Desaira tore down the path into Nealon, seeing nothing. She heard people shouting at her to watch where she was going and felt herself collide several times with others. She didn't really care. All that mattered was moving. She could not see and did not want to. So when the young man stepped directly into her path, she wasn't fully aware of his presence. She only felt it when two large hands grabbed her roughly by the arms. "Slow down there, woman! You're likely to kill—Desaira?"

Desaira stared, eyes wild, until she could focus her gaze. Between gasping sobs, she sputtered, "Miri?"

Miri Taleman held Desaira by the arms, suddenly feeling as though he held the world in just his two hands. As he slowly released his grip, the princess sunk to the ground. "Miri…" she sobbed. "Miri!" Miri looked around him, searching for someone to help. He'd just been walking along when he saw the young woman tearing past the bewildered city folk—and now it was Princess Desaira Menlo! "By the gods," Miri muttered, sinking down so he was crouched beside Desaira. "De—Princess, what happened? What's going on?"

Desaira looked up at him again, and then at the frayed and tattered edges of her dress. She swallowed hard, looked away, and shook her head violently. "Miri," she whispered again.

Miri looked around him again. He sighed and grabbed Desaira's wrists and pulled her upright. "Come on, Desaira," he said. "I'll take you back to my house. We'll sort…whatever this is, we'll sort it out." He slung one of her arms around his neck and held her other wrist in his hand. They made an odd sight, one made even odder when someone would look close enough and see that young Miri Taleman was dragging along Princess Desaira Menlo, only Heir to the Azonian throne. Miri could feel himself blushing furiously, but gamely continued on, ignoring the looks of those around him. He turned off of the main path and down towards his own home.

"Cala! Cala Desha Taleman!"

Cala looked up, coughing as she swept a cloud of dust into her face. She set the broom aside and peered out toward the path. "Spot? What in the world…?"

He dragged the sobbing princess to the gate. "I have absolutely no idea," he announced. A scowl crossed his face. "And this time I mean it! I didn't mean to harrass that girl. How was I supposed to know she'd take offense? I thought it was flirting. Oh. But yes…We, ah, we seem to have a situation on our hands."

"This is a situation?" Cala wondered aloud, rushing toward the gate. She circled her arm around Desaira. "Oh, my. Come on in, Desaira. Let's get you some tea, or…Would you like tea?" Desaira only shook her head. "Well, I'm making tea anyway. Yes, that's what I'll do." Cala and Miri led Desaira inside the house and onto a heavily padded armchair. "You sit here, Desaira, I'll go put on the tea." She made off towards the kitchen and gestured for Miri to follow her.

Miri only watched as Cala swept around the stone-floored kitchen, putting water in a kettle to boil and kindling the cooking fire again. When the water was boiling, she whirled furiously around to face her younger brother. "Spot," she said in a low tone. "What happened?"

Miri squirmed uncomfortably under his sister's gaze. "Cala, I swear, I have no idea! She was running down the path from the market like a madwoman. I just grabbed her so she wouldn't hurt anyone. I didn't even know it was her at first! She won't even say what happened."

Cala covered her eyes with her hand for a moment before turning back to the kettle, glaring angrily at it. "Damn water never does boil fast enough for me," she muttered. She blew out her breath in a forceful sigh and turned back to Miri. "You watch the tea. I'll go talk to her—you know, woman to woman." Cala rushed out of the kitchen, leaving Miri watching the kettle dubiously.

Though she'd rushed out of the kitchen, Cala slowed as she approached Desaira. In the absence of the siblings, Desaira had curled up in the armchair and hugged her knees to her chest as she sobbed and gasped. Cala sat down in front of the chair, putting her hand on Desaira's foot. Desaira gave a little hiss and shuddered. Puzzled, Cala brushed aside the fabric of the princess' dress.

Cala's shriek brought Miri from the kitchen. "What? What happened?"

Cala had leapt up and stood beside Desaira now, her hand covering her mouth. Miri managed to steal a peek before Cala had practically thrown herself back down the floor to examine Desaira's leg. Miri actually shuddered, seeing the princess' leg. Her entire foot and leg, up the knee, had been burned horrifically. The skin had blistered and was already peeling, and obviously raw to the touch. What skin was not raw and exposed had actually blackened.

