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?"

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Chapter Three: Gateway(Part Two)



"Who knocks at the Golden Gate?" the sheer rock face asked - or, at least, that's what it looked like. Estelle jumped, but Jason just lowered his hand and smiled slightly.

"One who has seen the Light and wishes to follow it," he replied, and evidently that was a good enough explanation for the rock. It groaned, then seemed to blow outward, and all of a sudden Estelle saw a door opening. An instant earlier, she would have sworn it was just a rock.

"Welcome," said the figure of a woman in a long robe, who had the same voice as the rock. Estelle decided after a moment that a spell must have been involved, which made her kick herself: that should have been her first thought, not her second. The woman glanced over the trio with gray eyes, before tilting her head. "How is the weather outside?"

"Enlightening," Jason said, which didn't make any sense to Estelle. The woman, however, nodded seriously, and then her demeanor became much warmer.

"Come in, come in," she said. Her face split into a smile. "You look ragged, dear."

"Um...thanks, you too?" Estelle followed Jason into a large cavern lined with carvings and displays. "How is rain enlightening?"

"It's a password," the woman supplied. "If he'd said anything but that, I'd have known you two were holding him hostage - somehow - and I'd have decided what to do about it."

Estelle looked her over. This was a small woman, and she was at least twice Estelle's own age. She wasn't sure anyone competent enough to subdue Jason would be threatened by her.

"Where are my manners?" the woman asked after a moment. "My name is Emilia, but everyone just calls me Tempest. You are...?"

"Ku'uaki, but everyone just calls me Kui," Kui said, giving Tempest a lopsided grin.

"Estelle." She did not supply her surname. "You're a magician, Tempest? Projecting your voice through the stone, and all."

"Oh, no," Tempest said. "That spell's imbued in the door. I'm Gifted, not a mage."

"What?" Kui asked, frowning.

"There are several types of what people call magic," Jason told him. "There are magicians, there are witches and warlocks, and then there are the Gifted. All are different." He raised a hand. "More in due time. For now, you two could use dinner."

***

Dinner they got...after baths, which were a luxury Estelle had only enjoyed infrequently in her time as a castaway. Not just baths, either: hot baths, as opposed to simply slipping into a stream and rinsing. Four years ago, Estelle would have taken it for granted. Now she thought it a heavenly gift.

After bathing, both she and Kui were given warm, clean clothes and treated to a dinner that, though spartan by her old standards, by her new ones was a feast. Jason took the two around the underground complex, introducing them to a dozen people whose names and roles Estelle would never remember and showing them a dozen doors she couldn't tell apart.

She'd wondered if she would see the elusive Messiah Jason and Tempest constantly referenced, but no such luck.

"He doesn't come out of his chambers much," Jason told her when she asked. "He spends most of his time in meditation, and planning the future of his people. Special occasions, that's when he comes out."

"Do you see him much?" Estelle asked.

"More than most," Jason replied. "I'm the senior White Hand here, and the leader of the Whispers. The White Hand are...think of them as the security force. We deal with those renegades you ran into on your own when they threaten the monastery. And the Whispers are the elite among our ranks. So I'm the one he calls in when he has orders to pass out in that department."

There was art here, and Estelle heard the notes of a choir singing and saw entrances to rooms full of easels and paintings. She also, to her mixed surprise and longing, saw that they had a marina full of various boats that she suspected could be used to go anywhere in the world.

She also saw some of these Whispers Jason mentioned, training in what looked like swordsmanship in a large chamber off to the side. In with them, however, she was surprised to see several men in white robes, generating light from their hands in various colors and intensity.

"Those are the Illuminators," Tempest told her.

"Your magicians?" Estelle replied.

"Some," Tempest hedged. "Most, however, are merely Gifted."

"What does that mean?" Kui frowned. "Magic is magic."

"Magic is a skill you learn by rote," Jason told him. "It has many rules, but any may master it with patience. The Gifted are those who possess certain innate powers that bypass the traditional rules of magic." He eyed Estelle and Kui alike. "To have a Gift is very common, but to actually realize you do and master it much less so. Eight in ten people live their entire lives without even figuring out they have one, even though almost three-quarters of that number wind up accidentally using it once or twice under stress."

"Do you have one?" Estelle asked. Jason reached a door and opened it, replying only with a smile.

