Prince Kian rode up with a spare horse. “Dame Riva, Captain Bastion, the trumpets!”
Bastion nodded to let Kian know that he understood. “We heard them. Riva won the point before they sang out.”
Kian grinned in response. “I’ll want to hear the details later but we need to get to the Palace as soon as we can.”
Bastion grabbed hold of the spare horse and pulled himself up before offering a hand to Riva to help her swing up to sit behind him. He could feel her trembling as she leaned into his back. She was very nervous. He nodded to the Prince once he was certain that they were set and the three of them took off for the Palace.
They reached the Palace gates just as Keara came running out to greet them. Riva slid off the horse and ran over to her cousin. “Lady Keara, any news?”
Keara shook her head, but was grinning wide. “They arrived just as the last round was getting good. Lord Neil watched the whole event with us. Father is about to chew on his chair, he’s so mad. I bet against him every time and now he owes me big.” She grinned wider. “Have no fear, though, even his fury is in good fun. He’s just a bad loser. We haven’t enjoyed anything like that in years.” She led the three through the Palace hallways towards the council chamber. “Lord Neil wished for everyone to be assembled before he would tell us one way or the other.”
Riva couldn’t stop her hands from shaking. “I’m so scared.”
Bastion reached out and took her hands in his as they reached the council chamber doors. “No matter what happens, Riva, I am not going to lose you. Not to your brother, not to anyone.”
She nodded and squeezed his hand, and then they opened the doors and entered the council chamber. The King and the delegation from Reis-Bohnen were waiting for them by the map table. They hurried forward to bow, first to the King and then to Lord Neil. Kian spoke first. “We got here as quickly as we could.”
Lord Neil nodded in agreement. “As I can see. Dame Riva still has leaves in her hair from running through the trees.” Riva flushed and ran a hand through her hair, dislodging several leaves and twigs that had gotten stuck. The nobleman smiled at her in sympathy. “Allow me first to congratulate the lady knight on a masterful victory.” Riva flushed a deeper red. “And so I can make an uncomfortable situation less so, my King has decided to keep the secret that hides in Castellan, so long as Castellan stands with Reis-Bohnen.”
Riva let out a quietly held breath. Close on that, though, her trembling strengthened as she realized that another nation had been put at risk for her dreams.
King Ainmire nodded. “We would stand with our neighbor and ally in any event. Know that your King has our gratitude.”
Lord Neil bowed to the King and then turned to Riva. “The young man who was your escort in the last round, who was he?”
“A streetling trainee, Lord Neil. His name is Brady and he is a friend of mine.”
Lord Neil blinked in surprise. “A streetling? I knew that the Order accepted children of the streets among their number. I was unaware, though, that the caliber of those so accepted was so high.”
Bastion took a step forward and bowed. “My Lord, I was just such a streetling, myself.”
The King nodded. “And Captain Bastion is the best that the Order has, though Dame Riva is his close rival for that honored position.”
Bastion bent his head in embarrassment and Riva flushed. Lord Neil nodded. “Would it be possible for me to meet this trainee?”
King Ainmire nodded. “Of course.” He glanced at Bastion. “Would you bring Trainee Brady here, Captain?”
Bastion nodded and then bowed and left quickly. In his absence, Riva felt her knees start to collapse under her and she leaned on the map table for support. Kian saw her and quickly stepped to her side. “Cousin?”
She smiled at him, though it was weak. “I’ll be alright. I just… I’m afraid every time he leaves that something will keep him from coming back.” She sighed. “I just wish I knew why I am so afraid.”
Lord Neil glanced over at the King, who also watched Riva’s face in concern. Then he addressed the Princess, who was now a Knight herself. “Could it be your dreams?”
“I don’t know. I’ve had so many of them, and they’ve all been different. The only things that stayed the same were Bastion, and my guardian from the North, locked in combat because my guardian did not wish for me to have Bastion.” She smiled. “And even Bastion changed aspect from dream to dream. He has even been a Pirate Captain.”
The doors opened and she looked up, immediately finding Bastion’s face and drawing strength from him. Once she was certain that he had returned she looked at Brady’s nervous face and smiled reassuringly at him.
Brady was very nervous. He bowed to the King, and then to the delegates. Bastion put a hand on his shoulder for support. “My King,” Bastion said, “the trainee, Brady, as you requested.”
