I stood along the lonely shore

Waiting for a sign

I never doubted my lady before

Or that she was mine

Without the wind to fill my sail

I could not brave the sea

But because I loved her tooth and nail

I swam the length, and without fail

I brought her home to me

The Windless Sea, anonymous Galatéan ballad

Alys's Happy Ending

Rakyr stood in the doorway of his brother's room, his arms crossed over his chest as he leaned against the frame in a mock stance of relaxation. Everything seemed to have become a mockery lately, as if the life they had led nearly three weeks ago was some sort of blissful dream and they were now having to face the grim realty of waking up. Having experienced loss before, Rakyr understood the feeling well. And yet when Tanya died, only he had felt the acute pain of her passing. When Alys left, it affected everyone.

Upon finding Alys's room empty almost three weeks ago, Will had gone into a rage unlike anything Rakyr had ever witnessed. When he came upon his brother, everything in his mistress's room was destroyed. The bed was in pieces, the table smashed against a wall, his drawing implements scattered everywhere as if a tornado had swept through the room. And one had, for Rakyr recognized the signs of Will's powers, and what he'd seen was the aftermath of Will's powers gone crazy.

His brother had been inconsolable, convinced one minute that he had done something wrong, and the next cursing Alys for being a heartless bitch. The blasted man could not seem to make up his mind who to blame for her disappearance.

As if losing Alys was not bad enough, he awoke from a drugged slumber to discover that not only had the war ended while he slept, but it was resolved by Alys's precious Guardian Jak. The fact that Jak was a woman was little comfort, especially when he found out who had caused him to miss the resolution to a war he had spent a lifetime trying to win.

Markah. The woman who had comforted him emotionally since Alys's disappearance—Rakyr was fairly certain Will remained too perpetually drunk to find physical comfort in the woman—had used his pain to take advantage of him. Ever since that day two weeks ago, Will had confined himself to his room. Sometimes Rakyr would find him sprawled out on his bed, staring blankly at the ceiling. At others he would be pacing back and forth, as if he had some great problem he could not quite figure out.

But today…Today was the worst, for when Rakyr opened the door, he stepped into a sea of Alys. On every wall, on every piece of furniture, and on every square inch of the floor were scattered pictures of Alys. Drawings, paintings, done in every color of the rainbow. Pictures of her face with different expressions, all of them smiling back almost mockingly.

"Will I never forget her?"

His brother's agonized voice brought him out of his reverie, and he felt a surge of compassion for his heartbroken sibling. "No," he admitted. "But the pain will lessen."

"When?"

"Will…"

"It would be easier if she had just disappeared. So much easier," Will insisted. "But I cannot make any sense of it, Rakyr!" He whirled to face his brother, his face haggard with lack of sleep and proper nutrition and covered with nearly a month's growth of hair. "Why would she say those things and then just leave?" Rakyr knew he was referring to Alys's claim that she loved them, all of them. "And where is the damned letter she apparently left? I've looked everywhere."

"Will, you tore that room to pieces with your powers. The letter could have been ripped to shreds for all you know," Rakyr reminded him.

"But what did it say? Perhaps it explained, but I will never know, and I cannot bear it!" he cried, shoving his easel and another portrait of Alys to the ground with his fury.

The sound of a throat clearing just behind him caused Rakyr to jump, and as he glanced over his shoulder, he saw the filthiest boy in all of Shayark waiting expectantly for him to move out of the way. Raising an eyebrow at the insolent stablehand, Rakyr stepped into the room and allowed him to pass. Upon seeing the lad, Will instantly went into motion. "Did you get the information I requested?" he asked excitedly, and at the boy's barely perceptible nod, Will rushed forward and grabbed his filthy shirt in two fistfuls of fabric. "Tell me. Who was it?"

The boy mouthed a word that caused the color to drain from Will's face, and Rakyr had to ask what was going on. When Will turned to him, he looked like the lost, wounded puppy they had saved so many years ago. "Alys," he whispered. "Alys was the one who showed the secret entrance to the Viljarmas."

Rakyr's mouth hardened into a thin line. "The boy is wrong. She would never have betrayed us!" he insisted, and as if sensing the prince's anger, the boy started waving his hands up and down excitedly.

"What is it?" Will snapped.

The boy mouthed another word, and this time Rakyr watched Will's reaction closely. For a minute or two his face went blank, and even when the dark burn of rage started in his eyes, he still managed to keep his expression schooled. "I see," he said very quietly. "That explains it, then. I suppose I should not be surprised, as Markah betrayed me as well."

"Dmetri?" Rakyr guessed.

Will nodded shortly.

