Moonlight

 

It is not the moon who makes your seeds grow, but it is the moon who tells you when to plant them ~ Ciara

Prologue

The candles cast a flickering light across the tent, making grotesque shadows on the sides. It was empty except for two figures. A cloaked woman wiped a small cloth across the brow of a girl who was stretched out on the bed. The girl on the bed gasped in pain and she raised herself a little. Her forehead was wiped again and her companion chanted a strange melody as she did so. It soothed the girl, although her pain deepened, but she knew the end was near and she gave an extra effort.

The cloaked woman suddenly stood up and pushed back the opening flap of the tent, letting the faint yellow moonlight stream in. She held up the small baby and spoke some words in an ancient language. The exhausted girl on the bed looked at her and nodded. She had to accept the consequences, however much it hurt. But it was going to hurt even more if she did not do this.

The baby was cleaned and wrapped and taken away. The girl wept. Finally she dried her eyes and stared at the moon, speaking the same words the woman had spoken before. She repeated them twice, paused and then added a few hesitant ones of her own. They were not according to the standard formula and she racked her brains to piece bits together. MiŻnai would understand her, she realised, whatever she made of it. MiŻnai had never let anyone down -- she would take care of her baby.

 

Chapter 1

"On July 22 we are celebrating our hundredth anniversary, as is well known to you," Miss Kirivalo announced. "Perhaps you did not yet know that your parents have been invited too!" A collective groan went through the assembled mass of girls, though they really liked showing off their school to their parents and their parents to their school, deep inside.

Meri walked home with her cousin and best friend Susan. They were discussing Parents' Day and whether they liked the concept or not. At the end of the street they crossed the busy square, but it was market day and they had to cross it on the west side. Susan paused at the bottom of the steps to the Moon Temple. It was a hot day and the prospect of entering the cool shadows of the temple was very alluring. She knew from experience that they would not encounter any other possibility of shadows down the road. Not before they were home and they would be too hot to do any homework. She looked up hesitantly, not knowing if it was forbidden to enter during the day. They had never done so before.

"What is it?" Meri asked.

"I want to go in."

"Why?"

"It's hot."

Meri saw her point. It was bound to be cool in the temple. But she also understood Susan's hesitation. This was not your average moon temple. This was the ultimate Moon Temple, inhabited by the High Priestess, who probably slept during the day, considering that Moon services were only at night. The High Priestess Ciara was an important figure and the highest spiritual authority. Would they dare to disturb her? They had only ever seen her at night, a goddess-like figure wrapped in robes, unreal and untouchable, with all the scented candles making it even worse.

People were sitting on the steps, looking at the crowds passing below. They did not look at Susan and Meri climbing up, or only briefly, assuming that they were only seeking a position on the steps themselves. "Meri!" an angry voice called suddenly and she looked up. It was her father, coming out of the temple. Since Ian was the highest authority as far as law and order were concerned, it was not strange that he should sometimes have to visit the High Priestess' assistants -- Ciara herself being too important and busy to talk about mundane matters. But Meri did not understand why he was so angry to see her.

"What are you doing here?" he demanded, glaring down at his daughter fiercely.

"We were hot," she stammered, feeling very small and noticing that Susan was trying to hide behind her. Her father could be very stern if he liked. He could not be weak-hearted with criminals. "We thought it might be cool in there."

"I don't want you to go in there," Ian snapped. "You have no business there. They'll only turn your head with their nonsense."

"But they don't turn yours and you've been in there," Meri pointed out in a small voice. What did he mean, nonsense?

That remark unsettled him a little. "But I am older," he snapped finally. "I have lived."

If he was going to behave like that on Parents' Day, Meri was not sure she wanted him to attend and she pouted when he took her roughly by the arm and dragged her down the steps. It was all very well to have a father in a respectable position, but if he treated her like a little girl in public, well, then she would rather have a waste collector for a father. She sniffled.

"Stop crying," he told her.

"No," she said stubbornly. "What did I do wrong?" She looked over her shoulder and saw that Susan trod after them patiently, staying behind just far enough to stay out of reach because it had been her idea to go into the temple, but she was never going to admit that.

"I don't want you near any temples, that's all," he said gruffly. "It's all show and no substance."

Meri looked at him with wide eyes. "Was the High Priestess angry with you?" She knew he had to discuss things at the temple regularly. If people were morally flawless, he would have no job and the High Priestess would not have one either.

"I never get to see the damn High Priestess," he replied. "Does she exist?"

Meri gasped. "But we saw her at the last full moon!" She looked around herself to see if anyone had heard. She hoped not. People who were irreverent about Ciara were usually locked up. Right, by her father and he would not lock himself up, but it was still odd to hear him of all people say such a thing.

Ian guffawed. He thought about explaining that they had seen a figure from afar -- a figure which could have been himself if he had put on a few robes -- but he did not want to tell Meri what to believe. She should find it out for herself. "We did," he admitted.

"So!" Meri said triumphantly. "She exists." She had been too young when Ciara had been instated, but she had regularly seen her in function afterwards -- always from afar, because everyone wanted to see her. Her father was silent for the rest of the way and Meri felt she had won the argument.

 

Chapter 2

Ian knew Meri would be puzzled about why she was not allowed to go into the temple, since it was not forbidden by the authorities. He passed through the streets quickly, not giving her the opportunity to question him before they came to their house. They shared the cool and spacious house with his sister Ania and her family. She gave him a significant look when they entered and he quickly disappeared into his private rooms. Women were always interested in his position and he had no lack of female admirers. His sister's glance had meant that he was late for an appointment with one of the most tenacious of them. His sister did not have to worry. He knew Meri never liked them, whether they ignored her or bought her expensive presents. They were not scheming to get a daughter, only a husband, or rather, consequence. He was fully aware of that, more aware than Ania supposed. Older sisters always thought younger brothers lacked a few brain cells or needed extra caring. The widow that awaited him now was not only attractive but also demanding and spoilt, nasty character traits which surfaced more and more now that she thought she had him. He washed and changed quickly. Vyzona was waiting for him in the greenery. She gave a little delighted squeal as she saw him and immediately clung about him when he had just changed into cool and fresh clothes. Ian was not really pleased with her.

