Thursday, December 21, 2017

Chapter Ten: Laird of Lairds(Part Two)

"So, then, I heard there were close to a dozen of them left, still," Angus said. "They're congregated around the gangway onto the ship. Some Nuremite lord's with 'em, rallying them up."

"And how many are already down?" Ardyn asked, frowning. She debated between her crocheting and her knitting for a long moment, before setting the latter down and pulling the former into her lap. Below the observation booth, the Lairds milled about the room with their immediate entourages, exchanging handshakes and good-natured headbutts. 

"A lot," Angus said. "Anyway, they're all clustered around the ship, and they're shooting wildly into the dark, but what happens next? An arrow just lands right in the center of them."

"Did it miss?"

"No!" Angus grinned. "Blows up! Tear gas, everywhere! They all collapse, choking and gasping for breath, crying their filthy eyes out."

"Are you sure this is an entirely factual retelling of this Midnight character's first rampage?" Ardyn asked, her frown deepening. "It sounds very stylized."

"I heard it straight from the men on Laird John's ship. A couple were awake; they saw the whole thing." Angus raised his hand as if swearing an oath. "Midnight comes right in on the sods while they're trying to get over the tear gas, and boom! Takes every last one down, smashing in their faces and shooting the ones that try and run. She's a war machine."

"And...then what?" Ardyn asked.

"She takes their lord character, and she hangs him by his ankles from the nearest crane." Angus grinned. "Was a sight. Big fat man, hanging there waiting for the kids to come beat on him for candy. Heard she fished him back up later and shot him."

"My word." Ardyn shook her head. "She sounds vicious."

"She does," Angus agreed. "I've got to ask the ambassador if she knows her."

"Oh, don't stereotype," Ardyn chastised, smacking him lightly. "Not every Nuremite is Midnight's pub mate!"

"What about her servants? I figure one of them must-"

"Angus!" Ardyn raised an eyebrow. "The vote's about to start."

"Yes, ma'am. I'm shutting up, ma'am." Angus leaned back. "Not a peep out of me, no, ma'am. Not since you commanded my silence, ma'am."

"I can hear this," Ardyn observed. She smacked him again anyway.

"What was that for?"

"Because I felt like it. Bite me." Ardyn resumed crocheting as King Roger took his position behind the podium.

"All in order!" he called. "Take your seats, my Lairds!"

"Here we go," Ardyn murmured, as the men and women around the room found their way to their Clan symbol-emblazoned desks.

"Let the Candidates for King of Clans present themselves and their names!" King Roger ordered, and Ardyn thought she detected a hint of eagerness in his tone. Yes, he was very old, very tired, and very done with being King of Clans. Ardyn wondered idly what his plans were once today's business and then the immediate transition were completed. Somehow, she could only picture him in a jockey's uniform, trying to fight his way up onto a racehorse, and that made her chuckle.

"Laird Saoirse Claire MacPhearson!" She rose to her impressive height, raising her right hand.

"Have you announced your Intent, following the rules and proscriptions of this Chamber?" King Roger asked.

"I have, Your Majesty."

"Do you swear, if elected Queen of Clans, to serve and protect the Highlands to your last breath, by war or peace, in dark times or bright, and if such is required, to personally take up your sword to fight for her interests?"

"I do, Your Majesty." She bowed her head.

"Your Intent is recognized." He turned. "Laird Truman John MacDonald!"

He rose now, and his right hand with him. He smirked, and MacPhearson regarded him with what Ardyn supposed to be cool disdain.

"Have you announced your Intent, following the rules and proscriptions of this Chamber?"

Ardyn waited while King Roger and MacDonald repeated the exchange, word-for-word. She watched as both MacDonald and MacPhearson lowered their hands.

"Two candidates stand before us today," King Roger said. "Let the record show that the voting has now begun." He banged his gavel.

"Right, then," Angus said. He glanced at the other viewing box. "Lady Ambassador looks nervous."

"Nurem has to be nervous about MacDonald," Ardyn pointed out. "Especially in light of what happened to Uncle John."

"Truman, King of Clans?" Angus snorted. "Pinch me, I'm dreaming."

"Laird MacNaire!" King Roger called. Up rose the Laird in question.

