Fiachrin stumbled up the stairs. Two of the servants asked him if he was ill, but he waved them away. A flipping coin of rage and disbelief spun at his core.
The doors to his mother’s sitting room were ajar. The heavy brocade curtains, soft blue in color, were drawn over the tall windows. A good fire ebbed beneath the cream-colored, gilt-edged mantle. The vases and frames and floors looked newly polished, the pale blue upholstery of the furniture was the same winter color as his mother’s eyes. He hung in the threshold for a moment, accosted by a grief he had thought long buried. The doors to her bed-chamber were closed, beside them was a small table flanked by two cushioned chairs with curling arms and feet. Upon the table was a chess set, carved from the heavy black stone and from the rare blue quartz occasionally found in pockets within the mountains, gleaming from recent care. Above that was a portrait of his mother, sitting in repose at that very table, a game captured in progress beside her. Her elbow rested on the table, one hand beneath her chin, her other hand in her lap, the thumb tucked under. She was playing with her ring. His mother always played with her rings. She had beautiful hands. Sculpted and soft, tapered fingers and pudgy palms, like baby’s cheeks.
She loved to play chess. They played constantly, every day. Sometimes for hours, sometimes he would run by, move a piece, and not return until the next day. He found himself wishing he had spent more time there, swaddled in her airy scent. But there were always horses to ride, swords and daggers and axes to yield. She had died when he was ten. The baby had been early and stillborn.
The door to his mother’s bed-chamber opened and a phantom of mourning slipped through. A black gown and black veil paused between the two rooms, closing the door softly behind her. Even the hands were gloved in black; they folded before the black-robed specter.
A long time passed before Fiachrin understood.
Her hands fell to her sides and clenched. Her head turned and he could make out the line of her profile through the veil. She took a few steps toward the middle of the room, but seemed not to know what to do once she got there. She simply stopped.
“What is this?” A smoke cleared from his head only to be replaced by another. “What do you think you’re doing?” He rounded the couch and came close enough that he could see the shape of her eyes; they were still lost in the black gauze and indistinct. “Why . . .”
She sat, her knees widely spaced, her hands clasped between, her shoulders stooped over. “Please don’t ask me to explain.”
He sat down next to her. “I thought you left.”
“Nevan is ill,” she said.
“How is he now?”
Fiachrin ran his hands over his face, hoping to uncover the expression that might best match the jousting contest of emotions he was experiencing. She was here. That was good. But this costume, what was this about? He disliked it, he cared for it as much as he had liked the mask. He was preparing to tell her so when she spilled out her words on the floor, a slush of half-melted thoughts soaking through the rug.
“This is how it has to be. If I’m ever going to be . . . if I’m to go back to being what I was, or something of what I was. I can’t ever be what I was. But Nevan needs me and once spring came I’d have duties and there was too much. With unifying the kingdom and maintaining the troops, all the projects. I’ve done all I could. What more is there? Tireachan has peace, his son, a whole—a nearly whole island. That is much more than I ever dreamed, more than I knew . . . I’ve forgotten so much. I don’t know how to walk or talk or think. And my face, my hair, my hands—”
Fiachrin took her hand and removed the glove. She seemed to watch this, though it was hard to tell behind the veil. He turned over her hand. The cuticles were scrubbed, the cracks glowed red and irritated. He ran his finger over the tough hills of calluses.
“Your hands look better than they did when you were a princess,” he said. “They’re cleaner.”
She pulled her hand back, without haste. She rubbed at the palm with her thumb and worked her way up the pinky finger, tugging at it, rocking it in its joint.
“I have to do this,” she said.
“But what are you doing, exactly?”
“This.” She dropped her hands open toward the smooth and shining skirt that hung reluctantly around her, as though it was as uncomfortable with the situation as she was. “I have to.”
“You have to wear a dress?”
She stood up and paced in a stalking, predatory gait. “You’re being purposefully obtuse.”
“No, I’m being as obtuse as I feel,” he said.
She gripped the back of the chair, as though she might lift it up and fling it at him, instead she bowed her head over it.
“I need time,” she said, “to remember.”
“To remember what?”
“How to be me.” Clips of desperation sheared her words. “How to be a woman.”
