Monday, June 26, 2017

Enjoy the Beginning of a Great Romance from Melody and the Pier to Forever: Book Two!

The first four novels in Melody and the Pier to Forever are FREE, but won't be for much longer, and not for a long time after I re-price them to $6.95! If you're interested in joining us on the Pier to Forever, now is the time!

The following chapter from Book Two remains one of my favorites so far in the entire series.


Dressing and Dating
THE HALL of Zau d' Wolduin, the Heroes Hall of Pyrrho, flickered in orange torchlight.
Its high, narrow walls were painted with a fantastic mural depicting the history of the Pyrrhonians. Maggie couldn't help but stare at it. A proud, proud people, the Pyrrhonians. On Aquanus, a fallen people. A conquered people. Even if this mural depicted half-truths, she thought, it was clear they were a people that did not succumb easily to the Gyssians and Necrolius. She felt intimidated standing here, within it, immersed in the history and mystique.
The Hall was located deep within the bowels of the Castle—a hundred feet below sea level according to Luis, who had given her last-minute instructions before escorting and leaving her here. The Hall was lined with Pyrrhonians, tall and black-skinned, standing precisely and silently, uniformed in both the traditional dress of their country's military and in the spit and polish of the Saeire Insu. Maggie herself was dressed in traditional Pyrrhonian colors (burgundy and gray) and in the style of a high-ranking soldier: gold-colored armor, embroidered cape, dark pants, and a broadsword, which hung at her hip. A real sword, not ceremonial. It was part of the Ceremony for a priest to hand it to her unsheathed. It was Maggie's task to bow with it and then sheathe it, all as smoothly as possible and without looking directly at the weapon. Over the past week Luis had worked with her between classes and more strategy tests. It's tougher than it looks, sheathing a sword without looking at it. She had nearly cut her own arm off more times than she could count.
The priest—no, it was a priestess!—was so magnificently dressed that Maggie had temporarily forgotten about her anxiety as she handed the sword to her. The priestess stood before Maggie like a great golden-eyed eagle, feathers and silks trailing off her body; Maggie had, as instructed, taken it—open palms! open palms!—had bowed—lower! lower!—had righted herself, had grabbed the hilt, and had, expertly, driven the blade into its sheath. It felt good to feel it stop definitively against her hip. She stood straight and unsmiling, whereupon she followed a soldier out of the room to her present position. After another invocation, she was left to wait for Aedan, whom she had yet to see.
Was this ceremony being broadcast throughout the kingdom like the concert had just last night? She hadn't spotted television cameras or other similar technology last night; she couldn't see anything now. But she had no doubts. This Ceremony was the same thing as declaring war, of saying, absolutely and finally, that this was it. From here forward the battle was on.
She tried to find humor in the moment. She did so not out of disrespect, but because she didn't want the full weight of the meaning of all the solemnity to overwhelm her. She didn't want to think of what it meant for her and, most of all, for Melody. But the beating drums were insistent, and she couldn't help but listen to them. The mural surrounding her—the battles it depicted, the strange and beautiful lands beyond, the heroes standing proud, the ages of a people, of a nation …
Of that people, the Pyrrhonians were, collectively, the most beautiful she had ever seen. Their skin, with few exceptions, was almost coal-black, their almond eyes a myriad of jewel-like colors. They were tall, even the women, the shortest of whom still towered over her by at least four inches, and they carried themselves with a righteous dignity that gleamed. Most had very short hair—tight black curls—but a few wore longer, straighter locks, including the priestess, and Carcaryn Gellantara too, whom Maggie spied near the head of the line winding into the temple room, the name of which she had forgotten and was praying she wouldn't have to recite for any reason. Carcaryn was in the full dress uniform of the Kumiyaay, one of two in her company present. The other was someone Maggie had never met. He stood across from Carcaryn, and like her, still as a statue.
The drums were getting louder. Out of the corner of her eye Maggie could see the priestess making her way towards her. Music accompanied the drums now: low, somber, ominous. It sounded like a funeral dirge … but not quite. There were hopeful, triumphant notes within it, but not blatant ones, not boastful ones.
The smell of incense. The priestess was holding a waist-wrapped chain linked to a gilded cylindrical container that smoked at her hip. Like the music, the odor was somber, even unsettling, and yet … hopeful. It heightened Maggie's attention, made the adrenaline racing through her even more potent. She felt, in fact, like a soldier on the eve of battle.
