“Yes,” the Fensena replied simply.
“No!” Raed turned on Sorcha. “I have always dreamed of being free of the Rossin—but you cannot unleash him on the world. His bloodlust . . .”
“Raed.” It was Sorcha who interrupted him. “Did you really not understand the Rossin when we were in the Meld?”
Merrick stopped breathing for just an instant. He understood what she meant. They had been so tightly bound together nothing had been hidden. The Rossin’s bloodlust had subsided with the Bond; he had become more a part of the human world than part of the Otherside the longer he was bound to them.
He had not needed to kill to sustain himself for some time. When they had been one, his need for freedom had been theirs. They could still taste it, and what was more, they understood it.
Raed’s shoulders slumped, he sighed, and then nodded. “No one wants to understand an enemy,” he finally said, “but now I do.”
“Be not too worried,” the Fensena offered, “the Rossin, I think, will find being bound to one form, one life, not as much freedom as he might think.” A sly coyote grin spread on his jaws. “Think of it as the sting in the tail if it makes you feel better.”
“Very well then.” Sorcha bent and took up the silver fur Merrick had let drop and wrapped it around Raed. “Be free.”
It seemed such a simple thing. The pelt of the Rossin was given back to him by the Harbinger of the Enlightened—as Derodak had made it so.
When Raed staggered back, the Rossin was born anew into the world and ran. They glimpsed only the flick of his tail and heard his roar of delight.
The Rossin ran from Vermillion. His great pads made no noise as he pounded along the cobblestones. The war drums were gone. Citizens of Vermillion, those that still remained on the street that was, hurried to get out of his way.
He did not think they knew what he was, perhaps just some Beast that had escaped the Imperial menagerie in the tumult. He took no more blood from them, because he did not need to. The mad lust for it was gone, and it was another thing he was free of.
The sudden realization hit him as he bounded over a man tugging a recalcitrant donkey pulling a cart—he was free. He heard the donkey’s frightened bray, and the howl of the man, but they were suddenly a long way behind him.
He had his own body. The flesh he wore was his alone now. He was no longer geist, since that had been ripped away from him when Sorcha Faris broke all Bonds. She’d freed him, and in doing so fulfilled her promise to the Fensena.
His longs strides slowed, and the great pard looked around. He was standing at the very edge of Vermillion again, looking out over the swamplands, and it was as if he were seeing them for the very first time.
The Fensena’s warning now came to him. Without the powers of the geist or any connection back to the Otherside, the geistlord was nothing more than a large, peculiar creature. He had his intelligence, his size and his strength—and that was all.
The Rossin snarled, shaking his thick mane and inhaling the smells of this new world he had literally just been born into. He was indeed no longer a geistlord, but he was certainly no normal lion. He was indeed something new. This world needed something new.
Yet he only had one life now. The Rossin could no longer hide in the bloodline of the Imperial family that had taken his name.
As the Rossin stood there contemplating, he heard a sound in the streets behind him, and turned to see a small child that was staring at him. It was a boy of no more than five, standing in the shadow of one of the shacks that made up the Edge of Vermillion. He had wide brown eyes, and he was staring at the Rossin with not a trace of fear in his face.
The great pard saw himself reflected in those eyes, and he was no terrifying geistlord. He was a shadow-maned wonder with gleaming eyes. The child actually raised one hand and waved at him. He was fearless, and the Rossin wondered if perhaps there was a way that humanity would forget its terror of him.
A sea of possibilities opened up before the Rossin, and even though there was risk waiting for him out there, he was at least free. As the great pard sprang away from the city of Vermillion, he let out a roar. It was a promise of things to come—a promise of freedom.
Three weeks after the end of Derodak and his Circle of Stars, four people, respectfully followed by two platoons of Imperial Guard, walked down from the palace to where the remains of the Mother Abbey lay.
One wore a black cloak with bands of emerald green and sky blue, two others thick brown wool cloaks, while the fourth was in a dress uniform of pure white and wore a band of gold on her head.
The Mother Abbey seemed a good place to contemplate what needed to be done and to bid farewell to one another.
Sorcha, Raed, Merrick and the Empress of Arkaym, with the now-confined-to-one-body Fensena trotting at their heels, picked their way over the ruins of the devotional, examining the space where the new Arch Abbot of the Order of the Enlightened wanted to build his new Mother Abbey. Merrick had decided not to call himself Harbinger—that he would leave for his predecessor.
