Prayer of the Handmaiden:
A Second Legend of Ithyria

Chapter One

            I am Qiturah, Honored Mother of Verdred Temple and humble scribe to the Goddess Ithyris. As the Goddess’s historian, it is my responsibility to document the significant events of our generation as they unfold, so that Her wonders may never be lost to memory.
            We, the priestesses of Ithyris, know that our Divine Lady’s power shines brightest when Love is Her instrument. It is our sacred duty to bring this truth to Her people. Perhaps you have already read my first contribution to these chronicles, wherein Love served as Her weapon in the Battle of the Ranes. Scarcely a season has passed since Queen Shasta’s coronation, yet I have already been given a second such story to relate.
            This time, however, I bring you a tale not of royalty, but of Faith.

            The day had been perfectly ordinary. In fact, Qiturah might even have described it as tedious. Prayers, chores, mealtimes and studies had been carried out at their scheduled times, without anomaly. Certainly she had received no warning, not even the smallest hint, that this afternoon was to be any more remarkable than any other—right up until the moment when the Goddess Ithyris materialized, unheralded, in her private chamber.
            She was more beautiful than any mortal woman Qiturah had ever seen. In a single, glorious instant, the Honored Mother of Verdred learned for herself that the legends were true: Ithyris’s translucent skin appeared to glow from within, as if the brilliance of Her Spirit could not be contained by Her body. Her limbs were slender, Her features delicate, the bridge of Her nose a perfectly straight line. Her mouth was expressive and sweetly sensual, and Her eyes… Qiturah found it impossible to look into those luminous eyes for more than a few seconds before gooseflesh swept her skin.
            The shock of Her arrival was quickly eclipsed by a sensation of nakedness. Before the Goddess’s all-encompassing gaze, Qiturah might as well have dropped her robes to the floor, for all the good they did. Ithyris’s ability to view her was not limited to physical attributes, and Qiturah felt Her perusal to the core of her being, her every grace and shortcoming laid bare. The feeling might have been humiliating, were it not for the breathtaking tenderness in Her eyes.
            Qiturah’s knees struck the floor. Her arms came up of their own volition, thrown wide, and her head fell back. This was the traditional Ithyrian prayer position, but Qiturah had never truly understood it until this moment. “Y’kurakura nasiaa, y’vysashun lo siriaa; ah Shaa’Nalusa, nu yi ailo, nu yi ailo…” The hymn fell naturally from her lips, and the words had never been so true.
            My heartbeat dances for You, my blood is singing for You; oh Divine Lady, You are with me, You are with me…
            In all her sixty-seven winters, Qiturah had never felt more alive. Ithyris almost never appeared to the mortal eye. Even the sound of Her voice was a rare and precious gift. Qiturah had never dared to hope for an honor such as this. Yet She was there, bare feet hovering a handbreadth above the floor, pale hair and robes floating weightlessly as if suspended in water.
            “Qiturah, y’ostryn makluran.” The ariose syllables chimed delicately one after the other, like bells. Qiturah, My beloved daughter. Qiturah’s eyes filled with tears as she tried to form a proper reply, but her lips could only move noiselessly.
            “Byrias ai piare,” the Goddess said. You must help Me.
            Qiturah gasped and pressed her fingertips to her forehead. What could She possibly want from her, that warranted such an extraordinary personal visit? “Of course, Sweet Ithyris,” she replied in the Ithyrian tongue, “You know I will do whatever You ask.”
            “Yi fuli shaa’din.”
            Reeling back on her heels, Qiturah stared up at Ithyris in disbelief. Had she heard correctly? But the resolve in those brilliant eyes told her that she hadn’t mistaken Her words. She did her best not to stammer as she asked, “Who, my Lady?”
            “Y’ostryn n’nu tana veran. Kadrian.
            “It shall be done,” Qiturah responded quickly, and Ithyris’s mouth curved upwards. If She had been beautiful before, this small shift in expression elevated Her loveliness to inhuman proportions. It was the most wonderful smile Qiturah had ever seen, and she felt light-headed.
            “Kurariaa.”
            “Oh no, Lady, it is I who thank You!” Qiturah exclaimed.
