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Naamah's Blessing

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Naamah's Blessing

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Author: Jacqueline Carey
Publisher: Gollancz, 2011
Grand Central Publishing, 2011
Series: Kushiel's Legacy: Book 9
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Moirin is alone, and far from the land of her birth, with nothing but a few resources of her own to draw upon, and few friends she can call upon, in what is about to become a nation of enemies. And there are hard questions ahead that she will have to answer: whether she can forgive a deliberate betrayal; whether she will fight against all odds for her love; and whether, when all believe her dead and her life and her religion hang in the balance, Moirin can sacrifice her beliefs, or will hold true to her goddess even in death...


I did not expect kindness.

In that, I was mistaken. The Emperor Achcuatli gazed at me long and hard when I was escorted once more into his presence, and there was desire in his gaze, but there was also a gentleness he hadn't shown before. At length, he smiled. "It is pleasing to see you dressed in my gifts."

I bowed. "They are very beautiful, my lord."

He gestured to a chair across the table from him. "Come, sit. We will take chocolatl." At that, I must have brightened, for he laughed. "You know it?"

I sat opposite him. "Yes, my lord."

While attendants prepared the frothy concoction, sweetening, spicing and whisking it, Achcuatli studied me. "You are not scared or--" The second word was unfamiliar. Naamah may have graced my tongue, but not my vocabulary; at least not in a permanent manner.

"No, my lord. I am not scared," I said. "I do not know the other word."

Achcuatli pressed a fist to his belly. "To feel sick inside at an unclean thing."
The image of the skulls flashed before my eyes again, and once again, I pushed it away. "There are things about the Nahuatl I find... hard to understand," I said slowly, chosing my words with care. "Desire is not one of them. It is a sacred thing to my father's people."

His obsidian eyes were intent. "Is that why it is so strong in me for you?"

Attendants set golden goblets of foamy chocolatl before us. I waited for the Emperor to drink before taking a sip, reveling in the wondrous mixture of bitterness and sweetness, the rich taste of it. "Yes."

"A sacred thing," he mused.

I took another sip. "I am a child of the goddess Naamah, to whom all desire is sacred."

Achcuatli's mouth twisted. "The men of Aragonia would have had us believe they were gods, too."

I shook my head. "I do not say that. Only that Naamah is--" I didn't know the word for ancestor. "My father's hundred-times ago mother."

His face cleared. "I see. Yes, such things are known."

"Did you think it was true?" I asked. "About the Aragonians?"

"No." The Nahuatl Emperor was silent a moment. "I knew they were men. They fight and bleed and die like men. But I thought their gods had favored them, giving them knowledge to build great ships that cross the sea, giving them armor against which our macahuitls shattered and broke, and great beasts to master and ride. And so I let them stay. I was young, and knew no better."

It was on the tip of my tongue to ask why he did not send them away now, but not wanting to provoke a diplomatic incident, I did not voice it.

Achcuatli guessed anyway, giving me a shrewd look. "Now it is too late. There are too many to defeat with ease, and they have made bargains with other people, tribes we have conquered, who would be pleased to see this empire fall. Foolish people, who think the men of Aragonia would keep their bargains."

Once again, I held my tongue, grateful that I'd learned a measure of discretion.

And once again, he knew. "You do not wish to speak against them," he observed. "That may be wise. But I know what they wish. If they could defeat us and rule over this empire, they would." He shrugged. "I know what they say. They think their Nahautl servants are too stupid to learn their tongue, and we have let them think it. They speak freely before their servants. They think we are little better than animals."

"I do not think that," I said.

"No." Achcuatli considered me. "You are different. And yet, Cuixtli tells me the sight of the tzompantli sickened you."

"Yes." I didn't need to know the word to guess it referred to the rack of skulls. And while I didn't want to give offense, I thought it best not to lie when doing Naamah's business. "It did."

The Emperor drained his goblet. "Come," he said. "I wish to show you something."

Obediantly, I rose to accompany him. Attendants hastened to brush the ground before our path. Achcuatli dismissed them from the task with mild irritation. I noted that he'd exchanged his gold-soled sandals for more practical plain ones, and thought that the Nahuatl Emperor also knew a good deal about the value of appearances.

Followed by a discreet throng of attendants and guards, we exited the palace into an extensive pleasure garden, one so vast and ornate it made me catch my breath. There were oak trees, cypresses and palms, and others I could not identify with thick barrels and wide, spreading leaves. There were countless flowers in a riot of color. All of them were healthy and vibrant, reaching exuberantly toward the sun. I breathed the Breath of Trees Growing, drinking in the green scent of the place.

