Ori stalked down the halls, her arms loaded with a white two-layer Salshiran dress and a pair of army boots. She stopped at an intersection in the palace hallways and tapped her soft-shoed foot on the hardwood floor.
Not in her workshop. Not in her office. Not in any of the prototyping factories. And not in her room. Honestly. Where was that woman? Someone with green wings on her back shouldn’t be able to hide so well.
The red and black kirtak ran into sight from around a corner and bounced up and down on all fours.
Good. At least Tala hadn’t been able to hide her smell.
The kirtak bounded off and Ori followed, around corners, down stairs, to the lower stone sections of the palace cut into the cliff and a tucked away workshop that was not the one Tala was assigned.
When she walked through the door the smell of at least a week without showering and a small bin’s worth of unwashed cups and plates hit her right in her sensitive nose. She swiveled her ears around, listening for sounds.
There. The scratching of a pencil.
She followed the sound to a drafting office sectioned off from what looked like an otherwise abandoned mechanic’s workshop. Everything outside the office was coated in dust.
Inside the office she found Tala sitting in a swivel-base task chair, bent over a desk covered in schematics. Not just the desk, but the wood-paneled walls as well had countless designs pinned to them. As Ori watched, something thunked and Tala reached over to a brass-bodied pneumatic tube next to the desk, opened the door in its side, and pulled out a capsule that appeared to be loaded with a softcover mechanical text.
So this was where the woman had been for the past two months. From the number of wrappers and jars scattered around, she might have had a good portion of her meals tubed in as well. Orilei glanced around, taking in what looked like drawings of trucks, new ballistas, bows, cannons, walls, and more. The book looked like a reference on armor.
She looked at Tala, opened her mouth to announce herself, then saw the woman’s bare arms as she opened the reference and laid it out on the desk.
They were covered in thin scars and cuts. Some of them fresh.
She knocked on the frame of the doorway.
Tala jumped and spun around in the chair, yanking her sleeves down over her arms in the same moment. She glanced around for a moment before her eyes fixed on Ori.
Ori tossed the boots in Tala’s lap.
“They’re yours now. I’m getting married.”
Tala looked at the boots without comprehension.
Her eyes… she doesn’t look like she’s slept in days.
Tala’s eyes went wide as she recognized them, then shot up to meet Ori’s gaze, filled with panic.
“I can’t! You… you… you have to give them to someone else!”
“No. I prayed, and kept coming back to you. They’re yours now.”
“But… I’m not even a knight!”
“You are now.”
“But… I’m not…”
Ori stared deep into Tala’s violet eyes, saw the fear glitter in them as her whole body trembled. She gathered the white dress close in her arms and squatted down to put herself level with the woman, still holding her gaze.
Then she began to hum, a sound that expanded into complex harmonies after a brief moment and began to fill the room as she opened her mouth and put more air and energy into it. Within moments, the room was ringing with a hymn of thanksgiving.
Tala winced and looked away.
Ori shot out a hand and turned her face back with a touch. Let the song fade to nothing.
“Who are you listening to, sister?” she whispered in Hahkaht. “You are forgiven, just like me.”
Tala’s eyes filled with tears, then narrowed in anger. Then went wide with alarm. A moment later she hid her face in her hands.
“I’m sorry. Please, I’ll just cause problems. Take the boots and go.”
“I’m not going without my maid of honour.”
Tala went still.
“I… thought that was a joke.”
“You know it wasn’t.”
Tala didn’t look up from her hands.
“Why? Do you just want to rub it in that he’s yours? That you won? That you actually deserve him, too? Is that what this is about?”
Ori felt the anger in Tala’s words hit her, but ignored it and listened instead for the harsh pain running underneath that anger, the pain of something in Tala’s heart out of alignment with the truth. And driving that misalignment… the confusion and fear and condemnation coming from something heavy, and dark, and very familiar.
She reached out and tugged Tala’s hands away from her face, then let go.
“Tala, I’m giving you this honor because you were one of Trin’s best friends and I want you to be one of mine. Because you made the weapons that let our people hold back the enemy for as long as they did. Because you’re part of my family now and one of the people I know best. And because it will get you out in the mix with everyone you’ve been avoiding for months.”
