Marguerite waited on the temple steps until Roxton and Challenger were out of sight. Even without recourse to this strange knowledge and foreknowledge that flickered on the edges of her awareness, she knew Roxton would turn to look at the temple one more time before disappearing into the jungle, and that he would be comforted if she was standing there in sight and waved at him when he did. So she waited, and he looked back as she knew he would, and she waved. Then he turned, also as she knew he would, and strode into the jungle without any further gesture or waste of time. Feeling oddly bereft nonetheless, she took a deep breath and then turned and walked slowly back inside the temple.
Home, whispered the familiar alien presence in her mind.
Not home, she insisted right back. Well, maybe your home, but certainly not mine.
Marguerite sensed impatience and a touch of amusement. You are an oracle, just as I was. You have the power to see within the sacred fire. That makes you a priestess to the fire, and this your home. Where else would an oracle live?
"Wherever she chooses to live," Marguerite answered aloud. "Maybe you chose to live all alone inside a dank and dirty temple, but that's not my style. And I am not an oracle, and I am certainly not a priestess."
We will see, the voice whispered in reply, and for a moment Marguerite had a vision of a woman not unlike herself, dark-haired, regal in her classical finery, standing in the shadows of the temple and observing her with equal parts compassion and curiosity in her dark eyes. Then she blinked and the vision was gone. She scrubbed her forehead impatiently.
"That's going to get really old really quickly," she muttered to herself. "Bad enough being stuck here on my own, but I was hoping not to go around the bend quite this quickly. Obviously I need something constructive to do." Spying her pack where she'd left it on one of the temple benches, she set her lips and raised a sarcastic eyebrow. "Guess I'd better go about making myself comfortable. Good thing I brought a book."
As she sat down next to the pack and lifted the flap, a flare from the oracular fire still blazing above the metal tripod momentarily blinded her. Her eyes teared in protest. Blinking furiously, she tried to clear them even as she realized there was a new source of sound within the cella. She knew that sound!
Her eyes cleared at last, and Marguerite gazed around in amazement. The once-barren cella was now richly decorated. Blue kingfisher-shaped oil lanterns hung from the frescoed ceiling, shedding light around the room and adding to the glow from the oracular fire. A finely-woven wool carpet covered the floor, its cream-colored center brightening the room even as its blue-and-green geometric key border added cheer and charm. The benches, including the one she sat on, were now all padded with soft cushions, also in shades of blue and green. Next to her pack, a beautifully blue-dyed and stitched garment - a chiton - lay across the padded bench, a twin to the one she'd glimpsed the woman wearing in her earlier vision. Pillows were scattered about, some deeply fringed, and many bearing kingfisher designs on their embroidered surfaces. Except for the wall niches and the text-covered wall, the walls themselves were brightly frescoed with scenes from the lives of Alcyone and Ceyx. The stone face remained carved into one wall, but now a clear stream of water fountained from its stone lips and into the marble basin below. The niche opposite the fountain was no longer empty, either, but instead filled with jars, plates and bowls. Some of these vessels were glazed clay, but others looked to be silver or gold, and some had jewels set on handles or edges. Every single one of these vessels held some kind of food or drink: olives, bread, almonds, honey, wine.
Dark and dank? the voice whispered in her mind. I think not. This is my home.
"Well, well," Marguerite breathed at last. "Maybe this week won't be so bad after all." Rising from the bench, she walked towards the wall niche, eyeing the fine metalwork and gleaming jewels. Almost absentmindedly, she reached for an almond
and stopped, her eyes narrowing in thought. Another memory tugged at the back of her mind, and this time she held herself still until she could force it to the surface. Suddenly she backed away, returning to her pack. "Persephone at the palace of Hades," she breathed. "She ate six pomegranate seeds, and was forced to stay six months of every year in Hades thereafter. I wonder, is this a similar trap?"
The voice in her mind was silent, and Marguerite wished desperately for a voice she could trust, someone familiar and safe, not some ages-dead oracular priestess with who knew what motivations. No sooner had that thought crossed her mind than the fire above the tripod flared again.
"Well done, Marguerite," a well-remembered and much-missed voice came to her ears. "I always told George that a classical education was never wasted."
