It is always a day.
The bright is never dark,
The Nigh flows ever on.
There will be time, Under the sky,
In the forever land.
Only wait for me.
—a love song
BY THE TIME ZHIYA REACHED THE PLAZA, Quinn had turned command over to his lieutenant, Li Yun Tai. The young man sat on a seat that had been raised between Ghinamid’s Tower and the nearest bridge. At his side lay a jeweled sword. In his hand he held the device that controlled the Heart. Zhiya couldn’t see all this quite yet as she hurried toward the middle of the plaza; the knot of legates by the pillar had told her. But where was Quinn?
She sucked in a hot breath from the glare of Prime of Day on the stones and gamboled toward the cluster of people at the center of things. Walking at her side were the three stalwart Chalin fighters she’d been permitted by her escort, a steward of the Great Within. But what was permitted and not permitted anymore remained the most interesting question in the history of the Entire.
With no Tarig in view, she felt acutely aware of the functionaries of the Magisterium milling on the edges, murmuring and certainly plotting.
As she came closer, she saw Quinn, oddly, sitting at Li Yun Tai’s feet. The reason for this soon became clear. He was asleep.
Quinn sat on the ground, his head thrown back against Li Yun Tai’s knee, gone to dreams. She had to admit he looked nothing like the conqueror the steward had described, the one who killed the Sleeping Lord—killed him—and who had his foot on the collective Tarig neck.
The young lieutenant acknowledged her with a nod. He so thoroughly gripped the device he’d been given that his hand looked like a claw. He watched the crowd from the Magisterium with the apparent intention of blowing up the kingdom if anyone approached. Zhiya believed that, in his exhaustion, he might actually do it. The device was said to control the Tarig doorway home, but everyone believed that if the man of the Rose were to use it, the Ascendancy could not survive the tumult.
Two Ysli guards provided by the Tarig stood a few paces away. There was no sign of the reported bloodbath.
After a brief exchange with Li Yun Tai, Zhiya knelt beside Quinn, noting that he wore fresh clothes: a heavy quilted vest, a plain brown tunic and pants, and a soldier’s boots. His wounds, reportedly to arms and legs, were hidden, but a slash on his face into his hairline had begun knitting up. The Tarig had beaten and tortured him, but that had been several days ago, before the Sleeping Lord woke up, enraged by the permanent opening of a door between the All and the Rose. The steward had told Zhiya that Quinn’s right arm was nearly useless.
She put a hand on his good shoulder and whispered, “Quinn, it’s Zhiya.”
He didn’t stir. “Quinn.”
Still nothing. Zhiya investigated a covered litter a few paces off. Li Yun Tai had said that Quinn had sent for it and that Lord Inweer had granted him this, and much, much more. Inside, a pile of old clothes, a chamber pot, a few water flasks. So this litter and the bench outside comprised Titus Quinn’s command site. A strange billet, but the day was strange.
Returning to Tai’s side she had him relate all that had happened. He told how Hel Ese had cozened him into helping her and how he had pushed her from the edge of the city. Zhiya had never seen the four-minute ride and would have liked to have been there. He related how Master Quinn, as he called him, had climbed down the outside of the Ascendancy to confront Hel Ese and all with a right arm still healing from the gash of a Tarig claw. He told how, once Lord Ghinamid had perished, Quinn had asked for the removal of the bodies. Also, that the swarm of legates be forbidden access to the plaza and that a litter should be sent as a washstall. That Lord Inweer had agreed to these simple things. And then the large thing: the removal of Ahnenhoon.
At Quinn’s request, two Ysli guards, formerly clerks of the Magisterium, had been ordered into the plaza by Lord Inweer. Although Quinn felt confident enough to sleep, he still feared Cixi and her servants. They were to stay on the margins, and did. Li Yun Tai was not clear where the Tarig had gone, but not even one was in sight either on the plaza or on what Zhiya could discern of the hill of manses.