            Ithyris was gone as swiftly as She’d come. She vanished in a whisper, like a candle extinguished by the wind. For several minutes Qiturah stared longingly at the space where She had been, savoring every detail of that face, that smile, pressing the images into her memory as carefully as she could. She wanted never to forget them, for this was the most momentous day of her life.
            “Thank You,” she repeated into the empty air. “Thank You, oh thank You!”
            Her head was spinning, not just with the Goddess’s unprecedented visit, but with the intriguing request that had provoked it. A shaa’din! Not since the Twelve had the Goddess called a holy warrior into Her service. The implications were as alarming as they were thrilling.
            A millennium ago, Ithyris had bestowed Her Spirit on twelve young women in order to drive Her brother-God Ulrike’s darkness back into the mountains of Dangar. With an army of the Goddess’s devoted followers at their heels, the Twelve had waged war against the disciples of Ulrike. As shaa’din, they channeled the Goddess’s power into the mortal world, and ultimately they succeeded in carving out a swath of land, bordered to the south by sea and to the north by mountains. There the Goddess’s people could live in peace, sheltered from Ulrike’s raging lust for dominion. The Twelve had become the first Honored Mothers of Ithyria. Each Ithyrian province inherited one of their names, and their accomplishments were immortalized in folk songs and bedside tales passed down through generations. Even today, their influence pervaded nearly every aspect of Ithyrian life, and rightfully so, for without them Ithyria would not have been.
            Now Ithyris had declared there would be another shaa’din. Qiturah could only imagine what She might have in mind. Only a few moons earlier, a renewed war with Dangar had seemed inevitable. A power-hungry traitor from within the Ithyrian royal house had struck an unholy bargain with the Dangar emperor. A horde of barbarian warriors advanced on the northern provinces, intending to reclaim them in the dark God’s name. But Ithyris had intervened. The Battle of the Ranes was brought to a close in a wondrous spectacle of Her celestial fire and the death of the traitorous Chancellor Kumire. And, by some strange miracle which no one fully understood, the barbarian horde had retreated—perhaps because the easy victory they had anticipated no longer seemed certain? With Queen Shasta of Rane restored to the throne, the kingdom had joyfully celebrated its one thousandth winter of freedom from Ulrike’s tyranny. There had been fireworks, and feasting, and such a great release of tension, as if all of Ithyria had let out a collective sigh of relief. Everyone was looking forward to a time of peace in which to rebuild, but this stunning turn of events seemed to indicate that the Goddess anticipated yet a greater fight ahead.
            Pulling a cushion from her cot, Qiturah tucked it beneath her knees, which were beginning to smart from their impact with the stone floor. She closed her eyes, tilted her head back, and breathed deeply. Some tremendous darkness must be approaching, for Ithyris to call a shaa’din into Her service once more. And the need was evidently so great that She had come personally to ask Qiturah to prepare the chosen vessel for Her power. To be called to such a task was the greatest honor Qiturah could imagine. Much research would be necessary, as she was not even certain how a shaa’din was created. Such a thing had not been done for a thousand winters.
            As she prayed, Qiturah considered the change that was about to take place in the life of this fortunate—or perhaps not so fortunate, for the responsibilities to be laid on her shoulders were unimaginable—young woman. Ithyris’s choice was curious, for the priestess She had named was quiet and timid, even painfully shy. Truthfully, young Kadrian did not seem at all like a leader, but Qiturah held absolute faith that no one knew a person’s true heart as well as the Goddess. In fact, this was the second time Ithyris had requested the services of this particular priestess by name. The first time, Ithyris had directed Qiturah to send a letter to the capital city of Ardrenn, and She had specifically requested Kadrian as the messenger. That mission had resulted in the rescue of the Ithyrian princess, and Qiturah wondered if those events were a precursor for whatever was happening now.
            She also wondered how Kadrian would take the news. How would the other priestesses react? How would the citizens of the kingdom react, for that matter? This was certain to cause as much fear as celebration. Yet like it or not, Qiturah realized, Ithyria was about to witness the birth of a legend.