King Ainmire nodded and then looked at Lord Neil. “This is the young man you asked about.”
Lord Neil bowed to the King and then turned to look at Brady for a long moment. “I was very impressed with your performance in today’s exercises, young man. It takes a great deal of courage to face a stronger opponent with no chance of success so that a greater goal is accomplished.”
Brady flushed as bright a red as Riva ever managed and bowed his head before the praise. “I am grateful for being noticed.”
“The reason I wished to see you for myself, young Brady,” Lord Neil continued, “was to ascertain for myself your quality. In life, and warfare, defeat does not mean a simple ten-minute break. Would you make the same sacrifice if it were your life that you would lose? And never know for certain if your goals were achieved?”
Brady managed to regain his natural color and sighed. He considered the question seriously, as was appropriate. “Riva has told us time and again that survival is important, that only if we survive can defeat become victory.”
Lord Neil blinked in surprise. “You call Dame Riva by name?”
Riva spoke up. “As one streetling to another, my Lord. He… he also knows the truth about me, for certain. Many here know, but only some know for certain.”
Brady nodded. “I overheard her speaking with Kodran. He’s a dwarf and the closest that we streetlings have to a father. I asked her to be our mother, and she has been.” He sighed. “Survival is the one goal that any streetling has. Riva has said that it is a good one. I think, though, for her, and for Castellan, if my death could buy her success, then I would give it. I wouldn’t give up; I would fight until I was taken down, in the hope that I could manage to survive, but I would not regret it if I did not.”
Lord Neil was thoughtful. “You have heard that Emperor Marus stands against Reis-Bohnen?”
Brady nodded. “Yes, my Lord, I have heard.” He paused. “It would be easy to simply tell him that his sister is in Castellan.” That Marus already knew where his sister was… was something of a secret held by those few who needed to know.
“But to do so would be to call him a liar, and to his face no less. It would excite his anger and he would attack us, a stronger opponent that we have no hope of defeating. What larger goal could we possibly seek?”
Brady met Riva’s eyes for a moment. “Castellan dreams. Castellan dreamers have always dreamed and struggled to save lives. Lady Zaira’s dreams gave her the chance to save the whole world.” He sighed. “As long as we have Castellan dreamers, then there is hope.”
Lord Neil nodded. “My King is of the same mind.” He turned to Riva and bowed. “Your dreams give us hope for the future, after this madness, after this conflagration.”
Riva nodded, her eyes sorrowful. “Each dream, each and every one of them, ended in hope and celebration. It was one of the reasons I dreaded waking.”
Lord Neil met her eyes and smiled. “For that hope we will commit ourselves to this gambit.”
— — —
There were ceremonies held, both in Reis-Bohnen and in Castellan, proclamations made of mutual support and alliance. Declarations were given that Castellan believed Reis-Bohnen’s protestations of innocence. Marus countered with military movements closer to the Reis-Bohnen border. Castellan sent soldiers to support Reis-Bohnen’s military.
Tensions grew in both kingdoms.
At Lord Neil’s request Riva was included in the military planning sessions, and she watched the planning with fascination. Marus had never given her any lessons in military strategy. All she knew was from other worlds where the conventional methods were sometimes wildly different. She was hesitant to make any suggestions, though she had the nagging feeling that Reis-Bohnen was doomed even more than Castellan.
Somehow Riva found time to make a trip into the city, to find Kodran. She had to speak to her dwarf-father. She found him in the back of his shop, tinkering with a device that he claimed would disguise voices. “Kodran-da.”
He looked up suddenly, concerned at the exhaustion in her voice. “Riva-girl?” He blinked twice. “You look awful.”
She smiled at his honesty. “I feel awful. It is madness in the Palace right now.”
“I heard that, Riva-girl. What brings you into the city this day?” He gestured to a nearby chair and watched her sink into it gratefully.
“A favor, Kodran-da. Not for me, but for Castellan. I need to know if the dwarves are willing to stand with us.”
Kodran sighed. “For myself, I would take on Emperor Marus in battle single-handedly, but the dwarves will not intervene in a human war, not unless we are directly threatened.”
She nodded. “I would not ask that of them. Marus must have no reason to distrust the dwarves, whatever they do out of his sight in the Undercity. No, Kodran-da, I do not wish to ask the dwarves to send their warriors to the surface. I wish to ask if they are willing to take the surface warriors into their dens, to hide them.”