"Do you think he could have been responsible for Alys's disappearance? He was your friend, but if he was a traitor, he must have known how Alys's desertion would affect you."

"It doesn't matter anymore," Will said, sinking back onto his bed with a defeated sigh. The papers beneath him crumpled, but he seemed not to care as he waved a dismissive hand at the stable boy. For a moment the boy looked down at Will worriedly, as if he wanted to say something, do something. Rakyr knew the feeling exactly, but he also knew the pointlessness of such an endeavor. Nothing could be done for Will short of Alys miraculously reappearing at Thorikell Castle.

And the odds of that happening were slim indeed.

The boy left, and Rakyr remained. Silence permeated the room until the sound of scuffling feet drew Rakyr's attention. Cristi stood now in the doorway, her head bowed submissively.

"I have a confession to make," she said quietly. "I should have made it a long time ago, but I had hoped…" She stopped speaking and looked up at her brothers, her golden eyes filled with tears. "I had hoped this was all just some bad dream, and that eventually we would wake up and she would be back here…but she isn't coming back. Not unless you go and get her, Will. You have to go and bring her back!"

"Why?" he asked dully. "So she can laugh at me and send me on my way?"

"She wouldn't do that. She cares about you. I know she does!"

"How? Did she tell you?" Rakyr wondered aloud.

"No. But I saw her."

"Yes, you saw her saving our precious country. Fat lot of good that vision did for us, Cristi, as it was Jak who ended up saving Shayark," Will snorted derisively.

"You misunderstood me. What I told you was that Alys was the answer to your problems. I never once specified that the specific problem was the war," Cristi explained. "I admit that I led you to believe she would somehow aid you in ending the conflict between the Thorikells and Viljarmas, but I knew you would not kidnap her if you suspected there was any other reason, and you just had to bring her here."

"Why?" he asked again. "Why?"

"Because I saw what she would do for us. I saw us sitting around the dinner table and laughing and acting like a family again. I felt your emotions, Will, as well as hers. They were equally powerful, I assure you. That is why I had you bring her here," Cristi admitted, and now Will was sitting up, looking at her intently.

"And why should I bring her back?" he asked, obviously sensing that there was more than just his sister's assumption of Alys's feelings involved in her plea.

"Because your child will need a father," she whispered almost inaudibly.

Will's jaw clenched so tightly that Rakyr thought he could hear teeth cracking. "She's pregnant?" he whispered, his voice shaking with a mixture of trepidation and hope.

"Yes," Cristi confirmed. "I saw your son."

Looking away to hide his emotions, Will ran a hand roughly up and down his face as if to refresh himself. "What if she…"

"The letter," Cristi quickly interrupted, knowing that her brother was about to formulate some sort of argument as to why he should not go after Alys. "When Captain Genrey informed us that Alys had left a letter, I did not think much of it. But these past few days I began to wonder just what she might have said, and you know that when I think about things a lot, I sometimes have visions." Slowly, his sister walked through the room, wading through pictures of Alys in various states of undress that her tender eyes probably did not need to see. Yet she did not even glance at the drawings, focused instead on the leather-bound book lying atop Will's desk. Cristi lifted the book almost lovingly into her hands, stroking the cover lightly as she opened it to a page nearly in the back. "You did not think to look here, did you?" she asked Will, thrusting the book towards him.

Will shot across the room like an arrow, snatching the book out of his sister's hands as he read the words Alys had left him. His hand traveled over each word, tracing the feminine scrawl as if to memorize it. When he finished reading, he looked up at Rakyr with renewed life and determination in his eyes.

"We are going on a trip," he informed his older brother.

"We?" Lifting an eyebrow, he looked around the room. "Are you talking to me?"

"You need out of this capital as much as I do," Will explained shortly. "Pack your things and let's go. Now."

He stormed out of the room, apparently to make the necessary arrangements, leaving Rakyr alone with his sister. "I suppose it would do me no good to ask if I can go too," she said with a sigh of regret.

"At least you have a choice," Rakyr grumbled.

"Do not fear, brother mine. The past will not haunt you forever, though years will pass before you can let go," Cristi assured him wisely. "Go with Will. I have a feeling that Galatéa will do you some good."

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If all else failed, at least Will had succeeded in showing his brother a bit of the real world. Taking his older sibling across the stark fields of the land bordering the Holy City was like dragging a five year old through a country fair. Truly, there was not much to look at. But for someone who rarely left the confines of the castle for the sake of his own protection, being on foreign soil in a land where no one would recognize him had to be refreshing for Rakyr. Will was glad that the old comraderie between them had been restored, but he was too tense to reflect on it. He felt like a tautly strung bow waiting to snap as they approached the impressive city of white where Alys lived.

