You’ll remember me when the west wind moves
Upon the fields of barley-
“Fields of Gold” by Sting
The sun shone down in its midday fullness.
Betriz sat on the bank of the stream in Valenda, watching her children and grandchildren splash around in it. The older children were attempting to teach the younger ones to swim properly, but they were mostly just getting very wet.
She felt a pang at the thought of another swimming instructor, long ago. His namesake ran up to her and plopped down on the grass at her feet. “Grandmama, are you going to swim with us?”
She reached out to tousle his damp black locks. “Not today, dear heart. Perhaps tomorrow.” Heedless of being soaking wet, he hugged her and kissed her cheek before scampering off to rejoin his cousins.
She shifted her attention to a bumblebee that buzzed past her. She focused on the fine texture of its furry body and the vibrancy of its yellow stripes. Pollen clung to its legs after he left the brilliant pink flower on which it had landed, yet its heavy load did not deter it from its purpose. It was an amazing creature, and someone had to appreciate all its beauty and power when the one she expected to notice these things was no longer here.
Betriz climbed into bed beside her husband of forty years. His gaze was far away. She touched his shoulder, and he turned to her, confused. The fog from these moments was taking longer and longer to clear. Sometimes she felt that he already had one foot in whatever other world he visited.
However, he blinked and his gray eyes finally focused on her. “Ah, Betriz,” he sighed, wrapping an arm around her and drawing her against his chest. “I saw the most fascinating sight today. An ant was trying to lift a fallen piece of bread that was bigger than its whole body. It failed, but it just kept trying. Finally, a few of its fellows came along, and they all lifted it together. We could learn lessons from ants sometimes.”
She smiled. Such stories were also becoming more frequent of late. Ever since his meeting with the Daughter, her husband had always noticed such small details, but those stories were starting to crowd out his attention to mundane human matters. Still, she could not begrudge him his serenity at such moments. He focused most clearly on the present when seeing these little pieces of the world’s puzzle, and when thinking of her and their children.
“Although I must say that some of the courtiers nowadays could stand to be a little less like ants.” He mimed looking at the ground. “Shuffling forward, only following the crowd.”
“Haven’t courtiers always been like that?”
“Well, I suppose so. Does this make you glad that I accepted your proposal so many years ago and saved you from having to marry one of them?”
“As if you had a choice. Iselle commanded it.”
“Too true, but the Royina has always been wise beyond her years. And I do feel grateful, every day, that you asked for me.”
“I have always been grateful also, Caz.”
She was grateful for the years they had. The bee had flown away, and she turned her gaze to the flower on which it had perched. It and its neighbors were blooming, independent of any human intervention. She felt their green-ness and the life of them. She reached out to one, but she couldn’t bring herself to touch it.
“Am I wrong to pray that this is the last of the Mother’s gifts?” She rubbed her swollen stomach as Caz supported her into their bedchamber.
“Not at all, my love. I believe you’ve done your share of mothering.” She gaped at the sight that met her eyes. Flowers of every color and description filled every bit of space. There was only a narrow path to the bed on one side that was free of riotous vegetation.
“Cazaril, what is this?” He looked impossibly smug, and she realized that he must have gone to some effort to plan this.
“I thought all these flowers might give you some inspiration. There’s so little real life in the Zangre.”
“Yes, very little. Aside from us and our children and Iselle and Bergon and their children and dozens of courtiers. These plants might give me more inspiration to sneeze, though.” She proved herself correct when she sneezed twice in quick succession.
“Oh, I didn’t consider that. I’ll call someone to take them away immediately.” She sneezed once more as he went back out through the still open chamber door.
Within the hour, the plants were gone, but their aromas remained. She continued to sneeze and sniffle intermittently, and the inspiration passed to Cazaril. They formed quite a chorus. He promised never to do that again, whether they found themselves the recipients of the Mother’s gifts again or not.
The wildflowers were erupting around her in a riot of color. So much variety. So much life. She swiped away a stray tear that was falling down her cheek. Barto came to sit next to her. “I miss him, too, Mother.”
“I know. We all do.” They sat in silence for a time. “I’m sure that he’s happy now, in the care of the Daughter. She will watch out for him wherever he is because he served her so faithfully in life.” A corner of her still refused to believe that he existed anywhere, but she had to rely on the larger part of her that had come to have faith in some other world. And she would not begrudge him that undisturbed happiness, but she could admit to herself that she still wished that he were here with her.
“And one day—we must hope not too soon—you’ll be able to join him. Have you thought of what you’ll do now? You are welcome to stay with us here whenever you wish.”
“Thank you, son, but I will stay where I have always belonged, at Iselle’s side. Our world is never as stable we might wish it, and she needs her true friends to remain by her side.”
“Don’t you think you, Aunt Iselle, and Uncle Bergon deserve a rest from your labors? Is it not our turn to take up your mantles?”
“Perhaps, but I do not want a rest from my labor just yet. That would leave me too much time missing your father and thinking about the past.” She smiled wryly across at her son in the full prime of his manhood, a true devotee of the Son. “Besides, we are not dead yet. We still have some good to do.”
