Reasons to Remain
Billy could never get the hang of winter in the desert. Winter in Aquvy meant six-foot snow drifts and a cellar full of dwindling food stores, days spent nursing colds and fixing snowshoes and always keeping the kettle on. To an outsider like Billy, the dry season in Bledavik only barely registered as a change. The occasional cloudburst became even more occasional, and the old men in the marketplace retreated into the shade of the tea shop earlier in the day. Wives gossiped about the nomads taking residence in city for the season and all the trouble their scanty clothes and scantier morals caused the populace. The water levels in the aqueduct were checked twice a day instead of once. And that, for the most part, seemed to be all in Billy's eyes.
Bart had not grown up in the city, not really, but even he talked about a difference in the way the air smelled, the change in the hue of the sky, the coarser texture of the wind. To Billy, the desert was simply hot during the day and freezing at night, all year round, and he was going to leave. He said as much to Bart.
"Really," Bart said, standing on a footstool in the royal apartments, his arms outstretched and draped in his half-finished wedding finery. The fabric was full of enough pins to rival Primera's embroidery basket. "What's your reason this time?"
"What do you mean, this time?" Billy shot back, indignant.
"You announce you're going to leave at least once a month," Bart started to turn his head in Billy's direction, but his braid dislodged a small cascade of pins and Maison hissed in dismay.
"Your highness, please hold still."
Bart cast his eye heavenward. "Believe me, Billy, if you really plan to clear out before the end of the week, do me a favor and take me with you."
"Your Highness!" Maison said, aghast. He swayed on his knees, clutching at Bart's un-hemmed silk cloak for support. "You mustn't jest about such things! Miss Marguerite! The wedding! Your parents' memory--"
"I'm kidding, I'm kidding, I'm kidding!" Bart said, though he did so through his teeth and Billy wasn't sure if it was due to annoyance or being jabbed by any number of pins. "D'you think I'd put up with this torture if I wasn't going to follow through?" He shot Billy a pleading look. "Seriously. Take me with you."
"Either sew or interrupt, Maison, one or the other! I've got more things to do than stand here and bleed!"
The elderly retainer muttered something around his pins and continued marking the proper length of Bart's pants. Billy curled his hands into fists and tried to force away the fluttery feeling in his belly. Bart didn't really want to go away with him, to leave the sweltering city and its obligations behind. He was a king, and even standing on a stool in his sock-feet, his regalia still unfinished and all the gold trim held on with pins, he had never looked more the part.
"Stick around for the wedding, at least, right?" Bart said, and there was no way to tell if he had just winked or not. "It's only going to be the biggest party in Aveh ever."
"The wedding," Billy repeated, and felt as though he too had been stuck with a pin, somewhere around his breastbone. The wedding was most of the reason Billy wanted to leave, though he endeavored to keep blaming it on the hellish weather in Bledavik. "I would just get in the way."
"Of course not!" Bart started to make a dismissive gesture, and Maison, tired of having his hard work fall apart, jabbed Bart with a pin in a way that was none-too-accidental. "Yowch!"
"Sorry, your highness," Maison said, breezily. "It's difficult when you don't hold still..."
"You can't leave me to face this alone," Bart went on, going so rigid that the only part of him that moved was his lips.
"You aren't alone," Billy retorted, and words tumbled after. "Everyone in Aveh is in the city, the palace is full to the roof, Fei is your best man--" Billy caught his lip in his teeth, before anything else could get out. But he wanted to say it. He wanted, in point of fact, to scream it. What in hell do you need me for?
"It is a pity that after Shakaan's betrayal the Ethos is no longer recognized as a religion in Aveh," Maison said, oblivious to Bart's warning glare. "And the Church of Nisan is the state religion, so you couldn't officiate--"
"Maison!" Bart said, and Maison glanced first at his king, and then at Billy, and realized his mistake. His eyes went wide behind his spectacles.
"That is, it's only that the traditional ceremony is very important, after the upheaval and--"
"It doesn't matter," Billy said, and his voice felt dead in his mouth, like something had perished inside and was a now cold and limp and rotten thing that he couldn't shake out of him fast enough. "I'm no priest, and the Ethos doesn't exist anymore." Nothing of Billy existed anymore, he thought. What was he, anyway? Certainly not the King's lover, and if he was he was only one of many, an afterthought in a busy crowd, and that would be quite done with once the vows were spoken. Billy was a gunman with no targets. At best he had become the sullen hanger-on of the Black family. Jessie had fallen in with Sigurd and Citan with the ease of old friendship, and his personality made him popular in the city. Prim, used to a tiny house in the middle of nowhere, had friends and opportunities now that Aquvy could not offer. And Billy Lee Black? He was always the ex-priest, the ex-etone, the ex-ominigear pilot. And now he had the dubious honor of being the king's ex-lover. Once he had been the glue barely holding his family and his world together through years of hardship. Now he was a shining example of living in the past tense.
