First of Fates 2624

She rose early, just as she had nearly every day of her life. She dressed quietly in the darkness of the suite's outer room, and so she was surprised when the door to Kisa's bedroom opened as she was pulling on her boots. Her friend was dressed for Court.

Well... perhaps not quite, but Kisa did look considerably more regal than Daxia would have expected this early in the day. Especially if she was going to stay in the suite.

So, of course, that meant Kisa was not going to stay in the suite.

"You don't mind if I join you in morning prayers, do you, Daxia?" Kisa asked in a soft whisper.

It was barely light enough to see Kisa's face, but she was certain that in full light she'd see the tiniest signs of apprehension there. It was in her voice... just barely. It was only years of friendship and listening to the different qualities of the Heir's voice that gave her any clue that Kisa was...


That was so ridiculous that...

No, maybe it wasn't. So she smiled as she finished pulling on her boot, hoping Kisa could see it in the dim candlelight.

"Not at all." She stood and held out a hand. "You're more than welcome. Though I should warn you... in this, perhaps I am the more strange and peculiar of the two of us."

Kisa took her hand and squeezed it, although she only held her Knight's hand for the few steps they took to the door. It wasn't propriety that made her fold her hands in front of her and wait while Daxia opened the door, but practicality. It wasn't a lack of caring that made her wait as Daxia scanned the corridor, stepped outside, and finally turned to nod at her.

It was duty.

It was always duty... for both of them.

The Heir wore shoes suited for the indoor marble floors. But even with her hard-soled boots with the proper heels for riding, Daxia was still rather quiet as they made their way to the parapet to face the coming dawn.

It had only taken a few heartbeats for her to make the connection. Kisa wore the silver star; of course she would know the prayers and rituals. Even if — with all the responsibilities of a Noble and Heir — she might not have time to participate in either at the Temple, she was a Dayalan.

Such an unusual tableau they must have presented there on the parapet! Kisa, dressed in the Allaine House colors and obviously a daughter of that Noble Family, appeared less confident than the woman who stood at her shoulder in a bodyguard's position dressed in simple tunics of blue. Unruly shoulder-length hair contrasted with the Heir's much neater waist-length hair in only those two respects; they shared the bright red that so often marked one as a member of the Allaine family.

The sword at her hip might have given one pause before approaching them.

She watched Kisa for a moment but quickly succumb to the desire — though often she thought it was truly a need — to look at the two stars waiting in the Dark Patch. Tashka and Linette waited for Her to shine Her Light on the world for another day before they would fade. Her gaze shifted to a small constellation that climbed over the eastern horizon just before their Lady ascended.

Oh yes, she'd been taught the proper prayers to say as She rose, and all the appropriate prayers for every other occasion, too. Maybe it had been a rebellion against Kassia's strictness. And maybe it had been the influence of Gilly's more relaxed and slightly mischievous ways. Whatever it had been, Daxia had long ago abandoned the practice of saying the "proper" prayers except when attending Full Temple services. It had started innocently enough when a small six-year-old looked at the sunrise and smiled after saying her prayers. And then she had added — loudly enough for some of the Initiates and Priestesses nearby to hear — "Gosh, you're pretty this morning, Lady!"

Kassia hadn't called her a cobble block for it, but she hadn't been particularly pleasant, either. But then, to be honest? Kassia was hardly ever pleasant. Daxia had often wondered why that was as she stood on the top level of the Temple so many mornings in Dawnview. How many mornings had she asked their Lady why Kassia was so mean? Why did Kassia say and do the things she said and did?

And now she stood again waiting for Her to rise, having come to appreciate Kassia in a way she never thought she could. It was true, however, that she was no closer today to understanding the woman than she had been four handful of years ago when she'd first gone to the Temple with Bekkah. She was tempted to hug herself in the almost cool morning air on this first day of Fates — as she often did on such mornings. Today, Daxia felt more uncertain than she ever had under Kassia's tutelage.

Today, Daxia wasn't even sure she understood herself.

So no... speaking to her Lady and ensuring the Heir's safety were far more important than the self-indulgence she allowed herself on other mornings.

She had been upset last night... at Morning Star mostly, but possibly the whole world and everything Beyond, too. That was a particularly amazing feat, as she had no idea what Beyond was... only that she'd heard snatches of conversations over the years and knew that Beyond, well, was. Perhaps she'd never felt quite prepared for any of the significant changes in her life. But at least many of them could be seen — upon reflection — as a logical consequence of everything that had led up to any particular change.

Even Kisa... dear Kisa... what a shock it had been that day in Yrick last year in Snowgate Pass! But Dazi had spent countless hours mulling it over, and could pick out moments that seemed to shine more brightly in retrospect, in the light of that one kiss. Oh, that day had been beautifully shocking, yes! But she could see the Path the two of them had walked to arrive there. Until that very last moment, they might have stepped onto different Paths that day.

But they didn't. Today, they stood together waiting... watching.

This thing Morning Star had said to her, however? No, this was unfathomable.

That Morning Star chose her as she fought the Avatar atop the Temple at the Border... well, that was not to be expected. Nor was it to be unexpected. It simply was. What she did that night, what she and her friends did that night was the miracle. Each night that she looked into the sky, she knew they had done something no one else in an Age had been able to do. That Path had started in Cragside... and it was oddly self-evident as she looked backward. In Cragside, nothing had been clear beyond heading west.

She couldn't have done it alone — any of it — that was certain. That she had needed the help of others... that was expected. That those who should have had no care for two women trapped out of time, and yet gave their assistance freely... that was refreshing and surprising. Even more so in Romana's case — for the young Easterner should have hated them or felt contempt or, at the very least, disdain. And still she helped, as best she could. Morning Star had said it takes magic to fight magic. Perhaps it took an Easterner to fight the East.

No, it was not a surprise that it took all of them to break that curse.

But that was the thing about her friends that Dazi knew was the greatest blessing: they cared. Even the Eastern princess... she cared. Daxia was going to be honest... especially the Eastern princess cared. Ah, there was a hurt in Romana's very being that Dazi wished her sister could heal... a curse the rest of them could break! But some healing could only come with time and growth. Oh, and Romana was growing into the Initiate Dazi had always imagined her sister to have been... full of energy, full of curiosity, full of kindness, full of... yes... mercy.

Was it because one of the Priestesses was a Dayalan that only she was so greatly rewarded? Well, if one considered having the most arrogant Unicorn of them all as a partner to be a reward, of course.

Dazi knew she wasn't the only one who hadn't cared one whit for rewards. For her, it was about doing the right thing. As it had been for Kadri. Mikal had certainly had misgivings but had followed her lead anyway. Well, he had still been under Contract to her, but she had said it was not a thing he needed to do. She hadn't compelled any of them... and yet they followed her anyway.

Perhaps... yes, perhaps there was reason enough for a Unicorn to choose her. She would have considered that whole business more foolhardy than heroic, but words can mean different things to different people. Why should Unicorns be immune from the fluidity of words?

But this? This made no sense.

Morning Star said it was because of Kay...

...who shouldn't even exist here and now. She'd saved Kay from a certain death, and in the version of the past she witnessed, it would have been an empty and meaningless death. But she would have died with her Lilykins, which at least would have meant something to the youngster.

Daxia looked away from the sky for a moment to the young woman in front of her. Yes, she would die for Kisa.

Kay would have died for Lily.

In fact, she had been so confused and angry — each by turn, over and over — that she hadn't died protecting her Allaine.

Not that Lily Allaine and her troop had been unrewarded by their Lady for their service that night. Dazi had been searching the night sky all these weeks for the constellation missing a star and had finally found it. Perhaps she should have thought to start the search along the eastern horizon... but looking outward from the Dark Patch — at the time — had made sense.

It was a beautiful, small constellation. She wasn't sure if most people even named it. She'd learned it as simply the Spear. Rising just before dawn, it was easily missed, but it almost looked like it was clearing the way for Her rise. It could just as easily have been named the Herald, except a troop of Dayalans who died defending their world would naturally take a more martial formation.

And now, it was missing a tiny fragment just to the right of the brightest star in the constellation.

Daxia had been utterly confused by the whole incident. She was still plenty confused, for that matter. But Kay was here, and Kay had taken to protecting Bekkah's Initiate. Such an odd pairing, and yet...

For some reason, Dean was under the impression that Bekkah had needed a protector. Dazi knew her sister, and Dazi understood the frustration Bekkah had aimed at the young Squire. But just about every other Lady of Attera Daxia had met — with the possible exceptions of the elderly priestesses Alice, Kay, and Anastasia — would have welcomed the Squire as a protector.

Bekkah didn't think she needed a protector. And even if she did, well, she had Dazi.

There wasn't a Knight or Squire of Rames in the whole of the Heartwood that could be a protector for Lady Romana. It wasn't because she was an Easterner though that was certainly a factor. It wasn't because of who her father was though that too was certainly a factor.

No, it was because of what her father had done to her.

Dazi didn't much like Romana's father, even though she'd never met him. And the fact that they foiled his plans? Oh, that was revenge enough... if she was the sort of person who was interested in revenge, which she most certainly wasn't!

Still, Lady Romana did need a protector. And didn't Kay just happen to be a Squire of Dayala? Wasn't Kay the safest possible protector for Romana in this whole wide world? Well, aside from DaziDaziDazi, of course. But it would seem that DaziDaziDazi was supposed to be doing other things.

Rather inconvenient... and yet, here was Kay.

There wasn't anything that made sense about Kay remaining whole and alive when the night at Highside Heather was over. Morning Star had been properly mystical about it all, which was fine for an Immortal Unicorn... it wasn't quite as useful for someone who preferred actual answers.

But it was a happy accident, as it turned out. Well, it was finally happy.

But this?? This?

How could it possibly be Kay's fault... or if not her fault, her... her... well, her existence... that all of a sudden made Daxia a Priestess??

She was someone who preferred answers that made sense, real answers to real questions.

What did I do to deserve this?

His Mystical Magnificence had been less than forthcoming. Oh, that wasn't true, Daxia supposed. He was forthcoming, all right.

Mystically so.

One thing she could say about Kassia is that she was not mystical. Mysterious, perhaps... but that was just a dare to get Daxia to think and learn.

That is not what His Magnificent Mysticality was doing.

And here she was getting herself all worked up into a tizzy again. That was no way to greet her Lady.

Daxia watched the eastern horizon brighten... first just the barest hint of silver light, and then the sky was painted with a thin line of pale pinks and oranges.

Sometimes she wanted to reach out and touch the colors. In Dawnview, there were times it even seemed possible. Here, on the far side of the High Tarn, dawn was simply a beautiful thing... something to take joy in... something to take part in.

As the first edge of Her Glory peeked over the horizon, Dazi felt the same flutter in her chest she'd felt every day since Mother had explained that the sun was really the Lady Dayala. She was the First of the Deities who arose from the Chaos to light the world. Dazi had been so small then, so young and trusting. Mother had always told the best stories and had sung the most beautiful songs. At moments like this, Daxia would occasionally wish she could sing as well as Mother had. To sing a song of joy to Dayala, shouldn't one's voice be as clear as a bell, as vibrant as the sunrise itself?

Bright, joyous greetings to You, Lady! Thank You for another beautiful beginning to another day. Oh, Your children were so delightful last night! They must have been dancing, too. Tashka and Linette shone so brightly! Perhaps others might think it odd for me to say they looked happy, but I know You understand. I am, as always, humbled by Your gifts.

Simple. Just a conversation that seemed to move from one day to another. Her Lady never answered, of course, but that wasn't ever the point. She had a view of the world and the people in it from the perspective of a Goddess. There were days Daxia wanted to tell her Lady things from just a rather simple person's perspective.

And she didn't get called a silly child or a cobble block. And that was all good because Daxia sometimes needed Someone to only listen. Just listen... not judge, not give advice, not mock or scold or laugh.

She knew that the Gods and Goddesses sometimes talked to their Priests and Priestesses. Lady Arilys even spoke to her Initiates sometimes, or so it seemed from watching Kadri. She herself had even heard the Lady Vixen in the Council Chambers! Lady Attera had spoken to Priestess Alice when she and Bekkah had their reunion in the good Alice's hospice in Cragside.

Daxia hadn't even been sure she really wanted to be a Priestess, except that she loved to learn so much that it was probably inevitable. Kassia had been certain, though. Oh, she'd been very certainly certain!

Maybe that was the thing that bothered her most about her new rank... besides the confusing nature of it all, that is. It was simply that the Gods and Goddesses sometimes talk to their Priests and Priestesses. She didn't think she could bear it if one more... one more Voice said that she talked too much, or called her a cobble block even if it was a half compliment, or told her she was foolish for worrying or being scared or...

Well, for being human.

Sometimes... sometimes, Daxia missed having a mother. Isn't that what mothers did? Soothed their children's fears when they could, loved them always, helped them become the best people they could be? She seemed to remember Mother's love. And if love survived after one went to sleep with Krysta, then Mother undoubtedly still loved her and Bekkah. Kassia had indeed helped her become the best person she could be, but... well, Daxia never felt as though Kassia loved her. Perhaps she did, in her own way though it wasn't something she ever let Daxia see... except, perhaps, as she handed her Initiate an Ironsilver sword cradled in white leather.

Dazi always believed that her Goddess loved her. Maybe it had been a childish fantasy. Maybe it had been wishful thinking. Maybe it had been a story she told herself when she crawled into bed at the end of the day with tears in her eyes after Bekkah left. But she truly believed that Dayala loved her. Not like Kisa did, not like Bekkah did. It was more like the way Mother had loved her and Bekkah. Not exactly... but it was more like that than anything else.

Oh! I know You must have seen, and my Sisters must have mentioned it... but young Kay has taken to protecting Romana. I still don't understand how Kay got here, and I probably never will. But she's so clever and thinks right to the heart of a matter... unlike someone else here who likes to puzzle over every little possible detail.

Daxia smiled. She couldn't help that she thought about everything. Maybe that was Kassia's doing, or maybe that's just the way she was made. But there were just so many sides to every story, and so many things one could learn! She really hadn't been joking with Morning Star when she said she wanted to learn everything.

If You don't mind, I think I'd like to consider her transformation since coming to this time to be a rather heroic thing. She has learned so much, adapted so well... and now she is a defender of someone we were both taught to hate and fear. I think it probably took more courage on her part to befriend Romana in this small way than it did for me. I only heard stories... she lived them. Only You and the Immortals can know if it merits the attention of one of Them, for it's true she hasn't performed a deed of great heroism... yet. But from my very small human perspective, befriending and protecting Romana is truly heroic. If You don't mind, I think I shall give her at least the title of Verchovai.

It had been a thought dancing about the back of her mind for at least a handful of days and had nearly come to the forefront yesterday as she watched Romana and Kay. But as she slept... ah, as she slept, Daxia saw the thought whole and complete and knew it felt right and true. When the time was right to tell Kay, she would know.

"If You don't mind..." How many times in the span of her years in Dayala's service had she said that phrase to the rising Sun, to her Lady Dayala as she made her way through the course of her days?

