It was the light that woke Naida. It wasn’t the grey fall dawn light… nor the darkness when the heavy snow fell, but bright and warm as if it were high summer. She didn’t open her eyes immediately, convinced that she was still asleep.
None of her families had ever had enough goose feathers to fill a mattress much less one for the foundling girl. The cover over her was soft and made of a kind of wool that wasn’t itchy. Only Twitch and Snowfoot had fleece that was that soft and they were plucked separate from other goats and their hair was spun into one of the few trade goods that Afaris had. So this was astonishing.
She remembered dreaming of hot baths and everything smelled of new mown grass and… books? Leather?
And there was a warm, warm fuzzy body she was curled up next to that purred. Her eyes popped open. She was lying in what looked like a feather bed nest, tucked into the sphinx… Temis? Yes, Temis’s side, tucked in tightly to her lion's body.
“Good morning, Kitten,” she said and laid an enormous paw over Naida. She then proceeded to run her enormous tongue over her head as though she were a tiny kitten of her own.
“Hey! Owch! Why are you –“ Though she squirmed it was to no avail.
“Done. Your hair was a complete rat’s nest and I licked it smooth,” Temis said. “Asteri is off pretending to be me. Your poor bereft villagers are all safe in the next village even though it is snowing hard now. Go have a bath and get all my sphinx spit off!”
Naida couldn’t help but giggle. “You are being so silly just to make me feel better!”
“Exactly. The kitchen cavern is under the picture of the carved barrel.”
“Yes? How big is this cavern?”
“Don’t know. It’s as big as we need it to be. Once you’ve eaten come into the doorway under the open book. I want you to use your clever hands and small size get into some things I just haven’t been able to reach.”
“Um… all right.”
She picked up what was left of the cheese that Asteri had brought… somehow she had a vague memory of waking up enough to eat a little more and took it with her… the elimination room had this steaming hot waterfall actually in the wall so she could get clean without going out to the bath, catch her hair back into a knot at the nape of her neck, scrub off her bloody legs and hands and wash her face. She was still bleeding but Sybaris didn’t seem to mind. They all seemed to, well, like it.
The kitchen was enormous, big enough to hold Sybaris’s whole length, around a central stone bowl that had a grate over it and the lava from inside the mountain welled up into it so the cauldron seethed red and yellow. It was as bright inside as in Temi’s nest and the other cavern rooms, though Naida couldn’t see the source of the light. It just seemed to follow Sybaris’s will.
“Good morning, child. Are you hungry?”
The stone block that served as the Lamia’s table had a bowl of eggs upon it, a large bowl of bubbling broth on the edge of the grate. A whole pig hung from a hook above, roasting, dripping fat into the lava below.
Naida stopped dead, her mouth open. “Come sling the flatbreads here so they brown!” The Lamia held out a ladle and indicated another flat stone griddle and yet another bowl but this one full of thin dough.
“Oh! Wonderful!” Naida took the ladle and held it under one of the pork drippings, dashed it over the stone so it smoked and made the crispy rounds of bread, lighting fast.. She’d learned to cook from all the women in the village so this wasn’t anything strange for her. The eggs were bigger than chicken eggs and she didn’t ask what kind they were. The yolks were an astonishing gold and were fresh and when she stirred the broth and gently dropped them in to poach she could feel Sybaris’s approval even in the way she watched.
The bread went onto a huge platter and Sybaris took up a knife big enough to be called a sword to slice meat off the roast in luxurious slabs. There were several dozen eggs baked in ashes and the poached eggs in broth went into four enormous bowls. “I don’t have human sized plates I’m afraid,” Sybaris said and Naida laughed as Temis thundered in, wings tight, to sit bolt upright at the stone table.
Asteri didn’t show himself immediately and Sybaris pointed at a spot right on the table. “You may as well sit next to the bowl and help yourself, my dear. He’ll show up when he shows up.”
“To the Gods!” Naida cried and Sybaris hissed her laughter in answer and poured a libation into the lava.
“To the Gods,” she and Temis said. Naida made her own libations of bits of everything before her and dunked the bread into her bowl to soak up the broth and scoop an egg. She found herself crying again at how wonderful the meat and the fat were and paid close attention to her food.