"It is my pleasure," the Laird MacNaire said, clasping her hands behind her, "to place my vote for the first Queen of Clans to be elected by this office rather than succeed a deceased husband: Laird Saoirse MacPhearson."

"Let the record show the Vote stands at one-zero," King Roger said. "Thank you, Laird MacNaire."

"No surprises," Ardyn mumbled. "A lack of surprises is good."

"Laird MacDonald?"

The man himself rose at the call. "Your Majesty, it is my pleasure to vote for the only qualified candidate in this race," he said, grinning at the assembly. "We are electing a King of Clans, not a Queen, and my vote reflects that. I vote for King Truman MacDonald."

"Let the record show the Vote stands at one-one..."

"Arrogant git," Angus growled, as MacDonald retook his seat. "I don't just want to see him lose, Ardyn, I want to see him run out of Lionsmane on a rail."

Pike MacMichael was next, and sure enough, not even MacDonald's little impromptu comedy act dissuaded the silver-haired patriarch from throwing his vote on the pile.

"He's hated Laird Saoirse for years," Ardyn observed. "He'd have voted for Soap. He'd have voted for Midnight over Laird MacPhearson."

"I'd have been tempted," Angus admitted, which earned him another slap.

"One-two," Ardyn said. "And MacFletcher hasn't voted yet."

The next vote, however, wasn't MacFletcher but MacDougal, and Ardyn sighed in relief when his vote went to MacPhearson.

Two-two, she thought, before she had to revise that count when MacFletcher was called up. Two-three.

"He's stalled out, now," Angus said. "It's MacArthur and MacPhearson left, and unless he's talked Laird Saoirse into voting against her own candidacy..."

"Laird MacArthur!"

"MacPhearson," Ardyn predicted. Angus nodded.

"Your Majesty," MacArthur said, as he stood. He glanced around. "It is my pleasure to cast my vote for the best-qualified candidate to succeed you: the one I believe best suited to lead our country forward, and the one whose values best align with those of the Highlands.

"It is my pleasure to vote for Laird Truman."

Ardyn's eyes snapped up. Angus actually jumped out of his seat in shock.

"Shite!" he gasped, before wincing. "Sorry, Ardyn."

"I agree completely," she said. "MacArthur broke with MacTavish?"

"Let the record show the vote is now two-four."

"It's fine," Angus whispered. "Four-four tie once MacPhearson and MacLoughlin vote. That'll put us into a second session-"

"Angus," Ardyn said. "Angus!" She waited until he paused. "Your father was censured!"

She saw the color drain from his face. She watched it happen.

"Oh, no," he whispered.

"Laird MacPhearson," King Roger called, and the hall was oddly quiet. Ardyn swore she heard the Laird's earrings jingle as she stood.

"Your Majesty," she said, with a sick look in her eyes. "Your Majesty, I am pleased to place my vote in the candidate I believe best suited to lead the Highlands forward. I am pleased to..." she broke off halfway through, and Ardyn clutched the base of her throat as she watched the woman come apart almost at her seams in the Chamber of Lairds.

But she pulled herself together. She shook, but she didn't break.

"I am pleased to vote for Laird MacPhearson," she managed to get out, before sinking to a seat. Ardyn thought she saw a glint on the woman's cheeks.

MacDonald smirked.

"Let the record show the vote at three-four," Roger MacArthur said. He waved, and Ardyn had to watch him rise, and ascend to the King's podium.

"Hail Truman, King of Clans!"

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Chapter Ten: Laird of Lairds(Part One)

"Lionsmane!" Ardyn smiled as she looked around at the bridges over bridges, at the spiral towers and multilevel construction. The harbor was massive, with dozens of ships casting off and nosing in, and pleasure craft dotting the waves. "It's beautiful!"

"It's a bloody sodding city," her father growled. "Move, you!" He waved at a horse and rider in the way of their carriage. "Get your arse out of the way! Laird MacTavish, coming through!"

"We don't have the Laird MacTavish, Dad," Ardyn pointed out as the rider scampered out of the way.

"That fool don't know it," Corlane said with a scoff, and Ardyn found herself grinning too.

"You have something against cities, Dad?" she asked. He growled in the back of his throat.

