Author's Note : hey, people ! There's something definitely strange going on with my FP account's Document Manager, ie I can't edit my document. Therefore, I'm afraid you will have to do without the shiny and careful (or not) lay-out... I can't

More importantly, only Dryad7 gets a cookie.

And last but not least, as my English teachers would say, this chapter is longer, so you should be happy ! Anyway, thank you for reading and please stick with me. Neither I nor this story plan on going on a very long vacation.

This chapter has been beta-read by Jean Clement. Just a HUGE thank you, and please, go read her stories, people ! :D


From the Longman's Dictionary of English Language and Culture:

milestone, n,

1 - a stone at the side of a road, on which is marked the number of miles to the next town.

2 - an important event which changes the course of someone's life, or of history.


Milestones

PART ONE

Prologue

1442-1463, Fifth Dynasty

VII

Later, she reflected upon the matter. One of the questions that came to her mind was, why hadn't the Divine Lord told her? But just as naturally as the question had come, the answer, too, had sprung from her. The Lord wasn't supposed to help her all the time. She was supposed to be able to take care of such things, if she deserved to be called his Chosen. It wasn't his role to bend down to assist her; it was hers to rise up to whatever situation came up.

From there, a resolve formed in her heart. She had failed him one time. She would strive not to do it again. She would be careful. She would plan ahead.

She would be worthy of him.

Also, Ren tried to find a way to right her wrongs. Not knowing whom to trust, she went to the High Priest and told him everything. 'You have influence,' she said. 'In the assembly. If you propose Label's sentence to be revoked…'

'I can't. It is true that the High Priest has influence but I can't propose any motion.'

'But you could ask a Paradigm to do it for you.'

'What for? Everyone still thinks you are in favour of Label's exile. Your status trumps mine.'

'And what if I said I changed my mind? After all, that's chaotic, isn't it?'

He seemed pensive. 'Why not? It might work.'

In the end, the High Priest proposed the mention and she retracted her previous statement. There was much debate in the assembly for a few days, but they did win, though by a mere vote. Paradigms of Chaos were sent to retrieve Label, who had vanished. Seeing them ride off into the snowy distance assuaged Ren's guilt a little.

After that, she went to Helen and apologized for leaving her like that. The blond girl was mortified that Ren would ask for forgiveness, insisting that it was her who had been in the wrong, although why she would think that, Ren had no idea.

She discovered that Helen was indeed shy, but that she opened up easily once one prodded. She learned that the blonde had lived at Headquarters from the age of six and that she loved music. She knew much lore from all around the Empire, old legends and tales sung by bards. She would often get carried away revealing them to Ren –with masterful storytelling– then she would become self-conscious and interrupt herself in the middle of the tale, turning red, until Ren asked her to continue. They spent hours in the library, though where Ren chose to study every possible topic, pushed by her love of learning, Helen elected fiction and poetry most of the time.

Their tentative friendship seemed to signal to the others that the "adaptation period" was effectively over, and though it was awkward at first, a sense of camaraderie soon settled over her class. Months rolled by, the routine only broken by Hugh's arrival, who, though awed at the news that Ren was the Mardarian, spent time with her from time to time.

Lessons steadily got harder. In physical training, the masters had made her try many weapons until she had settled for short swords and daggers, both in melee and for throw. She hadn't been too good with bows, but they discovered that it was because of her long-range eyesight, which wasn't very good. She was sent to the priests to get healed, but even after it was fixed, she didn't like the bow much, though she also trained with it at the insistence of the teachers. The religion lessons were replaced by private sessions with the High Priest, during which he taught her formalities, like how to hold a mass, a funeral, a celebration of birth… 'Of course', he added mischievously, 'that is the orderly way of things.' He also went with her over the Lady's two sacred texts, so that Ren could know exactly what the other side of things was. In geography, they went from learning the Empire's geography to learning its basic customs and peoples; she learned, for example, that Bluerune Empire, which she had thought very homogenous in Barley, actually harbored many ethnic groups. The majority of people were the one she, Helen, Clad, the High Priest and many other Paradigms belonged to, called the Umrin. The imperial family was of the Emzin population, easily recognizable by their slanting eyes and their smooth skin, which was the smallest group, to the point that anyone of such origin could claim imperial or noble blood. But there were others: the Maoglis, a nomad people divided into tribes, who had ebony skin; the Adorans, dark-skinned and dark-haired people like Alanzo and their cousins the Khorans, who had the same features but caramel skin; and finally, the Vondraks, tall and blond, descendants of the Vons and who were encountering persecutions because of the conflict. She started to read files about cases, to try and understand the dynamics of the assembly. She rarely read people's files, though, except for the most influential personalities. Because she still read a lot outside of lessons, she began to excel in every subject. She gained the reputation of a brilliant albeit reserved child.

