Once more we venture into the world of Selene and Nix.

Disclaimer –
All the characters belong to Windstar and Zee.
There are same-sex couples running amok. If you don't like such things, please go elsewhere to read. This is a sequel, of sorts, to Selene and Nix, which should probably be read first.  Big thanks to our beta reader Packer.

Feedback always welcomeAdarkbow@yahoo.com or zeeamy@gmail.com

The Turning of the Wheel

Moriko lead the Alcen over the pass. It was cold, but it hadn't started snowing yet.

A small favor, she knew.

On the Alcen was a huddled figure hidden under a cloak. She couldn't believe it had been eight years. She had left and never looked back. So much had happened since then, that she didn't even really feel like the same person.

She struggled and almost slipped. This disturbed the sleeping bundle on her back and began to cry. Moriko winced, having the young baby's shrill cry so close to her ears. She stopped and shushed the child, her patience running thin, and she didn't want to kill the last heir to the southern throne.

An older looking Valdis wearily tilted back the hood of the cloak, coughing painfully for a few moments before she could speak. "They've been busy," she said hoarsely, nodding to the light that spilled out of the windows of the fairly impressive stone building that had been built at the top of the pass.

She looked at Valdis, happy to see the woman come out of her depression for a moment to speak to her. "Aye, they've been very busy. They look like..." She left the statement stillborn. They looked like the buildings Cassia had drawn.

Valdis looked so old now. The bloody coup that had occurred a week ago had wiped the woman of her spirit. They had argued, with Valdis wanting to go back and die in battle, trying to at least attempt to kill the ones who had murdered the royal family, the ones the guard had been sworn to protect.

Moriko felt hollowed out herself. Her friends were gone, murdered, but she had been given a task, and had promised Caron. So here she was, going back to a place that was once her home. Only she felt like a stranger. She wondered if anyone would recognize her now. Her hair was braided, the braids coming to her shoulders, Princess Caron having done it herself two days before the coup.

Her eyes looked older. She had seen battle, taken life, and nearly had hers taken. Starting at her eyebrow and going about an inch into her hair was a thick, white scar where an enemy's sword had just about cleaved her head in. Caron use to joke it made her look mad all the time. Caitlin said it made her look sexy and roguish. Now in the cold, it just ached.

The building was definitely an improvement over the small hut that had previously adorned the top of the pass. It was two stories tall, with a high peaked roof to keep the snow from piling up, and an attached stable building. As they drew closer, the large front door opened, spilling warm firelight out into the pass.

A woman in a warm looking robe stepped out of the door, waiting for them to draw closer. "Travelers!" she called over the howl of the wind. "Welcome to the Ellris pass. You are welcomed to spend the night in the abbey."

Moriko laughed. "It's an abbey now. Last I was here, only Ellris tended the pass in her little hut."

The woman, with the green eyes of a priestess, smiled. "I often wonder what she would think about our little building being here instead of her simple wooden hut."

Vladis leaned forwards in the saddle, almost falling off the Alcen's back in her weakened state. "You don't know what she'd think?"

The priestess sighed, folding her arms in front of her. "Our sister Ellris passed away several years ago. The pass is named for her now."

The southern guard closed her eyes and let her head fall forwards, the cloak hiding her expression from the world.

"Please, won't you come inside? The night wind will chill you to the bone. We have a fire and spare rooms." And added with a glance towards the woman on the Alcen, "And healers, if you wish."

Moriko coughed uncomfortably. Just what her friend needed, someone else she cared about to die. Finally, she grabbed the lead rope on the Alcen and started forward toward the abbey. "We would love to spend the night. Camping out in the cold with an infant is a horrible."

"You have a child!" The priestess looked delighted, calling behind her to a waiting acolyte to prepare for their guests. The Alcen had most of the stables to himself, with only two other Alcens for company. The abbey itself was warm, and the priestesses were quick to welcome and feed their guests. Valdis grudgingly allowed them to tend the sword wound on her back, then refused to speak to anyone as she sat by the fireplace.

They'd even managed to find some milk for the infant from the abbey goat. "You dress like southerners, yet your friend rode an Alcen," the priestess stated quietly as she watched the infant eat. They were seated in the main room, the priestess finally having sent the acolytes off to do their chores and stop bothering their obviously tired guests.

Moriko sighed sadly. "You may get more southerners coming up this way, escaping the south. There was a coup in the castle. The entire southern Royal family was murdered." She felt the tears slip from her eyes and down her cheeks. She gritted her teeth together and tried to push away the feeling of overwhelming sadness.

A warm cup of mulled wine was pressed into Moriko's hands. "It has been a long, hard road for you, then." The woman was perhaps a year or two her elder, but for an instant, she had the all knowing look all the Moon Goddess' priestesses somehow managed to pull off once in a while.

She took the wine and offered it to Valdis, only to have the woman ignore her. Moriko sighed and sipped the wine, smiling slightly as it warmed her. She reached over with her free hand and tickled the baby's stomach until she received a toothless grin. The child had a thick shock of blond hair that stood up no matter how much she tried to smooth it, and soft gray eyes.

The priestess studied them both, raising her own mug of wine to sip it. "What is the child's name?"

"Her name is Kai. It means the sea, her mother loved the ocean." She gritted her teeth and tried to ride out the wave of grief that rolled through her again.

A hand warmed from the cup of wine that it had just held clasped over Moriko's, lending silent support. "Come, I will show you to your rooms. You can rest, and tomorrow, you can make your way to the base of the pass. If you wish, you can take a boat from there to the Queen's Island, or follow the road."

"Thank you," she said.



The smithy was larger than it had been. A wall had been knocked down and a second kiln had been installed. It was almost full dark outside even though it wasn't that late, a warning that winter was not far away. Many of the trees had begun to change color, and there was a definite bite of cold in the air.

 Cassia smiled at one of the fire warriors who passed her in the street, probably in the city with one of their shipments of stone or steel that floated up the Winderling on the new larger ships.

The woman hummed to herself, happy with the day's work, as she ducked into the smithy itself, shaking her head as she spotted her mother by the forge studying a piece of glowing metal held between tongs. "Mom, I thought you weren't doing any work anymore."

Nix looked up with a smile. "Shhhh. Don't tell your Muanya." She winked and thrust the item into a bucket, and thick steam billowed out. "Sometimes I still feel the urge to create things, the metal and the fire just call to me." She pulled the item out of the water bucket.

"I'm working on a crib for that baby Kealey's carrying around. She's going to pop soon." Nix smiled wistfully. She had been there when Kealey was born, and now, the town's first pride and joy was having her own child. She set the now cool metal down and wiped silver bangs away from her forehead, leaving a smudge of black.

"I keep telling you to come see the buildings we're working on if you want to create things." The younger woman moved around one of the large anvils to see what her mother was making. "It looks great though. I take it Muanya doesn't know you're out here again?"

"Oh, it's your Muanya, I'm sure she knows. There's not much she doesn't. But she lets me pretend I'm getting away with something." Nix set down the tools and walked away from the forge. Sitting gingerly down on a chair, her knees popped and she grimaced. "I only make small things now. I can't swing the big hammers with the strength I used to have. I leave that for those strutting young pups. So what's up, pumpkin..?"

Cassia winced in sympathy as her mother sat down. Nix's once raven hair was nearly all white now. "We finished putting the roof on the new Inn today. It looks just like I thought it would. I wanted to see if you and Muanya would like to come see it?" She smiled hopefully, having so far gotten both of them to come see each building she'd helped finish.

"Of course we'll come see it." Nix beamed with pride. "You know, pumpkin, these buildings you created, I never, well, they're simply amazing."

Cassia tried to hide her beam at the praise, but she still glowed under her mother's praise.

"Did those books the twins sent up with that rather quiet scribe help you out?" Nix asked, trying to hide a smile as she remembered the socially awkward woman, with the premature silver hair.

Cassia nodded in excitement. "Ryuu is perfect. She knows where to find everything. You should see the books that she brought up with her. I just have to show her a picture of what I want to do, and she knows where I can find out how to make it."

Nix brightened a bit. She hadn't heard her little girl blather on about a woman in quite a while. "She's perfect, huh? You ask her over for dinner yet?" Nix asked, poking her nose into Cassia's business.

Rolling her eyes, Cassia sighed. "Moooom..." she drew out the word, "stop trying to get me to bring someone home for dinner."

"Cassia, I know we built a bigger house and let this become the permanent forge for the town smith, but sooner or later, your Muanya and I expect you to move out into a place of your own, maybe even give birth to a future Princess as well," Nix said with a chuckle as Cassia's face got even redder.

"What? Why do I have to give birth to the future princess?"

"Well, your partner could, but that's not going to happen either, Œcause you refuse to notice all those looks the women around the town give you," Nix said with a sigh. "Honey, we want you to be happy. I know what Sable did was a crappy thing to do, but it was eight years ago. It's okay to have a little fun. You're twenty four, I think it's allowed."

Cassia laughed, taking a hold of her mother's hand and helping the taller woman stand. "I can't believe you just told me to go have fun. Wasn't it just a little while ago that you were yelling at me for wanting to get married?" Their old house was now the home to the full time smith. Their new house was a bit further away, and definitely an improvement, as far as Cassia was concerned.

Nix kissed her child's forehead and stepped back. "Pumpkin, that was eight long years ago, my hair is silver, and my joints hurt. And you are now a smart, lovely woman, instead of a pain in the ass teenager. Things change."

"I was never a pain in the ass teenager," the youngster laughed, wrapping an arm around her mom's side and giving her a hug. "Come on, I'm sure Muanya is waiting for us for dinner."

Nix followed her daughter out of the smithy, letting the subject drop. Her daughter was beautiful, smart, and driven. The town was improving in leaps, and slowly, her wife was letting Cassia take more and more responsibility, which made the retired smith happy. She loved sleeping in most mornings now with her wife. The new rule was, if there was a problem before noon, Cassia could handle it.

But ever since the called-off wedding, Cassia never had an eye for the ladies, seeming utterly driven to build her buildings, and learn what her Muanya did as a ruler. Nix wasn't so sure that was healthy.

"Besides, if I moved out, you'd miss me interrupting those early morning romantic moments that you and Selene sometimes have," Cassia said, with a mischievous look up at her mom.

Nix blushed. "Honestly, no, I can't say I'd miss those."

Snickering, Cassia waved to a few of the women who looked their way curiously as they walked down the street. "I can't wait until we can line the streets with stone. Imagine how much cleaner that will be." They made a detour around a muddy patch. That would have to be a project for later, there was only so much stone that they could quarry at a time.

Nix nodded, "After winter we'll get these paved roads started. I will admit it will be nice not to get those carts unstuck in the muddy season."

The house they headed towards was much larger than the one they had once lived in, and was made of stone. The thick stonewalls and large fireplace helped insure it stayed warm during even the coldest of winters. Light streamed out through the windows. That was another innovation from the south, glass to make windows from. It was definitely an improvement over the thin hides that had been used.

"Dinner first..." She held open the door, breathing in the nice smells from inside.



Moriko awoke in the dark, fear drumming frantically on her heart, and sweat dotting her skin, soaking her night shift to her body. She checked on Kai. The baby slept peacefully, worn out by the cold, frantic struggle to get out of the south and up the pass. They had bypassed the trail to Abnoa, Valdis having felt certain the advisors dark-eyed spies would be watching that trail.

Watching the babe in the dark with only the light from the stars, gave her a sense of peace, and she felt the nightmare that clutched her recede. "You won't remember what happened, but I'll tell you everyday, so you'll know how brave your mom was. The coup was just the middle to this story. Someday your children's children will sit back on that lovely throne of Keshet's, and then the story will really be over,' she whispered softly, not wanting to wake Valdis, the poor warrior needing what rest she could get.

"I think the story begins,' she started again, "when the Royal advisor to Keshet suggested that the Queen and the twins go to the north on a Royal goodwill trip. I think it was in Keshet's absence that the Royal Advisor wanted to test the future Queen, Brody, and see if she would be malleable to the advisor's way of thinking. By the time Queen Keshet returned, this advisor had found out that Brody was much too stubborn, and in general, had a good heart, which was not what the advisor wanted at all. So she started on Plan B. A petty noble in Thullis, which is a horrible pit of slavery and vice, so you, young lady, should never go there, this petty noble, while verbally praised the Queen, in her heart she wanted the Queen's blood.'

 She rearranged the blankets. "The advisor nurtured this anger and hatred, slowly laying the groundwork for Alina to take the throne.' She paused and cleared her throat. Kai still slept, oblivious to the story Moriko told.

"The advisor had Eira join the Royal Guards soon after the Royal family returned from the north. Valdis' mom, Penka, quit in disgrace that her actions had put the royal twins in danger. Everyone knows she was set up. She stayed on in the manor as a trainer, and she trained the young warriors to be fighters. But more and more of the new recruits had these scary black eyes and serpent tattoos. You must remember to watch out for women with such marks, Kai, those are the marks of the Goddess of Shadows. And she is a Goddess of dark deeds and black hearts.'

Moriko yawned, but continued on. "Now, you probably want me to get to the part with your mom. I came to the south with the Royal family. Why I left the north isn't that important, it's actually kind of silly now. Too many teenage hormones and a need for drama is all I'll say on it. Keshet was kind and let me stay at the Royal manor, but I couldn't just sponge off of them, I had to earn my place. Valdis was very patient as she tried to teach me to wield a sword, but even a daughter of the War God couldn't make me a soldier. So, to make a long story somewhat short, let's just say that after trying various things, I found my place in the stable taking care of the warhorses. Caitlin, Caron, and I were close, and only got closer as the years went by. I often times went out with the army, taking care of the horses and dogs. And I'll admit I saw more than enough bloodshed, and sometimes I was safe away from battle, but most of the time I wasn't. That's how I got my scar, some petty wannabe noble with a plan to burn the horse tent down. I was sleeping in there and woke up. We wrestled, and she tried to cleave my head open. Lucky for me Valdis was wandering home from a night, um, err, well, you're too young for such things. Anyway, she came in and saved my life, pushed that woman away so I only got nicked, would have been dead otherwise. So I owe her my life. Sorry for the rambling road there, but I wanted you to know where I fit into all this. "

"Your mom, your aunt, and I were all real close, if things had gone differently, you might have actually been mine. Your mom and I were really close for awhile, but then something happened and she told me she thought we made better friends. It hurt, but I got over it. She fell in love with some ship builder in Lucin, and that is where you came from. Your mom just had to visit when she did, although knowing that bitch, the advisor, she was waiting for the moment the entire Royal family was together to strike. Your mom was so brave. She made me promise to get you out alive, and it broke my heart when she took your blankets and ran across the courtyard pretending to hold you. For a moment I thought she might make it, took all those two-faced bastards by surprise. I guess that's what I wanted you to know, how much she loved you, and what she gave up so we could be here.' She stroked the soft cheek with her finger then went back to her bedroll.

She could still see them stabbing the swords into Caron's body over and over again. She had run to the stable and grabbed her Alcen, Oscar. He had been a gift from Crow. The only time the woman had visited, she had brought him as a fawn. They had stormed out of the stable, taking the invaders by surprise, many of them having never seen an Alcen before, and were quickly cut open by his dangerous horns. That was probably the only reason they had escaped. Kai had been so quiet she had been afraid the baby had been hurt in the desperate fight. But Kai was just fine.

They hid in the woods for the rest of the night, and then the next day, not moving until the sky started to go dark again. She found Valdis strung up along the road with a few other warriors that had been loyal to Keshet. Only because of her divine heritage was the woman still alive. But Moriko hadn't known, she looked just as dead as the rest.

Not wanting to leave her friend's body for the animals, she had cut it down, only barely hearing the smothered groan of agony. Her hands were broken, and she had been stabbed multiple times and was covered in blood and dirt, yet she lived. Moriko had done what she could. They hid in a small temple dedicated to the War God until Valdis had tried to grasp a sword and rush back to the manor.

It had ended badly, with Kai crying, Moriko spitting blood, and Valdis passed out. It was then that she decided to make a break for the north. There was nothing good left in south, and she had a promise to keep to Caron.

She rolled over on her side, knowing sleep was far away, but watching for the sky to lighten.



Bloodshot eyes stared at the bridge that hadn't been there before. The wood looked weathered, but strong and sturdy.

She was tired, and all she really wanted was a hot bath and a warm bed. She was sick of changing and washing out diapers, and tired of sullen warriors who couldn't even speak two words to her. "We're almost there, I think. This used to be where the ferry was, but now there's a bridge," she said to nobody, not really expecting a reply.

She kissed the fuzzy blonde hair under her chin. Kai was strapped to her front so the cold wind at her back would not hit the child. "I can't wait until you can speak," she mumbled.

Valdis had insisted that Moriko ride the Alcen down from the pass, saying that she was well enough to walk.

A small building had replaced the one that the ferry owner had lived in, this one built from stone and had a small garden planted in front of it. A woman looked up from harvesting the last of the garden's herbs to dry before the winter and wiped sweat from her face. She waved to the strangers as she spotted them, taking a break from her work.

"Hail, travelers," the woman in the garden called out. "You're in luck. The new Inn is open, if you're looking for a place to stay."

"Really, a new Inn, what happened to the one that Valla and Kelsey ran?" Moriko asked, slowly getting down from the Alcen.

"Valla and Kelsey?" the woman frowned. "Well, their daughter, Kealey, is running it now with her wife. The old one burnt down after the chimney caught fire last winter, so the Princess designed a new one for them."

Her legs wobbled and she realized how exhausted she was, but after a second she was fine. That made her pause, happy that Cassia had followed her dreams. She coughed then cleared her throat, "How far to the Inn?"

The woman pointed towards the island, "Just over the bridge, go straight past the temple of the Goddess and you'll find it on the other side of the main street. They should have plenty of room, not too many travelers with winter coming."

"Thank you." Not feeling like remounting Oscar, she took the lead from Valdis and started walking over the bridge. Their footsteps sounded odd on the wood, but they disappeared quickly under the noise of rushing water. The first thing she noticed was the packed dirt trail turned into smooth cobblestones, and the next were the buildings.

She sucked in a breath and stopped moving. "Goddess," she breathed out.

 Valdis looked up from her contemplation of the river, letting out a breath as she saw what had startled Moriko. "They've been busy." Gone were the simple wooden buildings that had made up the town. There were more buildings now, and almost all of them were now made of stone.

The temple to the Goddess was the tallest, although its main dome was still being built. Another large building was under construction at the other side of the island, opposite the temple, although only the foundation was being worked on.

"Yes, they have." She made her legs start moving, and Kai awoke and started fussing. "Sh, sh, there, there, please, for the love of the Goddess, don't start crying, or I may have to join you."

Moriko may have practically raised her four other sisters, but she never had to travel over the pass in the fall wind with them, feeling hungry and tired.

With a wince, Valdis slowly started to follow after the other woman, her face expressionless as they crossed onto the street. There were more people about than when Moriko had left, although still by far less than in any of the southern cities.

"No guards," the older woman remarked, not entirely surprised after her first visit years before.

"No, there aren't. I guess they still don't really need them. But unfortunately, I think with us being here, that will change. That advisor wants all the royal blood. I doubt she'll rest until she gets it. I'm surprised she's not up here already making demands. It's no secret how much she hates the north," Moriko said, kissing Kai's head. "Lets find that Inn, there's a whole mountain pass where I want to wash off my body.'

The inn was right where the woman by the bridge had said it would be. The same old wooden panel hung outside from the old Inn, but that was where the similarities ended. The front had good quality glass windows, and a full stable was set up next to it.

Moriko handed the Alcen to the young stable girl and made her way to the front doors. "Do you want to continue to share a room, or would you like one of your own?" she asked the soldier.

The southerner paused, sighing as she considered her answer. "I should be close to the princess," she nodded towards Kai, one of the few times she'd actually acknowledged what had happened.

Moriko just nodded and made her way inside. "I'll get us a room, then. Do you mind watching her I really want a hot bath?" She looked hopefully at Valdis, hoping that playing nursemaid/guard to Kai would get the soldier to snap out of her mood.

It was hard. All Valdis wanted to do was withdraw into herself as she had for the entire trip north and ignore everyone. She managed a short nod, agreeing to her new role. If she couldn't die fighting against the usurpers, at least she could keep the true heir to the throne safe.

Moriko wasn't surprised that she wasn't recognized, since she had been a quiet, shy girl who would only talk to animals, not people. She quickly got a room and left Kai and Vladis to get settled.

The youngster who was tending the bar directed Moriko to the bath house that had been built down the street. The long, low building ensured that everyone who wanted to could have a hot bath, even in the depths of winter.

Moriko smiled at the design, and merely stood and stared around at the inside of the building. The attendant at the front just smiled at the woman, "Your first time here?"

"Um, no, well, yes. I guess. This wasn't here when I left home eight years ago."

The woman just smiled and nodded. "Yes, Goddess praise that Princess of ours, she has quite the head on her shoulders. She designed this."

Moriko just smiled and took the offered towel then entered the common bathing area. Privacy wasn't a big deal to her, she had grown up in a small house with four other sisters. And when in a battle camp, well, privacy was a thing of legend.

She was happy to see only four other women using the area, and quietly slid into the shallow, warm water. It was all she could do to hold back a groan of pleasure. For the time being, she ignored the thick, brown soap and the course washrag, content to just sit and soak.

The central bath was ringed by smaller baths that were isolated from the main one with simple curtains to give a measure of privacy. Several of the curtains were drawn across the opening, indicating that they were in use. Others were open, and a few attendants moved through the room, cleaning up and bringing things to the bathers.

From the closest of the semiprivate rooms, two voices could be heard talking about shipbuilding and current trading prices for goods such as wheat and wood. One of those voices was familiar although it had changed from the high-pitched teenage voice it had been years ago.

Moriko did let out a groan and sat up. "Of all the people to run into," she mumbled then grabbed her soap and cloth and started to quickly clean herself. She had waited years to hear the Royal wedding announcement, but it had never come.

Finally, she had asked the twins about it, and they had rolled their eyes at her. "They didn't get married," was all Caitlin had said. When she had pressed for more details, they told her to write a letter to Cassia if she wanted to know what was going on in the woman's life.

She had about a dozen letters that she had never sent.

"We're going to need another big barge to keep bringing all that stone into the city if she's really serious about all those new buildings. I think that the fire warriors are going to have to open a new quarry just for this new castle she's building. Sable's voice carried as the two women behind the curtain stood up, preparing to leave the bathhouse.

Her companion responded. "We could always buy some smaller ones from the southerners. We'll have to wait to summer to sail them north though, the ocean crossing is always tricky."

A moment later, the two stepped out, pushing the curtain open. Sable was still toweling dry her hair and didn't notice Moriko, until she lowered the towel and paused, staring at Moriko as if trying to place her face.

"Good luck getting anything from the south," Moriko muttered before she could stop herself, instantly feeling her face heat up.

She busily went back to cleaning herself, ignoring the woman staring at her. Sable annoyingly looked even better as she got older, Moriko couldn't help but notice.

Sable's companion paused, realizing she wasn't following, and turned back to look at the two of them curiously. Sable and her companion had the bronzed skin of people who spent their time outside. Where Sable was still tall and thin, her companion was smaller and more muscular, long hair tied up behind her in a simple braid.

"Do I know you?" Sable asked with a smile, obviously still trying to place Moriko's face.

Moriko looked up at Sable. It was on the tip of her tongue to lie, but instead, said, "I see you finally had a thought that was your own." She nodded at the woman at Sable's side.

The confused look cleared, "Moriko?" She stared at her as if she were seeing a ghost. At that, her companion moved closer, possessively wrapping an arm around Sable's waist.

Moriko looked down at the water. "Um, yes..." She awkwardly stood, grabbing her towel and wrapping it around herself.

The other woman looked a little uncomfortable as well. "Welcome back." She hesitated. "Moriko this is Sonia, my wife."

"Really..?" Moriko looked confused. "I thought...errrm, when I left..." She left her awkward attempt to make a sentence. Instead, she held out her hand, "Nice to meet you."

The shorter woman grabbed it and gave it a hard shake. "So you're the famous Moriko."

"Famous?" Moriko looked at both women confused.

Sable smiled weakly, grabbing her wife's arm to stop her from saying anything more. "She just means she's heard a lot about you." She started to back away, seeking to make her escape. "You know, we've all told stories about that girl who could talk with animals and got me to realize I wasn't meant to be with Cassia."

Sonia was staring at her wife in obvious confusion as Sable babbled.

"It was nice to meet you!" Sonia managed to get out before Sable pulled her out the door.

The blonde just blinked, getting even more confused, and watched them leave. She dropped the towel and slid back into the water.

The four other women who were in the central bath watched her with obvious interest, talking quietly to one another as they stayed at the opposite side of the pool from Moriko.

Feeling uncomfortable with the attention, she quickly finished washing and exited the bathhouse.



Moriko looked over at Valdis. "I know you want to go out and pout in the woods, but I need you to watch the little Princess. I want to go talk to Selene."

The warrior looked up from where she was checking the edge of her sword then reflexively looked over to check on the infant. After waking them up before dawn to demand food, the little one was now thankfully, taking a nap. "Fine..." She looked back down at her blade.

She wanted to talk to Selene so the Queen knew what had happened. The north was slow to get information from the rest of the world that had been created by the women of the Exodus. She rolled her eyes at the warrior's flippant response.

"I need you to change her and feed her. After I talk to the Queen, I'm going to see what I can do to secure more permanent lodging. We can't stay here too much longer. What money we have will run out."

She finished lacing her leather boots, and stood up, grabbing a warm fur-lined winter cloak. While the snow still hadn't fallen yet, the days were now very cold.

"I'll take care of her," Valdis answered, not looking up from an imagined nick that she had found in the blade.

Moriko frowned at the door. "Okay. I'll be back as soon as I can." She opened it and left their room. Quietly, she slipped down the stairs avoiding most of the small staff of the Inn.

They had to leave the Inn soon, not because of the money, but because of the memories. She hadn't known that during the brief stay of the southerners in the north, Vladis had been courting Keasly in her own way. Having comeback to find Ellis dead and Kealsy happily married and expecting had sent the warrior on another sharp downward spiral of depression.

It was early, the sun having just begun to rise above the horizon, and the streets were still relatively empty. Only those who had to be were out in the coldness of the early morning. The wind carried the smell of snow on it, promising the arrival of winter soon.

Moriko frowned as she stared at what had once been the family home of the Royal family, now it was just a smithy.

The door to the house opened and a stranger stepped out, stretching and yawning as she started towards the smithy. "Morning," the woman called to Moriko, stopping at the entrance to the smithy. "You looking for me?" She wasn't as big as Nix, but she had the build of someone who worked with metal all day.

"No, I was...this used to be the Royal family's house. You don't happen to know where I can find them, do you?" she asked.

The smith rubbed a hand through her close-cropped hair. "They built a new house after Nix let me take over most of the smithy work. It's a bigger house, stone, nice and warm for the winter."

Moriko blinked in confusion.

The smith pointed north "You head towards the castle, and you'll find it near the baker's place. You can't miss it.' The smith started to duck into the smithy to start up the furnaces then stopped. "If you see her, tell Nix that she can finish off her piece whenever she wants."

"Castle?" she frowned, looking in the direction the smith pointed. "Alright, I'll let her know." She started down the path the smith had pointed out, hoping she would know a castle when she saw it. Once she figured out that the huge stone foundation that was being built was to one day be a castle, she easily found the royal house.

She stood outside, staring at the place, which was much larger than their old place. She paced, wondering if she was too early, maybe she should have waited until later in the day.

"Can I help you?" a voice suddenly asked from just behind Moriko.

She turned her head, looking at the speaker. "No, I was just here to talk to the royal family." Her brown eyes studied the woman in front of her. "You look familiar."

The woman was just as tall as Moriko, with intelligent blue eyes and pure silver hair loosely pulled back behind her ears. She was dressed in elegant dark leather clothing that contrasted with her pale skin and hair. In one hand she held a thick, leather book that was bulging with papers. "I don't believe we've met before," she said, her accent not one that Moriko had heard before.

Moriko frowned in thought while she tried to place the woman. "I'm Moriko," she said, finally.

"Ryuu," the woman replied then nodded towards the house. "If you wish to speak to the royal family, I have an appointment with them right now to review the plans."

"Oh..." Her posture drooped. "If you have an appointment, I guess I can comeback later." ...If she had the courage to try and do this again.

Quick blue eyes studied Moriko's face. "Why don't you just come inside with me now? I just need a few minutes before I have to go back to the construction site."

She blew out a breath. Relenting, she nodded, "Okay.'

Ryuu nodded and quickly walked up to the front door. Without knocking, she opened it and held it open for Moriko to follow her inside.

The house was warm and smelled of baking bread, which caused her stomach to growl. Embarrassed, she held her hand over her stomach.

The other woman smiled for the first time at that, and made a detour to the kitchen to grab a fresh piece of bread. "I'm sure Selene won't mind," she said, offering it to Moriko. "Come on, she's probably upstairs." The silver-haired woman started up the main staircase.



Nix looked over at her wife. "Honey, it's before noon, let Cassia handle it. Remember that was the agreement. Besides, it's probably a builder or worker for her anyways," Nix said, trying to be reasonable.

Selene hesitated halfway to their bedroom door. She'd heard Ryuu's voice, along with someone else's, which meant they had a visitor. And on reflex, she had started to get up to greet whoever it was. "You're right." Selene turned around and climbed back onto the bed. "Cassia can get us if it's something important."

Nix just nodded. "Finally, after all these years you start to listen to me." She wrapped her arms around her wife, hugging her.

The Queen laughed. "I always listen to you."



Ryuu led Moriko up the stairs, past a window that dominated the upstairs hallway and was obviously positioned to let in the morning sunlight, to the first room on the right. She rapped twice, waiting for a voice from inside to call out before opening the door and stepping into Cassia's room.

Moriko blinked in surprise, not expecting Cassia. "Where's Selene?" she asked, almost panicked. Had the woman died or been hurt?

"Ryuu, I had some thoughts about the library last night. We could..." Cassia trailed off as she spotted the visitor standing behind the silver-haired woman. When Cassia continued to stare without answering, Ryuu sighed and turned to answer for her. "Cassia handles things before noon unless there is an emergency."

"Oh," was all Moriko managed to say. Cassia looked good. She had grown into an adult woman beautifully.

"I brought back your sketch book." Ryuu pressed the thick book into Cassia's hands. "I'll see you this afternoon." She turned and started to leave. It might have been Moriko's imagination, but she might have winked at her before closing the door behind her.

She swallowed a couple of times trying to coat the dryness that had suddenly overtaken her mouth and throat. "I need to talk to the Queen," she said dumbly.

"Moriko..." Cassia was well aware that they were staring at one another like idiots. "I...didn't know you were back," she finished, wincing at how stupid that sounded. She'd imagined Moriko returning for so long and pictured hundreds of different ways they could have met again, none of them involved the other woman simply walking into her room.

"Valdis and I got into town yesterday." She felt like a teenager again, all awkward and gawking. She blew out a breath and nervously brushed a few braids behind her ear.

"Oh." Cassia shook her head. "Sorry, you wanted to see the Queen?" This could rank getting Selene for. "Did the twins send you?"

There was a flash of pain in her brown eyes. "In a way, I guess. I... Cassia, something horrible has happened." Unshed tears watered her eyes. "I really only want to tell this once, can we get your parents, please?"

A tight feeling settled in the pit of Cassia's stomach. Quickly, she nodded and led the way back out of the room. "They should be in their room. I haven't seen them yet this morning." She knocked on the door to the master bedroom.

Moriko followed, trying to focus on what she needed to say, her brain frantically trying to figure out the best way to say it. Her mouth was dry again.



Inside the room, Selene sighed and sat up from where she'd been trying to enjoy some quality snuggling time with her wife. "I guess it's serious. Come in!" she called, getting out of bed.

"You have a visitor," an unusually subdued looking Cassia announced, stepping inside then out of the way so that Nix and Selene could see who was following her.

Nix blew out a breath and slowly got out of the bed, running a thick hand through her hair trying to get it under control. She blinked as light spilled into the room and studied the woman who followed her daughter in.

"Moriko," Selene smiled at the girl, no, a woman now. She'd obviously grown into womanhood during her time in the south. Crossing over to her, she took both of the other woman's hands in hers to greet her, frowning when she noticed the faint tremor in them. "What is it? Something's happened, hasn't it?"

Cassia stood off to the side, arms crossed, full of conflicting emotions at Moriko's sudden appearance. Glancing towards her mother, she offered Nix a faint smile. "Sorry, she asked to see you both."

Moriko nodded and swallowed a couple of times. "I always meant to return home. I just didn't want to come bearing such bad news." She coughed and cleared her throat. "Something horrible has happened to the southern Royal family. They were attacked, a coup at the palace, everyone was murdered." She could feel a few tears escape down her cheeks.

Everyone froze at that, staring at Moriko in shock. They'd known something must have happened, but this was worse than they'd expected. The two royal families had stayed in touch over the past several years. Selene had been comforted by that connection to those in the south. Cassia was staring at Moriko, mouth open in shock. Selene gently squeezed the other girl's hands "I'm sorry. What's happening in the south now?"

"The royal advisor, I'm sure she is involved somehow." She shivered, remembering the woman dressed all in black with the cold, dead eyes. "I'm not certain, I was in the stables taking care of the horses, we had just returned from a campaign to put down a minor rebellion. I had finished what I could, leaving the rest for my stable hands when I returned to the manor. There were sounds of battle and of the dying. I recognized the colors of a minor noble lady Alina. Her women were attacking the Queen's warriors."

She paused, taking a breath, her stomach rolling as she remembered the smell of blood and the screams of the dying.

"Most of the troops were already tired and had their thoughts on warm food and a bed, and the troops that were fresh in the manor, many were double-crossers. Eira led them against all of them with black, soulless eyes like the advisor, followers of the Mistress of Shadows. I made my way up the servants' stairs to the twins' rooms. I ran into Caron. She said her sister was dead. We ran back down the stairs." She paused again, unsure what to say in regards to Kai.

"We were separated, and I watched them kill her. I ran to the stable and got my Alcen, and I will admit I ran away like a coward." She stared out the single window in the room, not wanting to see their faces. She couldn't deal with pity or the sorrow of others right now.

"I hid until the next morning. I found Valdis, left for dead. We hid for a few days then made our way here," she finished softly, feeling worn out. "I wanted you to know. I'm not certain what that murderer has in mind, but she's probably crowned herself Queen. And the advisor has never made a secret of how much she loathes the north. I didn't want to you be blindsided."

There would be time to mourn soon, for good friends who were now dead. "Moriko..." Selene waited until she had the other woman's attention again, "thank you for warning us." She looked over at Cassia, meeting the young woman's stunned look. "Cassia, make sure that they have what they need. Then go get all the family leaders, we're going to need to tell them what's happening. We better send word to Abnoa, also."

Moriko nodded. "Trust me, I wish I wasn't here right now telling you this. I wish it had never happened." She turned, feeling unsteady, like the first time Valdis and her troops had gotten her drunk. "I'll leave you to your business."

Within a step, Cassia was there to take her hand, steadying her. "I've got you," she whispered, holding on even when Moriko started to pull away. "Come on, I'll walk you back to the Inn. Is that where you're staying?" Valdis was with her; it would be nice to see the roguish woman again.

Moriko nodded, a small grin breached her lips when she couldn't pull away from Cassia's grasp.



Once they were outside, the cold wind felt good and she felt herself become more grounded in reality. Sometimes the memories of what had happened were still too strong, and she felt herself taken over by them still. She studied Cassia as they walked towards the Inn. "You look good, Princess. Womanhood has been kind." She flushed, realizing what she had said sounded like she was flirting.

Smiling, Cassia slowly let go of the hand she'd been holding once they were outside. "You look good, too. I like your hair like that." That wasn't the only part that Cassia thought looked good. She'd filled out quite nicely in interesting places.

The smile died as she remembered why the other woman had come north, which hadn't been to come visit her. "I'm sorry," she said as they stepped out into the street. "I promised myself I'd tell you I was sorry if I ever saw you again, so there it is...I'm sorry."

Moriko looked at her puzzled. "Cassia, I'm not certain what you feel you need to apologize for, but whatever it was, it's the past." She missed Cassia's hand, but didn't know how to take it without looking silly. But for a brief moment, she felt connected to another woman, and everything didn't seem so overwhelming.

She cleared her throat. "The buildings look amazing. I was speechless when I crossed that bridge thing and saw them."

The smile came back at that, and Cassia looked undeniably proud. "I'm glad you like them. I can't wait to show you the drawings for the castle to see what you think of those. Ryuu's been helping me with the actual engineering part, which is good, because I really didn't know anything about engineering at the beginning. Do you know how hard it is to get huge stone blocks to stand up in an arch?"

"No, not really, I can say that's something I've never thought about." She grinned slightly and bumped her shoulder into Cassia's.

The smile disappeared a bit at the way Cassia talked about Ryuu. "I'm glad she could be helpful."

"I think my parents would be happy if I decided to date her." She gave Moriko a sly grin. "Too bad I don't like her like that.'

"Oh," she said sadly then followed it with a happier, "Oh." She looked at the foundation that would one day be a castle. "Speaking of dating women, I ran into Sable at the bathhouse. Now, the twins told me there was no wedding, but imagine my surprise when she introduced me to her wife, and it wasn't you."

Cassia grimaced at that memory. "Speaking of things that are in the past..." she sighed, both of them pausing to allow a cart loaded down with slabs of rock, and pulled by several Alcens, to rumble past them, "...turns out that she fell in love for a Boat Wright."

Moriko reached over and gently touched her elbow. "That must have hurt, I'm sorry." For the longest time her parting meeting with Sable had hurt because Sable had been spending the night in Cassia's room and had seen her go into the barn from Cassia's window.

"It's for the best. I'd convinced myself that I loved her." She smiled sadly then started to walk once the road was clear again. "What about you? I know Caitlin liked you."

Moriko stumbled as they started walking again. "Errm, no...Caitlin and I never did anything." She easily caught up. "Caron and I..." She swallowed as the pain loomed up and she saw Caron murdered before her eyes. "...we, um, for awhile then she decided we made better friends. It hurt, but I survived. She married a Merchant Sea Capitan from Lucin, they had...they were very happy."

"You and Caron..?" That was a surprise, a bitter one at that. Cassia forced a smile, glad that they were almost to the inn. "I'm glad you enjoyed your time in the south, then. I always wondered how you were doing. All the twins would say in their letters was that you were fine." It still hadn't hit yet that they were both gone.

"They wouldn't tell me about you. Caron said if I wanted to know how you were doing I should go and ask you myself." She reached up and lightly grabbed Cassia's shoulder, to stop her. If they got to the Inn, then they would have to say their goodbyes. "Cassia, I'm sorry. I wrote you a dozen letters that I never sent. I'm sorry I let teenage hormones build everything up until it was more important than it really was. The truly sad thing was...I had told Keshet I was leaving in the summer. I was going to return home. I missed a lot of things here in the north."

Cassia turned to face the other girl, tilting her head to one side as she watched the early morning sunrise highlight the other woman's features. "I'm glad you're back, even though the twins are..." She couldn't say it, not yet. She closed her eyes then shook it off. "You aren't the only one who did stupid things. I should have realized Sable didn't really love me."

Moriko shrugged her shoulders. "Live and learn. We were kids, what did we know about the world?" She felt her heart flutter in her chest and realized she still had feelings for Cassia. She had always assumed it was a teenage crush, and that time and distance would reveal it for what it really was, the passing fancy of a fickle teenage heart. Maybe this was what Caron saw in her and had ended their short romance.

She nervously cleared her throat then wet her dry lips. "Cassia, would you..." She was interrupted by Valdis, who was making her way out of the front doors of the Inn.

"Moriko, take her, she won't stop crying! I can't, I thought..." The flustered woman fought to make a sentence as she dumped the wailing baby into Moriko's arms.

 For a moment, Cassia felt like she was back in the clearing, dancing. She had even started to lean closer, when suddenly, Valdis was there and Moriko was holding a crying baby. Instead of kissing her, Cassia jerked back in surprise, eyes wide as she stared at the girl in Moriko's arms. "What in the name of the Goddess?"

It didn't take a genius to figure out what was wrong. "Goddess, Valdis. She's swimming in her diapers. You have to change her. Remember we had this conversation." She blew out a breath and held the crying child away from her body so it wouldn't leave a wet stain on her tunic.

Cassia and Valdis took a hasty step back from the screaming child with almost identical looks of worry and complete cluelessness as to how to deal with the situation. "Umm...Moriko..?"

Moriko sighed. "I'll take care of it." ...Like she always took care of it.

Valdis looked conflicted for a moment, before she turned and walked away.

Resigned to her fate, she carefully held the infant in her arms, feeling the wetness soak through into her clothes. "Shhhh, shhhh, it's going to be okay. I'm sorry the grumpy warrior is afraid to change a diaper."

There was a definite odor coming from the young one. Cassia held open the door to the Inn. "Want help?" She wasn't sure what was involved in the helping thing, except whatever it took to get the baby to stop crying.

"Sure," Moriko said absently, concentrating on comforting the unhappy child. She rushed them to her room.

"Umm...do you need me to go get something?"

"Ask the cooks for a pot of warm water, please," she said, opening the door to the room.

"Right, warm water..." Now, if only she could get Moriko to answer where the baby had come from...

She quickly got the child settled and removed the soiled cloth. She pulled an empty washbasin over and gestured for Cassia to fill it when she brought the pot of water in. After checking the temperature, she gently lifted Kai up and put her in the water. "I bet that feels good," she said softly. Kai just looked at her with her big gray eyes then smiled toothlessly at her.

She looked up at Cassia. "Thanks."

Cassia smiled back and watched her bath the squirming infant. "You're good with her." There wasn't much of a resemblance, Cassia noticed with relief.

She took a soft cloth and began to clean the baby. "After taking care of four younger sisters, it's easy."

"Are you going to tell me where she came from?" The other woman offered her a clean piece of cloth to dry the baby down.

She finished washing Kai. "There you go. All better." She lifted the infant out, dried her off, and put a new cloth diaper on her, "Much better." She turned and looked at Cassia.

The dark-haired woman watched the two of them curiously, noting how easily Moriko shifted her grip on the baby, holding her with a sort of unconscious ease that she'd seen mothers do.

She bit her lip in thought for a second before looking back at Kai. "She's mine."

It wasn't a lie. Kai was hers ever since Caron had made her promise to take care of the baby.

There was a flash of pain through Cassia's eyes then she forced a smile. "Oh." She stepped back, shaking her head with a sigh. "Was Caron her Muanya?"

She reached over and took Cassia's hand, thinking about lying before she hedged the truth. "Her mother gave her to me to watch over, before she died."