"Oh, look, Maison, you lost some pins." Bart vigorously shook his left leg until the pins came out of the hem on that side and sprinkled onto the floor. "Better find them before someone steps on them." He left his retainer (and erstwhile tailor) picking pins out of the carpet while he hiked up his half-sewn mantle and walked over to the doorway. "Billy," he said, putting one hand on Billy's shoulder. "C'mon. What's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong." Billy shrugged away from the touch, his head lowered so his silvery bangs obscured his eyes. "I'm just no use here," he said. "There's enough that needs done on this planet that it's foolish to be idle. I should go to Nisan, or to New Aphel to help Ramsus deal with the Shevite and Solarian refugees. I can speak both languages, and there's tensions between the two groups, and we're too few to handle another war..."
"Billy," Bart said, and then paused, swallowing back whatever he had started to say. "Well. I mean, if that's the way you feel, that's the way you feel, right? But stay for the wedding. Really. Margie'll be really upset if you don't."
Bart had learned his negotiation skills from behind the sights of a torpedo, and though his tactics were rough, his aim was impeccable. Billy found himself nodding.
"Good!" Bart fetched him a slap on the arm that was meant to be bracing, but it nearly dislocated Billy's shoulder. "I've got to let Maison finish perforating me, but I'll see you at the party tonight."
Which was how Billy came to be standing alone under an arch in the palace colonnade, watching Bart dance with Margie in the courtyard. Sigurd's uncle had taken it upon himself to host a traditional nomad wedding party for the young king, and Bart, as a matter of diplomacy (he insisted it was diplomacy, anyway) could not refuse. It was midwinter, and that was a holiday shared by both the city-dwellers and the nomads, all united on the same sands to light extra lamps against the longest night of the year.
The palace courtyard was ablaze with lanterns and bonfires, the desert stars were dazzling in the deep indigo sky, and Margie was laughing as her husband-to-be spun her in the giddy circles of the dance. The wine was flowing, the air shivered with happy conversation, and the pulse of drums and bells vibrated in the stone walls.
Billy had never in his life felt more out-of-place. He did not dance, and after his frequent battles with his father on the subject, he made a point of not drinking. He was no sun-kissed child of the desert. Prim might as well have been one, dressed in pantaloons and sashes like an Aveh girl, dancing in foolish loops with Midori at the edge of the crowd. Nearby, Jessie and Citan laughed over their cups at some old joke obscure to everyone else. Bart made a mock-serious face at Margie as they pressed their palms together for some exotic dance with scarves and bells, and she burst into peals of giggles as Fei came up and tied his scarf in a ridiculous bow around Bart's head.
"I stayed," Billy said softly, to no-one that would hear him. "But I don't see what difference it made." He turned his back on the party and slipped into the cool shadows of the palace, not seeing as Bart pulled the scarf from his face and scanned the crowd, as though looking for something misplaced.
The palace was filled to overflowing with guests for the wedding, and even those not in the courtyard were milling about the galleries and gardens. A few of the late arrivals had been obliged to bunk in the old gear hangars underground. Billy's bedroom overlooked the courtyard and the party, and he had no desire for that view. He wandered the halls until he came upon the palace library, empty and quiet and lit only with a few lamps. They cast colored pools of light on the rugs, and Billy settled into one of the high-backed chairs to brood properly.
His pistol had been cleaned already that morning, but he unloaded and disassembled it anyway, a meditative ritual that soothed his spirit as well as any catechism. His fingers knew each pin and screw, had smelted them from scrap iron and steel, had worn them smooth with use. The chamber clicked smoothly back into place and Billy suppressed the urge to say amen.
"That is cleverly done."
Billy was out of his chair in an instant, his newly-assembled pistol leveled in warning at the speaker before she had a chance to take a second breath. It wavered in his hand, however, when he got a good look at her.
It was a woman that stood behind his chair, a woman with great waves of golden hair, a woman who had somehow crept up on him so silently he had not heard her approach. Her beauty was immediate and startling, but was not restricted by her age; Billy Lee could not place her as either young or middle-aged. She was old enough to be his mother, of that he was somehow certain, but it was not her face that told him so. Her clothing was Aveli, her accent from Nisan, and she smiled as she held up her ringed hands in mock surrender. "Do you always shoot everyone who compliments you?"
"I-I'm sorry," Billy said, lowering the gun, and then sliding it back into his hostler. "You startled me."
"I dare say I did." She sidestepped around his abandoned chair and sat down in the one opposite. "Phew, it's crowded here tonight! Do you mind if I join you for a bit?"