Cala lifted the skirt away from the burns and blisters. The princess gave another little hiss and clenched her eyes tightly. Cala gripped the arms of the chair and stood up so was leaning over Desaira. "Desaira," she said gently. "Desaira, please tell us what happened."

Desaira opened her eyes and looked up at Cala, then at Miri. Her eyes were wide and glassy. She swallowed hard, then told the two what had gone on, to the best of her knowledge, in the castle that day.

"Cala Desha Taleman! Cala! Spirits, girl, slow down. I can't hear a word you're saying. Start over." Cala, Lena, Iri, Aya, and Iri's three children sitting in Iri's kitchen. Lena was spinning tops with the children, while Iri and Aya were working on mending several pieces ofr clothing. The children were fairly young, the youngest of the group of the ex-Hunters'. Aya's children were somewhat older, beginning to enter adolescence, and Aya didn't keep close watch over them during the day. When Cala had come in, she'd struggled to make herself heard over the laughing children and the laughing, chattering mothers. The kitchen was far quieter now, with Iri and Aya both sitting still, looking curiously at Cala, and Lena hushing the children so Cala could be heard.

Cala sighed, fidgeting agitatedly with her fingers. "Mama, you've got to come home. Iri, Aya, I think you should come too. I can't really explain what's going on—I'm not…I'm not really sure, myself. I think I may be dreaming. By the gods, I hope I'm dreaming."

Lena stood up slowly, but Iri beat her to questioning Cala. "So we're just supposed to get up and follow you? What am I supposed to do with my children? Is there something wrong? Is somebody hurt?"

Cala paused, fidgeting furiously with her fingers. "Apparently, the Queen is dead, I don't think Desaira is ever going to walk properly again, and the gods are all dead. Or something."

Iri, Aya, and Lena exchanged glances. Iri began getting the children ready for a walk to Auntie Lena's while Aya remarked airily, "You'd actually be surprised how often I used to hear that."

Cala entered first, calling out for Spot as she opened the door. Miri came to greet them. "She says her leg hurts," he announced. "She's not crying anymore, either."

"Anything else?" Cala asked as Iri ushered her children in. The littlest child immediately toddled over to Miri and clutched his leg. As he bent down to ruffle the little boy's hair, he said, "She wants that tea you offered before, Cala. I can't really make tea."

"It isn't that hard!" Cala snapped. She unlatched the child from Miri's leg and beckoned the children to follow her into the kitchen. Iri, Aya, and Lena followed after Miri into the parlor. Desaira looked up as they entered and watched them with big, haunted eyes. Lena, Iri, and Aya knelt down in front of Desaira, while Miri hovered anxiously by the threshold.

"Desaira," Aya began gently. "Desaira, please tell us what's going on."

"We'll do what we can to help," Iri added.

Desaira wiped her eyes. She looked from Iri to Aya to Lena and back again. "I don't even know where to begin," she said finally. "And there's so much I don't even know, or know how to tell you."

"Why don't you tell us what happened today." Lena pressed.

Desaira nodded, but didn't speak. She finally said, "No, I can't start there. That wouldn't make any sense. Do you know what a…a seeing stone is?" The rest shook their heads. Desaira looked away, thinking of how to explain such a thing. "Sandon might know. But a seeing stone is…is…" She found the words and explained to them what the seeing stone was and all she knew about it. She told them about losing it, then, and running off in tears to try to find it. "And out of nowhere, I ran into Mother. But…she was smiling, she was satisfied. Mother hasn't been like that in quite some time. And…" Desaira trailed off, taking in her breath in a shuddering gasp. "Her eyes."

"What about her eyes?" Lena asked.

Desaira stared directly at Lena, who found herself shocked by the fear there. Desaira was many things—proud, naïve, and bold—but fear had never really made its way into her the way it was in her now. "They were black," the princess managed to choke out before she was overwhelmed once more by sobs. As she sobbed, she continued, the tears making her more broken child than proud princess. "Her eyes were all black! And she'd taken my seeing stone—broken it—she killed Mother! She killed Mother! And…And…Father…She said she would…she would deal with Father. Oh, gods, gods…"

"How did you get out?" Iri asked, staring mesmerized at Desaira.