"Here we are," he said. "I trust you two don't have an objection to sharing a bedroom?"

"We shared a cave," Kui said. "We'll be fine."

"Perfect." Jason nodded. "Sleep well."

"How long are we welcome to stay here?" Estelle asked. Jason tilted his head, but it was Tempest who answered.

"As long as you like."

"And what are we to provide in exchange?" Kui asked, and Estelle was grateful he sensed the same trap opening up as she did. "We don't have much of anything."

"Most of those who stay become members of the Guiding Light," Jason said. "They become White Hand, Whispers, Illuminators, or one of the many support personnel who enable them to perform their functions."

"And we'll be expected to-"

"Of course not," Jason said. "You may stay as long as you like, and you will not be drafted. But we can offer you both a chance."

"A chance to...do what?" Estelle asked.

"To become something," Jason said.

"You like providing incomplete answers, don't you?" Kui asked. Jason laughed.

"What you'll become, only you know," he said. "But we can offer you the chance to become it." He inclined his head. "We'll speak more in the morning. Have a good night."

***

Estelle sat in her cabin as the storm raged, listening to the shouting. Against her better judgment, she found herself rising, and in a swirl of skirts, she headed for the door. She sighed when she realized it was locked. Nothing for it: she'd have to wait out the storm here.

Something cracked above. Estelle frowned. If she hadn't known better, she'd have thought that sounded like an arquebus. But who would be shooting at a time like this, and at what?

The door twitched. Estelle blinked, then stepped back. She folded her hands properly and waited-

"Estelle." The young man who emerged through the door paused only to close it behind him before turning back to her. He shared her raven-black hair, though he kept his under his helmet.

"Callan?" Estelle frowned at her cousin. Aunt Aurora and Uncle Ward's son glanced back at the door as another crack filled the night.

"They're coming for you, cousin," he said, with no preamble. Estelle blinked.

"Who? Why? What?" She didn't understand.

"There are parties who wanted the Compromise to fail," Callan explained, voice terse.

"Political opposition," Estelle agreed. "Backwater barons and earls uninvolved in the conflicts."

"Some are more powerful than that," Callan said. "My parents and your brother thought it best not to trouble you, but apparently that was a mistake. They're taking over the ship."

"The Captain-"

"-is dead." Those two words were like knives in Estelle's heart.

"They're going to take me?" she whispered.

"Estelle," Callan said, as gently as he could, "I think they're going to kill you."

"Oh, gods." She swallowed. "What...what do we..."

"We leave."

"Aunt Aurora and-"

"They'll be fine," Callan said, with a little tremor in his voice. "They're in the bow anyway, we'd never reach them. You have to get out of here or the Compromise is a bust and there will be war, war like we've not seen in a hundred years."

"But if the crew-"

"We're not going to die," Callan said, with iron will in his voice. "Come on." He grabbed Estelle's hand. "We're going to the first lifeboat we can reach."

"But-"

"Come on!" Clearly he was done talking. Estelle stumbled along in his wake as her cousin yanked the door open and stormed into the hallway.

"Wait-" she tried to gasp.

"Move." He sounded far more aggressive than she'd ever heard before. While mulling over that, Estelle tripped, and to her shock, Callan just seized her roughly and almost threw her onto her feet.

They emerged onto the deck, and Estelle bit back a cry as cold rain slapped her in the face. Callan practically shoved her up onto the poop deck, and from there, he steered her toward what looked like a completely random lifeboat. Estelle clambered in without undo prompting, eyes flicking toward the bow.

"Aunt Aurora-"

"There! Stop them!" someone shouted. Estelle looked up to see two men with arquebuses running toward them, raising the guns.

"Hang on!" Callan shouted, and out came his pistol. He fired in the same instant as the two men, only his shot severed the line holding the boat up.

Estelle screamed as they fell into the churning seas with a mighty splash.

***

Estelle opened her eyes to stare at the ceiling over her head. She took a moment to breath, feeling her racing heartbeat. She fancied she could still hear the thunder of that night echoing through her memory.

Kui was snoring. He did that a lot. Estelle glanced at his bed across the small room with a little smile.

Again she heard the thunder and the gunshots and felt the wind and rain playing with her hair. Her smile vanished.

Estelle rose, and she paused only to claim her knife out of habit before she left the bedroom in search of quiet and peace.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Chapter Three: Gateway(Part One)



"Are you scared?" A three-word question that resounded and echoed in more than one voice.

