Two months later, Alexandria stood in front of a full-length mirror, frowning. The dress her seamstresses had altered for her was beautiful. It was a full-length gown, a breathtaking jade that complimented both her skin tone and hazel eyes all at once. The neckline plunged to a level almost considered daring, but it suited her. The only touch to the otherwise plain gown was a gathering of the material in the front designed to accentuate her small waist.
"Don't pout," someone said from behind her, and she whirled, startled. "Don't fall either!"
"Sebastian," she said, relieved, then frowned. "I wasn't pouting."
"Yes, you were," he said easily. "About what?"
Alexandria looked back into the mirror. "I wonder what my mother would say about all this…"
"About me?" Sebastian asked, worried.
"No," the princess said affectionately. "She would have more than approved of you. I was talking about… everything else. I've met gods. I've traveled through forests half-naked." Sebastian's mouth twitched. "It's not funny."
"Of course not." He became serious. "I think she would have been very proud that you had matured into such a fine young woman."
"Am I truly worthy enough to wear this…?" she murmured, turning back to the mirror.
"Was it hers…?"
"The very one she wore on her coronation and wedding day." Alexandria smiled dreamily. "I can almost imagine it. I've seen paintings of her in this dress, and I can just see how beautiful she must have looked, walking among the people."
"Just as you will. Perhaps we are making the coronation and wedding combination a tradition." Sebastian kissed her gently on the cheek, and she felt the fine hairs on her neck rise.
"Now now," Marliana said loudly, appearing out of no where behind them both. "You're not married yet, so I'd appreciate some distance from my princess."
Both prince and princess jumped apart, and the goddess laughed at their frightened expressions.
"Did I mention 'boo'?"
"Marliana!" Alexandria cried in delight. She jumped into the goddess' arms and hugged her, receiving a warm embrace in return.
"Can't you just use the door like a civilized person?" Lucas called from the hallway. He opened the door and smiled at both Sebastian and Alexandria, then tutted to Marliana. "It's cruel to spoil such an intimate moment. Do you remember how mad you were when Guilino found us in that room off the side of the kitchens—"
"Hush, you," Marliana tugged on his hand. The princess noted the silly grin on her face. "It's nearly time."
The ceremony flew by, and Alexandria could barely remember what the secretary of state said later. Her most vivid impressions were of the clear, blue sky that late summer day, nearly three years after the entire ordeal had begun. She could still feel the tight grip Sebastian kept on her hand as they said their vows, the blue-white their knuckles had turned before he realized it and loosened his grip, laughing. She remembered the way Marliana had stood in the first row, tears gathering in the corners of her eyes despite her stubborn declaration moments before that she wouldn't cry. Lucas had only handed her a handkerchief, smiling a little, with that special light in his eyes that Alexandria knew was the deepest of affection.
The people of Limodia who attended each received as a wedding present a small wish granted by any of the gods or goddesses who were in attendance. At first, the guests were leery to approach the fierce-looking Hawk, the silent Elk, and the gently smiling Caderyn. A small Rabbit, almost unnoticed, sat on the Stag's back, content to watch the ceremony without comment.
To the gods' great amusement, the first Limodian citizen to ask for a wish was a small boy of about seven.
"I want a pony," he insisted to Marliana.
"Why are you asking me?" she had demanded, scowling her darkest look at him. "Try the bird over there." Guilino gave an indignant screech.
Instead of backing down, the boy merely scowled in return and stomped his foot. "I want you to make me a pony!"
"For the love of—" Marliana had snarled, breaking off at a look from Lucas. Grumbling the entire time, she produced a brown, fat-bellied pony from the air. "Are you happy now?"
"I want a black one," the boy said sulkily.
The goddess took a deep breath, and Alexandria shut her eyes, afraid to watch.
"Here he is then," She heard Marliana say gruffly. "Don't break your neck falling off him." The princess opened her eyes to her handing him the lead rope of the pony's halter. After that, the crowd surged forward and asked for a multitude of items, their wishing ranging from the fixing of a broken arm to a wedding ring from the groom to his bride.
After the wishes, a fantastic celebration began that ranged up and down the streets of the town, complete with open taverns and dancing. Evening fell, and Sebastian led a massive line of dancing people to a hall that had been cleared exactly for that purpose.
Alexandria took the opportunity to slip away.
She made her way to the harbor, intent on a few moments of peace and quiet before she rejoined the festivities. The princess sat down, removed her slippers, then dangled her bare feet over the edge of the wooden pier. She felt contemplative, though not unhappily so.
"And what are you doing, sneaking off on your own?"
The princess nearly fell in, but Marliana swiftly caught her arm and tugged her back.
"I think you have a death wish," the goddess said, sitting beside her. "How many times will I have to save you?"
"No more, I hope," Alexandria answered, her lips curving up. It was dark enough to be officially named night now. She traced the familiar constellations that her father had shown her, mouthing their names, until she had found every one. "Marliana… what do you plan to do now?"
"Sit for a bit. Watch the sea. It's lovely at night," the goddess said promptly.
