“No, of course not.” I glanced at Sister Gemma, now blowing assiduously on the damp spot. The priestess gave me a quick shake of her head, assuring me it wasn’t she who had fed the child’s fears. That was a legacy courtesy of Claudine de Barthelme and Jehanne’s despised mother. “A hot iron will dry it in a trice.”
“Of course it will,” Sister Gemma murmured half to herself. “A hot iron. Forgive me, my lady, I wasn’t thinking.”
“It’s a big day,” Bao said cheerfully, perching on a child-sized chair beside Desirée’s miniature desk. “Come, young highness, and give me a lesson to refresh my memory. I fear I’ve forgotten my D’Angeline letters. Don’t worry,” he added to Desirée in a confidential tone. “They’ll wait for us. We’re heroes of the realm, you know.”
A quicksilver smile graced her exquisite face, a hint of mischief in it evoking a memory of her mother. “I know!”
I watched them with their heads bent together over a slate, Bao’s half-tamed shock of black hair contrasting with Desirée’s white-gold curls as she solemnly traced the letters of the alphabet and repeated them to him, the fellow student turned teacher.
“A pretty picture,” Sister Gemma said quietly, applying a warm iron to the damp stain on the child’s white satin gown.
I smiled. “Aye.”
I shook my head. “No. But soon. In Alba, I hope.”
She plied her iron. “That seems fitting.”
In short order, the gown was rendered suitable for wearing. Desirée suffered herself to be dressed with a dignified patience that was new to her, and a coronet of white rose-buds was woven into her hair.
There was an escort of royal guardsmen awaiting us under the command of Brice de Bretel. I had always liked the steady-natured young L’Agnacite lord, who had been a loyal and reliable companion on our journey. I was pleased by his appointment, and pleased to see the unassuming deference with which he treated the little Dauphine.
Jehanne would have been pleased, too, I thought.
We rode through the streets of the City of Elua in a royal carriage, surrounded by a score of outriders, Brice de Bretel and his men clad in the livery of House Courcel. Folks lined the streets, watching the spectacle.
There was a hunger in their gazes; and a sense of waiting, too.
I understood it.
Stone and sea! So much sorrow had plagued House Courcel in recent generations. It was time and more for a measure of joy.
And we received it that day in the Temple of Elua. Only a formality, Balthasar had called the coronation. In a sense, it was true. Thierry de la Courcel was the rightful heir. From the moment he had sat in the throne and claimed it for his own, he had been the undisputed ruler of the realm. But this was Terre d’Ange, and formalities mattered.
It had been Thierry’s choice to hold the coronation in the Temple rather than the Palace, to give thanks to Blessed Elua and his Companions for sparing him, and to ask their blessing on his reign.
We stood barefoot and bare-headed beneath the sun, the grass damp underfoot and the wind rustling through the oak trees while the Priest of Elua gave the invocation. I gazed at the tall marble effigy of Elua in his roofless altar, flanked by marble columns. He smiled his enigmatic smile, one hand extended in offering, the other hand, the hand he had scored with Camael’s dagger, cupped.
Blessed Elua had shed his own blood in answer to the One God’s messenger, summoning all the ancient power of the Earth, the very womb in which he was nurtured. I understood better the gravity of that gesture now. It symbolized his willingness to die for his people.
But Elua was not mortal and he had not died. He had passed beyond, taking his Companions with him to the Terre d’Ange-that-lies-beyond.
I could not help but think of my final conversation with Jehanne, and wonder what lay beyond the beyond.
First and always, I was a child of the Maghuin Dhonn Herself. I had passed through the stone doorway, and I had seen Her in all Her majesty. Once I would have been content with an eternity in Her presence.
Now I was not so sure. I had seen so very much of the world, and I had come to love so many people in it. I prayed that the tale I’d spun Jehanne was a true one, and there was a final beyond far greater than our comprehension, one in which everyone and everything was a part of a greater whole.
Bao nudged me. “Moirin.”
I startled. “Hmm?”
“You looked like you were a thousand leagues away,” he murmured.
