Chapter Forty Starlight and Heartbeats
Under the eerie light of Mehiil, the amethyst moon that rode the clouds as only a sliver that evening, Queen Arialla could see little of her kingdom. The city was dark but for the torchlight of the soldiers, for most of the homes were empty, their inhabitants seeking the comfort of the goddess, or else they had taken to their beds already and slept soundly.
Both Tamlin and Tikaj waited with her as she gazed out over her balcony, looking with worry over each home that she’d grown up viewing from that very place. A chill wind blew past her, a reminder of the terrible winter she’d just been through, but she wasn’t yet ready to retreat to the warmth of her chambers.
“Woe that any illness should befall you this night, fairest of all queens,” a voice said from inside, smooth as velvet and playful as faerie-light. “You stand worried for your people, yet the evil threatening you feels not love, but utter hatred for you.”
Arialla turned, pulling back the locks of hair the wind had blown into her face, and saw the bard standing in the doorway that led from her room to the balcony. He held a cloak of cobalt velvet in his hands, ready to help her don it. Sir Tikaj looked up from where he leaned against the wall and eyed Vincent seriously.
“I come only as a humble servant of Her Majesty,” the bard told Sir Tikaj, seeing the look in his eyes. Then to Arialla, “Will you accept your cloak, my dear queen? The cold outside tonight is terrible.”
“Of course, Vincent,” the queen replied, and she allowed Vincent to lay the heavy cloth over her shoulders and pin the broach at the front, which was shaped like a wide, round green leaf. “Is Mearrk’hal with you this evening?”
Vincent shook his head as he walked out to the far end of the balcony, where Arialla had been standing a moment before. “The old man has gone to bed already. He asked me to look in on you before I, too, retired.”
Hiding her disappointment, Arialla acknowledged him in a soft voice and let him stand beside her as she gazed the temple at the other end of the city.
“My queen…” Vincent whispered.
“You address me as your queen, yet you are not a citizen of Onsira,” Arialla noted.
“If only I was,” the bard replied. “I would gladly live beneath your rule and serve your kingdom however you desired.”
He laid a hand upon hers, a daring and bold move, but she didn’t pull away. In the doorway, Tikaj took a step forward, only to be stopped by Tamlin’s hand on his shoulder. She gave him a look that said she trusted the bard, and to leave them be.
“I ‘m sure that your queen in Mithkyn would be too remiss to lose a bard like you, Vincent,” she said, her voice sounding distant and lost in the confusion of all that had happened those past few weeks.
“Her Majesty Queen Illyfar is famed and wonderful, but so grand is she that she would not keep a lowly bard like myself from seeking happiness for his heart in a distant land.”
“She sounds kind indeed,” Arialla replied absently.
“Blissfully benevolent, I would go so far as to say. But I miss her less when I ‘m beside you.”
Arialla turned to meet the bard’s eyes, curious about what he really meant. Her appearance stirred the bard, they way her cheeks swelled with redness, the glass-like gleam of her yellow irises. She was feeling, he knew, all the pain and suffering that she should never have known, right down to the core of her being. She’d been pulled in all directions, betrayed by the man whom she’d once had the naïveté to love, and now the land she was responsible for protecting was being threatened by that same creature. How could Z’Lé have been so abysmally cruel, the bard wondered to himself, when this beautiful and innocent queen had done nothing deserving of such misery?
“You’re beautiful even with tears on your cheeks, Arialla. Here in this moonlight, you are like the goddess whom your kingdom honors. When you are calm and you stand here thinking of your people even after all of your heartache…”
When he faltered, Arialla pressed him for more. “What, Vincent?”
The bard shook his head. “If only your k’hurin hadn’t caused you such sorrow, dear queen. I never would have risked everything you loved just to be with you like he did. It pains me that I believe in respecting the laws of Kuetzarrin, because now I can only stand by and defend you,” he paused, taking a hesitant breath, “…and nothing more.”
Sighing, Vincent stepped away and headed towards the doors.
Arialla followed him, her cloak flowing behind her as she called out his name.
Vincent stopped and gave her a mournful look. “Think deeply of your Kuetzarrin promise, milady, and you will understand why I am now divided inside myself. I shall rise to protect you, but I cannot ask you for anything else but the honor of being able to serve you. You deserve so much more than that– I want nothing more than to give you more–but I could never ask you to break your vows… not even when your k’hurin betrayed you and your kingdom in order to be with you.”
“Vincent…” she whispered, realizing what he was trying to say, and why he couldn’t say it to her directly.
Shaking his head, the bard took in a deep breath and forced himself to stay calm. “Milady, is there anything at all that you need this evening, before I take my repose?”
“No,” Arialla conceded after thinking over he matter, her voice trembling, wanting to say exactly the opposite of the word she’d uttered. She knew that he was unable to stay, even if she found the courage to ask him. “Please, get your rest so that we’ll ready for whatever tomorrow shall bring.”