"Of course not," Billy answered, hoping to make up for his past mistake. Reflexes were reflexes, but to draw on an unarmed woman like that! What would his mother have said? "Are you here for--" Billy started to say 'wedding' and found he could not. "--the celebrations?"
"Hmhmm," she said, with a little smile. "Quite the to-do, isn't it?"
Billy could not really help the expression that crossed his face, and the woman laughed at it, and then laughed even more at Billy's guilty look when he was caught.
"Please," she said, "you don't have to put on the polite answers for me. I know how things work around here, and I've known most everyone involved for a long time. Except for you, Billy Lee Black. And I'm sorry about that." She patted the arm of the empty chair. "Come and sit down. You look like you need to talk to someone."
For a moment Billy hesitated, but only for a moment. He was certain the woman was someone from Nisan, someone high up in the church, perhaps, but not a sister. There was a liturgical cadence to her words that was immediately telling to Billy, but she wore no vestments, and he was not familiar enough with the Church of Nisan to know its hierarchy well. Still, it would explain how she knew Bart and Margie, and would explain the comforting nature of her presence. Even through betrayal and broken faith, Billy knew his own kind and took comfort from their shared experiences. He sat back down in the chair.
"It's Bart that's the problem," he blurted out, quite before he could help himself.
"Hrm." She put her fingertips to her lips, thoughtful. "Bart is very often the problem. But maybe he's doing his best with problems of his own."
"He's not the only one with problems," Billy answered, knowing as he said it that it sounded petulant and childish, and he didn't want to appear that way to her. "I mean, I know he's busy, and he doesn't have time for other people right now, for me. Bart's the problem, but I'm the reason he's the problem, so I should just go."
"No," the woman said, "I don't think you really want to run away, Billy Lee. I don't think you're the kind to run away from your problems." She reached out with her cool, smooth fingers, and brushed the hair away from his brow. "You know that Bart has all the troubles of Aveh on his shoulders, and you don't want to be one more." She smiled at him, Billy's vision of her suddenly blurry with unshed tears. "But you need to be needed, and you feel you're not. Worse, you feel that with the marriage, you won't even be wanted, and you'd sooner be gone than be proven right about that, wouldn't you?"
Billy could not quite trust himself to speak, he only nodded.
"I'll tell you a secret, Billy Lee Black," she said, leaning close as though they were old friends. "And I promise you, every word is true. Bart needs you in ways he can't even tell you just yet, and as time goes on, he will only need you more and more. Do you know why?"
Billy swallowed away the thickness in his throat, shook his head. "Why?"
Her blue eyes sparkled; she was as dazzling as a golden desert oasis. "Because," she said, "Bart is the King of Aveh. And I tell you now, what a king needs most is someone to whom he is not king. He needs a friend he can trust, one to whom he can tell the truth and who will always tell him the truth in return. One to keep his faith up, his spirits high. One to confide in, one to be there through good times and bad. Margie will be his queen, it is true, and she will be a warm and close companion for him. But I know Bart. He will no more want to appear weak to her than he would to the whole Kingdom. And when she has worries of her own, and children to look after, and he must be father and husband and king at once? There must be a door he can knock on in the night. Every king needs at least one friend to answer that knock, Billy. And any man under the sun would be lucky to have you be that one."
"There's Fei, but..." Billy thought of him, and then he thought of Elly, and the life they were starting together in the rebuilt village of Lahan. They were a long way from Bledavik, and would not be there in the middle of the night when a young, troubled king needed counsel from a friend. "And what about Sig?" Billy asked, blinking his eyes until they were dry again. "Bart has him."
"What Sigurd is to Bart is yet again a little different," she said, and smiled her secret little smile. "No one else is you, Billy Lee. No one has had the same trials as you, no one has the same kind of faith, no one else answers Bart with your voice. Your counsel is wise and not given lightly." Something in her face darkened, for a moment Billy was almost a little afraid of her. "You know the lies that can be told behind holy vestments. Kings have often been undone by such men. But your faith has been tested and held true. You have suffered, but gained wisdom. Bart needs you, and that means that Aveh needs you. It is not quite as high a calling as being king, but it is a high one all the same. Will you stay, and be his friend?"
Billy looked down at her hand on his arm, the lamplight flashing in the heavy gold ring she wore. The insignia of Aveh was buried beneath the smooth surface of the sapphire, and he wondered where he had seen it before. "I will think about it," he said, but he knew already that he would stay.
She sighed, her gold lashes lowered as though she had been relived of a great worry. "Thank you," she said. "And now I'm afraid I've kept you talking for far too long. You might think yourself invisible and overlooked, but I suspect you will be missed shortly, and someone will come looking for you." She rose in one graceful motion, her sheer dress fluttering around her in green waves.
