Monthly Archives: March 2014

Arc Two Chapter Nineteen

Bannon strode from the Palace in a towering fury.  How dare that overgrown streetling humiliate him like that?  And over some streetling chit too, no less?  He was so angry that he almost didn’t see the man in strange clothing until he reached out a hand to catch his attention.

“You don’t seem the sort to run from a fight against that sort.  Not to me, at least, good Squire.”  The man had dark black hair and a tall hat and he wore the strangest sort of spectacles with small, round, dark lenses.

Bannon stiffened.  “And who would you be, to speak to me in such a manner?”

“Someone who might have the ability to help you get some of your proper respect back, if you have the courage to accept what I have to offer.”  The man paused.  “After all, a man wouldn’t take insults like that simply lying down.  A man would want to fight back, by any means necessary.”

Bannon thought about the situation for a moment.  “I do not trust you, nor your motives.”

The man shrugged.  “I would expect nothing less than distrust from one of your strength.  I would not even trust me without a great deal more familiarity.  If you wish to talk, or if you wish to learn what I have to teach you, simply ask for me in the Burning Vine.  I am known there.”

“And you are?”

“Lukan, Squire, I am called Lukan.”

— — —

Late that night, after most of the dancing was coming to an end, Kian stood on a balcony overlooking the city, deep in thoughts.  He wanted, more than anything, to help his cousin capture her Knight.  A Castellan dreamer meant hope for Castellan.  The daughters of Castellan always dreamed in times of trial and fear, but they dreamed so that Castellan would survive, and thrive.  They always dreamed of hope.

He didn’t notice Bastion’s presence at first, and when he did notice, he wasn’t certain how long the Captain had been standing, watching him look out over the city and into the night.

“Captain?”  Kian was concerned.  Bastion’s face had the strangest expression on it.

“I saw you speaking with her.”  He paused, struggling to get the words past a strange block in his throat.  “As I danced with your sister, I saw you walk up to her.  I saw the two of you talk.  You stood very close, spoke very low.”  He fell silent for a moment, trying to maintain composure.  “Please do not break her heart, my Prince.  I beg of you.”

Kian stared at Bastion, stunned, his mouth opening and closing soundlessly until he was able to recover his voice.  “Dear God, she was right.  You are completely clueless.”

Bastion straightened at the words, uncomprehending.  “My Prince?”

Kian sighed.  “Captain, her heart is safe from me.  I do not seek it, not as you seem to think.  She has already chosen someone, I think, and that one seems to be oblivious to her interest.”

Bastion’s face went tellingly blank.  He was angry.  “So you were not paying court to her?  You were speaking of this other man?”

Kian nodded.  “Yes, Captain, we were speaking of another man.”  He could not believe that Bastion could be so blindly ignorant of what was right in front of him and it made him slightly angry.  Perhaps he could be made to see…   “Apparently she’d been looking for him for years and what he has done to deserve such devotion, I am unaware.”

Bastion’s hand clenched slightly in anger.  “Who is he?  Who is this man?”  The thought of Riva seeking someone who ignored her, when she had already suffered so much heartbreak over her life as a Traveler… well, the thought made it difficult for him to maintain composure.

Kian restrained himself from throwing up his hands in frustration only by the narrowest of margins.  “If you are too blind to see, then I am not going to be the one to tell you.  Why don’t you ask her yourself?  Why don’t you ask her to tell you who stands in her heart and in her dreams?  Maybe she’ll tell you.  After all, you are her friend.”

Bastion remained still for a moment, trying to collect his thoughts.  Kian’s use of the word “dreams” carried with it a peculiar connotation, one that was specific to this world and he knew that Riva wasn’t from this world.  It was a conundrum that he wasn’t certain that he could solve and it stunned him out of the immediate rage.  “I…  I cannot ask her.”

Kian sighed and turned again to his consideration of the night sky over Castellan.  “Then you will have to puzzle this out yourself, Captain.  Trust me, everything you need to see is right in front of you, if you will only take the time to see it.”

After a moment more, Bastion bowed slightly to his Prince and departed and Kian bowed his head in frustration as he leaned against the railing at the edge of the balcony.  “Dear God, be with my cousin.  She will need You very much because the man You have chosen for her is an idiot.”

— — —

With the official start of the season, Bastion was kept very busy.  Quite a few nobles wished to learn the new style of dance.  He and Riva came very close to running in different circles for several days until Princess Keara insisted on the lessons which had been promised.  Riva joined her in her bower to give private lessons in the style to Keara and her maids, and a few gently born noble daughters as well.

It was actually quite a bit of fun.

It also gave Keara a chance to talk to her cousin, as they became more comfortable around each other and able to renew the friendship that was several years old.  And Keara was very hungry for news of the world outside the Palace.  Riva found herself telling her cousin about her flight from Pallantia, about the Pirate and his sister, about the Windborne, about Kodran and the streetlings, even about her fears and her dreams.

Keara was willing to be a listening ear, though some of what Riva said frightened her.  Riva had given up so much to be with the man of her dreams…  Keara was afraid to speak of her own dreams because she wasn’t sure she was strong enough to do what she had to do to find her Seer.  Wasn’t she grown up enough yet?

Dougal sat in a tavern in Pallantia, nursing a mug of ale.  He had managed to unearth stories of fascinating possibility, but he wasn’t certain that he was ready to return to Castellan.  His old friend would want information of more solidity than simply rumors of a fight in a marketplace.

He wasn’t expecting to see a young Pirate walk over and abruptly sit down opposite him at the table.  “I was told that I needed to talk to you.”

Dougal lifted an eyebrow.  “And you would be…?”

The young man nodded.  “My name is Dalziel.  I was told by a friend who calls himself Dramsol that you needed to hear what I have to say.”

Dougal blinked.  This Dramsol was the one who had informed him about the fight that he had observed on the last day that anyone in Pallantia had seen the Princess.  “Why would Dramsol send you to me?”

Dalziel, who was still a young man since Piracy was a young man’s vocation while the call of adventure still sang in the blood, sighed and pulled a collection of papers out of a bag after making certain that they were unobserved.  “I was hoping to take these to Lord Illian personally, but I cannot get through to him.  Dramsol said that you knew someone who would be interested in knowing where the Emperor would hide his sister and the best way to get her out of there.”

That made Dougal sit up and take notice.  “And you would know this how?”  He glanced at the papers and paled slightly in response to what he read.

“I already helped my sister escape and if the Princess is being held there then we don’t have much time to lose.  She’s been there too long already.”

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Arc Two Chapter Eighteen

The Fall Festival, signaling the start of the season in Castellan, was also one of the great celebration days.  Their own Princess Keara celebrated her adulthood, and that lent a special air to the laughter and the shouts of the children as they played in the streets.  Riva prepared for her entrance into the hall, trying not to look as nervous as she felt.  She was probably lucky.  Keara’s cousins to the North had sent gifts only, not a representative.  The last thing she wanted was for war to break out on Keara’s special day.

Bastion entered the room where she was preparing and smiled at her.  “Are you ready?”

She blew a shaky breath.  “I don’t even know why I’m so nervous.  It isn’t like I haven’t done this sort of thing before.”  But then, she hadn’t performed alongside the man she had come to love as intensely as she had.  Oh, she’d done more frightening things, like facing down a dragon and the madman who commanded it to save the land which had become her home and using magic in the process that she hadn’t even realized that she’d had or understood in the least, like killing a man to keep him from harming her sister, like killing a brother she adored to keep him from destroying a whole world in his madness, like walking away from the man she loved, a man she knew was going to turn and walk to his death once she was gone.  Dancing with the man of her dreams should be easy.  “Should be” wasn’t always.

“It’ll be perfect.  Don’t worry.”

