Cold Fire

Page 156


I looked into Luce’s tear-streaked face. Ashamed, I looked away. I could not bear her scorn.

She pressed a bundle into my hands, my worldly goods as scant as the goodwill left to me. “Tell me why yee said that yee did not know. Please.”

Words shook out of half-controlled sobs. “It’s true James Drake found me on a beach…”

“Salt Island. So Gran’ tell me. But no one can leave there, and yee’s no fire mage.”

“I never lied about that! The Barr Cousins did bring me to Expedition from Salt Island. It’s true I knew Drake was working for General Camjiata back in Adurnam. But I didn’t come to the Antilles with the general. I wasn’t part of his organization. When Drake dumped me on the jetty, I didn’t know it was because they hoped Vai would find me and then they could find him by tracking me. I know it sounds impossible, but I didn’t know anything about it. Oh, no one will believe me, Luce. Why should they? I wouldn’t believe me. I have to find him, or the general will kill him.”

“After everything yee said to him and the way yee acted, I wonder why him dying should matter to yee. If yee’s really a witch, yee shall want him dead.”

My face was slobbery with self-pity and self-loathing. I could not get over the way Aunty Djeneba had looked at me as if I were a noxious vile cockroach crawling back into sight. But I owed Luce the truth. I wiped my eyes and nose, and I looked up into her solemn gaze.

“I am not a whore or a witch. I know it seems like Kofi was right, that I’m two-faced like a star-apple tree. But I was just confused. I meant to leave here, to take a room elsewhere, but I couldn’t bear to leave him. I said yes to him the night of the areito. I meant it, Luce. I love him. Then everything happened so fast.” Pain was a knife in my heart. I bit my lip rather than moan.

Her hand brushed my arm. “Venus Lennaya forgive me if I have made the wrong judgment, but I believe yee. He came that night, took he things, and left to go hide. Kayleigh live down by Kofi-lad’s people now. She and he is to marry. That is all I can say because it is all I know.”

She hurried off, back through the gates where I was no longer welcome.

Blessed Tanit, watch over your heartbroken daughter.

I yanked the threads of shadow around me to hide my shame. Clutching the bundle to my chest, I stumbled back to the old city and through gates guarded against fire banes by lamps. I took a wrong turn, and in retracing my steps found a stone gate overgrown with jasmine and hibiscus and marked by a modest stone column carved with the sigil of Tanit, the protector of women, She who is the face of the moon, sometimes bright and sometimes dark according to Her aspect.

I crept inside to find the place seemingly deserted, dense with flowers and fragrance. I washed my hands in a lustral basin fed by water trickling from a pipe. At the center of the open-air sanctuary, an arcade of pillars ringed a marble altar worn as smooth as if it had been polished for centuries by the hands of petitioners. I pressed my palms against it.

“What must I do, Blessed Mother? How can I be a better sister to Rory? How can I protect Bee without becoming a monster? How can I find him and win him back? How do I not despair? How do I look beyond my own troubles, as he does, to a path that makes a difference not just for our own selves but for others?”

The busy noises of the city had faded. A rain shower mizzled through, stippling the stone walkways. I rested my forehead on the marble.

Perhaps, through sheer emotional exhaustion, I dozed. Perhaps I dreamed that a woman with a brown Kena’ani face, clothed in robes the color of the balmy sea and wearing a crown as pale as the moon, cupped my face in her hands and kissed my lips as a seal to her promise.

Be heartened.

A cold touch on my cheek snapped me awake. I sat back on my heels to find an orange tabby cat nosing at me, tail lashing as it prowled the altar stone. With a disdainful flick of its tail, it leaped away and vanished into a hedge thick with white and purple flowers.

I found myself facing a votive stone I could have sworn had not been there before. A trellis arched over the stone, woven with a flowering vine resplendent in falls of purple flowers. Beneath the flowers, the peaceful stone face of the lady stared into the distance. She asked no questions. She waited with the patience of one who has all the time of passing centuries, as the ice creeps south and retreats north, and seas fall and rise and fall again, and volcanoes slumber or waken.

A five-petaled flower floated in the rainwater gathered in the shallow depression at the center of the altar stone, reminding me that it was proper to make an offering. I had come to the Antilles with nothing but the clothes on my back—and them shredded and since remade—the locket, and my sword. The last of my wool challis, two pagnes, a spare bodice and blouse and drawers, the boots, a comb, and the needles, thread, scissors, thimble, and pins I had purchased with my hard-earned coin were all I possessed besides the little coin purse. I fumbled at the purse’s tie to make an offering of coin, but my clumsy fingers could not get it loose.

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