Once Upon A Time - Merry Shannon



Chapter Fourteen

It was nearly two weeks before the court healer finally declared Talon well enough to resume her usual duties. They were a strange, painful couple of weeks for Shasta; she couldn't even roll over onto her back without pain for several days after her beating. The first few nights that she spent alone, lying uncomfortably on her stomach without the familiar sound of her guardian's soft, steady breathing beside her, Shasta found that she could not fall asleep. She had grown so accustomed to sharing her room the past few years that she felt oddly vulnerable and even lonely without Talon's presence. And in spite of the healer's salve, and Aleria and Brie who gently applied it to the scarlet welts several times a day, the trauma to her skin took a long time to heal. The welting finally began to dissolve into bruises, darkening into a deep purple shade that was tinged with brown and green on the edges. Even when she was able to roll over to her back, she had to keep her knees bent so that the sore area was elevated off of the mattress.

The morning Talon returned, Shasta was sitting up in bed, trying to concentrate on the book in her lap. A knock on the door caused her to look up. "Come in."

The door opened and her dark guardian entered. She was still wrapped in bandages, though the wound had closed itself enough so as to be unlikely to reopen again. When the healer had discovered how carelessly Talon allowed it to reopen only a day after it had begun to heal, he refused to let Talon out of bed until he was sure such a thing could not be repeated. The tall soldier stood in the doorway for a moment, looking around uncertainly, and Shasta pursed her lips. "So you're back."

Talon nodded. "The healer says I can return to most of my duties as normal, though I'm not allowed to lift a sword for at least another week." Her voice was quiet, almost timid, and Shasta found her emotions swinging between delight and fury. She had missed her guardian more than she cared to admit, but she was still deeply angry.

"Well, don't just stand there. Come in and sit." She closed the book in her lap and swung her legs tentatively over the side of the bed, wincing a little with the pressure on her bruised backside. "I've been cooped up in this bed for weeks now, so when I'm dressed I want to go for a walk in the gardens to stretch my legs."

Talon stepped into the room and closed the door. "How do you feel?"

"Better." She stood carefully, and limped a bit as she crossed the room to the wardrobe. Without turning to look at Talon, she spoke over her shoulder. "In light of recent events, I think I'd better set some new rules." She pulled a simple blue gown from the wardrobe, one that did not require corsets or hoops to fit properly, and then turned around. "Woman or not, I am still uncomfortable with you seeing me in my nightshift and desire my privacy while tending to personal matters."

Talon inclined her head. "Of course, Princess."

"And from now on you will not speak to me unless spoken to. You may still be my protector, but I no longer consider you a friend. Friends don't lie to one another." She stubbornly ignored the expression of hurt that flitted across the taller girl's face. "You will conduct yourself as my servant and nothing more."

"I understand." Talon's voice was carefully neutral.

"And one other thing. You will address me in the future as "Princess" or "Highness". I have allowed lapses in the past, but it is inappropriate for us to be on more familiar terms."

"As you wish, your Highness."

Shasta gave Talon a long look, and then a satisfied nod. "Then prepare the privy chamber so I may dress."

Talon strode to the door of the chamber, opened it and examined the inside before stepping back with a small bow. Shasta brushed past her, and closed the door. Well, that's done, she mused to herself as she removed her robe and nightdress and struggled into the blue day gown. A twinge of guilt pinched at her, remembering the hurt in her guardian's eyes, but she shrugged it away. Talon isn't my friend, and she never was. She's only stayed with me because of Aleria and Brie, and the entire time it was all a lie. But that's fine. She buttoned the dress, which fastened in the front, and straightened the bodice. She doesn't have to like me. She's a servant in my father's house and I was an idiot for ever treating her otherwise. And with that, she picked up a brush and began running it through her waist-length hair vigorously. Her own eyes stared back at her from the looking-glass, full of stubborn determination.

