It has been many centuries since the Great Plaza of Aldon-Sur saw such an assemblance. Rich and poor, old and young, locals and foreigners, well-known and obscure, noblemen and commoners all came to see the ceremony done in honor of the heroes who conquered the Shadow.
It was surprisingly quiet. Few people talked, and those who did only exchanged a few quick words in a muffled voice. Now and then a child cried and was promptly soothed by its mother.
King Alvadon himself, splendid and regal, with his head held high, descended down the many marble steps, his retinue hurrying along behind him. Upon beholding His Grace, the heroes went down to one knee and remained with their heads bowed.
The king approached them. First he placed his hand on Thadorn’s shoulder, lifted him up to his feet and kissed him on the cheek like a brother. Then he did likewise to Nicholas, and last of all to Akira.
He stood at arm’s length from them, looking at them fondly.
“Beloved friends,” he told them, “we are all in your debt.” There was a momentary uprise of excited murmuring that soon died down, and people listened with rapt attention.
“Valiant Thadorn,” the king spoke on, looking directly at the Tionae leader. “I placed the fate of us all in your hands, and you endured, and did not fail. From this day onward, there shall be no man, woman or child in Tilir who does not admire you and the entire clan of Tionae. Your bravery saved us all.”
“Your Grace,” Thadorn said quietly. “I deserve no such praise. There were other men alongside me, whose deeds carried no less weight – ”
But the king only smiled and said, “Your modesty does you honor, Thadorn Tionae,” and kissed him on the cheek again. Then he turned to Nicholas.
“Nicholas, you from the World Beyond,” he said, “I knew it was not in vain that the gates opened for you and admitted you into Tilir. May the day on which you stepped upon our land be blessed forever.”
Nicholas merely bowed his head in acknowledgment and said nothing.
“Akira Kotsar,” said the king, and murmurs and whispers erupted again, for the name of Kotsar was on the tongues of everyone from desert to sea; some spoke it with curiousity, others with fear and anger. Akira did not miss that, and blood rushed into his cheeks as he awaited the king’s word. “You show us all that one clan is not one man. Each of us chooses his own path, and each can elect the right side, even if those around him are doing otherwise. The throne’s gratitude is with you.”
“Thank you, Your Grace,” Akira said, much relieved.
The king now spoke to all of them. “How shall I reward you properly?” he said. “Gold you shall have, enough to make you prosperous until the end of your days. Honor you have already, and glory. Minsterls will make songs of your valiant deeds, and everyone from the littlest child to the king of Tilir shall know your names. But I know that gold and glory alone do not mean much to righteous men such as yourselves.”
Nicholas and Thadorn exchanged a fleeting and almost imperceptible look. Nicholas had the notion that Thadorn, just like himself, could not help but notice the smug expression upon Akira’s face.
“You did what had to be done, and what was good and right,” said King Alvadon, “and may the Great Spirit bless you and protect you and reward you, in this world and in the world to come. May your hearts, and the hearts of us all, be filled with light and joy upon this day.”
Nicholas looked at Thadorn’s face, grave and stern, clouded with sorrow, and felt uncertain that this man can ever be happy again. The king must have noticed it as well, because he drew Thadorn close again and said quietly, frowning, “you give me concern, my friend. It is as if part of the Shadow lives on in you.”
“Your Grace,” Thadorn said with dignity, “forgive me if I am not as cheerful as the occasion merits. I am relieved more than words can tell that all had come to an end, but the road was long and hard, and many good men died. We are still mourning our... losses,” he finished quietly.
The king clasped his hand. “Of course,” he said, “let us speak no more. Instead, before we feast and make merry and celebrate this new beginning, let us honor the fallen with silence.”
From the corner of his eye Nicholas could see Kelena in the crowd. Tears were flowing freely down her cheeks, and although her husband offered her his arm, she did not lean on it.
And silence fell, so deep and still that the chirping of rare birds in the sky above the Plaza could be heard, and when someone sneezed, several dozen people instantly turned their heads toward him with accusing stares. The quiet lasted for a few minutes, until the king made a gesture with his hand, and Queen Maviel herself came forward, and placed a wreath of winter flowers upon the brow of each of the heroes. She looked radiant and especially beautiful that day, and Nicholas thought he knew why. Rumours of the queen’s pregnancy have already reached many ears, and although she had suffered miscarriages before, the recent victory filled hearts with hope – for many things.
As for himself, all he wanted to do was go home. On their last day near the Everdark Valley, he talked to Vyolen for a long time, and learned, it seemed to him, more than he had in a lifetime. A few things that came up in the conversation he would reveal later on; some, he would carry to his grave. At any rate, Vyolen had promised to him he would go home, and soon, but he did not say exactly when, and Nicholas was getting impatient.
