Castellan Dreams Traveler

Arc Four Chapter Two

Queen Eilinor of Reis-Bohnen quietly wiped a tear from her cheek before it could drop onto her needlework. She wasn’t making much progress on the piece. In all likelihood it would remain forever unfinished, but it gave her something to focus on, other than her worries about her nation, her people, and her family. And she was very worried. Armies from the Empire, led by Emperor Marus, were only days away from the city. Marus had proven to be an able commander and she had no doubt that the soldiers her husband led would not be able to stand against him for long. There was no longer any doubt in her mind that the city, and the kingdom, would fall before the Empire’s military might.

Her eyes started to cloud with another tear and she smothered a sob of fear. What would happen to her son? She knew her husband; he would give his life with his men in the field. He would die with the land they both loved so much, but her son, he was only a child. What would happen to her son at the hands of Emperor Marus? Would Marus make him a puppet Ruling Prince? Would he simply kill the boy so that no true leader of Reis-Bohnen could ever rise up against him? If she could purchase his survival with her own life, she would do so. He was the only child she had borne her husband who had survived this long.

She looked up from the needlework to give her eyes a chance to clear and saw the stranger standing in her bower and started to scream.

He raised his hand, as if to comfort her. “Please, please don’t be afraid of me. I’m not here to hurt you.” There was something pleadingly kind in his manner and she fell silent.

Several guardsmen rushed to her door. “Majesty? Are you well?” They glanced at the stranger and grew concerned.

“Yes,” she called out, “I am well.” They bowed to her and then left and she took a good look at the stranger. He was tall, with an ethereal air that made her think of trees and the dryads. His face was kind, and vaguely roguish. He smiled at her and she found that she smiled back. His hair was reddish gold, like autumn leaves, with a streak of white running through it.

He bowed to her. “To be completely honest, Majesty, I could not harm you even if I wished it. I am not truly here.” He passed his hand through a table to show her. She watched, fascinated, as his fingers moved through table and vase without disturbing anything. He paused, with his hand half in the table and half out, and wiggled his fingers in a small wave of greeting.

Her eyes widened slightly. “Are you a spirit?” Her voice was just this side of a whisper, an awestricken sound. A brief memory came to mind, Lord Gryphon in his bodiless state, and she wondered if History truly could repeat itself. She wondered what this stranger needed from her, that she could see him.

He smiled as if to a private jest. “No, Majesty, I am not a spirit, though I am very like one at the moment. I needed to see you, to speak to you and to your son.”

“Who are you?” Curiosity won out over fear.

“I am called Dramsol, Majesty. If you please, I do not have long. On the morrow a woman will arrive here, a Castellan knight and her companion. Put your son into her care, she comes here to guard him.”

“What of my guards? We are not without protection.” She protested from habit. Her soul, though, cried out in relief that there was a path for her son, a path of freedom where he would survive. She prayed that this woman, this Knight, would love her son as much as she did. He deserved the love and devotion that a parent could give.

“Majesty, Reis-Bohnen is doomed. Your guardsmen will not be able to protect you and your son. The woman will take him to Castellan and he will survive. If you wish to go with them then that is your choice. Your son is not like other boys. The lady Knight, she will understand him.”

She knew that her son was different, even from other boys who had been born of nobility, born to lead and to rule. He had been odd even from the moment of his birth in the way he would look at her with an expression that was so much older than his years. Still, she made the protestations that were expected. She needed reassurance. “Why should I trust you? Or her?”

Dramsol sighed. “Majesty, she is a Castellan dreamer. She wears Lady Grainne’s bracelet.” The Queen’s eyes widened in surprised understanding. There was only one Castellan dreamer who would wear that bracelet, and she had been told about the secret that Castellan hid, the secret her husband had agreed to keep as well. “As for me, I am a kinsman of hers, after a fashion. I helped her escape Pallantia.”

Slowly the Queen nodded. She had heard the stories of the young Imperial Princess, her oddness, her old-seeming expressions. Perhaps she would be just the woman to guard her son. Perhaps she would understand him in a way that even she, his own mother, was hard-pressed to manage. Just then a young boy entered the room. “Mother? Did you hear something?” He looked at Dramsol and his eyes widened. “Who are you?”

Dramsol knelt and looked at the boy, slim but sturdy, with wavy dark blond hair and a serious face. For a moment the resemblance was very strong and Dramsol had to restrain a laugh. Oh, his kinswoman was going to throw a fit when she finally understood who this Princeling was. “I’m a friend. We’ll meet again someday, but I had to see you with my own eyes.”

The Princeling cocked his head to the side curiously. “You sound strange.”

Dramsol grinned. “I know. That’s because I’m reaching into the past to be here tonight, and I’m not really here at all. Listen closely to those around you, it might be all the warning that you get. I need you to do me a favor, if you will.”

“What is it?” He sounded somewhere between curious and suspicious. All to the better, Dramsol thought. It wouldn’t be easy, but at least he would survive.

“Someone important to me will take you away from here. She will say that she is to guard you. I need you to guard her for me.” He wanted to ask the boy to keep an eye out for his Princess as well, but that would only confuse matters. Best to keep things simple for now. If all this worked there would be time enough for his Princess later.

The boy frowned in confusion. “How am I to do that?”

“You will know.” Dramsol sighed and let his head hang for a moment as he gathered his thoughts. “Something terrible is going to happen to her and you need to help keep her from doing anything supremely stupid in the process. She tends to do things big when she does them and I’d rather not have her charging headlong into any onrushing armies if we can help it. As much as she hates obligation, she is bound by it as well.”

“And I will be able to do this?” He sounded doubtful. Dramsol didn’t blame him for doubting. Sometimes he doubted promised matters himself, and he was the one who saw that they were promised.

Dramsol nodded. “Yes. She will need you very much. She will need for you to need her, if that makes any sense to you at all.”

The Princeling nodded. “Very well, I will do my best.”

Dramsol grinned at the boy. “I will warn you now, youngling, she has a tendency to be very annoying and know-it-all. She will be the most frustrating person you will ever meet, and I’m one of those who truly like and understand her.”

The boy frowned and tilted his head slightly to the side. “You like this person and you say that she is annoying?”

“She is very annoying, trust me. She thinks that she knows everything and the most annoying thing is that sometimes . . .” he lowered his voice conspiratorially, “she’s right.” He grinned at the boy’s laugh in response and then let his voice return to normal volume. “She means well, though, and she has survived when many others have not. She can teach you a great deal, if you let her.”

After a moment of consideration, the boy Prince nodded his acceptance.

Dramsol stood and looked at the Queen again. “It would probably be best, Majesty, if you found a way to get the relic of King Daneil, of four hundred years past, out of the city as well. I would rather not have it fall into unfriendly hands. But I don’t know that I would let anyone know that it got away, at least until it is safe, and then only in great need. The survival of all involved might depend on it being even more hidden than the Dreamer who comes for your son.”

She nodded. “I will make arrangements.”

“Thank you, Majesty.” Then Dramsol’s image wavered and disappeared, and he was gone.

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Arc Four Chapter One

It didn’t take long to get their supplies together. Bastion saw to readying two horses while Riva raided the kitchens and ran to their rooms so she could grab her knife. She had actually stopped wearing it all the time, but for some reason, she needed the feel of the deerskin sheath sitting at her hip with the weight of the ancient knife inside it.

She grabbed some of his maps from the table and rolled them up to stuff them in a bag. She always kept a pack readied in the corner, in case of something like this. Sometimes Traveler powers went wild and she usually had a few moments notice, enough to grab something handy.

She ran all the way to the stables and found Bastion just finishing with the second horse. She handed him one of the packs and then threw hers onto one of the animals, securing it down easily enough. She never failed to be amazed by how easily she adapted to these fantasy worlds. She’d fallen off the first time she’d tried to ride a horse, before she became a Traveler. Now, it was as easy as riding a bicycle. At least it was a horse in this world, and not something weird like a lizard or a chicken.

They were on their way within an hour.

Bastion led them down paths and across roads that only he knew. Riva was content to let him lead. She would have found her way on her own, but not without surrendering her will to the voice in the back of her mind, and she wasn’t sure that she wanted to do that at the moment.

For a while, the silence between them was companionable. It didn’t take long, though, for the tenseness of unspoken questions to rise between them. She stayed silent, though, let him decide for himself what words he would use to ask the questions she knew were gnawing away at him.

Finally he sighed deeply. “Has this ever happened before?”

She glanced over at him as they rode. “Which part? The unfortunately timed command that I can’t refuse that drives me to go rescue a princeling from what is likely a doomed city?”

He winced. “That’s a rather specific, if an accurate, description of our circumstances. I wasn’t aware that the fate of Reis-Bohnen was already set.”

“Oh, I don’t know for certain, but it’s highly likely that the city is going to suffer something worse than just a military defeat, or I wouldn’t be dragged there like this.”

“In any event, please, has this happened to you before?”

