by Norsebard




Chronicles of the Empress Book 1

Chronicles of the Empress Book 2

Chronicles of the Empress Book 3



This Sword & Sorcery/Action Adventure Romance story belongs in the Uber category. All characters are created by me, though some of them may remind you of someone.

All characters depicted, names used, and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons is intended nor should be inferred. Any resemblance of the characters portrayed to actual persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.

This story depicts a romantic relationship between consenting adult women. If such a story frightens you, you better click on the X in the top right corner of your screen right away.

This story contains some genre-typical profanity. Readers who are easily offended by bad language may wish to read something other than this story.

This story contains genre-typical violence and swordplay, some of which is directed at women. Readers who are disturbed by this type of depiction may wish to read something other than this story.




Written: March 29th - April 14th, 2014.

- Thank you for your help, Wendy Arthur and Phineas Redux *Flower*

As usual, I'd like to say a great, big THANK YOU to my mates at AUSXIP Talking Xena, especially to the gals and guys in Subtext Central. I really appreciate your support - Thanks, everybody! :D

Description: Three moons on from Empress Bronwyn's return to Ashburne Castle with the forty gold bars she and her companions took from the lair of the terrible beast in the Natfarann Forest, the dreaded curse has yet to manifest itself. As the weather improves and Spring finally kicks Winter off the land, things are looking bright and cheery for the Empress and her allies. The gold has been put to use for the good of the people like she promised it would be, and yet, some citizens are dissatisfied with the Empress and her grand schemes - some are even harboring sinister plans against her and her consort, the Huntress Caid Barlin...




Three moons have passed since Empress Bronwyn and her traveling companions returned to Ashburne Castle with the forty gold bars they took from the lair of the terrible beast near the small village of Abryloch in the Natfarann Forest. Like the Empress promised it would be, the gold has been put to use for the good of the people after being melted down into ten, twenty and fifty Crown coins and used to pay architects and skilled craftsmen for their services.

Many buildings have been renovated in the poorer, northern districts of Ashburne, and housing and living standards have been improved on a whole - a cornerstone has even been laid for a public school, the first ever in the walled city.

And yet, some citizens are dissatisfied with the Empress and her grand schemes. Those who worry about the strengthening of the working class in Ashburne are dissatisfied with Bronwyn's financial politics, those who disagree with her on her habits and personal preferences do so with bitter determination, and those who have ulterior motives and hidden agendas pay her lip service while sharpening the hatchet they plan to bury in her back - and others again are harboring sinister plans that won't see the light of day until the moment is right.

The Empress and her consort, the Huntress Caid Barlin, have grown ever closer in the moons following their return from Abryloch. Now rarely apart, they defy the few traditionalists who oppose their love by flying their colors strongly in the city and everywhere else they go.

The dreaded curse that Empress Bronwyn read about in a dusty, old book in Abryloch hasn't manifested itself, and as the weather improves greatly and Spring finally kicks Winter off the land, things are looking quite bright and cheery for the Empress, her consort, the city and indeed the Empire itself...




The two uniformed sentries who were standing guard at the main entrance to Ashburne Castle snapped to strict Attention when their supreme ruler and the Mother of the People, Empress Bronwyn, stepped outside into the bright spring sunshine with her consort in tow.

As was nearly always the case, the street in front of the main entrance was bustling with activity. Scores of individuals and families had decided to take full advantage of the warm spring weather by visiting the traders who had arrived at the market place for the first time since the terrible winter that had paralyzed all of Dinnigon had relinquished its grip on the territory.

Some of the passers-by nodded, bowed or curtseyed at the Empress and her consort, but most were too excited by the sounds and smells that rose from the market place to notice the two women at the main entrance.

In the distance, the elaborate cries from hawkers tempting visitors to come to their stalls mixed with the sounds of donkeys braying, cows mooing and horses whinnying. The many animals produced a rather strong smell, but even so, it was matched quite evenly by the characteristic scents that came from the spice traders and the columns of smoke that rose from the open-air barbecues where the local butchers had joined forces with the taverns to promote their skills and products.

Bronwyn exhaled with a puff simply to take a deep, deep sniff of the spring air. Putting her hands out to her sides as if she wanted to pull the entire world into an embrace, the ruler of all the lands surrounding the castle inhaled so deeply it appeared she didn't want to leave any air for anyone else.

"Ahhhhh, the glorious spring has at last graced us with its presence," Bronwyn breathed once she had tasted all the different scents the air had provided for her. The twenty-five year old with the long, dark hair and the eyes the color of the summer sky was dressed in a breezy, yellowish gown with a neckline that wasn't too revealing, elbow-length sleeves, and a narrow, braided leather belt that held her coin pouch around her waist. Ankle boots, and two tassels hanging from the belt came halfway down her right thigh to complete the ensemble.

Behind her, the honey-blonde Huntress Caid Barlin was attired like she always was in a suede uniform over a white, low v-neck tunic that she had tucked into her ankle pants. She scanned their surroundings with her sharp, husky green eyes and came to the conclusion that they would be all right. As always, she carried a blade to protect the Empress in case of trouble, but instead of having the fierce, razor-sharp Yonnae machete in a scabbard on her back, she had chosen to bring a short sword that she had in a sheath on a special belt. The metal glinted dangerously in the spring sunshine, warning everyone around them to stay away or suffer the consequences.

Bronwyn clapped her hands excitedly as she spun back to her partner of nearly nine moons. "Oh, sweet Caid, I cannot tell you how excited I am! Oh, is this not the most glorious spring morn you can remember? And with the traders here for the first time since the wretched winter released its choke-hold on us, I fear it simply cannot get any better! Come, Caid... come, let us walk to the market place!" she said and took Caid's left hand in her right.

Caid chuckled at her partner's boundless enthusiasm. She had long since learned that when Bronwyn was in such a mood, it was best to simply nod and smile. "Lead on, my love," she said in her characteristic rich voice, remembering to add a smile and a little wink. "Oh, and I actually can tell how excited you are. I fear it's fairly obvious with your shiny eyes and the red blotches on your cheeks..."

Bronwyn snickered and swung their entwined hands back and forth as they joined the citizens walking to the market place. Behind them, their sole entourage, the seventeen-year old handmaiden Carrae, hurried after the two older women while pulling up in her dark brown, coarse frock so she wouldn't trip on it.

On their way, Bronwyn and Caid nodded greetings to the people they met. Some of the older citizens were still astounded to see their Empress walking so freely among the commoners - something her father, the feared Jin-Sarnos the Twelfth, would never have done even at swordpoint - but the younger residents of the walled city of Ashburne had already come to take it for granted.

"Sweet Caid, what do you wish to look at first on this magnificent morn?" Bronwyn said, swinging their hands back and forth. Before the Huntress could even open her mouth to reply, Bronwyn had already moved on. "Perhaps we shall visit the silversmith and find a little gift for my old friend Tawna? Her birthday is coming up shortly. I do not think we need anything for ourselves, do we? I believe we have all we need... though if we find an exquisite piece of silverware, I suppose we could buy it simply to support the smith. What do you say, sweet Caid?"

"Do we really need another piece of silverware?" Caid said, glancing around at the many people near them. Although there had been no recent threats to the Empress' life, Caid knew from speaking regularly to the Commander of the City Watch, Kallirna Tarsi, that even after six moons on the throne, some still opposed her reign enough to risk their own lives to end hers.

"Need it? No... I suppose we do not," Bronwyn said with a little shrug. "Ah, but visiting the first day of the spring market is a tradition that cannot and should not be broken!"


They finally reached the market place and walked into the beehive of activity. Two full trader convoys had put up their stalls, and the cacophony of sights, sounds and smells that hit Bronwyn and Caid as they stood at the entrance to the city square was enough to bowl over even the strongest of warriors - but Bronwyn only grew even more excited.

The countless booths and stalls had been laid out in an intricate maze of aisles where the only purpose was to make sure the attention of the visitors was captured as they strolled past. As always, the aisles were held in themes, with livestock and other farmland produce up front, then basket weavers, leather craftsmen, tailors, seamstresses, wholesale fabrics and dye, cobblers and shoemakers, barrel makers, a master cabinetmaker with several skilled assistants who made furniture to order while the visitors waited, pewterers, marble and stonemasons, traders in exotic gemstones, silversmiths, goldsmiths, and finally several spice traders from the southern province who all had numerous piles of spices lined up in increasing hotness in front of their stalls.

At the back, near the first row of buildings lining the square, an entire aisle had been dedicated to the local taverns who were working together with Ashburne's butchers and brewers to sell meat pies, lamb and pork chops, chopped meat for stew, sausages of every kind, and all types of brandies and ales that came in tastes ranging from "smooth like your wife's creamy breasts" to "a single swig can fell an oak tree!" - at least, that's what the criers proclaimed.

Inevitably, the visitors to the market were divided into two roughly equal groups, with the wives and daughters staying at the stalls selling items for the household, and the husbands and sons frequenting the tavern aisle at the back.

Bronwyn's eyes bugged out on stalks as she tried to take in all the sights. She fluttered from one stall to the next, chatting with the traders and marveling at the quality of their craftsmanship.

Caid kept up her vigilance while Bronwyn focused on the stalls. She knew the criers and the regular traders wouldn't be the only ones there who would try to draw money from the visitors. The market days had always attracted pickpockets, scam artists and assorted other people of dubious nature, and the Huntress had already seen more than one supposed orphan - some of them in their late teens - who hobbled around the market on bare feet and in tattered clothes while begging for a Crown or two though they were in reality more affluent than the people they scammed out of their hard-earned coins.

"Oy!" a familiar voice suddenly yelled from somewhere in the throng of people who shuffled around in front of the stalls. "Oy! Huntress! Ovah here!"

Caid stood up on tip-toes to see better, but she was only able to get a look at the backs of the people nearest to her. Growling, she turned back to Bronwyn and put a hand on the taller woman's elbow. "Bronwyn, I need your superior height... can you tear yourself away from the basket weaver for a moment?"

Bronwyn waved at the elderly man behind the counter before she turned around holding a woven garland of reeds covered in a pale green fabric. "Oh, I do beg for forgiveness, sweet Caid... you were saying?" she said as she put the hat-like garland on her dark locks and made sure it sat comfortably.

Caid stared at the colorful headwear with a smirk, but she soon snapped out of it and turned back to the throng. "I believe Kheo Khammon is out there somewhere. I heard his voice quite clearly, but I'm unable to see him..."

"Why, Caid, he is right there!" Bronwyn said and reached up to wave at their old friend. "Greetings, Sir Kheo! Enchanted to see you. We would be honored if you and your charming wife would join us!" she cried, waving the two people over to them.

Kheo Khammon, the large man with the bald head and the foot-long beard, strode through the crowd proudly presenting his new wife on his arm and his new uniform on his back. Instead of the drab, utilitarian fatigues Kheo had been prone to wearing as Sergeant Major, his new rank of Grand Marshal of the Imperial Artillery saw him wearing a dark red outfit consisting of straight cut ankle pants and a loose-fitting v-neck tunic that left plenty of room for his bulging shoulders and arms. The tunic had an integrated leather belt, but the belt buckle strained to keep in the large man's girth. Two golden epaulets draped the shoulders of his tunic, a color scheme that was matched by the sheath holding the sword he carried down his right thigh.

For the uninitiated, Kheo looked as hulking as ever, but for his wife and his close friends, his somewhat stilted way of moving proved that he was still marked by the wound he had received in the fierce battle against the amphibious monster far north, near the village of Abryloch in the Natfarann Forest.

Smiling, the Grand Marshal went into a deep bow that was matched by his wife's curtsey. "Empress Bronwyn, yer lookin' mi'ty fine this glorious morn," he said while he studied the tips of his boots.

"Thank you, Sir Kheo. You may rise," Bronwyn said and held up her hands palms-up. "You too, Lady Anna-Liese. Oh, you look so beautiful this morn. Goodness me, that is such an exquisite gown."

The cheeks of the thirty-three year old Anna-Liese Khammon - née Yensen - blushed red as she smoothed down her neutral, gray gown with her hands. The woman who had worked as a barmaid in the establishment known as the Hen's Teeth up in the northern district of Ashburne was a full-bodied brunette with hazel eyes and pretty features. Three fingers were missing on her left hand, the result of them having been crushed in a brawl that had gone so far out of control the Hen's Teeth had nearly been demolished.

"Thank you, Empress Bronwyn," she said softly in a voice that still held a hint of the accent spoken in the southern province though it had been a decade since she had been there last. Smiling, she held her mangled left hand to her stomach and looked down. "We have just come from the healer's. I have not had my period lately, and he confirmed what I already suspected. That I am with child."

"Oh! Oh, congratulations, Lady Anna-Liese," Bronwyn cried and pressed her hands to her bosom. "How miraculous at such an advanced age... truly, you have been blessed by Marpaxa."

"Eh," Kheo said with a grin, "Marpaxa didden have that much ta do with it... I mean, she may ha' been there an' stuff, but I had a hand in it as well..."

Caid chuckled and reached out to slap her old friend's arm. "A hand, Kheo?"

"Oy, let's not get too detailed in front o' the Empress, there, Caid..." the big man said and began to blush. "But ain't it great? I mean, gettin' married ta such a ba-yutiful woman an' becomin' a dad ta boot... an' a couple-a moons ago, I thought I wus a goner fer sure."

Bronwyn smiled and reached out to pull the slightly heavy-set Anna-Liese into a tender hug. "Sir Kheo, I am sure this will offset your disappointment of not being able to remain in active duty, will it not?"

"Yeah, somewhat... yeah. Hey, friends, ya know that feelin' when ya lyin' in bed at night and yer entire world is awright jus' because ya got someone next to ya ta hold? That's where I am right now. Gettin' married wus the best thing I ever done in my life... love ya, honey-girl," Kheo said and underlined his words by kissing his wife's cheek and pulling her into a sideways crush.

"Love you too, bad boy," Anna-Liese said with a husky chuckle as she reached up and reciprocated the sweet touch.

Caid and Bronwyn looked at each other with identical, beaming smiles on their faces. "We know that feeling well, Sir Kheo," Bronwyn said, squeezing Caid's hands.

"Yeah, I thought ya might. Say, how 'bout ya comin' with us over ta the sausage-maker's? He's got this here newfangled thing where he puts a cooked sausage down in a bun that's been sliced open an' then puts onions an' stuff on it. Looks funny but it smells really good. I've been wantin' ta try one but he's hawkin' it fer five Crowns a pop an' that's a li'l on the pricey side if ya ask me," Kheo said and pointed over his shoulder at the aisle with the barbecues.

"Oh," Bronwyn said and hooked her arm inside Caid's. "I fear that Caid and I have other business to attend to, Sir Kheo. Perhaps another time?"

"Yup," Kheo said and performed a bow. Smiling, he mirrored his friends by hooking his arm inside Anna-Liese's. "C'mon, honey-girl. I hear a sausage callin' my name."

"It was a pleasure meeting you again, Lady Anna-Liese!" Bronwyn said loudly to the former barmaid as she was dragged back into the throng of people. "Oh, the Lady is such a nice woman, do you not think so, Caid? She will be a good mother."

Caid nodded and began to shuffle away from the basket weaver and towards a stall where a leather craftsman was working hard on braiding a belt. "She will be. And I can just imagine Kheo up to his knees in dirty diapers."

"Oh! But can his meaty paws even handle something as small and delicate as a newborn? I am thinking that with Lady Anna-Liese's hand, she may not be able to do as much with their child as she would like to do..."

"Have no fear, Empress Bronwyn," Caid said with a wistful smile. "Kheo can be a very tender man when he wants to be."

"Oh? Dare I ask how you know?" Bronwyn said and bumped shoulders with Caid.

"Back in the war, he once carried me in his arms from a forward trebuchet base that had come under enemy fire. Though I had been injured by shrapnel, I was painfully awake... and yet, I hardly felt a thing of his touch."

Bronwyn gulped nervously and sought out Caid's hand. "I knew I should not have asked..."

The leather craftsman beckoned, and Bronwyn pulled herself and Caid to a halt in front of the stall. As the familiar smell of leather wafted through the air and into their nostrils, her eyes immediately locked onto some of the goods on display.

It seemed the skilled leather worker had specialized in braiding as he had belts, bracelets and even headbands of all types lined up according to size. A pair of bracelets in particular caught the Empress' eye, and she picked one up and tried it on for size - it was a perfect fit. "Look, sweet Caid... is this not a magnificent bracelet?" she said, proudly displaying the leatherware on her arm.

"Yes, it's quite nice," Caid said, glancing casually at the braided leather.

"Indeed it is. I think I shall buy my first items of the day," Bronwyn said and sought out another bracelet just like the one she had already tried on. When she had found a really nice example, she turned to the craftsman and offered him her most winning smile. "My good man, how much for these two bracelets?"

The apron-clad craftsman - who was bearded, sweaty, and roughly a foot shorter than the tall, regal Empress - put away the belt he had been working on and stepped up to the counter. "For you, Milady, eighteen Crowns for the pair," he said in the typical southern accent as he found the small, metal box he used for a cash register.

"Rip-off," Caid said out of the corner of her mouth, but Bronwyn just winked at her.

Bronwyn turned back to the craftsman who seemed weak, red-eyed and a little unstable on his feet. She thought about using it to her advantage, but decided against it. "How about... fourteen Crowns?"

"Oh, no, no, no," the craftsman said and put up his hands in the age-old sign of 'you gotta be kiddin' me.' - "Lady, I got a wife and seven children back home down south... they're all cryin' for food and if I don't come home with a full box of money, my wife is gonna walk out on me... how about sixteen Crowns?"

Bronwyn smiled broadly and put her hand on her coin pouch. "Sixteen Crowns? Well, I certainly would not want any children to go without food. You have a deal, my good man," she said and scooped up the coins needed.

Grinning broadly, the craftsman poured the coins into the cash register and put the two bracelets into a small pouch that he handed to Bronwyn. "You won't be disappointed, Milady. They're of the highest quality. Just remember to tell your friends where you bought 'em... Carlo's Leather Goods. Yes?"

"I certainly shall. Thank you," Bronwyn said with a smile before she hooked her arm inside Caid's and continued on further into the market.

"Rip-off!" Caid said again, looking at the pouch. "Worth twelve Crowns at the most! And what a sob story... he-"

"Hush, sweet Caid. Now is not the time for cynicism. I got what I wanted, as did he."

"I beg for forgiveness, my Empress," Caid said with a brief nod.

Bronwyn chuckled and made sure to cast a suitably stern look down at her partner - a look that lasted for all of three heartbeats. "You are forgiven. Oh, where did Carrae go off to now? I declare, that girl gets lost more often than even I ever have... and that says a lot," she said and began to look around for the maid.

"I am here, Mistress!" the handmaiden said from somewhere behind them.

"Come along, Carrae, we have places to visit. Oh look, a beverage vendor! Come, let us see if he has any of the wonderful sweetberry juice..."

Commotion of a different, more tumultuous kind made the three women turn around and look back at one of the other aisles where a group of spectators had formed a circle and were looking at something on the ground near a stall. Someone started calling for a healer, and two men ran off to find one when the call was drowned out by the general din of the market.

"Goodness me, Caid, do you think someone has had too much to drink already? Why, noon shall not grace us with its presence for several turns of the hourglass!" Bronwyn said and stood up on tip-toes to see better.

Caid narrowed her eyes and began to chew on her cheek. "I cannot say, Empress. From the looks of it, the others appear too agitated for a mere drunkard."

"True... then what?"

"I cannot say, Empress Bronwyn. Please, remain here in this aisle while I-"

"Oh no, Huntress!" Bronwyn said and stomped off towards the hubbub. "These are my citizens. I need to be present in case there truly is an emergency."

Caid chuckled as she watched the purposeful stride of the Empress as she walked away from Carlo's Leather Goods. Her eyes fell naturally on the gently swaying hips, the shapely, endless legs and the elegant torso that seemed to glide through the throng. Chuckling again, she set off after her partner.


By the time they and Carrae had pushed their way through the crowd, it was nearly too late. The agitation had been caused by one of the traders - a stonemason - who had collapsed near his stall, but a healer had reached him soon after and had begun to administer first aid.

While Bronwyn and Carrae knelt down and offered quiet, soothing words to the sickly man, Caid moved over to a soldier from the City Watch who had been summoned to deal with the mess. On her way there, she overheard the spectators mumbling about the ill man spasming and coughing up blood, and generally looking so poorly they thought he would die on the spot.

"Corporal," Caid said, saluting the gray-clad soldier from the Watch, "looks like this was merely a man falling ill. No foul play involved. However, I have seen several phony beggars here that I know are scam artists. Let's stress them so they won't get too close to the well-off ladies and gentlemen."

"My men and I shall do that, Huntress," the Corporal said and saluted again before he disappeared into the crowd.

Out of nowhere, a haggard-looking man in a tattered peasant frock jumped towards the throng of people standing at the ill trader. "The end is nigh! The end is nigh!" he shouted at the top of his lungs while his arms and legs jerked around to such a degree he appeared to be a puppet on a string manipulated by an unseen hand. "The end is nigh and we's all gonna perish under the black sun!" he cried, spooking most of the people into shying away from him.

When he reached down towards Bronwyn while laughing hysterically, Caid intercepted him in two heartbeats flat and dragged his sorry figure far away from the others. Up close, the unshaven, haggard man reeked of ale, brandy and age-old sweat, and Caid had to crinkle her nose simply to breathe in his vicinity.

The corporal from the City Watch was soon at her side and swiftly apprehended the man for disturbing the peace and for being aggressively drunk in public.

Caid grunted and dusted off her hands as she walked back to the waiting Bronwyn. "My Empress, you needn't be afeared of that strange character. He cannot harm you now," she said, reaching out for her partner.

Bronwyn nodded somberly and stood up from where she and Carrae had been comforting the ill man. "Thank you, sweet Caid," she said and pulled herself into a hug. "Alas, the healer was unable to do anything for the trader. I fear he succumbed to the illness and drew his last wheezing breath not long after you had left with that strange man. I only hope my quiet prayers to Marpaxa helped him find his way into her warm embrace."

"I'm sure they did, my love," Caid said and returned the squeeze.

"The leather craftsman looked poorly as well, did you notice that? Perhaps they traveled together in the same trader convoy..."

"I cannot say, Empress," Caid said with a smile. "Come, there's nothing more we can do here. Have the events soured your mood, or...?"

Bronwyn smiled back and swept a few loose strands of hair off her shoulders. She suddenly noticed some blood had been smeared onto her right thumb and index finger. Furrowing her brow, she wondered where it came from while she looked around for something to wipe it off with. "Oh, no. Alas, the arrival of Death was the furthest from my mind when I woke up this morn, but the man had clearly been ill. Such is life. For us, we still have many stalls to visit. We need to see one of the spice traders for an idea I have for our bedchamber, and I would also like to try the new sausage-in-a-bun dish Kheo mentioned earlier. And we cannot go to a market without having a mug of sweet ale. Oh... would you happen to have a handkerchief? I seem to have soiled my fingers..."

"Here, Bronwyn," Caid said and handed the Empress a hankie without noticing the blood.

"Thank you, sweet Caid. Carrae? Carrae? Oh, where did she-"

"Yes, Mistress?" the handmaiden said, hurrying up to stand in front of the Empress.

"Carrae, I would like you to stay here and observe where they put the body of the departed trader. Once you know, come back to the castle and tell Mistress Tawna so we can make sure he receives a proper burial. He might not have enough money with him to cover the expenses."

"Yes, Mistress," Carrae said with a deep curtsey before she moved back to the throng of people they had just left behind.

As the market place slowly returned to its usual cacophony of colorful sights, loud sounds and strong smells following the tragic event, Caid and Bronwyn strolled hand in hand through the aisles to get to the sausage-maker at the back row.


Several turns of the hourglass later, Bronwyn and Caid strolled back up the busy street towards the castle. They were tired and dusty, and their senses were loaded beyond capacity with the multitude of impressions they had been exposed to - on top of that, their bellies were full from sampling the food found at the many tavern stalls, and Bronwyn's coin pouch was empty from the many items she had bought.

Caid carried the items so Bronwyn wouldn't have to strain her arms. The small pouch containing the leather bracelets had been joined by five other pouches and bags holding such varied items as a glass bowl with a silver lid meant to hold exotic spices, an empty picture frame crafted from the finest wood, a pair of silver charms for Tawna's birthday, a slender parchment cutter carved from a single piece of bone, and finally a fifty Crown gift certificate issued by a local seamstress that Bronwyn intended to give to Kheo and Anna-Liese so they could buy all the baby clothes and diapers they needed - Anna-Liese's mangled hand meant she would never be able to hold onto a pair of knitting needles.

The smile plastered onto the Empress' expressive face offered a hint that she'd had a wonderful time, and the way she swung Caid's hand back and forth proved it. Soon, they turned left and nodded a quick greeting to the two sentries who guarded the main entrance.

Inside Ashburne Castle, life had gone on as always. The base of the grand staircase that ran all the way up the castle keep was bustling with activity like it always was. Even before Bronwyn and Caid had made it a single storey up, they had already greeted nearly half a dozen maids, servants and soldiers.

Bronwyn was about to head down the corridor that would take her to the double doors at the dining hall when she noticed a young maid leaning against the wall looking poorly a short distance away. The maid was pregnant, and it suddenly struck Bronwyn that it was Mynere, the best friend of her personal handmaiden Carrae. A pile of laundry was lying at the pregnant maid's feet, and by the disheveled state of it, it looked like she had dropped it acutely.

Slowing down, Bronwyn kept looking at the young maid. She expected some of the older staffers to tend to her, but none did. Grunting, the Empress turned sharp left and strode down the connecting corridor.

Caid had already gone onto the double doors, but when she realized her Empress wasn't with her, she spun around and hurried back to the grand staircase to see what had happened. It didn't take her long to discover the cause of the detour, but the many items she carried made it cumbersome for her to help. Grunting, she turned back to the dining hall to store her voluminous load in a safe place.

Bronwyn approached the pregnant maid carefully so she wouldn't be frightened. The chilly, damp and semi-dark corridor with the burning torches that flickered merrily even in the daytime wasn't the most hospitable place to be for a pregnant woman, much less one who seemed to be ill.

"Mynere?" Bronwyn said quietly, reaching out ahead of her. "Mynere, are you poorly?"

The young maid gulped audibly and pushed herself off the corridor wall at the sight of her Mistress. She looked down with several red blotches tainting her unusually pale cheeks and throat. Her dark brown hair was damp and stuck to her forehead like she had been out in the rain. Her belly was noticeably too large for the frock she was wearing, and the coarse material was stretched dangerously at her center. "Oh... Mistress Bronwyn... I merely became a little woozy from a coughing fit. I thank you, but I shall be-"

"You shall rest is what you shall do," Bronwyn said and reached down for the pile of laundry Mynere had dropped. "Come, child, let me help you down to your chamber," she said and took hold of the teenager's elbow.

"I c- cannot, Mistress... I have chores..."

"Do not argue with me, child. When I say you need rest, you need rest," Bronwyn said harshly, helping the young woman along the corridor. "Who is your immediate superior?"

"Matron Sharona, Mistress."

"I do believe I shall have a quiet word with Matron Sharona. Ah, Caid, there you are," Bronwyn said to the Huntress who had finally caught up with them. "Mynere is poorly. Please walk with us as I escort the young lady down to her chamber."

Caid nodded after taking a long look at the red blotches on Mynere's cheeks. "Certainly, Empress Bronwyn. Here, let me take the laundry so you can use both hands to help the maid," she said and reached for the pile that was just too big to hold with one hand.

"Thank you, sweet Caid. Mynere, just let me know if we are going too fast."

"I shall, Mistress. I can manage," the young maid said and coughed into her hand.

"Excellent. How far along are you?"

"Near the end of the second trimester, Mistress," Mynere said with a hand pressed to her belly. "Until very recently, I have not had any problems beyond what everyone faces. This past week, I have... I have been coughing a great deal. I have also been sick in the morns. Some of the older women tell me it's unusual."

Bronwyn grimaced and looked back at Caid. "Alas, I cannot add anything that can shed light upon your condition, Mynere. I fear my knowledge of the cycles of pregnancy is non-existent. Caid?"

"You shouldn't look in my direction seeking guidance, Empress Bronwyn," the Huntress said with a dark chuckle. "My skills only extend to knowing when a woman is pregnant by eyeing her belly."

At long last, they reached the door that led out of the corridor and into the servant's quarters. It wasn't long before a few of the other young maids took over and helped Mynere to her chamber.

Dusting off her hands, Bronwyn stood up to her full height and looked at the many young faces that surrounded her. "Can anyone tell me where I can find Matron Sharona?" she said in a voice that left no room for misinterpretation when it came to her intentions.

When none of the young maids or junior manservants seemed to know, Bronwyn nodded briefly and turned back to the corridor with Caid in tow.


Upstairs in the dining hall, Bronwyn strode across the marble floor that still bore the scars of the battle that had taken place between the soldiers loyal to Jin-Sarnos and those who had wanted to overthrow him.

The warm spring sunshine shone through the stained glass panes high above the floor and sent multi-colored rays down into the room. Among the items illuminated by the rays were the brand new, twelve-branched cast iron candlesticks that stood in each corner of the hall - the grander and far cheaper replacements for the fabled gold candlesticks that had been destroyed in the melee.

The massive horseshoe-shaped table at the center of the dining hall was being dressed for lunch by several maids who all came to a stop to curtsey at their Mistress.

Bronwyn acknowledged them by briefly waving her hand on her way over to the chamber belonging to the Mistress of the Robes, her old friend and former senior handmaiden Tawna. After nodding to the sentry outside the chamber, she knocked on the sturdy door and waited for it to be opened by Luna, another of the young maids.

The young woman hurriedly went down into a deep curtsey when she saw the identity of the person knocking. "Mistress Bronwyn," she said and shuffled to the side to make room for the Empress.

"Thank you, Luna. My dear Tawna, I fear we have a problem," Bronwyn said and closed the door herself without waiting for the maid.

Caid watched her partner stride into Tawna's chamber and close the door behind her. Chuckling, she shuffled over to the part of the table where she had put down the pouches and bags with the items they had bought at the market. While she waited, she said a few good morns to those of the maids who hadn't been there at breakfast. A sudden notion entered her mind and she pushed herself off the table to go over to the anteroom beyond the dining hall.

Moments later, Empress Bronwyn and Tawna came out of the chamber with their heads together. The Mistress of the Robes was dressed in a forest green three-layered gown with golden puff-cuffs and a narrow band of embroidery matching the cuffs around the tasteful neckline. She had her graying hair in a extravagant 'do that left her forehead bare, and - like the Empress - she had a narrow belt around her slender waist from where a golden tassel dangled down her right thigh.

The Mistress nodded once, then twice before she curtseyed and took off in a hurry to find Matron Sharona.

Bronwyn scrunched up her face at the curious absence of Caid Barlin, but before she had time to reflect on the odd fact that everyone seemed to go missing around her, Caid came back from the anteroom to the kitchen carrying a jug that appeared to be filled to the brim. Smiling, Bronwyn strode over to her partner to ease her burden.

"There you are, sweet Caid," Bronwyn said as she looked into the jug. "I was afeared you had grown tired of waiting for me and had run off to do Marpaxa knows what. Goodness me, that jug looks heavy... if that is brandy, there is enough to knock out an entire company of men!"

"Rest assured, Bronwyn, it isn't brandy but the very last bottling of the fine wine you enjoyed so dearly last autumn," Caid said and sniffed the contents of the jug just to make sure.

"Oh! Oh, I certainly remember that, sweet Caid. My my, is there a deeper meaning behind you snatching Harsomme's wine? Are you sure the temperamental cook will not disagree with you making arrangements without his knowledge?" Bronwyn said and moved in close so she could wrap an arm around Caid's waist.

"Ah, there is deeper meaning, yes... this eve will be our last shared one for a while. I believe someone scribbled their name on the orders that sends quite a few of the armed forces on spring maneuvers earle in the morrow."

"Alas... that would be I. Drat and double drat, I had so nearly forgotten," Bronwyn said and put the back of a hand across her forehead for effect. "My sweet Caid, were you planning to use all that wine to get me loose and uninhibited so you can have your way with me before you leave? If so, I shall tell you quite forcefully that you could have saved stealing the wine, for I..." - Bronwyn looked around to make sure nobody was close enough to listen - "for I shall welcome you near me, on me, around me... need I go on?"

The last words were delivered directly into Caid's ear in a smooth whisper that was quickly followed by a tender kiss on the temple.

"Actually, my Empress, I had planned to share but a single glass and make it an early eve..."

"Oh... in that case, I shall make a sinner of you yet!" Bronwyn said with a snicker.

Caid chuckled and moved over to the horseshoe-shaped table where she had left the pouches and bags.

To save her partner's strength for the really important matters later on in the afternoon and eve, Bronwyn quickly scooped up the items they had bought before they strolled towards the Imperial bedchamber and the two sentries who were stationed there permanently.

"Ah, but my sweet Empress Bronwyn, how can it be a sin to make love to you when it always feels so glorious?" Caid said with a wide grin and a cheeky sparkle in her husky green eyes.

The delicate subject became too much for Bronwyn to bear, and she began to blush. Ducking her head, she snickered into her hand and allowed Caid to lead her over to the door.


Later, Bronwyn came back into the bedchamber and closed the door herself since Carrae had yet to return from the market. She decided to turn the massive brass key to lock it in the hope that she and the Huntress would become intimate.

Once everything was secure, she leaned against the inside of the sturdy door with a deep sigh. She began to roll her shoulders and massage her temples, but her mood improved dramatically when she spotted Caid Barlin lounging on the four-post canopy bed in what could only be described as a flimsy sleeping gown that left her toned legs deliciously bare.

The Huntress was holding a goblet, but she soon put it down on the bedside table and got up. "You look upset, sweet Bronwyn...? Come, give me your hand and I shall do my best to make you relax," she said and reached out.

"Alas, I had to have a rather stern conversation with Matron Sharona," Bronwyn said and accepted Caid's hands. "She and I do not see eye to eye when it comes to dealing with the staff. I know that Tawna has told her time and time again that our maids and servants are no longer to be treated as cattle, but Matron Sharona simply ignores our pleas."

"Perhaps it's time to stop pleading with her and simply tell her what to do?" Caid said and pulled Bronwyn down for a kiss - the first of many.

Once they separated, Bronwyn took the opportunity to nibble at Caid's lips that tasted of the wine she had enjoyed. "Perhaps so," she husked, "but Sharona is the senior Matron. If I put her in her place or even removed her from office, it would appear like we are still following the old system."

"Sometimes, my Empress, you have to rule with a clenched fist, not an open palm."

"Alas, I cannot, sweet Caid," Bronwyn said and sat down on her side of the bed. Caid came over to stand in front of her so they were close enough to kiss if the mood fell over them. "I am not my father. I cannot rule with a clenched fist. It would be the road to ruin for us all if I did that. Ack, I wish not to dampen our mood... kiss me, Caid. Please."

Grinning, Caid leaned down to do the bidding of her Mistress. Swooping in, she claimed Bronwyn's lips in a kiss that began light but ended up heavy. Flushed and panting, she pulled back but suddenly realized her buttocks were held in a firm grip by a pair of delicate, Imperial hands. "Oh my! Where did those hands come from?" she said with a husky snicker.

"I cannot possibly say without incriminating myself!" Bronwyn said with a matching snicker.

They looked lovingly at each other for a few seconds before Bronwyn stood up and tugged at her gown. "Sweet Caid, will you help me shed a few layers? I fear I am grossly overdressed for such an intimate occasion..."

"But of course, my love," Caid said and helped Bronwyn lift the gown over her head. Soon, the long limbs and shapely torso of the Empress came into view, as did the two strips of cloth wrapped around her breasts and her hips. The tan garments stood out in stark contrast to the silky, creamy skin, and the Huntress could hardly wait to liberate all of Bronwyn's hidden treasures.

She immediately began to fumble with the bone hooks on the back of Bronwyn's top, but the Empress stilled the frantic hands. Taking off the gown had ruined her elaborate hairdo, but she solved it by shaking her head a couple of times to unleash the true force of her dark locks - and judging by the wolfish grin on Caid's lips, it had worked.

"Before we shall become lost in each other's arms, sweet Caid, I would like you to pour me a goblet of wine... and to go into Carrae's chamber to fetch a wash bowl and some fresh water. As you recall, I did not have the patience this morn to cleanse myself properly... and I fear the warm, dusty visit to the market has only exacerbated my unclean condition."

"Oh, but surely not, Empress Bronwyn? To me, you smell as fresh and inviting as you always do," Caid said and cocked her head.

"Indeed I do need water upon my body. I was wondering if you would treat me to an... oh, shall we call it a sponge bath, sweet Caid?"

"I would indeed, sweet Bronwyn," Caid said with a grin that became wider and wider.


A turn and a half of the hourglass later, the effects of the sponge bath had been thoroughly negated as Caid and Bronwyn lay naked in each other's arms on the four-post bed, flushed and panting, yet beaming from the glorious love they had made.

"Ohhhh," Bronwyn breathed, snuggling down into the strong arms of her compact lover. "I thank you... I thank you dearly. Yet again, you have proved to be the most tender, most wonderful, most delightful, most-"

"That's a lot of mosts right there, love," Caid said with a husky snicker. Reaching over, she ran her fingers through her lover's damp hair and swept the dark locks away from the blue eyes that were slowly slipping shut.

"But every word is true! Oh Caid, I fear I have reached a point where I simply cannot live without you. Is that not frightening? I do love you so..."

"And I love you, Bronwyn," Caid said and shuffled over onto her right side so she was face to face with her partner. "Yet, such a strong love should not be called frightening... life-affirming is the word I would use."

"And such a charming word it is, too," Bronwyn said and pulled Caid close. When the closeness still wasn't enough, she wrapped her free arm and leg around the body of the compact woman and pulled her so close they appeared to be glued together. "I have you now. From this iron grip, thou shalt never escape," she said in a mock growl. After sticking out her tongue, she lowered her head down onto the pillow to soak in the power of the strong body in her arms.

"Good thing escape is the furthest from my mind," Caid husked as she dove in to shower Bronwyn's throat in kisses. When that part was well-loved, she slipped through the Empress' arms and slid down the long torso on a direct course for the mounds and the erect peaks she knew she would find there.

Once again, Bronwyn's senses were assaulted by the sweet sensations that shot up from her chest as Caid's tongue did its best to mirror its owner by being decisive yet tender at the same time. A lustful sigh that escaped Bronwyn's slightly parted lips was merely the first of many, and soon, she was too busy being loved to notice anything.


Even the sweetest love-making session had to come to an end, and Caid and Bronwyn eventually helped cleanse each other again before they slipped into their proper garments so they could continue the day wearing the attire befitting the Empress and the commanding officer of all Ranger battalions.

Once they were dressed, they hugged each other tenderly and began to rock back and forth in the middle of the bedchamber. "Ohhh," Bronwyn breathed, caressing Caid's cheekbone with her thumb while she gazed deeply into the smiling, husky green eyes. "I shall count the turns of the hourglass until you return, my sweet, sweet lover. Why I ever signed the orders for those wretched maneuvers, I shall never know. Alas, I did, and now you must leave me."

"It's only for a short week, my love. And besides, we still have a few turns of the hourglass left before I need to go to the garrison."

"Yes, but our bed shall remain empty this eve, for surely I will not be able to sleep for a moment without you by my side."

"Bronwyn," Caid said and reached up to place a simple kiss on the Empress' lips, "I doubt your eve shall be quite that troublesome. You'll be snoring merrily in no time."

"Perhaps so," Bronwyn said and reciprocated the sweet contact. "Oh! Oh, we so nearly forgot... we never stopped to view the items we bought at the market! Silly me, I do not know where my head is sometimes," she continued, moving over to the sideboard to take the many pouches and bags.

"I certainly know where your head has been," Caid said with a broad smirk.

Bronwyn was too busy unpacking their new acquisitions to hear the saucy comment. She quickly opened the small pouch that held the leather bracelets and took both out. After securing one to her own wrist, she held the other one up, signaling Caid she should put out her hand.

The Huntress did so with a puzzled frown on her face. "What's this, Bronwyn? I thought you bought them for yourself?"

"I did not, sweet Caid. One is for me, the other is for you. Here, let me slip it over your fist... yes, like that. Oh, how beautiful," Bronwyn said and admired the braided leather bracelet around Caid's strong right wrist. "Call it a fidelity charm. I declare we shall be wearing these while we are apart. Upon looking at them, we shall remember the loved one who is waiting impatiently to once again reconnect the way only lovers can."

Bronwyn took a step back and held the two bracelets up against each other. Beaming with pride and love, she hurriedly closed the distance between herself and Caid to offer the Huntress a little kiss.

"Alas, Empress Bronwyn, the uniform code is quite strict," Caid said and touched the high quality leather. "I fear the men and women of your armed forces aren't allowed to wear personal items with their uniform."

"Oh, Sweet Marpaxa! What wretched, evil mind has cooked up such a misanthropic dress code?! Oh, this reeks of my father!" Bronwyn said and pressed her hands to her bosom.

"Ah... I fear it's your signature on the dotted line, my love."


Chuckling, Caid nodded a couple of times. "I fear it is thus."

"Drat! I shall change that as soon as I find my scribe! Ack! In the meantime, you have been given an Imperial blessing to wear this fidelity charm with your uniform. Please. It would make me so happy to see you wear it."

"Now, how can I say no to that?" Caid said and puckered up her lips, expecting to be kissed soundly.

Instead, Bronwyn went back to the sideboard and took the next item, the glass bowl with the silver lid that looked vaguely like a salt shaker. The exotic spices it contained were of many colors, and when the Empress shook the jar, a delicious fragrance wafted out of the holes that peppered the silver lid - and moments later, her eyes crossed and an explosive sneeze burst forth from the Imperial nostrils. "Goodness me! I do beg for forgiveness!" she croaked, coughing and sniffing for all she was worth.

"Bless you, love. Here, you can use my hankie again," Caid said and produced the handkerchief Bronwyn had already borrowed once that day.

"I thank you, sweet Caid," Empress Bronwyn said and blew the trumpet.




Like Caid had predicted, Bronwyn had had no trouble sleeping even though only one side of the bed had been occupied. The images of she and Caid that had played vividly in her dreams had kept her happy and content throughout, and as she rolled onto her back, she did so with a wide, goofy grin on her face.

Smiling, she put her hands behind her head and closed her eyes in the hope she would be allowed a few more moments with her dream lover whose roaming hands were already caressing Bronwyn where it mattered most - but unfortunately, soft knocking on the door scuppered her plans.

"Enter!" she said as she pulled aside the quilt and swung her bare legs over the side of the four-post canopy bed.

Tawna, Luna and Carrae entered the bedchamber and curtseyed deeply to their Mistress. The Mistress of the Robes was dressed in a steel gray gown that swept elegantly around her hourglass figure. The maids wore dark brown frocks as usual.

"You may rise," Bronwyn said and scratched her hair that had become quite tousled from her sleep. She yawned and lowered her scratching to include her sides and across her tummy.

Rising, Tawna went over to the closet to pick out the gown of the day like she always did - similarly, Luna held the two bone combs and the small jar of scented ointment ready like always, and Carrae pushed a cart with a wash bowl like she had done every single day Bronwyn had been in power.

"I shall not require the wash bowl today, Carrae. The Huntress and I spent enough water yesterday to last me a week. Thank you," Bronwyn said and rose from the bed.

Carrae quickly curtseyed and pushed the wash cart through the other door and into the connecting hallway.

"Now, Tawna, what can you suggest for me today?" Bronwyn said and walked over to stand at the closet where her Mistress of the Robes had already found a gown. "No... on second thought... considering the activities of the day, I shall wear my hunting fatigues. Yes, I certainly shall! Tawna, find my ankle pants, please!"


The new spring day had dawned as warm as the previous one, but not quite as sunny. A thin layer of high clouds obscured the sun and diffused the rays that were sent down onto the dusty ground. A gentle breeze blew in from the west, but it wasn't enough to make people put their winter cloaks back on.

Bronwyn exited the western entrance of Ashburne Castle and stepped onto the gravelly courtyard inside the garrison. Pausing, she allowed Tawna, Carrae and Watch Commander Kallirna Tarsi to catch up. She rarely used that particular entrance for lack of business within the garrison, but it always struck her how drab and monochrome everything was there compared to the rest of the castle.

Beyond the vast drill ground, the seemingly endless rows of three-storey, wooden barracks used for the resident infantry and cavalry regiments were all held in shades of pale brown that made it nearly impossible for the uninitiated to tell the various blocks apart.

Down the other end of the courtyard, seventy or so horses were lined up near one of the blocks of barracks, though they were still unattended save for a few minders and the stable boys who hurried around the vast drill ground with shovels and rakes to scoop up the inevitable results of having so many horses in one place.

Bronwyn could hear commands being barked further into the garrison, and she thought she could recognize Kheo Khammon's voice, but she wasn't sure.

She was dressed for the occasion with long-legged brown boots, dark green wraparound ankle pants that were tucked into the bootlegs, a tan tunic with laces at the neck and the wraparound wrists, and finally a dark green, collar-less jerkin that swept exquisitely around her upper body. The ensemble was completed by a leather belt that accentuated her slender waist, and a green felt hat - with a feather - that she had set fashionably low over her left eye. On her right wrist, the braided leather bracelet sat proudly just beyond the cuff.

Behind her, Watch Commander Tarsi hurried out of the western entrance and came to an abrupt halt. The rugged man with the neatly groomed full beard and the gray uniform saluted his Empress before he bowed at her. "I beg for forgiveness, Empress Bronwyn. I was detained elsewhere."

"But you are here now, Commander. Come," Bronwyn said, pointing at the far side of the drill ground where a dais had been put up in the shade of a nearby tree, "shall we commence with the activities?"

"We shall, Empress Bronwyn," Tarsi said and offered the Empress his arm for protection.

Bronwyn only cast a brief glance at it before she set off on her own with Tawna and Carrae in tow. The three women and the Commander soon crossed the courtyard and took their places in the shade.

Before long, an elaborate bugle call heralded the start of the proceedings and Bronwyn felt a surge of excitement building up inside her. From speaking at length with Tawna about the day's busy schedule, she knew the first company of soldiers they were to see would be cadets from the Artillery who weren't going on the maneuvers.

She smiled broadly when she recognized Kheo's highly familiar shape marching towards her with a fifty-person strong company of the Imperial Artillery. The many feet kicked up the dust as they came closer, and the sound of their hobnailed boots echoed across the drill ground.

The company marched on until they reached the dais, then Kheo barked several commands that made them stop and turn to face the Empress. A sharp glare and one or two choice words made some of the juniors shuffle around until they all toed the line.

Even Bronwyn had to admit Kheo Khammon looked dashing in his new uniform, though his foot-long beard clashed with the dark red of his tunic. Smiling, she stepped off the dais and went over to Kheo who kept a perfectly straight face while he saluted her.

"Empress Bronwyn, I present the cadets of the First Artillery Training Company," the large man said in a voice that was surprisingly free of his regular broad accent - he had clearly worked hard to make his speech as neutral as possible.

"Very well, Grand Marshal Khammon. They certainly look like a fine troop of men and women. A training company, you say?"

"Indeed, Empress Bronwyn," Kheo continued, still trying hard to articulate every syllable to block out his accent. "The majority of the artillery units are still stationed at the forward bases. It's simply too cumbersome and ineffective to haul the trebuchets back and forth between here and wherever they're needed."

"But of course, Grand Marshal," Bronwyn said and strolled down the line of cadets. Smiling, she studied the faces of the young women and men who all wore their red uniforms with pride. Like the proper Artillery regiments, the uniforms of the training companies had been adjusted to compensate for the different and far more strenuous tasks the siege engine crews needed to perform compared to the regular infantry - looser tunics, wider belts, patches of reinforced leather on the shoulders and elbows, and full-length leather chaps on their ankle pants were the most notable differences.

Bronwyn stopped at a young woman who looked no older than eighteen. The blue-eyed blonde had a gruff demeanor with a steely jaw and callused hands, but she still appeared to gulp when she was singled out. Looking at the young woman, Bronwyn couldn't help but recall some of the stories that Caid had told her about her time serving under Kheo Khammon in the war. "Good day, Cadet. What is your name?"

"Jannet of Tullaby, Empress Bronwyn," the young woman said in a voice that was clearly marked by the unusual situation. A bead of sweat suddenly trickled down from her hairline but she couldn't do anything about it.

"Tullaby? In the south-east? Oh, you are certainly far from home, Jannet."

"Aye. Nine days on horseback from dawn to dusk, Empress Bronwyn."

"I see. I must say, you certainly look the part. I presume you spent most of yesterday buffing those leather chaps?" Bronwyn said with a wink.

A very brief smile flashed across the young woman's lips before she remembered it was inappropriate to smile at the Empress. "Aye, that I did, Empress Bronwyn."

"And a very fine job you did, too, Jannet. Grand Marshal Khammon," Bronwyn said and strolled back to the large man, "the training company is exemplary. You and they have done sterling work. You are dismissed. Please join me at the dais once you have finished your task."

"Very well, Empress Bronwyn," Kheo said and once again put up his hand in a salute. As Bronwyn walked back to the dais, Kheo barked a command loud enough to wake the dead. Moving as one, the training company turned right and waited for their cue to march back to their barracks. It soon came, and they all set off after thumping their right boot into the ground on the first step like they had been taught.

Bronwyn hopped up on the dais and just caught the tail end of the training company marching away before they went out of her line of sight. "Oh goodness me, Tawna, you should have seen the pride shining in their eyes... those magnificent young women and men who carry our colors on their broad shoulders. Quite marvelous, do you not think so?"

"I fear I cannot tell either way, Empress," Tawna said with a slight nod. "I have no insight into military customs or traditions. None. But did Sir Kheo not look dashing?"

"Ha! That he did, Tawna!" Bronwyn said and snickered into her hand.

Kallirna Tarsi recognized the next set of bugle calls and politely cleared his throat to let the Empress know the proceedings were about to continue. "My Empress, I do believe I see General Mahawney coming our way," he said, pointing discreetly at a distinguished-looking, elderly gentleman who came striding across the courtyard clad in a dark red uniform.

"Oh! Thank you, Commander Tarsi," Bronwyn said and straightened her jerkin to make sure it sat right. "One cannot appear careless when speaking to General Mahawney," she continued in a mock stern voice.

General Brayden Mahawney stepped up on the dais and bowed deeply at his Mistress. "Greetings, Empress Bronwyn. Enchanted to meet you on such a fine spring day," he said in an upper-crust accent. "It pleases me no end to see you continue the age-old traditions of sending our sons and daughters in the armed forces away on the annual spring maneuvers," he continued while he studied the tips of his black boots.

Like his predecessor Waleeri Galehr - who had been forced to retire from the position due to the severe injuries he had sustained in the melee in the dining hall some months previously - Brayden Mahawney had gray hair and a neatly groomed beard, but that's where the similarities ended. General Mahawney wasn't as tall as most of the other senior officers, a fact that he tried to compensate for by wearing elevator boots, and his face was permanently scrunched up into a wrinkled mask of surliness that made it appear his diet consisted mainly of sour fruit.

"You may rise, General Mahawney," Bronwyn said and waved her hand. "Pray, which of your undoubtedly fine units shall we see today?"

"Companies, not units, Empress Bronwyn," the general said, looking surly at Bronwyn's frivolous fatigues.

Bronwyn turned to the elderly man to pin him to the spot with a pale blue glare, but he didn't even seem to notice it. "I see," she said frostily.

"Today, we shall see roughly one third of the First Infantry Battalion, namely the Fourth, Sixth and Ninth Company... three hundred men and women, commanded by..."

As General Mahawney droned on in the background in his usual surly voice, Bronwyn couldn't work herself up to ask why they had chosen companies seemingly at random instead of selecting some that were in consecutive order. A brief glance at the general proved he was still talking about the minutiae concerning the proper selection of commanding officers for such companies.

Bronwyn finally found relief in the shape of Kheo Khammon who marched up to the dais and offered her yet another salute. "Ah, Grand Marshal Khammon. Please join us for the next part of the parade," she said, cutting off the General mid-stream.

"Don't mind if ah do," Kheo said in his regular accent, stepping up onto the dais and finding a good spot between Bronwyn and General Mahawney so he could help shield her from the general's unusually surly presence.

General Mahawney clammed up and gained a few degrees of surliness. It was clear from the pointed way he looked at Kheo that he, as a life-long member of the nobility, was insulted by having a commoner achieve the illustrious rank of Grand Marshal so quickly, but his surly pout was interrupted by a new bugle call and several barked commands from beyond the three-storey barracks.

Kheo grinned and stroked his full beard. "Ah do believe we got them boys from the Fourth comin' up first. The good ol' peasant militia... my old gang before I wus transferred to the artillery, Empress."

"Oh really, Kheo- I mean, Grand Marshal? I had no idea," Bronwyn said and leaned into her friend's broad shoulder, much to the visible annoyance of General Mahawney.

"Yep! Now when ya see 'em, Empress, ya should pay spe'shul attention ta them funny hats they be wearin'. Out in the field, we wus always called the nightcaps 'cos them hats got a funny, pointed end that falls down ovah the right shoulder."

"I shall certainly be on the lookout for that, Sir Kheo," Bronwyn said with a smile. Behind Kheo's broad presence, she could see General Mahawney turn so surly over the jovial talk his face nearly folded in on itself. Chuckling, she concentrated on the soldiers instead of the elderly man.

On the drill ground, more orders were barked and more bugle calls were heard. Then the characteristic thumping first step echoed across the courtyard, signaling the column had set off.

