Something Wonderful

by llamajoy

Briefest of author's notes: Remember that Margie gets shot in the cockpit of Andvari, protecting Bart from Shakhan's men? Well, she does.

This is a man who thinks with his heart,
his heart is not always wise.
This is a man who stumbles and falls,
but this is a man who tries.

--Something Wonderful, The King & I

"Bart, I told you not to turn your back on it."

"Right, right."

"You should never underestimate an Etone; they can be deadly!"

"Etones. Mmph. So I've noticed."

"And after such a huge battle, when we're all already exhausted, too, that's such a bad time to be careless! If we hadn't been so close to the Ygg, you'd--"

Fei coughed slightly, shifting Bart against his shoulder. "Um, Billy, I think he's unconscious."

Billy, thus interrupted, sighed through his nose. "--Typical."

Fei adjusted Bart's weight again, so that the pirate could bleed on a relatively clean corner of his tunic. It had indeed been a tiring fight for all of them; who would have guessed Shakhan would have turned out to be such a persistent bastard? Well, Fei supposed he wasn't entirely surprised, based on the stories Sigurd and Maison had told. The things he'd done with the Royal Winery alone... Still, every joint and muscle in his body ached from hours of combat-- and tripping into a fight with a Neo-Etone on the way back to the safety of the Yggdrasil seemed insult heaped on injury.

This far north on the Ignas continent, the sun was already setting as they made their way up the bulwarks, their shadows stretching long in front of them. For a second Fei thought about asking for Billy's assistance, but it was a sore point with young Mr. Black that he was just too short to help carry someone of Bart's stature. So Fei was on his own, balancing Bart across his deltoids and maneuvering the two of them, somehow, down the ladder into the submarine. Lucky he'd been working out.

Jogging a bit to catch up to Fei in the elevator, Billy peeked close to see that the legendary Fatima Jasper was indeed closed. Not that he didn't trust Fei. But leave it to Bart to find a way to sneak out of a perfectly good argument. The ex-Etone had seen that attack coming from a sharl away, that nasty backhand curse that any priest was trained to do if cornered. (Not that Billy himself would ever have indulged in such a treacherous gambit, of course.) But Bart was still high on the adrenaline of kicking Shakhan's traitorous ass, as he'd put it. Too cocky, he tried to do that fancy trick with the whips and the feathers, tried to show off-- and turned his back on it. Billy shivered underneath his cape. The back of Bart's jacket was shredded, all the wrong shade of red now, sick and sticky. Honestly, any fighter with sense would have known-- he shook himself, looking up only to realize that the desert prince was looking right at him. His voice caught in his throat, and he couldn't quite recover his tirade. "Bart--"

"Bart! You're awake!" Fei beamed, hefting him in an attempt to get a better grip around his shoulder. His fingers were starting to go numb. "Can you stand?"

"Ng," Bart said, eloquently.

"Of course he can't," Billy muttered to no one in particular.

The elevator door dinged open pleasantly, and Bart's good eye focused long enough to realize where they were now standing. "You brought me to sickbay."

Fei hoped Bart would be dizzy enough not to notice that he was starting to slide closer to the floor. He did look a little pale. "Yeah, and none too soon."

"Um, can't we just get Sig--" Bart never got to finish his sentence, though, as the med-door slid open and the Yggdrasil's shipboard doctor caught a glimpse of them.

"All systems in order!" She was saluting smartly as soon as she made out the pirate captain's distinctive silhouette. "Nothing to repor-- Sir!"

"Afternoon, doctor," Bart gritted out the biggest smile he could manage, trying to shake her hand and realizing he wasn't quite sure where his fingers were. "Lovely scalpel you've got there."

Fei, sweating, was glad to relinquish his friend into the doctor's-- unexpectedly strong-- grip. "Young master, what happened?"

"...I, uh, spilled ketchup all over myself in the mess hall?"

She lowered him onto his belly on a bunk. "Did Shakhan--" her eyelids trembled as she assessed the damage. "My, you're hurt!"

Bart groaned, face-down into the pillow, talking without moving his lips. "I'm gonna be."

