The First Palace Day And Shit

5:45 a.m., August 19, 2015

Waking up in the palace was disorienting.

The air outside was crisp and cold; the trees were already frosting over. Most Earthlings found Interlopan weather patterns odd after a few years on Earth. To Chris, who had lived in both worlds and worn both human and animal skins, it was perfectly natural.

After checking that no one was around or watching her window, she climbed onto the sill and swung her legs aimlessly. She could see the roof she had lounged on two days ago, waiting for the guards to catch her. Gods, it felt so long since then.

There was a series of knocks on the door and she turned, recognizing the pattern. "Come in!"

The lock glowed silver faintly, and then it dissipated; Jason stepped in, unsmiling. "Good morning."

"Good morning. You look like shit."

Jason scoffed, but there was a faint smile on his face. "I didn't exactly sleep well. I spent the whole night worrying my mother would come take me away."

She moved over and patted the space next to her. "Come sit."

Jason swung himself up. "Rachel and Amya sent a message by way of the signal. They can't make it, and they're hungry, so I'm going to go back and cook for them after breakfast here. Think you can get away?"

Chris bit her lip, considering. "I could weasel my way out of a few things, if you happened to have a few bookcases you couldn't live without."

A corner of Jason's mouth quirked up, but it quickly dropped, as if he remembered something awful. "You're getting married." He glanced sideways at her. "So much for the happily ever after."

She took in a deep breath of wintry air. "So much for it," she agreed. "It was all a child's dream anyway."

Jason looked he wanted to say something else, but kept silent. If only she was brave enough to tell him how she really felt about him - but that would only cause needless pain.

Fate might have had big plans for her, but she didn't have to like them.

"So," she said at last, if only to banish the silence. "What do you think of Mesmera?"

Those dark brown eyes narrowed slightly. "I think she isn't all she says she is."

Chris frowned. "Elaborate."

Jason flexed his fingers. "Not any fault of hers... but she probably isn't a Westglade. I've seen the pictures of her ancestors, heard the legends.. they were a family who were utterly loyal to the Leventeas. She seems like one of the Leventas themselves. Besides, Raven hovers over her too much. Nobody can bond that quickly with a baby so small. And the Revolt was what - sixteen years ago?" He leveled a stare at her. "Mesmera should be sixteen by now."

Chris considered it. "Are you saying Mesmera could be the Leventea daughter?"

"I'm saying she probably isn't all Raven says she is."

She loosed a breath. "In whatever case, she is our friend. We proceed as such."

"I know." Jason reached out and took her hand. The window was small enough that his legs spanned the entire width. His hand was rough, like her own; callused from years and years of handling both weapons and ladles. "Chris, I just wanted to say... in case this all goes to hell - "

A loud crash cut him off.

Chris tensed, ready to spring off the ledge if needed. Then loud meowing and the sound of someone swearing with impressive fluency in Ilisme cut through the air and she relaxed a bit.

Jason cocked his head. "You want to go check that out?"

"Will it be worth it?"

Jason looked in the direction from which the commotion was sounding, as if he could see all the way to what was happening. "Well, considering that there's a cat and a loud crash involved, I think it'll definitely be worth it." He looked back at her, and she saw that his dark brown eyes were now golden. He smiled mischievously. "Or are you too scared, Alpha?"

Filthy bastard. She said as much to him and he let out a dark laugh before jumping off the windowsill, shifting in midair. Where he landed, a lithe mountain lion stood waiting for her. His voice echoed mockingly in her head: Or are you too scared, Alpha?

She muttered a prayer to Syvril, the goddess of luck and judgement, and jumped.

"It isn't that bad. Hecate will recover, Raven."

Raven looked like she wanted to lecture on just how bad it was. "Mesmera, she isn't just a magic cat. She brings luck to the Melchizedek household! She - "

Mesmera put a hand on Raven's shoulder. "I'm sure she is. Try to calm down. Hecate will be all right."

Raven began to protest, but Mesmera slipped away. Raven loved Hecate; she claimed she'd had Hecate for more than twenty years, but Mesmera had her doubts.

She slowed her pace to a stroll, reveling in the quiet sounds of nature. There, birds sang and twittered, the leaves rustled, the creek running through the garden burbled comfortingly, and paws padded...


They had no shifters on the grounds, owing to an incident when Mesmera was five. Absolutely none. Then two huge black forms came hurtling around the corners, and -

Mesmera screamed.