#

            The infant’s distinctive amber-colored eyes brightened with interest at the thick braid dangling a fingerwidth from her face. She shrieked delightedly and grasped for it with tiny hands. Erinda laughed and kept her hair out of reach as she finished straightening the bedclothes in the cradle. Then she reached down and took the child in her arms.
            “Feeling playful tonight, your Highness?” she inquired of the baby, who promptly fisted the end of one of her mousy brown braids and attempted to stuff it in her mouth.
            “She’s been a handful all day. One can only hope she’ll sleep soundly tonight.” The ancient woman who hobbled up behind Erinda had been tending the royal nurseries for four generations. No one even remembered her real name anymore; she was known to everyone simply as “Nurse.”
            Erinda could hear the weariness in her voice, and smiled. “Why don’t you rest for a while, Nurse? I can watch her until the Queen returns. I passed the conference room on my way here and the viceroys were just adjourning for the day, so it shouldn’t be long.” She didn’t add that the provincial leaders had appeared red-faced and irate as they shoved their way out into the palace corridor, suggesting that today’s session had rubbed more than one man the wrong way. That generally meant that the young Queen had said or done something inflammatory, which was becoming almost a daily occurrence of late.
            The haste with which the old woman agreed and scuttled from the room was comical. Nurse enjoyed her work, but it was also a well-known fact that the crotchety woman treasured her quiet time alone.
            The baby had busied herself with the lacings of Erinda’s bodice, gumming the leather thongs into a slippery tangle. She was such a cheerfully preoccupied child, interested in everything that passed before her eyes, though her focus shifted as quickly as a honeybee danced between flowers. Her full title, as bestowed by her adopted mother the Queen, was Her Royal Highness the Crown Princess Bria Talon Shastis of Rane; such a big and grand name for such a tiny girl. The Queen had taken to calling her “Brita,” a contraction of Bria and Talon that was much less of a mouthful.
            Hefting the baby in her arms, Erinda looked seriously into her golden eyes. “So it’s been a busy day for you, has it, little Princess?”
            “She’s not the only one,” Shasta said from behind them. Erinda looked up to find the Ithyrian Queen in the nursery doorway, watching them with a smile. The Princess kicked happily at the sound of her adoptive mother’s voice, and Erinda delivered her into Shasta’s arms.
            “Hello, my pretty girl,” the young Queen murmured, and held out the heavy emerald pendant around her neck. Giggling with delight, the baby clutched at the gem with chubby fingers, trying to guide it toward her mouth, and Shasta laughed.
            Watching her friend, Erinda could not help noticing the fine lines already beginning to form at the corners of her eyes. Shasta was scarcely twenty winters of age, and had only held her office for a matter of moons, yet the strain was already beginning to show on her face. Erinda worried for her. The responsibilities she bore were heavy, and this evening Shasta’s pretty features were even more tense and drawn than usual.
            “Difficult day, Your Majesty?” she asked gently.
            Shasta looked up and rolled her eyes. “Erinda, I’ve told you time and again that I’d much prefer you to call me by name. For the love of the Goddess, we grew up together.”
            Erinda nodded uncomfortably. The women of her family had served as maids in the palace for five generations. The proper forms of address were so ingrained in her upbringing that it seemed like sacrilege to speak to the Queen so casually, even if she did regard her as a dear friend.
            Shasta seemed to read her mind, and her eyes twinkled. “Consider it a royal command, if that makes it easier.” She smoothed the baby’s sleek black hair, and pressed a kiss to one plump cheek. “And yes, it was a very difficult afternoon. Every day I discover that dreaming up great and noble ideas and actually implementing them are two very different things. There’s so much I want to do, so many things I want to change, but politics are all about maintaining a delicate balance. A small change to one regulation might mean the salvation of one family, but also the starvation of another. No matter how many ideas I think up to better equalize wealth and opportunity across the population, those who already have both just find ways of passing the costs down onto the ones whose shoulders they’re already standing upon.” She shook her head wearily. “I suppose I had this naïve idea that once I gained the crown, I’d be able to clear up all Ithyria’s problems with a few strokes of the pen. I never imagined how complicated it would be.”
