Maybe it was the fact she was finally here with another soul, but she felt a bit comforted right now. The Birdcage seemed even more welcoming, with the gentle rays of the dying sunlight peering through the glass, glancing golden on each blade of grass.
“How long have you been here?” Eteri asked, with what she evidently believed was small talk.
Huin slowed down to a stop, turned to regard her with a glassy look. Her forehead creased in thought.
“I… wouldn’t know. You sort of lose track of time here. But it does not really matter. We have everything we need here, and if we need something new we can make it with our of hands. That’s why I asked you about your farming experience. We all take care of the garden so we can share in its fruit with the Zalethi. When she visits.”
That sent a new ripple of worry through her spine.
“And when she does visit… what do you do?” Perform might have been a better word.
“What she desires. Ah, but you are adorable!” She cupped her cheek and gave her a wide smile. “Worry not, we all learn together! You’ll be an expert slavegirl in no time, and you will forget all about your worries.”
“I don’t really want to,” she replied in a thin yet resolute whisper. “It’s all I still have of my old life.”
Except for her sandals and her clothes, but if Huin was any guarantee of what she was going to see in her future, she wouldn’t own those for much longer.
And what would happen to her memories?
This new world was already eating her at the seams.
“You’ll like the others,” Huin explained, going back to pulling her towards a small circle of low trees. She spotted a few people sitting together at the pond. “Nives can be a little rough, but she has such a sweet side once you know her. And Thana, oh, she’s just wonderful.”
At this point, Eteri did want to see with her own eyes and judge on her own. She couldn’t take anything this girl said for true. It seemed like whatever effect this place had on people, it had already claimed her.
She was alone once again.
And yet, she straightened her back and walked forwards, thinking of her family outside – her sister especially. They would still be thinking about her, and as long as that happened, she would have nothing to worry about. He sacrifice had a meaning.
They reached the pond. A gorgeous blonde girl sat on a moss-covered rock, running her fingers through a musical instrument but producing only lost notes. The other one, laying naked in the pond, looked a few years older than them, more mature with her large breasts and round face. She was indeed beautiful, but a different kind of beauty, more like her mother might have looked as a younger woman.
“And who is this?” The blonde inquired. Her voice was sharp, if still carrying a veneer of accented sound. Her face was also a little too squared to be Rasena. But she was too short to belong to the Apua people. Her emerald eyes seemed to shine in her fine face. Her mouth curved into a sneer as she regarded Eteri, and she blushed double as hard because she felt such an outsider next to this gorgeous specimen of a woman. “Did you pick up some washed-up flotsam, Huin?”
“Peace,” came the voice of the eldest, reaching out with a hand. “If she is here there must be a very important reason, don’t you think?”
“Hmf,” the blonde scoffed. “Surely the Zalethi must have allowed her access. What for, I have no idea.”
“She’s the new slavegirl,” Huin interrupted her, setting a hand on her shoulder. “Isn’t she nice? We are going to have so much fun with her.”
“Are you sure about that?” Nives gave her a once-over and Eteri squirmed. This was the girl who was supposed to help her and she was already looking at her like she was some debris sticking out from the road. “You do not look like someone the Zalethi would choose at her service.” A pause, stretched long enough to turn it into a mocking insult. “No offence.”
“I don’t intend to take any,” Eteri replied. “I was chosen, yes. Or do you think I managed to come here by some miracle of the Twelve? Her Eternal Grace has requested my presence here.” Which was not exactly correct, but she did not want to upset the situation further. “And you are the one supposed to get me ready.”
“Ready for what?” Huin inquired.
Eteri did not have an answer.
“For what… for what she desires, of course.”
“That is satisfying enough,” Thana proclaimed, standing up from the water. Eteri marvelled at her sculpted body and how mature and sexually-charged it looked. She had never seen another woman naked save for her mother and sister when she was young, and Thana’s physique surely put her own to shame. “She is here to fulfil her purpose. We will receive further instructions in time. For the time being, my dear, why don’t you tell us your name?”
In the depths of the castle, sunlight did not dare to thread. At the golden glow of the same humming lamps Eteri had seen, one young man loomed over tassels, mosaics and pieces of ancient ceramic. They all bore a pattern, a piece of decoration that he had tried to put together into a coherent whole.
But for the time being he had only ever managed to set together bits and pieces.
The entirety of the thing was still beyond him.
Lathie scratched his neck and started as someone walked up to him.
“Ah! Oh… it’s you,” he chuckled at the Daimon looking down at him with its empty gaze.
With the same serene smile on its smooth face, it raised an arm and pointed towards the stairs leading up and out from the glassy crevice.
“Something came up, hm?” He shook his head. It was far too easy to lose track of time down here. But the Harvest Festival must be approaching its twilight hours. He was supposed to attend to the dinner.
Lathie gave one last wistful smile at the pieces of ancient ceramic and then shrugged, cleaning his hands on his apron.
“I’m coming, I’m coming. You have all the time.”
Author’s Notes: Nives was always a bit rough. She might have her reasons.
As always, thanks for reading.