"They're big, they're ugly, and they're full of brain-types," he said. "I say the only honest man is one you can arm wrestle. Those bloody lawyers who can talk you around in circles are the scum of the earth. Case in point!" He raised a finger. "I think MacDonald was a lawyer."

"No, Dad. He's a businessman."

"Well, same thing, really." Corlane shrugged.

"Uncle John was a businessman."

"And before he was a businessman, he was a soldier," Corlane said. "He learned the right sort of stuff there. He had that base to put all the brain-stuff on top of. If you fill your head with brain and nothing else, all you've got is brain, and that makes you pretty stupid."

That was, Ardyn supposed as she turned it over and back and forth, one of the insanely idiotic things her father was fond of saying that actually made a great deal of sense once she stopped to muse over it. She mentioned that fact, in those exact words.

"That's my girl!" Corlane broke out howling with laughter. "Damn it, but you sound so much like your mum! She'd say the same!" He settled, wiping at his eyes. "I ain't the world's smartest sod, and I'll cheerfully admit that one from this end of the Iron Sea to the other, but common sense ain't bloody well common, is it, darling?"

"No, Dad." She laughed as he grabbed her shoulder and shook her cheerfully.

"And I'm the most commonly sensible man I've ever met," he announced.

"You're certainly common," Ardyn observed. "Sensible, now, I don't know..."

"Shut yer gob, Mary," Corlane said, and that put a smile on Ardyn's face.


"Clan MacLoughlin protests this decision, or lack thereof, in the most stringent terms!" Dorian MacLoughlin slammed a hand down on his desk in the circular conference chamber. The other seven Lairds sat watching him speak, and Ardyn too observed, from a raised observation balcony. Her father was down on the floor in the seat reserved for the Laird MacTavish, but the sign declaring the Laird occupied the chamber had been removed.

"Clan MacLoughlin would do well to curb its tongue," King Roger II ordered, from his raised center podium. His dark face gave little away save his annoyance. "The law must be followed. And in this case, we must determine what the law says before we can act."

"With respect to your title, Your Majesty, and respect to the rules of this Chamber, you are a daft fool!" MacLoughlin cried. Ardyn winced.

"Your father's not taking prisoners, is he?" she asked. Angus shook his head from beside her.

"What he told me is that there's no way today ends without us hailing Saoirse, Queen of Clans," he said. "So it's about the best time there is to make a stand on principle in favor of MacTavish. It'll also score him a few points with his underlings. He's been accused of 'simpering at King Roger's side.'"

"Not anymore," Ardyn agreed. "I just hope MacLoughlin isn't sacrificing its relationship with MacArthur by having a go at their king like this."

"MacArthur's in MacPhearson's corner," Angus said. "We all know it, no matter how quiet he's being. He's trying not to come out too fully in favor of one side or the other in public, but he's never voted apart from your uncle in the past, and when we elected King Roger, they were together. He was together with your grandfather when they elected King Bruce. MacTavish and MacArthur vote together."

"Yeah, and Uncle John was a hard-line MacPhearson loyalist," Ardyn agreed. "Didn't talk about it but so much, but there was bad blood between him and MacDonald." She hesitated, but didn't follow that thought up.

"Calm your protests, Laird MacLoughlin," King Roger ordered. "Your dissatisfaction has been noted. Continue to make a nuisance of yourself in regards to business of a Clan not even your own, and We will be forced to censure your vote from the upcoming election."

"King Roger's not happy," Angus observed. "You think he wants MacDonald to win? He's a MacArthur. His Laird's voting for MacPhearson."

"I think he's old, I think he's tired, and I think he's a stickler for the rules," Ardyn said. "I don't think he much cares who succeeds him. There's a reason he's resigning: he's done with all of this."

"Probably," Angus agreed. He glanced around the chamber, and Ardyn noticed his eyes linger on the other observation boxes ringing the second floor. "Look over there."

"Hm?" Ardyn glanced. She frowned. "I don't see what you do, Angus."

"Second from the left."

"Oh!" She tilted her head. "That's the ambassador, all right. What's strange about it? She's watching the deliberations."

"Look at how intent she is." Angus frowned. "She looks like she wants to shoot MacDonald."

"I heard they had a bit of a spat at Uncle John's funeral," Ardyn confessed. "He called her a harlot and suggested she leave the country."

