Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Chapter One: The Other Side(Part One)


"And...who might you be?" The doorman's look was disdainful and his manner arrogant, from the glint in his eyes to the cock of his head and the note in his voice.

"Kazim and Khaled Kairos," said the former of the two. He made sure to say it before Khaled could open his mouth, too, and the little brother of the pair stewed. He made sure to gain some joy by looking around at the fountains and the green gardens, all inside the Prelate's walled mansion. Khaled wasn't a man of flora...but he did appreciate the wealth it required to maintain a house like this.

"Kairos?" The doorman mused. "Very well. Come in, and I shall set you up in the parlor."

"Thank you." Kazim inclined his head, then tapped Khaled's shoulder. The brothers followed their guide through emerald-crusted doors into a marble entryway, past busts of Prelates past and current, and past the man's brunette daughter, carefully polishing her grandfather's eyes behind a blank expression.

Khaled gave her more than a passing examination. Lithe and short, and that hair...cut short, he noted. She must have displeased her father something fierce: it had the look of new-growth. She had shapely legs and hips, too. He quite approved, even if she didn't, by her look.

"Hey." Kazim shoved him, not entirely gently. He nodded to the girl. "Morning."

"Morning," Khaled repeated, tearing his eyes away from the decoration far more lovely than any Prelate's stone face.

"In here, sirs." If the doorman had any opinion of either Khaled's staring or the girl's unseemly glare about it, he kept it to himself. Khaled shed his gloves without a care as he entered a study decorated in gold and white, and he admired the chandelier, a glistening display of Ardwal glass hanging by gilded chains and festooned with candles that emanated the scents of spring.

"The Prelate will be with you shortly." And with that, the bespectacled doorman was gone, and the door shut behind him. Khaled shook his head in wonder.

"I could get used to places like this," he observed. "Beautiful art, beautiful landscapes, beautiful..." He jerked his head to the door. "Did you see her?"

"I did." Kazim didn't look altogether happy. "Be wary of causing offense, little brother."

"Offense?" Khaled frowned. "I'm appreciative of his daughter's beauty. The Prelate will be flattered, not offended."

"I'm not talking about the Prelate."

"You mean the girl?" Khaled's frown only deepened. "You think she has a voice in his ear?"

"I think you upset her," Kazim corrected. "Be a bit more respectful. I've told you you're vain for years."

"I'm not vain," Khaled groused. "I'm far too modest to be vain."

"Life has a way of evening the scores," his brother warned. "Be careful what gods you offend."

Khaled made a noncommittal noise before resigning this to the basket of disputes he and Kazim would never see eye-to-eye on. "This house, though!"

"It's a house," Kazim agreed. "I'd love to have one half as grand as this."

"I want this one," Khaled mused. "Just this one. It's huge, it's beautiful, it's..." He coughed and steered away from commentary on the female population. "...well, it's just beautiful, that's what it is. It's a mark of status."

"It's also home to the Prelate of the wealthiest area in Ardwal." Kazim crossed his arms. "Minor details, Khaled: you're not materialistic at all."

"You like wealth," Khaled shot back. His big brother had to nod.

"If I didn't, we wouldn't be doing what we do." That was logical.

"We'll be Prelates by the time we retire," Khaled insisted, not for the first time. He dropped down on one of this Prelate's couches, and put his feet up on the arm. He fished an apple out of the fruit bowl on the table and took a sizeable bite. "One step down from Marona kings."

"Careful, now," Kazim chided. "Prelates are representative leaders of their areas. Kings? Dynasties?"

"Never in Ardwal," Khaled insisted piously, rolling his eyes. So what if a Prelate was technically not a dynast? The people knew better than to appoint anyone the last Prelate hadn't picked out. They knew better so well that the Prelates didn't bother asking them half the time.

Khaled had, more than once, bitterly resented the system of Prelates that ruled his country. But his resentment came down not to any sort of ideological distaste, but simple dissatisfaction that he wasn't the man in charge. He didn't want the system changed because he fully intended to reap its benefits for himself by the time he died.

