At first they ran, but by the time they reached the edge of town, they were too drunk on love and freedom and each other to move without clinging. Edward's hair gleamed an otherworldly silver in the light of the full moons; Anna had to kiss him, again and again, to be certain that he was still real. The sky began to lighten before they reached the hovercraft.
She should have been exhausted after a sleepless night, but her nerves were pulled tight as lute strings. When she closed her eyes, her mind raced—Could she really be happy without her father's blessing? What would Damcyan think of a small-town girl without a drop of noble blood in her?—so she kept them open and focused on the horizon. Her hand rested on Edward's as he piloted them over the shoals.
As the hovercraft settled in a cloud of sand, he pressed a kiss to her knuckles and said, "Don't worry. My parents have sworn to accept whomever I choose, and I choose you, now and forever."
"And I, you." She rested against him, swallowing a giddy laugh. In Kaipo, this was enough to be wedded. In Damcyan, there would surely be a ceremony, with more eyes watching her than existed in all of the oasis. She'd be fine, she told herself; she had always loved an audience.
The castle loomed in the east, silhouetted by the sun, and her heart throbbed in her throat.
It turned out that navigating the court was much like dancing, after all, or at least the paying forms of it. She wore costumes and painted her face; her legs ached from the strain of carrying herself just so, shifting herself at Edward's whispered cues. The difference was that she didn't control when her performance began and ended, and the tension left her tired.
Nor was her father there to disapprove and suggest, with varying degrees of subtlety, that she find a more respectable outlet for her talents. He should have known better, really; she'd inherited his stubbornness more strongly than his magic. Maybe she should have known better, too. What did she expect him to do, now that she'd left him nothing but a note?
But her choice was made, and her note written and left. Now Anna dangled her bare feet from her balcony, stirring the thick evening heat, and sought a distraction. No sense in dwelling on where she was not. She tried to refocus herself by recalling what she'd been taught about dining etiquette: start with the largest fork—no, the one with the longest and thinnest tines—
"Beloved," whispered her hair.
Anna's hand moved reflexively to the whisperweed pinned above her right ear. Her eyes scanned the reddening sands as she replied, "Where are you?"
"Nearly to your door. I apologize; I've spent the last hour convincing the florists that I won't be offended if they don't cover the entire castle in cactus blossoms."
Her father loved cactus blossoms; they had been her mother's favorite. Kaipo's oasis was too damp for them to grow nearby, so even the smallest bouquet required an adventure into the desert. Belatedly Anna realized that she ought to reply and hummed her agreement.
Edward was quiet for a moment, then said, "You're not happy."
"It's not—" that I'm worried I'm homesick, that I can't spend all day cooped up inside, that everything here smells like stone— "it's not about us. I love you, Edward, so much that it hurts."
His footsteps carried through both the whisperweed and the floor. A moment later he knelt at her side, wrapping his arms around her. "I don't want you to hurt."
She breathed him in. He smelled nothing like stone. "I know. It's just that everything's so different here."
He drew back to fix her with the same intense look that she'd first fallen in love with, the night that she spied him in the crowd: slow-burning, quiet, tinged with the melancholy of a coal that knows it will turn to ash. "I would love you still," he said, "if you lived all your life in Kaipo. I would love you across the sand and the sea."
How could she live all her life in Kaipo, having seen the sunrise dance fire over the ocean and the desert blur and swirl in the wake of the hovercraft? "It isn't that I've left Kaipo," she replied, looking away from him. "I don't know what it is. I'm sorry."
"Please don't apologize." Edward's harp-callused fingers brushed her cheek, though there were no tears yet for them to catch. "I want you to be happy, my dearest Anna. We'll figure out together what troubles you."
With a quiet sigh, she tipped her face against his, touching first foreheads, then lips. Would there be a scandal, she wondered, if the prince was seen slipping out of his bride's chambers the morning before the wedding? Damcyan's rules still confused her. In Kaipo, everyone might know, but no one had any right to care except the parents.
Anna hesitated, then pulled back from the kiss. "I think it's about my father. I just don't feel right without his blessing."
Edward frowned in the way he always did when her father came up, ever since he was chased from her window by a flurry of lightning bolts. "Do you think he's at all likely to give it?"
"I have to ask." Her legs kicked at the setting sun. "Can you imagine how he must feel? I didn't even tell him good-bye; I just left that note, like a coward."
She felt Edward tense against her, but he took a deep breath and grasped her hand. "If this is what you need," he said, "we'll go to Kaipo tonight. Together."
A low, deep thrumming rose in Anna's ears. "I think the whisperweed's picking up your heartbeat," she said, smiling. "Don't worry; Father's not that scary."
Edward shook his head. "No, I hear it, too. It's not—"
The sky burst into flame.
She didn't think, didn't hesitate, didn't breathe—only leapt. Her reflexes had always been sharp, and she had never shied from danger.
It didn't hurt at first. How could she feel anything else with her senses overloaded by smoke and screams and steel and shattering stone? But all her world shrank to blazing lances of pain, pulsing red and black behind her eyes.
She fell, or the world fell away from her. "Edward," she tried to say, but only blood bubbled up her throat. Her hands shook for him.
This wasn't how Anna was supposed to die: half-married, far from home, leaving her father to mourn. But it wasn't how Edward was supposed to die, either. It was all right, she thought, pouring out blood and consciousness, as long as Edward lived.