If You don't mind, I think I'd like to learn more than just a little Ancient. If You don't mind, I think I'd like to learn to ride at least as well as Verchovai Reena. If You don't mind, I think I'd like to be Kisa Allaine's friend.

Her Lady had never minded... at least, Daxia had never seen or heard or felt any evidence of it.

Not even that day in Raven, as she sat in a noisy Inn in Cragside...

If You don't mind, I think I'd like to make a Contract with this Jvrillian, Mikal.

She hadn't even minded that!

Dazi wasn't sure if Mikal's God cared as much as He just watched. Well, she wasn't sure then. Now? She was pretty sure it was the latter. Contracts were sacred. The person with whom a Jvrillian Contracted? Not so much.

If there was a taller spire in the Korie's keep from which Dandy could perch, no doubt that's where she would have been. Apparently there wasn't such a perch, for the senior Dayalan had slipped very quietly behind her... almost quietly enough that Daxia wouldn't have heard her approach. She had thought it was prudent to acknowledge the Captain with just enough turn of the head that Dandy knew she'd been heard. It would eliminate the Path in which she was lectured about being inattentive, with examples of all the dire consequences that come from being inattentive, especially when one was guarding the Heir of Allaine.

It really was nice to have her Sisters around to greet the day, though she was perfectly happy to greet her Lady alone, too. One over the other didn't matter to Dazi. No doubt, in her own way, she was every bit as odd as Kisa... sometimes missing breakfast for spending so much time... Well, doing what she was doing now, she supposed. Appreciating the Lady as She rose up into the sky, to look down on the world for a while. Did She ever get bored? Well, probably not... someone always seemed to be doing something somewhere. And perhaps Her Granddaughter's children amused Her as much as Lady Arilys was amused. One could hope so.

Some Initiate or another had asked her why she spent so much time after morning prayers on the top of the Temple. Daxia couldn't even remember which one it had been all these many years later; one who'd left to get married that was certain. Daxia had only shrugged and, because she'd been feeling less cheerful than usual that morning, answered with her "peasant accent."

"Talk to Lady."

That had gotten her teased by most of the Initiates for several days. It had stopped suddenly. Daxia hadn't thought much about it. She probably hadn't even reached two handful of years yet, so other things were of far greater concern. Oh, like the fact that Priestess Kassia kept making her draw out the stars... over and over and over. She could see them in her head, all of them. What was Kassia's insistence on drawing them really about? Maybe someday she'd figure that one out.

Maybe cousin Akane could explain it. Daxia just hoped it wouldn't be in the same condescending way most people seemed to speak to her... well, no. She had met far too many people who were good and kind and helpful. And even if Brother Random had been condescending, he also amused her to no end. So that probably didn't actually count.

Hmm, but there had been that one day, probably more than a fullhand after that brief period of teasing, that Kassia had stood over her as she practiced her letters. Daxia practiced those extremely well because she wanted Bekkah to be able to read what she wrote down.

"Do not say you speak with the Lady if you do not."

That hadn't been either the first or the last time Daxia had been angry with Kassia. There had been times, especially as she got older, when she suspected Kassia might secretly enjoy it. But that day, it had been the first time she took her anger and controlled it. All she'd done was carefully set down her pen and made sure the ink bottle was far enough away from her paper... just as it should be. Then she had looked up at Kassia and oh so deliberately said, "Daxia do! Lady not talk. Only Dazi talk."

She had looked at Kassia, still such a small thing — she hadn't hit a true growth spurt until a few years later — and almost dared the Priestess to say anything. Anything at all. But Kassia had just walked away.

What was all this reminiscing about today? Maybe it was just a matter of trying to make sense of something that made no sense. Dayala knew she did that often enough. Apparently, all the Unicorns knew it, too.

No, she wasn't going to sigh. She was going to stand here with Kisa and just be in her Lady's Presence... all morning if she felt like it. Simply standing in her Lady's Presence was enough to banish most of her ill thoughts. It was enough to soothe most of the hurts that beat at her heart. It was enough to quiet most of the thoughts that plagued her day after day.

Oh. Well, no. She couldn't stand here all morning... not on this morning. Kisa wanted to invade Lord Tray's library, and she was obliged to invade it with her, seeing as she was Dama Kisa's bodyguard. And a good thing that was, too, because... Lord Tray's library!!

Well, surely he must have books that she hadn't seen before!

Daxia smiled as she closed her eyes and let Her warmth fall on her face.

Thank you, my Lady, for trusting me even when I don't trust myself.

She stood another moment, feeling the warmth and knowing — if only in her own heart and her own mind — that it translated to the love of her Goddess.

And thank you again for asking Morning Star to be my Partner. I know it means You expect great things from me, and since I expect more from myself than maybe even Kassia does, I... I feel so blessed and grateful.

Noting that her Lady had already risen fully over the eastern horizon — though it was by barely half a finger width — Daxia smiled, then lightly touched Kisa's shoulder. They turned to make their way back to the Allaine suite.

They approached the suite just as Dominic's servant Kathi was entering with a tray of food. Kisa glanced over her shoulder at Daxia, a twinkle in her eye. "I have heard Mother say Khorall Korie's Cook makes a flaky fruit-filled pastry that is very nearly as good as our Cook bakes. And she uses fruits not grown in the Vale."

Daxia smiled. "Well, then we should hurry to try these wonders before the Captain eats them all, shouldn't we?"

Dandy had closed the door after she'd granted Kathi entrance, so Dazi thought it wise to at least tap on the door before opening it. She looked at the two women standing at the low table, then simply tilted her head to allow Kisa to enter before her. By the time the door was closed and she turned around again, Kisa was also looking intently at the platter of breads, cheese, fruits and small pastries.

Captain Koromov looked at her as she approached, her expression not quite bland and one eyebrow raised. Daxia's expression was bland as she held her superior's gaze. Imperial blue eyes flickered between Heir and Knight while Daxia said nothing. After a moment, Daxia simply rolled her eyes and paid attention to the conversation Kisa was having with Kathi.

"Yes, Dama, these here," the servant said, pointing to two handful of small pastries, "are the ones Khorall Allaine likes best. Madam Cook didn't know if you'd care for them but sent some along just in case."

"They look every bit as good as your Cook's, Kisa," Daxia said. "But perhaps I should taste them all to be sure no one is trying to poison you."

Kathi gasped. "Dama, no one..."

At the same time, Kisa turned and frowned, "Daxia, it would be..."

The Captain hid her smile.

A heartbeat and then two...

Kisa tapped her Knight on the chest. "You're teasing again, Daxia. And you insulted our host."

"Oh, no, Dama," Kathi said. "Miss Mouse has already assured us that none of the foods for you or the Young Master's Wife were touched once they left the kitchens. Madam Cook is not the easiest person to work with, but she has what you call integrity."

Daxia smiled. "Of course I'm teasing you, Kisa. And thank Miss Mouse for her thoughtfulness, Mistress Kathi. These are uncertain times that are certainly bound to stir up some nest of hornets. It's good to know the hornets aren't in the kitchen."

Kathi smiled shyly. "Madam Cook is more like a merebeast, Dama. But I'll be sure to tell Miss Mouse what you said." She looked at Kisa and curtsied. "If you won't be needing anything else, m'Lady, I've duties for the Young Master's Wife to see to."

Kisa shook her head. "No, this will be enough for now, I think. Thank you."

After Kathi had left, Kisa settled herself on the sofa and looked up at Daxia. "Is this something you're going to be doing the entire we travel together?"

"Whatever do you mean, Dama?" Daxia asking, feigning innocence.

Dandy snorted.

Kisa glanced at the Horde's Captain before looking back at Dazi. "Teasing me. Is this what I have to look forward to from here to the Opal Sea and all the way back to Dawnview Castle?"

"Oh, that." She sat down beside Kisa, picked up one of the pastries and looked at Kisa with a bright and happy smile. "Yes, m'lady. As much as possible."

"Hmm, I'd almost pay to see that," the Captain noted before she snatched a piece of bread, some cheese, and several apple slices from the tray.

"You probably wouldn't really need to pay for that information, Verchovai. I'm sure Dominic's lovely bride would be happy to tell you all about it if you ask in the right way."

Dandy simply raised her eyebrow again.

Daxia shrugged and tasted the pastry. It really was quite good! She studied Kisa for a moment, and finally said, much more soberly, "Kisa, I can be every bit as serious as Captain Koromov, every bit as quiet and observant as we are in Court. And on the road, that kind of behavior is often the difference between life and death. But I learned from Gilly that one need not be serious and quiet and observant all the time."

"Or even most of the time," Dandy added.

She thought about that for a moment, and also considered Morning Star's comments about Brighteyes. Then she shrugged.

"Perhaps... though she certainly was serious about our training sessions. And I don't doubt that she's as serious about eliminating the fields around the Skaefla Plateau of gryphons as you are about eliminating our world of... hmm... well, the sorts who dislike that sword of yours."

But she smiled as she picked up some cheese and fruit. "She taught me that having fun — whether it's watching clouds, hanging young Lords from rafters or teasing an Heiress — is as important as working hard."

Kisa looked skeptical. Daxia pointed to the pastries.

"Try one. If you don't find it to your liking, Dandy and I can fight over the remaining ones."

Kisa's gaze went from her Knight's face to that of the Horde's Captain, and then back again. Both of them were virtually expressionless.

"I think you're teasing."

Grinning broadly, Daxia looked at Dandy. "She's getting the hang of it. This will be wonderful!"

Again, Dandy silently raised an eyebrow.

"Right, I know. Kay said something... what was it? Oh. What is it with Allaines and their guards anyways?

"What, indeed? Kay still has the favor Lily gave her hanging from her spear — though she bound her hair with the ribbon yesterday if you'll recall. Just as I have Dama Kisa's favor on my sword hilt. The Khorall herself has Reena, Captain of her House Guard, as her Dayalan." She paused, shook her head, and added, "No, I don't want to know about Reena's ribbons and scarves."

Daxia stopped then, feeling like those few times Kay had gotten especially lucky and gotten under her guard during sparring and jabbed her in the gut with her spear. Not the pointy end, of course.

"Daxia?" Kisa's voice seemed far away, and very worried.

She looked at her friend. "That would explain the Snowqueen, wouldn't it?" She wasn't going to cry, because she wasn't sure she had tears enough to mourn an unknown Sister that had died five or six generations ago defending the Vale from Prince Lhannon Bankorpool and his troops.

"You know you'd turn to ice if anything happened to me. You'd care nothing of yourself, but only for Dawnview Vale and the people who live there. Kisa — the quiet, funny, studious young woman I love so much — would disappear and another Snowqueen would take her place."

She smiled at her friend, reached over and took a hand in hers, patting it with reassurance. "I promised you, I swore to you, that I would keep myself from Krysta's grasp... and His Annoying Magnificence is in complete accord with that plan. If something so terrible happens that I need to join my Sisters above, then... well, then we will probably need the Snowqueen."

Daxia brushed her fingers along the side of Kisa's face and smiled as though they were alone in the room. Or as though she didn't really care that Dandy was watching them.

"Don't worry about me. But maybe in all the research we like to do — fine, maybe it's just me — we could find, somehow, the name of this unknown Dayalan and give her proper honor."

Kisa smiled hesitantly and squeezed Daxia's hand. "No, it's not just you. I'd like to know her name, the Snowqueen's. Her mother gave her a name when she was born, her sister... sisters... knew her name. She was family. Our family."

Dazi chuckled. "Well, your family, certainly. Who knows how far back the tree split? I would guess the split would not have even occurred in this Age, and perhaps not even in the Second."

Another thought galloped full force through Dazi's mind.

"You have the Allaine gift in full force, and I have a small measure of it.

"I wonder if the split in the family line did more than just ensure the survival of the Family and its gift. Did the Allaines have both gifts at one time? Cousin Akane has her gift of Starwatching in full force, it would seem. And I have a small measure of it."

Then she laughed.

"Well, if the family line were meant to re-converge in this generation, it would have to be through Bekkah, who has neither gift. Once Kassia got her hands on me, there was no doubt I could be anything other than a warrior of Dayala, and certainly not a mother. But how would you find a son of Allaine, from whichever side of the tree isn't your side?

"No, no... you know what? I don't think I want to know because you probably do know.

"But I think Bekkah should marry a Rhoni, anyway... they're special. I'm not quite sure how. But they travel and wander... and she enjoys the traveling, too. Oh, she says she'd like to settle down and raise a family... but I think it's just the family part that has her so concerned.

"Cesare is too young and smitten by Darian in any case.

"I don't suppose you have any male cousins, do you?" she asked Dandy, looking back in her direction. "Oh, never mind, I'll ask Cesare about his cousins and uncles."

"You know... you talk a lot, Yurisdotter. And Rhoni don't marry outside the Rhoni Families." The Captain studied Daxia intently, silently. Finally she said, "Would you happen to have a solid tactical reason for teasing the Heir of Allaine?"

Daxia nodded. "I seem to recall hearing that once or twice... and of course." She lost her smile as she ticked the reasons off on her fingers. "The Heir needs to smile more... and not simply because I find it appealing. She is more approachable and, therefore, gives the common folk the impression that she is a Noble that will be willing to listen to the concerns of her people."

Tapping a second finger, she continued. "The Heir needs to become more comfortable with and being among all manner of people, not as an observer but as a participant in the interactions. Such interactions often involve light banter."

She ticked off a third finger. "While there are some folk who will need to remember that Kisa Allaine has been named the Snowqueen, the common people of the High Tarn should come to know her as someone as wise as her mother yet as kind as the Larsens. Never mind that no one can be as kind as the Larsens."

Then Daxia held up all five fingers, bypassing a mere four completely.

"Allaine and Korie have made an alliance, and this is not going go unnoticed by anyone who matters in Trundle... or beyond. This alliance must be perceived as true, this alliance must be true. The Heir of Allaine cannot be the Snowqueen with her allies; that is left to those who cross her. Her allies need to forget — as much as such is possible — that the Snowqueen resides in Dawnview Vale. Incisive and decisive, reasonable and rational, but also compassionate."

"I think you've sent her into shock," Dandy said dryly.

Daxia looked at her friend, who looked a little pale but mostly looked like the young woman she remembered watching so carefully in Court. She smiled her reassurance.

"You're most of the way there, you know. You possess all those traits. It's just that hardly anyone knows how kind and compassionate you are."

"I... I thought..."

Daxia nodded. "I know. You're so good at what you do. You just forgot the people angle. Or maybe thought I was the only people angle. But it's okay. I kind of understand people... sometimes. And I'll help."

"Well, it was a surprise... the alliance. I don't know why I never saw that in the Patterns."

Daxia was silent as she studied Kisa's face, then sighed as she looked down at her hands.

"My fault. I didn't pass on all the information I had. It wasn't my place to withhold information from you that could have made the Patterns clearer. My apologies."

"You made a judgment call, Sister," Captain Koromov said. "Did you believe your reasons for not sharing intel with the Heir were sound? Yes, certain things might have been different for the Heir if she had the information. Who else would have been affected?"