Stunned, Marguerite turned towards the source of the voice. Sitting on a stool near the oracular fire was a kindly, white-bearded man, pipe in hand, regarding her with a fond smile; a smile, and a man, she had never thought to see again. "Arthur???"
"After a fashion, my dear," Arthur Summerlee answered, his smile turning rather wistful. He looked just as Marguerite remembered him from quiet days around the Treehouse: linen shirt and dark green trousers adorned with a few stubborn paint spots, and those silly-looking dark-blue gaiters to keep his lower legs warm. Summerlee always claimed they helped his circulation.
"I - I don't understand," Marguerite stammered. Tears prickled at the corners of her eyes at the sight of the portly older man who'd been so kind to her.
He is but one voice of the oracle, the voice whispered again in her mind. It is part of the gift. I lived here by myself, but I was never alone; I was always surrounded by those I had known before.
"Is that true, Arthur?" Marguerite asked, forgetting for a moment that Summerlee couldn't possibly hear the voice in her head.
Apparently Summerlee forgot that fact, too. "It is, my dear. I am here because you wished for a familiar, safe voice you could trust. And I am so proud that you chose me," he added, beaming affectionately at her.
"I chose you?" The dark-haired woman's normally confident voice shook with emotion.
"Your heart did. The oracle can read your heart as easily as your mind, and here I am."
"But it's not the real you."
Summerlee sadly shook his head. "I am real, but not in the way you mean."
"You're not alive." Marguerite's voice broke despite her efforts to keep it level.
Summerlee's face took on a familiar expression, the one he always got when he was trying to explain something difficult without hurting anyone. "The oracle is alive, yes."
"But you're not. I mean, Arthur Summerlee. He's not alive."
Arthur's face wrinkled in distress. "I can't answer that."
"Why not?" Briefly, Marguerite wished she'd unknowingly picked someone else; someone who understood the world and would tell her the truth for her own good, even if it was going to hurt a bit.
The oracular fire flared brightly once more, and Marguerite winced in more than reaction to the brightness. Uh-oh. I need to be more careful what I think around here.
"That was pretty careless, Madge," another familiar voice answered her thought.
Marguerite squinted, determined to see even before her eyes had recovered. A second figure had joined Arthur Summerlee near the fire's tripod, one just as familiar, and just as dear, in a different way. "Adrienne," Marguerite whispered.
Unlike the last time she'd seen her - sort of - this Adrienne wasn't wearing the plain clothes of that last day in Paris, or one of Marguerite's own outfits from the Plateau. Instead, Adrienne was dressed as Marguerite remembered her most vividly, in one of her glamorous stage outfits, the amber silk dress that had perfectly straddled the line between elegant and provocative. The Frenchwoman's brown eyes gleamed in the firelight as she gave Marguerite a gamine grin. "Yes, c'est moi, Adrienne, and not that demon-thing, either." She rolled her eyes. "Honestly, Madge, I know you were in rough shape, but how you ever thought that was really me " Adrienne gave Marguerite a well-remembered look, one compounded equally of affection for her and exasperation at her na´vetÚ, before shaking her head "Anyway, he can't answer your question because you're not really the oracle. Not yet, anyway."
"What do you mean?"
You are only here because of the man and the woman - because of the kingfishers, the voice said reluctantly. You are not sworn to the fire. So you can only be given answers that pertain to that, or that are about the fire itself. The fire will not answer your other questions.
"But the fire knows? Knows what happened to Summerlee? Whether he's alive?" Despite her attempts at self-control, Marguerite could feel herself trembling.
"Yes," Adrienne answered without hesitation. Her faceted amber eardrops sparkled in the light as she nodded.
Marguerite closed her eyes as the full impact of this sank in. "The fire knows what really happened to you, too, doesn't it?"
"Yes," Adrienne answered again, her voice gentle in a way that it had been only a few times over their years together.
"And it would be the truth?"
"All voices of the oracle only speak the truth," Adrienne confirmed.
"And if I became this oracle, I could ask the fire, and I would know the answers? I would know the true answers to any question I asked?" With an effort, Marguerite kept from verbally elaborating on the subject, but in the privacy of her thoughts, she couldn't help but continue. The fire could answer my questions about my parents? Who I am, why they left me, whether they're still out there somewhere? I would finally know?
