The vibration of distant drums rattled the knife in Layli’s hand.
“What are you staring at?” Deja shook a wooden spoon in the girl’s direction. “They’ll be here any minute.”
Layli tucked a wave of dark hair under her kitchen scarf and returned to the sourdough.
“You should be wearing your glasses.” Deja was watching her, as she always did, with eyes like a falcon. Layli opened her mouth but Deja was faster. “Don’t even think about arguing. Do I need to remind you what will happen if anyone figures out what you are?”
Still holding the knife, Layli checked for stray curls. Stay hidden. Stay safe, she anticipated Deja’s next line.
“I keep you safe.” Deja’s eyes watered as she continued speaking. “You have to stay hidden, Layli.”
It’s for your own good.
“It’s for your own good,” Deja echoed Layli’s thoughts.
The girl turned away to roll her eyes, slicing into the bread with unnecessary vigor.
“Watch your fingers! Have I taught you nothing?” Even coming from a pretty mouth, the woman’s voice rubbed like sandpaper.
Layli stiffened, anticipating a delicate hand closing around her wrist, forcing the knife to cut the way Deja wanted.
The kitchen stood still.
Deja sniffed, rubbed at a gracefully placed mole, then turned to stir golden tea. The concoction promptly bubbled over, splattering her white tunic with yellow. Deja wrenched a towel off the counter. “I swear his next health fad is going to give me an ulcer! If I have to grate any more turmeric…” Deja stopped scrubbing her top momentarily to look at her yellow fingernails. She looked up and rounded on Layli. “This is your fault!”
Here it comes, Layli thought, as she placed a jar of huckleberry jam in the bread basket.
“If you had your glasses on I wouldn’t have been thinking about—” she held up the spoon. Golden milk dripped down the inside of Deja’s arm. “For River’s sake!” she yelled. “Go! Put the butter out. You know the Rátna hates when it won’t spread.” Deja shooed Layli with the stained towel.
Eight pairs of bare feet milled around the common room smelling of sandalwood and sweat. Some of the guests warmed their hands by the hearth while others talked in hushed voices; social anxiety propelling some to break the rule of mealtime silence.
“I thought the spring retreat would be warmer.” A peach-chinned woman pulled her sweater tight despite the fire. “It’s freezing here,” she continued, directing the flow of conversation to a man with eyebrows like an owl and a bored expression. “Where I live on the Mainland it’s perfect weather all year round.” She laughed. The man did not. His silence however, was not a deterrent. “The last weather report in Marga forecasted eleven inches of snow on the Sister Peaks tonight,” she continued.
One wiley eyebrow raised but the man still did not speak.
Layli resisted a grin. Eleven inches is nothing. She held her breath as she wove through the group to place the bread basket on a buffet table. This group smelled especially bad after the morning ceremony.
Deja hurried behind with the golden tea. “The yogurt and granola is ready, just needs the fruit,” she hissed in the girl’s ear.
Layli nodded once and didn’t take another breath until she was through the double doors of the kitchen. Her gaze traveled past the modern countertops, fine cabinetry, new refrigerator, and out the window. A stout man who the guests affectionately called Rátna was splitting a huge block of ice, wearing only a loose fitting pair of shorts. The Rátna didn’t like to eat with his guests. Instead he cultivated an elusive presence; emerging from the shadows when you least expected.
Deja appeared at the Rátna’s side holding a white cup and clutching her shawl. The Rátna shot back what Layli knew was sweetened espresso, before adding more chunks of ice to a wooden bathtub. His hair hung at an awkward length, the curls puffing around his jaw. Layli laughed as she watched the Rátna position himself cross-legged next to the tub. He looks like a mushroom.
A gust of wind followed Deja back inside.
The bowls of yogurt and granola sat unserved.
“What are you doing?” Deja hissed. “The guests are still waiting?”
“I-uh,” Layli fumbled for words.
“Do I have to do everything?” Deja scooped up the breakfast and left.
Layli hovered by the kitchen doors.
“Remember to eat light,” Deja’s voice filled the dining room with the airy sweetness of a hostess. “Meet the Rátna in the garden when you’re finished. There are towels outside. Enjoy.”
Deja returned and Layli braced herself.
“Start the sauna and tidy the rooms.”
“Yes miss.” Layli did dare let her body relax. In her fifteen years living at Dreaming Valley Ranch she’d never called her caretaker mama. Nor did she refer to the Rátna, as papa. The girl understood she had no real family. Whenever Layli thought about who her real parents might be, she felt like a piece of glass lodged in her throat and so she didn’t think of them often.
“Go!” snapped Deja.
Layli jumped and scurried out into the garden.
“Friends!” The Rátna’s voice boomed. Layli glanced over her shoulder and realized the guests, too eager to linger over breakfast, had followed her.
The Rátna was submerged in the ice bath like he was lounging on the turquoise beaches of Alterra. “Are you ready to train your mind?”
A few guests smiled nervously. Storm clouds gathered around the mountain peaks like hungry ghouls.
“Pain is in your imagination!” He beamed, showing his white teeth. “Being cold is a choice!” He swept his arm above his head towards the Four Sister Peaks barely visible through the clouds, “It is here we learn to reinvent ourselves!” He slipped under the water and stayed submerged for a shocking amount of time.
“Ooowoo!” The Rátna howled when he finally resurfaced. “This is where your rewilding begins!”
The small crowd roared with approval.
Layli stifled another eyeroll and headed for the woodpile. She slipped along the garden wall and cut straight across the labyrinth, disregarding its sanctity. “Oh! Sorry Alen.” She hadn’t noticed the groundskeeper bent low, decorating the border with dried pine needles.