Daxia looked up sharply. Why would Dandy ask a question to which she already knew the answer? She studied her Temple Sister's face as intently as she'd studied the Heir's. She saw the answer in Dandy's eyes.

Yes, she knew. And, of course, Daxia knew. But Kisa didn't.

"The Khorall," Daxia said succinctly. "I was in Court the day the Brother of Hastur brought the condolences from the Khorall of Talantal for the disappearance of her sister.

"Revealing the information as I discovered it would have led to..." Daxia closed her eyes and shook her head. "I don't see the Patterns as well as Kisa does, but I could see it would not have been good." She paused for a deep breath and then two heartbeats more before opening her eyes. "I thought it best to have all the information I could possibly find before passing it on to Kisa."

The Captain nodded once, sharply. "You did the right thing. I've worked for Linnell Allaine for a while now, and her reaction would not have been as well thought out as her Heir's. She has too much emotion invested in the situation. Rumor has it the three sisters were close when they were young." She laughed without humor. "Why do you think she sent me here last summer in her stead? It took me, that crockery tossing Priestess of yours, and this one here to talk her out of going."

She did study Kisa with more intensity than most people would dare. "I don't think you used all of your witchery, either. You held back, too."

Kisa nodded. "There were... there was a Path I couldn't let her walk. It wasn't necessary to reveal that, though."

Daxia was fairly certain she knew which Path that was... the one that led to the closing of Snowgate Pass again. But she kept still and quiet; this was between Kisa and the Captain of the mercenary troop she hired with her allowance.

"And it's not something I and my men need to be concerned with?"

Kisa shook her head... for her, it was verging on vigorous. "No, no! Daxia eliminated that Path."

"Good." She looked at Daxia as she walked over to the table and picked up another selection of food, this time including other fruits and one of the pastries. She didn't say anything else until she was back to her spot against the wall where she lounged casually.

"You wouldn't happen to know what your Initiate is doing, would you?" she asked before popping a cube of hard cheese in her mouth.

Daxia's brows furrowed. "Her job, I would hope. At least the part about protecting the weak and defending the defenseless."

Dandy nodded and tore off a piece of bread. "Good. So you know. Some will complain about the fact that she won't let anyone get near your sister's Initiate."

"Hmm, well... I'm not saying this to be disrespectful, but she's doing the right thing."

"Eastern princesses aren't morning people?"

Dazi shrugged. "I only have experience with one, so it isn't fair to make generalizations. It's just that disturbing Romana is a really bad idea... sometimes being a princess in the East can be rather traumatic. She's gotten a lot better in the time since we rescued her, though. It doesn't take half the day to calm her down from her hysteria when she's touched too much or startled awake. So stopping problems before they start is a good idea."

While she chewed her food, Dandy simply watched Daxia.

"There could be repercussions."

"I know. But the other Ladies of Attera have the Squires and Knights of Rames to look out for them. I can't see how that could possibly work out well for anyone in Romana's case. Still, there's a Dayalan Squire willing and able to take on the job." She smiled; it was a smile somewhere between fondness and amusement.

"Your great something auntie is the perfect protector for Romana. Me? I still want to give her a hug sometimes, and I have to force myself to... well, just tell her I'd hug her if she could bear it. The hugging thought doesn't even occur to Kay." She looked thoughtful for a moment. "Well, it might occur to her at some point... but not anytime soon, would be my guess. She still misses Lily so much."

Daxia sighed. "Maybe she should talk to Bekkah about that. Bekkah would understand about losing someone so dear. Sometimes you just need to talk to someone who understands, really understands, what you've gone through to be able to move forward."

"When did you get so wise?" Kisa asked with a smile in her voice.

Dazi shrugged. "I don't know. Sometime between saving a young girl's life, convincing her new mentor to sell the ore that was her inheritance back to your mother, and pissing off the Dark Mark... and breaking the curse on a Sister and her love." She looked up from her hands into Kisa's eyes. "And I'm still not sure I'm all that wise, you know."

"Mother thought it was funny... about the ore, I mean. She said you were very clever."

She smiled. "I had hoped she would. And Samara had to tell her it was my idea?"

"Oh, I think Samara wanted to give credit where credit was due. She was impressed, I believe."

"Oh, bah. Without Kadri, I never would have been able to come up with the idea in the first place. But... okay, I did make the connections. But that's the whole problem, Kisa. By myself, there's not much I can do. When I have people around me who are as diverse as my gang of misfits, there are all sorts of connections to be made."

"Why is that a problem, Daxia? I like your gang of misfits, as you call them. You get to see things I don't... the small things. Things that make a difference in individual lives." Kisa sighed softly and looked down at her folded hands. "I see the greater Paths, but I don't really make a difference in any one person's life."

Daxia stared at her.

"I can't tell if you're serious, or if you're fishing for a compliment."

Kisa looked back up with pain in her eyes.

"You're serious. And you're mad, Kisa Allaine! Let me find Bekkah, for surely you have a fever or have been poisoned!"

"Don't tease me about this, Daxia."

"Why not? You've made as much of a difference in my life as Gilly has... has Kassia has... as Bekkah has."

"You two are ruining my perfectly good breakfast." The Captain's comment caused both young women to look at her as if they only just remembered she was in the room. "Is it possible to beat this out of you, Yurisdotter?"

Daxia laughed. "No, Verchovai. Not at all. But I'd welcome the opportunity to work with you as you make your attempt."

Dandy just shook her head and picked up several of the remaining pastries. "By your leave, Dama," she said to Kisa, "I'll get Dunwich moving on equipping the troop to garrison at Brockman's. The sooner we get out there, the better it will be for old Dab's people."

Kisa nodded.

"And you..." she said to Daxia, a glint of... well, of something Dazi couldn't quite identify. "I'll send one of his lads up to fetch you for your beating... the youngster needs some experience managing his way through a place somewhat larger than Cragside."

She seemed to glide across the floor and pass directly through the door, so silent was her departure.

Daxia and Kisa sat quiet and still for a moment before the Heir spoke up.

"When people have a look like that in their eyes, good things rarely follow."

Dazi nodded. "Yah. I think she's looking forward to landing me on my backside a few times."

"What? Why?" Kisa asked.

"To find out how much I've learned. That would be my guess anyway."

"Do you really want to go out to get beat up this afternoon? That sounds... awful."

Again, Dazi shrugged. "Well, it's really more like I'll get to practice things I've learned from Kay and Mikal and Dean and Kadri and Cesare. I don't think the things I've learned from Darian are going to be helpful here. Maybe I'll learn some new things from the Captain and her men. It's all good, even if I do get beaten black and blue and purple in the process because it seems like people just want to get all rowdy, and so I have to defend myself. I really don't start fights. I don't think. Well. Maybe trying to break the curse on Tashka and Linette sort of goaded... That One... into attacking, which might be considered starting a fight.

"But not really."

Kisa shook her head and then rested it on Daxia's shoulder. "I can't really understand it."

Daxia smiled and wrapped an arm around Kisa. "That's okay. I can't really understand a lot of what you do, either. I like the stuff you showed me that made connections everywhere. But even with staff, you've got to learn how to run a household, and when your household is a castle, that's more than I can grasp."

Kisa chuckled. "Mostly it's a matter of managing the staff, but yes... a lot of it's rather dull. You probably should hope you never become the High Priestess, then."

Daxia giggled. "I'm a Wild Dayalan. I don't think there's any chance of that. Why, it could take three or four or even a handful of generations before something like that could happen!"

"But it could happen."

"Eventually. Someday. Maybe when we have more than one Temple again."

"I know you want to do something about that."

"I do. I try not to think about it too much because it's beyond overwhelming. But... yes." She rested her head against Kisa's and smiled. "Why should the other Gods and Goddesses have more than one place for Their children to gather? Oh, I know all wells are sacred to Her, especially those with the runes of Time and Horse and Water. But why should Dayala be forgotten? Why should folk look up in the sky each day and not even remember Her name?"

Until that moment, Daxia hadn't even realized how much it hurt her, hurt her heart to know that the One who brought Light to the world each day didn't even have a name to most people. The Sun was simply... Her. People didn't remember why. They didn't remember that Her name was Dayala.

Apparently, she was quiet longer than Kisa expected because she raised her head from Daxia's shoulder and looked at her.


"Oh. Sorry. I was just... thinking too much again, I suppose. Just wondering if our Lady was as sad as I am that so few people remember Her name."

"The Deities are inscrutable, and more people remember every year, Daxia. Your Gilly is very good at finding Initiates in the great wide world and bringing them to Dawnview. Poppy Gwynn... well, she just finds them and trains them and then you wind up with warriors like the Captain."

She paused, and Daxia nodded.

"Yes, I know. And Gilly laughed at me when I couldn't understand why the other Initiates didn't take their training seriously, when they left to... get married, of all things! She said, Well, where do you think baby Dayalans are going to come from, Dazi? We can't grow them like potatoes, you know." Dazi smiled. "That was actually kind of funny."

"Well, that's where I came from. Not that Mother studied the warrior arts at the Temple, but we've always been Dayalans, as far as I know. The Allaines, I mean. And many of the people in the Vale, too. There's no cathedral for the Imperial Gods and just a small hospice near each of the Keeps for the Atterans. Dawnview Vale is a different world, really.

"Part of it... well, possibly all of it... is because of our ancestor, the Snowqueen. Dawnview might have made peace with the Empire. We might even be good Imperial citizens." She paused, then continued more softly. "We're good Imperial citizens up to a point. Don't doubt for a moment, Daxia, that Dawnview Vale remembers exactly who our Lady is. And do not doubt that we know that Her name is Dayala."

"Oh, I found that out before I had even been in Cragside a day, I think. About Dawnview being a completely different world. Coming down the road through the Kierkegaard lands... it was easy to forget the world is a very different place beyond Snowgate Pass because the Kierkegaards are..." She paused, trying to decide how best to frame her opinion of the Kierkegaards and the people who owed their allegiance to Khorall Kristof.

"It's not just that they're an ally to Dawnview... I can't help but see them as friends of Dawnview as well. Yes, there might be decisions your mother makes as Khorall that make them wonder just what she's thinking. I'm sure you'll do the same. But they're good people, those Kierkegaards. And I could see just enough as I traveled that they're much more... ah, devout Imperial citizens. And at the same time, they hold to the old ways, some of them." She simply shrugged. "I think of the fallow fields I saw coming down the road from Snowgate Pass to Cragside, I think of how many fields lay fallow along the Highland Path. There are fewer as you get closer to Talantal, did you notice that? It's not that farmers are wiser as you move away from this place though I'm sure the official reason for the way the Highgaard folk do things is their unwavering practicality. I'm not convinced, though, that their farmers have forgotten Risha.

"And Cragside... towns and cities, in general... outside the Vale? I think... Well, if it hadn't been for Dandy, I might have been just another Initiate who went off for a few months and returned with tales of how awful the world was. Meeting her at the Hart and Horse, and having a conversation or two, gave me a few things to think about. "

She groaned, then sighed. "No. I guess I wouldn't have been one of those to hurry back to the Vale. I had the weight of Kassia's expectations on my shoulders. And I was learning more about people than I really wanted to know. Mostly the terrible stuff. Dandy... well, I'm not sure exactly what she was trying to teach me then, but maybe it was just perspective. There are good and bad people everywhere. You can't believe everything you hear." Daxia made a sound that was halfway between a cough and a snort. "You can't even believe everything you're taught, but I figured that one out on my own.

"Evil is real, and it walks among us wearing the faces of people who seem so nice. True goodness is real, and it too walks among us... often wearing the guise of our enemies. Who knew? Well, I didn't. I'm still fumbling my way around most of the time, but I do try very hard not to judge people on where they were born or who their family is, or even what Gods they follow. Gosh, as much as I want to meet my cousin and grandmother, as much as I would hope they could accept me and Bekkah as part of the family... if for no other reason than we're family... I have a fear that they'll be horrible people. How else does the world balance out when two Kories turn out to be nice men? Well, then... it would have to mean that my family is terrible.

"Okay, calling Dominic a 'nice man' is probably an insult to him. But he does have a good heart, and a keen sense of honor... once you figure out where it's coming from. And I do like him. Tray... yes, he's a nice man."

"I'm not so sure you're a chatterbox, my dear," Kisa said with a smile once Daxia had stopped talking. "I think maybe you just forget to close your mouth when you're thinking."

Dazi looked at her with amusement, with confusion, with affection.

"There's a difference?"

Kisa nodded. "Oh, yes. A chatterbox talks for the sake of talking and very often says things of no consequence. You simply talk out loud to organize your thoughts. Most people do that inside their heads."

"Oh. Um, I don't think I always do it."

"Often enough to get a reputation, though."

"Well... tcha!"

Kisa laughed. "I told you I don't mind. I like it. It's interesting to listen how a person moves from one idea to the next, and finally comes to a conclusion about something. It's especially interesting because you don't think like I do. And yet... you often reach the same conclusions.

"I really do like it."

Daxia looked at her skeptically for a moment, then smiled and hugged Kisa.

"That's what counts, I suppose. And speaking of nice men, I think we told Lord Tray we were going to invade his library this morning."

"We weren't really speaking about nice men, and we did warn him, yes. I'm not sure that's a proper strategy for an invasion, however."

"True. You did use the word 'visit', though. So he'll be unprepared for an invasion."

"Why are we invading his library? Why is it an invasion and not a visit? We're going to be properly polite and respectful."

Kisa didn't seem to be any more interested in getting up than Daxia did. She picked up another piece of bread and spread some of the soft cheese on it before covering it with a slice of harder cheese.

"Well, you are an Allaine going to part of the Korie Keep not designated for guests. It's an invasion of sorts. But there is the whole... odd little alliance you created yesterday..."

"You created."

"Fine, we created... so that would negate part of the invasion idea. But you still must consider the possibility that we will take prisoners."

"What?! Who? How could we take prisoners in his library?"

Daxia laughed.

"His books, silly! You must admit that the chances of Lord Tray having books neither of us has read... well, it approaches certainty!"

Kisa opened her mouth to say something, then changed her mind. She simply shook her head instead.

"I know. I think in ways that are not quite in line with the ways other people think." Daxia said it in a way that made it sound like she was quoting someone else. "I don't think it's such a bad thing. Usually."

"Hmm. Probably not. Usually." Kisa broke off a tiny piece of cheese and ate it, then turned the slice of cheese on the bread ever so slightly, apparently trying to find some symmetry or the most pleasing arrangement or...

"Kisa, why are you playing with your food?"

She put the food down and dusted her hand free of crumbs.

"I want to tell you something, but I don't want you to get upset."

"Okay," Dazi said, almost suspiciously. "That usually means that whatever someone wants to share is something that has a high probably of upsetting me."

"Well, it might not! You might think it's a good thing."

"Oh! Well, in that case, I can be sure that you're not going to tell me who your Mother has picked out for your Consort. I'm fairly certain I wouldn't think that is a good thing. No matter who he is."

"Daxia... No. That discussion shouldn't be had here and now. Although, yes... you're right. It should be had. But Mother has not picked out a consort for me, because... well, I might have told her I'd be very cross with her if she did."

