The Firebird’s Vengeance — Chapter One
Vyshtavos, Year 1
Bridget Lederle stood under a canopy in the icy spring rain waiting for a fox.
Bridget had grown up on an island in Lake Superior. She was used to cold, or so she had thought. The Isavaltan winter had taught her a few things, however, as had the frigid flood that was spring. Her mouth quirked up into a tiny smile. Actually, it wasn’t spring yet. It was rasputitsa, “the time of the road’s undoing.” She had to agree with Sakra about this. Any land, he said, that had a separate word for the time when the roads turned from ice to mud was to be regarded with caution, and to be avoided if possible.
Yet, here she stood, in the imperial gardens of Vyshtavos palace, at midnight, under a canopy that bowed under the weight of the water that had collected on it. Beside her, a tin lantern hissed and steamed as rain drops and runoff from the canopy spattered against it.
Bridget shivered, despite the fur-trimmed cloak she wore over her woolen dress.
She had sent her servants, Richikha and Prathad to wait closer to the palace. The one she came to meet would not appear before so much of an audience. So, just now she was alone in this land of cold and magic, a world away from where she had been born. Here where she was an attendant to an imperial family, and a sorceress, and beloved.
It was a strange thing. She had gone through much of her life alone, not because she wished to, but because she felt it was the only way she could survive. Now she was surrounded by people who saught her company or assistance, and she found herself frequently wishing she could be alone again, if only so she think clearly.
Bridget rubbed her eyes. It was a heavy night, and it brought heavy thoughts. She had been through so many changes so quickly she hadn’t had time to adjust to them all. She would though, she was certain, and she would do so soon. After all, she had plenty of help.
Bridget lifted her head, and saw the Vixen sitting on the other side of the canal.
She had come in her guise as a female fox. Bridget knew she had other forms and faces, but this was the only one she had seen. The Vixen was the queen of the lokai, the fox spirits. Even in the gloom of the rainy night, her fur was a bright red and her chest blazed white. Indeed, there seemed to be moonlight where she was, although it shone nowhere else. She also seemed completely untouched by the freezing rain.
How convenient. Bridget immediately silenced the sardonic thought. The Vixen was powerful, cunning, mischevious and untrustworthy, and if she was treated with anything but the deepest courtesy, she could become suddenly and permanently dangerous.
Bridget reverenced in the Isavaltan style — eyes lowered, one leg slightly extended and her hands folded across her breast. When she looked up again, the Vixen had dropped her pointed muzzle open so that she looked to be laughing.
“You learn your lessons well, Bridget Lederle.” She spoke English, and Bridget found herself startled to hear her native tongue after so many months.
It took her a moment to rally an answer in the same language. “I do my best, Ma’am.”
“And very properly too, I am sure.” The Vixen dipped her laughing muzzle. Although she appeared no larger than an ordinary fox, Bridget had the sudden sensation of being looked down upon. “The good and dutiful daughter, and the faithful lover.”
Bridget had resolved to remain calm through this interview but now she felt herself blush like a schoolgirl. True, she had not consumated her relationship with Sakra, but she had felt that desire, and it was growing stronger.
The Vixen was laughing again. Bridget struggled to regain her self-control.
“You wished to speak to me, I believe, Ma’am,” she said, folding her hands in front of her, a gesture from her previous life when she wore an apron instead of mantles and brocades. She remembered Prathad divesting her of her grey work dress for the last time, and how the woman looked as if she’d like to burn the garment.
“So I did.” The Vixen tipped her head to one side. “I am surprised you were able to tell. I had not thought your sight to be so clear as it once was.”
“What could have changed?” Bridget clamped her mouth shut, but it was too late. The words were out.
Do not ask questions if you can help it, Sakra had advised her. Let her do as much of the talking as you can. Questions can reveal as much as answers.
The Vixen swished her bushy tail back and forth. “Perhaps much, perhaps little.” Bridget saw her green eyes gleam in her strange, isolated patch of moonlight. “Perhaps the dutiful daughter and lover has forgotten she had other duties to look to, and others who look to her.”
Bridget found her mind racing backward, to the lighthouse on Sand Island, to all her long, lonely days as keeper. She had worked hard, living alone, tending the light and warning the sailors. The man she called her father was long dead. His ghost had forgiven her for all that had happened. She’d had a housekeeper, Mrs. Hansen, and Mrs. Hansen’s son Samuel…had something happened to them? To the lighthouse?
But why would the Vixen care? Sand Island, Bayfield, Lake Superior and the Apostle Islands had nothing to do with the lokai. They belonged to other powers. The Vixen’s place was here.
So why is she bringing up my past?
This time, Bridget kept the question silent.
The Vixen clacked her jaws and stood up, raising one paw as if to take a step. “Such eyes. Such sight, but always looking too far away. You should be looking close as skin, Bridget Lederle, close as blood.”
She was being goaded, and Bridget knew it. Perhaps she should just let the Vixen leave. If she did though, night after night, the fact of this visit would gall her and Bridget would wonder what the Vixen might have said if she, Bridget, had spoken, if the Vixen had stayed just a moment longer. Bridget had no doubt the Vixen was fully aware of that.
Close as skin, close as blood…that spoke of family.
“I have no one of my blood who acknowledges me,” Bridget said.
The Vixen combed her ear with her paw. “No? Are you sure? Daughter and lover, niece and aunt, are you that sure of all your family?”
Oh, yes, thought Bridget. Of that I am very sure. “I thank you for your advice, Ma’am. Was there anything else?”
