(This chapter was completely redone as a very short meeting. Here's the overblown original...)
The dark blue sea rolled gently under the bow of a black-hulled galley. On the deck, standing with one hand on the railing, her head covered with a dark cloak and hood, was the pale woman. She looked upon the basalt cliffs of Thira with amusement, wondering how long it would take the inhabitants of the island to mark her presence and come forth to meet her. It was nearing twilight, which pleased her, for she was no longer used to the brightness of the sun on the water. Her ship rode at sea-anchor, the Walach boys hiding below decks, curled up amongst their blankets in the dimness. The sails were furled and the steering anchors raised, to all eyes the ship rode empty and abandoned save for the slim dark figure at the prow.
Waves slapped against the hull, spreading foam across the painted eyes and sunburst that marked the angle of wood above the ships’ bronze beak. The Helios was a two-decked galley, a bireme, built to match an ancient design. The Queen waited, patiently, her pale blue eyes shaded by the hood. At her feet, the little black cat nosed about the deck, hopeful for a crab or some scrap to eat.
“Ah, here they are at last.” The little cat looked up at the sound of the woman’s voice, but no food or a warm place to sleep was involved, so it bolted away, tail high. It leapt down the broad wooden steps that led to the main deck, dodged around the mast, and came to a halt next to a bier made of wooden panels and draped cloth. In the death-bed, though still living, slept the body of the soulless girl. The little cat, who had long ago made careful note of such things, sprang up onto the quilts that lay atop the girl. With quick little steps, the black cat went to the girls’ face, bumping it with a soft black felted nose. There was no response. The girl had been ordered to sleep, so she had, even while the Walach boys built the funeral cart and laid her in it, even while the Helios crept forth from its hidden harbor beneath the docks of Constantinople, even as the beaked ship plowed the wave-road south, for the trackless expanse of the open sea and Thira.
Sighing softly, the little cat poked her nose beneath the quilts and then wormed its way underneath, finally fetching up in the space between the girls arm and her stomach, where it was warmest. In that close darkness, the cat yawned, showing a pink mouth and sharp white teeth, then covered its nose with the tip of its tail and went to sleep.
A single-decked galley with flanks of silver-gray sped across the water towards the Helios. The Queen watched with quiet appreciation; the flashing oars, the sure stroke and steady swift progress delighted her. Here was a thing of beauty, this ship that cut across the waves, prow breaking from the darkening waters, sending a spray of glowing foam away from a proud beak. The Queen remained at the rail, watching from the shadows of her hood, while the other ship, the Herakles, drew alongside.
A flute trilled and the oarswomen backed oar and the swift galley shuddered to a halt. On its simple deck, really no more than a plank walkway down the middle of a rowing gallery that stood open to the sky, a woman was standing, garbed in dark gray and thin shining white linen.
“Greetings, sister!” The Queen’s voice carried easily over the water, rising above the rattle of oars being shipped back through the thwarts on the Herakles. “I bid you good day.”
The white figure did not reply for a moment. The gray ship drifted closer. The Queen could see that the woman was very old, with fine white hair and a wrinkled yet regal face. Raising her hand, the Queen drew back her hood, letting the light of the westering sun fall on her face. She saw the white figure stiffen, but there was still no response from the other ship.
“The hospitality of old has been lost, I see.” The Queen smiled, letting a bite creep into her words. “No matter, for I’ve not come to waste my time. I’ve something of yours that you should have. Send over a boat, and we’ll load it aboard.”
“We want,” came the high thin voice of the woman in white, “nothing from you, Queen of Cats. Take yourself and your malice away from our shores.”
“You want nothing from me? Then, pray tell, why come forth out of your sanctuary? Ah, but I know – curiosity. You wondered if the old tales were true, if the warnings and admonitions need carry any weight. Well, are your questions answered?”
“We have no questions for you, nor seek any answers. Your welcome here was overstayed long ago. Begone!”
With that, the woman in white turned away. Two of her attendants stepped to her side, leading her back to a chair affixed to the deck. The Queen sighed, putting both hands upon the rail. Now that she was here, seeing the bland sanctimonious faces of the rowers, the arrogance of the Matron, she wondered why she had come at all. Was there some sentiment left in her after all these centuries? She realized, standing on the deck, feeling the sea-wind ruffle her long hair, that she was tired of hiding in the dark. Her kingdom, once so prized, had dwindled to only a handful of outcasts and refugees from the wars in the north. Even they were under the Pain that she could not lift.
Her hand rose to her mouth, then clenched to a fist. Enough!