She backed away, heart racing. All she could see was black fur and sharp teeth and a tongue dripping blood and oh gods oh gods oh gods -

The mountain lions glowed, sort of, and they began to change, the fur disappearing and the faces morphing into human and the paws back to hands and feet, and then Chris and Jason were standing in front of her, looking worried and concerned.

Their heartbeats were loud in Mesmera's ears, as was that of a human's, but she could hear the faint echo of a second one for each, as if their animal forms were so deeply entwined with their human that the heartbeats couldn't help but beat in time.

Chris started forward, looking panicked. "Mesmera, I'm so sorry. Are you - how do you feel?"

Mesmera swallowed, trying to slow her heartbeat down. No doubt they could hear very clearly. "I'm...fine," she managed. "I just... we don't have many shifters in these grounds. It was a bit of a scare."

"Un peu de une choc?" Jason demanded. "You looked pretty terrified to me."

Mesmera straightened, annoyed. "I know it's a crap excuse. It's not like you need to know the truth."

Jason huffed out a laugh. "Dear gods, Chris, she's even snarkier than you."

Chris shot a glare at Jason. To Mesmera, she said curiously, "Why are you out in the grounds so early?"

"Why are you out so early?" What was wrong with her, and why was she so snarky?

Chris tilted her head in a purely feline motion. "We wake up early to go for runs. It's relaxing." She gestured at Mesmera. "Your turn."

Mesmera shrugged. "No reason. The grounds are calming; it's nice to walk about."

Suddenly, the grass at their feet grayed. Chris and Jason leapt back, looking unnerved. There was a hiss and crackle as Jason's hands iced over, and Chris tensed, ready to shift -

The grass kept graying, the colour bleeding out in the way Mesmera had come, and then Raven was hurtling around the corner, and Mesmera was enveloped in her arms.

"Oh my gods," Raven breathed. Mesmera pulled back and realized with a start that her face was wan - bloodless. "Mesmera - what happened? Why did you scream?"

Chris and Jason looked stunned. Mesmera forced herself to meet Raven's gaze. "I'm - I had a scare. It was nothing."

Raven turned to face the other two, who had the good sense to look scared. She said flatly, "What did you do to her?"

Chris swallowed audibly, and Mesmera could imagine the mask Raven was wearing - a cold, unfeeling part of her that she unfurled only when someone had hrut or threatened Mesmera. No matter how many times Mesmera begged her to not do that, that it was unnerving and even more unnecessary, Raven never listened. She went into Protective Mama Bear Mode™ every time Mesmera was so much as scratched.

"I'm.." Chris cleared her throat. "Jason and I heard a crash, with a lot of meowing - " she glanced at Mesmera, " - so we came to see what happened. We didn't realize that, uh, Mesmera was scared of shifters."

"I am not scared of shifters," Mesmera said indignantly. "I can work with them just fine."

Chris and Jason slid incredulous gazes at her, but said nothing.

Raven tilted her head in a predatory manner. "Mesmera, did they try to sneak up on you?"


Raven nodded, seemingly satisfied, but then glanced at the ground. "I should probaby fix the grass." She knelt down, and Mesmera noticed that her hands were stained green. She watched as Raven put her hands to the ground, and the gray turned to a light, wan, green, and then to rich green. The grass looked normal now, and Raven stood up, dusting her clean hands on her dress. "Well, then. Mesmera, really do try not to frighten me like that again. And to answer your question," she said to Chris and Jason, now a faint smile on her lips, "Hecate knocked over one of the marble sculptures into the walls."

"Hecate?" Chris echoed.

"The family cat." Raven inclined her head before setting back the way she came at a much more dignified pace.

Chris said after Raven was out of sight, "Why is she so protective of you?"

Mesmera shrugged. "Some promise she made to my mother before she died - at least, that's what she told me."

Chris looked thoughtful. "Who was your mother? Do you know?"

Mesmera shrugged, feeling that sense of hollowness surge up inside her. "I never asked. Raven's been more than enough." She noticed the tense set of their shoulders and said, feeling a sudden coldness creep into her voice, "Do you think I'm lying to you?"

Chris looked at her levelly. "No, but I think you've been lied to."

Before Mesmera could absorb this, and the fact that shifters couldn't lie to anyone but their own kind and earthlings, Jason broke the silence, shifting on is feet purposefully. "So, you think you can give us a tour?"

8:01 a.m., August 19, 2015

Jason wanted to vomit. He wanted to cleanse his entire guts and never eat here again. Even Sidhe Havana's piss-poor cooks were better than this. (For all their promises of beauty and seduction, they were truly terrible cooks.)