The priestess passed her ... and there was Aedan, two steps behind and completely nude. The priestess advanced a couple more steps and stopped, as did the music. He stood directly in front of Maggie. He didn't turn to look at or acknowledge her; he stared straight into the priestess' back. Behind him waited a procession of splendidly garbed Pyrrhonians, maybe fifty total, marching in rows of three and bearing flags and gilded weaponry.
Maggie found none of this humorous, try as she might. And she was trying. Conor's naked fifty-year-old body was in remarkably good shape, tall and wide and hard with muscle. Muscles not smooth like that of a young man's, but more like granite that had weathered the very worst nature could throw at it.  Worn but by no means worn out. Roughly defined. She made only a cursory note of it. She was staring at his face, which held that unreachably deadly gaze that once terrified her.
The priestess spoke. Her voice was commanding and dark; its sharp timbre speared through the hall. She was speaking to the king.
"Is this your hero?"
Aedan, Irish and strong:
"It is."
"Hero, identify yourself."
Maggie spoke up. She tried to keep her voice from cracking. "Margaret Rae Singleton."
"Margaret Rae Singleton, are you prepared as the Second to die for the Saeire Insu and its king, Conor Kieran Faramond Benedictus the First, Protector of the Ten Defiant Nations, Holder of the Pearl-Yang Serpenthelm, the Talon Red Over the Four Quarternia?"
"I am."
The priestess took another step, as did Conor. The procession did not move. That was Maggie's cue. She took two measured steps forward, as she had practiced time and again with Luis, then turned smartly on her heel. She was a half-step behind Conor and to his right—precisely where she should be.
The music continued. The priestess marched on, as did Conor, Maggie, and the procession.
Into the Pyrrhonian temple. It was a remarkable place, part rough, untouched cave and part columns, gleaming marble steps and gold inlaid into the walls like chain mail. Grand statuary watched from oval portals at regular, rising intervals, with tiered balconies between them, populated with silent observers. A vaulted ceiling peaked at least to the level of the sea. From its apex hung what appeared to be a free-form wire sculpture that Maggie guessed had to be thirty feet tall. The wires that comprised it gleamed unnaturally, like some amazing Christmas decoration … but the wire-light was soft and unblinking. It slowly shifted colors, dimming or brightening, mixing with the soft orange of the torchlight, which only occasionally matched it. The combined effect was that of a sustained sunrise or sunset, never quite rising or settling. Entrancing.
The priestess mounted wide stairs, followed by the king, then Maggie. The procession had stopped following. Its members were spreading out in a very orderly fashion so they could watch. The priestess turned and sat on a throne at the top. Conor, on the second stair down, stood before her. Maggie, on the third, watched as two men, one to each side, approached him and began dressing him from the feet up.
Conor's balance was something to see. He lifted his right foot, then his left, back straight as a washboard, staring straight ahead, as the attendants pulled black knee-length socks over his feet and up his legs. The last time Maggie tried putting socks on while standing, she considered, she ended up face-planting in the laundry basket next to her bedroom door. It was obvious that the attendants were awed with his balance as well. She was sure one was supposed to brace him, give him someone to lean on, as the other pulled the assigned sock up. They both in turn looked vaguely uncertain what they were supposed to do.
Could she laugh at this—a man standing in nothing but his socks? She once found it one of the very silliest things in the world. Without willing it, she thought of Rich. Bald, bony Rich. She couldn't help but snigger quietly to herself as he dressed each morning.
The attendants kneeled, underwear stretched out for Aedan to step into, which he did. White underwear, boxers, but not quite as loose or baggy, which they pulled up over his buttocks.
A man in socks and undies … still pretty damn silly. Again, Maggie's ex-husband flashed in her mind. But there was nothing in her spirit that wanted to laugh or even lighten itself.
It was then that the power of the Ceremony impacted her fully. The king's nakedness was there to illustrate, above all, his humanity in all its warts and dimples and flab and flaws, in all its weakness and thinness of flesh and bone. The Pyrrhonians did not worship their heroes, their great defenders. It left an indelible impression on her. Behold our hero. He can die like we can. We must not leave the fight to him alone. We must stand with him in his weakness, in his warts and dimples and flab and flaws.
Pants, then boots, then a V-neck undershirt which was tucked into the pants. Next was an overshirt: long-sleeved, buttoned, and beautifully embroidered. A shiny cape with gold ties followed, one with the familiar symbol of a seahawk swooping over Ammalinaeus, talon dripping blood. It held Maggie's attention.