"It's so hot in here," she pouted.

"No wonder," he answered brusquely. "Don't embrace me then." Vyzona released him, pouting and making sure he understood her feelings perfectly. However, he was not open to them. She was becoming a drag, he thought. Much too clingy. He did not flinch when she left in a huff. Whether she was truly easily touched or merely trying to elicit some reaction, he did not know or care to know, but in either case he did not feel inclined to react. He stood looking at a green plant with small yellow flowers. Somehow it made him think of his daughter. She had grown it after she had cut off a twig at Fernek's house. It had come a long way. It did not look as if it had ever been a small twig. And it grew flowers too now. It was amazing.

Thinking of Meri made him remember where he had found her today and what he had said to her. No doubt all the females in the family were now conspiring to question him about why they had not been allowed to go into the temple. His sister would lend the girls a sympathetic ear and he knew he was not tough enough to withstand the three of them, whatever his sister said about his tendency to be arrogant. But that was the same as telling Ania she spent too much, when he knew she did not, really. They knew each other.

During dinner when they were so exceptionally quiet, Ian could see the girls were planning to go over to the temple anyway. Despite the fact that he would have done exactly the same in their position, he did not like the thought, not now there were fishy things going on over there. It was still a secret that something was amiss, because the temple officials hoped that the theft of one of the ritual necklaces could be solved before it leaked out. He only knew the temple's clerks, but now he had come across a wider variety of people there and it had given him a feeling of uneasiness. None were talkative and there was an atmosphere of secrecy throughout the building. They had been condescending and patronising, acting as though he would never be able to understand what it was they did there, but he suspected that it was just to cover up the insignificance of it all.

Perhaps if he casually said that he would be spending a lot of time on an investigation in the Moon Temple, the girls would reconsider their plans. But he was torn between the urgency with which he had been pressed to keep secret about the case and his paternal and avuncular concern. He decided to give it another day, to see what the girls would do.

After dinner he checked the messages that had come for him. Among them was a plain white envelope. He knew what was in it -- a regular payment arriving every four weeks. He deposited the money in the small safe under the floorboards. The amounts varied slightly, but any installment that was missed was made up for later with a slightly higher sum of money the next time. He knew what it was for, but he had never told a soul. This was a secret between him and the mysterious sender, whose identity was not known to him either -- only the purpose.


The next day was a school day and Meri and Susan would not get the opportunity to visit the temple until after school. The sun had not yet risen above the roof of the buildings framing the square, but it promised to be another sunny day and the moon was no longer visible. They looked at the huge building in awe as they passed it. Nobody was sitting on the steps yet -- it was too early. All students hurried to their schools and older people to their jobs.

Fortunately lessons and lectures were over soon that day and they were free to explore. They first found a seat all the way at the top of the steps, leaning against a huge column very innocently, even making a show of pretending to be studying. From this point they could observe everyone who entered and left the temple, as well as everyone who passed in the square. From their own experience they knew it was nearly impossible for someone standing below to look at everyone seated on the steps and certainly not without them noticing such a person. After sitting there for a while and being sure that nobody was looking at them anymore, they disappeared behind the column.

Susan panted with excitement. "Shall we leave our bags here?" They would be less agile carrying bags and who knew if they had to run.

"So everyone will know we are inside?" Meri asked skeptically. Perhaps her father would come by again and he would certainly recognise their bags, considering that he was always removing them from his lazy chair where they frequently dumped them.

"But we can't lie about who we are if we're caught inside with our books. I have my name on them."

After arguing about this for a while, they left their bags outside, hidden behind the column. Hopefully nobody would find or steal them. Inside they found a salutary chilliness compared to the heat outdoors and darkness with particles of dust caught floating in the sunrays coming in through small high windows. It was also very quiet and it smelled quite strongly of incense. There was no door, they thought at first, but then they noticed that the big wooden panels were open doors. Before them was the main public area. At night it would different, because then there would be lights and people, but now it was shadowy and deserted. The benches were placed in a crescent, facing an elevated stage with a table with a richly embroidered red cloth on it. Statues and symbolic carvings stared down from the walls and recesses.

Meri and Susan looked around for a while and then sat down in the protective shadows of the statue of Serita, a former High Priestess, according to the name plate. There was too much to take in at once, but so far it seemed a pretty dull and uncorrupting place, certainly for almost nineteen-year olds. Inside it was smaller than the outside of the building made people believe. They dropped under their seats nevertheless when footsteps came closer, not trusting that the shadows would hide them completely.

"I need to see her!" a voice barked.

"Uncle Ian!" Susan whispered in shock.

"Dad!" Meri whispered at the same time, grasping her cousin's arm. She was sure they were going to be discovered.

"I must talk to Siarsal," Ian could be heard saying. Apparently he had paused right on the other side of the statue and the girls trembled. Why should he not circle the statue and look under a bench to see whose hearts were beating and who were breathing so loudly?

"You can't," another male voice answered.

"But you say this Siarsal knows everything."

"Yes, she is a Wise Woman, but not someone you can question."

"Fine, then I won't do this case," Ian said. "Find someone else. I have enough to supervise as it is. I really don't need an investigation like this one where everyone is obstructing me." He sounded a little further away now and the girls were ready to breathe out. It sounded as if he was going to leave without seeing them. The conversation made no sense to them. They were only interested in if he was going.

"But Ciara cannot perform the ceremonies without the necklace," the other voice protested desperately. "And it is too delicate an investigation for your subordinates to handle."