Prince Thierry was kneeling before the altar. One by one, a priest or priestess of each of the Orders of the Companions came forward to offer their blessing, laying their hands on his shoulders, leaning down to offer him a kiss. Although he was not the most senior in the priesthood, my father had been chosen to represent Naamah’s Order, and it made my throat tighten with pride and love to see it.
Each of their blessings, Thierry accepted with grace and humility. And then the Priest of Elua approached him, carrying a golden crown with points wrought in the shape of oak-leaves.
“Thierry de la Courcel,” the priest said in a resonant voice. “Rightwise-born heir to the throne of Terre d’Ange, do you accept the trust of ruling this nation? Do you pledge yourself to uphold her laws and the sacred tenets each and every one of us hold dear? Do you swear to honor the precept of Blessed Elua in all that you do?”
Thierry lifted his head. “I do.”
The priest met his gaze. “Then in the name of Blessed Elua and his Companions, it is my honor to acknowledge you the rightfully crowned King of Terre d’Ange.” He set the golden oak-leaf crown on Thierry’s head, the weight of it pinning his dark locks in place. “May Blessed Elua hold and keep you.”
It was heavy, that crown. I could see it in the careful way he carried the unfamiliar weight, his neck and shoulders tensing as he began the process of learning how to bear the burden of a lifetime.
I could see the resolve settling into his bones.
A soft sigh of gratitude and relief escaped from Desirée. Glancing down at her, I squeezed her hand.
“Your majesty,” Elua’s priest murmured, bowing to him. All of us followed suit, bowing low.
“Thank you,” Thierry said simply. “I will do my best to be worthy of this honor.” There were tears streaking his cheeks, and he let them fall unheeded. “Today is a day for remembering, and a day for rejoicing, too.” He summoned a grin, a hint of the feckless prince he had once been in it. “To that end, I’ve arranged for a progressus throughout the City of Elua, and declared a holiday for all! Today, let us remember who we are, and celebrate like D’Angelines!”
At last, as though permission had been granted, cheers arose, loud and deafening within the temple.
Desirée tugged at my hand, glancing up inquisitively at me. “Moirin, what is a progressus?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted.
“A fête,” Bao said. “A travelling fête, young highness.”
So it was.
Caught up in my own affairs, I’d paid scant heed to the preparations for the coronation ceremony and its aftermath. As it transpired, Balthasar Shahrizai had arranged for a surprise of his own. Upon donning our stockings and shoes in the vestibule, we emerged from the temple to find that he and a score of our companions had slipped out ahead of us. They had worked in secret with Temilotzin and Eyahue to have a gilded palanquin with a feathered canopy constructed, and Jaguar Knight costumesmade for all of them, complete with dyed pelts, wooden shields, macahuitl clubs studded with shards of black glass, and tall feather headdresses.
Prince Thierry’s—King Thierry’s—grin broadened at the sight. “Do you actually intend me to ride in that thing, my lord Shahrizai?”
“Absolutely!” Balthasar’s white teeth flashed in an answering grin as he swept a low, courtly bow, his headdress wobbling. “You and the young Dauphine, your majesty. It will be my honor to serve as one of your bearers.”
Thierry laid a hand on his shoulder. “You’ve already carried me far enough, cousin,” he said softly.
Balthasar shrugged with careless grace. “What’s a few blocks farther?” He smiled at Desirée. “Would you like to ride in a Nahuatl palanquin, your highness?”
Her face glowed. “Oh, yes!”
So it was decided, and much to the delight of the crowds along the street and the peers pouring out of the temple, Thierry and his sister climbed into the palanquin. Raising his own genuine macahuitl, Temilotzin roared a sharp command in Nahuatl, and Balthasar and seven others manning the long, gilded poles hoisted them to their shoulders. The palanquin swayed, then steadied. Beneath the bright, iridescent canopy, Desirée loosed an irresistible peal of laughter, her eyes sparkling with joy.
It was a glorious day.
Oh, aye, there were shadows that would ever be with us. There was sorrow and loss and sacrifice, the memory of brittle bones wrapped in cerements and yellowing beneath garlands of flowers a reminder of death’s presence. There was the history of House Courcel, glorious and tragic.