"Will you come by tonight? I'm sure that my parents would like to see you again when they have things a little more under control. You could bring the little one and Valdis?" She had to go, there were things she had to take care of for Selene.

Moriko squeezed Cassia's hand and let go. "Sure." Standing up, she held a much better smelling Kai. "I need to find a more permanent place for us to live, but I should be free tonight."

Cassia nodded and started for the door, pausing with her hand on it. "What's her name? The baby's, I mean?'

"Kai," the blonde responded. "And, Kai, this is Cassia. She's a princess, just like you." Realizing what she had just said, she flushed, and played it off. "Kai's our little princess. My whole life seems to revolve taking care of her needs."

Kai just grinned as drool rolled down her chin.

Cassia gave them both a small smile tinged with sadness. "Hello, Kai." She met Moriko's eyes "Will you come tonight?"

"Of course..." She noticed Cassia's sad face. "I'm sorry I brought such sad news."

"I'm just glad that the three of you are safe." With one last fond smile for the child, she stepped outside.



Moriko once again stood nervously outside the Royal home. She held Kai in one arm, and a skin of spiced, mulled wine to be heated in her other hand. Valdis was not with her. The warrior preferred her pain to socializing.

"So what do you think, Kai? I know it's silly to still hold a torch for the woman after all these years, and you're right, young lady, we are completely different people than when we were teenagers. For one, my chest is bigger, though not as big as Cassia's. Crap, shit, shit, I said shit. Ignore that part, you're too young to be hearing about that stuff."

Sometimes Moriko really missed Talon, who had been a lot easier to talk to than a baby.

The first few lazy flakes of snow twirled down from the sky, melting as they touched the ground. The infant grabbed at one of them, squealing as it melted the instant it touched her skin.

Moriko laughed at the infant's delight, feeling lighter for the action. It had been so long since she had laughed.

"That, young lady, is snow. It's something you'll have to get used to."

"Moriko..?" Cassia opened the door, having heard what sounded like laughter outside. Not that she'd been lurking near the door waiting for her or anything. "Is it snowing?" She smiled at the sight of the child in Moriko's arms trying to grab snowflakes out of the air with her chubby hands.

"Yes." Moriko grinned and twirled the infant carefully around, before walking over to the house. "First snow of the year, I take it."

"The first snow," Cassia agreed, grinning as she reached out to brush a white flake from the other woman's hair. Blushing, she stepped back and gestured inside. "Sorry, come in, we have a good fire going, and it looks like enough food to feed a gang of fire warriors."

Moriko grinned back and held the child out to Cassia, "Can you hold her a second while I take off this over tunic? I'll over heat if I don't."

"Umm..." She tried to think of an answer, only to find herself suddenly holding the baby. Gingerly she held Kai in front of her, tentatively smiling at the gray eyes that stared up at her. "Hey, you...ouch!" she winced, as small hands grabbed a hold of her black hair and tugged, hard.

Moriko stifled a laugh, but quickly reached over and removed the tiny fingers from Cassia's hair before taking off the heavy winter coat.

"Okay, you can hand her back now."

"She's strong." Cassia handed her back, laughing as the small one kept trying to grab onto her hair.

Nix came into the room carrying another log for the fireplace. "Moriko, good to see you again, dinner will be ready shortly."

"Thank you. Oh, I brought, um, wine." She handed the wine to the tall smith. Nix removed the stopper and sniffed.

"Ah, some of the famous wine made in Abnoa. Thanks, I'll go heat it up." She moved back to the kitchen. "Honey, our guest brought wine."

"Tell her she didn't have to and to bring that child that Cassia was talking about in here so I can fuss over her. Is Valdis with them?" Selene's voice floated in from the kitchen, which was no longer part of the sitting room as it had been in their first house.

Cassia leaned closer, dodging small grabby hands. "I told them about Kai, I hope that's all right?"

"Um, sure..." Moriko felt a stab of panic before she let it go, trying to relax. She moved awkwardly towards the kitchen, unsure. "Um, Valdis didn't come. She hasn't really been herself since..."

She hadn't told anybody about how she found the woman strung up left for dead in the trees lining the path to the Royal manor. "She still needs time, I guess, to work through everything."

Selene wiped her hands on the apron she wore, moving over to see the child. "Ohhhh...what pretty eyes you have, little one," she cooed, grinning as the baby waved her hands at her. "Cassia, you still haven't set the table."

Cassia sighed, instantly reduced to that awkward teen again as she muttered and went off to set the table for dinner.

Nix looked up and grinned from where she was heating the wine. "Honey, why don't you take the baby, I'm sure Moriko could use a break. I remember when Cassia was born. I loved it when folks would come and visit. They always wanted to hold her and take care of her. It was great. I'll finish up dinner."

"Can I?" Selene asked, waiting for Moriko's reluctant nod before accepting the baby. It had been a long time since she'd held a child, and the Queen instantly remembered how much she'd enjoyed holding Cassia when she was young.

Moriko fidgeted but smiled as Selene took Kai. There was a moment of panic, but she took a deep breath and let it go. They were safe now; the last person who would hurt Kai was Selene. "Thanks," she mumbled, and sat stiffly on a wooden chair.

Cassia finished setting the table and poured a mug full of wine for Moriko. "Here, you look like you could use some of this."

Moriko smiled and said a quiet thank you as she took the wine. She blew on the hot liquid for a second before taking a drink. As soon as it hit her stomach, warmth spread out to her limbs, and she could feel her pale cheeks flush. "I like your new home." This place was much larger than the last dwelling the royal family had lived in. "I guess you can entertain large groups now."

"Tell Cassia that, she seems to think this isn't good enough," Selene spoke up from the chair she was sitting in with Kai. "Have you seen her ambitious project?"

Cassia rolled her eyes, starting to bring plates of food out to the table. "It's not because I think this isn't good enough."

The Queen smiled, tickling Kai until the baby was shrieking with delight. "That's what you keep saying, but I'm not so sure," she teased her daughter, looking up to give Nix a wink.

Nix winked back. "Now, if we can just get her to start building her own place."

Moriko smiled. "Her buildings are wonderful. More impressive than I thought they would be. Don't get me wrong, they looked amazing on parchment, but to walk next to them and see all that stone so perfectly balanced. It's humbling. All I've managed to do is train a few of the hounds to pee someplace other than the stable."

The other young woman could feel her face heating at the compliments, and she shook her head. "I doubt that's all you did. You were always amazing with animals. I bet you had horses asking you where they could jump.'

Moriko laughed. "No, the southern horses are stupider than the Alcens." Her face brightened. "But the horses from the plains were amazing. There, riders had this bond with their horses. It was like they could talk to each other." She sipped her wine. "I missed the north," she mumbled out, feeling at ease for the first time in a while.

Once all of the plates were out on the table, they gathered around it, Selene still holding Kai on one side, with Nix, Cassia, and Moriko on the other. The autumn harvest had been good this year, and there was rabbit stew to go along with it. "It is good to see you again, Moriko, no matter what brought you here.'

Cassia nodded in agreement. It was strange sitting around the table with Moriko again. It brought back memories of years ago, when they'd been younger, and probably more ignorant, although some days she wasn't sure.

"It's good to see all of you, too, and you'll be seeing more of me, err, us. I bought that old shack of Ethel's, near the river. I guess she died last winter, and her family moved down to Abnoa. It's not much, but once I get fixed up, it will be home." Never once had she thought about going north to her family.

She had heard, three years ago, from one of her sisters that her mothers had separated, and she wondered how much her absence must have hurt them, making them finally act like adults. This, being with Selene and Nix, was as close as she had gotten to a family moment.

"I'm sorry I didn't make it back for Crow's pyre. I got the letter too late. By the time I got it, a month had passed." She didn't feel sad about Crow's passing; the woman had had a full, rich life than any could hope to have.

"The Goddess called her onwards in her sleep. I hope she enjoyed the time she spent here." Selene tickled Kai, much more interested in playing with the baby than eating dinner.

Nix smiled then turned to Cassia, teasing her. "Look how happy that makes your Muanya. Now, if you could just find a woman to settle down with and give us a few grandkids, we'd be ecstatic." She grinned, watching her daughter sputter.

Feeling herself blushing, Cassia did her best to ignore the guest who was sitting next to her. This would be a lot easier if Moriko wasn't so pretty and charming. "Mom...." She looked to Selene for support, but found none, as the Queen was bouncing Kai. "Mom, I haven't found anyone to have grandkids with."

Nix grinned at Moriko, "It's her own fault, really. She's too picky and too focused on those buildings of hers."

"Which are great," a distracted Selene added. "But grandchildren would be nice, wouldn't they, Kai," she asked the baby, grinning as the child giggled and tried to grab the Queen's nose.

Moriko grinned weakly back, "Being picky isn't a bad thing. There are a lot of scary women out there." Some of the scarier ones were the few that followed the battle camps trying to catch a soldier. She suppressed a shudder remembering some of the women who had tried to corner her.

The dark-haired woman flashed Moriko a thankful smile. This was going to be a long dinner.



It was with a sense of relief that Cassia let the door close behind them as they stepped outside. The dinner had been interesting, but one filled with its share of awkward moments. "That wasn't too bad, I guess," she commented, taking in a breath of nice, cool night air. She'd promised her parents that she'd make sure that Moriko and Kai would make it home safely.

Moriko gently cradled the sleeping infant. "It was great. Your Muanya wiped her out." She smiled softly at Cassia. "It was really nice. The best memories I have of a family dinner are at your place with your mothers. It was nice to feel that again."

"Wellllll...." Cassia smiled hopefully, "you could always keep coming back for dinner. That way you wouldn't have to pay for dinner at the inn." She frowned. "I can't believe you bought Ethel's place!"

"Maybe, I'd hate to wear out my welcome. But it's nice to have someone else entertain peanut here." She stroked the shock of blonde hair that just would not lay down flat on the baby's head. She chuckled and started moving towards the Inn. "It's not like I grabbed a lot of my belongings when I ran away from the manor. Ethel's place is the best I could afford. It will be fine, just needs a little work."

"A little work..?" Cassia was horrified by the thought of them in that shack. "Let me help? I don't think I could stand seeing the two of you living there." She paused. "Three of you, I guess. Is Valdis going to go with you?"

"I would assume so, she doesn't really have anything. Well, she has the notion she needs to protect Kai and me.'

The other woman was silent as they walked, thinking over Moriko's words as they moved through the dark streets. Idly, she wondered how they could light them so people could walk around without holding torches. "I'm sorry you had to go through that." She paused, considering her words carefully. "Moriko, does that mean Kai is heir to the throne?"

 Moriko nearly stumbled, her eyes darting around, and she felt panicked. "She's..." The blonde stopped moving. They were almost certainly alone, but she had learned that wasn't necessarily true, looks could be deceiving. They hadn't moved that far from the Royal house, and she pulled Cassia back to the house, ducking around the side. Her brown eyes searched the night making sure no one could see or hear them.

She moved in close to the northern Princess' personal space. "You must keep it a secret," she pleaded. "I thought I was doing so well keeping it a secret. She's Caron's child, and as far as I know, the last living heir to Keshet and Morgan's throne."

 "You aren't that good at lying," Cassia whispered, smiling a little sadly as she touched Moriko's shoulder. "I knew you weren't telling the truth. And why else would Valdis want to protect her?"

Moriko sighed and looked down at Kai. "I guess I'm not offended that you find me a poor liar. But I can't help but feel scared I'm not up to the task of watching out for her."

"That's all right, we'll help. You aren't alone here. People will help watch out for her, so will my parents. I think they love her already." She smiled, sliding her hand down Moriko's arm to hold her hand, "All right?"

Moriko nodded and gently squeezed Cassia's hand. "Thank you." She could feel tears in her eyes again, but they were more from relief than sadness this time.



The day was warm, an unusual event, but it seemed that winter's icy grip was going to be stayed a little bit longer. It had snowed off and on for the last week, but waking up this morning and finding the day tolerable had sent Moriko headed towards her humble new home. Actually, as she stared at the pathetic building, she figured humble was a kind word.

Kai screamed and giggled, and patted her tiny hands on Moriko's braided hair. The blonde winced and unstrapped the infant from her back, and grinned at the happy child. "No comments, peanut,' she told the child then blew a raspberry on the child's rosy cheek, which caused another shriek of laughter.

Moriko stared at the shack, which wasn't much: a dirt floor, three rooms - including the kitchen - and ratty animal skins hanging loosely over two small windows. A little ways away, there looked to be an outhouse. However, she could hear and smell the river from where she stood, and the forest spread out behind her house. She was tired of the odd looks from people, and the knowing looks whenever she and Cassia were anywhere near each other.

"It's not much, but, Kai, you are looking at your new home.' The infant spit up on her tunic in response. Moriko sighed and looked up for a second before looking back down at Kai. "I can tell you aren't impressed.'

Gently, she lifted Kai out of her child carrier and went over to Oscar, who was examining some of the shrubs with interest. She took off the simple braided halter. "There you go,' she murmured and gave the beast his freedom to roam, knowing that with a whistle he'd be back at her side. "Go explore.' Looking down, she frowned at the infant. "What am I going to do with you?'



A half hour later found Kai back in the child carrier that Moriko had set up like a swing from a low tree branch with the rope from the halter. The child kicked and moved, giggling, Moriko checking on her every once in awhile. She was currently up on the roof inspecting the boards when she saw a woman walking down the path towards her. She moved quickly from the roof to the ground, and immediately went and picked up Kai, uncertain.

Her mood got darker when she saw who it was. "Mother,' she said icily.

The older woman flinched, and didn't meet her daughter's eyes, but she didn't turn away, either. "Moriko...' she started, lamely, before letting the rest of the sentence die.

Moriko was unhelpful. She just stood giving her mother a dark look.

"You wrote your sisters, but never your mothers. I didn't even know you were back, until Nix wrote us. Do you hate us that much? We weren't bad parents, were we?'

"You weren't parents. You were too busy fighting with each other. And you,' she pointed a finger at her mother, "were too busy chasing everything that moved and feeling sorry for yourself, because your one great love got away. I'm sorry, Mother. I've met Nix and Selene, and they have eyes for no one but each other. You weren't even a passing fancy in Selene's head.'

Yuri blanched, and tried to stutter something out.

"Why couldn't you have just loved us and Muanya?'

"I was a good mother, don't you make this all my fault. You're the one that ran away to the south. What, we weren't good enough for you? I knew I should have just kept you home as punishment for almost burning down the stable. But no, Crow convinced me you were just acting up.'

"Me, burn down the stable. That's rich. It was you. You came into the barn drunk and smelling like that barmaid. You're the one that tried to have a mother/daughter talk in the middle of the night. You're the one that passed out and knocked the lamp over. I didn't want you two to fight again, so I took the blame.' Kai began to cry, getting upset over all the shouting. Yuri looked stunned, like she had been struck.

Gently, she rocked the crying infant, trying to sooth her. "Look, Mother, I don't want to be doing this. We have nothing to say to each other.'

"Your Muanya and I separated a few years ago,' Yuri said quietly. "It got so hard after you left. Our fighting got worse.'

"I know, Marianne told me in a letter. But I was raising everybody, you two weren't being parents. I was tired of it. I had nothing in common with any of my friends. They had all these wonderful experiences, and I raised four kids and animals. I needed a childhood.'

Yuri flushed, "I, I'm sorry. I didn't realize we did that to you.'

"Yes, Mother, you did. Can you really be surprised that I didn't want come home?'

"I guess not.' The older woman blew out a breath and looked lost. "I have a lot to think about. Can I come back, can we try again?' She stared at the infant in her daughter's arms, aching to ask if she was her granddaughter. But felt she didn't have that right, at the moment.

Moriko's first response was to say no, but seeing the lost look on her mother's face, relented. "I can't make any promises, but maybe.'

Yuri sighed and ran a trembling hand through her hair. "Okay.' Knowing they were done for now, the woman turned and walked back down the path.

Moriko held Kai and sat down at the base of the tree. She checked the ground then set the infant down. She gurgled and tugged at the blades of grass. "Of all the things I expected, Kai...that was not one of them.'

Moriko played with Kai for a little bit then she put Kai back into her impromptu swing. The day was starting to get cooler, and she wanted to get the wooden roof slats checked out before there was another storm.

She lifted herself back up to the roof and with one eye on her work and another on Kai, got back to work.

"Hey!" a familiar voice called from the path that led up to the small shack. Cassia shielded her eyes from the sun so she could look up at the figure on the roof. "Did I just see Yuri in town?"

Moriko jerked, but kept her balance. "Hey." She looked up at Cassia. "Yeah, my mother was just here." Her face betrayed how unhappy she was with the visit.

Kai squealed and held out her arms at her new playmate, her tiny legs kicking.

The dark-haired woman pursed her lips. She'd been about to ask how that visit had gone, but the look on Moriko's face stopped her. Instead, she very hesitantly picked up the baby, terrified she was going to drop her. "Uh, well, I came to see how things were going?"

"If the weather holds, it should be going well. The roof's not too bad. There are a few spots that need to be fixed," she said, moving to another spot, and frowning when her foot almost went through a board.

Kai giggled and grabbed at Cassia's nose.

"Ack!" Cassia blinked, grinning at the little one. "Yeah, about that, I have something I wanted to talk to you about." Her voice was muffled, since Kai got a good hold of her nose.

Moriko looked over and chuckled before marking the weak spot with a white X with the small piece of chalk in her hand. She pocketed the chalk and made her way to the edge. She crouched down, grabbing the lip of the roof, and then lowered her body over the side, hanging by her arms. With only a three-foot drop, she let go, landing easily. She grinned happily at the pair and made her way over.

Gently, she took the infant from Cassia and blew a raspberry on Kai's cheek, getting the infant's attention. Kai giggled and let go of Cassia's nose then grabbed at Moriko's blonde braids.

Glad to have her nose back Cassia rubbed it; trying not to be impressed by how fit Moriko looked lowering herself from the roof. "Thanks, she has a strong grip." She looked over her shoulder then smiled back at Moriko. "So, about your house..."

Behind her, a line of people started down the path to the house, many of them carrying building supplies.

"Uh huh, about my...um, Cassia, those people look like they have building supplies?" She looked at the princess, an eyebrow arched like a question mark.

Checking over her shoulder, Cassia smiled and waved to Ryuu, who was at the head of the procession. "They do?" She grinned at Moriko. "You know how I said I'd help you before?"

"Yes, I remember how that may have been worked into a conversation." She nodded at the quiet woman with the silver hair, and as she had learned, a wicked sense of humor.

"Well, Ryuu here said something that made a lot of sense to me. She said we couldn't leave Kai to live in such a..." Words failed Cassia as she glanced at the rundown thing of a home. "...place. Then I realized we had all these people working on the castle." She waggled her eyebrows "Imagine that."

"Um, I..." She was stunned by the gesture. "I guess when you're the Princess, stuff gets done." She leaned over and impulsively kissed Cassia's cheek. "Thank you."

"Hello, Moriko." Ryuu bent close to Kai and produced a piece of honey candy from somewhere for the child. "Here you go, child. I'll see about setting up the scaffolding." She left the two women to themselves with the child.

Cassia blushed, smiling as she pulled out a piece of parchment. "I drew a picture of what it could look like if you want?"

Kai said something in her baby language, and bounced in Moriko's arms. Moriko took the candy and examined it. It was a long, thin stick of baked honey that Moriko was certain would get both her and Kai messy. With a mock glare at Ryuu, she gave it to Kai. The child happily sucked on it, occasionally pulling it out to smack her surrogate mother in the cheek or nose with it.

Ryuu smiled innocently and went about getting the workers organized.

Moriko grinned at Cassia. "Let's see what you have there. It's only a simple shack, really, what can you do to it?"

The other woman coughed a little at that, opening up the parchment to show the drawing to Moriko. "Well..." she smiled, "I might have gotten a little carried away." The shack was still there, but it was attached to a rather large extension.

Moriko arched an eyebrow and laughed, "A little? Cassia, that's wonderful, but it's a bit much." She studied the drawing. "I like the expanded kitchen and the extra room so Vladis, Kai, and I can have our own sleeping area. And the barn so I can have a place for the animals." She looked at the dark-haired princess. "Can we compromise?"

"Actually," the other woman looked more than a bit sheepish, "that is the compromise. I wanted to rip it down and start fresh."

Moriko laughed. "It's not that bad."

"Hmmm..." Taking Moriko's hand in hers, she tugged the woman out of the way as a pair of Aclen's pulled a cart with lumber on it past them. "What sort of compromise?"

"Bah." Moriko waved off an attack from the honey stick. "I'll let you tear it down and rebuild, but what you have is too much, unless I have a war unit I don't know about, that's going to be living here as well."

"About that," Cassia smiled, "I was thinking maybe Valdis should train some people to keep an eye on Kai?"

Moriko frowned. "Wouldn't that just be pointing out that I have something that needs to be protected?"

The other woman frowned, she hadn't thought about that. "Oh. Well, how about we just remove this part then? That would make it smaller?" She held up the picture, wincing as Kai managed to get honey on it.

"Kai, candy goes in the mouth, not on Cassia's nice drawings," Moriko said, trying to get the honey stick away from Kai, and winced when she got smacked in the nose. "That's it." She took it away only to have the infant start screaming in her ear. "Goddess have it back."

Cassia tried to remove the honey from the picture, only succeeding in tearing it. "Ryuu," she grimaced, glaring at the back of the silver-haired woman. "She seems nice, but she's evil."

"Yes, yes she is." Finally, she got the child interested in candy as a tasty treat, not as a weapon. "I think, though, having Valdis train some women in weapons is a good idea. It might give her a purpose and draw her out of her depression. The women who are trained can do patrols of the town, handling problems.'

The princess shook her head. "Selene hates the idea of guards, wearing weapons, walking through the streets. She never liked to think of us hurting one another." The woman shrugged. "It makes sense to me though, especially if things turn even worse in the south."

"Hmmm, I can see her point. I guess I'm just used to the south. Keshet always had guards around her. Then there were guards who were in charge of patrolling just the town. They took care of arguments, fights, drunken brawls, and wild animals. So maybe just play up the town safety aspect. As the town gets bigger, people have to share the lessening space."

It made sense, although she was sure that her Muanya would hate it. Cassia looked a little shy suddenly. "So, what do you think? Will you and the little one like it here?"

Moriko just smiled at Cassia. "We already do." She blushed, realizing she was staring, and bounced Kai. "Isn't that right, little one?"

"Well, that's good." She shared a smile with the other woman then looked away as she started to play with Kai. "Let me show you where the stables will be?"



Nix smiled over at her wife then nodded her head at their daughter, who was frantically trying to get her snow boots on. "So, having dinner with Moriko again tonight?" she asked casually.

"What?" Cassia nearly fell over then managed to catch herself on the doorjamb. "I'm late. I told her I'd be there earlier. But then we had that problem with the south wall at the castle..." she rambled on, finishing tugging on her boots.

Selene watched her go with a more than amused expression on her face. She shook her head and leaned back in her chair, enjoying the warmth of the fire radiating from the fireplace. "How many times does that make?"

"Three, I think, wife, maybe four if you want to count that day they had lunch and dinner." She just avoided bursting out laughing when Cassia glared over at them.

Cassia harrumphed and pulled on her coat. "I'll be back later," she called, opening the door then slamming it shut. A blast of cold air swept in, carrying with it a whirl of white snow.

"I wonder why they can't just admit they're dating. They do everything together but spend the night." She leaned over and put another log on the fire.

Selene shivered, pulling the blanket a bit tighter around her shoulders. The cold was getting harder and harder to deal with as she grew older, finding each winter a little worse than the one before. She reached over and patted Nix on the shoulder. "You know she warned us not to meddle."

"I know, love, but I don't want her to be alone. And if we didn't meddle, she'd never do anything but draw those drawings of hers." She winced and got up, grabbing another blanket. Coming back, she draped it over Selene's shoulders. She kissed the now white hair. "I love you so much. I just want our daughter to know this feeling I feel every time I'm with the woman I love so much. Is that so wrong?" She sat down, content to sit next to Selene in silence and the warmth of the fire.

"Of course not..." Selene leaned against the warmth of her wife and sighed with contentment. "I think things will happen as they happen, though. I pray to the Goddess she'll find her way." Deciding to switch topics, the Queen turned so she could see her wife's face. "The pass snowed in yesterday. There's no way to get any more news from the south now."

Nix nodded, "Have you noticed that a lot of the refugee's bare a striking similarity to you, my love, same hair and eyes, and body type? This new leader seems a bit blood thirsty, but that could be my bias, because we know how she really got the throne."

The smaller woman nodded. "Maybe she doesn't like blondes." She closed her eyes. "The stories they have of what's going on in the south. How could it have become so bad so fast? Did we forget what we fled from so fast?"

She gently stroked the flesh on the back of Selene's hand. "Some were babies or children when we fled. They don't remember much from the trek here, so that sin is repeating the past." She shook her head. "The boat smiths say, though, that trade is still going well with those horse lovers, so it isn't as bad as I feared."

Nodding, Selene settled back against the taller woman. "True, at least they haven't gone insane." She took Nix's larger hand in her own. "I was thinking of writing down what happened, so that we don't forget. Ryuu mentioned she'd be happy to help me if I wanted."

"That, my love, sounds like a wonderful idea."

"I was also thinking of stepping down in the spring." She studied the large hand in hers, noting the differences that age had brought. "I want to enjoy more time with you, and our grandchildren, whenever we get them."

"No argument from me. I think I've been trying to convince you of that for a while." The smith grinned and lifted up her wife's hand, kissing it.

Selene smiled and rested her head against Nix's shoulder. "Good."



Moriko looked down at the small puppy that was looking up at her with huge, scared gold eyes. Next to it was a small puddle. "Valdis, for the last time, the puppies need to sleep in the barn!" She was starting to regret the day she'd found them. But the bigger one had looked at her with such a stupid expression it had reminded her of Wraith. She had to wonder if Wraith hadn't left a little present of himself behind after he'd visited the north.

Valdis had come out of her depression slightly with the puppy. Moriko had kept his brother for herself, hoping to train him to kill rats in the barn. Valdis' puppy was certainly running away from his crime to hide with his brother.

"I have company coming," she muttered, grabbing a rag to clean the floor.

The warrior in question scooped up the puppy, giving Moriko much the same look as the puppy had. "He's sorry, aren't you?" She held the squirming puppy up towards Moriko, where it promptly started to lick her face. "See, he's really sorry."

Moriko sputtered, and pushed the wiggling puppy away from her face. "Fine, but please potty train him." She cleaned up the mess and tossed the towel in a pile to be washed out.

The southerner smiled; a rare thing ever since her trip to the north. "Should I guess who is coming over?"

She put her hands in a basin of warm water, washing them before checking the huge stone fireplace that was used to heat the house and for cooking. She had a large pot sitting on a metal tripod over the flames, a chicken stew bubbling away. She looked at the warrior. "Cassia's coming over for dinner."

"That's a surprise," Valdis said, a touch of her old cockiness surfacing, before she nodded towards the fancy crib not far from the fireplace that Nix had made. "You want me to keep an eye on Kai?"

"It's just a friendly dinner, just like last night." She stirred the stew for a moment before she pulled it away from the fire.

"And the night before that and the night before that..." Valdis tucked the blanket up around the sleeping baby inside of it.

A knock banged on the stout, wooden front door, and Valdis grinned crookedly. "I think I'll call it an early evening." She straightened up and headed towards the room off the kitchen that was hers. "Don't do anything I would," she called over her shoulder, closing the door to her room behind her.

Moriko snorted, "That limits my options." She checked on Kai before rushing to the door.

A rather cold looking Cassia stood on the doorstep, despite the heavy coat she was wearing. Dark hair was frosted white with snow from the storm that was well and truly raging outside. "Hi," she smiled, shifting back and forth, shivering.

"Get in here," Moriko pulled Cassia inside. "I told you, you don't have to knock."

"Didn't want to barge in," she said, gladly stepping into the warmth of the house. It was hard to see the shack that had used to stand in its place. She smiled, as she always did, upon seeing the wrought iron and wood crib that stood not far from the fire. "Pumpkin asleep already?" she asked as she started shrugging off the heavy coat.

Two small puppies came bounding out from the small straw-stuffed canvas that Valdis had put together for them to sleep on. They yipped and sniffed at the new presence in the house.

"Hey, you two, get back.' She scooped up the two wiggling, yipping masses. "Apparently these two are grandchildren to either Wraith or Rage. Valdis has named hers Thorn, and I named mine Rugor."

Shaking out her wet hair from the melting snow, Cassia managed to pet both of them, laughing as her hands got licked. "They're a handful."

The puppies kept trying to lick the exposed skin. Laughing, Moriko put them down. "Go lie down. Go on."

"Where is the brooding warrior?" Cassia finally managed to kick off her snow-covered boots, leaving them by the door, and followed Moriko towards the fireplace.

"Not so brooding. Thorn seems to be cheering her up. She actually smiled earlier." She took Cassia's coat and hung it on a hook with other winter clothes near the fire.

"She smiled?" That was indeed news. Cassia paused by the crib, her smile gentling as she watched Kai sleeping inside.

She took some metal tongs and pulled the pot of stew off. "Hope you're hungry." She grabbed some wooden bowls, quickly checking to make sure they were clean. Humming quietly, she pulled a cloth off some bread she had made. "I remember the first time I made bread. It was with you and Selene. Nix was really nice. It was burnt, but she still ate it." She chuckled at bit at the memory.

"That is because my mother will eat anything after working in the forge," she stated, brushing a hand across the unruly hair on the baby's head before moving over to help carry dishes to the table. "This smells great though. Your cooking has gotten a lot better since then."

"When you travel around in a war camp, you either cook your own or eat from the cook's tent. Now, the cook can't necessarily cook."

Cassia made a face at that mental picture. The entire idea of a war camp was still hard for her to picture, even after both Valdis and Moriko had explained them to her. "So, any suggestions for improvements to the house..?" She'd already come up with a few ideas for springtime, when construction could start again.

Moriko blinked and looked around the house. "It's great. I have my own room, it's not a barn or a tent, and I don't have to share it. It's warm, no leaks...it's perfect." She sat down at the small table in the kitchen after checking the crib. She rubbed the scar on her forehead, hoping that it wasn't aching because they were in for a horrible storm.

"Does your head hurt?" The last time Moriko's head had hurt, it had rained for nearly a week straight, and the Winderling had very nearly flooded its banks.

"Yeah, my scar is throbbing. It's probably just the cold. It is winter, after all. I was spoiled down in the south." She forced her hand away from her head and smiled.

"At least it's not going to rain," Cassia offered, helpfully, taking a hunk of bread along with some of the wonderful smelling stew. Her stomach growled as she took in a deep breath. "Ooooh..." she nearly purred.

She fiddled with her spoon for a moment, looking like she might say something, before smiling again and started to eat. She paused between bites. "I'm glad you can come over to eat. I like spending time with you." She winced and stuffed her spoon back in her mouth. All she had to say was, "I'm in love with you, or I'd like to kiss you.' All day, while she worked in her barn or the Inn's stable, she practiced how she would tell Cassia, and every night she froze up.

"I'm glad I can too." The other woman lowered her spoon, staring intently across the table at Moriko. For a moment she, too, looked like she was going to say something, then she smiled and looked back down at her stew. "I like...umm...your cooking." Mentally groaning, she forced a smile at the other woman. "You'll probably get sick of having me over for dinner soon."

"Okay, but we could go to the Inn sometimes. Valdis told me they have a storyteller, and other nights a musician." She looked at their entwined hands. "It could be like a...uh...date." She said the last part softly.

"A date..?" Cassia's squeaked in surprise, eyes wide as she looked across the table at the woman of whom she was very aware was still holding her hand.

That wasn't the response she had hoped for. "It was just a thought. It was silly." She forced a laugh and moved her hand out from under Cassia's.

"No, wait, it wasn't silly." She tightened her fingers around Moriko's fingers, trying to keep her from pulling away. "I mean, I'd like that." She smiled. "You just caught me by surprise. I thought..." she trailed off, biting her lip. "I thought I'd missed my chance after that time in the forest."

"I thought I'd missed it, too. I thought you were going to marry Sable, and I didn't even try. I just ran away from everything." She laughed. "Teenage hormones are such a wonderful thing." She paused then said quietly, "I think Caron knew, knew that I still loved you. We weren't together very long. She would just stare at my face then seem sad, like she couldn't find what she was looking for. Then after a month, she said we made better friends. I didn't understand, not until I came home and saw you again. What I felt seeing you, I think that's what she was looking for in my eyes."

Cassia smiled, feeling tears gather in her eyes as their fingers entwined. "I missed you. I thought about running away to find you, to tell you what a fool I'd been. But I wasn't sure if you'd even listen to me."

"I may not have listened at first, but who knows, I bet you could have worn me down. There were a lot of times I got scared and homesick, especially my first battle. I think, looking back, I needed that time away." She didn't mention that the thought of coming home was always deterred by the thought of Cassia marrying Sable.

"You'll have to tell me about that, these battles that you've been in." The dark-haired woman still couldn't really picture anything like what Moriko and Valdis had alluded to. Neither had been particularly interested in talking about it very much. "No more running away, then?"

"I wasn't planning on it. I have a nice house, a nice job, good friends, and maybe a great girlfriend." She looked hopeful. It was perhaps presuming a lot, but she was relaxing. The hard part of actually asking Cassia out on something other than a friendly dinner was behind her.

"Girlfriend, huh..?" Smiling, Cassia let go of her hand and helped herself to something to eat. "I like the sound of that. It helps that my parents already like you, of course." She mentally crossed her fingers, hoping that comment didn't send Moriko running. Of course, how fast she could run through a snowstorm carrying Kai was up for debate.

"Yeah, that helps. I'm sure Nix can be scary if she doesn't like someone." She grinned foolishly then started to eat her food.

"I baked a couple of sweet apples." She got up and lifted the lid on a ceramic pot on the stones next to the fire, checking on them. Nodding, she grabbed padding for her hands and lifted them over to the counter before returning to the fire and tossing two more logs on. She sat back down. "Gretchen from Abnoa brought in a shipment of apples to the Inn. Kealsy let me grab a couple then I just added some honey and cinnamon. It's really tasty, trust me."

"It smells like it." She leaned forwards, sniffing the air as Moriko brought the pot towards the table. "I think I like having a girlfriend who can cook delicious things." She enjoyed watching the way Moriko moved as she walked.

Moriko just blushed. "It's not that hard to cook." She cleared the table and set out a plate then dished one of the bubbling, gooey, messy baked apples on to it. The smell of apples and cinnamon invaded the air.

"I can't wait to see what else you can cook," Cassia grinned, getting up and picking up her chair and scooting around to Moriko's side of the table. "Mind some company?"

"Um, no, company would be great." She smiled shyly and sat down.

It took only a minute or two before Valdis had invaded the kitchen with her sleep tossed hair. "Honey apples, you made honey apples." She nodded at Cassia while eyeing the apple in the pot. Moriko sighed and dished out the last apple onto a plate and handed it to the warrior. Valdis beamed a smile at her housemate. "You're the best," she chirped happily before taking a bite, only to hiss and try and cool her overheated mouth.

Cassia let out a half laugh before managing to stop herself from going on to full-out laughing. "Hi, Valdis," she greeted, a little annoyed that her emergence from her room derailed her plan to kiss Moriko.

The warrior nodded. After she was finally able to swallow, she said, "Hi, Princess. Looks like you're spending the night - finally."

Cassia nearly choked on her own bite of the apple dessert at that.

Moriko hissed out, "Valdis."

"What? It's a whiteout outside. If you care at all for the woman, please tell me you're not going to let her walk home in that."

"What? No, no. Of course Cassia is going to spend the night, if it's dangerous." She gulped a bit and her palms started sweating.

Cassia couldn't help it. She started laughing at the outraged expression on Moriko's face and the innocent one on Valdis'.

"Good woman." She looked at Cassia and shrugged. "Be gentle with her, her heart's in the right place, but she's just a little slow to get to the point, if you know what I mean."

Moriko buried her face in her hands. "Valdis, please, just go do something somewhere else."

The warrior grinned and winked at Cassia before turning to the crib. "Hey there, peanut...look at you, being all quiet and playing with your toes. Looks like you get to sleep with Auntie Valdis tonight, Œcause Auntie Moriko is having a sleepover."

Moriko blushed until her ears turned red.

Even Cassia could feel her face turning red. "Good to see you again, Valdis." It was always interesting interacting with the other woman, who had a wicked sense of humor. It reminded Cassia of Ryuu most days, although at least her assistant wasn't so depressed all the time.

Valdis picked up the infant, who cooed, and then tried to teeth on a honey-coated finger. "Hey there, I see no need to take my finger off." With Kai in one hand and her apple treat in the other, she grinned wickedly at the two of them before leaving the kitchen.

"Well," Moriko squeaked out, "at least she's smiling and joking again." She cleared her throat then picked up her fork and nonchalantly stabbed a piece of apple off of Cassia's plate.

"She's becoming more like her old self. That's a good thing." The princess mock frowned, pulling the plate away from her. "Who said I have to share?"

"But..." She stared sadly at the plate. "It's good to share," she said hopefully.

"Hmmm..." Cassia took her own bite, closing her eyes for a moment at the taste. "That tastes delicious." Then she used her own fork to pick up another piece. "What do I get if I do share?" she waved the piece between them.

"What do you want?'

"What will you give me?" Cassia leaned closer.

"Well," Moriko scooted over closer to Cassia, "how about a kiss? Would that be a fair trade?"

Cassia looked down to stare at Moriko's lips. "That sounds reasonable." She let Moriko take the piece of apple. Licking her own lips, she set aside the fork, leaning forward to taste the apple on the other woman's lips.

A part of Moriko's brain wondered how one night so many years ago could have such a lasting impact on her. But this is what she missed, Cassia's lips. Other than Cassia, she had only kissed three other women, and all of them paled to this.

Cassia was certain that she would always remember the taste of apples on Moriko's lips as slid a hand behind her head and pulled Moriko closer. When they finally pulled apart for air, the dark-haired woman was gasping, unsteady. "Yeah, that was worth it," she whispered.

Slowly, they pulled back and Moriko sighed happily. "That's even better than I remember."

She giggled. "I'm glad. I wouldn't want to think I didn't pay my end of the bargain."

Picking up her fork, Cassia got another piece of the apple dish on it. "Good thing we have this entire apple to trade for."



Moriko was up early, and even the arduous task of breaking a trail through the snow to the barn couldn't wipe a smile off her face. She quickly went to work, feeding Oscar and the two breeding females her Muanya had given her. With one last pat to Oscar's horned head, she was back outside, straining through the snow. Even though it was a few feet, it felt like a mile. Breathing heavily, she opened the door and stepped inside. She knocked the snow off her and started shedding layers. She had a guest, a romantic type guest sleeping, warming her bed.

She grinned foolishly.

"I'm so glad I talked you into getting a big bed," Cassia murmured, cracking open her eyes to watch as Moriko quietly entered the room again. "Do you always get up before sunrise?" It wasn't even light out yet, which was early, even by Cassia's standards.

"Now I see why you were so insistent. You had some sneaky motive." She rubbed her hands and her nose trying to warm them up so she didn't get booted right back out of bed. She slid under the covers. "Yep, I always get up early. Animals need to be fed, and then I go to the Inn, but not today. Keasly probably figured out late last night I wouldn't be able to get over there this morning."

"Ahh...you're cold." Despite that, Cassia slid closer, wrapping herself gingerly around the other woman. They were still hesitant in touching one another, awkward, but they got settled. "Better," she whispered, tugging the blankets a bit higher up over them.

Moriko fidgeted, "Sorry." They bumped awkwardly together for a second before easing into a comfortable position. "I tried to warm myself up. I'm not used to having company...well...Kai or the puppies don't count."

"Is the little one still with Valdis?" Cassia yawned, finding it hard to resist falling back asleep. She could hear the wind whipping around the house outside, and the room was cold, while under the blankets she had a warm body to cuddle with.

The yawn was contagious, and Moriko returned one of her own, "Yeah, as far as I can tell. We're the only two people awake. Even the puppies ran out of energy." She snuggled into Cassia's body, finding the warmth under the covers was making her sleepy again. Normally, once she was up, she was up for the rest of the day. A habit forged in youth working for her Muanya, and then again during war. There was a lot to do in a war camp, and not enough time in the day. "It's windy out, but stopped snowing. I was able to break a path to the barn."

Cassia mumbled something in response, although even she didn't know what it was. Instead, she pressed her lips to Moriko's in a sleepy kiss and decided she didn't want to get up to face the day yet. This was much too nice to give up. With just a little more rearrangement, she found a comfortable position, with her leg tossed over the warm body next to hers and an arm draped over Moriko's chest. Making a sound that was nearly a purr, she snuggled down into the warmth and let sleep claim her.



Nix was staring out the window, something she'd been doing most of the morning and afternoon, ever since she realized her little girl hadn't made it home. The storm had passed, leaving a dump of snow almost to her waist. Logically she knew it was best that Cassia hadn't tried to come home last night, and she new her daughter was smart enough not to even try, but still, her little girl spent the night at some strange woman's house.

She frowned as Selene laughed at her. Looking at her wife, a sheepish grin broke out on her face. "I know, I know, I'm being silly. Still, our baby didn't come home last night. You know I have to scare Moriko on sheer principle now?"

Selene laughed again, coming up behind her wife and wrapping her arms around her waist to hug her. "I know you will.' She'd had no doubt that was going to happen ever since she realized that Cassia hadn't come home last night.

"But do you really want to scare her too bad? Maybe this means that they are finally ready to admit that they're dating?' She liked Moriko, a lot more than she'd liked Sable, and she hoped her daughter was finally going to find someone to spend her life with.

"Well, no, not too bad," she hedged. "I do really rather like Moriko, she doesn't know how to be dishonest. Please tell me you figured out Kai is the last southern royal alive, with all that stuttering and back stepping every time you ask about the baby. I thought the poor woman was going to give herself a headache."

Nix chuckled and turned around in her wife's arms, kissing her gently on the lips.

As she had gotten older, her eyesight had gotten worse. Now, she rarely had to wear the protective cloth. It was odd. At first she had freaked out, but her wife assured her that this was how most people normally saw the world.

"I know I've forgotten things recently, but I know a grandchild of Keshet when I see her. She doesn't look a thing like Moriko.' It was nice to able to look up into Nix's eyes without the cloth blindfold in the way. "I don't think we should tell her we know. She's already nervous enough about Kai. Do you think Cassia knows?'

Nix chuckled, "Yes, Moriko can be as skittish as a Pouncer in a room of rocking chairs. So we can keep pretending we don't know who Kai is for right now." She blew out a breath. "I think she knows, but as intelligent as our daughter can be, she sure can be clueless in some areas."

The Queen laughed, reaching up to tenderly pat Nix's cheek. "I wonder who she gets that from.'

