Their reward had come when, a full turn of seasons after his coronation, King Thierry de la Courcel declared that the honour of the ruling house in the duchy of Kusheth would be conferred upon House Shahrizai, for services rendered and unwavering loyalty.
House de Morbhan, waning in their power and influence, could only put up small resistance, and it was easily crushed beneath the heroism of Balthasar Shahrizai, alone of Kushiel’s servants, elected to board Naamah’s Dove and sail with Moirin mac Fainche to the other side of the world.
The celebration had run strong for a fortnight. And though Balthasar’s absence had been remarked upon, it was only in passing, shushed by the matriarch, who understood her nephew better than most.
Balthasar did not drink and fuck and cut with his kin.
He divided his time between the palace, and the small manor in its shadow. It was a modest place, walled in and somewhat formidable from outside but charming and warm inside, with its courtyard and its deceptively spacious layout.
There were rumours, but Balthasar ignored them. The house had been gifted to the Shahrizai a thousand years before, when Phèdre nó Delaunay had given the property to Mavros Shahrizai. Balthasar could trace his heritage in a direct line to the man who had brought Imriel de la Courcel into the fold of his family and the house had been his since he came of age.
Balthasar was sitting on a low sedan, studying the ancient, but still hale bust of Anafiel Delaunay that had occupied its plinth for centuries when the messenger arrived. And while he was expecting a man in the silvery blue Courcel livery, it was Moirin who took a seat beside him.
“Balthasar!” she said in amused, chiding tones when he turned and promptly swept her up into his embrace. “Be careful.”
It was then that he saw the roundness of her belly, pressing against the ruby hues of her gown.
“Peace, and give me a moment to consider that you have allowed one such as Bao to assume the mantle of fatherhood. He is as unsuited to it as I.” Despite the mockery, Balthasar could not stop the gladness that warmed his words. For her part, Moirin heard and pretended her admonishment.
“Surely you jest?” she questioned, assuming a look of hurt.
Balthasar laughed, perhaps truly for the first time since his return to Terre d’Ange. In the freeing feeling of his own mirth, he acknowledged that he had missed Moirin, that her refreshing frankness about the world was a glaring absence in the fawning of the D’angeline court.
“Of course. Congratulations, Moirin - I am happier that I can say.” He meant the words, the intent clear in the quiet joy that took the seriousness out of the statement.
She glowed. Balthasar had always known there was somewhat special about Moirin, had always seen the glimmer that followed just in her wake. It was his gift, from his Lord Kushiel and it had opened his eyes to hers. This, though, was different - she seemed to hum with a quiet certainty, a gladness Moirin had not had when he first met her. And though jealousy for her contentment pricked at him, he did not envy her. Only wished he had the same.
“Where is Bao?” he asked, breaking the silence, tearing his gaze away from the exotic mix of her eyes and cheekbones to once more study the austere features of one of the Terre d’Ange’s greatest minds.
“Bonding with Eglantine House. He has missed them a great deal, I wager,” Moirin answer, laughter and love clear in her tone.
Balthasar’s husky, rich chuckle joined hers. The passing fondness of the Eglantine adepts for Bao was shared by him - in Bao, Balthasar found a mind as unexpectedly agile as his own, and a sense of humour that valiantly withstood all sly teasings.
He quickly sobered though, pinning Moirin with a thoughtful sapphire stare. “I assume that this is more than a casual visit?” he said, tiring of the pleasantries. He recognised Moirin’s relief and knew that like him, she would much rather get to the point.
The woman shook her head, and seemed to gather herself. “Xue Hu has sent an emissary.”
“Princess Snow Tiger?” One of the ways Moirin wiled away the endless hours at sea had been to recount the stories of her adventures for the entertainment of the crew. The tales she told Balthasar in the heart of the night, however, were not the same.
Moirin nodded. “Yes. She arrived this morning and has, along with her people, been given quarter at the palace. It’s a courtesy call, she informed Thierry, and one that is primarily to inquire as to my doings. Snow Tiger has been having nightmares and they are all about me. When they stopped, she sent Mai to find out why.”
“Yes. Mai Rhyuken. I am told she is the head of the princess’ guard these days. She certainly seems to wield considerable authority - when she ascertained that I was whole and content, she sent a man running for their greatship in Marsilikos as if the nine devils of hell were on his heels.”
Balthasar wondered about that. His knowledge of Ch’in was spotted, at best, but he knew their opinions on women and their place in the world. Since Moirin’s visit, however, things seem to have… relaxed.
“Thierry is throwing a fete tomorrow night, to welcome her. You are, of course, invited. But Balthasar…” Here, Moirin hesitated, glanced away as if Anafiel Delaunay’s carved profile might give her guidance. The silence flowed and then ebbed when he spoke.
“You would like me to escort her?”
“Not in so many words, no. Rather, I would like you to serve as companion to her while she is here. D’angeline ways are foreign and strange to the people of Ch’in and you are an excellent example of them all.”
“Moirin,” he laughed, “you flatter me.”
“Hardly. Please Balthasar, show her the city and introduce her to our lands and people. I do not know how long she will linger, but I wish her to leave with a favourable impression.”
“Politicking Moirin… you?”
She had the good grace to blush. “Well, it was actually Bao’s idea.”
This time his laughter was freer and fuller than it had been before. Rising, he offered her a bow and then his hand in assistance. “Of course, Moirin. You know you need only ask once.”
She smiled at him then, and placed her hand in his. Balthasar had always felt blessed that of all the love Moirin had to give the world, she gave some of it to him. He helped her rise and then tucked her arm into his, steering her toward the courtyard, where the scent of jasmine played in abundance.
“You must be hungry. Come, let us eat. And you can tell me what you think of this Mai Rhyuken.”
“Well, she is very interesting…”
Of that, at least, Balthasar had little doubt.