April 5th, 2023
Tea, Echo realized sadly, was going to be one of the unfortunate casualties of the Days of Revelation. They were running out of their scavenged supply of dry leaves and there was nothing left to replenish it. She had this somber thought as she sipped at the slightly chipped teacup in her hands, Nora sitting in her favored armchair across from her. The pair of them were enjoying a brief break in conversation over tea as the sun was setting outside the window, casting long shadows across the parlor. Echo had not yet brought up the matter of the greenhouse over the last few hours. Part of it was difficulty addressing it in conversation given her curse, another part was…well she was just nervous.
It didn’t help matters that Nora no doubt knew that she was nervously hiding something, and Echo in turn knew Nora knew…which Nora probably knew too. Echo shook her head as if physically trying to brush off the increasingly circular sequence. Nora was being patient with her, which only served to make Echo more self-conscious. Echo might not be able to speak first, but Nora was still waiting for her to make the first move.
It wasn’t talking to Nora that made Echo nervous. To the contrary, she loved doing that. What made her nervous was knowing that she would, in her way, be asking if Nora knew who might be responsible for the attacks on the greenhouse and if she had known anything beforehand and had kept it from Echo, an accusation not lightly made, even if it was only implied.
Finally managing to drum up the courage to speak, Echo gently put down her teacup and looked across at Nora, trying to maintain eye contact.
“Want to talk?” Nora said patiently, despite clearly having been waiting for this.
“Want to talk.” Echo nodded in agreement.
“If it took you this long, it’s about the greenhouse?” Nora crafted the sentence for her, and Echo nodded, altering her tone as she spoke.
“It’s about the greenhouse.”
Nora sighed, putting down her own teacup as she folded her fingers in her lap. “I heard rumors there was another attack last night, it’s true?”
“It’s true.” Echo said, her face serious.
Nora’s expression darkened, and Echo’s heart sank a little. She hated these silences waiting for someone to speak.
“Giovanni was there?” She asked.
“Giovanni was there.” Came Echo’s swift reply, betraying her anxiousness in answering.
“Then I suspect the reason you’re being so timid this evening is because I don’t want to sound accusatory.”
“I don’t want to sound accusatory.” Echo blushed as she said it, having been completely found out.
Nora sighed again before speaking, and it was clear she wouldn’t edit her words and syntax for Echo’s sake. When she did that, it was because she wanted to make her message clear at the cost of conversation. When Nora spoke like that, it was more like she was giving a command than offering anything.
“If I’ve told Giovanni once I’ve told him a thousand times, I keep as close of an eye as I can on the various cults but there’s already over a dozen of them and that’s just the ones we know about.” She said angrily, fingers curling in her hands.
“Just the ones we know about…”
“Officially my job is to oversee those cults approved for committee by the Senate. How am I supposed to look after the rest? It’s not like they come to me. I mean…I do what I can…”
“I do what I can…”
“Plenty do come to me, the ones looking for senate approval. And I help them, I ask for written manifestos, guidelines of behavior, and rituals. I sit in on their meetings and practices. But there’s only so much one person can do.”
“Only so much one person can do.”
“And then there’s the other half of the job. Actively serving as a bridge between these cults and their gods and, let me tell you, that can be an absolute nightmare. I can’t allow animal sacrifices because we need that food, but have you tried explaining to a god that they can’t always have their way?”
She was ranting now, and Echo nodded along, occasionally repeating her words whenever there was a break for Nora to breathe. Really, Echo was more relieved than anything. Nora might have been exasperated, but that exasperation wasn’t leveled at her. So as Nora continued to complain about her exceedingly difficult job, Echo leaned back in her chair contentedly, returning her tea to her hands to drink.
“So basically, you tell Giovanni…or get Alma to tell Giovanni…that I am doing the absolute best I can, and I expect him to do the same. I don’t care if he works for the Vatican I’m not about to take more of this holier-than thou attitude, do you understand?”
“Do you understand.” Echo chirped idly, nodding her head.
“Sorry…” Nora said, putting her hand to her forehead as she drew her thoughts back together. “I’m fine with that, Nora.”
“I’m fine with that, Nora.” Echo said with a smile, happy to have a voice again.
“Anything else you want to talk about?” Nora offered.
“You want to talk about…” Echo thought for a moment before an idea struck her and she nodded her head vigorously.
“Something happened?” This part was always the trickiest, and it was more or less process of elimination.
“Something happened.” Echo said, shaking her head to have Nora move on to the next question.
“You saw something?” Nora asked.
“Saw something.” Echo nodded again.
“Someone!” Echo smiled. The process was becoming smoother than it had been.
“Who?” This is where it usually broke down again. Nothing made a person value the ability to make words more than losing them. This time, however, Echo had a key advantage. She simply pointed at Nora.
Nora gave her a quizzical look. “I was nowhere near the greenhouse today…”
“Nowhere near the greenhouse today.” Echo said before glancing around and picking up the reflective silver teapot and holding it up to Nora’s face so she’d see her reflection.
