Thursday, December 29, 2016

Chapter Nineteen: Burn(Part Two)



"Whoa-" the man in the hallway cried, raising his hands as Kui loomed before him. "I'm just here...I wanted to see Princess Marona-"

"She's not here right now," Kui said.

"It's about the Midnight thing-"

Kui's hand shot out and the newcomer choked suddenly. Estelle tightened her grip on the letter opener, but folded her arms instead of advancing. Kui heaved-

Belthor landed on his hands and knees before Estelle, coughing and clutching his neck. Very firmly, Kui shut the door behind him, and the click of the lock was a very loud, very dangerous sound.

"What Midnight thing?" Estelle asked, glaring down at Belthor. He slowly looked up, and his eyes fixed on the letter opener.

"Uh. Um."

"Any time now," Kui advised. "Or we can see if a wizard's acolyte can fly out of a fourth-story window."

"Oh, gods." Belthor paled. "I, uh. I just...I figured out...you're this Midnight character."

"Who?" Estelle asked unconvincingly.

"The vigilante sort of person," Belthor said. "The drifter girl, she's been spreading the story everywhere. I heard it...her description matches what you were wearing the other night, when you came by the camp."

Estelle tilted her head. Belthor started to rise, but she very firmly picked up one foot and shoved him back down. "How did you figure me out?"

"The party," Belthor murmured, and his voice wavered a surprising amount. "You came up and talked to me, milady...err, Princess Marona-"

"She doesn't like being called that," Kui advised. "Brown-nosing isn't going to save your life if we don't like what we hear."

"Well...you talked to me," Belthor said. "Me. I'm nobody. So that was a flag right there."

"Maybe I just wanted to make conversation with a wizard's acolyte," Estelle said. "You're hardly nobody."

"That's what I thought, after a minute," he agreed, very earnestly. "But then...Lady...you called me Belthor. You called me son of Morse. You gave me your name at the party, but you never waited for me to give mine."

Estelle felt a cold flush run through her veins. She glanced up at Kui, and her companion was shooting her a very, very disappointed look.

Oops.

"Was that it?"

"No, no," Belthor said, and now Estelle winced. Thankfully, the boy was looking down. "When we talked about Vivian's tattoo. I said she had that of the Goddess of Luck, and I bemoaned my chances against her...you said healing was a better power than manipulating fortune."

"I had no way of knowing what tattoos you had," Estelle finished. "You never said, I never asked."

"Exactly. And then last night..." Belthor swallowed. "Look, I haven't told anyone, I swear on my mother's soul. You saved my life, from Chartreuse and Argo. I just thought...I thought..."

"What?" Estelle asked. She unfolded her arms, but still she held the letter opener. "Thought what?"

"...I kind of...I am a healer," Belthor finally muttered. "And I'm not getting a staff. Vivian's practically got it already."

"You want a job?" Estelle asked.

"I want to help," Belthor stressed, meeting her gaze. "I owe you. And I want to repay you somehow. I can heal. So if you're...injured, after last night..." He spread his arms. "Here I am."

"You think he's telling the truth?" Kui asked, as if Belthor wasn't there.

"I don't think he's capable of lying to a woman," Estelle observed. "He's barely capable of talking to one. Deception is another thing altogether." She refocused her attention downward. "How did you get in?"

"Master Kulkas came to talk with Princess Luna," Belthor explained. "I came with him and Vivian. Slipped away while they were chatting. Happens all the time - they'll assume I'm seeking an endorsement or trying something to impress him."

"And you're not?"

"I've given up on that," Belthor said, voice tinged with sad resignation. "That's what I said, isn't it? Vivian's got it, in all but name. And I can probably do more good here anyway, logically speaking. She's a stronger magician, and I have the healing gift...you need healing to do what you do..."
 
Estelle took a breath.

"Here." She extended her non-blade hand. Belthor looked up at her, then took it extremely gingerly. In fact, his touch was so light Estelle snorted. "I'm not going to scream about inappropriate contact, Belthor. You’re holding my hand." She raised an eyebrow. "Scandalous."

"Sorry." He went red again as she pulled him up to his feet. "You're just...you're..." He dropped his head into his hands. "I'm making a hash of this. You're frightening, that's what you are."

"Good." Estelle clapped him on the shoulder. "You tell a soul about this, Bel, and frightening is the nicest, cleanest adjective I would use to describe what I'll be."

