Author's note: Okay, here's the first third or so of the second chapter. It's not as polished as the first, but it will do for now. And don't worry if you think you've missed something; it will probably be explained later. Thanks for reading.


"You're doing nothing but making noise, Wren," Elisabeth told the antsy medic as they sat, mounted, in the inn yard. Her head was thrown back, and one hand braced on Noct's wide rump while the other pressed a cloth over her left eye to slow the blood. She had closed both eyes against the glaring noon sun, but her head still pounded, and she looked forward to the darkness under the Lair.

She heard Wren sigh heavily, and he answered loudly enough for Aeton, across the yard, to hear, "Shall I lecture on why I need you at the Lair yesterday?"

"Don't bore him," she said, rearranging herself and peeking out of her swollen right eye at him. He frowned concernedly and gave her the serious look she saw so infrequently.

"Fine, I'll bore you-" she shook her head a little, trying to tell him it wasn't necessary, but there was no stopping him. "I need to get the stitches in now, and you need to be sedated when I do it. Brackberry takes…"

"Spare her, Wren. They're ready," Aeton interrupted, standing cautiously at Noct's head. "Lord Astor's men will be here shortly to take charge of the prisoners. Marrec and Earle will escort you, Wren and the commanders to the manor," he addressed her.

"And Robert?" She didn't inquire after Aeton's lodgings; he never stayed at the manor.

"On the road," Marrec interjected in his firm tenor, kicking into Flotsam's saddle. "But he left Keep ten days ago, so it should be soon."

She straightened and gave the N'talian expatriate a thumbs up in thanks, and then took Noct's reins and asked him to walk. He turned casually and ambled towards the yard gate.

"Of course, if I were you, I wouldn't want him to see me like that," Earle snorted in an equally heavy N'talian accent, dropping back behind the two prisoners.

"He'll kill you," Marrec added, grinning at his companion and taking up his post on their other side.

"Your reassurance is touching," Elisabeth muttered, pressing the cut a little harder then ducking her head in pain. Robert was coming, would be there soon; she looked forward to seeing him.

But another voice in her mind whispered, Don't you think this is dangerous?. She pushed it away as always. Of course it was dangerous; so were Wren and Noct. But they were risks she would take. Can't afford it, the same voice nagged. She opened her eyes wide and stared hard at the cobbled street before them, winding among shops and houses, dipping out of sight behind the temple to Ailis and then rising again beyond it, cut into the face of a sheer cliff, to level off in a natural recess where the manor was built. Her eyes traced the strong vertical lines in the stone that rose above the house, enclosing it on three sides. What choice do I have? Plenty, the voice answered her question. She cleared her mind and worked to forget the ongoing argument that plagued her every time she saw Robert.

The horses moved slowly, tired after the last few days of hunt, and as the road sloped upwards, then rose more sharply, they dragged their feet. Even Noct hung his head, and Elisabeth empathized. It had been days since she had slept well and weeks since she had been in a bed. To take a bath and change into leisure cloths would be most enjoyable. She sighed almost inaudibly and shifted as Noct continued to climb wearily. The bath and comfort would be delayed until tomorrow; Wren and the brackberry would see to that. She nibbled her lip, staring down at the worn cobbles, pockmarked and rutted by generations of use. She'd wake up nauseous and dirty in the morning, even if allowed to sleep it off.

"Concerned?" Wren asked casually, urging Starling up next to Noct. The mare shied a little away from the heavy, low wall that separated her from a drop of more than a hundred feet, and Elisabeth guided Noct nearer the cliff.

"Why would I be concerned?" she answered, exhausted and mildly irritated. But she couldn't blame him for what was her fault, as much as she wanted to. The constant pain was enough a reminder of that.

"Brackberry is unpleasant," Wren replied.

"I trust you." They had been hard words, at first, she reflected. The cruel voice that cursed her gloated silently as she admitted they had become easier over the past three years.

"I know." He said it so quietly that she couldn't help but glance at him. He was watching her with an odd look of affection and bafflement, but his eyes were grave. She looked away quickly, uncomfortable.

"Let's leave the horses and go up by foot; I'll want you in the surgery, anyway," he said suddenly, breaking the silence as he reined Starling in.

