Chapter 9: New Life
I ran through the frigid forest, drizzle whipping into my face as my boots splashed through mud and tangling vines. My pulse pounded as my legs pumped, trying to combine speed with accuracy so I didn't slip in the puddles or trip on anything. I was sweating under my Dark Brotherhood cowl despite the cold, and my chest ached with each heaving breath as I tried to outrace my own death.
I didn't dare look back; Nazir had said that when trying to outrun death, looking back was a fine way to get killed. He had laughed then and said that looking ahead didn't guarantee survival, but looking back was certain doom. I remembered how bitter his laugh was when he said it. Had he been speaking from personal experience?
A branch in the face reminded me to focus my mind on what I was doing, and the sudden sound of rough inhalation behind me gave me just enough warning to duck to one side and put my back to a tree for a second. I heard the wet, spattering impact of acidic poison on the tree and I thanked the Night Mother for the training I had been given over the last few months. I would have already been dead a dozen times over if it weren't for the Dark Brotherhood's training regimen, but even so it was taking every ounce of my new speed and stamina to keep ahead of my would-be killer. Pretty soon, if I couldn't find some place to hide, I was going to die.
As I took off again, a nightmare race through the marshy forests outside Dawnstar, I wondered how in the Void it could have all gotten so out of control. All I had been trying to do was find a pet for a friend, and now I was running for my life from a monster three times my size with double my limbs. I had been running from it for what felt like forever, and the cold and exertion were wearing me down while the noise behind me indicated that it was far from deciding the chase was over. The beast's poison spittle made climbing a tree useless, and I was nowhere near enough to Sanctuary to get there before the creature overtook me. I didn't relish the idea of being paralyzed by venom and having my organs slowly drained out.
Against my will, my mind wandered again, back to New Life Day, and how it all started
Ever since Babette told me about New Life Day, I had been fascinated. My mother and I had never celebrated holidays because of our poverty, not even my birthday, so she had to sit down and explain the whole thing to me. I was so excited about the idea of a day that families got together to celebrate their lives and exchange gifts that I was able to completely overlook her occasional sniffs at my ignorance.
She could be like that sometimes, but I knew she didn't really mean anything by it. I could only imagine how tough it had been for her to join the Brotherhood so young and work so hard to become an alchemist at her age. It was tough enough for me to master the basics of offense, defense, and stealth, let alone a professional skill like alchemy. I think it made her work harder to be accepted by the adults, and even to sometimes make up stories to try and impress me. Still, Babette had become my best friend in only a couple of months in Sanctuary, and it was her I usually turned to when I needed advice about life in the Brotherhood.
Babette was able to explain that the New Life Festival was the turning of the new year, a day when contracts were renewed, vows were made, and older people meditated on their lives and what they wanted to do in the year to come. The part that interested me more was the idea of gift-giving. I was excited about the idea of getting a gift, but the fact that I finally had people I could give gifts to was even better. And I knew exactly who I wanted my first-ever present given to go to.
"I don't know what to get for Hecate," I complained to Babette after she was done explaining.
"Well," she responded, "the rest of us are pooling our money to get her something very nice. You could contribute to that if you wanted." It wasn't the personal gift I was hoping to give, but I supposed that if I got something small for her on my own, it wouldn't be very impressive compared to the others' gift.
"Do I even have money?" I wondered aloud. "I mean, do I have like
a salary or something?" Babette's raucous laughter made my face burn with embarrassment. Why did I always feel like a dumb kid around her? It wasn't like she was that much older than me. "Well then, would you loan me some money so I can chip in? I'll pay you back after my first contract." Babette was already shaking her head before I even finished my request.
"I like you, Aventus," she started apologetically, "but it's my policy to never loan money to a brother or sister. It causes too many hard feelings. Worse than that, there's every chance that someone might die on mission and be unable to repay me. Poor old Festus Krex died owing me money." I stared at her, a little shaken by her worry over money when casually discussing the death of a member of her old family at Falkreath. I pushed it down; I decided that it was just her way of coping with what had happened then, the same way that my detachment and isolation had been a way of coping with my mother's death and my imprisonment at Honorhall.