Like Kheo had said, the first group wore gray, odd-looking soft hats that swept around their head and down onto their shoulder. The Fourth Infantry consisted solely of broad-shouldered, beefy men who were all carrying two-fathom long spears on their right shoulder and a hefty wooden shield on their left arm. Most wore field packs in knapsacks that appeared to be quite heavy, though some did not.

The two officers who marched on the right side of the column saluted Bronwyn as they went past by holding their spears horizontally for half a dozen paces.

Bronwyn felt it would be foolish to return the salute in her hunting fatigues, so she settled for a gesture she hoped would be suitably respectful to the soldiers - she held her left arm across her chest with her fingers stretched out.

"Oy, luv... did ya learn that sign from yer father or somethin'?" Kheo said out of the corner of his mouth.

"Uh... well, I just... I may have... why?"

"That's the one he always used when he wus sendin' us lowly grunts off ta the slaughter back in the war. We always figgered it meant, that's how far ya gonn' get cut down, son."

"Ack! Sweet Marpaxa, that was not the message I was trying to convey," Bronwyn croaked and hurriedly waved at the officers instead.

The Fourth Infantry eventually segued into the Sixth, but apart from the difference in headwear - the Sixth wore regular hats rather than the so-called nightcaps - Bronwyn couldn't tell them apart.

At the tail-end of the infantry column came the Ninth, or the Nines as Kheo whispered out of the corner of his mouth. The Ninth was a mixed company that consisted of roughly as many women as men; all had quivers and longbows strapped to their back, and many carried crossbows. Their uniforms differed from those of the others by being primarily green as opposed to the red of the Fourth and Sixth companies.

Both officers who marched on the right side of the Ninth were women, and Bronwyn made sure to bow slightly when they came past.

"Yeah, them archers o' the long range reconnaissance an' bee sting squads," Kheo said, watching as the company marched past, "they can hit the ass of a cow at five hundred paces. Pardon mah language, luv. That's the company where Markki Barlin-"

General Mahawney grunted surly and shot Kheo a dark glare. "Grand Marshal Khammon, I can assure you that all archers of the Ninth understand the importance of keeping the livestock fit and healthy during the campaigns."

Kheo sucked on his lips as he turned around to face the surly general. "Oy, ya don't say, General Mahawney? It was merely a figger o' speech."

The general grunted and stepped off the dais since his corps had already moved past. "But of course, Grand Marshal. Empress Bronwyn, I bid you farewell," he said and bowed to his superior. "It has been enchanting, but I fear I must leave you. I have plenty of paperwork waiting for me back at my desk."

"Farewell, General Mahawney," Bronwyn said and did a brief curtsey. Once the elderly man was out of earshot, Bronwyn sighed deeply and leaned into Kheo's broad shoulder. "Goodness me, I was afeared he would never leave. Now, Sir Kheo, what was it you were about to say about Markki Barlin?"

"Aw, jus' that the Nines wus his old comp'ny. Caid didden want him ta go into the Rangers 'cos she was afeared they'd think she had pulled a few strings. He made it into the Nines himself 'cos of his amazin' skills with the longbow."

"Oh, I had no knowledge of that. Now I do. The Barlins have always been a proud clan, have they not?"

A deep rumble from Kheo's chest proved that he was chuckling but trying to keep it inside. "Aw, ya might say that, luv!"

"Sir Kheo, when I spoke to the young cadet Jannet earlier, I could not help but think of my sweet Caid at that age. Tell me, was she as disciplined as the current cadets are?"

Kheo once again sucked on his lips while he quite clearly tried to compose an answer to Bronwyn's question. He opened his mouth to speak twice before a reply actually came forth. "Ah, the short answer ta that would be no. An' the long answer would be, no, by Phirax! She was always so full o' energy ten rampant stallions couldden hold her back once she got some notion inta her skull. She always followed orders, don't get me wrong, but... she wus always flyin' here, flyin' there, tryin' this, that or the other... sometimes all at once!"

Bronwyn tried hard not to laugh out loud at the images of the young, easily excitable Caid that suddenly flooded her mind. Smirking, she turned back to her old friend and patted his elbow. "Oh, I had a vague idea that you would bring forth such an answer, Kheo. Truly so... somehow, I had an idea that my sweet Caid would have been thus in her wild youth."

The drill ground had cleared out after the three infantry companies had marched by, and it wasn't apparent what would follow. "Tawna," Bronwyn said and turned to her Mistress of the Robes, "tell me, what is next on the agenda?"

"The Imperial cavalry, Empress Bronwyn," Tawna said, briefly checking her notes.

"Oh! Sir Kheo, do you know if our old friend Deegan Arliss is among those who shall be riding past?" Bronwyn said, grabbing hold of Kheo's beefy arm.

"I think so, yeah... not enti'ly sure, tho'. I ain't paid much attention ta what them fancy riders have been doin'."

Bronwyn nodded enthusiastically and held onto the large man beside her like she was afraid he would fly off if she let go. "We shall easily spot him if he is. Oh... I do believe I can hear the horses now!"

To the left, out of sight of the dais, several horses were heard to whinny, and the sounds were soon joined by creaking harnesses and loudly barked commands. Moments later, the sounds of hundreds of hooves pounding the ground spread through the courtyard, quickly followed by the grand sight of selected units of the First Battalion, First Regiment of the Imperial cavalry - better known as the First Up Front - riding in lines so sharply drawn they appeared to have been made using a ruler.

Deegan Arliss rode into view on his Crown at the head of the vast group of riders. The handsome Lieutenant was dressed in his regular dark red tunic and black ankle pants, and he wore a dark red garrison hat that he promptly took off and held up high while the troop filed past the Empress. Behind him, the other officers all saluted the Empress by holding their sabers or swords to their noses.

Smiling broadly, Bronwyn took off her own green hat and waved it around to mirror the Lieutenant's flamboyant gesture.

The wave was answered by a resounding "Hurrah!" by the lead group before they went out of sight. The middle and tail end of the column kept going for a while longer, and at the back, one or two of the horses were clearly growing impatient and were already whinnying and side-stepping to get the others to pick up the pace.

"Goodness me, Sir Kheo," Bronwyn said and fanned her face that had become quite flushed by all the excitement. "It suddenly strikes me how vast our armed forces truly are! What we have seen here today is only a small part... and yet, it has already become such a blur to me!"

"Empress, ya should be on the battlefield when the whole bunch lines up, rearin' ta go ovah the fence an' onto a castle or some such. When that bugle call comes, we all say our prayers an' take the thumpin' first step inta the everafter, dontchaknow," Kheo said and thumped his meaty fist hard into his open palm to illustrate his point. "Once the First Up Front has swept ahead ta mess up the forward lines of those we are fightin' with a few hit an' runs, the Nightcaps go in shoulder by shoulder with their hearts high an' their spears low. An' they hammer 'em! Like drivin' a ramrod through a flimsy wooden gate. When the Nightcaps withdraw, they don't leave nobody standin'. If it's a castle we're stormin', the gals an' boys o' my Artillery arrange the trebuchets an' the other siege engines an' we hit 'em like Phirax on a bad day. Boulders, fragmentation shells, incendiary bombs... uh... I can see by the sorta green color o' yer cheeks there, luv, that I better shut up..."

"Oh, that- that is quite all right, Sir Kheo," Bronwyn croaked, "I am merely reeling from your vivid description. I pray to Marpaxa that I shall never experience such an event..."

Kheo chuckled and scouted to his left to see what kept the last group, the one he knew would mean the most to the Empress.


With all the excitement at the drill ground inside the garrison, nobody paid much attention to what went on elsewhere in and near the castle. At the South Gate, a group of people wrapped tightly in dark gray cloaks with hoods that completely obscured their faces stood among the throng of citizens who cheered on the soldiers as they marched through the city headed for the gatehouse.

When the three infantry companies had filed past the spectators, but before the cavalry came through, the people wearing cloaks shuffled up towards the main entrance of Ashburne Castle. On their way there, they fanned out and revealed to the world they were seven in number.

All seven were dressed identically, and all seven - though they were of vastly different height - carried themselves in the way so typical of veterans of the armed forces.

At the sight of a patrol from the City Watch, the leader at the head of the small group signaled the others they should stop. As soon as the coast was clear, another signal came and they carried on like nothing had happened.

Not long after, the leader went over to the highest ranking soldier of the two uniformed sentries who guarded the main entrance. "Greetings, Corporal," the cloaked man said as he folded down his hood to reveal he was in his mid-thirties and that he had a rat-like face with a pointy nose and clever eyes, a military haircut and a trimmed chin beard without a mustache. "I am Friar Borjan. Would it be possible for seven friars from the Brotherhood of the Betrayed Monks to seek shelter for the coming eve?"

The uniformed soldier scrunched up his face and looked at the six cloaked figures across the street, then at the man next to him whose face certainly didn't look like any monk he had ever seen. "I dunno... it's not even noon yet. What'll ya do 'till the eve? And the Brotherhood of the... what?" he said, pushing back his helmet from his forehead to reveal his red hair and boorish features.

"Betrayed Monks, Corporal. I fear there is a long and dreadfully tragic story behind our name that I do not wish to bore you with," the rat-faced man said, folding his arms into his wide sleeves. "Sir, we would not cause any disturbances. We are merely wandering monks seeking shelter."

The uniformed sentry narrowed his eyes and checked out the seven monks. He eventually shrugged and put out his hand. "By all means, Friar Borjan. Step inside."

"Thank you, Corporal," Borjan said and bowed deeply, though not so deeply his cloak would flutter out to reveal what he wore underneath. Once he was allowed in, he turned around and waved the six others over to him.


The group quickly moved through the hallway and over to the grand staircase. Nodding to each other, they turned right and went down instead of up. Soon, they were on their way through the vaults beneath Ashburne Castle - and nobody stopped them to ask if they had become lost.


Borjan Maelwys slid around the last of the massive support pillars that held up the castle keep. As he inched along, he was able to see the reinforced door to the dungeons and the warder who was supposed to be on guard. 'Supposed to,' because at present, the man appeared to be soundly asleep at his desk.

Two torches were burning merrily on either side of the door to the dungeons, and the warder had an additional brass candlestick on the desk that cast a golden light from its single candle down upon the bound book he had been reading in before sleep had claimed him.

The warder had his hobnailed boots resting on the corner of the desk for comfort, and his red tunic had been loosened at the neck so he could slumber with his chin on his upper chest. His regulatory helmet was sitting on the desk along with his gloves so his wild hair stuck out in all directions. The heavy leather apron used by all warders hung on a nail on the wall behind him, looking somewhat filthy.

Borjan nodded at his associates and stepped out from behind the support pillar. The rat-faced man reached into his wide sleeve and produced an eight-inch single-sided dagger that he held in his right hand pointed away from him. He quickly closed the distance to the warder and stepped up behind the sleeping man.

The position of the warder's head caused Borjan to furrow his brow, but he clenched his jaw and went ahead with his evil plan. Moving swiftly, he slammed a hand down onto the warder's nose and mouth and yanked his head back - and in one, fluid motion he slashed the single-sided blade across the warder's throat from ear to ear.

A grotesque, wheezing gurgle burst forth from the warder's mouth, quickly followed by a cascade of blood that escaped through the horrible wound. The man's eyes rolled around in his head in a wild panic until they became still and he fell forward onto the desk, dead as a doornail.

With a hand that trembled slightly, Borjan wiped off the blade on the warder's tunic and reached for the keys the man had had on his belt. While he found the correct key for the reinforced door to the dungeons, his associates all drew similar blades and assumed aggressive stances to be ready to jump at anyone who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

The leader of the rescue mission found the right key and inserted it into the rusty, old lock. The screech it produced was horrendous, but it didn't matter as the door was opened in no time.

"Split up and search the various corridors," Borjan Maelwys said to the others without bothering to whisper. "Once you have found our target, whistle. Miriam, do you understand?"

"Yes, Major," a female voice said from underneath her hood.

The others nodded without speaking and stepped up to the threshold that would take them to the dungeons. They gulped and looked at their leader, but Borjan was relentless - he pushed the first one inside.

Nothing much had changed in the dungeons even after Bronwyn had come to power. The environment was still extremely hostile with an overpowering stench of human and animal waste, disease and unwashed bodies billowing out to greet any visitor foolish enough to enter. Although there were fewer inmates than in the dungeon's heyday, those who were there groaned pitifully or were even crying out their terrors.

The floor was covered in hay, but it was stained by the rat droppings from the hundreds of vicious rodents that controlled the dungeons after dark. It didn't help that the drainage ruts in the crude boulders had been clogged up with debris of every kind, leading to urine and other fluids forming deep and disgusting puddles of yellow instead of being led away into the waste tanks below.

Only half of the regular torches were in use leaving the corridors between the cells in the dark, which only added to the misery. The cones of flickering light from the torches that were lit shone their orange glow onto the floor and into the cells to illuminate the true horrors of the dungeons.

The living conditions of the inmates hadn't improved despite Bronwyn's best intentions. Half-naked, scrawny human beings that looked like Death incarnate inhabited the cells. Some were sitting on the crude bunk inside the cells, some were lying down, and some were clearly dead and had gone into decay.

The group split up like Borjan Maelwys had ordered them to and hurried down the corridors to find the person they were there for. Miriam Connighen, who was a compact woman in her late twenties, pushed back the hood of her cloak to see better, thus revealing her dark blonde crewcut and her razor-sharp eyes that sat well in an angular face. A dark mask of angry determination and unbridled disgust was plainly visible on her face as she moved down the corridors she had been given.

When she came up to a corner, she spotted another warder pushing a food cart ahead of him. The large man had his back turned to her and wasn't a threat at the moment, but she drew her blade and tip-toed towards him.

She was soon standing behind him with the eight-inch blade ready. When he began to turn around, she executed her plans and rammed the cold steel between his ribs and into his body once, then twice. The man groaned and collapsed to his knees, but yet another ferocious stab silenced him forever.

Glancing around to see if other warders were near, she wiped off the blade on the dead man's tunic and disappeared into the semi-darkness.

Miriam went past cell after cell without finding anything important until she stopped dead in her tracks and stared out ahead of her. Grunting in disbelief, she snatched one of the torches out of the brass ring it was hanging from and turned back to the last cell she had gone past.

A figure was lying on its back on the crude bunk dressed in a coarse, dark gray frock. That wasn't unusual, but the shock of white-blonde hair that had caught Miriam's attention certainly was.

"By Phirax the Unholy," Miriam croaked as she reached up, then down to unlatch the cell door. Grunting, she pulled the rusty metal gate towards her and stepped into the disgusting cell as soon as the gap was large enough.

The figure on the crude bunk was skeletal with a sharply defined jaw, forehead and cheekbones, and blood and other substances caked around the face and in the white-blonde hair, but - more importantly - the person was still alive.

Miriam knelt down at the bunk and put a calming hand on the shoulder of the bony presence. She pressed her lips together in shock at seeing her old commander in such a gruesome state, and she wondered if it really was her, Zai Allizadra, who had been lauded and feared in equal measure by her friends and foes.

When the skeletal woman turned her head and opened her eyes, all doubts were erased from Miriam's mind. The bright blue chips of ice hadn't changed, though they had lost much of their luster. The windows to Zai's soul had always had a flame of insanity burning inside them, but now, it seemed the flame had turned into a raging inferno.

The bony figure coughed and tried to sit up, but she was too weak to do much of anything, even with the help of her rescuer.

After letting Zai back down onto the bunk, Miriam ran a gentle thumb across the commander's protruding cheekbone and let out a long sigh. Gulping down the surge of bitterness that threatened to drown her, Miriam rose and hurriedly moved back to the corridor. There, she whistled loudly to send Borjan a signal that she had found their long lost commander.


On the drill ground, the dust had finally settled after the cavalry had gone past. A small army of stable boys had been appointed to scoop up the droppings left behind by the many horses, and the boys and young men hurried around the courtyard with their shovels and rakes.

Bronwyn remembered Carrae telling her the father of Mynere's unborn child was one of the stable boys, and she couldn't help but wonder if he was one of the young men who were working hard to clean up the courtyard. The young handmaiden was right behind her, so she could ask, but she also remembered there had been a broken heart involved - the stable boy had been Carrae's sweetheart until he had met Mynere - and broken hearts shouldn't be taken too lightly.

Instead of asking, Bronwyn turned around and offered her handmaiden a smile. "My dear Carrae, I hope you have not been bored out of your pretty head by all this marching?"

"I have not, Mistress," Carrae said with a small curtsey.

"Good," Bronwyn said and furrowed her brow. "You are a little pale this morn. Did you not sleep well?"

"I did not, Mistress. I had a persistent tickling cough in my chest that kept me awake until I made myself a cough syrup with a recipe my mother gave me."

Bronwyn turned around to look a little closer at her handmaiden. The young girl's forehead was quite pale, but her cheeks were tinged with a faint shade of red. "Oh, a cough should not be treated lightly, child. Once we are done here, I think you should visit the infirmary."

"I shall, Mistress. Thank you," Carrae said and curtseyed again.

A barked command in a female voice Bronwyn knew so well she didn't even have to see the figure to know how she had looked when she had issued it echoed across the courtyard. A few horses whinnied as they were mounted by their riders, the last group to parade past the dais.

"Oh, Sir Kheo," Bronwyn said and held onto Kheo's arm, "I fear I am quite giddy with excitement! I do believe I know which unit we shall see now... and I cannot wait to see the commander!"

Kheo chuckled and patted the Imperial hand to calm down the Empress. "Yeah, this gonn' be pretty impressive. Them Rangers always look swell in their suede uniforms an' their capes an' stuff."

"They do indeed!" Bronwyn squealed, almost jumping up and down.

Another barked command spread through the courtyard, quickly followed by the sounds of many hooves on the move. Soon, the first riders came into view high atop their steeds. Some of the Rangers were armed with crossbows, but others weren't.

The members of the Ranger companies all wore their regulatory two-piece suede uniforms over white tunics, and they all wore dark brown capes that billowed out impressively, like Kheo had predicted.

Similar to the Ninth Infantry, the Rangers consisted of both men and women with the latter holding a slight majority. One of those women was riding at the front of the group with her shaggy, honey-blonde hair blowing freely in the breeze.

As the Rangers continued to ride past, Caid turned Chestnut sharp right and came to a halt in front of the dais. She drew her Yonnae machete and held the razor-sharp weapon in front of her face to salute the Empress.

Bronwyn clapped enthusiastically and once again took off her hat. When she spotted the leather bracelet on Caid's right wrist, she let out a cry of joy and hopped off the dais.

She hurriedly closed the distance between herself and her consort and reached up to grab hold of the Ranger's strong hand. Smiling broadly, she held up her own arm to show Caid that she too was wearing the leather bracelet. "Oh, my sweet beloved! Behold, I am wearing our fidelity charm too! Ack, I simply cannot tell you how proud you make me... Sweet Marpaxa, Caid, your strong, bold presence alone sends a flutter sweeping through my body... a flutter that has already found its way due south!" - the last words were delivered in a whisper so the world at large wouldn't learn about her flushed condition.

"Glad to be of assistance, my Empress," Caid said with a nod and beaming grin. "Yes, I am wearing my fidelity charm. I had it on good authority that I would not get into trouble if I did."

"Sweet Caid, I hope you shall think of me every time you see your bracelet," Bronwyn said and swept her probing fingers up and down Caid's strong arm to get as close to her as she possible could.

"Alas, my Empress, I cannot think of you more than I already do. Each waking moment of my day, your glorious presence is at the forefront of my mind."

"Awww... charmer! And the one I love so dearly," Bronwyn said and hurriedly kissed Caid's knuckles.

"I love you too, Bronwyn. Please stay safe until we return. Now, I must leave you, but before I do, please accept this little gift," Caid said and reached for a small pouch that she had tied to her saddlehorn. She opened the pouch and picked up something that she immediately covered with her fingers. "My Lady Bronwyn, please give me your left hand," she continued, holding the mystery gift ready.

"My left hand? But of course, sweet Caid," Bronwyn said and did as asked.

Smiling nervously, Caid unclenched her fist to reveal a simple yet exquisitely crafted gold ring that she slipped onto Bronwyn's ring finger. Once it was on, Caid helped close Bronwyn's fist and held it in her own. "This ring belonged to my mother. Now I want you to have it as a sign of my love for you. At your coronation, you gave me the tiled gold necklace, remember? Alas, I have not been able to wear it as often as I would have liked simply because of the countless strenuous tasks we have been through, you and I. I needed... no, I wanted to give you something in return. Here, I hope you shall cherish it."

"Oh, goodness me," Bronwyn said and opened her fist to look at the ring. The gold glinted warmly in the spring sunshine, promising her a modicum of solace during the enforced separation. "Goodness me, this is so beautiful, sweet Caid. I thank you from the bottom of my heart... I thank you... and I love you. I shall truly cherish it."

Caid smiled broadly in relief as she reached down to pat Chestnut's neck. "I am pleased you like it, Empress Bronwyn. I must admit I was a little worried. I fear I must leave you now. If I remain here any longer, my fellow officers will think I have deserted."

"Oh, we cannot have that," Bronwyn said and took a step away from the proud steed. "I bid you farewell, Caid Barlin. Please take care."

"I shall, Empress Bronwyn. Have no fear," Caid said and once again drew her machete to salute the Empress.

Once Bronwyn had given Chestnut room to maneuver, Caid nudged the horse's flanks and took off in a canter to catch up with the others.

Bronwyn remained standing in the middle of the courtyard and stared wide-eyed at the amazing sight of Caid thundering off on the good-natured Chestnut. When the Huntress was fifty fathoms away, she turned around in the saddle and waved at the Empress. Bronwyn whooped excitedly and waved back with much vigor.

The massive amounts of dust on the courtyard that had been kicked up by the hundreds of hooves suddenly ganged up on the Empress and made her sneeze out loud. The surprise sneeze tore through her with unexpected force, and she had to tap her fingers against her suddenly raw chest while she recovered from the sneak attack.

"Oh, goodness me," she croaked, sniffing deeply and wiping her nose very discreetly on the back of her hand. She patted herself down to find a handkerchief but quickly discovered her outfit had no pockets. "I say, Tawna? Tawna, dear, you would not happen to have a handkerchief, would you? An Empire for a handkerchief!"

Always on the spot and ready to help, Tawna hurried out to her Mistress. She reached into the right sleeve of her steel gray gown and produced a lacy handkerchief that she handed to the suffering woman. "Here, my Empress. Bless you! I brought a clean one for this very occasion," Tawna said, presenting the handkerchief the proper way by tucking it in under her thumb and draping it over her knuckles.

"And once more you save me, Tawna," Bronwyn said and took the handkerchief. She blew her nose and wiped it again to be on the safe side. "How many times is that now? Five hundred? Or perhaps closer to five thousand times you have come to my assistance when I, the undisputed Empress of our land, forget to tuck a kerchief into her fatigues? I am profoundly grateful."

"You are most welcome, Empress Bronwyn," Tawna said with a curtsey. "I do believe the parades are over. We can return to the castle now if you wish."

"Yes, let us go inside. Ah, before we do... come, take a look at the most gracious gift just bestowed upon me by the beautiful Huntress. Come, everybody, feast your eyes on this magnificent piece of jewelry," Bronwyn said and held out her hand so the others could be suitably impressed by the new ring on her finger.

Carrae and Tawna oooh'ed and ahhh'ed at the gold ring, but Kheo just chuckled as he looked at it. "Oy, I'd say that Huntress gal is a keeper, huh?" he said with a wink.

"She is indeed, Sir Kheo! She is indeed," Bronwyn said with a warm snicker. Smiling, she studied the ring that reflected the spring sunshine and sent golden rays off in every direction.

Around them, the small army of stable boys had nearly completed the task of scooping up the many horse droppings. The senior groundskeeper - a Sergeant from the supply corps - who was wearing a leather apron over a dark brown coverall came out to supervise the disposal of the heavy bags of waste. He quickly saluted the Grand Marshal and the Empress before he moved on.

Bronwyn looked at the man and put a finger in the air like she wanted to be excused. "Ah, Sir? Sir, may I have a word with you, please?"

"Sergeant," Kheo whispered out of the corner of his mouth.

"Thank you, Kheo. Ah, Sergeant, I beg for forgiveness. May I have a word with you, please?" Bronwyn continued, walking over to the uniformed man who looked like he couldn't believe he was being spoken to by the Empress.

The Sergeant hurriedly bowed deeply to show the proper respect. "Empress Bronwyn, I am your humble servant," he said in a gruff voice.

"Oh, that shall not be necessary, Sergeant. Please rise. I only wanted to ask what you were planning to do with the horse droppings?"

"Do... uh... do with the horse droppings?" the Sergeant said and looked from Bronwyn, over to Kheo and back at the Empress. "Why, throw it on the growing pile of manure in Aleyn Rowan's stables, of course."

Bronwyn folded her hands in front of her and assumed a suitably pious expression. "Ah, instead of doing that, may I request that you wheel it into the inner gardens and use it to cultivate the flower beds and the bushes? You see, Sergeant, I have read in a dusty tome in my library that horse droppings is one of the best natural fertilizers."

"Uh... certainly, my Empress. Your wish is my command. It shall be done," the Sergeant said in an assured voice though his face told a different, and rather puzzled, story.

"Thank you, my good man," Bronwyn said and turned back to her friends. "Tawna, Kheo... shall we depart for the dining hall? I do believe Harsomme and his staff have created a grand feast for those of us left behind by the brave soldiers who have gone on the spring maneuvers."

Kheo laughed out loud and patted his belly that did indeed seem a little flatter than normal. "Oooh, free lunch? Ya know, I never say no ta' li'l free lunch. Will there be ale an' baloney on rye an' salted fat?"

"I cannot say, Sir Kheo... shall we find out? Commander Tarsi, you are invited too, of course," Bronwyn said to the commander of the City Watch.

"Alas, Empress," Tarsi said with a small bow, "I cannot. I am thankful for your invitation, but I fear I have obligations elsewhere. More men than usual have been on sick leave recently and I need to keep the duty roster updated to keep track of everything."

Bronwyn tipped her hat and returned the bow. "In that case, I bid you farew- oh..." she said and turned towards the western entrance where a sudden commotion had broken out. She shielded her eyes from the sun to see better, but she had trouble discerning what was going on.

Several men from the City Watch were running to and fro at the entrance, shouting something that was too muffled to make out. The two sentries that stood guard at the door immediately pointed towards Commander Tarsi and the Empress. Moments later, a soldier clad in the dark gray colors of the Watch ran out into the courtyard and jumped into a hasty salute.

"Empress Bronwyn, Commander Tarsi, Grand Marshal Khammon," the soldier said while he executed a deep bow at the Empress and the senior officers. The face of the young, beardless man from the Watch brigade was deep red like he had run from one side of the castle to the other. Somewhere along the line, he had lost or forgotten his helmet, and his hair was damp and plastered to his forehead. "I fear there has been a disturbance in the dungeons. Two warders have been slain and a prisoner is missing."

Bronwyn's jaw became slack as she zeroed in on the young soldier. "Missing? What in the name of Phirax the Unholy does that mean now? And who?"

The young soldier decided to overlook the shocking fact that the Mother of the People had used such hard profanity, but it still took him a few heartbeats to compose an answer. "It appears that several monks have broken into the dungeon to spring former Commander Allizadra free, Empress Bronwyn. Commander Tarsi, your presence is urgently needed at the-"

"Zai has escaped?" Bronwyn croaked, pressing her hands to her chest.

"I fear so, Empress," the soldier said, nodding vigorously.

Kallirna Tarsi sighed deeply and pinched the bridge of his nose - but judging by the look that spread rapidly over his face, it didn't work. "Very well, soldier. Let's go. Empress, I fear I have to leave you rather hastily. I beg for forgiveness."

While Tarsi and the young soldier took off in a hurry, Bronwyn was frozen to the spot, looking at the dusty courtyard through a thousand-fathom stare. "By Marpaxa... Zai is on the loose..." she said quietly, almost like she wanted to convince herself it had not been a dream.

"Monks?!" Kheo said, shrugging so wildly his tunic flew up from his ankle pants. "Naw, this I gotta see. Sorry 'bout the lunch invitation, luv, but I'm a-fearin' this gotta have a higher priority. I bid you farewell. I'll swing by with an update a li'l later on."

Bronwyn glanced up at her friend with a look on her face that said she had turned into one, huge question mark on the inside. "Y- yes, Sir Kheo. Very well... I shall meet you later... no. No, I must see this ghastly atrocity with my own eyes. Please wait for me. Tawna!" she said, spinning around to find the Mistress of the Robes.

"Yes, Empress?" Tawna said, stepping forward.

"Sweet Tawna, take Carrae upstairs and lock yourselves inside my bedchamber. Barricade the exits for safety and only open the door for me. I fear that with Zai Allizadra on the loose, one cannot have too many precautions."


"Please, Tawna, just do it," Bronwyn said and put her hand on her old friend's cheek for effect. "Carrae, you too must stay safe. Zai Allizadra is a vile snake of a woman. There is no telling what she has done already... or even what she is thinking of doing... but we know she is capable of anything."

"I shall, Empress," the young maid said and went down in a frantic curtsey.

"I am indebted to you both. Now I fear I must hurry," Bronwyn said and ran after Kheo who still held the double doors at the western entrance open for her.




Bronwyn could have found the dungeons wearing a blindfold - the gruesome stench that assaulted her senses when she and Kheo arrived at the foot of the grand staircase was unmistakable. Her feet were reluctant to bring her any closer to the horrors she knew awaited her beyond the reinforced door, but she clenched her jaw and pressed on.

'Behold, Bronwyn, the results of your criminal inattention,' she thought as she turned the final corner and found herself face to face with a chaotic mess of soldiers from the City Watch and the regular army who were all standing above the dead warder, discussing what to do and who to get even with. 'Had you closed the dungeons like you had promised you would, you child-like fool, two men would still have been alive now... two families would not have been torn apart. Not to mention that Zai Allizadra would still have been behind bars. With that evil woman free, no one shall sleep soundly. Wretched!'

Against the will of her mind, she moved up to the desk to take in the sight of the warder lying face down in a pool of his own blood that had soaked everything on the desktop. She drew her lips back in a horrified grimace but forced herself to remain at the crime scene as punishment for her failings.

The soldiers there all bowed at her, but she could only acknowledge them by a brief wave.

The stench from the dungeon was so overwhelming that Bronwyn couldn't stay at the desk for long. Instead, she shuffled back to one of the support pillars that held up the castle keep. She had intended to lean against it to regain her equilibrium, but she shied back when she noticed the bricks were glistening with a fresh coat of black paint.

She took a hurried step back to see what on earth that was about. The three words that had been slapped onto the support pillar simply read 'Black Death Cometh.'

Bronwyn furrowed her brow and shook her buzzing head to try to figure out the deeper meaning behind the words. They rang a bell, but her brain had turned so hazy from the shocking events she couldn't make the connection.

Commander Tarsi finished giving Kheo an update before he strode over to the support pillar. He quickly bowed to the Empress and moved in close so they could keep it between themselves. "Empress Bronwyn, as you can see, the warder has been slain. His throat was slit. The second casualty is the man responsible for providing the food. He was knifed in the back... three times."

"Sweet Marpaxa," Bronwyn croaked, rubbing her brow.

"Here's what we know. A half-turn of the hourglass ago, a group of seven people wearing cloaks who claimed to be members of the Brotherhood of the Betrayed Monks were allowed into the castle by the sentries at the main entrance. I have only spoken very briefly with those two, but they assured me the supposed monks did not cause any alarm, apart from the leader not quite looking the part."

"Blind beggars and Seers," Bronwyn croaked, wringing her hands.

"I beg for forgiveness, Empress Bronwyn?"

"The Huntress and I have both slipped unnoticed into the castle on several occasions, Commander. I fear it is far, far too easy to come in undetected. We must do something about that."

"Ah... yes, certainly," Tarsi said while his rugged face had turned into a question mark from the puzzling comments. "In any case, the monks have vanished so we are quite certain they are the culprits."

Bronwyn nodded and let out a deep sigh. She reached up to take off her felt hat that suddenly seemed far too frivolous for such a tragic event. She still had no pockets where she could store it, so she pushed it in under her form-fitting jerkin where it wouldn't be quite as inappropriate. Her head was swimming with the implications of the jailbreak, and all she could do was to run a hand through her hair and sigh again.

"My Empress, there's nothing more you can do here. Come, please allow me to escort you back up to your-"

"No, Commander, I am responsible for this tragedy. I cannot be seen to run away with my tail between my legs... no," Bronwyn said and moved back over to the desk where the other soldiers made way for her. "Phirax the Unholy is here and I must face Him. Commander Tarsi, I do require your escort, but it shall not be back to my bedchamber... rather, I shall go into the dungeon."

"Empress Bronwyn, I would strongly advise you against it. The dungeon is no place for a Lady of your noble blood-"

"That wasn't a suggestion, Commander," Bronwyn said sharply and moved over to the door to the stinking forecourt of Phirax otherwise known as the dungeons.

Kallirna Tarsi briefly looked at Kheo who gave him a telling raised eyebrow in return. The commander of the City Watch grunted and moved over to stand behind the Empress. To ease their way through the dungeon, he took one of the burning torches that hung next to the door on a brass ring. "Very well, my Empress. But please, watch your step. This place is not for the faint of heart."

"I am aware of that, Commander. I have already been here... I had hoped I would never return. Alas, such is my fate," Bronwyn said and put out her hand. "You have the torch... after you."

"Thank you, my Empress," Tarsi said and stepped inside to literally shine a path for the others.

Bronwyn gulped down a sour surge and moved over the threshold. She could feel Kheo behind her, and she was grateful for his rock-solid presence in such a gloomy moment. Very discreetly, she moved a hand back and sought out his touch.

Kheo understood at once and closed his meaty paw around Bronwyn's far more delicate fingers.


The three people waded around or through the hay, the debris, the rat droppings and the pools of urine on their way down to the connecting corridor where the other warder was still lying next to the food cart.

Bronwyn had turned decidedly green around the gills, and she had her jaw clenched so firmly her teeth ached. She took in the horrific sight of three bloody tears in the man's tunic, though since the uniform had already been red, the blood wasn't too visible on his body. The floor had been stained for decades if not centuries so another spilling of blood made very little difference. Nevertheless, it was an unpleasant sight for her.

"Commander Tarsi, did the men have families?" she said through her firmly clenched teeth.

"The man out front was a bachelor. This man here lived with his sister and her young children. They had both lost their spouses through the fever last year and had decided to share a household for the sake of the children. Not that it matters now."

"It matters, Commander!" Bronwyn barked, but the strong emotions nearly made her gag and she had to rub her chin furiously to make the ugly sensation go away. After a few deep breaths, she was ready to go on. "It matters. The surviving sister and her children are to receive one thousand Crowns in gold in the morrow and an additional five hundred Crowns each year until the children are old enough to support themselves."

"Oh... my Empress... that is highly irregular. Such an-"

"It shall be thus, Commander. Do not argue with me. Now, let me see the cell where Zai Allizadra was kept," Bronwyn said and stomped off without waiting for the torch to illuminate the corridors.

Tarsi quickly eyed Kheo who sent him a silent message in return that said loud and clear that when the Empress was in such a mood, her commands should be followed to the letter.

Bronwyn reached Zai's old cell before the others and stopped at the metal gate that the rescuers hadn't bothered to close. She sighed deeply as she took in the pitiful sight.

Like in the corridors, the hay on the floor was covered in rat droppings. Dead rodents were scattered throughout the cell; some had even been ripped in half. A dried-up pile of vomit near the bars proved that someone had been sick without getting any help. A rickety waste bucket was standing at the foot end of the crude bunk, but dark stains at the center of the mattress proved that Zai had not always had time to find the bucket before she'd had to do her business.

The brick wall above the bunk had many scratches on it, almost like Zai had tried to keep track of the days she had been locked up. At first, the scratches were uniform and neat, but as they grew in number, they became less and less restrained until they were merely wild squiggles.

Bronwyn gulped and looked away, unable to face Phirax any longer. Kheo and Commander Tarsi joined her at the bars, but neither had much interest in the cell. Together, they began to shuffle back to the entrance.

"The two men died because of me," she said quietly, wringing her hands. "I said I would shut down the dungeons for good. I did not... and now two men have died. And Marpaxa only knows the scale of the tragedies that will assuredly follow now that Zai is on the loose. Ack, I should have listened to my heart rather than my bureaucrats!"

"Yeah, but that ain't the whole story, Empress," Kheo said and put a hand on the small of Bronwyn's back to steer her away from a deep puddle of urine. "Them people in here ain't prisoners fer snatchin' a cookie from the bakery, ya know. Them people in here are murderers, rapists, child molesters... wretched scum the lot o' 'em. Ain't that right, Commander Tarsi?"

Tarsi nodded though no one was able to see it in the semi-darkness. "Yes it is, Grand Marshal. I do believe we even have a thrill slayer in here. A man who tortured three wenches to death simply to hold them while they drew their last breath... he believed he could capture it in a bottle."

"Ack, how gruesome," Bronwyn croaked with a hand firmly pressed to her lips.

"I fear it is thus, Empress," Tarsi said with a somber nod. "Upon their arrest, these people had three options... one was to stay here in the dungeons until their natural death, another was to be beheaded at once and the third was to take the long, lonesome walk to the gallows and die in agony in public. None of these people can ever be allowed to return to society, Empress Bronwyn. And that includes Zai Allizadra. Her war crimes against the Yonnae and others would have seen to that."

Bronwyn sighed deeply. She knew her companions were right, but it didn't ease the pain she felt for the two dead warders. "I understand, gentlemen. Unfortunately, Zai Allizadra has indeed returned to society. I fear she will start a reign of terror against us. She will stop at nothing to get even with us. I know her too well to underestimate her... and ultimately, 'tis I who shall find myself in her crosshairs."

The three people stepped out into the anteroom in front of the dungeons. Two soldiers were hard at work getting the dead warder off the desk and into a wooden casket with a lid. Bronwyn had to look away at once or else she knew she would vomit on the floor.

"Perhaps so, Empress," Tarsi said as he put the torch back into the brass ring he had taken it from. "But please do not forget that Zai has spent the past six moons in that cell. Such an extended period of confinement will take the fight out of any human being."

"Not Zai Allizadra," Bronwyn said and shook her head slowly. "I fear her confinement will only have added to the fire that rages within her. She has always been an unusual woman."

"I cannot say, Empress. I only knew her fleetingly."

"I wish I could say the same. Alas, I know her too well, Commander," Bronwyn said quietly, falling silent as she thought back to the many confrontations she'd had with the leader of the Black Lance. Ever since Zai usurped the previous commander of the elite unit, it seemed her primary goal in life was to instill fear and suffering into the heart and mind of the Lady of Ashburne Castle, culminating in the beheading of May-Linn, one of the castle's handmaidens who was Bronwyn's lover at the time.

Bronwyn shuffled out into the middle of the anteroom and looked despondently at the vandalism on the support pillar. "Black Death Cometh," she said out loud, turning to look at Kheo. "It suddenly becomes clear to me... was that not the battle cry of the Black Lance?"

"Yeah it wus, Empress Bronwyn. That's the cry they used when they started their charges," Kheo said with his bulging arms folded across his chest.

"Mmmm," Bronwyn grunted, remembering a situation where she had heard Zai herself utter those words; when the slightly insane woman had led a vast unit of Black Lance riders on a pre-emptive strike against the supposed rebel camp in the Sarkhann forest. "Ack, though I fear the worst, I pray to Marpaxa the Black Lance has not been re-formed into some kind of... of..."

"Team o' wretched bushwhackers," Kheo added darkly.

"Thank you, Sir Kheo... Vengeful or indeed righteous terrorists was the phrase I was searching for. I fear they must have had connections on the inside," Bronwyn said and turned away from the vandalism. "It cannot be a coincidence that Zai was sprung free on this very day when so many of our armed forces have left to go on the maneuvers. Ack, I wish Caid were here..."

Her voice trailed off into nothing and she looked down at the gold ring. Sighing deeply, she began to fiddle with it, hoping its presence would provide the courage and moral support she seemed to be missing. "Alas, we cannot do anything about that now. Commander Tarsi, please see to it that this pillar will be whitewashed so this wretched message is no longer."

"It shall be done, Empress," Tarsi said with a brief nod.

Bronwyn and the others soon had to move to the side to make way for the two soldiers who carried the wooden casket with the dead warder. Although the lid had been put on it, Bronwyn had to look away in shame.

Kheo grunted and put a calming and surprisingly tender hand on the Empress' elbow. "I do know one thing, tho'. This wussen no buncha hot-headed hooligans out fer revenge fer what we did ta their leader. This was cold, clean an' well executed. Them there monks sure as Phirax knew what they wus doin'. I'm willin' ta bet a full moon's wages that this here jailbreak wus planned by of'cers an' not grunts. O' course, that only makes it worse. All of'cers, even those in the Black Lance, have sworn allegiance ta the throne. If we ever catch 'em, their heads gonn' fill up a whole reed basket fer the high treason they've committed here."

"Grand Marshal Khammon!" Commander Tarsi said sternly, "I do believe the Empress does not need to know the gory details. Would a simpler message not have sufficed?"

Kheo grunted and looked back at Bronwyn who did indeed look a little green around the gills at the colorful description. "Uh... yeah. I beg fer fergiveness, Empress. I didden mean ta-"

"Never mind that now, Kheo. Come, gentlemen, I cannot stand being here any longer," Bronwyn said and strode past the support pillar and into the corridor that would take her to the grand staircase. "Commander Tarsi, I fear we must double the guard at all posts for as long as Zai Allizadra is out there," she said over her shoulder.

"I agree, Empress," Tarsi said and hurried after her. "That includes your personal guard. I fear that from now on, you must have one or perhaps two protection officers watching over you at all times. Alas, the City Watch only has a very limited amount of female security personnel on our roster, so I fear your protection will need to be men."

Bronwyn groaned out loud and slowed down just as she set her foot on the lower rung of the staircase. She kept standing with her back turned to the senior officers, but there was no mistaking her body language. "Very well," she said over her shoulder. "However, if I am to be kept on such a tight leash, I demand to choose my own protection. Sir Kheo, could I persuade you to keep a close eye on me?"

"I'm at yer service, Empress Bronwyn," Kheo said and executed a deep bow. "In the absence o' the Huntress, my blade and I shall protect ya ta my dyin' breath. Nothin' is gonn' come past me... nothin'. An' when I say nothin' I really do mean nothin'. An' certainly no monks!"

"I trust you completely, Sir Kheo... and I thank you," Bronwyn said and turned around. "Commander Tarsi, in your opinion, will the undeniable presence of Grand Marshal Khammon be adequate?"

"It will, Empress Bronwyn," Tarsi said with a polite nod.

Bronwyn nodded back and spun around. "Good. Let us leave this wretched place before the stench etches itself permanently into my nostrils."


Tarsi didn't join them so Bronwyn and Kheo went up into the dining hall on their own. The Empress was silent the entire way there, and her gloominess didn't lift even when she sat down on her throne. Sighing, she shuffled around on the hard chair and propped her head up on her arm.

Kheo sat down on her left and kept quiet except for his stomach which started to rumble at the most inopportune moments. After the fourth rumble, he whacked his fist into his gut to make it shut up.

A faint smile creased Bronwyn's lips as she looked at her friend. She had become quite fond of the large man with the brutish exterior and the tender heart, and she always found pleasure in the special interaction he had with Caid. The two couldn't be more different physically, and yet they were so much alike in their humor, their mannerisms and their view of the world.

When Kheo's stomach rumbled again, he whacked himself one more time and mumbled curses into his full beard. "Oy, I seem ta recall I wus promised baloney on rye...?" he said, looking at the horseshoe-shaped table that hadn't yet been set for lunch.

Bronwyn furrowed her brow and turned to look at the wall opposite the dining table where the maids and servants were usually waiting to serve the dinner guests during the meals. When nobody was there at all, she rose from the throne to investigate.

Kheo rose with her but she waved him off. "Sir Kheo, I am just going to go into the anteroom by the kitchen. There is something odd going on here..."

"Oy, I'll say! There ain't even no kegs o' ale or nothin'," Kheo said and sat down.

Bronwyn looked up at the stained glass windows high above the marble floor as she strolled over to the swinging doors. The spring sunshine was still shining brightly, and yet, a strange yet quite tangible gloominess that she couldn't understand had settled over Ashburne Castle. Although the tragic events in the dungeons could be a source, she didn't think it would impact the staff in such an odd way.

She opened the swinging doors and peeked into the anteroom. Nobody was in there which was unusual in itself, but it was even stranger that the food she had requested for lunch was lined up and ready to go. Several trays carried the rye buns and the smoked baloney that Kheo had been dreaming of, and the kegs of sweet ale and brandy were all ready to be poured into freshly cleaned jugs.

Everything seemed to have been left behind in a hurry by the kitchen staff, and Bronwyn furrowed her brow as she stepped into the anteroom, thinking that she might as well carry the trays herself since they had already been made.

As the swinging doors slipped shut behind her, she could suddenly hear distant crying and screaming. The sounds seemed to originate from beyond the door to the corridors that led into the servants' quarters in the bowels of the castle.

The crying and screaming made her skin crawl, and she bared her teeth in a worried grimace. Just as she was about to open the door to the corridor to get a better picture of the odd situation, she could hear running footfalls from the other side.

Bronwyn shied back in a hurry and tore over to the large collection of kitchen knives she knew Harsomme kept near the open stoves. She took the largest knife she could find and held it out ahead of her in case the potential intruder turned out to be Zai Allizadra or one of her associates.

Instead of the insane former leader of the Black Lance, the mystery person turned out to be Luna, Tawna's personal handmaiden, who came storming through the door. When the young girl saw the large knife pointed at her, she shrieked and thumped her head into the sturdy wooden door as she tried to make an escape.

"No! No, Luna, 'tis I, Empress Bronwyn!" Bronwyn cried and threw down the knife. "I beg for forgiveness, I merely thought you were someone else-"

A moment later, Kheo slammed the swinging doors open and flew into the anteroom with his blade drawn. "What's all that shriekin'?!" he said, quickly scanning the kitchen.

Luna stared wide-eyed at the two people in the anteroom for several seconds before she had recovered enough to speak. "Empress Bronwyn... Mynere is poorly! Very poorly! She has gone into premature labor down in her chamber!"

"Oh no... Sweet Marpaxa, I pray to thee to protect Mynere and her child," Bronwyn said and hurried over to the frightened young maid. "Luna, tell me what happened... please."

Luna wiped her damp brow on the back of her hand and looked at the two people with wide, spooked eyes. "We were preparing lunch when the screaming started... the Cook sent one of us down there to see what was going on and she found Mynere on the floor of her chamber giving birth! Matron Sharona is with her now, but... but... the Matron says Mynere is poorly."

"Has a healer been called for, Luna?"

"Y- yes, Mistress... I m- mean, no... we have called for the midwife... but she hadn't arrived when I ran away... I sim- simply couldn't take it any longer... it was such a horrible sight... she was bleeding from her... and... and..." Luna stuttered and wrung her hands.

"Luna, do not feel bad for running away. It must have been a frightful experience for you. You are fairly close with Mynere, are you not?"

"Y- yes, Mistress, but Carrae is closer... I cannot find her..."

"Wretched!" Bronwyn said and rubbed her flushed face. "And double wretched! I told Tawna and Carrae to lock themselves inside my chamber! They cannot be aware of the unfolding drama... Sir Kheo, I need your swift... ah... never mind. I shall do it myself. Luna, you have my permission to take a strong brandy if you wish."

"Tha- thank you, Mistress..."

"You are most welcome. Kheo, make sure Luna is all right while I inform Tawna and Carrae!" Bronwyn said and left the anteroom before Kheo could even open his mouth to object.


A few minutes later, Tawna and a deathly pale Carrae came into the anteroom with the Empress. Carrae quickly pulled Luna into an awkward hug before she took off down the corridor to the servants' quarters. As she opened the door and then shut it behind her, the crying and screaming could be heard all too clearly.

Tawna shook her head slowly and put a hand on Bronwyn's arm. "My Empress, I have witnessed such an emergency birth before. It did not end well for neither mother nor child. In my opinion, you should not expose yourself to it. The sight can be quite traumatic."

"But I must, Tawna!" Bronwyn said sharply. "If I am absent from such a tragic event, it would give my staff an impression that I could not care less about their well-being. No. I appreciate your concerns, my old friend... but I must be present," she continued, opening the door to the corridor.

"Mistress, if you are going, so am I," Tawna said and followed Bronwyn into the hallway.

Kheo scratched his bald head and looked at the sturdy door as it closed after the two women. Grunting, he looked at the trays of baloney and rye and licked his meaty lips. His sense of duty won out over his empty stomach, and he sheathed the blade he was still holding and moved over to the door. "Oy... luv, ya gonn' be awright?" he said, cocking his head as he glanced at Luna who had helped herself to a healthy brandy.

"Y- yes, Master."

"Good. I don't know if Imma gonna..." Kheo said and left the anteroom.


It wasn't difficult to see where the drama took place. The damp, dark hallway was packed with nervous, mumbling or even crying maids and junior manservants who all jostled for position to be able to look into the chamber. The narrow corridor in front of Mynere's chamber was so full of nervous anticipation the air nearly trembled.

Bronwyn could hear Mynere crying heartrendingly even before she turned the final corner into the corridor. She paused briefly to question if she really wanted to see what would undoubtedly be a bloody, gruesome scene, but her conscience overruled her failing courage and forced her to continue.

"It's the Empress!" someone shouted when Bronwyn came into view. Nearly moving as one, the maids and junior manservants all curtseyed and bowed though there was hardly any room in the corridor.

"Oh, enough with that foolishness! Rise!" Bronwyn said angrily, waving at the young women and men.

"Make way for the Empress," someone else said strongly, and a path to the door was cleared as if by magic.

When Bronwyn stepped into the doorway to see what was going on, she gasped loudly and felt her heart skip a beat. Staring with wide, disbelieving eyes, she slapped a hand across her mouth and began to mumble a prayer to Marpaxa. She only made it a few words into the prayer before her throat tied itself into a knot and she had to stop.

On the floor, Mynere was lying on her back on two sleeping furs. She was being tended to by Matron Sharona and a midwife Bronwyn had seen before but couldn't remember the name of.

The young maid was naked and the entire lower part of her body from the top of her bulge to her knees was smeared in her own blood. Even as Bronwyn was watching, another surge of blood and placenta escaped from Mynere's center and pooled on the sleeping furs below her.

Her legs were pulled up to ease the path of her unborn child, but by the way the young maid was crying hoarsely, it wasn't going well.

Kheo took but a single look into the chamber before he pulled back with a choked-up "Oy...!"

"That man needs to stay away!" the midwife said sternly from her spot down next to the crying Mynere. "This room is for women only!"

"I hear ya, I hear ya," Kheo said, rubbing his face. "I don't wanna jinx nothin' with Anna-Liese's babe... I'll wait out here in the corridor if that's awright with ya, Empress."

Bronwyn couldn't speak so she settled for nodding. She clenched her jaw hard and stepped into the chamber though she knew she wouldn't be able to do anything for the young maid.

"Wretched, the child is coming," Matron Sharona said around a shocked gasp.

Everyone there looked at Mynere's opening and saw to their great horror that the babe wasn't being born as much as being purged from the tortured body. Another wash of blood and placenta swept out next to the seemingly lifeless gray head that had appeared.

"Wretched, wretched, wretched..." the midwife said, rubbing her face on the only spot on her formerly white sleeve that wasn't soaked in Mynere's blood. "Push, Mynere... push for all you're worth! We need to get the child out now!" she said, moving down between Mynere's legs to take the babe when it came.

The young maid's face was nearly as gray as the child's head, and she had no voice left to cry out her terrors. She attempted to push, but it was clear to see she had already spent all her energy.

"Push, Mynere! Wretched!" the midwife cried, taking hold of the child's head to support it.

Mynere's body suddenly convulsed which created the strongest wash of blood and other fluids yet. The far too small baby was finally purged from the young maid's opening, but it was clear to see - even to Bronwyn - as it lay there completely motionless in a pool of bright red blood that any thought of perhaps saving it at the last had been foolish.

"It's a boy. Fully formed... alas, stillborn," the midwife said laconically, confirming everyone's fears. Sighing, she reached for her medical bag and found a sharp knife that she used to cut the umbilical cord. "We cannot do more for this child. We must concentrate on saving the mother," she said as she coldly shoved the dead babe away from Mynere's legs.

Mynere whimpered and tried to reach for her baby, but the midwife ignored her.

"Let her hold her child," someone said in a strangely muted voice. It took Bronwyn a while to find out that it had been herself.

The midwife looked up at Bronwyn with a dark look in her eyes. "It's folly, Empress Bronwyn. This child is-"

"Do not argue with me, midwife. Let Mynere hold her child," Bronwyn said through clenched teeth.

Though it visibly didn't suit the midwife, she eventually nodded and scooped up the stillborn boy. She placed him tenderly between Mynere's swollen breasts and helped the young maid reach up and put her hands on him. "Matron, support her while I try to stop the bleeding."

"Y- yes," Matron Sharona said, putting a hand on the child's gray back to keep it in place.

Mynere looked with disbelieving eyes at her newborn, quite clearly not grasping what had happened. With a faint smile creasing her lips, she ran a few fingers across the back of the gray head. For the briefest of moments, she looked up at Bronwyn, but she couldn't fight the hold Death had taken on her.

She sighed and looked back down at her child. Then her eyes slipped shut and the hand that held her babe fell limply down her side.

"No! Mynere!" Carrae cried, bursting into the room and grabbing hold of Bronwyn's arm.

"Wretched," the midwife mumbled, moving up to check the pulse on the side of Mynere's neck. "No, we've lost her. She's with Marpaxa now. Wretched."