This young man had remarkable self-possession. As a mort, he likely had had little to do with the bright city, its Tarig kings or magisterial proceedings. Perhaps this accounted for his steadiness and clarity, she thought. He had no concept of what was really transpiring. But she took him for a devoted attendant since Quinn trusted him with the device.
Li Yun Tai wore clothes rather fancier than Zhiya thought necessary: dark green and orange silks and a sublegate’s padded jacket with an excellent embroidery of a spinner. Well, he advances quickly, Zhiya thought. Can pre-consul be far behind?
After hearing Tai’s account, Zhiya crouched once again in front of Quinn.
“My dear,” she murmured. “Wake up. Zhiya is here.”
He stirred, leaning into Tai’s knee. Stymied, she looked up at Tai, who was no help at all.
“You have water?” Zhiya asked him.
Tai glanced at a flask by the bench. Zhiya opened the stopper and poured the contents over Quinn’s head.
He came to life, sputtering.
“I tried being nice, but you wouldn’t wake up.” Quinn looked at her uncomprehending. She knelt next to him. “You are the lord of the Ascendancy, dear boy. It simply won’t do to sit on the ground.”
He pulled himself up, taking a seat on the bench vacated by his lieutenant. His right arm appeared to have some movement, at least below the elbow.
Li Yun Tai sent one of the Ysli guards for a basket of food. The other kept watch at the site where the young mort said the sacrificial humans had appeared in the plaza.
Zhiya gave Quinn the flask of water, and he drank. While he slaked his thirst, she asked, “Ghinamid died with your sword through his eye?”
Quinn mustered a scrape of voice. “Makes a good story. But the drones pecked him to death.”
“Where have the Tarig gone, my dear?”
“Resting. Or whatever they do when they aren’t pretending to be alive.”
“Gone. The Rose. I’ll stay here until she comes back.” He looked behind him, perhaps remembering the earlier scenes in this plaza. “Lady Demat was Chiron, returned. We might have guessed that. I set a bargain with her, and what I hope is that she braced open the door for me to cross over, and when Anzi went through she got there safe.”
Zhiya blinked. Chiron was helping him?
“She set a condition. That I return to her.”
Oh, there was a story here. “And would you have?”
He looked at Zhiya, clearheaded, it seemed, at last. “I don’t know. It was my word I gave her. Are those things still important?”
“No. Not when you rule the Entire.”
His attention was back on the exact spot, apparently un-demarcated, where the Roselings came through. “Anzi took my place. Going over. To stop them.”
Zhiya sighed. None of this made much sense, but this was no time for sorting the details. Except for one—hardly a detail: “But Lord Inweer stopped things on this side? He shut down the engine?”
“Yes. So he said.” He looked to the place where he had last seen Anzi.
“One man came over from the Rose and survived. I talked to him. He said that they were on the verge of setting off the engine in the Rose. But it won’t mean anything, because Inweer shut Ahnenhoon down first.” He glanced at her. “It was a close thing, Zhiya. It could all have gone wrong.”
“Didn’t. But there’s still a problem.”
Grinning gods, of course there were problems. The Tarig were still in their mansions, and the Magisterium was ready to revolt.
He waved the little device. “I don’t know how the damn thing works.”
By the Woeful God, he was faking it. She moaned.
A stir of people near the doors to the lift drew her attention. Another group had arrived at the nearest pillar station. Among them stood a woman with dark hair, wearing vivid yellow silks.
“My daughter,” Quinn breathed.
Zhiya had only seen Sen Ni once before, but she was hard to miss. A red figure in a navitar’s robes stood next to her.
“I said I would give her the Ascendancy.”
Zhiya had to close her eyes to steady herself. By the Miserable God, the Ascendancy?
