I stood in the prow of the boat, watching somewhat anxiously for the first sight of land. We had been at sea a week and more, so I was able to do so without difficulty. It was a long voyage that had brought us here. A long road indeed. Soon it would finally be finished, one way or another.
I felt Phèdre's arms wrap around my waist. She had sensed my mood and left me alone during these last few days, unquestioningly offering me her silent, warm comfort at night. I was grateful for the space, as I was grateful for her presence now. I turned, taking her in my arms, and placed a kiss atop her head. She wore no scent here at sea, but I breathed deeply, finding strength in her own natural, heady fragrance. Phèdre smelled sweet, like roses, reminding me of Naamah's temple, with an undercurrent of something more besides. Something spicy and heady – myrrh, mayhap, or spikenard.
“Our last great adventure...” I murmured into her hair.
Phèdre pulled back and smiled, though it didn't quite reach her eyes. “Are you certain, my love?”
I squeezed her tightly. “Yes.” My voice sounded husky, and for once it had naught to do with Phèdre's effect on me. “This is a long time coming.”
She nodded, but she still looked worried. It was a look I saw very rarely, at least since she'd gotten the name of God inside her head. Few people ever saw that look on her face at all, so I accepted it with gladness, knowing that she trusted me enough to bare her heart. I kissed her then, deeply, feeling some of the tension ebb away as she swayed into me.
“I'll do naught to gainsay this,” she whispered as we pulled apart, “but I worry. I can't help it. I seldom fear to lose you in the face of any danger, but if I ever were to lose you, I'd lose you to yourself. It was a close call once. I don't dare to tempt fate a second time.” She swallowed, gazing back behind us, where the ghost of La Serenissima loomed.
“We're not tempting fate, Phèdre. We're not doing anything at all.” I held her gaze, my voice turning sharp. “Swear it. Swear that you won't interfere this time. All that I've done, I've done for you.” I felt her stiffen in my arms, and I hurried to reassure her. “And, believe me, I know full well all that you've done for me. I'm forever grateful for it. But this – this is something I must do for myself.”
Phèdre bit her lip, her dark eyes holding mine. The mote in her left eye seemed to flare at me, to swallow me in a flash of crimson, and I knew deep down, where bronze wings fluttered within my chest, that Kushiel agreed with me despite his chosen's reservations. “You could lose your wits,” she said, her voice plaintive. But yielding. Deep down, she, too, knew this was right.
I smiled down at her. “It's happened once or twice before. They always come back.”
I sensed more than saw the horizon darken to my left, and I turned back to the prow like a hound on the scent. The Temenos. Slowly, my gaze returned to Phèdre. I said nothing, waiting.
“All right!” Phèdre sighed, squeezing my hand. “I swear it. I'll not interfere.”
My stomach lurched as my feet hit dry ground, and I staggered. I saw Phèdre reach toward me and then stop herself, fully committed in her resolve not to interfere. Instead, she inclined her head as she saw someone coming toward us, a still sad but sincere smile lighting her face. I tried to get a good look, but the ground swayed in my vision. I swallowed down bile.
“Welcome!” a rich voice called out in Hellene. “But not strangers, no. Not all of you.” A bearded man, his curly hair twined in a diadem of ribbons, came forward and gave Phèdre the kiss of greeting. I knew from her description that he must be the Hierophant even before I noticed the twin lines of seven youths coming down the path just behind him. I assumed from her previous descriptions that there were seven, anyway. I found it hard to focus on anything just yet, and I took deep breaths to steady myself.
“My lord Hierophant! It is good to see you again.”
“And you, lypiphera. This is a surprise.” His deep-set eyes fell upon me as he pulled away from her. “Welcome, supplicant.”
I startled mid-bow, surprised that he named me thusly at first sight, and was rewarded with a kind smile. “I am Oeneus Asterius,” he continued, “Hierophant of the Temenos. As you have passed by the wide harbors and the company of men, Mother Dia grant you welcome. You have come to be cleansed?”
