Gauzy white curtains shimmied and writhed in a light evening breeze. Jine looked through them wistfully, thinking of standing in the face of that cool wind, but stayed obediently on her low stool. Evening was a time of demons and danger. She wouldn’t be permitted to step out onto the balcony until full night had fallen, by which time the breeze would have subsided.
Her guardian, Beni, seemed oblivious to the implicit promise of the breeze as she continued working scented oil over Jine’s bald scalp and down her neck. The older woman’s fingers moved with steady confidence; the oil eased dry skin and muscle tension as well as protecting Jine from the night-bugs and any residual air-demons.
Chitters, grackles, and craws echoed through the cooling air as nocturnal wildlife stirred into activity throughout and around the palace. Beni worked oil along Jine’s shoulders and arms, as silent as the bugs had become noisy. Not for the first time Jine found that an annoying trait, but there was no helping it. Beni was intin: servant to royalty. To keep her from speaking any words that might anger the gods or her earthly masters, her tongue had been removed, her hearing destroyed. Her dark ears, ritually notched like an inverted set of wheel spokes, bore no jewelry which might inadvertently mask her status.
Jine sighed and stared out through the curtains again as Beni begin smoothing the sacred oil down her bare back. This daily ritual was beginning to lose its comfortable feel; Jine found herself growing increasingly restless each time she endured it.
The breeze stirred the curtains, bringing a whisper of sound along with the motion this time: a sigh, almost a word. Almost….
Jine tilted her head and leaned forward slightly, half-closing her eyes to listen.
Intin, the breeze said.
Beni’s hands stilled. Glancing at her, Jine saw the woman’s thick features caught in an expression of awed wonder.
Intin… The whisper hung heavy with indefinable promise, with a tantalizing near-vision of something indescribably beautiful.
Beni stood, her gaze hazy. The oil pot tipped from her hand, spilling its contents across the floor.
“Beni, no,” Jine blurted, leaning forward to catch at the woman’s sleeve. Panic washed through her, a sense of dreadful wrongness….
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