Nix scowled at Selene and pretended to get annoyed. "Can't be me." She was just about to pick up her wife and carry her upstairs when she noticed two figures breaking a path in the snow. "Well, they aren't sleeping together, yet?" She shook her head. "Not that I want to think about my little girl doing such things, but I was hoping they at least took a step in the right direction. The whole town knows they're crazy for each other. I think there's even a bet going when they're going to get brave enough to be a couple."

"I wouldn't be surprised.' Selene was even pretty sure she knew who would have started such a bet.



Outside the house, Cassia and Moriko were slowly breaking a path through the snowdrifts. They hadn't seen a single other person since leaving Moriko's place, mostly because everyone else was taking the opportunity to stay inside and avoid the bitter wind and tall piles of snow outside. That would change soon enough, but for now, the two trudged along alone.

 "You didn't have to come along with me.' Cassia watched her breath frost in the air in front of her, pausing at the bottom of the steps to the front door.

Moriko shrugged her shoulders, barely moving under all the layers she was wearing. "Of course I did. What kind of girlfriend would I be if I let you walk home alone in this? Plus, I want to go on over to the Inn and make sure those two Alcens are okay. It is what Kealsy pays me to do." And she was baby free, Valdis having actually offered to watch Kai. When they had left, Valdis, Kai, and the puppies were crawling on the floor, playing. She took a step, breaking through the virgin snow, only to step down further than she was expecting. Her arms wind milled for a moment then she fell over, taking out Cassia. "Sorry," she mumbled then laughed when she saw how coated in white Cassia's hair was.

The princess let out a startled yelp then laughed as they both tumbled into the snowdrift. "You did that on purpose,' she accused, laughing, and then impulsively leaning in closer to kiss Moriko. Now, if only she wasn't lying in the snow, with a very overdressed Moriko lying on top of her.

"Whenever you girls want to come inside, we have hot tea,' Selene's voice called out from the front door. Moriko jerked in surprise, craning her neck to see Cassia's Muanya and her mother smiling at them from the door. With a wave, Nix shut the door. Groaning, Cassia let her head flop back into the snow.

Moriko's face turned bright red, and she quickly stood up, trying to get her snowcap back on, as well as brush snow off her and Cassia. "They're not going to poison me, are they? They still like me, right?" Flustered, she momentarily thought about fleeing.

"Yes, they like you.' It was actually really cute how flustered Moriko was getting. "I promise they like you. You don't have to come inside right now if you don't want to, though. I can tell them you had to go see to the Alcens at the Inn.' She reached out and took the other girl's hands in hers, chaffing them to warm them through the mittens.

The blonde took a deep breath and let it out. "No, I'll come in for a little bit. Tea sounds good, plus, I can spend a few more minutes with you." She swallowed nervously, and stared at the house.

She wasn't certain why she was so nervous; she had spent plenty of time with Selene and Nix.

"It's going to be all right." Cassia clasped her girlfriend's hand, smiling even wider at the thought. "They like you, remember that." She pulled her towards the stairs up to the front door.

Nix opened the front door just before they reached it and leveled a glare at Moriko. "Do I want to know why my little girl is just getting home?" She nearly started laughing when the young woman looked like she might turn and run.

"Uh, hmmm, well...ummm, snow, lots of snow," she finally blurted out.

"Mom," Cassia glared at Nix, "stop trying to terrorize Moriko!"

The glare melted away. "Aww, Cassia. You never really brought anybody home for me to terrorize." She looked sheepish for a second, then opened the door wide to let them in. "Don't track snow in the house, you know how that bugs your Muanya." The ex-smith retreated into the kitchen.

"See," the dark-haired woman whispered, tacking off her boots in the hallway and closing the door behind them, "she likes you." Well aware that she was blushing, she realized that Nix was right, Moriko was the first girl she'd brought home to her parents.

"That's good." She smiled weakly and shed the thick cloak and overcoat she was wearing, and then finally the boots. Noticing they were alone for the moment and feeling her courage return, she leaned over and gently kissed Cassia. She blushed and mumbled against Cassia's red lips, "Not sure when I'll get to do that again today."

The smile that the other woman gave her was wide and very happy. "Hopefully a lot." Reclaiming Moriko's hand, she held it up, "You mind this?"

Moriko, quirking a blonde eyebrow in question, asked, "Mind what?"

"...If I hold your hand?" Cassia mentally crossed her fingers, not sure if she'd mind it in front of her parents.

"Why would I mind?" She looked over at Cassia. "Is there some new odd northern tradition that started after I left?"

She shrugged. "No, I just didn't want to make you uncomfortable." She paused then grinned. "Well, more uncomfortable."

Moriko snorted and pulled Cassia to the kitchen. "I survived someone trying to take my head off, how bad can it be having tea with your mothers?"

"I'm going to remind you that you said that." Keeping hold of her hand, Cassia let herself be pulled along, straightening up to face the knowing looks on both her parents' faces.

Nix was sitting at a table with three other mugs of tea. "What took you so long? Honey, what ever do you think these two were doing in the other room?"

Selene had to struggle not to laugh as she picked up her mug of tea and sipped it. "I haven't any idea."

Cassia, for her part, stuck her tongue out at her parents, feeling like a teen again as she took a seat next to Moriko. "My boot laces were frozen, Moriko had to help me get them off."

Moriko wrapped her hands around her tea and studied the cup's contents. She frowned for a moment before looking up and catching everybody's eyes at least once. "Selene and Nix, I, um, just want you to know, that your daughter and I are dating. I know you're probably having a lot of fun ribbing your daughter and me, but I just want you to know that I take what we are just starting here very seriously. I'm not certain where we'll end up, but I will treat her well and with honesty." She cleared her throat and nervously took a sip, ignoring her bright red face.

Moriko sounded so earnest in her declaration that Nix didn't have the heart to make any more jokes. "Thank you, Moriko. That's the best I can ask." She nodded and picked up her own tea.

Smiling at the shocked expression on her daughter's face, Selene reached over and patted Moriko's hand. "Well said. You realize that we both like you, and Kai." She was almost ready to tell the young woman that they knew who Kai really was, but she took pity on her and instead patted her hand once again.

"Thank you." She smiled up at Selene, before reaching over and taking one of Cassia's hands in hers.



Winter had grown mild around its halfway point to spring, and the paths had turned to mud, with dirty snow piled high alongside, framing the mud. Moriko opened the door to her home with a gentle shove of her foot. In one hand she held a muddy Kai, in the other she held a muddy Rugor, the adolescent puppy wiggling and trying to look pathetic. "Stop it, you two."

Kai cooed and made a grab for the puppy, managing to smear more mud around on Moriko's jacket.

"I swear," she grumbled. "Hello, anyone else home?"

She marched them all into the kitchen wondering how she was going to start a fire, let alone get water to be heated on the fire without letting the two squirming masses loose to get mud everywhere.

There was a note folded up on the kitchen table with Cassia's writing on it: "Gone to supervise the final work on the dome for the Cathedral. Be back later." Of Valdis, there was no sign.

"Goddess," she cursed. She set Rugor in a corner next to the fire, and shouted at him to stay. "I better not find any puppy paw prints anywhere other than that spot, buddy." With her now free hand, she tossed a few logs in the smoldering charcoal. Leaning over, she blew on the coals hoping to get some sparks to catch on the wood.

Kai took the opportunity to try and escape, wriggling in Moriko's arms as she held out both arms towards Rugor. The puppy gave a little yelp, its entire back end waggling as it started to inch towards the baby.

"Stop it. I swear I'm going to tether both of you outside to a tree," she grumbled. She easily caught the willful toddler and resettled her in the crook of her arm. Happy that one of the logs was starting to catch, she grabbed a large bucket.

Stopped from going to play with the puppy, which was how they had both gotten so muddy before, Kai began to cry.

Moriko set down the bucket and tried to soothe the baby. She was feeling like she might join the baby in crying. "Hey now, shhhh, don't be pulling that, you have no one but yourself to blame for the mud."

Kai stopped crying, but looked up at Moriko, pouting.

Moriko started laughing. "You are so Caron's child. She used to give me that look when she didn't get her way."

Even though it was still the afternoon, the sun was low on the horizon, casting long shadows through the house.

Rugor stood up in his corner, the hair stiffening and raising on his spine. He started growling, exposing white teeth in a snarl.

Moriko frowned, looking over at the puppy. "What are you doing?" She turned, looking around. "Are the shadows spooking you?" She rolled her eyes.

From the corner of her eye, something seemed to shift and flow in the shadows that were forming in the corners of the room. It wasn't much, a darker shade of black on the already dark shadows.

Moriko froze, the hair rising on the back of her neck. She was a big believer on listening to her instincts. "Rugor, heel..." She and the puppy began moving towards the door, Moriko trying to fight the overwhelming sense of dread that was filling her.

The shadow that was darker than the others shifted out from the wall, gliding along the floor towards the trio who were backing towards the door. A flash of metal winked in the darkness and a dagger flew end over end, embedding it in the doorframe. "I wouldn't if I were you," a low voice whispered.

"Shit!" she blurted out. Being a practical person and being unarmed, she reached over and pulled the dagger out of the wood. "Thanks," she said, while her brain was trying to frantically remember what Valdis had tried to teach her.

"I suppose I should ask you why you're here, but I think we both know that answer."

The voice in the shadow sounded amused, "Give me the child and I might allow you to live." The laugh that followed that wasn't a happy one. "Or not, but I'll make your death swift, at least."



Valdis stared at Ryuu then looked back down at the ink scribbles on the pressed parchment. "I don't know why you think it important I learn this. All I need to know in life is how to swing a sword or an axe. This," she pointed at the writing, "is not going to save my life."

The silver-haired woman closed her eyes in pain at the warrior's words. It had seemed like such a good idea when she'd suggested that she could teach Valdis how to read and write. Her patience was sorely being tested, though, by the warrior's thick skull. She wouldn't say it was impossible, but Valdis certainly wasn't trying hard. "It could."

Valdis snorted, "Fine. But just so you know, I'm humoring you." She picked up the ink brush then easily copied the squiggly symbols that Ryuu had done. She frowned at the page. "So what did I write?"

It was amazing how annoying Valdis could be when she set her mind to it. "That's your name." The silver-haired woman opened her mouth to say something then paused, frowning as she tilted her head to one side, as if she were listening to something.

"My name looks like snake turds?" She squinted at the parchment.

"Quiet," Ryuu demanded, suddenly standing up. Frowning, the woman turned in a slow circle, head tilted as if listening.

Valdis stood up, pissed-off at being ordered around. "Fine, I didn't want to learn those stupid letter things anyway." She whistled for Thorn, and the puppy perked up from where he was napping.

"Wait." The silver-haired woman jerked around to Valdis, grabbing her arm. "You have to find Kai and Moriko."

"What? Oh, well, they're probably at home." She stared at Ryuu, "Does Moriko and Kai need to learn how to spell as well?" she grumbled.

It took a bit of willpower to avoid shaking the warrior. "They're in danger," she managed to say in a relatively level voice. "You have to find them, quickly."

"Oh, why didn't you just say so?" She turned and whistled for Thorn to follow. The puppy was instantly at her heels.



Humming to herself, Cassia walked up the path towards Moriko's house. The last of the dome had been raised up onto the cathedral. That was the end of the structure, although the finishing work would take decades more to finish. Still humming to herself, she climbed the stairs and opened the door. "Moriko!" she called, not immediately noticing the darkness.

Moriko screamed as her hand was crushed under the assassin's foot. The boot twisted and turned, and the sounds of bones breaking could be heard. The shadow woman laughed, holding a crying Kai. "If you would have just given me the infant and laid down and died, this could have been avoided. But now you have no one but yourself to blame for your pain."

Cassia froze, startled as she stared at the scene in front of her. It was such a surprise that she wasn't sure what to do. "Who the..." She started forwards.

Moriko had tried to put up a fight, but found herself quickly outmatched. She had gotten a few lucky cuts, but nothing disabling. The woman easily beat her down and stabbed her. She could feel the blood dripping from her gut, and while the wound was not life threatening, if not treated she would bleed to death.

The shadowy woman looked up, an evil smile as she spotted the princess. "Look who showed up."

Cassia didn't know who this stranger was, but she had hurt Moriko and taken Kai. Without thought, she charged her. She was Nix's daughter after all.

The assassin laughed at the pitiful attack. Grinding her boot hard down on Moriko's hand again, she shifted her stance and twirled. Her boot came around in a circle and caught Cassia in the side, sending the woman flying through the hall table before she could get anywhere near her. "Pathetic."

Moriko cried out in fear as she saw woman attack Cassia. She lunged forward, grabbing at the woman's ankle with her good hand, tripping her up. Rugor got into the fray, running and attacking the woman's feet as well.

Off balance, the woman tipped and dropped Kai as she tried to catch herself. Moriko looked on with horror as the small toddler fell towards the floor. Inches from impact, a hand with fine, white scars all over it caught Kai.

Everyone froze for a moment, and then Kai started to scream, her face turning red as she let everyone know about the pain and fear she was feeling. Valdis gently set the baby down on the ground before turning her attention to the assassin that was getting to her feet. She looked at the woman and grinned. "Bet you're not even a good work out."

Wobbly, Cassia managed to crawl up out of the shattered ruins of the table, nose bleeding. She'd never been so happy to see Valdis before. "Now you're in trouble," she mumbled, trying to get to Kai and Moriko.

The assassin snarled in annoyance. This wasn't going as she had planned. Maybe she should have just killed Moriko and gotten it over with instead of toying with her. Flowing backwards, she drew the sword that hung at her side, "Enough of this. Prepare to die."

Valdis said nothing. She drew her own sword and in a series of blindingly fast moves, disarmed the woman. "Backstabber, cowardly bootlicker," she hissed out. She was familiar with the chosen of her father's twin.

The assassin hissed with pain as she suddenly found herself disarmed. Gone was the arrogant smirk, little had she realized she was facing a chosen of the god of war. "Traitor," she sneered, hand inching to the hilt of the dagger at her belt.

Rage poured through her at that word. "Me. You betrayed the rightful Queen, you and yours swarmed out of the shadows and fell on us at our weakest moment. You put that puppet on the throne. Don't dare speak to me of traitors!" she howled out. With a snarl, she dropped her sword and threw herself at the assassin, intending to rip her apart with her bare hands. Feral energies came from her, sparking the air with the taint of chaos.

Moriko coughed and tried to gather the puppies and the baby away from the combatants. It was proving nearly impossible, wounded as she was. She had only ever seen Valdis call upon her godly heritage once, and quite frankly, it was something she never wanted to see again.

Ducking a flying fist, Cassia grabbed a hold of Moriko with one hand and Kai with the other. She started to drag them both away, the puppy still barking and growling at the intruder.

The assassin laughed, tinged with insanity, as she drew her dagger and met the lunging woman, not caring that she was about to face someone touched by the god of war. "The weak do not deserve to rule!" She sliced at the other woman with the wickedly serrated dagger.

Moriko cried out weakly in pain and nearly passed out. With her good hand, she pulled Cassia to her. "Don't watch. And when it's over, don't try to speak to her or touch her," she croaked out in warning.

"You're bleeding!" Cassia stared at the red streak from Moriko with worry. She reached down and picked up Kai, trying to get Moriko to her feet so that they could get outside. She had a feeling that staying inside the house would be a bad idea.

Valdis' father was chaos, the creation of living through violence and primal needs. He was the hunt from the first bellow of the hound to the last heartbeat of the hunted. He was the point in battle where everything was reduced to red, and the line between friend and enemy was just a blur. For a brief moment she opened up the divine within herself and howled.

The puppies froze, recognizing the call to hunt, and threw their heads back as well, returning the call. From the forest, older, wilder creatures called out as well. Her eyes red now, the red of split blood stared at her prey. Valdis grinned and said, "I want you to run now."

The sheer power of that howl dropped the assassin to her knees, the dagger clattering to the floor by her feet. Blood dripped from her ears as she screamed in pain. By the door, Cassia managed to get Moriko and Kai outside, yelping in pain as they caught just the edge of the maelstrom.

The assassin blindly grabbed the dagger, still stunned from the mental blow. "The Goddess curse you," she yelled, staggering into the nearest shadows, trying to flee.

Moriko trembled and relaxed slightly as Valdis left to hunt her attacker. She was somewhat happy Valdis had decided on a hunt, instead of tearing the woman apart right here in front of them all.

Just outside the door, Cassia slumped down next to the house, leaning against the wall. She held Kai as Moriko slumped against her. Struggling out of her jacket, she pressed it against the wound in Moriko's stomach, "Stay still, don't move." She was nearly frantic.

Moriko held the clothing to her stomach. "Cassia, I need you to take Oscar and get me help. I need stitches right away." She had seen enough gut wounds at war to know she wasn't in a good position right now.

"Are you insane? I'm not leaving you here with an assassin running around!" She held a crying Kai to her chest.

Moriko started to chuckle then winced. "Cassia, that assassin is probably dead. Valdis called a hunt to her, and every predator in a five mile radius is hunting that woman into the ground." She let go of the cloth and reached out, touching Cassia's leg. "I can't ride...it will just tear my wound open more. And if I don't get help, I'm going to bleed to death. Please, Cassia."

There was no other option and Cassia knew it. "Don't you dare die! If you do, I swear I'll never forgive you." She knew that she was crying, but she didn't care.

"Not planning on it." She smiled weakly. "Go on, take Kai and get me some help. I promise I'm just going to sit here and wait for you to get back."

Cassia leaned in and kissed the wounded woman hard. "I'll be back fast," she promised, wiping at the wetness on her cheeks with her free hand.



Nix held her daughter down. "Stop pacing. The healer will let us know something, when they have something to tell us. So sit." They were sitting in Moriko's kitchen. Willow and the healer had taken Moriko into her room and shut the door. Now, all they could do was sit and wait.

"She has to be all right, she can't..." She choked on the word, shaking her head to go stand by the crib where Kai now rested. The baby had cried for a long time after the fight, and only now was resting.

Selene came up behind her daughter, placing a reassuring hand on her shoulder. "She will be fine." She cast a worried look at Nix, hoping that she wasn't lying.

Nix nodded then handed her daughter an old rag. "Pumpkin, why don't you go gather some snow in that and put it on your eye. It's starting to swell."

With a subdued nod, the dark-haired woman went to the door to gather up some snow for the hit she took to her face.

Once Cassia had left, she looked at Selene gravely, "A woman who can run and disappear into shadows. Does that sound familiar?'

Selene watched her go with worry, and leaned closer to her wife. "Yes, it does." She shook her head. "Will Moriko be all right?" She had arrived after Nix and hadn't seen the injured girl.

"I think so. I won't lie, the wound is deep and she'd lost a lot of blood, but she was still lucid when we arrived. That's a good sign.' She wrapped her arms around the smaller blonde.

At least there was that. Worriedly, Selene turned back towards the crib, watching the small child sleeping inside of it. "Do you think it's her? Or somebody she trained?"

Nix thought for a moment, "I doubt it's her, she's our age. I know I don't feel spry enough to take on someone Valdis' age. So, sadly, I'm going to guess she had followers."

The Queen closed her eyes and nodded. She'd thought it might be something along those lines. "I don't want to tell Cassia about her." She couldn't even bring herself to say Laurel's name.

That gave Nix pause, "Why not?" she asked carefully. "I know we hurt Laurel, but she's the one that chose the path she's on. The Goddess freed us and let us have freewill. We reap the rewards or punishment as we chose to live our lives." She moved closer to her wife's back, looking at Kai. "I think we should ask Valdis to train some women how to use weapons."

That was something that Selene had resisted every time it had been suggested. She didn't like it, didn't like the idea and what it represented, so she delayed. "I don't want to tell her because Cassia believes people are good. I don't want her to know there are those who have evil."

"Honey, I don't think Cassia is as naive as you think. She was kidnapped, and just now she was attacked. I think she knows some people out there are bad, just as some out there are good. But if you don't want to tell her then we won't." She leaned over and kissed Selene's temple.

Selene nodded. She didn't want to tell Cassia about anything to do with Laurel. "As for the women with swords..." She hesitated then straightened her shoulders. "...how many do you think we should train?"

"Not many, ten or twelve to start. I think we can use them as patrols in the city and the roads near the city. They can make sure they're clear of dangerous critters and bandits. Plus if we have another problem like today, we don't have to worry if Valdis is around or not," she spoke quietly into her wife's hair.

"I don't like it." The smaller woman leaned back into the warm body behind her. "I kept hoping that we had left things like this behind once we left the lands of men."

Nix chuckled, "Unfortunately, I don't think men had the market on being assholes."

That got a laugh out of the other woman, and she turned to hug Nix, "Sadly true."

The door to Moriko's room opened and the healer stepped out followed by Willow. The small, stocky woman with small, delicate fingers walked towards the Royal couple. There was blood stained on her clothes, but her hands were wet, just recently cleaned.

She nodded to both of them. "Baring any infection, the young woman will be fine."

Selene sagged with relief against Nix, smiling as she heard Cassia walk back inside just in time to hear that. Her daughter looked ready to pass out in relief as well.

"Thank the Goddess." Cassia looked like she was going to cry in relief. "Can I see her?"

Willow patted the healer's hand and slowly made her way across to where Nix and Selene stood, making shooing motions with her hands at Cassia. "Go."

"She's asleep, and probably will be for the rest of the day and night. I had to give her quite a lot to knock her out. Feel free to talk to her, but don't expect a response," the healer informed her, watching the Princess practically run to Moriko's room.

"Thank you, Leslie." Willow gave the healer a smile and nodded towards the door. "I need to talk to these two."

The healer hesitated, not liking the idea of the high priestess walking alone through the snow. "I'm not that old," Willow laughed, to which Leslie had the good grace to blush.

"I'll see you later, then," the healer said as she left.

The smile faded as Willow turned to face the Queen and her consort. "While we were treating the wounds, Moriko was delirious. She was talking about a woman who stepped through shadows."

Nix nodded, "Cassia told us the same thing. That the attacker disappeared into the shadows."

The priestess met both of their eyes and shook her head. "I've had troubled dreams these past few nights. I thought it was because I don't sleep much anymore." Absently, Willow brushed back red hair that was streaked with gray. "They were filled with shadows. I think they were a warning from the Goddess."

The tall smith bit her lip in worry. "Ever since the southern Royal family was murdered, I've worried. We've mourned our friends, yet stayed out of their politics, but I worry. This new leader has been quiet, hasn't even tried to contact us."

"It is winter, hard for them to contact us with the pass snowed in now," Selene said. It wasn't a good sign, though.

"I guess when spring comes we'll see what comes. Hopefully not more women like the one that attacked Moriko," Nix said quietly. "It's late, maybe we should leave Cassia here to watch Moriko, and we can take the little one. It will be like we finally have grandkids."

That brought a smile to her wife's face. "I think that's a good idea. I'll go warn her that we're bringing Kai with us so she doesn't worry." Selene squeezed Willow's hand in farewell before heading for the bedroom.

Willow watched the Queen leave before turning back to Nix, eyes troubled. "There's something dark happening in the south. I know Selene doesn't want to hear about it, but I fear what might happen."

Nix nodded, "I know she doesn't, but we've talked, and we are going to ask Valdis to train some willing women in the art of war. I'm hoping it will help."

"I hope so." The priestess patted the tall woman on the shoulder and started towards the door, pausing on the way. "Any sign of Valdis?"

Nix shook her head, "None."

"I'll pray for her safety, then." The priestess left...bundled up against the cold outside.



Half way to Abnoa, near the bank of the slowly winding river, the dirty melting snow was stained red. Various predators that normally would have nothing to do with each other growled and snapped in a feeding frenzy. Large, bloody prints moved away from the shredded body towards the rocky bank. In a small eddy, scooped out by the river, was a still pool of water.

The paw prints led up to the water and disappeared. In the water a few bubbles appeared then a white blonde head broke the surface of the water.

Valdis gasped for breath and slowly swam the few feet to shore.

Calling on her father's gifts always left her spent and weak, as if a fire had raged through her body and left her hollowed out. She flopped onto the smooth pebbles of the shoreline and panted,. not even really feeling the cold. Wiping the water from her eyes, she noticed a pair of booted feet.

"The chosen of the Mistress of Shadows is dead," the owner of those pair of boots said. Slowly crouching down, Ryuu stared out at the river where the ice had been broken through. Around her, the predators stayed back, leaving a clear area around the silver-haired woman. She was dressed the same as she had been back in town, with no sign of how she could have gotten there so quickly.

Valdis rolled over, not really caring much that she was naked, and looked at Ryuu, a puzzled look on her face. "I have a lot of questions for you," she said, finally.

"Is that one of the questions?" the woman responded, picking up a small, flat stone from the riverbank. She traced her fingers over it, turning it over and over again in her hands.

Valdis thought about it for a moment then replied. "Um, no, that's more of a statement, I guess."

With a flick of her wrist, Ryuu sent the rock skimming across the water until it hit a piece of ice and sank.

Valdis stood up. "You don't happen to have any clothes, do you? I seem to have lost mine."

Ryuu looked up and smiled, her eyes taking in the way the other woman moved. "What would they be worth to you?"

There were several scars that mapped her body, on her chest alone were three precise stab wounds where a sword had run her through. She was the firstborn of a God, so she would probably live for decades, if not centuries, and in time they would fade. She quirked an eyebrow, "Depends. I won't kill anything for Œem, other than that I'm open to allsorts of payment."

"We can discuss that later, then." The silver-haired woman pointed to a packet of clothes nearby. "We should talk, you and I, and not just to try and get you to learn how to read and write."

She rolled her eyes, but eagerly picked up the clothes and put them on. "I still don't see the point in this whole reading and writing nonsense." She finished lacing the breeches and turned around. She eyed Ryuu carefully then walked over to the woman, slowly circling her. She sniffed, but didn't smell anything other than the woman's scent.

"I remember you vaguely at the southern manor. You worked in that little closet with the records. Funny thing is, you've just always been there, can't remember when you started. It's like you were just part of the manor." She stopped circling and stepped forward, sniffing the back of Ryuu's neck. "You smell like the wind and clouds."

She didn't know how she knew what the wind and clouds smelled like, but Ryuu smelled of such things.

The woman didn't move, letting Valdis sniff to her heart's content. "I was there for a long time," Ryuu agreed, picking up another likely rock and sending it skimming across the water. "We aren't human, you and I." The predators were slowly starting to disperse, leaving behind the signs of the struggle that had played out on the bank of the river.

"We aren't?" she asked surprised. "I've never..." She stepped away from the other woman. "I've never met anyone else like me."

"You weren't ready to." Ryuu stood up, turning to face the other woman. "I've only met one other throughout the years, and that meeting was unpleasant." She studied the warrior's face. "I was worried you would become like that too."

There was a feeling of warmth blooming in the young warrior's chest. For a long time she thought she would be alone. In time, she knew those she was close to would grow old and die, yet she would remain as she was. "And you're not worried now?" She pointed at the bloody carnage in the snow.

The silver-haired woman smiled, glancing down at the trail of blood that disappeared into the dark waters of the Winderling. "You stopped after you killed the assassin. If you hadn't, I would have had to try and stop you before you hurt an innocent."

Valdis stepped back and cracked her neck, grinning a little as the spine realigned. "To my knowledge, I've never hurt an innocent."

For a moment, it was on the tip of her tongue to ask whose godly child Ryuu was, but decided it didn't matter. "Sometimes when the rage gets too great it happens, like now, but I've never hurt anyone. I just go hunting, running through the forest on all fours."

"You are the daughter of the god of war..." Trailing off, Ryuu raised an eyebrow at that "You go running through the forest on all fours?"

"He has a thing for hounds. He can take that form if he wants, but now he sees it as being beneath him. Kind of like Armando and his horses, and Korgon and the dragon form." She shrugged, "I can do it too, but it takes a lot out of me."

"I'd like to see that someday." Ryuu looked up towards the cloudy sky above them, trying to judge how much longer they had before sunrise. "We should start heading back to the city. They'll start getting worried if we don't show up by sunrise."

Valdis nodded, looking up at the nighttime sky. "So how did you find me?"

As they started to walk, Ryuu looked over at the other woman, slyly. "I just looked for the place where a part of the Mistress of Shadows was dying."

Valdis made a disgusted face and snorted, "Whatever. If you don't want to tell me, then don't."

"I promise I'll tell you, just not right now." Ryuu patted the other woman's arm, grinning at the annoyed look that she got in return. "We have more important things to talk about than that right now. For example, what are you going to do now?"

"Go home and sleep. Then get up and start a new day of the same old." She scratched her head behind her ear. The same old was getting kind of old. She sighed. "I'm promised to protect Kai, but at the rate Moriko and Cassia are going, they won't need me."

Ryuu sighed. "That's the problem with you warriors; you don't know how to look long term. Do you know why I'm here?"

"To bring me clothes," she said with a smirk

That earned her a hit on her arm. "You are such a charmer." Ryuu followed the taller woman as they began down a small, muddy path that followed the banks of the Winderling. "Did you even wonder why I left the south?"

"ŒCause the twins told you to take all those parchment book thingies to Cassia?" She rubbed her arm.

Ryuu considered hitting her again then thought better of it, reminding herself to be patient. "That's part of it. These people need us though." She motioned ahead of them in the vague direction of the Queen's Island. "Cassia has great ideas, revolutionary even, but none of them knew how to really work with stone. If they don't learn now, they'll fall even further behind the south in the future."

Valdis thought for a moment. "Who says they're falling behind? Just Œcause they don't have the same things the south does, that doesn't make the south better than the north."

"You are the daughter of the god of war, right?" Ryuu ducked under a tree branch "The south already has more people than the north. Now that the Mistress has some power, she'll just continue to increase her followers. Eventually, probably a few generations from now, she'll get one of her chosen or maybe even worse to rule the south. Then she'll come for these people here. They can't just stay in the running; they have to be able to survive what will be coming."

The warrior reached out and grabbed the other woman, stilling her movements. "What's coming, what has you so freaked out? Can you see into the future?"

It was on the tip of Ryuu's tongue to say some sly remark again. Instead, she forced herself to meet the taller woman's eyes, where in the darkness, they were deeper shadows. "Darkness is coming. It's a storm cloud on the horizon, slowly gathering its strength. The death of the twins and their families has set it in motion. It won't stop now until it washes across Abnoa and into the north itself. It's cold and calculating. She will take her time, build her strength, and marshal her troops. I see the end of the north in that darkness."

"So we'll see it, then, Œcause being the children of gods, we'll be around until the end of everything. Cassia, Moriko, Kai, and the others will lead happy lives. Then this will blacken the lives of the children yet to come." She could live with that; she was not emotionally invested in those she didn't even know.

She let go, and started walking through the snow. "Come on, then. I need to go make sure Moriko's wounds got treated."

Ryuu frowned, staying where she was for a moment before turning and following after her. "You don't care that their children's children will die if we don't help them now?"

"I care, but in a less meaningful way. I'm heartsick of seeing those I care about die. All around me, when Alina and that traitorous bitch the advisor ambushed us, I watched those I cared about die. You want me to take my shirt off again? I can show you the stab wounds I took, that left me bleeding close to death. That Goddess would not even look my way. She let me lie there in my blood inches from death, but my father's gifts kept me away for that sweet peace. So no, I got to lie there and watch all my troops slaughtered, my mother gutted, and my poor, stupid hound Wraith, whom I had raised from a puppy, who wouldn't leave my body, guard it until his last breath. So you'll excuse me if I'm a little unwilling to feel concern for women I don't know, when I haven't even mourned the dead I do know."

The smaller woman said nothing as they continued to walk, considering her words carefully as they went. "I'm sorry for your pain," she said, finally "I'm sorry you watched people you cared for die." She didn't dare push further now, not when she'd seen a flash of the anguish that Valdis carried in her shadowed eyes.

"It's...I'm, I'm dealing with it. I'll help, as much as I can with this horror you see in the future, this is my home now. I'll do what I can to protect it."

"You can't tell them, about me, or what I've told you."

Valdis rolled her eyes. "Fine, it's not like they won't figure it out when you don't grow old. Moriko, I think, has noticed I don't look any older, really, than the day she met me, but she doesn't seem to care. She's kind of special that way. She just kind of decides not to let things bother her."

"I won't be staying long enough for them to notice that I'm not aging." At least, that was her plan.

"I see," she said blandly, and picked up the pace to town. "After I check on Moriko, you can make me breakfast."

Ryuu snorted. "Oh, thank you for the honor of allowing me to make you breakfast."

"Well, you don't want me to make it. Plus, if Moriko is fine, Cassia will be with her mooning. I can't stand it when girls get all moony."

Ryuu rolled her eyes. "Love isn't a very warrior thing, then?"

For a moment, she almost let loose with a snarky retort, but then settled for more of the truth. "Warriors can do love. If a woman is moony over me with concern, it's different. I just can't stand it when other couples do it."

Grinning in the darkness, Ryuu said quietly, "That's called being jealous. You're secret is safe with me though, I'm good with secrets."

"I bet you are," was all Valdis said as their feet crunched through the snow.

Up ahead, she could see the faint light of the town.

"They'll want to know how you tracked her down." Ryuu continued alongside the warrior, brushing long silver hair behind her ear. "What will you tell them?"

"I'll just tell them I'm good at what I do. Then give them the eyebrow thingy, they never ask, the how, when I do that." She grinned in the night, her teeth white in the darkness.

The other woman snorted in amusement; that was true enough. Valdis was very good at getting people not to question her when she wanted to.

"It disturbs people if I tell them that when I get really pissed, I can turn into a great white hound and call a hunt of every large predator in a five mile radius. So I don't tell them that. People love their gods, but they don't like it when proof walks among them." She frowned, missing her mother at that moment. Her mother knew everything about her, and loved her anyways.

They broke around a bend in the river and the trees cleared ahead of them enough to give them a clear view of the town. Reaching out, she took a hold of Valdis 's hand to stop her. "There's something I have to tell you."

"It's okay. I know you find me attractive, most women do." She laughed at the stunned look on Ryuu's face. "I'm hurt, that's not what you were going to say."

It took a lot to stun Ryuu, but somehow, Valdis had managed to do it twice now. "No, that's not what I was going to say." She hastily let go of the warrior's hand after realizing she was still holding it. "I was going to warn you that every god and goddess can have one child. I've met one other, but that means there are others."

"They can have only one. Is that at a time or over all? So if I wasn't careful, could I have lots of little partial godlings running around?" She stopped her questions and looked at the woman, smirking. "You're kind of cute when you get flustered. It's a new sensation for you, I can tell." She started walking, heading for the path that would take her to the house she shared with Moriko. "So I should be carefully when dealing with my little brethren. I'll keep that in mind.'

"Are you always so..." Ryuu trailed off as she ran through a mental list of words to describe the warrior. With a huff of annoyance, she hurried to catch up with Valdis. "I'm just warning you that we aren't alone."

"Yes, I'm always this way. Mother said it stemmed from the fact I had a father. On top of having a father, he was an absentee one, who in the end refused to acknowledge I was his child. In a nutshell, I have abandonment issues."

Ryuu made a strangled sound and followed the lean warrior towards the bridge that linked the island to the riverbank. "So you're always annoying." That was going to make things interesting, along with everything else, of course.

"No, sometimes I'm incredible." She let out a happy sigh as she spotted her modest little home, which thankfully Cassia had redesigned for them.

Ryuu watched the other woman climb up the stairs, indulging herself just long enough to admire how nice the warrior's ass looked in her tight leather pants. "I bet," she mumbled quietly, shaking her head and following her inside.

Valdis smirked and said, "I heard that," as she opened the door.

The house was dark, except for a couple of lanterns lit hanging by the door. "Hello, Moriko?"

The door for the second bedroom opened and Cassia slipped out into the main room, "Valdis?" The princess sounded relieved. "Thank the Goddess, we were worried." Actually, Selene and Nix hadn't been too worried, saying that Valdis could handle herself. But Cassia had her doubts.

Cassia hugged the shorter, yet considerably more muscular warrior in return. "I'm glad you're safe. Moriko was asking for you earlier, before the healers made her drink something and she passed out."

"I'm glad you and Moriko are safe. How is the deer herder doing? Is she going to be okay?" Valdis asked, worried.

A little confused as to why Ryuu had come in with Valdis, Cassia looked from one to the other. "What? Yes, she's going to be all right. Willow was in here earlier with a healer. She's going to be weak, but if everything goes well, she should be fine." Cassia held the warrior at arms length, looking for sings of fighting. "What happened?"

"I tracked that assassin down. She won't be hurting anyone ever again," Valdis said gravely.

"Oh." Something about the warrior's tone did not encourage any more questions about that. Letting go of Valdis, she nodded to Ryuu, who had made her way closer.

There was a scramble of puppy paws on the wooden floors of the kitchen then Thorn came bursting through into the entryway. "Hey, boy..." With an ear-to-ear grin Valdis bent down and scooped the puppy up, barely avoiding being licked to death. "I wasn't gone that long," she grumbled, trying to push his head away.

"Somebody missed you desperately, it looks like." Cassia grinned. "He wouldn't stop whining while you were gone."

"I'm sorry, boy, maybe when you're older we can go hunting." She rubbed his ears and set him down. Wiping her face, she looked over at Cassia. "Will you and Moriko be okay? Ryuu owes be breakfast, but I can stay here if you'd rather."

"I'll keep an eye on her," Cassia promised, hesitating a moment. "I want you to teach me how to use the sword that my mother made." She didn't want to be completely useless if something like this ever happened again.

Ryuu kept her expression neutral, but there might have been an ever so slight approving look in her eyes.

Valdis eyed her for a second then simply said, "Okay. We'll start the day after tomorrow. I'm sure you'll want to keep an eye on Moriko tomorrow, make sure she's recovering okay."

For some reason, Cassia had figured that Valdis would argue more than that. She blinked a few times in surprise then smiled. "Good, then." She looked once again from Ryuu to Valdis then shook her head. "I should go back, in case she wakes up."

"Okay. Tell her she was very brave when she wakes up. I'm even slightly impressed she lasted as long as she did." Valdis turned towards the door, Thorn at her heels. She paused and turned back around. "Tell her I'm sorry I wasn't here sooner, to protect them."

She turned back around and nodded at Ryuu as she made her way to the door.

"She'll be glad that you weren't hurt," Cassia called after her, before turning to go back into Moriko's bedroom.



Moriko's eyes valiantly struggled to open when she heard her bedroom door open and shut. Her head felt like it was stuffed with wool, and her eyelids were lead weight. "Hello?"

"Hey, you," Cassia said quietly, slipping into the seat next to the bed and reaching down to hold the injured woman's hand. "I didn't want to wake you up. The healer said you should rest."

"Cassia..?" Vaguely, she remembered Willow and some other woman making her drink some awful concoction. Her hand weakly tightened around Cassia's. "How are you doing?" she croaked out. Her tongue peeked out and tried to wet dry lips.

That got a weak laugh from the princess. Gently, she brushed a hand across Moriko's brow, brushing hair out of her face. "I'm doing better than you are. I'll have a great black eye, and I had a bloody nose, that's it." She leaned closer, pressing her lips to Moriko's brow. "How do you feel?"

"Um, I'm not sure." Her eyes opened a little bit more and she was able to see Cassia. "Okay, I think." She tried to tilt her head to the side to see Cassia better. She grinned, her nose wrinkling slightly. "I'm glad you're okay."

Her eyes blinked a couple of times. "You are so beautiful. You know that, right? I'm such a bad girlfriend. I don't think I've ever told you that before," she rambled on.

"I'm glad you're still alive." The tears that threatened were hard to stop, and Cassia took a moment to brush her eyes clear. "You're just saying that."

"No I'm not. I always thought you were beautiful. Even when you were a pompous know-it-all-teenager, you were beautiful then, but a bigger pain in my ass. And I can't believe Crow made me chop all that wood. I still don't think it was fair."

Cassia laughed. If the laughter was tinged with tears, she pretended it wasn't. "I can't believe you chopped it all. I think I would have tossed the axe at Crow instead of doing it all."

"It was Crow; even you wouldn't have done that." She started to laugh, but stopped and winced. "Hmmm, don't make me laugh.'

"Okay." She pressed her lips to Moriko's forehead once again, smiling against the skin, glad to not detect any sign of fever. "Go back to sleep. I'll be here when you wake up."

Her jaw opened in a huge yawn. "Okay, but I think you should get into bed with me, instead of being all stubborn and stoic, and sleeping in that awful chair all night."

"You don't have to ask me twice." Cassia got up, kicked off her boots and pants, and crawled into bed next to Moriko, carefully arranging herself so that she didn't hurt the other woman.

Moriko grinned as her eyes slid shut, and she mumbled, "That's so much better. I can feel myself healing already."

"Sweet talker," Cassia whispered, watching as Moriko finally surrendered to sleep. She pressed one last gentle kiss to her cheek before allowing sleep to claim her as well.



Moriko blinked and tried to crack open sand-filled eyes. Her body hurt, her mouth tasted like something had died in it a week ago, and her bladder was screaming for her to get out of bed and do something about it. She groaned and tried to sit up, only to have a sharp, stabbing pain in her stomach make her lie back down flat in the bed with a muffled yelp of pain. Only by the grace of the Goddess did her bladder not release.

Disoriented and confused, Cassia jerked away at the cry of pain from her bedmate. "Moriko?' She blinked, trying to clear the sleep from her eyes and brain before she realized where she was and what had happened. "What is it? Are you all right?'

Tears were leaking out of tightly closed eyelids, but through clenched teeth, she mumbled out, "I forgot I was hurt, tried to move."

That got Cassia moving. Carefully, she sat up and reached over to a pitcher left by the side of the bed. Rubbing eyes that were still sticky with sleep, she poured a glass full of the reddish liquid. "Here.' She inched closer to Moriko, not touching the hurt woman in case she caused more pain. "Drink this, the healer left it for you. She said it would help dull the pain.'

Moriko slowly lifted up her head, her lips finding the cup in Cassia's hand. The liquid had no smell and a slightly unpleasant taste. Once the cup was empty, her head flopped back down on the bed. She took a few shallow breaths and looked at Cassia sadly. "Um, I'm going to need help getting outside to the outhouse, or things are going to get unpleasant." Her face turned bright red in embarrassment.

"Don't worry." Cassia flashed the best smile she could, feeling her own cheeks flush a little. "Here, let's get you up carefully." It took some maneuvering, and two pauses to allow Moriko to catch her breath, but they got her standing. "Now, for your coat..." She carefully wrapped the thick winter coat around the wounded woman and helped her towards the door. "I guess it's a good thing you kept me from putting in a second floor."

Moriko groaned, not even wanting to think about navigating stairs.

Dawn was just gracing the sky with a morning blush, or pink and yellows, as they carefully walked the stone steps to the outhouse, the nighttime cold having formed ice on some of the steps.