Life settled peacefully for her and months flew by.

However, during her eleventh year, an event shook the country to its core.

The emperor died.

The week following the news was a very busy one for the Paradigms of Chaos. Many propositions were presented at assembly, some stupid in Ren's mind – like kill the heir to the throne; after all, said heir had the support of thirty million people –, others less so. Amongst the ploys to gain power in court for the Paradigms, who, she learned, were infiltrated or had informants everywhere, there was a desire to wage war on the Vons, who had ravaged the region of Murlith for three entire years despite the protection its Northern neighbor, Osmond, had tried to set up. This wish wasn't shared by everyone in the Paradigms; there were some who stood ready to fight alongside the Vons. But one thing was clear: they needed to do something.

That particular matter had always preoccupied her. After all, Murlith was her childhood region, and though she had few good memories of Barley, she had some, and she had often wondered what had happened to her friends. When the emperor had fallen sick a few months back, he had asked a promise of his son, which was to keep Bluerune Empire peaceful at all cost. So, she had focused on the problem of making the imperial prince wage war after his coronation. She had spent long hours mulling over it, planning. Therefore, when the emperor died and his offspring was enthroned, she was ready. And more importantly, she had the Divine Lord's permission.

The first thing she did was go to the High Priest.

He was in his quarters, door open, leafing through a book which she recognized as one that had been in the former Mardarian Luck's shelf. She knocked to make her presence known and smiled when he looked up. 'Hello, Ren,' he saluted. 'How are you?'

'I'm fine, sir. Thank you. How about you?'

'I am old and tired, but I am fine. Come in, come in.' She did so and closed the door. 'Forgive me if I don't stand up, my knees are hurting.'

'Of course, sir.'

He gestured for her to sit. 'What can I do for you, Ren?'

'Sir… I need your help with something. I would like to propose a motion to the assembly.'

He blinked, a little surprised. 'You are too young, Ren. You may be the Mardarian, but one has to be a, well, a full-fledged Paradigm of Chaos to propose a motion.'

'I know, sir. That is why I came to you. Nobody would take me seriously. However, if you ask someone who usually follows your opinions, he or she would probably make the proposition for you.'

'And what would it be?' If anything, the High Priest was curious. It was the first time she got involved in the assembly since the Label case so it had to be important.

'The emperor has died. His successor is Fang Tong-hu, his twenty-two year old son. He is young and inexperienced, and he will look for support amongst his family. His favorite uncle Fang Fei-hua would be the best adviser, wouldn't he?'

'I don't quite follow you.'

'I know,' she smiled a little sheepishly. 'But please bear with me for now.'

'Well, I admit Fang Fei-hua has more experience and it is well-known he has a lot of affection for his nephew.'

'How would the newly instated emperor react if this same uncle died by the hand of the Vons?'

A dawning comprehension lit the High Priest's eyes. 'I see. Yes, he would be terribly afflicted, I expect. I daresay, afflicted enough to wage war on the Vons.'

'Yes.'

'But that would mean killing the man. Surely, Ren, you haven't seriously considered that!'

She saw horror and reproach in his face and she shook her head to reassure him. She truly hadn't for a second meant for Fang Fei-hua to die. 'Sir, why would we need to kill this man? I have thought of a solution which, if the Divine Lord helps me, should work. But you must allow me to go along on the mission.'

'What? No, that's out of the question. It is far too dangerous.'

'But sir, if the Paradigm chosen by the assembly goes to Fang's house and summons me there, I'll be in no danger. And after the mission is done, you can summon us back to Headquarters. Also, if the Paradigm sent there could be someone ready to listen to me, like Hugh for example, it would be perfect.'

The High Priest stayed silent for a time. Ren gazed at him. He seemed as he had said. Tired and old. Finally, he stirred, as if waking from a long sleep. 'You do understand,' he whispered almost mournfully, 'that you are asking me to trust you, an eleven-year-old child, beyond belief?'

'I do, sir.' She went on, carried away by an impulse that she couldn't suppress – she could not fail now. She had to convince him. 'But I'm also asking you to trust that if I didn't believe it my duty as the Chosen, I wouldn't do it.'