Without Elisabeth noticing, they had come to a short leveling in the road from which it continued to rise to a final switchback. The short breath punctuated the steady crescendo with a swell and a minute paved court before an imposing wooden door without handle. It stood closed, daring any passerby to disturb it and warning them away with its heavy iron bands. Still mounted, Elisabeth examined the door and the fine tracery of aged copper in the iron. Though now green, she saw the delicate arabesques flame suddenly in her eye as they had when first laid three years ago. Three years since the first and last time she had been here. No, two, if she counted by when she had left.

The door swung open smoothly, silently, from the inside out, breaking her nostalgia for that year of seclusion. A somewhat taller boy than she recalled emerged from the dark within and bowed uneasily.

"Marrec, Earle, take them," she ordered Robert's men without looking back. She slid down from Noct, catching her hands in his mane as she swayed, dizzy, when her feet hit the ground.

She regained her balance and nodded to the stable boy, now hostler.

"Tomas." He returned her shallow nod, skittering around Starling to take Noct's reins. She watched blankly as Noct butted him affectionately.

"Lady," she heard him acknowledge her, but his forehead already rested against her charger's. She felt a pang of jealousy when Noct whickered, but, after all, Tomas had been there before she had. The thought embittered the moment.

"Elisabeth, some time now?" Wren asked impatiently.

She followed him unsteadily through the door and into the darkness of the stable. For a moment she walked blindly as her eyes slowly adjusted to the dim torchlight of underground. When they cleared, she found herself in the familiar passage of the main aisle of the stable. For hundreds of years a mountain river, flowing from the range visible above the manor, had carved out miles of tunnels beneath the house. Over time, before even the first Lion had built his mansion, the waters had shifted, leaving behind an ideal environment for the Lair. Wooden stalls had been added to the lower tunnels, converting them into expansive stables, and the upper levels had been stocked with enough raw material for a long siege.

Now Elisabeth, relishing the dark and cold, silently followed Wren along the smooth passages. They left the stables, those long, twisting aisles filled with the shuffling of hooves and echoing of low voices, and climbed up through a heavy trap door into the storerooms. She had spent hours every week learning how to inventory these supplies; she knew where everything was, could find a single bag of beans even without the flickering torches that darkened the walls and ceiling.

They were silent as they walked, and she could feel Wren's rising tension. Knowing she was the cause, she felt obligated to ease him.

"You'll do a fine job, Wren." Her soft voice sounded dead and dull in the close passage, but it rang loudly.

He didn't respond for some time, and she was beginning to think maybe she had offended him, when he finally said, "I hate stitching you up." There was no doubt of his ability in his voice, just a clean regret that perplexed her. He was her medic; the crown paid him to take care of her.

"Then it's a good thing you don't have to do it often." She tried to be cheerful, but it sounded false and touch panicky even to her. The realization that he was actually going to sedate her was just dawning, and it was a terrifying thought. Brackberry was temperamental and dangerous on a good day. It was a poison, a strong one.

He didn't look at her, and she thought it might have been better had she not said anything. They continued climbing in silence until the smooth, water worn passage turned to the flat, foot-worn stones, expertly laid at the foundations of the manor. The stores dwindled and it became a hallway with locked doors, behind which she had never been but had a vague idea of what was there. The Lions' fortunes, amassed over generations.

Wren stopped, his hand on the handle of the final door. As he swung it open with his shoulder, he looked back at her.

"Four times is too many, Elisabeth," he said grimly before leaving her along in the hall.

She stopped outside the door, a deep frown at her lips. Wren was rarely serious, and he had never chastised her for being injured before. Robert had, but never Wren.

"Are we going to have to coax you in like a stubborn horse, Your Highness?"

She grinned sheepishly and stepped inside, pushing the door open a little wider. It was a fair-sized room marked by a small hearth and a large table in the middle. Shelves filled with clear jars and bottles and counters for working lined the walls. A large washstand stood in the far corner, and over it, washing her hands, was Chaska, the Lair's cook, chief caretaker and healer when the situation called for it.

"Chaska," she said, nodding respectfully to one of the only two women she had met who could rein in the Lion.

She moved to the table and hopped onto it, finally removing the cloth from the cut. The bleeding had slowed considerably, but not before she began to feel nauseous and disoriented. Even now the table shifted under her, and she lied down before she vomited. Wren appeared above her, carrying a goblet and an air of severity.