Dazi stared at Kisa. "I cannot even begin to imagine that conversation."

"Oh, I'm sure you could. You spent enough time in Court to know Mother. You know me. It was all very polite, and very proper, and neither of us was happy." Kisa sighed. "I don't actually remember the last time I saw Mother happy."

It was Dazi's turn to open her mouth, and then just close it again. What could she say to that? Especially when Kisa was so matter-of-fact about it?

Kisa's sigh almost sounded like something she'd practiced. But she only glanced at Daxia's face before looking at the hands that rested properly in her lap.

"I am her peer now, Daxia. I am her daughter in the abstract, but in reality I am the person who will take the burden of being Khorall from her shoulders. I want to go to the Sea of Opals and touch the waters that are so far from Dawnview Vale because when I go home, I am almost certain Mother will hand those burdens to me. That's the Path I see now. There had been another..."

Daxia could almost see her pulling back, turning in on herself, despite the fact that she didn't move. When she didn't say anything more for a handful, and then another handful of heartbeats, Dazi was tempted...

No. They couldn't do that anymore... she couldn't do that anymore. Perhaps when they were in public... well, that was one thing. But here?

"Kisa, don't hide from me. That's what you're doing, you know. I can tell when you're trying to organize the Patterns... your eyes focus differently, and your posture is completely different." She sighed herself, but it was a real sigh, with a hint of real exasperation.

"Well, hardly anyone would be able to tell the difference, really. But I can."

After another moment, Kisa nodded to herself.

"I told you of the Path that led to... to a need to close Snowgate Pass again. Even you could see it easily. You didn't see why, except that it had to do with the Kories. And I didn't want to tell you anything more than that... for the same reason all my messages were so vague."

Her hands clenched together just a bit more than would be proper for a Noble Dama.

"You can't imagine, Dazling, the relief I felt when I read your letter saying that was a Path you could no longer see. That was the Path on which Mother was... was assassinated."

Daxia sat very, very still. There was more, and she was far too certain that the slightest move would send her beloved, her liege back into the safety of silence.

"I wasn't as certain that your life would be forfeited, too, but I knew it would have been a possibility," she whispered. "It was so close to a probability that I could almost feel the hoarfrost on my heart. Snowgate Pass..."

Kisa looked up at Daxia for a moment, and then found she couldn't look away. Daxia's expression was open and honest... there was no Court to hide from. Her Knight was not hiding; how could she?

"...I think I might have waited to tell you of my feelings until you returned. I didn't want you to know how much I feared for you, and I didn't want you to go — perhaps never to return — and not know how I felt."

So many emotions flowed over Daxia's features, crashed over her heart... and she let Kisa see them all. Beyond the shock and surprise, beyond the fear and the worry, there was love and respect.

"Did your mother know?"

Kisa started to shake her head but then shrugged. "I believe she suspected. I see the Patterns so much better, but she sees them well enough. I don't think it was a certainty in what she saw."

Daxia nodded. "Is that why you came to Council instead of her?"

Kisa smiled. "No. I came because it was time for me to play Doublebluff with Dorian Korie. I came because I saw the smallest possibility that you would be here."

"We were only here because Mikal wanted to pay respects to his departed family. And because I needed to find the last piece of the puzzle that was Innocence Allaine and Danton Kierkegaard."

Kisa nodded. "That explains why I saw such a tiny chance of meeting you here." Her sigh was barely more than a breath.

"I am going home to be Khorall, Daxia. A Khorall need not die for an Heir to take their place, you know. A Khorall can step down, you know. I know it doesn't happen much, and maybe it only happens in Dawnview. But Mother is tired. Not of life, but of... the burdens. That's one of the other reasons I'm here... I think she is tired of playing the games.

"And if it gives me the chance to see her happy again..." Kisa shrugged. "I am her Heir, but I am her daughter, too."

Dazi reached out and pulled Kisa into a warm embrace.

"Ah, Kisa... life hasn't been kind or easy or fair to either of us, has it? But we do have each other. I'm so glad you came to say goodbye at Snowgate Pass."

Kisa nodded against Daxia's shoulder.

"I wasn't sure I'd ever see you again. I wasn't sure." She hugged Daxia tightly. "Your mother loved you, Dazi. You said you remembered that," Kisa said, almost a non-sequitur.

"Uh huh. I do. And your mother loves you. No. Stop trying to argue with me about it. I watched you in Court for how many years? That meant watching you and your mother talking before the Court sessions started. Once those doors opened, she was Khorall Linnell Allaine... and you were the shadow, the odd and strange Heir, the one who stood beside her and simply watched.

"But before the doors opened, when it was only family and the trusted warriors of Dayala in the room?

"Well, ask Reena if you must. But I saw a difference in your mother, and I know she did, too. And Kassia not only saw everything, I think she also knew everything. I'm sure she still does."

Kisa said nothing, not for a long while. Finally, softly, with a voice full of anguish, she said, "How can you see it, and I can't?"

"How was I able to see how Kassia cared about me until I looked with new eyes? That's all you need, my love... you only need to look at her with different eyes."

"You don't understand, Daxia! I can't see this on the Paths, my tiles don't tell me anything! This is not something I can find in any book or scroll!"

Dazi wiped the two small tears from Kisa's face with her tunic sleeves, brushed the hair away from her face with gentle fingers. She rested her hands lightly on Kisa's shoulders and looked into eyes as bright as and more beautiful than any gemstone.

"Do you trust me, Kisa?"

Kisa was in a strange place of wildly fluctuating emotions; a place so unfamiliar and uncomfortable that she had done everything she could to avoid it. She wanted to believe Daxia's version of what she saw... what she thought she saw. She always knew she was meant to be Khorall, she always knew she was different. She was Festival-born, and she believed — when she was young and still had such fantasies — that Mother favored Eleni for that reason. She was a grown woman herself now and felt foolish to crave her mother's love.

"I trust you, Daxia."

"Then will you trust that I truly believe when you see the world outside Dawnview Vale, it will allow you see things within it differently? Will you trust that I truly believe that the mother of the Khorall — the mother who has given her burdens to her strong and courageous daughter — can say words to the new Khorall that might have come hard for the Mother when she was speaking to her Heir?"

Instead of answering the question, Kisa asked one of her own.

"Do you trust me, Daxia? Do you know I would not lie to you, except by necessary omissions to keep the Paths safe?"

"Ah, Kisa... of course I trust you. Your messages of incomprehensible tiles make my brain spin in circles until I have no hope of understanding them until events have come and gone to make sense of them. But I know you would not lie to me. And I know your concern is to keep the people of our world safe, especially to keep the people of Dawnview Vale safe. And so I do understand there are things you cannot say. Do I like it? No. Do I understand? Of course. Do I trust you? Yes... with my heart and my life."

"Then will you trust that I believe you are the reason Gillyflower has sent more girls to Dawnview just since the Pass opened in Spring than in the past handful of years combined? Will you trust that I believe you are the reason girls are coming to Dawnview on their own or seeking out both Gillyflower and Dandelion? Will you trust that I believe you and Kay are the reason I saw girls coming from this side of Silk Creek as I traveled with the Horde, and these girls were going to Dawnview? Will you trust that I truly believe we will hear a similar tale from Richter Gwynn should we meet with her?"

Daxia looked stunned; her hands dropped to her lap and she could hardly breathe.

"This is happening??"

"This is happening."

"Hoi," Daxia whispered.

She really didn't know what to think. She didn't think she had been any more visible than Dandy or Gilly as they'd traveled the Highland Path. True, Dandy and the Horde tended to the problem of the Fae in the Spring... but wasn't that more up the Road East from Brementown? Well, no... the Fae were unpredictable, except perhaps to Dandelion Koromov. And Gilly didn't travel so much as she helped kill off the gryphons that threatened the farmers on the Tarn.

And... well, there was that whole bloody battle outside Bordertown. That did make her more than a little noticeable.

Since Highside Heather, Kay... well, again, Daxia couldn't take that credit... except that without her intervention, Kay would have died an Age ago.

She stood and ran her fingers through hair that still needed a knife taken to it. She was so confused! Why she was as...

Daxia stopped, turned, and shook a finger at Kisa as a sly grin spread across her face.

"Ha! Dazi know what doing here! Kisa think Dazi not believe crazy tale, Kisa not have to believe Dazi. Ha! Fool you, Kisa Allaine! Dazi believe you. So, ha!"

Kisa smiled in return. "But you're not happy about it. You only talk like the folks from up in the Jambles when you're upset."

"Yah, yah... or talk with Darian, or maybe excited." Then she stopped to stare at Kisa again. "Jambles talk?"

Kisa nodded. "I thought you knew that."

"No. Kassia called it 'peasant talk' and got plenty annoyed with me when I wouldn't stop. For goodness sakes, I was FOUR and had just lost my mother! What did she expect?

"Huh. Well, who can say, really? But Bekkah always tended to talk more like Papa. Her's would be that soft accent from around Sapphire Lake, I suppose. There was always something so much more compelling about the way Mama spoke, though." Daxia shrugged.

"I can hear a hint of it sometimes in the way Aunt Sasha speaks," Kisa said. "There's certainly an interesting cadence to it."

Daxia looked at Kisa for a moment before laughing.

"Oh, this will be interesting. You're more of a scholar than I am, more than I could ever hope to be... although I did tell Morning Star my goal was to learn everything. Perhaps, after we visit Talesan's Village and Mikaelsson's Farm, we should return east along the Satin River. Not that we could dare enter the Plains of Kaa, but we could look at them from across the river. Shouldn't we see every part of the world we can?"

Daxia smiled. "I didn't realize there was so much of the Vale itself that was hidden from me. I know the Castle and the Temple, I know the lands around them. I have some memories of being small, but they're memories of Mother, of Father, of our small house, and of Bekkah. I know the road out of the Vale, through the Pass, and I will always have etched in my memory a rocky outcropping that wouldn't even be noticed from the Keep above. Everything else I know of our Vale I learned from you and your books."

Then she chuckled.

"Oh, but the learning and the travel are not things to decide today. Today is the day we invade a Lord's Library!" Daxia giggled. "Even to me, that sounds funny. What did you plan to do this afternoon while I'm being beaten by Captain Koromov?"

Kisa stood up and brushed imaginary crumbs from her tunic. "I thought I might go with you."

Daxia tilted her head one way and then tilted it again in the other direction. Finally, she simply shook it.

"You didn't hear the part about me getting beaten? Horribly? You've turned evil and suddenly enjoy seeing me being abused?"

Kisa grinned as she walked over to Daxia, then tapped her Knight on the chin.

"Nonsense. I will be there to watch a fair and even match."

Daxia blinked, then clamped her jaws shut to keep from laughing. When she was fairly certain wasn't going to do more than giggle, she took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

"I can only say this to you because I love you so much. But you are so adorably delusional, Kisa, that I just hope you can keep from crying at the beating I'm going to take.

"Dandelion is one of the very best warriors on the mainland. Period. Yes, that Deynnekko lad is a better swordsman... and Barris Ironhand might be as good. I hear the Deynnekko's father is even better than the son. But Kisa, Captain Koromov is... she's..."

She shook her head again.

"Well, I just hope I can be that good someday."

"Hmm. You tease me again, my Knight. I think I am coming to like that."

Daxia rolled her eyes and sighed as she opened the suite door for Kisa.

"I don't know why people have such a hard time believing me," she muttered to herself.

# # #

No actual prisoners were taken that day in the library of Lord Tray. Daxia had scanned the room when they entered, noted the presence of Miss Mouse, the arrangement of the furniture, the window, the items on Lord Tray's table... and deemed it safe enough.

Although she listened to their conversation — how could she not when the room was not overly large and they spoke in conversational tones? — Daxia was more interested in the books neatly arranged on the shelves lining the room. This, in turn, seemed to intrigue the little Mouse. She found a collection of books that looked to be from Dawnview Vale; she smiled at that.

So Dominic hadn't been teasing when he said he'd been there. He probably hadn't been exaggerating — not much, anyway — about knowing Kisa. Ah, but Kisa had said she knew him and even trusted him... after a fashion. Which, for Dominic Dominie Korie, was generally the best one could expect.

One of the books was more well-worn than the others, and she puzzled over that as she picked it up. In an instant, Mouse was there at her side. Interestingly, or at least perhaps interestingly, the youngling seemed both annoyed and protective. Of the book?

Dazi looked at the book in her hands and felt a sharp stabbing pain of loss. Closing her eyes and holding the book almost reverently against her chest, she only breathed. Kisa and Tray were continuing their conversation — something particularly exciting about household management — so Mouse was the only one to note Dazi's reaction, as her back was to the two Nobles.

After a moment, she opened her eyes and looked at Mouse. Almost surprisingly, the child — was she actually a child? — was hard to read at the moment. As though she spent as much time in Court under Kassia's tutelage as Daxia had. She held the book between them and whispered so she did not disturb the Nobles.

"This was a book my mother read to me. Well, it being mostly pictures, perhaps that's not quite what she did. She made up stories about the images for me."

The Dayalan smiled and handed the book over to Miss Mouse. "It is well-loved here, I see. Perhaps I will pen some of the stories Mama told me and send them to Lord Tray. The tales he tells are likely born of the High Tarn and are bound to be different than Dawnview Vale stories."

Mouse took the book and hugged it tightly, then looked between the Dayalan and the Korie Lord. She nodded slowly to Daxia before scurrying back to her perch near Tray. Both Kisa and Tray gave Daxia questioning looks, but Dazi merely continued her inspection of the library. It would be even more interesting to spend days in here than in Lord Random's tower... Lord Tray kept his books and scrolls neat and orderly.

But then she spied something of even greater interest, and actually let out a small sound — or rather, it was impossible to hold in the squeal of delight. She did try to keep it as quiet as possible, though.


Her fingers linked tightly together and held tight against her stomach, she simply let her eyes scour the map on the stand in one corner.

Both Kisa and Tray laughed.

"It only looks ancient," Tray said as he gestured to the map. "It's perfectly fine to touch it, Lady Daxia."

She glanced at him and then back at the map. "Just Daxia," she said absently. Did she dare touch it?

"I wonder... did your Knight pick up that habit from my new sister-in-law, or did Kadri learn it from your Knight?"

"I suspect they came to the same habit independently," Kisa said carefully. "At least Daxia does not have the complication of having been raised to know the importance of titles."

"Not true," Daxia said, not looking up from the map. It appeared to be only representing the Korie holdings. "Kassia tell. Dandy tell. Dazi know." She didn't say anything more as her finger traced along the line of the Highland Path from Talantal toward the west, not quite touching the parchment.

There was a moment of silence in which Tray looked at Kisa with raised eyebrows.

"I stand corrected. It would appear both my Knight and your sister-in-law do know the importance of titles."

"Yah," Dazi said, again talking more to the map than the nobles. "Titles important. Sometimes. Not in friend's library."

She studied an area on the far northwestern edge of the map. "Huh. Dominie not lie about visiting Dirkwood?"

Tray sighed softly and looked at his small companion, who still clutched the book tightly. "I'm not sure which particular story he told you, but that manor hard against the Dirkwood is his. And he did bring young Miss Mouse home from a visit there."

