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By Carey, Jacqueline
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2011 Carey, Jacqueline
All right reserved.
Unable to sleep, I stood in the stern of the ship, watching the past fall farther behind me. The moon was bright and full, turning the ship’s wake into a wide, silvery path on the dark water behind us. A handful of seagulls winged across the night sky, following us, their presence lending credence to the captain’s claim that we would make port in Marsilikos on the morrow.
A thousand thoughts and memories crowded my mind.
I tried to still them as Master Lo Feng had taught me, breathing the Five Styles and emptying my mind.
Tonight, it didn’t work.
Four years. By my best guess, that was how long it had been since I stepped onto a Ch’in greatship in the harbor of Marsilikos, and sailed off in pursuit of my everlasting destiny.
Now that same destiny was leading me back to Terre d’Ange, land of my father’s birth, where my patron-goddess Naamah held sway, worshipped as one of Blessed Elua’s Companions.
Naamah, goddess of desire; the bright lady. And Anael the Good Steward, the man with the seedling cupped in his hand, who had given me a gift for coaxing plants to grow.
The thought prompted a memory of marigolds exploding from the earth in a field in Bhaktipur, a riot of orange, saffron, and yellow, blooming in glorious profusion, all out of season. That, and the look of wonder on the Rani Amrita’s lovely face.
It made me smile wistfully. Bhaktipur was far, far behind me now. So were Amrita and her clever son, Ravindra, and the tulku Laysa, one of the reborn Enlightened Ones, who had told me I had oceans yet to cross.
So much lay behind me.
Villains and heroes, the kindness of ordinary folk—aye, and the pettiness and cruelty, too. Battles and intrigue, long, grueling journeys. Epic tales come to life, dire futures glimpsed and averted.
I leaned on the railing, remembering.
Beneath the moonlight, the ship sailed smoothly across the face of the sea. Its sounds had grown familiar; the creaking of timber and rope, the snap and flutter of the sail, the sleepy murmur of sailors on night-watch.
After a time, I sensed Bao’s approach, the divided half of my diadh-anam drawing nearer to me.
Bao, my husband.
Despite the long months that had passed since we were wed, I wasn’t accustomed to the word.
He came to stand beside me, gazing out at the silvery wake, his forearms braced on the railing and his shoulder brushing mine in a companionable manner. “Did you dream of her?” he asked in a low voice. “The White Queen?”
I shook my head. “Just restless.”
“Ah. With Terre d’Ange so close, I thought maybe…”
“I did, too.” I took a deep breath. “But no.”
Bao nodded, and said nothing. In the silence, his diadh-anam entwined with mine, a sensation as intimate as a caress.
Until I was a woman grown, I had not fully understood that most folk do not carry their diadh-anams within them. Although I was half-D’Angeline, Naamah’s child on my father’s side, I was born in Alba to the folk of the Maghuin Dhonn, the Great Bear Herself, who planted a spark of Her soul in each of Her children, a flickering inner light to guide us through our lives.
Never, ever had I heard of a diadh-anam being divided—but mine had been.
It had restored Bao to life.
The deed lay behind us in distant Ch’in, Bao’s homeland, farther in the receding past than Bhaktipur, where we had saved an empire and freed a dragon, where a sorcerer had slain Bao with a poisoned dart.
And Master Lo Feng, in his grief and sorrow, had used his arts and my magic to give his life and half my divine soul-spark to bring Bao back from the dead, inextricably linking our destinies.
Master Lo couldn’t have known that it would send his stubborn magpie of an assistant, a reformed prince of thugs, into headlong flight from a destiny he hadn’t chosen; nor that I would be compelled by my diadh-anam to follow him.
On the Tatar steppe at last we admitted to ourselves and each other that it was love, as well as Master Lo’s art, that bound us together. But as soon as we began to truly explore our bond, we were betrayed—me into the hands of a Yeshuite fanatic in northern Vralia, wrapped in chains that stifled my very soul-spark, while Bao was sent on a fruitless quest in the opposite direction to rescue me.
Still, in the end, we had found one another again. In the valley kingdom of Bhaktipur, we were wed.
Of course, our union was complicated by the fact that on the eve of our wedding, I was visited in my dreams by the ghost of Jehanne de la Courcel, the impossibly beautiful and highly mercurial D’Angeline queen I had loved so very much; and that Jehanne had told me I had unfinished business with a man both of us had loved, and would need her aid before it was over.
I stole a glance at Bao. His face was calm in the moonlight. Shadowed eyes; high, wide cheekbones; full lips. Moonlight silvered his unruly shock of black hair, glinted on the gold hoops in his earlobes and the bands of iron reinforcing the bamboo staff he wore lashed across his back.
He caught me looking, and raised his brows. “Like what you see, huh?” he asked in a teasing tone.
I tugged on one ear-hoop hard enough to make him wince. “Mayhap.”
Bao grinned. “You do.”
I slid one hand around the back of his neck and kissed him. “I do.”
He kissed me back, then pulled away, his expression turning serious. “It’s going to be hard for you, Moirin. Coming home.”
“Home.” The word escaped me in a sigh. “Terre d’Ange isn’t home, not really.”
“Aye.” I gazed into the distance. “But…”
“Raphael de Mereliot.” Bao finished my unspoken thought for me. His mouth twisted. “That idiot Lord Lion Mane.”
I said nothing.
Raphael de Mereliot was the man that Jehanne and I had both loved—her favorite courtier, the man I had believed held my destiny for a time. Tall, tawny-haired Raphael de Mereliot with his healer’s hands. I’d let him use me, use my small gift of magic to augment his healing arts.
Together we had saved lives, including my father’s.
But I had let Raphael use me for other purposes, summoning fallen spirits filled with trickery. It had nearly killed me.
I had been very young, and very foolish.
She had saved me from Raphael’s ambition, saved me from myself, claiming me for her own. And I had let her, gladly. She’d had a bower filled with plants made for me, granting me a safe haven. She had made me her royal companion. She had trusted me to be there for her when she honored her promise to her husband, King Daniel de la Courcel, setting aside Raphael de Mereliot and praying to Eisheth to open the gates of her womb, that she might bear the King a child.
But I had left her.
And while I was on the far side of the world, pursuing my everlasting destiny, Jehanne had died in childbirth.
If I had been there, we could have saved her, Raphael and I.
Bao’s arms encircled me. He spoke no words of false comfort, only breathed the Breath of Ocean’s Rolling Waves, drawn in through the nostrils into the pit of the belly, expelled through the mouth.
Slowly, slowly, as I had done so many times before, I matched my breathing to his, my thoughts growing calm.
The ship swayed and creaked beneath us. The past continued to draw farther and farther away, the shining trail of wake etched in the moonlight, ever fading behind us and drawn anew.
I wiped my eyes. “Thank you.”
Bao nodded. “I am here, Moirin.”
My breath caught in my throat. Those were words I had spoken to Jehanne many times—and they had always been true, until they were not. I turned in Bao’s arms, studying his face, wondering if he knew. “You are, aren’t you?”
A wry smile lingered on his lips. “Try getting rid of me.”
“Oh…” I reached up to tweak his ear-hoops again, then tugged his head down for another kiss. “I’d rather not.”
Bao laughed softly.
The ship sailed onward, rendering the past a series of memories, carrying us toward a new destiny.
I prayed that for once, the gods would be merciful.
But I doubted it.
Come daybreak, we saw the distant harbor.
The golden dome of the palace of the Lady of Marsilikos gleamed in the early autumn sunlight, a beacon to sailors everywhere. I’d been there once, and it wasn’t a good memory. Raphael de Mereliot’s sister Eleanore ruled Marsilikos, and she’d had me summoned to upbraid me for ruining her brother’s reputation. I’d lost my temper and shouted at her, telling her some unpleasant truths about her brother.
I wasn’t looking forward to a repeat encounter.
It was early afternoon when we made port. I hoped we would be able to disembark without fanfare. The ship was a Bhodistani trade-ship, our passage having been arranged by the Rani Amrita’s family in the coastal city of Galanka. I’d thought Bao and I might slip out of the harbor unnoticed among the sailors and traders; but it was not to be. No sooner had we arrived on the quay, surrounded by our trunks carried by Captain Ramchandra’s able sailors, than a horde of sharp-eyed, half-grown youths descended on us, shouting offers.
“Hey, messire, hey, messire! Best price porter, best guide! Best lodging for you and the noble lady!”
Bao caught my eye and grinned. “I told you not to wear so much jewelry.”
I spared a glance at the bangles that adorned my wrist: the jade bangle the color of a reflecting pool that had been a gift from our Ch’in princess Snow Tiger, the many gold bangles Amrita had insisted on gifting me. “True.”
The young mercenaries pressed closer, clamoring. With one fluid motion, Bao whipped his bamboo staff loose over his back, twirling it before him so fast it was a blur that made the air sing.
Our would-be porters and guides yelped with alarm and delight, jumping backward and falling silent.
Bao’s grin widened. “So!” He planted the butt of his staff on the quay with a resounding thud. “I am the best at what I do. Which of you is the best at what you do?”
A copper-haired youth with eyes almost as green as mine stepped forward without hesitating. “Me, messire!” He jerked his head, and four more youths fell in behind him. “You want the best of everything for you and the beautiful lady? Best guide, best lodging?” With a smile that managed to be at once sly, reverent, and wise beyond his years, he kissed his fingertips. “Best pleasure-houses for a noble foreign couple? Oh, yes! Let Leo be your guide.”
I hid a smile of my own. Only in Terre d’Ange would a stripling street-lad offer to escort an apparently high-born couple to a pleasure-house within seconds of their arrival. “Lodging first,” I said firmly. “Anyplace with a nice bathing-chamber.”
The lad Leo blinked in surprise at my near-flawless D’Angeline accent. It wasn’t my mother-tongue, but I’d learned to speak it at an early age, and Bao and I had been practicing on the ship to improve his fluency. Leo gave me an appraising look, seeing past the foreign bangles and jewelry, past the bright orange and gold-trimmed silks I wore wrapped and draped in the Bhodistani fashion, past my honey-colored skin and black hair, registering my half-D’Angeline features. His brow furrowed in confusion. “You speak awfully good for a foreigner, madame.”
“She’s not a foreigner,” a new voice said behind us. “Not exactly.”
I turned to see the harbor-master, a stern-faced fellow I vaguely recognized from four years ago.
He inclined his head to me. “Lady Moirin mac Fainche, I believe. Welcome home.”
“Thank you, messire.” I raised my brows at the coolness of his tone. “You do not come bearing another summons, I hope? I do not wish to trouble the Lady of Marsilikos with my presence.”
“No.” A shadow of sorrow crossed his features. “I fear the Duchese Eleanore de Mereliot succumbed to a grave illness these two years gone by.”
“Oh!” My breath caught in my throat. “I’m sorry,” I said sincerely. “Did Raphael inherit—” Belatedly, I remembered that Marsilikos was always ruled by a woman, and the question died on my lips.
The harbor-master shook his head. “No. Her Grace the Duchese Laurentine de Mereliot, a near kinswoman, rules in Marsilikos now.”
Despite everything, my heart ached a little for Raphael. He had lost so very, very much in his lifetime. “I’m sorry,” I repeated inadequately. “So he’s… he’s not here, is he?”
Beside me, Bao shifted slightly. He disliked Raphael de Mereliot, and for good reason, but I had to ask. Whatever the unfinished business between us was, I’d as soon see it swiftly concluded.
“You hadn’t heard?” The harbor-master looked surprised for a moment. “No, but of course, you’ve been away, or you’d have known about the Lady. Forgive me, I wasn’t thinking. After his sister’s death, Lord Raphael joined the Dauphin’s expedition to Terra Nova.”
Ah, gods! My heart sank, and Bao gave me a stricken glance. The vast lands of Terra Nova, only discovered within my lifetime, lay on the far side of the world.
But the harbor-master was still speaking. “… expedition is due to return in the spring.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. “Gods be thanked! That’s good news, then.”
“Indeed.” The man looked uncomfortable. Based on my unfortunate history with House Mereliot, he might not have been kindly disposed to me, but he wasn’t heartless. “Lady Moirin, Terre d’Ange has suffered other losses in your absence. Were you aware that Queen Jehanne…?” Like me earlier, he let the sentence dangle unfinished.
“Aye,” I murmured. “That, I heard.”