"I owe you twice now," Elisabeth said before taking the water infused with the brackberry Chaska had ground.

Wren's eyes met hers for a fleeting moment, and she sensed turmoil around him. It touched her in a way not another's emotions did, and she felt shaken. Her face paled beyond blood loss, and he looked away, shoving the goblet at her.

"Yeah, a lot." His voice was unusually soft, and she propped herself up on an elbow, taking the goblet but not drinking.

"Do we need to discuss something before you do this?" she asked bluntly, still feeling his pain pressing against her, trying to call out her own. He was already across the room, his back to her as he laid out what he would need. He shook his head, sending his black ponytail sliding from one shoulder blade to the other. She fixated on it; he had lovely hair. The Caracal's hair. "Wren?"

"Leave him alone, lass," Chaska interrupted, stepping between them. She looked up at the older woman's pointed, un-extraordinary face. It was uncommonly serious. "Drink."

She did as she was told, swallowing the water without pause for breath. Tasteless, colorless in liquid, the brackberry began to work slowly. She laid back, her head on the pillow Chaska had brought, and stared at the ceiling, still wide-awake.

"There's a bag of money in my pack," she finally said into the tense silence. "Treat yourself to dinner." She thought about that. Wren hadn't left her in the past two years. "And invite your friends." He had been raised here in the Lair; his home was Creighton. The Caracal's seed, the Lion's son.

He did not answer, and she grew drowsy in the stiflingly grim and tumultuous atmosphere. Her eyes drifted shut, she felt her heart slowing. Fighting the panic that naturally rose at unconsciousness, she fell into a meditation. Aware at once of her slowing heart and of Wren moving near her quietly, she spiraled into dreamless dark.

A loud bang startled her sleeping mind, attempting to recall it to consciousness. Her body reacted first, her head twitching away, trying to sit, dragging the drug-numbed mind behind it. She failed and fell back against the pillows with a nauseated groan. She hurt; her body ached, her head throbbed, she felt ill. Even so, she was aware of padding footsteps over the plush carpet, and she screamed at herself to open her eyes, to look and assess the threat. She couldn't.

"Kitten?" The low, heavily accented voice whispered, concerned, and drew her mind fully to the present. Fire and Earth, I'm sick, she thought with another groan as her right eye flickered open. The left was swollen shut, and the right was nearly as bad, but she could make out a tanned face framed by long chestnut hair.

Under normal circumstances, she would have flung her pillows at him in protest of being awakened, but now she just struggled to sit. She felt his large hand on her back, helping her.

"I'm sorry I woke you; I didn't realize-" he began, but she waved a hand listlessly.

"I had to get up eventually. I think I'm going to vomit," she added as a calm afterthought, sliding past him out of the bed.

She nearly lost her balance and her stomach when her feet hit the floor, and Robert grabbed her around the waist and propelled her across the room behind an elaborately painted dressing screen. She caught hold of the washstand and managed to get her head over the basin before being thoroughly ill for several minutes. When she finally looked up, she found him lounging against the screen, watching her uninterestedly.

"So what about them poisons, eh?" he asked, giving her a quick smile. Already feeling considerably better for the purge, she returned it, shaking her head.

"I've just come to a realization about them," she answered, wiping her mouth on a towel she dampened from the pitcher. "I'm going to kill Wren." Robert laughed, his deep, pulsing laugh that throbbed like a cat's purr.

"He doesn't need your help for that, Kitten," he said, disappearing into her room beyond the screen.

She rooted through the chest behind her and began to change out of her grimy, travel-worn clothes.

"Why's that?" The basin being fouled, she poured the water onto another towel and tried to scrub herself as best as possible.

"You know how he is. Gone for two years, comes home to his friends, spends the night out," Robert answered. She heard him pick something up and leaf through the pages of a book. She poked her head around the screen and gazed at him through her good eye. He was sitting in the window, legs crossed, gazing intently at the book and frowning again. It was that that had made her look at him, but by his posture she knew he would say nothing more on the matter.

"So, he goes and gets drunk with his friends?" She said it nonchalantly, trying to write it off, but she remembered clearly his tension before she'd gone under. It had been more than that, and Robert knew it but wasn't saying anything.

"Let's just say he's worse off this morning than you," Robert replied evasively. "Decent?"