            “Haven’t you already made a great many improvements?” Erinda didn’t know much about politics, but she’d heard enough from palace gossip to know that even in her few moons on the throne, Shasta had already gained much public favor.
            “Oh, I’ve managed to change a few things. Replacing a few of the most corrupt viceroys, for a start. But I’ve had to stop myself on so many occasions to ask if I’m really doing it because they’re corrupt, or if I’m simply silencing dissenters. Blindly forcing my own will makes me no better than the men I despise.” Erinda thought this was an impressively wise statement, but the tension lines deepened around Shasta’s eyes. “I have too much power, Erinda. I can use it to keep the nobles in line, but who’s going to keep me in line if I lose my way?”
            Erinda wasn’t sure how to answer, so she just reached out and squeezed the Queen’s hand comfortingly. She knew Shasta well enough to recognize the shadows haunting those famous amber eyes, and she said quietly, “They were pushing the heir thing again, weren’t they?”
            The Queen’s lips tightened and she drew the cooing baby closer. “They refuse to take no for an answer, no matter how many times I say it. Princess Brita is my heir. I will have no other. But the nobles are getting bolder with their arguments and insults – this afternoon the Fynnish viceroy had the audacity to call her a…” she lowered her voice and whispered, as if not wanting the baby to hear, “… a Halflander.”
            Erinda’s mouth dropped open. “He didn’t!” It was an insult of the rudest sort, referring to the Princess’s half-Outlander heritage. The black-haired, olive-skinned Outlanders were regarded with contempt by many of their fellow Ithyrians. “I hope you pitched something hard and spiky at his head.”
            “Worse,” Shasta replied wryly. “I hit him. Just about flew over the conference table, in all my regal, queenly glory, and slapped the viceroy of Fyn across the face. It was dreadful.”
            “I think it sounds magnificent,” Erinda declared, not bothering to hide her grin. “Wish I could have seen it.”
            Shasta shook her head, though Erinda could tell her friend appreciated the support. “It certainly felt good at the time, but… oh, Erinda, what was I thinking? I am the Queen of Ithyria, and instead of putting that man in his place with all the dignity of my birthright, I let him goad me into brawling like a barmaid in the middle of the royal conference room. The viceroys are in an uproar. We had to adjourn for the rest of the day.”
            Erinda smirked. “Well, I may not be the Queen of Ithyria, but I say the man had it coming.” She caressed the baby’s cheek fondly with a fingertip. “Our little Princess is Rane blood, same as you. And I daresay her Outlander mother, may Ithyris grant her peace, would have been right at your side boxing the viceroy’s ears if she were alive to do so.”
            This brought a wistful smile to Shasta’s face. Bria, the baby’s birth mother and namesake, had been the Queen’s childhood companion. Bria’s free-spirited and somewhat unscrupulous approach to life had caused them all considerable trouble, but in the end she had given her life to save Shasta’s, and with her dying breath she had entrusted her infant daughter to Shasta’s care. Erinda knew how seriously the Queen took that promise. Shasta loved the baby girl as her own. Unfortunately, that love caused no end of strife between the Queen and her royal counsel, as the provincial viceroys vehemently opposed Shasta’s decision to make the child heir to the Ithyrian throne.
            “I’m sure you’re right,” Shasta replied, her features softening as she gazed down at the baby. “But I have decided to leave it all for tomorrow. Business is over for the day, and it’s time for happy thoughts.”
            The nursery’s heavy double doors groaned as they swung open, and the anxiety on Shasta’s face melted into a smile. “Speaking of happy thoughts…”
            A tall, broad shouldered, olive-skinned soldier strolled into the room, and moved to plant a kiss tenderly on the Queen’s lips. Erinda had to grin as the lovers murmured greetings between kisses. Talon was captain of Shasta’s royal guard, and adopted “father” to the baby Princess. Most of the kingdom knew Talon as a man; Erinda was one of the few aware of the truth.
            “Good evening, Captain.” Erinda dropped into a playful curtsy.
            Talon winked back at her. “Good evening, yourself.” Her deep voice was warm and held the faintest hint of flirtation, though no one knew better than Erinda that the Outlander’s heart belonged only to Shasta. “And how’s our little girl tonight?” she asked as she took the Princess from the Queen’s arms. The baby squealed with delight as Talon made a face at her.
