At his side, his sons looked appropriately somber. Pretty golden-haired Tristan the Sun Prince was a young man now, taller and broader than the stripling I remembered. The younger lad, Aristide, took after his father. Him, I had met too briefly to form an opinion.
Duc Rogier wore a modest gold circlet with low points around his dark hair, the metal silvery in the twilight. It wasn’t quite a crown, but it was a definitive step in the direction of one. The Regent of Terre d’Ange thought to solidify his hold on the throne today.
In my mind’s eye, I saw Cusi’s blood spilling over the stairs once more, and Raphael de Mereliot reaching for the Sapa Inca’s crown.
My resolve hardened once more. I would have the full measure of House Barthelme’s overreaching ambition exposed. My father would forgive me the temporary pain our ruse caused him.
I ducked belowdeck where Bao and Thierry were awaiting me, and released the twilight. “The Duc brought his sons and a contingent of guards,” I reported. “There’s no sign of the rest of the royal household.”
“Balthasar knows what to do.” Thierry’s face was pale, but there was a fierce light in his eyes. “Are you ready?”
“Aye.” I hesitated. “My father is there.”
Thierry paled further, thinking of how his own father had taken the news. “You don’t think he would—”
“No,” Bao said firmly. “Brother Phanuel is not one to succumb to grief in such a manner. And the truth will soon be out.”
I nodded. “Let’s be done with it.”
And so I summoned the twilight once more, wrapping Bao and Thierry in its cloak. Thierry drew a soft breath. “It’s beautiful,” he murmured. “I never realized.” He smiled at me. “I am pleased to have a chance to see the world through your eyes, Moirin. Somehow, I feel I understand you better for it.”
It made me feel better, too. A kind word at the right time can be bracing; and I thought once more that Thierry had the makings of a good ruler.
Abovedeck, Rousse’s sailors worked to secure the final moorings and lower the gangplank. Balthasar had assembled his delegation, which consisted of a half-dozen men from our expedition as well as Eyahue and Temilotzin, representatives of Emperor Achcuatli. They had been careful to leave room for us, and we made our way to Balthasar’s side.
“He will hear you if you will it,” I reminded Thierry.
“Balthasar,” he whispered. “We are ready.”
Balthasar lifted one finger on his right hand, our agreed-upon sign to indicate that he’d heard.
It felt strange all over again to relive a familiar moment from the other side. I’d held Desirée’s hand in mine as we watched Denis de Toluard walk slowly down the gangplank to deliver his terrible news. Now I walked it myself, unseen by the hundreds of watching eyes. I was glad Desirée wasn’t there. I wasn’t sure I could have borne it.
Duc Rogier wore a grave expression as he watched the delegation approach. Already, there were folk keening with grief in the crowd behind him, expecting to hear the sorrowful news a second time.
Upon reaching the Regent, Balthasar Shahrizai bowed, precise and correct. “Your excellence,” he said. “We have returned from Terra Nova.”
The Duc inclined his not-quite-crowned head. “I beseech you, my lord Shahrizai, to deliver your news.”
“My news pertains to House Courcel,” Balthasar said in a clear, carrying voice. “I would deliver it to the Dauphine myself. No ears should hear it before hers.”
It wasn’t what Rogier de Barthelme had expected to hear, and it took him aback, his mask of composure slipping as he blinked in surprise. “You cannot… she’s a child, my lord!” Regrouping, he took on a tone of calm reason. “By your reticence, I trust you have not come to deliver happy news. Desirée should never have been allowed to hear word of her brother’s death in such a public manner the first time. Let those of us who know and care for her deliver it to her now, and spare her the brunt of it.”
“I will tell her myself,” Tristan added with dignity. “She is my betrothed, you know.”
Balthasar fixed him with an unreadable stare. “Yes. I know.”
The lad flushed as though he’d been slapped, and for a few seconds, his mouth took on a petulant cast. His younger brother looked uncomfortable, and I liked him better for it.
