Shadow of Artemia
Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
Sword of Truth
She was again conducted to Mitkel’s chamber, and this time there was no need for the Avatar of the Goddess to force her to bow.
Sparing no single glance for the throne or its occupant, Lomar threw herself onto her knees by the bound form. He had been beaten; perhaps he had been foolish enough to try to resist the Hunters, and they had struck him for his impudence.
In his youth, Terbus had not been above mad starts of courage that would have been more seemly in a young housemother. She had teased him for it, telling him that he had a woman’s heart.
His hands, though, they were bound behind his back with simple cargo wire–bound cruelly tight; she could see the swelling. It was to the wire that she reached first, twisting it loose.
“You presume,” came Mitkel’s cool voice. No thrill of pain accompanied the comment, nor was she forcibly dragged from Terbus where he lay on the cold floor. She therefore continued her ministrations to the first of her husbands, studying him as she did so. His breathing was rapid, one eye swollen shut, the other simply closed. The remains of a nosebleed was caked on his face, in fact . . . it might be the angle at which he lay, but it seemed to her that his nose was . . . not quite as straight as it had been, formerly.
The wire came free; she flung it away from her without looking; heard Terbus moan.
“I will need water, antiseptics, gauze, and a hand doc, should the ship have such,” she said, taking one of his hands and massaging it between both of hers. “I ask this as a housemother in the pursuit of her sacred duty to her household, since the servants of the Goddess do not see fit to comfort the wounded.”
“Have a care, Lomar Fasholt,” said Mitkel, from very close at hand. “This man struck a Hunter of Artemis, and refused to answer her questions, though she asked each three times. He was then punished and the questions asked again. Still he refused to answer, whereupon he was brought here to me.”
“Did he also refuse to answer you?” Lomar asked, her eyes not on Mitkel, but on Teri’s battered face. The lid of his undamaged eye had lifted somewhat, and she saw the gleam of a dark eye.
“I thought it best to send for you. On occasion the Voice of the Goddess overawes those who bear the simple souls. You, however, have stood as his Wife for more than half his lifetime. He will have the habit of obeying you.”
“He’s not in any condition to answer questions,” Lomar said, putting a careful hand on his head and probing gently. “No matter who puts them.”
“And, yet, he must answer, and soonly,” Mitkel said. “Unless you, yourself, will do so.”
“What are these questions?” she demanded, and twisted, to look up into the comely face of the Goddess’ Eyes and Ears.
“Is there no one on this vessel who can bestir herself to common decency and fetch me a med kit?” she snarled.
“Lomar Fasholt, this is not your household, where the Wife’s ill temper must be accommodated. You are on my vessel. Boorishness, any lack of courtesy or cooperation–will be punished. Your husband, of course, will bear the punishments you earn. I am sorry that it must be him, for I can see that he is past his first youth, and harsh treatment might very easily break his health. But, he is the only one left to you, until the Hunters find the others.”
Lomar felt a rush of relief. Her warning had gotten through in time! Only–if that were so–
“The Hunters arrived at your apartment to find this man alone, putting dishes away into cabinets. He was asked where the rest of the household were, and he said that he did not know. He continued to assert that he did not know where they were, or when they would return, for which stubbornness he reaped his just reward.”
“He doesn’t know,” Lomar said, because that was according to plan. In the event of dire danger, which the advent of Artemia’s Hunters certainly was, they were to scatter.
Lomar had her own plan, but she had been immobilized by the arrival of the hunting pair. Terbus, in possession of his own plan, would have had enough time — he had been putting dishes away?
She looked down at her husband’s battered face.
“He doesn’t know,” she repeated.
“Very well,” said Mitkel. “But you are Housemother, Wife, and Mother. Of course, you know the location of your household.”
Lomar shook her head, and raised her face to Mitkel. She took a breath, and willed that the Eyes of the Goddess would see the truth.
“I don’t know, either,” she said.
“You don’t know where your youngest daughter is?” she demanded, disbelief very apparent. “Your husbands have gone into the world by themselves, unguided, with no wisdom to guide them but their own?”
That had given her pause, in the case of several of the husbands. Aramis and Vroyd, in particular, were sweet-natured creatures, kind and caring. They had raised the daughters with tenderness, and genuine love, while deferring to their Wife in all things, never apparently thinking to do anything other than what she desired. She had, secretly, worried that one or the other–both!–would be taken up immediately, and yet–
Wily, clever Teri, with his head full of ideas, who had gone off-world with her in the early days, who knew math, and astrogation, and languages? She thought–yes, she had thought it! and it had both sorrowed and delighted her — that, once free of the household, and of her, Terbus would rejoice in building a life of his own, alone.
“It was the best plan we could form,” she said now, to Mitkel’s disbelieving eyes. “If we remained together, we could be used . . .” She went no further; there was no need.
“Rise, Lomar Fasholt and face me.”
The voice had taken on a depth; a resonance. Very easily, this could be the True Voice of the Goddess.
Lomar rose, and faced the other. The round, comely face was alight with power; galaxies spun in her eyes.