"It's hard to think about what happened to the Brotherhood right before I joined," I said, trying to get Babette to open up about the ordeal. Hecate had sat down with me one day and explained about the betrayal of the Dark Brotherhood, about the destruction of the previous Sanctuary. She hadn't given me a lot of details, but I knew that it had been bad. "All those brothers and sisters I'll never get to meet
"They were my family for a long time," Babette admitted, looking away from me. "I do miss them
Especially Gabriella and Lis."
"Who's Lis?" I asked. Hecate had mentioned other brothers and sister to me, but not anyone named Lis.
"Lis was my pet," Babette said, her eyes unfocused and her voice wistful. I supposed that was why Hecate hadn't mentioned her then; our Listener didn't seem like the sort of person to get sentimental over animals. "She was a frostbite spider I raised from an egg." I sighed to myself; there she went, making up stories again.
"Sure thing, Babette," I said, perhaps a little sharply. She wrinkled up her nose and stomped off. I felt bad about it, but I salved my conscience by saying that she shouldn't be such a big liar. After a moment, I picked myself up and went to find Cicero.
A quick search through Sanctuary found the jester in one of the chambers off from the shrine of the Night Mother. He was curled up on the floor, knees drawn up and a slate balanced on them while he occasionally marked on it. He always seemed to be busy whenever we weren't training, so I did my best not to bother him normally. Today was unusual, though; I marched right up to him and cleared my throat.
"Yes?" he asked without looking up from his scribbles.
I have a favor to ask." I hoped that my voice sounded more confident to him than it did to me. The truth was that I thought Cicero was amazingstrong, fast, a good fighter, and obviously Hecate loved himbut he also scared me a little. Sometimes he talked to people who weren't there or sang morbid little songs or just stared into space for hours on end. I asked Hecate about it once, but all she would say was that life had been hard to Cicero. He looked up at me and nodded for me to go ahead; it was more than I had really expected.
"Well, New Life Day is coming up
I've never celebrated it before, and I was hoping to get something for Hecate." He continued looking at me blankly. "I don't have any money, so I was hoping that
"The boy wants to borrow money?" he asked, his eyes amused now. "I could just say that the present the others are getting Hecate is from you as well
"No!" I interrupted. He tilted his head and looked at me curiously. His jester's cap stayed firmly in place, though. How the hell did he keep that thing on? "I don't just want my name put on it. If I don't contributeif it doesn't cost me somethingthen it isn't really from me. Does that make sense?"
"Cicero understands about sacrifice," he nodded in agreement. "Very well, Cicero will happily loan Aventus the value of one-fourth of the gift." I goggled at him. After Babette's prickliness over money I had expected it to be harder to talk him into it.
"Really?" I asked suspiciously. "Wait, a fourth?"
"Hecate has commanded poor Cicero to buy her nothing," he said sadly, a hand over his heart. A wicked smile passed over his face and he laid a finger alongside his nose while winking. "But clever Cicero has his ways of obeying while still doing something nice."
" I dithered. "Are you sure?"
"Of course!" he exclaimed, standing up suddenly enough to send his slate flying across the room. "I feel it's important for siblings to share what they have with one another when the need arises."
"Thank you!" I said, throwing my arms around Cicero's waist. He awkwardly patted my shoulder before gently pushing me away. I continued more gravely, "I'll pay you back out of my first contract!"
"I'll consider it a promise," he said primly. Then he leaned down so that we were face-to-face. His eyes seemed to be cast into shadows. "Just remember the Tenets, boy. You've given me your word, so if you fail to repay
that would be like stealing." He smiled madly and cartwheeled away in a blur before I could so much as respond.
Dealing with Cicero was always terrifying.
A near-miss from another gob of poison passed close enough to my cheek that a stray droplet hit me just below the ear. The burning sensation was quickly replaced by a cold numbness that made part of my face go slack. No wonder they called them "frostbite spiders." I cursed under my breath in a way that would have made Babette scold me if she could hear it and poured on the speed, burning up what was left of my stamina.