It wasn’t only that he still felt like a stranger; and he did, despite Rogell and Lya’s warm hospitality and their sincere happiness at seeing him safely back. He was surprised to discover he feels compassion and even an admiration of sorts for Thadorn, with his gruff manners, iron-clad loyalty and the heartbreak that he tried and failed to conceal. Their land, however beautiful and enchanting, could never be his home – yet something inside him also tightened when he realized that once he left, he would never return here again.
“There will be no way back,” Vyolen’s voice echoed in his head once more, “not for you, anyway. The gates might open for some of your descendants, as it is often in the blood... blood is a curious thing, yes...”
“I don’t have any descendants,” Nicholas had told him then.
“That might be remedied,” said Vyolen.
“It is unlikely,” he had said rather drily, but the sorcerer only smiled, and now Nicholas thought that if so many things he could never have believed came to pass, and if everything about him was forever changed, and if he could never now go back to believeing only in the boring and correct and predictable – perhaps other miracles can happen, too? For example, that a beautiful and lively woman fifteen years younger than himself might awaken to his charms.
Somehow, this prospect appeared to him as supernatural as his journey to Tilir.
That evening, they were invited to Rani Kotsar’s manse once more. This celebration had a more dignified air than the previous one, but Nicholas was disturbed as he looked at their hostess. In a low-cut gown of burgundy velvet, with chains of rubies and black diamonds around her neck and in her hair, Rani looked more beautiful than ever – but her face was still as a mask of white marble, and he had guessed that great suffering must lie underneath that mask. Although he did not know her story, he guessed that it must be connected in some obscure way, like all their stories were, to the eviction of the Shadow.
Courses came and went, but Rani ate nothing, and the servants did not bend to fill her wine cup, for it remained untouched since the beginning of the meal. Toasts were said and many courteous words spoken, and she lifted her cup, but her lips never touched it, and eventually Nicholas felt he was bound to say something. He leaned towards her.
“You ought to try the pigeon pie,” he said.
She gave him a distracted, indulgent smile, the way a busy mother might smile at a toddler who is pulling on her skirts. “You are very kind,” she said, “but I am not hungry.”
“Are you certain? It has been a long day, with the procession and ceremony, and you have attended it all. Surely you haven’t had time to eat.”
“No, nor drink,” she confessed, then finally took her cup and drank from it, as if to appease him. “Right now, though, I crave fresh air more than I crave food. Would you accompany me for a stroll in the garden?”
He hesitated, flooded by memories of their previous stroll. “To be sure,” he said politely, but it seemed she detected the doubt in his voice. “Fear not,” she told him with a short laugh, “there will be no eavesdropping this time.”
Arm in arm they walked down the moonlit paths of the still winter garden. Rani walked gracefully, but it seemed to Nicholas she was hardly aware of where she was going. She simply concentrated in putting one foot in front of the other, as if the important thing was to keep on moving, as if she could not bear to stop.
But at some point, it was as if her feet gave in, and she sat on a bench expertly carved in a form of many interlocked seashells. The stone was cold, but he sat down by her side and watched her profile as she stared into space ahead of her.
“Last time we met, you said you would tell me of your world when you return,” she reminded him.
“I did,” confirmed Nicholas, “but are you certain you wish to hear of it right now?”
“Oh, I do,” she assured him, but when he attempted to speak, she silenced him with a kiss.
One of her hands caressed his cheek, another rested on his chest, and however bewildered Nicholas felt, he knew she was kissing not him, but a dream, a memory, a phantom, something that was once and is no more, or perhaps something that could have been but never was.
“I,” he said rather stupidly when she finally pulled away from him and sat across him, smiling serenely. “I believe this is – ”
“What?” Rani prompted him. “Are you about to recall that you are wed and have a brood of children?”
“No,” he said. “I have no family, but I – there is someone. Worlds apart, that is true, but I still have a hope – ”
“There is someone for me, too,” said Rani, getting up gracefully. “In another world, yes... but I, too, have a hope that someday, some way, we will be together again... as we all enter the Lands of Dawn.”
And, nodding slightly to him, she turned around and walked slowly back towards the house.
Nicholas stood rooted on the spot, and recalled some rumour someone once told him about her... he didn’t listen to it too closely, but apparently there had been some tragedy, some scandal which involved her being shipped off to marry her elderly husband -
He shook his head. To be truthful, he wasn’t sure he really wanted to know, and he vaguely guessed there isn’t much he can do anyway. I can do something about my own life, though, he resolved. If and when I manage to return home, I will ask her... I will ask her...
He didn’t know, really, what he would ask. But it would be something that makes all the difference in the world.
... They walked through the door in silence. A sleepy servant rushed forward to attend them, but Dankar waved him away and helped his wife out of her cloak. Kelena removed her hairnet, and her golden hair cascaded down her shoulders. He felt a faint scent of mint; she liked to add mint and sage to her bathwater, and the fresh scents have permeated the house anew now that she had returned.
