Chapter 2

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The door of the outer chamber opened a crack in response to Taleg's knock, and a pair of ten-year-old eyes peered out. They widened in recognition, and a moment later the boy threw the door open shouting, "Come in! Come in!" And he left Mandhi and Taleg in the outer chamber while he ran into the estate shouting news of their arrival.

Noon daylight flooded into the room, glinting off of green and while tiles on the floor and the red patterned rug in the center of the chamber. Taleg lumbered through the door, heaved their pack to the floor with a groan, and rubbed his shoulders. "Habdana remembers us, but he doesn't remember that he's supposed to help us with our things when we come in."

The rich, familiar smell of sandalwood and cardamom filled Mandhi's nostrils as she stepped into the chamber, bringing with it a flood of memory. Home. She and Taleg were alone, just for the moment. Mandhi sidled up to him and touched his hand. "Forget Habdana," she said.

"Careful," he whispered.

"We'll be stealing moments like this until we leave Virnas again," she said. "But I'll talk to our friend Srithi. We can find a saghada in a few days."

He swiftly bent and kissed the top of her head, like a heron plucking a fish from the water. "Talk to your father first."

"I will." With a heavy sigh she withdrew from Taleg and crossed the tile floor to the curtained entrance of the women's chamber. "I'll see you soon."

The heavy, opaque curtain fell closed behind her, leaving her in the gloom of the windowless room. An oil lamp dangled from a chain in the center of the room, casting a pale yellow light over the cold floors and lavers filled with water. As always, the room smell faintly of rose and mint. She kicked aside her sandals and let her toes enjoy the touch of the chilly tiles.

She tugged the pins from her hair and set them on the table next to the vessels. The knot of hair tumbled from her neck to the middle of her back, and she let out a sigh of pleasure. To be free from the strictures of traveling in the unclean world for a while. She plunged her hands into the first laver, enjoyed the shock of cold water, and splashed water onto her face.

"I will wash my hands in purity," she prayed. "A clean face and a clean heart I will present unto Ulaur, who alone is blessed forever, with the amashi and the righteous. Let the unclean Powers perish, and let defilement depart from me."

The curtain separating the ablution chamber from the inner chambers whispered aside, and the sound of barefoot feet on tile came up behind her. Mandhi looked up and said with surprise, "Oh! Srithi! I was expecting the maid."

Srithi grinned. "I sent little Kidri away so I could come. Are you clean?"

"Let me wash my feet, then I'll be clean enough to touch." She dipped her feet quickly into the smaller vessel and rinsed the dust from them while rapidly reciting the prayers. As soon as she had completed she rushed across the chamber, embraced Srithi and kissed her cheek.

Srithi returned Mandhi's kiss with tears in her eyes. "I haven't seen you in four months, and when the boy said you had come, well, I had to come myself. I have something to tell you." She smiled sheepishly.

"Do you want to tell me now, or should I finish cleansing first?"

"I'll help you with the ablutions. Was the road hard?"

"We traveled hard to get here from Ahunas in only four days. Poor Taleg is exhausted. Here, take the corner of the sari."

Mandhi stretched her arms out and Srithi began to unwind the sari. "You were gone for four months. Did you find him? The one you're looking for?"

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