Never invoke the gods unless you really want them to appear. It annoys them very much.
When the gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers.
Hwin's return to Tashbaan had been far easier than she had expected. It was her third diplomatic posting and Narnian Ambassadors had and enjoyed (and earned!) their privileges. Though not home exactly, the high society of the Calormene capital was familiar hoofing grounds. Certainly, she was more comfortable in Calormen than amongst her dull ancestral Herd, all of whom had been convinced that nowhere was better than the meadows of the Glasswater, even though the Mares and their obnoxious Stallion had never put a hoof anywhere else.
And as Hwin sedately walked the wide street that connected the Narnian consulate to the inner circle of Tashbaan, she did enjoy the prestige of her position, even if the offerings and tributes made by the people of Tashbaan slowed her progress. She would be late to her meeting but Tarkheena Lasaraleen would not be on time, either.
A young woman –from the Weavers' Guild, Hwin automatically cataloged from the draping of her gown – respectfully approached and bowed. "Pardon, Lady, but may I ask for your blessing before I marry?"
"Of course," Hwin replied and lowered her head so the woman could place the wreath of flowers she carried around Hwin's neck. It was the third gift of the morning and the boughs were getting heavy – and very fragrant – but Hwin wouldn't dream of refusing these sincere offerings.
"May the goddess bestow fruits upon you," Hwin told her.
The woman bowed again and stepped back. Hwin was able to continue on her way, stepping delicately on a path of flowers tossed out by the people lining the street who were all craning for a glimpse of the goddess Atanta's avatar, the Mare who spoke in the speech of Men.
She eventually wound up the street to the most privileged, inner circle of Tashbaan and the gates to Tarkheena Lasaraleen's palace. The guards admitted her, stammering only a little with nerves.
Hwin noted the decorative spurs on their boots and the chargers embossed upon their leather breastplates. "May the goddess bless your cavalry," she told the grateful, bowing guards.
The gate smoothly closed behind her and she entered the light, lovely and cool inner garden of the palace home. Brilliant flowers draped over the tall walls and spilled into planters and fountains, plumed birds chattered in the branches of lemon trees, and the noise of the street hawkers and criers muted. A young girl, so well-dressed Hwin thought she must be one of Lasaraleen's daughters, appeared; like the guards, she was too over-awed to speak to the Mare.
"You are to escort me to the Tarkheena?" Hwin asked.
The girl nodded shyly.
"Why don't you lead the way then and I shall follow you."
The girl rose on her toes and skipped away, her decorative, beribboned braid bouncing down her back.
Hwin followed her guide down a long breezeway to the inner courtyard where Lasaraleen entertained, flattered, prattled, and conducted her business. She tried to tread delicately for her hooves clomped loudly on the clean stone. Hwin could hear and smell other activity throughout the house – flatbreads were baking in the outside ovens and a tutor in one room was leading children in a rote recitation of the Calormene creation story. The children sang of Tash, creator and destroyer, the firstborn to hatch from the Golden Eagle's clutch. Before Tash could set upon and eat the other eggs in the nest, his brother, the Trickster, fooled Tash into eating rocks. And so, by trickery, balance was restored with the hatching of the triumvirate of goddesses – Azaroth, Zardeenah, and Atanta. Hwin slowed so she could hear her favorite part of the story and the children chanted how Atanta created the horse from her first breath.
Hwin had not decided if Epona, the Narnia goddess of horses and herds was herself Atanta, under a different name in Calormen, or if Epona was the divine horse Atanta breathed to life. In Calormene, images of Atanta carrying sheaves of wheat whilst astride a Talking Mare were nearly as common as those of the child goddess, Zardeenah the Lady of Night, and Mother Azaroth the Many-Faced, patron of women, the learned arts, and infinite possibility.
Hwin's guide was chanting along with the other children, skipping in time with the rhythm.
The corridor ended at the private courtyard. "The Tarkheena is within!" the girl said, now speaking more boldly.
"Thank you, child. Five gods' blessings upon you this day."
The girl bounced away, singing, "With her first breath, Atanta created a mare from the desert winds that blew…"
Lasaraleen struggled up from her reclining couch, settling her youngest baby under one arm and closing her gown over her breast with her other hand. "You are looking so well!"
"And you as well, Tarkheena. I am not disturbing you and your babe?"
"Oh, not at all. Babies provide me with the perfect excuse to stay right where I am, eat all day, and have everyone come to me."
As Hwin enjoyed her privileges as Ambassador and seeming avatar of a goddess, Lasaraleen had come to very much enjoy a life that had been very good to her. She had birthed five healthy children to a very grateful and very wealthy husband, and was the very special friend of the Tisroc's First Wife. Lasaraleen was not overly troubled by beauty or age – she was cheerful, chatty, fat, generous with her gifts, and knew everybody.
"My goddess, these flowers are pretty!" Lasaraleen exclaimed.
"I already delivered the money offerings on my way here, but the flowers came after and Atanta should have her due."
"Let me help you with them."
Hwin lowered her neck and the wreaths slid down to the floor. "Thank you, Tarkheena. Will you see they are sent to Atanta's temple for the goddess' blessing?"
"Of course." Lasaraleen pushed the flowers into a basket she kept for collecting offerings to the gods then, still expertly balancing the baby on her hip, returned to her couch.
"Would you like anything?" she asked. "I am enjoying honeyed dates, which I know are not to your taste. Some cool water? An ear of corn? Salt?"
"No thank you," Hwin replied. Food in Tashbaan was eaten slowly, delicately, and with your hands. Hwin was ill-suited to polite dining in this society and so avoided it to not give offense.
Lasaraleen plucked a date from a silver bowl and popped it into her mouth. "I do hope your request to meet isn't to deliver ill news. I am so longing to see Aravis! She is still coming, isn't she? Is there a problem? There had better not be a problem." She prattled on. "If there is, I'll get it fixed."
"Yes, I did wish to speak to you about Aravis' visit," Hwin managed to inject. She, too, was wild to see her friend again. "She is still coming. Her ship is due in tomorrow."
Lasaraleen clapped her hands so enthusiastically, the babe mewled a complaint. "I am sorry my love," she cooed. "Mother's oldest, dearest friend is coming home for a visit and I so long to see her again." Less enthusiastically, she added, "I don't suppose the Crown Prince changed his mind?"