She made herself grin at him.  “Nothing in life is ever perfect.  But we should do well enough that we’re the only ones who know how we flub up.”

There was a knock at the door and Bastion answered it to see Princess Keara waiting for them.  “It’s time.”

They nodded to her and then hurried out to make their entrance.

— — —

Kodran and his fellow dwarves had outdone themselves in creating the techno-magical device that produced the music for them.  Not only was it functional, with interchangeable crystals that stored memories, in this case the memory of music, but it was a beautiful creation to look at.  And being the first of its kind in all of Castellan, it was being given to the Princess Keara for her celebration.

Riva had to give Kodran credit for excellent marketing sense.

In point of fact, even the tune for the dance was created especially for them.  One of Kodran’s contacts knew a songster who was a touch more adaptable than the rest, and he had leapt at the chance for a true challenge in composition.  Riva had gone to him with samples of all the styles of music that she knew and he had lit in fevered inspiration, and created a song for them that had the rhythm and the beat they needed and yet sounded native to this medieval fantasy world.

The performance itself went off without a problem.  Noblemen and their ladies sat up and took notice, and no few eyebrows rose curiously at the new style of dance, at the energy of it, and at the fact that both Riva and Bastion were genuinely having fun on the dance floor.

No, there wasn’t a problem with the performance.  The problem came in once the performance was over and the two of them were bowing to their audience with gratitude for a thunderous response.

From the back of the room, a young nobleman came forward, his clapping more measured and somehow insulting.  As the room quieted he approached, his manner mocking.  Riva recognized his face; he was the ringleader of the squires who had attacked Alban.

She started forward to challenge him when Bastion grabbed her arm and pulled her back around him, putting himself between the two of them.  He faced the squire fearlessly, though he didn’t like the possibilities if matters got ugly.

The squire looked at them, folding his arms over his chest.  “I have to give you credit, Captain Bastion.”  He made the title an insult.  “When you show your true colors, you really show them.  Not only is she street trash, she’s young street trash.”  He shrugged.  “But then, so are you.  Street trash, that is.”

From the back of the room, Prince Kian started forward, to be held back by his father.  Keara’s hands shook, balling into fists.  Several other nobles stood in sudden anger at the slur against the man who was widely called the best that the Order had to offer.  Bastion simply stood firm, only his eyes lighting with fire.

“Are you implying something, young Squire?”  He kept his voice as bland as possible.

“I certainly hope so.  But then I suppose someone of your common background wouldn’t be capable of understanding subtlety.  I’m calling you a cradle-robber, Captain.  Your ‘dance’ partner,” his tone indicated doubt that dance was all that they did, “isn’t even of age yet.  Does her mother know where she is?”

Riva couldn’t remain silent any longer.  She even managed to keep her voice steady.  “Yes.  My mother knows precisely where I am.”  She could feel where the bracelet she wore was hidden beneath her sleeve.  It would be nothing to shake it loose so that it dropped below her cuff and then raise her arm to show all of them.  She so wanted to make him eat his words.

But she didn’t want to have to tell Bastion that she was his Princess in front of a crowd of this size.  She knew that if she had to be the one to tell him, if he didn’t figure it out for himself, then she wanted to tell him privately, where no one else could see them.

A large woman stood, then, and approached them.  Bastion saw her and took a step back, bowing to Lady Olwyn.  She nodded to him before turning to face the squire.  “You misjudge the Captain, youngling.”  She didn’t even dignify him by calling him by name.  There were no few giggles hidden behind fans.  “Probably because your own skills on the dance floor are decidedly lacking.”  The giggles grew more pronounced and the squire’s face mottled in anger.  “He has done nothing improper here, any more than you did at last season’s Festival when you left her Highness’ feet so bruised from stepping on them that she had to sit out three sets.  He merely seems to be good at what he does.”

The squire glared at Riva, somehow he blamed her specifically for this humiliation, and then stalked out of the room, to an almost audible exhale of relief.  Lady Olwyn turned to Bastion and Riva.  “May I congratulate you on a remarkable demonstration?”

Bastion bowed again to her.  “Thank you, Lady Olwyn, both for the compliment and for the timely intervention.”

She smiled.  “As entertaining as a duel would have been, this is not the time or the place for such.”  She paused.  “Though matters are quickly reaching the point where such might become necessary.  Those ruffians are an annoyance and a danger.”  She nodded to each of them and returned to her seat as dancers formed up for one of the latest sets.

Bastion led Riva over to the side so that she could watch while he walked up to Princess Keara to offer his arm and a chance to dance at her own celebration.  The musicians started up the music and Riva remembered all the celebrations that she and Illian had shared, even the one that had led to Jules’ death.  She felt a presence at her side and looked up at Kian.  For a moment she was scared.  She started to back away from him and he held up a hand to stop her.

“Wait, please, it’s alright.  I just wanted to talk with you…” he paused for a moment before lowering his voice, “Cousin.”

She leaned against the wall.  “I’m not going back to Pallantia.”

“I won’t tell if you don’t.  I just wanted to know why you didn’t stand up to that…  that churl.”  Riva was surprised at the genuine heat in Kian’s voice.  “You could have declared yourself.”

She shook her head slightly.  “And place Castellan at risk?  No, my brother must not hear that I am here.  He probably knows well enough where I have gone, and why I am here.  As long as he does not receive confirmation then he is likely to leave Castellan alone for the time being.”

“You will have to declare yourself eventually.  Not even your brother would allow you to remain absent from his court forever.”

“I know, but I’m hoping he figures out who I am on his own before I have to tell him.”

Kian was briefly confused, until he followed her gaze over to Captain Bastion, dancing beside Keara.  “He doesn’t know yet?”

“He is decidedly clueless.  I’m trying to drop hints as strongly as I dare, but he seems to keep missing them.  Maybe he’s like I was, afraid to admit that dreams could come true.”  She paused for a moment.  “I will remain a streetling of Castellan for the rest of my life if that is what it takes to stay near him.”

“And eventually your brother will send agents to either steal you back again or to cause the war you fear so that he may ride here at the head of an army and take you back himself.  You cannot hide forever.”

She sighed.  “I know.  Believe me, I know.”

— — —

Out of the corner of his eye, Bastion saw Kian speaking with Riva and his heart sank.  It wouldn’t be an improbable romance, such things had happened before.  After all, Lord Gryphon had been a streetling before he won the heart of the Ruling Princess of Castellan.  And what girl didn’t grow up dreaming of a handsome prince to sweep her off her feet?

Especially one who had gained the ability to travel to worlds where such things truly could happen?

Bastion came to a decision on that dance floor.  If his Prince sought the hand of a streetling maid then he would not come between them and he would wish them all the joy in the world.  So why did the thought hurt him so much?

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Arc Two Chapter Seventeen

Riva got to the dancing salle before Bastion did, which was all to the good.  She needed time to set up her little device, especially if she wanted to make a good impression.  She didn’t realize that she had been followed until Annie wormed her way between her arms to try to lick her face.

“Annie, now is not the time.”  She was insistent, licking her face and whining slightly.  She sighed and hugged her.  “I know.  I miss the baby, too.  But it’s probably for the best, baby girl.  There were moments… there were moments I would forget that he wasn’t mine… that he wasn’t mine to keep.”  A few tears fell.  She made herself sit up and wipe the tears away.  “I don’t have time for this.  I have to be lost in the music to make the best impression.  I can’t… I can’t be crying over the baby right now.”  She set Annie down and pushed her towards the wall.  “Stay there, and stay out from under my feet.”  Annie looked at her with curious puppy-eyes.  “Okay, you can watch all you like, but stay out from under my feet.”  Annie yipped as if in agreement and sat back, scratching at her collar.  She laughed softly at her and then quickly finished setting the small audio device to repeat a particular song.  If this didn’t get Bastion’s attention, nothing would.

