Gates

Interlude: Number Eleven

In Which Nasti Reveals a Secret

Posted by Darth Krzysztof

10 Gozran (IV), 4720 AR

The sun’s been down an hour when Chendrea the White greets Nasti at the door, dressed in deep red pajamas made of silk or something like it. “Wow,” Nasti says. “Those are – you look beautiful.”

“Why, thank you, darling. So do you! Please, come in.” She sees the leather tube Nasti’s cradling under her arm. “What have you got there?”

“I’ll show you…” She looks around the shop. “Do you have a window that faces south?”

“Yes, upstairs. But you already knew that, Nastassia, you scheming demon. You’ve been coming here for two years.”

“Right. I’ve been waiting for this particular astronomical event for my chance to visit your bedroom.” Nasti attempts a sly smirk. “And to think, all this time, I could have just said that I wanted to fuck.”

Chendrea bursts into merry laughter and even blushes a bit. “It wouldn’t be the most indelicate overture I’ve ever received, nor the least welcome, but I know you can do better, darling.”

“And you deserve better,”

“You’re godsdamn right. Come on, then; let’s see your big, shiny telescope.”

Chendrea takes Nasti’s hand and leads her through the back room and up a narrow stair into her cozy living space, bounded by the angles of the roof, and illuminated by everburning candles. She has her own laboratory, a personal library, a comfortable reading nook by a window, three separate wardrobes, and a large, luxurious bed under a skylight. Thriving houseplants have claimed one corner for themselves, but everything is orderly and clean. Even the fireplace is tidy.

Nasti thinks of her own home, and a wave of shame crashes over her.

She heads straight for the southernmost window and removes her telescope from its case. As she fumbles with the folding tripod, she feels, more than hears, Chendrea’s approach. “Nasti? Darling? Are you all right?”

She can count the number of times Chen’s called her “Nasti” on her left hand (the four-fingered one); the wizard knows something’s wrong. “Your home is so much nicer than mine.”

Chendrea sits on the floor so she’s in Nasti’s field of vision, looking up at her. “You shouldn’t be embarrassed by your place, darling. You’re living like a queen, compared to the kip I had when I was starting out.”

“I don’t believe you.” Nasti can already feel herself easing.

“That doesn’t make it untrue, darling. I started with nothing, but I found my way. The Scriveners’ Guildhouse is comfortably profitable, and I’ve been at it for a while, now. Besides, now that you’re making adventuring money, you’ll have them building your own stronghold in no time.”

Or I could just move in with you. Nasti doesn’t dare voice this thought – not yet. “About that…my cousins and I have to go investigate that hunting lodge.”

“Ah, yes; I feared you might. Are you leaving at first light?” She enjoys Nasti’s surprised reaction. “I told you, I tried the adventuring life, so I know some of the traditions.”

“Yes, at first light. I’m sorry; I just found out today. I won’t be able to finish your boots before we leave, and – “

Chendrea makes a shh sound. “Let’s not dwell on it, shall we? Let’s just enjoy this night we have together. We can make a memory to keep both of us warm while you’re gone.” Her tone makes it clear that this isn’t a negotiation. “Now. What heavenly body are you showing me?”

The conjunction of Liavara and Bretheda brings the two planets close enough to view them together, surrounded by a scattering of visible moons. Nasti takes Chendrea on a tour of the solar system, even showing her the space where Aucturn hides from all but the largest telescopes. This leads her to tell Chendrea about her occult education in Ustalav, skirting around the secret society parts, and that leads to a recounting of her journey to the Valley of Obelisks. She finds it so soothing to share herself in this manner that weeks of fatigue have overtaken her by the time her story ends.

“It seems so improbable,” Chendrea says, “that you’ve come all the way from Caliphas, and up through the Hold of bloody Belkzen, just to land in my lap. Well, my metaphorical lap. For now.”

Nasti suddenly envies Canter’s ability to occupy any lap. “I don’t believe in coincidences, Chen; I serve Magdh-the-Three.”

“Then I thank all the dark machineries of fate for the kindnesses they’ve shown me this week.” Chendrea’s smile carries some sadness. “It’s getting late, darling. You have a long day ahead of you, and you mustn’t let me keep you from resting.” She notices Nasti looking past her at that amazing bed. “You’re welcome to stay here, of course. In fact, I rather insist that you do. You’ve never experienced anything like my bed, darling – even without me in it. Don’t worry; I’ve slept in the reading nook before.”

“Well. I mean. It’s huge. I’m sure there’s room for both.” Truthfully, three people could probably share it comfortably. Nasti wonders what magic was used to get it into this room in the first place. “It’d serve no purpose to displace you.”

“Okay. If you change your mind, though, just say the word.” Chendrea’s excitement starts to get the better of her, and she seems a little flustered, for once: “I probably have some pajamas that’ll fit you… except for your whole tail… situation…”

“I usually just sleep in my smalls.” Nasti’s already removed her boots and begun loosening the knot on the sash closing her kimono. “Can I trust you to restrain yourself?”

Chen crosses the room in a flash and scampers onto the bed, leaning far over to pat the other side in a manner meant to seem inviting. “I promise to behave like a gentleman,” she says, though her smile says she’ll struggle with it.

“Won’t that be a sight to see.” Nasti squirms out of her leggings, draping them over the desk’s chair along with her kimono. I’ve never bared myself like this, she thinks. I mean, I’ve been naked, or close enough, around my cousins, my family… but I’ve always felt this… shame.

This is different, though! I want Chen to see me. To look at me… to want me. And she does, but it’s more than that. She gathers her jewelry in a crystal bowl on the desk. I’m pretty sure she’s actually in love with me. But that’s why I’m so determined to take my time… it’s worth it to get this right.

