“Bao…” I whispered. “You needn’t do it.”
He gave me a look, his dark eyes glinting. “One should not lie to poets, Moirin,” he said. “After all, that’s their job.”
And despite everything, I had to laugh.
Matters in Terre d’Ange proceeded apace.
A date was set for Prince Thierry’s official coronation, but before it was to take place, Parliament decreed that the issue of House Barthelme’s perfidy should be addressed in the court of law.
I attended the trial and testified to what I knew, although I took no pleasure in it.
For my father’s sake, I was grateful that Rogier Courcel, the Duc de Barthelme, was found innocent of any legal wrongdoing, guilty only of the naked opportunism of which Thierry had accused him.
For Desirée’s sake, I was grateful that his younger son Aristide was found innocent and blameless in the whole affair. She seemed fond of the lad, and he of her.
Claudine de Barthelme and her eldest son Tristan were another matter.
They were found guilty of the charge of suborning treason. Influenced by a heartfelt plea from the young Dauphine, who harbored conflicted feelings for what had been her foster-family for a good two years, the court did not accord them the sentence of death they deserved, or even the lesser sentence of exile, but merely sentenced them to a stay of ten years in imprisonment and stripped them of their titles and holdings.
The Duchese de Barthelme heard her sentence read aloud with unbowed pride, her chin held high.
Her pretty young son Tristan looked stricken throughout, and I could not help but pity him a little.
Only a little.
I had not forgotten how skillfully he manipulated Desirée’s affections, nor how cunning he was in seeking to exploit the poor chambermaid when I had spied upon him. He had done his mother’s bidding, abetting her in her schemes. He may have been too young to fully grasp the magnitude of his treason at the time, but he was old enough to know better now—and he had kept his mother’s secrets.
Thanks to Prince Thierry’s inclination toward clemency, the sailor Edouard Durel, who had confessed to treason, was not sentenced to death, either. He, too, was given a prison sentence, and barred from ever sailing again under a royal charter. True to his word, Balthasar Shahrizai discreetly saw to it that his wife and daughter would be cared for, with Thierry’s tacit approval.
It was a relief to have it done.
I kept the candle that Sister Gemma had given me, but I did not light it. After all his years of unsubtle hints, it was Bao who now proved reluctant, suggesting that we wait until journeying to Alba.
“Are you reconsidering?” I asked him.
He gave me a puzzled look. “Reconsidering what?”
“Us,” I said softly. With the city buzzing with gossip over the annulment of the betrothal between Desirée and Tristan, and the Duc de Barthelme initiating proceedings to annul his own marriage, I couldn’t help but think of it. “Me. The entire notion of building a family together.”
“No!” Bao’s puzzled look turned to shock. “Gods, no, Moirin! It’s just…” He groped for words. “I’ve been dreaming of it again. Of the stone doorway, and… and bears. Or a bear. A very, very large one. And I think…” He took a deep breath. “I think I would like to know that your bear-goddess accepts me before we do this.”
“What happens if She doesn’t?” I asked.
Bao was quiet a moment. “I don’t know,” he said at length. “But I think…” He pressed one hand to his chest. “I think her spark inside me would die. That’s what would have happened to you, isn’t it?”
“Aye.” I hadn’t thought it through before, and I felt a little sick. “And if it did…”
“I would die, too,” Bao said quietly. “So I would rather wait, and be sure that if I must leave you a widow, it is not a pregnant one.”
My eyes stung. “At least it would leave me a part of you!”
“One I’m not sure I could bear to lose.” He brushed my hair back with one hand. “Do me this kindness, Moirin, and wait.”
I eyed him. “You’re sure you need to go there?”
“You need to ask?” Bao gave me a wry smile. “Yes, Moirin. It is your own diadh-anam that tells me so, and I suspect if I fail to heed it, it will gutter and die all the same.” His smile faded. “I only wish I felt more surely that I am someone a foreign god would wish to claim.”
“You are!” I said.
Bao shrugged. “We will see.”
