A Thousand Winds that Blow
I am not there, I do not sleep.
Palas' autumn carnival was a wild, lawless sort of city-wide festival, of the sort that prudent nobles had petitioned to repress before they discovered they could make a fine bit of coin off of licensed debauchery. Older revelers said that the carnival had changed, and was in no way the restrictions-free loosening of social strictures that it had once been, though they admitted that with the advent of vendor permits, the vino was generally better.
For three days the city gave itself up to uselessness. Highborn ladies liaisoned with pretty actors half their age, their masked trysts in alleyways completely overlooked. It was an escape, it was a relief, and it was the biggest security nightmare Celena could possibly imagine.
Knights Caeli did not wear masks. For the full duration of the carnival they patrolled the streets in their crisp white shirts, breaking up fights and keeping as much peace as was humanly possible, considering the circumstances. At the very least Celena was grateful that the carnival officers and not the knights were in charge of inspecting all the various permits needed by the buskers and sweetmeat peddlers. They were the killjoys most derided by the populace. The knights were almost welcome, by comparison, and Celena more than once had to turn down the offer of a cup of vino or an hour of pleasurable company. In the latter case, she wasn't sure if the young women offering were too drunk to tell that she was the only female in the knights, or if they knew and just didn't care.
She found their advances more off-putting than she cared to admit. She had always preferred the company of young men, especially when she had been one herself.
She accepted the slurred gratitude of the drunk she had just kept from an untimely death in one of the canals, disentangling her hands from his slightly too-enthusiastic kissing. Free of him, she wiped her hands on her trousers with a little grimace of distaste, and proceeded along the torch-lit canal.
It was a fine evening, with a light breeze off the harbor dancing in the boat-lanterns, and a faint spangle of stars visible over the festival lights. Celena's patrol was nearly over, and for a moment she entertained the notion of shedding the weight of her twin swords, changing into plain clothes and a mask, and passing back into the streets again. It had been tempting enough on the first two nights of the carnival, but on this, the last evening, the urge was nearly overwhelming.
Maybe, she thought, just maybe, she would bind her breasts flat before she went out, and walk with her left hip jutted out just so, and drop all the feminine verb endings off her speech. Not that she remembered to use them half the time anyway, and she loathed how Queen Millerna could never refer to herself in less than five syllables. Celena passed for a boy most of the time without half trying, and what was a carnival for, anyway, but to spend some idle time pretending to be something you weren't, without fear of censure?
Allen would never need know.
Spurred by the thought, she picked up her pace to get through the bazaar, but the crowd had the better of her and slowed her progress, making her a prime target for every hawker on the street.
"Fine eastern silk, in all the colors of heaven, just one touch is enough to--"
"Sugared cherries, spiced nuts, piscus juice! Finest at the festival--"
"Gilded masks, feathers and beads! Owls and dragons, creatures of fantasy! Hide your face behind one of mine--"
"Handsome knight, come and have your fortune told?"
Celena actually turned, taking a moment to realize that the wizened cat-woman in the alleyway was actually speaking to her. She was not blaring her wares at any and all passersby as the others were, but had singled Celena out to solicit her business. "No, thank you," Celena said, watching a dragon mask bobbing further into the crowd, thinking she would need one for later. "Not tonight."
"Ah ah ah!" The cat-woman waved a curved claw in the air. "Don't be so quick to walk away, young man. Wars to come or ladies' hearts, the cards can tell me everything!"
Celena wasn't sure about the psychic abilities of anyone who could miss the modest but still obvious curve of her breasts. That was before she realized the cat-woman was blind, slit-pupils lost behind a white veil of cataract. Her fingers danced in a tattered deck of fortune cards, scraps of garish images flickering between her hands, unseen. Since a girl from the Mystic Moon had used them with such dramatics, fortune-cards had become quite popular among the diviners of Asturia.
"Come come, only a copper coin for your fate? A bargain the likes of which you'll never see again."
Celena glanced down the street towards the bazaar, to make sure no other knights happened to be passing by. "All right," she said, tugging out the gaudily-painted stool the fortune teller had for her customers to sit on. "But first of all, I'm a woman."
"I see not outsides, knight with two swords. Insides are my concern." The cards fluttered in gnarled hands, and vanished for a moment in the fortune-teller's voluminous sleeves. "You are as your blades are, two makes, two kinds, two divided purposes united in your hands. You are a coin with two sides--" The cat-woman looked at Celena and through her, her milky, blinded eyes stripping Celena down to her genderless bones. "...Lord Dilandau."
Celena fell onto the stool, her Zaibach and Asturian swords jangling on the cobblestones, jarred by her sudden descent. "What," she whispered, clutching the hilts of both, "What did you say?"
"Psh tsh," the cat-woman scolded, cards appearing once more, arcing from one hand to another. "I divine, you attend. I do not repeat myself."
Celena worked to get moisture back in a dry throat as the rectangles of pasteboard flicked down on the table, image-sides down on the black scarf draped over the rickety plywood. The worn backs of the cards were patterned with roses and stars, crimson and silver. The colors blurred in Celena's eyes.
Hitomi would have been bewildered by these cards, with their Gaian symbols muddled in with terran cups and swords. The first one turned over, and Celena stared at the jumble of concentric circles, the still figure bound to a them like a torture victim waiting for interrogation.
"Here you stand, knight," The fortune teller rasped. "As you always have, tied to fortune's wheel. It turns you, it twirls you, and you stumble on blindly, dizzy with your own luck as it carries you on. Once you stepped outside the bounds of fate. Now you fear to leave them. And what of your past?" The cards to the left of center turned, and there in a row lay war, and death, and loyalty incongruous between her rougher fellows, her fair cheek pressed unflinching to the scaly heart of a dragon. "You have been loved well in dark hours," the cat-woman said, and Celena blinked at the heat stinging behind her eyes. "Utmost sacrifice, utmost devotion. Your debt remains unpaid."
"I don't deny it," Celena whispered, her fingers tightening on the sword she wielded in her left hand, the Zaibach one.
"Shush. I have not finished."
Celena shivered in spite of the warm night, forgetting the crowd passing in a rowdy mass a yard behind her back. She was remembering voices long silenced, faces faded in her memory. Apologies hung heavy on her tongue, shaken off too late for dead ears to hear. Their names burned in her lungs like smoke from a razed city.
The cat-woman's nails clacked over the three cards spread to the right, the future. A figure alone in the wilderness, standing at the edge of earth burnt black. Celena knew the place, but could not work her mind to understand how it came to be there on a seer's card. Beside that card was a tall gate, thorny and black, wreathed in fog. Vaguely human shapes seemed to move beyond it, restless even as Celena watched.
The last card was blank.
"You have a journey to make, young knight." A yellowed nail tapped the center card with the gate, sending the shadowy figures in all directions, like fish startled by a shadow above. "They wait for you. They have been waiting, in between. To let them go, they require your command."
"My command?" Celena whispered. "They are dead and beyond me. I have no control over life and death. If I had--" She broke off, leaving the sentence and the thought both unfinished, like the blank card.
The fortune-teller raised a wispy eyebrow. "Would you bring them back?"
Celena did not dare answer, looking at the last card. Longing washed over her, choking her silent. How often had she dreamed of finding them again, in the two years since she lost them? How many times had she wished for them to know her as she was, the commander they deserved, and not the one they had endured? How many times had she woken herself, weeping, as they slipped through her fingers? As many times as she screamed herself out of nightmares with their names still ringing in the rafters of her chamber. Even a minute would be enough to thank them, at the least. To see their faces, to clasp their hands, to bid them farewell.
But she had always forced those feelings away. Death was absolute, and above all, she refused to cheapen what they had done by petulantly wishing they were back again, like hounds to come at a whistle. Her guilt was her own, it was not their charge to ease it for her.
But were they waiting, somehow caught between, for her?
Celena was dizzy as though she had drunk every cup of vino that had been offered her during the carnival, and at one gulp.
"They have your answers." The cat-woman rummaged in her patch-ragged robes, and drew out an intricate glass vial on a cord. The liquid inside was green and viscous. "You will need this to find them. When you are ready, eat nothing and drink nothing for a day, then take this. But you must be sure, and you must be careful. So much as a droplet more, and you will be sent into their company forever."