Talon was true to her word, and no longer spoke to the princess at all unless Shasta said something to her that required a response. The playful, flirtatious little war between them had been replaced by a cool tension, and though Talon was now very careful to walk several steps behind her charge wherever they went, to bow and avoid eye contact, occasionally Shasta would look up and catch her guardian watching her with deep sadness in her black eyes. Talon always looked away immediately, and Shasta would grind her teeth; it was obvious Talon was just trying to make her feel guilty and it wasn't going to work.

One evening, while Erinda bustled around the chamber doing some last-minute straightening up before leaving for the night, Shasta caught the looks that passed between Talon and her chambermaid; Erinda's sympathetic glances at her guardian made her irrationally angry.

"That's all for tonight, Erinda. You may go."

The buxom maid curtsied and cast one more longing look at Talon before leaving the room, and Shasta's eyes narrowed. "You know," she said to her guardian from her chair by the window, "being stuck in bed all day for such a long time gave me a lot of time to think." Talon's head came up but she did not respond. "And something has been bothering me. Erinda. She knows about you, doesn't she?"

Talon's reply was soft. "Yes."

"Yes. Yes, of course she does, how could she not?" Shasta let out a puff of air. "And still, you and she…" the princess trailed off, not wanting to say the words aloud, but Talon knew what she meant.


"But you're both women."

"Yes." Her calm responses were beginning to infuriate the princess.

"But that's just… How would that even work? Never mind, I don't want to know. It's… gross." Shasta screwed up her nose in distaste. "And you, you actually like it? Being with her, like that?"

Her guardian's face twitched almost imperceptibly, and she nodded. "Yes."

Shasta shook her head, her expression one of revulsion. "You're perverts, both of you. You disgust me." Talon did not meet her eyes. "Ugh. You know what I ought to do, I ought to tell my father." Her guardian kept her eyes on the floor, almost as if she hadn't heard, and after a few moments Shasta said a little indignantly, "Well, aren't you going to try and talk me out of it?"

For the first time in days, Talon actually looked Shasta in the eye. "No."

"He'd probably have you executed, you know."

Talon glanced away. "You are the future queen of Lysteria, your highness. You have to do what your heart tells you is right."

Shasta's lips tightened rebelliously. "Well, I haven't made up my mind quite yet," she said imperiously. "I'm still so angry with you. I can't decide if I'm just mad or if I really hate you."

"Hate me?" Talon's whisper sounded choked.

The princess winced slightly at the pain in her guardian's voice. "Yes, well, like I said, I haven't decided yet. You lied to me, Talon. And not just a little white lie, because that I could forgive. This is something huge. Here I thought you and I were close. You were the closest thing I had to a brother since," she blinked back sudden tears, "since Daric was killed. And I actually believed you cared about me. Then I find out that the only reason you stayed was for the sake of your sisters, and it was never about me at all." Talon's eyes widened. "And to top it off, I realize that I don't have any idea who you really are. You've been by my side for three winters and you're a complete stranger. It's too much."

Her guardian opened her mouth as if she wanted to answer, but then shook her head sadly and closed it again. Shasta sighed. "This is the second time you've nearly died saving my life. So I'm not going to tell Father about your… indiscretions. I owe you that much. But I don't think I'll ever be able to trust you again." Shasta rose to her feet and blew out the lamp on the table. "I'm going to sleep."

Slowly Talon stood and followed the princess into the sleeping chamber. Shasta climbed into bed and extinguished the light on her bedside table. The room fell into darkness, and a heavy silence. If the princess had looked down at the cot where Talon lay, she would have seen the single quiet tear that rolled back along the dark soldier's temple until it vanished into her hairline.

Summer passed into autumn, and the trees of the royal garden began to change their colors in preparation for the coming cold. Talon took up woodcarving, if only to have something to do to distract herself from the strange, sullen silence of the evenings. Shasta had always been something of a bookworm, and so she seemed content to sit curled up in her little chair by the window reading for hours on end, but as Talon had reached an age where her basic studies were relatively complete, she had nothing to do to keep herself occupied. So Captain Vaughn borrowed some carving tools from a cabinet-maker friend who lived in Ardrenn, and Talon spent the evenings chipping away at blocks of wood, and sanding edges into glassy curves. She had no real shape in mind, but it felt good to have something to do.

