"Have you lost your wits?" Duc Rogier asked in bewilderment. "My wife? My son? Your highness, what is the meaning of this?"
"Ask your wife," Thierry said curtly. "Ask her if the name Edouard Durel means aught to her. He's alive," he added to Claudine de Barthelme. "Unfortunately for you, he was caught in the act of committing sabotage aboard the ship. He has made a full confession and is prepared to testify against you and your son Tristan."
"Claudine?" Rogier turned toward her. "What in the name of Blessed Elua is he talking about?"
Even as the guards approached, her head was held high and her eyes blazed. Whatever else one could say of the woman, she didn't lack for courage. "I did it for you, Rogier! For all of us!" She gestured impatiently in my direction. "This is the very outcome I sought to prevent."
"A moment ago, I was but a delusional half-breed of a bear-witch, my lady," I said softly. "It seems you put more stock in me than you care to admit."
Claudine's lips thinned. "The stakes were high. I sought to leave nothing to chance." She shook off the hand of the guard who seized her arm. "Do not lay hands on me! I have given you no cause."
"Mother?" Tristan asked uncertainly as a pair of guardsmen flanked him. "Must… must I go with them?"
For the first time, I almost pitied the lad.
And until that moment, I do not think Claudine de Barthelme fully realized how deeply she had implicated her son in her treachery. Visible fear flickered in her eyes as she addressed Prince Thierry. "He's just a boy, your highness," she said, trying to keep the despair from her voice. "It was all a game to him, a game of wits and crowns. I drew him into it! He didn't understand what was at stake were we to fail. How could he? I beg you, whatever you do, have mercy on the lad."
I felt Desirée stir in my arms, no longer sobbing. "Do you want me to put you down, dear heart?" I whispered to her.
She nodded against my shoulder. "Yes, please."
I lowered her gently. Desirée clutched my hand in hers, reaching out blindly toward Bao. He took her other hand in his, closing his fingers around hers.
Thierry looked over at us, his expression softening. "All will be taken into account, my lady," he said to Claudine. "All will be conducted according to the law. You shall have your chance to plead your case, and your son's case, too. For the moment, I ask you to go peaceably."
They were escorted from the throne-room by the royal guardsmen, Claudine de Barthelme with her not-quite-crowned head held high, and her eldest son casting uncertain glances over his shoulder.
"Your highness, I cannot expect you to believe it, but I knew nothing of this." Duc Rogier spoke in a stiff, formal tone. Beneath the circlet he wore, there were beads of sweat forming on his brow, trickling down his temples. "I swear to you, I would never have condoned it. Never."
Narrowing his eyes, Thierry considered him.
Once upon a time, it would have been nothing to be subjected to the scrutiny of Thierry de la Courcel.
That time had passed.
"I do believe you," he said at length. "I believe you are guilty of nothing but naked opportunism. To be honest, I am not sure which I despise more. And so for the moment, I will ask you to remove yourself from my sight, cousin." He tilted his head. "Go."
Duc Rogier Courcel de Barthelme went, his shoulders slumped and heavy, taking his younger son Aristide with him. Like his brother, the lad glanced over his shoulder. Unlike his brother, Aristide gave Desirée a brave smile, waving his fingers at her. Glancing down, I saw her offer a tremulous smile in reply, and I thought mayhap there was hope for House Barthelme after all.
"You may also go," Thierry said to the Comtesse de Maillet. "My stepmother Jehanne and I may have disagreed on many issues, but on this, I suspect we would be in perfect accord. Consider yourself dismissed from the service of House Courcel."
Jehanne's mother departed with an audible sniff, her delicate nostrils flaring; but she went.
I wondered, briefly, where her husband was.
And then I forgot, along with the rest of the realm, as Thierry took a knee and knelt before his little half-sister in an unconscious echo of the pose Balthasar had taken, hands braced on bended knee.
"Hello," he said to her. "I don't expect you remember me, do you?"
