Crossroads of Frozen Eternity – Chapter 2

Crossroads of Frozen Eternity – Chapter 2

Until Catilen came along, Kenjiro Sentomoru hadn’t realized how much his bathhouse needed a woman’s touch. It had always been luxurious, but it hadn’t been without utilitarian aspects. Catilen had done more than adjust art so that a new painting hung in a different hallway or an old tapestry adorned a higher place. It amounted to more than the particular tilt of rugs and the flair of new curtains. He couldn’t put his finger on what, exactly, she’d done. It could have been the strategically placed candles, the easy access to tissues, or the addition of reading materials to all public spaces. The entire building felt homey.

She’d also added signs to the hallway junctions to make the corridors more navigable. Having designed the bathhouse labyrinth, and being supernaturally attuned to its shape, Sentomoru never got lost. It hadn’t occurred to him that others might.

He’d grown spoiled over the years, rearranging the layout of his home whenever he pleased. These days, his wife had an uncanny knack for appearing to list the faults in his decision whenever he decided to erect a new wing. Then she’d map the new addition, mark the best entrances and room layouts, and note how he could get the best visual aesthetic with window and roof placements. Somehow, she always got it right.

Proof their union had been fate.

Her biggest, and most lasting, changes were his habits. He used to reach across the island to summon his servants – workers, he corrected silently – without thought. He’d directed them to his intended destination, their tasks implanted in their minds, so that everything waited for him when he arrived.

He could see now the danger of the indulgence, no matter how convenient the practice. It had annoyed him, at first, waiting for people to carry messages or summoning someone to his office only to discuss their task. But over the years, the staff learned to anticipate his needs of their own accord. Hot tea still waited every morning in his office. Clean clothes still found their way to the proper drawers, with his preferred outfits on top. Chores were tended before he noticed the need. The gardens looked more brilliant than ever.

Perhaps he hadn’t been the master of all trades he fancied himself.

More than returning his people to themselves, more than alleviating the island’s inexorable pull, Catilen’s modifications eased the constraints on his time. Now that he no longer managed every aspect of the bathhouse, he focused on interaction with his guests. He shared stories in the gardens. He played games in the courtyard. He frequented the public baths. And, of course, he had more time to devote to his wife and daughter, the two most important people on the island.

The overall contentment of his guests hadn’t changed, but they seemed more fulfilled and less demanding. Nor did they lose themselves to the island if they lingered too long. Some of his former staff even asked to leave. He’d struggled not to take offense until Catilen told him to quit being a nostalgic old fool.

Now it all seemed normal. People came and went. Some returned and others never wanted to leave, but always he had nothing to do with the decision. After eight years, it still felt strangely liberating.

Despite her dark mood, Catilen’s laughter rang above the buzz of chatter as she spoke with the guests not yet ready to prepare for dinner. She wore a simple, unadorned yellow blouse. Her flowing skirt was mossy green at the waist but faded to seafoam by the time it reached the hem. Yet she was most radiant among the crowd.

Sentomoru envied her conversation spectrum. People asked her about the island’s history. She’d spent years studying it and she wove the tale better than any bard. People asked him about business. Catilen received inquiries about Morulin’s milestones. Guests asked him, instead, when he expected to see more children padding through the hallways. At least now he could answer with a conspiratorial smile and a mischievous glint in his eyes.

He’d just finished deflecting one such question, when a plaintive cry rose above the crowd. As a hush fell over the courtyard, he identified the voice as his daughter’s. He moved without hesitation and the crowd parted for him. He didn’t waste time seeking his wife, knowing she’d follow.

Morulin knelt beneath the arch of the open gate, clutching a dirty bundle of mud and fur. Tears streaked her small face but she didn’t look hurt. Borrowing from his wife’s bag of tricks, he sent a soothing tendril in his daughter’s direction, hoping to calm her hysteria.

“Where’s Mother?” she cried breathlessly. “Please find her as fast as you can!”

He resisted the urge to sigh. Why did children always seek their mothers? Was he little better than a stranger? “She’s coming, little one. Take a deep breath and tell me what happened.”

She unwrapped her arms to reveal black stripes against orange and white fur, all coated in a thick layer of grime. “His mother left him all alone.” The cub released a desolate bleat, revealing rows of tiny razor teeth when it opened its mouth. “See? He’s crying because he’s lonely. Do you think Mother can heal him?”

Sentomoru’s stomach twisted. Tigers weren’t the most dangerous creatures on his island, but he’d never imagined his daughter would go near one. They were going to have to address this fearless curiosity.

As if summoned by the request, Catilen knelt beside her daughter, lifting the muddy bundle from her arms. She shot her husband an alarmed look when she identified it, his fear mirrored in her eyes.