“Caoinlin.” Fiachrin joined her behind the chair. “You are a woman, whatever you do, however you sit or talk, whatever your hair or face looks like. Those things don’t make a difference. You were a woman when you were the Mhasc Caoin.”
Her hands rose between them, flat toward him like she was about to push him away.
“You say that—”
“Yes, I do.” He grasped her hands and pressed them together between his. “I say that a veil is just another mask. You don’t need either of them.”
“You’re wrong,” The black fabric rested against her face and stuck to her wounds as she looked up at him. “Is nothing good enough for you?”
“What does that mean?”
The imprint of a frown slipped through the veil. She tugged her hands away. “You want the impossible.”
“I want the impossible?” A nettled stinging vine coiled around his chest. “Me? You were the one who wanted to fight. You were the one who wanted to be a warrior. You were the one who wanted to destroy the Ulic and be a hero.”
She started to turn away, but he stopped her and held her firm.
“If I want the impossible,” he said, “it’s because of you. Don’t tell me something’s impossible Caoinlin, that’s not who you are. Whatever you’re trying to do with this morbid display—”
“You want me to be everything at once.” She was accusing him of a crime, playing at bitter victim.
The role was ill-suited and it made his hands disgusted to be touching her. He let go, shaking his head, confused
“But it is impossible. That was the first thing I learned. A woman won’t be accepted as a warrior. And a warrior won’t be accepted as a woman.”
“Maybe that was true for others, but after what you’ve done—”
“Look at your father! He was ready to turn me out! To make a public display of me! To hang me by my neck—”
“That’s not true.”
“Isn’t it?” She fought back the veil like she had walked through a cobweb and finally tore it free. Her eyes were hot iron. “He, above all others, had cause to accept the truth. Everything I accomplished was to his credit, to his benefit. But how did he react? He said it was obscene, he said everything was changed! Everything. Changed. All the victories. All the lives spared. All the resources saved. Arthor killed! This whole island brought to its knees at my sword, at my will, for his kingdom!”
In that moment, he might’ve believed she had the power to shake the Caiseal down to its foundations. He trembled, faced with the unleashed force of her. She heaved a breath equal to the momentous feats that had roared from her.
Her hands balled tight and then, fell open, emptied and defeated. Her eyes cooled and dulled.
He collected his shaken thoughts. “You’re right,” he said. “You deserved better.”
“I deserve to be punished.” She hugged herself.
“How dare you?” He was scooping sparks from a scattered fire. “How can you even think that?”
“This is what happens,” she said, resolute, destitute. “This is what happens when you battle the impossible. You never win. You only push the horizon further and further, until the road is so perilous and painful that every step you take, no matter in what direction, is ridden with retribution.”
“Caoinlin . . .” He was beaten by the desolation, it overtook him, the sweeping shadow of a storm devouring the sun.
“Does it look like victory to you? From there?” she asked.
They were a few feet from each other, but the distance seemed greater. Greater even than when she’d worn the wolf’s mask.
“Glory is for those who can see the whole of the horizon,” she said. “For those who can see the stars and the dawn. Here, at the horizon, it’s too hot, too cold, too dark and bright. Victory is a word spoken from far away. Not here.”
It might have been the longest, hardest journey he ever undertook, to approach her at that moment. And then to put his arms around her, unsure if he was capable of holding someone who was only half there. A ghost in flesh. She was not crying, she was not looking at him. She was standing there, holding herself together with arms that bulged against the sleeves. The press of her body had the chilled, rigid feel of a corpse. His hands faltered, his body confused and disappointed at this first, longed for contact, that was so unlike what he had imagined. She remained stiff, not leaning into his embrace, not struggling against it. Should he let her go? What was he thinking, trying to hold her now? What was he trying to prove?
Just when he thought to release her, his hands slipped tighter at her waist and against her back and crushed her to him.
“You’re not far away, Caoinlin.” Unthought words formed of their own volition. “You’re right here with me.” Her body hitched a little, bucking against his words. He held her tighter, almost uncomfortably tight. His hand moved up, found the back of her neck, the smooth skin there. “Stay here with me, mo ghrà, don’t leave.”
The knot of her arms came undone. A tremor knocked loose the rigidity and it fell away from her body, an avalanche of snow sliding off a mountain face. Breathless sobs soaked into his chest.