"No," Hwin admitted with a fluttering sigh of her lips. "I have shared with him the rumors that you forwarded to me, as the Tisroc asked. Cor wants to show Archenland doesn't fear these threats. However, he has asked for some additional security in his guard and at the Archenland diplomatic residence, should the Tisroc be able to provide it."
Lasaraleen sighed, idly took a date from the bowl, and studied it. "I'll tell Mazura and she will speak to the Tisroc – may he live forever."
Mazura was Tisroc Rabadash's first, and very powerful, wife. Mazura and Lasaraleen were very special confidants and, together, were the channel through which all communications between the Northern Lands and the Empire of Calormen occurred.
"I imagine something can be arranged," Lasaraleen said. "However, you know very well the Tisroc - may he live forever - can't be seen as accommodating the North in any way. This will have to be very discreet and unofficial."
"Please convey our very privately expressed gratitude for whatever the Tisroc is in a position to provide without compromise to himself," Hwin replied. Lasaraleen was very good at parroting Hwin's diplomatically precise words to Mazura, who, in turn, would repeat Lasaraleen's words to the Tisroc– who would not live forever but was so much better than anyone else. Through this channel from Horse to Tarkheena to First Wife, the Tisroc knew the North appreciated his efforts and would endeavor to do nothing to provoke or embarrass him. Even public praise was unwelcome in these touchy times.
"Well, at least Aravis is still coming!" Lasaraleen chewed another handful of dates. "I'll be sending clothes over for her so she can be dressed in something other than those drab, heavy Northern things she always favors. Really, who is she trying to convince?"
"Herself, to begin," Hwin said. She and Lasaraleen had frequently discussed Aravis' sad efforts to adopt to Northern culture. To that end…
Hwin stepped closer and lowered her head so that she could speak softly to Lasaraleen. This was a serious matter that warranted whispered confidences. The Tarkheena leaned forward, the wide-eyed baby cradled in her arms.
"I have long been concerned about Aravis, Tarkheena, even before we left Calormen. The issue is now becoming urgent and I very much need your advice."
It was such a delicate matter. Lasaraleen was flighty and flippant, but she had also achieved significant wealth and power which she used to usually good effect and for which she showed genuine, pious gratitude. Most of all, she was Aravis' oldest and very loyal friend.
"Prince Cor and Aravis plan to marry soon in the Northern tradition."
Lasaraleen frowned. "Yes, Aravis said as much in her last letter."
"Some of the Archen Lords oppose the match."
"All her efforts to be like them and still they object to her because she is Calormene?"
"Perhaps," Hwin temporized. "I think the real fear is that Aravis is not queenly according to Archen customs."
Lasaraleen snorted lightly. "Well, Aravis gives a boyish air, to be sure. That ridiculous clothing she insists upon just makes the contrast worse! But she's always been like that, boyish I mean! What is it that Narnians say, Hwin? Tigers don't change their stripes?"
"Yes, but what I think is really…" Hwin began, but Lasaraleen rambled on.
"Aravis has always been more interested in boy things, boy's armor, boy's clothes, boy's weapons, boy's toys, boy's punishments. I've thought that was at the root of Prince Cor's attraction to her, given what he surely suffered as a fair skinned slave in the South. To me, their desires always seemed very well matched in that regard." She carelessly waved her pudgy, ringed hand. "I fail to see the difficulty. Aravis pretending to be a boy for their private amusement is no impediment to royal marriage, given that she is not. A boy, that is. A simple physical examination and official pronouncement would solve that. That happens with important marriages everywhere."
Hwin had definite opinions on Lasaraleen's very perceptive speculation and some personal knowledge she had shared only with Bree. She just didn't think it was relevant to the far more pressing concern.
"You speak wisely, Tarkheena. I suspect, however, that this perception of Aravis as ill-suited to someday be Archenland's ruling Queen alongside Cor - a perception that is not wholly unfounded in my opinion - has its roots here, with Aravis herself"
Lasaraleen paused and the date she held fell back into the bowl with a soft plunk. She leaned forward, looking as serious as Hwin had ever seen her. "You fill me with dread. What do you mean?"
"Tarkheena, what do you know of Aravis' flight from Calavar?"
"I know she was running from betrothal to Ahoshta, which I just did not understand at the time, at all. She had letters forged to fool her father and Ahoshta. She drugged a slave and the two of you snuck away. She met Prince Cor on the road; he fell in with the Narnians and I helped you, Aravis, and Bree escape Tashbaan."
Maybe Aravis had never told Lasaraleen the whole story. Had she been ashamed? Worried of her friend's censure? Or, had Aravis so rejected her Calormene heritage, she didn't care?
So, it was left to Hwin to explain. Lasaraleen's outraged reaction confirmed her grimmest fears.
"She didn't!" Before Hwin could answer, Lasaraleen plunged ahead. "Of course she did. It's no wonder she's had so much trouble. It's a wonder it's not worse than it is."
With a shaking hand, she reached to her table by the couch and poured herself a tiny glass of potent, licorice-smelling liquor – Calormene raku. The clear liquid turned milky white when it touched human lips. Lasaraleen gulped the drink straight down and tossed the glass aside with a reckless clatter.
"And here I was worried about what size sandal Aravis was wearing now. Hwin, this is beyond scandalous. It's not safe. She cannot be gallivanting around Calormen with this hanging over her. How can she possibly hope to rule a country? What Queen - what responsible woman - would act this way? It's folly!"
Lasaraleen made a warding gesture and muttered a quick prayer then flopped back onto her couch; a cloud of perfume rose, making Hwin and the baby sneeze.
With Cor so relaxed and easy about sailing into Tashbaan, the myriad irritations became intolerable. Aravis was edgy, hot, and could intimately feel each of the ten, long thin scars on her back and the sweat dripping between them.
"Maybe you should change into something more comfortable?"
"I can't, you imbecile! You don't understand!" Aravis shouted.
Cor had to duck out of their cabin to avoid the boot she threw at his head. Her aim was usually better, which made her doubly annoyed because she missed and the boot smacked against the door just as he slammed it closed.
He was Crown Prince and could wear the light linens, loose woven trousers, open-necked shirts, and golden circlet in his fair hair. A former Calormene Tarkheena turned Northern Lady did not have the luxury of wearing what she pleased when there were so many around her looking to find fault in everything about her.
From the shouts outside and the ship's shuddering creaks, the crew was rowing the Anvard Star to her moorage. Cor was calling encouragement and congratulations; Captain Prior was giving orders to prepare to drop the anchors.
