Part Six: Epilogue
High Summer was Lady Rahima's favourite time of year, as everyone living in Marae knew as well as they knew their own names. What they didn't know what why it was so. The cooks suspected that it was because of the feasting that happened at the week-long celebrations, and so they pushed themselves to greater and higher culinary heights, resulting in delighted responses from everyone intended, including their Lady. Others thought that it might have been because of the weather, for it was far warmer during High Summer than the rest of the year, and so caution was liberally applied when stocking firewood for the winter. And some thought that it might have been because of the flowers that bloomed best at High Summer, for the Lady spent much of her time walking in her gardens during the week, and they were the ones who came closest to the truth.
It had taken Hessa most of a worry-filled week to realize that she was the only one who knew the real reason why Rahima enjoyed spending High Summer in the gardens so much that she would bring platters of food with her. Or, at least, that she was one of three who knew why it was so; herself, Rahima and the dusky-haired man who visited then. She remembered him from the year and a half spent in Fiacra's March, although Rahima had never introduced them, and she also recalled the sad little smile that had graced her cousin's face when she'd returned from saying farewell. Hessa would never say anything, of course. Rahima had given her a wonderful gift when she'd saved Naji from life as a bastard, and that debt could never be repaid.
There would be no magnificent feasts this year, though, no joyous dances around the great bonfire, no chasing away the spirits of the dead by beating them out of corners with pine branches and bunches of flowers. No couples would slip away, giggling, from the main festivities to their own, more private entertainments; no children would gobble down pieces of cake in the hopes of finding the one with the silver coin embedded within it. High Summer would be very different this year, possibly for a great many more years, Hessa thought sadly.
Her leg ached from where she had bumped it earlier that day in her rush to make it to the receiving hall, and she knew that if she were alive to look at it later, it would be badly bruised. She knew how the Marquis of Fiacra's March must have felt when he'd greeted her six years ago, and wished that she had his options of sitting or leaning her weight on a cane. So she thought of how Rahima had stood that morning, her chin lifted proudly, a fierce glint in her grey eyes, a trace of sadness somehow accenting her strength rather than diminishing it. The calm, untrembling voice that gave her final orders as the Lady of Marae, and her warm hug of dismissal. It gave her the strength to continue staring the prince in the eye, although deep inside she wanted to hide.
"I am not abandoning Marae," Rahima had said sharply. "I am saving her. Altair is dead, and there is nothing more I can do that will not damn her to follow in the footsteps of Cy's March, of Terrentor and Gianseppe. A land without a Lord or Lady is a land that will go peacefully under the banner of our new prince, will not be burned and raped and pillaged. It is the only course of action I have left, cousin, and I hope you understand this."
Oh, Hessa understood only too well. But could Rahima not take Naji with her? Surely he would be at risk!
"Naji will stay here," the Lady had replied grimly. "I will not have one who is not blood ruling Marae. But he is very young, and has not yet earned the prince's enmity. Here, this is what you will tell him, if you have the chance."
Somehow, she doubted that the prince would give her the chance to explain Rahima's plan. She allowed her gaze to flicker slightly in order to study the red-stained sword he held in his hand. It was said that he never cleaned the blade, instead choosing to let it absorb the blood it spilt. It would probably rust the metal, she thought, but no one had ever told her so. Perhaps it wouldn't.
That second's submission was all it took to settle the matter. The prince shifted his sword slightly in his hand, so that it pointed more to the floor than at her, and said, in his lovely, warm voice, "Where is she?"
Hessa said nothing, simply watching him. They said he'd taken the king's decision to make another man his heir fairly well, simply withdrawing little more into himself. Oh, he had always been polite, always been careful and cautious, so friendly towards the other Lords, sending out his most skilled diplomats to earn the friendship of almost every territory in Danash. There were a few that he hadn't, though: Terrentor Gianseppe had fallen under his sword upon the king's death, and Cy's March had been all but defeated until the men of Fiacra's March had simply absorbed the March into their land. Fiacra's March was still, as it had always been, inviolate. But how much longer could that last when the Lord Lahthan of Ettore was now the Prince Lahthan of Danash? The Thirsty Prince, the servingmen named him now, and some had even gone so far as to say that his name had been earned by his habit of drinking the blood of his foes.
"Where is she?"
"She's not here," she said reluctantly.