'I see.' He put his elbows on the table, folded his hands and put his chin on top, thinking. 'I will do as you ask.'

'Thank you, High Priest.'

She rose on trembling knees, performed a deep bow and left, her heart beating fast. Her plan had been set into motion.

Now, the only thing she had left to do, she considered with a mix of irony and anxiety, was to succeed.

oOo

The High Priest was true to his word. He approached one of his faithful followers and exposed Ren's plan. In return, it was presented to the assembly and approved. Later, the Paradigm leaked out that it had been the Mardarian's idea. Ren was slightly annoyed because it meant most of the Headquarters would stop seeing her as a simple kid, but so long as nothing happened to hinder the mission, she didn't mind much.

Everything had been arranged as they'd decided, and now she was waiting in her chambers to meet Hugh in the hall at about eight. An informant of the Paradigms' had been dispatched not too far from Fang Fei-hua's house and given two Coins of Summoning so that there would be no need for a long trip. At the moment, Ren was huddled in a travelling cloak the tailor had made her, her shaking hands folded in her lap as she thought furiously on what could go wrong.

Her mind was running in circles with panic and she felt almost nauseous. What she feared most wasn't getting caught – she and Hugh would be summoned back, eventually – but rather, it was the thought that, if she failed, Fang fei-hua would have to be killed.

She would have an innocent man's death on her conscience.

Ren. Breathe.

She did as she was told, inhaling and exhaling deeply, thankful for the Lord's presence in her head. At the back of her mind, she wondered how she would do if she didn't have him. "But then again, there aren't many eleven-year-old children who might or might not get a man killed by their actions."

You're right. I am sorry. This is the weight of being my Chosen.

"Do not apologize, my Lord!" she thought, startled and horrified. "You brought me back to life. You gave me the greatest gift. Being your Chosen is not a burden. It is an honour. And it is my duty, that's all."

The god chuckled in her mind at the force of her conviction.

I see.

Silence fell once again inside of her and his presence retreated. But she felt her Mark flare under her emerald green scarf. Since it did so randomly, Ren wasn't sure it meant something, but she could have sworn it was a sign of encouragement.

A little calmer, she looked out of the window to keep herself from dozing off –she hadn't slept much these last few nights, worrying for the mission. It was winter and the night had already fallen. Outside, the stars stood out against the velvety black sky and the snow glistened in their light. The dark shapes of fir-trees emerged out of obscurity like menacing warriors. The mountains, however, were nowhere to be seen, cloaked in darkness. The world was black, and white, and a myriad of shades of grey.

The night belonged to the Lady. It was "a time to release us from her husband's harsh glare", as the poem went. Ren wondered what life would be like if the sun suddenly stopped coming up every day. She shivered.

And then, it was time.

Snuffing out the candle that she had been using both for light and time-keeping, she opened the door and looked out. There was no one in the hall. She slipped out, on the watch, walking as silently as she could in her boots, hugging the walls in case anyone arrived. Her breath came in hitched gasps and her heart beat hard in her chest. But she kept an iron grip on her panic and forced it down.

She would not fail.

She could not fail.

Ren stepped into the hall safely. Strangely enough, there wasn't been anyone to be seen.

When they heard her, the High Priest and Hugh turned to greet her. She smiled at them, wiping any trace of fear from her face and voice. 'Good evening.'

'Good evening, Ren,' the old man answered, echoing Hugh. 'I trust you had no trouble?'

'I didn't, sir. May I ask, why is it that there is nobody around?'

His weathered features took on a solemn expression. 'One of us has died, child. Most of the Paradigms are at the funeral, the others are keeping to their chambers out of respect. That is, those who are not on a mission,' he added.

Ren had learned, through her sessions with the High Priest, that the Lord's followers didn't follow the imperial custom for burial. Instead, they chose to cremate the body. When she'd asked the reason for the difference, he had sighed and said, "There's not much difference, really. However, it is symbolic. Being buried means returning to water and earth, the Divine Lady's elements. Whereas being cremated is returning to fire and air, which belong to the Divine Lord."

'Oh. I'm sorry if I kept you from going,' Ren said, turning to the tall man, who shrugged.

'I didn't know him all that much. Besides, what we're doing is important.'

'Indeed' the High Priest agreed. 'Well, I'll leave you two here. You should be summoned any minute, now. I have to return to my chambers, since I'm supposed to be ill and abed.'

'You're ill?'

The old man chuckled. 'No? I only pretended to so that my assistant would cover for me.'