But today was a new day, and a new beginning. The sun shone bright in the blue sky as we made our way through the streets of the City of Elua, trailing an ever-growing retinue of revelers.
Through the dense warrens of Night’s Doorstep, where innkeepers emerged to press tankards of ale and flagons of wine into our hands…
Up the long slope of Mont Nuit, where adepts of each of the Thirteen Houses came forth to join our train, and joie and brandy began to flow freely…
On the descent back into the city, our progress slowed to a near-halt, but no one cared. As we inched our way down, tumblers from Eglantine House staged impromptu performances, musicians played, and singers sang serenades. The palanquin-bearers feigned exhaustion, pretending to stagger, drawing giddy shrieks from Desirée and cheerful shouts of imprecation from the newly crowned King of Terre d’Ange as the palanquin lurched in an alarming fashion. Sharp-eyed bookmakers from Bryony House plied the crowd for wagers, giving odds on whether or not the bearers would cause an ignominious spill.
They didn’t, of course.
At last, we reached the foot of Mont Nuit once more, and made our way into Elua’s Square.
Long tables adorned with pristine white linens were arrayed around the base of Elua’s Oak, and a feast had been laid forth upon them.
I was hungry, but it could wait.
Descending from the carriage, I made my way to Elua’s Oak. Seven years ago, I had arrived in the City of Elua by stagecoach and paid homage to the ancient tree, leaning my brow against the rough bark and sensing its long, slow thoughts. Seven years ago, a street-urchin had stolen my purse. I had summoned the twilight and chased him, and Raphael de Mereliot’s carriage had run me down unseen in the street. Denis de Toluard had been with him that day. And later, it was Raphael who had presented me at Court, introducing me to my lady Jehanne and setting us on an unlikely path of love and redemption, a journey that would end far across the ocean in the distant fields of Terra Nova. I had travelled farther and grown more in those years than I ever could have believed possible.
It had all begun here.
Laying one hand on Elua’s Oak, I breathed the Breath of Trees Growing, and remembered.
To the oak-tree, it had happened an eye-blink of time ago.
I turned toward Bao. “Aye?”
He gave me a quick, crooked smile. “You’re a thousand leagues away again.” Bao nodded toward the long tables, and the places held empty and waiting. “It’s time.”
Beneath his heavy crown, Thierry wore an expression of amused tolerance. At his side, Desirée looked happy and anxious, wanting everything to be perfect on this of all days, seeking assurance that it was.
And there were others who had become dear to me, even Eyahue and Temilotzin, reveling in their roles as honored ambassadors, no trace of the infamous Nahuatl stone faces and hearts on display here. Lianne Tremaine, an unlikely friend, committing every moment of the day to memory. Balthasar Shahrizai amidst his always slightly disreputable clan, tilting his head and regarding me with a predatory fondness I’d come to find reassuring. And there at a table lined with members of the various priesthoods was my father, his green eyes lit with quiet pride, the grace of Naamah’s blessing shining forth from him.
A wave of love and gratitude overcame me. I was glad, so glad, I was here among these people on this day.
“They’re waiting for us,” Bao said. “For you.”
I took a deep breath. “I am here.”
A month later, we departed the City of Elua.
We would have gone sooner, but we stayed for Desirée’s sake. After so much disruption and upheaval in her life, she was loath to see us go, fearful that this time we might not return. As her oath-sworn protector, I had sworn on my diadh-anam to hold her happiness as a sacred trust.
And so we stayed until Thierry’s tactful intervention freed us to go.
“Do you miss your mother, Moirin?” Desirée asked me one day when we were paying a visit to her.
“Aye,” I said in surprise. “Of course.”
Bowing her head, she fidgeted with a bit of embroidery in her lap. “I think… I think she must miss you, too. That’s what mothers do, isn’t it?”
“Aye,” I said softly. “It is.”
“Thierry said so, too.” Desirée lifted her head, screwing up her delicate features in fierce concentration. “I think you should go to see her. If I had a mother, I would not want to make her unhappy.”