“Are you sure you want to start again here?” Sorcha frowned and pushed some stones through the dirt with her foot. “This ground has seen a lot of death and pain.” Her arms were healing, though the marks the Patternmaker had carved on her skin had become nothing more than strange scars. No runic power had flowed through her skin since Merrick had cast the rune Ticat on her. She found she was at peace with that.
Merrick’s brown eyes grew distant for a moment, so that she wondered if he were attempting to peer into the future. He shook his head and smiled at her. “It has also seen a lot of laughter, healing and intelligent discourse. The stones we will bury far from Vermillion, but the ground is still solid. I know you wanted to build something new, Sorcha, but the Order is mine now. And besides,” he said, shooting her a sharp grin, “this is the place you and I first met. In days to come, it may become holy ground.”
In answer, she threw a clod of dirt at him.
Raed was sitting a little distance off, on a piece of finely carved stone, and looking out over the devastation. Zofiya was at his side, and they were talking quietly. Nearby, the Fensena nosed through the rubble.
Sorcha wondered what the humans were saying. In the last few days, the new Empress and the former Pretender to the throne had been deep in discussions.
“He is a clever man,” Merrick offered, standing at her side and staring at them with a kind of wistfulness. “Zofiya will have need of clever people in the coming days.”
“Well, she can’t have this one,” Sorcha replied firmly, “and besides, despite renouncing the throne, Raed is still an awkward person for her to have at Court.”
“Not if she married him. It’s not like she can marry me,” Merrick said, his voice wrapping around that little pain.
She wanted to act surprised, but the idea had come to her too. If the Young Pretender married the new Empress, it would certainly tie up some loose threads. “Do you think she will . . .”
Merrick laughed and shoved her shoulder. “How long have you been sleeping in this man’s bed, Sorcha? Raed has never wanted power . . . he has only ever wanted his freedom, the sea . . . and now you.”
She knew that very well, but somehow it meant more coming from Merrick. He saw so many things true—even at the end. “Then he shall have them,” she whispered.
Many of the Deacons had tried to get her to stay. She’d been inundated with tearful farewells, some even on their knees. Merrick did not do that. Even with their Bond broken and thrown into dust he knew her well enough. It would hurt her dreadfully, but so would staying.
“I shall miss you.” His hand slipped into hers. “I shall miss you like part of my own soul.”
That was when she threw herself into his arms, and cried . . . a little more than she had anticipated. His arms were tight about her, as tight as when he had pulled her back from the edge of madness.
“The Harbinger’s job is done,” she said simply into his ear. “I miss the runes and the Bond, but also I am just very, very tired.”
“You are just going sailing, that is all.” Merrick pulled back from her, clasped her shoulders and gave her a little shake as if to reassure himself. “You are going sailing, and you can always come back.”
Not quite able to find her own words, she watched as he bent and pushed stones away from a larger piece of masonry. It was the face of an Ancient Arch Abbot of the Circle of Stars—who knew, it could have even been of Derodak himself.
Merrick looked up at her. “You will come back, at least to see what I make of this place, but I can promise you this . . . we will not try and wipe away the memory of the Circle of Stars, or the Order of the Eye and the Fist. When they took away history before, we learned nothing from it.” His eyes gleamed with excitement and hope. She could tell he was very much looking forward to the challenge of rebuilding. Her Sensitive had always been a man of ideas and wisdom.
“And the Arch Abbot has no need of a partner.” Sorcha smiled and flicked away the remains of her tears. “I know you will make something great, Merrick, and I will come back to see it—I promise.” He was the man for the job after all; in his blood ran human, Ehtia and a touch of geist. The Order of the Enlightened, she was sure, would be a great thing with Merrick to lead it. Probably, she had to admit, better than if she had kept her powers and position. Still, she would not stay around here and be a lay Brother. That was not for her.
Merrick swallowed, his eyes bright. “I promise when you come back ‘Rise together or fall alone’ will be carved on one of these stones.”
Sorcha dared not open her mouth to reply to that.
Luckily, Raed and Zofiya were making their way back toward them, and they were laughing. It might have seemed a little odd, the Imperial Guard waiting at the perimeter, but Sorcha knew it was a sound beginning.
