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24.04.2019

There were shadows that would ever be with us.

If it seemed a lifetime ago that we had first taken up residence in the Shahrizai domicile, as far as the impeccable household staff was concerned, it might have been yesterday. After all the emotion and high drama, I was grateful for the steward Guillaume Norbert’s calm, dignified greeting.

“Lady Moirin, Messire Bao.” He proffered a deep bow, only a hint of a gleam in his eye betraying his pride and gladness at our return. “Welcome home.”

I summoned a weary smile. “My thanks, Messire Norbert.”

Home.

It had become true; not the whole truth, but true nonetheless. I was Naamah’s child as surely as I was a child of the Maghuin Dhonn, and the City of Elua was home to me. A part of my heart would always abide here. Here in the city where I had found my lovely father, where I had committed the worst of my youthful folly, and stumbled unwittingly through my first steps toward patience and wisdom, finding the beginnings of the profound grace that existed in Naamah’s blessing.

A faint sigh escaped me.

Bao touched my arm. “Moirin?”

“Aye,” I said to him. “All’s well. I’m bone-tired, that’s all. It’s been a long, long journey.”

His mouth quirked. “You have a considerable gift for understatement, my wife. But I think we can rest now. At least until tomorrow,” he added.

Bao was right.

Bathed and fed and pampered by the discreet household staff, both of us fell into the great bed with its crisp, clean linens scented with lavender-water and slept like the dead for long hours.

We awoke restored and refreshed to the dawn of a new era in Terre d’Ange. There were dozens of calling cards for us, as well as a summons from Prince Thierry to an audience in the Salon of Eisheth’s Harp, and a message from my father that he would meet us there.

We went early to the Palace that we might pay a visit to Desirée, whom we found in high spirits.

“My brother Thierry came to visit me before I went to sleep last night!” she announced, her eyes wide with wonder and disbelief. “He sang me a song he said his own mother used to sing to him at night.” A furtive shadow crossed her face. “You don’t think that’s too babyish, do you?”

I hugged her. “No, dear heart. Not at all.”

“Song and music are sacred to Eisheth, young highness.” Sister Gemma, restored to her position, offered the comment in a tranquil, reassuring tone, folding her hands in the sleeves of her flowing sea-blue robes. “There is never, ever any shame in taking comfort in them. To accept the gifts of the gods is to honor them.”

Desirée cast a grateful look at her. “That’s what I thought. His mother died, too, you know.”

“I know,” I murmured.

“But now you and your brother have found each other at last,” Bao added. “And you are a family once more.”

She cocked her silver-gilt head at him. “When will you start a family, Bao? You and Moirin? I would so like to have little baby cousins with funny eyes like yours.”

Bao raised his brows at me.

“Soon,” I said.

Sister Gemma cleared her throat. “In fact, I took the liberty of bringing a gift for you, Lady Moirin.” Reaching into the folds of her sleeve, she withdrew a slender wax taper. “If you would care to make the invocation at the Temple of Eisheth here in the city, or to visit the Sanctuary of the Womb, of course, we would be delighted.” Her gaze was soft and gentle. “But it matters only that you invoke Eisheth with a willing heart, wherever you may be, and light a candle to her. This one was wrought of wax gathered from our own beehives, and it carries our blessings.”

I took it from her. The beeswax taper held the warmth of her body, and it smelled sweet and good, holding all the promises of hearth and home.

“Thank you,” I whispered.

Eisheth’s priestess inclined her head, her blue eyes glimmering. “When the time is right, you will know.”

A short while later, we took our leave to answer Thierry’s summons. There were a good many people crowded into the Salon of Eisheth’s Harp, peers and comrades and loved ones alike, all anxious to hear the tale told, even those who had lived through it. And we learned that Sister Gemma was not the only member of the royal household to be restored to her position.

“My Lady Moirin, Messire Bao.” Balthasar Shahrizai slung his arms around us both with casual affection. “Pray tell, have you met the new King’s Poet, formerly the old King’s Poet? Of course, Thierry’s not been coronated yet, but that’s only a formality.”