"I jumped," Desaira said, and laughed for a moment through her tears. The laughs were swallowed up quickly. "I jumped out of the window! And…" Desaira pulled her skirt up to expose her leg. "She…I think she hit me with lightning…"

"Spirits and perdition!" Aya exclaimed. "You're not even sure? How did you keep running?"

The big, haunted eyes now turned to Aya. "She was laughing," Desaira said. "And screaming. And her eyes were so black…I…I just ran…It didn't start hurting until…" She looked around. "Until I sat down?"

There was a brief moment where none of them said anything. "Iri," Desaira said, sniffing and wiping tears from her eyes again. "Could you bind up my leg? It…hurts." Iri nodded and stood up, pressing a soft kiss to the top of Desaira's head as she did. "I'll be back in just a moment, dear," Iri said. "I'll have to find salve. It'll feel better, I promise." She disappeared into the kitchen just as Cala came out with a tray bearing steamings mugs of tea. She gave the first to Desaira and left the rest to fend for themselves.

Lena took charge of the situation, her mind racing to overcome the massive shock Desaira had just delivered. "Cala, Iri's going to be tending to Desaira's leg, so she might be a while going home. Take the little ones back, would you? And watch them until Sam gets home."

Cala nodded, glancing over her shoulder at Desaira as she ushered the three children out of the parlor. Lena nodded to herself, satisfied. "Miri, go find your dad. I don't care if you have to drag him home kicking and screaming, I want him here and frankly, I'd like him here an hour ago." Miri nodded and thumped his fist to his heart as a salute. Lena rolled her eyes and made a shooing gesture to him. She looked at Aya, thinking. "I'd go to the castle, but I don't know how safe it is. You and I can just stay here with Desaira, then."

In Lena's quiet, warm home, Desaira tried to organize her thoughts. So much had happened so quickly that she wasn't quite sure of what was real and what was not. She turned her eyes up to the ceiling, mutely asking the gods why they had forsaken Azon.

The group looked strangely desolate without Sayna and Zeke standing with them. Iri and Aya's husbands were ome with their children, so it was only Iri, Aya, Lena, and Sandon sat in the parlor; Cala, Miri, and Desaira sat in the kitchen.

Sandon had his arm around Lena, whose face was buried in her hands. "What do we do?" she moaned. She'd finally wrapped her mind around what Desaira had told them: R'naya had come back to Azon. "What do we do?"

"What can we do?" Iri muttered. "We should get out of here. Sayna's dead and Desaira—coins, her leg looks like a bad piece of meat!"

"Wait—" Lena began.

"Iri's right," Aya sighed. "Leaving would be giving R'naya what she wants, but…we threw our maks on the floor. We rose with Sayna—"

"And became Azonian with here," Sandon finished. His face bore a tired, heavy look. He'd listened to Desaira's tale wordlessly, and had now sunken into a frustrated exhaustion. "Spirits, what a speech that was."

That day remained in all their memories, with varying degrees of clarity. Sayna had stood on trial for her failure to complete her black mission and for being unmasked; she had stood in front of more than one thousands Hunters, dirty, bruised, exhausted, but wearing a Princess' circlet with all the grace it deserved. Sayna had then pleaded, with eloquence and force, for the ghosts of Azon to leave R'naya's shadow and return to Azon with her as not pickpocket, Hunter, or ghost, but Queen. In support of Sayna, several hundred Hunters had ripped off their masks and hurled them to the gallery floor—starting with Zeke, Iri, Aya, Sandon, and Lena.

Out of the four sitting in the warm, dimly lit parlor that afternoon, Lena remembered that faraway day in Medni the best. She could still hear Sayna's words ringing in her ears; she had never felt anything so heavens-sent as the intake of air as she'd ripped the mask and hood from her face. Nothing in the world would ever again compare to the rising elation she'd felt, listening to Sayna: She was going home.