The Vixen scratched her chin. “Well, that depends. Some time ago, you helped free something from your home. It has taken a bit, but it has returned to its home, and it’s been busy. As you once did a favor for me and mine, I’d thought to show you how busy, but since your past is of so little interest to you, perhaps you would only be bored.”
Bridget’s heart skipped a beat. Could the Vixen be talking about the sorcerer Kalami? Or something older, and even more deadly?
“If you please,” said Bridget, trying not to sound too anxious. “I’d be glad to see whatever you might have to show me.”
The Vixen scratched her chin vigorously for a moment, apparently considering. Bridget’s mouth went dry. Had she misstepped too badly? But, at last, the Vixen sighed. “Very well. If you would see, close your right eye.”
The Vixen turned tail and whisked away, accompanied by her patch of moonlight. Bridget laid her hand over her right eye, and watched the Vixen’s departure. Although the lokai’s queen trotted away at a good clip, she did not appear to grow any more distant. It was as if she pulled Bridget along behind her, but Bridget did not feel herself move. The world around her faded into blackness, and all Bridget could see was the red fox moving steadily through a place of formless darkness.
More familiar with such workings than she once had been, Bridget held still. She knew herself to no longer be in the gardens. She held tight to the idea that wherever she was, the Vixen had not brought her here to harm her. Probably.
The darkness moved. It writhed, it bulged, and in places, it lifted. Before her, Bridget saw a fantastical collection of creatures, each stranger than the last. A green, glittering serpent with a body thicker than her waist lay coiled beside a golden eagle the size of a full grown man. There was a dragon, glowing red, gold and silver with sharp, old intelligence in its strangely whiskered face. Beside it waited an animal Bridget could not name. It had a particolored body roughly the shape of a horse and a whiskered face like the dragon’s, only larger and more snubbed at the muzzle. A single, short, green horn protruded from its forehead.
In the middle of them all sat the Firebird. Formed entirely of flame and even larger than the eagle, the magnificent creature shone so brightly that it drew tears from Bridget’s eye. Despite the pain, she did not dare look away. Gold, orange, red and white, the Firebired burned in the infinite blackness. The light of its flames shone in the eyes of the other creatures and played across their bodies.
The Vixen’s purposeful gait slowed to a saunter as she approached the other creatures. All of them turned to glower at her. Either she had grown larger at some point, or the others were not so big as Bridget had thought.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” the Vixen said as she entered their circle. “Am I late? Do go on.” She sat down on her haunches, her tail swishing back and forth.
The eagle turned its glaring red eye back to the Firebird. “Speak then,” it said. “What is it you desire?”
“Retribution,” said the Firebird. Its voice was quiet and dangerous, like the crackle of a fresh wildfire creeping across the forest floor.
The others watched the Firebird in silence. “Retribution,” it said again. “It is mine to ask. I have been imprisoned and I have been unlawfully used. I may claim vengeance.”
The brown tortise raised its ponderous head. “We are guardians,” it said in a voice as weighty as the earth itself. “We exist to protect. We are not furies, nor should we seek to be.”
“We judge. We punish the transgressors and the impious.” The Firebird spread its brilliant wings. “ It is our duty, and I claim that duty and that right!”
The serpent lifted itself, uncoiling its body until its eyes were level with the Firebird’s. The light played along its scales, making them appear to be moving even when the great snake held itself still. “We may all see who has transgressed. But who are the impious?”
The Firebird beat its wings once against the empty night. Bridget imagined she could feel an incredible heat waft off them. “They summoned me to their need, and did me no honor. They left me in the hands of the enemy of the sacred lands, as if I were only the spoils of the war from which they begged to be saved. It cannot be condoned.”
“What was done, that was done for the sake of protecting those who stood helpless against your power,” said the eagle. It’s voice was harsh where the Firebird’s was smooth. Its feathers were like burnished bronze. “That is right and natural, and is allowed by the laws.”
The Firebird, crouched low and drew in its fiery wings. Eye to eye it faced the great eagle. “Not like this,” it hissed. “Thirty years in a cage, always under the threat that I might be turned against my own people. No rest, no respite or quarter. There was only the pain of the bars and the binding spells, and those who owed me honor, who sacrificed and were sacrificed did nothing to bring me ease or release. They would have permitted me to be made into a profane thing and then tried to destroy me.”
The creatures all stood silent at that, but Bridget felt that they did more than imagine what had happened to the Firebird. They shared it. Each of them felt the constriction of those bars and the dreadful heaviness of whatever force could hold such a creature against its will.
These creatures knew patience and they knew duty, but they also knew mercy, Bridget was sure of it, although she could not have said why. But there was no mercy for this, none at all.
“I will not oppose your retribution,” said the dragon slowly.
“Nor I,” said the tortise.
The eagle hung its great, proud head. “Nor I.”
That same answer echoed around the circle of fantastic judges, until it came to the Vixen.
“Tell me,” said the fox mildly, “when you have taken your retribution, what then?”
“What can that matter to you?” retored the Pheonix.
The Vixen blinked her green eyes. “Little, little. This is, of course, only to satisfy my idle curiosity.”
“We have seen your kits sport in other ruins.” The snake shifted its coils silently. “I would think this deed exactly to your taste.”
The Vixen opened her mouth in her expression of silent laughter. “Oh, the opportunities for such sport will be many, I am sure, and yet, that is not what I asked. I asked, when this retribution is done, what will our revered compatriot do then?”
“I will return to my home,” the Firebird replied.
“Will you?” The Vixen clacked its jaws together once. “Will you, indeed?”