I swallowed and nodded. I knew enough Hellene to make out most of his words, but I responded in Caerdicci, which I could speak with ease. “I am Joscelin Verreuil of Terre d'Ange. I wish to be cleansed of my sins.”
The Hierophant nodded sagely, then glanced between Phèdre and myself. “Come,” He said, switching easily to Caerdicci. He dismissed a few of the attendants to see to our ship, a merchant vessel which had been arranged for us by Kazan Atrabiades. Kazan had sent quite a tribute for them, requiring several attendants to carry it all back.
Oeneus led us up the stairs and through elaborate gates, stopping just as we entered the temple proper. “You understand that you must be secluded before undergoing the thetalos, and that you may take neither food nor drink?” he asked me.
The knot in my stomach tightened, but it had naught to do with sickness. I gave a short nod. “I understand fully, my lord.”
“Very well. Herodion will tend to you until it is time for your dedication.”
I bowed low, hands crossed before my chest. “Thank you, my lord.” After one last, long look at Phèdre, I let the young acolyte lead me away.
I thought I would be taken to a priest, or mayhap the Kore herself, but Herodion instead led me out a side door and down a steep path that circled back around to the sea. Not the same beach we had landed upon, but one on the far side of the harbor's rock walls. I followed wordlessly, trusting as he gestured for me to precede him into a large crevice that cut down the middle of the rock. I nearly asked for a torch, but something prevented me from speaking. I felt the sanctity of the area and could not bring myself to break the spell.
So I squeezed in, turning sideways to fit into the tight passage. I was glad that I'd left my weapons in Phèdre's care, for I never would have fit through wearing a baldric. I felt it widen out just before a turn, and I could see sunlight hitting the wall where the passage made a sharp right. Herodion followed behind me, silently encouraging. I became aware of the sound of rushing water and hurried my steps.
The passage emptied out into a large natural cave, and I looked up in surprise to see a waterfall spilling over the side of the rocks far above. The rock ceiling was open to the skies, a bright blue circle far above our heads. I know not where the source of the water came from, but the falls were impressive in height and general being if not in size. The Great Falls of Jebe-Barkal was probably a hundred times as large, but this one, somehow, had the same majesty about it that owed naught to sight and all to a resonance in the soul.
“You will not bathe before the ritual,” Herodion said in careful Caerdicci, his voice high but rich and booming in this place. “But remove your clothes and allow Mother Dia herself to cleanse the travel from your skin as, if she is willing, she may remove the stain from your soul.”
To my surprise, I felt my eyes prick with tears. For so long, I had prayed for redemption. I thought I'd found the path long ago – was it two decades now? - in La Serenissima. Yet after Phèdre had miraculously returned to me, I had given up my opportunity to be saved. The sins of the Companions are the pride of D'Angelines, and they do not reckon them thusly. But I was raised differently. I could not claim the bliss of ignorance. I had known my actions to be sinful, and yet I had chosen that path willingly. Again and again. When I turned away from Yeshua's path to cleave to Phèdre's forever, I'd known what that meant. To damnation and beyond.
I'd experienced earthly damnation in the halls of Darsânga. I fully expected it again in the beyond. With my choice, I never dared to dream of acceptance into the bright Terre d'Ange that lay beyond the veil. I was – have always been, since that fateful choice – destined for another place. A path I chose willingly. Even after I learned of Phèdre's experiences in the Temenos when I'd lost her, I still hadn't reckoned there was any hope for me.
Now, at the end of our last great adventure, I had the opportunity I'd not dreamed of since turning away from Yeshua's promise. I had served well in my own way. I'd served Elua, Cassiel, even Kushiel and Yeshua. Phèdre was also certain that we'd served honorably in the name of Asherat of the Sea and Adonai himself, and mayhap even more that we never knew of. Now, at the end of it all, they offered me a chance. Forgiveness.
