When Cazaril first saw Ista, as a child in Valenda, she had been little more than a child herself, a dream of springtime and light. When he came to her again, she had seemed little more than the ghosts she spoke of, pale and vague and only tenuously rooted in this world. When he spoke with her in Cardegoss after the lifting of the curse, she was uncertain, a wounded veteran of her ugly battlefields.
Today, as she walked out the gates of Porifors to meet him, she fairly glowed with purpose, and he knew without needing the second sight that she had seen divinity since he last spoke with her. Umegat had told him, once, that there was a look a man gets. Ista had that look. She was alive again, the girl he had known transformed through fire and glory into radiance.
Cazaril dismounted heavily – the ride had been a long and hard one – and nearly stumbled in his haste to cross the courtyard. One of the soldier-brothers who had ridden with him caught his elbow, to his annoyance – he didn’t need the man’s support -- but when the soldier released him, he wavered a minute, unsteady. Perhaps he was more tired than he thought.
He made his way to Ista without any embarrassing sprawls in the mud, and bowed formally. “My lady. I perceive that you have had, ah, high visitors. And interesting adventures.” He searched her face for reflections of remembered glory.
She smiled down at him. “Chancellor dy Cazaril. Thank you for coming so quickly.” With a slight note of reproof in her voice, she added, “May I introduce Lord Illvin dy Arbanos, commander of Porifors.”
Cazaril had hardly noticed the man in Roknari braids beside Ista, and realized two things from the tall man’s scowl: first, that his attention to the royina had been more obvious than he liked to think, and second, that Lord Illvin’s feeling for the royina tended towards the possessive. Interesting.
He tried for a recovery to his poor manners with an apologetic smile and a half-bow. “Lord Illvin. My greetings, and thanks for your hospitality and your warning. The March dy Palliar follows a few days behind me with two thousand men.” He felt his smile twist rueful. “We needed a few days to mobilize.”
“If he can arrive in only a few days, I’m amazed by his efficiency,” replied Lord Illvin. “You are welcome to Porifors, my lord dy Cazaril. We’ve prepared rooms for you.”
“That would be a kindness,” Cazaril admitted. “I could stand a hot bath and a hot meal. But – “ His eyes moved back to Ista, drawn almost against his will. “Royina, could we speak? Tonight?”
Ista’s smile recognized the need in his, although he suspected there was irony behind her sympathy. “Soon,” she promised him. “We have a great deal to discuss.”
He found her after dinner, seated beneath a magnificent apricot tree in the forecourt. The sky was darkening, but there were torches placed around the area, offering plenty of light to see by. He stopped a few feet away, and cleared his throat diffidently. “May I join you, my lady?”
Ista, who had been gazing up into the branches of the tree, turned her head at his words, and smiled at him. “Please do.” She laid one hand briefly on the stone bench. “You have… many questions. Most probably, I can answer only a few of them. I am still feeling my way into this. As you know.”
The irony in her voice was almost palpable, and Cazaril choked on a laugh. “Oh, yes. I would suggest a primer for sainthood as a most worthy exercise for some inspired scholar, but I suspect no two paths look the same. I suspect the advice would all reduce down to ‘Pray, if you dare it.’”
Ista’s answering smile was wholly understanding. “I have been through this twice now, and they were wholly different roads. I am come to this out of season, I fear. Appropriately.”
“But…” Cazaril hesitated, choosing his words. “You seem well, royina. Whole. Whatever you have found here, was healing among it?”
Ista glanced up at the fortress briefly, and her eyes crinkled at the corners. “Oh, yes,” she breathed. “I have been given… much.”
Cazaril remembered Lord Illvin of the Roknari braids, and his frown. Yes, there was certainly something there, but it was not his matter to pry into. He might, he thought, hint to Royina Iselle, if she looked to be blindsided… or perhaps not. Family matters, after all. “I am glad to hear it,” he murmured. “You have surely earned the healing.”
“Some of us get what we earn,” Ista answered. “Others are… differently fortunate.”
“You have seen your goddess?”
“What?” For a few seconds, Ista stared at him in bewilderment, and then she pressed a hand to her mouth in a vain effort to stop the laughter that spilled out. Cazaril stared back in bewildered helplessness. Had he said something amusing?
After a moment, she regained control, and dropped her hand from her mouth to her chest. “My apologies,” she managed. “I… forget sometimes how much has changed. No, the Mother and I are… not on speaking terms. I am in her son’s service now. I eat demons.”
Cazaril started to speak, then hesitated. “I… think I may have misheard you, my lady.”
“No, I suspect you didn’t. I eat demons.” After a beat, she added, “The Bastard has a vile sense of humor. I rather suspect it’s why we get on so well, though I’d not say it to his face.”
“Do you, ah –“ Cazaril wondered how to wind his way through this treacherous ground. “Expect the opportunity?”
“I don’t know,” Ista answered, and let out a sigh. The levity was gone, now. “He comes to me in dreams, from time to time. The last… that was something different. I think that I was dead.”
Cazaril’s hand was curled in the fabric of his trousers to keep from reaching out to her physically, thirsty for that remembered radiance. “I… have been in a place very like that, my lady.” His voice, he thought, was commendably even.
Ista’s eyes locked with his. “It is… I cannot hold it all in my mind,” she said quietly. “Light, and color, and shape.”
“Music,” Cazaril added, and it all stirred inside him again, that sense of things that cannot be remembered, leaving only shadows as imprints on his memory. “Poetry and song and sensation. I tried to capture it in poetry, for a time.”
“How did that serve you?”
“Poorly,” Cazaril admitted.
“I remember,” Ista mused, “thinking that a newborn babe must experience the world in such a way. With no context for anything, trying to comprehend it all with no frame for reference. No wonder they cry.”
Cazaril smiled briefly. “I walked around in a daze for… weeks, afterwards. It was not that the world seemed unreal, but too real, in comparison. It’s a miracle I didn’t stumble off a wall somewhere along the way.”
“There was no time for that here,” Ista admitted. “And I was… perhaps more inured.”
They both let that hang in the air between them. After a moment, Cazaril said, “Your thought, about newborn babes – do you suppose what we saw is what all souls see, when they are taken up by the gods? A new world, full of a new lifetime of learning and exploration?”
“I don’t know,” Ista replied. “I don’t know what I wish for. It was almost painful. I couldn’t bear it.”
“Growth is always painful.” Cazaril sighed. “I would like to hear that music again.”
The two of them sat together, under the apricot tree, listening for the remembered strains of a song that was no song, for several minutes.
It evaded Cazaril. The moment was gone.
“So,” he said. “You… eat demons?”
Ista laughed, and they were altogether human and alive again. “Let us go find Lord Illvin,” she said. “It is a long story.”