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Far from the land of her birth, Moirin sets out across Tatar territory to find Bao, the proud and virile Ch’in fighter who holds the missing half of her diadh-anam, the divine soul-spark of her mother’s people. After a long ordeal, she not only succeeds, but surrenders to a passion the likes of which she’s never known. But the lovers’ happiness is short lived, for Bao is entangled in a complication that soon leads to their betrayal.
Table of Contents
A Preview of NAAMAH'S BLESSING
As the city of Shuntian dwindled in the distance behind me, a mixture of dread and exhilaration filled me.
I was all alone in the vast empire of Ch'in.
It was by choice, my choice. If I had wished it, the Emperor's daughter would have spoken a word in her father's ear, and his Celestial Majesty would have provided me with a mighty escort. Indeed, the princess had begged me to let her do so, and I suspected there would be times that I wished I had consented. I was a young woman, a foreigner, travelling alone in a country halfway around the world from my home.
It was a bittersweet word. I no longer knew what it meant to me. Once, home had been a snug cave in the Alban wilderness where I was Moirin, daughter of Fainche, child of the Maghuin Dhonn.
That was still true; in a sense it would always be true. The folk of the Maghuin Dhonn carry our diadh-anams inside us, the divine spark of the Great Bear Herself that gives us life and guides us. It is the part of our soul that connects us to Her. To lose it would be like dying, worse than dying.
I knew, because I had lost half of mine.
Not lost, exactly. In fairness, I had given it away, although I hadn't known what I was doing at the time.
My mind shied away from the memory. The noble chestnut gelding I rode flattened his ears and tossed his head, sensing my unease. I stroked his neck, soothing him with my thoughts. "Peace, brave heart," I murmured.
He settled. On the lead-line, the pack-horse plodded patiently behind us.
They were gifts from Emperor Zhu, both of them. I carried a good many gifts. My rich silk robes were embroidered with bronze and amber chrysanthemums. Jade bangles rattled on my wrists and around my neck, hung on a silk cord, was a jade medallion carved with the Emperor's chop on one side and the Imperial dragon on the other. It would grant me safe passage anywhere in the empire of Ch'in.
Your jade-eyed witch soothes the dragon.
The chestnut sidled and pranced beneath me. I soothed him once more, and forced myself to cycle through the Five Styles of Breathing.
The Breath of Earth's Pulse, drawn into the pit of the belly and the depths of the groin, inhaled and exhaled through the mouth.
The Breath of Ocean's Rolling Waves, drawn in through the nostrils to the middle belly, out through the mouth.
The Breath of Trees Growing, circulating energy to the limbs, trading nourishment with the world.
The Breath of Embers Glowing, in and out through parted lips, quickening the heart and warming the blood.
The Breath of Wind's Sigh, pulled and expelled through the nostrils into the space between my eyes, making my head light.
I breathed the entire cycle as I rode, and while the discipline calmed and centered me, with every breath I drew, a memory assailed me. Stone and sea! There were so many of them.
Master Lo Feng.
He had taught me the Five Styles, taught me all that I knew of the Ch'in manner of meditation and harmony he called the Way. It had served me well in the conflict I was leaving behind me. It had let me find the strength and courage to serve as a companion to Princess Snow Tiger and the dragon whose indomitable celestial spirit was housed within her mortal flesh. Were it not for Master Lo's teaching, I would never have been able to help free the princess and the dragon from the curse that bound them together in the midst of a bloody civil war.
Nor could I have endured the aftermath, in which I put my small gift of magic in the service of Emperor Zhu, breathing in and swallowing the memories of hundreds upon hundreds of men who had conceived, built, and wielded the terrible weapons known as the Divine Thunder. I carried the ghosts of those memories within me yet, tasting of brass and sulfur, blood and smoke and horror.
I returned to the Breath of Wind's Sigh, willing it to carry away the lingering acrid tang.
My diadh-anam burned steadily within my breast, calling to its separated half somewhere to the northwest. Since there was no escaping the memory, I let myself think about Bao, the stubborn Ch'in peasant-boy who had walked away with half my soul inside him.
Bao hadn't liked me much at first, nor had I cared for him. He was Master Lo's apprentice, guide, and companion—his magpie, Master Lo called him. I remembered my first sight of him, a lean-muscled young man with dark eyes glinting with disdain under a shock of unkempt black hair, carrying a steaming pot of bone-marrow soup over his shoulder on a bamboo staff.