“Do you withhold your consent?” asked the dragon, its trailing whiskers bristling with impatience.
The Vixen turned and nosed her tail, setting the brush of it in order. “Oh, no, no. Certainly not. I only wondered.”
The horse-shaped creature for which Bridget could find no name stomped its foot and shook its shaggy head. “It is agreed, then,” it said solemnly. “The Pheonix may have its retribution and no guardian shall oppose or intervene.”
At those words, the creatures faded back into the darkness until only the Firebird and the Vixen remained.
The Firebird stretched out its neck, towering high over the Vixen, the living flames streaming from its back and wings.
“What do you want of me?” it demanded.
The Vixen shrugged. Her coat glowed bright red in the shifting light of the Firebird, so bright it almost seemed to be the color of blood. “Nothing at all.”
“You are no proper guardian. You have no right to judge me.”
“You have no comprehension of what I stand guard over,” replied the Vixen, and Bridget saw how her teeth shone sharp and yellow. “Take your vengenace if you must, but be wary. There will come times after your vengenace when you may yet be called to answer. Such as you cannot bring about true endings. That is for others.”
“Do you threaten me?”
“Not I.” The Vixen twitched the tip of her tail.
The Firebird thrust its head forward. “Then leave me to my business.”
The Vixen’s eyes took in the living flames and reflected them back without flinching. “Go then.” She pointed with her muzzle. “I am not the one who keeps you here.”
The Firebird lifted its blazing wings and launched itself into darkness, and was gone, and Bridget was back under her canopy in the freezing rain of the garden.
Bridget lowered her hand from her right eye. Her lungs heaved as if she had just run a mile. The Vixen was nowhere to be seen.
The Firebird is coming back. Bridget swallowed hard, afraid to move in case the Vixen should suddenly reappear with some last cryptic bit of news. The Firebird is coming for revenge.
When the Vixen did not reappear, Bridget snatched up her hems in one hand and the lantern in the other and raced across the lawn toward the darkened palace.
The Firebird was one of the four guardians of the empire of Hung Tse which lay to the south of Isavalta. Twenty-eight years earlier, the measure of Bridget’s life, Empress Medeoan of Isavalta had managed to cage the creature. Her death the previous winter had freed it, and it had vanished. The sorcerers who the new Emperor, Mikkel, brought to court had searched the realms of the flesh and the spirit and found no trace of it. It was determined the creature had returned to the fire from which it was born.
Apparently they’d been wrong.
Bridget’s feet found the road up to Vyshtavos’s main gates. In daylight, the palace was an elaborate octagonal stone edifice, thick with lace-like trimming and formidible gargoyles. Now, all that separated it from the night were the lanterns and torches of the guards on patrol around its walls and a few lights in widely scattered windows.
Richikha, Prathad and the two soldiers Bridget had been assigned for this night emerged from the guard house. Richikha tried to slip a fresh cloak over Bridget’s shoulders, but Bridget waved her off.
“I must see the Emperor. Right now.”
“He is sure to be asleep, Mistress…” began Richikha.
Bridget didn’t let her finish. “For this he’ll wake up. I’ve received a vision from the Vixen.”
“I’ll go,” said Prathad. She was an older woman, her dark hair gone almost entirely grey and a perpetual sadness haunting her brown eyes.
“Make sure Sakra and the Lord Sorcerer are told as well.”
Prathad reverenced hastily and strode off to find the guard who would find the page who would find the man servant, who would have the unenviable job of waking up the Emperor of Isavalta.
All of which would take some time. Bridget now allowed Richikha to strip off her sodden coat and drape a dry one over her shoulders. She had to admit it felt better.
“Thank you,” she remembered to say as she stode across the cobbled courtyard. A few lights looked down on her passage. One of those lights would be Sakra. He had not told Bridget he would be waiting up for her. There was no need. They both knew it would be so. If her news was not so dire, that knowledge would have made Bridget smile.
As they reached the main doors, the guards were ready to pull open the great portals and servants waited inside with lamps to light the way up the grand staircase to the Imperial floor.
Richikha deftly relieved Bridget of her new coat. “With your permission Mistress…?” she began. Bridget nodded and the serving woman scurried away toward Bridget’s room to deal with both the wet and dry outer garments.
Bridget entered the imperial antechamber. The doors to the apartments themselves were still closed, but the guards and pages on duty looked quite alert. Evidently, Prathad had already completed part of her errand, because Sakra waited here here as well.
Sakra was a dark man with eyes the color of amber. His long hair was parted into dozens of small braids. They spilled down his back, drawn into a tidy bundle with red ribbon. This was the mark of a sorcerer from his far southern homeland of Hastinapura. Each braid was part of some spell that would be released if he unbound it Despite his foreign origins, he wore the clothes of a noble of Isavalta — a wine colored kaftan and a sable sash and pantaloons tucked into leather boots.
“What’s happened Bridget?”
Bridget glanced toward the guards and held up her hand. Sakra understood and asked no more. He just touched her hand briefly in acknowledgment of the pallor he surely saw on her face.
Just then the Lord Sorcerer, Danon Dobrilosyn Abukanvin, rounded the corner with Prathad two steps behind. Unlike Sakra, Lord Danon had obviously been roused from his sleep. His clothes, hair and beard were all disordered and he was attempting to smooth them down as he strode forward.
“What is it?” he demanded. “Is it the Vixen?”
There was no time for Bridget to answer. A liveried footman opened the doors and stood aside, thumping his staff once on the floor.
“Their Imperial Majesties will hear you now.”