            “Full of energy, it seems,” Shasta replied, letting Brita curl a little hand around her index finger.
            The resemblance connecting the three of them was evident. By blood the child was Talon’s niece and the Queen’s cousin, and so while she had the dark hair and skin of an Outlander, she also possessed the distinctive golden irises known to legend as the “amber eyes of Rane,” the genetic demarcation of the Ithyrian royal house. Together the three made a beautiful family. Yet as much as Erinda adored them, she still felt a niggling pang of envy.
            Talon chuckled, but her eyes searched Shasta’s face with concern. “You sound tired.”
            Erinda could hear the deliberate lift in the Queen’s voice as Shasta answered, “It’s nothing, really. You know how trying these conferences can be.”
            Erinda sighed inwardly, certain that Shasta’s nonchalance didn’t fool Talon any more than it did her. Everyone in the kingdom was aware of the viceroys’ impassioned refusal to acknowledge the Princess’s claim to the throne, and Erinda suspected that the baby’s half-Outlander heritage was a large part of the reason. The nobles felt that the Queen, of prime child-bearing age, owed the kingdom a more suitable heir—preferably one that was male, lacked any hint of Outlander blood, and was from the Queen’s own body rather than her traitorous late cousin’s. To that end they pressured her at every possible opportunity to consider the matter of marriage, something Shasta emphatically refused.
            Only Erinda knew the extent of the private strain this placed on the Queen and her devoted Captain of the guard. While their romantic relationship was a common theme of court gossip, most could not imagine how sensitive the subject truly was. Shasta and Talon had, in fact, discussed marriage, but Talon was reluctant for many reasons—not the least of which was her guilty fear that perhaps she was holding her beloved back, preventing Shasta from fulfilling her duty to the kingdom. Talon’s love for the Queen was so absolute that she would sacrifice anything, even her own happiness, to ensure that Shasta’s position at court was secure. Erinda had never known anyone so determinedly selfless.
            Watching Talon’s face now, Erinda could read every one of those conflicting emotions as they passed over the handsome features. But, after a moment or two, Talon merely planted a warm kiss on Shasta’s temple and murmured, “Perhaps you and I should go hold a… conference of our own.”
            Erinda grinned and stepped forward quickly, taking the baby from Talon’s arms and waving the lovebirds away. “Go, both of you. Enjoy some time together, you’ve earned it.” She waggled her eyebrows at Shasta. “Do try to keep it down this time though, Your Majesty?”
            While Shasta’s cheeks flushed crimson, Talon’s mouth curved wickedly. “Already tired of faking those stomachaches for us, Erinda?”
            “You both know I’ll do anything for you,” Erinda replied tartly, “including gagging down the healer’s awful potions to cover for our Queen’s rather vocal… um… enthusiasm.” Shasta turned an even deeper shade of red and buried her face in Talon’s chest. Erinda laughed, then. “No need to be embarrassed, Your Majesty. I’m truly glad you’re both so happy. You deserve it.”
            Still, she struggled again with those pangs of envy as the two left arm in arm, Talon whispering something in the Queen’s ear that made her flush and giggle. Yes, Erinda was pleased that her friends had found such bliss together, especially since the journey to reach this point had been long and painful for each of them. But nonetheless, the vibrancy of their passion was a constant reminder of the life she would never have.
            Like Shasta and Talon, Erinda found herself drawn to other women in the way most women were drawn to men. She had embraced this at an early age, and over the years had taken a handful of discreet lovers—which had even, for a time, included Talon herself. But it was highly improbable that Erinda would ever experience the joy of a relationship like theirs. For one thing, Talon had the distinct advantage of her male disguise. While her affair with the Queen might be considered scandalous because of her station and background, even her Outlander blood, the fact that she was a woman was not part of that scandal. How likely was it that Erinda would find a lover she could be with so openly? 
            And even if she could… Erinda shook her head sadly and touched her forehead to the baby’s. “Ah, little Princess, as you grow up take great care with your heart. Choose carefully who you give it to, for you may never get it back.”
