The priestess nodded, slowly, like a branch waving in the wind. „Gone into the next world. So that your daughter doesn't have to go alone. So that she isn't frightened by the shadows."

The image sent shivers down her arms; Zana could feel her fur moving against the fabric of the blanket. She saw herself going down a dark, dark road - an alley, choked by tall and black trees blocking out the sky, a jungle of shadows. A little hand was grasping hers, calm and trusting.

She didn't dare to turn her head and look down at who was walking by her side.

„You sent a part of yourself into the next world with your baby," the rough voice of the priestess sounded far away. Somewhere behind her, in the gray light of her room. „But you don't belong there, little spark. You must call that part back to you, back to the world of the living."

With a sharp sniff, Zana was back in her bed. That hole in her heart was still there. The priestess hadn't magically healed her grief.

If only it were that easy.

„How am I supposed to do that?" she asked, feeling the tears well up again. Her throat was tight, as if someone had put a collar on her and was choking her with it. „I lost my baby. The only baby I'll ever have!"

It had been a mistake to say it aloud, but she realized it a moment too late. It was as if a trapdoor had opened up over her bed, and the enormity of that realization came crashing into her through that door. Zana could feel it hitting her as vividly as if someone had dropped a tree on her. It slammed into her chest and buried her under its weight.

„I'll never be a mother!" she sobbed, throat raw with anguish, „I'll never have children, Galen will never be a father, I'll never know what it's like... what it's like..."

„You are a mother," the old woman said firmly, „since the day you carried that child under your heart. Even though it died - even if all her children die, a woman carries them in her heart, to the end of her days. Nobody can change her again into a girl."

I want a real child, a living, growing child, Zana raged silently, not a flock of ghost children haunting my dreams!

The priestess laughed, a sound so shocking that Zana's tears dried in an instant. The old woman patted her shoulder. „You will have many, many children, living children of flesh and blood. The Mothers will bless you, little mother."

„No, they won't!" She couldn't hold the words inside any longer. „They won't bless me, they're angry with me, they... they've punished me for what I've done!" She couldn't breathe right, she was choking...

„The Mothers love you, little Zana, they aren't filthy old women shaking their canes at you." The priestess sounded amused, and Zana's agony turned into rage. She propped herself up on her elbows, too agitated to keep lying on her back.

„How can you say that?" she hissed. „You don't know what I've done, you don't know what the Mothers think of that!"

„Oh, but you do?" The priestess chuckled, an infuriating sound. „Tell me then, oh confidant of the Mothers, what did you do that you're so sure they condemn?"

„I... I... I stole a child, and..." She was back in the human's hut, vandalized by Urko and his men, the humans huddled in a corner. She was grabbing at the child, drawing it towards her, pulling Delia out of her mother's arms. Her mother, too frightened to plead with her, but her eyes... her eyes...

„Where is that stolen child now?" the priestess asked mildly.

„I... I sent her back to her parents," Zana whispered. „I was desperate, I needed a guide, but they refused, and I just... I just ordered them, and then I took their daughter. I just took what I needed, because I'm an ape, and they couldn't refuse me."

She had felt guilty then, but she had also fleetingly thought about her own daughter then, safe in her belly, and how nobody would dare to steal her child from her.

I shouldn't have thought that. I shouldn't have challenged the Mothers like that.

„A human? You really think the Mothers punished you for taking a human?" The priestess clucked her tongue. „The Mothers created all creatures to serve us, including humans. You lost your child because you put yourself in danger. Don't hold the Mothers responsible for your own choices." She rose. „Your spirit is fierce, Spark of Lightning. You will heal, if you choose so."

Zana's hands were prickling, whether with shock or anger, she couldn't say. But her tongue was suddenly thick and clumsy in her mouth, and she couldn't think of any words, as she watched the old Chimp move towards the door. When she finally choked out a „Wait!", the door had already closed again.

She sat up in her bed, shaking with... she couldn't pinpoint the emotion. Nervous energy was flickering through her like distant lightning.

She gingerly swung her legs to the side and put her feet on the floor. They felt strange to her, their soles tender and swollen. Zana wasn't sure if they would carry her.

She still managed to get to the window, and threw back the curtains. Outside, the sky was a wild blue, streaked with dark clouds. It felt as stormy and unstable as she did. She stared down at the street, at all the little people bustling around, going about their little lives, blissfully unaware.

„Where are you, Zana?" she murmured.

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