She paused, waiting for Tala to look at her, but she didn’t.
“And if you want practical, selfish reasons, you’re one of the few women I know who hasn’t insisted on doing some other job. Mirzha and Bethania both insisted on making sure every single detail of the wedding is perfectly to my taste, and Lahnria and Miri refused to trade their weapons and armor for dresses when I’m going to be standing up in front of half the city with nothing but a dress to protect me. And Nanli already has a job. She’s supposed to carry my groom-gifts. I need you.”
“But I… you… Oh Kai! You do deserve him! I’m so terrible!”
Orilei grabbed one of Tala’s arms and held it, forcing Tala to look at her.
“Tala… I used to be a monster who ate people. I don’t deserve anything. Stop… listening… to that lie. A man won’t magically make you whole, and you know it; and you aren’t the one watching someone else get married because you did something bad and Yahsaw hates you now; and Yahsaw is not punishing you by giving the man you want to someone else. You are being asked to stand at my side as I get married because I love you, and I want everyone in the kingdom to know that, and to know that I forgive you, and that I will tear to pieces anyone who ever mentions what you said to me on that night, ever again. That night is gone.” Ori shook her arm for emphasis. “You said evil, selfish things that had consequences, but Yahsaw planned great things from those consequences, and now everyone can see what he has done with them, and that is all that matters in eternity. Do you understand?”
“You are my sister, and I claim you as such forever. Now stop bawling like a milkhungry squaller and stand like the woman who killed four Garagrans like it was nothing! We have a wedding to be at by noon and you need a shower and some food that hasn’t come out of a wax wrapper.”
Tala stared at her for long moment.
A moment later a weight lifted from the room and left.
The sermons lasted for three hours.
Ori normally enjoyed listening to the preaching on meeting days, but this… this was something else.
“Are they ever going to stop?” she whispered to Tala. “I want to get married!”
Tala flicked her wings without unfolding them and leaned over.
“You should be grateful,” she whispered back. “Sometimes they have the bride and groom stand up on the dais the entire time while the preacher lectures them. At least they’re letting you sit back here in the coach where it’s warm. Ean must be freezing!”
Ori looked up the long, red carpeted aisle crossing the white concrete of the Grand Square to where her husband-to-be stood with his gloved hand shoved in a pocket against the cold of an overcast winter day. Even from a whole feld away, and even though he was wearing a thick-padded winter coat as part of his pure white attire, she could tell he was cold and uncomfortable. She growled. She should be the one standing up there taking the cold, not the man who had still been confined to a hospital bed just six weeks ago and still had stitches all up and down one side.
And he hadn’t even seen her yet! The coach windows had a reflective treatment on them that made it impossible to see in from the outside.
“We do like our ceremonies,” Tala said.
The last speaker stepped away from the podium and the presiding pastor stepped to the center again.
Jubilant music began to play, bright and loud with a variety of brasses.
“That’s…” Tala said.
She reached over and shook the feather-winged girl curled up on the seat next to her. Nanli shivered, yawned, then sat up and looked at her.
“Time to go, moppet.”
Nanli nodded and picked up a small gilded box sitting at her feet. While she was looking down Ori reached over and smoothed the girl’s hair back into place and twitched some wrinkles out of her white dress.
Then she turned and knocked on the door.
Lahnria, standing outside in armor covered in a white tabard, opened it for her, and Ori stepped out. The King was next to Lahnria, and he smiled at Ori and held out his arm as soon as she was clear of the carriage.
The music stopped.
The people stared.
The crowd spread in every direction. Pure white, cotton white, bleach white, silver white. Salshiran wedding clothes for attendees were white, and everyone was wearing them. Everyone. The whole city had turned out in black for Trin’s funeral, turning it into a communal mourning for every person who had been lost in the short war. Now they had all turned out again, only this time in white, for the first big celebration held since all the devastation, which just happened to be her wedding.
Or maybe someone had carefully aimed for that.
And as if to celebrate with them, even the city itself was decked in white. Snow white. A blizzard had blown through for three days, only stopping the afternoon of the day before, and everything but the roads and the sides of the buildings was covered in powder.
The whole city dressed in unrelenting white, and her and the red path in front of her the only bright color to be seen for several ten-felds.
