On March 30, 2022, P.T. Wyant posted a Wednesday Words prompt involving a barn, soup, and a bouquet.
This isn’t the first time she suggested a barn. I thought this might have a connection to the barn that scared Tayel in a previous Tale of the Navel. Only the barn wasn’t that scary. Not back then, not to Map. Not that Sister Mel had any idea whom Map was. She was just Master.
The Master stayed in the barn, serving the soup up to everyone who approached. Somehow she’d hauled her giant cauldron, stirring it while the animals nearby neighed, whinnied, and snorted a protest.
Not that there was anything to protest. There was no meat in the cauldron. Just vegetables, herbs, and a spice which tickled the nostrils, even if you had trouble eating.
Melyssa Ashelocke may have dined on broth and flesh, the offerings brought to the daughter of the Guardians of the Gardens of Arachne, but she was Mel now. A Sister of Seraphix, eating food and relieving herself as human beings must.
How strange, disgusting and yet pleasurable to enjoy these things. She might have given them up all together, if she’d continued to be Melyssa. If she’d embraced being a full arachnocrat.
How Van would have sneered to see her, among outsiders, among commoners, among men. Many of them weren’t even good-looking.
“Animals. Perverts.” These were popular terms Vanessa Ashelocke bestowed upon boys with beards, hairy chins and chests. “Snuffling and lusting after any female which crosses their paths, unable to control that lust. Tasteless fare. Why your mother keeps them as valentines, I’ll never know.”
The bearded didn’t snuffle nor leer at the master. They gazed at her in a faint disbelief as if they couldn’t believe anyone was offering them this soup.
Custard sat on her haunches, watching them with an alert muzzle. If any other animals acted up around the master, she’d keep them in line.
“Hello, Gyn.” Master looked each visitor in the eye, remembering their names. “How is your leg?”
“Better, Sister.” Gyn bowed his head. “Whatever is in that soup has strength to it.”
“Have some more.” The Master chuckled, pouring a little more in his earthen bowl. “Is that you, Meggie?”
To Mel’s embarassment, Sister Megan was right there with the men and women, holding out a bowl.
“Sister Megan!” Mel barked, unable to believe the other woman’s gluttony. “This soup isn’t for us! It’s for the visitors!”
“It tastes so good.” Megan licked her lips. “It’s true what they’re saying. It gives strength.”
“Thank you, Meggie, but this soup is for the visitors.” The Master winked the round-faced, cheerful young woman in white robes. “I’ll make another pot for the Sisters of Seraphix back at the temple.”
“Oh, all right,” Megan said with a good-natured sigh. She held out her bowl to a little girl, peeking around the door of the barn, unsure if she should enter. “Come on in. We don’t bite.”
“At least not today.” The Master winked, her large black eyes twinkling in her weathered brown face. Sometimes she reminded Melyssa of a tree who’d taken on human form. Only most of trees who posed as humans were angry at too many of them chopped down for the two-legged dwelling places. When they appeared, they knocked down walls, sometimes dragging those inside deep in the dirt.
The Master might be gruff, but she didn’t seem angry. Not seriously angry.
The little girl crept forward. “I hear you worship a demon.”
“Not a demon, child.” The Master smiled in a kindly way. Mel marveled at her patience in the face of the same superstitious nonsense, again and again. “Seraphix is the God of Balance. We Sisters live here at their temple, seeking some sort of balance in our lives.”
“All of you?” The little girl crept forward. “Why do you share soup with people who can’t grow or make their own?”
“Because you can’t grow or make your own, but we can.” Map filled another bowl, handing it to the little girl. “We have things you don’t, therefore we’re sharing them. Redressing the balance.”
The child frowned as if this made no sense. “The local knight usually takes our vegetables. He says we owe it to him, for protecting us.”
Mel let out a hissing breath. “The excuses men make.”
“Now, now, Mel.” The Master gave her a reproving glance. “Men aren’t the only ones who make excuses.”
“He has a lady.” The child stood with her bowl of soup, moving a little closer to Mel. “She took my sister as her servant. She gave her a fine dress, but we don’t see her very often.”
For a moment Mel remembered the long, flowing purple gowns Van wore, slit for her additional arms after she took Dyvian as her Marriage Feast. Something thick gathered in her throat, hot and heavy.
“Sometimes those we love forget us for a time when they get a new dress,” she murmured. “We just have to wait for them to remember. Remember that there are many dresses. Only one of us.”
The little girl looked up at Mel with bright eyes and nodded. She lifted her soup to her lips. “What are carrying?”
“I was wondering the same thing.” Megan turned a bright eye on the other Sister. “You picked a lot of flowers.”
Mel flushed, looking down at the purple, blue, yellow, and red wildflowers she gathered. A shoddy bouquet and a shoddy offering.
“Here.” She held them out to the Master, eyes shut tight. Not sure she wanted to see the Master’s reaction.
After all, Van had laughed at her when she’d given her flowers. “We’re both girls, you fool. Arachnocrats. Here you are, offering me a bouquet like some lovesick morsel of a boy!”
Warm hand took hers.
Mel opened her eyes to see the Master gathering the flowers to her breast, eyes moist. “Thank you, Mel. That was very sweet of you.”
It was too much for Mel. She fled, running past the line of people entering the barn, toward the green hills.
On one of them stood the Temple of Seraphix. Her home. Her Sisters’s home. Her master’s home.
The Sisters of Seraphix weren’t forced to take on vows of chastity, but many of them chose to live a chaste life. Mel had been one of them.
The passions of an arachnocrat, released in all their predatory hunger upon the boys had held no attraction for Melyssa. The other ladies, however, stirred up something different. Something forbidden. Vanessa, in particular.
She didn’t want to drain Van of her life, her essence. This was one of the reasons she’d fled the Gardens of Arachne with Damian’s help.
Melyssa found the Sisters of Seraphix and their Temple. She’d found the Master. Somehow about her made Mel’s chest ache.
It might not be a problem for a human woman like Mel pretended to be, but Melyssa was Duessa Ashelocke’s daughter. Even if she had only one pair of arms, even if she’d never indulged in a Marriage Feast, she wasn’t sure if she could love anyone like a human woman. She wasn’t sure if she dared to try.
The Master made her feel so warm and safe in a way Duessa never had. Mel just wanted to let her know how she felt, how much it meant to her. This was why she’d picked flowers, gathering a bouquet for her.
It wasn’t any more than that. It couldn’t be.
Mel swallowed and rubbed her eyes. She didn’t want to be a monster. This was why she was here, but you couldn’t always get what you wanted.
If only Seraphix was a god who granted wishes as well as offering balance, but that was a bit silly and selfish.
Mel was lucky. Mel was happy. Mel had a good home with the Sisters. Here Mel was close to the Master.
It was enough. It would have to be enough.