Bronwyn's chin began to quiver strongly and she had to rub it and summon all her strength to stop herself from bawling. She pulled Carrae into an embrace, and the young girl who had just lost her best friend responded at once by wrapping her arms around Bronwyn's body and giving her a crushing hug.

"I have seen something like this before," the midwife said and got to her feet. "It's called eclampsia. Her pregnancy poisoned her blood and her mind... it's always fatal. Everyone, listen up. If you have been in contact with the young girl's blood, scrub yourselves thoroughly at once. Don't spare the water. Do you understand?"

The maids and junior manservants in the hallway all nodded, but none of them had been close enough to get any blood on them. Matron Sharona's arms up to her elbows were covered in Mynere's blood, and she bared her teeth in a nervous grimace.

"You better listen to the midwife, Matron," Bronwyn said in a trembling voice. "Death walks among us today. This makes four lives He has claimed now."

Sharona nodded and staggered to her feet. Looking down, it was clear by the horrified look on her face that she was thinking about how they should get the two bodies removed, not to mention how they were ever going to get all the blood and other fluids cleaned up.

A persistent tickle in Bronwyn's chest made her cough lightly a couple of times, and Carrae took that as a signal to disentangle herself from the Empress and move away.

The deep, trembling sigh that emanated from the young maid's lips as she glanced at the bodies on the floor was a sentiment they all shared.


Later, Bronwyn and Kheo escorted Carrae back up the endless corridors while Tawna stayed behind to organize everything that needed to be done. The damp, dark hallways with their flickering torches matched the glum faces of the three people, and none of them spoke on their way back to the kitchen.

Now and then, a quiet sob escaped Carrae's lips but it was clear she was trying hard to hold it back until she was alone so she wouldn't be bothering her Mistress. Occasionally, a muted cough that made her tap her chest joined the sobs.

Bronwyn glanced back at Kheo who sent the Empress a somber look in return.

By the time they made it to the kitchen, the trays with the smoked baloney, the rye buns and the jar of salted fat didn't seem quite so attractive anymore. Wordlessly, Bronwyn moved over to the keg of brandy and poured a healthy amount into a tin beaker that she offered to Carrae.

The young girl looked down at the floor and shook her head. "Thank you, Mistress, but no thank you. I fear I don't like it much."

Bronwyn smiled wistfully and took a swig of the brandy before she handed the rest to Kheo whom she knew would have no objections against sharing a beaker. As predicted, the Grand Marshal took the cup and chugged down the rest of the strong brandy in one gulp.

"Carrae," Bronwyn said and put her hands on the young maid's slumped shoulders. "I am hereby giving you the rest of the week off."

"I cannot, Mistress. I have chores..."

Bronwyn grimaced when she remembered Mynere using the very same words the last time she had spoken with her. "Your chores shall be taken care of by another maid. You are in mourning for your lost friend, a state I am sadly all too familiar with. I know it shall take some time before you can function fully again. I want you to spend the time honoring Mynere by remembering how beautiful and spirited she was in life, not how she became in death. She was eighteen, was she not?"

"She was, Mistress. She turned eighteen last month. We held a little celebration f- for her," Carrae said in a voice that trailed off into nothing.

"Mmmm," Bronwyn said and reached up to put a comforting hand on the young maid's cheek. "You know that if you pray to Marpaxa and put in a good word for Mynere, you can ease her way to the great tables where she and her child shall dine and mingle merrily with their ancestors for all eternity."

"Thank you, Mistress. I shall pray," Carrae said with a sad nod and a muted cough. "Mistress, do you think the Mistress of the Robes will still teach me to read and write? The Mistress tutored me and Mynere, but... but... now... that it's just me..."

"Oh, Carrae, I am sure she will. The Mistress of the Robes cares for you a great deal. She cares for all the maids. Perhaps Luna could join you?"

Carrae nodded timidly. She wasn't about to tell the Empress that Luna was one of the maids who occasionally bullied her for her shyness.

"Good. Oh... I have one more thing, then you can go to your chamber. Do you know if... oh, I fear there is no easy way of asking this," Bronwyn said and rubbed her brow. She looked at the young maid's sad face and knew her next question was about to make matters worse. "Carrae, do you know if the father of Mynere's child has been informed?"

The corners of Carrae's mouth twitched and she had to look down at the floor. "I do not know, Mistress," she said in a voice that was even more fragile than before.

"Ah, it matters not. I shall find out," Bronwyn said and put a hand on Carrae's cheek. "Oh, I cannot remember if you ever told me his name...?"

"I did not, Mistress. His name is Dywel of Ashburne. He was at the courtyard earlier today... he was one of the-"

"The young men who scooped up the horse droppings. I see. I had a hunch he may have been. I thank you, Carrae. Please, go to your chamber and try to clear your mind of the horrors you have witnessed. I shall come to you a little later on to ask how you are feeling."

"Oh, Empress Bronwyn, that won't be neces-"

"I insist, Carrae... it shall be thus. Now go on."

Carrae curtseyed and shuffled out of the kitchen - the swinging doors soon closed behind her.

Bronwyn buried her face in her hand and tried to rub her temples with her long fingers at the same time. When it didn't quite work, she wiped her eyes and let out a long, slow sigh. Although the mere thought of food made her stomach churn, she knew she needed to eat, so she took one of the knives and began to slice open the nearest rye bun.

"Oy, lemme do that, luv," Kheo said and took the sharp kitchen utensil out of the Empress' trembling hand. "Caid would roast my nuts slowly ovah an open fire if I let anythin' happen to them there slender fingers while she wus away."

"Thank you, Sir Kheo. I fear I am so dreadfully, dreadfully tired from the day's frightening and tragic events. And to think, it was only a little over a turn of the hourglass ago that we sent Caid off on the maneuvers," Bronwyn said, looking at the gold ring with a dead-tired - and even shocked - look on her face.

Kheo grunted as he took another knife and expertly spread the salted fat onto both halves of the bun. With the original knife, he cut off three thick slices of smoked baloney and pressed them carefully down into the fat in a triangular pattern. "Here ya go, luv," he said, offering the Empress the top half of the bun.

Bronwyn accepted it and took a small bite. As expected, everything inside her performed an ungraceful and nauseating flip-flop, and she had to push away the bun before she lost herself completely. The persistent cough returned and she tapped her chest to make it go away. "I fear I cannot, Sir Kheo... my stomach rebels against me. I beg for forgiveness for-"

"Oy, think nothin' of it, luv. It's been one Phirax of a day alreddy an' we're only just past lunch! Uh... ya mind if I take an ale an' the...?" he said, pointing at the halved rye bun.

"Eat, my friend. Eat for both of us, for I surely will not be able to take on any nourishment for the rest of the day," Bronwyn said and ran a faintly trembling hand through her hair.


Many turns of the hourglass later, Bronwyn roamed through the endless corridors of Ashburne Castle like a silent, ghostly presence. Unable to sleep after the many horrors she had witnessed over the course of the day, she had changed into a less extravagant outfit of brown, straight cut ankle pants, an off-white quilted tunic and a dark cloak, and had set off into the darkness of the evening through the rear exit of her Imperial bedchamber.

She felt guilty for tricking Kheo - the large man and four sentries were guarding the main door to the bedchamber blissfully unaware the person they were there to protect was long gone - but she needed to be alone to reflect on everything that had happened. For protection, she had brought the Ranger dagger that had worked so effectively in reviving Kheo when his lung had collapsed in the melee against the amphibious creature in the Natfarann Forest.

Bronwyn coughed lightly from the damp conditions and wrapped the cloak tighter around her body. The poorly lit corridors proved a challenge without a torch to guide her along, but she didn't want to attract attention to herself. She still knew every shortcut and most corridors by heart, and that would have to be enough.

As she walked past the thick, sturdy walls in the bowels of the ancient castle, she could hear the rats squeaking merrily not far from her. She shivered when she thought of the gruesome fate she and the other human residents of the castle would face if the thousands upon thousands of rodents ever decided to turn against them and come out during the day.

She knew where she was, but she didn't have a conscious plan as to where she was going. Her feet did, however, and she soon found herself standing in an open, well-lit area that was guarded by six soldiers from the regular army who were lounging on a bench and behind a desk. Some of the soldiers tried to kill time by playing One-Two-Three on pieces of parchment, and others were talking quietly to each other.

Beyond the sentries, no less than three iron gates separated the well-lit, open area from the fully stocked treasure vault of Ashburne Castle.

Bronwyn stepped closer, much to the complete surprise of the six guards who all snapped to perfect Attention at the appearance of their Empress. The five men and one woman wore thick leather plates on top of their regular red tunics to be better protected in case anyone ever attempted to raid the vault. Moving as one, they bowed to their surprise visitor.

"Empress Bronwyn, we are honored by your presence," the commanding officer said, stepping forward to intercept Bronwyn. The Lieutenant was a beardless fellow in his early thirties who seemed just as shocked as his soldiers over the unexpected house call.

"Greetings, Lieutenant. Enchanted to meet you," Bronwyn said and loosened the cloak. With the many torches burning near the vault, the temperature was higher than in the damp corridors and she didn't need quite as many layers of clothing. "May I be let into the vault, please?" she said and let out a faint cough.

"Certainly, Empress Bronwyn," the Lieutenant said and signaled his soldiers they should begin the elaborate process of opening the three iron gates.

The first gate was lowered into the floor through a crank, the second split off-center and was pushed to the sides, and the third had to be raised off the floor with a hand-operated crank so large it took two soldiers to work it.

Bronwyn smiled at her loyal soldiers as she walked past them on her way into the vault. "Lieutenant, I trust you have been informed of the escape of Zai Allizadra?" she said once she had reached the far side of the third gate.

"We have, my Empress."

"Good. She and her associates may not have any interest in the vaults... but one can never know. You better close the iron gates behind me. I beg for forgiveness for the work that I am sure you never expected to do this late in the day."

"Your wish is our command, Empress Bronwyn," the Lieutenant said and signaled his soldiers to reset the three gates. Moving into their regular positions, they pulled the three gates back in place with hardly any complaints.

Bronwyn moved into the vast vault and looked around at the many piles of gold, silver and other precious metals that were stocked in there. The roof of the vault was shaped like a dome which should - in theory - remain rock-solid even if the rest of the castle crumbled around it. To be certain of its solidity, the dome was ably supported by several three-fathom wide brick pillars. The walls had all been whitewashed to create fewer shadows that less-than honest souls could exploit to their own advantage, and the torches that hung from the pillars were shielded by pierced brass plates to reduce the risk of fire.

Despite holding vast amounts of valuables, the vault was almost clinical in its setup. The piles of precious metals and the crates that were filled to the brim with gemstones of every type were all lined up with persnickety precision that allowed Bronwyn to easily find the items she was there to see, though she hadn't even realized it until she was looking at them.

The remaining thirty-six gold bars of the forty they had taken from the frightful creature's lair near Abryloch in the far north were stored in an orderly pile that allowed easy access to the bars on top. All bars had been stamped with the Imperial crest and a 'Brnw' - symbolizing Bronwyn's reign - to show they were the property of Empress Bronwyn of Dinnigon, Tantor, Zigai, Multrovia, Lotzan, Onilia, Palkor and the Shadowlands in the east.

Bronwyn let her fingers glide over the cold golden metal while she thought about the many hardships and tragedies involved with collecting them. Four bars had already been melted down into gold coins with varying denominations. Some coins had been put directly into circulation, but the majority had been paid to Ashburne's master craftsmen and seamstresses for their services in creating quality furniture and clothing for those unfortunate citizens who could not afford it.

"C-w-r-r-s-s-e..." Bronwyn spelled out quietly, remembering the strange warning she had found in a dusty old tome in Abryloch. "Curse. Oh, Sweet Marpaxa... what if the gold really is cursed? What if I have brought a fatal curse upon the castle and my people... not to mention those near and dear to my heart? I could not live on if that was the case... if such a curse would strike Tawna, or Caid... oh Sweet Marpaxa, please protect them if I cannot. The mere thought of something happening to my love brings about a tendril of fear that pierces my heart," she continued, feeling icy goosebumps break out all over her body.

She coughed a couple of times and tapped her chest to make the annoying and increasingly persistent tickle go away.

"Alas, if I have brought a curse upon my people, I must be prepared to pay the ultimate price to rectify it. Yes. Yes, if it comes to that, I shall face Death with nary a whimper."

Coughing again, she turned away from the gold and shuffled over to the first of the iron gates to go back to her bedchamber.




"Dawn at last," Miriam Connighen said with a sigh as she carefully folded the lacy curtain back down. Outside the anonymous two-storey building in the eastern part of Ashburne a street away from the market place, the last echoes of the night watchman's cries of 'Dawn Has Broken' petered out.

Wrapping her arms around her body that was clad in a long, old-fashioned sleeping gown on top of her uniform undershirt, the former First Lieutenant of the Black Lance moved away from the window and padded into the middle of the first floor room on bare feet. Her face fell when she looked at the sorry figure who was tossing and turning on a bunk under a quilt.

Their plan had been meticulously staged though quite simple to execute: Meet outside of Ashburne, enter the city together, commandeer a house, gain access to the castle, break into the dungeons, rescue their old commander and return to their makeshift base where they were to plan pinpoint attacks to instill fear into the hearts of the castle residents. There had been nothing to it - until they had seen how poorly Zai Allizadra had been treated by the warders.

When Miriam and her brothers in arms had returned to the building they had commandeered from an elderly widow - who now lay dead with a snapped neck in the basement of her own house - Zai had been so far gone she had barely been alive. It was bad enough her body had been reduced to skin and bones, but her sharp mind had irrevocably turned the corner between brilliance and insanity.

The room Zai and Miriam were in was sparsely furnished, but the two chairs, the dresser and the dusty old closets were more than adequate for their requirements. The bunk had been pushed over next to a wall that was pleasantly heated by the chimney from the downstairs kitchen so the tormented woman could have the best possible environment for her recuperation.

Though it hadn't been part of the original plan, Miriam had put in an old mattress they had found in the basement so she could be close to her poorly commander at all times. The floor was hard to sleep on, but she had tried much worse in her six-year tenure in the officers' corps of Emperor Jin-Sarnos' elite squad.

Miriam sighed and ran her hands through her crewcut before she shuffled over to the bunk and knelt down next to it. She had demanded to be the one who took care of Zai, but looking at the mere shadow of a woman on the bunk, she almost regretted her decision.

It had taken not one but two scented baths in a brass bathtub on the ground floor to get the dungeon stench off Zai's body and out of her hair, and the rags she had been wearing had been burned in the stove. Miriam had been responsible for the bathing, but the sight of Zai's rail thin body with the protruding knees, hipbones, ribs and shoulders, the once-proud Yonnae tattoos, and the poorly healed scars above her forlorn breasts had made her stomach churn incessantly.

As she reached up to caress Zai's cheek, she couldn't help but think back to the days where she and the brilliant commander had been an item. It hadn't lasted long - none of Zai's relationships ever had - but for Miriam, the moons they had spent together had been special. None of her brothers in arms knew about that particular part of her history, not even Borjan Maelwys, and she intended to keep it that way.

On the bunk, Zai let out a whimpering croak and opened her eyes. The skeletal woman looked around in a daze until she focused on Miriam. There was a brief flash of recognition before the windows to her soul glazed over and she returned to the shadowy world she had come from, but Miriam had seen it.

The former Lieutenant took a beaker with water she had put next to the bunk and held it to Zai's brittle lips. The hazy woman leaned her head forward to take a tiny sip of the water. The first was followed by another, slightly larger one before she leaned her head back down and went back to sleep.

Getting up, Miriam took off the old-fashioned sleeping gown and put on her black satin tunic. After tightening the laces on the sides and the wrist, she stepped into her uniform ankle pants and neatly tucked in the tunic to follow the dress code of her beloved unit. Once the tunic was in tip-top shape, she put on her black satin jerkin and adjusted it so it was on just right.

A soft knock on the door to the room made her tip-toe over there and hold it ajar. Also uniformed, Borjan Maelwys was waiting for her in the narrow hallway holding a tray with breakfast - bread, jam and a mug of steaming hot tea.

Miriam opened the door fully to allow her new commander inside. "You can put it on the desk there, Major," she said quietly, pointing at the far end of the small room before she closed the door.

Borjan did as told and placed the tray on the desk. "Any improvement?" he said as he shifted the items onto the desk itself.

"No. The new day is going to be as long and torturous as yesterday, of that I am certain," Miriam said and glanced down at Zai who seemed to be mumbling something in her sleep. Sighing, she sat down on one of the vacant chairs and slipped on her socks so she could put on her boots.

"Wretched," Borjan said and peeked through the curtains and out onto the city that slowly came to life at the break of the new day. "There must be something we can do to speed up the process. She still won't eat?"

"Eat? Of course she will eat, Borjan, just not enough. The bastards at the castle had her starving for six moons... her body needs time to understand that it can take on more nourishment now. If we stress it, she will die, mark my words."

"Surely not, Lieutenant?" Borjan said and crossed his arms over his chest.

"Yes. I remember something I experienced on our last campaign in Zigai. On a mission, my unit encountered a prison camp far behind enemy lines. Those people were very reminiscent of how Commander Allizadra is now. They were skeletal, too, because of malnourishment... but when the supply column caught up with the advance units and the prisoners were given food and sweet ale, their bodies couldn't cope and they fell like flies."

Borjan groaned and shook his head slowly. "Wretched. But we cannot stay here forever... our luck cannot hold. I'm surprised the Empress hasn't already sent out search parties to look for us... but she will, sooner or later."

"Empress Bronwyn is a wretched bitch who deserves to taste my blade!" Miriam said angrily as she ran a hand across her brow. When she had calmed down sufficiently, she took a deep breath and locked eyes with her new commander. "If the bitch had any goodness in her heart she would have sentenced Zai to death so she could have faced the ax with her dignity intact. Behold the results of Bronwyn's evil heart and black soul!" she continued, pointing an accusing index finger at the shell of a woman on the bunk.

Borjan nodded somberly.

"We had hoped Commander Allizadra would be able to hold the dagger as it plunged into Bronwyn's black heart. Now I shall do it, by Phirax!"

Borjan nodded again and pushed himself off the desk. On his way back to the door, he patted Miriam's shoulder and offered her a wistful smile of support.


In the Imperial bedchamber, Empress Bronwyn had finally regained her appetite. She had a vast, empty pit in her stomach that needed to be filled, so while she had her hair tended to by Luna who had taken over those solemn duties while Carrae was in mourning, she munched happily on a white bread bun with a cooked sausage on top that had been split in two.

She had tried to recreate the newfangled sausage-in-a-bun dish that she and Caid had tasted at the market before all the bad things started, but she hadn't quite hit the sweet spot. Then she realized she had it backwards - it wasn't the sausage that needed to be halved, but the bread. Chuckling, she stuffed the sausage and the remainder of the bun into her mouth and chewed on it vigorously.

Above her, Luna was hard at work with the two bone combs. The young maid was standing on a footstool while she sorted out the tousled hair the Empress had gained in sleep. When the dark locks were disentangled, she took the jar of scented ointment and added a fair-sized glob of it down onto the scalp where the hair had been parted. Once the lid was back on the jar, she pulled up her wide sleeves and began to rub in the soothing ointment.

The rubbing did wondrous things to Bronwyn's state of mind, but she wished it had been Caid who let her fingers speak so poetically. Smiling, she closed her eyes and allowed herself to float away into a land of dreaming for a few moments - a land where it really was Caid who was administering the soothing contact. The colorful images that traveled past her mind's eye trickled down into her body and spread a warm, pleasant tingle across this, that and the other.

She knew she needed to come back to the world before she did something embarrassing like moaning out loud, so she opened her eyes again and looked down at her lap. A crooked grin graced her lips which was picked up by Tawna.

The Mistress of the Robes returned the crooked grin and pointed discreetly at the chest of Bronwyn's sleeping chemise where two erect points tried hard to poke through the delicate fabric.

Bronwyn smiled at her old friend with a blush tingeing her cheeks and a small, persistent cough on her lips. "Ah, Tawna... shall we go on with the program? I trust you have found a magnificent gown for me today?"

"I have, Empress Bronwyn," Tawna said and pulled out a crimson, double-layered gown with a tastefully plunging neckline, puff-cuffs that were held in warm white, and finally a pleated skirt where the sheets of fabric alternated between crimson and warm white.

"Oh, that is such a brilliant gown, Tawna! I cannot imagine what I would do without y- OWWW!" Bronwyn said, suddenly crying out from a sharp, stinging pain that came from her scalp. She reached up in a hurry and discovered Luna had managed to get a large lock of hair swept around her finger as she massaged the scalp. "Ow... Luna... child, are you trying to give me a bald spot? I am quite fond of my hair, and I would like it to remain on my head, please..."

"I beg for forgiveness, Mistress! It was an accident!" the young girl cried, but no matter what she did, she couldn't get her finger free of the bother.

"Accidents do happen, but- OW! Oh, Luna!" Bronwyn cried, scrunching up her face when her scalp had suddenly been yanked backwards without due warning.

Tawna rolled her eyes and hurried over to rescue the Empress from the clumsy maid. With the expert touch of the old senior handmaiden, Bronwyn's dark locks were soon saved from being uprooted.

"I b- beg for forgiveness," Luna croaked, wiping her sticky fingers on a rag.

The hubbub was compounded when Kheo opened the door and looked into the Imperial bedchamber to see if anyone was trying to strangle the Empress. When everything appeared to be reasonably safe apart from the sizzling sight of Bronwyn's endless, shapely legs underneath the sleeping chemise that only came to mid-thigh, he popped back outside - but not for long. "Oy, Empress Bronwyn... I have a visitor ta announce," he said when he poked his head back in.

"Sir Kheo, I thank you for your tireless work as my protector," Bronwyn said and rubbed the spot on her head that Luna had tried to pull out roots and all, "but I fear my companions and I are already too stressed out with various mundane tasks to have room for any visitors at this point in time. Please, inform the honorable guest that I shall be out as soon as I can... though it may take a while," she said and politely covered her mouth with the back of her hand to conceal a cough.

"Uhhh... ya might as well tell'er that yerself, Empress, 'cos here she is now," Kheo said and stepped aside for the surprise visitor.

Bronwyn was about to object in stronger terms when a familiar figure appeared in the doorway dressed in a pale blue, long-sleeved cowl with an intricately detailed, broad white stripe down the front that was covered in letters from an ancient and long-forgotten language. The visitor's face was obscured by a hood that came down to below her eyes, but she soon raised her aged hands to pull it back.

Luna let out a shocked gasp at the sight of the tightly wound strip of cloth that covered the old woman's eyes, but Bronwyn jumped forward with her arms stretched out ahead of her. "Lady Fyonna! Oh, 'tis so good to see you again, my dear, old friend! Has life treated you well since the last time we spoke? It must have for your skin has such a healthy color. You have been away from Ashburne for so long I feared you would never return!" she said and fell into the two-centuries old woman's embrace.

"Greetings, Empress Bronwyn. Enchanted to see you as well. Yes, I am better than ever. I shall tell you all about it in a while. Oh my, bare legs? You should be careful... you may end up catching a head cold," Fyonna said in the characteristic raspy voice that all Seers had. Smiling, she moved back at an arm's length to take in the sights.

"Alas, I fear I may have caught one already. I have had an annoying little cough for a few days now," Bronwyn said with a smile and a little shrug.

Luna stared at the strip of cloth and then down at the Empress' bare legs. "But the Lady is blind...?" she croaked under her breath.

"Blind and the owner of excellent hearing, child," Fyonna said with a broad smile.

"I beg for forgiveness, Mistress," Luna said and quickly looked down at her feet.

"Oh, I'm nobody's Mistress, child," Fyonna said as she swept her arm around Bronwyn's waist. "I am Fyonna of Ashburne. I'm a Seer. Please, child, leave us. I fear I have important business with the Empress and her Mistress of the Robes."

"Yes, Lady Fyonna," Luna said and made a quick curtsey before she collected the tools she had used for tending to Bronwyn's hair, including the two bone combs and the jar containing the soothing ointment.

Tawna grunted, once again annoyed with the flighty maid. "No, Luna, you need to leave the tools behind. The Empress has not yet had her hair done for the day."

"I beg for forgiveness, Mistress. I shall leave the combs and the jar," Luna said before she hurried out of the door and shut it behind her.

"I swear, that silly girl shall forget to put on her head one morn," Tawna mumbled as she put the two bone combs and the jar down onto the footstool.

With peace finally restored, Bronwyn went over to the wardrobe and shed her sleeping chemise before she held out her arms to make it easier for Tawna to slip on the exquisite gown that was to be put on from the front and not over the head.

The gown was soon in place and safely secured through a row of buttons on the back. While Bronwyn made sure the plunging neckline was lined up perfectly with her cleavage, Fyonna strolled over to the unmade four-post canopy bed and sat down on the soft mattress.

She ran her hand over the smooth sheets and appeared to soak in the many vivid images that came into her palm from the fabric. The bed seemed to speak to the Seer as a cheeky smile briefly graced her lips. Turning her head towards the Empress, the smile faded from her face and she assumed a suitably somber expression. "First of all, Empress Bronwyn, my condolences for the death of the handmaiden and her child yesterday," Fyonna said as she put her hands in her lap.

"Oh... we thank you, Lady Fyonna," Bronwyn said and pulled down in her puff-cuffs. "Alas, that was such a tragedy. Such a ghastly tragedy." A cough claimed her, and she tapped her chest to make the persistent tickle go away.

"So I gather. I felt her pain so vividly I nearly fell off my horse. I was too far away. I could not help her as much as I wanted to. I tried to extend my senses to aid her, but... there are some things in this world even a Seer is powerless against."

Bronwyn nodded somberly as she swept back her hair. With the gown in place, she shuffled over to the chair and sat down so Tawna could continue to beautify her dark locks. "It was a dreadful sight, to be sure. Gruesome. I did not know the maid all that well, but to suffer such a fate... ack, I would not wish it upon my worst enemy. Her life literally seeped out of her. A ghastly situation and one I would rather not experience again in a hurry... or ever again, to be perfectly honest."

"Mmmm," Fyonna said, cocking her head.

"Oh, but let us not dwell on the frailty of life..." Bronwyn said and momentarily closed her eyes, "instead, let us speak of more a cheerful topic. You traveled to the Yonn, did you not, Lady Fyonna?"

"I did, yes," Fyonna said and slapped her hands down onto her thighs. "This is what I needed to talk to you about. I traveled to the Yonn Forest to find the shrine sacred to the Yonnae. Maybe you recall I told you once I had never been there?"

"Oh... I do! I do, actually. When we were on our way to the Shadowlands? When we passed by the Yonn forests south of the Jerubai mountain range?"

"Indeed, Bronwyn. Your mind is as sharp as ever," Fyonna said with a little nod that left Bronwyn's cheeks red. "Yes, it was an interesting journey. I had no maps, no shelter, no food, nothing to drink. I let my heart and my senses guide me. If my heart had been unable to locate the shrine for me, I would have perished in the forest, but it would have been the right punishment for not being true to my pure self."

"Oh, Lady Fyonna..." Bronwyn said shocked, leaning so far forward that Tawna had to stop tending to her hair. "You chose voluntarily to enter such a terrible ordeal despite knowing that if you failed, you would surely die?"

"I did, but fortunately, I found the shrine, Empress Bronwyn. I was in a poor state after spending four days and five eves trekking through the forest, but the Yonnae took care of me and introduced me to the sacred location. It was a beautiful experience. I have never felt more pure or in tune with our Sisterhood."

"Alas, I sense there is a 'but' somewhere in your story, Lady Fyonna," Bronwyn said and leaned back to allow Tawna to continue with her hair. A little cough escaped her lips, and she tapped her chest again.

Fyonna began to chew on her lips. "There is, Empress Bronwyn. When I finally broke through the edge of the forest and found the shrine, Yonnae elders from every last one of their tribes had been summoned there to perform an ancient ceremony. Apparently they had all been told in a spirit vision that... well, that our sun will blacken and die. Soon."

Bronwyn's jaw became slack and ended up looking quite comical. Gulping, she reached up to still Tawna's hands so she could avoid another hair-pulling incident. "The sun shall go black? Surely not! What in the world could happen to the ancient sun?!" she croaked, looking in wide-eyed horror at the Seer.

At first, Fyonna only shrugged. After a while, she drew a breath and let it out slowly. "I cannot explain it, Empress, but I fear it is thus. And I fear there is more. According to the tribal elders, Ashburne shall be where it all begins."

Bronwyn groaned out loud and slapped a hand over her eyes. " 'Tis the curse," she mumbled, " 'tis the wretched curse of the wretched gold..."

"Empress Bronwyn, before I left the sacred shrine, I arranged with a group of Yonnae tribal elders that one of them should come here and speak with you. I have sensed her presence. An elder and a group of warriors as her escort are still a league outside of Ashburne, though traveling closer even as we speak. We must treat them with the utmost respect when they come."

"Of course, of course. Tawna?" Bronwyn said while she rubbed her brow furiously.

The Mistress of the Robes nodded and ran the bone combs through the Empress' hair for the last time. "I shall get started on the preparations as soon as I am finished here, Empress Bronwyn."

"Oh, thank you, my old friend."

"Do you wish me to wash your hair, Empress? It has been a while."

"Oh... no. That must wait, thank you. Ack, I had hoped for a quieter day... it proves to be anything but! Drat!" The expletive segued into a larger cough that she had to quell by holding the back of her hand against her lips.

"Empress Bronwyn, I fear our tomes on etiquette and protocol do not mention how to entertain visiting delegations of Yonnae..." Tawna said as she found another handkerchief inside her cuff that she gave to Bronwyn with a little smile.

Bronwyn sighed and shook her head while she coughed once more into the lacy kerchief. "Improvise," she said with a tired wave.

"I shall, Empress. There, all done," Tawna said and removed the bone combs from Bronwyn's dark locks. She finished by folding the Imperial hair up into a neat bun and clipping on a dark blue barrette to keep the dark locks firmly together.

"Once again, I thank you. Just like the old days, Tawna... or perhaps not quite," Bronwyn said and turned around so she could offer her old senior handmaiden a genuine smile.

The Mistress of the Robes curtseyed deeply and left the bedchamber.

As the door closed behind Tawna, the smile faded from Bronwyn's face as she returned to the unwanted news brought to her by the Seer. "When my long-suffering tutor tried to teach me about the sun and the stars, he was quite adamant that the ancient sun was here long before any life, and that it would remain in the sky long after all life had been eradicated from our world," Bronwyn said before she had to interrupt herself to cough into the kerchief. "With its strong presence, it shall surely outlast us all... and yet, the Yonnae elders tell us it is not so? They must be speaking in riddles or metaphors... that is the only explanation I can provide. You said they had a spirit vision?"

"Yes, but I wasn't party to it so I cannot tell you any details. Empress Bronwyn, you are coughing," Fyonna said, moving out to the edge of the bed.

Bronwyn shrugged, but the mere mentioning of the ailment made her cough. Grunting, she tapped her chest to get the tickle to go away. "I am, Seer. Alas, I believe it is nervous energy. My beloved Caid is doing her duty for the Empire so we cannot spend the eves and nights in each other's arms. 'Tis quite an ordeal, I can assure you."

"Ah yes, the spring maneuvers."

"Oh! Have you been in contact with sweet Caid? I mean... through your senses?"

"No, scuttlebutt on the street told me the whole gang had left," Fyonna said with an un-Seer-like giggle.

"Oh... drat. 'Tis true, several hundred men and women left yesterday. Caid and our old companion Deegan Arliss were among them," Bronwyn said before she was interrupted by yet another cough. "Oh, you should have seen them, Lady Fyonna. They were dashing... quite simply dashing."

Fyonna cocked her head and studied the Empress closely as the younger woman moved around the bedchamber. When the Empress let out yet another cough and tapped her chest again, the Seer grunted and rose from the canopy bed. "My Empress, I had another important topic I needed to discuss with you, but I can sense your coughing condition needs to be treated before we can delve deeper into other matters. Come, child, allow me to guide you to your throne. I shall create a cough suppressant for you."

"Oh, I am not quite that poorly, Lady Fyonna!" Bronwyn said with a little snicker. To humor her distinguished guest, she moved back to the Seer and held out her arm. "Though, my dear old friend, you may lead me anywhere! Now you can lead me to the breakfast table... I declare, I am starving!"

Fyonna cocked her head and extended her senses. It didn't take long for her to feel a tell-tale feverish glow exuding from the Empress. Though it was faint, it was there. Nodding, she took the younger woman's hand and led her outside.


A few turns of the hourglass later, Bronwyn sat on her throne while a small army of maids and servants set the dinner table for their esteemed guests that Fyonna insisted would reach them shortly.

Bronwyn marveled at the highly organized way her staff were able to work together to perform the tasks of adding chalk-white tablecloths to the horseshoe-shaped table, arranging the plates, the goblets, the cutlery and the napkins - Tawna had asked how many guests they should prepare for and Fyonna had said six - put up decorative flower arrangements at the center of the table, dust off the high-backed chairs, and finally prepare comfortable cushions in case the Yonnae elder needed a bit of support on the hard seat.

All of this had been executed without as much as a heated word between them. Three servants had swept the vast tablecloths onto the table, and before the corners had even settled completely, a team of seven maids who each carried one type of the items needed went to work distributing them along the table.

Bronwyn chuckled and looked at Tawna who supervised everything. The Mistress of the Robes ran the event like a military operation. She demanded discipline of her staff, yet treated them with respect - and the results were quite visible in the sterling work produced by the maids and servants.

Once the table had been fully set for nine - the six visitors plus Bronwyn, Kheo and Fyonna - Matron Sharona scanned the chalk-white tablecloths quite literally with a fine tooth comb to remove the lint and loose threads that inevitably showed up out of the blue. When the stern Matron nodded her approval, the small army of maids and servants withdrew to the kitchen to be ready for when Harsomme and his assistant cooks had the hot lunch ready.

Tawna strode over to the throne and curtseyed at Bronwyn. "Empress, the table has been set. I must admit it feels quite strange to do that without even having our esteemed guests here..."

Bronwyn chuckled and reached out to pat her old friend's hand. "Ah, indeed, Tawna. Indeed. However, the Seer has said they shall soon arrive, and I trust her completely. Now, sweet Tawna... I do believe our recent traditions of hiring in entertainment to liven up things at state dinners will be highly inappropriate on this occasion."

"I agree, Empress Bronwyn. To be perfectly truthful, I cannot see Yonnae warriors being too awed by jugglers, fire-eaters or indeed court jesters..."

"Indeed not! Especially the court jesters... ack, can you imagine the drama? I have the utmost respect for the Yonnae, but one thing they are not is jovial. Oh, goodness me, we better not have any court jesters," Bronwyn said with a grin. "While we are on such a potentially touchy subject... do you have any idea what the Yonnae enjoy to drink? I cannot see them drinking brandy or even ale."

"I fear I have no insight into their habits, Empress Bronwyn," Tawna said with a shrug. "Perhaps it would be best if we simply put in a few jugs of all the beverages we can offer? Brandy, ale, wine, milk and freshly pumped water. That way, they can choose their own without feeling cornered."

Bronwyn reached up and took hold of Tawna's hands. "Again, my old friend, you are invaluable to me. I thank you." A strong cough interrupted her, and she had to tap her chest to make a small rattle go away. "Oh, pardon me. It seems Lady Fyonna's cough suppressant was not as effective as she claimed. Now, Tawna, with the table set, I feel we should at least try to return to normal. I know my dignitaries are growing impatient for me to sign further decrees, so will you please ask them to come here at once? I shall meet them at the fireplace so we will not disturb the newly set table."

"Yes, Empress Bronwyn," Tawna said and curtseyed deeply.


A while later - after having put her signature on no less than nineteen decrees and laws - Bronwyn stood by the fireplace closest to the double doors at the grand staircase. She rubbed her arms and wondered why she felt a chill sneaking up on her when the fire was burning so strongly.

Sighing, she turned away from the fire and began to stroll back to her bedchamber to find a shawl she could put over her shoulders. The annoying cough returned once again, and by now, she had realized it was growing stronger. 'Oh, wretched... I made it through the worst winter for generations without even a headache or a running nose, but now when the glorious spring sunshine has finally warmed the air enough to walk without those cumbersome furs, I get a head cold! Drat!'

By the time she reached Kheo and the sentries who were standing guard outside the Imperial bedchamber, she raised her hand to wave at her friend. "Sir Kheo, may I be allowed access to my quarters, please? I need a shawl."

"But o' course, Empress. Oy, luv... are ya poorly or somethin'? Yer kinda pale," Kheo said as he opened the door and moved aside.

"I am?"

"Yeah, a li'l sorta on yer forehead an' around yer temples an' stuff. An' yer eyes are really shiny."

Bronwyn shrugged as she moved into her bedchamber and went over to the large wardrobe. "Oh, I do not feel poorly. Merely this annoying cough... but I trust that will clear up soon. Ah, this one is nice," she said and picked a knitted shawl out of her closet. "Do you not think this is nice, Sir Kheo?" she said as she swept it around her shoulders.

"Aw, I cannot really say either way, Empress. I ain't that much of an expert on, ya know, wimmen's clothin'. But I guess it's kinda nice. My ba-yutiful li'l bride Anna-Liese would look good in it, that's fer sure!"

Bronwyn chuckled and put a hand on the large man's shoulder as she came back to the door. "I agree with you, Sir Kheo. As always, your opinion is very much appreciated. Oh... oh, Sweet Marpaxa, what now?" she groaned, pointing at a gray-clad soldier from the City Watch who came running through the dining hall from the double doors at the grand staircase.

Kheo spun around and spotted the runner at once. "That's Lieutenant Portian. Dunno what's goin' on, but Imma gonna find out. Stay inside yer chamber until I tell ya dif'rently," he said and slammed the door to the bedchamber shut right in Bronwyn's face.

"Oh, will this wretchedness never cease?!" she cried, wrapping her shawl closer around her body. Moments later, she spun back around when someone knocked on the door. "Enter!" she barked, hoping the hubbub had merely been caused by the soldiers at the City Watch not knowing what to do about the visiting Yonnae.

The look on Kheo's face when he entered the bedchamber proved it was far more than that. "Empress, there's been more nastiness from them Black Lancers who sprung the Allizadra woman free," he said and held up a note.

"Wretched! I pray to Marpaxa they have not slain more of our men!"

"They ain't... seems they've assaulted an' beaten two sentries ovah at the East Gate. Left one in a bad state with a fractured jaw an' the other with a few missin' teeth an' a busted nose. This time, there ain't no mistakin' their identities. Accordin' ta shocked bystanders, they wore their old, black satin uniforms... an' they left this for ya ta read," he continued, handing Bronwyn the piece of parchment.

Bronwyn gulped down a bitter lump as she took the note. The message was simple, as were the words: "Black Death Cometh."

The corners of her mouth began to twitch, and she suddenly crumpled up the note and threw it onto the floor with a hard gesture. "That wretched bitch!" she cried in a throaty voice. "That wretched bitch and her wretched fellow criminals! Sir Kheo, we cannot allow this to-"

Without warning, a strong coughing fit claimed Bronwyn, and she doubled over and clutched her chest that felt like her lungs had just caught fire and were being charbroiled. Coughing, wheezing, hacking and spluttering, she fell down onto her knees, but Kheo was there in an instant and helped her up and over to the bed.

"Try ta breathe... try ta breathe norm'lly, Empress! C'mon... in... out... in... out... yeah, that's much better," Kheo said, moving a few strands of hair away from Bronwyn's suddenly clammy and deep red forehead.

"Oh... Sweet... Marpaxa..." Bronwyn groaned, taking several deep breaths to get away from the ugly sensations that had claimed her. Her face had turned dark red from the exertion and she had to fan herself vigorously to get the sudden hot flash to go away. "I... felt like... someone was... standing on... my chest..." she croaked, wiping her mouth on the back of a trembling hand.

"I'll get the Seer fer ya," Kheo said and began to move away, but Bronwyn grabbed his meaty paw and held him back.

"No, Kheo... no. I am fine now. I wish you could get Caid for me instead..."

"Well," Kheo said and scratched his bald head. "that's doable too. All we hafta do is ta send an orderly out on a fast horse an' he can get ta the area where the maneuvers are staged in, oh, five or six turns o' the hourglass. Maybe seven. Then it's another seven turns o' the hourglass back here, so... yeah. They'll arrive at noon in the morrow... maybe later if the weather ain't with 'em..."

Bronwyn shook her head and clambered to her feet. "No... no, Sir Kheo, forget I brought it up. I do not wish to burden my beloved with a mere head cold."

"Oy, that ain't like none o' them head colds I ever had... a li'l snot an' a sore throat, sure... but ain't nothin' like what ya just had. Are ya sure ya don't want me ta fetch the Seer for ya?"

"I am quite sure, Sir Kheo. Thank you," Bronwyn said with a faint smile. "Oh... and my friend... please... not a word of my indisposition must get out. As the ruler of our lands, I cannot be allowed to display such a weakness."

"O' course, Empress. Naw, my lips are sown tagether. Mmmm mmmm mmm mmmmm mmmm!" Kheo said, slamming his mouth shut and pointing at his lips.

Despite everything, Bronwyn let out a chuckle and pulled herself into a half-hug. "I am eternally grateful to you, Sir. With all that out of the way, shall we see if our Yonnae visitors have arrived yet?"

"Yeah. I can hardly wait," Kheo mumbled as he helped Bronwyn pull her shawl back up.


By the time the sun was low in the western sky and the first torches were lit in and around the castle, a most unusual delegation of dinner guests entered the dining hall. The six Yonnae fanned out with an elderly woman in the center, a woman in her mid-thirties who looked like a teacher standing next to the older woman, and four heavily armed Yonnae warriors who split into pairs and went up to stand on either side of the pair of defenseless women.

The four warriors were tall, buff women in their thirties who were armed with spears. Oddly, three of the four were fair redheads, the last had almost black hair and far darker skin than her Sisters. Their leathery faces were tattooed with blue, ancient symbols on their throat, chin, cheeks and even up on their nose that symbolized the number of years they had served under the Yonnae Queen - and judging by the amount of tattoos, all four were highly experienced veterans.

They were fully enveloped in a woven cape in a camouflaged pattern that consisted of squares of deep greens and husky browns. On the elder's signal, they opened their capes and swept them behind their backs, a move that was well-rehearsed to intimidate their opponents on the battlefield.

Underneath, they all wore the same uniform consisting of high-legged boots with daggers strapped to both ankles, dark green, high-waisted ankle pants, and a pale brown sleeveless jerkin that was cut low enough at the top to reveal the tattoo of the Great Mother they had across the top of their breasts.

If the shiny machetes they wore on leather belts around their waist wouldn't be enough to frighten their opponents into submission, the sight of their bulging, tanned arms no doubt would.

The welcoming committee stepped forward with Empress Bronwyn at the center. She had Fyonna and Tawna on her right and Kheo on her left, but it was clear by the narrowing of the eyes of the warriors as well as the elder that they weren't too pleased with having a man present. "Greetings, Yonnae. 'Tis a great honor to meet you," Bronwyn said and curtseyed to her visitors to show the proper respect to the tribe elder. "I am Empress Bronwyn of Ashburne and the surrounding lands and territories. These are my dear friends Lady Fyonna, my Mistress of the Robes, Lady Tawna and finally Grand Marshal of the Imperial Artillery, Kheo Khammon. Welcome to Ashburne Castle."

The tribe elder had wrinkled, leathery skin and long white hair that was swept back from her forehead and gathered in a ponytail down her back. She appeared to be in her mid to late seventies though her alert eyes seemed far younger. She didn't wear a camouflaged cape like her warriors but a regular travel cloak around her shoulders, and she carried an old, gnarly staff with a crystal tied to the top end with a leather lace. She wore a dark green dress that reached the floor, and she had bare toes in sandals that peeked out from underneath the lower hem. She wore two tribal necklaces, one with dried pine cones and chestnuts, and one with hollowed-out pieces of wood.

At the center of her forehead, she had a tattoo of an owl in flight where the wings stretched to beyond the outer edges of her white eyebrows.

Stepping forward, the elder spoke softly in a language neither Bronwyn nor Tawna could understand, but the remaining Yonnae - who was dressed more like someone from Ashburne in a simple brown dress with a white, apron-like sheet of fabric covering her front - stepped forward as well to act as the translator.

"Greetings, Empress Bronwyn," the translator said in an accent-free voice, looking at Bronwyn while she spoke. "I am Caitryn, the eldest of the Yonn Aaliq tribe. We thank you for your hospitality, alas, we have to request your Prince Consort leaves us while we dine."

Bronwyn's mouth formed an 'O' when she heard the translator's message. She turned to the elder and offered her a warm smile. "Lady Caitryn, this man is not my consort. That honor is bestowed upon the Huntress Caid Barlin, but she cannot join us for dinner as she is away on business."

The translator quickly relayed the message, but Caitryn's shake of the head and stern words didn't need interpretation. "I insist. The man must leave," the translator said firmly.

"Very well," Bronwyn said and turned to Kheo. "Sir Kheo, I fear I have to ask you to leave. Our esteemed guests are-"

"Aw, ain't no skin off mah butt," Kheo said with a wave. "Pardon mah language, luv. Ya know what? I think I'll take full advantage of them there buff girls bein' here an' head on home to my good li'l honey-girl an' see if she's got anythin' cookin' fer me."

"Oh, that sounds like a brilliant idea, Sir Kheo. I am sure I will be ably protected by these warriors," Bronwyn said with a smile.

Kheo bowed deeply at Bronwyn before he gave the Yonnae a wide berth and headed for the double doors at the end of the dining hall.

The Yonnae elder smiled back at Bronwyn and nodded politely - another message that didn't need translation.


Later, the food and beverages had been served and the dinner party was in full swing. Balancing her last piece of veal on her fork, Bronwyn was curious to see the four warriors eating in pairs - first two, then the other two. She surmised it was to ensure they always had two pairs of eyes on their surroundings and to have enough brute force on tap to deal with any eventuality. Still, she found it odd.

After she had finished chewing on the bite, she gulped it down with a little wine and coughed politely into her napkin. Over the edge of the fabric, she noticed the warriors only drank water, but the translator and the elder had both sampled the brandy as well as the ale.

The elder had already eaten a surprising amount of food and was signaling one of the maids to provide her with a third helping of the veal and the baked root vegetables.

Bronwyn chuckled and put away the napkin. So much for the perceived modesty of the elderly. She continued to eye her guests over her ruby-studded goblet of wine. They hadn't said a word about the topic that Fyonna had said they wanted to discuss - and in fact hadn't spoken much at all - but there was something there, lurking just below the surface.

The Empress noticed Fyonna exchanging a few words with the elder in the Yonnae's own language, but judging by the elder's furrowed brow and puzzled look, the conversation wasn't going all that smoothly. Fyonna eventually asked the translator about a few phrases that she provided to clear up the confusion.

When the elder had emptied out her plate for the third time, she pushed it away, a gesture that signaled the other Yonnae they should stop eating as well. The elderly woman leaned back on the high-backed chair and locked eyes with Bronwyn before she took one of the hollowed-out pieces of wood she had around her neck and began to put a ground powder of sorts into the tip.

Bronwyn cocked her head as she watched the Yonnae elder strike a match on the side of the chair and set fire to the tip of the wood. Once the fire was going well, she put the other end of the strange contraption into her mouth and puffed on it. The flames soon died down and were replaced by a column of pale gray smoke that rose quietly from the burning piece of wood. The elder inhaled and eventually let out a cloud of scented smoke.

Once the elder had her pipe going, she leaned forward and put an elbow on the table. Speaking in her own language, she used a hushed, somber voice that immediately set the tone for the conversation.

"Soon," the translator said to Bronwyn, Tawna and Fyonna, though the latter had already heard the depressing message, "the sun, the ancient sun, shall wither and die. I have seen it in my spirit vision. It shall die and all life on our world shall stop. Will the ancient sun return, the spirit would not say. Will life return to our world, the spirit would not say."

Bronwyn's lips became two narrow lines in her face and she closed her fist around her spent napkin, crumpling it up quite severely. 'Sweet Marpaxa, she certainly believes it... what a ghastly end if it is true. Please, Marpaxa, if it is true, please allow my beloved Caid and I to share the last moments in each other's arms. Please, do not keep us separate during such a tragic end...' she thought, studying the elder's intense eyes.

The elder spoke on, oblivious to Bronwyn's thoughts and fears. Moments later, the translator continued her work. "When the ancient sun withers and dies, all life shall enter the shadow world. If one is born in the shadow world, one shall never truly live. If one dies in the shadow world, one shall never truly die. If we are ever to leave the shadow world, the spirit would not say. The land, the forests, the fields shall become one... gray. The sky, the clouds, the oceans shall become one... gray."

'Oh Sweet Marpaxa,' Bronwyn thought, nearly choking on the overwhelming negativity, 'she truly is speaking of the end of the world. The end is nigh... wait... back at the market... the insane old man claimed the end was nigh... oh, Marpaxa, he knew! Somehow he knew!' - "When? When shall all this take place, Lady Caitryn?" she said, blurting out the words.

The Yonnae elder shot Bronwyn a raised eyebrow that showed she wasn't used to being interrupted by someone far younger than she. When the eyebrow had slid back down, she asked the translator what the Empress had said. Once the message had gotten across, she turned back to Bronwyn and narrowed her eyes. Then she spoke for quite a while in her own language.

The translator eventually turned to face Bronwyn. "The spirit would not say, but when the spirit speaks, it is usually only a few days in advance. I heard it four eves ago. It must be soon, perhaps in the morrow or the day after, or the day after that. But soon."

"A mere matter of days? Caid will not have returned by then," Bronwyn croaked, grabbing hold of the edge of the horseshoe-shaped table.

The elder spoke on, and soon, the translator relayed the words. "Ashburne shall see it first. It shall be heralded by twilight at noon. The birds shall stop singing. The temperature shall drop. A bated silence shall spread among the people. When the ancient sun withers and dies, a crown of light will be all that remains. The crown is not strong enough to sustain life on this world."

Bronwyn felt a strong, nervous tremble inside her that manifested itself in a series of coughs, each stronger than the previous. Shaking her head, she reached for her goblet but realized that wine wouldn't be the best way to clear her throat.

Lady Fyonna sensed the Empress' bother and hurriedly poured fresh water from a jug into the empty beaker Kheo should have used. Despite her blindness, she didn't spill a drop. "Here, Empress Bronwyn. This is water," she said, putting down the beaker next to Bronwyn's hand.

"Thank you, Lady Fyonna," Bronwyn croaked between coughs. She took the beaker and gulped down the water to calm her chest that had begun to ache each time it convulsed to create a cough.

The Yonnae elder puffed on her pipe with a faintly amused look on her face. Shrugging, she turned back to her own goblet of brandy.

Bronwyn leaned back in her throne and dabbed her moist lips and clammy forehead with her napkin. 'Is this the moment when the dreaded curse strikes? The curse of the Natfarann Gold... will it bring an end to the world? It would certainly be an effective way of preventing anyone from using it... Ack, but we have used some of it. Used it to improve the standards of living for those who only had tattered rags to put on their back... for those who could only afford to live in draughty homes... for those who had to prostitute themselves simply to feed their children... ack, this is so unfair... so wretchedly unfair...'

The news the end of the world was nigh pounded around Bronwyn's system, and she knew she would be unable to find rest unassisted. She opened her mouth to ask Fyonna if she would mix a sleeping potion for her, but before she could even squeak, the Seer had reached over to pat the Empress' hand.

"I shall, Empress Bronwyn," Fyonna said in a deeper register than normal. "Have no fear. You will find rest this eve, even without your beloved Caid next to you."

Nodding, Bronwyn slammed her mouth shut - the Seer had already covered all that needed to be said. She gulped and looked back at her Yonnae visitors with a faint, nervous smile creasing her lips. They seemed curiously unaffected by the approaching doomsday, and she couldn't fathom why. "Elder... Lady Caitryn... why are you not fearing the blackening and death of our ancient sun?" she asked in a trembling voice.

When the translator had done her job, the elder furrowed her brow and leaned back in her seat to mull over her answer. She eventually said a few words to the translator who turned to face Bronwyn. "Because it is out of my hands. The spirit will decide if I shall die now, or in my bed later."

"Ack, such an answer does not comfort me much," Bronwyn mumbled under her breath. "I would gladly give all my wealth to have Caid by my side now... drat. It cannot get any worse than this..."




The gloomy, depressing thoughts still swirled around Bronwyn's mind several turns of the hourglass later as she was sitting on a chair in her bedchamber having her hair done for the night. Tawna and Luna - who had been given a reprieve under the condition that she paid far closer attention to what she was doing - were hard at work unraveling the neat bun Bronwyn's hair had been in throughout the day.

The young handmaiden was indeed more attentive and made sure not to yank the Empress' dark locks as she ran the two bone combs through the silky strands to part it properly and straighten out the countless little knots.

Wearing her favorite sleeping chemise, Bronwyn sat pensively and stared into thin air. Usually, she would jest around at bedtime, but her heart wasn't in it on this evening. Now and then, she coughed and tapped her chest to make the tickle go away.

All around them, the usual sounds of the ancient castle settling after being exposed to the sun all day reached their ears, but Bronwyn couldn't stop worrying about what would happen when the sun would wither and die - not to mention what would happen in the immediate aftermath. On top of that, there was the issue of the sorely missed Caid Barlin. Bronwyn looked down at her lap but remembered it would disturb the work of her maid, so she looked back up and continued her thousand-fathom stare.