In the meantime, he could dream: dream of gold, dream of mansions...and dream of beautiful girls.

Even if Kazim was a stick-in-the-mud.

"Look at this." Said big brother nodded, and Khaled glanced. He frowned at the glass display on the wall.

"It's a stick."

"It's a staff," Kazim corrected. "Not just a staff. That's a wizard's staff."

"Is it?" The younger of the pair frowned. "I do believe it is. How does a Prelate get one of those?"

"However he wants," Kazim posited, which was also logical.

The door opened. Khaled glanced up from his apple as in came a cannonball of a man: short and round enough the mercenary almost wanted to roll him across the floor. He pranced along in white with gold trim, beaming widely, with a vapid fool's cheer in his eye.

"You must be the Brothers Kairos!" He took Kazim's hand in both of his, mustache quivering as he shook heartily. "What is that you wear, young man?"

"This?" Kazim glanced to his gauntlets: bronze and iron interwoven, stretching from his palms back well above his elbows. He patted the large metal housings wrapped around his forearms. "Dwarven make, sir." A genius stroke, that: the Prelate could only be four and some feet tall, which suggested mountain people heritage close to hand in this house. "We have friends and reputations there. These are weapons."

"Armor?" the Prelate asked, and Kazim smiled.

"Yes, sir. And more." He mimed leveling his wrist at an enemy. "Bang."

"Splendid!" Prelate Archer's beam only widened. "You are the gunman of the two of you, then?"

"Aye. And my brother Khaled is the swordsman." Kazim nodded, and Khaled waved lazily from the couch, mid-bite of delicious red apple.

"Wonderful. You are just the men I need. Your reputations come with story and legend from far across the deserts and the mountains."

"You flatter us," Kazim demurred.

"Deservedly," Khaled added, which earned him a fraternal glare.

"I should hope so." Archer rubbed his hands together, as his doorman ushered in...

"What is this?" Khaled demanded, as the girl settled into place behind her father, head lowered very properly.

"You'll see, you'll see." Archer moved along. "I have a problem to the east. There is a pack of werewolves and worse, preying on my people. I can't stand for it!"

Or for the threat to your glass mines? Khaled almost asked. He had just enough diplomacy to avoid that question, fortunately.

"That's what you said in your letter," was his rejoinder instead.

"You came to the right team," Kazim took over, with a warning look. "We can deal with your problem...for the right price. You mentioned a 'kingly reward' for said service."

"I did! And so too shall I provide." The Prelate waved, and the girl approached, docile, hands clasped before her. "I offer you the eldest of my daughters, as servant and wife."

"Ha!"

All eyes fell on Khaled. The Prelate frowned dangerously, and Kazim winced. The girl remained impassive, studying her toes as was her place, while Khaled guffawed.

"Is this insult you offer?" Archer demanded.

"Insult? You're the one offering insult!" Khaled wiped tears from his eyes. "You promised us a kingly reward, Prelate Archer, and you turn around and...and..."

"I offer you my own daughter," he pointed out. The girl herself might have trembled.

"My brother is simply-"

"Silence!" Archer waved Kazim down. "I want to hear what such a high and mighty man believes himself righteous in saying."

"Your own daughter. Right." Khaled snorted. "The world knows, Prelate Archer, that you have ten daughters of body. If you have so many, one is of little value. And if she were of value, as servant or wife, you would hardly fritter her away so easily." He took another bite.

"You're trying to con us out of pay," he finished, mouth full. "And I'm not having it."

The Prelate glared. The girl quivered. Kazim ground his teeth together, very pale.

"You are smart." Archer finally relaxed, and that was the glint of intelligence in those vapid eyes. Khaled nodded internally: this man was not the fool he put himself on as. "You are correct, Khaled Kairos: my daughter is of no value." He waved. "Begone, girl. Return to your work lest I require you again."

Very properly, she bowed, still silent even with her eyes hollow. Khaled turned his gaze away as she backed out of her father's presence, hands still clasped and head still down.

"Since you are far too savvy of a man to be conned like this," the Prelate concluded, as the door ground shut, "let's discuss payment."