"It's up to you," Ian said abruptly. "Don't give me any ceremonial arguments. I'm not susceptible. I don't care whether Ciara can do the ceremonies or not. How important can a necklace be?"

You're right! Necklaces aren't important. Go! Meri urged him silently. The other voice remained silent, obviously shocked to the core. Yes! Don't prevent him from leaving!

"Why don't you ask the all-knowing Siarsal what happened to the necklace?" Ian suggested.

"I suggest that you attend a ceremony instead of mocking us."

"But there cannot be any ceremonies without the necklace, you just said so." Ian was too down to earth for this sort of thing, but he knew people revelled in the mysteriousness of something like this. It was all utter nonsense to him, for a necklace to be indispensable. Necklaces did not have any magical powers.


After a long and deliberately circuitous route, the man showed Ian into a small antechamber. Ian had tried to make a mental map of the place, but he had given up after they had changed floors for the third time. Nevertheless, the building seemed to be neatly geometrical and he guessed there were inner courtyards that they kept circling. Perhaps an old history book at the library would have a floor plan. He would look it up.

"It's the Commander," the man announced to a person in the inner room and then nodded at Ian to indicate that he was free to enter.

He did so, feeling somewhat ridiculous. Someone in his position was not often kept waiting. But then, did his sister not always tell him to keep both feet firmly on the ground? He would have to, with these people who were in contact with the higher powers. In case they existed, he had better not offend any, however, and he entered warily. The occupant of the room was a small woman, grey-haired and of indefinite age, but definitely over sixty. Upon closer inspection he adjusted this estimate to definitely over seventy, perhaps even eighty, but her eyes were bright and sharp amidst the wrinkles. "Commander," she nodded.

Why did he have the feeling that she knew him? She looked at him as if she did, but he could not interpret that look. "Do I have the pleasure of talking to Siarsal?" he asked.

"I don't know whether it's such a pleasure for you," she said sharply. "But I am Siarsal."

"And you know everything." That must be how she knew him, although he did not understand how it worked. Perhaps she was one of those people who had visions. "That's why I wondered if you knew what happened to that necklace."

She nodded thoughtfully. "It's easier to ask a person than to do some work of your own, isn't it?"

Her remark baffled him. "Well," he said a little nonplussed. His work was exactly what he was doing. "My work consists of finding information, including finding people who can give me that information."

"It would be too easy," she commented.

"What would?"

"It would be too easy if I knew what had happened to it. Don't you think I would have told them?"

"I'm not sure. I don't know how things work here," Ian narrowed his eyes. "People here seem to like secrets. Perhaps you would revel in knowing something others don't," he said boldly.

"Why should I then tell you?" Siarsal asked shrewdly. "I'd revel in knowing something you don't."

Ian sighed and wondered how he was ever going to get anything out of her. She seemed to enjoy playing games. Nevertheless, he was not planning on leaving here without any information.


The girls scrambled out from under the bench, catching their breaths. "Let's go," Susan suggested. "Before he comes back."

Meri agreed. "We'll go back another time." It seemed much darker suddenly and when they got to the door, they realised why. The heavy doors through which a little light had come before were now closed and no pulling and pushing could get them to open.

 

Chapter 3

Siarsal studied the drawing of the necklace that Ian had had made. It had not been difficult, since there had been another one that resembled it. She then studied the man before her. Of course she knew about him -- the Commander was a reasonably public figure. He could be hard and arrogant and some people pitied his daughter. However, that was about the extent of her knowledge, because he never revealed anything. People would like to know about the girl's mother, but he never alluded to her and people assumed it had been an unhappy affair. Which was very likely, because he seemed to be a very difficult person to have an affair with. More than one woman complained that he simply did not care about anything but his job.

"Is it the necklace?" Ian asked her.

"Yes, it is."

"Have you seen it?"

"Before it disappeared or after?"

"After," he said patiently. Perhaps he was wasting his time here. This woman knew nothing and she was only trying to be interesting. "I want to talk to Ciara."

"You can't."

"If you don't take me to her, I'm going to come back with a search party," he said calmly. "And we'll search this temple until we find her." He did not know if such a threat would work or indeed if it was possible to carry out. The High Priestess was probably immune and a temple a sanctuary.

Siarsal let him wait a long time for an answer and then got up and walked to a door. "Do you insist?"

"I insist."

"I will show you something." She preceded him through a long corridor and entered a small dressing room. Ornamental robes hung on racks on one side of the room. "Whoever wears the robe is Ciara. We have a lot of Lower Priestesses."

Ian did not believe her. "Impossible. Her predecessor was clearly one person. Don't fool me." He had often gone to watch the ceremonies when he was young, not for the ceremony itself, but to catch a glimpse of the High Priestess. He had been often enough to know that Ishala had always been the same woman.

"Ishala."

"Where is she? What happened to her?" After Ishala had been succeeded by Ciara, he had been to the temple only once, but Ciara had not had the same grace that had appealed to him and in his eyes she had been a poor substitute. He had not gone again. But if Ishala had always been the same, then Ciara had to be one woman as well.

"Ishala is dead."

That was a bit of a shock. Surely Ishala could not have been that old? "I want to see Ciara."

"You already said so," Siarsal commented. "You can't see Ciara. There is no Ciara."

"I'm sorry. Then I'm not going to look for your precious necklace," Ian said decidedly. "Let Ciara know."


Meri and Susan explored the temple. There did not seem to be an exit that was open. All doors were locked. Yet Ian had to have gone through one of them. They sat down to wait for someone to release them from their prison. Getting into trouble was now inevitable, either here or at home, since they were running late. A door was opened in a corner and the girls sat up straight. They stared at the figure in the yellow robe that climbed the platform and lit two huge candles. It was a woman.

"Ask how we can get out of here," Susan whispered to Meri.