That had been in Terre d'Ange, the land of my father's birth, the land toward which I first set out in pursuit of my destiny. A quest laid upon me by the Maghuin Dhonn Herself.
In my youth and folly, I thought I had found it straightaway in the form of Raphael de Mereliot, the healer with the charmed touch—Raphael, who was able to merge his gift with mine, to channel my magic to heal others. Raphael, the Queen's favorite courtier and lover.
We had wrought miracles together.
And it had nearly killed me.
If it hadn't been for the Queen herself, it very well might have killed me. Jehanne de la Courcel. There, at least, was a memory that made me smile. Gods, I'd gotten myself involved in an almighty tangle when I came between Jehanne and Raphael. And yet in the end, it was Jehanne who had rescued me from Raphael's ambition, and Jehanne whom I had come to love. My father was a priest of Naamah, the D'Angeline goddess of desire, and his line was ancient in her service. Naamah's gifts ran strongly in my blood. I had found pleasure and pride in serving as Jehanne's companion.
It had hurt to leave her. It had been too soon. When my infernal destiny summoned me to accompany Master Lo Feng, Jehanne was carrying the King's child, and she was frightened. I wished I could have stayed until the child was born.
I couldn't regret leaving, though. Not after the purpose I had served in Ch'in. I had seen the dragon, once restored, launch himself in glory from White Jade Mountain, his undulating silver coils gleaming against the blue sky. I had ridden in his claw; I'd seen him summon the rain and drown the terrible weapons of the Divine Thunder, ending the war. I'd seen my impossibly valiant princess Snow Tiger restored to honor.
My diadh-anam flared as my thoughts circled back to him. When had I even begun to harbor a fondness for him? I couldn't say. Somewhere in the long hours we spent together in Terre d'Ange while Master Lo Feng taught us the Five Styles. Mayhap it was the first time I'd won an almost-smile from him.
It was on the long journey on the greatship to Ch'in that matters had changed between us. Thrust into constant companionship, Bao and I had become friends, then lovers. I'd caught a glimpse of the complicated knot of pride, stubbornness, and romantic yearning that lay behind his insouciant exterior. And Bao…
I don't know what Bao felt for me, not really. Out of bed, we were always a little bit guarded with one another, neither of us certain how much our relationship owed to convenience, proximity, and Master Lo's unsubtle encouragement.
If things had fallen out otherwise, it might have been different.
But once we reached Shuntian, the imprisoned dragon's jealousy had come between us, forcing us to be circumspect in our behavior. Later, we had said to one another; later. Over and over, in stolen moments throughout our long quest, we said this to one another. When this is all over, if we live through it, we will talk. Later.
A lump rose to my throat, forcing me to swallow hard.
My hands trembled on the reins.
There had been no later, because Bao had died. It was a moment etched in my memory. The captured sorcerer Black Sleeve turning in a graceful, unrepentant arc, the deadly sleeve of his robe flaring wide. A spray of poisoned darts.
The dragon's helpless roar.
Bao whirling, his broken staff in two pieces in his hands, intercepting the barrage.
One dart, a single dart, had gotten past him, had pierced his throat beneath the chiseled angle of his jaw. It had been enough.
I breathed the Breath of Ocean's Rolling Waves, the most calming of all the Five Styles. I let the memories wash over me.
I should have known; of course, I should have known. Master Lo had as good as told me. Today, I realize I have lived too long, he said. Emperor Zhu had known what he meant. For the first and only time, Master Lo had asked me to share my gift with him, his dark eyes grave and anguished. Are you willing to give a part of yourself that my magpie might live?
I remembered my frantic reply.
I should have known, but I didn't. When Master Lo Feng placed his hands on Bao's unmoving chest, I laid my hands over his and poured my energy into him, until I felt myself begin to fade and go away, until I saw the stone doorway that represents the portal into the after-life for the folk of the Maghuin Dhonn. For a moment, I thought I would pass through it, and the thought was not unwelcome.
Then my diadh-anam blazed and doubled…
… waking inside Bao.
Bao came to life with a startled shout, thrust out of the realms of death. Master Lo passed from it peacefully, his chin sinking to his chest, his eyes closing forever.
What would I have done if I had known, if I had grasped what should have been obvious? I cannot say. And in truth, it does not matter.
What was done, is done.