“As my queen commands,” Vincent replied, making a low, sweeping bow as regal as any nobleman could have shown her. “Rest well, your majesty. Whether queen or empress, may your glory shine forever more.”
Leaving Arialla with those words, Vincent stepped into the hallway and strolled to his room.
In the shadows of her bedroom, lit only by the dying light of a fire and a few dwindling candles, the queen of Onsira let out a lonely sigh. It was hard enough to reconcile the feelings she still had for Mearrk’hal after all the years that had gone by since their courtship with her need to honor her vows to her k’hurin, no matter how she despised him. But the bard as well? He was too poetic, too graceful, too much of a handsome gentleman for her to let her thoughts linger on him for long. To her, even thoughts could be a betrayal of her vows.
Instead, she turned back to the balcony, rushing past her guardian knights, and leaned on the railing. Then, with all the turmoil that had been roiling in her heart, she clutched her cloak close around her and wept silently beneath the night sky. Her tears reflected the endless starlight above her. Each twinkling light was another reminder of everything that she believed in, everything that she’d been raised to treasure.
Jenh’s love was like the starlight, her father had once told her: vast and unending, looking down on everyone from the celestial heavens in which she dwelt. Arialla wanted nothing more than to stop thinking of love, to shun it from her heart, but no matter how hard she tried, it would not harden against all the warmth she’d been given by those who sought to protect her and her world.
Far below the palace, a sorcerer walked with his Rrandah. They’d been to the Dark One’s temple earlier in the day, when Ser shone brightly on Jzifélan, and had later taken their supper with the priests of Jenh’s Temple. It was a long walk from there to the other side of the city, where they would enter the jeweled and colorful halls of the Temple of Aamh, goddess of the Starr and the bards. That particular temple was the favorite of the sorcerer’s brother, but Vénes himself didn’t care as much for the light-hearted side of the bardic arts. In his sorcery, he focused on the more serious side of the music, as well as the mystery of the celestial magic that Aamh offered.
“I’ve never been to a bardic temple before,” Shu-Giri said as he crossed a bridge over one of the city’s canals. “Is it true that in ages past, there was a Starr living at each one?”
Vénes shrugged. “The angelic race are a mysterious people, Shu-Giri. They’re incredibly rare, and the bards aren’t afraid to exaggerate when they speak of them. A Starr helping run each temple is probably nothing more than a grandiose story.”
“Is your niece the only one you know?”
“Vincent’s daughter?” Vénes asked. He thought over the question for a moment, trying to remember seeing anyone else with wings of pure white feathers and an incredible musical talent. “When I was a small boy, I think there was one temple my mother took me to where there was a Starr. He spoke with my mother about sorcery for quite a long time, but that’s all I remember.”
“And you never saw him again?”
Vénes shook his head. “I was too young to remember where we were, but I do recall observing that he was very old. It could be that he passed away years ago.”
“Do you think this temple has a Starr living in it?” Shu-Giri asked as they rounded a corner and the temple came into view.
“Vincent already asked about it. This temple was only finished a few years ago, and it was hard enough finding priests willing to come all the way to Onsira. He still hasn’t found any Starr on this continent besides his daughter.”
“Is she not lonely? I would be so lonely if I was the only one of my kind.”
“No, Shu-Giri. She is loved by all of her village, and everyone in the bardic school and the Temple of Aamh near her home. She has enough to make her happy.”
“How fortunate,” Shu-Giri replied. Then he stopped and looked ahead of them.
Shining against the dark shadow of the night sky, Aamh’s temple stood as a creation of elegance and beauty. A tower spiraled upward from its center; its peak was a chamber made entirely of stained glass and crystals, with a signal fire burning bright inside so that a kaleidoscope of light glowed against the thin clouds passing by. The wooden doors were carved and painted with the wings of the Starr, the long white feathers painstakingly detailed. Crystals outlined each door, and even the handles had jewels embedded in the bronze.
“Wow…” the treasure-hunter breathed, staring in awe. “You never told me it would be this magnificent!”
“I didn’t expect you to be so impressed by it,” Vénes replied.
He continued towards the temple, Shu-Giri keeping pace, raving about its beauty and grandeur, and how he wanted to tell his friends in Jzamneh about it. Inside, they were greeted by a priestess who was walking by with a thick pillar candle, her hand held close to the flame to keep it from going out. She stopped and nodded to them, and a young attendant halted beside her, though she continued her gentle swings of a golden thurible. The lavender-scented smoke that came from inside it wafted over them all.
“Welcome, sorcerer,” the priestess said to Vénes. “Are you the one who has come in service of Her Majesty?”
“I am,” he replied with a nod. “And this is my Rrandah, Shu-Giri.”
The priestess gave him a nod of greeting and said, “The head of our temple has already retired for the evening, and so we cannot give you Aamh’s blessing until the morning.”