Up ahead I could see a tumble of fallen rocks. If there was space enough for me to crawl deep into the rocks, the spider wouldn't be able to reach me. I had to chance it. My feet slipped in the rain and mud, and I struggled to keep my balance. After staggered for a half-dozen steps I went down in the muck and instinctively rolled to one side, just in time to avoid the monster's leap from putting it down right on top of me. I continued my roll to the side as it danced around on its eight legs looking for me, coming up to my knees with the aid of a fallen log. I shoulder rolled over the log and flopped flat behind it.
The giant frostbite spider clearly knew I was still present, but missing me with its leap had put me out of its sight for a secondlong enough for it to lose track of a much-smaller opponent. I laid face-down in the mud, struggling to control my breathing, while it chittered and screeched. When it sounded like it was turned away from me, I pushed myself upright and made a mad dash for the rock cluster. It was only twenty feet, maybe thirty, but it felt like a mile. I could almost imagine the feeling of the beast's fangs sinking into my back, my limbs going numb
And just as I feared that it was the end of the line, I slammed between the narrow stones and went tumbling down a muddy incline between them. I could hear the spider screeching in frustration and sizzling venom striking stone above and behind me. I gasped for breath and pushed myself as far back into the crack as I could squeeze. The cold stone and pooling water sapped my body heat, making me shiver uncontrollably, but it was better than being eaten by a monstrous spider.
It was so dark that I couldn't see anything; even the dim light outside the tiny cave was drowned by the bulk of the spider's body blocking up the entrance. Divines, what if I had misjudged how big its body was? What if it could squeeze into the hole, pulling itself in after me? I would be trapped, in the dark, waiting for the frostbite spider to sink its fangs into my thigh
I slapped myself sharply across the face to cut off that train of thought and make myself focus on the present. Things were bad, but there was no sense worrying about things I couldn't control. If I had miscalculated and the spider could get into my refuge, it would just be the culmination of a long series of terrible miscalculations.
"Can we open our gifts?" I gushed, bouncing up and down on my chair as Hecate drank from a steaming cup. "Can we? Can we?" Babette joined in with my insistent questioning, smiling broadly as she got into the spirit of pestering our Listener. I was so excited about receiving gifts for the first time ever that I was unable to keep my exuberance to myself. Seeing Babette actually excited for a change just fed into my own sense of elation.
Hecate smiled indulgently over her mug. "We should wait for Meena," she chided. I looked around impatiently for our furriest sibling. She had been sent out on contract to Morthal the week before. Knowing her, if she wasn't out and about when gifts were in the offering, she wasn't back from her contract yet.
"Oh, Listener, please!" Babette whined in her best little-girl voice. She tried to act so mature most of the time that it was hilarious to see her acting like a kid for a change. I turned to Hecate and batted my eyes while joining in on Babette's play. It was hard to focus on our leader for a change, though; Cicero was bringing in plates full of treats and holiday sweets from the kitchen, and I kept glancing at the involuntarily.
"Fine, you vultures!" she finally laughed, spreading her hands wide at the pile of gifts on the main table. "Enjoy!"
The next hour or so was a flurry of fancifully colored wrapping paper ripping into shreds and flying into the air as people tore into their gifts. I was a little disappointed to see that Babette had gotten Hecate an extra gift, but since it was just a bottle of perfume I didn't feel too bad about it. It wasn't like she had gone off and gotten her something impressive. I was so excited to receive my gift, thoughmy own Dark Brotherhood outfit! Not a full set of armor like I had been hoping, but Hecate explained that since I was still growing, it wouldn't be a good idea for me to get real armor until we knew how tall I was going to wind up.
Cicero got knives and gave knives out. Frightening.
Finally the time came for Hecate to unwrap the gift we had all chipped in on for her. When she pulled out the new bow, her face scrunched up and for a minute I thought she might cry. It was a better reaction than a dumb bottle of perfume, that was for sure. Apparently, she had lost a really valuable bow when Falkreath Sanctuary burned down, and it had taken Nazir weeks of looking to track down a new one that was even better than the old one. I didn't know how much it had cost, but it was worth any amount to see the look of happiness on the face of the woman who had saved me.
