NAAMAH’S CURSE CHAPTER ONE
As the city of Shuntian dwindled in the distance behind me, a mixture of dread and exhilaration filled me.
I was all alone in the vast empire of Ch’in.
It was by choice, my choice. If I had wished it, the Emperor’s daughter would have spoken a word in her father’s ear, and his Celestial Majesty would have provided me with a mighty escort. Indeed, the princess had begged me to let her do so, and I suspected there would be times that I wished I had consented. I was a young woman, a foreigner, travelling alone in a country halfway around the world from my home.
It was a bittersweet word. I no longer knew what it meant to me. Once, home had been a snug cave in the Alban wilderness where I was Moirin, daughter of Fainche, child of the Maghuin Dhonn.
That was still true; in a sense it would always be true. The folk of the Maghuin Dhonn carry our diadh-anams inside us, the divine spark of the Great Bear Herself that gives us life and guides us. It is the part of our soul that connects us to Her. To lose it would be like dying, worse than dying.
I knew, because I had lost half of mine.
Not lost, exactly. In fairness, I had given it away, although I hadn’t known what I was doing at the time.
My mind shied away from the memory. The noble chestnut gelding I rode flattened his ears and tossed his head, sensing my unease. I stroked his neck, soothing him with my thoughts. “Peace, brave heart,” I murmured.
He settled. On the lead-line, the pack-horse plodded patiently behind us.
|They were gifts from Emperor Zhu, both of them. I carried a good many gifts. My rich silk robes were embroidered with bronze and amber chrysanthemums. Jade bangles rattled on my wrists and around my neck, hung on a silk chord, was a jade medallion carved with the Emperor’s chop on one side and the Imperial dragon on the other. It would grant me safe passage anywhere in the empire of Ch’in.
Your jade-eyed witch soothes the dragon.
The chestnut sidled and pranced beneath me. I soothed him once more, and forced myself to cycle through the Five Styles of Breathing.
The Breath of the Pulse of the Earth, drawn into the pit of the belly and the depths of the groin, inhaled and exhaled through the mouth.
The Breath of Ocean’s Rolling Waves, drawn in through the nostrils to the middle belly, out through the mouth.
The Breath of Trees Growing, circulating energy to the limbs, trading nourishment with the world.
The Breath of Embers Glowing, in and out through parted lips, quickening the heart and warming the blood.
The Breath of Wind’s Sigh, pulled and expelled through the nostrils into the space between my eyes, making my head light.
I breathed the entire cycle as I rode, and while the discipline calmed and centered me, with every breath I drew, a memory assailed me. Stone and sea! There were so many of them.
Master Lo Feng.
He had taught me the Five Styles, taught me all that I knew of the Ch’in manner of meditation and harmony he called the Way. It had served me well in the conflict I was leaving behind me. It had let me find the strength and courage to serve as a companion to Princess Snow Tiger and the dragon whose indomitable celestial spirit was housed within her mortal flesh. Were it not for Master Lo’s teaching, I would never have been able to help free the princess and the dragon from the curse that bound them together in the midst of a bloody civil war.
Nor could I have endured the aftermath, in which I put my small gift of magic in the service of Emperor Zhu, breathing in and swallowing the memories of hundreds upon hundreds of men who had conceived, built and wielded the terrible weapons known as the Divine Thunder. I carried the ghosts of those memories within me yet, tasting of brass and sulfur, blood and smoke and horror.
I returned to the Breath of Wind’s Sigh, willing it to carry away the lingering acrid tang.
My diadh-anam burned steadily within my breast, calling to its separated half somewhere to the northwest. Since there was no escaping the memory, I let myself think about Bao, the stubborn Ch’in peasant-boy who had walked away with half my soul inside him.
Bao hadn’t liked me much at first, nor had I cared for him. He was Master Lo’s apprentice, guide and companion; his magpie, Master Lo called him. I remembered my first sight of him, a lean-muscled young man with dark eyes glinting with disdain under a shock of unkempt black hair, carrying a steaming pot of bone-marrow soup over his shoulder on a bamboo staff.
That had been in Terre d’Ange, the land of my father’s birth, the land toward which I first set out in pursuit of my destiny. A quest laid upon me by the Maghuin Dhonn Herself.
In my youth and folly, I thought I had found it straightaway in the form of Raphael de Mereliot, the healer with the charmed touch; Raphael, who was able to merge his gift with mine, to channel my magic to heal others. Raphael, the Queen’s favorite courtier and lover.
We had wrought miracles together.
And it had nearly killed me.
If it hadn’t been for the Queen herself, it very well might have killed me. Jehanne de la Courcel. There, at least, was a memory that made me smile. Gods, I’d gotten myself involved in an almighty tangle when I came between Jehanne and Raphael. And yet in the end, it was Jehanne who had rescued me from Raphael’s ambition, and Jehanne whom I had come to love. My father was a priest of Naamah, the D’Angeline goddess of desire, and his line was ancient in her service. Naamah’s gifts ran strongly in my blood. I had found pleasure and pride in serving as Jehanne’s companion.
