Hot Water
A Round-Robin Collaboration/Duel between Zakiyah and DNash

Round 9 - Zakiyah
Spoilers: Elixir, The Secret

"Ardo!" Veronica exclaimed. "What are you doing here?"

"Shivering, and wondering if Kai will ever speak to me again," the short Plateau native replied, only half in jest. He was indeed shivering noticeably even with the addition of an extra patterned cloth wrapped around his shoulders and torso as well as his usual tribal wrap. After a stunned moment, Veronica recognized the second cloth as Kai's sarong.

"That's not what I mean." Exasperation sharpened Veronica's voice. "Why are you here? And where's Kai?"

"Kai should be back at the Zanga village by now, or so I hope." Ardo looked uneasy but determined. "He could not come with me, even if he had wished to risk the mountains; his feet would have frozen in his sandals. And I needed every bit of protection I could borrow. I had forgotten how cold it is here at this time of year."

"You left him naked in the jungle? What did he do, wrap himself up in some leaves or something?" Finn goggled, also recognizing the second cloth as a sarong and correctly guessing its origin. "Well, that explains where Roxton got the idea. Sure hope your friend's better at it though," she added in a lower voice, remembering how the hunter's leaf-skirt had fallen apart when she'd surprised him and Marguerite in the shower room. She stifled a snicker.

"What?" Veronica shook her head, refusing to be distracted by Finn's apparent non-sequitur. She considered Ardo's words for a moment, and then stared down at his boots. Boots, not sandals, like most of the Zanga wore. She'd learned to make her own boots from him. "'…forgot how cold it is here'?" she repeated questioningly. Her eyes narrowed. "You've been here before?"

"I was born here," Ardo answered calmly. "My parents belonged to the Matozˇide, a tribe that lives here in these mountains. I lived here with them as a boy, along with the others who chose living together over living separately."

"Well, obviously they were living together, at least some of the time, if they had you," Finn pointed out, rolling her eyes.

When Ardo stared at Finn, obviously confused, Veronica was hard put not to roll her eyes right back at the girl from the future. "I think he means something different than you do, Finn," she pointed out, not adding that she only had the vaguest idea what Finn meant. "Ardo, could you explain?

"Of a certainty," Ardo answered with relief. "Unlike the Zanga, the men and women of the Matozˇide often lived apart. The tribe was in some ways three tribes: one of men dedicated to the gods, one of women dedicated to the goddesses, and one of mated couples and children, who honored all the gods."

"Wow." Finn's eyes were huge. "Wouldn't that make it hard to decide anything? Or find someone to be with?"

Ardo shook his head, a soft smile of remembrance erasing the lines of worry on his face. The long, feathered earring dangling from his left ear fluttered against his cheek. "I was very young, but I remember it being quite peaceful. We had rituals and festivals throughout the year, where all the tribe gathered and lived together. Sometimes during these festivals men and women would be drawn together, become mates, and leave the sacred caverns. Others remained in the service of the gods all their lives, happy in the company of their fellows. Or so my mother told me."

"So what happened? How did you come to be among the Zanga? I don't remember you ever not being there," Veronica asked. She had been studying her old friend as he spoke. She'd never realized Ardo wasn't Zanga by blood, but now that she knew, she could see subtle facial differences from most of the rest of the tribe. Not to mention he was the shortest male in the village. But she'd never thought much of it; many of the Zanga showed differing physical characteristics, reflections of the generally amenable nature of the tribe to strangers joining them.

"I was still a boy when my mother and I came to the Zanga." Ardo frowned in thought. "I remember that a stranger came to the Matozˇide, a man with great magical powers who spoke our tongue as his own. He did not respect the goddesses, and insisted that there was but one supreme, male god. Because of his magic, many believed him, and the harmony between the men and the women of the tribe was destroyed. But my mother refused to give me up to the men. My father was dead, and I was all she had left. She fled with me, and we wound up with the Zanga." He looked at them, his dark eyes grave. "Although we were happy with the Zanga, and my mother with her new mate, she never forgot the ways of the Matozˇide. My mother and I returned here every year for many years, to hunt and pay tribute to the gods and goddesses. I still come here, sometimes, in the summer months, to speak to the gods and honor her memory. I can help you hunt for your friends. And if my former people have found them…you'll need my help even more."