Ren racked her brains. The High Priest's assistant, if she remembered correctly, was a narrow-minded man with a crooked nose and no patience. She winced and hoped that if by chance she died tonight, he wouldn't the one to preside over her funeral.

'I'll be going, then. Good luck to you two,' the old man saluted, patting Ren's head before leaving.

Hugh gestured for her to come closer. 'Here you go, Ren.' He handed her over one of the Coins of Summoning. She slipped the chain around her neck and the warm metal rested lightly against her skin.

'Thank you.' She smiled at him. Though he had been more than surprised to learn that she was the Mardarian, his attitude towards hadn't changed, something which she appreciated.

'So how are the les–'

The giant didn't have time the finish. Like the first time Ren had travelled that way, there was no warning before the world changed completely around them. One second they were at Headquarters, the next, they were… somewhere else.

As it was, it meant that they were at the heart of Bluerune Empire, in the centre region of Gyle, approximately sixty miles from the capital city, Iolit. They were now standing in the middle of the woods, staring at a rather short man with coppery hair. Crooked teeth showed when he smiled. He bowed.

'I am Janir, your informant, at your service.'

If he was surprised to see a child with Hugh in place of a real partner, he didn't show it.

'Good evening, Janir. Thank you for your service,' the giant said, placing a gold coin into his palm. 'And for your silence, also.' Another coin exchanged hands and Janir nodded.

'I won't say a word.'

Hugh smiled. It was a cold, hard smile 'You better not,' he said, an edge in his voice.

'I understand,' Janir said, a little shakily but otherwise calm. Ren was impressed. She reckoned that had she been in the informant's place, she would have quailed in her boots. 'The manor is up this way. You'll be arriving by the back way.'

He bowed again and left, his silhouette disappearing quickly in the dark.

'Hugh!' she called. 'I have something to ask of you.'

'Yes?'

'I'd like to have your word that you will not disclose whatever happens tonight to anyone – not even the High Priest.'

The Paradigm was grave. She had guessed right: promises held much importance in his eyes. 'Why?'

'The less people know the better. I need you to promise me or what we're doing here tonight makes no sense.'

He mulled over it for a little while, then swore, though he seemed none too pleased that she had forced his hand. Her heart gave a twinge of guilt, but she ignored it. She had done as she must.

The giant shook his head. 'Let's go, then.'

She nodded and followed him through the trunks. Here, there weren't any fir-trees, only pines which looked like dead, twisted hands springing forth from the soil. The cold, bare earth crunched under her feet and she noticed with a bit of wonder that Hugh almost didn't make a sound. Despite some slight shuffles here and there, the forest was silent for the most part, as if winter had frozen everything in its strong grip. The night air was fresh, but she didn't feel nearly as cold as she had back at Headquarters. She figured that was the result of living in the mountains. There wasn't any snow, either.

They walked for a few minutes then the woods started to grow sparse. She could make out the outline of a building from where she was. The tall Paradigm stopped. He turned around and pointed up at the ramifications of a nearby tree. 'Come on. I'll lift you.'

'Y-you mean we're climbing that tree?'

'Yes. I mean we're climbing that tree.'

Ren approached hesitantly, stepped on his folded hands and, biting back an exclamation of surprise, embraced the bough that was quickly coming at her. She laboured for a time, probably looking all but ridiculous with her legs dangling out in the air, clinging desperately at the limb as she prayed not to fall. She finally managed to hoist herself up, sitting not too assuredly on the precarious seat. 'I'm up,' she called to Hugh.

'So I see,' his amused voice responded in her ear.

She jumped and turned around so fast that she had to steady herself with the tree trunk lest she fall. 'Don't scare me like that!' she whispered, then couldn't help remarking with awe, 'You're really fast.'

He made a noncommittal sound. 'It's nothing special. You learn these kinds of things as an Apprentice.'

'Oh.' Ren glanced about. The pines had lost their foliage and nothing remained but the naked limbs of the tree. Bits of cloudlike mist gathered around at their edge, highlighted by the silvery light of the waxing moon, and tales of ghosts and spirits come back from the dead leapt to the front of her mind. It was a perfect night for such things.

'It's creepy, here.' Hugh snorted at the childish complaint. 'Where do we go, then?'

'Over there,' he said, designating behind her. 'We have to get closer to the manor.'

'Alright, but why in a tree?'

'Do you suppose that we can knock and enter via the front door? There's a tree whose branches aren't far off from the second-floor window. We'll be able to steal in easily. Now let's go and keep quiet.'