The cabin was stifling hot. Aravis remembered fondly the days when she could swing from rigging with Lucy and pad about a ship in bare feet and Cor's castoffs. No longer.
Aravis turned about and posed in front of the mirror, examining her silhouette critically. She always wore padding across her hips and stuffed her bodice to fill the full-bodied Archenland styles, which made everything that much hotter and sweatier here. Her skin had darkened even during their short time at sea. She wanted to powder her face to lighten it up but the cosmetics would all just melt off in the heat. Her sallow reflection in the mirror was unpleasant, but she could not turn away from it. This hollow shell was what she had to work with and what she had to improve upon to present to the disapproving world.
She felt as though all youthful vigor had leached from her body, skin, hair, and spirit. Nothing had taken its place.
The miasma of anger and disgust that had been creeping about since they left Anvard now fully engulfed her. It took so much energy to keep the depression at bay, and she just didn't have it anymore.
Aravis removed her heavy, embroidered surcoat from a hook and shrugged into it. Her back, etched with Aslan's scars, usually never bothered her; today, she had to rub her back against the side of the cabin to relieve the itching. She was already wet with sweat under her chemise and beneath the woolen stockings. Using the cloudy mirror, she straightened the thick, heavy braids wrapped around her head and savagely tugged the neckline of her gown to win the battle between the body she had and the latest Archen style of dress.
No one could fault her styling. She would proudly represent the Court and Crown of Archenland.
"I'm here, Aslan," she said to the stifling cabin. "You told me to come. I await your guide at the crossroads."
She heard large splashes as the bow and stern anchors dropped and the ship lurched beneath her feet.
"Aravis?" Cor called from the deck. "We're lowering the boat to go ashore if you're ready."
Aravis turned away from the mirror. Her limbs were weighted with lead, and her heart was filled with dread. But she was ready.
Aravis wasn't ready. Not for this.
The trip from the harbour had been bad enough. She was reminded vividly of the first time she'd seen the Narnians in Tashbaan so many years ago, walking freely, arms swinging, with long, straight swords at their sides. One man, who she now knew to be the Lord Peridan, had been whistling.
So it was for Cor now. He was tall, blonde, very handsome, and strode with confidence through the Tashbaan streets, accepting cheers and flowers. Though it made his guards very nervous, he would lean in for the occasional welcoming kiss from maidens and matrons alike.
Aravis shuffled glumly behind Cor and his guard, just as the model Archen lady should, though she was lathered up like a horse running twenty leagues in the desert sun. Her fashionably northern heels tripped her constantly and were not at all suited for the worn, slippery, cobbled streets or the walk from the harbour. Everywhere, she looked for Aslan's promised guide. Why didn't the Lion ever give his followers a map?
To get to the Archenland diplomatic residence, they had to go through the Temple Square. Of all places, Aravis did not wish to tarry here. There was nothing for her among the Five Gods of the Calormene.
"Aslan wouldn't be pleased," she hissed to Cor. It wasn't proper for either of them. They were Northerners and Cor was the Crown Prince. They should not be perceived as doing homage to Calormene superstitions, charlatans, and false prophets. The best she could do was thrust her nose skyward and hurry past the priestesses on the steps of their respective temples, collecting offerings and dispensing blessings.
Incense tickled her nose and made her eyes water.
Cor, though, ignored her warnings. He poured a bag of bright golden coins into the hands of the very grateful priestess at the gate to the Trickster's shrine.
Tashbaan wasn't really the Trickster's place. The Trickster was stronger in the south and amongst the poor – not here in the inner circles of Tashbaan's wealthy elite. It was a scrap of the theology from her childhood that she'd done her best to bury, just as she buried her face every day under white lead powder when at Anvard.
She was an Archenlander who, appropriate to the royal house and its descendants of the first Narnian King and Queen, worshiped Aslan alone. Aravis tried to draw her heavy skirts up out of the dust and maintain a shred of dignity. She had to maintain the decorum of his house in this Lion-forsaken place, even if Cor did not.
Cor completed his devotions and then he and his guard sauntered through the Square. Though all eyes were on the swaggering, cheerful Archen party, her own gaze was drawn up, to the wall surrounding the Trickster's shrine. An uncommonly large rat was mincing along the top of the wall; his shiny black fur starkly contrasted with the white stone. Was it a Narnian Talking Rat? It seemed big enough and was acting with the sense of self-awareness all Talking Beasts had.
But a Talking Rat in Tashbaan would be a spy, which this rat obviously was not.
As he crept along the wall, the rat paused and – she was sure of it – stared at her, hard. Despite the heat, Aravis shivered.
The men swung around her, laughing with Cor, jostling one another, and admiring the pretty Tarkheenas tossing them flowers. The rat slipped over the wall and disappeared.
Aravis picked up her skirts and sullenly trudged after the men.
Hwin went to the Archenland diplomatic residence as soon after Aravis and Shasta – Cor – docked as she could politely justify. Lasaraleen was swifter and arrived at the residence even before Hwin herself did. Lasaraleen had traveled in one lavish litter; a second litter and two donkeys ferried supplies and clothing for Aravis.
The Tarkheena had taken the spiritual crisis as a personal affront to her planned management of Aravis' wardrobe. The gay and bold reds, blues, yellows, and oranges Lasaraleen had already selected were too garishly unsuitable for a woman who should be doing deep, sincere penance.
Lasaraleen condescended to carry an enormous bundle of clothing; she draped another pile over Hwin's own back. Looking more like a cloth merchant and her pack horse than an important Tarkheena and Ambassador, Lasaraleen bullied her way into the Archenland palace. "Oh, we're not here for the Crown Prince," she told the guards at the gates. "Ambassador Hwin and I are here to see the Tarkheena."
"The Tarkheena?" the confused guard repeated.
"Lady Aravis," Hwin replied. "She is expecting us."
"Here," Lasaraleen said, and hefted the bundle she was carrying on to the bewildered guard. "You might as well take these straight to Aravis' room. I have more important things to do."
Those other, more important things involved placing charms all over the entrance to the Archenland diplomatic residence.
"Ma'am," the Guard began, starting to voice an objection. He didn't look terribly credible, draped as he was in piles of finely made silks and gauzy cottons. Under things breezily flapped from the crest on his helmet.
"What are you waiting for?" Lasaraleen cried. "Go! Take those things to the Tarkheena's rooms or I'll see your tongue is cut out and fed to the crows."
