Thursday, September 29, 2016

Chapter Six: Compromise(Part Two)



"What?" Estelle demanded. She recoiled from Jason's touch. "What did you say?"

"I asked why your aunt and uncle wanted you dead," he repeated. Estelle stared.

"How dare you?" she finally managed to ask. "They're probably dead themselves...that's ridiculous!"

"Is it?" Jason leaned back now. He raised his hand and, one by one, ticked off points on his fingers. "One. Callan, your cousin, came to you to ask about your safety. You said he seemed nervous...like, say, if he'd overheard or was part of his parents' plans to kill you. Two: your aunt and uncle run one of the largest weapons industries in Nurem. What benefit to them from peace between the rivals for the Iron Sea?"

"That doesn't mean-"

"Three," Jason continued. "You yourself said Aurora and Ward brought additional guards aboard. I wonder if they were there for your safety, or if they were handpicked men who would do what their masters commanded even if it involved killing a princess and blaming it on the Clans? Four. You are the youngest daughter of the house Marona - you are expendable. That was exactly the logic that sent you to the MacTavish holdings in the first place. Five: you said Callan was very commanding as he hauled you out of your room."

"I was a different person, and he was making sure I followed him," Estelle protested. Jason tilted his head, and she swallowed as she found herself wondering if the man had a point.

"Or, Estelle," Jason asked, "was he putting on a show of being the one to take you to Aurora and Ward? He didn't seem awfully concerned about rescuing his own parents from the ship."

"No. No, that can't be what happened." Estelle clutched her head. "They...she's family..."

"Six." Jason wouldn't stop. "Aurora and Ward didn't need to come with you. But this way, they could be witnesses to the foul Clan assault on the ship that they barely managed to survive and escape, and unfortunately they couldn't save you - but the nerve of those Highland animals! This means war!" He shook his head. "We have contact with the outside world, Estelle. That's exactly the story Aurora and Ward spun upon their return to Nurem. I originally thought they were simply covering their rears for losing you overboard in a storm - plus firing up their weapons business - but given what you've said..."

"I don't believe it." Estelle swallowed. "I don't...I can't..." She took a breath. "If that was the case, why did Uncle Ward take me back to my room? Why didn't he trick me into coming somewhere they could get at me, and imprison me until his chosen assassin-"

"Why did he lock you in, Estelle?"

A seven-word question that cut right through her protests. Estelle's jaw worked for a moment as she relived that night in all its horror.

"Now just stay the night here," Uncle Ward said as he opened the door for her. He held her steady as the ship lurched and she did too. "Here, you'll be safe as houses. I'll send someone for you once things clear up on deck."

"Of course, Uncle Ward." Estelle smiled. "You take care in the storm, too."

"I'm very good at taking care of myself," he replied, winking at her overtop his thick mustache. A moment later, he pulled the door shut behind him, and Estelle turned for her bed and took a seat as the lock clicked...

"He...he wanted to be sure I...I didn't come back on deck..." it sounded weak, even to her own ears. Estelle stared vacantly into the night, listening to that remembered click that she hadn't thought anything of at the time...

"Bastard!" She lunged - right at Jason. "You bastard!"

"Estelle!" He wove to the side in a flash, but didn't strike back. "Your anger-"

Estelle screamed at him. There were no words, there was no meaning, just sheer unadulterated rage, and she didn't know who it was really directed at. Her fists clenched and she drove herself forward, throwing wild, berserk punches and kicks at her trainer.

Jason caught her arm. Estelle didn't care. She headbutted him, right on his nose. As he recoiled, she spun into a vicious kick that doubled him over.

"That's enough, Estelle!" Jason caught her next strike, and this time, he didn't ignore her. She staggered as he practically flung her past him, barely keeping her footing. "Your anger won't change anything, and certainly not if you waste it on me-"

"This is your fault!" Estelle knew that wasn't at all true even as she said it, but all she knew was pain. "If you'd left me alone-"

"Then you'd be wasting away in a cave hunting lizards and fishing for subsistence," Jason soothed, his voice firm but calm. "You'd never know what happened. And that's if you survived the bandits' attack." He extended his hands. "Estelle, calm yourself. Let's talk-"

She kicked him again. He ducked backward, and instantly she was on the offensive, elbows and fists flying, empowered by her rage. It burned through her like fire, and she screamed her pain at the man who'd made her aware of it.