"Ah. He tell of tree trying to eat him."

"That might have actually been fairly close to the truth. He rescued Miss Mouse... though neither of them will tell the full tale."

Daxia looked up from the map, taking in the sight of the Lord and the servant, then nodded.

"It would be cruel, I think, to ask Miss Mouse to tell of such things. And I suspect it would take a year of hearing the tale told by Dominic to find the truth in it."

Tray seemed to look at her with new eyes while Kisa hid a smile.

"How long have you known my brother? It would appear that you understand him better than many."

Daxia shrugged. "I was taught to observe. And..." She smiled. "He's a foxy one, your little brother. Tales hold the truth he wants to be told, and it could take a multitude of tellings for him to give away all the truth.

"I only met him at Midwinters. In Bordertown. But long enough to know there's at least one person in this world who can compete with me in the use of many words."

"Really?" Tray looked both skeptical and impressed. "I have been treated to the multitude of words my brother is capable of producing, and the obfuscation he weaves with them. That anyone could compete with him is an impressive feat."

"In the weaving of obfuscations, I will admit he is the master. In the sheer volume of words, however?" She grinned. "I have not been called a chatterbox because I look like a box. Even His Magnificence felt I was giving far too many of my words to Lord Dominic."

"Ah. The Black Unicorn. I was unsure about approaching him, so merely looked from afar."

"If you come bearing apples, Morning Star will suffer your presence," Daxia said with a snicker. "He is an Immortal, and so... there is much that can be said with that single word. But he has such a fondness for apples that he tolerates even a tall, white-haired princess turned Lady of Attera. And this is the same tall, white-haired princess he thought I had meant to be a snack for him when he approached me." The Dayalan shook her head. "I've learned more of the history of the Second Age's ending than can be told... from the Immortal, from two cursed Priestesses, from experiencing the reason one should avoid staying at Highside Heather. There was little in any of it to be joyful about. And yet..."

She turned back to the map, noting the location of Bordertown, letting her finger trace the path from there to the Silk Creek Bridge.

"And yet we maintained our pragmatism, we Dayalans. In the face of the very worst the East threw at us, a Priestess still kept her tongue sharp. And a young Darkdowner could still pilfer food, tolerate with patience having her head rubbed raw, and smile at her Sister she thought more than a little daft. She'd deny the patience, though, I think."

She dared to rest a hand on the map, feeling the texture of the parchment and appreciating it as much as merchants might admire the texture of the fine silks they carried to and fro.

"This has not always been a dire place... the Dirkwood. I don't think I know how to help Jankin's Lord heal his hurts that grew from the end of the last Age. And now... Jankin has been called off, to continue his journey, not in our company.

"But it would be hubris on my part to think I could have a significant effect on what was once called The Heartwood."

Daxia heard the clicking of tiles as Kisa — absolutely not absently — jiggled the pouch at her waist. Daxia was already turning to give her a baleful look when Kisa spoke.

"I will not say it is a thing you should or should not attempt. But Daxia..." Kisa wasn't quite expressionless, at least not in Daxia's eyes. But she certainly looked like she belonged in Court at this moment.

" are my Knight for one reason. And you are the Knight of Dawnview Castle because you have already accomplished great and significant things."

"But I..."

"Yes. I know. You didn't do it alone, you had help. You give as much credit to your group as you save for yourself if you even bother to spare any for yourself. You couldn't act with hubris if you took lessons, you know."

Daxia crossed her arms and pretended to pout at Kisa. The little Mouse made a tiny noise that sounded an awful lot like a giggle... and Lord Tray actually did laugh.

"I could so! If I had lessons. Maybe."

"But it would be an act, Dazi. Not hubris."

She looked down again, her arms not so much crossed now as hugging herself. "It was for Jankin that I offered to do it. He... he felt so horrible about the part he played at Highside Heather. I just thought... if I helped him do some good, well... he'd know I didn't blame him."

"Hmm. I think there's a thing or two about honor you could teach some of our men of Rames here."

Daxia looked up at the Korie Lord, startled. "Don't say such things, my Lord. It's blasphemous."

"That doesn't mean it's not true."

Daxia widened her eyes and affected a look of fear that might have fooled a lot of people. "Cor! M'Lady, ain't he but tryin' ta get me turned ta firewood! I'm a proper Imperial citizen an' all!"

Both Nobles blinked at her act. Then one smiled very slightly, and the other burst out laughing.

She was the very picture of innocence as she looked down at her side. "Oh. Gosh. Well, I guess the sword does make that one a little difficult to pull off."

"Let me guess," Tray said when he managed to stop laughing quite so hard. "Dominic."

Daxia shook her head and smiled. "His Lady wife. She's powerfully clever when she wants to be, and puts on a good act."

# # #

The Heir and her Knight returned to the Allaine guest suite, Kisa having returned to her quiet and bookish persona the moment they stepped out of Lord Tray's rooms. It was the persona that people outside the Vale seemed to have dubbed "Snowqueen." However, to Daxia, it looked as if Kisa was trying to puzzle through the Patterns, looking for a Path. She wasn't exactly hyper-vigilant as she paced behind Kisa... not quite. But Kisa wasn't at home. True, the Kories' castle might be ever so similar to the layout of Dawnview Castle. And true, her mother might have made her memorize the layout of the Korie Keep before coming to Midsummer Council. But Daxia at least needed to keep in mind that the Korie's castle wasn't exactly the same as the Allaine's.

In addition to protecting Kisa from any threats, she also needed to make sure the Heir didn't absentmindedly walk into a wall. Or another person. The friend of the Heir knew that wouldn't happen. Kisa had... well, Dazi wasn't sure if it was a honed skill or yet another gift. Whatever it was, it kept Kisa from falling down stairs, bouncing off walls, or walking into people. The bodyguard of the Heir, on the other hand, was probably going to keep right on being overly cautious.

Still, it was no doubt a blessing that they had encountered only a single servant hurrying down one of the corridors with her arms loaded with linens. She had been so startled that the Noble moved out of her way that she nearly dropped her burden. Daxia paused to steady her, smiling... then simply shrugged slightly when the servant's gaze darted to Kisa.

Kisa hadn't stopped walking, of course. After watching, for a heartbeat or perhaps two, the Korie household servant hurried off to complete her errand, and Daxia easily caught up with Kisa. Who knew what rumors would come out of that chance encounter?

They had time for a light lunch; following that, there was enough time for Daxia to slip on her hauberk then her Temple surcoat and even her greaves. She'd considered leaving the surcoat behind, but Gilly had admonished her about walking blatantly around any town in armor. It was almost always a terrible idea. So the surcoat covered the hauberk, her tunics covered the greaves.

Before she could decide if putting the vambraces on was a bad idea or a practical idea, one of Dunwich's apprentices came to fetch her.

Or them, rather. Kisa was still convinced it was a good idea to go with her.

No, it was more that she wasn't convinced it was a bad idea.

The three of them made quite an amusing sight as they walked out of the Allaine suite and into the Keep's corridors. First, the Heir of Allaine insisted on carrying Daxia's vambraces and helm... because Daxia's shield looked heavy.

"But Kisa, it's not..."

"It looks heavy to me, Daxia."

And that was simply that. One did not argue with one's liege. Usually. And certainly not when she was set on doing something.

Young Jarek couldn't have been much more than two handful of years old. He seemed quite certain this was the funniest thing that he had seen in his life... although he didn't seem quite as certain that showing his enormous amusement was a good idea.

...until Dazi started muttering to herself, that is. That was the second thing.

"Oh, yah, yah! Good joke, see Dazi with sword, shield! Ha ha. Old joke. Now Kisa make new, pretending squire. What Mother think, eh, news come say Heir now warrior? Many laughing Starswords. Jvrillians, too. Rames Squires polite, maybe not laugh. No, maybe Squires laugh too. Knights maybe not."

She kept up her muttering in this vein all the way out to the courtyard. They hadn't made it down a single flight of stairs before Kisa started chuckling. She had started off with a serious attempt to... well, remain serious. She was doing a very poor job of it, too, by the time they stepped into the sunlight.

Jarek was alternately grinning and trying not to laugh at the same time. One might have gotten the impression that this was the best day of his life.

Daxia just ignored the both of them. It was easier that way. It wasn't that she was especially annoyed with Kisa. However, she did think it ridiculous for the Heir to be lugging her vambraces — that she could have easily slipped on her arms, or even tucked under her shield arm — and her helm. Yes. Ignoring the both of them was the best thing to do.

Impossible, of course, with Kisa walking beside her. She had a smile on her face that was barely a smile, but Dazi knew. She recognized the look and very nearly smiled back at the Heir. Kisa was smart enough to walk beside Dazi's shield arm. Though not trained as a fighter, surely more than one person must have talked about why one was best off to walk beside a sworder's shield side. And if that wasn't the case...

Well, Daxia had waxed rhapsodic on the topic once. Kisa had certainly given the impression of being interested. And she even remembered. Then there had been her enthusiastic — or perhaps it had been overly enthusiastic — explanations of learning to wield her sword with either her right or her left hand.

Of course, she was still better with the sword on the right and shield on the left, but she and Dean had been practicing the opposite way. She was better at using the sword left handed than she had been when she'd left the Vale. True, not by a huge measure, but enough that she noticed it. She had even learned some fun ways to bash bales of hay using the sword with two hands. Using her bastard sword in a battle with two hands would be a last resort. But if it came down to that last resort... well, she stood a better chance of surviving an encounter than she had a year ago.

Jarek walked on her other side. It spoke well of his position in a mercenary troop that he kept enough distance between them so as not to impede her movements should she need to draw her sword. Of course, he was an apprentice to the Quartermaster and likely someone in the troop's son. The Dayalan thought the likelihood of her needing to draw her sword was so small as to be nearly impossible... but that didn't mean she would refuse to be vigilant.

Was the boy paying attention to where he was going, however? No, it was Midsummers all over again, and he was looking at every possible thing around him.

Except the people, usually. Finally, Daxia sighed and grabbed his collar.

"Yah, okay. Jarek look, look, look. Dazi keep Jarek from falling down well."

He actually looked around to see where the well was.

She sighed again.

As the odd little group neared the gate of the Fifth Ring, the Khorall's Captain of the Guard seemed to materialize out of nowhere in front of them. With his gaze, the Knight dismissed Kisa. It was a mistake, to be sure, but perhaps the dismissal was merely due to the fact that she was carrying some of Dazi's armor. And at the moment, she was not wearing the surcoat with the Allaine House colors. Her undertunic was a deep and vibrant shade of blue — almost matching Dazi's eyes — and her overtunic was a shade of turquoise rarely seen in fabrics. Her belt was an exceptionally long length of white silk that she's wrapped around her waist several times and tied in the back. By Dawnview Vale standards, it was quite ordinary. But in Talantal, it was just interesting enough that it would garner Kisa some appraising looks from enterprising goodwives.

"And where do you think you're going?" the Knight asked Daxia.

She would have thought, as recently as a moment ago, that letting the woman with a sword leave the Fifth Ring would make the Imperials happy. Apparently not.

"Think am returning gawker errand boy of Wild Horde. Maybe let Captain of Wild Horde try break shield, yah? She not break, but maybe she try."


Once again, Daxia sighed. She'd gotten used to having people understand her when she started in on her peasant talk that was apparently just the accent of folks from up beyond the Highbeck Jambles. Before she could repeat herself, in proper Colonial this time, Kisa translated for her. Sort of.

"We're going down to see Captain Koromov. Of the Wild Horde? The errand boy came to fetch us."

"Yes, sir," the lad said as he nodded. "These are the Damas I was sent to fetch, sir." Jarek looked eager and earnest as only a child could.

Well... or a follower of Arilys, Daxia amended to herself.

The Knight of Rames glared at the boy.

"Oh, indeed, Sir. The Captain did say she'd send someone this afternoon to fetch me," Daxia said, nodding in agreement with Jarek.

Then the Knight of Rames glared at Daxia.

"And I thought it prudent to have a few words with my employee."

Finally, the Knight of Rames glared at Kisa.

"Who are you?"

"I apologize, Captain Donnerson. Yesterday's Council was quite hectic with Lord Dominic's new wife arriving and the confusion about Lady Bekkah's new Initiate." Daxia almost made it sound as though she was personally at fault for not keeping the Knight informed.

"Dama," she said to Kisa, "may I present Sir David Donnerson, Captain of Khorall Korie's Guard?"

Kisa politely inclined her head to the Knight. "Captain."

"Sir David, this is Dama Kisa Allaine, Heir of Allaine... attending Council on the Khorall's behalf."

Dom Dominie's little village had changed considerably in the past day. Daxia suspected the Knight of Rames was having a difficult time adjusting.

He glared at her again. "And just who are you?"

Interestingly, to Dazi's ears, it didn't sound as though he actually wanted to know. She was a woman carrying a sword, after all.

"Lady Daxia Yurisdotter," Kisa said brightly, "Knight of Dawnview Castle and my personal guard."

At the moment, Daxia had the impression that she was going to owe Dom Dominie an apology for shaking his village so very hard. She hadn't meant to... but... well...

There was Kadri... and there was Romana... and she hadn't meant to turn the Council on its ear... and... Well, he had asked her to bring her sister here to see his brother!

Maybe Dominic would be in residence in his little Manor by the Dirkwood when they got down to Talesan's Village. Right now, it seemed the best place for him.

On the other hand, given the fact that his Lady had been extraordinarily amused by the whole thing, and the fact that his Wife had played a significant role in the grand shaking of his little village...

...maybe Dominic wouldn't be too terribly upset with her? She did get Bekkah here to heal Tray up rather nicely, after all.

A familiar equine head peered over her shoulder at Sir David.

He didn't bring me apples. Only a few of the ladies who dress like your sister bothered to bring me apples. And your boy who dresses like this one. I think I will decide to like him. Your boy, I mean.

Oh, you poor dear. Daxia was sure her sarcasm was wasted on the Immortal. We'll have to find you some apples. And Dean isn't 'my boy'. He's a Squire of Rames.

Sir David looked more than a little on edge as he looked at the Immoral. Dazi felt just a small pang of guilt about being happy that there was someone as stressed and confused as she was.

The Knight glanced to Morning Star's side, at someone or something behind and between Daxia and Jarek.

"You! You don't think you're going with... with these people, do you?"

Daxia glanced behind her to see their Squire. She smiled at him. Although he'd been assigned... hmm, assigned or commanded? In either case, Bekkah was his responsibility. He could very well be going down to the First Ring — where she fully expected her sister, Romana and possibly the Darcy-Marcy had gone this morning. She was fairly certain Bekkah would find his presence unnecessary. And here in Talantal? Maybe she was right... unless she was with Romana, which she likely was. But even then, there was Kay.

Of course, if Squire Dean did want to join them, he'd certainly be welcome! Maybe if he watched her getting beaten purple and blue, she could finally get off the pedestal he had put her on. Oh, it wasn't anything near as high as Bekkah's, but it was there. She had been inching herself off it. It would be nice to take that last step down and just be... well, Daxia. At least most of the time.