Shasta still had lessons almost daily. Some were focused on the arts, like music, dance, and painting; others were of a more political nature. Talon continued teaching at the opposite end of the hall, but Shasta had cancelled their joint fencing sessions with Captain Vaughn, so it was one less activity in which they had to face one another. Life settled into a steady routine of morning prayers, mealtimes, and lessons, with the occasional court conference, social function or riding excursion, all of which Talon attended in obedient silence, keeping a respectful distance between herself and the princess at all times.

Talon was aware of an increasingly intense feeling of loss. Shasta had withdrawn herself from her guardian almost completely, and she almost felt jealous watching Aleria and Brie giggling and chatting with the princess as if nothing had changed between them. She found that she missed their former friendship in a way that she hadn't even realized until it was gone. Now, they lived, studied, ate and slept side-by-side and yet it was as if they were strangers, barely speaking and tolerating one another's company only because it was necessary. But Talon could not bring herself to resent Shasta for it. She could easily imagine how much the truth had hurt, especially considering the terrible timing of its revelation. Shasta's infatuation with her might have been only a crush, but it was a powerful one and the princess was unused to disappointment.

She wished, more than anything else, that she could at least find a way to explain that her affection for the princess had been genuine. Now that Shasta had learned of the terms of Talon's agreement with the king, she was convinced that Talon had never cared for her at all, and that knowledge stung the soldier deeply. But she couldn't find the words, or an opportune moment, to rectify that misunderstanding. What was she supposed to say? 'At first I just wanted to save my sisters from a life of slavery, but then I actually started to love you.' Not only did it sound weak, but now that the princess knew about Talon's particular… preferences, she didn't want to risk being misinterpreted.

There were only two people in the palace that Talon felt she might be comfortable talking to: Aleria and Erinda. But Aleria was so busy with her preparations to take the Irythrian vows, rising early in the morning and staying up studying and meditating late into the night, that the only time Talon saw her sister was during lessons when Aleria was tending the princess. And Talon had promised Shasta to give up her relationship with Erinda. Even a quiet conversation with the chambermaid would be seen as a violation of that promise, she was sure. And so Talon was at a loss, and for the first time in her life she actually felt lonely.

With nothing else to do, she threw herself even more intently into her work, turning her rather haphazard lesson plans into an actual, defined curriculum for the young recruits she was responsible for training, and developing exercise routines for herself that were both intensive and exhausting. She had always been physically fit, but now she began to build her strength deliberately. Using a combination of weights and vigorous acrobatics she began to sculpt her own body into a harder, more well-defined collection of muscles, careful not to lose flexibility in the process. And she added new subjects to her studies, anything that seemed like it might be of use to a soldier, including several foreign languages and the basic healing arts. She kept herself so busy and exhausted herself so thoroughly by every nightfall that she had neither the time nor the energy to feel sorry for herself.

She had noticed Chancellor Kumire steadily increasing his attentions towards the princess. He began presenting her with gifts, from simple flower bouquets to extravagant diamond jewelry, and calling upon her in her chambers to invite her for afternoon rides and evening strolls in the garden. To Talon's irritation, Shasta actually accepted several of these invitations, and Talon had the sneaking suspicion that the princess only did so to grate on her guardian's nerves. At least she got some satisfaction from knowing that her presence annoyed the chancellor as much as he did her; she accompanied Shasta everywhere they went and the simpering viceroy did not dare to make more than the most subtle of overtures for fear that Talon might run him through on the spot.