“You saw…someone who looked like Nora?” Nora offered, shrugging.
“Someone who looked like Nora!” Echo said, grinning. In truth, the news itself was less important than the breakthrough in conversation.
Nora offered a light smile. “That’s sweet, Echo, but I’m not sure if it’s really all that…” Her voice trailed off as Echo picked it up, looking at her with concern as she repeated “Not sure it’s really all that…?”
Nora had developed a hollow look in her eyes, staring at the teapot before taking it in her hands, knuckles white as she brought it close to her face.
Nora dropped the teapot, still staring straightforward into space as Echo’s mouth opened in a silent yell to catch it before it struck the ground.
Unable to put voice to her concern, Echo rose to meet Nora’s gaze, trying to find the source of her sudden shift as she reflexively clutched the teapot to her chest.
Nora rose to her feet, her posture rigid with her arms flat at her side, her eyes displaying that same hollow look. Echo wanted more than anything to be able to speak at that moment, to ask what was wrong and how she could help. All she could do, however, was sit and stare with concern at Nora.
Another moment passed, and Nora’s posture loosened somewhat, and her face settled from the long pointed stare into a face of hard determination. It was far from comforting, however. Echo had never seen Nora with a look on her face like this, a cold hard look in her eyes at odds with the woman Echo knew. For a moment, she looked much more like the mystery woman in the street Echo was now regretting to have run into.
“I’m going out.” She said, after another moment of terrible silence.
“I’m going out.” Echo agreed, rising to follow her.
“No, you’re not.” Echo’s heart skipped a beat as Nora rounded on her, but she steeled herself and put her hand on Nora’s shoulder. “No you’re not.”
“Echo.” Nora’s voice was unmoved as she pulled Echo’s hand from her shoulder. She didn’t say anything more, knowing Echo could only helplessly reply with her own “Echo.”
“I need you to let me do this. Right now I can’t say anything more.”
“Say anything more!” Echo protested.
Nora turned to walk towards the door, but Echo mirrored her footsteps, one step behind as Nora grabbed her coat off the hanger by the door. Nora rounded on her, but Echo refused to back down. Staring Nora in the eyes. Though she did her best to keep her expression in what she hoped was a determined mask, inside she was on the verge of quelling under Nora’s withering gaze. Had her eyes always been that harsh of a blue?
Nora stared right back at her, and for a single terrible moment Echo was worried she might lash out at her. But when Nora moved, Echo was taken by surprise as she was caught in Nora’s embrace.
“I love how much you can worry about me.” She said, and for a moment Echo could barely speak.
“I love how much you can worry about me…”
“But I need you here, I need you safe. You want me to be safe above all else.”
“You want me to be safe above all else!” Echo protested, unable to move the words to say how worried that sentence made her for Nora.
“I can’t have you with me, Echo, but don’t think I’ll be going alone.” Nora said. “I’m going to find Hildegard first. She should be on the wall right now. You can rest more easily knowing I’ve got the best ranger in the city with me, right? I feel more reassured now.”
“I feel more reassured now.” Echo felt anything but, and she knew Nora feeding her lines was more for her own sake than Echo’s. She clutched at Nora’s coat, the only protest she could make without a voice. Nora released her from the embrace, her hands sliding up to Echo’s ears, fingers smoothly sliding around the flowering plants at her crown. Nora rose, on tiptoe being a bit shorter than her, and kissed Echo on the forehead.
The flowers in her hair withered for all the protest Echo could muster at that, her fingers loosening their hold. Nora’s hands fell, wrapping around her hand.
“I know you worry, Echo. But this is something I need to deal with. It’s…something from my past, and I don’t want you involved with it. Be back soon.”
“Be back soon…” Was all Echo could request as Nora slipped from her grasp and out the door like a shadow, leaving Echo alone at the door.
Some part of Echo knew that Nora was being kind. She didn’t speak of her past often but when she did there was nothing pleasant to say, and a lot of questions had risen in Echo’s mind never to be asked. Nora wasn’t going to speak of it, and if no one spoke of it, how could Echo? She understood the feeling of course. A person’s past was their burden to carry, and she didn’t want to meddle in affairs that weren’t hers.
Echo went to the window looking out at the dark street. She could see the shadow of Nora walking down the sidewalk towards the sanctuary wall. Another part of her, something louder and more indignant than the first timid voice, told her to follow. Nora’s past might be hers, but so was Echo’s. Nora had promised to do everything she could for her, to help her where no one else could. How could Echo let Nora help her then sit idly by while she walked alone into the cold night into an uncertain future? Would Nora have let her walk off like this?
Steeling herself again, Echo went back to the door, her hand pausing for only a moment above the doorknob before taking it and quietly moving out onto the street and in the direction of the wall.
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
(( JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9042?chapter=32&sl=515 ))