Sybaris watched her for a moment before picking up her own stone bowl and draining it in three draughts, before setting it in a spot on the wall, where another waterfall ran through. She took up what was left of Naida’s cheese and poked a hole in the stone wall with one claw, drawing a perfectly scribed niche.
“I am not good with wood for shelves, but I can work stone,” she said, running her talons down the wall with sparks and screeches that had Naida flinging her hands over her ears. “Sorry.”
“Is Asteri going to talk to me again?”
The Lamia coiled up in a warm bundle around Naida, like a great black dining couch that she could lean against. “Asteri is in a huff,” she said, lying her torso back along her own body to bring her head down to Naida’s level. “He’s in limbo, really. He is tied to you, and your mother, and he’s torn. He was her Bennu, and feels – on top of everything else – that he should keep himself for her. But her last request of him was to save you.”
“I like him. Even if he is snarky. But what makes a Bennu? Some kind of magic?”
Sybaris was silent for a long time. “You ask questions that cut to the heart, child. You know that blood calls to the dead?”
“And many woman 'open-up' and bleed enough to spiritually summon thousands of ghosts in her lifetime.”
“Zeno said that monthlies were like tiny sips of offered life for a ghost.”
“Well, yes. But the greater entities are drawn to some women because they open up their hearts and their spirits when they bleed.” Sybaris tapped her claws thoughtfully on the table as she answered. "But we're going to go into all of this in detail as part of your lessons. Later."
Naida nodded, swallowing. “So do any men have Bennu?”
“Of course. Some men sacrifice at the healer’s temples every moon, imitating a woman’s lunar flow. Some men are generals and sacrifice enormous swaths of blood and spirit in their wars. The star-shielded One was like that. His mother, the Queen, was enormously powerful, and drew a dozen Bennu to her as snakes.”
“So… Alexandros of Pella shed enough blood to have his own Bennu?” Even in tiny Afaris they had heard of the Great King who fought the Golden Darius into the ground and conquered the known world. Naida was glad to find that she wasn’t completely ignorant.
“It was his ‘Bucephalos’.”
“So… the rulers of the world… the Queens and Empresses and Candaces… all have Bennu?”
“They all have heart companions. Only your people and the Aegyptians call them Bennu. The Romans’ Empress Livia has her wolves. Boadicca of the Iceni Empire has both a Lion and a Unicorn. Ptolemeos Cleopatra has asps. Your mother had a chimera. No one has ever seen the heart companion of Cassandra of Carthage, but anyone who has ever threatened her has been publicly torn apart by that invisible being. We theorize that it is a Baal-lizard or a dragon of some kind.”
Naida thought for a while before she shook herself. “Sybaris, I’m scared. I’ve grown up with no teaching in all this stuff. I’m an ignorant goat-herder. It’s probably a good thing that Asteri isn’t my Bennu. I wouldn’t want to make him ashamed of being seen with me.”
Asteri had somehow bounced in through the Lamia’s coils and was big enough now to not fit in Naida’s lap anymore, his horns curling around his head completely once. He baaaa’ed in her face as she pressed back against Sybaris. “You are NOT going to pull that ‘I’m nothing and nobody’ Gorgon manure on me or anybody else!” He huffed grass-breath. “Just because those… those horrible people found you before I could pull myself together, and told you that you were unwanted and made of dirt and all that nasty stuff.”
“He’s right,” Temis said. “Your mother gave Asteri up to defend you, find you, keep you. Now that he has, you should realize how cherished you are.”
Big tears welled out of Naida's eyes, ran down her cheeks. “I’m not used to being loved.”
Asteri hugged her with his fore-hooves over her shoulders, so she could bury her face in his cloud-soft belly fur. “Get used to it. You’ve just started bleeding, so I could find you. Your own Bennu is on its way.”
“So I’ll have two of you yelling at me?” She clutched Asteri tight, wiping her face in his fur. I'm so tired of crying. “Um… good?”
“She can barely restrain her thrilled enthusiasm, Chimera. Perhaps you should let her breathe and we can draw a map of the world that we know and put pictures of all the kingdoms, who rules where, and their companions.”
“That’ll take weeks.” Asteri said, happily. “I’ll have more time to grow up before we let my Candace know that I’ve rescued her daughter!”
“After we finish eating,” Temis said. “My library.”
The Lamia smiled, closed mouth to hide her fangs. “You have weeks. The snow is still falling.”