“Desirée de la Courcel is the heir to the throne,” Balthasar said simply. “I will deliver my news to her, or not at all.” Pausing, he indicated Eyahue and Temilotzin. “As you can see, our mission was not entirely unsuccessful. Relations with the Nahuatl Empire have been established. Despite her tender years, a future monarch must be prepared to contend with such news. I note you have brought your own sons here today.”
The tentative keening stopped, giving way to murmurs of curiosity and uncertainty. I avoided looking in the direction of my father.
Duc Rogier de Barthelme frowned. “My sons are young men, not little girls. It is an unnecessary cruelty.”
Balthasar declined to reply and waited him out with implacable patience, the steely core of his will on full display.
“As you will, my lord,” the Duc said at length, his voice hard. “She is a fragile child. On your head be her grief.”
With a tight smile, Balthasar bowed. “I accept it.”
We proceeded on foot through the streets of the City of Elua, following the royal carriage and its attendant guards. Hundreds upon hundreds of D’Angeline citizens trailed in our wake, the crowd growing with every block, amassing outside the Palace and waiting there as we passed beneath its doors.
Inside the Palace walls, Duc Rogier issued several crisp commands. Servants scuttled in various directions to carry out his orders.
“He acts as though he rules here, does he not?” Thierry murmured to me.
“He does,” I said. “For now.”
Rumors and gossip ran down the marble corridors, spreading throughout the labyrinthine Palace. By the time we arrived at the throne-room, a number of lords and ladies were demanding to attend the audience, several of them members of Parliament. With obvious reluctance, the Duc acceded to their demands.
We assembled in the throne-room, and waited. The throne sat empty. Rogier de Barthelme had more sense than to lay claim to it in this moment.
The cool and calculating Duchese Claudine de Barthelme arrived to take her place at the side of her husband and sons. She, too, wore a modest gold circlet atop her golden hair, hers adorned with pearls. I wondered if she was afraid her treasonous gambit with Edouard Durel had been uncovered. If she was, it didn’t show. Mayhap she assumed he had failed to carry out her orders. No fear showed on the lad Tristan’s face, either; but I didn’t think he knew enough to be afraid yet. He was young, and life had dealt him no grievous setbacks, lending him confidence in the machinations to which he had been a party.
That was about to change.
I breathed the Five Styles, holding the twilight in place, keeping Bao and Thierry and me unseen.
At last, Desirée arrived. Her eyes were downcast and her gait tentative. Sister Gemma, the Eisandine priestess whom I had appointed to serve as her nursemaid, was nowhere in sight. Instead, it was Desirée’s grandmother who accompanied the child in her capacity as the Royal Governess; the Comtesse de Maillet, her mouth pinched and triumphant.
Beside me, Thierry drew a sharp breath. “I remember her!”
“Jehanne’s mother,” I murmured. “I told you as much.”
“You did,” he said. “But until I saw her, I’d forgotten how much Jehanne despised the woman.”
Bao glowered, dark shadows arising around him. “I suspect it was with reason.”
I gazed at Desirée, my heart aching. At six years of age, she was a girl now. She was thin and wan, all her mother’s scintillating beauty faded to a pallid colorlessness. The Comtesse de Maillet steered her charge alongside her betrothed, Tristan de Barthelme. Desirée went willingly enough, but she kept her hands clasped firmly before her, refusing to take his hand in hers.
There was a sharp, whispered exchange. Desirée shook her head stubbornly, clinging to whatever it was she held clutched tight in her hands.
“Your highness!” Claudine de Barthelme addressed her. A hint of impatience surfaced in her tone, quickly smoothed away. “This is a matter of state, my dear. Toys are to be left in the nursery. You know better.”
Desirée lifted her head, a spark of defiance in her eyes. “It’s not a toy! Moirin said—”
Claudine interrupted her. “I could not possibly care less what that delusional half-breed of a bear-witch said, and it is long past time you ceased to care, too,” she spat under her breath. “She did you no favors filling your head with fanciful tales of magic and dragons. Tristan, will you please talk sense to the child?”
“Come, ducky,” he said in a coaxing tone, holding out one hand. “Give me the toy, and take my hand.”
There was a mutinous set to her chin. “It’s not a toy!”
He glanced at his mother. “You don’t want to make a scene, do you, sweetheart? Come, give it over.”