Ren flushed red, glad of the darkness. She obviously hadn't prepared as much as she had thought. Humbled, she followed his lead, trudging clumsily on the boughs whereas he seemed to dance. She suddenly felt grateful to the masters in physical training who had often insisted on testing their balance. If she had had any ounce less, she most likely would have stumbled and plummeted down to her death. It wasn't easy navigating in the darkness; smaller branches which had slipped past her notice jumped at her, assaulted her arms and legs, making her stagger. Several times, she scratched her hands and wrists trying to stop herself from falling.

The shape of the building grew more and more precise, until the manor loomed a few metres from them. Hugh stopped. 'That's the corridor to Fang's study,' he hissed, his voice just short of a breath. 'Every day, at nine, he spends an hour alone in there before going to bed.'

Ren felt a rush of appreciation for his presence. Apparently, he had anticipated all the things she hadn't considered, such as their target's schedule. 'Thanks, Hugh.'

'Welcome. You're new at this, after all.'

'What should we do, now?'

'We wait for Fang Fei-hua to pass, then we steal in.'

And so they stayed side by side, crouching near the trunk so as to stay invisible, waiting. Their breaths formed small, white clouds as their stillness made them grow colder. Finally, they saw a red-clad man walk by the window. Ren tensed. The sound of a closing latch was heard. 'Stay here,' the giant whispered. They waited a little more and she could feel her heart beating in her throat right next to her mark. Then suddenly, Hugh was a flurry of blurred movements. She blinked and he was in the corridor, the window neatly open. There was a slight struggle, then the Paradigm took a step back, adjusting his body to support another weight. Ren's eyes grew wide. He was carrying the body of a guard.

'Come on, now, quick.'

She did as ordered and closed the window behind her. 'Is he dead?'

'Knocked out,' he managed between gritted teeth. With effort, he hauled the body onto his shoulder. 'Now. When we go in, you let me do what I must to make sure he keeps quiet, alright?'

'I will.'

'Take the ropes at my waist.'

A little surprised to find them there as she hadn't noticed them before, she complied.

'Let's go.' They approached as quietly as possible. Hugh put his ear to the door, and then he burst in. A second to take in the lay of the room, another to drop the unconscious man on the floor, and a third to cross to the gaping man near the hearth and hold a knife to his throat. It was frightening to see exactly how efficient Paradigms of Chaos were .

'Wha-' the man began.

'If you value your life you will shut up. Are you Fang Fei-hua? The truth now.'

The man nodded. Ren let out a sigh of relief, came in and closed the door. She glanced at the body lying on the lush carpet covering the ground, then hoisted him upright and bound him firmly, tightening the knots.

'Gag him, too,' Hugh said, and waited till she was done to continue. He didn't sound at all like his pleasant self. He seemed like an assassin ready to kill in cold blood. 'Now, you see that kid, there? She has enough heart to offer you a way out of your predicament. So I advise you listen to her. If you have to talk, whisper, because if you so much as squeal, you die. Are we clear?'

Fang Fei-hua's expression was stony. 'We are.'

'Good.' Hugh sheathed his weapon and placed himself by the door, nudging her closer. The study was the same size as her quarters. There was a massive desk covered in parchments, two shelves full of books, two comfortable-looking armchairs and a fireplace in which the fire leapt joyfully, twisting and licking the logs. This single room was worth more than Denker's whole house in Barley.

Ren nodded at the man; mystified and slightly amused, he nodded back, seemingly unfazed by assassins in his study. 'Child.'

She stared at him for a moment, noting how his features were different from anything she had seen before, how the slanting eyes gave a piercing air to his gaze. He was dressed in a rich, heavy red robe with wide cuffs which fell to his feet. He went to fold his arms inside his sleeves, but Hugh dissuaded him. 'Keep your hands where I can see them,' the giant warned.

She raised her chin. 'My name is Ren.' She reached up and tugged at her scarf, letting it loosen and flutter to the floor. The man gasped at her mark. 'And I am the Divine Lord's Chosen.'

That shut him up better than any threat. 'I'm listening' he said. His tone held awe, horror, and not a little bit of fear.

'You are aware of the Vons rampaging across the Empire, sir, are you not?'

'Yes.'

'And of the promise your nephew made to the late emperor?'

'Yes,' he replied, frowning. Clearly, he was wondering where the conversation would lead to.

'The Vons have already pillaged Murlith. Next, they will settle there, and attack the whole of the Empire. I cannot let that happen.'