She sighed deeply. “As a matter of fact, yes, it has. With almost those exact circumstances. Some Lord Prince got hold of my Soulname and used it to summon me across time and space to save his son from the destruction of his city. To say that I was pissed would be putting it mildly… but the need was real, as was the danger. I never was able to get him to tell me how he’d gotten that Name, though. Too busy getting me and the boy the hell outta Dodge, so to speak, before the demon-storm landed and killed everyone.” There was a biting anger in the tone of her voice. An old resentment that still burned.

“And the unfortunate timing part of the situation?”

She looked down at the back of her horse’s head for a long moment. “You know how we’ve got this Unfinished Business thing hanging over our heads?” He nodded and she continued, reluctance in the slowness of her words. “I was hit by the command before I could deal with similar Unfinished Business with someone else. Simon mentioned him, the Dragoon. Kenshin. He-” her voice stumbled slightly, “I promised him I’d return. I was on my way to him when Wolf Eyes found me and… well, that’s how I ended up here, in a roundabout way.” She paused, her voice fading slightly. “I… I didn’t know at the time that he- who he used to be.”

Bastion was silent for a long time before he nodded in understanding. “So who do you think is summoning you now? I can’t imagine that you’re a well-known enough figure to be called out of just nowhere.”

She chuckled softly. “Oh, I’m a well-known enough figure in some places that they make it a point to only mention my name if they really mean it. I’m a point of last resort for those who have no other choice, if only because if things go wrong then someone ends up killing everyone involved, if not Simon then me.”

Bastion didn’t quite know how to respond to that.

Riva sighed. “In point of fact I know who’s giving me the command this time, and in that it’s not like when I was pulled away from Kenshin. This one… this one has every reason to know that Name and know when to use it, and if that one is sending me to Reis-Bohnen to retrieve the Princeling then it’s for a damn good reason, arguably as good a reason that sent me to save Kale of Coriander from the destruction caused by his father’s folly and arrogance. The boy is important, and likely powerful.”

— — —

The peaceful trees in the forested grove were disturbed by the loud roar of a mechanical monstrosity. It was a sound they had never heard in all their endless years within the crystal-lit cavern. Almost animal in tenor, it was an engine, and it carried a rider on two wheels down a path to the floor of the cavern, and the trees there.

Once at the bottom of the path the man brought the creature-like vehicle to a stop and let the engine fall silent. He wore a helmet of very strange design, with a curved visor that did not have eyeholes to see through. His leathers were black, with trim in a dark green, and there were touches of white beneath the black of his jacket – a cloth shirt. The jacket laced up the front through slits cut through the leather and reinforced with green stitching. The pants had green panels inset on the sides that the leather was laced over so that the whole fit close to his leg to the knee. A sword-hilt peeked up from a scabbard at his back and two more scabbards set on either side of the vehicle.

He reached his hands up to pull the helmet from his head and he shook his hair loose as it came off. His hair was a dark green color to match the accent on his leathers. He looked around at the trees and took a deep breath, tasting the air through his nose.

He dismounted from the vehicle and put a hand out over it. He murmured a word too low for the trees to hear and the vehicle was embraced by light and then was gone, and the man now held a small, hand-sized, stone carving which he dropped into a pouch at his belt. He carried the helmet in his hand as he walked through the trees, touching one or another, and murmuring softly to himself.

“Did she climb this one? Swing from that branch? She was here; I can feel it, but why?”

He walked for a while through the trees until he stopped suddenly and dropped to one knee beside the roots of a particularly large tree. There was a burrow dug out beneath the roots, a burrow that was intelligently created. He reached one gloved hand out to touch the entrance, where the dirt had been worn away by comings and goings even though it had been quite some time since either had happened.

Something caught his eye because he pressed himself flat to the ground and reached into the burrow, stretching his arm out to the fullest. When he stood back up he held a stone carving in his hand. It was similar to the one he was carrying at his own waist. For a moment his expression was unreadable.

“Oh, Maracae, what could make you lose your bike?” He closed his fingers around the carving and held it for a moment to his chest. “I will find you again, Maracae. I swear it. I will find you and I will stay at your side like I should have done in the beginning. I should never have let you leave without me. I’ll find you… and this time I won’t be too late.”

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Arc Three Chapter Seventeen

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.”

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Arc Three Chapter Sixteen

The delegates from Reis-Bohnen returned ten days later.

Lord Neil and his entourage rode into the Palace grounds and were met by King Ainmire and his daughter. As they were escorted into the Palace proper Lord Neil looked around curiously. “Majesty? Where is your son? And Dame Riva and Captain Bastion? I would have thought that they would wish to be present for our arrival.”

A sound escaped from the Princess that was suspiciously like a smothered chuckle. Her father looked at her for a moment before he answered. “The mood in the Palace, and in the Order, had become unbearably tense in waiting for you, so we sent them out to burn off their energy. Captain Bastion, with enthusiastic support from Dame Riva, suggested a new game, of sorts.”

“A game?”

“They call it ‘Capture the Flag’, and it seems to be remarkably similar to some of the wargames that the military uses for training purposes. The rules are deceptively simple. There are two teams, each with identifying colors that match the color of their flag. The flag is kept secure in a base of operations. The goal is to steal the opposing team’s flag and return to their own base with it. There was a great deal of negotiation at the outset about what Dame Riva called ‘house rules’.”

“I find that I am intrigued.” Lord Neil said. “Is Lord Kian participating also?”

“Yes. He is serving in an officiating manner as neither team wished the other to have undue advantage. As it is, one of the negotiations in the beginning was the demand that neither Dame Riva nor Captain Bastion be allowed on the same team.” King Ainmire led them down a hallway. “We have farviewers prepared so that we are able to follow the progress of the games, and gauge the skills of the knights and squires and even the trainees who are participating.”

“The whole of the Order is involved?”

“Down to the least trainee. It has proven to be quite entertaining, even for those of us watching from afar. Do you wish to observe the games?”

After a bare moment of consideration, Lord Neil nodded. “Yes, very much so.” He followed King Ainmire to an observation area prepared with viewers showing the activities in both bases and at several points between them. “You made mention of negotiations?”

King Ainmire looked at his daughter again as a sound like a laugh escaped her. “I know that you find this humorous, Daughter, but these are serious matters.” She shrugged in response and he glanced heavenward in frustration. Then he turned his attention back to the delegates. “Yes, Lord Neil. Apparently there is variation possible in how the game is played and judged. For a round to end, and a team to win a point, both flags must be present in the winning team’s base. The flag may change hands as it travels from one base to another. Blunted and wooden weapons only, and all defeats are for a time of ten minutes only before the defeated one is able to return to action. After the third round another rule was added, the one carrying the flag may not engage in combat.”

“How stands the score?”

Again Princess Keara laughed behind her hand, her eyes twinkling in merriment. Her father sighed in frustration. “In five rounds, Dame Riva’s team has won four. And that is even after they sought to handicap her from defeating them all single-handedly. She is demonstrating remarkable ability with strategy and leadership.”

Princess Keara pulled her hand away from her mouth and revealed a grin that dazzled for her delight. “Father, tell him how the teams are arranged.”

The King grunted in response and Lord Neil found that he was very curious. “Majesty? Is there something odd about the teams?”

“Dame Riva chose the trainees and the squires. Captain Bastion has the full Knights and the Knights-Captain. She is beating him using younger and inexperienced troops.” The King looked very dour and the Princess fell into full-throated laughter.

Lord Neil blinked several times in surprise. This looked to be something worth watching.

— — —

Brady ran into the base and stopped just inside the building, panting to catch his breath. Riva looked up at him from a rough table. “Did you get it?”

Brady nodded and pulled a large rectangle of fabric from his tunic. “The pole broke on my way back with it.” The fabric was blue, like the armbands that they wore; they and the rest of the squires and trainees in the area. There was a collective sigh of relief.

Riva sagged a bit. “We can cut another pole. At least we have our flag back. What about theirs?”

Brady shook his head. “Squire Caitlyn found herself facing down Captain Bastion. She couldn’t run away. She said to tell you that she’d be back as soon as her ten minutes were up.”

There was a groan of frustration. Riva glared at Brady. “And where was her escort? Any flag-bearer is supposed to have an escort on the way back.”

“Riva, none of us can take Captain Bastion. Her escort was counting down his ten minutes before he even got to her.”

Riva growled in frustration. “I’m going to have to go out personally, then.”

Brady shook his head. “But if they spot you leaving then they’ll swamp us to get the flag.”

She thought a moment. “Do they know yet that we have the flag back?”

Brady shook his head again. “I don’t think so. Why?”

“I’m going to bend the rules. It’ll only work once because if we manage this they’ll negotiate us out of it for any future rounds, but there’s nothing that says that the flag has to stay in the base if it’s in our control, just that both flags have to be in the base for a point to be made.”

Brady nodded slowly. “Are you going to carry it?”

She shook her head. “No, I’m going in to get theirs. If I go in with ours in my possession, they get the point. You’ll carry it. You’re my escort.”