*****

Roxton was acutely grateful for the fur-lined robe - and not just because he'd started to wonder if he'd ever be properly clothed again. The air was bitingly cold in the chamber they'd been led to, despite the presence of braziers on either end of the room. He only wished his reluctant hostesses had provided them with some kind of shoes to go with the robes. As it was, he slouched a little lower on the fleece-covered bench and tried to keep the hem of his robe over his chilly toes, all the while still paying attention to the conversation between Marguerite and the twin priestesses. He'd already learned that his asking questions only stopped the flow of information. Luisah in particular obviously wished he were anywhere else but here. He'd quickly figured out that the best thing he could do was to let Marguerite do all the talking…as usual.

"So you say for many years now the gods have been displeased by your people," Marguerite summarized after listening to the two priestesses give a brief history of their tribe. "That doesn't explain how we come into it."

"You are marked," Tereza explained patiently. "Yemanjá has placed her sign upon you. And you have brought a man to her sacred cavern in respect, not in mockery."

Luisah snorted at this, but she subsided at a warning glance from her sister. "The harmony between men and women was broken. By a man," she added darkly.

"Men are meant to be with men, as women are with women - but men and women are also meant to be with each other, together as equals," Tereza clarified. "Because men and women have broken harmony with each other, we have also broken our harmony with the gods and the world around us. As it is in Aiye, so it is in Orun - and so it must be, for as it is in Orun, so it is in Aiye."

That bit was completely lost on Roxton, but Marguerite looked like she understood it, so he kept his questions to himself.

"Now Yemanjá's blessing is largely lost to us, and we wither. The signs tell us that only a woman and a man, working together as we once did, can restore the balance." Tereza reached out and took Marguerite's hands in hers, once again turning them so that the blue spirals were clearly visible. "You must do this."

Marguerite frowned as something in Tereza's story struck a familiar chord. "Yemanjá's blessing?" she repeated. "Isn't that what you called the pool you took us to? It seemed fine to me." More than fine, actually, she thought, then swiftly dismissed the memory before she could be further distracted.

Roxton also leaned forward slightly, sensing that the two priestesses were at last getting to the heart of the matter.

"That is but the smaller of her blessings," Luisah said impatiently. "Once Yemanjá's blessing ran through her sacred stream as well, flowing throughout our caverns and keeping us warm even in the heart of winter. Her waters were as warm as a mother's embrace. Now they are as cold as the snows."

"Surely you must have noticed how cold her waters were when you made your offering?" Tereza questioned.

Marguerite nodded, having already realized they must mean the icy stream that ran through the cavern where John found her. She shivered, remembering how cold the water had felt as it traveled down her throat. I guess I'd better not mention that I was only getting a drink, she thought ruefully. "Very cold," she agreed.

Roxton frowned thoughtfully, remembering how the path they'd taken had followed the stream. Running around barefoot would make a lot more sense if the waters were usually warm, he realized. You'd just walk through the water, instead of avoiding it.

"Because of our strife, Yemanjá and Aganju must have quarreled, for the earth has shifted where the heat of Yemanjá's blessing emerged. His earth blocks it now, leaving only the cold waters of NanŃ's tears." Tereza's face was bleak. "I fear we will all be under her sway soon."

"I still think that spawn of Obaluaiŕ, that foul twister of Ex˙, had something to do with it." Luisah's already-harsh voice was even more bitter than usual. "Him and his evil magics."

