“Here’s the guest wing,” said Hayochi, sliding back a door that Len hadn’t even noticed at first. “You can have your pick of room; this part of the house doesn’t see much use these days. I’m afraid they’re not very tidy at the moment,” she added anxiously, “but I can-”
“That’s all right,” Len assured her, patting her on the shoulder. “I can deal with some light housework.”
“Of course, sukunue. Er, will you be accompanying us to temple tonight?” Hayochi added, as Len unslung her bag from her weary shoulders.
“You’re going with the family, then?”
“I wouldn’t dream of leaving Tara alone, especially not after... what just happened.” Hayochi shook her head violently.
Len studied her face for a moment. Elves were not the easiest people to read. They might look like little humans with pointy ears and slate-gray skin, but looks could be very, very deceiving.
“You really love your mistress, don’t you?” said Len. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to intrude, but—”
“I do.” Hayochi’s voice was shaking slightly. Her eyes were suddenly wild. “You know what I first thought when I saw you, goldeneyes? I wanted to slam the door and run. Hide like a rabbit running from a wolf.”
Len was taken aback at the abrupt shift in her demeanor. She stepped back slightly to give the elf more space. “That wasn’t an unreasonable reaction, I suppose.”
“Do you know why I’m here? A forest elf in Lemua? I sold myself, Shan. I sold myself because it was safer than waiting to be taken.” Hayochi’s knuckles were white, her fingers pressed tightly against her palm. It looked almost like she was balling her fists, but aggression, Len knew, was alien to the species. From what little she had picked up of elfin body language from the slaves of the old country, she guessed it might be a sign of some sort of intense emotion.
“By my people, you mean?” said Len.
“I know you have every reason to hate and fear us,” said Len. “But—”
“But you saved her,” said Hayochi. “You saved Tara. When I would have gotten her killed. I don’t think you can know how much that means to me.” Her fists unclenched, and she looked down quickly. “I’m sorry,” she babbled, the sudden maniac intensity vanishing as quickly as it had come. “I’m sorry, mistress, I didn’t mean to be rude—”
Len took the elf by the shoulder. “I promise you have nothing to fear from me, Hayochi,” she said quietly. “And for whatever it’s worth, not all of us want to see your people enslaved.”
“You’ll protect Tara?” said Hayochi, her wide rose eyes staring up into Len’s.
“That’s my job now,” said Len. “And I am very good at my job, little elf.”
Hayochi hugged her. “Sohane yallanen. Thank you. If you hadn’t been here... I don’t even want to think about it.”
Len’s eyes narrowed. “About that,” she said, patting the elf on the back. “Could you send Tara to me before you leave? I need to have some words with her.”
“Of course, mistress!” Hayochi nodded, releasing her. “You’re not coming along, then?”
“That depends,” said Len.
The elf scampered off and Len poked her head into one of the rooms. Gentle moonlight wafted down through a window in the roof, scattering about the room from the reflective floor. It was enough to see by, but she thumbed a small fireglass lamp by the bedside to life for Tara’s benefit. She propped her staff against the wall and had set about unloading her luggage when she felt Tara’s approach and turned.
The younger woman curtseyed politely. “You asked for me, Len-alani?”
Len nodded. “Yes, Tara-” She struggled for a moment, trying to find the right honorific, before settling on “-chen. I wanted to ask you some questions about your health. In private.”
Tara nodded. “I expected you would have questions. Your training is medical, yes?”
“In part,” said Len. “Given your chronic illness, I expect tending to your health will be a significant part of my duties.”
A frown flickered across Tara’s face. “I assure you, kinue, my symptoms are under control. They have been for some time.”
Len nodded. “How many days have you been off your medication, Taracuele?”
The young woman’s body language changed instantly. Her eyes widened fractionally and her back stiffened. “I - what are you -”
“Do you really expect me to believe that I showed up on the exact day someone tried to poison you?” said Len. “Your grandmother will figure it out too, as soon as she sits down and clears her head a bit.”
Tara stared at Len for a moment, her lips pursed. Finally, her shoulders sagged, and she looked down.
“Not since last season.”
“Last - Tara, what disease do you have, exactly?”
“Respectfully, kinue, that’s none of your-”
“Taracuele fal Chistar, I have been retained by your matriarch to serve your family, and that task includes keeping you safe from whoever is trying to murder you,” snapped Len. “But I can’t do my job unless I know what you’re facing.”
“Somari syndrome!” Tara blurted. “All right? I have Somari syndrome. But I’m fine; I eat well, I sleep well, I can live without relying on some awful medication-”
“Somari—?” Len stared. “You mean… Tiang Sho? No. No, Tara, you can’t. In fact you should be dead already. Without those medicinals, your body should have torn itself apart.”
“Maybe I’m strong enough!” Tara shot back. “Maybe it’s the emacy, or - or the drugs I use for it. I don’t know! But I don’t need what my grandmother thinks I need.”
“No. Tara, you got incredibly lucky.” Len fixed her gaze on the younger woman, inflecting her voice with tones of command. “I need you to promise me that you’ll start taking your medicine again as soon as your mother finds a new supplier.”
“Do you know how much it costs us?” Tara cried. “If it wasn’t for my medicine, they’d be able to afford to fix up the farms-”
Len shook her head. “That’s what this is about? You’re feeling guilty that your family is keeping you alive?”
“I was going to go a season without the medicine, prove I didn’t need it—”
“You do need it.” Len made the words as forceful as she could without raising her voice. “Tiang Sho is not something you play games with. All that’s kept you alive has been the will of Meraya, and miracles are no replacement for medicine. I’ll work with your mother, try to negotiate a better price on the silver laurel — that is the most expensive part of your medicine, yes?”
“And in the meantime, I’ll pray to gods and the Prophet that you wake up tomorrow morning.” Len shook her head. “You don’t seem to be in the terminal phase so even if whatever is keeping you alive runs out, you should have a few days before there’s any permanent damage.”
“Yes, kinue.” Tara inclined her head submissively.
“Thank you for being reasonable, milady.” Len sighed. “You should go talk to your elf. She nearly broke down after the attempt on your life.”
Tara nodded. “I don’t know what I would do without Hayochi. She’s... kept me alive, in a way.”
“I would not have expected so much affection from a slave for her mistress,” said Len. “But then Belad is a very different place from my homeland.” She frowned. “On the subject of which — it is my understanding of Beladan law that a bedslave may not be used for domestic labor. And yet Hayochi seems to serve you in that capacity as well.”
“Hayochi is as much part of this family as Nalichenda is,” said Tara. “We all do what we can, and do it willingly. Nobody is compelling her.”
“I see.” Len bowed. “Thank you for speaking to me, milady. Let your grandmother know I’ll be accompanying you to the temple, could you?”
“Of course, Len-kinue.” Tara curtseyed again. “If you’ll excuse me.”