An Immodest Proposal (Part 2)

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They reached an inn just before nightfall and bespoke three of its rooms, a private parlour, and an attic for the servants. After dinner, Holle followed Philomena up to the room they would be sharing. "Are you still cross with me, sweet Mena?" she said.

"You know, whenever Maldwyn called me 'sweet Mena', it was because he was about to say something horrible," Philomena observed.

"You are still cross. I am sorry if I offended you earlier," Holle pulled the door shut behind her, "but Rainhart is my brother."

Philomena sat down on the bed, aware of the pool of anger still bubbling away in her gut. What was it about these Reuz children that made them think that their past unkindness could be wiped away by a few pretty--or in Rainhart's case, not even that--words?

In the silence, she became aware that Holle was studying her closely and shifted her weight.  "Listen, something strange happened today." She told Holle about finding her way to the still place.

Holle's eyes widened. "You think it has something to do with the glen?"

"I don't think most people just wake up one morning with mystic powers," said Philomena. "Have you noticed anything?"

"No." Holle tilted her head. "But they taught me meditation at the seminary. Why don't we try it now?"

Philomena hesitated, then said uncertainly, "All right." She wondered what she would do if she had just imagined it. She was going to seem even sillier.

Holle sat cross-legged on the floor and motioned to Philomena to sit opposite, their knees almost touching. She took Philomena's hands in hers and closed her eyes. "Now, I want you to listen to my breath and breathe in time with me." She was silent. Philomena closed her eyes and listened to the hiss of inhalation and exhalation. Their breaths synchronised. "Let go of any thoughts or feelings. I want you to concentrate on your breath, and the silence between my words. If thoughts occur, set them to one side. They do not concern you. Only the silences concern you. I will be silent now; breathe with me."

As she inhaled, air spreading out to each corner of her lungs, and exhaled, Philomena felt the calmness wash around her. Thoughts were left on the shore, and she was borne away by the tide, past fear, past anger, past everything, to the darkness. And in the darkness, light.

Already, this place was familiar, like a beloved childhood home returned to after a long absence. She drifted among the stars, considering each in turn. This one--she brought it close to her--was the serving man who had brought their hot water. She cradled his mind in hers, and it glowed with emotion, unknowable but indeniable. What do I do with you? she wondered.

Holle's gasp snapped Philomena out of the daze. She opened her eyes to see Holle staring at her. "I felt it," she said. "I was in--the still place, you called it?"

"It... it feels to me like floating suspended at the bottom of an underground lake," said Philomena.

"It felt like peace,"said Holle. "But so fragile."

Philomena smiled. She tilted her head. "I had the serving-man's mind," she said, "but I didn't know what to do with it."

"Oh, see whether you can command him," said Holle.

Philomena considered. "All right," she said. She closed her eyes again and slowed her breathing. Opposite, she could hear Holle doing the same. Then she found her way to the stillness. There was the serving-man again. She brought his mind close to hers. Come to the first bedroom with two slices of the cranberry pie from dinner. She felt the thought sink into his mind and a flicker of acknowledgement.

"I think I did it," she said. They looked at each other, eyes wide.

There was a knock on the door. Philomena found her voice was weak when she said, "Yes?"

"It's Nils. I thought your highness and my lady might like another slice of cranberry pie."

Shakily, Philomena stood and went to open the door. "How thoughtful of you, thank you," she said, accepting the tray. She set the plates down between them on the floor and sat again. "Blessed few."

Shaking her head, Holle said, "Let's see whether we can get Tancred and Rainhart in here."

"Hm." They called from the still place, but there was no response. After a moment Holle huffed with annoyance and went into the hall to summon them.

Holle gestured to the men to sit on the floor with them. "It seems the lesser gods--or whoever lives in the forest--gave us a gift in exchange for helping them. Let us show you."

Rainhart was next to Philomena; she took his hand with some distaste. It was warm and much larger than hers.

Holle led them through the meditation, and Philomena helped Tancred and Rainhart find their way to the still place. Afterwards, Tancred said in a tone of awe, "That was Lord Valentin, wasn't it?" he said. "I could feel his mind."

"Who is Ignatia?" said Rainhart curiously.

Philomena frowned at him. "That's Lord Valentin's mistress. How did you know that?"

"I read it from his mind," said Rainhart. He gave her a blank look. "Isn't that the point?"

Philomena looked quickly at Holle. "Can you decipher people's thoughts?"

Shaking her head, Holle said, "It's like a book written in a foreign language. I know there are thoughts, but I can't understand them."

"It's the same with me," said Philomena.

Rainhart raised his eyebrows and straightened his shoulders. It made Philomena want to kick him. "Perhaps the gift is different for each of us?" he said.

"Perhaps." Philomena gritted her teeth.

"This is a boon indeed," said Tancred thoughtfully. "We will need to explore these gifts further, and become practised in their use. But I think we should also agree a code. For example, we should not tamper with people's minds unless it is necessary. And we should not tamper with each other's minds. Otherwise there will be no trust between us."

"That may not be a problem. I don't think we can influence each other," said Holle. "Well, Rainhart may be able to, since his gift is different."

They all looked at him expectantly. Still radiating the air of a pleased cat, Rainhart shrugged. "Shall I try?"

"Not on me," said Philomena. She had too many secrets.

"Oh, go on." Holle reached across the circle and patted Rainhart on the shoulder. "You can try on me. Maybe you'll learn something scandalous."

Philomena puffed out a wry breath. Rainhart closed his eyes and a furrow appeared between his brows then smoothed away. "No," he said. "I can't read you--any of you. But I can read Lord Valentin, the servants, and the inn staff."

"Can you summon the innkeeper here?" said Holle.

Rainhart blinked. "Can you do that? I can read them, but changing them..." He frowned.

"Ah," said Philomena, drawing out the vowel sound. Rainhart gave her a narrow sideways look and pulled his hand out of her grip. "I got the serving-man up here with cranberry pie earlier." She pointed to the empty platters.

"I suppose the gift must be different for each of us," said Rainhart. "I can read, and you three can, ah, write."

"Well." Holle sat back and fussed with the hem of her skirt. "Either we are all going mad, or the lesser gods are giving us some help with our quest to oust Valdon."

"Nice of them," said Tancred in a dazed voice.

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