"Still more polite than he is to MacPhearson," Angus said. "Oh, wait! Sodding Saoirse."

Ardyn snorted...then paused to make sure they were alone in their booth. "Angus?"

"What?" he asked, lowering his voice immediately to match hers.

"Uncle John had a spat with MacDonald too," she said. "I don't know what about, but it was a week before the wedding."

Angus frowned. "And that's when MacDonald steps up his rhetoric about Nuremites coming to have a go at us?"

"Exactly." Ardyn nodded. "No one takes him seriously. But then what happens?"

"Nuremites assassinate a Laird. A Laird who opposed MacDonald." Angus leaned back. "And he looks all generous and friendly, coming to help bear Laird John's coffin."

"I just wonder," Ardyn said. "My father too. He's pretty convinced MacDonald had a hand in it."

"The man said he was from Nurem-"

"That's just it," Ardyn said. "Dad said, and I quote: 'I don't believe any professional worth his salt would scream out his bloody allegiance for the world to hear before shooting the man he's supposed to shoot. And judging by how he got away from an entire crowd of armsmen after shooting my brother in public, straight through the security cordon, I don't think we're dealing with a first-timer.'"

"It was a red herring," Angus murmured. "Greetings from the Family Marona. He wants people to blame Nurem."

"Either that or it's a very complex double bluff," Ardyn said. "But I don't think MacDonald is intelligent enough to make one of those work. And people are certainly blaming Nurem, so if it was a double-bluff, it's backfiring. Nurem's too smart to stick itself in that situation."

"I must insist that this Chamber afford the Clan MacTavish their divine right to vote," Dorian MacLoughlin continued. "I must demand it, as a matter of public record. For a matter of less importance, perhaps allowing this body to maintain eight votes instead of nine would be permissible, but we cannot afford the possibility of a tie when it comes to the election of Your Majesty's successor!"

"No, we cannot," King Roger said. He leaned on his podium with an annoyed glint in his eye. "For that reason, We, by the power of the Crown, shall issue a voting censure on House MacLoughlin."

"Sir!" Dorian protested. "Your Majesty!"

"You yourself have said this vote is too important to leave to the chance of a tie," King Roger replied. "And seven votes is no less an odd number than nine." He slammed his gavel. "This session is ended! We will re-convene after lunch, and I will preside over the election of the next King of Clans. MacLoughlin and MacTavish are entitled to observational positions in this Chamber, and not to vote or speech. Gods bless our next Laird of Lairds."

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Chapter Five: Wedding Bells(Part Two)

"And what do I..."

"You, Laird John, greet her at the curb," Brigid said, looking out from the main entrance at the crowd scattered through the chapel. "You take her hand and bring her in nice and formal, and lead her to the altar, where you'll pass her off to the priest so he can do the deed."

"Giving my daughter away..." John took a deep breath. "I hope she doesn't make a fuss."

"What's she going to do? Shoot you?" Brigid chuckled, though she seemed a bit nervous too. "I suppose she could refuse to say 'I do.'"

"She wouldn't." John was not certain of that. "I hope old Laird MacLoughlin wouldn't blame me."
"Never hurts to be optimistic, my laird."

"Thanks for boosting my confidence." John took a deep breath of the incense-tinged chapel as he heard the horns. "That'll be Corlane with the girls."

"Right!" Brigid clapped him on the shoulder. "Let's do what we can."

A moment later, John emerged into the sunlight, watching the carriage with the MacTavish family crest pull up. Corlane sat behind the reins with a wide smile, waving cheerfully at the crowd arranged around the carpeted path into the church. Armsmen with ceremonial arquebuses lined the pathway, half each MacLoughlin and MacTavish, and they all snapped to attention as John emerged and the carriage halted.

"Laird MacTavish!" someone in the crowd shouted. Heads turned.

Mac-Tav-ish! they chanted. Mac-Tav-ish! Mac-Tav-ish for King-of-Clans!

"Morning to you!" he called, managing a wave. The cheerers redoubled their efforts, but John sighed as he heard the inevitable counter-volley.

Mac-Phear-son! Mac-Phear-son! And, more faintly but with growing vitriol: Mac-Don-ald!
That only incensed his apparent supporters. Mac-Tav-ish for King-of-Clans!