Alys. Just the thought of her name brought an image of her face and memories of the intimacy they had shared. Not just the physical intimacy, but those quiet moments as well, where he poured his heart out to her and she listened and understood. It was the most amazing part of their relationship. He felt totally free to be himself around her, knowing she would not judge or criticize. For weeks he had tormented himself with the fear that it had meant nothing to her, that the whole time his sense of belonging had been nothing more than an illusion. Even the knowledge that she might, in some way, return his feelings, the knowledge that she bore his son, could not erase the ache in his chest when he thought of how easily she had left him behind.

Until he read the letter. Then Will had known that winning Alys back would not be a matter of wringing an apology out of her for deserting him, but of convincing her that his feelings were true. Even now, the words in that short letter haunted him.

Will,

I do not understand why you would send me off on some fool's mission with only Dmetri as an escort. I can only imagine it has something to do with earlier. If I said anything to upset you, I am sorry. I am frightened, Will. Frightened that you will break my heart as I long ago predicted, but even more frightened of losing you. I don't ever want to lose you. When I return, I would like to know how you feel about us. If you want me to stay, then we can face the future together. You may not have realized it yet, but we belong together, and I have always wanted to belong somewhere, to someone.

I love you,

Alys.

Failure was not an option. He had to bring her back with him. The only difficulty would be gauging her emotions. There were many scenarios that haunted him on the boat ride over, the worst of which being that Alys would receive him with indifference. It was entirely possible that she'd had a change of heart since writing that letter to him. Time spent back in the arms of her family might have proven to her that she no longer needed him, and without that need to belong, he had no hold on her.

The possibility that she would receive him with open arms barely flashed through his mind. That was too much to hope for.

No, the most likely scenario was that he would meet with her ire. For such a tiny thing, Alys certainly had a temper and a sharp tongue to go along with it. If he could withstand her barbs and somehow manage to break away her resentment, perhaps he could win her back. But how? She must be thinking that he abandoned her. God only knew what lies Dmetri had fed her, or what he'd done to her before Jak's friend rescued her.

The thought made him shudder with anger. If he hurt her…but it no longer mattered. Dmetri was dead and revenge was lost. He had no doubt that whatever horrors she'd faced, Alys had emerged unscathed inside. She was too strong to let anything drag her under.

"What do you suppose they built this city out of? Surely that can't be limestone," Rakyr remarked as they neared the front gates of the Holy City. Will had decided that perhaps the direct route would be preferable this time. It was far easier to lift himself up and into the palace than it would be to lift the both of them. In fact, this whole coup would have been easier to do alone, but he did not for a moment regret bringing his brother along. Not only was it a good experience for him, but his presence gave Will the strength he needed to keep pushing forward.

"I have no idea," Will admitted. "Alys said it has been here since the beginning of time. Perhaps this city is a peace of heaven itself."

"I doubt it. It looks and stinks too much like a normal city to be anything heavenly," Rakyr grumbled as they were ushered through the front gates. "I have never seen so many blonde-headed men and women in my life!"

Will nodded his agreement, barely paying attention to the crush of the crowd as they wove their way towards the palace. He was already accustomed to the Holy City look from his first jaunt in the area. It was utter monotony, with the only variance in the shade of blonde that crowned the head. Occasionally a dark head would emerge, but those people did not walk with the same dignity as those of pure Galatéan origin. Subconciously, the two classes were separate.

Rakyr looked about himself with interest, devouring everything in sight. "Why do some of them wear white robes and others black?" he wondered. "There seem a great many who wear those uniforms."

"Black robes signify Guardians, those trained in the art of fighting and using their powers."

"Like you," his brother noted.

Will shrugged. "I suppose so. The white robes are reserved for those with exceptional magical abilities. No fighting necessary. All the rest are just common layfolk, though most every Galatéan has a little bit of power in them, from what Alys says."

"Interesting. It's strange to think that so many people here have the same powers you and I and Cristi were born with. In Shayark, we are so rare. Here we're almost…"

"Normal," Will filled in.

"Exactly."

"Feeling a little less than divine?" he teased.

"Wonderfully so," Rakyr admitted with a smile. "Whereas you have always craved notoriety, dear brother, I always desired inconsequentiality. I love feeling like I am completely unnoticed."

Will glanced at his brother's rapture-filled face with interest as they neared the gates leading into the courtyard of the palace. Rakyr was certainly a great deal different from the man he'd imagined all these years. The man he had bitterly envied was supposed to be selfish and arrogant to a fault, but the man standing beside him was neither. In fact, sometimes it seemed like he was almost…shy. Certainly reserved, and maybe even a little resentful of his fame. Will felt a newfound respect for his sibling growing within him as they entered the courtyard and came to a dead stop.