Her father's voice jolted her. He had to be a mirage, a heat-blurred memory of his last fight with Edward. She cried out to him regardless, babbled at him, begged forgiveness and peace. A mirage was the closest the desert came to mercy when it took its victims; what would she gain by refusing it?
Stone and air and fire shifted around her like sand. Anna herself was sand, crumbling free, ready to scatter.
Something touched her face. She was shocked to find that she still had a face.
Warmth spread through her vague physicality, jumping like lightning between her scattered pieces and fusing them back together. Breath ripped through her with enough force to leave her shaking.
Panting, she found her eyelids and forced them to open on the pale, strained face of a little girl. When Anna blinked and coughed, the girl broke into a grin and shouted hoarsely, "She's alive!"
If death was like an eternal sleep, perhaps this was one last dream, stretched over eternity. Nothing felt entirely real, not the blood in her mouth nor the tingle of her flesh knitting back together, until Edward embraced her so fiercely that she could hear their heartbeats in overlapping echoes through the whisperweed.
Her name tumbled again and again from his mouth. Her muscles trembled like palm fronds as she clung to him.
"Where's Father?" she asked when she found her voice.
They had to leave some of the arrowheads in her. Although Rydia crackled with magic, so brightly that even Tellah must have been impressed, she was no trained healer. Even a beginning student of white magic knew to remove foreign objects before sealing a wound.
Of course, no trained healer would have thought that Anna had a chance of survival. She certainly harbored no resentment.
"It's just a little bump, see?" she said, setting Rydia's small hand over what had been the smooth skin above her collarbone. "Nothing to worry about. You saved my life."
Flushed with combination of pleasure and embarrassment, Rydia rubbed the embedded arrowhead before withdrawing her hand. "I'm sorry we couldn't catch your father. He's really fast for an old man."
The girl's guardian, Cecil, had gone out to search, but Anna doubted anything would come of that; her father in a rage moved with the relentless speed of a whirlwind. She should have expected, really, that he would chase her to Damcyan. "We'll find him," she said, rising to distract herself with her wardrobe. "Sooner or later."
Rydia perched on the edge of the bed, which had fared better than most of the rest of the room. Anna's hastily packed bags had burned; the balcony and half its wall had collapsed. Most of the wardrobe's contents remained intact, but most of those were formal gowns.
"Those are pretty," Rydia said as Anna investigated her heavily beaded options.
"But not very practical." At last Anna hit upon a pale yellow dress, light and simple enough that it was probably meant to be slept in. With her knife, she shortened the ankle-length skirt until its ragged hem fell just above her knees. The sleeves went next; she used a strip of one to tie back her hair. Later she would have to find better traveling clothes, but she wouldn't rob Damcyan's dead.
She tried on her handiwork, then spun and kicked to test her range of motion. The dress would do, a realization that disappointed her; now that she had no task to drive her forward, her mind shifted restlessly between imagining her father, alone and heart-broken and dangerous somewhere in the wilds, and remembering her failure to console Edward. Did he truly desire to be left alone to mourn, or was his heart so soft and she so inept that she couldn't help but bruise it?
No good in dwelling on it, Anna told herself. No good in holding still.
"Come on," she said, offering Rydia her hand. "Let's find—" through the whisperweed she could hear Edward's muffled sobbing— "let's wait for Cecil. We should let Edward have a little more time alone to grieve for his parents."
Rydia accepted and walked hand-in-hand with her into the ruined hallway. Even after pouring white magic into Anna, the girl pulsed with potential; focusing on it made Anna feel as if she were holding hands with a thunderstorm.
"My mother died, too," said Rydia. "I didn't cry for very long."
"So did mine," Anna replied, skirting around a pile of rubble. "I was so young that I don't remember her at all. How old were you?"
"Seven. It was three days ago."
Anna halted, took a deep breath, and knelt down beside her. As she set both hands on Rydia's shoulders, her arm brushed the hard nub of an arrowhead buried between two of her ribs. "You need time to grieve. If you want to cry—"
"I don't. I'm tired of crying, and Rosa needs help, too." Rydia's determined expression softened. "But it's okay if you want to cry a little."
Anna smiled. "We'll see. Come on, let's go outside."
"No, let me." Anna set one hand on Edward's shoulder and raised the other against his objection. "One of us grew up playing in antlions' pits, and it wasn't you, beloved. These creatures aren't harmless if you come near their eggs."
He frowned. "I don't want you to endanger yourself."
"Don't worry." She winked at him, then palmed a small stone, rose up on the balls of her feet, and flitted down along the edge of the pit.
It had been a game when she was younger to see who could steal the most eggs before the antlion came charging up from beneath the sand. Of course Edward thought that antlions were harmless; he didn't grow up playing cruel games against them. He probably hadn't ever been cruel.
She stopped with one foot balanced on a narrow rock jutting out just above the nest. Her other leg extended to balance her weight as she bent forward, muscles tensed to spring away. With more space, she could dance the antlion harmless, stirring up magic that would leave it too weary and blind and bemused to fight. Perched on a rock smaller than her foot, she could hope, at best, to leap before it caught her in its pincers.
Anna squinted into the mass of eggs until she spied the gleam of a sand pearl. Keeping her breaths quiet and shallow, she cupped her hand just above it and readied her stone to roll into the sand at the same instant she plucked the pearl from it. The bottom of an antlion's pit was as sensitive as a spider's web; the least shift in weight would resound like a war cry.