"Estelle, enough-" he caught her arms and yanked her in close. "This isn't going to-"

She bit his arm. Her knee came up and she got him right on the thigh. She jabbed her thumbs into his ribs and-

"That's enough!" Suddenly she was in the air, and then she crashed down on the hard stones on the mountaintop. She cried out as stars exploded behind her eyes, but then Jason was on top of her, pinning her down. In a flash, he had her trapped, and try and scream as she might, she couldn't resume her offensive.

"Those two...they..." She let out an anguished, wordless cry.

"Breathe," Jason ordered in a low voice.

"Breathe?" Estelle glared at him. "Breathe! That's your advice? They were family! I trusted them!"

"It feels like a knife's sticking out of your back," Jason said. Estelle laughed at him.

"How would you know?"

"Because the one who killed my wife and child...was my wife," Jason said. Estelle abruptly stopped laughing.

"You...what?" she asked.

Jason clambered upright wordlessly. Estelle took a moment to breathe and massage the back of her head...and then she noticed him offering his hand. Slowly, she took it.

"I'm sorry," she muttered. "It's not your fault. I just..."

"I know how you feel," Jason said. "Someone you trust with your life, someone you would go to Hell with..." He took a breath. "She drowned our son. Because she didn't like him. I found her laughing and..." He broke off. "When she found out I didn't approve - that's a gentle way of putting it - she drowned herself too. I tried to help her but...when someone doesn't want to be saved..."

"Why did she do it?" Estelle asked.

"Someone drove her mad, somehow," Jason said. "A spell, it must have been. I lashed out, went hunting for any magician I could find...and thankfully for me, the Guiding Light found me before I did any real damage to anyone."

Estelle was quiet. "Did...you ever find the man who did it?"

"Oh, yes." Jason's face was very hard. "I did what needed doing."

Estelle stared into his eyes. "Did...did it help? With the pain?"

"A little." Jason shrugged. "Not much. Not enough. Healing was on me, and revenge and healing are entirely different animals."

"But I want vengeance," Estelle muttered. "For Callan. For what happened to me. For all the people who would die if this did start a war - who might have already."

"Then take it," Jason said. "Chase it. Find it. Avenge yourself. But don't lose yourself in the process, or you'll be no better than Aurora and Ward themselves. It has to be for something more than your own self-gratification."

They stared into each others' eyes. Estelle swallowed.

"I'm so sorry," she whispered. "I couldn't...I lost control of myself. Here you've been nothing but kind and helpful and..."

"You don't owe me anything," Jason said. He reached out and put a hand on her shoulder. "I'm here to help. With whatever you need."

"Even revenge?" Estelle whispered.

"Especially revenge," Jason said. He smiled a little. "You can't fight a war on your own, can you?"

"No, you can't, I suppose," Estelle said, softly. She admired the fire and moonlight reflecting in Jason's eyes, tinted emerald.

She lifted her hand and put it overtop his.

"What are you doing?" Jason asked. Estelle inhaled deeply.

"I...you..." Words were hard. Action was easier...slightly. She mustered her courage and reached out, claiming the man's other shoulder and pulling herself toward him, her lips aiming for his-

His hand stopped her, planting itself gently but firmly on her chest.

"What are you doing?" he repeated, voice quieter.

"I'm...Jason, I think you're..." Estelle took another breath. "Just let me show you-"

"No."

That one word was like a gunshot. She recoiled. "What? But...why?"

Jason was silent. Estelle swallowed.

"I'm...I'm sorry," she whispered. "I just...the moment seemed-"

"You're my student." The way Jason said it was ironclad but...under the surface, Estelle heard something she could only classify as desire, with the iron holding it in check. "I can't, Estelle, for that reason and no other."

And no other. Those three words echoed in Estelle's head.

"So...if I weren't your student..."

"Maybe." Jason shook his head. "That...we could answer when the day came. I hope you understand me...you're a rare woman. A remarkable one. But as long as I'm your trainer...it simply wouldn't be right. At least, not in my view." He looked down. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be," Estelle whispered. She found herself nodding. "I get it. It..." She hesitated, unsure of whether she felt rejected or not. "It's...honorable."

