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part five.


The bedsheets, and her change of clothes, had been rigorously cleaned and steam pressed. Lorraine breathed a sigh of relief as she buttoned up her white blouse, allowing the reassuring scent of fresh laundry to ease her mind. Between that, her shower the night before, and the two hours she'd spent in hair and make-up before getting dressed, she felt refreshed and ready to start the day. She was as clean and looked as good as she possibly could without magic. That was enough, she told herself as she used a handkerchief to open her bedroom door. Nobody could ask more of her than that.

The boys had slept in together in the room where they had sat late talking last night, but when she nudged it open with her hankie only Zed was there, snoring soundly on the double bed. Where Mallos had slept, Lorraine had no idea, since Zed took up the entire double to himself.

“Zed?” She said hopefully, but not loudly enough. Zed grumbled and stuck his fingers in his ears.

“I'm up, Rana,” he muttered sleepily. A second later he let loose another snore.


Lorraine reached irritably into her pocket for her handkerchief, but her fingers slipped and it fluttered to the ground before she could get it. Now what? She scanned the room, but couldn't see anything which she considered clean enough to touch. What about soap? Soap was clean! Stomping as loudly as she could into the en suite (Zed didn't stir), she went straight for the faucet but froze in horror at the sight of the goopy substance she found there. It had already been used! Fortunately, there was an unused bar in the bath. Lorraine swiped it, went back into the bedroom and threw it at her dozing colleague. He grunted and sat up, rubbing his bleary eyes.

“Mallos isn't here,” she pointed out, which woke Zed up quicker than the soap did.

“Ughh,” he threw back the covers, revealing blue stripey pyjama bottoms. “Mallos is on a mission of his own, as usual. You go back to Minor and see if you can get anything from the water nymphs. Coya might open up if she's alone. I'll stay here and see what I can find out from the Major residents.”

A brisk walk and an overcrowded shuttle ride later, Lorraine found herself back on Shyllipa Minor and headed towards the nearest sizeable body of water. Coya was an ocean nymph, but it was two days' walk from the shuttle port to the seaside. Gayria Lake was much closer. Some of the nymphs there even worked shifts at the shuttle port sometimes.

A pier made of the same white, plastic-like substance that the Scipius was constructed from had been built over the water's edge, but it looked like it had been closed down. Lorraine stepped over the baby hedgerow which had started to grow as a barrier and walked confidently across the pier, her footsteps echoing across the still, silent lake. At the end of the pier she stopped and peered into the deep, black water. Odd. Water on the Shylippa planets was pink. Fortunately, Lorraine didn't have to touch the inky surface to make her presence known; she was gazing into the water for only a few seconds when a face appeared in it.

Hemet-sewab,” the nymph murmured, in a very neutral tone which immediately made Lorraine suspicious. Nymphs were generally very emotional creatures. “What business could you have here?”

Hemet-nefer,” Lorraine replied in a respectful voice. “May I speak with your chief?”

The nymph blew bubbles across the surface of the water. “There is only Fles, now.”

“Well, may I speak with Fles?”

The nymph stared at her. After a moment, Lorraine realised that this was Fles. Only one nymph, for a great lake which stretched almost as far as the eye could see? There should be multiple tribes living here. What had happened to all of the others?

“Fles,” Lorraine's tone held an apologetic note. “Forgive me for trespassing on your beautiful home. I seek your wisdom to understand the ways of the water nymphs. I know only that Coya leads your noble people.”

Her honeyed words got a reaction, but not quite the one she'd expected. Fles rose from the black depths of the water, her pink eyes blazing fiercely and her short, slick hair dripping onto her shoulders. A water nymph's pink lips often reminded Lorraine of rose petals but here and now, confronted with a snarling mouth, she thought more of a vicious little dog. Even small dogs have sharp bites.

“Coya leads no one,” Fles shrieked, her watery face an inch from Lorraine's. The ice-deity's heart was thumping in her chest and her instinct screamed at her to leap backwards, but she held her ground.