Achcuatli led me toward a large structure. At a distance, I thought it a gazebo of sorts, but as we drew nearer, I saw that it was an aviary built of wood and wicker, filled with growing trees. There must have been a hundred birds inside it. I hadn't seen such brilliant plumage since leaving Bhodistan.

"See there?" He pointed to a bird with emerald green feathers and a ruby breast. It perched on a branch, regarding us with big round eyes. Splendid green plumes as long as my forearm trailed from its tail. "That is the quetzal. It is a sacred bird."

I glanced at Achcuatli's headdress, recognizing the plumes, and lifted one hand involuntarily to touch the feathers on my own.

"Yes," he said as though in answer to an unasked question. "It is an honor to wear them."

"You are kind."

Achcuatli touched my cheek, a feather-light touch. Even so, I felt a spark of desire leap between us. It was the first time he had touched me. "I would have the world know that the Nahuatl know how to honor a woman."

"I will tell them," I said.

His black eyes glinted. "Good."

When he withdrew his hand, I felt a pang of loss; and at the same time, a pang of guilt, thinking of Bao. But Naamah's gift enfolded me, assuring me that I was doing her will. I put my guilt aside. Later, there would be time to confront it.

As if the aviary wasn't impressive enough, there was a bestiary, too. Upon visiting it, Achcuatli stood for a long time before a cage that contained a pair of immense spotted cats that paced back and forth, lashing their tails. Now I knew where Temilotzin's hides came from. Brushing their thoughts, I felt a mixture of boredom and frustration.

"Some days I feel like them," Achcuatli said at length. "Trapped in a cage I did not make."

"So free them," I murmured.

He shook his head. "It would be a terrible omen."

I wondered at the Emperor speaking so freely to me; but then, betimes it was easier to confide in a stranger. And I was a foreigner. I would not think less of him for revealing he did not possess a stone face and a stone heart. Indeed, quite the opposite.

We left the bestiary to stroll the garden. As odd as the situation was, I couldn't help but take pleasure in the lush greenery. Achcuatli paused before a bed of vivid dahlias, stroking their intricate petals with one finger.

"Greet the sky and live, blossom!" he said unexpectedly. "Yet even as the wind stirs your petals, flowers fall. My flowers are eternal, my songs live forever. I lift them in offering; I, a singer. I cast them to the wind, I spill them. The flowers become gold, they come to dwell inside the palace of eternity."

Something in the words caught at my heart. "Is that a poem?"

"Yes. It is part of a famous poem." He met my gaze. "It is in honor of life and death. Your people honor life, but they do not honor death." He broke the stem of a purple dahlia, lifting the blossom. "To me, the skulls in the tzompantli are no different from this flower, and are as beautiful in their own way."

I took a long, slow breath. "I am trying to understand, my lord. But the flower does not feel pain. The flower does not bleed."

Achcuatli nodded gravely. "And that is why the flower's death is not enough to feed the gods. Blood is needed."

I looked away. "What if you're wrong?"

He touched my hair. "Who are you to teach the Nahuatl about their own gods?" For a mercy, he sounded more amused than offended.

"A child of my mother's people," I said in a low tone. "Who lost a great gift because we did not understand the will of our god. One who has seen for herself that men try to shape the gods' will to serve them." I thought about Raphael de Mereliot. "One who did the same when she was young."

Achcuatli chuckled. "You are still young."

Without looking at him, I laid a finger on the tightly furled bud of an unopened dahlia blossom. Summoning the merest hint of the twilight, I exhaled softly and coaxed it to grow. It opened obligingly, its myriad petals unspiraling to reveal a crimson blossom with a yellow center.

Beside me, the Nahuatl Emperor drew a sharp breath.

I glanced up at him.

His eyes were narrowed. "What are you?"

"Myself," I said simply.

Beneath the thin veneer of stoicism, warring emotions crossed his mien. Without warning, he seized my face in his hands and kissed me hard, his tongue thrusting past my lips, the gold plug in his chin digging into mine. Just as quickly, he released me and took a step backward.

"I must think." Achcuatli beckoned to the entourage trailing us. "My servants will return you to your chamber. I may send for you tonight, or I may not."

I inclined my head, knowing he would.

Copyright © 2011 by Jacqueline Carey


Naamah's Blessing - Jacqueline Carey

- valashain
Naamah's Blessing

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