Chapter 16

Thalgiers was bright with excitement that evening as it celebrated both the victory at sonehold and the birth of the young prince. Noblemen and politicians, senators and soldiers alike crowded into the royal palace's great hall to attend the celebratory feast.

Stateley and bright, the entire hall was hung with banners, and in the right-hand corner of the room musicians played on hand-drum, pipe and lute, creating an atmosphere both festive and patriotic. Voices rose and fell in conversation and some in accordance with the delicate music that fled through the air unintrudingly. The alluring smells of Thalgierian spices mingled with the hum of the guests. Servants brought food by the platter to the gold-lined tables: dishes of elaborately prepared Thalgierian curry, fish, lobster and green herbs, accompanied by wines and goat's milk served in little golden saucers.

The company that had journeyed to Stonehold was seated at the table of the king and queen, with Evondre beside Mierposa and Adam beside Laertes. At its far was a vacent spot for Pieta and Virgil, neither of which had yet appeared. Evondre, dressed in a musklike purple dress, flitted about nervously.

"The minstrel Virgil, my lady." All at once a page boy appeared at the princess' elbow, leading the blind man by the hand. Evondre looked down at him, slightly startled.

"Is Pieta here yet?" Virgil asked, after bowing to the princess he could not see.

"She is not," said Evondre, "But she shoudl be here presently - oh, I see her!"

Far back at the doors of the hall, a little crooked figure, scarcely visible to Evondre's eyes, made its limping way towards the dining table. As it neared, Evondre could see that it was Pieta, dressed in the soft rose-colored garment she had been given. It was long, and she carried the train in her free hand; wiht the other she leaned upon her crutch. She had unbound her long dark hair, and it streamed over her bent back like a cascade of midnihgt. It had been twisted back at the front, and a few small flowers hung from the tihgt coils.

"She has dressed herself up for her minstrel," Evondre thought, and a sweet yet bitter realization flooded through her at the irrationality of it all, for the minstrel was blind to everything. Impulsively, she came forward and grasped Pieta's hand

"Before you take another step, I have news for you, Pieta," she said. Pieta looked up at her, surprised at her abrupt words.

"Adam has convinced Laertes to set you – and Virgil – free," Evondre said. Her lips pursed into a benevolent smile, they eventually broke into an awkward quiver as she said tearily, "I will miss you, dear – you were the closest to a sister I ever had – but you deserve to have your own life, you and your handsome minstrel."

Though she wished to respond, Pieta could find no words to say. Her dizzy mind wandered over the day Erden had found her. How forlorn and alone she had been – and how afraid of being her own mistress. The world was threatening and cruel in those days, and she had no defense against it. She, seeing this, had begged him not to set her free. Her life was so different now. Now she was offered freedom, and instead of running from it, she welcomed it with open arms. She lifted her eyes to Evondre's.

"My lady Evondre," she said, "the blessing of the gods be upon you."

"It already is," said Evondre. "I am an aunt now, and my nephew will distract me from my loneliness when I miss you."

"Please, my lady," Pieta cried, "don't say that! I am glad for my freedom, but I would not exchange my place with you for anything. If Virgil is working in the palace, I may as well work here too. I would not leave you."

Evondre smiled brightly, and without another word, the two girls met in a mutual embrace. Pieta, feeling joyous as a free woman, glanced across the wide room, so full of merriment and comradery. The only flaw to the assembly was the absence of Erden. Her wandering eyes did not stray far, however, till they reached Adam, who sat at the rear of the table, a goblet of wine in his hand. There, Pieta thought, sat a man she once thought hated her, the man who had rebuilt her life, and the man who had given her freedom. He stood as the musicians ceased to play, and her eyes remained fastened upon him as he spoke.

"Comrades and kin, protectors and patriots of Thalgiers," he began, "I will not devote my speech to elaborations and formalities. We have returned from a victory over a tyrant ruler, and scored but the first step in amending the damage he has caused." His eyes strayed, and unconsciously lingered upon Pieta's face a moment before he commenced. "The young king of Thalgiers has shown his strength, his integrity, and his mercy. We rejoice that such a king commands our country, and rejoice at the birth of his son, Lescaut, who continues the bloodline. But for victory Laertes did not fight alone. Brave men – and women," – his eyes scanned Mierposa, Evondre, and Pieta – "showed courage in their persistence. One man who displayed great loyalty in assisting us in our strategic plans was Erden Seamaster, who died in battle to free men in bondage like himself. And to his memory, and those who died alongside him, I propose a toast. To Erden!"

"To Erden!" the cry resounded, both reverent and enthusiastic. Pieta drank, and as the sweet wine touched her lips, she blessed Erden in her mind. Her onetime protector would have been joyous to know that she was no longer a slave, and no longer wished to be a slave. Freedom was sweet and not frightening.

She looked at the fuzzy-haired child in Mierposa's arms, and a strange, sudden instinct came over her.

"Please, may I hold him?" she asked, astounded at her own words once they were uttered. Mierposa looked at Laertes skeptically, but he smiled, and nodded at her.

Pieta took the child in her arms. How warm and soft and alive he was! His tiney nose twitched and she could feel the rythem of his gentle breathing as she pressed him her her breast. The vibrations reverberated through Pieta's arms and into her blood, sending a comfortable feeling of delihgt through her.

It was strange. In all her life Pieta had never held a baby – she was a dancing girl after all and not a nursemaid – and yet now, when she was suddenly handed this tiny newborn, she instinctively knew how to hold it, and it nestled into her arms and against her breast so perfectly. Charmed, she brought the child over to Virgil.

"Give me your hand, Virgil," she told him, careful not to reveal what she held. Curiously, he lifted his hand up. She took it and ran his fingers lightly, liltingly, over the baby's face.

He started in surprise, and then laughed. His hand, lifted from the child, found its way to her hair.

"Does it please you?" he asked simply. "Good."

Pieta smiled at this intimation, but her smile was weak.

"Virgil," she whispered, "You still have your voice, but I have not my feet. I will never dance for you like I used to."

"I would not see you anyway," Virgil replied. "Do you think that that mattered? Do you think you are not still my sparrow, my flower, my butterfly?"

"Butterfly," Pieta murmured. Her uplifted hand touched his warmly, and joyous tears welled up beneath her eyelids as she pressed her face against his neck. "Butterfly."