"Yes." She came out from behind the screen wearing a clean pair of breeches and a loose silk shirt. A bath would have been nice, but this would do for now. Robert rose to his feet with an easy grace that fit his defined muscles and sturdy body.

"Ahh, it's a bucca," he commented, brushing past her on his way to the door. She turned and crossed her arms, indignant.

"So are you," she retorted, even though he didn't look nearly as bad as she. He was still in his traveling clothes: a muslin shirt, doeskin breeches and ankle boots. He probably hadn't taken a bath in as long as she had, but he kept his hair down, and his tan skin went a ways to hiding the dirt

He pivoted, hand on the door, and looked at her with a quirked smile and laughter in his eyes so light brown they were nearly golden. "At least my looks can be remedied; I'm afraid you're a lost cause."

Her good eye narrowed, and before he could duck out of the room, laughing softly, she lunged for a pillow on the nearest chair and hurled it at him. It hit squarely between the shoulder blades as he spun, crouching just outside of the door. She grabbed another pillow and aimed for the empty hall, waiting for him to stand.

"Mercy! Easy on an old man!" he laughed, poking his head around the door. She flung the pillow and he disappeared just in time.

"Old my ass! The King's twice your age, and you're not nearly as old as Aeton!" she replied, advancing to the door and gathering the throw pillows in her arms.

He tsked her from safety. "Such language from a noble. I'm ashamed to call you kin."

She stopped at the bed and waited. "And who taught it to me?" she retorted.

"Surely not I, if that is what you're implying," Robert answered, thrusting a white kerchief beyond the doorframe in mock surrender. She dropped the pillows and left the room to look down at him, crouched on his heels, laughing silently.

"Then, Lord Robert Astor, I expect to never hear you curse again," she told him with a not-so-reasonable smile.

"The sun would stop shining," he muttered, bouncing to his feet. "By the by, breakfast is ready." He gave her an innocent smile and she snorted.

"And it took you that long to tell me?"

They headed down the long hall towards the stairway. A lush red carpet covered the wide flagstones, gleaming in the light cast by the row of windows to the right and giving the hall a cheerful, comfortable air. Well-waxed wooden half-tables stood between the closed doors to the left, each carrying an unlit oil lamp on a silver base. A few gay portraits of the past ladies of the manor graced the walls, and a few more of people who had never even lived there, but all looked well pleased. It all spoke to the cheerful history of the place, and Elisabeth was content to have returned.

She paused by one of the large windows to gaze first at the north wing across a wide, green lawn cut by a circular cobbled drive. Her eyes followed it out to its end, over the grass, gleaming golden in the morning sun, out onto the glittering plains. She smiled in spite of herself and looked at Robert.

"What is this I hear about extra guests?" he asked, returning the smile.

"You do know how to spoil a pleasant thing," she responded, continuing down the hall and turning left onto the stairs.

"Well I think I should know who all is staying in my house," he answered, following close behind her as she trudged down the stairs, past paintings of gallant men astride great chargers, ladies and palfreys and laughing parties of hunters with their hounds in pursuit of foxes.

"I don't know why you'd think that."

"Say I invite a friend up and am going to put them in one of the guest quarters. I open the door and- 'allo and my apologies!- there's someone in the room," he answered.

"You don't have friends in the village," she commented dryly, bypassing the main stairway to the entry hall and heading down a lesser-known corridor towards the kitchen.


"They're never there if you have."

"We are Gentlemen of the Road. The sedentary life does not suit us," he retorted.

She snorted, incredulous, and hit the door to the kitchen with her shoulder. It swung open unexpectedly, and she stumbled forward, nearly landing on a startled young servant.

"Lady," the frightened girl said, bowing and ducking away.

"Sorry," Elisabeth apologized, spinning out of the way and placing herself across a wide counter from Chaska.

"Good morning, lass. How are you?" Chaska spared a moment in the chaos of the kitchen to greet her.

"Apparently I'm a bucca this morning," she answered, hopping up onto the counter. "But I feel better than yesterday."

"Get off my counter. I'm busy." Elisabeth grinned and seated herself more firmly. "It's in the dinging room."

She hopped down, blew Chaska a kiss and spun out of the kitchen, nearly hitting Robert as she turned too sharply at the door.