“O Matron,” she called out, her voice fierce and sharp. “You may turn your back on a guest, but I will abide by my ancient duty. You may account me a traitor and the first of the Fallen, but I know the duty of one Sister to another. I need not do this, but I will, despite your anger.”
On the deck of the Herakles, the Matron of the Island looked up. The Queen’s eyes were keen, and she could see a look of grim surprise on the old woman’s face.
“The spiritless body of one of your ephebes has come to my hand. I have brought her here, for she should find peace upon the Island in death, where she has not in life. Come, I vow I mean you no harm. There is no trick, no stratagem. Will you take your lost daughter in? Then I will go and leave you in peace.”
The Queen’s words rolled over the sea, finally swallowed by the waves. The two ships rode on the swell in silence for a time, then the Matron roused herself from her chair and motioned that a boat be prepared for her. The attendants, and the captain of the galley, argued with her in low tones, but the Queen smiled, for her sharp ears could hear all that they said. At last, after some heated words, the Matron stepped down into a shallow boat and was rowed to the flank of the Helios.
The Cat-Eyed Queen reached down and helped her into the ship. The Matron felt tiny and birdlike in her hands. The old woman took a moment, once she was standing on the deck of the ancient ship, to look around and compose herself. The Queen stepped away, leaving the Matron a goodly amount of space on the deck. The old woman’s eyes were quick, flitting across the well-worn planks and the rowing benches. The smell of the Walach below decks, a thick musky odor, could not be disguised, which raised a thin white eyebrow.
“Your servants?” There was a hint of a sneer in the old woman’s voice.
“Yes,” answered the Queen. “I find it tiring to row myself, and they are young and filled with strength.”
“Where is this lost daughter of mine?”
The Queen pointed down the deck, to the funeral bier and the still pale figure that lay there.
“Here she is. She is not very lively, I fear.”
The Matron stalked down the deck, staff tapping in counterpoint to her footsteps, white linen robes trailing on the dark oak. She paused, reaching the bier and there was a sharp hiss of indrawn breath. Then the old woman reached out a trembling hand and gently touched the pale pink cheek of the girl.
“She breathes,” sighed the Matron.
“But she does not live,” said the Queen, an odd melancholy in her voice. “This is how she was brought to me.”
“How did this happen?” The Matron turned, her eyes dark with anger. Even with her frail, ancient body, she seemed suddenly dangerous. The Queen gave a wan smile and held up her hand.
“A man killed her,” said the Queen, her voice soft. “A man that she loved. A man that loved her. One of my servants found her this way and brought her to me.”
“She is not dead,” snapped the Matron. “She seems in perfect health. Where is her spirit?”
“Gone, across the Dark River,” answered the Queen patiently, though she was becoming irritated. Yet, she thought, perhaps the skills of the Order have decayed and been forgotten over the long march of years. What I see, this old tired woman may not. “Like all the shades of the dead. This man, he is possessed of some power. He restored her body, hoping to rectify his mistake. Now it walks and breathes, but is bereft of that guttering spark that makes us live.”
“Who is this man?” The Matron was angry now, staring down at the still face of the girl. “I will not suffer this, to see one of us made a plaything or a toy.”
“I do not think,” interrupted the Queen sharply, “that he intended that she be a toy. I have met him, seen them together. He is wracked with guilt, I am sure. He loved her very much, or at least, believed that he did. You should take this body and send it to the sky, as should all those who fall in the service of the Order.”
The Matron rapped her staff on the decking, leaning towards to the Queen, her old eyes bright with interest.
“Who is this loving murderer? Tell me, for I wish to repay him this gift.”
“I think,” said the Queen, “that you would do well to keep to the fragile peace of your Island. If you seek this boy out, you will find him beyond your powers to punish or control. I have had some traffic with him, and not come away the better for it. His is a twisty mind, filled with traps baited by love and friendship.”
The Matron ground the ferrule of her staff into the decking, making it squeak angrily.
“No man strikes at a Sister of the Order and goes unpunished. The Goddess’ arrows will find him, seek him out, put madness in his eyes, tear out his heart, cut his hands from his body! Tell me his name.”
“No,” said the Queen, shaking her elegant head in dismay. “Would you pit dear Artemis against the lord of the Sun, he of the quick, far-striking arrows? Was not the slaughter of Troy enough for you? I ken that this is a matter where the gods play, leaving mortals such as yourself to hide within, by the hearth, content in the strength of your doors!”
“Do you say that a god did this?”