Perhaps he should have risked it and used his powers to gain them entrance.

Two lines trailed down to the courtyard, both originating from the double doors leading into the grande, white palace. The line split and diverged down the staircases leading away from the wide veranda just in front of the doors, and both spilled out into the courtyard.

"Bloody hell," Will muttered. "I am not waiting in that line."

"Perhaps if we explained to someone that we wish an audience with the princess?" Rakyr suggested. "Surely not all of these people have come to see Alys."

"I doubt that any of them are here to see Alys, but we'll have little luck getting past them."

"Do you really love her?"

Will paused as he surveyed the line and then glanced up at the sky to guage the time. He closed his eyes and moaned. "Unfortunately, I do."

And so they got in line.

Four hours later, the sun was beginning to set, and Rakyr and Will finally stepped through the threshold and into the great entranceway of the palace. Five men and women sat on golden thrones as they were led inside, each characteristically old with golden medallions about their necks to signal their elevated status. The one in the middle, a gnarled old woman with deep blue eyes, rose to greet them.

"I am afraid the Empress is no longer receiving today," she said, her voice strong in spite of her advanced years. "There are still a few officials available, if you would not mind speaking to someone of slightly lesser authority."

"Actually, we are not here to speak with the Empress, or her officials," Rakyr spoke up only after his brother jabbed him in the ribs. Will hadn't really thought this part through, and Rakyr was typically better with words than he.

The old woman lifted a gray eyebrow. The most logical thing for her to do would be to ask them who they were there to see, but instead she surveyed them shrewdly, as if she could discover the answer merely from looking at them. When she looked into his eyes, Will knew she was someone close to Alys. The recognition was too instant, and Alys had remarked on more than one occasion that his eyes had been a part of her old vision.

"You are William," the woman said.

He nodded. "Will. I've come to speak with Alys."

The woman's eyes narrowed as she rolled over her options in her head. Then she sighed and walked over to speak quietly with the old man seated to her right. He nodded almost imperceptibly and rose to draw a servant aside even as the old woman motioned for them to follow her. "I will take you to the inner courtyard to wait," she explained. "I assume this other young man is some relation of yours?" She waved her hand flippantly in Rakyr's direction.

"My older brother, Rakyr," he explained. "And you are?"

She gave him a smile that looked a bit on the fake side. "My name is Gittell. Alys is my granddaughter."

Will put together what he knew of Alys's past and immediately recognized this as the mother of her daimon father. The other grandmother was long since dead, and one look at this woman showed Will she had once been strong enough to handle a demon lover.

They emerged into the familiarly wild landscape of the inner courtyard, the very place where Will and Alys had shared their first kiss just before he swept her away into the night. Gittell led them to a bench where she motioned for them to sit, and then she disappeared into the surrounding trees.

"It's like an indoor jungle," Rakyr mused.

"Not quite indoors." He waved his hand upwards. "No roof."

"Still, it is lovely. We should talk to mother and father about installing a room like this in our castle."

"When the secret passageway makes the real thing so easily accessible?" Will snorted.

"Now that half the Viljarma army as traveled through it, I doubt our secret place will be kept secret much longer," Rakyr reminded him, causing Will to sigh forlornly.

"You are right, of course," he agreed, remembering the intimacy of sharing that place with Alys and his family. He would have liked to spend another day like that, hundreds of days like that, in the future. Of course, the first step had to be getting Alys back…

At the sound of a door opening, Rakyr and Will both stood, waiting to see Alys's familiar form strolling down the path.

It wasn't Alys. Will saw little beyond the gold and white robes and the blonde head before his brother was sent sprawling to the ground with a sharp punch in the jaw. After that, instinct kicked in. He balled his fists, preparing to defend himself. One look into the man's eyes, however, made him go rigid and accept the blow.

Golden eyes.

Alys's father.

Will was the first to rise, having gotten used to such blows from his years as a fighting man. He helped his brother to his feet, hoping the angered Consort had used up his anger in those first two punches.

"In case you were wondering," the heavily breathing daimon began, "that was for kidnapping my daughter."

"I didn't kidnap your bloody daughter," Rakyr grumbled as he rubbed at his aching jaw.

"You were in my bloody way," the daimon shot back and reared his fist back for another punch. Rakyr ducked out of the way just in time to avoid another blow.