On that day, my stubborn peasant-boy went away from me. He told me he did not blame me for our mentor's death. He told me that if he had been given the opportunity to choose, he would have chosen to spend his life with me.
But he died without being given that chance, and what Master Lo did in restoring his life, dividing the divine spark of my diadh-anam between us, bound us together in a way that only a second death could undo.
And Bao needed to find a way to choose this, to make it his own. To reconcile the hard choices and uncertainties that had yoked my destiny to his, to believe that I had chosen him out of genuine desire and love, that it wasn't merely Master Lo's art at work.
So I let him go.
And I waited for him to come back to me. All the while I travelled Ch'in and served as the Emperor's swallower-of-memories, I waited for Bao. The Imperial entourage returned in triumph to Shuntian, where I waited for Bao. In the gardens of the Celestial City, I listened to poetry with the princess and waited for Bao.
He didn't come.
Instead, I sensed him moving farther away from me, carrying the twinned flame of my diadh-anam inside him. Moving away from me, toward the outskirts of the empire, toward the Great Wall that kept the Tatar horde at bay.
It was the princess—Snow Tiger, my brave, lovely princess—who reminded me that I, too, had a choice. She had given me the greatest gift of all, the fragile gift of trust. In the beginning, I had been nothing but an unwelcome burden to her; her necessary inconvenience, she had called me. Much had changed between us by the end, and I carried private, tender memories of her that warmed my heart.
But nothing, nothing could replace what I had lost. And yes, I had a choice. So I had set out to find my stubborn peasant-boy.
If Bao would not come to me, I would go to him.
At least, I hoped so.
I took a room at a travellers' inn that first night. There was a time when I would have eschewed man-made walls for the freedom of the outdoors, but I had grown more civilized since leaving my home in Alba. After a long day's ride, the notion of a hot meal and a roof over my head appealed to me.
The ostler at the stable gaped at the sight of me, revealing a few missing teeth. On the road, I'd managed not to attract overmuch attention merely by dint of keeping my head lowered and my eyes averted. To be sure, a seemingly well-off young woman travelling alone drew curious glances, but at a quick, stealthy glance, with my coloring I could almost pass for Ch'in. My straight, black hair, I'd inherited from my mother. My skin was a warm golden hue, fairer than my mother's, but not nearly so fair as my D'Angeline father's milk-white skin.
I had his eyes, though. Green as grass, green as the rushes grow. And I had a measure of the fearful, keen-edged symmetry of D'Angeline beauty, coupled with the untamed spark of the Maghuin Dhonn. No one looking me full in the face could mistake me for aught but what I was: the Emperor's jade-eyed witch.
The ostler barked at a young stable-lad in an unfamiliar dialect. The boy went pelting toward the inn proper. I settled my battered canvas satchel over my shoulder and followed him. I hadn't gone ten steps before a solidly built middle-aged woman, clearly the proprietress of the establishment, came bustling down the path toward me. Her shrewd gaze raked me over, taking in my fine robes, my jade bangles, and the Emperor's medallion.
I bowed in the Ch'in manner, hand over fist, and spoke in the Shuntian scholar's tongue, the only one I knew. "Greetings, Honored Aunt. I seek lodging for the night."
A smile broke over her face. "You are the foreign witch, are you not? The one who freed the dragon?"
"Aye," I agreed. "I am."
She clutched my arm in a companionable manner, tugging me toward the inn. "Come, come! We are honored to give you hospitality. No charge, no charge at all. You must call me Auntie Li."
"You're very kind," I said politely. "But I can pay."
The proprietress snorted, squeezed my arm, and gave me a conspiratorial wink. "I'm nothing of the sort, child. I'm a greedy old widow who knows that folk will pay to hear tales of the Emperor's witch's stay here. Indulge me."
I smiled. "All right, Auntie Li."
She was right, of course. A silence fell over the common room of the inn when she ushered me inside. Men paused, teacups halfway to their mouths, staring.
But I was used to it.
I'd been stared at a great deal in my short life. In Alba, I had been my mother's well-kept secret—not due to any sense of shame, but simply my mother's own taciturn nature. Folk there had found it startling that a woman of the Maghuin Dhonn, a descendant of Alais the Wise, had borne a half-D'Angeline child.
In Terre d'Ange, folk had found it just as startling that a full-blooded D'Angeline man—a Priest of Naamah, no less—had chosen to couple with one of the infamous bear-witches of the Maghuin Dhonn, fathering a child on her.