The footman stood aside. Lord Danon made one more attempt at smoothing down his wild hair and brushing his sleeves into some semblence of neatness as he entered the room. Bridget and Sakra followed close behind him.
The reception chamber of the Imperial apartments was grand in the old Isavaltan style. That, to Bridget’s mind meant chiefly that it was cold and stony. The lush tapestries on the walls did little to screen out the drafts seeping across the floor. The buttresses and arches with their frescoes and divine imagery were artistically interesting but they offered no warmth or comfort. The firepit, for all it was a solid bed of coals, did little to help.
Mikkel, the young Emperor of Isavalta stood beside his wife, the Empress Ananda. Mikkel was a handsome youth — tall, fair, with broad shoulders and the beginings of a curling beard. Ananda was from Hastinapura, as was her sorcerer, Sakra. She was dark of skin and hair. Her amber eyes slanted above her high cheekbones.
As usual, a small army of servants swarmed around the Imperial couple, lighting candles and lamps, setting chairs near the firepit, decanting strong wine and mixing it with water, just in case this meeting went on long enough that refreshment was required.
Bridget and those who entered with her began to kneel, as was required by Isavaltan etiquette, but Mikkel stopped them with a raised hand.
“What has happened, Mistress?” he asked Bridget. “What did you learn?”
Bridget straightened up, ignoring the look that Lord Danon shot her. He set great store by matters of protocol. “Sir, Madame,” the term “Majesty” did not yet come easily to Bridget. “The Firebird is still in the world, and it means to have its revenge.”
Mikkel blanched white, and even Ananda looked suddenly pale.
“How is this?” cried Lord Danon. “We searched, Majesties. All across the world and through the Land of Death and Spirit. The Firebird was nowhere.”
“I know,” said Bridget. “But it’s back now.”
“The Vixen showed you this?” Ananda’s fingertips touched the back of Mikkel’s hand. “That power is not to be trusted.”
“No, but she said she was showing me…this event because of the favor I’d done her family. She wouldn’t lie about an obligation.”
Mikkel glanced to Lord Danon. “No, Majesty, that is quite true,” admitted the Lord Sorcerer. “No spirit power will tell a falsehood about a promise or a debt, although they may not tell the whole truth.”
“Can you ascertain the truth of what the Vixen showed Mistress Bridget?” asked the Emperor.
Being consulted on the matter appeared to mollify Lord Danon. “The Firebird is one of the great guardians. It could not be fully in the world and remain unseen.” The statement neatly sidestepped the issue of how it had remained unseen before. “All the sorcerers of your court will bend their sight to it.”
“Thank you. If the sorcerers of the land must be alerted, I do not wish to send out any false missive.” Mikkel’s mother had exiled all sorcerers but one from her court. He had begun to find and recall those who had served the old emperor and empress, but although none had disobeyed, it was well known some were not delighted to be pressed into service of such a family again.
“There is another point which should be considered,” said Danon.
“Which is?” apprehension touched Mikkel’s words, and Ananada drew minutely closer to her husband.
“Whether this vengeance the Firebird’s own, or is sent by the Nine Elders.” The Nine Elders were the sorcerers who defended the empire of Hung Tse from all ill-intentioned magics, whether they were malevolent or merely mischevious.
Bridget shook her head. “I think the Nine Elders are in at least as much trouble as Isavalta, and I sincerely doubt they know it’s coming.” She shuddered at the memory of the Firebird’s voice as it spoke of those who should have rescued it but did not.
“Which leaves us with the possibility that they will think we are the ones who unleashed the Firebird on them,” said Mikkel. “That was ever my mother’s threat.”
A look of swift calculation took hold on the empress’s face, and she did not seem to like the conclusions she was reaching. “Could we not warn them?” Ananda asked Sakra. “Is there not some way…?”
Lord Danon was the one who answered. “There may be, Majesty, it is a question of whether there is time enough.”
Mikkel drew back his shoulders. He was about to give an order, his whole stance said it. That was not always easy for him, and Bridget tensed. “Let there be no delay. Use whatever means you have to reach the Nine Elders. I will send a message by courier as soon as may be. All efforts are to be turned toward finding the Firebird and divining its movements under your direction, Lord Danon.”
Bridget softly expelled the breath she’d been holding.
“Majesty,” Lord Danon reverenced, but Bridget caught the victorious gleam in his eye. It had been acknowledged in front of Sakra that Danon was the one in charge. She suppressed a sigh. Did the man never think beyond petty politics?
The Empress glanced around ruefully. “I think no one will sleep much tonight, but return in the morning and we may face this trouble in the full light of day.”
Dismissed, Bridget, Sakra and Lord Danon reverenced and backed out of the doors which were closed, leaving them standing again in the antechamber with Prathad and the cluster of imperial servitors.
“Well, Mistress Bridget, you bring us grave news indeed,” sighed Lord Danon. For a change, he just sounded tired and worried instead of critical. “You will forgive me if I hope this is some deception on the part of the lokai’s queen.”
Bridget’s smile was tight, and completely without humor. “Sir, if you find out I’ve been taken in, I will be the first to cheer.”
“Hmph.” There was an “I’ll believe it when I see it,” look to Danon as he wrapped his heavy robe more tightly around himself. “I must go rouse my fellows.”
Sakra stepped forward, not quite getting in Danon’s way, but making sure he was seen. “Lord Danon, I beg you to let me know how I may assist.”
“I will, but I’m sure the Empress will want you free to consult with her come the morning.”