"Hush, Luisah. Even if he did, he could only reflect the turmoil of the gods," Tereza admonished, "as these two represent the harmony of the gods." For the first time, she turned and spoke to Roxton as well as Marguerite. "Which is why both of you must be the ones to make the offering to the gods and free Yemanjá's blessing."

Aganju…Ex˙…NanŃ…Yemanjá…Obaluaiŕ… These names together stirred something in Roxton's memory, and after a moment he realized what it was. Brazil! He'd spent one memorable Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, and he remembered some of the strange figurines paraded alongside the more traditional figures of saints. What was it that José called them? "An offering to the orixás?" he suggested, and was gratified to see both Tereza's and Luisah's jaws drop in unison. For that matter, Marguerite looked pretty startled. Score one for the token male in the room, he thought smugly.

"Exactly," Luisah agreed, looking on him with something close to approval. "Appropriate to your patrons and your ancestors, and our need, of course. Who are your patrons?"

"Uh…" Roxton abruptly wished he'd kept his mouth shut. Patrons? I don't think she means the sponsors of the Challenger Expedition!

"Luisah, I think you go too fast," Tereza said, noticing Roxton's bewildered look and the trace of unease on Marguerite's face. "Everyone is born with a patron god and goddess. Among our people, this is determined at birth, and we go throughout life under their protection. This is not so among your people?"

"No," Marguerite answered succinctly.

Luisah shook her head in disgust. "Barbaric, to go through life in ignorance of your gods," she snorted. "Well, we can determine that quickly enough. At least you must know who your ancestors are?" she asked sarcastically.

Marguerite took a deep breath. "Actually, no, I don't. He does," she added quickly, when both priestesses turned as one to stare at her in shock. She steeled herself against the pain of her next words, knowing somehow they were necessary. "I'm an orphan. I don't know who my parents are."

The twins took her revelation better than Marguerite expected, merely staring at each other. Once more she felt something pass between the two sisters. Before she could worry about what it might be, she felt a gentle hand on her shoulder. She turned, unsurprised to see Roxton had left his bench at last to come and stand beside her. He at least had an idea of how painful that revelation had been for her. She was unspeakably grateful for his presence at that moment.

"But surely someone must have taken you in?" Luisah asked Marguerite at last, her face stricken. "Someone must have brought you into their home?"

Marguerite blinked, surprised both by the question and the compassionate expression on the ill-tempered twin's face. "I was adopted, yes," she answered unthinkingly, then cursed inwardly as she felt Roxton's slight start of surprise.

Marguerite was adopted? Roxton wasn't quite sure why he was so shocked to learn this, but he was. They hadn't discussed her unknown origins since that whole episode with Xan's minion and the ouroboros, largely because he'd been afraid of hurting her further. It was obviously a painful topic for her, and he wasn't exactly proud of his behavior on that day. But he'd somehow assumed from what she hadn't said that she'd been abandoned and raised in some horrid orphanage somewhere. Now he wondered why she hadn't mentioned the fact that she did have a family, or anything about them.

"Good," Luisah sighed in relief. "Then their egum will certainly protect you, even if your own remain veiled."

"And you must be a child of Oxalá and Yemanjá," Tereza added warmly. "We will check, just to be sure, but almost all orphans are protected by Oxalá, and Yemanjá has already clearly marked you as her own. A most fortunate pairing."

"You have egum? Ancestors?" Luisah demanded abruptly, staring at Roxton.

"Hundreds of years worth," he assured her.

"Good. Then your egum will also protect her, if you wish it."

"I do." There was no question in his mind about that. He'd happily grant Marguerite the protection of his ancestors, his name, and his whole ramshackle history, if only she'd let him.

Roxton's immediate answer drew a smile from Luisah. "We will petition them to do so, after I determine who your patrons are." She seized his wrist in a bony and surprisingly strong grip. "Come with me. It has been many, many years since I last performed the ritual to determine a man's patrons. I think I shall enjoy this."

"But…" Roxton shot a helpless look at Marguerite, unwilling to antagonize the suddenly-friendly elder, but equally unwilling to leave her alone while he was dragged off for who knew what kind of ceremony.