"No," Meri stared transfixed as the yellow-robed woman placed her hands on the table and seemed to be looking directly at them. Had she seen them? But they were sitting in the shadows. For a while they looked at each other, until the woman descended the steps to the side of the platform and advanced towards them. Meri was terrified. If it had been a man coming towards her, she would have run, but women were not as menacing. Or rather, this woman did not look very menacing. Meri relaxed a little.

The woman's eyes were heavily made up so it could be seen from a distance. The hood of her yellow robe was hanging loosely over her hair, which turned out to be very dark red when she passed through a thin sunbeam. "Did you get locked in?" she inquired in a rather friendly voice.

"Y-Y-Yes," Meri stammered. She dared not ask if the woman was Ciara, but she had a strong suspicion that it was the case, because of the way her eyes were made up. But she was not very old. She must have been a very young lunar maiden.

"How did you get locked in?" she asked. "Didn't they see you when they locked the door?" The temple was always open, except for the short while when the night service had to be prepared.

The truth would sound odd, but Meri was too afraid to come up with a lie. "We were under a bench."

"May I ask why?" the woman's purple lips twitched.

"Uncle Ian didn't want us to go here and we didn't want him to see us," Susan answered.

"Your Uncle Ian is here?" the woman's attitude became noticeably more stiff.

Meri nodded, looking at her curiously. "Someone took him to see a Siarsal."

The woman stood motionless, gazing at the floor thoughtfully. "When was that?"

"About fifteen minutes ago."

"Siarsal never talks for very long and nobody wants to be caught by your Uncle Ian," she said mysteriously.

"Why not?" Meri asked. "Do you know him?" She was intrigued.

"I know that you have to have done something wrong to have the Commander after you."

"How do you know his name is Ian?" Meri asked on. She did not feel it necessary to say it was her father.

"I must finish my preparations and then I'll show you the way out," the woman in yellow said hurriedly, going back to the table and busying herself with candles and books. Two minutes later she called them. "Follow me." She pushed aside one of the tapestries to reveal a door and glanced at the girls over her shoulder. "Next time -- I don't know what you're doing here and if you'll be coming back, but I've got a feeling that your Uncle Ian will -- next time, take this door. It can't be locked."

It looked like a cupboard, because the door was barely a metre and a half high and they had to bend over to pass through it. The passage behind the door was just as low and sloped downwards. A gentle draught indicated that fresh air could come in. The girls followed her, wondering why two trespassers had done to deserve to be told about this secret passage.

"You can stand up straight now," the woman told them suddenly. They came into a room with a bench and a table. Tiny round windows provided some light and she led them to the stairs in a corner of the room. "This exit will take you directly onto the street," she explained. "Somewhere down the hill. I can't join you, dressed like this. You'll find it easily. It doesn't matter which direction you take when the passage branches. They both lead outside." She hesitated and added something very odd. "I hope you don't have any property by the seaside -- springtide tonight."

"How do you know?" Susan asked.

"I study those things. I must return. It will be better if you don't know my name. Goodbye." She disappeared back into the dark passage.

Susan and Meri needed some time to let it all sink in and for the first part of the trip back to their bags they were silent. "Do you think that was Ciara?" Meri asked after having thought about it at length.

"She looked like a priestess, but she didn't act like one. Did she mean she was also hiding from Uncle Ian?"

"Women usually don't," Meri remarked sarcastically. "Maybe she has a guilty conscience about something. I think Dad has an investigation here. Oh no! He's found our bags!" she exclaimed in fear when she looked up towards the temple.

Ian was sitting at the top of the steps with their bags, looking bored. "Bags might get stolen," he informed them sternly. "And that's actually what I should have made you believe if I hadn't seen Miriam down there."

"I thought you liked her," said Meri, inwardly rejoicing that he did not seem to like Miriam as much as he let on. She had her reservations about Miriam.

Ian squinted against the sun. "I think she's twenty-five. Where were you? Didn't I catch you here yesterday too?"

"We saw a friend and we had to talk to her," Meri improvised. "There's no harm in sitting here, is there? What are you doing here?"

Ian did not see why she could not be told that it had been an investigation. He was thinking about giving it up anyway, with all the co-operation he was receiving. "Some things were stolen from the temple. It turns out that it was more than just one necklace. Objects have been disappearing over time and nobody noticed until the necklace went missing. What the thief didn't know is that there is a list of ritual objects that is being checked now. Of the first ten items on the list, five could not be found. I don't know if this is a measure of the scale of the theft."

Nobody ever seemed to need those objects and their purpose was vague, even if they had been called indispensable . Not as indispensable as that, Ian thought, if they were never used. That was why he wanted to talk to Ciara, the main user. She would be the one to know when the objects had disappeared or perhaps when they had gone out of use. Even traditions were dynamic and habits changed.

But Ciara was elusive. One the one hand there was a lot of fuss about her needing the necklace, but on the other she did absolutely nothing to get it back, nor did she want to be seen. So what was her problem?

True, she had not been the one who had reported the theft, though she must have noticed it. How devoted a priestess was she? Ian's skepticism about the moon cult grew. However, Ciara's attitude could also mean she interpreted her job differently and in a more modern way, using the old-fashioned objects only for show and not caring if any went missing. She might even sneakily be trying to get rid of the traditional things.

"Oh," said Meri. So that was why the woman in yellow thought that her father would be back. She obviously knew about the thefts. "Did you speak to Ciara yet?" If he said no, then there was a bigger chance of the woman they had seen being Ciara.

"No."

She exchanged a meaningful look with Susan. This was almost enough proof to say it had been Ciara and it was a very fishy case indeed if Ciara had been avoiding her father, almost as if she had had something to do with the thefts. But she could not tell her father that they had been inside. She would talk to Susan to see if they could go to the temple tomorrow at the same time as today. They might see Ciara again and learn more perhaps.

 

Chapter 4

The woman with the elaborate facial make-up sprinkled some water over the flowers. The combined scent of the flowers and the incense made for a nauseating atmosphere, but she and her two assistants were used to it.

