Hassan al-Rafiq rose, gathering his dusty black robes around him, stepped from the barge and slowly, heavily mounted the steps of the quay. Marble glowed honey gold and creamy white and jeweled tiles glistened in the light of conjured fires captured in crystal spheres atop bronze-gilt posts. Those same arcane lamps lined the long, long switchback stair cut into the steep side of the great pier of rock thrusting out into the river, the waters of the Beldour foaming white around its base.
At the top of the stair massive brazen gates stood open in a cyclopian wall, guarded by a half-score of Moors robed in the vivid green and orange colors of Termod of Vechta. Hassan passed without challenge, he was known here.
The Palace fortress of Mor Montarago was accounted one of the wonders of the Eastern World but Hassan gave not so much as a glance to the twilit gardens, still green in the mild late autumn of the southlands, the marbled porticoes and colonnades limned in lamplight, or the silvered domes gleaming in the watery dusk. He was blind to their beauty, intent on his errand.
Finally he approached a pair of silver doors, inlaid with jeweled figures and flanked by green garbed guards. One reached across and opened half a leaf for him. The room within was hung all around with curtains of sea purple interwoven and bordered with gold. Oil lamps of pure gold shaped like birds in flight hung from many armed stands like trees of gold. An under-chamberlain sat at a high podium desk and three secretaries bent over their work at a long table against one wall, all smooth cheeked as boys and clad in white, the chamberlain wearing a golden chain of office. They glanced up only briefly then returned to their labors.
Hassan pushed aside a purple curtain concealing a small door leading to a little mosaic paved courtyard with a silent fountain at its center. Under the portico at the far end was a second pair of silver doors, these guarded by slender, girlish figures robed and veiled in scarlet and orange and armed with silver inlaid spears. They saluted as he approached and flung both halves of the doors wide for him.
Inside was a cloistered garden scented with spent roses and winter jasmine, tinkling with the music of fountains. More girl guards stood under the shelter of a deep many pillared veranda at the far end flanking three great doors open to the evening air and giving onto a wide hall. Fluted alabaster columns upheld an arched and cusped ceiling, carved and fretted like frozen lace, high above an expanse bejeweled, tessellated floor. The ladies of the Duchess' court were gathered there, reclining on carpets and cushions around glowing braziers strumming dulcimer or lute, turning the pages of books or moving exquisitely carved game counters over inlaid boards. Barefooted serving maids, gowned in white, padded softly from group to group offering cinnamon flavored coffee and trays of sweets. The warm, scented air was murmurous with music and low conversation on poetry, philosophy, history and arcana. The Court of the Marluk was noted for scholarship.
A lady chamberlain, also in white with a silver chain around her neck, rose from her cushions to greet Hassan with a bow and gesture silently for him to follow. She led the way through frescoed corridors lit by silver lamps and rooms glowing like jewel boxes with shimmering mosaics and delicate furnishings of wood and stone veneered in semi-precious gems. The sound of muted voices came from behind a pear-wood door inlaid with arabesques of silver and flanked by another pair of girl-guards. The chamberlain opened it and Hassan swept past her into a small room hung with arrases patterned in apricot, amber and gold, his boots sinking deep into the snowy fleeces covering the floor as he made a short bow to the woman resting on the carved ivory couch; the Princess Clarissa, Duchess of Marluk in her own right and Countess of Vechta by marriage, known as the Moon of Torenth and the Shining One.
Pale hair fell in spiral curls over a rich gown of sea purple eastern silk, embossed with crocus and hyacinth in their natural colors. Diamonds glinted at her throat and upon her hands. She sat up in the hush caused by Hassan's entrance, small white feet burying themselves in the thick fleece carpet. Milky blue eyes, the exact tint of the tiles customarily used to ornament Churches and Mosques, fixed on his face.
"Leave us." the satin and brocade robes of ladies in waiting and pale yellow silks of handmaidens rustled as they filed silently out. The Chamberlain shut the door behind them. Only the giant eunuch, his scarlet lined white robe open to show an expanse of bronzed chest, remained still as a statue behind the lady's couch, ignored by the two intent upon each other.
