She sits on a low stone bench, hands folded in her lap, watching him pace. Her blue robes are pale gray in the nighttime shade.
"Allandra comes from a place where being a man's wife means submitting to his will, obeying him in all things." Her eyes are gentle.
He chops the air with an angry gesture. That wasn't what he meant. Things don't work like that here.
"I know that, and so does she, but her home is still with her, no matter how she wishes to leave it behind. The words 'I want you to be mine' mean something much different to her than they do to us."
He scowls. She's not a child; she's not even mortal anymore. The woman he loves isn't weak enough to let the distant past control her like that. And she does belong to him, even if she's too stubborn to admit it, or to realize that you can belong to someone and still be your own person.
"I am sure she will be back. You know her moods, much better than I." She smiles softly. "She cares for you very much, as much as you for her. Is it worth driving her away for good, over such a small thing?"
He strikes a tree with his fist, making it shudder. One of the moon-pears shakes free and falls, phosphorescent juices spattering across the flagstones. How can she not see how important this is? They sleep in the same bed every night. They owe their lives to each other countless times. What are they not doing that a husband and wife do? What harm would it do her to just say the words? Why does she still hide half her face from him, when there is no other part of her he has not seen or touched? Why does she insist on keeping that damn scarf between them?
She sighs. "You can still love each other, even if you are not married. What will a pair of wedding bands really change? They are only things."
That's not the point. The point is that words have power, and she just won't say the words. He turns, looking past the leaves and branches, out into the night. This time he isn't just going to sit here, waiting for her to come back. She can't just run away, and expect that to make everything better; she needs to face her fears if she's ever to see beyond them. He'll find her, and he'll make her understand, even if she doesn't want to. He'll make her admit that she wants this, too, even if she doesn't know it.
He hears the rustling of cloth behind him, and sharp words chase him into the night, but he ignores them. He is filled with a terrible, implacable purpose, and no one will stand between him and its completion.
The nightmare left Jasper gasping for breath, heart pounding with remembered anger and frustration. He thrashed briefly, fighting against his blanket, before his wits came to him and he realized where he was. Carefully untangling himself, he sat up and drew a deep breath, scrubbing his hands through hair left only slightly more tousled than usual by his restless slumber.
Stars shone bright and close in the moonless sky. The humid air was alive with faint chirrups and rustles as crickets and other tiny creatures went about their business. Not too far from his resting place, one of Dellano's men was snoring; further away, the tethered horses and pack-mules whuffled softly to themselves. Jasper shook his head, then got his feet under himself and stumbled out into the night without even pulling on his shirt or boots, no plan in his head beyond getting away from the incessant, soft noise which was drowning out his thoughts. The man on watch spoke a soft question that Jasper didn't really hear, but seemed satisfied by the noncommittal grunt he gave in response, and didn't follow him.
Some minutes later, the crickets were still with him, but the noises of sleeping people and draft animals had faded away, and with it, the worst of the dream's edge. Little remained of it except fading images and a half-remembered sense of resentful, bullheaded determination; unlike his other visions of the past, this one seemed to be leaving his mind much as a normal dream would, which was a relief. He didn't want to dwell on the idea that his past self had been capable of such ignoble feelings.
By now, the young Solar's head had cleared to the point where he finally began to register the fact that he was outside, alone, in the dark, a situation which he didn't enjoy very much. He wasn't afraid of the dark, of course, it was just that... well, it was hard to see, and you never really knew what might be out there with you, especially in the countryside. Jasper decided that this would be a good time to start making his way back, now that he'd managed to walk off the disorientation and anxiety. His decision definitely wasn't influenced by the childhood ghost-and-goblin stories he was beginning to recall. Not at all!