My hands shook as I unlaced my boots and struggled with the stays of my breeches. I removed the tie from my club, hiding behind a curtain of wheat-gold. It was the only thing hiding me.
Herodion stretched his arm out towards the pool. Swallowing, I nodded and moved past him. I still felt nauseated now that I was on firm ground again, but it seemed as if I gained strength with each step I took towards the waterfall. Stairs had been carved into the rock floor, leading to a natural depression where the waters pooled. It was warmer than I expected. Even as I walked farther in toward the waterfall, the pool came only to my thighs. I wondered where the water drained from, for surely it must if the whole room didn't fill or spill out on the beach, but the ground around the depression was smooth rock, warm and dry from the sun.
I felt the mist of the falls before I reached it, causing gooseflesh even though the water was warm. I closed my eyes and waded in completely, letting Mother Dia's waters rain down over me. I stood there for a long time, feeling the warmth of the water and the warmth of the sun shining in as the day crept on towards afternoon. As I listened to the rush of the falls, I felt like I should be contemplating all that I had come to atone for, but my thoughts were fully drowned out by the water's music, my mind feeling as if it was indeed washed clean. There was a peace and stillness that I had only ever found during Elua's vigils.
Finally I roused, slowly, as if returning from some far away place. I raised my hands and scrubbed my face with the salty water. As I opened my eyes, I could see Herodion waiting patiently near the entrance. I reluctantly left the falls and waded back, squeezing my hair out before climbing the four steps out of the pool.
I started to reach for my clothes but noticed that Herodion now held a white bundle. I raised my brows as he handed me a soft towel, wondering from whence it came. He said nothing, handing me a light linen robe as he took my towel. It was sheer, leaving little to the imagination, but I did not feel awkward in it. I gathered my clothes and followed him around the pool to a stone outcropping, where a steep staircase had been carved into a second natural crevice.
This route led us up, up, and into a courtyard of the temple proper. Herodion led me inside. I saw very little of the temple itself, as he led me straight away into the first room on the left. It was small and sparsely appointed, having only a long slit of a window high up - admitting fresh air but so deeply recessed that very little light came through – and a small square table that held two fat white tapers.
Herodion took one out and returned with it lit a moment later. “Light the second taper when this burns down to the holder. When the second burns out, it will be time.”
“That's it?” I'd expected an audience with the Kore, or mayhap an acolyte or two to prepare me for the sacred rite. I looked around the room, where apparently I would spend the next two days secluded. There wasn't even a bed or pallet for sleeping, although I did notice a ceramic chamberpot tucked underneath the table as I stooped to set my clothes and boots out of the way.
Herodion touched my forehead as I rose, then my chest. “You have all that is needful right here.”
“Thank you, my lord,” I said as he walked out the door. He looked back over his shoulder and gave a short nod. Then the door shut, and I was alone.
The room was tiny, small enough that I soon felt it grow warm from the one lit taper. Having nowhere to sit or lie, I knelt before the far wall with the hidden window. It was not the cool ground of Elua's Sanctuary, but kneeling upon the stones was nevertheless like a homecoming. After a few moments, my mind once again stilled. I allowed all of my nerves, worry, and fear to rise up, and then I let them go. Instead of placing them in Elua's outstretched hands above me, I saw myself giving them up to Mother Dia, visualizing them floating up and out the window where somewhere she would pull them to her bosom and transmute them into strength, courage, and hopefully worthiness.
It didn't seem like much time had passed before I became dimly aware of the flame sputtering behind me. I glanced over my left shoulder, surprised to see that the taper had burnt down, the white wax rippling over the golden holder to pool on the dark wood of the table. I smiled, the cascade of wax reminding me of my time in Mother Dia's pool, then quickly jumped up as I belatedly realized that the flame was about to go out. I grabbed up the second taper and lit it as commanded. Just in time, for the first sputtered out before I even had a chance to set the second one back.