“Say the truth, Lomar Fasholt,” that Voice commanded her. She felt her skull tighten, as the very bone had been taken in a vise.
“Where is your household?”
The question thundered through her body like a blow, knocking her to her knees, though her gaze never moved from the face of her Goddess.
“I don’t know,” she said.
The vise around her head tightened. Lomar swallowed.
“Where and when did you plan to reunite?”
“There was,” she said, her voice shaking, “no such plan.”
Silence. Lomar drew a breath, foreknowing it as her last.
And cried out in protest of the force that slapped her to the floor next to Terbus.
“Take them both away,” Mitkel, snapped, turning toward her chair. “And provide Mother Fasholt with a medkit.”
Of course, there were ears on them. It was not unreasonable to suppose that there were also eyes on them. Lomar was beyond caring.
“You were putting the dishes away?” she demanded.
Terbus, his hurts patched, his face clean, though still rather pale, looked up at her.
Lomar, perched on the edge of the cot, frowned down at him. Terbus met her eye without a flinch.
“Why were you putting the dishes away, Terbus?”
“They’d been cleaned, and I don’t like to leave them in the washer all day; they pick up an unappetizing odor.”
So, it was going to be this game, was it? Lomar took a deep breath and folded her hands deliberately on her knee.
“The plan called for the household to scatter,” she said. “Why did you vary from the plan?”
“The Hunters came quickly on the heels of the warning,” he said. “I stayed to delay them, and buy the rest more time.”
Her throat closed. That was Terbus to the core. He had been born to be a Housemother, saving only an accident of gender. Goddess knew, he had cared for them all far better than she had ever done. He’d even won Sleak’s heart, which she had never done. Possibly, Terbus had found a way to love the boy.
“Also,” Terbus said, clearing his throat. “Also, I hoped that they would bring me to you.”
“They did you that favor, at least,” she said, snappishly. “You realize that you are a stick for them to beat me with?”
“Yes, Housemother,” he said, in the sweetly chastised tone he used only when he thought she was being unreasonable.
Lomar sighed, and reached out to smooth an errant lock from his forehead. When had Terbus gone grey?
She remembered the day her mother had presented him to her, it being the custom for the mother to pick a fitting First Husband for the daughter. Medier Fasholt had an eye for a pretty man, so it was no surprise that Terbus had been very pretty, indeed. His hair had been auburn, worn in a knot at the top of his head, revealing a finely boned face as pale as the Lady Day porcelains, and eyes so deeply blue they sometimes seemed black.
At night, when he came to her bed, then the hair was loosed, to fall in waves below his slender waist, and it had been beyond Lomar’s power of imagination to believe that there existed a man more beautiful than her Terbus.
But he had not merely been decoration–Medier Fasholt well knew the importance of an accomplished man of steady nature, especially in so sensitive a position as First Husband.
Terbus had therefore come into her care trained not only in household skills, but able to read, and to keep accounts. Lomar had taught him to shoot, and agreed to his proposed curriculum of math and off-world languages. He had learned astrogation from their hired pilot, back in the day, so that he might spell her when she was drunk.
“Housemother?” he murmured, which was surely for those listening ears. Clever Teri.
She sighed again, and patted his cheek, feeling stubble against her palm.
“If I say the truth, I’ve already decided to do what they require,” she told him.
“So, I’m not a stick?” he asked, watching her eyes.
“Who can tell what the Vessel of the Goddess may do, or why? But–no, I think you’re not in danger of being beaten again . . .” She gave him a stern stare “. . . on my account.” Sternness melted into a wan smile.
“Truly, Teri, I’m pleased to have your company. My regret is that –” you threw away your chance for adventure, that you had always wanted – “you’re in this cell with me, rather than at liberty.”
“I would rather be in a cell with you than at liberty, by myself,” Terbus said, and put his hand over hers, where it rested on her knee.
“What do they want you to do?” he asked.
“I’m to contact a man–a friend and colleague–and put him into the hands of The Thirteen.”
Teri’s eyes widened.
“The Liaden trader,” Terbus said. “The one who likes to talk; with the white hair and silver eyes?”
“Yes. They say he is an abomination; that he has the use of powers which are reserved by the Goddess for women alone.”
“You’ll betray this man?” Terbus asked, his voice only curious.
“I will send the message,” she said. “I have no choice. We cannot expect that . . . all of the house will be able to stay hidden. There are too many sticks to beat me with, Terbus.”
She shook her head, and fell silent, trying not to listen to the voice in the back of her head–the voice of her conscience, as perhaps it was–telling her that to betray a friend was not worthy of her, that the act sullied her name and the name of House Fasholt. That Medier herself would rise up out of her urn and read her a thundering scold regarding honor and the duty of the housemother in all things to emulate the Goddess . . .
Teri squeezed her fingers gently, and carefully eased over on his side. He said nothing, merely offering her a long-familiar comfort.
Gratefully, she lay down on the cot, tucking into the curl of his body, and let his warmth lull her to sleep.
Here ends the Splinter entitled “Shadow of Artemia.” Thanks to everyone who supported this small excursion.
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