'One would think a woman would be unable to yearn so strongly after someone... but, alas, I am living proof of it being possible. I would do anything to bring Caid back now. If it meant I would have to live out my life in a dirt pit so be it. Oh, to feel her arms around my body... to hear her rich voice whispering that everything shall be all right... not to mention feeling her lips upon mine. Ack, simply to have her near me if disaster truly strikes and our glorious world shall perish in the darkness that will follow.'

A soft knock on the door brought Bronwyn back from her pitch-black train of thought. Sighing, she turned to look at the door where Tawna was already lowering the latch.

"Yes?" the Mistress of the Robes said quietly, sensing her Empress wasn't in any mood for further negative surprises.

Kheo hadn't returned yet so Lieutenant Portian of the City Watch had assumed command of the sentries. The young, beardless man stepped into the doorway and pointed behind him. "It's the Seer for our Empress," he said quietly.

Tawna nodded and opened the door for Fyonna.

The Seer stepped inside carrying a steaming cauldron from which a peculiar smell soon spread through the Imperial bedchamber. "Good eve, Empress Bronwyn. Like I promised, I have created a very special brew for you. I know the smell is less than charming, but the effect is all the greater. And the taste isn't quite as bad as this, I hasten to add."

"Good eve, Lady Fyonna," Bronwyn said and reached up to still Luna's hands. Once the combs were free from her hair, she rose and padded over to the Seer. "Oh dear, I must admit my sensitive nostrils just gave me a fair warning that I should probably stay away from it," she continued, rubbing her nose.

"I fear the smell is such, Empress Bronwyn. You need to take this bedside. Are you all set?"

"I believe I am. Luna?"

The young maid curtseyed and bent down to pick up the footstool she had used to stand on to reach the taller woman's scalp. "Your hair is ready for the eve, Empress Bronwyn, but I have not had time to add the scented ointment," she said and held up the pale blue jar.

"Never mind that now, Luna. Thank you. You are excused," Bronwyn said with a little smile gracing her lips.

Luna curtseyed again and hurried out of the door with the remedies. Once peace had fallen over the bedchamber, Bronwyn moved over to her four-post canopy bed and swept aside the quilt. She sat down and looked at the steaming cauldron. "Oh, Lady Fyonna, I dearly hope you do not expect me to drink all that? If you do, I fear I might as well sleep squatting over the waste bucket because I will surely need to relieve myself during the night."

"No no, child. Merely a mug of it. Ah, I must admit that in my haste to leave my home and come here while my brew was still hot, I forgot to bring a mug," Fyonna said with a crooked grin.

"Oh, we have plenty of those," Bronwyn said and began to rise from the bed, but Tawna was already on the case.

The Mistress of the Robes quickly went through the internal door and down to Carrae's chamber at the end of the connecting hallway. It didn't take her long to return with a tin beaker. "Will this suffice, Lady Fyonna?" she said as she closed the sturdy door behind her.

"Certainly. Come, Empress Bronwyn, swing your legs up into bed. I fear when this concoction reaches your stomach, you shall fall asleep in a heartbeat."

Bronwyn's eyebrows briefly went up before she did as asked and pulled up the quilt. After snuggling down into the cool sheets, she moved her arms above the tan fabric and waited for the mug.

Fyonna carefully dipped the tin beaker into the potion to get the best of the little bits floating around on the surface. She seemed satisfied at first, but soon poured a small amount back into the cauldron. "Here, Empress Bronwyn," she said, shuffling over to the bed where she handed the beaker to the waiting woman.

Bronwyn pulled a face at the fumes that rose from the beaker, but she knew she couldn't be a sissy and took a long swig. As promised, the taste was far better than the smell, and she ended up drinking it all. Even before she had time to thank the Seer and Tawna, the world began to get blurry around the edges. Moments later, her eyes slipped shut and she was already far off.

Fyonna chuckled and took the empty beaker from Bronwyn's limp hand before it could stain the tan fabric. Tawna stared in wide-eyed surprise at the effectiveness of the sleeping potion, but didn't even want to ask what was in it. Instead, she leaned down and snuffed out the candle that Bronwyn had bedside before putting the candlestick on a sideboard a bit further from the bed.


Bronwyn found herself walking through a field of poppies and yellow flowers she didn't recognize. The sky above was blue with scattered, fluffy white clouds, a strong sun and a fresh breeze that wasn't intrusive. She had no idea how she had made it there, and when she turned around to see where she had come from, she realized the poppy field stretched out to the horizon in all directions.

A slight niggle of worry tingled at the back of her mind, but as she spun around to see where the potential threat could come from, she couldn't see anything beyond the red poppies and the strange yellow flowers. Even as she was watching, the yellow flowers changed into white orchids, but the red poppies remained. White orchids were symbols of death, but she felt the blood red, proud poppies offset the sea of white.

The familiar, three-beat sound of a horse cantering towards her reached her ears, and she hurriedly did a full turn to see where it came from so she could evade it. The sounds of the hooves grew louder and louder but the horse was nowhere in sight. In its stead, one of the dark gray flying creatures she had encountered on the trek through the Shadowlands came straight for her with its fierce talons extended.

Shrieking, Bronwyn dove down among the poppies and the orchids, but as she looked up, the creature was nowhere to be seen. The scene changed with a flash and she found herself in a dark chamber, kneeling on a coarse, stone floor. Before she had time to come to terms with the new situation, she felt someone's hands on her body, holding her down, stroking her, violating her by squeezing and caressing parts of her that no stranger had a right to touch.

She kicked out viciously and looked over her shoulder, but no one was there. Instantly, the violation stopped and she fell down onto the stone floor. A door creaked open behind her and Caid entered the chamber wearing a black gown that reached down to her bare feet. The gown had a yellow symbol on the front that Bronwyn couldn't identify but that looked like a sun. It was Caid, but it wasn't. The woman shared Caid's hair, eyes and expression, but it wasn't the Huntress.

The woman just stood there immobile and with a facial expression set in stone. The walls of the stone chamber began to crumble, as did the woman's face. In Caid's place stood Death with his familiar white skull, hideous empty eyes and protruding rows of teeth. The black gown was pushed aside to reveal a naked, leathery female body that had to be at least a century old.

As the last of the bricks that had formed the chamber crumbled and fell, Death reached down for Bronwyn with its aged, wrinkled hands. Beyond the gruesome figure, the yellow sun darkened and was soon replaced by a black hole in the sky that seemed to swallow all light.

The poppies and the orchids had returned, and the delicate flowers swayed violently as a fierce storm was whipped up. Little by little, the petals, the flowers and finally the soil in which they stood were ripped up and hurtled far into the dark sky, leaving behind the ancient bedrock.

Bronwyn slammed her eyes shut, fully expecting to be either touched by the hideous hands of Death or sucked up into the remnants of the sun, but neither happened. The fierce winds increased but she wasn't affected by the swirling tempest - neither was Death, but the naked form seemed to have lost interest in her. The grotesque, hideous being just stood there, waiting for an unknown sign.

The sign came in the shape of Zai Allizadra who rode in on a black stallion. The Commander of the Black Lance dismounted and pulled her sword. Her face was contorted into a mask of vengeful menace as she came closer, lifting the sword, holding it ready to separate Bronwyn's head from her shoulders like she had done to May-Linn and countless other innocent victims.

Then Zai swung the blade and Bronwyn felt the sharp edge dig into her neck. It carved through her flesh, veins, windpipe and bone until it left on the opposite side, leaving behind a gaping, horrific wound. Grinning, Zai leaned down and put out her hand. "Now we're even," she said in a ghostly voice that seemed to come from all sides at once. "Shall we be friends? I have wanted to do you for so long."

"Friends?" Bronwyn croaked in a matching ghostly voice. Wondering how she could speak with a severed head, she reached up and touched her chin, her cheeks and her hair. Her head was still in place on her shoulders. She took full advantage of the odd circumstance by shaking it to see if it would stay there. It did.

The next moment she found herself lying on her back on a sleeping fur. She was naked and engaged in wild sex with Zai who was grinding against Bronwyn's blazing hot center with a look of pure evil on her face. A dagger glinted in the light of the black sun - a dagger that was thrust downward, toward Bronwyn's exposed breasts.

Bronwyn woke up with a jerk that was so strong she nearly fell out of bed - her quilt had already taken the short trip down there. During her vivid nightmare, she had tugged so hard at the sheets and her pillow that everything had been wadded up into a ball of crumpled fabric and linen that seemed to try its best to suffocate her.

Above her, the soft blue canopy suddenly came alive. It started moving in random patterns that made it look like something had fallen down on top of it - something that was crawling towards the edge of the fabric. When the depression reached the edge, it dissolved and turned into a whisk of pale gray smoke. A moment later, the entire canopy had turned into tendrils of smoke that swirled in, out and around, and eventually down towards her.

Bronwyn stared wide-eyed at the smoke and tried to push herself up towards the top end of the bed to escape it, but as soon as she wrapped her fingers around one of the posts and yanked with all her might, the smoke disappeared and turned into shadows that soon dissolved into nothing.

Groaning in a thick voice, she shoved the linen aside and tried to sit up. She quickly noticed her sleeping chemise was soaked with sweat, and that she was indeed blazing hot, though it was from a raging fever.

The bedchamber was very dark with only a few embers still glowing faintly in the fireplace on the other side of the room. She sat on the edge of her canopy bed with eyes that were wide open, yet she felt she was swimming a league below the surface of the vast ocean with nil chance of ever reaching the top.

A shadow played across the wall not far from the door to the grand dining hall. "Caid?" she croaked, pressing a trembling hand to her blazing forehead. When no answer came, she cocked her head and tried to peer through the gray darkness. She was unable to see anything substantial, save for another flickering shadow that raced across the wall adjacent to her bed.

Whimpering in terror, Bronwyn tried to get up, but a ghostly hand swept back her hair and caressed her neck before she could move anywhere. Her blood froze over and her eyes grew ever wider. She reached behind her to feel if anyone was there, but all she touched were the crumpled-up sheets.

"I... I have become insane... insane... the sleeping potion... what was in the sleeping potion...? Sweet Marpaxa... I have become insane," Bronwyn croaked as she tried to get up. Her legs were too weak and she bumped back down on the bed.

"Bronwyn?" a ghostly voice said from somewhere in the darkened bedchamber - a male voice.

"Wh- who goes there?" Bronwyn whimpered, gripping her favorite sleeping chemise so hard it tore at the seams.

"Wretched pup, do you not recognize me? You deserve a good thrashing... I am your father!" Jin-Sarnos said in a booming voice that burst through the semi-darkness. He appeared as Bronwyn had seen him last - in his casket with a face that was covered in chalkdust to put off the decomposition processes for as long as possible.

"F- father...?" Bronwyn croaked. Her eyes flew wide open but the evil specter was gone as soon as it had come into her feverish world. Her chin started quivering quite strongly and she shuffled back up into bed to get away from the evil that permeated her once so peaceful bedchamber. The sheets were beyond salvage, but she tore the quilt back up from the floor and hid underneath it with only her dark locks sticking out.

She quickly fell asleep, but her father had invaded her dreams, too. There he was, Emperor Jin-Sarnos the Twelfth. Fat and mighty, sitting on his throne eating from a haunch of venison with his dancing girls at his side - one of whom was even stroking his crotch. Bronwyn was suddenly a little tyke who watched the powerful man who was her father in wide-eyed admiration. A woman came in from beyond the throne. Her mother. She was beautiful but sad; perpetually sad at being constantly shown her place by her dominating, brutal master.

Just as Bronwyn tried to reach out for her mother, the scene changed and she found herself in a dark corridor only lit by a single torch. She was an adult again, but the clothes she wore were not her own - she wore the black gown, though this time, the symbol on the front was of Death, not the sun.

She watched a pregnant young woman step out of the shadows ahead of her. Mynere. The young maid was naked and bloody like Bronwyn had seen her last. Her pretty face was contorted into a manic, near-insane mask as she shuffled towards her relentlessly, dragging her feet in what appeared to be a river of blood and slime. Mynere reached into the disgusting river and scooped up her dead baby. Holding the lifeless, gray child ahead of her like an offering, she began to cackle insanely until she threw the dead child at Bronwyn's feet.

Inches before the child would have disappeared back into the river of blood and slime, the scene changed again and Bronwyn had become an old, old woman who was standing on a rocky ledge high above a wasteland.

The world beyond the ledge seemed to be scorched and post-apocalyptic as everything was held in unnatural earthy tones, fueled by the brownish rays from the darkened sun high above. A burning hot breeze was threatening to blow her off the ledge, and the black gown she still wore billowed out.

In the distance, the ruins of the once so proud Ashburne Castle could be seen quite clearly. The roof of the dining hall had caved in, and the keep and the four guard towers had been reduced to hollow ruins. "The world is mine! Death have I become!" a ghostly voice cried from all around her. She recognized it as her own though she had not spoken.

The ancient Bronwyn raised her gnarly fist at the darkened sun that suddenly became brighter and brighter. The temperature grew exponentially until the heat became unbearable. In a bright white flash, she was incinerated along with the rocky ledge she was standing on and the rest of the world beyond it.

Bronwyn whimpered and cast off the quilt to get some fresh air on her superheated body. The temperature below the quilted cover was such her hair was practically wet to the touch and her torn sleeping chemise was ready to drip-dry. Moaning, she kicked the quilt down onto the floor where she had taken it.

Her bedchamber was even more grayish-dark after the embers in the fireplace had gone out completely, save for one, little orange glow in the corner. A rattling coughing fit claimed her, and she hacked and spluttered for a few minutes until she settled down again. This time, the bedchamber was less hostile than the last time she had been awake, and neither her father nor any other specters from the past were there to haunt her.

Sighing, she sat up and ran a trembling hand across her clammy brow. The last coughing fit had left her chest aching quite badly, and as she sat there in her damp clothes cowering like a puppy in case someone else wanted to take a stab at her, she began to weep. Large, salty tears ran silently down her cheeks and onto the already damp chemise.

"Caid," she whispered, wiping away her tears with a trembling hand, "please come back to me... please come back now. I need you... I need you so badly you cannot even begin to fathom it. Ill have I become. Ill and growing insane... what shall become of me when I do not have you by my side?"

A new, rattling cough that made her whimper in pain tore through her chest and her throat. Shaking her head, the darkness suddenly seemed hostile after all, so she rose from the bed and staggered over to the table where she expected the brass candlestick to be. When it wasn't there, she let out another whimper, but eventually spotted the candlestick on another sideboard closer to the bed.

She sighed and shuffled over to it. The next problem was to ignite it. A brief glance at the fireplace proved that a single ember was still glowing near the front, so she staggered over there to stir the ash and the embers with the poker.

Once the candle was lit, she shuffled back to bed on wobbly legs. She put the candlestick on the bedside table and swung her legs up into her canopy bed. She was mortally afraid of falling asleep again, so she forced herself over onto her right side where she stared wide-eyed at the flickering flame.

Her chest ached worse when she was on her side, so she rolled over onto her back and stared at the candle's cone of light playing across the inside of the canopy and the ceiling beyond it. She reached up to touch her forehead again. The warmth she found there combined with the aches in her body and a deep, murmuring headache all pointed to the same thing - a strong fever had invaded her being.

"Oh Caid... please come home to me," she whispered, sighing so deeply her breath disturbed the flame even though she wasn't even looking at it.




Four days later - the golden sun still reigned supreme high in the sky above Ashburne Castle despite the Yonnae elder's gloomy predictions.

The double doors to the dining hall were opened by the sentries, and Caid Barlin strode through them as a woman on a mission. Her boots and suede uniform were covered in cakes of dust and mud, and her hair and face had gained a dusty brown tone it hadn't had before. The beginning crow's feet around her eyes were sharply defined as little white highlights in a brown face, and it was clear to see she had wiped her mouth on the back of her dusty hand, as her lips and chin displayed odd, diagonal stripes in a lighter tone.

Striding along the dining hall, she was wondering about all that had transpired in the half-turn of the hourglass she and the other companies had been home. First, Bronwyn hadn't been at the drill ground to welcome home the troops - her place on the dais had been taken by Aggraweine, her senior dignitary. Then Kallirna Tarsi had been curiously evasive when asked about the whereabouts of the Empress or even Kheo Khammon, and now, the grand dining hall was empty with nary a peep heard from anywhere around or beyond the huge room, despite the fact it was high noon and they should have been in the middle of lunch.

The large number of sentries at the door to the Imperial bedchamber convinced Caid that something was very wrong, indeed. She scrunched up her dusty face and set off in a jog on the last stretch towards the door. Before she could reach it, Kheo rose from a chair and came out to greet her.

"Oy, Huntress! Welcome back from the spring maneuvers. I know someone who'll get mi'ty pleased now," the large man said and put out his hand.

"Hullo, Kheo," Caid said in a voice that was surprisingly clear despite coming from someone with a dirty face. She shook hands with her old friend and took a step back to look at the many sentries. "Why weren't you and Bronwyn out at the drill ground? I had the misfortune of being dismissed by General Mahawney, that sour old so-and-so. And what's up with all the hardware here?" Caid said, looking at the swords everyone carried.

"Yeah, there's a good reason fer that. I guess we kinda have a confirmed threat against the Empress," Kheo said with an embarrassed shrug.

"You what?!"

"Uh, yeah... ya ain't never gonn' guess it. Zai Allizadra has been sprung free from the dungeons by a survivin' wolfpack o' them Black Lancers. Them bastards slew two warders an' busted up a couple more," Kheo said and shrugged again.

"Wretched! When?"

"The exact moment when y'all left the other day. This wus a well-coordinated effort, Caid."

Caid shook her head, a gesture that sent dust trickling out of her hair. "That wretched daughter of a whore. But the castle isn't under lockdown?"

"Naw, ain't no point. Uh... the... uh... the Empress is, tho'. Now, Huntress, don't ya go blowin' yer lid, but them Black Lancers have threatened her personally. Sent li'l messages an' stuff. Black Death Cometh an' stuff, ya know. Some vandalism here an' there 'round town. Painted some walls o' buildin's an' stuff. Fairly standard things, ya know..."

"Kheo, you're not being truthful with me. There's something you're not telling me," Caid said darkly.

"Aw, I never could hold nothin' back from ya," Kheo said and rubbed his nose on the back of his hand. "Caid... the Empress is poorly. Really poorl- Oy!"

Before Kheo could even finish his sentence, Caid had barged through the door to the Imperial bedchamber. Two steps inside the chamber, she came to an abrupt halt when her legs refused to take her any further.

Her heart sent a jolt of nervous tremors through her body that made her fingers turn cold in an instant. The blood that rushed past her ears drowned out even her breathing, and she felt a cold shower of goosebumps traverse her entire body from her scalp to her calves. A moment later, the chill turned to a hot flush, and she became so warm she felt she sizzled in her own lard.

The bedchamber was like a tomb - quiet and holding a faint smell of illness and medicine. The fireplace was only burning lightly, and that and the brass candlestick that had been put on a table at the foot end of the four-post canopy bed were the only points of light in the room.

Carrae sat on a chair at the table. The young maid was looking up at Caid with a finger across her lips like she was shushing the Huntress. She had been reading from a bound book that was splayed out across the table, and she had a piece of parchment lying across the page to help her parse the many long and difficult words in the thick tome.

Caid's eyes slid up to the top end of the canopy bed where Bronwyn was lying motionless with her arms above the quilt. Her chest was moving rhythmically, but even from a distance, it was obvious her breath was shallow, perhaps even labored. Her skin was as pale as the quilt she was under save for a few red blotches on her cheeks and forehead, and her dark hair seemed dull and flat against the pillow.

As another cold shower of goosebumps fell over Caid, she gulped down a surge of fear and shut the door softly behind her without speaking a word to Kheo Khammon. She persuaded her legs to obey her commands again, and they worked with her to bring her closer to the bed and the woman she loved.

Up close, Caid could see a spare waste bucket standing ready on the floor next to the bed so it could rapidly be pressed into action if the need arose. A half-empty beaker of water stood on the bedside table within Bronwyn's reach, but it didn't appear to have been used for some time.

Caid rubbed her dusty face at the horrendous sight of Bronwyn being so poorly. She cast a silent, pleading glance at Carrae to beg her to leave.

The young handmaiden curtseyed and hurried out of the bedchamber and into the connecting hallway where she closed the other door as well.

The Huntress knelt down next to Bronwyn and took the still right hand in her own. At once, she knew her lover had to be running a temperature, but at least the slender, elegant hand wasn't cold and waxen. "Oh love... what is this?" she whispered in a croaky voice.

Hearing the familiar voice, Bronwyn stirred and shuffled around on the bed. When she cracked open her eyelids, she furrowed her brow at the sight of the dusty woman next to her. At first, she had no idea who it was, but her heart soon told her in no uncertain terms that it could only be- "Caid! Oh, sweet Caid... you have returned to me!" Bronwyn croaked and tried to lift her head off the pillow.

Caid watched in dread as her usually so spirited lover had problems performing even such a simple task. Groaning under her breath, she did the only thing she could and leaned forward instead. "My love, I have returned," she whispered before she claimed Bronwyn's lips in a kiss that wasn't the ferocious affair she had been dreaming of for the past several days, but rather a sweet, comforting smooch that proved she was indeed there.

Unfortunately, the sweet contact transferred a bit of dust to Bronwyn's chin and pale lips, but Caid fixed it by gently running her fingers across the affected areas.

"I love you so, sweet Caid. I fear I have become poorly," Bronwyn said and took a stronger grip on Caid's hand while she studied the indescribably filthy appearance of her beloved.

"So I gather," Caid said and wanted most of all to jump into bed at once and snuggle up next to Bronwyn for an eternity.

"Goodness me, look at how dirty you are... is it that dusty out there?"

"It truly is, yes. There isn't a part of me that isn't covered in filth," Caid said with a tired grin.

"Behold, I am wearing the ring you gave me," Bronwyn said and held up her left hand. "The ring has not been off my finger since you left. I declare, save for when I am bathing, the ring shall remain exactly where it is until the day I die."

The corners of Caid's mouth twitched as she looked at the gold ring. She had envisioned it as the closest thing to a wedding band they were ever going to get, but with Bronwyn's words, it suddenly seemed more like a goodbye present. "That is wonderful. Behold, sweet Bronwyn, the braided leather fidelity charm has never left my wrist, either," Caid said and held up her right arm.

"Oh! Oh, how charming. I had to take mine off... it bothered me... but when I had the ring, it mattered not... did it?"

"Not at all, sweet Bronwyn. Now... your illness... I see the waste bucket standing ready. Was it something you ate? Or have you perhaps overstressed yourself running rampant in the inner gardens?" Caid said, trying to shove her filthy uniform jacket off her shoulders.

"Oh... oh, no. If only it were as simple as that. I am coughing."

The news made Caid stop dead in her tracks and freeze solid on the inside. She stared with wide, frightened eyes on the pale woman on the bed. When she tried to speak, her throat had tied itself into a knot and she could only croak. It took several deep breaths through her nose to get everything relaxed enough to enable her to at least whisper. "Coughing? You are coughing? What kind of cough?" she said in a hoarse whisper as she studied Bronwyn's pale face.

"The worst kind, sweet Caid," Bronwyn said despondently.

Caid's face fell and her shoulders slumped. The sigh that escaped her lips sounded like it came from the bottom of her very soul. She pushed off her dusty jacket and let it fall onto the floor. "Have... have you begun coughing up blood?" she whispered, reaching up to caress Bronwyn's pale face.

"Not yet. Oh, sweet Caid, so many dreadful things have occurred while you have been away. Zai-"

"I know about Zai, love. Kheo told me."

"Oh. Did he tell you about Mynere?"


"She and her child are with Marpaxa now. She... she... oh, it was gruesome... Sweet Caid... simply... gruesome..." Bronwyn said before the strong emotions overpowered her and she started to cough; a deep, rattling cough that sounded like her lungs were torn apart from the inside.

Caid stared in terror at the sight of her partner racked by such strong coughing. Her mind reeled at the implications and she was powerless to stop a vivid flashback to the days only five years previously when she comforted her ailing mother while her weak body was racked by the coughing illness that sent her into the grave at far too young an age.

"Please, sweet Caid... water," Bronwyn croaked as the coughs gradually grew weaker.

Caid snapped out of her terror and reached for the beaker on the bedside table. Her hands were trembling so hard she needed to put them both on the beaker to keep the water inside. With a firmly clenched jaw, she held the water ready for her love who took a few light sips.

Once the water had been swallowed, Bronwyn leaned her head back on the pillow with a gasping sigh. Her breath was indeed labored; a tell-tale rattle that occurred on the inhales as well as the exhales. "Please... sit with me for a while," she said, patting the bed next to the quilt.

"I shall do better than that, my love," Caid said decisively and kicked off her boots. Her protective socks and uniform ankle pants soon followed - in a cloud of dust - as did her formerly white and now tan tunic. When the Huntress was standing in the bedchamber only wearing the two pieces of cloth she used to wrap her breasts and her hips, she hurried around the bed and crawled in on her own side.

"Caid, I... oh, much as it pains me to say it, I fear I am not in the mood for sweet loving today," Bronwyn said, looking to her left at her half-undressed partner.

"Hush now, sweet Bronwyn. Let me hold you in my arms," Caid said and scooted across the bed under the quilt. When she was near enough, she rolled over onto her right side and assumed one of her favorite sleeping positions: with her head resting in the crook of Bronwyn's neck and her arm draped across the chest just below the breasts. "Am I hurting you? Just tell me if I am and I shall find another position," Caid whispered, looking up.

"Oh, you are not, Caid," Bronwyn whispered, reaching up to caress Caid's arm as a strong feeling of happiness swept through her. Smiling wistfully into the semi-darkness, she closed her eyes and let herself be comforted by the warmth of her partner's skin upon hers. "Your presence alone soothes my soul. I cannot tell you how many times I have wished for your swift return. The mere touch of your skin upon mine sends a glorious flutter through my heart."

"Alas, not your lungs," Caid said somberly.

Bronwyn sighed as deeply as she dared and ran her fingers across the fine hairs on Caid's toned upper arm. "Alas... not my lungs. So right you are, Huntress. As always."

"But everything is going to be all right, love. I promise I shall look after you. I shall do all that's in my power to make it as comfortable for you as possible. I cannot make the illness go away... Marpaxa, I wish I could... but I can ease your pains," Caid said and gave her partner a gentle squeeze to show she was still there, and that she would be there until they lowered Bronwyn's casket into the grave in a not too distant future.

"Thank you," Bronwyn croaked, returning the gentle squeeze.

Caid felt pitch black emotions swirling around inside her heart and mind. No matter where she went in search for the simplest bright spot in the blackness, there were none to be found. She remembered the effects of the terrible illness that had claimed her mother, remembered the tell-tale rattle when she had breathed, remembered the paleness of her skin, and remembered the morning when the blood had come for the first time. From there, it had all gone downhill. At least, she had been there to comfort her mother in her final, terrible turns of the hourglass. She would never forget the torment and anguish on her mother's face when the bloody coughs tore through her, nor would she forget the peace it found when she had finally accepted Marpaxa's warm embrace and left the illness and the world behind.

Silent tears escaped the stoic Huntress' eyes and stained Bronwyn's sleeping gown. Sniffing, she reached up to remove the tears before they became embarrassing.

"Alas," Bronwyn said somberly, "I fear none of us shall experience the long days and warm nights of summer, nor the glorious colors of the fall."

"Wh- what?" Caid said, looking up in a daze.

"Oh, Caid... the sun is about to wither and die," Bronwyn said with a few of her own tears staining her cheeks.

Caid grunted and moved slightly away from the woman in her arms to see if she was jesting - or possibly hallucinating. "Where in the world did you get such an outrageous notion? There's absolutely nothing wrong with the sun, I can assure you. For the past week, it has been beating down upon my fair locks with the same relentlessness as the torrents of the raging Lower Merannai River!"

"Ack, Caid, I hate to be the bearer of more bad news, but... but... a Yonnae elder told us. She had seen it in a spirit vision," Bronwyn said and coughed lightly. "The spirit had told her that the sun... that the sun would blacken and die..." - she coughed again, only harder - "and... and that our beautiful world would descend into darkness and misery!"

The strong emotions were too much for Bronwyn, and she began to cough stronger and stronger. Her face soon contorted into a mask of pain as the coughs tore through her weakened body. The rattle from her chest grew to unbearable levels, but it still wasn't time for her to enter the final phase of the illness and cough up blood.

At once, Caid moved away from her comfortable position up against her nestmate and hurried around the canopy bed to get the beaker of water. As the Empress coughed so hard her face turned red, Caid knelt down and held the beaker ready. The usually so unflappable Huntress had turned white as a sheet at the horrible sight of her lover suffering such torment, and she had to clench her jaw to stop her chin from quivering.

The coughing fit finally died down and Bronwyn fell back onto the pillow with a moan and even a quiet sob. She turned to look at the beaker with eyes that were bloodshot from the coughing and the lack of sleep. At first, she seemed nearly apathetic, but she eventually made an effort and reached out for the water.

Caid helped her by holding the beaker to her lips, but this time, the poor angle meant more water escaped down her chin than entered her mouth. Caid smiled wistfully and wiped away the excess water with her fingers. "Love..." she said in a hoarse whisper as she put a strong yet tender hand behind Bronwyn's head to help her get safely back down onto the pillow, "I love you so much. I hope you know that."

"I do," Bronwyn croaked back with a wheezing breath. "And I... love you. Please... come back... to bed. I cannot stand... being separated now... that you have... finally returned. Please... join me... I must feel you..."

Caid leaned in and placed a warm, loving kiss on Bronwyn's lips. When she felt her partner respond to it and kiss her back, her heart skipped a beat at the small victory. "I shall, sweet Bronwyn. From now on, I shall be glued to your side. When you reach down, you shall wonder why you have four arms and two heads all of a sudden. My love, like I said before... I shall look after you."

"Thank you, sweet Caid."

Before Caid could walk around the bed and hop up into it, someone knocked softly on the door which made them both groan and roll their eyes. Following another little kiss on Bronwyn's lips, Caid rose and strode over to the door without bothering to put on her dusty tunic.

"This better be important," she said, holding the door slightly ajar. Outside, Fyonna stood with a small basket under her arm that held many little vials, jars and jugs of various colors.

"Greetings, Huntress. Enchanted to meet you again. May I enter the bedchamber?"

Caid grunted and pulled the door open to let in the Seer. Her unconventional appearance caused a stir among the sentries outside, but Kheo whacked one of them over the back of the head when he gawked a little too hard at Caid's dusty, semi-dressed body.

Fyonna stepped inside and put down the reed basket on the nearest table. She glanced in the direction of her patient with a gloomy frown on her face. "How were the spring maneuvers, Huntress?" she said as the door was closed behind her.

"Quite frankly, Seer, that's irrelevant now," Caid said harshly. "With the Empress so poorly, you should have sent for me."

"Your presence would not have made any difference."

Caid scowled darkly and shot a brief glance into the reed basket. "No, but I would have had a few more days with her. Marpaxa knows there won't be too many left!"

"Huntress, it may not be quite that bad-"

"Of course it is, Seer! Bronwyn has the coughing illness. And don't tell me she doesn't, I know the symptoms too well!"

Before Fyonna could reply, Bronwyn raised a hand in the air from her sickbed. "Will you please stop talking about me like I was not right here, and in dire need of my sweet Caid?"

Caid grunted and padded back to the bed on bare feet to follow her beloved's request.

Behind her, Fyonna rummaged through the reed basket to find the particular vial that she wanted to use to create a special potion for the ill Empress. When she had found the small glass vial, she tapped a fingernail on it to get the purple powder down to the bottom. With the Huntress busy at Bronwyn's side, she opened the door to the connecting hall to call for Carrae so she could get some water.

On the bed, Bronwyn had her head turned to look at the Seer who went into the connecting hallway. Sighing, she looked back at Caid who was kneeling next to the bed. "Caid... I... tonight, I have called for a memorial event for the families of the warders who were slain in the jailbreak... and also Mynere, though I fear my hazy mind prevents me from recalling if she has any."

"I'm sure they would appreciate that, Bronwyn. But tonight? My love, I fear you won't be strong enough to attend that."

"Alas, I must. I must be seen, otherwise it may leave a golden opportunity for those of our foes who seek to vanquish us."

Caid caressed Bronwyn's arm and finished by gently clawing the sensitive skin near her wrist, a spot where she knew Bronwyn was particularly receptive to a little tickle. "True, but the sight of a drowsy, poorly Empress who needs to be supported to even sit straight on her throne will surely not cast our Empire in a positive light?"

"While I admit it will not, it shall be thus, Caid. Please do not make a fuss out of it. It will be disrespectful towards the poor families who are in mourning if I do not attend. That is why Lady Fyonna is here now... I have ordered her to concoct a potion strong enough to enable me to attend."

Caid rubbed her mouth with skepticism written all over her dirty face. After a while, she nodded and leaned in to offer her love a kiss to show she would still be there for her, come what may.


Several turns of the hourglass later, preparations were well underway for the evening's soiree. Tawna and Matron Sharona had the maids and the servants working flat out to set the horseshoe-shaped table for the special event. They had decided against making it into a formal dinner - instead, it would be a looser event where people could mingle while they ate a light meal.

Mynere's mother had sent word to the castle that she would not attend due to personal reasons, but the sister of the slain warder had requested that entertainers should brighten the event; thus, traveling artists were warming up in the corner of the room the furthest from the Imperial bedchamber so their lute-playing, juggling and fire-breathing wouldn't disturb the sleeping Empress.

Caid came back up from the vaults beneath the castle keep, freshly scrubbed and wearing clean clothes: a pair of black shoes, dark brown knee pants, tan leggings and an off-white, wide-collared tunic with loose sleeves and an integrated leather belt. She had taken off her braided leather fidelity charm, but in a pocket in her tunic, she kept a very special piece of jewelry she was going to wear for the evening's entertainment - the tiled gold necklace. She seldom wore it, but she felt it would be a good companion piece to Bronwyn's gold ring.

She was looking around at the organized chaos with a smirk on her lips when she suddenly spotted three highly familiar figures resting at the horseshoe-shaped table near the throne. Her smirk tuned into a genuine smile and she immediately changed direction and went over to the table.

"Good afternoon, father. Enchanted to see you. What brings you here?" Caid said and put out her hand while she smiled at her siblings, Alanna and Markki, who were sitting next to Efrem commenting on the pandemonium in the dining hall.

Efrem Barlin rose from his chair and pulled his eldest daughter into a hug instead of accepting her hand. "Why you, of course, dear child. We heard the Ranger companies had returned from the maneuvers so we wanted to see you. And with the memorial event this eve, we had the perfect excuse. How are you, Caid?"

"Oh, I'm fine... just fine, thank you," Caid said, looking at her father. The man in his mid-sixties had gained a few pounds here and there since he had been able to return to Ashburne after his enforced exile in the Sarkhann forest, and his tunic seemed to be somewhat tight across his belly. She noticed that he'd had his hair and full beard trimmed for the occasion, and she reached up to smooth down a little hair on his mustache that had gone astray.

Efrem - who had been the senior Ranger for more than a generation before he had relinquished command to Caid - had lost none of his sharp senses, and he immediately noted the somber look in his daughter's husky green eyes. He furrowed his brow and pulled her back close. "Are you poorly, daughter? You look worried," he said for her ears only.

"No, I am merely tired from the maneuvers. But I fear the Empress is under the weather at the moment. She has a head cold."

"Mmmm?" Efrem said and pulled back.

Caid looked down, fully aware that she was unable to hide her true worries from her father. Instead of lingering on a lost subject, she turned to her kid sister and pulled the youngest Barlin into a hug. "Hello, sweet sister. You certainly look good. Your cheeks are rosy and healthy!" she teased, reaching up to tweak the tip of Alanna's nose like she had done so many times when they were children.

"Oh, stop that," Alanna said with a laugh. She pulled herself into another hug where she happened to pinch Caid's rear just to get even. When her elder sister had yelped accordingly, they separated and held each other at arm's length. "How... uh, I trust matters are going well between you and the Empress?" she said, smiling wistfully.

Caid knew the question was an attempt at a peace offering. In the past, Alanna had not always been accepting of Caid's preferences, and her behavior when Caid and Bronwyn had openly declared their love had nearly driven a wedge between the two sisters. "They are, Alanna. We love each other dearly, and we do what we can to support one another," she said with a confident nod.

"Good... uh, good," Alanna said, matching the nod with one of her own. Suddenly caught on the spot, she smoothed down her puff-cuffed dark red gown that was equipped with bone buttons that were tightly fastened all the way up to the prim and proper O-neck. In short, her gown didn't offer as much as a hint of the creamy skin on her upper chest.

"Indeed it is," Caid said and turned to her brother. "Hello, Markki," she said and put out her arm.

This time, her request for a handshake was accepted, though Markki - whose fair beard had yet to evolve from mere downs, much to his sublime annoyance - pulled her into a half-hug at the end. "Hello, Huntress. You have lost none of your strength, I feel. You certainly look the part."

"Thank you, dear brother. So do you," Caid said and looked at Markki's dark green hunting fatigues. Although he didn't wear his longbow across his back, he seemed ready to go on a boar hunt at a minute's notice.

Efrem smiled and pointed at the high-backed chairs at the horseshoe-shaped table. His children smiled back and followed him there, apart from Caid who kept standing. "Caid," he said with a furrowed brow, indicating it could be important, "have you had time to visit Ashburne yet after returning?"

"No... well, not apart from the brief moment we rode through the city on our way to the garrison. Why?"

"The oddest mood has taken hold of the city these past few days. I have not felt anything like it for years. Not even the dreadful winter we have just been through created such an odd mood. In fact, the last time I can recall it was thus was days before an epidemic broke out, oh, thirty years ago, give or take."

"Epidemic?" Caid said with her puzzlement shining through in her voice. She raised her arms and crossed them over her chest.

Markki nodded. "Yeah, what father says is true. It's really odd out there. It's almost like people are avoiding each other for some reason. Many are coughing, others are sniffling... and scuttlebutt has it two men have died from a variant of the coughing illness in the past few days alone."

"Two men have died in the past few days?" Caid croaked, dropping her arms back down as soon as they had come up.

Efrem cast a worried look at his daughter. Her reaction proved that something was wrong with the Empress - something far worse than a mere head cold. "Unfortunately, that's true, Caid. It's a particularly nasty variant where the victims cough up blood after less than forty-eight turns of the hourglass. Once that happens..." His voice trailed off as they were all far too familiar with the results of coughing up blood.

Caid's face was set in stone as she tried not to let the storm of emotions that raged through her come to the surface. Her palms became clammy and she wiped them on her knee pants several times, though it had limited effect. Although she puckered up her lips once or twice, nothing further happened with the stoic mask that had fallen in place. "I see," she said after what felt like an eternity. "Markki, would you happen to know where the deaths have occurred?"

"Not specifically, only that both men came with the trader convoy that visited us last week. Oh... now we're on that subject... didn't another man die at the market while you were down there? You said that, didn't you?"

"A man died while Bronwyn and I were at the market, yes. Bronwyn tried to comfort him, but it was too late," Caid said flatly in a voice that didn't sound like hers at all. Her face gradually lost some of the color that had returned after her thorough scrubbing, but she screwed a smile on her lips before it became obvious. "Markki, I have a proposition for you that you can decline if you wish. I would like to go into Ashburne to get a feel for the odd mood myself... would you like to join me?"

"Uh... sure. Certainly, sis," Markki said and rose from his chair.

"Thank you. I need to make a brief visit to the Empress before we go, but I believe she's sleeping so it won't take long. Farewell for now, father... Alanna. We'll be back before the memorial festivities begin," Caid said and leaned down to shake hands with her father.

"Oh! Caid, please be careful," Alanna said and hurriedly reached for her elder sister. "Promise me you'll be careful speaking to the people if there really is a contagious illness going around our city! You know how easily the coughing illness can spread..."

"I shall be very careful, Alanna. Have no fear. I know what I am doing," Caid said with a smile. She briefly gave Alanna a little squeeze before she shook her father's hand.


The walled city of Ashburne and its residents looked like they always had when Caid and Markki stepped out of the main entrance and strolled down towards the market place in the south-eastern part of the city. Of the women, men and children they encountered, some were smiling, others scowling, but most were simply indifferent and minding their own business. The pattern was repeated regardless of the layer of society the person came from.

As Caid observed the people they met, she did notice something that was out of the ordinary - everybody walked alone instead of the groups of twos, threes or even more one would usually see in the bustling city streets. The only exceptions to the rule came when mothers or maids hauled children along, but even they appeared to keep a distance between themselves. Some even went out of their way to avoid contact, and Caid who walked right next to Markki was given several odd or pointed looks on their way down the narrow street.

The spring sun was still shining strongly, though it had to penetrate a thin layer of high clouds. A gentle breeze was blowing through the narrow streets as it invariably was, whipping up dust and shreds of paper. The perpetual winds were created by the massive structure at the center of the city that trapped the gusts up high and sent the downdraft whooshing into the streets.

An odd collection of smells from the various parts of the city were carried on the edge of the breeze. Aleyn Rowan's stables in the west on the other side of the castle brought forth a foul smell of horses and manure that collided head-on with the scents of the warm dust and the columns of smoke that rose from the chimneys of the nearby houses where maids were preparing an early supper.

Caid's legs, rear and back were tired and sore from spending a good ten turns of the hourglass in the saddle coming home from the maneuvers, but her fatigue was promptly pushed to the side when she thought of how poorly Bronwyn had become in such a short amount of time. As she and her brother walked past the many houses in one of the more elegant neighborhoods of Ashburne, she glanced in through the nicely decorated windows and saw regular family life continue for the people who lived there.

Sighing, she wished dearly that she and Bronwyn could return to something approaching regular family life, though in their case, it was difficult even at the best of times as a result of their rather unusual occupations. Beyond that, the dreaded illness meant it would remain a childish pipe dream.

"Phirax, sis, you haven't heard a word I've been saying, have you?" Markki growled, rolling his eyes at his sister's inattention.


"I said, your fly is open!"

Caid narrowed her eyes and reached out to slap her kid brother's shoulder. "Luckily for you, me, and the rest of the world, my knee pants don't have a fly. Now, you were saying?"

"Oh, a lot of things, and too many to repeat. The essence of what I have been saying is, what are we actually trying to accomplish here?"

"Well," Caid said as she and Markki turned down a connecting street that would take them closer to the market place, "I'm hoping to find someone who can tell me about the early symptoms displayed by the two men who died while I was away."

Markki came to a dead stop and grabbed hold of Caid's loose sleeve. "Sweet Marpaxa, the Empress has it too!"

"Hold your tongue or I shall hold it for you, wretched pup!" Caid growled in her brother's face. She glanced around at the people near them who all walked alone, even when they were clearly together. Some had their ears well and truly in tune with what was going on between the siblings. "That kind of talk is dangerous at the best of times, fatal at the worst. No, the Empress does not have the coughing illness. She merely has a head cold. All right?"

The look on Markki's face sent a clear message that Caid's strong denial had proven him right. "Very well, sis. The Empress has a head cold. And now what?"

"Now we look for someone who knew the dead men. No more, no less," Caid said and pressed on down the connecting street.

Markki kept standing for a few seconds before he let out a curt "hmmm," and followed his sister.


A half-turn of the hourglass later, Caid and Markki walked down one of the streets connected to the market place. The elegant houses and the lack of weeds between the well-groomed cobblestones proved it was a nice neighborhood, and the clean and fancily dressed children who were out front playing with hoops proved it.

Caid smiled at a young boy who was playing in front of a particularly elegant home wearing a miniature hunter's outfit, including a cap with a feather. The boy smiled back shyly before he ran off further down the street to continue to play with a friend.

As she knocked on the front door, the ever-alert Huntress noticed a young man in a tightly wrapped, dark gray cloak standing in front of a building three houses down from where she was knocking. The young man seemed highly interested in the strangers while trying to make it look like he wasn't interested at all.

Caid thought the young man could have been a burglar or a pickpocket who had recognized her, but before she could comment on it, the door was opened in front of her. Grunting, she turned back and remembered to smile broadly so her compact shape would be less of a threat. A maid in her late teens wearing a black gown with a white apron and bonnet stood in the doorway with a puzzled expression on her face. "Greetings. I am Caid Barlin, this is my brother Markki Barlin," Caid said with a broad though sincere smile. "We would like to have a word with your Master, the spice merchant Cornelius Donachie, if at all possible."

"My Master is having his afternoon nap," the young maid said with a harried expression in her gray eyes that spelled out quite clearly that she was in no hurry to stir the slumbering man. "It needs to be very important for me to wake him up."

"It concerns the two traders who died of the coughing illness in the past few days," Caid said, sneaking a glance to her right to see if the disinterested young man with the interested glare was still present - he wasn't. "With your Master occupied, perhaps your Lady knows about them?" she said, turning her attention back to the maid.

"My Master lives alone, Lady Caid."

"Oh, just Caid or 'hey you', thank you. Tell you what, to save your pretty hide from your Master's undoubtedly vicious hand, we shall wake him up ourselves," she said and stepped past the maid who was all agape.


Not long after, a surly spice merchant in his late fifties with an impressive salt-and-pepper mane and an equally impressive full beard that rivaled even Kheo's foot-long specimen wrapped a sleeping robe around his bulky body and sat down in a creaking chair in an impressive drawing room on the ground floor of the house. He had bare legs under the robe, but the maid hurriedly brought him his favorite slippers before retiring from the scene, bowing and scraping.

"This had better be important, Lady Caid," Cornelius rumbled in an accent often heard in the new territories out west. Leaning back in his creaking chair, he crossed his legs which made the slipper waggle on his foot. "I start work before dawn so I need my afternoon nap, by Phirax!"

Caid and Markki sat side by side in a two-seater settee on the opposite side of the drawing room. Almost as expected, the room held many valuable items and pieces of traditional art, including a collection of picture frames that displayed what appeared to be dried, colorful flowers.

Caid nodded and nudged Markki's side as if to say that she would do the talking. "Sir," she said with a smile, "I've been told by a Lady up at the market place you knew both men who died recently of the coughing illness...?"

"Oh..." Cornelius said and moved his leg down. His bluster left him at once, and he seemed to grow smaller and more human in his chair. "Well, that is not quite true. I had worked for several years with one of them, but I merely had a passing acquaintance with the other. Why?"

"We are trying to find out how the early symptoms of the terrible illness manifest themselves," Caid said and leaned forward on the couch. "Please, Sir, can you tell us how it happened? From the moment the victims knew something was wrong."

"Oh, I-" Cornelius said and ran a hand through his impressive mane. "I fear I cannot tell you much, Lady Caid. I only knew the other man had died because the man I worked with told me so. What wretched misfortune, only three days later, he too was in his grave."

"But how, Sir?" Caid said, narrowing her eyes.

"Well... how... oh, that is difficult to say. He had been poorly for a while. Running nose, headaches, a persistent tickle in his chest that caused him to cough dryly, that sort of thing. Hardly fatal symptoms. On his last good day, he came to work so warm I could feel his body heat standing two fathoms away. He was coughing and feeling miserable. He insisted on staying there to finish keeping the inventory books. At the end of the day, he had a violent coughing fit where his handkerchief was soaked in blood afterwards." - Cornelius shuffled around in the chair, visibly uncomfortable about being reminded of the horrors he had witnessed - "And that was the last time I saw him. He was unmarried, but an associate from back home who knew us both told me he had died. A build-up of blood in his lungs, apparently. He suffocated."

"Yes, it's quite a tragic end," Caid said flatly, clenching her jaw. To get away from the dark images of her mother that had suddenly invaded her mind, she cocked her head and zoomed in on the merchant. "This associate from back home, Sir, has he fallen ill?"

"No. And neither have I, as you can see. It's really only today my nerves have calmed down sufficiently for me to begin thinking about going back to work. Yesterday and the day before, I was a wreck each time I felt as much as a speck of dust tickle in my nose, I can assure you. I seem to be immune. I cannot tell you how," Cornelius said with an impressive shrug that fit well with his hair and beard.

"Mmmm. You are from the western territories, are you not, Sir?"

The spice merchant smiled, seemingly relieved the subject had turned away from the illness. "Oh yes, I am from Tantor. I was born in a small village some ninety leagues outside of the capital, very close to the border to Zigai."

"But the three traders who died-"

"Three?" Cornelius said and scrunched up his face. "Oh... yes, that's true. Another trader died several days prior to the others..."

"Indeed. All three traders who died came to Ashburne on the same trader convoy. All three were from the southern province, weren't they?" Caid said, suddenly eyeing the first clue.

"Well, I... I believe they were, yes. Where does that fit in?"

Caid looked at Markki who shot her a puzzled glance in return. "Well, Sir," she continued, "we have had a death at the castle as well. A young handmaiden who lost her life right around the same time as the others. She was coughing and feeling poorly, though from what I have been told, she never actually coughed up blood. Alas, the illness may have caused her to go into premature labor through which she unfortunately succumbed. She was from the southern province as well."

"Who?" Markki said out of the corner of his mouth.


"Never heard of her..."

"Yes, you've met her. I'll tell you later," Caid said quietly before she turned her attention back to the merchant.

Cornelius shuffled around uncomfortably and glanced at the door to the small chamber next to the drawing room where he knew his maid was working. "To follow that theory, do you mean to tell me everyone from the southern province could be susceptible to this dreadful illness?"

"I cannot say for sure, Sir, but the clues do point in that direction. It seems to me the southern traders... who came to Ashburne on the same trader convoy, like I mentioned... brought the illness with them. Perhaps only one carried it at first, but since they worked so closely together, including your associate, the one became two, then three, then four and so on."

"Goodness me... Sweet Marpaxa, I hope not!" Cornelius said and once again looked at the wall to the chamber. "My maid is from the southern province! She's the best one I've ever had! I would rather not find her dead one morn lying in a pool of her own blood..."

"Many men and women in Ashburne hail from the southern province, Sir. They have been coming here to work for countless generations," Caid said darkly, thinking about one southerner in particular - Anna-Liese, Kheo's new wife.

Cornelius leaned back in his chair with a worried look on his face. "But wouldn't that mean your blood and theirs have already been mixed? Wouldn't that mean that everyone here is susceptible to the coughing illness...?"

"We cannot say, Sir," Caid said with a somber shrug. "In this outbreak, those who have succumbed... so far... have all had pure southern blood in their veins. There was a smaller outbreak five years ago that struck the locals. Perhaps we Ashburne natives became immune after that..."

"Perhaps. I wasn't here five years ago so I should be safe. Hopefully," Cornelius said, but he didn't look entirely convinced.

Caid nodded and looked down at her hands, once again flooded by images of the time when those hands held her mother when she couldn't stop coughing up blood. "Well," she said out loud and rose. "We thank you for interrupting your afternoon nap to speak with us. It was most pleasant, Sir Cornelius."

"Oh, you are most welcome, Lady Caid," Cornelius said and rose from his chair as well.


After shaking hands with the rich merchant, Caid and Markki went back out onto the street. The boy in the miniature hunting fatigues and his playmate had left and so had the interested man a few houses down, but Caid still felt that someone was watching her. Glancing around at the elegant neighborhood, she casually reached up and scratched her right ear that was tickling like crazy - her old Ranger sense was telling her they really were being watched.

"Mmmm," she said, looking around the street to find the culprit. When nothing seemed untoward, she turned around and began to shuffle up towards the market place with Markki in tow. "It was an interesting conversation. It truly does seem that the illness primarily strikes those from the southern province. But none of this explains what it is that has afflicted Bronwyn. Her symptoms really do not match what Cornelius told us."

"So the Empress really is ill?" Markki said quietly.

"Alas, yes. She is very, very poorly."

"Where does that leave the Empire?"

Caid grunted and went on in silence for a little while. "Oh, you needn't be worried about the state of the Empire, Markki," she said with a tired smile. "Aggraweine and his robed companions are more than capable of controlling everything. And Bronwyn isn't quite dead yet, you know."

"But the memorial event this eve? Surely she cannot be there?"

The Huntress chuckled darkly as her ear continued to tickle. "Have you ever tried to say no to Empress Bronwyn? It's an impossible task, Markki. Once she has made up her mind, mere logic cannot sway her."

"Mmmm... now why does that sound familiar, sis?" he said and bumped shoulders with his older sister.

"Oh, haw haw," Caid mocked but soon fell quiet. After a dozen paces, she sighed and tapped the pocket with the tiled gold necklace to make sure it was still there. "All right, Bronwyn was close to the dying man at the market and that is possibly where she was exposed to the illness... but so was Carrae, and although I only saw her briefly upon my return, she didn't seem ill. Nor the hundreds and hundreds of people who shopped at the market... myself included. It's a mystery... and I cannot stand mysteries. Wretched."


Once Caid and Markki reached the end of the connecting street, they were attracted to a commotion at the center of the market place. Not only did the old drunkard who had spooked Bronwyn at the spring market jump around like a jumping jack shouting "The end is nigh!" at the top of his lungs, a group of Yonnae had set up a makeshift camp right in the middle of the square.

Two soldiers from the City Watch stood just beyond the group of Yonnae with their hands on their hips and identical dead-tired expressions on their faces.

Several citizens had defied the fear of standing too closely and were gathered around the Yonnae, hurling abuse at them and shouting they should keep quiet about their nonsense before someone got hurt.

Caid scrunched up her face at the odd sight of heavily armed Yonnae warriors forming a defensive box around a tribe elder and an unarmed woman in the middle of the Ashburne market place. "What in the name of Phirax the Unholy is going on there...?" she said, scratching her ear.

"Oh, it's just those Yonnae again. They've been telling everyone who'd listen that the ancient sun will wither and die or some such nonsense. But they've kept on saying it'll be in the morrow, in the morrow, in the morrow... nothing's happened so far, has it? How can they expect us to continue to listen to them when nothing happens?" Markki said and waved his hand in disgust at the female warriors. "Have you ever heard such tripe, sis? The sun will wither and die, pah."