I shook my head to clear it, still feeling strangely muddled. Almost drunk. I became acutely aware of the parched nature of my lips and tongue, proof that I'd most certainly not been drinking. As soon as I thought of drink, I wanted it. No, I needed it.
I tested the door handle. I was not locked in. I started to pull it open, and the gust of fresh air cleared my head. I was not supposed to drink anything. I peeked into the hall, but no one was there. I quickly shut the door, feeling oddly like a child fearful of being caught out, and returned to my vigil against the wall.
It was not so easy the second time. Hunger and lack of sleep were nothing new to me, but I'd never been so thirsty before. I rubbed my tongue along the roof of my mouth and sides of my cheeks, but it was too dry to do any good. I coughed, swallowed, and tried again. Swallowing vaguely helped, but not by much. I pushed my discomfort away and tried to reclaim that feeling of inner peace, but it eluded me.
I shifted from knee to knee, compulsively swallowing, until I realized that I was allowing myself to get worked up. I tried many of the meditation techniques that I had been taught in the Brotherhood. I focused on my breath, but that only kept me aware of each breath further drying out my mouth. I focused on my heartbeat, striving to follow it deep within myself, but I only heard the blood rushing like water in my ears, taunting me. At least it served to take my mind off drinking, for I suddenly realized that I'd been in my little room a full day and not relieved myself. I nearly filled the small chamberpot, which was especially odd since I hadn't been drinking, and quickly realized why the door had not been locked. In such a cramped space, and, I suppose, with my dehydration, it left an unpleasant smell. I set the pot outside the door and returned to my vigil.
Relieving myself at least served to make me more comfortable. Wiggling less, I was able to recapture some semblance of sanctity. I still couldn't focus, and I was so incredibly hot that I was starting to feel dizzy. Still, I managed to remain upright. I resumed focusing upon my heart, soon feeling as if I were spiraling into myself. I fought the feeling, afraid that I would pass out. The more I fought, the dizzier I became. Finally, it occurred to me that I'd been fighting myself for far too long. I gave up and allowed myself to fall inward.
It was a long, long way to fall. There was so much darkness. I knew in my heart that I carried a lot of darkness within me, but it was another thing to actually see it. It was viscous, clogging everything, seeking to overtake every inch of me, my soul included. Or mayhap it was my soul. I struggled, which only seemed to pull me in deeper. My heartbeat, which I was still dimly aware of, was fast now, panicked, kicking and screaming along with me as I struggled to free myself. What a fool I was to think that I could be free of it! I was filled with darkness, with sin. I had hid behind duty, behind my love of Phèdre, using Elua's precept as a shield, but each sinful choice I had ever made had been deliberate. What little good was in me, I had twisted it and used it for my own ends. I was an abomination! I was not worthy of the gracious gift the gods could offer me. I knew it, and I was fooling myself to dream that I could be free of it. I saw now. I understood too late. The darkness had permeated my very soul.
If I ever were to lose you, I'd lose you to yourself...
I stopped struggling. Phèdre's words echoed somewhere in my heart. I laughed. How could I think she would stay out of it? She resided somewhere within me as well. A good thing, too, for I was nearly lost before it even began. I clung to her now, my own personal lodestone, feeling the warm spark of light that was her rather large piece of my heart. I turned to it, and I saw that redemption is possible. Love as thou wilt. Where there is a capacity for love, I saw, there is an opportunity for healing. By Elua's divine grace, I had known love. I was not all dark.
“It is time.”
I opened my eyes, surprised to find myself crumpled on the stone floor of the temple. I hadn't slept; I know I hadn't dreamed. What I had seen within myself was real.
“You seek to be free of it,” a woman's voice said. Caerdicci, Hellene, D'Angeline...I know not what she spoke, for her words seemed writ across my mind. “Come. Mother Dia grant it may be so.”
She was upside down to me, her hand reaching down to lift me up. I turned my head, seeing a soft smile and bronze hair. She seemed to glow. “You--” I swallowed, my throat on fire. “You are the Kore?”