Raven and Irvin were having a silent conversation; it included a lot of glaring on Raven's side. Finally, she said out loud, "That is utter bullshit, and you know it - "

The king interrupted. "So? It's worth a try, at the very least."

Raven narrowed her eyes. "I will not risk the people under my care, least of all Mesmera, you piece of - "

Mesmera, gods above, cleared her throat and Raven fell silent. After a moment, the older woman said, "You can't ask this of me, Irvin. This is too much."

Irvin straightened. The green eyes he shared with Raven hardened, glittering like chips of ice. "So what you're saying is that you won't investigate Nizzi's death because you're too much of a coward."

Raven reeled back like she'd been slapped. Her face began to grow shadowy. "I won't investigate Nizzi's death because the last three times I did, they threatened to send assassins for you," she hissed. This time, it was Irvin who looked like he'd been slapped.

An awkward silence reigned at the table.

"In other news," Mesmera said finally, "Calran told me Nilna and Richard are coming over to meet Chris with Cassia." She pointed her fork at Calran. "Will they be here today or tomorrow?"

Jason remebered Cassia vaguely. The last time he'd seen her was as a three-year-old basking in Bethany's attention as she cooed over the girl and ignored Jason tugging at her sleeve and trying to tell her about his bruised knee. Nilna and Richard, he remembered well enough - Calran's parents hadn't been awful to him, in fact trying to make up for Bethany's inattention.

It hadn't been enough.

Jason focused on the conversation. " - problems with the portals," Raven was saying. "So no, they won't be here until tomorrow."

"Can't they just walk?" Chris inquired. She had completely given up on the pretense of eating and was leaning back in her chair, legs crossed. She looked tense and uncomfortable.

Jason sipped the water - at least that was edible and not flavoured with rotten eggs or something. Calran rolled his eyes. "Oh, they can walk. Cassia just wants to make a grand entrance on account of Jason."

Mesmera's eyebrows drew together. "What do you mean, 'on account of Jason'?"

Calran made a vague gesture with his fork. "She's been crushing on him for years. Mom told me she spit out what she was eating - and she's so nitpicky about manners - when she learned that Jason was staying here."

Jason hated people who spit water out in the middle of meals. It was rude and gross, and whatever news they'd received couldn't be that surprising.

He had been wrong.

Calran looked at him in concern. "What happened?"

Jason slumped in his chair. "Nothing. I'm sorry. I just thought you said Cassia has a crush on me."

Chris burst out laughing, which was enough for Jason to infer that he hadn't misheard.

Jason's dawning horror must have shown on his face, because Mesmera had joined Chris in the Laugh At Jason club. She was holding her sides, apparently unable to process the fact that Jason could be so humourous.

"Stop laughing! My cousin, younger than me by four years is crushing on me! This is not okay!"

This only made them laugh harder.

Chris said between gasps, "Your - face - oh my god - " and dissolved into laughter again.

Jason turned to his last remaining ally. "Seriously, Calran."

Calran had his hand over his mouth, unsuccessfully concealing the laughs racking his body.

Jason crossed his arms and glared at Chris, who took a deep breath and sat up, grinning. "Okay," she announced. "We should stop laughing at Jason, because he wasn't trying to be funny and made a fool of himself anyway - "

"This is slander," Jason said, outraged. "You've used up your Insults For Jason quota for today."

"But Mesmera hasn't."

"I will never talk to you again," Jason warned.

Chris sat back in her seat, eyes sparkling and a wry smile on her face. "You're reading the Towers of Mystery, Jason. You'll need someone to talk to when you're done."

"There's Rachel. Or Amya."

"I can turn them against you. I'm their alpha."

"Wait," Calran interrupted. To Chris, he said, "You're the alpha?"

Chris's lips thinned, the mirth disappearing from her eyes. "Of course I am. What, you thought it was Jason?"

Calran looked confused. "I thought the male was always the alpha."

Chris looked him up and down, disdain palpable in her gaze. "And I thought you had common sense."

Silence reigned at the table again. Finally, Mesmera got up. "I have things to do. Calran, any chance your family can be delayed?" Calran shook his head. "Well, then, you should probably help Madame Jesvuin pick out the rooms they'll be staying in. I'll take you to her."

Calran got up silently and followed her out. Raven cleared her throat. "Chris, the preparations for the wedding will officially begin next week. Unless you have someone you want to pick out the wedding decorations and table centerpieces, you'll be starting it today - "

"Rachel," Chris blurted out. "And Amya. I want Rachel and Amya to help me."

