Lady Tabitha followed the paladin Anica into the stone room. It was about what she'd expected from a temple: stone walls, floor, and ceiling, all of them well-polished but otherwise undecorated. The furnishings were simple: a bed, a desk, and a wardrobe; someone had set a candle-lamp on the desk.
She nodded graciously. "This will be fine."
Anica chuckled softly. "Not quite, lady Andiras. For tonight, I'll be sleeping out here, and you may have either of those two rooms." She gestured at a pair of doors on the far wall, and after a moment lady Tabitha crossed to the one on the left and pulled it open. It was similarly appointed, but the bed was smaller and entire room small and narrow, half the size of the outer room. "You would have me take the servant's room?" she asked, momentarily puzzled.
"It's not a--" For a moment, the paladin looked thoughtful. "I suppose I can see why you might think so, but no. This is a family cell. The smaller rooms were intended for children, while the parents would share the main room. This is the Temple of Amun: we don't have servants here, but we do have married couples, and sometimes those couples have children."
What? "Paladins can't--" She cut herself off by an act of will. Well-bred young ladies did not have outbursts. "I did not know that paladins could marry. I thought your vows prohibited that."
"Ah," said Anica, and colored slightly. "That is true of the priests and paladins of Helios. Amun bids us to be part of the community, and that includes marriage and children should such opportunities be desired and found." She paused for a moment, then added: "If you like, you can meet my son tomorrow."
"You're married?" Tabitha devoutly hoped that she managed not to sound shocked.
"Yes," said Anica, and Tabitha was suddenly certain that there was more there. Anica wasn't lying to her, but she was definitely leaving some things out.
"And Tavros?" Tabitha asked. "We understood that he wasn't married, despite considerable attention at Court when he was first raised to the Solari."
"Tavros isn't married," said Anica, and there was nothing indefinite in that statement.
She didn't add anything else, and for a moment Tabitha was at a loss for how to continue. Finally she said, "So, I am to have the child's room?"
Anica sighed, sounding genuinely exasperated. "Lady Andiras... Yes. You are to sleep in the child's room, so that you will have another room -- this room, with me in it -- between you and the rest of the temple. But that's to protect you, in case someone decides that you're a spy for the pretender Bouvier and tries to do you harm. It's also to protect us, in case you actually are a spy for the pretender Bouvier. It also allows you to be properly chaperoned during your stay here, so that nobody can try to claim that any other sort of impropriety might have occurred."
Well, when you put it that way... "I... I see," said Tabitha, pulling herself together. "I have been rude. You are trying to protect us both, while I am still behaving as if I am at Court. There, to be placed in the smaller room is, well..." She searched for the words to express how it felt. "...It is to actually be lesser."
Anica nodded, looking uncomfortable. "It's not at all that way here. Most of us sleep in cells like the one you'll be staying in -- even the Abbess herself. Your cell isn't small; this one is large, because it was intended for two people instead of one. And your cell isn't subordinate to this one; it's guarded by it. I swear on my honor, nobody here will be laughing because we tricked you into sleeping in the smaller room. Nobody here cares."
"I see that," said Tabitha. "Truly." Nobody here cares. The difference in perspective was almost incomprehensible, but also strangely liberating. If nobody cared, then she didn't have to care either. If it was possible not to care, maybe these things weren't truly important. If nobody cared... "Is that why His Majesty was so... informal?"
"Tavros?" Anica shook her head. "Tavros is just about as direct and honest as you can get. I once watched him kill a hill giant in hand-to-hand combat, and his idea of threatening the hobgoblin chieftain into leaving was still just to tell him what would happen if he didn't."
Tabitha drew back. "That... Did that actually happen?"
Anica nodded. "I was there. One of the tribes moved in and raided a nameless village on the shores of Lago Gota. The priests were busy organizing supplies and other assistance, so they sent Tavros, me, and Tarric -- he's my husband and a paladin, you'll probably meet him later -- on ahead. We found a tracker there, investigating, and learned that the attackers had departed with prisoners. So we followed, but we were captured. A simple net trap, but none of us saw it until it was too late." She paused to draw breath."They had a whole ritual arranged, including a contest. If one of us could defeat their champion, we would all go free; if our champion was defeated, they would eat us."