"You really should name it," Babette suggested.
I flopped over onto a pile of wrapping paper, completely content. I had run off for a few minutes to change into my new outfit, which fit wonderfully. Now that I was back, I was shockingly tired but I didn't want to put down any of my gifts so I just laid there and dozed while the others talked about boring things. Meena came in at some point; I could make out her purring voice but not the exact words.
I cradled my first ever gifts to my chest as I half-slept. Nazir had gotten me a beautiful wooden ship that looked like the ones I used to admire when I fished down at the Windhelm docks. I didn't even know how he remembered that I liked ships since I could only think of mentioning it to him once in passing. The man had a mind like a steel trap. Cicero had given me a Skyforge steel dagger; I preferred maces, but it was still a gift and I admired the thought.
I was vaguely aware of Babette gently stroking my hair as I lay next to her. Her hand was cold whenever her fingers brushed against my brow, but I didn't mind. I was sometimes surprised at how quickly we had become such good friends. If only she weren't such a big fibber
I came all the way awake with a start as the wrapping paper flew into the air and I went tumbling across the floor. I was able to feel the cavern shaking around me and I was suddenly afraid that we were under attack, like had happened at Falkreath. As I turned to look for Hecate, I could see that she was standing next to an overturned chair, her face screwed up in rage.
"Time to move, kittens," Meena rumbled at me and Babette as she dragged us from the room. We raced for the door as fast as we could, but not quite fast enough to avoid the sight of Hecate fuming about something.
"I'M GOING TO KILL SOMEONE!" Hecate screamedno, Shouted. I had known for some time that Hecate was really the Dragonborn, some kind of legendary hero responsible for saving the world from dragons. That was just one more reason to admire and look up to her as far as I was concerned. I had missed the whole "dragons attacking the world" thing while I was holed up in my house and wandering the roads of Skyrim, except for maybe seeing a dragon at a long way offand even that could have just been a big bird or something.
The wrapping paper had just begun to ignite under the power of Hecate's voice, and a glance back showed me that even Cicero seemed to be scared of her. I could hear Hecate continuing to rage behind us, shaking the walls and ceiling of Sanctuary like an earthquake. Until that moment I hadn't realized what it meant to be a master of the Thu'um, the power that men sometimes called Shouting. Hecate had looked like a completely different person, like someone less than humanor much, much more.
"She had best not take it out on the fool," Meena groused once we were at what the Khajiit considered a safe distance. "This one would take that most poorly
" I liked Cicero too, but I thought that Meena might be over-worrying about the whole thing. Even I could tell that Hecate loved Cicero; she would never hurt him. Would she?
"What happened?" I asked in total confusion.
"Weren't you listening?" Babette retorted angrily. I shook my head and she sighed in frustration. "Whiterun fell to Ulfric Stormcloak in a surprise winter attack! The civil war just had a major setback for the Imperials! And someone is pretending to be Hecate! Well, pretending to be the Dragonborn, anyway." I could only goggle dumbly at her. Had I really missed that much while I was napping? While I was still gaping, Babette sniffed loudly, crossed her arms, and turned to storm off back to her room.
Why was she mad at me? She was acting like I was the one who had invaded Whiterun instead of Ulfric Stormcloak. I didn't think I would ever understand girls. Still confused and scared, I went to Nazir's study. I found the Redguard pacing back and forth in front of his desk, scowling occasionally when he stopped to pick up a paper. I knocked gingerly on the door frame.
"What is it, Aventus?" he asked without even looking.
"Happy New Life Day, Nazir," I said lamely. Honestly, I wasn't even sure why I had come to Nazir's office, other than him being the only person in Sanctuary who didn't seem to be angry. Even his scowl looked more worried than anything.
"Happy New Life Day," he said, his face softening. "And thank you for the spices."