A tip of her hand, a pinch of her fingers, and Anna kicked upward. Something below rumbled, but only for a heartbeat. The pit remained dormant as she climbed one-handed back to its rim.
Heart hammering, thighs burning, knuckles white around the pearl and torso studded with arrowheads, Anna felt flooded with life.
When the air grew thin and cold, Edward gave her his cloak. Truthfully, she hadn't noticed the drop in temperature; she was too fascinated by the way the world shrank as they climbed higher than she had ever thought possible. The airships that attacked Damcyan could not have been half this high; just a little more, she thought, and she'd see the tops of clouds and the hidden back of the sky.
No one else but Rydia seemed awed. Rosa seemed too serene to stare slack-jawed at anything, and she and Cecil were both accustomed to flight. Edward had traveled through the mountains before on diplomatic missions with his family. So it was Rydia whom Anna invited to the edge of the cliff where the group paused to rest.
"Look," Anna said, pointing at the northern horizon. Edward's cloak flapped around her in the wind. "The sea just goes on and on until you can't tell it from the sky. What do you think lies at the end of it?"
After a moment's quiet, Rydia replied, "Whyt says it curls back around like a ball."
"It does." Cecil came up behind them like a clanking shadow. "I've seen the curve of the world from the Red Wings and flown north to arrive in the south." As Anna digested this, he added, "Rydia, may I ask you to light a fire?"
With no trace of her earlier fear, Rydia nodded and followed him back to the camp. Anna remained, turning the world over in her head, until Edward slipped in beside her and set his arm around her waist.
"The world is vaster and stranger," she told him, "than ever I dreamed."
"Are you homesick, my love?"
She was surprised to realize that she was not, or at least not in the way that she had been in Damcyan. "No, but I do wish Father were here, or that he at least knew not to mourn me."
"Our paths are certain to cross as long as we all seek Golbez." His arm squeezed around her, warm and reassuring. "Shall we eat now?"
Once they were fed and settled, Anna volunteered for the first watch so that she could see the stars descend to wrap around the earth.
Spin and kick and spin again, drawing up dust and cold air as a medium for magic. The ball of Anna's foot ground into the rock as she whirled like a sandstorm, as she turned herself into a conduit. Into fragments of the earth and sky she imbued confusion, sluggishness, fear, and weakness, and the pillar of smoke and fire before her began to howl.
She had always been terrible at theory but excellent at practice.
Cecil's sword and Rosa's arrows make the construct keen, as well; something solid had to lurk inside it. Magic needed nothing solid. Anna and Rydia tore at its essence until it shrieked and burst, birthing a conflagration of smaller, solider forms.
Anna leapt into their midst and danced wildly, violently. Her entire body throbbed with the frantic pace of her heart. Dimly she recognized the weapons and spells of her allies, but she focused only on the space in and and around her: the thin wire between control and disaster, the flickering gray between an enthralled audience and a mob bent on blood. Every piece of her became all of her, and all of her flowed out through every twitch of every muscle. Even the twinging pain when she disturbed her arrowheads became a focusing fire. Whatever mages did to cast their spells, it couldn't have felt half as exhilarating.
When the explosions ended and the smoke cleared, she felt the end of the battle like a barb torn from her skin. In her stillness, she wobbled, and Edward caught her arm.
"Is everyone all right?" asked Rosa. Soot streaked her pale skin and hair. "That was... close."
"Never better," Anna replied, amid the chorus of affirmations. Her giddy laugh drew Edward's hand to her forehead.
The monk, the only one left alive from his company, introduced himself as Anna let herself be led to a rock to rest. She liked him immediately; even injured, he moved with graceful dignity, and he accepted both their evidence and assistance. He would have left for Fabul immediately, she thought, if Rosa had not overruled him on the grounds that they would all move faster if he wasn't limping.
As they waited for Rosa and Rydia to finish their first aid, Edward used a handkerchief to wipe some of the dirt from Anna's face. It was pointless, really—she was coated in ash from her hair to her shoes—but such gestures were half what she adored about him. When he scrubbed intently at a stubborn spot on her cheek, she laughed and said, "I love you."
He kissed her with lips tasting of soot. When he saw the mess he'd made of her again, he gave her a rueful smile and a sigh. "I'm so sorry that I've dragged you into this. I wanted to repay Cecil and Rydia for saving you, but instead I've put you again and again into the position of risking your life."
"You haven't dragged me into anything," she replied. "I'm here because I chose to come, and you needn't apologize for introducing me to the greatest adventure of my life."
He fidgeted with the handkerchief. "I worry after you, Anna. If you—I couldn't bear to watch again as you—"
"Shh, darling." She tapped her finger to his lips. "I promise not to die again."
"I wish I could be assured of a such a promise." His eyes focuses on the backs of his hands, which had clenched. "When you fight, you seem almost... I won't say 'reckless,' because I know you'll protest, but there's no caution in your dance. I can't begin to understand what joy you find in battle, but I dread on your behalf."
Danger sang to her, and lately more brightly and clearly than ever. She couldn't begin to imagine what Edward felt in battle if his blood did not sing like hers. "Do you feel nothing but dread when we fight?"
"I feel relief when the fight is over." His gaze met hers fleetingly before returning to his hands. "Mine is the perspective of a coward, I'm afraid. I've never been brave."