"Even hurt you get up before the sun's gone up." Cassia shook her head in mock despair, careful to keep an arm around Moriko's waist in case the other woman might slip.

Moriko had never been so happy to see an outhouse in her life. Carefully, she opened the door looking at Cassia. "I'll, um, call out if I need any help. I should be fine. I just can't handle the walk out here." Her face turned even redder. She just knew if she had to call out for help once inside, she was going to die from embarrassment.

"I'll...ummm...just wait here, then." Cassia offered a weak smile, watching Moriko close the door behind her. Turning around, she rocked back and forth on her heels, rubbing her hands together against the chill. The snow under her boots crunched in the cold. Ever so slowly, the sun began to rise above the horizon.

Luckily, she didn't need any help, and after a couple of minutes of fumbling to get her pants back up, she was decent. Slowly, she opened the door and stepped back outside.

Just as gently as before, Cassia slipped an arm around the blonde woman's waist and helped her back towards the house. "Kai is with my parents," she reminded her, just in case she'd forgotten through all the pain of last night.

"That was going to be the top question on a whole list of questions I thought up while, um, so Kai is with your parents, I'm sure she's being spoiled rotten."

The healing drought was hitting her, dulling the pain and making her legs feel skittish like a newborn fawn.

"They like having..." It was on the tip of her tongue to say grandchild, but she recovered quickly. "...someone to spoil."

She chuckled and winced a bit, "I'm sure they do. I'm glad they can spoil her."

They managed to get back inside without any mishap. "Let's get you back to bed. The healer said I should make sure you rest as much as possible."

Moriko nodded, not arguing. "Is Valdis okay? And what happened to the woman that stabbed me?"

As they entered the house, Rugor came wandering out of the kitchen, his back-end nearly vibrating his tail was wagging so hard. With his nails clicking on the wooden floors, he followed them into the bedroom.

Making a face at that last question, Cassia helped her back into bed. Only when she was back under the covers and settled, did Cassia start to answer those questions. "She's dead. Valdis found her and killed her." Although she wasn't very clear on the details. "Valdis is fine. She came back a few hours ago."

Moriko nodded. "Good, I'm not certain I could sleep knowing that woman was still out there." She yawned. "Wonder how she knew about Kai, unless I really am that bad of a liar."

That got a chuckle out of Cassia, and she reached out to stroke the other woman's hair. "You aren't that good a liar, but I doubt it's that. Somebody must have noticed they were missing a baby in the south."

Gently, Moriko grasped Cassia's hand in hers. "I'm not certain why it is when you think you're going to die, things become so clear. I just want you to know I love you. That's all I could think about, how I hadn't told you. So I just want to be clear, I do, very much."

Rugor whined slightly at being ignored, and laid down at Cassia's feet, his eyes watching the bed hopefully.

Her throat tight, Cassia leaned closer, voice shaky as she whispered, "You are such a sweet talker," then gently kissed Moriko, careful not to put too much pressure, and only pulling back when her own bruised face started to hurt. "I think I've always loved you."

She touched the scar on her forehead. "When I got that, all I could think about while that woman was attacking me was how I should have stayed and fought for you, proven I was better for you than Sable. I felt guilty for a while Œcause I was with Caron, and I never once thought about her when I thought my head was going to get cleaved in."

Cassia traced the outline of that scar with her fingertips, leaning closer to study it. "That must have hurt a lot." She pressed a kiss to it. "I always wondered what you were doing while you were in the south. I was..." She paused, biting her lip, and then slowly continuing. "I admit...I was jealous of the twins."

Moriko tried not to laugh. "I shoveled a lot of shit. Keshet gave me a job in the stables. I learned a lot about horses and dogs, which was great. But the real shock came when I had to go with the soldiers to war. They still needed someone to look after their steeds." She closed her eyes, paling a little bit. "The first battle I saw was shocking. I'd never seen women attack each other like that. I puked all over Valdis ' boots. She only teased me a little." She opened her eyes and shook her head a bit to dislodge those memories. "I was jealous of the twins, they got to see you and talk to you. They wouldn't ever tell me anything. They said if I wanted to know how you were doing I should go home and ask you myself."

"So you told me." Cassia smiled and pulled the blankets up a little higher around the wounded woman. "I really wish I hadn't messed things up after we danced in that clearing. I go back there sometimes, you know. It took me almost a week to find it again after you left."

Moriko yawned. "We should go back there and dance again. I'm a much better dancer now."

"I'm not." Cassia grinned, cupping Moriko's cheek in her palm. "Sleep, you need to rest."

"Okay. You should come back to bed too; it's too early for you to be up," the blonde managed to get out between yawns.

It took the princess about three seconds to consider that offer: stay up and alone in the cold room, or curl back in the warm bed with Moriko. Yeah, that was a hard choice. "That sounds good." She slid under the covers, careful not to jostle the wounded woman.

"I hope I heal fast, this is a pain," Moriko mumbled, slipping into sleep.

Rugor lay on the floor at the foot of the bed staring up at the bed longingly for a while before he rolled into a puppy ball and started to dream of chasing rabbits.



Valdis cheerily stomped down the path to the house. It was a cold winter's day, the sun being obscured by clouds, and she was almost certain it might snow again. She wasn't really certain if she liked snow, or the cold, but she did like certain things about the north. She started whistling.

As she climbed the two steps to her front door, she knocked the snow off her boots and opened the door. "Hello, Cassia, Moriko?"

Thorn bounded in behind her, tracking in mud and melting snow.

Valdis frowned. "Come on, puppy. Don't track that everywhere. Moriko will kill me."

The door to Moriko's room cracked open and Cassia slipped out, closing it behind her quietly, "Valdis?" She smiled on seeing the warrior. "Moriko's sleeping again." Her wounds were well on the way to healing, but she was still tired a lot of the time.

Valdis looked up and nodded. "Well, at least she's healing, and there hasn't been any infection, that's a worry with a gut wound." She threw a couple of logs into the huge fireplace and attempted to get the fire going again. Without looking, she pointed at Thorn, who was trying to sneak out of his sleeping corner. "Don't even think about it until your feet are dry."

Thorn's tail drooped and he sat down with a huff.

The dark-haired princess smiled in amusement, watching Valdis work. "So when are you going to have me do more than just run around in a circle? I thought you were going to teach me how to use a sword." True to the warrior's word, they'd started practicing the day after, although practicing seemed to consist of running until Valdis told her she could collapse to her knees, wheezing.

"Well, to be honest, you're not in too bad of shape, for a Princess. But while you're training with me, you'll run everyday rain, sun, and apparently snow." That was a new experience for her. "We'll start sword practice next week. I need a nice bulk of practice swords, which you all have none of, and I'm having to carve them out of wood myself."

Run every day, no matter what? Cassia winced at that. This was going to be a painful learning experience, she was certain of it. "Oh." Well, at least they didn't have to go swimming. That was something, right? "I heard in town that you've started interviewing people to train as well?"

Valdis grabbed a large pot and went outside to fill it with snow to melt on the fire. Peaking in the front door, she asked. "Do you want me to melt some snow for you? You could give Moriko a cloth bath? I'm sure she stinks." She chuckled as Cassia blushed.

She came back to the kitchen and hung the pot on an iron hook over the crackling log that had just caught fire.

 "No, that's fine." She shook her head at the annoying warrior before heading for the front door. "Since you're here, keep an eye on Moriko for me. I need to run home and see how my parents are doing with Kai. I might also have to do some of that taking care of north business thing that I've been neglecting."

"Can't have them spoiling Kai, the horror,' Valdis joked.

"They love her. They can't wait until she's older so that they can spoil her when she can really enjoy it," Cassia called over her shoulder, laughing as she pulled on her boots. With a huff of annoyance, she brushed her hair out of her eyes. "I'll be back in a while."

She pulled open the door, blinking in surprise when she saw Ryuu standing there, "Oh, hi, Ryuu."

The silver-haired woman smiled, stepping aside to let the princess pass. "Did you need something from me?"

 Ryuu shook her head. "No, thank you. I've come to see Valdis, actually."

Cassia raised an eyebrow at that, but let it pass, heading out as Ryuu stepped inside.

Valdis peeked her head out the kitchen door and chuckled. "I told you you'd find me irresistible."

"Really, when did you say that?'

"That morning I let you make me breakfast," she said offhand as she checked the melting snow.

A snort of disbelief came from Ryuu. With one last pat of Thorn's head, she headed towards the annoying one. "You made me make you breakfast."

"Uh huh... I don't think you have me fooled. I know I'm incapable of making you do anything you don't want to do." Finding the now melted water hot enough for her purpose, she lifted the pot and dumped the water in a washbasin. She set the pot down to cool and started washing dishes. After a moment, she looked up. "What's up? I assume you're not here so we can have sweaty sex on the kitchen counter."

Despite herself, Ryuu let her imagination run away with herself at that, indulging herself in remembering what Valdis looked like naked in the moonlight. "That's probably a safe assumption on your part." She sat down at the table, watching her clean the dishes. "I wanted to talk to you about these women you're going to train."

"Uh huh," she replied, not really paying attention as she set a plate in the wooden drying rack.

"I was thinking you have a good idea, teaching a group of people how to fight instead of just one. I thought I should do something similar."

"Sounds great..." She pointed a finger at the puppy. "I don't think those paws are dry yet, buddy."

Putting her elbow on the table, Ryuu cupped her chin in it and narrowed her eyes at the dark-haired woman. "You aren't even listening to me right now, are you?"

Valdis put the bowl she was drying in the rack and looked over at Ryuu. "Of course I was paying attention."

"Really..?" Ryuu drawled "So do you think the statues are a good idea?"

"Well, of course, statues are always a good idea." She frowned, wondering what the statues were going to be of.

"Good. Then I guess we just have to get you to pose naked for the artist." She offered a sweet smile at the other woman.

"Okay. Is she a cute, single, artist? I find that helps me relax when I'm going to be naked."

Ryuu narrowed her eyes, grabbing a dried apple from the dish on the table and tossing it at Valdis. "You are insufferable."

Valdis ducked the apple and laughed. "I take it you made up the statue part because I was, indeed, not paying attention to you." She stopped washing dishes and turned around, giving Ryuu her complete attention. "Okay, you have my full attention now." Her blue eyes watched the woman in front of her intently.

She was a little startled by the sudden attention, since not many people paid such close attention to her, Ryuu preferring it that way. Easier to escape notice and work from the background that way. "I was telling you that I was going to take on some of these young women as apprentices. Teach them like you are going to teach some of them to become warriors."

"Okay, I wasn't aware you were a Master Fighter. What are you going to train them in?"

The silver-haired woman sighed. Shoving back from the table, she got up and walked towards Valdis, getting close enough so that she was certain that there wasn't going to be any misunderstandings. Which in Valdis ' case, was until she was nearly speaking right in the other woman's ear. "You're the fighter. I'm going to train them in those things you don't like: reading, writing, keeping books, and records."

Valdis' nose wrinkled in distaste, but she didn't say anything. Deep down she knew her distaste came from the fact she just couldn't get it, and it frustrated her to no end.

"Well, those that can't fight, should...do...something, I guess."

Ryuu laughed. "How nicely put." She smiled then looked quickly towards Moriko's door, afraid she might have woken up the wounded woman. Quieter, she continued, "Which reminds me, when are you going to come learn how to read again?"

Valdis did frown, "Soon. Once I get those women started in a training program. I'm not a stupid warrior who just runs around whacking people with my sword, I'll figure out what those chicken scratches mean."

The silver-haired woman shook her head in mock exasperation. "Stop thinking that you're just a dumb warrior. It takes more than one try at learning how to read to do it."

The frown didn't leave Valdis' face, but she turned her back on Ryuu and went back to washing dishes. She didn't used to think she was stupid, but ever since everyone had been killed at the manor, she wasn't so sure. She should have seen the trap, or at least felt it, or smelled the deception in the air.

She forced a laugh, "Well, I do have nearly forever to get it. So I'll get it eventually, I'm sure."

Tilting her head slightly to one side, Ryuu considered the broad back of the warrior, hearing something more than just laughter in Valdis' voice. "I don't think you're stupid, Valdis. You know that, right?"

Valdis gave a lopsided grin, "No, you and Cassia think I'm annoying. That's an upgrade from stupid." Finished with the last dish, she dried her hands and turned back around, her temporary moment of self-pity over.

Ryuu opened her mouth, started to say something then thought better of it in favor of a more joking response. "Who knows," she turned around and headed for the door to the outside, "someday you might become tolerable."

Valdis shook her head and laughed. "Goddess forbid you find me tolerable." She took a few quick jogging steps and caught up to Ryuu. "So you came all the way out here to tell me you're going to start a group of writers?"

Unable to help herself, she leaned in, sniffing. Ryuu smelled of clouds and wind again. The woman didn't always smell of such things, but Valdis found she rather liked it when she did. It was a wild smell, which definitely attracted a part of her.

"That's it." Ryuu pulled on both boots and straightened up so she could see Valdis ' face. "I was out and about and decided to see if you were here feeling sorry for yourself again." She smiled to take any sting out of the words. "But it seems like you're babysitting Moriko, so I'll leave you to it."

"Um, uh," the warrior mumbled out, not really paying attention again. She leaned in again, sniffing. "How do you smell like that?"

A wide grin split Ryuu's face before she reigned in the happy expression. "It's a secret," she whispered.

Valdis blinked and digested that. "I hate secrets," she mock growled then stalked forward until she had the slightly shorter woman pinned up against the wall. "I'll figure it out." She leaned in, sniffing Ryuu's hair, neck, and throat. This time she exhaled with a tiny grin, watching the skin her warm breath washed against pebble.

The move surprised Ryuu, and with wide eyes, she found herself pushed up against the wall. Those eyes narrowed to mere slits as she fought against the urge to groan against the delicious feeling of Valdis ' body pressed against hers. "You're not going to find anything out that way," she gasped, fingers sliding around the other woman's hips to hold her close.

Suddenly, the answer hit her. It was so simple she was shocked she hadn't considered it before. "You smell of flying." Moriko's hawk had smelled similar.

Shocked out of her growing arousal, Ryuu nearly slammed her head against the wall, jerking backwards. Placing a hand on Valdis ' chest, she pushed the slightly taller woman backwards away from her. "What?" How had she figured it out?

She smirked, looking into Ryuu's dark eyes, "Moriko's hawk sometimes smelled similar. You smell much better, by the way." Plus, if the smell of that hawk had the same effect on her, she would have locked herself away. "What's wrong?" Her smirk vanished, realizing that the other woman looked a little freaked out.

The other woman took a breath and slowly relaxed, shaking her head in annoyance at herself. "I underestimated you. I hate it when I do that."

Valdis laughed, "Don't feel bad, everyone does it. I'm strong. I fight well, and have a reputation with the ladies. So I must be some dumb sword wielding warrior who can't think beyond the swing of my sword or my crotch."

"And after I just finished telling you the very same thing." Ryuu shook her head again at herself. She'd promised herself that she wouldn't do that again, then slowly smiled. "So you think I smell good?"

Valdis brightened, seeing Ryuu relax. "Shit yeah. Word of warning, if you keep coming around me smelling of clouds and wind, I'm not certain I can pretend to be a responsible adult."

Reaching for her coat, she slipped it on. Grabbing the door she paused, "Who said I wanted a responsible adult?"

Valdis threw back her head and laughed. "In that case, you came to the right place."

"I'll see you later, warrior." Ryuu patted her on the shoulder affectionately. "Maybe I'll let you in on my secret someday soon."

"Can't wait..." Valdis stood on the front step for a while watching Ryuu's form turn into a dot and disappear around a bend, a large grin on her face. She didn't feel the cold, only some odd warmth uncurling inside her chest, which she refused to examine at the moment.

"Valdis...Valdis! I'm freezing! Get in here and shut the door," Moriko said grumpily. The warrior blushed, being caught, and quickly went up the steps and shut the door.

Moriko stood, pale but more alert, in the hallway. "Cassia's going to get pissed at you if you corrupt Ryuu."

Valdis snorted, "I doubt that's going to happen." Oddly, she thought Ryuu was corrupting her.



Winter was nearing her end, creating days of soggy, muddy earth, and other days of freezing temperatures. After months of seemingly never ending freezing temperatures, snow and ice, it was finally ending.

It was one of those soggy days, and Moriko was trying to stifle her laughter as she watched Valdis' recruits slog through the mud. She had just finished checking on the few Alcens in the Inn's stable.

She nodded at Kealsy, who had a small, curly headed toddler on her hip, and stepped out into the warm afternoon sunshine. Nearly all the snow had melted, except for a few tiny dirty patches in dark shaded nooks.

She sat on a rock not far from the training field and munched on an apple. Her brown eyes quickly found Cassia's muddy form.

She stretched then took another bite of her apple, chewing it thoughtfully. Her wound was well healed, leaving a thick, pink scar. It gave her no pain or discomfort, but Cassia didn't seem to believe that. While their relationship was good, the more physical aspect of it ended at hot, needy kisses, and Moriko wasn't sure what she needed to do to convince the Princess she was more than capable of taking their evenings a little bit further. Valdis would just tell her to tell Cassia she wanted sex, which seemed a little blunt. Cassia was a Princess, after all. She sighed and took another bite.

Cassia gasped for breath, slogging through the mud with dogged determination, just one more muddy shape among all the other muddy women. Valdis had been taking them out on these marches to the abyss twice a week since she'd selected the women she was going to train. The rest of the week was filled with fight training for half of the day. Cassia thought she was going to die.

"Water break!" Valdis, who Cassia noted with annoyance wasn't even sweating, called out. Most of the recruits collapsed where they were. Cassia managed to stumble her way over to Moriko and fall down onto the rock next to her. "Kill me," she gasped.

Moriko laughed and reached out, wiping mud off of Cassia's nose. "We'll go to the bath house after this. Bet you could use a good soak.' She frowned at the mud on her finger and wiped it on the rock next to her.

The mere thought of taking a bath caused Cassia to groan. "You're not just saying that, are you?" she asked, a little desperate. "I think Valdis is trying to kill us."

"Nah, if she was trying to kill you, you'd know it, she gets a creepy look in her eye." She reached over and snagged a water skin and handed it to the heavily panting woman. "Take small sips or you'll puke."

She was well aware of Valdis' training methods, having gone through them herself. "If I can live through her training, I know you can." She went to pat Cassia's shoulder then thought better of it.

"I love you," Cassia gasped, greedily taking the water skin and forcing herself to slowly sip it instead of gulping it. Wiping her face after drinking, she shook her head. "You're stronger than I am."

Moriko laughed. "Let's leave it at we're both strong."

"Are you two lovebirds done? I'd like to finish sometime today," the warrior snarled.

Moriko blinked. Valdis had been kind of a bitch lately. She'd just chalked up to sexual frustration, since she hadn't seen anyone ducking out of the warrior's room in the wee hours of the morning in a really long time.

Cassia made a groaning whimper sound and forced her sore body off the rock. The warrior was trying to kill her, she was sure of it. "Sorry, Valdis," she responded, seeing the other women groaning and standing up as well.

Valdis snorted and easily twirled the wooden practice sword in intricate series of movements.

Moriko sighed. "You'll be fine. I think someone just needs to get laid." She blushed the minute the words came out of her mouth.

"I heard that, Moriko. You want to come out here and help me demonstrate?"

From behind Valdis, Cassia made a face, mouthing the words 'You're in trouble now!'

Moriko gulped, the bit of apple still somewhat unchewed in her mouth tasting like ash. She sighed and got up, looking at the practice swords and shields with a sinking feeling.

Cassia picked her own heavy wooden shield and practice sword back up from where she'd dropped them when the water break started.

Valdis grinned, "Well considering how horrible you were with a shield and sword, it seems hardly fair for everybody else." She went over to another pile, picked up a long pole, and easily tossed it at Moriko. "Moriko has happily volunteered to help us learn to attack someone with a pike."

The princess winced, hoping her girlfriend wasn't about to get a beating. She wasn't sure her parents were going to be happy if they had to take care of Kai for a while again.

Moriko walked over and picked up the pole. She wasn't any better with a pike. The only thing she was really good at was a bow or a spear from the back of an Alcen. She hefted the pole, testing it, and moved to the spot Valdis gestured for her to take on the field.

"Now, if your opponent has a pike, they have a longer reach, so your trick is to get inside to get the kill." She raised her shield and sword and lunged at Moriko.

Cassia cringed, not sure if she wanted to see how this was about to turn out. The other students clustered around, watching with a sort of weary curiosity at the demonstration. Everyone was sympathetic to Moriko, but no one wanted to change places with her.

Moriko did well for a while, but as soon as Valdis was done toying with her, the warrior easily moved in, slamming her shield into her arms, and the wood sword into her throat, proving the point of Moriko's now...deadness.

Everyone in the group of watching women had been at the receiving end of that move in the last few weeks, and as one, they winced in sympathy as Moriko went down.

The next two hours went about the same, only with everyone getting a chance to take out the pike-woman, to practice the moves Valdis taught them. Finally, when Moriko was sure it would never end, Valdis called a halt. "Good work today, ladies." She bit her lip for a moment. "I have to go up north and take care of some stuff, so you'll have five days off. I would advise you to practice and run all five days, but you can do what you want. However, I'll be testing you all personally when I come back."

"Thank the Goddess," Cassia groaned as the other students started to disperse. She moved over to where Moriko was laying on the ground, limping only a little bit, and offered her a hand up, "You still alive?"

"I'm not certain," the stable mistress croaked out. Slowly, she held a hand up and grabbed Cassia's hand. "I really thought my days of weapons training were over."

"I really hope she's happier after she does whatever she's going to do up north." Moriko started to sway, and Cassia slipped an arm around her waist. "You still up for a trip to the bath house?" They were both covered in mud. "We can drop off our stuff on the way," she gestured to the wooden shields and training swords.

"Oh yeah, I really want a bath now. Before I was just being the supporting girlfriend, now I'm being selfish. I hope your mothers don't mind watching Kai and the puppies for another hour or so."

"Considering Selene's decided to retire, I think they can deal with them for a little while longer." It took a little detour to drop the weapons off at the house that had become the warrior training facility before stumbling to the bathhouse. A few others of Valdis' students had found their way there as well. "Guess we're going to have to get a private booth," Cassia said, seeing the amount of people going inside.

"Um, that's fine with me." She tried really hard to be nonchalant about it.

With an equal amount of nonchalantness, Cassia smiled at the attendant and followed her into the last of the private baths. Accepting the towels that were offered, she smiled nervously at Moriko after they were left alone and the curtain drawn closed. "Umm..." She toyed with her mud encrusted shirt.

Moriko blinked in confusion, "Umm? Oh, ah, I can turn my back. Just let me know when you're in the tub."

It was silly, but Cassia was still having unexpected bouts of shyness when it came to Moriko. Quickly, she pulled off the sticky shirt and crusty pants, which hit the marble floor with a wet, slopping sound. The water was hot and felt oh so good on her abused muscles as the princess slipped in. "Okay," she called, ducking under to get at least some of the dirt out of her long, black hair.

Moriko turned around and started taking off her clothes. She was fumbling with the ties of her trousers when a thought hit her, maybe she should be shyer. Having spent several years marching with Keshet's troops, her shyness had quickly disappeared. She stood in her bare feet suddenly at a loss. "Um..." She coughed. "...does it bother you that I'm not..." Not what? She frowned and lowered her head, going back to the ties, telling herself not to be self-conscious.

Cassia squeezed some of the water out of her hair and leaned back against the side of the tub, watching with obvious interest as the other woman started to undress. "Bother me that you're not what?" She grinned. "Not in here and naked already?" she managed to say, despite blushing.

Her clothes weren't as caked with mud, but they still made the same noise as Cassia's when they hit the tile. Moriko looked up at her, somewhat relieved, and quickly got into the large tub, sighing.

"I know I used to be so quiet and shy before I left here, I guess I still am. But I guess I was wondering if it bothered you that I'm not so much in other areas, like before." She looked at the water. One thing that seemed to bother Cassia was the fact that she and Caron had dated.

To get her attention, Cassia splashed a bit of water at her, smiling when she got Moriko to look up. "I'm happy you're back, no matter what. I think you've grown up, and I like that you're not as hesitant as you were. I'm not really sure why I'm suddenly so shy about..." she faded off, waving her hands towards her clothes.

She wiped her face and looked over at Cassia. "It's okay. It's endearing."

"That better be code for wanting to kiss me until I can't breath." Cassia had been about to say sexy, but she'd chickened out at the last second.

Moriko was a bit startled at that, and she felt her cheeks heat up in a blush. "It, um, it can be." She slowly got up on her knees and moved until she was sitting next to Cassia.

"See, you're not the only one who can be not shy," Cassia whispered, leaning closer, shivering despite the hot water as skin pressed up against skin. Licking her lips, she slowly kissed the other woman, eyes closing as she deepened the contact.

Moriko sighed into the kiss, happily following as it flowed into something deeper and more intense.

"Is this all right?" she asked, moving a hand up and around Moriko's waist, her gaze wandering as she got distracted as the other woman moved.

As it ended, she let her head fall back and a large smile was plastered on her face. Her eyes still closed, she basked in all the wonderful things she was feeling. "Oh, that was more than all right." After another moment, she opened them, but they only opened half way, and she looked at Cassia. "You are a wonderful kisser."

The princess shifted, moving closer to the wonderful feeling of pressing up against the warm, wet, strong body next to hers. "I don't want to hurt you," she said, worried that she might do something to hurt one of Moriko's wounds.

She reached out and took one of Cassia's hands, dragging it under the water so it rested on her stomach over the scar. "You're not going to hurt me. You feel that. That's scar tissue, thick and healthy, there's no chance my insides are going to suddenly be on my outside."

It was the first time that Cassia had touched the wound since it had happened, and she let her fingers trace the long, thin scar. Another inch and the assassin would have gutted Moriko like a fish. The realization of how close her girlfriend had come to dying still caused Cassia to wake up in the middle of the night, sweating, and was the only thing that kept her suffering through Valdis' training class. "You almost died," she whispered, watching her hand trace the scar.

"No I didn't. This wound would have been a long, slow, horrible death, if I hadn't gotten medical attention. But I got medical attention; you got a healer to me quickly. I was fine. I am fine." Her breath hitched a bit as Cassia's hand wandered. "I'm not easily breakable."

Cassia wasn't entirely paying as much attention as she probably should have been; it was hard to focus, considering she had a naked Moriko next to her. Amazing how energized she felt despite the day long run she'd suffered through earlier. "I don't want anything to happen to you." Her hand slid lower below the water then trailed back upwards.

"I like that you feel that way. I don't want anything to happen to you, either." She wiggled a bit, feeling overwhelmed with all the sensations that she was feeling. She reached back under the water, stilling Cassia's hand. "Despite the fact I would really, really like your hand to wander a bit farther south, I think you should keep it above the waist. I know a lot of women use these private tubs for romance, but I'd like our first time together to be more private." Moriko was fairly certain her self-control was nearly at its limit.

It took an impressive amount of self-control to pull her hand up out of the water, and Cassia was well aware that she was pouting as she did it. "Fine," she sighed, then grinned. "That mean's we're going to have a first time?"

Before she could censor herself Moriko, blurted out, "Goddess I hope so." As soon as she realized what she said, she turned bright red. "Shit, I just channeled Valdis, didn't I?"

Cassia laughed the sexual tension breaking. It wasn't gone, but it wasn't threatening to burn out of control, either. "Don't worry. Even Valdis has her moments." Grinning, Cassia dunked under the water to wash out her hair, wiping the water out of her eyes when she surfaced. "Although, less so recently."

Moriko smiled, relieved that Cassia didn't seem upset from her less than stellar statement. She ducked under the water and came back up, frowning as she tried to work the mud out of her braids. With a sigh, she realized the only way her hair was going to get clean was to take them all out.

Reaching up, she undid the leather ties, some snapping easily, letting her know it was past time to undo them.

"Here." Cassia moved around behind the other woman, reaching up to bat her hands out of the way. "Let me do that." She started to gently remove the bands that held Moriko's long blonde hair in a braid. "I really do like the way this looks on you. I should start having it like this when we go running; it would stop getting in my face all the time."

"It's helpful when you're fighting, keeps it from obscuring you're vision." After awhile, she stopped trying to help and just let Cassia do it, enjoying the other woman playing with her hair. She felt almost like a Pouncer that had gotten caught in a sunbeam.

Reaching over the side of the tub, Cassia got one of the wooden ladles and started pouring hot water up over Moriko's head to wash out her hair. "Any idea what's going on with Valdis? She's been a little more...umm...intense than usual."

"Not really. She's been a little more terse than usual, and when she's not training you all, she's in her room. She doesn't seem like she's getting depressed again, just more intense."

"Did I tell you that I met Ryuu's pupils yesterday?" She brushed hair out of her way so that she could start to rub Moriko's shoulders, avoiding what looked like a sizeable bruise starting on her arm.

"Huh?" Moriko managed to say, her eyes now half-lidded from relaxing than arousal. "Um, no... Are those the ones that are learning how to read and write?' Moriko knew how to do the basics of reading and writing, having helped her mother keep a ledger book of the animals they raised, keeping bloodlines straight, as well as cost.

It took another feat of willpower for Cassia to avoid leaning forward and kissing the exposed skin. For a second, she got distracted, watching the muscles move under the skin at her fingertips. "Um, anyway, they came by the building at the castle." Most construction had ground to a halt during the winter. "She has twelve of them, quite a few from down at Abnoa. She might not be terrorizing them like Valdis is doing to her students, but I think these girls aren't getting a lot of free time either."

Moriko yawned. "Maybe Valdis is pissy Œcause her and Ryuu haven't been spending any time together. I used to catch Ryuu at our house all the time. Now, not so much, I wonder if they had a fight."

The hands that were messaging her back slowed at that. "You think Ryuu likes Valdis?" From her tone, it was pretty obvious that Cassia hadn't even considered that.

She ran her hands through her hair, which felt odd not to have it in braids. "Well, I'm not certain Ryuu likes Valdis, but I think Valdis likes Ryuu. I caught her one day just standing on the steps in the snow watching Ryuu walk away from the house. She had a weird look on her face."

"I'm glad I got over my crush on her.' Even if she hadn't gotten over it during the years that she hadn't seen the warrior, the training program would have wiped any trace of that away. Resuming her massage, she echoed Moriko's yawn from a moment earlier with one of her own. "I better wash up before I fall asleep in here.'

Moriko moved over to the other side, giving Cassia space to wash up. "I'm glad you got over it too, I don't think I could get outrageously jealous and stand a chance to beat her up." She tried to fix an innocent look on her face. "You want to see if your folks will watch Kai tonight, I could return the favor and give you a massage."

The slam of arousal was so fast and intense it took the dark-haired woman a moment to recover. "I'd like that. I might fall asleep if you give me a massage, though.'

Moriko grinned, slowly getting out of the tub. "That's okay. Valdis has been working you hard, so if you need your rest, then rest, but you know what?" She grinned as Cassia just shook her head. "Valdis has given you five days off, which means you can stay in bed tomorrow morning. I'm sure your moms won't be expecting us until at least noon." She stepped out of the tub and started drying off. Peaking out of the curtain, she found their clothes cleaned and dried. She scooped them up and ducked back inside. "Some day I have to figure out how they do that so quickly," she muttered to herself.

"That sounds like a great plan.' Cassia got up out of the bath and quickly grabbed a towel, despite trying to be casual about being naked in front of Moriko. "I asked them that last week. The attendant just laughed and said it was a house secret.' She took her pants after drying off and shimmied into them.



Valdis stared at the map then back at Willow. "So, this valley up farther north, you're positive there's nobody living in it, just some predators that hibernate for the winter?" She wanted to be absolutely positive there was nobody there who could get hurt if her bloodlust got out of control. It had taken her almost attacking Moriko, the poor girl didn't know how close she'd come, to finally go to the older Priestess for insight.

The old priestess nodded, pointing down at the map. "There's only one town a day to the south, a mining village. Other than that, there won't be anybody around other than the occasional hunter." She leaned back in her chair, studying the warrior. "Are you sure you want to go there?"

Valdis thought for a moment then shrugged her shoulders. "Not really, but until the Blood Star sets, I'm not really safe to be around. Plus I don't think my dignity could take being locked in chains for five days." She sighed and ran a hand through her white blonde hair.

Green eyes studied the obviously worked-up warrior. "I haven't asked this of you before, but I feel like I have to now. Who are you?' The house was quiet, most of the other priestesses and acolytes were holding a ceremony in the temple. Willow hadn't been feeling particularly well, and had stayed in.

Valdis grinned. "I'm Valdis, daughter of Penka." She knew the answer was flippant, but she was surprised Selene or Nix hadn't passed on what she'd told them so many years ago. "Aren't you Priestesses supposed to be all knowing?"

Willow snorted, reaching for her cup of tea. "That is a common misconception. I never pretended to know all of the answers, or even many of them.' She took a sip and let the other woman get away without really answering the question. "Do Moriko and Cassia know you're going?'

"They know I'm going north for five days. I haven't told them why." She fidgeted for a moment under the other woman's gaze. "It's kind of embarrassing."

"How often does this happen?"

"Once a year... Before, it wasn't a big deal, I was in the south. I could go to the temple with the rest of the warriors of Vladlin. But I can't now, especially after killing that assassin. She was a Chosen of the Mistress of Shadows, Vladlin's twin. They are kind of protective of one another."

With deliberate slowness, Willow sat down her cup of tea. She was seriously considering how much she really wanted to ask Valdis about what had happened. "Is there anything you want to tell me about all that?"

"No, not really," she snapped in annoyance. "That woman is dead. She won't be hurting Kai or Moriko ever again. Why do you all want to know the how of her death?"

"I don't, not particularly." Willow sighed. She was too old to deal with all these problems. Maybe it was time to start thinking about seeking the Goddess' approval of a replacement high priestess. Selene had a good idea with retiring. "I think what I'm going to do is wish you a safe trip and pray to the Goddess that you come back in one piece."

Valdis nodded her head. "Thank you for your help and your prayers, Goddess knows my father doesn't listen." She bowed and reached for the door, tucking the map away.

"Be safe," the priestess whispered, closing her eyes, having a horrible suspicion of who Valdis ' father was.



Moriko stared at Cassia's back as it was slowly exposed as she inched the sheet down. It was early, still the pre-dawn blackness, sunlight hours away. She grinned amazed at the smooth skin displayed before her, as well as the fact Cassia hadn't stirred. It was rare she got moments like this. Cassia had the annoying habit of being a light sleeper, so when Moriko got up, Cassia soon followed.

Valdis must have really been working her recruits over.

Happily, Selene and Nix had no problem watching Kai overnight, and with a knowing twinkle in their eyes, had told the two of them to have fun.

She gently touched Cassia's shoulder and trailed her fingers down, enjoying the silky, warm feel of the skin under her rough, calloused hand. They hadn't done anything last night, and honestly, it didn't make a difference to her. She made them dinner and had lured Cassia to the bedroom with some hot, needy kisses, but in the end, she had followed through with her promise of a massage.

Her fingers paused at a bruise, and she leaned over, kissing the abused flesh, her now unbound hair flowed around her face, tickling the skin of Cassia's back. Brown eyes watched the Princess' breathing hitch then even back out in sleep. She had enjoyed giving the massage, happy to touch Cassia's bare flesh, mapping it to her memory. She took note of the places that tickled, which caused a sigh of pleasure or a grimace of pain, cataloging it all so it could be recalled and used later.

The night ended with Cassia asleep on her stomach, and Moriko curled up around her, quite content. Her fingers stroked down to the hip, and she stopped, blowing out a puff of air in frustration. It seemed that Cassia was still well and truly sacked out. With a wry grin, she slipped out of the bed and drew the sheet back up over Cassia's back. She would take care of the animals then return to bed. Quickly, she threw on some clothes and hurried outside.

As she went about her morning chores, it occurred to her that she really didn't know much about Cassia's love life before her. She had been rather candid about her brief dating experience, and it suddenly hit her that other than Cassia's rather messed up dating experience with her and Sable, that maybe there really hadn't been a lot of intimate moments. She swallowed thickly, and almost missed the feed bucket. Cassia might even still be a virgin, it hadn't come up.

She technically still was. Never let it slip to a group of soldiers that you're still a virgin, they make it their life's goal to help you lose it. After one campaign, they had returned to the Queen's city, and Valdis and the rest of the warriors had taken her out to a temple and made a hefty donation in her honor for the night. The Priestess in the temple had been beautiful, and very nice, but once finding out Moriko still had her Maiden Shield, the tempo of the night had changed considerably.

The woman kissed Moriko tenderly, 'No, sweetheart, that is something you should save for someone you love, someone special.'

Moriko flushed, feeling again like an awkward teenager. She had been eighteen when she'd had her first kiss. How much further behind everyone else was she going to get, the teases from the other soldiers still sounding loud in her ears.

The woman had smiled understandingly, and slowly kissed her red cheeks and lips. 'I am a follower of the Goddess of Love, dear heart. I think I know a thing or two about matters of the heart and lovemaking. That, you should save, but,' she said with a twinkle in her eye, 'there are other things we can do.'

It had been amazing, and one of the most overwhelming moments of her life. She had cried for what felt like hours afterwards, and then some more from sheer embarrassment. If pressed, she would admit she'd gone back a few more times to see the priestess, but she was still technically a virgin, the woman had never taken that. Nor had she and Caron gone that far. She had, with some pride, used a few of the things she had learned in the temple to curl the southern Princess' toes.

She scratched Oscar's ears, easily avoiding his horns. She would have to build a fenced-in area for him and the other Alcens in the summer, giving them a nice, big, safe area to roam in. She gave him one last pat on the nose and quickly jogged back to the house. Once inside, she threw a couple of logs on the fire and rushed back to her room.

Cassia was still asleep, although she had now turned on to her side. Moriko quickly undressed and slid back into the bed then leaned forward and kissed Cassia's shoulder.

The princess stirred, stretching slowly and luxuriating in the feeling of slowly waking up. Ever since she'd started training with Valdis, the warrior had them up before dawn, running every day. She'd really missed having a chance to wake up slowly.

The fact that there was a nice, warm body pressed up against her made it even nicer.

'Hmmm...you got up early again, didn't you?'

Moriko smiled against the sleepy, warm skin of Cassia's shoulder, "Uh huh. Animals needed to be fed. How are you feeling? You didn't wake up when I got out of bed, so either my massage was that good or Valdis is that much of a hard ass."

Cassia smiled, turning around so that she could see the other woman. 'I'm sorry I fell asleep. You give a very good massage, though.' The last thing she could clearly remember last night was the feeling of Moriko's hands rubbing the soreness out of her back. Then, from the looks of it, she'd passed out and hadn't woken up until well after sunrise. 'How are you feeling?'

Moriko beamed a bit and leaned over, kissing the tip of Cassia's nose. Leaning back, she said. "I'm fine." She was intimately aware of the heat of Cassia's skin and how, when she had leaned over, her breasts had lightly skimmed across the other woman's. She swallowed and mentally told her body to behave.

"I'm glad I could get you to relax, you've been working hard. I can tell." She lightly trailed her hand over Cassia's arm. "You're getting some definition." She blushed, realizing that could be taken badly. "Not that you didn't look good, but I..." She stared at Cassia somewhat mortified, and ducked her head. "I'm just going to be quiet now."

It took only the slightest of movements to shift closer to Moriko. The blankets were nice and warm around them, and the other woman was even warmer. The feel of skin pressing against skin was enough to cause the dark-haired woman to groan in pleasure. 'I know what you mean. I thought I was doing well before, but I have to admit, Valdis has me in good shape after all this training.'

She returned the favor, stroking a hand up along Moriko's arm, smiling as muscles twitched under her fingertips. Sunlight lit up the room, but under the blankets, she could still pretend it wasn't time to get up.

Moriko sighed, happy that she hadn't said anything wrong. Her cheeks were still warm, but she could feel them starting to cool. She turned her head, kissing Cassia's hand, and then slowly lowered her body so she could kiss Cassia's elbow, then her shoulder, and finally her neck. "You want me to stop?" She breathed out the question against the flesh of Princess' neck.

'If you do, I'm going to have to hurt you,' Cassia answered, breathless, her hands warm against Moriko's cold skin. 'You're skin's cold.' She pulled the blonde closer, trying to share body heat.

Moriko let herself be pulled down, grinning a little as Cassia gave a little squeal as her chilled skin touched her warmer one. "I was outside. Mornings will still be cold for a while yet." She nuzzled the patch of skin just under Cassia's ear, remembering how the Princess seemed to enjoy that. She smiled a bit, quite proud of the goose bumps that rose over the body under hers.

It took a bit of effort for Cassia to avoid groaning in pleasure as she got nuzzled. 'I hear that the easiest way to get warm,' she slid her hands under Moriko's shirt, pulling it higher while sliding a leg between the other woman's legs, 'is to get naked under the covers with someone else.'

Moriko pushed herself up a bit, and looked deeply into Cassia's eyes. "Is that what they say? Must be true, Œcause I'm warming up a bit." She leaned her face down, peppering Cassia's face with kisses before pulling back just a bit. "Are you sure you want to warm up this way?" she asked, seriously, searching Cassia's eyes. The last thing she wanted to do was anything Cassia wasn't certain she wanted.

'I haven't been this serious about anything for a while now...' Cassia leaned up, kissing Moriko, slowly tracing the other woman's lips with the tip of her tongue, grinning when she felt the lean body pressed up against hers shudder. '...unless you don't want to?'

Moriko was incapable of articulating a sound as a furious bolt of pleasure rippled down from the top of her head to her groin, and she couldn't hide the shudder of its aftermath. Finally, when her brain was able to form language, she said in a shaky voice that was husky with want, "No, I want to. I very much want to."

The other woman paused, her fingers spread out along Moriko's rib cage, feeling her chest move as she breathed. 'But..?' There was something else there, something else that Moriko hadn't said yet.

Moriko looked down, puzzled, "But what? Is there something wrong? Have I done something?" She was starting to panic a bit.

Cassia blinked in surprise at that. 'No, you're doing everything right.' Not that she had a lot of experience, but she was pretty sure that the urge to rip all of Moriko's clothes off and immerse herself in the feel of the other woman pressed against herself was a good sign. 'You just...I don't know.' The dark-haired woman shook her head, not sure how to explain it. Instead, she moved her hands up Moriko's back then scratched down her spine.

Unable to help herself, she arched her back as Cassia's nails lightly trailed down the flesh of her back. She tried to get her brain back on track, Cassia seeming to have a serious question that was trying to get out. "You're being evil, distracting me." She blew out a breath then leaned down, kissing Cassia tenderly. "I just what?" she asked, trying to pry out whatever Cassia wanted to ask. If it was important enough to be brought up now, it had to be something that should be addressed now, rather than later. "This should be special. If you have any concerns or worries, I'd hate for them to ruin this. Tell me?"