Conor had moved minimally through all this.
It dawned on her then that the music was transforming very slowly as the dressing progressed. Once funereal, it was becoming increasingly triumphant.
Armor. It was the same liquid silver metal type that his Kumiyaay wore, but with intricate, beautiful veins of subsurface gold beneath the gleaming surface. The attendants strapped it on, pulled the cape through the neck, then stepped back. She prepared herself: it was almost her turn.
The crown was last. Maggie had almost convinced herself the Saeire Insu had never fashioned a crown for their king. But they had. The left attendant lifted it out of an open chest. She tried not to gawk.
It seemed less crown than a very simple headdress: the golden wings of a bird (a seahawk, most assuredly) that stretched along the side of Conor's head over his ears, very intricately patterned. The wings originated at a teardrop-shaped hole above his forehead; inside the teardrop hung a large, many-faceted sapphire. The king kneeled to have the crown fitted. Once done, he stood, waiting.
It was Maggie's turn.
The right attendant approached her, a small, dark wooden box in hand. Standing before her, he bowed then opened it. Its red interior surrounded the talisman the King of the Saeire Insu had not donned for twenty-two years. The Pearl-Yang Serpenthelm.
Maggie had watched Eleysius drape it over Conor's neck. It was now her turn to do the same thing.
She couldn't help but think: An Aquanian god made this.
She reached for it, touched it, grasped it fully. She pulled it up by its chain with both hands, noting its odd coldness.
The talisman had changed these many years. A jeweler had added to it, fashioning a small, bejeweled silver triangular plate beneath it. A ruby gleamed from the plate's center, and was the crux of a cross of emeralds and sapphires and an ornate gold letter C surrounded by gold inlays.
But she had only taken a cursory notice of these things. The actual talisman was what held her attention.
The lizard crawling over the back of the snake, both with glowing ruby eyes, regarded her dispassionately. At the talisman's empty circular hub hung unsupported a milky-white Eternitus Seed. It too glowed, green tendrils reaching from it like thin pond fronds in a gentle current toward the reptiles, not quite touching. In the gap flashed very tiny aecxes.
Maggie mounted the king's step as the music, clearly victorious now, played on. She climbed one more step, to the landing, as per Luis' instructions. As the priestess watched her dispassionately, she turned crisply to face him.
She fretted. Was the chain long enough to fit over his crown? Conor looked at her, his eyes level with hers. A very slight smile creased his countenance for a moment before he kneeled again, waiting.
She was sure that the Pyrrhonians hadn't planned for this. The weapon always came last. But Pyrrhonians had never seen a weapon like this, ever. A weapon that hung from the leader's neck and derived its power from the leader's soul.
She would have to try.
At that moment he reached up for the crown and removed it, as though he had read her mind. The Pyrrhonians didn't seem fazed or scandalized by this; indeed, if anything, their muted reaction seemed even prouder than before.
Maggie draped the fantastic talisman over his head. He held the crown out, which she then carefully refitted over his head. He stood and turned and faced the crowd with her.
A crowd that, despite their dignified comportment, gasped. For sparkling into existence on the king's shoulders were the lizard and the snake of the Pearl-Yang Serpenthelm. Their semi-translucent forms seemed much more substantial than they had so many years ago on Aquanus. Their ruby eyes gazed out over the audience, the iguana's head moving back and forth as it took in its surroundings, the cobra's black tongue flicking out to taste the incense-scented air.
There were no speeches given, no words spoken. The music concluded. The silence following, Luis had told Maggie, was symbolic of the quiet before any great storm.
Maggie joined Conor on his step, as the Second was supposed to do. Then, together, along with the priestess, they descended the stairs. It was a simple matter now of heading back up the hallway to where they had started. Her teeth were on edge: the only sound was that of them and the people of the procession marching back through the Hall. She would've preferred complete silence to the subdued shuffling, because at least with silence she could release the thoughts of impending war into it and hope they wouldn't find their way home. There was no way to do that with the sounds of the footfalls of the soldiers who'd be fighting, and dying, in that war.
Back in the room where she received her sword, it was now her and the king's duty to acknowledge the soldiers going into battle. The acknowledgement would come in the form of a palm applied gently and without words to their foreheads. The warriors, arriving two at a time, would then bow and leave the room.