For a while, Dankar thought she would never be back. He braced himself for it, he prepared to accept any outcome with philosophical coolness – and yet he could not suppress the rush of relief that washed over him when he saw her on the doorstep. She was sad, she was wan, she was distant – but she was back, and their son with her.
Little Emmet was Kelena’s only source of liveliness these days. Only with him did she smile. Sometimes she even laughed as they walked or ate or played together, but this brief joy was like a phantom – it vanished the moment he approached to take a closer look.
Yesterday he stood by the window of the solitary bedroom he occupied ever since his wife was back, and looked down. It was an unseasonably warm afternoon, and Kelena was sitting in the garden with Emmet. His head was in her lap, and she was stroking his hair, bent over him, her face close to his. She planted a kiss on his nose, and the little boy giggled and squirmed, and when his mother tickled him, he laughed out loud, and she laughed with him as well. Dankar treasured the sound of that laugh, for it had been long since he heard it.
But now Emm was in bed, and it was just the two of them, and Kelena was pale, distant, vague – as if she were here, but not truly, as if the best part of her had gone to a place where he could never hope to reach it.
“You look tired,” he told her. “We needn’t have gone to that feast.”
“I wanted to,” she assured him. “I will feel easier if I keep an eye on Rani for a little while.”
“You don’t have to worry about Rani. She wouldn’t...” he stopped, searching for the right words, “do anything foolish,” he concluded.
“I know,” said Kelena, “but the thought of her destiny torments me. If only the Kotsar weren’t so proud and ambitious, if only they didn’t care so much about what is said of them, Rani could have happily lived on in Rhasket, and Kohir with her.”
“And you as well,” Dankar ventured to say.
Her eyes were guarded when they met his. “I hardly think it is worthwhile to discuss...” she began.
“Of course,” he readily agreed. “The proud Kotsar thwarted a young love, and found Rani an old and wealthy husband... and they also sent you to Aldon-Sur and married you to me. You have every right to be resentful. If I were you, I would have likely slit the unwanted husband’s throat in his sleep a long time ago,” he smiled, but she did not. She looked in the direction of the stairs.
“I believe I will retire for the night,” she told him. “The last few days have taken their toll.”
To be sure, he wanted to tell her. Go and rest, and may your dreams bring you peace and comfort. But surprisingly for himself, a different word escaped his lips. “Wait,” he said. “Wait just a moment.”
Kelena turned around, waves of wheat-golden hair shining softly in the light of the oil lamps. She waited.
He took a step toward her, struggling. He wanted to take her in his arms. He wanted to bow his head and tell her to go, to leave, to stop the needless torment of them living under the same roof. He wanted to ask her why she came back, but he didn’t. It didn’t matter. She was here, and he would take whatever chance still remained to him.
“What can I do?” he asked her.
She seemed confused. “I fear I do not understand your meaning.”
“I offered you your freedom,” he said slowly, clearly, “you didn’t take it. Perhaps out of fear, perhaps for the sake of our son, perhaps because you did not want to cause your parents further distress... but whatever the circumstances may be, you chose to come back, and you still call me your husband. So I am asking you, Kelena – tell me, is there anything I can do to... not to make you happy, for that is impossible right now, but to ease your heart at least in some measure? Say it, and if it is in my power, it will be done.”
She did not answer immediately, but her eyes focused on him, as if she had just fully realized what he was offering her, and why.
“I will never be easy here,” she said, looking around at the polished wooden panels, the luxurious carpets, the ornate windows, the silken tapestries. Her eyes did not convey hate, but cool detachment. This was never her home, Dankar thought. “I want to go,” she said, and he felt that all air had gone out of his lungs.
“Where?” he asked her. She gave a small shrug.
“I don’t know,” she said. “To Sambeara, perhaps. Or to the Eagle Islands. Far away, to a place that holds no memories. Would that be possible?”
“I could book passage on a ship, to be sure,” he said. Far away. Another question burned on his tongue, but he didn’t dare to ask it, not directly. “It might have to wait a while, but not too long. Winter will be over soon, and many of the spring currents are favorable.”
“You sound willing,” she said with surprise, “and yet it would mean quitting the court. It would be akin to exile... comfortable exile, I trust, but exile nonetheless.”
His heart was hammering, and his eyes never left hers. Did she just answer his unspoken question?
“Did you mean for us to go together, then?” he asked quietly.
She nodded. Reservedly, and without smiling, but it didn’t matter for the moment. She had just said they would be going away together, to Sambeara or Adrinor or the Eagle Islands... it didn’t matter, really, as long as they sailed far away and left everything well behind.
It wasn’t a promise, but it was a chance, and he was ready to take it.
He took her hand in his and bent over it and kissed her fingertips, and perhaps he only imagined it, but it seemed to him her fingers briefly pressed his before she turned around and began walking upstairs.