Lasaraleen then turned her back on the man and tied a ceramic hand to a low hanging branch with ribbon. She added a string of bells. "These won't stop a really determined attack, but it might slow them down."
"An attacker isn't going to ring no bell first," another guard said with a sneer. "We've got soldiers to protect his Royal Highness, and locked gates." Making his point loudly and forcefully, the great doors to the residence swung shut with a clang.
Lasaraleen looped a braid of shiny thread around the handle. "And good for you, I'm sure." She waddled across the courtyard, sprinkling dried laurel and myrtle leaves on the ground and crushing them with her feet. "I'm worried about spirits, the Jinn, and the Fell. Your swords won't be any good against them. You will be too busy screaming in demon tongues and bleeding from your eyeballs to defend Prince Cor."
Hwin pricked her ears, hearing a familiar step. She raised her head and inhaled sharply, turning so that she could see. "Aravis!" she cried.
And then she was with her Human again. Aravis threw her arms around her neck and hugged Hwin tightly. Hwin breathed deeply of her Human's scent and nibbled her shoulder.
"Why are you carrying all these dresses?" Aravis exclaimed, drawing back and looking her over. "Las, this is your doing!"
"Of course it is, no thanks to you, you wicked girl," Lasaraleen replied, giving a now very shocked Aravis a very cautious embrace. "Goddess, Aravis, looking like such a misfit in these ridiculous Northern fashions are the least of your worries."
"And how will these Calormene dresses help?" Aravis replied and lifted a gown from Hwin's back. "I come all this way and you bring me a widow's clothes?"
"Appropriate given the circumstances," Lasaraleen countered. "I just hope Zardeenah doesn't bring the house down with us in it."
"You there!" Aravis pointed at one of the hovering servant girls. She sounded very much like the sharp, imperious Tarkheena of Calavar Hwin had first come to know. "The Ambassador should not be burdened like a common pack mule. Take these things to my rooms."
Hwin nudged Aravis with her nose, a gentle admonishment of a mother to a young, rude daughter. Surely this was another symptom of the problem, with Aravis treating everyone as imperiously as she had as a girl and and ordering people about with no firm kindness or tact.
"Please," Aravis said and, with visible effort, managed a stiff smile. "You are…?"
"Camelia," the servant replied with a nervous curtsey. "I'm part of the household staff, my Lady."
"Of course, thank you, Camelia. If you would relieve Ambassador Hwin of Tarkheena Lasaraleen's gifts that are in such beautiful and gay colours."
"Thank you," Hwin told the girl, trying to model a kinder mien for Aravis.
"Oh do stop complaining, Aravis," Lasaraleen said and plucked three gowns from the pile Camelia was thoughtfully removing from Hwin's back. "I'm here to get you out of a fix, again. At least there aren't any punts this time."
Lasaraleen's dithering over the appropriate gown was driving Aravis mad. The women were returning to the patterns of girlhood. They were obviously delighted to see one another, though neither would ever admit it to the other. And by the time Camelia poured the fragrant, welcoming tea, both women had undergone changes in their heads, so to speak – Lasaraleen's had become as empty as Aravis' had become hard.
After much carping about gowns, Aravis finally relented and, a few minutes later, returned to the tea room, still fuming, but wearing a light, loose, filmy gown in a grayish sort of somber colour, as best Hwin could see.
"Happy now?" Aravis snapped, and twirled about. "Don't you dare complain about how dour I usually look when everything you've brought is mauve! I look like someone died."
"This is all your doing, not mine!" Lasaraleen replied. She sprinkled the floor of the tea room with more laurel and myrtle. It was getting pungent enough to make Hwin's lip curl, but at least they weren't burning incense – yet. "Thank goddess Hwin is here – I don't think anything bad will happen with Atanta's avatar present – you shouldn't go anywhere without her, of course. Hwin, would you mind just stepping on the leaves?"
She obliged, placing her gold painted hooves carefully over the leaves to crush them and release their Fell-repelling properties. She was sorry that this would create a mess for Camelia and the other staff of the house, but it was a small price to pay if they were successful in resolving this spiritual danger.
Despite the somber colours, Aravis did look better in cooler, lighter clothing. She reeked less of the stale, anxious sweat of before. Lasaraleen hung another mirror, then coaxed Aravis down to the low couch in the room and began to comb out her hair. "It's just like what I do with my own daughters and the Royal Family's princesses! Everyone says I'm wonderful at it."
"It took me hours to put it in this style," Aravis grumbled.
"It doesn't suit you at all," Lasaraleen said. "You have gorgeous hair, too. And such a lovely, lithe figure, which I know isn't the Northern fashion but what of it? It's a crime to the goddess' gifts that you pad it for those awful gowns."
The long look that Aravis awarded Lasaraleen's dress was, to Hwin's eye, tinged with envy. "Why are you dressed so prettily, Las, and I'm the one wearing things the colour of a bruise?"
"Because you need to be dressed appropriately, of course."
Aravis sourly jerked away, pulled her braids out of Lasaraleen's busy hands, and turned on the couch. "What is this all about? The wards and charms? The mourning clothes? Saying Hwin needs to protect me? By the Lion, what is going on?"
Hwin flinched, instinctively, as she glimpsed movement behind her.
"Yes, please explain," Cor said, coming into the tea room. "You have threatened my guards with bleeding eyeballs and no one can go anywhere without knocking off a bell, cracking a mirror, or treading upon sacred herbs."
Being respectfully Narnian, Cor carefully came around, approached her from the side and bowed. "Ambassador, it is a pleasure as always to welcome Narnia to Archenland, even when both of us are in a foreign court, so far from home."
"Oh Cor, no need for those diplomatic pleasantries!" Hwin replied, so very pleased to see him again. She lowered her head and Cor kissed her on the cheek. "We are well met after so long."
"I saw Bree before we sailed. He heartily criticised me for my sloppy manners, my riding, my posture, and that I was sailing at all. He does, however, send his warmest regards to you."
Hwin inhaled deeply but did not sense any of the scent of her dearest Horse friend lingering on the Archenland Crown Prince.
Cor turned and bowed smartly to Lasaraleen. "Tarkheena Lasaraleen, it is a pleasure as always." Hwin remembered so well the first time she'd seen young Shasta awkwardly try to bow at the Hermit's home! Bree would have laughed at the memory; Hwin, more politely, kept the observation to herself.