He straightened his shoulders. “Well, then. I would not be remiss in my duty to a descendant of House Courcel.” He gestured at young Leo and his crew of street-lads, listening and gaping silently. “Shall I disperse this ragtag rabble for you? I can assign a cadre of guards to assist you with your needs.”
“Oh, that won’t be necessary,” Bao interjected, slinging one arm over Leo’s shoulders, causing the lad’s eyes to brighten. “We like… how do you say it? Ragtag rabble.”
The harbor-master bowed formally. “As you wish.”
After he took his leave, we said our thanks and farewells to Captain Ramchandra, who had escorted us safely to these shores. He bowed to us in the Bhodistani manner, his palms pressed together.
“It has been my very great honor!” he said. “I give thanks to you for restoring Kamadeva’s diamond to its proper place.”
Bao glanced sidelong at me, amused.
I cleared my throat. “It was our honor to do so.”
We had done that, Bao and I. The Rani Amrita had charged us with the task of returning Kamadeva’s diamond, a black jewel forged from the ashes of the Bhodistani god of desire, to the temple from which it had been stolen by Jagrati, a woman reckoned by her own people to be untouchable. I had carried it in a locked coffer for leagues upon leagues, fearful of its temptations.
All too well, I knew its power.
So did Bao, better than I did.
But we had carried it willingly for the sake of our lady Amrita; she who had withstood its allure when Jagrati the Spider Queen bore it; she who had had the strength to surrender it. In the temple where it had resided for many, many hundreds of years, we watched the priests break open the coffer, daring with trembling hands to transfer the diamond with its fiery heart filled with dark, shifting hues into the cupped and open hands of the god Shiva’s effigy.
There, it resided—a blessing ready to be invoked by all who sought it, and not a weapon to be wielded by any one soul.
The bright lady had approved.
“Hey, lady!” young Leo called breathlessly, trotting beneath the weight of one of our trunks. “I know who you are! I remember!”
“Oh, you do, do you?” I glanced at him. He couldn’t have been more than nine or ten when I’d left Terre d’Ange, but there was no underestimating the D’Angeline capacity for gossip.
“Oh, aye!” His face was flushed, but his eyes shone. “It was when the biggest ship in the world was in the harbor! D’ye remember, Michel?” he asked one of his companions. The other lad grunted in assent. “We went to look at it every day! From Ch’in, they said. You look like one of their sailors,” he added to Bao.
“Was he uncommonly handsome?” Bao inquired cheerfully.
“No!” Leo’s flush deepened. “I mean, not like one particular fellow. You look like all of them.”
Bao raised his brows at me.
“Uncommonly handsome,” I assured him.
“Anyway,” Leo continued heedlessly, “I remember! We went to watch the ship set sail, too. It was like watching a floating palace set out to sea! And everyone said that half-breed”—he lowered his voice—“bear-witch who summoned demons and ruined Lord Raphael and seduced the Queen was being sent away on the ship! That was you, wasn’t it?”
I sighed. “First of all, they were fallen spirits, not demons—”
He interrupted me. “What’s the difference?”
“Ah… I’m not sure,” I admitted. “At any rate, I didn’t summon them, I just… helped.”
“Those idiots couldn’t have done a thing without you,” Bao scoffed. “Your magic opened the doorway that let the demon through.”
“You’re not helping,” I informed him.
“So you really can do magic?” one of the other lads asked, wide-eyed. He stumbled over a cobblestone, and would have dropped the trunk he was carrying if Bao hadn’t caught it. “Can you turn into a bear?” He looked excited and horrified at the thought.
“No,” I said gently. “The Maghuin Dhonn Herself took that gift away from us long before I was born. Do you know the story of Prince Imriel?” All of them nodded; it was one of the great tales of Terre d’Ange. “Well, that’s why She took it away. Now all my people have left is a small gift for magic meant to conceal and protect us.”
“But it can be used for other things, too,” Bao added. “Good and bad. Moirin was very foolish to use it to help summon demons, but it was not her idea. It was your Lord Raphael’s idea. And she was not sent away. She left to accompany me and my wise mentor, Master Lo Feng, to save a princess and rescue a dragon in faraway Ch’in.” He gave me an inquiring look. “Better?”
“Better,” I agreed.
The lads looked skeptical. “There’s no such thing as a dragon,” Leo said.
“Oh, there is!” Bao grinned. “Maybe not here, but in Ch’in. We have ridden in one’s claw as he soared through the sky and called the thunderstorms.”
“Also, I did not seduce the Queen,” I put in stubbornly. They blinked at me, having forgotten the initial topic in the talk of dragons and faraway lands. “Queen Jehanne,” I reminded them. “Tell me, does her daughter thrive?”
Leo nodded vigorously. “Oh yes, madame! They call her the Little Pearl. She is much beloved in the City of Elua.”
“And his majesty King Daniel?”
He hesitated. “It is said he is… sad. He grieves deeply for the loss of the Queen, and he quarreled bitterly with the Dauphin when Prince Thierry insisted on leading an expedition to Terra Nova.”
I fell silent, thinking and remembering while Leo pressed Bao for more talk of dragons and cursed princesses.
I hadn’t known Daniel de la Courcel well, but I had liked him. Even before Jehanne’s death, sorrow at the loss of his first wife, Prince Thierry’s mother, had marked him. He was a grave and honorable man whose only fault, if it could be called one, was that he was overly cautious. While other countries had launched explorations into Terra Nova, and Thierry had pressed for the right to do the same, King Daniel had refused to allow it.
Not until Jehanne conceived had Daniel relented, promising to let his firstborn son and heir sail off in pursuit of glory if a second child was born hale, securing the line of succession.
Knowing of him what I did, I could well imagine Daniel would have had a change of heart upon Jehanne’s death. He had loved and lost two women; I did not think he had it in him to risk losing a third. He would have refused to remarry and he would have wanted to keep both his heirs close and safe.
But it seemed Thierry had held his father to his word, and now he was in Terra Nova—and Raphael with him.
“Moirin?” Bao’s voice broke my reverie. “We have reached the inn. Do you find it acceptable, or do you wish to inspect the bathing-chamber?”
Meeting his gaze, I saw the sincere concern behind his jesting, and summoned a smile. “I’m sure it’s fine.”
He nodded. “I told you this homecoming would be hard.”
“Aye.” I took a deep breath. “So you did.”
The inn was fine; more than fine.
An hour after our arrival, I sank into the depths of a generous marble tub, submerging my entire body. I scrubbed months’ worth of shipboard grime from my skin and washed my salt-stiffened hair. Servants of the inn brought bucket after bucket of freshly heated water to replace the dirty water, until the chamber was filled with steam.
The third time they entered, Bao followed.
“Come to join me?” I inquired.
He flashed a grin at me. “Uh-huh. Think there’s room?”
I smiled. “Aye, I do.”
The attendants left, giggling as Bao began to strip off the embroidered Bhodistani tunic and breeches he wore, revealing his lean-muscled fighter’s body. He paused, gazing at me with half-lidded eyes. “You look like something out of those stories sailors tell. What is the word in D’Angeline?”
I stirred the water. “Mermaid?”
“That’s it.” He climbed into the opposite end of the marble tub, dunking his whole head, coming up streaming water. “Soap?”
“Here.” I handed the ball of soap to him and watched him wash, taking pleasure in the sight. The black zig-zag tattoos he had acquired in Kurugiri stood out in stark contrast against the brown skin of his corded forearms, marking the way up and down a secret passage through a mountainous labyrinth, at the top of which the Spider Queen Jagrati and her husband the Falconer made their lair. Or at least they had, until we overthrew them with the help of the Rani Amrita and her army.
We had lived through a lot together, Bao and I.
“Do you ever think of her?” I asked him.
He followed my gaze, lifting one arm and letting it drop. “Jagrati? Sometimes, yes. I try not to. Why?”
I shrugged. Bao had spent long months under her thrall, bound by Kamadeva’s diamond and opium. Believing me dead, he had been content to wallow in darkness. “I just wondered.”
Bao leaned against the back of the tub. “Your presence keeps the memories away, Moirin,” he said in a serious manner; and then his grin returned. “Leo asked me if I was a prince in my own land. I told him that I was, but I gave up my kingdom to be with you.”
I raised my brows. “That is stretching the truth, my magpie.”
“Only a little,” he said in an unrepentant tone. “I’m sure the Great Khan would have gifted me with a territory of my own if I had remained wed to his daughter.”
“It’s possible,” I admitted.
“Anyway, Leo thought it was a very admirable story.” Bao nudged me with one foot. “Am I royalty now that I’m wed to you?”
“Does it matter?” I asked.
His dark eyes gleamed. “No, of course not. I only wondered if I was entitled to be called Lord Bao.”
I shook my head. “I don’t think so.”
“Oh, well.” Bao gave a good-natured shrug. “Still, pretty good for a bastard peasant-boy with no family name.”
“I’ve no lands to my name, you know,” I commented. “None of the Maghuin Dhonn do. We are allowed to dwell in the wild places of Alba in the terms of a sacred trust forged by Alais the Wise many years ago, but we do not own them. I have no title. Lady Moirin is just an honorific acknowledging my heritage.”
“I am only teasing, Moirin.” Bao leaned forward, tugging me so that I slid to straddle his waist. Water slopped over the edges of the tub. Intensity heated his gaze. “I love you, and I would choose to be with you whether in a slum or a cave or a palace. All right?”
I cupped his face and kissed him. “Aye.”
His callused hands slid over my slippery skin, creating a glorious friction. I rubbed myself against him, feeling his arousal.
One of the inn’s servants opened the door to the bathing-chamber, then closed it with a soft laugh.
Bao reached down into the bath-water, grasping his taut phallus, fitting the swollen head between my nether-lips. “You see?” His other hand slid around the nape of my neck, pulling me down for a kiss as he pushed himself into me. “For you, I will even learn to be more like a D’Angeline.” His hips thrust upward. “Depraved and scandalous.”
I drew a long, shuddering breath as he filled me, my fingers digging into his shoulders. “Indeed.”
He smiled. “I have always been a clever student.”
Laughing, the bright lady agreed.
In the morning, with young Leo’s eager aid, we set about procuring passage overland to the City of Elua.
After the close quarters I had endured on the ship, I could not bear the thought of being cloistered in a carriage for days. Mercifully, Bao understood, knowing that there was a part of me that chafed at being confined, all the more so since the ordeal I had undergone in Vralia.
So it was that we bartered with a horse-trader that Leo assured us was reputable for a pair of saddle-horses and a pair of pack-horses. Bao watched with considerable amusement as I introduced myself to all four, cupping their velvety, whiskery muzzles and breathing into their nostrils, touching their placid equine thoughts with my own, leaning my brow against the bony plates of theirs.
“Does she really talk to them?” Leo asked in a loud whisper.
“I’m not sure,” Bao whispered in reply.
One of the saddle-horses gave a dignified whicker. I patted his withers. “Well said, my friend.”
The trader, testing the purity of our Bhodistani coinage bite by bite, widened his eyes.
I smiled sweetly at him. “We will take them.”
He coughed and nodded.
There was scant hope in outpacing gossip anywhere in the world, and least of all in Terre d’Ange. I did not try. Within a day of our arrival, word had gone out ahead of us that Moirin mac Fainche had returned to D’Angeline shores.
I hadn’t expected otherwise. Still, it galled me a little. Only because my reputation had sunk so low in Marsilikos, where I was reckoned to have seduced Jehanne and ruined Raphael. And now, thanks to Bao’s creative reinvention of history, it was rumored I had seduced a prince of faraway Ch’in to my own ends.
It made Bao laugh.
I scowled at him. “I did not seduce you! Stone and sea! You chose this!”
He shrugged with amusement. “No, Moirin. I was helpless before your charms. Haven’t you heard?”
I eyed him. “I wish!”
“But I am,” he said guilelessly, fluttering his lashes at me.
“I should have left you to Jagrati,” I muttered.
At that, Bao caught me by the shoulders, giving me a shake. “Not that,” he said fiercely. “Not ever! Don’t say it, Moirin. Don’t even think it.”
I nodded. “Don’t jest, then.”
Bao took a deep breath. “I am sorry. It is only that my mistakes lie behind me, while yours…” He shrugged again. “They’re still awaiting us, aren’t they?”
Jehanne. Jehanne had not been a mistake. Never, ever would I believe it. She had saved me from myself.
“Aye,” I said firmly. “And I will deal with them, husband of mine. We will deal with them, one by one as they come. Agreed?”