"I won't, I promise," he said, raising his hands. Estelle nodded.

"Good." She paused. "I'm not injured after last night, no, but maybe you can help me with something else."

"Anything," Belthor promised. Estelle spotted Kui trying very hard not to laugh behind him.

"Okay." She plucked the two shards of Vaneer's window from her nightstand and tossed them Belthor's way. He caught them both with surprising dexterity.

"This is glass," Belthor observed.

"Yes, it is," Estelle said. "It's from a window that was used to view events near and far."

"Ardwal glass?" he demanded, a look of wonder in his eyes. "I never thought I'd see any in person!"

"Well, that's it," Kui told him. "We took the shards - Estelle did, really - because we thought there might be something useful in being able to see things far away."

"Slightly," Belthor agreed.

"The problem is that we can't figure out how to make it work," Estelle said. "It's just...glass. I've held it and thought about what I want to see...I've told it what I want to see..."

"Off the top of my head, I don't think..." Belthor frowned. "I've read about this before, I know I have. I know how to make it work but it's...it's not there..." He rapped himself on the forehead very hard. "It's...oh!" He nodded. "There's a spell. An incantation. A phrase."

"What phrase?" Estelle asked, mood soaring.

"I don't know," Belthor told her, which sent it plummeting again. "Whoever makes the glass sets the words, and the only way to find out would be to learn them from someone who already knows." He looked around. "Who was the original user?"

"His name was Vaneer, and he's dead," Estelle said.

"Oh." Belthor sagged. "Well, all's not lost yet. I can look through my books and see if there's anything. You could try and contact the maker and work that angle."

"We'll keep trying," Estelle agreed. "When does Kulkas leave?"

"Four days," Belthor said morosely. "His timetable's moved up since the party. He'll send me on my way the day after tomorrow, most likely. If you want my services, I can stay in Rosa, but I'd need some manner of...place to stay."

"Let me worry about that," Estelle said. "I won't leave you on the street, and that's a promise. I owe you too."

"What? Oh, no. That's nothing. Fair trade. You didn't let them kill me, so I healed you."

"And you helped me escape pursuit and make it home safely," Estelle pointed out. "I'll get you sorted, don't worry. You just concentrate on trying to figure out this glass."

"And," Kui interjected, voice firm, "if I suddenly show up at your little wizard camp, it's because I either have an urgent message from Estelle, or it's because she's in dire need of a healer."

"I'm not going to be in dire need of a-" Estelle sighed. "Whatever. Sure. That too."

"Of course. Anything." Belthor nodded. "I'll take one of these shards with me, just in case that helps. Maybe I can ask Master Kulkas about it, if I can figure out a good excuse to have it."

"Before you go!" Estelle plucked two chocolates from Luna's gift basket and dropped them in Belthor's hand. "One's a bribe, to keep your mouth shut, and the other's a thank-you for the carrots and water the other night."

"...thanks?" Belthor asked after a moment.

"Don't mention it," Estelle said. "Now, it'd be for the best if Kui escorted you back downstairs and you pretend you got lost on the way to the restroom or something."

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Chapter Nineteen: Burn(Part One)



"So then I left," Estelle finished. She sampled another one of the chocolates Luna had left for her. "These are exquisite."

"Where are the log and the coded book?" Kui asked, scribbling notes in her armchair. Estelle nodded to the trunk, and the Islander took a moment to retrieve them. "I'm a little concerned about these women you ran into."

"They seemed more capable warriors than most," Estelle admitted. "And the one did call me traitor."

"You think they were Guiding Light?"

"No," Estelle said. "Possibly ex-Guiding Light, but with Vaneer dead, unless someone else has taken the reins, the organization has to be in disarray. And given the...cult of personality aspect the Light had, I don't know that a non-Messiah character could possibly unify them."

"Fair points." Kui flipped through the log. "The ship's name was the Rosaline Star, and she seems to have been something along the lines of Aurora and Ward's personal dirty work ship, running cargoes they didn't want to be associated with legitimately. She picked up last night's powder and weapons at a dropoff point about ten miles down the coast, brought them to Rosa, and was...it looks like she was going to outfit a group of so-called rebels in the lands of the Clan McLaughlin, and let them rise up with the promise of Nuremite aid if they announced their loyalty to Nurem very vocally."

"And they'd let them die anyway at that point to provoke a war," Estelle concluded. "And then MacTavish shows up and they take the chance they're offered."