Cassia bit her lip, looking at Moriko bashfully. 'I just wanted to ask...' She took in a deep breath. 'Have you done this before?'

Of all the questions she had expected, it really should have been one of the top five, but it wasn't. For a moment she was flummoxed, and it took a second for her to compose herself. She smiled easily, to reassure Cassia she wasn't upset by the question. "I'm, well, technically, I'm still...um...you know...a virgin." ...Which was still slightly embarrassing, because she was almost twenty-seven years old. "But I've done stuff." ...Which was, after she'd said it, incredibly vague.

The other woman grinned, 'Stuff?' She pressed Moriko onto her back, sliding up over her, the blankets draping over her shoulders as she ducked down to kiss the other woman thoroughly. The feeling of being pressed up against Moriko like this was exquisite, especially the contact of their hips and chests as she pressed close. 'What kind of stuff?' she whispered, fingers slowly pulling up the shirt that Moriko had worn into bed.

Moriko felt her breathing hitch, incredibly turned on by how easily Cassia had reversed their positions. She lifted her arms, letting Cassia remove her shirt. "Do you want details?" she squeaked out.

'Depends on what kind of details they are.' The shirt flew off the bed and Cassia licked her lips at the sight below her. Reverently, Cassia gently cupped the perfect breasts below her with one hand, while supporting herself with the other.

It was hard to concentrate, but Moriko tried, then groaned in pleasure at the feel of Cassia's hands on her. "I...I..." She swallowed and tried again. "Years ago, during a battle, Valdis and some of her troops found out I was still, um, a virgin. And they did their best to take care of that for me. One night, after we had returned from a small war over, I think, a cow field, they took me to one of the temples dedicated to the Goddess of Love, and well...made a hefty donation in my honor." She wasn't thinking too clearly, and was uncertain if she was giving too many details Cassia would rather not hear. "She was a nice woman. She showed me a lot of things, but she wouldn't take my Maiden Shield, said I should save it for someone special. We talked a lot. She told me I was sweet and kind and that would be far more important in life, so to stop listening to stupid warriors."

It was incredibly hard, but Cassia forced herself to stop for a moment. 'I...' She shook her head, touched by what Moriko was offering her. 'I'm sorry,' she whispered, 'I'm not.' The indiscretion, or stupidity, depending how you looked at it, of her youth, once again coming back to haunt her...

Moriko frowned and rolled them over, raising herself up on her arms so she could look at Cassia and know she had the other woman's full attention. "You're not what, beautiful, charming, special? You're all those things to me. What happened years ago, doesn't matter. I really don't think we're those girls anymore." She kissed Cassia deeply then pulled back. "I want the woman I met and am with right now in this bed. I think she's very special."

It was exactly the right thing to say on Moriko's part. Her words banished Cassia's doubts, and she pulled her own shirt up over her head. 'You, my love, are a sweet talker,' she said, leaning back down and groaning, this time as skin pressed against skin.

The blonde beamed in happiness, then got an evil look on her face. "Oh, I can be much more than a sweet talker."

She rolled them both over so they were on their sides facing each other, lavishing kisses on Cassia's cheeks, lips, chin, and neck. Slowly, she stopped and just looked at Cassia, realizing, somewhat belatedly, that the woman had done it again. The Princess had gotten her to talk about herself, yet revealed nothing. "So, did you and Sab...er...did you, you...um, have you done this...before?"

Guiltily, Cassia looked away, nodding. 'I'm sorry,' she said, looking back to the other woman, worriedly, hoping she wasn't about to ruin the moment. 'That night, before it all went wrong and Sable stayed over.'

There was a sting, but Moriko figured all lovers must feel it at one time or another, secretly wanting to be their love's one and only and finding it not to be true.

So in truth, she was surprised, but not, by the answer. 'It's fine,' she whispered, and shifted once again, this time so Cassia was on top. 'This okay?' she asked, her hands trailing down from Cassia's shoulders to her hips. The sexual tension was still there, although it had dampened a little during the fumbling conversation they'd just had. "The morning I left, she made it kind of clear." She stopped, knowing she was being petty. "Its okay, it doesn't matter, really."

Cassia's lips twitched at that, and she shifted so that they were intimately pressed against one another again. 'It doesn't really matter, huh?' She didn't believe that for a second. Slowly rolling her hips to press against Moriko, she smiled at the startled gasp beneath her. 'So I shouldn't try to make you forget about it?'

"Um..." She was trying really hard to form a sentence, but Cassia had completely crashed her higher brain functions. "Forgetting is good, never liked...Sable much...anyway." In truth, though, it didn't matter, she was with Cassia now, and Sable had her sailor, she had won in the long run. She couldn't help but grin a little at that. The grin only lasted a second before disappearing in a gasp of pleasure.

'Good,' Cassia mumbled, using her fingers to trace down the side of the lean body beneath her. She marveled at the feel of Moriko moving beneath her, shuddering in response to her touch. 'You're so beautiful,' she whispered, claiming the blonde woman's lips in a deep kiss.

Moriko blushed at the words, never really thinking of herself in terms of beauty. But to have such words come from Cassia's lips, caused her to feel wonderful, yet shy at the same time. As the kiss ended she sighed, basking in its aftermath, and enjoying the weight of Cassia's body on top of hers.

Hesitantly at first, she started to draw her hands over Cassia's body, then slowly as her confidence rebuilt and the hesitancy left her. Her hands were rough and thickly calloused from all the work she did, but Cassia didn't seem to mind.

The feel of Cassia's skin, warm and silky under her touch, was intoxicating. Under that softness she could feel the strength of the muscles hidden there. Where their bellies touched, she could feel how she trembled, and Moriko hoped it was from desire, not from fear or nervousness.

As Cassia leaned back, she could feel her nipples tighten into points as the cool morning air rushed into the empty space between her bodies. She looked up, gasping at the hungry look in Cassia's blue eyes. She'd had women give her that look, but never was she comfortable in receiving it, until now. Having Cassia look at her that way was different. Her gasp was followed by a moan as hands and fingers now returned the favor of mapping her body. She arched into Cassia's hands as they moved southward from her face and shoulders to her breasts. Unconsciously, her hands bit deeply into Cassia's skin, leaving a wake of reddish scratches as her hands moved from the woman's back to her ass, where she grabbed Cassia roughly, pulling her more firmly into her body.

Their hips started a discordant rhythm that was frantic and harsh, their legs intertwined. Slowly, they began to search for a rhythm that would move them in sync. Moriko held on tight to Cassia's body, feeling as if she were unraveling. Belatedly remembering how the Priestess had told her most women liked communication while having sex, she nuzzled the Princess' face until she found an ear. She nibbled the earlobe, grinning slightly as Cassia made the cutest noise, and then began to whisper how good she felt, how amazing Cassia felt, how much she enjoyed that thing Cassia did with her hand. She tried to tell her everything she felt, until words became beyond her ability and then she shattered into a million pieces.

 The words that Moriko were whispering were the most erotic thing that Cassia had ever experienced. Them, combined with the feel of the naked woman beneath her, the slide and press of them, sent her shuddering over the edge soon after her lover did. They lay there on the bed, the blankets long ago having been tossed to the floor.

Cassia lifted her head an eternity or a few seconds later, gazing down at the beauty below her. It had been too fast, she wanted more, she decided.

'More,' the princess whispered, kissing her way down the well-toned chest. She paused at Moriko's breasts, laving them with her tongue until her lover was squirming beneath her.

More, she thought, sliding even further down until she could rest between the blonde woman's legs.

'Cassia, you don't have to...' Moriko started to say then abruptly groaned as Cassia's tongue found her mark. The princess hummed in pleasure at the intimate contact, loving the taste of her lover. She didn't have much practice, given that it had been a long time since Sable, but she was inspired.

There was pain, but it was brief and soothed away by the immediate onrush of pleasure. Before had been good, but this, this seeped pleasure into her bones and then rolled on liquid waves through her body until it was too intense for her body to contain. Then she was crying out, clutching hands tightly into Cassia's hair.

The sight of Moriko crying out in her release, feeling her contract around her finger, and tasting her as she did so, was seared onto her mind. No matter how many years would pass, or what the future would bring, Cassia would never forget this moment.

It was one of the most profound things Moriko had ever experienced, and again, she found herself crying, only this time she didn't feel any need to cry again due to embarrassment. She was happy to note through her tears that she hadn't scared Cassia off. "Sorry," she sniffed in a way she was sure was less than sexy, "just got overwhelmed. I'm okay, honest.'



Valdis stood next to the bar in some small tavern she had found. The town was a small mining village full of rough women who looked as craggy as the mountains they toiled in. She had, over all, found the women to be rude and course, which didn't really bother her that much. All she really wanted was food and a place to sleep. While she found the first, the latter was harder to come by. Apparently they didn't really like strangers in their town. So, she would have to push on tonight to the valley Willow had told her about. It was probably for the best, she could feel the Blood Star rising. As it rose in the south, so did her bloodlust.

The star, the sign of her father, calling all his faithful to worship at his temple, all of the women who followed the God of War would be flocking to his main temple outside the small farming town of Thullis. There, they would fight, feast, and fuck, all the while singing the praises of Vladlin.

She, however, could not go. She was self-exiled from her land of birth, and a murderer of one of the Chosen of the Mistress of Shadows, her father's twin. She had well and truly made her bed, and now, she would just have to deal.

As she raised the mug of steaming hot liquid to her lips, a body crashed into hers, slopping the liquid all down her front. Booming laughter started up as well as some jeers. 'If you can't handle your wine, maybe you should go somewhere else.'

She closed her eyes and counted to ten.

'Awwww, the baby is going to start crying.'

 Valdis started grinding her teeth together and tried counting to ten again. A woman stupider than the rest came up to her elbow and said, 'You're a little slow, aren't you? Let me make this as blunt as I can, I'll use small words. We don't want...' She grabbed Valdis by the neck of her thick cloak, and tried to pull the stout warrior.

The moment she touched Valdis, the warrior moved, ducking under the woman's arm, twisting it. She then grabbed it at the wrist and the elbow, and with a quick thrust, the breaking of bone could be heard. The woman fell to the ground crying out in pain.

 Valdis turned, glaring at the woman's friends. 'You really going to stand there and let me make you all look like fools.' The three thick, barrel-chested women looked at each other and at the woman standing there smirking. They glowered for a moment then charged.

 It was over fairly quickly, and Valdis turned back to the bar, popping her knuckles. 'Lazy and sloppy,' she muttered while motioning for the bartender to refill her mug.

The woman sidled over and poured more of the hot-spiced wine in the mug. She stood there a little bit longer, watching the muscles twitch and pop in the blonde's forearm. She smiled and put the pitcher down. Attentively reaching out, she stroked the hand around the mug. 'So?'

Valdis looked up, her blue eyes taking in the woman. After a moment, she grinned. 'Let me guess? You like your women strong, rough, and brutish?'

The woman blinked a few time at the rather blunt if not crude assessment of her, but didn't move her hands away. Finally, she gave what she thought was a seductive look. 'You left out bulky. You're kind of on the skinny side for my tastes, but after watching you handle those roughnecks, I find myself wanting to make an exception.'

Valdis snorted. 'When's your break?'

'I'm finding your bluntness endearing. I own the place, I can leave whenever I want.'

Without a word, the warrior slammed her hot drink, not even feeling it burn her throat.

The bartender smiled wolfishly then called over her shoulder. 'Ginger, the bar is yours for the rest of the night.' She nodded at Valdis to follow her.

The woman had a small room near the back part of the tavern, and as soon as the door was closed, they fell on each other, tearing and removing clothes. There was nothing gentle about it, but Valdis was well aware the woman wasn't interested in wine, roses, and romance from her. Easily, she picked the woman up and tossed her on the small cot she used as a bed, grinning at the slight squeal of surprise she made, and then stalked over to the bed like an animal hunting prey.

She mercilessly plundered the woman's body; the rougher she got, the wetter the other woman got. Her hand was delved deep into that wetness, and the woman's head was thrown back, her dark brown hair tangled with sweat, and Valdis could hear the tattle-tale beginnings of the whine that meant the barmaid was close. She grinned into the woman's chest as she screamed, and then pushed Valdis away.

'Enough. You're going to kill me,' the woman begged.

Valdis gently kissed a breast then rolled off. 'Yep, but what a way to go,' she joked.

The woman snorted then yawned sleepily. 'That was wonderful. I'm sorry to say you wore me out. Let me take a power nap and I'll return the favor.'

'You're welcome,' Valdis whispered softly as the woman's eyes closed. She waited a few minutes until the woman's breathing evened out then got off the bed with a frown. As she dressed, the frown didn't go away. She felt no peace or satisfaction. In fact, she was still really horny, but really had no desire to let the other woman touch her. She chewed on her bottom lip as she explored what she was feeling. If she was to guess, she would say she was feeling guilty for what had just occurred.

Dressed, she quietly left the woman's rooms and snuck out into the night, preferring to deal with the harsh cold than her emotional state.



The valley was just as the Priestess had told her it was, remote and empty of any humans. However, there were several Greenbacks and mountain lions that made it their home hibernating for the winter. She had found a large cave to her liking, and after rousting the Greenback that was hibernating and a fierce battle, she had herself a temporary home.

She spent the rest of the night and early morning cleaning the cave and setting up her meager belongings. Now, she was sitting on a large bolder that overlooked the small lake, waiting for the sun to rise and trying to meditate. The battle with the Greenback had eased her bloodlust, and now she was trying to capture what she was feeling, hoping to hang on to it for the rest of her temporary isolation. This far north, the valley was still covered in snow, and she looked at the whiteness, not really seeing it.

She took another deep breath and winced as several lacerations she had received from the Greenback's claws pulled open and bled sluggishly. She tried to ignore it, knowing in a day or two they'd be gone.

"You know, if you wanted to get me all alone to yourself, all you had to do was ask and mean it," a voice casually spoke up from just outside the cave mouth, on the other side of the boulder, "although, the boulder is going a bit far."

Valdis sighed and ducked her head a second before looking back up. Her eyes could have been mistaken for bloodshot, but they weren't. "This isn't a good time for snuggles and foreplay. Why are you here?" The last part was nearly growled out in annoyance. "Aren't there little readers somewhere who need their daily lesson?"

The silver-haired woman gave her a bright smile and wandered a bit closer to the boulder, looking out over the lake. "It's nice up here. I should come visit more often. Even the air smells different." She took in a deep breath. "All the little readers are going to be busy for a few days."

"Oh," she replied rather lamely. Then figuring her mediation was done for the day, she moved, wincing slightly, then lightly leaped down from the boulder onto the soft snow in front of Ryuu. Unthinking, she began to walk in a circle around the woman, eyeing her. "Why are you here? How did you know I was here?"

"Well, when I realized you weren't trying to kill your recruits yesterday, I asked around. Willow said you'd left because of a star coming up in the sky." Ryuu shrugged, not moving otherwise as she let Valdis circle her. "So I came looking, and I'm glad I got here in time for the show."

Valdis' eyebrow quirked in question, "Show..?"

Ryuu slowly smiled. "What did you do last night?" she asked in way of an answer.

The warrior's mouth drew into a thin line. "Had a drink in the mining camp not far from here," was her terse answer.

There was a lot more than that, but Ryuu wasn't going to call her on that, yet. "Oh. Well, I think some of your drinking buddies are coming to visit." The silver-haired woman tilted her head, as if listening to something far off. "Actually, I think all of them are coming to say hello."

"What?" She stopped circling and cocked her head to the side, and really listened. Then she moved slowly in a zigzag line, smelling the different wind currents. "Fucking great," she muttered. It smelled like at least fifteen of those miners were clambering down the path, trying to be stealthy.

While she was distracted, Ryuu leaned close and gave the other woman a kiss on the cheek. 'Have fun.' That said, she turned around and hopped up to take a seat on the boulder that Valdis had previously been sitting on to watch the coming confrontation.

Valdis was startled for a second by the kiss, and turned to look at Ryuu in question. It also caused a rock to form in her gut, weighing her down slightly as she remembered what else she did the previous night.

She turned back around and faced the now visible miners stumbling down the snowy path. The warrior raised her fisted hands and started marching through the snow to meet her new friends. "You beat up a bunch of assholes in a bar and you never hear the end of it," she muttered darkly. Her bloodlust rose, flaring up, burning through her as she prepared to fight.

The first of the women made their way around a curve in the trail trying to be sneaky, which was hard, considering the heavy rock picks and shovels that most of them were carrying. Spotting Valdis and realizing that they weren't going to get to sneak up on her, the first wave of women charged her, yelling.

The women were all tough, and angry.

Angry will get you far in a fight, but Valdis was a trained fighter, and the daughter of the God of War. At first she tried being nice, but that lasted until one of the women imbedded the tip of her mining pick in Valdis' shoulder, then everything dissolved into red. In a berserk fury, she tore into them until they were crippled and bloodied in the snow.

"Get up," she taunted. "You are the most disorganized, sloppy, and worthless fighting group I have ever had the displeasure of meeting in combat. Get out of here! And don't let me see any of you again, or until you know which end of a mining pick is what." She deliberately turned her back on them, showing how non-threatened she was, and started walking back to her cave.

She was sweaty, bleeding, and probably stunk, but she felt her bloodlust purring in her gut like a satiated kitten.

From her perch, Ryuu watched those who could more or less walk start to help their sisters-in-arms up from the ground and begin to straggle back towards town. The last few minutes had been a painful lesson in what a well-trained woman could do against a disorganized mob.

Hopping down off the boulder, she trailed along behind Valdis, studying the blood leaking from the wound in the shoulder. 'I'm glad you didn't kill any of them.'

"They're too pathetic to kill," she said with a snort. As the passed by the dead Greenback that had owned the cave she now used, she pointed to it and said, "That was more of a challenge."

Ducking slightly, she winced and entered the cave, a small pitch-covered torch still burned where she had left it jammed in a crack. Plus an opening at the top allowed some sunlight in from the rising sun, as well as fresh air. She went to her pack and started digging around in it.

As Ryuu entered, she tossed some clean bandages at the silver-haired woman. "Ah, can you help me with this wound?"

Snatching the bandages out of the air, Ryuu moved over to the other woman and tugged her shirt up over her head without asking first, 'Certainly.' The tip of the pick was still in the warrior's shoulder. Grabbing it with her fingertips, Ryuu yanked it out without warning. The metal tip hit the floor with a metallic clink. 'We could go to another town and you could beat up another boatload of women to sate your blood lust.'

Valdis flushed angrily as the comment struck a nerve. "I didn't want to beat those women up, period. All I wanted last night was food and a place to sleep. They started it," she said somewhat childishly, then winced as Ryuu started binding her shoulder. With her good arm she pulled the shirt the rest of the way off, not wanting it near her body. It smelled strongly of her, and blood was splattered all over it.

'And you didn't really mind the fact that they started it. You kind of liked it too, didn't you?' Ryuu stepped aside as the shirt was tossed away, and then she finished binding the wound on her shoulder. 'If there was a healer around, I'd say you should probably get her to see to your shoulder.'

Valdis actually pouted, for a moment. "Of course I didn't like it." It sounded hollow even to her ears. She sighed and rolled her shoulders, and nearly passed out at the pain. "Shit!" There were black spots dancing a jig in her vision. She didn't think it was that bad, but her shoulder really didn't have any feeling in it any more. "Wow." She shook her head and looked at Ryuu. "I'm fine. Honest."

Judging by the expression on Ryuu's face, she didn't believe the warrior. 'Just think of the stories that they are going to tell about the day they got beat up by some stranger who wandered into their village.' Taking Valdis' hand, the shorter woman tugged the warrior over to a rock. 'Sit. You need to eat.'

Without any argument, Valdis sat down, leaning against the rock wall of the cave. She had done a forced march to this valley, and had eaten very little. "Food would be nice." And sleep, she hadn't slept in thirty six hours.

'Good thing I came prepared, then.' From somewhere, Ryuu produced a slide sung sack that she hadn't actually been carrying around earlier. The sack itself was full of fresh food, and even a mug of sweet wine, which the silver-haired woman offered to Valdis. 'Here. Eat, drink the wine, and I'll keep watch while you sleep.'

Valdis raised an eyebrow in question, but didn't ask. Ten to one Ryuu wouldn't give her an answer anyway. She took a sip of the wine and hummed in pleasure. It was southern, and while the northern hot wine was good, this had an added bonus of reminding her of home.

Finishing the mug, she looked up at the other woman. "I don't think you need to keep watch. I would seriously doubt they'll be back today...maybe tomorrow." She ate the food, humming again at the wonderful taste. Wiping her mouth, she looked up. "Can you hand me a shirt out of my pack, I'm getting slightly chilled." She chuckled slightly as a faint hint of red dusted Ryuu's cheeks.

The silver-haired woman quickly went to grab a shirt for Valdis, even if she had been enjoying sneaking peaks at her breasts. 'I can see you're getting a bit chilled.' She held out the simple shirt in offer, eyes once again drifting lower than Valdis' face.

Valdis chuckled again, and said, "My eyes are a little higher." She awkwardly got the shirt on, only managing not to cry out as she pushed her hurt arm through the sleeve, by biting her lip. She panted for a second then said, "Besides, aren't you intellectual types only supposed to be interested in my head? Do my thoughts and emotions mean nothing?"

Ryuu narrowed her eyes and resisted the urge to throw something at her, knowing how badly injured Valdis was even if the warrior refused to admit it. 'Are you insinuating that I'm attracted to you?'

The warrior frowned then pushed herself up to her feet. "You can go back to town and your writers. I don't need a baby-sitter. I can take care of myself." She turned her back on the other woman, and with gritted teeth, started lying out her bedroll. Insinuating...she wasn't quite sure what the word meant. She thought it was along the lines of accuse. Apparently she was accusing the other woman of attraction. That didn't sound good. Her frown got deeper in frustration. Apparently she was just a stupid warrior.

Ryuu rolled her eyes as Valdis turned her back on her. Honestly, there had to be some sort of requirement to be a warrior. Most of the ones she'd met in the south were like Valdis, annoying, although with their own odd charm, which could surprise you. Valdis was a lot smarter than most of those warriors, too. 'Stop being so stubborn and let me help you.' She should just leave Valdis to herself.

"I can take care of myself," the warrior growled out, even though sweat dotted her forehead and the simple act of setting up a sleeping nest was wearing her out. She could hear Ryuu stiffen in anger and annoyance, almost feel the other woman's teeth as they ground together, but it was the moment she heard footsteps head towards the mouth of the cave she realized she was being childish and she didn't really want Ryuu to leave. Although, considering it was only day one of the Blood Star, she should just let the woman leave. But instead, she turned and called out, "Wait. What does insinuate mean?" That took a lot for her, because she was admitting her own ignorance.

Ryuu paused at the cave mouth, considering her answer. Since Valdis had a penchant for making her annoyed, she should just go back to the village and keep teaching her students and helping Cassia. Instead, she turned back towards the southerner. 'It means implying, or are you saying that I'm attracted to you.'

Valdis frowned again, thinking about what had been said. "I don't know, I think I'm more confused now," she finally admitted. "I always imply you're attracted to me because I think you are. It's fun to tease you because you don't want to be attracted to me, I think." She blew out a breath and sat down in the pile of stuff she had just dropped. She cradled her arm. "I'll stop teasing you if you want." It was said almost sadly.

Now, why had she gone ahead and done something like that? She looked like a puppy that had just gotten kicked. Ryuu sighed and walked back to take a seat next to the injured woman. 'I like your teasing,' she admitted, reluctantly. 'Let me keep watch for you tonight, I'm good at keeping watch. You need to rest, especially if those women come back tomorrow.'

Valdis nodded a bit uncertainly. Something had happened, and it had affected her internally, but damned if she knew what had occurred. "You just did something? I have no idea what it was, but something inside me just changed. You do that a lot, and I'm not certain I like it. Like last ni..." She trailed off, not really wanting to go into that with Ryuu. As a rule, she respected all the women she slept with. She never treated them badly, never spread tales, and never kissed and told. She liked sex, and last night had been an odd experience.

Blue eyes glanced up at the warrior then back down to the bedroll that she was arranging into a bit more of a comfortable position. Gently, she got Valdis to lie down and arranged the blankets over her. It was going to be a cold night, and Ryuu wondered if she should get a fire going to keep the injured woman warm. 'What about last night? I already know you were in a tavern drinking.'

Valdis shook her head slightly. "I don't really want to talk about that. It's sort of private. Let's just say I couldn't finish something I started." As soon as it came out, she really wanted to take it back. No matter what scenario Ryuu's mind came up with, it just sounded bad. She laid back in the coarse, woolen blankets with a groan and threw her good arm over her eyes. "Pretend I never said that."

Firmly pressing her lips together to avoid even a whisper of a laugh, Ryuu took a second before answering. 'No problem.' Carefully, she reached over and pulled the blankets up over Valdis. 'Just rest now. I'll see you in the morning.'

Valdis looked up and smiled sheepishly. "Thanks." She burrowed a little bit into the nest then opened her eyes, looking at the other woman. "Um..." She blew out a breath then attentively said. "If...if you get cold and want to...you can snuggle with me under the covers. I promise to act like a...um...responsible adult."

"If I get cold..?" Ryuu kept her voice as neutral as possible, even if her eyes were sparkling with mischief. "And you swear to be a responsible adult?"

Valdis just nodded. "I didn't expect company, so I didn't bring extras. I swear I can act like an adult."


Ryuu wasn't sure she entirely believed the warrior on that point. However, it was going to be a cold night, and Valdis was hurt. Shaking her head at herself, Ryuu took off her boots and coat then slipped under the covers with Valdis.


Honestly, the warrior hadn't expected Ryuu to actually take her up on it. Her eyes were a little wide as she laid back and tried to get comfortable with her bad arm. She yawned and made sure there was a small gap between their bodies. She had made a promise, and she would respect it. Now that the short conflict was over between them, she felt her eyes droop, the food, wine, and her body's need to heal itself making her sleepy. "See," she mumbled, "I can be good."


"I'm sure you can be good," the silver-haired woman whispered, waiting until her breathing evened out, then shifted closer until they were pressed up against one another. "Now I have to be." Tugging the blankets up around them a bit more securely, she settled in to wait out the night.


Valdis woke, to her great embarrassment, wrapped around Ryuu's body. It was a tender, romantic embrace that she was more than capable of, but one she normally reserved for the morning after sex.

There was another problem this created in her...she could still very much feel the pulsing of the Bloodstar. And while the fight yesterday had soothed her, that had been yesterday. Now, she felt it rising again, like some beast that had not been fed in days. The intimacy of their position raised her lust, as well as her lust for battle and war.

Being as stealthy as she could, she eased away from Ryuu's body and fled to the entrance. From the mouth of the cave she could see the sun rising, beautiful over the icy lake and snow.

Stretching, she found herself healed, only a faint stiffness in her shoulder. With a longing look to the nest of blankets and the woman who slept there, she ducked out the entrance and went running.

In the pile of blankets, Ryuu cracked open an eyelid after Valdis had fled. It had been a very pleasant way to spend the night, and even the wake up freak out had been less extreme than she had expected. Quietly, she slipped out of the covers, pulled on her boots, and trailed after the warrior, curious to see where she was fleeing too.

It was hard work to run through the snow, and she was half tempted to shift her form and run on all fours, but the extra strain of pushing through the snow was what she needed to burn out the violence in her system. She sniffed, smelling rabbits, a coyote, and a few mountain lions roaming nearby. Altering her course a bit, she headed to the path the miners had used the other day, curious to see if anything had been left behind, or perhaps see if there were signs they were going to try to come at her again.

Struggling up the slight grade, she sniffed and carefully explored the path. There was no new snow, so the area of the fight was still clear. There were splatters of blood, footsteps, and a broken weapon or two. Slowly, she zigged-zagged up the path looking for any signs they had come back.

Then suddenly, she stopped moving, all the air whooshing out of her lungs, almost feeling like she had taken a blow to the gut. Inside her head was a ringing, an overwhelming compulsion to return to the south. Her father's voice drew her tight like a fishing line with a fat fish, and he plucked cruelly at her desires. She fell to her knees, not feeling the cold snow under her. He showered her with promises, showed her the great battles to come that she could lead, the beautiful women who would be hers for the taking. He played to her weakness like a master musician.

Silently, Ryuu padded along behind the taller woman, following her path. She watched, curious, as Valdis scouted the entire area where the fight yesterday had taken place. The moment that Ryuu had known would be coming, arrived, faster than she had expected. She'd thought to have at least another day or two before Vladlin applied pressure on his daughter. Apparently, that wasn't the case. She moved closer, stopping not far away from where the southerner was kneeling in the snow. "Valdis," she called softly, not wanting to startle her.

She had never felt his attention so clearly directed at her. Shivering, she covered her face with her hands, trying to block everything out. She moaned pitilessly at the voice. "Please, go away." Whom she was talking to wasn't clear.

The pitiful voice plucked at Ryuu's heart and she moved closer, hands pausing just before she would have touched the other woman's head. "Listen to me, Valdis. Listen to Ryuu. He isn't here. His voice is only in your mind."

The god snarled at the interference, his anger radiating out through his daughter. Valdis snarled, her hands dropping away, exposing red eyes. But she didn't move to attack the other woman. Her hands balled into fists and she drove them into the snow, her mind filled with bloody visions, and her nostrils flared and her pulse raced. Trembling, she blinked and looked over at Ryuu, "How do I shut him out?" she begged for an answer.

The silver-haired woman gracefully sank to her knees in the snow in front of Valdis, not caring about the cold. "Will you let me touch you?"

The warrior nodded. "I don't want the things he's showing me." Which was a lie, part of her did, wanted them very much.

If Valdis had been a mortal, there would have been no way that Ryuu could have interfered. She would have been bound by the same oath that bound her mother, and forced to let Valdis fight her own battle without interference. But Valdis was anything but mortal, and Ryuu's hands reached up to cup the warrior's face. "You are here, Valdis, here with me."

The god didn't want this woman to touch his daughter, and he begged then ordered her to use her godly gifts, to call a hunt. All she had to do was throw back her head and call the hunt, and every predator in this valley would be on Ryuu. Valdis refused her father. She opened her eyes and looked a Ryuu. Pain was etched on her face, but her eyes were once again an icy blue.

"Good," the silver-haired woman murmured, searching Valdis ' eyes for signs of her father. "Focus on me, Valdis." She brushed her fingers up through the hair on her temples, slowly messaging them. "He has no power in the north, not yet."

Valdis flushed in rage. For so long she had wanted some sort of acknowledgement from her father, and now he finally bothered to give her attention only because it served him some purpose. Raising her hands out of the snow, she grabbed Ryuu's arms tightly, centering herself here in the snowy north, and closed her eyes. Searching herself, she found the tangled red thread that had always been there tying her to her father.

Ryuu's eyes widened when she sensed what Valdis was trying to do. "Valdis, are you sure you want to do that?"

No, she wasn't certain. If she did that, she knew that was it, he'd never have anything to do with her again. But she'd made promises, ones that couldn't be compromised by his influence. He was not a god of honorable battle, but of Chaos and war. She could feel his will darkened by that of his twin, the Mistress of Shadows, whom he loved more than his own blood. This was how they'd known about Kai, she could feel the truth. She'd unknowingly betrayed them while weak in her own depression.

She drew the thread out and hefted a sword, feeling his anger and his promise of vengeance if she followed through. He had given her the gifts of war, but her mother had given her the knowledge of honor and trust. She chose her mother's teachings. Quickly, the ties that bound them were cut, and after a moment, there was nothing but silence in her head, the raging torrent gone.

Worried blue eyes studied Valdis ' face as the tension and pain that had been there a moment before eased then disappeared. "Valdis..." She trailed off, not knowing what to say or even how to begin. "He has no ties to the north, now, again."

Valdis felt like crying, but was, in the end, too much of a warrior to do that. "Why now? I don't understand. He ignored me for so long, why now?"

"Because you're here," was the simple answer, nodding towards the snow-covered landscape around them. "With you as his prophet, the fire clans would flock to his worship. They would become one of the most powerful of his followers, and eventually, they could take the north for themselves, under your banner and in his name."

She nodded, hiding the hurt. Of course, it had nothing to do with her. Laughing hollowly, she tried for a joke, "Those lazy miners? I seriously doubt they could rule the north." Her rage was silent inside, and she had to wonder if now that the tie between them was severed, if she was merely mortal. She felt so calm and ordinary.

"They have potential." Ryuu smiled, brushing a stray lock of blonde hair from the other woman's forehead. "You've already made an impact on them."

She laughed. "Well, their bruises will heal, in time." Shakily, she stood, releasing her grasp on the other woman, wincing as she saw how tightly she had grabbed Ryuu's flesh. "Shit, I'm sorry." It looked like she would leave a bruise on more than those miners.

Ryuu made a dismissive gesture as she stood as well. "You still feel like beating up people?"

"Not really. I feel like I've done a forced two-day march, fought a war all day then got rode hard at the temple. I'd say feeling more worn out than anything."

"That's good. How about coming back to the island with me, then?"

Valdis nodded, "I guess my recruits will be upset. I promised them I'd be gone for five days." She brushed the snow from her legs and started back down the trail to pack her things.


The mid afternoon sunlight streaming in through the windows behind her gave Cassia more than enough light to study the picture she was sketching. Instead, she found herself setting aside the plans to watch as Moriko played with Kai. She'd thought that they would have to pry the child out of Selene and Nix's hands when they had come to pick her up that morning.

Since Valdis was still gone, she had the afternoon off and was making full use of it to catch up on a couple of neglected projects. Although the abrupt disappearance of Ryuu had put a kink in a few of those plans. "It can't be just a coincidence that Ryuu left at the same time as Valdis."

Moriko looked up from the floor where she was chasing a now crawling Kai and two hyper puppies. "Perhaps love is in the air," she said with a grin, then turned to fend off the two puppies. "Settle down or you're going outside." Understanding outside meant leaving the warmth of the house, the two puppies whined and tucked their tails between their legs.

"Oh, poor puppies," Cassia laughed, immediately regretting it as the two turned and bumbled over in her direction, skidding across the wood floors. "Oof, I asked for that one didn't I?" She scratched both heads, fending them off from jumping into her lap.

"Yes, love, you did. You looked at them, that's where you went wrong." Scooping up Kai, she walked over to Cassia and sat down. "Actually, I doubt Valdis is Ryuu's type. She seems too sensible."

"Too sensible..?" Cassia grinned. "I guess that is one way to put it." She managed to get the two pups to lie down before they tried to jump up onto the table and play with Kai again.

The princess smiled at that, rolling up the parchment and getting it out of the way before something bad happened to it. With both Kai and the puppies around, any number of stains or tears could result. "Selene wanted to talk to me about something while you and Nix were fussing over Kai this morning."

'Was it something good or something bad?" she asked, rocking Kai gently, trying to get the toddler to calm down.

Cassia winced as once again Kai managed to snag a strand of her hair and tugged, hard. "I'm going to go bald. I just know it." She managed to pull back her hair. "She wants to step down in the spring." She looked up at Moriko, nervous about how the news was going to be received.

Moriko cooed and gently unwrapped the child's small fingers from Cassia's dark locks. "Are you okay stepping up into the roll of Queen?"

She was more than a little nervous about it, which was surprising, considering she had known this day was coming her entire life. "Depends if I'd be doing it alone?" She bit her lip, staring up at Moriko.

Moriko was a little breathless at that. "Um, are you asking me...what are you asking?" She was hopeful it was about marriage, but perhaps it was too soon. They really hadn't been dating that long. "I'm not running away, I think Kai can handle you even if you're Queen. Isn't that right, Kai?" The toddler just said something in her baby language and clapped her hands.

The dark-haired woman licked her lips, palms suddenly damp. She really should have planned this a little better. There should have been candles or something like that. Dear Goddess she was going to mess this up. "I, umm, I'd like you to be my...ummm." Cassia's eyes widened in horror; why couldn't she think of the word. It was Rez something...raven, raisin? No, that was wrong.

Moriko just looked at her in question, "Friend, lover? Honey, I think we have those covered, and they're not going to stop just because you're Queen, although we might have a harder time sneaking time together."

Cassia laughed, shaking her head. "I'm sorry, I'm messing this up." All right, what did Nix say? Right, get on the knee. The dark-haired woman got out of her chair and went to a knee in front of Moriko and Kai, almost tripping over a puppy as she did so. Ignoring the outraged yelp from the dog, she took a breath and looked up again. "Moriko, I want you to be my wife." There, that was easy. She could just avoid the whole raven, raisin, whatever it was thing.

Moriko sucked in a breath. "Cassia, are you sure?"

"I'm very sure." She smiled widely. "Does that mean yes?"


Valdis slept on the floor of Ryuu's small house. Oddly, she hadn't tried to push any of Ryuu's buttons to get into the woman's bed. She merely accepted the pillow and the blankets and bedded down on the floor next to the fireplace.

It was almost worth it to see Ryuu's confused look.

She had decided to stay with Ryuu instead of going home. Nobody was expecting her for another two days, might as well let them have their break. Besides, she was still dealing with the stillness inside her after severing the ties that bound with her father.

Ever so quietly, Ryuu slipped out of bed well after she had said goodnight to Valdis. Ever so carefully, the silver-haired woman stepped out into the living room, avoiding the squeaky boards near her bedroom door. There was no sign of movement from the figure by the fireplace.

Letting out a slow breath, she gently opened the door and stepped outside, closing the door carefully behind her. Barefoot, she started to walk through the snow, heading out of the town.

Valdis opened her eyes and stared at the door for a moment before a cocky grin sprouted on her face. In a flash, she was up and dressed. Silently, she followed sniffing to make sure she had the right trail.

The moon was high in the cold night sky. Even with spring on the way, the nights were still well below freezing. A hazy ring of thin clouds surrounded the nearly full moon. The world was shades of white and gray, with pits of black shadows. Ryuu walked out of the town, treading through the snow until she reached the bank of the river.

Once there, she stopped on the very edge of the ice. Arms spread outwards, Ryuu stared upwards at the moon, head titled backwards. Quietly, she started to sing, her voice carrying across the water. The words weren't any that were from a human language.

Valdis hid in the shadows, her breath streaming out in white puffs of air. She listened, but understood nothing. It was beautiful. The woman had a wonderful singing voice. She was uncertain why Ryuu was out here. Was this some ritual to the Moon Goddess she was uncertain of?

The song trailed off, and for a moment, Ryuu stayed where she was, arms outspread. With what sounded like a hum of pleasure, she lowered her arms, and in one movement, took off the sleeping shirt she'd been wearing, tossing it aside. Naked, the woman started to walk across the ice, not pausing when she reached the open water in the center. With a leap, she jumped into it, diving deep under the surface of the Winderling.

That was unexpected. For a moment, Valdis stood rooted then began to run to the bank of the river. After the first couple of steps, she stopped herself. Ryuu, like her, was part god. She stood shifting nervously from foot to foot, waiting for the woman to emerge from the icy water.

The moonlight rippled off the water, disturbed by the current that swept past the open ice. Then the reflection was shattered as something large moved beneath the surface, causing the water to bulge outwards, spilling up over the ice and onto the riverbank.

Then a moment later, a silver blur burst out of the water, showering water everywhere. The long, slender shape unfolded its wings, and with a flap, the large creature started to gain height, the moonlight turning the dragon's scales liquid silver.

Valdis watched in awe as she watched the silver dragon take flight. Then she had to grin, that was how the woman sometimes smelled of wind and clouds.

In quick, efficient movements, she stripped off her clothes, stacking them next to Ryuu's, and then started running after the dragon. One second she was a pale, naked woman running in the night, then in a blink of an eye, she was gone, leaving a large, white-furred canine.

The dragon gained, continuing to fly eastwards, away from the Winderling, and paralleling the mountains to the south. Every once in a while she would dip down until her wings nearly skimmed over the treetops, and then with a few flaps, she would gain height again. Miles flew by underneath her wings, a soft shadow cast by the moonlight racing along under her. Finally, she slowed and landed on the top of a towering cliff. Far below, the sound of waves crashing against the rocky walls of the cliff echoed.

If Valdis had any question of her godly heritage being gone, it was answered as she barely kept up with her own mile-eating lope. Though she was not as fast as the flying creature, she was still able to keep it in sight.

Why she followed, she didn't know at first. But as she ran through the northern woods, it became more about the joy of running. Bounding up the steep mountainside, her thick, muscular shoulders and legs powered her onward. She had no idea how far they had come, but this smelled of ice, wind, and water, so she was almost certain they were in the territories preferred by the boat builders of the north.

The dragon perched on the edge of the cliff, rearing back onto her hind legs, wings flared, she roared out to sea for the sheer pleasure of being able to. Then she dropped back down onto her front legs, turned, and settled to wait, vivid blue eyes watching the edge of the trees.

Valdis stood in the scant tree line, her ruff standing up, and she knew that, somehow, Ryuu knew she was there. Her tail drooped and tucked between her back legs, she wondered if she was in trouble.

The dragon snorted, the gust of air causing the snow to billow up in front of her nostrils as she spotted movement far back in the shadow of the trees.

Slowly, the large canine emerged from the shadows, slinking along towards the dragon.

The dragon watched, eyes a vivid spot of color on the otherwise monochromatic landscape.

"Valdis," the voice brushed across the other woman's thoughts.

The hound's great head hung, almost as if embarrassed. She tried for a few moments to respond back, before getting the hang of it. "Yes?"

"I thought you were asleep." The voice didn't sound annoyed, it sounded amused, if anything.

"Surprise," she joked. "I'm a light sleeper, years of guard duty."

"I'll have to remember that," Ryuu's voice laughed in her mind, even as the dragon huffed in amusement. "I was going to save this form as a surprise."

"I was, but not really. I already knew you smelled of flying." She chuckled, a grin appearing on her canine face. "Okay, so I was surprised."

"Glad I can surprise you once in a while." The dragon lifted her head, turning to glance down at the moon reflecting off the sea below. "Next time, bring your clothes and I'll take you flying."

The large head swung back around to look down at the large wolf, blue eyes narrowing suddenly. "I didn't know you could change shape into a wolf."

Vladis chuckled. Her shape was very wolf-like, but more rough and fierce. "I'd say this is the template form for all canines, the first form. Calling me a wolf or dog wouldn't do it justice. Unfortunately, you're just a dragon." The last part was said mockingly. Then quickly, she was darting into the trees and racing down the mountain with the parting shot of, "See you at home."

The dragon huffed, turning so that she could watch as the moon continued its path across the sky, until it would set eventually across the sea. "See you there," her whispered thoughts followed Valdis as she ran.


Valdis sat at Ryuu's kitchen table. She had thrown some logs in the fireplace and lit a few candles. On the small table she had two hot cups of tea.