As promised, the sliver tea service was sitting on the table in the informal dining room. A bleary-eyed Wren, however, was watching the nearest pot protectively, hands wrapped around a large mug.

"Morning," she greeted him, reaching for the pot.

"Don't touch that," he growled.

"It's not yours," she answered, pouring the steaming coffee into a blue mug painted with a bright yellow flower.

"It should be," he said, burying his head in his hands.

"You shouldn't drink so much," she commented, sitting on the tabletop and sipping daintily at the thick black coffee.

He groaned something, and she leaned towards him. "Sorry?"

He lifted his head a little and repeated, "He woke me up. No one should be awake at this hour."

"Regardless of the fact I completely agree, you have no right to be this tired. And I was retching up the contents of my stomach when I woke up."

His grumbled response sounded very like, "Wish I had."

"How is it my children are so lazy?" Robert asked brightly, sprawling into the chair opposite Wren.

The door opened and a servant entered carrying a large silver tray. She bobbed a curtsy, an impressive feat with so many dishes balancing precariously on top of one another, and set it on the table. Elisabeth, famished from not having eaten properly for the last few days, pounced as soon as it was safely out of her hands, uncovering the platters. The strong scent of ham and eggs drifted out. Wren buried his head even further into his arms.

"Make it stop," he moaned.

"Buck up. It's a lovely morning," Elisabeth answered, gesturing towards the window that looked out on the lawn between the north wing of the house and the cliff face. With the sun rising, light streamed in turning the dining room into a dazzling display of saturated blues, golds and reds set off by the gleaming black table and gold fittings, a color scheme that closely fit her own bedroom.

"Would be, could have been, isn't," he answered. She shrugged and began dishing food onto two plates, one of which she set before Robert, and the other which she promptly began to examine.

"Don't let me see that," Wren whimpered. "I think I'm going to be sick." With that, he leapt from the chair and bolted from the room.

"Well it's just not anybody's morning," she commented, shrugged, and began to pick at her food.

They ate in companionable silence for some time, but Elisabeth eventually began to notice Robert's sideways glances. After enduring them without comment for a few moments, she put down her fork and examined him.


He gave a satisfied smile and leaned back in his chair, crossing his hands casually over his stomach. "Well?"

"Well what?" she answered, pushing her plate away and mimicking him, but with her coffee mug snuggled between her palms and laced fingers.

"Well anything you want to tell me, for there's a good deal between now and the last time I saw you," he said.

She sighed and nearly ran her hand over her face, stopped just in time to remember the pain it would cause, and dropped her arm onto the table. A good deal indeed, she wanted to but did not say.

"Was it that bad?" His smile was gone, replaced by a contemplative frown.

"No," she paused, shut her eye in consideration, and then shrugged. "And yes." Truthfully, she didn't feel like discussing it at all, and certainly not here if she must. She was beginning to think she shouldn't have eaten with such enthusiasm, and she shifted, uncomfortable.

"Would you like to talk about this in my study?" he asked, standing. She nodded and slowly rose, following him out of the breakfast room. They ambled along the hall that led them back past the kitchen and eventually, through several twists and turns, out into the main entry hall. It was a cavernous room with high ceilings, imposing double doors and a sweeping staircase that curved around into a balcony and then disappeared. They followed this up to the third floor, where, directly above the entrance was an unassuming door.

Robert's study was a large, bright room with broad windows looking out to the lawn and the village below. Luxurious red curtains framed the window, matching the coverings on the chairs around a large table that stood at the far end of the room. The near end, however, housed a leather couch, two easy chairs and a large desk crouching on clawed feet before an impressive fireplace. What wasn't deep brown leather or red velvet was a shining cherrywood fit with brass.

The near side, at least, was comfortable, and Elisabeth wasted no time in curling up on the sofa. Robert pulled one of the chairs to face her and sat down, chin in hands.

"How much do you know?" she finally asked, her eyes drifting shut and her head propped back on a pillow to help her breath much changed by her swollen nose.

"Eight Southerners are being held in the village by my staff, their two leaders are lodged somewhere in this building they call my house, and their horses are superb."

"About four nights ago I was camping-" she began.

"You would have been in Shantaine. There's an inn there," he interrupted sharply. This is going to be a long conversation, she reflected, and nodded.