“Yes.” She kept her hand out. I took it, and, with amazing strength, she hauled me to my feet. “Are you ready?”
“Yes, my lady.”
The Kore briefly reviewed the ceremony with me, though of what happens in the cavern, she would not say. She taught me the Hellene words for my portion of the ceremony. Though I am usually a decent study, my mind remained muddled, and it took several tries before I had it right.
She then led me through the halls of the palace – and I saw now that it was indeed a palace, though it was steeped in holiness like a temple – until we passed through an outer door. I squinted and shielded my eyes, though the sun was setting. A mountain loomed before us, and acolytes played music and danced, moving in great circles. I knew that Phèdre was there, for I felt her, but I could not see her for all the bustle of the courtyard. I saw everything as if through a veil, and I understood that I hovered between the worlds.
Somewhere and everywhere, cymbals crashed. I was reminded of Kushiel, and my eyes finally focused on Phèdre, whose face was pale but impassive. She saw me look at her and smiled, so briefly that I nearly thought I imagined it. It gave me strength, for all that I still wavered on my feet.
Finally the dancers ceased their dizzying swirling and the music halted, leaving an emptiness dangling. “What do you seek, supplicant?” the Kore asked me.
I swallowed, struggling to remember my Hellene speech. “I seek to be cleansed of my many sins.”
“What do you offer in sacrifice?” Her words pierced through me. Oddly enough, it steadied me.
“I offer my name and my memory.” I held up my calloused hands, as if holding out an offering. I stared at them, entranced. They had caused so much hurt and bloodshed in so few years. I shook my head to clear it. “I offer up myself. All of it. Whatever is needful.”
I heard Phèdre gasp, then stifle it. I looked in her direction and tried to return that strengthening smile that she had lent me. Her eyes looked truly frightened, and I fear I must have grimaced at her. I looked away, keeping my eyes focused on the Kore.
“It is enough.”
The Kore brought forth water and grain. I would have swallowed the whole island, but she only gave me three small sips. She gave a signal, and the acolytes began to climb up the processional, lighting torches to show the way. I followed them, finding the climb much harder than I had reckoned. It seemed to last forever. I could not see beyond the next torch, and when I finally reached it, there was always another waiting. I fell once or twice, the stones biting my palms and knees. I was weak, and my body sought to betray me, but I persevered. I had climbed worse mountains than this with little hope of redemption. My heart was becoming lighter, even if my steps were not.
Finally, we reached the caverns, and I had to strip naked before all. I would normally balk at such a thing, but it mattered not now. I knew that I would be laid bare before the night was over in a way that had naught to do with clothing.
The Kore purified me with water, so blessedly cool, and anointed my brow with oil. She cut a lock of my hair and tied a red thread around it, reminding me rather unnervingly of the Lady of the Dalraida cutting a lock from her hair when Moirin died. That was my fault. I swallowed, suddenly dreading facing all of my sins again. Please help me to be free of it, I prayed, knowing not if I prayed to Elua, Mother Dia, or more likely any and all powers that were. Have mercy upon me! I shook my head and swallowed back tears. No. Help me to be worthy of mercy.
The Kore pulled a thong over my neck, leaving a cowry shell nestled against my chest, dedicating me to Mother Dia. I felt a wave of calm come over me like a benediction. After a lengthy prayer, she stepped back from me and offered a libation of wine. “It is commenced. Go forth, Joscelin Verreuil, and seek to be free of it.”
I took only a brief moment to spare one last glance at Phèdre and headed into the cavern.
It was cool inside. I was still thirsty, hungry, and tired, but I felt strengthened as I headed in. Resolve offered steel to my spine. I strode in, head held high, ready to face whatever might be thrown at me.
I stumbled in the dark as the ground sloped downward. Of course I did. I was always so bucked up that I was heedless of the dangers around me. Always so prideful that I ran headlong into danger, dragging those I loved with me. Even now, I remained unwilling to bend, preferring to trip over my own feet rather than reach out to steady myself against the wall. How had I become so rigid that I could not bend myself to the will of the gods, even as I sought their help?