One of the trainees stiffened in surprise. “But that means that he can’t fight, either.”

“Just on the way in. The way back is when things are going to get sticky.”

Brady nodded once and saluted Riva. “Lead on, Dame Riva. You haven’t failed us yet.”

“If that were the case the score would be five to zero, not four to one.” She looked at the other trainees. “Make sure you have a pole ready for me when I get back.”

— — —

They were going to have to do this quickly. Particularly once they came upon one of the outlying sentries and Riva had to take him down for ten minutes. She apologized, afterwards. He grinned and said that he was honored to be defeated by the only sword that could ever stand against Captain Bastion. Then he sat, leaning against a tree, whistling softly and counting down his time.

There were voices speaking in the other base as the two came up towards it. Riva waved Brady back, into the trees. He nodded in understanding and climbed up into one, hiding in the branches. Riva did so as well, but she climbed from branch to branch until she made her way to where she was above the base, and the circle where they kept their flag, standing on a pole.

She heard Bastion’s voice and paused.

“Have we gotten their flag yet?”

“Not yet. I lost track of the flag-bearer. He may still be trying to get back here. She’s got the area around her base crawling with people.”

She heard several voices groan in frustration. “If they’d gotten it back, we’d see the celebration.” She wasn’t sure about whose voice that was.

“Don’t be so certain.” That was Bastion again. “She’s good, and she’s been playing games like this for longer than any of us.” Riva grinned at the compliment, and then realized that she had paused too long. She couldn’t quite reach the top of the pole from her perch on the branch, so she lowered herself further down, holding on with her knees, until she could reach the top of the pole, grabbed it and swung back up into the foliage.

There were shouts behind her as she broke the pole below where the flag was tied and wound it around into a baton shape and then tucked it into her belt.

Bastion was startled by a voice. “Captains! The flag!” They ran out of their base quick enough to see the broken end of the flagpole falling from the trees. Bastion looked up and caught sight of Riva’s legs taking off, leaping from tree to tree.

“Heavens above, she’s running through the trees?” Bastion looked at the Captain beside him, who was incredulous.

One of the knights ran up. “I saw her drop from the tree branches long enough to pluck the flag up. She was holding on with her knees, I swear. The girl must be half monkey or something.”

Several knights and captains all looked at Bastion with expressions that made him wish that he dared flush with embarrassment. “You have been holding out on us.” There were a couple low whistles.

“I didn’t know. I tell you, I didn’t know.”

“Riiiiiight, you didn’t know. And you’ve been next door to that for how many months? All alone in the darkness? And everyone knows how fond of you she is. You expect us to believe that you haven’t enjoyed the benefits of her flexibility when you’re all but betrothed?”

Bastion sighed. “We can talk about this later. We’ve got to get our flag back. She knows where hers is, I promise you.”

— — —

Riva caught back up with Brady quickly and he passed her the flag he carried. Now came the tricky part. They had to move quickly, even more quickly than when they had snuck into Bastion’s base.

The problem was that Brady wasn’t as sure as Riva was in the trees, so they had to run on the ground, and being on the ground meant that they could be ambushed. Riva threw her head back and sent up a chilling wolfhowl. It also happened to be the prearranged signal for a flagbearer running back to the base and in need of assistance.

Squires and trainees fairly boiled out of the base and into the woods to cut Riva a path back. They’d won four times out of five, they knew that they could do this, and they knew that they would do this for Riva.

The first of them passed Riva and Brady in the woods with grins and salutes. They might have to sit out the negotiations for the next round, but they were going to give their lives so that they could have one more point to brag about against those older and more experienced than they, and it was a lot of fun to be on the winning team.

Even Riva had to slow the closer they got to their base. Brady was rapidly running out of running strength, and Riva knew that their fifth point wasn’t going to be this easily won.

Riva heard Bastion coming up behind them before Brady did. “Damn! It’s Bastion.”

Brady paled. “Go on ahead, I’ll delay him.”

“No, you take the flags and get up to that base. I’m the only one who can stand against him.”

“No, Riva, you are our best hope for a fifth point, and I will gladly wait my ten minutes to know that I purchased victory with my life. I learned from you, I might be able to buy you a couple minutes. And besides,” he grinned at her, “I’m your escort, it’s my job.”

She sighed in frustration and barreled on ahead. Brady slowed and brought his sword up to block Bastion’s path. Bastion looked at him and frowned. “This won’t accomplish anything. We took your flag; you still have to get it back before she can claim the point.”

Brady grinned as their swords met. “For Riva and the honor of my team, I will gladly surrender my life.” He tried to concentrate on the lessons he had received, on the moves that were being ingrained into his very muscles. For a moment it actually seemed to work.

Bastion blinked in surprise. The boy was actually quite good. He was still a bit rough and he had a long way to go in his training, but the boy was actually showing some real talent for swordwork. Too bad he didn’t have time to find out how good he really was. Bastion made the kill as quickly as he dared.

Brady fell to the ground with an exhausted laugh. “Oh, will I have a story for the others tonight.”

“Why? Where did you hide your flag? She wouldn’t have made a run for ours unless she knew where it was.”

Brady laughed again. “Catch her if you can, Captain Bastion, she’s carrying both of them.”

Bastion blinked once in confusion and then took off running after Riva’s retreating form. She was almost to the base where a trainee stood with a long pole. He watched her clamber up onto the roof of the base with foothold assistance from the trainee and then pull first a rectangle of blue from her tunic and then a rectangle of red. She tied both to the pole and lifted it up so that the wind could catch them, and the audience in the Palace could see the point won.

He had almost reached her, too.

He stopped still and bent over, holding his knees and panting for breath, laughing slightly. “Both of them, Riva?”

She smiled at him from the roof of the base. “Yes. I had Brady carry ours when I ran in to get yours and then I carried both of them back here. I wanted to hand them off to Brady when you showed up but he’s developing quite a chivalric streak. He just had to sacrifice himself so I could get the point.”

“You realize that we’re going to negotiate you out of that before next round. . .”

He was interrupted by the sound of trumpets from the Palace. Heads rose all through the woods. Riva turned pale and jumped down from the roof to run over to stand beside Bastion. “Bastion, those trumpets…”

“I know. Reis-Bohnen has returned with their decision.”

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Arc Three Chapter Fifteen

After they had seen to the comfort of Lord Neil and the preparation for their return to Reis-Bohnen, Riva found her uncle lost in his thoughts as he studied a large map of the world. “Uncle, I have a favor I wish to ask of you, if you do not mind.”

King Ainmire looked at her in curiosity. “What favor would that be, Niece?”

“I need information, and that means I will need to see documents that are probably in your possession, and protection. Old documents and old books. I need to see everything that can tell me about Lady Zaira, Lord Gryphon, and Lord Riordan. Most particularly, I need to know about the artifacts that Dramsol, as Lord Riordan, left behind. I need to know what he did with them, the purposes for which he crafted them, and I need to know exactly how many there are and where they might be found and…” she paused, hesitant before continuing, “I need to know how the scientist Revier and my brother might use them to cause harm to the world or the people here.”

Ainmire looked troubled. “The artifacts are said to have been used in the restoration of Lord Gryphon. Surely they cannot be…”

Riva interrupted him sorrowfully. “Uncle, anything worth accomplishing can be used for war. Any good thing can be corrupted from its intended purpose. A knife meant for nothing more than carving a roasted beast might be usurped to open a child’s throat. That does not mean that the knife is evil. It is only a tool. I need to know how great a threat these artifacts might be if they fall into my brother’s hands.”

“You are still young, Niece, and it may yet be that battles will not rage. I will not warmonger.”

Riva sighed. The man was too noble for the good of his people. “No, Sire, I assure you, should Marus seek war, then all your efforts to the otherwise will be in vain, saving only the laying down to accept his blade across your throat as he takes your life and your throne and your relic along with any power to destroy that it might carry.” She struggled against her frustration and failed, choosing to call upon words he would understand, even if he didn’t understand where the words came from. “It takes but one foe to breed a war and those who have not swords may still die upon them. I’m not simply concerned about what he might do with the relics. I wonder how we might use the one given to Castellan to bring about his defeat.”

“He is your brother, Niece. How can you speak so cavalierly of his defeat?”

She met his eyes with tears in her own. “Because I have done it before and I doubtless will be forced to do so again, to defend the Innocent and the helpless. I am drawn to those who are shadowed, those of greatness who walk a sinister line and when I am unable to redeem them, if the shadow grows too strong and corrupts them too completely, then it is my responsibility to kill my brothers to save the ones they would destroy.” Her voice broke. “I hate it. The need to redeem and the pain when I fail. I have seen brothers of such greatness that you would feel humbled to stand in their presence falter and fall into despicable cruelty for the sake of artifacts and the power they contain. I have had to kill them with my own hand, no matter that it kills part of my own soul when I do. I still pray for Marus’ redemption, but I need information in the event that it is not possible and I must destroy him so that Illian might rule in his place.”

King Ainmire lowered his eyes and looked at the map-table again. “How will you know if your brother is beyond redemption?”