Sereitoxis, made by the dolphin-tribes from a strange fish that lived in the deep, and used by warrior monks of Freid to induce visions. Celena had seen it in Palas before, or at least had seen the evidence of it. It made for a potent and excellent poison, favored by the nobility for tidying up loose ends. In her first week as a knight she had had to chase down an assassin who was skilled with the serum, but not discretion, and had nudged the wrong noble to the beyond.
Celena stared at the vial swinging from the card-reader's fist, swaying like a pendulum of fate. She reached into her belt without hesitation, and scattered fifteen copper coins down on the last blank card, one each for the souls she sought. Copper for the army they had been in, copper for the taste of blood in her mouth.
"The end is yet undecided," the cat-woman said, her dry fingers like a spider in Celena's palm as she placed the stoppered vial in it. "Blank and undecided, waiting for gravity. How you tip the scales is up to you."
The cards and the coins vanished into her sleeves. Celena watched the bubble move slowly through the vial, and then closed her fingers around it. Looking up to ask the woman how she had known so much, Celena found herself facing a blank wall. The fortune teller, along with her scarf and her cards and the clashing paints of her sign, was gone.
"She's not usually late, is she?"
Allen looked at Gaddes, and then at the crowded street below. From the lip of the old city wall-- a low, uneven circle that Palas had outgrown centuries ago-- they had a clear view of the brightly-colored festival chaos. The crowd reeled in giddy amusement, like a masked tide lapping at the edge of the wall, the boundary of the festivities. For Allen, it was a line of sanity. He would have been much happier having a quiet drink back at the fort, but for the Carnival, all the Knights Caeli were called back to the capital.
No matter the painful memories they might have of the holiday.
Marlene had been wearing a white owl mask, her silver bodice studded with pearls that slid under his gloved fingertips. The canopy by the racing gondolas had fallen in across the alleyway, blue and gold striped like a princess' bridal cloak, hiding them from view. Her hair tumbled down across his face, the scent of lemon trees and longing.
"Ah, there she is," Gaddes said. "Wonder what's got her ruffled?"
Allen opened his eyes. His sister was taking the steps to the wall two at a time, Schezar-family long legs not wasted in her stride. Allen tsked a little, in spite of himself. Surely a knight on rounds should conduct himself --or herself-- with a trifle more dignity. The stern gravity to her sweet features was not lost on him, however, as she came to a halt a pace away, and actually saluted.
"I have a request, Captain."
Gaddes' eyebrows practically vanished into his scruffy bangs. "Captain?" He repeated, with a sidelong glance at Allen. Allen had enough trouble getting Celena to call him by the more respectful 'brother' than by his first name; calling him by his rank was unheard of.
"You must, to address me so," Allen answered, closing the space between them to get a better look at her flushed face. "What is it? If you want to go off to the festival, I can't really stop you, though it isn't really safe for you unescorted and without your insignia to protect you--"
"Festival be dammed," Celena retorted, with more exasperation than temper, too impatient to bother with her brother's illogical overprotective streak. "I'm requesting leave. Formally. Starting now."
"I'd fancy a bit of a vacation myself," Gaddes muttered, but fell silent at Allen's glance.
"Leave? For what?"
Celena's lips tightened, stubbornness as bred in her blood as long legs and a good sword arm. "Leave to go on my own and attend to my own business, Allen. I've got the hours put in, and I've never once requested a suspension of duty. You know you can't refuse me."
Allen folded his arms, chin in his hand, and considered the hard glare in blue eyes that matched his own. "Perhaps as Knights' Captain I cannot, but as your brother--"
"She's eighteen, man." Gaddes put in. "As her brother you can't do much either, what with the Queen's equality codes."
"Gaddes, be quiet. Celena--" Allen took his sister by the shoulders, pulling her closer as though proximity would somehow encourage his understanding. "What's happened? Are you in danger? Whatever it is, you can tell me." He searched her face, and saw the struggle in it before she looked to the crowd, unable or unwilling to meet his eyes.
"It's just something I need to do, Allen," she said softly. "Please. I only need a little while, and no questions."
Allen studied her profile, her expression lost under the cropped silver waves of her hair. He had a sudden eerie flash of Marlene turning away from him, ashamed.
"It's not... it's not a man, is it, Celena? You aren't-- If you were--"
She almost laughed, a quick smile that was there and gone, her shoulders shivering under his grip. "I'm not nine months inconvenienced, Allen. I've yet to find a living man in Asturia who would have me, anyway."
"I'd--" Gaddes started, but two irritated Schezar glares were far worse than one, and he gave up, shrugging. "Too young for me anyway," he said, with a wistful sort of sigh, and wandered over to the far edge of the wall to give them some privacy.
"You know if you were in such a predicament, you can trust me to understand," Allen murmured, and she smiled up at him, the bright expression that lit up her whole face and undid him to the core.
"I know, brother," she said, and fondly tweaked the tail of blond hair that dangled over his shoulder. "But this is a matter that concerns only me. I will tell you about it, and gladly, once I have sorted it out for myself."
Allen knew from experience that when Celena said a matter concerned only her, it meant that it concerned only her, and the crimson shadow of Dilandau Albatou that dogged her heels. He did not understand that part of her, though he had struggled to accept it. It was the part of Celena that made her stronger than any other woman he had known, that made her who she was, a knight and swordswoman who sometimes was more brother than sister.
And fully capable of protecting herself, double swords or no.
"Very well," Allen relented, though it seemed his heart had gone leaden at the words, sinking down. He feared Dilandau as he feared no man alive, that one day he would return cloaked in flame to take Celena back forever. It was a foolish thing, and he consoled himself with his sister's affection, but letting her go out with only the solitary company of that man was still hard for him. "A week. A week from tonight you report to me here before we return to the fort, or send me word that you are on your way. Or else I come out looking for you. Understand?"
Her eyes brightened with relief; it was obvious she had expected a harder fight. Her arms were around his neck for only a moment, her kiss on his cheek as quick as the whispered thanks that went with it. And then she was gone, slipping from Allen's outstretched fingertips and racing along the high street to the palace, sword belts jingling in her haste.
"Come back to me," Allen breathed, to the vanishing silver flash of her hair. "Come back to me, Celena."
"A favor?" Millerna repeated, to the breathless young knight leaning in her doorway, sweat curling the ends of her hair. "Gracious, Celena, did you run all the way from the harbor? I thought we were being attacked!"
"I need papers and passport to allow me swift passage through Freid," Celena said, shaking her head at the chair the queen offered, but accepting the glass of vino from the departing maid and knocking it back in two gulps. "Allen only gave me a week's leave, and if I'm delayed it will worry him. You know how he is."
"I most certainly do. To the Duchy of Freid, you said?" Millerna had dismissed her servants when she saw Celena's face; now she reached into her desk for parchment and sealing wax. "Whatever for? It's hardly the sort of place for a knight on leave."
"To Freid," Celena assured her, and at the queen's uncertain look, Celena added, "I swear it is vital to me, and of no importance to national security. I would not ask you like this, otherwise."
"It has something to do with him, doesn't it?" Millerna asked, to the blank paper in front of her. Her deft fingers smoothed the end of the quill, anxious.
Celena tipped up the glass again, realized it was empty, and walked over to the bottle to fill it again. "More to do with things I need to finish for him."
"It was in Freid, wasn't it? That time that Van... and those Zaibach boys..."
Celena choked on the vino she was drinking. Her cup clattered down on the tray, sloshing energist-bright liquid across her sleeve. She didn't notice, staring out the fine glass windows of Millerna's study, at the pinpoints of celebratory fires in the city below. In her vision it blurred into a blasted valley, molten slag withering the grass to ashes.
"Celena," Millerna said, gently. "There's nothing left there. Not even--"
"I'm not going there after their bones," Celena said, more harshly than she intended. Ever since her encounter with the fortune-teller she felt loose in her own skin, teetering on the brink between his past and her present. She had managed to lock those memories away, to keep them to herself and allow them to run rampant only in her dreams. Now she was close to losing her tenuous hold on them, and she saw blue armor in every shadow. "I'm going there because I have to."