And if he did join them, maybe she'd be able to convince Barris to give him a lesson.

While Sir David had his attention on Sir Kevin's Squire, she turned to Kisa and whispered to her in Ancient. "I don't think the Church in this little village knows how to deal with a Squire trained by the famous Knight of Talesan's Village."

"I have heard," Kisa replied softly in the same language, "that our own knight who defends the poor and defenseless in that area is well known to the Knight in question."

Daxia nodded. "I have heard this, too. Gilly had many good things to say about Poppy and our Squire's Knight." She glanced quickly at Sir David. "We should talk later about that; about you and your cousin, da?"

Kisa hesitated only a fraction of a heartbeat, and yet it was noticeable enough to Dazi. "In some ways, I might feel as you do about your Glacier kin."

Daxia was only vaguely aware of the very likely humorous conversation between the Captain of the Guard and her Squire. Well... he wasn't her Squire. That would be Kay. But he was part of her little gang of misfits, so in that sense he was hers. And probably she was the only person who found Dean so delightfully amusing... most of the time. There was still that whole 'Lady' nonsense that was more than a little overdone.

He was saying something about apples and the Unicorn, but seeing as the Unicorn was leaving, there was no need to fetch the apples just yet, and he was sure there was something else Lady Anastasia had asked him to do before he set off to find Lady Bekkah and Lady Romana and he would just be going back to the Cathedral, thank you very much, sir.

Kisa looked at Dean and switched to Colonial. "Is he always like that?"

Daxia shook her head and smiled. "He is a good man to have at your side in a battle. When not fighting, though? If I had a younger brother, I think he's the sort I'd like to have."

That was when the Knight of Rames sighed.

"Please... just... go."

"Thank you."



Morning Star merely tossed his head, magnificently, of course.

They managed to get out of sight of the gate at least before Kisa started giggling.

"Oh, that poor man! What must he have thought of all that?"

Daxia looked at her and simply shook her head. Should she mention...?

Oh, why not?

She grinned, and her steps became a bit bouncier with happiness.

"Well... try to imagine this...

"It's not Midsummers or Midwinters, of course. But you have guests arriving at Dawnview Castle. There's family, of course. But then there are also those who aren't family. They're... well, not family.

"How would your House Guard handle having a Squire of Rames in their midst? Admittedly, he's a shy sort and can be quite intimidated by women above his rank — nothing at all like your own Knight's Squire — but still... he is a Squire of Rames.

"And then there's the Jvrillian. He's not shy, not really. He's just a nice farm boy turned soldier, not so much different from your Knight, really, excepting that your Knight studied in the Temple. Still... he is a Jvrillian.

"Of course, there would be nothing unsettling about family returning, even though one of the family members had turned to Lady Attera. Everyone loves Lady Attera. And her Priestess is just one of the nicest people you'll ever meet. But she's found herself an Initiate. Oh, and that Initiate is tall... with the whitest hair! True, she's even shyer than the Squire of Rames, and every bit as nice as her Priestess. As eager as a little puppy, too! Still... she's from a place where folks aren't liked much by folks who guard your home.

"A Hunter? Well, there likely won't be a lot said about that, for everyone must eat and Hunters provide a valuable service. A traveling Rhoni would be unremarkable, as Rhoni travel... and Rhoni are — or so I've heard — frequent visitors to the Vale. A kind and thoughtful woodcarver would also not be as remarkable as one might think.

"Still, there's the tiny Amberite, one who is now also a Korie. A visitor from Amber would not cause remarks to be made, but she has married a Korie. Now that will cause a bit of a stir, I'd suppose. Perhaps less than I had first thought, given that you already know her husband.

"Lastly, of course, is your Knight's Squire, who is bold and plain speaking and of an Imperial Family."

Daxia glanced at Kisa again, as they neared the next gate.

"How do you suppose the Captain of your Guard would feel about such a ragtag bunch of misfits visiting and making mischief in your house?"

Kisa smiled. "I can't imagine they'd make all that much mischief, would they?"

Daxia laughed. "Oh, Kisa... Kisa... Kisa. You are so dear and sweet! I would advise you not to look at the Patterns or lay out your tiles prior to the visit, for I fear I'd find you frowning and unhappy.

"How much mischief can such a ragtag bunch of misfits make when they're led about by your very own Knight?

"Really, Kisa?"

She giggled.

"Did you not follow the waves of mischief that group of misfits made as you came down the Highland Path? Oh, to be sure we'd all be on our very best behavior while visiting your home. You can be assured of that!

"But we've been on our best behavior while visiting the little village of Dom Dominie. Our very best behavior! And you see how worn and stressed poor Sir David is!

"Do you really think your Guards will fare any better?"

Kisa merely smiled enigmatically at her Knight.

"Of course they will. They are made of sterner stuff. And my Knight is one of them!"

Dazi groaned.

"I'll likely be imprisoned in the Temple by the High Priestess, and made to give a full accounting of my activities since leaving. A very full accounting, one that will of necessity include exacting details. And I'll no doubt be expected to explain all manner of things for which I have no answers, including how I came to have the Squire I previously mentioned. Or no answers that can be explained by anyone but our Lady Herself, who is ineffable as well as inscrutable.

"Hmm. They do make a nice pairing... our Lady and her Unicorns. That's not too bold and forward of me, I hope. But... well, it's expected, I would guess, that those who are Immortal are of a different temperament and would have different sensibilities than those of us who are mere mortals."


"Yes, Kishka?"

"You're doing it again."

Daxia stopped talking, although she continued walking through the next gate into the Third Ring.

"Hmm. I suppose I was. I'll have to think most diligently on the matter of thinking my thoughts inside my head more... like most people do. Or so I've heard."

Jarek just giggled.

They walked in companionable silence for a bit, although the young lad kept looking over his shoulder at the Immortal, who was... promenading. That's the only word to adequately describe the way His Magnificence walked.

How did you manage to get your saddle on, by the way? I know you are magnificent and all varieties of wondrous, but I'm not sure that's a skill you actually possess.

Of course not. How silly! I merely convince others to do my bidding.

Of course. You're right. How silly of me.

"He's very pretty," the boy whispered to Daxia.

"Handsome. Boys are handsome." Better to cut that particular conversation off before it even began!

"Well, yes... but how can you say a mane like his is just handsome? It's far too beautiful to be handsome. So doesn't that mean it's pretty?"

"Oh, no. Most assuredly not. Morning Star is absolutely handsome, absolutely not pretty... or even beautiful."

The young apprentice considered that for a bit.

"But then what would you call him if he's more than handsome, but you can't call him beautiful?"

Daxia smiled at the youngster.

"Why, magnificent, of course!"

The walk through the rings of Talantal was different today, of course. Commerce was, perhaps, not quite as brisk as it might be had Midsummers not been the day before, but Jarek had stopped gawking and was simply curious. They garnered more attention today, but the Nobles and the merchants and the craftsmen who took notice of the swordswoman today were less interested in her than the children and their mothers had been yesterday.

While the Third Ring of merchants gave the impression of a body slowly waking after a long night of heavy drinking, the Second Ring of craftsmen might have been called a body going about its business as usual, despite the night of heavy drinking. Both were a contrast to the First Ring where the drinking had either never happened or was so habitual that it had little effect on the body.

"You'll learn such things, Kisa," she said absently as they caught sight of the gates to the entrance of Grand Talantal itself. "This city could be called a microcosm of our world, with the rings showing nearly all the ways people can be." Daxia glanced at the Heir. "The world outside the Vale is so interesting and different.

"Though the Great Tasks I and my gang have found to accomplish might have been harrowing, the rest of it?" She grinned broadly as they stepped through the gates of the city, out into world beyond.

"It's full of wonder, Kisa. I think you'll find it every bit as interesting as your books. And much more surprising!"

# # #

Barris handed her the practice sword and glanced at the sword in its scabbard at her hip. "You could leave that with Dama Kisa."

Daxia simply shook her head.

"Yurisdotter... you're facing Koromov out there. Are you insane?"

She looked Barris Ironhand in the eyes and held them for a moment. "Aren't all Wild Dayalans?"

"Apparently. Would you like some advice?"

She smiled. "I know her greatest weakness and I doubt I could think of a plausible reason to exploit it, and that's even assuming I had the skill to do so. She seems annoyed about something, which either gives me the smallest sliver of an advantage or means I'm doomed. I am here because I need practice against someone better than I am... a lot better. Perhaps I will even learn something. I do have the advantage of leaving my emotions here."

"Not annoyed... anxious to be on the road. We all are. And don't make the novice mistake of thinking her emotions are in play here. If they were, she wouldn't let most of us in the yard with her," Barris said. He wasn't chiding her. Not exactly. "She certainly wouldn't let you out there."

She heard the barely perceptible harshness in the Jvrillian's tone, noted it, accepted it with a nod.

"I stand corrected. I've had quite a bit of practice since Cragside and learned some new... tricks, shall we say? I'd rather face an anxious Captain Koromov with a disadvantage than a real enemy with every advantage."

Daxia shrugged.

"At least I know the Captain won't kill me, though how close she'll come is up to you and Rafe, I suppose."

The Captain's second grunted. "She won't come at you if you're down... you're just sparring, after all. And she'll give you the chance to Heal if you want to keep going, although you'll need to be at least a handful of paces away from her. One of you will have to call hold unless you get lucky."

The redhead nodded. "Fair enough."

"Are you sure won't leave your sword with the Allaine?"

Daxia closed her eyes and gritted her teeth. "It isn't that I won't, sir, it's that I can't. The mere thought of setting it aside, even in Morning Star's possession, fills me with... with dread. I'm trying very hard right now to convince myself that I'm truly the cobble block Starlord Priestess Kassia claimed I am."

The man's eyebrows drew together. "That's a Dayalan thing, isn't it?"

She nodded. "For some. Who are higher ranked than I. Though I had always assumed — perhaps erroneously — that it was a dictate, a rule, rather than something our Lady Herself enforced."

"Koromov has that higher rank, or so I thought, and she left her sword with Rafe."

"Da, she does... and perhaps the Captain's weakness that I do not have the skill to exploit is what allows her to easily do so." She sighed and opened her eyes. "I don't think I have any more ideas about it than you do, Barris. If there's one thing I learned since leaving the Vale, it's that I have a fullhand more to learn than I've already learned about this world."

He snorted. "You seemed to know plenty in Cragside."

Daxia grinned lopsidedly. "I was a fool who didn't know she was a fool. I'm still a fool... but at least now I know it, Sword Lord."

"Hmm. That's not a title I hear save from a select few these days. Most of my Lord's followers think I'm..." He seemed to be searching for the right word.


He chuckled. "That works well enough. Who but a crazy man would follow a girl?"

She grinned. "I'd hazard to guess you don't care. You still have the favor of your God. You do good things in the Horde. What else matters? And I do hope you have a chance to talk a bit with the crazy Jvrillian, the one who has been following me around. He's good."

Barris might have said something else had Morning Star not interposed himself between them.

Give me your sword, Cobble Block.

Daxia's teeth clenched again, despite the fact that she tried not to clench them.

Yes. I know. I feel the same way about that one, he said as he tossed his head in Dandelion's direction. Then he lowered his head so one eye looked directly at Daxia's face. Sooner begun is sooner finished and away from the infernal itching she passes around to my Brothers... and now me. Also, the more apples you can find for me!

Dazi wasn't sure how she was going to manage fighting — and against one of the best sworders, man or woman, on the mainland — with the feeling of intense and abiding horror she felt. But she unbuckled her sword belt just the same. As she removed the belt, Morning Star tapped her shoulder with his horn.

The relief nearly knocked her over, and she just stared at the unicorn.

You've forgotten already that I'm magic?!

She shook herself and latched the belt over the pommel of her saddle.

Oh, of course not! How could I possibly forget? But I'm a mere cobble block, and have no way to measure the extent of your magnificent and majestic magical marvels.

Morning Star stepped back, giving her a baleful gaze.

I believe you might be teasing me.

She shrugged as she settled her helm on her head.


Barris looked between Starrider and Unicorn.

"Is he always that... pushy?"

"Nah," Dazi said with a smile. "Usually he's worse." She looked across open space to the side where Dandy and Rafe were chatting, and where most of the Horde had gathered to watch. Well, it seemed like most of them. Dazi was pretty sure it wasn't, however. Still, there were a lot of them.

Well, no time like the present, eh? She saluted Barris and headed into the practice ground the Wild Horde had set up for themselves.

"Would you rather have a tea party, Yurisdotter?" Dandelion Koromov snapped.

"No thank you, Verchovai. A sparring session would be just fine. Where does the waging stand on how long I'll survive?"

Dandy wolfishly grinned as she saluted. "For some reason, Barris thinks you'll last a fullhand times a fullhand of heartbeats... Rafe's, by the way. Most don't give you even half that long."

Daxia grinned back and nodded. "Then I will do my best to live up to the Sword Lord's faith in me." She saluted her senior and cleared her mind of all extraneous matters beyond the skills needed on the practice ground.

She had been well-trained, of course, by the best Dayalans in Dawnview Vale. There was Gilly, of course... and Verchovai Reena of the Allaine House Guard, Verchovai Nilda of the Temple Guard, and several of the other women in both Nilda's and Reena's commands. She had picked up interesting tips from Dean, who'd been trained by Sir Kevin. She learned to parry all the better against Mikal, as he favored his off-hand dagger and his short sword over his broadsword. She had watched Cesare practicing his Dance and felt like a shaggy beside that grace. Even if it was permitted for her to learn the Dance, she felt inadequate. Ah, but then... she had learned to cheat from Kay. More accurately, she learned how to cheat in ways that weren't exactly nice. Some of them she wouldn't... couldn't... use against Dandy.

Despite all that, she knew Dandy was much better than she was. While she struck and blocked and parried and struck again, she was observing Dandy as much as she was fighting her. Kassia's relentless training in observing paid off in other areas besides Court politics. Today, she was watching Patterns... and patterns.

She moved fast. She was faster than Dean, and usually faster than Mikal. The latter was only true because she was smaller than Mikal. And she was only just barely faster. She was nowhere near as fast as Kadri. But even their lessons on ways to tumble and fall more quickly and more easily, on how to leap up even faster, were of very little help. Those lessons were only helping her survive just another handful of heartbeats against her opponent of far greater skill.

Daxia was hurting, that was certain. And she was tiring, too. She'd already cast both her Heal spells on the fly. However, from the noise around them, she was fairly certain she had won Barris' bet for him.

She had not been prepared for the speed of Dandy's last flurry of attacks.

Is she actually angry at me for some reason??

That thought flew through her mind despite the words Barris had shared. No, her Temple Sister was just trying to teach her another lesson. Daxia's parries were good enough to keep the majority of Dandy's blows from landing, but the relentless attacks left her no openings to attack herself.

She wasn't sure if she had made a mistake or if Dandy had gotten lucky when the wooden sword came crashing down on her shield. Although she knew it was impossible, Daxia still felt as if Time stood still... except for the part around her forearm that screamed in pain. She knew it wasn't broken — probably quite badly bruised, but not broken for that was a quite different experience of pain — yet that didn't stop the pain that drove her to one knee.