"The innkeeper was more than a little belligerent; I camped outside of-" she explained, but was stopped again even more sharply than before.

"What did he say?" The angry pitch to Robert's voice made her flinch, and she sank deeper into the couch.

"That my horse was more valuable than I, but the hostlers would still be glad to put me up for the night if I might accommodate them," she answered calmly, seeing in her mind's eye the rotund, insulting man who had towered above her, threatening. She felt the same cold anger that had filled her then touch her now, that same anger she felt whenever the status of women was questioned.

Robert growled, and she opened her eye. His fists were clenched on the arms of the chair, livid. "How dare he?"

"It's trivial, Robert, really. If that's the worst anyone says to me in my life, I'm fortunate," she calmed him. He gave up that fight reluctantly, but she doubted either of them would have let it go if there hadn't been more pressing matters at hand. "Anyway, we camped outside of the town; it was already lat-early, getting on towards moonrise.

'I fell asleep, woke up a while later. Noct had wandered off. I usually wouldn't worry, but it didn't feel quite right. There was a light through the trees, more than a whisp's lantern, so I followed it. They had Noct." She shut her eyes again, recalling the darkness between the trees, the cool fog on her bare skin, the whispers of the southerners.

"I went to fetch him."

"You waltzed into an unknown situation with an unknown number of possible opponents?" Robert's incredulous question made her lips twitch in a smile.

"You can't tell me you wouldn't have done the same," she answered.

"I would have at least found out how many I was up against!" He was exasperated, but not angry. She had known he wouldn't be; it was Robert, after all, who had taught her that nonchalant, unconcerned style she tended towards.

"Well, I have charm to go off of, and you have nothing," she retorted.

"So you charmed your way out with your horse?" he asked, disbelieving.

She thought about that. If charm was holding a man at sword point, yes. If charm was threatening and insulting, yes. If charm was swallowing her all-consuming fear, holding her chin up and gazing him in the eye…

"He let me go."

"He?" She heard Robert shift and cracked an eye. He had straightened up, and only then did she realize her slip.

"Their commander, the others didn't think I should be allowed to go. He disagreed," she covered quickly, but Robert's eyes were narrowed.

"Just like that?" There was a hint of curiosity in his voice that made her uncomfortable, and she closed her eyes again and burrowed deeper into the couch.

"Yes. Just like that. Well, I had his cousin at sword point, so…" No, not just like that, of course not. Is anything so easy? She could tell he didn't believe her, but he didn't stop her again.

"I came to Creighton two days ago after hearing they were looking for me. I convinced Aeton to follow them. We did, they took Noct, I went after him, there were words exchanged, we caught up with them yesterday and that's the end of it," she concluded quickly. Something had changed, and all of a sudden she didn't feel like continuing the conversation. Now that it had been brought to mind, that night in the glade wouldn't leave her. She couldn't stop seeing the shadows sliding over the ground, feeling that incredible menace of power.

"Kitten, that is not even the short version of what happened," Robert answered her, voice serious. She didn't respond; her mind was already trapped far away in a cycle of events repeated over and over in agonizing detail. "Kitten?"

She stood abruptly despite her slight nausea. "I'm going to try and sleep this off," she told him without prelude.

"It's not just the brackberry, is it?" he asked suddenly, and she stopped halfway to the door but did not turn.

"No, no it's not," she answered and left silently.

Once again in her room, she curled up in the big four-poster bed and closed her eyes. But the scene from the other night kept playing and replaying in her head, giving her not a minute of relief. She gave up sleep and retired to the window bench. The sun had risen well above the horizon and now blazed directly into the window, but the pane was still cool, and she rested her forehead against it, gazing down at Creighton as it stirred in the folds of the hills below.

Why is it both of my children are lazy? Robert's words echoed in her head, her lament to herself, the only one she would admit. It would have been so much simpler if she had been his child. There would have been no deals, not expectations, none of this. She closed her eyes and moaned softly, sick in every sense. She was tired of it all; of the games, of the running, of the harsh façade she was forced to keep. And now it was complicated. Another royal, all she needed in her life.

Two years ago she could have sent him back without a second thought. Told Robert, Tell your men to see him to the border. No one knows, will ever know. But that was two years ago. She had taken on duties since then that bound her more closely to Elêa and her laws. She had become the law, the face of the law to the people. More so even than her father, she represented the law as it affected them. And this decision would affect them. All of her decisions would affect them, and she didn't know how to face even a one of them.

