Upon waking, the group found that the atmosphere of the so dubbed ‘cherry blossom’ world bore no resemblance to the summery image such a name evoked. Instead, a bitter cold had very nearly frozen their hands and toes before they’d regained consciousness. Those who had slept with their faces looking down had blue, frostbitten features which the Life goddess speedily healed. Even after the sisters had assembled a more comfortable bubble of heat around them, each person was incapable of immediately shaking the cold that had seeped into their bones. Around them the landscape was covered in at least four feet of snow, roofs and the tops of lampposts the only signs of life. To make matters worse, the blizzard that had no doubt resulted in such a reality was still blasting its unforgiving fury against the goddess’ temperature shield.
“We need to find shelter!” Alvin shouted over the noise, his hands rubbing up and down his arms.
“Come on,” Cynthia said around a small fit of coughing. “I have a place where we can stay.”
Although the Life goddess had been the one to express knowledge of this abode, it was Lilia who led as Cynthia lagged behind the posse. Luke and some of the others took periodic glances back at her. The woman was pale, sporadic shivers racking her immortal body. Apparently the transport had negatively impacted her recovery more than she was willing to let on. As the minutes dragged by, however, most opted for focusing on getting through the deep snow rather than observing the state of the goddess. After nearly twenty minutes of trudging, Luke cast another look in the woman’s direction, empathy for her weariness causing him to shorten his stride so he could walk beside her. He wasn’t really sure if his support would matter very much but at the very least his presence could provide a little extra body heat.
“The trip seems to have taken its toll on you,” he whispered, extending an arm out to help steady her.
The Life goddess barely acknowledged him, shoulders rising in the subtlest of shrugs.
“I may not be a doctor but I don’t think this is something you can just shrug off!” Luke hadn’t meant to raise his voice but this woman was being, in his opinion, unnecessarily distant. It’s not like they hadn’t already had some close calls together.
“Well it’s not helping that a bloody blizzard is going on is it? Just leave me alone, please,” For a moment she’d lost her composure, a disturbing mixture of pain, anger and sadness flitting over Cynthia’s youthful features. Then she closed him out again, an almost perceptible wall asserting itself between them.
Anger surged up to meet her response. Why was she getting upset with him? He was just trying to help. Lengthening his stride, Luke once more put several feet between himself and the goddess. Finally, having covered ground in double the time it would have taken in good weather, Lilia gathered them on the veranda of a large house, each huddling as close as their comfort zones allowed. As the youngest sister knocked on the door, the elder pushed herself to the front, neither looking like goddesses as they waited at the door of a very average looking house. The door was opened by an older man who gave an unorthodox cry of amazement upon recognising them. His mature face sported a neat gray beard, round glasses and jolly expression.
“Bless my soul, come in Cynthia, I’ve been expecting you and your friends!”
“Thank you, Raymond,” Cynthia replied, entering the hallway. Each of her companions quickly followed suit, the ones behind having to push the ones in front forward as the former were struck dumb by the impressive entryway. Marble engravings, quirky antiques, and unique architecture met their eyes, the structure’s interior elegance at odds with its rather plain exterior. Although the construction and layout of the building were certainly a marvel, ultimately, each was just glad for the warmth.
Closing the door behind them, Raymond opened his mouth and spoke in a booming, yet cultured voice, “Master Alexander, they’ve arrived.”
Almost immediately a teenage boy appeared in a doorway at the end of the entry hall, his lanky body adorned in a dark green suit with yellow tie. Short chestnut hair neatly framed his head, the warmth of his deep brown eyes somewhat contradicting the stern expression on his face. He passed his gaze over each in turn, taking his time to size up and quantify everyone. His serious look only altered when he caught sight of Cynthia.
“What happened to you?” he inquired, in the same breath bidding that Raymond fetch towels and blankets.
“Cherry blossoms and flowers in abundance.” Reilly said, glaring at Hoshi.
“What?!” she responded. “How was I supposed to know it was mid-winter?!”
Smiling to himself, Alvin gave her a nod.
“Actually, snow is unusual in this world. Extremes of weather, creatures or food – well most everything is unusual. I’m afraid the fact that we’ve met such hostile conditions further proves that balance is unraveling. I hope how to go about protecting this realm speedily reveals itself.” Lilia accepted a towel from the butler, following Alexander and leading the others farther into the house.
“You mean you don’t know what we’re supposed to do here!?” Reilly’s mood had obviously not been improved by his one attempt at humour although, in this case, he was also echoing his companions’ thoughts.
“We have an idea. Cynthia has spent a good amount of time here learning about its patterns but, even for goddesses, understanding the intricacies of worlds so diverse and unique is not easy. The presence of Luke and Alvin’s Shadows will help to unearth the process-,” Raymond made some gesture that the girl apparently understood, “-but before we can tackle any of that we must be well fed. Come, Alexander le Werre has graciously opened his house and stores to our cause. Let us adjourn to the kitchen and refuel.”
Whatever doubts the Alestans had in the sisters’ plans did not prevent them from eating a healthy amount of the delicacies presented in the le Werre dining hall. Cynthia went almost immediately to the privacy of an upstairs quarters leaving Lilia in charge of the ragtag group. Presently, clean sets of clothes were offered to the guests as well as cozy, if not luxurious sleeping arrangements. During the meal it was explained that the goddesses had been acquainted with the le Werre family for several decades, Cynthia in particular a regular visitor to the world of Remada.
After dinner they sat in various poses of comfort in the living room, engaging in casual conversation as their stomachs took the majority of their attention. Alexander excused himself nearly immediately after dinner and, upon conducting a brief investigation of the house, Luke discovered that the boy had taken it upon himself to be Cynthia’s personal nursemaid. As he stood in the shadow of a stately pillar, the man observed Alexander dashing from the kitchen to the bedroom with bowls of hot water, towels and various collections of herbs. Touched by the boy’s dedication and struck with renewed concern for Cynthia’s condition, Luke intercepted the lad and offered his assistance.
The boy declined in the utmost polite manner, stating that it was his appointed duty to care for the goddess and that it could be done by no other. Although Luke inquired further of the stipulations regarding this service, his questions were met with empty responses. Raymond’s sudden appearance resulted in Luke being ushered back into the room where the others were congregating.
“Why is she so sick?” he asked Raymond.
“I cannot answer you.” The elderly man responded without the slightest intonation.
Yeah, Luke said to himself, more secrets.