            The infant’s eyes drooped sleepily, and Erinda sighed. “Bedtime, is it?” She carried the baby back to the cradle and laid her down, then sat on the stool nearby.
            Rocking the cradle with one hand, Erinda crooned a soft lullaby and let her attention drift. This was not something she did very often, as her thoughts, left unchecked, invariably ran immediately to the one topic forbidden to them. Even as she hovered tentatively at the fringes of those dangerous memories, she knew there would be a price to pay. The emptiness was sure to find her tonight, to keep her awake long after the rest of the palace was asleep, wrapping her in the grief and anguish she deserved for such careless indulgence. But right now she didn’t care.
            Green eyes, the vivid hue of grass right after a rainfall, were smiling at her from the depths of her imagination. They were breathtakingly beautiful, and she couldn’t bring herself to force them away as she usually did. Then it was too late, as Kade’s entire face came into focus, her laugh echoing through Erinda’s mind, and Erinda could not have stopped the memory from following even if she’d wanted to.

            They were lounging together beneath the biggest tree in the palace gardens. It was late autumn, and Erinda was seventeen. Kade, nearly a winter older, was stretched out on her stomach next to her, propped up on her elbows as she twirled a fallen leaf between her fingers. Her golden hair was cropped in a blunt line just below her jaw—the distinctive hairstyle of a Pledged.
            “I can’t believe the ceremony’s coming up so fast,” she said, and Erinda could recall with perfect clarity the melancholy in her friend’s tone.
            “What’s the matter?” she heard herself ask. “I thought you couldn’t wait to take your vows. You’ve wanted to be a priestess your entire life.”
            “Yes, but…” Kade sighed and flipped over, settling her head on Erinda’s stomach. She regarded Erinda seriously. “After the ceremony I won’t see you anymore, Rin.”
            “Sure you will,” Erinda managed to say, though the lump in her throat made it difficult. “I’ll be in temple for prayers all the time.”
            Kade snorted. “You hate temple prayers.”
            “Not when you’re there.” Erinda ran her fingers through her friend’s corn-silk hair. “In fact, I’m sure I’ll be praying twice as often once it’s the only…” The only way I’ll ever get to see you. Her throat closed around the words.
            Their separation was inevitable. Erinda had always known it was coming, but when they were children their eighteenth birthdays had always seemed a comfortable eternity away. According to Ithyrian tradition, families sent their first born sons into military service, and first born daughters into the service of the Goddess. Erinda’s older sister had taken her vows eight winters ago, and in spite of her reassurances to Kade, Erinda knew how rare it was to even catch a glimpse of her sister now that she lived and worked in the temple. The priestesses’ shaved heads and filmy veils made them difficult to tell apart, and Erinda was never really certain she even recognized her sister’s face anymore.
            Tears glittered at the corners of Kade’s eyes, and Erinda quickly reached down to wipe them away. “Hey, stop that,” she admonished in the most cheerful tone she could muster. “At least my mother will be pleased. She’s constantly badgering me to spend more time at the temple.”
            Kade chuckled, mischief momentarily overcoming her sorrowful thoughts. “Well, you are practically a heathen.”
            Erinda feigned a gasp of indignation. “I am not! Take that back.”
            Kade shrugged. “Can’t. The Pledged are unable to lie.” She squeaked, though, as Erinda’s deft fingers found the ticklish spot on her ribs.
            “Take it back.”
            Kade hopped up from the ground. “No way.”
            Scrambling to her feet, Erinda chased her friend through the palace garden. Vaguely she acknowledged, as she ran, that such childish antics were terribly undignified for someone her age. But for just a few minutes, it was comforting to forget that the heavy, lonely world of adulthood was looming so close. For a few minutes, she was seven winters old again, happy and silly and free of painful grownup concerns. Kade’s peals of laughter rang in her ears, leading her around trees and under bushes and over the smooth stone pathways that looped through the flowerbeds, until Erinda finally caught the back of her robe and they both tumbled to the grass.
            Erinda quickly pinned Kade beneath her, trapping her wrists together with one hand and securing them over Kade’s head. With the other hand she threatened the ticklish spot again. Kade struggled, giggling, but they both knew she had lost. Erinda might be younger and shorter, but she had always been stronger.