Quinn was about to make the biggest mistake of his short stay in the Entire. Fortunately, his daughter had been instructed to wait at the edge of the plaza, and did. Since Quinn was sitting, Zhiya didn’t need to lean in far to whisper in his ear. “She’d make a bad queen. The one in red is her navitar counselor, Geng De. As a child, he fell in the Nigh and came up evil.”
“Evil? I doubt that. Don’t you?”
“Put it this way, then: Mother said this navitar has broken the code of the Nigh. He has gone beyond seeing the possibilities to changing them.
That’s why mother said that he weaves. Navitars swear never to weave—not that they could—but it’s talked about, and they swear never to try. This one has already done so.”
“The future.” She fixed him with a look. “Evil isn’t the wrong word.”
“Your mother is sometimes confused.”
“My spies say he sees Sen Ni every day. My advice is to wait a few arcs before you embrace her.”
Quinn was looking the man in red over carefully. “What does your mother think the navitar wants?”
“Control, dominion. The usual villainy.”
“If he weaves the future, why didn’t he weave me out of it? He’s no friend to me.”
Was she supposed to argue every point? Yes, she supposed she was. He was half dead from his wounds and in shock from too much bright on his head. “He may well have bent the future. Anzi is gone. You’re bluffing with the little machine. Who knows? But one thing I’m sure of: he made Sydney the Mistress of Rim Sway. Not only did the Tarig give her that as a ruse, they changed their minds and gave it to her in truth. If I were a fiend, I’d have had her head off.”
He hadn’t taken his eyes off Sen Ni’s delegation. “She’s waiting for me, Zhiya.”
“First you’ll have something to fortify yourself, then we’ll ask her to come forward.” She looked around her. “Can’t a great leader get a dumpling around here?”
Li Yun Tai was taking command of a stacked basket of food, brought on the run by one of the guards. But when he brought it forward, Quinn shook his head. Either he was impatient to see his daughter, or impatient to be done with it.
Quinn looked at Zhiya, murmuring, “Do I look a fool? Sitting here on a bench with a jewel-studded sword?”
“You look as you should. But you’d look better with an ebb’s rest.” Zhiya mightily wished Quinn would postpone this interview, but since he would not, she reluctantly sent one of her Chalin guards to summon the girl.
Sen Ni came forward. Her yellow tunic and pants bore a brocade down the sides, and her hair was pulled high, set with tasseled combs. Zhiya thought she looked young, but not weak. She walked like one who had ridden beasts and walked home when thrown off. Her eyes, Zhiya noted as Sen Ni drew closer, were dark as a Tarig’s. She’d forgotten about that troubling feature.
Quinn made to rise, but Zhiya put a hand on his shoulder and pushed hard. “You sit, or I’ll kick you in your bad arm.” He obeyed.
Despite instructions, the bad navitar had followed Sen Ni. The Ysli guards looked to Quinn for direction, but he waved them back. The murmur of the crowds on the perimeter ceased, as every pair of eyes in the Ascendancy watched the small group in the middle of the plaza.
“You are master of the bright city,” Sen Ni said without preamble.
“Sen Ni,” he said, using the name she preferred. “Who is this with you?”
“Geng De, a navitar and a friend.”
“Ask him to give us privacy.”
She turned to Geng De. The navitar murmured, but Zhiya heard him say, “In this strand, I am with you.”
Sen Ni did not dismiss him, and it cooled Zhiya’s heart to hear him talk of strands. He meant strands of reality. Oh, her mother was right.
Quinn regarded Sen Ni for a long moment. “I can’t trust him. He’s against me.”
“You mistake him.”
“He suggested that my Tarig captors kill me when I turned myself in at your door.”
Sen Ni frowned, turning again to Geng De.
“I made a suggestion,” the navitar said, his voice as high as a boy’s. “That is true. But it is too late to kill him now.” The young navitar looked at Quinn with an even, placid face that galled Zhiya more than a sneer.