Anna snorted. "Of course you're brave. You're the first boy who ever came back after my father chased him away." When he glanced up again, a slight smile tugging at his lips, she took his hands and tugged. "Come on. Let's save Fabul."
His dread stuck like a pebble in the back of Anna's mind. As she pulled malaise out of the ether and spun it around Baron's soldiers, she felt her rhythm breaking down, tick by tick; her heartbeats stuttered. She danced down the wire and felt it tremble beneath her.
Focus, focus, focus, she told herself, but there was so much to focus on: balance, magic, blood, barked orders to fall ever farther back. Swapping her makeshift travel clothing for one of Fabul's martial arts uniforms had removed one small distraction, but every time an arrowhead twisted in her flesh, she remembered how Edward had clung to her.
Why had she promised not to die? So stupid—she hadn't doubted herself before—
Her right foot came out of sync. Her arms pulled the wrong way. The wire snapped, and Anna collapsed on the stone floor.
Edward cried out for her, clarion-bright through the whisperweed. His footsteps approached faster than those of the advancing forces. And here he thought he wasn't brave.
The arm Anna used to push herself up didn't buckle; the hand that sprang for her knife grasped it without difficulty. Nothing broken, probably, though her blood boiled hot enough to vaporize any pain. By the time she'd made it to her feet and brandished her blade, Edward was in front of her, shaping sound into a weapon. Cecil and Yang flanked him.
"Sorry," she said before shifting back into the fury of her dance, taking her rhythm from Edward's song. The wave of soldiers broke against them.
"Fall back!" Yang shouted, and she did, reluctantly.
"You'll be fine once you've found your sea legs," said Edward, holding out a hand for Anna to grab as she listed unexpectedly sideways again. "I'm sorry that we've hit rough waters on your first voyage."
"I liked the hovercraft better. I never needed to find my hover legs." Bending her knees for better balance, she tried to let her own sense of gravity roll with the wood beneath her. Walking she could manage; dancing would have to wait until her feet found solid land again.
He had the good grace not to laugh as the ship pitched and sent her weight shifting wildly. "You'll be accustomed to it by the time we reach Baron. Look, Rydia's fine."
"Rydia's much closer to what now passes for the ground." It felt wrong to banter like this, so soon after. Anna looked past the girl to where Cecil had settled in to brood near the mast and added, "But I'll adjust. If you'd like to talk to Cecil, I think you should. He likes you, and I... I don't know what to say."
Edward hesitated before saying, "It wasn't your fault."
"Wasn't it? I misjudged. I didn't think. Better that I'd stayed down than attacked blindly—"
When he touched her shoulder, she realized that she was shaking again. "No one blames you, love. You tried—"
"I hurt her." The words left her mouth bitter. "What did I expect to do? I saw how strong he was; I should have known my attacks wouldn't touch him. I shouldn't have risked it. I could have killed her."
"Anna, it wasn't your fault."
"Don't." She tensed her shoulders until the arrowheads buried in them ached. "Don't absolve me."
When she refused to relax at Edward's touch, he sighed, patted her back, and headed toward Cecil, his stride untroubled by the lurching of the ship. Anna stuffed her whisperweed in the muffling depths of a pocket, then set her jaw and concentrated on reaching the bow, where Yang stood, without tumbling.
He nodded to acknowledge her approach and said, "Fabul's garb suits you."
"It does." The support of a crate tempted her, but she needed to learn how to stand on her own. Anna balanced her weight carefully to ride out a wave. "I hope you won't be offended if I compare it to a very good dancing outfit."
"Not at all. Your martial arts share many of the values of ours."
If Anna had grown up in Fabul, her father might have disapproved of her desire to become a monk rather than a dancer. Or perhaps Fabul had its own tradition of dance that would have enticed her; she wished that she'd had more time to spend acquainting herself with the kingdom's people and traditions.
"Ease of motion," she said, idly adjusting the cloth belt of her uniform. "Agility rather than armor. Flowing from one movement to another..." Blood, not her own, had already stained the fabric; touching the spots washed her with irrational guilt. She forced herself to stop fidgeting. "Am I reckless?"
Yang regarded her for a moment, his long braid whipping in the salty wind. "It was reckless to leap into battle in defense of a stranger. I owe my life to an act of recklessness."
What was more reckless than pumping white magic into a broken body and hoping for the best? "But I—my attempt to free Rosa harmed her. I can't imagine that Golbez is treating her gently now."
She braced herself for another unwanted absolution, another denial of her responsibility, but Yang only replied, gently: "The dragoon seemed to care for her, despite his treason. I do not believe that he would let her suffer."
Anna exhaled and looked away from him, out over the unquiet sea. "I shouldn't have attacked. If I'd hesitated for even a moment, I would have realized that I had no chance against him, but I..." The ship rolled; she reflexively rolled with it and remained upright. "When I worry—when I think—I fail. My magic depends upon my losing myself in the dance and giving myself over to instinct. It frightens Edward; perhaps it ought to frighten me. But I know no other way."
Yang nodded and fell silent for long enough that Anna was surprised; she hadn't expected such consideration. At length he said, "Discipline runs as deep as instinct. When I strike, I don't consciously recall my training; it flows through my blood and my breath." He balanced smoothly on leg one, then caught her hand as the ship pitched her sideways. "If I've not misread your interest in Fabul's ways, I would be proud to train you."