Before the date of his coronation, Prince Thierry summoned another audience to conclude the tale of our sojourn in Terra Nova. He told the tale himself, relating how Raphael’s army of ants had laid waste to the crops of the Quechua as they fled back to their native jungle, leaving an immense swath of barren land in their wake. And he told the audience how I spent every waking hour in the newly replanted fields, walking the endless rows, causing the plants to quicken and grow an entire season’s worth in a matter of weeks.
When he had finished, an attendant entered the salon carrying a specimen from the glass pavilion wherein all manner of exotic plants were grown, this one a small Aragonian orange tree in a large pot, hard little green fruits clustered on its branches.
“Cousin, I owe you an apology for failing to consult you in this matter,” Thierry said to me. “I know others have sought to exploit your gift. And I know it was given to you by your Maghuin Dhonn, and it was meant to be used freely or not at all.” He gestured at the audience. “But these good people have heard tales of magic and wonder, and I would take it as a personal favor if you would show them a simple taste of it.”
I rose. “For you, my highness, of course.”
There were murmurs in the audience, and some muttering about theatrics and parlor tricks. I did not sense any real malice in it, only a reactionary disbelief. I did not blame them. It is one thing to listen to tales of wonder from a distant land, and another to be told one is about to witness magic wrought in a familiar, urbane setting.
A blonde woman I recognized as the Marquise de Perigord raised an inquiring hand. “Is it permitted to inspect the tree, your highness? I do not mean to be contentious, but…” She gave a delicate shrug. “Lady Moirin and her husband have collaborated with Eglantine House to show us clever illusions before. One wishes to be sure.”
Thierry beckoned to her. “Of course.”
The Marquise and several other peers came forward to inspect the tree to their satisfaction, riffling through the leaves and poking their fingers into the soil to make sure nothing was hidden there, one lord even going so far as to pluck an unripe fruit and gouge it with his thumbnail, making a face as he sucked the sour juices. At last, they were forced to own that the tree was nothing more than it seemed.
I stroked its leaves. “His highness spoke an untruth unwittingly,” I announced. “It is the gift of the Maghuin Dhonn Herself that allows me to open pathways others cannot, but the path onto which this opens is a gift of my father’s bloodline.” Finding him in the audience, I met his eyes and smiled. “I have seen them in my thoughts since I was small. The gods of Terre d’Ange. Always and ever, Naamah, the bright lady. And Anael the Good Steward, the man with a seedling cupped in his palm. Desire and fruition, the things that sustain life and love.”
Summoning the twilight, I blew softly over the tree.
It grew several inches, stretching its slender trunk, extending its leaves. The bright green globes nestled in its branches swelled, their rinds turning slowly from green to vibrant orange as they ripened.
A soft sigh ran through the salon. Now they believed.
Thierry bowed to me. “Thank you, Moirin.”
The remainder of the tale was told without theatrics; the tale of our return, the losses suffered along the way. Magic and wonder gave way to politics, intrigue, and trade-rights, augmented by the presence of Eyahue and Temilotzin, representing the interests of Emperor Achcuatli.
As soon as discretion permitted, Bao and I made a polite escape, and paid another visit to Desirée.
The day before Thierry’s coronation, Bao had scheduled an appointment with Lianne Tremaine to tell the King’s Poet the whole truth of what had transpired in the Temple of the Ancestors in Qusqu.
Since he wished to go alone, I spent the day with my father, walking the streets of the City of Elua with him, marveling once more at the simple, easy grace he dispensed with his mere presence, offering his benediction to any who asked for it.
Bao was late returning to our house, and silent and introspective when he did. The shadows were thick around him that evening.
“Do you wish to speak of it?” I asked him.
He shook his head. “No.”
Trusting to my instincts, I let him be. We slept side by side in the great bed in the master chamber without touching, beneath the high rafters where an iron hook had once dangled from a great chain.
I awoke to wind and rain.
