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“Thanks to us.” Morrow flashed his charming smile, but I saw the bittersweet tinge to his gaze. He would miss Tegan too.
“One thing I’ve always wondered … why do you greet the colonel by kissing her on both cheeks? It seems like that would annoy Morgan.”
“I’m Rosemere’s diplomatic envoy,” he replied. “My father knew he had to find work to satisfy my need to wander. That’s the customary kiss of peace.”
“Ah.” I should have known he was more important than he let on, just a storyteller indeed. “Then why didn’t you identify yourself when you were traveling with me?”
His look turned sheepish. “Because I didn’t have approval for the mission. My father wouldn’t have gotten involved. So I couldn’t claim to represent Rosemere when we were building Company D. That, I did as James Morrow.”
I stood, kissed his cheek, and said, “I’ll always be grateful.”
Then I went back to work, along with half the village. The construction seemed to focus Spence, giving him something else to think about, and Rex kept him company. Spence liked him best because they shared a common loss. They didn’t talk much, but a certain bond was forming between them. They were also working on a house for Edmund and Momma Oaks, a fact that delighted me. I’d kept the promise to myself at last—and given them a new home. Gavin cavorted more than he worked, proud as a young peac.o.c.k in his new cloak, which bore the insignia from Company D.
With constant labor, it took under a month to complete the cottage, just before the first snowfall. Awed and delighted, I stood inside with Fade, unable to believe we had a place of our own. People soon arrived with housewarming gifts, a tradition on the isle. Stone delivered furniture that Thimble had built while Momma Oaks brought cus.h.i.+ons and curtains for the windows. She fussed and helped me hang them while other village women offered dishes and pots for cooking, linens, blankets, and boxes I didn’t open straightaway.
It was late in the day when they all departed—and along with the small touches, we had a table, chairs, and a bed with a newly stuffed mattress. The cottage was designed much like Stone and Thimble’s; for a moment, I let my mind wander, imagining how the years would pa.s.s. While I pondered, Fade built a fire in the hearth, the first in our own home. Wonder stole my breath and called tears to my eyes. I refused to let them fall.
I opened our first gift. Someone had given us a picture frame and I knew what to put in it. “Do you still have your token from down below?”
“Of course,” he said. “It’s stupid, but I can’t make myself discard the thing.”
“I’m glad.” I placed his paper and my card inside the frame, and then I went in search of hammer and nail.
Our talismans adorned our new home, and that seemed fitting, part of the old life to carry into the new one. Next I rummaged in my pack and laid out my two greatest treasures: Longshot’s maps and the book Fade and I had found in the ruins. He came to see what I had, then he touched the leather with reverent hands, as if the story meant as much to him.
“I can’t believe you still have it. And it’s still intact, too.”
“I kept it wrapped in oilcloth. Would you read me the end?”
Fade pitched his voice low—and the story had more resonance now.
They were married that very day. And the next day they went together to the king and told him the whole story. But whom should they find at the court but the father and mother of Photogen, both in high favor with the king and queen. Aurora nearly died with joy, and told them all how Watho had lied and made her believe her child was dead.
No one knew anything of the father or mother of Nycteris; but when Aurora saw in the lovely girl her own azure eyes s.h.i.+ning through night and its clouds, it made her think strange things, and wonder how even the wicked themselves may be a link to join together the good. Through Watho, the mothers, who had never seen each other, had changed eyes in their children.
The king gave them the castle and lands of Watho, and there they lived and taught each other for many years that were not long. But hardly had one of them pa.s.sed, before Nycteris had come to love the day best, because it was the clothing and crown of Photogen, and she saw that the day was greater than the night, and the sun more lordly than the moon; and Photogen had come to love the night best, because it was the mother and home of Nycteris.
“But who knows,” Nycteris would say to Photogen, “that when we go out, we shall not go into a day as much greater than your day as your day is greater than my night?”
When he finished, I kissed him and whispered, “I love you, Fade,” because that was what I’d failed to say when I lay feverish in the wagon. Wearing a smile so broad it threatened to crack his cheeks, he scooped me up and carried me to a chair, a capacious seat with broad arms and fat cus.h.i.+ons, cozy enough for two. Idly I wondered if Thimble had designed it for sparking. Today, my muscles ached from work more pleasant than constant fighting.
Silk was wrong, I thought. I have a Builder’s heart.