Sen Ni bit her lip. “He’s my ally, and has been since I walked into Rim City. I’ve lost every advisor. Even you have a mort and godder.” She snapped her eyes to take in Tai and Zhiya. Zhiya held her gaze, refusing to be intimidated by this girl of legend.
Quinn responded, “You have Mo Ti.”
“No, I don’t.”
Zhiya watched this down-spiraling conversation, fearing that Sen Ni would win by virtue of the ties she had on Quinn’s heart. The time had passed when Geng De might have left without loss of face for Sen Ni. Now he was staying, and Zhiya would have liked to dispel his satisfied look.
Quinn’s daughter turned the conversation. “I’ve come because of our bargain. Helice is dead. I helped you as much as I could. Didn’t I?”
“Yes.” Quinn sat still as stone.
The silence turned Sen Ni’s face dark. “I was to have the Ascendancy. You were to give me the Tarig. On a platter, did you say?” She nodded. “You don’t want all this. Leave it to those who’ve worked for it.”
“I never wanted the Ascendancy,” Quinn said. “But I mean to keep the Rose safe. Would you do that?”
Zhiya knew that Sen Ni couldn’t answer this truthfully. The Entire’s life depended on the death of the Rose. If not with the engine at Ahnenhoon, then with another. Sen Ni would not let her world vanish.
Daughter and father gazed at each other. Finally the daughter said, “The engine at Ahnenhoon has gone silent. Isn’t that what you wanted? And we had a bargain. You gave your word.”
Again, Quinn was silent. Zhiya had just advised him that vows didn’t matter when you ruled. She hoped he’d take it to heart.
Sen Ni glanced at the palatine hill. “Lord Inweer came, I was told. What did he offer you?”
“The engine gone. What else could he?”
She shook her head in obvious contempt. “You are becoming one of them again.”
He barely restrained a wince. “I love you with all my heart, but I can’t let you have power that you’d turn against the Earth.”
“You believe I would—or even could—hurt something a universe away?”
“I think your navitar might.” Perhaps only Zhiya saw him trembling.
“Dismiss him, Sen Ni. Do this thing for me. Let me advise you. Bring me to your side.”
“To my side?” She almost laughed. “Was that our bargain? I don’t remember that part.” She paused, regarding her father. “I’m no longer a child. I choose my own counselors, people who’ve proven true to me. To survive, everyone needs someone strong at their side. I’ve had Riod, I’ve had Mo Ti. Now I have Geng De. You will need to trust us.”
Quinn shook his head. “He fell in the Nigh, Sen Ni. He came up broken.
A broken man can’t rule or advise the one who rules.”
They gazed at each other, locked in a dreadful silence.
Finally Sen Ni whispered, “Say it.” She looked up at the bright. “Say your answer.”
Zhiya couldn’t move or breathe.
But it was as though Sen Ni’s looking away gave Quinn the courage to speak: “No. My answer must be no.”
Sen Ni settled her gaze back on her father. When she spoke, her voice fell into a harsh whisper.
“Prince of the Ascendancy again, then.”
She shook her head. “My navitar says that won’t last long.” Then, turning away, and accompanied by Geng De, she walked back toward the plaza’s edge.
As she did so, a small figure ran out from the crowd of functionaries. She was very short and dressed in elaborate brocade, gleaming under the bright.
Her shoes came off as she ran. It was Cixi. The Ysli guards ran forward to restrain her, but Quinn called out to them. “Let her greet Cixi. A minute only.”
Sen Ni fell to her knees before the high prefect, and the two of them fiercely embraced. It was a spectacle that held those assembled at the edges of the plaza transfixed. Flinging decorum aside, Cixi clung to Sen Ni, rocking her, patting her head. It was as though they were mother and daughter, Zhiya marveled. Another story. All to be told in its time.
When Zhiya looked at Quinn again, she saw tears streaming down his face.
When the reunion had gone on long enough, the Ysli guards took Cixi by the arms and pulled her back. The red navitar, in turn, pulled Sen Ni away toward the waiting lift.