Bao nodded. “Agreed.”
Two days after our arrival, we left the city of Marsilikos behind us.
I was not sorry to see the last of it; but if I thought my reputation would be restored as we grew closer to the City of Elua, I was mistaken.
Contrary to gossip in Marsilikos, I hadn’t left Terre d’Ange in disgrace, but I had left under a cloud of scandal. There was a kernel of truth to Leo’s accusation. Raphael de Mereliot and a group of scholars calling themselves the Circle of Shalomon had been involved in the arcane pursuit of summoning fallen spirits, rumored to possess the ability to bestow fabulous gifts on their summoners.
And I had helped them; at first because I foolishly believed myself in love with Raphael, and in the end, because he extracted a promise from me in exchange for helping to save my father’s life.
With my aid, the Circle of Shalomon had succeeded—at least in summoning spirits.
Spirits who tricked them, over and over. The only gift ever bestowed on the members of the Circle of Shalomon was the ability to speak the language of ants. Still, they kept trying.
Focalor, a Grand Duke of the Fallen, was the last spirit summoned, the price for saving my father’s life. He had found a flaw in the chains that bound him and broken free, attempting to take possession of Raphael’s body and killing a woman in the process.
If it hadn’t been for Bao and Master Lo coming to the rescue, Focalor would have succeeded. With their aid, I’d managed to force him back through the gateway my gift had opened.
The next day, I’d left the City of Elua, bound for Ch’in, called to destiny by my diadh-anam.
I remembered how Jehanne had insisted on giving me a royal escort to the gates of the City. She had made a production of bidding me farewell so that everyone would know I wasn’t leaving in disgrace, had kissed me, and given me a bottle of her perfume to remember her by.
I had it still.
And if Jehanne had lived, it might have been enough. Despite whatever cloud of rumor hung over me when I departed, I would be returning in triumph to a royal favorite’s welcome. But I had left, and Jehanne had died.
It was enough to make folks eye me with resentment and suspicion; and to be honest, I couldn’t blame them for it. It might not be fair, but I blamed myself, too.
“You could disguise yourself,” Bao suggested at the end of our second day on the road. “Dress like a respectable matron.”
I stroked the edge of the green silk sari I wore, another gift from our lady Amrita. The border was a handspan deep with gold embroidery. “Do you think it would help?”
“No,” he said honestly. “Not really. You couldn’t look respectable if you tried, Moirin.”
“Moirin.” Bao pulled me close. “You are Emperor Zhu’s jade-eyed witch, who freed a dragon and saved an empire. You are the Rani Amrita’s dakini, who helped conquer Kurugiri and rescue Kamadeva’s diamond.” He kissed me, then looked serious. “Do not forget these things are true.”
I ran my fingers through his thick, unruly hair. “Remind me again?”
He lowered his head to kiss me again. “Anytime, my disreputable wife.”
Despite everything, it made me laugh.
Some days later, we presented ourselves at the southern gate of the City of Elua.
“Lady Moirin mac Fainche.” The guard said my name slowly, looking me up and down. His expression was unreadable. “So it’s true. You have returned to the City of Elua, my lady?”
“I have.” There was a chill in the autumn air. I fought the urge to grip my Bhaktipuran coat of colorful squares of padded silk more tightly closed against it, holding the guard’s gaze instead.
His gaze slid sideways away from mine, settling on Bao. “And…?”
My peasant-boy turned Tatar prince sat on his horse with careless grace, easy in the saddle, his bamboo staff strapped across his back. Gold hoops glinted in his ears, and his tattooed forearms showed beneath the wide cuffs of his embroidered tunic. He looked very, very foreign in this setting. “Bao.”
“Bao,” the guard repeated in an uncertain tone. “You must be—”
“My husband,” I supplied helpfully.
I glanced at Bao, who shrugged and raised his brows. “I have had other names,” he admitted, affecting a look of innocent candor. “But that is the one my mother called me. Is it not good enough?”
It flustered the guard. “Of course, my lord… messire… Bao.” Opening the gates, he waved us through. “Ah… my lord, my lady, be welcome in the City of Elua.”
Behind the gleaming white walls surrounding the city, all was as I remembered it; and yet it was different, too.
I was different.
I had come to this place young and naïve, overwhelmed by its splendor; a child of the Maghuin Dhonn who had scarce known more than the cave and the wilderness in which I was raised. Now I was not so easily impressed. And yet I found myself longing for the familiar.
I wished Jehanne were here. And I missed my mother.
“Moirin?” Bao asked gently.
I wiped my eyes surreptitiously. “This way.” I nudged my mount. “Let’s see if my father’s in residence.”
Leading our pack-horses, we made our way to the Temple of Star-Crossed Lovers, drawing stares and murmurs all the way. A part of me wished I had taken Bao’s suggestion and purchased attire for both of us that would let us blend more smoothly into a crowd.
But then I thought about the simple delight Amrita had taken in showering gifts on us. I remembered Bao’s reminder and rode with my head held high.
Even so, I was profoundly grateful to see a familiar face when the priestess Noémie d’Etoile opened the temple door.
“Do you seek sanctuary—?” she began the traditional greeting, then halted, her breath catching in her throat. “Oh, child!” Noémie swept me into an unhesitating embrace. Beneath the crimson silk robes, her body was warm and comforting, and I returned her embrace gladly. She drew back, holding my shoulders and studying me with warm hazel eyes. “I’m so pleased the rumors were true! You’ve come a long, long way, haven’t you?”
“Aye.” I swallowed against the lump in my throat. Noémie was as gracious and lovely as ever, but visibly older. I’d been gone long enough that her hair had turned completely grey. “Is my father here, my lady?”
“Not at the temple, no,” she said. “You’ll find Brother Phanuel at the Palace more often than not these days.”
I blinked. “The Palace?”
“You’ve not heard?” she asked. I shook my head. Noémie pursed her lips, glancing past me to take in the sight of Bao holding the reins of all four horses in the street behind me. “Is that your Ch’in prince?”
I smiled. “I suppose so.”
Noémie was too polite to comment on the ambiguity of my answer. “He’s quite the exotic young man, isn’t he? Moirin… if you wish to go straightaway to the Palace to seek out your father, I will understand. But I would be pleased to offer you and your prince lodging here, and send word to Brother Phanuel.”
“I would like that,” I said honestly. “And… whatever you may have heard, my lady, Bao is here of his own will.”
“I would never for an instant have thought otherwise.” She smiled and gave me the kiss of greeting; and there was enough of a mother’s tenderness in it that my eyes stung. “Welcome home, Moirin.”
As soon as the young priest serving as an ostler had come to tend to our horses, Noémie extended the same greeting to Bao, kissing him warmly.
“Well met, your highness,” she said to him. “In Naamah’s name, be welcome here.”
Bao cleared his throat. “Ah… I am not exactly a prince.”
Her brows rose. “No?”
“No.” He shook his head. “Not exactly.”
Noémie regarded him with bemusement. “Well, you are welcome here nonetheless.”
He bowed to her in the Ch’in manner, hand over fist. “For that, and for your kindness to Moirin, I am grateful.”
Inside the temple, an air of quiet grace prevailed. Priests and priestesses in flowing robes of red silk glanced at us with gentle curiosity as they went about their duties, curiosity tempered by a long habit of patience.
This was Naamah’s place, and all lovers were under her protection. I felt a tightness inside me begin to ease.
“Tell me, my lady,” I said to Noémie over a light meal of honey-cakes and sweetened tea. “How does it come to pass that my father spends his days at the Palace? I thought him more the wandering type.”
“So he was.” She rested her chin in her hand. “But since the Duc de Barthelme was appointed Lord Minister of the realm, he has wished to keep the companion of his youth close by him.”
I frowned. “The Duc de Barthelme?”
“Rogier Courcel,” she clarified. “Another descendant of House Courcel, and a close kinsman of the King. Your father served as his royal companion.”
“Aye, I remember.” I did, although it was a vague memory. I’d met the man but briefly, distracted by the woeful tangle of affairs in which I’d gotten myself enmeshed and the enormity of meeting my long-lost father. “What does it mean that he was appointed Lord Minister?”
Again, Noémie studied me. “You heard of Queen Jehanne’s death?” she asked gently.
Her kind gaze was troubled. “Since that time, King Daniel has been… disengaged from the affairs of the realm. Recognizing his failings, he appointed his grace the Duc de Barthelme to administer to matters of importance.”
“You don’t think he should have done that, do you?” Bao asked.
Noémie d’Etoile looked mortified. “I did not say that!”
His lean-muscled shoulders rose and fell. “You didn’t need to.”
She was silent a moment. “I think it sets a dangerous precedent,” she admitted at length. “But mayhap a necessary one. I will be glad when Prince Thierry returns from Terra Nova to help his father bear the burden of rule.”
“Thought so,” Bao confirmed, helping himself to another honey-cake. “At least this Duc has the sense to seek out Moirin’s father’s counsel. So that’s good, huh?”
Noémie sighed. “It is.”
To be sure, I had returned to Terre d’Ange. I sighed too, already feeling weary. “My lady,” I said to Noémie. “Might I visit the temple proper, and pay my respects to the goddess and my ancestress?”
She stood with alacrity. “Of course, child!”
It was a powerful thing to see the image of my great-great-grandmother posing for the likeness of Naamah. The first time I had beheld it was the first time I’d felt myself truly connected to the rich history of Terre d’Ange. Her head was tilted to one side, regarding the pair of doves held nestled in her cupped hands. She looked so very, very serene.
I sank to my knees, gazing at her.
Bao sat cross-legged beside me. “So she’s your ancestress, huh?”
“Aye.” I smiled a little. “Well, it was my great-great-grandmother who posed for the effigy. She was a priestess of Naamah, and the first royal companion.”
He cocked his head, contemplating the image. “Something in her face reminds me of the tulku Laysa. Not a likeness, but a calmness.”
My smile turned rueful. “I suppose I’m not at all like her, am I?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Bao said, surprising me. “You can be. You’re different with women than you are with men.”
“You hadn’t noticed?” He looked amused. “Yes, Moirin. I heard the stories when you were with your Queen Jehanne. You soothed her temper. And although it was a different matter, I saw how you were with the princess in Ch’in. You were always patient and kind.” Bao shrugged, and made an eloquent gesture with one hand. “With women, you are like water, flowing and yielding. With men…” He grinned, banging his fists together. “Sparks.”
“Hmm.” Thinking on it, I realized there was a measure of truth to Bao’s words. “I don’t intend it.”
“It’s not good or bad,” Bao said philosophically. “It’s who you are.” He nudged me with one knee. “Anyway, I like sparks.”
“Lucky for us both.” When I leaned over to give him a fleeting kiss, he uncoiled smoothly and pulled me down atop him, startling a laugh from me. “You’re becoming more D’Angeline than D’Angelines,” I said breathlessly.
Bao slid one arm around my waist, cupped the back of my head, and kissed me. “I do not think your ancestress will mind, nor will Naamah,” he said. “After all, she did bless our wedding.”
I smiled at the memory of Naamah’s blessing unfolding like a burst of golden warmth over the Rani’s garden, the looks of wonder on the faces of all assembled. “So she did,” I agreed, returning his kiss.
There was the sound of soft laughter.
Extricating myself from Bao’s arms, I rose to see my father standing in the doorway, his green eyes sparkling with affection and mirth. Sunlight from the oculus above us gleamed on his long hair the color of oak-leaves and illuminated his crimson priest’s robes until they glowed. His smile widened as a joyful cry escaped my lips, and I flung myself on him. “You’re here!”
“I’ve been here all along, Moirin.” My father held me close. “You’re the one who’s been gone, and I give thanks to Blessed Elua for your safe return.” Like Noémie, he drew back to look at me. “Your mother will be so very, very glad.”
My heart leapt into my throat. “You’ve had word from her? She’s well?”
He nodded gravely. “Oh, yes. I sent word of your departure to Clunderry Castle as you asked. Since then, once or twice a year, we’ve exchanged letters.”
I rubbed my eyes. “I wonder who writes them for her. Or reads them, for that matter.”
“Aislinn mac Tiernan, I believe,” my father said.
“Who is Aislinn mac Tiernan?” Bao inquired. “Another of your royal ladies?”
“Royal, but not mine.” I gathered my scattered thoughts, smiling through my tears. “Father, this is Bao, my husband.”