"She is dead." the Moor said bluntly.
"I know. Do you think my twin-born sister could pass from this life without my feeling it?" a spasm of pain passed over the still, white face. "She suffered."
Hassan's hitherto impassive expression convulsed in an answering agony. "She did!" sudden tears sprang to his eyes as grief, long suppressed, overcame him. "Ai, my little lady, my white one -" his voice broke in a sob.
Clarissa sprang from the couch to guide him gently to a heap of gold and white cushions. "Sit, old friend, rest." The eunuch moved, pouring pale wine from crystal-gilt decanter to matching goblet and handing it to his lady. "Drink this and try not to dwell on a pain that is past. Charissa's soul in in God's hands now, may He be merciful to her!"
Hassan took a gulp of the wine, then looked through his tears at the surviving sister. "She was a noble lady, a devoted and dutiful daughter."
Clarissa cracked a smile. "As I am not?" she settled on the cushions next to him taking his free hand. "Hassan, Hassan, you know better. It was despair not duty that drove my sister. It was death she sought not a crown."
He shook his head angrily, resisting. "No! she wanted her rights, she wanted vengeance -" his voice broke again. "What else had she to live for?"
The Shining One's face, so like her sister's and yet so subtly different, clouded. "There could have been other things. She had me and her godchildren. She had Tolan. She could have made a life worth living for herself."
"And left her father's blood un-avenged?" Hassan cried. "He died by treachery -"
"He died in fair combat in accordance with the Law." Clarissa cut him off sharply. "What treachery can there be inside a sealed circle? God's judgment went to the Haldane. To seek vengeance for that is rank impiety - and Charissa paid the price of it." he tried to answer but she rode over him; "Think, Hassan, how could Human princes new come to their powers possibly have defeated sorcerers as able and practiced as my father and sister were it not God's will that Haldanes should rule Gwynedd?"
"Treachery -" he said again, but uncertainly.
"Treachery how? You witnessed both deaths, tell me!"
He was silenced. She stroked his hand. "Hassan, Hassan, dear friend of my childhood. Do you truly want me to send my son, namesake and heir of your lost lord and friend, to die in Gwynedd? Do you want to see me and my children dead in fruitless quest of a crown like so many of our ancestors before us? Please, may we not rest content with what we have and live in peace?"
He could only shake his head helplessly, long held certainties dissolving into confusion. "It is her right, your right -"
"No, Hassan." Clarissa touched his face tenderly. "It is a threadbare old dream that has already cost us far too much. Let it go, as I have. Honor the dead but let them rest. Go home to your wide plains, take a wife and raise up brave sons and fair daughters to the honor of your house. Embrace life, Hassan, be happy. The lord and lady who loved you would want that, not your blood pointlessly spilled."
Looking into those luminous blue eyes, the color of a clear desert morning, Hassan al-Rafiq saw his rage, his thirst for vengeance, for what they were a facet of despair and so mortal sin. Memories of al-Marluk rushed back, the warmth of his smile, his affectionate arm round Hassan's shoulders, their youthful escapades and the many shared projects of their manhood. Then memories of Charissa as a happy, laughing child before the Shadows took her. Of the warm, loving girl she had been rather than the icy, embittered woman fate had made of her. But even then, after all she had suffered, Charissa had still loved him, the friend of her adored father and protector of her youth. Clarissa spoke true: Hassan's dear lady would not want him to throw his life away in a hopeless try for vengeance, nor Hogan neither.
Slowly, reluctantly Hassan let go of his rage, his blood-thirst, his hunger for vengeance, and with them the all that had been holding the devastation of his heart at bay. He broke down, sobbing inconsolably as child. And the child of his friend, dear as a daughter of his own, cradled him in her arms murmuring comfort.
Clarissa let the man who'd been as a second father to her and her sister weep himself dry, shedding with his tears decades of stored up bitterness and hatred. When the tears finally stopped, leaving him light and hollow and ready to start his life anew, she kissed him then glancing over his shoulder nodded to Albanus, her eunuch. He opened the door and Clarissa entrusted Hassan to the waiting chamberlain.