She had to ignore Kisa; she had to trust that someone from the Horde — probably Barris — would grab the Heir's collar and keep her outside the practice field. Or that His Magnificence would simply stand on her foot, which wouldn't be quite sporting.

"Do you yield?" Dandy had stepped back, giving Daxia that chance to either heal or yield. Still, she was poised to strike again.

She took a deep breath, her mind racing. Did she dare risk using her Lady's Healing spell? Did she dare not risk it when she was so close to learning a pattern of Dandy's? It was unique; she had only seen Dandy and Rafe use it. And learning something so different could give her a decisive advantage in the future.

Yes. She had to take the risk...

My Lady, if You don't mind, I'll ask the favor of Your Healing. I'm so close to learning one of my Sister's patterns that I merely need her to beat on me a few more times. It's such a clever one that I've not seen used by any of my Sisters before.

Dazi was certain the chuckle she heard was entirely something from her vivid imagination as the Power of the accelerated Healing of Dayala washed over her. It was... unquestionably not something she wanted to do every day. She felt just a little too good... far better than she should. She was almost entirely certain she didn't care for it.

She rolled away from Dandy nevertheless and jumped back to her feet.

"I do not yield."

"Are you crazy??"

"Of course."

This time, when she was very nearly exhausted by Dandy's almost constant barrage and hurting enough to start slowing down again, she Saw the Pattern. And so, at last, when she dipped... stepped... spun... and struck, she managed to get under the Captain's guard. It wouldn't have even left a scratch on the field of battle. But it was a touch... so light that it likely wouldn't even leave a bruise. It was enough for Dandy to feel it, however.

It wasn't much, but it was a touch.

Daxia leaped back, dropped the wooden sword, and said, "Now I yield."

Dandelion Koromov looked at her, eyes hard and emotionless.

"Did you just use one of my own moves against me?"


"Who taught you that?"

Dazi couldn't tell if Dandy was surprised or annoyed or both or neither.

"You did."

"The hell you say!"

"But you did. Before you drove me to my knee. Well, mostly before that... I needed to study it another time or two."

"You learned by watching me as we fought?"

Daxia shrugged and pulled off her helm. "I'm a distaff Allaine. I study Patterns. Thank you. That was a difficult lesson, and one well worth learning."

"You are completely out of your mind!"

"Yes, Verchovai. Possibly more because of the heart failure I nearly gave your employer and my liege than my way of learning, but I won't argue with you."

The Koromov stared for a moment longer. "And you learned that rolling flip from Dominic, I suppose."

"His wife."

Dandy grinned again. "Midwinters in Bordertown will be so much more fun now. I should thank his wife. And the shield roll nearly snatched my sword once or twice. Nicely done. It's not quite the normal parry I hear they teach in the Temple. Where'd you learn that?"

It was Dazi's turn to grin. "From your great auntie." She stopped smiling completely. "I understand it saved Lily Allaine's life more than once... she used something far more crude, although just as effective, to save mine. She taught me a few other tricks that I didn't want to risk using on you."

"You held back?" The Captain almost sounded angry. Or maybe she definitely was. She was a hard one to read, too. Very nearly impossible.

"No. I just didn't cheat in a way that would endanger you."

"Rafe would have called you off before you got that far."

"Yes... if he saw in the patterns of my movements where I was going and called a hold in time. It's nothing as clever as your dance, so he probably would. Just call it a practice in self-control for me. It's something I need to do anyway when sparring against Dean. Sometimes with Mikal if he's having an off day.

"I really wanted to do that leg tangling tripping thing Kay still catches me with sometimes. Works best with a spear though. Dean's a big boy... she gets him every time, even though he knows it's coming." She smiled almost wickedly. "He's going to surprise her any day now, however. I've given him a couple of pointers, and he's been practicing. Maybe someone who isn't a Pattern reader and who doesn't watch her every day wouldn't see her tells."

She was quiet for a heartbeat, but no more than that. "She's bloody good because she had to be. They were relentless. I'm glad we were able to postpone their next attack. I hope it's for a good long time."

Other members of Dandy's troop were coming onto the field, which was enough permission for Kisa to walk... er, run over as well. She didn't look pleased. Fortunately, Dazi was the only one who knew her well enough to know that she wasn't pleased. But she stood there, beside her Knight, trying very hard not to be the strange and standoffish young Heir. Dazi gave her a smile.

Maybe a trip to see part of the world would be the very best thing for Kisa Allaine.

Dandy looked at Daxia with a hard gaze. "You owe me another story, it seems."

"Quite a few, probably."

Rafe held his hand out for the practice sword; Dazi dipped down almost gracefully enough for it to be considered a curtsy and picked it up.

"I honestly didn't think you'd last a fullhand against the Captain, never mind a fullhand of them and more," he said as he took the sword from her. "You were pretty raw when you had that one lesson with Barris. What have you been up to since then?"

Daxia took a deep breath, shook her head as she held it, then sighed it out.

"Easterners, a coward of a sorcerer, Chaos Riders, Eastern hunting beasts, an Avatar, more Easterners..."

And that last army of Easterners had been at the Battle of Silk Creek Bridge. Dear Lady, what a horrible night that had been!

"I'll tell you what... you find a tavern to take over, I'll come tell you the stories. I'll bring Mikal, too, because his version of our night at Highside Heather..."

"What?!? You actually spent the night there? Are you insane?"

Daxia looked at Dunwich, the one who asked the question.

"Why do people keep asking me that?"

"Because you say and do crazy things?" Dandy asked. She was so over the top with her 'innocent' act that everyone laughed, including Dazi.

Well, Kisa just smiled; still, that was something. She was not quite playing the part of the Heir... a Noble among the Commoners. It was closer to an employer who holds a troop's contract. But she was trying to be simply the Starrider's friend at the moment, and Dazi loved her all the more for that simple gift.

"I doubt I'm any crazier than that Captain Koromov, who leads the Wild Horde," Daxia said matter-of-factly.

Dandy nodded slowly as she considered it. "Fair point."

"But only because you don't have the years of experience," one of the Horde members Daxia didn't know piped up.

"Well, that will just take time! And I think those of you who follow Lord Jvrill will find Mikal's tale, which includes the Rothian Knights, more interesting than mine of that night, though..." She looked at Dandy. "I can't say if I'm prouder of him for what he did for our long ago Sisters, or if I'm prouder of my Initiate for her ability to adapt." Her eyes twinkled as she glanced quickly at Morning Star and then back to Dandy. "For all the words that I have..."

Daxia looked at the woman beside her. "Huh."

Kisa blinked slowly, looked distracted and unfocused for a moment, then shook her head. "No, I don't think so."

Dazi shrugged. "It almost made sense, but not enough, I guess." She looked back at Dandy. "...words simply don't exist to adequately describe His Magnificence's ire at being confined to the limiting existence of a mere horse."

Dandy, Rafe, and Barris stared at the two redheads for a moment.

"Do we want to know what that was all about?" Rafe asked, pretending that neither Kisa nor Dazi still stood there.

"If I had to guess," Barris replied, "I'd say probably not."

"Oh, most definitely not," Dandy said.

"You're sure?"

Dandy just looked at Rafe.

"Well, good enough for me. Hearing about Highside Heather might be interesting, though."

"Interesting?" Daxia replied to the Imperial. "Huh. Well, I suppose being there adds a bit of color and emotion to the experience."

"I'm intrigued," Barris said. He looked at the Captain, then the Deynnekko Imperial. "How about you?"

The look Rafe gave Dandy was almost a dare.


"Yes, sir?"

"Go commandeer us a tavern for dinner."

"Yes, sir!"

Then she looked at the two redheads. "Bring the whole motley band. I'd like to hear some of great auntie's stories, too."

"As you wish, Captain," Daxia said, nodding to Dandy just as she became aware that Morning Star was nudging people aside to clear himself a path to her. She sighed... inwardly.

"Mmm. I recognize that look," Dandy said.

Daxia looked at the Unicorn, who did, in fact, look... annoyed, inconvenienced, hurt...

Wait... hurt?

Take your sword, Starlord Cobble Block, so that we can leave. Only the Floozy can stand to be around That One for very long.

She stared at him.

"What did you call me?"

Cobble Block? It's well-known...

"No!" she said, interrupting him. "Not 'cobble block,' you cobble block!"

"Interesting. Not even Poppy gets that annoyed with Lightning Hooves."

Oh, did you mean Starlord Cobble Block?

Daxia just stared at him.

"You wouldn't happen to know what's going on, would you?" Dandy asked Kisa.

"Not exactly, no."

Daxia stepped to Morning Star's side but kept her eyes staring at his face as she hung the shield on the saddle's hook meant for that purpose and fetched down her sword. For his part, the Unicorn turned his head to watch his Rider. She stepped back, putting her squarely between the Captain of the Wild Horde — who stood with thumbs tucked into her belt — and the Heir of Allaine. Kisa watched with hands clasped loosely behind her back, eyes capturing details as she tried to determine what had upset her Knight.

As the Starrider — Starrider... STARRIDER — buckled her belt around her waist, Morning Star turned to face her, sending several members of the Horde jumping to get out of the way.

"Have a care there, if you don't mind, for my men. Ones of this caliber are hard to find."

Captain Koromov's words were quiet and laconic. She did know the effect she had on the Immortals.

Are you teasing me again? Morning Star sounded both hopeful and slightly confused. That last might have been Daxia's imagination. Maybe.

"My Lady Kisa, I think I would like to stop in the Market Ring to purchase every ribbon I can find there. And perhaps whatever doodads mothers weave into their daughters' hair."

"Are you sure, Daxia?"

"Oh, this is rich! Taking Gillyflower's idea and building on it." The Captain nodded. "Good thinking. It probably won't have any greater effect on this one than it does on Brighteyes, but I like the way you think."

You are teasing me!

"I am not teasing you. Oh, well, not unless you're teasing me. But since I didn't think your teasing was terribly funny even if you are teasing me, I'm still braiding the ugliest bits of wires and ribbons I can find into your mane!"

I would not tease you! Well, perhaps I would. And, in fact, I believe I have. But I have not teased you since... well, certainly since last She rose!

Daxia crossed her arms and just looked at him. She watched him, actually... with that proper, impassive look on her face that she perfected under Kassia's tutelage.

She could hear Dandy chuckling softly to herself as she tried to stay at least the handful of paces away from Morning Star that affected human magic. And she could hear enough of the conversations around them to know all of her men were confused.


Morning Star took that moment to give a marvelous performance of a Horse Sneezing.

"Ooops," Dandy said, sounding only the tiniest bit sorry.

Let us go, my dear Cobble Block! I believe I must demand it most urgently!

Dazi looked at Kisa, her expression softening. "Yes, Kishka?"

"It might make it a bit easier to figure out what's going on if, just this once, you did that thinking out loud thing you do so well."

"Ah. Yes. Well, I wasn't really doing any thinking." She nodded and smiled. "But you're right, of course. You know Captain Koromov's unique trait that makes her so well-suited to doing battle with those who most dislike her great black sword?"


"So it shouldn't be too difficult to extrapolate His Most Annoyingness' reaction to someone like that."

"I believe I had already reached that conclusion, Daxia. That explains the extravagant... sneeze? But it does not explain your desire to purchase trinkets to braid in Morning Star's mane."

Oh, I like her! You should listen to her. She's trying to keep you from doing things that are too silly and beneath the dignity of a Starlord.

Dazi's hands dropped to her side, and then curled into fists as she closed her eyes.

"Kisa? Do you remember how His Magnificence made me so very angry last night?"


"He's done it again."

"Done what, Daxia?"

"Two promotions in two days?! Why? Why, why, why??"

"Now, this is something new," Dandy opined. "The only Dayalan I've ever seen get this annoyed about anything that didn't come from the East is Kassia. Are you sure you're not related to her?"

Daxia opened her eyes and looked at the Koromov.

"Probably not. But she might be related to you. Well, from the same branch of the family as your great auntie. There were a lot of them from Darkdown way... Tashka reminded me an awful lot of Kassia. Easier to talk to, though."

"I wish I..."

"I do, too, Dandy. We could have used your help... at least the first two nights. I'd have pissed you off and sent you away the third night."

The Captain shrugged pragmatically. "I know my skill set. I'd have been more help to Garrick, anyway."

Dazi nodded. "You'd have liked her, I think."

"So... what's got you so tied up that you're keeping your Unicorn here in the presence of a known irritant?"

"Gosh, the last time I looked, he had four nice long legs and four perfectly formed hooves attached to them."

She looked at Morning Star, who was about to sneeze again, then back at Dandy.

"He still does."

"Come on, Yurisdotter, grow up. What's your problem?"

"Two promotions. Two days."

"And based on our conversation last night, I don't think Daxia believes she deserves either one," Kisa added helpfully. "Though, Daxia, it's only one day spread over two."

"Not helping, Kisa," Daxia said over her shoulder. "You're not helping."

"Hey, Captain! Can we keep her? She's fun," one of the Horde members said — not Rafe or Barris, so Dazi didn't know who it was.

"NO!" all three women said simultaneously.

"Well, since you rode in on Black and Beautiful here, you already had your spurs and you deserve them. Bordertown proved that." Dandelion shrugged then ticked off the next two points on her fingers.

"That means you got saddled with Priestess and Starlord.

"Priestess isn't exactly a promotion. Think of it as adding to your skill set." One corner of her mouth turned up in a smile. "I don't have the chops for it, and Gilly is as interested in it as ruff would be. So unless you're aiming for High Priestess, it doesn't mean all that much. And I figure there's about as much chance of you wanting the job as there would be for Kassia to be looking for the job. Sure, you get some benefits from it, but I'd say you're more likely to follow Poppy's lead... picking up girls and training them to fight."

Daxia relaxed and nodded slowly to the senior Dayalan. Everything Dandy said made sense. So far. If she looked at it as simply an extra set of tools to help her teach... to help her expand Dayala's presence outside the Vale, then... well... then it didn't seem so overwhelming. And she'd rather do almost anything than become High Priestess! Maybe not move to Kh'Lhy'ra... but pretty much anything else would be preferable.

"Now the Starlord thing?" Dandy continued. "Who's really going to know what it really means except another Dayalan? And who's going to really care except for the ones sitting safe and tight in the Vale? I'm a little surprised, but good for you.

"Now earn it.

"Kassia will be Kassia... she's got expectations so high for all of us out here that none of us will ever meet her expectations or achieve our full potential. Including me."

She glanced over Daxia's shoulder at Kisa. "I hope that's not a grin I see on your face, Dama."

"Oh, Dama Kisa would never be so crass as to grin, Captain. I'm sure at most, the Heir is smiling demurely."

Dandy's eyes snapped back to Daxia. "You... need to stay away from Court." She shook her head and muttered something only half intelligible about the evils of Court.

"Gilly will be impressed, not that she'll actually tell you, but... well, you've always been her favorite. Poppy won't give a merebeast's fuzzy behind as long as you can pull your load."