"I'm glad you feel that way," Jason said. He glanced up at the sky. "Another time?"

Estelle managed a smile despite her confusion over whether she was elated at being recognized, upset at being deferred, or smitten still further by Jason's knight-like adherence to his moral code. Maybe all three? "Count on it."

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Chapter Six: Compromise(Part One)



"Did you get your Gift test yet?" Estelle asked Kui. The man shook his head.

"They've had me meditate," he said, "but no bolts of lightning have shot out of my rear when I hit the head, so I assume I'm in the clear on that front. We're trying the tea thing today, so."

"Good luck." Estelle tested the pull on her bow. It was a new bow, not the one she'd liberated from its deceased former owner so long ago. This one was larger, heavier, stronger...it was a better bow, but Estelle needed to get a feel for it.

"Are you-"

"Fine." She glanced at Kui. "I don't have a Gift. That's all. Nothing to get worked up over."

"If you say so." He patted her shoulder. "Well, color me doubly impressed with you: you did all your crazy things without some supernatural skill at killing things, or otherworldly genetic talent with a bow."

"Thanks." Estelle meant it, it was just her voice that made it sound flat. Thankfully, Kui seemed to understand.

"Don't get discouraged," he told her. "It isn't over until the fat lady sings."

"Are you implying something?" she asked innocently: her first attempt at humor since yesterday and her lack of reaction to the tea.

"Only that there's a long road left to you in your life." Kui winked, and then he was off. Estelle watched him go.

I'm not bothered by the Gift thing, she told herself very unconvincingly. You don't have to have a Gift. It's not required. You can be perfectly wonderful as a warrior and a person without one.

But it's better to have one.

"You going to stare after your boyfriend all day, or are you going to work?"

"He's not my boyfriend," Estelle said, turning to face Jason. "He's like a brother, thank you very much."

The green-eyed man frowned. "I kind of thought...with you two living together for so long..."

"If that were the case, we'd have a kid by now," Estelle said. She shivered a moment later. "But it's not, and that's nasty."

"I see." Jason eyed her. "You ready for target practice?"

"Is your face the target?" Estelle walked up to the low wall that marked her designated shooting position.

"No...that apple is," Jason said, pointing fifty yards down the range. Estelle eyed it.

"Really?"

"Really." He folded his arms. "I like challenging you."

"I've noticed." She took a breath, then drew an arrow from the quiver strapped to her thigh. "I bet I'll get it on the first shot."

"No way."

"Watch me." Estelle drew her arrow back, took aim, then fired. She watched the shaft soar out...and just barely miss the little red fruit.

"I watched," Jason said as her arrow thunked into the wooden board behind the apple. Estelle fumed for a long moment while he smirked at her.

***

She was able to hit the apple after a few shots, and over the next few days, got to the point where it was her standard target. Jason extended the range every time she started to feel comfortable, and Estelle found her archery improving by leaps and bounds. That made about the only thing that was - she made no progress meditating on her Gift, her book-work and study of the Guiding Light yielded lackluster results, and Jason continued to give her thorough lessons in what parts of her body could hurt how on the training mat.

Kui, on the other hand, seemed to be glowing, literally. He had a Gift, all right: the ability to generate light from his hands. Estelle watched him practice with the Illuminators several times - this, apparently, was a common Gift here on the island, though no one was entirely certain why when she asked.

She still suffered nightmares, almost all of them repeated ones, and Estelle began to seriously wonder whether something in the monastery was causing them. Perhaps it was the radical change to her lifestyle of several years?

Perhaps it was Vaneer. She didn't know why, but every time the bald man appeared, she found herself spilling her heart out to him, and only questioning the decision afterward. That he had a Gift related to empathy and interpersonal communication was not in doubt, but it made Estelle feel used a time or two. Then again, he only ever offered kind words of encouragement before he vanished the instant she looked away for the tiniest moment, so she relinquished her worries about his motives. His means, she would have to talk to him about someday, but his heart was in the right place.

One day, Estelle came to the archery range, only to find Jason had set the range all the way back down to thirty yards. Wary, she asked him why, and also what her target was.