Caid let out a pffff and a little shrug. "They're free to believe whatever they want to believe. And so are we. I know that some believe in their message of doom. Come, let's go back to the castle. I have something I need to discuss with Fyonna before the memorial event starts... and I need to check up on Bronwyn again."

The Huntress performed a casual spin around her axis to check out every angle around her without looking too conspicuous. Her reconnaissance was successful - there, pressed against one of the buildings lining the square, stood the young man in the tightly wrapped dark gray cloak who had been in the connecting street. Grunting over the confirmation of her tickling ear, Caid turned for home and began to stroll towards the castle with Markki by her side.


At the other side of the square, Miriam Connighen released the grip she'd had on her dagger underneath her cape. She hadn't expected to run into the Huntress and her brother twice in such rapid succession, but now that she had, she added the name of Caid Barlin to the growing list of people at the castle who needed to die - after all, she was the one who had defeated Zai Allizadra in the first place.

Nodding to herself, Miriam folded up her hood and blended into the crowd of abusive people who were finally being dispersed by the soldiers from the City Watch.




A cry of "Ohhhhhhh!" echoed through the grand dining hall as a juggler kept six leather balls in the air at once while evading a fireball blown his way by the fire-breather.

Next to him, a sword swallower was performing equilibristic moves with his sword while trying to dance a jig to his wife's frantic lute-playing. Now and then, he stopped to dip the long blade into his throat, earning himself more ooohs and ahhhhs.

Another artist, the leader of the small troupe, used a wooden stick to tap the beat on a small drum he held under his arm. They were all dressed in colorful, exaggerated clothing with large hats, wide sleeves and even wider harem pants, and they all understood exactly how to play to the audience.

The guests, dignitaries and bereaved families had assembled in the dining hall, but - like the plan had called for - they didn't sit at the horseshoe-shaped table. Instead, they mingled and spoke to each other to make sure the memorial event didn't turn into a gloomy affair after all.

A particularly difficult and dangerous stunt by the fire-breather where he tried to send out fire-rings earned him a massive applause that made dust trickle down from the rafters three storeys up from the marble floor.

At the section of the table nearest the throne, Kheo and his new wife Anna-Liese sat on Bronwyn's left with Deegan Arliss who had brought a very smart date, and on Bronwyn's right came Caid, Efrem, Markki and finally Alanna all on her lonesome. There wasn't room for her on the end part of the horseshoe, so she had been moved around the corner to sit with the dignitaries.

Empress Bronwyn sat on her throne with a mug of sweet ale in her hand that she hadn't touched a drop of. Dressed in a gray, neutral gown equipped with a shawl and a semi-bonnet so she wouldn't appear inappropriate at the memorial event, she was pale as a sheet and so far gone on the herbs and the medicine Fyonna had poured into her that she had no idea what all those people were doing in her dining hall. She looked around with hazy eyes that were more red than blue from the lack of sleep and the brutal coughing fits.

Her skin looked waxen in the light from the torches and the twelve-branched candlesticks that were burning in each corner of the dining hall. Now and then, she sighed and attempted to take a sip from the mug, but she simply couldn't persuade her arm to move.

They were only a half-turn of the hourglass into the memorial event, and yet, she could hardly keep her head upright on her shoulders. If she wasn't careful, it would lull to the side against the upper wings of the throne. Her face was set in stone and all she could do was to breathe and blink her eyes, but the former was labored and the latter needed a nudge from time to time.

When it suddenly filtered through to her hazy mind that she had been spoken to, she leaned her leaden head to the right. "Personally, I cannot stand those I cannot stand," she slurred, answering the person she thought had asked her a question.

Unfortunately, Caid hadn't been the one who had asked, and the Huntress looked up at her partner with a deeply puzzled frown on her face. She looked over on the other side of the Empress and saw the sister of the slain warder. She was standing with her children - a boy and a girl who were both six or seven - in a deep curtsey that looked rather uncomfortable.

Caid hurriedly jumped up from her high-backed chair and gave her lover a little pinch on the back of her hand to make her come back to life.

It worked and Bronwyn blinked a couple of times and looked around in a daze. When she noticed the woman and her children waiting for her, she waved at them with a tired smile gracing her lips. "You may rise. I am truly, profoundly sorry you lost your brother," Bronwyn said, trying really hard not to slur her speech, "but I promise we shall do all we can to find the culprit and bring her to justice."

"Thank you, Empress Bronwyn. And thank you so much for your gracious gift. The Crowns truly hit a dry spot," the woman said and rose from her curtsey. She pulled her children back up next to her and leaned down towards them. "And what do you say to the Empress?" she said, nudging their necks.

"You look drunk!" the small boy said, nodding vigorously.

The mother gasped, the sister gasped, Caid gasped - but Bronwyn leaned her head back and let out a loud laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. "Alas, I wish I were, young Master," she said with a half-smile. The laugh made her cough lightly, but it seemed to stay at that.

The cheeks of the slain warder's sister blushed blood red as she reached up and pinched her son's neck. "Say thank you to the Empress!" she whispered.

"Thank you, Empress Bronwyn," the boy said, once again nodding vigorously.

"And thank you, young Master. You too, young Mistress," Bronwyn said with a flamboyant wave. Her guests curtseyed again and walked away. Smiling, Bronwyn put out her hand at Caid and pulled the Huntress close upon her acceptance. "Alas, my beloved Caid... if I were tipsy, you could have helped me back to my bed and undressed me... and then we could have made sweet love all eve. I fear such a delightful after-dinner party for two remains but a dream for me now."

A brief smile creased Caid's lips as she squeezed Bronwyn's hand. "But intimacy doesn't necessarily involve sex, Bronwyn. Love can be shown in so many ways."

"I agree. And yet, physical love is and has always been the direct path to my heart," Bronwyn said with a tired wink. "Love, I am thirsty. Will you help me sip the ale? I fear the mug has been filled too heavily. I cannot lift it."

"But of course, Bronwyn," Caid said and snatched the mug with the sweet ale. The froth had long since evaporated, but the taste of the dark ale remained the same regardless of whether or not the brownish-white layer on top was there. She held up the mug and allowed Bronwyn to take several deep swigs.

Bronwyn grunted to signal that she'd had enough. When she leaned her head back against the upper backrest of the throne, she turned to look at the artists. "Oh my, they really are quite spectacular, do you not think so, sweet Caid?"

"I do. I am particularly impressed by the lutist," she said and put the half-empty mug down on the horseshoe-shaped table.

"The lutist?" Bronwyn said and looked at the lively fair-haired beauty who played the lute with great vigor. Her cheeks were rosy and her eyes sparkled so brightly it was visible across half the dining hall. "Goodness me, Caid, I am right here and you are scouting out the Ladies!"

Caid chuckled and took Bronwyn's left hand in her own. "Now, what does this ring tell you? And what does the tiled gold necklace tell you, mmmm?" she said, running her fingers over first the gold ring and then the exquisite piece of jewelry she wore around her neck. "I have never hid the fact I am fond of the female form... but I cannot live without your heart, your mind, or indeed your body."

"Charmer," Bronwyn said and coughed lightly. A headache had started somewhere deep inside her brain from the din of the crowd and the racket produced by the artists, but she didn't want to mention it to Caid. More worrying were the chest pains that had crept up on her ever since she had sat down in her throne. She felt like someone had wrapped a metal band around her ribs and was tightening it, notch by notch by notch.

"Isn't that what you like best about me?" Caid said with a crooked grin.

Bronwyn tore herself away from her dark thoughts to send her a lover a genuine smile. "Ah, I fear my answer will be... no."

Caid's grin faded at once. "No?"

"No. I love all of you... tip to toe... hide and hair... heart and soul... your entire being. That, my beloved Caid, is what I like best about you."

"Awww. Charmer!"

Bronwyn chuckled and gave Caid's hand a squeeze. She had grown so tired she could hardly hold her head upright, but she demanded of herself that she looked her lover in the eye, so she did.

Suddenly, a woman screamed from somewhere among the group of spectators. Moments later, another woman joined the first in a perfect harmony of high-pitched squealing. Abruptly, the artists stopped their performance and stared at a spot on the marble floor out of sight of Bronwyn and Caid.

Caid hurriedly ran around the throne to see what was going on, but came to a full stop at the sight of a maid in a dark brown frock lying on the floor. A silver tray lay next to her with the appetizers that had been on it distributed all over the marble tiles. "What in the name of Phirax the Unholy is going on here? Was she pushed? Who pushed her?" she said strongly, stomping down towards the young, stricken woman.

She knelt down next to the young, dark-blonde girl but shied back at once when she realized the girl was coughing. The very next moment, Caid was glad she had moved back to a safe distance as the young girl went into a violent coughing fit that ended with many droplets of blood spewing from her breath.

The maid's lips and teeth were stained red in an instant, but by then, Caid had jumped to her feet and had moved well back from the drama. "Stand clear! Stand clear!" she cried, waving her hands in the air to make the partygoers aware that something had happened. "Everybody stand clear! She is coughing up blood!" she cried, grabbing hold of the closest tunics she could grasp to pull them back from the coughing maid.

That message got across and a mass panic instantly broke out among the people at the memorial event. The exit to the grand staircase was soon blocked by men and women who turned to animals to make sure they got out before anyone else. The sentries at the entrance were overwhelmed within moments, and they had no choice but to open both of the doors and step aside in a hurry.

Soon, the dining hall had been cleared of most people, save for an unlucky few who were trapped on the wrong side of the maid - which included all three of Caid's family members, as well as Kheo and Deegan and their companions.

Bronwyn sat with her hands covering her nearly white face. Initially, she had stared wide-eyed at what she could see of the tragic scene on the floor, but she didn't have enough strength left to cope with yet another horrific mess on top of her own illness.

The maid was still coughing up blood, but the fit had died down into regular coughing and not the violent bursts that had gone before. As she ran a hand across her lips and saw that it was coated in red, she looked up in an unrestrained panic. Her chin began to quiver and it wasn't long before silent tears ran down her face at the unfairness of it all.

Caid rubbed her brow at the horrendous sight. She briefly glanced back at Bronwyn who still had to shield her eyes. Grunting, she stormed over to the table and tore off a large section of the pure white tablecloth. "Kheo, need ya over here on the double. Deegan, Markki... and father... make sure the Empress returns safely to her bedchamber. And somebody get a healer! Now!"

The barked commands of the Huntress sent everyone into action. Kheo kissed his wife before he hurried around the throne and up behind Caid. "Yeah... awright. Now what, Huntress?"

"Now we make sure that maid's comfortable until someone can get a healer," Caid said and wrapped the torn-off tablecloth around her arms to protect her hands.

"Yeah... but... that blood there..." Kheo said and rubbed his mouth.

"We've both been up to our armpits in someone else's blood, Kheo."

"Not sick blood, eh? Aw, Phirax, look at that poor thing," he said, shaking his bald head at the way the young maid was crying. Aw, ya only die once," he continued, tearing off another section of the once-so pristine tablecloth.

While Deegan Arliss and all three Barlins supported the Empress on her faltering way back to the bedchamber, Kheo and Caid knelt down next to the weeping maid. They quickly turned her over onto her left side so she didn't spew the droplets of blood straight up into the air. One of the torn-off sections of the tablecloth was placed underneath the featherlight girl, and the other was wrapped around her body to keep her warm.

Caid felt the maid's forehead with the back of her hand, but she didn't seem to have a fever as such. She was pale and her eyes were glazed over from the shock, but other than that, she seemed fine - except for coughing up more blood that trickled out of the corner of her mouth as she breathed. Her breath was shallow and labored, like Bronwyn's was.

"Watch yer hands, Caid... and yer ass," Kheo said and pulled Caid back from some blood that had pooled at the young girl's mouth.

"There's something... something I must test," Caid said and strode over the ill girl. She knelt down behind her and put an ear to her back. Though it wasn't fully effective through the tablecloth and the frock, she was able to hear the tell-tale rattle very clearly around the impossibly fast beat of the wildly pounding heart.

"Huntress... what in Phirax the Unholy's ballsack are ya doin', woman...?"

"Will ya shut up? I'm trying to listen!" Caid barked back and closed her eyes to concentrate. When she thought she had heard enough to be able to recognize the rattle produced by a patient who most decidedly had the feared coughing illness, she pulled back and gave the maid's shoulder a little squeeze.

"I ain't sayin' nothin... and nobody's tellin' me nothin', neither!" Kheo mumbled and threw his arms in the air.

Caid scrunched up her face and nodded decisively. Now she knew what to listen for.


With the memorial event turning ugly in such a tragic way, none of the people in the Imperial bedchamber had any reason to smile. Empress Bronwyn was sitting on a chair having her hair done for the night by Luna while Tawna was folding down the gray gown Bronwyn had used for safe storage in the large wardrobe. Alanna had stayed in the chamber in the hope that she could get to speak with the Empress after her family members had left, but, as she sat on the bed with her hands folded in her laps, it didn't look like she was going to be successful.

A soft knock on the chamber door interrupted Bronwyn's thousand-fathom stare. Apathetic and with an aching chest - that she hadn't said a word about to Caid - she looked up at Tawna who crossed the carpet and went over to the door.

"It's the Huntress," she said as she opened the door to let Caid in.

Bronwyn only needed one look at Caid's somber face to know the maid had passed away. She sighed and looked down. Only too late did she remember that Luna was still working with the bone combs, and they promptly snagged on a few locks of her hair. "Ohhh," she breathed, reaching up to still Luna's hands that frantically tried to unravel the locks from the combs. "I beg for forgiveness, Luna... that was my doing," she said in a tired voice.

"It was not, Mistress. I am too clumsy... far too clumsy! I beg for forgiveness... I am truly sorry," the young maid said through clenched teeth as she managed to unravel both combs. Sighing in relief, she continued to prepare her Mistress' hair for the night.

"No, this was not your fault, Luna. Oh, Caid, my love... come, sit where I can see you," Bronwyn said and pointed at the bed.

The use of the term of endearment made Alanna furrow her brow and assume an expression that clearly wasn't too accepting of the events that transpired between her sister and the Empress, but it vanished before Caid could notice.

Caid sighed and sat down next to her sister. "Empress Bronwyn, it is with great sadness I must report the death of the maid. Kheo and I helped the healer carry her downstairs to the infirmary, but another violent coughing fit before we reached it sent her into Marpaxa's waiting arms. She is in a far better place now."

"She is indeed," Bronwyn said and sighed so deeply her shoulders slumped. "Alas, once Death has chosen to walk among us, mere mortals such as you and I cannot persuade him to carry on and choose another."

"This strain of the illness is different to the ones we have seen before," Caid said and reached out to gently brush her fingers against her sister's hand in a sign of support, especially when the topic turned to their mother's illness. "Unlike earlier outbreaks where the appearance of blood was merely the start of the fatal decline, death is now instantaneous. After her second, equally bloody fit, the maid tensed up like a coil and shuddered like a reed in a storm... then her eyes rolled back in her head and she was gone."

"Ack, how ghastly! Simply ghastly... Luna, you may stop now. I fear I am not in the mood for having my hair done after such a tragic event," Bronwyn said and reached up to still the maid's hands.

"Yes, Mistress," Luna said and carefully unraveled the combs from the thick, dark locks. Once they were free of the hair, she collected her items and went into the corner of the bedchamber to await further orders.

"I fear there's more, Empress," Caid said somberly. "The other maids have been frightened out of their wits. Matron Sharona has just told me nearly all of the maids and the junior manservants have locked themselves into their chambers and refuse to come out."

"Oh dear..."

"Yes. And that's putting it mildly," Caid said and rubbed her brow. "Most of the maids worked with the girl who died this eve... Joyce was her name... and they are absolutely terrified she may have passed the illness on to them. Matron Sharona reported of unrestrained crying and blatant hysterics. Some maids have even run off to Marpaxa knows where."

"Ack..." Bronwyn said and locked eyes with Caid. "Alas, such behavior is only too understandable. I believe I would have reacted the same way had I been an impressionable teen. Sweet Caid, please inform Matron Sharona when you see her again that she must not be too stern with the handmaidens and the junior manservants. One should not be punished for running for one's life."

"I shall. Don't worry," Caid said and reached over to put a hand on Bronwyn's thigh. While she was there, she gave the bare leg a little squeeze.

Alanna looked from her sister's hand and up to the Empress with wide, worried eyes. She wrung her hands incessantly, and it was obvious she was mulling over something that needed to come out urgently.

Bronwyn wiped her brow with a faintly trembling hand. "That makes six now... six that Death has taken from us within such a short time. Ack, what ghastly irony that a death should occur at the very event where we tried to... to instill a little hope into the hearts..." - she coughed lightly, but took several deep breaths to prevent a fit - "hearts of the bereaved... and what wretched luck that yet another maid barely out of her teens was struck by Death's hideous touch. Caid, my love, can you please see to it that Joyce's family will be-"

"I cannot stand being here with you!" Alanna cried, jumping up from the bed in her agitation that painted two angry red blotches on her cheeks. "I came to plead with you to stop these wretched terms of endearment in full view of everybody... and now you use such language to my face! How can you speak to each other like that?! How can you pretend you are husband and wife?! You are both ladies... behave like ladies!"

As the words filtered through, Caid rose menacingly and turned to her sister with lips that were pulled back so far she appeared like a wolf on the prowl. "How dare you, Alanna? How dare you speak words of hatred in a time of grief? Apologize to your Emp-"

"I will not! For such is my conviction!"

"Apologize to your Empress!" Caid barked in a voice that left no room whatsoever for misinterpretations.

Over at the wall, Tawna hurriedly took Luna by the shoulders and led the blushing handmaiden away from the battlefield and into the connecting hallway.

Bronwyn felt her heart drop like a stone upon realizing that Caid's sister still didn't accept their love, despite uttering flowery words that she did. It sank even further when she glanced over at the ruby red color of Caid's face.

Alanna's lips and chin quivered strongly as she looked from her sister and over to Bronwyn, but she remained defiantly silent.

"Alanna, no sister of mine speaks with such hatred... do you understand what I am saying to you?" Caid said hoarsely, balling up the four-post bed's delicate canopy in her strong fist.

The two sisters stared each other down before Alanna withdrew from the grudge match and headed towards the door without curtseying or even acknowledging Bronwyn.

As the door slammed shut behind Alanna, Caid let out an explosive breath and released her choke hold on the canopy's fragile fabric. She opened her mouth to speak but she had no words left to say.

Bronwyn smiled wistfully and put out her arms. "Sweet Caid, I am too weak to stand up so you need to come down to me instead. Please, allow this weak being to give you a glimmer of hope. Put your arms around me and press your lips against mine... I promise the world shall become right again."

Caid's mask of frustration proved difficult to get rid of, but she leaned down and embraced her lover. As the two warm bodies connected in a strong, loving hug, some of her anger evaporated, but it didn't disappear completely until she brushed her lips against Bronwyn's.

When they separated, Bronwyn furrowed her brow and stuck out her tongue. "I say, what in the world was that supposed to be? I asked for a kiss but all you had for me was a gentle brush? Come now, Huntress!"

"I was afeared you would be too weak for a true kiss..."

"Pah, what nonsense!" Bronwyn said and waved her hand in mock disgust. "I have always said that your kisses are the essence of- MMPF!" - Bronwyn never made it further before Caid had leaned down to claim the Imperial lips in a strong, life-affirming kiss.

Knock, knock!

"Go away! We're kissin'!" Caid said around Bronwyn's lips, much to the Empress' mirth.

'It's Commander Tarsi,' the familiar voice said from the other side of the sturdy door. 'I fear I bring bad news.'

"Drat," Bronwyn said and reluctantly let go of the lips of her soft toy though she kept a firm grip around the Huntress' waist to make up for the loss of contact elsewhere. "Ack, we better let him in, sweet Caid. Wait... before you do, will you please help me up into bed? I swear if I have to sit for another minute on this wretchedly hard chair, my cheeks shall go numb..."

"Oh, we certainly cannot have that," Caid said with a wink, secretly thankful for the color that had returned somewhat to Bronwyn's face. Smiling, she leaned down and put a hand on Bronwyn's elbow.


The news Kallirna Tarsi brought wasn't just bad, it was near-catastrophic. Lying in her soft bed, Bronwyn groaned out loud and rubbed her pale forehead with a trembling hand. "Commander, I fear I did not understand you correctly. Surely you did not just say that nearly twenty of my citizens have fallen ill over the course of the past few turns of the hourglass?"

Caid, who was seated on the edge of the bed, reached for Bronwyn's hand to remind the upset Empress to breathe easy and not let her emotions run off with her so she could keep a lid on the brutal coughing fits.

Commander Tarsi shuffled around on the hard chair and looked enviously at the soft bed occupied by the two women. His shift had only just started, and it had been with a larger bang than he had hoped. He shook his head and reached up to push his helmet back from his rugged face. "I fear it is thus, Empress. According to the preliminary notes I got back from my Watch patrols, we have... uh..." - he thumbed through several pieces of parchment until he found the right one - "nineteen reported cases of the coughing illness. Oh, and this was already nearly half a turn of the hourglass ago. There may be more now."

"Go on, Commander," Bronwyn said despondently.

"Very well, Empress Bronwyn. I... uh... oh yes, two soldiers from General Mahawney's regular army have been struck ill in addition to a soldier under my command. The rest are civilians. Sixteen."

Caid grunted and raised her eyebrow at the Commander. "The Empress can count, Tarsi."

"Uh... but of course. I was merely trying to-"

Bronwyn waved her hand in the man's direction. "Never mind that now, Commander! Go on."

"Of those sixteen reported cases, four have already died, though I fear the deaths are not representative. Two elderly people who were already quite weak from other illnesses, and... alas... two sucklings."

Bronwyn fell back against her pillow with a face that was drained of all color. Her round, bloodshot eyes stared straight ahead of her without seeing anything at all. "Four more... four more people Death tapped on the shoulder on this eve. Two sucklings... oh, Sweet Marpaxa, when will this end? Will it ever end...?"

"Commander," Caid said, giving Bronwyn's hand a squeeze before she hopped off the bed. "Have you established the origins of the people who have died on this eve?"

"I... I do not understand your point, Huntress?"

"Well, earlier today, Markki and I spoke with a rich merchant who knew two of the three men who died near the market place. All three were part of a trader convoy that came from the southern province. They were southerners, as was Mynere. We're awaiting word if Joyce was as well... but I have a hunch she will turn out to be."

"Southerners? As in, from the southern province?" Tarsi said and thumbed through his papers that didn't offer any clues in that direction simply because no one had thought of asking. "Well... that's certainly a theory," he said and looked back up. His eyes slid towards the poorly Empress with the clear question of why she was affected if it only struck southerners burning brightly in his gray orbs.

While Caid and Tarsi had spoken, Bronwyn had worked up enough courage to go ahead with a plan that she had plotted out in her mind. 'A lockdown may seal in whatever it is that is so contagious, but will there be anyone left in Ashburne afterwards?' she thought, biting her lips. She took the deepest breath she dared while hoping it wouldn't trigger a fit.

"Commander Tarsi," she said and moved up slightly in the bed, "I think the time has come to impose a lockdown of the castle and the walled city of Ashburne. I fear we have been cursed with a highly contagious illness that can strike anyone at any time... we cannot allow anyone in or out of the city for the foreseeable future. The lockdown shall remain in place until Lady Fyonna and our skilled healers have examined the deceased and brought forth possible cures. Then, and only then, should we once more allow people to move freely outside of Ashburne."

Kallirna Tarsi nodded somberly and made several notes on his parchment. "Noted. However, I fear a lockdown will create friction among the citizens, my Empress. Especially now the weather has improved following the long, depressing winter. The peasants will be anxious to get to their fields in preparation for the coming season."

"I am aware of..." - Bronwyn coughed lightly but could feel a stronger one coming on the first one's heels. She piped down while she waited for the ugly feeling to go away. "I beg for forgiveness. I am aware of the potential problems, Commander. We shall deal with those if and when they arise. For now, my decree stands... a lockdown must be im... imposed."

A new, light cough crept over her lips, but this time, she was unable to stop a stronger one from following it rapidly. She closed her eyes and held her hand to her mouth to keep everything inside in case it was the precursor of a fit.

Caid was at Bronwyn's side in an instant and took her free hand in her own.

Bronwyn smiled wistfully as she looked up at her partner. She wasn't about to mention that even the shallow breaths she had been forced into taking had started to hurt her terribly. "I sh- shall also sound a general alarm for the regular army and your City Watch, Commander," Bronwyn wheezed, rubbing her pale brow. "In effect, that means... all units shall... be on standby, and that... I shall call in all senior military and... infirmary staff."

Kallirna Tarsi nodded and quickly rose from the uncomfortable chair to go to work implementing the new orders. "Very well, Empress Bronwyn," he said when he reached the door. "The orders will become effective one quarter-turn of the hourglass after the final Watch post has received the word. The lockdown shall be complete."

"Thank you, Commander," Bronwyn wheezed, coughing lightly.

"With that, I bid you a pleasant eve, Empress. Huntress," Tarsi said and bowed flamboyantly before he spun around on his heel and left the bedchamber.

As the door closed, the look of steely determination faded from Bronwyn's face like someone snuffing out a candle. Moaning softly, she leaned her head back on her pillow and stared up at the inside of the pale blue canopy that she had slept under since she was a little girl. Out of nowhere, a recollection of a game she used to play with her mother at her afternoon naps when she was but a little tyke entered her mind. It was a simple counting game where she and her mother had used their fingers and toes to count the number of items in their bedchamber. It had been a great educational game, but at the time, she had just thought it was the funniest thing in the world.

Returning to the present, Bronwyn looked down at the gold ring on her finger. 'I wonder what mother would have thought of Caid... she left me before I was mature enough to know who I really was, so she may not have approved... like Alanna. Sweet Marpaxa, I do think mother would have liked Caid, though. How could she not?'

A gentle cough rolled over her and she pressed her hand to her mouth to stop it turning into more. Her chest was caught in an ever-tightening vise, and for each cough that came to her, the vise was given another twist.

"Are you all right, love?" Caid said quietly, squeezing Bronwyn's hands.

"Alas, I am not. I fear I am so very tired, sweet Caid. And I have become dizzy following the tragic events of the eve and the latest commotion. Oh, if I could only sleep like I used to," she said and pinched the bridge of her nose to relieve the thumping headache that had been brought on by the tension of the latest coughing. "Alas, I cannot. The wretched coughing wakes me up constantly. Oh... sweet Caid, I am speaking as your Empress now. I wish you to oversee Lady Fyonna's examination of Joyce in the earle of the morrow. I know it means I shall have to suffer here in solitude, but I fear that if we do not get to the bottom of this tragedy urgently, none of us will have anyone left to hold..."

"An examination of the dead body...?" Caid croaked, narrowing her eyes. "Hmmm. In that case, I better get a head start and change clothes. I fear my wide sleeves could end up in all sorts of-"

"No. This is my final Imperial decree of this wretched eve... Huntress, you are to undress and spend the night in the arms of your Empress. I have made up my mind. It shall be thus."

Caid chuckled and rubbed her face that was indeed more than a bit tired after the stress of the day. "Well, Empress Bronwyn, when I woke up this morn, it was in a tent I shared with five people who hadn't been cleansed for several days. And neither had I, for that matter. Following that rude awakening, I spent ten turns of the hourglass on Chestnut's broad back... and now all this. I must admit I am somewhat exhausted now."

"And I have a bed ready for you, sweet Caid," Bronwyn said and patted the empty spot next to her. "Why, is that not simply the best coincidence ever?"

"It certainly is. Before I undress, I shall go outside and inform Kheo of the general alarm. He can be in charge of all the minutiae. Oh, and I better tell Luna and Carrae not to come in here for the rest of the eve and the night. We wouldn't want to scare them with our physicality... the poor maids."

Bronwyn snickered into her hand, not quite daring to let out a laugh. She smiled wistfully and closed her eyes to try to find a modicum of peace until Caid returned to her.


Only a few things could make the battle-hardened Caid Barlin turn green around the gills - watching Fyonna examine Joyce's dead body was one of them. Caid had skipped breakfast despite Bronwyn's gentle protestations that breakfast was the most important meal of the day, but now she was glad she had.

She and Fyonna had met in the infirmary in the basement of the castle where Joyce's remains were stored. Two healers had put the naked body on a slab of stone in the center of the cold, clinical room, and now Fyonna stepped up on a footstool to get a better view of the situation. She had her hood folded back and she was cocking her head to let her senses stretch out and encompass the body in front of her. Since it was a dead body, it wouldn't speak to her like a living one would, but she was able to pick up a few faint echoes of the energies that had inhabited the young maid when she had been among the living.

Caid cleared her throat and looked away from the naked body out of respect. She glanced around the infirmary that wasn't as large as one would expect, only ten by ten fathoms. The hardwood floor was covered in sawdust to soak up any blood that was spilled by the patients. Three of the four walls were covered in shelves that held jugs, jars and vials of all types, colors and sizes. Most were labeled, some weren't, but Caid was unable to decipher the peculiar handwriting to see what it said on any of them.

The fourth wall of the infirmary was a double-wide entrance to the room - expanded during the reign of Jin-Sarnos so the Emperor could get his larger than average rear through the door - and also another, smaller door that led to an office where the paperwork was kept.

Beyond the slab of stone that was occupied by Joyce's remains, the infirmary had two further examination slabs and a bunk that were ready for other patients. The bunk, as well as one of the other two slabs, was more comfortable with a mattress and a woven blanket ready for whomever needed to be examined.

Being deep in the basement of the castle, lighting was a problem, but the slab of stone occupied by Joyce's remains was lit up by a four-branched candlestick that stood at each corner of the slab. The candlesticks were of a special design with a prism above the candles that concentrated the light from the flames and sent it down onto the slab so the healer at work could see better - not that it mattered to Fyonna.

The Seer nodded somberly after her initial examination of the body. "Huntress, before I begin, I must insist that we wear breathing protection and gloves. I have prepared kerchiefs that we must wear. Here's yours," she said and held up a faintly purple cloth with a lace that was to be tied around the head.

"Breathing protection?" Caid said as she reached across the dead body to take the kerchief. "Joyce is very much dead, Seer. Even I can see that. She isn't breathing now and she hasn't begun to smell yet, so... why?"

"Because this illness may be airborne. When we begin to move her around, particles may be released and sent into the local environment."

"Oh... like specks of dust in a sunbeam...?" Caid said with a furrowed brow.

Fyonna shrugged and tied her own kerchief in place. "I cannot say, Huntress. I have never seen such a spectacle... but judging by your description, I would think it is the same thing."

Grunting, Caid put on the kerchief and tied it behind her head. It smelled strongly of the solution it was coated in, and it made her crinkle her nose in discomfort. "Ouff, what is this odd smell? Seer, are you sure that whatever substance these kerchiefs were coated in isn't worse than the particles?"

"Quite sure, Huntress," Fyonna said and found the gloves she was to put on.

"Well, gloves... had I known we were to wear gloves, I would have brought mine. Alas, I didn't know so I haven't," Caid said, looking around for a suitable substitute.

"There's a pair for you over here," Fyonna said and pointed down at the spot where she had taken her own.

Caid chuckled and walked around the slab. "Oh, you cannot see dust, but you can see my gloves, Seer?"

"Naw, the healer I spoke to told me where they were," Fyonna said and let out a most un-Seer like giggle. "Very well, back to the matters at hand... literally. Have you put on your gloves yet?"

"I have," Caid said, adjusting the fingers of the peculiar cotton gloves that were perhaps a bit too long for her shorter digits.

"Good. Caid, you need to be my eyes in a brief while, but before we get to that, I shall start the examination by probing the victim's body," Fyonna said and let her bony fingers run down Joyce's cold remains from the sides of her throat, to her base of her neck, to her armpits, to her breasts that were probed and kneaded quite extensively - making Caid scrunch up her face in horror - and further down to the upper, then lower part of the belly, and finally onto the loins. "Hmmm... mmmm... mmmm... very well. My initial examination has been completed and I found nothing untoward."

Caid, whose face was still scrunched up, let out the breath she had been holding ever since Fyonna had started to knead Joyce's breasts. "Seer... with all due respect... may I ask what in the name of Phirax the Unholy you were doing with that poor girl's breasts?"

"I was probing them for lumps, similar to what I did with the nodes on the sides of her throat and in her armpits."

"Yeah, but pits iz one thing, tits another..." Caid said under her breath.

Fyonna chuckled as she cocked her head and moved it in an odd pattern across Joyce's body. "Stiffness has set in, but it isn't too advanced yet. Caid, I need your eyes now. Tell me in great detail what you see when you look at the body. Is there anything in particular you notice?"

Caid scrunched up her face even harder but did as she was asked - though she needed to gulp first. "Very well. Let me see... I am moving down from her hair towards her feet. Her hair is dark-blonde. Regulation length. Unwashed for a few weeks, but that's normal. Her face is pale and gaunt. Her skin is waxen. Her eyes are closed."

"Caid, I need you to lift her eyelids."

A few moments of dead silence filled the air before Caid let out a long grunt. Reluctantly, she leaned forward and lifted Joyce's left eyelid. The bloodshot, brown eye that became visible stared at her in a silent accusation of why she dared to disturb her eternal sleep, but Caid concentrated on the matters at hand, though a cold shiver trickled down her back throughout. "Her eyes were brown. Bloodshot. Perhaps with a hint of yellow, too. Hmmm... her eyes and eyelids are quite red."

"Unusually red?"

"Ya know, Seer, I don't do this very often... how should I know if they're unusually red?! Perhaps they are, I cannot say for certain," Caid said and released the eyelid that flopped back down in place.

"Moving on down," she continued once she had shimmied away from the cold trickle, "the rest of her face seems normal. Relaxed in death as expected, though her lips and chin still bear the dry stains of the blood she coughed up."

"And her teeth?" Fyonna said, cocking her head.

"Aw, Sweet Marpaxa," Caid croaked, but did as asked. "Her teeth are stained. Yellowish and bloody red. She is missing the right eyetooth and the one next to it. Nothing unusual there. May I take my finger out of her mouth now, please?"

"Oh, go on, then."

Caid shivered again and closed the dead woman's jaw. "Her facial skin is unblemished save for a bruise on her chin that may have come from hitting the floor last eve. Continuing down onto her torso... hmmm."

"Oh, that sounds interesting, Huntress!"

"I cannot say if it is or not, but looking closely at her now, I can see that a section of her skin on the right side of her chest and rib cage has a... hmmm... almost a bluish-black hue. Early decomposition?"

"No, too soon," Fyonna said and probed the area Caid was talking about. "I cannot sense anything. Go on, but keep the discoloration in mind."

"She has a healed scar at the base of her right breast. It's old. Left breast is... uhhh... ack... fine. Moving on further down, she was slender so her ribs are showing. All ribs are present and accounted for. No stretch marks so she hasn't been pregnant. There is another, slight discoloration across the lower part of her stomach down towards the upper edge of her pubic hair. Bluish-black like the one on her chest."

"Mmmm? Fascinating."

"Fascinating?" Caid said, narrowing her eyes. "Fyonna, when the day comes and the body on this slab will be mine, would you mind not calling my naked remains fascinating?"

"I shall make a note of it. Now, will you help me turn her over onto her left side?" the Seer said with a smirk underneath her breathing protection.

"Oh... turn her over?" Caid croaked.

"Yes, I need to see how far the discoloration extends onto her side and back."

Caid groaned and looked up at the ceiling of the infirmary. Shaking her head, she relented and grabbed hold of the dead body. Working together, she and Fyonna were soon able to establish that the discoloration extended all the way around to Joyce's spine, and that it was even darker there.

"You know, Seer, this looks like a big bruise to me," Caid said as they returned Joyce to lie on her back.

Fyonna stepped down from the footstool and walked over to the far wall of the infirmary. "From what you have been telling me, and from what I remember from the scrolls my husband Mirkko and I have been working on, the discoloration has come from the inside, not an external trauma," she said and took off her gloves. Feeling around with her foot, she soon found the proper waste bucket and threw out the spent gloves.

"Hmmm," Caid said and took off her own gloves before lowering the breathing protection. "But what does it all mean?"

"This isn't the regular coughing illness."

"But surely it must be, Seer. What about the violent coughing fits? And the blood?" Caid said, looking at the dried bloodstains on and around the dead body's mouth.

"Similar symptoms, yes, but a different result. Huntress, if I may be so bold, have you noticed similar discoloration upon the skin of the Empress?"

Caid chuckled darkly as she took off her breathing protection and handed the kerchief back to Fyonna. "To be truthful, Seer, the mood has not been one for nudity and intimacy. I have yet to see Bronwyn's creamy skin since my return yesterday."

"Caid, do you think there is a possibility that you could do so while I was present? I fear the Empress would need to be topless so we can thoroughly examine the skin on her chest and back."

"I cannot say without asking her... but I am telling you one thing right now, Fyonna... don't even think about kneading Bronwyn's breasts like you did Joyce's. That's where the Empress and I draw the line, illness or no illness," Caid said in a voice that proved she wasn't jesting in the least.

"Of course, Huntress. I shall merely be an, ahem, blind observer," Fyonna said with a curt nod.


At much the same time in Ashburne near the market place, First Lieutenant Miriam Connighen sat down on a chair with a bump, leaned forward and buried her head in her hands. The small chamber she shared with Zai Allizadra was getting on her last nerve in all its cutesy middle-classness, and if she had to look at the tasteful wallpaper, the classic furniture and the delicate curtains for a minute longer, she would scream - and begin to tear it down.

With her uniform boots firmly on the ground, she rubbed her face and leaned back on the chair. She looked at the motionless woman on the bunk with a mix of disbelief, sorrow and growing anger coursing through her body. To make sure her senses hadn't deceived her a scant minute earlier, she knelt down onto the floor next to the bunk and held her hand above Zai's mouth. Then, she pressed her fingers to Zai's neck.

The skeletal woman with the shock of white-blonde hair had neither breath nor pulse. Zai Allizadra was dead.

Miriam sighed deeply and swept a few strands of Zai's silky hair out of her face that had finally found peace, though it was still haggard and pale. She gazed despondently at the tragic remains of her old lover for a little while before she leaned in to place a tender kiss on Zai's lifeless, parchment-like lips.

Standing up, Miriam pulled the duvet over Zai's face and strode out of the chamber. After checking the other chamber on the first floor and finding it empty, she skipped down the stairs and entered the drawing room. "My brothers," she said loudly to quell the din of the other former Black Lance soldiers who held court in the stately room. "Our glorious commander has fallen. Her heart gave out from the inhumane conditions they kept her in at the castle."

The news made the others fall silent. The uniformed, veteran soldiers all looked down except Borjan Maelwys who rose to pull Miriam into a hug.

She resisted quite forcefully and kept the other officer at arm's length. "No, Major. Save it for someone who cares. My brothers, I propose we pursue the only course of action available to us. Let us honor our colors and our late commander by storming the castle. Let us find the Empress and send her to Marpaxa... or wherever that wretched bitch is going. I shall plunge the dagger into her heart myself. Are you with me?"

The murmur of affirmative answers that rose from Miriam's brothers in arms wasn't as strong as she had hoped it would be, but she nodded decisively and spun around on her heel.

"Wait, Miriam," Borjan said, hurrying after the woman who was supposed to be his second in command. "What should be do about Zai's body? We cannot leave her to rot."

"No, we cannot. I shall carry her into the basement," Miriam said with a hard glare in her razor-sharp eyes. "Then we shall torch the basement and the rest of the building. A true warrior like Zai Allizadra should be consumed by the flames of conflict, not waste away in a shallow grave somewhere."

"Lieutenant, we cannot set fire to a house in the middle of Ashburne!"

"Watch me!" Miriam said and strode back up the staircase to set her plan in motion.


A short half-turn of the hourglass later, clouds of smoke and sheets of darkly orange flames billowed out from the empty window frames on the ground floor of the building in the elegant street. The raging fire attracted plenty of attention from the other residents who frantically formed fire-lines from the well at the square and all the way down to the burning building amid terrified cries and even panicky screams.

Across the street, seven figures wrapped in hooded cloaks watched the fire and the frantic efforts of the neighbors to put it out. Miriam stared with hard, relentless eyes at the fire as it ate away at the once so pristine middle-class townhouse. Considering the strength of the flames, the bodies in the basement would already have been cremated.

She sighed and briefly scrunched up her face at the thought of all they had done in their attempt to rescue and then help Zai - and all they had yet to do in their attempt to avenge her. "Come," she said to Borjan, turning away before the man had even had a chance to reply.


Miriam was fully prepared to slay as many sentries as it took to gain entry into Ashburne Castle, but the fire had had a positive side-effect by luring most of the guards away from the main entrance. As she and her team slipped inside unsighted, she shook her head at the foolishness of the inexperienced junior soldiers who hadn't been shaped by the hardships of true war.

The group of seven cloaked figures hurriedly went down the grand staircase and into the bowels of the castle. Once they found an exquisitely decorated wall near the dungeons, Miriam folded back her hood and reached for the bucket of paint and the brush carried by one of her brothers in arms. Grunting, she began to smear Black Death Cometh onto the wall of the corridor to show the inhabitants of the castle that they weren't safe, even inside their golden palace.

With her handiwork complete, she threw away the nearly-empty bucket and folded her hood back up. "Come, Major Maelwys. Let's find a chamber where we can stay for a while... we have plans to draw," she said and strode deeper into the corridor.




"Lady Fyonna wants to do what?" Bronwyn said, removing the hand that had covered her eyes to make sure she had heard Caid right. "She wants to see me topless? But Lady Fyonna is blind!"

"Exactly... it's all for medical purposes. I'll be here too so you won't have to feel embarrassed," Caid said and rubbed her chin.

Bronwyn smirked and took a deep, cautious breath. Once she had in all the air her tormented lungs could hold, she grabbed the edge of the quilt and pulled it off her. "Very well," she wheezed as she sat up on the four-post bed.

She had to support herself by pressing her fists into the linen for a little while to get her bearings, but she soon reached out for Caid's touch. "Caid, my love, please give me a hand up. If I am to appear like Marpaxa created me, I should have some water on my body first. I fear I am not the freshest piece of fruit in the bowl."

Caid pulled Bronwyn upright and held onto her in a calm embrace. "Love, there is nothing wrong with your scent. Trust me."

"Are you sure, sweet Caid?"

"Fully," Caid said and took the opportunity to stand up on tip-toes and claim Bronwyn's lips. "Would I kiss anyone who smelled poorly?" she added in a whisper.

"I certainly hope you will not kiss anyone who is not me, Huntress!" Bronwyn whispered back, but the smirk on her pale face proved her words weren't meant quite as stingy as they sounded.

"Never," Caid said and kissed Bronwyn again. "If you insist, I promise I shall help you cleanse yourself once Fyonna has left. Would that suffice?"

"It certainly would," Bronwyn said and coughed lightly.

Caid's smile faded when she caught a glimpse of the pain and suffering on Bronwyn's face that had been caused by such a simple cough. She furrowed her brow and ran a hand around the taller woman's waist before pulling her even closer. "I wish I could truly help you, love. Alas, it is beyond my powers," she whispered into Bronwyn's favorite sleeping chemise that Carrae had mended after it had been torn.

" 'Tis beyond all our powers, I fear. Alas, such is the hand I've been dealt. Oh, you may let me down now if you will, sweet Caid. I fear I overestimated my strength," Bronwyn breathed, leaning into Caid's touch.

Once Bronwyn was sitting safely on the bed, Caid moved in close between the long, bare legs and placed her hands tenderly on Bronwyn's cheeks. Smiling, she caressed the cheekbones while she leaned down to place a line of kisses on the Empress' forehead, eyebrows, nose, and finally her enticing lips.

"Love," Caid said as she placed yet another kiss on Bronwyn's lips, "once again I need to apologize for my sister's behavior last eve. It was simply a disgusting act of treason against you and I. Several times since your coronation, she told me she had accepted us... clearly, she was speaking with two tongues. I still cannot fathom she had the nerve to act like that to our faces."

"I was shocked, I will readily admit that... it struck me harder than it should have because she looks so much like you," Bronwyn said and reached up to place her hands on top of Caid's. "To hear such words of vitriol spew forth from a face that shares so many little details with yours was disconcerting to say the least. Not to mention your eyes! Oh goodness me, in her anger, her eyes were identical to yours when you grow agitated. 'Tis obviously thus because you are siblings, but it was quite strange..."

"I hadn't even considered that aspect," Caid said and stole a kiss. "I fear it won't do any good to speak to her. She's always been far more conservative than Markki or I. Or even father, though it took him a while to come to terms with my preferences. I suppose I should respect her for finding her own path in life and sticking with it, but... I cannot."

"Love, it matters not. Her words hurt me but you comforted me, and that left me... and leaves me... in a perfect balance. Now, when is Lady Fyonna to-"

Knock, knock!

"Oh!" Bronwyn said and snickered into her hand. "Perhaps I shall add Seer to my list of skills?"

"It appears so. Hang on while I see who it is."

As expected, it was Fyonna who stepped into the Imperial bedchamber with a small leather bag in her hand. Shuffling into the center of the room, she performed a curtsey at the woman on the bed. "Greetings, Empress Bronwyn. Enchanted to meet you on this fine day. Did you sleep well last night?"

"Alas, I did not, Lady Fyonna. Please rise," Bronwyn said with a shrug and a little wave.

"Ah, if you wish me to concoct another sleeping potion, I shall gladly do so," Fyonna said and shuffled through the room on her way over to the canopy bed. Once there, she put the leather bag down on the quilt and folded back her hood so she could hear better. The bag was soon opened, but the odd instrument she pulled out was a source of puzzlement to both Caid and Bronwyn.

It was a thin, hollow reed that looked like a flute with a mouth piece at one end and a funnel at the other, though it wasn't clear to either Caid or Bronwyn why Fyonna had felt a need to bring a musical instrument to a medical examination.

"Mmmm, well, Lady Fyonna, please do not take this the wrong way," Bronwyn said and shuffled around on the bed, "but the last sleeping potion you created for me was such a disaster I still get sour burps when I think of the grotesque dreams I had while under its influence."

"Once again I apologize for that. I had not taken your galloping fever into account. Now," Fyonna said and held up the odd instrument, "this is where I shall ask you to take off your upper body garments, Empress Bronwyn."

Before they got to that, Caid stepped in between the Empress and the Seer and put a stern hand on the pale blue cowl. "Seer... speaking of asking, I shall ask you to treat the Empress with the respect she deserves. She is in a vulnerable state already and I do not condone putting her under more stress. First of all, what is that weird flute you've brought? Do you expect Empress Bronwyn to dance a merry bridal jig while you examine her?"

"I understand your concerns, Huntress," Fyonna said with a curt nod. "I can assure you I shall treat the Empress with the utmost respect like I would any ill woman. And this, well, this is a stethoscope. By putting the funnel on her bare skin and the other end into my ear, I can listen to the fluids or other substances in the Empress' lungs. The sounds will be as clear as the conversation we are having now."

"Oh... I see. My Empress, would that be acceptable to you?" Caid said, acting very formal for Bronwyn's benefit.

Bronwyn lifted herself off the pillow and sat up in bed. The simple motion was nearly too much for her and she had to cover her mouth while she coughed lightly. "It would, Huntress. Thank you for your concern. Lady Fyonna, you may go ahead... though I fear I need a hand undressing first," Bronwyn said and tugged at her sleeping chemise.

Caid smiled at her lover and went around Fyonna to help Bronwyn take off the chemise. Once the soft fabric was clear of the Empress' dark locks, Caid leaned in and undid the bone hooks on the back of the cloth that was wrapped around Bronwyn's breasts.

As the cloth fell away, Bronwyn's tender mounds came into view. At first, she felt highly embarrassed at being so exposed in the presence of a relative stranger, but Caid's supportive touch made her discomfort melt away - and on top of that, Fyonna was blind.

"Are you ready, Empress?" Fyonna said, wiping down both ends of the stethoscope.

"I am, Lady Fyonna," Bronwyn said and shuffled around on the bed to make room for the Seer and her odd instrument. When she was in place, she reached up in the hope Caid would hold her by the hand during the examination.

Fyonna nodded and moved into position. She held the stethoscope ready but didn't put it on the bare skin. "Huntress, before I start... I need you to be my eyes again. Can you see any discoloration on Empress Bronwyn's upper body?"

"I shall tell you in a moment, Fyonna," Caid said and scrutinized every last inch of Bronwyn's body from her waist to her neck - including stealing a kiss since she was in close proximity of the enticing lips. "I see no discoloration whatsoever. Bronwyn's skin on her back as well as her chest is creamy and unblemished."

"Good. That's something at least. Very well, let's move on," Fyonna said and held the stethoscope ready.

"Wait," Bronwyn said and held up her hands, "before we go on, I would like to ask what the color of my skin has to do with anything? I can assure you I have not performed any activity that could lead to bruising."

Fyonna nodded and once again wiped down the stethoscope for good measure. "It has to do with your lungs, Empress Bronwyn. The Huntress and I recognized severe discoloration on the back of Joyce, the maid who died, and upon further investigation, other victims of this outbreak have shown similar rashes."

"But... surely that cannot be bruises either, Lady Fyonna?" Bronwyn said, resembling a question mark.

"Oh no, it doesn't have anything to do with bruising, Empress Bronwyn. My theory is that the discoloration stems from internal bleeding. I am suspecting the tissue lining the lungs has failed somehow and has become porous. That would release blood into the underside of the skin as well as inside the lungs... the coughing is simply a natural reflex. However, I shall require further examination of the victims before I can make any definite statements."

Bronwyn looked up at the Seer with wide open eyes. When the blind woman didn't offer further information, Bronwyn looked at Caid, but all the Huntress could do was shrug.

"Now Empress Bronwyn," Fyonna continued, "please relax and breathe normally for a little while. Do not hold back a cough if one comes, and please do not speak... that goes for you too, Huntress. All right?"

"Fine," Caid said, giving Bronwyn's hands a supportive squeeze.

As Bronwyn felt the odd instrument press against the skin on her back, she relaxed as much as she could and tried to breathe normally - or at least as normally as she could at that stage of her illness. She inhaled and exhaled in a perfectly rhythmical pattern until she could sense a cough sneaking up on her. It wasn't large, but she knew it could trigger another, stronger cough, or perhaps even open the door for a proper fit. When it came, it was only a smaller one, but her breath quickened as she waited for further coughs.

"I am done here. Excellent," Fyonna said and removed the instrument from her ear. "I have all I need, you may put on your clothes now, Empress Bronwyn."

"Oh..." Bronwyn said and stared in puzzlement at the Seer. "Was that all? I thought that... oh, I do not know what I thought. I hardly felt a thing..."

Caid nervously licked her bone dry lips as she took in the sight of the creamy skin of her partner's bare torso. She remembered conducting her own little experiment on the back of the dying Joyce and decided to see if she could recreate it on the Empress' unblemished skin. "My love, sit still, I'm just going to..." she said as she walked around the bed and crawled up into it. "...I'm just going to listen to your back though I only have an ear and not an instrument."

"Listen to my back, sweet Caid?"

"Yes, I shall explain later. Please be still and breathe regularly while I... mmmm... yes..." the Huntress said and leaned in to place her left ear against Bronwyn's back. It didn't take her long to establish that the rattling sound that came from her partner's lungs was different from the one she had heard created by the lungs of the dying Joyce. "Mmmm... thank you. That was all I needed," she said and pulled back from the glorious skin after giving it a little kiss for comfort.

Bronwyn just shook her head with a look on her face that said quite clearly she didn't know what on earth was going on.

While Caid conducted her experiment, Fyonna put the stethoscope back into the bag. "Well, I have good news and bad news, Empress Bronwyn," she said as she tied the laces. "Which would you like to hear first?"

"How bad is the bad news?" Bronwyn wheezed, holding her hand to her mouth. When Caid took the piece of cloth for her breasts, she shook her head and pointed at the sleeping chemise instead.


Bronwyn put her arms in the air and gave Caid plenty of room to slip the chemise down over her body. When everything was in place, she leaned back down on her pillow with a slight moan. "If such is the case, I would like the good news first, please."

"Very well," Fyonna said and shuffled around Caid and the Empress. "You have the coughing illness, but-"

"You call that good news?!" Caid barked, jumping up from her position on the bed.

"Yes," Fyonna continued unperturbed, "because it is not the same as the fatal strain that is active at present. Yours, Empress Bronwyn, is a far less dangerous strain... though still quite bad, obviously. This particular strain is called pneumonia."

Caid scrunched up her face and looked closely at the Seer to gauge how bad the bad news would be considering the less than stellar quality of the good news. With Fyonna's stoic expression, the bad could be very bad, indeed. "Go on, Seer. Tell the Empress the bad news," she said somberly.

"Alas, at this point, there is no cure for pneumonia."

Bronwyn shook her head slowly while she locked eyes with Caid. "So it is still a fatal illness?" she said in a semi-whisper.

"Potentially, yes, for the elderly and the weak. However, you are young and fit, and I have every reason to believe you shall pull through. It shall probably take you weeks if not moons to get back to your full strength, but you will... eventually."

"Moons?" Bronwyn groaned and rubbed her face several times in rapid succession. "Ack... moons. But you believe I will pull through?"

"Yes I do, Empress Bronwyn. Unless complications arise."

Bronwyn let out a slow breath and cast a worried glance at Caid. "Dare I ask what kind of complications can arise, Lady Fyonna?" she said flatly.

"At the moment, the illness is only present in your left lung. If it spreads to both..." the Seer didn't finish her comment, but it was clear to Caid and Bronwyn what she meant.

"Ack... if I feel this wretched from one ill lung alone... I cannot even begin to think of the pain involved if the other becomes affected as well. Drat."