“I’ll do my best, dearheart,” she murmured, scratching behind tiny ears to sooth the cub’s cries.

“Where did you find him?” Sentomoru demanded, his voice stern. “His mother might be looking for him.”

“She isn’t.” Morulin stomped one foot, muddy hands forming fists at her sides. “She left him to die! She’s a terrible mother!”

“Morulin,” Sentomoru’s voice cracked like a whip, “tell me where you found the cub. Tigers are dangerous. We need to make certain our guests are safe.”

Familiar determination in his daughter’s eyes suggested she meant to resist, but his answering gaze warned there would be consequences. With a sniff, she subsided. “Over there.” She waved toward the left of the gate. “In the marsh.”

He’d been meaning to eliminate the swamp forming on the bathhouse boarders. I’ll have to do it before the tigers take up closer residence. “What have I told you about playing near that swamp? The water can be much deeper than it looks.”

“I was careful,” Morulin protested. “I heard this baby crying and I found him trying to swim. So I carefully scooped him up and brought him back. Look Father, I didn’t even step in.” She unfurled her skirt as evidence. She hadn’t changed after visiting the grave. Her pale blue shirt and sleeves were spattered with mud from carrying the cub. But aside from a pair of dirty fingerprints, her skirt and stockings were clean. As clean as a seven-year-old’s clothes ever were, anyway.

He hadn’t been paying attention to Catilen, more concerned with his daughter disregarding his commands, but he sensed the moment his wife tapped the island’s power. She siphoned enough to Heal the cat’s wounds and fatigue. He suspected she paired it with a touch of empathic soothing, lest the poor thing panic itself to death. Though Catilen wasn’t connected to the island as he was, it always responded to her desires. She could be quite a mage, if she wanted. But she only used the island’s energy to Heal and boost her empathy.

Before Sentomoru could admonish Morulin further, she knelt next to her mother, squealing with delight. Now the creature’s ills had vanished, the cub grew active and curious. Morulin held out a hand for it to sniff, the way her parents had taught her to deal with animals.

The tiger approached with caution. In a matter of moments it accepted strokes and scratches from the young girl. Mourlin swept the cub back into her arms, smearing her cheeks with grime as she nuzzled his mud-matted fur. Giggling with glee, she asked, “Can I keep him?”

“Keep him?” Sentomoru snapped.

Catilen shook her head. “He isn’t like your other pets, sweetie. Someday, he could really hurt you.”

“He won’t hurt me,” Morulin insisted. “I saved him.”

“Remember our discussion about wild animals and why they’re dangerous?” Sentomoru kept the stern edge in his voice. “Just because it looks cute, doesn’t mean it won’t hurt you. Someday, that tiger is going to be as big as his mother. His teeth and claws will be sharp. He might try to play with you and hurt you without meaning to. Even if you keep him inside, he’ll always be wild.”

“I’ll train him really well. I promise, Father. You can help me. Please?” The please was a drawn out plea. Morulin pushed her lips into a pout, her wide eyes sparkling with unshed tears.

Despite his resolve, he found that face hard to resist. Catilen seemed immune to it, but he almost always gave in. He’d have to ask his wife for the secret of her resilience.

“Very well.” He sighed, raising a hand before his daughter could celebrate her victory. “But only if you promise to release the cub should his mother come looking for him.”

“She won’t. I told you al-“

“There will be no further discussion. If the mother returns for her baby, you will let the tiger return to his family. Understood?”

Morulin’s lower lip trembled, but she seemed to sense she’d get no further with her father. Her eyes trailed toward her mother, but Catilen looked equally intractable. “Yes, Father,” she replied, her soft voice sullen.

“See that you remember,” he warned, offering his arm to help Catilen to her feet.

His daughter’s ill mood lasted all of three seconds. Pivoting on her heel, she ran through the crowd, pausing to display her new pet to anyone who expressed interest.

“I don’t like it, Midnight Star. Either that tigress left her cub in a place she thought was safe, or he wandered off on his own. When she finds he’s missing…”

“Morulin will obey her promise and relinquish the cub.” Sentomoru hoped he sounded confident. His shoulders sagged. “You think I should have told her no?”

Catilen mustered a weary smile, all the reassurance he needed. “If we sent him back into the wild alone, he’d probably die. We don’t know where his mother’s territory is, so we can’t return him. And if we take him back to the swamp, he’ll probably drown. It’s just, I understand how it is with mothers. Nothing stands between a mother and her child. Nothing.”

He’d seen how she reacted when Morulin put herself in danger. His wife would go to any lengths to ensure her daughter’s safety. He didn’t doubt that included fighting a tiger.

“And to think, we want more of them.” He slid an arm across her shoulder, leading her back to the bathhouse.

“Just promise me they won’t all want tigers for pets.”

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