It was for Maggie the most difficult part of the Ceremony. For every forehead she touched that evening was the forehead of a human being whom she likely would never see again and who was probably going to die in service to king and country. The act of touching them made that sacrifice so real that she could barely suppress the emotions pressing up against her cheeks and making her eyes sting.
When the last soldiers left the room, leaving her and Conor alone within it ("… for in the end the leaders see they are nothing without those who support them and keep them," so Luis had explained), he turned to face her. The lizard and the snake were gone from his shoulders. He reached and wiped away the tear that Maggie thought she couldn't keep from streaming down her face while the warriors presented themselves to her and finally overflowed as the last one walked out of the room. She gazed up at him.
Without a word, he leaned down and very softly kissed her cheek.
Pulling back an inch after an extra moment of contact, he smiled. "Let's get out of here."
She nodded. She could see the sadness in his eyes, too. The crown framed it, made it seem almost beatific.
"Thank you, Maggie, for doing this," he added.
She nodded without speaking.
As it turned out, she didn't need to root around her closet for something warm to wear as per Conor's hint a week ago. The Saeire Insu had already provided her with clothing that might be appropriate for a short winter walk along the county road in, say, Goodland, Kansas, but certainly not San Diego, California. Led to a dressing room where attendants were waiting, she removed the armor and weapon with their help. They bowed out, leaving her to finish disrobing, which she did. The clothing waiting for her was unsurprisingly Saeire Insu and hung next to a mirror: stockings and a lovely full-length dress, along with a long scarf and hat, both of which she decided not to wear. The stockings were warmer than expected, given how sheer they were; the dress, too. She looked in the mirror and smiled. A woman from an undiscovered but stately Nineteenth Century European country smiled back.
She heard a knock at the dressing room's door.
"Yes?" she called out, still appraising herself in the mirror.
Conor's muted voice came through. "May I?"
"Come in," she said.
He opened the door, stepped inside. She turned to look at him.
He too was dressed warmly, but, like her, not overly so. He gave her a slow once-over, nodding approvingly.
"I feel like I did last night—like I'm going to a costume ball," she announced, looking at herself in the mirror.
He came up close behind her. "Did I ever tell you how beautiful you are?"
She smiled warmly, leaned back against him. "You have … but please assume I'm hard of hearing and with a bad memory, too."
He chuckled quietly.
"How is your scar feeling?"
She shrugged. "It's healed. It doesn't even itch anymore."
He shook his head. "Weird."
"Even Luis doesn't know what to do with it."
"I'm sorry for the pain it's caused you. I feel responsible for it."
She shrugged again. "The dangers of tracking souls ... I should've taken out traveler's insurance."
He grinned at that, then kissed the top of her head. "Let's go."
"Ready to tell me where we're going in all these layers?"
She was already feeling a little sweaty.
He shook his head.
"It's gotta be the mountains," she guessed.
He shook his head again. "Let's head up to the courtyard."
They walked through the doors and then up winding stairs she immediately recognized as the stairs that led to the same courtyard she landed Tachyon on every day for her lessons, and which she landed on the very first time she came to the Castle.
There were no attendants, no bowing aides, no one pressing in on them, demanding his attention. At the top they passed out into the courtyard. No guards here, either. The courtyard tower loomed darkly behind them; ahead, the Tower of Unity, the Castle's highest tower, rose like a mighty spear shaft from the center of the island. Random square droplets of yellow light glowed to its top.
It was early evening. The stars twinkled freshly and unfocused through a thin layer of sea mist above the Antarctic Cottonwood lining the perimeter of the courtyard. Through gaps in their boughs Maggie could see the lights of San Diego and Tijuana. They were a safe, uninvolved distance away.
Conor took her hand as they walked. At the courtyard's center he stopped and turned to face her. He took her other hand.
"Ready?" he asked.
"Sure …" said Maggie, not sure at all. She looked around, then back at him. "Are we ... going by sea horse?"
He shook his head. "Would you believe Eleysian Airways?"
But that was all she got out. For in the next moment a sparkling white whirlwind soundlessly surrounded them both. Aedan melted into it as she felt herself lift off the ground like a rocket. She yelled, "Whoa!"
—and found herself standing at the edge of a cliff. A calm sea glistened many hundreds of feet below. Night had become day. Tall stands of pine, perhaps a hundred yards away left and right, lined the cliff to both sides. She spun in place to locate Conor, but couldn't see him anywhere.  She was standing at the edge of a wildflower-splashed meadow. The trees were part of a mountainside forest that rose dramatically behind her.