She sighed. “If he kills you and Kian and Keara; if he gains the power to do irreparable damage to the world we stand on; if he seeks a war that would drown the world in blood for the power that those deaths would give him; if he seeks to make himself a god among men then I would go to Pallantia in secret and I would kill him. Even if I have to take a team of assassins with me for assistance, I would kill him to end the threat that his life contains.”

“I pray, then, Niece, that it does not come to that. I will see that the archives are opened to you.”

She bowed. “Thank you, Uncle. I appreciate your understanding.” After a moment she sighed and turned and left the room, leaving the King to his consideration of the world and the threat of war.

— — —

That night Bastion found Riva in their chambers, sitting on her cot with her feet tucked under her, staring out the window. He sat down beside her and simply waited. After a moment she sighed. “I don’t know what to do. If I declare myself then Castellan will become a target, and will be destroyed. If I remain silent then both Reis-Bohnen and Castellan will be targets and will be destroyed. If I go back to Pallantia then I will lose you, but worse, my brother will give me over to a scientist for supposed protection and I will become one more experiment like the Dryad girl I helped rescue, and she was almost dead when we got to her. And because of that same scientist Reis-Bohnen and Castellan might still be targets and would be destroyed anyway.”

Bastion never felt so helpless. “I cannot advise you.” It hurt to admit, but it was the truth. “The King will not send you back to Pallantia.”

“If I knew that it would save innocent lives I would go.” Tears began to fall down her face. “But I don’t know that it would. Gabriel would have told him where you were; Marus would have known that I would run to Castellan. He had no reason to bring Reis-Bohnen into this conflict without some other goal in mind.”

He pulled her into his arms and held her close. “Reis-Bohnen has placed itself in this conflict, and I think that they will welcome the chance to shout defiance at the Empire. However, even should my estimate be wrong, I will not allow anyone to take you away from me. I don’t care about the dreams. I don’t care about the rings, or whether I ever accept them. Even without them. I will not allow anyone to take you from me. I will protect you. And if I have to turn Pirate and steal you away then that is what I will do.”

“If I thought it would work I would ask you to do just that.” She held tightly onto him. “I don’t want to be another scientist’s experiment.”

All he could do was hold her close and kiss the tears away.

— — —

In the days following the departure of the delegation from Reis-Bohnen, there were a great many worried knights and soldiers. None who knew for certain about Riva actually wondered aloud if protecting her was worth the possible sacrifice. The faith in Castellan dreams was too deeply ingrained in their souls. A Castellan dreamer belonged to Castellan and to her dreams, and those dreams were divinely inspired. To stand in opposition to Castellan dreams was to invite the wrath of Heaven. They did not question protecting Riva, they questioned how Marus could put his people, his Empire, at risk this way. Not since his father had anyone sought war to prevent a dreamer from fulfilling her destiny.

Those who knew, and that was most of those who lived and worked in the Palace and closest to it, wondered about Marus and his father, and what it would take before Marus would be calmed and accept Heaven’s judgment through his sister’s dreams, and how many would die before that happened.

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Arc Three Chapter Fourteen

Riva walked softly into Bastion’s room one morning. He was standing with his back to her, looking at something on the table, and she grinned at the opportunity. It had been several months since the nightmare that had sent her to him in the darkness, the night that dreams had changed for both of them.

There was still no word from Dramsol. There were no indications that he had been captured, either. They held to the hope that he had either jumped forward in the timeline of the world, or that he was simply laying low for a while. There had also been no attempts by Emperor Marus to kidnap his sister. He seemed as content as she to leave things as they were for the time being, and eventually even Bastion had been able to relax slightly and simply enjoy being near Riva, though he still had made no move to sign the betrothal documents and complete the formalities of their relationship.

She ran up to him and threw her arms around him, pressing herself into his back and relishing the feeling of his muscles as he straightened in startled surprise and twisted around to look at her. He smiled at the expression on her face and took her hands in his. “You seem happy.”

“That was a very nice dream last night. We need to have dreams like that much more often.”

He managed to control his instinct to flush red at the memory of what they had been doing in that particular dream. She wasn’t the one who had needed to completely change their bedclothes upon waking. “You think that?”

“Yes, I do. Seeing you as a Pirate Captain was very different, and something I think I like. Still, there were a few good lines. ‘The plundering Pirate being plundered?’ I may have to remember that one.” She stepped around him, with her arms still encircling his stomach, to get a good angle to kiss him.

He did enjoy kissing her. “But why was I a Pirate? Dalziel made the offer, but we haven’t taken him up on it and I’m not certain that we will.”

She shrugged. “I haven’t the foggiest idea.”

He paused for a moment, to gather his thoughts, before continuing. “There’s something I need to know, Riva. Before… before I entered the chamber where you were waiting I… I walked through a gallery of those who had tried before me. Riva, Gabriel was there. I need to hear you tell me that all he did was kiss you.” Bastion looked her in the face, his eyes worried.

She sighed, losing the impishness to seriousness. “That is going to be a complicated answer. Yes, all he did was kiss me. It was rough and not at all enjoyable and it was for all the wrong reasons, but it was just a kiss. Still, he considered worse. He considered and he made a choice… and that means that the possibility exists that he might have chosen otherwise.”

“A possibility? I don’t understand.”

She sighed. “I’m not sure I would expect you to. It has to do with the unique worldview that Travelers have, and our understanding of the worlds, and how they interact, and how they branch away from each other. Choices… choices have incredible consequences, both the ones we take and the ones we do not. It’s why some Travelers refuse to do anything of great consequence without making certain that a choice has been knowingly and willfully made.” She paused. “How familiar are you with dimensional theory?”

He blinked. “Dimensional what?”

She sighed deeply, her eyes full of sympathy. “Each world has an intended path, a story that it is supposed to tell. Occasionally there are choices that develop that can affect that intended line of cause and effect. When that happens, an Alternaverse is created that follows the path of what-might-have-been. Not all choices can create Alternaverses, and not all choices that can create them ever do. With who and what I am, and where I come from… things get infinitely more complicated because I’m complicated.”

“So the dream… was from an Alternaverse?”

She sighed. “I think that might be so. It’s hard to tell. I knew the possibility was there, but I don’t know if one was actually created or not. That moment was a likely branching-off point, it was when events turned and created ripples. Most Alternaverses are an exploration of those ripples and how they change what was intended to be. Or don’t change as the case may be.” She paused. “It was a dream of an Alternaverse-that-could-have-been that made me write that last letter to you.” Her words were softly spoken and she looked down at the floor, away from Bastion.

Bastion put his hands on either side of Riva’s face, making her look him in the eyes. “Are you telling me that there is a world where my brother chose to do worse to you than merely kiss you?”

“I don’t know. Alternaverses are complicated because… well, because of the bleed-over. It creates alternate versions of everyone involved and with Traveler powers in the mix that can create some messy situations. An Alternaverse collapsed at one point because it followed an alternate storyline to the ultimate conclusion, and a few survivors escaped into this multiverse. I’ll have to see if Shadeslayer can explain where he came from to you if we ever meet up with him.”

“What are you that makes this so complicated?”

She paused. “I’m … I’m a shard.” She paused and sighed in frustration. “I don’t really know how much I can tell you and how much would only confuse you without purpose. There are people who can touch worlds outside their own, even if they never awaken the power to Travel there. It has to do with imagination and dreams. I was one of them and the day I became a Traveler I put myself in subservience to another one. I became her hands and her voice in worlds she could not walk. Believe me when I tell you that she would not have allowed Gabriel to do what he considered.”

“If he had…” Bastion found that he was very angry.

Riva put a hand to his lips. “But he chose not to. He made the choice not to follow that path. I’m not going to worry about an Alternaverse that might not actually exist. It didn’t happen. I ran from Pallantia and I came here so I could find you, and you are what matters to me right now.”

He took hold of her hand, lowering it slightly so he could lean towards her and kiss her deeply. When they parted he held her close, her head resting on his chest. “I swear to you, if he ever reconsiders that choice, I will make him pay. Brother or not.”

She sighed. “I have every reason to believe that there would be quite a number of people racing you to cut pieces off him, and that’s if I didn’t kill him first.” She put both her hands on Bastion’s chest and looked at him. “Now, all this seriousness is not what I had in mind when I came in here this morning, so if we can please get back to my teasing you about a delightfully accomplished dream, I would really appreciate it.” The impishness was back and he had to smile.

“You teasing me?” He ran his fingers down her sides so that she twisted in ticklishness. “I thought it was my turn to tease you. You had plenty of time to tease me in that dream.”

“Don’t you dare make me laugh, Bastion, you know it hurts for me to laugh.” But she was grinning, even as she wagged a finger in his face. He responded by increasing his attempts to tickle her until she was breathless with laughter. They were both in lighthearted moods when they left their rooms for the day.

— — —

Unfortunately, the lightheartedness didn’t last.