"Find him a room in the barracks and fresh clothing." she instructed, then to the man: "Sleep, Hassan, deeply, without dreams - or with good ones only." He nodded, still a little dazed by the catharsis of emotion and let himself be led away.
The three handmaidens who'd been in attendance sat quietly in a row against the corridor wall, waiting. "Now to tell my daughters their aunt is dead." Clarissa said half to them, half to herself. "We must pray, pray for her soul. God be merciful to her!"
'Holy Christos, crucified for us, have mercy upon thy servant, my sister!' Clarissa prayed. Beside her a row of pale haired little girls, achingly like Charissa, bent their heads over small, clasped hands, lips moving in earnest petitions for an aunt only the eldest could remember with any clarity. The twin sisters, once so close, had been estranged for a long time before Charissa's death.
The six of them knelt on the layered carpets of Clarissa's private chapel, nurses and handmaidens ranged behind, en-globed by the heavenly blue tiles facing walls and ceiling, the inside of the cupola ribbed with gold and enameled a deeper blue sprinkled with gilt stars. Gauzy curtains, weighted by embroidered images of maiden saints had been looped back to reveal the altar they normally veiled, a cube of blue banked with jeweled lamps. The doors of the silver-gilt tabernacle were set with a pair of exquisitely enameled panels; that on the right showed Hogan Gwernach and his delicate, moon pale duchess; on the left a pair of ivory fair girls, alike as two stars in heaven, robed in lapis and turquoise and crowned with ducal coronets, all adoring the holy sacrament.
'My family, as it never was." Clarissa thought sadly. 'Mother dead three days after our birth. Father killed in mortal combat before our very eyes when we were still mere children. And now my only sister fallen in the same foolish, futile cause - Maria Theotokos pray for her! Beg God your Son to have mercy upon the soul of one bitterly wronged as well as wronging!'
As night deepened around the little chapel nursemaids silently removed the weary children carrying them away to their beds but Clarissa remained kneeling, hour after hour, lips moving in silent, urgent petition:
"- Saints Hesperius, Zoe, Cyriacus and Theodulus, holy martyrs, pray for her; Blessed Sviatopolk, pious prince, pray for her; Saint Sviatoslav, holy penitent, pray for her; Saint Margetan, holy virgin, pray for her; Saints Alix and Anne Orexis, holy penitents, pray for her; Saint Simplicius, bishop and innocent, pray for her; Saints Sava and Triduana, holy companions, pray for her; Saint Basil, Holy Hierarch, pray for her; Saint Pudentiana, holy virgin and martyr, pray for her; Saint Helena, pious empress, pray for her; Saint Elderon, holy knight, pray for her; Saint Vladimir, pious prince, pray for her; Saints Justa and Rufina, blessed matrons, pray for her. Holy Innocents, pray for one who lost her innocence all to early!
Mind and tongue both stumbled as she searched for further intercessors:
"Saint Iob, patron of our house, pray for her! Blessed Phourstanos, pray for your child! Blessed Imre, sainted king, pray for her! Blessed Karoly, pious prince, pray for her! Blessed Ariella, princess and penitent, pray for her! Blessed Torval, dearest uncle, pray for her! Larissa my mother, Hogan my father, souls in paradise, pray mercy for your daughter!" Then on a sudden impulse the most unlikely petition of all: "Saint Camber of Culdi for the sake of Festil III and Blaine I, whose friend and servant you were, pray for an erring daughter of their blood!"
A hand fell lightly upon her shoulder, making her jump. She looked up into the grave, concerned face of Father Basileus, her archpriest and confessor. "Enough, daughter," he said gently, "you must think of the children you carry."
Her hand went instinctively to her still flat stomach, feeling for the lives new budding within. "My sons, my twin sons." who would live long and happy lives tending their estates in Torenth, she vowed silently, not angling for a crown long lost - and well lost!
Basileus helped her to rise. "Go to bed, child."
"Yes, Father." she said, weary and obedient.