— — —

Bastion found the salle where Riva had set up easily enough.  It was the only one there was sound coming from.  He just wasn’t expecting that particular type of sound to be resonating through the walls.  He certainly wasn’t expecting what he saw when he entered the room.

Riva was dancing.  But more than that, she was spear-dancing.  Somewhere between a kata or practice-routine and a performance, she moved with the spear like it was an extension of herself; thrust, sweep, pull back, leap, twirl.  She was a wonder to watch, beauty in motion.

And then he heard the song that she was dancing to and he almost swallowed his tongue.

Not only did he know this song, he knew the movie it came from, but that wasn’t what stunned him.  He hadn’t realized until this moment that this particular song was talking about Castellan dreams.  Dreaming of a hero, just out of reach, just beyond the horizon, a knight on a white horse.

For one blinding moment, Bastion wished that he dared walk up to her, take the spear from her hand, put his arms around her and kiss her.  He wished that she was his Princess, who had run from her brother to find him because of Castellan dreams.  But who was he that a Princess should dream of him?

The song drew to a close and Riva noticed him just as it started up again.  She smiled and walked over to a small crystal studded device set next to the wall, and knelt next to it.  She fiddled with it for a moment and the music stopped.  He walked over to her and took the spear, setting it down next to the wall as well.

“That was impressive.”  He never knew how he managed to keep his voice that bland.

She grinned at him.  “I got bored waiting for you.”

A small brown head looked up at them from beside the crystalline device and he smiled at the dog. “I see you brought a friend.”

“She follows me just about everywhere.  I’m kind of surprised that it took her this long to follow me up here.”  She looked up at him.  “So, have you decided what you wanted to do for a demonstration?”

“I’d rather not completely scandalize them.  They still have all the medieval conceits.”  Even as he said it, he felt a bit of disappointment.  The possibilities were intriguing.

She nodded, looking slightly disappointed, too.  “It would probably be best, I suppose.  I guess that means no Pasa Doble, no proper Tango, nothing excessively Latin.  The waltz is a bit tame, though.  I just…  I don’t want to be tame, if you know what I mean.”

He nodded.  “I do, actually, understand.”  He thought a moment.  “I’m not so much for the Big Band era, but perhaps a bit later than that.  Western Swing?”

She thought a moment and then grinned.  “I have just the song, too.”  She fiddled with the device for a moment and then it started producing music, an energetic, fiddle-based song glorifying the music of the South.  He nodded.  It had just the right rhythm, too.  She set it to repeat and they began to work on a routine.

— — —

Dalziel wanted to hit something.

Renna watched her brother from across the scarred and pitted wooden table in an anonymous tavern on the far side of the Southern Empire in concern.  In an effort to stay ahead of the Northern armies they had taken to flying and sailing through unfamiliar territory.  It had been exciting; it had been invigorating; it had left them out of communication with old friends for too long.

They had stopped in at the tavern for a meal and some gossip, hoping to hear news from Castellan.  Instead they had found a months-old proclamation from the Northern Empire and Dalziel had set to drinking with a determination that frightened his sister.

The Imperial Princess had been attacked in her chambers by assassins.  Her spirit broken by the attempt upon her life she had been secluded for her own safety.  But Dalziel knew better.  He knew that there was only one place the Emperor would have placed his precious sister, and Dalziel couldn’t simply stand by as a delicate girl was consigned to that place of torture and cruelty.

“He sent her to the Tower.”  Dalziel croaked the words out through a throat that burned with heartsick fear that any female would have to suffer as his sister had.

Renna sighed.  “She is not your concern.  Riva didn’t ask you to look to the protection of the Imperial Princess.”

“She didn’t have to.  She gave me something else.  And she told me who to take them to.  I can’t… I can’t just do nothing.  I don’t know the Princess and I probably never will, but I know what you went through, Renna, and I can’t let that happen to someone else.”  He looked up at his sister with pleading in his eyes.  He needed her to understand.  He needed her to agree.

Renna sighed.  “Very well.  I will see that the Windborne is outfitted for a journey North to Pallantia.”

— — —

The weeks passed quickly.

Riva and Bastion were just putting the finishing touches on their dance routine when he looked up in surprise towards the door of the salle.  “Highness?”

Riva turned towards the door and saw her cousin, Keara, standing hesitantly, looking at them.  The Castellan princess blushed and looked down.  “Please, Captain, please don’t stop.  That looks like so much fun.”

Bastion glanced at her and Riva went to the wall to reset the music while he walked quickly over to the Princess.  “How long have you been watching us?”

“Not long, Captain.  I was curious about your friend.”  She looked up at Riva and met her eyes, looking very uncomfortable and nervous.

Bastion looked at Riva and motioned to her to join them, which she did.  “Highness, this is Riva, she is one of Castellan’s streetlings associated with the Dwarf, Kodran.  Riva, this is the Princess, Lady Keara.”

Riva dropped a curtsey.  “Pleased to meet you, Highness.”

Keara felt that all this awkwardness was excruciatingly painful.  What she wanted to do was take her cousin back to her chambers, sit her down, and grill her for a couple hours about what it was like to walk freely down Castellan’s streets, and about what it was like to be in the same room with the man she dreamed of.  Keara was very interested in Castellan dreams.  “P-pleased to meet you, too.”  She looked back at Bastion.  “Are you going to demonstrate that at the Fall Festival the day after tomorrow?”

He nodded.  “Yes, Highness.”

“I celebrate seventeen at the Fall Festival.”  It was a momentous occasion for anyone.  Seventeen was the age of adulthood.  Riva suddenly remembered that she would celebrate sixteen, by the judgments of this world, only two months later.

Bastion smiled at the princess.  “I have not forgotten, Highness.”

Keara nodded, flushing red again.  “I- I had best leave you, then.”  She paused.  “When the Festival is done… could I learn to dance like that?”

Riva looked at Bastion in curiosity, and he looked back at her with an infinitesimal shrug.  Riva nodded.

Bastion turned back to the Princess.  “I see no reason why you couldn’t, Highness.”

After another moment of awkwardness, Keara left them to their practice.  She didn’t know why she had asked, it was just that, in her dreams the past night, she had been dancing in just that style with her Seer, and he had promised, yet again, to find her when she was grown.

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Discovering Things

I found some old friends again recently.

Life has a horrible tendency to get in the way of the relationships we care about most, particularly when those relationships exist solely through the fellowship and correspondence of the Internet.  I don’t make many friends In Real Life, but the ones I make through my participation online are no less real to me that anything I might find in this mundane existence.

They are my sisters; they are my family and my tribe.  Even if I am never able to meet them face to face, they matter to me.

And the fact that we all read the same comic book series helps.

I started reading ElfQuest back when I was in high school and I have been entranced by the world and what it says about how people can be different and yet equally valuable and valid at the same time.  Yes, Elves aren’t Humans.  But they don’t have to be.  And neither is really “better” than the other for being different.

When Suntop, as a mere five year old elf-child, said “I’ll be what I’ll be” it was a profoundly empowering moment, not just for him but for every reader who felt painfully pressured by this world and the expectations of those around us to be something that maybe we weren’t meant to be.  It was validation that being different wasn’t wrong; it wasn’t evil; it wasn’t some cosmic mistake perpetuated upon us by some force beyond our understanding or influence.

We, like Suntop, could be what we would be.  And that was alright.

ElfQuest allowed us to look at the assumptions of the world around us and understand that they were, in fact, assumptions and not cardinal truths.  That the circumstances of our births did not define us or our potential.  It’s a gift that I am still struggling to fully understand.