Just glancing by these thoughts in passing, she felt a certain despair tugging at her gut, darkening the world, and she pushed it back, holding it at bay as best she could. She remembered that darkness all too well. It was the abyss that had trapped her for a time, that had rendered her immobile, uncaring, and she feared it. She turned her face to the room, and, laying her head against her knees, stared at the vase of early flowers sitting on the low table between four chairs.

This is a cheerful room, she reminded herself, eyes roving from flowers, over the bright patterns on the walls, the glittering furniture and saturated blues, reds, greens and golds. Whomever the room had been decorated for had been a cheerful person, and their joy had left an impression. She had asked Robert once, back in the beginning, but the response had been so abrupt, so disturbed, that she hadn't since. She also supposed that to explain the answer to her room at the Den, and the explanation for why he had never married.

He allowed himself to love, and that's what came of it, sniggered the cynical voice at the back of her mind. She turned her face back to the sun and felt its warmth through the window. He allowed himself to live, answered her defending voice. It turned on her, though. Unlike you.

She stood, saying aloud, "It's not so wonderful." Give it a chance in the right hands. "No chance," she answered with an involuntary shudder, flicking shut the heavy red drapes that ran across the bay window. The room darkened instantly, and she returned to the bed. Why? If you are in control, why not? "Because I'm not. Leave me alone," she snapped in response, stretching out on her back and shutting her eyes. The rest of the argument she drowned in a rhythmic drumbeat pounding to the pulse of a waterfall, and out of the meditation she fell asleep.

That same drumbeat awoke her some hours later, but it was a throbbing headache instead of an intentional rhythm. Still, when she opened her eye and found the room in twilight, she felt far better than she had before sleeping. It took her a few moments of staring at the dark grey ceiling to realize that the pounding she heard was separate from the intense headache. She sat up slowly, wincing in pain.

"Come in." She swallowed a few times to moisten her mouth and throat and repeated the answer. The door cracked open, sliding a bright edge of light across the far wall.

"Your Highness? Lord Brevalaer would like to see you."

Mind still slow with sleep, she gazed dumbly at the strip of light and the silhouette of the maidservant.

"He's in the kitchen with Chaska," she continued uncertainly.

"Tell him I'm com- wait, no. Could you prepare a bath for my return?" Elisabeth asked, her mind finally catching up. She slid out from under the heavy quilts and shivered a little; the fire had not been lit, and cold was seeping in from the stones and windows. She pulled her short jacket on over her clothes as she ambled towards the door.

"My thanks." She passed the curtsying servant and blinked rapidly in the sudden light of the hall. The curtains over the windows had been drawn, but the lamps were lit and sparkled cheerfully over the looking glasses in their silver-gilt frames.

Still squinting and yawning, tugging the lambskin coat around her, she ambled down the hall and down the stairs. Wren and Chaska were in the kitchen as promised, sitting at the large table and cradling mugs of coffee.

"I was told Lord Brevalaer was waiting for me," she prodded jokingly, pouring a cup for herself and joining them.

Wren scowled. "Don't call me that. Ever."

"I'll never understand why your mother named you that."

"Because she didn't want me to become a Cat," he answered, toasting his mug towards the manor in general.

"By the way, I noticed you didn't take the wager I lost," she continued off-handedly.

"I never do," he pointed out, leaning the chair back to pick up a bundle from the counter behind him. She shrugged. He never did.

He plunked the bundle down before him and stood. Chaska took the hint and hurried away to fetch a basin and water. It took less time than she had expected for him to change her bandages, and she was pleased that he caused no additional pain. Indeed, by the time he had finished and she'd drunk a good quantity of coffee, she was feeling quite well.

"Now how about a kiss for the trouble?" Wren asked with a short laugh as he gathered his belongings again.

Elisabeth popped out of the chair and pecked him on the cheek. "Where's Robert?"

"In his study," he answered, refilling his mug and slinging the pack over his shoulder.

"What time is it?" she asked as she headed for the door.

"About midnight. We've decided to change Cats to Bats, what do you think?"

She wrinkled her nose, leaning against the door. Finally, she shook her head. "Not so intimidating."