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Stinger: Walker of Worlds



"Jason's dead," Tempest summarized. "Theron is in captivity. That's the Torchbearer program, in shambles. Again."

"It doesn't matter," the man told her, rubbing his chin. "There will be no Iron Sea War. Midnight and her new friend have made that point emphatically. MacDonald is on to us, as is MacPhearson, and at least two other Lairds know the truth about what happened. We'll leave secondary operations running in the Highlands, but I want to relocate our operations back to Center."

"Center?" Tempest asked. She glanced at the one good lieutenant they'd salvaged from the disastrous strike on MacDonald. "I think it's a little early for that."

"I would think so too," Camilla said, still looking a bit shell-shocked from her Revelation. Tempest remembered her own struggles to comprehend, and her heart went out to the younger woman. She could have been Emilia's daughter. "Isn't Center what we do when we're...ready?"

"We're almost there," the man said. 

"But..." Tempest frowned. "There will be no Iron Sea War. That means no Gifted. That means we are defenseless."

"There are many Gifted in this world, not simply in Nurem and the Clans," the man said. "And I have often found, my friend, that while a pessimist can see the difficulty inherent in any opportunity, it takes a true optimist to find the opportunity in any difficulty."

"Well, you must be a divine optimist," Tempest said, "because the only silver lining I see from this disaster is that we finally discovered Camilla."

"Thank you, Tempest," she said, eyes shining. "I am honored to have attracted your gaze, and yours, sir."

"Plan Thirteen is nearly ready," the man announced. Tempest took in his violet eyes, and waited as he held out the set of papers he'd been studying. The Gifted woman took them gingerly, glancing down as she did.

Kacey "Shieldmaiden" MacTavish.

"Put a pin in her," the man ordered. "With the others."

"As you command," Tempest muttered, not understanding. She turned and carried the papers to a little box, at the center of the Guiding Light's war room. Tempest opened the box, and she passed over the two other files, reading them in passing.

Estelle "Midnight" Marona. Belthor Spellweaver.

"Sir..." Camilla asked, as Tempest slid MacTavish into place. "If I may-"

"Speak your mind," he ordered. "You are in the inner circle now, Camilla. I do not punish speaking out of turn or expressing concerns."

"Sir..." The blonde glanced at Tempest, then held out the papers in her own hand. "What about the other one?"

Tempest glanced too, still by the box. The man shifted his weight, chuckling.

"I think he shows potential," Vaneer the Messiah said. "Plan Thirteen is going very well."

***

"Yah!" 

It was loud. It echoed. It rang like in the air, and birds rose on all sides of the rocky-banked lake. A deer bolted. 

He sat, chest heaving, naked in the chill.

"...again?" he demanded, almost at a roar. "Again!" He grabbed a rock and threw it. "Shit! Why? What now! What did I do?"

He sucked in breath, watching the rock fly straight through a tree trunk and dent the next one. His muscles twitched as he clenched his fists, snarling under his breath.

"Stupid...stupid...why?" He stormed to his feet, kicking at rocks. They scattered and cracked under his strength. "I just-"

He froze, standing in nothing but his skin by the lakeside.

With a little girl sitting on a rock watching him.

"I...you..." He blinked. "Run along!"

"I brought you clothes," she said, her voice level. She gestured, and now he took in a pile on the rocks. "You'll like them. They're warm."

"...how long have you been there?" he asked.

"A while." She tilted her head. "I found you."

"Yeah. I see that." He grabbed for the clothes. "Run along, kid. Go home."

"I did." She remained on the rock. The man growled under his breath.

"I ain't taking no strays," he told her. "Not how I go. You need to run off to your family."

"I don't have one," she said. "This is where I belong, so it is where I stay."

"You..." He growled. "Name?"

"Lisbeth."

"Well, Lisbeth..." He approached, shirtless and barefoot but at least modest. He grabbed her shoulders. "You ain't coming-"

His hands went right through her. She stared levelly.

"...who are you?" he asked, glancing her over. "You look...are you even thirteen?"