"Thank you!" he cried, waving high over his head. A cheer was the response, and he smiled as wide as he could. "I'm not in the running!" He turned back for the carriage. "In case any of you avid politicos forgot..."

And then he was at the carriage, and Corlane was dismounting. John got the door, and the first one he saw was Ardyn.

"Good morning, dear." John offered his hand very formally, and pulled his niece from the carriage, pausing to kiss her knuckles before handing her over to her own father. "You look lovely." 

"Thank you, Uncle John, but it's really Kacey's day."

"That it is." And with that alone for bracing, John leaned down into the carriage.

Kacey glared daggers through her wedding veil, clutching her bouquet with white-knuckled fingers.

"Come on, Kace." John offered his hand. "It's time."

"Is it?" she nearly spat the words. "You expect me to just go up there and...and..." She trailed off. "Dad..."

"Kacey, it's for the best," John said. "Let's get through the day, now."

"I don't want to," she protested.

"Come on." He reached out and took her hand. "Kace."

Her eye twitched. "You're awful." But she pushed her way over to him and took his hand, and John was prepared to take verbal abuse if such was the price of cooperation.

Mac-Tav-ish! Mac-Tav-ish! The sight of Kacey in white was just enough to drive the crowd up louder. John made sure to hold up her hand in clear view before he kissed it.

Her eyes blazed.

"We're pretty popular, aren't we?" John asked. He took a relieved breath as Kacey fell into step beside him, her arm in his, with Corlane and Ardyn behind them. The church doors loomed.

Something nagged at the back of his mind: an old itch that had never gone away. It was like he'd forgotten something...or noticed something. He tried not to frown at the crowd...but something about all this wasn't...

"I'm glad I'm useful," Kacey snapped, but it was in as low a voice as she could use without being drowned out by the crowd.

Mac-Don-ald! Mac-Tav-ish! Mac-Phearson!

"And you look beautiful, too." John forced a smile, while he busily tried to crack the nut of his problems. It was something fairly enormous, it had to be, if all his instincts were up in arms over was just like when he'd held down that drow village in the war...

"Laird MacTavish!" The throng pressed at the guardsmen. "My laird!"

"Hello!" John said, waving and keeping up his smile. "It's a new day for two families, isn't it? Can you hear the bells?"

"Stop it," Kacey growled. "Am I just a display to you?"

"Life's a stage, Kace-"

"Don't you Kace me," she growled, before subsiding.

"My laird!" One man pressed at the edge of the line, waving more energetically than most. "Greetings, my laird!"

"Hello!" John nodded graciously. "I'm just walking my daughter in. No time-"

"You should be King of Clans!" the man cried. "The throne belongs to MacTavish! It's in your blood, sir!"

"Is it?" John asked. He laughed. "What do you think, love? Kacey, Queen of Clans?"

She huffed. "I guess you would want that use out of me, wouldn't you?"

"Ah, lay off," he urged with a sigh. "Can't I say something nice?"

"Laird MacTavish!" There was noise ahead. John frowned.

"Oh, come on," Corlane muttered.

"What is-" John sighed as a wave pushed past the armsmen, rushing around him and Kacey with shouts of Mac-Tav-ish!

"Laird MacTavish!" The loud man appeared in front of him, a big smile splitting his cheeks under bright, bright green eyes. "A message from the Family Marona!"


It was loud as thunder, and fire seared John's chest. He gasped, suddenly short of breath, and stumbled. His legs wavered, red sprayed, and...and...

The man's gun twitched, and his second, unfired barrel turned to John's side.



John's hand released the shooter's wrist almost as fast as he'd seized it, and his dive became a collapse. He hit the ground hard on his side, choking up blood from two bulletholes instead of one.

But as reward...Kacey shrieked, and not from injury.


"Little John!" Corlane lunged forward. The green-eyed man melted back into the crowd in the instant before dozens of ceremonial arquebuses went off, firing blank into the air. Screams filled the morning, and the meaty thuds of wood hafts hitting skulls.

"Dad!" Kacey nearly fell overtop him, red staining her skirts, grabbing for him. "Dad! Speak to me!"

John coughed. He slipped, and he fell on his back, with her over him. His mouth moved, but he couldn' sound came out. He couldn't breathe...