"Not to mention someone forced their hand by raiding Sessions' house," Kui pointed out, which Estelle couldn't argue with. "I'll wander around as the simple Islander servant and see if anyone starts talking about what the constabulary has to have found at the docks by now."

"If the drifter came forward and talked, I bet there's a lot of men in the city jail about now," Estelle said happily. She leaned back on her new bed, making a happy noise. "Did you see?"

"The mattress, or the chocolate?"

"Yes!" Estelle smiled at Kui. "From Luna. Here I thought she was just making polite conversation...she goes and replaces my bed during the big to-do last night, just because I said it was too soft."

"What a wonderful sister."

Estelle felt her face fall very quickly. "Kui."

"What?" The Islander glanced up at her, but by the way he wouldn't meet her gaze, Estelle knew she had him right where she wanted him.

"You. Luna. What is it?" She sat up fully. "The woman you dislike so much is my sister, and she's the only member of my family except maybe my mother who's really gone out of her way to try and ease me back into this life. She's asked after me, she gave me a dress from her own closet, she replaced my bed the instant I expressed discomfort...exactly what is it you know that negates all of that?"
Kui was very quiet, very still. "Negate is the wrong word."

"Right. And it's not a matter of disliking her, is it?"

"No, no it isn't," Kui said. "I don't want to discuss it."

"Well, I do." Estelle tilted her head. "Your choice, Kui: discuss it with me now, and explain what your problem is, or forget it and leave it behind altogether. Don't you trust me?"

He sighed, long and low. Finally, the man stood, putting logbook, coded notebook, and his own sheet of personal notes to the side. "I want it noted that I do trust you, Estelle, but I highly resent you forcing me into speaking on a personal topic given your history of silence about your own."

"Tell it to the fish," Estelle snapped, tossing her head. "You know everything there is to know about what's happened to me by now. It's only fair that you reciprocate. Especially since you promised to several times."

"I wouldn't say you've told me everything-"

"Kui, the only thing I've not given you is a play-by-play of my night with Jason Slattery, and I highly doubt that's something you are particularly interested in hearing." Estelle folded her arms. "So unless you want to equate your personal issues with my sister to the dirty details of my one-night stand with a man who tried to kill me..."

Kui let out another breath. "I can't win an argument with you, can I?"

"I kind of have the gender advantage," Estelle pointed out, voice mild, and that startled a little smile out of Kui.

"All right, all right." He reached for the front of his shirt, which made Estelle frown until he started talking. "So let's recap. I grew up in a small Islander town near the Nuremite colonies. Fishing village, mostly, but we did some weaving and agriculture too. Traded what we caught and made for some Mainlander goods, that sort of thing. I had two younger brothers and four younger sisters."

"Ouch." Estelle blinked.

"Fertility: something my people prized above all else. My parents weren't even terribly old." Kui finished undoing his buttons and off came his shirt. Estelle took in the lines of his lean, muscled runner's build, and the lines and lines of black and blue ink that coated him from elbows up and pectorals down. There were patterns of fish and fowl and what looked like sea serpents and ships and clouds and lightning...

"This is the mark of the Fox," Kui said, pointing to one tattoo. "It signifies cunning, and I won it for defeating the tribal shaman in a riddle contest. This-" it looked like a tooth "-is the War Horn. I earned it for becoming a...you would call me a captain of warriors. It signifies bravery. And this-" he pointed out one in the shape of a shark, swimming around an island denoted only by a flat line on the water "-is the first half of the Shark Ritual mark."

"Your rite-of-passage," Estelle guessed.

"Yes. The first tattoo is given for building your boat, before you leave. The second, you receive if you return home alive." Kui lowered his arms, and Estelle shook her head in wonder as she examined the intricate work of his ink art.

"And you never made it home."

"I never had a home to make it home to," Kui said, and Estelle paused.

"What?"

"The day I was to leave, do you know what woke me up?" Kui asked, his voice low. "Cannon-fire. Soldiers from Nurem came pouring into my village, and they killed any who fought back. They enslaved those who didn't." He raised a wrist, and what Estelle had originally taken for a tattoo so long ago she now realized was a scar around it, and a matching one on the other side.

"You were taken."

"I didn't know if anyone else survived, at first," Kui said. "I managed to escape - I won't tell you how. It was a long, difficult, arduous chore, and luck watched over me closely throughout it. During it, though, I saw Luna."