Raven raised an eyebrow. "Then you should leave now, considering that Bethany's ardous morning routine finishes in half an hour - perfect to discuss anything important with them." Chris's eyebrows went high as Raven added, "Take Jason, too, honey. I wouldn't want you to get lost."

Jason gaped at her. Chris muttered something under her breath and got up. She bowed deeply to the king and walked out the room. Jason bowed as well, before hurrying after her.

"So essentially, Calran is a misogynistic bastard, Mesmera holds sway with Raven, and Jason's cousin - younger than him by four years - is crushing on him," Amya said.

Chris jabbed her fork at her. "Exactly. I can't believe I'm going to marry him. Dear gods, I'm going to suffer."

Amya stretched, belly full. She'd been lounging on the roof as a tigress when she'd scented Chris and Jason on their way to the apartment, and hurried down for Jason's famous pancakes. They'd both been subdued, though.

Well, Jason had been subdued. Chris had stormed into the house with all the rages of hell, and had slammed the door hard enough it cracked audibly.

It took her until the food was served to start opening up, and Amya fully understood why Chris was pissed.

"Maybe not a bastard," Rachel mused. "I'm fairly sure he's Nilna's son and Nilna's son only." Chris threw a fork at her, and Rachel ducked, laughing.

Jason shook his head fondly. "You all are idiots. Idiots, I tell you."

"We are, and you love us for it. Don't try to get judgemental," Chris said.

Jason snorted and leaned down to kiss her cheek. "I would never."

The tension between the two of them was hilarious and kind of sad at the same time. They confessed their feelings for the other to Rachel and Amya at different times, and now the tigress and the eagle were stuck watching them maneuver around each other.

Utterly hilarious.

Chris yawned and leaned back; Amya marveled at the sheer power in that movement. Her shifter side was evident in the animalistic grace in her limbs and the way her nose darted up in the air every so often, but the healer side...

Oh, the healer. Power dripped off her, leaking from her fingertips and shining through every movement. That control over life and death, that power was stark and obvious and so, so evident to those who didn't have it. Chris always assumed that the stares in her direction, the hushed rooms she walked into were because of her companions' power and fame. What she didn't know was that she was a living goddess to them, one they hated and feared and loved all at once.

Jason hoisted himself up on the table with an ugly creaking noise; it held, thankfully. "Okay, so what we're going to do is watch for what the staff let slip, and what you can eavesdrop on about anything involving the duchess or the king." He glanced at Chris and she nodded.

"You two," she said, jerking her chin at Rachel and Amya, "are coming with me to the palace under the guise of helping me with the wedding. Raven gave a list of activities to finish today - which is short, thank the gods - and she said I'm free the rest of the day. Jason agreed to spy in the kitchens - "

"I didn't agree to spy in the kitchens," Jason said, looking offended. "I'm going to improve the food there because I have a feeling their cook is Leanan Sidhe - "

Rachel set her fork down. "How do you know it's a Leanan Sidhe?"

Jason grabbed a fork and took a bite of Rachel's pancakes. "First, I don't know, I feel. Second, there was absolutely no salt in the food, and it was so sour I wanted to throw up. Chris apparently felt the same way since she didn't eat a thing at the palace." He jerked his chin at Chris's now empty plate.

"So why do you think it's a Leanan Sidhe?" Amya asked. "It could be something else - "

"Salt is poisonous to Leanan Sidhe, so they won't touch the damn thing. And the Sèvrès are rich with vinegar. They use vinegar in a lot of their food."

Chris spoke up. "The point is, Jason will be in the best position to glean what the threat is, how long it's been there, that sort of thing. And hopefully, he'll be able to improve the food there." She wrinkled her nose and Rachel laughed.

Sadness surged up in Amya. A chapter of their lives was coming to an end - their blissful ignorance and laughing days were going to be over. No more pancakes, no more teasing conversations, no more waiting.

And at the end, where it counted, she couldn't shake the feeling they were going to fail in whatever they were supposed to do.

There was a tree outside Mesmera's bedroom that curled along the walls. Sunbirds twittered along the branches, ruffling their golden feathers and tossing their tiny heads. They had always been the only sign of life Mesmera had seen along the branches, so she was understandably surprised when a squirrel darted up with an acorn between its teeth and dropped it at her feet before disappearing.

Mesmera frowned at the acorn. It was small and hollow sounding, but she couldn't seek out any hidden entrances no matter how she made the wind whistle along its outside. What she did find, however, was a tiny insignia stamped on the shell of the acorn that made her wonder if whoever had sent it to her was sound of mind.