Rumors ran unchecked through the city of Castellan, rumors of future war and worries about what would happen when battles raged outside the city walls. The Empire had announced that Reis-Bohnen, Castellan’s long-time ally and sister-nation, had sent the assassins into the Imperial City seeking the life of the Princess, which attack was responsible for her continued seclusion. It didn’t help that there were rogue elements in Reis-Bohnen which had applauded the announcement of that attack, or had stated that they would have done something similar, only with the intention of kidnapping the sister that the Emperor so doted upon. Or that the King himself was of the opinion that Marus was a liar and his sister was not in seclusion in Pallantia.

So Marus had responded with aggression and violent intent. And Reis-Bohnen had sent delegates to Castellan to request aid from their longtime ally.

Riva heard the news about her brother’s announcement with characteristic restraint.

“Oh that is the biggest load of horse manure I have ever heard!” Her voice was strong and vibrant, and Bastion was certain that he saw the banners hanging from the vaulted ceiling of the council chambers shake in response.

They stood around a large table that held a sculpted map of the world. It was often used for planning military campaigns and such, especially since the artists and mapmakers who had crafted it had done so with absolute precision. King Ainmire and Lord Prince Kian sighed in response to Riva’s outburst while Lady Princess Keara covered her mouth to hide her smile. The delegation from Reis-Bohnen looked at the girl, who had been officially knighted into the Order, in disbelief.

The ranking member of the delegation, a nobleman who was a close friend of the King of Reis-Bohnen, looked at the King in curiosity. “Majesty? And this young lady would be…?”

The King looked at Riva for a moment and then nodded to her. “If you please, Dame Riva, the honored delegates deserve the truth.”

Riva nodded and walked closer to the noblemen, shaking the bracelet loose from its hiding place on her arm and sliding the sleeve up so that they could all see it shining silver on her wrist. “The Emperor Marus is full of horse manure because I am the Imperial Princess Tresoria Dauris. I was not attacked in my bower in the Imperial Palace. I was never placed into seclusion. I ran from Pallantia of my own free will because…” she paused, her face flushing slightly, “because I discovered that the man who had been haunting my dreams since before I was taken into the Imperial Family was, in fact, real, and that he was in Castellan. I ran from my brother because I have Castellan dreams and I had to find them.”

The delegates paled and whispered to each other. It was one thing to believe such in the quiet of a private discussion between like-minded men; it was something else entirely to have such a matter confirmed by no one less than the Princess in question. The nobleman who led them, though, looked carefully at the bracelet and then at Riva, and then nodded. “Your brother has taken a stand against your dreams?” Riva nodded. “And the man you sought? The object of your dreams?”

Bastion stepped forward. “That would be me, Lord Neil.”

Lord Neil looked at Bastion a moment and then nodded. He turned back to King Ainmire. “Why was this not announced at the time that she ran?”

“My niece came to Castellan seeking anonymity. She sought to protect Castellan from her brother’s fury by not provoking his anger, by not giving him proof of her whereabouts. I was willing to grant her that anonymity, as long as it was simply Castellan which stood to lose by this. Since the Emperor has widened the field, perhaps we must reconsider. The choice to keep her Highness’ secret must be knowingly made.”

Riva broke in. “I can shout my identity from the highest towers if I need to. If Reis-Bohnen decides that the risk is too great. It is my first instinct, to combat his lies with the truth, but his anger in response would be great. My brother is powerful and he is possessive. Failing all else, if I must, I can call upon a Pirate I know and I can run again, so that my brother’s gaze moves from your land and this one.” She paused. “I would rather not have to do that. I am fond of this city and her people, most especially the children of the streets. I would run only if there were no other way to save Castellan, and only if I were certain that running would, in fact, save Castellan.”

Lord Neil looked at her curiously. “You doubt that it would?”

She sighed. “During my escape from Pallantia, and the subsequent imprisonment of a Pirate known to Castellan, we came into certain information that leads me to believe that my brother isn’t the only one seeking this war. And that concern has been… confirmed since then.” She paused. “Does Reis-Bohnen have any artifacts dating from the time of Lady Zaira and Lord Gryphon? Specifically artifacts relating to a wanderer who traveled with them and aided in Lord Gryphon’s restoration?”

There were gasps of surprise around the room, and King Ainmire stiffened. “You do not know, Niece?”

She shook her head. “I heard the story, but I’m not familiar with any relics, though I presume that some exist. There was a reference made to them in one of the memoranda that I found. We know about the sword Kian was given, but the sword was a gift made to him, and not something he crafted himself, from the essence of his soul. It’s not as if we have taken the opportunity to go through the memoranda line by line and pool information.”

Lord Neil bowed to the King, yielding to him the right to explain, which King Ainmire chose to do. He was amazed that she had never been told about the relics, and what they meant. “They are the royal treasures, created by Lord Riordan. One of Reis-Bohnen, one of Castellan, and one of the Northern Empire. They were to remain the property of the bloodlines to whom they were entrusted.”

Riva paled and nodded her understanding. “I feared so. This is going to be complicated, so I will need you to try to understand. Lord Riordan…made the objects out of his own soul. They contain a key that can trace back to him. If they were ever to fall into the wrong hands… and I promise, Marus and his pet scientist are the wrong hands, then he could be corrupted through them.”

Lord Neil frowned. “You speak of Lord Riordan as if he still lives, yet he walked our world four hundred years ago.”

Riva gave him a lopsided grin. “He didn’t introduce himself to me as Riordan. He’s calling himself Dramsol and he has been very helpful more than once. He’s… he’s a kinsman of mine, after a fashion. I suppose you could say that I’m a wanderer too.”

Lord Neil thought a moment and then nodded in decision. “I will return to Reis-Bohnen and advise my King about these developments. Such a matter is for him to judge, whether he is willing to place his land at risk for Castellan dreams.” He paused and then looked at Riva. “Did your dreams tell you anything else?”

She sighed. “I have feared this war because I have seen it, over and over again, in as many different ways and variances. I want to believe that it can be avoided, but I do not know that for certain. I fear… I fear that Marus wishes this war, and he will find a way to wage it provoked or not.”

Lord Neil bowed to her, his eyes sad.

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Arc Three Chapter Thirteen

Keara heard the news from her brother, who spoke very quietly in the privacy of her bower.

“I hate to be the one to tell you,” Kian said, “but better you hear it from me than anyone else. Dramsol, your Seer, was caught in a trap as he helped rescue Dalziel from the Imperials. His fate is unknown, but the one who seeks his death, both his death and the death of our cousin, was there. It didn’t look good.”

It took her a moment to realize that she was crying. Her hand clutched the rings she carried beneath the fabric of her bodice. She had started carrying them only that morning. “He promised.” She murmured the words as if they could be a shield for him in whatever darkness held him. “My Seer promised that he would come for me when I was grown.”

Kian sighed. He hated to see his sister cry. It made him want to hit something, hard. “Perhaps you will dream of him again and he will tell you that he is well.”

Keara nodded slowly. “Perhaps. I pray that he is well and that he will still come for me.”

Kian grinned. “If he doesn’t, then I’m going to tell our cousin the situation and she’ll help me track him down and drag him back here, in chains if that’s what we have to do. He has made promises. He will keep them.”

Keara smiled and hugged her brother in thanks. He held her close and prayed that she received hope in her dreams.

— — —

Late that night, Riva woke crying and trembling. The darkness and a sudden fear pressed in on her even though the moonlight through the window was bright. She rolled over in her cot, disturbing the slumbering form of Annie, who opened one eye to look at her curiously. She shushed her and she went back to sleep. The other one was nearby; she did not need to go searching for him. Not this night. She had not had to go looking for many nights. She preferred matters this way.

Riva didn’t bother with slippers as she padded on silent feet over to the door that stood between her room and Bastion’s. After a moment’s hesitation she turned the handle quietly and stole through.

He must have sensed her, even in his sleep, because he blinked his eyes open to look at her, her nightgown glowing in the moonlight. “Riva? What’s the matter?”

He heard her sob, quietly, as she walked over to the side of the bed. “Please?” Her voice wavered in the darkness with fear. She hadn’t needed this in so long.

He sighed as he understood what she needed and slid closer to the wall, opening the blankets for her to slide in beside him. She was shaking and shivering and he held her close as she started to calm down. “What happened?”

“Nightmares.” She buried her face in his shoulder, reaching up with one arm to feel his heartbeat. “I… I was in the cavern again, and Wolf Eyes was there, and he said that I would never escape, that you were never real, and there wasn’t anything I could do because I was so small… so small.” She started shaking even harder and pressed into him. “Please, please tell me that you are truly real. I’ll believe anything you say, just tell me that you are real.”

He wrapped his arms around her and simply held her. “I am real, Riva. I am here. You are safe.”

She sighed and relaxed in his embrace. Eventually they drifted off to sleep again.

— — —

They woke suddenly as one, eyes snapping open, bodies trembling with an emotion very different from the fear that had woken Riva earlier in the night. It was still dark out, and the moonlight was still bright. Not more than an hour could have passed. Riva moaned and hid her burning face in Bastion’s shoulder. “Ohhh, that was a new one.”