“Indeed, so I heard. Naamah’s blessing on your union.” My father executed a graceful Ch’in bow. “Master Lo Feng’s apprentice, I believe?”
Bao blinked at him. “You remember?”
My father’s eyes crinkled. “A day of breathing lessons, yes. And then you and your mentor spirited my daughter to the far side of the world. It is not the sort of thing one forgets.”
Bao looked guilt-stricken. “Ah… we did not mean to take her from you.” Without thinking, he touched his chest where the spark of our shared diadh-anam flickered deep inside. “Moirin was following her destiny.”
My father laid one hand on Bao’s shoulder. “I know,” he said somberly. “And I am grateful to you for bringing her safely home.” His gaze settled on me. “Did you find it?”
“I did.” I took a deep breath. “Although… I do not think it is finished.”
For a moment, I saw the weight of worry and years age my father’s face; then he squared his shoulders, and it passed. “Will you be leaving again, then?”
Bao and I exchanged a glance. Since arriving in Terre d’Ange, neither of us had felt the imperative drive of destiny; only a sense that it was lying in wait.
“No,” I said. “Not right away, I don’t think. I don’t know. I’ve unfinished business here, too.” I rubbed my eyes again. “I’d like to see my mother, but ’tis late in the season to set out for Alba, isn’t it?”
“It is,” my father said in a gentle tone. “Already the Straits grow dangerous. You might send word through a swift courier, but I’d advise against travel.”
“Spring,” Bao said firmly. “After the expedition to Terra Nova returns, and that idiot Lord Lion Mane with it. You will finish your business with him, Moirin, and we will go to Alba.”
He gave a decisive nod. “I dream of a cave in the hollow hills, and a stone doorway. I dream of a bear unlike any mortal bear. We will go there.”
My father glanced from one of us to the other. “You’ve stories to tell, haven’t you?”
I thought of the long history that unfurled behind the shining wake of the ship that had brought us to these shores; of the bronze cannons of the Divine Thunder booming on the battlefield, our princess Snow Tiger dancing on the precipice of a cliff with an arrow in each hand, brave Tortoise blown into a smoking crater.
Of the dragon in flight, summoning the thunderstorms; of the vast blue sky unfolding above the Tatar steppe.
Of Vralia and chains, scrubbing the endless tiles of the floor of a Yeshuite temple. The Patriarch of Riva’s creamy smile, and my sweet boy Aleksei’s reluctant heroism, until he became a hero in truth.
Of Bao tossing and turning in sweat-soaked sheets in the Rani’s palace, purging the poppy-sickness from every pore and orifice.
Of Jagrati seated in the throne-room of Kurugiri, the black fire of Kamadeva’s diamond at her throat, glaring at me through the twilight while the Rani Amrita stood between us, her hands raised in a warding mudra.
“Oh yes, we’ve stories to tell,” I murmured to my father. “And I daresay you’ll not believe half of them.”
He inclined his head to me. “I will try.”
To his everlasting credit, my father did try to believe and understand.
I could not blame him for struggling with it.
Even to me, who had lived through it, the tale Bao and I told seemed like a child’s fable.
“Enough,” I said at length. “There will be time aplenty to tell the whole of it. Tell me, Father, what passes here in Terre d’Ange? I was surprised to learn you’ve become involved in politics.”
He gave a graceful shrug and spread his hands. “Not involved, not really. Rogier asked me to provide a shoulder on which to lean, a willing ear to listen without judgment. As I think you came to know, it is one of the most important aspects of serving as a royal companion. You would have done the same for Jehanne if she’d asked it.”
I was silent.
“Ah, gods!” My father looked stricken. “Forgive me, Moirin. That was uncommonly thoughtless of me.”
“No, it’s all right.” I fidgeted with my bangles. “Do people… does everyone blame me for her death?”
“Of course not!” His reply was swift. “Why would you even think it?”
“Moirin blames herself,” Bao murmured.
I shook my head. “It’s not that simple. I couldn’t have chosen otherwise. But I cannot escape the knowledge that Raphael and I could have saved her if I had stayed. And… folk look askance at me. They must know it, too.”
My father steepled his fingers, touching them to his lips. “Moirin, I’ll not pretend there wasn’t a good deal of speculation surrounding your departure,” he said slowly. “And there’s bound to be the same surrounding your return. You’re a child of the Maghuin Dhonn. That alone is cause for suspicion. It always was. Given the history of our people, it cannot be helped.”
I looked away. “I know.”
My mother’s folk were wild and reclusive, and all that was known of them in Terre d’Ange was that the bear-witches of the Maghuin Dhonn possessed dire magic, even if it was no longer true.
“If you had stayed, it would be different,” my father said gently. “Those who came to know you came to love you. And they will again. Give them time to acquaint themselves with you once more, time to forget tales of summoning demons, and remember that you were the one who coaxed Jehanne de la Courcel into going forty days without making a chambermaid weep.” He smiled. “Do you suppose you could manage to avoid causing a scandal for a month or so?”
I gave a reluctant smile in reply. “I’ll try.” Taking a deep breath, I confronted another prospect I didn’t relish. “I should pay my respects to King Daniel on the morrow, shouldn’t I?”
He nodded. “It would be the proper thing to do.”
The three of us talked long into the evening, and then my father departed to return to the Palace, with a promise that we might seek him out there on the morrow.
That night, I lay restless in bed. The chamber that Noémie had given us was small, but pleasant. It had a window that overlooked an inner courtyard, so I would be less inclined to the stifling sensation that sometimes overcame me in man-made spaces, and the bed-linens were soft and scented with lavender. It should have been a peaceful place for repose, but my mind was too full for sleep.
“What is it?” Bao asked drowsily. “Are you fretting over meeting the King? I thought you liked him.”
“I do,” I said. “I don’t know if I can bear to face his grief.”
Bao propped himself on one elbow. “His or yours?”
“Both,” I admitted.
He stroked my cheek with his free hand. “Moirin, it is part of the price of being alive. Of loving.”
“I know,” I murmured. “It hurts, that’s all.”
“I know,” he echoed, tugging me into the curve of his body and breathing the Breath of Ocean’s Rolling Waves until I began to relax. “So tell me,” he whispered against the back of my neck. “Who is Aislinn mac Tiernan if not one of your many royal ladies?”
It made me smile in the darkness, although there was sorrow in it. “Cillian’s sister.”
Bao went still. “He was your first love?”
Unseen, I nodded. “Aislinn was kind to me. She was the only one in her family who didn’t blame me for Cillian’s death.”
He released his breath. “I had forgotten. No wonder it grieves you so to think to be blamed for Jehanne’s.”
“That, and being accused of having seduced and ensorceled her,” I said. “Or you, or anyone. Stone and sea! The only time I tried to seduce someone, I failed miserably.”
Bao stifled a yawn. “Your spineless Yeshuite boy?”
I rolled over in his arms. “Aleksei wasn’t spineless.”
His eyes glinted. “Oh, he was! But he ended up in your bed anyway, didn’t he? So I suppose you succeeded after all.”
“That was Naamah’s blessing, and an altogether different matter,” I informed him.
“If you say so.”
“I do.” It was a familiar argument between us. I realized that Bao had succeeded in breaking the endless chain of thought I’d been chasing, which had likely been his intention all along. For that, I kissed him. “Good night and thank you, my Tatar prince.”
He gave me a sleepy smile. “You’re welcome.”
In the morning, aided by a night’s sleep, I was calmer than I would have reckoned. My apprehension had settled into a deep place inside of me. This was going to be painful, but it was necessary.
Bao and I rode to the Palace, where the royal steward greeted us both with a sincere bow.
“Lady Moirin mac Fainche,” he said in a respectful tone. “Messire… Bao, is it? Welcome. Brother Phanuel indicated that you would visit today.”
“Is his majesty King Daniel receiving?” I inquired.
The steward hesitated. “His majesty is enjoying a concerto.” He lowered his voice. “Music is one of the only things in which he yet takes pleasure. But I think, my lady, that he would wish to be interrupted by you.”
My stomach tightened. “You’re sure?”
He nodded. “I do believe so. Come, permit me to escort you and your… husband.”
It felt strange, so strange, to walk the marbled halls of the Palace with its gilded columns and ornate frescos. We passed the Hall of Games, where Prince Thierry had taught me to play games of chance. I remembered Jehanne carelessly wagering a love-token that Raphael had given her as an apology for some offense, a choker of pale blue topaz that matched her eyes. She’d demonstrated her annoyance with him by putting it around her silken-haired lap-dog’s neck as a collar, and then tossing it upon the gaming table as though it meant less than nothing to her.
She’d won her wager, though.
I remembered the cool touch of her fingertips on my face, her complicated expression, and her barbed warning. You oughtn’t play games you’re bound to lose.
I had; and I hadn’t.
I’d never stood the least chance of winning Raphael de Mereliot’s affections away from Jehanne. That, I’d come to understand at last. But never, ever had I imagined that I would win a portion of hers instead; that tempestuous Jehanne would take it upon herself to rescue me, that I would offer my loyalty to her, and she would come to love and trust me.
That I would find a place in her heart.
Tears blurred my eyes.
“Moirin?” Bao touched my arm.
I blinked away tears. “Memories.”
He nodded, understanding.
After a discreet pause, the royal steward led us onward. We passed the great, winding staircase that led to the upper stories of the Palace, where Jehanne had ordered a suite filled with green, growing things, an enchanted bower made just for me.
I’d awoken there to find Bao keeping watch over me. I saw him glance at the staircase, remembering. Gods, we hadn’t even liked one another then. It had been a long, long journey that had led me back to this place.
It was in that enchanted bower that Master Lo Feng had lectured me against letting my gift be used in unnatural ways—ways that had nonetheless saved lives, including my father’s.
Ways that could have saved Jehanne’s life.
I breathed the Breath of Earth’s Pulse, grounding myself. I remembered Jehanne naked and shameless in my bower, the green shadows of ferns decorating her alabaster skin.
Her blue-grey eyes sparkling at me the first time she had visited during my convalescence. Are you wondering if I mean to kiss you before I leave?
I had laughed. I am now.
She had ducked beneath the immense fern fronds and kissed me; and she had stayed when I begged her to stay, winding my arms around her neck. She had stayed, and she had loved me. And she had known, all along, that I would not stay, could not stay. She had not asked, nor had she held any part of herself back from me.
And King Daniel… he had known her. Known and loved Jehanne in a way few folk could understand, even in Terre d’Ange where love was reckoned an art. Raphael de Mereliot was her storm; Daniel de la Courcel was her anchor.
“My lady?” The steward stood with his hand poised on the door to the Salon of Eisheth’s Harp.
I nodded. “Aye.”
Inclining his head, he opened the door. Music spilled into the hallway. I took one step beyond the threshold. A bow screeched across the strings of a violoncello, and the music went silent. In the arranged chairs, heads turned.
A tall figure rose.
“Moirin.” Daniel de la Courcel, King of Terre d’Ange, said my name quietly. Our gazes locked.
Ah, gods! There was a world of sorrow in his, as much as I had feared and more. Lines of grief etched his handsome face.
A terrible memory surfaced behind his dark blue eyes, and I saw. I saw Jehanne on her death-bed, her fair skin deathly white from loss of blood—white as lilies, white as paper. I saw her pale lips move, shaping a word.
Desirée, her daughter’s name.
Somewhere in the King’s memory, Raphael was still trying, still plying his physician’s arts, still trying to stanch the endless flow of blood that spilled from her and sopped the bed-linens with crimson, still raging, still exhorting Jehanne to stay with him, to be strong and live.
But Daniel had known it was already too late.
I saw the light in her sparkling eyes, her eyes like stars, flicker and die. I saw them stare blindly, her head going slack on her pillow, her perfect lips parted.
“I’m sorry!” I fell to my knees in the aisle, borne down by the weight of his grief; tear-blinded, limp as a cut-string puppet. I buried my face in my hands. “Oh, my lord! I’m so very, very sorry. I should have been there.”
“No.” His hands descended onto my shoulders, and his deep voice was firm. “Moirin, no.”
I peered up at him between my fingers.
“You could not have known,” Daniel said. “You loved her. It was enough.”
“But it wasn’t,” I whispered. “It wasn’t.”
Gently, inexorably, he raised me to my feet. “It was.” The King’s arms enfolded me, and I clung to him. “Against all odds, you were one of the better things in her life. It was enough.”