His grip was gentle but but powerful, firm but flexible. In Kaipo, a dancer could hope to be compared to a sand snake, a supple stalk of sinew weaving gracefully through storms that could level a building. Anna's pulse quickened. "I would be honored."
Yang taught her how to breathe, how to follow the air through her body and name the steps of its journey. Everything began with breath, he told her, from balance to forceful strikes; it was one thing to breathe efficiently, and another to breathe effectively.
Her spine tingled bone by bone as she focused on exhaling air and magic together. When a powerful wave rocked the ship, she kept her breaths steady and did not fall.
"Did you see that?" she asked, grinning, but Yang's response was drowned out by the panicked shouting of the sailors.
Her hand twitched. Its emptiness jolted her into full consciousness, and the twitch traveled down the aching muscles of her arm and into her lungs, which convulsed. Coughing wracked her body and jostled electric pain from every arrowhead. Brine and bile burst from her mouth.
It hurt more than dying had, so Anna was reasonably certain she'd survived.
She remembered Rydia's scream and the blur of Yang's body as he dived recklessly after her. She had nearly followed, but Edward grabbed her and clung, desperately, either to save or be saved, and there was no point seeking a distinction when the ship was cracking apart in the coils of a beast massive enough to swallow them all whole. She had lost her balance and could not breathe it back.
When her coughing quieted to wheezing and her lungs and gut seemed empty, she tried to roll over on her back. Her muscles burned uselessly. "Edward?" she croaked. Coughing seized her again as she fumbled a hand behind her ear in search of the whisperweed. When she remembered moving it to her pocket, she dug through as much of her clothing as she could reach and found nothing.
Crying wouldn't help; shouting might. "Edward! Yang? Rydia? Cecil?" Her voice came out small and cracked: "Father?"
In response she heard only the still-strange sound of waves lapping the shore. Gritting her teeth, Anna tried twice more to push herself upright before resigning herself to deep, mindful breathing.
The sea smelled different here, wherever she was, lacking the mingled scents of Fabul's forests or her homeland's sands. Was this Baron? Her father's homeland, Mysidia? She had complained so often as a child that he'd traveled all the world before settling down instead of waiting until he had a daughter to travel with him. "I'll be an old woman," she'd said, "before you think I'm old enough to go anywhere."
He had never expected to travel again beyond the borders of Damcyan, nor had he wished her to; she and Edward had idly planned romantic sojourns all the world over. How would Edward have reacted, she wondered, the first time he wished to picnic at the foot of a mountain she wished to climb?
No. Focus. Anna breathed deep, air and magic, and forced her upper body off the ground. She had washed up near rocks, she saw now; she was fortunate to have been tossed up on a narrow band of sand strewn with seaweed. Beyond extended lush, flat grasslands. Gray clouds diffused the sunlight and released a soft, steady drizzle, only slightly wetter than mist.
As she patted herself more thoroughly for any trace of the whisperweed, she heard a man's voice from alarmingly nearby: "What the hell?"
Anna snapped upright into the least wobbly fighting stance she could manage. The voice belonged to a man in entirely foreign dress, who had drawn a pair of slender swords but didn't seem inclined to attack with them, at least for the moment. Probably. The mask over his lower face made him difficult to read. She gripped her dagger and eyed him warily.
"You're human," he said, "right?"
"What else would I be?"
"Some kind of weird Fabulian... mermaid monk? With legs?" He shrugged, then sheathed both his blades. "Rubicante's not that creative."
She did not sheathe her dagger. "I was shipwrecked. Where am I?"
"Within strolling distance of Eblan's castle. Where were you sailing?"
The name was half-familiar; perhaps Edward had mentioned it in passing. "From Fabul to Baron."
The man whistled. "You're a little off-course now, sweetheart. Also, you saw the part where I put my swords away, right?"
"I did. Has anyone else washed ashore here?"
"Yeah, a whole crew of sexy lady monks turned up for breakfast." His eyebrows arched. "Not even a smile for that one? Really?"
Without danger to fuel it, Anna's blood cooled thick and sluggish. She lowered her dagger. "My friends were on that ship with me. If they're not here, they must be..."
The man put a supportive arm around her shoulders, and she found herself too tired to worry about resisting the urge to strike him. "Hey, it's all right," he said gently. "You're really far off-course; there's no reason to assume they're not safe somewhere else. Let's get you back to the castle and patch you up."
What else could she do? Drain the sea for the whisperweed? Mourn those who might not, by some slim chance, be dead? Anna began to sigh before turning the breath into a deep, purposeful one. She felt every point of pain and let it remind her that she was still alive.
"I'm Edge," the man offered. He was doing something with his eyebrows again. "Prince of Eblan."
"Anna of Kaipo." She shifted some of her weight to him before taking a careful step. "I'm half-married to a prince."
Like all the world beyond Kaipo, Eblan was at war. From the castle walls, Edge pointed out the eerie, iridescent tower rising from the mountains and piercing the clouds. Perhaps it extended beyond the sky and curled back around from beneath, an impossible spine for the world.
"That's why we're not wasting men to guard the sea," he said. "The monsters just keep pouring out of that tower, and the guy in charge of 'em, well, he's not so good with water."
Anna nodded, only half-attentive. Had the tower been visible from all the world over, like a distant heat shimmer? Could it act now as a beacon to draw the lost to her? She wouldn't be leaving to seek them any time soon, not as long as Eblan couldn't spare enough of its people to crew even a small ship.