Zhiya stood by Quinn’s side, seeing Sen Ni enter the lift and then watching as Cixi, shaking off her the guards and her legates, walked with great dignity back to the Magisterium.
Titus Quinn sat in front of his pavilion. Sentients had been streaming in for several hours, paying their respects, boldly or slyly asking for preference or favors; some—those who weren’t too terrified to do so in full view of the palatine hill—bent the knee in front of Quinn and Zhiya. The king and the dwarf, as she liked to say.
Set in the middle of the plaza, the large tent, supported on poles, served as Quinn’s quarters. He had thought of places easier to defend—such as Cixi’s audience chamber in the Magisterium—but, in the end, he chose something open and away from spy tunnels.
He had spent many hours seated on this bench, and he sat more easily now that Helice’s mSap had been found. Zhiya’s attendants found it in Rim City hidden beneath a trash heap.
The God’s Needle was seldom visited in Rim City, a place that favored the Religion of the Red Throne. Thus neglected, even by its alcoholic godder attendant, the mSap had been safe on the Miserable God’s altar beneath a small mountain of trinkets, handmade crafts, and food offerings. Zhiya removed the machine to a warehouse she owned under another name, it being too precious to risk bringing to the Ascendancy.
Nevertheless, the machine sapient was operating splendidly, according to John Hastings. He was the only one from the Rose who’d survived the crossing, having arrived following Ghinamid’s death. It was also John Hastings who had traced the mSap using the controller and who had optimized the communication between the controller and the mSap. Now Quinn had immediate access to the mSap’s dedicated function: to shatter the door to the Heart.
Once John and Quinn had spoken, it had taken only a few minutes for them to come to an understanding. John Hastings would either pledge an oath of support to Quinn or be thrown off the edge of the city. Zhiya had suggested the bargain, and Quinn had agreed. He was surrounded by enemies and needed none in his own midst.
John had also told him the sweet news that Anzi was alive, and had, by God, slowed the renaissance people down, made them doubt themselves. She was alive, but a universe away. He let himself bask in the relief of her safety, pushing away worries of what came next for them.
Quinn heard with grim silence how Lamar had been a part of it all, but had redeemed himself at the last. It was a long story of how renaissance had come apart at the end; how Booth Waller had broken at the last, forcing John to program the great engine. It made Quinn trust John the more that he admitted to that. As to forgiving him—Quinn set all such considerations aside for the sake of having a quantum engineer in the Entire. Whether the man was rehabilitated or merely terrified of falling did not greatly matter at the moment.
Anzi had survived, and had done what Quinn had meant to do, but in point of fact, probably never could have accomplished. He was contaminated with the past, and Anzi was fresh to the game and had played her part well, for an act she must have made up on the spot. He thought if she returned, he would give her the Magisterium. She was the most capable of anyone who had helped him.
But first they would by God have a wedding night.
The pavilion he’d set up in the plaza faced the place where she would return. No one had come through since John Hastings, however. Somehow, Lamar must have brought things at Hanford to a halt, but whether aided by the marines or the police, neither Quinn nor John could know. Eventually, he’d learn the outcome. Because he’d go home. But it couldn’t be soon. Thus he was left to worry that the passage between worlds might decay enough to jeopardize the needed lock on the respective passage of time.
Zhiya had marshaled a force of fifty guards from her force of trusted god-ders, spies, and thieves, who had been arriving by threes and fours for the last hours. Inweer wanted no army in the Ascendancy, and Quinn respected that wish for now. His hold on the Tarig was tenuous, even if he no longer needed to bluff.
The dilemma was that he didn’t know what he wanted or should want.
It seemed that, to secure the Rose, he had to control the Entire. The Tarig might be hamstrung, but there were other parties in the dispute. The Magisterium. The population of the land. Sen Ni.
He thought on these things as he sat outside on his bench, Zhiya and Tai nearby.