“What was?”

“You’re awake too? The dream I just had. I haven’t had a dream like that… since I started dreaming about you.” Up to this point the dreams had all been vague, even in the ones where they experienced such things. She thought for a moment that the earliest dreams must have been more detailed in matters of desire, and only grew less so as her body grew younger and less flooded by the hormones of adolescence.

“Are you alright?”

“I will be, I think.” She shifted slightly and noticed the tenseness in him. “What about you?” He was very tense and still and it worried her for a moment.

“I would rather you didn’t move too much right now. I dreamed, but the dream… was not appropriate.” His voice roughened and he fought against himself. It was difficult; it was very difficult not to continue the desires of his dream. She was so close, and so soft against him. He wanted so much to feel her softness, to hear her voice moan in his ear… This was not helping matters.

She blinked. “A pool, surrounded by trees, in the summertime. We were alone.”

“How did you know?” He was startled, but somehow, not surprised.

“Because I had the same dream.” She pressed against him, still trembling with the emotion of the dream, shifted upwards slightly and caught his lips with hers. The contact caused all of their fading desires to reassert themselves. It was powerful. They moved together, rolling to the side. She was beneath him and he was on one elbow above her. It was intoxicating.

His hands started to reach for her, reach for the nightgown to pull it out of the way so that he could touch her, and he made them stop. It was painfully difficult. “I don’t dare.”

“Please? I want…” Her voice shared the same hoarseness that roughened his. Her hands ran over his chest, burning where they went. He caught her hands with his, pinned them above her head with one hand holding her wrists. Her touch threatened to steal his restraint, it held by such a narrow thread as it was.

“I know… what it is that you want. I want it too.” He realized, then, that there was no going back for him. His decision had been made. “I swear to you, one day I will give it to you. One day I will accept all that you offer me, but not now, not tonight, not like this. I care about you too much… to do this to you now.” As he was now… he would overwhelm her. He would hurt her. He did not want their first experience together to be marred by pain. She had suffered too much already. She had been abused too often, too deeply for him to simply take without consideration.

She looked up at him, frustration and need in her eyes, something he knew all too well himself. “Do you think that you would be the first to be rough with me? That you would be the first man to hold me down and make me scream for pleasure from what you do? Mere roughness, no matter how bad, is not going to reignite the curse, Bastion. You don’t have to fear for me.” She shivered slightly, her body shifting as her back arched away from the bed slightly. “I can handle it, Bastion, I swear. I can take your worst.”

He trembled, shaking his head slowly. “I cannot. I cannot subject you to that, not after all that you have suffered.”

She sighed deeply. “Bastion, I need it precisely because of what I suffered. I need to know that what those bastards did isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, the way it’s supposed to feel. I need it, no matter how you choose to give it, because I care about you.” She met his eyes with a wry half-smile. “And I guess that’s why I understand why you’re saying no. I don’t like it, but I do understand it. I’ll let it go for now… but I’m still going to want it, whenever you’re ready. Rough, gentle, or anything in between.”

He echoed her sigh with one of his own. “Are you going to be alright?”

“As soon as this calms down? Yes.”

“Have you ever…?” He didn’t even know how to ask the question, and all the terms he knew sounded impolite.

Somehow she understood. “I used to, but I haven’t in a very long time. Whenever Simon looked after me, he made me do that fairly often. I think it was his way of making sure that my needs were met even if he didn’t see to me himself.”

He sighed again. “I dare not help you, not as I am now, or I would lose restraint.” But oh, how he wanted to. To bring her pleasure, to hear her cry out with it… He really needed to stop thinking about those things, at least until his body calmed some.

“It’ll fade. That much I know for certain.” She pulled away from him slightly and he let go of her hands. “But perhaps I ought to return to my cot for now.”

“That would probably be best, yes.” He couldn’t hide the disappointment in his voice, though, as he spoke.

She paused as she slid out from the bed, and leaned over and kissed him. “Thank you, for being here… and for the dream. Even if we can’t see it to its natural conclusion.” Then she was gone, padding back to her room and he was alone again, cursing the honor that was reward and punishment in one.

It didn’t help that dreams were never the same again, for either of them.

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Arc Three Chapter Twelve

Story Arc Three: Chapter Twelve

Dalziel screamed.

After a moment the pain, which had his body jerking in response, eased and he was able to catch his breath and open his eyes to look at his tormentor. Emperor Marus stood in front of him and simply watched him, watched the way his body reacted to the pain he inflicted with nothing more than a smooth rod he held in his hand.

“Are you ready to talk yet, Pirate?”

For a moment Dalziel wasn’t certain where exactly he was, but with the easing of the pain memory came flooding back. He was in Pallantia. He had come here looking for information on Doctor Revier’s nefarious intentions, what he was seeking, what he was doing, what sort of a threat he was to his friend, Riva, who also happened to be Emperor Marus’ younger sister. He’d been working quietly, or so he thought. He shouldn’t have attracted the attention of Riva’s overprotective brother, but somehow he had.

Marus’ loyal soldier, the soon-to-be General Gabriel, had walked up on Dalziel in a tavern and caught his arm in the strongest grip he’d ever felt. He probably still had the bruises to prove it. Dalziel hoped that Renna had been able to get away, but he wasn’t certain. He hadn’t seen her when he had been forcibly walked out of the tavern and taken under guard to the Palace.

That was where he was now, hidden away somewhere in the bowels of the Palace, in Marus’ private torture chamber while the twisted man tried to force information from him. Dalziel wasn’t certain how long he had been here, or how much longer he could hold out, but it was quite a while, and not that long, respectively. Still, he was still himself enough to work up the energy to glare at Marus. “Go to Hell, Emperor.”

Marus’ response was to strike him with the rod again and all Dalziel knew was pain.

The pain eased again and Marus tried again. “I know that you stole a prototype skyship from the facility run by Doctor Revier. I know that you were in Castellan with my sister when she was attacked by that gang. I want to know what was said in that alley. I want to know how you managed to steal that vessel from Doctor Revier. I want to know everything that you know or even suspect about my sister, who now calls herself Riva.” He paused to lift Dalziel’s head by grabbing hold of his hair. “And you are going to tell me.”

Dalziel coughed to clear his throat, not caring that it was in Marus’ face. Anything to get some of his back from this bastard. “She didn’t tell me she was your sister… when we left Pallantia. I don’t blame her. I wouldn’t want to claim you, either.”

Marus released his hold on Dalziel’s hair and his head dropped. He didn’t have the strength to hold it up. Then Marus hit him with the pain again and every muscle in his body seized up. When he pulled the rod away again, Marus glared at Dalziel. “My sister means more to me than you know. I will have answers and I will have them now.”

“Yeah, right. You love your sister so much that you were going to hand her over to Revier and he was going to torture her like he did my sister, like you’re doing right now.” Dalziel waited for the pain, and was astonished when it didn’t come.

“What do you mean?” Marus’ voice was deceptively calm. If Dalziel hadn’t been able to see the paleness in his face, and the white lines around his mouth, he wouldn’t have known that the Emperor was furiously angry.

“I mean that Revier was making plans to turn your sister into another one of his experiments, and you were going to hand her over to him.” Dalziel couldn’t keep the anger out of his voice.

“You know this how?”

“We found documents on Revier’s desk when we went in to get my sister out. The bastard had almost killed Renna while he used her like some child’s toy! I gave them to her when I was in Castellan. I’d thought you’d actually put her in the Tower and was going to get help to steal her out again. Didn’t know that Riva was the Princess.”

Marus was silent for a moment. “I will deal with Doctor Revier at my next opportunity. For now, however, I want to know what my sister said in that alleyway. I want to know how she killed those men, what was said to her. Did they touch her, taunting her Captain? What happened?”

Dalziel was about to retort when there was a flash of light and the crack of a blow. When his eyes cleared he saw Dramsol standing over Marus’ unconscious body and Dramsol was breathing deeply, as if from exertion. Then he turned to Dalziel and began unfastening the chains that held him in this torture chamber below the Northern Palace. “Sorry that took so long. He had a forcefield up around the Palace and that took some working to get around.”

Dalziel sagged in relief. “Oh God, I have never been so glad to see your know-it-all face. Where’s Renna?”

“Safe. She’s got the Windborne waiting for you. I told her that I’d get you to her and then she could get you to Castellan. Riva needs you whole, my young friend.”

“He knows. The Emperor, he knows that she’s Riva. I’ve got to warn her. He knows where she is and who she is. He can kidnap her away from the Captain.”

“If he were going to kidnap her he’d have done it already. No, he’s got other plans and I can’t figure out what they are. Something’s blocking the Loom and neither Mother nor I can read it clearly for any amount of time.” Dramsol had Dalziel down and supported him. “Hold on, I’m going to jump out of here. It’s going to feel strange.”