Jasper realized that he was not as alone as he had thought. He paused, on the verge of turning back, and peered at the dark blotch sitting not ten paces away, on the crest of the low rise at whose foot he was standing. Silver lines glistened just brightly enough for him to make out, their zig-zagging, angular patterns somehow managing to outline the curves of a slim, feminine form. All of a sudden, Jasper had a brand-new reason for wanting to turn around and head back to the campsite. But he also was seeing something he'd never seen before. As usual, his curiosity prevailed. He climbed up the bank.
"I was beginning to wonder if you'd even seen me," Mahi-Sura said quietly.
Jasper sat down beside her. Up close, he could make out details much more easily. Like him, she was clearly feeling the humidity; her only clothing was a brief halter-top, and some kind of skirt which did little to conceal her long legs, at least in her current position. Even in the dark, Jasper could see the swollen, purple bruises on her left knee. He quickly glanced away.
"I wouldn't have noticed, except for these." He reached out and touched her shoulder, his fingertips softly tracing over her glimmering tattoos. She didn't draw away. Jasper felt smooth skin give way to equally smooth and warm scales as he drew his hand down her backbone, following the row of dark diamonds whose edges gleamed with silver. "I've never seen them look like this before," he murmured, watching the way the marks' luminescence reacted to the contact, shifting and shimmering like moonlight on quicksilver.
Mahi shifted slightly, not welcoming his touch, but not rejecting it either. "I'm not surprised," she said. Her voice was soft and distant. "Truly new moons don't come along very often." She shifted suddenly, scooting close to Jasper, her hip and shoulder touching his. He stiffened at the touch, then relaxed warily. She leaned her head further in, her unbound hair brushing his cheek. "Look."
He turned his eyes to follow her extended arm. "I don't see anything."
"Don't look for what you see. Look for what you don't see."
Jasper squinted into the night sky. "I can't..." But then he could see it, a patch of firmament in which no stars shone, a dark circle whose blackness was less than of the sky around it. "That's another thing I've never seen before," he breathed.
Mahi lowered her hand and drew away from him. For a while, neither said anything as they watched the night sky and the shrouded moon.
"You said some unkind things to me yesterday, Jasper." She said it simply, without malice. "You really hurt my feelings."
Jasper bowed his head. "I wasn't..." he began, then reconsidered. He looked up, meeting dark eyes made darker by the night. Somehow, the lack of makeup made them look bigger. "I'm sorry."
Mahi-Sura nodded, and let out a breath. "Okay." She lay back with her head pillowed on her hands, stretching her legs out in the grass. After a pause, she spoke again. "I like you a lot, Jasper. You're clever, and full of life, and you can do amazing things when you put your mind to it. You're also pretty cute, even when your hair looks like a haystack. Which is most times." She chuckled, a warm, stacatto hiss. "When you open your mouth, pretty words come out and make me do things I wouldn't do for anyone else, even when I've sworn over and over again that I won't be part of your hare-brained nonsense. But." She sighed. "But I can't be your girlfriend, at least not until you sort out all this..." she waved a hand aimlessly in the air "...this stuff that's in your head. I'll be there for you, but if you want to talk to me about your dreams, you'll have to do more than roll over in bed. Okay?"
Once again, Jasper swallowed the hundred things which he wanted to say. "All right." He shifted where he sat, then gingerly reached out to place his hand in hers. "Do... uh... I could swear not to, you know, or, I mean, if you want..."
Mahi-Sura laughed again, but quickly stifled it with her free hand. "No, Jasper, that's okay." She gave his hand a friendly squeeze, before drawing hers back. "You're still my friend, and that means your word is good enough." She permitted herself another low chuckle. "Besides, I don't need magic to protect me from you. You're a great bluffer, and you're good at waving sticks around impressively, but you couldn't fight your way out of a koi pond. I could have you flat on your back, wondering where all the pretty birds came from, in ten seconds."
Jasper withdrew his hand and self-consciously rubbed the back of his head. "Heh, you're probably right. Don't tell anyone?"
"Don't worry. Your secret's reasonably safe with me."
"Thanks." He stretched out at an angle to her, the top of his head just barely touching the side of hers. "And thanks."