"Dad..." Kacey inhaled sharply, her blue eyes full of horror as she regarded his wound. Determination lit her eyes in that one, horrifying instant, and then she took his hand in hers. She raised her other, and John saw her curling her fingers, pushing her palm down-

He caught her wrist with the strength of desperation. She glanced up, face pale and uncomprehending.

John shook his head, though pain and shock made it slow. He stared into those beautiful eyes they shared...

"Dad...Dad, no..." Kacey's jaw worked. "Dad, I can-"

"Kace..." he reached up for her with bloodstained fingers, unable to breathe. He had to say something. It was important...but he couldn't...why couldn't he remember?

"Kace," he muttered. "Kace...Ka...Kacey..."

His fingers brushed her cheek.

"Dad!" she called. "Dad!"

And then the light was blinding, and her voice was far away...


"Dad!" Kacey called. She gasped as his hand fell, and she grabbed for it. "Dad, no-" She felt an explosion of cold in her own veins as she touched his...and didn't feel anything.

"No." She swallowed, then lifted her hand again. "Hang on, Dad-"

"Oi!" Arms were around her from behind. She screamed and lashed out, but her elbows did nothing to Corlane. He hauled her back away from her father-

"Let me go!" she screamed. "No! Don't you take me from him! Let me go! Dad!"

"Get down!" Corlane cried. He held her as she thrashed, trying, struggling to eke her way from his grip-

She saw him. Her breath caught as she saw him, across the street and away from the crowd, having shed outer clothes to reveal new underneath, looking like a new man.

But he couldn't hide those green eyes.

"Hey! He's-"

Kacey broke off as a carriage went by. For an instant, the man was invisible - and when the carriage was gone, so was he.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Chapter Five: Wedding Bells(Part One)

"Miss Kacey?"

Kacey MacTavish - Kacey MacLoughlin, she dourly realized she would be by lunch - looked up from her bed and the book in which she was unsuccessfully attempting to hide from her future.

"Brigid?" She marked her place as the maid entered. Kacey froze. " that?"

"Isn't it lovely?" Brigid hurried over to the bed, and she laid out a long white...thing adorned with lace. "It was your grandmother's, and I had it cleaned and mended and sized just for you."

"I'm not wearing that," Kacey objected. "I won't be able to do more'n walk!"

"And why should you need to do anything but walk, Miss Kacey?" Brigid gave her a very searching look. "Planning on being a runaway bride?"

"No!" Kacey looked down. "I wouldn't get far, would I?"

"Not exactly the logic I'd be happiest to hear from you, but I won't complain if it keeps you in line."

"You sound like Dad," Kacey snapped. "Fetch a leash and collar for me, why don't you?"

"Miss Kacey..." Brigid shifted her weight. "I beg your pardon, then, Miss. I overstepped my bounds. Only meant it as a joke, but I'm sorry still."

"Brigid..." Kacey, not for the first time, wondered at the woman's balancing act. Acting the mother to Kacey and Ardyn both, despite technically being their wasn't a trick the redhead would have liked to perform. "It's fine. I'm just snippy lately."

"Maybe this will help a little." Brigid produced a little package bound in brown paper. "I found this on one of my strolls through the nice market."

"The nice market?" Kacey frowned. "What were you doing there?"

"I would hope you shouldn't have to ask that question." The middle-aged brunette offered her gift. "For better or worse, I is your wedding day. Brides deserve presents."

"Well..." Kacey coughed. "Thank you. You didn't have to."

"Nonsense." Brigid waited while the redhead confiscated her soon-to-be possession. The maid hesitated. "Your father's downstairs. He and I are off to the church in a few."

"Are you?" Kacey eyed the paper. "And me?"

"Miss Ardyn volunteered to help you with your dress," Brigid said. "She'll be in presently when she's finished with her own. And your uncle will drive the both of you once you're ready." She waited for a moment, while Kacey studiously said nothing. "Miss Kacey-"

"I know what you're going to say," she muttered.

"I'll say it anyway, because someone has to." Brigid eyed her. "I think you should come downstairs with me and say your good-byes to the Laird. He is your father, you know."

"I have nothing to say to him," Kacey growled. She glared up at Brigid. "He's made his bed and he can lie in it for all I care. He needs me to marry Angus, and he can force me up to the altar and into nuptials if that's his wish. But I've no intention of carrying on with him as if we still love each other, and that's that!"