Ori almost ducked back into the carriage, but Tala was right behind her, and she shut the door as soon as Nanli was out.
“Who’s being a squaller now?” Tala whispered.
Ori pulled herself up, perked her ears, turned around, and set her eyes on the goal:
“Take my arm, Ori.”
Right. Ori gave the King her right arm and he hooked his left through her elbow.
She could do this. She wasn’t alone, and the man she loved more than she had ever thought possible was ahead of her. She could take all the unwanted attention in the world as long as he stood at the end of that carpet waiting.
Ori took her first step, over the curb and onto the carpet, the King moving with her perfectly.
A whole orchestra, backed by an organ and the original brass section, began to play.
She almost stumbled, but the King steadied her.
Help me, Yahsaw.
She took three more steps.
Then the sun came out, dropping a shaft of brilliance through a gap in the clouds just for her.
Her dress ignited with color. From head to toe she was arrayed in Salshira’s finest iridescent silks. Red tunic-dress, green under-dress, blue elbow-gloves, purple mantle and train, orange sash, and more gemstone accents than she could count. She couldn’t have imagined a more garish color set, but the taylors had balanced it all so it worked.
Especially when she was the only person bathed in direct light.
This wasn’t exactly what I meant by help, Yahsaw.
Forward. She had to go forward. Her name was Firesong, now. She had to act like it.
She looked ahead at Ean again.
He was staring at her and nothing else, and his eyes were sparkling with tears.
She had never seen anyone look that happy, and that much in pain, at the same time. Suddenly nothing else mattered but his eyes on her. Ori took the rest of the carpet smooth and slow, just like Bethania had made her practice, but her heart beat a little faster with each step closer to her goal, until it was all she could hear, and all she could see were those plain brown eyes looking into her own.
It was happening. It was really happening.
She reached the dais and the King released her arm. She remembered to gather her dress and lift the hem as she stepped up… and then she was across from Ean. He smiled at her.
The music stopped again.
Yahsaw! It’s really happening!
She smiled back, certain she had the stupid look of someone who’d been whacked in the head with a staff.
She didn’t care.
The pastor said something. A lot of something.
She didn’t care.
The pastor said something else and looked at her.
“Ori,” Tala hissed. “Gifts!”
She jolted out of her reverie on Ean’s eyes and looked for Nanli. The girl was on her left, toward the crowd, holding up the gold box, now open.
Ori reached in and took out a crown, a thin circlet of twisted gold. She stepped one leg forward, flicking out the hem of her dress, then knelt down on one knee and held up the crown to Ean.
Words. She had words.
Oh no. This time, she had forgotten them.
Ean smiled at her.
“I give you…” he mouthed.
Ori thought her face would burn off with her blush, but she smiled back even wider.
“I give you everything that I am,” she said. “Nothing withheld save that which is Kai’s alone. Rule me, and keep me, love me, and guide me, for as long as we both live.”
Ean knelt down so she could put the crown on his head, then stayed.
Ori reached to the box and took out a sheathed dagger, a double-edged black sliver made from the tailblade of a greater land-drax she had caught herself.
Ean started to mouth the words again but Ori stopped him with a brief glare. She had it now.
“As sign of my love to you, I give you this dagger. May it ever protect you, and serve you as faithfully as myself.”
She pulled it from the sash far enough to show the blade, then closed it and slipped it into his sash on the right side, right next to his sword. He recognized what it was and his eyebrows went up.
“What have you been off doing?” he mouthed.
She replied with a full-fang smile, then got out the last gift, introduced at the time of the four prophets. A smooth gold ring, with her name inset in platinum for any to read. She took a fierce joy in the words that went with it.
“As a reminder to you and all others, I give you this ring. May you wear it always, and remember that you are mine.”
She put the ring on the second smallest finger of his left hand.
Glee. Ori watched as Ean almost started laughing at the look on her face.
He stood and lifted her up, then took a crown of his own, bright-yellow gold like the one she had given him, from a much larger box held by the young son of one of his many cousins. He knelt again.
“I give you everything that I am,” he said. “Nothing withheld save that which is Kai’s alone. Rule with me, and help me, honor me, and advise me, for as long as we both live.
She knelt and accepted the crown.