They stayed there for a while in silence, watching the stars and the veiled moon. When they returned to the campsite together, the sentry grinned and gave Jasper a conspiratorial wink. The poor man was so embarassed and confused by the laughter this elicited that Jasper ended up taking the rest of his watch.
Chronicler of Thunders paced restlessly, circling the inside perimeter of the ivory pavilion. The small structure was well-furnished, with no shortage of brightly-colored carpets and pillows. Platters of delicacies sat near the miniature hot-spring, but they were untouched; as they had been since she was taken to this place, the woman's eyes were turned outward, glaring at the various beings beyond the slender ivory pillars of her holding-place.
You come here to gawk at me, yet none of you dares meet my eyes. What is wrong? Are your hearts so craven that my mere appearance sets you a-tremble?
Three celestial lions stood outside, at a respectful distance from the building, ostensibly to ensure her privacy. She was not fool enough to challenge the transparent lie, but neither was she fool enough to believe it; the lions were facing in, not out. The other spirits kept their distance, not out of respect, but out of fear. Fear of her. She grinned behind her scarf.
You are children in a menagerie, hiding behind their parents' legs, too frightened to approach the tiger, too fascinated to look away.
Her steps faltered, as did her smile. Some strangely familiar emotion, cold and unsettling, welled up from a part of herself she could not identify, making her eyes widen. She felt her breath catch, and heard her heart thudding loud in her chest. Memory of Storms realized that she was afraid.
I am in a cage.
Jasper sighed melodramatically, throwing himself down in the shade cast by the willow's branches. "Thank the Sun I'm no longer in it!" He spent a few glorious seconds revelling in the fact that he was no longer boiling alive, then raised his head. "So, Dellano. Explain to me why I'm not splashing around in the stream, back there with the rest of your crew."
Dellano Rift folded his arms. "You're here because there are far too many things about this situation which I do not know." Unlike Jasper, he seemed almost totally unaffected by the muggy weather; the only sign that he even noticed the heat was the light sheen of sweat glistening on his forehead.
"This 'Warden of Jade' character has offered me enough money," he went on, "that I'm willing to leave some questions unanswered. For example, where he got this map he wants me to check out, or why he all of a sudden wants you two" -- he tipped his head, indicating Mahi-Sura -- "to come along with me, even though he said nothing of it when he was hiring me. However, I don't fancy leading my men to their deaths. The size of this Warden's down-payment means that I'll let you come along if he says you come along, but it's not enough to make me go into this venture completely blind."
Mahi-Sura crossed her own arms, mirroring Dellano's posture. Overnight, her knee had healed to the point where it no longer seemed to cause her any discomfort, and she'd discarded the loose skirt in favor of her chamois pants. She seemed only slightly more bothered by the heat than Dellano; like him, she was barely sweating, but she still wasn't wearing anything over her halter-top.
"You probably know more about him than either of us do," she stated, gazing levelly at the lanky Earth Aspect. "I'd never seen the man before two days ago." She turned cool eyes on Jasper. "Jasper?"
Jasper felt uncomfortably on the spot as the other two Exalted looked down at him. He hastily scrambled back to his feet and leaned on the willow's trunk in what he hoped was a casual manner. "No, I don't remember ever meeting him, either. He just came bursting in and told us to come with him. We... uh, well, weren't really in any condition to be questioning him."
"Yes." Dellano thoughtfully stroked his beard, rolling the jade beads between finger and thumb. "You were in pretty bad shape when you showed up at my doorstep. Injured and hysterical, if I recall correctly. You looked like you'd been in a fight."
Jasper shrugged uncomfortably. "I... ran into someone I used to know. We... there was a disagreement."
"A disagreement." It was clearly a question.
"I think I may have wronged her, a long time ago. I'm not sure if it had to do with that, though. She said that I'd been judged by someone called..." -- his forehead furrowed as he tried to sort out the chaotic, emotion-laced memories -- "Orum. Urom. No, it was Ur-Omn."
