New chapter

Phew! If you're reading this, I thank you for either getting this far or coming back to read more. It took a long time to think about what would come next. And when I had ideas, it took a long time to find a way to write them down. Again, I am desperate for some constructive criticism. I know there are a lot of plot holes, but I need help picking out what doesn't make sense. Thanks.

Chapter XVIII: The Hideaway

Nichara couldn't sleep with Calliope's arm around her the way it was. She should have felt comfortable—skin rubbed clean, hair combed, a mother's arms around her. Calliope had ceased shaking and weeping and was now sleeping, her raspy snores more of a comfort than an annoyance Makka's hall emptied of its Domnu nobles and their servants.

"Nichara, my uncle is gone—" Suraya's soft voice was a surprise. There was a fearful quaver in it that sounded childish.

"I'm not shocked," Nichara whispered back, wishing she could sit up. Before she could recognize the sound of footsteps, a third voice sounded.

"No, I'm here," Naphtali said, speaking sharply to catch his breath.

"What's happened?"

"Get up," he said, first grabbing the hand of his niece and prying her from the wall where she had been sitting since the Mummers' blankets were spread on the floor. "You will sleep or you will do something," he said lowly, letting her go so she could stand rather shakily. "And you, Nichara…"

"What's wrong?" Suraya demanded. Naphtali put his hand over her mouth.

"Everything is wrong." Makka was speaking now. She carried a single candle and no servants were around her. "Follow me," she said simply.

"What about the others?" Nichara wondered, gently lifting Calliope's arm from her so that she could grasp Naphtali's. She glanced about the room, the shapes of the other Mummers so still in their sleep they looked like corpses. "Naphtali!" she hissed. She could see traces of Calliope's sleeping face and felt at that moment that she could not bear to be separated from her.

"Out, out of here," the queen said, pushing them towards a corridor. She sighed when Nichara hesitated.

"My mask… I forgot my mask," she said, an automatic panic at the edge of her voice.

"You won't need it there," Naphtali said.

"Where?" Suraya pressed.

"Suraya, go with Her Majesty…" The formality seemed out of place now. It was too late to go back to it. Makka was in her nightshift, the plain cloth loose over her thick body. Her hair was gathered under a cap. She was the perfect sight for Seren's amusement, Nichara thought. The hushed noises of their travel were made less so by the queen's heavy breathing, and the padding of her bare feet on the stones in the floor sounded like the thumping of soldiers' boots—or so it seemed to Nichara in a place where she felt the smallest utterance of her name could summon Cerdic to its doors.

Naphtali took Nichara's hand and slowed his pace. He whispered in her ear, "The Marajans are waiting for us at the Warrior's Eye… I knew that it would happen. They know one of us has green eyes… A party of them departed not long after supper. After we spoke of Arun. They knew we would have to go back to collect his body. They do not answer to the queen and acted without her consent."

"Daniyel?"

"Killed," he said gravely, his hold on her hand tighter. Nichara understood why he had urged Suraya to hurry ahead. "Don't tell her the truth."

"Then what will you tell her?" She sighed at the news, wondering if there were be time enough for anyone to mourn the quiet merrow when Arun was not yet buried.

"That he's run away. She will not be going back with me… Calliope… Hala… his wife…"

Nichara quickened her step, desperate not to hear more. They passed the kitchens, the servants' rooms. They stopped at a door.

"The queen's rooms," Makka said. "The queen does not sleep here, but it is her room." She handed Suraya her candle and pushed the door open. "Only a few of us in the castle know about what is in this room," she said before allowing them inside. "Those who do know are paid well to keep it secret. The Marajans posted at my castle must never know about it."

Nichara heard the sound of water first—rippling water, a splash, then silence. Except for the candle in Suraya's possession, the room was engulfed in darkness. Nichara saw the dark blue of dawn in the form of a small window opposite the door. Queen Makka took her candle back and proceeded to light more, until everything was dimly illuminated.

There were large basins placed all around the room. There were people, too—some merrows because of their unusually long hair. All awake, they peered at the visitors with fear in their eyes. Only one woman spoke. She rose up out of her basin of water and bowed deeply for the queen, her nakedness hidden only by her hair. "Your Majesty," she said, looking up and throwing questioning glances at Nichara and Suraya, who did not have the same eyes as Naphtali did.

"Very good," Makka said, pleased to hear something she could understand—though in Marajan, not Domnu. She turned to Naphtali. "Edenhe is their leader," she said, indicating the naked woman in the basin. She put on a sly smile. "Without knowing it, the Marajan princess has been teaching the little Merrow girl to be a translator for these people. I brought her here only twice, but she has knows too few words in Domnu to communicate properly. She learns quickly, though."

"You are a good woman!" Suraya exclaimed, her eyes glistening. "You are saving all these people!"

"Some are Pha'dughnain from my city, fleeing the Marajans. Some are merrows from the river. They stop here—until it is right enough time to continue their journey to Maraja."

