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NAAMAH'S Blessing CHAPTER ONE

Unable to sleep, I stood in the stern of the ship, watching the past fall further behind me. The moon was bright and full, turning the ship's wake into a wide, silvery path on the dark water behind us. A handful of seagulls winged across the night sky, following us, their presence lending credence to the captain's claim that we would make port in Marsilikos on the morrow.

A thousand thoughts and memories crowded my mind. I tried to still them as Master Lo Feng had taught me, breathing the Five Cycles and emptying my mind. Tonight, it didn't work.

Four years. By my best guess, that was how long it had been since I stepped onto a Ch'in greatship in the harbor of Marsilikos, and sailed off in pursuit of my everlasting destiny.

Now that same destiny was leading me back to Terre d'Ange, land of my father's birth, where my patron-goddess Naamah held sway, worshipped as one of Blessed Elua's Companions.

Naamah, goddess of desire; the bright lady. And Anael the Good Steward, the man with the seedling cupped in his hand, who had given me a gift for coaxing plants to grow.

The thought prompted a memory of marigolds exploding from the earth in a field in Bhaktipur, a riot of orange, saffron, and yellow, blooming in glorious profusion, all out of season. That, and the look of wonder on the Rani Amrita's lovely face.

It made me smile wistfully. Bhaktipur was far, far behind me, now. So was Amrita and her clever son Ravindra, and the tulku Laysa, one of the reborn Enlightened Ones, who had told me I had oceans yet to cross.

So much lay behind me.

Villains and heroes, the kindness of ordinary folk; aye, and the pettiness and cruelty, too. Battles and intrigue, long, grueling journeys. Epic tales come to life, dire futures glimpsed and averted.

I leaned on the railing, remembering.

Beneath the moonlight, the ship sailed smoothly across the face of the sea. Its sounds had grown familiar; the creaking of timber and rope, the snap and flutter of the sail, the sleepy murmur of sailors on night-watch.

After a time, I sensed Bao's approach, the divided half of my diadh-anam drawing nearer to me.

Bao, my husband. Despite the long months that had passed since we were wed, I wasn't accustomed to the word. He came to stand beside me, gazing out at the silvery wake, his forearms braced on the railing and his shoulder brushing mine in a companionable manner. "Did you dream of her?" he asked in a low voice. "The White Queen?"

I shook my head. "Just restless."

"Ah. With Terre d'Ange so close, I thought maybe..."

"I did, too." I took a deep breath. "But no."

Bao nodded, and said nothing. In the silence, his diadh-anam entwined with mine, a sensation as intimate as a caress. Until I was a woman grown, I had not fully understood that most folk do not carry their diadh-anams within them. Although I was half-D'Angeline, Naamah's child on my father's side, I was born in Alba to the folk of the Maghuin Dhonn, the Great Bear Herself, who planted a spark of Her soul in each of Her children, a flickering inner light to guide us through our lives.

Never, ever had I heard of a diadh-anam being divided; but mine had been. It had restored Bao to life.

The deed lay behind us in distant Ch'in, Bao's homeland, farther in the receding past than Bhaktipur, where we had saved an empire and freed a dragon, where a sorcerer had slain Bao with a poisoned dart.

And Master Lo Feng, in his grief and sorrow, had used his arts and my magic to give his life and half my divine soul-spark to bring Bao back from the dead, inextricably linking our destinies.

Master Lo couldn't have known that it would send his stubborn magpie of an assistant, a reformed prince of thugs, into headlong flight from a destiny he hadn't chosen; nor that I would be compelled by my diadh-anam to follow him.

On the Tatar steppe at last we admitted to ourselves and each other that it was love, as well as Master Lo's art, that bound us together. But as soon as we began to truly explore our bond, we were betrayed; me into the hands of a Yeshuite fanatic in northern Vralia, wrapped in chains that stifled my very soul-spark, while Bao was sent on a fruitless quest in the opposite direction to rescue me.

Still, in the end, we had found one another again. In the valley kingdom of Bhaktipur, we were wed.

Of course, our union was complicated by the fact that on the eve of our wedding, I was visited in my dreams by the ghost of Jehanne de la Courcel, the impossibly beautiful and highly mercurial D'Angeline queen I had loved so very much; and that Jehanne had told me I had unfinished business with a man both of us had loved, and would need her aid before it was over.

I stole a glance at Bao. His face was calm in the moonlight. Shadowed eyes, high, wide cheekbones, full lips. Moonlight silvered his unruly shock of black hair, glinted on the gold hoops in his earlobes, and the bands of iron reinforcing the bamboo staff he wore lashed across his back.

He caught me looking, and raised his brows. "Like what you see, huh?" he asked in a teasing tone.

I tugged on one ear-hoop hard enough to make him wince. "Mayhap."

Bao grinned. "You do."

I slid one hand around the back of his neck and kissed him. "I do."

He kissed me back, then pulled away, his expression turning serious. "It's going to be hard for you, Moirin. Coming home."

"Home." The word escaped me in a sigh. "Terre d'Ange isn't home, not really."

"Alba?"

"Aye." I gazed into the distance. "But..."

"Raphael de Mereliot." Bao finished my unspoken thought for me. His mouth twisted. "That idiot Lord Lion Mane."

I said nothing. Raphael de Mereliot was the man that Jehanne and I had both loved; her favorite courtier, the man I had believed held my destiny for a time. Tall, tawny-haired Raphael de Mereliot with his healer's hands. I'd let him use me, use my small gift of magic to augment his healing arts. Together, we had saved lives, including my father's.

But I had let Raphael use me for other purposes, summoning fallen spirits filled with trickery. It had nearly killed me. I had been very young, and very foolish.

Jehanne... Ah, gods!

She had saved me from Raphael's ambition, saved me from myself; claiming me for her own. And I had let her, gladly. She'd had a bower filled with plants made for me, granting me a safe haven. She had made me her royal companion. She had trusted me to be there for her when she honored her promise to her husband, King Daniel de la Courcel, setting aside Raphael de Mereliot and praying to Eisheth to open the gates of her womb, that she might bear the King a child.

But I had left her.

And while I was on the far side of the world, pursuing my everlasting destiny, Jehanne had died in childbirth. If I had been there, we could have saved her, Raphael and I.

I wept.

Bao's arms encircled me. He spoke no words of false comfort, only breathed the Breath of Ocean's Rolling Waves, drawn in through the nostrils into the pit of the belly, expelled through the mouth.

Slowly, slowly, as I had done so many times before, I matched my breathing to his, my thoughts growing calm.

The ship swayed and creaked beneath us. The past continued to draw farther and farther away, the shining trail of wake etched in the moonlight, ever fading behind us and drawn anew.

I wiped my eyes. "Thank you."

Bao nodded. "I am here, Moirin."

My breath caught in my throat. Those were words I had spoken to Jehanne many times; and they had always been true, until they were not. I turned in Bao's arms, studying his face, wondering if he knew. "You are, aren't you?"

A wry smile lingered on his lips. "Try getting rid of me."

"Oh..." I reached up to tweak his ear-hoops again, then tugged his head down for another kiss. "I'd rather not."

Bao laughed softly. The ship sailed onward, rendering the past a series of memories, carrying us toward a new destiny. I prayed that for once, the gods would be merciful.

But I doubted it.

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