Her mind was not on her task at the moment, but on the two girls who had got themselves locked in. The blonde one was Ian's niece and about the same age as her own one would be. She would be the blonde one's cousin. Ciara's hand shook suddenly and she sprinkled her feet instead of the flowers. The other girl had been the same age and she had been most notably suspicious about how she knew Ian, in a more concerned way than a niece would. All the trouble she had gone through to avoid Ian and a worse thing had happened -- she had met her daughter.

How could she ever go peacefully go back to her life now that the intangible figure of her daughter had received a face and a body? Never again would she be able to dismiss thoughts of her now that the ghost had materialised. She had known that seeing her daughter in the flesh would change things and that perhaps even seeing Ian would lead to complications, so she had tried to avoid that. It was not that she felt anything for Ian, except curiosity and a trifle admiration for what he had accomplished, but seeing him would still be dangerous.

"Ciara," one of her assistants said respectfully but warningly and she noticed that she had stood motionless for too long. She recollected herself and continued her work. After all, she had a message to convey tonight -- spring tide. She did nothing but convey messages and as long as people did not know where her messages came from, they revered her.


Ian had ordered Ciara to be arrested for obstructing the inquiries -- and truly, she was, being invisible and mobilising half the temple force just when he wanted to interrogate them. He suspected her hand in that. Four of his officers attended the night service and managed to corner her right after it finished, informing her in polite words that it was advisable to join them voluntarily.

To avoid a scene, she did not protest, but let herself be led to the headquarters meekly. She knew Ian was behind it. He must be pretty annoyed with her. She wondered how it would feel -- if she would feel anything upon seeing him or not. It had been hot during the day, but the earth beamed out all its warmth through the cloudless sky and she was glad for her cloak. With a tug she pulled her hood lower over her hair, feeling very exposed in her yellow cloak, but at the same time very anonymous under her make-up. They could not see the real her.

The headquarters blazed in light compared to the candle-lit temple and Ciara had never been in a place lit so brightly by artificial light. The technique was not used in sacred or historic places, but the Law & Order Headquarters were neither of those. She was shown into a room and they left her there, but suddenly a woman came in. Perhaps they had passed her along the way, but Ciara had not looked at anyone. "The Commander wishes to know your name," the woman said a little bashfully.

"He knows my name, or does he always have random strangers arrested?" Ciara asked. She wondered what Ian was on about. Did he think she would give a false name when she had been abducted from the Moon Temple, caught red-handed at being Ciara? Surely she was not as stupid as that. Or did he think she had been using an assumed name?

"He doesn't. He was told there were more Ciaras," the female officer flushed.

"My name is Ciara. Tell him that." She did not understand the comment about more Ciaras. Yes, there would be a few small girls called Ciara, just like a few women of her generation were called Ishala. But in the temple? No.

"He also wishes to know if you are wearing something underneath your cloak." The female officer did not say Ian had called Ciara a clown and while she understood his line of thinking, it was very odd to ask such a question. If Ciara was wearing something underneath, she would be requested to take off the cloak so she would appear less clown-like and more normal.

Ciara's eyes flashed as she deliberately took the question the wrong way. "Let him come to check for himself if he wishes to know," she snapped. That man and she had a daughter? It was better not to tell him that, nor to remind herself of the fact.

Apparently Ian was informed of her uncooperative attitude, because he showed up himself, a clean and crisp figure in the pastel blue summer uniform, despite the heat and the fact that it was midnight, as if to say that no circumstances affected him and certainly not a suspect.

Ciara had not sat down on purpose, so as not to give him the chance to look down on her. For the first few moments they stood looking at each other. He was handsome, but he had already rubbed her the wrong way before he had even said a word. She glared at him, but much of the effect was lost under her heavy facial paint.

"Ciara?" he raised an eyebrow questioningly when he had recollected himself. He felt a childish glee at having caught her, this pretentious clown in her odd attire.

It infuriated her. Surely his assistant would have told him so! She could not remember his face from the past, but she knew it must be different -- older. Would he remember hers? Not painted like this, certainly.

Her silence irritated him. Who did she think she was? "Second try. Ciara?"

"I heard you." She thought his voice was as cool and crisp as his outfit, and his outfit was blue like his eyes. The parts of him just fitted too well together, like a building made of giant ice blocks, she thought inconsequentially.

"Are you Ciara or not?"

"Does Ciara hold the Moon Services?" she retorted. He must be obtuse -- where did he think his men had apprehended her?

"I was told there are several Ciaras," he said impatiently.

"Then why pick on me?" she snapped.

"Because I didn't believe what I was told. I believe there is only one."

"You had enough doubts to ask me!" Ciara pointed out.

Ian gestured at the chair invitingly. Right. So he had not started this very cleverly, but he could make up for it. "Shall we sit down...Ciara?"

"I prefer to stand," she declined.

"I have several requests to make of you before we start the interrogation," Ian announced. "One, I request that you clean your face. Two, I request that you remove your cloak. Three, I request that you tell me your full name." He could read very little in a painted face and she looked so peculiar that it distracted him. Likewise, her cloak hid any telling movements she made with her hands. But he could see she did not appreciate the requests.

"My name," Ciara deliberately started with his final request, showing she was not willing to comply with the two former. "Is Ciara."

"Full name, I requested."

"Ciara...Ishala...Meri..."

"Meri?" Ian interrupted, leaning forwards.

"What of it? Don't you believe me?"

"No, it's just that...never mind. Go on." It would not have anything to do with his Meri.

"Ciara Ishala Meri Lartan." Ciara looked at him. It was the truth, but she did not mind telling him. "You could have looked that up in any library."

"Would you please remove the cloak?" Ian asked. He could see very little of her, only her cheeks and chin, while the rest was under paint or fabric. There was even an elaborate drawing on her forehead.

"Most certainly not. I'm not wearing anything underneath." That was not the truth, but she did not mind telling him a lie, just to see how he would take it.