"Let us hope it will not come to that. I have obligations elsewhere so I must bid you farewell, Empress Bronwyn. Huntress," Fyonna said and shuffled over to the door.

"Farewell, Lady Fyonna," Bronwyn said with a despondent little wave.


Deep in the bowels of Ashburne Castle, Miriam Connighen paced like a caged animal in the small chamber they had acquired. Once she and her team had made it to the servants' quarters, they had found every single door to every single chamber locked or even barricaded like the person on the other side expected the worst.

Through the doors, they had heard weeping boys and hysterical girls, and not even solid thumping and a hastily prepared sob-story with a plea for help could persuade the staff to unbolt their doors.

In the end, Miriam had decided to backtrack until they could find suitable accommodations. They had needed to go so deeply into the damp, dark corridors that it felt they had almost moved beyond the castle, but they had eventually come across a storage room that wasn't locked.

Miriam stopped pacing and looked around at the decrepit storage room. Built in a rectangular shape with a wooden ceiling and the walls and the floor made of untreated stone, the room was only three fathoms wide but close to ten fathoms deep. The entire back part was one, large mess of ancient wooden chairs, tables and other types of furniture that hadn't been moved for so long mice and rats had claimed it as their own.

It was clear the room hadn't been used for decades, perhaps centuries as thick curtains of cobwebs hung heavily from the rafters, and big, fat spiders scurried around trying to repair what the black-clad soldiers had destroyed when they had dug out some chairs to sit on.

One of the younger soldiers rubbed his nose repeatedly and stared down towards the back of the storage room. "I think something died in here..." he said with a clear tone of disgust in his voice.

Miriam ignored him and kept pacing. They had been unable to find a candlestick - much less a candle - so they had to keep the sturdy, wooden door ajar to let in even the smallest amount of torchlight from the corridor. She had thought of bringing one of the torches into the storage room, but it was too small and too crowded so the smoke and soot would soon make it inhospitable.

"No, I'm serious..." the young man continued, "you cannot recognize the smell?"

Miriam scrunched up her face and stormed over to the whining man. "It shall be you who shall die in here if you continue to dishonor the colors you are wearing by crying like a little girl!" she said hoarsely, pinning the whiner to the spot with a hard glare.

Busted, the whiner nodded and looked down at his lap. "You are right. I'm sorry, Lieutenant."

"And you should be, by Phirax!" Miriam barked and stormed back to the door. Growling, a dark shadow of anger fell over her and she began to mumble under her breath. "Cooped up in here like a bunch of cowards... wretched... we should be up in the castle attacking them, not down here hiding from them!"

"Lieutenant, please calm down," Borjan Maelwys said and got up from a rickety, old chair he had been sitting on. In the semi-darkness of the decrepit storage room, his rat-like features seemed right at home.

"Calm down? Major Maelwys, have you lost your nerve? We are here on a specific mission... a mission that we cannot accomplish while we are down here, hiding," Miriam said, shooting her supposed superior a cold glare.

"Miriam, please," Borjan said and tried to put his hand on the Lieutenant's shoulder though she brushed him off at once, "don't forget most of the members of this team are inexperienced. If we attacked the Imperial army or even the City Watch head-on, we would all die bef-"

Miriam spun around and flashed the Major such a fiery glare that he had to back off in a hurry. "Black Lance soldiers who are afraid to die?" she cried hoarsely. "Black Lance soldiers who are afraid to engage the enemy? Black Lance soldiers who have turned so cowardly they would rather crawl back up their mother's womb than to draw their blades? You disgust me, you pathetic bunch of cowards!"

"Now, Miriam-"

"Silence when I speak! Major Maelwys, I accepted you as the leader of this unit because you had a higher rank than I in the service, and because your plan to get in involved posing as monks, but now it becomes crystal clear to me that a Staff Major does not have the balls required to be at the front where blood flows and soldiers die!"

"I beg your pardon! I slew a man in the dungeon just like you!"

"Silence! And for the rest of you cowards," Miriam said and stormed back to the others, "the time has come for you to make up your minds. Will you join me and go out in a blaze of glory where we shall hopefully take as many of our enemies with us as we can... or will you follow the Major's cowardly ways and stay here until you croak of natural causes with your tails so far between your legs you cannot even take a piss?!"

The other members of the team seemed reluctant to even answer, but Borjan stomped over to the Lieutenant and grabbed her by the shoulders. "Lieutenant Connighen, that was uncalled for! Uncalled for and disrespectful. I demand an apology."

"An apology?" Miriam said with her lips drawn back in a sneer. "An apology you shall not have, Major, simply because I do not see you fit to lead this unit. How many battles have you been in? How many conflicts have you settled with your blade? Ten... five... or perhaps just the one in the dungeon? I saw your hands trembling... it was your first slaying, wasn't it?"

Borjan let go of the Lieutenant and moved away before he would do something he would regret.

"I had a hunch it would be thus," Miriam said coolly. "I have fought at the front. Commander Allizadra and I stood side by side, coated in blood and guts from the enemies we had slain in the brief uprising in Zigai three years ago. Our campaign crushed that uprising... we killed them all. We beheaded every living being in that village even down to the livestock and the damn pets to show the rebels that Phirax had arrived and that the Evil One was wearing the uniform of the Black Lance!"

Miriam threw her hands in the air and spun around to look at her brothers in arms. "If I hadn't been away from Ashburne when that wretched bitch Bronwyn usurped the throne, I would have fought side by side with Commander Allizadra up in the dining hall. We may not have been able to vanquish the opposition, but we would have fought them to the death, by Phirax!"

The man who had whined about the smell looked up and tried to lock eyes with the irate woman, but had to give up when he couldn't match her fire. "I was at the castle that night, Lieutenant... it wasn't quite that simple."

"It wasn't? Of course it was!" Miriam barked with clenched fists. Shaking her head, she took several deep breaths to calm down sufficiently so she wouldn't lose her head in the battle that was soon to take place. "I have made up my mind. You yellow-bellied bastards can do whatever you wish to do. I shall go upstairs and find the Empress. I shall drive my dagger through her heart to avenge Commander Allizadra, and I shall do so with a smile on my face."

"And a second later, you will be a head shorter, you blinkered fanatic!" Borjan said and looked like he wanted to slap some sense into the younger Lieutenant. In the end, he remained sitting but clenched and unclenched his fists repeatedly.

Miriam opened her mouth to shoot back a stinging reply, but she decided against it. Eventually, she shrugged with a cold glare in her eyes. "So be it. Soldiers should not expect to come home from the wars they fight in. If I have slain the Empress before my candle is snuffed out, I shall die happy."

With that, she grabbed her cloak and stormed out of the storage room.


In the Imperial bedchamber a turn of the hourglass later, the mood had improved to a more positive atmosphere from the somber depths it had plummeted to earlier. With the mostly good news brought to light by Fyonna, Bronwyn felt practically elated, though still in pain and unfathomably tired.

She had tried to play a few games of One-Two-Three with Carrae, but she had been unable to concentrate enough to even remember the rules - and with the young handmaiden highly uncomfortable about winning over her Mistress, the game had been quietly dropped.

Instead, Carrae and Caid were sitting at a table at the foot end of the canopy bed. Caid had agreed to help the young girl with her reading lessons, and they sat shoulder by shoulder and read from a leather-bound tome holding a piece of parchment that Carrae needed to use to keep the lines separate.

Now and then, Caid guided Carrae along or corrected her kindly when she mispronounced the words that were difficult for her. While Carrae was absorbed in the line she was reading, Caid looked up at Bronwyn and sent her a wide, loving smile that was responded to in kind.

"... The fox ran into its hole with the captured prey stuck firmly between its jaws. Although not a large fox, my ob-ser-va-tions have shown it's clever and steel-thy-"

"Stealthy," Caid said with a smile, pointing at the difficult word.

Carrae smiled back and continued along the line. "Stealthy, and worthy of its position in the..."

While Carrae read on, Bronwyn snuggled down in bed and made herself comfortable with a content chuckle on her lips. 'Oh, that is such a tender scene... and unexpected! To see the Huntress Caid Barlin, the scourge of all things evil, being so friendly and helpful with that struggling young girl warms my heart. Oh, if only we could have had Mynere here as well. Alas, it was not to be. I must remember to speak with Carrae about her loss. She has said very little, but I know it must be gnawing at her heart.'

Thinking of Mynere led Bronwyn's thoughts to the odd collection of Yonnae who had visited them. The tribe elder and her warriors had been an impressive sight, though their message had turned out to be rather less impressive. "Sweet Caid," she said and tapped her chest where a persistent, little tickle was annoying her, "I must admit to being somewhat disappointed with the Yonnae elder who came to see me while you were away on the maneuvers. She seemed so knowledgeable and worthy of respect, and yet the prophecy of doom she proclaimed so widely has failed to materialize. If such a dreadful end should strike us, surely it would have come by now...?"

"I said from the start it was a load of..." - Caid glanced over at Carrae who was still reading from the book - "nonsense."

"Ah yes, that you did," Bronwyn said with a smile. "Alas, if one cannot trust a Yonnae elder who was told of such horrors in a spirit vision... who can you trust? I have been meaning to ask my senior meteorologist what he thinks of the prophecy, but I have been rather too busy."

A knock on the door disturbed the peace. Carrae hurriedly rose from her chair, but Caid put a calming hand on the young maid's shoulder and went over to answer the door herself.

"Oy!" Kheo Khammon said in loud surprise when Caid opened the door. "Huntress! Have ya been relegated ta the rank o' handmaiden?"

"Yes, Kheo... I must now serve the Empress' every whim and desire," Caid said with a grin as she ushered the Grand Marshal inside.

The large man was nicely dressed in a dark red tunic and a pair of black, straight cut ankle pants. He even wore a garrison hat on his bald head, but the headwear was whipped off when he stepped into the chamber. "An' how's that different from what yer usually doin'?" he said with a cheeky grin.

"Kheo... manners!" Caid said and thumped her old friend's shoulder.

Kheo grinned, but the grin faded as he walked closer to the canopy bed. Once he reached the Empress, he bowed deeply. "Greetin's, Empress Bronwyn. Nice ta see some color returnin' to yer cheeks, if I may be so bold."

"You may, Sir Kheo. Please rise," Bronwyn said with a wave. "Carrae, you are excused while Caid and I speak to the Grand Marshal."

"Mistress," Carrae said and curtseyed at her Empress and the new guest before she hurried out of the room and down the connecting hallway.

Kheo wrung his garrison hat in his meaty hands until he realized he would ruin it if he kept going. Grunting, he stuffed it under his right epaulet instead. "Now, Empress... I beg fer fergiveness, but I fear I ain't bringin' ya very good news from Ashburne. This wretched illness has claimed more victims durin' the darkness... the list o' casualties is now at eight with a few more undoubtedly comin'... or perhaps I should say goin'... before lunch. The healers say there ain't no cure."

Bronwyn's face fell during Kheo's depressing briefing. She reached up and rubbed her brow with a faintly trembling hand, but she soon had to put the hand across her mouth to stop a light cough that threatened to evolve into something worse.

Caid could see her partner was in no condition to speak, so she walked around Kheo's bulky frame and sat down on the edge of the bed. "Thanks, Kheo," she said and took Bronwyn's free hand in her own. "We've spoken to Fyonna and she confirms there's no cure. Alas, this illness is the worst we've had for years."

"Yeah, no kiddin'," Kheo said and glanced at the Empress with worried eyes. "So... uh... what's, uh... goin' on with you, Empress Bronwyn?"

Bronwyn took the deepest breath she dared to get her lungs back under control. When she felt confident she could speak without breaking down into a cough, she turned to her friend and offered him a smile. "Thank you for your concern, Sir Kheo. Lady Fyonna told us that I had not been struck by the same strain of the illn-"

"Aw, that's good news!" Kheo said and nodded so hard his foot-long full beard bobbed up and down.

"Yes, but I still have the coughing illness, th-"

"Aw... that's bad news," Kheo said somberly.

Despite the seriousness of the conversation, Caid chuckled loudly as she reached up to pat Kheo's elbow. "If you would let the Empress finish what she's trying to tell you, my dear old friend, she's about to say something important."

"Aw... I beg fer fergiveness. Go on..."

"Why thank you, Sir Kheo," Bronwyn said with a tired grin. "Although I still have the coughing illness, the strain that has invaded my lung is far less severe than the true coughing illness, at least according to Lady Fyonna. She believes I shall pull through, though it shall take me quite a while to regain my full strength."

Kheo smiled back at the younger woman and held out his fist so Caid could thump her own against it. "An' now we're back ta the good news, Empress Bronwyn. Yep."

"Definitely," Caid said and duly thumped her old friend's fist. "Do you have anything further for us, Kheo...? I'd like to go back to serving the Empress' whims and desires now, if you don't mind."

The big man chuckled and briefly broke out in a blush at the barely hidden innuendo from the usually so stoic Huntress. "Oh! I nearly fergot..." he said and slapped his forehead. "Commander Tarsi told me there wus a bad fire in Ashburne earlier this morn... a house burned down completely ovah in one of them rich districts o' the city... not far from the market place. Swift efforts from the neighbors prevented the fire an' embers an' stuff from spreadin', though. Yeah, an elegant house owned by a li'l old lady. I ain't been there myself so I don't know any more details than that."

"Oh... goodness me. More tragedy!" Bronwyn said and shook her head slowly. "On the positive side, surely this cannot be connected to the wretched illness."

"Naw, wouldden ha' thought so. I'm guessin' she put a pot on the stove an' fell asleep or somethin'."

"That is certainly a possibility, Sir Kheo. Alas, we shall never know. Oh... and while we touch upon the subject of not knowing... have you heard anything about Zai Allizadra and the group of supposed monks who sprung her free?"

"Naw! What I've heard amounts ta a big, fat zero. Ain't nothin' out there at all... I'm thinkin' they've gone so far underground we ain't never gonn' find 'em. There ain't been no more attacks or acts o' vandalism, so..." Kheo said and clapped his meaty hands together in a rare sign of frustration. "Aw, but I don't wanna take up yer quality time. Good day, Empress Bronwyn. Huntress. Don't bother gettin' up, I know the way," he continued and rose from the hard chair that had been too narrow for his broad rear.

"Good day, Sir Kheo. Please give your charming wife a little kiss from all of us," Bronwyn said with a wave.

"I ain't gonn' do that! Imma gonn' give her a big kiss!" Kheo said on his way out of the door, much to the amusement of his friends.


An Empire didn't run itself, so in time for the afternoon tea, Caid escorted Bronwyn into the grand dining hall and helped her sit down carefully on the well-cushioned throne. Once the Imperial rear had been safely lowered onto the plush cushions, Caid helped Bronwyn fold the wide sleeves of her loose, neutral gown so they wouldn't become entangled with the throne's armrests.

Bronwyn's most senior dignitary Aggraweine and his associates were already there with an entire cart full of decrees, laws and declarations that needed to be signed upon approval or rejected upon dismissal. The distinguished, white-haired gentleman in the purple robe - who was also the owner of a purple nose from enjoying the brandy a little too much - offered the Empress a smile once they locked eyes.

Caid looked around at the dining hall that seemed curiously deserted following the near-mutiny of the maids and the junior manservants. Tawna, Carrae, Luna, and Matron Sharona who were the only members of the staff who hadn't yet barricaded themselves inside their chambers stood next to the Empress with their hands neatly folded in front of them.

The slightly absurd situation was compounded by the faint creaking of one of the swinging doors to the kitchen's anteroom that seemed to flap in a non-existent breeze. Bronwyn sighed and turned her head to look at the vacant wall where the kitchen staff usually spent their time awaiting further instructions. "Ack, I suppose we shall be forced to make our own tea and pastries on this day. Aggraweine, perhaps we should get started on the tedious business while my consort makes the tea...?" the Empress said, seeking out Caid's fingers.

The elderly dignitary briefly nodded at one of his associates who began pushing the cart towards the throne. "Very well, my Empress," he said, stepping up to the horseshoe-shaped table with the official Imperial quill and inkwell in his hands.

"Caid... please?" Bronwyn said, adding a smile and a little wink.

"Oh, all right... but I'll make the tea the way I like it," Caid said and leaned down to place a tender kiss on Bronwyn's temple. "But don't overstress yourself, you hear?" she whispered for Bronwyn's ears only.

"I hear and understand, sweet Caid. Thank you for your concern. Take Carrae and Luna, they should know where the fresh water will be."

"I shall. Don't forget what I said," Caid admonished, once again kissing the Empress' hair.

Bronwyn chuckled at the sternness of Caid's voice as she tracked her over to the swinging doors and into the anteroom. Her real-world obligations soon returned with a vengeance, and she turned back to Aggraweine with a tired look on her face.

"Go on, Master Aggraweine. I shall do my best to seem interested," she said and put her hand across her mouth to hold back a small cough that was still hard enough to send tendrils of pain through her lung.

"My Empress," Aggraweine said with a bow, "first up we have a draft for a public declaration consisting of a list of ten guidelines for personal health and safety that should be followed in this time of crisis and indeed tragedy. If you will add your beautiful signature on the dotted line, please," the dignitary said and held out the Imperial quill.

Bronwyn furrowed her brow and shot the man a slightly disdainful look. "Ah, perhaps I shall, but I shall read it carefully before I do, Aggraweine. Though I am ill, my sanity has not yet suffered."

"But of course, Empress Bronwyn," Aggraweine said and took a sliding step back while Bronwyn studied the draft of the declaration.

"Mmmm... mmmm... each eve at bedtime, you should rinse your mouth in strong brandy... mmmm... mmmm... mmmm... an apple a day will keep the coughing away... mmmm... mmmm... you must refrain- what?!" Bronwyn said and sat up straight in the throne. She rubbed her eyes before she returned to the draft. "You must refrain from all intimate or carnal activities!"

"Yes, Empress Bronwyn. The council of healers have suggested that a forced separation could perhaps reduce the-"

"Balderdash! Do they not understand the importance of comforting? Take heed, that last guideline is rejected, the rest I can approve," Bronwyn said and drew a fat line across the lower end of the parchment. "Next!"

Aggraweine grimaced, but bowed to his Empress.

The embarrassing scene was mercifully interrupted by Caid coming back from the anteroom pushing a cart ahead of her laden with mugs, several different kinds of pastries and jugs containing steaming hot pre-mixed tea.

Carrae and Luna quickly distributed the various items on the horseshoe-shaped table and served the people sitting there before they curtseyed and withdrew to the servants' wall to await further calls.

Bronwyn took her mug of tea and sniffed it to investigate how strongly Caid had made it. It didn't seem too bad so she took a gentle sip of the steaming hot beverage. "Oh, sweet Caid, this is very nice... I thank you," she said as she put the mug back on the table.

"I aim to please," Caid said with a bow.

"Mmmm," Bronwyn said but didn't make further comments apart from shooting her lover a warm gaze. "Now, Aggraweine, shall we continue with the decrees and laws?"

"Very well, Mistress," the senior dignitary said and took the next scroll.


Nearly a dozen signed documents later, Bronwyn had grown quite tired and needed to rest her head against the wing of the throne to even remain upright. The unpleasant metal band around her chest had been tightened another few notches, and by now, she had nearly reached her limit. 'Sweet Marpaxa, if Lady Fyonna was correct in her observations and my illness has only struck one lung, I dread to think how I would feel if both were affected. Goodness me, I would be unable to do anything but lie in my bed and stare at the canopy. Even now, I feel like such a weakling... I wish my illness could be whisked away like the gruesome X-shaped scars on my beloved Caid's back... though if Lady Fyonna had been able to do anything about it other than to pour medicine into me that does not seem to have any effect, I am sure she would have done so by now. Oh... oh no, I need to cough...' she thought, holding her hands ready for the cough she knew would be a hard one.

It began small but soon grew in strength. The hard cough that opened the dance was quickly followed by an even harder one that tore at her lungs. It appeared to rip up in something because she was suddenly overwhelmed by a coughing fit that went beyond anything she had tried to date.

Harder and harder she hacked, coughed and spluttered, all the while growing so red from the exertion her face resembled her father's old crimson coat of arms. She began to get little black spots in her vision, and she wheezed like a crazed donkey between the coughs to get enough air into her lungs to continue coughing - not to mention breathing.

Tawna and Caid were at Bronwyn's side in an instant and stood ready to do whatever it took to aid the Empress. Caid's face quickly turned as red as her partner's out of fear and worry for her safety. She could almost sense a physical echo of the strong coughs that racked Bronwyn's body, and she wished she could take over her pains, too.

The strong coughing fit rolled through the dining hall, giving the other guests a chilling reminder of how ill the Empress actually was.

Bronwyn leaned over the right armrest while she hacked and coughed so hard her vision had turned red. At long last, the coughing fit grew less and she was able to breathe again, but on the very last hard cough, she accidentally got her tongue trapped between her molars. "Ouch!" she mumbled as the pain shot up from the soft tissue, though her cry was muffled by the cough.

Already red-faced and exhausted, the stinging pain that blossomed out from her tongue and the tangy taste of blood in her mouth were the absolute last things she needed at that point, and she wiped her mouth with dark frustration written all over her face.

Caid was still standing above Bronwyn ready to jump into action at a moment's notice, but her heart stopped dead when she saw the blood on Bronwyn's hand that she had used to wipe her lips.

The Huntress felt her own blood drain from her head and everywhere else at the sight of the bright red substance on Bronwyn's thumb and index finger. As her heart resumed its regular service - though beating in double-time - she cried "Get the Seer! Get the Seer! Now!" at the top of her lungs while she wrapped her strong hands around the yelping Empress and snatched her up like she was merely a feather.

Moments later, with all Caid's senses and faculties working at such a stressful pace that she had developed tunnel vision, she knelt down on the marble floor and carefully placed a shocked Bronwyn next to her holding a tender hand behind the Imperial head to protect the scalp.

Her teeth were clenched, her hearing was impeded by the sound of the blood rushing past her ears, her skin was hot as glowing rock and cold as ice at the same time, and her heart was thumping away in her chest - in short, Caid Barlin was on the brink of passing out.

Only then did she realize Bronwyn was trying to say something to her. The bloodied lips of the Empress were moving, but Caid had so little hearing left she couldn't even hear herself think. Instead, she looked up at the other people around the table. "Someone get the Seer!" she roared, though even such a powerful exclamation only made a small impact in her hazy mind.

Looking at the blood that was smeared across her fingers, Bronwyn suddenly understood what Caid had thought had happened, but she couldn't get the message through to the wildly agitated Huntress. "I am fine, sweet Caid! Caid! Caid, I am fine..." she tried, grabbing hold of the panicky woman's shoulders. "Oh, Caid... please calm down! I am fine... I merely bit my tongue... I did not cough up that blood, it came from my tongue..."

"Your... ton- tongue...?" Caid croaked, reeling from the insane storm of emotions that had blasted through her in such a short amount of time.

"It was merely my tongue, sweet Caid... I bit my tongue. Look," Bronwyn said and stuck out her tongue in a crooked angle that showed the bite mark quite clearly.

Caid stared at the bite mark but didn't fathom anything of what was going on. "Your tongue...?" she croaked, trying to blink away the odd spots in her vision.

Bronwyn smiled nervously and reached up to caress the cheek of the boiling hot Huntress - for the briefest of moments, their usual roles had been reversed. The two women sent each other identical looks of shock and love before Caid bumped down onto her rear and let out a long, slow sigh.

Above the Empress, Tawna wrung her hands incessantly with a worried look on her gray face, but Bronwyn reassured her with a casual wave of the hand. "Tawna, you need not worry about my health. I merely bit my tongue. Ack, this marble floor was never meant to be used as a place for rest. Sweet Caid, your strong arms guided me down here... perchance you could help me get back up as well?"

"Wh- what?"

"May I return to my throne now, please, sweet Caid...?"

"Of course... of course," Caid said and got on her feet. At the last moment, she remembered that Bronwyn probably wouldn't be able to get up on her own and reached out to give the ill woman a hand up. "Sweet Marpaxa, I have never been so embarrassed in my life... never... and that says a lot," she said while sporting a pair of cheeks that were even redder than the face of the Empress had been when she had been in the middle of the coughing fit.

The Empress was quickly back in the padded throne and looked none the worse for wear apart from a small bloodstain on her lower lip that was quickly removed with a dab from a handkerchief. "Fear not, sweet Caid," she said and reached for Caid's hand. "Your actions were guided by your instincts... and those instincts told you to protect me. Nobody should feel embarrassed for wanting to protect a fellow human being."

"Still..." Caid croaked, pulling out in the hem of her tunic to get some fresh air down her front.

"At least you did not scoop me up in your strong arms and sprint halfway across Ashburne to get to Lady Fyonna's home!" Bronwyn said merrily, prompting a few laughs from the other guests at the table.

Though the laughter didn't improve the color of Caid's cheeks, she was able to laugh along with the others, even if the sound was more akin to a series of embarrassed squeaks.




When Caid woke up the next morning with her face safely buried in the crook of Bronwyn's neck, she knew at once that her partner's health hadn't improved over night. Though the Empress had finally found some rest, the tell-tale rattle when she breathed proved the illness was still working against her deep down in her lung.

The Huntress tried to slide back from her bedmate without disturbing her so the ill woman could get the sleep she sorely needed, but even the slightest tremor of the four-post canopy bed stirred Bronwyn awake. Grunting in disappointment, Caid slid back and reached up to kiss Bronwyn on the cheek. "Good morn, my love," she whispered, running her hand over the smooth skin of the Empress' stomach under the quilt.

"Good morn, sweet Caid. Ack, another day already?"

"I fear it is thus... though perhaps we should look upon the bright side and say, one less night that stands between you and your recovery. But you have slept this night... you snored," Caid said with a chuckle as she kissed Bronwyn's cheek again.

"I dreamt so I must have slept, yes," Bronwyn said and turned her head so she could lock eyes with the woman whose arms were around her. "I... I dreamt we sat in the inner gardens and watched the new flowers bloom. Sweet Caid... if I asked nicely, would you help me out there today?"

Furrowing her brow, Caid moved her hand up from Bronwyn's stomach to her chest where she placed it tenderly above the Empress' heart. "We shall see, love. Only if the weather is nice and warm. It can be nippy in the gardens, even now, you know that."

"I do. Let us see how our day pans out. Ack... now I need to relieve my bladder," Bronwyn said with a sigh.

Caid smiled and scooted across the bed. "I shall help," she said over her shoulder as she flipped aside the quilt.


After having her hair done for the day and eating a light breakfast, the Empress returned to the bedchamber for a nap. Once she was comfortable under the quilt, she reached out and pulled the kneeling Caid down towards her for a little cuddle. "Sweet Caid, I wish our days could be like this for all the turns of the hourglass. This period, the first few turns after waking up, is the best part of my day. As soon as we reach lunch, I fear my strength fails me and I eventually end up as weak as a newborn kitten."

"I happen to like kittens," Caid said with a chuckle as she tightened the cuddle and gave Bronwyn a little squeeze. "Now, I will probably not be here when you wake up, but have no fear, I shall only be over in the library to test a theory I came up with last night."

"Oh! A theory?"

"Indeed. Though you're a unique woman, I cannot believe your pneumonia is the first to strike the castle or indeed your family. My idea is to wade through the library... perhaps I shall be lucky and find a scroll or book from the old days that'll give us a pointer to... well, to how your illness can be cured."

"The Huntress Caid Barlin in the library...?" Bronwyn said with a little wink. When it was reciprocated, she closed her grip to snuggle up tight with the woman in her arms.

"Do I really seem that illiterate to you? I should feel right at home in a library! After all, there are many similarities between the deep, dark forests I'm used to and the undoubtedly endless aisles of the Imperial library. Alas, if I do not return, will you please send out a search and rescue team for me? And perhaps instruct them to bring a keg of strong brandy?"

"I shall, sweet Caid," Bronwyn said and reached up to kiss Caid's lips. "Perhaps you should pack a lunch bag in case you become lost between the dusty shelves?"

Grinning, Caid returned the kiss before she pulled back from Bronwyn. "Good idea! Why didn't I think of that? Ah, that's why you're the Empress and I'm merely the consort."

"Hush, my love... I need your lips upon mine," Bronwyn husked and pulled the Huntress back down towards her.


After putting on her suede uniform jacket to complete her regular ensemble of boots, ankle pants and a white tunic, Caid greeted the new group of sentries at the door to the bedchamber before she strode through the dining hall that was slowly returning to normal after the scare the previous days.

Several of the bravest maids and junior manservants had ventured out of their chambers and were busy washing the marble floor and dusting off the horseshoe-shaped table, the throne and the high-backed chairs under the stern, watchful eye of Matron Sharona.

As Caid exited the dining hall and went into the first connecting hallway, she said a brief good morn to the sentries guarding the double doors. In the first hallway, she turned left and walked down the damp, dark corridor on her way to the vast hall she admittedly had only visited once before - the private library of Ashburne Castle.

The massive double doors were flanked by two torches that did their best to cast their orange, flickering light onto the sturdy wood. A well-scuffed path led to the doors, proving the library was often frequented by the Empire's dignitaries who used it to dig up old laws and decrees so they could compare notes or become inspired to write new ones that would ultimately be sent to Bronwyn for approval.

Caid knew the doors were locked as a safety measure to keep track of the visitors and the priceless documents, and she moved up to the large, cast iron knocker that was resting on a metal plate so she could strike it twice. The booming sound it produced would be enough to wake the dead, but even so, nothing happened at first.

She stepped back, chuckling at the sign next to the door knocker that said: "Only knock twice, please. We are not deaf, merely old and slow."

It took a little while for one of the librarians to reach the door, but when it finally opened with a squeaking creak, Caid stepped into the light so the elderly man could see she wasn't a threat. "Greetings, librarian. I am Caid Barlin. I am here to seek a medical scroll or book on a specific illness."

"Greetings, Lady Caid. Come inside, please," the elderly man said and stepped aside to let the Huntress through. In his early seventies, the wrinkled librarian whose grayish white hair and full beard were neatly groomed was wearing a purple robe with a hood that was folded down. The man, who sported drooping shoulders and a matching face, seemed quite frail, but his steel gray eyes were still sharp.

"Thank you, librarian," Caid said and stepped inside the Imperial library.

The hall was vast, nearly a hundred by a hundred and fifty fathoms, and it had a double-height ceiling to have room for all the bookcases that were lined up along the nineteen aisles. At the end of each aisle stood a torch encased in a brass container to reduce the risk of fire, and small, shielded brass candlesticks had been incorporated into the bookcases for every five fathoms to illuminate the endless rows of books, scrolls and other assorted types of documents.

The librarian closed the double doors behind the new visitor and put the heavy latch in place. After dusting off his wrinkled hands, he folded them inside his cape and turned back to the desk just inside the door from where he had come. "The medical scrolls are all in the aisle labeled thus. Do you have knowledge of the nature of the illness?"

"I do. Pneumonia. I am hoping to find a cure for the illness, but..."

"I cannot guarantee we have a cure," the librarian said and changed direction to shuffle down towards the first of the many aisles, "but I am certain we have documents at least, if not complete scrolls, that explain quite well the origins and course of the illness. Here we are," he continued, gesturing at one of the aisles.

Caid scrunched up her face and began to chew on her cheeks. The bookcases in the aisle marked Medical Scrolls and Texts were three fathoms tall and at least thirty fathoms deep. Each bookcase had seven shelves that were all packed to capacity if not beyond. Gulping, Caid scratched her neck as the true scale of the mammoth task she needed to undertake hit her. "Ah... thank you, librarian," she said, already thinking that she would still be there, up to her neck in books and scrolls when the celebration to mark her one hundredth birthday would come around.

"You are most welcome. The shelves are sorted in alphabetical order with A here and Z down the far end. P is... well, somewhere down there," the elderly man said and pointed down the aisle.

Caid shot him a slightly dark look before she bowed elegantly and set off on her most challenging quest yet.


A half-turn of the hourglass later, Caid's suede uniform, her hair, and even her fair face had turned gray from the massive amounts of dust she had been exposed to. 'P' had been remarkably easy to find, all six fathoms of it, but it had been the task of wading through all the irrelevant scrolls, documents and old tomes that had caused her to resemble a dust bunny - and she had only just reached the section labeled 'Pn'.

Sighing, she pulled out an easily recognizable folder to mark the spot and began to go on a search for a table or cart she could use as a temporary cache so she didn't have to hold hundreds of scrolls while trying to thumb through them.

A flat-topped table on wheels was easily found, but she mistakenly went down the wrong aisle upon her return so she had to backtrack until she rediscovered the one marked Medical Scrolls and Texts.

Just as she took a large wad of documents out of the shelf to put on the table, a fierce tickle in her nose overwhelmed her and she had to let out a resounding sneeze that echoed through the hallowed halls. As she wiped her nose on a handkerchief, she thought she could hear the librarian snickering from his spot near the doors.

Chuckling, Caid continued moving the piles of documents labeled 'Pn' from the shelves and down onto the table on wheels.


A full turn of the hourglass later, she had reduced the huge pile of documents to two smaller ones that seemed promising. Some of the scrolls were so old they were written in a language she couldn't read. She knew the Empress had knowledge of the old language spoken in Dinnigon, but the documents weren't to leave the library so she had to discard them without finding out what they said.

Two further scrolls were so old they were written in a hand that used a completely different set of characters to those in current use. The pieces of parchment were so brittle it appeared they had been stored in the bookshelves for centuries, or perhaps even longer. "Oh, Bronwyn would simply love to study these two... maybe when she has recovered sufficiently to spend the time needed here. For now, I have to discard them," Caid mumbled as she carefully put away the brittle pieces of parchment.

The next documents that came into sight were far newer and written in a hand she could read, so she scrunched up her face and began to analyze them.


Document after document repeated what Fyonna had already told Bronwyn: that pneumonia was an incurable illness that most often led to death for the weak and the elderly, and in some rare cases even for those who should not have been affected so severely by it. The authors of the old scrolls nearly all laid the blame on unfortunate coincidences or even immoderate lifestyles.

"Well, that's a fat help," Caid mumbled as she put away yet another scroll that offered tips for how to best solace the bereaved rather than helpful ways to ease the pains of the suffering.

The next couple of documents were simply copies of the one cautioning about immoderate lifestyles, but the next one she found seemed more interesting. "Pneumonia. Cause, effect and alleviation," she said, reading aloud from the dusty piece of parchment.

"Slight fever, dizziness from lack of sleep, coughing up phlegm... yeah, we know the symptoms... now how do we go about curing it?" she said and traced the lines of handwritten notes with her index finger until she reached a short message at the foot of the page. "Aw... by Phirax, page one of two... and... and... and the second page isn't here! What wretched luck!"

Rolling her eyes, she slammed the parchment onto the top of the rejection pile and took the next one. It too claimed to know the cure for pneumonia, but it didn't take long to figure out it was merely an ad for a magic elixir guaranteed to remove any ailment known to Man while making the patient more manly and utterly irresistible to the fairer sex.

The next document wasn't better. "Blood-letting... leeches... bathe in warm milk... asphyxiation to within a heartbeat of death to remove the evil particles from the lungs?! Who wrote this... Phirax the Unholy himself? What wretched, evil nonsense..."

Caid was about to give up when she caught a glimpse of an even older scroll at the bottom of the pile she had yet to check. The headline was 'On Regimen in Acute Diseases,' but it was the businesslike language used that had caught her eye. She took the document and leaned against the bookcase. When it turned out to be quite interesting, she shuffled away from the flat-topped table on wheels and sat down cross-legged on the floor to analyze the document.

Caid narrowed her eyes to read the squiggly handwriting that said, among other things, 'The bath is useful in many diseases. In some of them when used steadily, a hot soap must be used in greater abundance than is common. The person bathing should do nothing for himself, others should pour the water upon him and rub him, and plenty of water, of various temperatures, should be in readiness for the douche...'

"Oh, we can do that! We can definitely do that, my love and I... oh, we could certainly spend a glorious afternoon in each other's company in and around the brass hot tub..." Caid mumbled, flipping the page to find the next part.

'Soft sponges should be used instead of the hard pumice stone, and the body should be anointed when not quite dry. The extremities should be protected from cold, as also the head and the rest of the body; In general it suits better with cases of pneumonia than in ardent fevers; for the bath soothes the pain in the side, chest, and back; concocts the sputa, promotes expectoration, improves the respiration, and allays lassitude; for it soothes the joints and outer skin, and is diuretic, removes heaviness of the head, and moistens the nose...'

Caid looked up and scratched her neck in confusion over the high-flown language. "Sputa? Expectoration? Lassitude? Diuretic? No, I need to get this to Fyonna somehow. She'll know what those words mean," she said, nodding to herself.

Tapping her fingers on the scroll, she looked around for a blank piece of parchment she could use to transcribe the ancient document. She couldn't find any, so she did the next best thing: after getting up, she put the scroll inside her suede uniform jacket and held it in place by sticking it under her armpit - after all, it was nearly a matter of life and death for the Empress, and therefore for the Empire.


Smiling for all she was worth, Caid strolled up to the elderly librarian who was sitting at his desk copying a scroll that had been damaged. "So..." she said, looking behind her, "I have cleaned up my mess, librarian. There isn't a scroll out of place in the medical aisle. I had to borrow a table on wheels, but I've returned that to its proper spot as well."

"Thank you, Lady Caid," the librarian said and put the quill into the inkwell to let it soak. "Were you able to find what you sought?"

"Only partially, unfortunately. You certainly have a lot of documents here."

"We do. You should come back another time and look at our aisles documenting the thirteen generations of the Imperial family. It's highly fascinating."

"I'm sure it is, librarian," Caid said with a broad smile - she wasn't about to tell the elderly man she already had first-hand, and quite intimate, knowledge of the thirteenth ruler of the Empire.

"Indeed," the librarian said with a nod. "Ah, can you work the latch, or should I...?" he said and made to get up.

"Oh, you needn't stress your old bones, thank you. I got it," Caid said and strolled over to the door. There, she quickly worked the heavy latch and swung the creaking gate open. "Once again, I thank you," she said before she closed the sturdy door behind her.

Outside, she reached into her jacket and found the priceless document. After checking to see if it was safe and sound, she set off down the damp, dark corridor to try to find Fyonna to start a more scientific investigation of the scroll.


Sometime later, Caid strode down the quiet, cobbled side street in the eastern part of the walled city where Fyonna lived with her husband, the healer Mirkko. The pale brown, one-and-a-half storey half-timbered houses of brick and clay proved it was one of the nicer neighborhoods. The lockdown was still in place so there were more people on the street than typical at that time of the day, but even so, most of them still kept a respectful distance to the others.

The nine-item list of guidelines issued by the dignitaries and the council of healers - and signed by the Empress - had been put up on the walls of several buildings in the quiet side street, but as Caid walked past it, she couldn't tell if anyone had actually paid any attention to it.

The lack of children playing in the street was noticeable, and Caid surmised that the families kept their little ones inside until the outbreak had blown over. The last time Caid had visited Fyonna at her home had been when she had introduced Bronwyn to the Seer - then, a pregnant woman had been sitting on the doorstep of the house next to Fyonna's, and when Caid walked past it, she happened to glance through the windows and spotted the very same young woman breast-feeding her child.

Chuckling, Caid continued on to the next house and moved up to the door. After knocking swiftly, she stepped back to allow the maid to see that she was no threat.

The door was soon opened, but instead of the maid, it was Fyonna herself. The Seer promptly swept her hood over her head so her stark looks wouldn't scare any strangers. "Oh... good day, Huntress. I thought I had sensed you. Mmmm. I also sense what brings you here. Come in."

"Thank you. Have you sacked your maid?" Caid said and stepped into the narrow hallway that led to the kitchen on the other side of the house. On the left, a staircase went up to the bedrooms on the first floor.

"No, she is visiting her family up in the northern district of Ashburne. Her father fell ill and she was worried it could be the coughing illness... fortunately, it wasn't, merely an old-fashioned head cold. Come, I sense you have a scroll I need to, ahem, take a look at," Fyonna said and closed the door behind Caid.

"Indeed. Excellent, then I don't have to attempt to pronounce the words I have come to ask for your help on," Caid said with a grin as she shuffled down the hallway to the kitchen. "In the Imperial library, I found a scroll with what I believe could be a cure for Bronwyn's pneumonia."

"Oh, really? Please, go into the kitchen... let's have a conversation about the details of that scroll," Fyonna said, putting her hand on the small of Caid's back to guide her along.


The grains of sand in the hourglass seemed to drag on endlessly for Caid. She had read the entire medical scroll aloud no less than three times so Fyonna would have enough information to analyze it. The Seer hadn't said a word throughout the lengthy session, and the uncharacteristic silence had begun to grate on Caid's nerves.

In her frustration, she began to pick up all the little sounds of the kitchen, like the quiet blubbering that came from the pot of stew that simmered on the stove, or the crackling logs that fueled the fire.

They sat around a table in the kitchen drinking tea from ceramic mugs. Caid was already on her second mug, but Fyonna's first helping remained untouched as the Seer had withdrawn into herself to be able to concentrate fully on the text and the cure that could potentially come from it.

Caid emptied her mug and slammed it perhaps a little too hard back down on the tabletop.

"That won't speed up the process, Huntress," Fyonna said in a voice that came from a deeper register than normal.

"There must be something you can tell me, Seer," Caid said and leaned in over the table. "You have been mulling over that scroll for nearly half a turn of the hourglass now. I must admit I am growing somewhat impatient."

Fyonna chuckled darkly. "I can tell. Oh, all right. Huntress, I fear you have misunderstood the nature of the scroll. The bathing rituals the author speaks so highly of can only soothe Bronwyn's pains, not cure them. You need to remember the illness is inside her lung, not merely something that can be washed off by hot water and scented soap."

"Wretched... wretched! So this was a dead end as well?" Caid said and rubbed her brow furiously.

"I fear it is thus, yes."

"Wretched!" Caid said and pushed the chair back so forcefully it hit the wall behind her with a bang. Still rubbing her brow, she began to pace the kitchen floor in the hope a cure to Bronwyn's illness would come to her if she paced for long enough. "But what about all those damned fancy words? Sputa and diuretic and all that? Expecto-something? Surely words that fancy must offer at least some kind of clue to a possible cure?"

"I fear they don't, Huntress. Lassitude simply means exhaustion. Sputa and expectoration mean the same thing, the phlegm that has been coughed up... and diuretic means that excess water will be purged from the body."

"By Phirax' ballsack, this isn't the news I was looking for, Fyonna!" Caid said and slammed her fist into her hip.

"Huntress," Fyonna said and turned around on her chair, "wallowing in such despair doesn't become you. The bathing rituals will not cure Bronwyn, but I guarantee they will help her greatly with the pains. Warm water on her chest and particularly on her back will ease her burden. And dare I say it, so will your presence and especially your tender touch upon her body. I presume you had planned to bathe her yourself...?"

"Well, of course I had. Bronwyn's good health is rather important to me! It's also my responsibility. Seer... there must be something we can do!" Caid cried and thumped her fist into her open palm.

"Alas, Huntress... like I have already told you and the Empress, there is no cure for pneumonia at this moment in time. Perhaps one day in the future, there will be... but not now. Look, when I examined the Empress, I could hear quite clearly that the illness wasn't as bad as I had feared. You heard it too, didn't you?"


"There, you see?" Fyonna said and waved a hand around. "Huntress, this is all connected... Bronwyn is so weak because of her lack of sleep, not because the illness is eating her up from the inside like the real coughing illness would have done. She isn't coughing up blood nor does she have the discoloration on her back... she's ill, yes, but by far not as ill as she could have been."

"So you say, and yet... and yet, I can see in her eyes that she's not the same Bronwyn she was before the illness struck."

"My dear Caid, that is because she was worried sick that she really had the fatal strain of the illness. Your initial worry only added to her anxiety. Now we know she has a lesser strain, but I am sure the worry lingers on despite your best efforts to comfort her. When she can feel her health improving over the course of the next few weeks, perhaps moons, she shall return to her old self."

"Mmmm." Caid stopped pacing and moved over to the kitchen door. Moving the curtain aside, she looked into the back garden of the house on the next street. A nanny was playing with a young boy while a woman who could be the boy's mother was watching from an open window, waving at the young child while she was speaking to the maid.

Sighing, Caid let down the curtain and walked back to the table. "I suppose we must wait for that. It's in Marpaxa's hands now... not something my impatient being can deal with very well, but... I must. Thank you for taking time out of your schedule to help me with the scroll, Fyonna. I better return it to the library now."

"Actually, since you have already stolen it in such a dastardly fashion, would it be uncalled for if I kept it for a while? Perhaps something will come to me if I study it a few more times. Mirkko can read it aloud for me upon his return from his rounds," Fyonna said and staggered upright from the hard kitchen chair.

"Well, I cannot see why not," Caid said with a shrug. "Farewell for now, Seer. Thank you for your help. I can find my own way out... I think your stew needs more attention than I do!"


Caid stepped out onto the cobbled street and promptly closed her eyes. After taking a deep, frustrated breath, she let it out slowly to try to cleanse her mind of the terrible disappointment.

When she looked around the street that had been cleared of people while she had spent time with Fyonna, there was a certain, quivering anticipation in the air that she couldn't quite decipher.

Her Ranger sense told her that a spring thunderstorm might be brewing, but a glance up at the pale blue sky shot down that theory quite quickly. Shrugging, she shuffled up the cobbled side street to get to the larger artery at the far end.


Her short walk soon turned into an aimless trek through Ashburne to work off the frustration. She had hoped she could have returned to the Imperial bedchamber with the good news of having discovered a ready-made cure, but now that her plan had been so thoroughly defeated, she needed a moment alone to digest the disappointment.

Shuffling along the square, she cast a curious glance at the odd collection of Yonnae who had set up camp right in the middle of the market place, much to the frustration of the traders and the soldiers from the City Watch who had been ordered to let the Yonnae stay for as long as they wished.

Caid grunted and kept shuffling along, not paying attention to anything other than where she set her feet. Only then did she realize that someone had called her name from somewhere behind her. Turning around, she soon spotted Kheo Khammon who was waving with both hands to catch her eye. The large man was standing in front of an upmarket tavern, and Caid suddenly had an urge to wet her whistle.

"Hullo, Kheo," she said when she was close enough to her old friend.

"Oy, Huntress. Ya was far away... I've been wavin' like a crazy fool for so long my arm hurts!"

"I have a lot on my mind, Kheo," Caid said and shot her old friend a somber look. "So... you got any news for me?"

"Yeah, Commander Tarsi told me not that long ago that his boys recovered two undeniably dead bodies in the basement o' the house that burned down yesterday ovah there somewhere," Kheo said and waved his hand in the general direction of the street beyond the square. "Them bodies were ain't nothin' but charcoal so they couldden identify either of 'em."


"Yeah, that's what I said! Oh, an' Tarsi also told me a patrol had come across another small fire somewhere else, but they stopped it before it could grow inta' problem. That fire was a pile o'... get this... Black Lance uniforms that someone had tried ta burn... ta destroy the evidence, dontcha think?"

"Black Lance uniforms? Why in the name of Phirax the Unholy would they do that?" Caid said and furrowed her brow. "And why haven't we seen neither hide nor hair of them since they sprung Zai free?"

"Yer askin' me? I ain't got a clue 'bout nothin' at the best o' times!" Kheo said with a grin.


"Hey, that wussen ta be taken literally, ya know!"

"Oh, I know," Caid said and thumped Kheo's shoulder. Grinning, she looked at the facade of the tavern they were standing in front of. "The Spry Rooster? Have you imbibed yet?"

"Naw! I'm sa'posed ta meet Deegan in there, actually. I ain't seen 'im fer far too long. Why dontcha come in an' have a li'l one with us... ya know, like old times?"

"Your treat, right?" Caid said and thumped Kheo's shoulder again.

The Grand Marshal rolled his eyes repeatedly before he reached down to pat his wallet. "Phirax' tits... awright, jus' this once. C'mon."

Chuckling, they went inside the Spry Rooster where they quickly found Deegan Arliss chatting up one of the barmaids. The Lieutenant of the Imperial Cavalry was as sharply dressed as ever with black wraparound ankle pants, a tan tunic and a pale brown jerkin with a high collar in a stylish design. The focus of the wiry, dark-haired man with the razor-sharp eyes was solely on the bosomy barmaid who seemed quite interested in the elegant and clearly affluent guest.

"Hullo, Deegan!" Kheo roared, slamming his meaty paw down onto the back of Deegan's jerkin. The large man winked at the barmaid who winked back and resumed wiping down the counter. "Oy, look who I found outside... none other than the Huntress. Ain't that som'thin'?"

Deegan turned around and accidentally poked his elbow into Kheo's gut as retribution for messing up his progress with the barmaid. "Why, it certainly is. Greetings, Huntress. As always, I'm enchanted to meet you," he said and put out his hand.

"Likewise, Lieutenant," Caid said and shook hands with her old friend. When they were done, she pulled him into a powerful hug meant to show that she was still the stronger of the two. "What's your poison there?" she said, pointing her thumb at a beaker on the counter.

"Strong ale."

Kheo nodded and sat down on Deegan's left, accidentally bumping shoulders with the smaller man in retribution for the belly-poke. "Sounds mi'ty fine to me. Huntress?"

"Yup. I could do with a strong ale... just one, though."

"Ya need ta go home an' scrub the missus' pants, do ya?" Kheo said with a cheeky grin.

Caid grinned back, feeling the banter melt away her frustrations like snow in the sunshine. "That's right, Kheo. And if I've been a really nice girl, she'll even allow me to take 'em off her myself."

"Ooooh! I cannot see ya beating that, Kheo?" Deegan said, returning the shoulder bump.

"Aw, ya know... I ain't got nothin' ta complain 'bout with Anna-Liese. Ya know," Kheo said and turned around so he faced his friends, "before I got married I wus a ladies' man... but... when Anna-Liese and me wake up in the morn side by side... an' when she's in my arms... 'an when I get ta touch her baby bump, it don't get no better than that. It simply don't. I'm lookin' at her an' I'm thinkin', Kheo, how in the world did an uneducated meathead like you get ta be that lucky? Ya know?"

"I know exactly what you mean, Kheo," Caid said and took the tin beaker the bosomy barmaid put down in front of her.

"I don't," Deegan said, taking his own beaker.

Kheo got his beaker last and held it up to sniff the dark ale. "Ya don't?"

"Nah. I never stick around for more than a couple-a turns of the hourglass."

"Woof-woof," Kheo said and held his beaker high. "Here she comes!" he said and chugged down the contents in a string of gulps.

Deegan and Caid looked at each other and shook their heads at the same time. They both sipped the strong ale, feeling the taste of herbs, barley and hops explode in their mouth.

"Yeah," Kheo said as he slammed the empty beaker down on the counter. "O' course, it ain't quite as much fun these days... with the baby an' all... an' that wretched illness strikin' them southerners. Anna-Liese is from the south, ya know that, right? I'm tellin' ya, I nearly got her wrapped in cotton wool ta keep her an' the li'l one safe from that wretched coughin' illness, ya know. Ain't no fun. She's worried... an' when she's worried, the li'l one inside her is worried... an' when they're worried, I'm worried!"

Caid nodded and turned around so she could look through the tavern's windows and out onto the square. There seemed to be quite a lot of activity all of a sudden, but the windows were surprisingly soundproof so she wasn't able to find out what was going on. She surmised it was the Yonnae warriors who had finally lost their temper.

Deegan had just opened his mouth to add his two pennies' worth when the front door was flung open and a young maid stormed inside with a panicky look on her face. "Come quick! Come quick!" she cried, pointing behind her. "There's... there's something wrong... with the... the sun! The sun is turning black!"

The barmaid and all three people at the counter spun around to stare at the young woman. As she stood in the doorway, it was quite clear to see that the daylight behind her had changed from its regular brightness to a darker, browner tone.

"Sweet Marpaxa... it's happening... it's really happening," Caid croaked and jumped off her barstool to hurry outside. Behind her, Kheo, Deegan and the bosomy barmaid followed her to see what was going on.

Outside, the daylight grew ever fainter. All around the square, people reacted differently to the darkening of the sun; some were crying quietly and others were running around in a wild, unrestrained panic.

Children and adults alike came running towards the square that offered the best view in that part of Ashburne. High above the square, the big, faintly orange ball in the sky seemed to lose more and more of its luster for each passing moment.

Caid tried to look up at the sun but was forced to shield her eyes so much she ended up unable to see a thing. Trying again, she got an eyeful of the rays that were still strong enough to blind her temporarily, and she had to spin around and rub her eyes several times to make the spots go away.

"Oy, don't do that, Caid! Yer smarter than that," Kheo said, taking the Huntress by the shoulders and steering her away from a group of panicky people who came barreling past going in the other direction.

"Yeah..." Caid mumbled, pinching the bridge of her nose with fingers that had turned cold as ice. "Kheo, what in the name of Phirax the Unholy is going on here? Deegan, have you ever seen anything like it?"

Kheo just shrugged and shook his head, but the Lieutenant let out a long grunt. "No... and I have a feeling that none of us will ever see anything like it again..." As he spoke, he snuck his arm around the waist of the bosomy barmaid and pulled her into a sideways hug that she didn't resist.

All four jumped a foot in the air when two crystal clear voices right next to them began to sing and chant incantations in a foreign language. While the heavily armed Yonnae warriors knelt down in a tight defensive box with their spears pointed ahead to prevent anyone from attacking them, the tribal elder and the translator stood at the center of the circle, chanting and singing at the top of their lungs while holding up various offerings or simply throwing odd hand gestures at the darkening sky.

"That singin' is creepin' me out!" Kheo howled, pressing his hands to his ears. "What are them Yonnae dames tryin' ta do, anyhow? Are they tryin' ta get the sun back... or are they tryin' ta get it ta go away?"