I’ve been somewhat active in the ElfQuest fandom online since… well, since there was one online, as I understand it.  I was a member of the listserv discussion group Equest-L back in the day, and joined the Scroll of Colors, the forum discussion group back when it was still unofficial.  The official discussion forum recently underwent a rather massive reincarnation of sorts and it’s bringing old members back in some cases while welcoming new members in.

So this is what is bringing me back into contact with some of the sisters that I’d lost contact with over the years for various reasons.  It’s not the only thing, but it’s one part of the cascade of reunions taking place.

There is a point to all this rambling, I promise, and it has to do with one of those sisters I’d lost contact with.  We called her Krwordgazer.  She, like me, was a writer and a storyteller within the fandom.  She, like me, was a Christian woman who felt something profoundly empowering in the elves and their outlook on life, even if she disagreed with some of the details.  But it’s like Kahvi said, in the stories, “differences make good sparks”.

Krwo was one of my first real “beta readers” back before I met the Mysterious Co-Writer.  She was my friend and my sister in a very real way.  We both came from backgrounds that were painful and difficult and we were struggling to find a sense of who we were intended to be in the face of what we were expected to be.  I have missed her presence in my life for a while now.

I mention this because I found her and at the same time I found the blog, Wordgazer’s Words, that she’s been writing for several years now and as I was reading through the posts there I found tears falling down my face because I agreed with her on so many points and I could see exactly what she was talking about.  I’m sure that there are things that we disagree on, but that’s because we’re different people and that’s okay.

She writes about Christianity and the socio-political aspects of it in relation to biblical teaching.  I write silly stories that are essentially soap operas that span time and space and alternate dimensions.  She’s still my sister, though, in all the ways that truly count and I am so glad to have her back in my life again.

So here’s a Wolfrider’s howl in honor of her and all that she is doing.  Because she’s my sister.  In Christ and in ElfQuest.

Ayooooooooooooh!

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Arc Two Chapter Sixteen

Bastion was walking through the Palace grounds on his way to the gates to the city when he was stopped by a matron of the court in full regalia, complete with a small, white lap dog on a silver leash.  “Captain Bastion, if I may have a moment of your time.”

Bastion had to smile when he saw Lady Olwyn.  She had an ageless soul and she wasn’t caught up in most of the nonsense that afflicted many nobles.  “My Lady, what may I do for you today?”  He bowed courteously.

“I wished to ask if you had any plans to conduct lessons this season.  Myself and several other ladies of the court would dearly love to see your particular style displayed at the Fall Festival in a few weeks.  My grandsons have been keeping in practice since your lessons of last year and would enjoy the challenge.”

Bastion quickly controlled the urge to sigh in frustration.  Of all the things… with everything else going on around him he had forgotten that the social season was coming up quickly.  Lady Olwyn was one of the pillars of the Court, and she happened to like him because he was the only one who could teach this particular style.  She happened to like anything new because it was so rare for her.

“To be honest with you, my Lady, I had not considered holding lessons.  Thoughts of the coming season have been pushed from my mind of late.”

A look of sympathy crossed her face.  He doubted that there was a single member of the court who didn’t know about his correspondence with the young sister of the Northern Emperor, and about his inability to help her in her seclusion.  It was one of those things that was discussed quietly, he supposed, over tea, but never openly where one not of Castellan could hear.  “I understand, Captain.”  Her voice was genuinely concerned.  “Perhaps the lessons would help lift your spirits?  Or, if not lessons, my grandsons are skilled enough with what you taught them last year to pass it on if they must, would you at least honor us with a display?  I am certain that you know more than you have taught anyone.”

“For that, Lady Olwyn, I would need a partner, one skilled and trained or at least a very quick study with a natural aptitude.  There is no one in all of Castellan…”  His voice faded suddenly as a thought struck him, one he hadn’t considered before.

She looked curiously at his face.  “Captain Bastion, is there aught wrong?”

“No, my Lady, there is not.  I just… I just thought of someone.”  He bowed to her. “If you will forgive me for a hasty departure, I need to find her.”

Lady Olwyn smiled behind her feathered fan.  “Of course, Captain Bastion, feel free to meet with me later on the subject.  I will be taking tea with my nieces this afternoon.”  As she watched him hurry away she wondered to himself if the rumors of a streetling romance were true.  She found that she didn’t know which direction she would place her bet in the quiet pool the ladies were currently building; whether the Northern Princess had Castellan dreams of the Knight-Captain, or whether he would find his true partner here in the city.  She looked down at her little Eileen and smiled.  “What do you think, sweetheart?” she asked the dog, “Do you think the Princess is already here?”  Eileen barked in response to the attention and Lady Olwyn bent to lift her into her arms.  “I agree.  I shall tell Lady Vivian that I am placing a hundred coins on the guess that the streetling is a Princess in disguise.”  They walked back into the Palace, the Lady quite pleased with her decision.  She was rarely wrong.

— — —

Bastion found Riva in the Undercity near Kodran’s shop.  She was going through some boxes and had found one of the little caps that she had used to dress the baby.  She looked up at him with tears in her eyes and his heart reached out to her.

“I keep looking around for him, but he’s not here.  I start to reach, to steady him as I do something,” she held her hands towards her belly, where the sling had set that had carried the baby against her, “and I realize that he’s gone and I can’t stop crying.”  She held the little cap in her hands and tears fell down her face.

He reached out and took her face in his hands, wiping away the tears.  “It is strange, for me, to see you without his presence, but I have to believe that this will get better.  Someday… I truly believe that someday you will have children of your own.  You will be a wonderful mother.”

She sniffled, trying to smile.  “Thank you.”  She paused, then, looking curious.  “What are you doing down here anyway?  I can’t imagine you came running all the way down here on the off chance that I was blubbering over the baby, who is probably quite happy where he is.”

He smiled.  “I had a question I needed to ask.  Riva, do you happen to know how to dance?”

She blinked in surprise and then choked on a laugh.  “Uhm, which style?”

It was his turn to blink in surprise.  “The one I’m asking about is Ballroom, actually.  Not the sets and group pieces they teach here, but the stuff from… from home.”

“Again, which style?  Actual Ballroom, or Latin?  Or perhaps something from the Big Band era?”

He blinked again in surprise.  “You have training?”

She grinned.  “I played Pop Princess a while back, before I came here, with two other girls.  We had the time of our lives and I was able to receive extensive training in several forms of dance.  I never quite got all the way to Ballet, wasn’t really interested in it, but I did manage to incorporate quite a bit of Tai Chi in the process.  It’s actually been a while since I did any sort of partner work, mostly what we did was a lot of strut and pose, but it was fun.”

He seemed to abruptly relax and sat down on a nearby crate.  “This is going to make things much easier.”  He took a deep breath.  “I’ve been teaching some of the nobles around here to Waltz.  It was easy, it looks good, and it was something they hadn’t seen before.  Needless to say, they loved it.”

“Where did you learn to waltz?  Didn’t you say you were thirteen when you came here?”  She looked surprised, but not entirely stunned.

He shrugged.  “You said that you were nineteen when you first Traveled and by your own admission you’ve got too many years in that backstory of yours for it, so how come you’re fifteen now?”

She nodded.  “Fair enough.  I was well over thirty when I got the knock on my door that started this whole mess, but I looked nineteen once I’d stepped through that gate.  How old were you when you left home?”

“Twenty-five, a couple years out of college.  Took a few classes on a bet from some teammates and found out that I was good at it.  Look, several of the ladies of the court have figured out that I know a lot more than I’m showing them and they have been after me to put on a demonstration, of sorts, generate more interest in this unusual form of dance.  In order to do that…”

“You need a partner you don’t have to train from the ground up.”