She should have known that Millerna would deduce her intent from location alone. As Allen would have, if she had told him where she was going. There was a rustle of silken skirts beside her, a regal, gloved hand on her shoulder. Reflected in Millerna's eyes, the festival lights were only cheerful lanterns. "At the time," Millerna said, her voice hushed with memory, "I was so afraid. But it was mostly for Van. I didn't realize that for you--"
"Please," Celena said, thumb and forefinger pressed hard to her eyes before the stinging could become tears, "Please, Millerna. Don't say anymore." She did not add that if the Queen went further, revealing her memories of those deaths, that Celena was not sure she could keep from falling on the queen's shoulder and howling. She had sobbed oceans enough in private, but had not yet lost control of herself in front of anyone, not even Allen. She would not start now.
Millerna moved back to her desk, tipping up the lid of her inkpot. "I think a queen's commission will plug up any questions," she said, scrolling a fancy initial at the top of the page, dashing out the lines of the highest writ of travel in Asturia. "If anyone asks you, you are gone on the Queen's business, so do my honor a favor and stay out of taverns for me, will you?"
Celena was weak at the knees in a way that had nothing whatsoever to do with hastily-consumed alcohol. "Your Highness, I swear to you I will never forget this."
"Tsk, don't get formal on me now, or I might mistake you for your brother. There." She signed the note with a flourish, and unlocked the strongbox holding her official seal. "I'll jot something down for Chid, as well, to get you through Godashim quickly. I'm sure he can loan you a horse and some supplies." She held out the papers, thick with ribbon and seals, for Celena to take. "You will be careful, won't you? If something happens to you, Allen will--" Millerna broke off as Celena ignored the passport and took the queen's hand instead, sinking to one knee and pressing her lips to the signet ring of the royal house.
"For this, my queen, my life is yours." Celena's hand tightened around the gloved one she held. "Whenever you have need or want of it."
"Celena," Millerna began, flabbergasted. Millerna admitted to herself that Celena was a knight just as much to appease the Queen's politics as for her own skill. She had sworn the same oaths as her male counterparts, but for the most part, she was distinctly her own creature and not prone to the bland valor so often spouted by them. What she said, she meant. The intensity of her words was worth a thousand recited devotions from other knights.
"I beg your permission to withdraw," Celena said, not knowing how much she looked or sounded like Allen just then, and how Millerna began to regret her careless jibe.
"There is a regular airship run from the mountains to Godashim," she said. "If you take the last harbor ferry, you should get there in time for it in the morning. When I left Palas, I went the same way."
"Thank you," Celena took the papers, tucked them into her tunic against her pounding heart. "I'll be back within the week. Try to keep Allen busy."
"I will. Celena--"
Celena paused in the doorway, glancing back at the queen framed in the window. "Yes, Your Highness?"
"When you get back," Millerna said, sounding uncertain for a ruler born, "Will you tell me about them? Your boys?"
Celena saw herself, in the yellow, candle-lit doorway, reflected in the window. The candelabras along the hall multiplied her shadows, changing their shapes. She did not dare to look at them long. "I will. I promise."
"Heaven speed you," Millerna said. Celena went, the vial of toxin under her shirt and pressed into her breastbone, imprinting its filigree patterns into her skin. She couldn't help wondering if it was Hell she was headed for, instead.
The Duke of Freid was sequestered with his tutor when Celena arrived in Godashim, but he was more than happy to postpone his studies to meet with her. It was sweltering in the ancient valley, even in the fall, and Celena had traded her uniform for a simple pair of breeches and a sleeveless shirt. She was not on official Knights' duty, after all, and though she had great love for her position as knight, she had no affection for a pair of enormous white sleeves hovering constantly in her peripheral vision.
It was always strange for her to be in places where Dilandau had fought battles, his memories overlapping Celena's unfamiliarity, like the warp and weft of a fabric that shifted colors in different light. For the most part the memory of the battle in Godashim was muted, and Celena made her way across the main courtyard with only the faintest, niggling sense of deja-vu. There had been far more of a resonance just after dawn, when the airship was landing. One of the many stupas dotting the landscape had stood out to her, like a black paper cutout on the brightening sky, though there were others larger and more grand. She had watched its crumbling towers until the transport landed, trees and distance blocking the view.
The informal audience chamber she was led to was cool after the blazing sunshine of the courtyard, and in the distance there was the hypnotic drone of chanting monks. The air was redolent with the aroma of lush green things and centuries of incense. Chid, having been informed that Celena's papers bore some urgency, had not paused to change into his more formal clothes. His youthful, grave face was marred with a smudge of ink on one cheek. An attendant brought him a basin and cloth to freshen up as Celena went down on one knee on the carpet, bowing her head.
"Your Grace. Forgive my hasty intrusion on your realm."
"Intrusion?" Chid repeated, shaking droplets of water from his hands. "Hardly! I am honored at last to meet you, Celena Schezar. Your brother has told me much of you and your accomplishments, in his letters to me."
Celena dipped her head a little lower, to hide her expression. The boy ruler did not yet know the truth hidden in those letters, or that the woman kneeling before him was his aunt. Allen had no desire to replace the Duke as the boy's father, and was waiting for Chid to reach manhood before unburdening his greatest shame, and his greatest pride.
"I should hope his words have been kind," Celena said. "I have far to go, to even approach his skill."
"From what I hear, you are close at hand. I half-believe having his blood is enough."
Celena looked up at the boy, wondering how much he already knew behind his careful, grown-up smile. Was it his own blood he spoke of? Or did he suspect something about Celena's past? Chid clapped his hands, and all his attendants but the high advisor by his chair dispersed. "Now then, Lady Celena. Come closer, and tell me what it is Freid can do for you."
"I need only to borrow a horse, your grace." Celena rose to her feet, presenting Millerna's papers to the attendant, and the smaller, less formal note to Chid. The duke broke the seal and skimmed the lines there.
"Aunt Millerna writes to tell me that you lost friends in one of the many battles here during the war, and are on a private pilgrimage to appease their souls."
Celena flinched. She had not read Millerna's note, and did not suspect it was so honest. "Y-yes, Your Grace."
Chid's advisor made a grunt of approval. "In Freid we believe in the need for such things," he said. "Too many peoples of Gaia glorify death, but take no care to attend to what comes after."
"I'm afraid I know very little of the spiritual teachings of Freid," Celena admitted, hoping to push the conversation to something more academic than personal. "Do they hold with paradise and punishment, as in Asturia?"
"Paradise and Punishment are entirely the choice of the soul." It was Chid and not his counselor who answered. His blue eyes, the same color as Allen's, were serene. "It is what one does in life that determines what one does in death. Humans have much to learn before they deserve to remain forever in Paradise. Our teachings dictate that the journey of a soul is circular, passing from life to death and then back again. Nothing, once dead, is truly dead." Chid looked down at the ring he wore, his mother's crest in gold and sapphire. "Everything returns."
"Your Grace has attended well to his lessons," the counselor said, dark face glowing with pride. "Truly an heir to Freid, and its long history. Though you have neglected to mention that there are many hindrances a soul may encounter, in the world beyond. It is not an easy journey to make, and many things-- war, unexpected or sudden death, insufficient rites, tasks in this world left undone-- all may be stones in the path of the soul to rebirth. If it were not so, there would be no ghosts and spirits lingering behind, uncertain. Monks of Freid spent a long time easing the journey of those many slain here."
His words flayed Celena bare, as she remembered the painted black gate on a fortune-teller's card. Memories not her own joined the cacaphony of images: melefs rendered to liquid metal and blue flames in an instant, the darkness blossoming over Escaflowne's brilliant, Yspano-white breast.
"I was only trying to give a simplified version, Daleem," Chid said, smiling shyly at Celena. "Lady Celena's friends would have been Asturian. They would not need Freid rites."
Daleem harrumphed, as though it was his opinion that everyone needed Freid rites. "Of course, Your Grace."
Celena felt like her polite smile was starting to wear thin at the edges. The vial of vision-toxin she wore might as well have been displayed on her forehead, so obvious she felt it was.
"At any rate, we are delaying your journey in this life, and that is the last thing you want." Chid got up from his throne and gestured for her to follow. "I would love to have you stay longer, Lady Celena, to treat you to better hospitality and a tour of the grounds. But for now, we will cut through the Melef yard to the stables, and get you prepared for your journey."
The Melef yard was not very populated in peacetime, and most of the Freid guymelefs were seated patiently in their service alcoves behind grated gates. The sunlight was blinding on white stone, and Celena's gaze lingered in the cool shadows of the arcades to the side, their shade inviting.
Daleem was droning on about the melefs used by Freid, and their number and strengths. While Celena had more interest than the average young lady did in the metal giants, she was glad when one of the officers hurried out with a question for the chief advisor and stalled his tirade.