She paused, but Tabitha gestured for her to continue.
"Tavros volunteered to face their champion, then told us to find ways to get ourselves and the prisoners out of there regardless. I honestly thought he was going to die. I thought he was sacrificing himself; we're paladins, we do that kind of thing. But Tavros went out into the clearing in the middle of their village, and he fought that thing, and he killed it. And while he was fighting it, we were killing our guards and taking their weapons, and trying to move everyone out of the village. But the moment the hill giant was out of the way, Tavros went after their priest and killed him, and then he walked up to their chieftain and just... explained that one way or another his tribe was going to end up annihilated if they didn't go back to their traditional hunting practices."
Anica swallowed and said, "The chief agreed. We haven't had any trouble from them since. Occasionally one of the goblins comes to the temple to report that they're still subsisting off the wilderness. Sometimes they report that they're having trouble, and we send food or other supplies. Tarric and I have gone out there twice, to help them deal with things that were just a little beyond their immediate abilities."
She paused, then shook her head. "It's not that they're loyal to Sol Povos. They don't need to be. It's not even that they're so terrified of Tavros that they don't dare attack. That isn't true at all. It's that he saw that the human who was giving them new ideas for rituals and traditions was corrupting them, and the moment he had the chance he killed that guy, and then reminded the tribe of what they should be. They did the rest on their own."
Tabitha took a moment to digest that, then said: "So what we were told at Court was true. Tavros Fontaine really did slay a hill giant to rescue the survivors of a goblin attack. That was why he was chosen to join the Solari." She tried to look apologetic. "We don't... didn't... always trust the King's pronouncements, and Tavros was the King's nephew."
Anica actually laughed. "You thought it was an exaggeration to cover nepotism?"
"It might have been," Tabitha replied defensively.
"No," said Anica firmly. "It happened. But what you might not have been told, and what you might want to tell your Mistress, is how Tavros defeated the hill giant."
Tabitha frowned. "I mean, he is half-dragon..."
"You've never run into giants before, I take it. In full armor, with a blade, he might have been evenly matched against a hill giant. Bare-handed? He should have died. He knew it, I knew it, Tarric knew it."
"I take it that it wasn't luck, or the will of Amun," observed Tabitha.
Anica shrugged. "Perhaps some of that as well," she conceded. "But mostly, it was an elderly herbwife from the village, who was able to mix up a particularly virulent poison that Tavros could coat his claws with. Once he'd made contact, he just had to survive long enough for it to take effect." She paused and drew a breath. "What I want you -- and your Mistress -- to know... is this: Tavros is strong by himself. But what makes him truly dangerous is his willingness to trust his friends." She paused again, fixing Tabitha with her gaze. "Be his friends."
Tabitha nodded back. "I assure you again, we are." She drew a long, slow breath. She didn't think Anica had been exaggerating anything she'd just told, let alone lying outright, and that alone was enough to set her mind reeling. Someone like that... a king like that... She shook her head. "Of course I'll tell my Mistress."
Anica nodded. "Are you ready for some rest?" she asked. "Or would you like to tour the temple? I could show you some of the places where you could occupy yourself while you're here."
Helios protect me, not yet. None of that yet. She was suddenly very tired. "I think... I think I would prefer to sleep. It has been a very long day. A very long series of very long days."
"There's a bathing room at the end of the hall," said Anica. "I'll have to accompany you, of course."
"That won't be a problem," Tabitha told her. Noble ladies were permitted privacy only in limited ways, and in any case she was determined to adapt. "A thorough bath and a full night's sleep will put a great many things to rights." She paused, then added: "Thank you for talking to me, and for your..." She hesitated. "...care."
Anica sniffed. "Life at Court sounds very unpleasant. I'm glad I never had to be part of it."
Tabitha managed not to gasp at that unexpected heresy, but it was a near thing.