Sleep-addled, for a moment I thought myself back in the Temple of the Ancestors with Focalor’s storm raging through the doorway I had opened. But no; it was a warm wind, and a benign spring tempest that spilled through the unlatched tall doors opening onto a courtyard outside the master bedchamber. Feeling at the sheets beside me, I found them cool. I wrapped a silk dressing-robe around myself and went to peer through the doors.
Beneath the restless flickers of lightning in the sky above me, I could make out the figure of Bao, sitting cross-legged and still on the terrace, clad only in a pair of loose drawstring breeches, his hands resting on his knees palm-upward in the downpour.
I went to him.
Pelting rain soaked my thin robe, plastering it to my body. I pushed the wet hair out of my eyes. Bao tilted his head and peered up at me as I sank to sit opposite him, raindrops clinging to his lashes. “Forgive me, I didn’t mean to wake you. You don’t need to be here, Moirin.”
I breathed the first of the Five Styles, settling my hands on my knees. “Aye, I do.”
Overhead, blue-white lightning crackled, illuminating the looming rain-clouds, thunderous and dark and towering.
I breathed and waited.
“It was warm,” Bao whispered at length, lifting his hands to the cleansing rain, letting it run down his arms. “Cusi’s blood. Hot and thick. Alive. I didn’t expect it to be so… warm.” He shuddered. “I can’t help remembering. And the knife was so very, very dull. I did my best. I tried to make it swift, as swift as I possibly could. I tried… I tried to make it right for her. Does that sound terrible?”
“No,” I said. “And you did.”
Bao turned his hands this way and that, examining them. “Did I?”
“Aye.” I caught his hands in mine, capturing them firmly. Naamah’s gift stirred in me, lending me a sense of surety. I slid my hands up his lean-muscled forearms, marked with the stark zig-zag tattoos that showed the path to Kurugiri; and higher, sliding my hands up his wiry biceps, his skin slick with rain, his muscles shifting and twitching beneath my touch. “You did, Bao.”
Lowering my head, I kissed him.
After a few heartbeats, he returned my kiss like a man drowning, desperate and fervent, and I felt Naamah’s blessing wash over us, desire rising in a fierce spiral.
I wound my arms around his neck and pressed myself against him, aching nipples taut beneath my soaked robe. It was a blessed relief when his hands found my breasts, caressing and kneading them.
We tumbled over onto the rain-washed terrace, my soaked hair curtaining both our faces. Even the rain felt like a blessing.
“Moirin…” Whatever Bao wanted to say, he couldn’t find the words. It didn’t matter. The look in his eyes was eloquent enough.
“I know,” I said, reaching for him. “I do. And it’s all right. Everything is going to be all right.”
The day of Thierry de la Courcel’s coronation dawned clear and sunny, the world made bright and new by the cleansing rain. Bao and I awoke entangled in damp, disheveled linens, having made love both outdoors and in bed.
Bao rolled onto his back, folded his arms behind his head, and smiled sleepily at me. Although his hair was sticking up in a dozen different directions, his face was calm and peaceful. “You look very beautiful this morning.”
I leaned over to kiss him. “And you look… messy. Come, time to prepare. We’re escorting Desirée; you don’t want to be late.”
“They’ll wait for us. We’re heroes of the realm, Moirin.” He yawned, then grinned. “Not bad for a peasant-boy and a girl who grew up in a cave, huh?”
“No.” I kissed him again, then sat back on my heels. “Not bad at all, my magpie. Are you feeling better today?”
“Much better.” Bao met my gaze, his expression softening. “Thank you.”
Rising, I yanked the linens off him. “You’re welcome. And you can thank me by not making us late.”
Within an hour’s time, we presented ourselves at Court, where the mood was glad but harried. Having passed the night in vigil, Thierry was already at the Temple of Elua where the coronation was to take place, but an ill-considered breakfast of honey-drizzled oatcakes had resulted in a sticky smear on Desirée’s gown and delayed her departure. She stood wide-eyed and fearful, clad in a thin silk shift, while Sister Gemma scrubbed at the stain.
“I didn’t mean to, Moirin!” Desirée said anxiously. “I’m sorry, I was trying to be careful. Have I ruined everything?”