            “Take it back,” Erinda repeated, her nose a handbreadth from Kade’s.
            Kade’s chest heaved as she tried to catch her breath, and she rolled her eyes. “Whatever you say,” she replied noncommittally, then squealed again as Erinda’s fingertips found her ribs. “All right, all right! You’re so mean.”
            “Ah, but you love me anyway,” Erinda retorted blithely.
            The expression on Kade’s face shifted. One moment it had been buoyant and playful; then her mock-pout softened and she was gazing into Erinda’s eyes so intently that Erinda felt the air hitch in her lungs. Kade’s eyes were set just a little too close together, her nose slightly too pointed, her chin a bit too narrow for most people to consider her beautiful. But the sharpness of her features had always reminded Erinda of a hawk, or maybe a fox. Sleek. Intelligent. Elegant. Erinda found herself consumed with the need to memorize this face, now, before it was gone forever. Greedily she drank in the sight of her, the faintly freckled skin, the perfectly arched eyebrows, the tiny mole just below the outer corner of Kade’s left eye.
            Beneath her, Kade’s heart was thudding heavily, and Erinda could feel each beat against her own skin. Something inside her quivered and warmed, weighing her down over her friend’s body as if she could melt them both into the ground. Transfixed, her grip on Kade’s wrists relaxed. Kade didn’t try to move away, but one of her hands freed itself and slowly threaded into Erinda’s hair.
            When she spoke, her voice was oddly husky. “Of course I do.” Her breath fanned softly against Erinda’s lips.
            But when Erinda lowered her head, Kade’s other hand pressed her chest, stopping her descent. She wasn’t really pushing Erinda away, but for a long moment she held Erinda’s face a fingerwidth from her own, one hand trembling in her hair, the other splayed firmly against her collarbone. Such deep sadness filled her eyes, warring with some other darker emotion that Erinda couldn’t identify.
            Gently, Kade shifted herself out from under Erinda and stood up. “Afternoon meditation will begin soon. I have to go.”
            The words filled Erinda with inexplicable dread. “Kade, wait.” But Kade was already walking away, into a cloud of soft mist that was now curling through the garden hedges. Erinda leapt to her feet and followed, her anxiety increasing with every step.
            “Wait, please!” But the mist swirled into the space between them, wrapping around Kade’s silhouette, obscuring her from view. Erinda broke into a run.
            “No!” she cried, but the fog was so thick that it was like trying to run through water. Her legs strained in vain to keep up. Kade moved farther and farther away, until all Erinda could see was the halo of her golden hair.
            Then, even that was gone. There was nothing but the mist, cold and empty. It enveloped her, wisping into her throat, cutting off her air. Erinda couldn’t breathe. She tried to shout for Kade again, but the words never left her lips—or if they did, they were swallowed by the silence. She could feel herself dissipating, her thoughts and emotions dulling around the edges. Soon she, too, would disappear.
            The hazy light was fading. Vainly Erinda wheezed for air that was no longer there, reaching blindly into the empty void, trying to remember what it was she was even chasing. Her fingertips, then her hands, then her wrists vanished in front of her eyes.

            “Erinda?” 
            A voice pierced the dark, yanking her up through the shadows. With an enormous, painful gasp, Erinda’s lungs suddenly filled, and her eyes opened. Shasta was standing over her, worry creasing her forehead.
            “Goddess, Erinda, are you all right?  What’s the matter?”
            Dazed, Erinda shook her head. “I’m sorry, Your Majesty. I must have fallen asleep.” She looked over at the cradle with alarm. “I didn’t wake the baby, did I?”
            Shasta scooped the still soundly-sleeping Princess into her arms. “No, no, she’s fine.” But she eyed Erinda with concern. “Are you?”
            Her heart was pounding so hard that she felt dizzy, and her mouth was dry, but Erinda still summoned a sheepish smile. “I’m all right. Just a nightmare.” When Shasta didn’t seem reassured, she elaborated, “You know, lots of hairy, stinking men with huge bloody axes. The usual.”