“That’s all right. I would like to ask for refuge from the cold of the night, in return for praise to the goddess of song.”
“Then you shall have it,” the priestess replied in words that had been prescribed as a proper response to a sorcerer’s request to stay for the night, should he be willing to offer his prayers. “The hall is nearly empty, so please take a seat wherever you please. I shall send word to have a room prepared for you.”
Vénes thanked her, and the priestesses continued walking along the wall. With her candle, she ensured that each light burned brightly in its recess, the attendant behind her spreading the soothing flower scent throughout the hall. Shu-Giri followed his sorcerer down the center aisle of the pews. In Aamh’s temple, they curved around a circular dais that rose in the center of the hall, the place where the leader of the temple would lead the prayers and songs to Aamh and address the congregation gathered there.
Vénes chose a seat in the front pew, then pulled a book with a light blue cover from a compartment at the end of the row. Sitting with Shu-Girl at his side, he opened it to the section on evening prayers.
“Are those… music notes on that page?” Shu-Giri asked, peering down at he parchment.
Vénes nodded. “Did you really not know? The prayers to Aamh include spoken words as well as chanting and singing. They’re an art form in and of themselves.”
“Perhaps I should have guessed as much,” Shu-Giri admitted, “but I’d never thought about it before.”
“You’ll be learning a great deal about magic with me. You may know all there is about Jzamneh magic, but all of it is in Jenh’s realm. With Aamh, music and sound carry a lot of power, but there is also the mysticism of the Starr.”
“Are you saying that you have Starr magic?” Shu-Giri asked, wide-eyed.
Vénes shook his head, and was somewhat amused by his Rrandah’s disappointment. “It must be taught by an experienced Starr to one who is deeply devoted to Aamh. My niece is too young, and I’m too inexperienced to have power equal to the Starr.”
“Perhaps one day,” Shu-Giri told him with a playful grin.
“Perhaps.” Vénes took in a breath and turned his attention back to the book. “This is the long evening exaltation. It sings the praises of Aamh and all her gifts of music and talent, then turns to speak of the sky, with all its myriad stars and everything that lies beyond.”
“Where the Starr come from,” Shu-Giri noted.
“Nobody is sure of that. There are many varying theories, but all of them agree that the birth of a Starr is a blessing from the goddess.”
Shu-Giri nodded and looked over the text. “Some of this I cannot read…”
“The chanted part is written in Starr. Do not worry; when it comes to that part, the magic will flow and the words will come to you. Are you ready?”
“I suppose,” the treasure-hunter answered, sighing nervously.
“Just follow along; you’ll understand.”
Vénes began reading the lines of the prayer, and his Rrandah followed suit, the words flowing from their lips as they spoke in praise of Aamh. When they came to the end of the page of spoken word, they moved on to the chanting portion. As Vénes had said, the words came to their minds, then emerged in their throats as naturally as if they’d practiced them for years. The chanting was deep and slow, but it also profoundly expressed what Aamh’s followers knew about her magic as well as her music. At the end of it, the chanting grew into something more melodic, and Vénes’s velvety tenor voice emerged with a line of song that spoke of the swath of stars that soared across the night sky.
“And from the stars come the light and the dust;
and speaking to that dust is the song of all millennia,
for which the music shall ever flow.
Soaring with the stars, we glide through the aetherial night,
tho’ the night is not as dark,
‘neatth the stars and the music and Aamh’s light.
Oh, what glory does flow,
On the ground, in the sky, in the great vast seas,
When music has in our hearts and minds an abode.
Sing sweetly, life of the world; sing true.”
When the song ended, and the great hall of the Temple of Aamh was quiet once again, Shu-Giri looked up from the old tome and whispered to his beloved sorcerer, “You’re glowing.”
Vénes looked at his arm, where the silverly light flowed with his movements, and nodded with the faintest of smiles. “Aamh has heard us. You have the glow as well”
“Then we have her blessing?”
“Indeed,” the sorcerer replied, closing the book and standing up from the pew. “And now it’s time that we get some rest. We’ll have to rise early tomorrow to visit the last of the four temples.”
Shu-Giri agreed, and together they walked to one of the hallways on the far side of the great hall. The priestess had returned with her assistant to escort them both to a room where they could rest for the night. They learned then that some of the rooms had been given to the city’s followers of Aamh, who had grown in number since the temple’s completion, for they too sought refuge from the looming darkness. Many of the rest had been granted to the visiting soldiers who’d come to fight in the goddess’s name.
He and Vénes were shown to a room on one of the upper levels. It was far from spacious, but it was sufficient, with a bed for the two of them to sleep on, a basin to wash in, and a fire to keep them warm. Vénes thanked the priestess kindly, and closed the door as she receded back down the hall.
They wasted no time in making ready for bed; the morrow had too much in store, and he intended on doing everything he could to protect Onsira from falling victim to the evil intentions of the Lord of Nightmares.