Kumire joined them once again on their annual trip to the Dervaughn estate for Winter Solstice, and it was there that he apparently decided it would be a good time to make his intentions clear. After a day spent ice skating on the frozen edge of the lake they had all returned to the great room of the main house. Aleria retired to her room early to study before sleeping, and King Soltran followed suit soon after, saying that he had some important paperwork to look over. Brie showed no intentions of leaving the room until Kumire rather pointedly suggested that perhaps she ought to join her sister and do some studying herself; Talon was shocked that her youngest sister did not so much as pout. In fact, she jumped up as if it were the best idea she'd ever heard in her life, and trotted obediently from the room. Talon was wondering if perhaps Brie wasn't feeling well, as she knew her sister abhorred studying. But she did not have the chance to ponder it for long, because once Kumire, the princess and herself were the only ones remaining in the room, Kumire cleared his throat nervously and dropped to one knee beside Shasta's chair.

Talon's mouth fell open as the chancellor took Shasta's hand in his own. She could guess what was coming next, though the princess did not seem to have realized it yet.

"Your highness, there is something I would like to discuss with you."

"Oh?" the princess responded, sounding not the least bit interested and trying to pull her hand away without being rude. Kumire held onto it, however.

"In the years that I have been your tutor, I have found you to be a very beautiful, clever girl, and I have come to care very deeply for you."

Shasta blinked. "Er… thank you, chancellor." Talon put a hand to her mouth to cover a smile. Shasta still hadn't figured it out.

Kumire dug into his pocket, and pulled something out that he kept hidden in his hand for the moment. "I cannot think of anyone else whose company I would rather enjoy for the rest of my life." The princess evidently could not think of a response to such a strange declaration, and Kumire opened his hand to reveal a small gold ring. Now understanding dawned on Shasta's face, and to Talon's great surprise she actually turned wide eyes on her guardian for support. Talon just shrugged and shook her head; the princess was on her own with this one. Oblivious to this exchange, the chancellor held the ring up between his thumb and forefinger and held it in front of Shasta's hand. "Shasta, my love" (the princess grimaced at both his familiar use of her name and the unpleasant term of endearment) "it would do me great honor if you would agree to become my wife." He began to slide the ring onto her finger, but this time she pulled her hand away in earnest and gave a little laugh.

"Why, Chancellor, I'm far too young to be thinking of marriage."

"You're sixteen, are you not? It was my understanding that most young women marry around that age."

"Well, that may be, but…" Shasta moved her hand so it was well out of his reach, "I am not like most other young women, Chancellor Kumire. I am, of course, quite flattered by your proposal, but I am afraid I must decline."

His brows drew together. "Your highness…"

Shasta stood up, arching a brow at him. "Your sentiments are appreciated, Chancellor, but I have no intention of marrying anyone at this stage of my life. I'm afraid I'm something of a romantic, and when I do marry I want it to be for love. As fond as I am of you," she had to pause to avoid snickering at the outright lie, "I do not have such feelings for you and cannot in good conscience wed anyone I do not love."

Kumire also stood. "Princess, I am sure that in time you will come to love me deeply. I would be a good husband to you."

"If that day comes, Chancellor, then you may ask me again. But until then," she gathered her skirt in one hand, "I'm afraid I must bid you good-night."

She did not wait for him to bow or otherwise acknowledge her dismissal, and instead swept from the room as elegantly and with as much dignity as Talon had ever seen from her. Talon could not resist a tiny smirk at Kumire before following behind. When they had reached the safety of the guest chamber assigned to the princess, Shasta collapsed on the bed in a fit of breathless giggles, unable to stifle her mirth any longer. Watching her, Talon also had to smile. Shasta opened her eyes.

"Can you believe him?"

Talon wiggled her eyebrows. "Well, I for one think you'd make a lovely Mistress Kumire Fickett," she teased, sending Shasta into another burst of laughter.

"Goddess, can you imagine? Princess Shasta Talia Soltranis Fickett? Oh, it's just too dreadful to think of." At that, Talon chuckled heartily, and Shasta suddenly gazed at her thoughtfully. "I haven't heard you laugh like that in a long time." Talon's grin faded slowly into a wistful twist of the lips, and for a long moment they stood looking at one another. Then the princess cleared her throat. "We should go to bed. It's late."