Estelle eyed the ship lying at anchor, then took a breath and turned her gaze back to the older version of herself by her side. "No. Of course not."

"There's no of course not," Aunt Aurora chided. "Estelle, you're not traveling down the coast...you're going across the Iron Sea. You have every reason to be afraid. Honestly, child: you have every reason to back out."

"No." Estelle shook her head, forcefully. "I made a promise. This is my duty." She glanced over at her aunt, and behind her, her uncle and cousin. "You don't have to come with me."

"Someone has to make sure this doesn't end badly," Aunt Aurora said. "Someone's got to be looking out for you."

That warmed Estelle's heart. She found herself smiling. "Do you think there will be peace?"

"I don't trust anything that comes from the Clans," Aunt Aurora said, with the embittered cynicism of a Mainlander. "But if ever there will be peace, this will be what brings it about."

"I hope so." Estelle turned her gaze back to the ship. "Thank you. I know this isn't easy."

"It's the least we can do," Aunt Aurora replied. She put a hand on Estelle's shoulder. "Family. Family until the end."

***

"Estelle?"

She inhaled sharply, but that was her only reaction to Kui's hand on her shoulder. Estelle slid her eyes open a moment later, turning to look up at her friend and companion.

"It's dawn," he told her. "We should move."

"Right." Estelle rose, claimed her bow, and glanced around for Jason. After a moment, she found him: staring out the mouth of the cave into a light rain that swept through the green fronds of the jungle in a display that Estelle found oddly beautiful.

"How far will we be going today?" she asked. Jason turned his head.

"We'll be there in time for dinner," he replied.

"Our friends?"

"Won't be following. They're probably still playing around at the volcano." Jason shrugged, and Estelle's eyes narrowed. The man knew something more than he was letting on.

He must have friends in the jungle covering our trail. Whether that was a good thing or bad remained to be seen, but it seemed the most likely option either way.

"Here." Kui passed her what turned out to be a mango. Estelle nodded her thanks before eating as quickly as she could.

"How did you sleep?" she asked: her one concession to normal conversation in a decidedly abnormal time.

"Fine enough." That he was lying took Estelle all of a second to determine.

"Kui," she muttered, and her tone stiffened with resigned irritation as he glanced away. "Kui, did you stay up all night watching over me?"

"Not...all night," he murmured in reply.

"You should have slept-"

"Someone had to keep watch," he insisted.

Estelle raised an eyebrow. "With Jason here-"

"That's why." Kui met her eyes intently. His voice sank from murmur to outright whisper. "I don't trust him."

"I think if he meant us harm, he'd have left us to die," Estelle replied at the same volume. "He certainly had his chances yesterday."

"That doesn't mean he's trustworthy."

"No, not really," Estelle allowed. "But I doubt his day plan includes stick a knife in the castaways while they sleep. If his aims are nefarious, which I'm unsure about, he wants something more than just to kill us."

"He could be working for those scoundrels," Kui suggested. "They could want you and me both this time, in vengeance. This could all be a trap."

"If I had a week, I couldn't list all the reasons that that's a stupid theory," Jason observed, making Kui and Estelle alike jump. The mysterious man glanced back at them with a raised eyebrow. "Why wouldn't I just have let them take you?" He returned his gaze to the world outside, chuckling under his breath.

"You've got more motive for helping us than the kindness of your heart," Kui accused, pointing a finger at Jason. The man shrugged and nodded.

"Of course. No one does much of anything from the kindness of their heart." He stepped out into the rain. "However, motive does not equal malice, as you'll discover. If you're quite finished with breakfast and loving chiding over sleeping habits, let's be on our way."

"He's a jerk," Kui muttered.

"Let's give him a chance, at least," Estelle urged. "He saved our lives. We at least owe it to him to see what his monastery is all about before we trade conspiracy theories."

She followed Jason into the spray of tropical rain, a disgruntled but non-argumentative Kui on her heels.

***

For most of the morning, they walked alternately through drizzling rain and thick mists, and more than once Estelle worried that Jason had lost his way, but each time he unerringly threaded the needle past rocks, shoreline, trees and the low visibility and remained on what she gradually began to notice was a path of sorts. It wasn't clearly marked, but it was there if she looked closely.