"Wait," Billy said, getting up from his chair to follow her. "You're from Nisan, aren't you? What's your name?"
"Mariel," she called back to him, and disappeared into the cavernous shadows of the library. Somewhere beyond the light of the lamps, a door opened and shut again, and Billy was alone.
Or so he thought.
"Here you are!"
For the second time in an hour Billy had his gun out and cocked at the darkness beyond his chair, but this time it was pointed at no lady. A coil of leather shot out of the shadowy bookcases, lashed around the pistol, and yanked it from Billy's hand. Billy hissed, shaking out his stinging fingers, and Sigurd emerged into the lamplight like a silver-haired ghost. Billy's gun was in one hand, the sinuous line of a whip in the other.
"Tsk," he said, his one eye gleaming with a smile. "You'll have to work a little harder to get the draw on me, Billy Lee. Your father still can't." He turned the gun around in his hand, and slid it back into Billy's holster. "A little jumpy, are we?"
Billy tried to look over Sigurd's shoulder (an impossible task, in spite of the inches Billy had gained on him in the last year), but could see no one else in the library. "Sorry, I thought--" Billy shook his head. "Nevermind."
Sigurd followed Billy's gaze, but finding nothing there but the black shadows of the library, turned around again. "Bart sent me to find you," he explained. "He wanted to come himself, but--"
"He has to stay for the party, I understand."
"Billy," Sigurd said, taking a step closer. "I know things have been uncomfortable lately, and full of changes. But I hope you know you will always have a home here. Bart said you were thinking of leaving--"
"I'm going to stay," Billy said firmly, and relief blossomed over Sigurd's face.
"I'm glad to hear it," he said, smiling. "Bart made it sound like you had one foot out of the door already. What changed your mind?"
"One of the party guests, from Nisan. You must have gone right past her in the hall."
Sigurd's brows drew together again. "I saw no one," he said. "What did she look like?"
It was Billy's turn to frown. "She was blond, and dressed in green, and very beautiful. She said her name was Mariel. I took her to be one of Margie's group, since..." Billy trailed off, leaving the thought unfinished. Sigurd's dark complexion had gone ashy, he gripped the back of the chair Mariel had been sitting in.
"Mariel?" he repeated, in a rough whisper. "Are you sure?"
"Yes," Billy answered, uneasiness stirring in his belly at the sight of Sigurd so unsettled. He was not one to lose his calm easily. "Why? Who is she?"
For answer, Sigurd bent down to pick up the lamp from the side table. As he raised it, it spread its light higher up the sandstone walls of the library, illuminating shelves, tapestries, and the ornate gold frame of the painting over the fireplace. Billy looked up into the smiling face of its occupant, and felt an electric jolt go through his frame.
The woman he had been speaking to was there, frozen in masterful strokes of oil paint. The folds of her green dress rippled over her lap, and her golden braid was held in the chubby hands of a laughing infant. Seeing her blue signet ring against the child's dark skin, Billy remembered where he had seen it last: gleaming in Bart's hand as he formally presented it to Margie.
"Mariel of Nisan," Sigurd said, in a strained voice. "Queen of Edbart, murdered by Shakan's men on the main staircase of the palace during his coup." He paused, and the echo of his silence rang in the empty library. "...Bart's mother."
Billy's throat worked, but he found nothing to say. The vibrant woman he had spoken to--so full of concern for Bart, so aware of the pitfalls of a traitorous advisor--had been dead for over a decade. It was plainly impossible.
"There is a tradition," Sigurd said, his voice startling in the quiet, "among my mother's people, that the spirits of the departed return to us on the darkest night of the year. That is why we light lamps to guide them, and sing songs that they would know to welcome them home."
"There's no such thing," Billy breathed, still rooted to the spot, staring at Mariel's painted smile. How many nights had he prayed to see his own mother's phantom, to hear her voice in the darkness, to be given some proof of her existence beyond the bullet-riddled body in its plain wooden coffin? Never once had he been given a hint he could readily believe, and nothing like this.
Sigurd shrugged. "It's not my place to say definitively what there is not," he said. "But I feel better saying what there is, and in this case, what there is is a young king wishing for his friend to come join in the celebrations. Will you?"
Billy shook himself. Sigurd had lowered the lamp, and the dead queen's face faded once more into shadow. "Yes," he said, at last. "Yes, I will."
"I'm glad to hear it," Sigurd said, and blew out the lamp before setting it back on the little table between the two chairs. "Let's go tell him."
Billy thumbed the snap closed on his holster, and together they went out towards the sound of music and the smell of the bonfires.