6,402
24.04.2019

“You did, and I am in accord.” Thierry de la Courcel glanced around at our assembled company. “I do not blame any man here for harboring fears and doubts. We set forth on a journey of outlandish risk. If I had the choice to make over…” His voice trailed off briefly. “Let me say that I would never have caused my father such anguish. And you, my rescuers!” His voice grew stronger. “I would never have said my life was worth the cost of so many lost in the effort to save it. And yet, here on the far side of the world, we have witnessed wonders. Great and terrible wonders, beyond comprehending.”

I found myself nodding in agreement.

Thierry cleared his throat. “Since Captain Rousse has held his hand, it falls to the court of law to pass judgment on this man. For now, I would see the slate wiped clean ere we set sail. Let there be no further recriminations. What is done, is done. We are all victims of our own ambitions, our own follies, our own weaknesses. Let us set them aside, and venture forth joined in one single goal. Let us return to Terre d’Ange and reclaim her throne!”

More cheers arose, and this time, there was a sound of unison in them. Thierry stooped, taking Edouard Durel’s chin in his hand.

“Are you prepared to help convey me home, sailor?” he asked.

Still on his knees, the fellow lifted his damp gaze, his eyes shining with tears and gratitude. “Aye, your highness!”

“Good.” Thierry let him go. “Let’s be about it, then.”

SEVENTY-NINE

The same day, the Naamah’s Dove set sail.

Her hold was laden with trade goods: nuts and kernels and seedlings from Tawantinsuyo and the Nahuatl Empire alike. Samples of maize and a dozen different varieties of potatoes. Tomati plants reckoned in error to be deadly, hot peppers that seared the tongue. Sack upon sack of chocolatl beans, and the fragrant seed-pods called tlilxochitl, or “black flower.” A few lengths of vicuña wool, fine-spun, light and airy.

Feathers; glimmering feathers, wrought into capes and tapestries.

Gold.

It was true, Terra Nova was rich in gold. Our ship did not quite wallow beneath its weight, but we carried a great deal of it, samples of Nahuatl workmanship along with raw, unprocessed ore.

I stood in the stern of the ship with Bao and Eyahue and Temilotzin, watching the shores of Terra Nova fall away behind us and the vast sea open up to swallow us, rendering us infinitesimal.

“It’s big,” Temilotzin said in a subdued voice. “Very, very big.”

“No bigger than your courage,” I assured him. “Do not fear, Captain Rousse will see us to safety.”

Temilotzin glanced at me out of the corner of his eye. “I hope you are right, lady.”

I did, too.

Days, weeks, months… it is hard to measure the passage of time on a journey. What matters is the distance between the starting point and the destination. League by league, wave by wave, we whittled it down, while Captain Rousse studied the skies and took complicated measurements with his instruments, marking our progress on his charts.

I wondered how it was that the folk of Terra Nova, who were cunning engineers, had never ventured out to sea. Of a surety, they were comfortable on lakes and rivers. Mayhap it was because the vastness was so very daunting that unlike our explorers, they had no cause to suspect there was aught on the far side of the enormous oceans. And I wondered, too, how much that would change in ages to come.

I hoped that we might learn from one another, sharing the best our disparate cultures had to offer.

I hoped that dreams might outweigh ambitions.

Prince Thierry was introspective on the journey, and I daresay many of the same matters occupied his thoughts—not to mention the conflict to come. From time to time, he summoned me to speak with him, plying me for details of House Barthelme’s machinations. I told him everything I knew, including my own futile efforts to thwart them, and how it had divided the realm.

“I’m not surprised,” he said. “Or rather, I’m surprised you found as many adherents as you did.”

“Because I was born to the Maghuin Dhonn?” I asked.

“That, and the chaos and scandal you left in your wake.” Thierry smiled wryly. “For all your uncanny ways, you were so young and naïve! I thought you were a fool for letting Raphael, and then Jehanne, turn your head.”

“You were right about Raphael,” I said. “Not Jehanne.”