And in Ch'in…
Vast as it was, the mighty empire of Ch'in was insular, circumscribed by its Great Wall and its outer shores. No one in that inn knew or cared aught about my heritage. I was the foreign witch who had helped free the dragon. It was enough.
"Sit." Auntie Li showed me to a low table, pressed on my shoulder.
She clapped her hands together. Food came—hot, steamed dumplings with spiced pork and a dipping sauce. Noodle soup with green onions floating atop the broth and chicken feet stewed until they were gelatinous and tender. Auntie Li hovered over me, pouring hot water into my teacup whenever it grew low, nodding approvingly as I shoveled noodles into my mouth and sucked chicken flesh from the bone, tilting the bowl to slurp the dregs of the broth.
"You eat like a proper Ch'in woman," she observed.
I lowered the bowl. "I've had practice."
"Huh." Her shrewd gaze measured me. "Is it true you seek the twice-born one?"
I paused. "Twice-born?"
Auntie Li beckoned to one of her servers. He bowed and brought a small porcelain jar with two cups. She made an impatient gesture. "Drink your tea, drink it down. Indulge me, child. I will read the leaves for you while we enjoy this wine."
I downed my tea, leaving the leaves strewn and stranded on the bottom and the sides of the thin porcelain cup. Auntie Li studied them, tilting the cup this way and that. She set it aside and poured a measure of rice-wine for both of us, motioning for me to drink.
"So?" I obeyed. "What did you mean by the twice-born one, Auntie?"
"Born once into life, twice out of death, or so they are saying." Her brow furrowed. She drank her own rice-wine, then picked up the teacup again and bent her head over it, a straight white line delineating the part in her hair. "Hints of your fate are written here. Do you see? Here and here?"
I peered at the tea leaves. Despite Snow Tiger's best efforts, I was fairly illiterate when it came to reading Ch'in characters. During that last week I had lingered in Shuntian, she had teased me about it, wielding her long, braided hair like a ticklish brush and drawing characters on my bare skin.
Surely you recognize that one, Moirin.
The memory made me smile. I saw the shape of that character echoed in the pattern of the tea leaves. "Desire?"
"Desire, yes." Auntie Li nodded. Her forefinger moved, pointing. "But you see here, it lies in conflict with judgment. Does that mean anything to you?"
I thought about it before shaking my head. "No. I don't know. Whose judgment, Auntie? Mine?"
She shrugged. "I can only tell you what the leaves say. I cannot tell you what it means. Desire in conflict with judgment lies ahead of you."
"To be sure, it lies behind me." Raphael de Mereliot's face surfaced in my thoughts, his grey eyes stormy with anger. Even though there were untold oceans between us, it made me shiver. I had been very young and very foolish. I'd let Raphael use me to summon fallen spirits. If it hadn't been for Bao and Master Lo, a terrible force would have been loosed into the world. "But that is not a mistake I will make again."
Auntie Li smiled wryly, refilling our cups with rice-wine. "There are no end of mistakes to be made, dear."
"Am I making one now?" I asked her.
Her face softened. "Ah, child! I cannot tell you that, either. Do you love the boy? Is that why you seek him?"
A hundred memories of Bao cascaded through my mind: Bao staring insolently at me as I sought to master the Five Styles of Breathing, Bao shouting at me as he drove the demon spirit back, Bao helping Master Lo tenderly to his feet, Bao sporting his battle-grin as he sparred with Snow Tiger.
It should have been simple, only it wasn't.
I did love him. I remembered the moment I had realized it. When I had first fled Shuntian with the dragon-possessed princess and a handful of loyal ruffians, Bao and Master Lo had gone ahead to lay a false trail. They had been late in returning, and I'd begun to fear they weren't coming.
I would not let that happen, Moirin.
Those were the words Bao had spoken when they did arrive and I confessed my fear to him, the closest he'd ever come to a declaration of love. My heart had leapt.
It wasn't why I was following him. I was following him because he had half of my diadh-anam and I couldn't do otherwise.
"I don't know, Auntie," I said truthfully at last. "It's a question I'm hoping to answer, and I cannot do it alone."
"Poor child." Auntie Li patted my hand. The look of kindness in her shrewd eyes nearly undid me. "Don't pay too much heed to an old lady's rambling. If the boy's got a lick of sense, he won't run far."