Gingerly, she peeled off his jacket, and her fingers were gentle, for all her eagerness. "Oh, the blood," she whispered, her hand outstretched to trace the lovely fresh gashes on his back. Her touch was nearly reverent, her eyes too bright. Fei winced a little, seeing the ether wounds up close, angry and dark.

Billy bit his lip, seeing not the blood or the torn skin-- that was nothing he hadn't seen before, on the fellow priests who were not as careful or as skilled as he. What took Billy's breath away were the faded lines beneath the wounds, pale scars whose own mouths had closed with time. Wide-eyed, Billy realized he was trying to count them: dozens, more than dozens, speaking the silent language of violated skin.

Bart levered his head up to see the looks on all their faces. "Got it good, didn't I?"

Fei shook his head, whistling. "You don't do things halfway. He gonna be okay, doctor?"

"Young Master," the doctor cleared her throat, fingers itching towards her medical supplies. Bart, shuddering, closed his eye. "Do you think that maybe I should--"

"I'll handle this, thank you."

"Doc!" Fei swiveled to see Citan neatly sidestepping the doctor and her gathering nurses.

"Yes, Fei, and in the nick of time, I see. Lovely scalpel, my dear, yes, and what are you doing?" Citan, sometime country doctor, eyed the ship's physician with skepticism.

She scuffed the toes of her boots, flashing him a sparkling, starry-eyed smile. "Doctor Uzuki! I, ah, that is..." Not quite managing to complete a coherent thought, she subsided into a corner, giggling.

Citan raised an eyebrow. "Yes, naturally. Fei, run and fetch Sigurd, would you? Billy, hold his shoulders down while I clean the wounds. And for heaven's sake, will someone get the young one an aquasol?"

"There, now," Citan said softly, after a bit. "That ought to do it."

Bart, without lifting his head from his pillow, said something that might have been, "Thanks, doc." There had been a bit of an upset when the rest of the party got the news that Bart had been hurt, and everyone tried to squeeze into sickbay to congratulate him, or wish him well, or both-- especially tricky with Maria unable to go anywhere without Seibzehn in tow. But once Citan assured them all that he was properly bandaged and only needed rest, everyone else drifted off to their cabins, and Bart narrowly escaped Rico giving him a Champ-sized pat on the shoulder.

"All things considered," Citan went on, tapping a finger on the frame of his glasses, "you got off rather easy, young one. Or have we all been misinformed, that Shakhan is... no longer with us?"

Sigurd, one of the few still there, gave Citan a long-suffering look. "Always such a way with words, Hyu." Sitting at his captain's side, he shook his head with weary relief. "Young master, is it true?"

That prompted a response, and Bart grinned like it hurt. "Hell yeah, the jerk is dead. We toasted him, didn't we guys?"

Fei and Billy nodded affirmatives, the former with a good deal more enthusiasm than the latter, as Billy had been silent for most of Citan's ministrations, helping only as he was asked.

"At last." Sigurd rubbed a hand over his face, not quite successful in disguising a long, heartfelt sigh. "We've done it. The kingdom will at last be restored."

"And Bart will be, um, returned to his rightful throne, right?" Fei was obviously more intrigued with the concept than the prospective King himself, judging by the look on the royal face. "A coronation?"

"Indeed," Sigurd said, though he looked slightly ill-at-ease at the prospect. "Just a few nights here near Nisan ought to be sufficient time for the young master to recuperate, and then we will make the trip to Bledavik... and the Fatima castle."

"Hey Sig?" Bart said, tilting his head as far as he could, rather awkwardly, to look his first mate in his opposite eye. "That reminds me, I've been meaning to ask you--"

Coughing lightly, Sigurd stood, almost banging his shins against Bart's sickbed. "I did promise Maison I'd spell him on deck, young master-- though of course I am quite glad you're feeling better. Perhaps some other time?"

They all watched him go, Citan's lips pursed in a thoughtful smile. "Subtlety, Sigurd. And you used to do so well in espionage classes." He tsked a bit, and turned to his patient. "I'll just go confer for a moment with your officer, young one, if you don't mind? Just rest for the evening, and drink another aquasol every four to six hours."