"You did?" Estelle blinked. "What was she-"

"She was probably there to oversee the attack on the political side," Kui said, his voice thick with pounding anger. "She was yelling up a storm at the commanding colonel. He seemed very unwilling to do what she was saying, but on the attack went. I watched her strike him when he refused one of her commands."

"Luna is one of the gentlest souls I've ever known," Estelle protested.

"Is she really?" Kui asked. "I have no doubt in my mind that she ordered the assault on my people, wiped out or enslaved my family and the one I loved, and burned my home from the face of the earth. That's what I've learned the survivors called it, Estelle: the Burning."

"And that's when you jumped into your boat and made for whatever destination you could reach," Estelle murmured.

"It's a very good thing you didn't tell me who you were," Kui said, and there were tears in his eyes now. "I would have killed you, Estelle. I thought about it as it was, I'm ashamed to admit. You were a Nuremite, I was certain of it...and Nurem had brought death to all I knew."

"Why didn't you?" Estelle asked. "Because I provided for us? Because I protected you from the bandits?"

"Partially," Kui admitted. He sank to a seat. "But you were...you were secretive, but you were kind. I needed kind. I liked you, from the beginning. I thought about doing it, and even though part of me screamed for your blood...I couldn't. It was unthinkable." He sighed and picked his shirt up again. "Have I lost your trust for admitting that?"

"Absolutely not," Estelle said. "In fact, I think it would make me trust you more, if that were possible."

Kui looked up at her, and there were quiet thanks in his eyes. He took a breath.

"That's what I have against Luna," he said, finally. "She left the colonies right after the Burning...running away from what she'd done like a coward." He pulled his shirt back on and fiddled with the buttons. "Someday, I plan to square with her."

"I don't believe she would bring genocide on anyone," Estelle said. "I trust you, but I need proof. She's my sister."

"I understand that," Kui said as he finished buttoning. "Still-"

Someone knocked on the door. Estelle frowned.

"Yes?" she asked. When no one responded after a moment, she rose.

"Hang on." Kui walked over to the door and gently took the knob. Estelle glanced to her bedside table, and she silently picked up a letter opener. She flipped it into a reverse grip, almost hidden by her white dress, and she took up a position at the foot of her bed, out of sight from the doorway and with easy cover if whoever came through the door had a gun.

"Ready," she whispered. Kui nodded.

He yanked the door open.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Chapter Sixteen: Homecoming(Part Three)



"Hey, spellweaver!" A brunette appeared from the crowd. "Master Kulkas..." she paused as she saw Estelle. "Lady Marona."

"Please don't call me that," Belthor whispered. He pushed off the wall. "The Master wants me?"

"Just for a moment, then you can dance with the princess," the brunette Estelle assumed to be Vivian said. "Apologies, Lady Marona. We'll have to get acquainted another time."

That set Estelle's teeth on edge. There was a casual disdain to her tone the princess recognized all too well: that of a noble daughter for those with the ill foresight to have been born below them. That she was senior to Vivian was not in doubt, but a woman on such good terms with Aurora, Ward and Lord Sessions as to have their endorsements as a wizard...well. She very definitely might think she was something more than a recently-returned castaway princess.

"Of course," she said aloud. She waited as Vivian turned away. Her gaze flicked back to Belthor. "Spellweaver?"

"My father's a basket-weaver," he muttered, turning bright red. "A nickname."

"Don't worry," Estelle said. She smiled earnestly. "Embrace it, Belthor. If they call you spellweaver...be the spellweaver, the best. I think it sounds quite powerful myself."

"You do?" Belthor blinked. "I think you're the first person to believe in me since I left home, milady."

"Estelle," she corrected, voice firm. "I know what it's like to be stuck with a task that's simply too big and daunting." She took a breath. "But you should hurry on. Who knows what the Master wants?"

"Right, right." A shadow flitted over Belthor's face. "Uh...right. Farewell, Princess Marona. Err. Estelle."

She watched him go with a smile.

Embrace it. Her words echoed in her head. She frowned.

Embrace it. Could her advice to Belthor be the answer to her current problems? That wasn't how it worked, was it? Helping others helped others...you weren't supposed to find your solutions by advising those in need of theirs, were you?

"If they call you spellweaver," Estelle muttered. She stared into the bright lights of the late celebration, feeling something...very different. Very unusual.