With a strength he did not realize he possessed, Will raised a hand to block the punch, capturing Demmi's demon hand with his own. The impact jarred his arm, and he gritted his teeth against the force of the stolid man's demon strength. Alys, for all her petiteness, had packed quite a wallop with her demon hand. This was about a hundred times worse.

Finally, however, Demmi relented and pulled his arm away.

"I allowed the first punch because I deserved it," Will told him, "but if you wish to strike me again, perhaps you could tell me why first?"

Demmi looked him over and then shrugged. "I wanted to see if you would take it. You didn't. So talk."

Blunt and to the point. Now who did that remind him of?

"I want to speak with Alys."

"Too bad. You'll have to talk to me."

"Well I can't bloody well ask you to marry me, so perhaps you could make her available?" Will suggested sarcastically.

Demmi quirked an eyebrow up at his impudence. "You might start by asking my permission."

"Your permission would be appreciated, but I'm going to marry her with or without it."

The daimon's eyes darkened and he crossed his arms over his chest in a show of power. Will emulated the move, and the two men stood glaring at each other. Rakyr expected any moment for one of them to start growling and gnashing teeth.

"Perhaps it would be best to see how Alys feels about Will's proposal before the two of you rip each other's throats out?" Rakyr suggested, and luckily, the spell was broken.

Will was the first to back down, though he kept a wary eye on Alys's father as he waited for the man's verdict.

"You'll not speak to Alys until you have proven to me that you deserve her," Demmi finally decided.

"Tell me what to do and I'll do it," Will said instantly, but Demmi was shaking his head slowly.

"No, no, this must be your idea. You have put tears of sorrow in my daughter's eyes, young Will, and I don't like it one damn bit. If you want to win her hand, you'll put tears of joy there. By the end of this week, or I will make sure you disappear from her life forever."

Will secretly wondered if Alys's father would really follow through with such a threat. One look into his flinty eyes and he shuddered with belief. The man wouldn't hesitate to kill for his child, that was for certain. And Alys thought she was unappreciated?

But how could he make her cry with joy when he wasn't even certain if she still wanted him? What could she possibly want above all else? It was obvious she already had the love and respect of her family, and he got the feeling even before she left that she had come to realize that. It would have been the greatest prize, but it was already achieved. So he would need something else, something nearly equal in importance to her.

"Freedom," he whispered.

"What are you muttering about?" Demmi growled.

"I know what to do, but I will need your help."

"This is your project, not mine."

"If she's going to cry with joy, this will have to be a combined effort. She will need to know that you helped. We should enlist the aid of her brothers as well, and any other able hand you have around here," Will said, excitement thrumming through his veins as he thought of his plans and wondered if they were too crazy to come to fruition. When Demmi insisted on hearing every last detail, he launched into a lengthy explanation of what he intended.

The Empress's Consort frowned through it all, though from the way he was rubbing his chin thoughtfully, Will could tell he was at least considering the plan.

"It's stupid and crazy," Demmi finally told him, "but no one's ever called me sane. We'll give it a shot. And you're in luck. Our good friends just acquired a large number of strapping young boys as grandchildren, and they've been dying to get them occupied with something. This will be the perfect opportunity."

"It's settled then," Rakyr said, his relief obvious.

"It will be settled when we see Alys's reaction," Demmi argued, though both brothers could tell that the man had warmed up to Will considerably after he revealed his plans for Alys. "There is only one other matter to take care of now." He turned slightly to his left. "Mother?"

Will barely managed not to jump in surprise as a nearby tree suddenly changed shape and became the gnarled old woman who had led them to this very spot. She was smiling sheepishly at her son. "How did you know I was there?"

"Whenever someone mentions your involvement in anything, I naturally assume you will be lurking nearby," he explained. "I trust you will do your part to keep all of this a secret from my daughter?"

"I am your dutiful servant," Gittell said with a curtsy far too elegant for a woman of her years. "You let me worry about keeping the women in the dark while you men just get to work. From what I've overheard, this will take a lot of strength and patience."

"Patience," Demmi and Will both grumbled, whining like little children at the thought of having to control their tempers. Both men glanced at one another warily, as if neither wanted to believe he shared something in common with the other.

"Shall we get to work?" Rakyr suggested, once again cutting through the tension between them.

This was going to be a long week.

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It had to have been the longest week of her life.

The first few days after returning home had been marvelous. There was no fear of her reception as she stepped into the throne room where her parents were taking a short break from the receiving line. She had come to accept during her time with Will that they loved her in their own way, even if they seemed distant due to her attempts to push them away. So she was ready when her mother screamed and rushed at her like a crazy woman. She was prepared for the sight of her father falling weakly to his knees at the sight of her and giving thanks to the powers of Light for returning her safely.