“Forgive me,” she tried placidly, “I merely - ”

“Forgive you!” Fles screeched, and grabbed her by her biceps. A wave of panic flushed through Lorraine, who couldn't remember the last time she'd been touched unexpectedly. “Forgive you!”

With surprising strength, the nymph dived backwards into the black water, dragging Lorraine down with her. At first the fairy could do nothing in shock, but as her nose filled with water the situation hit her and she screamed, an instinctive reaction. Water flooded into her lungs. Fles' grip was iron – no matter how much Lorraine squirmed and kicked, she couldn't break it. They sunk, deeper and deeper, into the blacker depths – until visibility was zero. Lorraine could still sense Felis' face near hers. The nymph's breath created little currents which struck against her cheeks.

“For the sisterhood,” she hissed, the words burning like steam.

The darkness was oppressing. Lorraine kicked where she thought Fles was again, but met no resistance. Of course, nymphs were immortal and almost invincible in their home territories. It had never worried the council before because there was no such thing as a murderous nymph.

Or there hadn't been. Until now.

Lorraine's breath was running out. Her lungs felt like they were bursting. She was already beginning to feel her consciousness fade away when something grasped her around the waste and started dragging her upwards, back towards the light. Only then did she realise that the grip on her arms had gone. The nymph had vanished, or had a change of heart. There was nothing Lorraine could do to fight whoever had her now, but she wasn't about to give up yet. As soon as they broke the surface of the water, she gulped down some air and hammered her fists against the arm which was still wrapped around her waste – before noticing what colour it was.

Relajarse!” Mallos let her go and swam back a pace or so, where he stopped to tread water. “It's just me.”

She should have felt relief, then. The nymph was nowhere in sight. In her mind, Lorraine tried to recreate that feeling she'd had that morning, when she'd been clean and made-up... wearing fresh laundered clothes, not a hair out of place...

It had the opposite effect. Now that she was out of danger, Lorraine became acutely aware of the fact that she was in a lake. A nymph lake. A lake where nymphs lived.

People. And things. Lived. In. The. Lake.

Mallos must have recognised the expression on her face, because he leapt into action. He started talking in the calm, reassuring voice a horse trainer uses on a highly strung Thoroughbred, took her by the arm and gently but firmly started tugging her through the water. They made it to the pier before Lorraine got over her shock. She screamed and would have started thrashing in the water, but he swiftly pulled her up onto the pier. She thumped the white flooring with a clenched fist and, overwhelmed by the panic surging through her body, descended into shaking sobs. Mallos pulled her onto his lap and wrapped his arms around her, quietly waiting for the emotion to run out.

The sun was distinctly lower in the sky by the time her shoulders stilled, and Mallos gently asked if she was ready to touch the ground yet. Lorraine shook her head a fraction, before leaning wearily against his warm shoulder.

“When was the last time you touched someone?” He asked after a minute.

“Like this?” Lorraine considered not answering, but fear had worn out her capacity to care. “I don't know. Decades.” She shivered. Shyllipa Minor wasn't a cold planet – nowhere near as cold as Russia – but the breeze bit through her damp clothes. “So... are we done? Fighting?”

Mallos considered that for a moment. “Yeah, okay. But don't tell anyone.”

Lorraine tried to laugh, but another sob came out instead. “Okay. I'll still freeze your pond over if you keep burning my flowerbeds?”

“Just no snow, or I'll torch your wardrobe.”

“Alright,” she managed a rather wobbly smile. “All of this is redundant until magic is restored on Shaman, though.”

“Okay,” Mallos inhaled, and Lorraine noticed for the first time that his breath was slightly shaky. He must have been suppressing shivers. “I'll tell everyone that I threw you in the lake, and then you can say you dropped a bucket of ice down the back of my shirt.”

Lorraine's smile straightened for the first time. “Oh believe me, I'm far more imaginative than that.” She shivered again. “I'll try the ground now.”

It took five attempts, and a few more hours, to get her on her feet.

    • part six. -
    • part seven. -
    • part eight. -

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