Talon sighed as she laid down on the floor by the princess' bed, using one folded blanket for a makeshift mattress. For a few precious seconds she'd actually had the princess back, laughing together with her like they'd used to. And as brief as those moments had been, Talon treasured them. Perhaps not all hope was lost after all.

Aleria's seventeenth birthday arrived in a flurry of excitement. It was the day she had been waiting for, the day for which she had prepared so carefully during the past year. Today, she was going to take her vows. She would finally become an Irythrian priestess, bound to the Goddess so completely that she would give up all vestiges of her former self and become only a vessel for Irythria's will. Talon had both anticipated and dreaded this day. She was very proud of her sister, who seemed blissfully happy at the prospect of committing herself to the Goddess she so loved. But after this day, Aleria would no longer live in the palace with them. She would not see her gentle sister at lessons, hear her soft laughter or even be able to talk with her when she needed a compassionate and understanding ear. Aleria would be gone, replaced by a nameless, virginal religious icon whose only purpose in life would be Irythria's service.

When the morning dawned, bright and clear though perhaps a bit frosty, the princess, her guardian and her two companions awoke and began to prepare for the afternoon ceremony. None of them had any idea that the changes this day would bring would affect not just Aleria, but all of them, and in a way that no one could have predicted.

Aleria and Brie came to the princess' chamber to meet up with Shasta and Talon, so that they could all walk together to morning prayers, for the last time. While Shasta was putting the finishing touches on her outfit, Aleria touched Talon's arm and pulled her into a tight embrace.

"I know this is difficult for you," she whispered into her older sister's ear. "But thank you… thank you so much, for everything you've done for us. I would never have had this opportunity if it weren't for you, Talon." She pulled back to gaze into the soldier's face, and her eyes were filled with tears. "I love you, my sister, and that will never change."

Talon cleared her throat gruffly and returned the hug. "Are you happy, Aleria?"

"Very happy."

The tall young woman squeezed her shoulders. "That's all I need to know." She looked up to see Shasta waiting for them politely, not wishing to interrupt what was obviously a rather sensitive family moment. Talon took a deep breath, and offered her elbow to Aleria. "Shall we?"

The little group crossed the palace grounds to the temple, and Talon found herself savoring these last few moments she would have with her sister. Aleria was dressed in the flowing white robes of the Pledged, and her short black hair swung sharply at her chin; in a few hours it would be gone completely, shaven off as a symbol of her complete surrender to Irythria. Talon couldn't imagine what her sister would look like bald. It was a strange thought.

The morning prayer service began as usual, with chanting and incense and a long period of standing in the prayer position. Talon found herself actually praying for once, asking the Goddess to watch over her sister and give her the happy, content life that had always been Talon's wish for her. As prayers were ended, the high priestess clapped her hands, and instead of dismissing the worshippers she called Aleria to the base of the Irythria statue.

With one final squeeze of Talon's hand, the Pledged left her sister's side and moved to join the high priestess beneath the statue. Talon was both startled and touched when Brie moved to take Aleria's place, winding her smaller hand into Talon's and smiling up at her consolingly. Talon returned it gratefully and wrapped one arm around Brie's shoulders as they watched their sister kneel before the statue.

"People of Irythria," the high priestess intoned, her voice carrying through the temple, "today we will witness the dedication of one of Irythria's chosen daughters. Aleria, lady-in-waiting to Princess Shasta, has made the decision to commit her heart, mind, and body to the service of the Goddess." She looked down at the girl on her knees. "You will now repeat the vows of faith that will bind you as Irythria's vessel from now until the day you die." She gave another command, this time in the Irythrian tongue, and Aleria began speaking.

The vows of a priestess were all given in Irythria's language, of course, so Talon wasn't sure of the exact translation. But Aleria had studied it so intensely that she was practically fluent, and it was obvious from the sincerity and passion in her face as she chanted that she understood their meaning perfectly. Her voice took on a sort of sing-song quality, the tinkling syllables falling from her lips with ease, and as she spoke two priestesses swinging incense burners walked through the gathered worshippers to stand at either side of the statue. One of them passed right by Brie, and Talon looked down with concern as her youngest sister made a sudden gagging noise.