He nodded.  “There’s only one other person in all of Castellan that I would even consider dancing with, but she’s got two left feet anywhere except the battlefield.”  He didn’t add “or the bedroom”, that would have been inappropriate, not to mention crass, and crude, and altogether insulting.

Riva’s eyebrows rose in curiosity.  “So you thought of me.”

“Yes.  Would you be interested?”

She smiled, then.  “I think that would be delightful.  What sort of demonstration did you have in mind?”

“To be honest, I hadn’t considered that particular question, yet.  I don’t even know how we’re going to get music for this; the court musicians usually are strained to manage the flow of a waltz.”

Her smile extended into a grin.  “I think I can help with that.  I’m not called Songbird for nothing.”  Her mind started working quickly, if the crystals that the dwarves mined could be used to resonate and amplify sound…   “I’ll meet you up in the Palace, where did you want to practice?”

“There are some dancing salles in the training hall.  They aren’t used often, just when they’re taking trainees and squires through the most common set pieces.  We could use one of those.”

She nodded, and then her grin turned impish.  “One last question.  Do you want their eyebrows to rise in curiosity, or do you want their eyeballs to pop completely out?”

Bastion felt his heart thump uncomfortably as he realized just how extreme such a display could become.  And close on that was the realization that Riva was offering that extremity as an option.

— — —

Riva found Kodran in his workshop, tinkering with some crystals and resonating wire.  “Kodran, father of streetlings, I have a favor to ask.”

He looked up at her curiously.  “Riva-girl, you are rather formal today.  What seems to be the favor?”

She put her hands on the table, leaning over slightly so that her shoulders rose almost to her ears.  She looked devilishly mischievous.  “Bastion asked me if I wished to dance with him for a demonstration of just what dancing can be, in a style that he and I know but that is yet to be taught to others in Castellan.  I have agreed, but we have a slight issue about music.  The musicians here are not able to manage what we need them to do.  I need a device that can store sound and reproduce it, preferably at amplified volume and clarity.  I know that the crystalline structure can resonate, particularly with magical energy, is your technology capable of creating such a device?”

Kodran thought for all of about a minute.  “When would you need it?”

“I can probably rig something for practice, just so I don’t have to project it from myself.  My concentration’s going to be completely shot if this works.  But the energy requirements for the device that I have… are linked to me.  I have to actually wear it to charge it up and it only works for a couple of hours once separated from myself.  But if this demonstration works, then the music needed for the dance style is going to be in demand, and that means a demand for devices that can produce it, at least until the musicians start composing pieces of their own.  And even then, if a musician has the ability to create a copy of a performance and can then sell that copy to those who have devices that can reproduce it… ”

Kodran grinned at the mercantile possibilities.  “I knew there was a reason I liked you, Riva-girl.  Let me talk to my fellow dwarves.  If something can be built, we will manage it.”  He paused.  “I have an acquaintance at one of the taverns who heard you singing the other day.  Have you considered performing?”

She paused for a moment, thinking.  “Actually, yes, I have.  I’m rather busy at the moment, but I don’t see why I couldn’t see if I couldn’t work in a performance every once in a while.  Might even be fun.”  She thought a moment.  “I don’t know many of the locally popular songs though, so if you could get me some written copies of them, or something I could learn from, I would appreciate it.”

He nodded.  “I’ll let him know.  You do realize that this could eventually bring you to the attention of someone who has actually met the Imperial Princess.”

She sighed.  “It is a possibility, but as long as my brother is claiming that I’m in seclusion because of the strain resulting from an assassination attempt then there’s not much he can do to force anyone’s hand at the moment, unless he starts to claim that the sequestered sister was kidnapped.  I’ll try to keep a low profile and we can use the Songbird name, and maybe it won’t be an issue.  As long as it’s not shouted from the rooftops that Lady Dauris is singing in taverns, my brother might leave me be.  And if he doesn’t then I can start shouting from the rooftops myself.”

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Arc Two Chapter Fifteen

Unbeknownst to either Bastion or Riva, they were not unobserved as they sat and talked quietly along the edge of the gardens on the Palace grounds.  On the other side of a high wall not far away two young people were struggling to catch a peek over the bricks.

“Can you see them?”  Keara whispered up to her brother, who stood balanced on the stone bench that stood beside the wall.  He was stretched as far as he could reach on his toes.

“Almost.”  He sighed and settled down a bit on his feet.  “This isn’t going to work.  I’m going to need to actually climb up on the wall.”  He looked at his sister.  “I could always lift you up; you are lighter than I am and it would be almost nothing.”

Keara flushed in embarrassment.  “I… I’m scared to actually see them myself.  I need you to do this for me.”

Kian sighed.  “I don’t know why, little sister.  You can always ask the Captain to introduce you, or better yet, ask him to help show you around town.  You’re always asking about what things are like in town.”

Keara looked at him with wide, vulnerable eyes.  “Please, Kian, please, I need you to do this for me.”

Kian looked heavenward with a long-suffering sigh.  “Alright.  Goodness knows I’m as curious about the both of them as you are.”  He looked at the high wall again and took hold of it, scrambling up with both feet against the rough surface until he was looking over the wall to where Bastion and Riva were sitting.  His eyes widened and then he dropped back down to sit on the bench.

Keara almost fidgeted in curiosity.  “Well?”

Kian met her eyes.  “I saw them.  They’re talking.  They look very attached to each other, but our cousin has her hair covered.”  He paused.

“What is it, Kian?  What’s wrong?”  Keara was suddenly frightened.

He swallowed carefully.  “Keara, she was holding a baby, holding it like it was hers.  I think… I think it was hers.”

Keara’s eyes grew round.  “Father didn’t say anything about a baby.”

Kian nodded.  “I know.  So, do we talk to Father about this baby or do we go straight to the source?”

— — —

Marus was reading over some papers when a hesitant knock was heard on the door to his library.  In curiosity he walked to the door and opened it, and found one of his sister’s maids standing, nervous.  “Yes?”

“Excellency, I realize that the Lady Dauris has been sheltered for her own safety, and that we are not to speak of it, but I need to see her, if I may.”

Marus motioned the woman into the library and then closed the door behind her.  “What seems to be the matter?”

The woman seemed to hesitate slightly.  “I just need to see her, if I may.”

“You can trust me.  Please, what is the problem?”

The woman sighed and showed him a small, folded packet of paper.  “A letter arrived for her today, from her cousin, Lady Keara.  I was instructed to deliver all such letters directly to the Lady Dauris, so you see, I need to see her.”

Marus held out his hand.  “I will take the letter to my sister.”  After a moment of severe hesitation, the woman laid the letter in his hand and then curtseyed and fled.

When he was certain that she was gone, Marus carefully opened the packet.  The outside was, indeed, a letter from Keara to Dauris, talking about day-to-day occurrences in the Palace in Castellan.  Folded inside, though, was a simple page written in a very different hand.

My Princess,

Yes.

Command me.

Your Knight

Marus smiled to himself as he read the words.  A month had gone by already since Dauris ran away.  The courtiers were starting to make pointed observations about her absence.  It was time.

— — —

Bastion carried a copy of the proclamation crumpled in his hand.  He just had to walk.  He had to get away from the Palace.  Away from the sympathetic eyes, away from all his fellow knights and Captains who knew about him, and about his Princess, before another one asked if he was alright and he lost control of himself.

Before he knew where he was, he was walking into Kodran’s shop and asking for Riva.  He found her in the back rooms, a small dog sitting in her lap, looking up at her face with a worried expression.  It took him a moment to realize that she was crying.  It took him only a moment more to realize that she wasn’t holding the baby.

“Riva?”  He sat down next to her.  “Riva, what happened to the baby?”  He was afraid to ask, afraid that he knew the answer, and it would just put the perfect cap to a perfectly awful day.

