“Carefully now girl.” The voice called from the veranda of the grand old house.
Lorelei looked up from the wide expanse of sweet smelling blooms, her voice was an exasperated whine, “I am being careful.”
This was the summer Lorelei had turned nine years old, the year that her mother had become a Sub-dean of the Greater Eastern Council of Mystagogues, the year that Lorelei had come to this great house in the middle of nowhere to learn about gardening and death.
“Too much water will kill them.” The tired voice said, “I want bright posies. The brightest.”
Lorelei’s mother was one of the two Sub-Deans that attended to Cloantza Murdac of the Fourth Circle; and she had quickly become favored by the old wizardess. That was why she had been chosen to accompany Cloantza when she went home to die
And Lorelei ended up getting dragged along as well; children were a rare thing in among the lower Circles and always a favored target when a season of academic assassinations broke out.
“Enough of that…” Cloantza’s voice erupted into a flurry of coughs, “I want you to go the icebox and fetch the red canvas bag and bring it to me.”
“Yes ma’am.” Lorelei said; anything to get out of the sun for a while. With any luck she might catch her mother’s eye for a moment or two. Would she be able to beg for a few hours respite from the garden? Lorelei doubted it; her mother always seemed to put the needs of the Council first. But she was still going to try; at the very least she would try and make her mother as miserable as she was.
She had no luck finding her mother in the few minutes before Cloantza started calling her again but she did find the old bag buried far in the back of the old fashioned icebox.
“Here girl. Bring it here.”
The veranda was open to the air, it faced into the sunrise and by early afternoon it became stiflingly hot. Cloantza Murdac spent most of her days here now, watching over her garden and napping. Lorelei approached her slowly; she looked so withered to her nine year old eyes. Every day the old woman seemed to sink down into her overstuffed recliner a little more, despite the oppressive heat she was cocooned in blankets.
She turned her watery gaze to Lorelei, “Dawdling in the library again?”
“No ma’am.” She replied but she had tried to snatch as much time in among the old books as she could.
“The bag. Give it here.”
Lorelei did as she was told.
“Now hold out your hands.”
Again she did as she was told.
The dying woman opened the red fabric bag and shook some of the contents out into the girl’s hands. Lorelei’s arms ran with goosepimples at the sudden chill to her flesh. At first she thought she was being given some kind of cold candies or bits of fruit. Then she realized what she was holding and let the handful of frozen ladybugs fall to the hardwood floor.
“Don’t waste them,” her smile was wicked and full of mischief, “They’re for the garden.”
“Dead bugs?” Lorelei was appalled and confused, as if using elephant dung for fertilizer hadn’t been bizarre enough to her young sensibilities.
“Not dead, only waiting for the warm sun to bring them to back to life.” Cloantza’s smile became wistful, “Dreaming, resting.”
There was a question Lorelei had been wanting to ask for weeks now, one that she knew would horrify her mother should she hear it spoken.
But how much longer would she have to ask it?
Lorelei blurted, “Whyareyoudying?”
“Nothing. Never mind.”
“Repeat yourself girl, be brave, bad enough you find fear in a handful of bugs.”
Staring intently at her muddy shoes Lorelei said, “Why are you dying?”
“Because I am old and I have stared too long into the Maelstrom.”
“But... there are incantations- some of the other Deans are much older than you.” Lorelei looked back up at the Cloantza, the woman's smile was so serious, “You could live forever almost and be young.”
“Is that what you would do?”
“Yes... I think so.”
“I have lived long enough and I am tired girl. So very tired. Even if my bones were young again I would still be tired,” she tapped her head, “In here. Do you understand?”
Lorelei tried to match her serious gaze, “Yes but I would still try.”
“So young and afraid, worry about death instead of boys. Growing up in Woldercan did you no favors.”
She couldn't imagine ever worrying over boys but Lorelei kept quite about that.
“But enough.” she patted the girl on the shoulder. “Pick those lady bugs up and spread them into the garden. They will wake up in a little while and eat the aphids.”
“Yes ma'am.” Lorelei turned to go.
“Sprinkle them, like salt. Don't waste any.”
The garden had just been watered a little while ago but already the mud earth was becoming pale and dry. Lorelei wove her way between the rows of roses and mums, violets and butterdaisies, there were some plants she would never see together again and some flowers she would just never see again at all.
Once the bag was empty Lorelei made her way back to the veranda, her skin was reddening from the sun and her hair was limp with sweat. She was already wondering what her next chore would be and could only hope it didn't involve more encounters with elephant dung.
“I'm done ma'am.” she said.
But the figure in the overstuffed recliner was quiet and she had receded so deeply into her blankets and quilts that Lorelei couldn't even see her anymore- just some lumps in the shape of an old woman.
Lorelei felt her stomach go cold. Was this it? Had she died?
“Ma'am?” Lorelei suddenly felt very small and very young. What was she supposed to do? Scream and cry until her mother came running? Offer up a little prayer?
Truth be told she wasn't the kind of girl to do either.
Drawing closer Lorelei gave the figure in the chair a gentle shake.
The blankets collapsed upon themselves. Lorelei stumbled backwards her mind racing with her mother's warnings about crafty assassins and obscure traps.
Something crawled out from the blankets, small and red it flew out into the garden.
The ladybug was followed by another.
Lorelei pulled the blankets from the chair and a swarm of the insects took wing and sped out into the garden to lose themselves among the brightly colored blooms. A few lingered behind, momentarily fascinated with Lorelei; they alighted on her hair and face before zooming off to join the others.
Giggling Lorelei ran from the empty veranda and chased after them.