The sword he took out was as black as the dagger she had given him, but had the precise look of human manufacture. It was most definitely NOT the sword he had given her at the dance so long ago, like she had expected. She raised an eyebrow at him in question, and he just smiled back.
“As a sign of my love to you, I give you this sword. May it ever protect you, and serve you as faithfully as myself.”
He slid into her sash.
And then the ring.
He said the words, and put the ring on her finger.
His. She was his now.
And he was hers.
They stood together.
“I charge you now in front of all the assembled to keep your vows,” the pastor said, “and ask if you agree to do so, with Aihay as your witness.”
“We do,” they said together.
She saw the world going blurry. No! She was not going to cry in front of everyone.
But Ean was. She saw the sparkling trails running down his cheeks as he watched her.
And then it was too late, and she felt hot trails run down her own cheeks, banishing the cold as they went.
Say it, preacher.
“I now pronounce you married. You may kiss.”
And they did. In front of everyone in Sunfire Falls, and half their visiting relatives besides.
And none of that vast crowd existed. Only the brave little man holding her with his one remaining arm and doing everything he could not to start bawling.
In moments Ori couldn’t tell anymore if it was winter outside or not, because she felt like the heat inside her chest was going to burn her up all over again. No, he wasn’t going to make her whole. But she still wanted him, with every fiber of her being. And as he continued to kiss her, she knew he wanted her, just as much.
Oh, thank you!
Festivities passed. A feast for the whole city that made every feast she had been at before in her life look like a light afternoon lunch. Dancing and more dancing, some for couples in which she refused to spend anytime with anyone except one turn with her new father-in-law the King, and more for groups, in one of which she ended up in a particularly rousing spin with Miri skipping and caroling at her side as they went under the arched arms of several hundred people.
It was almost more than she could take, and the fact that it was all with Ean WAS more than she could take. At some point she lost herself to continuous singing, her eyes going to his again and again, and always finding them on her own.
When they finally made it to their room in the palace, not his room or hers, but a new one big enough for both of them, they collapsed together on the bed, almost too tired to even get their outer-garments off. One look at Ean’s face told Ori nothing was happening between them that night. He was about to die, and she almost felt the same.
Bethania had said that would happen.
“Sleep,” she whispered.
“I don’t want to,” he said.
“And I’ve been to too many funerals.”
She kissed him, then gently pushed him down and lay down close at his side. Moments later she felt him relax into sleep. Moments after that, she joined him, musing to plans of what they would do in the morning when they had their energy back.
She woke to darkness, but it wasn’t threatening.
Just soft, and filled with presence.
She heard a tickling whisper nearby and looked to the windows. It was snowing again.
Was that what had woken her?
She heard a soft knock at the door.
Oh. That was what had woken her.
She glanced at Ean. Still asleep.
Then she waited, hoping whoever it was would go away.
The knock came again, just a little louder.
She slid out from under the covers, into the chill air, and thanked all the crazy Tavarins and their mechanical genius forever for the heated hardwood floor that met her feet.
When she opened the door, no one was there.
No. She looked down and saw a big pair of blue eyes looking up at her, set in the face of a little girl who had a large disgruntled cat clutched in her arms.
“Nanli, what are you doing up?” she whispered.
“I had a nightmare. Again.”
How had she even found the new apartment this fast? The girl was far too smart.
“Couldn’t you go to your father?”
“You’re bigger than he is. And the nightmares don’t like you.”
She couldn’t argue with that.
There went her plans for the morning.
“Alright, come in. But if you wake Ean, I eat you. Deal?”
Nanli stuck out her tongue.
Ori shut the door behind her and scooped her up, then settled them both in bed, letting the cat figure out on his own what to do. Nanli went to sleep in what couldn’t have been more than a kella, but Ori lay there for much longer, feeling the warm little girl snuggled in her arms, and the heat of her husband behind her.
So strange. Had she really come this far in just a year?
For a moment she wondered if there was someone like she had been, out there in the dark and the cold, staring in her window and wondering what it was like to be sleeping in a home with loving family. Wondering what it was like to not be empty and cold inside.
An instant later, she was sure there was. Somewhere, at least.
She hoped that person would find out everything that she had.
Prayed for it with all that she had.
And knew she was heard.