"You would," Arthur's voice was very soft, but Marguerite could hear the unspoken qualification in his answer. She opened her eyes again to look at both him and Adrienne.
"There's a catch, isn't there? To becoming this oracle?"
"Yes," Arthur and Adrienne answered as one.
"You could never leave here again, Madge," Adrienne clarified before Marguerite could voice the follow-up question.
A bitter laugh escaped Marguerite's lips before she could control it. "Of course. Naturally. I could learn the answers to any question I asked, but I couldn't actually leave here and do anything with that knowledge." She shook her head. "Well, I'm sorry, but I don't plan on spending the rest of my life on this miserable Plateau, much less confined to one small temple."
No one answered her statement, and after a moment Marguerite forced her attention back to her pack. "And given that I don't intend to hang around here, I'd better just find that book and start reading " She paused as her hand closed over her canteen, and her eyes suddenly widened in panic. "Oh!" She hefted her canteen, relieved to feel it solid and heavy in her hand. Full, or nearly, she realized in relief, remembering that she'd been sharing Roxton's canteen since they'd last refilled them earlier in the day. Rummaging further, she found two nearly-ripe mangoes that she'd picked the day before, hoping they'd finish ripening without bruising too badly in her bag, and a small packet of dried fruit. And that was all, at least in the way of rations.
One canteen of water. One packet of dried fruit. Two under ripe mangoes. Seven days. Marguerite pressed one hand to her mouth, shaking. I really messed up this time. How could I have been so stupid, to let the others go off without getting proper rations from them first? I could have asked for Malone's canteen and pack. It's not like he's using them right now!
"I see," she said at last, addressing the voice in her mind. "Now I know why you said Malone and Veronica had to be brought back in seven days. I wondered why it wasn't the traditional fourteen of the halcyon days. I suppose seven days is quite a compliment to my stamina."
It was one reason, the voice answered at last. But there is water here, and food. You could always choose to eat.
"And never be able to leave!" Marguerite snapped back angrily. "Isn't that right?" When the voice didn't answer her, Marguerite spun to glare at the figures by the fire. "If I drink or eat anything that the temple provides, I won't be able to leave the fire, will I?"
"If you choose to eat or drink any of the dishes provided, you won't be able to leave the temple," Adrienne admitted after a long moment.
"Then thanks but no thanks. It's not like I haven't fasted before. This is just going to be a little more extreme." Defiantly, she carefully replaced all her provisions in her pack, secured the flap, and stared angrily at the fires and the figures around it.
"So," she said after a moment. "You can only answer questions about this kingfisher business, and about this oracle or fire or whatever you want to call it?"
"Yes," Arthur answered at once, his kindly face twisted in obvious distress at her anger.
Despite herself, Marguerite couldn't help but soften a little towards him. "And you have to tell the truth, Arthur, isn't that so?"
"Yes, my dear."
"And you, too, Adrienne. You said you had to tell the truth?"
"That wasn't quite what I said," Adrienne pointed out, "but yes, I have to tell the truth."
"Then why two of you?" Marguerite wanted to know.
"For company, of course," Arthur smiled.
"And because the truth has many voices," Adrienne added. "You should know that, Madge."
"Oh yes! I learned that from you." The former night-club singer laughed and shared a knowing look with her one-time mentor. Then she quieted, still intent on pursuing her thought. "But there's more than that. You have something else in common." When no one responded, Marguerite went on. "You're both dead."
The silence continued.
"Or rather, I think you're both dead," Marguerite clarified. "Is that the truth of it? Can the fire only provide 'voices' of people I think are dead?"
Both Arthur and Adrienne looked torn, and Marguerite nearly screamed in impatience. All she wanted was an answer! Didn't the fire have to answer?
The oracular fire flared up so high its flames nearly scorched the ceiling. Wincing, Marguerite shielded her eyes, wondering what on earth was happening this time. I didn't think of anyone, or make any kind of wish, did I?
Another voice spoke, one that froze her to the marrow of her bones with sick horror. "Enough of one, love," the lazy male baritone rumbled through the room. "After all, this is your party."