"So, tell me," Kui finally asked around noon, with a cautious note in his voice. "How did you end up stranded?"

"How do you think?" A deflection, but it was the only response Estelle could muster.

"You've made mention of a storm once or twice," Kui said. "If I had to guess, I'd say your ship was wrecked in it, and you found yourself cast adrift in a lifeboat with this mysterious companion of yours. What stumps me is what happened to him before you ran into me."

Estelle kicked a rock over the edge of the cliff they walked along. She watched it plummet into the wind-swept waters below. "What about you?" Still deflecting.

"Me?" Kui tilted his head. "I'm nothing special and neither is my story. But if Mister Manly Man thinks you're so much of a something, I want to know why. If he's wrong, that's fine - but if he's right, I think I deserve to know who I've been living with for the past...year? Two years? Something like that."

"I'm from Nurem, happy?" Estelle asked. She met Kui's eyes, pausing. "I was on a ship going across the Iron Sea to the Clans. Specifically, to the holdings of the Clan MacTavish. Then the storm happened. The ship wasn't wrecked..." She considered. "And that's all I'll say now."

"A Nuremite, sailing to the Clans?" Kui asked. "What, were you boarded?"

"No." Estelle picked up the pace just enough to send a clear message.

"All right, I get it." Kui effortlessly matched her. "You keep your secrets and brood over them. That's your right."

"What's the catch?"

"There's no catch," Kui said, with a surprised look. "I respect your privacy, that's all. If you're not comfortable talking, I won't try to make you." He glanced out over the water and took a breath. "Me? My people don't live too far from here. When my parents died, I built a boat and sailed off on my own as a coming-of-age type thing. Obviously, it didn't go too well."

"What happened first?" Estelle asked. "Your boat being wrecked, or the raiders?"

"The boat," Kui said. "There's a reason I never tried to build one for the two of us: I frankly did a horrible job the first time around and I'm lucky I found this little spit of hell before I drowned. And that's even considering that I'd been ashore for all of twelve hours before those savages tried to enslave me, and then this wild Amazon of the jungle came gallivanting out in a spray of arrows and-"

"Stop it." Estelle found herself smiling despite her gruff tone.

"You're laughing," Kui pointed out, which made Estelle turn her head.

"No, no I'm not," she lied as convincingly as she could manage. "I don't laugh. I'm a very serious person."

"I've noticed," Kui said. He gently shoved her shoulder, and Estelle stumbled. "But admit it: yes, you were laughing. You find me funny."

 "Well, I suppose I keep you around for something," Estelle admitted. "It certainly isn't your food-providing skills."

Kui snorted, and they walked on in silence. Estelle couldn't shake a grin for a few minutes...and then it was all too easy to shake it as her mind turned back time.

"I said the ship didn't wreck," she repeated. Kui glanced at her, and Estelle picked words. "The...crew mutinied. And they were coming for me."

"You escaped?" he asked.

"Not alone. My cousin, Callan, was aboard." Estelle let out a breath. "So were my aunt and uncle. They didn't make it out."

"Why would the crew come for you?" Kui asked. He regarded her very intently. "Were you someone important before this all happened, Estelle?"

"Well..." She hesitated. "My aunt and uncle are big in business spheres. They own a lot of shipbuilding and weapon-making industries. I have no idea if they got away or..." she couldn't say it. "I don't want to talk about anything else."

"Fair. Completely fair." Kui put his hand on her shoulder, very gently. "I don't mean to pry."

"Of course not," Estelle said. "You've left me alone for years, and all of a sudden Jason drops from the sky and we're on the run and he has a monastery and he knows my backstory and you kind of want to put the pieces together. So do I. It's completely understandable."

"Come up here," Jason's voice called from ahead through the mist. Estelle and Kui traded another glance, then hurried to catch up with their savior. Rapidly, he materialized, standing on a rock overlooking the edge of the cliff.

"Don't you look dramatic," Kui observed. Jason didn't react.

"There is the mountain," he said, pointing across the inlet before him to a looming shape Estelle could barely make out through the fog. She recognized where they were, though: she'd seen this mountain in the distance before from her and Kui's old hideaway, though she'd never traveled this far down the island's shores.

"And your monastery-"

"Lies within the mountain's heart," Jason finished. "Come. Let me lead you to the Golden Gate."