He was not going to take that answer anywhere. It was almost certainly a lie, but he did not want to be disproved. This was not the time for such matters. "Fanni will bring you a spare uniform and a bowl with water and soap."

Ciara cocked her head to one side. A spare uniform? She would look radically different and might even be able to walk out of here unnoticed. It was worth a try. "And a mirror." She had to see if all the paint had come off.

Ian looked relieved that she was finally co-operating and he left her alone to give Fanni instructions. Fanni appeared ten minutes later. Ciara took the clothes from her and started to work on removing her make-up. That had to be done first so her face could lose its red, freshly-scrubbed colour. Fanni was still watching, but Ciara asked her to get her a hairbrush, hoping this would take Fanni a while. It was imperative to work fast now. She removed her cloak, revealing tight trousers and a loose shirt, both dark blue, and pulled on the uniform over her other clothes. Shaking loose her hair, she exited the room. Ciara passed open doorways sneakily with considerable experience and after using the side exit, soon found herself out in the moonlit street, helped by the fact that most officers were at home and in bed. This had been too easy, she thought with satisfaction as she hid in a dark corner to remove the uniform.


Ian was not too pleased to learn that Ciara had fled, but Fanni did not suffer apart from a reprimand. She had given Fanni the impression that she was co-operating, after all.

He knew where Ciara would be going -- the temple. Perhaps he could even get there before her. Although perhaps he should let her gloat this night and strike back mercilessly tomorrow. He was rather tired, and devious though Ciara was, she was relatively harmless. She must have a guilty conscience, however, because no one could be doing this for fun. But what was she hiding? She had no motive for stealing ritual objects. Maybe she knew who had been doing it, then.

 

Chapter 5

Although Ian would not like people who outwitted him constantly, he did like a battle that was challenging. Ciara was certainly a challenge. At home, he wondered why his interest had been piqued so much by the fact that her third name was Meri. Were other women not allowed to have the same name his daughter had?

His daughter was his weakness and he was very sensitive on that point, avoiding to answer any probing questions with regard to her mother. She was dead -- the note had said so, but the reason he forbore to discuss her was that he did not know much about her, except that she was called Meri. He had barely remembered the girl it must have been, because at one point she had no longer come to their meeting place and he had assumed that either her parents had found out or they had come to the end of their stay in town. She had said she was only there for a short period.

If they had prolonged or deepened their friendship, perhaps he would have tried to make her stay, young though she was, but short summer flings were all too common and to throw himself away on a girl at the age of twenty-one would not have been wise. Wryly he reflected that perhaps he had missed his chance. It was much harder to throw himself away on anyone now, having a daughter. At least Meri would not have minded about Meri and vice versa.

Sometimes he wondered who had brought the baby to him. Grandparents? But grandparents would want to see her and would never trust a young stranger with their grandchild, especially when that stranger had not yet shown himself to be responsible. Yet someone had been paying him money ever since. It was a mystery he could not solve.


In the morning, an excited officer disturbed Ian during breakfast. The officer had scoured the market at a very early hour with the drawing of the necklace, because at that time the merchants would not have many customers yet and they would have time for a chat. Finally he had run across someone who had seen it. "I reckoned someone had sold or tried to sell it to this bloke, most likely sold it, 'cos he was really shifty and afraid that he would lose his money, so I said that if he told me, I wouldn't bring him in for questioning so he wouldn't miss any trade. That worked. He told me a red-haired woman sold it to him."

Meri dropped her knife with a start and picked it up with a blush, afraid that she would have to give an explanation. But she could not do so without revealing her own involvement and how she had seen a red-haired woman and that would certainly make her father angry. How many redheads were there apart from Ciara who could have sold the necklace?

Ian looked intrigued. "A woman?"

"Yes and she was a regular customer, the bloke says, frequently coming in with stuff. He says he had no idea it came from the temple."

"Frequently? How frequent?"

"He says a few times a year. It's fencing, of course, but he says she said it was family heirlooms she was selling 'cos she needed money. This is a list of things he remembers, with prices and approximate dates," the officer handed the list to Ian.

Ian gave it a brief glance. "How long has this been going on?"

"About twenty years, he says. Forever."

"This red-haired woman has been in financial trouble for twenty years?" Ian sounded incredulous. If that was true, this list would only contain a fraction of what had been stolen from the temple and it would be near impossible to recover it all. "I don't believe him. I bet there was no such woman."

Meri considered interrupting, but she feared her father's anger if he found out that she had been inside the temple. There was indeed such a woman, with very dark red hair, or her eyes had to have been mistaken in the dim light of the temple. Ciara fit the profile. She could get her hands on items to sell.

"Where is that man now? I'd like a word with him," Ian decided.

Meri's instincts told her the man was innocent of the thefts. She could not allow an innocent person to be suspected and she would have to talk to Ciara to tell her they were on to her dealings, but how would Ciara take that? Would she appreciate her meddling? Maybe it was not even true and she would be offended by the suggestion that she had stolen and sold things.

But if her father went to the temple, how could she go without running into him? He was going to the market first, so she would have to hurry. The hidden passage sprang to mind. Ciara was bound to use it to get away from her father. Meri decided not to involve Susan in her plans, not liking to recite the whole story all over again, since Susan was out with Aunt Ania.

She waited until Ian was gone before she left the house to go to the secret exit of the temple. It was harder to locate than she had imagined, because Susan and she had not looked back after they had come out of it. There were several doors that could be it and she dared not try them all, because some were obviously houses. She hesitated a little, pretending to have a pebble in her shoe and then she sat against the wall for a while. She looked up when a door was opened and a woman came out. The hair was unmistakably Ciara's, but she did not notice Meri, who scrambled to her feet and coughed.

Ciara looked aside and her lips curved up in a smile when she recognised Meri. She tried to smile less. "Hello. Were you looking for the entrance?"