"Warriors," Nichara breathed, eyeing the weapons arranged on the floor. She imagined their wielders, marching on the river floor, swimming up to pierce the surface. Eireann showed her an Athacan sword once. Its hilt bore a crescent moon shape and it was light enough that a child could hold it up.

"I want someone to speak for them," Makka said. "One person or two—to stay here. I know it cannot be you, Prince Lochan, because the Marajans will be after you once my eye is off you." She touched Nichara's shoulder. "Your Domnu was decent—rehearsed, but enough decent. You understood the merrow girl—more than you let Juhana believe, I think. Prince Lochan tells me you are called Nichara, the runaway girl from Merrah… but you need not worry. Your name is safe with me." She did not let anyone speak, and no one dared interrupt. Her eyes fell on Suraya next. "The sad one," she said, but she was sighing it. "I am told you speak many languages." She stopped to let Suraya speak.

"Many languages," Suraya repeated in a faded tone. She looked to her uncle expectantly. "I suppose," she said. Nichara knew this was an exaggeration; Suraya knew much Pha'dughnain, Marajan, and little Domnu.

"You suppose only?" Makka, who had disliked Suraya from the beginning, made an exasperated sound. Her fingers were curled on her hips, her chin jutted forward, her eyebrows were raised. "I want to know if this is true!"

"She speaks Domnu, Your Grace," Naphtali assured her. "Pha'dughnain—as her mother taught her. She is Marajan, but her mother is Pha'dughnain."

"She has the look of them," the queen remarked. "Her eyes are not green, though, like some of the Pha'dughnain here. And her hair is fine, a lighter brown." She studied Suraya slowly. She was staring hard into her eyes, and Nichara wondered if she was searching for intelligence in them, or happiness—something beyond the sadness that was angering her so much. "You will stay, then," the queen said with finality. Suraya became wide-eyed and flustered out of desperation.

"Uncle!" she cried. "I want to be with you. I feel safe with you." All her anger at him vanished suddenly.

"You are safest here in the castle."

"With that Marajan bitch watching me?" Suraya sputtered, flinching at her own words. Her pleading became a language Nichara could not understand. Many of the others in the room understood her, though, and they began to whisper amongst themselves.

"Suraya, I will be with you," Nichara said, desperate to make her tears stop for the queen was appearing to regret the presence of the Mummer strangers.

"He says you are a dancer," Makka continued. "You will dance when I command it. I want entertainment at supper—so that the Marajans will not suspect any displeasure at the company in me. The Mummers know how to make me merry, even though I have trouble imagining you will just by yourself. You are permitted to wear your mask sometimes, but show your face enough to assure the Marajans you are not some Pha'dughnain spy in my castle."

"What will I do?" Nichara asked, looking at Naphtali rather than the queen. It was still strange to be able to look into his real face—this Prince Lochan in the Mummer Naphtali's stead. "I can't show my face to anyone here. I must… hide my face from an entire country so that I can hide it from one woman."

"It makes you wish there were no such things as faces," Naphtali said, smiling a little though his brow was still wrinkled with worry.

"No!" Nichara said. "And I don't want to go away from you, either. Who will watch the night when I sleep?"

He motioned at the room. "They will," he answered, knowing that Nichara would not accept any other answer but that he would watch. "Each warrior and refugee here, and every merrow that sees night better than any Pha'dughnain. Queen Makka will watch over you and Suraya. What better eyes for my sister's child and princess I was once to marry?"

"How will you hide me?" Nichara asked the queen. "Lock me up in this room?" She had grown so accustomed to traveling so freely with the Mummers that walls and doors and ceilings were almost prisons whenever she encountered them.

"You and that one will be like one person," Makka said. "Except she will be the one to show her face. You are alike in age and height. Your hair is slightly darker, I think, but who will know the difference? Her voice is softer, but that can be remedied. You are an actress, after all."

"I don't understand… Your Majesty."

"You can take turns leaving this room. If you are careful—and you must be very careful—everyone will think you are one person under the mask."

The merrow Edenhe was standing beside her now, her long fingers on Makka's shoulder. She said something in her low voice, the movements of her hands the only hints Nichara could find to understand her quick speech and foreign words. She understood one word in all of it: help.

"She says she knows us from our boat," Naphtali said. "We helped them out of Maraja's cold sea when they journeyed there the first time. She said the cold water weakened them and that many of them would have perished retreating home. She thanks us."

Edenhe returned to her basin and sat inside it, her hair floating around her and her eyes closed almost peacefully. Nichara supposed she knew Daniyel since he was with her that day he decided to stay out of his sea—and Nichara tried to comfort herself by supposing Daniyel wanted to die. She wondered if Edenhe had inquired after him.

"What are they doing now? Going back—they need to cross mountains… Why not go… through Pha'dora? Their own people are there." Nichara shook her head in her hands. "I don't understand."