The floor evened out, and I made my way to the back of the cavern. Each step brought memories bubbling up from within. I knew full well from whence this rigidity came. It was my anger, buried deeply in Cassiline discipline, as my beloved Phèdre had pointed out so long ago. And once pointed out, had I changed? No. I was born with it, and I would die with it, and no ceremony would ever wipe it clean. It is the core of my being, this anger. It is the coal that stokes the fire of my very soul.
I remember the first time it ever brought me trouble. I couldn't have been more than four or five. Luc had made some off-hand comment about how I was destined for the Brotherhood anyway. I'd been so angry at him. I was more than just a throw-away child! Mother and Father loved me! They would not get rid of me. Luc had tried to explain, and I'd rushed at him. He was several years older and at least twice as big, but I'd knocked him to the ground and pummeled him. “Take it back!” I'd ordered. “Take it back!”
Father nearly gave me a strapping when he saw Luc's bloodied face, but he took me aside with such love when he found out what we'd fought about. He'd gently explained love, duty, honor. If only I had half as much honor as my father! He explained Cassiel's role as the Perfect Companion, and I'd vowed that day to be the best Cassiline Brother there ever was. I would be the Perfect Companion. I would fulfill my duty and bring honor to my family.
That was the first vow I broke.
I knew how much it would pain my father. I knew how much it would dishonor not only our House but every uncle who had come before me. In one fell swoop, I had sullied our honorable reputation in a way that would never recover. I was anathema. I knew the pain it would cause, and I'd done it anyway, choosing Phèdre over my own family and vows. Oh, at the time I thought I was following in Cassiel's very footsteps, but I was a vow-breaker nonetheless. I knew the price of that and chose it anyway.
And not just for Phèdre, no, nor for any romantic notions of following Cassiel's directive. I didn't care. I knew it would hurt my parents, yet I did it anyway, in part because I wanted to hurt them back. I was angry at them for giving me away. I was angry at them for choosing a life from which I could not escape. For offering me upon the altar of chastity, rigidity, duty, and violence. So, yes, I had buried that anger, but it had grown. It had twisted and turned upon my own family. I had gained a small measure of discipline, but it was a precarious dam against the black tide of my soul.
I had used that discipline to lash out at others. I liked fighting. I was good. Too good. My arrogance and pride earned me few friends in the Brotherhood. I enjoyed besting all of them. I enjoyed sanctioned fighting. And when I no longer had it, I fought against my family, the Prefect, even Elua and Cassiel too! I'd fought against Phèdre herself when I'd first met her.
It was my arrogance again, I saw. I was insulted that my first assignment was some minor noble whom I'd never even heard of. And then to find out I would be warding an unapologetic Servant of Naamah – an anguisette, no less – I was so appalled and insulted that I fought every step of the way. I shirked my duties. I'd let Phèdre come to harm that same night, and in my rebellion, I'd allowed Delaunay and Alcuin to go to their deaths. I hadn't realized the true nature and potential for danger that my first assignment held, and so I'd not taken it seriously. It was a cruel jest of fate.
Of that, I was still certain.
I sunk to the cavern floor, biting back a moan. It was true! It may have been D'Aiglemort's order, but I'd killed them myself with my behavior. I felt sick at the thought and doubled over. The packed earth of the cavern floor felt cool against my head, anchoring me. I prayed then to Cassiel, and to Delaunay and Alcuin, for their forgiveness.
Not that I deserved it. Even as I had slowly began to heal my insulted pride, I'd still reveled in sin. I may have hid behind my vows, but I'd lusted for Phèdre from the first, even as she stood before me and insulted all that I stood for. I thought her a depraved plaything, a succubus sent to taunt and test me. I'd underestimated her, as I'd underestimated Delaunay. Even as I finally came to realize that, I had continued to underestimate and fail at every turn: d'Essoms, Melisande Shahrizai, Gunter's Steading...