She was still puzzling over it when Raven came in. "Mesmera, honey, are you ready?"

Mesmera looked up. "What for?"

Raven raised an eyebrow. "You said you were going to help Crystal with the 'wedding preparations'?"

"Oh, that." Mesmera stood up and tucked the acorn inside her pocket. "I actually have that marked on my calendar as 'hunting for Interlopan enemies because Terra has nothing better to do with its time.'"

Raven clicked her tongue disapprovingly. "That smart mouth is going to get you into trouble one day, you know." She kissed Mesmera's forehead. "Be safe, okay? I don't want a police call involving you, dead or alive."

Mesmera restrained herself from rolling her eyes. "I'll keep that in mind, Raven." Then she strode out.

What was she going to do about the acorn? She should have sent a pocket of wind along with the squirrel to track who it came from and why they saw it fit to give it to her.

She approached Calran's room, meaning to knock on the door, when it swung open. Calran looked annoyed. "What do you want?"

"Back to being the epitome of rudeness, I see." She pushed past him into his room; he stood aside grudgingly.

"What do you want?"

Mesmera took in the muted reds and brown of his bedroom, scanning the bookshelves as well. No faerie lore. She drew out the acorn from her pocket, rolling it absentmindedly in her hand and turned to him. "What do you know about faeries?"

Calran was studying to be a scholar, and encouraged by his parents - Bethany was the only one who disapproved, as if she owned everything about him and his life. As such, he was supposed to know about faeries, maybe anything that would help explain why the fuck Mesmera had received a message from the Hallowed Woods.

Calran looked thoughtful. "Let's see, faeries are the result of concentrated bursts of nature or magic in a bloodline. They usually live in green areas - " He broke off, sensing her mounting impatience. "Is there a part you want me to skip to?"

Mesmera tossed the acorn in the air with her right hand, and caught it with her left. "How do they communicate? What exactly is the Hallowed Woods and does it send messages to particular people?"

"I'm going to spout exactly what I know," Calran warned. "No filters, no paraphrasing, and no fast-forward."

Mesmera waved him ahead and Calran cleared his throat, closed his eyes, and began with the tone of quoting something. "Faeries communicate through objects commonly found in nature, most commonly acorns of different sizes. They use squirrels, birds, and - " He broke off, eyes flying open. He looked incredulous. "That acorn. The faeries sent you a message."

"Keep going," Mesmera ordered.

Calran sighed, but complied. "Faeries send messages through acorns, squirrels, birds and walnut shells to non-faeries, whether they're Sevignian or not. Faerie-to-faerie communication consists of messages sent through animals in thrall or mind-bonds. Otherwise, they speak, as we do. They're threatened by salt and - "

"Let's stay on track," Mesmera interrupted. "Hallowed Woods?"

"The Hallowed Woods are the home to a batch of faeries associated with some of the darker beliefs of earthlings. They feed off the greenery around them, specifically faeblooms and faeflowers, and are often trailed by an animal or two. The Hallowed Woods are sentient and believed to be a safe place for all manner of creatures. Rumour has it that the Terran prince and princess - "

Mesmera cut him off again. "Nothing about how they communicate? Why they communicate with certain people?"

Calran began pacing. "No. I don't know that." He held out a hand. "Maybe it'll help if I examine the acorn?"

Mesmera shook her head, feeling oddly queasy at the thought of parting with the acorn. "This doesn't leave my hands."

Calran sighed again. Mesmera could picture him as a scholar - a young, exasperated man with black hair to his shoulders and rectangular spectacles framing electric blue eyes. Raven would love to paint that. "All right, but I need to see why you think it came from the Hallowed Woods."

"There's a symbol," Mesmera said, tilting the acorn so he could see. "And a squirrel came through my window to give it to me."

Calran said, "Mmhm," not really focusing on her words. He was studying the symbol. Finally, he straightened up and said, "Did you open it?"

Mesmera shook her head and he frowned slightly. "Why not?"

"Because I couldn't find the opening, that's why. No matter what I did, I couldn't find any cracks - "

Calran burst out laughing.

Mesmera glared at him until he stopped. "Fine. If I'm wrong, o Great Scholar, why don't you tell me how to open it?"

Calran grinned. "You pop off the cupule - "

"The what?"

"The top of the acorn. The part like a hat."

Now that Mesmera looked, she could make out tiny - very tiny hinges. She immediately felt stupid. And then wary. "Just pop it open? No spell to say, or booby traps to deactivate?"

Calran looked puzzled. "Booby traps? What kind of booby traps can you put in an acorn?"