It was back. That sense of eclipse that had almost spelled her doom the other night.

Embrace it?

***

Kui slipped through the crowd in his dark uniform and darker hat, effectively invisible to the circles of the high and mighty. He held a tray of drinks in one hand, and he chose his target very carefully.
Sessions, Aurora, and Ward didn't notice him approach. They were too heavily engaged in their conversation, and Kui took advantage of that as he handed drinks to a few of the guests around them.

"No trace?" Ward asked. Sessions shook his head.

"My men followed the man as far as the outskirts of Rosa. He disappeared around the wizard's camp."

"Could be one of them," Aurora pointed out. "A magician could have done what you describe." She fingered her silver lantern-shaped necklace. "It has to have been a magician - your Gifted guard-"

"This man went through him like that," Sessions said, snapping his fingers. "I didn't see him cast any spells, but that must be how he did it. When he confronted me, I'd have sworn it was a woman if I didn't know better. Thin, not broad - surprisingly strong and agile, but virtually no bulk to him. Magic must be involved."

Right, Kui found himself thinking. That's such a more likely theory than that it actually was a woman.

"Curse wizardry," Ward muttered. "Whoever this character is, he presents a problem."

"Shall we accelerate the timetable?" Sessions asked.

"Yes, yes we shall," Ward told him. "Get out of here as soon as you can and get to the ship. I want everything set. We'll launch later tonight, when he's left as well."

Kui handed a drink to the last of those milling nearby, and regretfully concluded he had only one recourse to not seem suspicious. He took a breath.

"A drink, Lord Sessions?" he asked, offering one. The man jumped, though Aurora and Ward maintained their composure.

"Of course." Sessions took a glass without looking. "Milord, milady?"

"No thank you, Anthony," Ward said. "We've had enough as it is."

"Right, well. Off you go." Sessions waved Kui away. He nodded compliantly and withdrew as slowly as he dared.

"Tonight," he heard Sessions confirm. "And I'll personally inform the Rogue of the situation."

Rogue? Something about how Sessions said it made Kui certain it was a proper noun. A name? A place? Likely a name. He mused, passing the young woman hanging on the old wizard's coattails, and then the young man who seemed to trail the two of them nervously around the celebration.

"I didn't..." he muttered to himself, seeming not to notice Kui. "...son of Morse...I never told her..."

Bump. Kui stumbled as he ran into someone.

"Oh, gracious, I'm sorry," he found himself saying, as professionally as he could. "I didn't mean to..."

"It's quite all right," Luna Marona said, giving him a little smile. "No harm."

She looked so much like Estelle. The midnight hair, the lines of her face...what was different was her eyes, and Kui appreciated that. This way, he couldn't confuse them. They were just different enough on the outside to mark their differences inside.

Here he was face-to-face with her, after so long...and what rankled was that there was exactly one thing he could say and do, and it wasn't anything close to his desire.

"Thank you, Princess Luna," he told her, managing not to hiss the words. He extended his tray. "A drink?"

"No, thank you," she said, and then it was like Kui vanished from her world. He stepped back properly as she returned her attention to Aurora and Ward's son, Darren.

Ignore me, then, Kui thought, the words somehow seeming...red in his mind. I won't be ignoring you, though, butcher.

He turned his attention back where it belonged, with some difficulty: Estelle.

***

"Tonight? Now?" Estelle asked, hurrying down the hallway toward her room.

"That's what I heard," Kui confirmed. "Of course, they were also discussing the attack on Sessions' house, so they are aware..." he sighed. "Why am I even talking to you? You'll never be dissuaded by something as minor as knowing you would be walking head-first into what is very likely to be a trap."

"I've survived worse." Estelle opened the double doors and swept in past her reading chair and to the trunk with her armor. She lifted the lid, and her eyes drank in the suit's lines.

Slowly, she pulled off one glove, then the other. Estelle took her hair and let it down from its coif, only to start fishing the bands and bows and jewels woven into it out. "Kui."

She felt his hands start undoing the knots on her corset. "You're sure this is wise?"

"No," Estelle said, without hesitation. She kicked her shoes almost under her bed. "But it's the task I've given to myself."

Off came the corset, then Estelle's stockings. Off came her makeup, and on went her simple shirt and pants. On went the armor: feet, legs, torso, arms, hands. She claimed her pistols, Callan's knife, her bow and quivers, and-

Her helmet was gone. She blinked, but then looked up to see it in Kui's hand. He regarded her, with a look in his eyes that was difficult to read.