Still, Eblan seemed better defended than Fabul. The enemy hadn't managed to wipe out most of the trained ninja in a single surprise assault, at least. Most of war, as far as Anna could tell, came down to numbers.
"They've been quiet for nearly three days," Edge continued. "Probably planning something big. I say we infiltrate while we've got the chance, but I'm not in charge. Yet."
Anna closed her eyes and inhaled the scent of the grassy shore, the metallic tang of yesterday's rain, the unfamiliar spices wafting from the kitchens. When she opened them, she turned to Edge and said, "I wish to fight with you."
He cocked his head like a bemused bird. "I don't usually spar with beautiful women—"
"At your side, I meant, against your invaders. I helped defend Fabul."
"Uh-huh. And didn't you say that Fabul fell?"
Anna crossed her arms. "We lost the Wind Crystal but saved many lives. Do you expect me to cower in your infirmary while I might be saving your people?"
Edge regarded her critically, then hopped down from the parapet where he had perched. "There's a training room in the basement. Let's see what you can do."
Caught up in the violence of her dance, ripping time and shape and substance from a host of training dummies, Anna nearly forgot that she had an audience until he said, "So either Fabul's changed a lot in the last few years, or you're not actually a monk."
"I'm a dancer." She palmed her dagger on her last spin and threw it into the dummy nearest Edge's head, just to watch his reaction. To her disappointment, he blinked but didn't start. "I had just begun to train under one of Fabul's finest monks before the shipwreck."
Eyeing the scattered straw, Edge said, "I never realized dancing was so... martial."
Anna shrugged and accepted the glass of water that he offered. As her blood cooled, she felt sore and short of breath; the beating her body took in the ocean had done no favors to the flesh around her arrowheads. "My father is the great sage Tellah; I inherited a little of his power, and I've found that I can control it through movement."
"So how do you fare against targets that fight back?"
The challenge in his tone made her grin. "Better. Dancing is both action and reaction."
"Is it, now?" His posture was entirely casual until the instant his body flowed into a punch; Anna ignited and dodged, but only barely. The next strike was easier to avoid, and the next easier still.
Edge briefly broke the rhythm to kick a wooden practice sword into his hand. It was only an instant, but an instant was all that she needed to focus her magic. Anna spun away, arms out, and distorted time around him.
"Whaaat the helllll?" he warbled, moving as if underwater. He adapted more quickly than she expected; when she shifted into a modified step to drain the strength from his limbs, he used the opening to blast flames from his hands.
Startled, Anna leapt backward. Edge laughed.
"Never underestimate a ninja," he said, striking the smuggest pose anyone could with a wooden sword. "We've got magic, too. You're not bad, though."
Her body still sang for blood and battle; the singed hem of her uniform provided a narrow outlet for her energy. As she rubbed at it, still breathing hard, he added, "You really get off on it, don't you? The fighting."
Something knotted in her throat, and she was glad of an excuse not to meet his eyes. "Don't be crude."
The ninja forces carved a space in the sea of monsters, and she filled it with an outward spiral of calamity. Anna had little attention to spare for anything but directing the flow of magic and dodging projectiles, but she caught glimpses of monsters suddenly overcome with exhaustion or confusion, stumbling blindly, clawing at their throats, collapsing in convulsions. Their own allies trampled them as the horde surged onward.
She had to breathe. She had to pace herself. If she tired and fell, no one would catch her.
This probably should have frightened her more than it did.
"Push now!" shouted one of the commanders. Apparently the magic prowess of Eblan's ninja included the power to be heard over the noise of battle. "They're breaking!"
Her cleared circle began to taper like an egg. Anna adjusted her circles to whirl forward, teeth gritted against the stench of the dead and muscles tensed against the risk of slipping on the bloodied grass. Grace without delicacy, she reminded herself. Flow like the ocean; spin like the moon. With the right motions, she could turn tides.
Her body still hummed as she soaked her feet in the sea. Her blood would have kept her spinning until she burned away, but her body ached, and the arrowhead above her collarbone felt as if it had migrated deeper into a muscle. She tapped around it and rolled her shoulder, hoping to push it back.
"There you are," said Edge from near enough to startle her. Always walking around with ninja silence struck her as impolite. "Don't let this go to your head or anything, but you're damn useful crowd control. We might have lost the west gate without you." When she tipped her head back with a goblin's smile, he added, "Might."
Anna flexed her toes around a strand of kelp. "Do you think that's the last we'll see of them?"
He snorted and sat down beside her. "Every time they attack, there are more of them. That tower must be packed solid."
"Oh." She had no single word for the blend of excitement and dread and exhaustion and impatience that she felt, so she fell silent. The waves slapped the sand and fell hissing back into the sea. "I miss my father," she said at length. "I miss Edward and all our friends. I just want to know that they're alive and tell them that I'm alive, too."
"If you want to try a message in a bottle, the royal cellars have an excellent selection of bottles we could empty."
"I still feel terrible about the last note I wrote." Anna raised one of her feet out of the water and found it still red and swollen. How many hours, she wondered, had she danced? As she put her foot back among the kelp, she added, "Edward gave me a cutting of a plant that can carry sound over any distance, but I lost it during the shipwreck."