The Empress nestled up against Merrick for a moment. Raed took Sorcha’s hand. “Looks like quite a job for you, Merrick, but it should at least keep you out of trouble,” he said with genuine warmth in his voice.
Merrick kissed the top of Zofiya’s head while he could, in the relative solitude of the ruins. “I would be worried if I was you, Captain. It was usually Sorcha that got me into trouble. Are you sure you really want her on your boat?”
It was a fair enough question, the former Deacon thought. She raised one eyebrow and tilted her head at Raed. He brushed aside one copper curl from her face. “Oh, I think I will risk it.”
His hands rubbed along the raised flesh where once the runes had run, and she shivered. They were still sensitive, but she hoped that would fade with time. “Then let’s be going,” she whispered, “and find out if I am worth it.”
The four of them, trailed by the Fensena, proceeded down to the docks, the Imperial Guard falling into line around them. The citizens of Vermillion did not treat it as a parade—too busy mending their damaged city and her bridges—but many did call out to the new Empress, blessing her. Very few knew the others who walked with her. Sorcha realized that soon enough Merrick would be just as well-known as Zofiya, and wondered how he would cope with that.
It distressed her a little that she wouldn’t be there to see it, but she had her own wounds to lick. The places where the runes and the Wrayth had been still hurt. She could not stay and watch Deacons build Bonds, fight the remaining geists and feel the Brotherhood that had been so much a part of her life before. That would hurt even more than her physical injuries.
Finally, they reached the docks, and there was the Dominion sitting among the other ships of the fleet. It had been a long time since Sorcha had seen it, and it made her breath catch in her throat.
“You know, I never imagined seeing her in this port,” Raed said, waving to his crew on the decks, “but by the Blood she looks wonderful here.”
The colors she was flying were no longer the rampant Rossin. Zofiya had gifted Raed the Imperial colors, so that everywhere the Dominion sailed, she would be given the honors of an Imperial Ship.
“Indeed she does, my captain!” Aachon walked down the gangplank to meet them. He too was bandaged, but he strode as confidently as he ever had. “The Dominion is all shipshape and ready for you.” He looked down at his feet for a moment.
The first mate was no longer the first mate. Like the Fensena, he had chosen to stay in Vermillion with Merrick to help him rebuild the Order. He had, however, organized the return of the Dominion and helped find crew to replace many who had died through the course of the land adventures.
Raed smiled and pulled his friend into a tight hug, where they both spent some time thumping each other on the back. When they broke away, both of them were smiling, but their eyes shone suspiciously.
“No more piracy for Raed Syndar Faris,” Sorcha said, a little too loudly. She felt a proud swelling in her chest that he had chosen to take her name, to replace the one he had gladly lost. Caught on the wings of that, she spun around and embraced Zofiya and Merrick together. It was a tight, desperate hug that was highly inappropriate to give to the Empress of Arkaym and the Arch Abbot of the Order, but Sorcha was about to run away, so she didn’t give a damn.
“Be good to each other,” Sorcha told them, and then loosening the startled couple, grabbed Raed’s hand and dragged him up the gangway. She knew that they would all be waving; Merrick, Zofiya and Aachon, but she couldn’t bear to look back. If she did, she feared she would never have the strength to leave. One thing she did not want to be was some old relic hovering over what those three would make in Vermillion.
For an hour or more she sat near the prow and kept her back to the city that had been home and danger for her. Raed busied himself with his crew and was smart enough to leave her alone. Then, just as the sun was setting he came to find her, wrapped his arms around her, and held her.
“I know this is going to be hard—” he began, but Sorcha cut him off.
“Not hard,” she replied, squeezing his hands, “different. I was so long in the Order that I don’t quite know how life goes on outside the cloak.” She pulled him down and kissed him hard, then gasping slightly, released him. “But I will learn.”
The captain stroked her face. “We’ll learn it together—I can’t recall a time without the Rossin either. Perhaps you’d like to come to my cabin and we can see if everything is where we last had it.” His wicked grin sparked a twist of her stomach that said some things had definitely not changed.
She needed him . . . but she wanted to see the sun finally set. It was important to mark the moments of change, to celebrate and reflect. Sorcha fished out one of her Imperium cigarillos—a gift from the Empress’ own store. She held it up. “Just a few more moments, my love. I’d like to mark the end of an era.”