The Stone by the Stream (Part 13)
When Cynthia reached the door her father was holding open, Agatha said, “Oh, Cynthia! It’s such a pleasure to see you here. I worried you might have wandered off somewhere else.”
“I’m happy to see you too, Agatha,” Cynthia said with her best attempt at a smile.
Agatha stood outside the doorway, followed by red-haired Bartholomew and two other bodyguards. The men turned distrustful eyes on Cynthia, who wished she could recognize whether they were the same men from last night at the clearing or not. Certainly, Bartholomew had been there, but the other two… she couldn’t tell.
The sour look on Bartholomew’s face showed he remembered her very well. Cynthia wished she could tell him Silas’s death was not her fault.
“By all means, come inside,” Ariston said, beckoning with his hand. “It’s a humble little house, though, so we can’t fit everybody, unfortunately.”
“You two stay outside,” Agatha said to the men Cynthia didn’t recognize. “Bartholomew, let’s not keep our hosts waiting. It’s so kind of them to invite us in on such short notice.”
“Much appreciated,” Bartholomew said, shaking Ariston’s hand as he entered the house with Agatha. His expression, however, remained just as grim as ever.
Introductions went all around as Ariston shepherded the group over to the table, where Lydia still sat, her eyes still puffed and raw so any observant visitor would know she’d been crying. Though the table formed a circle, the five of them were not equally spaced around it. Agatha and Bartholomew sat on the side nearer to the door, with Cynthia and her parents on the far side.
Minor refreshments were offered, refused, offered again, accepted, and distributed.
“Now don’t any of you worry a bit,” Agatha said as soon as the pleasantries had been gotten out of the way. “This won’t be a long visit… mostly we just wanted to make sure Cynthia had managed to get home safely. Not that we’re keeping her under observation or anything like that, ha, ha! Could you imagine? Why on Earth would the Temple be keeping this house under observation?”
“My daughter arrived home safely,” Ariston said flatly. “Now, I hate to be rude, but I’m a busy man with crops to tend to. I can’t believe you’d come out here with three bodyguards just to make sure she’s safe.”
“Or to let us know all the things you’re not doing…” Cynthia said, unable to hold the words back.
Just like in the clearing, Agatha raised her eyebrows with a delighted combative grin in her eyes. “Oh my child, before this little chat is over I’ll let you know a few other things the Temple is not doing. But for now… Ariston and Lydia, it is my delight to announce that your daughter Cynthia has been invited to become a Temple Initiate.”
Lydia said, “Yes, Cynthia’s just been telling us all about that. It’s a great honor to us that you’d offer her an opportunity like that.”
Ariston nodded. “Very true. We appreciate the offer very much.”
“Offer… yes,” Agatha said, the grin of the hunt curling across her kindly face. “And that’s another reason the Temple sent me here: to make it absolutely clear that Cynthia is not required to accept the offer of Initiation. It is the Temple’s stated policy only to accept Initiates who are there of their own free will, without any compulsion or coercion. The Temple is not in the habit of making threats in order to get its way — take the bodyguards out there, for instance. Or Bartholomew here. Bartholomew: does the Temple have any soldiers?”
“No, ma’am,” Bartholomew said. “Only a staff of bodyguards.”
“See, everyone? They’re only bodyguards. Granted, every man among them has seen military service… but they’re only bodyguards. How many bodyguards, Bartholomew?”
“Just over five hundred, ma’am.”
“Thank you, Bartholomew,” Agatha said, stretching out her hand to examine her nails, an expression of indifference on her face. “Now… if only I could remember why I asked him that! Anyway… I just want to make it clear to you, Ariston: the Temple is not threatening your farm or your crops. And don’t worry, Lydia: the Temple is not threatening your little son or daughter — or even Cynthia, for that matter! Threats like that are the absolute worst kind of coercion, not to mention the fact that they directly contradict the official policy of the Temple of the Huntress.”
Ariston’s face glowed with suppressed fury and humiliation. “So tell me then. If you haven’t come to threaten me, my livelihood, and my family… as an agent of the Temple, what are you here to do?”
“I’m simply here to ask you to encourage your daughter to accept our gracious invitation. The Temple — and dare I say, the Goddess herself? — would be highly disappointed to see her pass up the opportunity.”