"They need Domnu help—and to help their own trapped people. Many Pha'dughnain came to Domnu generations ago to start a new life here away from conflict—sometimes with the East people and always with the Marajans. Now they're trapped within the city walls because the Marajans will not let them out," Naphtali said.

"Why do they need our help?" Nichara demanded. "Surely these Pha'dughnain that have been living here for generations—as you put it—have learned Domnu customs… and language."

"They have lived separately. It was easy for them to be rounded up and taken out of the city. They lived together, and few learned for trading reasons. Those were the ones most known in the city. They were taken first because of their knowledge, and because it made it more difficult for the rest to understand what was going to happen to them."Naphtali was reciting everything as if out of a book. He reached for his mask and solemnly covered his face with it.

"There is a door there," Queen Makka said, thrusting her finger at the ground. "There are stairs that go down. It is an underground passage for the royal family to use if there is dire need of it. It ends not far from the river, so it is convenient." She kicked aside a pile of clothes that the merrows never used. Indeed, there in the floor was a small door with a latch.

Nichara felt herself shaking, her own voice inside her head screaming that she run away. "Let me go with you!" she pleaded, wrapping her fingers around Naphtali's arm so hard she hoped wildly that she would bruise him. "I'll hate you for leaving me here! I want to be with the Mummers. Who will help Calliope if Suraya is not there? She is always sad now, and her bones are ailing her." She paused thoughtfully. "Who will watch Daniyel?" She saw Suraya bite her lip. "And what good is a Mummer in the castle if Marajans will spread their bad name? Because they will now, won't they? They'll say the Mummers have a Pha'dughnain leader… They're waiting for you at the Warrior's Eye!"

"Waiting there?" Suraya gasped. "Daniyel!"

"He got away," Naphtali said quickly.

"How do you know?"

"I was there tonight and I saw him."

Suraya appeared as if she didn't believe him. "Oh," she said.

"The Mummers are not ruined, my girl," Makka said. "They are loved by even us. The Marajans love them."

Naphtali intervened with his own words.

"They will say a merrow ruled them, yes, but others will say the Marajans tore them apart. Suraya will be safe here because she is not green-eyed and dark-haired—but Marajan-mannered and beautiful," Naphtali said. He tapped the secret door with his boot. "I will go out this way," he said. "I put a letter in Hala's mask saying to go out of the city. Queen Makka will send her own Donnu guard to escort them out of the city gates. A servant girl will go with them—as Nichara. Surely they will know how many of us there are… No one has seen Nichara as herself. And as for me… Someone told me to flee in the night."

"Your plan will not work," Suraya said.

"It will," Makka assured her crossly. "I will call it blasphemous to think otherwise."

Naphtali touched the corner of Suraya's lip. "You must smile a little more," he said gently, but she hit his hand away. He said nothing and stooped to undo the latch. "Hala will bring my things to me." When he lifted the door, water that had been splashed out of the basins began to drip inside. He pulled down his mask to better see where he was going.

"Your Majesty, I thank you for all you have done," he said, climbing down.

Suraya was crying now, her sobs piercing the hushed silence.

"Hadha Lochan!" one of the Pha'dughnain cried. "Bebh'nech!" Edenhe said the same, her head bowed, and Nichara wondered if it was Naphtali she had greeted with 'Your Majesty' when he first entered the room, not Queen Makka. She bid one of the younger merrows to bring the Pha'dughnain prince a weapon from the floor. The boy hurried eagerly to the door and lowered it inside. "Hadha, Hadha," he said, waiting for Naphtali to take it.

Nichara watched him disappear, too angry with him to say goodbye. She knew Suraya was, too, her eyes red and drowned in tears. Nichara did not cry; she allowed herself to appear angry, but refused to annoy the queen with tears. Daylight poured into the room through the window and she looked around her at the faces whose attentions were on her and Suraya now that Naphtali was gone. The door slammed shut, startling her.

"Food will come in an hour," Makka said, going to the door. "The chamber pot is over there. There is a dry space on the floor for sleeping there with the Pha'dughnain. Blankets will be brought as well. Neither of you are to leave this room without permission—not unless I come to fetch you or send someone to do it. The door is locked. Only answer if you hear two knocks—Marajans like to beat doors with their fists."

Edenhe swiftly took her turn to speak. Suraya listened intently.

"She says she will go… to the river… today… to search for more of her people," she said. She paused to listen to the rest of what the merrow was saying.

"What else?"

"I… I don't know, Your Majesty…"

"Why not?"

"She… she spoke too quickly," Suraya said, wiping her eyes. "Fash—facha… ji reaha… reachir?" she said, fumbling for merrow words to replace Pha'dughnain ones. Speak slowly, she was saying; even Nichara understood that. But Queen Makka threw up her hands.

"Only she can go when she wants," she said. "You tell her that—if you can." And then she left, closing the door hard behind her.