“Something much bigger,” Moondust giggled under her breath, hiding her smile but not much else of her anatomy. She was blessed with a beauteous body, well kept by the frequent ingestion of herbs to the exclusion of most anything else. Though Ayla maintained a respectful demeanor, it was impossible not to notice the curve of her breasts, the smooth line of her stomach, the way her abdominal muscle narrowed as it made its way down toward the short scrap of fabric which preserved the vestiges of her modesty.
It seemed to Ayla that there was some secret between the two women, a shared knowledge which they were not inclined to pass on. Their frequent glances and occasional smiles told her that much. They were up to something, as was Kira, as was Ariadne, as was the queen all the way up in her Clitera City castle. Lesbia was full of women doing things they shouldn’t.
The soup was soon ready. Ayla served it to her guests and returned to her seat by the fire. She was in a pensive mood. Yet again the world was calling her to do her duty. She would have preferred to have been left out of this latest conflict, for one conflict was very much like another and she had seen enough to last a lifetime.
Vix and Moondust ate whilst still having a silent conversation with their eyes. There was a heaviness in the air, the weight of serious concerns as yet unaired.
“Do you have my pipe?” Moondust asked the question.
Vix did have her pipe. She produced a long wooden pipe from the folds of her dress along with a bag of herbs and handed both to Moondust. Moondust packed the pipe with a practiced touch and offered it to Ayla.
“Would you like to go first?”
“What is it?”
“Forest weed,” Moondust said apologetically, “hard to get the good stuff these days. There’s a war on.”
Ayla would normally have refused the pipe, but an instinctive impulse drove her to accept. She took the pipe from Moondust, lit the herbs and began drawing on the stem. Rich, floral scented smoke filled her mouth and thence her lungs, bringing with it a sense of calm. It was pleasant to sit and smoke, even though she did so with strangers bearing secrets. After a few puffs, she passed the pipe to Moondust, who likewise took several draws, then handed it to Vix, who also drew deeply on the pipe.
“You live alone,” Vix said, her dark eyes locking on Ayla as smoke curled languidly out her nostrils.
Though Vix was not possessed of traditional beauty, Ayla was already beginning to see her in a different light. Her nose was long, but strong, her eyes were full of intelligence and though her brows were bushy and her face a little too long and narrow, her chin too pointed, there was a strength of character in it. Her cheekbones were quite high, and perhaps with the right application of rouges and powders she might have appealed more to the eye, but it was apparent that Vix was not interested in appealing to the eye.
“I do,” Ayla said.
“It is difficult to live alone, unless one very much likes her solitude. In which case, we must have invaded it.”
“You are welcome,” Ayla reassured her guest with a soft smile. “Anyone important to Kira is important to me.”
Again Moondust and Vix exchanged looks. Ayla could not fathom what was so significant, but she imagined it would come to light soon enough. It was bubbling so close to the surface she could almost taste it.
“You are Kira’s friend?” Moondust asked the question.
“I have been her friend, her mentor, her healer for many years,” Ayla replied.
“So you find her a pleasant character?”
“Pleasant?” Ayla’s cheeks dimpled and hollowed as her smile became enigmatic. “Pleasant has never been a word to describe Kira. Brave, bold, loyal…”
“… dangerous?” Vix suggested the word as she passed the pipe back to Ayla.
Ayla drew deeply on the stem, enjoying the blend. It had a mild sedative effect, not enough to make her drowsy, but enough to take the edge off her concern.
“Dangerous? Of course. What is it you want to tell me?”
Vix and Moondust exchanged looks. “We are not allowed to tell,” Moondust said. “We are sworn to secrecy. If we so much as speak a word, Ariadne will have our tongues for a necklace.”
“We cannot say a word,” Vix echoed. “But we could show you.”
“The camp is not all that far,” Moondust agreed. “A week’s travel by foot.”
Their expectant, hopeful and concerned looks settled on Ayla. She had seen that look before, it was a look that was only given when someone was desperately in need of help. Taking another puff of the pipe, Ayla considered her options.
Crossing a goddess was not a good idea. Crossing Ariadne in particular was a terrible idea. Once upon a time, Ayla would not have considered it for a moment. Once upon a time she had something to lose. Now she did not. She was alone in the world. That solitude came with a queer freedom, one which bought with it a form of recklessness quite foreign to her nature. Truth be told, she had made her decision more or less the moment Vix made her suggestion.
She looked up, her eyes glinting through the drifting smoke haze. “I will need some time to pack my things.”