His words, and the tenderness with which he held me, broke open a dam of grief and guilt inside me. Only the King, who had loved Jehanne more than anyone, had the right to absolve me. I accepted it and wept unabashedly, my tears dampening the front of his velvet doublet.
When at last Daniel released me, there were tears on his cheeks, too. A soft sigh ran through the salon, and I could feel the mood of the D’Angeline people shift toward me. In one compassionate stroke, the King’s absolution had changed me from a figure of suspicion to one of tragic romance.
A discreet attendant handed Daniel a silk kerchief. He blotted his tears, summoning the ghost of a weary smile. “A poor greeting, I fear. Come, cousin, introduce me to this husband you have brought from afar.”
Stepping beside me, Bao bowed deeply in the Ch’in manner. “We have met, your majesty,” he said. “Years ago. I served as Master Lo Feng’s apprentice.”
“Ah, yes.” The King nodded. “A very wise man, your master. Does he prosper?” His tired smile turned wistful. “Did the Camaeline snowdrop bulbs I gave him survive the long journey?”
Bao hesitated. “I fear Master Lo is no longer with us.”
King Daniel’s faint smile vanished, the weight of grief returning to his features. “I am sorry to hear it.”
“Your gift survived the journey, my lord,” I said softly. “I kept them alive. And on the slope of White Jade Mountain, where no mortal foot had trod before, I planted three snowdrop bulbs. It is a sacred place. There, I have been promised that the snowdrops will thrive, until mayhap one day they will play a role in someone else’s story.”
The King’s deep gaze settled on me. “Then you found the destiny your gods ordained for you?”
I nodded. “I did.”
He exhaled a long breath. “Was it worth the cost?”
I thought of the future I had glimpsed on the battlefield where the bronze cannons of the Divine Thunder boomed, a future written in blood and fire, where there were no bear-witches or dragons. I thought of the thousands upon thousands more men who would have died had the dragon not called the rain and lightning, drowning the dreadful cannons.
I thought of Jehanne, too.
“How can one measure such a thing, my lord?” I asked. “All I can tell you is that if I had to make the choice over, knowing what would come to pass, in sorrow and grief, I would choose as I did.”
Wordlessly, the King bent to kiss my brow, then straightened. “Would it please you to meet her?” he asked. “Jehanne’s daughter?”
“Aye, my lord. Very much so.”
The King’s gaze drifted onto the distance. “I do not see her as often as I ought,” he murmured, half to himself. “I should. But it is… painful.” I waited in silence, not knowing what to say, until his gaze returned, and he beckoned to the royal steward. “Messire Lambert will escort you to the nursery. It is what Jehanne would have wished. Later, mayhap, we will talk.”
I curtsied in the D’Angeline manner. “My thanks, my lord.”
“Moirin.” After I thought myself dismissed and had turned to follow the steward, the King’s deep voice called me back. With considerable effort, he summoned another weary smile. “I am glad you are here.”
My eyes stung, and my diadh-anam gave an unexpected flicker of agreement hinting at the presence of destiny’s call. “So am I.”
What do you suppose it means?” Bao asked as we followed Messire Lambert, the royal steward.
I didn’t have to ask what he meant; Bao had felt the spark of our shared diadh-anam quicken as surely as I had. “I don’t know.”
“Do you ever?” he asked.
“Seldom precisely.” I smiled ruefully. “The Maghuin Dhonn Herself may guide us in certain directions, but She leaves us to make our own choices. Especially the difficult ones.”
“I don’t see a choice here,” Bao remarked. “Difficult or otherwise.”
“Not yet,” I agreed.
We climbed the wide, winding staircase to the second floor and followed the steward down the hall. Outside the door of a corner chamber, Messire Lambert hesitated. Beyond the door came the sound of women’s voices raised in frantic pleading.
“Wait here, please,” the steward said to us before knocking.
The door opened a crack, and a woman with a pretty, harried face peered out, her eyes widening at the sight of the steward in the livery of House Courcel. “Oh, messire! Tell me his majesty’s not sent for her!”
“No, no,” he assured her. “But his majesty sends visitors. Lady Moirin mac Fainche, and Messire… Bao.”
Her eyes widened further, showing the whites. “Jehanne’s witch?”
The steward cleared his throat. “As I said, Lady Moirin and her husband.”
The young woman shuddered. “Elua have mercy! All right, all right, messire. Give us a moment.”
She closed the door behind her. Sounds of a heated argument interspersed with urgent pleas ensued. Bao raised his brows at me. I shrugged in reply. The royal steward looked profoundly uncomfortable.
“Oh, let them in!” a second woman’s voice said in frustration, loud enough to be heard clearly through the door. “If the Queen’s witch can lay a spell on the child before she breaks her stubborn neck, so much the better!”
The door was flung open wide. The young woman dropped a curtsy, her face flushed. “Welcome, my lady, my lord.” She made a sweeping gesture. “Forgive us. Her young highness is as you find her.”
I entered the nursery chamber, and caught my breath.
It was a pleasant, sunlit chamber with a canopied bed set into the near wall. Against the far wall stood an array of ornately painted cubes filled with cunningly made toys and dolls. Atop a dangerous perch on the highest cube sat a girl of some three years of age, kicking her heels and giggling.
Belatedly, it struck me that that was what King Daniel had called her—Jehanne’s daughter, as though she were not his own, too.
Gazing at her, I understood why. Desirée de la Courcel was her mother in miniature, a picture of gossamer beauty. A thin white shift adorned her small figure, leaving her arms and legs bare, skin so fair the pale blue tracery of her veins showed through it. Her pink lips formed a perfect bow. Her white-blonde hair curled in soft ringlets, haloing her head. Her eyes were Jehanne’s eyes, an ethereal blue-grey.
And ah, gods! How they sparkled.
It wasn’t just the resemblance; it was Jehanne’s mercurial spirit that shone forth from her, delighting so shamelessly in her own misbehavior that one could not help but be charmed by it. At least, I couldn’t.
My heart contracted sharply. Beside me, Bao chuckled.
Desirée stopped giggling and contemplated us.
I bowed to her in the Bhodistani fashion, my palms pressed together. “Well met, young highness.”
“Who are you?” Her childish voice was high and clear.
I shifted my hands into a calming mudra that Amrita had taught me, steepling my middle fingers. “Come down and find out.”
“No.” Considering it, she shook her head. “I don’t want to.”
“Well, then, you will have to wonder,” I said.
Behind us, the nursemaids whispered while the steward questioned them in a frantic hiss, wondering how the child had gotten up there in the first place. It seemed she had climbed the staggered blocks one by one, and refused to come down.
“She’s uncommonly agile for her age!” the older nursemaid said in an aggrieved tone. “And uncommonly precocious!”
I ignored them.
Bao whistled through his teeth, inspecting the toys stored in the hollow cubes. “Look at this, Moirin,” he said cheerfully, showing me a miniature carriage. “The doors open, and the wheels turn.”
“That’s mine!” Desirée said with a flash of temper.
He glanced up at her. “But you’re not playing with it.”
“It’s mine!” Her perfect pink lips formed a pout. Bao shrugged and put the toy back.
“Your mother used to pout when she didn’t get her way,” I informed her. “But even she admitted that it was tiresome.”
Her fair brows knit. “You knew my mother?”
I nodded. “Very well.”
“I’m coming down,” Desirée announced, beginning a precarious descent.
Both nursemaids rushed forward to aid her.
“Don’t,” I murmured under my breath. “She’s Jehanne’s daughter; she thrives on drama of her own creation. Don’t encourage her. It’s all right. Bao will catch her if she falls.”
Once she reached the floor safely, her nursemaids descended on her, chastising her, hastening to get her clothed in a miniature satin gown stiff with elaborate beadwork. Desirée bore it with surprising patience, all the while keeping her eye on Bao and me.
“I am being good now,” she said when her nursemaids had finished with her. “Now you have to tell me.”
“Moirin.” I knelt to sit on my heels opposite her. “That is my name, young highness.”
She tilted her head. “And him?”
Bao threw a standing somersault, drawing startled squeals from the nursemaids, landing and settling to sit cross-legged in one fluid movement. “Bao.”
“Bao?” Desirée mimicked his inflection exactly, capturing the rising and falling tone with a child’s careless ease.
He grinned. “Uh-huh.”
She studied him. “Why do your eyes look so funny?”
“Mine?” Bao touched the outer corners of his almond-shaped eyes. “I am from Ch’in, young highness. This is how we look. There, you would be funny-looking.” Dragging down his underlids, he widened his eyes. “Round eyes!” Making a beak with forefinger and thumb, he touched his nose. “A big nose, like a bird.” Stretching out one arm, he compared his tawny-brown skin to hers. “And so pale! In Ch’in they would ask, what happened? Did someone leave you in the bath too long, so all your color faded away?”
Desirée giggled. “That’s silly!”
“I suppose it is,” he agreed gravely.
I could sense the royal steward hovering behind us, and turned to him. “Please, do not wait on us, Messire Lambert. I know my way around the Palace. Tell his majesty I am at his disposal whenever he pleases. We’ll be some while making her young highness’ acquaintance. If that’s all right?” I added with an inquiring glance at her nursemaids.
The younger glanced at the older, who shrugged. “After you coaxed her down from yon perch? Take all the time you like, my lady! I don’t care if it is magic.”
I smiled. “No magic. She’s got her mother’s temperament. I knew it well, once.”
The royal steward departed with a relieved bow, and the younger nursemaid left to bid the princess’ tutor to delay the morning’s lesson.
“Do you like your tutor?” I asked the child. “What do you study together?”
“Manners and counting and singing,” she answered obediently. “And I am learning my letters. Nurse says I am too little for letters, but mademoiselle says she could read whole books by the time she was four.” She considered. “Most of the time, she is nice.”
Desirée looked down, plucking at the beaded hem of her gown. “Not when I am naughty.” She looked back up at me, her expression achingly candid and woeful. “My mother was naughty, wasn’t she?”
“Oh, dear heart!” I suppressed the urge to hug her, knowing I was far too much a stranger still. “Your mother was a great many things. Sometimes, yes, she was naughty. But she was kind and generous and brave, too.”
“She was,” Bao confirmed. “I did not know her so well as Moirin, but I know this is true.”
“How?” Desirée demanded.
“When you are older, I will tell you the whole story,” I said. “It is a story for grown-ups. But I will tell you this. I was there when your mother learned she was going to have a baby. You.” I laid one hand on my belly. “And she was happy, so very happy. That is why she named you Desirée, so you would always know that she loved you and longed for you.”
She looked down again. “Is my father coming to see me today?”
I glanced at the nurse, who shook her head. “Not today, your highness. You know the King is a very, very busy man.”
“You told the steward my father could see you when he wanted.” Desirée gave me an accusatory look.
I had no doubt that Jehanne had been as precocious as her daughter; I wondered if she’d been as observant, too. “So I did,” I replied calmly. “Bao and I have come from very far away, and we have much news of foreign lands to tell him.”
She shook her head, silver-gilt ringlets dancing. “He never wants to see me.” Her fingers plucked at the beadwork of her gown again. Two seed pearls came loose and rolled across the floor, accompanied by an indrawn breath of dismay from her nurse. Desirée flashed her a look at once guilty and defiant. “I don’t care! I don’t like this gown anyway! It prickles!”
“It’s all right, young highness.” The nurse sounded resigned.
“It’s because I’m naughty, isn’t it?” Desirée patted the hem, trying to smooth it. “That’s why he doesn’t come.”
It had the sound of a punishment she’d heard voiced many times before. I glanced at the nurse again, and saw her flush with guilt and resentment; and then at Bao, who shook his head.
“I am good at entertaining with tricks and jests, Moirin,” he murmured. “This is beyond me.”
Settling back onto my heels, I let my hands fall into a contemplative mudra and breathed slowly, thinking. “Your father loved your mother very, very much, young highness. He loved all the things that were good in her—and even the things that were naughty, too. Every day, he misses her, and it makes him sad. When he sees those things in you…” I touched my chest. “It makes his heart hurt more. It does not mean he doesn’t love you.”
It was a difficult concept for a child to grasp, and a heavy burden to bear. I watched her wrestle with it, praying that I’d not overstepped my bounds or overburdened the child.
At length, Desirée cocked her head. “Why do you do this?” she asked, doing her best to emulate the mudra I had taken. “Is it a game?”