Which meant he would make sure Sakra was kept as far from the work as possible. Bridget felt her mouth purse in disapproval as the Lord Sorcerer strode out with his servants in tow. Danon did not like Sakra. He did not like the fact that Sakra was a foreigner, and he did not like Sakra’s influence with the empress. He never said so out loud, but he made it plain with a hundred small slights. Bridget was well aware of this, because he played the same sorts of games with her.
Bridget looked to Sakra with a sigh. She set aside Danon’s behavior. Now was not the time to take umbrage.
“I suppose I should have known there would be consequences from what happened,” she said instead.
Sakra shook his head. “You are not the only one.”
“If you please, Mistress.”
Bridget started slightly. She was getting into the bad habit of forgetting sometimes that Prathad was in the room. She met her maid’s gaze.
Prathad hesitated. “Is it…was it…is this because of my former mistress?”
Once, Prathad had been lady-in-waiting to the dowager empress Medeoan, and she had been the last to remain loyal when Medeoan finally went mad. Not even Ananda could bring herself to give the woman a new position after the disaster that brought Medeoan down. Bridget, however, knew what bad luck was, and what it was to be unwanted. So, when she was told her new status allowed her two lady’s maids, she’d asked for Prathad to be assigned to her .
“If this is what it appears to be, Prathad, there will be plenty of blame to go around.” Bridget sighed again. “Let’s go back to the room, shall we? It’s going to be a long night.” She looked at Sakra as she said it, letting him know he was welcome. The truth of the matter was she didn’t want to be alone just yet, although she was not sure she was ready to speak about what else the Vixen had said. Better to let it lie, perhaps. At least until she had a better understanding of the riddle.
Sakra walked beside her through the shadowy corridors. They both knew better than to talk of important things in Vyshtavos’s halls. There was no knowing who was listening, even at such an uncivilized hour. Vyshtavos functioned on rumor and intrigue. In that it was very like a small town. It had not taken Bridget long to learn to guard her tongue.
When Bridget had declared her intention to settle in Isavalta, she had been made a lady-in-waiting to the Empress. She was not, however, a lady of the chamber, so she had her own rooms on the Imperial level, rather than having to live in the Imperial apartments.
She actually had more than that, and that was something she would have to deal with sooner or later.
So much to get used to, she thought ruefully. And now this new thing from the Vixen, whatever it means. If we don’t all get burnt to cinders, I will have to try to puzzle it out.
Perhaps I should have stayed on Sand Island after all.
They reached Bridget’s door. Prathad stepped forward smoothly to open it before Bridget could even get her hand out. Having Prathad at her side proved a mixed blessing some days. She knew a great deal about the customs and the country, and she was dedicated to helping Bridget understand both. As she had once been waiting lady to an Empress, however, she had a little trouble with her new mistress’s more informal ways.
Inside, Richikha dozed in her chair, but came instantly awake as Bridget stepped into the chamber. She had not been idle. The firepit had been tended and now held a cheerful blaze to fight the room’s chill. Beside the fire waited a covered silver pitcher of something that filled the room with the scent of cinnomin and old apples.
Sakra stopped politely at the chamber’s threshold.
“Please come in,” said Bridget.
Sakra stepped inside. Richikha and Prathad offered no comment. They just bustled about, bringing forward a small table, a second chair, setting out two cups for the warm cider.
“Thank you both,” she said to her ladies. “You can get ready for bed. I’m going to sit up for awhile.”
She didn’t think either one of them was actually going to retire while she was awake, but at least they might sit down and relax for a few moments. They did both reverence and retire behind the wooden screens that separated the living and the sleeping portions of the room.
“Please sit down,” said Bridget to Sakra as she took her own chair and drew it closer to the fire. Even her stay in the Imperial apartments had failed to take away all the chill from the garden and the rain.
Sakra gave her a sympathetic smile.
“You’d think I’d be used to the cold.” Bridget held her long-fingered hands out to warm.
“I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to get used to the Isavaltan cold.”
“You’ve never wintered near Lake Superior.”
“A portion of your life I am not sorry to have missed,” he replied blandly. He poured a measure of cider into a silver cup and handed it across to her.
“There were a few of those winters I would not have been sorry to miss either.”
She accepted the cup and raised it to him in a small toast. He raised his in return and they drank. The hard cider and bright spices warmed Bridget’s stomach instantly. She lowered the cup, and saw Sakra watching her, waiting for whatever she had to say.
To her embarassment, she saught delay. “Lord Danon doesn’t think much of either of us.”
Sakra sipped his own cider thoughtfully, but did not look away from her. “Lord Danon is uncertain of his position. He was removed from it before. Losing power is a hard a difficult thing to face, especially for such sorcerer as he is.”
“I suppose it would be.” Bridget rested her fingers on the rim of her cup. She could think of nothing else to say, and yet she couldn’t say what she wanted to.
“Bridget, did the Vixen say something to you personally?”
Bridget considered telling him that she was just tired and worried about the Firebird, but then she looked up at Sakra’s eyes, and saw he already knew this was not the truth.
Daughter and lover, niece and aunt, are you that sure of all your family?
What did she mean?
Bridget rolled the cup back and forth in her hands. “She seemed to be interested in my family. She asked was I certain of how all my family felt about me. She said, ‘daughter, lover, niece and aunt, are you that sure of all your blood?'” Bridget watched the steam rise from her cider. “Why would she care about what might be happening on Sand Island? Or Bayfield? And what has any of that to do with the fact that the Firebird’s coming here?” She frowned and shook her head.
“Daughter, lover, niece and aunt,” said Sakra. “Is that all that she called you?”