Bart had turned his face towards his pillow again, as though he could put all his weight on his toes and his nose and avoid making any actual contact with the mattress. "Great, really," came the muffled reply. "I'll just sleep it off-- I'll be fine."

Fei yawned widely, following Citan through the hissing medbay doors. "Sleep sounds like the best idea I've heard so far."

The sudden silence was so intense that Billy was sure he could hear Bart's braid tapping the blankets, rising and falling with his breath.

"What happened to you?" Billy asked, very quietly.

Bart levered his chin up, not quite managing to look as though he were just casually napping there, coincidentally covered in bandages. "You're just like Sister Agnes."

That caught Billy off guard. "I'm what?"

"Fine, I'll play." Bart wiggled his feet in Billy's direction, as they were pretty much the only part of him not actively in pain. "Brother Billy, I was in the middle of an attack-- and what I thought was a pretty neat jump, let me tell you-- when I turned my back on an Etone, which is, of course, the stupidest thing I could do while--"

"No, no," Billy flinched, not meeting Bart's eyes. "That's not what I meant."

"Hm?" Bart paused in the middle of reciting his catechism. "That's what you said all the way across the field and up the hatch."

Billy blew up at his bangs, making a haphazard halo around his face. "Bart!" He gestured emphatically at nothing. "I meant, what happened to you-- your back-- you look like you took on a whole army of Etones."

Bart's face softened. "Oh. That." He laced his hands under his chin. "Bet you think I'm really careless, now. Make a living out of turning my back on enemies."

Billy made a face. "You could just tell me it's none of my business, you know," he said shortly. "There's no need to be sarcastic." And without waiting for a response, he turned on his booted heel and left Bart alone.

"Something on your mind?"

Billy started, spinning around to see Marguerite emerging from the hatch, her hand on the ladder for balance and an inquisitive look on her face.

"Hm," he said, trying to smooth a nonexistent wrinkle from his cape. "Not really. What are you doing out here, anyway--"

She waved away his arm and climbed the last step on her own, smiling a little triumphantly. "It's not so bad as all that. Nearly healed, see?" She wobbled at the last, though, her leg faltering as she tried to lean against the railing. Billy caught her elbow reflexively, eyebrows raised but too polite to say anything. "I did say nearly," she winced, and they laughed.

"Here," Billy said, maybe too quickly, and helped her to sit. "You're up late, aren't you?"

"Hm," she said, imitating his thoughtful noise to perfection, and giggling as he scowled. "No later than you are, Brother Billy. Needing some fresh air?"

Billy looked out into the night, the broad and sandy mountains giving way to sparse brush and spreading grasses as they neared the lake in Nisan. There was a certain kind of quiet lingering here, in the port of the holy city, not unpleasant-- but nothing like an Aquvy night, with the constant noise of the ocean, or the windblown clouds. Here, the only sounds were the slow-motion lift and scattering sand of the wandering dunes, and the faint ringing in his ears as he watched the stars and tried to count them all. "Didn't think it'd be so cold," was what he said, after a pause. "This close to the desert."

"Why do you think I wear a hat? The desert gets pretty chilly when the sun goes down." Margie was smiling pensively into the midnight sky, as if the chill didn't bother her a bit, her hands tucked underneath her and her chin tilted up to look at him. "Though I bet you've heard that all from Bart; he loves to talk about the science of it. The bowl of sand, and the icy blackness of space!"

Her imitation of Bart was even better than her impersonation of Billy, echoes of the brash pirate's words just beneath her higher-pitched voice. It made him laugh before he remembered to frown.

Margie saw the look, and misunderstood. "Bart-- Is he okay? I would have gotten to sickbay if anybody had told me what happened."

"No, no, he's all right," Billy tried to give her a smile, not looking at her but at the distant line of mountains, black against shadow, visible only for the lack of starlight. "He asked how you were doing, and Sigurd said--"

"That I am a terrible patient, I'm sure, not waiting till my leg's properly healed."

"No, he said--"

"You'd think it was more than just one little bullet! Really, everyone knows that Shakhan's men couldn't aim at the broad side of the Palace."