Surprisingly, he sighed. 'That is something we agree on, young lady. But I'm afraid Tong-hu is far from ready to listen to reason. The death of his father struck him hard, you see. Despite all my advice, he doesn't want to break his promise.'

'I know. That is why I devised a scheme. Tonight, you will disappear and be dead to the eyes of the country. The loss of his favourite uncle will be tragic to the emperor, especially in the wake of his father's passing. If we make it seem as if the Vons did it, he would stand ready to avenge you, would he not?'

'I think so,' Fang Fei-hua answered, gaze rapt but expression blank. Still, the slightest tremble of his voice suggested a simmering anger boiling inside of him.

'Yet I cannot let innocents die for such a purpose. That is why I came along, sir. I have a way to make my scheme work, with you staying alive. However, you have to cooperate with me.'

Mistrust battled hope in his face. 'Explain yourself.'

Ren nodded. 'My friend here will take this man's livery, then unbind him and dump him in the forest. It is more likely for Vons to kill him, but, well… Then Hugh will spread word that there is a fire and make everyone evacuate. In the panic, no one will notice the guard is different. Meanwhile, I shall set the house on fire and leave a few Von trinkets to appear credible. After that, both you and I will escape into the forest. Hugh will then join us. When we get back to Headquarters, I will summon you and you shall settle in the community nearby. As long as you keep quiet about your origins and pretend to be faithful to the Lord, nobody will bother you.'

She stopped to catch her breath and he seized the opportunity to ask, 'What of my wife and children?'

'After your funeral, I can arrange for a letter from you explaining everything to be passed down to them. They must be convincing in their grief, you see. Then, they must wait until the uproar has died down, and they can disappear as well, to live with you. I daresay six months should be enough. By that time the emperor should be too busy to worry about where they are. Of course, if they try to contact him after the truth has been disclosed, they shall die.'

Silence greeted her. The emperor's uncle had a pensive expression.

'So I would have to sacrifice my rank, my belongings and the better part of my family so that my nephew will wage war on the Vons,' he summarized.

'Yes. But you would be alive, with your loved ones. And you would save a great many lives.' She paused then looked away, slightly embarrassed. 'Please understand that I would not do this if I didn't think I had to. But for the sake of the people, I cannot let the Vons ravage the land and kill or enslave everyone.'

'And if I don't accept?'

'The plan is the same, except that your family would still have their status. You, however, would be dead.'

'I see.' He sighed and turned slightly to stare into the fire. 'Can't we leave the house as it is?'

'A disappearance is not enough. In a fire, we don't have to provide a body. Also, mere murder isn't the Vons' way. The scheme must be plausible.'

'I assure you,' Hugh intervened, amused, 'that we have beds and books, too, if that is your concern.'

The other man shook his head. 'And you expect me to answer you standing a few feet away from death?'

'Why, thank you,' Hugh said. 'What a nice nickname.'

Fang Fei-hua glared at him in answer. He stayed for a long while lost in thought, still watching the flames devour the logs in the hearth. Then his face hardened with determination. Ren could see he had come to a decision.

'I have served the empire all my life. I was my brother's most trusted adviser and I helped train the new emperor. If now I am of better use to my nephew by leaving his side… so be it. I will do as you ask.'

Ren and the emperor's uncle averted their eyes as Hugh stripped down and put on the guard's outfit. He then hoisted the body onto his shoulder. Before he left, however, he came towards her and gave her a knife. Then he tugged on Fang's collar. 'You better not think of hurting her. 'Cause if you do, I'll track you down and make you pay tenfold.'

'It is not in me to harm a child. Lord's Chosen or no,' the other replied stiffly.

The giant turned to Ren. 'Wait fifteen minutes, then throw a torch in there and go.'

With no further ado, he was off. Under the puzzled gaze of Fang Fei-hua, she lit a candle. It was the only way she knew to keep track of time. Silence stretched between them like an invisible but palpable curtain. She was embarrassed and saddened that her plan left him so little freedom, but she was determined above all. What she was doing wasn't fair, but it was better than what most Paradigms would have proposed. Besides, it wasn't fair that innocent lives should be sacrificed because of a dumb promise either.

'I'm rather surprised that you would care for the people of the Empire… Ren, was it?'

'It is.' A smile tugged at the corner of her lips. 'Actually, you are surprised the Lord would care for the people of the Empire.'

'Well… Yes,' he admitted, though he did not shy away from her gaze.

