Shadow of Artemia
Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
The apartment they had taken was a small one.
That it was not also a crowded house full of short tempers and petty disputes was due entirely to Terbus, who had suggested to the housemother that she and her daughter might find the Eastern Suite, with its tall windows and elaborate bathing fountain, both appropriate and comfortable, and further stated that the husbands would find comfort in the three remaining bedrooms. No one, and certainly not the housemother, cared to dispute Terbus on the field of domestic arrangements. Lomar Fasholt had therefore merely nodded and let him have his way, even knowing that one of the so-called “bedrooms” was no more than a closet next to the pantry–which Terbus of course would take for himself.
The rest of the apartment consisted of a kitchen, and a great room, where they all gathered to share the evening meal.
Small as the space was, yet Aster had found an appropriate corner in the great room, and built an altar to the honor of the Goddess.
This, she tended as she had been taught, praying before it, as she had need, and performing other such small rituals as a devout girl might.
Among Lomar’s elder husbands, there were three who were devout–Aramis, Ronlath, Vroyd. Terbus did not visit the Goddess, though he was of the age of men who had been taught that they might approach Her with such small concerns as would afflict them; nor did Jeni, very near Terbus in age, choose to lay his petty cares before Her.
Sleak did not honor to the Goddess. Sleak could scarcely bring himself to show proper respect to the Housemother, his Wife, after–and Karaman held likewise aloof.
Nathin, the youngest, was devout, which was no surprise. Though he was, according to Dayan Temple records, Lomar’s eighth husband, the child was no older than Aster. Both were youngest of their station by a considerable number of years, and had been much in each other’s company. Aster had taught Nathin to read, and to figure. She had taught him poetry, and philosophy, and other such things as daughters were set to learn.
And, she had taught him piety.
Every morning, the two of them dressed the altar, changed the bowl of fresh water and trimmed the wick of the starflame.
Every evening, they laid their hands on the altar and opened their hearts to She who was Mother to the Universe, seeking Her approval of the works they had performed that day in Her Name, and Her blessing upon their eternal souls.
Nathin’s worship was a blasphemy, for the Temple now taught that men were not only the frailer vessel, but less pleasing to Her than the beasts of wood and field, or the birds of the sky, or the fishes that swam in the waters.
Lomar, knowing this, had yet not interfered with Aster’s care of her agemate.
For Lomar, too, remembered when the Goddess had loved all Her children equally, though some were less able than others.
Wherein lay the reason for this house, on this ugly, arid world that she had chosen for their refuge for two reasons.
One: It was a hub for several Loop runs of long standing, which meant that she might continue in trade, and so to feed her family.
And . . . Two: It was not a Temple world.
Reason Two meant that she could keep her family safe: The small portion of her family who had come with her from Dayan, and also her two eldest daughters, and their families and businesses.
On Dayan, Lomar had been a Pillar of the Temple.
Here on sandy Ember, in the small house her ready money had allowed them to let . . . Lomar did not visit the altar of the Goddess. She did not pray. Certainly, she did not open her heart.
There was that in her heart, since their . . . escape was not too strong a word . . .
There was that, then, in her heart, since the attack upon Sleak and their subsequent escape from Dayan, that even a Goddess might find hard to bear.
* * *
She could not, of course, present herself for business under the house’s established trade name. Four generations had built and increased Fasholt and Daughters. Her daughters Sima and Brit had the tending of the name now, working out of what had been their secondary location, on Ischel.
Dayan was too dangerous for Fasholt. Perhaps sometime in the future–perhaps Aster’s granddaughter might find it possible to set down, and trade safely inside Dayanport.
For Ember, she was Flemit Nondorean, trading as Arial Enterprises, registered at Hel’s Gate. Her papers and her license were perfectly in order, and none here on Ember need know that Flemit Nondorean and Arial Enterprises were franchise names she had purchased when she was yet Medier Fasholt’s eldest daughter, who had grown tired of waiting for her certifications to be validated by Chaliceworks.
Flemit Nondorean had a tidy enough shop on Emberport, and if it was stocked mostly with goods from the local co-op, at least they were not the baseline goods, nor the topline, but a solid mixture of midline goods, and near top-of-tier.
She had been in business for only three passes of Ember’s tiny satellite, and had not yet turned a profit, though she had achieved break-even during the last accounting period. This pass, or the next, then she would come about, and then she would look about for a more suitable–
The bell rang, announcing the arrival of a customer.
There were two of them, each wearing the silver owl and crescent on the breast of her dark robe. The shorter stayed by the door while the taller strolled further into the shop. Lomar heard the lock snap home.
Lomar paused by the edge of the main display case, hands clasped behind her back in the age-old pose of the shopkeeper.
The taller woman’s grey hair was neatly braided, her face thin and tranquil. There was a old scar across her right cheek, pale and corded, like a piece of string beneath her brown skin. Her hands were large and strong, for the moment tucked peaceably into her belt.
“Good-day to you,” Lomar said. “May I offer assistance?”
The tall one paused. She inclined slightly, courteously, from the waist, and straightened her gaze direct. Her eyes were the color of her hair.
“Good-day to you,” she said. “Merchant.”
The gun was holstered along Lomar’s spine, beneath her jacket. The butt settled comfortably in the palm of her right hand. She was a reasonably good shot with a pistol, though she doubted she was good enough to silence a hunting pair from the Order of Artemia. Still, she needn’t prevail, only delay. She had pressed the button that sent warning to Terbus as soon as she had seen the black robes through the window. He would move Aster and the rest of the husbands. He would keep them safe, in her memory.
“May I offer assistance?” she asked again. “In addition to those items on display, I have an extensive catalog.”
“We are in search of a specialty item,” the tall woman said. “In particular, we are looking for a woman named Lomar Fasholt, formerly of Dayan, who abandoned her Goddess, her Temple, and her Duty.”
“Alas, I have no knowledge of this person.”
The badge of her office flared a petulant purple. The tall hunter sighed.
“You may wish to preserve such bright blessings as may be left in your spiritual account,” she said. “We know who you are. Our sisters of the hunt even now are gathering your daughter and your husbands into their hands. You will come with us because, though you have chosen to throw away your Goddess, you have not thrown away your duty as housemother.”
“You will harm innocents?”
The hunter’s tranquil face did not alter.
“Not we. Any harm that may befall them will be because of your defiance. Comport yourself as housemother, nurturing their lives and their well-being, and they are as safe as if they lay in the very arms of our Mother.”
Lomar’s mouth dried. Had her warning been too late? If the second team of hunters had only waited until they saw her leave . . .
The grip of the gun was slick with sweat, now. She thought, fleetingly, of using it on a far nearer target, but–Aster. Terbus. Jeni, Sleak, Nathin, Aramis, Karaman, and Ronlath. Vroyd. If she had meant to abandon them, she might have left them to the Thrice-Blessed on Dayan. But they were hers, to protect and nurture. She would not–she could not–desert them now.
She met the steady grey eyes of the taller hunter, pulled the gun from its holster, and brought it out.
The hunter returned her regard, not deigning to glance aside.
Lomar reversed the weapon and offered it, butt first.
Then and only then did the hunter break eye contact. She glanced down, took the gun, and made it vanish into some slit or pocket of her robe.
“That is well then,” she said calm. She slipped one step to the right, and moved her hand, indicating that Lomar should proceed her.
“Please, Housemother; come with us.”
* * *
If you liked this chapter, please consider making a donation toward the upkeep of this site, and/or the cat food trust fund.