"It was Babette's idea," I replied honestly. "I'm glad you liked them, though. I wasn't sure if you would."
"Well, it was very thoughtful of both of you." He sat down next to the desk and I took that as an invitation to join him. "Something on your mind?" he asked with a sardonic smirk. Naturally, only one thing was on anyone's mind right now. I smiled back wanly.
"Is Hecate going to be okay?"
"I think she'll be fine," he said without any hesitation. "Once she figures out what to do about all of this, I mean. We all gave up things to join the Dark Brotherhood, but Hecate gave up her very identity. Finding out that someone else stole her name and legend can't be very pleasant for her."
I nodded, understanding at least a little. "Well, at least she got something new today too," I said, thinking of the bow.
"She did seem to enjoy the gift," Nazir smiled, more genuinely. "It was hard enough to find a Daedric bow at any price, let alone the enormous one we wound up paying. Still, it's some closure to be able to replace some of the things we lost when Falkreath burned." His face turned down again, and I realized that he was thinking of sad times.
"I'm sorry about Falkreath," I offered. "I can't even imagine what it must have been like."
"Pray you never have to learn." Nazir's weathered face looked very old suddenly. "The Dark Brotherhood has always been a family. It's not even the possessions I miss mostit's the people. Old Festus Krex, I think you might have liked him even though he would have pretended to not like you. Gabriella was a sweetheart under all the morbid stuff." He sighed and ran a hand down his pointed beard. "I still miss them all. Even the stupid spider."
"Spider?" I asked as innocently as I could manage. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end.
"Babette never told you about her damned pet frostbite spider?" he asked with a deep belly laugh. "She raised that thing from an egg. Treated it like a big dog or something. It was the damnedest thing I'd ever seen. She called it Lis, let it live in Sanctuary."
As Nazir regaled me with stories from the "good old days," I could feel my face begin to burn with shame. I realized that I had been so busy looking down on Babette for "trying too hard" that I had somehow decided that my best friend was a liar. Divines, I had been so blind! I could only think about all of the pain I must have caused her from doubting her, and about how foolish I must have looked when I wouldn't listen. Nazir's talkwhich normally would have been fascinating to mefaded into the background as I contemplated how to make up for my private shame and show Babette how much she meant to me.
That's when it hit me. Nazir's melancholy about the old days at Falkreath made me think how much Babette must still miss her old pet spiderso I would go and get her a new one! I couldn't replace Lis, but I could get her a new baby spider hatchling to raise. That would ease my conscience, make Babette happy, and be a delayed New Life Day present, all in one.
What could possibly go wrong?
How had everything gone so wrong?
As I sat in the muck at the rear of my personal stone tomb, I thought back to how proud I was when I put on my Dark Brotherhood outfit and snuck out into the wilderness to look for a frostbite spider nest. They were all over the place in the forests near Dawnstar, so I didn't think it would be much of a problem to find one. Then, I would sneak into the nest, grab a few eggs, put them in the feather-filled sack I had brought along for safekeeping, and head back to Sanctuary. No one would even notice I was gone!
The only person generally awake in the dead of night was Babette, and she was holed up in her lab working on potions and curatives. Cicero had not yet come back to Sanctuary by the time I was sent to bed, and I feared that he might come in at some inopportune time and ruin my efforts. Hecate had been so worried about him that she had barely paid any attention to me except to tuck me in.
"I'm so sorry you had to spend most of New Life Day alone," she had said as she pulled the blankets up to my chin. "I'll make it up to you tomorrow, I promise."
"It's okay," I told her. Though we hadn't celebrated holidays back home, my mother had made a lot of similar promises to me during my childhood. I wasn't angry or bitter; I just knew that adults did important things. "I understand adult stuff was going on. It happens. I remember sometimes my mom had to do adult stuff with strange men," I added, which seemed to make Hecate feel worse instead of better judging by the look on her face. As long as she was making promises anyway, I figured it wouldn't hurt to try for one more. "Can we go sledding tomorrow?"