To Lasaraleen, Cor added, "And Bree also extends his greetings and asks if you have boiled your stablehands in oil yet for serving inadequate oats and hay?"
Lasaraleen laughed. "I make threats only, which they know too well. I've gotten fat, soft, and lazy after all this time. I'm sure they are fleecing me terribly."
"So why the threats to my guards?" Cor reached up and gently struck a silver bell hanging in the doorway. "Why have you protected our Archenland house against the Calormene Fell?"
"How do you know about all that nonsense!?" Aravis demanded.
To Hwin's surprise, Cor made a warding gesture with his hands, which Lasaraleen mimicked.
"Stop tempting them!" Lasaraleen demanded. "What you did to Zardeenah is bad enough! Don't invite more!"
"Zardeenah?" Aravis cried. "What are you talking about!?"
Lasaraleen groaned and threw herself back into the couch.
"Aravis, you are certainly owed an explanation which we will provide, if you will stay for a moment and listen," Hwin injected quickly. Aravis was very angry and she worried that her friend would just storm out. Cor, though, sat next to Aravis and, though she fidgeted, she allowed him to take her hand and calmed a little.
Aravis took a deep breath. "If you want me to listen, say something worth hearing without all this superstitious nonsense!"
Hwin pinned her ears back. She understood Aravis' frustration but she could be so prickly and thick, as Bree would say. "Lasaraleen and I believe you are still bound to the service of Zardeenah and you must ask her to release you whilst you are in Tashbaan."
Aravis stiffened, becoming as stern and sharp as a spear. "That's ridiculous. I'm not Calormene anymore."
"It's not ridiculous. It's very serious," Lasaraleen pressed. "You never completed the maiden's rites to Zardeenah. And you used Zardeenah as an excuse to escape all those years ago. You have certainly deeply offended her and you must atone for using her so terribly."
"How can I offend a goddess I don't believe in!?"
Aravis abruptly stood but, again to Hwin's surprise, it was Cor who gently brought her back. "Aravis, wait. Please, don't go. I want to hear more about this. What are they talking about?"
Grudgingly, Aravis again sat. "You've heard the story, so don't act so shocked. It was when I fled my father's house. I told everyone I was going to the woods to make the rites maidens owe to Zardeenah before they leave her service. I bought more than a week's time before anyone started looking for me."
"Well yes, and it was all cleverly done," Cor said. "But you never gave the sacrifices? Never asked the child goddess to release you? Not even when …" Cor anxiously cleared his throat and glanced at Lasaraleen, who simply looked appalled.
"Of course not," Aravis scoffed. "I left all that behind when I fled Calormen. Aslan marked me as his and I've got the scars to prove it."
From the little catch in his breath, Hwin sensed that Cor was disturbed. He understands the implications of what we are saying. They have both suffered over this and will suffer far more.
"Honestly, who is being ridiculous now?" Lasaraleen made a disgusted sound. "What does a lion, a male lion, know of a woman's life and possibilities?"
Lasaraleen rolled her eyes. "Aravis, you want to enter the service of male lion, fine. But you'll be stuck as an immature, angry child your whole life if you don't give Zardeenah her due first."
She leaned forward and ran her fingers along Aravis' arm; chalky white powder came away on her fingertips. "You'll never be comfortable in your own skin until you give the Lady of Night what you owe her and properly leave her service."
"I only serve Aslan now," Aravis said. "There is no other god."
"Now who is being ridiculous!?" Cor sputtered as Lasaraleen laughed.
Hwin swiftly added, more calmly, "Aravis, you are mistaken in your understanding. With my own eyes, I have seen gods and goddesses walk alongside Aslan in Narnia. They bless orchards, vines, herds, and waters. I carry Epona's special charge myself."
"And Hwin is Atanta's own avatar!" Lasaraleen added.
Aravis glanced over at Hwin, surely taking in her hooves painted gold and the flowers Atanta's priestesses had braided in her mane that morning. But she saw Aravis settle into her iron ways and fixed opinion as firmly as a rock sinks to the bottom of the river.
"I've heard enough," Aravis announced, standing. "I've been insulted enough. I'm leaving. You can take all those bruised clothes with you when you leave, Las."
Her stomping on the marble floors echoed throughout the house as she stormed out of the tea room and stalked away. A bell tinkled mournfully.
Cor sighed, sounding so forlorn, Hwin was very moved. She stretched her neck and carefully rubbed his sleeve with her nose, careful to not leave too many horsehairs.
"You don't seem surprised, Cor," she said.
"No. This does explain so much. Leaving her home for Archenland would have been difficult regardless, but this has surely made the situation worse and deprived her of Mother Azaroth's aid, which surely would have helped. Aravis says she follows Aslan now, but even though that's true…"
"She never left Zardeenah," Lasaraleen finished. "Until she does, she can't move forward into her new life."
"Torn between two places, belonging nowhere," Cor said, repeating one of Zardeenah's cautionary litanies for girls. He again signed himself and ground laurel leaves with the heel of his boot.
"I didn't know you followed the Five Gods," Lasaraleen said into the long pause that followed.
Hwin sensed from Cor a wince of not-forgotten pain. "The poor of the South had nothing except our gods. I claimed the Trickster. He got me through some bad times with Arsheesh and I've think he had a paw in getting us out of Calormen. I've always given him his due, the small gift, thrice returned."
"You'll help Aravis then?" Lasaraleen said.
He nodded. "Of course. Amongst us three, our combined prayers might achieve, especially here, what none of us could accomplish singly. Ultimately, though, Aravis must make this decision, for herself ."
It was a hot and fitful night to end a miserable day. Aravis had ordered Cor away as she prepared for bed. He should have been with Ambassador Dar and his guard, not holding her hand, and certainly not pleading with her to go to the Temple Square to beg forgiveness of a goddess she didn't believe in.
Or, didn't think she believed in. Except that now, in the country of her birth, the stories she had tried so hard to forget rushed back - all the horrid tales of what happened to girls who selfishly did not give the Lady of Night her due.
A girl who never leaves Zardeenah is always tethered, always blinkered. She shall be cursed with a girl's tempers raging within a woman's body. She shall linger in unhappy childhood, stunted and torn. She shall never know a woman's grace, wisdom, strength, or pleasures. She will be a child who shall never rule herself and so shall always be ruled by others. The sun shall always be dark in her eyes.