“Ah.” I smiled. “You might call it a thinking-game, young highness. Each shape you make with your hands is a thought, or… or a wish, or a prayer.”
“What kind of prayer?”
I folded my hands together, steepling my fingers. “A prayer for peace.” I shifted my hands, one above the other, forming an open circle. I could not achieve the gestures with the grace with which Amrita had taught me, but I did my best. “For wisdom.” I fanned my hands before me, interlocking my thumbs. “A prayer that the gods might speak clearly to me.”
She looked interested. “It’s a funny kind of game.”
“It’s a thinking-game,” I said. “Not the kind you win or lose. It helps you to think and wish and pray better, that’s all.”
Her small fingers fumbled through an approximation of the poses I’d shown her. “Will you teach it to me?”
I inclined my head to her. “It would be my honor, young highness.”
During a long winter on the Tatar steppe, where I had first begun to learn patience, I’d learned, too, that young children relished games of hands and words and thoughts. For another hour, with Bao’s helpful aid, I taught the mudras I had learned from my lady Amrita to my lady Jehanne’s daughter. The three of us sat cross-legged on the floor of the nursery, arranging our hands and fingers in contemplative poses and gravely discussing their meaning.
When I sensed that the elder nursemaid, whose name was Nathalie Simon, was growing restless at the interruption in the princess’ daily routine, I rose to bid Desirée farewell.
“I fear your tutor has been kept waiting overlong, your highness,” I said apologetically. “ ’Tis best Bao and I leave for now.”
“Thank you for coming to see me.” There was a formal, rote quality to the words; a seriousness of purpose that was the first I’d seen of Daniel de la Courcel in the child. “It was very nice.”
“We’ll come again if you like,” Bao offered.
Her face brightened, blue-grey eyes sparkling to life. “Will you?”
“Uh-huh.” He grinned at her and nudged me. “Won’t we, Moirin?”
“We will,” I confirmed. “I promise.”
The senior nursemaid Nathalie ushered us into the hallway, closing the door behind us. “My lord, my lady… as you have seen, she’s a precocious and complicated child.” Her expression was stony. “By her standards, she behaved well enough for you today. If there was truly no magic in it, it is only because the two of you presented her with a novelty. Do not presume to understand the difficulties of raising her day in and day out. Do not presume to tell me my business.”
“I don’t,” I murmured.
“I think you do.” Nathalie’s gaze was sharp. “I know who you are, and what you were to Queen Jehanne for a brief time.” She lowered her voice. “Just because you shared her bed gives you no special insight into her daughter.”
I held her hard gaze. “Does the gown prickle?”
The nursemaid blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
“It is a simple question,” I said. “Children’s skin is more tender than ours, especially when they are young. It seems to me that if the underside of the embroidery pricks her skin, it might be enough to goad her into misbehaving. Have you felt it?”
“She is a King’s daughter, and a Princess of the Blood. Jewels are her birthright.” Her expression hardened further, challenging me. “Name of Elua! Would you have the child dressed in rags?”
“No,” I said. “Of course not. But have you felt it?”
Gritting her teeth, Desirée’s senior nurse drew herself upright. “No, my lady, I have not. I will do so.”
“Good,” Bao said simply.
Her glare followed us down the hallway.
Not long afterward, we met Rogier Courcel—the Duc de Barthelme, Lord Minister of the realm, and the companion of my father’s youth.
“I trust we’re meeting under happier circumstances, Lady Moirin.” The smile he summoned was tired, but not so deeply tired as the King’s. It held the weariness of a man overburdened by duty. “As I recall, you were rather distraught on the previous occasion.”
I flushed, remembering.
The Duc de Barthelme and my father had ridden out to meet the royal hunting party I had accompanied, and I had been in a rare state of anguish, conflicted over my feelings for both Raphael and Jehanne, and feeling as though I’d not a friend in the world. Upon meeting my father for the first time, I’d flung myself into his arms and wept on his shoulder.
“Indeed, your grace,” I murmured. “Forgive me my rudeness. I was young and foolish.”
My father chuckled, and the Duc glanced sidelong at him. Rogier Courcel was a handsome fellow with thick, curling black hair, the strong brows of House Courcel, and grey-green eyes. I liked the easy manner he and my father had with each other, which spoke of their long familiarity. “You did manage to generate a considerable amount of scandal in a short time,” he agreed. His gaze shifted to Bao. “I take it those days are behind you?”
Bao bowed. “I would not count on it, my lord.”
The Duc’s smile deepened. “Ah, well! The City of Elua can always use a measure of scandal. Moirin, Phanuel tells me you wish to send a message to your mother in Alba. I’ve a courier leaving on the morrow with a packet for the Cruarch, and he’s likely to be the last of the season. Would you care to add a letter?”
“Very much so, your grace.” I smiled back at him. “Thank you for your kindness.”
He waved a dismissive hand. “ ’Tis nothing. Please, call me Rogier. After all, we’re near-kin.”
“Rogier,” I echoed.
“You’re lodging at the Temple of Naamah in the Tsingani quarter?” he inquired. “If you wish, I’d be pleased to grant you and your husband a suite of rooms in the Palace.”
I hesitated. “My thanks. But… I think we will wait awhile. There are too many memories here, at least for me.”
“Of course.” Rogier shifted a stack of papers on his desk, which bore a considerable amount of clutter. “I do have a favor to ask in turn. If I understand rightly what Phanuel has told me, among other things, you were involved in an unpleasant business in Vralia which could have political repercussions for Terre d’Ange. I’d like to hear about it in detail.”
“Certainly,” I said. “His majesty also indicated he might wish to speak with me.”
“About Vralia?” The Duc looked startled.
“Ah… no.” I frowned, realizing it was unlikely that King Daniel knew aught of my misadventures yet. “He did not say.”
My father and Rogier Courcel exchanged a glance. The latter folded his hands on his desk. “Moirin, I have nothing but respect for my kinsman,” he said quietly. “But I fear Daniel de la Courcel’s days of taking an active hand in steering the realm are over. He has no heart for it. Until the Dauphin’s return, that burden falls to me, and I have accepted it. Does that make you uncomfortable?”
“No, of course not,” I protested; although in truth, I wasn’t sure if it did.
“It should.” Rogier smiled ruefully. “It makes me uncomfortable, and a number of the members of Parliament, too.”
“You’ve done a fine job,” my father murmured. “Parliament has no cause for concern.”
The Duc raked a hand through his hair. “Even so, I will be grateful when Prince Thierry returns, and I can rejoin my wife and children in Barthelme.”
“Why do they not join you here?” Bao inquired. “Surely, there is room.”
“My wife, Claudine, maintains an… extensive… household,” Rogier replied in a dry tone. “ ’Tis not worth the toil and effort of moving it for two seasons’ time. And my boys are happy in Barthelme, where they can run wild.”
My father chuckled again. “Your eldest might feel otherwise if he were sixteen and old enough to gain admission to the Night Court.”
“He might,” Rogier admitted. “But Tristan’s two years shy of that gilded threshold.”
“Speaking of children,” I began. Both of them turned their attention to me, and I paused, trying to frame the matter politely. “In Marsilikos, we were told that the young princess Desirée was known as the Little Pearl, and was much beloved in the City of Elua. But Bao and I met with her this morning, and she seemed to me to be a rather lonely little thing.”
“To say the least,” Bao muttered.
“I’m sorry to hear it.” Rogier Courcel paused, too. “In the spring, on the occasion of her highness’ third natality, Daniel was persuaded to hold a procession throughout the City in celebration, so that the people might have a glimpse of young Desirée. It was a touching sight, the widowed King with his beautiful young daughter in his arms. To be sure, it charmed the populace.”
My father nodded. “That was when they began calling her the Little Pearl.” He gave me a quiet smile. “The City of Elua has not forgotten Jehanne de la Courcel nor the endless delight they took in gossiping about her. They took her daughter quickly to heart. But I fear it was the last time his majesty appeared in public with her.”
“A pity,” I said.
The Duc raised his brows. “Is the child being mistreated?”
“No,” I said slowly. “I would not go so far as to say that. But it was my sense that she feels unloved.”
Rogier sighed. “Your concern is admirable, Moirin. However, I must tread a fine path here. Daniel has ceded the duties of state to me during this interim. He has not abdicated the throne, nor has he given me authority over his private affairs.” His mouth twisted. “It would be different if he had seen fit to appoint…” He let the thought go unfinished, shrugging. “I fear that if I were to intervene in the matter, Parliament would rebel and declare I had overstepped my authority.”
“Mayhap you should speak to the King about your concerns,” my father suggested.
I blinked. “Me? Ah, gods! I’d rather not intrude further on his grief.”
He regarded me somberly. “You may be the only person in the world who can do so with impunity, Moirin. I heard about this morning’s display.”
“I’ll think on it.”
“Do,” the Duc agreed, rising from his chair. “Now, if you’ll forgive me, I’ve a great deal to do, and I believe you’ve a letter to write.”
“Oh, yes.” I rose, too. “Thank you again, my lord.”
“Rogier,” he repeated with a pleasant smile. “When I’ve more time, I’ll ask you for the whole of your Vralian tale. Were you there, too?” he asked Bao.
Bao stretched out his arms, contemplating the zig-zag tattoos that marked them. “No,” he said darkly. “I wish I had been. But no.”
My father shuddered. “You’ll want to hear the whole of their tale someday,” he said to Rogier Courcel. “Trust me, it’s one to daunt the poets.”
The Lord Minister of the realm inclined his head toward us. “I look forward to it.”
With that, we were dismissed.
Since there was no word from King Daniel, Bao and I returned to the Temple of Naamah. This journey through the streets of the City of Elua was markedly different. Word of the King’s absolution and embrace of me had spread, and the gazes that followed us were more curious than suspicious. I felt all the more grateful for his generosity, and all the more uneasy at the notion of presuming to tell him how his daughter ought to be raised.
“Why?” Bao asked when I voiced my reluctance. “Don’t you think he might be glad of it?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “He’s just so terribly sad. I hate to add to his burden.”
He shook his head. “If he’s a man, he will bear it. You heard him this morning. He knows he’s neglected the child. If you ask me, he was very nearly begging for your assistance.”
“Do you think so?”
Bao gave me one of his rare, utterly sincere smiles. “Yes, Moirin. I do. I think the King recognizes that you have a very, very large heart, and that he hopes you will make a place for his little stormcloud of a daughter in it.”
“You, too,” I said. “You liked her, didn’t you?”
“I did,” he admitted.
At the temple, I begged paper, ink, and a pen of Noémie d’Etoile, who granted my request readily and showed me to the study, which was filled with texts dedicated to the arts of love and pleasure.
There, I did my best to concentrate on writing a letter to my mother, while Bao perused the shelves and cubbies. Although he could not yet read the western alphabet, many of the volumes were illustrated. There were at least a dozen different versions of the Trois Milles Joies alone.
“Have you ever read this?” Bao demanded.
“Aye, I have.” With a twinge of sorrow, I remembered how Jehanne had sent a volume to me after our first liaison at Cereus House.
“Look at this.” He showed me a print titled The Wheel-Barrow. “Have you ever tried it?”
He studied it from all angles. “We should.”
“Bao, I’m writing to my mother!”
He flashed me an unapologetic grin. “All right, all right! Later, huh?”
I plucked the tome from his hands. “Later, yes.”
In the end, after long hours of agonizing, I made my letter a simple one. I wrote that I had returned to Terre d’Ange well and safe. I wrote that I had many adventures to tell, and that the Maghuin Dhonn Herself had done right in sending Her child so very, very far away. I wrote that I hoped to return to Alba in the spring, after Prince Thierry’s expedition came home.
I wrote that I loved her.
No matter how far I went, mother mine, I never ceased to think of you and miss you. I hope you are well, and Oengus and Mabon and all our kin, too.
I wept a bit.
Bao looked over my shoulder. “Did you tell her about me?”
“I did.” I traced a line of text with my finger, reading the words aloud. “It may surprise you to learn I have wed. I will bring my husband, Bao, when I come. He is exceedingly insolent, boastful, and arrogant, and I love him very much. I think you will like him.”
He pursed his lips. “You think so?”
I laughed through my tears. “I do.”
I folded my letter carefully, placing it in a vellum envelope. I addressed it to my mother in care of the Lady of Clunderry, as she had bade me so very, very long ago. I lit a taper, and sealed it with a careful blot of wax, pressing the signet ring my mother had given me into the hot wax.