"Perhaps you should step under the arch here, Lady Celena," Chid suggested. "It is the worst part of the season, we're overdue for a good rain, and Asturians are not usually accustomed to the climate."
Celena did not want to admit that she had been feeling dizzy, but she moved gratefully into the shade. "Thank you, Your Grace."
"If you will be so good as to wait here a moment," Chid said, smiling up at her, "I'll go and ask Daleem if he can't get a move on, for your sake." The tiny duke hurried on to interrupt his counselor, and Celena put her face against the wall, taking deep breaths of the cooler air off of it. It had the taste of old, damp stone, and was quite refreshing.
The sudden grip of hands around her throat caught her completely off guard.
Her first instinct was bewildered panic. Who could have approached so silently, without even a footfall or an intake of breath? Second, who in Freid would want to kill her--
Except someone who knew who she used to be?
Celena flailed, struggling to grasp the cold fingers crushing her throat, fighting to get air back in her aching lungs. Chid and Daleem were only a few yards away, with their backs to her. She reached out to them with arms she could no longer feel, but no sound came out of her save for a desperate wheeze.
Oh, god, she thought wildly, clawing at her throat. I'm going to die here. Someone help me! Allen! Anyone! I can't-- can't--
Just before the dark splodges in her vision blotted out everything, there was a moment when the pressure around her changed. It was like being in an airship with the levistones heated too fast, plunging downwards out of control. A second before consciousness left her she felt the constriction on her throat ease. Someone caught her as she fell, someone who smelled like Zaibach melef fluid and dragonleather.
"--lena? Lady Celena?"
Celena blinked in confusion. It took her a moment to realize the motes of light were not in flaws in her vision, but tiny prisms of light scattered from the jewels of Chid's coronet. She was propped up against the wall, still in the alcove, Daleem's worried self blocking most of the light from the doorway. She took a shaky breath, never so grateful for the feel of air swelling her chest.
"Oh, thank the gods," Chid said, his regal demeanor cast aside, face scrunched up with worry. "Please forgive me, I should have sent you out of the heat sooner."
"No," Celena rasped, "it wasn't the heat, your grace. Someone tried to--" she put a hand to her throat, expecting to feel raw and abraded skin from her attempted throttling. Her neck was smooth, not even sore to the touch. At the best she should have bruises and welts from those powerful, inescapable fingers. All she found was a thin sheen of sweat.
"Simply a matter of heat stroke, my lady," Daleem blustered. "Godashim is no place for a foreigner's constitution, this time of year. It will not be so bad in the cooler highlands. I've sent for our healer to have a look over you, but a few minutes resting in the shade should fix you right up."
"Here," Chid said, pressing a cool cup of water into her hands. "Drink this, and just stay still a moment."
Celena drank it without even noticing, her eyes scrutinizing the small alcove. Where she had been standing, there was only blank wall behind her. No one could have gotten in there to choke her without her notice. No one of this world.
"Your Grace," she asked, wondering not for the first time if she was losing her mind, "Has anything happened here before? Anything strange?"
Chid shook his head, somber. "Not that I know of. Why?"
"Now that you mention it," Daleem said, tapping his bearded chin, "Fourteen centuries ago a young princess of Freid was stabbed to death on this very spot! Perhaps--"
"It's nothing," Celena said quickly, attending to her cup. "Probably just heat stroke." Whatever had happened to her, it had nothing to do with murdered princesses.
"Ah! Here is Healer Vereik," Daleem stepped aside as a spindly robed man and his young, shaved-head attendant approached the doorway. "He will know best."
"Thank you for coming so swiftly, Healer," Chid said, as the physician twisted gnarled fingers into an intricate gesture and bowed. "We think the Lady Celena has only suffered a bit of sun."
"Allow me to make my deductions, your grace." The healer repeated his bow to Celena, but stopped once he got a good look at her face, his beaded wrists rattling as he halted mid-gesture. He had milky eyes like the fortune teller, though not fully blind. "...You are touched with spirits, Lady. More than I have seen in some years."
"Spirits?" Chid said. "A spirit did this?"
The healer nodded slowly. "Something in these walls came seeking you. Some undying evil I have sensed lying in wait here before."
Daleem made a warding gesture. "I knew it! The princess murdered here in Duke Zaigfree's time?"
The look the healer gave Daleem betrayed more than a touch of impatience. "More likely the Zaibach prisoner whose body was found here two years ago."
Celena's disjointed train of thought came to a crashing halt.
"His soul still resents us for his death," Chid said, sounding more sad than anything. "We gave him full rites when we buried him, but--"
Celena grasped Chid's wrist, her knuckles going white, her cup spattering water in a damp half-circle on the stones. "Miguel is buried here?"
Daleem boggled, clearly unsure how an Asturian who hadn't even been there at the time would know the first name of a dead and largely unimportant prisoner. "His bones were turned to ash and buried, as is our custom even with our enemies. He has a place on the north terrace, to be nearest Zaibach. Lavarian, Lavarsomething."
"Lavariel," Celena said, still staring into Chid's eyes. "Miguel Lavariel."
"I had to kill their prisoner, of course, as his knowledge was endangering my mission. A shame, but such things happen in war, and he had become expendable by then. You understand, Lord Dilandau."
"...Of course. Many things become expendable in war, Zongi."
Celena remembered the slow motion of liquid metal, the suffocating crush of bones and blood, and felt, even now, a faint tingle of satisfaction. There were some things she would do no differently, in either form. But if anyone from beyond had just tried to drag her down with him, it had been a wronged doppelganger, and not her dragonslayer.
Celena would wager her life on that, the life she suspected Miguel had somehow just saved.
"He is not the evil here, I promise you that. Chid, will you take me to him?"
Chid nodded, somber as he met her intense gaze with one of his own. "I will." He looked away to his attendants, his small voice becoming one of command. "Daleem, Healer Vereik, see to it that this place is consecrated and warded. I want no more trouble here."
Celena and Chid walked alone through the burial grounds behind the palace. Even for Chid's father and mother, the markers were simple pillars of carved stone, engraved with prayers and the name of the deceased. Though it was still hot, the wind was fresher there without being confined by buildings, and the wall was ringed with trees. Miguel's marker was in the shade of one, tucked into the north corner, his name looking strange in the vertical script of Freid. Rustling, patchwork shadows of leaves danced over the stone obelisk and the circle of bricks surrounding his ring of grass.
Celena had half expected it to be overgrown and neglected, but even the nearby mass grave of the Zaibach war dead was neatly trimmed and tended, though the slightly sunken swath of grass was not adorned with flowers or any mementoes, unlike many of the other graves. Still, at the base of each maker, even Miguel's, there was a small charred spot from the burning of incense.
"I brought some from the shrine at the entrance," Chid said, catching her staring at the sooty place under Miguel's name. "Monks say prayers once a month for all the dead, and burn incense, but I thought you might like to light some for him."
"You're very kind, your grace." Celena accepted the delicate wands, and pushed them upright into the slots notched into Miguel's stone for that purpose. Chid had also brought a hot coal in a hanging brass pot, and after a moment thin tendrils of smoke braided together in the air, wafting up to the sky. She reached out to them, letting them tangle in her fingers, intangible as a remembered smile.
"I don't know any prayers," Celena admitted, watching the smoke, thinking of other fires. She had half-expected some epiphany at Miguel's graveside, but there was only the hot sun and the rustle of leaves, the piping of cheerful birdsong. If Miguel had somehow been there to save her in the alcove, he was not here now. Celena knelt above his buried ashes and knew she did so for her own sake, not for his.
"In my country, we say, illish slaeem ta, maihashtat skarkas de." Freid syllables rolled off Chid's tongue as easily as Asturian ones. "It means, 'until we have wings, take to the sky in our place.' It's an old Atlantian blessing."
"Until we have wings," Celena repeated, putting her hands flat on Miguel's grave, willing herself to recall his face, his voice, the sound of his laughter. For a moment she thought that Freid's overdue rain had come at last, drops of water knocking the dust from the blades of grass jutting up between her fingers. Only when Chid touched her shoulder, murmuring her name, did she realize she was crying.
"Lady Celena..." He knelt next to her, even though with Celena on her knees, they were already of a height.