“Moirin.” Lianne Tremaine’s voice was unsteady. Tears shone in her amber eyes. “It seems there’s an epic tale to be told here. I should have found the courage to go with you after all, shouldn’t I?”

I shook my head. “No, my lady poetess. ’Tis better, far better that you did not. He would have killed you, too.”

Her gaze sharpened. “He?”

“Raphael,” I said simply.

“Raphael de Mereliot?” She blinked. “Do you jest?”

“No,” I said. “Not at all, I fear.” Before I could begin to explain, the royal steward called the audience to order, and an attendant came to escort us to be seated in a semicircle of ornate padded chairs facing the crowd. There were shuffling and scraping sounds as everyone else took a seat, and then an expectant hush.

Prince Thierry surveyed the room. “There are many backdrops to this tale,” he began. “One of which bears citing. Although my father did his best to keep the incident quiet, rumors abounded nonetheless. Many of you will remember the scandal surrounding the Circle of Shalomon some seven years gone by.”

Lianne Tremaine paled. “Focalor?” she whispered to me.

I nodded.

“You will note that I have reinstated Mademoiselle Lianne Tremaine to the post from which she was dismissed after that incident,” Thierry continued. “After what I have witnessed, and after the suffering my own youthful ambition engendered, I think it is only fitting that she be forgiven. And I think it is fitting that she among poets be given the task of transcribing this tale. The Circle of Shalomon attempted to summon spirits, fallen spirits, did they not, my lady?”

She met his gaze without flinching. “Yes, your highness. We did.”

“Did you succeed?” he asked her.

“Yes.” Her cheeks flushed slightly. “With Lady Moirin’s aid, we did. But she did not give it willingly.”

“I gave it nonetheless,” I murmured.

“I do not seek to cast blame,” Thierry said in a gentle tone. “Only to establish the chain of events. One of these spirits gave each of you a gift, I believe. Can you tell us what form that gift took?”

Lianne lifted one hand unconsciously to rub at her nose. “The spirit Caim taught us the language of ants.”

A faint titter of laughter ran through the salon.

Thierry waited for it to subside. “I would laugh, too, if I knew only the ants of Terre d’Ange,” he said mildly. “And not the black rivers of ravenous death that inhabit the jungles of Terra Nova. But I am getting ahead of the tale. It is also true that one of the fallen spirits, a powerful one, freed himself from your binding and sought to take possession of Raphael de Mereliot, is it not?”

“Yes, your highness,” Lianne said. “Focalor, a Grand Duke of the Fallen.” She glanced sidelong at me. “But Moirin, along with Messire Bao and his mentor, succeeded in banishing him.”

“Not entirely, it seems.” Thierry took a deep breath. “That is the backdrop to the tale I would have you hear today.”

It took hours to spin out the tale in its entirety, hours in which our audience sat entranced and horrified, journeying with Thierry and his companions to the blood-soaked and disease-racked Nahuatl Empire where Raphael de Mereliot intervened with his physician’s skills, and then deep into the wilds of Terra Nova in search of the empire of Tawantinsuyo, where Raphael fell prey to madness and learned to summon and control the black river.

When it came time for our second expedition to pick up the thread of the tale, Balthasar spoke on our behalf, his voice unwontedly candid and matter-of-fact as he chronicled our journey following in the footsteps of Thierry’s party, all the way from the betrayal aboard the Naamah’s Dove to the Emperor’s patronage to the shock of our arrival in Vilcabamba, and Raphael’s cold-blooded murder of Denis de Toluard.

Lianne Tremaine, scribbling notes to aid her prodigious memory, shuddered. “I take your meaning,” she said to me in a low tone.

It was impossible to convey the profound strangeness of our captivity in that jungle city, surrounded by Raphael’s army of ants and hostage to his mad ambitions, but Balthasar and Thierry between them did their best. Still, there were parts of the tale they could not tell.

“Moirin, will you tell of the Maidens of the Sun and the prophecy they guarded?” Thierry asked me.

I glanced at Bao.

His face was shuttered and unreadable, and I thought that his role in this story was one that no one who had not lived through it could ever possibly understand.

“Aye, your highness,” I said to Thierry. “As much as I understand it myself, and deem fitting to tell.”