"I'm dead," was her response. "I was in Hell."

"Little girl like you?" he asked. "What'd you do?"

"A lot." She watched as he retreated, grabbing at his shirt. "Like you."

"I don't remember nothing," he groused, spotting a hip flask in the clothes and going for it. "You telling me you do?"

"You remember something," she said. "The boy?"

A boy. That was familiar: a boy with a big stick.

"Some kind of dragon," he finally said. "So what?"

"You were in Hell too. I found you."

"Really?" he asked, turning the flask over and watching nothing spill out. "Thought that's where I am."

She tilted her head to the side. "When you left, I came with you."

"You ain't coming with me," he told her. "That's that, kid. Scamper off and haunt someone." He grabbed his things and turned away-

"Even if I can tell you who you are? What would you say if I could tell you what your name is?"

He stopped.

"What would you say if I could tell you why you can't die, and why you keep coming back? What happened to you? What you are?"

He turned back to her. Still Lisbeth sat on her rock, watching.

"What would you say?" she repeated.

He stared.

"Well," Walker said. "It's about damn time."




To be continued....

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Chapter Thirty-two: Shieldmaiden(Part Two)



Kacey gasped, sweat running down her forehead and over her shoulders in the dark. She shivered, and not from the cold. She wavered where she sat, gritting her teeth and sucking air into burning lungs.

"Are you going to have a heart attack, Miss Kacey?"

"Brigid," she mumbled. "Brigid, I don't know who taught you witchcraft, but I don't feel very healed."

"That's how it's done, Miss Kacey," she said, her clothes rustling in the dark as she gathered up her dolls and needles and Vod-books. 

"How do you see in the dark to do all of that?" she asked.

"Practice." And then Brigid swept around her. "On your feet, Miss Kacey. Your body needs to move."
"It doesn't...like that idea," she protested. "Brigid-"

"Up." The maid took her arm. "You sound just like your dad."

Kacey stumbled to her feet. Taking faltering breaths, leaning on wavering knees, she managed to make it to the far wall. 

"Very kind of Ardyn," she managed. "Letting us use her house like this."

"I think this is the first time anyone's lived in it since the Laird bought it for her," Brigid said. "And this is a use Laird John would be happy with. You're going to be fine, now, Miss Kacey."

Kacey let out a breath. She turned and glanced at Brigid. "I read the letter. Do you know what..."

She nodded. "I was with him when he wrote it. We talked about what needed saying."

Kacey let out another breath. "He was dying?"

"I don't know what the malady was, but it was bad, Kacey. If not for me, he'd not have survived the last eight years." The maid shook her head. "I think that's why he was really in the market for a witch when he hired me: someone had told him about it, and he was scared."

"Of death?"

"Of leaving you without him," Brigid said. "You so hot-headed, in a world you didn't understand, that didn't accept you..."

Kacey nodded. "Brigid, I must admit...this isn't really my business, but..."

"Your father and I?"

Kacey struggled, but then nodded again. "You seemed close. I wondered, a time or two, if..."

Brigid paused to open the shutters, and Kacey winced as the coastal sunlight shone into her bedroom. The maid turned.

"Aye," she said. "We were very close, Kacey. I knew all about him, and he knew about my sordid past. We needed each other. It's not my place to say I loved him, but that's a recipe right there."

"He needed you to keep him alive."

"And to help raise you," Brigid said. "He told me you needed a mother, not just a father. I never would take that title for myself, Miss Kacey, but-"

"Yeah, well, you deserve it," she said, and that stopped the older woman up short.

"Miss Kacey..." She had to pause to wipe at her eyes. "When I was young, people found out about my witchery. I ran from them, but in the end, they caught me. Your father saved me, in the nick of time, from being burned at the stake. I told him I owed him my life, and he told me to leave it: that he just did what needed doing. That was when he was coming south with you."

"Did you go with him?" Kacey asked. She laughed.