"Forgive me," Celena said, wiping her eyes on her arm, not sure how to explain herself, weeping over the grave of an enemy she wasn't supposed to know. "Even I'm not immune from occasional bouts of female hysteria, I assume--"
"In one of Allen's first letters," Chid interrupted, "he wrote that you were kidnapped by Zaibach as a child, and he found you after the war. He said you remembered very little and you did not wish to talk about your experiences, but..." Chid's golden brows lowered. "The friends you came to seek, they weren't from Asturia, were they?"
Celena looked up at him through blurry vision, shaking her head in a little no. She did not trust her voice.
Chid's concerned expression unfurled into a sad smile. "My father once said that resenting an enemy once the war is over will only insure that they remain an enemy. He said that after the battle, everyone's sorrow is the same." He stood, resting his small hand on Miguel's stone. "I thought he seemed brave, but I was only a child at the time and I don't remember much more. Forgive us, my lady, for not better protecting your friend."
Celena shook her head again. There had been no bitterness in that moment that she thought had been Miguel. Only her dragonslayer, stepping in to do his duty as unobtrusively as he had in life. "You gave him a better dignity than many of his fellows received," she said, her voice strained. "Thank you."
Chid put his palms together, bowing formally. "Take as long as you need, Lady Celena. When you are done, come down to the stables and we will have a mount ready for you."
He had already turned, crunching through the dry grass to the path, before Celena managed to thank him again. Just like Allen.
The sticks of incense had long since become cold twists of ash before she rose at last, and followed Chid out of the burial ground.
The weather was threatening to break by the time Celena urged her mount up over the last ridge and looked down into the misty valley that haunted all her nightmares. The ride out of Fortona had taken longer than she had planned, having last traveled that distance in the comfort of a floating fortress. She was lightheaded, wanting to start her endeavor the moment she arrived, and had followed the cat-woman's orders not to eat or drink anything for a day beforehand. Her appetite had vanished long since, but the lack of water made her feel like she was already half in a vision trance, the fringes of her vision too bright.
Celena shifted her grip on reins that were damp from her sweating palms, and dug her knees into her horse's sides, heading down into her past.
For a long time, even Dilandau did not remember what had happened there. After that defeat, his carefully constructed reality had caved in on him, blotting out the memories of the battle, the agonized screams of his dragonslayers dying in waves all around him. Dilandau's last days had been spent in a haze of rage and confusion, coupled with a bone-crushing sorrow that his fractured mind could not begin to comprehend.
Even when Celena fully came back to herself, shock had wiped her mind clean of everything but her brother. For days she stumbled next to him in a childlike daze while her memory rebuilt itself. One morning at the family home in Palas, she was pulling weeds from the overgrown gardens when the rose bush she was holding back slipped from her fingers, raking its thorns over her face. A thin scratch beaded up on her cheekbone, stinging. She looked down at the bright smudge of blood on her gloved fingertips, shrugged, and went back to her work. It was a few minutes later, when she caught herself humming one of Dallet's songs, that she realized her memory was full to brimming with Dilandau's life.
Sometimes she wondered if she might have been happier in that oblivion, without the nightmares and the guilt, without the grief. But to give that up, she would have to give them up as well. With no one else on Gaia to remember them, she was glad to take on that burden.
Though she was sure Allen would rest easier if her amnesia had been complete.
There was little sign left of the battle. Nature had been busy in the past years, running out fresh shoots of green over the burnt patches, softening the deep gouges where melefs had been forced backwards or skidded to a halt at the end of a charge.
Celena left the horse tethered to a tree at the head of the trail, and picked her way down the hillside on foot. Halfway down her boot-heels sounded on something that was harder than packed earth. Under a tangle of brambles and moss was a swatch of rusted metal, poured into a disk on the ground as though it was nothing more than batter for a griddle-cake. A Zaibach guymelef, rendered to molten steel, long cooled.
For the first time, Celena reconsidered her choice to come. Anyone would think she had taken leave of her senses, embarking on such a trek only from a fortune-teller's word, searching for the shades of those long dead. She put her hand down on the pitted metal, and wondered whose ashes were entombed in its folds. All her officers had died further down, closer to Dilandau's melef as they struggled to regroup. This would have been one of the flanking scouts. Avery, maybe. Or Ryuon. Van, in his madness, had not even let the reserve forces escape alive.
She raked a hand through her hair, leaving rusty streaks in the silver strands, and braced herself for the last leg of the journey. It would only get harder.
The clouds overhead, white tufts that morning, had knitted themselves together in a deep gray blanket. Fat, warm raindrops began to fall as she at last stepped down onto level ground. Here, some sort of flowering vine found the remains of the melefs a promising place to put down roots, and everywhere in the valley there were uneven patches of tiny blue flowers to mark the Dragonslayers' graves. A few destroyed trees were strange monuments of greenery, charred husks now playing host to honeysuckle and columbines. The nearby forest sighed as a storm wind lifted up its leaves, shaking their white undersides at the sky.
It was unexpectedly peaceful, hushed in the pattering rainfall. Celena felt as she had at Miguel's grave. Sad, hollow, utterly alone. Had she been foolish to come here, to this empty place? They weren't here. Only ash and metal, and nearby the dull prongs of someone's crima mechanism, severed from the right arm of his melef. Crazed paint still showed fragments of Zaibach's uplifted eye.
Celena pulled the sereitoxin's cord free of her neck. She wouldn't know if it was useless until she tried.
The vial of vision-toxin gleamed dully in her hand as she cracked the wax seal, working the cork free. The green liquid within gave off no smell, but it was thick and lukewarm as she swallowed it, like congealing blood. She had to fight the urge not to gag. No wonder larger does were usually mixed in with vino. It did not cling to the sides of the glass vial, every drop sliding out and leaving the container as clean as if it had been polished.
The effects were almost instant, though misleadingly subtle at first. Her ears started humming, and the ground would not stay steady under her feet. Celena fell on her knees in the indentations left by the feet of Dilandau's Alseides, and then, when even that was too hard, she fumbled over onto her back. Her nerve-endings all sang gently, and the world pitched and tipped around her like a high sea.
She thought she should force herself on her side, so she would not suffocate if she retched the vile substance up, but her limbs had gone dead. The rain began to fall harder, halos of moisture on the ground meeting and spreading into a muddy carpet. Celena, in her rapidly deteriorating consciousness, felt that she was lying among the only remains of her men, their ashes mixed with the soil of that place. Without her will her fingers dug shallow trenches in the earth, as though to hold on to them, afraid of being torn away.
The toxin raced through her veins. Rain falling on her face was first as warm as blood, and then as red as it. It landed on her parted lips, tasting of copper pain, dripping from the sky like the lifeblood of her slayers had oozed out of the seams of their cockpits, thinned with melef fluid. The storm broke and the whole valley ran with red from their crushed bodies, a river that lifted her and twirled her on its sanguine currents. She felt it flowing through her hair and between her fingers, lapping at her eyes until the waves of her dragonslayers' blood folded over her and she sank, drowning.
Dilandau's red Alesaides stumbled to the deck of the Vione like a man with a mortal wound, gears gnashing together as the melef crashed to its knees in a clumsy attempt at an ambulatory landing. It staggered back into flight mode and lurched drunkenly to its mooring bay.
The technicians waiting to service the Dragonslayers' melefs had all dispersed, having looked first at each other and then at the empty sky before shaking their heads and going back to other duties. Dilandau's own men always attended to him after a battle. Gave him their reports, tended to his wounds, saw to his needs. He had never required the service of any of the fortress' regular crew, and they gave him so little thought that it never occurred to them that he might require any assistance or aid.
And if Dilandau did cross their minds, they let him go, and a few of them muttered good riddance. They left him shivering in the belly of his melef, and it didn't matter two slug coins to any of them if he ever came out of it.
It was a long time before he did.
The hangar was empty. Dilandau half-fell from his harness, legs tangling in the straps. Chesta should have been there to help him out. Guimel should have been waiting with the medical kit. Gatti would already be working up a report, and Dallet would be passing orders down to the others. Viore had not been promoted a full week, stepping uneasily in to take Miguel's Officer's position.
He had been one of the first ones killed.
Not that the order of it mattered, when all of them were dead.
Dilandau put his face in his gloved hand, his shoulder to the wall, and fumbled for the door switch. He passed the Dragonslayer's quarters but out of habit stepped into the officer's barracks, to cut through to his adjacent room without lingering in the hall.
