Chapter 19

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Zana kept her eyes shut when she heard her door softly open and close. She didn't want to know who it was - Galen, or Alan, both exhausting in different ways. If she pretended to sleep, maybe they would go away.

Maybe Peet had found a way to sneak into her room, as Alan had promised her... if she hadn't dreamed his words. She still wasn't sure whether she hadn't dreamed the whole encounter. Galen had worn Alan's pendant around his neck. Dreams often confused these details.

The visitor was slowly approaching her bed, and something - a faint scent, a movement, or maybe just their mere presence - sent Zana's heart into a hard and urgent rhythm, knocking against her breastbone in alarm.

She opened her eyes.

One of the Mothers was standing at her bed.

It took Zana one heart-stopping moment to recognize the midwife behind the feathered mask that was covering the old woman's face from ear to ear. A row of small shells graced her brow, and the little metal discs that circled her neck chimed softly as she sat down on the chair beside Zana's nightstand.

The visitor's chair. She really should get up one of these days and feed her tea oven with it.

„Blessings of the Mothers be upon thee," the midwife murmured, and Zana's heart began to race again. The old woman wasn't here in her capacity as a healer. She had come here as a priestess of the Mothers, and for a moment, Zana wondered if the old woman had sensed something in her... something that needed cleansing.

The priestess drew a herb bundle from the depths of her robe and held it against the candle of Zana's night lamp, then shook it to blow out the flame. The dried leaves blackened and crumbled. The scent of holy smoke filled Zana's nostrils, sweet and balsamic. She inhaled deeply, almost against her will.

The old woman rose from the chair and bent over her, moving the smudge bundle over Zana's body, from head to feet and back again. Her other hand was making signs, but Zana couldn't decipher them. The rituals of the Mothers were as old as apekind, and didn't require many words. Most was said with gestures, with paintings, or dance.

I should know what she's saying. But I was always more interested in science than religion. She had kept the prescribed rituals for her parents, out of love, and because it was done, and she didn't doubt the existence and the power of the Mothers, as she suspected Galen was doing, but she never felt the need to meditate, or to study the Sacred Scrolls. Now she wished she had - maybe she'd have remembered the answer to the question that was tormenting her in her waking hours...

Finally, the midwife stuck the herb bundle between Zana's fingers and sat down again. She felt the old woman's ancient eyes on her, watchful, unreadable.

„It is very dark in this room," the priestess said finally.

I knew it! Something is wrong with me, and she saw it! She looked right into me, and she saw it! Zana tried to hold back her tears. „I... had asked my fiancé to close the curtains," she whispered hesitantly. „The light hurts my eyes."

The woman pursed her lips. „Zana," she said, and Zana's heart leaped into a frenzied gallop. How did she know her name? She was traveling as Alta now, they had to change their names again...

„Spark of lightning," the priestess continued, as if she hadn't noticed Zana's shock. „Where is the fire? It is dark in here. Where are you, Zana? Where are you?"

And with a wave of dizziness, Zana found that she couldn't get a hold of herself, that she was grasping blindly in the darkness, in empty air. Tears sprang to her eyes. „I don't know," she whispered. „I'm gone."

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