Chapter 2

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On her way home, Maiel's battle with Mort replayed in a loop, intensifying her guilt. The blur of the sunset-hued city faded to watery tones. A quick pause and then the hills of Eden surrounded her. Maiel soon walked the edge of her garden. The cobalt armor ran like recoiling mercury into the penannular. The layers of pale yellow gown extended to her ankles. The device slipped to her shoulder, holding the garment in place, and returning to the shape of a small silver moon in a field of cobalt. Her hair, now freed from the helmet and braids, hung in long, soft curls. Her sour mood sharpened her ethereal features. Her presence in the White City would only allow the alders to corner her before she had her temper battened down. They would sense her weakness and use it.

Maiel moved slowly along the stepping-stone path, seemingly indifferent like a feline, but deliberate nonetheless. The tall ginger structure, reminiscent of a gothic home, towered at the center of the garden. It had been built to Dominic's design once she carried their first child. Now the house was a reliquary of their lives and a refuge from their mortal incarnations. The shadow it cast currently darkened that edge of the garden. The windows looked down on her, shining like polished sheets of hematite and reflecting the azure sky and tree line. The house stood as it always had, as did the garden, but something was changed. She felt it deeply. She eyed her surroundings, trying to pinpoint exactly what, but failed, and dismissed the sensation as residual energy from Mort. Energy affected Zion in odd ways, especially unpredictable forces in emotions.

The front door swung inward. From the dark interior of the house poured several children with small wings raised up on their backs and shouting with joy. They hurried down the steps, red and gold hair gleaming as their heads caught the sun peeking around the house. Their faces beamed enough to return the orb's favor. Maiel's heart leapt, revived by the cheery greeting. Five children in total danced around her, vying for her attention. She smiled at them, though the pain was still in her eyes, shame at her lack of discipline.

"Practicing again?" Maiel asked, gathering them all in a warm embrace.

The children quietly murmured or nodded in answer, accepting her affection. She was the center of Zion to them. They leaned against her until they all crumpled to the ground in a giggling pile of limbs. Maiel lay for a moment with them in the cool grass. The ground drew away the anger and shame. She was left with a knot in her stomach, a mix of remorse and affection, regret and love. The eldest-Ian-lay on her shoulder. His golden head received a quick kiss. Then she kissed another golden head-Samuel, her fourth child-on her other shoulder.

"You didn't give your janya trouble today, Ian-I hope," Maiel said sternly.

"No," the eldest replied.

"That's good. We both hate lectures."

Maiel lay in view of the warm sky, feeling cold. Her twin daughters, small copies of their amba, jumped up and danced about the yard. Their revelry overturned a mouse nest and the girls set to fixing their mistake, while being awed by the tiny pink young of the doe. Samuel and Ian joined them. Maiel sighed, sitting up to watch. The children had few cares but what their pitarau brought to them. The youngest remained, holding himself on her legs to keep her still. Little Michael squealed, tossing his golden curls and grinning wildly. He was as bold and brave as his namesake, her commander, General Mikhael. She gave the name to honor his faith in and favor of her. The others took to calling him Mikey.

"Half devil, the lot of you! Let's go inside. I've missed you." Maiel laughed and snatched up the toddler.

While she placed Mikey on her hip, Samuel raced over. He grabbed her free hand, always desperate to be acknowledged. The girls skipped around the peach roses and dark green shrubs, singing a rhyme. Maiel drew a deep breath and felt that she might forget what had happened by evening. Her children's joy lifted her spirits like nothing else. It was possible to fix the small bit of damage done. After all, Lena was secure, and all she needed was a rest and a quest or two to fix the damage.

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