The thing about Margie's company, Billy was realizing, was that it started to get hard not to smile. "No," he tried again, "honestly, will you let me finish? He said you were sleeping, and that he could tell you the good news when you woke."

She subsided a bit, but her eyes were bright and expectant. "Good news? All I heard was the bad, that Bart had gotten creamed by some creepy Etho--" She cut herself off then, giggling embarrassedly and looking down at her shoes. "Sorry, Billy-- Gosh, that was pretty dumb of me, wasn't it? Bart always said I should learn when to shut up."

Billy slid down against the bulwarks to sit cross-legged next to her, biting his lip to keep from saying any number of impolitic things. "Hey, it's okay." He followed her example and tucked his hands into his cuffs, and sat on them. It was surprisingly warmer. "So... nobody told you that we defeated Shakhan?"

"No!" she trilled in her delight, leaning over and wrapping him in an impulsive hug. "That's the best news ever!"

Her good mood was infectious, but Billy still felt uncomfortable heat creeping into his cheeks as he gave her a quick squeeze. He said a tiny grateful prayer that there hadn't been anyone else on deck.

"First Andvari and now this!" Margie settled happily against Billy's shoulder, not seeming to notice his panicked look. "You don't mind do you? It's a comfortable angle, for my bad leg. So I guess we'll be heading for Bledavik and a coronation ceremony!"

"T-that's what Sigurd said, yeah."

"Wow, I'm glad I won't be on crutches for the ceremony," she smiled ruefully. "That would have been bad luck. I wonder if Maison and Sister Agnes will break out the formal wear that's in the Royal Treasury?"


"Not if Bart has anything to say about it, I bet, and he'll have the last laugh 'cause he'll be the King! Oh, oh, Billy, that reminds me." She grinned suddenly, a small, unpredictable, girl sort of smile that Billy had seen before on Prim and had learned never quite to trust. "C'mere," she said, rising to her feet with more agility than anyone with a wounded leg had a right to, and hauling him up as well. "I want to show you something."

"He was really quite little," Holy Mother Marguerite was saying, keeping her voice low so that it might not reverberate too loudly through the deserted Cathedral. Well, not completely deserted: there were nuns keeping the predawn vigil in the upper sanctuaries; Billy could hear the barest whisper of their singing. But Margie wasn't risking detection, for all that, by rights, she ought to have been able to go where she pleased. "Though I was two years littler, I guess."

"And he jumped in front of you?" Billy repeated, quietly as he could, through his skepticism. Not that it didn't seem the sort of thing that Bart would do, on further thought-- young, and probably scared, leaping without a second thought to defend his cousin. What had Billy been doing, at that age? Learning to shoot tin cans off a fence? Maybe it was only that Billy had never before considered any reason worth turning his back to a greater number of enemies, a different sort of watchfulness. "Hm. No wonder he looks like that. It must have been terrible."

"I don't really remember much," she said, biting her lip. "But I remember he was awfully brave. Sigurd says-- well, never mind. He doesn't act any the worse for wear, but I know he remembers, too."

Billy tried to see Bart through Margie's eyes, and couldn't succeed. "You wouldn't think it."

She reached over and grabbed his hand. "Don't tell him I told you, okay?"

Billy wondered how her hands could be so warm, in such a vast and drafty place as the Cathedral. There were torches lit in sconces on the wall, and very little other light; the building seemed ancient, and weary, and watchful. He shook himself. "Okay, but surely anyone who has seen him with a shirt off knows what his back looks like--"

"Promise, Billy." He was surprised to see the smile gone from her face, replaced by a wistful sort of sincerity. She still hadn't let go his fingers. "Please?"

"All right, I give you my word."

And before he could ask her just why it was so important, she was headed through a shadowy doorway, a smile over her shoulder for him and a hasty conspiratorial whisper: "Good! Gotta check something upstairs, for the ceremony. Shouldn't be long."

So Billy was left alone with the heavy silence of the Cathedral and the unhelpful injunction to stay put, and very little respite from the marching vigil of his thoughts.

He supposed she meant stay put in a rather general sense, or at least that's what he told himself, hoping that she hadn't intended him to stand in the same square foot, shifting his weight from one boot to the other for some indefinite time.

