Naida dawdled into the kitchen, dragging her toes and the wet, sooty cape behind her, staring at the granite floor. It was the combination of the noise and the scent that had her look up.
Suspended over the lava stove was a gigantic metal lantern. She’d seen little ones in the library, with tiny flames in them but this one was big enough for Sybaris to sit in the cup in the centre.
Above, all against the ceiling, it looked like a couple of aurochs and the heaven ram that had been hung in the freezing room had been sliced into bite sized pieces and were drying in the heat.
“What? Is going on?” Naida dropped the cloak and sat down at her spot, looking up at the lantern. Sybaris entered holding a book box in each of her bottom hands. And then two more in the other two hands. And the final two held a jewel case and a torch that burned in rainbow colours.
“Oh, there you are Naida-Efra,” she said, and reached up to slide everything she carried into the body of the lamp. As she sank back down Naida could see that she only had two arms and hands, not six. “My sisters in India and Oceania lent me their hands, while I’m packing. We need to get you tidied up and if Asteri doesn’t return with your ushera by tomorrow, get you packed up for our journey.”
“I’m going to see you home, dear. I can teach you on the way, but it is cruel to keep you from your home and from your mother and your father. Remember I told you that they were both still alive? Your father is still a priest of Horus and your mother is still the Candace but even though she was proven fertile, with your conception, they have not managed to have any other children, so it is imperative that we get you home as fast as possible.”
“Um.” Naida crossed her arms. “I’m tired of everyone else making decisions for me! Do this! Go there! Learn this! I feel like a stuffed goose with all this being crammed down my beak!” She thrust her chin out. “You and all the spirit creatures I’ve ever met personally kind of shove us people around like we’re game pieces and don’t matter and I don’t like it!”
Sybaris froze where she coiled. “Oh, Kitten. I’m so sorry. I should have consulted you. And I can SEE how our behavior seems.” She reached out and brushed Naida’s dirty, tangled hair off her face. “May I braid your hair? Then I can tell you exactly how important humans are to us. And to US.” Naida could hear the capitals.
“I’ll just wash and then you can braid,” she said, jumping up.
“Don’t put on your dirty chiton!” Sybaris called after her. “I have new ones for you!”
Naida scrubbed fast and got out of the bath with a splash, wrapping the toweling around herself. “Sybaris,” she said quietly as she settled into one of her teacher’s coils, looking up at her serene face. “I was alone so long, now I have you and Asteri and you tell me I’m going to have another Bennu show up. I feel really uncomfortable with it all and sometimes I just want to start bawling. What if my mother’s given up on me? And I don’t have any siblings? What is my father like? I don’t even know anything about them except for what you’ve taught me. I’m a Kushite. I have as many Goddesses and Gods as the Aeygpti and… and…”
She was trying so hard to explain how bad she felt, trying hard to be clear and unemotional and was horrified to find that her eyes were full of tears. Again.
“I understand that you are overwhelmed.” Sybaris’s coils shifted under her and Naida found herself tipped to sitting upright. “Let me see to your hair, while you talk it through, hmmm?”
Niada braced herself to get the knots ripped out, wiping and hiding her face in the towel, both hands pressing it to her skin. Sybaris’s talons weren’t anything like the stiff wooden teeth of the combs that had been forced through before, sliding through her curls as though they were slippery.
“Who were you closest to, among the Afarisi?”
“Zeno… she was the priestess. And her husband Oios, the priest.”
Sybaris started humming as she stroked her nails through Naidas wildly knotted hair and the little girl leaned back into her hands. “They were the best to you, weren’t they?”
“Yes.” Naida sighed. “They weren’t all bad.” She snuggled deeper into the warm coils. “She… went hungry sometimes to make sure I ate… She’d say things like ‘I’ve already eaten.”
“The village was very poor weren’t they?”
“But they taught you everything they knew. You know a lot more than you think you do.”
“It wasn’t a lot.”
“Hmm.” The tips of her talons skritched gently. “Do you prefer green beads or blue?”
Three-quarters asleep, Naida murmured “Blue.”
“So what do you know?... no no, don’t stir, let me unknot this.”
“Hmmm. Milling… growing wheat, growing olives… net fishing… baking… the blacksmith would let me watch, though he wouldn’t let me touch his hammers… I pumped a lot of bellows… a lot of water with a foot water wheel… up to make salt… some tanning, some spinning… a lot of carding. Threading a loom. Butchering a goat… hunting deer…”
Her voice faded in the middle of the list as Sybaris stroked and scratched and made encouraging noises, until a faint snore echoed off the hard ceiling.
“That was well done,” Temis whispered. “It’s a form of grieving.”
“Yes, dear. You may snuggle in as well.”
She folded her wings over Naida so she lay, surrounded by lamia coils and sphinx feathers. “Thank you, dear.”
When Naida woke up her head felt funny, heavy and smooth. She put her hand up and found that her unruly hair had been neatly plaited into hundreds of tiny rows across her head, and when she pulled up the heavy ends of the braids there were four tiny beads at the terminus of every one. A gold bead, a clear crystal bead, a green facetted bead and a dark blue lapis disk.
Asteri was hissing at Sybaris. “Did you HAVE to make her a target for every bandit and robber between here and Byzantium?”
“Oh hush, you.” The Lamia sounded tired of the argument. “People see what they wish to see. They won’t see emeralds and lapis, they’ll see stone beads.”
“Most people don’t HAVE the time for such hair styles!” Asteri’s voice was shrill and plaintive.
Naida sat up and her hair clacked and swished but settled in a warm, smooth wave around her shoulders. She’d never felt anything like it before. It felt tidy instead of horrid and knotted and wild.
“I… think I like it,” she said quietly. “Did you find my ushera?” Asteri turned and puffed himself up, then collapsed into a ball much smaller than he’d been in days. He bawled like a calf stuck in a fence and Naida tried to listen but had to stuff her fingers in her ears.
Then Sybaris sang a single, long, penetrating note. It wasn’t shrill or harsh or painful, it just cut through Asteri’s noise, and Naida’s flesh and bone, as if they weren’t there. In the ringing silence afterwards, she said. “I take that as a no. It’s all right. If you could find her, as an adolescent chimera, putting yourself back together, then her spirit companion will be able to find her too. It’s hard being enfleshed and things will ease up once you’ve put yourselves back together as a grown being.”
Asteri sniffled and Naida stared between the both of them. “Um. I think I’ll go pack now,” she said and rolled out of Sybaris’s coils.
The Candace lay on her couch, stared up at the hovering phoenix, singing her glorious cascade of notes. It was her bleeding time and she was feeling nothing like that.
In fact it felt like... she leapt up and ran past her startled ladies, prepared to escort her into the pool, into her husband's room and landed on him.
He caught her up even as she drove the breath out of him. "What's... love?"
"I'm starving. I'm so hungry I could eat your couch and staff both! Husband! We are going to have another child!"