Blessed Elua! Truly, I have broken every vow, I realized, despairing. At Gunter's Steading, I'd even turned against my own charge!
There, I had killed with my own hands. Evrard the Sharp-tongued. I will never forget. Even if my soul is scoured clean, I will never forget each and every one of them. And there were many. It was hard, at first. Evrard, who had forced my hand. Still, I chose pride over someone's life. I wept later. I never told Phèdre, though I think she guessed. I wept for Trygve, too, whom I willfully murdered. There is no dancing around that. Yet somewhere around the fourth or fifth life I took, I stopped crying. Somewhere in the cold snowy wasteland of Skaldia, I'd found purpose in death and let my conscience and soul freeze over.
I'd allowed her to be sold to Selig. I let them both ravage her, but she was the one who was able to save us in the end. I had finally trusted her enough to kill for her, to threaten my own countrymen, yet I had betrayed her the moment we returned!
Again, my pride and anger had gotten the best of me, and I had insulted Hyacinthe, the one true-friend and the only person who had never, ever failed her. I would have led her to capture and nigh-certain death if I'd turned us over to the Prefect. The very thing I feared Hyacinthe might do! She was right to trust him. I've never been more ashamed of myself in my life, not even when I'd killed any of those men. I, who had been raised with good Cassiline morals, had somehow soaked in the worst prejudices of the D'Angelines. I'd even met the man; I knew Hyacinthe, and yet he was nothing more than a filthy stinking Tsingano to me. I shivered to remember such ingrained and unwarranted disgust. But it wasn't wholly unwarranted, was it? No, that was my first real taste of jealousy. Still a Cassiline Brother, but I'd had Phèdre, and I wanted to keep her all for myself. Gunter and Selig didn't count. She'd not chosen that. But I knew full well that she would choose Hyacinthe. He was hers from the start. And I hated the notion that she might choose a Tsingano over me. Me, who had no right to share her bed anyway.
No, not that. Yes, we had made love, but even there in the caverns, with soul-wracking guilt overflowing me, I knew that sacred night was no sin. Yes, I broke my vow, and, yes, part of me is sorry for it, but Elua himself had his hand it in that night. That was sacred, and right.
But there were plenty of other sins to face. One after another, they rushed over me, coming faster and faster until I could barely tell one from another. How I'd failed Moirin and then, in my arrogance, dishonored her. I couldn't solve the riddle of the Master of the Straits, and I'd allowed Hyacinthe to be cursed. And part of me felt relief when it happened! Even then, after traveling together, after considering him a good man and nearly a brother, I was just as glad to have Phèdre all for myself as I was grieved at what had become of him.
I was so glad to have her that I willingly – and at first joyfully – broke my vows every single day just to be with her.
But I'd become so self-absorbed and consumed with guilt and shame that I'd continued to fail her time and again in La Serenissima. Not only had I failed Phèdre, but I'd nearly turned my back on Blessed Elua as well! And I did turn my back on poor Fortun and Remy, who lost their lives because of me. Phèdre says we can never know what might have been, but I know. Had I been there, Remy and Fortun would be alive today, Phèdre would never have set foot in La Dolorosa, and a whole assassination attempt and civil war could have been averted.
But it wasn't, and I had risked not only my charge and my friends, but my Queen as well. I'd risked the lives of several young Yeshuites; I'd cost the lives of too many temple eunichs. David de Rocaille's face swam in front of my eyes. Although I did not feel that taking his life was a sin, I know full well that I shouldn't have enjoyed it so much. I'd enjoyed having an opponent worthy enough for me, someone better than a bunch of Skaldi ruffians. I enjoyed the beauty of it. I enjoyed the thought of bringing honor back to my family, of making things work after so many months feeling lost and helpless. I reveled in the power. I could have killed him earlier. I should have, and then mayhap I might have ended Melisande Shahrizai, the true villain, right then and there. But I didn't. I tarried with the weapon, not the one who wielded it, a choice that has left decades of stress and worry in its wake.