It was a mistake.
Gatti's spare uniform coat was hanging from the back of his chair, his book laying face down on his desk, open as though he expected to come back to it afterwards and get to the end of his chapter. Dilandau remembered how his eyes had lingered on the page half a second after the orders had been given to scramble, trying to snatch the end of his sentence before going off to fight.
Guimel had neglected to make his bed that morning, blankets in a twist. He was not often called for combat missions, and had been too excited, getting into his shoulder-plates, to bother with tidying his sleeping area.
Dallet's flute lay on his bed, the mattress still holding the indentation of his body, one dark hair caught on the white linen hollow of his pillow. Viore's clothes were still in a bundle on the bed, he had only moved into Officer's quarters that morning. Chesta's solitary card game was unfinished; Dilandau could see an opening for him to match up his nine of stars with the rest of the suit.
Already the place was a tomb.
Dilandau fled through it without daring to look further, escaping into his own quarters and smashing the glass he tried to pour vino in, finally upending the bottle in his shaking hands. He wanted to be angry at them for dying, but he couldn't manage, like a crima claw without enough pressure to solidify. Anger was easy and good, like his rage at the doppelganger for killing Miguel. He could do something about that. That revenge had been so sweet and easy, balm for the ache of Miguel's absence. He had been proud, that of the two agents in Godashim, his dragonslayer had been the nobler of the two.
Grief and regret were foreign to him. Horror was to be doled out, not received. They were his dragonslayers, he had chosen each and every one of them, he had trained them and hit them and loved them all equally. He had made them strong. They were made to die, but gloriously, in the raging beauty of battle, voices lifted in fury and not fear. Like Dilandau himself was.
Not to be slaughtered down to the last man, crushed and cast aside by some demon melef vomited up from the depths of hell.
He drank the bottle dry, trying to blot out the sound of their screaming. His nervous fingers shreded the roses in the vase beneath his window, all but one. The last blossom he took with him out into the hangar, past the yawning cavities where their melefs should have been. It fell from his hand and he wanted to fall with it, hurtling to the earth along with them.
Not left there on the deck of the Vione.
Celena jerked awake, utterly disoriented. "Uh--what? Allen?"
Chesta looked down at her, bewildered. "Allen, sir?"
Gatti was on the opposite side of the bed, pulling his shirt over his head. "Sounds like a good dream to me. Pummeling Scheherazade into spare parts. I'd be glad to do the same."
Celena sat up, looking around wildly. She was on the Vione, in Dilandau's rooms. Sunlight fell in bright patches from the windows, moving slowly across the floor as the fortress made a slight adjustment in course. In the mirror on the opposite wall Dilandau's confused, garnet eyes stared back at her; pink scar tissue puckered an otherwise smooth cheek. The body she was in was undeniably his, her mind was her own. "Wha-- How'd--"
"Was it a nightmare, sir? I can have Ryuon go down to the kitchens for some tea." A little worried line appeared between Chesta's eyebrows. "You don't look well."
"Lord Dilandau gives nightmares, he doesn't get them." Gatti wiggled into his pants and strode across the room to Dilandau's closet, pulling out a fresh uniform for his commander. "Right, sir?"
"I was... dreaming?" Celena looked down at the familiar border of Dilandau's coverlet. It had seemed so real. But looking at it in the plain light of day, it was ridiculous. Fate alterations? Gender shifting? Nonsense. And as for being that bastard Schezar's sister, that was absolutely out of the question. What on Gaia had his subconsious been playing at, concocting such a preposterous scenario? Dilandau kicked back the blankets, standing up on a floor that was sturdy and real beneath him. Gatti laid out his commander's pants and undershirt, and then waited patiently with the gold-trimmed coat as Dilandau got into them.
"I'm sorry to wake you so early, sir," Chesta apologized. "Folken says were almost to the border of Freid, and Miguel's scouting team just came back with reconnaissance on the Crusade--"
"Miguel?" Dilandau repeated, sliding his coronet on. "...Miguel was killed in Godashim."
Chesta and Gatti exchanged a glance.
"In Godashim, Sir?" Chesta ventured, bracing for a slap. "Miguel returned from there with vital information for the cause, about the girl from the Mystic Moon, and the treasure of Atlantis. Without him, we would never have gotten the key that Folken was looking for in Fortona."
"He's going to be kind of pissed if he misses out on his promotion because of a nightmare," Gatti muttered. Chesta shushed him, nervous.
Dilandau rubbed his face, trying to recall blurry images. Something about a doppelganger? No, about being choked. Right, that had been part of his nightmare. It didn't even make any sense to his waking mind. He wondered how he could have been so fooled. "I think I drank too much last night."
"Well-deserved, over a victory like Fortona." Gatti held up Dilandau's coat for his commander to get his arms into it, and was deft over buckles and straps while Chesta continued with his report. Dilandau held his arms out, yawning. His head still felt thick.
"The Silver Army has finished their flanking and will be waiting for the Crusade on the far side of the border. General Adelphos has sent orders that we are to deploy and bring down the airship the moment they have left Freid territory."
Gatti strapped down Dilandau's spiked shoulder armor, flashed a smile. "Finally some real action, right, sir?"
Dilandau looked at himself in the mirror, and thought about the gentle squeeze of melef liquid around his body, and the satisfying crunch of full crima spikes splintering through Escaflowne's armor. His reflection smiled back, eyes shining with a cheerful, bloodthirsty gleam. The weight of his sword pressed against his thigh like a lover's hand. "Then what the hell are you two slacking around here for?" he snapped, teeth bared in a grin. "Get everyone in melefs, and have them ready for battle. Now!"
"Sir!" Gatti and Chesta saluted, hastening out to alert the others, and Dilandau drank the half-glass of vino he hadn't finished the night before. Finally, something he was bred for, a chance for his men to show their carefully honed claws. Adelphos wouldn't dream of keeping them on such a short leash now, not anymore. He would be a general himself, his Slayers all commanders in their own right. The greatest army in Zaibach, in all of Gaia. Dilandau's.
He was on his way out the door when something caught his eye, a flicker of crimson. Roses, in a vase beneath the window. His lip curled a little. He couldn't be sure why, but he hated the sight of them.
Bruised petals falling from his fingertips, a single blossom spinning down from the Vione's empty hangar, the painted backs of a fortune-teller's cards.
Dilandau's reality wobbled. He clung to his doorframe, trying to get his balance back. It had been a dream. A horrible, monstrous dream. He was going to go fight with his dragonslayers, for victory. There was nothing better, nothing else he wanted.
"Stop it," Dilandau said, putting his hands to his head, coronet cutting into his temples. The far corners of his room were starting to unravel. "Stop it, you bitch. I don't want to be you, I don't want to--"
Dilandau, they're gone.
Whole chunks of the walls and sky were being silently torn away, crumbling to nothingness. Dilandau drew his sword, hacking wildy at the empty air around him. The blade passed through furniture like water, making it ripple with the passage of steel. "No! No they're not! They're right there! Gatti! Chesta! Miguel--!" His sword vanished as well, and Dilandau went to his knees. "Where are you?!"
This is a lie. You don't want this.
Dilandau curled up on the disintegrating floor of his ship, screaming. "I don't want to be left alone!"
Dilandau looked up at her, panting. Where his life had been, there was only the girl. She reached down to him, her hair fading to silver light. Her blue eyes were smiling. We're always together, you and me.
"Don't let me go," he breathed. He reached up a shaking hand for hers, felt her firm fingers close on his. The cut on his cheek looked newly-made, streaked with tears. "Don't leave me alone. Don't forget me."
"I promise," Celena said, pulling him up against her, into her, in an embrace that could never be undone. "I promise, Dilandau."
The shadow of the Vione was gone. Celena stood alone in a gray place without ground or sky, wreathed in fog. Before her a black gate strove upwards, impossibly tall, blocking her way.
She didn't know how long she walked there. There was no change in temperature, no sense of direction or motion. For all she knew, she might as well have been standing still. The gate never seemed to get any closer or further away, and once when she turned to retrace her steps back, she found it positioned squarely in front of her again. There was no wall to either side of it, just a gate, floating incongruously in the blurry world between life and death.