Kodran blinked in surprise. “Riva-girl, what is your purpose?”
“Marus does not take prisoners, not without other reason. I have seen it in wargames when I was still in the Palace and he would not allow me to participate, for all that I was skilled enough. There will be battles and there will be survivors and there will be wounded. Marus must have every cause to believe that our military has been annihilated and is no longer a threat. I wish to preserve as many of the soldiers and Knights who are able to return to the city as possible, so that my brother does not execute them as potential traitors.”
Kodran thought for a long moment. “I will take your request to the clan, Riva-girl, Kodransdotter. I can promise no more than that.”
She nodded slowly. “Let me know what their answer is, Kodran-da, Castellan’s restoration may depend upon this.”
— — —
The posturing and the increasingly vehement declarations continued for two weeks and a few days.
Riva and Bastion were in yet another planning session, and two councilors were arguing over a troop placement when the doors burst open and everyone turned to look at a messenger, who staggered in, breathless and bloody. “My King, Lords, Reis-Bohnen is attacked. The Empire invades.” Then he collapsed to the floor, spent.
Bastion ran to the messenger and Riva tried to follow, but she was struck by a wave of dizziness. There was a buzzing in her mind, a growing phantom sound that grew until it pulsed in time with her blood. She grabbed at the table and was barely aware that Kian was at her side, keeping her on her feet.
She held her head, which felt as though it were about to explode at any moment. It hurt so much.
She wasn’t aware that she was screaming until the pain abruptly ceased in a single shouted command from the back of her mind. She collapsed against the table, oblivious to the way the whole room looked at her.
“Cousin, what is wrong?” Kian’s voice was afraid, for her she thought.
Bastion put the exhausted messenger into the care of a nearby guard and knelt next to Riva, putting his hands on either side of her head to make her meet his eyes. “Riva? Riva, what happened?”
“The Princeling… of Reis-Bohnen, how old is he?” Her voice was tired, but emphatic.
Lord Neil looked confused. “Dame Riva?” He was confused. The question sounded so odd, coming as it did after her screams of pain and collapse.
“I remember hearing about his birth, but I cannot remember how long ago it was. I think it was around the time I was taken into the Imperial household, but I’m not certain. How old is the boy?” She was emphatic. She needed to know.
“He celebrated eleven with the arrival of spring, why?”
She groaned. “Oh God, an Innocent on top of everything else.” She struggled to her feet, aided by Bastion and Kian. “My Lords, my King, I am commanded by a force I cannot disobey. I am to go into Reis-Bohnen and take the boy from his land, and bring him here, and guard him.”
There was a gasp of shock. The King blinked twice. “Commanded? Who would have the authority to command one of my Knights, if not myself?” He actually sounded angry. Well, nearly angry. He was definitely concerned.
She sighed. “It’s complicated, Majesty. It has to do with what I am. I must get the boy away from the Emperor’s path of destruction.”
Lord Neil nodded slowly. “You would do this personally? Place yourself at risk?” For some reason he felt warmed by her concern for his Prince. The boy was a good friend of his, despite the difference in their ages.
“I have to.” She sounded so tired.
He turned to look at King Ainmire. “Then I would request that your Majesty assign a Knight to retrieve and to guard my Prince, so that the royal line of Reis-Bohnen is not lost.” Honor must be addressed, and proper paths taken.
The King sighed and nodded slowly. “Dame Riva, will you do this for me, in Castellan’s name?”
“Yes, Majesty. It is an honor.”
Bastion spoke up from beside her. “Majesty, may I accompany her?” Eyes turned to look at him and he bowed before his King. “Two may succeed more easily than one, and I still remember the lesson of the games.”
The King nodded. “The two of you are the best that the Order has, it is fitting that you should work together for this goal.” For some reason, Bastion’s offer lifted his heart. He still hoped for a reason to celebrate, even in the midst of all this pain and worry.
Riva started to protest and Bastion silenced her with a single finger to her lips. “We have unfinished business. I am not going to allow you out of my sight until we have seen to it.” His words were not quite a promise, but they were close.
She nodded slowly, her heart fluttering slightly. “Very well. I… I’ll be glad to have you with me.”