The Stone by the Stream (Part 32)

“And how do you plan to get my daughter back to me?”

The Priestess winced. Agatha sat at her right side at the table, glancing now and then at the kitchen door and through the window, where a group of Temple bodyguards stood bored at their ease. A little girl peered in from the next room every few moments, listening into the grownups conversation with a child’s indifferent curiosity before disappearing to attend to her little brother.

Stricken Lydia sat on the far side of the round table, her arms wrapped around herself. Though she was not a small woman, the chair she sat in appeared enormous as she drooped roselike with trembling shoulders. As she gazed evenly at the Priestess, embers smoldered behind the ash of her eyes.

“We are doing our best to find her,” the Priestess said. “We’re searching the forest right now, and we came here because — ”

“No sooner does my husband leave to demand that you return Cynthia after you kidnapped her than you show up and tell me you’ve lost her! What are you doing here, anyway?”

“We had to check here, and we’d like to have a look around the house,” Agatha said.

The Priestess began to regret bringing Agatha along — there was no doubting her devotion, but the finer points of diplomacy were lost on her. Attempting to cover over Agatha’s clumsiness, she said, “We want to make sure Cynthia is safe, wherever she is.”

“A look around the house?” Lydia asked. “A look around the house? You — you think we’re hiding her here! After I told you Ariston’s out visiting the Temple to get her back, you still think she’s here!”

“Convenient that he’s gone,” Agatha observed.

The Priestess had had enough. “Agatha, don’t you think our bodyguards look a little thirsty out there? I’m sure they’d appreciate a drink of water, if our gracious hostess would be so kind as to let you take the water jug out to them.”

Lydia appeared surprised, but willing. Agatha fetched the water jug and took it outside, balancing a clay cup in her left hand.

As she headed out the door, the Priestess added, “There’s no need for you to hurry back, take as long as you want. Lydia and I shouldn’t keep you waiting too much longer, anyway.”

“Yes, Priestess,” Agatha said, shutting the door behind her.

“I do apologize for her,” the Priestess said, leaning toward Lydia with a sympathetic look. “She can be a little rough, but it comes from a good place. She’s just as worried about Cynthia as I am — as we all are, really. You most of all, of course.”

“She’s been gone for two days already, and I’ve been worried sick the whole time! And you people… you kidnapped her. And you show up in my own home to see if we’re hiding her from you? You think you can get away with this? Do you really think you can get away with this?”

“Cynthia was staying with us the last couple of nights, yes,” the Priestess said. “But now she’s gone missing, and we want to find her almost as much as you do.”

“But you still want to search my house to see if I’m hiding her. I swear, if Ariston was here, he would…” Lydia trailed off. Glanced out the window to where the Temple bodyguards stood taking turns from the clay cup. “Anyway, how did you lose her? Why she’d disappear after you didn’t kidnap her, I’ll never understand.”

“There was… an incident.”

Lydia clapped her hands. “Oh, an incident, was it? She wriggled out of your hands and so you come worming to me… what is it you want with my family, anyway? I would have thought murdering my sister would have been enough for you, but — ”

I didn’t murder your sister!

Lydia recoiled in her chair, her eyes growing wide and her mouth hanging open. The little girl in the other room peered out from the threshold. Once again, the pain of her fingernails digging into her palm alerted the Priestess that she’d formed a tight fist with her right hand. Slowly, with an effort of will, she loosened the phantom grasp, folded her hands in her lap, and assumed a serene expression.

“The Temple can only express its deepest condolences for Sofia’s unfortunate decision to end her own life. She was… a very dear friend. Gone far too soon.”

She bit her lip and held back the tears.

“So that’s why they made you a Priestess while you were so young,” Lydia said quietly.

Nothing for it now.

The Priestess stood, raising to her full height and putting on her most regal expression. “The Temple must search this house.”

“What will you do to my little girl if you find her?” Lydia quavered, and a hundred other questions screamed through her moist eyes.

“We would prefer to have your permission to inspect the home.”

Lydia wilted, stabbing the Priestess through the heart with her crushed and lifeless stare into the table’s surface. “Do it. Murderer.”

The Priestess walked to the door and beckoned for the bodyguards to perform the inspection.

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