In the quiet, the waves rolled in and out, the labored breaths of the ocean. Anna stirred her feet restlessly. "We... hadn't fought, exactly, but right before it happened, I didn't want to hear what he had to say. If I'd left the whisperweed pinned behind my ear, maybe—"
"Shh." Edge held up a hand. For a moment she was annoyed that he would come to talk to her and then ignore her conversation, but he seemed intent on a section of the shore off to her right, toward the rocks. He rose and crept toward it as if stalking prey.
"Don't pretend," she called after him, prompting another shushing. "If you're teasing me, I will dance your blood out through your ears."
He flashed her a look that was half-aggrieved, half-intrigued before moving on. Too far away for her to see in any detail he was doing, he bent over amid the rocks.
Anna bit her lip, stood, and walked after him.
As she approached, she imagined sounds with mirage-clarity: voices, battle noises, familiar music. When last she had hallucinated her father's voice, it had turned out to be true. Her heartbeat thrummed.
Edge straighted up and waved at her what at first appeared to be a handful of kelp, but the sound—
"Does your half-husband play the harp?" he asked.
Her father was the first off the airship, elbowing aside everyone in his way. He wept loudly and shamelessly into her hair without seeming to notice the crowd of ninja who had turned out to see one of Baron's technological marvels. Anna noticed but didn't mind an audience; she wept and clung as hard as she could to his solidness.
"I watched you die," he said. His voice was thinner than she remembered.
She tried to smile. "I'm better now."
"When Cecil told me that you'd lived and been lost again, I—" He pulled back from her, squeezing her shoulders hard. "Oh, Anna, the things you put an old man through!"
Over his shoulder, she watched others descending the ramp to the ground: a bearded man she didn't recognize; a much younger man she also didn't recognize until she remembered what Cecil had looked like without his helmet; Rosa, with a still-fresh scar running from her temple to her chest by way of her neck; Yang, apparently unharmed and unchanged, half-carrying Edward. She knew not to expect Rydia, but the girl's absence still pained her.
When she embraced Edward, she knocked the wind from him and had to be reminded of his healing ribs.
"All I do is hurt you, I'm afraid," she whispered to him. At some point before the words left her mouth, she had intended them to be light-hearted.
"I'm just glad to see you well." His good hand brushed her hair from her eyes. "Did I tell you that I fought through a perilous cavern with Cecil and the rest? Though I didn't fight much, honestly; I was scarcely able to walk."
When she tried to smile, her lips quivered. "You did. Never again tell me that you aren't brave."
"I can't promise that, but I'll grant you that most cowards don't do battle with a dark elf while injured."
Trying to apologize to Rosa was no good, because Rosa refused to blame her. Anna traced the wound's texture with her fingers, fumbling words together, but fell still and silent when Rosa touched the arrowhead embedded above her collarbone.
"Should Edward blame himself for the arrows that pierced you?" Rosa's fingers tapped gently. "Golbez used me to shield himself. Surely it makes better sense to blame him; he was, as you'll recall, kidnapping me at the time."
Despite herself, Anna hiccuped on a laugh. "Still, I was reckless. I have to find a balance between giving myself over to instinct and acting foolishly."
"Then seek balance for your own sake. Don't let guilt drive you."
Her glance flitted toward Cecil, Anna noted; while she understood very little of their situation with Kain, beyond that it was a conversational bomb ring, she couldn't imagine that having come face-to-face with him again without coming any closer to regaining him had made the situation any easier.
"Besides," Rosa added lightly, "I think that scars impart a bit of character."
As Anna made her way toward Yang, Edge strolled past with feigned casualness to whisper, "He seemed like a quarter-husband, at best." She drove her elbow into his ribs.
Yang resumed training her as if they hadn't been separated by a sea monster and several weeks, which she appreciated; another wave of monsters might attack Eblan at any moment, and despite Eblan's influx of allies, she needed any technique that might delay the moment she collapsed in exhaustion or made a catastrophic error in her dance.
Edge showed up during her first session to offer commentary, only to leave once he discovered how difficult it was to provoke Yang. Anna was glad of the quiet; her training was important, but also an excuse to avoid difficult conversations.
One of the difficult conversations found her regardless, as her father waited for her outside the training room.
"Don't tell me not to," she blurted. As a wincing afterthought, she added, "Please."
Her father harrumphed. "The last time I forbade you from your heart's desire, we ended up in quite the mess, didn't we? From what I hear, it's impossible to keep you out of battle. I won't pretend to like it, but I won't pretend that I can reform you, either."
Anna's shoulders sagged as a deep tension dissipated. "Father, I—I shouldn't have run away the way that I did. I should have—"
He waved his staff dismissively. "It's all sand down the sinkhole now, Anna. I want you to know that Edward is..." He coughed, then spent entirely too long cleaning his glasses. "Well, you could do worse. I won't stand between you."
A tangled knot of feelings tugged at her until she flushed from the friction. "I—thank you. I should tell you now that I won't be coming back to Kaipo once we've finished putting the world right."
Veins throbbed visibly in his face, but he stayed quiet until he managed to ask, with a neutral tone, "Where do you intend to go?"
"Fabul, first, to train. Afterward... everywhere, I suppose." Her heart quickened. "You traveled the world before I was even born, Father. Don't deny me the same chance."
He was still and silent for several seconds. "Why don't we talk about it," he replied, "after we've put the world right."
For a dizzy moment, Anna thought that time had folded in on itself, that she had slowed so many monsters that she had set the world back to dawn. The true answer, howling in every strained muscle, was that she had whirled ceaselessly through to sunset.