She turned to look back over the water. In the distance and to the right skied Sisters, thousands of misons apart, purple-blue and sequentially diminished and faded with distance and daylight. At the southern horizon ringed Ammalinaeus proclaimed his reign over all. He too was faded. Wispy-white cirrus clouds wandered pleasantly across his face. The Eternitam was a thin sea-level black line pointing from the Sisters to him.
This lookout was very, very special to Conor. The truth of it came to Maggie as surely as the steady brine-scented breeze which blew her hair back as she gazed out. She knew, somehow, that he had stood with his mother here just before her death. His mother had wanted to be here, had wanted to share this stunning vista with him one last time. She had held his hand and had kissed his cheek at this very spot, and instantly the ground beneath their feet became hallowed for him for all time. It was a place so special to him that he could only visit it in dreams, not in waking memory, for the memory came with pain like an impassable guard fence too high to climb or get through. Only his dreams gave him safe passage to this cliffside.
She could suddenly feel Aedan's mother's presence behind her. She turned, breathless.
Kathlin Chaundran was walking towards her. She was three inches shorter than Maggie and looked almost exactly as the portrait on the wall in his bedroom. Her blue eyes were radiant; her smile, too. She drew close to Maggie and took hold of her hands. The hands of the true mother of Kieran Conor were small and warm and worn, strong but still fragile in that way only mothers’ hands can be.
"You are as beautiful as I imagined you'd be," she said. Her voice was kind and soft but unmistakably noble.
Maggie sputtered out, "I … I … Thank you—"
—The cliffside and Kathlin Chaundran dissolved away into swirling white aecxal light. Maggie felt cold race up from her feet to the crown of her head. It bit deeply into her for a long moment … and then …
… it and the whirlwind dissipated. Disappeared.
And there was Conor, right in front of her, still holding onto her hands.
He squeezed them. "Are you all right?" he asked, concerned.
She gawked up at him blankly as warmth spread slowly back to her extremities.
"I saw … I saw …"
She looked over his shoulder.
"... Oh, my."
She let go of his hands and turned slowly in place to take in her surroundings. The air was just cold enough that she could see her breath. She gawked up at him again when he came back into view, then turned around once more.
"Where … where are we?" she whispered.
"Would you believe Antarctica?" he answered.
But she couldn't finish the word. She thought if she did she would become a casualty of two fiercely warring internal factions: the wandering, fearless part of her that desperately wanted it to be true, and the fearful, anxious part of her that desperately didn't.
She stood silently in the no-man's land between them and took in the view.
There was a high, high ceiling of pure bluish ice. It glowed softly, extending away for an unknown distance in every direction. And there were trees. Cottonwood trees. All around. They were rooted in the ice itself. Maggie, staring at the one nearest her, could clearly see its roots deep beneath her. She looked back up at Conor.
"Antarctic Cottonwood," he said. "This is the original grove, twenty years old now. Luis thought it would be a good idea to bring you here. Want to take a walk?"
Maggie didn't register the question.
She came back to the moment. She nodded vacantly.
Her hand in his, they began walking. She noticed they were on a trail of dry, dark soil, groomed and lined with rocks and flowers and the undergrowth one would find in any normal temperate forest. Some of that undergrowth rooted in ice as well. Some of it didn't.
The sounds of birds. She looked up. Indeed, small birds flitted here and there, disappearing into the boughs of the trees. Swallows … and sparrows. A blue jay dipped from tree to tree, following them. Crows and robins. Something unseen was calling out plaintively from the top of a nearby tree. The sound echoed faintly in this tremendous ice palace.
Squirrels, too. One watched her curiously next to the trunk of a tree. It nibbled patiently on a white nut of some sort in its paws.
They came to a vine-covered wooden bridge arcing over a sweetly gurgling stream. They mounted its stairs, walked to its middle, and stopped. Conor let go of her hand.
"I've got so many questions …" she breathed after a time. "Totally unromantic questions like: How did you harvest the wood and get it back to Imperial Beach? And: How do these trees find sustenance in the ice? And: Are the trees surrounding the Castle hybrids of these? And … and ... and about a thousand other questions …" She fingered a vine leaf.
He watched her. "Do you want me to answer them?"
"I …" She shook her head. "No."