It was a welcome she would never forget. It hadn't ended there, either. Every one of her siblings had to see her, to assure themselves that she was truly home and well. Danyl admitted most fervently that he had worried for her constantly. There was great deal of understanding in his eyes, and Alys could not help but wonder how much he had seen of what happened in Shayark. He never brought up her time spent away, however. It seemed to be a tacit family agreement that they would act as if nothing had happened and attempt to help Alys forget by keeping her constantly busy and entertained.

Unfortunately, Alys could not forget. It had happened. She had been swept off of her feet, quite literally, by a handsome young foreigner with a short temper and a big heart. She had fallen hard for him, and knowing that she had lost him was more difficult to bear than the agony of knowing that she would. If only she could stop hoping…if only she could force herself to forget…

But after the first few days of excitement died down, life began to get back to normal. Her brothers and sisters still paid far more attention to her than they had in the past, but they were not around her every second of the day. Jak was busy dealing with her own new family, though luckily Daric seemed to have found something to keep the children occupied for most of the week.

And then there was her father. Light, how she dreaded seeing him every day. She knew he couldn't possibly know the secret she now carried from her time in Shayark. Not yet, anyway. But she wouldn't be able to hide it forever, and if her mother already knew, it was only a matter of time before she slipped and told her husband.

Alys hadn't thought that something as simple as pregnancy could be so easily recognized in such early stages. It had barely been a month since her first missed monthly, but perhaps in her own impregnated state, Ariella was more perceptive to such matters. Whatever the case, only two days after her return, her mother appeared in her bedroom and demanded to know who the father was.

Because she did not want her mother to think that Will had raped her, she was forced to reveal the entire sordid tale. Her mother was pleased that the child was the result of love and not rape, but she still refused to exonerate Will of any guilt. In her mind, if he truly cared about her, he would never have let her leave Shayark. Which only made the difficulty of loneliness harder to bear. If her mother was right, then Will didn't really care for her, at least not on an emotional level.

Alys sighed as she tried to force her thoughts in other directions. At least no one called her worthless anymore. At least, not where anyone important could overhear them. A few days ago, her brother Danyl had chosen to address the people with a formal speech declaring his intentions for the future of Galatéa. He was only ten years old, but he was bound and determined to prove that he was the right choice for the future Emperor. Included in his speech was a rather lengthy monologue about his sister's bravery and emotional fortitude. At the end he announced that he aspired to be just as strong as she had been in the face of such cruelty as her own people had imposed on her for years. It was a skillful admonition of those who had once scorned her, and it worked magnificently.

Who could scoff in the face of such a cunning reprimand from a ten-year-old boy?

A knock at her bedroom door woke Alys from her reverie. She hastily rose to answer it, tripped and fell from the sheets tangled about her ankles, and was not surprised when Jak came breezing in before being granted permission. "Have you seen my husband?" she asked testily.

"Daric?" Alys frowned as she began unwrapping the sheets from her ankles. Why, in the name of the blessed Light, had she never been this clumsy at the Thorikell Castle? "Why would I know where he is?"

"He's been gone all day. He's been disappearing with the boys all week, something about a project to keep them entertained, but they always join me for lunch. I have been quite thoroughly stood up, and I demand to know where he is hiding."

"I am afraid I cannot help you."

"I know. I just wanted a friendly face to come searching with me so I don't end up strangling him and making myself a widow when I finally locate him," Jak explained.

With a wistful smile, Alys rose from the floor and wove her arm through Jak's. "When put like that, how can I refuse my assistance? Come. We'll see if your parents have seen him, and if not, then we will confront my parents, and if that does not work, we can always consult Elder Stuart. The man could find a sewing needle in a pile of straight pins."

The two women went off in search of Jak's husband. Alys was fairly certain that Jak was overreacting, that surely someone had seen Daric and could point them in his direction. Unfortunately, the hunt did not prove quite so fruitful. Not only had Jak's mother not seen Daric all day, but her own husband had gone missing as well. She joined the hunt. They found Ariella in the dining hall, eating lunch. Demmi was nowhere in sight, but this was not as odd as the fact that the Empress was joined only by her female offspring. Not a prince was in sight, with the exception of Amos and Matai, who were just tots.

The Galatéa females, with the exception of the always-elusive Ilana, stalked out of the dining room, joining Alys and Jak's ranks as they sought out the Elders. They were headed for Elder Stuart, a man with the uncanny ability to locate anyone or anything merely by searching for their 'essence,' as he called it. A former Elder had once had that same ability, as well as the power to project himself to that person wherever he happened to be. Unfortunately, the man ended up being a traitor. Stuart was his replacement.