It had hurt to leave her. It had been too soon. When my infernal destiny summoned me to accompany Master Lo Feng, Jehanne was carrying the King’s child, and she was frightened. I wished I could have stayed until the child was born.
I couldn’t regret leaving, though. Not after the purpose I had served in Ch’in. I had seen the dragon, once restored, launch himself in glory from White Jade Mountain, his undulating silver coils gleaming against the blue sky. I had ridden in his claw, I’d seen him summon the rain and drown the terrible weapons of the Divine Thunder, ending the war. I’d seen my impossibly valiant princess Snow Tiger restored to honor.
My diadh-anam flared as my thoughts circled back to him. When had I even begun to harbor a fondness for him? I couldn’t say. Somewhere in the long hours we spent together in Terre d’Ange while Master Lo Feng taught us the Five Styles. Mayhap it was the first time I’d won an almost-smile from him.
It was on the long journey on the greatship to Ch’in that matters had changed between us. Thrust into constant companionship, Bao and I had become friends, then lovers. I’d caught a glimpse of the complicated knot of pride, stubbornness and romantic yearning that lay behind his insouciant exterior. And Bao…
I don’t know what Bao felt for me, not really. Out of bed, we were always a little bit guarded with one another, neither of us certain how much our relationship owed to convenience, proximity, and Master Lo’s unsubtle encouragement.
If things had fallen out otherwise, it might have been different.
But once we reached Shuntian, the imprisoned dragon’s jealousy had come between us, forcing us to be circumspect in our behavior. Later, we had said to one another; later. Over and over, in stolen moments throughout our long quest, we said this to one another. When this is all over, if we live through it, we will talk. Later.
A lump rose to my throat, forcing me to swallow hard. My hands trembled on the reins.
There had been no later, because Bao had died. It was a moment etched in my memory. The captured sorcerer Black Sleeve turning in a graceful, unrepentant arc, the deadly sleeve of his robe flaring wide. A spray of poisoned darts.
The dragon’s helpless roar.
Bao whirling, his broken staff in two pieces in his hands, intercepting the barrage.
One dart, a single dart, had gotten past him, had pierced his throat beneath the chiseled angle of his jaw. It had been enough.
I breathed the Breath of Ocean’s Rolling Waves, the most calming of all the Five Styles. I let the memories wash over me.
I should have known; of course, I should have known. Master Lo had as good as told me. Today, I realize I have lived too long, he said. Emperor Zhu had known what he meant. For the first and only time, Master Lo had asked me to share my gift with him, his dark eyes grave and anguished. Are you willing to give a part of yourself that my magpie might live?
I remembered my frantic reply. Anything!
I should have known, but I didn’t. When Master Lo Feng placed his hands on Bao’s unmoving chest, I laid my hands over his and poured my energy into him, until I felt myself begin to fade and go away, until I saw the stone doorway that represents the portal into the afterlife for the folk of the Maghuin Dhonn. For a moment, I thought I would pass through it, and the thought was not unwelcome.
Then my diadh-anam blazed and doubled…
…waking inside Bao.
Bao came to life with a startled shout, thrust out of the realms of death. Master Lo passed from it peacefully, his chin sinking to his chest, his eyes closing forever.
What would I have done if I had known, if I had grasped what should have been obvious? I cannot say. And in truth, it does not matter.
What was done, is done.
On that day, my stubborn peasant-boy went away from me. He told me he did not blame me for our mentor’s death. He told me that if he had been given the opportunity to choose, he would have chosen to spend his life with me.
But he died without being given that chance, and what Master Lo did in restoring his life, dividing the divine spark of my diadh-anam between us, bound us together in a way that only a second death could undo.
And Bao needed to find a way to choose this, to make it his own. To reconcile the hard choices and uncertainties that had yoked my destiny to his, to believe that I had chosen him out of genuine desire and love, that it wasn’t merely Master Lo’s art at work.
So I let him go.
And I waited for him to come back to me. All the while I travelled Ch’in and served as the Emperor’s swallower-of-memories, I waited for Bao. The Imperial entourage returned in triumph to Shuntian, where I waited for Bao. In the gardens of the Celestial City, I listened to poetry with the princess and waited for Bao.
He didn’t come.
Instead, I sensed him moving farther away from me, carrying the twinned flame of my diadh-anam inside him. Moving away from me, toward the outskirts of the empire, toward the Great Wall that kept the Tatar horde at bay.
It was the princess; Snow Tiger, my brave, lovely princess, who reminded me that I, too, had a choice. She had given me the greatest gift of all, the fragile gift of trust. In the beginning, I had been nothing but an unwelcome burden to her; her necessary inconvenience, she had called me. Much had changed between us by the end, and I carried private, tender memories of her that warmed my heart.
But nothing, nothing could replace what I had lost. And yes, I had a choice. So I had set out to find my stubborn peasant-boy.
If Bao would not come to me, I would go to him.
At least, I hoped so.