"Are you all right?" she whispered softly, not wanting to interrupt the ceremony. Brie nodded, but to Talon she didn't appear well, and the soldier kept an anxious eye on her as the chanting came to an end.

The high priestess produced a dagger from her sleeve, the same one that she had used a year ago to cut Aleria's hair into its current style. As she held it up, all the Irythrian priestesses broke into song, a familiar hymn that Talon had heard many times before. The high priestess lowered Aleria's hood, and dipped one hand into a bowl of scented oil being held out by one of the other veiled women. She smoothed the oil slowly over Aleria's head, starting at the hairline, and then ever so carefully put the blade of the dagger against the girl's scalp and drew it backwards. Dark clumps of hair fell to the floor, and after another similar stroke the high priestess reapplied the oil and continued shaving.

Talon blinked back a dangerous stinging in her eyes. This was what Aleria wanted, but oh how she was going to miss her. At her side, Brie seemed to be swaying slightly in an unsteady manner, and she looked down to see that her youngest sister's eyes were unnaturally glassy. "Brie…?"

"I'm fine," came the hushed reply, though she looked anything but. Even Shasta, on Talon's other side, had noticed Brie's strange behavior and was also watching her worriedly.

"It is done," the high priestess announced, and Aleria opened her eyes as the veils of an Irythrian priestess were settled for the first time over her newly shaven head. One of the other women stepped forward and fastened the glimmering fabric across her face, and when she rose to her feet, Talon let out a breath. The girl who now stood beneath the marble statue was no longer her sister, but a servant of the Goddess. Still… heresy or not, Talon would never stop thinking of her as Aleria, the girl she'd grown up with, the little harpist with a soft spot for animals and a fondness for cold tea.

Brie made another gagging noise then, and bent forward. All ceremony forgotten, Talon grabbed the smaller girl's shoulders as she suddenly threw up, right there on the floor of the temple.

Shasta's eyes widened. "Lady Brie!"

The other worshippers gasped and stepped back quickly, and the high priestess moved forward with an expression of concern. When Brie straightened up, the veiled woman seized her chin and looked intently into her face, then at Talon.

"You should get this girl to the infirmary at once," she said in low tones, and Talon nodded, scooping her little sister into her arms despite her protests.

Shasta led the way across the palace grounds, moving as quickly as her short legs would carry her, and Talon followed.

"Talon, really, I feel much better now. You can put me down."

Talon ignored her. "You're sick. You need help."

"I'm not sick."

Talon gave a snort. "Right. We'll just see what the healer has to say." Brie sighed with frustration, but Talon did not put her down until the three of them had reached the infirmary, and the old healer came shuffling up to them.

"What seems to be the trouble here, Lieutenant?"

Talon gave Brie a little shove towards the healer. "She's sick. She… er… well, she got sick all over the temple floor just a few minutes ago." Shasta nodded emphatically, and the healer peered at Brie for a moment.

"I see. Well, let's just see what we have here. Follow me, my lady." He turned and made his way to the little examination area, behind several curtained partitions. Brie followed reluctantly, and the healer waved his hand at Talon and Shasta. "You two stay out here, and give the lady some privacy, hmm?"

Talon huffed with irritation, but Shasta lifted an eyebrow at her and grumpily Talon sat down on one of the cots lining the room as Brie and the healer disappeared behind the curtains. She leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees, and ran one hand through her hair.

"I'm sure she'll be fine, Talon," the princess offered comfortingly. "It's probably nothing."

Talon nodded, but wasn't convinced. She knew her sister. Brie had a strong stomach, and never got sick like that unless she was very ill. She waited impatiently for several minutes, then stood and began to pace the room. Shasta's eyes followed her back and forth, back and forth, but she did not say anything else. After what seemed like an eternity, the healer emerged from behind the curtains. He was shaking his head as he shuffled over to the washstand against the wall and scrubbed his hands. Talon sprang to his side.