She glanced around the house, which wasn't really meant for entertaining. That thought made her perk up a bit. She really wasn't happy with the idea of the woman entertaining a lot of other women. Although as she thought back on it, at Keshet's manor, she'd never noticed the woman with anybody. Well, truthfully, she'd barely noticed Ryuu at all. She pondered why that was.

The door opened and Ryuu stepped in, shutting it quickly before too much of the warmth of the room could escape. The silver-haired woman looked a little surprised to see the warrior sitting at the kitchen table. "You're still awake." She immediately scowled, always having hated it when people stated the obvious. "I thought you would be asleep by now."

"Yes, well, it's not everyday I get to see a beautiful woman turn into a dragon. I'm a little too keyed up to go back to sleep," she offered in explanation. She slid the still warm tea towards the woman. "I made tea."

Ryuu smiled, "Tea, perfect." She hadn't been wearing a coat, so she simply walked to the table and pulled over the other chair. "So you think I'm beautiful?" she asked, peering interestedly at the southerner as she took a sip of tea.

Valdis rolled her eyes. "Stop fishing. Yes, I find you beautiful. I've told you that on more than one occasion, not my fault you didn't believe me." She sipped her tea with a smirk, watching as Ryuu's almost went down the wrong pipe. "You really don't expect it when I'm so blunt, do you?"

"I must have spent too much time in the southern court," Ryuu recovered, shaking her head in amusement at herself for once again getting caught by Valdis' honesty. "I'm used to political back-speak."

"Mmm, yeah, can't say I miss that. I'll miss that about Keshet, she really couldn't censor her mouth." She gave a sad laugh.

Reaching across the table, Ryuu gently clasped the other woman's hand in silent support. "I miss her too. I tried not to be seen in court, or to get involved, but it was hard not to like them."

Valdis lightly squeezed Ryuu's hand back. "Why are you trying so hard not to be noticed?" She didn't understand that, the woman was obviously very smart, and beautiful, why hide.

"Hard to explain how I don't age." Ryuu gave a wry smile, leaving her hand where it was while picking up her teacup with her other hand.

"I see." There was a sinking feeling in her gut at that answer. "I'll miss you. You, I'm sure, will be happy to get away from the annoying warrior."

"Come with me?" Ryuu asked, hopefully, as she looked up from their hands. "There is so much to see and experience throughout the lands. We wouldn't have to stay away forever. We could come back...eventually." ...When the people who had known them had passed away.

Valdis raised Ryuu's hand and kissed it. "Maybe, we'll see if they're ready for me to leave when you're ready to go. I can't leave them defenseless against the mysterious, what's to come."

It wasn't an outright rejection, so Ryuu was going to take it. "Good."

She gently set the hand back down and started blowing out candles. "Finish your tea and go to bed, you have budding writers waiting for you, and I have one more full day of nothing to try and survive."

"You could always give them a surprise exam or inspection." Ryuu stood, grinning.

"I could, but I've pushed them hard, and they deserve the break. If I push them too hard too fast, they'll resent me and their training, and then we'll get no soldiers at all." She stepped in front of Ryuu then leaned over, their faces separated by a millimeter of air; and blew out the last candle, bathing the room in the darkness of night.

As she leaned back, she smelled Ryuu, sniffing the scents of wind and clouds, and sighed happily. Valdis placed a kiss under her ear, then her neck, and finally on Ryuu's chin.

"Is this okay or am I insinuating again?"

The smaller woman sighed in pleasure and leaned closer until their bodies touched. "You could insinuate even better if you came to bed with me." She coughed a bit. "Umm, I mean, it's warmer in the bed."

Valdis laughed. "It's always warmer in bed. I just wanted to make sure you want me there. You send a lot of mixed signals, but the fact you didn't gobble me up into your dragon belly, I think says a lot of how much I'm wearing you down."

Ryuu stepped back, eyes narrowed at the taller woman. "I send mixed signals because you're annoying."

"Some people call it charm," Valdis said, stepping forward, enjoying their closeness.

Ryuu closed her eyes and leaned her head against a muscular shoulder. "How about you just come to bed? Just to sleep," she clarified, even as her hands stroked down the warrior's back.

"I can just sleep with a woman. Most of my reputation is exaggerated. I never, ever kiss and tell. I always have the greatest respect for the women I...er...spend time with." She sighed happily as Ryuu's head rested on her shoulder, and slowly, her hands came around and stroked her back. "Come on...let's go sleep, running around as a dog always wears me out. I can't imagine what it feels like as a dragon."

Ryuu mumbled something that sounded like exhausting but fun. The bed wasn't far away, one of the few benefits of having a house that wasn't very big. "Do I even want to know why you have a reputation at all, then?"

"While I may have respect, sometimes the women I spend time with, it turns out some of them don't. Or gossip starts when someone leaves my rooms at odd hours. It is what it is, but I'm not like that." She pulled back, looking at Ryuu's eyes, hoping the woman believed her.

Blue eyes studied the warrior intently for a moment, before Ryuu yawned. "All right," she simply said, sliding under the blankets after tossing off the shirt she'd been wearing. "You should stop hanging around with those women, then."

"Maybe, I will," she said softly into Ryuu's hair after she had crawled into the small bed. Thinking that for as long as Ryuu had been around, she hadn't really wanted to hang around with other women. Well, that one in the mining camp, but she'd been in a weird place, mentally.

The bed wasn't that large, so they didn't have much of a choice when it came to being close to one another. It was nice, Ryuu admitted to herself, to be able to hold someone who knew what she was. Actually, Ryuu grinned in the dark pulling the covers a bit higher over them, it was nice to hold someone. It had been a long, long time.

Valdis just nuzzled the back of Ryuu's neck burying her nose in her silver hair, smiling as she smelled winds and clouds. This was one of those things that had changed inside her. Gone was the swirling vortex of raw emotion that often left her incapable of slowing down and just enjoying richer emotions. "This is nice."

The smaller woman shifted closer, reaching behind her to grab one of Valdis' hands and pull it over her body in an invitation to hold her. 'I have to admit, I never pictured you as somebody who would curl up in bed,' she whispered.

Valdis chuckled. "I'm finding it's a new thing I'm willing to try. In fact, I'm enjoying it a lot. I'm assuming it's the woman I'm with." Contrary to her normal nature, she didn't try to roam her hand any lower or any higher, willing to let Ryuu navigate the pace of whatever they were doing. She wasn't really sure.

'How's this for another new experience, sleeping the night with a woman and not trying to get in her pants.' Ryuu let out a sigh of pleasure and closed her eyes, enjoying the warm body pressed up against her back.

"This isn't bad. Getting into someone's pants is more fun, but this is quickly working its way up to fun experiences." She kissed the back of Ryuu's neck. "Sh, sleep now. We'll work on getting into your pants later," she said jokingly.

A soft mumble was her only answer from the sleeping woman.


Valdis yawned so wide for a second, the only thing visible was the dangly thing in the back of her throat. Then her jaw shut with a light click of her teeth hitting each other.

She stared suspiciously at Ryuu's small potbelly stove.

She had unwound her body from that of the scribe's, which had been painful, because Ryuu had gone to bed naked. The warrior had been tempted to stare at the pale, naked flesh that had been exposed all morning. Good sense finally sent her from the bed. She had snuck out and bought some stuff for breakfast. Although cooking, let alone cooking to impress a woman, was a foreign concept to her.

She threw a couple of logs into the stove and slowly blew on the faint embers until they sparked back to life. Rustling through the cookware, she found a small skillet, and lifting it up in the faint light, she stared at it trying to remember if she had seen Moriko use something similar when she cooked eggs. With a sigh she realized how much she really did take advantage of the soft-hearted young woman, although she did her fair share of chores around the house. But the young woman did all the cooking and most of the taking care of Kai.

She set the skillet on the table and held a hand over the top of the stove, checking to see if it was hot enough yet to cook. Glancing over her shoulder, she checked her ingredients. Eggs – check, fresh milk – check, one fresh from the oven loaf of bread – check, cheese – check.

That, she hoped, would be a good breakfast. Determining the stove wasn't hot enough yet, she added another log, and wandered around the small room. After one quick circuit, she realized there was nothing homey in Ryuu's house, at all, nothing personal.

A knock at the door drew her out of her thoughts, and without thinking, she opened the front door, grinning slightly at the shocked look on Cassia's face. "Close your mouth, Princess, you'll swallow a fly."

'Valdis..?' The woman stared at the woman who had opened the door for her. She'd been expecting to have Ryuu open the door this morning. Instead, there was an amused looking warrior in the doorway.

'It hasn't been five days yet,' was the first thing that Cassia thought to say, worried that Valdis had somehow managed to be waiting to ambush her at Ryuu's place and make her run. She'd been enjoying the time with Moriko, even if the other woman did have the annoying habit of getting up before sunrise.

"No it hasn't," Valdis said with a laugh. "I can tell I've been missed." She ushered the princess into the house and shut the door. "Well, I'm certain you're not here to see me, let me go see if Ryuu is up.'

Cassia stared in astonishment as the warrior slipped into the small bedroom. She would have to tell Moriko that maybe the attention wasn't as one sided as they'd thought it was.

The southerner slipped into the darkened bedroom and leaned over the still slumbering woman. "Hey, beautiful," she whispered into an ear. "Cassia's here to see you."

The sleeping woman made a groaning sound as she stretched, blinking sleepily up at the woman who'd awoken her. 'Mmm...' She couldn't resist leaning up and slowly kissing her, smiling, still half awake. 'I can't believe I slept that long,' she stated when she finally sat upright.

Valdis was so stunned at the kiss she went from her awkward half-crouched position next to the bed to her knees. "Morning," she managed, still somewhat dazed.

Wrapping herself in a robe from next to the bed, Ryuu grinned at the kneeling woman. 'Come on...let's go see what the princess wants.' She pulled Valdis to her feet and stepped out into the small main room.

The dark-haired woman looked up from where she'd been watching the flames consume the logs in the fireplace, a mischievous smile on her face as she spotted them both.

'So this is what it means to go up north for a few days?'

The southerner coughed, and looked at Ryuu to see if the woman was uncomfortable at all. "Well, I decided to come back early, and to be nice, I stayed with Ryuu so you all could have a few more days off. But if you want, we can go for a run."

Cassia held up both hands. "Oh no, no, don't let me disturb your vacation." Ryuu watched them both with amusement. Shaking her head she moved to the small stove.

"Have you eaten already?"

Cassia nodded, "Moriko made breakfast."

Ryuu turned back to the stove, sorting out what Valdis had brought back from the market.

Valdis blushed slightly at all the breakfast food sitting out waiting to be turned into breakfast, so much for a romantic breakfast in bed. "I, was...um...going to attempt to make us food," she finally admitted.

"I'll get to the point and leave you two to your...' she glanced at Valdis with a wide smile, "...breakfast," making sure to stay on the other side of the room from the warrior, just in case. The princess became more serious.

"I wanted to tell Ryuu, but actually, it's good that you're here also, Valdis. Selene's going to formally step down in the springtime." She hesitated a bit then continued, daring both of them to say anything. "And I've asked Moriko to be my wife."

None of it was very surprising, though it slightly hurt to realize that Valdis wouldn't be needed in Moriko's and Kai's life for that much longer. She forced a happy smile to her face. "That's great. Did the deer herder pass out when you asked her? You go away for a few days and people become Queens and get married," she joked.

With a knowing look at the bluffing warrior, Ryuu slipped her arm around the taller woman's waist and gave her a slight squeeze. "Congratulations, Cassia, your parents place a lot of faith in you. And I already know that they like Moriko and Kai."

There was nothing shy about the thankful smile that Cassia gave them both. "She didn't pass out, Valdis, although it was close. It's not going to happen until spring, though."

"A spring wedding will be lovely. Congratulations, again. You two were meant for each other." Valdis reached over and took Cassia's hand, squeezing it gently for a second. "You'll be a wonderful Queen."

That wasn't a typical Valdis answer; it was far too honest and without any jokes attached to it. Both Ryuu and Cassia looked at her in surprise at that. "Umm, thank you." Cassia blinked. "I'll see you later. Don't forget, we have another day before you can start torturing us again."

"Fine, I'll wait another day to torture you. Now go have fun with your deer herder." She wondered briefly how long she should wait to move herself into a room at the Inn. Moriko would never ask her to, but the house would get crowded quickly.

After Cassia had left, Ryuu gave the other woman another squeeze and started to walk back towards the bedroom. She paused at door to look over her shoulder at the warrior. "Weren't you going to prepare breakfast in bed for me?"

"Um," Valdis blinked. "Yes, yes I was." But it was a little scarier now. If she screwed up, Ryuu was awake to know.

The robe that Ryuu had been wearing fell to the floor as the naked woman climbed back into the now cooler bed. "Don't let me stop you, then."

Hesitantly, she got up and approached the stove, grabbing the skillet, butter, and eggs. Staring at the stove, she said, "No funny business."

From the bedroom, Ryuu kept talking. "Things are going to get interesting in the spring, I think."

Juggling the food, she managed to get the butter melted and cracked the eggs. She frowned as one shell broke apart into the egg. Looking over her shoulder, she quickly dumped it into the garbage and tried again. "Yep, looks like I'll be moving back into a room at the Inn. I doubt the newlyweds will want me poking around their business."

Happier that this egg had proven less difficult she poked it with a wooden egg flipper thingy that she'd seen Moriko use.

A soft laugh came from the bedroom at that. "We'll have to see about that. I doubt that Moriko or Cassia want you going too far, considering the assassination attempt on Kai. Besides, that isn't what I meant."

She flipped the egg and frowned as the yolk broke. With a sigh, she decided that was hers. "Well, what did you mean, then?"

"Would you let me get away with saying something cryptic right now?"

"Do you want me to let you get away with it?" Valdis asked in return.

Ryuu laughed, staring up at the ceiling above her. "Not really."

Valdis laughed and flipped, what was now her egg, onto a plate before trying again. As the next egg cooked she sliced some cheese. "So, just to get this straight, you want me to push you to be less cryptic?"

The silver-haired woman considered her answer to that, pulling the covers up around her a bit tighter. "It's hard for me to give straight answers sometimes, must come from my mother's side of things."

It was on the tip of her tongue to ask who Ryuu's mother was, but she let it go. It didn't matter. What did matter was that Ryuu's mother had a beautiful daughter that Valdis loved... That made her thoughts crash. After a moment of frozen panic, she shook it off, and flipped the egg cooking in the skillet perfectly.

"So what's this cryptic thing you want to try on me so I can come in there and force the non-cryptic truth out of you?"

'The darkness is beginning to gather in the south. The spring should bring it to our doorstep,' Ryuu answered, charmed at the way Valdis was talking in circles.

Valdis snorted in amusement. "Honey, I must be learning Ryuu speak, because that made perfect sense to me." With a little flourish that sadly no one but herself could see, she flipped the egg onto a plate and sliced up some more cheese, as well as sawing a few slices from the dark bread they had up here in the north. Juggling two plates and two glasses of milk, she made her way to the bedroom.

Blue eyes watched her enter. 'You called me honey,' she said in a subdued voice.

"I did?" Valdis ' face took on a look of bewilderment as she thought back. "I, ah, guess that I did. That was probably a bit much, I'm sorry." She blew out a nervous breath. "You still want breakfast? You want me to leave?" She shifted nervously from foot to foot, wondering if she had just screwed everything up.

Rolling her eyes, Ryuu reached out and grabbed the other woman's arm to keep her from running away, letting the blankets drop as she did so. 'Stop, I liked it. Now how about you come here and help keep me warm?'

That she understood. "Okay." She handed Ryuu her breakfast and set hers on a shelf where it balance precariously. And with a practiced carelessness, pulled her shirt over her head and undid the ties to her pants, letting them slide down her legs to the floor, leaving her only in her thick, woolen socks.

The wound from the mining pick stood out on her shoulder as a fresh, angry, red scar. She grabbed her plate and jumped into the small bed. "If I'm going to be sleeping here, with you, we need to get you a bigger bed," she said and started eating her food.

A silver eyebrow arched at that comment, and Ryuu paused between bites of her eggs. "So you think you're going to keep sleeping with me?" She had to work hard not to grin as she asked the question.

Valdis rolled her eyes: that was a silly question. "Yes." She went back to eating.

The other woman laughed, turning back to her breakfast. "Then I guess I'm going to have to start charging you some sort of rent like they do at the Inn."

"Rent?" she sputtered. Setting her empty plate down, she looked at Ryuu with puppy dog eyes. "Why would you charge me rent?"

"Well, it wouldn't necessarily have to be coins." Ryuu met the warrior's eyes with an innocent expression. "I might consider trade or services."

Valdis brightened. "Um, what kind of trade or services, I can be rather handy? And since you didn't spit your breakfast out, I can assume it was tasty; proving my point of handiness."

"Cooking is an acceptable trade." Ryuu leaned closer until she was practically pressed up against the muscular woman's shoulder, lips just grazing her ear lobe. "But I had some other ideas in mind."

"Really..? I'd be open to hearing about those ideas." She shivered at the touch, but waited patiently, a grin tugging at her lips.

Ryuu purposefully moved her and Valdis ' tray of food off the bed, then moved back to her position from a moment before, licking her lips. "Well, I think I'd have to show you some of them."

The grin finally blossomed on her lips. "Show me, huh?"

Ryuu's grin turned into a sexy smile. "Yes," she whispered, finally giving in and pressing up against the warm body in bed with her. "Time to earn your rent," she whispered, before pulling them both under the blankets.

Valdis laughed, but easily followed Ryuu's lead. Once under the covers, her arms wrapped around Ryuu. "Told you, you found me irresistible." She punctuated the statement with kiss.

"Shut up," was the answer as Ryuu found more important things to do with her lips.


"You sure you don't mind Kai coming with me today?" Cassia watched Moriko getting ready for the day. The other woman had gotten up earlier to take care of the animals as usual, but Cassia had managed to coax her back into bed, without her clothes, the way Cassia liked her. Now that Kai was up, they were both getting ready for the day.

"Are you positive you can handle her? She's crawling fast, and now she can pull herself up things and knock stuff over. I can take her with me to the Inn, and she can play with Tamera, Keasly's young one," Moriko said, standing and stretching a second before grabbing Kai, who had pulled herself up the table leg and was now standing, wobbly, trying to grab a hunk of cheese. "I prove my point."

Kai squealed in disappointment, as the cheese was now out of grasp.

Cassia scooped up the disappointed child, swinging her up into the air and catching her on the way down to delighted laughter. Kai promptly tried to grab onto her hair, which Cassia now kept bound back in a braid for just these instances. "Well," she frowned, "I wanted to show her the cathedral. But I guess it might not be good to have her in a construction area."

Moriko lifted the now giggling child out of Cassia's arms. "I tell you what. I'll take a lunch today and Kai and I will both come over for an hour and look at this thing you've named cathedral."

That sounded more than reasonable, and Cassia leaned close to steal a kiss, wincing as a small hand managed to grab onto her ear. "I'll see you then." She pulled on her coat, grinned at them both, and headed out into the relatively warm spring day.

Moriko whistled for Rugor then she, Kia, and the puppy started down the muddy path to the Inn, following at a much slower pace. "I can't wait for all this thaw to dry out," she mumbled to herself.

An old woman stepped out into the path in front of them. 'Moriko?'

Moriko paused. "Mother, um, you remember Kai." She was startled, but quickly regained her composure.

Rugor went berserk barking at the stranger. "Rugor, heel..!" The puppy gave one last bark then snorted, going to his mistress' side.

The older woman took a hesitant step closer, stopping when the puppy gave a low growl from Moriko's side. "I haven't had a chance to meet her yet."

'I wasn't certain I wanted you to.'

The older women winced, but said nothing in response to that. "Can I meet her now?"

Moriko frowned for a moment then stepped forward. "Yuri, I'd like you to meet Kai. Kai this is my occasional mother." The toddler gurgled then grabbed a chunk of Yuri's hair and pulled.

Yuri winced at the hearty tug. "She's going to be a strong one." The older woman looked uncomfortable standing there. "I just wanted to tell you that Pax and I are getting back together. We're trying to work on our problems. Who knows, we might actually get somewhere."

She gave her daughter a fond look, staring at her face for a long moment to memorize it. "You have your life here." Then she turned and started to walk down the path away from her.

Moriko paused. "Mother, wait." She wasn't certain how she felt about this. "I'm happy you two are working on things. Are you going to try acting like an adult?"

The older woman stopped, thinking for a moment then shrugged. "I don't know,' she answered honestly then grinned, "one thing at a time."

Moriko laughed at her mother, a first in a long time. "Um, how about we try having breakfast at the Inn?"

Her mother looked uncertain, then straightened her shoulders and nodded, "One step at a time, right?"

Moriko nodded, "But I'm proud of you two for trying again. And since none of us live at home anymore, I know you're doing it for yourselves, not us kids."


Moriko walked into the kitchen of the Inn and washed her hands and face in the dishwater. She smiled at Keasly. "Kai and I are taking lunch. Be back in an hour or so." The Innkeeper just nodded and went back to making bread dough.

She scooped Kai out of the playpen they had erected on the floor for Kai and Tamara to play in, keeping the rambunctious toddlers out of everybody else's way.

"Ready to go see Cassia?" she asked, blowing a raspberry on the Kai's cheek. The toddler just squealed and clapped her hands. "I'll take that as a yes."

Exiting the Inn, Rugor waited outside, his tail wagging furiously when he spotted his mistress, and easily fell in line behind her as they walked towards the large structure. As they passed through the open market, she spied Valdis looking perplexed at a stand of fresh cut flowers and fruit. The warrior was definitely looking at the flowers. She waved hello and the warrior blushed and sheepishly waved back. That was odd, and Moriko decided to remember to talk to Cassia about it later.

Now that she thought about it, Valdis hadn't been home a lot, recently. "Wonder what's up with Auntie Valdis?" she murmured in Kai's hair.

The building they were walking towards was huge to Moriko, but Cassia had assured her that the castle was going to be bigger.

Construction on the actual structure was mostly finished. The tall building soared over the surrounding homes, the top of its dome the highest point on the island. Scores of people were hard at work on the inside, sculpting stone, placing windows, and carving wood.

The interior would be a work of art when it was finished.

"Hey," she said as she noticed Cassia bent over a large parchment, her braid winding down her neck and over her shoulder, that Moriko found extremely sexy.

The basic structure of the cathedral was finished. The majority of the work was now being done inside, which was fine with Cassia, since it was muddy outside now that the spring thaw was on. She looked up and smiled widely when she spotted two of her favorite people. "Hey," she answered, straightening up and stretching her back. "Is it lunch time already?"

"Yep, and we are here, as promised, to tour this honking huge pile of stone."

"Don't you listen to your mother Kai; this is more than just some pile of stones." Cassia gave Moriko a mock glare.

Moriko looked down sheepishly. "Okay, so I could have picked a better way to phrase that."

A raised eyebrow was her only answer. "Come on, I have the perfect spot for us to take a little picnic then I can give you a tour if you want?"

"Sounds perfect... Bet you didn't make time for breakfast this morning," Moriko chided, coming up next to Cassia to follow her.

"That's because somebody kept me in bed and I was late." A nearby worker looked up from the bench she was carving at that. Cassia winced. She hadn't intended to say that quite so loudly. "Over here." She hurried them away from the laughing woman towards a staircase that led up to one of the balconies that would overlook the central area of the dome.

"Kept you in bed," Moriko said with a chuckle. "I believe I was up and ready to start my day when someone..." She glanced down at Kai then covered the toddler's ears. "When someone convinced me to get naked and back into bed."

Cassia gave her a wicked grin, "Seems to me you didn't need that much convincing." A rough, wooden bench had been set up on the balcony, and food was already laid out. Scaffolding blocked some of the view of the dome above them.

Moriko uncovered Kai's ears and laughed. "True, you turn me into a big old pushover." She stepped onto the balcony and her eyes widened. "Wow."

"What do you think?" Cassia watched the other woman anxiously, hoping that she liked it. This was the first time that Moriko had come to see it since the dome was finished.

"I think it's amazing. How did you know it would work?" Moriko said in awe, slowly turning around in a circle.

The princess picked up Kai and twirled her around before starting the process of seeing which of the foods the little one was actually going to eat this time.

'Some of the books that Ryuu brought with her had descriptions of how to build an arch. She explained how we could make a dome using the same sort of principles. It took a lot of small models though.' She liked it a lot better than the original plan, which had been to make a series of terraced flat roofs. This was so much more elegant in her opinion.

Moriko sat down next to Cassia and Kai, laughing as the toddler stuck some food in her mouth that she didn't like. "It's beautifully designed. Plus having the curved dome will prevent the snow from building up on top, which could add a dangerous amount of extra weight." She leaned over and snuck a kiss. "You're so smart it's down right sexy," she whispered before picking up one of the small winter apples and taking a bite.

The dark-haired woman blushed at the compliment. 'I'm glad you like it.' Kai rapidly got her attention back by spitting out a bit of the mashed beets. 'I don't blame you, kid, I never liked those either.' She offered the child a different food. 'How are things going today at the Inn?'

"The Inn is fine, nothing exciting. Alcens poop and I clean it up." She paused for a moment, a gentle down turning of her lips that wasn't quite a frown. "My day has been kind of odd. I ran into my mother while I was leaving the house. She came all the way down here tell me she and my Muanya are going to try again." She bit her lip in thought, still not sure how she felt about the early morning meeting.

Cassia looked up from the fair-haired toddler she was trying to coax into having some mashed apples, looking a bit worried at that. 'What happened?'

"It was a good meeting, nothing bad happened. It's just odd having her back in my life. She was really a horrible mother; it was more like having another sister sometimes. That's not what I needed or wanted. I sometimes have to wonder about the Goddess, that she decided it was a good idea to let my mothers have children in the first place."

At Cassia's worried face, she corrected herself. "They weren't mean or abusive, and sometimes it was a lot of fun, but I did most of the mothering growing up, and that's something they should have been doing."

The dark-haired woman nodded slowly. 'I keep forgetting to ask, where are your sisters these days? I'm just wondering if we should invite them to come here for the ceremony.'

Moriko brightened. "Oh, yes. I'd love to see them all in one place at the same time. Um, three of them live up north; they're way into mining. Well, I take that back. According to Mia, Goldy, she's the baby, is into wine making. Marianna lives down south at Abnoa pass. She fell in love with some hunter and stalked her all the way back down south." She had to smile as she thought of Marianna. As the middle child, she just had to be different.

'I'd like to meet them.' The concept of having sisters was one that she'd always wondered about. What would it be like to not be the only child? 'I think Kai should have sisters,' she found herself saying, then froze, spoon halfway to Kai's mouth, as she realized she'd said that out loud.

Moriko just smiled happily. "I think she should have sisters, too. I figured we would, at some point. Kai's not really northern blood and I'm not certain if everyone would be okay with her ruling, and she may not want to. I know you didn't for a while. I just figured we should have a couple, and hopefully one of them will think ruling an ice box will be fun." She reached over and sliced the hard, yellow cheese and held a sliver up to Cassia's lips.

"Are your moms okay with us getting married? I wasn't even sure you told them yet. Since nobody ever came around asking me about these mysterious Rezan tasks."

Cassia relaxed as she realized Moriko wasn't upset with her little slip, and took the sliver of cheese, chewing it thoughtfully. 'Actually, I think they're up to something. Nix has been rubbing her hands together gleefully anytime I mention the ceremony, and Selene gets that smile that means she's planning something evil.'

The blonde's face went a little pale. "Should I be worried? They like me, right? They told me they liked me."

It was Cassia's turn to reassure. Smiling, she patted Moriko's arm. 'Don't worry. They do like you. I think they just have to make sure that everyone is happy that they followed this Rezan thing.'

Some of the color returned to Moriko's face. "Being royalty is harder than I thought. Well, love, I promise to do my best by you." She leaned in and fed Cassia another bit of cheese, and followed it with a kiss. She leaned back and ate some of the wonderful food Cassia had gotten them. After a moment, her eyes went wide as she remembered Valdis in the market. "Hey, I have to tell you something weird. Valdis was in the market looking stressed out over flowers."

It was a close thing, but Cassia managed to avoid choking on the cheese. 'What, flowers?' That was a hard image to picture. Then she remembered the last time that she'd seen Valdis and grinned. 'Bet I know who it is that she wants to bring flowers to.'

Both of Moriko's eyebrows rose in question, "Really? I can't see Valdis ever being serious enough about a woman to get her flowers. Although, she hasn't been home a lot at night, and you guys are training four times a week, instead of six, like before." Moriko felt bad, she hadn't even noticed the changes in her friend.

"I went over to Ryuu's to tell her about us and Selene stepping down in the spring." She grinned. "Want to guess who was cooking breakfast for her?"

Moriko's forehead wrinkled in thought for a second. "No way, I didn't even think Valdis could cook."

"I think she's been holding out on you." Cassia grimaced as she got a small handprint of food on her cheek from a laughing Kai. "I think you do this better than I do."

Moriko laughed at Cassia's expression. "You're doing fine, love. You just need some practice." She reached out and tickled Kai's belly, gaining the toddler's attention. Happy to have a new playmate, the child crawled quickly over to the stable mistress, with Moriko scooping her up onto her lap, not minding the sticky child handprints on her already mucked-up clothes.

"I guess I'll just have to spend a lot more time around the two of you," she answered, using a napkin to clean off her cheek. "So you're all right with your mother's visit?" She asked again, just wanting to be certain.

"Yeah, I think so. It's odd that she wants to be close now, but I'm hoping she's sincere." Moriko shook her head. Time would tell with her mother.


Valdis had thought it fairly straightforward. She'd seen other women do it. You lo...like someone a whole lot, you get them some flowers. But it seemed that you just didn't go into the forest and pick some, no, no, no. You got her exotic flowers from places other than where you currently were.

So simple go to the market and get some. But the vendor kept asking what her lady friend's favorite color was, did she have allergies, and on, and on, which made her feel lousy because she didn't know the answers to the questions.

The vendor smiled hopefully at the warrior, a little nervous at the more than slightly annoyed expression on the older woman's face. "Do you know what kind of flower she likes?" the young woman asked, helpfully.

Valdis shook her head slowly, "Um, actually...no." Actually, now she wasn't sure if Ryuu even liked flowers.

The vendor flicked her long blonde braid over her shoulder, frowning in thought. "We have some very nice dried flowers from the south, if you'd rather give her those?"

But she had to get the woman something, because, because she had acted weird this morning. They had spent almost all of yesterday having fiercely, passionate sex, except for the end, when it had turned soft, gentle, and nearly heartbreaking. This morning she had woken up in Ryuu's arms and felt content, happy, and like she never wanted to leave.

Which had prompted her to have a mini-freak out, as Moriko would say. "Um, what was that, dried flowers?"

The young woman nodded hopefully. "They're very nice," she pointed to the bundles that were hanging from some of the rafters.

She frowned then sighed in discontent. She had no idea. "Yes, they are nice. And they'll last a long time, won't they? Which tells her I plan to last for a long time and be with her, right?" She looked at the woman hopefully.

Sensing a sale, the young woman nodded again and reached up to pull down the largest of the bundles. "This one has dried roses in it. They smell good." She offered the bundle for Valdis to smell.

The warrior sniffed, "Um, okay, I'll take," she looked sheepish, "however, much it takes to say sorry I'm a dumbass."

"I'll wrap it for you," the saleswoman said with a wink, "in something pretty." She had just the right thing.

For the first time all day Valdis brightened in relief. Paying the woman, she quickly left, headed back towards Ryuu's.

Once there, however, she hesitated.

Shifting from foot to foot, she stared at Ryuu's door, wondering if she should knock or go right in, or maybe she wasn't even home, maybe she was teaching reading and writing.

"Valdis?" a familiar voice called out from just in back of her, as Ryuu walked down the small path to her front door.

Valdis whirled around and tried to hide the package behind her back. "Ryuu, you're, you're here, um, hi." For the first time ever, she felt her palms sweat.

The silver-haired woman paused, eyeing the warrior quizzically. "Where else would I be?" She stepped around Valdis to open the door.

"I wasn't sure, if you would be, thought you might be out teaching reading and writing, and all that good stuff."

"I left my students with some reading to finish." It was more than a little reading, and should take them at least several days to finish. "I wasn't sure you'd be back after this morning." She still wasn't sure what had exactly happened.

"Yeah, about that..." She followed Ryuu hesitantly into the woman's modest home. "I'm sorry I was a little...well, weird this morning." She brought the wrapped flowers out from behind her back.

Ryuu crossed her arms, eyeing the dried flowers. "So to tell me you were sorry you're giving me dead things?" She arched an eyebrow in question.

The warrior eyed the flowers, her face going a little red in embarrassment. "I-I-I..." She stammered, uncertain what to say. "I didn't think of it like that when I bought them." Her shoulders drooped a little, and mentally beat herself up, wondering what she was thinking. There was no way she could be any good at a relationship.

Relenting, Ryuu stepped closer, breathing in the nice smell of the flowers before kissing Valdis. "Thank you for the flowers. I was kidding, I like them. I didn't feel like letting you off the hook that easily."

Valdis let out a breath and perked up a little. "I'm really sorry about this morning. Please believe me."

Taking the flowers from the other woman, she started to look for a good place to put them. "Want to tell me what happened?" She had a guess, but she wasn't sure.

Valdis scratched her head and shut the front door, realizing she'd left it wide open. "I'm, well, I've..." She frowned for a second trying to find the right words for what happened.

Finding a pitcher that more or less resembled a vase, Ryuu put the dry flowers into them to make a nice arrangement. Then she turned to look at Valdis, folding her arms over her chest and waiting for what she was sure was going to be a great explanation.

"Because last thing I knew, we were having some very nice sex, then all of a sudden, you bolted out of here like a southern razorback was after you."

She sat down and rubbed her hands vigorously through her hair, "Arghh! I'm not sure what happened. One minute you're very pleasantly wearing me out, the next, I'm lying there holding you, realizing I've never really wanted to be with anyone holding them. It was nice and wonderful, and it's never felt that way before. It's never felt like I never wanted to leave. I got scared. What if you did want to leave? What if..." She sighed. "Just what if."

Ryuu sighed and moved closer, wrapping her arms around the tense woman and leaning against her. "No matter what, I won't leave you unless you want me to. I promise that." The smaller woman rubbed her hands up and down Valdis' back, feeling the tension there. "Just because I can't stay here forever, doesn't mean I will leave you."

Valdis nodded, relaxing a bit. It wasn't a perfect answer, but it wasn't a perfect world. "I'm sorry. I know what I did was shitty, but I'm trying to make up for it. I don't know how long you've been around, but I'm still just a baby at all this."

The shorter woman continued to stroke Valdis' back, trying to relax the muscles she could feel there. "I'm older than you, but not that old, considering the possibilities."

The warrior nodded and slowly relaxed. "I've never...I've never really wanted to wake up with the same woman before, day after day. I woke up this morning and there wasn't any place else I wanted to be. I had a little freak out. I really like you, Ryuu." She wasn't quite up for using love, not yet. Time would tell, and she hoped she was up for it. But being with Ryuu settled her, making her not want to go crashing down a hill of enemies, sword in hand. She used to live for the thrill of battle, now, most days, she didn't want to get out of bed and leave Ryuu.

Twining their fingers together, the silver-haired woman started towards the bedroom. "That is one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me," she smiled, letting go of the last bit of anger from the morning. "Just don't leave again without letting me know first, all right?" Her hands slipped under the other woman's shirt, a gleam in her eye.

Valdis grinned a little, relieved she was forgiven. "Next time I have a freak out over my internal issues, I'll wake you up, promise." She kissed Ryuu, lingering to nibble on her lips. Leaning back slightly, she asked, "Can we have make-up sex now?"

Lips curling into a smile, Ryuu slid her hands up the front of the taller woman's shirt. "What do you think?"

"I'm thinking that's a yes." She picked up the scribe, and in few quick steps, was dumping them both on to the bed. "For once I'm really happy your place is too small."

Laughter filled the small house once again as Ryuu drew the other woman down to her.


Cassia opened the door to the house, humming happily to herself. It had been a productive day, and she was finding that she loved it when things got done. The bright sunlight outside just added to her feeling of happiness as she closed the door behind her with a practiced backwards bump with her rear then took a step to the side to avoid the majority of the dog's happy greeting.

'You'd think you haven't seen me in weeks,' she muttered, scratching the much larger dog behind the ear until he collapsed against her legs in ecstasy.

'Hmph, some guard dog you are.' She laughed at his antics, stepping over him to go in search of the house's occupants. 'Anyone here?' the princess called out, pausing at the desk in the corner to drop off her pile of papers from the day's work.

A giggling Kai toddled out of the kitchen, her big head guiding her unsteady steps. Her chubby arms reached up at the dark-haired woman. "Mommy, mommy, mommy," she shouted the one word she knew.

Reaching down, Cassia swept up the little girl, throwing her up into the air then catching her on the way down. 'Hello, Princess.' She laughed, hugging her tight. 'Now where is your other mommy?'

Moriko emerged from the kitchen, chuckling. "I'd feel jealous that she calls you mommy if she didn't call the dogs, Aclens, and the flowers mommy as well." She wiped her hands on a cloth and leaned against the doorframe, smiling, "How was ruling the empire today?"

Easily ignoring the small hands grabbing her ear and tugging, Cassia carried the squirming girl to Moriko. 'The arrangements are all set for the ceremony. I think Willow's getting a laugh out of making me go through all of this after all the trouble I caused her when I was younger.'

"Are you sure you want to do this? Only one more week of freedom, then you're going to have the responsibilities of both ruling the north, and having a family. Ruling the family isn't an option," she said with an easy grin. Walking over, she scooped the small child out of Cassia's arms and headed to the kitchen. "I made your favorite."

Licking her lips, the dark-haired woman followed after her. 'The venison stew, with that good bread of yours?' she asked, fixating on the last bit first, hopefully. The dog trailed along with her, hopeful as well for some of the leftovers. 'Seems like a good time to do both at once. You're not getting rid of me if that's what you're asking.'

Moriko laughed and Kai laughed as well, although the small child didn't know what was funny. "I don't want to get rid of you at all. And yes, I caught a deer today, so you, my lovelies, are getting stew as well as bread."

She eased Kai into the special chair Nix had helped her make for the child so she could sit at the table at a proper height. Once the child was secured, she grabbed some bowls and dished out stew for her and Cassia. Then after setting the bowls on the table did she gingerly ease into a chair. Two nights ago she had completed the Rezan task for the clan of Fire, a test of strength, not all that surprising. She had preferred the Waverunner clan's test of wits more. Unfortunately, she still had two more tasks to go.

'There was a little bit of a surprise today, though.' Cassia took her seat, smiling, as she smelled the delicious smell on the air. 'Ryuu has a test for you.'

Moriko groaned and her ribs twinged in sympathy, still not over the last test. "I can't wait. That woman is evil, albeit a more relaxed evil person since Valdis started sleeping there most nights.'

The dark-haired woman helped bring the bowls of stew to the table, and cut the still warm bread. 'She's not evil, just misunderstood.' Cassia grinned, not at all believing that after having been on the receiving end of the silver-haired woman's vicious sense of humor several times now.

Moriko wasn't sure if she would go so far as to say Ryuu was misunderstood. "Valdis, I thought, was intense as an instructor, but she and Ryuu are on the same level. I saw one of her lessons once. Who knew reading could be so cutthroat?'

She smiled in thanks at the bread, and placed some smashed apples in front of Kai, knowing how much the young child liked them.

"She wants to see you tomorrow." Cassia leaned in close to her bowl, inhaling deeply and letting out a slow breath after savoring the delicious smell. "We got a messenger from the south today, too."

Moriko tensed, bad memories rushing through her for a moment. Slowly, she forced herself to relax. "What did it say?"

"A delegation will be coming north to greet us sometime soon." Cassia kept an eye on the other woman as she used her wooden spoon to take up the thick stew.

Moriko frowned, not liking it, but she wasn't certain if it was her own bad memories or actually foreboding. "Valdis is going to go berserk the moment she spots them. You should talk to Ryuu. If anyone can reel Valdis in, it would be her." She chuckled for a second. "I still can't believe Valdis got Ryuu to fall for her, and I would have thought Ryuu was more sensible.'

The dark-haired woman shrugged. "I guess she knows what she's doing." Cassia took a bite and savored the flavor before swallowing and leaning over to kiss Moriko. "Ryuu's smart, don't worry about her. How bad is Valdis going to take this?"

 Moriko went quite for a moment. Then, in a subdued voice, said, "Badly. They thought they killed her, left her to die on the floor of the dinner hall, but she wasn't. She watched them kill everyone she knew and cared about, and she couldn't do anything to stop it. Then they strung her up along the road with the rest of the dead for the crows to eat. That's where I found her. I thought she was dead, but I couldn't leave her there, so I cut her down to give her a proper burial." It still hurt her, a raw wound. She could only imagine what it felt like for Valdis.

Cassia slowly stirred her stew, watching Kai as the youngster played with her mashed apples. "Selene wasn't very happy about it either, but shouldn't we at least try to get along with them?"

Moriko stirred her stew absently. "Maybe, but I can't quite trust that they want to get along. If you want to get along, you don't murder innocent women and children."

Reaching over, Cassia used a clean rag to wipe Kai's cheek. "What else can I do?"

"I don't know. I'm just a stable hand." She nearly shouted back, frustrated that Cassia would just simple turn the other cheek and let that murderer just waltz up into the north. She gripped her wooden spoon tightly, as she could almost smell the blood and the screams of the dying from so long ago. "But in your infinite wisdom, apparently we should just get along with everybody, even if they are murderers."

Cassia frowned at Moriko. "What would you have me do? Start fighting with them? How many more people would die because of that?"

The spoon snapped. "Better to die on your feet than a sword in the back! I don't know what to do, but I certainly wouldn't let that nest of vipers into my home!" She slammed the broken pieces down on the table and got up. Her face was turning red in anger, part of her knowing she wasn't being very logical or understanding of Cassia's position, but part of her could only remember the terror of that day. Fearing what she might do, she quickly stormed out of the house.

The dark-haired woman blinked in surprise when Moriko stormed out, quickly getting up and picking up the now crying Kai. "Shhh, shhhh," she tried to sooth the girl, feeling sick to her stomach with anxiety and worry. "It's all right." Although she wasn't sure it was.

Cradling the child, Cassia went in search of her soon-to-be wife; sure she hadn't gone too far. "Moriko?" she called softly, as she went down the stairs to the outside.

Moriko had only gotten as far as the bottom step. She held her face in her hands, hiding it as great sobs took over her body.

Quietly, Cassia took a seat next to her, holding Kai in one arm and pulling the sobbing woman to her in the other. Moriko resisted at first then slowly leaned against her. "I'm sorry," she whispered into blonde hair.