Creeping nervously-- for no good reason, he thought-- across the broad, darkened nave, Billy managed to stub his toe twice on invisible obstacles before his eyes had fully adjusted to the dim interior. His footsteps rang with hollow echoes, no matter how gingerly he stepped, and he kept looking behind himself, convinced there was someone there.

At the front of the church he tried to imagine Elly: kneeling at the altar, coming to offer a prayer before the big battle. Fei had given her a funny look, but Elly looked so mystified, not knowing just why it was so important to her, that in the end he relented, and they'd gone together. Something seemed... right about that, Billy realized, squinting to picture Elly's red hair and Fei's bewildered smile superimposed before the one-winged angels in the sanctuary. Even as a fallen priest he still believed in prayer, a right and a good and fitting thing to do, silent communion with God. But there was something somehow more important than that, now, lingering in the corners of his realization, making the back of his throat seem tight.

All in his mind, he told himself in no uncertain terms. He'd seen the place by daylight, all of them had-- seen the sunlight streaming through the grand rose window, bright day illuminating the faces of the worshipful sisters. It was only the late hour that filled him with such uneasiness. And hadn't Elly's prayers proved fruitful? The Lord had seen fit to allow them to defeat Shakhan, hadn't He?

He shivered. Shakhan had given them a hard time until the end. Vividly in his memory, he recalled the wounds on Bart's back-- untreated by Citan's clever medicines, as yet angry and dark. He fought to remember the hard-earned victory, or the promise of sunrise to come. Here, in the intense silence at the heart of the Cathedral, with only starlight to brighten the thin, high windows, Billy thought it was slightly too easy to believe that such a malignant, soured spirit might be more difficult to defeat, lingering in the small hours of the morning, in a place like--

"Hey," the column closest to him said, and Billy didn't quite manage not to jump out of his skin.

When he heard it laughing, though, his startlement was replaced by irritation-- he recognized the voice, and was fully certain it shouldn't have been up out of bed.

"Bart," he said, warningly, masking his discomfiture with snippishness. "Do you have any idea what time it is? You're supposed to be resting."

The column cleared its throat, not exactly contrite. "Yeah, yeah. Now hush," it whispered, "step closer."

Hands on his hips, Billy began, "I really don't appreciate--" But as he moved to the column, expecting Bart to emerge guiltily from hiding, he realized there was no one standing there. "...Bart?"

The column sounded as though it were trying hard not to chortle. "I'm over here."

"You are not," Billy said, sounding more mystified than cross, walking round and round the thing, peering into every corner he could see.

"Over here, I said. Behind you."

And when Billy swiveled, disbelieving, there was Bart, candle in hand, standing all the way on the other side of the nave. The great arching lift of the vault separated them, each of them on either end of a pillar. The pirate had his head tilted towards the column nearest him, and again Billy's column spoke. "Pretty neat, huh?"

Hesitant to take his eyes from Bart, Billy tentatively moved nearer the column. With a wondering hand, he felt along the grooved marble surface. So much of the Ethos HQ had been made of wood-- the bits that weren't constructed with metals and Solarian technology, that is, had he only the eyes to recognize it-- that the old familiar church seemed hastily made, rickety and careless by comparison. "You mean you can-- hear me? Over there?"

"Clear as you can hear me. This is the Whispering Arch." Almost as smug as though he'd invented the thing himself, Billy thought. "Rumor says that young lovers used to sit in the pews on either side and talk to one another during the sermons, till they were figured out."

Billy sniffed. "They sound like relatives of yours, I'm sure." In his fascination, he hadn't completely forgotten that he was supposed to be annoyed, though it was curiously easier to talk to the architecture than to the pirate himself. "How does it work?"

"Physics," Bart enthused, lifting his candleholder high, making his shadow stretch long behind him. "The shape of the arch carries soundwaves like a megaphone, bouncing off each other and moving forward. And to think this thing was built hundreds of years ago!"

This time when the column giggled, it was with yet another voice. "See? I told you he loved explaining the science of things."