"Well?" she demanded rather brusquely, and the healer looked up at her, his face grim.

"I suppose you might as well hear it first, as you are Lady Brie's most immediate family."

Talon gripped his arm as his words struck fear through her chest. "Healer, what is it? What's wrong with her?"

The old man winced at her touch, and she released his arm sheepishly. Sometimes she forgot her own strength. He sighed. "Well, the good news is that your sister is perfectly healthy," he asserted, and Talon frowned with confusion.


"But… well…" he scratched his head, then tugged at the tall soldier's sleeve so he could whisper into her ear.

Talon snapped back as if she'd been bitten. "WHAT?!"

The healer grimaced. "I'm afraid it's true."

"Talon, what is it?" Shasta came to stand at her guardian's elbow, looking from one to the other with concern written all over her pretty face.

Talon shook her head, her face tight. "Your highness, do you think it would be possible to have an audience with your father? Now?"

She blinked. "Well… well, yes, I suppose so, he's usually taking luncheon in his study around this time."

A muscle rippled in Talon's jaw, and she marched behind the curtained partition, returning with a firm grip on Brie's upper arm. "Let's go." Brie looked like she had been crying, and Shasta stared from her companion, to her guardian, to the healer who was still shaking his head. She nodded in slight bewilderment.

"All right. Come with me."

"Your Majesty, what is the meaning of this?" Lord Fickett demanded, glaring around the royal hall at the strange assembly Soltran had called together.

The king sat in the throne at the head of the room with the princess on one side, and Brie on the other. Talon was at her usual post behind Shasta's shoulder, her face dark with anger as she glowered down at Chancellor Kumire and his father, who stood facing them to the left of the throne. To the right were gathered the healer, the high priestess, and Aleria in her newly-awarded priestess veils.

Soltran stared sternly down at the Monderan governor until he flushed and looked away. Then he cleared his throat. "It would seem that Lady Brie is with child."

Aleria gasped, her hand flying to her mouth through her veils, and Brie kept her eyes pinned to the floor. Her face was the color of a ripe tomato, and it only deepened as Fickett huffed, "Well, I don't see what that has to do with the rest of us."

"She has named your son as the father."

Now it was Lord Fickett's turn to glower at Kumire. "Is this true?"

The chancellor stuttered. "N-No, no. Of course not, Father." Under the harsh glares of the king, Talon, and his own father, he sighed. "I'll admit that Lady Brie and I have had an intimate relationship." His eyes anxiously flew to Shasta, who was looking at him as if he were an insect she very much wanted to stamp on. "But that does not make me father to her child. She's a wanton girl, Majesty, a seductress of the most vile sort…"

"That's a lie!" Talon bellowed from behind the princess, and ran forward with her sword drawn before Shasta could stop her. She stopped the blade a hair's-breadth from the chancellor's throat, and he gulped and licked his lips. The soldier's black eyes sparked dangerously. "How dare you."

"M-Majesty, please. I'm not the only man that girl has preyed upon. She's been with half the members of the royal guard, at least!"

"No!" Brie cried from the king's side, tears suddenly springing to her eyes and streaming down her cheeks. "Chancellor, how can you say that? You know you're the only one. I love you!"

He flushed angrily, and Talon flicked the end of her sword upwards a tiny bit. "I should kill you where you stand," she hissed, "you perverted, filthy, child-raping son of a whore!"

"That's enough, Lieutenant," Soltran declared firmly, and reluctantly the dark girl backed away and dropped her arm, though her grip was still white-knuckled on the hilt. The king turned. "Your Grace, if you please…"

The high priestess stepped forward, approaching Brie and placing her hands on the girl's belly. Her touch was gentle, and she closed her eyes for a moment, throwing her head back and chanting. When she opened them and turned to the king, she gave a small nod. "The Goddess has spoken, your Majesty. The girl tells the truth; this child is the seed of Kumire."