"He wouldn't hear of it. Left me standing in the rain, at the edge of a village that now hated me. So I just figured he was heading to his family's estate and made my way there the old-fashioned way. Offered my services again at his doorstep. Persistence paid off, especially when he figured out I actually was a witch, and not just an innocent girl accused by someone powerful. Witches are wonderful for aspiring merchant houses."

Kacey let out breath. "I know about my mum. From Frode and from the letter."

"Your father made mistakes," Brigid said quietly. "But he did right by you, and he did right by me. I would have done anything when he saved me and I had no home left, and no one would have known different if he'd taken advantage of me. He didn't, and the fact he didn't proves in my mind that he changed when he took you. He never forgave himself, and he never forgot."

Kacey nodded. Brigid approached and put a hand on her shoulder.

"What John did isn't your burden," she said. "All you can do is move forward, knowing that if nothing else, he was a good father to you, and a kind protector to a scared, lost witch."

"He was a good man in the end," Kacey said. "I wish I could have talked to him about this, but I understand why he didn't say anything. I would have lost my mind." She smiled. "Almost did as it is."

"Just you never forget that for everything else, he died taking a bullet for you," Brigid reminded her. "It's not your fault it happened, Kacey, but it tells you a lot about how much he loved you. He wouldn't let you heal him because he thought if your secret was outed in front of a crowd, that'd be it, and he wouldn't be there to save you from the stake. You were his world."

Kacey took in breath. "Thank you, Brigid. I feel a bit better, now."

"Come on." She again took Kacey's arm. "Let's get you dressed, Miss Kacey. We've got big business for the day!"
 
***

Kacey walked through the ash-strewn ruins, bathed in the light of morning. She looked left and right, taking in walls that used to hold pictures, spaces where tables and flowers had resided. Above her, the surviving remnants of the first floor leaned on charred supports.

"It's a bit of a mess," Kacey observed.

"Little bit," Corlane agreed. He, Ardyn, Angus, and Brigid followed her at a respectful distance. Soap bounded through the mess, digging in the soot mournfully with his tail down low.

"But it's my mess," Kacey said. She turned her head, looking through the ruins. "Hold fast."

"Kacey-" Brigid sighed as she boosted herself over a fallen column. "Miss Kacey, you'll get ash all over that beautiful dress of yours!"

The redhead ignored her. She made her way through the ground floor, passing the cellar entrance and the open door as she approached the back yard, heedless of gray and black accumulating on her green skirts. She clutched her hat as she made her way out into the grass.

She glanced at the shattered stone bench, and she sighed.

"Sorry. I didn't mean to just...spin off at you."

"That's fine." John had opened his arms, and she had approached. He'd embraced her, and she'd melted into his arms, taking comfort in them as always. "How have you been, love?"

She sniffed in the present. Soap ambled past her, chuffing as he rooted around for the gods-knew-what. Idly, the redhead kicked one of the Guiding Light's discarded arrows aside, reflecting that they'd be finding them strewn in the yard and house for years now.

"You'll never guess, and I don't know how, but I made a discovery."

"I don't recall bringing you along on this trip," Kacey said. She turned. "Nor did I tell you I was coming, I don't think."

"Should that stop me?" Estelle asked, dressed in black in the doorway. She held her hands behind her back with a sly smile. "Your father's wine cellar. It's actually in pretty good shape. Most of the wines survived - and don't ask me how! It's beyond comprehension."

"Really?" Kacey asked. "And?"

"And..." Estelle shrugged. "Here." She held out one hand, and Kacey saw a pair of glasses in it. Slowly, she took one.

"I'm really more of a fan of whites," she warned as Estelle bit the cork and pulled it from the bottle she'd been hiding. The ravenette shook her head instantly.

"You have to trust me on this, sparks," she said. "Sitting by the sea, a little glass of this...I mean, that's culture, right there."

"Culture?" Kacey asked. She waited as her new friend poured. She raised the glass.

"No! You don't just drink it, like that," Estelle protested. "Savor it. Breathe it in. I swear, Highland - you're a walking stereotype."

"You know, we still haven't had a pub crawl," Kacey pointed out. "I'll show you stereotypes."