"Ah." He smiled. "Now we're getting somewhere. Would you care to tell me where she is, or will I have to wait for another hour?" His voice and personality were completely inappropriate for the role he was playing: a monster should be cruel and illogical, not affable with a slight hint of confusion, as though he honestly couldn't understand why people didn't see things his way. As though he had forgotten that he'd put the skeleton guard that had insisted on remaining in Marae to death, as though he'd never threatened to burn the fields down when the younger maids had insisted that they didn't know where the Lady was. After waiting for a moment, he sighed quietly. "Very well, then. I haven't got all day, you know. So perhaps you would rather tell me why you have dirt on your knees."
She looked down with some surprise as she saw that she did indeed have mud all over her skirt. "Naji was playing in the gardens. I went to get him out, but he tried to run off."
"There, now," he said happily. "Was that so hard? Where's the little lad, then?"
Naji peeked out from behind her skirt, and both adults looked down at him. He was smiling happily at the two of them, mud still plastered across his face and clothing, hair wet from the rain outside. "Hello," he greeted the lord enthusiastically, waving his hand for good measure. "Are you really the prince?"
"Yes I am."
"Mama told me about you."
His face thoughtful, Prince Lahthan asked, "What did your mama say about me?"
"She said that she was going to go away and that you were going to be my new father if Auntie Hessa asked very nicely. Didn't she tell you that?"
"Oh yes, now I remember." The prince looked at Hessa. "I think Hessa and I are going to look at the gardens. Would you like to come?"
He sighed, a childish imitation of his aunt. "I can't. Auntie Hessa says that if I get muddy again she'll be very unhappy. And mama says not to make her angry, because she's a very special person."
"Well, one should always listen to one's mother, even if they've gone away."
It was amazing, Hessa thought as she led the prince to the gardens, that Naji was so calm about the fact that his mother was gone when only a few days before he'd been hysterical at the thought. And even at only five years old, he was a more convincing messenger than his true mother, for he actually believed that Lahthan would consider raising him as Marae's heir.
The prince walked around the muddy garden, nearly mistepping once but otherwise keeping his balance as he explored for secret chambers and other hiding places. She thought it strange that he wouldn't have a guard do the job, but perhaps he would only feel secure if he had done it himself. She said nothing as he looked in bushes and tapped the larger rocks to see if they were hollow.
"Did you have something to ask me?" he finally said.
"Yes. My Lady… my cousin Rahima asks that you raise Naji as the heir to Marae. He will have the loyalty of the people by virtue of blood, and he is young enough that he will trust you. There is no reason for him to ever attempt a rebellion, since the only reason he will have power is through you."
"And you think?"
"That it's a reasonable enough idea."
"Where is the Lady?"
"She abdicated and left. I don't know where she's gone."
He stared at her for a long moment and then left silently, leaving her to collapse back on the wet stone wall, relieved. He hadn't noticed. Thorn and Wilds be thanked, he hadn't noticed. But he might be back for another look, so…
She knelt down, wincing at the way the mud gave way under he knees and began smoothing out the four long, water-filled scrapes that had caused the prince of Danash to stagger, scrapes that resembled the marks left by a bird of prey missing its target in the mud. Her hand brushed on something hard and sharp and she pulled it out. Palm-sized and a deep, slate-blue colour, the scale seemed to shine even as mud-covered as it was. Smiling now, she rinsed it as best as she could and put it in her pocket before returning inside.
Hessa of Marae stood, tall and proud as only the mother of a Prince could. And she was, for the Thirsty Prince had accepted Rahima's bargain and taken Naji as his own son, raising him to be the heir of Danash. Moreover, she had truly been Naji's mother in the ten years since Rahima had left Marae and perhaps even Danash itself with her beloved. The Prince believed that his son would need a mother, and told her that while he had no intention of marrying her, Naji would be declared her son for all the world to hear. Strange that acknowledgement of his legitimacy should come from the very man who had made him a bastard, but since her time in Fiacra's March, she had become more willing to believe the strange.
Ten years ago, shortly after adopting Naji, Prince Lahthan of Danash had brought the Lone Guard into the country to settle the last of the land disputes. That action alone managed what hundreds of lords and Princes had failed to do—to drive Fiacra's March to the point where they refused to recognize the authority of the crown and take up arms against those of their country. Cy's March sided with them and nearly fell, as did Brannen's March. Yet they never had the chance to fall, for the Marquis simply took them into his lands and protected him with all those at his service. Ten years, he'd stood alone against country and Lone Guard, surviving through sheer skill.