"No, I mean… what do you want to do from now on?"
Marliana had known what she meant from the start. "Oh, you know," she said as if she hadn't a care in the world. "Settle down with Lucas in the gods' realm. Raise a few demigods to carry on my name should something happen. Serve the One's desires through the Voice." She sounded enormously content, and Alexandria felt rather than imagined the flash of a large Panther lying beside her, tail twitching lazily, purring all the while. "Of course, I would like to find Emstur, eventually. I'll let him hide a bit to make the end all that more satisfying." She paused, then continued: "I imagine I won't see you again for a while."
"No?" Alexandria asked, unable to keep the disappointment out of her voice.
"No," Marliana agreed. "I've interfered in your little human life enough for now. I have my own to carry on… or build up, if you will. I need to face down some deeds that I'm not proud of." A few lines creased her forehead. "I need to learn how to accept my guilt and move past it."
"It's strange," Alexandria said casually. "I thought you hated humans… and me. Especially when I heard why you were being punished…"
To her pleasant surprise, Marliana merely smiled. "Funny, isn't it? Don't think I'm going to turn into an all-around human-lover anytime soon though," she added a little more seriously.
"Never," the princess promised.
"Be proud of who you've become," the goddess said suddenly. Alexandria looked up in bemusement. "When I met you, you were a spoiled, insignificant little cretin."
"It's the truth," Marliana shrugged. "Now you're… so much more mature." She smiled softly. "I am very proud of the human you've become. You're a good point in a filthy species."
Alexandria laughed. "So I've heard."
Marliana looked down into the water, the corners of her mouth relaxed and peaceful. Alexandria thought she looked old suddenly. It was something about the way her eyes moved past the stars' reflection on the low tide, past the fish that swam around the wooden pilings, and gazed upon what was left. For the first time, Alexandria felt she might understand what it meant to live forever. Together they stared into the waves, watching the reflection of the stars on the water move with the swell of the current.
Marliana spoke at last. "I have to leave now."
"Now." the goddess said gently. Alexandria felt her eyes burn suddenly as tears formed, and she threw herself sideways, hugging her friend around the middle. "Shhh," Marliana shushed. "There's no need for that. Besides," she noted. "You'll upset her."
"Her?" The princess was confused.
Marliana lifted her hand from the girl's shoulder and placed it instead, with deliberate tenderness, on the small swell beneath the dress' decoration of material. Alexandria's cheeks grew red. "She doesn't like it when you fuss."
"I had the dress altered to hide her" the princess said anxiously. "I hope no one else noticed."
"Just me," the goddess reassured her. "Just me." She looked past Alexandria toward the town. "Sebastian's coming this way."
The princess turned to look and watched the form of her new husband appear out of the dark. "Alexandria!" he exclaimed. "I've been looking everywhere for you. What are you doing out here by yourself?"
"I'm not by myself, I—" Her head turned slowly, trying to make the uncertain moment last, but even as she turned, she knew. The spot beside her was empty, devoid of the goddess who had so recently stared into the waves with her. "You're here with me now," Alexandria said to Sebastian, eyes fixed on the place where the waves hit the pier.
"That's true," he answered. He walked out onto the dock and squatted next to her, looking out over the water. "The sea's beautiful at night, isn't it?"
"Yes," Alexandria said, startled into looking up.
"Your people want to sing and dance in your name." He smiled and took her hand. "Will you honor them as only their queen may?" The title sounded strange, but she could see how it could become comfortable someday, as familiar as 'princess' was to her now.
"As long as you will do me the same honor, King Sebastian," she replied grandly, using his hand to rise from the wooden surface. "Shall we?"
"Let's," he answered, so gravely that she giggled until he grinned in response. They walked through the streets, hand in hand with fingers interlaced, and rejoined the celebrations as a joyful pair. Already, the people of Limodia were whispering that they had entered a new age of prosperity, of gods, and of happiness throughout the realm. The populace that celebrated that night had no idea how correct their predictions were to become, nor how close they would occasionally swing toward conflict with other provinces. On each occasion it seemed possible that violence might begin once again, the situation would be mysteriously diffused, or the leader would find himself suddenly disinterested in the tiny province of Limodia.
And every night, the children and adults alike would pray to the true gods, the gods they had seen for themselves and believed in wholeheartedly.
"Thank you for the pony, Marliana. He's lazy, but I like him more than anything in the whole world."
"Dear Caderyn… please watch over my mother. She is growing older, and I fear a cold this winter would make it her last."
"Marliana, I know you can hear me. Come to visit when you feel the time is right… I have a beautiful daughter who I want you to meet. Sebastian is making a wonderful king, though he leaves most of Limdoia's royal business to me—he can't stomach the paperwork. The people love him… they have accepted us with open arms. We are so very, very happy, my friend... I can only hope you have found your peace as well. Give my best to Lucas and to the other gods.
The sea looks beautiful tonight…"
A/N: I hope you enjoyed the story. Please review!. : )
To my Mari: What did you think, dear? Call me when you finish this.