Tai stood behind him, having taken on the role of seneschal, valet, and bodyguard. Wearing the jeweled sword that Quinn scarcely thought he knew how to wield, Tai had become a tireless organizer as well as Quinn’s personal assistant.
Now and then Tai would come up with an English word, such as “food,” “sleep,” and “important visitor,” looking inordinately proud if he got it right.
Quinn surveyed the plaza. No Tarig appeared on the visible avenues of the hill, much less near his pavilion. Lord Inweer said he would retire for a time, perhaps conferring with the other solitaires. The Tarig were still a problem in many respects. He tried to think through what accommodation could be made with Inweer, if any. Perhaps the Tarig should all go home; but could the Entire remain intact without them?
Zhiya sat on the ground beside him, refusing to share the bench. She was his sole advisor and second in command. Under her direction, emissaries had been sent to the Magisterium to assure every sentient that their place was not automatically in jeopardy. Even Cixi was allowed to remain for now, provided that she either brought the steward Cho from his prison or provided proof of his death. The death scroll came soon thereafter, to Quinn’s great regret. Cho had provided him the redstone containing Johanna’s warning of the purpose of Ahnenhoon. Quinn asked for a poet to create a grave saying, and one went into seclusion to produce it.
A line was forming for sentients who’d had the courage to make the trip to this uncertain city. Many did and wanted to come forward to greet Titus Quinn; among them were acquaintances, merchants, functionaries, and the curious.
Here, standing before him was a man who claimed to have served him a nicely charred meat skewer four hundred days ago during the great godder expedition to the Nigh. Quinn thanked him and took down his name, receiving his promise of cooperation. He had no idea if he’d ever met him before.
Next in line was a Gond on his litter who said he was on his way home and would convey Quinn’s greetings to the nests of the forest. Quinn sent greetings. Tai had them written with a flourish on an activated scroll by a legate seated nearby.
The day continued in this manner, until toward Last of Day came one he knew. The Hirrin, Dolwa-Pan, who had long ago given him a ride in her sky bulb.
She made a leg, in a Hirrin bow, and eyed him coldly. “So you repay hospitality,” she said without greeting.
“Was there hospitality? Did I sleep through it?”
“I gave you hospitality, oh yes? To the very reach of the minoral, and now you harass the gracious lords. I am disappointed also, that you deceived me, Titus Quinn.”
“That I regret. You did help me with transport and never knew I was a fugitive. You haven’t suffered for it, I hope?”
“No. But you won’t see further favors from me. I am a princess among Hirrin, and I shall have little good to say of you.”
Hirrin were used to speaking their minds, and this was a welcome respite from the fawning that had gone before. “I’d like to have your forgiveness, Dolwa-Pan, but I’m a slayer of Tarig, so that’s hopeless, I suppose.”
“Slayer. So it’s true.” She flicked a glance at the Tower of Ghinamid.
Quinn said, “Since we’re speaking truth, I have to admit that Lady Demat set the birds against him, and he toppled from a surplus of them.”
Dolwa-Pan sniffed. “I’d have my heart chime back.”
“And so you would if it was in my keeping. I’m afraid my wife has it.”
At her look of surprise, he said, “You’ll be the first to learn, Dolwa-Pan, what her name is. If interested.”
She took an almost involuntary step closer. “Oh, perhaps.”
“Her name is Ji Anzi. Of Shulen Wielding. She went on a dangerous mission to the Rose, and I’m waiting for her to return. You may remember the woman I traveled with. If she still has the keepsake I gave to her, you will have it back.”
Dolwa-Pan puffed a little air through her lips. “That is a tender thing, to wait for one’s love to come home.”
“It’s a hard thing.”
“Oh, it is. You wait here for her, you say?”
“Yes, until she comes.”
Again, the puff of air that was the Hirrin sigh. “Please keep the heart chime, Excellency.” She bowed again and nodded at him as she left.