For a while, Moriko didn't say anything. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and hesitantly wrapped her arms around Cassia. "I'm sorry. I wasn't being supportive or listening, I just got angry, the thought of those women here...remembering what they did. I'm sorry." She burrowed into Cassia, needing the other woman's support, part of her glowing to know that she hadn't lost the things most dear to her.

The three of them sat there, wrapped together on the steps of the house, bathed in the starlight. "I'll do whatever you want me to do with them," she whispered, finally.

Moriko sniffed and wiped her face. "If you're going to give in that easily when I cry, I'll have to do it more often. We need to do what's best for the north, not what I want, which would be to just let Valdis loose on the whole lot of them, especially that creepy advisor."

"Please, no more crying, I don't think Kai or I could take very much of that." She hefted the baby, who had promptly started to suck on her thumb the moment that things had calmed down. "Right, Kai?"

Moriko gave a watery smile. She lifted the toddler out of Cassia's arms, kissing her gently on the forehead. "I'm sorry I got mad." She was looking at Kai, but it was said to both of them.

Cassia gave her own kiss to Moriko's forehead then helped her up from the steps. "I know they hurt you. I wish I could hurt them for what they did to you, Valdis, and Kai."

"It warms my heart knowing you want to right all the wrongs in my life, but politics of the situation is I don't think the north could take on a southern army." She paused before following them inside, her mind working. "We might want some of those trackers in Abnoa to watch the trails." She shrugged sheepishly. "I know I must sound paranoid, but I'd feel better knowing that Alina wasn't trying to sneak in a reserve of troops."

The princess nodded, making a mental note to have a messenger falcon sent in the morning. "In one of Ryuu's books there's a picture of a castle," she grinned "Not like the one that we're building here, but one that's meant to be defended, thick walls, with parapets that can easily be defended. I was wondering if maybe we shouldn't think about something like that for Abnoa."

Moriko swung Kai around before setting her down in her high chair at the table. "That pass up is the easiest and safest way to get an army or anybody up the mountains into our territory. A castle might not be a bad idea." She tried to smooth Kai's unruly hair, only to chuckle as it stuck back up. Then she covered Kai's ears. "Have I told you how hot you are when you're brilliant?"

Laughing, Cassia moved closer until she could whisper into the other woman's ear, brushing blonde strands out of her way to do so. "No, but you could show me tonight?"

"It's a date." She softly brushed her lips over Cassia's then sat down. Kai slapped her hands down on the tray holding her smashed apples, and without thought, Moriko caught it before it hit the ground. She placed it back up. "If you throw your food on the floor, I might think you're not hungry, young lady."

"Good luck, then. I have to get back to our castle. I figure that by the time Kai's old enough to have her own family, it might be ready to move into the first wing," Cassia said, wryly. Heading towards the door she paused, to give Kai a goodbye kiss, avoiding the messy hands that reached up to grab her. "I won't be too late."

Moriko sighed, watching her soon-to-be wife leave. She had ruined perfectly good lunch together time by having a fit. "See you later." She picked up a spoon and tried to get the toddler to eat something. "Good thing I know better or I might get jealous of a building." Kai just spit apples down her chin in response.


The silver-haired woman brooded as she watched her small group of students work in the afternoon sunlight. The dozen or so women and teenagers were bent over their rough wooden desks, studying or copying texts that she had given them. Ryuu frowned in thought as she watched them. Despite what she had said to Valdis, she was acutely aware that her time here was drawing to an end. Soon she would have to leave, she could feel it in her bones, smell it on the air, and see it in the moon anytime she glanced up into the night sky.

Valdis walked silently up the steps to Ryuu's classroom. She had cleaned up the best she could. Those northern miners had shown up a couple of days early, surprising her. They had demanded that she teach them how to fight like she did. They were improving, but she wished more of those Daughters of Fire could be a little more trainable like Moriko.

The silver-haired woman swept to her feet, moving through the class to see how her students were doing. "Good, Bethany." She smiled at the youngest student then moved onwards to study the next pupil's text.

"Interesting," she tilted her head. "You've been listening to the priestess' again, haven't you, Faris? You must draw your own conclusions about the Exodus, not just take other people's word for it."

"Teacher, you've never told us what you think of the Exodus," The narrow-faced woman rejoined as the other students paused in their work to listen curiously.

Ryuu sighed, going back to her seat in front of them. "Have you not learned anything from me in these past months? I don't want to tell you what to think. You must think for yourselves. You are not warriors who will bend people to their will with swords. You must use your thoughts and knowledge to do that. You, my students, must drive the thirst for knowledge in the north. Without that, all of this will remain just as it is for hundreds of years, never advancing."

Valdis hovered outside the door, listening, uncertain if she should go in. Lately, Ryuu had been grumpy, snapping at her. She smoothed her hair back out of her face and checked her breath. All she could think of was that it was all going to come to an end soon, and she knew she couldn't leave yet.

Maybe in a year... She frowned. Who was she fooling, it would take five to ten to get someone trained to the point they could take over drilling and training. She frowned, overhearing Ryuu's comments about warriors. She bit her lip for a moment, uncertain, and then letting out a breath, she poked her head in the doorway.

"But, teacher, can't you do that?" one of the other students spoke up, frowning. "You've already shown the princess so much. Why can't you just stay here and teach us more?"

"Hala help me..." Ryuu sighed, turning away from the class for a moment. If she had turned the other way, she would have seen Valdis hovering in the doorway.

"That is not my path," the silver-haired woman finally spoke, head slightly bowed. "I can not stay here with you, my pupils. My time is drawing short here. Soon I will have to leave." Turning back to them, she swept her arm in a motion at all of them. "You are my legacy to these people. You will soon have to become the teachers. Stop looking to me for all of the answers, and think for yourselves!"

Then she did spot Valdis as she turned to head towards the door, wincing slightly at the sight of the warrior. Silently, she slipped past the taller woman and started down the outside stairs, leaving the students to stare after her in confusion and surprise.

Valdis frowned as Ryuu passed her without a word. Quickly, she started back down the steps. "Hey!" she shouted after the retreating woman.

Ryuu stopped in the courtyard outside, silently turning to face her lover with a frown.

Valdis jumped the railing and easily landed on the floor below and ran outside to catch up with her lover. "What was that all about?"

"They don't listen to me." Ryuu glared up at the building above. "They keep looking to me to tell them all the answers! They have to think for themselves, but they never will if I'm here to answer their questions for them."

"No, not that, not my problem you picked a bunch of marsh hens...just walking off, acting like I wasn't there." She crossed her arms over her chest.

Ryuu closed her eyes for a moment. "I was embarrassed. I didn't realize you were listening to all that."

"Well, I came to...um," she held out her tablet and chalk, "to sit in on your class. I wasn't eavesdropping on purpose."

The other woman deflated slightly at that, feeling like an idiot for blowing up in front of everyone else. "How about we study out here?"

Valdis frowned then bit her lip in thought. She dropped the tablet and chalk, and in a quick move, hefted Ryuu up and over her shoulder so the woman's long silver hair draped down Valdis' back. "I have a better idea. You're too tense."

"Hey!" the smaller woman let out a startled yelp then laughed despite the foul mood she'd just been in. "What are you doing?"

"Manhandling you," she rolled her eyes and swatted Ryuu's ass. Easily, she carried the woman down the main road to a less used path that took them to the river.

The woman let out a laugh, waving weakly to a startled passerby as they moved down the road then out onto the path. "I figured that much out. Why are you manhandling you?"

"Because I can, because you needed a change of scenery. You were getting upset, and all 'oh poor me, everybody is an idiot'." Still not breaking a sweat, she walked down the path deeper into the woods. Finally, when they reached a calm cove of water hidden by a corpse of trees, she gently lowered Ryuu to the ground.

She stayed crouched over the woman for a moment, her blue eyes staring with intensity, mapping her lover's face. "You're leaving soon." It could have been a question, but it came out a statement.

Ryuu sighed then reached up and cupped the other woman's cheek, smiling sadly. "Sooner than I thought," she said quietly.

Valdis nodded then stood up, pulling her shirt over her head. "Best to make use of the time we have, then." She balanced on one leg and then the other as she got rid of her boots, her trousers following soon after. Then with a wink, she was running and diving into the water.

A startled laugh followed the running warrior. Getting up, Ryuu quickly tossed off her own clothing, running towards the bank of the water. With a leap she dove in, grinning in joy at the cool feeling of the water. "I like the way you think."

A white blonde head broke the surface of the water, and Valdis wiped water out of her eyes. "Well, I've been known to use my brain on occasion." She smiled softly, treading water. If she could, the warrior would beg and plead for the other woman to stay. But it wouldn't do any good, so she wouldn't put that pressure on them. She would do what she could so Ryuu wouldn't ever forget her.

The slim woman swam closer until they were nearly touching, the water swirling around them each. It was easy to see the worry that still lurked in the other woman's eyes. "This won't be goodbye forever, you know."

Valdis nodded. "I know. You need to teach me to read, so when you send me letters to let me know where you are, I can understand them and go find you."

"No one said I couldn't come visit you either." Ryuu wrapped her legs around the other woman, grinning widely as she nearly sent them both under water with that move.

Valdis easily shifted her strokes to a more powerful one to keep them both afloat. She grinned seductively. "There's something naughty about your lover sneaking into town to seduce you and no one being the wiser."

"There are other ways to be naughty." The silver-haired woman pressed as close as she could while Valdis was keeping them both afloat.

Valdis raised an eyebrow. "Is this where you try to see how far you can get before I lose concentration and let us sink?"

Ryuu waggled her eyebrows. "Sounds fun, doesn't it?"

The warrior just grinned rakishly. "I bet I can surprise you."

"Bet you can." Ryuu strove to try and find out exactly how far she could go.


A laughing Ryuu dragged up a boneless Valdis onto the shore. The warrior gave a chuckle or two as well. "Holy shit...that's all I have to say about that." Weakly, she flopped in a patch of sun that filtered through the trees. She looked up into her lover's dancing eyes. "Admit it, you were impressed."

That had been more than a little impressive, and Ryuu gave a laugh as she dropped down on the bank next to her. 'Very impressed,' she smiled, using her as a pillow. 'I don't think I want to move for the rest of the day.'

"Sounds fine by me... You feeling better?" She reached out and pulled the other woman to her so she could use Valdis' stomach as a pillow.

'Yes, but I might get cranky again later, so be ready to impress again.' Ryuu pressed a kiss to the warm skin on the warrior's stomach, grinning as it twitched. Thoughtfully, she trailed her fingertips along Valdis' thigh. 'I'm sorry. I thought I had more time.'

Valdis held a single finger to Ryuu's lips. "No more sorries. Makes me think you regret the time we did have, makes me feel like we're ending. I finally found someone I want forever with, and forever with us means just that. The five or ten years I have to stay and train someone to take over will be a drop in the bucket compared to the years we will have at each other's side. So just let me get my breath back so I can impress you later."

'No more sorries, then,' the other woman agreed, closing her eyes and enjoying the moment. 'Forever is a long time. I can't wait to see how you can impress me again in the future.' That was a promise, as far as Ryuu was concerned.

 They laid on the bank, the sound of the river lazily passing them by. After a while, it took some doing, but Valdis was able to shake off the languid filling that had invaded her bones. Utterly focused, she rolled them over until she was on top of Ryuu.

Slowly, she kissed the woman, mapping the other woman's skin, inhaling her scent and memorizing her taste. She wouldn't be rushed, no matter how much strong, slender hands tried to direct her touches, or how a melodic voice begged. She pushed down her own desire and became completely dedicated to her lover's desire.

It was like being consumed. Ryuu had never before been the focus of such single-minded attention, and it was almost too much to bear. For a while the world ceased to exist around them, and when she finally could bear no more and found her release, she blacked out from the overwhelming sensations.

'You're trying to kill me,' she whispered when she slowly woke up, cradled in Valdis' arms.

Valdis snorted in amusement. "I'm not certain you can even die." She frowned for a second then seemed to try to sort something out. Finally, frustrated, she said, "No, I'm...I guess I'm trying to show you what I'm incapable of saying." She left it at that, content to hold the other woman.

Ryuu managed, somehow, to dredge up enough strength to sit up so she could look the other woman in the eye. 'I know,' she said, leaning in for a kiss that was chaste in comparison to the one's they had just shared. 'I love you too,' she whispered, settling in against the warrior.


The party of southerners, a small party made up of twenty women, rode quietly up the mountain. Most of the women were obvious veterans of war, others were silent shadows with dark eyes, but none of them looked like ambassadors of peace here to have talks with the northerners. At the head of the group rode the new southern Queen, Keshet's crown polished of the blood that had stained it, gleamed in the spring sunlight.

Alina was a stout woman, with a sneering face and dark, soulless eyes. She turned slightly in the saddle, those dark eyes catching the advisor. "These simple barbarians won't be much of a challenge. I don't see the need to send Deasun and her troops up that rabbit trail. All I'll end up with is a bunch of horses with broken legs."

The advisor was covered head to foot in dark robes, as if hiding from even the pale light of the moon above them. "They are more resilient than you think them to be," the harsh whisper of a ruined voice came from under that robe. Several of the nearby warriors drew away from her, their mounts skittish at her voice.

The advisor's plan had merit, and the woman hadn't steered her wrong yet. She was Queen, after all, thanks to her. But as she stared at the rocky, harsh landscape that lay before them, she wasn't certain she wanted the north.

She sighed. "Well, this Princess better be as attractive as you've told me. I'm not marrying an ugly woman and having ugly babies. So you think a force of arms will get this Selene and Nix to agree to a royal marriage." While she wasn't fond of the marriage thing, although she figured she could still sleep with whomever she wanted, she did like the idea of being known as the Queen who unified the lands. After this, she just needed to go down and roll her army over those horse-loving freaks.

"They will respond to your show of force, when the time is right," the advisor agreed, giving a cackling laugh. "We must time it carefully, though. You must not let them attack before the time is perfect."

Alina nodded, ignoring the unease that voice caused. She would not let some milquetoast advisor scare her. "I'm pretty certain I can take them myself with these women. Especially those shifty servants you borrowed from your Goddess' temple. Who can fight women who disappear into shadows?'

"Remember what I told you...do not say her name here. We would only attract unwanted attention." The horses started down the north side of the pass, before them, lay the entirety of the north.

Alina didn't miss the knowing looks as the advisor chastised her. "I am Queen here. Do not tell me what I can and cannot do," she snapped, trying to save face in front of her women. It was silly, though, the advisor's dark goddess scared her too much, and they both knew she would not dare utter the Mistress of Shadow's name.

But appearances had to be maintained, and the advisor bowed her head. 'Forgive me, my Queen,' she whispered, loud enough for those around her to hear above the ever-howling wind.


The dawn found Cassia sitting on the side of the bed holding a finally sleeping Kai, the infant having finally fallen asleep sometime just before the sun had started to lighten the far horizon. Moriko was curled up near her on the bed, sleeping after her stint with Kai.

The child had been crying all night, sick. She really wasn't sure if the stuff that the priestesses had given them was actually doing any good.

"Hey," she whispered, running her fingers through Moriko's hair to gently wake the other woman, "it's almost time." The southern delegation would be entering the city this day.

Moriko yawned, her eyes cracking open. "It can't be time, I just laid down," her voice came out a pathetic whine.

"I'm sorry," Cassia whispered brushing bangs back from her love's eyes. Even as she spoke, she could see more detail than a few moments before, as the sun continued its relentless climb into the sky. "They'll be here soon."

Moriko gave another pathetic moan then sat up. Her eyes were bloodshot, and dark circles had formed under her eyes. "Are you sure you want to have more kids?" She yawned then leaned over, resting her head on Cassia's shoulder. "I think the snot maker broke me."

'It can't be this bad all the time,' Cassia murmured, yawning as well, and leaning against the other woman. It would be so easy to close her eyes and slip into sleep right there sitting up on the edge of the bed. Then she groaned when she had a horrible thought. 'I hope she isn't as bad a teenager as I was.'

Moriko started chuckling, then laughing, falling back over onto the bed unable to contain her mirth. "Oh no, darling, it's going to be much worse. Suppose she acts like Caron or Caitlin?"

And that made Cassia groan in near despair, almost waking up Kai. Not wanting to have to hear another screaming infant, she forced herself to get up and go over to place the infant in the crib. Only then did she come back to crawl on the bed next to Moriko. 'Please don't say that. It can't be that bad.' She was silent for a moment. 'Can it?'

"Keshet seemed to handle them fine, but they were terrors. You, honey, were tame compared to them. But we could catch a break and Kai will act like her Muanya." Moriko rolled over onto her side and kissed Cassia gently on the temple. "But if we do have kids, we could luck out and they'll be like me." Yawning once more, she attempted to sit up.

The dark-haired woman tried to help her, but instead, managed to get in the way. Somehow they ended up sprawled on the bed instead, with Cassia lying across Moriko's middle, seriously contemplating sleep again. 'I wouldn't mind that. Little Moriko running around with a gaggle of animals following her.' She smiled at that mental image.

Bemused, Moriko looked at Cassia, "A little Moriko, huh. Well, we don't need any more animals in this house. How about a little Moriko following Queen Cassia around asking question after question on how to build castles?"

She grinned, liking the picture that formed in her head. "You'd be a wonderful mother," she whispered, stroking Cassia's hair.

Tired eyes opened, and the other woman groaned in pleasure at the stroking. 'You already are a wonderful mother. But we should talk about this when we have more time.' The idea of having a child with Moriko was nice; it would be good for Kai to have a sister or two as well. Cassia had to force herself to sit back up, taking a momentous force of willpower to convince herself to get up.

Holding out her hand, she helped her love up as well, smiling at the still sleeping infant in the crib. 'She looks so peaceful like that.' In comparison to the screaming child they'd held all night long.

Moriko rubbed her bloodshot eyes and let Cassia help her up. Once up, she walked over to the small crib they kept in their room for such occasions as last night, when Kai was sick. "I'll get dressed and take her over to Valdis. I'd feel better if the warrior was watching her while the southerners are visiting."

That sounded like a good idea. For a moment, Cassia paused by the sword rack that held the swords they'd used to train with Valdis. Leaving them where they were, she went to get dressed, hoping that Selene and Nix weren't going to beat them to the bridge. She wasn't sure she could deal with jokes about sleeping in late this morning.


Nix and Selene waited by the bridge, Nix frowning slightly and looking over her shoulder for her daughter and her soon-to-be daughter-in-law. "Think they'll make it?" she questioned softly.

Around them, stood six women that had trained under Valdis, and had been chosen as Royal guards for this occasion. Once, Nix would have felt it unnecessary, but now, she wasn't so certain. She had woken this morning with a feeling of dread itching at her scalp.

The spring morning was promising a warm day to follow, which was fine as far as Selene was concerned. She smiled fondly at her wife then looked at the bridge behind them. Seeing no sign of the heir apparent or her soon-to-be wife, she turned back to watching the road for signs of their soon-to-be visitors.

'I'm sure that they will be here soon. You know Kai's sick. I have no doubt she kept them up all night long. Willow said a healer went over, but I don't know how much good that did. Remember the time Cassia was sick for a week?'

Nix groaned then chuckled. "Yes, couldn't forget that. Near the end I wanted to scream and cry right along with her, I was so tired." It was an awful week, but she wouldn't trade that or any of her memories of Cassia growing up. "She's turned into a wonderful woman, hasn't she? We did good."

'Yes we did.' Selene leaned against the taller woman, smiling as she heard noise on the bridge behind them.

Cassia hurried down the ramp to where the small group was waiting, smiling apologetically. 'Sorry. Kai was sick all night.' She rubbed at her eyes, hoping she didn't look as tired as she felt. 'Moriko is getting Valdis to watch her.' The warrior had point blank refused to meet the new queen of the south.

Nix nodded, not blaming Valdis at all. She didn't much trust what was going to happen today, but she and Selene had decided that they should at least meet the woman and see what she had to say. If they trusted the woman, they would move the meeting into the town.

She was fully aware of the break system Valdis and Cassia had designed in the bridge. In case of attack, levers could be pulled and the supports would drop from the bridge, collapsing it.

She hugged her daughter warmly. "How was your first tour of motherhood, everything you expected and more? Does it make you long for more little ones running around?"

Giving her mother a mock glare, she gave her a light punch on the arm. 'I know you just love this. You probably think that this is some sort of retribution for all the problems I used to give the two of you.'

Selene had to force herself to avoid smiling at their daughter.

Nix roared with laughter, her blue eyes dancing with mirth. "It's all worth it, especially when they grow up to be so wonderful."

They enjoyed a family moment, a rare one, now that their family had expanded so much.


Moriko rode on Oscar, urging him to run faster towards the bridge. She really hadn't expected to find a melancholy Valdis moping around Ryuu's house. She was shocked to find out that the quiet silver-haired woman had left a few hours before she had shown up. Not in as left to go to the market, but in left, never to come back.

She had stayed as long as she dared trying to cheer up the woman, but Valdis finally just told her to go and not worry. She would take good care of the toddler who was now giggling on the floor, playing with the gentle giant that was Thorn, the dog having grown up into a fearsome looking beast.

With a sigh of relief, she spotted the bridge not that far ahead.

Cassia waved when she spotted the figure riding a running Alcen over the bridge. "There she is, told you she would be here soon."

Selene smiled in welcome at the woman who would soon be a formal part of their family. "Good morning, Moriko, I hope that Kai is doing better? Cassia said you had a long night."

Moriko dismounted the Alcen, not tethering him, knowing she didn't need to, and then ran to join the royal family. "Yes, Kai seems to be doing much better. She was playing with Valdis and Thorn when I left." She ran a hand through her unbraided hair, wishing she'd taken the time to redo it.

"I hope you made this one take care of Kai as much as you did. Nix tried the whole ŒI'm so tired because I banged on metal all day' routine a few times when Cassia was sick," the Queen whispered, conspiratorially.

Moriko bit her lip to keep from laughing. "No, Cassia ran to Willow's to get a priestess in the middle of the night. After that we pretty much took turns."

You could hear the southern party before you could see them, the horses sounding like thunder. Moriko straightened and checked her clothes one last time then frowned. That sounded like a lot of horses, more than a simple goodwill party. "I'm guessing fifteen to thirty horses," she mumbled into Cassia's ear.

The princess bit her lip and looked to the six women that Valdis had trained and were here as guards. They didn't look all that certain about their abilities either. "That's more than a 'Hi, how's it going' party."

Moriko nodded then whispered, "You, uh, did that thing, to the bridge, right?"

"Yes. I don't know if we can run faster than horses over it, though." She frowned, annoyed she hadn't considered that. Worse come to worse, they could always swim across the river.

Moriko frowned and looked back at the bridge.


Alina frowned. It was hard to look impressive when she couldn't fan her troops out behind her due to the stupid trees that engulfed the landscape. It was also hard to look impressive when one had spent the night on the cold, hard ground, spring was colder here than back home.

Finally, she saw the break in the trees where the light stopped being filtered through green pin like needles and burst into warm, all-surrounding sunshine. For a moment she was blinded. Then they were through the trees, out on to a cleared plain. She spotted them waiting on the bank of a river and frowned. She felt almost insulted, only six guards.

She warranted more than just six guards. Weren't they aware of the fact she had wiped out the entire southern Royal family!

"That's a lot of weapons and armor," Cassia said quietly, as the horses rode towards them from the tree line. She felt her stomach tighten at the sight of the armed warriors astride their horses and now wished she would have brought her sword with her.

Moriko just wet her lips, nervous. She felt her limbs tremble, fear for the safety of those around her as she recognized faces from before.

The new southern Queen stopped her troops not far from the Northerners, not dismounting, wanting them to feel at a disadvantage as she loomed above them on horseback. Of course, a couple of the women were tall enough it might not work. She easily recognized Selene, and guessed the others. She smiled, pleased that the northern Princess did seem to be attractive.

The advisor hung back from the front of the group, making sure her hood still covered her face as they drew up near the group of women, letting the group of warriors swarm ahead of her to block her from view.

Selene stepped forwards to get the attention of the woman who was staring so intently at her daughter. She could feel Nix stiffen next to her and couldn't blame her wife. The southerner was looking at their daughter like a dog eyes a particularly juicy piece of meat. "Welcome, my name is Selene."

An insolent smile crossed the woman's face. "I'm well aware of who you are. I'm not sure what you are expecting, so let me be blunt. I am announcing to all here to bear witness. I am the new Queen of the south, and through the divine will of the gods, it is my destiny to unify the whole of our lands. I am here to let these intentions be known. I would prefer to do it through marriage, to your lovely daughter there, but if that is not an option, I will lay siege until you break under me."

Nix and the advisor sighed at the same time in annoyance.

Moriko stiffened and muttered out, "She's certainly blunt, isn't she?"

The northern Queen's smile became a bit more fixed at that, and her eyes hardened. "My daughter is already promised to someone." She didn't sound at all sorry about that fact.

Cassia was well aware she was glaring at the southerner, and didn't care if she wasn't being political. "So go away," she mumbled.

Nix rubbed her face. "I suggest we all just walk to the other side of the bridge now, because this is going far worse than I imagined it was going to go. I expected a little wining and dining before it got ugly."

Alina scowled at Selene's comment. "For your health, I suggest your reconsider this promise." Her fingers itched to grasp her sword.

The Queen agreed with her wife, this had the possibility of getting very ugly. Around their Queen, the southern warriors were inching their hands towards their sword hilts. She could feel the six trained northerners responding in turn. "I will consider your words. Let us meet again later to discuss this after you have rested from your trip here."

Alina looked confused, and looked towards the advisor for guidance. Should she let them leave, should she just attack?

The advisor was glaring at her, eyes the only part of her face visible under her hood. The woman was beyond furious. This was not how it was supposed to go. What stupid idiot of a warrior had she gotten to take over the position as Queen?

In that moment of confusion, Selene took hold of her daughter's arm and pulled her away. Nudging Nix with her shoulder, she started them moving up the bridge. The six warriors that they had brought with them formed up behind them as Cassia took Moriko's hand and pulled her with them.

There was the smooth sound of a sword being drawn from a sheath. Alina held the well-used weapon aloft. "Don't turn you're back on me!" she screamed, furious that they would dismiss her so casually. Then in a smooth arc, the sword tip fell forward, and the tensed and ready soldiers behind the southern Queen surged forward.

Moriko broke out into a run over the bridge. Once across, she jumped off to the side and grabbed an axe left hidden next to the bridge.

"Run for it!" Cassia yelped, which everyone seemed to think was a great idea.

"We're getting too old for this," Selene groused as she hurried to keep up with Nix across the middle of the bridge.

Seeing Moriko break away from the rest of them, Cassia waited until all of the northerners had crossed the break in the bridge. "Now, Moriko!" she yelled, feeling the bridge vibrate as the horses started up the other side.

The axe hefted above her head then came down, slicing through the thick taut rope. The severed rope quickly went limp, and the sounds of stone and wood grinding against each other could be heard.

The massive logs shifted around them, and the last of the northerners had to leap for the shore as the bridge collapsed in on itself. There was the scream of horses as the first wave of southerners went in with the collapsing bridge.

Cassia stood next to Moriko, breathing hard after the mad dash, "So much for my bridge."

"I'll help build you a new one, because you are not marrying that bitch," Moriko said in a huff, the axe resting on her shoulder, and she glared across the water at Alina.

"That could have gone better," Selene said, having finally caught her breath after leaning against Nix. "Cassia, I think you better go rouse all of the women that Valdis has been training. We might need them."

Nix nodded, "Let's retreat. You, and you, run back and sound the alarm bell," she pointed at two women who nodded and took off.

On the other side of the river, Alina moved her horse over to the advisor, "You think that was enough of a distraction for your women to get that brat. I don't want my reign cut short because some bloodline of Keshet's still breathes." She was well aware of the Oracles decree mentioning both she and the advisor would fall as long as blood of Keshet's still lived. She had grand plans to build an empire that would put those of Korgon's to shame.

It was, the advisor thought with annoyance, a pity that she hadn't been able to find someone who had a keener edge for these things. Using Alina was akin to using a battle-axe to open a glass bottle. The results were usually messy. "It might have been more...dramatic than I expected."

Alina snorted, "Well, when this is all over, maybe I'll still marry that girl. She was pretty enough. And you can have Selene, as I promised, and torture her to your heart's content."

She stood in her stirrups and shouted at her women to regroup.


 Valdis lay curled up on the floor with Kai, a heavily panting Thorn not that far from them. She smiled and patted the child's head, trying to smooth the hair. This is what she needed. She could forget Ryuu and her absence and tend to the needs of a child. Still, her melancholy thoughts drifted to her now gone lover. Ryuu, true to her word, had left earlier than she'd expected.

The next morning, after their impromptu swimming, she'd kissed Valdis awake and left. Pensively, the warrior watched Kai tug on Thorn's tail.

She missed the thickening of the shadows and the taint of corruption in the air. Thorn's low growl alerted her to the danger in her own house. Figures emerged, rising out of the blackness, knives glittering cruelly in their grip. Twisting, Valdis covered the child's body with hers, hissing in pain as knives pierced her flesh. She felt the blood bubble up and spring from her body like a broken fountain.

On her hands and knees, she looked up through pale lashes then swung a fist at the leg in front of her, grinning as the knee joint gave under her fist with a sickening crunch and a body fell to the floor. There was a grunt of pain as Thorn's teeth sunk deep into a thigh.

The child on the floor started to cry at the sudden action around her.

Two more shadows detached from the corners, forming into humanoid shapes as they moved swiftly towards the injured warrior and the baby she protected. Their intent was clear, as wicked serrated knives glinted in the sudden dimness of the room. Where a moment before it had been fairly bright from the fire and the sunlight coming in through the windows, the room was cloaked in deep shadows now.

"Who do you think you are to resist us?" voices whispered, dark and seductive, urging to give up. "We will kill you and take the child, just resign yourself to your fate."

"I think I'm the daughter of a god," she breathed out, closing her eyes, reaching deep inside herself and unlocking the blessings of Chaos and War.

"Quickly," one of the shadows hissed, sensing what the warrior was doing. The shadowy figures swarmed her, blades slicing through the air towards flesh and bone. They focused their attacks on the warrior, trying to cut her down before she could find her focus.

It was an odd feeling of déjà vu, this could have been a similar scene played out months ago in Keshet's manor. Now she could not fail or the life of a small child would be forfeit.

She opened her power just a crack big enough for her to slip through, and her form shimmed like a desert illusion, and then a giant white-furred hound was in her place. Jaws with knife-like fangs locked into flesh and bone, and claws tore through muscle and ligaments.

"Now!" one of them yelled, and a net with strands of a black tar substance was hurled over the large hound. Knives followed it, stabbing into the right haunch and twisting viciously.

Valdis howled, wildly twisting in the net, she felt one of her legs give out and she scrambled to stay upright. They were prepared for her, waiting for her tricks. A trickle of dread washed over her as she fought not to collapse on to the body of the crying child below her. She was going to fail, again. More blood would be on her hands as those she was sworn to protect would die.

She howled loudly, wondering why no one came. Why did no one hear all the noise?

"Make all the noise you want, our Queen has made a distraction," s voice laughed, kicking the hunting hound in the side.

"The baby, get the baby," another voice demanded, followed by a scream of pain as a hand passed too close to Valdis' mouth, and the wolf crunched down on the forearm hard enough to shatter bone.

The taste of blood sent her into overdrive, while the net burned and ripped at her fur and skin. They were at a stalemate, but for how long, she didn't know, as her wounds slowly healed.

The door to the house swung open with enough force to bang against the wall. A small form stood in the doorway, and if her hair was mostly silver now, her eyes were still clear green. "Valdis!" the high priestess, Willow, shouted.

"Get her!" one of the voices yelled, enraged at being disturbed. Two of the shadows stopped attacking Valdis, leaping towards the figure in the door.

In that momentary freeze of distraction, Valdis focused and discarded her animal form, feeling the net slide away. She punched one woman in the face, feeling the nose pop under her fist like an over ripened fruit and gush blood. Easily, she pried the knife from loosening fingers and scooped up Kai. It was harder now that the child was bigger.

"Fuck, Ryuu, where the hell are you when I need you?" she grumbled, resentful for a moment that her lover left for the good of a nation, but wouldn't return for her. With the flick of a wrist, the knife went sailing into the skull of one of the women who turned to attack Willow.

The three remaining assassins redoubled their attacks on Valdis, desperate now to get to the baby that she was protecting.

Then she wondered why they were fighting at all. Concentrating, she snatched the weapons from their hands, along with the ones that had fallen to the floor. "Stand down or I will gut you on your own blades." It was a promise as the knives hovered in the air, ready to pierce the soft flesh of their throats. With another muttered curse, she locked them out of their shadows. "Your Goddess does not rule here." The room brightened.

"Release them!" the lone assassin that had survived to get to Willow shouted, her arm around the chief priestess, a knife pressed up against her side ready to bleed her.

Valdis rolled her eyes, "Why would I do that, one life for that of many? No offense, Willow."

The priestess made a squeaky sound as the arm around her throat tightened. "Do it or I'll gut her in front of you."

"Really..? You seem to think you're in control of that knife. I'm the daughter of war, not you." Her eyes blazed red. "All instruments of war are under my command. So I suggest you put it down and let them go or you're all dead."

The assassin knew what awaited her if she failed. With a scream of defiant rage, she tried to force the blade up under Willow's rib cage, angling for the heart.

"You should have just done it and distracted me with her death. But instead, you wanted to bask in your own importance, you're sense of beating me." She flicked a finger and every knife sunk deep into throats, coating the floors and the walls in a spray of red. Then at the woman's own stunned inaction as she watched her sisters die, Valdis tossed her own blade, finding a home in the assassin's eye socket.

Willow didn't fall down with the dead assassin, but it was a close thing. The priestess was left gasping for air, massaging her throat as she did so. The house reeked of blood, and she found it hard to avoid throwing up at the massacre. "Kai," she coughed. "Is Kai all right?"

Valdis handed the crying toddler to Willow. "I think she should be with you in the temple right now. Bad business is going on."

The priestess took the crying infant, hushing her as she cradled her to her chest. "That's what I came to tell you. Something happened down by the bridge. I saw it collapse."

She looked uncertain for a second. "Um, about what I said, I wouldn't have let you die...well...I would have tried really hard not to let you die."

There were no guarantees in battle.

The priestess smiled a little. "I put my faith in my Goddess. If it was my time then it was my time."

She wiped the blood from her face, "Must be nice to have such faith in a god. I find most of them to be arrogant pricks." She frowned as she looked at the corpses that littered Ryuu's house. "I don't think she's going to forgive me for this."

The priestess backed out of the house so that Kai wasn't so close to the bodies. "No word from Ryuu?"

She found her armor and began to put it on. Cuts bled and healed slowly, after all, she was still half mortal. The warrior looked up. "No, she can't interfere, not even for me."

She switched her gaze to her weapons: axe, sword, axe, sword, sword, axe. She went with both, no shield for her just utter courage, if she lived, that much better.

The old woman watched her get ready for battle and hiked up the now quiet child, holding her closer. 'Come on, Kai, we're going back to the cathedral." Now seemed like a good time to pray.

Valdis nodded, praying sounded good, even to a Goddess that seemed so removed from her own people. She twirled the axe, getting used to its heft, and smiled grimly. She heard the bells ringing, signaling danger, and women spilled out into the newly cobbled streets.

"You two," Valdis snarled as she ran into the town center where two women were frantically pulling on the rope for the bell. "Stop it and tell me what happened."

The taller of the two, Evian, stopped pulling on the bell rope, eyes wide. 'The southern Queen threatened to kill Selene and Nix, and take Cassia as her wife to occupy the north."

The second woman, Stein, nodded in agreement, 'Then they charged at us. We had to run over the bridge and collapse it behind us."

Valdis frowned, not very surprised, really. "Relax, soldiers, I want you to guide those who can't fight to the temple. I was attacked by women who can jump in and out of shadows. If there are any more I didn't kill, I want the rest of the northerners to be safe in the temple." She hoped the Moon Goddess would protect them.

She turned and found herself surrounded by women looking at her to lead them to battle, and felt a swelling of pride that they would protect their homes without question.

Most of the women were from the training sessions that Valdis had led. The others were miners from the north armed with picks, shovels, and whatever else that they could find. They might not have been as well trained, but they weren't going to hide in the temple with the others.

'What do you want us to do?" one of the fire clan women asked, hefting a sledgehammer, an angry look in her eyes.

What did she want, she wanted to kill them all, let vengeance sort it out, but instead, she took a deep breath and slowly let it out. Valdis stared at them all, measuring them. "I need twelve volunteers to stay and guard those at the temple. If we fail, it falls on you to protect those that cannot protect themselves."

She whistled and Thorn came to her side. She crouched down and touched her forehead to his for a second then stood. "Thorn will go with you, listen to him, he can sense those that walk shadows and alert you to them."

The warrior rolled her shoulders and said, "The rest of you follow me. I have no idea what the odds are, but we will meet them toe to toe and drive them out of the north!"

The smaller group split off, hurrying down the street towards the temple to the Moon Goddess, Thorn leading the way through the night. The remaining women started to follow Valdis towards the river.


"Valdis..!" Cassia yelled, seeing the warrior and her cohorts running towards them. This was the second time she'd been this happy seeing the warrior. At least she hadn't been kicked a lot, and Moriko hadn't been stabbed this time. "Thank the Goddess. I don't know where Alina and her people went after the bridge collapsed. They started riding up the river."

Valdis studied the river. "They're looking for a better place to cross. We need to find it and set up archers. If we can kill them in the water and thin their numbers, our chances of survival increase."

She looked around, "Anybody know where that might be?"

Selene touched the warrior on the arm to get her attention. "There's a place where Nix and I swim, the water isn't that deep in the summer, and they might be able to forge across. Do what you must. I'm sorry I didn't support your training of warriors more."

Valdis grabbed Selene before she could pull away, "Nothing to apologize for. Serving under Keshet taught me to expect war. Serving under you, I came to understand peace and why it's worth fighting for."

The Queen leaned up to kiss the warrior on the cheek, whispering, "Protect them and yourself." Then pulled away to take Nix's hand. They were too old for what was about to happen, and looking at Moriko and Cassia, she knew that she couldn't stop them from going. "All of you, go with the blessing of the Moon Goddess, and protect your sisters."

The princess leaned close to her mother. "Umm...mom...I need to borrow a weapon." She felt extremely foolish now for not bringing her sword earlier.

Valdis sighed and smacked Cassia on the back of her head. "Every good soldier always carries a weapon." She turned to Moriko. "Get on that funny looking deer of yours and get to that spot, the rest will follow on foot. You have your hunting bow?"

Moriko nodded, and after a quick look to Cassia, swung onto Oscar's back and went racing into the trees, others following behind.

Nix smiled. "Honey, I think she's ready for it. No time better than now to pass it on. It might just help her survive."

Selene nodded in agreement. "This would be yours soon enough anyway," she stated, taking off the sword that Nix had made for her all that time ago. Very nearly a lifetime now, she thought, feeling her eyes water as she handed the sword over to their daughter.

Aware of what it meant, Cassia took the simple but well crafted scabbard that contained the glowing blade from her mother. With a look to both of them, she hugged them both quickly then had to run to keep up with the others. "Don't worry," she yelled back, "I won't break it!"

Nix watched them go, and felt the tears in her eyes. "It will be okay," she murmured more to herself.

"Yes, they will be." Selene slipped her hand into the larger one of her wife. "We should get to the temple."


Moriko arrived at the river well ahead of everybody else. She could hear Alina's army, and felt her lip curl back in unconscious anger. With her knees she guided Oscar to a large tree that overlooked the bank, and from his back, she easily sprang up into the tree. Swiftly, she climbed from branch to branch until she got the vantage point she wanted.

They were there, just as Selene had thought, which begged a point that wiggled around in the back of her mind; that someone familiar with the north was working for Alina.

The southerner had obviously gotten some reinforcements from when they had met at the bridge. The size of her group had doubled, and the women and horses were slowly fording the river. The current was slow enough to avoid sweeping them away, and there were sandbars that they could climb up on to rest between the deeper parts. Only someone who knew the river could have known that such a spot existed.

The southerners were so confident that they made little effort to remain quiet, fording through the water and calling to one another quite loudly as they made their way towards the Queen's island.

Moriko released a breath, and with forced calm, drew an arrow. A woman sat on a horse on a sandbar close to the bank. Moriko watched her laugh at something then watched as her arrow blossomed like a deadly flower out of her neck. Before the southerners had any clue as to what had happened, Moriko was drawing the bowstring back and letting another arrow fly into a mark.

"Archer!" someone screamed, and then the mass of southerners began rushing towards the bank. They had no other option than to grimly take the hits as they forged forwards. None could see where the arrows were coming from, and even if they could, she was out of reach for their smaller bows.

"Get to the beach!" Alina screamed, enraged as another of her women dropped from the saddle.

Moriko stamped down the feeling of fear as the women got closer to the bank. She was doing what she could, but it was hardly a thinning of Alina's ranks. Oscar would protect her, but even then, there was only so many the two of them could handle.

Alina sat on horseback on the other bank, out of range, letting her soldiers take the bulk of the hits, and she was the one target Moriko wanted, she wanted her to pay for the deaths of her friends.

The first of the southern soldiers made it to the beach of the island, riding their horses out of the water. One of them took an arrow in the face for her trouble, and fell from her horse, screaming. The remainder surged up onto the bank, blades flashing as they started to search for the hidden archer.

"Kill her!" Alina yelled from the other side of the river.

Moriko released one more arrow and started scrambling down from the tree. She wondered where everyone else was, but she couldn't stay in the tree, which would only leave her trapped and vulnerable.

"There she is!" a warrior yelled, finally spotting the Alcen and the woman coming down out of the tree. Two arrows whistled out of the darkness from the southern short bows, one punching into the tree trunk just inches from Moriko's face, the other sailing off into the darkness.

Moriko yelped and let go of the branch, falling a short way before she was able to grab another, her arms wrenching painfully in their sockets. Her bow clattered against a few more branches before hitting the ground.

With an exultant laugh, the first southerner ran through the shadows, long sword held with a deadly purpose as she closed with the Alcen and the woman hanging from the tree branches. Behind her came more southerners, each with an as deadly intent as the first.

The Alcen didn't even twitch, he was that well trained. His deadly horns lowered, and with a power twist of his neck, he caught the southern soldier in the chest, impaling her, and then flung her away. With a wince of pain, Moriko made it to the ground and ran to Oscar, easily mounting him. She wheeled him around, preparing to fall back.

"Charge!" a voice screamed from the darkness. A moment later, shapes burst through the trees around Moriko, as the northerners finally caught up with her. The first southerners were on foot, and even with their better swords, were quickly dispatched. Valdis led the way, a maniacal grin on her face as she disemboweled two southerners in a row.