The old man was never reached, though. Gittell smoothly intercepted them just outside of the hallway that spilled into the main entryway.

"If you had a husband to miss, I would ask if you knew where he was," Ariella mumbled grumpily.

"Oddly enough, as the only one without a man to miss, I believe I know where all of the wayward males can be found," she said with a gentle smile.

"Then tell us so we can get the business of wringing their necks over with," Vesna demanded.

The smile never wavered. "Tell you? My dear girl, I intend to show you. I wouldn't miss this for the world."

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Will had never been so nervous in his life. The nerves he had experienced from every battle combined could not equal up to the restlessness he was feeling now as he waited for Alys to arrive. It would have been simple enough just to send someone after her, but Will had not wanted her to have any idea that some surprise lay in wait for her. Best to intrigue her with a host of missing males and hope for a positive reaction.

Whatever happened, Will would never regret his decision to stay and prove his worth to Alys's father. The past week had been exhausting, but at the same time he'd formed more bonds in such a short time than he had in his entire life. He enjoyed the easygoing companionship of Jak's husband Daric, as well as the antics of his boy crew. Nick, for all his testiness, was a riot whenever the topic of women was broached. He'd never met such a shy, bumbling lad.

Alys's brothers reacted to him with a wide range of emotions. The younger ones were thoroughly impressed with him except for Danyl, who, at the age of ten, was wise beyond his years. At first the boy seemed frightened of him, but as time passed, he came to accept him with a strange gravity that affected Will deeply.

The older brothers were just like their father, and he was difficult enough to deal with. Will had been convinced from the very first day that the two of them would never get along. They were too similar, destined to always be butting heads. Demmi was stubbornly convinced that Will was not good enough for his daughter. Will not only felt otherwise, but he was stubbornly convinced that Demmi did not fully appreciate his daughter.

The project proved otherwise. Both men threw themselves so arduously into the task that by the end of the week, neither doubted the other's love for Alys. The two men could not stand in the same room without shouting at each other, something that had happened often over the past week. Only once had the shouting resulted in blows, but Will's extensive training and wind skills allowed him to manage a standstill. Anyone else would have been beaten to a pulp by the enraged Demmi.

If only his brother hadn't opened his big mouth and told everyone how they had all thought Alys was his mistress when he first brought her to the castle…

But now the project was completed. Demmi and Will had reached a tentative truce, mainly since the beastly half-demon had been unable to trounce him, and Alys's older brothers were now as thoroughly impressed with him as the younger ones. Soon Will would depart from this place and leave behind these newfound friendships, possible forever. If Alys chose to marry him, there was no doubt in his mind that he would cross paths with Demmi in the future. She would want to visit her family, and since Daric was a sea captain and his wife was blessed with wind powers, there was no doubt that they would come to visit as well. If she chose to marry him.

It was all up to Alys.

They heard the women approaching before they actually saw them. The room they were in was a rather large, unfinished section beneath the palace that had once been a part of the intricate maze of dungeons. Crime was not so rampant in the Holy City that the palace needed a great deal of cells to contain prisoners, so during Ariella's father's reign, a portion of the dungeons was demolished to be converted into a meeting room. Unfortunately, a little matter involving spies and assassination attempts on the Emperor's daughter had distracted him from finishing his purpose. Now the room was perfect for Alys's surprise.

"What do you suppose they are doing, hiding down here?" He did not recognize the testy voice, but it sounded young and rich. One of Alys's sisters, perhaps, or maybe even the infamous Jak.

"No doubt trying to scare us on purpose. I never would have thought our men and boys would be clever enough to orchestrate a prank of this magnitude, but I suppose that if my mother in law is involved…" That had to be Ariella, Alys's mother. Her words sent quite a few spines stiffening in indignation. Every man and boy in the room was quite proud of the fact that they'd managed to keep this a secret from not only Alys, but all of the womenfolk. They didn't like to think that it was all Gittell's doing, though Will knew that without a female to help cover up their actions, secrecy would have been impossible.

"What in the world…?" The breathy whisper came from a short, leanly muscled woman with curly black hair and big blue eyes. As she stepped down from the narrow staircase leading into the open space beneath the palace, her jaw grew slack. The other indignant wives and sisters followed quickly, ramming into each other as they drew to a halt at the bottom of the stairs.

"Really, could someone let me pass so I can see what the fuss is about?"

That voice Will would have recognized anywhere. The sweet, impatient grumble of his beloved Alys.

No one quite seemed to know what to think, though they did part for Alys. Will could tell from their eyes that each woman was trying to decide if the room had been designed for them. In the end, no one seemed to care. All eyes were misty. But it wasn't them Will was trying to impress.