Captain Koromov did grin. "There's the long and the short of it, Yurisdotter. Do whatever it is you're meant to be doing and stay out of the Vale as much as possible, and you'll be fine. Keep in mind what I said about titles and such back in Cragside, Lady Daxia, and you'll be less likely to fret yourself into stomach problems."

"Huh." Daxia tilted her head and regarded Dandelion Koromov for a moment. "You really have a gift there."

Dandy laughed. "Tcha! Yurisdotter, do you think I could run a gang of oddballs this large if I couldn't splash a bucket of cold water on a fire made of crazy?"

"No, I suppose not," Dazi said, chuckling.

"Something you might want to mention — the part about dealing with oddballs and misfits — to that Jvrillian of yours if he's thinking of starting his own troop. It's not easy riding herd on landcrawlers, as you probably figured out."

Dazi blinked. "He's what?"

"He... didn't mention it to you?"

She considered the question and the previous statement.

"No, but... maybe? He talks about Cameron's Light Horse, his comrades, his experiences." Daxia paused. "It's not hard to see that he misses them. And maybe it's something he's been hinting at that... I missed it?" She sounded surprised... not by Mikal's desire to start a Troop of his own, but the fact that she actually missed seeing the Pattern.

"Oh, probably not. I think it was the third or fourth pint of Amber Beer that let him really see what he wanted. After a fashion, anyway. I made a few suggestions." The Captain shrugged. "He might be needing a bit of help from you."

Daxia just stared at her for a moment. Then she turned and glared at Morning Star for a moment. Finally, she looked at Kisa with narrowed eyes and a finger held up so Kisa would wait for whatever it was she looked like she needed to say. Then she raised her voice and addressed whoever was still in the area.

"Hoi! Dazi have thing to say. Not like bad surprises. No. Very bad, make Dazi Ladyship Starlordy Priestessness cranky, cranky. Very much cranky.

"Good surprise okay!" she said as she touched the silk scarf tied to the hilt of her sword. "Bad surprise like Bordertown... not so good. Bad surprise like Silk Creek Bridge... not so good. Rescue tall white hair princess..." She paused. "Okay, not so bad. Demon ruin best tunics, but Dazi get new friend. Okay, yah."

She looked at His Magnificence. "No more surprise! Stop. No more. Dazi not, not, not like... also, very much not like. Yah? Okay? Good."

Then she turned to Kisa. "Ha ha, Kisa maybe think Dazi not believe Kisa make not good surprise for Dazi. Dazi think Kisa not believe Kisa make not good surprise for Dazi." She smiled and tapped the Heir's chin with her finger. "Dazi think Kisa need Window. Ah well. Please careful with words, okay, yah? Dazi see word become thing for next Allaine Khorall. What word? What thing?" Daxia shrugged. She paused to tap her own chin. "Hmm. Tiles good bad, bad good surprise." Then her eyes widened and she smiled brightly. "Ah! Kisa learn good travel message by travel! Good, good, good!"

"Aw, Captain... are you sure we can't keep her?"

While Dandy and Kisa both chimed, "No!" again, Daxia looked at the heckler... and then grinned.

"Oh, Dazi take funny man from Horde if Dandy not need!"

Dandy's lightly closed fist dropped on the top of Daxia's head. "Dandy absolutely needs the funny man, who really isn't as funny as you think he is. That's Cook. He's mine."

Daxia chuckled. "Okay, okay. We manage passably on our own anyway. Teaching Romana how to cook has been... ah... interesting, to say the least."

Her gaze shifted to Barris.

"I'm glad you're insane enough to wager on me, although only the aforementioned trials and tribulations made it possible to last more than a handful of fullhands against the Captain."

Barris smiled. "If no one had bet on you, there couldn't have been any wagering. And I tend to bet against common sense when it seems prudent. And besides... you won enough crowns for me that it's possible I owe you a small favor."

"Really? You do?"

The look on Dazi's face was enough for Kisa to rest a hand on her forearm... enough for Barris to clear his throat.

"I did say a SMALL favor."

Daxia nodded. "Oh, yes. It's nothing too terribly involved or difficult, this favor I have in mind." She shrugged. Perhaps it was a small thing. "Our Squire of Rames is fairly good at bashing on things that need to be bashed."

She smiled at Barris, remembering the beating she'd received from him in Cragside, before she continued. "Would giving him a lesson on more effective and efficient ways of bashing be too large a favor to ask? And perhaps a pointer or five on better ways to avoid being bashed?"

Both Barris and Dandelion looked at her, then looked at each other. And then both of them burst out laughing.

"She's a lot like you, Koromov," Barris said. "And no," he said to Daxia, "it's not too large a favor. I'm not sure about the timing, though."

Dandy shrugged and looked at Daxia, and saw her puzzled look. "She's a Wild Dayalan. What do you expect? And you..." she said, looking between Dazi and Kisa, shaking her head. "Well, I'm not sure your style of leadership would work with a larger gang, but it seems to work for you. When your Jvrillian comes asking for peculiar things, you might consider helping him out."

"If you hadn't just covered my body in bruises, I'd suspect you were talking from the bottom of that mug of Amber beer. Instead, I'm going to wonder why you're being so blatantly unsubtle about not talking about Mikal and his imagined Troop." She shook her head and sighed. "Of course I'd help him out, Dandy! To the best of my abilities. If the Patterns indicate it would be prudent."

Captain Koromov snorted. "Ride the waves, Yurisdotter. You have a Rhoni in your gang. Learn from the man!"

Daxia looked at Dandy and raised her eyebrows. "Have you seen my gang? If leading them hither and yon isn't at least giving the waves a chance, I don't know what is."

"Fair enough. But don't just give them a chance. Ride them."

Dazi shook her head. "I'm not Rhoni and most of the time when I think I've figured out what Cesare is saying, I'm wrong. The other half of the time, I'm pretty sure I'm missing something."

Dandy shrugged. "You think too much about it, that's the problem. The point isn't to figure it all out. The point is to let it be. I'm not saying you shouldn't think about things and learn everything possible. It's what you Temple-trained types do, and nothing is going to stop that. I'm saying that some things can't be analyzed into their component parts."

The younger Dayalan opened her mouth to speak, but then closed it again and simply studied the Captain for several moments. Apparently, there was something in Dandy's words that struck a chord, for she nodded slowly and then said, simply, "Da... okay."

Dandy glanced again between the two redheads. "I know I can trust you to do the job I was hired to do, Yuridotter. I'll turn the responsibility of keeping the Heir safe over to you now so the Horde will be ready to ride the moment your group leaves Talantal. If that meets with your approval, Dama."

Kisa paused a moment, looking at her Patterns — Daxia, at least, recognized the look — and nodded. "Of course, Captain." She turned to her Knight. "Daxia?"

She too had looked at the Patterns. The more nuanced and least likely Paths would take more study, but she nearly laughed when she saw the most likely Path. Instead, she merely raised an eyebrow at the Captain before turning to Kisa and said lightly, but at the same time very seriously, "My life and sword are yours to command, my liege."

Kisa studied her in a way that would unnerve most people... Daxia simply smiled.

"I look forward to seeing you this evening, Captain," the Heir finally said as she turned toward Dandy. For the briefest instant, Daxia could see the Heir flicker away as an ordinary — albeit Noble — young woman stood there. "I..." She made an effort to relax, then smiled at Dandy. "Daxia is right. There are things I will need to be more comfortable with." She nodded to the members of the Horde still standing near them... besides Barris and Rafe, there was perhaps a handful.

"Just to satisfy my curiosity," Dazi said to Dandy, "how many of you will really meet us this evening?"

Captain Koromov smiled. It was more an acknowledgment of having arrived at the correct answer to a riddle than anything else. "I'm glad that didn't get by you."

She shrugged. "Moderately skilled Pattern reader, remember? And once you handed your duty over to me, the most obvious Path... means your Dunwich isn't heading off to secure an entire inn for the evening."

"Hmm. An interesting gift you have there. Maybe I should change my mind about keeping you with us."

Daxia snorted. "I would have jumped at the chance in Cragside. But as much of an honor as it would be to ride with the Horde, Verchovai, we both know that wouldn't work for either of us." She hooked her thumb over her shoulder to the magnificently impatient Immortal waiting at the side of the yard. "And I have a different job to do, yah? I think our paths will cross more often than some of our Sisters' do, however." Then the younger warrior grinned. "Ah, to spend Midwinters in Bordertown again... this time to see the young lord hanging from the rafters as he should! That would make being outside the Vale almost worth it."

The Captain's eyes twinkled. "Ah, but the young lord in question is now a young married lord, and who can say how his wife would feel about such things?"

"You jest! They serve the same Lady. I don't doubt they'd put on a show that would at least coax a smile from Her."

Daxia glanced at Kisa, a smile slowly forming. "How delightful would it be," she mused, "if all the Wild Dayalans gathered at the Dawnview Temple at the same time my little gang paid a visit?" She turned innocent eyes to Dandy. "And if the young scamp in question accompanied his wife? Oh! What a joyous reunion that would be!"

Both Kisa and Dandelion looked at her as if she'd taken leave of her senses.

"What? One does pick up a bad habit or two — or more precisely, have a mischief-making thought or two — when one befriends followers of our Lady's Granddaughter."

But then she chuckled. "Finding the idea amusing and seeing it through to implementation are quite different things. And at the moment, I have more pressing concerns." She grimaced as she rolled one shoulder. "I should soak myself in hot water so I will be able to move tomorrow... I recall being less than pleasant for two days after our Highside Heather adventure. And the Font of All Knowledge wants apples. Lots of apples."

Daxia turned to Dandy's two lieutenants. "Sword Lord, it was good to see you again. At some point, I'd like to find my little gang in the same place as the Horde long enough for you to beat on my warriors. Lord Deynnekko, I'd love the chance to spar with you some day, but I doubt I could survive quite yet," she said with a chuckle.

"I'm concerned that you'd learn all my secrets, Lady Starlord," Rafe said, laughing. "Or should it be Lady Starlord Priestess?"

"The heck if I know, so maybe 'Daxia' would do."

"If you want to be quite formal," Kisa interjected, "I believe Lady Daxia Yurisdotter, Knight of Dawnview Castle will likely be sufficient."

Daxia sighed. "That's what you call sufficient? It's more of a mouthful than what Rafe came up with! And I'm still trying to get used to being addressed by my last name, never mind all the rest of that.

"I know, I know!" She held her hands up in a pose of surrender as she laughed. "It's all important."

"Except when it isn't," the Imperial Lord remarked.

Dazi nodded and grinned. "Exactly. And to give you peace of mind, I don't really want to learn all your secrets, Rafe. I just want to be as good as my Temple Sister here," she said, tilting her head in Dandy's direction.

"You've got a good start," Barris said. "However, you're going to either need to beat on your sworders harder or go up against the level of opponent the Horde faces."

She nodded again, somberly this time. "I know. And if the past holds any clues to the future, it's likely to be the latter more often than the former."

Turning to Dandy, she hesitated a moment before speaking. "Sometimes I think my reputation is undeserved, but at the moment I have so many things I'd like to discuss with you." She smiled. "Where is Dunwich not arranging a place for the Horde to gather this evening?"

"I'm not sure I should tell you for fear you'll talk my ear off," the Captain said wryly.

Dazi chuckled. "No... I know you don't have time for that."

"Maybe not the energy, either," Kisa remarked. "Daxia apparently has the goal of learning everything that can be known." She paused to glance at Dazi. "About everything."

"You say that like it's a bad thing," Daxia teased.

"There are some hard lessons out there, and things perhaps better kept hidden," Rafe said quietly.

She studied him for a moment, then nodded once in acknowledgment. "I have already learned some of those hard lessons. Perhaps it's the influence of such diversity in my gang, but I can't help but feel there needs to be a balance. Without day, we couldn't have night... or rather, we wouldn't know that there was anything except night. Without Order, all would still be the ever-changing forms of Chaos, ni? If I don't understand the tragedies of our world, how can I appreciate its joys?"

Rafe and Barris exchanged a look, then Rafe said, "I believe the Captain told you to stay away from Court. I'm going to advise that you not get caught up in discussions with the Eyes, for I would expect you'd all perish for want of food and sleep."

Daxia shrugged. "Lord Random was a bit single-focused to make a good conversationalist. He led me to believe all the Brothers are like that, although I wouldn't discount the possibility that he misled me to believe it."

Dandy cleared her throat. "Dunwich is not securing the common room of the Bucket of Beer, just inside the gates of the First Ring. I won't be there just before sunset."

Grinning and adding a smart salute, Dazi said, "Then I won't see you this evening." Eyes passing over the Horde members, she added, "May our Deities keep us all in Their favor until we meet again.

"I still would like to stop in the Market Ring for ribbons and things," she said to Kisa as they turned to walk toward Morning Star. "I think I should take preemptive measures against more surprises than I can bear. And I did want to ask the silversmith when my new pendant would be ready. He told me that he couldn't say for certain, what with Midsummers being on the morrow. He left it at that, but I did infer from some things he said that today might have been painfully bright when he woke."

Kisa looked down as she walked, to all the world appearing embarrassed. "I... I believe you'll find the silversmith made your pendant a priority."

Daxia stared at Kisa for a moment. "What did you do?"

Kisa looked up at Dazi. "I merely impressed upon him that I would be very pleased if my Knight had her new pendant before leaving Talantal."

"I'm not exactly sure that answered my question, m'Lady."

"Stop it, Daxia. I merely paid the man for the pendant."

"But I had already paid him."

"Oh? I didn't know that."

"You know, Kisa, you're a terrible, terrible liar. Really awful."

Kisa shrugged. "He thought of it as an incentive to prioritize the work. Was I supposed to disillusion him?"

Daxia sighed. "Extortion. Don't you think..." She stopped abruptly and closed her eyes. "Of course it isn't something you'd consider... the Heir of Allaine from Dawnview Vale, the place from which all the most fashionable fashions originate... visiting the man's shop..."

She opened her eyes and looked at Kisa, then rolled her eyes. "I'm so pleased you'll be traveling west with us. So very, very pleased. But I want to remind you that the Knight of Dawnview Castle is not above weaving ribbons and doodads into the hair of the Heir of Allaine!"

Kisa's eyes brightened. "You'd do that?! Really?"

Daxia groaned, then looked at Morning Star. "Go on. Let's go. It would be nice to get a bath before not meeting Dandelion for dinner." But she paused and looked over her shoulder at her Temple Sister, who was still talking with her lieutenants.

"Captain!" she called over her shoulder. "Here's a thought for you and yours to consider...

"Can we clean and repair our Temple on the Border? And what will the good people of Bordertown think of such a thing?" She waved. "Tell me when you don't see me tonight!"

She turned and hooked her arm through Kisa's as they followed Morning Star.

"I've seen him eat the things an ordinary equine would eat, but there are times I wonder if he actually likes to eat anything that isn't an apple."

Why would I want to? Morning Star replied, tilting his head up to catch rain with his nostrils.

© Kelly Naylor
The Heartwood and all characters not otherwise expressly stated are © Kh'Lyh'ra Press / Mike Naylor