She simply couldn't bear Archen woolens against her burning skin. Even in cool weather, they caused rashes and burns - why could she manage sun, sand, and water, but not wool? It was as if her very skin rejected the Northern clime. She nearly sobbed with relief when she slid into one of the cool, ugly mauve shifts Lasaraleen had not taken away.
The small, nagging, worry continued to grow as she brushed her hair, just as Las had, just as they used to do to one another when they were girls. Her coarse, black hair could never be like that finely spun gold of the Archenland maids. She had tried, all manner of potions, dyes, rinses, and lotions. Yet, Las had called her hair gorgeous and her figure lithe. She never felt like that anymore.
She always felt like a child in adult dress-up. Seeing Las again reminded her of all the things she had once been good at - writing, reading, courtly manners, dancing, singing, and sport. She could converse on a wide variety of topics other than party invitations and dresses. The superiority she used to feel over Las' frivolity was very hollow now. Her empty-headed friend was a very fine Tarkheena - a kind, powerful, happy woman. It was not the life Aravis wanted, but she could see it was a good, fulfilling life all the same. Why had it all gone so horribly awry for her and worked out so well for Las?
She had to put her faith in Aslan. He had told her in a dream that a guide would appear in Tashbaan.
Her room was so stifling, she threw open the window to let in a little air and a lot of noise. On the ledge just outside, there was a spray of grapes.
She'd seen him do this before – leaving the odd bit of food out at night and had assumed it was out of kindness for anyone who might be hungry but too shy to ask a favour of the royal Prince.
The small gift, thrice returned.
It was for the Trickster, probably left with a prayer for intercession on her behalf. A part of her was disgusted and her hand poised over the grapes. She wanted to eat them herself, out of spite. But this was Cor's doing, a part of his devotion, and she shouldn't interfere with that. And, though she didn't think she believed in the Calormene gods, she could not ignore that Hwin was right and gods other than Aslan were abroad in Narnia.
Aravis left the window ajar and the grapes on the ledge.
Sounds outside unique from the usual noise of the city night brought her suddenly awake. Aravis blinked, looked about, and saw a small, black shape sitting in her window. She relaxed her muscles and slowly released her grip on the dagger under her pillow. Whatever it was, it was too small to be a person.
"Oh good, you're finally awake," the shape said and belched. "I just finished eating."
Aravis flailed out of the bed and drew closer to the window. "That was a gift for the Trickster. I recognize you from the Temple today! You are a Narnian Rat!"
"I'm not Narnian, Tarkheena, any more than you're Archen." The Rat sat on his haunches and began washing his whiskers.
"I am not a Tarkheena!" Was she going to have to have this argument with everyone?
"Sure you are. I'm a Rat, you're a Tarkheena. It's just that that's not all we are."
"You look and smell like a Rat to me!"
The Rat ran a paw over his ear and stared at her as he had at the Temple. "Do I?"
Her furious denials and anger, the certainty of her righteousness and piety, it all turned to ash. Aravis crumpled to the floor, banging her knees on hard wood. "My lord Trickster, forgive me. I am blind."
"That's the truest thing you've said in years, Tarkheena."
Even though she was speaking with a god, the accusation rankled. "I do not lie," Aravis retorted fiercely.
"Not in words," the Rat replied. "But you've been living a lie trying to make yourself into one of those soft, white, Northern things." The Rat paused in his washing and shrugged, very human-looking. "And for what? Sure, Archen men like their sheep but your Prince was a Calormen slave a long time. He doesn't want the pale kiss of a doughy Northern girl in a mouldy castle. He's always had a taste for sharp edges, leathers, and you in your brother's armor. The only thing he'd like more is if you had a beard!"
Aravis shifted on her knees, biting her tongue and furious at the god's words, even if he could turn her into a flea or pig on a whim. "You are a…"
"A liar?" The god stared at her and she marveled at how she could not have seen the power of the Rat before. "Unlike you I don't lie, Tarkheena. I understand your Prince perfectly well, you arrogant, petulant child. I was there, protected him as best I could but Arsheesh had a demon's soul and some of those marks went deeper than skin, eh?" The Rat laughed, sounding cold and cruel. "I made sure Arsheesh got everything he deserved soon as Shasta left. That Tarkaan didn't kill him all gentle for losing his war horse and a slave boy. Gifts to me are rewarded thrice. I mete punishment the same way."
Unaccountably, the ten claw scars on her back suddenly itched frightfully.
"You!" she cried.
"Me," the Rat said with smug satisfaction. "You drugged that poor girl, a slave, and left her to the lash to cover your escape. She was one of mine, same as Shasta, and I take care of my own. You had to be punished for hurting her. The Lion owed me a favor so he took care of it."
The Rat's smile was full of sharp teeth and malice. "If I'd done it, you'd have thrice ten stripes on your back."
Her back itched so terribly, Aravis squirmed. She could feel the perspiration beading there again and a pit of sick fear grew in her gut. "I am sorry, my lord," she said in a small voice. "If I can make amends, you have but to ask. I will accept your punishment."
"Nah, not tonight, even if you've kept me from a revel and fun with a very comely brother and sister."
Aravis bowed her head. "Thank you for your mercy, my Lord."
The Rat scratched under his arm and flicked away what Aravis hoped was not a flea. "Call it mercy if you want. I can't figure how one arrogant Tarkheena can cause me so much trouble. By my brother's feathered balls, my sisters just won't leave off about you. Atanta really likes that Mare friend of yours and that empty-headed Tarkheena has grown up into a favourite of Mother Azaroth's. And they will not leave off about you to them, which means they won't leave off about you to me. If you follow."
"So they are right? About Zardeenah?"
"Baby sister has been unhappy with you for years, sweetling," the Rat said, adding a cruel laugh. "It's only been because I'm fond of Shasta that it's not worse than it is. I'd be grateful if you'd just take care of it because then everyone else would leave me alone."
The Rat paused and smiled again. "And if you think that's a polite request, you're a fool with a wish to be a tarantula." He cocked his head to the side. "Though, I might see what I could do about a beard for you, as a kindness to Shasta. I am fond of him."
As when she had seen the Trickster in the Temple Square, Aravis shivered. A scrap of the learning as a child came to her, a reminder of why prayers answered by the gods could be a terrible thing.
"I understand, my Lord."
"We'll be seeing more of each other, Tarkheena. I am the god of crossroads, after all."
"You are my guide!?" The shock of it woke Aravis up. It was dawn and through the open window she could hear the horns calling the priests and priestesses to prayers in praise of Mother Azaroth, goddess of morning.