“I’m glad the story ends that way. So that even the king couldn’t part them. Like us.”
“What are kings to us?” Fade asked with a c.o.c.ky grin. “We changed the world.”
Incredibly, it was true. I rose to set the book on the mantelshelf above the hearth. Then I added Longshot’s folio. “There. That’s perfect.”
“What will you do with those maps?” Fade asked, following me with his gaze.
“Give them to our brats,” I answered.
It was the best legacy I could envision, like giving them the world.
“I don’t want to wait to name them.”
By Fade’s expression, he felt strongly about that.
“Me either. We’ll follow topside tradition like Stone and Thimble.”
“Did you see how much food they put in our cupboards?” he asked lazily, changing the subject.
I was glad; it was a little soon to be talking about expanding our family. Cheeks hot, I shook my head. I’d been busy with Momma Oaks, making the place cozy. “A lot?”
Fade watched me with silent admiration. In a moment or two, it would ripen into desire, and we had every right to wander into the back room. n.o.body would interrupt or summon us to other business. That was … astonis.h.i.+ng.
“Enough for the whole winter, I expect.”
“We’ve earned a few months of leisure,” I told him.
“What will you do, come spring?” He reached for me then.
I sank onto his lap. Fade nuzzled my neck, and I put my hand to his jaw. “Be with you.”
And I kept my promise. Always.
On Evergreen Isle lies the town of Rosemere, and within the bounds of that village, there’s a white stone cottage where an elderly couple lives. Pink roses twine around a whitewashed lattice out front, and ivy climbs the garden walls in back. It’s a peaceful place, all sunlight and dappled green. There’s a cherry tree in the yard, and when he’s asked, “Why cherries?” the man who planted it years ago smiles and says, “Because she loves them.”
Inside the cottage, a frame on the wall holds an old sc.r.a.p of paper and a playing card, the deuce of spades. Above the hearth, there’s a shelf, where two books sit between wooden statues. One is very old, produced by the world before, and its spine is imprinted with the t.i.tle The Day Boy and the Night Girl. The other is written on parchment in a fine hand, ill.u.s.trated in colorful inks, and hand bound in leather. The first page reads, The Razorland Saga by James Morrow. Though they have a library full of books to choose from, village children often ask for this story, for they’re enchanted by Tegan of the Staff, Stalker the Wolf, Deuce the Huntress, and He Whose Colors Will Not Fade. They’re comforted by these familiar legends and the account of how the world came to hold its current shape.
When he’s not reading to children who have stolen away from their ch.o.r.es, the man spends his days making armor for young people determined to seek their fortunes and see the world. Until recently, his wife taught those adventurers how to fight, preparing them for the journey. But now that his hair has gone white and hers silver, she prefers to tend her garden. They have children, this pair—long since grown and gone away, exploring through a legacy of maps. Sometimes they, too, visit with stories; they ask the boatman to bring them home, and their parents are always pleased, welcoming them with the same gladness they learned long ago from people who loved them too much to make them stay when the world was calling.
Tales abound regarding the role these two played in the War of the River, before the Gulgur rose from down below, before the Uroch signed the peace treaties, but as time wears on, their neighbors can hardly credit that this sweet couple is as dangerous as the legends claim. Therefore, folks suspect their friend, Morrow the Storyteller, must have exaggerated the accounts. Sometimes, a cloaked figure is spotted slipping in and out of the house, but n.o.body can say who it might be. This aged pair enjoys their small intrigues even yet.
Most locals would dismiss the folklore entirely, except that once a year—on the Day of Peace—the pilgrimages commence. People travel from as far away as Gaspard, from Winterville, Otterburn, Lorraine, and Soldier’s Pond, all over the free territories—and they bring gifts. For three days and nights, they camp outside the cottage in Rosemere, hoping to meet the Huntress and He Whose Colors Will Not Fade. Once a year, these two tell the tale in their own words, not Morrow’s, to those who care to listen.
Because these two believed their actions mattered, because the Huntress chose peace, forgave her enemy, and laid down her knives, the territories changed forever. That is the lesson of ultimate courage, taught by Tegan of the Staff, who devotes her life to learning in honor of a sacrifice made so very long ago. This is the story written in the bones, and that homage will continue as long as the world turns, until it loses its ragged edge, and new heroes arise.
But those are other stories.