"Yes, but I couldn't find it." Meri stared at her. She looked so ordinary! Not priestess-like at all. She even wore trousers and her hair danced in the breeze. And she smiled as if she was pleased to see her. Why was that?

"Did you have a special purpose?" Ciara inquired. The girl could not have found it out. Not yet. Unless she was exceptionally clever, in which she resembled her mother, naturally. She chuckled.

"Well," Meri hesitated. "I had to tell you something."

"Is it urgent or can you tell me as I walk to the market?" Ciara asked. She narrowed her eyes a little. It did sound urgent.

"The market!" Meri looked shocked. She would walk right into her father's arms and he would arrest her, not knowing she was Ciara, because her father had never seen Ciara and Ciara now looked as unlike Ciara as was possible. "Are you -- are you going to sell something?"

Ciara stopped and pulled Meri out of the way of passing people. Her voice changed. "How do you know that I do?" The girl was truly clever. She should not have laughed at it. Her mother's mind and her father's appearance, which made her a pretty girl.

"My father is investigating a case." Meri looked at her. The eyes were lighter than they had seemed yesterday and the hair looked more brownish, unless the sunlight fell on it as it had done when she had come out of the house. She was now able to guess at her age too -- about fifteen years older than she, give and take five either way. "An officer came by during breakfast to say that there was a red-haired woman who had sold the necklace to a merchant, but my father didn't believe him."

Ciara's face relaxed. "He didn't? And my hair's not red."

Meri frowned. "But it is! You don't seem worried."

"He's never going to find me and if he is, I'll slip out of his hands like last night." Ciara's eyes danced. "My hair may be red now, but I can wash it."

"Last night? What happened last night? I know my father came home really late because he was a bit tired over breakfast." Meri had tried to wait up for him, because she was never at ease if he was away, but she had fallen asleep and at breakfast he had only eaten a very little bit, as if he was not yet fully awake.

"I was apprehended," Ciara said gravely. "It was marvellous."

"Marvellous?" Being arrested could not be marvellous, but Meri guessed that Ciara would think many things marvellous. Her eyes were continually shining.

"He's the most annoying person I've ever met and I loved to give him the slip."

Annoying? Meri stared at her with wide eyes. Alright, so her assessment of Ciara's happy acceptance of all things was slightly wrong. She should not try to assess people at her age, not possessing any noteworthy skills. "Umm...how do you mean, annoying?"

Considering that Ciara was bursting to tell another person just what she thought of Ian, she pulled Meri into a small cake shop. "Do you mind? And do you mind if I'm frank? I'll tell you all."

 

Chapter 6

Ian was hearing the story from the market salesman personally now. His officer had done a good job of reporting it, because the story was almost literally the same. If he did not hear anything new, this was going to be a wasted trip, he told himself and tried a different line of questioning they had not gone into before. "What did the woman look like?"

"She had red hair."

"Yes, that's what you said, but not every redhead looks the same," Ian said patiently. "What was her age?" He was more interested in such details.

"There were two women," the market salesman revealed suddenly. "I think they were mother and daughter. Or sisters." He yelled at his assistant who did something wrong. The running of his stall was obviously foremost in his mind.

Ian stared at him in astonishment. Why had the man kept silent about such an important and essential detail? This threw an entirely different light on the case. While it had been improbable that one woman had been in financial trouble for twenty years, it might well be the case that two women had been in trouble for ten years each. At least, it sounded more plausible. "Two redheads?"

"Yes." The man nodded.

"How old were they?"

"Now or at the beginning?"

"Both."

"Well," the merchant screwed up his face. "I can't remember how old the eldest one was in the beginning, because she aged gradually, you see. Now...I think the eldest must be a little past middle age."

"How old is that?" Ian asked. Would the eldest not have been twenty years younger in the beginning? Why was that so difficult to calculate?

The market salesman eyed him appraisingly. "Older than you."

Ian reddened in impatience. This was not getting him anywhere. "Half the population is older than me!" And a quarter of the population consisted of females who were older than him. He did not know how many of them had red hair, but it still led to too many possible candidates. "Can't you be more specific?"

"Not old enough to be your mother and the other was younger than you."

"By how much?"

"How old are you, sir?"

"Forty."

"Well, then the younger one was in her thirties and the older one was in her fifties."

"Now, or twenty years ago?" asked Ian, to have it absolutely clear how old the women they would have to look for were.

"Oh, now."

Ian wrote it down -- thirty-five and fifty-five. "Who was the last one to visit you?"

"The youngest -- with the necklace."

Ian produced the list. "Can you say if the youngest also brought in these other objects? The chandeliers, the amulets..." Would the youngest have succeeded the eldest at some point or did they alternate visits?

"I think so, but I can't say with certainty. I do a lot of trade, you know."

"But you know exactly how much you paid for these items."

The market salesman nodded. "Of course. That's my job. It's not my job to keep track of who sells me what."

Ian supposed he was telling the truth. He sighed. "One last question. Can you describe them in any other way? We've established that they have red hair, but is there anything else?"

"The old one doesn't have red hair anymore," the man corrected. "But the youngest one does. Very dark red. And they're both pretty. Yeah. Almost interchangeable."

Ian gave up. He took the list to the steps of the Moon Temple and sat down on them, staring at the sheet with tired eyes. Perhaps he should get some sleep. The night had been short and the merchant exhausting. How could he go into the temple to ask for any redhead between thirty and sixty? He could not even rely on the man's opinion that they were pretty. That was such a subjective thing. One thing he could do was take the merchant into the temple and take him past all redheads, but he had a feeling that the redheads in question would be just as elusive as Ciara. That reminded him. He had never seen her hair colour. Her hair had been hidden under her cloak.

