Not Titus's preferred estate in the country, but his smaller house in town for private tete-a-tetes, is the mansion to which Kaela's old nurse Laina takes her, a two-story affair of white stones and plaster and polished wood that glows like honey in the daylight. By itself, it would be quite tasteful were it not for the sun-buffed gleaming white skull of a Shakahr, the huge horns curving down to frame the door, and an assortment of fetishes and charms that were putatively brought back personally by Titus from strange lands to ensure good luck, protection for the house, fortune in business, and very pleasant sleep. Laina walks Kaela down the cobblestone path through the snapping Creentrap flower garden, imported from the Savan, and chatters about all the gossip that Kaela has missed.
"Your mother will be so pleased to see you again," Laina signs, her tail bobbing. "She worried herself sick wondering if you would be all right so far away."
Kaela nods slightly, smiling a little bit. She quietly signs, "I'm just fine… " After a few moments, she adds, "I'm glad I went." She walks along beside her nurse, her head held, perhaps, a fraction of a degree higher than usual.
Laina gives Kaela a scolding look. "You must behave properly," she signs, looking around. "What did they teach you there, to stare at people when it is not your business?" She fusses with the young cheetah girl's fur and clothes, before leading her around into the servant's entrance and up the stairs.
Kaela ducks her head quietly. She shakes her head, signing, "No, ma'am." Rebuked, she keeps her gaze slightly downcast, remaining near the older cheetah as they pad into the large building.
"Well, you will remember," Laina says consolingly. "Do you want to see your mother right away or would you rather eat first?" She stops near the kitchen where several more Savanites busy themselves over the preparations of dinner for the mansion.
The smells of roasting Rughrat shank and freshly baked bread waft from the door, but mixed with a hint of something antiseptic something from upstairs perhaps?
Kaela smiles widely at the smells of food. She'd almost forgotten how good the food smelled at home… But after a few moments she pulls her senses away from the temptations of the kitchen and signs, "I should see Mother first… "
Laina nods and shoos Kaela upstairs. "She will be glad to see you," the older cheetah lady signs. "But be careful, her bones aren't what they used to be. Don't pounce her too hard!"
Kaela grins, and hurries up the stairs, her footpaws pattering against the wooden steps.
The stairs curve up to the second floor, where the main hallway looks out into the master bedroom and the guest rooms… The servants live in a wing behind the house, off of the very far end and behind a red zolk tapestry that allows the illusion that they simply appear out of nowhere. It is in the second-largest room of the servant quarters that Kaela finds her mother, resting in soft pillows, the smell of medicinal herbs hanging thick in the air. She looks older… Fur a little whiter, eyes crinkled at the edges and whiskers brittle, some of the fur falling off of her tail that pokes through the blankets…
"Emerald-Eyes," Abana signs to Kaela weakly. "Is that you, Emerald- Eyes, or am I dreaming again?"
Kaela skids to a stop, having been about to bound over and leap into her mother's lap, but startled at her condition. She signs, "Mama? It's me… " Eyes widening worriedly, she slowly pads over to the side of the bed. "What's wrong?"
Abana reaches out to hug Kaela, her fur a little scratchy but still warm and arms firm. She is wordless for a moment, then draws back to sign, "I feel better that you are back already." Her black lips curl into a smile.
Kaela smiles at Abana softly. "You shouldn't worry yourself so much, Mama… "
"I cannot help it," Abana signs back. "The heart does what it does." She takes Kaela's hands in her own which have grown knobby, thin, and looks at her, then widens her brown eyes. "You have changed, my daughter."
Kaela smiles a little bit and leans down. She's been waiting so long to be able to tell someone about this… She signs, carefully constraining her signs to the space between herself and Abana (Savanite 'whispering'), "I learned… we are of the royal line."
Abana's hands shake. "A royal line? It is only legend that we had kings once," she signs to Kaela, hands wavering in a Savanite stutter.
Kaela shakes her head a few times. "I have seen. The City of Hands was our city," she signs, making vigorous up and down motions to emphasize her point. "It's safe again, but all others think it to be possessed by spirits, and will not go near! We can return there… rebuild it… and live in peace and freedom!"