"No," she said gravely. "But I know who you are. I was very, very little when you went away, wasn't I?"
Thierry nodded. "Very little, yes. And I am sorry to have been gone for so long, little sister. But now that I have come back, do you suppose we might be friends, you and I? It would please me greatly."
Desirée glanced up at me.
Bao extricated his hand from hers. "You are fortunate to have such a brother, young highness," he said to her. "It was not easy to rescue him! He has many, many tales to tell you."
"I would like that very much," she said solemnly, extending her hand to Thierry, who clasped it with equal solemnity.
It was a private moment in a public setting, and I felt my throat tighten at the sight of them, the twice-orphaned survivors of House Courcel; and I daresay everyone in the throne-room felt the same way, for there were audible sighs.
"I have a great deal to do to set matters right here, little sister," Thierry said to her. "And I fear I will be busy for a time. But I will always have time for you, I promise. We are family, you and I."
Desirée hesitated. "You won't hurt them, will you?"
"The Duc and his family?" he asked. She nodded. Thierry considered his reply. "It is not for me to decide. Those who have broken laws will be judged in a court of law, and if they are found guilty, there will be a price to pay. Not even the King is above the rule of law. But if you wish to plead clemency for them, you may-and nothing will be done today." He squeezed her hand. "We will talk more about this later, all right? I promise, nothing will be done without your knowledge."
She nodded again.
Gently releasing her hand, Thierry straightened and placed himself before the throne, turning to address the assembly once more.
"My lords and ladies, I am blessed among men to stand before you today," he said to them. "I owe my safe return to the brave D'Angelines who accompanied me on my initial voyage. I owe it to my kinsman Balthasar Shahrizai and the valiant men who undertook this second journey. Many members of both parties perished in these efforts, and I honor their memories. I am in the debt of Emperor Achcuatli of the Nahuatl, and his representatives whom you see before you, the venerable guide Eyahue and the fearless Jaguar Knight Temilotzin."
Hearing their names spoken, both the Nahuatl inclined their heads and flicked their fingers toward their chests and brows
"I owe my safe return to the Maidens of the Sun in faraway Tawantinsuyo," Thierry said softly. "And most especially to one who made a great sacrifice on behalf of her people; and to Messire Bao of Ch'in, who made a sacrifice that must have been equally difficult in its own way."
It was so quiet in the throne-room, you could have heard a pin drop, the peers of the realm hanging on every word.
Thierry took a deep breath. "Above all, I owe my safe return to my kinswoman Moirin mac Fainche, who had the courage to have faith in her visions." Turning toward me, he offered a courtly bow. "Never again let the name of the Maghuin Dhonn be spoken in fear and superstition, but with honor and profound respect."
It touched me, soothing an ache so deep I hadn't known it was there, bringing tears to my eyes.
"I know many of you did not support Moirin's mission," Thierry continued, overriding murmurs of protest. "Have no fear. I will hold no man nor woman to blame in this matter. It was well nigh an impossible quest, and I may well have counseled against it myself." He gazed into the distance. "But I am not the man I was. I have seen the impossible. I have seen great and terrible wonders, and I tell you, the world is a vaster and stranger place than ever I had reckoned."
Lost in his memories, he was silent for a moment, and then his gaze returned from the distance.
"Upon hearing the losses we suffered, you may wonder if this quest was worthwhile," Thierry said. "I stand before you to say that it was. Not because I was rescued." He shook his head. "I would not set such a price on my life. And not because the hold of the Naamah's Dove is filled with trade goods from Terra Nova, exotic spices and seedlings and gold ore-although it is."
At that, there were gasps of excitement.
Thierry permitted himself a slight smile. "But I fear the full telling of this impossible tale will have to wait, for it is too long and strange to relate here. For now, let it suffice to say that I am very, very grateful to be home."
It was Balthasar Shahrizai who gave the first cheer, an uncharacteristically boyish whoop of triumph.