"I don't know!"

"Then open it! What's the worst that can happen?"

Mesmera fixed him with an incredulous look. "Us being blown to smithereens?"

Calran crossed his arms. "All from a little acorn?"

Mesmera opened her mouth to retort, but Calran grabbed the acorn and opened it.

They watched as a mist floated up from inside, and then a scroll of paper that shouldn't have been able to fit in there. It dropped to the floor with a thump, the acorn vanishing.

"Well," Calran said finally, "that was… interesting."

Mesmera rolled her eyes and picked up the scroll. It felt worn, like someone had run their fingers over it many times to smooth it out. A black ribbon was tied around the scroll prettily, decorated with gold on a closer look. She made to open it, but felt a hand on wrist and looked up to meet Calran's eyes.

"Don't," he said, letting her go. "I… have a feeling we aren't supposed to open it now."

Mesmera examined him. No tremors in his voice, just the right amount of uncertainty. He wasn't lying or manipulating her, then. "Why not?"

Calran took a deep breath. "Because I think Crystal and her pack should see it."

Mesmera sent the wind whistling along all the hallways, looking for a trace of shifters. It reported back that there were four in Chris's room.

A few minutes later, Mesmera was knocking on the door. Chris called out, "Come in!" and Mesmera stepped in, Calran behind her.

Chris's welcoming smile faded when she caught sight of Calran. "What are you doing here?"

Calran looked lost, and a little afraid of offending Chris again. "I…. uh, Mesmera had something to tell you."

Chris swung off the windowsill, landing gracefully on her feet. "I asked what you were doing here."

Mesmera took pity on Calran and interjected. "I have a message from the faeries. Calran thought I should show it to you all."

She realized where the others were. Amya was perched in one of the rafters, looking utterly at home; Rachel was standing on the windowsill, arms out to the side. Jason was sprawled on the bed, reading.

Chris looked at them levelly, and then pulled herself back up on the windowsill, legs dangling. Rachel took up a similar position next to her, while Amya sprang from the rafters (landing on her feet, what a surprise) and collapsed on the bed next to Jason, who looked up from his book.

"You could have told me when we decided we were having a meeting, you know," he said, shooting an evil look at Chris. The healer quirked a smile, jerking her head at Mesmera - no, not at her, she realized as Jason turned to see Calran and tensed.

Calran had all of them tensed and unwelcoming; clearly Chris had told them what happened.

"Well," Rachel said after a minute, "open it, then."

Mesmera swallowed, and untied the ribbon carefully. The scroll fell open, and she scanned the words, feeling her face go paler with every word she read.

To the girl who calls herself Mesmera Westglade

Princess, this world is in danger.

I write to you after having found a girl in the heart of Hallowed Woods; extensive questioning and observation have led to the fact that this girl is the lost princess of Terra. She insists that her brother is lost in the Hallowed Woods as well.

We beg your aid in our next course of action, most preferably to find the prince and return them both anonymously. Suggestions are appreciated.

Rumour also has it that in your company are the heirs of the Erlahe, Ravenoak, Williams, and Graylight houses, and the second heiress of the Darkliss house. Their help is much appreciated as well.

On a second note, we have received word that the duchess is investigating the murder of the fifth Royal, and that your king may be in danger due to it. I suspect that the Terran king has something to do with it. Please inform her.

May the gods of old shine on you.

Gratia Floresco

She lowered the scroll, and realized everyone was watching her curiously. Calran looked like he was on the verge of grabbing it from her, so she passed it to him silently.

He read it too, fear and dread creeping into his expression on the very first line and continuing to grow as he reached the bottom. The scroll floated down from his loosened fingers, and Mesmera sent it to Chris on a light breeze as Calran continued staring into space.

Chris scanned it quickly, disbelief and fear crossing her face as she passed the scroll to Jason, conferring with Rachel and Amya while he examined it.

At last, Jason looked up, and said hoarsely, "Who gave this to you, exactly?"

"I don't know," Mesmera admitted. "I got through a squirrel delivering an acorn to me. Then Calran opened it, and this came out."

"Where's the acorn?"

"It vanished."

Jason hummed thoughtfully. "Do you think Adelaide knows about this?"

"Adelaide?" Mesmera stared at him. "Adelaide Hull?"

"I don't think there are any other Adelaides that Jason knows," Chris said dryly. Jason chucked a pillow at her and she caught it, laughing.

"She's an invaluable asset to the S.O., and a good friend of mine," Mesmera explained in response to Calran's quizzical look. "She's helped me before; I suppose she'll know what to do now."