“K-kodran found him a home.  I-I helped him g-get settled a-and then I h-had to come b-back without him.”  She burst into great sobs and he pulled her into his arms with a sigh.  “H-he started crying a-and it hurt so much…”  She’d heard in his infant voice the cries of every child she’d ever carried and had stolen from her arms, every babe and kitten she’d lost because of the villainy of men, and worse, throughout her long life.

“Looks like we both have had rotten days today.”  He let her cry even as the dog fell off her lap with a surprised expression.  He watched the little animal sniff at him curiously and then wander off to curl up in a corner.  Even seeing the dog reminded him of his Princess, and her little delivery girl.  He wished that he could cry out his frustration and his helplessness, too.

“W-what happened t-to you?”  Even in her own grief she reached out to him.

With a sigh he showed her the proclamation.  “There’s a Princess.  She means a great deal to me.  We’ve been writing letters to each other for several years.  The last letter I got from her made me worried, but then we get this.  My reply should have reached her just before this was announced.”

Riva wiped her eyes so that she could see clearly, leaving smudges on her cheeks.  “An attack?  She’s gone into seclusion?”  There was a pause and he could hear the incredulous rise in her voice.  “A nervous breakdown??”  She turned to look him in the eyes.  “Tell me this isn’t for real.”

Some part of himself wanted to laugh.  Her reaction was so different from the ones in the Palace.  “Her brother is very protective.  I do not know that it would be a willing seclusion.”

“No, I mean you and her.  So this is why some of the knights were always making comments about you having a princess somewhere.”  She sniffled a moment.  “Tell me about her.”

“She… she’s strong, strong enough to defy her brother and write to me, if only in secret.  My brother Gabriel was assigned to be her guardian.  I promised to keep her secrets, so there’s not much I feel comfortable telling you.”

“Do you still have her letters?”  Her own interest in the answer surprised her.

“Yes.  Each and every one of them.”

“Could I read them?”  There was a touch of impishness to her voice.

He did laugh this time.  “No, you may not read them.”

Riva felt a thrill in her heart at how much he protected the letters.  He kept them and he protected them, even though he didn’t know that she was his Princess.  Then she sobered.  “Does the King know?  About your princess and the proclamation.”

He nodded.  “Yes.  I received this copy directly from him.  He said…” For a moment Bastion’s voice failed him, “he said that I had to be patient.”  He hit the floor in frustration.  “I don’t want to be patient.  I want to fly there and charge into wherever they’ve got her locked away and… and…”

“And get yourself killed if you aren’t careful.”  The matter-of-factness in her voice brought him back to his senses.  “You can’t go running off into the wild blue yonder without knowing precisely where you are going and what you can expect when you get there.”

He sighed.  “I know.  I just feel so helpless…”

She reached up and put her hands on either side of his face.  “I can imagine how difficult this is for you.  I’m usually the one running right into the chaos I wasn’t expecting when a friend is in danger.  What did the king tell you to do?”

“Wait.  Wait to see if she contacts me.  Wait to see if he can learn anything about where she might be.”  He was so frustrated with waiting.  It didn’t help that the King had told him that with a hint of something behind his voice that sounded almost like humor.  He knew better than to suspect the King would find the situation funny; this was his niece, the daughter of his sister.

She sat up on her knees and pulled him forward to rest his head on her shoulder.  “Then we will wait, but you don’t have to do this alone.” She held him, rocking him softly, and whispered, “I’m here.  I’m right here.”  She wanted to tell him, ached to just spill out the truth so that he didn’t have to worry anymore… but she didn’t know who else could hear them and she was afraid of the repercussions.

She was glad, though, for a fiercely painful moment, that of all her secrets she had entrusted to him in those letters, she had never told him about her darkest days, about the horrors she had suffered and endured across lifetimes.  If he had known… if he’d had any idea of what her “brothers” had been capable of doing to her in other places… he’d already be flying to Pallantia and not even his King would have been able to stop him.

She didn’t want him to fear for her suffering that ever again and she promised herself that if, by some circumstance, he found out then she’d tell him the truth that very moment.  Some secrets are too serious to be kept.

Bastion wrapped his arms around her waist and willed himself to accept the comfort she offered.  He wished he had the courage to ask her to be more than simply his friend, but he had his Princess to worry about, and his Princess meant the world to him.

— — —

Bastion found Dougal outside the tavern where they met.  Dougal looked up at him in surprise.  “What’s wrong, old friend?”

“I need you to do something for me, if you are amenable.”  Bastion didn’t like going around the King like this, but there were things that former streetlings could do that agents of the King could not.

Dougal looked curiously at him.  “This have to do with that Princess of yours?”  He’d always found the Knight-Captain’s correspondent to be an interesting side of his personality.

Bastion nodded.  “How good are the contacts you have up North?”  He glanced around to be certain that they weren’t being observed.

Dougal thought a moment.  “I don’t know.  Might have to make a personal visit out of it.  What do you need to know?”

“I need to know anything you can get for me about the Imperial Princess, Lady Dauris, where she was seen last, what she was saying, what she was doing, who she was with, anything you can get for me.  I also need to know the likeliest places that her brother would have placed her in order to maintain security.  She would not still be in the Palace proper, that is for certain.”

Dougal nodded.  “It may take a while, you know that.  It could take several months.”  Several months away from Castellan, away from his friends, away from everything.

Bastion sighed.  “I have no choice.  I cannot leave to do this myself.  I have no choice but to be patient.”  That didn’t mean that he had to like it.

After a moment Dougal nodded and offered his hand to his friend.  “Alright.  Keep my chair open for me.  And if you need another sword for a rescue…”

Bastion actually surprised himself by chuckling.  “It may yet come to that, old friend.  That is why I need to know what the situation is, before I go in with my sword drawn.”

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Arc Two Chapter Fourteen

Bastion and Riva stood in one of the training salles.  “Just how much training have you had?” he asked.

She shrugged.  “I don’t know that you would understand it.  Several lifetimes, a dozen styles at least, as many weapons as can be imagined.  I’m not exactly in top form at the moment, though, so you might be able to keep up.”  She unslung the bag from her chest, careful not to disturb the sleeping infant and gently set him in one corner, out of immediate danger and then she made sure that he was protected from above by a bench.

He looked concerned at her statements, though.  “Not in top form?  What happened?”

They were alone in the salle, though the walls were covered in various weapons and a few weapon stands were placed on the edges of the room, interspersed with benches.  Ringed around the top of the room was an open corridor, a balcony for observers on all four sides.  “Oh,” she said, “I was an idiot when I was learning all the neat little tricks and stunts that made some of those battles a blast to watch.  You’ll never forget the first time that you realize that you spent more of that swordfight in midair than standing on anything.  I tied everything to my Traveler gifts forgetting that sometimes they go haywire for no apparent reason.”

“So you can’t…?”

She shook her head.  “Completely shut down.  Ears stopped up and everything.  I managed to unstick some of the illusion skills, visual and audible, but other than that I’m as mundane as the next person.  Well… other than the fact that I’m not entirely human and still enhanced because of it, but that’s a complicated mess if there ever was one.  What about you?”

“I don’t know yet.  I’ll explain later.”  He grabbed a couple swords from a nearby stand and offered the hilt of one over his arm to her.  “Why don’t we see who has more of a problem keeping up with whom?”

She grinned and accepted the sword.

— — —

Word of the duel spread quickly.  Brady was with several other trainees, getting acquainted, when someone grabbed the edge of the door and poked his head in the room, breathless with excitement.  “Captain Bastion’s in the forward training salle with a streetling girl and she’s actually keeping up with him!”

Several jaws dropped and Brady looked confused.  “Is he really that good?”

“You don’t know?  He’s the best!”  There was more than a touch of hero-worship in the boy’s voice.