“No, I suppose not,” he mused. “She changed, you know. Even after you left. It wasn’t just a matter of being more pleasant to those around her. I do believe she began to take her role as Queen seriously.” His face took on its faraway look. “I should have known how deeply her death wounded my father.”

“You couldn’t have known how deep the wound cut,” I murmured. “It is not the sort of thing a parent shares with a child.”

Returning from the distance, Thierry glanced at me. “What’s she like? My sister, Desirée. She was scarce more than a babe when I left.”

“High-spirited and willful, and filled with a yearning for love.” I smiled with sorrow. “Or at least she was when I left. She’s the image of Jehanne, and she has her mother’s temper. They’ll seek to use it against her, to convince her that she’s unlovable because of it. That she bears a burden of guilt for every loss House Courcel has suffered. She’s vulnerable to it.”

“You seem very sure of this,” he said.

I nodded. “I am.”

Thierry propped his arms on the ship’s railing, gazing out at the endless sea. “I’d like to see it for myself,” he said. “I’d like to see House Barthelme tip their hand before I reveal mine. If we arrive covered in glory, they’ll have time to prepare their lies, and if my sister was mistreated, it will be a child’s word against theirs.”

“Denis de Toluard managed to keep word of your presumed death silent until he reached the City of Elua,” I said. “He honored his promise to you, that your father might hear it firsthand and not through cruel rumor. It can be done.”

“I want somewhat more.” Thierry gave me another glance. “I want to see for myself how they treat Desirée in my absence without allowing them the chance to dissemble. Your magic could accomplish that, couldn’t it?”

I gazed at him, seeing the lines of maturity etched on his face, lending it a strength of purpose he’d never had before. “You’d have them believe you dead?”

“I would.” His voice was grim.

I looked away. “Aye, I can conceal us in the twilight. Beneath its cloak, you could walk unseen into the Palace itself. But it will cause a great deal of unnecessary pain, especially to the child.”

“Only for a short time.” Reaching out, Thierry covered my hand with his on the railing. “If I can see the damage that was done to her, I will know better how to undo it,” he said, his tone turning gentle. “Moirin, I do not think you would have become Desirée’s oath-sworn protector if you had not come to love her. I hear it in your voice when you speak of her. I would wish to do the same, and give her the love for which she yearns.”

“Do you believe you can?” I asked him, summoning an uncertain smile. “You and Jehanne had a… prickly relationship.”

Thierry laughed. “So we did, for many reasons. But that had changed, too. I came to accept that in her own way, she did love my father—and he her. She made him happy, and he was seldom a happy man.” His expression sobered. “I told you, I will not repeat his mistakes, Moirin. We are orphans alike, my sister and I. I will learn to love her.”

I sighed. “I will do as you ask.”

He squeezed my hand. “Thank you.” He smiled ruefully. “I suspect I could spend the rest of my life thanking you, and it would not begin to be enough.”

I shook my head. “If I had not let Raphael de Mereliot turn my head all those years ago, none of this would have happened.”

Thierry gazed at the skyline. “We would have starved in the jungle without Raphael and his bedamned ants. They foraged for us. It’s why none of us dared raise a hand against him on the journey, why we could not turn back.”

“I know,” I said.

“I gave up hope,” he said, more to himself than me. “I’ll not let that happen again, ever. The memory of Balthasar Shahrizai wielding a digging-stick in the far reaches of Terra Nova will suffice to remind me that anything is possible.”

It made me laugh. “Balthasar, and not me?”

Thierry gave me a quick, fond glance. “For all your youth and naivete, you did always have an air of destiny about you, Moirin. I must confess, your presence did not surprise me as much as Balthasar’s.” He squeezed my hand again. “Do you remember, a long time ago, I said you and I had become family in a very odd manner?”

“I remember.”

It had been on the Longest Night when Thierry had served as my escort, clad in the attire of a Cassiline Brother.

My lady Jehanne had worn the costume of the Snow Queen. I remembered the taste of joie lingering on her lips, her blue-grey eyes sparkling at me with delight. It was the same costume she had worn when she said farewell to me in my final dream, the satin edge of her ermine-trimmed cape brushing the freshly turned soil between the tall rows of maize swaying overhead, waving their tassels.