"I bet you will, sparks," Estelle agreed, as she poured her own glass. "See, it goes with the weather and the temperature, not just the Sound out there. There's a lot of competing factors." She frowned at Kacey's expression. "Did I say something?"

"Sparks," Kacey explained. "That's what Theron called me."

"Oh." Estelle nodded. "Does that...I'm sorry. Did I offend you?"

"It's fine," Kacey said. "Not a problem in the world...Stella."

Estelle blinked. "You..." She mused. "You know, I suppose that doesn't sound as bad, coming from you."

"Well, I’m glad you like me," Kacey said. She examined her glass. "So...when do I drink it, mum?"

"Little sips," Estelle said. "Like this." She demonstrated...and sighed at Kacey when she did the exact same thing. The redhead fumed at the unfairness of it, even as the Nuremite seemed to pull herself off the ledge. "Well, it's progress."

"You and my dad would have been soul mates," Kacey growled. "You would have been united in staring down your long, pointy noses at me across the dinner table. Enophiles!"

"That's a big word for a Highlander," Estelle said. "Does your brain hurt, now?"

"Mainland!" She mimed with her fist. "You love your bloody wine so much - I bet that's why I beat your arse on the river! Talking to me about stereotypes!"

"Highland!" Estelle's turn to mime. They both laughed a moment later, and it felt pure.

"There you are," Brigid said. Kacey and Estelle turned as she made her way over the ruins of the back porch. "I see you picked up a stray cat."

"I've been called worse," Estelle mused, with a shrug.

"Black cats are bad luck," Kacey pointed out, nodding to her dress.

"Only for some people." Estelle raised her glass. Kacey snorted.

"Have you made any decisions about the house, Laird Mac..." Brigid broke off. "I'm sorry. I mean-"

"It's fine. I am, aren't I?" Kacey mused. "What do you mean?"

"About the house, ma'am," Brigid said. "We can tear the rubble down, and that's what we'll start with, but...then what?"

Kacey started to sip - then noticed Estelle watching her. Maintaining eye contact, she threw back the entire glass. The Nuremite winced like she'd been slapped.

"We rebuild it," Kacey said. "Every stone, every plank, just the way it was. No expense spared."

Brigid tilted her head. "You don't have to do that, Kacey. You're the Laird now. The house is yours, not your father's."

"Yeah, but it's mine and my father's," she said. "And his father's, and his. It's twenty generations of MacTavishes. Dad learned to deal with it, when he took over from my grandfather. I'm sure I'll figure out how to take over from him." She nodded. "And if we fix her up, at least I know I'll never be alone. When I'm working in his office, he'll always be looking over my shoulder, making sure I don't mess anything up too badly."

Brigid smiled. "Very good, Laird MacTavish. I'll let Corlane know."

"Thank you, Brigid." Kacey turned back to Estelle as she left. "Seems like we've all come out of this for the best."

"Easy for you to say," Estelle quipped. She paused, and Kacey suspected her face had betrayed her. "Or not. I'm sorry. I forgot."

"I'm sure I'll be all right," the redhead promised. "Dad would want me to move forward."

"He'd be proud of you...Shieldmaiden."

"Now, I suppose the question of the evening is where you heard that little nickname?" Kacey wondered. "Jason's the only one who ever said it."

"Kui was there." Estelle finished her drink. "It's apt."

"I like it," Kacey agreed. "Shields protect. If I'm to be known for something, that'll do...even if I'm not hot about where the name came from."

"The first person to call me Midnight?" The ravenette scoffed. "Jason again. I swear, the man would have been better off as a newspaper editor. He had a knack for snappy nicknames."

"Evidently." Kacey glanced back out over the Sound. "Leaving for the mainland?"

"Tomorrow," Estelle confirmed. "I've got to get back on the remnants of the Light in my country."

"I'll hit them over here," Kacey assured her. "Nice and hard. Don't you worry none about the Clans."

"And don't you lose sleep over Nurem," Estelle promised. "I'll send you letters. Maybe we'll meet again."

"Sounds fun," Kacey told her. She handed the glass back. "All right. Put those where you found them."