Barto looked abashed. “I did not mean that, Mother. I only want you to have a comfortable life.”
“Thank you, my dear. I do have one. I will miss your father until the end of my days, but there is still much to hold me within the Zangre. If you want to make me more comfortable, induce your family and your siblings to visit me a little more often.”
“We will.” He kissed her hand as gallantly as any courtier, and she choked on her tears. He was the very image of her Cazaril, but she recovered herself before she could cause her son distress. Another of the children came bounding over, and their attention was diverted by a plea to come and see the butterflies.
She watched him as he looked out over the wide expanse of the sea. She could imagine what dark thoughts were swirling through his head, but she still dared not broach the subject with him. She could only hope the personal news she had for him, along with the military victory, would assuage his terror at being near the sea.
“Soon the sea will be decorated with the white sails of a hundred Ibran ships. It will be prettier then, won’t it, husband?” She had underestimated his abstraction. He jumped so much that she was grateful he was not closer to the edge of the battlement.
By the time he turned to her, he had recovered himself and gestured for her to come closer. “Yes, it will be quite a sight.” She wrapped her arms around his torso, leaning against him. Both of their gazes were fixed on the middle distance. She imagined a swath of prosperous fishing villages, with Ibrans and Chalionese working and living together, with no fear of Roknari pirates. Sailors would haul in their nets filled to the brim with shining fish while buxom housewives cleaned and prepared the catch and sold their wares to each other. Fat children and tabby cats would scamper around underfoot, being a delightful nuisance.
It would be a safe world for Barto and Isara and others to come.
“What are you smiling about, love? I know you don’t share my prejudices against the sea, but we are on a military campaign. Yet you look absolutely content.”
“I was just imagining our children growing up in a brighter, freer world.”
She waited for the impact of her word choice to sink in; it took approximately five seconds. “Children?” A dawning smile broke through his gloom.
“Yes, I’m with child again.” Her own happiness broke out in an off-kilter grin that was the perfect counterpoint to Caz’s slightly teary-eyed wonder.
“Yes, I waited to tell you this time. I’m positively sure.”
He embraced her, resting his head against her shoulder. “This will certainly give me a happier memory of the sea.”
“That was my intention. It is our children’s future after all. We will make it safe for them, so that they may delight in it with abandon.”
The day was finally winding down. The joyful splashing had dissipated as the children had begun to feel the chill of the early evening. The parents rounded them up and helped them into their dry, sun-warmed outer clothes. Eventually, they shepherded all of them back through the meadow, up to the back gate where only one guard ushered them into the confines of the building.
Betriz remained at the back of the procession, content to watch her family spread out before her. It was one of the few things that she and Caz had marveled at with the same intensity. That they could be the genesis of so much life. The very abundance of it threatened to overwhelm her. She was glad that her daughter-in-law had remained by her side, supporting her, even if she did seem to think her chief emotion was grief.
She realized with a new lightness that grief was a natural part of this cycle. It was the bitter that enhanced the sweetness of all the love she felt for the people surrounding her. To let the fear of grief crowd out those joys was the real loss. She and Caz had helped create their family together, and they would live through the remaining joys and sorrows in this life together. She would not be alone. The world was too full of small miracles to let one’s life be ruled by grief. If Caz was not here to notice them any longer, she would have to take them all in for him.
She took a deep breath. This was completeness. She sensed that there was still far more to life that she would learn in the future. But for now she was content with this new world-widening experience alone.
Their limbs were still tangled together, and she had never felt such satisfaction. Caz was looking at her with half-lidded eyes. “That was worth waiting for.”
“Yes, I think so. You even forgot about your back and your hand in the middle.”
“Well, it’s difficult to remember such things when completely entranced by your new wife.”
“So we should do this more often.”
“I do hope to make it a regular practice.” He leaned over and kissed her to illustrate his point. She reveled in it. She was beginning to see why no one in power wanted maidens to have sex. The raw connection of it was bound to make her forget all her other duties. She may still be Iselle’s chief handmaiden, but in this moment, she felt she was Caz’s wife first, foremost, and forever.
She wanted to voice this thought to him, but it came out as merely a breathy sigh. He looked up from where he was kissing a trail down the center of her body, one brow raised in question. “Go on. It’s nothing.” He followed her suggestion, and she was lost for words again.
Their first night continued that way until morning, sharing in each other’s pleasure, not hiding a single thing. The dawn light bathed them in gold as they finally lay exhausted and sated, not moving a finger. She nestled closer to him, and he wrapped his arms fully about her.
“Can we stay here, just the two of us, all day?” he murmured.
She smiled. “I already extracted promises from Iselle that she would disturb us only if the Zangre were crumbling around us.”
“We’re safe then.” He kissed her temple and settled back against his pillow. They both fell into a doze then but remained lying close together throughout. She knew now that, even if Caz was called far away from her for a time, it would always be the two of them together. That would be their starting point, their unassailable certainty, no matter what might come after this day.