'Because he is a malevolent deity who brings terrible hardships to men and only fools and murderers would follow him.' She closed her eyes then, willing to put the lie to the words she had pronounced. 'I will only say this,' she added, opening her eyes to look at him fully. 'Appearances can be deceiving. All is not as it seems. I expect you will find it so, in the community.'

He stays silent for some time, no doubt thinking of his family. Already, cries of alarm and panic could be heard. 'Do all the Paradigms of Chaos obey you?'

'What?' She was so stunned at the idea that she laughed. 'No, of course not.'

'Then do they all agree to the scheme you've proposed me?'

'Are you in any danger, you mean?' she asked, catching the underlying interrogation behind his question. 'Hugh and myself are the only ones in the know. And he has sworn an oath not to say anything. I trust him.'

'So I would be in danger if I was discovered.'

'Not necessarily. As long as you are out of the way, you are not bothering anyone among the Paradigms. Besides, you are under my protection, or rather,' Ren added with irony, 'under the protection of my status. And the villagers will cover for you if I tell them that is the Lord's will.'

'And is it?'

She shrugged. 'He agrees war would be better to prevent the Vons from killing more innocents. The imperial soldiers chose their jobs, after all. He also agrees killing you is not the best solution. So, in a way, it isn't a lie. Even if it was, I'd still do it, though. If it keeps you alive, it is worth it.'

Fang Fei-hua frowned. He strode to one of the armchairs, sat down and put his head in his hands. 'I don't know whether to thank or curse you.'

'Then do neither.'

There was once again a pause in the conversation. The noises outside were growing louder. The adult finally looked up. 'Is life agreeable at the community you spoke of?'

'I don't leave there,' Ren replied, keeping an eye on the candle, 'so I wouldn't know. But it is very rare that one of the villagers leaves to go back to society. Most of the time, it is a stray or a Paradigm of Chaos who chooses to do so.'

'You mean anyone can go "back to society" whenever they want?'

She nodded. 'Nobody is forced to stay amongst us.'

'Except me,' he reminded.

'Yes. Except you.'

Ren glanced at the candle. She bent to retrieve her scarf and put it back on, then took a torch from its holder. She still held the knife in the other, just in case. 'It is time.'

She opened the door. Fang Fei-hua stood, went to his shelf and retrieved two books – no doubt the two sacred texts of the Lady. He glanced around a last time, and joined her in the corridor. She threw open the window and gestured for him to climb out. 'So that's how you came in.' Enveloped in his heavy robe, he clumsily crouched on the tree bough and crawled until he had reached the trunk.

Ren turned her back on him, setting alight the tapestry in front of the window before throwing the torch back in the study. Better to make sure it did burn. Her heart gave a pang of regret that such a beautiful manor should be burnt. But she couldn't delay. As fast as she could, she hopped onto the windowsill and the branch. A few minutes later and they were at the meeting point, both a little red-faced and panting. The roaring of the fire could be heard from there, and the glow of the blaze lit the forest as in daylight.

They didn't have to wait long. A sound of footsteps greeted their ears shortly before Hugh arrived.

'I put the guard farther in the forest in case the fire spreads, but I doubt it will. When everyone realized you weren't there,' he began, turning to Fang Fei-hua, 'they all started organizing a water chain. I had the worst trouble to get out of there. Your men love you.'

Fang nodded without reply.

'When will we go back?' Ren asked.

'In a few minutes, I expect. We weren't the fastest.'

'Then, sir, I must give you something.' She turned to the emperor's uncle and withdrew from her pocket a Coin of Summoning. She had the other safely tucked away in her quarters. He took it, obviously puzzled although it didn't show on his face.

'What's that?'

'The means of going back to Headquarters. Sir, please listen to me. We will leave before you. If you throw this away or drop it, you lose your chance of living in the community – and therefore, of staying alive.

'And of course,' Hugh added, 'if you try to reach your family or your men, or even the guard out there, you sign your death sentence.'

He looked between the two of them, irritation and resignation in his eyes. 'I understand. I will not move from here.'

The wait wasn't long, and suddenly Ren and the giant were back at Headquarters. The High Priest looked at them, his expression tired, curious and concerned.

'Are you all right?'

'Yes, High Priest,' Hugh answered, bowing. She imitated him.

'Were you successful?'

'Yes.'

'Both of you?' the old man asked, looking at Ren.

'Yes. He is alive,' she replied, unable to hide her relieved smile.

That was the extent of what the High Priest would know. If things went her way, he would never have any idea that Fang Fei-hua lived right under his nose.