On and on it came. I nearly cried out once the long road of my life came back through Drujan. I didn't want to see it all again, but I did. I was forced to face the depths of my depravity. I rocked back and forth on the cavern floor, whispering apologies to all of Darsânga's victims. I had truly lost myself there. I toyed with lives, enjoying the sport of it. I took pleasure in their deaths. Truly, I had become a servant of Angra Manyu. I'd lost faith again, and, as always, let Phèdre take the greatest risk. It was because of her that we survived. I had no illusions about that. It was always Phèdre who saved me, not the other way around. Some Perfect Companion I was!
Even afterward, I had willfully risked Imriel as well, simply because I wanted to be near him. I had allowed my feelings and faults come before duty. He was but a child, and I risked his life just so I could have the feeling of family that I missed so terribly much.
Yet once I had it, I thought, had I changed? No. Here and now, I had risked Imri's life. I have betrayed him, the son of my heart! I knew Imri didn't want to wed Dorelei and move to Alba. It may have been Ysandre's decision, but it was I who talked him into it. I sold him into slavery just as surely as the Carthaginians did!
That was when I finally cried out and began to sob. All that, even reliving Darsânga, and I'd only uttered whispered apologies. Facing the horror of my so recent betrayal of Imri reduced me to tears. He's somewhere over there right now, this very instant, I realized, caught up in a web of magics with naught but thread and stone to ward him! It is my duty to keep him safe! But I'd left him like that, far across the straights, and gone a-travelling, putting a whole world between us. I'd come out on Hyacinthe's behalf, but I'd stayed for myself. I had a chance at my redemption, and I'd paid the price of my beloved foster-son to see it done. If anything happens to him, I know it will be my fault. I know it deep down inside, and that, the worst thing imaginable, would be something the thetalos cannot wipe clean. It's too late for that now.
I stopped sobbing and cocked my head. Something was calling me back. The sound of raised voices struck me like a slap to the face. Something was happening. Even stuck in the mire of my sins, my thoughts flew to Phèdre. I knew I should do something, but I couldn't think of what.
I heard a sound like bells chiming. A thread of a familiar voice, bringing me out of my head and back into my whole self. I strained to make out the words. It was easier than I expected, as they were spoken in D'Angeline.
“Sorry!” A man's voice cried. It was familiar, though harried and breathless, but my mind was too muddled to place it. “Phèdre, we've got to go!”
“No! Oh, no!” Phèdre's voice ripped at my heart. “What's happened?”
I rubbed my eyes, which felt heavy with gunk, and tried to clear my thoughts. It was hard to do, for I could only see images of Fortun and Remy, dead and grey, Ti-Philippe shivering with ague, and Imri, wrapped in fraying threads.
“There was an attack. Imri--” The voice broke, gasping. “I left straight away, the very second I heard. They didn't know if he was going to make it or not. I should have waited. I'm sorry!”
I loosed a roar, such a roar as made the whole cavern shake. It sounded much like the bear we'd awakened that night in Skaldia, Phèdre and I. And, like the bear, I came running out of the cave, ready to strike. I nearly trampled over Phèdre, who was heading into the cavern on the verge of breaking her own vow.
The Kore stood looking at me with wide eyes, the others shying away as if to hide behind her.
“Imri!” I screamed. I looked from Phèdre to Ti-Philippe, who, with sunken eyes and ashen skin, must have looked ten times worse than myself. It sobered me. My head felt clear again. “Philippe, are you fit to travel?”
“Aye! Don't you doubt it.” He looked me over with wide eyes, and I realized I was incredibly naked, sweaty, and dirty. “Are you?”
“Aye,” I said wryly. I took a deep breath and squared my shoulders, raising my head high. “All right then. Let's go.”