Bridget thought back carefully. The Vixen played games with words. No turn of phrase was accidental. “Yes,” she said at last. “Why?”
Sakra’s face went very still. “Bridget, you are also a mother.”
Bridget’s hand tightened around her cup. “My daughter is dead.”
Bridget bit her lip. Sakra was right, of course. She was a mother. The hollow pain that took hold of her heart whenever she thought of the swaddled babe in her arms told her that.
No turn of the Vixen’s phrase was an accident, neither was any omission.
“Anna is nine years gone, Sakra. I held…” she swallowed. “I held her body. I saw her buried. I didn’t…I’d never even heard the word Isavalta when I lost her. How can the fact I once had a child mean anything to anyone here?”
“I don’t know,” he answered with the quiet honesty that was the central facet of his character. “What else did she ask you?”
Bridget set her cup down on the laquered table. Her hand had begun to shake. Yet, if she did not answer his question, it would gall her. When the Vixen set one on a path, one had to follow. She was a power, and her touch, however mild, was not to be resisted.
As best she could, Bridget repeated the whole of her conversation with the Vixen. Sakra listened in silence, his only comment the deepening furrows of his brow.
“As close as skin, as close as blood,” he murmured when Bridget ran out of words. “And other duties. Bridget, I fear you are right, she spoke of your family.”
“And you think she meant Anna somehow?”
“Oh, God.” Bridget tried to turn away from the idea, to dismiss it from her mind utterly. Anna was dead. Bridget had been put on trial for that death. She had stood in dock and listened to Ernie Lawrence, Bayfield’s prosecuting attourney spew invective at her for that death. It was Anna’s death as much as anything else that had driven her from Sand Island and into this strange, vast, welcoming world where she now lived.
“This is ridiculous,” Bridget rubbed her hands together as if she were Lady MacBeth and was afraid of seeing blood on her palms. “She’s trying to distract me. We should be helping Lord Danon track down the Firebird. Surely, you and Mistress Urshila can help me bring up a vision…”
Sakra did not let her finish. “Bridget, have you…ever seen Anna’s ghost?”
Bridget swallowed with difficulty. “No.” Her voice was hoarse, and she did not trust herself to speak more than that one word. She had seen the shades of her mother and her father, and the man whom she had grown up with as her father. But not her baby.
“And you did not seek to,” Sakra spoke the words for her.
Bridget nodded her agreement, her mouth still firmly closed.
Sakra sat silently for a moment, giving himself time to think, and giving Bridget time to collect herself. Of all the things that might possibly have brought her again to the Vixen’s attention…this had not even entered her mind. How was it possible she was sitting here with Sakra discussing Anna?
Sakra reached out and touched the arm of her chair, his fingertips a hair’s breadth from her sleeve. “I am sorry, Bridget, but, can you tell me how Anna died?”
Bridget licked her lips. Of course she could, but she did not want to. “She just…it was a cradle death. It was night. I woke up to help Poppa tend the light, when I came back down…” She could not say it. Nine years later and a world away, and she could not say it. “I tried,” she said instead. “I did everything I could think of. If I’d been a moment earlier…If I’d done more than glance into the cradle instead of the light, maybe…” That was the thought that had echoed through her head the entire time she stood in the coroner’s court. If she’d been a moment sooner. If she’d cared for her child first and her duty to her father and the light second. If, if, if…
Maybe she had truly wanted the child dead, as the prosecuter had said. Maybe she was taking revenge on her lover Asa Kyosti, who took her virtue and left with nothing but a bastard daughter.
Bridget closed her eyes.
“Then there was no mark upon her body? No cause or sign?” Sakra spoke as gently as he could, but the words still burned.
“No. It’s…something that happens.” A moment sooner. If she had looked into the cradle for more than a second. Spared Anna more than just a passing glance…
“Yes, I know. But it is also something which may be hastened…or it may be made false by magic.”
Bridget’s eyes flew open. “What?”
Sakra had drawn his hand back and now he rubbed it across his brow. “I don’t know,” he admitted.
“Are you saying someone…a sorcerer, from Isavalta might have murdered my baby?” Her voice rose high and sharp. “Why? How could they? They didn’t even know I existed.”
“But Medeoan knew your mother existed. Who knows when she first sent Kalami across to the world of your birth, and who knows what he saw there?”
Bridget pressed her hand against her mouth as if she were about to be sick. She was suddenly glad she was sitting, because her knees would not have supported her at that moment.
“Could Kalami have murdered my daughter? Why? Why would he murder a baby? Why not me? I was the threat to him.”
“The children of sorcerers are a rare breed,” said Sakra slowly. “When they come into being, they are powerful. You are the daughter of a sorcerer, Bridget. Your daughter would have been the third of her line, and I don’t know that there has ever been such a child . There is no telling what her powers would have been.”
Rage swelled like a fire in Bridget’s heart. A single hot tear ran down her cheek, but whether it was for that rage or the cold sorrow that warred with it, she could not tell.
“Murdering bastard.” She clenched her fists. “Murdering bastard.” She tried to control herself, without success. “How could he do such a thing? Anna was an infant. She’d barely drawn breath. How could he do it!” She pounded the arm of her chair.
“There is one other possibility.” Sakra held himself very still.
“What?” demanded Bridget. “Do you think Medeoan did this? Medeoan killed my child?”
“Bridget, your child might not be dead.”
Bridget stared at him. She couldn’t understand. His words made no sense. “What?”
“Your daughter, your Anna, might still be alive.”
“Sakra, do not taunt me like this. Anna is dead. I buried her.”