"All hail his highness Prince Thierry!" he shouted. "Long live his majesty King Thierry de la Courcel!"
Other voices took up the cheer, chanting and clapping, laughing and weeping with sheer release until the marble halls of the throne-room echoed with the sound; and if it was no less joyous and heartfelt than the reunion in Orgullo del Sol, it was better and bigger, for this time we were home, truly home, and Desirée stood at my side, still clinging to my hand, her face alight with hope.
For my part, I shouted Thierry's name until my throat was raw, my heart filled with gladness.
At last, the hall quieted.
In the silence, Thierry took his seat on the empty throne of Terre d'Ange. He beckoned to his young sister, who went willingly to stand beside him.
Despite his lack of a crown, he looked very much like a king.
Glancing at Desirée, Thierry smiled at her. She returned his smile, her blue-grey eyes shining at him, the very picture of her mother in miniature.
I will own, I could not help but feel a faint pang of jealousy. Looking sidelong at Bao, I saw the same emotion reflected on his face. He squared his shoulders and we exchanged shrugs of rueful understanding.
All was right.
All was as it should be.
And for the first time since I'd passed through the stone doorway some seven years gone by, my diadh-anam was quiet within my breast, a steady, contented flicker assuring me of the enduring love of the Maghuin Dhonn Herself. For the first time since I could remember, the only destiny that called me and the only sea that beckoned me further was the narrow Strait between Terre d'Ange and Alba, and for a mercy, there was no urgency in it.
Seated on the throne, Thierry laid one hand on Desirée's head in a brief, gentle caress filled with all the brotherly tenderness I could have wished for her.
"Let the word go forth," he announced. "Let the realm of Terre d'Ange know that I have returned to claim my rightful role!"
And it was so.
Outside the walls of the Palace, I was reunited with my father. The crowds that filled the courtyard made way for him as we emerged, creating a respectful space around Brother Phanuel.
A light drizzle continued to fall, but the smile on my father's face was as bright as sunlight, all the strain of worry erased from his features. I found myself laughing through tears as I embraced him.
"You did it," he murmured in my ear. "I should never have doubted you, my strange daughter."
"Oh…" I wiped away my tears. "I don't know about that."
"Messire Bao." My father turned to Bao, clasping his hand. The two of them grinned at one another. "Well done."
"Were you able to find my mother in Alba?" I asked anxiously. "Were you able to deliver my letter to her?"
My father nodded. "I read it to her myself. She said to tell you that she loves you, and that when you come home in your own time, to call her name on the western winds and bid her meet you wherever you are bound, and she will hear." He looked a bit bemused. "Do you suppose she meant it?"
I laughed. "It's quite possible. I suspect there's a lot I have yet to learn about my own people."
"You'll not go just yet, will you?" he asked.
"No," I promised. "Not yet. At the least, we'll stay for the official coronation ceremony."
Bao wrinkled his nose. "I'm not going anywhere without a hot bath first."
"Spoken like a true D'Angeline." My father smiled. "I'll leave you to rest and refresh yourselves, and trouble you for your tale on the morrow. 'Tis enough to know for now that you're alive and well."
A royal carriage arrived to convey us to the little house on the outskirts of town that had once belonged to House Shahrizai's most infamous scion, a house that Balthasar had assured us aboard the ship would be deeded to Bao and me in perpetuity upon our return. It seemed like it was a lifetime ago that he first proposed over a frothing goblet of chocolatl that we might benefit from the mutual alignment of our interests.
Our progress through the City of Elua was slow, hampered by the throngs of people spilling into the streets, pressing close to the carriage to call out grateful blessings. The news had spread swiftly. They must have stripped the stalls of every flower vendor in the city, for spring blossoms showered down upon us, filling the moist air with fragrance.
It was beautiful and wonderful, but I could not help but think of the blossoms piled in the laps of the Quechua ancestors, too. Catching my eye, Bao smiled quietly, and I knew he shared my thoughts.