"It's the best thing to do, I think," Sandon continued softly, sadly. "I'm not sure we can stand up to R'naya, with her being a bitter and vengeful goddess and all."

"We could go to Nayaren," Aya suggested. "Ol' King Whatshisname likes us, y'know?"

"No," Lena said, swallowing back tears. "I won't leave home again!"

The rest looked over at her. "Lena…" Iri started, but Lena waved her hands to silence her. "No. I won't leave home again. We've come home, we've rebuilt Azon from the ground—we can't just leave." She glanced briefly toward the kitchen. "This is where I've made my family. I'd die if I left again." She looked pleadingly to Iri. "Iri, would you raise your children as something they're not? You've made them Azonian—this is home!"

"Lena," Sandon said firmly, drawing her close. "Lena, this is home. I know it is. But if home is going to be crushed under R'naya's hand—we will die at home."

Lena buried her face in her hands again. When she spoke, the tears were thick and heavy in her voice. "Oh, dear spirits!"

For a time, the three of them sat in the kitchen in silence. Cala leaned on the wall, staring at the floor. Miri had pulled a chair next to the kitchen fire and furiously shaving a piece of kindling down to nothing. Desaira sat, staring at the door, her bandaged leg propped on a chair. Finally, Miri turned to Desaira and asked, "Desaira, what do you think happened to Zeke?"

"Spot!" Cala gasped indignantly. "You ca—"

"I don't think R'naya left him alive," Desaira stated simply. "I really think he's…" Her voice trailed off for a moment. "Dead."

The kitchen quickly grew quiet once more. Lena's voice rose from the other room, but Cala and Miri were focused on Desaira. "Where does that leave you?" Cala asked wonderingly.

Desaira thought about it for just a moment. "They're both dead, aren't they?" she said to herself, really realizing it for the first time. Long as it was, Desaira had always known her name: Princess Desaira Menlo, Heir to the Throne of Azone. The only blood-heir to the throne. "I'm…Queen, then. I'm Queen of Azon, even if…if…R'naya's wearing my mother's crown."

She sighed and looked down at her leg. In the lull that followed, each became lost in their own thoughts. Miri was trying to wrap his mind around the gods—King Zeke had seen several, as had Sayna, and Desaira. Well, Sayna and Desaira had only seen one, and she was pure evil. But still—the thought of being in the presence of a god made his mind reel. Cala was wondering back to days she did not remember, the days in the dark shadow of the temple in Medni. She could not remember ever seeing the spires her parents sometimes described, and she did not want to. But with a sinking feeling in her gut, she felt that she just might have to. Desaira was trying to put faces and events in chronological order in her head, desperately trying to think when her mother had been stolen away. She could not help but think of several particular events. There was the ghost, she thought, but before that…Mother sent Maggie to Medni. But that—that was months ago!

"That's odd," Desaira said before she realized she was speaking aloud. When Cala and Miri looked at her questioningly, she struggled to put words to her thoughts. "Maggie's been gone a very long time. I can't help but wonder, in the middle of all this, if she's all right."

"That's right, isn't it," Cala mused. "Your mother sent her to the R'nayan temple."

The three of them looked at each other. Miri frowned. "You think that's why she hasn't come back?"

"Do you think she knows your faces?" Desaira said suddenly.

"Who? Maggie?" Miri asked, confused.

"Wh—no, R'naya," Desaira said. "Do you think she'd recognize you?"

Cala shrugged. "It's been some time since we've been in the castle," she said. "Maybe we haven't been there since…she came."

"Why?" Miri asked cautiously.

Desaira looked in the direction of the parlor. "What do you think they're talking about in there?"

"What to do," Cala sighed. "How to fight this. The whens and hows and wheres."

"Why aren't we a part of that?" Desaira wanted to know. "Why aren't we in there too?"

"They told us to stay in here," Miri said, shrugging resignedly.

Desaira frowned. "If we went in, they'd send us out," she muttered. "If we said we wanted to help, they'd send us to Iri's house to watch the children. We won't fight R'naya. We'll run supply lines, we'll watch the children, we'll tend the wounded. And of course someone needs to do all that, but—" Desaira broke off, looking wistful. "Why can't we fight?"