Billy ran a hand through his hair, pivoting to see her standing across the nave, shoulder-high to Bart and letting him lean on her. "Margie! There you are. I wondered what was taking you so long."

"Sorry," she said, and in her tone she sounded just like her cousin, not apologetic enough. "Had to sidestep Sister Agnes and a few awkward questions. But it's safe now. Let's go upstairs."

"Does Sigurd know you're disobeying the doctor's orders?" As they walked up the seemingly interminable flight of stairs, Billy tried not to watch the rippling of bandages barely disguised under Bart's sleeveless jacket. Margie knew the way, so naturally she confiscated Bart's candle and led them up, only a trifle more slowly than she would have, unhurt. That being said, though, Billy still didn't know how he'd managed to bring up the rear.

"Sweet of you to be concerned, kid," Bart winked, leaning back and answering the glance if not the question. "But I'll be fine. I'm sure they'll be strapping me into some kind of royal get-up before the week's out."

"Betcha Sig will wash your hair." Margie gave Bart a sneaky sort of smile, looking self-satisfied as Bart hastily spoke over her.

"Well, I'd better milk it for all it's worth, right? Injuries sustained in the name of my country?"

"Now you're not the only one!" Proudly Margie lifted her knee-- causing Bart to stumble in to her, and Billy into him-- displaying the pink flower of newly-healed skin that blossomed there.

"It'll leave a scar," Bart said softly, resting his hand on Margie's head. "Stupid."

Margie grinned, unruffled. There was something shining in her eyes that Billy was almost embarrassed to see, giddy pride in saving him this once. "Always wanted one," she teased. "But just the one. Not like yours." And she smiled gratefully down at Billy while Bart couldn't see.

Suddenly Billy was glad to be behind the both of them, glad they were moving up the steps again and not looking at him. His face colored though he couldn't have said precisely why; knowing now what he knew and unable, by promise, to apologize for his earlier assumptions.

When they reached the landing at last, Billy was baffled to watch Margie sit on the top step and fiddle with the lacings of her shoes. Bart, too, was unstrapping his-- not quite grinning, head cocked to one side. "Psst, Billy. This goes for you, too. Off with your shoes."

Billy, already in the act of toeing off his own boots, caught the peculiar look and paused. It was not exactly the smile of a man standing reverent on holy ground. "...Why?"

"Because the upstairs carpet feels really good on bare feet."

Margie rolled her eyes. "Because the upstairs carpet shows footprints really well, you mean, and if Sister Agnes catches us tracking mud up here again she'll have our heads?"

"Well, if you really want to put it that way." Bart shrugged. "I was just trying to make the best of it."

"Ah yes, the very picture of devoutness," Billy pursed his lips, but left his two shoes on the landing between Margie's short brown pair and Bart's white knee-high boots.

But it was with a rich, guilty sort of pleasure, Billy realized that the thick wine-colored carpet really did feel luxurious under his feet. The Ethos HQ had carpet, naturally-- along the nave and the upper galleries, in ritual reds to signify the blood of sacrifice, to signify the wealth of the church. But for all that it was not near so old, it was practically threadbare, unmended and thinning under the weight of so many feet.

Nothing at all like this, this aged and well-tended church, the air thick and restless with history, making him feel reverent and breathless with more than just the long walk.

Creeping through the narrow corridors of the clerestory, Margie led them to a little room, not quite forgotten by time-- and obviously not forgotten by the youngest Fatima generation. They tiptoed in, on their stocking feet, their nervous laughter hushed in the holy silence. The nuns had gone quiet in the last dark hour before dawn. It seemed to Billy that what remained of the night was filled with waiting, with expectation so intense it lingered on the tongue, in the folds of their clothes, like shadows or smoky incense.

The wrought-iron gridwork of the stained glass window would cast an intricate design of shadow and sunlight onto the floor below, were it daytime; the carpet was faded in a pattern. Carefully Billy stood to one side, as Bart and Margie found a weathered-dark old cabinet, sliding open its tiny drawers and wincing cheerfully as they creaked. The contents proved to be relics of an earlier time-- a kingly pendant, more recently polished than by its last wearer; a royal signet.