Jason looked at Chris; to Mesmera's surprise, the healer shook her head.

"The message was given to Mesmera and not the duchess for a reason," Chris said. "If we go blabbing to Adelaide about this, we can't be sure that the duchess - "

"Oh, call her Raven," Calran interjected. "I have a little memory lapse every time you call her 'the duchess'. She's such a mom it isn't even possible to be that much of a mom."

Chris raised an eyebrow, but continued. "We can't be sure that… Raven won't find out. Again, there's a reason - " She broke off, looking concerned. "Jason? Are you all right?"

Now that Mesmera focused, Jason's double heartbeat was faster than it normally was. Chris must have heard it, too; he looked stunned. "I'm...fine. I just realized something."

Chris raised an eyebrow, but didn't comment. To Mesmera, she said, "Why show this to us?"

Mesmera pointed at Calran. "It was his idea."

Calran scowled at her. "Throw me under the bus, why don't you."

Chris cleared her throat. "Still waiting on an answer."

Calran swallowed visibly. "Warlocks have a connection to the Looms of Fate, and sometimes the thread we're tied to - "

Chris interrupted him, looking unimpressed. "You understand saying 'gut instinct' would have been easier."

"Well, I wanted to make sure you understood - "

"If you really wanted me to understand, then you would have been a little more concise."

Calran drew himself up indignantly. "I am a scholar - "

"You're training to be one," Chris corrected. "And training to be a scholar doesn't entitle you to special rights."

"I am the heir of the Ravenoak house."

Chris looked even more unimpressed. "I'm the Erlahe heir, a healer, and the alpha of my pack. Do you seriously expect me to bow down to you?"

Mesmera winced and turned her attention to Chris's pack. Rachel and Amya were reading the parchment intently, pausing to whisper to each other. Jason had returned to his book, but instead of reading it, he stared blankly at pages, as if calculating something else.

"Jason." Rachel poked his shoulder. "Elsa. Male Elsa. Listen - "

Jason started, then scowled. "Don't call me that."

Rachel sat back, looking satisfied. "Well, it got your attention, didn't it?"

Jaosn opened his mouth to speak, but Amya talked over him. "How much do you know about Terra?"

Jason ran a hand through his hair. "Not much," he admitted. "Just that the prince and princess are missing, and apparently have been found. I also know the exact numbers of Leanan Sidhe there, but I'm not sure that can help."

This drew Chris's attention, then, judging by the way her stance relaxed and her blue eyes focused. "Seriously? Why do you even know so much about the Leanan Sidhe?"

Jason shrugged. "Adelaide had a visitor once, and didn't want her to be lonely, so she delegated her daughters to keeping her company. Macey and Lissa dumped her on me, and I listened to her talk for a pretty long time."

Chris raised an eyebrow, asking something wordlessly. Jason hesitated, then nodded; her face fell.

What was that about?

Amya spoke up hastily. "Well, what are we going to do about this?"

Chris played with the end of her braid. "Well, I think we should investigate this a little further. Look into previous assassination attempts, brainstorm reasons as to why someone would want to keep the Leventeas' death vague and messy - "

"Talk to Raven," Rachel piped up. "And, you know, look into Whitescar's rule and all that."

Calran stared at Chris with his mouth slightly open. Gods, he was so infatuated.

It was a real shame Chris didn't like him. They would have been a lovely couple, although they looked far too similar.

"Does this mean I get to spend the rest of the day in the library?" Jason inquired. "I have some things I want to look up in addition to this."

Rachel, Chris, and Amya shot him incredulous looks (again with the synchronization!). "Do you ever want to go elsewhere than the library?" Amya said.

"You know the answer to that. Besides, this is important."

"Jason, you told us the same thing when you wanted to learn the names of all the earthling monuments, which is most definitely not important."

"I don't know," Mesmera said. "Monuments are pretty interesting - "

"But not important," Amya said. "Especially earthling ones."

Jason gave her a superior look. "You're just jealous."

Amya looked unimpressed. "Why would I be jealous?"

"Because Chris likes me better than you," Jason said in obviously fake sorrow. "It's okay to admit you're jealous of that, at least."

"Even if that were true," Amya said, and then paused when the healer let out a choking noise. "Chris, are you crying?"

Chris's shoulders were shaking, and she made a vague gesture at Jason and Amya before putting her head in her hands. Her shoulders continued to shake and Mesmera realized she was laughing.

Jason was smiling a little. "I didn't hear a refusal."