"Your target-" Jason produced an apple from a bag at his side "-is still this."

"I can hit it at-"

"I'm going to throw it," the man said cheerfully. "I'll be standing down there, and I'll throw it high up into the air. Then you shoot it."

"Oh...joy." Estelle sighed. "I won't bet on acing it first-try this time."

"Clever girl."

She struggled, but archery was something that came easy to her. By the time they left the archery range, she'd hit the apples in mid-air several times, and she was confident that as Jason extended the range and threw them faster, she'd start being able to keep pace. She even saw the utility in learning the skill: she'd have to be able to hit a moving target.

Pistols came next, to her mixed delight and worry. Estelle didn't like guns, but she had to admit they packed more of a wallop than a bow.

"The downside," Jason said as Estelle coughed and waved smoke out of her face, "is that they're loud, unmistakable, and somewhat crude. Plus, hard to reload. Inaccurate."

"Not a gun fan either?" Estelle asked.

"Oh, I like guns," Jason said. "But they are tools: like all tools, they have their uses and they have their drawbacks. Bows are much more practical tools in some situations - but you can split the difference and carry both when you're a Whisper."

Despite her increasing proficiency with archery and marksmanship, and her developing skill at brawling, Estelle worried. Primarily it was her lack of a Gift, she supposed, but she couldn't help wondering if she'd made the wrong choice. Somehow, she felt very certain she had - like she didn't belong in the Guiding Light.

She kept that worry to herself. Kui was thriving in his experimentation with his Gift, and Jason was a member of the Light. Estelle wouldn't trouble him with her woes.

Or, at least, that was the plan before he took her hiking to the mountaintop one evening.

***

"You don't play fair," Estelle accused, rubbing at her arm as she sat by the campfire she and Jason had assembled earlier in the day. "That was a brutal arm-lock."

"Then you should know how to slip out of it," Jason replied cheerily. He handed her a bowl of a soup that, like many things, she thought quite good under her current circumstances despite how the old Estelle would have thrown it out in disgust.

The old Estelle. She paused, trying to really picture that young lady in her head. It had been a very long time since she'd been her.

"I see you brooding," Jason observed.

"You know me so well." Estelle leaned back. "I was thinking about my past."

"I figured." He shrugged. "You seem to do that a lot."

"I didn't, before I came here!" She shook her head. "I didn't think about how I was cast away more than once every few months back when it was me and Kui. Now...I can't stop."

"Then you must be lacking peace about it," Jason said. He set his soup aside. "Estelle, you need to talk to someone. Really talk to them."

She was quiet for a moment. She didn't talk about herself...but those eyes. She trusted Jason, after this long, didn't she?

"I'm not used to talking," she muttered. "I'm used to hiding secrets."

"Why?"

"I failed."

Jason frowned. "Failed?"

"The Compromise. I failed." Estelle looked up at him. "It was my duty. My mission. And I let it collapse."

He tilted his head. "You'll need to explain more, Estelle."

She wavered. Did she...

Those eyes...

"The Compromise was something my mother set up," Estelle finally said. "If Vaneer didn't tell you - I don't know how he knew - my last name's Marona."

"Marona?" Jason asked. He blinked. "You're kidding me."

"No." Estelle shook her head. "Her Highness, Princess Estelle Marona of Nurem, at your service...peasant." She gave him her best perky grin, but it melted quickly. "Tensions were at a low between Nurem and the Highland Clans across the Iron Sea. You know what our history is like. War, war, fight, fight." She shook her head. "So Mother had an idea."

"...she betrothed you to a Clansman, didn't she?" Jason asked. Estelle nodded silently.

"John MacTavish," she said. "Patriarch of the Clan MacTavish, fifth of the seven clans. Marrying the eldest daughter of Nurem to the eldest heir of any of the Clans would be too much after our history, but a lesser lord of the Highlands and the youngest Marona daughter...that was the Compromise. A marriage to ensure lasting peace."

"That's what put you at sea," Jason said. "And then?"

"And then...my aunt and uncle came with me, and brought their son," Estelle said. "Callan. He saved my life."

"How?"