"Just for special occasions," Margie half-explained to Billy's mystified glance. "Not the really fancy old stuff, that's all in the Treasury. But it's tradition that the sisters in the Cathedral keep some of the family's regalia up here."

"Always used to do this." Bart produced a polishing cloth from another drawer, lifting the ornate signet ring with surprising gentleness. His voice was unexpectedly wistful. "When we were kids."

"Not for much longer, Your Majesty." Margie looped the pendant, gold and emerald and ruby, around her wrist. To Billy she said, "For the sun, and the harvest, and the blood of kings, see? Isn't it lovely?" And to Bart she went on, "You'll wear it tomorrow, for soon you'll be the King--"

"Hey, quiet, Holy Mother." Bart pronounced it deliberately, wielding the name like a whip. He held the ring up to the candleflame, its red stone catching the light and twinkling like an unblinking eye. "You're just glad I'll finally have a title, too, so you're not the only one to suffer."

Oddly enough Billy was reminded of himself, not so long ago, in such a quiet room-- though perhaps more humble, bare wood floors and mended curtains-- polishing his father's guns, shining a clip of bullets. The smell of beeswax candles and of quietly dusty furniture was the same. Pensively he touched a finger to the edge of the pendant Margie held, and thought of Edbart IV wearing it at his coronation.

"Something else, aren't they?" Bart's voice was slightly rough; Billy wondered if Bart was thinking the same thing. "You're sure Sister Agnes won't blow a gasket if we just take them tonight?"

Margie's smile was nearly palpable. "There's a note on her desk from Sigurd, saying he sent us to fetch them first thing in the morning.

"...And did Sigurd write that note?" Bart caught on, grinning.

"Of course he did, silly!" Margie winked at Billy's appalled look, standing on her toes to place the pendant around Bart's neck. "Besides, it doesn't matter, you're the rightful owner. Can you believe it's actually happening?"

Bart fidgeted with the chain at the nape of his neck, to keep it from catching on his bandages. "Not particularly looking forward to it," Bart said. "Assuming I'm even healed. ...Decisions to make and people not to disappoint. Things to live up to. And Sig, y'know--"

"Oh, don't be so glum," Margie said, earnestly. "Sigurd will talk to you, I'm sure. He's got a lot on his mind. And just imagine tomorrow!"

He wasn't looking at her, chin tilted down to the jewels that hung across his chest, looking incongruously rich against his pirate's jacket. "Tomorrow?"

"Yes," she said, sternly, leaning against Billy and pretending to frame Bart between her hands, like a royal portrait. "Tomorrow. In procession up the mountainside to Fatima Castle, with me and Sigurd and Maison and everyone. Imagine blue skyflowers scattered across your path-- imagine the streets crowded with people finally unafraid to say your name. You've won, Bart, the long waiting is over. You did it."

Though he stood between them, for a moment Billy felt impossibly excluded, wondering why'd on earth he'd agreed to come to this dark, lonely place, where the artifacts were too old and costly to touch, and his feet didn't know the ways to go, and the slant of candle brightness stung his eyes.

But then Bart shook his head, and by the unsteady candlelight his face looked a little wobbly. "We did it, you mean." Flippantly he tossed signet ring up and caught it flat in his palm-- and slid it on Margie's index finger. "I'd be damned if I had to do all that by myself. Don't know where I'd be without everyone, watching my back." He took his pendant off, clumsily, one-handed, and looked at it for a moment, picking a bit of bandage from the chain. "Or maybe I do know where I'd be, and I'd rather not think about it."

Beneath them, Billy could hear the rising strains of the day's matins, voices joining in a chorus as the rising sun touched the stained glass window.

Bart dropped the necklace over Billy's head, with a grin like a Wild Smile, quelling the protests Billy never even found the voice to make. "It won't be so bad, I guess, so long as I'm not alone."

And the victory was theirs, for that instant, Margie clapping, laughing delighted, and Billy speechless and feeling like he'd delivered the final blow in a decisive battle, shooting sweet and clean through the heart of his target.

This is a man you'll forgive and forgive,
and help protect, as long as you live...
he will not always say
what you would have him say,
but now and then he'll say


b i s h o n e n i n k