"How will this be different from last time?" he asked.

Embrace it.

Embrace what?

Estelle took a breath. She pinned her hair back.

"I'll be different," she said.

"How?" Kui offered the helmet, and Estelle took it. She stared into its eye sockets as if she were looking into another person's eyes.

Estelle had chuckled nervously. "I don't remember who started calling me that first-"

"Oh, I quite like it," Vaneer had said. "Names have power, you know. Be Estelle only to those you trust - be someone else when you need to be."

Estelle lifted the helmet and put it over her head. Slowly, she fastened all the pieces down and together. It tightened in that intimate, personal way, and up rose the sense of eclipse.

Embrace it.

She breathed. Up, up it rose, and it felt like power. Every breath seemed deeper, richer, more vivid...

What was this?

All you have to do is decide what you want to become.

She closed her eyes. She drunk in the sense of eclipse, of change, of being someone else.

Of identity.

"Midnight Demon, Estelle...where their differences lie is up to you."

Midnight opened her eyes.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Chapter Sixteen: Homecoming(Part Two)



Estelle blinked. "Well, Lord MacTavish. I'm pleased to meet you." She offered her hand.

"The pleasure is entirely mine, young lady." MacTavish took her hand and kissed it, very seriously. "Though perhaps we ought to be disappointed we met under these circumstances and not others."

Estelle met his blue gaze. She fought down a frown as she saw nothing she could read in his eyes.

"Perhaps we ought," she finally said. "I doubt there could be a recurrence of the Compromise, though, even if."

"Perhaps for the best," MacTavish said. "You are far too beautiful of a woman, and with far too much of a life ahead of you, to be wed to an old man like me."

"You hardly seem old," Estelle said.

"To a twenty-year-old, I'm certain anyone in their fifties must seem absolutely ancient," MacTavish told her with a little grin. "Though I appreciate your kindness. And I certainly don't think I'm old...but perhaps I'm biased, a little."

"Just perhaps," Estelle agreed with a little smile. "I do regret we never met before. Perhaps the Compromise really might have prevented the necessity of your job."

"It was never going to work," MacTavish said, with a quiet sort of acceptance in his voice that gave Estelle pause. "Had you arrived, had we been wed, had somehow no rogue Clansman who thought the Compromise was, quite literally, bedding the enemy proceeded to have us both killed for the impertinence of attempting peace...perhaps it would have worked. But there were too many variables. Still!" He smiled again. "It was a very nice idea."

"It was," Estelle said. "I'm sure someday something like it will work, though. There will be peace between Nurem and the Highlands, and peace beyond that won at swordpoint. It's the only way to build a better world."

"I believe you would get along splendidly with my Kacey," MacTavish observed, almost dryly. "My daughter too is an idealistic young woman with big dreams and no shortage of means to make them reality." He regarded Estelle. "I believe had she been cast away in your place, Lady Marona, she could very well have lived up to the reputation you have accrued yourself."

"Someday I must meet her, then," Estelle said. "She sounds remarkable."

"She is," John told her, as any father might. "She is my world. She's all I have left of her mother, and soon she'll be all that's left of me too." He inhaled. "But, I shan't bore you with more than that."

"You know, Lord MacTavish," Estelle said, very cautiously. "There are some who believe it was the Clans who arranged the mutiny I survived."

"There are," MacTavish agreed. "Even in my homeland, there are. Many think said potential conspirators are national heroes."

"What about you?" An extremely blunt question from a princess to a lord...but Estelle wanted to know whether her quest for revenge needed to expand. His answer would, of course, be a denial, and not so important, but it would be his eyes, his body language, that would give her the answer she desired.

"I'm not certain," MacTavish said, which wasn't the answer she expected. "I had no reason to wish you lost at sea, Lady Marona, so you can rest easy knowing that I was not involved in your trials. However, the Compromise was doomed from the start...perhaps this was the best way it could possibly end."

"I might take offense that you seem so indifferent to the struggles I endured."

"Might, but won't." MacTavish met her gaze levelly, and Estelle suddenly wondered exactly what he knew and how about her story and plans. "No, you're more reasonable than that."

"You...seem very certain."