"Kacey?" Estelle asked. The redhead patted her shoulder.

"Hold on to your knickers," she instructed the princess, "because Midnight and Shieldmaiden are going for that pub crawl."

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Announcing WALKER OF WORLDS!



With Shieldmaiden reaching the end, I'd like to officially announce that the Fourth Novel of Maximus is Walker of Worlds, following everyone's favorite resurrecting hero. If you don't remember him, I've put most of Belthor Spellweaver back up for viewing. He has a character tag - "Walker" - so you can jump right to his scenes if you want. If you want a more complete picture of his character and backstory in canon, you can purchase Spellweaver through the blog.

Walker of Worlds is now available for pre-purchase through the Bookstore, and all proceeds are still being donated to Puerto Rico. Just because it's been a while since the hurricanes, doesn't mean they still don't need all the help we can give. It also has its own book page, where you can find a teaser blurb.

There will, of course, still be a stinger on the end of Shieldmaiden that gives you more information about what to expect. And if you liked Shieldmaiden, please consider leaving me a comment telling me all about what you liked - it'll make my day! And Shieldmaiden is available in the Bookstore as well, if you're into supporting indie artists and hurricane relief.

Walker of Worlds will begin airing on the 22nd. Stick around and see how it all goes!

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Chapter Thirty-two: Shieldmaiden(Part One)



"And it is furthermore, my honor, and pleasure, to present to the MacTavish Clan the Stanford Cross," King Truman said. "Our country's highest honor is given out perhaps twice in a King's reign, but I think it has never been more deserved." He smiled, and it was somehow a different smile from his election-winning smirk. "If not for the bravery and selflessness shown by Clan MacTavish, I would be dead along with my family, and our country betrayed. I only wish Laird Kacey was here to accept the reward herself. Since she isn't with us, I would be humbled to offer it to her cousin: Ardyn MacTavish."

"Thank you, Your Majesty," Ardyn said, curtsying before bowing her head and taking the little box with the Cross in it. King Truman paused to embrace her.

"I owe your Clan my life," he said. "The reparations to the MacTavish Estate will be performed at cost by workers of the Crown, and I will supply whatever reasonable requests you make for your trade fleet's operations."

"Thank you, Your Majesty." Ardyn managed a smile. "I wish Kacey were here, too."

King Truman nodded, then turned. She turned with him, and they beheld the packed King's Hall in Lionsmane.

"Ardyn MacTavish," the King announced, "national hero!"

"Hail MacTavish!" cried the men and women in the crowd, saluting her. She saw MacPhearson with a wide grin, and her bandaged father in the front row, laughing. Ardyn smiled.

And burst into tears.

***

"Bit of a raw job for you," Ardyn said, as she walked one of the Royal Gardens, shoes in her handbag, feeling the grass between her toes. "You did a little."

"I don't need a Stanford Cross," Angus said. "The satisfaction of serving my King well is really what gets me to sleep at night."

"Is it?" Ardyn asked. "Because you're so selfless. You just did it all out of the goodness of your heart."

"Well, yes," Angus said. "Still, I couldn't help but notice what a wee little liar you turned out to be, Ardyn."

"Who, me?"

"No, the other Ardyn!"

"Funny, that. That's what Uncle John would say. 'Ardyn, stop doing...no, not you, Ardyn! The other Ardyn! Red-haired Ardyn!'"

That made Angus laugh. "I wish she could have seen you. You looked very much the Heiress MacTavish."

"I wept like a babe," Ardyn protested.

"It was adorable," Angus agreed. "You melted half the hearts in the room. You had MacDonald offering his handkerchief, and you know what that takes."

"He's not the man he was, I don't think," Ardyn argued. "Everyone can learn, and everyone can change for the better. Even if some men require more dramatic impetus than others."

Angus shrugged. "We'll see. And him and MacPhearson!"

"Thick as thieves, aren't they now?" Ardyn agreed. "Something about beating an assassin half to death together unites people, I think. No more Sodding Saoirse, at least for now."