One of the northerners wielded a glowing sword that illuminated all around her, and she scrambled over to where Moriko was, grinning up at her. "Are we late?" Cassia asked.

Moriko let out a breath of relief. "No, I'd say you were right on time."

"Glad to hear it." Cassia ducked around under Oscar, patting the Alcen on the side as she did. The woods all around the beach were filled with flashing swords and yells as the northerners and southerners fought in the weak moonlight. For all of their enthusiasm, the southerners sadly outclassed the northerners, and more than one fell under a southern blade.

After the arrows had stopped, Alina had turned to ask her advisor for, well, advice, only to find that the woman had suddenly disappeared. Frowning, she turned back to the sound of fighting. With a snarled curse, she urged her horse forwards. To the abyss with the advisor, she wasn't going to sit here while there was a fight going on!

Valdis roared as she jumped into battle with no thought to her personal safety. She used her great axe to hook enemy swords and spears, leaving her opponents wide open for a thrust of her sword.

A woman fell before her, her head nearly cut from her shoulders, and her bright blue eyes latched onto the woman of her anger and rage. "Alina!" she yelled.

Cassia took exactly two steps past the Alcen before the first shadow sprang at the two of them. On instinct driven into her by endless hours on the sparing ground with Valdis, she lifted her sword to block the enemies slashing attack. A quick reverse brought her to the side, and her sword cut through something wet and soft. Swallowing, she continued forwards, the blade dimmed by the blood on it.

The southern queen lashed her horse forwards, smiling wildly as she emerged from the water. The sword she drew was shaped from shadows as much as the one that Cassia wielded was forged from the light. The first fire warrior in her path was cleaved in half by a swipe from it before she even knew the southerner was upon her. "Where are you, Valdis? I know you're here, you failure of a warrior!"

Valdis snarled at that, and quickly dispatched her current opponent. "I'm right here, Alina," she growled out.

The southerner laughed. "Failing to protect those you care about again," she taunted, her massive horse dancing back and forth, tossing its head at the nearness to one with obvious immortal blood flowing through her veins.

"At least I'm not scared of a baby," Valdis taunted back, as she brought the sword and axe up in a cross-guard.

Kicking her heels into the horse's flanks, she drove the large beast down onto the warrior, her blade cutting down towards Valdis as she attacked.

Valdis easily twisted out of the way, moving to place the horse's body between her and that dark blade. Just as the horse's back haunch passed the warrior, she brought the axe down in a vicious strike, crippling the horse. As both horse and rider went down, she winced in sympathy for the horse.

"You bitch!" Alina yelled, rising up off the ground and stepping over the struggling form of her beautiful horse. "I'm going to kill you for that," the queen snarled, her face a mask of rage.

"Blah, blah, you always say that, yet I'm still here." Valdis didn't wait, and was charging the other warrior, the sword and axe a blur as they twirled in deadly motion.

The addition of the axe was a nasty surprise, but Alina hadn't survived to where she was by not being able to handle nasty surprises. She drew a long dagger from her belt and used that to block the wicked axe. Her sword connected with Valdis', and the other warrior's blade exploded in shards of metal. "Looks like you're down a weapon."

Valdis felt that jarring blow all through her body, and she stared for a second at the remains of her sword. "A new toy, I see."

"A gift from a friend," Alina laughed, which was a sound that was anything but humorous, and then continued her attack.

Valdis found herself on the defensive, an odd place she had rarely been. She dodged a wild swing, her skin chilled where the shadows that trailed the blade touched her skin.

She saw an opening and swung her axe, but only managed a shallow cut, Alina managing to dodge the brunt of it.

"I keep forgetting how good you are," the southerner admitted, grudgingly, as the two women circled each other. Fights continued throughout the woods around them, and for a moment, Alina was tempted to go after the woman with the glowing sword. "Not good enough though." She swept in close, throwing her dagger at Valdis, which the other woman ducked easily, of course. Alina slashed with her sword, smiling as the sword caught flesh.

Valdis hissed at the wound, stumbling back. All around the wound was numbing cold that radiated through her flesh. "I'm still better than you," Valdis said through gritted teeth.

"Please, look at you, you can barely stand straight," Alina laughed, ducking as a blade whistled through the darkness behind her. One of the northerners that Valdis had trained had tried to sneak up behind her. Casually, the southern Queen thrust her blade behind her, gutting the northerner and letting her crumple to the ground. "Pitiful."

Valdis attempted another charge, for a second catching Alina by surprise, and then they were trading vicious blows until Valdis' axe shattered. With a scream of rage, she embedded the broken oak handle into Alina's arm, the half-god's strength easily punching it through the armor the other woman wore. They came to a stop in an oddly intimate embrace, held in each other's arms. Valdis felt nothing but mind numbing cold. Her lips opened to speak, but only blood came spotting her now pale lips.

Alina stepped back, a smug grin decorating her lips. The sword of shadows slid out with a wet sound, and Valdis collapsed to her knees.

'I knew that this sword from the Mistress of Shadows would prove useful," the southern queen taunted, raising it up for a killing strike. Not even Valdis could survive without a head.

Even though she knew it was coming, she refused to look away as Alina drew her sword back for a killing stroke. One hand covered the wound on her abdomen, but still blood continued to gush out around her fingers. Her mouth opened again, but only a rush of air was expelled, followed by bloody bubbles. More time, she really thought she and Ryuu had forever, and now, in a sudden rush, she was dealing with the issues of mortality.

The wind suddenly gusted up around them, blowing twigs and leaves through the trees. The force of the sudden gale threw women to the ground, and Alina had to shield her face with her arm. 'What," she screamed, trying to hear herself over the roar of the wind.

Except the roar wasn't actually from the wind...

The southerner had time to gape up through the trees in astonishment at a huge shape that blotted out the stars. Then something slammed through the trees, sending tree trunks shattering to the side. The huge creature landed on top of the southern Queen, wings outspread. With a roar, the dragon lowered her head, grabbed the woman who had been about to kill Valdis, and ripped her in half.

Valdis tilted her head up and grinned. "You came back," she whispered then her head fell forward, and she fell, collapsing onto the blood-soaked ground.

All around the riverbank, the fighting ceased, as all eyes stared at the sliver dragon in horror. The only dragon they knew of in their history was the black dragon Korgon.

Cassia picked herself up from where she'd been thrown over a tree trunk, wondering what exactly had just happened. One moment she'd been on the defensive with Moriko, with three southerners trying to flank them, then the next, the wind had picked them up and tossed them aside like toys. "Moriko?" she called, freezing as she spotted the dragon that had just killed Alina.

Moriko sat up. "Are we winning?" she croaked out, rubbing her head where it had met with a tree branch.

"Umm...not sure right now," the dark-haired princess whispered as the large beast flared its wings, turning its head back and forth to study the people staring up at her.

Eloquently, Moriko summed everything up. "Ah, shit."

The silver dragon reared upwards, wings spread, and roared, the sound forcing the women nearest to it down to their knees, hands clasped to their ears. Coming back down, the dragon lowered her head to the nearest trembling southerner. "Take your Queen and leave the north!"

Many of the southern soldiers scrapped and bowed, others hissed in outrage, their black eyes starring daggers at the silver scales. In the end, though, they did as the dragon commanded. They picked up the bloody halves of Queen Alina and her sword, and fled across the river.

Only when the last of them had crossed the river did the dragon lower her head again, to look at the unconscious form near her. Valdis was still alive, of that much Ryuu was sure. She was also badly hurt. "Help her," the dragon said, spreading her wings and leaping to the sky.

Cassia, Moriko, and the remaining northerners watched the dragon until it disappeared in the night. "That was...unexpected," Cassia said finally, moving to see how badly Valdis was hurt.

Moriko scrambled to the warrior's side. "Shit, shit, shit. She's not healing. Goddess she's bleeding badly. Get a healer, now!" This was much worse than last time.

"It'll take too long," Cassia frowned, slipping her hands under the wounded woman. There was no help for it. "Come on, we have to get her to the temple...hurry."

Moriko nodded, and together with Cassia and a few other women, they lifted the warrior into the air.


Nix frowned as the forest seemed to grow dark, the shadows more prominent. "I think we should hurry. The town's not far." There was a very bad feeling growing in her gut.

"They'll be fine, won't they?" Selene asked, anxiously looking towards where their daughter had followed Valdis towards the riverbank. Maybe she was wrong, maybe Alina and her followers had just left. She sighed, not believing herself either.

"All we can do is think good thoughts and stay out of their way. War is a young woman's game. How sad is it...that we clawed and fought our way here, over mountains and desert, only to fall victim to ourselves?" The smith looked back sadly.

Taking her wife's hand in hers, she continued walking towards the town. "I always feared we might become what we left behind."

Nix nodded, "I don't think it is men or women, really. I think it is power, and the desire for it, that drives us insane."

Selene said nothing to that, just tightened her grip on Nix. "We did good, didn't we?"

"I think so. When the end comes, I'll have nothing to regret, a wonderful wife and daughter. I made things with my hands and helped create a city, if not a nation. I think that was very good, and there's still more to come. I'm certain we will have a gaggle of grandkids soon." Nix smiled at the future of her family yet to be born.

"I love you, you know that?" Selene smiled. She started to say something else then paused, frowning at the way the shadows had suddenly seemed to deepen around them. That was odd.

Nix let go of Selene's hand and stepped in front of her wife. "Who's there?" she challenged.

"Forget me so quickly? And here I thought you promised to love me forever, Selene." The northern Queen's name was spat like a curse.

A shiver of dread coursed down Selene's spine at that voice. It was older, harsher, but she still knew it. "Laurel," she whispered, horrified.

"How lovely, I haven't been forgotten, although I tried to forget you, both of you. But after a while I got bored, and thought I'd fuck with your lives. Then you two had the nerve to thwart me at every turn. I'd setup Sable to marry your daughter. That brainless mooncalf would have been so easy to rule through, and imagine the fun I would have had tormenting your daughter in your name. But then that mooncalf went and got a brain."

The northern Queen gripped Nix's hand tightly in her own. She could hear the hatred in Laurel's voice, the venom that had poisoned her. "Leave our daughter out of this, Laurel. She's done nothing to you."

Laurel laughed and stepped out of shadow, grabbing Selene from behind, ripping her out of Nix's grasp. Covered in head to toe in black, she was almost hidden, except for her cold eyes, and the dirk she carried.

Nix turned quickly at the loss of her love's hand in hers, but was felled as a large, black serpent slithered out of another shadow and wrapped around her legs. She winced as she hit the ground.

"I'm not going to do anything to your child. I'm sure Alina will take good care of precious little Cassia. That idiot was drooling enough, I'm sure she'll spare her," Laurel snapped.

Selene let out a startled gasp as she got dragged away from Nix. Valdis had said that the women could move through shadows, but to see it was something completely different than hearing about their ability. "What have you become, Laurel?" the Queen asked, trying to pull away from the strong hand that held her close. Age had apparently not weakened the other woman.

"I have become what you made me, Selene. You and your silly Goddess discarded me, but my new Goddess has blessed me." She pulled off the hood from her face, revealing she had not aged at all. "I am her chosen, and she has blessed me accordingly." The thick scar on her face made her lips twist, giving her a perpetual sneer.

Once, a lifetime ago, Laurel had been her lover. Whatever humanity, goodness, had once been in the other woman's eyes was gone. In its place was a coldness that held no warmth. Selene gasped when she saw Laurel's eyes, her pupils now those of a snake. "Nix..." she gasped, looking to her wife, who was wrestling with a snake, truly starting to fear.

"Yes, the smith, Nix," Laurel's attention turned to the smith, "the lumbering rival whom I never suspected of stealing the lovely and fair Selene from me. Just look at you, all brutish, with those muscles. Tell me, when you killed that woman, did it feel good to finally achieve your true purpose in life?" She laughed at the stricken look on the smith's face.

"Stop it! She never tried to steal me from you. You know that, Laurel." Selene again tried to pull free from the stranger and again failed.

The blade of her weapon, coated in a thick, black substance, tapped against Laurel's thigh. "I'm going to give you a glimpse of my torment, smith. You're going to stay there and watch helplessly as I steal the love of your life away from you."

The blade was lifted. "I'll make it quick. I'm not really concerned about your pain and torment," Laurel whispered, her serpentine eyes focused on Selene's throat, where it soon would be gushing red.

As if responding to Laurel's voice, the large, dark snake coiled tighter around the smith's legs, trying to hold the large woman in place.

In a roar of anger, Nix reached down and crushed the snake's head in her massive hands. It thrashed for a second in its death throes, but it was enough for the smith to free her feet. Scrambling to the horrible scene in front of her, she pushed her wife out of the way. The blade cut a deep furrow into the northern Queen's shoulder. Surprised by the sudden move, Laurel twisted her grip and turned, thrusting with the dirk.

Selene screamed in pain and surprise at the sudden shove and cut, tumbling to the side as Nix attacked Laurel.

For a minute nobody moved, frozen by what had just happened. Laurel broke the silence first, laughing, the sound chilling, touched with insanity.

The light dimmed in Nix's eyes, and the massive woman crumpled to the forest floor, the dirk embedded to the hilt in her chest.

"Noooo..!" Selene cried, crawling towards where her wife had slowly slumped to the ground, not caring that she was crawling over the dead snake or towards the still laughing Laurel.

"Unbelievable," Laurel shrieked. "She even screws up my great death scene! I spent years planning this, setting things in motion. At first I blamed you," she pointed a finger at Selene. "Then I came to realize that...that...that smith was far cleverer than I had originally given her credit for. She stole you from me, she needed to pay..." the woman ranted, spittle covering her chin as she ranted.

Continuing to ignore the raving madwoman, Selene crouched by Nix, stroking a hand through dark hair gone silver. "Love," she whispered, crying as she tried to stop the blood gushing around the dirk sticking from her chest. "Oh dear Goddess...Nix!" she cried, desperate.

For a moment, Selene could feel her love's chest move beneath her hand as Nix drew in a breath. Then there was nothing. Even the pulse of blood slowed to a sluggish flow, and the body beneath her hands became still with the finality of death.

"Too bad you didn't have that magical sword of yours, like last time," Laurel gloated, reveling in Selene's pain. "Could have prevented all of this," she cackled.

"You bitch." The words were ash in her mouth as Selene looked up from the body of the woman that she loved, her wife for the majority of her life. "You will never know love." The only weapon was the dirk in her love's chest and she was about to grab that and try to kill Laurel, when they both heard the women rushing down the path towards them. From the yells, it was Cassia, Moriko, and the others.

Laurel watched Selene's hands move toward the weapon. "Try it. Go on. Take joy in your vengeance, which is the place of my Goddess. Your days are numbered. The blade is coated in poison," she whispered the last part. Then she was turning, preparing to dart into the shadows as women came crashing into the clearing.

"Mother..?" Cassia called, stumbling a bit as she saw the body that Selene was crouched over. She nearly dropped Valdis, her grip on the injured woman's shoulder slipping.

"That godling warrior as well, oh beautiful, beautiful day," Laurel cheered as her eyes fell on the limp body of Valdis.

Moriko's face went cold as she recognized the clothes of the advisor. "You, traitor!" she roared.

They managed not to completely drop Valdis, more or less gently placing her down on the path near the still crying Selene.

Cassia had only to look at the body of her mother to know that she was dead. Drawing the sword cast pale shadows throughout the area, and she gave a scream of rage, charging towards the advisor.

She swung her sword with deadly intent, trying to take her head off.

Laurel frowned as the shadows she wanted to use disappeared, and she barely sidestepped the charge. She gave way again and again, crying out in pain as the sword of light nicked her flesh. "Mistress of Shadows, your most humble servant begs for help," she cried out as the tables were reversed.

The air grew still then a column of black fire sprang from the ground. Laurel's eyes lit up in joy. "I'll see you later. I will not rest Œtil you and yours are dust." As she stepped into the fire, her expression changed from joy to horror, as a voice not meant to be heard by human ears hissed out. "You have failed me for you're own selfish reasons. My will is the only one that matters."

Laurel's screams of pain lingered long after the column of black fire vanished from view.


Cassia sat silently in front of the fire, watching the flames dance in the fireplace that she had helped to design. The main room of her parents' house was quiet, with only the crackle of the fire to keep her company. People would come and go through the door, but they left her alone, heading up the stairs to her parents' room or to her old bedroom.

If she concentrated she could just barely hear the murmur as Willow talked to Selene. The wounded Queen had been brought back here and the healers summoned. Valdis had been brought here as well, and put in Cassia's old bedroom, where healers tended to the unconscious warrior.

Nix... Cassia shook her head, brushing at the tears that immediately threatened as she pictured her mother. No, she wouldn't think about it, not yet. Any moment now Nix would come in through the door and call her pumpkin. Cassia closed her eyes, feeling her shoulders move as she pictured her mother at work over the forge, the smell of the fire and hot metal.


She wouldn't think of it yet, wouldn't picture the body that had been brought to the cathedral.

No. Not yet.

With a deep breath, she opened her eyes, focusing on the fire in front of her. The image wavered through the tears that still lingered, and she angrily brushed at them.

Moriko had gone to get Kai from the priestess, and she would be back soon. Goddess only knew if Cassia would be able to hold it together then. She should have held onto the other woman, she'd wanted to, desperately wanted to, but something had held her back. So instead of being held in Moriko's arms, she'd said nothing as Moriko had tried to talk to her, finally leaving to go get Kai with a sad look to Cassia.


Blinking her eyes, Cassia turned and smiled grimly at the priestess who stood on the stairway. 'Yes?"

'The High Priestess would like to see you."

That didn't sound good. Cassia nodded and got up. The walk up the stairway was longer than she remembered.

Willow stood just outside the door to her mother's room. Her normally smiling face was grave, and an unnatural strain showed in her eyes.

'Cassia..." She took the woman's hands in her own.

'How is my Muanya?"

The priestess sighed. 'The blade was poisoned. We have done what we could, but the poison has spread."

The taste in Cassia's mouth was bitter, 'And Valdis?"

Willow's eyes brightened a bit.

'She should be dead. The wounds she sustained have killed many a woman. Her healing is faster than anyone I have ever seen."

At least that was one bit of good news. Cassia let go of the old woman's hands and walked to the door of her parents' bedroom. 'I want to see my Muanya." She opened the door, gesturing for the women inside to leave. Then she closed the door behind her, going to kneel by the side of the bed and the dying Queen who lay upon it.


It was dark, the darkest night of the month, the night where the Moon Goddess hid her face. Considering the dark deeds of the day, it seemed fitting to match the night with the emotions of those that dwelled there.

The royal house was silent, those within succumbed to sleep. Cassia lay on the couch, her head pillowed in Moriko's lap, the stable mistress' head against the back of the couch, snoring softly. At their feet, the hound Rugor slept, and in a makeshift crib Kai quietly played with her toes.

Outside the Queen's rooms and the one Valdis' occupied, a healer, each, slept outside the doors on stools, even in sleep though their ears strained for sounds of discomfort or pain.

There was a very conveniently located tree outside of the bedroom that Valdis was recovering in. Well after sunset the day after the fighting had finished, Ryuu climbed up the tree and managed to cross over the gap to the window.

The silver-haired woman managed to open the window and slip inside the room, which was empty except for Valdis.

Padding quietly across the floor, Ryuu sat down on the edge of the bed. Smiling gently at the injured woman, she leaned in to press a kiss to her lips.

'Time to wake up, beautiful..."

Valdis was naked on the bed, except for a large, bulky bandage on her stomach. The wound still bled blackish, tainted blood, and the normally active warrior had been still as death since receiving the wound.

At the kiss, eyelids fluttered, and finally, slowly opened. Unfocused blue eyes tried to make sense of what they were seeing.

'Hello." Ryuu smiled as those blue eyes opened. 'Careful, don't move too much, you were hurt badly. It will be a while before you can move without pain."

Valdis smiled softly, and nodded her understanding. There really wasn't any pain, just cold, biting, bitter cold radiating from her stomach. Fumbling with an uncoordinated hand, she tried to grasp Ryuu's hand. "You came back," she croaked out. "I thought it wasn't allowed?"

'It wasn't. But you needed me." The other woman took her hand, enfolding it in both of hers and trying to give Valdis something to hold onto. 'You can't keep thinking that you can take on anyone who challenges you. I warned you that there were others out there."

Valdis felt herself warm at the contact, and unconsciously relaxed. "I always need you. As for Alina, I've faced her before during training. She's not like us, it was that sword." She shivered. Just thinking about that sword made the cold inside her intensify. "That shadow sword gave her an edge. I've never seen such a thing."

'It was crafted by the Mistress of Shadows, whose true name I will not utter in the north." Ryuu slid a hand down the injured woman's stomach, gently placing her palm over the wound. Where she touched, the cold diminished, and slowly, warmth returned.

'If you were mortal, you'd be dead."

Valdis nodded. "Yes, I would. I'm sorry I made you break whatever cryptic oath binds you from interfering, but I'm glad you did. I hope you're not in too much trouble."

Ryuu laughed, quietly, but she laughed and bent closer to kiss her again, more thoroughly this time. 'It was worth it. I would never have forgiven myself if you'd gotten hurt."

Valdis sighed into the kiss. "I thought I was going to have to wait a lot longer to get to do that. So I take it we won, since I'm not dead on the field." Slowly, she was waking up, and she frowned slightly, feeling the undercurrent of sorrow that blanketed the Queen's city.

The smile died on Ryuu's lips. Sadly, the other woman nodded. 'You won. Several of the women who went with you died in the fighting." She paused, considering how to say what she had to tell Valdis. Finally, she just said it. 'Nix is dead. Selene is dying in the next room over."

"I see," Valdis said stoically. Normally she reserved her tears for privacy, but for the first time in a long time, she didn't mind crying in front of another, and after a few seconds, she broke down, holding Ryuu tightly. "I failed another Queen," she said bitterly.

'No you didn't. Cassia's safe. There was nothing you could do for Selene or Nix." Ryuu climbed up onto the bed with her, holding the crying warrior. 'You saved this island. Without you Alina would have killed everyone she could, and the north would have fallen."

"Don't you mean without you? I was nothing but a big pincushion for that woman. You're the one that stopped her." She hiccupped, but finally managed to stop crying, her face turned so it was tucked under Ryuu's chin, and she once again relaxed, smelling the familiar scent of wind and clouds.

Strong fingers massaged Valdis' shoulder, trying to get her to relax more. She pressed a kiss to the dark head tucked against her. 'You taught them to defend themselves, gave them a fighting chance. If you hadn't been there, I wouldn't have interfered."

The warrior groaned in pleasure. "You and your common sense, it's hard to feel sorry for myself when you're doing that." She knew what Ryuu said was true, and in time the truth would overcome her sorrow at what had happened, it would take time though.

'Good. Then don't feel sorry for yourself. I hate it when you do that." The slender woman moved her fingers up until she was lightly massaging the warrior's scalp, smiling at the sounds that Valdis was making.

Valdis relaxed, slowly, the last of the tension easing away. "Don't want to fall asleep. I'm afraid you won't be here when I wake up," she mumbled, her eyes slipping shut despite how much she tried to resist, which was why she missed the look of sadness that crossed Ryuu's face.

Leaning closer, she kissed Valdis on the lips, gently. 'I'll hold you while you sleep."


The next day, Valdis, as she had suspected, awoke alone. Gruffly, she bellowed and shouted, scaring away anyone who wanted to check in on her, preferring to do what Ryuu hated most, wallow in her own perceived misery.


In the next few days, Valdis' health grew better, as the Queen's turned worse. Moriko slowly brushed Oscar down every once in awhile, her gaze switching to the royal house.

She knew Cassia was hurting, they all were, but the Princess was shutting her out, as well as snapping at everyone. Logically she knew Cassia didn't mean it, but it still hurt. The stable mistress bedded down in the stable, reflecting it felt like the first time she'd met Cassia. Leaning over, she blew out the lamp, descending the room in darkness.


Inside the house, Cassia sat by Selene's bedside, keeping a vigil over the ailing Queen. Throughout the night her Muanya's breathing had grown progressively more strained, and the healers had, one by one, done what they could and left, leaving her here alone. She knew she'd driven away Moriko, but she couldn't seem to help herself.

"Hey, pumpkin," came a quiet, faint voice from behind her in the room.

Now she was hearing things. Cassia covered her ears, shaking her head back and forth, once again forcing herself not to cry. That had sounded exactly like her mother's voice.

"Cassia, really, I thought you outgrew that stage by now." Nix's voice was clearer now, tinged with amusement.

"Mom..?" Cassia jerked upright. Had she completely lost touch with reality now then barely managed not to scream in surprise when she saw the faint outline of the figure standing at the base of the bed.

The ghost walked slowly up to the bed, the air growing chilly as she sucked a little bit of life from the room to create her presence in it. She raised a wispy, vaguely formed hand to touch her daughter's, but stopped and let it fall.

"I'm so sorry, honey. I tried to save her, tried to give her life so she could help guide you, so she could see all those grandbabies she wanted so desperately. In the end, I failed you both."

"Mommy..?" Cassia lost the battle with her tears, and the finally started to fall. "I miss you so much," she choked, trying to reach out for her mother, only for the ghost to step away out of her touch.

"Pumpkin, the dead and living should not meet. It would take too much from you to make me solid. But I love you desperately, you and your mother both. I know you'll do good things. I should have stayed hidden, but you seem so lost, I couldn't help it. But I wanted you to know how much I regret what I did. I ended up taking us both away from you. If only these big, stupid hands had been faster."

'Oh hush about your hands. I like them just as they are," came the hoarse whisper from the bed. Cassia jerked in surprise for the second time in the last few moments, as Selene opened her eyes. She smiled slowly as she spotted the two women in the room. 'You waiting for me, my love?" she asked Nix.

Nix smiled, turning to the bed, "Of course. I couldn't move on without you. Not certain what it holds, but I figure it would be fun to discover it together. Maybe the Goddess of Death will lead us to paradise, maybe we'll get reborn and get to find each other again, or maybe we'll fade away. Either way, I want you at my side, always and forever."

'Always and forever," Selene whispered, her eyes slowly closing.

'No, Muanya, please, stay here. I can't lose you both!" Cassia desperately took the still living woman's hand in hers.

Selene's eyes fluttered open and she gave a weak laugh. 'Where you're mother goes, so go I. I'm sorry, daughter." Her eyes slowly wandered the room then looked back at their daughter. 'Where is Moriko?"

Cassia looked ashamed, but didn't answer, so Selene looked to Nix for answers.

Nix sighed. "Cassia, you're hanging on to the dying and ignoring the living. Moriko is tossing and turning in the barn outside, watching over you the best she can, because you drove her away. Lucky for you she still loves you enough to overlook you're dark mood and your stinging tongue."

Nix came closer to the bed, sitting on the edge, her ghostly hand taking Selene's. "Pumpkin, you're not dying, and you're not dead. Stop acting like it. Celebrate our time together, remember it fondly, and draw out good memories and savor them on dark days. But it's time to let us go."

It was starting to be a struggle for the Queen to keep her eyes open, but she managed it for a little while longer as she used her free hand to squeeze their daughter's. 'Listen to your mother; she always was the voice of reason." It wouldn't be long now, and they all seemed to realize it. 'Promise me you will go to her, Cassia."

Tears ran freely down the younger woman's face as she nodded, not able to speak.

Selene sighed and turned to the ghostly form of her wife. 'I love you," she whispered, 'I love you both," her eyes slowly closing for the last time.

As Selene drew her last breath, Nix started to fade away, "I love you, Cassia. I couldn't have asked for a better daughter," she whispered, and then was gone, the chill in the air leaving as well.

Then Cassia was alone in the room with the Queen's body.


In the crush and press of the Queen's death, Moriko felt forgotten. She and Cassia weren't married yet, and now she wondered if they would. Not once did Cassia ask for her help, and when she tried, she was told firmly that Cassia would handle it. Death, especially that of a nation's queen, could have vast impacts, but not like this, this she never would have imagined.

She was hiding in the woods; in what she was fairly certain was the clearing that she and Cassia first kissed in. She hummed softly, and missed Talon. Rugor tried, but he didn't listen as well as the hawk had.

"Moriko?" the voice was a ways off yet, but sounded strained and worried, as Cassia walked through the forest, trying to find her love. Please, Goddess, she prayed, let me not have lost her also.

Moriko stiffened, and for a moment, held her voice, then called out, "Cassia?"

The dark-haired woman very nearly wept in relief when she heard Moriko's voice. "Hi," she called, changing course slightly and walking towards the source of that voice. "I'm sorry!"

Moriko bit her lip and waited, the fingers of her right hand drumming against her thigh. She watched Cassia slowly emerge from the trees, but she didn't get up to greet her.

Pausing on the other side of the clearing, Cassia managed a sad smile as she spotted her. "I'm sorry," she repeated, petrified by the distance that seemed to have developed between them. "I didn't mean to push you away like that." She didn't know how to make this better.

"Then why did you?" Moriko asked the hurt at being pushed away coming to the surface.

Shaking her head, Cassia let out a sigh, looking down at the ground at her feet. "I was scared," she whispered.

Moriko ran a hand through her hair then rubbed her forehead. "I have one question. Do you still want there to be an Œus'?"

"Yes!" Cassia jerked her head up so fast she was sure she had just strained her neck. "Oh Goddess, yes I want there to be an Œus'," she stared, wide-eyed at the other woman.

Moriko smiled in relief. "Good. I do too." She patted the space next to her on the log she was sitting on.

Cassia very nearly fainted from relief; it was a near thing. Her legs were very wobbly as she went to sit down next to Moriko and grabbed her in a tight hug. "I'm sorry," she whispered, over and over.

"I know, but don't do it again. If there is an Œus', then you need to treat Œus' as a couple. I wanted to be there for you. I knew you were hurting. But instead, you lashed out at me. You really hurt me, I felt like I didn't matter."

It was a luxury to rest her face in the crook of Moriko's neck, and Cassia luxuriated in it. "I didn't know how to," she admitted finally.

With a happy sigh, Moriko held her soon-to-be wife. "Then instead of being an asshole, tell me you're scared or unsure."

Cassia let out a laugh that was almost a sob. "I'm scared and unsure."

Moriko just held her tighter. "I know, love, and I'm here for you." She kissed Cassia's head and face. "What do you need? How can I make you less scared and unsure?"

"Don't let me push you away?"

"Okay. I think we're okay now." She slowly rocked back and forth, humming softly.

Within moments, Cassia's shoulders started to shake, and then her entire frame as she sobbed, giving in to the tears that had threatened ever since this morning.

"You've been holding that in for days now. Go on and let it all out," Moriko whispered. "It's okay, I have you."

It felt like hours later, but finally, the dark-haired woman's tears slowed then stopped, making no effort to move out of the arms that cradled her. The idea that she'd almost lost this caused her to tighten her grip on Moriko. "Will you come back with me?" The funeral, funerals, would be tomorrow.

"Of course..." She kissed the top of the head that was under her chin. She had missed this closeness, and was loath, at the moment, to give it up.

Cassia twisted a little so that she could look up. "Where's Kai?"

The blonde reached down and gently moved the hair out of Cassia's face. "Willow and Valdis are watching her. Actually, I think Willow is watching both of them." She bent her head, brushing her lips against the other woman's before leaning back up.

She sighed with relief and burrowed back against the warm body next to her, content to be in Moriko's arms. They'd have to go back to deal with things soon enough, but for now, she was content to stay where she was.


Hours later, Moriko got them home and put Cassia to bed, before coming out and thanking Willow and Valdis for watching Kai. Willow smiled mysteriously, and said something about young love before taking her leave.

Moriko scratched the scar on her eyebrow and asked Valdis, "What was that look for?"

"You have twigs and dirt in your hair," was all the smirking warrior said. "So I assume it was a good bout of..." Moriko scowled at the warrior. "...making up?"

Moriko sighed and rolled her eyes. Valdis just handed her the sleeping Kai and went to her old room, which was now the guest room to sleep.

Moriko looked at Kai. "Please don't grow up to be a warrior."

She rocked the small child and wondered what tomorrow would be like. She had, so far, missed the funerals of those that were important to her.


The day had been beautiful, and had faded into a cloudless, starry night. Valdis wasn't familiar with pyres, but on a day of such mourning, she felt that maybe the day should have reflected it with rain and gloom.

She was healing, her abdomen mostly healed. The sword had left a black stain on her, swirling out from the thick scar tissue like inky tendrils. Sometimes it ached with coldness, and she used a cane to get around, but everyday she was getting better.

She stood slightly behind the Royal family, watching as the Priestess held their ceremony.

"You look better than the last time I saw you," a familiar voice whispered from her left hand side, a hand slipping into Valdis' as the two bodies were raised up to the pyres that had been built.

The crowd of women around them was silent as the bodies were laid out. Then the songs began, those with the purest of voices stood near the pyres, singing the lives of the two women who had led the north ever since the Exodus.

Valdis squeezed the hand and whispered, "I've missed you." She took a step back, which put them even more into shadow, so she was now flush with Ryuu. Her eyes, however, stayed fixed on the scene before them. "They were wonderful people."

"They were special," Ryuu agreed, leaning against the warrior's side. She smiled faintly as she spotted Cassia and Moriko at the front, with little Kai sitting between them. "She will make a good Queen with the support of those around her."

Valdis nodded. "She had a sheltered time growing up, this has taken its toll, but it looks like she came through it just fine."

The silver-haired woman nodded towards the women who stood not too far away from the soon-to-be Queen. "How are your pupils doing?"

"They are recovering. Some of them didn't transition well to the real thing, others lost friends, the horror and sorrow of battle sits heavily on them, but they know they did well and protected their lands. I'll get them whipped back into shape."

Ryuu nodded sadly. "You're not ready to leave yet." It wasn't really a question, despite Ryuu's hopeful tone.

Valdis turned her blue eyes away from the dead, who were being consumed by fire, and looked at her lover. A sad smile graced her features. "Look at them; they're such babes to this, not like the south. It's almost as if we never stopped fighting the Exodus there. I promise I'll be with you as soon as I can." She kissed Ryuu's lips then whispered, "I miss you terribly."

She smiled and returned the kiss. "I know. You will do well. They respect you. Just see how those fire warriors are putting their heart into following your teachings."

Valdis rolled her eyes. "Stupid miners," she muttered. "How long do I have you for before you disappear while I sleep?"

"Tomorrow," the other woman squeezed the warrior's hand, "after the coronation."

Valdis just nodded, not happy, but accepted it.

"But until then, can I interest you in spending the night with me?" Ryuu whispered as the singing came to an end.

Valdis gave a warm smile, "Of course. And lucky for you, I even managed to pick up your house a little bit today."

"Lucky me," she agreed, pulling Valdis away from the mourning that would continue for a while.


The morning sunlight was slowly lightening the window as Ryuu draped a naked leg over the hip of the woman lying in bed with her. There had been very little sleep last night, for either of them, and she smiled in sheer happiness at the memories that would have to last her for a long, long time. "How are you doing?" she whispered against damp skin.

Valdis opened eyes that had nearly shut in exhaustion. "I am either out of shape or you were really, really trying to kill me." She stroked the skin of Ryuu's bare thigh. For the first time ever, she had felt self-conscious of her body. Last night, when she had taken off her tunic, she wanted to put it back on to hide the scar and blackness left behind by the Mistress of Shadow's sword. Ryuu had put her at ease, but still, it bothered her. Unconsciously, her other hand rubbed the scar.

With a low, throaty chuckle, Ryuu swung herself up over the other woman, grinning down at her. "I'm just making sure you aren't going to forget me." Her hands reached down and gripped Valdis' hand, stilling it.

Looking sheepish, Valdis mumbled out a sorry then placed both her hands on Ryuu's hips. "I won't forget you. You are truly unforgettable, no matter how hard you try not to be noticed."

She looked over her shoulder at the window, judging how much time was left before she had to leave. "Let's just make sure." Ryuu grinned wickedly and leaned down, covering the well-muscled body with her own.


Valdis was well aware of one thing in her semi-conscious state...she was going to be walking funny tomorrow. That's what happens when you have a relationship, you stop sleeping around. She was also aware that Ryuu was trying to leave without be noticed.

The sun had risen considerably higher by the time that Ryuu did her best to slip out of bed, wincing a little as she stood up. She was sore in the most interesting ways. Quietly, she started to slip on her clothes, intending to get out of town while everyone was gathered for the coronation. The fewer that saw her, the fewer questions she would have to answer.

"I guess I should get dressed and get to that big ta do over at the temple," Valdis said with a yawn. She rolled over, looking at the guilty looking Ryuu. "You know, honey, sometimes a goodbye is a nice thing before you take off, makes me feel less whore-like."

The silver-haired woman winced. "Sorry, love. I didn't want..." she trailed off, not sure how to explain it. She didn't want there to be any more pain. "I didn't mean it like that."

Valdis sighed and smiled softly. "I know." She sat up and stretched, feeling a slight pull in her gut from the scar tissue.

"Does it still hurt?" Ryuu asked, noticing the wince.

Valdis nodded. "It aches and sometimes it's cold. The healer said something about nerve damage. It's...it's not healing right, not like in the past, perhaps it's because the Goddess made it and blessed it somehow." She shrugged, "Anyone other than me would be dead."

Ryuu reached over and gently stroked a hand over the scar tissue. "I can't do much more than I did before," shrugging apologetically.

Valdis smiled and held her hand over the wound. "And that was enough." She studied Ryuu for a moment, her eyes intense for a moment, and then lifted the hand and kissed it. "You're not a half-breed godling like me, are you?" she asked, already having a good idea of the answer. While Valdis was formidable and powerful, she couldn't ease suffering and pain with a touch.

Silver eyes blinked in surprise, although Ryuu wasn't sure why she was surprised. Despite all that Valdis thought about herself, the warrior was anything but slow. "Would it change things between us if I was more than that?"

For a moment, Valdis looked insulted. "Honey, nothing could change things between us...well, maybe if you tried to kill me, but other than that, nothing will change how I feel. For crying out loud! I don't even notice other women, or sleep around, um...and whatever unrelationship things I use to do."

Cupping the taller woman's cheek, Ryuu smiled. "I love you, you know that?" She turned serious. "But I'm not going to see you for a long time. I'm sorry, but that's what is going to happen. You have to remember me, Valdis. Please, promise me that whatever happens, you'll remember me?"

Valdis frowned, not liking this one bit. "What do you mean, a long time? You were just asking me if I could leave with you, yesterday."

"Things have changed," she answered, sadly. "I broke the rule."

With sudden great clarity, she understood, and it hurt almost if clarity had been forced upon her. "You interfered, by saving me, by showing up, and now you're being punished?"

Closing her eyes, Ryuu lowered her head until her silver hair hid her face from sight. "It's not really a punishment. More like a...penance."

Valdis reached out and cupped Ryuu's face, studying it. "I will wait, and I will remember." She kissed her lover's eyelids then her lips.


Valdis rolled her eyes, "Of course."

"Good." Ryuu tenderly kissed her, nearly desperately deepening the kiss before reluctantly breaking off. "I have to go."

Valdis nodded, and turned to grab her clothes, hiding her face and her tears, not wanting to make it harder than it already was.

Ryuu paused by the door to the room. "I love you," she whispered then left before the hurt in her chest stopped her.


It had been a long few days, Cassia thought with a touch of bitterness. The funeral had been everything that her parents had deserved. The entire town and many women from across the north had turned out, flooding the streets of the city. The pyres had been impressively tall, and burned bright and hot as the bodies of Nix and Selene had been laid to rest, together in death as they had been in life. Willow's priestesses had sung the flames high, singing their life and commanding their spirit to the Moon Goddess. Throughout it all, she'd cried. Cassia felt hollow today, empty of everything. If Moriko and Kai hadn't been there, she wondered if she would have just floated away upon the smoke.

Today that same crowd was gathering in the streets for a different reason, and Cassia grimaced as she pictured standing up in front of them. "I think I'm going to be sick," she whispered, leaning her head against the wall and listening to Moriko get Kai ready in the other room. Please, Goddess, she prayed, just get me through the next little while.

Rugor whined and nudged her hand with his wet nose, causing her to jump a little. "Thanks, boy," she patted him on the head, took a deep breath, and peeked around the door to see how Moriko was doing. The emptiness inside her eased as she watched the two people who were her family. "You look good."

"Mmmm," was the non-committal answer that came from Moriko as she practically hog-tied Kai into her dress. "Come on, Kai, I don't need this one trait of your mother's coming to the forefront right now. Just work with me," the blonde pleaded her brown eyes near tears with exhaustion.

The soon-to-be Queen went inside and kneeled down next to the little one, hoping to distract her while Moriko kept up her tries with the dress. This was proving to be more difficult than either of them had expected. 'I know you don't like it, Kai. We won't ask you to do this often," Cassia promised, hoping to reason with the young girl.

Moriko smiled in thanks as Cassia kneeled down next to them, although she didn't really blame Kai. She'd never owned a dress, much less worn one before today, and she wasn't all that comfortable either.

Kai just squealed and said "Mommy" over and over again while trying to grab Cassia's nose.

Cassia finally just gave in and let her hang onto her nose so that Moriko could finish her dressing. 'I promise we won't have to force her to do this too often," she said, hoping to see at least a hint of a grin from the other woman.

Moriko laughed as Kai firmly grabbed Cassia's nose. "For your well being, you better hope so. I'm not certain your nose could take this on a daily basis." She finished the last tie and kissed Kai's head while firmly removing the child's small hand from Cassia's nose, "Looks like we're all ready."

'Are we?" The dark haired woman captured Moriko's hand in hers, searching her eyes intently, still unsure after the last few days.

Moriko nodded and stood up, dragging Cassia with her. "Yes, we are ready." Her gaze softened and she reached up, stroking Cassia's cheek. "And we're okay, just don't do that again. I can understand if you need space, but don't push me away. I thought you didn't want me anymore, or blamed me for bringing Kai here and putting all this into motion." Unshed tears glistened in her eyes. "I didn't know they'd find out. I tried so hard to keep it a secret. It's my fault they died."

Cassia pulled her into a hug, holding onto the smaller woman tightly. "It isn't your fault. You didn't make them come here. You didn't cause this," she whispered. "I love you and Kai, no matter what."

"I thought you were mad, I thought you were blaming me for their deaths. Please don't shut me out like that again," Moriko said into the crook of Cassia's neck.

"I promise," Cassia whispered then smiled as small hands grabbed onto her leg and tugged. "I think someone doesn't want to be ignored."

"She's spoiled," Moriko said, then bent down and scooped up Kai. "Uff, you're getting big, Kai. Soon I won't be able to pick you up anymore." She held out her other hand to Cassia. "Come on, it's time to become a Queen."

Cassia laughed, kissing both of them, "Time to become a family."

The End

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