Estelle related the story, exactly as she'd dreamed it: departing Nurem with Aunt Aurora and Uncle Ward and Callan, the voyage, the storm, going below, the mutiny, Callan rescuing her, his suicide, and her trial to make it to the island.

"And then I lived here," she finished. "And I rescued Kui and...you know most of the rest."

Silence. Jason reached out and put a hand on her shoulder.

"I appreciate all it's taken of you to share this with me," he said in a low voice. Estelle glanced at him, and he tilted his head to the side. "Just a question, based on some of the details you've provided?"

"What is it?" Estelle asked. Jason's eyes became very cold and serious.

"Why do you think your aunt and uncle tried to kill you?"

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Chapter Four: Wounds(Part Two)



"Are you all right?" Kui asked, the next morning. He and Estelle both sat in the garden now, listening as other people bustled to and fro. Estelle fondled that same iris, her thoughts jumping left and right from track to track.

"I...don't know," she managed to tell him. "There's been a lot of talk about my past. It's making me feel things."

"Feel things." Kui snorted. "Oh no! Feelings!"

"Stop it." There was no fire in Estelle's voice. "Jason basically offered to let you and me become members here."

"Why would we want to?" Kui asked. Estelle mused.

"He said they might be able to help me," she said. "Help me figure out the whys of my story."

"Your story you still aren't inclined to share with me," Kui said. "Estelle, I like you a lot, but I can't lie and say I'm chipper about your actively keeping me in the dark. We're friends."

"I know, and you're absolutely right," she said, one hundred percent earnestly. "But I just...I don't know. I don't know that you'd understand, and I don't know that it would help anything."

"You won't know unless you take the leap," Kui pointed out.

"That's pretty much what Jason told me."

Now Kui regarded her very intently. "You're actually, seriously considering it."

"I am." Estelle lowered her hand and left the iris alone. "What else do we have to do with our lives, Kui? I don't exactly want to spend the fifty more years I've got on this earth as an 'honored guest', doing nothing but sitting in the garden. And if I can find some peace..."

"Peace isn't what you're after," Kui accused. He reached out and caught Estelle's arm. "Peace is the last thing you're after."

"No, it's not," she protested. "I'm very interested in peace-"

"You want war, Estelle."

"What?" She blinked. "Kui, what on earth gives you that-"

"You said the crew of your ship mutinied and possibly killed your aunt and uncle, and you escaped with your cousin. Now, I don't mean to be callous, but I don't recall seeing your cousin anywhere, nor have you ever given me even a hint that there's a grave somewhere on the island you visit when you hunt." Kui's brown eyes bored into Estelle's. "You want revenge. On the people who definitely did kill him."

"...all right, so maybe I do," Estelle admitted, for more or less the first time, even to herself. "What's wrong with that?"

"Nothing at all," Kui said, and his tone was much lighter. "It's perfectly natural. So long as you're not lying to yourself and claiming it hasn't crossed your mind."

"Noted." Estelle gently pushed his hand off her arm. "I am interested in peace, though. Revenge will help with that."

"No, it won't," Kui said, and Estelle frowned at how knowing he sounded. "It's really the other way around: inner peace will help you achieve your revenge. So long as you exact your vengeance the right way, for the right reasons...I see nothing wrong with that. But remember that the peace has to come first, otherwise you're just lashing out blindly in rage."

Estelle was silent for a moment. "I'll keep that in mind." She looked Kui over. "What are you going to do?"

"I do what you do." How quickly her friend said that warmed Estelle's heart. "If you make the decision to stay and become a warrior monk, then I'll stay with you and be your warrior monk. I owe you a debt."

"You don't-"

"I owe you a debt." Kui's tone was iron-plated. "Where you go, I go. Who you fight, I fight. What you do...I do." He shook his head as Estelle tried to butt in. "It's not like I really have a home to go back to."

"What do you-"

"Tell me yours, I'll tell you mine." He grinned a little at that.

"Fair enough." Estelle made an agreeable gesture. "Later, then."

"I knew you'd say that." Kui leaned back on their little stone bench. "I'm not crazy about the idea of joining this little personality cult, tell the truth. Talking about Messiahs and Guiding Lights...it's a little too serious for me."