“Bridget, have you ever heard of a changeling? Or a stock?”
“A changeling is a fairy child left in place…” Bridget’s voice died in her throat.
Sakra nodded as if she had completed a full sentance. “A stock is a wooden image, made to look like a certain individual, whoever or whatever the sorcerer desires. It is then enchanted and left in that person’s place. It will live a few days, or a few weeks, depending on the strength of the spell, and then it appears to die, and is given funery rites, as if it were the real person, but the real person is still alive.”
It took a moment for Sakra’s words to assemble themselves inside Bridget’s mind in comprehensible phrases. When they did, Bridget knew her mouth fell open, but she could not move to close it.
“That’s impossible. It couldn’t be.”
“Because.” Because I have nine years alone mourning my child. Because I stood in the coroner’s court accused of her murder. Because if she were alive for all these nine years I could have been looking for her, I could have found her. Because if she was alive, I should have been doing something other than grieving her death.
Oh, God. Oh, God. Bridget closed her eyes. “It can’t be. I would have known.”
“Because I was…I am…I was her mother!” Bridget bowed her head into her hands. “That was my baby I held. I would have known if it wasn’t. I would have seen it! I would have seen her!” Her hands clenched into fists, and her knuckles pressed against her eyes. She would not cry. She would not cry.
Silence, and then the touch of Sakra’s hand. Bridget unknotted one fist and wrapped her fingers tightly around his. She stayed like that for a moment, eyes closed, holding his warm hand like a lifeline, and not saying a word.
Gradually, she was able to open her eyes and lift up her head. Sakra stood beside her, his eyes filled with sympathy and concern. She drank in his gaze for a long moment, drawing into herself all the strength he could give, she needed it all to speak her next words.
“God Almighty, Sakra, could…could it be so? Could my Anna still be alive somewhere?”
Are you so sure of all your family? Had the Vixen truly stressed the word “all”, or was that only Bridget’s fancy?
“I don’t know. I only know that such a thing can be done, and that Kalami was aware of you much longer than you were aware of him.”
“God, Sakra, I don’t…I have to…” she took a deep breath. “What do I do? Do I try to find her ghost?”
“That is one way.”
The idea made her sick with fear, and worse than fear. Fear of what failure of such a spell would mean, and fear of what success would mean. She was in no way certain she could stand to look on the ghost of her infant daughter. Ashamed of her own cowardice, she asked, “Can you do it?”
“I have no tie to her, Bridget. You and I are not married.”
Bridget’s throat tightened. She was not sure she could speak. To see her child again, even as a spirit. To see Anna with the eye of memory and imagination, which was how one beheld a ghost, to see the little girl and the young woman she had once imagined her child would one day be…
“Why is the Vixen doing this to me?” Bridget choked out. “Was it something I did? Have I offended her?”
Again, Sakra shook his head. “I cannot say. We have none such as her in Hastinapura. She was banished by the Seven Mothers millennia ago. I think, though, if she meant to avenge some offense, she would find another way than this to make you pay.”
Bridget got to her feet. She paced aimlessly around the firepit. The stone walls seemed suffocating now. She wanted to tear them down, to see right throught them to the Land of Death and Spirit to see Anna’s ghost at peace there, at the same time she wanted to be struck blind so she never would have to see such a thing.
At the same time, this was an uncertainty she could not bear. The whole of her felt balanced on a knife’s edge. Now that the possibility that Anna might be alive had been raised, she had to know for certain.
Another thought came to her. “I’d have to go back to Wisconsin, wouldn’t I?”
Bridget turned and faced Sakra. “To be sure, I’d have to go back to Wisconsin. Otherwise, any spell I might use, even with my second sight, if it didn’t reach her…spirit, it might just be because I can’t reach far enough, or that she can’t cross to Isavalta. That’s right, isn’t it?”
Sakra considered and then nodded. “Ties of love and blood are immensely strong, but the space between worlds is vast. Were I to perform such a working, I would want to be near the bones.”
“And if I went, now this minute, and the Firebird comes to Isavalta, I will be out of reach and unable to help stop whatever this vengeance might be.”
Sakra considered, his brown eyes flickering back and forth. “That is also true.”
“So either the Vixen is doing me a great favor by telling me my daughter may still be alive, or she is luring me away from Isavalta when my help would be most needed.”
“Luring us,” corrected Sakra.
For a single heartbeat, Bridget thought to say, “What do you mean?” but she realized she had no need. Sakra meant he would go with her back home. He would not leave her to face her daughter’s grave alone.
Instead of that, she said, “You may not be permitted to go.” Sakra was bound-sorcerer to the Empress Ananda. His first duty lay in serving her and the bond that had been solemnized by a series of complex oaths. Bridget knew he carried those oaths in the center of his soul.
She wanted to say, “Let’s wait until we’ve found the Firebird. Then we’ll go.” But the words would not come. Anna’s name pulsed through her mind in time to the beating of her quickened heart. What few memories she had appeared before her mind’s eye. She remembered Anna, red and wrinkled, her dark hair plastered to her skull, how her eyes had opened and shown themselves to be green already, instead of the usual baby blue. She remembered warmth and living weight and the scent of sweet milk. With these actual memories, came the rememberence of dreams. All mothers dreamed of their child’s future, but Bridget with her second sight had more than usual reason to think hers might be true. She remembered telling herself how beautiful, how tall, how strong Anna would be. How she’d always raise her hand in class, how she’d be so quick and clever at her chores, and how well she’d read in the evenings. She’d go onto the teacher’s college, or nursing school. Anna, Bridget and, of course, Asa would move down to Madison…
So many dreams and not one of them showing her daughter’s death. Was that because she did not die?