After what could have been hours, or years, or maybe a span of seconds, she saw that there was a kind of restless motion beyond the gate, as of rustling wings or the shadows cast by a guttering candle. They only appeared beyond the gate itself, never around it. Somewhere in that vast murmuring crowd, she caught a flicker of blue, like the shoulder-plate of a dragonslayer's armor.
She broke into a run. Through the nothing she pelted, until the air rattled in her lungs and knives of pain lanced between her ribs. Still the gate eluded her. She took to swearing at it between her ragged gasps, finally bursting out that hell could keep the thing, and why in the name of Atlantis could she just not be there?
In half a heartbeat, she was. So much so that she had to skid to a halt to keep from crashing into the sudden advent of those thick, chilly metal bars. It made no sound as she collided with it, or when she grasped it in both hands and tugged.
It held fast.
On the other side, a slow-moving crowd of grey figures marched on to some unknown destination. They never jostled for place, or indeed, took any notice of each other at all. In all that vast parade, each participant might as well have been alone. Celena saw people from Asturia and Fanelia, Zaibach and Freid, old and young and rich and poor, everything in between. The dead of Gaia, plodding each onward in a soul's journey, together and in utter solitude. She wondered how many of her friends had passed down that desolate road, and how many people she personally had sent on the journey.
Celena's heart thrashed against her ribs in proof that she yet lived, and she had to fight off a wave of panic at the sheer futility of it all. She thrust her arm out between the bars, into a colder kind of mist, and an old merchant from Egzardia passed thoughtfully through her without a pause.
"No," she whimpered, jerking on the gate. It couldn't be for nothing, not when she had come so far. "Chesta! Gatti!" The silent crowd moved on, paying her no heed. Celena kept calling, until her voice broke, and her abraded palms left red smears on the unyielding gate. "Dallet! Guimel! Miguel!! Answer me!"
A hand closed on hers, neither cold nor warm, but solid and human. Celena blinked, looking up a dragonleather-clad arm, to a curved shoulder plate, to Chesta's bewildered smile.
"What are you doing here?" he asked, and he caught Celena's other outstretched hand in his own, and came close enough to the gate for her to fling her arms around his shoulders, without a single care for how the metal between them bruised her still-living flesh.
"I found you," she choked, fists clenching in the back of a tunic that felt remarkably real. "I've found you."
"We've been right here," Gatti said, as though she had somehow missed them somewhere obvious.
"You can't expect Lord Dilandau to manage anything without us," Miguel put in, sounding piqued. "Why in hell are you here? I went to a lot of trouble in Godashim to make sure you didn't die, and now you're swallowing poison in the wilderness? Does being a woman make you take leave of your senses?"
"Yes," Celena gasped, finally letting Chesta go, but only so she could grasp the other hands held out to her. "It seems it does."
Dallet slid a hand through the bars to her side, to cup her cheek in his palm. "A small trade for beauty," he said, in a way that would not have made Dilandau go pink the way Celena did. None of them would have dared that before, or to mouth off at her the way Miguel had. Death had taken away all their fear, and only their love and loyalty was left behind.
"We sent everyone else ahead," Guimel said, ducking under Miguel's arm to get closer to her. "Viore went with the others, and a beast-man named Jajuka who asked about you. But we wanted to wait."
"That's why I'm here," Celena said. "You don't have to stay here like this, in-between. I've come to let you go free, to go on."
The dragonslayers looked at each other, and at her. They all looked so young, but there was something about their eyes that had not been there in life, something that made Celena feel dwindled and insignificant. They existed outside her experience, with some wisdom of the dead that she could not grasp. Miguel took her hand from Guimel and put it over his heart, but she felt no motion beneath his breast. His gaze seemed to go right through her to some distance beyond telling, like the fortuneteller's.
"...No," Chesta said. Had Celena not thought it even possible, she would have said he was deliberately provoking her.
"We're staying," Gatti added. "We decided that a long time ago."
Celena's brows drew together. She had not expected resistance, not from them. "I don't know how much longer I can stay," she insisted. "You can't stay like this. You have to get on with... with whatever it is you need to do--"
"You don't even know," Dallet said, rolling his eyes. "So how can you tell us what to do?"
Celena's hand in Miguel's tunic became a fist, pulling him up against the bars. "Because," she growled, "You're still my dragonslayers, and I just ordered you to."
Miguel put his face so close to the bars that their noses almost touched. "In that case," he said, "Come over here and make us." The pause was deliberate. "Sir."
Celena felt a hot rush of blood in her face. "Why you insubordinate little--"
Miguel's use of her true name made her stop mid-sentence, curse dying in her throat before it could get out. Miguel put both his hands through the bars, to cup her face in his gloves. His thumb moved over her cheekbone, he put his finger across her lips. When he spoke, there was no motion of breath across her face, but she felt him like the fading vibration of a snare drum, humming under her breastbone.
"Celena. Listen to us. Never, not once, did we ever disobey you. We would never even have dreamed of it. Let us refuse your order, just this one time."
They all stepped up to the gate, shoulder-plates clashing soundlessly, and somehow there was enough room for all of them there, and for them to reach out and touch her.
"This is miserable," Celena breathed, leaning her forehead on the bars. "This is nothing, not even dying. Why would you want to--"
"You could have forgotten us," Chesta said, very quietly. "Forgotten everything about us, and gone on and had a happy life. No nightmares, no strange quests. No sadness. You would have had every right to draw a line between Lord Dilandau's life and your own, to leave us with him where we belong."
"But you didn't," Dallet finished. His fingers ruffled her hair. "You carry his burdens and you carry us, as well. For that alone, we would have stayed."
"But," Celena said, knowing her face was wet with tears, unashamed, "to stay like this, forever--"
"We're not staying like this forever," Gatti said, surprised she would even consider such a thing.
Chesta brushed his fingers against her cheek, wiping at the tears, smiling with all the benevolent sweetness of a midsummer day. "We're just waiting for you."
"Not that that means you should be in a hurry," Miguel said, scowling. "Don't do anything foolish. Again. I can't promise I can always save you, not even from spirits."
"It's just that we want the chance," Guimel smiled at her, somehow in a way that drew more color into them, and pushed back the grey of death, "to know you as you are, and try again. We can't do that if we go ahead. We can't still protect you."
Celena put her head down against the bars, humbled, heartbroken. "I don't deserve such loyalty," She whispered. "Certainly he didn't--"
"Do not speak ill of Lord Dilandau," Dallet could not quite manage to be solemn. "...Lord Dilandau."
"Did you come here thinking you could change fate?" Miguel asked her, wry. "Surely you know better."
She closed her eyes, their voices battering at her like a gentle rain.
"Without our deaths, you could never have returned to yourself."
"We paid your way willingly."
"Don't let it be in vain."
Their devotion left her speechless. She had not thought it possible to be so proud and so completely humbled all at once. It was one thing to die for a commander, but every oath of fealty she knew ended with that. It was impossible to her, even foolhardy, that she was worth more to them than Paradise, more than the contented oblivion of death.
Chesta answered her unspoken thoughts. "Did you not make a similar choice, for us?"
She nodded, swallowing past a throat gone dry. "Thank you," Celena said, forcing the words out in spite of how inadequate they seemed. "Thank you, for my life."
They drew her close to them as best they could through the bars, kissed her.
"Thank you for ours," Miguel answered, into the silver cloud of her hair.
Somewhere beyond them, the grey was beginning to come undone. Celena looked up to see fractures of light, sharp little lines that did not seem to reach the place where her dragonslayers were standing. "What's happening?"
"You're going back," Gatti said.
"What?" Celena clenched her hands on the gate, metal biting into her palms. "No! I'm not! I haven't even--"
"It's all right." Chesta reached out to free her fingers from the gate, to press her knuckles to his lips. "We'll be right here."
"Right here until the time comes," Dallet worked her other hand loose, and the cracks of light had become crevasses all around them. Far away, someone was calling her name. She fought not to hear it, to hang on to their voices instead, but she could not.
"We'll let him look after you now," Guimel's soft hair and smile were dissolving into a silver mist; they were all fading away into the light, like cobwebs dried up with the dawn.
"Goodbye, sir." Gatti's voice lingered, the rest of him was gone. "Don't forget about us."
Miguel's face was the last one to vanish, Celena could feel his hands on her face until the very end. "We'll be waiting, Celena."
She came back to consciousness in a rush, Allen's worried eyes where Miguel's had been an instant before. For a second she foundered, unsure how to breathe, how to keep her heart beating, how to withstand the light of the sun shining down through the retreating battalion of thunderclouds. Everything seemed too bright, harsh, blotting out those whispers of farewell.