A young, obliging priest offered to carry it to the Palace for me.
Off it went.
Bao cocked his head at me, waiting.
“Oh, fine,” I said. “Let’s try it.”
The Wheel-Barrow was a vigorous position, requiring a certain athleticism on the part of both participants. I wasn’t sure if I cared to repeat it, but it was an interesting experiment, and it tired me enough so that I slept soundly and late.
I awoke to find that the King’s absolution of me had further repercussions. Noémie d’Etoile presented Bao and me with a stack of engraved cards printed on thick, expensive paper.
“What are these?” I asked in bewilderment.
“Calling cards,” Noémie said. “It’s become quite the fashion in the past few years. These were left by all the people who came to pay you a visit this morning.”
I flipped through the cards, glancing at the names engraved on them. “But I don’t even know these people!”
She smiled. “Well, it seems they wish to make your acquaintance.”
“Do I have to meet all of them?” I asked in dismay.
“ ’Tis your choice,” Noémie said. “No doubt most of them seek to curry favor since the King’s embraced you and your father has a certain amount of influence with the Lord Minister. Are there none you would call a friend from your time here in the City before?”
“Prince Thierry was the closest thing to a friend I had here,” I said absently. “And he’s on the far side of the world.”
“Didn’t you bed him?” Bao commented.
“Only the once! And we made our peace with it. There’s no one—” I turned over another card. “Oh.”
“Someone you know?”
“Aye.” I gazed at Lianne Tremaine’s name, surrounded by a printed wreath of delicate blossoms. “She was the King’s Poet once—the youngest ever appointed. And she was a member of the Circle of Shalomon.”
“The demon-summoners?” Bao asked.
I nodded, glancing at Noémie. “You must have known.”
“I did.” Her expression remained serene. “People make mistakes, Moirin. Sometimes they learn from them. I believe Lianne Tremaine has done so. She’s fallen far from her days of glory.” Leaning over, she tapped the card. “Those are eglantine blossoms. Since the King dismissed her from her post, she’s taken a position at Eglantine House.”
It surprised me. “As a Servant of Naamah?”
“No, no.” Noémie shook her head. “As a tutor to their young poets, although it’s also true that many patrons commission her to write poems on their behalf. Whatever else may be true, her talent is undeniable.”
Bao examined the card. “You should see her, Moirin.”
“Why?” My memories of Lianne Tremaine weren’t particularly fond ones.
He gave me one of his shrewd looks. “You and she, you made the same mistake.”
“I didn’t want to!” I protested.
Bao shrugged. “But you did it. Maybe you can learn from each other. Maybe she knows something about that idiot Lord Raphael that can help you figure out what unfinished business you have together.”
“You have an irksome habit of being right,” I observed. “My lady Noémie, was there any word from his majesty?”
“No,” she said. “Were you expecting it?”
“I’m not sure what I expected,” I admitted.
“Let’s go call on the little princess,” Bao suggested. “Afterward, you can decide what you want to do about this.” He flicked Lianne Tremaine’s card with one finger. “And the King.”
“Do you think we should return so soon?” I asked.
He nodded. “We promised her. Soon never comes soon enough to a young child. And I think that one has been disappointed many, many times before. Let her see that we mean to keep our promise.”
I smiled at him. “You’re uncommonly sensitive when it comes to children, my bad boy. All right, then. Let’s go.”
Once again, Bao was right.
Upon presenting ourselves at the royal nursery, we were confronted by the stony-faced nursemaid Nathalie Simon. “You’re interrupting her highness’ morning lesson,” she informed us.
“Do you mean to forbid us entry?” I inquired.
Bao favored her with one of his most charming smiles. “We’ll be only a minute, my lady.”
Grudgingly, she admitted us.
Desirée and her tutor were seated in undersized chairs in a sunlit corner of the chamber, heads bowed over a slate of sliding alphabet blocks. I paused, listening to the sound of her childish voice chanting the alphabet.
“Ah… Bay… Cey…”
“You’ve guests, young highness,” Nathalie announced in a hard tone.
Desirée’s silver-gilt head lifted, and a dazzling smile dawned on her face. “You came!”
“Of course!” Bao scoffed. “Did you think we wouldn’t?” With careless grace, he crossed the room and sank to sit cross-legged beside her, peering at the slate of blocks. “So these are D’Angeline letters, huh? Maybe you can teach them to me.”
Her fair brow furrowed. “Are you mocking?”
Bao shook his head. “No. In Ch’in, we write differently.”
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “We just do.”
Watching them, I couldn’t help but smile. Desirée’s tutor rose, her expression caught somewhere between respect and defiance.
“Lady Moirin, I believe?” She made a reluctant curtsy, bobbing her head. “I’d heard you’d taken an interest in the child.”
“So I have,” I said calmly.
“She’s bright, very bright.” Her chin rose. “I’ll not apologize for teaching her beyond her years.”
“Nor should you,” I agreed. “What’s your name?”
A thought came to me as I watched Desirée earnestly teaching the alphabet to Bao. “Do you suppose you might take on a second pupil, my lady?”
I nodded. “Bao, what do you think of the notion?”
He glanced up. “I think I would like to read the names written on these calling cards we are receiving.” A grin crossed his face. “Not to mention what is written in the very interesting books in the temple’s library.”
Aimée Girard flushed. “Ah… well. You understand we will be reading only very, very simple texts?”
“Yes, of course.” With one finger, Bao pushed blocks around on the slate. “Would you like me to study with you, your highness?”
Desirée’s expression was dubious. “You’re not mocking?”
“No.” His voice was solemn. “I promise.”
“Then I would like it very much,” she said decisively. “Can Bao stay, mademoiselle?”
“Will you be on your best behavior if I say yes?” her tutor inquired. The child nodded vigorously. “Very well, then.” She smiled. “Messire Bao, it seems we have an arrangement.”
I smiled, too. “Then I will leave you to it, and return in a while.”
Desirée rose and gave me an unexpected hug, her small arms tight around my legs. “Thank you for coming,” she said in a muffled tone, loosing me as unexpectedly as she’d embraced me. “And for bringing Bao.”
“Of course, dear heart.” I bowed to her in the Bhodistani manner.
With a giggle, she returned the bow, and then sat back down on her little chair, arranging her hands in a contemplative mudra. “See! I remember.”
“So you do!” I clapped. “Very well done, your highness.”
The nursemaid Nathalie escorted me to the door, every line of her body expressing disapproval. “Do you imagine his majesty will be pleased to hear you’re teaching the child heathen prayers, and now setting strange foreigners to study with her?” she asked in a low voice.
“I imagine he’ll be pleased to know his royal daughter is learning about other cultures,” I said evenly. “Ancient, venerable cultures. And I would thank you not to speak of my husband as a strange foreigner.”
“It’s unsuitable!” Her face hardened. “He made a jest about reading texts from the Temple of Naamah in her very presence!”
“That was ill advised,” I agreed. “But it was a jest the child is too young to grasp. I’ll speak to him about it.”
It didn’t placate her. With a look of unmitigated disgust, she flung the nursery door open, startling a young page in House Courcel’s blue livery, who was lounging in the hallway.
“Lady Moirin!” He sketched a hasty bow as I exited the nursery. “Forgive me, I wasn’t expecting you so soon. His majesty wishes to see you.”
“By all means,” I agreed. Nathalie sniffed and closed the door firmly behind me. Eyeing the closed door, I hoped very much that the King’s summons boded good rather than ill.
King Daniel de la Courcel was in the Hall of Portraits. Approaching, I would have expected to find him contemplating Jehanne’s portrait, or the portrait of his first wife, Seraphine, whom he had also loved deeply. To my surprise, I was wrong. The page coughed discreetly to announce our arrival, and the King shifted slightly to acknowledge it. For several minutes, we waited in silence, not wishing to intrude on his reverie.
At length, he turned. “Thank you, Richard. You may go.” The page bowed and took his leave. “Do you know who she is?” his majesty asked me, indicating the portrait of a beautiful dark-haired woman with strong brows, candid blue eyes, and a mouth that promised firmness and compassion alike.
“Aye, my lord,” I said. Prince Thierry had taken me to see the Hall of Portraits on my first visit to the Palace. “Anielle de la Courcel. She would have been your grandmother, yes?”
“Yes.” Daniel touched the gilded frame with reverent fingers. “She was the last great ruler Terre d’Ange has known. Did you know they called her reign the Years of Joy?” His mouth twisted. “I wonder what they will call mine.”
I said nothing.
“You’re no courtier to feed me smooth lies,” he observed. “Nor a false friend to give me words of false comfort. I appreciate it.”
King Daniel raised one hand to silence me. “I meant my words. Moirin, there’s a matter I wish to discuss with you in private. Come, we’ll speak in my study.”
I inclined my head. “Of course, my lord.”
As I followed him, I couldn’t help but hesitate in front of Jehanne’s portrait, newly hung since last I had visited the Hall of Portraits. The King paused, his expression pained. “That was done the first year of our marriage,” he said quietly. “She sat for it in the costume she wore for the Longest Night.”
I gazed at it without speaking. It was beautiful, of course—it was Jehanne. The artist had done a good job of capturing the sparkle of her eyes, the translucence of her skin. Her pale hair was piled in a coronet, and she wore a high collar of delicate silver filigree from which diamonds spilled like droplets of ice, hundreds of scintillating points of light. Her wicked little smile looked like it belonged to a woman keeping a delightful secret—and knowing Jehanne, she probably was.
“It’s very beautiful,” I murmured.
Daniel turned away. “I know.”
His study was as I remembered it, a warm, masculine room with a great deal of polished wood. It was tidier, though. There were no papers cluttering his gleaming desk, as there had been in the Lord Minister’s study.
At his majesty’s urging, I took one of the high-backed chairs before the fireplace. He stirred the coals with a poker. “You paid a second visit to the princess. I thought you would stay longer.”
“She was at her studies,” I said. “Bao stayed. Unless you disapprove, he will learn to read alongside her.”
The King looked startled. “He will?”
“Unless you disapprove,” I repeated. “It is not that he cannot read,” I added. “The Ch’in use a very, very different form of writing.” The memory of my Ch’in princess Snow Tiger tracing characters on my bare skin with the end of her braid and laughing at my struggles came to me, and I cleared my throat. “It is actually quite difficult to learn.”
“Ah… yes.” Daniel blinked. “I recall seeing Master Lo Feng’s poetry. Lovely, but incomprehensible. Tell me, Moirin… how do you find my daughter?”
I met his gaze. “Much like her mother, my lord. Willful, with moods that switch like the wind. Charming, despite her temper. Clever and quick-witted.”
“Is that all?”
His gaze was steady. I drew a deep breath. “No, my lord. I find her lonely and neglected.”
“Desirée is a tempestuous child,” I said. “But she is a child nonetheless. If you are asking, your majesty, I think she would be better served by nursemaids more inclined to patience and tolerance of a child’s foibles.” I frowned in thought. “I am not sure, yet, about her tutor. That is one of the reasons I suggested Bao stay and study with her. He will be able to provide a better gauge.”
The King raised his brows. “Was that your true purpose in suggesting such an unorthodox arrangement, then?”
I shrugged. “It was a convenient confluence of purposes.”
“Do I overstep my bounds, my lord?” I asked him honestly.
“No more than I had hoped.” Daniel de la Courcel poked at the fire a second time, then settled into the chair opposite me, gazing into the shifting embers in the grate. “Moirin, do you know of the Montrèvan Oath?”
I shook my head. “No, my lord.”
He gave a faint smile. “It began when Anafiel Delaunay de Montrève… Have you heard of him?” I nodded. “Ah, good. When Anafiel Delaunay, for he was disinherited at the time, swore an oath to Rolande de la Courcel”—the King counted on his fingers—“my thrice-times great-grandfather… swore an oath to protect the interests of Rolande’s infant daughter Ysandre.”
“I know the story,” I murmured.
He nodded. “That oath was sworn in secret. But it formed the basis for a new tradition begun by Sidonie and Imriel de la Courcel, who openly invited their kinsman Barquiel L’Envers to be the oath-sworn protector of their firstborn child.”
“Your grandmother Anielle?”
“Even so.” Daniel de la Courcel sighed. “And if I read the histories rightly, it was meant to acknowledge the healing of a rift between House Courcel and House L’Envers. Since then, it has become something of a political prize to be won.”
“Oh?” I inquired.