The room quickly emptied and Brady followed along with the others as they ran to see if they could catch a peek in the room from one of the balconies above it.  By the time they got there, the balconies were packed.  He looked down and saw Bastion and Riva and was stunned silent.

He had no idea that Riva could fight like that.  It was more a dance than a battle.

Even in the concentration of battle, and it wasn’t like they were going full out after each other, Riva noticed the crowd that had gathered above them.  “Hey, Bastion, see if you know this line.”  She asked him when their blows brought them close to each other.  “Morpheus and Neo are fighting.”

Bastion laughed.  He knew the line and he knew the situation.  “But which of us is which?”  He disarmed her and she quickly grabbed another available weapon from the wall and switched styles to match.  He nodded in appreciation.

“I haven’t a clue.”  She deftly disarmed him, forcing him to seek a replacement.

They traded back and forth for a while, finding as much enjoyment in the activity as those watching above.  It was almost an intellectual exercise for them, testing how many ways they could use the weapons around them.  Eventually though, Riva pushed herself a touch too far, and tumbled to the ground, having twisted her ankle.  They came to a standstill with Bastion’s weapon at her throat.

He started to grin at her until she tapped him on the inside of the thigh with the flat of her knife.  She’d almost forgotten that she was wearing it and had drawn it out of instinct.  He might have gotten her, but she’d have made sure that he’d never sing bass again.  He looked down at the knife blade and nodded.

He backed off and she resheathed the blade.  She sat there a moment, trying to catch her breath.  “You were holding back.”

“So were you, until the last.”  He reached a hand out to help her up.  “Are you going to be alright?”

She laughed at herself.  “Yeah, happens with astonishing frequency.  I’ll limp for a couple hours and then be perfectly alright, until it happens again.”

Their audience gradually dissipated and Bastion helped her over to one of the benches and then brought her the baby who had started fussing.  She pulled a bottle out of a pocket on the side of the carrier and began to feed him with a gentle touch that spoke of experience.  He had to smile, watching her with the baby.

He didn’t know when it happened, but somehow they had become friends, and he was glad.  He just wished that he had the right to ask her if they might be more than that.  He wished, again, that Riva could be his Princess.  That would make everything right.

— — —

Brady wasn’t sure he liked what he was seeing.

The squires who had beaten Alban hadn’t been on the Palace grounds when news of the fight between Bastion and Riva had run like wildfire.  They had been out in the city seeking new targets, and not finding them.  Kodran had ordered all of his streetlings to avoid the four if at all possible, and to see that as many of the unaffiliated were warned as they could reach.  They’d actually managed to reach quite a few.

But now the squires were back, and from the very quiet mutters Brady was hearing from his companions, he wasn’t the only one who wasn’t happy about matters.  It seemed that they had an unsavory reputation even here.  They glanced at Brady, but he was safely surrounded by other trainees.  He quietly resolved to never be alone if he could help it.  The last thing he needed was to get into a fight with senior students.

Unfortunately, though, there was one boy who was without companions, the younger son of a nobleman.  Kenneth hadn’t really reached out to any of them yet, but they thought that it was simply a matter of shyness, that given time he would relax.  Brady wasn’t certain, though, he’d seen that kind of shyness before in streetlings.  He suspected that the boy judged himself unworthy of friends.

Until the squires approached Kenneth, letting him follow them around for a while, and Brady began to understand just how dangerous matters could become.  The squires were recruiting, and their views on streetling knights were well known.

But what could Brady do?  He was new here, and all the new trainees were being run to exhaustion.  He warned his companions and kept an eye out for Riva.  If he could warn her, then she might be able to get the warning to the Knights-Captain, and they might be able to do something before factions erupted in the Order that could destroy everything that Lady Arie and Lord Tertius had built.

— — —

Riva balanced on a low wall, walking beside Bastion as he showed her the Palace grounds.  “Well,” she said, “I know one movie you are familiar with.  Where were you when the world stopped turning?”

“I don’t know that one.”

She sighed.  “So either you missed it or your particular Earth Prime didn’t have one… or you just don’t know the event by that term.  It was the day the towers fell in New York City.  Any Earth Prime connected to the history of the primary one changed irrevocably that day.”

“What about you?”

“I was there for it.  Was playing a videogame when I got the call that the first tower had been hit.  I remember thinking that it was a horrible tragedy.  Then… then my husband called to tell me that the second tower was hit and I knew it wasn’t an accident anymore.”  She took a deep breath.  “Lost him in an accident almost ten years later.  Couple of years after that I got a military escort to a dig site and found… well, found a doorway that only I could open.  I walked through and never looked back.”

“Never?”

“Nope.  Can’t really break that boundary anymore.  It’s complicated, but I’m on this side of the gate now, so I’ve got to deal with the here and now as best I can.”

“Did you leave family behind?”

“Not as many as there would have been if I’d crossed the boundary when the Towers fell.  Last couple of years before I left were filled with more funerals than a Greek Tragedy.  By the time the escort found me… I was pretty well alone other than my dog.  You?”

“Just my brothers.  Mom and Dad died.  It was an accident.  That was where I acquired my distinctive scar.”  He sighed in old grief.

“You will have the option to return, if you want.  Traveler powers don’t stay sealed forever.  Eventually I’ll unstick mine and I can help you go home, if you want.  Or we’ll run into an active Traveler at some point and they can help you get there.”

Bastion was silent for a long moment.  “I had never considered finding a way back.  After I arrived here all I wanted was to go home.  But eventually I adjusted to this world.  I have responsibilities here, obligations.”

Riva sighed.  “Obligations can only get you so far.  Eventually you have to decide if the drain on yourself is worth it.  It is always much more preferable to do something because you want to do it.  You mentioned brothers?”

“Yes, one is my twin, Gabriel.  He is in the Northern Empire.  He and I do not have a positive relationship.”  Oh, that was putting matters very mildly.  “The other is much younger than we are, Justin.  I don’t… I don’t know where Justin is, whether he came here with us or whether he was left behind, alone.”  Bastion paused.  “If I thought that Justin was alone and frightened, I would do anything to return to him.”

“Obligation?”

“He’s my brother.”  Bastion was silent for a moment.  “Would you ever go back?”

She sighed.  “If I could?  If I could find that gateway and pass back through it?  I don’t know.  I didn’t have much in the way of family or friends left, though I had something of a developing career as a writer.  Still, if any of my friends needed me, then I’d find my way to them no matter the conditions.  For me, family is more a matter of my choices.  I have chosen brothers and sisters, and even parents.  For them I would go running, if I could.  Right now, I can’t.”  She looked down at the baby she carried, still in his pouch.  “For this little one I would do much.”  For the sake of all those babes she hadn’t been able to save, she’d give her life to make sure this one lived happy and free.

They came to the end of the wall and Riva carefully sat down on it, looking around at the Palace grounds.  They were silent for a while and Bastion wasn’t sure what questions he wanted to ask and which ones were better left unasked.

Riva sighed.  “I don’t abandon that which I care about, especially when there are people involved.  I have a distressing tendency to hold on to them with both hands and I don’t want to let go, ever, for any reason.”  Bastion looked over at her and realized that there were tears rolling down her face.  “I’ve lost too many friends already, lost too many loves.  Some of them… a few times I nearly followed them to the grave out of grief.  It’s made me afraid to bond that deeply… but I don’t know if I can stop myself from doing it anyway.”

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Arc Two Chapter Thirteen

By the next day, Alban was sitting up again and laughing with his friends and every streetling knew that the Knight-Captain had been able to help him.  Quite a few also knew that he had helped Alban because Riva had asked him to.  Brady took the entrance tests for entering training with the knights in the morning, and passed them.