This horde was different: frantic, fearless, mad with energy. At first she had thought that each wave much be the last, crazed by desperation. Only when the fields began to burn around her and the commanders roared the same name did she realize what else might be motivating the monsters.
"Rubicante's out! Fall back!" barked the commander, but Anna had sworn to herself that she wouldn't fall.
The creature approaching was nearly human in shape but far too tall, with skin mottled red and blue beneath what looked like a cloak of living fire. He moved like a flame himself, flickering from step to step. At a flick of his wrist, a line of ninja burst into flame.
So the trick was to slow him down. Anna shifted her stance, dug her toes into the earth, and kicked into a spin.
"Get out of there!" she heard Edge yell. "You're going to get fried!" A score of ninja nearer her began to burn.
Just a little longer, she thought, and she would have him entangled; large as he was, he was not too much for her magic to encompass. Just a little longer, and she couldn't stop now or the entire company would be lost.
The air between her and Rubicante caught fire. She kept her balance but couldn't dodge, not when she was surrounded. If she didn't fall, she might at least ensnare him before she burned—
With a great hiss, the flames went up in steam. A few slivers of ice clinked together in the air before the magic supporting them faded.
Her father's voice carried clear: "Anna, you stubborn little fool! Fall back!"
A spin and twist, and her magic finally caught. Rubicante's quick, smooth motions stuttered; he nearly tripped over his own cloak. Ninja rolled back to a safe distance in dark waves. By the time he had recovered, all his attention was demanded by the conjured waves rolling toward him.
All Anna's disciplined breathing broke on a giddy laugh. Yang grabbed her arm from behind and pulled her away.
"That was reckless," he said sternly. "It was also successful. I'll let you make your own judgment of it." She had half a moment to beam at him before he let go of her to strike at an incoming swarm of monsters. Anna danced after him.
Back near Rubicante, a ninja screamed; already his speed was returning. Anna gathered herself to leap back into the fray and nearly stumbled; she was tiring fast, the hordes of minions sapping what was left of her strength. The battlefield appeared to be growing pale and hazy, and she could not blink it clear. "We can't hold him back like this!" she shouted. "We need—"
The mist abruptly coalesced into the shape of a dragon that dwarfed Rubicante. Its massive jaws parted, dripping cold light, as its tail lashed at his legs.
Yang kicked away a line of goblins and said, "That should do."
If the monsters came from the tower, and the monsters obviously served Golbez, then the next logical step was to enter the tower. Rydia told fantastic tales of a world below built of black rock and fire, down into which the tower descended. Inside might be the stolen Crystals, countless fiends, or perhaps Golbez himself.
All of Rydia's tales were fantastic. There was something bright and alien about her now, a strangeness deeper than her sudden adulthood. Anna hadn't quite believed she was Rydia at all until she touched the arrowhead above Anna's collarbone with the same cautious, half-apologetic pride.
"I kept my white magic for you," Rydia said quietly, as if sharing a secret. "The Queen said that my black magic would be more powerful if I focused, but when I tried, I remembered the way you gasped when you started to breathe again."
Years ago, for her. If time galloped breathlessly by in the underworld, perhaps it slowed to a crawl at the top of the tower. Perhaps Anna could stand on the roof and watch the miniature world beneath pulse in colors through the seasons, or watch cities rise and fall between her protracted heartbeats.
There was no knowing without doing.
Anna decided that she was ready, because there was no time to spare if she wasn't; even with Rubicante dead, his minions might still emerge to attack Eblan. Edge was so eager to strike at the enemy's heart that he had to be dissuaded from setting off in the dead of night. In the morning, all of them who were able—Cecil, Rosa, Rydia, Yang, Edge, the engineer Cid, Anna and her stupid stubborn father—would bore into the wicked spine of the world.
One night left; she did it now, or never. Alone in her room, Anna took up the whisperweed and called for Edward.
"I'm awake." It seemed like a lifetime since they had conversed in private over the whisperweed. "I'd offer to visit you, but it isn't a good day for my leg, I'm afraid."
"Don't be silly. I'll come to you." Anna hesitated before adding, "We should talk."
"We should," he replied, and she turned his tone over and over in her head as she walked.
She found him sitting at the window in the room he'd been given, one leg elevated on a pile of cushions. He had wedged his harp against his stiff left arm so that his good hand could strum it. After a deep, purposeful breath, she called his name and watched him turn his head with a soft, sad smile.
"I'll just—I'll go ahead." Anna inhaled, counted, exhaled. "I can't live quietly, Edward. Certainly not now, and perhaps not ever. You need and deserve a queen who can love Damcyan as you do, who takes joy in peace and prosperity."
If he hurt, he didn't let the pain show on his face. It couldn't have been a fresh hurt, Anna was certain; she couldn't have been the only one of them lying awake at night, wondering how much of themselves they would have to chip away to make their edges fit together again. When he replied, he spoke with the assurance of rehearsal: "Not very long ago, I would have offered to wait, if I'd thought you wished to be waited for. But I can't live my life in fear for yours."
The words stung, but only a little; Anna didn't think her face reflected it any more than his had. She nodded and let out the breath that she hadn't meant to hold.
"Where does this leave us?" she asked.
"As friends, I dearly hope."
"As do I." If her smile felt a little lopsided, it was also genuine. "I've always danced best to your music."
His fingers coaxed a gentle song from the strings, and she flowed in time to it.