She thanked the two adults and they separated for the night with no further ado. She slipped back to her quarters only to steal away again, the Coin hidden in her sleeve. Silently, she crept outside and headed to the community. Since she was back in the Hundarins, she was definitely colder and she wrapped the loose tails of her cloak around herself to try and muster some warmth. The path to the village was a little risky in normal weather because someone who didn't know the way or who was distracted could easily fall and break a limb. With the snow and ice, it was slippery, and Ren took extra care not to misplace her feet.

She reached the first houses half an hour later and continued until she had reached the Lord's temple. There, she knocked a few times. A man finally opened, heavy-lidded eyes staring at her almost accusingly for disturbing his rest. His expression changed when he saw who was in front of him and he drew back to let her enter. The temple was plunged in darkness.

'Good night. I need to summon someone here. That person – and his family – must remain hidden to anyone coming from the Headquarters, including the High Priest. I expect you and the villagers to cover for him. This is the Lord's will, sir. Do you understand?'

The sleepy fuzziness in the man's eyes seemed to clear somewhat and, stifling a yawn, he nodded. Ren whipped the coin out and with it, performed the necessary trick, which she had picked up from observing the High Priest.

Time passed. Nothing happened.

She frowned. 'It's not working,' she whispered, dismayed.

'Oh, no. It wouldn't.' The priest gave her a sheepish, apologetic look. 'The Lady's magic doesn't work in the Lord's sacred places and vice versa. Therefore, you must step outside to summon that… person.'

'Ah. I will, then.' She was about to do so when the realization hit her – rare were the people amongst the Paradigms of Chaos who knew the Coins were the Lady's work. 'How did you know, I mean, about the Coins?'

His teeth showed white in the obscurity as he smiled. 'Priests' secret. But anyone with an ounce of logic and a grasp of Chaos can guess it easily.'

Ren nodded and went out again, gritting her teeth against the cold seeping into the folds of her clothes. Once again, she did the trick; she barely had time to blink before Fang Fei-hua appeared before her, stunned and not a little disorientated at the sudden change. He started shivering and looked around although nothing but mere shapes could be made out in the night.

She whirled around and entered the temple. After a moment's hesitation, he followed after her.

'Sir.' Both men turned towards her. 'I meant, Master Priest. Would you be so kind as to accommodate this man for the night? Please make sure he gets lodgings later in the day, big enough for a family to live in. And please spread the word to the townspeople.'

'I will, Mardarian. His existence shall remain hidden.'

'Thank you. The Lord will be pleased to know.'

Ren turned to Fang Fei-hua, who had stayed silent through the exchange, peering curiously in the temple, probably trying to form an idea of what it looked like. No doubt he was imagining an ominous altar caked in dried blood from human sacrifices. With an amused smile, she figured he would be disappointed seeing it in daylight.

'You, sir, need to come up with a new name.'

The emperor's uncle nodded. He seemed exhausted and Ren thought with sympathy that leaving his family behind to lament over his death couldn't have been easy. 'I'll just use a common name, then. Anyone will know it to be false, anyway, since my Emzin features betray me too much.'

'Suit yourself. Good night, then.'

'Good night, Mardarian' the priest saluted. Fang Fei-hua merely sighed. As she headed out of the temple, she sighed, too. She felt tired out, down to her very bones. Not only had it been a long night, but it had been nerve-wracking. And it wasn't over: she still had to walk back to Headquarters.

She took to the path distractedly. A cold breeze had picked up and ruffled the treetops, shaking off light snowflakes which cascaded down to the frozen ground. Her legs felt like lead and she walked mechanically, failing to pay proper attention. About halfway through the way, she put her foot down on a patch of ice and felt her ankle vanish from under her. With a startled cry, she fell on the ground.

Grumbling, Ren got back on her feet and tried to take a few steps, but as she expected, her ankle was twisted, maybe even sprained. For a second, she felt like screaming to the heavens. Eventually, she got on her feet, teeth gritted both against the pain and the biting cold, and started hobbling down the path, her mood blackening as she realized she wasn't about to be sleeping anytime soon.

____

Should I try a preview again?

Preview : The success of her scheme had brought her the appreciation of many Paradigms of Chaos. Some were sincere, some had ulterior motives, others were obsequiously fake. But there were less joyous reactions, too. She had noted a few guarded, betimes hostile glances thrown her way. She had noticed the murmurs, the shakes of the head.

The hands oh-so-casually resting on the hilt of a dagger.