She threw open the door and stomped in. "Your god is an absolute rat," Aravis fumed.
It wasn't a good idea to storm into Cor's room without announcing herself first - the impetuous impatience of a child, perhaps? Her abrupt entrance startled the guards and she was fortunate to not take a thrown dagger through the eye. Cor might have also, in self-defence, thrown the boot at her he was in the process of putting on.
"Well, yes, he is," Cor replied.
He signaled to the guards. "Leave us, please."
"Outside the door is fine. Please be Narnian about it and don't actively listen and pretend you don't hear anything. If I learn you are indiscreet, I shall assign you to escort Tarkheena Lasarlaeen for a week."
With such a severe punishment, the guards hastily exited.
"I saw the Trickster," she blurted out, as soon as the door shut.
"Really?" he exclaimed, then added with disappointment, "He was here? And didn't appear to me?"
"Be thankful," she retorted. "Some prayers are better not answered."
Cor scowled. "Yes, I'm sure you are the expert in the god I have looked to my whole life."
"It's not my fa…" She swallowed her words before they could rise up into indignant shouts. She was suddenly chagrined at her callousness. This was how the bickering always started. Is this the child in me, again?
"I apologize, Cor. That was thoughtless of me. I should have remembered that he is important to you, even if he also terrified me."
She sat down on the edge of sloppily made bed, hard. It was all so overwhelming.
"I'm sorry, for…everything."
He limped across the room, one boot on, one boot off, and sat next to her. "You didn't know, Aravis."
"But I did,"' she admitted miserably. "Those lessons aren't ones you can forget."
As he took her hands in his and kissed her palm, she recited part of the litany.
This is why, my daughter, when you leave your childhood behind and become a woman, before you lie with a lover, when you move to the temple, the school, or to a husband's home, when you pick up the slate and scrolls of a scholar, the flasks of healing, the quill of a scribe, when you don one of the veils of Mother Azaroth the Many-Faced, you must always, first, farewell your Lady Protector, Zardeenah.
She pulled a hand out of his and angrily scrubbed tears away. At least no white powder came off. "I knew. The Trickster said Zardeenah has been very angry with me and everything that's happened since is all just as in the stories."
Cor fidgeted - he always had difficulty sitting quietly. "So you really did see him?"
Aravis suppressed the urge to berate him for not being sufficiently attentive to her spiritual disaster. "Yes. He appeared as a Rat in the window. He ate the grapes you left. He's fond of you."
Cor lowered his eyes and reddened a little. He muttered a prayer of thanks under his breath; she stilled her usual irritation at his persistent mumbling and squeezed his hands instead.
"Lasaraleen and Hwin are right. You are right. I can't be what I'm called to be, what we want to do together, with this hanging over me, over both of us."
"I'm glad, Aravis." He reached up and gently teased her thick, loose hair between his fingers. "As a boy, I fell in love with the fierce, proud girl you are, and always will love that in you. But I don't want to see you tethered and blinkered like the fledgling in the story when you can be so much more."
"Thank you, that's very kind. But it's also important to you, too, isn't it?"
He nodded. "Selfishly, I need you to be so much more. You could be Mother Azaroth Many-Faced, certainly better than I could. You were brought up to manage an estate that's nearly as large as all of Archenland; you understand politics and finance; I can repair fishing nets. You are educated. We can make Archenland accept you as my Queen."
"And if they don't, we shall offer them Corin instead," Aravis added.
"That threat would likely be very effective against the thick-headed Lords."
She leaned forward, closer. The guards weren't supposed to be listening but better not to risk it. In his ear, she whispered. "The Trickster did say you were a favourite of his. Were you to ask him to give me a beard, temporary, of course, I do not think he would refuse you."
Aravis completed the taunt by brushing Cor's ear with a fingertip and saw him flush, from cheek to jowl and down.
"You have but to command me, Tarkheena."
This was woman's business, so Cor helped her prepare the necessary offerings to the gods and then ceded the escort duty to Hwin and Lasaraleen. For her public contrition, Aravis was barefoot, her hair was unbound, and she was dressed as a penitent in a mauve shift. Still, as humble her appearance and uncomfortable the walk, the road to the Temple Square was easier than it had been the day before.
They did stop frequently. Hwin was often approached to receive gifts for the goddess and dispense Atanta's blessings. Lasaraleen chatted with everyone and got lost twice. She waddled about, dropped coins into the holy fountains, bought boughs of incense and threw them into the braziers burning to Tash. Aravis willed patience, recognizing this was probably a test.
When they finally entered the Temple Square, she first stopped at the small shrine to the Trickster and donated three bottles of Northern wine and a fat pouch of coins. "To amend for the revel missed on my account, lord Trickster," she said, bowing to the Priest at the gate. "I hear you, my Guide, and await your instruction."
The man's smile seemed uncomfortably like that of the Rat and her scars suddenly throbbed and itched.
At Atanta's temple, she helped Hwin lay flower wreaths in the sanctuary and then scattered gold pieces and grain on the goddess' altar. Following Hwin's instruction, under the kindly eye of a very pregnant priestess, Aravis mixed honey and oats with her own hands and offered them to the goddess' avatar. Hwin delicately took a bite and then ordered Aravis to share the mixture with the holy men and women in the Temple.
Tash had no particular place in today's events but she did as Lasaraleen instructed and threw boughs on the fires at the great golden gates and donated enough coin to pay for a year's food for one of the eagles kept at the temple.
Then it was time. Aravis looped one arm in Lasaraleen's, put her other hand on Hwin's shoulder and walked across the Square to Zardeenah's black stone temple. It was so cold and forbidding, her courage nearly failed.
"I am not worthy of the Lady of Night," Aravis said to her friends.
"No, you aren't," Lasaraleen said, squeezing her arm. "But you have her mercy anyway."
"She wants your happiness, Aravis," Hwin said. "Go to her. She wants to release you."
Hefting her basket of gifts for the goddess, Aravis walked slowly up the forbidding stairs. The black stone seemed to absorb all the Sun; the steps were blisteringly hot on her bare feet.
Aravis steeled herself, raised her chin, and entered the temple.
It was as black as night inside. In a few moments, her eyes were able to adjust for there were stars and a moon giving some light within – they were carvings in the stone ceiling that let in a bit of the shining Sun. It was cool and she could hear the sound of dripping water. The ceiling was beautiful, mimicking the stars of the Calormene southern summer night skies and Aravis felt a pang of longing for the land she had left.