At last Quinn went inside the pavilion to rest. There were a dozen items waiting for his approval, those things that Tai and Zhiya decided they couldn’t dispatch on their own. A meeting with Lord Inweer at Early Day tomorrow. They would continue to parry and thrust and learn what each wanted and what each must have.
Then there were the scrolls sent by Cixi. Up to a dozen, now.
“Read them,” he told Zhiya.
Zhiya turned to Tai. “Read them, Tai, and tell us what you think.” She shrugged at Quinn. “One must use people’s talents or exhaust oneself.”
“So that’s the way, even here.” Quinn went to his private section of the pavilion, as Tai eagerly sat at a makeshift desk and activated the first scroll.
Following Quinn into his private quarters, Zhiya murmured, “Does he have to wear a sword indoors?”
“Yes.” Quinn would not have parted Tai from the jeweled sword for love nor money. The young man had earned his embellishments and then some.
When Quinn came out of the washstall, Zhiya said, “It would be a lot easier on the functionaries around here if you’d decide on a title.” She grinned. “You know the one I prefer.”
Yes, king. “Let them flounder.”
“You don’t make it easy on people. You keep changing your name and your face. Give them a handle on you.”
But then he’d have to decide what he was. In Sidney’s voice, Prince of the Ascendancy came uncomfortably to mind. He changed the subject.
“Any word of Su Bei?”
She shook her head. “We watch Rim City. Nothing.”
The old man had never come to the city. With his minoral collapsed, Quinn feared he’d died in the calamity.
A rustle at the flap of his quarters. Tai stepped in. “Master Quinn.”
Nothing Quinn had said could persuade Tai to call him anything else.
“Master Quinn, others are gathered outside. Among them are two named Yulin and Mistress Suzong, who are certain you will see them quickly.”
A smile came to Quinn. He felt it poke into his face, still stiff from the cuts he’d taken. “By God, Yulin and Suzong.”
Zhiya led the way from his quarters and out onto the plaza.
The old bear stood some paces from the bench, looking thinner than before, but with a strange joy on his face. At Yulin’s side was Suzong, who, glimpsing Quinn, made as deep a curtsy as was possible for a woman of one hundred thousand days. She also looked mightily pleased. It touched him.
But when they stepped aside, he saw the real reason for their joy.
Someone else stood with them.
It was Anzi.
She stood by her quasi-uncle and aunt, supported on one arm by Suzong, because she had just come through . . . come over . . . come home.
Quinn rushed forward, taking her into his one good arm. He held her so hard that Yulin roared with laughter, and Suzong shushed him, and even Anzi laughed. Finally pulling back, he looked at her magical presence.
“We aren’t dead,” he said with true wonder.
“I thought I was. I thought you were.”
They sat on the bench as everyone gave them room in a wide circle. He held her face between his hands, struggling to keep his right arm raised. He couldn’t speak.
“Titus,” she whispered, “the lord did not kill you.”
“Birds . . .” he said, not thinking clearly. Her hair was matted around her face as though she’d come out of a swamp; her face, pale and strained from her ordeal. But still, she was beautiful. He felt that if he could just look at her for a few hours more, he would never ask the Miserable God for anything again.
For the next hour he kept her on his left, where his good hand could reach for hers, and he could, even while talking with Yulin and Suzong, assure himself that she was still there. She would not take any rest, and the truth was, he couldn’t bear for her to sleep just yet.
At last, stories exchanged, Suzong knelt in front of Quinn.
“You have our fealty, Titus Quinn. This time, we will hold steady.” She eyed Yulin, who tried and failed to look both noble and contrite.
Quinn turned to Tai. “Have the scribe write that down.”
Happy to be in charge of such a high task, Tai rushed off to supervise a particularly beautiful document, complete with a seal he had spent some hours devising: one with a stylized Rose that long ago he’d admired on a bolt of silk in his father’s shop.