Amya hit him with a pillow, and he yelled before grabbing the pillow and hitting her back. "That's so unfair! Rachel, tell him he can't take advantage of Chris playing favourites!"

"Ha, I knew it, you are jealous - " Amya pressed a pillow into his face and Jason flailed about, emitting a stream of muffled curses.

Calran looked ill. Mesmera said concernedly, "What happened?"

He shook his head. "When Cassia meets Rachel and Amya, they're going to create a hell all their own. The gods save us."

Mesmera patted his shoulder in agreement. "You know, you're pretty nice when you're not acting like you don't know what to do with yourself."

"I don't know what to do with myself," Calran hissed. "She's just so pretty, and confident, and - "

"Utterly pissed at you?" Mesmera suggested. Calran glared at her. "Look, just treat her like you treat me when I'm pissed at you - "

Calran folded his arms. "By which you mean avoid you and pretend to be invisible when you're around?"

"Okay, so maybe not exactly like that," Mesmera admitted. "What about Cassia?"

"I stink for days when she's mad at me," Calran complained. "I'm afraid she'll drown me in the shower."

This was sadly very plausible. Cassia Ravenoak commanded water with the ease produced by long, intensive training but preferred to use it to torment her brother. "What about your mother?"

"Mom is never pissed at me."

"Never," Mesmera said skeptically.

"Well, there was that one time she gave me the silent treatment because I got my clothes muddy on Cassia's birthday. Or that time she got mad because I broke Cassia's ex's jaw and my thumb. Or that time... you know what, I take it back. She gets mad at me."

Mesmera shook her head. What an amateur. "Did you punch him with your thumb tucked inside your fist?"

"If I say no, will you believe me?"

Mesmera fixed him with an unimpressed look. Calran wilted. "Fine, I punched him with my thumb inside my fist. But that was only the second time."

Rachel said, "You punched someone with your thumb tucked inside your fist?"

"Only four times," Calran said.

"By which you mean all."

"Why would you punch someone with your thumb inside your fist four times?" said Jason, apparently having regained his ability to speak. "What, do you have some kind of amnesia that makes you forget how to punch correctly?"

Calran scowled at his cousin. "I don't even punch people that much. Remembering to not tuck my thumb inside is kind of hard when I'm consumed with rage at my sister's bitch ass exes."

Amya cocked her head. "Are older brothers supposed to act like that? Jared isn't like that."

"Pretty much all of her boyfriends cheated on her," Calran said flatly. "So I tracked them down and burned their underclothes."

Chris, Amya, and Rachel exchanged faintly impressed looks. Jason shook his head. "That doesn't answer my question. Do you, or do you not have some kind of amnesia that makes you forget how to punch correctly?"

Calran blew out a breath and leaned against the wall. Flames danced along his fingers and then they were gone. "If I say yes, will you leave the subject?"

Jason grinned wryly. "Ah, Calran, my overly sensitive prince," he said in French and Rachel snorted in unison with Mesmera.

Calran stared at Jason suspiciously. "What did you say?"

Jason looked perfectly innocent. "I said, 'Ah, Calran, our brave saviour.'"

Calran eyed him. The shifter smiled brilliantly.

Rachel broke the silence. "Hate to interrupt, but perhaps we should get on with your bridal duties, Chris?" She looked pointedly at the healer.

"Of course." She slid gracefully off the windowsill and shrugged on a jacket that had previously been lying on a chair. "Rachel, you and Mesmera are in charge of scouring the library for assassination records." Mesmera didn't miss the pointed smirk Amya sent Jason's way. "Amya, you're coming with me for my Bridal Duties." Had she capitalized it? "Jason, I'm really, really sorry."

This last sentence was sent with a regretful look. Rachel and Amya looked relieved for some reason, and Jason looked gloomy. "Are you sure I can't kill him?"

"No," Chris said firmly.

"Not even a little bit?"

Oh, gods. They were talking about Calran.

"Why do you feel the need to babysit Calran?" Mesmera interjected. Sure, he was a bit of a dick and a little sexist, but he was learning to overcome it. He also wouldn't dream of hurting anyone.

Chris looked innocent. "No one's talking about babysitting anyone. Just, you know, making sure things are discreet."

"He would never tell anyone else," Mesmera snapped. Calran watched silently, his electric blue eyes strangely unreadable.

Chris eyed her, and Mesmera had the disturbing feeling she was contemplating whether or not to trust her once and for all. "You'll forgive me if I don't take your word for it," Chris said finally. "Amya, shall we?"

Amya hopped off the bed and stretched. "I thought you'd never ask."