"Maybe we shouldn't fight," Miri said, shrugging. Cala and Desaira looked at him, startled by his statement. "I mean, they would never let us. Even though Cala's eighteen, we're all three of us still children to them. We're the generation that has never tasted apocalypse and they want to keep us that way."

"Miri—" Desaira began, her frown deepening.

"But that doesn't mean we won't be useful," Miri continued smoothly, smiling charmingly at the girls. "Desaira, if you ask us to do something, we have to do it." He slid off his chair and fell to one knee, his fist on his heart in salute. "My Queen!"

Desaira stared at him for a moment, then looked over at Cala. She shrugged a little, a small smile on her face. "Miri—what do you want me to ask you to do?"

Miri stay on his knees. "I want you to ask us to go find Maggie."

"Your parents—" Desaira began, but abandoned that argument. "What if she's dead?"

"What if she's not?" Miri countered. "What if she's in trouble? Maggie knows more about the gods than anybody in Zorayin. She was there to save your mother, too. I think, all things considered, that would be the best thing for me and Cala to do."

"He has a point," Cala said. "If we're going to do anything at all, that's it. They'd never let us fight, never. Or do whatever it is they're planning on doing. But if you ask us—yes, even order us to find Maggie, we'll have to. We'll be out of the brunt of danger, and actually doing something helpful. If she's in trouble, maybe we can save her. If she's not, and we can't find her, then we'll at least hear things. Find something out, maybe."

Desaira looked from Cala to Miri and back again. Finally, she smiled. "As Queen of Azon, I order you, Mirilin Spot Taleman, and you, Cala Desha Taleman, to find and possibly rescue Maggie."

Cala joined Miri in kneeling on the floor, her fist to her heart. "We'll do whatever you ask of us, my Queen," Cala said, her voice formal but her her smile wide.

"Don't get killed," Desaira added.

Cala and Miri were grinning as they stood up. "Just make sure you explain to them all the grave importance of this quest," Cala said. Her grin stayed on her face, but she was serious. "Because it is important."

"Gods know it is," Miri said. "When should we be ready to leave, Desaira? I'm guessing you'll be providing us a distraction at that time."

"Tomorrow evening," Desaira said. "Don't let me down."

"Never," Miri said, his hand going briefly to his heart again. "Never."

Zeke sat at his grand desk, face buried in his hands. This morning could not have gone worse. Desaira was furious at him and he couldn't chase after her to apologize.

No, the mountains of paperwork were literally toppling over, and Zeke had work to do. He had no idea where Sayna had gone off to, but perhaps she was doing work in her own study.

A light knock prompted Zeke to look up. "The door's open. Enter."

As if she'd been reading his very thoughts, Sayna breezed in, a wide smile on her face. She exuded satisfaction, from her jaunty walk to her flowing red and black clothes. "Sayna, where have you been all morning?"

She came over and sat on the edge of his desk, looking into his eyes and smiling. "I've been carefully destroying everything you've built."

Zeke stared at Sayna, one eyebrow raised. "What did you—"

She leaned in closer and her smile turned into a feral grin. "You heard me, my dear Ezekial. I spent all morning smelling fear and slaking my thirst with anger, hate, and death." She put one finger under Zeke's chin, driving the nail very gently into his throat. "And when I came back from that, I shattered your daughter's world."


She pressed her finger just a little harder into his throat. Her pupils were slowly expanding, devouring the warm brown irises. "Desaira's not dead yet, and I'm a little disappointed in myself. I should have hunted her down and brought her corpse here to you, dear Ezekial. But I have yet to slake my thirst."

Her pupils had devoured the rest of her eyes now, and Zeke found himself staring into pools of endless black. "I will hear you scream before you die, Ezekial Menlo."

a/n: I know it's been a while. This…this chapter has issues. I'm a little fond of it, I guess. I've had that last Desaira/Miri/Cala scene in my head for God-knows-how-long, and now that it's out, it's nothing like it's supposed to be. Oh well. I was getting irritated with the scene and wanted to write it already. Next chapter: fun stuff.