Silence. Kacey fiddled with the package, regretting the sting in her voice and the nature of her words, but still certain deep down that her anger was righteous.

He wanted me to obey, and I'm obeying, Kacey insisted in her head. Let's see if he doesn't regret throwing away his daughter for his schemes, shall we?

"Well, if that's your decision, Miss Kacey, it's hardly my place to argue." Brigid definitely sounded cold. "I just hope that you don't wind up regretting holding on to all this, when all the dice finish rolling." She turned for the door. "I hope you like the gift."

Kacey glared after her every step until the door shut. She spared the horrendously ugly wedding dress a glance, before rolling her eyes - since it was that or moan.

"My life is a disaster," she whispered, as she plucked at her wedding gift's wrapping. Carefully, she opened it, discarding the paper without a care.

"A Full Guide to Drow Hand-Witchery..." Kacey examined the little black book with wonder. "Brigid, how did you..."

Stupid question. The maid was a Vod-witch herself, and she'd said she'd found it at the 'nice market.' No one who wasn't a witch would recognize the term, but to come out and say you were shopping at the illicit witches' dens was dangerous. The redhead opened the book, hunting for anything that might help her avert or survive her wedding day.

"Health," she muttered, examining a series of drawings showing a man flattening his hand, curling his fingers inward, and putting the heel of his palm right on the center of someone else's chest. "Yeah, I figured that one out myself." She mimed the action anyway. "Let's see. Clarity..." She made as if to tap someone's forehead with her index and ring fingers, her others curled in. "Safety..." She mimed caressing someone's cheek.

She paused as she got to what looked like an obscene gesture: index and middle finger crossed, ring finger half-curled, little finger fully tucked in, and thumb sticking out almost like she was signing a severely malformed L. She examined the drawing, showing a woman shoving it into a large man's face.

"Fell Fate," Kacey murmured. "Causes an immediate reversal of fortune for the target." She regretted that her father had already left.

"Kacey?" That was followed by a knock.

"Ardyn?" She lowered the book. "I'm decent."

"That's a lie." But Ardyn came anyway, and she was preceded by a happy black bolt.

"Gods, Soap!" Kacey burst out laughing as the dog bounded up on the bed beside her. "Hello, gorgeous-"

"Soap!" Ardyn shoved him. "Move!"

"What?" Kacey asked, frowning. Ardyn pointed...and the redhead burst out laughing. "Good boy, Soap!"

"He got hair all over it," Ardyn groused, pulling the wedding dress up and doing her level best to brush it off.

"I know!" Kacey beamed. "Maybe I won't have to wear it if he gets a bit more on it."

"It's lovely," Ardyn protested. "I wish I was wearing white."

"That would mean you'd be the bride." Kacey eyed Ardyn, and her glistening silver dress and elaborately coifed golden hair. "Easy for you to make fashion statements, too: you're effortlessly beautiful."

"I hardly call all morning effortless," she grumbled. The blue eyes they shared met.

"...I don't want to do this," Kacey finally muttered. "Marry Angus."

"I hardly want you to either," Ardyn assured her, quite fervently. "But that's what Uncle John's settled on, and I don't know as there's a way out now that won't just lead to worse."

"I could run away," Kacey offered, half-heartedly. "Take his claymore and shield and go hunting for my mother's legacy."

"And what? Starve on the road?" Ardyn made a face. "If I thought you'd get away with it, I'd cover for you in a heartbeat. You could lock me in the closet and I'd claim you threw me in there. Whatever would help."

"...but I won't get away with it," Kacey finished, sullen. "And I don't know that..." She fidgeted. "This is home. It's where I belong."

"I know." Ardyn reached out and patted her shoulder. Kacey breathed, reaching up to take her cousin's hand.

"I know," Ardyn repeated, as Soap wormed his way into Kacey's lap as if he were a much smaller animal. "We'll figure this out, Kacey, one day at a time. I'll be here for you. Together, we can try to salvage at least something."

Kacey smiled, despite the curling dread that chilled her bones. "Thank you, cousin."

"It's what family's for." Ardyn took a breath. "Right, then. On your feet, young lady: let's get you decked up in this whopper, shall we?"