Down to her shift, shorts, and socks, Nasti crosses the room. She still hates how her body’s too averse to physical labor to be lean, and can’t build curves on a foundation that’s all elven angles – but Chendrea can’t mask the hunger in her eyes. If she’s even trying.

The bed’s tall enough that Nasti has to climb up; as soon as she’s aboard, she sinks a bit into the mattress, like it’s a living thing that feeds on her exhaustion, and she lets out a long, deep sigh.

“I know, right?” Chendrea grins broadly, looking at Nasti from what feels like two leagues away.

“I’d never leave this bed if it were mine,” Nasti says, barely joking.

“It’s a struggle, some days.”

“Thank you for this.”

“Any time.”

After a moment of blissful silence, Nasti decides that the time has come. “I have a secret.” Her attempt to sound casual misfires, making it more an announcement than a confession..

“Oh?” Chendrea shifts nearly a foot closer.

“Yes. Something I haven’t shared with anyone since I left Caliphas. But you deserve to know the truth. If it changes how you feel about me, it’s better that you hear it here, and now, from me.”

Like a fish on a line, she reels Chendrea closer still. “Are you serious?”

No. “Yes. I only hesitate to tell you because it will become your burden, as well as mine.”

“Aren’t burdens easier to bear with help?”

I was hoping you’d say that. “Very well, then.” There’s no turning back now. Nasti pulls her knees to her chest and peels off her socks, discarding them on the floor. As Chendrea sees the truth for herself, Nasti says it aloud: “I have eleven toes.”

“Boneyard take me.” Chendrea gets to her knees and crawls over for a closer look. Sure enough, there are five on the left and six on the right – perfectly formed, just… extra. “The Abyss shorted you a finger for another toe?”

“Yes. It’s so embarrassing.” But Nasti can’t muster any shame in the light of Chen’s fascination.

“Why, though? Maybe it’s a blessing! Maybe you’re lucky. Look at lucky little Miss Number Eleven, here.”

She wants to touch it. I want to let her. “You’re amazing at humoring me.”

“Indeed I am, darling, but that’s not what I’m doing here. Number Eleven is as beautiful to me as the rest of you is. She isn’t a deal-breaker.”

“I was just teasing you, really.”

“I gathered. At first, I thought you were going to tell me about the Esoteric Order of the Palatine Eye.”

Nasti sits up, a bit thrown by the question. “I haven’t yet, have I?”

“I suppose you just did. I did figure it out, though. I’m pretty smart, darling.” Chendrea starts brushing her lovely white hair. Was she born with white hair? She’s middle-aged for a human, Nasti thinks, but how do half-elves mature, usually? She has so many questions, but she spends most of her time answering Chen’s.

“And smartly pretty. Do you know much about them? About us?” You’re still one of them, technically.

“Only by reputation. I’ve heard that you had a hand in stopping a disaster in ‘18, and that there are about a million ranks, and that initiating through them costs a fortune.”

“That’s basically right. I’m only a member because my parents belonged. The upper echelons are very weird – I don’t mind when people call it a cult, or a scam – but at my level we mostly work against the Whispering Way – and, more recently, the Night Heralds. Do you know them?”

Chen’s hairbrush is a simple tool with a worn rosewood handle; she’s probably owned it for decades. “I do. Did they send you here? The Eye, that is?”

“Yes. I’m meant to be the Order’s eyes and ears in the Valley, but in truth, I’ve hardly corresponded with them at all. There’s been nothing to report… well, until now, with all this Slaughtergarde business.” Nasti decides not to go into why she thinks she was chosen for this “honor,” as it’s all conjecture.

“So. You belong to a secret society and you have eleven toes. Do you have any other secrets I should know about this early on?”

“Not that I can think of.” I feel a lot more guilty about flirting with Naryalla than I did on the night I was doing it; does that count? Nasti doesn’t think so. This is where she wants to be, and who she wants to be with.

“I’m not sure I believe you. Shall I check you for extra nipples? Witches have lots of nipples, right? Some on your back, perhaps?” She sets the brush on her nightstand, as if to free her hands for this task, smiling with glee.

“Not now. Maybe when I get back.” Nasti yawns across the back half of this statement. She closes her eyes, and the outside world begins to slip away at once. “Can’t be too careful, these days.”

“As you wish.” She hears the pout in Chendrea’s voice.

After a moment or ten: “Chen? Do you have any secrets I should know about this early on?”

“Yes.”

She doesn’t elaborate, and Nasti’s too exhausted to pursue it.

Nasti’s on the edge of sleep when Chendrea says, “Promise me one thing.”

“Mmm?”

“Promise me you’ll come back from the hunting lodge.” Nasti cracks her eyes open to find that Chendrea’s smile has gone. “Please, Nastassia. You don’t even have to promise to come back to me. I’m not looking for another marriage proposal, here. Just say you’ll come back.”

Another proposal? “Chen, if you – “

She feels that Chendrea’s taken her hand, and tightly. “Nasti. Please. I need this. Just say it.”

“Of course. I’ll come back, Chendrea. I’m coming back to you. I swear it.”

“Thank you.” The pressure on Nasti’s hand eases, but Chen doesn’t let go. She feels Chen’s lips kiss her forehead. “I’m sorry to trouble you, darling. Sleep well.” She then begins to sing, quietly:

“Dream now of wide blue seas,
and of green trees growing…”

Nasti knows this lullaby well, this song that was old when Aroden was young, for her mother sang it to her all the time, How strange, how wonderful, to remember Mother here in the greatest bed in Avistan, how rare to feel the warmth of that love without the pain of her loss. As sleep comes to claim her, she’s sure she hears Mother softly singing along with Chendrea:

“Dream of these things, my love,
and I will dream of you.”

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DarthKrzysztof

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