"You think we'd lose respect, really?"

"Oh yeah," she nodded and left the kitchen.

She bounced up the stairs and knocked on the heavy door.

"Come in Kitten." Robert's voice was muffled through the thick door, and she entered almost before the permission. The room was bright with candles and the fire, turning the windows orange.

"How are you?" he asked, pushing his chair back from the desk and propping his shoeless feet up casually. She hauled one of the leather chairs across from him and plopped down.

"Not throwing up," she answered, setting her coffee cup on the edge of the desk.

"I hope not. What can I do to you?"

"Hit me," she answered, resting her elbows on the desk and gazing at him.

He snorted and slid the file of papers he'd been looking at across to her.

"Maps, schedules, supply routes; they were scouting for a major offensive," he answered. "Probably would have succeeded, too. They had information from the western borders—probably for comparison."

She leafed through the maps scrawled in a firm, elegant hand. Along the margins were snatches of information, and she knew just enough N'talian to understand the plan sketches. She gave a low whistle, shaking her head.

"What else?"

He folded his hands and gave her a long, quizzical look that made her scowl impatiently.

"I went through the commanders' things," he answered simply, face unchanging.


"How long were you going to keep it from me?" he asked, not angrily but certainly irritated.

She rolled her head to loosen her neck but kept her eyes fixed on him, wondering how to answer. He must have mistaken the look for irritated curiosity, because he went on, "Did you really expect Marrec to keep quiet?"

"You've known all along, then?" She had briefly considered Marrec and Earle as sources of danger, but they were Cats and they would only talk to Robert and only Robert.

"I just wanted to see how long it took you to consider it important," he said with a shrug.

"Important enough to keep it dark," she responded calmly. He nodded.

"Good call. Now what are you going to do?"

"Beats me," she answered, trying to keep her voice light. But it didn't want to be light. It wasn't a light subject. She had no idea and every choice seemed as foul as the next.

"If it helps, they were scouting for an invasion, trespassing, stealing and attempting to abduct," Robert offered.

She raised an eyebrow at him. "Wren," he responded.

"Ahh. Well, as it seems you know the story almost better than myself perhaps you should make the decision for me." She made it sound like some immense gift she was handing him, but he dropped it before it was even in his lap.

"No, I think you have seniority here so you should make that decision. It is, after all, right up your alley. Persecuting criminals-" she cleared her throat and gave him a meaningful look that he shed with a smile, "dealing out justice every day, exercising your pen with greatest diligence…"

"You've made your point," she interrupted. "So you're saying I should have the answer?"

"Not at all. Merely that this is all you, Kitten," he concluded, beaming.

"It's going to take all of me to solve," she muttered, wrinkling her nose, disgruntled and more worried than she let on.

"I'm sure you're up to it," he answered.

"Why don't you start helping, if you want to say anything," she growled in response. He gave her a broad, disarming smile.

"I'm being quiet now."

She rolled her eyes and settled back into the chair with the papers to examine them more closely. Plans, indeed. In these papers the Prince had everything he could possibly need to defeat Elêa once and for all. And somehow she felt regret that she had disrupted his plans. For a moment she fancied what it would have been like to see her father brought to his knees before the strength of N'tal. She could see him in her mind's eye receiving the news that the enemy army was marching towards Keep unchecked. They would take the key fiefs, the major towns, the Run. And she would smile on the day the army took the Keep. She would welcome them with open arms.

She sighed audibly. That day would be long in coming now. Maybe. She didn't think even she had the courage to do what would be required to see it sped along.

"You could start by talking to them," Robert offered and she looked up, confused and too distracted to hear for a moment.

"Oh, yes, that will have to be done," she answered idly, glancing at the irksome papers again and then tossing them onto the desk.

"This morning?" he continued hopefully. She didn't doubt his eager anticipation of the interview for his own Robert reasons.

"You're kidding. It's still dark."

A knock on the door interrupted what he was about to say, and he shrugged as he answered for the person to enter. It was the maid.

"Your Highness, your bath is ready," she quietly said with a curtsy.

Elisabeth smiled at Robert and stood. "The bucca is going now. You may speak with her in the morning after she has had a long time to sleep."

"Interview?" he asked hopefully.

"We'll see. Goodnight," she answered, leaving with too much on her mind.