And now, the Marquis had sent her a message.
Iamar, the red-eyed woman who had accompanied Rahima so often, touched her arm, awkwardly reassuring. "It had to be done as soon as possible, Hessa. A day later, and departure would have been impossible."
She smiled sadly. "Naji knows I have left. I wonder what it must be like to have two mothers abandon you. Three, if I count the time I left him to Rahima." Pulling the plaits of her travel skirt through her fingers, she watched not the landscape but Iamar's face, tensing when her eyes narrowed and relaxing when she did. "I hope he will forgive me."
"You gave him a mother, even when it couldn't always be you. Sixteen years is longer than I had—longer than many had. And Rahima gave him a lording and a life, and through them a crown. Better than all but a few, I would say."
Before she could consider that for very long, a man stepped from the bushes at the side of the road, bushes where there had once been a guard house. His face was even thinner than before, exhaustion lining it and deepening his dark eyes, and his limp was far more pronounced. Yet there was no doubt that this was the man who had changed her world twice, once by sheltering her and now by summoning her.
"Hessa." Relief and weariness flooded his voice. "I didn't know that Iamar would be able to convince you to come. Welcome to Fiacra's March. What is left of it, at least." He made a slight face, more pained than amused, and then stuck out a hand to prevent her bowing. With a smooth bow that belied his limp, Sahale said, "You rank me now, Princess."
"Just the Prince's mother," she corrected him quickly.
"Princess." He smiled oddly at her, suddenly seeming uncertain, before turning his attention to Iamar. "Thank you. You didn't have to—"
Iamar laughed. "I did, and even if I didn't, I would have. I have sworn my spear and breath to you, Marquis, as I have to Maron. When both of you ask the same thing of me, there is little to keep me from doing it."
"Be that as it may…" He shook his head and extended a hand. "Come. We have some way yet to go before nightfall."
Once they were deep within the borders of Fiacra's March, Hessa finally asked the question that had been lingering on the tip of her tongue ever since Iamar had first come to her with news from Rahima and Sahale. "Why did you summon me now? Earlier would have been easier, or later, but now?"
The words seemed to strike him, for he flinched slightly. "Lahthan has been watching me carefully for some time now. Now that Naji is of age, he has an heir that he can leave uncontested, and he has even less to worry about from me. Earlier would not have been easier for me. And later…" His soft sigh echoed the wind that blew in clouds the colour of the scale that Hessa had pierced and strung onto a chain. "Fiacra's March cannot hold against the Lone Guard any longer. Not here. I—we—are leaving the March."
He could not have shocked her any more if he had declared himself her son. "Leaving? How many?"
"All of Fiacra's Blood, and Cy's and Brannen's as well. Rahima wanted to invite you to come with us."
"Yes," she replied instantly. "I can't do any more for Naji, and he cannot be hurt if there are any suggestions that I helped you leave."
A sudden smile brightened his face, which she couldn't help but return. Now he looked more like the man who had half-forced her into enjoying what few luxuries were available at the Greening; who had tolerated her babble about Naji despite the fact that she must have repeated herself a dozen times over in a single day; who had calmly told her that if, for all Rahima's planning, Naji couldn't be acknowledged as Altair's son he would claim him for his own.
As the light began to fade, a new shadow appeared in the sky. Though she was uncertain at first as to what it could be, the flash of slate-blue wings let her know who it was. Maron and, riding astride his back and clutching her arms to her chest, Rahima. They landed in the road, Rahima dismounting and Maron somehow changing form, though she didn't know how.
The cousins embraced tightly, holding each other until it seemed like they would never be able to let go. Only then did Rahima release her, taking her bundle from Maron, who was talking in quick sentences with Sahale.
"Well, Hessa, I got your son a parentage." She laughed. "And the king—Prince—himself did it, too." Then her gaze softened, and she held out what appeared to be little more than a tangle of blankets.
Hessa looked down, brushing away the topmost layer of cloth, and found her lips curling into an involuntary smile at what lay within. A child of no more than half a year, hair as dark as Maron's and skin as pale as Rahima's, blinked up at her with the grey eyes of her family. She yawned, and the two women helped her out of the blankets that she might stretch and be admired. And that was when she saw it, she, a simple sanpere standing in a roadway with a Lady, a Marquis, a dragon and one of the bloodsworn—
The child had wings.