"Sure," she said with a small smile. She even kissed me on the forehead before leaving the room. I didn't really expect her to keep her wordthe Listener had a lot of work to do, after allbut it was nice that she would say as much.
Once she had been gone for what I considered long enough, I slipped out of bed, put on my Dark Brotherhood outfit, and snuck out of Sanctuary. I managed to get out the Black Door without any difficulties, priding myself on being a stealthy master assassin. The cold rain and mud outside were detriments and I worried about getting sick like I had months ago, but I considered myself moderately wilderness savvy after spending nearly three months on the roads between Riften and Windhelm.
The truth was that after less than an hour in the forest I felt like I was hopelessly lost. I had no idea what spider tracks might look likeor even if such things existed, not that I would have found anything in the drizzling rain. Despite the cold and the dark, I was set and determined to carry through with my plan. It was the only way I could feel really good about myself again. I had dreaded looking Babette in the eye after my talk with Nazir, and it had been sheer hell to avoid her for the rest of New Life Day while everyone else was gone.
Still, sometime in the dead of night, after I felt chilled to the bone, I had managed to stumble onto a cluster of spider eggs. I say "stumble onto" because I literally walked through a mass of damp webbing, tripped over my own feet while I was scrambling to get it out of my eyes, and fell into the nest. I came face-to-face with the skeleton of a desiccated corpse, its body folded up on itself like a pretzel, before I scrabbled backwards in the mud away from it. I could hear chittering noises coming from the mess I had just made of the webbing and bones; when I scooted back forward to look, I could see dozens of hand-sized spiders swarming around on a fresher deer corpse stuffed into the webbing cocoon.
Before I could more than register the baby spiders and wonder if they would still be trainable even though they had already hatched, I heard the splash of something heavy dropping into the mud behind me. Looking back, I saw a spider roughly the size of a horse descending from a cluster of nearby trees, its eight legs sloshing mud around as it brought its weight fully to rest on the damp earth. It screeched at me inhumanly and slipped in the mud, its thigh-thick legs seeking traction as its tried to charge me.
Only its initial pause saved my life. Before it could get up to speed, I was back on my feet and running as fast as I could manage. My nightmare flight through the dark forests was a blur, filled with half-glimpsed shapes, barely-dodged venom, and freezing muck. I had finally managed to find what seemed to be safety, but Sithis only knew how long I could manage to hide in a stony crevice in this weather before I froze to death. Or until I starved, if I somehow avoided freezing but the spider stayed angry at me long enough for it to matter
Between the darkness and the morbid thoughts, I was entirely surprised when my fluttering, outstretched hand encountered something warm and furry. I jerked it back quickly, worried I had encountered some sort of angry tunnel-dwelling hell-mole, but was surprised when I heard a whimper coming from where my hand had just been. I strained my eyes in the darkness, barely able to make out shapes sharing the crevice with me. I fumbled forward, hands nervously feeling ahead, and was even more surprised this time when something wet and rough and warm passed over my knuckles.
I froze, not wanting to startle whatever had just licked me into perhaps biting me instead. As I cautiously felt around, my new neighbor and I discovered one another's existence. My hands and poor sight managed to make out a warm fur-covered shape, slightly smaller than a breadbox, and a larger fur-covered shape that was stiff and cold, partially sunk into the mud. I guessed that I was feeling some sort of animal and its cub; the mother had chosen this as a den and died here, and only this single cub remained alive.
My heart went out to the small creature that was licking my hand more enthusiastically now. I knew what it was like to share a small space with a dead parent, after all. The barely-seen creature and I amicably shared space for the rest of the night, keeping each other warm and passing the time in close company. By the time the rain stopped and moonlight began to leak into the tight crevasse, I had already made my decision.
When I came staggering back into Sanctuary just before dawn, Babette was waiting for me just inside the Black Door, a stern look on her face and one foot tapping impatiently.
"Aventus," she began like a reproachful mother, "where have you been all night? When Hecate finds out you snuck out, she's going to be quite cross! And with Cicero already sick! Why do you look like you were dragged behind a wagon for a mile?" She stopped pestering me when she saw the bag I was carrying suddenly squirm. "Did you bring a wild animal into Sanctuary?" Her nose scrunched up in distaste.