"I will perform the ceremony for her in Yemanjá's cavern, as Luisah shall perform it for you in the Cavern of the Mysteries. We will all return here shortly," Tereza reassured him. "Neither of you shall come to harm."

We'd better not, was Roxton's unspoken thought as he met Marguerite's wordless look of resignation. "I'll see you soon, then," he said awkwardly, temporarily ignoring the impatient tugging on his wrist.

Marguerite smiled at him. "Stay out of trouble."

*****

A slight metallic clank woke Challenger out of his exhausted doze. Blearily opening his eyes, he gingerly looked around for a sign of what had disturbed him. "Roxton?" he called hopefully.

At first he saw nothing, and his brow creased in puzzlement. Then, as his eyes adjusted, another soft sound drew his attention to the corner of the room, and his jaw dropped in astonishment.

*****

"Oxossi and Iansá," Luisah warbled triumphantly as soon as she and Roxton walked back into the room. John was relieved to see Marguerite looked none the worse for her patron-finding experience with Tereza.

"The Hunter and the Warrior Queen of the Ancestors," Tereza mused aloud. "Another powerful pairing." She locked eyes with her sister for nearly a minute before turning and smiling at Roxton and Marguerite. "Wait here. We must prepare the protections and offerings you will need." With another smile, she and her sister turned and left the cavern.

"The Hunter, eh?" Marguerite murmured, moving to stand next to him even as she gave him a quick once-over to make sure he was all right. "Why am I not surprised?"

Roxton shrugged, rather uncomfortable with the whole thing in general, and specifically with the uncanny accuracy of Luisah's pick of patrons. "At least it didn't involve any bloodshed, just stones and water," he grumbled.

"Were you expecting differently?" The heiress arched one dark eyebrow, intrigued by his unexpected knowledge of what was going on. "And how did you know about the oxy-whatevers, earlier? I thought Luisah was going to fall over from surprise when you said that."

Roxton sighed, rubbing one palm against his forehead and irrationally wishing for his hat. He had a bit of a headache. "In Brazil, I saw statues of orixás with names like the ones they were saying," he confessed. "But from what little I saw there, the worship of those deities mostly involved killing animals and the like."

"Maybe these people are Brazilian, and their practices have just diverged over time," Marguerite said excitedly. "John, do you realize that if they are Brazilian, we could be close to finding a way home?"

"Or maybe we just haven't got to the rooster-killing stage yet," Roxton shrugged. He pressed his fingers to his temples; his headache was growing worse. "Right now I'd settle for finding Challenger and a way out of here. At least Challenger would know what to do about a blocked hot-spring."

"Does your head hurt?" Marguerite asked, concerned. She hadn't missed how Roxton kept rubbing his head, or the minute lines of pain around his eyes. He looked exhausted, and she suddenly remembered how bruised and battered he'd looked earlier.

"A trifle," he admitted.

"Then let's sit down and take advantage of the lull," she suggested. "I have a feeling we're going to need all of our strength for whatever Tereza and Luisah have in mind for us."

John grunted in agreement and settled down on the same fleece-covered bench he'd sat on earlier. He closed his eyes, hoping the ache would go away if he just gave himself a minute, then smiled as he felt Marguerite sit down next to him. His smile widened as he felt her gently run her fingers through his hair. "That's nice," he murmured.

Marguerite reflexively hid a pleased smile, even though John's eyes were closed. "Lean against me for a while," she encouraged, resting her own back against the wall. She too was tired, although she wouldn't admit it.

"Anything you say," Roxton agreed, resting his head against her shoulder. As far as he was concerned, Tereza and Luisah could take all the time they wanted with their preparations. He'd much rather stay here and rest, just for a minute… Marguerite's hands felt so nice… Before long, a gentle snore filled the room as Roxton slipped into slumber.

*****

Continued in Round 10
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