Riva had to smile when she saw him in the uniform of a trainee.  He looked different.  They managed to find a bare moment to speak before he left to join the others in seeing to their placements in the Palace grounds.

“Thank him, for me, when you see him.” Brady told her.  They both knew who he spoke of.

She nodded.  “Of course.”

“Do you love him?”  There was an odd catch in his voice.

She sighed.  Love was such a complicated thing for her.  “I don’t know, Brady.  Love is… love is never simple, or straightforward, and I am complicated beyond what you can possibly understand.  I trust him, completely.  I… I ache for his presence at my side.  He’s in my dreams… but he’s not the only one and I do not know that I have the right to seek anything more than friendship with him.  For now, it is enough that I can see him, speak with him.”

“When will you tell him?  About who you used to be?”

“I don’t know.  I’d like to see how long it takes him to figure it out.”  She looked around.  The other trainees were starting to leave.  “You better get going, Brady.  See you around?”

He nodded.  “I’ll see you around, though it may be a while.”  He took a few steps away, then turned and waved to her, and ran to catch up with the others.

She watched him run off and almost didn’t notice Bastion’s approach behind her.  “Riva,” he said by way of letting her know that he was there, “I saw you watching the trials.”

She nodded, turning to face him.  “Brady was one of Kodran’s.  I wanted to see him on his way.  He’s the one who asked me if I would be a mother to the streetlings.”  As she turned Bastion could see a large pouch strapped across her chest, and nestled inside it was the foundling infant.

Bastion smiled at the sleeping child and then forced himself to look Riva in the face.  There was something he had to know.  He hadn’t heard the conversation, but he had seen them standing and talking, and was afraid of misinterpreting what he had seen.  “Is he… is he important to you?”

She blinked in surprise at the question.  “Brady is…” Dear God in Heaven, why was Bastion acting like he was worried about Brady?  Surely he didn’t think… oh, who was she kidding, he probably did.  “Brady is a friend, and a fellow streetling.  His acceptance of me was unquestioning once Kodran had vouched for me, and for that I am grateful.  He is the one who found Alban, and he wanted me to thank you for him, for what you did for Alban.”  She paused.  “But he is only a friend, if that is your concern.  My life is more than a bit complicated for much more than that.” 

Okay, so maybe that wasn’t exactly true… but she didn’t want to have to explain about losing all the men she’d ever loved.  Didn’t want to have to explain about Cearnach, about Nebby… about Kenshin, who still caused her heart to squeeze with confusion.  And great Heavens above, she didn’t want to have to explain about Simon.  Hell, her unfinished business with Kenshin was simple and straightforward compared to the knotwork that was her history with Simon.

He blinked as he understood what she was saying.  He nodded, and decided to change the subject.  “Since you are here, already, if you do not mind, there is someone who wishes to meet with you.”

“Who would that be?”  Her brows furrowed in concern.

“The King, privately.”  He expected some nervousness.  He wasn’t expecting to see her turn bloodless white and tremble with abject terror.  “What’s wrong?”

She wrapped her arms around the warm bundle of the baby who was sleeping in the bag against her chest.  Her eyes were wide and vulnerable as she looked up at Bastion.  “Do I have to?”

Now he was very concerned.  “He has asked to speak with you himself.  Riva, what is the matter?”

Gradually color came back to her face and she stopped trembling, but she was still very pale and she bit her lip in nervousness.  “It is… it is nothing.”  She took a deep breath to steady herself.  “I’ll be alright.  Does he need to see me right away?”

“If you are amenable.  Are you certain that you will be all right?”

She nodded.  “Lead on, Sir Knight.”  She smiled as she said it, and he had to return the smile.

But even he knew that something was wrong.

— — —

Riva kept her eyes down as they entered the library where the King, her Uncle, waited for them.  She was terrified, but she knew one thing for certain, she was not going back to Pallantia.  She just… she didn’t want to leave Bastion behind if she had to run again.

The warmth and the weight of the baby in his carrier comforted her as she walked behind Bastion.  She was not looking forward to the day that Kodran was able to find parents for the little one, but she knew that the day would come.

Bastion saluted his king, who was sitting at a table, reading some papers and proclamations.  “Your majesty, as you asked, I have brought the streetling, Riva.”

Bastion wasn’t prepared for the way that his King stood when he saw the girl, with her arms wrapped around the bundle strapped to her chest.  He glanced at the Knight.  “You didn’t tell me about the baby.”

He frowned in confusion.  “A foundling that Kodran is still seeking to place.”

King Ainmire nodded then and walked over to where Riva stood, nervous, her eyes downcast.  He very carefully took her chin and lifted her face.  “Do not fear me,” he said.  “I need to see you with my own eyes.”

“You place Castellan at risk if you do.”  Her voice was soft, but edged in hardness.

“That is my risk to take.”  He met her eyes and sighed.  “As I thought.  You are training the streetlings on your own?”

“Kodran is providing the materials, the sticks and such, but I am training them, yes.”

“And this is for purposes loyal to Castellan?  Loyal to me?”

“Yes, Majesty.  I am one of Castellan’s streetlings, too.”

He let her go, then, and took a step back.  “You need never have any fear of me, streetling Riva.  If the nobles come to me about this, I will tell them that it is with my blessing.  In the meantime, if you will indulge an old man,” he turned to Bastion, “Captain, I would like for you to assist her in training the streetlings to stand and assist our soldiers in the defense of Castellan.  I would also like for her to be made known to the Palace guards, so that she may come and go as she pleases.  If she has the skills to instruct streetlings, then she might also have the skills to assist you in your duties here, if you wish.  See that she is tested, will you?”

Bastion saluted again.  “Yes, Majesty.”

“Very well, you may go now.”  He turned back to his paperwork and the two left.

Once outside the door, Bastion looked at Riva curiously.  “What just happened?”

She forced herself to shrug nonchalantly.  “Who knows why royalty does anything?”

— — —

King Ainmire was still trembling when his son and daughter entered the library after Bastion and Riva left.  Kian looked curiously at him while Keara ran to his side.  “Father?  Father, why are you so pale?”

He smiled at the two of them.  “Your cousin is in Castellan.”

Kian’s eyes widened and Keara clapped for joy.  “Does Captain Bastion know?” she asked.

King Ainmire smiled.  “That is complicated, my daughter.  He does not know that she is the Lady Dauris.  She has come to us as a streetling.”

Kian chuckled.  “She ran, then.  But there hasn’t been time for the Captain’s response to her last letter to have reached her.  When did she run?”

The King shrugged.  “I do not know.  I can tell you that they met on the street the very day that he received her letter.  He was seeing his response on its way when they found each other.”

Keara’s hands flew to her mouth.  “But that means that his response will reach Pallantia and there won’t be anyone to receive it.  What if… what if her brother finds it?”

“But if she’s already here,” Kian said, “then he can’t lock her up to keep her from running.”

The King looked at his seventeen-year-old son and his sixteen-year-old daughter.  Were they old enough for all the strain that their position entailed?  They had to be.  “He can try to make us return her to him.  We must make no public notice of her, not as the Lady Dauris.  She is a streetling of Castellan, as per her statement.  She… she is aware of the pressure that can be brought to bear.  She did not wish for me to see her, to know that the streetling Riva was my niece.”

Kian was the first to nod his acceptance of the conditions.  “Very well.”

Keara, though, was thoughtful.  “She has her mother’s bracelet.”  They looked at her in surprise.  “She told me about it when we were in Pallantia.  She would not have left without it.  Aunt Grainne gave it to her to be proof of her name and nature, to be a bridge back.”

The King looked at his children.  “This must be kept only between us three.  Until the day your cousin declares herself, no one else must know about her.”

Slowly, the Prince and Princess nodded their acceptance.

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