The baby was coming soon. Not in the next few hours, but Chaela knew it was no longer a matter of weeks, but days. A handful of days and she would hear him for the first time, instead of just feeling him and all the sharp corners of his elbows and knees.
She put her hand on her stomach, fingers spread wide to cover as much of the baby as possible, and tried to remind herself to breathe. It had been nine full months, but just a few days more was still too soon.
Chaela had felt the baby’s company for a long time now. He liked to kick. He nudged her and moved with her, woke her and seemed always curious about the exact number of ribs she owned. She knew him already, had named him so long ago. She wasn’t ready to let any of this go.
And the last time…
Chaela stopped that thought as soon as she found it. She had had it too many times before, and another repetition would solve nothing, support nothing.
The baby kicked. Chaela winced, and then she smiled.
“I know,” she murmured, rubbing her palm over where he had kicked. “You’re right here. I’m being stupid again.”
Pushing herself up out of her chair, she walked across the hall to look out the opposite set of windows.
The hall was built high in the palace, and was one of the few that had an open line of view on both sides. The chairs on the right allowed her to sit and watch sunrises and evening shadow creep through the harbor’s shifting water. The left showed the uneven roofs of the palace fading back into open fields and the eventual dark tree line of the rear of the island.
She put her hand against the window frame, not really needing it for balance, but wanting it. The palace roofs were bright in the afternoon light, and the trees stayed dark and still in their places. She supposed it was just the distance, but she liked their stillness, their rounded tops that could almost have been carved stone.
There was a soft breeze that drifted through the window and lifted Chaela’s hair off her cheeks. But it didn’t touch the trees. They stayed calm sentinels on the hills and Chaela grew calmer as she watched them.
After a few minutes, Chaela heard slow footsteps coming down the hall. Men women had been walking through from both directions all morning while Chaela read, and sat, and thought. Chaela didn’t look up, but tucked herself closer to the window to keep out of the way.
The footsteps came to a gradual halt a little behind her.
“Good afternoon,” a woman said gently.
Chaela looked over her shoulder immediately, then nodded respectfully. She didn’t often see her Mother-in-law except for at dinner and the occasional days they both decided to sit court at the same time.
“Good afternoon,” she returned.
Mione folded her hands in front of her, holding something small. “Leonathan told me I would find you here,” she said.
“You were looking for me?” She tried not to sound surprised.
“I was,” Mione told her. She turned something in her hand. “Leonathan said no one had given you this yet.” Slowly, she raised the small bottle toward her. “And I thought I should bring it myself, in case you still had questions.”
Chaela hesitated before she took the bottle in her hand. It was not very heavy, but something inside shifted as she brought it closer to look at it.
“This is purphagus?” she asked.
“Yes,” Mione said. She folded her hands again.
Meeting her eye, Chaela nodded then motioned toward the chairs. She suddenly felt she had been standing too long. Mione followed her back to the other side of the hall, and they slipped into two chairs, facing each other.
“How often should I take it?” Chaela asked quietly. She looked at the bottle as she spoke.
“Once a day,” Mione said. “In the afternoons. Too early in the morning and it wears on a person too much as they are waking. Too late, and a person risks being dependent on it to sleep. The body handles it best in the afternoon, in the smallest dose possible.”
Chaela nodded, listening carefully. “How will I know what dose is enough?”
Mione paused. Out of the corner of her eye, Chaela watched her look both ways down the hall before she answered. The conversation had been bordering on her family secrets since it began, and apparently this finally touched too closely. Chaela looked up carefully, unsure why the secret suddenly made it easier.
“You must watch the baby,” Mione said. “In the hour before you would usually take the purphagus, the baby will show signs that its energy is not fully suppressed. The hands will glow, a little. If it is more than a glow, you make take a larger dose. If even that glow is suppressed, you must take less. And be careful in that hour. No one outside our family may see the baby Working.”
Chaela nodded. “I know. Leonathan told me. We keep it hidden until he is at a normal age. At least eight.”
Mione watched her, then nodded as well.
She started to stand, then paused at the edge of her seat. “It will be easier this time,” she said. “The purphagus changes a lot of things. The hardest part will be when he starts to take solid food, and you have to convince him to eat it himself.” She paused, smiled lightly to herself as if she’d forgotten something. “It’s a little bitter.”
“Thank you,” Chaela said. She risked a small smile as well.
Standing, Mione smoothed her skirts.
“Should I start taking it now?” Chaela asked.
Mione paused. “Are you that concerned?”
Chaela started to answer, then had no answer to give. She let out a breath, and looked away.
“The girl…” Mione began, her voice low. “Was she born with…”
Chaela let her next breath in take a long moment. Mione had only spoken of her baby girl twice in front of her. The first time to demand the story. The second time in a cutting tone, that they both pretended to forget. It had been two years since then, and Chaela wasn’t sure how her voice could have gentled so much with only time to soften it.
Chaela shook her head. “No,” she said. “It was a few hours.”
Mione nodded. “Let the baby be born before you take it,” she said. “It will be easier on both of you with it.”
“All right,” Chaela said. She said nothing more, letting quiet stretch between them.
It was another minute before Mione turned to leave again. She held her skirts in one hand while she stepped between the chairs, then took half a dozen steps down the hallway. Then she came to a slow stop.
“Did you name her?” Mione asked.
She had. Just as soon as she had held her. “Niksia,” Chaela murmured.
Mione nodded. Turning, she took one more step. Then she looked back at Chaela. “Five years is a long time to stay in mourning,” she murmured. “Even for someone as precious as Niksia.”
Chaela looked at her, stunned. She wasn’t sure whether she had just breathed in, or out, or which should come next.
Mione smiled at her. She tried to hide the sadness behind it, but it only stayed half veiled. “We could both let it go,” she promised.