Strange was one way to describe the sensation as light surrounded them and the prison faded away. After a moment the light cleared away and they were standing in the midst of trees with the Windborne waiting in a clearing a short distance away. Renna ran towards them, her arms outstretched.

“Careful, Renna, he’s been roughed up some.” Dramsol handed Dalziel over to his sister. “Get out of here now, it’s a trap.”

As if to confirm his words, soldiers appeared around the clearing even as Renna helped her brother stagger to the open hatch of the Windborne. Dramsol hung behind and whistled a song, calling a lick of fire to his hand. The last thing Renna saw before she closed the hatch behind them and ran to lift off was Dramsol surrounded by soldiers, fighting back with fire and song in a strange use of magic that she had never seen.

Then a winged wolf appeared, with fur as black as night and a single streak of white on its brow, and Dramsol seemed to panic and vanished, even as the Windborne streaked away in the sky towards Castellan.

The lupine howl of frustration followed them.

— — —

Riva smiled and blinked rapidly to keep from bursting into tears as the streetlings surrounded her to sing in honor of her birthday. How had they learned Earth Prime’s “Happy Birthday”? She glanced at Bastion and he flushed slightly. Ahh, so she had her culprit. She smiled at him and mouthed a gratitude.

Kodran had gone all out for the party, and it showed. For some reason it made everything brighter, even though she was terribly worried about Dalziel. He should have been back already. She couldn’t imagine that he would have missed this celebration unless matters were dire indeed. She straightened her shoulders and started helping to see that each streetling had a chance to enjoy the sweets that were provided.

Kodran even managed to talk her into singing, not that it took much convincing.

Riva was just bringing her song to a close when Renna stumbled through the door of the shop, a wreck of Dalziel leaning against her, his face an expression of fear and pain. There were startled cries and Riva ran to help Renna get Dalziel into a chair. He grabbed her hand as she did so, looking up into her face.

“He knows, sweet Riva. Run quickly, my friend, Emperor Marus knows that you are here. He knows your name and he knows how to find you.” Dalziel struggled to force the words out. “He didn’t know, I think, what Revier planned to do with you, but he knows where you are now.”

Riva glanced at Bastion in concern, and he immediately moved closer to her as she turned her attention to Kodran. “Kodran-da, we need someplace quiet and secure.”

Kodran nodded. “Aye, Riva-girl. I’ll see to it.”

She turned back to Dalziel. “Rest, my friend. How did you escape?”

He sighed. “Dramsol. Jumped us free. I don’t know what happened to him.”

Renna broke in. “Soldiers were waiting for him. He said that it was a trap, but he stayed behind to fight our way free. A great black wolf with wings appeared as we left. I think he vanished, but I couldn’t tell for certain.”

Riva started to tremble and closed her eyes in concern. “Oh God, Lukan, Wolf Eyes. He was after Dramsol.”

Kodran had the door open and they managed to get Dalziel through and to a room where he could rest. “The one who hunts you?” He kept his voice low so as not to startle the children who were handily distracted by several other dwarves who helped Kodran on special occasions.

She nodded. “He’s a shapeshifter, of sorts. It’s complicated and it’s communicable, but only when he wants it to be. He was the wolf. Oh God, I hope Dramsol didn’t get caught.”

Kodran nodded quietly. “My friend Riordan is canny. If he knew that it was a trap going in, I cannot imagine that he would not have had an escape plan.”

“I hope you’re right, Kodran-da. I dearly hope so.”

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Arc Three Chapter Eleven

Story Arc Three: Chapter Eleven

The morning dawned that Riva would celebrate sixteen years of age. Months had passed since the traumatic attack in the back alleys of Castellan and she had slowly begun to piece herself together. Still, she wasn’t whole yet, and she knew it all too well.

For a while she hadn’t been able to sleep without Bastion’s presence at her side, something which wasn’t very easy for either of them, what with the unspoken, unresolved matters that lay between them. When the nightmares woke her, screaming in terror, or sometimes rage, he was right there to calm her down again.

Eventually the nightmares faded and she could sleep a room away, but even with that much distance there was an awkwardness between them that Riva could feel as strongly as her own soul. She didn’t like the awkwardness, though she didn’t know how to address it either. If she was honest with herself, she was afraid to address it. Afraid that if she spoke of it that he would say the words that would leave them always wondering What Could Have Been.

And the fact that she was afraid of anything grated on her.

She’d spent too many centuries, too many lifetimes chained and shackled by fear to endure that cold touch without any hint of anger at it. She was furious that, at her age, she would still be afraid of something. It wasn’t like friendship was some weak shadow of a true relationship, no matter what the self-righteous prigs liked to claim on more than one world. Friendship was a blessing in and of itself, even if that was all it was or would ever be.

Everlasting knew that she could use as many real friends as she could find, and friendship was infinitely less complicated than some of the other options they had going for them. Particularly in light of the fact that she was still devoted to Lenne and Rina, hidden in the refuge she’d so carefully built so long ago.

That morning, Riva entered his room from hers to find Bastion still settling his clothes on for the day, his hair still damp from an early bath. He looked up at her with a wry smile. “I think we need to talk, Riva.”

For a moment, her stomach clenched in immediate dread, and just as immediately she growled silently at her own fears. Talking wasn’t a bad thing. It was, in fact, a damn good thing. She had no reason, no reason at all, to be so damned scared of talking. She nodded slowly to him. “You’re probably right. What did you have in mind?”

He sighed and looked at her with an expression of such sympathy that she wondered for a moment if she looked as awkward as she felt, and hated the idea. She was old enough to be past this nonsense, so why was she so confused still?

“I had something of a visit from your friend his morning.”

Riva’s heart sunk into her stomach and she simply closed her eyes. “Ah Elar… he couldn’t leave well enough alone, could he?”

Bastion chuckled again and then his expression sobered. “Riva, just how good a friend is he of yours? He- he implied some things and I want to be certain that I didn’t misunderstand him.”

She sat down in a chair, unable to meet his eyes for a time. “He… I don’t know that I can put a name to what exists between us. He is a friend, a true friend. He has also been a guardian of mine, from time to time, and in that he is as devoted as Gabriel could ever dream of being.” She took a deep breath. “Simon… Simon has seen what I’ve been through. He’s seen the worst of it. He pulled me out of more than one Hell and pieced me back together only to see it happen again, and again, and again.”

She looked at her hands and realized that they were shaking so she clasped them together, hoping to still the tremors. “Don’t let him bully you into anything, Bastion. He’s seen how bad it can get and he…” she swallowed carefully around a dry throat, “he doesn’t want to have to destroy another world in retribution for the harm that has been done to me.”

Bastion blinked and pulled a chair up next to her so he could sit down close by. “He’s done that? Destroyed worlds?”

She nodded. “Yes. Usually the damage was contained to just whatever culture or nation countenanced what I suffered, but when his rage overtakes his control… well, he’s been known to take whole nations down to bedrock.”

Bastion shuddered at the mental image of what sort of power could cause that much damage. “I… I’m not certain what to think about things.” He paused for a moment. “Between us.” He took her hands in his. “I want to protect you. I want to be your friend. Simon, though, made it quite plain that he expected something within our relationship, what there is of it, that I don’t want to presume.”

Riva gave a deep sigh. “Ah Elar… he would. Much of the healing he has helped with has involved helping me learn to accept good where those who abused me would force wrongness. He has this idea that no one should be forced to go without, so to speak. Doubly so for me because I’m still recovering to an extent.”

“Which would be why he wanted to make sure you had a female lover.”

She nodded slowly. “It’s complicated as heck, I’m afraid, but it’s something that I can’t risk right now. I’m happy with Lenne and Rina, though, and someday I’ll be back with them again.”

He took a deep breath. “What do you want… with us?”

She felt like all the air left her body in one sudden rush. For a moment she couldn’t catch her breath and her pulse hammered in her ears as she struggled to bring her thoughts into order. “I… I don’t know what I want, to be honest. I know what I don’t want, though. I don’t want anyone to coerce you into something you don’t want to do. I don’t want a sense of obligation. I wouldn’t wish that burden on anyone, much less you.” Tears stung her eyes as she forced her gaze up to meet his. “I swear to you, if Simon’s protectiveness causes you to feel the least amount of pressure to act against your will, I’ll… I’ll…”

Bastion smiled softly and silenced her with a gentle finger over her lips. “Riva, I am under no coercion, I swear to you. But there is something I have wanted to do for a while now, something I would have done some months past if not for Simon’s dramatic arrival that day. I need to know, though, that I have your permission. Not just because of the horrors you have suffered. Not just because of what my brother stole from you the night you ran to find me. I need to know that you want it too.” He chuckled softly. “I’ll admit, though, that if not for them I wouldn’t ask directly.”

“M-my permission?” Why did her voice waver so strangely over those words? Was she some lovesick teenager with her first damned crush? She flushed in embarrassment.

He nodded. “If you weren’t who and what you are, and I weren’t certain that you had maturity to at least match mine, I wouldn’t dare.” He reached out and pulled her onto his lap, sliding her close to him. “Will you allow me?”