"No idea, Kheo," Caid croaked, once again shielding her eyes to try to look upwards - but once again, she had to give up.

While the tribal elder was chanting, she held up an odd contraption: an eight-inch wide metallic bowl hanging from four brass chains that went up to a single point. She had filled the bowl with wild herbs, and when she struck a match and set fire to the weed, gray, sweet-smelling smoke soon rose from the bowl and wafted up into the sky.

There was a brief break in her chanting when she moved her fingers up to hold the contraption by the single point, but she belted out further chants and incantations when she began to swing it around to distribute the smoke.

"Oy, what is that dame doin'?" Kheo said, staring at the smoke that rose from the bowl. When he didn't get an answer, he looked at his companions but saw they were as baffled and perplexed as he was.

The daylight had briefly remained stable in its gloominess, but as the sweet smoke wafted upwards into the sky and seemed to caress the orange ball of fire, the process sped up. While the spectators started crying and screaming all around the square, the light grew darker and darker until it had reached a grayish-brown hue that it didn't seem to want to leave behind.

Caid clenched her jaw hard as she took in what could be the overture to the end of the world. She stared at the Yonnae elder who had increased the tempo of her chanting and was now speaking nearly non-stop. With no torches burning since it was supposed to be in the middle of the day, visibility was so poor in the square the Huntress couldn't even see the other side. "It's like the sun has been blocked by a cloud..." she croaked to herself, "a huge cloud... but the sky is clear... was clear... now it's all gray..."

"This is creepy! I'm gonna be pluttin' mah shorts in a li'l while," Kheo said, wringing his meaty paws as he stared at the Yonnae.

Deegan exploited the creepiness to lean in and put a tender kiss on the barmaid's temple. She was quite obviously dissatisfied with the meager peck, because moments later, she turned around and yanked him towards her for a real kiss that soon turned heated and rather messy.

Caid and the others jumped yet another foot in the air when the crazed man dressed in rags who had scared Bronwyn at the market suddenly made an appearance. He was jumping around as always, but instead of yelling "the end is nigh," he yelled "the end is here!" which only added fuel to the already rampant hysteria.

Even as Caid was trying one more time to look into the sky, the light faded by such a large amount that she was suddenly able to see everything - but by then, she wished she hadn't. "By Marpaxa and all that's sacred..." she croaked with a rising degree of panic tainting her voice.

High in the sky, the sun had been reduced to a black hole against the grayish-blue heavens. All that remained of the orange ball of fire was a golden crown that seemed to shimmer like it couldn't make up its mind to stay and fight, or roll over and follow the rest of the sun into the void.

A collective gasp could be heard from around the square. Everybody held their breath while they waited for a resolution to the horrors that played out high above them. The silence was suddenly deafening as the Yonnae elder stopped chanting abruptly and simply stared up at the grand show.

When an absolute silence fell over the square, Caid realized that something was missing - the birdsong. The merry warbling had been silenced like everything else.

The creepy silence affected everyone though it manifested itself very differently from person to person. Some cried even harder, but others simply stared around at the people. For Deegan Arliss and the bosomy barmaid, it meant they hurried back to her chamber at the Spry Rooster to consummate their meeting while they still had a world to do it in.

The light seemed to turn evermore grayish-brown and even the unflappable Caid Barlin felt a surge of panic rising up inside her - a panic that was carried by an uncontrollable urge to be close to Bronwyn in their final moments.

She shook her head and took a sliding step backwards. Reaching out, she grabbed hold of Kheo's strong arm, but when she and her old friend locked eyes, she was unable to get a word across her lips. Ultimately, it wasn't needed as she could see in Kheo's eyes that he was thinking the same.

Spinning around, Caid took off and sprinted back to the castle to be near her loved one. Behind her, Kheo did the same, though he ran in the other direction, back to his house.


Up in Ashburne Castle, Bronwyn sat on the edge of the canopy bed having just suffered through a coughing fit. Lowering the waste bucket after having spat out the phlegm she had coughed up, she wiped her mouth with the back of her trembling hand while she looked up at Carrae who stood above her.

Smiling nervously, the handmaiden held a beaker of water ready for her Mistress.

Bronwyn rinsed her mouth and spat out the first gulp into the waste bucket to get rid of the awful taste. She took a few swigs from the beaker, but the water didn't do anything to ease the pains that shot up from her chest. Her face had turned beetroot red by the exertion, but her regular color was slowly returning.

Her lips creased in a faint smile as she handed back the beaker to the young handmaiden. "Thank you, Carrae. Alas, this was not the day where I could go from dawn to dusk without having one of those wretched fits... drat."

"I'm sure the day shall come soon, Mistress," Carrae said as she poured more water into the beaker from a jug that stood on the sideboard next to the bed.

"Let us pray it will! Ack... have you seen the Huntress recently? I cannot understand where my beloved Caid could be. She told me this morn that she would go down to the library, but... many turns of the hourglass have gone by since then..."

Outside the Imperial bedchamber, sudden cries and a few shouted, panicky commands could be heard. It sounded like someone wearing hobnailed boots was running back and forth in front of the sturdy door - and that could really only mean the sentries.

Bronwyn furrowed her brow and shifted to the side so she could look past her young handmaiden who was still standing at the sideboard. Another cry followed, this time in a male voice, and it made Bronwyn tense up and grimace in a sudden state of worry. "Carrae, after you have taken away the waste bucket, please see what on earth all that hubbub is about," she said and tugged at the sleeve of the handmaiden's dark brown frock.

"Yes, Mistress," Carrae said and did a quick curtsey. She hurried down the connecting hallway with the waste bucket, but came back at once. She was at the door in no time and held it ajar to peek out. "Oh... the sentries are gone, Mistress!"

"Gone? How could they be gone? Wretched, they are supposed to be there at all times!" Bronwyn said and struggled to her feet. She needed a moment to get her bearings after spending the entire morning and noon in bed, but after a brief spell of dizziness had quieted down, she padded over to Carrae on bare feet. Taking hold of the door, she leaned in past her handmaiden and looked out into the dining hall.

The grand hall had descended into pandemonium. Maids, servants and soldiers were running around in a panic, seemingly without aim or reason. "What in the... has everyone lost their mind at once? What is the meaning of this? Carrae, please find out what is going on here. It must be something terrible... perhaps another fire has struck Ashburne."

"Yes, Mistress!" Carrae said with a quick curtsey before she hurriedly left the bedchamber to investigate.

Bronwyn sighed and closed the door. She shook her head and shuffled back to the bed, but before she could reach it, someone knocked on the door. "I must say, that was certainly quick of the young girl... just come in, Carrae!"

Instead of Carrae, it was Tawna who hurried into the bedchamber and slammed the door shut behind her. The face of the Mistress of the Robes was white as a sheet, and it created a stark, even grotesque contrast to the exquisite forest green gown she wore. "Milady, there... the..."

"Tawna? Goodness me, what- what is going on? Has the castle caught fire? Have we been invaded? Where are the sentries? ...Oh, will you speak to me, woman!" Bronwyn cried, wringing her hands.

Tawna stared at the Empress with wide open eyes. At first, she couldn't speak at all, only shake her head. "No fire... the sun is... the sun is..."

"Oh, Sweet Marpaxa..." Bronwyn said and clutched her head. "It has happened, has it not? The Yonnae prophecy... the sun is dying?"

"It's already gone black!" Tawna cried, nearly tearing tufts out of her graying hair.

Bronwyn's face fell and she felt a darkness descend upon her that seemed to drag her straight down into Phirax' fiery, evil realm. She had expected to see her life flash before her eyes like she had heard the elders explain would happen upon the moment of certain death, but all she felt was an unnerving emptiness. Not only would everything cease to be, but she would be alone while the world came tumbling down around her. "I need to see it... I need to see the end of the world with my own eyes..." she said hoarsely as she shuffled over to the closet to find something she could put on over her sleeping chemise - not that modesty really mattered to Death.

Tawna seemed to snap out of her panicky state and remember some of her obligations. She smoothed down her hair, but it was with jerky, unnatural gestures. "I... I shall help, my Empress," she croaked and hurried over to the closet. "A... a... a hooded cloak?"

"A sleeved cloak will suffice... hurry, Tawna," Bronwyn said and held her arms out behind her.

Instead of a sleeved cloak like the Empress had requested, Tawna found a hooded cloak and quickly pulled it up the Imperial arms. Working on instinct alone, she made sure it sat well at the neck, though she left the hood down.

Bronwyn grunted and closed the cloak around her sleeping chemise. She looked down at her bare feet but knew she didn't even have time to put on her slippers. With a determined stride that used too much of her already limited energy, she went over to the door and opened it herself.

Outside, the pandemonium hadn't grown less. Maids and junior manservants were still running around aimlessly, save the few who had simply thrown themselves onto the floor in despair and unbridled panic. At the wall where the staff usually stood during the dinners, a compact maid waited stock-still seemingly frozen in shock. She was wearing a hooded, dark gray frock that was so short that her black boots and the lowest part of her black wraparound ankle pants had come into view.

Bronwyn shuffled into the dining hall on bare feet, looking around with large, sad eyes. The light that shone through the stained glass windows high above the marble floor was nearly brown, but the blue and red highlights that were added from the stained panes gave it an otherworldly and quite surreal quality.

On the floor of the dining hall not far from the throne, a perfect reflection of the mutilated sun was depicted on the marble tiles. Instead of the ball of fire it had been since the dawn of time, it was merely a hollow, dark circle with a shimmering haze around it.

Bronwyn shook her head in sorrow as she stared at the reflection. "And thus it ends... with darkness. Empress, soldier or pauper... toddler or old crone... take heed, Death walks among us now," she said to no one in particular. A strong cough tore through her brought on by the dark emotions, but mercifully, it didn't herald another coughing fit.

Tawna came hurrying out behind her to help, but there was nothing she could do. The Mistress of the Robes put her hands on Bronwyn's shoulders to help her back to the bedchamber, but the Empress wouldn't budge. When Tawna realized she wasn't needed, she pulled back and knelt on the floor. "Sweet Marpaxa," she chanted with her eyes closed and her hands folded in front of her, "Sweet Marpaxa, we pray to thee to protect your humble servants in this moment of grave danger..."

Bronwyn reached down to put a supportive hand on her old friend's shoulder. "Alas, Tawna, I fear this is far larger than Marpaxa and her brother Phirax. Perhaps it is even larger than the Great Mother herself. I fear our prayers will not be heard, but... but please do not let that stop you if praying comforts you."

"It does, Empress Bronwyn," Tawna said and looked up at Bronwyn with tears staining her cheeks. "I have never truly prayed before but it feels like the right thing to do."

Bronwyn nodded and gave Tawna's shoulder a squeeze. "Then by all means, my dear old friend, pray to your heart's content."

Sighing, Bronwyn turned away from the praying Tawna to give her some privacy. She tried to look up at the stained glass windows, but couldn't. Instead, she wrapped her cloak tighter around her and shuffled over to the throne that she had only been allowed to call her own for six moons. "A year and a half ago," she whispered while she held onto the armrest, "it would not have mattered if we lived or died... with my father in power and my heart empty, I was already dead. But now... now..."

She suddenly slammed her fist down onto the hard armrest but gasped from the pain that shot up from it. "Oh, this is just too cruel," she said hoarsely, "to sink into a void of eternal darkness when I have just found happiness... and to do it alone! Wretched, Caid, where are you?!"




Caid stormed along the narrow city streets as the creepy darkness fell upon her like a shroud. She had to go against the tide of people who all streamed the other way to get to the market place, and she was constantly bumping into shoulders left and right.

At one point, the darkness meant she tripped over a curb she couldn't see and landed hard on her hands and knees on the cobbled street. Groaning in pain and frustration over her clumsiness, she scrambled to her feet and continued onwards to the castle.

The main entrance was deserted and she had no problem getting in. Even from a distance, she could hear people crying or screaming in terror from all around the castle's many corridors. The grand staircase seemed to have turned into a sanctuary where the maids and even some of the soldiers from the regular army as well as the City Watch had met to comfort each other, as the steps were awash with people who were hugging or - in a few cases - even kissing.

Caid flew down the corridor towards the double doors to the dining hall. There, the light was as it always was because of the torches that still shone their flickering cones onto the floor - as Caid thundered past, one of the torches was nearly snuffed out by her wake.

The sentries had long since fled so the doors were unguarded. In any other situation, she would have been supremely annoyed, but now, all that mattered to her was to find Bronwyn before it was too late.

She barged through the doors and didn't even bother closing them behind her. The light inside the grand dining hall had the most peculiar bluish-brown tone from being filtered through the stained glass panes, and not even the orange light from the two merrily burning fireplaces could offset the strange hue.

A tall, dark-haired woman wearing a quilted cloak stood by the throne, but it wasn't until Caid had almost gone past her that she realized the woman was Bronwyn. She came to a jerking halt and hurried back to the waiting Empress. Huffing and puffing from the fast run, she grabbed hold of Bronwyn's arms and stared at her with eyes as wide as saucers. Her shortness of breath meant she couldn't speak, but she didn't have to.

When the suede-clad woman had stormed past, Bronwyn had only had time to stand all agape, but now that Caid was close, she put out her arms and let herself be grabbed. Groaning out loud, she yanked the Huntress close to her and into a crushing embrace.

Words were meaningless in such a situation - and Caid still didn't have enough air to speak beyond her frantic breathing - so they settled for rocking back and forth in the peculiar bluish-brown hue of the grand dining hall. Bronwyn reached up and mussed Caid's honey-blonde hair while the Huntress pressed her face against the taller woman's chest.

'Oh... she came,' Bronwyn thought, taking in her partner's body heat that rolled off her in waves, 'she came back to me in time. I knew she would... ack, my heart hoped she would... and she did. Oh Caid Barlin, how I love thee. How unfair that we were given so little time together... we should have grown old and gray together... oh, the only thing that stands between my soul and a bottomless pit of insanity is the strong creature in my arms... drat... this is all so unfair...'

Bronwyn's knees grew weak from the tempest of emotions that raged inside her and from having spent so much energy in such a short amount of time. Sighing, she mussed Caid's hair again and pulled back slightly from her lover. "Thank you for coming back to me, sweet Caid. I am so weak... so weak," she whispered and let out a sob brought on by her fatigue and the shock.

Her knees almost buckled, but Caid was there at once and helped her over to the throne where she was lowered onto the cushions. At once, Bronwyn folded her legs up underneath her and curled herself into a ball of humanity in the corner of the large seat.

Caid held onto her partner the entire time, but the simple touch suddenly wasn't enough for her and she squeezed herself up into the throne next to Bronwyn. She reached around the sobbing Empress and pulled her into another crushing embrace. She had regained enough of her breath to whisper soothing, nonsensical words to Bronwyn, but they seemed like worthless platitudes considering what they were facing.

"My love," Caid whispered in a trembling voice, moving a few strands of Bronwyn's dark locks away from her face that had been scrunched up in fear. "This isn't the way I wanted everything to end... this isn't the way I wanted to go... but if it has to be thus, then at least I'm with the woman I love. Please... love... let me see your eyes one last time. Let me see your smile..."

The smile never quite made it past a quivering crease of Bronwyn's lips, but she opened her eyes and looked at Caid through a veil of tears. Shuffling around, she leaned over onto her other side to snuggle into Caid's waiting arms.

Caid studied the frightened, pale blue eyes that were so dear to her. She studied them closely and memorized everything about them; their beautiful, symmetrical lashes, their depth and clarity, the perfect way they swept up into the tear ducts, and even the less than attractive blood red hue to the whites that came from Bronwyn's fatigue.

"Thank you," Caid breathed, lowering her eyes to look at Bronwyn's lips. Though they had become pale and trembling, the lips were still among her favorite things of all the items that made up the beautiful woman in her arms. "I wanted to love you 'til the end of my days... alas, that day came sooner than I had hoped it would," she whispered. She was powerless to stop her own tears from coming, but she didn't care.

While the rest of the castle around them descended into chaos and hysteria, they snuggled up even closer and were content with sharing the same space in their final moments.

"Sweet Caid, I love you so. Nothing else matters... just kiss me," Bronwyn whispered, leaning her head back to allow her partner all the room she would need.

"I love you too, Bronwyn... and I shall," Caid whispered back, leaning down to claim Bronwyn's lips in a tender, compassionate kiss that started as light as the touch of a hummingbird but that soon grew in strength.

Their emotions were given free reign under the shadow of their impending doom, and Caid and Bronwyn exploited the finality of the situation by letting go and surrendering fully to the strong surge of tenderness and love that flowed through them. The kiss deepened and became increasingly urgent. Their tongues soon wrestled in the sweetest way possible as they wanted to put as much of themselves into the kiss as they possibly could.

Bronwyn moaned into Caid's mouth, a strong, drawn-out plea for the intimacy they had been denied since she had fallen ill. When the need for air finally won out, she pulled back but dove down and buried her face in the crook of Caid's neck, crying large, salty tears that ran down her cheeks. "Oh, sweet Caid... why did it have to end like this?" she said in a choked-up voice. "We should have had years, decades together... not just six moons... oh, this is so wretchedly unfair..."

Caid didn't dare speak out of fear of bawling out loud, but she nodded into Bronwyn's hair and gave her an extra squeeze.

They closed their eyes and held each other so tight it appeared they were trying to become one being. With a trembling breath, Bronwyn wished her heart would cease to beat before the eternal darkness would fall over them, but that would mean that Caid would be left behind to experience the horrific end on her own - a scenario Bronwyn could barely stand to even think about.

She sobbed into Caid's neck and hoped that whatever was coming for them would take them both at once so neither would have to witness the death of the other.

Around them, the cries of panic began to turn to screams of elation. Out of nowhere, Tawna - who was still kneeling on the other side of the throne - began to let out strange, incoherent cries.

Bronwyn shook her head into Caid's hair. "Oh no, my dear friend... insanity has claimed her... ack, so tragic... so tragic..."

Caid thought Tawna's cries sounded slightly more positive than what could have been produced by someone who had plunged into madness, so she cracked open an eyelid and tried to peek into what she could see of the dining hall.

Behind the throne, Tawna cried out even louder, or rather, she let out unbridled whoops of joy.

Caid furrowed her brow and hurriedly reached up to wipe her teary eyes so she could see better. When she realized the light had begun to return to a more normal hue, she nearly became cross-eyed in shock. "Bronwyn! Look! Look!" she said, shaking Bronwyn's shoulders.

Bronwyn reluctantly moved back from her soft cushion and wiped her eyes. A moment later, she wiped them again just to make sure she hadn't been hallucinating. "Oh! Oh, sweet Caid! Behold! The light is... oh, sweet Caid, the light is..."

"I know!" Caid cried and began to untangle herself from her lover's long limbs.

Once she was free of Bronwyn, she jumped off the throne and ran out into the middle of the dining hall floor. Screams of elation met her ears from all sides at once, and the sound of someone pounding the life out of the alarm bells - or in this case, the victory bells - from high atop the guard towers echoed over the entire castle.

The dining hall suddenly came alive with maids and servants running around all over again, though this time, it was from sheer unbridled elation over the unexpected reprieve from death. Everywhere, people flew into each other's arms and began to shower others in kisses though they hardly knew them.

Down on the marble tiles, the gruesome reflection of the mutilated sun was slowly returning to normal with the black circle moving away to allow the orange ball of fire to make a comeback.

All the nervous energy left Caid in one fell swoop, and all she could do was to fall down on her knees and shake her head repeatedly. She stared wide-eyed at the reflection on the floor and felt they had been given a second chance at everything.

Tawna jumped up from where she had been praying and raced around the throne. On her way there, she briefly patted Caid's shoulder, but when she reached Bronwyn who was sitting on the throne like a rag doll, she put out her arms and pulled the Empress into an embrace. "Oh, dear Bronwyn... we made it... we are still here! Our prayers saved us!" Tawna cried, briefly kissing Bronwyn's forehead before she gave the Imperial hands a strong squeeze. Whooping in joy, Tawna took off with a hop, a skip and a jump.

Bronwyn's head swam with fatigue and the loss of the adrenaline that had kept her going. She had to lean her entire body against the left wing of the throne, or else she would have collapsed and fallen off. "Not the prayers... the kiss... it was the kiss that saved us," she croaked, touching her lips that were still tingling from the emotional and physical impact of the sweet contact she had shared with Caid.

Thinking about her lover made her look around and search for the missing Huntress. "Caid? Caid? Oh, where is she off to now?" she croaked and tried to sit up straight. She did, but only for a brief while, then she had to lean against the wing again.

The pleas of the Empress were heard when Caid came bounding around the throne and took Bronwyn's hands in her own. "My sweet Bronwyn, can you believe it? Death walked among us, and yet He chose to let us be! Can you believe it?!"

"I fear my mind has grown so weak from all this stress I do not know what is hard reality and what is merely absurd fantasy. Ack, sweet Caid, please... please help me into bed. I am so dreadfully, dreadfully tired..." Bronwyn said with the weakest smile imaginable.

Sobering, Caid nodded and reached in under the Empress. Once her hands were in the right places along Bronwyn's body - the left on the Empress' back and the right under the legs - she scooped up the ill woman and held her tight.

"Oh! Goodness me, Caid... I hope you will not overstress your back... please take care... I would rather you did not drop me halfway there!" Bronwyn said, taking hold of Caid's suede jacket once she was firmly in her lover's arms.

"I have you, Bronwyn," Caid said in a voice that was perhaps just a little strained from the heavy, unusual load she carried. "Please do not be afeared. I shall never let any harm come to you. Come, let's go back to the bedchamber."

Bronwyn nodded and leaned into Caid's touch. A warm, genuine smile spread over her colorless lips as she was cradled in the strong arms of the Huntress.

Behind them, Miriam Connighen released the death grip she had on the hilt of her dagger underneath her cloak and stepped away from the wall where she had spent so much time. Experiencing the terrifying darkening of the sun had been bad enough, but the real shock had come when she had witnessed Caid Barlin and Empress Bronwyn kissing so passionately.

She remembered back to the far too brief moment in time that she and Zai had spent in each other's arms, cuddling, kissing and making love - though she and Zai had always been like a pair of wild animals in the sack compared to the far more romantic joining she had witnessed.

That Caid Barlin and the Empress shared her preferences came as a shock to her and made her reconsider her plans. 'Instead of slaying both,' she thought, glancing around the dining hall to make sure nobody was going to stop her, 'it will be far more effective to simply have Caid Barlin watch while I slay the Empress... that would be poetic justice. All I have to do now is to lure the bitches into the trap... and spring it.'


At the dawn of the following day, the horrifying occurrence with the sun already seemed like a distant nightmare, though it had certainly left a mark on Bronwyn. The Empress had slept poorly, spending most of the night staring up into the canopy out of fear the sun wouldn't return in the morning.

When it had finally been time to rise, her face had been ashen and she could hardly muster enough energy to swing her legs out of bed. Breakfast had been an abbreviated affair, and she had soon found herself back in bed.

As the dark thoughts crept up on Bronwyn once more, she forced herself to push them aside and snap back to reality. With a slight cough, she rolled over onto her left side to watch Caid and Carrae who sat at the table at the foot end of the four-post canopy bed.

She studied the Huntress helping the young handmaiden with her reading and felt a smile blossom on her face. 'Oh, how I love thee, sweet Caid... I love every last bit of you. In the time we have been together, you have constantly amazed and confounded me with your steely strength and your soft heart... how you can be so strong in battle and so tender in love is beyond me... I shall never be able to understand it. Perhaps it is something that should not be viewed upon through a filter of cold logic... but simply as a blessing. Yes, we, her humble servants, have truly been blessed by Marpaxa who gave us an opportunity to find love in a world of hatred, despair, war and disease.'

Even as Bronwyn was thinking about her, Caid's Ranger sense kicked in, and she looked up and locked eyes with the Empress. "Carrae, let's take a little break from the reading," she said and moved her chair back. "I shall have a word with the Empress now."

"Yes, Mistress," the young handmaiden said and quickly rose. After curtseying, she left the Imperial bedchamber and went down the connecting hallway.

Once the sturdy door was closed, Caid shuffled up to the waiting Bronwyn and sat down on her own side of the bed. She was already in uniform, but her boots had been kicked off again, and her suede jacket was hanging from the backrest of the chair she had just left behind. "Hello again, sweet Bronwyn. Do you feel better now? Your color has improved," she said and ran a thumb across Bronwyn's forehead.

"Yes, I slept a little... though my chest still aches when I breathe," Bronwyn said as she stared at Caid's strong, tanned forearms that were visible because the Huntress had rolled up her tunic sleeves to her elbows.

Licking her lips, Bronwyn ran her fingers across the smooth skin and marveled at the way the muscles worked under her touch. "Oh, sweet Caid... how I yearn for intimacy... how I yearn for your hands upon my body where it matters the most... and yet, even as I think that, the golden spark inside me is snuffed out and falls into a gray soup of... drat... numbness."

"It's your illness and your fatigue, Bronwyn. Fyonna said you will slowly improve. I promise we shall soon spend many an eve, night and morn in each other's arms in the throes of passion."

"Ack, but I wish to make love to you now! And yet... I do not. I cannot muster enough energy to really feel anything," Bronwyn said and put a hand across her forehead for effect. "Oh, I do not wish to drown in a bog of self-pity... not with the glorious sun returning to us. Sweet Caid, I would like to go out into the inner gardens today. Right now, in fact. Yes, I would like to sit on the love bench under the ancient tree and simply let the rays of the reborn sun soak my flesh and bones."

"Oh... do you think that's wise, Bronwyn? I mean, the sun is shining, yes, but..."

" 'Tis wise, yes... and it shall be thus," Bronwyn said and shuffled around to swing her bare legs over the side of the bed, effectively ending the conversation.


"Drat," Bronwyn whined as she, Tawna and Caid shuffled down one of the dark corridors to get to the entrance that led to the inner gardens, "I had hoped I would not find myself wrapped in this outfit until the snow was once again painting the landscape white..."

The Empress was wearing her full hunting ensemble of straight cut ankle pants, a quilted tunic with a quilted jerkin on top, a three-quarter length lined jacket, and on top of it all, the furry winter gear she had worn on the exhausting quest to the small village of Abryloch to find the mythical Natfarann gold: wraparound chaps, yet another jacket, thick mittens and finally the furry headwear. If she hadn't insisted quite forcefully by stomping her boot into the bedchamber floor, Caid would have wrapped a strip of cloth around her chin, mouth, nose and ears like the one she had been trapped inside on the quest - but that had been where she had drawn the line.

A few coughs racked her body, and she had to stop to make sure they wouldn't turn into a proper fit. She had yet to have one on the day, and she hoped it meant her condition was slowly improving.

"Bronwyn," Caid said quietly, "my love... is this such a good idea?"

"I... I am fine, Caid. Yes, 'tis a good idea. I wish to see the sun," Bronwyn said and resumed walking down the corridor.

"Very well. But I am telling you right now, my Empress," Caid said, using the formal term to let Bronwyn know she meant what she said, "if I see you become poorly, we shall return to the bedchamber at once. Such is my task as your consort. Agreed?"

"Oh... agreed, sweet Caid. Thank you," Bronwyn said and reached out to pat Caid's shoulder, though it wasn't particularly effective through the furry mittens.


The moment the two sentries guarding the entrance to the gardens opened the double doors and let in the sunlight, Bronwyn knew she had made the right decision. The strong, spring sunshine greeted her by crawling up her furry chaps and onto her torso. As she took a step forward to get out of the shadow of the entrance, the rays caressed her face, and she closed her eyes and sighed deeply. "Oh, ancient sun... we greet you and thank you for your return," she mumbled under her breath as she opened her eyes and took in the bright colors of the gardens.

Behind her, Tawna curtseyed at her Empress before she walked back to the dining hall to supervise the preparations for lunch.

Caid nodded her thanks to the two sentries who saluted her in return. Putting a hand on the small of Bronwyn's back, she guided the Empress into the gardens.

Though parts of the gardens were in the shadow created by the north-west guard tower, nearly all of the six aisles were bathed in bright sunshine. The well-groomed bushes were still bare but building up to a grand celebration that would soon come, and the tall, bare hedges that surrounded the labyrinth already had myriads of little green leaves that were on the cusp of bursting.

What truly caught the eye were the colors of the many flowerbeds. As soon as the snow had melted a moon previously, a small army of green shoots had appeared, and now, the gardens were awash in a sea of yellowish-white daffodils and narcissuses.

On their way over to the central part of the gardens where a love bench had been put up in an undisturbed spot under an ancient oak tree, Bronwyn shook her head repeatedly as she took in the sight of the thousands of flowers that her gardeners had laboriously planted and cared for.

"Sweet Caid," she said as she lowered herself onto the love bench under the bare branches of the oak tree, "now I surely hope you understand why I wanted to soothe my soul by coming here...?"

"I certainly do, Bronwyn. Are you comfortable? Perhaps I could find you an extra cushion?" Caid said as she made sure Bronwyn's protective furs weren't gaping anywhere.

"Cushion? Oh, I shall not be needing any cushions, sweet Caid!" Bronwyn said and looked around to make sure they were alone. "These chaps are so thick I can hardly tell if my cheeks have hit the bench yet!"

Caid sat down on Bronwyn's right and wrapped an arm around her shoulder. "They have," she said with a grin.


After a while of enjoying the sunshine, the flowers and the company, Bronwyn decided she wanted a bit more from the latter. Sneaking an arm around Caid's waist - though her many layers of clothing made it difficult for her to feel much at all - she leaned into the Huntress and gave her a little peck on the cheek. "Sweet Caid, can you believe that you and I are here, now? I surely cannot. Oh, when I recall the horrific events yesterday, I shudder to think what would have happened if Death had truly made an entrance. Would we have run out of air to breathe? Would our hearts simply have stopped beating? Or... or, worse, would we have continued to exist without truly living?"

"Come again? Now, I fear that doesn't make much sense, Bronwyn."

"Oh, it was something the Yonnae elder said when she visited Ashburne Castle while you were away. She claimed that if a child was born during the absence of the sun, it would never really live... similarly, if a person died then, he or she would never really die."

Caid grunted and looked straight ahead for a little while. "Well, pardon my cynicism, Bronwyn, but I fear the Yonnae elder is missing one or two pieces of her jigsaw puzzle."

"How so?"

"Let's say for a moment the frightening events didn't really herald the end of the world after all. What if it was simply a natural phenomenon, like fog, or thunderstorms, or indeed a fierce gale? How would being born or dying during a darkening of the sun be any different from being born or dying during the night where the sun sleeps?"

Bronwyn opened her mouth to reply but quickly found she had none. Instead, she settled for a shrug. After a brief while, another thing came to her: "Oh, but what if the darkening was a result of the curse? Remember, sweet Caid, we were told of the curse of the Natfarann gold. We have already used four of the-"


"No, please let me speak. We have melted down four gold bars now... what if the spirit who has... or had... command over the ancient sun also guards the gold? What if the darkening of the sun was a warning to us that if we-"

"Bronwyn," Caid said flatly, putting a hand on her partner's thigh for effect.

"Will you let me speak, please, sweet Caid? What if it was the final warning that we should refrain from melting down the remaining gold bars? Though we have used that gold to improve the lives of so many people here in Ashburne, I fear a vengeful spirit would not know how to differentiate that from regular, greedy villainy..."

Caid sighed deeply and turned around to shoot Bronwyn a look of exasperation that spelled out quite clearly that she couldn't believe what she had just been hearing. "Love, please... there is no such thing as a vengeful spirit who controls everything... or even a curse, for that matter," she said and patted Bronwyn's thigh a couple of times.

"But what of all the awful things that have happened here at the castle...?"

"Coincidences... merely coincidences, Bronwyn."

The Empress fell silent for a little while. Then she shrugged and pulled Caid closer to her. "I fear I do not share your optimistic view of the situation, sweet Caid. But let us speak no more of this. I do not wish to upset you on such a glorious day."

"Mmmm. But the events yesterday did bring us closer together, so I suppose they did have one good thing come out of them," Caid said and returned the earlier peck by adding one of her own to the Empress' temple just below her furry headwear.

"It was such a beautiful kiss we shared. Sweet Caid, I... oh, I fell in love with you all over again when we were huddled together on my throne. When we were so close and you asked to see my eyes, I felt... oh, I felt... ack, I cannot speak the emotions running through my heart. Simply, such is my love for you."

Caid smiled and pulled Bronwyn into a sideways hug. They rocked back and forth for a little while before Caid reached down and took off the Empress' mittens so she could hold her hand. "I know what you mean. Seeing your baby blues reminded me of why I fell for you back then... ah, not that I had forgotten in the meantime, you must understand."

"Mmmm?!" Bronwyn said with a snicker.

"No no, rest assured. You're never out of my thoughts," Caid said, squeezing the Empress again. "You're so dear to me. You mean far more to me than every single sweetheart I have ever had put together. With you, I'm simply whole. I hope you feel the same."

"I do, sweet Caid. Oh, when you say that, I am constantly reminded of how inexperienced I am in the art of love. Truly, only two women have I shared romantic kisses with in my adult life. Two! And... goodness me... my first romantic kiss with another woman only came two summers ago. May-Linn. Did you actually know her, sweet Caid?"

"Alas, I didn't. But she must have been a special woman for you to fall in love with her."

"She was... though she was quite different from you," Bronwyn said and let out a sigh as the tragic events concerning the death of the handmaiden flashed across her mind's eye. "Marpaxa must have had a plan with me, because mere days following May-Linn's death, I found you."

"Well, apart from the overtures that took place on our trek to the Shadowlands and the virginal night we spent in each other's arms immediately after, we weren't actually involved until later. And to think I was initially quite reluctant to even take on the assignment. Quite astounding."

Bronwyn moved back to look Caid in the eye to see if she was jesting - she wasn't. "Oh... you were? How so?"

"Well, to be truthful, I was only familiar with your father's description of you. I thought you were a... no. I will not ruin the mood by speaking those words. You know how your father was," Caid said decisively, looking out across the blooming flowers instead.

Bronwyn shivered and snuggled back down into her partner's strong arms. "Alas, I do. I am glad our love prevailed... I truthfully do believe that yesterday, it was our kiss that saved us all... and ultimately the world. You do not think so, sweet Caid...?"

"Oh, I cannot say, Bronwyn. It is far larger than I... but it's certainly a wonderful, romantic notion."

"And a wonderful kiss. We should kiss like that more often," Bronwyn said with a new snicker.

"Hopefully not to save the world again!"

"Oh no... no, no, no. Once was enough, thank you!"

Bronwyn fell quiet and looked out upon the flowers. As she took in the warm, golden hue of the daffodils and the slightly paler narcissuses, two ideas she had mulled over for a long time surfaced at the back of her mind. She could feel in her heart that the first idea would be feasible, if cumbersome and possibly even controversial on a grander scale, but the second idea sent a shiver down her back and made her heart go into a beating frenzy from its boldness.

"You are shivering. Are you cold, Bronwyn?" Caid said, pulling the furs closer around the Empress.

"No. Merely thinking about something that could potentially change our lives," Bronwyn said and glanced over at Caid. The first of her two ideas tickled at the back of her tongue, almost pushing her into announcing it, but at the same time, her heart was begging her not to out of fear of the response it would provoke. "Caid, I- no."


"Nothing. Oh... Caid, I..."

"Speak up, love. I have a hard time deciphering your utterances today," Caid said and rubbed Bronwyn's furry arms.

Bronwyn closed her eyes and grimaced. This was it, now or never. "Caid, how would you feel... if we... I have..."

Caid scrunched up her face and wondered if the strong sunshine had triggered some kind of fit in Bronwyn.

The Empress took a deep breath and decided to let it all out. "I have two things I have been thinking of that I want to share with you, sweet Caid. Both involve you... and indeed your family."

"My family? Intriguing... go on."

Bronwyn's chin quivered, but she steeled her resolve and took a deep breath. "My sweet Caid, there are two things I wish to do this year... now that we have been given a second chance at life. The first is... oh, Sweet Marpaxa... to ask for your hand in marriage."

For a good while, even the sounds of the daffodils blossoming were louder than anything that came out of Caid Barlin. Staring dumbly, she began to look around for the easily recognizable shape of Kheo Khammon whom she was convinced had persuaded the Empress to pull a prank on the unsuspecting Huntress. "Marriage?" she eventually croaked. "My dear Bronwyn, while I truly would accept your hand in marriage in the blink of an eye, I fear-"

"Good. So be it!" Bronwyn said decisively.

Caid sighed and leaned over to kiss Bronwyn's cheek again. "Yes, but... Bronwyn... truthfully, you know as well as I do that it would never be approved by your dignitaries."

"I am the Empress of these lands! My word is law, sweet Caid. If I want to add to the ancient scrolls that the state of marriage is no longer merely between a man and a woman but indeed open to all, then all it takes is for me to issue an Imperial decree. They have already accepted you as the consort, even if they did turn rather blue in the face when I announced it."

"I understand, Bronwyn, but... what it says on a dusty, old scroll and how the people around us will react to the news are two different pairs of shoes..."

"Perhaps so, but it will be thus," Bronwyn said with conviction, though she knew that Caid was right - it would be an uphill struggle to persuade everyone. "Now... the other thing is perhaps more controversial."

"Did you say more controversial, sweet Bronwyn...? Quite honestly, I fail to see how-"

"I wish to become pregnant," Bronwyn blurted out before she lost her nerve. "...So the throne of Ashburne, Dinnigon and all the conquered lands and territories will continue to be ruled by someone of my blood. I am the thirteenth ruler and I refuse to be the last. Though Ashburne Castle has stood for ten centuries, the last four have been ruled by my family after my ancestor conquered it. Thirteen generations, Caid. I hope to carry on that tradition for at least thirteen more... but it demands that I become pregnant. It needs to be now before I am too old."

Caid chewed on her lips while she studied Bronwyn's solemn face. The look of determination in The Empress' pale blue eyes proved that it wasn't a mere fantasy spurred on by a raging fever. "You are serious... aren't you?" she said, observing the baby blues.

"Deadly serious, sweet Caid."

"I beg for forgiveness for the vulgarity of the following question, but... as your future wife, may I ask, ah... who the father will be? Because, sweet Bronwyn, though I am a skilled woman, there are things that are beyond me. I fear getting you pregnant is one of them."

Bronwyn nodded but didn't lose her look of determination. "And yet I wish the child shall possess features from us both. I shall ask your brother."

"My broth- Markki?" Caid croaked.

Bronwyn smiled wistfully and leaned in to kiss the Huntress on the cheek. "Do you have a brother I have not been introduced to yet?"

"Ah... no."

"Then it shall be Markki," Bronwyn said and looked out upon the daffodils.

Caid rubbed her chin repeatedly while she scrunched up her face in shock. The unexpected news prompted a million and one questions, but she couldn't get them sorted enough to come out coherently. In the end, she sighed and snuggled up to the Empress.

Bronwyn furrowed her brow, unsure of how to interpret her partner's uncharacteristic silence. She had expected anything but such a silence, and it wasn't clear to her if her ideas had been received well or not. Ultimately, she didn't want to pursue it any further for the time being.


A short time later, the chill began to creep up Bronwyn's legs despite her furry outfit. She tried to change position at first, but it wasn't enough. Sighing, she looked up at the clear blue sky and let her face be bathed in the warm rays of the spring sun for the last time that day. "Alas, sweet Caid, I fear the chill is beginning to affect me. I also feel weak as a suckling in my bones... such is my plight, now I must return to my bed. But have you noticed I have coughed less today?"

Caid leaned over and stole a little kiss before she got up and helped Bronwyn upright. "I have, love. It's wonderful to see you less tormented by that wretched coughing."

"It truly is," Bronwyn said as they began to shuffle back to the entrance. "I thank you from the bottom of my heart that you allowed me to come out here. I am grateful the weather was so pleasant today and the daffodils and narcissuses so magnificent."

"Ah, Bronwyn, unless I'm severely mistaken, I actually advised you against coming out here, didn't I?" Caid said and hooked her arm inside Bronwyn's

"But surely not, Huntress! Ack, I cannot recall any such conversation."

"Then I beg for forgiveness, my Empress," Caid said with a half-bow. "Come, we shall soon have you feeling far better. Oh, I have an idea... why, I have just had the best idea I've had for quite a while," she continued, beaming like a little sun.

"And what would that be, sweet Caid?"

"Remember I told you last eve at bedtime that I had found a few old documents at the library? Well, in one of them, it said quite clearly that a warm bath would soothe your pains. A warm bath and a soft sponge. Perchance I could tempt you to-"

"Yes!" Bronwyn said, nodding hard. "Alas, I fear I need a nap before any activity of the watery kind. I would not want to fall asleep under the influence of soothing warm water and end up all adrift... a foot below the surface."

"No, it would be best if we could avoid that, I agree. Excellent," Caid said and hurriedly moved up on tip-toes to place a kiss on Bronwyn's lips. "While you sleep, I shall prepare everything. Oh, I fear we cannot drag the mounted tub into the bedchamber... will it be satisfactory if you bathed near Carrae's chamber? I shall send her away first, obviously."

"It would certainly be satisfactory, sweet Caid. Ack, I cannot wait to feel the warm water upon my body... not to mention the sponge. Ah yes, I am looking forward to the sponge."

They looked at each other and broke out in identical, cheesy snickers. Still grinning, Caid opened the double doors and stepped aside for the Empress.


After her nap, Bronwyn swept aside the quilt and sat up on the edge of the bed. Though she had slept, the fatigue that was born of not being able to relax fully even when lying down was still gnawing at her bones. Yawning, she shimmied around on the bed to get the sleepies to go away.

The familiar sound of water being poured into the brass tub in the adjacent chamber could be heard quite clearly through the closed door, and the trickling water made her realize she needed to use the waste bucket before her bath.


A short while later, Caid softly opened the door from the connecting hall and held it ajar to see if the Empress had woken up. When she noticed Bronwyn sitting at the table at the foot end of the canopy bed reading from the book Carrae had been using for her studies, she opened the door fully and stepped into the Imperial bedchamber. "Bronwyn, love, the hot water is ready for you," she said, walking over to where the Empress was sitting.

"Good... sweet Caid, are you aware that this book you are using to teach Carrae how to read is the one my mother gave me upon my fourth birthday? Indeed, it is the same book that I used when I started out on my first adventure exploring the wonderful world of stories... not to mention my imagination."

"Oh, I wasn't aware of that, Bronwyn," Caid said and leaned against the corner of the table.

"Well, it is. How enchanting to see it again. Have you-"

"Yes, I have given Carrae and Luna the next turn of the hourglass off. I gave them a five Crown coin each and told them to buy something nice for themselves," Caid said and shuffled over to the closet where she found a full-length, dark blue satin bathrobe for the Empress. "And following that, I told Kheo... who's outside as we speak, by the way... I told him that for the next turn of the hourglass, nobody can be allowed to even approach the bedchamber door. Will that suffice?"

"It will. Thank you," Bronwyn said and rose from her spot at the table. "Shall we?"

"We shall indeed, my Empress. Do you wish to undress in here, or...?" Caid said as she held the bathrobe ready.

Bronwyn smiled and pulled the off-white sleeping chemise over her head. Underneath, she was only wearing the two pieces of cloth that covered her breasts and hips. "There.. all done. Well, almost. Sweet Caid, I shall not be needing the bathrobe."

"As you wish, Empress Bronwyn," Caid said and threw the delicate dark blue fabric onto the Imperial bed.

They walked over to the door to the connecting hallway, but before they reached it, Bronwyn stopped and put a finger on Caid's shoulder like she was trying to make a point. "My sweet Caid, you are going to wash me yourself, are you not?"

"Why, I certainly am."

"I do believe you are wearing far too many layers for such a perilous task," Bronwyn said and looked down at the white tunic and the suede ankle pants worn by the Huntress. "Shed some of them. Mmmm?"

Grinning broadly, Caid kicked off her boots, hopped out of her ankle pants and let the tunic fly. "Layers have been shed, my Empress," she said, putting her hands on her wrapped hips.

The smile on Bronwyn's face faded briefly when she looked at the myriad of poorly healed scars on Caid's body, once again feeling a knot in her stomach when she thought of her beloved's nightmarish experiences in the war. She nearly regretted asking for Caid to shed her clothes, but the ugly moment soon passed. The smile returned as she wrapped an arm around Caid's bare waist and pulled her through the door.

The one-and-a-half fathom-wide and three-fathom long brass tub was mounted directly onto the floor in the small hallway that ran from Carrae's chamber and down to the back exit. Although it didn't present the most charming spot in the Imperial bedchamber, or indeed in Ashburne Castle on a whole, it was the only place in the bedchamber the large tub could fit, and the hallway had a grating in the floor that could be used when the tub was to be emptied.

A wooden bucket stood next to the tub with all the remedies needed for a successful bath, including towels large and small, pumice stones, sponges of several different levels of softness, vials with scented oils and finally bars of soap of many aromas.

Steam poured off the surface of the water in the tub, proving that it was hot and ready. Smiling in anticipation, Bronwyn reached behind her to work the bone hooks on her top. As soon as the strip of cloth was loose, she handed it to Caid who put it on a sideboard well out of the way of the water.

Turning around, Bronwyn loosened the cloth hugging her hips and unraveled it. Once she was as naked as the day she was born, she handed the second piece of cloth to Caid who promptly put it on the sideboard with a big, goofy grin on her face.

"I say, Caid, there must be something outrageously funny in here, because I cannot recall seeing such a grin on your face for quite some time," Bronwyn said and began to slide off her gold ring.

"I am merely struck dumb by your extraordinary, ravishing beauty, my love," Caid said with another grin. Taking the precious ring, she put it next to the pieces of cloth to keep it safe.

Bronwyn chuckled and put her right, seemingly endless leg up into the tub. Soon, she lowered herself into the water. Her legs and torso were quickly submerged in the hot water up to the top of her breasts, and she couldn't stop a blissful moan from escaping her lips.

She held onto the sides of the brass tub until her rearward-facing cheeks were resting on a small step deep down inside the tub, but when she was sitting comfortably with her long legs stretched out, she moved her arms down into the warm water and began to move them around to allow the water to get everywhere. "Sweet Marpaxa, this is bliss," she breathed, leaning her head back on the edge of the tub with her eyes firmly closed.

"I fear we nearly ran poor Luna and Carrae ragged when they had to carry all the water here... so I am glad you feel it was worth it. Bronwyn, do you wish to have any scented oils in your bath today?"

Bronwyn cocked her head like she was thinking hard about the offer. "Not today, thank you. I am thoroughly comfortable as it is."

"Good," Caid said and folded up one of the large towels that she proceeded to put on the floor. Kneeling down on the towel near the top end of the tub, she leaned in and stole a little kiss. "Do you wish to soak for a little while, or should I get started with the sponge?"

"Ack, you ask the hardest questions, sweet Caid! Ack!" Bronwyn said and peered into the Huntress' husky green orbs that were sparkling quite strongly. "It shall be... the sponge."

Caid smiled and reached into the wooden bucket to find the softest sponge available. Before she used it on the Empress' tender skin, she made it wet and tested it against her own arm. "This will do nicely. Please, Bronwyn, pull your hair aside and lean forward so I can wash your back."

Bronwyn did as asked, and Caid was soon working the sponge, dipping it into the hot water and running it gently across the wide, unblemished back of the Empress. She made sure never to press down too hard on the lungs as she let the hot water coat the smooth surface. When the skin had been sufficiently prepared, Caid worked up a strong lather and let the sponge caress the long, creamy torso with gentle strokes that reached from Bronwyn's neck and all the way down to the waterline.

The husky moan she got in return was proof enough that she was doing it right. Once the white, scented suds had been distributed, she dunked the sponge into the water and squeezed the excess soap out of it. When it was ready again, she let it soak up plenty of water and hurriedly moved it up to Bronwyn's neck where she squeezed it to make the water rinse off the suds. A couple of squeezes later, most of the soap had been washed off to reveal Bronwyn's shining skin, and Caid removed the last by adding a few, gentle strokes.

"You can lean back now, love," she whispered, helping to get the long, dark locks back down.

Bronwyn did as asked and turned to look Caid in the eye. No words were exchanged, but the looks of love that flew back and forth between them held more meaning than a thousand words could. Sighing huskily, Bronwyn leaned all the way back and rested her head on the edge of the tub to give Caid an idea of where to go next.

The Huntress wasn't slow on the uptake and rinsed the sponge thoroughly before she let it soak up water. Soon, she let it slide across Bronwyn's forehead and the sides of her face. With another spongeful of hot water, she continued down across Bronwyn's neck and onto her chin and throat that received special attention. "My beautiful woman... how I love thee," Caid whispered as she leaned in to steal a kiss from Bronwyn's glistening lips while the Empress had her eyes closed.

"And I love thee," Bronwyn whispered back. "Please... go on. Your tender touch soothes my soul."

"I shall, sweet Bronwyn," Caid said and let the sponge soak up more water. Once it was full, she ran it across Bronwyn's sculpted shoulders, her collarbones and the hollow of her throat. The sponge just touched the upper edge of her breasts, but Caid resisted going further south despite a rather insistent look in Bronwyn's eyes.

With the sponge lathered, she moved it back up to Bronwyn's forehead. "Love, close your eyes. I promise I shall be swift."

"Mmmm," Bronwyn said and did as asked.

With the Empress' eyes firmly closed, Caid leaned in to steal another kiss - that earned her a mock-insulted grunt - before she ran the soapy sponge across Bronwyn's forehead and the sides of her face to give her a look of a miller's apprentice. With the sponge quickly rinsed, she kept to her promise and had the suds off in no time.

Before Caid moved onto Bronwyn's shoulders and throat, she reached into the wooden bucket and found a face towel that she used to wipe Bronwyn's forehead and eyes. "Love, are you in discomfort?" she whispered, wiping off a persistent glob of soap suds that had attached itself to the Empress' right earlobe.

"I am not. This is simply marvelous. The water is still pleasantly warm."

"Good," Caid said and threw down the face towel. With the sponge lathered up again, she ran it across Bronwyn's shoulders and throat to make everything white.

Bronwyn let out a slow, husky sigh as Caid gently began washing off the suds by squeezing the sponge and running it over the skin. "Oh, this is pure bliss... Sweet Marpaxa, this may be our first shared bath... but it shall certainly not be our last. Ohhhh...!"

Caid decided to try a little naughtiness and removed the suds on Bronwyn's throat with her fingers instead of the sponge. The husky sigh she earned made her break out in a cheeky grin. "Lean your head back a little more, my love..." she whispered, running her fingers down to the hollow of Bronwyn's throat.

Bronwyn did so and suddenly found herself in the perfect position to be kissed properly. As their lips touched and the kiss deepened, she reached out of the water to snatch Caid's hand that held the sponge so it could be guided lower.

"Ah, sweet Bronwyn, this is not why you are bathing," Caid teased and resisted moving her hand further down than the top of Bronwyn's cleavage.

"Ohhhh!" Bronwyn groaned in frustration, but she was soon good again when another kiss that was just as sweet followed the first.

Caid chuckled and finished rinsing the soap off Bronwyn's chest. Once the Empress' skin was glistening and free of the suds, she wrung out the sponge and threw it down into the wooden bucket. "Do you wish me to wash your hair while we're at it?" she said, running her fingers down the silky smooth locks.

"Oh... it takes a full bucket. I did not think we had more fresh water?" Bronwyn said, turning to look at Caid.

"We don't, but I could easily fetch some...?"

"In that case, I wish to wait. I declare, I shall soak for a while longer!"

Caid smiled and leaned in to kiss Bronwyn's lips again. "Good choice. In that case, I shall leav-"

"No, sweet Caid, please stay and chat. But please sit properly so you do not overstress your knees."

"Very well," Caid said and turned around so she could sit on the rolled-up towel instead of kneeling on it. She was suddenly quite a bit lower and could only just peek over the edge of the brass tub. "Mmmm... methinks I shall fetch a footstool instead, my Empress," she said with a broad grin.

"I fear that would be best, sweet Caid," Bronwyn said with a snicker.

Caid was soon at a proper height so they could look each other deeply in the eye while they spoke. She reached down and played with the warm water, but the Empress had other ideas and soon took Caid's hands in her own.

"Sweet Caid, not to harp on such a sensitive subject, but I sensed a certain trepidation in you when I spoke of my idea involving your brother. I understand how curious it may seem to you, but I can assure you I have given it plenty of thought. You and he look so much alike that a child produced by Markki and I cannot fail to be a perfect blend of our looks."

Caid couldn't hold Bronwyn's gaze and looked away. "But love, how...? I mean, how will you... and he... all this time, I was under the impression you had no sexual interest in men?"

"That is true. I have none."

"Love, you may not know this, but intercourse between a man and a woman is-"

"Caid, please... I am not a child," Bronwyn said and gave Caid's hand a squeeze below the surface of the water. "Believe it or not... although I have lived a sheltered life, Tawna taught me a few things when I was a confused teen. I have also heard plenty of saucy gossip from the maids who have worked with me over the years. I know that if the man... oh... prepares privately, it shall only take a very, very brief while inside me."

The look on Caid's face proved she wasn't convinced at all. Grunting, she withdrew her hand from Bronwyn's touch and pulled it out of the water. "May I speak frankly with you, Empress?"

Bronwyn knew instantly the good mood had evaporated, and she let out a small sigh. Instead of speaking, she nodded.

"Empress Bronwyn," Caid said and ran her dry hand across her brow, "it is your body and your decision. If you wish to become pregnant using my brother's semen, I cannot and will not prevent you from doing that. However... my heart demands that I tell you I would have severe problems afterwards... severe issues with going where I knew my brother had been, too. Do you understand?"