I smiled despite the sting of tears. "I'm not sure he does."
She sipped her rice-wine. "That probably makes two of you."
I laughed. "You're probably right."
So began the pattern of my days.
For the most part, it was a lonely time. I thought I was accustomed to solitude. I'd grown up in the Alban wilderness with only my mother's companionship. But she had been a constant in my life; and later, there had been Cillian, my lost first love, killed in a foolish cattle-raid.
Here, I had no one.
Oh, there were folk I met along the way, though none who took so lively an interest in me as Auntie Li. But with each new day that dawned, I was forced to leave them behind and set out on my lonely road.
I was grateful for the company of my horses. I named the chestnut saddle-horse Ember, and the grey pack-horse I called Coal. As a child of the Maghuin Dhonn, I was able to sense their thoughts and moods in a way most folk couldn't. Betimes I would let my thoughts drift, touching theirs, enjoying the simplicity of their reactions to the world around them.
Betimes I immersed my own thoughts in the world around me, breathing the Breath of Trees Growing and listening to nature.
Winter was coming, sooner than I would have hoped. I heard it in the sleepy murmurings of the trees, the sap growing sluggish in their veins. I heard it in the anxious whispers of the winter wheat in the fields, straining to outrace the coming frost. I saw it in the worried faces of farmers along the way.
The days began to grow shorter.
I wasn't worried, not yet. So long as I was in the empire of Ch'in, I was safe. I could always find a place to lodge, supplies to purchase. It grew harder to communicate as I rode, for the farther away from Shuntian I went, the fewer folk spoke the scholar's tongue. Still, I managed with friendly gestures and a few words of dialect picked up along the way; and the Emperor's seal spoke for itself.
But I was fairly certain Bao was no longer in Ch'in.
I couldn't be sure beyond doubt. It was a vast country. Still, when Snow Tiger had bade me consult my diadh-anam in conjunction with a map, it had been clear that Bao was headed for Tatar territory.
And I had a suspicion of the reason why.
Master Lo's tranquil voice echoed in my memory. Through no fault of his own, Bao is a child of violence.
Rape, he meant—the crime D'Angelines called heresy. Folk who know no better reckon D'Angelines are a licentious lot. They are not entirely wrong—in Terre d'Ange, all manner of love and desire is freely celebrated—but it is far from the whole truth. Blessed Elua, the earth-begotten son of Yeshua ben Yosef and Mary the Magdalene, the deity who Naamah and the other Companions chose to follow, turning their backs on the One God's Heaven, gave his people one simple precept: Love as thou wilt.
So they do, but it is within the bounds of the sacred tenet of consensuality. To violate it is to commit heresy.
Bao's mother had been raped during a Tatar raid, that much I knew. When it became evident that he was the result of that violence, and not the legitimate offspring of his parents' marriage, they had sold him into servitude to a travelling circus. He had been trained and raised as an acrobat, but fighting was in his blood. At the age of thirteen, he had begged the troupe's best stick-fighter to teach him. And Bao had been willing to pay any price to learn.
He say, you be my peach-bottom boy, I teach you.
Thinking on it, I shuddered.
In some ways, I think it troubled me more than it did Bao. I hadn't been raised to think of myself as a D'Angeline—indeed, I was ten years old before it occurred to me to wonder who my father was—but I had always felt Naamah's presence in my life. The bright lady, I had called her. When the Maghuin Dhonn Herself at once accepted me as Her child and sent me forth to seek my destiny, I had no idea where to begin. So I set out to solve the only mystery I knew, and crossed the Straits to seek my father in Terre d'Ange.
I had found him, too; and as it transpired, he was one of the loveliest, gentlest souls I had ever encountered. When I was in a mood to resent my infernal destiny, one of the things I resented the most was that it had taken me away from my father so soon, when I'd scarce had a chance to know him.
The other, of course, was leaving Jehanne.
Well and so, it was done, and even on my darkest days, I could not deny there was a purpose in it. And I could not help but think that Bao travelled a similar path. He had died. His soul had travelled to the Ch'in spirit world. Because he had died a hero's death, the merciful Maiden of Gentle Aspect had intervened to spare him the judgment of the Yama Kings. And then he found himself reborn into his body, with his soul inextricably yoked to mine and his mentor Master Lo Feng dead.
- On Sale
- Jun 14, 2010
- Page Count
- 576 pages
- Grand Central Publishing