Abana clasps Kaela's hands, silencing them for a moment, and then signs slowly, carefully. "Daughter, you dreamed, but this is the true world we live in. We must not take false hopes, lest our heartflames burn bright and then die early." She looks into Kaela's bright green eyes, her brown eyes weary with age. Is there something more than years that sap her strength? "But you are seventh daughter of a seventh… They say such of our people are gifted to see more than there is."
Abana pulls on Kaela's hand gently, trying to pull her closer. "Be with me, daughter," she signs. "It has been too long, and my time grows too short."
Kaela's eyes widen into large green saucers. "No Mama," she signs. "You're young… you've lots of time left… "
"Like you, I burned hotly when I was a child," Abana signs slowly, her eyes pained to have to admit this to her daughter, her tail swishing out from beneath the blanket to curl around Kaela's tailtip. "Now my fires burn low. It is a poison in the river of our blood. We do not know why. Perhaps we were too proud once. But when it comes on us, our bones stiffen, become brittle, our fur begins to turn gray." Are those tears that have begun to form about her eyes?
Kaela's mother continues, "You must know this, for your own daughters. Tell them to beware pride. It will kill us. There is so much I have to tell you… " She sighs, tired from holding her hands up so long.
Kaela shakes her head quickly. "No, Mama," she signs, "don't say such things. You've all the time in the world… " Her eyes have begun to mist over.
"All the time in the world would not be enough to have you with me," Abana says with stuttering hands. She motions Kaela closer, then grooms her ears and face lightly, a mother's affectionate gesture to kittens, often protested by the latter.
Kaela has become worried enough over her mother that she even endures the grooming without complaint, though her ears do flick as they're settled. Once the grooming has finished, she gently nuzzles Abana's cheek. Moving slightly back she signs, "You'll see. You'll be fine."
"I hope so," Abana signs with a warm smile up at her impetuous daughter. "Perhaps I will see this city you speak of. Go and eat and play, Emerald- Eyes. Sparkle for me."
Kaela leans forward and gives Abana a gentle hug for a moment. Stepping back, she signs, "You will, Mama. I promise." Then with a tentative smile, she moves back out the door and slowly pads back down the steps, eyes slightly lowered.
Abana watches her daughter disappear through the tapestry, then with a smile faintly wreathing her lips, looks out the window hoping to catch a sign of her later. Slowly the primrose-scented breeze finds her sleeping comfortably in the pillows.
Laina welcomes Kaela back to the kitchen, pointing to where she has already laid out a precious slice of Rughrat haunch onto some of the freshly baked bread, a hearty meal for a young but growing cub. "Did she look better?" she signs. The cook bustles around.
Kaela nods a little bit, quietly moving to the extravagant meal. She signs, "Weak… but… " Frowning slightly, she finishes, "But she's looking better. Lots better. She'll be fine."
Laina looks relieved, straightening slightly. "It is only worrying then, " she signs. "She complained so that she would not recover, that she wanted to see you before she died, that we all put together what little we saved to hire a healer to see her. He could not find anything wrong, and said that it must have been overwork, that's all." She pats Kaela's back. "Now that you are back, she will surely be better soon. I will take her some soup."
Kaela nods quickly. "She'll be fine," she repeats. So how come she doesn't feel like eating the sumptuous meal before her? Half-heartedly, she picks at the meat and bread without actually consuming very much of it.
Laina picks up a bowl of soup and skitters up the stairs…
After a moment, the chef looks up and then over to Kaela. She signs, "You're worried, girl. There is no shame in that."
Kaela shakes her head, swallowing a small piece of bread. The little cheetah defiantly signs, "I'm not worried. Mama will be fine!"
The chef, an older cheetah but not quite as old as Laina and with white edges to her cheekruffs, signs back, "First Ones willing. They watch over us all." She tugs on a whisker, then adds, "But for such a faithful daughter like you, perhaps they will find a way to help." She smiles gently, then resumes pouring a honey-cinnamon glaze over a loaf of sweet bread for the mansion's noble residents.
Kaela nods quietly, eyes downcast on the food before her and her hands slowly working in vague half-signs, aimed at nobody in particular. After a few moments, she resumes the meal, eating far less than has been set before her.