"You said you saw something," said Conor.
She nodded. "I … I saw your mother, Aedan. She … she spoke to me."
The look on his face was hard to decipher. But she had no doubts what he was feeling.
"I mean," she went on, "I guess it was her Rendan Mortalis that I saw."
He smiled. "They are one and the same," he replied quietly.
"I was in … in your … your soul … I mean, really in it. In the landscape of it."
"Luis told me it was likely to happen," he said. "I'm glad it did. May I ask what she said to you?"
"She told me I was as beautiful as she'd imagined I'd be."
Conor didn't respond to that. He looked as though he was struggling to keep his composure.
"It was a cliffside ..." she went on.
He nodded.
There was a long stretch of silence.
She could wait no longer.
She reached up and touched his cheek with her fingertips. "Luis told me once when you were near death that I had no idea what kind of soul you possess …"
He pulled her into his arms and kissed her. Her mouth couldn't hold back her passion; she could feel the same release come from his. Their faces didn't part for a long time. When they did he held her very close.

There was no need to speak. Words were unnecessary.
They walked along the trail through the ice palace forest of Antarctic Cottonwood. There were ponds and more bridges; there was a wide, sloping meadow of knee-high turquoise-blue ice-grass—grass that grew in ice—that took Maggie's breath away. Rabbits and even deer peered out at them from the undergrowth. There were other trees besides cottonwood, too. She identified elm and walnut trees, as well as an odd species of poplar and what smelled like Russian olives. There were fragrant lilac bushes and thick, broad swaths of burned-green juniper shrubs hugging the ground; one hillside had what looked like blue spruce and aspen growing on it. They passed these to a bridge spanning a deep gorge, one part ice and part dark rock. A river roared at its bottom. On the other side was a picnic table standing on a gentle hillside covered in regular green grass. On the table was a picnic basket.
"I sent it ahead," Conor commented. "I've never tried something like that before. I'm glad it made it where I wanted it to go. Are you hungry?"
She wasn't sure. Astonishment had taken complete control of her senses. Still …
She squeezed his hand. "Very."
They crossed the bridge.
The meal was hearty vegetarian lasagna in a large covered dish of fine china or something nicer, along with fresh salad with blue cheese in another. Cheesecake with strawberries for dessert. Water to wash it all down, along with …
He smiled as he lifted a thermos and two cups out. "Neptonian coffee?"
She remembered it from that day on the Serig. She nodded enthusiastically.
He poured her a cup, then reached inside the basket again and lifted out a bottle.
"Warm it up a little?" he asked.
She looked.
Irish whiskey.
She nodded, smiling. He poured some into her coffee. She brought the cup to her mouth and took a sip. Delicious.
He held his out. "To twenty-two years of thinking I was crazy and wrong and that I'd never meet Melody … or, for that matter, Maggie, you."
But she wouldn't touch her cup to his. Instead, lifting hers up, she said, "No. To twenty-two years of patience that would shame a saint, twenty-two years of courage and integrity. To twenty-two years of leading ten nations and giving them hope. And to the freedom of Aquanus and the continued safety of Earth."
He hesitated, then brought his cup to hers.
"Cheers, Maggie."
They drank.
They talked. About Melody and Yaeko. About living in Imperial Beach. About meeting for the first time. And then about Rich.
"Have you told him you and Melody are going away for a while?" said Conor.
"I told him I wanted to take Melody to Europe for a long trip. He believed me."
"Was he upset that he didn't get to see Melody when he was supposed to this summer?"
She shook her head. She stared into her coffee.
"Melody doesn't know how little it means to him to see her," she said with a strong mix of sadness and anger in her voice. "I've lied to her for years about it. I feel bad … I mean, he's so busy with his group, his music. I have to badger him most years to set aside even two weeks for her. It was no problem when I gave him the excuse I did. It really made me angry; I almost blew up at him when all I got from him was, 'Okay, no problem, Maggie …' He was going out on tour and was going to call to reschedule anyway."
She swallowed the rest of her coffee. Conor poured her more, topped it off with more whiskey. She thanked him, took a sip, and said, "I'm bitter about it. But … I don't know … I mean, in the divorce, he basically gave me everything I asked for. His group had a couple hits on the country charts back in the late eighties, and the money he was making was quite good. He gave me a big chunk of change in the settlement, enough that I wouldn't have to work another day, provided I lived very cheaply and simply, which I—which we—have. He's been very generous. Still …"
He listened.