He jumped up and sprang down the steps to go back to headquarters. Fanni had perhaps seen more of her. He had to know if her hair was red. Still, that still did not explain why there were two women. How old was Ciara? With that ridiculous paint he had not been able to see wrinkles -- if she had any at all. What had she said when he had asked for her name? That he would be able to find that in any library. Would a library also be able to tell him how old she was? Ian changed directions.

After looking through a few history books and seeing she had not lied about her name, he discovered an almanac. Because he did not know which year to look for, he started at a safe enough year, too long ago. There was frequent mention of Ishala, but never in connection to her successor, until he came to an interesting bit. He read it and read it again, copying the most significant facts onto a sheet of paper.

May

22 - Ishala complains of health problems

26 - Eastern region floods

27 - Fundraising is started

29 - Ishala predicts the water level will fall

June

01 - Eastern region floods again

02 - Ishala apologises publicly

04 - Public displeasure increases

05 - Ishala's health deteriorates

06 - Ishala names successor: Ciara, age 17

08 - Ciara succeeds Ishala

09 - Water level falls 154cm

Ian turned back to find the year this had happened. It made Ciara thirty-six. She might well have been the youngest redhead, if she was one. He frowned at the way Ishala had stepped down. There had indeed been a little unrest at the time, because people had been worried at the continuation of the heavy rainfalls. But the way it was recorded here implied that Ishala had felt responsible. Surely it had been a coincidence that the water levels had gone down after Ciara had succeeded her? Ciara, that impertinent clown could not possibly have any influence over the weather.

He wondered what had happened to Ishala. Siarsal had said she was dead, but there was no record of her death anywhere and he read all the way through the almanac until the beginning of this year where it ended. Unless she had died in the preceding months, she had not died at all, because her predecessor's death was neatly given several decades ago. Although Ishala would be the correct age, she could not be the other redhead. Even Ian, with his limited knowledge of the temple ways and his reluctance to add to it, knew that the High Priestesses were married to the moon, popularly spoken. That precluded any human offspring.

And so the other redhead had to be Ciara's mother, assuming that Ciara was the youngest. Ian felt he was unnaturally prejudiced and he knew it was possible that there was more than one untrustworthy soul in the temple. After all, he did not trust the temple one bit. But still, two women of the same age getting into mischief at the same time when there was nothing that indicated that they were not the same person was highly suspicious. Lartan she had said her last name was, so it would be Mrs. Lartan he was looking for, but first he had to check with Fanni about Ciara's hair colour.


Meri let Ciara order some cakes and she sat waiting for her to come back. "Why do you think my father is annoying?" she asked when Ciara returned. The question had been bothering her. There were not many people who thought that. In any case, she had never really thought so herself and she knew that Aunt Ania was always exaggerating if she said so, because Aunt Ania and her younger brother were very fond of each other in a bickering sort of way.

Well, because he just was, Ciara thought, but that would sound very odd, especially to his daughter. Their daughter. No, his daughter and her daughter. Not theirs, please, no. "Because he ordered to have me arrested."

Meri smiled. "I think he was just annoyed because he couldn't ever find you -- if you are Ciara," she added tentatively. She still did not know for certain.

"Of course," Ciara rolled her eyes. She shook the girl's hand and acted as if she did not know already that her young companion was called Meri. "What does he think -- that I would stay seated and wait for him?" She pricked her fork into a delicious-looking fruitcake.

"He thinks that you feel yourself above talking to normal people," Meri said, watching her closely. "I think. But why do you talk to me then?" True, she was not out to arrest Ciara, but she was meddling anyway. This was all none of her business. When would Ciara get angry with her?

Ciara chewed and looked back thoughtfully. "And he disapproves of such an attitude, does he? No matter what you say, I still don't like him," she said fiercely. "He asked me if I was wearing something underneath my cloak. Would you believe that? Can't I report him anywhere? And he got a woman to ask the question for him too! He's supposed to lock up normal people who make fun of my attire and yet he's allowed to order me to wash my face? Doesn't he feel himself to be above normal people either?" she said in an indignant tone.

Meri laughed. She could not help it. Actually she could not believe that her father would have asked such a thing. Why had he?

"You wouldn't understand how vexed I am," Ciara sighed. She could not tell Meri how vexed she was at herself most of all. The whole history between her and Ian was incomprehensible. "But let's not talk about him lest I offend you, because you probably love him."

Meri nodded. He was her father. Of course she loved him.

"See? I'm sorry that I don't, though it would be odd if I did, wouldn't it?" Ciara laughed as cheerfully as she could. "Now tell me how you know it's me who sometimes goes to the market."

"Because yesterday we saw that your hair was red."

"Am I the only red-haired woman?" Ciara knew she was not. Besides, she was not even very naturally red-haired, but would a man like Ian know about such things, she thought a little contemptuously.

"Maybe you are the only one who can get her hands on necklaces and things." Meri did not know if she was right. It sounded very weak. "It was just a hunch," she said defensively.

Ciara nodded in agreement. "Maybe. However, why didn't you tell your father about this?" She liked it that Meri had not, but she wondered about it all the same.

"Because he forbade us to go to the temple and if he found out we went there...well, he'd be angry, I suppose."

"No need to go into detail," Ciara waved. "He'd look like an ice cube on fire. Oh oh oh! Ready to choke and throttle you, no doubt. You might also have stayed silent about it all."

"Yes," Meri admitted. "But I was afraid he was going to arrest an innocent man, because he didn't believe the story about one woman being in financial trouble for twenty years." She bent her head and rested it in her hands. What was she doing? It made less and less sense to her.

Ciara stared at her in astonishment. One woman? She took another bite of fruitcake and thought as she swallowed. Perhaps it was not wise to tell the Commander's daughter that they were quite mistaken about there being only one woman. She did not know how big Ian's hold over Meri was. Maybe he could get her to talk with just one icy stare and then he would know that there were in fact two women. It would be safer for the three of them, Meri included, if she did not tell the girl.

 

© 2000 Copyright held by the author.

 

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