The King leveled his gaze at me. “When Thierry was born, I appointed my kinsman Rogier Courcel, the Duc de Barthelme, to be the oath-sworn protector of my firstborn son. This charge, he accepted with grace and gratitude. He swore the Montrèvan Oath.”
“Do you doubt him?” I asked softly.
“No.” He leaned forward, hands braced on his knees. “Not his loyalty, no. I would never have appointed him Lord Minister if I did. But my daughter, Jehanne’s daughter…” His fingers clenched, bunching the fabric of his breeches. His voice broke. “She should have an oath-sworn protector who cares for her happiness. Someone like you, Moirin.”
I saw the picture he was painting.
“My lord!” I said in protest. “Oh, my lord! It is a great honor you offer, but I cannot promise to stay with her. My home lies in Alba, and I mean to return there in the spring, at least for a time. And…” I touched my chest. “There is the matter of my inconvenient destiny, which I do not think is finished with me. What if it calls me away from her side… as it did—as it did from her mother’s?”
King Daniel de la Courcel’s gaze was unwavering. “And yet it brought you back, too. I am not asking you to stay with her, Moirin. I am asking you to love her. Will you?”
I sighed. “How can I do otherwise?”
He leaned back in his chair. “Before you accept, hear me out in full. I fear this will not be a popular decision. You’re a descendant of House Courcel, but you’re a young woman without land or a title. You’re only half-D’Angeline—”
“And the other half Maghuin Dhonn,” I said wryly. “Believe me, my lord, I know the regard in which my mother’s folk are held.”
Daniel nodded. “Many will claim I chose you out of sentimental folly. It’s likely to cause a scandal, and I daresay you’ve had your fill of those. That’s why I make this offer in private. If you wish to decline, I will understand. No one else need ever know this conversation took place.”
“Are you sure it’s not sentimental folly?” I asked him.
“No.” His expression was candid. “Not entirely. But sentimental folly lies at the heart of all that is good in Terre d’Ange.”
“Love as thou wilt,” I murmured.
“Yes.” He fixed me with his unblinking gaze. “So, Moirin. Do you accept or decline?”
My diadh-anam flickered, but it gave no guidance, merely warned me that this was a decision of moment, and my own to make. “If I accept, does it grant me the authority to replace the head nursemaid?”
He gave me his faint smile. “And the tutor, too, if you deem her unsuitable.”
It occurred to me that I should talk to Bao before making such a grave decision; and then I thought twice, and knew what he would say. For all his teasing ways, Bao had a hero’s romantic heart. He wouldn’t hesitate. “I accept.”
The King inclined his head. “I will make the announcement, and see that a date is set for the ceremony.”
While I waited for the princess’ lesson to finish, I sought to distract myself in the Hall of Games, where I encountered a pair of young noblemen I had known years ago, members of Thierry’s circle of friends.
“Lady Moirin!” Marc de Thibideau greeted me with ebullience. “I’d heard you returned. Surely that means my luck’s changed.”
I smiled. “I’d thought to find you gone with Prince Thierry. How is your leg? Does it trouble you?”
“Only when it’s dire cold.” He rubbed his thigh. It had been badly broken years ago, and I’d used my gift to help Raphael heal it. “But I’m still grateful to you, my lady. If not for you, I’d have lost the leg for sure.”
The second nobleman slung an arm over Marc’s shoulder. “And his father’s still so shaken by nearly having a crippled son, he begged Marc not to join the expedition.” He gave his friend a squeeze. “You’re a good son, aren’t you?”
Marc flushed. “Are you calling me a coward?”
“Not for a minute.” Balthasar Shahrizai smiled lazily. “I’m praising your sense of filial duty. Me, I am an avowed coward. I never had the slightest interest in sailing with Thierry. Lady Moirin, welcome back. Come, join us at the dicing table. As I recall, you used to enjoy a friendly game of chance.”
“I’ve no coin on me,” I protested.
“You’re wearing a queen’s ransom in gold.” He pointed at the bangles adorning my wrists. “Wager one of those.”
I opened my mouth to decline, and then thought in an odd way it would be a fitting tribute to my memories of Jehanne. “All right, I will.”
For the better part of an hour, I wagered at the dicing table, retaining possession of all my bangles and earning a small purse of coin in the bargain. Marc was an easy companion. Balthasar wasn’t, but his barbed wit and the predatory light behind his eyes no longer disconcerted me as they had long ago. Gods knew, I’d faced worse.
All in all, it was a pleasant enough way to while away an hour. I realized I’d lost track of time when I sensed Bao’s diadh-anam moving toward me, navigating the maze of the Palace to find me in the Hall of Games.
“Ah.” Balthasar gazed intently across the chamber. “That must be the infamous Ch’in husband.”
I glanced at Bao. “Infamous, is he?”
“Well, I confess myself confused,” Balthasar said. “Is he an ensorceled prince, or a humble physician’s assistant? I’ve heard different accounts.”
I laughed. “Ask him yourself.”
He looked under his lashes at me. “Oh, to be sure, I’ll ask him something.”
When Bao reached us, I made the introductions.
“I think… I think I remember you,” Marc de Thibideau said uncertainly. “The day that Moirin healed my leg… you were there, you and that elderly Ch’in physician that Raphael de Mereliot thought of so highly.” He gestured at the bamboo staff strapped across Bao’s back. “You brought a cauldron of vile soup dangling from that thing, didn’t you?”
“Bone soup,” Bao agreed. “Very healthful.”
Balthasar Shahrizai cocked his head, myriad blue-black braids rustling. “That’s a very long staff. Do you know how to use it?”
Bao smiled serenely at him. “Do you want to find out?”
Balthasar laughed. “I might!”
“You do realize he’s not talking about fighting?” I asked Bao.
“Yes, Moirin. I know.” He gave me an amused sidelong look. “I did not think to find you here gambling. Did I not hear that his majesty the King sent for you?”
“He did.” I fiddled with my bangles.
“Ah.” Bao misread my unease. “We will speak of it later.”
“No. No, no, it’s all right.” I took a deep breath, preparing to deliver the news. Everyone in the City of Elua would learn of it soon enough, and I had to start facing it somewhere. It might as well be here. “King Daniel offered me a very great honor,” I said, striving for the dignity the announcement deserved. “He asked me to stand as the oath-sworn protector of his daughter, Desirée.”
Bao’s dark eyes gleamed. “You said yes, didn’t you?”
“He did what?” Marc de Thibideau’s voice cracked on the word. “Name of Elua! You can’t be serious.”
“Why ever not?” Balthasar inquired lightly.
Marc gave him a startled look. “Because… because… Gods, man!” He gestured at me. “Everything!”
“Ah, yes.” Balthasar tapped one elegant forefinger against his lower lip. “Because one of her ancestors did somewhat terrible, once. Therefore, all of his descendants should be held in suspicion, eh?”
Once again, Marc flushed—more deeply this time. “We’re not speaking of House Shahrizai, Balthasar!”
“No.” The other settled a surprisingly grave gaze on me. “We are speaking of Moirin mac Fainche of the Maghuin Dhonn, whose folk have been reviled worse than House Shahrizai for the past hundred years and more. And yet, as I do recall, one of her first public acts in Terre d’Ange involved saving a man’s life. Lord Luchese, was it not?” he asked me.
I nodded. “I believe so. I did not know the fellow.”
“Then there was your leg, if I am not mistaken, Marc,” Balthasar continued in a judicious tone. “And after that… oh! There was the hunting party. You weren’t there for that, were you?”
“What hunting party?” Marc de Thibideau demanded.
Balthasar Shahrizai smiled, enjoying himself. “The one where Thierry was thrown from his horse and nearly bitten by a viper. So he would have been, if Moirin had not lifted her bow, the rustic ill-hewn bow we had all mocked, and pinned the deadly creature to earth with a single well-placed arrow.” He mimed the act, hissing between his teeth. “Just like that!”
“I had not heard that story,” Bao commented.
“Oh…” I shrugged. “Viper bites are not always fatal.”
“Forgive me, my lady,” Marc said to me. “I don’t mean to insult you. It’s just that the role is a significant one, meant to be awarded to a peer of the realm capable of wielding political influence at need.”
“Moirin has the King’s favor,” Balthasar observed. “You don’t consider that political influence?”
Their argument was beginning to draw a crowd, and the process of rumor and hearsay was already under way. I wished I’d kept my mouth shut.
“No.” Marc de Thibideau lowered his voice. “No, I don’t, and you know why! He’s ceded the right to political power. He’s a figurehead, nothing more.”
Balthasar glanced around. “You don’t want to have this conversation here, Marc.”
“You’re right, I don’t.” He swept his stake from the table, shoving the coins in a purse. “In fact, I wish I weren’t having it at all.” He shot me an apologetic look. “Again, it’s nothing personal, Moirin. It’s just that there’s a great deal you don’t understand about politics.”
Balthasar watched him go. “He really should have disobeyed his father and sailed with Prince Thierry,” he said in a mild tone. “He’s been out of sorts ever since. Lady Moirin, Messire Bao, would you care to walk with me in the garden? I’d have a further word with you if you’re willing.”
Although I’d never been particularly fond of Balthasar Shahrizai, his unexpected support had surprised me. I glanced at Bao, who nodded. “Yes, of course.”
It was chilly enough outdoors that no one else was taking in the Palace gardens. The gnarled branches of trees in the decorative orchard were barren of leaves, the trees dreaming of spring to come. Here and there were banks of late-blooming autumn flowers like chrysanthemums, but most of the flowerbeds were covered with mulch. Even the greensward looked listless. Only the evergreens were bright and lively, the brisk sap crackling in their veins; the tall cypresses standing like sentinels in a line, the pine trees shaped like umbrellas.
We strolled along a promenade dotted here and there with marble benches meant for enjoying the view.
“D’Angelines do love a scandal,” Balthasar said presently. “And you do seem to enjoy providing them, Moirin.”
“The King is aware that his choice will be controversial,” I said. “He reckoned it worth the risk.”
“As did you?”
“She’s Jehanne’s daughter,” I said simply.
He blew on his fingers to warm them. “Beastly cold! So you and his majesty made a choice of the heart rather than the head.”
“Is that not the D’Angeline way?” Bao inquired with deceptive innocence.
Balthasar gave him an astute glance. “Ideally, yes. In practice, love and politics often make bad bedfellows.”
“There have been great political love-matches in the history of Terre d’Ange,” I said.
He nodded. “So there have. And each and every one of them has been accompanied by controversy. If you would hear my counsel, I will tell you this. Many members of the Great Houses will be angered by this appointment, having hoped the honor would fall to one of their own.”
“I am not a fool, my lord,” I said dryly. “The Lord Minister hinted at as much yesterday.”
“So you know your potential enemies,” Balthasar said shrewdly. “But do you know who your potential allies are?”
I shook my head. “To be sure, I didn’t expect you to be one.”
At that, he laughed. “We Shahrizai often surprise! From time to time, it is in a good way.”
“I like this fellow,” Bao remarked to me.
“You would,” I commented.
Balthasar smiled sideways at both of us. “The priesthoods,” he said, ticking off the point on his fingers. “And by extension, the Servants of Naamah. They will always err on the side of love. If you gain their support, it will fire the imagination of the commonfolk, who will raise their voices on your behalf. Your father’s a Priest of Naamah, that will help. Have you any ties to the Night Court?”
“No—” I remembered Lianne Tremaine’s calling card. “Ah, well. Mayhap.”
“Eglantine House,” Bao supplied helpfully.
“Good, very good.” Balthasar blew on his fingers again, then shivered and wrapped his fur-lined cloak around him. “Never underestimate the power of a poet, even a disgraced one. After all, Anafiel Delaunay’s verses were banned once upon a time. Use whatever resources are available to you, Moirin.”
“Why are you aiding me?” I asked him.
“I’m not sure,” he said in a thoughtful manner. “Except that we do share one thing in common.”
“Yes.” He touched my cheek briefly with cold, cold fingertips. “I wish you luck, Moirin.”
With that, he took his leave of us.
“So!” Bao put his arm over my shoulders and breathed the Breath of Embers Glowing, generating heat throughout his body. Fire had always been the element he favored most. I leaned in to his strength and warmth. “Eglantine House?”
“Aye,” I agreed. “Eglantine House.”
Excerpted from Naamah's Blessing by Carey, Jacqueline Copyright © 2011 by Carey, Jacqueline. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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