Bronwyn scrunched up her face and looked somberly at her lover. "I do not wish to drive a wedge between us, sweet Caid... that is the last thing I want," she said quietly, reaching out of the water to seek Caid's hand. "Perhaps there is another way of... of transferring the semen...?"

"I cannot say, Empress," Caid said and took the offered hand, "but if there is, I would... it would make my heart very happy. I beg for forgiveness for being so selfish, my love."

"Ack, 'tis I who is selfish, sweet Caid... I had not given it enough thought after all. To be truthful, if the situation was reversed and you sought a child with my brother, I would have reacted in the same way you just did. What we share is sacred, and no child, and certainly no man must be allowed to come between us."

"In my case, it is the man rather than the child I object to, Bronwyn," Caid said and squeezed Bronwyn's hand. "Though, every word you said about the throne and the generations of your family ring true. My feeble skills simply do not extend to finding a solution to the wretched conundrum."

Bronwyn nodded somberly. "We must discuss it later. Perhaps with Lady Fyonna... she will know what to do, I am sure. Oh, the water is only lukewarm now. I think I better get up before your wondrous work with the magical sponge is negated."

Caid immediately rose from the footstool and took the large towel she had used to kneel on. As Bronwyn got up and stepped away with rivers of water running down her sculpted body - producing a wave that sent a large splash over the edge of the brass tub and down onto the stone floor - Caid wrapped the towel around her and began to rub her dry at once. "Come, Bronwyn... I shall have you as pink as a newborn in no time!" she said and began to rub the Empress thoroughly from the neck downwards.




Miriam Connighen pressed herself up against the wall of the dining hall. She had used the perfect blandness of her disguise to move within a few fathoms of the door to the Imperial bedchamber, but the six sentries and the oak tree of a man who were guarding it presented an insurmountable obstacle for her.

She reached in under her stolen dark gray cloak and touched the hilt of her dagger. Although she was proficient with the deadly weapon, even she couldn't fight seven opponents at once. She scrunched up her face and grudgingly came to the conclusion that she had - once again - reached a dead end in her quest to get close to the Empress.

Just as Miriam was about to withdraw, the door was opened and Caid Barlin stepped out while she put on her suede uniform jacket. The Huntress stepped over to the oak of a man and leaned in towards him so the sentries couldn't hear her.

"The bath made the Empress hungry so I think I'll go into the kitchen and ask Harsomme to make us a couple of sandwiches or something," Caid said, folding down her collar.

"Oh yeah... the bath," Kheo said with a grin.

Caid returned the grin and poked a finger into her friend's gut. "Manners, Kheo. Do you need anything from the kitchen?"

"Aw, I ain't never said no ta a li'l bread or somethin'. Don't need no ale, thank ye, 'cos I'm on duty."

"I didn't offer any, you big brute," Caid said with a laugh. Still chuckling, she turned around and strolled over to the swinging doors to the anteroom, seemingly not in a hurry.

Miriam kept a close eye on the Huntress as she opened the swinging doors and stepped through. After eyeing the activity of the sentries, Miriam tried her best to blend in with the background as she hurried after the Huntress. Soon, she was standing at the swinging doors that she held slightly ajar.

Inside, Caid and the cook were discussing the finer points of interrupting someone who was right in the middle of preparing the afternoon tea and pastries. On the opposite side of the anteroom, a stack of trays had been lined up for the maids who hadn't yet arrived since teatime was still some way off. A glass jar of dried fruit appetizers stood next to the trays.

Miriam did what she did best and snuck inside, walking so silently she couldn't even hear herself. While Caid and the cook were speaking in rather loud terms with their backs turned, Miriam took out half of the dried fruits, snatched a tray and put the jar onto it. Then she was gone.

Caid turned around and scratched her suddenly tickling ear. She had been so engrossed in the conversation with the surly Harsomme that she hadn't been paying attention to her surroundings. A few pieces of dried fruit were lying in an odd place on a counter opposite of where she stood, but it didn't seem too untoward. Moments later, she was disturbed by the growling cook who took a loaf of bread and began to slice it with exaggerated gestures.

Miriam knew she only had one shot at getting inside so she decided to play her part as solidly as she could. Carrying the tray with the glass jar of dried fruits, she walked up to the sentries and cowered like any proper maid should.

Upon the arrival of the maid, Kheo grunted to himself and moved over to the woman he couldn't recall ever seeing before. "Oy... whassat? That ain't no sandwiches," he said as he looked at the fruit on the tray.

"No, Master. I fear the cook is in a poor mood today, Master. He and the Huntress got into a row over the timing of her request, Master. The Huntress asked me to take these pieces of fruit to the Empress as an appetizer, Master," Miriam said, contorting her voice to make it fairer than her own. While she spoke, she looked down at her feet.

"Look at me when I speak ta ya, maid."

"I beg for forgiveness, Master," Miriam said, looking up. She used the moment to glance at the swinging doors to the anteroom. If they moved, she would have to abandon her plans and simply slay those she had time to reach before they got to her.

Kheo grunted as he looked at the maid's face. "Oy, ya seem ten years older than the rest of them maids here... aintcha? Ain't never seen ya before... whatcha been doin' here in the castle?"

"I'm new here, Master. I only started working here the other day, Master. My previous Master died of old age and it was this or the whorehouse, Master."

Kheo grunted again and snatched one of the pieces of dried fruit. "Awright," he said between chews, "ya can go in. Wait, I need ta introduce ya first," he continued and went over to the door. After knocking and getting an 'Enter!' in reply, he opened the door and stuck his head inside.

Miriam couldn't hear what was said, but it was irrelevant as she was allowed access to the Imperial bedchamber almost at once. Stepping inside, she saw the Empress sitting on a chair at a table at the foot end of a canopy bed.

The door closed behind her and she took a shuffling step towards the tall, dark-haired woman who was wearing a dark blue satin bathrobe over a white sleeping chemise. Her legs were bare and faintly pink like they had recently been scrubbed. Her feet were stuck into woolly slippers.

Bronwyn briefly looked up, but she didn't concentrate too much on the maid. "Ah, thank you. Just put the tray on the sideboard," she said and rose from the chair, though she kept looking down into the book she was reading from like she wanted to get to the end of a line or a paragraph.

Miriam put down the tray and grabbed hold of the hem of her stolen dark gray frock. It soon flew off her shoulders to reveal her Black Lance uniform. The boots, the ankle pants, the shiny black leather belt she had around her waist, and finally the black satin tunic all told a clear story of someone who took great pride in keeping the uniform spotless.

A squeaky clean leather sheath that sported Jin-Sarnos' red and black coat of arms was attached to the belt on her right hip. Smiling grimly, Miriam moved her hand down and drew the eight-inch long double-sided dagger. She jumped forward before her prey had any idea what was going on.

Bronwyn didn't have time to shriek, but she gasped loudly as she was suddenly manhandled by a soldier who grabbed hold of her shoulders and nearly pulled her down on the floor. When the cold steel of the blade was pressed against her throat, her eyes became as wide as saucers and her face lost all color. "Please..." she croaked, "please... d- do not slay me..."

"Greetings, Empress Bronwyn," Miriam said hoarsely into Bronwyn's ear. "First Lieutenant Miriam Connighen of the fabled Black Lance reporting for duty. And today, my duty is to make you suffer, bitch."

"Black Lance? But- but... why?" Bronwyn wheezed.

"Why? Oh, for many reasons. For disbanding us... for calling us criminals. But most of all for driving someone who meant a great deal to me to her death. Zai Allizadra."

"Z- Zai is d- dead?"

Growling, Miriam squeezed the blade closer to Bronwyn's throat. "Don't play games with me, bitch. You killed her yourself by sentencing her to rot away in the dungeons. Her heart gave out in the end. As will yours... though it shall be helped along!"

Bronwyn tried to shake her head, but the blade was too sharp and too close to her neck for her to dare to try anything. "I- I am sorry t- to hear th-"

"Don't you lie to me, you wretched bitch! Our war cry is Black Death Cometh, and Death shall surely cometh to you on this glorious day. Come, we must go on a little walk, you and I!"

"Wh- where to?"

"Oh," Miriam said directly into Bronwyn's ear, chuckling while she formed the words, "we're going to Phirax."

Bronwyn's eyes grew even wider at that, and she tightened her jaw and stared at the door to the dining hall wishing Caid would step through it before it was too late - but she didn't.


Caid whistled through her teeth as she strolled over to Kheo and the sentries carrying a tray with a pile of sandwiches. Once there, she handed the large man a corned beef sandwich in a napkin wrapper. "Here you go, Kheo. It's fresh. I watched over Harsomme's shoulder as he made it just to make sure he didn't put any strychnine in it."

"Aw, thanks a bunch. I'll bet that made his day," Kheo said and champed down on it at once. Munching, he nodded at the Huntress. "Plenty o' garlic! Love garlic. So ol' Cook was in a rotten mood was he?"

Caid narrowed her eyes as she rearranged the other sandwiches. "Yeah, he wasn't too pleased with the situation. How did you know that...? Have you been spying on me, Grand Marshal?"

"Naw, the maid told me."

"Which maid?"

"Why, the maid ya sent back, o' course," Kheo said and wiped his meaty lips on the back of his hand. "Ya know, the slightly odd one with the... dried... fruit... aw, Phirax!" he roared and let go of the corned beef sandwich that fell to the floor with a plopp . In a single step, he was at the door to the bedchamber and tore it open.

After thrusting the tray into a sentry's frantic grip, Caid barged her way past her friend's broad shoulders and took in the sight of the empty bedchamber. She spun around and grabbed hold of Kheo's red tunic, holding it so tightly her knuckles turned white. "Where. Is. The. Empress?" she hissed, looking nothing like herself as she spoke through a clenched jaw.

Kheo simply shook his head with a shocked expression on his face.

Caid roared out loud and pushed her old friend away. She stormed into the bedchamber to make sure Bronwyn hadn't fallen down in the space between the canopy bed and the far wall. When she had checked it, she ran back into the middle of the floor and clutched her head in desperation.

Faint crying from the other end of the connecting hallway made Caid storm through the door and into the chamber where she and Bronwyn had just spent such a lovely time. She noted the brass tub was still half full and that a wooden bucket used to empty the filthy water into the grating in the floor was lying on its side, broken into several pieces like someone had tripped over it or perhaps simply kicked it around.

The faint crying came from a figure in a dark brown frock who was sitting against the wall near the brass tub. Caid realized at once it was Carrae and that her left hand was covered in blood.

Caid ran over to the injured maid and swooped down onto her knees. "Carrae! Where's Empress Bronwyn?" she said, trying to hold the young girl by the arms.

"Sh- she was taken," the young maid said in a whimper, staring at the Huntress with wide, frightened eyes. Blood seeped out of her left sleeve, and she clutched the arm like she was afraid it would fall off if she let go. "I tr- tried to h- help her, b- but the soldier cut me with a long, ugly knife..."

Caid quickly pried Carrae's fingers off the arm and raised the frock. The maid had a two-inch long cut on her upper arm, and the blood had already coated her skin and her clothes all the way down to her hand. "I know it hurts like Phirax on a bad day, but it isn't too bad. Who took the Empress, Carrae? You said it was a soldier...?"

"Y- yes... a soldier from the Bl- Black Lance..."

"Zai? Wretched Zai Allizadra did this?!" Caid barked as she tried to fold back the frock so she could get a better look at the wound.

"N- no... not Allizadra... I knew her... I didn- didn't know the one who took the Empress. Younger... strong... very sh- short hair," Carrae said through clenched teeth. Her chin quivered badly, and it wasn't long before tears began to stain her cheeks again.

"They left through the back exit?"

"Y- yes..."

"All right... thank you, Carrae. Sit tight, I'll get a healer for you," Caid said and jumped to her feet.

She stormed back into the bedchamber and once again ran over to her regular side of the four-post canopy bed. She went down on her knees and reached in under the bed's frame. Once she found what she was looking for, she yanked a scabbard out of the leather laces it was tied onto and drew her Yonnae machete. The razor-sharp instrument of death glinted dangerously in the orange light from the fireplace. The dark promise of instant death was matched by the look on Caid's face.

Once back at the door to the dining hall, she stepped outside and saw that more sentries had arrived along with Commander Kallirna Tarsi. Instead of speaking to the rugged man, she strode over to Kheo who had scrunched up his face in a mask of guilt. "Kheo, sound a general alarm. Seal off all exits. We're looking for a Black Lance soldier, younger... ruthless. He had no qualms knifing Carrae. Get a healer for her," she said harshly.

"Yes, Huntress. The soldier ain't no man but a woman. It wussen Zai, tho..."

"I know that already! Sound an alarm and get a healer for the maid. Do you think you can do that without fouling up?" she barked before she spun around and stormed back into the Imperial bedchamber.

Once she had assured Carrae that a healer would soon be coming for her, she ran over to the rear exit and opened the door to the hallway.

The damp, dark corridor looked exactly like every other torchlit corridor in the entire castle, and Caid rubbed her mouth repeatedly as she looked left and right, trying to decide which way would be the best to go. In the end, she went right because the corridor went out of sight not long after.

She stormed a good twenty fathoms down the corridor and threw herself against the bricks to peek around the corner. The corridor continued into another one just like it. "Wretched... wretched! Where could they have gone?! I have never been in this part of the castle before... wretched!"

Growling out loud, she could see some of the torches in the corridor had gone out a bit further down into it, so she snatched the nearest one that was still alight so she could see where she was going.


Meanwhile, three hundred fathoms ahead of the Huntress in yet another corridor, Miriam yanked Bronwyn back close to her after the Empress had tried to make a run for it. "Oh, nice try," the Lieutenant said hoarsely. "The next time you feel the need to test my resolve, I shall cut off one of your fingers. I'll even let you choose which one it should be... maybe the one with the nice gold ring?"

"You are sick... you are as insane as Zai!" Bronwyn barked, but all she got out of her temper was a hard punch to her stomach that left her wheezing and coughing.

"Don't speak of Zai like that," Miriam growled as she pulled the Empress upright. "You didn't know her like I did. What you call insane, I call dedicated to her corps and her colors. Which way do we need to go to get to somewhere spectacular?"

Bronwyn's chin started quivering, but she shot her captor a defiant - and stone silent - look.

Miriam shook her head in anger and once again rammed her fist into Bronwyn's stomach which made the taller woman double over in a bout of wheezing hisses. "Listen to me, bitch... I am going to slay you on this day, but my plans are to do it while the Huntress watches us. However," she said and made to punch Bronwyn again simply to see the Empress twitch in fear, "if I have to bury my dagger in your heart right here, so be it. I will."

Bronwyn let out a hard breath fueled by the fear inside her. She could see in the eyes of her captor that the Lieutenant meant what she said. Nodding, Bronwyn relaxed her stance to appear less contrary. "Further ahead... then right... down to a balcony... overlooking the inner gardens..."

"Why thank you, Empress!" Miriam mocked, grabbing hold of the dark blue satin bathrobe.

Before they had time to move, a strong cough tore through Bronwyn's lungs. Another, equally strong cough followed it, and she could feel a fit building up inside her. She looked wide-eyed at her captor in the hope that she could get a reprieve, but the hard glare she got in return as she was yanked further along the corridor convinced her they were in it to the death.


Caid came to a reluctant halt and gulped down the sour surge of fear that threatened to drown her. Her heart was thumping so hard in her chest that it made the blood rush past her ears with a sound akin to rolling thunder. Between that and her panting, it was difficult if not near-impossible for her to locate Bronwyn and her captor.

Grunting, she set off again down the umpteenth damp, dark corridor she had tried, but she suddenly came to a screeching halt and strained her hearing to listen. In the distance, but not that far away from her, she could hear the characteristic sound of Bronwyn coughing.

Another cough followed, but it seemed fainter. Caid scrunched up her face into a mask of frustration as she hurried along the corridor to get to the next branch point. She held the Yonnae machete flat against her thigh in case the mysterious Black Lance soldier was using Bronwyn as a human shield.

As she ran along the corridor, she noticed the floor was sloping upwards but it didn't help her pinpoint Bronwyn's location - or even her own, for that matter. When she came past an ancient-looking wooden door that stood ajar, she stopped and shone the torch through the opening just to make sure Bronwyn's captor hadn't shoved her hostage inside for safe keeping.

The chamber appeared to have been used as a bedroom once upon a time. An old, rickety wooden bunk stood up against the brick wall, though the wood was frayed and the mattress on top of it had been reduced to shreds. Caid was about to leave the chamber behind and continue the search when the torch reflected something white at the back wall.

She moved the torch further in through the door to see better, but bit down on her lips when she realized the white that had been reflected was a complete skeleton that sat leaning against the far wall with a gaping hole in the upper part of the cranium. "What in the name of Phirax the Unholy?" she mumbled under her breath. "How long has that thing been in here? By all that's sacred, the secrets this castle holds..."

Hurrying on, Caid came to another branch point and immediately knew she was on the right track. Some distance away, but in the same corridor, she could hear Bronwyn coughing. Caid picked up her speed and ran around a soft bend - and had suddenly found Bronwyn and her black-clad captor.

The two women stood at the far end of the corridor Caid had just entered. The hallway opened up into an arcade-like balcony with balustrades and a square roof, and the blue sky was quite visible beyond it.

Caid stared darkly at the woman who held Bronwyn at knifepoint. With her black uniform and her military haircut, there was no doubt she had been part of the Black Lance. The woman seemed to be grinning as she pulled Bronwyn back with her until they were close to the balcony.

"Greetings, Huntress. Why don't you join our party? It's really quite cozy out here," the woman said and stepped over the threshold, though she kept her dagger at Bronwyn's throat.

Caid looked for an empty brass ring where she could deposit the torch, but typically, the rings were all in use. Knowing she was about to enter a fight, she simply dropped the torch onto the floor and let it fizzle. "You know who I am... why not introduce yourself so we're on equal footing?" Caid said strongly, clenching her fingers around the hilt of the machete.

"First Lieutenant Miriam Connighen of the Black Lance at your service, Huntress. Satisfied?" Miriam said around Bronwyn's shoulder.

"Only when you have let the Empress go."

"Oh, I shall, have no fear. The real question is, can she fly?"

Bronwyn let out a frightened groan and tried to break free of Miriam's grip, but all she got out of it was a hard thump in the back that left her winded and blushing from the pain. She locked eyes with Caid and sent her a silent message that she was in real trouble this time.

Caid nodded and stepped closer. "Can we not talk-"

"Ah, no," Miriam said with a devious smile. "Far too much talking has taken place already. If you decide to charge me, I shall throw her off the balcony at once."

"Don't be a fool, Lieutenant! There's nowhere for you to go!" Caid barked, taking a sliding step closer.

"Only to Phirax... and the Evil One has already pulled out my chair... ah-ah! Put down your machete and kick it over here."

Caid narrowed her eyes and zoomed in on the face of Bronwyn's attacker. The dark blonde crewcut and the razor-like eyes that were set well in an angular face proved that she wasn't to be messed with. Caid tried to think back to the various Black Lance units she had been in contact with to figure out if she had ever come across the officer in any campaigns or missions, but she was unable to place Miriam in any of them. Instead, she decided to follow orders and crouched down to put the machete on the coarse, uneven floor with the blade pointed at herself and the hilt pointed towards Bronwyn.

Sighing, Caid gave the hilt a kick and watched the blade slide and rattle across the floor until it landed just in front of Bronwyn's feet. She suddenly noticed that the Empress was only wearing one slipper.

"Good!" Miriam mocked, relaxing the grip she had on Bronwyn. "Now... isn't this a fun coincidence, Huntress? Like I had to watch my old lover die in horrible pain when her heart failed her, you get to watch your bitch here writhe in torment while my dagger pierces her heart and splits it in two."

Bronwyn grunted and shook her head in confusion. "Zai? Zai Allizadra and you were lovers?" she said over her shoulder in a voice that trembled with the agitation that raged inside her.

"What of it, bitch?" Miriam said and pushed the dagger closer to Bronwyn's throat.

"N- nothing," Bronwyn stuttered as she tried - and failed - to move her head further back from the sharp-edged blade.

"Don't you dare be judgmental of me!" Miriam barked. "I saw you two yesterday, snogging while you sat on the sacred throne... you practically fingered each other right there! I think you know what this is about! If the situation had been reversed, it would still have been the three of us here, only differently..."

Caid took another sliding step closer while Miriam was busy intimidating the Empress with the blade. "Oh, I must say you two were a good fit. Insane and insaner... I only wish I had beheaded her when I had the chance to!" she said strongly, eyeing the muscular, wiry hand that held the dagger.

"So do I!" Miriam barked. "It would have saved her from the humiliation of that wretched dungeon! She was nothing when we rescued her! Nothing! Nothing but skin and bones... she had lost her mind. Because of this bitch here!" she cried and began to carve a shallow furrow across Bronwyn's throat simply to scar her.

Then it all happened at once: Bronwyn screamed in terror from the terrible pain that shot up from her throat. Even while she was screaming, she stepped sideways and rammed her elbow violently into Miriam's right breast - then she fell down onto her knees to get away from the dagger.

Hissing in pain, Miriam lost the grip on Bronwyn but kicked out at her when she felt her falling away. The boot hit Bronwyn straight across her rear and sent her flying. "Ahh, my tit! You wretched bitch!" Miriam cried and clutched her hurting breast.

A split second later, Caid had her machete in her hand and attacked Miriam with the gruesome blade in full swing. The first stroke was deflected but the fight was very much on. Caid swung the machete again, but the corridor was so narrow she couldn't get a proper angle without exposing her center.

Miriam exploited her opponent's enforced limitations and thrust her dagger ahead with an angry grunt. The eight-inch blade glinted dangerously in the nearby torchlight as it carved through the air and only just missed the Huntress by a fraction. Even as the first swing was a miss, she swung her arm back and made a second pass.

On the floor, Bronwyn watched Caid and Miriam go at it. It was clear from their expressions and the angry grunts they exuded that it was a fight to the death. Bronwyn coughed hard and got to her feet to get away from the combat. With a hand that trembled uncontrollably, she reached up to her neck and felt a two-inch long abrasion on her skin. It bled profusely, and as the first hard cough segued into another, and then another, her dark blue satin bathrobe and her favorite sleeping chemise slowly turned red.

Caid swung the machete left, then right, then left again. On each swing, the razor-sharp blade struck the walls and sent sparks and chips of the red bricks onto the floor and her opponent. She could hear Bronwyn coughing behind her, but she didn't have time to take her eyes off Miriam.

The face of the Black Lance Lieutenant was scrunched up in concentration. Because of the narrowness of the corridor, she was able to evade or parry all the swings the Huntress could throw at her, but it also meant her own prime targets on her opponent's body - the chest and the gut - were hard to reach or simply out of range.

Bronwyn crawled along the corridor to get away from the melee behind her. Her coughs increased in strength, and she had already turned quite red from the exertion and the shock involved with the abrasion on her throat. The coarse floor dug into her hands and knees, but when she tried to get up, a strong cough overwhelmed her and she had to lean against the brick wall for support halfway between up and down.

The knife fight rolled back and forth in the narrow corridor. At one point, Miriam seemed to gain the upper hand when Caid had scraped her knuckles on the brick wall during a wild swing, but it didn't last long. Panting, the Lieutenant stepped out of range to reassess the situation. She noticed her opponent was breathing as heavily as she, and she knew that was a good sign.

Miriam cast a quick glance at the open balcony behind her. The sun was coming around to it and had already begun to illuminate one corner. If the fight kept going for much longer, the entire balcony would be bathed in the rays of the spring sun. She turned her gaze to the Empress who seemed to be in trouble with her coughing.

After thinking it through, Miriam took a quick but deliberate decision and began to shuffle backwards while she taunted the Huntress by wagging her middle finger in an open invitation to join her on the balcony.

Caid furrowed her brow as she tried to figure out the motivations Miriam could have for leading her onto the balcony. Whatever they were, she was sure she didn't like them. Instead of moving forward, she took several steps back so she could look at the Empress without taking her eyes off her opponent. "Bronwyn... are you all right? You must leave if you can."

"N- no... n- no, sweet Caid," Bronwyn said around breaths that were increasingly wheezing and rattling. "Ca- cannot leave... you... cannot breathe... too well. S- such pain... in m- my chest..."

"Wretched," Caid growled and cast a brief glance at her partner who seemed far worse than she had been for several days. Making a snap decision, she took off her suede uniform jacket and wrapped it around Bronwyn's shoulders and upper body. "Love... stay here for now. I promise I shall return... it won't take long," she said, looking up at Miriam who had ventured out onto the balcony and stood in the bright sunshine.

"Pl- please return t- to me..." Bronwyn wheezed, trying - but failing - to squeeze Caid's hand.

"I shall. Have no fear," Caid said and followed the Lieutenant out onto the balcony with cautious steps. Once she was standing on the threshold, she could see the rectangular, arcade-like balcony was larger than it had appeared from inside the corridor.

Roughly three by eight fathoms, it had a fathom-tall outer wall and a gently sloping floor that ended in a drainage hole in the corner the furthest away from the entrance. The roof was three fathoms off the floor and painted crimson, and eleven hand-painted stone pillars added a splash of color in the free space between the roof and the outer wall.

Miriam had walked backwards until she stood with her back against one of the two shorter walls, and she still had the same dark smile plastered on her face that she had worn throughout the confrontation. She held the dagger casually in front of her, but when Caid stepped onto the balcony with the Yonnae machete, she raised the eight-inch blade and held it ready for the next round between them.

Caid narrowed her eyes when she realized she would have far more room to swing the machete on the balcony than in the narrow corridor. Using her Ranger sense - and her common sense - it didn't take her long to figure out that Miriam was seeking a suicide by proxy. She didn't want to be a part of it unless she absolutely had to, so she backed up until she was up against the short wall opposite where Miriam stood. "Now what, Lieutenant?" she said and crossed her arms over her off-white tunic while she caught her breath.

"Now we fight, Huntress. Fight and die," Miriam said and toyed with her blade that still bore the stains of the Empress' blood.

"I'm not going to die here today."

"One of us will. Maybe both, Phirax only knows," Miriam said and tapped a fingernail against the hard steel. "You have the range with your machete... I have the aggression needed to go deep. Perhaps we shall meet in the middle, eh?"

Caid grunted and leaned her rear against the top of the short wall so she could cross her legs. "Should we really be attempting to slay each other? If Zai truly was your lover-"

"Oh, she was, Huntress."

"In that case, shouldn't we fight together instead of against each other? Don't we have common motivations and, yes, enemies?"

Miriam rolled her eyes and drew a long breath. Looking up towards the roof of the balcony, she shook her head as she slowly let it out. "My my, you certainly have a way with words. No, Huntress, my motivation is to avenge someone dear to me... and my enemy is you. Or rather, the bitch in the corridor. She desecrated this uniform," - Miriam tugged at her tunic - "when she disbanded the Black Lance, and for that alone, she deserves to feel pain. Put the wretched humiliation of Zai Allizadra on top of that and, well... it's an invitation for Death to come and sink His claws into her creamy skin, let's leave it at that."

"So that's your last word?"

"Oh no. I always have the last word," Miriam said and suddenly jumped forward with her dagger perfectly poised to strike.

Caid jumped away from the short wall and parried the initial thrust. She threw a punch aimed at Miriam's face with her free hand, but she missed by a fraction. The Yonnae machete glinted in the sunlight as it hurtled one way, then the other.

Miriam evaded the agile swings and went in deep like she had promised. She thrust out the dagger and penetrated Caid's off-white tunic, but the loose fabric had made her misjudge the direction and the force needed, and the tip of the blade only just grazed Caid's skin. Still, a triumphant grimace was plastered onto the Lieutenant's face as she pulled back and watched the tunic slowly turn red.

The Huntress knew she had to counter quickly, so she jumped into her opponent to trap the hand that held the dagger. She clenched her fist around the hilt of the machete and whacked her opponent across the brow, drawing her blood, too. She remembered to keep the other arm trapped tightly against her body to keep the dagger out of play, but what she hadn't counted on was Miriam's hobnailed boot finding its way upwards and onto her left thigh.

The stomp from the marching boot was merciless and Caid had to step back, hissing in pain. Roaring out her frustrations, she swung the machete through the air mere inches above Miriam's head. If her hair hadn't been so short already, it would have been after the swing.

Unseen by the fighters, Bronwyn had staggered into the doorway with the suede jacket fluttering around her body. Blood was still seeping down from her neck, though not as much as before. Her cheeks and forehead had red blotches from the coughing and the agitation, and it looked like she had trouble breathing. "Please... please stop... Caid... Miriam... please stop figh- fighting..." she croaked, but neither of the combatants had time to listen to her.

A strong coughing fit suddenly struck her and she had to double over as the series of hard coughs racked her already weakened frame. The coughing became harder and harder until she had to clutch her chest to stop her lungs from being torn apart. With red eyes and a burning red face, Bronwyn collapsed onto her knees. Her coughing, wheezing, rattling and moaning turned worse and worse until she had no more to give. Groaning, she fell down across the threshold to the balcony. A few more coughs racked her body, but then she became still.

Caid noticed first and nearly busted a vein at the sight of her beloved Bronwyn lying motionless on the cold floor. She broke off the fight at once and shuffled sideways to stay out of range of the dagger. Kneeling down, she pulled Bronwyn over onto her back and put a hand above her mouth. "She isn't breathing," she said hoarsely.

Miriam sheathed her dagger and threw her hands in the air with a mock snort of frustration. "Oh, isn't that just magnificent. She's dead and I didn't even get to run her through. Oh well. Perhaps I shall slice open her carcass from her tits to her cun-"

The roar that came from Caid's throat sounded like it was made by a much larger person - or even a wild animal. All her anger and hatred was channeled into the leap she performed from her starting point kneeling on the floor and into charging Miriam with the Yonnae machete ahead of her and ready to pounce.

Ferocious, unrestrained stabs, thrusts and swings rained down upon the Lieutenant who could only keep up with the lethal barrage for the first short minute - then, she was forced onto the balcony floor where she was pummeled by a non-stop barrage of fists, kicks and even rock-hard thumps using the hilt of the machete.

The fire of hatred burned brightly inside Caid, but as her fists were tainted more and more by the blood that seeped out of her opponent's thoroughly raw face, she slowed down and ultimately pulled back. She still didn't want to slay Miriam unless she had to, so after checking she was still breathing, she crawled over to Bronwyn who - quite clearly - wasn't.

Caid kneeled next to the prostrate Empress and stared in unbridled, wide-eyed fear at the bluish-red face. Bronwyn's eyes were partially closed and her lips had turned blue.

After frantically wiping off her bloody hands on her tunic so she wouldn't contaminate the Empress with foreign blood, Caid tried to pat Bronwyn's cheek in the hope of getting a reaction - but of course, she didn't.

The Huntress pulled back her lips in a frightened grimace. Moving away, she leaned down and put her ear to Bronwyn's chest to listen for a heartbeat. It was there, but it seemed to dance a highly irregular jig. The beats came seemingly at random, first one, then three in rapid succession, then nothing for several seconds until the sequence started over.

On the balcony, Miriam moved around to sit on her knees. She found the dagger she had lost in the brutal beating she had received and held it ready. Hissing in pain and with a face caked in fresh blood and a jaw trembling from the pains that screamed through her, she slowly got on her feet and began to shuffle towards the two women on the floor at the threshold.

When Caid noticed she was once again under threat, she let out a roar of anger and grabbed her machete that she had dropped next to Bronwyn's body. "You wretched daughter of a whore! Why don't you just give up? I beat you once, I'll beat you again!" she said and thumped the butt of the machete's hilt into the uneven stone floor.

"Black Death Cometh," Miriam slurred through her busted, bloody lips, "that means pride... honor... and fighting to the death."

Caid sneered so grotesquely she resembled the popular image of Phirax. Her hand slowly left Bronwyn's galloping heart as she climbed to her feet. "So be it," she cried and jumped forward with a face frozen in a mask of hatred. She was at the weakened Lieutenant's side in an instant and let the Yonnae machete fly down at the hand that held the Black Lance dagger.

The hand was cut off instantly, but even as Miriam screamed in pain and clutched the bleeding stump, Caid reversed the swing and brought the razor-sharp blade on a collision course with her opponent's neck.

A creepy, sudden silence fell over the balcony as Miriam's vocal cords were severed. Her body swayed for a moment before it crumbled and landed with a thud. The blood that flowed from the gruesome, gaping wound ran across the balcony floor until it ended up going down the drainage hole. By then, Miriam's head had already landed among the daffodils four floors below in the inner gardens.

"And thus it ends... wretched fanatic," Caid said and dropped the machete that glistened with Miriam's bright red blood.

With the threat finally defeated, the Huntress stormed back to Bronwyn and threw herself onto the floor next to her. Her condition hadn't improved, and Caid racked her brain to come up with a solution that would get her breathing again.

"Oh... oh, I beg for forgiveness for this vulgar and insensitive invasion, love, but..." Caid said and tenderly opened Bronwyn's jaw. Grimacing, she stuck several fingers into the opened mouth and rummaged around, but found nothing that could block Bronwyn's breathing to such an extent.

"Wretched... nothing. Ack... maybe... maybe if I tried to breathe for her," Caid croaked and leaned so far down her face hovered over that of her lover. With a deep breath, she closed her lips on Bronwyn's and tried to in- and exhale to get her lungs started again. When it didn't really work, she pinched Bronwyn's nostrils and tried again.

Little by little, step by step, Caid could feel Bronwyn beginning to respond under her tender ministrations, and yet it happened too excruciatingly slowly for her tastes. While she breathed into Bronwyn's mouth, she put her hand firmly on the Empress' heart to feel if it was coming back to normal. It was, but that too was going far too slowly for the impatient Huntress.

Suddenly, Bronwyn twitched and arched her back off the uneven floor. Another twitch followed and Caid nearly swallowed her tongue out of fear - but she kept on helping the Empress breathe just in case.

Moments later, Bronwyn popped her eyes wide open and let out a gasping moan that made Caid jump back at once so she wouldn't harm her partner through the breathing aid.

"Ack!" Bronwyn croaked, staring around in a wide-eyed panic. Wheezing and moaning, she slammed her eyes shut again and flailed her hands in the air as she tried to grab hold of something substantial. The most substantial items present were Caid's hands, and the Empress quickly captured them and gave them a strong squeeze.

Caid's face was whiter than a freshly starched sheet, and all she could do was to stare at the resurrected Bronwyn while the woman squeezed her hands to within an inch of their life. "Love...?" she croaked, completely forgetting to blink.

"Caid? Caid... I... ack... I-" Bronwyn said and eventually realized she would see better if she opened her eyes. When they were, and she had zoomed in on Caid's features that were frozen in terror, she finally relaxed and let out a long, heartfelt moan. "Oh, sweet Caid... what happened? I was- I was here and- Miriam! Where's Miriam?!" she cried, trying to look around for the Lieutenant.

"Dead. A head shorter and oh, so very dead," Caid croaked, still holding onto Bronwyn's hands. "Are- are you... are you back?"

"Back? I was gone? I d- do not remember much... only... I w- was standing on warm sand... bare feet... I s- saw Phirax before me... a heat haze shimmering in the d- desert... it was a most unpleasant experience," Bronwyn croaked and tried to sit up. "Oh, sweet Caid, I fear I am but a weakling. I need your hand simply to sit..." she continued and put out her hand in the hope the Huntress would help her.

Caid snapped out of her fright and shuffled closer to her lover to help her up. Groaning into Bronwyn's dark locks, she wrapped her arms around the trembling torso and held it close in a strong, yet tender embrace. "Please don't scare me like that, sweet Bronwyn... I cannot live without you, I thought you knew that... you gave me a terrible, terrible fright just now..." she said with her face buried in the crook of Bronwyn's neck.

"I beg for forgiveness, sweet Caid. I did not mean to yet again end up in trouble... it seems to want to find us, does it not? Even when we try to stay out of its way... it always finds us."

A small cough bubbled up from Bronwyn's aching chest, and she kept her hand firmly pressed to her lips to catch another fit in case it tried to attack her. Fortunately, the small cough was all that came.

Caid pulled back with tears streaming down her face. Unable to speak, she settled for nodding at her partner's words and began the feeble process of wiping her eyes that insisted on producing more tears to replace those that had been wiped away.

"Why, my strong Caid... are you crying? Please, love, do not cry," Bronwyn said and pulled Caid back into her arms. "I am the weak one among us... I am the one who cries. You fight for us and our freedom... you cannot cry."

Caid smiled wistfully and gave up the unequal struggle with the tears. "I am but a human being, love. I cry when something I love is taken away from me... but through the grace of our Lady Marpaxa, I was able to get you back. Perhaps I should start praying more often..."

They fell silent and were content with looking at each other. Then Bronwyn pulled Caid close and kissed her so soundly, so passionately and so thoroughly that everything else around them faded away into nothing. Closing their eyes, they fell into the kiss and simply surrendered to the sweet contact. Soon, their hands started wandering to places that were clawed and caressed with a clear promise of much more elaborate attention later on when things had settled down and yet another mess had been cleaned up.

On and on the kiss went until they were faced with the decision of either continuing to kiss or to return to regular breathing. They reluctantly chose to breathe, but they only separated far enough to rest their foreheads against each other's. They looked deeply into the shiny orbs of their partner and broke out in identical goofy smiles.

"I love thee, sweet Caid," Bronwyn whispered, trying to see if her tongue could extend far enough to tickle Caid's lips.

It couldn't, but the Huntress helped by closing the distance. "And I love thee, Bronwyn... Empress of Dinnigon, Tantor, Zigai, Multrovia, Lotzan-"

"Hush now, sweet Caid... I fear we do not have all day..."

Caid snickered and did the only thing she could - she began to kiss the Empress all over again to show how much she cared for her.

Many footsteps running towards them interrupted the kiss, and Caid helped the Empress upright and closed the dark blue satin bathrobe and the suede uniform jacket so she was presentable.

Kheo Khammon came storming around the closest corner with seemingly an entire company of soldiers from the regular army in tow. The large man came to a screeching halt when he saw Caid and the Empress leaning against each other in the poorly lit corridor. "Oy... Empress!? Are ya awright? Yer bleedin'!"

"Just barely all right, Sir Kheo," Bronwyn said and touched the abrasion on her neck. The bleeding had stopped but it was still sore. "Marpaxa and Caid Barlin were my glorious saviors on this day. I shall pray to one and thank the other somewhat more physically," she said, snuggling up to the Huntress.

"Where's the miserable rat who... oh..." Kheo said in a voice that trailed off when he looked out onto the balcony and saw Miriam's headless, bloody corpse. "Well, I guess the rat's kinda been taken care of, too..."

"Decisively so, Kheo. You can find the rest of her down in the gardens," Caid said and put a hand on the small of Bronwyn's back to let her know it was time to leave the damp, dark corridor.

Kheo scratched his bald head and then his foot-long beard. "I see. Yeah, couldden 've happened ta a nicer rat. Ah... Huntress... I wus... I'm gonn' apologize fer bein' such a stupid fool back there at the bedchamber... I shouldda known there wus somethin' wrong with that so-called maid there... and Empress, I beg fer fergiveness ta you, too. If ya want my resignation, ya-"

"I shall have nothing of the kind, Sir Kheo," Bronwyn said as she began the long, arduous trek back to the dining hall, tip-toeing along on the coarse floor. "But my friend, there is something you can do for me..."


"Would it strain your back too much if I asked to be carried back to the throne? I do fear the soft soles of my feet are none too pleased with walking on this wretched surface."

"Aw! Carry ya? Aw, ya betcha. Ya ain't weighin' half o' my Anna-Liese, an' I carry her 'round all the dang time now!" Kheo said and scooped up a squealing Empress like she weighed nothing at all. "Are ya comf'table?"

"Fully, Sir Kheo. Thank you."

"Awright... yer welcome. Here we go."


Back in the dining hall, Tawna hurriedly came to their assistance and helped Empress Bronwyn into the Imperial bedchamber to help her with applying a bandage and to fix her hair that had become rather tousled by the drama.

Caid decided to wait outside with the sentries to give Bronwyn a moment to recover. Chewing on her cheek, she put a hand on Kheo's shoulder to pull him aside. "Listen... Kheo... I'm sorry for yelling at you before. It was the anger speaking."

"Aw, no worries, Caid," Kheo said and rubbed his brow. "I know I fouled up but good that time... I deserve, Phirax, I demand ta get chewed up when I do somethin' asinine like that. I'm jus' happy nothin' bad happened ta the Empress. I don't know what I wus gonn' do if she hadden come back unharmed... or even at all."

"But she did, so let's not dwell on that," Caid said and put out her arm. After they had shook hands, she pulled the far larger man into a half-hug so she could whisper in his ear: "But if she had been harmed, I would ha' ripped ya a new one."

"Fair 'nuff," Kheo said with a grin.


A short half-turn of the hourglass later, Empress Bronwyn strode out of the bedchamber wearing a crimson, two-layered gown with white satin highlights. She had a white satin shawl over her shoulders and her hair had been done up magnificently with tasteful bangs and a few long tufts of hair hanging stylishly down the sides of her face. The only thing spoiling the ensemble was the white cotton bandage that had been fastened to her neck with a narrow band.

On her way over to the throne, she acknowledged Kheo, Commander Tarsi and General Brayden Mahawney while she gestured at Caid to come to her. At the same time, Aggraweine hurried into the dining hall with the Imperial staff.

Caid helped Bronwyn sit down on the opulent throne at the horseshoe-shaped table and received a wink and a little smile for her bothers. "Are you well, love? You are still quite pale," the Huntress whispered for Bronwyn's ears only.

"I am so very tired, sweet Caid. I cannot recall ever being this tired before. My ears are ringing... my head is swimming... yet, I shall be fine now that you are here with me. Thank you," Bronwyn said and smoothed down her gown and the shawl so it sat just right across her sculpted shoulders.

Aggraweine hurriedly approached the throne but remembered to go down into a deep bow before he reached it.

"Rise, Aggraweine," Bronwyn said and waved at her senior dignitary. "Sir Kheo, Commander Tarsi, General Mahawney, please come to the throne. I have an important announcement to make," she said loud enough for the three men to hear though they were standing behind the throne.

When everyone was in place, Bronwyn accepted the Imperial staff from Aggraweine and thumped it twice into the floor to mark the opening of the official business. "Though I will not condone such barbaric customs on a regular basis, I, Empress Bronwyn of Dinnigon and the surrounding lands and territories commands that an example is to be made of the traitor Miriam Connighen. On the day after the morrow, her headless corpse is to be hung from the outside of the battlements for all to see," Bronwyn said in a strong voice that proved the Empress and the Empire were both in good fettle. "The corpse is to remain there until further notice, and it shall wear her Black Lance uniform to give a clear message to those who have or have had similar plans that our glorious Empire will defend itself with all means necessary. Such is the command issued by the Empress Bronwyn of Dinnigon and the surrounding lands. It shall be thus."

Caid grunted inwardly as she looked at the dead-tired but determined look on Bronwyn's face.

When Bronwyn thumped the staff twice into the marble floor to end the official announcement, Caid, Kheo, Aggraweine, Kallirna Tarsi and General Mahawney - who was slightly less surly than usual - all bowed deeply to show they were ready and willing to carry out the commands of their Empress.




Two days later.

In keeping with the somber occasion, the weather had turned foul and the heavy, dark gray clouds that rolled across the leaden sky high above Ashburne Castle threatened to send a deluge down upon the group of people standing atop the battlements on the eastern side of the castle. Banners and standards sporting the old and the new coats of arms had been raised all along the battlements, and the stiff breeze made the flags stand out proudly.

Below in the walled city of Ashburne, hundreds of spectators had thrown caution to the wind - the last strains of the coughing illness were finally petering out - and were waiting for the gruesome event to start. As always, vendors hawking everything from sweet ale to the newfangled sausage-in-a-split-bun were walking between the rows of people with their kegs and trays. Artists working with charcoal and watercolor were creating commemorative sketches and drawings of the event to sell later as cheap mementos or proper collector's items, and a pair of lutists were walking among the spectators playing suitably somber music.

Bronwyn stood at the edge of the battlements wearing a neutral, gray gown with a matching bonnet that was pinned to her head with seven hairpins. The event's centerpiece, Miriam's body, was next to the Empress, lying on a slab covered by a sheet. Though the body had begun to smell quite poorly, the strong breeze removed most of the unfortunate scents.

When Bronwyn coughed lightly into a handkerchief, Caid came up behind her and put a supportive hand on the Empress' back. Bronwyn turned to her partner and offered her a weak smile. "I am fine, sweet Caid... my chest aches and I am still so dreadfully tired... but I am fine," she said, nodding somberly.

"My Empress, if it becomes too much for you to bear, please let me know. I shall escort you downstairs at once," Caid said for Bronwyn's ears only.

"Thank you. Alas, I cannot leave until the ghastly show is over."

"My offer stands, my love."

"I know," Bronwyn said with a faint smile.

Caid nodded and took a step back. "My Empress, we have learned a few details about First Lieutenant Miriam Connighen," she said in her regular voice since everyone on the battlements was a senior figure in the armed forces. "Though most of the Black Lance personnel records were destroyed during or following the upheaval at your coronation, it turns out she was part of the Barkóly Butchers, a special Black Lance unit whose members were responsible for terrible war crimes in a small Zigavian village three years ago during a brief uprising. The Commander of that unit was Zai Allizadra."

"Why am I not surprised?" Bronwyn said with a sigh.

"Indeed, my Empress."

"And my father protected them upon their return? Though I do recall hearing of the bloody peasant uprising in Zigai, the name Barkóly is new to me."

Caid lowered her eyes and looked at the body on the slab of stone. "My Empress, it is not my-"

"Tell me, Caid. Tell me now, and then never mention it again. Please," Bronwyn said and turned towards the Huntress.

"I fear your father decorated the members of the unit though he had been made aware of the atrocities they had committed, my Empress."

Bronwyn's face fell and she turned back to the magnificent view of Ashburne and the landscape beyond. On a clear day, it was possible to see out to the dark forests two leagues east of the city, but on this somber day, the cloud cover was too thick to see much of anything.

Sighing, Bronwyn turned away from the view and walked over to the senior officers who were lined up on the other side of the slab: Grand Marshal Kheo Khammon of the Imperial Artillery, Commander Kallirna Tarsi of the City Watch, General Gordain Arbuth and Lieutenant Deegan Arliss of the Imperial Cavalry, and the perpetually surly General Brayden Mahawney who represented the regular army.

"General Mahawney, you may commence the grim task," she said with a tired gesture at the surly man.

The General clacked his heels and bowed to the Empress before he waved at a group of soldiers who began the gruesome task of preparing the dead body.

When Bronwyn realized the preparation involved hammering large hooks into the chest of Miriam's body to keep it up - ordinarily, the dead bodies that were displayed on the battlements would be held up by a metal leash around their neck - she gulped down a sour surge and turned away. She hurriedly moved over to the Huntress and held out her hands in the hope they would be taken and given a thorough squeeze.

Caid duly took Bronwyn by the hand and shielded her from the view of the gruesome spectacle. Scattered commands were heard informing General Mahawney of the progress until the Sergeant in charge reported they were ready for the command.

General Mahawney saluted the man and walked around Bronwyn to face her. "My Empress, we are ready for your command."

"You may proceed, General Mahawney," Bronwyn said, studying the surly face of the elderly general instead of the awful sight of the broken, uniformed body lying on the slab behind him.

"Very well, Empress Bronwyn," he said and saluted her. Spinning around on his heel, he turned back to the Sergeant and relayed the order.

Soon, the slab was wheeled over to the battlements and the ends of the sturdy metal chains were connected to the top railing. Upon the order of the Sergeant, four soldiers picked up the body and dumped it over the side of the battlement. Moments later, the chains became taut and the sounds of oooohing and ahhhing wafted up from the spectators below.

General Mahawney walked over to the edge of the battlements and looked down. With a satisfied grunt, he returned to Bronwyn and saluted her again. "The orders have been carried out, Empress Bronwyn. The traitor is now on display," he said, and for once, the surly look on his face had been replaced by one that almost signaled some kind of twisted satisfaction.

"Thank you, General Mahawney," Bronwyn said in a voice that didn't sound like her own at all. "General, gentlemen... you are dismissed."

"Empress," the general said and executed a deep bow before he spun around on his heel and marched away from the battlements with Kheo, Deegan, Gordain and Kallirna Tarsi in tow.

Bronwyn kept standing at the battlements for a little while. She looked up at the dark gray clouds but soon closed her eyes and let the breeze and the spitting rain caress her face. The rain slowly intensified to paint black stains on her gray gown.

"Bronwyn," Caid said quietly and put out her arm. When Bronwyn didn't react, the Huntress walked over to her partner and put a tender hand on her back. "Let's go back inside, love. It's about to rain... and there's nothing more we can do here."

Bronwyn sighed deeply and turned to look at Caid with somber, even depressed eyes. She glanced down at the outstretched arm for a brief while before she hooked her own inside it, though she remained standing in the spitting rain.

"Caid, at the big parade at the spring maneuvers, I spoke to a young cadet from Kheo's First Artillery Training Company. Jannet was her name. She was originally from Tullaby... a small, rural village some distance away from here. She was strong, she was brave, she was... oh, she was young and impressionable. My greatest worry is that she and other young cadets like her will find mentors like Zai who will twist their minds and feed them hateful lies and propaganda. Indeed, show them the wrong way forward. And we cannot do anything about it!"

"Your concern is valid, Empress Bronwyn. It doesn't take much for the cadets to be lured in by charismatic senior officers. It happened to me, too. Kheo Khammon was my guiding light for several years, even if he felt more like an older brother than my superior. It is quite easily done... though, of course, with the Black Lance gone, perhaps we shall be spared further tragedies of such a scale?"

"Ack, I cannot say. I dearly wish so, but one never knows," Bronwyn said and rubbed her brow. "The other former Black Lance soldiers that Miriam worked with... the supposed monks... they have yet to be found, am I right?"

"To my knowledge, they have not yet been captured, that is correct."

"Which means they are still out there somewhere," Bronwyn said and cast a brief glance out over the city. "Perhaps plotting against us as we speak."

"Perhaps, but that is why we had this public event today, my Empress. To show our foes that we react with a clenched fist and not an open palm when someone threatens the Empire... please, Bronwyn," Caid said and took a firmer grip on the Empress. "The rain is increasing. You're still too frail to be soaked, so..."

They fell silent and strolled along the paved platform that ran along the battlement to get to the door. "Sweet Caid," Bronwyn said and pulled them to a halt despite the raindrops getting heavier. "I know this was the right thing to do... but... I have become my father, have I not? I wanted to close the dungeons and I have not. I wanted to reduce the burden of taxation on the citizens of Ashburne through the wealth created by the Natfarann gold, and I have not, because of some fiscal nonsense I have no insight into. And above all, I wanted to end these gruesome spectacles... and yet, I have just witnessed the corpse of a young woman so much like us thrown over the edge of the wall... headless and with two metal hooks hammered into her chest. My father would have loved this show... and that frightens me, sweet Caid. Frightens me to the core, it does."

"My Empress, you are nothing like your father," Caid said and held the door to the staircase closed so she and Bronwyn could have a moment alone despite the rain. "If I may be blunt, your father could be a sadist at times. He could be a brutal animal if the mood hit him. He was corrupt, he was greedy, he treated the staff like cattle. He whipped your mother to death... he whipped you, didn't he?"

Bronwyn nodded somberly.

"He was all that and a hundred things more... some of them so heinous I cannot describe them.. You're of his blood, yes, but you are none of those things. You're a kind, helpful, warm young woman whose sculpted shoulders bear a mountain of responsibilities that would break most other people of your age... or older, for that matter. Bronwyn, you are nothing like your father. Believe me."

"I wish I could, sweet Caid," Bronwyn said and turned into the wind and the spitting rain in the hope it would blow away her dark mood. Sighing, she turned back and placed a loving kiss on the surprised Caid's lips. "Come, love... let us go inside where it is warmer and drier."

Caid smiled and opened the door for the Empress. Once they were inside at the top of a stone stairwell, Bronwyn smoothed down her gown and shot her partner a sly smile while caressing the gold ring that never left her finger. "To speak of a more pleasant topic... at dinner tonight, I have decided that I shall make the grand announcement. There shall be a wedding at Ashburne Castle at the summer solstice festival! Oh, I know Tawna shall be so pleased."

"And the Cook shall be so aggrieved...!" Caid mumbled at the thought of the hot-tempered Harsomme creating and preparing dinner for the undoubtedly countless wedding guests.

"Ah, he shall be fine. He always is. You are not getting cold feet, are you, my beloved Caid?" Bronwyn said and moved up close to the Huntress so she could arrange the honey-blonde haystack back into something resembling a hairdo.

"Oh... well... yes... as a matter of fact, I am."

"You are? You are getting cold feet?!" Bronwyn said with a shocked gasp as she slammed her hands onto her bosom.

Caid grinned and pointed over her shoulder. "Well, the draft from the door is rather nasty..."

"Ack! Caid Barlin, you dreadful little scoundrel, you!" Bronwyn cried with a hand across her forehead to get the full effect. "Ack, you are far too clever for your own good! Ack! I fear I may have to punish you a little on this eve... yes, indeed, I fear I shall have to punish you... you must make sweet love with me for two turns of the hourglass instead of just one."

Moving her hands in a flamboyant gesture, Caid bowed deeply to her lover. "Your wish is my command, my Empress. It shall be a strenuous task, but I shall prevail... so sayeth I, the Huntress Caid Barlin," she said while looking down at her boots.

"You may rise, sweet Caid. Ah... let us see. Perhaps you shall meet your match on the eve of this suddenly quite promising day?" the Empress said with a solid wink.

Smiling broadly, Bronwyn hooked her arm inside Caid's and led the Huntress down the stone staircase.




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