The man smiled from under a straw hat. “It’s alright little lady.”
“I’ve got to start the sauna,” Layli said.
“Mmhm.” Alen’s dusty gray hair fell into his face as he nodded. “There’s some split wood next to the sheep’s pen… don’t want you to cut your leg again… any worse and I’d have to call a medic myself.” The man chuckled but his words made Layli shiver. Deja would lock me up forever if a Medic came here.
The girl looked out over the grounds nestled on the highest plateau above Marga. Hail from the night before clung to the roof of a sleepy stable; an untouched relic of the temple’s ancient past. Beyond the barn was pasture bordered by a deep moat keeping Layli’s plans of escape to the realms of fantasy.
She sighed and realized Alen was still watching her. The groundskeeper cleared his throat. “The Rátna keeps saying he’s going to get some horses to fill those stalls… bet you’d like that.” Alen got to his feet and dusted pine needles off his knees. “Says the Mainlanders will pay lots of money to ride a horse in the mountains,” Alen shook his head. “Who knows what that man will think of next—”
Perfectly on cue, a guest shrieked.
Layli and Alen turned to see a man’s chalky white buttocks leap into the ice water. Alen’s sigh was heavier than Layli’s. “What’s kind of trouble is he gonna get this group into?”
“No idea.” Layli almost smiled.
“Go before Deja sees you.”
The groundskeeper picked up his rake and gave Layli a lopsided smile. “See you at dinner.”
By the time the guests had attempted their ice bath, sweated in the sauna, practiced a vigorous session of qi zen—the Rátna’s signature blend of yoga, martial arts, and ecstatic breathing—rain was falling steadily over Dreaming Valley Ranch. Since the spring equinox, the mountains of Elsmier Island had experienced many rolling storms, breaking precipitation records and raising the water table so high, the whole ranch turned into a marsh.
It was Layli who noticed the hooded figure as she ladled creamy lentils for the guests. Who is that? Layli turned and counted, two, four, six, eight… plus Alen. Deja was in the kitchen. Everyone was accounted for, besides the Rátna, but the person outside was too tall and too thin. Before Layli could decide what to do, there was a knock at the door. A familiar twist in her belly told her to stay hidden and stay safe. Even though Layli was now wearing tinted glasses to conceal her piercing blue eyes, she still felt exposed.
Deja heard it too and was on Layli like a cat, intercepting her at the sofa. “Get down!” She hissed and smacked Layli’s arm with the wooden spoon.
The temple door creaked and cold air burst into the room.
“Hello?” The stranger removed her hood and crossed the threshold.
Layli immediately recognized the starched white of a medic’s uniform.
“C—can I help you?” Deja stammered, her inner lioness unusually timid.
Water dripped off the stranger’s heavy coat. She brushed a damp curl off her wind-bitten cheek. “I’m Chloé… the medic from Marga.”
“No one sent for a medic,” Deja packed her words with frost.
“Um…” Chloé’s eyes darted to the crackling hearth. “The planning committee said they’ve been in communication… I tried to get here before the rain hit but—”
“Who told you that?” Deja risked a quick glance at Layli.
“The city of Alterra… it’s Union policy to have medics at all events.” Chloé shifted her winter boots away from the small puddle forming under her. She handed Deja a sleek white envelope. Layli saw the Union’s golden seal glint in the fire light. “Any gathering of fifty or more requires a medic. Surely you’ve run into that in the past… being in hospitality?”
“We only host eight guests at a time,” Deja responded. “This is some sort of mistake.” She tried to turn on her hostess charm but there was nothing in her reserves. Instead, she glared at Chloé, panic spreading across her face.
“Oh! No, I’m here to help prepare for the Jubilee.” Chloé smiled, perhaps thinking she found the source of confusion.
Deja’s stare was blank.
“The city of Alterra arranged it, said it would be best if I got here early… make sure everything is up to code.”
Deja couldn’t organize her face fast enough to pretend she knew what the medic was talking about. “More medics will join of course but I was already stationed in Marga…” Chloé offered, looking increasingly insecure about her icy welcome.
“More medics?” Deja blurted.
“I can help with other preparations once the infirmary is set up, as you know, there is so much to do before the big day! You must be very excited to host such a prestigious event.” Chloé smiled again, clearly hoping this would move the conversation in a less adversarial direction.
The medic’s words seemed to land slowly in Deja’s mind. “What event—”
“Alterra’s Solstice Jubilee… I’m sure it will be so lovely here.”
Layli inched towards them to peek around the couch.
Chloé looked around at the swirling stonework of the chimney, the polished oak coffee table, and cozy couches of the common room. “You’ve done such an amazing job with the remodel,” she said.
“Restoration,” Deja corrected.
The medic nervously adjusted her hat. “Is there someone in charge I can talk to?”
Deja forced a smile and pressed her hand to her forehead. “Oh! The Jubilee… of course, of course. Silly me, I don’t know where my mind has got to,” she gestured like she was going to take the medic’s dripping coat but instead practically pushed Chloé out the door. “We just started a new cohort for the Rátna’s spring retreat. I am Deja, manager of the esteemed Rátna of Dreaming Valley Ranch. I’ll set you up in your own private room.”
“Ah—” Chloé cast a longing look back at the fireplace.
“We’ll make up the haybarn for you. That’s where we were thinking of setting up the infirmary.” Deja pointed to an old lopsided barn. “Make yourself at home, there is a cot upstairs and the water should work… I’ll go make sure it’s turned on and bring you a towel, the sheets are clean.”
© Mira Word 2020