"I know. I get it." Estelle glanced up at the blue skies overhead. "You don't think we should-"

"Didn't say that. Said I wasn't crazy about it." Kui seemed to consider. "Sleep on it. Think it all over. Figure out what you want. And when you do figure that out - I do what you do." He shrugged. "Maybe I can learn magic. Wouldn't that be fun?"

***

Estelle woke up to the rocking of her boat in the predawn light. She jumped an instant later, and rolled up to a sitting position, clutching for the first thing she could find, which turned out to be the side of the boat.

"Good morning, Estelle."

"Callan?" She turned and glanced at her cousin, sitting at the stern. "Oh, gods. I thought it was a dream..."

"No such luck." He grunted, and Estelle paused. She glanced him over, and her mouth became very dry as she saw red staining his chest.

"Callan-"

"So, those two idiots firing at us...didn't miss," Callan finally admitted.

"Why didn't you say something!" Estelle flung herself to her feet, causing the boat to rock precariously. She swallowed and made her way to Callan's side. "Let me see what I can-"

"Nothing." Callan pushed her hand away. "I've dealt with wounds like this before, on hunting trips with Father. Estelle, we'd need either herbs and time we don't possess or magic to do much of anything about it."

"Rest." Estelle's mind worked feverishly. "If you rest, then we can-"

"-then we can probably keep me alive for a day or two." She did not like how calm he sounded. "Infection, blood loss, dehydration, starvation...all are bad ways to go, and I'll be dealing with all of them."

"Then what are you suggesting-"

"Well, Estelle," Callan said, his voice still so calm she wondered if he'd missed them being cast away, "either I succumb slowly to my wounds, or I get off the ride."

Estelle didn't understand...and then, all too well, she did. She gasped as she saw Callan's pistol in his lap.

"No. No, no, we can...I can..."

"There's nothing you can do, Estelle," he said. "Whatever food you can catch, whatever fresh water you can muster, you'd split it with me...and that's the last thing you need right now. I won't live to see land even on a full diet."

"Callan, you said we're not going to die," Estelle pressed. She reached out and took his hands. "You said-"

"I was wrong." Callan squeezed her hands. "I'm not going to make it. But you are."

Estelle burst into tears. "Callan, I can't do this alone. I can't...I need your help..."

"Hey, that's not true," he said, very emphatically. "I left my journal here. I've gone fishing, hunting...it'll help you out. I baited a couple of lines and laid them out. You should catch a small fish or two pretty quickly. Don't eat them. Use them to catch bigger ones."

"Callan-"

"This is the only way, Estelle," he said, very gently.

She stared into his eyes. Wordlessly, she shook her head, and she buried her head in his chest. "No. No, no, no."

"You're going to survive," Callan told her. "Promise me that, Estelle. Promise me you won't die."

"You don't have to-"

"Promise."

"Callan-"

"Promise!" He pushed her away and stared into her eyes at point-blank range. "Promise me, Estelle."

She wavered. Tears ran down her cheeks like rain. "I...I promise."

"Say it."

"I'm not going to die," Estelle whispered, very solemnly. "I'm going to survive. I'm not going to die."

"Good." Callan smiled - and how could he be this calm? - before standing up and letting go of her. He held his pistol. "You're destined for something great, Estelle. I know it."

"No, please, don’t-"

He raised the pistol to his head and Estelle cried out.

Boom!

***

Boom!

Estelle jerked convulsively, swallowing a scream. She twitched her gaze left and right, and all she saw was her and Kui's little bedroom.

Boom!

Thunder, she classified a moment later. Just thunder.

She threw off her blankets and hurried to the door, taking just enough care that Kui didn't wake. As soon as she was out of the room, she raced down the hall at random, searching, searching-

"Estelle?" Jason coughed a moment later as Estelle ran into him around a corner and almost literally bounced off of him. He looked terribly surprised. "You're up again-"

"Help me," she whispered, very earnestly. So earnestly Jason paused midsentence, mouth hanging open. "Help me find peace...help me do that, so I can become what I need to be." Her jaw worked. "Help me become the nightmare I need to be, so I can have my revenge."

She almost thought he was going to just help her back to bed. Here she was, rushing through the halls at night, talking of help and revenge and nightmares...but no. Jason just tilted his head to the side...and smiled.