Bridget knew she would not be able to wait. The world might burn down around her ears, but she would still go. If it were possible that Anna lived, if there was even a faintest whisper of that impossible hope…
Bridget bowed her head. If this was the Vixen’s trickery, she had done her work very well.
But Sakra had other duties, and other claims on his loyalties, whatever he might feel for her, or however much he might wish to help. Bridget knew that. She always knew that.
Perhaps that was why he had not yet spoken of love to her.
Bridget brushed that thought aside. “I’ll speak to the Empress in the morning,” she said, clasping and unclasping her hands. She’ll surely give us leave once she understands…”
Which was something else she had to stop to consider. What if the Empress did not give leave? She knotted her fingers together. Bridget would go anyway. She would find her way back across the gulf between worlds, but what then? If Anna lived, could Bridget find her alone? If Kalami had done this unspeakable thing, where would he have taken her? To Tuukos, his homeland? Or someplace else? She had to leave to be sure Anna was alive, but could she come back to Isavalta if by leaving she defied the Empress? Or would she be giving up this new life that promised to be so sweet, for something too faint even to be called hope?
Too many questions. Bridget felt positively sick with all of them churning around her skull.
“I have to go” The words fell from her one at a time without strength. She felt only defeat and fear, fear that this thing might be true and fear that it might not. “It doesn’t matter what the Vixen’s plan is.”
“I know,” said Sakra simply. Was that sorrow beneath his voice? She couldn’t tell. She was too caught up in the whirl of her own emotions. She did not want to be this way. She wanted to be able to reach out to him, but the gulf was too wide.
“We can do nothing until morning,” Sakra went on, setting his cup of cider down. “Will you try to sleep?”
“I don’t think I can.” Bridget ran her hands over her hair, as if trying to press down the thoughts filling her skull.
“Come, you must try.” Sakra mustered a small smile. “If only for Richkha and Prathad’s sake. They cannot go to bed until you do.”
“Of course, of course, you’re right.” She glanced across at her maids, who waited in the corner, each sewing at some piecework, pretending to ignore what was happening by the fire. She stood, smoothing her dress down fussily. “I will go to bed now.”
Prathad rose and reverenced, her face betraying no hint of the relief Bridget was sure she must be feeling. With Richikha, she went back behind the wooden screens that separated Bridget’s bed from the rest of the apartment. The rustling of bedding being turned down and night attire being shaken out drifted from the sleeping alcove.
“I’m almost afraid to sleep,” Bridget breathed. “I’m afraid I’ll dream, or see something…Anna’s ghost, or, I don’t know what.” To her shame, her voice began to shake. “Sakra, this can’t be true, but if it is…I don’t know which way to turn.”
Sakra moved closer to her. Not close enough to touch, but still close enough so she could feel his warmth, his solidity. Close enough so she could touch him if she wanted to. “You have nothing to fear in this place, Bridget. I will watch over you until sleep comes.”
It was a highly improper suggestion that he stay at her bedside, but Bridget only looked up at him in mute gratitude. His eyes were warm, and filled with the kindness she had come to understand was so much a part of him. But there was something else, and again Bridget thought of sadness. Her hand longed to move, to take his hand, to ask what was wrong, what he thought, whether he would help her, no matter what Ananada said, because this was about her daughter, the most precious thing she ever had, ever would have.
Because she wanted to be able to love him.
But this was not the time, nor the place, and she still had a reputation here. She had to remember that. Prathad and Richikha were not given to gossip, but still, that Sakra would stay after she had gone to bed was outrageous enough, without such overt gestures of affection, and she desperately wanted him to stay. She did not want to be alone with her fears.
She smiled at the awkwardness this kindness of his created and went behind the screens to her sleeping alcove. The bed was a huge affair, big enough to sleep five people who didn’t much care for each other. Posts carved with hawks and running deer held up a canopy and curtains of moss green velvet.
In contrast, her night dress was pure white with more lace flounces than any one garment should possess. She had spoken with Prathad about acquiring some simpler night attire, and they had met with the seamstress, but for the moment being dressed for bed involved feeling done up like some elaborate french pastry.
She was not sure she wanted Sakra to see her like this. Whatever else might be happening, she still had her pride. But she looked at the bed in the flickering brazier light and thought about lying alone for hours, staring at the blackness, waiting to see something, and afraid of what it might be.
She climbed beneath the layers of throws and blankets, stretching her toes out automatically to reach the felt-wrapped bedwarmer Richikha had already placed there. Her maids said nothing about the fact that there was still a man in the room. They reverenced in silent unison and withdrew, taking the lit brazier with them. It was only the reflection of the light beyond the screens that allowed her to see Sakra come and sit beside her. His face was lost in shadow, but she could smell his scents of warmth and spice, and the faint fragrance of oranges that always seemed to accompany him. Now that there was no one to witness it, her hand moved of its own accord, reaching out, telling him with its motion all she needed, and he covered it with his own.
They sat like that for awhile, holding hands, Bridget drawing strength and calm from his presence and, after awhile, Sakra began to sing. It was a low, slow song, perhaps a lullabye, in some language Bridget could not understand. Perhaps there was magic in it, for Bridget’s hopes and fears gradually sank toward sleep. Her last conscious thought, though, was not of Anna. It was the memory of seeing the Firebird, rising into the night sky, spreading out its flaming wings to encompass the world, and the awe she had felt at that sight.
As sleep took her, she wondered where that magnificent terror had gone.