My eyes stung.

Staring at the surging waves once more, Thierry did not notice. “I’m glad,” he said. “I’m glad I named you so.”

Blinking away tears, I turned my hand beneath his on the railing, giving it an answering squeeze. “Do you forget, my lord?” I asked him lightly. “I am a descendant of House Courcel by way of Alais the Wise. You showed me her likeness in the Hall of Portraits when first we met. We were always kin, you and I.”

“Forgive me, Moirin. I did forget.” Thierry gave me a self-deprecating smile, and there was a hint of his old easygoing charm in it. “But kin is not the same as family.” Raising my hand to his lips, he kissed it. “Rogier Courcel, Duc de Barthelme, is kin to me. You are family.”

The ship bobbed beneath us, riding the waves. Up a crest, down a trough. Every inch carried us closer to home.

“And you,” I whispered to Thierry. “And you. And the gods willing we make safe harbor, Desirée, too.”

EIGHTY

After months at sea, we gained the harbor of Pellasus and began making our way up the Aviline River.

It felt strange knowing we were retracing the voyage poor, doomed Denis de Toluard had taken, practicing his deceit in reverse. He had withheld the knowledge of Thierry de la Courcel’s death from Terre d’Ange.

We withheld the knowledge of his survival.

The crew of the Naamah’s Dove and the men of our company obeyed unquestioning, united in common accord. No one gossiped, no one dropped so much as a hint of a rumor.

Of course, their very silence engendered rumors, and a bow-wave of gossip raced ahead of us.

Eyahue and Temilotzin strolled the decks clad in Nahuatl finery, fanning the flames of rumor. I thought they both rather relished the task, especially our reprehensible old pochteca. Someone had told them tales of the Night Court that had Eyahue cackling in anticipatory glee, and the Jaguar Knight slapping his thighs and laughing uproariously at the exploits the former had planned.

I didn’t begrudge them, and I hoped they would find a warm welcome among the Thirteen Houses.

Whenever we approached a river port city, Bao and Thierry and I remained belowdeck, hidden from sight. I had argued against including Bao in the deception. Knowing Desirée’s fondness for him, I feared it would pain her twice over to believe that both Bao and I had perished in a futile effort to rescue her brother. But Bao had refused.

“I cannot look that child in the eye and lie to her, letting her believe you are gone, Moirin,” he said. “Do not ask it of me. I have done one hard thing too many on this journey.”

And so I did not press him.

As the leader of the expedition that had set out to find Prince Thierry, Balthasar Shahrizai was to be in charge of the delegation that would meet with the Regent, and I had every confidence in his ability to handle the situation. It was odd to think how I had once rather disliked him, reckoning him nothing more than an idle courtier with a sharp tongue and an even sharper-edged gift. Now I knew that there was a steely core of courage and loyalty beneath his facile surface, and his barbed wit concealed clear-sighted judgment and a generous and compassionate heart. I would gladly trust him with my life.

It was a warm spring day with a light drizzle falling when we at last reached the City of Elua and docked at the quay. Summoning the twilight, I ventured abovedeck and saw that a considerable crowd awaited us, keeping a respectful distance from the official reception party, which consisted of Duc Rogier de Barthelme, his sons Tristan and Aristide, and a score of royal guardsmen.

I caught sight of my father among the throng of ordinary citizens, his crimson robes an unrecognizable color in the twilight, his normally serene face strained with worry—and the sight nearly startled me into losing my grip on my magic.

Ah, gods! Of course he would be there. Caught up in my concern for Desirée, I hadn’t even thought of it.

For a moment, my resolve wavered. Mayhap this was nothing but a cruel prank.

I made myself look at Duc Rogier instead. His face was calm and composed. He had heard the rumors, and he was anticipating the news of our failure. No doubt he had a speech of earnest condolences already prepared, spiced with just a dash of sanctimoniousness for having been right all along about the folly of our mission. I could almost see him rehearsing it in his thoughts.