"You are very much like Kacey," he repeated. "And this way, the Compromise may be in shambles, but for once, I feel like there is a Mainlander who desires more than a peace won at swordpoint, and might be truly inclined to seek rapport with my people." He smiled. "I hope I live to see it happen."

Estelle blinked. MacTavish glanced beyond her. "Excuse me, Lady Estelle."

"Of course." She watched the redheaded Highlander move along in her brother's direction, getting the distinct sense he'd been after something...and had gotten what he wanted.

Could he have known about the Guiding Light? About Estelle's little adventure? It seemed inconceivable, but something in the way he'd spoken, the way he'd looked her over, made her wonder. She didn't see how he could have...but assuming foolishness of Clansmen was a flaw her family had possessed and been led to rue for hundreds of years.

Now she saw another face in the crowd, out of the corner of her eye, and Estelle paused. She tilted her head, and a little smile touched her lips. She took her drink and a deep breath before starting the short walk through the crowd.

He was standing in a far corner, actually. His back was to the wall, he held no drink, and he looked distinctly uncomfortable. His eyes roved left and right, lingering more on the elegant ladies in their bejeweled gowns than anything else, and that amused Estelle. He was hardly base about it, but he was fifteen.

"I don't believe I have the pleasure of your name," she said as she slid in beside Belthor, son of Morse. "Are you with Master Kulkas' company?"

"Huh?" Belthor jumped, and Estelle supposed she must have practically appeared out of thin air beside him for all he could tell. "Uh, oh, yes. Yes, I'm with Master Kulkas."

"One of his acolytes?" Estelle asked.

"Yes." Belthor inhaled deeply. "Vivian's with him...I think they're over there somewhere..."

"Weren't there four of you?" Estelle asked, voice mild.

"Uh, Chartreuse and Argo left the other morning," Belthor said, which filled Estelle with a bit of perverse pleasure. "Got kicked out, really. Haven't a clue why. Not my business what they talked about with Master Kulkas." He inhaled, clasping his hands before him very tightly. "Um, what was your name, again? If I may ask."

"Estelle Vivienne Marona."

He seemed to melt. "Oh. Oh. Princess, um, my lady..."

"First time meeting a king's daughter?" she asked. Belthor could only nod helplessly, and Estelle could only try very hard not to laugh. "I'm not that scary, son of Morse."

"I know, I know. I mean, I should know." Belthor went red. "You're not scary, I'm sorry. You're gorgeous. I mean, you're a princess. Not gorgeous - but you are, I mean, I'm not saying..." he trailed off. "I'm sorry, I'm flustered. Please don't take offense."

 "It's perfectly all right," Estelle said. She gave him her best smile. "I bet you act like this to every princess you run into."

"...so far, this is true," Belthor managed. "Small sample size, but true nonetheless." He hesitated. "I'm a failure. Here a princess - and not just a princess, the princess everyone's talking about - comes up to me, and I'm too busy trying not to put my foot in my mouth to try and impress her enough to recommend me to Master Kulkas." He went white a second later. "Oh, gods. I'm sorry. I forgot who I was-"

Estelle couldn't help it. She laughed. Belthor's white became red. He actually took a step back.

"It's all right, it's all right!" she insisted. "I find you quite charming, Belthor. Maybe I will give you a recommendation."

"Oh, no, no," Belthor said. "Not since I asked for it. That defeats the point."

"Still, it would probably look good for you anyway," Estelle observed. "For your chances at getting a staff, that is."

"Vivian has Lord Sessions' and the Lord and Lady Garredin's endorsements," Belthor said. "She'll be Kulkas' pick, I'm sure of it. She has a tattoo for the mark of the Goddess of Luck. She can do things I can hardly dream of." He shook his head. "I've had fun with him, but I'll be headed back to my hometown in a week when he makes his selection."

"A week?"

"A week." He nodded. "That's the deadline. He'll make his pick here and leave for the School with whoever receives their staff."

Estelle nodded slowly. "Don't lose heart, son of Morse. It's not over until it's over - you've gotten this far, so why give up now?"

"Pardon?" Belthor asked. "Vivian has the tattoo of the Goddess of Luck. I can't top that."

"Luck is one thing," Estelle said. "I, personally, think the power to heal and the desire to do so means far more than any skill at manipulating the vagaries of fortune." She reached out and put a white-gloved hand on his shoulder, which seemed to have the same effect on him as a lightning strike. "You have the potential for something great in you. I'm sure of it."