"Ur-Omn is an important god of justice," Dellano cut in. "He isn't worshiped much in the Scavenger Lands, but his cult is very powerful in parts of the South."
"I've never heard of him before," admitted Jasper. "I don't know what I might have done to upset him, but my... acquaintance... said she was here to carry out a sentence he'd passed on me."
"Do you think this 'acquaintance' might be following us?" Dellano asked sharply.
Mahi-Sura interrupted before Jasper could answer. "The Warden will try to keep her, and her minders, off our trail. It's why he wanted us to leave the city. At least, that's what he told us. As we said, we don't know if his words are worth anything."
Dellano nodded. "And this acquaintance of yours, Jasper? Someone you know from your scavenging days, before you turned into a penniless vagrant? Or maybe someone you stole from, after that? If memory serves, it's not unknown for Ur-Omn to delegate punishment of transgressions to those who suffered them."
"I don't think she's anyone he knows from this life," said Mahi. "But I'm curious, too, Jasper. Tell me who Allandra is."
Jasper resisted the urge to squirm under her penetrating gaze. "I'm not really positive..." he hedged.
Mahi-Sura took a step toward him. Her lips were a thin line. "Jasper." Her voice was level. "You owe me this."
Jasper looked beseechingly at Dellano, but found no support in the scavenger lord's stone-faced expression. He turned back to Mahi, a pleading look on his face. "She's someone from my dreams, someone from... before. I didn't even know her name until after I saw the spear; I dreamed it right after we joined up with Dellano last time."
"Someone from your past lives," said Mahi-Sura, holding his eyes with hers.
"Yeah." This time, he actually did squirm, although he didn't look away from her face. "I... she was part of my Circle. There were three others, too, but I only remember her name. She made up the designs for the spear Dellano found, for Judgment. She always hid her face behind that scarf." He swept his hand in front of his mouth, illustrating the description. "She wasn't always good with words, but she'd come up with these ideas I'd never think of in a million years, and figure out how to make them work." He paused, looking apprehensively at Mahi-Sura. "We were lovers."
The Lunar nodded, very slowly, but said nothing.
"We weren't married, though," Jasper went on hastily. "There were... problems with that. I think I did something really bad to her, that made her turn against me. But I don't know. When I saw her, standing in the door like that..." he shook his head. "Something was different. I don't know what. It wasn't just that I'm not the same person I was then. The woman I know from my dreams would never be anyone's agent but her own. She wouldn't need Ur-Omn or whoever to give her authority to come after me."
Dellano cleared his throat. "So," he said slowly, "this person is from the First Age."
Jasper nodded, without looking away from Mahi-Sura.
"And she is the exact same person your past incarnation knew?"
"I think so."
Dellano bowed his head, rubbing his temples. "The rational thing for me to do at this point would be to tell you to get the hell out of my expedition, and never come near me again. I don't want to become involved in something of this magnitude. It would be suicide."
Mahi-Sura turned to face Dellano, letting out a low hiss as she stepped closer to Jasper.
"However," Dellano continued, "it seems like the decision has been taken out of my hands. I allowed the Warden to make you part of my group, and that means that I have certain obligations to you. I am not the kind of man who abandons compatriots to their fate just because I don't want that fate rubbing off on me. And, if we do actually have some kind of ancient Anathema on our trail, I'd rather not face her alone when she catches up to me and wants to know where you've gone." He dropped his hand away from his face and looked up. "And if we don't, if this Warden person is as good as his word, I still don't know what's waiting for us at this site. You have skills that could be a lot of help to me and my men." He paused for a second in thought. "Well, at least you do, Mahi-Sura. I don't know exactly what kind of powers you have, besides extremely rapid healing," -- he gestured at her leg -- "but you have a good reputation as an apothecary, and a healer is always welcome on a scavenging venture."
Mahi nodded, somewhat cautiously. "And Jasper?"