“Enough like one, I think. Have a care, Matron! The power of the Order has diminished in these long centuries since the Drowning. You may believe yourself a power that guides the mind of men, directing your tokens from this hidden place, but the world is changing, and the strength of your island fastness may soon be tested.”
The Matron looked away, back at the towering walls of Thira. She smiled, and the Queen saw pride and memory plain in her face.
“You think it a strong place,” said the Queen, her voice urgent. “But its strength is in being unseen. If you strike against this man, your hiding place may be revealed.”
“This is not like you, to show us such concern. What is your price for this body?”
The Queen laughed, her brilliant dark hair shifting like a cloud around her long neck and pale white shoulders. She put a hand to her lips, the almond-shaped nails glittering in the fading light.
“You must have books filled with the lists of my crimes, Matron. Do you believe them all? There is no price for this girl! She is an innocent. I once swore the same oaths that you did; to help my sisters, to deliver them from danger, to work in all ways to serve the Goddess and protect the helpless.” The Queen’s voice was sharp and rising in anger.
“You? Help the helpless? Prey upon them seems more like it! Your name is black in our annals, bending your head to that man and doing his will.”
The Queen stepped back, her face washed with furious anger. She knew her own history well enough, she did not need reminding by some child that presumed to judge her. Her left hand raised, the air around it distorting like a broken mirror as power flooded from the sea and the air to her. The Matron blanched, then squared her shoulders, putting her staff forward.
“Go ahead, outcast. Strike me down. I have lived a long, full, natural life. I see no need to exceed my allotted span.”
The Queen went still, considering, but then she laughed and waved the power away. Wind skipped across the waters at her motion, making the rigging creak and the light shape of the Herakles dance on the sea-swell.
“No. Come, take your lost daughter. I have spent enough time in your pleasant company.”
The Matron nodded, then called to the rowers in the boat.
“Attend me, there is a body to be moved.”
The Cat-Eyed Queen laughed again, this time in merriment.
“Matron, Matron… haven’t you listened? There is no need of this burden. Watch.”
Turning to the body of the girl on the beir, the Queen leaned close and whispered to her. Then she stood back, a grim smile playing on lips like dried rose petals. The girl moved, sitting up, and swung her legs off of the funeral bed. With the same motion, she gathered up her robes, for the Walach boys had dressed her in a long amber-colored woolen tunic. A dark red himation lay over this, and the girl held it close to her chest, the folds of cloth falling like a wave down to her knees. Her hair, which had grown even longer during her time with the Queen, was piled in a bun behind her head and restrained with vermilion ribbons. She stood, and the Matron stifled a gasp, seizing the railing behind her for support.
“Dear girl,” said the Queen, “go with this woman, obey her commands and orders.”
The girl, without looking at the pale woman, stepped lightly to the Matron. Her feet were covered with light slippers, bound with thin cords that criss-crossed up her calves. The Matron raised a hand to her lips, then forced it down, to her side.
“Enter the boat,” she said, her eyes troubled. The girl walked to the ladder at the side of the ship, then climbed swiftly down, her movements graceful. The two rowers helped her sit, though they were loath to touch her pale skin.
“You see? She is quite biddable.”
The Matron did not answer, hurrying to enter the rowboat herself. As it was pushed off from the black hull of the Helios, the Queen leaned on the railing, her sadness hidden behind a calm mask. Once, Thira would have been a place of welcome. The ephebes put their backs into the oars, driving the light skiff away at goodly speed. The Queen watched as they boarded the Herakles and that swift vessel ran out her oars, then turned, crabbing in the water.
The sun set, leaving the sky brilliant with stars and the sea gleaming with silver light. The Queen watched and waited, standing at the railing, until she was sure that the Sisters had returned safely to the hidden lagoon and the sea-caves that housed their ships. While she lingered, the Walach boys padded out onto the deck and took their places at the rowing benches.
“Take us away,” said the Queen at last, “I will tell you when to stop.”
Oars ran out, hissing into the water, and the flautist looked to the Queen for the stroke.
“Half a beat,” she called the length of the ship, pulling the hood over her head. “There will be watchers on the cliffs, let them see our wake bright on the dark sea.”
The oars bit into the water and the Helios moved, slowly at first, but picking up speed. At sundown the wind had died, leaving the sea still and quiet. The movement of the ship stirred her hair and the folds of her cloak. She did not look back, but watched the sea ahead with glittering eyes.
It had been a long time since she had plied these waters. Care was called for, amongst the peaks of the drowned mountains.