Alys took two hesitant steps forward, her feet sinking into the soft green carpet beneath her feet. It was not real grass, but it substituted well enough considering the circumstances. Nothing could grow so deep underground with no sunlight, so everything in the room was beautifully fake. Alys's older brothers, Raul and Efrem had designed the landscape, using Daric's crew to help make the fake flowers and bushes. Danyl was responsible for most of the artwork on the walls, all decorated with trees to make the room look like a secluded glade in the forest.

The most strenuous aspect of the project lay in the center of the room, however. Chiseled out of a cold stone floor was a small, but perfectly usable, swimming pond.

Alys looked up at the crowd of men, her eyes missing Will entirely. He had chosen to seclude himself behind one of the fake trees so his presence would not alter her reaction. Her eyes landed and remained on her father.

"Is this…for me?" she asked quietly, hopefully.

Demmi smiled at her. "Think of it as a gift of love," he told her, for that was how Rakyr had been poetically describing the project all week. It was Will's gift of love to Alys.

The young woman's golden eyes filled with sparkling moisture. Will watched with anticipation as she tried to keep her reaction in check. He could see that her fists were clenched, and her demon hand was drawing a slow trickle of blood from her sharpened nails. Then…and then…

One single tear fell at the same instant Alys raised her hand to hide her smile. She ran into her father's arms, and he held her tightly against his chest as he stroked her hair. "I love you, Alys," he whispered. "Don't you ever forget that. Or me."

"Or any of us," her brothers added, the elders looking a little awkward now that they realized their adversary had won.

"All right, Thorikell! I concede."

Her father's words made Alys's spine stiffen, and she stepped back from the hulking daimon so she could look up at him with eyes widened by shock. "Father, what…"

Demmi jerked his head back, and Alys followed the direction to where Will was now leaning against one of the fake trees. He looked incredibly relaxed, though he hid his shamefully shaking and sweating hands well.

"Come along, then," Edward said gruffly, assuming the position of leader. "I believe these two have some business to discuss." He had to push a few of the Galaté sons along, with Rakyr's help, and they all had to drag the women out of there. No one wanted to miss the lovers' reunion, but in the end, the room was cleared and Will was left alone with his woman. And she would be his. Looking at her now, he could not allow himself to think of any other outcome.

"This was your idea?" Alys guessed, her voice choked.

"You said you wanted one here."

"But why…I mean, when you didn't try to stop me from leaving, I thought…"

"I was unconscious," he explained. "Markah drugged me. I came as soon as I read your letter."

She looked up at him, eyes still misty with emotion. "I was afraid you would think I had left you. When I found out Dmetri was a traitor, I was so scared you would hate me."

"I did think you had left me," he admitted. "But it doesn't matter now. All that matters is that I want you back. We all want you back, Alys."

"I thought I would never see you again." She looked around herself at the faux greenery and the beautiful swimming pond with artificial lights beneath the water's surface. "This is too much. That you would go so far just for me, and my father and brothers as well…I don't deserve this!"

"You deserve everything I have to offer. I cannot lose you Alys, not again. And not knowing what you'll be giving me soon."

She looked up at him, her face a mask of confusion. "How did you know?"

He smiled down at her, feeling a surge of joy at the knowledge that his child was already growing inside of her. "Cristi," he explained.

Alys suddenly looked crestfallen. "Poor Cristi," she murmured. "She must be devastated to know that her vision did not come true."

"On the contrary. My sister told me that you were the answer I sought. I thought I was looking for a way to end the war, but I wasn't. All I really wanted was to belong. I belong with you." He dropped to his knees in front of her, clasping her hands tightly with his. "Marry me, Alys."

"Why? Because I am carrying your child? Because your family wants me back? Or because you are too possessive to see me with another man?" she wondered, pressing him for the truth.

He looked up at her, and without hesitation he said, "Because I love you."

She gifted him with a smile unlike any other he had ever witnessed. Alys had a smile for everything, after all. A smile for happiness, a smile for sadness. A smile of unsurety, a smile of certainty.

But this. This was the first time he had ever seen her smile of love.

"We will be married here. In Galatéa," she announced, and before he could argue, she continued, "and then we will be married again, in Shayark. And we will come back here twice a year to visit my family. And we will name our firstborn daughter Isabelle, after my mother."

"As our firstborn is going to be a son, that is hardly relevant, but do you have any other demands?" he asked as he stood and crushed her against him.

"Just one."

"And what is that?"

"Don't ever leave me."

He pulled away and looked down at her with more intensity than he had ever shown for that cursed civil war. "Never," he swore.

And he never did.