"Welcome to the Order of the Guiding Light, Estelle," he said.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Chapter Four: Wounds(Part One)



Estelle walked through cold stone passageways, taking comfort in how the darkened tunnels reminded her of her and Kui's cave. A lovely living space it was not, but they'd made a life there. Maybe that was part of why she couldn't sleep?

No. No, it was having to talk about her past to Kui and Jason. That's what dredged up her memories of Callan and the voyage. She'd successfully avoided thinking about almost anything related to her ill-fated trip practically since she washed ashore. And now she couldn't stop thinking about it.

She took a turn more or less at random, lost in thought. She paused and had to cease her brooding in
surprise when the door before her opened to reveal open air and stars above a beautiful garden. Estelle blinked, glancing at the sheer rock walls climbing fifty, sixty feet into the air on all sides, water pouring in from one side to fill a channel cut through the garden's center.

She walked, shivering slightly as she crossed the night wind-chilled stones on her bare feet. She glanced from flowers to bushes to trees, some familiar island flora and some that must have come from far away. Some were even plants from Nurem, and Estelle felt a little smile find its way to her surface as she reached out to cup an iris blossom in one hand.

She glanced up at the stars. She was far from home, but the stars were the same ones she studied as a little girl. The moon was the same. The wind on her face and tousling her hair like her mother's touch was the same.

She swallowed, grip on the blossom tightening just a little.

***

"That one there," her mother said, pointing at the sky. "What's its name?"

"That's ursa," Estelle recited. Her mother positively beamed.

"And what does that mean?"

"Bear." Estelle frowned. "No...yes. Bear."

"Just like your mother," Aunt Aurora said from Estelle's other side. Estelle laughed while her mother put her hands on her hips.

"Really, now?" She shook her head. "Well, I suppose that's true. Anyone messes with my baby - roar!" She raised her hands in a convincing imitation of a bear's paws. At least, convincing to Estelle, young as she was. She laughed harder as her mother continued to growl and shake, her silver necklaces in the shapes of moons and lanterns jingling together as she bent down to Estelle's level.

"You're vicious," Aunt Aurora said, patting her on the shoulder. "Ten of ten, little sister."

"Lady Aurora?" A man emerged from the door of the balcony mother, daughter and aunt had been enjoying solace on. "There's an affair that requires your attention."

"Anything serious?" Estelle's mother asked, and her veneer was back up in a flash. Estelle tried to bring hers up too: propriety, that was key.

"No, milady," the messenger said. "Just a business matter for Lady Aurora's attention. Regarding the star." That last didn't make much sense to Estelle - what star? Then again, she was used to adults talking past her about strange things.

"It'll be a quick thing," Aunt Aurora said. "I'll be back in a few. Probably just a paper or two for me to sign."

"All right," Estelle's mother said. As Aunt Aurora left, she turned back to her daughter.

"She's very busy," Estelle said. "Is there going to be another war?"

"Oh, no," was the reply, just unconvincing enough to make Estelle worry. She frowned, and her mother shook her head. "No, no, Estelle. I think we've put tensions to rest for now. Aurora's just keeping our soldiers prepared, that's all. Just in case."

"And if there is-"

"If there is, the Clans will lose," her mother replied. "Don't you be afraid. You're safe as long as you're with me." She reached out and took Estelle's hand. "Safe as can be."

***

"I miss you," Estelle whispered in the present, holding the iris blossom a little tighter before slowly, painfully, releasing her grip.

"She misses you too."

Estelle jumped. She turned and met the gaze of a...a short man, bald, with a little beard and very intent eyes. Of all colors, they were violet.

"Who are you?" Estelle asked. She automatically reached for her bow, but then swallowed as she remembered it was in her room. She had her knife though...

"My name is Vaneer," the man replied. He inclined his head. "And you must be the newcomer. Estelle, yes?"

"Yes." She took a breath. "How do you know my mother misses me?"

"Your mother, you say?" Vaneer nodded slowly. "Why wouldn't she, Estelle?"

"She does," Estelle replied. She coughed. "I think. She...she has to." She wilted a moment later as Vaneer tilted his head. "I just...I don't know. It's been so long."

