“Father, there is an extra place setting. I shall go and tell the helpers that they made an error,” Eighteen-year-old Treve began to walk from the dining chamber to the food preparation area.
His father, Chawev, intercepted him. “We are hosting a very special guest tonight.”
“Oh. So there will be five. The last time that five ate together here at home it, it was 2153. It was the night before Mother was taken to the Medical Center, to have Chelben. And Dr. Baden was here, I remember.”
“A good recall for events that happened two years ago,” Chawev praised. “Yimar,” he called, “get Chelben ready. And, and put on a clean tunic.”
“Yes, Father,” replied twelve-year-old Yimar. She then busied herself to help make her younger brother and herself more presentable.
“Is it Dr. Baden, with news of Mother’s condition?” Treve inquired.
“What? Oh, no,” said Chawev, “wait, when your sister comes back into the room, we will play a game, and you will guess who our special guest is.”
Yimar came into the dining chamber with Chelben. She had on a brand-new violet tunic that really accentuated her solid silver arms. He had on a sky blue tunic, which also showed his silver arms. Their bald heads gleamed. “Very good!”Chawev praised. “Now, children, we’re to play a game, and you will guess the identity of our guest.”
“Mama?” asked Chelben, who was just beginning to talk.
“No, it’s not your mother,” Chawev replied.
“Oh.” Yimar’s face fell. “Then it must be Dr. Baden.”
“No, he is not coming,” Chawev said, “but he does know this person.”
“One of his helpers?” Treve asked.
“Yes, one of them.”
“A medical helper with news of Mother?” Yimar guessed.
“A medical helper, but not with news, no.”
“There are, I think, Dr. Baden has four medical helpers, is that correct?” asked Treve.
“It is. Oh, do you smell supper? Our guest had it sent over as a gift. We are having prako tonight,” Chawev mentioned.
“Prako is very expensive,” Treve explained to Yimar. “I have seen it at the market when I have walked past it from the advanced school. It has fourteen legs and is hunted by the Eska in an area that used to be called the Delphic Expanse. It’s far from Lafa II.”
“Yes, yes, but will you not guess?” Chawev fought to steer the topic back to his guest.
Then Treve remembered. “The doctor’s four medical helpers are three men and one woman,” he paused. “It’s the woman, yes?”
“Yes!” Chawev was very pleased. “Now, her name is Polloria. And I want you all to be on your utmost, best behavior tonight.”
Treve walked out, to the back yard of their squat house. There was an altar to the four Calafan deities – Lo, Abic, Fep and Ub. Their four stellar counterparts – for the four suns in the Lafa System had the same names as the deities – were lining up in just the right way.
He looked up at the sky as the smallest, darkest star, Ub, sank in the west. “Tell me,” he whispered aloud to no one, “is our piety meaningless? For I have prayed, ever since Mother was taken ill. She is your High Priestess, in case I need to remind all of you. And she is in a, they call it a coma. I don’t pretend to understand the cause too well. And I don’t understand why we aren’t permitted to see her. But, Goddess Lo,” he pleaded, “I am Treve. You know my name means messenger. And so my message to you is that there is something very wrong.”
“She’s here!” Chawev called out to the back yard, and Treve turned to follow his father back into the house.
Polloria was a short woman, also bald, with silver arms but they were a little faded. She stood next to Chawev, who had hair, and his arms were covered with an intricate silvery scrollwork pattern – both of these were indicators that he was far older than her. “Children,” Chawev commanded, “come and tell Polloria your names, and what they mean.”
“Messenger,” Treve mumbled.
“You’ll be as handsome as your father when you get to his age and the calloo on your arms breaks down to a good scrollwork pattern,” Polloria said. She handed him a small gift, wrapped in fabric.
“Uh, thank you,” Treve accepted it, wondering what to do.
“Open it,” Chawev urged.
“Yes, Father.” He did so. “A stylus, made of olowa wood. It’s, it’s very nice.”
“My name means student of the maps,” Yimar said. “And Chelben’s means faith of the heart.”
“Yes, Cha-Ilben,” Polloria said, using the youngest child’s full name, and not the common contraction. She handed them both gifts.
“Say thank you,” Yimar told Chelben. “Uh, thank you.” She opened hers. “A callidium bracelet. It is nice.” She helped Chelben with his. “A, a stuffed linfep toy.”
“That was very thoughtful,” praised Chawev. “My name, as you know, means defender of the faith.”
“And mine,” Polloria explained, “means delicate serving girl of Lo.”
“Yes,” Treve replied, almost mechanically. They sat down to dinner.
The home helpers were discreet and quiet, coming close to serve or remove a dish or fill a tumbler. But otherwise they – mostly Calafans, although there was one Ikaaran in the group – stayed in the background and said very little.
“That was wonderful,” Chawev praised as the last of the dishes were removed. “And children, it will be like this from now on. Polloria will be here a lot more.”
Chelben got a little fussy, so a home helper scooped him up in order to put him to bed as he clutched the soft linfep toy and sucked his thumb.
The remaining four of them walked to the back. Ub had already set, Fep was very nearly set and Abic was already descending in the sky. “This is the best time of year,” Polloria declared, “Evil Ub is already gone, small Fep is very nearly gone, and secondary Abic is moving away. Only Lo – the best and brightest – did I mention to you that my name means that I am her serving girl? Only Lo will be in the sky soon, before it gets dark.”
“We should pray,” Treve urged.
“Honestly!” Polloria’s tone was slightly annoyed. “So many are still so superstitious. If I were the High Priestess, things would be very different.”
“Oh, would you like to be the High Priestess?” Chawev asked.
“But Mother is the High Priestess,” Yimar pointed out.
“Your mother’s in a coma,” Polloria reminded her. “The Calafan people need a spiritual leader, to go along with your father, the First Minister.”
“We should still pray,” Treve insisted.
Polloria walked back into the house, and Chawev followed her. Treve and Yimar looked back at them. After a few minutes, the adults’ two silhouettes merged briefly. A kiss.
“Was that?” Yimar asked.
Treve just nodded. “These gifts are bribes,” he concluded. Together, as it got dark, they dug a small hole and threw their gifts into it. When asked later, they claimed they’d lost them.