"Yeah, what about me?" Jasper echoed her, somewhat petulantly.
Dellano slowly turned his head to look at the young Solar. His smile was not a particularly friendly one. "You, Nightingale Jasper, are going to do your utmost to prove that my low opinion of you is unjustified. I expect to see you shouldering your part of the burden, with no complaints. If you have special knowledge or talents which recommend you for a certain task, you will speak up and volunteer. If you recall any useful information about the Warden of Jade or this Allandra person, in dreams or otherwise, you will share it with me promptly. I will not tolerate slacking, or any kind of action which could place the rest of the group in danger." He eyed the other two Exalted coolly. "This means, among other things, that I'd rather you didn't wander off in the middle of the night to cuddle."
"We weren't--" Jasper began hotly, but swallowed his words in the face of sharp looks from both Mahi-Sura and Dellano. "I'm pretty good with horses," he said.
"Good." Dellano grinned, slightly more warmly than before. "Then we know what's going to be taking up most of your time for the next week or two." He turned to go. "I want to be moving again in under half an hour. You two can not-cuddle as much as you want before then." He pushed through the hanging willow boughs, leaving Jasper and Mahi-Sura alone under the shady canopy.
Mahi pre-empted Jasper's angry outburst. "It's his expedition, Jasper, and he needs to be in charge. I know you don't like it, and I'm not completely happy with it either, but that's how these things work. Every pack has an alpha, and Dellano Rift is a very capable man. Don't challenge him unless you're sure you could do a better job."
"He could at least be a little nicer about it," Jasper grumbled.
Mahi laughed. "I think being nice to you is a job he's delegated to me." She ruffled his hair affectionately, making him grimace. "Now, shall we head back downstream to join the others, or stay here and let them imagine we're indulging in all manner of salacious acts?"
Jasper ran a hand through his hair, which accomplished little besides causing it to be tousled in a slightly different way. "It's a tough decision," he mused, mock-seriously. "But I think I'd rather stay on Dellano's good side. The salacious fantasizing should wait until later." He sighed, then squared his shoulders and marched off like a man going to his execution. Mahi-Sura trailed after him, doing her best to keep a straight face.
The Warden of Jade strolled leisurely through the lush garden, making his roundabout way to the ivory pavilion at its center. He followed a cobblestone path through a grove of painstakingly-pruned miniature trees, and a series of artistically-arranged stepping stones over a pool full of colorful koi. He observed several gods following roughly equivalent paths, and smiled.
In time, he reached the landscaped clearing of which the pavilion was the centerpiece. Many more gods were gathered here, including three celestial lions positioned strategically around the polished, bone-white building. The Warden chose an unobtrusive spot and sat down, his back to a tree whose crimson flowers smelled of cinnamon. He sorted through the curiosity-seekers with two flicks of his purple eyes, and smiled again when he noted two of the Maidens' Chosen in the crowd. Then he turned his attention to the fourth Exalted in the garden.
The short, slender woman was pacing her confines. Even from his relatively remote vantage point, he could feel the heat of her glare as it swept across the onlookers.
"You are in a cage," he murmured, setting the words adrift on a tiny stream of Essence and patiently waiting for them to trickle into the woman's ear.
He saw the woman falter. He saw her eyes widen, and he saw the fear in them. He bowed his head and closed his eyes.
"I apologize," he said, and this time the words were heard by no one but himself.
In his dream, as always, there is a Maiden. Tonight, it is a Forgetful Maiden.
Her hands and feet are chained, but she has forgotten.
She is hurt and bleeding, but she has forgotten.
Her heart is lying on the road behind her, but she has forgotten.
He tells her of another Maiden, who ran and ran, and threw away her heart because she had no need for beginnings.
While she is distracted by his story, he picks up her heart and stuffs it back in. This makes the Forgetful Maiden very upset.
"Why did you do that?" she asks.
"Nothing can have an ending," he explains, "if it does not remember where it began."