Desirée shook her head again. “No!”
Tristan stooped, lowering his voice. “Don’t act the baby!” he hissed, prying ruthlessly at her hands. “Give it to me, now!”
A crystal bottle fell to the marble floor and shattered, a few drops of perfume scattered amidst the gleaming shards. An intoxicating scent, heady and ephemeral, rose to fill the throne-room.
“It was my mother’s,” Desirée whispered, tears filling her eyes. “Moirin gave it to me.”
I’d given it to her that she might remember that she was loved—by her mother and by me. I’d told her to keep it safe, that its scent might comfort her when she was feeling frightened and lonely. Like now.
“Thierry, please,” I murmured. “Haven’t you seen enough?”
“Wait,” he said to me. “Just a little longer.” He repeated the word to Balthasar, willing him to hear. “Wait.”
“Enough.” Duc Rogier took command of the proceedings, his voice firm. “Your highness, you may remember Lord Balthasar Shahrizai, who led the second expedition to Terra Nova. And I fear he brings unhappy tidings.” A note of disapproval edged into his voice. “Tidings he insisted you hear yourself, tidings that concern the sad fate of Moirin mac Fainche, and I suspect a number of others, too.” Gazing around the throne-room, he squared his shoulders. “My lords and ladies, I beg you to remember I advised against this.”
Murmurs of agreement ran throughout the throne-room.
“Is it true?” Desirée lifted her gaze to meet Balthasar’s, tears spilling over her pale cheeks. “Moirin is dead? And Bao, too?”
He hesitated, glancing around.
“Go ahead, my lord Shahrizai.” Duc Rogier fixed him with a stony look. “You insisted on this moment. Break the child’s heart.”
“Now, Balthasar!” Thierry called from the twilight.
Balthasar Shahrizai lifted one finger in acknowledgment. “No, your highness,” he said with improbable gentleness, sinking to one knee before the girl. “It’s not true at all. And I am so very, very happy to have the honor of telling you so.”
The blood drained from Desirée’s face. “They’re not—?”
He shook his head. “No.”
I should have waited for Prince Thierry’s command, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t wait a second longer. Taking a deep breath, I released the twilight and it fled in a rush, unveiling all three of us.
It was without a doubt one of the most satisfying moments of my life.
In the stunned silence that followed our appearance, Desirée stared at us, her face as white as a sheet. And then all at once, the color rushed back into it, flushing her cheeks with a healthy pink. “Moirin?” she whispered.
“Aye, dear heart.” My voice shook a little. “I’m so very sorry to have frightened you. I didn’t mean to.”
With a stifled cry, Desirée flung herself toward me, shards of crystal crunching beneath her slippered feet. I stooped and caught her up, and she wound her thin arms around my neck, clinging to me, her entire body shaking with sobs. Over the top of her head, I gazed at the assembled representatives of House Barthelme.
Like almost everyone in the room, Duc Rogier looked thunderstruck. Pretty, golden-haired Tristan looked stunned in a different way, as though he were watching a play that had taken an unscripted turn, a turn he couldn’t yet fathom, the first inkling that his plans had gone very, very awry only beginning to manifest. Aristide, the younger lad, wore an alert look, as though his life had finally become interesting.
And now, although she hid it well, Claudine de Barthelme was afraid.
Before the rush of gossip and speculation could fill the silence, Prince Thierry raised one hand. “My lords and ladies, I apologize for the deception. My kinswoman Moirin was concerned that the young Dauphine was treated unkindly in my absence.” He leveled a flat stare at the Regent and his family. “If this is how you treat my sister in a public audience, I suspect Moirin’s fears were well founded.”
“Your highness…” The Duc’s throat worked as he searched for words, spreading his hands in an impotent plea. “We are overjoyed to see you safe! I swear to you, no one harmed the child.”
“One need not strike a child to harm her,” Thierry said in an implacable tone. “But we will speak more of this later. Guards!” He beckoned sharply to the royal guardsmen. “Take the Duchese de Barthelme and her eldest son into custody.” When they hesitated, overwhelmed and unsure, he raised his voice. “Now!”