"My degree's in occupational therapy," she went on. "I've worked as an independent contractor for many years. Extra cash, that kind of thing." She chuckled. "I haven't worked in months …"
"Since you first saw my scary face," said Conor with a short laugh.
She gazed at the dark, steaming liquid in her cup.
"Melody loves you, Aedan."
She looked up into his eyes.
A long moment passed in silence. The plaintive call of the unseen bird sounded out.
"And you're afraid," he said gently.
She nodded. "Is it wrong that I want you to be the typical king and send your pawns into the battle and hide safely in the very rear to protect yourself? Is it wrong that I hate myself for feeling that? I mean … the Pyrrhonians tonight … touching their foreheads … I was praying for them, for each and every one of them. But I was also praying that … that …" She stopped. She stared at him.
"She absolutely loves you. I see it in her eyes. In the way she talks about you. You … you are the father she has never had. She would do anything for you. Rich ... Rich has been a steadily fading fantasy for her. I wouldn't doubt if in five years she barely gets around to sending him a Christmas card—or getting one back, for that matter. But you, Aedan … you're reality. And I'm …" Maggie gritted her teeth. "Damnit, once again I'm scared to death."
After a time Conor said, "I'm not that king, Maggie."
"I know you're not."
"You wouldn't respect me if I was. In fact, you'd hate me."
"Please," she begged, "just promise me … promise me you'll take no crazy chances. No stupid risks. No playing the hero unless you absolutely, positively have to. She needs you. I … I need you."
She reached across for his free hand. She squeezed it hard.
"Promise me."
"I promise both of you," answered Conor. "And Yaeko. And Elizabeth. No crazy chances. No stupid risks. No silly heroics. I have only one request to make in exchange."
Maggie waited.
"Malesherbes Quartermane has returned to the Saeire Insu."
"It was amazing to see him at the concert," she said.
"He has returned for one and only one reason."
She took a sip of coffee.
"He's returned to teach Melody the Daen-Cer-Dain."
Her coffee tried to go down the wrong way. She coughed. When she could breathe again, she gawked up at him. His face read concern.
She remembered the Temple Kentein Intersectum. She remembered the demons surrounding Conor Kieran the newly crowned Vanerrincourtian king. Hundreds of them. And she remembered the glistening, sparking nebula of flashing light as his swords cut through them like they were standing still.
"I will teach her, too," he added quickly. "Melody deserves nothing less."
She couldn't seem to get her mouth to move, to respond, to get her vocal chords to produce sound.
It was probably that he couldn't interpret her gaze that he continued to try to sell the idea.
"It will serve two overarching purposes: to teach her to protect herself, and to teach her self-res—"
She got her throat working. "Stop. Aedan, please stop."
Conor quit talking.
"Yes," said Maggie. "Mr. Quartermane may teach Melody the Daen-Cer-Dain. Of course he can. Of course. Where we're going, what mother wouldn't want her daughter to know even a tiny bit of it? Of course he can teach her. Of course you can. It's just hard to believe is all. It would be an honor beyond all others—your teacher teaching her."
"Excellent," said Conor, a relieved smile forming on his face. "Do you think Melody will be receptive to learning it?"
Maggie chuckled. "Haven't you listened to a word I've said? She'll do anything for you. She loves you."
She held on to his hand. They drank Irish coffee.
The lonely bird called out.
She stood once again on the cliffside.
Waiting for her this time, though, wasn't Kathlin Chaundran.
It was Espriella.
Espriella … whose goddesslike countenance made an afterthought of the sun in the sky of Aedan Conor's soul.
There was no proper greeting, no words spoken. As though it had been scripted, they turned together and looked out over the sea. Espriella reached for her hand. Maggie held it tightly.
She lied to Aedan later, after the white aecxal whirlwind dissipated and she found herself on the doorstep to her home. She lied to him about the bright tears in her eyes. She had returned to the cliffside, yes, she told him. But no one was there. The tears could have been there for any number of other reasons this amazing, unforgettable evening; she picked one and went with it.
She kissed him. He kissed her back.
She felt it, and knew he did, too: the just-ignited fire of passion between them, like Ae Infinitus itself, would go on ... forever.
They parted. He left her on her doorstep.
Melody was already in bed. The house was dark and quiet. She hugged Sara when the lab padded quietly up to her, then retreated to her bedroom and closed the door.


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