A look of understanding crossed Thierry’s features. “Of course.”

And so I told the tale of the Quechua’s prophecy of the ancestors; but I left out Bao’s role, telling only of my quickening the fruit tree and the liana vine as the signs that convinced the Maidens of the Sun that the time of prophecy was upon them, and of how the maiden Cusi knew herself chosen for the sacrifice.

At that, there were many soft, indrawn breaths of horror.

“And you agreed to this?” Lianne Tremaine asked in shock, her pen poised forgotten in her hand. “All of you?”

“I thought as you did, my lady poetess,” Thierry answered her gravely. “We all did, every one of us. But with the fate of the entire Quechua folk hanging in the balance, it was not our place to gainsay their faith. And I tell you this. I was one of a dozen men who escorted the maiden Cusi to the Temple of the Ancestors in the conquered city of Qusqu the night before Raphael’s coronation. There is no doubt in my mind, not even the slightest, that she knew herself to be chosen for this fate, and went to it gladly.”

“Nor mine,” Bao murmured.

“Nor mine,” Balthasar echoed. “She looked… sanctified. Holy.” He nodded to himself. “Yes, holy.”

I rubbed the faint scar on my palm. “She was.”

There was a moment of utter silence in the salon before Lianne gathered herself with a shiver, dipping her pen in the inkwell. “You have gotten ahead of yourself again, your highness. Tell us of the conquest of Qusqu.”

Prince Thierry obliged, for which I was grateful; but he could not relate the events that had transpired in the Temple of the Ancestors, only those that led up to them. Alone among our company, only Bao and I had actually witnessed Cusi’s sacrifice, the resurrection of the Quechua ancestors, the near-summoning of Focalor. The others had seen only the aftermath.

So it fell to me once more, and I told it as one might tell a vivid tale remembered from a poem.

The stone temple, the stairway and the bronze knife, the gold-masked priest who wielded it.

I did not tell them it was Bao.

Blood spilling over the stair, running in the carved channels.

Focalor manifesting in a storm raging in the doorway I opened onto the spirit world, and Raphael drowning in his essence.

Ancient skeletons wrapped in cerements, stirring beneath feathers and flowers and fine-spun wool, descending from the gallery.

The black river of ants swarming the ancestors in vain, rendered impotent in the face of death’s advance.

I told them of how Raphael found the courage and the strength to release me from my oath before the end, freeing me to banish Focalor a second time and close the doorway onto the spirit world. And closing my eyes, I told them how the Quechua ancestors had descended on him, slowly, so slowly, slow and inexorable, their rag-wrapped skulls blank-faced and impersonal, shredded marigold petals falling all around them, ornamental war-clubs raised in their bony, crumbling hands.

“I didn’t watch,” I said. “I couldn’t.”

No one spoke.

In the audience, I saw my father with tears streaking his face, and he was not alone in weeping. Beside me, Lianne Tremaine laid her pen down quietly.

“It is the end of a tale that began with the Circle of Shalomon,” Prince Thierry said into the silence, fixing his gaze on me. “But it is not the end of ours. Still…” He gave a faint smile. “Although it is very nearly finished, I think mayhap it is enough for today. As you can see, we are here to continue the telling of it, and that is cause enough for gladness.” He rose. “My thanks for listening.”

One by one, folk filed out of the salon, their faces somber and wondering. Thierry paused beside my chair to lay a hand on my shoulder, peering down at Lianne’s scribbled notes.

“Well, King’s Poet? Did you record the account in full?” he asked her.

“I did, your highness.” She stoppered her inkwell, then tapped her temple with one finger. “Pay no heed to my scratchings. Most of it is here. And believe me when I tell you I am very, very grateful for this opportunity.” Her voice took on a familiar note, wry and rueful, as she asked a question equally familiar to me. “May I ask how much of it was true?”

“All of it,” Thierry and I said at the same time.

“All save the parts left untold,” Bao said quietly, glancing at the poetess, who returned his regard with keen interest. “Another day, I will tell them to you. And you may decide whether or not they make for a tale fit for the poets to tell.”