"That settles it, then." Soltran rose to his feet. "Chancellor Kumire Fickett of Mondera, I am half tempted to have you horsewhipped within an inch of your life, both for impregnating a lady of the king's court without the bonds of matrimony, and for dishonoring yourself and your family by lying to this assembly." Brie gave a cry and fell to her knees, and Soltran regarded her calmly for a moment. "However, there is the matter of the girl and her child to consider. I do not wish to be responsible for bastardizing a child, no matter how foolish his parents might be." The king sighed and rubbed his brow. "Therefore, it is my command that Chancellor Kumire and Lady Brie be married, this very day. This very moment, in fact." Kumire's mouth dropped open and his eyes returned to Shasta.

"But, your Majesty…"

"Silence." He turned to the high priestess. "Your Grace, will you perform the rites?"

The veiled woman inclined her head. "As your Majesty wishes." She took Brie's hand, leading her to stand beside the chancellor. Kumire didn't even look at her, his face a mask of disbelief, and Brie kept her head down, her entire body trembling visibly. The priestess took each of their hands and intertwined them, then held her own hands out over their hearts. "We who gather here bear witness to the joining of this man and this woman in the bonds of marriage."

As she continued to speak, Talon gritted her teeth. She couldn't believe Brie had been this foolish. But more than that, she couldn't believe she had been so blind to what had been going on for, if Brie was telling the truth, over a year now. Which meant she had only been fourteen when it began. It was everything Talon had ever feared for her sisters, and it had happened under her very nose while she was wrapped up in her own problems. She had failed Brie; failed her as a sister and as a brother. And in that sense she'd failed their mother as well. The one thing their mother had asked of Talon before she died was that she watch over Aleria and Brie. And Talon had failed.

Part of her was glad that the king had ordered the marriage; if Kumire was going to take advantage of her little sister he should be held responsible for it. But on the other hand… Talon observed the chancellor's infuriated expression, the way he shrank from the glare of his father, the way he had gazed at Shasta so frantically. Kumire had always intended to marry the princess. And he was obviously heavily intimidated by Lord Fickett. Talon feared for Brie's future, now, being married to a man who would most likely resent her as the person who ruined his ambition. How could she bear a child to such a man? What could she have been thinking?

Talon shook her head to clear it of these jumbled thoughts, in time to hear Brie's soft "I swear it." The end of the wedding vows. The high priestess raised her arms above her head.

"Kumire and Brie, your joining has been blessed by the Goddess, who is the advocate of all true lovers. May you share a happy home and bountiful lives together, filled with a love that never fades." Her arms came down then. "Congratulations, Chancellor and Lady Fickett."

Lord Fickett gave an angry snort and brushed past the newlyweds. He paused near his son's ear, and Talon was standing just close enough to hear his words. "As of this moment, we go back to the beginning." Kumire's nostrils flared but he did not look up, and the Monderan governor stalked out of the hall.

The high priestess curtsied deeply to the king, and led Aleria away. Brie's eyes followed her as she passed, and Aleria gave her the smallest of encouraging nods. Though by the Goddess' decree they were no longer sisters, it would be a while before a bond as close as theirs would truly be broken.

King Soltran rose from the throne, and without a word he strode right past Kumire to the doors. The princess followed on his heels, and like her father did not give the chancellor so much as a glance. Talon had no choice but to go where her charge went, and as she passed she could feel Brie's eyes on her, pleading. But Talon couldn't give her the reassurance she needed; she felt like she might be sick herself after the events of the afternoon. She marched behind Shasta without meeting her sister's eyes.

When Kumire and Brie were alone in the room, she turned those same pleading eyes on her new husband, and offered him a shy, tremulous smile. He just stared down at her dully, and when he spoke his voice was flat. "How could you do this to me?"

Brie gasped, tears spilling onto her cheeks as Kumire spun on his heel and walked away, leaving her alone in the royal hall. Her knees buckled and she fell to the stone floor, convulsing in hysterical sobs that rang against the walls and ceiling of the empty throne room.

Part 15

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