The altar to the Lady of Night glimmered in the middle of the temple, shimmering silver and diamond in the darkness. Zardeenah's sigil, the five-pointed star, was drawn on the floor.
A very old, but spry, black-robed priestess – from the silver star at her throat, long, unbound gray hair, she was surely one of the senior crones and maybe the Beldam herself – came to her side and took the heavy basket of food, coin, and gems for the Temple. "The Lady thanks you," the crone said and handed the basket to a young acolyte who was trying very hard to not stare. Aravis was far beyond the age of the typical supplicant to Zardeenah's altar.
Aravis let out the nervous breath she'd be holding. "I have come to make amends to the Lady of Night. I denied her what was hers and used her most shamefully." Her words echoed in the silent Temple. Surely any person in the darkness would hear her confession. She was so ashamed now, but managed to confess the rest. "I have lain with a lover. I can give no maiden blood to the goddess." Loudly, she proclaimed her intentions. "I come here now to make the blood sacrifice owed my lady protector."
The crone looked her over her shrewdly and Aravis felt that prickle she had come to associate with the Centaur mages of Narnia.
There is power here. I stand in the presence of one blessed by the goddess.
She went down on her knees before the Beldam. "My apologies, Lady. I cannot even give womb blood to the goddess."
"Obviously," the priestess said with a disapproving sniff. "Our lady is very disappointed in you, Tarkheena. You should have made your amends years ago."
"I know," Aravis said, prostrate on the floor. "I beg the Lady's forgiveness. I do not ask for her blessing, only for her release."
"Approach the altar, Tarkheena. Do not despair. If you cannot give blood of your womb, give the goddess the blood of your heart."
Aravis crawled forward on her knees and knelt at one point on the silver star. The Beldam removed a gleaming sickle knife from her belt and handed it to her. She stared at the dagger, remembering the last time she had bared her breast to one. With her free hand, she parted the borrowed robe. Lasaraleen had insisted she would not mind if it was returned to her blood-soaked.
Aravis held the dagger before her and she felt the quiet in the temple still to a most solemn and reverent hush. "I come before you, goddess, to beg your forgiveness. I used you for my own ends. I am sorry. I do not ask for your blessing, o goddess, for I am unworthy of it. I ask only that I might be released from your service."
She slashed the knife over her breast, barely flinching, for the silver sickle was very sharp. Her blood immediately welled up from the cut. The Beldam held a silver plate up and caught the trickle. "Thick, isn't it?" she murmured, and aggressively prodded the cut on Aravis' breast to push out more blood, faster.
It seemed to last a very long time. Each time she thought she'd given enough blood the crone would poke and dig at the cut more. The plate filled, and then a second. She felt light-headed, her mouth was dry, and her knees ached. Usually, the blood given Zardeenah was over several days, not all at once.
Complaining, or stopping, was unthinkable. Aravis gritted her teeth, steeled herself, and gave herself over to the goddess.
She awoke on her back, staring up at the pinpoints of the goddess' lights. The Beldam was leaning over her, pressing a bandage to her cut breast. Aravis slowly sat up and accepted a few sips of honeyed water. The throbbing in her head quieted.
"It is, Tarkheena. Our Lady is satisfied with your sacrifice of heart's blood. She has released you."
Aravis carefully stood and could see now that the star on the altar had been filled in with something dark – her own blood.
The priestess kissed her gently, forehead, breast, and lips. "Go, Fledgling. Fly now, with Zardeenah's blessing and a fair wind."
Walking out of the temple door, she was blinded by a blast of sun and heat. The black stone was so burning hot on her feet, she could barely stand it but she was too drained to do more than stumble and sway down the steps to the Temple Square.
She looked around, trying to decide if she felt any differently.
"Aravis!" Lasaraleen pelted up the steps and put a supporting arm around her that felt wonderfully and then Hwin was on the other side and she was enveloped in the love of her two dearest friends.
Aravis ran a hand over her face and felt moisture. "I'm crying. It's done," she added, feeling so dull and thick-witted. "The goddess released me, praise her."
"Obviously," Lasaraleen said and Aravis wondered how Las could know what she could barely feel. How did one feel freedom?
"I am so proud of you, Aravis," Hwin said and nuzzled her face. "You are weak and very tired, though. Do you wish to ride on me back to the residence?"
"No, yes, no, I mean, thank you, Hwin, but no," Aravis stammered. She clutched more tightly to Las. "Before we leave, can I see Mother Azaroth's temple? I've never been there. Would you both show me?"
Before they crossed the Temple Square, Lasaraleen fussed over her, put sandals on her burnt feet and a balm and soft bandage over the slash, and gave her some dates to chew on. She didn't complain at all about how bloody the shift was and gave her a light robe to put over the whole that was not mauve, but a bright, cheerful red. Supported on either side, Aravis was able to cross the Temple Square and together, they entered the gates of the grand white temple dedicated to Mother Azaroth the Many-Faced. The high walls hid everything within from prying eyes.
"It is very beautiful here," Lasaraleen whispered as they walked down a long tunnel that would take them into the inner sanctum.
"And inspiring," Hwin added.
The tunnel first sloped down, as they went under the walls of the temple and then gradually inclined upward to bring them to the goddess' courtyard.
The space opened up. They were surrounded by pristine white marble walls rising tall, green grass below, and blue sky above.
She gasped and slowly turned about, drinking in the sight of this place. She was surrounded by statues of the goddess, each wearing the veil to obscure her face, each adorned with the icons of her station – healer, writer, teacher, mother, priestess, banker, explorer, surveyor, huntress, warrior, and others she could not even identify.
Mother Azaroth the Many-Faced in all her infinite possibilities.
"You're free now," Las said, waving her arm about. "This is your heritage, your future, all yours."
"Mother Azaroth the Queen Ruler is the third on the left," Hwin said with a soft whicker. "Is that who you will be, Aravis?"
A Queen, yes, she would be Queen someday, and all these other many things a Queen must embrace – and that, by Zardeenah's grace, she now could embrace.
Thank you, Lady of Night, for releasing me.
She gasped for surely she felt as if a dark cloud over eyes lifted. She stood in the dazzling sun, seeing color and light as if for the first time. The sun is no longer dark in my eyes.
This was freedom.
My thanks to _ for the excellent beta assistance.