"Absence makes the heart grow fonder."

"She must think I'm dead," Estelle muttered. She sank to a seat on a protrusion from the stone walls around the garden. "She's probably mourned me and moved on."

"One doesn't move on from mourning one's child," Vaneer said. "I may not look it, young lady, but I'm old. Much older than you. She misses you deeply, every day. Three years is barely a drop in the ocean of her mourning."

"That makes me feel so much better." Estelle exhaled. "She'll be broken for the rest of her life then."

"Why can you not return?"

"I was nearly killed," Estelle said. The man frowned, and she chose her words. "I was on a ship for a...a trade deal, you could say. And there were some people who disagreed with the deal, and they tried to kill me and my cousin. They probably did kill my aunt and uncle. If I go home..."

"I see." Vaneer nodded. "You fear for your life."

"And hers." Estelle shivered. "What if they killed her, too, while I've been gone?" Idly, she wondered why she was talking to Vaneer. If she hadn't broached this topic with Kui...then again, the older man seemed to radiate an aura of understanding and kindness. Her walls were coming down almost against her will.

"She'll be fine," Vaneer said. "You inherit more from her than your looks, Lady Marona."

Estelle jerked her head up at that. "How the hell do you know my-"

Vaneer was gone. Estelle jumped to her feet, frantically looking from side to side. Her hand fell to her knife.

"Witchcraft," she found herself muttering. "What in the name of-"

"Oh, you met Vaneer, did you?"

"Jason?" Estelle turned to see the big man strolling through the gardens with what she thought was an amused smirk. As he came closer, though, she relaxed: it was a much more friendly smile. "That's what he called himself, yes. And he knew my name."

"Vaneer's harmless," Jason said. "He looks a lot younger than he is - he's really a very old man fond of potions of youth and vitality, and he spends his days mostly here, tending the plants and counseling those who he believes need counsel. Sometimes he's right. Just as often...he's not." Jason snorted as he drew level with Estelle. "He's very good at drawing you into talking about things you don't want to talk about, did you notice?"

"Witchcraft," Estelle insisted.

"No, a Gift," Jason corrected. "His Gift. He likes disappearing on people. It makes him smile." He tilted his head. "What brings you out of bed so late?"

"Can't sleep."

"Nightmares?"

"Just...can't sleep." Estelle took a step back. "Change in environment. Different people. People tried to kill me yesterday." She hesitated. "And...nightmares. About me."

"You know, I don't really know that much about you," Jason said. "I know you're from Nurem, and I know you were someone back home. I know you're related to Aurora Garredin. But beyond that...not much. The Messiah didn't share what he knows."

Estelle looked away. "It's complicated."

"Of course it is. And I'm not prying. But I just want you to know we understand what it's like to be lost and afraid." Jason met her eyes. "You are very lost, and whether you admit it or not, very afraid. We'd all like to help. If you let us."

"How do you know you can help?" Estelle asked. "My problems are my own."

"I wasn't always here," Jason reminded her. "I had a life. I had...problems. Very deep ones." He took a breath. "The Light helped me. It helps all."

"How?" Estelle asked.

Jason hesitated. Without thinking, Estelle's hands slipped out and she put them on his arms. She gazed deep into his eyes.

"Tell me," she whispered.

"...I had a wife," Jason said. "A child. I made some bad choices. I lived in a dangerous place, far from here." He was quiet. "They died."

"I'm so sorry," Estelle backtracked. "I didn't mean-"

"And after that, I made some worse choices," Jason continued. He met her gaze levelly. "I don't pretend I was wise operating in grief and rage. I lashed out at the world, and only the Messiah and his people prevented me from doing some things I'd have regretted, and that my old family wouldn't have been proud of. I came here, and I put my skills to use for the Light, not the dark."

"I didn't mean to pry like that," Estelle whispered. "I'm sorry, I don't know what came over me."

"It's fine." Jason reached up and put his hands overtop hers. "Estelle, they helped me. In many ways...they saved me here. And I see you struggle, and suffer...and I want you helped too. I want to help you."

"I don't know that you can," Estelle replied.

"Neither do I," Jason admitted. "But what if we could?"