"I went out to try and find you a pet," I explained. "I knew you must have missed Lis a lot, so I wanted to find you a new spider, but
" The prize in my bag squirmed again. I would have to let it out soon if I wanted to avoid it ripping its way free. "I know it's not a spider, but I thought you might like a puppy instead."
"A puppy?" she asked, crossing her arms in front of her. "Seriously, Aventus, you're such a child. You can't make me forget about my poor Lis by getting
" She trailed off suddenly as the wolf cub pushed its head free of the sack.
"You don't like him then?" I asked, feeling crestfallen and foolish.
"Oh, Aventus, he's wonderful!" she cried suddenly, rushing forward to throw her arms around my neck.
"Oh, yes!" She pulled the pup free from my arms and held it up to peer at it, a broad smile on her face. "Ice wolf blood is a powerful reagent in many philters and poisons! How did you know?"
"His blood? You're not going to hurt him, are you?" I was more shocked at the idea of Babette killing a present out of hand than the idea she might kill at all. We were both assassins, after all. Killing was kind of in the job description.
"Hurt him? Of course not!" she scoffed, tossing her hair over one shoulder with a shake of her head. "Only the crudest alchemists would waste such a valuable resource by killing it for a few doses of blood. It would be like killing the golden goose for a single egg!" She pulled the pup closer to her chest, cradling it with one arm while she petted it with the other. "No, something this valuable is a long-term investment. Lis was very useful for her venom, but an ice wolf's blood could be even better if properly exploited." She smiled again and threw the arm that had been petting the pup around my neck suddenly, though she caught herself before pressing up against my mud-spattered form.
"I'm glad you like it
" I said, confused and slightly unnerved. "Taking his blood won't hurt, will it?"
"Not at all," she murmured against my throat, before coughing slightly and pulling back to look at me. "I'm an expert at taking blood painlessly." She looked at the pup thoughtfully. "Have you named him?" she asked suddenly.
"No," I shook my head, "I thought you should. It's your present, after all." She pursed her lips thoughtfully.
"Well, I named Lis after a flower," she said. At my look, she continued. "In the old Breton tongue, 'lis' means 'lily.' Did you know that flowers have their own language?" I shook my head. "It's true. Each one means something different, like roses for love or daisies for innocence
" She trailed off, her face distant and sad for perhaps the first time since I had known her. I wondered if this had been a bad ideawell, a worse ideawhen she turned to look at me again.
"Pavot," she said with enthusiasm. "His name is Pavot."
"Pavot," I repeated. "What does it mean?"
"It means 'poppy,'" she explained. "In the language of flowers, poppies represent consolation and release from melancholy." The newly-named Pavot yipped cheerfully and licked Babette's face again, apparently pleased with the decision. We both giggled like children at the pup's antics.
"You should go get cleaned up before someone wakes up and sees you," Babette said with a demure smile. "I won't tell on you for being out all night." She leaned in close to whisper, "I don't think Hecate would have gotten angry anyway. I just said that to scare you."
"You big fibber," I said, smiling back wickedly. We both burst out laughing again, Pavot yipping in time to our gusts of laughter.
We stood there on the stairs, holding hands and laughing until the sun came up and both of us snuck off to crawl into our beds. Babette took Pavot with her and even let him curl up at her feet as she slept. I was sore, bruised, and cold, but a quick rinse and a morning of sleep cured the worst of my ills. Poor Cicero turned out to have pneumonia, so I counted myself lucky that I had only been nearly murdered by a giant spider. Meena was curled up in a corner of the main hall, completely oblivious to me as I passed by; as far as I could tell, she was watching her paws as she slowly waved them in front of her face, a look of intense focus on her feline features. I had no idea what was going on there.
Still, despite everything, when I look back at that timeto Hecate, Nazir, Meena, Cicero, Babette, and me all living in one SanctuaryI can't help but think that first New Life Day as a family was still the best one of my life.
to be continued