"Celena! Are you all right?"
She opened her mouth to answer, gagged, and rolled off her brother's knees to rid herself of the remains of the sereitoxin in the least elegant way she could imagine. It was over with very quickly, but her ribs were sore before the heaving had subsided. Allen rubbed her shoulders but did not pester her further until she sat back on her knees, pale and clammy, and wiped her mouth on the back of her hand.
"Here," Allen said, passing her a flask. "Water."
She took it, rinsed her mouth, then drained the rest. "Thank you."
"What are you doing here?" Allen wondered, but with more confusion than scolding. Celena got a good look at him at last, and saw that he was in the plainest of shirts and breeches, his hair pulled back in a messy tail. She had never known him to look so unkempt.
"I could ask you the same."
"I finally convinced Millerna to tell me where you had gone." Allen looked around the valley, and shook his head. "I should have guessed it would be here." He reached for her hand but didn't take it, and Celena, wishing there was more water in the flask, did not at first understand the pain in his eyes. "Celena, is your life so empty that you came all the way here to end it?"
She stared at him. "Did I what?" A flicker of reflected light caught her eye: the remains of the glass vial, ground to shards in the heel of Allen's boot-print in the mud. Comprehension dawned. He had not come out here to scold her and haul her back to Palas by the ear, he had come expecting to find her dead.
"I cannot give you back what you've lost," Allen said, his right hand open on his knee, palm up, as though it was a useless thing and not the most deadly set of fingers in Asturia. "I have tried to be enough, but--"
He broke off, startled, as his sister crashed into him, her arms knotted around his neck, refusing to let go.
"Idiot," she said, thick with affection. "I came here to find my friends, not to join them."
He remained still for a long moment, then at last embraced her back, his arms tight around her already sore middle. His heartbeat hammered against her own, and Celena realized how very afraid he had been.
"I thought you might have," he whispered. "Coming out here to be with them again at last... once I thought of it, I could not un-think it."
"I was foolish," Celena breathed, too grateful for her brother's arms to ask him to ease his hold. "I could have found them just as easily without setting foot outside my own chamber. And without worrying you."
His fingers caught in her hair, untangling the soft curls and pulling leaf-mold from the strands. "All I could think of was how I have forced you into a life just like mine, to keep me beside you. If you could not be a proper lady, then I would have you be a knight at my side, and all this time I couldn't let you--"
"Shush." Celena pressed a kiss to his temple. "Did you think I didn't want to be with you?"
"I thought," Allen began, and then shook his head. "I could only think how little time I had with you, compared to them. How little right I had to keep you for myself, when..."
"I only wanted a chance to say goodbye." Celena sank back on her heels, but kept her brother's hands in her own. Beyond his lowered head she could see the outline of the Crusade, anchored at the neck of the valley. "And I came all this way to do so, only to learn I didn't have to. They are not so far from me that I had to come to Fried to find them."
Allen laced his fingers with hers, studying the dirt under her nails, the calluses from a sword-hilt. "I used to want you to be an ordinary woman," he admitted. "To simply cast aside the burdens Dilandau placed on your shoulders and to be like the other women I've known. To need me to protect you and take on his guilt for you. Instead you took his pain, his crimes, and you bore them up on your shoulders. Without complaint, without flinching at the horror of them. And that's...honorable. Admirable. Worthy of a Knight Caeli." His throat worked, but his face was hidden in the shadow of his hair. "All I could think of, coming here, was how I had never told you... how proud I am that you are my sister." He looked up at her at last, and he was not the kind of man to cry, but his eyes were too bright. "You humble me with your strength, and your loyalty."
"Brother," she whispered, not knowing what else to say, brim-full of everything but words.
Allen tilted his head back to the sky, blinking hard. "I know," he said, "that you do not need me. ...But I need you. I couldn't bear to lose you, not again."
She hugged him again, tackling him down to the ground with the force of it, muddying them both. "Don't presume so much, Allen Schezar. It isn't becoming to make assumptions about a woman's affections." He was laughing, or at least she was willing to think that's what it was, his chest shaking in her arms. She buried her face in his neck. "Let's go home, Allen."
"All right," Allen said, his cheek pressed to hers, to the place that should have had a scar. "All right, Celena."
The morning they were to leave Palas dawned bright and sparkling, crisp with a breath of winter in the air. Celena woke up later than she had planned, the window of her guest room edged with frost like a courtesan's lace, the dreamed warmth of other bodies still lingering in her blankets. She nudged her cheek harder into the pillow, trying to recapture the scent of cinnamon that had hung around Dallet's hair.
The tolling city bells thrust her out of the realm of ghostly lovers and into the waking world; she fumbled for her boots and her swords and took the stairs, her sluggish fingers doing up the toggles of her hip-cape.
"Late again," Millerna said when she made it down. The Queen was standing in the lower hallway with Allen, her eyes crinkling with a knowing smile. "Pleasant dreams?"
Celena felt her face go hot, nothing to do with her morning sprint. "It's hard to wake up on cold mornings," she said, bowing. "Though it is a lame excuse, Majesty. Forgive me."
"I was about to leave for Castello without you," Allen said, though he was lying, and everyone including his owl knew it.
"I wanted to speak to you before you left." Millerna drew a sealed, official-looking document from the folds of her skirts. "With regards to your new assignment."
Celena took the papers but did not examine them, more interested in the guardedly smug expressions of the Queen and her brother. "New assignment, my lady?"
"Surely you understand it is a waste of resources to have two Knights Caeli stationed in one place?" The Queen put a gloved hand to the halo of frost on the windowpane. "You are more than competent on your own, and you cannot say anymore that you are training. It is time for you to take up full duties."
Celena looked at Allen, but he seemed far too pleased at the notion of her being sent from him. "Go ahead and read it," he said.
She cracked the seal on the letter, and skimmed through the ceremonial rigmarole to get to the basic information. "Fanelia?" she said, not sure that she had read it right. "You're sending me to Fanelia?"
"As special envoy to the King of Fanelia." Allen reached up to smooth the speckled feathers of Natal's breast. "They have rebuilt a great deal, but their army is still lacking. You will be assisting with the training and helping to restore their defenses, including their Melef reserves." He raised one eyebrow at her. "I thought that you might leap at the chance to tie up some more of your loose ends, and tromp around in your Wyrmflame as much as you pleased."
Celena blinked at him. "This was your idea?"
"He proposed it when you were in Freid," Millerna said, "and I agreed. Van needs all the help he can get, out there on his own. I can think of no one better for it."
Celena looked at the sea-dragons on the Queen's seal, and swallowed against the butterflies that had suddenly taken up residence in her belly. Her memories of Van Fanel, at least ones where she was herself, were quite sparse. After the war they had not seen much of each other. And now Allen was sending her, alone, to be stuck with him in the middle of a country that Dilandau had ordered razed to the ground. It was a hell of a way to make up for Dilandau's crimes, but she had as much said that she was willing to do so. And Allen said he admired her for it. He was only proving that.
She caught herself smiling, folding the letter. "I'm honored you think me up to the challenge, Your Majesty. When am I to leave?"
"Allen will see you there, and then he will return to Castello. I'm counting on the two of you to keep an eye on things in the west." Millerna held out her hand, and Celena took it, bowing over her ring. "And tell Van hello for me."
Gaddes came in the side door, chilly autumn air sluicing off his coat. "We're all set, Boss."
"Good. We'll be along shortly. Go ahead and prime the levistones."
"Won't take them long to get to flying temperature, in this weather." He winked at Celena on the way back out the door. "Miss Celena. Majesty."
"I will expect you both back here for Yule," Millerna said, and Allen bent to kiss her ring. "And regular dispatches from your posts. I must attentd to other duties."
She bid them both a safe journey and then left them, going to join Eries waiting at the top of the stairs to discuss some pressing matter of policy.
"You seem pleased with yourself," Celena said, tapping Allen in the chest with her orders.
Allen had been looking after the departed Queen. "It was only a matter of time before you were posted somewhere far from me. At best, I could make it a day's ride away and among friends."
Celena frowned, just a little. "I'll miss you," she said. "I might be riding up to bother you more often than not."
Allen put his arm around her shoulders and winked at her as they headed for the door. "I'm counting on it."