It was all she could do to nod.

He smiled and reached up with one hand to gently cradle her head in his palm, bringing their faces close as he kissed her. Even as her stomach simultaneously tightened and dropped within her from the softness of that kiss, he deepened it, gently, carefully, and with focused attention on how she responded to him.

And that response was strong enough to reassure and please him.

After the longest moment she’d experienced in a very long time, the kiss faded and Bastion stroked her cheek with his thumb. “So you liked that?”

Riva felt like she’d been reduced to the teenager she knew she looked like because all she could do was nod, still stunned. “Y-you can do that any time you want to.”

He chuckled and wrapped his arms around her. “I’ll take that under consideration, Riva, though I don’t know how often I’ll dare. I… I don’t want to push you into something you’re not ready for.”

She nodded, understanding just how delicate that line could be, and how razor sharp. “As long as we stop anything the moment one of us says stop… I wouldn’t mind.”

“Very well.” Then he pulled her close and kissed her again, as he’d been wanting to do for months.

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Arc Three Chapter Ten

Story Arc Three: Chapter Ten

Dalziel was in the docking bay where the Windborne was preparing to depart. He looked away from his ship towards Riva as the last of the supplied were loaded on board. “Are you sure about this? All you have to do is say the word and I’ll steal you both away from here.”

Riva smiled. “We may yet need you for that, but I’m not ready yet to leave Castellan.”

Bastion stood at Riva’s side and looked at the Windborne for a moment. “Keep in touch, Pirate. We need to know that you and your sister are well and free.”

Dalziel grinned. “Aye, aye, Cap’n. I’ll be back as soon as I can, once I have something to report.” Dalziel had volunteered to seek out more information on what Doctor Revier was doing and where. It was very dangerous as they all knew well.

“Don’t take any chances you don’t have to, Dalziel.” Riva warned him. “We don’t want to have to rescue you, and you know we will.”

He bowed extravagantly to her and kissed the back of her hand. “Never fear for me, gentle maiden, I shall return unscathed from the hazards I brave in your honor.”

Riva sighed, unsure whether to glare at him or to shake her head in disbelief. In the end she simply said, “Go with God, Dalziel.”

He smiled. “Your lips to His ears, sweet Riva.” The last of the crates were loaded and Dalziel hugged Riva goodbye and then clasped hands with Bastion. “Fair skies, Captain.”

Bastion nodded. “Fair skies.”

Dalziel hurried onto the Windborne and Riva and Bastion stood back a distance as the skyship rose up from the docking bay and flew into the sky.

Riva leaned against Bastion and trembled. “I’m afraid for him, Bastion.”

Bastion didn’t know how to comfort her fears. All he could do was hold her close. It seemed to be enough.

Marus was pacing impatiently when Gabriel entered the library and saluted. He stood, tapping one foot anxiously as Gabriel closed the door and made certain that they were secure.

“What news from Castellan?” His voice was clipped and worried.

Gabriel bowed briefly. “It is certain that Lady Dauris was attacked for the purpose of delivering her to Doctor Revier and, most particularly, Lukan. The survivors of the gang which attacked her confessed as much during their trial, though no one has referred to Lady Dauris by any name other than the streetling, Riva Songbird or, more recently, Riva Kodransdotter.”

Marus stiffened in astonishment. “Kodransdotter? My sister has been taken in by the Chieftain of the dwarven tribes?”

Gabriel nodded. “The walking-stick she carried from his shop before the attack was his name-gift to her.”

“It becomes more and more apparent to me that her arrival here and my mother’s dreams were nothing of mere chance. Great events are afoot, and we are moving in the midst of them.”

“Excellency, you are the Emperor of the North. Anything you seek to accomplish sets great events in motion.”

Marus shook his head. “You do not understand. I am Emperor because of her.” He sighed. “What happened during the attack?”

“Lady Dauris and her companion were bound by magic…”

Marus went still immediately. “Please assure me that term was a slip. Please tell me that my sister has not been given to someone other than your brother.”

Gabriel frowned in confusion. “Excellency? I do not understand. Your sister was accompanied by the Pirate who stole Doctor Revier’s vessel.”

Marus sat down in his chair, forcing himself to relax. “I did not mean to frighten you, Gabriel. The term ‘Companion’ has a very specific meaning in what I seek to accomplish. It merely surprised me, that is all. My sister and the Pirate were bound?”

Gabriel nodded. “It appears that the ironwood staff your sister carried protected her from the immobilization spell until she was disarmed, giving her time and opportunity to fight back. She killed two of her attackers before she was overcome.”

Marus closed his eyes in pain. “Oh, Dauris…” He sighed. “Continue. I wish to know everything.”

“Once immobilized and helpless, your sister was held between two of the gang while their leader took her knife and set to disrobe her in preparation for violating her before turning her over to Lukan.” He paused. “Before he could do more than cut open her blouse rescue arrived in the form of my brother and Lord Kian.” He looked at his notes. “The gang members report that, as they ran, the leader had your sister’s knife at her neck to threaten her life and force my brother to halt. No one has said what was said in the alleyway, but Lord Kian distracted the ringleader so that my brother could free Lady Dauris from the immobilization spell. She then took back her knife and killed the man with it.”

“So my sister was attacked at a vulnerable time, almost violated and given over to her enemy, rescued by the narrowest of margins, and has killed three men in the process.”

“Yes, Excellency. Following the attack there was some confusion that I have not been able to unravel, something to do with the two of them late at night, though not a dalliance. I have not yet been able to gain an agent inside the Order itself, but servants sometimes talk. The two of them have since begun sharing his rooms, apparently with the joint blessings of both the King and Kodran.”

Marus breathed a sigh of relief. “At last, they begin to see. She must not be left alone. They must keep her most securely right now.”

Gabriel frowned. “I do not understand, my Emperor.”

“My sister is uniquely capable of doing what must be done, and doing so personally, but there is a price to pay, in the calm that comes afterwards. You say that your brother cannot appreciate her anger, but are you able to appreciate her vulnerability?”

Gabriel’s frown deepened and he had no answer for his Emperor. “How is someone to appreciate weakness?”

Marus sighed. “You do not yet know what a gift it is, what a wondrously precious gift it is to be needed by someone. She needed me in the calm that came after we killed Jules. Yes, Gabriel,” he said at Gabriel’s surprised look, “she was no mere bystander that day. She needed me and for that gift I will damn myself to Hell forever to know that she is safe. Now she needs your brother and he is a very blessed man for it.”

Gabriel shook his head in disbelief. “And to think I was uncertain of her ability to kill even me.” He sighed. “There is more, Excellency. Following the attack on Lady Dauris a…” he paused, looking at his notes with a slight shake of his head in disbelief, “apparently a giant, of all things, made his presence known in the castle seeking your sister.”

Marus turned his head in silence and simply looked at Gabriel, slowly blinking his eyes. “A giant, you say?” He swallowed carefully. “Seeking my sister?”

Gabriel nodded with a depreciating shrug. “I am merely relaying what has been told to me. He is called a giant and he is credited with wielding walls of pure darkness to hold back the soldiers of the castle as he charged through, breaking walls in his search. He called your sister by the epithet ‘Goldeneyes’ and she seemed to be familiar with him as she evidently ran to calm his anger.” He looked up from his notes. “He thought her to be held prisoner within Castellan’s palace.”

The Emperor frowned to himself, considering this latest information. “Curiouser and curiouser…” He took a deep breath. “I shall have to have more information about this giant, then, if you can acquire it.”

“As you wish, my Emperor.” He looked back at the notes and continued. “Also, as a consequence of these events several rumors have begun floating around which seem to originate in Castellan.”

“Hmm? Is my sister preparing to declare herself?”

“Not that I am aware, Excellency. No, it is being said that the Imperial army, under the direction of Doctor Revier, is targeting gifted young people without families, and even some with families, who show promise and exceptional ability.”

Marus blinked in surprise. “Is there any truth to the rumors?”

“By all indications, Excellency, it appears so.”

Marus thought carefully for a moment. “Find out for certain. Find out who he’s taken, from where, and what their current condition is.”

Gabriel nodded. “One last point of interest. The Pirate who was with your sister, he has reappeared in Pallantia. He seems to be investigating Doctor Revier, though very quietly and with exceptional care. If I hadn’t been looking into the good Doctor myself I would never have noticed him.”

Marus frowned and then smiled, it was a cold smile. “Invite him to the Palace. I wish to have a private conversation with him. I want to know what happened in that alley that no one is talking about.”

Gabriel bowed. “As you will, Excellency, but is that wise? He is doubtless expected back in Castellan and will be missed. If you coerce the information from him then he will know that you are aware of Lady Dauris’ whereabouts, and will pass that information on when he returns to Castellan.”

Marus nodded. “My sister is unlikely to believe that I do not know where she is. She merely hopes to stay my wrath through plausible deniability. It is no great loss and I must know what the Pirate knows about my sister and her condition.”

Gabriel bowed again. “As you will, then, Excellency.”

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