"And no more confrontation with Nurem, after Lady Marona," Angus agreed. "Seems like we all came out for the better. Except you're still a liar."

"Excuse me?" Ardyn asked. Angus shrugged.

"I seem to recall that you struck a bargain for my service as a ferryman," he said. "Something about payment to be received upon my arrival in Sora's Cove."

"What deal?" Ardyn asked. "You want my Stanford Cross? It'll look terrible on my vanity. You can have the ugly thing."

"No!" Angus scoffed. "It was a rain-swept night, wasn't it? And you just trying to slip over the rail...and what do you do? You kissed me, that's what you did. And what did you say?"

"Oh, really?" Ardyn asked. "So, the payment you expect to receive is the beautiful blonde maiden, is it?" She put a hand over her heart. "What a pirate!"

"Woman!" Angus raised his fist. "I've had about enough of your back-sass about that."

"Have you?" she asked. "Then why do you keep coming back for more?"

"Maybe it's because I want to ravish you, you think about that?" he asked.

"Well," Ardyn said, putting her hands on her hips, "you're taking your bloody time about it, aren't you?"

He paused. "Is that..."

"It seems you're being stiffed of payment, pirate lord," she said, sidling backward with her dress rustling in the grass.

"Woman-"

She turned and ran.

She heard his footfalls a moment later. "Ardyn-"

"Help me!" she cried, her laughter belying the plea. "I'm being kidnapped by a chronically impunctual corsair!"

"You know what, woman?" Angus tackled her from behind, and they collapsed together. They rolled until he was atop her, pinning her wrists down. She smiled.

"What are you waiting for now?" she asked after a moment. "I thought I was being ravished!"

"Oh...you are," Angus assured her. "But I think I'll take my bloody time about it."

He kissed her, lying in the garden, and Ardyn curled her fingers in his hair, and her toes in the grass.

Ardyn MacLoughlin, she mused, in the back of her brain. I like it.

***

Estelle Marona stretched, wincing as her chest protested. "And you say Belthor is-"

"A long way from here," Kui replied. "We're going to have to tough it out, Estelle. I have to admit, that Brigid woman does a good job of her witchcraft, but I'd be happier with a wizard's touch. Belthor does it better."

"Absolutely," Estelle agreed. She examined the new bullet-scar she had, directly across from her old one, below her neck and a tad to the side. "At least I match now."

"It might raise some questions from whoever your eventual lucky man is," Kui pointed out. "Make sure he knows you've been shot, stabbed, set on fire, punched, crushed, telepathically assaulted, lost in shipwrecks-"

"You can stop at any time," Estelle told him.

"Why?" he asked. "This is fun. I like pestering you."

Estelle grunted. "Jason's dead. Theron's locked in Highland prison sans an arm. MacDonald is safe. The Light's operations here have been pretty conclusively shattered."

"Time to go home?" Kui asked. "Seems our work is done."

"Are you all right?" Estelle inquired, glancing at him. "You're being surprisingly rational for once."

"Well, you know, I can think like you when I set my mind to it," he said. "If Princess Marona were to ask her lowly servant's opinion, though-"

"Call me that again, and I'll..." Estelle trailed off. Kui smirked.

"You'll what?" he asked. "Waiting on you, now."

"I'll..." Estelle turned back to her mirror and started with her hair. "You've been warned."

"Oh. So scary. The terrifying Midnight." Kui rose. "Are you going to ask for my opinion?"

"Are you going to keep asking me to ask for your opinion until I ask for it?"

"Yes."

Estelle sighed. "You're a terrible servant."

"I'm a wonderful servant," Kui corrected. "I know what needs doing and what the facts of life are, like most servants, and you need to know what I know, and I'm respecting your place of authority by only telling you you're being stupid when directly asked. I'm just inquiring if you have plans to."

"I had none until you did," Estelle groused. She glared at him in her mirror while she brushed. "Fine. You win. What's your opinion, my lowly and respectful servant?"

"You've still got a bit of business to be about," Kui reminded her. "A place to visit."

"Really?" Estelle asked. "What's that, now?"