            At that, Shasta’s expression turned sympathetic, and she nodded. “I think we’re all still having those.” Just about everyone in the royal court shared a residual terror of the barbarian army that had overrun the palace six moons earlier.
            Erinda didn’t like misleading the Queen, but she couldn’t bear to share the truth with her either. Kade was a private grief. There was nothing Shasta could do, so there was no point in bringing her into it. Besides, she’d brought the nightmare on herself with all that foolish reminiscing. Erinda stood up with an exaggerated stretch.
            “The Princess will be in your room for the night, Majesty?”
            “Of course,” Shasta replied with a wide smile, cuddling the sleeping baby. “You should go get some rest. We’ll see you in the morning.”
            Erinda curtsied, and took a candle from the nearby table as she left the nursery. The chambermaids shared a dormitory just down the hall from the Queen’s childhood bedchamber, which the little Princess would likely inherit once she’d outgrown the nursery. When Erinda’s mother had taken sick last winter, Erinda had been promoted to head of household. As such she was allowed her own small, private room, located just behind the larger one that was shared by the six other maids tending the royal chambers. Erinda nodded politely to Alva, the youngest of her staff, who was climbing into her bunk above Hali’s. The girl gave her a big smile as she settled under her blankets, but Erinda couldn’t quite muster one in return, and hurried past to her own quarters.
             She drew the thick curtain behind her, set the candle on top of the chest at the foot of her cot, and mechanically went through the motions of preparing for sleep. She kicked off her shoes and stripped out of her apron, split skirts, laced bodice, and chemise, hanging them from pegs on the wall. Though it was the middle of spring, the palace was still quite chilly in the evenings, and Erinda quickly shrugged into a woolen night shift. A basin of water sat on a table under the narrow window, and she splashed her cheeks and neck, drying them with a towel. She left her hair plaited so the wild curls would not tangle themselves into a hopeless snarl during the night. In the morning she would comb them out and re-braid them neatly for the day’s work.
            Snuffing out the candle, Erinda climbed into bed and pulled the quilts up to her chin. Then she closed her eyes and sighed heavily as the first fat drop of moisture escaped her eyelids. She knew there would be many more before she could sleep. The searing tears and miserable ache in her chest were her penance for being so foolish. She accepted them, allowed them to consume her, her body racked with deep sobs muffled into the pillow beneath her.
            Kade was gone. She had left seven winters ago, when she’d vowed to the Goddess that she would serve the temple for the rest of her life. Erinda had realized, too late, that she was hopelessly in love with someone she would never be able to keep. And cruelly, just as that realization dawned, Kade’s departure had torn a gaping hole in Erinda’s life.
Over seven winters the emptiness had never filled, the raw edges had never quite healed, but gradually the suffering had become endurable. The black despair that had at first nearly suffocated her was pushed back, a little at a time, as Erinda learned to strictly censor her thoughts. She’d locked away every memory of Kade in the deepest part of her mind and severely refused herself access to them.
            For a time, existence had been manageable. Erinda filled her days with work and friends and whenever possible, with the distraction of clandestine lovers. Then Talon came along; courageous, gallant Talon, with all her carefully guarded secrets and an impossible love of her own. Erinda found herself breaking her own rules, sharing memories she’d sworn never to bring up again in her desire to help her friends find the happiness that had eluded her in her own life.
            Then, last spring, Kade had appeared on a cabinetmaker’s doorstep in the middle of the night. She’d been sent by the Goddess to rescue Princess Shasta from a terrible palace massacre. For two wretched days, Erinda found herself in unbearable vicinity to the woman who’d broken her heart. Sitting opposite her in the carriage, Kade’s elegant vulpine brows and vivid green eyes were recognizable as ever above her priestess’s veils. Erinda couldn’t stop herself from staring. A thousand things she wanted to say welled up inside her all at once, each one choked back by all the others. Yet Kade would not look at her, would not even speak so much as a word. Not even after Erinda had tracked her down in the Great Temple, and…
            Erinda stifled another cry into her pillow. Everything had gotten so much worse after that. Exiled memories and hollow agony plagued her nearly every day, and it was next to impossible to rein them in. But she had to. Somehow she had to, because Kade was never coming back.

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